The problem with glimpsing genuine freedom, as I have these past three years of bicycle touring, is the winters working the corporate sphere to fund the extravagance drive me depressingly close to suicide.
I find myself gazing at the countryside from commuter train windows, the book in my lap open but unread. The promise of heading out in the saddle again occupies every waking moment, the dangled novelty of daily adventure usurping this trivial subsistence of civilized men. I'm not the same as you people any more. My time is now more valuable than mere currency. It needs to be spent exploring as much as I can before I die.
This year should be different, though. To supplement my usual savings, I'll have a little income from the sales of Wanderer. Warrior. Chronicler. Twit. to fund me further. So I'll be able, should my marketing efforts bear sufficient fruit, to winter on the road.
I completely understand if readers find themselves growing resentful over this. Nobody should have to suffer the ignominies of waged slavery while some smug git buggers about on a bike all day. A possible redemption is I feel I've earned the respite. I've worked the dangerous jobs and laborious sixteen hour days* during my 25 years of construction, in temperatures ranging from -50 to +160 Fahrenheit, where simply getting out of bed took herculean will: I've shot nails through fingers and duct-taped gruesome cuts closed; I've broken ribs and fingers; had three teeth knocked out; endured half-a-dozen concussions; and never visited a doctor or hospital for any of it. I know who I am and what I can do. I've put in my time.
*And once a 32 hour day. I can't figure it out either.
Now, perhaps I wrote the previous paragraph as self-justification, because there is a certain amount of guilt accompanying these seasonal flirtations with liberty. While clock-punchers inhale their stale office farts I'm intoxicated with exhilaratory mountain ranges, wild forests, glittering cities and villages swaddled in bucolic farmland. I marvel at the morphing landscapes and local accents as I pedal, the brow of every hill promising fresh perspective.
But, importantly, I've come to realize none of this shit matters. What matters is compassion, positivity, meeting people, appreciating their stories, and educating oneself. And there's no better way on earth to do this than from the back of a bicycle.
So that's me, now, the dude that does that.
I'm often asked how long I'll be travelling, what my end goal is, and what I'm running from. The answer to all these is I don't know, because I don't need to. The journey itself is the thing. We tend to think we need a destination, but we live on a globe. Whichever direction we take, we end up back where we started, much like our lives end back in the earth, reabsorbed by the universe, so the transition is the point, the experiencing of other places and other people. And at the risk of sounding arrogant: it's OK, I don't expect folks to understand, it took me a few years to figure out, myself.
I hit the cycle path with a slew of new gear, testament to the lessons learned during the inaugural Scottish leg, so meticulously documented in Wanderer. Warrior. Chronicler. Twit. Gone was the hiking backpack wedged into my trailer, now replaced by a 65-litre waterproof duffle bag (waterproof in principle if not practice, I later found, when the zip proved somewhat less than). Two capacious German panniers now adorned my rear rack, replacing the tiny affairs from Halfords, again waterproof, one for food and cooking gear, the other for clothing, while everything else resided in the trailer. Electronics sat in my sturdy new military-style molle backpack, bought to replace the frayed solar-panelled one which wasn't up to the trials of another touring experience. ('Molle' is a system of strapping whereby additional compatible pouches can be attached to the main bag.) Thus began my love affair with military gear. I found myself buying more and more of the stuff as it is far more suited to my purposes than the fancy fabrics of your North Faces and Patagonias. Not because I shunned pretension, you understand, though I actually tend to: it's simply a lot cheaper and doesn't typically come in the obnoxious colours antithetical to the subtleties of wild camping.
I'd bought a new trailer too, as the old one was on its last legs. At 40 quid a pop, this wasn't a problem, but I did buy some five millimetre threaded steel bar and made replacements for the bits that either broke or had threatened to, specifically the trailer arm pivot pin and the quick release rear wheel skewer. With the screw-on hitch nuts salvaged from the non-business ends of the two skewers, I now had a sturdy system that did away with the poorly-made quick-release mechanisms. I flattened opposite sides of the barrel fittings with an angle grinder so they'd take a wrench, but still worried about the connecting skewer itself, so I made a few replacements for that, too.
I planned to live on premade sandwiches for the first few days, because the first part of a tour is generally quite knackering as one's physique slithers from civilization's sluglike cocoon, so cooking or food shopping, usually activities I thoroughly enjoy in a wolfish man-the-hunter kind of way, become more of a chore. However, on the morning I was to leave I found mould on my bread. Plans screeched to a histrionic halt, and I weighed my options. I could've gone to the supermarket, of course, and bought another loaf, but I really couldn't be bothered to make a special trip while fully laden, and I was desperate to leave. I resolved, then, to rely on my backup foods for the first couple of days—dehydrated soups and the like—but this would require more fuel for my stove. I use an alcohol stove, which runs on methylated spirits (AKA denatured alcohol, or meths), so I stopped by a decorating store at the bottom of my street to buy some. They didn't have any, of course. More hand-waving. I now had to divert to another shop on the outskirts of town in the wrong direction, but the tranquility of being back in the saddle drowned this minor irritation. I was on the road again, and that's all that matters.
I always feel a little furtive buying meths, as if the shop assistant might suspect me of being some kind of secret meths drinker (methylated spirit is a mixture of ethanol (the alcohol that gets you drunk) and methanol (that makes you blind), allegedly guzzled by people who just don't give a shit any more) but I gutted out the imagined disapproval, mounted up, and the world unfolded before me.
I headed south into the Yorkshire Wolds, an arc of chalk hills sweeping down into Lincolnshire, bisected by the mighty River Humber and spectacularly rising from the North Sea at the white cliffs of Flamborough Head. Many people are unaware that chalk is calcium carbonate, which forms underwater from the accumulation of shells of dead phytoplankton called coccolithophores (though some species appear to shed these shells as they go). And some Bible-thumpers think the world is only 6,000 years old! If you know one of these people, point them at a chalk cliff and ask them to explain so much coc.
I'd gone cheap with my new digital Kodak camera, and this proved a disastrous mistake. The first time I took it out to snap a picture of an impressive castle gate, it whirred gently and collapsed into an inert heap. Thereafter I was consigned to my camera phone. I know, First World peripatetic nomad problems and all that.
My first mobile phone camera target was the standing stone in Rudston churchyard, a small village maybe twelve miles as the crow flies from Scarborough. I'd never heard of the thing until a local pointed me towards it, the largest prehistoric standing stone in the UK, despite having grown up so close.
This 25 foot, 40 ton monster was carved from Cayton bay around ten miles away, hauled here and erected some time in the Bronze Age, which is really quite vague. What archaeologists tend to do is dig down next to such things to hopefully find carbon-based material deposited during the erection process or ritual life of the site, which they can then carbon date to discover the approximate age. Apparently they couldn't be bothered with this one, even though human skulls, possibly sacrificial, were discovered during an excavation in the late 1700s.
What is interesting, though, is the adoption of obviously such an important pagan site by the Christian church, which lends credence to the idea that the early Christians coerced non-Christians over to their way of thinking by muddying the differences as much as possible. It's no secret, of course, that many Christian holidays fall curiously close to the dates of tradition pagan festivals, and a whole host of Bible stories replicate the legends of earlier religions.
While we're on the subject, I've actually been told by religious people that carbon-dating is horrifically inaccurate. They've never been able to explain why, apart from they'd been told by their pastor, and he could better explain it. Averse as I am to opinions on science from people who've never studied it, I looked online, figuring these loopy motherfuckers must get their ridiculous opinions from somewhere, and was startled by how lucid, nuanced, and detailed some of the arguments were. Of course, such nitpicking downright atomizes their own God of the Gaps, so it's ultimately self-defeating, but the assumption science itself doesn't weed out inconsistences demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of what science actually is. It's not another belief system to compete with a certain religion, it operates despite belief. It's simply the most accurate and unbiased methodology for discovering and describing the universe we inhabit. It's a tool, not emotional conjecture.
Anyway, it was a warm day and I was getting thirsty with all this thinking, so I continued through the village looking for a shop. I didn't find one, so asked directions and got them to a village shop in Kilham, a couple of miles away, which turned out to be tiny and had, horror upon horrors, no cold beer. I bought a four pack of room temperature Carlsbergs anyway, water, and some savory pastries, and attempted, for the first and last time, to construct a redneck cooler, something I learned from that very demographic during my years in Texas. This involves wrapping whatever you want cooling in a wet towel, then subjecting it to a breeze. The water draws energy from the contents to facilitate evaporation, lowering the temperature. This does work on roofs in Texas during the summer, but sadly, not in the more amiable climate of East Yorkshire in the late spring. One simply ends up with less drinking water and a wet towel.
I camped in a church cemetery that was curiously lacking a church, a common phenomenon in the UK, likely due to the ever-dwindling churchgoing population. I imagine the churches were knocked down to reclaim the building materials. The small size of the cemetery got me thinking a little about the number of dead buried around me. Rudston has a history dating back to the fifth century, and the population currently stands at 390 (2001 census). If we take the number as steady throughout the village's life, and, for the ease of calculation let's assume everyone lived until they were 100, and the average rate of death is 1% per year, we'd have 3.9 people die per year, which is 4 in old money. 4 per year for 1,500 years is 6,000 dead, and there were maybe a couple of hundred gravestones in this cemetery. So each grave probably had around 300 bodies buried in it. Yikes. No wonder cremations took off.
Such was my excitement at finally setting off I got very little sleep. I was itching to get going, though, so I rolled out of my pit around 7.30am, breakfasted on an impulse buy of Midget Gems and Jelly Babies, and headed for the coastal town of Skipsea. There I bumped into a couple of middle-aged Dutch tourists taking a break from the bike at a duck pond, and chatted with them for a few minutes. They were cycling the Way of the Roses, a coast-to-coast bike route that takes in the scenic areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and so named to denote the heraldic devices of their two royal houses: the white rose for Yorkshire, the red rose for Lancashire. Its 170 miles begins in Morecambe on the west coast, and finishes in Bridlington on the east. They were bed and breakfasting rather than camping, so had very little gear. I toyed with the idea of doing it myself, but dismissed it. I was heading to Wales!
I decided to follow the coastal road, but had to detour inland when I reached a section that had washed into the sea with the eroding shoreline. I established Rule #1 in Wanderer. Warrior. Chronicler. Twit.: Always live on a hill. Now I added Rule #2: But not near a cliff.
The temperatures got surprisingly warm and a headwind battled my progress into Hornsea, where, drenched in sweat, I rewarded myself with a one-litre tub of my favourite ice cream, Kelly's Cornish Clotted Cream and Honeycomb, on a half-price special at the Co-op. A whole tub? Oh yeah, baby.
I spent three or four hours on the beach, people-watching and enjoying my post-treat coma. Then I headed to the start of the Trans Pennine Trail, another coast-to-coaster from Hornsea to Southport via Sheffield and Manchester. I aimed to ride a 30km bridleway section down to Hull, where I'd veer off across the Humber Bridge into Lincolnshire.
I got lost for a good twenty minutes at a large roundabout, unable to find any sign of the trail onward, until I happened upon it again by some community vegetable gardens known in the UK as 'allotments'. I got talking to a retired man walking his dog, and ended up dismounting and walking with him for half-a-mile or so while we chatted about life in general. He told me of a possible place to camp a few miles down the trail. I made a mental note and continued on, stopping for a dinner of spicey potato wedges and salad at The Railway Inn at New Ellerby, where the landlady confirmed what the dog-walker had told me.
As the shadows stretched I dismounted, propped up the rig with my folding walking stick and searched some side trails for a spot. I always keep the bike in sight when I'm doing this: it's better to leave it on the main trail as turning around on narrow side paths is a royal pain if no sufficient clearing presents itself, and backing up is out of the question (though I was getting better at it: when reversing with a trailer, as any truck driver will tell you, one has to steer counter to the direction you want the trailer to go, and a single-wheel trailer is even more temperamental). A couple of older teenagers on BMXs turned up at my rig and started inspecting it, then looked around, obviously thinking of stealing it. I was probably 50 yards off in the woods and out of sight, so I headed back in a hurry, but they were full of friendly questions rather than ill intent, so I let them live.
I woke, sweating, in a field of peas. The sun was already high and I'd camped in something of a sun trap, so the tent was baking me like a Bramley apple. It was so unseasonably hot I decided to try out the chamois cream my elder brother, Peter, with a smirk, had bought me for Christmas. Chamois cream is a lubricant for a cyclist's nether regions, to prevent chafing, blisters, and other such unpleasantness. In Scotland I'd simply worn underpants beneath my cycling shorts, with talcum powder to keep my boys happy, but proper cyclists had been telling me off over this, citing chamois cream and sans undies as the way to go.
Well, I now officially disagree. If you don't use enough it doesn't seem to do anything, and if you use too much the action of cycling pushes it up places I don't think it's supposed to go without a prescription.
I got into Hull about midday, and the city looked about the same as I remembered it: rather nondescript, unglamorous, and functional. The city centre was surprisingly pleasant, however, with some elegant civic buildings and museums. The woefully underemployed staff member in the deserted tourist information centre gave me a thousand-yard stare through the window, so I dared not enter, despite my morbid fascination with the concept of tourism in, let's face it, Hull. The place even sounds like it looks. If I really wanted to discover the possibilities, I've always got Google, but I didn't.
I did need to replenish my water, though, and Google told me of a public bathroom in the centre of the main square, which turned out to be a statue of Queen Victoria. People piss on the Queen? That's not very imperial, I thought, when a toothless face-tattooed Dole Enthusiast touched my arm, cackling something unintelligible. It took some careful listening, but I figured out he was offering to watch my rig while I visited the bathroom, which turned out to be a subterranean affair, under the statue, dating back to Victorian times. There was no way in the Seven Seas of Rhye was I trusting this fellow and his dented can of supermarket cider with my bike, so I made a show of 'how I lock it up' so that it was, well, locked up, and as usual every portable valuable came with me.
I was surprised he was still there when I returned, probably waiting for a tip. I reminded him we were in Britain, where gratuities are almost an insult, by telling him to look into cooking sherry as a cheaper per unit alcohol purchase*, and headed for the bridge.
*Turns out it isn't. Times have changed since my university days.
I crossed the Humber Bridge for the first time in over 30 years, when it was newly built and, at the time, the longest single span suspension bridge in the world. Almost a mile-and-a-half long, it is still, however, the longest that may be crossed on foot or by bicycle. At the time of writing it has slid to seventh in the world rankings. The towers stand at 510 feet (155.5 metres), and though perfectly vertical, are actually 1.3 inches wider at the top because of the curvature of the earth. The truly boggling statistic, though, is over 71,000km (44,000 miles) of steel cable went into its construction, enough to circle the world almost twice.
I think bridges of such sheer massiveness are truly impressive feats of engineering, and strike me with the same awe as any mountain. I could sit and look at them for hours. With a sigh, I climbed away through Barton-upon-Humber, out of the river valley, made camp in a wheat field, and dreamed of the days when I built things, too.