The fire crackled and spat, shining a flickering light across my lounge. Outside the rain fell in buckets, discouraging any thoughts of forays onto the flanks of Dartmoor. My tiny rented cottage sat in a dip surrounded by a tall beech hedge which made it impossible for me to see anything of the world beyond my small garden. Unless that is I were to go upstairs which placed me slightly higher than the road I then looked down upon. It was a cosy house and one that suited my needs in the immediate aftermath of a major breakdown.
Finding this cottage had been an act of pure luck. I had been looking for a new home for quite some time after the property I was living in had been sold. I had seen all manner of houses as the sand in the timer ran lower and lower, but each and every one made my heart sink. I knew I needed somewhere I could rest quietly, somewhere tranquil. That was why I was looking in the area to the north of Dartmoor. It was desperation that kept me going, not any real belief that I might find what I was looking for.
Suddenly, there it was. The woman in the estate agent was pointing to it halfway down a page of diabolical looking properties that I might just have to consider if this proved not to be what it looked like on paper. Sitting next door to a property that my ex and I had considered buying it felt rather synchronistic at the time. I knew straight away that this was my next home and I scuttled off to view it straight away.
It felt perfect from the moment I arrived, and what I mean by that is that I felt safe there. I was sitting in front of the fire a few months later, all cosy, enveloped in peace, and ignoring the outside world. Next to the fire were four old panniers. I had recently liberated them from a box in the garage where they had been slowly decaying and gathering a layer of mould from the damp air. I had no intention of using them but I had decided to clean them up and take them to Proper Job, a recycling centre at Chagford, a small town nestled into the side of Dartmoor.
In all honesty I had forgotten that they existed. I had been hunting around for something else at the time I found them. They were Carradice Super C panniers in a fabric known as cotton duck, a kind of heavy waterproof canvas. At the time I bought them they were the best and longest lasting cycle touring panniers on the planet. This was years prior to Ortlieb and their roll-top mastery existed.
The warmth of the fire and the glow it threw across the room was highly conducive to day dreaming. As the darkness of an early winter evening began to descend around my safe-house my thoughts turned to the many adventures I had enjoyed when these panniers had contained all my worldly goods for the duration. In my pitiful state I wondered whether I would ever do anything adventurous again. It all felt so far away from me in that moment when even the thought of going shopping was a major challenge.
My mind began to whirl with perfectly clear pictures of an off-road trip I made with my cousin Jo. We had taken to the tracks and trails around Scotland for a mammoth cross-country adventure on our fully loaded mountain bikes. Interrupting these memories were those of high peaks, alpine in appearance with meadows of beautifully scented flowers. These memories belonged to a tour around Picos de Europa in northern Spain and they came flooding back as clear as day. On this trip my (then) wife and I used an intricate combination of roads, paths, and jeep tracks to describe a large circle around the central Picos mountain range. It was a route that didn’t see us meeting any real traffic, very few people, and one that left us feeling as though we had spent three weeks on another planet.
I also remembered a journey I had made alone. At the time I lived in North Wales, on Anglesey. I had become interested in exploring old drovers’ roads, along with the tracks and trails that littered the area. Having spent the winter pawing over maps I had eventually created a route that would take me from Anglesey to Rhyader in Mid Wales that avoided roads for the most part.
As I sat, deep in thought, more wonderful memories flowed through my head. This time it was a picture of a small stone bridge that I could see. Pont Scethin, an incongruous but attractive structure with steep arch, wouldn’t have looked out-of-place in a Cotswold village. The bridge was scarred from the passage of stage coaches that once rattled over it. Long ago it had been part of the old London to Harlech mail road which had now it had all but disappeared to the untrained eye. Deep grooves marked where the coaches had once scraped their axles on the bridges surface as they passed over its steeply humped arch. It felt so unlikely that any road ever came this way, especially on a day when the mist was down and I was surrounded by nothing but bog.
Other than the bridge and a rough track through the mire there are no signs of its former usage. I had walked over awkwardly spaced flagstones to reach the bridge, each foot occasionally disappearing into the mire all around. It was such hard work as I was pushing and carrying my loaded mountain bike and I was so glad when the surface improved enough for me to ride again.
A little further on where the track starts to climb there’s a standing stone, a carefully placed carved memorial. Equally as out-of-place as the bridge, it bears testament to an old lady who loved to walk this path, even in her eighties and the people who lived in this area in times gone by. Sadly I’ve forgotten the her name but not the sentimentality it left me feeling on a damp and windy day in the middle of nowhere. Some memories last forever.
The fire spat, bringing me back to reality. Those days were long gone and now I just had the memories the panniers elicited in my mind. There were no photographs to back them up. They are precious memories and belong to me alone. Those happy thoughts brought tears, tears that started as a trickle and ended as a flood. That was how my life was then: a nightmare where everything felt painful and almost unbearable. It was a place where sleep was the only respite and even that was hard to come by, where even happy memories brought a flood of sadness because it felt like memories were all that remained of the adventurous and outgoing person I once was.
It was hard leaving those panniers at the recycling centre. It marked the end of an era, or so I thought. I didn’t, in my wildest dreams, imagine that I would ever ride a bicycle again but still felt somehow bereft as I pulled out of the car park and headed home without them. Had I left my panniers or my life at the recycling centre? I wasn’t at all sure. I didn’t seriously believe there would be any more adventures of any kind. There were no thoughts of getting better, just the grind of getting through each day as painlessly as possible and hanging in there until my next therapy or doctor’s appointment.
It was a full four years until I began to emerge slowly from my breakdown. I was still fragile and vulnerable, a state in which I remain to this day. It was a tentative man whose head appeared once more above the parapet. Frightened of what might happen next, of the losses I had incurred, and how much I’d had been left behind, I began to move again, slowly. I began to sense the damage that had been done. I had sat in field of debris for four long years. I’ve written about it many times before but it still feels like my got life shattered into tiny pieces and then scattered in the wilderness around a vast crater. Everybody else I knew had continued in their journey but I had been temporarily frozen in space, in an unimaginable nightmare, while time and everybody else marched on. How do you rebuild that?
Did I remember that cycling had helped me once before? I don’t know. I knew most emphatically that climbing, running, and flying paragliders were never going to be possibilities again and that motorcycling was on the way out for me. My mind could no longer manage those things and I accepted that. They were all part of the past, beyond my reach and that’s where they remain. But cycling sat differently in my psyche. Cycling felt safe to try. It isn’t extreme and demanding unless you choose for it to be that way.
You don’t have to be fit to start cycling, or want to ride a long way. You just get on and go, or that’s what I convinced myself at the time. It wasn’t the physical effort I remembered but the joy of travelling slowly to different places under my own steam. I remembered having all my worldly goods with me and how simple life could be. At a deep level I must have thought it to be a life that I could re-engage in at a time when my life seemed anomalous.
It feels interesting to me now that I replaced those old-faithful panniers with a shiny new trailer that was bigger than its predecessors. I had no inclination at that time that I would fill it with bigger dreams and memories than the old ones could have ever contained.
Sitting in my home now, there is no crackle of fire in a hearth. It was replaced with the steady warmth of central heating. The only crackling is that of maps being folded and unfolded. The light doesn’t flicker and my house isn’t virtually underground but sits on a hillside. A soft light on a stand throws shadows over the lounge, the place where I relax and remember, creating a similar atmosphere to that of my tiny cottage of eight years ago. It’s quite different but still contains echoes from my past.
I also have new panniers now. They sit in a wardrobe that has no doors. It was meant to have doors originally, but when I walk into my spare room and see everything I might need for an adventure staring me in the face it makes me smile. I have bags and boxes, tents and sleeping bags, cookers and pans, for every size of dream nowadays. They sit haphazardly on several rickety shelves waiting to be hand picked for the adventure they best suit. If they could talk, the noise would be deafening as they compared notes from my recent past. They already hold a great deal of memories between them, memories that I can get lost in, and I’ve no intention of stopping trying to create more any time soon.
My reminiscing has been stirred by thinking about plans for next year. What I want or choose to do in the future will always be fuelled in part from my experiences of life, especially those that were forged in mountain environments. Although I’m no longer able to climb, or fly, I have found over the last few years that being among nature under my own propulsion is actually the most important part of the experience for me. It’s something I can still enjoy and to go on enjoying well into the future. Never stop remembering, it might lead you to new heights.
I wish you all a happy Christmas and a New Year full of wonderful memories.
Until next time…………………..