We started at Charing Cross with the intention of exploring the second hand book stores along the road, but most of them weren't open until midday. So we walked down Oxford Street, stopped in a couple of bike and outdoor shops and I splurged and bought a new tshirt, jumper and bike shoes. It was so exciting to have new clothes! It's the closest to shopping I've gotten for ages.
We made our way to the Speakers Corner in Hyde Park where people were standing on step ladders to draw crowds and share their political or religious messages. Unsurprisingly, many were Christians sharing their beliefs. They showed their great oratory skill, concentration, patience and 'progressive' lines of reasoning as they kept their composure despite the many (mostly Muslim) hecklers at the front of the crowds. But to be fair, the arguments were going both ways.
In fact, as we moved from crowd to crowd, and group to group the same scene repeated itself. And the same philosophical arguments (although that could be generous) were going round in circles in each group, at least that's what we could make out when they weren't yelling at each other. We would hear someone quote a scripture only to hear the reply 'But you’re reading your bible…' Debates about whether Jesus and God are one; affirmations that Jesus was Muslim, and an Indian preacher who declared he was a Jew and that Jesus was the King of the Jews.
It was a strange place to be. Sam and I got involved in some discussions with different people, including one about western democracy, but soon realised that most people didn't want to listen to each other; they only wanted to argue while expounding and enunciating their personal convictions.
The man in the third photo was one of the exceptions, and he had a fascinating story, I hope his narrative gets the attention it deserves.
The bus from Cardiff was stuffy and bumpy… I was feeling a little sick so I knew Sam was feeling terrible. Luckily it arrived in London early, not late as we’d been warned, and we jumped off seemingly eager to explore London, grateful to be out of the bus and in the fresh air.
It was a few hours before we could head to the home of our Warm Showers host, Max, so we found some maps and brochures, and sat down in a food court with public wifi, to plan the next couple of days.
It was confusing – there was the London Pass, where you pay for the pass, then get free entry to selected sights. But some of the biggest attractions were not part of it. And of course it was quite a big outlay of cash. We had some half price vouchers given to us on the coach… but did we want to go to those places? And then there were lots of places that were free to visit – so could we stick to them? I spent time working out different price options and circling places on the map… not really coming to any conclusions but confusing myself more.
We went for a night-time stroll to Buckingham Palace, hoping to see the queen return from a night out in the city but satisfying ourselves with snapping some photos.
It was getting late so we headed to the station to follow Max’s directions to his place. But the metro station was closed. Someone had ‘fallen’ in front of a train and the line was closed. We checked a bus map – maybe one of the buses we needed to get to Max’s place came this way… but no luck. We resolved to walk to a station on the line we needed and then follow Max’s directions.
We arrived at his place late – almost midnight. And then we sat up talking until 2.30am.
It was a relaxed but interesting day. We started at London Tower, and caught a ferry down the Thames, laughing at the amusing commentary provided by the crew. It was a great way to see many of the sights, including the Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe, London Eye, Big Ben and some amazing buildings. We got off at the Westminster pier and walked towards Trafalgar Square. On the way we passed by a crowd outside the Horse Guard building so we joined them in time to watch the inspection.
At Trafalgar Square a series of public performances were underway under the banner 'Liberty'. It seemed to be a festival dedicated to and performed by those with physical and mental impairments. We saw some girls with down syndrome perform a ballet, a deaf girl sing with her band, acrobatics tricks and wheelchair basketball. There was a large crowd and a great feeling. You could see the joy in the eyes of all the performers.
We saw some Piccasos in the National Gallery, and were intrigued by the portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, reading the short commentaries and then imagining the raison d'etre behind their respective visages. We could have spent more time in the galleries but were disappointed when they said closing time and kicked us out.
In the evening we walked to Curzon cinema in Soho, passing through the West End and Chinatown districts where we sat through 40 minutes of ads and previews to eventually see the Argentinean drama The secrets in their eyes.
Through the cities
Weather- Our best day in the UK yet, warm and sunny!!!
Our mission for the day was to navigate through the heavily populated section between Liverpool and Manchester, so as to return to the countryside, somewhere near Wales.
It wasn't the funnest' day ever- the roads were busier, there seemed to be more hills, and although the roads were usually very well signed, maybe better than anywhere else in the world we've ever cycled- the pavement almost always marked with the road number we wanted, we often found ourselves bouncing over the roads like ping pong balls from bump to bump.
We made it through Preston, Chorley, Wigan, Warrington and almost down to Whitchurch, stopping to camp in a field about 6km from town when we ran out of daylight.
Before finding this field, we'd asked at a few farms if we could camp in their fields, as we had stumbled into a part of England without camping sites... we hadn't seen any signs all day, whereas every other day we see them every 5-10km.
We had expected to easily find a campsite but rode the last 40km increasingly worried about where to stay. And when our requests were denied we became even more worried. I wasn't feeling well (a little sooky actually...) so our pace was slower than it should have been. Since we didn't quite make it to town, we dined on our emergency packets of 2-minute noodles for dinner. But at least we had them! And plenty of water.
The field was full of plants that made our legs itch, so before falling to sleep in our grassy field we scratched and itched, hobbled and crouched, and hopped and scrambled in our little tent. Sam took the low side and slept a little uncomfortably in a ditch, but we were safe and dry, and dreamt of the green greeniness of Wales, a real country we'll enter tomorrow...
A rest in Lancaster
After last nights strange encounter with a caravan park surrounded by quick sand- 'aye, don't you watch the news, an asian family died jus out ere wodda bin four a fiv year ago!', and our struggles riding through the hilly lakes district, we decided to have a bit of a day off.
Last night, as it was getting dark we saw a sign that said 'camping 3/4 mile away.' And when we finally got to the supposed 'camp site' it was too late to turn back and look for somewhere else.
It turned out to be a camping experience like no other. We wont easily forget the open fires that burnt well into the night and the broken down shower block from hell. But at least we were so exhausted that every time we were woken up during the night we easily fell back to sleep.
So this morning, after being unable to find internet for a couple of days we rode into Lancaster and spent time relaxing in the sun, updating this blog feasting on cheap food to recharge and working out how we'll get to Cardiff.
Around 5pm we left, after a nice chat with some friendly people, and began cycling towards Preston. We didn't get far.
Its amazing how many friendly waves we get here from cyclists, almost everyone says hello, quite the contrast to the uber cool cyclists in Italy and France.
Woke up to the strongest howling wind we've experienced in the entire 8 months we've been away. Remarkably it was sunny, but still very cold, and we put almost all of our clothes on when we finally rode away from our free campsite and the curious cows that had gathered to see us leave.
In the UK, and so far other cyclists we've met here agree, the roads are generally narrow and poorly surfaced, and don't usually provide much room for cyclists. Additionally there are lots of cars, far more than you would see over a weekend in the Mt Dandenongs and often challenging or inadeqaute signage, causing me to decide that if I were asked about riding in the UK I wouldn't recommend it, particularly when France, the perfect cycling country (and holiday destination) is so close.
We started the day with a detour to the Aira Force waterfalls in Ullswater, a popular part of the Lake District in the county of Cumbria. We read on a sign in the carpark (packed with cars) that the stream that forms the falls is called the Aira Beck, but could find no other real information, like were we had to go to find the falls, other than something about taking a turn through a glade, or something...
So, we followed some other people, who were following some other people, who were probably following some other people, and ended up hiking to a point well above the falls. From here we found our way down. Now that we could see where they were it was quite easy actually. From here we could see the water cascading down from under the bridge at the top and making a spectacular twenty meter drop into the stream below.
Around mid day we got to the Kirkstone Pass, the highest pass in the Lakes District with a gradient in sections of 20%, but were, according to wikipedia the gradient apparently becomes as steep as one in four, or 25% at one section. Setting off for the final two kilometers through the roaring wind we wished each other luck, deciding to meet at the top of the pass.
Much to our (my) amazement, we both rode the entire way up without stopping. When I got to the top, legs pumped with blood, wobbling like jelly, sweaty and exhausted, I jumped the old stone wall to fill my bottle in the mountain stream (with what turned out to be the cleanest water I've seen in weeks), jumped back over and there she was, smiling breathlessly with satisfaction at the accomplishment.
Gulping down the freezing pure water we looked down around us at the lakes and beautiful countryside, and pausing I thought to myself, 'maybe England has some good roads after all.'
The Lakes District
Our sleeping bags had been infested with bugs... at least that was the theory... at nights we've been feeling itchy and Sam woke with a funny bite on his foot... so we spent a few hours washing the sleeping bags and putting them through two cycles in the dryer. It meant we had a late start to the day but hopefully it was worth it.
On the road at Gretna Green we spent some time chatting to two English guys from London who are cycle touring this weekend. Both interesting and friendly guys; it was nice to stop and talk about cycling adventures. We also saw the old blacksmiths shop where English runaways have been getting married Las Vegas style without need of witnesses since the 1800s... I'd read about people eloping to Scotland so it was interesting to see how close to the border of England this place was.
Back in England, and despite some morning rain the sun is shining again. We go through Carlisle and then continue down to Penrith, where we buy some Indian for dinner and eat on a bench in a church graveyard, cold wind blowing furiously... on our way out of town we see the ruins of an old castle on the hill.
We make a turn and head into the Lakes District. It's evening and the sun is low... we can see the well known craggy hills in the distance and our first lake below us. In the cool evening, the wind behind us, we fly down and up the hills, past the lake and past sheep and cows. There are fences along the road restricting access to perfect free-camping sites, every bit of land seems to have been fenced and sold to farmers in this National Park. We stop at a real camp site but it's full.
We keep riding, both tired and cold and eager to stop, but where? Finally I see a little embankment in some trees. We push our bikes up and find a great spot - our view of the lake that we'd hoped for obscured, but well hidden and quiet, Sam shoo's away the cows and we prepare to sleep.
Swimming in Scotland
Rain pouring down I'm sitting here, in a place that used to be Scotland wondering what to do.
Do we start riding in the rain or stay put were we are, in England, warm and comfortable, enjoying the view of winter from our table.
Two hours later we turn and look at each other at the English/Scottish border, a funnily excited feeling, wondering if we made the right decision.
Filling the air with the mist of heavy breathing, rain splashing against our faces, the spray from trucks and cars covering us in a haze.
My face and legs are cold, actually they're freezing, but I'm sweating profusely under this jacket. Taking it off is not an option though, it's to damn cold, and it's been raining all day.
On the few occasions the weather breaks we glimpse gently rolling hills cascading down to the ocean amidst a darkening sky and massive sea gulls, wings spread wide, circling like birds of prey.
Scotland is a beautiful place, but I think someone forgot to tell them it's still meant to be Summer...
Just as the evening light is beginning to finally fade we cycle into Musselburgh, a coastal town just outside Edinburgh. It's still raining, and we haven't seen anywhere to camp for at least 30 kilometers, so I stop and ask a crazy looking red headed Scott walking his two Rott Weillers if he knows anywhere we can camp around here.
'Overrr therrrre,' he replies nonchalantly, as if it's not even raining.
'Where,' we ask, confused.
'Oveeerrrr thhherrrrrre, in the sand dunnnes' he says back in a thick Scottish drawl.
'OK thanks,' we say, unable to see anything, or any dunes, and keep riding.
Now its dark, & wondering what to do suddenly Shanna spots a camping sign, we turn and head up a dark alley, hoping the place exists when we come upon another hill.
'400 yards' the sign says, as we race up the hill through the rain, knowing, hoping, because this is the last bit of energy we have left in us today.
Reception is closed, we wheel our bikes through the gates and in the dark fumble around, searching for a campsite. But it seems that every spot is taken, mild panic (can that work) sets in before we discover another section behind a massive crumbling wall.
We set up our tent, in the rain, tired, relieved and greatful for somewhere to sleep.
'Houses are underrated,' I say, as the rain makes a 'pitter patter, pitter patter' noise, splashing down on the tent.
Castles by the sea
We were woken by the sound of voices, getting louder and closer. We saw flashlights... and hoped they wouldn't see us.
The group arrived on the grass clearing near our campsite and the men started running at each other while the women laughed. I heard a female voice, "They're camping down here..."
The tent was shaken and the drunk/stoned group exchanged some heated words with Sam, until one of the guys apologised and they moved on... but it was hard to fall back asleep... would they return??
After another couple of hours the first of the dog walkers arrived with the light of dawn. Two dogs were sniffing our tent curiously and an owner looking on even more curiously. It was time to move on.
We packed up as fast as we could, but it had rained on-and-off all night so things were a bit wet... Once the sun came out though it shone, cold and bright.
As we sat on a bench in the next town drinking some juice a rider came up to us. He'd been on the same ferry as us, and chatted to us in a supermarket in the evening before, and now we ran into him again. What a small world!
In the town of Morpeth we were not so surprised to see him again. He introduced us to a friend of his, Raymond, who was 78 (almost) and still riding hard. What a character he was! He told us about his bicycle travels around the world more than 50 years ago, and stories from his life. We spent a good hour chatting to them in the warm sun before following their advice and heading back to the coast for our journey north.
We rode past castles and beautiful small coastal towns. At one point we stopped to take some photos of Alnmouth and a lady who was out running offered to take a photo of both of us. At the same time our phone rang and it was our friend Steve - our first phone call for months! We spent an hour and a half alternatively talking to Steve and this friendly couple from Newcastle.
We realised it was going to be hard to get anywhere in England, because all the people are so friendly and want to have a chat.
We had a late picnic lunch on a hill in Alnwick... next to a large column given to a duke by his tenants... and were surprised to find ourselves working on our tans for the first time in over a month - in England! And close to Scotland at that...
It was an idyllic day of sunshine and friends... and even ended with a hot shower in a campsite!
Last night we had dinner with Jessie and Susie, it was vegetarian, but you'd never have known. Spag bol with a vetetable/soy substiitute for mince, funny thing though, it tasted and looked exactly like mince, even more so than some of the real mince we've been subjected to since we left Australia.
Anyway, it was a good night, thanks for that one guys!
The next morning we got up late, and stumbled downstairs for breakfast. Three hours later we finally left Jess and Susie's massive house in Tynemouth, said goodbye to the Rangie, and sadly parted from our fully awesome new friends.
It felt great to be on the road again, clean freshly washed clothes and bikes we headed off in anticipation, expecting to find a beautiful English countryside full castles and ancient buildings.
With dusk arriving we found a good looking (and free) campsite, so hoping for a good sleep and an early night we eagerly began setting up the tent.
But, early in the morning disaster struck, we'd been ambushed...
Distance: 28km riding
In the morning thousands of people gathered on the shores of Ijmuiden to farewell us from The Netherlands.
They even organised a parade of boats through the harbour, music blaring, people dancing... it was quite the nautical celebration. We wondered if it all spontaneously erupted simply because the sun came out...
We enjoyed the party and headed off to the terminal of our departure. It was exciting to be going to Newcastle, and to be staying overnight in a cabin! Almost a hotel... with beds... and hot showers...
The voyage across the north sea was quite rough, it was sometimes difficult to walk through the ship. And the pile of courtesy seasick bags on the table indicated this was normal.
We arrived in Newcastle to 17 degrees, winds and a forecast of heavy rain... But I felt so excited to be there! I wanted to talk to all the border workers as we made our way to the passport check, just because they spoke English...
But getting into England was more difficult than expected. They wanted to know where we were staying that night, what was our route through England, when were we leaving... turns out many Australians overstay their visas and they wanted to check me out... especially since Sam has a UK passport so technically he can stay... It was harder than entering China!
Once I got the stamp and we were in the country we rode to the suburb of North Shields, where we found a fantastic bike shop. We spent a couple of hours looking at all the things we needed (and didn't need) and chatting to the store workers. One of the mechanics, Jesse from Arizona, invited us to stay with him and wis wife for the night. We gratefully accepted and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the seaside of Newcastle.
I felt quite nostalgic being in the place my hometown was named after. Suburbs like Wallsend and Gateshead.. signs pointing to Morpeth. And it looked like Newcastle, the working harbour, beaches... I loved it! As we waited for Jesse to finish work and take us back to his home, we sat on a bench watching the surfers, joggers and energetic dogs... we could have been sitting on the beach on the other side of the world.
But we weren't. We were in England. And it felt good.
Sam and Shanna Evans are from Melbourne, Australia