I nearly didn’t do it.
Version with pictures, sketches and a map is at http://goo.gl/2wWJDP
I am a minnow swimming against a rush of water and air. The M4 motorway, afternoon November 8th and it has been raining all day. Articulated trucks like giant salmon loom ahead and thrash up a wall of gritty water to add to that descending from the limitless grey cloud above. Behind the slight protection of my motorbike screen I wipe my goggles, the visibility does not improve and I snorkel through the truck’s bow-wave at a steady 75-80 mph in the middle lane. Trout-like cars whisk by at crazy speeds and whip me with their passing wind and yet more gritty water tainted with fuel. My boots are submerged in the water spray and as I wiggle my toes for warmth I can feel they are soaked through. My fingers are also chilled and the damp is working between my fingers. Now 4 hours after setting out from home all I can think of is the end of the journey and the immediacy of the road and its dangers.
In the summer it had seemed like a good idea: To have a reunion of people from my old school (Bedales) at a pub close by that has a camping field for those like me short of readies. I thought others would B&B nearby or have friends to stay with. The pub in mind is known as ‘The Pub With No Name’, because for 40 years or more the signpost on the main road to turn for it has been empty. It is well loved by many of us whose characters were moulded, extended, developed or in some cases set back by our time at Bedales.
In the days before setting off I began to doubt. To doubt if any but Chuck would be there, was this excursion an expensive folly? Was I mad to be doing it on the motorbike and camping in increasingly crappy weather? Should I weaken and take my Van with a mattress thrown in the back? Back in the summer who knew what the weather was going to be in November; It could have been an ‘Indian Summer’ of autumnal beauty and clear days. Now we were looking at flood warnings and high winds. Added to which I was questioning what I was doing in my life, my ability to make an earning and be happy. It had been driving me down, I was questioning my purpose and coming up short.
BUT on the Thursday I set to getting my camping equipment out of the basement and working out the packing of my panniers and luggage roll for the bike. I mostly know what I need because of all my trips to Spain, but this was a bit of a different game – UK in November. Yes it might be good to take two extra car blankets…. But everything has to fit on those two wheels!
Friday, I didn’t look at the weather forecast, either I was biking it or chickening out and throwing stuff in the van, either way the weather was waiting. I have been here before, the doubts and to be honest fears of a long bike trip in bad weather. The easy way would be the easy way; but not only would I lose some self-respect but I would have retreated from my edge.
[SEE ‘EDGE’ IN MY RECENT BLOGS]
Having loaded the bike and climbed into all my gear I mount my trusty steed ‘Vamos’ (Let’s Go!). 1200cc of Moto Guzzi Stelvio. It is just beginning to spit with rain as I leave my driveway, I pip-pip the horn to my neighbour who is splitting a log for her fire and head down to my friend Alun in Huw Lewis Tyres who will check my tyre pressures for me.
The rain becomes steadier as I start up the A44 from Aberystwyth, destination Petersfield, Hampshire some 250 miles away. The road is slick and I take my time, only overtaking metal boxes when no great acceleration or braking is required. At Castell Dyfryn I am bemused by a huge encampment complete with a helicopter, a simple sign says ‘MFU’. On my return I find it was a film crew for the new ‘Man From Uncle’ Feature Film.
The first 25 miles takes me through what on a good day is some great scenery, leaving the blue sea in the wing mirrors one crosses the watershed between Cardigan Bay and the Severn valley and weaves ones way through the Cambrian Mountains to Llangurig. Today most of it is blanketed in the clouds that are determined to soak me. The road reels me in as I knit it together in a rope of cautious corners, accelerated overtakes and long minutes stuck in truck spray constantly wiping my goggles. After Rhayader the mountains draw back a bit though the cold rain is nibbling at my fingers and toes, I wiggle and clench them to gain some warmth. At Crossgates I stop briefly to swap gloves and to add another layer of rain-jacket. I smile as always at the big road sign just out of here that proclaims ‘Llandegley International Airport, Terminal 1’, my wife didn’t twig for years that it is an advertisement for a sign writer; Llandegley being a corner on the road with about 10 houses.
Now through the drizzling rain I skirt south of Radnor Forest, the last high windswept country before the softer tamer lands of England. After Leominster I cut across through the wonderfully named Hope Under Dinmore heading for Ledbury.
This ride from the bare uplands of wild Wales is an essay in our land, now I am threading through small old villages with large orchards, a long settled and comfortable terrain. Here and there I get a snatch of someone’s warm living room fire, sweet with burning apple wood or the acrid tang of coal. By now I am totally in my riding world, all the normal thoughts of shopping, what shall I cook for supper, what are my jobs for tomorrow. These are all as out of mind as much of the countryside is out of sight in the rain. I exist as a travelling experience, constantly assessing road conditions and other road users, anticipating and planning manoeuvres that happen without conscious muscular movement, I no longer think to lean for this corner or shift to the centreline for a view around a vehicle, my mind knows where I need to be and my body ‘makes it so’.
At Gloucester the older lands seem to give way to the brash and busy modern world of heavy traffic and dual carriageways, a scenery of petrol stations and later the immenseness of Swindon’s HONDA factory.
Near Duntisbourne Leer I have pulled in for fuel and a slightly grim but welcome instant black coffee, and a bacon sandwich. My hands gradually warm as I drip steadily onto the floor. As I am about to leave a truck driver comments; “Not too keen I reckon. You’ve taken long enough to get ready to go”.
I reply mildly; “It is just a bit unpleasant out there, Hampshire a fair way to go and Aberystwyth a fair way behind.”
“Fair do’s mate, that’s a trip! You must have something worth going for.”
I do; the chance to be on the road, the chance to meet old friends. And the fresh air of adventure.
Now as I slip onto the M4 with a roar of throttle the air is not so fresh. The truck road-spray a thick hanging cloud 10’ high and filled with grit and road filth. I lever aside the thought that it is not so much further, to concentrate fully on what everyone else in their nice tin boxes is doing at 80 mph around me.
I ride a lot on instinct, tracking the cars behind in case they disappear, perhaps into my blind spot, the ones in front for signs of the lack of concentration common amongst car drivers. At one point I’m in the middle lane and notice the lorry in front wandering a bit from side to side, I go into the outside lane and speed past at 90 only returning and slowing when he is blurring in my wing mirror.
At last I am slipping through the dank oak woods of Greenham Common and the familiar roll of Hampshire fields and woods loom out of the rain. At Selborne I try to take my old cycling route through the Hawkley hangers but have to turn back, after flooded lanes and the sight of a steep narrow lane in front of me choked with leaves, mud and gravel.
Coming up Stoner Hill from the village of Steep the narrowing valley that leads to the top has collected smoke from the houses below and perfumed the hanging beech trees. Riding here I feel the layers and layers of years and can almost feel and see the trees of 40 years past as I pushed my 18 year old body hard on the Stoner bicycle circuit or climbed from trunk to trunk up the hanger to look for a fox’s earth.
I sit a moment before dismounting outside ‘The Pub With No Name’, the rain is changing to a light drizzle, there is a little more light in the sky. I have arrived after 6 hours. Tired, very wet but triumphant; I can still do it, I have reached back towards my Edge.
The bar is virtually as it was back in 1975. A typical Hampshire local with a log fire and smoke stained walls, an eclectic mix of furniture from hard pews to comfy armchairs, placed round an odd assortment of tables. The pretty young barmaid; obviously in control. The other inmates as eclectic and mixed as the furniture; from the short painter who was soon to be heading for a winter long break in Thailand, to the local gentry. All are friendly and one insisted on shaking my hand in recognition of my ride to get there. With a pint of Forty-niner on the table I started stripping of dripping clothing and surrounding the log fire with my wet gear, nobody minded, in fact they helped.
After half an hour of warmth and recovery I found out, from the barmaid, which was the camping field. Putting back on my squelching boots I opened the door to a clearing sky with the lowering sun peeping from under the westerly cloud bank like a red-rimmed eye.
The field in question had been parked on two nights previous when they had their bonfire and fireworks event (the bonfire still smouldered despite all the rain). The good thing was that what would have been soaking, long grass was flattened nicely.
One of the nice things about the Stelvio is the ease with which the panniers unlock and detach, simple to lift off and carry across the field to a suitable spot, far enough from the cess pit vent (I had been warned). Within 20 minutes as the red rimmed eyelid closed and dusk fell, my tent was up and my gear all safe inside. I dug out my spare pair of boots and dry socks and feeling much happier returned to the fireside.
Later I ordered a plate of ‘Spanish Tapas’ which was quite reasonable – olives, marinated veg, some sliced meats and bread and had another pint. My repast was laced with conversations, however they did become slightly more repetitive as the painter, who was a nice bloke was affected by his 8 hours in the pub. By 9’ish I was feeling the day. A mug of peppermint tea was my ‘last order’ then I gathered up my dry and wet attire and trudged across the wet grass-slick field to my tent. The sky had cleared and with little light pollution the stars were crisp as broken glass in the deep, deep dark blue above. A male tawny owl called from the big beech trees on the field edge. I replied and an offended silence ensued for quite 5 minutes. As I was closing the zip his affronted challenge to the intruder rang out. He also got his own back by challenges from around the field throughout the night.
As you get older it becomes more difficult to make a bed and undress (at least partially) in a space that you can only sit up in the very centre of and which is barely one’s body length. I also realised it is a lot easier in Spanish warmth and dryness than in a cold and dripping Hampshire. I manage, am pleased to be snugged down, warm and safe and with a large sense of achievement. Buenos Noches!
By the morning it was raining. I had to improvise with a stick from the hedge and some string to make a ‘porch’ under which to use my gas stove for the essential billy of coffee; Greek style grounds dumped on the cold water, brought to the boil and simmered till good and thick! A day old Camembert and ham sandwich and some guava juice completed my breakfast, it was good and satisfying. An attitude to life that I try not to lose – not how high are your expectations and desires but how little can make you happy. If you live with the perfect breakfast you will never experience the joy of that sludgy but so, so tasty, early cold-light coffee from a camping mug; there is no light without dark. Comfort limits experience and your ability to gain enjoyment from the simple human things of warmth and conversation across any divide. Comfort can be as little as dry feet, or a pint bought for me without expectation of return.
Later I saddle up ‘Vamos’ and head down to Petersfield for a real espresso and to check my tyre pressures. In fact I go to ATS and have them nitrogened, sounds bizarre but nitrogen is a bigger molecule than plain air and so seeps out through rubber and rim seal less, it also doesn’t vary with temperature and altitude.
It seems almost a re-run of the first time I got Nitrogen when heading to Spain on my previous Moto Guzzi Centauro – ‘Veloz’ then too I had stood in this ATS hanger as the heavens opened and the English channel relocated itself. As the storm lessens a little I head out for ‘The Harrow’ also a famous Hampshire pub with a history. It still has no inside toilets (they are across the car park), two snug bars in which I could not swing a cat at arms-length without terminating it, log fires and not a bar pump in sight or fact. Here kegs are still tapped by tap for your wondrously varied pint.
This is the first official meeting place of the reunion… Will anyone be here? I stick my head in one bar but get no more than friendly nods, I settle in the other. A half of a real ale, rich with hops and barley and some sporadic interaction with other occupants. Then Henry walks in. A moment’s dual double-take and we know, shake hands and the reunion is on. 13 years since last we met, 28 years since we were at school together. We were not great mates, though our friendship circles overlapped, but in a way we still know each other and there is that subtle Bedalian thing, a certain openness in communication and ease with people. The next arrival comes in-appropriately perhaps through the bar-hatch from the other snug, she is wearing her dog collar which was a surprise, but I did recognise Angie though she had been a year below in school. Black-belt judo if I remembered correctly. We got down to what it was about; catching up with families and careers and re-connecting. Eventually Chuck comes in for a quick pint before he goes back to his forestry work.
Later I go down to his wood and wander, and wonder at his scale of management of this old oak woodland, planting trees that will only be mature for his grandchildren, that is vision, that is commitment and immersion in the woods world.
I head back up to the PWNN hoping for 20 minutes at least of meditation/siesta; being a spot weary from last night. That first camping night where one wakes or half wakes in order to turn over whilst keeping on top of the narrow blow-up air bed.
As I ride up to the front of the pub Angie has arrived and waves at me from the pub doorway so in I go.
Now with just the two of us I learn much more of her extraordinary life and skills, strife, and obviously a unique ability for compassion and path through her religion to help those at the end of their days. Henry arrives and eventually Chuck after he has set up his tent next to mine. Reminiscences flow and talk of all our compatriots (WHO DIDN’T MAKE IT!) are remembered and missed.
Funny how we still have a dialogue of shared experience that transcends the lives we have had since 1975, all the different things; relationships and families, milestones of our individual lives but shareable with each other. Henry and Angie were barely known to me in one way in school and yet here and now we know each other well enough to be open about our lives, loves and futures. Noel arrives after Henry and Angie have left and another time of re-acquaintance ensues. Eventually in chilly and damp night air Chuck and I go to our tents.
An hour after dawn I move ’Vamos’ and he tells me it is 3 degrees, I wasn’t cold but knew it must have been close to freezing by the end of my nose. Chuck pulls out his cooking kit and soon a wonderful log and charcoal brazier is cooking us up a full breakfast of sausages, bacon, eggs and fried bread and beans, he has hot chocolate and I brew more Greek coffee, in a chill November dawn in a damp field but with clear skies, what could be better.
We pack up tents and gear and then Chuck and I visit his mother. She taught me cooking at school and remembers me giving her a ‘tickled’ trout for her birthday. I fix a light and the bathroom lock for her, as one does when one is a JOAT (Jack of all Trades). After a cup of tea I set off for home.
Five friends have met from around the country, one from near Gloucester, one from Portland, one from Hampshire one from Southampton and one from darkest Wales.
The sun is shining with as much force as it can manage in November and the roads have dried. I up the pace, now I am hunting, always ready, always looking for the space to twist the throttle and use the acceleration of my powerful motorbike. At times I am behind a driver who I can see wants to overtake what is in front but can’t quite find the clear distance to do it, I bide my time when it just possible he could attempt it, but when I see him resign himself, but I know I can do it, I go past with a roar and slip into the next traffic gap, without braking just throttle the big ‘V’ twin back and the torque takes care of it all. Oh the pleasure of riding a powerful Moto Guzzi!
I blast the M4 till the old Severn Bridge, see four cop cars doing a controlled ‘box and stop’ of a car on the other carriageway. I wonder if the shut and taped off services I go to for petrol had anything to do with it. Needing fuel I go on to Cardiff. This then brings me back over the heights of the Brecon Beacons in 5 degrees and falling. It is 3 degrees over Eisteddfa Gurig before I round the corner and the valley’s open up in front with the steely-grey sea beyond, spreading out to the horizon. Finally I come up my lane to home.
500 plus miles not in a ‘bubble’. Every mile experienced – not in the way push-biking or walking would but still an order of magnitude more than ‘tin box’!