This is the final part of an account of touring the Netherlands and the UK by recumbent bike. Start at the beginning.
Two things surprised me when I woke up in a damp polo field in Cambridgeshire.
The first was that even though a damp polo field in Cambridgeshire would sound neither exotic nor adventurous when I mentioned it, all of the elements of a typical, successful overnight camp on a bike trip had been present, and I felt as satisfied and energised afterwards as I ever had in all manner of exotic and adventurous places.
The second thing that surprised me was to see that I’d ridden 80 miles the previous day, more than halfway home. I hadn’t been pushing hard, as I was still not fully comfortable on the recumbent. But it’s hours in the saddle, not speed, that produce big-mileage days. Perhaps I was surprised, then, because the previous time I’d ridden this route it had taken the best part of five days to cover.
I rode through Cambridge, fuelled up with coffee, and was out the other side, pedalling alongside the guided bus route towards St. Ives. (Think double-decker buses blasting along a purpose-built asphalt runway, with not a car or any other vehicle to be seen.)
On the way through Huntingdon I was tempted to swing past Hinchingbrook Country Park. It was in that park that I had pulled off my first ever successful stealth camp. That had been six years ago. It had been a milestone moment; a momentous occasion.
But I could not remember how to get there. And so Hinchingbrook Country Park passed me by.
I pressed on.
Oundle arrived after lunch, a historic and charming little place where my dad used to teach. It is beyond the skill of this writer to describe the ride there, on the country lanes of the East Midlands, in remotely exciting terms. The most interesting thing that happened was encountering a farm vehicle so enormous that I could have ridden right between its wheels and beneath its chassis on my little low-slung machine, without losing much more than the top of my flag in the process.
But in any case my mind was elsewhere. How would it feel, I’d been wondering, to retrace the route of a fateful journey past, to pedal in reverse along the tracks I’d made at the very beginning of my new life as a bicycle traveller all those years ago? Would it dredge up thoughts – regrets – that were best left buried; reawaken dreams, ideas and perhaps a few broken promises that had long ago been put to bed?
I had my answer now. It was something odder still. Of the hundred miles I’d revisited, I’d recognised a mere handful of spots with any clarity. A bike path through a riverside park in east Cambridge. A roundabout on an industrial estate outside Bury St. Edmunds. A stretch of narrow road over rolling hills in which I’d snagged my quick-release lever on Andy’s trailer and come crashing to the ground. A U.S. Air Force fighter jet on the roadside outside RAF Alconbury.
And even these memories were dim and deja-vu-like in their quality, as if they’d happened to someone else.
Where was the village in which we’d been handed punnets of strawberries by a kindly gardener? Or the Suffolk hamlet in which we’d pitched our tents in an animal sanctuary? The church we’d stopped at to find the warden and ask about camping in the graveyard, and who let us sleep in her back garden instead, bringing us bacon sandwiches in the rain first thing in the morning? Had these events happened to someone else too?
These anecdotes, and the journey from which they’re drawn, no longer exist anywhere but in a murky world of subjective memories. On that first foray into the unknown, every inch of road had pushed my limits in some way. Everything was new. The ride I was on now, though enjoyable in its own way, was no more challenging or adventurous than walking downstairs for breakfast. And as a result, the same road looked and felt nothing like it had when I’d set off in trepidation, 23 years old and with no previous experience, from my Northamptonshire village in the direction of Harwich, intent upon cycling round the world.
And how I laughed when I saw Deenethorpe village green! A worse place to conceal oneself overnight I could not possibly have imagined. Yet this exposed patch of grass was the one I’d once selected above from every other available option as the ideal place to spend my first night in a tent!
The memories were strong as I dismounted to snap a couple of photos. But I did not knock on the door of the house whose inhabitants had found us nervously putting up our tents, taken pity on us, and invited us in for some cheese and biscuits and strawberry pavlova. I felt that the gesture would be awkward and the reunion forced and absurd.
I rode on. And in less than an hour I was home, pedalling up a village street so familiar that it was if I’d been born in knowledge of it. And to think that it had taken an entire afternoon to ride those seven miles from my front door to that patch of grass in Deenethorpe!
As it turns out, retracing the first days of my first big bike trip has changed nothing about my memories of that time. It has not sullied the happy narrative of being young and wet behind the ears and experiencing the world for the first time. It has not even unearthed any particular nostalgia, nor a wistful and foolish longing to go back and do it again.
What it has done is remind me just how inconceivably far that original journey – the physical and the emotional – has taken me from its origins on these roads. I firmly believe in, and will continue to evangelise, the notion that a long, personal, adventurous journey should be a central component of our formative years; that everyone who is able should be encouraged to undertake such a journey before the tentacles of adulthood responsibilities have taken too firm a hold.
To do this is, in various ways, part of a broad range of cultural traditions, from the Native American ‘vision quest‘ to the Australian Aboriginal ‘walkabout‘ – and, in case that sounds a bit far-out, the German ‘Walz‘, which is still alive and kicking. I met several such journeymen (and women) on the road myself. The closest equivalent we have today, it seems, is an extended piss-up on a beach in Thailand.
This short trip has also demonstrated unequivocally just how much of these thousands of miles of journeymaking has been irrecoverably lost. Time has passed; details have faded and eventually have vanished beyond the reaches of recollection. All that is left, now, is a memory of the fact that these things and many more did happen.
Of course I have a handful of photos and video clips. And undoubtedly there will be relics in the form of slight shapings of personality and perspective. But these can never again be distilled from the whole. And as for the videos and photos; the day has already passed when I’ve singled one out and realised that I have no recollection of the place in which it was shot, nor of what happened there beyond the moments captured.
Just how much of these adventures are lost in this way? How many memorable experiences will never again be remembered? Should we feel melancholy over their loss?
The point, I suppose, is that while memories of the past might well inform the present, that past can never truly be revisited. And so perhaps if you spend too much time reliving days of glory through rose-tinted spectacles, it may suggest that there’s an ongoing journey in need of more attention.
Here’s to all of our present and future journeys!