The sun rose. The north sea shimmered, folding, rolling, rippled by the gathering storm. Beneath my feet, beneath the tent, the grass was beginning to twitch in a wind from the south, a wind that was building speed. I was leaving the island. Strange to call it that, but when you stand on the shore’s of Britain, a small collection of nations, looking out across a continent so vast, of so many more and you try to comprehend all its villages, all its backroads, its tiny farmhouses dotted here and there and the lives being lived out in all of those nooks, every cranny, across mountains so much higher, deserts and plains so much wider, well, it blows your mind and it does feel that way; like an island, small and alone and isolated.
In that moment, staring out across the waters, the world felt both vast and small, like being in a tunnel… I could touch the walls, I could feel each turn, each corner, but the end was out of sight. I thought then, and for the first couple of weeks afterwards, that if I could concentrate on the closest walls, on each of those turns then I’d be alright, if I could think about reaching the next town or even where I’d sleep that night it wouldn’t feel so far off. At some point, in 6 months, a year perhaps, I’d wake up and realise that I was no further from the final destination than I was from England, that it would be easier to go on than to return and that I truly was far far away from any place I had called or could call home. That moment would come and I’d have got there by my own means. The only way to suppress those overwhelming, hyperthetical thoughts, I would come to find, was to stop looking out, stop thinking ahead, jump on the bike and start pedalling. I did. I had a ferry to catch at midday.
The White Cliffs of Dover were just a a few miles ride down the coast. Near the harbour, my last purchases before leaving (I remember for specifically for some reason) were two packs of chocolate digestives, a bag of peanuts, a multipack of Mars Bars, a banana, an apple and some milk. Sure, sugar overload, but I’m not a nutritionist or a sportsman; I’ll admit I did no research before setting off when it came to the right or wrong ways to get energy. I’d considered what I would end up eating, buying, but I knew, inevitably, it would be decided by budget rather than goodness and usefulness. Food, what I would eat, would become a massive part of my trip, but back then I just went straight for the sugar and for things that I could carry, which is why I had to drink, by the roadsie, a whole bottle of milk in one go.
So. I rolled around the port roads, through customs. Showed my passport. Collected my prepaid ticket. Wheeled right past the long row of cars in my own private cycle lane, straight up the ramp and onto the ferry. I was overprotective of my bike. I found myself trying to lock it to some kind of generator in the docking bay. I had two heavy duty locks (probably the heaviest items I carry which seems sort of extreme). I removed both bags and stumbled with the twenty five kilogram satchels and handlebar bag up the stairwell to the decks. I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen, there was no reason to take the bags or even lock the bike really. Who would steal a bike on a ferry? Where would they take it?! I saw my first (other) cycle tourer. An old man with a vintage frame, flat handle bars and bags across the front wheel as well as back. He’d been docking his bike at the other end of the loading deck. I’d watched him for a few minutes, studying his setup, before he disappeared through a stairwell entrance. He was older, perhaps experienced in cycle touring, maybe he knew something I didn’t, maybe his setup was more suitable. After the ferry ride I saw him again. I’d spent the boat ride outside, wind in my hair, sea spray in my eyes. The huge white cliffs behind me growing smaller with each wave. Myself and the old cyclist were the last to leave the boat. I overtook him. I smiled. He smiled back. Then I was gone. For now, I didn’t need people, I just wanted to cycle, I just wanted to get down the coast.
I’d been heading east for three days, made it to Calais, taken a right out of the docks, turning south, and then it hit. The wind. My speed dropped instantly. It was like a brick wall. What was this?! Then a memory flickered in the back of my mind; passing a petrol station in Dover I’d glanced at a newspaper stand. A few words came back to me… America, Hurricane, Atlantic.
The rest of the day was a beautiful struggle. War time villages, Saving Private Ryan-esque, all french and crumbling and untouched lay nestled amongst a stark, coastal landscape. Rolling valleys of bracken and heather, burnt fields at the end of summer, cliffs and coves and gulls flying high, all battered by the wind that rushed in off the seas. I struggled up the hillsides. I felt useless, no power, no strength, I’d never make it through France let alone Europe, I’d thought. The wind would continue for a couple of weeks, I would turn east again and it would lessen the impact, but it was a slow start to the trip. That third day though, well it had still been incredible. I’d reached a different country by bike, by my own efforts (minus the water part) and as the sun dropped in the sky, the blues turning to purples, I wound my way down the Cote D‘Opale, the sea glistening as if no wind, no hurricane could touch its surface. Tiny figures, hooded and bent over, still walked their dogs down the white sands, still ran and paddled and played together like humans do. Their shouts and laughter caught the wind, flying up the cliffs to where I stood. Kites soaring high. Boats sailing strong. A celebration of wind. An embrace.