Back to reality: I miss my spork!

This post, like most, is long overdue. Spoiler alert: we made it back home. I (Jo) have just completed my second week back at work; Debs has been back almost two months. Life is very much back to “normal”, although we’re still not entirely sure what “normal life” is. For almost two years “normal” was not knowing where we might be at the end of the day, sitting on a bike seat for most of our waking hours and regularly eating sandwiches with crisps in. “Normal” is now knowing exactly where we will be every night this week (and month), sitting at a desk for most of my waking hours and trying to keep our calorie consumption within the recommended daily allowance. Sadly this means a serious reduction in the number of cakes in our new “normal” life.

Enjoying a final slice of Dutch apple cake on the ferry

It’s actually more than three months now since we rolled off the ferry in Harwich and started riding our final week of the trip on English soil to get us back to Measham, Leicestershire where we first pedalled away from on 27th September 2015. Because of events of the last few months this was not the homecoming we had imagined for a long time – as we had only been in England two months earlier, this return didn’t really feel special or momentous at all, despite being the culmination of over 31,000kms riding and almost two years on (and off) the road in 30 countries on 4 continents. We can only imagine what it might have been like had things gone to plan. We didn’t expect our families to be particularly excited about seeing us after only a couple of months away. So without a grand homecoming planned, we were looking forward to finally completing what we had started and arriving home “properly” this time – by bike rather than plane. And enjoying some quiet English roads and scenery (and cake) along the way.

There was no “welcome to the UK” sign so this had to do

We’ve done the ferry journey between England and the Netherlands a few times before, but always in the opposite direction – which is an absolute delight. As soon as you step off the ferry in Hook van Holland, you are bombarded with cycling signs and paths that present a myriad of options to ride wherever you might fancy in the country. Going to Den Haag? Well there’s two options straight away, a scenic ride along the coast through the dunes or a slightly more direct route a bit inland. Both as flat as a pancake, on dedicated cycle paths and signposted the whole way, of course. You’ll pass a Lidl at the start where you can stock up on cheap pastries and sit in a pleasant square. The arrival from the Netherlands into Harwich is pretty horrific in comparison. There’s a decent cycle path to take you from the port into town, but after that, you’re on your own. The road then climbs uphill out of town through a particularly unattractive estate, we were shouted at by at least three separate groups of alcopop-fuelled youngsters wandering around, a car sped past us and then cut us up on a roundabout…. The whole experience does not scream “come and cycle in beautiful England”. It actually screams “What? You left the Netherlands? *Sigh*! PS watch out for the potholes!” Dutch cyclists, used to their flat car-free paths and easy to follow routes, must feel like turning back after a few miles this side of the water. On the plus side, there are a few decent options for fish and chips, so it’s not all terrible. We celebrated being back on English soil in one of them.


Cycling in England can be a pleasure. Our first full day back started with small quiet country lanes and blackberry picking. It became less of a pleasure when the rain started at about 10am and continued for 24 hours. We stopped early on under a shelter on the edge of a village green (a nice welcome back to England). This only increased the severity of the rain (a not-so-nice welcome back to England). At one point an elderly lady came out of the pub opposite and told us that the forecast was for heavy rain for the rest of the day. We smiled, thanked her, and said it was ok, we didn’t have far to go, only about 25 miles. We forget that to elderly ladies in villages that this is actually quite far, even without the rain. “You’ll never make it,” she said, deadly serious. You’d think we had just suggested doing backward rolls the whole way. “Go around the corner and catch a bus”. We didn’t feel like an in-depth discussion about the difficulty (impossibility) of taking bikes on buses in the UK, so agreed to give it some thought. Our survival was at stake after all. Ten minutes later we had eaten all of our allocated morning snacks. Sadly we had also eaten our lunch (it was still well before midday) and drunk our flasks of tea so there was nothing else to do other than put our waterproof trousers on and ride off. The next few hours were some of the worst in the whole trip. The rain bounced off the roads, our helmets, our hands, and flooded the cycle paths. We had two route options – a scenic, quiet and lengthy route on small roads, or the direct and easily fastest route which was a cycle path alongside the A12 dual carriageway. The weather made the decision for us – no more than the minimum mileage today – so we rode alongside one of the busiest arterial roads into London whilst the sky fell in around us. The cycle path/small stream that we had to ride on/through was on the right hand side of the road so we had huge trucks riding towards us and soaking us with their spray. Always a pleasure to be soaked from the side and above at the same time. Eventually we arrived at Debs’ aunts house, dripping everywhere, as excited about dry clothes, a cup of tea and a roof for the afternoon as I think I have ever been about anything, ever. The fact that she had made cake for us was… the icing on it I guess.


The rest of the final week passed fairly uneventfully. We visited friends in Peterborough, Hinckley and Market Harborough, and stayed with some lovely warm showers hosts. The very impressive Scott (as in Captain) polar museum in Cambridge made an interesting diversion one afternoon. I think we ate a cooked breakfast five days running. We rode less than 40 miles each day and had lots of tea and cake. I suspect we put weight on in this last week. It was all very enjoyable. We woke up in Hinckley on the final morning knowing that we had less than twenty miles to ride to Measham, and then the trip would be over. It was a strange feeling. The ride itself felt like nothing special, but something in my head knew it was, and willed my legs to slow down, savour it, enjoy the repetitiveness of turning the pedals that had become more familiar than walking over the past two years. Debs was riding in front, as usual, and as I stared at the back of her head and panniers I wondered how many thousands of hours I had looked at this exact view, and that tomorrow I wouldn’t have it, or the next day or the next day. Then my stomach rumbled and told me to man up, crack on and get there in time for lunch. Again, a familiar feeling.


Before we knew it we were sat eating lunch with Debs’ parents, trip over. The bikes were unceremoniously dumped in the garage. In the interest of symmetry we took a trip (in the car, treat) to Cattows Farm for cake, where we had a final meal before we left in September 2015. It seemed an appropriate end for brakes and cakes that we spent our first couple of post-trip hours at one of our favourite places for cake ever, just a few miles from our start and end point.


On the ferry back to England, in an attempt to get over the sadness of the trip coming to an end, we wrote a list of things we were looking forward to. We would miss many aspects of this lifestyle – not knowing or caring what time it is, being so physically tired at the end of each day that we would often fall asleep mid conversation once we laid down, being outside for most of the day and night, eating as many cakes and pastries as we liked guilt-free, to name just a few – but it’s not all glamour. We might make it sound it, but life on the road has its downs as well as its ups and some aspects, particularly those relating to hygiene, we would not miss at all. Yet eating cereal out of a bowl rather than a cup, sleeping in a bed, cooking on a hob, eating cheese sandwiches that aren’t sweaty, were all laughed off the list, as they were things I felt we would definitely miss. So here it is. Three months after writing it, I can genuinely say that although I now have these things back in my life on a daily basis, it’s hard not to get a bit misty eyed at (most of) this list.

Things we were looking forward to coming home for:

  • Knowing that the spoon you are about to use has been washed rather than licked clean (and not necessarily by yourself)
  • Drinking water from a glass rather than a dubiously clean water bottle that has definitely had algae growth at some point in its life
  • Not having to squirrel away extra toilet paper every time you go to the toilet for fear of not seeing any for the rest of the day
  • Opening panniers/unrolling clothes/unwrapping food and being confident that an earwig won’t crawl out
  • Not having to wash underwear by hand every evening
  • Wearing clean socks every day
  • (Usually) knowing where the toilet is
  • Real milk in tea rather than powdered milk, or worse, coffee creamer (or worse, powdered milk or coffee creamer that an earwig has crawled out of)
  • Having my own plate to eat off rather than sharing a pan full of food
  • Using a full set of cutlery for meals
  • Not having to spend what feels like an hour every evening trying to get into a sleeping bag liner that is now more hole than material
  • Not having to blow my bed up
  • Chopping vegetables with a real knife rather than a Swiss Army knife which has previously been used for every other food item that needs chopping/slicing and also….
  • Washing greasy pans etc with warm water and washing up liquid every time
  • Putting a dry pair of shoes on in the morning rather than the ones that are still wet from the day before
  • Understanding whether supermarket checkout workers are asking us whether we want a receipt, a bag, have a reward card, or something totally different
  • Being inside when it rains, rather than trying to shelter from a downpour under a tree and not knowing if this is keeping you drier or making you wetter
  • Always being able to wash our hands with soap before eating
  • Boiling water by flicking the switch of a kettle
  • Eating lunch somewhere that isn’t a bus shelter.


Yes, life back home has a greater level of hygiene and far fewer earwigs. These are good things. We are enjoying many things about being back home, particularly spending time with family and friends. I’m even looking forward to our first British winter since 2014 (mostly for Christmas, but I don’t mind the dark and cold yet so far). But there’s definitely a part of me that would happily trade the electric kettle for a tepid cup of tea made with powdered milk, drunk out of a flask that has not been washed for a week, sitting in a bus shelter listening to the rain, because the next moment we could be enjoying the thrill of a great descent, some amazing fresh food or the enthusiastic conversation of a stranger. We’re not done yet, that’s for sure.

Quiet English roads, rolling countryside and sunshine. Yes please.

Thanks to Carol and Martin; Stephen, Debs and neighbours; Charlie; Tracey; Curry, Lisa and friends; Lucy and Kirsty; Chessie and Sarah; and our families for being excited at us being back despite only seeing us two months earlier.


Ups and downs in Portugal

Six days in a flat in Lagos doing very little except sleeping, wandering around and eating pastel de natas allowed us to recharge the batteries, knowing that once we left the south west corner of Portugal we would be riding north towards home for the first time since leaving over four months ago. We met up with our English friend Bob (who we met before the ferry to Barcelona, he made us a cup of tea…) one day for his birthday lunch; watched Leicester City beat both Liverpool and Manchester City and turn into real Premier League title contenders; and after spotting an ocean rowing boat with a GB flag dwarfed by the yachts in the harbour, discovered that a bunch of strapping Englishmen were leaving Lagos the same day as us but heading across the Atlantic to Venezuela, hoping to beat the world record for that crossing. (They did). We also ate many pastel de natas. What we didn’t use our time to do was catch up on the blog, plan our route ahead, etc etc.


Cape St Vincent (the lighthouse is there in the background)
Before pointing our wheels North towards home we rode out to the most South-Westerly point on the European mainland, Cape St Vincent. The ride there was memorable as being the first time a motorhome with GB plates had tooted and waved at us as we passed – we had made a habit of waving madly whenever we saw one but usually this was ignored. The cape itself had a touristy lighthouse and a busy car park but plenty of quiet spots to sit on the rocks and watch the waves crash against the cliffs. We had saved a can of Sagres (one of the two Portuguese beers that you find everywhere) for a celebratory lunch before riding north up the west coast for a few hours to find somewhere to camp. This stretch of coastline was probably our favourite of the whole trip – rugged cliffs, huge waves, small coves, tiny towns with little more than motorhome car parks and miles of empty beaches. Pretty much the opposite of the Algarve coastline. The road is inland but there are plenty of opportunities to turn off down to the sea – these are generally unappealing on a bike as they involve out-and-back detours often down a huge hill but when the coast is this nice… One day we even stopped at 3pm, unheard of for us who normally ride until it’s too dark to see, to walk a bit of the coastal path, take in cliff-top views and watch the sun set over the Atlantic ocean.


Prevailing wind direction…?
The closer we got to Lisbon, the worse the weather got, and after a day of solid rain we arrived at our hosts in the Portuguese capital dripping wet and took two days for everything to dry out. Lisbon is surrounded by upmarket holiday resorts and the one place everyone had told us to visit if we were in the area – Sintra. Perched high up in the hills about 30km from Lisbon, Sintra has palaces, an old ruined castle and gardens to visit, and if you google it (other search engines available) you will see why it attracts the crowds. However the weather was even worse, and after riding uphill to get there, including a really steep cobbled road (aka death trap in the wet) could see nothing but cloud. 


Wondering why we didn’t stay inside eating pastel de nata…
Beautiful Sintra (behind the cloud somewhere)
 We weren’t the only fools there – a few coach loads of people were wandering round with their umbrellas up craning their necks trying to imagine what was the other side of the crowd. Customer service in Portugal hit a new low when we weren’t allowed into either of the palace or castle cafes as they were inside the gates. So we drank nearly-warm tea from our flasks and took shelter under a stone walkway. Until we were moved on from there too. No sympathy for wet cyclists in Sintra. So we went to a cafe and ate tourist priced (double the usual) pastel de natas.


Bus shelter lunch
The weather improved a bit (it didn’t rain all the time) as we rode up the coast to Aria Branca youth hostel to have a day by the sea. It is right on the beach and very cheap, but being winter was almost empty. One night there was only us and a middle-aged Swedish guy, on a bike, who was staying there for 4 months and doing what looked like very little. Bit weird. The sun was out but in place of the driving rain was now gale force winds, and it was difficult to stay upright walking. The day we packed up to leave we got 5 miles down the road, realised we could hardly keep the bikes upright never mind ride, and so turned round and went back to the hostel. The receptionist was not surprised to see us return.


Cycling around Portugal’s highest mountain range
On the recommendation of local cyclists we then left the coast headed inland towards Serra de Estrela, Portugal’s highest mountain range. On the way we stayed with a couch surfing host who was doing a volunteer exchange, and had a fun evening with her and the other young volunteers in the town. They had taken to wine tasting (wine is so cheap, what else would you spend your spare time doing) and we were up until 1am helping taste wine and feeling old. It took us about a week to recover. The small road in the foothills of the mountains that we followed went through small pretty villages but unsurprisingly took us up and down some seriously steep hills. One night we stayed at a campground (we were as usual the only tent) and gained attention from all directions – an English couple invited us into their camper to drink wine and eat cheese and biscuits (yes please), the Dutch owner gave us blankets to keep warm (definitely yes please) and the resident cats swarmed around our pitch and climbed all over our stuff as we tried to pack away (less helpful). 


That little bit of grey up to the left was our road…
Debs making it look like hard work
Our final night in Portugal was spent in a small town high up on the edge of the mountains in a small hotel that hadn’t been redecorated since the 1950s but we didn’t care because they let us keep the bikes in the dining room (shh health and safety), had a restaurant next door where we ate a 3 course meal with wine for €7 each, served a massive buffet breakfast and filled our flasks with tea. But all of this didn’t quite compensate for the terrible, impatient driving that had started to knock the pleasure out of cycling in Portugal and so we sped (actually, rode very slowly as it was mostly uphill) towards the Spanish border and didn’t look back. Portugal, until your drivers learn a bit of patience you will stay fairly low down the list of recommended European cycling destinations. But you were pretty to look at, had some great coastline and of course our favourite bakery treat…

Thanks to Jim and Tricia (again, you made it onto two posts!), Jose for the tips, João and family, Miguel, Daniel at The Bike Shop (Terrugem), Henrique and Paula, Muge and the other international volunteers, and Rich and Angie.