How do you feel?

Day 155 dawned bright but distinctly cooler reminding us once again how incredibly lucky we have been to enjoy such a glorious summer this year. Autumn keeps peeping around the door but it’s not coming in just yet.

Gill and I spent the morning touring Southport’s municipal art gallery before meeting up with four cycling friends who were joining me for the final ride home. Three of them had escorted us for the first twenty miles of our journey all those weeks ago so there was a nice feeling of symmetry to be riding back to Freckleton with them.

The escorts

The escorts

We had announced a time for our return but with my four outriders on their super lightweight carbon bikes we were soon way ahead of ourselves and had to take another tea break to delay our arrival. I was more than happy to spin out the final few moments of the trip, torn as I was between seeing old friends and accepting that the adventure was finally over. We made the final rendezvous arrangements with Gill to make sure that she and Vera would be able to accompany me on the last few miles and set off on familiar roads.

It was wonderful to make the last turn into the village and see a small crowd of friendly faces waiting for us outside the pub. I do believe we even got a cheer and a small round of applause. The hand shakes and hugs that followed were warm and heartfelt on both sides, a real genuine show of affection and an affirmation that we were well and truly home again.

A warm welcome

A warm welcome

The beer and wine were flowing along with many congratulations as more friends arrived and the inevitable endless questions began. I was more than happy to sate people s curiosity but there was one, often repeated question that had me floundering for an answer; “how does it feel?” I simply didn’t know. I was probably more capable of explaining the origins of the universe than trying to convey what it felt like to complete a four and a half thousand mile bike ride to be honest. I think I mostly said that it hadn’t sunk in yet and that I would need some time to settle down and reflect on the whole thing. In the mean time there was more beer to be drunk, more hands to shake and jokes about my scruffy beard to endure. I loved it all.

Cheers

Cheers

Waking up the next morning I asked myself the same question that I had faced repeatedly the previous day; “how does it feel?” Nothing. Just a big empty space where I had expected to find happiness, relief, sadness maybe even fear but there was nothing. I had read, and been told, that returning home from a life changing trip like ours could be difficult and that adjusting back to normal life could take time so I dismissed the lack of emotions and just got on with some routine stuff. I needed to write up the final couple of days in my diary and there were photos to sort and people to contact. It wasn’t difficult to fill the time and I decided any analysis of my feelings could wait. There were a couple of moments during the day, looking at the map of Great Britain and recalling details for my diary when I thought I felt something stir inside but it wasn’t much. It was later in the evening that I began to get some clearer indication of what was going on in my head. We went to the pub to catch up with more friends and spent the evening talking about the trip, the blog and the future now that we were back. It was a lovely evening but I began to notice that every now and again I would feel a huge welling of emotion creeping up on me. More than once I had to take an extra gulp of my pint to swallow back the rising lump in my throat as we talked about the sheer scale of what we had done and how hard it would be to live an ordinary life after such an extraordinary experience. Finally the fog began to lift and the apparent absence of emotion began to make sense.

I started to think about the times when our emotions come to the surface and overflow outside of our control. The overwhelming grief when we lose somebody really close and we can’t hold back the tears or the complete inability to stop smiling in the first flush of a new love affair. Sometimes we just can’t hide our feelings but most of the time we maintain a mask, revealing just a faint hint of how we really feel. Like a ghostly face behind a veil of smoke we make sure we can’t be easily read. Now I began to understand that I was feeling nothing because I had packaged up my emotions to protect myself. I had packed them up so well that they were buried too deep even for me to feel them. They were definitely there though, bubbling away like a well of magma rising up and threatening to blow the lid off the volcano. I suspect the suppression is a kind of mechanism we must use to prevent ourselves from being completely overwhelmed by the enormity of a situation.

It makes me smile because I recalled how Gill and I never ceased to be amused and amazed by the way we exploded into a camping space shortly after arriving at the end of the day. Once the tent was up we would begin to unpack cooking kit, clothing, bedding and other camping paraphernalia until it occupied a space that seemed impossibly big. How on earth would it all fit back on the bikes. Indeed, we weren’t alone in our bemusement. A lady from the adjacent caravan on one site engaged us in conversation and confessed to being fascinated by how we carried everything. I told her the show would start at about seven thirty the next morning if she wanted to see it and guess what, she got up early to watch us pack up. I’m reminded of this as I think about the sheer volume of feeling and emotion that I must have packaged up and stored away to make it possible to deal with the end of our tour. I can’t really imagine what is in there waiting to be discovered.

It’s like confronting the most enormous pile of Christmas presents and being told they are all for you. Every possible shape and size of package teasing you as you squeeze and prod them trying to guess what might be in them. You know that they won’t all be what you wanted but you still can’t wait to open them. I see our memories, feelings and emotions like that pile of presents. It makes me feel excited knowing that I will be unwrapping them for a long time. I am also aware that, like our touring kit, carrying such a large amount of packages around with you would be impossible if they weren’t compressed and packaged into a smaller space. That’s what I think I am doing right now. I’m crushing, squashing and squeezing all those things into a smaller and smaller space. I’m compressing them down and down into an ever decreasing volume. I’m condensing them until eventually, like magic, they turn into diamonds. They are becoming a small pouch of brilliantly shiny diamonds that I will be able take out and scatter across my mind at will and when the time is right. Gill and I have made those diamonds over the five long months that we have been away. We have honed and cut them from the million experiences that we have enjoyed. They contain the mountain vistas and rugged coastlines that made us stand and gasp in awe. They reflect the faces ¬†of the many, many people who helped us along the way and in some cases became true friends. They twinkle like the stars on a moonless night. They sparkle like the dew on the tent in the early morning sunlight and they glint like the eye of the eagle that soared above as we rode along a Scottish mountain track.

They are precious, priceless and timeless. We may share them with you over a glass or two of something but we can’t give them to you. They are ours forever and ever to treasure and revisit for the rest of our lives. A little bag of gems made from a whole heap of memories.

So I do know the answer to the question; “how do you feel?” I feel rich.

Finished

Finished

Dwarfed by my feelings

When we set off on this ride I wrote about the overwhelming emotions that I experienced on the first morning as we rode away from our home village of Freckleton. Now five months and nearly four and a half thousand miles later I find myself equally dwarfed by my feelings. The National Cycle Route 5 through North Wales threw one last challenge at me this afternoon and led me up a steep climb on route to Flint. I cursed it initially after enjoying miles of flat coastal cycle paths but then through a gap in the hedge I saw the most amazing view. The whole of the Wirral peninsula was laid out before me and just beyond it the skyline of Liverpool. It almost felt as if I was viewing the last few miles and the finish line and I was overcome by the enormity of what we have done. Now, thinking about summing up what it feels like to do a journey like this I am equally daunted by the task of finding the required words. So much so that I have decided to leave the writing of the last blog alone for now. I think that any attempt to capture the experience deserves some time and space in order to create a perspective from which to view it.

Wales has not disappointed, even the endless static van parks of the north coast were made tolerable by really good cycle paths and a tail wind that made the cycling effortless. The last small rocky outcrops along the coast were like the final waves from the carriage window as we left this gentle country. The mighty peaks of Snowdonia gradually gave way to more gentle hills and eventually to the pancake flat plains of  Cheshire as we made the border crossing back to the country we started in and the last night in the tent.

We have two short days left to do and tomorrow night we are having a small treat in the form of a modest hotel in Southport. From there it’s just thirty miles to home and the beginning of readjusting to a non-nomadic lifestyle. A few friends are coming to meet us on the road and ride the last few miles with us. I have no doubt whatsoever that those last few miles will be very special, not least for being with friends that we haven’t seen for so long. That pesky wind may even make my eyes a little watery you know.

So you will have to wait for the analysis. The debrief and summary of what it all feels like until the dust has settled and we can hopefully take in what we have done. Meanwhile here are a few photos from the last few days and one of my favourite notices of the whole trip.

Serious cycling infrastructure over the A55

Serious cycling infrastructure over the A55

Don't forget your helmet

Don’t forget your helmet

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

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Little Orme, last of the dramatic cliff scenery

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Touching base. Liverpool and the Wirral.

Well, nearly all week.

Well, nearly all week.

Day one, we did it.

Wow, that was an emotional roller coaster of a day. I finally started to get excited in a can’t sleep kind of way at 2:30am and that’s when I put the last blog post together in my head. After a few hours more sleep I woke just after six and the anticipation kicked in big time. By the time we left the house I was buzzing. A small gathering of friends turned up in the rain to see us off and after lots of hugs and cries of ‘bon voyage’ we were off with three cycling buddies to escort us for the first twenty miles.

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Up to this point I had only felt excited and maybe a little emotional at saying goodbye for six months to such good friends. We settled into an easy pace along the front through Lytham with a lovely tail wind to push us along. I then found myself riding alone for a short spell and that’s when something really strange happened. I just thought about the whole journey ahead of us in terms of distance and time and I found myself welling up with tears. Of course I put the watery eyes down to the cold wind and shook off the feeling but five minutes later I tentatively tried the same thoughts with the same powerful result. It really was like nothing I have ever felt before and suddenly the enormity of the whole venture hit me like a sledge hammer. Not in a bad way I must stress. It was just like standing at the bottom of an enormous mountain and knowing that you are going to be climbing it. Daunting, but thrilling and irresistable all at once.
Later when I was riding alone with Gill I told her how I had felt and she said it had been exactly the same for her. The same moving emotions and the same teary outcome. It felt like we had tapped into something deep inside us with the final realisation of what the next six months of our lives would involve.
We left our three friends, Les, Peter and Pete after a short cafe stop at Fleetwood and hopped on the ferry for the five minute crossing of the river Wyre. Once alone the mood changed and it just felt like any first day of any tour, all that raw emotion subsided as did the rain and grey clouds to leave us with a lovely sunny first day. As we crossed the first bridge into Lancaster a young lad amongst a small group shouted at Gill as she passed, trying to scare her but he looked a bit surprised when she just told him he was pathetic and before she could be upset by the incident we were engaged by a chap called Steve who was keen to know what we were up to. I had been waiting all morning for the chance to remark casually that we were on the first day of a round Britain ride and I wasn’t dissapointed by the effect it had. We gave Steve a contact card and left him with big silly grins on our faces. It happened again in Morecambe when we met Carol as she locked up her bike next to ours. She was bubbling over with enthusiam for our adventure and I think we may have another follower of the blog there. By contrast, I chatted briefly with a couple as I queued in the supermarket and my suspicions that they hadn’t really grasped what I had told them were confirmed when they left me with the words, “well I hope you have a nice weekend”. Can’t win ’em all I guess.
We are now all cosy in the tent listening to the wind thrashing about outside and the rain is starting to rattle on the flysheet.
For anybody interested dinner was herby mackerel in tomato sauce with pasta followed by a strawberry fool and very nice it was too. Sorry for such a long post, I’m sure I’ll calm down eventually

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