I am the long world’s gentleman, he said,
And I make my bed with Capricorn and Cancer.
— Dylan Thomas
Over a month on the road. And what did I learn? But first the itinerary as it turned out.
28 April: Twickenham
29 April: Haslemere
3 May: ferry to Saint-Malo, France
4 May: Mortain-Bocage
5 May: Alençon
6 May: La Chapelle-du-Bois
12 May: Alençon
13 May: Vendôme
14 May: Beaugency
15 May: Gien
16 May: Sancerre
17 May: Decize
18 May: Bourbon-Lancy
21 May: Montceau-les-Mines
22 May: Dijon
24 May: Dole
25 May: Saarbrücken, Germany
26 May: Trier
28 May: Hillesheim
30 May: Roetgen
31 May: Bree, Belgium
1 June: Kalmthout
3 June: Middelburg, Netherlands
4 June: ferry to Harwich, England
5 June: Leiston, Suffolk
7 June: Lawford, Essex
The big gap in Lorraine is where I jumped trains to get to Hillesheim while Kai was still there. The routes shown on the map are approximate.
This is the longest trip I’ve made by bike and in the beginning the plan daunted me. Could I really complete this on my own at my age? But it’s just how they say you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Just keep turning the pedals, making camp each night, breaking it the next morning. As Mr Miyagi says in The Karate Kid
Stay strong, Daniel-san. Everything work out.
Some of you have told me you could not imagine making such a trip yourself. Sure you can. Here’s how you imagine it. Imagine riding one day as far as you comfortably can. Then you stop and put up a tent, eat some food and go to sleep. Or you stay with a friend, or a Warm Showers host. The next day you do it again. How far did you get? As far as was comfortable for you; then you stopped. As the days pass you become fitter and you probably choose to ride further. You don’t need to train for cycle travel; it trains you.
Solo cycle travelling in some ways resembles a meditation retreat. Hour after hour of turning the pedals, listening to birdsong, watching the river flow. As with still water, some things settle out, get deeper. I was welcomed warmly on my first night in France by my generous Warm Showers hosts François & Trudie Coponet, but made no further requests. I realised solitude was part of why I was travelling this way.
I’m not alone. Reaching the Loire at Blois, I shared a café table with a pilgrim making her way on foot to Compostella from the Netherlands. I thought all the Dutch included French among the several languages they speak competently. Perhaps that was once true; it’s not now. And she’d been walking over a month in France without acquiring any French. We chatted a bit in English but I think neither of us were travelling for conversation.
The timing of this trip took me out of the way of the elections and the coronation in early May. I have long resisted the convenience of casting my vote by post, preferring to walk down to the local polling station to claim and complete my ballot. It is satisfyingly low tech; a local librarian used to greet me by name. The government’s voter-suppression measure confronted me with a choice of a postal vote or participating in the voter ID charade.
Similarly with the coronation. Out of the country, I could ignore the whole sorry business. I would “do a geographical”, as the alcoholics call it.
But stopping at a bar-tabac in Marolles-les-Braults I found myself staring at a big flat screen TV showing the sacral king in long robes being led to the altar in Westminster Abbey like a beast to sacrifice. The previous evening in Alençon I had watched Shrek 2 on French TV. The English coronation had more detail. But was it funnier?
Blanche & Alexis generously hosted me at La Grande Raisandière for a week. I had envisaged working intermittently on this trip on the drafts of Post Atomic, which I had taken with me on a tiny netbook. (Remember them?) Half my day writing, half on the farm. My scything technique has improved and I got a little rewriting done, but that was it for the rest of my trip.
An impromptu lunch at the Auberge du Nord in Lamnay. Menu ouvrier and a pression for under €20 and a top-up for my battery. The owner, her two nieces, and her mother in the kitchen could not have been more helpful. Yay for a business run by three generations of women.
I need scarcely have bothered with maps to get to Jo & Neil in Burgundy. From Le Perche ride south, turn left at the Loire and follow it and EuroVelo route EV6 upstream. And riding downstream were dozens of newly-minted cycletourists on gleaming e-bikes with matching Ortlieb baggage. Newly retired, they had worked out that riding downstream the gradient would favour them, but had not the touring experience to see that the westerly tradewinds would outweigh that. But they seemed to be having a good time anyway.
Campervans everywhere. My generation has pensions, paid-off mortgages, second homes and campervans. Later generations have precarious jobs and cannot afford to buy homes of their own; maybe not even food. We are shit ancestors.
The EV6 along the Loire is easy riding: good surfaces and almost no gradients. Recognising the name from wine labels, I risked a side trip to see the town of Sancerre. Which turned out to sit atop a very steep hill. That just got steeper. Near the top I turned a corner in the mediaeval centre to a slope that really wanted to be a flight of steps, dropped the Invincible Summer into its tree-climbing gear, stood in the pedals, red-lined the e-boost, and just managed to scramble the loaded bike into the upper town. It’s a tourist destination, but I also liked something about the place. And I was in no hurry to leave the panoramic views I had worked so hard for.
The Loire from Sancerre
Jo & Neil have made their ratraite at Bourbon-Lancy, a charming mediaeval hill town just off the EV6. They have chosen well.
Heading home from Burgundy, I was almost persuaded by them to stick with the excellent EV6 all the way to the Rhine then follow it north before turning for the Eifel. But it would have added 1–2 days I could not afford, as Kai was now asking me to arrive before the end of May. I struck north towards Dijon through a succession of wine labels: Meursault, Beaune, Nuits-Saint-Georges.
I was off the EV6, using farm roads, the vineyards spattered with clusters of workers tending the vines, their vans stocked with ten-liter water containers. Looked in vain for an auberge with a lunch menu, a supermarket, or a pizzeria. Just swish hotels, vintners, and restaurants offering €30 set lunches. In Nuits-Saint-Georges I succumbed and ordered grilled cheese on toast for €15, to which I added a glass of wonderful Pomerol for the same price again. In Gevrey-Chambertin I listened to a vineyard worker coming off shift: the town is all for tourists, offers nothing for the local workers who keep it in business.
Vineyards south of Meursault
The French and German languages have changed in the half century since I first learned them. French seems to have almost entirely abandoned the first person plural: nous ne disons plus «nous»; on dit presque toujours «on». And Germans (and Flemish speakers) say Hello! to strangers, which I don’t think they used to.
The French of course continue to say Bonjour to people passing by, and to address strangers as monsieur and madame. (The language now reserves mademoiselle for girls; no longer encourages speculation about a woman’s marital status.) I love both of these habits and missed them as soon as I reached Germany. I suspect monsieur and madame were once reserved for social superiors but now remind the French they are citizens of a revolutionary republic. It does the work that comrade did for communism, but without the appeal to struggle. In addressing a stranger as monsieur I accord him a dignity equal to my own without presuming we are fellow combatants.
We English have lost this, and confuse informality with friendliness. I learned that while still only a prince, King Charles III insisted that even those he considered his friends address him as Sir. I now follow the American practice of addressing all strangers as Sir and Ma’am, lest any stray princes suppose deference is still a thing. (The American Sir is diminished in practice by the common prefix of “Step away from the vehicle’.)
The universal Bonjour has been much noted. The impact is subtle but profound. If one says nothing further, dignity and civility have been amply nourished. But if one also wishes to remark upon the weather it is very easy and natural to do so. The ice has been broken. There is nothing remarkable in also saying that it is a fine day. Or asking directions. The French have immediate and easy conversational access to each other.
Not so the poor Germans. I doubt they are a whit less friendly, but they do not have this easy and natural contact with each other. On the magnificent EuroVelo cycle routes, approaching French riders sing out Bonjour; the Germans just stare stolidly.
It is a great pity. To overcome the apparent barrier, friendly Germans amplify their friendliness and put heartiness where the French need only civility. This is not all bad. In the campsite at Saarbrücken I shared beer and snacks with Tom and Kia from Kassel. Kia sketched me. Before we parted, Tom pressed on me a “lucky” 1¢ coin. “If you keep this,” he assured me, “you will always have money.” Apparently this joke is old enough to be known in Germany as the Lucky Pfennig. But I am keeping the coin anyway. So I shall always have money.
Sketched by Kia
Trier is an enigma to most Brits and it puzzles me that we know so little of it. Julius Caesar mentions it in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. The Treviri come early in the roll-call of tribes he biffed. He biffed them on a charming spot on the Mosel and founded a town there. Under Roman patronage it grew in wealth and influence.
Imperial Trier from the air
Centuries later it was the capital of the empire‘s western provinces: what are now Britain, France, Portugal and Spain. When the empire was divided between four emperors, Trier became an imperial capital. The vast Imperial Baths, the circus, the amphitheatre and the multistorey basilicum can still be visited.
All roads lead to Trier
In the aerial view, the basilicum can be seen top right
Karl Marx Haus, Trier
Lessons from history: as the Roman Empire slowly declined so did the fortunes of Trier. There was no longer revenue to maintain an imperial capital. The inhabitants living among its infrastructure adapted it to their own more modest purposes. Londoners, take note. All that is solid melts into air. So wrote Trier’s most famous son, Karl Marx, buried a short walk from my home.
Also taking note was the inscriber of this stone in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, having his own way with Roman capitals.
Roman capitals get casual
The museum boasts a large collection of Roman and mediaeval sculpture, large enough that certain patterns start to emerge. The Roman busts and statues are of recognisable individuals but they are all largely expressionless. The Empire built in stone even when wood would do; for example, Hadrian’s Wall. There was a clear subtext: we are here for a long time. The statuary seems to have a similar subtext. We are so here. Trading, conquering, building villas, holding barbecues (they all look well nourished), betting on sports, sharpening scatological wit on political opponents. The Romans would have liked Australians.
The Darkening Age
The Empire and its purported certainties withered, and was eventually replaced by kingdoms whose Christian fundamentalists rooted out all things pagan, including the learning and culture of antiquity. The museum’s later statuary is quite different. Every face expresses something; mostly piety or anguish, not always distinguishable. The subtext has changed. We’re here, but remember where we’re headed.
Perhaps we neglect Trier because of our own uncertainty where it is, nestled into the folded hills where Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and France tangle and periodically redraw their borders. Travelling cyclists find those borders painted on the cycleway: a solid white line with (say) D on one side and B on the other. Or not. Now these countries are all part of the “Schengen area”, locals no longer worry about which frontier they just crossed – if they ever did. And it’s fitting that Schengen itself is a small town in the Eifel.
I’d long wanted to visit the region, a popular resort for the Rhinelanders, but feared the gradients. I needn’t have. The Eifel is criss-crossed by a network of cycleways, well marked and with mostly modest slopes. I traversed the region too quickly and want to return for an extended potter. Meanwhile I follow the Danish film-maker’s example. Henceforth I am Stefan von Trier.
Kai Jäger at Hillesheim
A long descent through and past Aachen spills me out into Belgium and the Maas delta. A vastly different world. Huge skies; endless straight, smooth cycleways along wide, slow, tree-lined rivers. Tight packs of mostly middle-aged Lycra lads pounding along on carbon bikes. Looser groups of retirees on heavy Bosch e-bikes.
My last continental stop was in Middelburg, a major trading port before engineers redrew the Dutch coastline. I met at last my now-retired colleague Jan, with whom I had corresponded for years. He and his partner Marijke Gussenhoven hosted me generously, enlarged my acquaintance with early 20th-century chamber music, and Marijke gave me greetings cards with her Zen-like designs that capture the feel of the Dutch coast.
As I discovered the next day, on my ride to the Hook of Holland: 125km into headwinds along exposed coastal roads. Hard work (and I drained my battery twice) but worth it for the views alone: an enormous blue sky, vast wind-swept beaches of pale sand, tiny buildings and port cranes spattered on the horizon.
Landing at Harwich the next morning I took the cycleways into Harwich and, after weeks on western Europe’s actual cycle network, wanted to weep with rage. European highway engineers have much to learn from Britain’s zero-infrastructure network. Build and maintenance costs can be almost entirely eliminated: our Notional Cycle Network is nothing but a collection of signs directing bikes away from cars.
In Harwich Town I had hours before the first foot ferry to Felixstowe, so I could at last take a look around Historic Harwich. As a local said, it doesn’t take long. The old port, very much down on its heels, boasts perhaps the oldest purpose-built cinema in England still operating, and at least until a few years ago, the highest density of pubs.
The crew of the Harwich Harbour Ferry helped manhandle the Invincible Summer onto the shingle at Felixstowe, to be repeated 8km north at the Felixstowe Ferry.
Harwich Harbour Ferry
Not what it looks like
At the Boatyard Café on the north shore the East Anglian Cheese Scone Tour 2023 began. The café is strongly placed, and also served my first Flat White in a month. (I am not counting what I drank at the charming Café Vélo in Nevers. I don’t think a Flat White can be made with robusta coffee. Sorry, Charlie.)
In Leiston I visited my stepfather, who moved there a year ago, and caught up after many years with sculptor Caroline Mackenzie, who taught me a word I expect to find useful: postsecular.
Retraced my steps through Harwich to visit David Eisenhart and his family at Lawford Hall before ending my ride over a coffee with Dan Newnham in Colchester. The satisfying prospect of riding back to my own doorstep was outweighed by the thought of a 40km trudge through London’s eastern suburbs. Sometimes it just comes to you: we’re all done; it’s time to go home.
What did I learn? Jo & Neil are quite right. They want to spend plenty of their active retirement touring on bikes. Much touring in Britain is just awful. They moved to France.
Solo cycle camping is like a meditation retreat. Hours of turning the pedals, listening to the birds, watching the river. Something inside quietens, clarifies. I shall write separately about this.
It is not compatible with working, as I had hoped. I need to be settled somewhere to do any serious writing or coding. Flow. Quiet.
As I anticipated, there is something immensely satisfying about travelling under my own steam. Ferries operate with minimum fuss, and little queuing for passengers with bikes. No planes, checked baggage, security charades, or hours frittered away in shopping centres disguised as airport terminals.
By now I would have expected to have sated my wanderlust for a while. Apparently not!