The reasons behind the trip are lost in the haze of time. But by god, the memory of the trip remains scarred in my soul.
Maybe I wanted to force adventure into my life. Maybe I wanted to find that free spirit I’d read about in The Guardian travel section. Maybe I had a ton of annual leave to take and no money whatsoever to go anywhere decent. Whatever the reason – whatever the excuse – I was about to set off on my own, on a week-long camping holiday to Cornwall. By motorbike.
With a pensioner’s fear of getting stuck in traffic, I planned to leave at 5a.m. so I could be clear of London well ahead of most sane people waking up. I had every confidence that a week’s worth of camping gear could be reasonably packed on to the back of a Yamaha XJ600N motorbike. Some careful packing, some severe clothes rationing and a very strong bungee net meant that, somehow, I managed to get a tent, a blow up mattress, a sleeping bag and all my personal gear strapped securely onto the back of the bike. I remember thinking that it looked like a misshapen, lumpen camel. More Eddie Stobbart than Easy Rider.
Nevertheless, somehow I managed to set off early as planned, winding my way through sleepy south London to the A30, driving against the flow of the early morning commuters and bleary bus drivers. The first couple of hours flew by, as I was fuelled by the optimism and, frankly, the smugness of a person actually embarking on the adventure they’d wanged on about doing for ages. I even remember enjoying a tiny bit of the motorway journey. I ‘d stopped for breakfast at a petrol station, and had some scalding vending machine hot chocolate and had a cold croissant to dip into it. Boosted by sugar, the sun was peeping through, the traffic wasn’t too hideous and the bike was running smoothly. It was…fun.
Biking is weird. Well, bikers are weird. There’s a bizarre kind of martyr camaraderie between them – they give each other half-waves as they pass each other. They nod at each other at traffic lights. They do the same half-wave at car drivers if any overtaking room is given, and the silent eyeing-up of each other’s bikes at traffic lights is surely no different to dogs sniffing each other’s bums. Some bikers can discuss torque and engine capacity until other people’s ears start to bleed.
Me? I just wanted a way of getting around London that meant I could avoid the Underground. I had no interest in engines or horsepower or V-twins. I just wanted to avoid commuters’ armpits. I did, admittedly, get a total kick out of people thinking I was cool to ride a bike. But frankly the day-to-day gear that I wore on my bike (bulky shapeless armoured jacket, waterproof over-trousers, Doc Martins and full face helmet) – meant I looked like any DHL courier. And it took until around 11 a.m each day until the red ridge marks embedded down my face from my balaclava faded away . I gave up on ever having cool hair or make-up. Still, I may have looked like shit, but hey – no commuter armpit….
However, back on my adventure, it wasn’t my lack of technical biking knowledge that made me crash very badly at a roundabout outside Exeter. It was sheer bloody tiredness from the early start, coupled with a wildly over-packed heavy bike, that made me take the corner completely at the wrong angle.
It could have been a lot, lot worse. I was only doing about 20mph coming out a roundabout, and thankfully, there was no large car coming right at my back. Nonetheless, I overbalanced very much in the wrong direction, clipped my front wheel on a traffic island, and toppled over on my lefthand side. With my heavy bike on top of me, I managed a pretty spectacular slide for several yards, crashing into the kerb at the side. Bits of my smashed bike went hurtling past me. My carefully bungeed luggage went in twelve different directions and I was pinned underneath my bike.
A very nice car driver stopped to pick the bike off me. He lugged it to the side of the road and did some very good Samaritan deeds. My left knee had taken the brunt of the impact and was insanely painful, but the bike had some very important bits hanging off and broken. Many important decisions have to be taken urgently at a time like this, exactly at a time when your head is utterly incapable of thinking straight. The bike and my knee both needed urgent attention and I just wanted to cry like a baby and go home. What the hell was I thinking? What a bloody stupid, stupid thing to do. Who the hell goes camping on their own on a motorbike? I was a 28 year old single woman – I should have been lying on a beach in Ibiza for christ sake.
Prioritising getting the bike fixed over my knee, I somehow found a local garage from a good old Yellow Pages in a working phone box (1999 – the smartphone came in book-form) – and a very long story cut down – they could get me back on the road in a couple of hours. I then had to weigh up some very real practicalities. If I went to A&E, it’d take more hours out my day and I’d never make it to the campsite before dark. So I limped to a pharmacist and asked a very nice lady to strap my leg up, and so, with the bike patched up basically with gaffer tape and paperclips, I set off again, with the exhaust making what could only be described as a pitiful cry for help.
Only after I got home to London could I bear to look at a map to see how badly wrong I went on the next leg of the journey. Somehow, I took the total wrong turning as I left Exeter and couldn’t find a way to retrace my steps. I went north instead of west. My hour and a half journey to the campsite turned into a 3 hour trip, via places I never planned to see, nor do I ever plan to return. Every wrong town and village I screeched through made me resent my situation even more. I limped into the Padstow campsite around 8pm. A full 13 hours after setting off.