Miles on the clock: 43,630
Gibraltar is an odd place. The road signs are British but people drive on the right. The people are British but most speak with soft Spanish lisps. I had a pint of tepid Old Speckled Hen in The Lord Nelson on the afternoon I arrived. I was killing time, waiting for my friend Jamie's flight to get in. As is happened, a thick fog shrouded Gibraltar rock that evening and the plane was redirected to Malaga. I heard staff in the airport making jovial banter about the "pea-souper" that had fallen.
The road very soon swept us up into the hills. It was late October but the weather was still hot in Andalucia. The climbs were steep and exhaustive but the descents were life-affirming. We passed through Ronda where Spain's first "plaza de toros" (bull-fighting ring) still stands. Hemmingway's ashes were scattered on the nearby estate of famed matador Antonia Ordoez. The 120m-deep gorge that cuts through the picturesque town, and the elegant stone bridge that spans it, are two of my abiding memories from the only previous time I'd visited Spain as a thirteen-year-old.
The towns were all pretty. And all perched high on steep-sided hills; a defensive legacy of the Berber conquests. In the morning the narrow cobbled streets would be busy with old women walking back and forth to market. However from lunch until 6pm every town would be silent. It was unusual to see anyone moving anywhere. We would look for benches or shaded grass to rest on and while away the afternoon heat as the Spanish do.
We spent a couple of nights in Madrid with hosts found on a cycling internet forum. The city surprised me with its mono-culture. I think it's the whitest capital city I've ever visited. The grandeur and pomp of every third building was impressive though.
Jamie flew home from Biarritz. Our fortnight crossing Spain had served as the perfect decompression for me after a protracted period of struggle and over-inflection in Africa. I was now happily pursuing the final 1,000 miles of my journey and finding myself able to relish so many things that I'd begun to endure rather than enjoy at various points over the years: watching traffic pass while resting on the roadside, solitude, exhaustion after a hard day, snatches of acquaintance, being lost and asking for directions, the bemusement of strangers upon seeing me, silence, room for thought, and miming when I don't know a word in a foreign language.
Two or three days of rain and even hailstones led me to a charity shop where I bought a pair of trousers, some canvas shoes and a hat for four euros. I was dressed absurdly but didn't care in the least. I locked myself into a surprisingly clean and warm public toilet for a night in a town called Bellac. I traced the Loire on a cycle path for hours. I rested in Paris for a day with a kind man who invited me through my blog and who'd grown up in DRC.
I had anticipated culture shock but it never came. Everything seemed comfortably (if distantly) familiar. Signposts, pub names, images and overheard snippets of conversation rushed upon me and found buried-but-not-forgotten counterparts in the recesses of my head: Public Bridleway; Zig-Zag Hill; The King's Head; vomit on the pavement; CLOSING DOWN SALE!; The High Street; "bucketing it down"; W.H.Smiths; bald and burly men in high-vis vests; the astringent scent of salt and vinegar wafting out of chip shops on warm soggy air; old, emaciated men with gin-blossomed cheeks stooping slowly down the street; school boys with deliberately-badly tied ties; school girls with high cut skirt hems; "Victoria Road" and "Victoria this" and "Victoria that".
I joined the A20 London-bound and crossed the M25 circular mid-morning on a Thursday. I was early for my homecoming party that evening so I rode around the city enjoying my last day as a tourist. I sat in Trafalgar Square watching excited young couples from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas; all taking photos of themselves with their phones attached to 'selfie sticks'. I finished my French bread, meat and cheese on a Hyde Park bench and then sat in a pub after darkness fell. At 7pm, as arranged, I met with some police officers on Earl's Court Road and they stopped the traffic.
A wonderful party ensued and I was a wreck of relief and emotion throughout. I was publicly unbearded and finally got to bed in the small hours. A day later I quietly began the real final ride of the trip. Under grey skies and in thoughtful mood I rode southwest. My last tented night was in a field on the outskirts of Basingstoke. On a sunday afternoon I rode into my parent's village near Salisbury. The villagers had been alerted and faces from my past smiled and waved me down the lane, up the short sloping driveway and home. Then it really was over.
That's it. That's the final blog!
If you have enjoyed reading these blogs over the years, please consider making a small donation to either of the two very worthy charities that I am supporting. Just click the links to the right. Don't do it because I've cycled nearly twice the circumference of the world. Do it because it is the right thing to do!