There is a strong wind but the skies are clear. The scenic route from the West Country back to London goes via the A38 and the A303 which runs through picturesque Wiltshire. It takes in several Stone, Bronze and Iron age sites and monuments, the most significant one of these being Stonehenge. Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell, where the banshees live and they do live well! Today there are no demons or banshees, only a clutch of tourists photographing it from a safe distance. Stonehenge is a collection of massive standing stones which were likely transported hundreds of miles to be placed at the site about 5,000 years ago: a huge undertaking given the available technology at the time. Built by a long disappeared culture which had since been replaced by the best part of a dozen waves of civilizations, there are several theories about its purpose, but none have to date been confirmed as the correct one. And yet the stones stand, their builders long gone, their purpose long forgotten. If it was indeed a religious or political symbol, then this tells us something about the permanence of legacies. If something so mighty which clearly took a huge effort to create has lost its meaning over the course of a couple of short millennia, then what are our religious and political wars worth?
I have ridden this route many times. Arrival in London is a predictable anti climax. Almost immediately on crossing the M25 into the boundaries of Greater London, I see a couple of young men on what appears to be a stolen scooter, a very familiar sight in London since 2016. London can be a beautiful city with its iconic palaces and red double decker buses, but the traffic is thick and the satnav keeps changing its mind as to which is the most effective route. I emerge at the North Circular by the Ace Café and contemplate stopping for a cup of tea, maybe seeing some familiar faces. It’s bike night, but I don’t feel at this juncture that I would be very good company, so I turn east.
I’ve travelled 5,244 kilometres by motorcycle over these past few weeks. The route took in eight countries. There were mountains, oceans, fields, busy cities, sleepy villages. I caught up with some dear old friends and had some very illuminating conversations. I shot a trebouchet, saw some incredible sights and experienced a lot of emotions. Am I wiser, am I a better rider, can I be a better and more attentive person as a result? It’s hard to say. There are definitely changes. I am quieter, more willing to listen, more likely to accept the things which I cannot change so that I may put more energies into changing the things I can. The difficult bit is knowing the difference between the two.
Right now it’s hard to care about or be annoyed at London with its inept Mayor, its crime, its mismanaged traffic, its bad drivers and its potholes. Everything seems parochial, and challenges which vexed me considerably some weeks ago appear mundane and not all that significant.
Decompression will take time, and I wish I’d listened to Ted Simon when he told me that it took him many months to recover from his first journey around the world. My own journey was around 5% of his first one, so I am hoping that the process of getting back to normal will take a similar proportion of his recovery time. The main feeling one experiences is not exactly emptiness, it’s more… astonishment… that one does not have to get up in the morning, spend a few minutes studying a map in order to figure out where one might be sleeping that evening, then stuffing two small canvas bags into the motorbike panniers, checking the tyres and the oil and riding for 500 km across a national border towards the unknown.
There is also the feeling that one no longer has anything to prove. This year I’ve taken a cruiser around the Superbikes Racing Circuit at Brands Hatch, and I’ve tried my hand at trials riding. Both experiences have inspired an even greater respect for the athletes who excel at these incredibly challenging sports. With a long distance journey, the sense of achievement is different. Of course I’m nowhere near the level of someone as legendary as Ted Simon but I do feel as though I’d joined the club and earned the moniker “motorcycle adventurer”, albeit a junior one. The surprised reactions of bikers in the queue for the ferry in Santander on hearing about my route were partial confirmation of that.
The emotional load too is somewhat overwhelming. On the Road I was in listening and learning mode, not thinking beyond the next conversation and the next set of questions. Now, looking back over the travel notes, it’s hard to pull all of the thoughts and insights together. The sadness which has been with me since Guernica has not lifted. I am saddened by the division and fear I’d witnessed, despite the hope given me by almost every interaction that I had. Whilst the journey was in part prompted by the impending prospect of Brexit, as perhaps a final chance to experience a borderless Europe, it is now no longer the most pressing concern in my mind. I realise that over the past few weeks I’d come to see Brexit as peripheral, as there is so much else happening; it’s one of a number of symptoms of where we are historically but by far not the only show in town. Of course I am sad that my fellow Britons might no longer be able to visit our nearest neighbours with quite the same ease, and of course the worries about the serious short and medium term economic harm which will be caused by Britain leaving the European Union are still there. But the historian in me has triumphed over the economist, and some 4,000 miles later it appears more as one of a number of moving parts in an overall picture.
The main question about motorcycle journey of the Blac Rīdere is not even “So What?”. It’s more “Now What?”.
One must not lose faith in the Road, and the path and answers it will provide as long one is humble, respectful and expects nothing. The answer is supplied in a spectacular fashion the next day. Along with a several of my Club members, we go to a local motorcycle show in North London. It’s not very good: not well curated, without a strong narrative and without many bikes. There is a super sprint involving some legendary riders but the challenges they are given seem almost beneath their incredible abilities. There are only two manufacturer stands: Honda and Kawasaki. I try on the new Honda GoldWing for size and wonder whether my journey would have been easier on a big tourer. It’s very comfortable, doesn’t have a clutch lever and somehow I can’t quite see myself on one yet. Although of course one should never say never, and we all know how planning and intent goes.
As we are about to head out, I am presented with an energetic man with crazy hair. Of course it’s none other than Nick Sanders. Nick is famous for holding a number of long distance speed records on both a motorcycle and a bicycle. He is currently the fastest person to circumnavigate the world on a motorbike. I am glad to talk to him, he is engaging and positive. He’s got a new book out, about a ride he undertook to Mongolia via Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan. The book is a beautiful artifact, with some stunning images and what via a cursory flick through its pages seems like clear and educational writing. It’s not too long, each chapter appear to encompass a day, it seems that it’s the ideal travel book. I look forward to reading it and I am very glad when Nick signs a copy for me.
The Blac Rīdere’s journey started with possibly the greatest motorcycle adventure book of all time: Jupiter’s Travels. The meeting over dinner with its author, Ted Simon, has been one of the highlights of my adult life to date. At the journey’s conclusion I have a brand new book to read, and in arranging for me to meet another of the world’s great motorcycle adventurers, and putting a brand that book into my hands, the Road once again beautifully and spectacularly provided me with the answer to the question “Now What?” at the exact moment when I was about to become lost.
I am very grateful that you have taken the time and trouble to skim over my travel notes, and hopefully to occasionally be entertained by my ineptitude or perhaps to mark some point of interest regarding a destination or route for a future journey of your own. In the process of jotting these notes down, I’ve committed about 21,000 words to type so far, over the course of travelling 5,244 kilometres across eight countries by motorcycle.
As I hold Nick’s beautiful travel book in my hands, the answer becomes obvious.
Thank you, Road.