Leaving the UK (week 1)
A final blast through the south of England before heading across to Europe.
"...be safe buddy, just be safe"
I passed through Tintern in the Wye Valley after leaving home on my first day of riding. An American cyclist stopped opposite me while I was taking a break. He was a smooth, silver fox type with a great accent and slick-backed hair. We spent a few minutes swapping tales and advice - he had toured the US and made it as far as the UK where he has stayed put for the last 30 years. I can't remember exact details of the conversation except for his final words "...be safe buddy, just be safe". The encounter was immediately reassuring after an hour of cycling trying to figure out what the hell I was doing after leaving home. The previous week had been frantic. Having returned from the Three Peaks Challenge I was working my way through a list of 'must-do' items that largely related to which home cooked meals I wanted in my last few days. There was also some light (or seriously stressful and intense) packing. It wasn't until I finally got on the road that the scale of what I was doing hit me.
As an aside - some packing advice: If you have stuff lying around that you’ll never want or need again, just donate it or throw it away. Otherwise, it makes it harder to find what you do want or need!
A second chance encounter on the path from Bristol to Bath on day 2 was similarly enlightening. Doug, a 73-year-old cyclist dressed in full lycra and sporting Bristol Club colours rode with me for 5 miles. He wanted to learn more about why I had such a mountain of kit on my bike. I mentioned that I'd love to be riding still at his age to which he replied: "you'd better bloody be!". His final words made me laugh - "be safe". Why does everyone think I'm doing something dangerous...
It was five days ride from home to Dover where I caught the ferry to Calais, broken up only by a marathon, of course. I deliberately rode via Stonehenge on the way from Bristol to the South Downs, determined to get in a final bit of UK sightseeing. Honestly, I was severely underwhelmed, and thought my wild camping spot in the woods that night was far more impressive. There was even a ring of stones there in which to make a fire, albeit slightly smaller ones.
After a brief rest up in an Airbnb, myself and my eldest brother Chris hit the south downs on another beauty of a day to run the South Downs trail marathon. This was my third of seven marathons across Europe fundraising for the Bristol Heart Institute. I was particularly nervous about this one having very little experience of trail running. That lack of sure footing on the rough ground proved my downfall as I took a spectacular tumble over a tree root at mile 16, (from a distance, even a bumpy road looks smooth!). Thankfully no damage done and after a dust-off, I completed the course in 4:30, in between my times for Paris and Edinburgh. I was so ecstatic with this result I got the time engraved on my medal which I then immediately decided to lose and never see again by posting it home via Royal Mail.
Amazed at my powers of recovery I blasted out 100km the following day to Brighton, followed by 140km to Dover to catch a ferry a day early. I wound up camping beside a barn just outside Calais after an epic sunset over the English channel, a week since I left my front door.
My favourite place in the world (so far...)
In the final manic few days before I set off I managed to grab a few hours with a great friend, Abbey. She'll shortly be embarking on a fantastic adventure to teach at various schools around the world. She'd previously taken me to a viewpoint last year only 2km from my parents' house, and yet somewhere I had never been in 24 years. On that first occasion, we made campfire coffee and threw at each other our plans to travel the world. We were immediately reassured by each other having exactly the same thoughts at the same point in our lives.
I've returned to this spot a number of times since to take in the incredible views of the river Wye below as it fast became one of my favourite places to just relax and turn that dream of cycling around the world into some concrete plans. The easiest way to do this I found was actually just to tell people. If you’re determined to achieve something, tell people about it and you'll have no choice but to follow through! (Unless you enjoy sheepishly admitting you were too ambitious).
The first thing I'll do on returning to the UK is to head up to this viewpoint - with all the incredible roads, landscapes and adventures ahead I'm convinced it will remain one of my favourite places in the world. (Note the path to get there is a locals' secret, sorry). I feel quite fortunate that whatever I see over the coming months or years will not change my view on where I grew up. I'll always have the beauty of the Wye valley to come back to.
See ya later England!