An ode to the National Cycle Network

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In the beginning there was sun..

During our first year in London, Astrid and I spent a lot of time leaving the UK. For various reasons we found ourselves in the infuriatingly long line at Stanstead Airport, then crammed into a Ryan Air flight to land in some lovely European destination for a few days, followed by a reversal of the procedure. Basically, the whole operation made us uncomfortable. You can’t (well, we couldn’t) cycle half way around the world and not have been affected by the slow and unassuming nature of bicycle travel. It makes jetting off to destinations feel like you are consuming travel rather than a true reflection of what travel encompasses. Aeroplanes are an extraordinary form of transport, but I personally feel we take them too much for granted. Short haul flights are one of the most destructive and unnecessary (unnecessary because unlike getting to say Australia or the US there are feasible alternatives) things we can do to the environment. Sadly, these alternatives are usually (not always) more expensive and longer. Until governments start to subsidise train travel instead of air travel, choosing the alternative will mostly be a conscientious decision to spend more money. However, after a year of not really listening to our instincts about travel we decided to try and completely avoid short haul flights if possible.

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The beautiful Cornish Coast

It was always our intention, but this year we have specifically planned trips which feel to us more like the kind of travel we want to do (even though we did have fun last year). Essentially to us this means moving slowly in nature; using trains to get to our destinations and bikes or legs to explore. We might not see as many things, but the ones we do will be at a pace more suited to us.

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Which leads me into this blog. We decided we had seen far too little of Britain and thought it was high time we explored this peculiar island we currently call home on our bikes. We booked tickets to Penzance (30 quid! booking in advance and having a rail card is totally worth it!) and made plans to cycle ‘end to end’ meaning we would cycle from the very south of Cornwall to the very north of Scotland. That was the plan anyway…

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Roads with no cars are the best kind of roads

Leaving day rolled around and I found myself packing on no sleep – London what have you done to me?! A friend’s house party had inevitable turned into a wonderful all night event and I had made it home in time to sit somewhat confused in piles of stuff and gingerly pack my panniers. Poor Astrid was not much better – a lingering head cold had manifested into something rather unpleasant and we were a slightly broken pair piling on to the train at Paddington. Mostly we slept on the journey west and arrived in rainy and cold Penzance at around 5pm. The plan had been to cycle about 20km to a camp site, but as we rounded the  first corner and were blasted by a furious headwind and rain, we promptly opted for the pub. Over a pint it was decided to go for the backpackers and try again the following morning.

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Getting off the train in Penzance

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Thanks Penzance

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Happiness is going on a biking holiday

After about 12 hours of sleep we were both feeling much livelier and hit the hills of Cornwall in fine spirits. The climbs were intense but the scenery was beautiful; rugged coast, cute villages and country lanes. Even a few prehistorical standing stones thrown in for good measure. We reached Lands End in the early afternoon, took the usual photos and ate some hummus. Then we turned around and began heading north.

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Prehistoric standing stones in a field

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The is always a sign..

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The beautiful beaches of Cornwall

I need to mention early on a hidden treasure of Britain; The National Cycle Network. I have totally disregarded Sustrans and the national cycle network in the past. I mean, try and negotiate their website for a minute and I am not sure you can blame me. However, I will categorically apologise to Sustrans here; the national cycle network is awesome. Sure, it has a few issues (it might be a bit purest at times and take you on a ridiculous alternative route to avoid a B road, and the website!) but there is literally a huge cycle network that traverses Britain! It’s almost like being on a highway for bikes. It connects small country roads to rail trail and bike paths and has so far been nothing short of brilliant. We hardly need to use our phones or guidebooks. It saves a lot of navigational faffing and the routes are super lovely.

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Signs like this are literally all over  the country

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Car signs. Bike signs. We can share the road.

By evening of the first day we had reached the coastal village of St Ives and were both quite exhausted. Stealth camping just seemed too hard – we had not yet gotten into our dirtbag mindset and opted instead to pay a ludicrous amount for a piece of dirt and use of a toilet. Never mind, sometimes it’s just part of the process. It did feel brilliant to be back in the tent though.

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Brilliant country lane cycling

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Ruins of a Tin mine

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The compulsive snacking has begun. We found vegan Cornish pasties!

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Typical English Church Yard

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Cornish beers to celebrate the first cycling day, St Ive’s.

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Dinner on the beach, St Ive’s

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Sunset, hinting at the coming weather

The rain began in the night, and a fierce wind lashed at our tent. By the time morning arrived we were less than excited about facing the weather. Luckily a friend had contacted me about somewhere to stay that night. I had put a photo up on facebook the night before and Holly (a friend we met cycling in Tajikistan) saw my post, just happened to be in Cornwall and had a friend who we could stay with that night. A big part of me really doesn’t like social media, but it can prove useful! Knowing we had somewhere dry to stay that night and that we would be seeing Holly, lifted our spirits and finally got us moving out of St Ive’s.

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Cycling into the drizzle..

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Cooking lunch in a random village. Note the down jacket in Spring )-:

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Awesome off road cycling through former tin mines

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Wet but awesome

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Truro Cathedral

The day did prove rather wet. The wind was luckily in our favour so it wasn’t all bad. We followed the estuary inland, undulated through farmland and then followed a brilliant off road track through the mining scared landscape. We reached Truro and David’s home covered in mud and water. Being a cycle traveller himself David wasn’t at all disturbed by our less than clean presentation. We were treated to a wonderful evening of food, wine and conversation (not to mention a hot shower!) by David and his partner Norma.

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Cycling in Britain IS fun

We woke again to rain but the morning was brightened by the visit of Holly and baby Anissa (sadly Dave, Holly’s husband was in Portugal). It was lovely to eat David’s amazing breakfast and catch up with Holly (the last time we had spent anytime with her and Dave, the four of us had been rather unsettled in a house in Kent – having all just finished our trip). It was ludicrously late by the time we left David’s place but we didn’t really care.

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Heading along the Camel Trail

Our route took us to Newquay where we stuffed chips into slices of bread and watched the hardcore British surf in the rain. From there we took the hilly route along the coast – beautiful in the rain but probably stunning in good weather. Our last section was on the camel trail – another delightful off road route incorporated into the NCN. We left the camel trail at Wadebridge as we had organised a warmshowers host who just happened to be a good friend of Holly’s. Small world. Jackie and Richard welcomed us with open arms and we were again treated to amazing hospitality.

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Chip butty’s in the rain, can you get more British?

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Newquay

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Bedruthan Steps

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Minor bike mechanics required

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More Camel trail

Rain once more. My spirits were low. I mean we could be in Spain in the sun like normal people. Instead, here we were trying to have “fun” in Britain. And it was cold.  Where the previous rainy days had been slightly humid it was now quite chilly. Still, we pushed on, if somewhat morosely. By the evening it had cleared a little and we found a beautiful spot to put up our tent on a guys trout farm. He let us use the area not currently used by anglers so that we wouldn’t be disturbed.

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Cooking cup o soup in a shelter to escape the rain

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Such lovely roads

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Our trout farm camping spot

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journal writing

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idyllic

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sunset over the pond

We were treated to the Tarka Trail the next day which led us slowly back to the coast on a lovely off road track, through forest and along an estuary. Another quick restock and we started the long and steep climb into Exmoor. After a rather gruelling (but enjoyable) climb late in the day we lucked out with finding the perfect spot to put our tent. It’s hard to find the kind of wilderness we are used to in Australia in England, but up on Exmoor I began to get a stronger sense of being somewhere a little more remote and wild.

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And there was sun!

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hahahah

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Cool sculptures of the Tarka Trail

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Bird people

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Happiness is cider AND tea

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Beautiful Tarka Trail

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Along the estuary

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Lunch stop

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Heading up into Exmoor

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Winning on our camping spot!

Cycling over Exmoor the following day gave us a reprieve from the endless hedge rows and paddocks. England is beautiful but there are a lot of fields and a lot of sheep. Although London might be the greenest capital in Europe, unfortunately England is the most deforested country, with agriculture everywhere. During the ride whenever we descended to where the trees have been left, I would get a small sense of how beautiful the woods must have been before they were cleared for grazing.

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Across Exmoor

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Beautiful and wild

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Enjoying a break from the hedge rows!

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Exmoor pony

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Tea stop after Exmoor

By the afternoon we were back on the country roads, pedalling alongside hedge rows, marvelling at the many shades of green and watching the blackening sky in front of us. The rain hit us late in the afternoon and we were more or less drenched. But this is England and we soon found a pub to dry out in. I’m beginning to think there is a reason England has so many pubs…We sheltered there for an hour or two while searching on the net for somewhere to put our tent for the night. At this stage we hadn’t fully gotten to that comfortable place where you know the road will provide. In the end we found a campsite just out of Taunton and headed there. Of course on the way we saw places where we could have slept but we had already phoned ahead and felt like we should make the extra few miles as well. We pitched our tent in a soggy apple orchard and crawled into bed to polish off a few ciders.

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Hmm, the weather is coming our way

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Yep, no more sun.

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Rain rage

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Happy to be camping in a soggy apple orchard

I woke feeling really low and out of sync the next day. The weather was still miserable, I was cold, dirty (the shower at the campsite was shit), we were behind in schedule and I felt like cycle traveling wasn’t as fun as I remembered. This is where having an awesome partner like Astrid makes all the difference. She suggested we splurge on a bed and breakfast that night, not worry about how far we still had to go, and let ourselves reset. This really worked. Sometimes you just need someone to give you a pep talk. I tackled that days rain in more or less good spirits (although I occasionally cursed it). We reached our charmingly tacky (think shelves covered in tea pots and walls in novelty plates) bed and breakfast quite exhausted. After a hot shower and ordering the hugest amount of Indian takeaway ever, and a few bottles of beer, we passed out. Reset complete.

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Somerset flats

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Cute villages were an everyday occurrence

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Random, slightly creepy rabbit

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Chutney anyone? English quaintness at it’s best.

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The strawberry line was a nice surprise

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Happiness is all the Indian Take Away ever

Finally, the sun arrived!! What joy it was to cycle in the brilliant sunshine. Everything felt better and my spirits soared. The sun is simply life affirming. We pushed hard towards Gloucester (although not so hard that we didn’t stop for a Sunday veggie roast in a beer garden), alternating between country lanes and a canal tow path. Late in the day we reached Gloucester, where we used our dirtbag tactic of ordering a beer, then asking the bar staff to charge our phones and collecting water from the bathroom for the evenings cooking. I liked Gloucester, the old docks had been gentrified but it din’t take away the impressive nature of the warehouses and brick work. Once we left the city, we were faced with ample camping opportunities in the surrounding park. We chose a forest and I felt like we were slipping back into being at one with this kind of  travelling lifestyle.

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Clevadon

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First lunch

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The Dirty Salmon, with the Salmon

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So lovely to cycle in the sun

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Second lunch

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Heading into Gloucester on the canal path

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Pubs are the best places to charge phones and collect water..

 

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Gloucester

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Forest camp

From Gloucestershire we cycled into Worcestershire, stopping at Tewksbury to marvel at the abbey and Worcester to drink some beer. The sun kept shinning and riding was an absolute joy. I was beginning to realise how much I had missed this kind of life; being free, outdoors, moving slowly, calling anywhere home for the night. The simplicity is extremely life affirming and I find it incredibly uplifting. I think I have come to understand that I am quite adaptable. Perhaps too much if such a thing is possible. After a few initially difficult months I have adapted to being in London and working well. The truth is I love London a little bit and my life there. It reminds me of the kind of life I lived in Melbourne, where I was really happy. I always feel the hardest thing I ever did was not climbing 5000m passes, but making the decision to leave my really good life in 2013  for the unknown. It was of course the best thing I have ever done, and this trip is reminding me of that. It has reignited something and reminded me of the adventures still to come.

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A very old bridge. Don’t ask me how old.

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Lovely spring cycling

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The abbey

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First lunch

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More abbey

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Crossing another lovely old bridge

From Worcestershire we pedalled into Shropshire which was a real highlight because of the beautiful Wyre Forest and the amount of off road cycling. It was in Shropshire while eating second breakfast at a rather picturesque cafe overlooking a river that we came to the realisation that we weren’t going to make it. No matter how we calculated the remaining kilometres, it was far too many. When they say three weeks is ample time to ride the end to end they probably don’t mean on fully loaded touring bikes, camping, riding mostly the NCN and indulging in afternoon ales. Astrid and I aren’t particularly goal orientated. We are still not sure how far we rode on our big trip (maybe 30,000km?) and we changed our final destination 4 months out to better suit our needs. So, making the decision to continue to go slow and enjoy the backroads of England, ending in Glasgow (actually our original destination from 2013) wasn’t particularly hard. Plus, Scotland shouldn’t be rushed (everyone was telling us it was the best bit). What was even better was that we would be cycling right passed the Cycle Touring Festival. A quick email to Laura  (the festival organiser) and we got some last minute tickets.

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Setting up camp on the side of a bike path

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Shropshire canal

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The beautiful forest of Wyre

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I love the forest

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Such good cycling

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More great paths

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Happiness in the forest

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It was at this river we realised we were too slow

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So much off road riding

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Following the 45

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Steam train!!

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And waterfall

Our high spirits continued as we headed towards Manchester and a day off. In Telford we came across our first rather unpleasant city, getting lost and finding the NCN slightly lacking. Luckily soon we were back into the countryside and passing a pub, right on evening water collection time. It was here that we learnt about the attacks that had occurred in Manchester which therefore made the helicopter circling above our forest camp later that night slightly eerie.

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Bridgenorth

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Getting ready to fry up some lunch

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Bridgenorth

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More lovely pedalling

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Helicopter forest camp

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Along the canal passed salt mines

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Salt

We woke with 100km to go into Manchester, the sun shinning wonderfully yet again. Truly, England is one of the most delightful places when the sun shines. In Cheshire we found the NCN signage somewhat lacking again but managed to eventually fumble our way onto the trans pennine way and a beautiful ride into Manchester. Our hosts Pete and Maya lived in the south of the city and warmly welcomed us. We washed five days of grime off ourselves and promptly got down to serious cycle talk, eating loads of pasta and drinking copious glasses of wine. Pete and Maya had spent 11 months cycling through Africa (Pete had also cycled to India before that) and they totally re inspired us about cycling on the African continent.

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Pete, our warmshowers host

Our day off in Manchester was wonderful. We walked the city streets, went to an art gallery, drank some beers, ate some felafel and explored canal street. I know it was sunny and therefore everything seems shinier, but I really liked Manchester. In the evening we cooked thai curry, drank some beers and talked late into the night. I’m sure I’ve said it before but Warmshowers is such a brilliant organisation, connecting like minded people all over the world.

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And Maya

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Manchester

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more Manchester

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And some more

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We loved Canal Street

Pete pedalled with us into central Manchester the next day and then bade us farewell. We picked up some fuel for our stove and began the cycle north. It was hillier again now and we had some lovely climbs and sweeping views as we cycled through Lancashire. As we neared Clitheroe our excitement grew. The last section through the Ribble Valley was super beautiful and quite familiar as we had done a bit of cycling there the previous year. We arrived at the festival in high spirits and almost immediately ran into our friends Chris and Pete (who we met in long ago Meteora and have seen many times since). The atmosphere was lovely, people were arriving on all kinds of bikes, putting up tents and chatting excitedly.

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Midday beer

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Heading towards the festival

This festival is truly special. It is so uncommercial and down to earth (Laura’s family cater most of the food, the beer is local, theres only one stand selling things, plus books from a few of the speakers). The feeling is more of a tribe coming together in the spirit of knowledge sharing and love of bicycle traveling. There is such a feeling of solidarity and friendliness. I have never felt more comfortable sitting down at a table full of people I don’t know. Everyone has a story and it doesn’t matter if you have cycled 6 continents, pootled down the Danube cycle path, or were just thinking about a bike trip. People are humble and excited to share and learn. Someone described it cycle touring anonymous, which is kind of fitting.

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cycle touring journal and a beer. Perfect.

Astrid and I spent a lovely weekend going to inspiring talks, chatting to friends we made last year, making new friends, eating lots of sandwiches (hmm maybe that was just me actually), drinking ales and generally having a superb time. All too soon it was over. It may have been our last festival, although maybe not. We will have to see what next year brings..

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Happiness is cycle traveling and eating hummus with a spoon

By the time the festival had ended, so had the good weather. We left in soaking rain with plans to be at Chris and Pete’s the following evening. Even though it was raining we weren’t so bothered now. I felt like I had settled in to being okay with being uncomfortable at times, plus a week of sun in Britain leaves a lasting imprint of joy. The cycling was tough at times with some steep climbs but they were followed by beautiful descents into river valleys. We were particularly charmed by a village called Dent, with it’s cobbled streets and beautifully preserved buildings.

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Heading up

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The ever present sheep

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Pushing my bike up a bridleway to make camp

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Camping with a view of the valley and loads of sheep for company

Our cycle into Cumbria and Hallbankgate (where Chris and Pete live) was intermittently wet but we were really into the groove of the road and I even enjoyed the rain and the wind. It was a beautiful ride, the mountains of the Lake District could be seen to our left, the Pennine range to our right and the small villages offered delicious food and some warm shelter. It’s always extra lovely arriving somewhere familiar to be embraced by friends. Even though we had just seen them at the festival it was so lovely to spend another evening with Chris and Pete with great food, wine and conversation. We have made many good friends on the road and any time that we spend with them is very precious. Soon Chris and Pete are heading off on their own adventure and after that it’s likely we will be living on the other side of the world from each other.

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We did

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Beautiful Cumbria

The next day the sun was back. I was surprised and delighted. We rolled out of Hallbankgate armed with road information and Chris’s famous flapjacks. Our first stop was literally across the road at the really lovely Hallbankgate Hub, the cafe/shop that the village had been working on opening  (after their original shop was shut down) ever since we have been visiting. Feeling slightly overstuffed on cake we finally hit the road north towards Scotland. Not long after that we had to stop again to explore the Lanacost Priory, which was beautiful.

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Lanacost Priory

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More of the Priory

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So beautiful

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Another lovely old bridge

The ride to the border was hilly. Long climbs followed by long descents to a creek and bridge and then repeat. We reached Scotland in the early afternoon and it felt awesome, and almost immediately different because of the forests (although they were plantation sadly). Our first night in Scotland we had decided to make a slight detour and head to a bothy. There are now officially two things that really enchant me about Britain; canal boats/canals and Bothies. Bothies are huts (mostly in Scotland) that in the past were often basic accommodation for shepherds. Now they are maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association and are free to use for all. They are usually remote and are primarily used by hikers and cyclists. Traditionally their whereabouts has been kept a bit secret, although that is slowly changing. We had heard about Bothie’s before but had been truly inspired by a talk at the festival. I was so keen to see if we could stay in one and it just happened that we could – with a little bit of planning.

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Yay! We made it!

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Heading towards the Bothy

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Valley of sheep, what else?!

The cycle in along the valley floor towards the bothy was lovely in the early evening light. As we got closer, the road deteriorated and it began to feel like we were actually getting a little remote. Houses disappeared and there was only forest and fields. As we rounded the final bend the simple stone structure of the bothy came into view and I just felt delighted. We rolled into the clearing and discovered it was just going to be the two of us for the night. Brilliant. The bothy was situated by a stream and consisted of three rooms with sleeping platforms. There was a stove and an open fire place and a few utensils and supplies. It seemed in really good condition and we felt so privileged that we could stay in such a lovely hut in such a great location. I built a fire and Astrid cooked some dinner and then we did the most appropriate thing for a Scottish hut – drank some whiskey. It was wonderful falling asleep in the cosy hut, watching the light of the fire. Scotland, you are brilliant.

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Bothy happiness

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Bothy daydreaming

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Fire and whiskey, such happiness.

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Evening sun outside the bothy

This being Scotland the rain returned the following day. We packed up and left the beloved bothy, wishing we could spend a day sitting by the fire reading and writing. But by now we really did have to make it to Glasgow to get our train home. Using back roads we pedalled through the plantation forest and in Eskelmuir which just happened to have one of the biggest Tibetan Monastery in the West. We headed there and were reminded strongly of our time in the Tibetan part of China. After drinking copious cups of tea we dragged ourselves back onto the road and the impending weather.

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Cycling into the monastery

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Reading about the escape from the Chinese and drinking tea

After a pleasant morning of cycling we were greeted with an uninspiring afternoon, following the motorway towards Glasgow. Our ‘bike lane’ on the secondary road was terribly surfaced and the rain became heavier and heavier. At least the wind was in our favour. After pushing on into the early evening we decided to call it quits and put our tent up on the side of a section of bike path (there were some off road sections). I cooked us some noodles and then we both jumped into the tent to drink some whiskey and eat dinner.

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Noodles and whiskey in a cup

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Our camp, right next to the bike path

It rained most of the night but by the morning it was only intermittent. Instead of cooking breakfast we just packed up and headed a few kilometres down the road to take shelter in a truck stop café and have breakfast there. It was hard to leave but as the day wore on the weather began to improve. First some patches of blue, then sun. By the time we were nearing Glasgow things were looking up; the sun was shinning and we were following a lovely bike path along a river. Because we weren’t in a rush we decided to dry all our wet gear, cook noodles and naturally have some whiskey.

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Drying out on our way into Glasgow

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Glasgow

We rolled into Glasgow in the early evening. After sorting out our train tickets (our original booking had been from Inverness but the Caledonian Sleeper kindly rebooked us onto the Glasgow-London service) we naturally headed to a vegan pub. Glasgow rocks. While we were sitting outside drinking our first beers, a whole bunch of people turned up on bikes. They began chatting to us and it turns out they all work at the local bike shop and The 78 was their usual Friday night post work beers spot. We even got invited to stay at one of their places so that we could spend more time in Glasgow. We both wanted to but home was calling.

So, it seems we had finally made it to what was our original ‘destination’ when we left Australia 4 years ago, not that it really matters anymore. This trip was another brilliant lesson that destinations are not important. Funnily enough they always seem to matter to others more than to us. It sounds a bit cliched but it really is (in my opinion anyway) the journey that matters. I am so glad we took our time to explore England slowly, to take the off road paths and change our route as we saw fit. We will certainly be back on the bikes to explore Scotland before we bid this Island farewell.

Till next time

Jude

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Celebrating the end of a wonderful adventure

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Train home – sleep I did not, but it looks cool.

Learning to Love London

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When Astrid and I left Melbourne in 2013 we had always had a vague plan that perhaps we could work as paramedics in the UK at the completion of our ride. At the time the process was quite difficult and I had only heard of one other Australian trained paramedic having done it. Then way back in Western China, when a friend emailed us and told us that London Ambulance were actively recruiting Australian paramedics, it seemed perfect. The ease of getting a job in London  ultimately caused us to change from our original plan of cycling to Glasgow. Instead we arrived in London on our bikes, jobs already secured. On paper it seemed ideal.

Yet by the time we were faced with the  actual reality of an employed existence everything felt wrong. Who I was and what I wanted from life felt like it had been shattered. I was questioning everything. Did I really want to be employed? Did I want to live in a house? In a city? Slip back into my old habits, my old life? My heart longed for something else. To keep traveling, to write, something.  The adventure had opened my mind and soul to different possibilities. I was no longer sure I wanted the life I had so fully chosen before.

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London Bridge, looking onto Tower Bridge

We talked about our options but in the end pragmatism won out. We were already here and there was no obligation to stay. Plus, it wouldn’t be forever.  With hindsight, I feel we made the right decision. I am happy here. We both are.  Perhaps in the future I would consider doing it differently. While I don’t think regret is a useful emotion and I  don’t regret the decision we made to work for LAS and live in London I am wary of planning too far ahead next time. In the same breath I will also say that sometimes making a practical decision from a solid place ends up feeling like the right one, once things have settled down. Probably there are no wrong decisions, just a series of choices we make through life that take us on different paths.

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Classic London

So after our summer of hiking and then visiting friends we arrived back in dreary London on a chilly and dark November afternoon. We pulled up on fully  loaded bikes in front of the Croydon Park Hotel (Croydon being a far flung suburb of London). The doorman did a double take. We didn’t exactly look like people who could afford this kind of place. And actually we couldn’t. The LAS were putting us up as part of our induction. After the initial shock, he escorted us to our padded cell – also known as a hotel room. We set about trying to make it home. I don’t think we we fully succeeded. I am not sure I have ever been quite as miserable as I have living in that place for a month. There were many factors but its beige walls and dull tones didn’t help. I felt like the wildness in me had been caged. Our one point of rebellion was to fire up our petrol stove in the bathroom and cook dinner on it.

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Cooking in the bathroom of our hotel

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PPE training

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Looking cute, even though the uniform is ugly!

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Dramatic Winter sunset

It is a huge process of rediscovery coming from life on the road back into work and conventional existence.  Sitting in that fluorescent lit classroom, wearing that ugly green uniform, not seeing the sun. I felt like a small part of me was dying. Luckily these feelings passed in time and I slowly remembered that I had been happy in my life back at home. Working and living a settled existence doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The freedom I have known and the things I’ve learnt, I can keep them with me, even in London.

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Winter gloom often matched my mood

So while living in our padded cell, adjusting to a settled life and being taught how to be a paramedic London style, we also got partake in the fun task of becoming a human recognisable to British bureaucracy. Not an easy feat. I feel deep empathy towards anyone who does not speak english well. It was a mind numbingly frustrating and difficult task and english is my first language. I won’t go into the ins and outs – it’s pretty boring but its something like –  you must have an address to get bank account, but in order to get a bank account you need an address and to get a national insurance number in order to work you need an address which in turn you need a bank account for….AHHHHHH!!

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Hackney Wick, near home

Once our work induction was over and done with I was faced with the stark realisation that I kind of hated London. We both did. It was miserable and grey with heavy clouds obscuring the sky for days. The service that now employed us seemed archaic and struggling. Equipment was often missing from our ambulances and technology we had had for more than 10 years back at home was non-existent. This was compounded by the harsh culture of austerity we found ourselves working in and the continued attacks on the NHS. The patients we visited lived in tiny, poorly insulated flats with rising damp. Everywhere was crowded and while you were often intimate with complete strangers on the tube at rush hour (think face in someone’s arm pit) to smile or to talk was a definite no no. People  and the city itself appeared generally harsh, unfriendly and morose.

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Eerie light pollution

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Street art, Hackney Wick

How do you learn to love a city that you do not get along with at first?

You get on your bicycle.

For me cities are more than just a bunch of buildings thrown together where lots of people live. They have a soul and a mood of their own. I first really fell in love with Melbourne when I began cycling everywhere. Being free to cut through back streets, parks and along rivers gives you an intimate glance into the life of the city that is hard to replicate. You cycle passed people’s open windows and smell their dinners cooking, find short cuts through small streets and stumble upon neighbourhood cafes you never knew existed. Through the seasons you feel the city shift – the hot northerly that will become a cool southerly by the evening (which is inevitably always a headwind), the swollen creek that spills onto the bike path after the rain, warm summer evenings, the smell of cut grass and neighbourhood barbecues. These collection of seemingly insignificant moments are the ones that connected me to Melbourne on a level that was different to the one I felt to the people that lived there. If you can have both of those – a connection to place and to people, well for me that’s what makes a place worth living in.

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Biking around London helped come to terms with the city

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Canal side bike and pedestrian path

In London it began with canals. Not long after moving to East London I stumbled upon the canal while cycling and this is where my heart began to open up to this strange new place. Canals offer another insight into the city, something beyond the brash, often harsh globalised capital that is London. There is something almost other worldly about the slow moving canal boats with their charmingly painted exteriors. In the summer people sit on their roofs, a few boats gathered together, drinking wine and sharing food. In the winter, they seem to huddle together for warmth, wood smoke mixing with the chilly air. I fell in love with canals, cycling along them, running along them, sitting by their edge and drinking a beer. It was the first thing that delighted me about London.

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The Canal

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And even more

With the canals as my grounding force  I cautiously explored further, sometimes with Astrid, often alone (our shift patterns didn’t match up particularly well at that time). I would cycle into the city, explore a museum or gallery, then find my way home just by cycling east. Sometimes I used the luminous winter moon to guide my way, knowing that the glowing red AcelorMittal Orbit sculpture (i had to google what it was just now) would eventually appear on the horizon and from there I knew I was nearly home. These long winter cycles began to give me a feel and appreciation for the city that had become my home. It broke it down for me, into neighbourhoods, each with their distinct feel and character.

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Foggy morning cycling through Victoria Park

Slowly the season began to transform. The gloomy dark gave way and the incredibly long evenings of spring delighted us all. London began to feel different. The mood shifted, life moved outdoors. As soon as the sun shone the parks and green spaces (of which there are many) filled with people picnicking and barbecuing ( I feel Britain is in dire need of the free BBQ’s so prevalent at home). Our friends and family began to visit as the weather improved and Victoria Park practically became our second home. More and more I realised that London is filled with wild little nooks and crannies. You don’t have to go far to find a little bit of wilderness and it is actually considered the greenest capital city in Europe.

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Spring!

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Victoria Park picnics

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Long summer evenings with wine and a fire. Perfect.

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Exploring the Greenway

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Epping Forest,  inside the M25

With the parks and canals as my founding love, as time wore on I began to add other  things I appreciated about London to that list.

It is a city of many cultures, which seem generally more integrated than even my multicultural home of Melbourne. There is a mosque at the end of our street, a bunch of small shops that sell Halal food, a Romanian corner shop and a pub, all within 5 mins walk of where we live. Even in post Brexit Britain London in general remains a place of more liberal and open values. There is an underlying edginess, it feels like a place where anything can happen. Because it is so big and diverse there is always something going on . No matter how random your interest is, in London you can probably find a group of people into the same thing. I like that about living here.

Wondering around East London I also grew immensely fond of the humble corner shop. In Australia the equivalent of a corner shop – the milkbar is a dying, almost extinct phenomena. Here, at least where we live, the ‘Offie (off license) appears not to be going anywhere. The whole high street is dotted with them and they are all through the back streets too. Our local one stays open for 24 hours (great for 2am wine runs). I almost never go to a supermarket which makes me pretty happy.

Like offies, the neighbourhoods are also dotted with pubs. You can still find some old man pubs which are a strange mix of hipsters drinking craft beers and locals doing the crosswords (drinking fosters), probably sitting at the same place at the bar that they have for the last 15 years. I love wondering into a warm cosy pub on a winters night. And yeah, I totally love room temperature flat beers now too!

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Our tube stop

By the time autumn rolled around again these collection of experiences and realisations had shown me the good in London. I think we have both more or less found our place amongst the contrasting and shifting landscape that is east London. A pillar of our existence has certainly also been our home. After the time on the road I appreciate the simple things wholeheartedly. Being able to make cup of tea without lighting a fire or pumping our fuel bottle, baking bread and learning new dishes that require more than one pot. Building garden beds, planting vegetables, inviting friends over for a fire in our yard. All these seemingly everyday tasks delight me. While I look forward to the time when our tyres hit the road once more, for now I am very content.

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Home

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Autumn again, Vic Park

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Autumn Vic Park

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Eerie autumn fog

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Our winter Garden

And while I have written about the city itself and the things we enjoy doing now we no longer pedal for a living, it is our friends that truly make London feel like a home. They anchor us to this place and really give it meaning. There is something quite amazing after a year of living somewhere when you realise you are surrounded by people that you care about and who care about you, some of whom you have known for less than 12 months.

So I want to say a big thank you; to the friends we knew when we moved here – you certainly kept us sane in the first few bleak months, I don’t know what we would have done without you. To our families and old friends who visited us – your gaze helped us see the city in a different light and connected us with love from back home. And lastly to the new friends, the ones we have made since moving here – you have inspired us and helped us feel happy and at home here. It is going to be hard to leave.

Loads of Love

Jude

 

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One Year On

 

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One Year on. We survived!

It’s one year since we pedalled into London and brought this part of the cycle journey more or less to a close. I thought it would be as good a time as any to take a moment to reflect and update. To say it’s been a full on year would be an understatement. I always knew it would be hard to adjust back to more or less conventional life, but it nearly undid me.

It was fucking brutal.

I will try and explain. Bare with me, this is still not completely figured out in my head but here are some of the insights I have.

Cycle travelling cuts out the bullshit. You are suddenly and very quickly faced with the things that are universally important. Where do we get food? Where do we get water? Where will we sleep tonight? Those are the things we all really need. And human connection. On the road you have fleeting but wonderful connections with people who invite you to stay for the night, people who stop to give you water, or simply want to ask if you are okay. The overwhelming feeling is of universal kindness. Sure there is the odd twat, but most people you encounter are pretty awesome. There is also a pretty fabulous community of long term cycle travellers and hosts out there who really get what you do. So it’s almost like life it stripped down to the minimum and most important things that we as humans need. Not to say that there aren’t other ways to achieve this. But it happens organically with cycle travelling. It’s almost impossible for it not to happen. In my experience anyway.

This can leave you somewhat disconnected from mainstream society. Because just like most people can’t relate to the time you got deported from Turkmenistan, you often can’t relate to their lives. It’s a little alienating and takes time to remember that not everyone is excited about wild camping in Iran and how long you can go without showering. It wasn’t exactly that I felt lonely, more that I was disillusioned with people and conventional life in general. I just wanted to get back on my bike and leave. But ultimately I have learned it’s not about having to fit back in. With time you find your kind of people and learn to take joy from different things. I don’t want this journey to be the one amazing thing I’ve done. I don’t even want it to define me. It’s just part of what has makes mine and Astrid’s life so rich.

I also found myself feeling much more sensitive to the planet. I think we both did. After spending most of our time living outdoors, it’s hard not to feel a deep connection to the natural world.  Cars, waste, lack of recycling, environmental destruction and cruelty to animals affected me in a more intense and emotional way than it had before.  As a result Astrid and I have become more or less freegan, something we had been discussing for quite a while on the trip. This means we eat mainly vegan unless say, someone has made us a meal, or we are dumpster diving. It is as much about waste reduction as it is about being plant based. This might be confusing for some but I would rather eat a non vegan dip out of a dumpster that was perfectly fine and would go to waste, than some vegan chocolate that has been flown in from Brazil. Ultimately it’s about reducing our impact on the planet.

Another strong impact that this journey left on both of us was the lack of fear. Sure, we still get scared about things from time to time and I would never call myself fearless, but hell, a lot of people are scared. After being around people who generally carry less fear as they are also traveling and exploring, it was confronting to see  how much fear is out there. People are afraid to cycle, afraid to travel, afraid to do anything out of the norm. Afraid of the stories we are told by our politicians. Afraid of refugees. Afraid of fucking everything. I totally get where it comes from, mainly the media, and I don’t really blame people for it, but it does make me sad. Because like any cycle traveler or even half adventurous backpacker will tell you, the world is full of kind people. People who will invite you in off the street to sleep in their houses, people who will stop on the highway and give you food,  people who will help you with the endless small tasks everyday on the road. This is the reality of people. Not the bullshit the media and our governments want us to believe. So coming up against the way most people see the world was exhausting and alarming.

For us moving to a big city in the darkest, bleakest month of autumn to start work didn’t really help either. I really questioned for a while the wiseness of going straight back into the same career I was doing back at home. There hadn’t been any time to reflect or really ask ourselves wether we wanted to go back to working as paramedics. It had always seemed like a good idea, but I felt like another me had made that decision. Now I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t feel like the person I was before I left, and there are things I want to change about where my life is going. Things that might be harder from the sphere of a conventional job. And London itself really dragged us down for the first few months. It felt big, unfriendly and dark. We spent a lot of time asking ourselves; what are we doing here?

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dressed for winter cycling

But finally, out of this rather dark phase I feel like I have gained some clarity. Ultimately Europe is not our home. Neither Astrid or I want to live here long term (as much as we love our friends that do). It makes sense to slip into a job that is both familiar and relatively well paying. We both want to travel more (probably cycle home) and therefore saving money here makes sense. Not only that, but living in England has its advantages; Europe is on our doorstep and we taken advantage of the travel opportunities. But above and beyond that we have been experimenting and learning. The things we missed while traveling we have started to establish here.

 

To begin with, a kettle. We probably spent the first 6 months drinking tea and not leaving the house. That combined with an oven; bliss. Along with this I am slowly learning how to bake kick ass bread. We are growing veggies. Astrid is learning about bees and we are both experimenting and learning about permaculture. We are figuring out how we want to live when we return to Australia and learning new skills to take with is. Plus we have our super friends and family visiting us, as well as our wonderful London friends. Things are pretty awesome.

It’s certainly a different lifestyle to climbing 4000m passes but one that is fulfilling in  different ways.

For us the cycling is not over either. I think some people end a big bike trip ready to move on and try new things. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t actually cycled home, but both of us are super keen to get back on the bikes and get pedalling again. This is just an interlude before our next journey begins. It is shaping out to be a pretty good one.

 

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summer finally arrives

 

 

 

 

Music, Cycling, Beer…The END..kind of

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Getting on the ferry at the Hook of Holland

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Beer and concentration. I think I was writing the blog!

The ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich was lovely. We met several cyclists, all from the UK returning from shorter journeys on the continent. Beer was shared and stories told. It was good to see the cycle touring spirit alive and strong in the UK.

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Securing the bikes

By the time we docked it was early evening, I took in a breath of the fresh sea air and tried to take it all in. Reaching Europe way back at the Greek border had felt momentous, this felt even more poignant. Not only had we reached our final country, but we had also reached our new home. I look forward to getting to know you Britain.

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First few miles in England

The English landscape was immediately refreshing with its rolling hills and woodlands. I love Holland but it is rather flat, the undulations came as a relief. A few miles from the ferry port a pub offered camping for five pounds. After setting up it was time for a warm flat beer to celebrate arriving at country number twenty four.

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Five pound camping at the back of this pub!

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Warm flat beer anyone?

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First breakfast in the UK

It took us a day of steady cycling to get within striking distance of Cambridge. Gone were the well marked bike paths of The Netherlands. We were back in car country. Sadly England is not the most cycle friendly land we have come across, odd given its very strong history of cycling. Still, it’s not the worst place to pedal – although don’t try looking at the sustrans website as it will result in an instant headache and much confusion. No wonder there is a twitter feed ‘lost in sustrans’ (sustrans is supposed to be a cycling website). Our first day cycling through the English countryside had us on quiet hedged roads, through charming countryside and picturesque villages. Locals were friendly and it was a novelty to be able to speak English and cycle on the left side of the road!

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Beautiful England

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Morning market

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Lunch time

In the evening, struggling to find somewhere to pitch our tents for the night some lovely ladies on horses offered up the Parish Common (although if anyone objected we were not to tell it was them who had suggested it). But as night fell and we cooked our pasta, a few dog walkers curiously gazed at us but didn’t seem to mind our presence. It was a beautiful little spot, a pocket of wilderness in the otherwise quite gentrified countryside.

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The roads in England are small!

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Could this be somewhere to spend the night?

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Happiness is finding somewhere to call home for the night

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Parish Common camping. A table is such luxury!

A busy morning cycle saw us reach Cambridge to be reunited with Courtney who we had not seen since long ago Dushanbe. We had been looking forward to this reunion for months. Not only would it encompass the end of our journey, but also the Cambridge Folk Festival.

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Dushanbe reunion!

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Folk festival fox

Soon our tents were pitched under a tree and while people bustled around us still setting up, tea was brewed and we eagerly caught up on the last few months. There were many stories to share, especially about surviving the northern hemisphere winter mostly in the outdoors. It was interesting, although Courtney also loved cycling Europe, she too felt like something was missing. An edginess, a rawness, something. We all kind of missed the adventure of the world’s more far flung places and the challenges that come with that.

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Checking out the festival guide and making tea

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The first of many festivals we hope!

The four of us quickly settled into festival life. After a prolonged breakfast, usually involving eggs, copious cups of tea and reading we would eventually meander over to see the music. There was much dancing, cider drinking, exhausted moments of napping at the back of the crowd, dirty barefeet, beautiful music and generalised festival happiness. I suspect Cambridge will not be our last festival in the UK.

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Hooray!

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Vegie sausages and beer

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Once the long days of festival fun drew to a close the four of us packed up and cycled into the suburbs of Cambridge to meet Steve and Roxy. I went to school with Steve and had randomly remembered that he now lived in the UK. I had thought, why not catch up for a beer with an old class mate? What we got was much more than a beer! Steve and his wife Roxy generously invited us all to stay with them. What was even cooler was that Roxy is an avid cyclist and works for the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Once again the universe provides!

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BBQ with Steve and Roxy

We were welcomed with open arms and promptly set about gently messing up their home as only post festival cycle travellers can. Later we caught up on life since school over a BBQ and a few beers (how very Australian). It was also really interesting for Astrid and I to hear about Steve and Roxy’s experience of living in the UK as we were soon to follow in their footsteps.

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A bike park house in Cambridge

The following day I did something I should have done ages ago – organised some of our photos. For anyone interested there now a slide show on our Flikr Page https://www.flickr.com/photos/foonsonbikes/albums/72157656344837999. Its rough and still needs a bit of work but it does show a bit of an overview. The main reason for this sudden and uncharacteristic spurt of organisation was because Roxy had asked us to give a talk about our trip to her colleagues at the Cambridge Cycling Campaign.

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Speaking at the Cambridge cycling campaign meeting

So in the evening the 6 of us pedalled into Cambridge, and Astrid and I, as well as Courtney, gave a small presentation about what it’s like being a cycling traveller. Thankfully when you are in a room full of bicycle enthusiasts it isn’t exactly hard to convince people about the merits of bicycle travel. No one looked at us like we had two heads or needed to be locked up. Everyone was full of excitement and sharing our stories felt completely natural.

Afterwards we went to the pub and continued on in a less formal setting aided by ales. We weren’t the only ones sharing information though. It was a great opportunity to ask everyone about how we should cycle into London from Cambridge. We got a lot of good information.

Steve and Roxy kindly let us stay the following day. We had planned to leave but somehow (the ales?) just couldn’t face the road. Instead Courtney and I baked a cake and we all drank copious cups of tea. It was such bliss to do almost nothing at all. The seemingly most mundane tasks are wonderful to the long term traveller. Give me a kettle, a toaster and wifi and I am endlessly happy these days.

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We took over the kitchen

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And made a bicycle birthday cake!

London however was calling. We left the next day but not before partaking in the age old tradition of punting. For anyone who doesn’t know what this is (I didn’t before) this involves sitting on a wooden boat (preferably with wine and cheese) while one person stands on the back and uses a long stick to propel the boat forwards. This takes some getting used to and a specific set of skills not readily found in the cycle traveller. Courtney and I prevailed and eventually got the hang of it. We punted up and down the Cam river, admiring the likes of Kings College. It was almost as idyllic as it sounds. The un-idyllic part was the occasional crash caused by either us or one of the other groups of beginner punters.

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Punting

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Punting is best when you have wine and someone else does the work!

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By the time punting was over it was time to leave town. For some reason my enthusiasm was low. We cycled about 10 miles before turning off a country road and following a small track to the edge of some dense woods. It was a lovely spot and the four of us shared the last of our wine and prepared our evening meal. Our peace was however soon disturbed. For the second time ever (the last time was in NSW) we were found by an initially hostile individual. At first he could barely comprehend what he had found and firmly but politely ordered us off the land which he said belonged to a farmer (his boss). He was quite civilised about it and we were allowed to finish our meal first. This bought us some time and the four of us used our considerable charms to draw our new friend into conversation. After 15 mins he kindly said we could stay and we were left in peace. Thank you.

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Heading out of Cambridge

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The camp where we got briefly disturbed

Our second last day started early as we wanted to be off the land before the workers arrived. Our route took us over rolling green hills, along cute back roads and into a cute village for cream tea. In the afternoon we reached the Lee Valley – parklands and canals not far from the M25 (the motorway that borders greater London). Due to our proximity to London I was a little apprehensive about finding somewhere to camp.

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Cream tea!

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On the road south

The universe more than provided. We asked some people who lived on the canal (we thought they looked suitably dodgey) if there was anywhere we could put our tent – ‘anywhere you like’ was the response we got. Soon enough, just over a small bridge we found a hidden clearing right next to the canal. Time to break out the Pims. Our ‘last’ night of freedom. There was even a place to build a fire. Incredible, here we were wild camping less than 40km from central London.

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In the Lee Valley

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A perfect last nights camp – with pims

It was a special night for us all because really it was the finale for everyone. Courtney who had basically cycled from Mongolia was soon to be swapping her bike for hiking boots, Vari who had come all the way from Reggensburg was shortly off to Latvia, and Astrid and I would soon be living a very different life. I tried to take the moments in fully, but these moments are often hard to capture as you are living them.

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Final day!

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Heading towards Waltham Abbey

Our final day dawned promising a lovely summer’s day. We had a quick bit to eat and cycled the 10km or so to Waltham Abbey. Here we were reunited with part of ‘the pod’ from long ago Malaysia. Charlotte, Ben and Kit had caught the train out early to meet us. What legends. It was a wonderful reunion followed by a champagne breakfast in some lovely gardens.

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Champagne breakfast. Ben your awesome shirt was so appreciated!

As we were preparing to leave Waltham Abbey I came across something I had been looking for for 2 days – onesies! It had been my dream to cycle into London wearing something outrageous. A onesie was my first choice. Sadly yesterday had proved fruitless in my search. But here, right in front of me were a a bunch of colourful onesies hanging on a rack. It was just too perfect. It hardly took any convincing. Soon Astrid, Courtney, Ben and I were clothed in our rather ridiculous new outfits, ready to cycle into the capital.

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Ready to go in our new ridiculous outfits

The cycle into central London was surreal. We followed the narrow canal path for miles, finally getting a glimpse of the iconic high rises. I was filled with a jolt of excitement. This was actually happening. More than 2 years of cycling and we were nearly there.

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South along the canals

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Not long and we were out of the parklands, stopping for a pint in a brewery (Crate) in Hackney Wick (soon to become one of our locals). Then with Ben’s expert navigation we pedalled through East london, took the walk way under the Thames and popped out in Greenwich. A small climb and we were suddenly 100m from the Greenwich Observatory. We both choked up a little as we slowly pedalled towards the lookout and then bought the Dirty Salmon and the Green Fairy to a stop. London spread out before us. This was it. This was the end. Although by now the concept of this being just a linear journey with a beginning, middle and end did not ring true. Sure, this was a kind of end, but also a new beginning. It was a moment in time. A moment in our lives.

Two years, four months, two days and three continents.

Time for a beer.

 

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We took a moment or four and then headed with our little team to Black Heath where more friends joined us. The afternoon was spent on the Heath sipping beers and enjoying the warm summer evening. It felt crazy and amazing to be alive, surrounded by friends, the sky streaked with pink, a new adventure waiting.

Love

Jude

P.S We plan to continue our blog. After this we head to walk across Spain, then onto the UK for a more settled adventure. We shall let you know how we go! Thanks for reading this part of our adventure. Love Jude and Astrid.

 

Cycling Paradise – Welcome to The Netherlands.

Belgium border via the North Sea cycle route to Den Haag (The Hague) -> Breda -> Amsterdam -> Breda -> Hoek van Holland.

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Cycling Paradise.

When most people think of the Netherlands, visions of tulips, wooden clogs and windmills spring to mind.  For me, first and foremost it’s bicycles.  After decades of cycle friendly laws and infrastructure spending, Holland can claim its well earned title as the cycling capital of the world.  There are more bikes per capita than cars, more people cycle than drive and the easily navigable maze of bike paths that criss cross the country make this cycling paradise.

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Cycling towards the Belgium/Holland border

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Welcome to the cycling capital of the world – The Netherlands.

Crossing early in the morning from Belgium into Holland, we were excited about hitting the cycle routes, reaching the coast and going for a swim in the North Sea.  Our friends in Belgium had suggested the best and most scenic route to Den Haag would be along the North Sea cycle route – the LF1.  This route would also take us passed Hoek van Holland,the port where we will be catching the ferry to England from, after spending a couple of weeks exploring the Netherlands and visiting friends.

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Cool art on a disused lighthouse, due to engineering the sea is now miles away.

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Our first view of the sea for many months.

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Waiting for the ferry in Breskens.

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There is ample bicycle parking on all ferries in the Netherlands.

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Sea views.

We followed clearly marked signs and cycle paths through small villages until we reached the coast and our first ferry crossing from Breskens to Vlissingen.  After being land locked for so long we relished the sensations of the salty air filling our nostrils and the blue of the water enticing our vision.  Most of Holland is below sea level and the Dutch have built hundreds of sea walls and constructed dozens of sea dams to steal land that the sea had once claimed as her own.  Kilometre long bridges and tunnels join the many land legs that jut out into the water, saving kilometres of backtracking to reach the same destination.

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Cycling the North Sea coast route, wind at our backs.

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Taking a little water break and admiring the view.

Windmills and wind go hand in hand, and the Netherlands has more than its fair share of both.  Luckily for us it was blowing from the south west, the perfect direction for a tail wind.  All we had to do was sit back, let the wind do its job, enjoy the sunshine and the wonderful scenery that the North Sea route provided.  Oh yeah and go for that swim…

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The North Sea cycle route took us through sand dunes…

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Through forests…

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Along man made sea walls…

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Passed lighthouses….

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Along more sea walls…

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Passed modern wind mills…

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Over sea dams….

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Passed pacific gulls….

We had flown that day and as the sun began to lower herself towards the horizon and rain clouds gathered in the sky, it was time to find shelter for the night.  We had passed many signs for micro campgrounds, so we pulled into one and found the owner who showed us to a lovely patch of grass (and a warm shower) that we could call home for the night.

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Setting up our home at a micro-campground.

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Jude thought it was time for a sign on her bike.

We woke early the next morning to find the wind still in our favour.  After a quick cuppa and a bite to eat we hit up the local church fair where we stocked up on home made jam and cakes.  Hoping to make it to Den Haag that afternoon we needed all the fuel we could get.  The riding continued to be stunning, the villages inviting and the kilometres fast.

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Through fields of wildflowers.

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Eating cake for morning tea.

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And then stopping for a coffee.

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In this cute village.

Jude’s sign turned out to be a hit with everyone.  It was an ice breaker that started conversation and we spent our time cycling with groups of other cycle tourists sharing stories from the road.  This was also helpful as when we turned west along the south bank of the Hoek van Holland Port, the wind ended up in our faces and the lovely people on electric bikes provided the perfect windbreak.

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The route then hit the industrial shipping area.

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Where we caught another ferry with bicycle parking.

The cycling day was slowly drawing to an end.  A quick ice-cream stop perked up the energy levels enough to see us pedalling along a path through some sand dunes which popped us out into Den Haag.  It was here that we would again meet some cycle touring friends from the road – Pimm and ChuHui – whom we had met in the Cameron Highlands and again in Penang back in Malaysia.

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We then cycled our way through Den Haag.

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To visit with the wonderful Pimm and ChuHui

Three wonderful days were spent sharing stories and food, wandering the streets, admiring the works of the Dutch masters at Mauritshuis, eating the best ice-cream in the world and sailing on one of the many lakes nearby.  It was here that I had my first lesson in sailing.  Being a very windy day it was proving to be a struggle, my knuckles were white from nervousness but I was holding it together until our last tack where I managed to almost capsize us.  As water entered the yacht my heart sank as I acknowledged that both cameras were now submerged, never to be used again.  The engine then failed during our return to the dock and as we struggled to get the yacht in (with a mixture of ropes and pulling and pushing), other sailors sat back and watched the spectacle, glass of wine in their hands, not one offering to help.  Back at home in dry clothes with a cuppa in hand, we had a good laugh and agreed that next time things would be better.

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They took us sailing.

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Like father, like daughter.

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Jude looking ubercool.

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The last photo on our SLR before it went swimming never to be used again.

From here we split paths for a few days, dad went to visit an old friend and we cycled on to Breda to meet Franz and Eveline, other cycle touring friends who we first met when we hosted them in Melbourne.  It was a full days ride from Den Haag to Breda, following a myriad of cycle paths.  Somehow this time the cycle route number system left us in a pickle, so good old maps.me was consulted and we continued on our merry way.  This was our last day of long distance cycling in Holland and we relished in the joy of our movement and the freedom cycle touring instills in your heart.

Franz and Eveline had just returned from a cycle tour of their own, starting at the place in Greece where Eveline had been struck by a car a few years ago (an accident that turned into a life saving coincidence), continuing on to Turkey and beyond.  Indefatigable as they are they welcomed us with open arms and open cellar – Franz has been tempting us to their beautiful home with promises of great beer.  Evenings were spent sipping many of Franz’s favourite beers, outdoors overlooking the garden, sharing lively conversation about touring and the state of the world. Days were a relaxing mix of perusing one of the many books in their library (mandatory cuppa in hand) and wandering around the lovely town of Breda soaking up the Dutch architecture and culture.  And a few more beers.  We celebrated Eveline’s birthday with her, an occasion that filled me with hope, happiness and inspiration that I will continue to cycle tour and live an adventurous life like she does.

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Dinner time with great beer and great friends.

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Back at it – relaxing at one of the many outdoor bars in Breda.

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Maybe a few too many brews? – teaching Gieske how to do a bum dance in the street.

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A little more classy – Eveline’s birthday lunch (when the food did arrive it was incredible…)

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Jude loving the dessert.

All too quickly it was time for us to head on to Amsterdam to meet other friends.  Bill had flow over from Australia to spend some days exploring the delights of the capital with us, and a Dushanbe reunion was brewing for the last day.  Arriving at Amsterdam Centraal we followed the bike lanes east to the campground we had booked for the week to come.  Seems like we weren’t the only ones in town on a budget, the place was pumping.

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Saving time and catching the train to Amsterdam.

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It still amazes me how easily you can take bikes on public transport here.

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I love the dedicated bike lanes – heading east from the main train station.

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Camping with a view.

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Not the only ones on a budget…

Our days were spent exploring Amsterdam by bike, boat and foot.

We sampled most of the local specialities… and partook in some cultural activities… missing the one in a thousand year storm that hit Amsterdam (uprooting trees and decimating the campground) while we looked at the Dutch Masters in the Rijksmuseum.

Leaving Amsterdam on the train back to Breda, the glow that comes from spending time with friends and loved ones still enveloped me.  Life on the road does distance you from your community back home, as well as providing you with a new group of like minded friends.  Connecting physically with both here in Holland showed me that I am perhaps ready to settle for a while, create a home and open my doors to all those that I love and those I have not yet met.

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Hot drink break on our walk through the forest.

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Jude as a frog…

After a day of packing, walking and sharing more time (and beer) with Franz and Eveline, it was time to say goodbye to them and the Netherlands.  Ready for the next leg, it was lovely to cycle the streets of Breda together, a farewell escort to the train that would take us to Hoek van Holland and our ferry to England.  Gale force winds hit us as we stepped off the train and continued to bombard us as we waited in line to board the ferry.  Weather matching emotions is common on the road and the gusty, forceful wind was fitting.  It was time to leave the continent, to head to our last country on this journey, the place we would call home for the next few years.  Memories of the past mixed with hopes for the future.  Ready to take that step we watched as the land disappeared into the horizon.  And then we befriended the other cycle tourists on board, shared duty free beers and kept on living the life we know and love.

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Our farewell escort to the station.

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Through the streets of Breda.

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On the train from Breda to the ferry port.

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Waiting in the wind to board at the Hoek of Holland.

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England, here we come!

From Belgium with Beers

Astrid and I love beers (in case this was somehow missed) and now we were finally entering the country reputed to have some of the best beers in the world. We were quite excited to say the least. To reach Belgium we had to climb out of the picturesque valley we had been cycling through the previous day. It was a beautiful summer’s morning, climbing felt great and at the top we were greeted with a sign to say we were in Belgium, followed by 16km of downhill. Nice way to enter a country!

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Welcome to Belgium!

The first part of Belgium is still German speaking so it felt very familiar at our first bakery stop. This gives way to the French language, and also sadly deteriorating cycle ways and driving. As we struggled to follow the bicycle directions and bumped along rough, narrow roads with drivers passing too close we knew we were definitely no longer in Germany.

That day we pedalled for many long hours. Sometimes on roads, sometimes trying to follow badly signed bike routes. Eventually we ended up on a river, but even here we had to sometimes back track as the path would suddenly stop and we would have to go around and pick it up again somewhere else. I guess we had been spoiled.

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First ice cream stop

Still, the countryside was pretty and we found a lovely camping ground right on the river. The people were super friendly and laid back. We enjoyed a curry and watched the night fall gently, all three of us feeling pretty exhausted. It had been a long few days. Our whole reason for coming to Belgium was to visit Stephanie who we had met in Dushanbe while she was doing an internship at the EU delegation there. One more big push and we would reach Stephanie’s home town of Enghien.

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Beer o clock in the camp ground

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We woke up feeling lethargic. Vari opted to take the train – wise move. Somehow foolishly Astrid and I decided to take the canal cycle route which was 130km instead of the 100km road route. I guess canals sound more romantic than roads but our day was far from romantic. I like to refer to it as The Canal Day of Doom.

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Following the river had its great moments

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Firstly I had no energy and could only hobble along until I had consumed most of the contents of the supermarket we stopped at. Then Astrid had a flat. This was followed by a wrong turn and needing to back track, all in combination with a roaring headwind and a terrible highly resistant cycling surface. The going was slow and painful and I longed to hitch hike on one of the canal boats. We were both tired and I was quite grumpy as well, cursing the canals under my breath.

Finally towards the evening we decided to call it quits on the canal path. It was just so rough and slow. Once away from the canal the road was much smoother and even the hills were a relief. By the time we reached Enghien at 10pm, it was 13 hours after we had set off. We were greeted with open arms by Francoise and Philip and had a wonderful reunion with Stephanie. After food and showers we both collapsed into bed. I know I was utterly spent.

Our time in Enghien with Stephanie’s family was lovely. On the first morning we went for BBQ and drinks at a friend’s place and then to La Semo, a music festival that was on in Enghien that weekend. It was super lovely and relaxed. We wondered around, ate, drank Belgium beers and listened to music. Later on Stephanie, Astrid and I danced the night away.

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We squeezed in a trip to Brussels to visit an old friend of Astrid’s and his wife. Arnie and Aiva showed us good places to eat and drink in Brussels and we thoroughly enjoyed our brief encounter with the city.

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Well rested and completely spoiled by Francoise and Philip we left Enghien and Wallonia (the French speaking part of Belgium) and headed into Flanders. This is the Flemish speaking part and the difference in attitude becomes apparent. We were told the French part likes to have fun, party, eat good food. The Flemish part works hard to have a nice house. I don’t know if this is strictly true – but the Flemish do appear to have very neat and pretty houses!

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Hills soon gave way to much flatter country as we cycled towards the border with The Netherlands. For our last night in the country with a reputation for the best beers in the world we bought a few to sample and found some forest in which to pitch our tent.

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As I drank my beer and looked over at the green fairy, panniers open with clothes and pots spilling out, the darkening sky, Astrid beside me, Vari still putting up his tent, I felt a little sad. This perfect simple life, where everywhere can be your home and your needs are so basic is coming to an end soon. I am certainly going to miss it.

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Germany via river bike paths, radlers and ice cream

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Small roads and bike paths through Baveria

The border between Austria and Germany was just a sign saying we had entered the state of Bavaria. Nothing else really changed, except maybe the number plates of the cars now had more D’s than A’s. Due to our rest day in Linz, we had two big days in front of us in order to reach Donaustauf. This was okay with us. Often we feel that a full rest day is worth the long riding days. Plus we have the sun on our side now. It stays light until 10pm. Amazing.

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Beer break in Passau

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Bike traffic lights!

We pushed on along the Danube bike path for the next two days with seemingly the entire population of over 60’s from Austria and Germany. The path took us through a picturesque narrow valley, passed fields of wheat and through beautiful old towns. Our first night camping in the most populous country in Europe we scored one of the best free camps of the trip. Right on the banks of the Danube, hidden by bushes from the bike path and with views of church spires and the pink hues of the setting sun. We even had an otter swim right by us.

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Our camp spot right on the Danube

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Sunset. An otter swam right by us here

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The days were hot and long and by the time we reached Donaustauf we were both quite exhausted. We were welcomed with open arms by Barbara’s (a friend from Melbourne) parents Ingrid and Hans. We were wined and dined and then taken up to the ‘Walhalla’ to enjoy the views and the balmy summer evening. Life really felt perfect. Summer is here!!

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Bikes and beer!

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Taking a break

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Heading towards Donaustauf

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The Danube

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Hans and Ingrid our wonderful hosts.

The next day we made a tour of Regensburg with Hans and Ingrid (with me badly translating from German into English for Astrid). We also took our bikes to Feine Fahrrader, a bike shop thankfully familiar with our kind of bikes. They replaced my front light (not working since western China) and checked my dynamo. Astrid’s rohloff was sent away to be replaced (free) and the bike shop rebuilt her wheel for a fee. For anyone on touring bikes, I would recommend this shop.

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Exploring Regensburg

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Knodel and sauerkraut plus beer. Yum

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Hans in a wealth of knowledge

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After our brief stay in Donaustauf it was time to head to Prague to meet my sister. Although we had initially planned to cycle there, this didn’t work out. Mainly because the flange failure meant that it was more sensible to go to Germany first and get it fixed. It’s always a bit difficult to make medium distance plans when travelling by bike.

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Scrabble in Prague

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Prague never fails to impress me

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Stunning

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And some more

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Beer in a medieval tavern

We spent a wonderful 10 days with my sister in Prague and Berlin. The cities were familiar to all three of us and we revisited favourites sites, discovered a few new ones and played a lot of scrabble. It was a delightful, relaxing period, more about spending time together than rushing around to look at the sites.

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Brandenburger Tor. I simply love Berlin.

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The wall

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Ampel man says stop!

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Scrabble in Berlin

Then, before too long it was time to say goodbye to Mish. It was hard, but I know it won’t be so long before she is on this side of the world again. Astrid and I also packed out bags and headed back on the bus to Donaustauf. Our short life as backpackers was over.

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More scrabble and wine

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Scrabble takes concentration! And beer in the park.

Arriving back at Donaustauf felt like home (it’s funny how quickly this happens on the road!) and it was wonderful to return to Hans and Ingrid. A day and a half later Vari arrived pumped for another adventure with us. We went out and helped him choose a bike from a bicycle mega store that even had a practice track. Then we with our repaired and replaced parts and Vari with his brand new bike, were ready to face the bike paths of Germany.

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Bike tube vending machine.

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Vari and I heading along the Danube path

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Just another amazing castle

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Upside down swam. They completely crack Astrid and I up

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Very civilised. A campground for Vari’s first night.

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Preparing pesto pasta

We hugged and kissed Ingrid and Han’s farewell (as well as the extended family). What utterly wonderful hosts they have been. The time we shared was so warm and heartfelt, it was difficult to leave. It’s funny how in this cycling life people we have never met reach out to us and treat us with such kindness and acceptance. It’s something I will never forget.

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Seemingly endless quaint towns

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My old i phone needs to be charged all the time. How cool is this free charger?! Also for electric bikes!!

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Forest camp. Free camping is so easy in Germany.

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Another perfect summers day

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A stone bridge, many hundreds of years old.

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Cycling in the evening when it gets cooler is often the best time

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Another lovely forest camp

The next few days we followed the German Rivers of the Danube, Altmuhl and Tauber. It was lovely riding, along bike paths that took us through fields, forest, small villages and medieval towns. We slept sometimes in campgrounds, but often in the forest and found it surprisingly easy and picturesque to free camp. Sometimes we saw deer, we picked wild strawberries and swam in lakes. In the mornings we stopped for coffees, in the afternoon for radlers (beer with lemonade, don’t laugh!). It’s refreshing and delicious. Night fell late, around 10pm and the best cycling was before 8am and after 7pm because of the heat. It grew hotter and hotter until we were having consecutive days of over 35 degrees Celsius. It felt like Melbourne!!

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Medieval Rotenburg Ob der Tauber

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More Rotenburg

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This creeper had tar poured through his mouth onto attacking enemies, Rotenburg Ob der Tauber.

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Rotenburg is so well preserved

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Fields of wheat in the heat

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Vari is tough! Coping amazingly well in the summer heat.

At one point I made the decision to split from our little group of three in order to make it to my very good friends birthday party (Janne who visited us in Istanbul) as well as visit my uncle and aunty. In a way I was excited about travelling alone, but also sad. Astrid and I have hardly spent anytime alone since beginning this trip. This is actually why a solo leg was probably a good idea. It’s important to do things alone every now and then.

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Cute village overload!

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Looking good!

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Beware frogs!

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Schloss Aschaffenburg

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More schloss action

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Super impressive

I set off from our river campground at 5.30am and meandered along the undulating Tauber River cycle path. It was gorgeous with steep wooded hills rising up from the valley floor, which at this point was quite narrow. The air was fresh and cool, with a little mist still rising from the water. Astrid and Vari would follow me a few hours later and continue on this path until it reached the Main River. I on the other hand turned off after only around 15km on a short cut that took me through hilly countryside that meandered through fields and woods, alongside freeways and finally into the Main River valley. By the time I reached the Main it was mid afternoon and over 37 degrees. I didn’t realise the toughest was yet to come. From the Main I climbed for over 10km in the blazing sun. At one point I crawled into a pub, dripping and bright red. I gulped down a radler and continued, knowing I still had a way to go. Finally I reached the Spessart, a Bavarian forest I had once visited as I child. It was a little cooler and sweet down hill followed. Unfortunately this was followed by unrelenting undulations that almost reduced me to tears.

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It’s hot!!

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The long flat road

Finally exhausted and starving I rolled into Aschaffenburg 12 hours after setting off. It was pretty close to being one of my toughest days. I was welcomed with open arms by my uncle and aunty who I had not spent time with since I was 17. We spent a wonderful evening and morning together and I felt like the big push had been well worth it.

Another scorching day dawned and I limped by way along the Main River towards Frankfurt. From there I caught a train to Bad Nauheim and rode the remaining kilometres to Janne’s mum’s house. I was greeted with open arms, handed a glass of champagne and told to put my feet in a bucket of cold water. I had once spent a wonderful lazy summer almost exclusively in Bad Nauheim eight years ago. It was magnificent to be back and felt like almost no time had passed.

The following day an exhausted and overheated Astrid and Vari rolled into Bad Nauheim. Jutta (Janne’s mum) and Janne coaxed them back to life with food and cold drinks. In the evening, when the worst of the heat had dissipated we sat on the balcony and enjoyed cool crisp white wine and conversation. It was really special for me to be back here and to share it with Astrid.

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Mainz, where the Main and the Rhine meet

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Crossing the Rhine

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Flowers!

It was not long before we needed to leave again, although I don’t think it will be eight years between visits this time! The three of us retraced our steps back to the Main river on the train and then continued where we had left off. The Main eventually flows into the Rhine which is flanked by bike paths and train lines on both sides. We followed this route, enjoying views of castles, icecream stops, picnics on the river bank and very civilized camping. It really was rather idyllic but also a little dull. I came to the realisation that river bike paths are not for me. Well, not for weeks anyway. After coming through the countries we have with the challenges of high passes, bad roads, weird food, and unfamiliar culture, somehow bike paths along rivers seem a little tame. And a little too easy. Once the novelty of being away from cars and being able to stop in cute towns and drink a radler every 10km had worn off I longed for something more. So, Europe I think when I next tour though you I will search out the mountains and your more wild places.

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Views from the Rhine

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Swimming in the Rhine

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Vineyards and castles!

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Beer o clock

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Camping along the Rhine

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And there is rain. Heading towards Belgium

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In the National park

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A few days of Rhine cycle path and then much to our relief and perhaps Vari’s horror we turned off it and climbed out of the valley. I cannot tell you how good it felt to climb! Astrid and I were both extremely happy with the change of scenery. We crossed through farmland and forest and finally into the Eifel National Park which borders Belgium. It was gorgeous cycling along forest paths and then along this picturesque narrow valley towards the Belgium border.

Germany really has been a pleasure to cycle in. Their infrastructure for cyclists and the attitude of the car drivers is the best we have experienced so far. It is a country I am fond of and hope to get to know better in the coming years when I no longer live so far away from it.