The day I left Bristol in October, my ma cycled with me along the Bristol to Bath railway path, which I’ve cycled many times before. It was strange knowing it would be the last time for at least a couple of years. We said an emotional goodbye next to the old train bike cafe and then I was alone.
The first night wild camping was a restless one. Every sound from the surrounding countryside kept me awake, ears pricked and senses tingling. Sometimes I would sit up and listen silently and intently to the darkness. I got up at dawn after exactly 0 hours sleep and set off north, exhausted but exhilarated!
To say the next few weeks were rainy was an understatement. I spent all the time I could in pubs, drying off and warming up. I found inventive ways of keeping myself dry — including camping under a few railway bridges, and my first warmshowers experience staying on a canal boat in Birmingham. I was starting to wonder why I hadn’t decided to start off somewhere warmer than the north of England.
Arriving in Northumberland totally justified the effort — having not explored much of the north of England, I began to realise just how beautiful and wild it can be. Rolling hills, stark highlands, dramatic coastlines and castles perched on tiny mountains greeted me.
I cycled out to Holy Island, Lindisfarne, the first stop on my pilgrimage. The tidal island can only be reached twice per day, at all other times cut off from the mainland. I felt the calm of the ancient ruined priory, the calm before the storm, and was treated to the most incredible sunset. It seemed to sink in then that I was finally beginning the journey I’d been planning for so long, a particularly emotional realisation.
I managed to make a tiny detour into Scotland for a day, as well as seeing the supposed resting place of St. Cuthbert, patron saint of the north, a big open cave some way from the coast; The 4000 year old cup-and-ring marks at Routin Lynn, as well as the ancient Duddo stone circle.
I made my way to Newcastle to catch the ferry to Amsterdam, to follow the North Sea cycle route up the coast. It was starting to get colder now — which meant less rain, but also more frosty mornings and icy nights, bitterly cold winds and earlier darkening skies. The windswept coast looked unsurprisingly similar to where I had just come from, but with a distinct lack of anybody around.
One day I spent 16 hours on the bike (testing comfort in the saddle and coming out on top!) because I’d underestimated just how long it might take me to cross the 40km dike connecting North Holland to Friesland. With the wind steadfast against me, my speed dropped to jut 8km/h, and with nowhere to stop (it’s essentially a motorway in the sea) what I thought would be an afternoon cycle turned into an eight hour struggle into the night fuelled by Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. All 67 of them. I decided to start checking the wind.
A few highlights of my tour up the coast of The Netherlands include some truly stunning churches, the start of a pilgrimage route to Rome in a tiny village called Sint Jacobieparochie (I soon learned these turn up everywhere in the north of Europe), rescuing a little bird that flew into a window, mega fluffy cows (my fave type of cows) and many, many windmills. I started to need some warmth and comfort more often as the weather got colder and darker, so was staying with people through warmshowers maybe once or twice per week. I’m eternally grateful to those who hosted me through the winter especially — who were all patient, kind, generous and interesting with a wonderful knowledge of their local areas.
As I crossed the border into Germany at Nieuweschans I cycled past a man pointing a shotgun into a duck pond, getting ready to fire at point-blank range, and wondered for a moment what I’d got myself into. The next day brought a cold front and snow which I was assured by locals was unusual for November, and brought down tree branches that hadn’t yet fully shed their summer leaves. I had to buy an extra pair of gloves when I realised my solution to the finger numbness I was suffering after stopping for snacks, placing my entire hand in my mouth, wasn’t going to work in the long run.
I stopped off in Bremen to see an old friend and was given a tour of the city — including the famous Bremen town musicians statue, representing the tale by the Brothers Grimm, and the beautiful cathedral.
I stayed with a wonderful host in Kirchlinten who convinced me that to avoid theft, I had to ‘decorate’ my bike. We spent a cosy evening in her cabin adding delightful orange and blue splotches as she assured me it was now too ugly and distinctive to be stolen. I still thought it looked nice!
Carrying on southeast along the banks of the Elbe, I stopped off to see the oddly-shaped five pointed star fortress of Dömitz, and settled for a few nights in the pilgrim hostel in Lenzen. Hauntingly beautiful in the frosty winter, the slightly run-down village was a direct route to the past. I ended up staying for five days, because of the enchanting quiet and reflective solitude Lenzen afforded.
The day I reached Berlin — where I would see out December and January — was the coldest night and day so far, where I hadn’t been able to stay asleep for more than an hour at a time because of the cold, and once my buff had slipped from my face and I’d woken in a panic with a completely numb nose. Cycling through winter in Northern Europe has been a challenge for sure, and I’ve learned a lot about myself and my physical limits, how to be efficient and keep warm, and how to make the most of the short bright days and long cold nights. I’ve also seen just how magical winter cycle touring can be, with long empty roads and not a soul in sight, I often felt like I could own as much of the world as I could cycle.
So after my first 1000km, I wonder where the next 1000 will take me, and how and where I’ll be by the time I reach 10,000. Hopefully somewhere a little warmer!