I initially thought that I wouldn’t write about abandoning this year’s tour. But then I realised that to do that would be against everything this blog stands for. After all, the purpose of my writing is to encourage people to live within their condition and to recognise when it’s time to call it a day before things get out of hand.
I’ve been home for a little over a week now and my mind, still fragile with free-flowing emotion, is beginning to settle down again. I’m still waking feeling dreadfully anxious in the morning and sometimes during the night. Whatever happened while I was away, it had a profound effect on my wellbeing. I have been experiencing feelings of being fractured, in a similar way to when I first broke down. It is as though all my foundations are made of sand and at the slightest sign of distress they begin to get washed away, collapsing my support system in the process.
It isn’t unusual for me to feel unsettled for a while after leaving home. That is how most people feel to some degree. What was strange was the persistent and overwhelming sense of panic that was never more than a stone’s throw away. Again, I have a history of moments of panic and full-blown panic attacks were common at the beginning of this period of being unwell. They always, up until now, decline over time, allowing me to continue. This year the panic attacks built to a crescendo where I felt I didn’t want to leave the tent, felt unable to go forwards, and unable to return home, trapped by a mind that was clearly unwell.
From this perspective, stopping and abandoning my tour is a success story. I listened to my mind and body and decided it had enough. Continuing cycling could have pushed me over the precipice into a full-blown crisis, and that was something I wanted to avoid.
So how did it all begin? Home is my safe place. It feels like a fortress against the world outside where I can hide away and relax. My first day felt fine as I waved goodbye to Michele and headed for a friend’s house in Taunton. It was a fine day initially, but deteriorated into a wet afternoon. I sauntered slowly along enjoying the scenery, especially the section along the Great Western Canal. Then the heavens opened and my attitude flipped. The joy evaporated almost instantly and the cycling became a chore. By the time I reached Jill’s house I was drenched, but happy that at least I didn’t have to erect a tent for the night.
We ate and talked a pleasant evening away. As I settled into my bed for the night I sensed a feeling I can only describe as dread at the thought of doing it all again in the morning. The forecast was grim for the early part of the day and I decided there and then that I would wait until late morning before setting out again.
I woke feeling unsure and anxious. The rain was thundering down. My heart sank accordingly, reinforcing my previous notion of waiting until midday to minimise the time I would spend in the rain. Bridgwater came and went eventually. I say eventually for two reasons. Getting there along the sodden canal path was much harder than my previous visits and some wag had changed the town centre signs around to create confusion. I realised this quickly and made my escape. True to its word, the rain ceased mid-afternoon, replaced with sunshine and a brightness that my mind didn’t reflect. It seemed my manner was getting negative. I just wanted to arrive on the top of the Mendips without making the effort I knew I would need to make to get there. I should have stopped at Glastonbury but didn’t. I continued through to Wells and then began the climb up from Wookey Hole to the campsite, Mendip Heights.
It was late and the road murderously steep. It felt good to arrive, knowing that I was now just a morning’s ride from Bristol and a bed in my friends’ house in Clifton. Chores completed, I sat and looked out across the panoramic vista from my tent. Shortly after that I collapsed into a tired sleep, enveloped by the comfort of my Exped mattress.
Sleep was not easily gained, despite being dog tired, When I woke to a sunny morning I felt relief more than joy. I couldn’t get going. It felt as though I was almost unable to leave the tent, not through panic, just through feeling hollow and lost, mentally. My mind was sluggish to say the least and I felt an internal resistance to getting out of bed, packing and eating. But the sunshine won and I soon found myself riding over the top of these wonderful hills now feeling relaxed and happy.
Drifting into Bristol on beautiful country by-ways should have been a pleasure. I felt uneasy, not wanting to enter into this busy, noisy, environment, but knowing I had to. The convoluted marked trail of NCN 3 was fine, but twisted and turned like a snake, more so than I remembered. When I arrived in the centre of the city I found it being dug up. Traffic cones, diggers, no fountains, and a food fayre tucked in amongst the wooden panels dividing various on-going works. At least I could buy coffee and sit and watch the world go by. Although I felt fine, there was a missing ingredient. I couldn’t put my finger on it at all. That hollowness I mentioned earlier seemed fairly well embedded, reducing my sense of joy and my ability to feel anything. This is a classic sign of depression and I knew that. I was looking forward to seeing my old friends Jon and Helen and their family. The last time had been 2010.
I relaxed around the docks with a pint of Bristol Blonde beer, watching the world and boats float gently by, before going on to my friends’ house where good company, good food, good music and craft beer saw the evening disappear rapidly and happily. I woke feeling extremely anxious again. Why? I’ve ridden this morning’s ride many times. Leaving after breakfast I headed up to the park to find signs for NCN 4, which proved a little elusive.
Eventually I found my way, but twice I was stopped in my tracks in places where Kermit wouldn’t fit through. Unpacking and repacking, just to do it all again in 100 metres is a nuisance. I had done this twice yesterday as well and that smarted, leaving me angry and upset, as though everything was all going wrong. It wasn’t, this was just the first signs that my mind didn’t want to play ball, or more accurately, cycle touring, and that I wasn’t listening.
I settled as I slowly escaped onto the route to Gloucester and the quiet lanes, in combination with the plentiful number of smiling cyclists enjoying the flat riding and warmth of something akin to a summer’s day. After much tacking around the lanes that run aside the Severn river I hadn’t a clue which way was which. Most turns were right angles and there were seemingly hundreds of them. When Gloucester did arrive, it was magnificent, with the added bonus of a Sainsbury’s supermarket right next to trail with specific cycle parking. The only flies in the ointment were two more barriers that Kermit’s new Veltop wouldn’t fit underneath without some effort folding and packing it away. Bugger.
Finding and following the trail couldn’t have been easier and an escape was made back into rolling countryside where a farm provided a small, attractive campsite in an old orchard for just £5 a night. I stayed for two nights as there was a shop down the road and the weather sounded promising. I thought I was taking care of myself, but an unsettled fog began to permeate me in the time I spent there. It happened despite all the other folk on the campsite coming over to talk to me at various times. My tent felt small and cramped. I wasn’t settling into it in the way I would have liked. A slow creeping uncertainty was forming in my mind.
Back on the road I headed for Kidderminster. It was a pleasant day spent cruising along attractive country lanes except the last three miles, which were spent on death highway 1, with apologies to Josie Dew for stealing her nomenclature. I knew the Malvern Hills were there, I saw them, But they were most notable by their absence for most of the day as I dodged around hills. When they eventually came into view I was surprised that I still hadn’t passed them by. There’s no pleasing some people, is there?
That evening I sat outside my tent and wondered why I was there. I had no connection with the campsite at all despite a fabulous meal and the company of a couple celebrating an eightieth birthday in the local pub. Nothing seemed to lift me up from the gloom developing in my mind and I felt wary of moving on to pastures new. Where was this feeling of dread coming from? I had no idea.
I was now in the Shropshire hills and the rolling landscape engaged me more than the flatlands. I was in good physical shape but woke from a deep slumber with the notion forming in my mind that I didn’t want to pack away and move. So, why did I? Some hidden notion that if I stopped too much I would never get going again saw me pulling the plug from my comfy mattress. The loud hiss of escaping air confirmed that a new day’s riding was about to start. There was nothing left to do but pack and leave.
We wandered away quietly onto death highway one again. The traffic was lighter, but no friendlier than the previous night when its ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude left me reeling. We had travelled no distance when the confusing signs led me up the garden path. My canopy was complaining. I had tumbled over the previous day while stationary, after the front wheel went into a rut. Despite hardly touching the ground the pole broke. I now took the time to sit at the roadside feeling numb, mending the pole using a spare pole section from the tent and zip ties. As I did it I cussed the signage and the traffic that had got out of the same side of the bed as on the previous day. We had travelled all of half a mile at that point.
The handsome town of Bewdley eventually arrived and I should have stopped and done a few chores. I didn’t as I had made almost no progress. Instead I followed the National Cycle Network signage out of town up a hill until I was directed into the forest on pleasant trails. I rode for over five miles on tracks that replaced the more direct road route of around two miles. This fact saw me getting really angry. Why didn’t the route follow the road? What a waste of time and energy this contrived trail was. It would be great for butterfly spotting or a family outing, even a day ride. But on an End to End route? I ask you.
The route continued to mystify. A series of lanes left me in the attractive riverside village of Alveley. Tea by the river sir? Sadly I didn’t, stopping only to talk to a family whose father insisted on telling me how long and steep the next hill was. My mood state was such that I could’ve punched his lights out as I had already asked him to restrain from telling me of any ‘surprises’ lurking up ahead as I was struggling mentally. The hills were steep and quite long but I climbed them easily enough, possibly out of spite.
When the trail became traffic-free again it sadly didn’t become hassle free. It was overgrown and had two different types of barriers that Kermit wouldn’t fit under and required me to unpack. It was bloody annoying to say the least. After that, and heeding the guidebook warning, I took to the roads as the next section of trail looked un-rideable.
Now within two miles of Bridgnorth we hopped madly from lane to lane for three more miles without ever getting any closer. I was so angry. I thought I might explode as I rode down the final, sanctioned lane, which looked exactly like the one I could have used three miles ago, into Bridgnorth. Then my way was blocked by crawling traffic and road works in the only place I could have ridden up into town. After riding along the base of the hill that supported the town, that perched mostly on its top, I felt defeated. I began to panic, not knowing what to do. When this reached fever pitch, I stopped, locked Kermit and sat down. I flew into panic. Everything dumbfounded me. The world had turned and was no longer my friend. I ought this irrationality that left me feeling in danger for my existence.
My mind thought the whole world was collapsing around me. It seemed there were all manner of insurmountable barriers to my progress. In reality they were small and slightly annoying happenings that always occur when you tour. I wanted somebody to beam me up, take me home, or anywhere but here.
Eventually, I made a plan. I phoned Michele whose calming voice was good to hear. I decided I would walk into town and find what I needed using the information service clearly marked in my guide. Finding fuel was like searching for rocking horse pooh. Oh no sir, we don’t keep that anymore. How the hell do people cook while camping. I had brought the gas stove as a better alternative to methylated spirits which is even harder to find now. The lady in the information centre, who for some reason had bright blue and pink alternating vertical stripes on her eyelids, was very helpful. I even managed to smother my internal laughter at the mad makeup, hi-de-hi moment, to escape with a list of campsites, shops and a possible fuel source.
On my map she drew a street that looked the same shape as a schoolboy would draw a penis. At the very end of this tiny street she assured me I would find a farm shop and maybe even gas. The street didn’t exist and the farm shop was on the corner of a large, driveable, thoroughfare. They did have gas though and so I marched off to do some shopping and head for a campsite a little happier.
Death highway two spoiled the whole day with people being aggressive and stupid all the way to the site turn-off, where you take your life in your hands and move right while waiting for the crunch as a frantic driver runs over you. It didn’t happen and I was mighty happy to arrive. I was exhausted. Not from cycling, but from battling my emotions for the last couple of hours. My mind remained unstable with uncontrollable emotional outbursts.
I paid my dues and entered a peaceful world where mental repair seemed possible. A large pond took centre stage with most of the pitches spread all around it. It was just a bad day on the bike, right? Maybe, but time would tell. I pitched my tent, which seemed a shade friendlier than the previous time. I ate and showered away the remnants of the detritus from a day’s riding. Out on the pond new life paddled around; a black fluffy ball with an orange beak. I smiled at the young moorhen, whose feet were far too big for its body. It ran around over the lilies that were just coming into flower and played hide and seek with its mum in an invisible world created by the spread of leaves over the surface of the pond.
A friendly camper bought me a chair to sit on. I accepted it graciously and took the opportunity to enjoy talking to another person, chatting about all and sundry for ten minutes or so. The solitary nature of cycling alone can become a burden, so I go out of my way to meet and talk to folk whenever I can.
I turned in that night full of trepidation, unsure whether or not to continue. I had considered taking another rest day, but that would just prolong the pain. What I wanted was to go home for some unknown reason. Upon waking I knew I wasn’t going anywhere that day. I felt so overwhelmed by anxiety that to take another step away from home would have left me feeling it was impossible to get back. I could hardly unzip the tent and move outside, as though that would see me laid open for the world to see how pained, fractured and vulnerable I had become.
It was over. This ride needed to be put on hold for another time and in hearing those thoughts, I instantly felt better. I walked to the shops, ate well, and rested. My battered mind could now relax, knowing that it had been heard and that I had heeded the warnings that continuing was not an option.
Back at Michele’s house, where I’ve been since returned, I have taken life gently, sleeping, relaxing and acknowledging the emotional wave that has continued to pour over me. Cycling has been gentle and fun with plenty of coffee and cake. I am slowly rebalancing. It’s taking its time but I will get there, I know that for a fact.
Until next time …………………