Take it to the 'Bridge...
- Categorized in: October 2011
There are some experiences in life which don’t come around very often.
Surely part of why we travel, even if it may be a subconscious part, is that each time we go away, we create for ourselves a homecoming.
Perhaps it is commonplace simply to come home. You do that every day after work after all. Perhaps you don’t like your home very much, and would rather run away from it, than come back.
But I am fortunate. I am not like that. I think the longer I live, the more I love my home, the place where I grew up. Norfolk.
Even so, there has never been for me a homecoming to this place quite on the scale I was about to experience.
It’s one thing to arrive at Heathrow, a little stiff from the flight, and make your way through the familiar hallways. Under bright yellow signs directing you this way and that, onto the express train that’ll carry you into the great metropolis of London, while saccharine pre-recorded voices remind you that you can charge your laptop at the powerpoint by your seat, and that the fastest way to the City of London is via the taxi stand on the left of the station as you leave the train, hoping (of course) that you have a good stay in the capital or wishing you well on your onward journey. And onward you do go, until you are turning the key in the latch, bundling through the doorway with all your bags, and reaching for the kettle. This kind of homecoming is liable to leave you feeling quite secure and content, sometimes tinged with a kind of emptiness that you can’t quite put your finger on. But it is nothing you haven’t done a hundred times before.
However, it’s quite another thing to arrive on familiar English shores overland from Hong Kong, having powered yourself (almost) all the way. Around 6 million turns of the crank on my bicycle, according to one friend. (He used to be a management consultant, so he should know.) The moment I had been waiting for.
Of course, it doesn’t take a dreaming mystic to tell you this year on the road was about the journey, and not the destination. But it was still a moment that I had imagined many times over. A thought that had felt almost like a cruel taunt back in the early days of southern China, then a fantastic hope in the wind-swept deserts of the Taklamakan, then a far-off goal through the Caucasus, then a heart-warming inevitability as I crossed the frontiers of Western Europe.
And now, this homecoming was the mere completion of all that had gone before. The final bars in a wonderful symphony of life: I had listened to it entranced, like a little child who’d dug out an old music box in his grandfather’s attic, turning the crank of the bicycle like the crank of the box, and out came beautiful melodies of humanity – the Han, the Uighurs, the Uzbeks and Kazakhs, the Georgians and Ukrainians, Austrians, Germans, French and Dutch (to name but a few) – supported by mesmerizing harmonies – dawn light at Hua Shan, moon rising over the Uzbek dust, the blue infinity of the Black Sea, a sunset of blood melting into the Carpathian night.
Sure, a symphony needs to end well, but it is for the melodies in its heart that it will be remembered as great. And while these melodies continued to resonate in the memory of my imagination, I set about cranking out the finale.
It was dark as the ferry docked at the East Anglian port of Harwich.
I had no idea where I could stay in this little coastal town, but imagined there must be a cheap hotel or pub that had a room.
I was one of the last vehicles (if you could call me that) to disembark, and the flow of traffic was pretty swift to get through the UK passport control.
In no time at all, the slightly balding man gave me the ghost of a smile as he swiped my passport and here I was… in England.
He was probably used to seeing heavily laden cyclists passing his little cubicle and disappearing off into the night under a cry of “Yeeehaaaaaaa!”
I felt unbelievably excited and full of energy.
In Harwich. Which just goes to show.
I went round the first roundabout and was merrily cycling along for another 500m or so before I realised I was on the wrong side of the road. Whoops – this, despite various family members reminding me more than once not to forget to ride on the right side of the road.
Meaning the left.
Bright lights, small port...
Anyway, it wasn’t long before I had pedalled my way into one of the least alluring town centres in all of England. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but Harwich the town is a small place and the two “main” streets are nothing more than a couple of lanes.
After trying at three or fours pubs, eventually I was directed to one that still had a room available. There was European football match on - Tottenham against someone-or-other, and outside the main door was gathered a small crowd of men wearing various football shirts, all of whom (as it happened) had shaved heads. Very closely shaven.
And all were taking pulls, by turns, at their pints of Stella, puffing their way through a few Lambert & Butlers, whilst discussing the prospects of Tottenham against whomever it was. With many “f-words” thrown into the conversation to accentuate, emphasise, embellish, punctuate or articulate exactly what each thought.
Ah – England. Sweet England. In-ger-land.
I thought I’d probably do well to remove myself, with my Queen’s English and long straggly hair, from their company before I knocked into one of them and spilled his pint.
So I carefully steered round them, and was then directed by the very obliging barmaid to my room. A place which, under any other circumstances, would have appeared soul-destroyingly drab (and over-priced), but just then seemed like yet another cause to rejoice at my arrival.
I drifted off into sleep while cramming in as much English TV as my brain could handle – and discovered it is surprisingly funny after a long absence.
The following day I was up early to find a clear bright morning. I was headed for Cambridge, about 100km to the west.
With a full English breakfast sitting comfortably in my belly, I set off into the heartland of East Anglia. In Essex and then into Suffolk, this means roads seemingly incapable of taking you anywhere in a straight line, small fields with heavy hedgerows, meandering streams and rivers, placid millponds, bucolic pastures and ancient oak copses, while the ground rises and falls gently beneath your wheels.
The old place doesn't look bad, does it?
Suffolk village street - Stratford St Mary
The small villages are very pretty in this part of England. Thatched cottages, flint churches, pubs with exposed beams and tiny doorways, all painted in pastel pinks and yellows and blues, next to craft shops with lattice windows. The sky overhead was clear, but seemed somehow small. Neat and homely. More Hobbiton than Mordor now.
"Cun'ry Lane" - deepest (darkest) Suffolk
It was impossible not to see all this with a new eye. The same eye that had taken in two continents was looking at this part of England and seeing a pretty and characterful country, rural and traditional. And in its way charming.
I was closing in on Cambridge, passing through country where I had been confined at a prep school as a boy from the age of 7 to 13. Imagine Harry Potter written by Stephen King and you will come something close to the scholastic institution where I studied for six years of my life.
But happily the nightmares don’t come too frequently these days. So I was able to enjoy the cramped Suffolk landscape despite some of its less welcome associations, as it began to open out into the flatter country of Cambridgeshire.
The approach to Cambridge became quite emotional. Not because it was Cambridge, but because I knew it was to be the final few kilometres of riding on my own. Two friends would be joining me on the very last day to Norfolk. Possibly it seems silly to say goodbye to being alone with a lump in your throat, but it didn’t feel it just then.
That's Cambridge in the distance
I took the time to take myself back to the beginning - to Hong Kong - to glide across the lands of Eurasia in my imagination, the faces I’d seen, the cities, the landscapes, the seas. Everything passed before my mind in a rush, finally catching up on itself in the present as I reached the bland-looking outskirts of this university city that had been my home for four years.
They talk of the “dreaming spires” of Oxford. While they’re writing poetry in Oxford, the minds of Cambridge are busy churning through calculations or complicated chemical equations – by and large. Of 119 British Nobel Prize winners to date, 88 came from Cambridge University. No other institution comes close to that number in the world. Today something like 17,000 students fill the town, presumably at least some of whom have an eye on future academic glory.
King's Parade, the heart of Cambridge
Of course, Cambridge’s academic excellence had nothing whatsoever to do with me. I believe I was, arguably, the most average of moderately intelligent students to have passed through its halls – graduating with a 2:1 (the second best grade on offer). You’ll talk to many students with a 2:1 who’ll tell you if they’d got 2 more marks on one exam, or if they’d got a borderline paper remarked, or if they hadn’t been the world’s foremost genius on the one topic that didn’t turn up – they would have got a First. And a First from Cambridge is a high accolade indeed to carry through life. But mine wasn’t like that. For every question in every exam paper, I received a 2:1 mark. If the object was to get a 2:1, I scored a bullseye. Perhaps I should have got extra credit for consistency. But it has occurred to me since that my single greatest oversight at Cambridge was that I never once asked myself what a First class exam answer actually looked like.
I guess if you forget to find out what it is you’re aiming for, you shouldn’t be surprised if you miss.
Still, Cambridge was not all about exams thankfully. And in fact, it did give me something that was strongly connected with this journey.
There is a little pub a few steps away from my old college called the St Radegund. So named after the college, which is called Jesus College.
Refreshments in 'ere...
Hmmm, so how does that work, you may ask? Well, before it became an academic institution (par excellence) the buildings of Jesus College were previously the site of a Benedictine nunnery, called the Nunnery of St Mary and St Radegund. In 1496, the Bishop of Ely closed down the nunnery and founded a college in its place. Apparently, the reason he shut the nunnery was that it had developed an unacceptable reputation for licentiousness. All I can think is that, if the twilight years of the 20th century were anything to go by, it is a great testament to the character and tradition of her students that the College has managed to maintain that reputation across 5 centuries.
Outside the Jesus College gates - known as "the Chimney"
But the full official name of Jesus College is in fact the College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge. Try shouting that at your college crew as it goes for a bump. For convenience sake, this is shortened simply to Jesus College, named after the college chapel – Jesus Chapel, the oldest building in Cambridge still in use.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that the St Radegund pub was one of the local drinking holes for me and my friends when I was “up”. During those years, on its walls was an amazing array of paraphernalia – dozens of severed neck-ties, cricket bats, rowing caps, tarnished tankards, ancient prints of stiff-backed sportsmen with bryll-creamed hair and drooping moustaches (who were actually only 18 years old), an embalmed head of one of the 15th century nuns. The usual collegiate junk. But up on the walls too were several old maps, charting the course of various ex-Jesus College alumni who had ridden on horseback to Istanbul, or walked to Lake Constance in Switzerland, and one fellow who had cycled a penny-farthing to India. Their routes were carefully drawn in on these decaying bits of paper, each turning from white to brown with age.
Gasping for a pint - at last
I distinctly recall – mainly because it was a promise to myself, which I failed to keep – (and perhaps after one pint too many) declaring I was going to motorbike to India before I was 30 (which seemed like a lifetime away back then, as well as an excellent idea). This broken promise had come back to mind sometime in China, but I remember smiling as I realized that I would have to make a call into the St Radegund on my last night on the road. And then of course draw my route on their map.
So in I wandered, soon after it had opened for the evening. I pulled up a bar stool, and looked around. Things had changed. No more maps on the wall for a start.
But I had made allowance for this and had one of my own that covered the whole ride. I would simply have to kick-start the next generation of adventurous two-wheeling Jesuans: a new map for a new century.
With a few leading questions from me to draw him on, the barman was soon asking me all about where I’d come from, and we were pulling out the map and he was pulling me a pint. Apparently the pub had changed management since I’d left. The old landlord who had overseen our youthful carousing through a sodden eye had either moved on or passed on. And the new owner was much brisker and more business-like I was told. Out with the old, in with the new.
The barman seemed all for my idea of sticking my map on their wall, but he would have to ask the owner first. I have my doubts whether this fella sounds like he’ll go for it, which will be a shame since who knows what it might inspire. But I’ll be sure to check next time I’m in town.
At least I got my free pint, and very tasty it was too.
As for the rest of the evening, I spent it catching up with one of the trustees of the Harry Mahon Cancer Research Trust – one of the two charities I’ve been raising money for on this ride. Donald Legget – a legend in his lifetime within a certain circle of people – mainly those connected with doings on the river, who has been amazingly supportive of this whole venture. He’s hounded large numbers of Cambridge contacts into quite amazing generosity. Which just goes to show the respect for him and for Harry Mahon himself.
THRB with Donald outside the Hawks Club
Another friend from my college days – Jessica Hudson (that was) – drove out to Cambridge to catch up. We ducked into our old college bar which had all been rebuilt – the same but different. Now full of people who didn’t care who we were. We sat talking about pretty much everything. Of course, the last time we’d sat there together, I never would have believed you if you’d then told us what we’d be talking about in this very spot 12 years later, and all that has happened since.
It was odd to be back in the place. You must know the feeling – revisiting a place that you knew very intensely for a period of your life, but then have not seen for a long time. Everything takes on a kind of dream-like quality. These places you knew so well, the memories associated with them. That house where I used to go and listen to music with one friend, later a journalist, who was murdered in Iraq in 2003; the gate I used to scramble over to visit a girlfriend in my second year with whom I was head over heels in love - now married with her own kids. The green where some of the rising stars of the finance world today had rolled around in the mud dressed as roman senators; the fence through which one friend had illicitly handed out entrance bracelets to gate-crash a Trinity summer ball; the building I couldn’t find for my first finals exam.
Places and memories, all crowding in. People. Those voices of a chapter of life, now all gone their different ways.
Cambridge is, for me, one colossal flashback.
I’m glad that, for the most part, it plays like a comedy.
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