Well hello there! Here is the second and final instalment of just exactly what happened on the Rhine Source to Sea cycle. If you haven’t read part 1, click that link and do it right now. The story left off with me snapping a tent pole and condemning us to a week of homelessness until a replacement tent pole was found.
“Right, here’s what I’m thinking. I’ll contact the guys at Vaude and see if I can get two replacement pole sections shipped out. Would your uncle be able to receive a package in Bonn? We could pick it up when we visit them. That leaves us a week. I’m on Warmshowers, so we can use that for the meantime.”
I hope you’re sitting comfortably. Let’s continue.
The Ride to Bonn
We’re 100km down for the day and still pushing into a headwind. It’s getting late and I’m starting to feel mechanical as we race along the path beside the river. As with everything on the trip so far, this was not to plan.
Two days ago, in the spare attic room of a lovely German family, we’d celebrated. The final pieces of the accommodation puzzle had pulled together. We’d found somewhere to stay for the last two nights before our scheduled stop in Bonn with Alex’s relatives. It was a relief. After a week of sofa surfing on the kindness of friends, strangers and one hotel, I was so ready to be back in a tent. It had been an interesting and humbling experience. But for me there is nothing like throwing up a tent wherever your day ends and crawling into your tiny, familiar home from home.
Of course, there was still the small matter of the tent poles. Would the correct replacement pole sections arrive in Bonn at the same time as us? Earlier that morning, on the day that was meant to finish in Koblenz, I was getting anxious about those bits of pole. It had been several days since I’d last heard from Colin at Vaude. As far as we knew, everything was sorted and in the German postal system, but we’d also knew they hadn’t arrived yet. Call me paranoid, but I emailed Colin one more time – apologising profusely and asking for a tracking number on the poles.
He did the same to his colleague in Germany copying me in. As we stopped for a biscuit break somewhere before kilometer 100, I received the response:
“I have talked to PSD this morning again and they have only handed it over to warehouse today even though the order was put in on Friday. Within Germany usually 1-2 business days so if she is there until Thursday we are still in time, hopefully.”
It was Tuesday. We were due to leave Bonn on Thursday morning. Flip.
The Feeling of Finished
At 4:30am on the day our ferry ticket is booked for, the alarm goes off. Quietly and efficiently, we pack away and slip out of the campsite. We’d been camped in the owner’s “grandparent’s garden” because there was no space.
There is something magical about getting going in the dark, before anyone else is awake. There were stars overhead. The first pink of sunrise peeked into the sky and reflected on the water as we crossed the bridge into Rotterdam. Today was going to be a race to the ferry. But there was something we needed to see first: one last sight before we left Holland.
I’d been to Kinderdijk the last time I cycled across Europe (in 2016). That visit was opposite in so many ways. It was the start of our trip, it was midday, boiling hot and teeming with tourists. There was an icecream stand proclaiming “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy icecream – and that’s kind of the same thing”. This time we cycled through row upon row of windmills at sunrise. The place was empty. It was just us and windmills and canals and sunlight. Beautiful. The perfect way to end the Rhine.
A quick ferry across the water and we were in Rotterdam city centre. The bike lanes were a lot clearer than I remember, but it was still a horrendous experience. It was more dangerous than cycling through a Swiss thunderstorm and far more scary than cycling in London. Why? Not the cars or drivers or pedestrians. It was the cyclists. There were far too many bikes. Bikes and bike signs everywhere, pile ups at traffic lights – it was chaos. Not to mention the German tour group who blocked any pavement they stopped on without warning. We were elated when we finally out-navigated them (their guide took a wrong turn) and we pedalled off into the sunset victorious.
Well okay, not quite. We pedalled off in the direction of our immanent ferry, until we could see it… or where it should be, under a huge band of cloud and rain. One last soaking and we made it to the port. Exhausted, bedraggled and about an hour early. Now that wasn’t in the plan!
To pass the time, we cycled right to the end of the long matchstick pier that pokes out of Hoek van Holland into the sea. There is some sort of a lighthouse at the end and I would highly recommend it to anyone finishing the Rhine here. We were hoping for a big sign or a cycling board or something… There are none. But out on the end of that pier, bike wheels sandy and salty, we felt like we were in the sea. I dipped my hand in, like I’d done at Lake Toma.
It felt like the climax to our trip. The trouble was we still had a week to go before we got home. As we relaxed on the ferry, we talked about the week ahead of us. Alex had had enough really and didn’t want to spend another week in a tent. I was still secretly clinging on to the idea of cycling right back to my doorstep – even if the one-thing-after-another so far had left me exhausted. Did I mention we had no bread because a our washing up liquid had exploded over everything yesterday? It would be very easy to sack it in now. It certainly felt like we’d finished.
Unfortunately that wasn’t possible, even if we’d wanted to. There was no train from Harwich, where the boat docked in the UK. If we cycled to the closest station, there would be a huge amount of faff with changes, booking bike spaces and the London Underground. As exhausted as we were that sounded like hell, especially given our track record. Nope. We had to cycle to London.
The LCD screen on the ferry announce cheerfully “HEAVY RAIN IN LONDON ON WEDNESDAY”.
The Long Road Home
“We’re cycling back to Devon,” I told the campsite owner. Alex looked at me. Once we’d been left alone to pitch our tent I said, “I know we’re probably not going all the way back. I just don’t think it’s relevant to tell people the detail.”
We were camping at a place just outside Chelmsford, designed for caravans and motorhomes really. We’d also just cycled a section along the hard shoulder of an A road in order to get there. Repeat after me: never follow Google Maps. Ever. The fact that it was rush hour had really added to the experience.
Despite everything, I was still harbouring some tiny hope that we might cycle home. Our current plan was to cycle to London and then look at the trains to the South West. If we arrived before 5 o’clock we would catch a train to Plymouth, cutting almost to the end, and cycle a few hours home. If we arrived later we would catch a train to Exeter, camp somewhere outside Exeter and cycle the last day back home, allowing us to arrive about mid-afternoon. So it could maybe be said we were cycling back to Devon. Sort of.
It was Wednesday. It was probably going to be our last day cycling. Not least because everyone had told us we were going to die cycling through London. The day started out on fairly nice pseudo-country roads. You know, the kind that look quaint but have decent tarmac and are frequented by shiny Range Rovers. At about mid-morning we hit the urban sprawl and – as forecast – it started raining. Maybe it was the rain that made everything feel more grey. Concrete, breeze blocks, tarmac.
We followed the cycle route on roads, beside roads, through public parks and along canal towpaths. Or specifically dirt tracks beside canals the width of a wheel and blocked by geese. There was flooding on the roads we passed and lots of traffic jams.
At about lunchtime we stopped for what was probably our most glamorous lunch stop of the trip: on the floor outside a public loos at the carpark of a small country park thing. They were the kind of loos that had to be chained shut outside of dog-walking hours and had suitable reinforced gates and locks. But it has an awning and we were very wet.
As we were sitting there, considering our hygiene decisions, two cyclists arrived back at their car. We got chatting. We told them that we were going to London and they pulled suitably concerned faces. Eventually, it came out: “We’ve come all the way from Switzerland.” They were suitably impressed, “… and I must say,” added the chap as they left, “your English is excellent!”
As the miles clocked by, I couldn’t help wondering when we were going to reach London. Everything around us grew more industrial and closely packed with buildings. But we were tucked neatly away on a canal towpath – a hidden vein running straight into London. It felt like we were sneaking into the city via the pipework, under the radar, whilst getting inducted into the secret watery underworld of London’s suburbs. I knew it was a “thing” to live on a boat in London, but woah – I had no idea.
Then we were cycling through parks until we popped out on the river right opposite Canary Wharf. Wow. Soon we were pushing our bikes across Tower Bridge – the flooding was a good foot deep. It was a really surreal moment. As I tried to dodge pedestrians, I got a bit philosophical. Yes the world is really big, but it’s also really small. I’d cycled here all the way from Switzerland and it only took me less than 3 weeks. Imagine what you’d normally do in that time. “Not much,” I thought as I manoeuvred round another tourist.
We had to cut across now from one cycling route to another, which did involve a short section on London’s untamed roads. Yes it was busy. But no it was not worse than any other big city we’d cycled in. The rain didn’t help. We got on the next sustrans route, but I managed to get us a bit misplaced on a diversion by the South Bank. It was, like all cycling diversion, signed at the start and then not at all. We ended up cycling past the London Eye and carrying our bikes up the steps to Westminster Bridge. Sorry Alex.
Then we simply hopped onto some fantastic cycling “motorways” to get to Hyde Park and across to Paddington. Easy. We pulled up at the station feeling victorious. We’d made it. It was 6pm.
Alex was in the queue for the ticket office. We’d tried to book a train with bike spaces online and at the ticket machines and nothing was working. I gave her my railcard and she joined the back of the queue. Luckily both of us are at least part British, it was like the queue for the Vogon release papers in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
When she finally got to the front of the queue, there was long discussion, sad faces and then some beckoning. I joined her at the desk.
“He says there aren’t any bike spaces on the next train.”
Oh. We were already at least an hour later than our cut off time for a train to Plymouth. But Alex was really ready to go home. We’d decided we’d do it, even though we’d get in at like midnight.
“Well it said there were on the website when we tried to book them online,” I tried.
Grumpy train official was having none of it. “Well I have it up on the system and it says they’re all booked.”
“He won’t let us get on the train without bike tickets,” said Alex quietly.
“Okay,” I said, thinking at a million miles an hour rather than be sent to the back of the queue again, “well that’s okay, we can just dismantle our bikes and put them in the extra large luggage in coach D.” (I’d forgotten it wasn’t CrossCountry.) I turned to the man at the desk, “Would that be okay?”
He slowly agreed. Non-standard technique, certainly.
Printed tickets in hand, we went back to relieve the random stranger of watching our bicycles.
“We aren’t going to dismantle our bikes, of course,” I reassured Alex. I’m fairly sure her’s wouldn’t have got back together again at that stage! “There will be spaces. And if there aren’t spaces we can just stand with them by the doors and if they kick us off we’ll just apologise profusely and then get on the next train.”
Everything was falling apart emotionally. We just needed to get home.
There were, incidentally, four unbooked bike spaces in our carriage, never mind the others. I wonder how many cyclists were turned away because of a problem with the booking system.
Woods in the Dark
We cycled back home from Plymouth station. I led the way. No faffing about with maps and route signs this time. It was basically my old commute before I’d started working from home (and then changed job). By this point it was something like 10:30pm and Plymouth’s nightlife was starting to come out. Then we spent a long time cycling through the woods in the dark, the moon occasionally peeping out from behind the clouds.
It was strange and yet nice to finish on a route I knew so well. It’s a good reminder that all roads lead to the rest of the world. You just have to get on and start pedalling.
Finally, we stopped on a street corner like we’d done so many times. Alex’s house in one direction and mine in another. It was oddly unceremonious. We might have just spent the last 20 days together and cycled a very long way, but we knew we’d see eachother soon. For starters I knew Alex would be coming round tomorrow for celebration cake.
So, we split and went our separate ways to our separate streets. I sheepishly pulled up at my parent’s back door at midnight. “Err, hi – I’m back!”