It has turned out to be rather hard to come back to earth after a visit to Walnut Tree Farm. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Having reached the open fields of the common, with cows grazing in the afternoon sun, then turning down a narrow track, then another and emerging through trees into somewhere suddenly made of wood, bricks and mortar it felt that everything here might be a dream, or just made of the the sound of birdsong a little louder than at home.
Here, like in all the daydreams I’d had about what it was like here, the sun shone gently through the trees. The breeze blew long grass around in front of me. It was a little cooler than the baking sunshine of high East Anglian summer. The owners have looked after the farm well, with creepers reaching around ancient harrows and lean-tos for drying wood. The hedges hide back-to-nature bicycle frames, cartwheels and not-sure-whats. The Maytime wildflowers are tall in the meadow by the railway wagon. We slept so well here we all overslept including Rosie the dog, who spent her time bouncing through the long grass chasing Winnie as she lapped the field and urged us into more games of hide and seek.
The moat was green and cool with its spring-fed good looks, a perfect pool to swim in just a little. Two swims left a fiercely chilly impression. One in the early evening, one in the not-too-early morning. It took Winnie a few goes to get in down the ladder but she eventually did, twice cursing us for various offences we are immediately pardoned for once she was heading up and down, grinning away. On one occasion while this kerfuffle was going on the owners of the farm tended to beehives. Once in, Winnie stayed in, swimming strongly, water spirits smiling approvingly.
The farmhouse, centuries old, is covered in high-rise roses, with windows defiantly open to the elements. It has no central heating which apparently and believably you adapt to quickly. The former owner, the reason for coming here, is hinted at rather than shown. The Great Eastern main line between London and Norwich passes to the east of the farm and trains swish past periodically. At the Cow Pasture Lane level crossing we explored on the way to St. Mary’s in nearby Thornham Parva there are very modern concrete mounting posts for very modern horse-riders to dismount, call to get permission to cross the line and the remount on the other side. The church itself showed off half-hidden medieval wall drawings – a cartwheel, a wolf, cartoonish saints, and an out-of-place but astonishing altarpiece, the ultimate barn find. Its roof and tower and thatched. It was quietly incredible.
There are plenty of ghosts all over this place. They’re very happy here.
As awakenings go it was an unusual one. An entire Romanian Railways vagonul de dormit (Sleeping Car) worth of passengers’ mobile phones emitting a three-beep alarm. Bleary-eyed, I pulled up the blinds to reveal a snowy Transylvanian landscape, all birch trees, woodland paths and, in the distance, jagged-tooth mountains. And on my phone the words EXTREME ALERT! The presence of a bear was reported … avoid the area! Stay indoors! Keep away from the animal and do not try to take pictures of it or feed it.
Inside the cosy embrace of the sleeper I was momentarily confused. Unless there was a bear loose somewhere in the train there seemed little need for such an alarm. I had no plans to go outside at all until we reached Bucharest, some four hours down the line. Most intriguingly, whose instinct on bumping into a bear on a remote track in the Carpathian mountains was to see if it was hungry? The alert, it transpired, was something of a blunt instrument, aimed at skiers but delivered to everyone in the vicinity. We just so happened to be passing through Romania’s main winter sports area around Brașov.
The Ister, so named for the Roman term for the Danube river and a stately bastion of Central European train travel, has been passing this way every day since inheriting the trans-continental baton from the starily-named, but actually pretty workaday, Orient Express. While the long-distance link from Paris itself to Bucharest is now severed into sections, the Ister, without fanfare, forms the evening departure from Budapest, Hungary, to Romania’s capital.
Budapest is a wonderfully well-connected place to start or finish an adventure on the rails. From here, long-distance services snake their way across Europe; reaching first Bratislava, then Vienna and Munich to the west, Bucharest to the east, Warsaw to the north, and Zagreb and the Croatian coast to the south. Most services of significance depart from stately Keleti (Eastern) station, one of the continent’s finest hubs. Four trains travel from here to Bucharest each day – one day train and three night services, named Muntenia, Ister and Dacia.
My travelling companion and fellow train buff Imogen and I decided to travel on the middle of the three. It offered a dinner-time departure and mid-morning arrival. That meant a choice between a seat, a bunk in a four-berth couchette or a more private, and slightly more expensive, sleeper compartment. In fact the latter was the only choice available due to our late booking. The compartment came with bedding already made up and bottles of water.
Before the train, there was some time to enjoy the fabulous winter destination that is Budapest. In between invigorating hikes to Buda vantage points was the chance for chocolate cake in grand cafes and, best of all, the city’s famous thermally-heated baths. Each is different, and while the Szechenyi Baths grab the headlines the art nouveau Gellert complex is equally jaw-dropping. Its grand entrance hall leads to ornately-tiled bathing areas, an outdoor plunge pool and, most famously of all, a column-lined main pool that is a contender for the world’s most fabulous indoor pool. This area was only accessible to bathers wearing a cap, which you could buy on site and then gurn around taking selfies: slightly disconcertingly, the Gellert management didn’t seem bothered about stopping anyone taking photos in such surroundings. While magnificent, it’s not a cheap visit at 9400 Hungarian Forint ($26.50) plus the price of whatever accessories you’ve not bought with you – towels cost 5000 HUF ($13.80). (For comparison, this is half the price of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.) There are smaller, more affordable spa baths around Budapest such as the Lukacs and Rudas Baths. Check online (spasbudapest.com), however, which ones might accommodate you as some are restricted by gender depending on the day of the week.
After a leisurely amble across Pest to Keleti, we had an hour or so to kill before departure and were able to enjoy a craft beer in the handily-placed Keleti Waiting Room. While Keleti station itself has some dramatic ante-rooms which can double as perfectly adequate waiting areas, this cellar bar is in fact few minutes walk from the terminal, selling a huge variety of brews in a snug vaulted basement. A fine place to settle in. Wobbling slightly on departure, there was time to pop into a supermarket for train provisions. We knew there was no dining car on the Isterand though reports suggested one was attached in the morning this turned out not to be the case. A train picnic was therefore very welcome.
After a short stroll under the atmospheric lights of Keleti we boarded the Ister around 20 minutes before departure at 19:10. Even in the middle of the winter season, I had expected it to be a little busier, but our carriage was no more than half full. We were even offered an on-board upgrade to a compartment with a shower for 20 Euros each, cash only. Several groups were only on board as far as Romania’s biggest draw for travelers, the town of Brașov, reached at breakfast time. Heading in the other direction, this service has been heavily used by Ukrainian refugees over the past year. It was certainly efficient. I’ve explored Europe’s night train network extensively in the past few years and found many of them to run unapologetically late, which is part of their slow-travel charm. Unless, of course, you have an onward connection and then find yourself remonstrating with an overly-relaxed platform attendant at Munich Ost station. No such worries tonight. The Ister glided out of Keleti on time and despite multiple locomotive changes, two border controls and the vagaries of crossing snowy mountain passes stayed on the clock throughout.
Apart from feasting on everything we’d brought at the Keleti branch of the Spar supermarket and toasting our good fortune, there wasn’t much to see as we halted at a seemingly endless succession of small Hungarian towns and villages. The Ister reached the border a little before midnight and made steady progress – averaging around 40 miles per hour – across Romania through the night. making stately progress through the night. And once the prospect of meeting a bear had woken us up, the scenic highlight of the route: passing through the Carpathian Mountains between Sighișoara and Sinaia. Dense forests heavy with snow. Ramshackle villages jostling with new-build big-time houses on their outskirts and, in places, ski lifts already carrying Alpine enthusiasts off for their day in the hills. With a few hours to go until Bucharest, this was also a very relaxing part of the journey. No 6am arrival into a still-sleeping terminus to contend with, just the chance to watch Romania unfold around you.
Eventually the hills and forests did give way to a flatter, more industrial landscape as we reached the hinterland of the capital. Then journey’s end at Bucuresti Nord station, a vast, colonnaded monolith when viewed from the outside but actually a relaxed and intimate place to arrive. This turned out to be much like Bucharest itself: an unheralded and European capital. With more trains to explore from here – a night service to Moldova, a daily route into Bulgaria, or regular trains to the Black Sea, this felt like the start of something rather than the end of the tracks.
A berth in a two-person sleeper felt well worth the £75 / $89 / E84 each.
Best Time To Go
Like all services across Europe, peak time on the Ister is school holiday time. If you can travel midweek you should find the best deals and quieter trains.
I can’t write, I can’t speak, I don’t know where to start about the whole thing. Would you? What would you say about the thick jack frost on the grass, turning the ancient heathsides bright white? About the sun’s vigour, bursting through bare trees?
And what of the water, waiting like always, but always something new, today with its yellow fire-flame on rippling falls and rises and who knows what tomorrow? Then steaming bodies and animated conversation to dry off, useless fingers and ‘I don’t know what now, how about another turn?’
Back past the edges of the pond again, round the stationary sun-worshippers, some prodding at new-forming ice with their feet, and a return to the real world up the hill.
I think you’d also try to put into words the wonder, your good fortune, and how with so much world to travel over, this is a patch that’s found and hundreds of feet in the air with the spirits and magic.
Covid testing to enter the USA If there’s a place to start a journey of thousands of miles it’s not a dormant car park by the North Circular Road at Brent Cross pressed into use as a COVID-19 test centre, but here we are as a family, needing five negative tests the day before our visit to Belize. The nurse assures us we are all fine and I relax, but only four results out of five are emailed through when we get home. After fretful hours pacing, talking, debating replanning the whole trip, the final one pings into my inbox. Coming back from Belize, the swabbing nurse vaguely introduces my nostril to the cotton wool bud and pronounces I am clear of infection. I ask her when she last had someone test positive, preventing them from undertaking their expensive and timely journey home from vacation in this Central American idyll. ‘Been a while.’ she deadpans.
Cycling Half term, on a bike in the Yorkshire Dales. The bike is propped up against a drystone wall. I’m resting for a bit on a bench bearing the dedication ‘may I always see green’.
Rotterdam & Amsterdam June. On an orange bicycle, an increasingly irrelevant distance into riding round the endless warehouses and wharves of Rotterdam’s Europort, with the sun feeling like summer. Water, big ships, trucks, space. Later on, having a drink outside a bar in Amsterdam awaiting an evening departure from Centraal on the night train to Zurich. As the train leaves the old city views immediately fade, the tracks instead shadowing an outdoor terrace filled with young people enjoying the warm evening. In a common theme of the year, my train sat for a little too long outside the station after that.
An Italian waterside Lugano in Italian-speaking Switzerland, here for the unimaginable luxury of two fresh water swims in the same day. The town sits glamorous and rolling down the hill from the station to the waterside. A small, stony beach is just right for half an hour, looking across the lake to somewhere even more heavenly. From here it’s down, down, down to Milano Centrale and a sweaty walk to the Duomo, astonishing all over again. Somewhere along the line I’ve given up going in to places like this, content to wander and admire from the outside, and avoid the crowds, queues, x-ray machines.
Overland to Hamburg Aachen, on-board the notorious and ill-fated ICE 15 from Brussels to Cologne. All summer this train has run when it felt like it, which wasn’t often, yet it was a key part of our journey from London to Denmark. Like a parody of itself, our delay in Aachen is first announced as being ten minutes, then 45, then indefinite. We jump off and run down and up stairs to make an alternative, a local train puffing along via Monchengladbach then, eventually reaching Dusseldorf, have two options of late-running trains to Hamburg. Boarding the train we were supposed to be on, we continue north as the Ruhr gives way to the rural flatlands of the north-west, the sun dipping to turn the fields golden. A thread of sunshine leads from there to a happy evening dinner a long way from home. Again, we made it and I am relieved, exhilarated, exhausted.
Toucans The jungle in Belize provides an immersion that is immediate, and incredible. From our balcony Winnie points out a toucan. She spots it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. To me it is a revelation. I feel like I’ve forgotten what it was like to be a child and to stare for hours at pictures of their colourful beaks at a table at home. Here are two, real, clacking away, looking impossible but also real. I feel lucky to be here and hope this moment never leaves me.The whole world looks like a jungle from the top of a vast, steep-stepped Mayan pyramid.
The Queen Late September in the summer with the evening setting over green hills outside the Kydunapark in St Gallen, Switzerland. I’ve come a long way to watch Arsenal, who are having a good season. Not for the first or last time this truncated season I’m not sure if I want to be there. Or rather, once here I’m looking for the door. At half time the Queen died, not long after I decided to head back for my home for the night, talking with some Englishmen who had made Switzerland their home, for reasons I didn’t ask and found in my lack of knowledge envious and unfathomable.
Cork Late into rainy Cork, and getting last orders for something to eat at what still feels like quite an early time, but anyway. I nose around for a few hours feeling as confused as ever about being in Ireland, loving the differences and the similarities and the puzzle of the whole thing.
Constantinople Istanbul, overwhelming in its wonder and sense of singularity, disappointing in that it’s not still the capital of Byzantium, and that her guardians today don’t seem to want mosaics, littering capitals, old railway stations. I walk for far too long, looking for something. Eventually I see what it might be – the suburban railways emerging from a tunnel outside the Theodosian walls, the night sleeper to Sofia passing Edirne, subtly lit up past midnight.
Walking through Liverpool Walking back into Liverpool from Anfield. I knew from the map that Everton was a kind of escarpment over the maritime plain, but being here at night offered a lovely view after a fun night in the safe standing Anfield Road end. A timeless place, heavy with legend no matter how many times you might come here and lose. Two home fans whizz by on scooters. I relish every step back to the waterfront, with ghosts for company still pacing along, looking for the streets of gold, the next day following their tracks south.
Swimming in Hamburg Hot, hot, hot. Hamburg is baking as we stop off here bound for Denmark. There’s a swimming spot right in the heart of the city we aim for, just opening, not too busy. Finding a small patch of shade, we take it in turns in the water. There’s a slide you can swim to and distant view of a grand but unremarkable schloss. It doesn’t feel like home, it’s the reward for our exertions the day before getting here.
Rome walk Arriving in Rome from Perugia in the rainy darkness. It isn’t cold. Termini is full of life and fast trains. In Rome you can quickly duck back in time, to the preferred Italian era of 1984 or possibly much earlier, when things, you feel, had a flavour of being just so at that point and not really worth moving from. Ambulances wail occasionally, cars and motos rumble over so many cobbles. Walking through Monti the buildings are yellow, red, orange, vast baroque churches appear visibly squatting on top of ancient predecessors, pavements are dead-ended by scooter parks and walls over to what? Then just like that I pop out at Trajan’s column, the forum, that huge Italian reunification memorial, the Tiber, Trastevere. It is wonderful, workaday, the best there is. It keeps raining.
Border crossing Kapikule at 2am, Europe’s hard edge, a clock already ticking as the queue moves slowly along. It’s dark and locked in time here, 1987, or 1995, or something. Impossible to sleep at the place where Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria meet. The locomotive creeps through the frontier, to Svilengrad, perhaps Bucharest would have been a better choice, perhaps next year. This journey worked for me.
Across the sea As the fast boat speeds across the Caribbean Sea the water gets bluer and bluer until its a kind of parody of a pirate film. In turn I become a stereotypical holidaymaker, yes I will have another cocktail, blunder getting my family off this boat, fail to tip properly. No matter, even if I still feel bad about the tipping. Caye Caulker is beautiful, the sun is shining, we have made it.
Panorama Train Geneva has a beautiful lake, a lovely stretch of fast-flowing river and an air of constantly, lovingly admiring its own arsehole. I can’t get away fast enough. Changing trains in Montreux the Golden Pass train blows my mind, softened slightly by the knowledge that it would, all the way to Spiez – via a change at Zweisimmen – where the view is even better than I remember and real people live and go on holiday. Being in Switzerland is like having honey poured over my eyes, and my anxious head being stroked by an endless chain of on-time railway departures.
Before the night train Another European city that makes my heart ache. Hamburg in late September is still a kind of sit out on the pavement kind of place. Altona in the hours before my train makes me happy. The anonymity of sitting quietly with a quite incredibly good beer – maybe the moment more than the taste, I’m not sure – and the promise of the night journey on to Stockholm, is there anything better than being here, bound for somewhere?
A second beer, maybe, eventually, ordered and arriving at Cafe Captein & Co in Amsterdam, where Lastegeweg and Oude Waal meet.
The sun has blazed today, meeting with force my mind’s idea of the appeal of European summer heat, and baking my meandering cycling round Rotterdam and later wandering round this perfect place. In all my visits here I don’t think I’ve ever managed to find just this spot to sit. This is the city of quick interruptions to peaceful moments, alleys ending on seedy streets lined with beautiful houses and canals. Is it real? Here I am, back in Europe like before, same dreams of people, places and things, timetable in hand, in constant motion apart from these few moments. The sun streams over the gable end. What heaven is this?
All through long months of lockdown and British isolation I thought of mundane and ordinary train journeys in Europe. Escapes to nowhere special, in rattling and half-deserted train carriages. A kind of daydream. Something specific, and simple, and unattainable.
As if taunting me somewhat I the spent the summer not scratching this itch, but having it amplified. I wrote for a book on train travel in Europe, suggesting in wondrous and agonising detail a route down the spine of the continent. Wrote, planned, but not travelled. It was simply too hard to contemplate such a journey.
Then with summer over a year-old obligation to speak at a conference in Denmark reared its head. A full overland trip was still impractical – time, family and other work commitments saw to that. But there was some precious time, if I was careful, and quick. So suddenly after much waiting I was in Aalborg for two days, somewhat amazed to be outside the UK. On the first night I just walked, and walked, in the rain, with the quiet waters of the Limfjord and dinging bike bells for company. The next morning I went out to the west of the city and swam at a beautiful bathing pool in bright sunshine, and drank coffee, and felt very Danish.
On Wednesday afternoon, obligations fulfilled I dodged off with happy freedom towards the station and departed Aalborg for Fredericia on a comfy rubber-headed Danish DMU bound, eventually for Copenhagen Airport. Trains on the u-shaped route through Denmark take around five hours to travel from Aalborg Airport to the capital’s hub. It is glorious. The flight takes 45 minutes but is no fun at all.
Not intending to do much talking I sat in the quiet coach. On a Danish train this is a very quiet place indeed. Even the ruffle of an opening crisp packet (me) and chocolate bar (me again) sounds like a rip in the fabric of time. The gently rolling countryside and forest passed by. The clouds darkened. I did nothing other than looked out the window as everything moved, open. There was a 20 minute delay which appeared to be caused by a woman with a young family being ejected from the train. We trundled on.
Fredericia was the sort of place that having detrained you immediately wonder if you should have got off at all. I was rather cold for the first time in several months. The rain dripped down in the darkness. Stragglers like me waited for the Esbjerg service. Esbjerg was mainly notable as the former Danish destination for ferries from the UK, now sadly stopped else I would probably have headed home this way. On boarding the train everyone seemed to disappear and I was left more or less alone in the coach. We stopped often. The number of passengers thinned out, and it thinned out further when I changed again at Bramming, waiting for a southbound service coming from Esbjerg, heading to Ribe. This turned out to be a bit like a Welsh bus, decked out in Arriva blue and bound, like I was to be the following morning for Niebull over the border in Germany.
Therefore it had taken some planning and effort to reach Ribe, my destination for the night. I’d wanted to come here for some time, lured by its deep antiquity and colourful tiny houses. When making this plan I had not quite banked on Ribe being as completely dark as it turned out to be, and an inky night showed the city off in a moody, unwilling light. Ribe, presumably very jolly on a warm summer’s night was almost all shut up. No-one on reception in my hotel to say Hej or God dag or even to take my money it seems (they asked for it by email when they woke up pretty quickly) and only two places open to buy food. One was a pizza place that served a large slice of doner kebab pizza which I ate with the relish of someone who hadn’t for 9 hours. The other was a late shop that sold an ice cream for pudding and some backup breakfast for the following morning.
Some people would have stayed until daybreak but my over-enthusiastic timetabling meant I was Hamburg-bound before dawn, returning to the station to take the 6am train south to the near-mythical Niebull. At one end of the Tonder-Niebull shuttle I had pored over for the train travel writing project, Niebull loomed larger in my imagination than Niebull turned out to justify. It had two things going for it, however. First, it wasn’t Tonder, which in the pre-dawn downpour was dour and deserted- though a very nice town, I now gather – and second that it had a station cafe selling coffee. The drink was cold and the train to Altona was 20 minutes late but I didn’t care. Hamburg Altona station was another place I was eager to visit, and the two hour journey passed with impatience. I already knew it wasn’t a patch on Hauptbanhof, but found the selection of long distance trains berthed there – my reason for coming – a little underwhelming and a sketchy vibe outside the station. A shame really, as if I had been more organised and sorted myself with the Altona-93 t-shirt I’d wanted it would have filled the spare hour I ended up working. But no matter.
The rest of my time in Hamburg hammered a few nails from my only other visit, when I only had time to run from HbF to the Rathaus and back, grabbing a coffee and a change of clothes on an epic London to Oslo overlander maybe 12 years ago? The time disappears, but Hamburg looked lovely by the Elbe, if I was finding the German take on Covid rules rather striking after the Danes complete lack of them. I don’t blame them for being thorough, I wish we were, but the difference struck home. The main cases in point was a man arguing about whether I was fully vaccinated or not before serving me a coffee and the woman at check-in who declared my Danish Covid test to be a vaccination certificate until I insisted it was a test and pointed out that it had the word ‘test’ written all over it. It was good also to walk much too far with a heavy bag, almost get run over through tiredness and briefly set eyes on the Alster lakes.
One more train to the airport, a fast flight home that felt more like 2018 than 2021, a wish for a journey, any journey, happily granted.
January and February. A month stuck. Rooted in winter’s icebox, with stubborn unshifting darkness and the deepened dread of endless lockdown. The bastard quarantine of human instinct, spirit and freedom.
There should really be no swimming. No anything. But with small guilt, small thrill I’ve crept out in the Saturday darkness to the ancient church and the river beyond the field.
Each time in the early morning, before light, each time without spectacular dawn or great reward. The roads heading north are dark but not deserted, each Saturday time alone with my thoughts both welcome and unnerving.
The first swim is on a bitter morning, well below zero, with frost on the grass tussocks and a low mist hanging over the water and the bank beyond. Three young swans, sentinel in the water, swim over to see what the fuss is about and seem put out when I jump in next to them. They drift off downstream and leave me to it. A man walks on the other side and we ignore each other. The shock of the water and the cold air stays for the weekend.
The following week it snows, then floods. Cancel the uncancellable. Second swim is turned up mud and me sinking into the riverbank, badly prepared and cursing, fighting myself getting dressed, annoyed that other people are here.
There’s a bonhomie from them at odds with the general air. I feel stupid for engaging one in conversation, confessing where I’ve come from and then reading too much into his reply.
The third visit it is raining heavily, with a biting wind. The heavy flow makes doing very much very hard and though it has its moments it is a force to claim great relief or enjoyment from something that should be a source of both. I wonder if I should just call it quits and stop for now. It would surely not be a defeat to sit and wait for the pond to reopen In the meantime I struggle along, in the water, its riddles and tangled branches, scrapping away for the sake of keeping going and bloody mindedness.
Then dawn arrives, but not instantly. On 13 February the freeze has been here for a sub-zero week, and the car temperature slips to minus three as I park up. On the drive over the sky was pink, rosy-fingered as dawn for Odysseus. I bet he was never this cold. The strong wind from the east took things lower still. Finding small shelter by the blackthorn I struggle out of too few layers and quickly drop in, here for a good time not a long time. The water feels fine but head and shoulders prickle and sting as I edge along towards the overhanging tree, dropping with clear ice. It feels like I’m in the Highland river I once stubbornly swam in every day on a sparkling Easter week in Scotland.
Back to 2021 I’m scared of getting out and sprint from the bank back to my clothes. All decorum out the window I change quickly and stomp uphill, noting with alarm my hand appearing to claw as I stop for a photo of an ungenerous sun. Hypothermia didn’t arrive and on the way home I felt like I mentally left behind what I’d just done. Now back at the front of mind it has some magic about it, but tough. If all this is makes me tougher still it doesn’t feel it, but another week, another week closer and I am still here.
Two days before Boris Johnson sets out a road map out of lockdown that everyone already knows the riverbank has warmed up by around 20 degrees. Dawn is even more spectacular than last week, and I get a little more of it. Spring’s herald is a handsome pheasant pecking round in the undergrowth, not very bothered by my presence. It’s lovely to be able to swim for a little longer and change in warmer air. Downstream I can hear a voice first exclaiming loudly on entering the water, then shouting affirmations of ‘I am grateful! I am grateful!’. I walk past him but leave him to it, happy in the water alone.
Lengthening day outpaces my earlier starts and sunrise plays out in front of me as I drive over for the last swim of February. On one side of the road a vast full moon bobs up and down over the trees as the road rises and falls, like a fast-motion night in moments. Then the sun, vast and orange, ascends through a belt of white-grey cloud. It is quite the start to the day. Walking down to the river it’s apparent how things have turned cold again, and my legs are cold, and that I have somehow forgotten my towel. All these things contribute to a panicky swim, and a feeling of unease and fear that sticks around all day. I can’t help at times like this but feel annoyed at the lengths I’ve been going to to swim, and how I’d like to stop, but almost certainly won’t. I’ve come this far. This is a one-way journey, and there is no going backwards.
On March 31 the pond opened and I went down instead of up on the first morning, the first chance. I was excited and ran the last stretch, anticipating a queue. There wasn’t one, but there was a fair crowd, and instantly the same mix of gentle conversational hubbub, faces I knew well enough to greet and some of whom greeted back. Everyone smiling, laughing and cold, many reunited and keen to get back into routines and grooves.
The water wasn’t quite the release it had been last summer, swimming again after months away. Some of the strangeness of the river was absent here, the struggles to get dressed, unsure if others would come jogging or walking by, or the complete isolation of early on a winter morning with not a soul to be seen anywhere. The fixedness of home after journeys elsewhere. A place so familiar after so much completely alien. Moments in a year swirling like tiny eddys round a half-sunken branch.
If ever a chance presents itself, I must have said on dozens of occasions, I’d like to ride to or from Ilkley. This small town is the home of my in-laws and the usual terminal point for journeys on the northbound highways of England. It’s also 230 miles from home which is really quite a long way.
Following through on that vague notion and doing this ride had never really felt like a realistic prospect, which is partly why I’d allowed my brain to wander off and construct entirely unrealistic giant cycles along this theme without any rest breaks – the whole thing in one go, or even a London-Ilkley-London over three days, or some other flight of fancy when far from a bike saddle. It was something to always be talked out of, or in the decade-plus of raising our young children, to have something far better to do than actually do.
Then 2020 happened, and COVID led to lockdown and an immense change in my own circumstances, and that rarest of windows to do something as ridiculous as this opened up. This time when I vocalised the wish we both realised there was no reason not to. So one July day we fled north, keen to wake up somewhere else after months in one place, this time with bike symbolically shoved at the back of the car. It emerged for a brief and triumphant ride from a farm in Northumberland we were staying on to Holy Island, a ride to be written about more elsewhere. And then again, on a chilly morning, from an ancient cottage in a village high in Wharfedale. From there the bike and I rode home.
I’ve done long rides before. Ten days of titanic, rarely wind-assisted efforts in Botswana and Namibia. Long days in the saddle around the Home Counties, proving I don’t know what to I’m not sure who. Various rides around Ilkley, some organised, most not, and most recently the brutally beautiful Fred Whitton Challenge in the Lake District, 115 miles of cramp-filled delight.
I’m not sure looking back at this how it stacked up to those. I never meant it to, this was partly about taking an opportunity, partly a plan I came up with during the depths of lockdown to reconnect with as much of England as I could and partly giving the voice of no reason in my head – a constant, loud and demanding one – a chance to let off some steam. Take the reins old boy, let’s ride for days on end and see who wins. In the end we called it a draw.
The first, 6am stage of the ride was over very familiar territory. The back side of Wharfedale, Otley and a climb over Harewood. Then into the unknown of pretty yorkstone-built Leeds commuter villages, the gloriously daft and enormous maypole at Barwick-in-Elmet and a tunnel under the A1. A giant climb looming unexpectedly out of one West Yorkshire village into another. From here the route threaded south and east, occasionally bumping disconcertingly onto bridleways that I eventually learned to anticipate and intercept, over the M62, along quiet lanes and then through a web of railway lines, the River Don and canals.
My only pitstop that day was Imogen’s uncle’s house in Retford, where I ate an entire plate of Jaffa Cakes and had two cups of tea in fifteen minutes before getting going again. I nosed east along to the toll bridge over the Trent at Newton and had possibly for the only time in my life a genuine thrill at crossing the border from South Yorkshire into Lincolnshire. Possibly not, too. This happened again on entering Nottinghamshire, and each successive county. At one point I recall crossing back in to Lincolnshire, which is interesting given that my main thought as I crossed the county was that its roads were so quiet as to make me question whether it even existed at all.
As with all long day rides, eventually the milestones arrive, just further down the road than you’d like them to. First a metric century, then an imperial one, and still quite a long way from the night’s stop at Little Bytham. My head was starting to loll in the familiar action of one who is running on empty. I made the last few miles by a combination of listening to music and dreaming of not cycling for a while. Then late in the day I arrived, ate the biggest plate of food I felt I could get away with, drank a beer in the pub garden and then went upstairs and fell fast asleep. The Mallard broke the rail speed record close to here. I broke no speed records.
On the morning of day two the first thing I noticed was that I was red and sore and lacking suncream. The forecast was hot and this made me somewhat anxious, so I set out as early as I felt I could in search of supplies, – thanks to the benevolence of the pub landlord who cooked me breakfast while expressing bafflement at what I was doing. Exchanges like that, I am convinced, are rocket fuel for long-distance sportspeople. The less others see the point, the more determined I got.
After a dalliance on the west side of what was now a route largely tracking the old Great North Road I stocked up, and then moved south of another psychological barrier, that of Peterborough – usually the first stop on the East Coast wallopers out of King’s Cross. Perhaps this allowed me to convince myself I was closer to home than I was, as the next section was arguably the toughest mentally of the whole ride. A largely unbroken straight line south to Royston via Huntingdon, with the A1 at my side, mile upon mile of not being as far along as I thought I was. Fatigue was making me feel bored, and while lovely villages like Uffington and Barnack had been thrilling discoveries at first, I was ready to be closer to home and on roads I knew well. Then again, arriving in Royston felt like a big achievement. It is not often you can say that. Royston reflections: it was old and pretty, there was nowhere convenient to buy a coke and the loo was closed and bolted.
The final section of the ride was over roads I cover frequently – picking up the route home from Cambridge over the Old-Old Cambridge Road, and then the roads that pick their way over the slopes of northern Hertfordshire taken when riding to friends’ holiday dacha in Essex. With 200 miles in my legs the hills were heavy going and I was losing the battle against my planned average speed, if only by a few minutes an hour. I resolved not to care much about that nor that I was able to see that Imogen and the kids had driven the entire route in little more than half a day including a lunch stop and had now overtaken me to arrive home. I wasn’t far behind, and puffed along from Potters Bar to Barnet. It felt slightly unreal to be passing London Transport bus stops, and then a tube, and through the fog I started to consider that I had completed the ride, and was cycling down our street where I get filmed arriving. Winnie asked if I missed her soft toys.
And that was that. I shan’t be doing it again, I don’t think. But goodness me, what a ride.