A message from an ‘oldie’

It’s strange not having any parents. I don’t mean in a tragic way that a young orphan might have no parents but I mean as a mature adult who has been lucky enough to see both of their parents reach old age before they died. I’m really struggling to pin down the feeling in my own mind so it might be a bit ambitious to try to describe it but I’ll have a go.

Many years ago when I was a lot braver than I am now I used to do a bit of rock climbing. If you were a novice climber and short of cash you generally climbed on a single 11mm rope but more experienced climbers employed two slightly thinner ropes of 9mm. Each rope would support you in the case of a fall but it was more flexible to have two in terms of placing anchor points in the rock. If in some unlikely circumstance one of the ropes became ineffective you could still rely on the second rope to support you. Having two parents alive is similar in a way and when my Dad died over fifteen years ago, although it was sad and I missed him, I didn’t feel anything like I did when Mum died many years later.

I was present when she died and it was a moving experience. In many ways it was a relief for her and for us so there was no sensation that it shouldn’t have happened. No blame or regret, just a feeling of inevitability. For a while I was wrapped up in the funeral arrangements and sorting out her estate and it was quite some time before I became aware of the feeling of climbing without ropes.

It was an odd feeling because it wasn’t as if Mum had been able to offer me any support in the last few years of her life; quite the reverse. As she succumbed to dementia and frailty she required more and more help from me (and the rest of the family) but as long as she was alive I was still a child. I was still the ‘next generation’ until the moment she passed away and then, as she breathed her last breath I became the ‘older generation’.

Those supporting ropes that are always there for us were gone for good. I became more acutely aware of all the other lines that form the network that we rely on to get us through life. I still had a wife, two children, a sister, cousins and other relatives and friends of course but to go back to the climbing analogy I now realised that all of these metaphorical ropes were different. They were of different strengths or thickness and perhaps the reason I felt so different was because the guys that bind us to our parents are often the strongest of them all.

I don’t feel like I am in danger of falling without Mum and Dad, it’s more like when a couple of spokes break in a wheel and it isn’t quite as strong as it was but it will still function with a bit of tweaking. Maybe, in time, the other strands that bind me to friends and family will grow stronger to take up the strain and this sensation that I have now will fade away. I’m not actually sure I want it to though. I’m not sad, not at all. No I am comforted by the fact that I am really aware of those missing support lines and it makes me appreciative of what they gave me for so long.

Supporting guys, Swansea Bay

Supporting guys, Swansea Bay

I am less enthusiastic about the sensation that there is nothing now between me and old age. I can’t hide behind the old age of my parents anymore, comforted by the fact that it isn’t my turn yet. No matter how many years and adventures I have left in my life, I have to face the fact that there is no looking up any more, only down to those that come after me. The next generation.

For many years our family used to gather at a hotel in St. Anne’s for a weekend get together. It was a lovely time and often there would be four generations sharing the experience. We used to refer, affectionately, to my Mum and Dad’s generation as ‘the oldies’ at those gatherings. We haven’t managed a reunion like that for a while now but every now and again, at a family funeral or wedding there is talk of reinstating the annual institution. I’m not altogether sure that I want to be an ‘oldie’ but I don’t suppose it’s a matter of choice any more.

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.

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