Bali or Great Britain?
The following passage describes how my family holiday to Bali was put on hold, in order for me to pursue my dream of cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats a second time. I owe my wife and children a big thanks!
When it comes to holidays, Western Australians flock to the island of Bali, in the same way the British head to the Mediterranean. Last February, almost twenty years after our end-to-end bike ride, the only thing on my mind was a holiday to this tropical isle, along with my wife and children. We’d selected a villa, agreed on a date, and even found someone to look after the dog. We were all set.
But while searching for our flights, a phone call changed it all and our trip to Bali was put on hold. You see, Alan and Nick were planning to do the bike ride again, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The dates were going to clash with our holiday, but how could I say no? The more that Alan spoke, the clearer it became. I had to go back and be a part of it. It wasn’t just the opportunity to rekindle lost friendships, or visit my old haunts, my roots, and my home. It was the chance to once again experience a 1,000-mile adventure over thirteen long, full days. There would be places to explore, people to meet, and stories to gather.
‘Cycle tracks are everywhere,’ Alan promised. ‘We’ll go right through the heart of rural Britain with hardly a main-road in sight.’
This time, there would also be four more riders, some of whom I knew, others I’d never met. We’d even have a support vehicle. How could anything go wrong? Bali postponed, the children were devastated, and my wife is still waiting for her holiday.
‘I really need to do this,’ I told them. ‘Besides,’ I explained, ‘maybe after this trip I won’t talk about home so much. Surely, Britain isn’t as great as it used to be.’
Memories of Mousehole....Day 1
During the short journey, we made our way towards the coast and were rewarded with fleeting views of the English Channel, far beyond the trees. The road then dipped sharply, leading us to the fishing village of Mousehole. As we entered, my eyes were drawn to the two sturdy breakwaters, protruding from either side of the bay like a giant pair of arms about to embrace a loved one. A small fishing boat slowly made its way towards the gap, leaving a milky trail in its wake as it headed out to sea.
Granite cottages lined one side of a narrow road that ran parallel with the shore, each with a panoramic view of the mighty Atlantic far in the distance. The beach was dotted with a handful of holidaymakers, their bodies pale in contrast to the golden sands as they stretched out on beach towels or played in the shallows. One family prepared a kayak by the water’s edge, while others watched boat owners go about their business. From the roadside, the clear waters this side of the harbour walls resembled a Mediterranean cove, dotted with family size craft, moored by ropes to the shore.
The main street was free from traffic but lively with families. Some carried buckets and spades, while others strolled sedately and enjoyed ice creams. Just beyond the breakwater, a cauldron of alleyways and backstreets enticed visitors with signs for restaurants, and on a street corner I noticed a shop owned by a local artisan selling handmade artefacts.
The Ship Inn took pride of place along the narrow beachfront roadway where double yellow lines had been painted, both sides, to ensure that cars couldn’t stop. The pub windows were slightly ajar, and through the gaps I could see patrons enjoying a late afternoon drink. A placard by the door promised, Fine Ales, Fresh Seafood and Live Music.
This was the type of quintessential Britain I’d missed since moving from the UK. It wasn’t just the beers on offer, but the ambience, the setting, and the views. On such a fine day, with hardly a breath of wind to stir the water, it was difficult to imagine that this was an unforgiving coastline. But a plaque on the pub wall caught my attention and I rode over to read the words.
Landlord of this house
And crewman of the Solomon Browne
Lost with all hands, 19th December, 1981
Remembered with great affection
While deep in the highlands of Scotland....Day 12
Just as quickly, the rain eased and was replaced by a beautiful rainbow. Far away on the hillside, a herd of dishevelled sheep huddled close to a mythical pot of gold. I slowed to a steady pace, taking each bend with due diligence. Instead of racing, I decided at that moment to take my time and appreciate the surroundings. In a crowded world, it is becoming increasingly rare to be alone. I hadn’t seen a car in some time, and the last person I’d spoken to had been the old man in the café.
During this brief period, I felt like a real explorer — someone like Alastair Humphries, who travelled the world by bike and described it in his book, Moods of Future Joys — Around the World by Bike; or a mountaineer, like Sir Edmund Hillary perhaps, about to reach the peak of an icy summit; or a sailor, like Captain Cook, bravely crossing the Pacific Ocean.
In comparison to these adventurers and explorers, I was merely an amateur, riding along a country road, a few hours’ drive from the city, with overnight accommodation already booked. But for some reason, at that very moment, I felt invincible. With each new flurry of rain, I gritted my teeth and pushed harder. When a gust of wind threatened to drive me off the road, I laughed out loud and shook my fist. There was no one to hear me. Just the sheep and passing clouds.
The song from Runrig, Summer Walkers, entered my head. And it’s up by the Shin and up the Naver and the long winding shores of Loch Maree. Loch Shin was to my left, hidden behind a ridge of pine trees. Loch Naver would be next, nestled alongside the hamlet of Altnaharra.
A shiver ran along my spine, but it wasn’t caused by raindrops oozing down my neck. This was a sensory reaction, based on my current location and feeling. I had a deep sense of belonging, as though the whole trip had been leading me to this place and time. Suddenly, I began singing at random. It didn’t matter what, as long as it was loud. When I grew weary of a particular song, I thought of another. Then I remembered the runners at Land’s End as they sang, ‘I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 miles more’.