Constant rain, grey skies, mealy mouthed job worthies, stifling political correctness, unhealthy tasteless food, boring non stop reality TV, Kay Burley, speed cameras, stealth taxation, VAT, high crime rates, fat women in leggings, fat women in leggings and shorts, fat women in yoga pants, under performing sports teams, corrupt greedy bankers, a haven for violent radicals, inept and dishonest politicians, and fluorescent green reflective jackets….
HURRAY we finally made it to the mufti effnic kingdom of Blighty. The country I am indigenous to and have a love/hate relationship with … I love to hate it.
But hey! Enough of all that pom bashing stuff.
The reality is of course there are some real gems in good ol’ Blighty, but like diamond mining you have to sift through a lot of shit to find it.
The UK produces the best soldiers in the world; is a leader in innovation, creativity, art and design; has a unique sense of self effacing humour; and most importantly it produces Marstons Pedigree bitter and Marmite (both from Burton Upon Trent near where I grew up ….I might add).
We have some lovely friends and family who for some reason or another still live on “mud island” and they have all made Fanny and I extremely welcome in their homes and tolerated my smelly boots, wet soggy clothes, and my incessant whinging and whining about the food, the weather, Britain’s preoccupation with health and safety, snowflakes being offended at everything and anything, and inflicting diversity on me against my will.
I can’t help it… I like it the way it was… in 1839, probably.
We intended to take the Euro-tunnel from France to England, but the price for a single trip was a minimum of £99 each, and so we took the cheaper ferry option where on board we met some very interesting fellow bikers and shared our stories of daring do and adventures in far flung exotic places.
I have to say I was a bit emotional when I saw the white cliffs of Dover and realized we had actually ridden our bikes more than 35,000 kms from the southern tip of Africa, across the Middle east and Europe and all the way to England, and done so with no back up or support, no Long Way Down style Nissan Pathfinders full of spare parts, medics, security etc., and completely self financed. We had also managed to raise a few bucks for our charities, Autism Research Trust and Half the Sky along the way.
As we drove down the ferry ramp I looked back in my rear view mirror and saw the orange headlight of Fanny’s KTM bringing up the rear, as it had done every day for more than a year, and I felt immensely proud of her. Against all the odds she had done it. A remarkable achievement given that she only had a driving licence for a month before we set off.
And even more remarkable, that she had managed to put up with me the whole time!
I also felt very lucky and privileged as only a very few people ever get the chance to ride a motorcycle around the world, and of those who do, only a few get to do it on the best adventure motorcycle, and together with their “other half”.
It was late when we cleared (i.e. just drove through) customs at Dover port, we were both very tired, the weather wasn’t very warm, and we had to make a concerted effort to remember to ride on the left hand side of the road for the first time since Kenya.
We were aiming for Bexhill on Sea in East Sussex where my good friend Nick Dobson and his parents live and where we would be staying to celebrate Nick’s 50th birthday and indeed the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
As we were riding the twisty roads along the south coast of England I kept wondering whether this would be the end of our big bike trip. Neither of us were ready to stop and so I was constantly mulling over various options to keep going. We were aiming for Shanghai and between us and east China were a lot of challenges.
It was strange riding in England after so long. We had no problem keeping to the UK speed limits as we had got into the habit of driving quite steadily and slowly for fuel and tyre consumption, but occasionally I would forget we were in the land of speed cameras, the terminally offended, and where the locals might get a tad upset if we did a bit of off roading across their gardens. Just as well we had South African licence plates!
Whilst we had become used to terrible driving conditions in places like Cairo and Addis Ababa, we still had to make a concerted effort to keep well clear of the notoriously “biker unfriendly” car drivers that hog the roads in the UK.
There are actually some very considerate car drivers about, but there are also some extremely inconsiderate and very grumpy ones. What is really disturbing is that there are some car drivers who think its perfectly OK to nudge a bicycle or motorcycle off the road, or deliberately prevent them filtering through spaces that are wide enough for two wheels but not for four. A definite slack jawed character flaw among some of the UK population.
The most dangerous times on UK roads are when the mummies (both male and female) are collecting their little darlings from school in their “Surrey tractors” and a motorcyclist has to be very alert to their erratic manoeuvres, dangerous obstruction and appalling parking techniques.
I can proudly say I was never taken to, or collected from school in a car during my entire school days. As very small children we would of course walk to school with our mothers, and from the age of six or seven onwards we would walk, cycle or take the school bus by ourselves as any kid seen being taken to school by their mummy would be quite justifiably beaten at playtime, even if they didn’t have ginger hair.
In fact, in those days most kids played outside all day, drank from hose pipes, regularly worked on farms, and only lollypop ladies and “The Sweet” wore hi-viz clothing.
Back in the 60s and 70s when I grew up in England the concept of the poor hurt “victim”, being offended at everything, personal injury lawyers and namby pamby health and safety hadn’t invented themselves yet and so there was more joie de vivre and leg room for a kid to kick about and learn about life.
When I look back at my childhood I had a lot of freedom growing up in the countryside in Staffordshire. I was a very independent young child and according to my mother would disappear for hours on end and only reappear at mealtimes.
I would regularly get caned, mostly justifiably, and occasionally unfairly, but more often than not I would get away with my various infractions and deviations from adult social constraints.
I remember an occasion when my brother and I both got thrown off the school bus (“The Stevenson Rocket”) in the middle of no where for an alleged “fighting incident” and immediately got picked up by a passing truck that subsequently overtook the school bus blaring its air-horn and with us hanging out the window and waving with immense delight at our friends sitting on the bus.
Nowadays I am told its too dangerous for kids to walk or cycle to school. And indeed it well may be… not because there are more pedophiles and pervs trawling the streets for little boys, but because all the mummies are causing driving havoc in their Surrey tractors outside the schools whilst collecting Henry for ballet lessons, or Chesney for his Ritalin prescription ….and of course at the same time texting, tweeting, updating their Facebook status and panicking they are late for Pilates class.
Anyway, I digress as usual.
We continued with our tour of the UK and started by visiting my younger sister, Amanda at her home in Wiltshire, very near to Stonehenge, and then to see my eldest daughter, Becky at her home in Bristol. My brother, Simon, is a good chap, but suffers from acute online Tourette’s Syndrome and insults everyone. He interferes in sensitive matters inappropriately, and appropriate matter insensitively, and so for the sake of Fanny I keep her and myself well away. A great shame, but actions have consequences.
Later, we escaped into Wales, which Fanny describes as the nicest part in England!!
We crossed the Severn Bridge into a very wet and rainy South Wales and then across glorious countryside and picturesque valleys all the way to the north to see Alan Jones, an old buddy who lives in Conwy, and with whom I joined the Metropolitan police in 1981. He has now retired and his many idling activities includes testing eight thousand quid law mowers and motorised wheel barrows, and shouting at the dogs.
After a superb time in Wales, where Alan guided us as we climbed Mount Snowdon and did some impressive hikes in the mountains, we went to see our friend Tony whom we first met in the Sinai when we were staying in Dahab for several months, having been directly caught up in the Egyptian Spring Revolution and all the chaos in Syria. We made the most of it, Fanny learning to windsurf and me getting my diving qualifications in the Red Sea. Tony was my dive master.
He was back in England for a while from sunny Egypt and staying in his home town of Wallasey, near Birkenhead, undergoing yet more medical treatment. As a former UK special forces soldier he had been through a lot and he was now suffering from the punishment he had put his body through in his earlier life serving our Nation in hostile climes.
He lived in a small, but immaculately kept apartment, yet because he lived on his own the local authorities wanted to put him in even smaller accommodation, no doubt so they could use his apartment to provide free housing to some immigrants with dozens of children and extended families.
The injustice of it all is unbearable, but he doesn’t complain, as is the way of these former fighters for our freedoms. He just soldiers on. I think Britain’s former soldiers are treated abysmally and its a disgrace.
Well Liverpool? What an experience!
I hadn’t yet seen the UK TV show called “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” nor had I any inkling that it was now fashionable for British women of all shapes and sizes to spray paint themselves orange and make a lot of effort to display as much of this orange flesh as possible. Very odd eye brows too!
I never found out as I never had the nerve to ask one of these fiercesome looking Oompa Lumpa creatures why they do it. Patches of flesh that weren’t orange were tattooed, something else that never looks good on a woman. Each to their own, I suppose. So long as they don’t make it compulsory, and I don’t have to look at them!
Maori patterns were once popular tattoos (as many forty somethings are reminded each time they take a shower… for ever and ever), but now many men and women have Chinese characters indelibly inked onto their flesh and since I can speak, read and write Chinese quite well I am privy to some real clangers.
The Chinese is either badly translated or just poor calligraphy. I guess this is the reverse of the nonsensical English expressions written on T-shirts worn by Asian teenagers (“What’nt Gone Be Nobody’s Cool” and all that).
Or perhaps having the Chinese character for “wardrobe” on your bum has some special meaning bigoted old farts like me don’t appreciate.
Or perhaps its the Emperor’s New Clothes, ‘Hey! Everyone….that woman is orange and has “Lard Arse” tattooed in Chinese’.
And ankle tattoos? Just don’t do it.. its asymmetrical and upsets people with Aspergers like me.
I think I took yet another wrong turn along rant street.
The high streets of all British towns all look pretty much the same to me. Same shops, same design, same sort of people selling the Big Issue with the same dog, same miserable people milling around.
Generally I don’t like these town centers and shopping malls very much and I make a real effort to avoid them. However, Fanny and I do occasionally have to buy important things from UK shops, like Motorcycle News and lottery tickets and so, if we can, we prefer to go to the out of town retail centers where we can park our bikes safely (Britain is full of bike thieves) and get the miserable experience over and done with as soon as possible.
It is true enough that the UK supermarkets are the best in the world and seem to sell everything, although its quite hard to take in a kilometer long aisle of 1000 different types of breakfast cereal or cat food when you have traveled through countries like Malawi and Ethiopia.
Despite the UK spending 13 billion quid every year on Aid to places like Africa you still can’t buy Vindaloo flavoured shampoo or green Kitkats in Blantyre or Addis Ababa!
If my sister had seen my feet she would never have allowed them in her bubbly bath thing.
Due to the fact that it never stopped raining we gave up the idea of going to the Lake District and Scotland and rode eastwards to the beautiful English county of Derbyshire to see our friends, Andrea and Gary who lived in the Peak District inside a dry house with a larder and two refrigerators full of food.
I can assure Gary and Andrea the great food wasn’t the only reason we visited. Honestly.
Gary and Andrea are also bikers and while we were staying with them we went on a ride together to Mattlock Bath where hundreds of bikers gather on Sundays and drink tea and eat fish and chips.
We then went to Stoke on Trent and spent time with my sister and her family and were thoroughly spoilt with great food, a very comfy bed and even served “Manhattan Cocktails” by my brother in law, Mark as we wallowed like hippos in their Jacuzzi.
Adventure biking is exciting and there is nothing to stimulate the mind quite like world travel, but after so long living in our tent or occasionally in grotty budget hotels a home cooked meal, a bathroom with clean towels and a comfy dry bed are extremely welcome and so we are very grateful to our friends and family in the UK who looked after us
(Photos in “Our Friends” Page above): ……..a special mention to The Dobsons in East Sussex; Mandy, Sally and Martin in Wiltshire; Alan & Sue in North Wales; Gary and Andrea in Derbyshire; Rachel and Mark in Staffordshire; David and Pae Lee in Hertfordshire; Andrew and Abigail in Kent; Becky in Bristol; and Rik in Wales. Thank you all very much.
Whilst in Staffordshire I took Fanny to see the schools I went to as a boy. Oldfield’s Middle School and Thomas Alleynes (Grammar/High) School. We rocked up on our loud KTMs in the evening and I thought the caretaker was going to chase us away, but I explained what we were doing and that it was many years since I was last there as a schoolboy and so he very kindly gave us the grand tour, which brought back many memories for me and gave Fanny an insight into what an English school looks like.
Oldfield Hall is a very nice looking school set in beautiful grounds with playing fields and woods. I had heard on this trip that many school playing fields in the UK are being sold off by the education authorities which to my mind is a crying shame. Sport, physical training and competition is extremely important to a child’s development. Winning and losing is a reality of life and eventually all of us have to come to terms with not getting what we want sooner or later. Its how we deal with defeat and failure that matters.
Later, we also went to the Horizon’s Unlimited Adventure Bike gathering in Ripley. We had a terrific time, met some interesting people and would especially like to thank Sam Manicom, one of the world’s greatest motorcycle adventurers and an all round decent chap who made us very welcome at the HU meeting.
After our tour of the Midlands we had to head back “daan sarf” so our bikes could get yet another service.
We rode to the KTM UK Centre in Hemel Hemstead where Jason and his team did their thing to the bikes, hopefully changed oils and filters, checked all the bearings, and tightened the nuts and bolts and then relieved me of more money than I can really afford + VAT. No choice though. KTMs like their filters changed and are fussy about the quality of their oil.
While our bikes were being serviced I was kindly loaned a blue KTM 990 and my friend, David Lee looked after us at his home in Hitchen. His wife, Pae is originally from Thailand and so that evening we had a delicious authentic Thai dinner with all the hot chillis and spices, and also polished off some of David’s impressive booze cabinet.
A great evening with good friends.
It so happened that while we were in Hitchen the Queen was visiting as part of her Diamond Jubilee Tour and so we all trooped off to line the route with our plastic Union Flags to see Her Majesty inspect her subjects, including a visiting Pinko Commie RTW motorcyclist, Fanny.
The “Establishment” was well represented and looked as alarmed and uncomfortable among the proletariat as if Millwall football supporters had invaded the Royal enclosure at Ascot.
Lady Farsenby -Smythe and Lord Twistleton-Flange looked particularly uncomfortable as they had to endure mingling with the great unwashed who were being rather common and vulgar with their regional accents and uncouth ways, don’t you know.
Anyway, well done Ma’am (as in Ham) on 60 years of reign and occasional sunshine.
After saying goodbye to David, Pae and their very charming children we went to collect our bikes from KTM in Hemel Hemstead. The new 990 Adventure which they loaned me was handed back in the condition it was given and then we headed to London on our newly serviced KTMs to sort out visas, passports, air-tickets for Fanny back to China and shipping arrangements for our bikes to where-ever they were going. We were still not sure.
We not only went into London to do all our admin chores, but also did some touring of Kent which is a rather well to do county of England. We particularly enjoyed visiting Chartwell where Winston Churchill lived. A super home, even nicer gardens and in a particularly green and pleasant bit of the country.
One of the few things I do like about London is that it has some of the greatest museums and art galleries in the World and so while we were running around applying for visas we went to the superb British Museum which houses a collection of the finest and most interesting treasures collected during a time when the sun never set on the British Empire.
Of course the museum is now run and operated in the best possible taste so as not to offend any of the tourists from the countries the loot was “half inched” from in the first place.
We stayed at my friend Andrew’s house in Seven-oaks and were very well looked after by him and his wife, Abigail.
Andrew is another motorcycle enthusiast and Abigail probably has me to thank for their garage being full of motorcycles as fifteen years ago or so I rocked up for work in the Stand in London, where we both worked (in the Fraud Services Unit of the now defunct Arthur Andersen Accounting firm) on my Suzuki 1300 GSXR Hayabusa and the seed was sown.
He is a die hard biker now and when we were living in Egypt he came out and we rode to St. Catherine’s Monastery on the KTMs.
I was born in London, but I am sad, and a bit embarrassed to say I do not care for it very much, and according to Fanny, neither does she, a born and bred Shanghanese woman from another continent and totally different culture.
She told me in Chinese that it appeared to be a mess, felt hostile and not very English. I had to agree. People ask me if I would ever go back to live in England. Maybe, but definitely not to London or any of the other English cities.
Nowadays, London is like Karachi on bin day. If I am being totally honest I am rather scared and wary of the menacing young Muslim men who prowl about looking hostile and confrontational in many parts of London, and indeed in British cities such Luton, Birmingham and Bradford. I am also suspicious of humans who cover their face and engage in superstitious odd rituals, and that includes Moonies, Freemasons, Doggers, and Catholics.
Fortunately, the Holy See in Rome has given up torturing, burning, hanging, mutilating, beheading and generally being nasty to people for apostasy, otherwise I would be in a lot trouble. Islam has not.
I can assure you this is not racism or Islamophobia. For a start Islam isn’t a race, its a superstition, one based on ancient texts penned by frail humans with a poor understanding of science and a fear of the unknown.
Also, its not a phobia as my fear is not irrational. On the contrary, my fear and loathing of all organised religion is extremely rational and based on common sense, a very good understanding of “Strain Theory”, and a decent knowledge of the works of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Powell, Hitchens, Dawkins, Newton, Darwin, and Johnny Rotten.
In actual fact, I enjoy and relish different cultures, that’s why I travel. I couldn’t care less what shade of pink, yellow or brown a human being is, but I am increasingly saddened that I am indigenous to a land that has little culture of its own, and feels compelled to adopt some nasty and unsavoury alien ones.
Strangely, I found Muslims and Christians I encountered in the Middle East and north Africa to be quite friendly, if not a little aloof and conservative. But then, whilst visiting these Islamic countries I went out of my way to be respectful, compliant and courteous to my indigenous hosts.
Anyway, what can you do? A “belief” to my mind is something private, and not to be inflicted on others. The best one can be is well mannered.
Again I digress. Back to the big bike trip.
Our visit to London wasn’t a particularly successful one because the London passport office had basically closed down and the applicants now had to go online and make an appointment to submit their documents at another office behind Victoria Train Station.
I already had a well used passport, full of visas and entry stamps, but I needed a second passport and used the excuse that the Israelis had stamped my passport and now I couldn’t travel to my favourite country, Yemen anymore.
I could have told them the truth– that its a safety precaution for when I travel to dodgy countries–but then the mealie mouthed jobs worthies at the passport authority wouldn’t have given me a second passport. The UK is getting more like China– everything is banned and so you have to use lateral thinking to get around the ridiculous red tape.
Also, Fanny and I were still undecided about where we were going next and so we didn’t know which visas to apply for, when, and in what sequence.
If we wanted to ride across central and eastern Europe and through the “‘Stans” to China on our KTMs it was entirely possible, but administratively it was a major headache and was far far too expensive.
In the end we decided that Fanny should fly back to China and see if she could secure some support and sponsorship from some Chinese companies and sort out all the administration and permits for places like Tibet, Xinjiang, Kazakhstan and Mongolia on the ground in China.
For instance, as a foreigner, I was not allowed in Tibet without a special permit, I had to have a paid escort whilst riding a motorcycle in China, and visa restrictions would be prohibitive. (Note: we sorted all this out — as described in subsequent chapters of this blog)
Fanny had to leave anyway as her UK visa was about the expire. Somalian warlords, Italian mafioso, Saudi arms dealers, Romanian pickpockets and Islamic hate preachers can all stay in the UK and get a council house if they want one. Chinese lawyers cannot. Roll on Brexit.
Anyway, it would not be a good idea for her to overstay as she might want to visit the UK in the future. In the meantime I would stay in England … at least until the first week of August which was a sort of deadline for several reasons.
One of the reasons was the weather, as we cannot ride through places like Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Xinjiang or Tibet in the winter as it reaches ridiculously cold temperatures of -30 degrees centigrade in places, even in late autumn. Another was that our funds were now in the red and we would both have to get jobs the following year.
As we had already ridden several hundreds of kilometers that day we had left it too late to ride the bikes a further 150 kilometers to Bexhill where we were going to store Fanny’s bike in Nick’s garage. So we checked out some budget hotels in London and were shocked that there was nothing available under £80.
Fortunately we had researched some campsites and there appeared to be one in Crystal Palace of all places and that is where we headed for.
It was quite fun riding through busy central London at night with all the neon lights and bustling activity, especially so with our South African registered bikes as however hard we tried to comply with the road signs, painted mostly on the road surface to make it even more confusing, our Garmin GPS was forever causing us to be in the wrong lane at the wrong time, inadvertently causing us to break many provisions of the UK Road Traffic Act.
South African plates, though! We were effectively immune from prosecution in the UK. I felt like a Nigerian diplomat.
Although it was getting late, we took it steady through the busy boroughs of London. This was just as well because we were overtaken by a Triumph Street Triple that was filtering through the gaps and we saw it make the fundamental mistake of not checking vehicles waiting to make a right hand turn through held up traffic, and we watched in horror as it ploughed right into the side of a white van that turned in front of a waiting bus.
Luckily the rider was wearing decent protective clothing and its seemed only his pride was bruised. Unfortunately his bike was not so lucky as it broadsided into the side of the van. His lovely new Triumph was a real mess and he had no-one else to blame really but himself.
As a fellow rider I did actually feel sorry for him as he picked up the fragments of his pride and joy and examined the holes in his riding gear.
Fanny and I had of course ridden through some of the most congested cities with the worst driving standards on Planet Earth and we had learned to ride with caution and anticipation. Many of the motorcycle riders we saw in Europe clearly hadn’t learned this lesson and their meeting with a wheel chair, or their maker is sadly inevitable.
We pushed on across the River Thames and got to the campsite near the famous radio tower in South London at about 10 p.m.
No-one was around and so I rode around as I had done many many times, in many many campsites around the world, scoping out the ground and looking for the perfect place to park up our motorcycles and pitch our tent.
In England such activity is obviously a heinous antisocial crime and this blatant breach of local etiquette had infuriated the two wardens and the 300 pound security officer who appeared out of nowhere and tore into me in what I can only describe as a “London rant” of obscenities with lots of “YOUR BANG AAAWWWT OV AAAWWWDAAA” stuff and other Cockney cliches.
Now there is a time to argue and there is a time to put on a gormless posh accent and mumble “I’m terribly sorry old chap”…… like the British paratrooper played by Edward Fox who lands in a greenhouse in the war movie “The Battle of Britain”.
This was the time for the latter and it worked a treat because they did not know what to do and gradually calmed down and reverted to just plain lecturing mode with lots of tutting and head shaking.
In the end, instead of them calling the “Old Bill” to take us off to the Tower they found us a very nice camping spot and in the morning I continued my humble apologetic routine, told them we had had an awful day in the drenching rain, were held up in appalling traffic, and were riding around the world for charity etc etc.” (which is all true).
Surprisingly they had completely changed their tune and kindly informed us that the camping fee was on them. They told me they had also had a shit day, apologised for getting angry at us, and wished us well.
I should never have told this story to Fanny because she then went into a speech I have heard from my mother, teachers, wives, and a multitude of former girlfriends ….. The speech that consists of variations on the theme of being nice: ‘I told you being nice is better’, ‘You see, you don’t have to start a fight all the time’, ‘People will be nice if you are nice to them’, etc etc..
To which I nodded intently and replied, ‘ Where’s my breakfast, Bitch?’. Which probably accounts for the fact that there is a long list of former females in my life.
In the morning we packed up and rode out of the suburbs of south London, which let’s be honest, is not very nice, and into Surrey, which is very nice.
We followed a lot of the route that was later going to be cycled along during the road event in the London Olympics, and we then cut through charming South Downs villages with cricket greens and duck ponds to a place I saw advertised in Motor Cycle News, called “Cycles Spray” that I hoped could repair and re-paint Fanny’s damaged side panels that had been grazed and gouged when she cart-wheeled her bike along a sand and gravel trail on the way to Soussesvlei Dunes in Namibia.
The scratched and grazed panels did looked the part, and certainly gave the impression that we had indeed ridden across Africa, but it was time to get the bike back into 100% tiptop condition. The KTMs are superb motorcycles and despite where we had been they were in great condition and had been well looked after and serviced.
I unbolted the orange plastic panels, handed them over and said I would collect them in a couple of weeks when they were ready. We were lucky because they were being repaired and painted at a fraction of the cost of replacement plastic panels from KTM or Acerbis, which I have to say are a ridiculously expensive.
Fanny then rode her bike “sort of naked” to Bexhill where we stored it in the Dobson’s garage. I then took her and her bag on the back of my bike to Gatwick to catch the express bus to Heathrow airport for her flight back to Shanghai.
As she boarded the bus I was suddenly and unexpectedly flushed with enormous sadness.
We had been together every day and every minute for the last year and been through some amazing adventures together. Few people live cheek by jowl as we had, and saying goodbye to a loved one is always tough.
After her bus pulled away and I rode back to Bexhill to get my own things I kept looking in my mirror. No more orange light following me anymore. My 尾巴 had gone. I suddenly felt extremely lost and very lonely.
It took several days not to panic each time I looked in my mirror and couldn’t see her bike. For everyday over the past year or so I had led the way with Fanny following behind. I paved the way and moderated the way I rode to Fanny’s speed, Fanny’s capability, and made sure there was always enough space and time for both of our bikes to maneuver, get over something, passed something, or overtake.
I was like a lookout Meercat constantly doing a 360 degree scan for danger and risk. Now I only had myself to worry about and it was only a matter of time before I was back to my bad habits, riding around rather more quickly than I should, performing unnecessary wheelies, sliding on bends, and banking steeply around corners.
‘Are you riding safely?’, Fanny would ask me when she called me on the telephone.
‘Oh, yes” I would reply.
So what should I do now? I felt a bit lost.
The first thing I did was to organize all our kit and then take a ride to Arundel where I knew there was a YHA and campsite I could stay at cheaply, think about things and plan the next few weeks.
I really didn’t want to fritter the time away and yet I didn’t want to put unnecessary mileage on my bike. I also wanted to do things that would have probably bored Fanny a bit. Old fart activities like visiting military museums, airshows, county fares, bird parks, and castles.
I knew the Farnborough Airshow was coming up and so I headed for there, but on the way I pulled into the former WWII RAF airfield at Tangmere where Hurricanes and Spitfires battled against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Now a museum, I had a great day looking at all the aircraft and exhibits and chatting with the volunteers who ran the place. These people are represent Britain at its best and I had an amazing time. I would love to have been a RAF pilot, but alas, not to be. A Royal Hong Kong Police officer was not a bad alternative as it turned out.
As I arrived in Farnborough it was pouring with rain. Very heavy, very wet and extremely miserable. I looked around for places to stay, but being unprepared I ended up camping right at the end of the runway, illegally in Army grounds as it happened, and in the morning a military patrol chased me away, but not before I watched some amazing aerobatic displays which put on quite a show despite low cloud and continuing bad weather.
Decidedly wet and soggy, I pushed on into Wiltshire to see my sister again and perhaps do some skydiving at Netheravon. In the end I just watched the skydivers from Amanda’s garden with a cup of tea and a cake as they tumbled out of the aircraft and spent the remaining time walking her basset hounds (Urgh!), running across Salisbury Plain (good fun), riding bicycles with my sister, and going for rides around Wiltshire on my stripped down KTM.
I decided that if its going to continue to rain I might as be in Wales and so I left my sister’s house and rode back across the border. Whilst cahooning along the many superb motorcycling routes in Wales, and believe me there are many, I stayed at Rik Davis’ bed and breakfast. Rik is a fellow adventure motorcyclist and has ridden around the world on his BMW GS.
His website is www.thebigbiketrip.com and so with a URL like that he is sort of our motorcycle adventure cousin.
We shared stories and adventures late into the night and the next day I rode up to Conwy in North Wales to stay with my friend Alan again. We had provisionally agreed to do some hiking in Wales together and he suggested we hike the entire Offa’s Dyke.
Good idea I thought … how far is it? 177 miles!
Alan is a meticulous planner and also as a former Snowdonian mountain rescue team member owns the best hiking and mountaineering kit money can buy.
I have very little decent kit, and what I do have is all stored in Shanghai. My last ill prepared climb to the summit of Mount Kenya in borrowed shoes and my motorcycle kit was rather miserable, wet and decidedly cold. I told Alan I would only do it if he lent me some kit which he kindly agreed. The only thing he didn’t have was boots as I take a size 12 2E wide, and as I didn’t have the money to buy anything decent I bought some cheap shoes in a sale.
I assumed if I could climb Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya in someone else’s falling apart boots and borrowed kit, I could easily walk across Wales.
We drove down to the start of the hike at Chepstow on the Severn Estuary and had planned a 7-10 days hike to along the Offa’s Dyke trail to Prestatyn on the north coast of Wales.
To save costs we were bringing camping gear with us in our rucksacks and against Alan’s recommendation we each brought our own tents. Alan lent me an 30 year old rucksack that felt comfortable enough in his dining room. Little did I know this 90 litre instrument of torture would bring me misery and injury in days to come.
The first day was very pleasant, walking up above the River Wye in unusually brilliant sunshine. All was well, but by 25 miles my ankles and feet were sore as my shoes had no heel and the rucksack was cutting into my shoulders as the waist support no longer worked, nor provided any support, and so the weight was carried 100% on the flimsy shoulder straps.
Alan was also suffering as he got bitten by some insects that became infected and although he wouldn’t admit it, being a “mountain man” and all was probably struggling too.
When we eventually clambered into Monmouth we were both tired and aching for different reasons. We camped up and had some dinner in a local pub and the next day we were both in an even worse state.
After an unnecessary argument, that was mostly my fault, Alan decided that was that and went home. I think he was secretly relived to escape my yomping pace and Asperger’s ways. I don’t like civilian style hiking, I like to march as if going into battle. No idea why. I just like the rhythm and pace. I used to like foot drill when I was training as a young Police Inspector in Hong Kong. Everyone else hated it.
The cheap Karimoor shoes I was wearing were not very good for long distance hikes because they had no heel or ankle support. However, I made the mistake of giving them away to a charity shop and buying an even worse pair of hiking boots that became so painful that by the third day of hiking I had no choice but to take them off and wear my flip flops, which in turn I had to take off in the soggy ground, or steep hills and walk bare footed because they were just too slippy to walk in, especially with a heavy backpack.
At Hay on Wye my feet were in an awful state, so much so I barely registered the red welds and blisters on my shoulders from the heavy ill fitting rucksack. I put blister ointment and plasters on my feet and taped them up with silver gaffer tape, but the new boots were just too ill fitting, not worn in, and badly designed that they were agonizing the whole time.
It was a real shame because the weather and scenery was stunning. When the five days of sunshine in Wales was over and it started to rain I decided enough was enough. This was supposed to be for pleasure, not a selection for a counter terrorism unit and I was not having any fun at all.
Although my body was fine, my feet were very blistered and in excruciating agony and so when I got to Knighton I completed the trip back to Conwy by train and considered feeding the boots to Alan’s dogs when I got there. I have some decent boots in China and I have vowed to myself that one day I will do it again and complete it
(Post note —Offa’s Dyke Unfinished Business — May/June 2017–with proper kit!!)
As things between Alan and I weren’t that cordial, all my fault and I apologise, I didn’t hang about to annoy him anymore and so collected my KTM from his garage and rode back into England to see my friend Gary and Andrea in the Derbyshire High Peak again.
The only trouble was they had decided in the weeks since Fanny and I saw them to part company, which was probably for the best as they seemed to spend their entire time bickering and arguing.
As Andrea had moved out I supervised her moving her stuff into her new home, went for a few motorcycle rides together, and gave moral support in her time of need by drinking most of her wine and eating everything in her refrigerator. What are friends for after all?
I was pleased for Andrea when I later heard she not only got a super new job, a new house, new man, but had eventually been awarded her PhD. We Thomas Alleynes’ Class of 81 don’t hang about.
I then went to Staffordshire to see my Mum again who was looking much better following her stroke a year or so previously. As she is partially paralyzed she is confined to a chair. Why she doesn’t have a mobility scooter or electric wheel chair is beyond my understanding.
However, I think I know.
She is being held captive by her abusive partner of many decades, the dimwitted village idiot, Tom. I only see her very rarely, living overseas, and when I do I am allowed only an hour or so a year before the revolting smelly oik returns and causes trouble.
The poor woman stupidly ran off with this oaf when my siblings and I were small children and subsequently she endured a life of domestic abuse, parochial drudgery and missed opportunities. She rightly left my father, who was actually a very well educated gentleman, but (like his eldest son) totally unsuited to marriage and domestic restraint.
A few years back I had a run in with this dullard, when we were trying to relocate our mother to a more suitable disabled friendly bungalow on the south coast of England. A part of the country she loved as a child and young woman, pleaded with me to go to when she was lying in her hospital bed, and where her mother and father retired to by the sea.
Tom, the village cretin, refused and insisted that she remains confined to a chair on the ground floor of a totally unsuitable 16th century cottage in the village that time forgot. She can’t even go out or sit in the garden. I understand she goes shopping occasionally, when it suits Tom to get her into the car and push her about in a wheelchair.
During a heated debate when I was reiterating my mothers wishes Tom raised his fist to hit me, much like he did to my siblings and I when we were small children, but he suddenly realized that I am no longer eleven years old, nor very small. In fact, I am an evil fucker of note, love a ruck, and extremely well trained and practiced looking after myself.
For the first time in his life, the village oaf realized he was nano seconds from a sound hiding, and like all bullies he scurried off, in this case to the next door neighbour, an off duty police constable, to come to his rescue, and perhaps arrest me …. as was the constant threat when I was a teenager.
During the 1970s he was prone to dishing out beatings, often threatening to have me locked up, or sent away to a children’s home. Most of the time he was just a typical nasty stepfather. Aggressive, abusive, unsupportive, highly embarrassing, and irritatingly dimwitted.
My teenage years would have been an absolute misery if not for Graham and Jean Whirledge, local farmers, who sort of adopted me and allowed me to work on their dairy farm when I wasn’t at school. I also thank my aunt and uncle, Bill and Gail McCarthy, and my grandmothers, Amanda Utley and Joan Golbourne for allowing me some respite from the misery, and to enjoy a modicum of normality and support from time to time.
My brother, Simon, clearly an undiagnosed dyslexic, was also badly treated and his bolt hole was another dairy farm called Aikenheads, until he escaped and joined the British Army Junior Leaders Regiment at 15 years old, and later the Blues & Royals Household Calvary.
Our schools? In those days teachers didn’t care. We had nothing, got nothing, and got punished and further disadvantaged just for being poor and underprivileged. Plain and simple. I regret that I never learned to play a musical instrument, play rugby, or any other team sport because I didn’t have money for kit, or extra curricular equipment, nor transport to get about. I generally hitch hiked everywhere, which, whilst a common practice at the time, wasn’t particularly reliable for getting anywhere on time.
I did learn to throw a tractor around a muddy field as soon as my feet could touch the pedals, shovel poo, milk a cow, deliver a calf, toss a straw bail high up onto a trailer, and developed a respect for graft and money! I remember village kids used to smoke cigarettes. I never did, not for health reasons, but because ten No. 6 fags equated to an hour of shoveling shit in my mind, and I had better things to spend my “50 pence an hour” on.
Later in my mid-teens I supported myself with money earned from some other holiday jobs. A memorable and lucrative gig (that my Aunt Gail arranged when I was 15) was with the Long Term Credit Bank of Japan in Lombard Street in the City of London. With cash in my back pocket that I earned all by myself and a 50cc moped to get around, Joy Division, The Stranglers, Bauhaus, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Killing Joke, Sex Pistols, Psychedelic Furs, and Stiff Little Fingers took care of me until I escaped to London to help old ladies cross the road and chase crims in a SD1 Rover.
(Back to Bagot Street, Abbots Bromley, 2012)
So, to the embarrassment and visible discomfort of the off duty officer, he was educated (or reacquainted) with how UK law should be enforced, should have been enforced 40 years ago, and sensibly slide away back into his house and closed the door. The deflated village oaf was left standing on the street and had no option but to escape in his “Fritzl” van and go off to a nearby cow shed to be consoled by one of his cretinous mates, or one of the revolting farm hags he often shagged.
Alas, the poor old dear remains in her chair and I visit her rarely and far too infrequently. My inability to resolve this issue fills me with frustration and anger. My siblings accept the situation, but I never will. Families, huh!
After saying goodbye to my mother and feeling thoroughly wretched about the situation and somewhat depressed, not least because I hate that fucking village, I received some good news from Fanny.
She had managed to negotiate sponsorship and two brand new motorcycles from a Chinese motorcycle manufacturer called Chun Feng Moto. She also got sponsorship from some adventure kit manufacturers, including The North Face, the adventure clothing and equipment manufacturer. This was super news and I was delighted for Fanny that all her hard work had paid off.
This meant I knew exactly what I had to do now.
Get a new Chinese visa and arrange for both KTMs and myself to get shipped out of the UK.
I had been looking for new Pirelli tyres for both KTMs, but this was now unnecessary as they could more easily be found in South Africa. Every tyre fitting place it seemed in the UK, and even KTM UK had no time to find and fit tyres.
After a wasted trip to KTM in Hemel Hemstead to look for tyres I had to find somewhere to sleep or a place to camp and looked around in vain for a decent priced B&B or a campsite, but there were none to be found.
I remembered I used to paraglide at Dunstable Downs which wasn’t too far away and I also knew there were fields and meadows I could possibly get into on my bike under the cover of darkness and this is what I did.
It was a strange experience because as I was putting up my tent on a grassy bank surrounded by trees about ten cars suddenly drove into a nearby car park and a mighty commotion started. It took me a while to realise what was going on and how far the UK had slide down the slippery slope since I left three decades ago. This was a doggers party and the local “dogs” (if that what you call the participants) had all rocked up and were doing their thing.
For crying out loud. I was stuck, didn’t want to alert anyone to my presence, and so I waited unseen and unheard only a few hundred meters away until these “sad acts” had finished their evenings entertainment and drove away before I managed to finish pitching my tent, secure my bike and get to sleep.
It must have been about 3 a.m in the morning that I heard roaring and as I roused from my sleep I was confused. I rubbed my eyes, pricked my ears and listened out. There it was a again, as distinctive as when I had heard that sound before in South Luangwa, the Kruger, Okavango Delta, Swaziland, the Masia Mara and so on.
Its a fucking lion.
I sat bolt upright, considered where I was and then the coin dropped, I was literally 500 meters from Whipsnade Zoo.
The next day I packed up and rode out to a nearby biker gathering to see my friend Alex from Kaapstad Adventure. It was at a Ducati dealers shop and the Long Way Down rider Charlie Boorman was going to be there to support Garmin who were launching a new GPS and were clearly a sponsor of his.
I met a few bikers and I wandered up to Charlie to say Hi. He said, ‘Oh I remember you, are you still riding that heap of scrap’. I tried to think of something witty to retort, but could only think of “Cheerio”.
As my friend Nick was still in Italy, another friend, Andrew very kindly volunteered to put me up again in his comfortable studio apartment above his house and later take me down to Bexhill to collect Fanny’s bike and store them in his garage until I could ferry both bikes to Anglo Pacific Shippers in London NW10.
We arrived just in time for a famous Dobson’s Sunday lunch. Perfect timing. While both bikes were in Andrew’s garage Paul Chapman of Adventure Parts very kindly fitted them out with “Camel Toe” side stand supports, adventure windscreens and wind vents to direct the air to the radiators to improve cooling and sound dampening. I really wish we had had those when we were in Africa.
While I was rested up and waiting to leave I also spent some time thinking about what to do for work when the expedition finishes at the end of the year. I had been asked by several companies to get involved in their forensic investigation and risk consulting practices and I had to have a good think whether this was something I wanted to do again. I believe I am very good at my job, but I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the politics and intrinsic unfairness of large consulting firms.
Over the years I had built up a great network of satisfied clients and good relationships with a number of law firms, and so I decided to set up my own practice, Apollo Advisory, which has been a great success.
I had a year working for a firm called Censere with three other forensic directors, but this was not working out, despite us working on amazing projects and meeting the objectives of our business plan. While I was in hospital recovering from a serious bout of peritonitis that nearly killed me, they decided not to pay any of us for our work, and so we all went our separate ways.
This proved to be a blessing in disguise, despite being owed a lot of money, my company, Apollo Advisory, went onto even better things. It allows me to work with very talented people, on projects I like and am very good at, earn a few bucks, continue with my pursuit of fluency in Chinese, travel, keep fit, and have sufficient time for more adventures and expeditions.
But all that would come a little later, as the Asian leg of our big bike trip was just around the corner.
Next chapters : China, Tibet, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, USA.
Waiting until sunsets so I can find a free camping spot… England doesn’t do camping very well… not like Wales.
Free camping on Dunstable Downs. I think I have made a tent pitching error somewhere … where’s Fanny when you need her.