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.