The call came and the plane left. France to Belgium, Belgium to England, then England back to France. Mostly with The Other Belgian.
He was writing about visiting the UK for a day for a ride from his home country and I was the driver, photographer and colloquialism decoder.
It felt more removed than normal visiting the country of my birth but no longer my home country but it also felt slightly surreal to be doing it staying at the ‘Who’s Who’ of comedy bed and breakfasts.
The first night wasn’t with Basil Fawlty but did resemble his gaff somewhat. After a sitcom like breakfast with a Swiss couple that politely laughed at the proprietor’s past notion of putting up paintings of Spitfires for the German guests we were off, headed west with Bart – The Other Belgian on the pedals and me behind the wheel. His idea being to demonstrate how viable it could be to leave one country and ride in another overseas for the day.
I adapted his route slightly to include the other-worldly Dungeness where I was told in no uncertain terms that photography wasn’t just forbidden on the beach but an illegal act with serious consequences. I appreciate there is a nuclear power station opposite, but I’d been coming here for twenty five years with all manner of cameras to make landscape photographs and now when I was demonstrating it’s stark beauty to a foreigner I was to get stopped in my tracks and treated like people with cameras are nowadays – with hostility.
When I explained the reason The Other Belgian was here at all was to publicise the UK for foreign visitors, I was met with perhaps the perfect synopsis and potential tagline for the article itself…”Foreigners, here? Yeah we don’t want that“.
After a momentary and now clearly illegal North Shore run on to the wooden pathway out to the beach, Bart turned away and we didn’t look back. The fields of the garden of England were blooming and skies blue as we passed through chocolate box villages selling fresh eggs with honesty boxes that I now saw for the first time like a visitor reading a tourist board pamphlet.
After Kent came Oxfordshire and the freshly unveiled headquarters of Boardman Bikes where the paint was still drying around the step ladders finishing off the on site wind tunnel.
That night’s b&b had the proprietor tut when Bart’s accent politely introduced himself as a punter, then mutter the not so veiled insult to their staff, “they’re just foreigners they can wait their turn”. My retort that Bart might not understand their middle England slur but I could interpret the meaning clear as fucking day, tidied things up a little and we were sent off upstairs with our bags packed to discover the window of the rooms overlooked the take off blast wall of a US air base with seemingly regular cameo appearances by afterburners.
From Oxford it was west to the city I’ve long liked but never lived in, Bristol, for Bespoked Bristol – the hand built show that is more of a catch up with old handmade friends than a trade show to me. But as always the exotica on show was a highlight of the cycling calendar.
Finally we headed south to my home town – our gracious capital to see Rapha the next day. I did wonder what kind of abode we’d find in central Camden for thirty quid a night but somehow we parked outside, and found typically good big city dining later than the provinces thought a sensible idea. Then we were woken by the transient workers showering in the communal bathroom off to do the work the natives wouldn’t, at 5am.
Rapha was a haven of caffeinated civilisation in a day starved of sleep. More on that day here , but after an enlightening day on my wavelength we re-caffeinated in the Rapha cafe in Soho that I somehow talked The Other Belgian into driving to we were done and dispersed, to Belgium and Sussex respectively.
Happy days indeed and I thought it might have been feature enough to write about a tour of sitcom b&b stays, but as usual the Belgians did a sterling job of creating pages of memories though my life changed in a cycling accident before I could see them. Months later on awakening from a coma I was read the issue and this kind note stood as an epitaph in a way to the last job I did before my life changed forever.