It is a little over 5 years ago that we pedalled out of Melbourne. Back then it was hard to imagine what adventures lay ahead and what our life would look like. Sometimes it all still feels quite surreal and now our time in London is drawing to a close. We have both finished full time work, our house has been packed up, our possessions given away and in a few days we will begin our pedal through Scotland (to finish our failed LEJOG). After that we will have another week or so in London before heading towards Harwich, reversing our journey of a few years ago. A ferry will take us to Den Haag from where we head north to the Danish port town of Hirtshals. Here a ferry will take us to Iceland and we will finally pay homage to the wild beauty we have heard so much about. After more than two years in London my heart craves for nature and quiet. For the wild and desolate places, devoid of humans, buildings, noise. After Iceland our plans are loose. From Denmark we will probably head south east, or maybe we will head to Nordkapp first. Perhaps we will go to Africa, perhaps not. We might cycle home. We might not. Our plan is not to have a plan, to stay open to opportunities as they arise and embrace the freedom of the road.
In the mean time, I’m having to say goodbye to a place that has become a home. For both of us. We have both struggled with London for different reasons and for varying periods of time. Astrid has had a much tougher time than me and it is a testament to her spirit that she has prevailed and eventually found happiness and a sense of belonging as well.
While we have obviously travelled through many different cultures, it was always quite transient. There is something very different from passing through a country, with fleeting connections, to moving to a place and making some kind of life. This is further complicated by the fact that we always knew we would be leaving, which is actually so common in London. It is a huge globalised city with a population that is often shifting; people come to make money, to study, to live a little while in the craziness, for music, for theatre, for any number of reasons that people are attracted to big cities. This is part of what makes it so exciting but also part of what can make it so isolating and soul destroying. It can be hard to connect to Londoners and many people seem to drift towards their expat communities. Perhaps in a way this is a protective mechanism as well. A friend said to me the other day something that rang really true; when you move countries (and as a side note I want to add this goes for those of us choosing to move countries, not those forced to flee their homes) you need to do it like you are going to stay. That’s another way of saying do it with presence and your with your whole heart. And when you do this you ultimately leave people behind you love.
And while it is mostly the people I will miss, I also want to celebrate and remember the places and often seemingly mundane moments that make pieces of a life anywhere you find yourself living. Perhaps I am being unnecessarily nostalgic or sentimental but I think that’s probably okay.
When I think of London in terms of physical spaces I think firstly of our home; a solid Victorian brick house in an east London suburb where gentrification hadn’t quite fully arrived. It was the first house since our journey finished and I loved it for all the simple reasons; coming in from the pouring rain, knowing I didn’t need to put up a wet tent or crawl into a damp sleeping bag, heating, a kettle, baking bread, cooking with more than one pot, building garden beds from reclaimed wood, growing vegetables. All those things filled me with a quiet, simple joy. It helped with the transition from a wild traveling life to something more quietly wild. Things we hadn’t been able to do while travelling brought a different kind of meaning to our lives; hosting couchsurfers and cyclists from all over the world (giving back a little of the kindness we received!), cooking dinners for our friends, parties and nights by the fire in our garden. All these little moments made our life at Downsell Road feel so full.
While our home was my anchoring point, my sense of connection to London as a place also grew. First through exploring London on my bike, and then rattling around the streets in an ambulance. There is something quite unique about working as a paramedic in a city you don’t know. It gives you an understanding and insight into a place that is somehow fast tracked. I don’t think I’d know London and specifically Hackney half as well if I hadn’t spent hours upon hours driving around the impossibly narrow streets, dragging equipment into flats, tube stations, work places and even the Tower of London a few times. There is something intimate about the work we do. Very few jobs allow you to glimpse people’s lives so closely and this certainly added to my fondness of London and all its people.
I want to remember all the places and moments and keep them in my heart.
Firstly, pedalling to work in all seasons; in spring when the geese and their babies are around (the geese are quite intimidating!), in summer when I often saw ravers leaving the woods on my way to work (wish I was cool enough to join them), to autumn when the pure beauty of the colours filled me with joy, and then winter when it was sometimes so cold I wanted to cry but none the less a thrill, and beautiful in its stillness.
Also, Victoria Park; summer picnics, jumping the fence with other cyclists when we all hadn’t quite made the dusk curfew, rare summer days where we would get enough of a break to grab a coffee and park the ambulance by the lake, enjoying the sun and brief interlude to an otherwise hectic shift.
Then the Hackney Marshes; So many runs – in sun and snow, blustering wind and icy cold. Sitting by the river with Astrid and having dinner on summer evenings, trying to recapture some of the wildness in our life. Parties at the stone circle.
And more random moments, the ones that are just flashes and feelings and seemingly insignificant but still contribute to it all. Driving an ambulance through the crazy traffic around Dalston junction. Getting curry from my favourite place near the royal London. That time I got to go in a crane at work (career highlight). That curb I once rode into after a night shift, causing me to fall of my bike and look around in embarrassment. Dinners at the Black Cat. Riding down Homerton high street after work, or a few pints at the Adam and Eve (the Adam and eve!). Running through the Epping Forest. Pub quiz at our local. Climbing at mile end, then going for pints. Eating an amazing amount of Pampelmouse. Staying up all night dancing and watching the sunrise in the park. The smell of woodsmoke from the canal boats in winter. Getting a backie on my bike after several pints. Incredibly long summer evenings in our yard. Pedaling home drunk in the snow and laughing at the joy of it all. So many small moments and places that are in my memory and give me a sense of meaning and belonging.
There are also a few things I am going to miss about living in Britain, things that over time I have incorporated into my life, or learnt to appreciate. Firstly and foremost the NHS. I have worked both in the British and Australian healthcare system and while not without it flaws, I have a deep appreciation and respect for the NHS. Healthcare should be free at the point of use for everyone. By chronically underfunding it and then pointing out its failings the Tory government has been seeking to destroy the NHS and this is something I deeply hope does not happen. It almost feels like a gift from another era, from when we cared about things like healthcare for all and the welfare state.
The more random things include the tube – while I actually dislike going on it (think intimate relationship with someones arm pit but no speaking allowed) I love the fact that it exists. I am definitely a huge fan of public transport infrastructure and this is something I very much appreciate about London. Also, being able to go on trips outside of London without needing a car – I love this. I never once felt I needed a car to explore Britain. The national cycle network. Off West End theatres (and theatre in general). Old British pubs. Dogs being allowed in pubs. Hand pulled ales. London’s first fully vegan pub opening up right work. All the delicious vegan food in London. Radio 4. Radio 6. The BBC in general. Access to the Eurostar. Off licenses. British summer days (although rare, those perfect summer days are so bloody lovely). Canal boats (of course). British festivals and partying in general (the British do this so well!). London buses (in melbourne I mistrust buses but in London I prefer them). Urban foxes. The ability to sleep with the window open and no fly screen. Squirrels in parks. London bike Kitchen (DIY space for fixing bikes). Royal mail (twice a day pick up!). The postcode system. How multi cultural London is (Australia seems rather white, even Melbourne). Prosecco. Affordable dentistry.
Ultimately it is the people I will miss most however. We have solidified some friendships here and forged some strong new ones. You all know who you are and I want say a heartfelt thank you for making London something special. Without your friendship, laughter, crazy all nighters and so many other wonderful moments London wouldn’t have been half the experience it was.
Also, please move to Melbourne (-: Or at least visit.