I am sure there are places we have all been which makes us feel trapped. For me, it is London. It is something which I really cannot explain, but spending more than 5-7 days here at a time starts to make me feel like I am trapped in a room with the air slowly being sucked out of it. Needless to say, lockdown/quarantine has been a rollercoaster ride for me..
The silver lining about being here during this time has been getting to check things off my "dream list". It truly has been a gift. Two weeks ago I was feeling trapped by this city and the few days leading up to, I was really missing home. It had been 151 days since I had been in my own home and still no end in sight. All of this hit me at once and I suddenly couldn't control the tears which rolled down my face once they started falling. I became an instant emotional mess wanting to go home and saying I couldn't take this anymore. Then it was suggested to me, "Why don't you go for a bike ride?" At that moment, it was the most brilliant thing I had ever heard in my life! Why don't I go for a ride.
You know someone has you figured out when they know exactly what can be done to liven my spirits; something which feeds my mind, body and soul with pure joy. And just like that my problem was solved and I knew I was going to be just fine. Now, where do I go ride?
One of the greatest lessons I have been learning over the past 4.5 years is going with the flow of things. Learning you can't plan every minute, every day of life. Something which was inconceivable to me when I lived in America. I decided I would would ride to Stonehenge and back to London over two days and if I wanted to ride more I could a day or two later. I would just let things flow as they should and see where it takes me. (This would be my first trip I would take with no plans. My first overnight cycling trip. My first solo ride over 150km.)
I had always wanted to do a solo cycling trip since I was a kid. In the summer my uncle would hop on his bike and ride to our house, have coffee with my dad and chat. Then ride back home. This would take him the entire weekend to do, but I thought it was the coolest thing to be able to do that. I wanted to do that too. But I never had taken the opportunity. Here I was with my health, my bicycle and time on my hands. This was my opportunity.
Day 1: I set out on my ride, doing the first 80km of my 170km that day with a friend who lived south of the city. It was a fun morning of catching up and enjoying the English countryside. As soon as I rolled over the Thames, I immediately felt free. I was in my element, feeling like I could ride forever. After a our ride together and lunch, I set out solo and ready for the unknown. All I had planned was my stopping point at an Airbnb in Basingstoke.
Day 2: I expected waking up to legs which hadn't seen that type of distance in over 5 years to be a bit rough. But thankfully I had a short 73km routed which I planned to take easy. After a quick change of a flat, I leisurely took to the back country roads my Garmin lead me down which allowed me to see the off the beaten path and it was amazing. With the roads lined with berry bushes of all kinds, I kept stopping every hour to forage for fuel.
A few miles north of Stonehenge is where I planned my stay, in the little village of Figheldean. Upon my arrival I made a wrong turn down and ended up on John's road. John was in his yard and noticed I wasn't from around here and helped guide me on my way. But not before wanting to know where I had been and where I was going. This is the moment when my ride became an adventure.
John suggested if I had ridden all this way from London, that I must not return back until I have ridden through the New Forest and down to Lymington. It was only 100km south from here. As I gave it thought that evening about how much fun I had that day riding the countryside and craved more.
I could not have been more lucky than to have booked my Airbnb 17th century thatched roof cottage with a cyclist who actually had a bike room in his house. How much more perfect could this adventure get? It was the first time in years I was able to sit and have a conversation with someone who loved cycling as much as I did.
My trip was getting better and better as it went on and I didn't want it to end. I went to bed that evening having decided next stop: Lymington,
Day 3: I got up to see the morning mist over the sheep filled field of Stonehenge and then carried on south to the New Forest. John was right about everything he said. The villages of Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst were quant of antique stores and ice cream parlours. The countryside was something else to be admired. I think I rode that day and never stopped smiling from morning to night.
The New Forest is filled with free range livestock from the locals making traffic jams feel like back home when to goats and cattle crowd the streets. I was lucky to find a little deli shop which kindly reopened their doors for me at closing so I could get something to eat. You have to love your fellow cyclists, as was the owner of the store.
Day 4: Was rough. That is the nicest way to put it. But still in the mix of it all, I knew I would get through day and everything would be alright. My Airbnb host suggested I make the ride through Eling to see the old flour mill village, which was lovely. I stopped at the bridge passing and had a chat with the local toll collector about the mill. That was the first 20km of my ride. From there, everything else went down hill. NOT in a good smooth sailing kind of way. My Garmin navigation froze on me and wouldn't even perform a hard reset (which I was desperate enough to do). 'Use your phone!' You might be thinking.
Well, this was the second day of 38 degree temperatures and iPhones don't fair well in direct hot temperatures like this, shutting down from overheating every 20 minutes. I had lost all my technological navigation devices. I spent the day navigating by 'the sea is south and I need to get as far east as possible' and 'somewhere I will eventually cross a bike route'. I rode until I was too hot and then had to keep stopping every 30 minutes for fluids. I rode until I got tired of the stop and go, try to get my phone to work, trying to figure out where I am, while trying not to have a complete meltdown. I managed to find an Airbnb east of Portsmouth. I was so emotionally drained that night.
Day 5: My host the next morning made me the most amazing breakfast which refueled my body and spirits well. I spent the evening and a good part of the morning sorting out my navigation issues. While they weren't 100% fixed, I had my old school back-up plan to fall back on; a map. I had decided I would continue east for the day after he suggested I ride through the Seven Sisters Country Park. With the temperatures cooler and the rains coming in, I knew I wouldn't have to stop as much for hydration and needed to cover good distance. I needed a solid day of riding.
I was missing the countryside routes I had been on the first couple days and passing from South Hampton - Portsmouth - Dover was not my favourite part of the trip. But just past Dover is when I reentered the magical English countryside once more. The land where the White Cliffs begins along the south coast. It was simply beautiful landscape against the dark grey skies. A thunder rain storm rolled in, and I got to hang out in a covered bus stop with a couple 80 year old ladies who were in awe over my little adventure after one said, "I hope you don't have far to go to get home."
I made a few stops that day along the coastal shores to enjoy the pebble beaches and ride the lower line of the white cliffs. When cycling I often slip into a zone where I loose thoughts or consciousness of my surroundings, failing to take it all in. Through the afternoon I made a conscious effort to just enjoy everything around me. The cliffs are a beauty you don't want to miss. For a cyclist, this hills in this area a a blast to ride. I pedaled my way to my Airbnb host just east of Eastbourne which sat a couple hundred meters from the beach. By the end of day 5, I felt it was time to head to London in the morning.
Day 6: Over morning tea I was talking to my host about heading back to London and she said I must see Hastings and Rye first, then decide. My body was tired, but my spirits were high so I went with the flow and like I had done day after day, I took her advice and went for it. I was not disappointed.
The day from start to finish was one of the most beautiful routes of the entire trip. I took my time covering the 40km to the old medieval village. For the first time in all my trip, I spent the afternoon strolling the streets and soaking in all the place had to offer. This had been a perfect day. As I sat there eating my pizza at lunch (2pm), I decided it was time to go home.
I looked up on the map to see how far I had to ride to make it home before dark. 110km in 5.5 hours. Easily doable on fresh legs. Questionable with the state I was currently in and 1200+ meters of hills. But I was up for the challenge. So I went for it. My route did not disappoint one bit. It was the perfect way to end my adventure, as I rode northeast towards London on the country roads, past little villages, and through the open fields. The heavens smiled on me that afternoon giving me a slight breeze to push me home and holding back the tears from the sky to keep me dry the whole way.
Making one stop at Buckingham Palace for a quick pic, I reached home in 5 hours and 23 minutes. I cleaned myself up quickly and stepped out to enjoy a glass of vin to celebrate and reflect on my first solo adventure. 683.3km. and 600 of those on my own. It was easy. It was hard. It was tiring. It was exciting. It was everything I had ever imagined it could be and better.
I met interesting people along the way. I learned new English phrases like; hot as stone, pissing buckets, tiddlely tad and slop yourself (and those are the ones I remember). I learned that after living out of a suitcase for 5 months, there is something worse than that; living out of a tiny backpack for a week. The past few years I spent learning how to allow myself to go with the flow had truly paid off. This was one of the best times I ever spent alone with myself. Never once did I feel uncomfortable or afraid being a woman riding solo on a bicycle across a country with no plan and cannot wait to ride my next country.
I have immense gratitude to able to do things like this, especially in a time where the world is still living with many restrictions. Being away from home this long has been emotionally difficult for me. But if I didn't take this opportunity to check off some of those childhood dreams we often forget about or postpone, I would sadly be missing out.