November 13, 2016
It’s one of those surprises that I really want to keep secret but sometimes, I just can’t. I’m too excited to keep it to myself! It takes less than ten minutes to tell Michael, less than fifteen to tell Nuri and, in under an hour I’ve told Nita.
The surprise is two first-class tickets to London via Reykjavik. Now, normally this would be impossible, but circumstance has conspired to make this happen. The plan to use my Avion-miles to book the ticket is useless since a one-way flight reduces the value of my miles to 1/5 the normal distance. After a day of research I realize that all of our gear is going to cost us a fortune to ship as overage on the plane. Then I begin to notice that some flights offer more luggage with larger capacities if you fly on an upgraded ticket. Obviously it has to work out price-wise, but on the day we want to fly, an upgraded ticket is only slightly more expensive than economy, and all of our luggage would be included in the cost of the ticket. In the end, flying first-class to London saves us $1000 over economy and while it will likely never happen again, it is insanely good!
We fly Iceland Air and, if you have the chance, they’re a great airline. The staff are friendly and attentive, the food is decent and the seats throughout the plane are comfy with a good amount of leg-room. After about five hours we arrive in Reykjavik and I immediately regret not shipping the bikes here – though we’re far too late in the season for this beautiful place. After a brief layover we’re quickly on our way to London Heathrow and the bustle that is the UK’s capital.
The queue through customs is short and the agent is friendly; the only raised eyebrow comes when I mention the Isle of Wight. “Why would you go there now?” Indeed, the question makes sense since the weather is certainly changing here. It’s cool in the UK and late in the season to be touring but our plan is to head south towards the Mediterranean for the winter months and explore the coast. North Africa and Turkey also fit into the plan though there’s no rush to get anywhere. Nita’s never been to Europe and we want to give it the time it deserves. The agent smiles and stamps our passports, and we’re in England; I’m back in England for the first time since ’86.
To be truthful, it’s hard for me to focus on what’s happening in the present as I’m mildly preoccupied with the past. I was born here and spent a good part of my childhood growing up in and around Portsmouth, Southsea and Fareham – south-central UK. Returning here is, in a way, coming full-circle on this journey. It’s been twenty-six years since I’ve visited where I grew up and it’ll be a few more days yet since we’ve decided to spend some time in London.
We enjoy arriving in places a little earlier than our bikes as it gives us time to adjust both mentally and physically to the new surroundings. In the case of the UK, it also gives us some time to watch the traffic and get a feel for how it’ll be riding here. Walking the streets (not for money) is a huge benefit in the preparation of things.
London’s size is hard for us to comprehend. After a quick drive in with Richard, our London cabby, we check into the Kensington Rooms Hotel and lug our gear upstairs. The price is reasonable for London, we’re by Hyde Park and excited to be on a new continent. Of course it’s a bit of a “get what you pay for” affair, but after some of the places we’ve stayed, it seems decent – even with a banana peel lying on the floor of the lobby. Walking around the area we quickly begin to decipher the differences in pedestrian rights and signage. More is left up to interpretation here for the walker and we have to remember to look in the opposite direction than we’re used to.
The area is bustling and smiles are few and far between. The streets are clean, the leaves are falling and there’s definitely a chill in the air. One of the first tasks at hand is to get a new SIM card for the phones. Our Canadian plans for the phones are ridiculous when travelling, and 5mb of data here costs $100! It’s shocking. We walk into a shady wireless store across the street that seems to be a front for a more lucrative business; different men walk into the shop and hand giant wads of £20 notes to our salesman with an alarming frequency.
Intent on not handing over a credit card, we get the SIM cards set-up and pay in cash.
Our time in London is spent mostly dealing with jet-lag and, in the moments that we’re coherent, running around the city to see the sights. It’s wonderful being back here. The London Underground is a great way to get around and we use it almost daily. Our cabby suggests picking up an Oyster Card which allows users to pre-pay and just swipe at entry points to the Tube. The system itself is easy to use and avoids the confusion of the NYC subways express lines by simply having more trains running more often.
Nita and I enjoy some of the touristy aspects of travel. There are reasons people flock to some of these places – they’re beautiful, or culturally important, or perhaps they’re just meaningful in some way to the person seeing it. Whatever the reason, we’re happy to spend our time seeing the popular spots as much as the hidden gems. A walk along the south-side of Hyde Park takes us past the Royal Albert Hall and, directly north, the beautiful Albert Memorial.
It’s brisk out and the quieter side of the park gives us a moments pause to actually think about where we are. The leaves are turning and starting to line the sidewalks with splashes of orange and yellow. Prickly husks from fallen chestnuts lay split apart and their treasures long since taken by critters or children for their Conkers collection. It’s my favorite time of year here.
On the polar opposite of peace and quiet are the throngs of people that flock to Buckingham Palace. We emerge from the palace gardens into the barriers and concrete that surround the front of the palace itself. Folks clamber to get a picture in front of the gates and it makes for some great people-watching. Much of the wandering this day is really in preparation for another surprise – and one I’m glad to say I actually keep secret.
We make our way towards Sloane Street, and after spending some time feeling mightily out-classed, arrive at the Royal Court Theatre. Still completely in the dark, I hustle Nita into the venue past about a hundred pictures that will give the surprise away. Finally, once seated, Charley Boorman walks onto the stage for a great night of stories. After the show we have an opportunity to meet with him for a chat; he seems like a lovely guy and, after a pic and a pint, we make our way back to the hotel feeling quite lucky!
We’re both knackered and our bodies just want to sleep. All the time. Jet-lag is a great argument for overland travel!
It’s really a time of adjustment in London. When we feel energetic enough, the Underground calls our names and takes us to Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. It also takes us to the London Eye which is about as touristy as it gets. Still the views from it are spectacular and helps us to understand how truly massive London is.
I have to admit, we don’t really warm up to London on a personal level – and that’s not a commentary on the city or it’s people. We’re just realizing that the people we meet in a place tend to make it for us. London is a magnificent place, with so much to see but we haven’t really connected with anyone here and that could well be our fault. When we travel with the bikes people talk to us because they’re interested or curious. In London we don’t have them as a gateway into conversation and it makes us realize that perhaps we need to try harder.
Richard the Cabby picks us up from the hotel and takes us to Southampton where we’ll be meeting the bikes in a couple of days. We hunker down at the Novotel and catch up on some writing. Inside, I’m getting anxious as we’re close to people and places that mean something to me. A call from Wallenius Wilhelmsen lets me know that the bikes are arriving the next day and that I’ll need to pay dock fees and deal with customs. Their customs handler, Stephen, asks for some paperwork and gets back to me the same day; the bikes are clear and will be ready for pick-up. Thanks to Miron at Ship Overseas, the entire process was easy.
Getting insurance for the bikes is less easy. To ride (legally) we need green-card insurance and in the UK the insurance companies no longer offer this to non-resident drivers. While ADAC in Germany does, we have to apply in person with our bikes. Hrm. Finally, after plenty of research I find a company, Alessie, in the Netherlands who agrees to cover us. They’re not cheap, but it’s enough for us to spring the bikes out of port and get an extension at a better rate on the continent.
The day to pick up the bikes arrives and Stephen, our lovely customs contact, actually comes to pick us up from the hotel! After very little paperwork (almost none actually), we’re on our bikes and riding through Southampton. It feels amazing. The bikes have really become a part of us and our everyday.
The reunion doesn’t last long though. The next day the great folks from Bahnstormer-Alton pick-up the bikes for their major services. Nita and I have done the last couple of services and want a proper mechanic to look things over prior to the next part of the journey. Also, Nita’s needs new sprocket and a chain – something that turns out to be complicated by my ignorance.
In anticipation of this trip, we had a set of Woody’s Wheel Works tubeless spoked wheels installed, replacing the cast wheels that came with her F650GS. Those wheels have been awesome but something I failed to think of was the complications with regards to replacement parts. The kids at the BMW shops only order OEM parts and these puppies have RAD hubs and sprocket carriers that use KTM sprockets. I just don’t know which one. Research and guesswork yields a possible sprocket that turns out to be the wrong one, but eventually I find a distributor for the same set that’s currently on the bike.
A nice guy, Simon at TWS GB assures me that we can get the part overnighted to Bahnstormer-Alton but a couple of shipping issues delays the package past the weekend. We feel for Andy at the shop since he now has two bikes taking up valuable space, but he’s a great guy and insists it’s no trouble. It turns out to be a happy accident. Had we gotten the part on time, we’d have only spent a day or two with friends in Fareham, the town I grew up in. Instead we get to spend a week and a half there with Kathy, Ian and Maddy; family friends and all-round amazing people.
Mum and I moved to Fareham when I was five and I have so many memories of this place. The school I attended here, Harrison County Primary, was fantastic and the morning walk down a well-treed lane is vividly burned into my mind; as are the wonderfully delicious pasties from Soothills Bakery. On my way to school, mum would give me some change for one and I was supposed to save it for lunch. The pasty was almost always gone by the time I’d arrive at school and I’d be left with a rumbling stomach for lunch.
Nita and I visit both places during our stay and I have to say that the pasties are as good now as they were then! A walk to Harrison reveals the school to be seemingly untouched by time. We meet a teacher as we poke our heads in, and she gladly takes us on a tour through the hallways which are bustling with students getting ready for a Halloween dance. It’s magic.
Kath and Ian who own The Fareham Gallery, are part of my extended family and wonderfully warm friends. When I call them about coming to Fareham, Kaths response is simply “Come stay with us. As long as you want.” We’re given Maddy’s room (sorry Maddy!!!) and made to feel incredibly welcome. We fill our time with home-cooked meals, pub nights, and visiting with Kaths brother Terence, his wife Claire and their daughter Grace who is too sweet for words. For a week and half we feel like we’re home, doing the things we do when we’re not on the road. Even Ians penchant for pre-dinner cheese, crackers, Branston and Piccalilli seems like a great idea! And, I have to say, it feels really good.
Perhaps too good!
We’re beginning to feel settled in Fareham and sad at the thought of leaving. We know it’s coming but a small part of us doesn’t want to go. It’s a beautiful and conflicting feeling.
Before we leave, there are train rides to Chichester, Portsmouth (to see the new Bond film with Emma and Damien!) and to the HMS Victory – Lord Nelsons flagship in the Battle of Trafalgar; a ship that was the object of obsession for my best friend Martin and me. We also visit what may be the last Titchfield parade – though they say that every year now! Indeed the attendance has dwindled since I was young, but a mulled wine (courtesy of family friends Phil and Sue) by the side of the street is wonderfully warming as the floats pass by.
There’s also one last very important trip. When I was young, mum and I were shuttled to the street and had nowhere to go. Luckily, we were taken in by an amazingly kind woman, Julie, and her husband Ray, who ran a bed and breakfast in Southsea. That was some thirty-five years ago and, after a call, Nita and I arrange to meet them at their house; the same B&B I’d spent some of my best childhood years in.
At the door we’re met by a woman with a wonderful smile I’ll not soon forget. Julie’s as warm as ever and still gives a hug that would make the toughest man feel safe and happy! As a child I thought Ray was a giant. As an adult I put that down to things seeming bigger when we’re young. However, the child had it right! Ray is way taller than me and his deep voice still conjures up evenings with him singing Dean Martin to us while playing the ukelele. His humour hasn’t faded either and he always seems to make us smile.
Over some danishes and sausage rolls we catch up on a lifetime of change, and a future filled with dreams. Everything is different but somehow I feel like no time has passed since our last visit. Seeing them is a gift I can’t describe. Eternally humble, they have no idea of how important they are to us, but I try my best to impress upon them just how different our lives are for having had them in it. Their kindness at that time inspires me to be better. Always.
All too soon we have to go but I leave with the warmest feeling in my belly and a plan to meet up with them for a curry next time we’re through town.
Back in Fareham the bikes are returned and our last night is spent with all of Kathys family over dinner. In the morning, we say our goodbyes to Kath and Ian, Terence, Claire and Grace as they leave for a day in London. With an empty house, we pack our bikes and wait for the rain to pass. We’re excited and sad. I feel like I could spend another month here.
The clouds break and, in the chilly afternoon air, we head east.