The Pilgrim Returns

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It takes only a few minutes to get from one side of Santander to the other. At the waterfront near the ferry port there is another Honda friendly Repsol petrol station. It seems sensible to fill up so that I don’t have to worry about looking for fuel at the other end of the ferry crossing. Amusingly the cost comes in at 6.66 Euros.

After filling up, I do a circuit of the Santander waterfront as the ferry port must be approached from the south of the one way system. It is clearly sign posted with orange markers and a few minutes later I am rolling into the compound. The ferry running is three hours behind schedule due to storms in England and an undisclosed “technical problem”.

On the sailing from England, there were only two bikers on the entire ferry: the Norwegian rider from Tromso on his way back from the Isle of Man and I. In Santander there are about two hundred motorcycles. Most have UK plates, a few Spanish ones. There are all sorts of bikes: many adventure bikes, but also quite a few ordinary street bikes and even one chop, a V twin which looks like an 1980s Harley engine with a peanut tank and a bicycle style bobber seat. It does not look like the most comfortable touring bike. I find myself surrounded by a group of people on Honda Crosstourers. The guy next to me, a lawyer from Cheltenham, is showing off his Crosstourer which has the fancy new Honda clutchless system. It looks weird without a clutch lever but apparently it works very well. Is this the shape of the future?

Behind me is a Scottish couple on another Crosstourer. They have a long ride back to Aberdeenshire. There is a lot of conversation between different people about routes. It seems the distance I have covered on this journey is the longest, and when I relay my route to people it draws appreciative whistles.

Eventually, indeed three hours late, the queue starts moving. Passport control is painless, the cop takes one look at my passport and waves me through. I roll into the bowels of the ferry. On this occasion crew members are waiting with the belts. After I dismount and leave the bike in gear, a young guy puts a big blue cushion on the seat and straps the bike down with a single strap. Making my way upstairs, the cabins are not yet ready. People wait in the corridor. Eventually the steward lets people access their rooms. Most of the crew appears to be French. I enter the windowless room, it’s comfortable enough but the pillow is very thin, more like a piece of cloth. I deposit my belongings and exit the cabin. Opposite me is a crew member holding a pillow and looking like she doesn’t quite know what to do with it. I ask her as politely as I can in a mixture of French and English, as it’s taking me a few moments to switch out of Spanish mode, for an extra pillow. She looks at the one in her hands, grins, goes around the corner to fetch a clean pillow case and hands it to me. Once again even with such a small detail, the Road has provided. This is not a bad illustration of how good things, big or small, happen. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, as long as one is humble and polite, expects nothing and makes an effort to be understood.

The ship is running on UK time. Most of the décor seems to be vintage posters advertising various Breton and Celtic cultural events. As well as the mysterious “technical” issue, the main restaurant seems to be closed, and the self service place is very full. It feels strange to go to sleep, so I sit in the main bar and try to catch up on some writing. Most of the other patrons are bikers from the boarding queue. As the ship leaves port there is an announcement that the entertainment is due to commence.

Said entertainment turns out to be a three piece Take That tribute act. Perhaps there is an issue with their monitors, because as they begin to sing it becomes clear that they are out of key and out of synch with each other. The audience, consisting of tired, grumpy and hungry bikers is not appreciative of their efforts. The scene has potential for ugliness and it seems that it is only a matter of time before the first projectile is launched. Take THAT! Sensing that the mood is not entirely placid, the singers apparently cut their performance short and sneak away thereby averting the possibility of a  mutiny on the high seas.

Back in the cabin, one can definitely feel the motion of the ship on the waves. The crossing is rough, and there are nineteen hours to go. Sleep comes and goes, the grumble of the powerful engines is both soothing and distracting. The next day is spent napping, writing and drinking water, as the tea is mightily expensive. Eventually we reach Plymouth and dock.

Rolling off the ship, the weather is miserable. There is a very long queue for passport control in the rain. When I eventually reach the booth and hand over my passport, the border official scrutinises it and then asks that I remove my helmet. Just my luck: he does not request any other person in the queue to do so of the couple of hundred people wearing them. Obviously I comply. He looks at my face, then at the passport, then at me again, and hands the passport back. I put it away, replace my helmet and my gloves and roll out. As I exit the port, another official flags me down and asks me about how long I have been away for and where I have been. I share the details of the many countries and cities I have visited during this journey. It’s hard to tell whether he is impressed by the length and diversity of the route. Eventually I am able to continue on my way.

Plymouth is famous for its naval tradition. Sir Francis Drake played bowls here before taking on the Spanish Armada in the 1580s. It is home to the Mayflower Steps whence the eponymous ship set sail for North America in the early 17th Century. The reason for which I aimed to reach Plymouth on this date is because a dear friend who lives there marks his birthday then. His name is Chris Thrall and he is a remarkable man: a former Royal Marine and bestselling author, intrepid adventurer who has visited all seven continents, skydived in the Arctic and deep sea dived in Antarctica, a biker of course, and a long distance runner. Currently he is running the length of Britain in aid of veterans’ charity The Baton. He is running solo and unsupported, wild camping whenever possible. A huge and very courageous undertaking, and one all of us should be in awe of.

The idea was that he would have reached his hometown of Plymouth by then and we would be able to mark his birthday together. As demonstrated so many times on this journey, things which are planned rarely happen as intended, and vice versa. Chris is still some distance away, due to the weight of his backpack and the harsh weather conditions. I am welcomed by J, Chris’s partner, and their small son. J lets me into their garage where I unpack Veronica and enter the house.

I’m very grateful to this wonderful family for their welcome. As a first port of call back in England, it’s badly needed. J offers me tasty soup and we talk about life, travel, history and so on. I sleep that night in Chris’s study, surrounded by his maps, books and Royal Marine memorabilia. Some people, like him or Ted Simon, are genuinely incredible explorers. Others, like me, are amateurs, although I hope that I am learning and that I make a good student.

In the morning I drink some tea, eat some toast and give their son a long awaited guitar lesson. His mum then takes a picture of him on the bike, as she has done each time I visited, creating a sort of record of how much he is growing with the motorbike being used as a consistent size comparison marker. I thank them for their love and hospitality, pack the panniers and clip the satnav to the handlebars. Once the screen lights up, I scroll through the menu until I get to the option “Ride Home”.

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