Pilgrims Way in Brexitland

This year it has been the 3rd summer in a row that I was actively playing with the idea of cycling from London to Ghent, in one day. I felt that I was ready for it now. My naivety around the challenge has largely been dissolved and the conditions were good. Last week, on the 29th of June I made my first endeavour. But to be honest, the journey was about much more than the physical activity.

Why this route?

After graduating from Cranfield University (Bedfordshire, England) in September 2009, I wanted to cycle back to my hometown. At that time this the small town of Poperinge on the Belgian-French border. I wasn’t prepared at all, I had many setbacks but my willpower pushed me a long way! With a general road map by the hand, I navigated towards London and on the 3rd day, I wanted to cycle from central London to Dover. I was going to follow the signs for cycle route 2. It was a hell of a journey! I got lost after every village and at the end of the day, I ended up on the hard shoulder of the A2 near Canterbury. I wisely decided to stay a night in a motorway hotel. The next day, a few miles before Dover my tire burst. I managed to get to the ferry and arranged for relatives to come to pick me up at the ferry port in France.

In September 2010 after a conference in London, I wanted to complete the final stretch from the ferry port of Dunkirk to Poperinge. The bike I used the year before was just replaced with my current hybrid Trek FX. The plan was to take an evening ferry and do a cycle at sunset, but I hadn’t foreseen that you can’t take your bike on a train out of London during rush hour. The result was that I had to take a later train and my connecting ferry was around midnight. At arrival in Dunkirk, whilst I was waiting on the deck, the bridge got stuck and broke in front of me. We had to sail to another dock and eventually I managed to hit the road by 3 am. What followed was a night ride in unknown territory towards sunrise.

In the meantime, I am quite familiar with the British cycle situation. In 2012 I cycled the full length of the UK from Land’s End to John o’ Groats via Wales, Ireland and the Outer Hebrides. Soon after that journey I moved from the UK back to Belgium. With cycle situation, I mean more than driving on the left side of the road. It’s about navigating your way along very rough terrain; geographically, infrastructural and cultural.

This year I committed myself to do at least two one-day trips longer than 200km. Early in the season, I got to know that my road-bike became unreliable and is in fact too uncomfortable to do long distances. My hybrid bike on the other had had a major upgrade last winter and is perfect to do long distances at moderately high speeds. In April I cycled from Ghent to Gedinne (±210km), in May I cycled from the Condroz to Ghent with luggage (±165km) and in June I did Eupen to Ghent (±220km). During these trips, I learned that using satnav is a great help in making a smoother journey.

Last year, the weather, the Brexit vote and a strike in the ferry port were all unpredictable factors that made it very hard to plan the trip. This year the weather, my own diary, my bike in perfect working order and my own good physic all aligned to this one day this year that it was possible. I am happy that I didn’t muse too long on making plans and just did it! An extra pull to do it was roaming being waved in the EU and so I could use mobile data and use the free Google Maps app to easily navigate my way.

Getting there

My initial idea was to take a night-bus to Victoria Coach station and at arrival jump straight onto the bike back to Ghent. But that means if a delay with the bus would take place it would throw a spanner into the cycling work, even before the journey begins. Taking a bike on a bus isn’t easy either. My Brompton bike is made to fit as carry-on luggage but is not an option to do a trip like this. The road-bike could relatively easy be taken apart but isn’t an option anymore since earlier this year. My hybrid bike isn’t easy to take apart so I had to look for other options to get to London.

With the naivety since 2009 being partially dissolved it was now time to take a shot. But naivety is part of the game, for now.

I only made my discussion to do the cycle the evening of the day before leaving. I booked a hotel and a ferry, went to sleep, woke up early, packed a small pannier bag, pumped up the tires and cycled to the train station to get the 7.55am train to De Panne. This is the final stop on the Belgian railway network. From there I had around 2,5 hours to get the 12 o’clock ferry from the Dunkirk ferry terminal. My plan was to cycle to the town of Dunkirk and from there to take the Digue du Braeck, a large concrete slab between the sea and a canal. Yes, the French build a canal parallel to the sea… For this, I had to go a long way into the port over some dodgy bridges. Finally the last connecting bridge was missing so I had to go back and use Google Maps to navigate me further. My second route trough the port was also not a success. After a few kilometres, the road was blocked. Eventually, I learned there was only one possible road to the ferry port. For the final stretch, I took a small country road and was expecting to see some refugees along it but it was all cleared out. I reached the ferry terminal by 11.35am and less that 15 minutes later I was having lunch in the restaurant. It was the quickest checking I have ever done and I must say I got emotional realising after Brexit this won’t be possible anymore. And even now, for some, it takes months or even their lives to get over this border.

It was my first time in the UK since the Brexit vote. I got to know the weird turns of British culture between 2004 – 2102 when I studied and lived in England and Wales. I wrote about these a few times on my previous blog. A few months before the vote I spend some time on the island and back than the main feeling I observed was outgoing arrogance. This time it was another feeling, much more introverted. In the bar on the ferry, the TV was screening Prime Minister Question time. From the 20 people in front of the screen, only one or two were actively listening. The others were numb. But hello, weren’t they hearing that soon they could become uncomfortably numb? In Dover, I had no problem with picking up the routine of getting off the ferry and finding my way out of the port. I had some time before the next train so I went towards the town in search of any signs of Brexit. On the seafront, I spotted a guy probably in his 40s, but more looking in his 60s, shoulders and face down, no hope in his eyes. A few meters behind him was a young nurse strolling along, probably just finished her shift, slightly overweight and keeping herself happy with her smartphone. Whilst trucks bulldozed over the main road between the seafront and the town-centre, locals in mobility scooters, loaded with worn-out shopping bags and guided by their little dogs rolled trough the damp and buzzing subway. To stop for a picture would surely intimidate these people. Leaving the subway the first thing I spotted was a Polish shop that was closed down and to let. Rusted scaffolding and half fallen down fencing were just keeping the street from total collapse. Welcome to Brexitland! After a long stroll trough town, I finally discovered the original Banksy mural. It was actually at the back of the polish shop.

Next, I was able to get onto an affordable train to London Vicotria (on the spot train tickets are usually very expensive in the UK). And in London I used google maps to get to the hotel. The first thing that came up was an ad offering me to try my first Uber. The rest of the navigation came much slower and in fact, it took me 30% of my battery power to navigate the 20 minutes to the hotel. I guess Google sets the priorities…

In the evening I went for a spin around ‘town’. I always forget how massive London is. At some point, I was in the area of the Grenfell Tower. Shivers get trough your spine when you see a pitch black tower standing between its colourful brothers. Getting closer you notice the posters of missing people. People gathering to talk trough their traumas. The feeling that is suppressed in Dover has come to the surface near the tower. Years of suffering from contempt, the disregard for human dignity.

Let’s get physical

Booking a hotel more to the west of town meant that I had 8,5 hours to reach Dover according to Google Maps. I know that I can manage a similar past than the app predicts. So I set my alarm to 4.30 am to get on the bike by 5 am. It got bright in the room before 4 pm so I was up early. By the time I was on the bike and figured out Google Maps on my phone wasn’t working properly again, it was 5 pm and bright enough to cycle without lights. My second navigation option was my iPad inside my pannier bag, using earplugs to hear the instructions.

Cycling in London is easy, the cycle highways go on for miles. The only thing holding you back is the traffic lights every odd junction. Closer to the ring road it gets trickier to find smooth roads. At some points, it’s even embarrassing that they call it a cycle path. Once crossed the river near Rochester to cycle-path follows a killer offroad (invisible) uphill trough a forest. I must have lost a litre of sweat there. But near Blue Bell Hill there was a panoramic spot where you get to realise what a climb it actually was! The plan was to follow Pilgrims Way. By the time I got to the official marking of this road, I had already seen some offroad tracks. Good that I was wearing a helmet because I bumped my head a few times onto low hanging branches.

The start of the Pilgrims Way was a hollow dirt track. I was hesitant and thought about taking another road, but on Maps, it looked like it was only a short stretch. To push trough, I put on “From Deewee” by Soulwax, it’s mush better than energy drink! The road got normal, but after a few miles, it went back to a dirt track. Parts of it were too slippery or too steep to cycle so I had to walk instead. At some point, there was a flooding and my bike sank to halfway the pannier bag into the water. It was time to leave Pilgrims Way and choose the A20 instead.

With the view of the sea in front of me near Folkestone, the cable of my earplugs broke so I had to go back to visual navigation, with my phone. Leaving Folkestone, google maps send me along a road called ‘Swiss Way’. Again, this road wasn’t meant for cycling, it went over into a hiking path uphill between the bushes. But there was no other option. Once uphill, it was only a quick downhill into Dover and I reached the ferry customs by 1.45pm. Unfortunately, this wasn’t on time to get onto the 2 pm ferry.

In this 8.75 hours, 145km cycle with a 1000m climb, I only took 3 short 10-15 minutes stops to eat something. Now was the time to rehydrate and to stock up some nutrients. I had a vegetarian burger in the port and 2 hours later on the ferry, I took another meal. I must say the hardest part of the day was the digestion of this meal. I had to take a half hour nap in between my courses, head flat out on the table.

The ferry moored in Dunkirk at 7 pm and from there it is another 135km to Ghent. By 10 pm I was halfway, near Ostend. At that point, every muscle in my body was so flexible and warm that it could go on into the night. I was even enervating road cyclist because they were surprised with the ease I was following them in their wheel. But the sense of wonder that I had on the British side of the trip, become more and more replaced by a routine of the flat Flemish country roads that I am used to.

I could have continued into the night to Ghent, take some risk, but I thought about the next day. I didn’t want to be wrecked and in fact be a little productive the next working day. I don’t have to be too hard to myself, this journey was sufficient. I have taken decisions every moment during the trip, and it was good to decide to stop at that point when my mind was still sharp enough to make that decision.

The days after, I could eat and eat. On Friday I had four times more coffee than normal. I have slept much longer than usual and I sometimes lost my voice in conversations. All signs that I have stressed my body and need good recuperation.

The experience

During cycling under time pressure, senses are heightened. There is so much to constantly take care of. Am I on the right road, is the traffic around me safe, is the road surface ahead safe enough, am I hydrated enough, how is my body coping, is the bike ok,…

Naivety is totally gone in action, it’s replaced by vigilance.

And in this very short timeframe, you get an intimate sense of the full spectrum of the British society. You start in the uber rich Kensington, moving towards the white collar suburban areas and by the outskirts, it gets rougher, more industrial. Getting outside of concrete barrier that the M25 forms around the city needs you to pierce trough unconventional terrain. Getting in our out of London is almost only possible via motorways, railways or air-travel. Once out of London the romantic countryside is a patchwork of upmarket neighbourhoods followed by social estates. Finally, you’ll reach the rundown harbour town of Dover.

The disregard for human dignity becomes clear on the bike. All the way there is no cocoon to protect you, no window from where behind you can be a spectator. The only layer between myself and the environment is a single layer of black cycle clothing. To protect a human from the dangerous machines world the clothing forms a very vulnerable barrier. To connect a human with other humans and the natural world, it’s allowing a great degree of intimacy.

This cycling adventure was all about exploring the possibilities of what you do in one day. The UK and Belgium have been my playground for many years. But with Brexit, this is about to change. I don’t like cycling in the form of competition against someone else. This time the pressure came from taking maximum advantage of the opportunity space the longest days of the year offer us. It’s something you can only do in the short time of one month around the end of June, begin Juli. I guess I was only competing with the person I was yesterday. Or maybe, the person I was quietly competing to was the artificial intelligence of Google Maps. From the start in London, the app told me the estimate arrival time was 1.20-1.30pm. My ferry was at 2 pm. There was almost no space for error or rest. Sometimes you encounter obstacles and you get knocked back behind on the estimate arrival time. And then when the road gets clear, you push back and reach massive time savings.

I love long distance cycling. Usually, I do multiple day journeys. But these one-day trips are a new discovery for me. It is great to see the landscape change dramatically and get a better understanding of distance, within one attention span. To feel the diversity a country has to offer, from remote country roads to capital transportation hubs. I love to connect the places that are significant to me via bicycling. And by doing so I get even more connected, not only to the start and finish but the whole stretch along and this is. I believe that a pilgrimage, via cycling, or any low key transportation is the best antidote to naivety or contempt. Teresa, would you join me next time on a cycle out of London? I promise I’ll do it at your pace!

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