Rain started to pound against the kitchen windows. I had collected heaps of asparagus, been taken on a tour of the farm, discussed at length the changing nature of British agriculture, and now I was sitting at a big oak table, having devoured two bowls of the heartiest soup imaginable while my kind-hearted host waxed long and lyrical to a stranger she’d taken in off the street about the inhumanity of mankind. (Catch up with last week’s blog to find out how I got here, or start at the beginning.)
Tea was offered. More tea. Cake, perhaps? And it was all too easy to accept, with the heatwave of previous days now dissolving into a miserable rainy greyness that looked well and truly set in. But soon I had to grit my teeth and march out into the pouring rain, my only defence a crumpled second-hand rainjacket and a pair of overtrousers with a broken full-length zip procured from Freecycle and mended with an untidy row of safety pins. My outfit quickly proved itself as waterproof as a colander, and soon I was soaked to the skin, heading north along puddled Shropshire lanes towards… well, I had absolutely no idea.
* * *
I had never done any real bicycle touring in England before. This was one of my lesser motives for attempting to ride LEJOG as opposed to riding to Russia or Morocco, two previously-considered destinations for my month of no-budget cycle touring.
And the delightful thing that I had discovered about touring in your home country was that once you announce to your friends and family that you are going to travel the length of it in such an unusual way, you find that offers of hospitality start to pop up all over the place. It’s often said that the humble nature of bicycle travel brings out the good in those witness to it, and this seems to be just as true in the virtual world, as from a single (private) Facebook post to my modest circle of friends on the day before I began riding, offers of beds and meals had simply flooded in. By the time I’d begun to pedal, roughly half of my journey’s overnights had potentially been accounted for.
I am convinced this is something that almost anyone could replicate in their home country. We all now have in our pockets the ability to communicate instantly with our friends and family, wherever they are; most of you, I promise, will maintain far larger ‘friend lists’ on these social networks than I do. Most of us dabble on a daily basis in sharing the most inane of things; I suggest you try using Facebook and such to do what they’re advertised to do: bring people together. Make and maintain real-life connections. Isn’t this how social media and smartphones are sold to us?
It had been truly astonishing to discover how well-dispersed my network of second-degree contacts was. But perhaps it should not have been such a surprise. I shared my time at university with peers who’d come from all over the country to spend three years in one place together. Since then, my various lines of work have brought me into contact with people from similarly diverse backgrounds. Mobility is one of the modern world’s taken-for-granteds; the result is that we all build up networks like this.
If you collected together the people you know and mapped out the locations of all of their friends, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, would you be surprised if the resulting collection of map pins extended far and wide? And, given a call from your contact with an explanation of a trusted friend’s curious purpose and basic needs, who wouldn’t happily feed and house that guest for a night in exchange for stories, a break from the norm, and the satisfaction of having made a small but priceless contribution to their mission?
This aspect of my journey, I realised, was not about moneyless travel. It was about making a journey through a world of people, not of landscapes and weather and asphalt — a topic I’ve written about before. The currency of such journeys is trust, and the method of exchange is the introduction. This has always been the way, particularly for closed societies like ours. Encounters with the bureaucracy of world travel unearth linguistic evidence of it, embassies and ministries still swapping around ‘letters of invitation’, ‘letters of introduction’ and ‘letters of recommendation’ to get you to where you want to go. What do you suppose a ‘letter of introduction’ meant in the time of Ibn Battutah? I can assure you that it was far more valuable than the relatively modern invention of the passport.
Undoubtedly things would be different abroad, because few of us would have contacts anywhere near as extensive as at home — at least, to begin with. But travel itself — if you make a point of engaging with people you meet — has a habit of expanding your network of contacts considerably. And when you’ve got no money, and you’re suddenly unable to get exactly what you want, exactly when you want it, and you realise that this is the whole point of money, and you’ll now have to take what you can get, whenever it’s available? You’ll realise that engaging with other people is by far the best way to stimulate such opportunities. So you meet, you build rapport, pass some time, and a ripple effect occurs. One thing leads to many others. That one connection has the potential to spiral outwards. Like launching a stone into clear, calm waters, you can anticipate what will happen in a general sense — but you cannot hope to predict with any precision when, where and how each ripple will arrive.
* * *
My clothes became utterly saturated. My cheap trainers began to exude murky rivulets of water each time I pressed a foot against a pedal. A wonky mudguard, rather than preventing a further drenching from below, instead channelled drawn-up water directly into my left shoe. My steel front wheel squealed and shuddered as I braked, and all the force in the world applied to my rear brake inspired nothing more than the hideous scraping sound that heralds the exhaustion of yet another pair of brake blocks. Yet as long as I continued to ride, and to ride hard, my body remained tenuously balanced on the right side of hypothermic, my brain still clinging to the memory of hot soup, hot tea, and more hot tea in the warmth of that farmhouse kitchen.
This part of National Cycle Route 45 appeared to have been conceived by a focus group consisting solely of world class cross-country mountain bikers, then waymarked by a team who’d spiced up their days seeing who could hide the signposts most thoroughly while still having installed them, technically speaking, in roughly the right place.
After hauling my struggling hybrid up and down the dirt paths of Wyre Forest, wading along a waterlogged railway cutting with my clothes and baggage catching on increasingly viorous undergrowth, and finally finding myself descending a root-stricken singletrack trail towards an impenetrable well of dripping foliage and mud and unclimbable slopes, I uttered my first audible curse of the day. The cycle routes were shit. The weather was shit. I had voluntarily left the comfort and friendliness of a farmhouse kitchen and set forth into total and utter shit. And now I was lost in a flipping rainforest.
Turning round, I began pushing back up through the woods, through the cold swamp of branches and brambles, and back to the last place I’d seen a sign for anywhere. I peered at the stupid map on the screen of the stupid smartphone; attempted to match up four identical forest tracks surrounded by green and topped with grey and rain with the map’s brightly coloured lines and contours; then realised that my wet fingers could no longer operate the touch-screen and that I had nothing left to dry them on and that every direction looked the same anyway. I looked back at the stupid sign, which pointed back the way I had come and offered no clue whatsoever as to which direction a newly-arrived rider should go in order to continue. And I cursed the world once more.
Choosing the only path I had the remotest hunch might eventually transport me north, I continued pedalling. The only time I can remember having been so wet, uncomfortable and utterly despondent was in northern Turkey many years ago. It had been much colder then, the hills steeper, the pain and discomfort far greater, but it was the feeling of loneliness and the complete absence of any rationale for putting myself through the experience that had made it so utterly miserable. It was the same right now.
I peered among shiny wet tree-trunks and dripping leaves, contemplating putting my tent up, shedding sodden clothes and clambering into a hopefully-still-dry sleeping bag for the next 12 hours in a vain bid to escape from it all, because Wyre Forest, under other circumstances, would surely have made the perfect venue for wild-camping. But all that I would achieve was the delaying of the inevitable, for after those hours elapsed I would have to drag those same wet clothes back on and continue pedalling — only colder, hungrier and more miserable — into the featureless drifting greyness of the set-in West Midlands rain, which showed no sign of abating.
Something about rejecting the idea of camping in the woods sparked a mood change, though. Suddenly all was absurd to the point of comedy, and this is really the only method I have ever found to deal with a situation which seems utterly hopeless: to remember that it will end, and to laugh while it persists.
Another ridiculous cycle route sign had me pushing the bike up a steep, rocky riverbed, emerging victoriously alongside a reservoir, abandoned sailboats and clubhouses just the other side of the fence, devoid of people, and I roared in victory over the terrain and the weather and idiotic infrastructure. A downhill followed, the narrow footpath overgrown with cow parsley as tall as a man, festooned with a million hanging droplets of water; I charged through the mass of fronds and flowers at full speed, and a more invigorating full-body shower I have rarely experienced. I’d been feeling the pangs of hunger for some time, but it had turned out that hunger is just another unpleasant feeling you can more or less get used to.
Then a moment of possible genius: did one of my London-based friends not grow up near Bridgnorth, and was that town now no more than a dozen or so miles distant?
A text message was fired off in hilarious desperation; meanwhile I finally escaped the mess of woods and bridleways and began looking for another likely-looking farmhouse or nicely-painted signpost indicating open-minded people doing something a little bit different, for it was obvious now that these would be good indicators of the kind of receptive, sympathetic folk I needed to meet.
This was a suspicion backed up by my previous hosts and redeemers who’d said precisely the same thing of Britain’s agricultural community, so often stereotyped as either conservative yokels or disinterested servants of mass-scale industrial agriculture. Even a cursory look at websites such as HelpX and WWOOF, set up specifically to put travellers in touch with smallholders and farmers in need of extra help (usually, as it happens, in exchange for accommodation and food), confirms that this is not a realistic picture of tucked-away ruralists.
Then my phone rang. It was my friend from London, and a friend of hers lived just the other side of Bridgnorth. We had met at a birthday gathering the previous year. There was a hot shower and a meal waiting for me, and she would be more than happy to have me to stay.
It was human nature at its best, a passing-on of trust, the magic of technology simply lifting the requirements of physical proximity, and it would have happened regardless of whether I’d left my wallet at home.
And all I would have to do in return was to make a silent pledge to forever exhibit the same kindness and openness towards my fellow man.
The impatient among you will be pleased to know that I’ve already published photos of the complete #freeLEJOG story on Flickr. Check back next week for the next written chapter of this tale…