Day 1 – London to Lowestoft
I know I must have slept because I kept waking up. Whilst the constant background drone coming from either the engine or the air conditioning (or both) filled my head I eventually became accustomed to that. What woke me might have been the change in lighting whenever we passed through stations. Or perhaps it was when the steady percussion of the wheels speeding over the regularly spaced expansion gaps in the tracks changed a beat at a junction. Or perhaps my tiny travel troll was sticking his talons into my ear lobe every five minutes. Needless to say, sleep happened but it was not very restful, best summarised by my first text of the day to my wife, “Slept like a log – going over Niagara Falls”.
Typically, when the alarm went off I had just managed to fall into a deep sleep, probably because the train had stopped. Despite booking a wake up knock for 5:30 I had left my alarm set for 05:20 to give myself a snooze option. Snooze was not an option because adrenaline kicked in, keen to get my cycle across London out of the way and another leg of the ‘journey to the start’ over with.
When the knock came I had already washed in the sink, dressed, repacked and was ready to go. Usually my body doesn’t want to eat food for hours after waking but today the bacon butty went down with some relish (or at least tomato ketchup) and the coffee was just what I needed to turbo charge the adrenaline.
Hoisting the saddle bag I bumped shoulders back along the passage and emerged onto the platform. I was surprised how clean the station looked. Perhaps it was just the bright clear light of the early morning, as yet unsullied by too much human traffic. I wished my head was as clear. I was suffering for the slightly dizzy and headachy feelings that normally follow attempts to sleep on a plane. I had always thought that was due to pressurisation but maybe it is just motion and a constant background droning noise.
Having collected my bike from the rear of the train I pushed it along the platform towards the exit, contemplating the ride across London. It was something I had never done so I was feeling a little nervous and distracted. That is why I almost missed the bear sat on a suitcase under the station clock.
He pst at me, attracting my attention and perhaps, attempting to claim me for his own. “Do ya wanna look after me mate?”
“Not really,” I admitted, keen to be on my way.
“It’s just I’ve been stuck here since 1958,” said the bear, a tinge of complaint in his voice.
“That’s a shame,” I mumbled, looking at my watch, trying to avoid eye contact.
“Only went to the bog for a dump, there being no woods, like. When I came back me older brother had buggered off,” grumbled the bear. “We’d travelled together all the way from Romania looking for the better life and he goes and dumps me the moment we gets here.”
“Don’t you mean darkest Peru?” I asked. It was a foolish move; I shouldn’t have engaged with him.
“Don’t be daft! Peru’s spectacled bears. Do I look like a spectacled bear? Nah, I don’t think so! Nor am I a puma, a jaguar or one of those ridiculous looking llamas. Nah! I am a migrant from Romania. And let me tell you I’ve been here a lot longer than all these come lately types, I ‘ave. I was a trail blazer me. But no one cares.” The bear paused in his tirade, pursed his lips and said, “So, you going to take me home or wot?”
“I’d love to,” I lied, “but I’ve no room on my bike, see.”
“I could wait whilst you gets a taxi,” suggested the bear. “Been waiting for over half a century, five more minutes won’t hurt.”
“Er…but my home is hundreds of miles away,” I said, starting to edge away.
“Least you got an ‘ome ,” muttered the bear.
I started walking. “Sorry, I’ve got another train to catch the other end of town. I’ll be late…”
“Yeh, yeh. Of course,” growled the bear. I can tell from the cold look in his eye that he has heard this sort of thing a lot in the last few decades. “At least leave me something to eat, mate. I’m starving!”
“Sorry, I haven’t got any marmalade sandwiches with me. Must dash,” I said, trying to sound cheerful as I increased my pace and the distance between us.
“Marmalade sandwich?” he hurled at my retreating back. “I’m a bear! Wot use is a bleedin’ marmalade sandwich? How about a nice bit of road kill? You’re a cyclist, you must bump over the stuff all the time! Is that a badger’s paw stickin’ out of that bag?”
By then I was at the end of the platform. I risked one look back but the bear hadn’t tried to follow me. He was still sat on his suitcase under the clock looking brassed off.
Shaking my head at the scene that had just taken place I wondered if I was still half asleep. If not, I wondered what they put in the coffee. I’d have to try and find the recipe.
Still pushing the bike towards the exit I turned on the Garmin to give it a few seconds to fire up. I then loaded the route from Paddington to Liverpool Street.
Exiting the station I was a little perturbed to find that the streets were busier than I had expected. Not busy, just busier than I thought they would be.
By now the Garmin had located some satellites and the start of the route so was ready to go. Flinging my leg over the bike I adjusted the mirror in the end of my drop handlebar, double checked over my shoulder and pulled out onto the road.
There weren’t many cars but sometimes that is worse than gridlock. I knew from experience that fast moving urban traffic is far more dangerous to the pedal powered.
The first few hundred metres were fine until I had to move into the right hand lane to turn right onto the Edgware Road. Whilst there were only few cars around they seemed to have switched to dodgem control, veering between lanes and obstacles without warning. They were obviously used to nipping into small gaps and cut in inches in front of me even when it was totally unnecessary.
The Edgeware Road itself was very broad and I was happy there was little traffic around. I imagine it could be lethal at peak times. Turning left at the end I would have entered Oxford Street but my route turned a couple of blocks earlier and followed a parallel road, Seymour Street. Or at least I think it did. The pink line I was supposed to be following seemed to be jumping around. Or perhaps it was my location jumping. The tall buildings seemed to be messing with the satellite reception.
I knew the route was roughly a straight line eastward, zig zagging first north-east and then south east through the city blocks, so I just followed roughly were the line was as best I could. This took me the wrong way up a couple of one way back roads but there was no traffic to offend and I could have always jumped onto the pavement if necessary.
Overall the ride across the city took longer than I expected. Perhaps it was just that in my mind it was a tiny hop between stations. Compared to the 100 miles a day or so I was going to ride, 5 miles was a small matter. But even 1 mile of tense urban cycling can seem a long way. Despite passing some recognisable sights, such as the British Museum, I did not enjoy the experience and was happy to roll up to the station. Probably the biggest impression left on me was that everyone in the city must live on coffee and natural snacks, otherwise I couldn’t account for the Costa Coffee and Pret A Manger on every street; in fact, sometime more than one.
I had far too long to wait on the platform and entertained myself by fretting nervously that the train to Norwich wouldn’t arrive. To distract myself I started chain eating cereal bars from my saddlebag: I had brought a day’s supply of pocket food to keep me going on the ride and the calories were no good sat in the packet.
The fretting was a wasted effort for the train arrived and left on time and I was soon relaxing on the train, speeding along the tracks towards Norwich. I experimented with the tablet I had bought for the ride and made a blog post. On previous trips this had been my wife’s role. I would send texts and make phone calls and she would piece it all together each evening. Well, that was fine for a once in a life time trip. It was more of a burden on the second trip and by the end of the last had become one too many things to cope with. Handling three boys, two dogs, two guinea pigs, two rabbits and a cat on her own was enough.
Between paragraphs I peered out of the window and noted that we were not speeding along quite as fast as we had been but put that down to being on a rural route. Until an announcement interrupted me as I was about to finish my blog post: the train was running late and any passengers for Lowestoft would need to transfer at Ipswich to take a slower but direct train.
I was impressed with the announcement and the clear instruction given. I was not so impressed that it was given just as the train pulled into Ipswich station.
Cramming the tablet in my saddlebag and wedging my feet back into my shoes I scrambled out of the carriage and charged down the platform to retrieve my bike. The guard held the train for a minute to let me heave the bike to the platform and then waved the train on its way. As I was trying to mount my saddlebag on the bike the guard leaned out of the window of the rapidly disappearing train and shouted, “No time for that! The train to Lowestoft is just leaving.” He gestured across the station to a train straining at the leash two platforms away.
Great! I suddenly felt completely exposed. If I missed the Lowestoft train I would be stuck in Ipswich waiting for another train to Lowestoft. For all I knew they only went twice a day. If I had stayed on the Norwich train I knew there would have been another connecting train to Lowestoft an hour later, I had checked. Alternatively I could have cycled the extra distance – I had even created a gpx route file just in case. True it was an extra 33 miles but not insurmountable. I had no idea how far it was from Ipswich to Lowestoft. It must have been a lot further because we had not long since passed through Colchester and I knew that was 96 miles, because it was my goal for the end of the day’s cycle.
Snarling at the injustice of all my thoughtful planning going out of the window, I hoiked the bike onto my right shoulder and, with my saddle bag dangling from my left hand, ran. I charged along the length of platform 3, up the steps, over the bridge, down the steps on the other side and hurtled all the way back down platform 1. When I arrived, panting from exertion, the guard on the Lowestoft train smiled and said, “No need to run mate, we don’t go out for another 5 minutes.”
Imagining the smirking guard on the Norwich train, I unshouldered the bike and pushed it on the train. I call it a train although I am not sure whether the term should technically apply, for it was just one carriage, with the engine built in. There was no designated space for the bike so I placed it in the luggage area and chained it to a rail so it wouldn’t fall over.
Despite the drama of the moment, at least now I could properly relax. True, the ‘train’ was not due to arrive until 10:00, more than half an hour later than planned, but at least I didn’t have to make any more changes. The final stop was the start!