Travels in a Pandemic

A travel log of the summer of 2020 spent touring southern Britain ... well parts of it.

BY GUY JONES

Copyright 2021 Guy Jones. All rights reserved.

It is the summer of 2020.

We should have been going to France for a whole calendar month, travelling around in George, our Bailey Pageant, Champaign Edition, caravan.

We should have been eating too much French cheese, drinking too much French wine and speaking a load of bollocks in bad school boy/girl French.

And we should have been doing it in the sunshine!

But it was the summer of 2020.

There were an awful lot people not doing what they should have been doing.

With a pandemic weeping across the globe, France was very much off the radar.

So, following the principle of, ‘have caravan will travel’ and being allowed to do it under the Government Guidelines ... as far as could be made out ... we decided to hit southern U.K. and social distance our way to adventure ...

Part 5

Biggleswade to the North Norfolk Coast.

I would be the first to admit that, on a road trip from Nottingham to Cornwall, throwing in a section that goes Biggleswade to the North Norfolk Coast, does not follow the time honoured tradition of ‘intrepid exploration’ planning*. You know. All that adventurous derring-do that took, generally the very well to do, off to discover new lands, lands new at least to the well to do doing all the daring. It should be pointed out that, generally speaking, the natives of the places where the derring-do was being done, had discovered the place before hand and have completely different narratives concerning the discovery of those lands, involving anything from a nasty race of giants that had to be defeated to a large turtle behaving not unlike a wandering land mass or even ancestors simply waking up after a bit of a long kip and daydreaming everything into existence.

I am aware enough of the true nature of history to know that the North Norfolk Coast had already been discovered. It was not even the first time I’ve been there, which is actually why we put it on our list of places to go during our Lockdown grand tour. But in times of ‘socially distanced’ adventure, things tend towards the parochial. And so, Biggleswade to Cornwall, via South Wales and North Norfolk, was as adventurous as it was going to get and was enough for me. The convoluted route added to that sense of the ‘unknown’ that otherwise might be considered lacking in our little excursion.

Of course even this mild form of exploration has some similarities with the expeditions of the greats. Like so many achievements, the success or failure of a mission generally comes down to preparation and attention to detail. Whether it is climbing Everest, discovering the source of the Nile or finding a decent seafood restaurant on the western shores of the North Sea, the plain truth is, it all comes down to making a list.

Where would Amundsen have been if he had got to the Antarctic continent, only to find that he’d left his toothbrush behind? It is not as though he could nip into the local corner shop, apologies for not having the right currency, and blag an Interdental Essential Care Super Reach ‘on account,’ before nipping off on his dog sleigh to make history and break the hearts of the gung-ho Brits, lagging behind with their unimaginative Edwardian dental cleaning equipment, several boxes of ship’s biscuits and a team of next to useless ponies.

How far would Neil Armstrong have got without a reliable collection of boxer shorts and somewhere to stow the ‘skids’ when he’d finished with them.

Show me an expedition that got anywhere without at least the most rudimentary idea of where they were going, the terrain they were likely to encounter and, most importantly of all, where, in relation to afore mentioned, the fuck they were in the first place. OK, we now have Sat Nav and Google maps, which while taking away the uncertainty of knowing where you are, also take all the fun and intrepidness out of the journey. But you still want to have the map with you, if only to have something to swat those irritatingly adventurous stinging insect things that are forever venturing into the unknown and getting themselves inside the car without the faintest idea how to get themselves out again.

Of course doing all this derring-do is a different game when you do it in a caravan and stick to main roads in the UK. For one thing, the UK has, it seems, been explored to the point of making even the most ambitious adventure little more than a search for a different field to set up a BBQ in. A caravan is also by its nature a home on wheels. It has, therefore, everything you need already packed in it. So there isn’t even a need for the making of an expedition list in the first place. All that was needed, by way of preparation for our departure for Norfolk, was to hook the caravan up to the car, put the bikes, which had had at least one outing over the weekend, on the roof racks, then head for the open road and the east coast.

In an attempt to maintain something of a sense of dramatic expectation, and thereby keep you at least vaguely engaged in, what is after all, little more than an account of a tedious car journey, I feel at this point I should mention that this was only the second time I had put the bikes on the roof racks. Roof racks that had been borrowed from a friend, who had found them whist clearing out his shed. They had, apparently, been lying around in said cluttered shed for so many years that: he couldn’t remember where he had put the keys to lock the clamps off with; they had developed a film of rust that was unlikely to breed excessive confidence in the system; had, through slow entropic forces, lost 60% of the makers name (not in of itself a problem, but it was indicative of a level of neglect that at least needed addressing).

In response to my quizzical expression, to his credit, my mate did supply a couple of extra straps for security and the soothing words, “Belt and Braces. Sorted.”

They were the kind of bike racks that have the bikes standing upright looking like they are busy pretending to be an accident waiting to happen. You know the sort.

My friend had assured me that they would be fine, “I mean they wouldn’t sell them if they didn’t do the job. Think of all the paper work they’d have to go through if it all went pear shaped.” And so, with it has to be said a certain level of impeccable logic, like a Tory Minister arguing the toss against another economy crippling pandemical lockdown, he won the argument and the nature of things was left to take care of itself.

For the first half dozen roundabouts, as I caught sight of the shadows of the bikes, I repeated his argument internally, trying to find the chink in the armour of his logic. What about the film of rust. Surely it will weaken the jointy bits.

“Rust takes a long time to become a structural problem. Anyway I’ve sprayed them. WD 40.”

What about the locks on the clamps. Without the key they just won’t lock.

“The locks are only a precaution. I never locked them anyway. Apart from which, what if you lose the key and can’t get the bikes off the racks at the other end.”

And the makers name ...

“Only useful if you plan to sue them after the accident. The way I see it, if it’s going to go belly up you probably won’t be in a position to sue anybody, anyway.”

At the first piss stop, I got up to have a look at the roof racks and gave the bikes a bit of a shake. Everything was fine.

Same at the change over, lunch and fuel stop. Everything was fine.

I relaxed.

So much for dramatic expectation.

My faith in the manufacturing industries and those who regulate things of that sort restored, I forgot about the bikes and, like Capt Franklin, started to dream of the joys of completing a long planned for mission successfully. In his case it would have been dreams of taking those bloody mittens off, supping grog by a warm fire with salty sea dogs and telling, for the umpteeth time, just how he managed the near impossible and discovered the North West Passage to the Pacific Ocean that now bears his name. I my case, it was dreaming of plugging the electricity into the caravan, putting the water heater on and having my first actual shower in the best part of a week.

Life’s triumphs are relative.

It is the case with long tedious journeys, as Richard Gordon, Al Bean and Pete Conrad (Apollo 12 crew) would have told you, that they take forever when they are happening, but looking back, they are gone in a flash, almost like they never happened. I could relate details of the villages we went through, examples of atrocious driving on the part of other road users and our wrong turns which went someway to demonstrating that the advent of the Sat Nav has not altogether taken away the innate jeopardy involved in humanity’s journey. But, like the double lightning strike that caused countless systems cliches at the lift off of Apollo 12, they are all forgotten, not unlike the Apollo 12 mission itself, so I won’t bother you with them. After all, they would do little to bring back any sense of the dramatic, so there would be no point.

Needles to say, eventually, sometime late in the afternoon, we arrived at Foxhill’s campsite, Weybourne, North Norfolk Coast, rolled onto our pitch, plugged in the electricity, topped up the water, turned on the water heater, positioned the Lafuma reclining chairs in the best position to catch the sun, opened a bottle of red and waited for the water to get hot, towel and change of clothes in hand. Ernest Shackleton would have been proud of us.

After 40 mins we drew lots for the shower. I won (learning to cheat at times like these was a right of passage for some of us) and promptly jumped into the shower.

It was cold!

I checked the heater switch.

On.

Fuse.

5A.

I checked the fuse collection.

Why is it that no matter which fuse goes, it is always the one you don’t have any of. It was gone 5 p.m. on the North Norfolk Coast. If you want anything on the North Norfolk Coast after 5 p.m. that doesn’t come served in a glass or with a side order of double fried chips, forget it.

Now there is a problem that Sir Ranulph Fiennes never had to face.

Still, I had stunk for a few days now. A few more hours wasn’t going to be so bad. So It was back to the bottle and then another and then the BBQ and then another bottle and then ...

Next morning I jumped into the car determined to sort out a shower before breakfast if it was the last ...

“You can’t go into town with the bikes still on the roof!”

Can’t I? OK. The shower would have to wait. I wasn’t going to take the bikes down on an empty stomach.

Breakfast. Bacon, eggs and sausage. Socially distanced greetings to our new neighbours. Then a disgestification period during which a list was made and the ‘nip’ into town for fuses became an expedition almost worthy of Robert Peary himself.

Finally, I started taking down the bikes.

It was then I felt that strange unpleasant creeping feeling that Oats probably got when he added up the number of ship’s biscuits left in the expedition biscuit tin, dividend the number by the members of the expedition, then further divided it by the number of days before they could hope to reach safety and decided to go for a long walk all on his lonesome.

Or the feeling Franklin got when we he finally accepted that the North West Passage wasn’t, or if it was, it wasn’t going to be him that discovered it.

Or the feeling Alan Bean got when he realised that by pointing the first ever colour portable T. V. camera on the Moon at he sun (something he had been expressly told not to do, under any circumstances), thereby burning out its photo cells and condemning that mission to obscurity for eternity because he lived in a time when it was no longer enough to do the derring-do, you had to be able to show it live on T. V. in time for the evening news bulletin, Eastern Standard Time, otherwise, as far as the collective consciousness was concerned, the derring-do, might as well not have been done.

The clamps on the bars holding the bikes to the roof racks had both slipped. No. They had not just slipped. They had completely let go of the bikes. The only things keeping them in place and upright were the extra bits of strapping that had been put on to make little worried me feel a bit safer about using the crappy second hand, second rate, knackered excuse for a bike rack system in the first place. Disaster could have happened at any point since our last stop for a pasty, a sausage roll and a piss on the A 148.

I felt faint and asked my wife if she would drive us into town and started a Google search for the nearest Halfords and a reliable, reassuringly expensive, brand new and guaranteed, roof rack system for bikes.

As Scott would have told you, as he made his last, slightly melancholy entry in his log book, using the perfect vision that is hindsight, if you are going to do risky things, it is sensible to remove all removable risk before you even set off.

For Captain Scott hindsight would have meant using dogs not ponies.

For me, it meant, not trusting the old crap that your mate has dug out during a shed clear out, that he couldn’t bring himself to take down to the tip, to actually do the job it was intended for. And if that means paying through the nose for top of the range bike racks, then so be it.

* Intrepid exploration has formed part of the narrative of western history. The part that has served as a distraction from the other part of the same narrative. The ‘other part’ being of conquest, domination and downright atrocity that leaves a rather bad taste in the modern mouth of any one with even a rudimentary understanding world history.

‘Exploration’ is championed because it is seen as embodying the more noble aspects of cultural interference and the pillaging and enslaving of nations.

Empire building is frowned on because it doesn’t.

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