Stories in the lamplight
It's as if my bicycle is fitted with a lamp that illuminates brief moments in the lives of others.
Welcome to Liverpool - the world's eleventh least stressful city, according to research commissioned by a CBD vaping company.
Make of that what you will, but, of the remaining British cities, only Manchester and Edinburgh made it into the top forty.
After all, with its literary riverside, leafy parks and leftie communities, it's not impossible that Liverpool is a less stressful place to live than Amsterdam, Sydney and Lisbon. The Beatles certainly seemed like a cheerful bunch of lads.
Talking of the Fab Four (plus a few more), this morning I visited Penny Lane. Mainly because it was on the way back from the charity shop where I'd bought a much-needed pair of brown corduroy flares to make myself respectable around town.
I know that this is Liverpool and that, fashion wise (more than one person has remarked), anything goes. But my blue checkered Speedos - somewhat appropriate for the beach after a hot day's cycle - were beginning to make me feel a little self-conscious around town.
Penny Lane itself is an unprepossessing street elevated to such lofty legend that its old painted sign has to be put behind protective perspex.
I spent a happy hour listening to the stories of Julie Gornell at the Penny Lane Development Trust, which was set up to save a derelict corner of the lane from developers. Now there's a garden, a memorabilia shop, a mural called the 'wonder wall' and - what else? - the original yellow submarine.
Note 1: The name 'wonder wall' has nothing to do with Oasis. It was a 1960s psychedelic film for which George Harrison wrote the score.
Note 2: The original yellow submarine was built in 1966 as a functioning submersible by Arthur Johnson of Grimsby for his daughter. Nothing to do with the Paul McCartney song of the same name. Wild.
Note 3: Penny Lane is not (or definitely is) named for James Penny, a man who, in 1788, vehemently defended the Atlantic slave trade to Parliament with the astonishing claim that, on his ships at least, the slaves were not only 'amused with Instruments of Music', but also rubbed down and given cordial whenever the weather got a bit sweaty.
Note 4: Peaking at number two, McCartney's Penny Lane (alongside its psychedelic twin, Lennon's Strawberry Fields Forever) has the honour of being the song that broke The Beatles' run of ten consecutive chart-topping singles in the UK.
Talking of strawberries: I'm eating one.
Welcome, after two weeks of camping, 1,181km of cycling and 13,106m of climbing, to Liverpool.
Note 5: That's the same distance as London to Poznan and the height of one and a half Everests. If only all fortnights were this productive.
Working backwards, I took lunch today with three bike touring friends. In this Olympic year, I'm passing on the torch: as I finish, they begin, cycling off on full stomachs and their own 'rolling equipment'.
Ghandi Manning is probably in the top two most-prepared cycle tourers I have ever met. He packed light for this Shropshire ride: only his hammock instead of a tent and none of his drone photography kit. But he still found room for a Swedish numberplate, a curved handle walking stick and, of course, Meg the Leg.
Meg the Leg is a leg that is also a lamp. What more do you need?
Suddenly, my stylishly eccentric bugle (which, I may add, brought a lot of pleasure to tourists on the Mersey Ferry yesterday) looks like the lightweight affectation of someone yet to fully commit to Saddle Life. I have much to learn about packing for pleasure.
Note 6: Ghandi is beaten into second place by a man we once encountered on the Danube whose bike was so fully-laden that he had to walk alongside, pushing.
As touring cyclists, we measure our days in meals, and breakfast was shared with two new friends I made out on the road yesterday.
Swept along on a tailwind from Abergele to Birkenhead, I gave Dan and Jonah the benefit of my GPS navigation. In Liverpool, Dan and Jonah gave me beer and a place to sleep.
This didn't seem like a fair exchange, so I footed the bill for three rounds of eggs, avocado, beans and mushrooms on sourdough, which set them on their way home to Halifax.
Scrolling back through my timeline of the past week, I see more of these flashes of light.
There's Mike, the Connah's Quay cafe and heritage centre chef who sells egg baps for £1.50, grows tomatoes in raised beds on the harbourside and can feel the presence of three resident ghosts.
A Napoleonic-era sea captain marches up and down the museum in his three-cornered hat, disappearing through walls and the like. Mike often hears the laughter of a good-natured little girl ghost, who’s got one side of her face burnt off. But woe betide you if you cross an evil spirit who lives upstairs, pinches bottoms and tells you to fuck off when disturbed.
Back in the realm of the living, there's Richard, hipster patisserie chef and owner of the last working windmill on Anglesey, who saved his cafe staff's jobs over lockdown by pivoting to the production of chocolate, gin and Mônuts - doughnuts so popular that the queue starts an hour before opening (not that I'm bitter I missed out).
There's another Mike, of Dolgellau Bikes, who - you might remember - once spun me around and set me back on the right way round Britain. Now his business is all hire bikes and, when I called in, ten years after that first visit, he looked hot and harried with twenty plus bikes out back, waiting for Covid disinfection. He dreams of retirement and more time for his true love: windsurfing.
There's Dylan and Joy, who have retired, to the quiet foothills of the Rhinogydd, a steep climb east from Harlech (the steepest climb in the world until the Guinness Book of World Records had a rethink). They chose this remote location because, they told me, neither are people people.
These non-people people welcomed me in for tea on their hayloft balcony overlooking the blue mountains of the Llyn, filled my water bottles, invited me for breakfast and told me how they volunteer as part of the community rescue team that has saved Harlech swimming pool from shutdown. My kind of non-people people.
There's James the fundraising canyoneer, Ffi the marbling postie, and Dafydd the trig-chasing wifi engineer: all Warmshowers hosts who took care of me when I needed a friendly face and a dunk in the hot, soapy stuff.
My ride, I realised somewhere on the mountain road between Machynlleth and Dolgellau, isn't about me. It's as if my bicycle is fitted with a lamp that illuminates brief moments in the lives of others.
It's up to me, if I can, if I dare, to make sense of the images that flicker first here, now there, before moving on without interpretation to the next un-narrated scene.
There are lessons, I'm sure, in the memories like shards lodged in my brain: the van driver who silently raised his fist as he drove down and I rode up the Llyn; the white-haired woman who tooted her horn and shouted thank you as I pulled over to let her past on Anglesey; even the one-hand-on-the-wheel lorry driver whooshing by too close, whose spare claw was more gainfully employed in digging out his left nostril.
CYCLIST DIES, MAN CLEARS BOGEY
Waking up this morning, on a saggy mattress in a bare room in a dusty musty student house emptied out for the summer, I couldn't help but grin.
What about? Finishing the ride - is that it? I looked around for some sign, some image that I could interpret, that would sum up in a moment the whole of the last two weeks.
A framed poster had fallen from the ex-student's wall and smashed: MISTAKES ARE PROOF THAT YOU ARE TRYING.
That line doesn't work as an epitaph for this bike ride. Here's another that doesn't work either, spoken to me by the guy whose house I'm staying in tonight:
You're the first adventurer we've had stay. Most people just come here, get pissed one night and go home.
We try to make sense of the scenes illuminated in our lamplight, but really there's nothing out there but an unbroken string of stories, some told by me, some told by you.
Whatever you do, do it while you can.