WALES – IRELAND – NORTHERN IRELAND – SCOTLAND, 14th January – 1st February 2017
While Dea was away fighting the wind and the rain and the pain in her knee on her trip around Wales I remained back in Malvern battling my own demons. The reason behind us living for a while in Malvern was two-fold. First it gave us the chance to spend time with my sister, Angela, and her three children, enabling me to enjoy Christmas with them and my parents for the first time in three years. Secondly, it provided me with the time to sit and finish the book which I’d started during our time in Copenhagen. On the first count things went well. Christmas was a success, and in my nieces and nephew I found energetic playmates who could match my enthusiasm for games. On the second, things weren’t progressing quite so positively. The writing was not going well.
I tried going for long walks in the Malvern Hills, the very same hills that had inspired J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to their own great literary feats. Though the hills were undoubtedly impressive, I returned from these walks not with inspiration but with dread. As I’d approach our front door I’d be overcome with negative thoughts about returning to that chair at that desk to look at that computer. The novelty of trying to write a book had long since worn off. It just wasn’t fun any more, and it felt like I would never make it to the end.
A potential solution came one day with a sudden idea to up sticks and move to Edinburgh. I needed a change of scenery and the time it would take to cycle up to Scotland would give me a much needed break from the writing as well. We were also a little low on funds for our planned trip to China and beyond, and I thought that a few weekends work on the pedicabs (a job I’d already done in Edinburgh to save up for the start of my trip four years ago), would be perfect for topping up the travel points. Then there was the fact that J.K. Rowling had written Harry Potter in Edinburgh, and she’d done alright out of that. Maybe I’d find the inspiration I was looking for in the picturesque old city. Dea, who’d never been to Scotland before, thought it was a great idea.
Dea and I left Malvern together on the 14th of January, waving sad goodbyes to my sister and her lovely children and wondering what they would be like when we saw them next. Dea had been back from her Wales trip for a few days, but her knee was still hurting, so we first stopped off to buy her a knee support, hoping that would help. As for me, I hadn’t cycled at all for a whole month, the longest I’d gone without cycling in five and a half years, and it felt really good to be back on the bike, even with the steep climb over the Malvern Hills. We had decided to take the scenic route – west across Wales, ferry to Ireland, cycle up to Northern Ireland, then another ferry to Scotland – but returning toward the Welsh hills was not good for Dea’s knee. By the time we set up camp on the first night she was struggling a lot, and I was worried.
The next morning things got even worse. We had some more hills to climb and Dea was clearly in a lot of discomfort. She was forced to a stop by the pain. “It feels like something is really wrong,” she said. “I feel like I’m going to just damage it worse and worse by keeping cycling on it.” Scotland seemed like a really long way off, but with our big ride to China two months away there was no logical reason for Dea to continue damaging her knee like this. We discussed our options, and decided to first cycle on the flat main road to Hereford, which was only fifteen kilometres away, where we could figure out the best solution.
In Hereford we made ourselves at home in the Leisure Centre cafe (because of the free wifi) and came up with our new plan. Dea would not continue, the big trip to China was too important to put at risk. Instead she would take a train from Hereford to Edinburgh. Having friends in the city, I made arrangements so that she would have someone to look after her when she arrived. With my challenge to make a circumnavigation of the planet without using any land-based motor vehicles still being very much ongoing, there was no way I could join her on the train, and I would have to cycle up to Edinburgh alone. So it was with some sorrow that I left Dea at Hereford train station, and cycled off with nothing more than a couple of cuddly toys for company.
Even though I’m smiling in the picture (isn’t it just an automatic reation when someone points a camera at you?) I felt quite sad seeing Chris leave the train station on his loaded bike in his new bright orange jacket I had given him for Christmas. I was sad because I was not going to see him again for some weeks, but most of all because I was missing out on yet another cycling adventure because of some physical problems. First it was my eye, now my knee. I was really very disappointed and frustrated, but a part of me, which was located at the middle of my right leg, was also really very, very relieved and I think that part, my knee, told me that there were positive sides to this situation too. I would be travelling by train, something that I have always loved, I would get some time by myself which was also something I quite enjoy, and in only a few hours I would step out on the train station in the heart of Edinburgh – a city I had heard so much good about, but never been to.
The train ride was very nice, especially when it was still light and I could enjoy the landscape pass by while I was listening to a podcast. We got to one station after another, like you normally do in trains, and I was very aware of the ease and speed with which these distances were covered compared to on the bike. It made me aware of the time and effort you put into travelling when cycling that is the reason why most people use trains, cars and planes, but also exactly what makes it so rewarding in the end. As I had gotten used to the speed of travelling by bike, it also felt quite surreal when I just 6 hours later arrived at the big Waverly Station in Edinburgh without having done anything more than boarding a train and sit still looking out of the window into the dark. I had lost the sense of place as I hadn’t sensed the journey to this place with my body.
I stood waiting for Chris’s friend Matt and his fiancé Lucy, who very kindly had invited me to stay with them until Chris arrived, at the entrance to the train station at Princes Street, the big main road in the centre of this yet unknown, dark city. Some young teenagers were hanging out and being loud close to me, a nice man from the Shetland Islands came and talked to me and recommended I visited his home place, buses speeded heavily down the otherwise empty street and I looked around me and felt the rush of excitement of this new place that I would get to know and sink into over the next few months.
Found by Matt and Lucy we made it the few streets back to their place, which was a really cool top-floor flat with a very cosy atmosphere. I was given a room with a bathroom, a meal and lot of stories by the chatty couple and I suddenly realised I felt great. I was on a new adventure, Edinburgh was laying at my feet and I already felt welcome here and full of expectations.
The next day my hosts took me on a long city walk and I immediately loved the scenic city with its hills, old buildings, the dark, proud castle looming over the central park and the crooked streets in various levels full of colourful pubs and cafes. The atmosphere was relaxed, people smiled and approached me in a friendly and open way. From the castle hill, I could see both the grey waters of the Firth of Forth and the hills Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands rise in the horizon and already longing for cycling there I set a goal to first rest well and then train my knee gradually on bike rides along the water and in the hills. It was just a city to my taste and here I felt ready and eager to make my knee and our website ready for our big journey while I waited for Chris to arrive.
Heading for the Brecon Beacons alone I struggled up steep hill after steep hill and thought for the first time in a really long time that perhaps cycling everywhere wasn’t such a good idea. I was only doing this to get to Edinburgh, and suddenly a train seemed like such a nice, convenient, comfortable means of transportation. It would get me there so fast, with so little effort. But of course I could not give in to such temptations, and forced myself to continue on the bike. I decided to carry on with the original plan of heading west to Ireland. With the ferries it worked out about the same distance as going up through England anyway, and would allow me to chalk up another country.
I cycled beside a canal through the first part of the Brecon Beacons, but then the hills resumed. Taking small roads I was forced to climb up insanely steep gradients then whizz down the other side. They reminded me of waves in an ocean. I felt like a tiny little boat, struggling up and then cresting each wave-hill and knowing there were more to come, more and more, seemingly going on forever. But I told myself if I only kept going I would have to make it to land eventually. Which, in this case, was the ocean. But it was alright, because when I finally did make it to the ocean, there was a great big ferry waiting to carry me to Ireland. It was also the first sunny day in ages, and the Pembrokeshire coast looked amazing as the ferry sailed me away from Britain.
I rolled off the ferry in the dark winter evening, unsure of where to camp. By luck I found in front of me a large area of dunes and I pushed my bike into them and had my own private world. I fell asleep beneath a sky full of stars, the sound of the ocean in my ears. Ireland had made a good start. The next morning I headed back to the road and posed for my country sign photo, making good use of the variety of bright clothes I had with me to celebrate my arrival in my fifty-first country.
But cycling up the east coast of Ireland was not all that I hoped it would be. Thankfully it was flatter than Wales, and the weather remained mild and dry, but the cycling was a bit boring. I followed quiet country roads through repetitive farmland. There were no benches, no places to sit and take a break, and no places to camp at night. Everywhere was private farmland. It was not well set up for the cycle tourists or the wild camper. I made do with patches of trees close to the road, and was extremely grateful to be taken in by a couple of warmshowers hosts as I neared Dublin.
Dublin arrived with a surprising number of European-style cycle lanes. In the cramped city centre I met up with an old friend from my time in Australia. Fernando, an Italian who had recently moved to live and study in Dublin, was my pedicab colleague, but, unlike me, he now said he never wanted to ride a bike ever again. It was good to see him again and we took a seat together in a little park to chat about old times. As we did so a young man approached and said to me in a thick Irish accent, “Excuse me, but are you homeless?”
“Well, actually I’m travelling,” I said.
“Well you look like you’re homeless with all that stuff there. Where do you sleep.”
“In a tent.”
“Ya are, you’re homeless so ya are.”
Fernando, well-dressed as ever, watched our conversation with interest.
“This doesn’t usually happen,” I told him, as the Irish fellow posed gleefully for a selfie with the homeless man he’d found.
My journey got better once I crossed the border into Northern Ireland. Here I picked up a towpath alongside a canal that made for very pleasant cycling and carried me all the way to Belfast. Another ferry ride and I was in Scotland, and it felt good to be in Scotland. Finally it wasn’t just all farmland, and instead I rode along a rugged coastline. It was a sunny day and the scenery was beautiful. It was so rugged that people had built houses at the bottom of the cliffs, in between huge boulders as big as the houses. They decorated these boulders as if they were garden ornaments, without, perhaps, giving enough thought as to how it was the boulders had come to be there.
I passed through Glasgow and one final canal carried me the last few hundred kilometres towards Edinburgh. Along the way I met a man walking eight dogs. “You’ve got a lot of stuff!” he said at the sight of my bike.
“You’ve got a lot of dogs,” I replied. He was a really nice man, named Norry. His wife ran a dog walking business and he was helping out. He told me he liked to do walking trips and he’d done a long motorcycle trip some years earlier, and he really admired what I’d done. He was such a nice guy, and before going he thrust five pounds at me and said, “Please buy yourself a coffee when you get to Edinburgh.” Well, I probably was looking a little tired.
And a few hours later I found myself back in Edinburgh. I made my way through the bustling crowds in Princes Street, pushing my bike and looking up at the castle that I’d last seen three and a half years ago. I’d been here then to save up some money and prepare myself to cycle around the world. Now I was back once again, back to be reunited with Dea, and to do the same thing, all over again.
Malvern – Pembroke – Dublin – Belfast – Glasgow – Edinburgh