‘Great,’ I uttered in annoyance as a strip of red on the computer screen told me the train I needed to catch to Kent would be delayed. I had planned to be in Tunbridge Wells before lunch time so I could have cycled out of it and be in the countryside to eat my sandwich. But this was obviously not going to happen. Frustrated, I shut down my laptop and finished packing my panniers as slowly as I could. Daylight was getting scarce and I didn’t really want to cycle at night but this train delay was giving me no choice. Panniers closed I brought them downstairs to the bike. I was ready to go. I looked at the bike. I have been riding on it for a few months now and it had lost its new shine. It was my bike with its scratches and dirty light reflectors on the spokes. I smiled at the idea of riding it for another destination than work in a long time and felt my annoyance vanish. I had three days cycling ahead of me. What did it matter if I was going to arrive in Tunbridge Wells a couple of hours later than planned? Eating my lunch in a train carriage wouldn’t be as scenic as on the top of a Kentish hill but then eating lunch on a hill was hardly the point of this small cycle tour.
The last time I had been on a microadventure had been almost two months ago. I had let November slip by without going out and enjoy the outdoors on the pretext that I had been too busy with work and other travels. I now realised how rubbish that excuse had been. I had just been too lazy to take a train out of London bound for the English countryside, and I was paying for it now. That previous week I had been on edge, work had become little more than a chore, receiving people had turned into a burden, and I was feeling tired all the time. I needed time out, time for myself traipsing about in the countryside.
I disembarked at Tunbridge Wells station two hours later than I had planned and headed straight for the hills. Within twenty minutes, I had left the busy roads behind and was cycling along small lanes that couldn’t fit two vehicles side by side. I rode past empty orchards, deserted farms, and private mansions. With each hill my breath caught in my throat and I felt my heart pumping too fast as I tried to familiarise myself with the bike gearing system. I cursed myself for not having done more exercise those last few weeks. I was out of shape and what should have been a relaxing ride was turning into an uncomfortable burn in my chest.
As dusk fell, I was happy to find myself at the edge of Bedgebury forest. It was the perfect excuse not to ride through the dark and set camp early. I freewheeled between the trees, my heart and breath resting for a while. On my right giant pine trees rose above a small lake. It looked idyllic from the road but somehow this part of the forest was fenced off. I pulled on the brakes at the sight of a gate. There was a sign announcing that this was the Pinetum at Bredgebury. I pushed the bike through the muddy path behind the gate and laid it to rest against a small toilet block. I locked a wheel, more out of habit than fear of theft. There would be no one to steal my bike in a deserted pinetum. I scampered down to the lake guided by my head torch and thought of setting camp by the picnic table. I could have breakfast with a view. But for the moment I meandered further in this tree refuge, the effort of walking on a flat terrain resting my lungs.
Houses appeared in the distance and I could see lights behind glass windows. I went back on my steps not wanting to attract any attention. I walked past the lake and again thought of setting camp by it but when I reached the toilet block another idea occurred to me. It was supposed to rain that night and although I had my tarp with me, it would be infinitely easier to just sleep in the toilet block. I checked the time. It was only five o’clock. I decided to give it until six before unpacking everything. If there was a warden, surely they wouldn’t tour the pinetum after that time on a dark winter evening. I settled among the trees with some nuts to nimble on and began to read.
A couple of chapters later I found it difficult to ignore the grumbling of my stomach and decided it was time to empty my panniers. I pushed the ladies’ door open, pushed the bike in and one by one I unclipped the panniers. I laid out the sleeping mat, shook the sleeping bag, and began to sort out some food for the evening. As I dug into one the pannier’s pocket for my plastic spoon, my fingers came to rest against my inhaler. I took it out and shook my head. This had been why the climbs had sent my heart pumping so hard within the first pedal stokes. I had known my asthma had grown worse this past year, but I still had the same careless attitude towards it. It had never been so bothersome as to make riding a difficult affair in the English hills. I put it away in my jacket pocket so I wouldn’t forget it the following day and went back into the pannier for the spoon. I was too hungry to dwell upon my stupidity.
Dinner eaten and dishes washed, I settled into my sleeping bag with my book but I only managed to read a couple of pages before falling asleep. I awoke to the sound of rain hitting the metal roof and the wind sending leaves and twigs against the concrete floor outside. I felt glad to be indoors on such a night and went back to sleep. The next time I opened my eyes, it was morning. It was still dark outside but most people were already out of bed. I ate a quick breakfast and packed everything as quick as I could, not wanting to be discovered in the toilet. My body ached with tiredness and I barely managed to suppress a yawn as I climbed on the bike. Riding away from the pinetum I considered stopping my cycle tour early that day, the memories of the previous day’s pain still vivid in my mind.
Read part 02 here.