Travelling Journal: 1975 1. Biking in London

I started this #DigiWriMo by setting up a column with the hashtag on Tweetdeck and here came the first tweet. This was from @Sensor63 which although writing in English happens to be my nearest PLN member that I never met IRL. He shared his thoughts as he was wandering in the fields under a sun I experienced as well

This set me with this idea of writing on what I lived, my experience of growing myself.

Next I started cooking and set the music to Leonard Cohen. I don’t know why. It’s an artist I didn’t listen to for many years. Music from my early teens. Leonard Cohen songs were popular in our group, some playing it on acoustic guitars and used by English teachers to get us interested. This song “Winter lady” ( I remembered picking some words for an early breaking letter.

Travelling lady, hitch-hiking, travelling. As soon as I reach those words, if I ever close a bit my eyes, memory starts pouring in like from a tall cascade. it’s noisy and brutal.

Travel as been the keyword of my life and could be the conducting line of a set of writings. It’s going to be easy in English since I told some already many times in English and many are set in English speaking places.

Back to Leonard Cohen, (Canada and US didn’t really exists for us) brings me back to this English class and to my first trip: A tour in Bicycle in Surrey, Sussex and Kent from London to Dover via Brighton.

Above: The roadmap, dutifully fuzzy.

I planned this trip with some care as I knew there were several challenges packed into it. Travelling by myself, in a foreign country, using a foreign language I barely knew and using a vehicle: a bicycle rather fragile and requiring physical effort (luckily maps didn’t show how much effort was need to cycle on the hills and cliffs). I planned the trip for March 1975.

I bought a Youth Hostel card (see below), I registered to the Cyclist Touring Club and bought survey maps.

Carte Auberge De Jeunesse 1975 w1500.

Carte Auberge De Jeunesse 1975 FrontSide w1500.

I took care of the bike (a road bike I received for my birthday, rather heavy but strong with gear changes).

I couldn’t learn English more. I was in my 4th year and my first 2 years were disastrous with me pointing consistently at last position in grades. In the 3rd year, I got a teacher less demanding and a more welcoming group and I started to learn really. So my English was … very minimal to say the least. Understatement was not part of my vocabulary, future tense either. I went with “to have, to be and to go” :)

The trip started with the train, day train from Strasbourg. 8 hours until we reached Calais via Lille around 8 PM. The train continued past Calais to the maritime train station: End of line. I was caught into this ambiance of being at the end. An ambiance I experienced later in many places around the world. This feeling that takes inside you that you are going to cross something. You leave behind people who never wandered on the other side, for many reasons like lack of curiosity and no interest for others lifestyle. You look forward the excitement to discover new people, new habits, new common sense, new culture.

Now it was not the first time I went to England. I went in London at 8, with my father, brother and sister on our way to Ireland. Nice trip but being the younger I couldn’t get much of it. I came again the summer before my first year of English (11 y/o) for a month of summer class. I knew nothing at all and it was in a full immersion class with kids 3 years older them me with already 2 years of English. My father’s view of what education and learning should be: put the bar high so you feel challenged to succeed.

Also, it was not the first I travelled as my father took us around all Europe on every occasion. Our trips were mostly unprepared, itinerant, and routes were chosen day after days.

I decided at 14 that I will not let it go and I would learn English my way. Loaded with the above-mentioned experience of travel, I felt I could do it. I could legally start travelling alone in Europe from 15 y/o. I started a few days after my birthday.

I realize now that trying to expand my borders is very much what’s I’ve been doing since then. Some borders are very rectangle like from one longitude to another and one latitude to another (spherical geometry rectangles, of course, for a #maths lover). Some are in knowledge space: learning maths, becoming good at it, learning software, learning languages, becoming good in English. I proceed always the same way: by expanding from what I have and eventually doing the full round trip. I usually start without maps, I wander at random in towns, places domains and discipline. Once I got the feeling of the place, I start to explore more methodically. This exploration of thoughts at random, as they come, weakly connected was what connected me to Simon’s experience today.

The boat took us across the channel and through the night.

I reached Waterloo station at around 8 AM. A while to fetch my bike from the accompanied luggage booth and here I’m: I climbed my bike and left the station to the light of the street. This image of me is still very vivid in my mind: I had my heavy green military surplus coat, the bag attached the dark and this view of a dark and narrow station with just a few lanes and a way out cut out in the wall on an end.

My first contact with the rather narrow street  (I turned on left) was the bright sun, I had been travelling for almost a day, and then a huge horn sound.

Man! They could have killed me with this enormous sound. Here I was: stopped right in front of a black cab from old ages. I knew it was a cab from my school book. “John went to London and took a cab”, I took this lesson on “to go and preterit”, see I got instruction.

So the problem here was that the cab was on the left side of the street, left from his point of view of course :), and I was on the right, my right I mean and precisely I was wrong, not in my right.

Google would have recommended the exact same route today

The small lane on the left today.

I was in a small lane (see map and picture) parallel to York Road. Past the fright and exchanging strong words with the taxi driver in respective languages, I went forward. I had a map obtained from the British consulate and I was heading toward Earls’ Court. At that time, it was a cheap place where you get affordable B&B. I had about £200 with me for two weeks, I was running on a £12 per day budget.

LondonMap w1500
That’s the original map, still folded :)

I crossed a bridge, start cycling in front. You have to realize that back in that time there were no bicycles in London. I was the only one riding a bike. There was no lanes reserved for bikes, I had to ride inside the traffic (on left #BangOnHead). trying the grasp the sense of writing on the floor: Right lane MUST turn left. My bicycle was a continental style (which is now the norm), in UK people used high pitched bikes, more suitable for promenade in parks then for countryside long distance rides. Everyone was staring at me.

I started to return the smiles, very proud and happy to be the center of interest. That’s where I ended up between two horses. Horses rode by tall men with red jackets and helmets, many of them.

They wouldn’t go around me, they carried on straight and I took a while to understand the situation. Again my school book at the rescue. I was in the “changing the guards” : 10:00 AM right on time, just I didn’t plan to be part of the show with my bike and my rucksack.

I ducked to the side of the road and continued to my hotel. From there on I gave up using my bike in London.

PS: I just realized that I have behind me an old box full of stuff I placed aside many years ago and yes, despite all my moves, this boxes contains all my souvenirs. Great for illustrating this post. My memories were rather perfect just it was in 1975, not in 1974.

Watch out for the next episode: Living in Earl’s court and my first contacts with India.

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  • dogtrax

    Voyage stories, with maps and images and sounds (or least, a reference to sound … maybe inferential sound?), always draw me in.

    • BrunoWinck

      Thank you Kevin,

      Good to have like-minded readers. Travel stories are great to bring back artifacts. I shall include some drawing I made in more recent ones.