February 2020, Dublin to Feltham
Turning my dream into reality has an inauspicious start.
It’s the early hours of a Thursday morning in late February. It’s started to spit rain and I’m standing on the dockside in Dublin Port, getting colder and feeling a tad miserable. The bike, heavily laden with panniers packed and all weather sausage bags strapped on top of them, is resting on its side stand, engine switched off. I’m standing there and, not for the first time, a small voice in my head is saying ‘wtf are you doing?’ Too late now, I think. Irish Ferries’ Epsilon, docked about an hour late from Holyhead, is disgorging trucks and the rest of us are motionless, hanging around waiting. Rough seas, says the bloke is a highlighter jacket when he eventually waves us aboard. It’s both an explanation for the delay and a prediction of what’s to come.
The 2am, now closer to 3am, sailing, after we are eventually loaded, me the lone motorbiker and maybe 30 other private cars and a slew of truckers, is in fact quite smooth. I stretch myself along an empty lounger, rest my head on my rucksack and fall asleep. When we slide eventually into Holyhead in the pitch black, my eyes are gritty and itch but at least I’ve had over three hours’ sleep and I feel up for the ride to London. Disembarking, Holyhead looks grim (its usual state, it has to be admitted): rain is tipping down and, while I comfort myself with the thought that dawn usually brings a break in bad weather, my optimism is not rewarded. For the next six hours, I clutch the bike grips, haunch my shoulders forward, sit tight and plough through fairly unrelenting rain – all along the A55 across Anglesey and north Wales, to the M53 and M56, the M6, the M1 and finally the dreaded M25 around London. The only way I can escape the constant cloud of vision-limiting spray spewed up by cars and trucks is to drop into motorway service areas, which I do regularly for infusions of coffee to stave off sleep.
The first, I think, was on the M6 at Knutsford but, wherever it was, it was depressing. Every time I have gone to the UK over the past five or more years, I have been struck by the levels of poverty and urban decay. I noticed it first travelling across Lancashire and part of Yorkshire and filed it away in my memory as evidence of the long-term economic decay and social disintegration that for decades has blighted the north of England. But more recently, and particularly on a recent visit to Folkstone in Kent, part of the prosperous south-east of England you’d think, I discovered that the blight was widespread. Hollowed-out town centres, empty and boarded-up shops, and a plague of charity outlets. Yes, they are doing good and are staffed by kind, well-motivated people but their number is evidence, it seems to me, of a deeper malaise. And the people look. . . well, ill. They remind me of how people looked in eastern Europe at the end of communism – malnourished and depressed, wandering around and appearing directionless.
Somehow, it seems to me that Brexit is in the mix as a consequence of this sort of long-term decline and inequality.
Anyhow, Knutsford services on a wet Thursday in February is bleak. There are maybe 20 or 30 people, most of them eating unhealthy food (doughnuts and fries are a favourite) and they just look less than happy and I don’t think it is down to the weather or the fact that it’s not yet 9am.
England is not a happy place right now.
The one consolation is that, despite the appalling weather, only my hands and feet are wet. My waterproof boots and gloves (“kangaroo leather, mate,” said the sales bloke; “no sweat glands you see; guaranteed waterproof”. And I believed him. . .) are a swamp waiting to be drained but the rest of me — the rest of me is bone dry! BMW’s outer over jacket works a treat, as do my Berghaus rain trousers – happy day.
Motofreight UK, the means by which I will get my bike to South America, operates from Staines Road in Feltham, a stone’s throw from Heathrow Airport, where it keeps a low profile as a commercial enterprise – no nameplate, no big sign saying ‘Your biking dreams start here!’
I came across them in Oxford, England, in 2018 at that year’s Overland Event, an annual gathering of bikers where stories are swopped, adventure memories shared and motorcycle enthusiasts indulge themselves by chatting about their machines and biking gear. The details of most such conversations would be lost on mere mortals. It was at Overland that I met the great Ted Simon, the lovely, soft-spoken elder statesman biker and author of Jupiter’s Travels, the record of his 1973 to 1977 around the world (ATW) trip on a Tiger 100, the inspiration of a squillion bikers since, including me. There too was Elspeth Beard, the equally inspirational first woman ATW biker who, aged 23 in 1982 and looking like Kate Moss’s lost twin sister, spent two years riding her BMW R60 from New York to London via Canada, Australia, south-east Asia and the Middle East.
Motofreight make it easier for the rest of us following in their wake by getting our bikes airfreighted to the starting grid, no matter how far off that is. Turning into the small business park near Heathrow Airport known as the Griffin Centre, I slow down. My SatNav says I’m in the correct place but there’s no sign of any biking freight operation.
There’s a bloke driving a forklift scooting about the road. He gestures with his head towards a two storey, glass fronted building and a shuttered loading bay. Park Freight Forwarding it says of itself. “That’s the place your looking for,” he shouts in my direction.
Thankfully, one of several bell buttons on the door says Motofreight.
“Ah, you must be Peter,” the female voice inside the little speaker says.
“Yes, I am.”
And a minute or so later, I’m with Kathy Wood, a lively, ‘rolled-up-sleeves’ kind of woman, a doer, a biker and one half, with partner Roddy Warriner, of Motofreight.co.uk
“You have to be a rider to be able to talk to riders,” she says by way of laying out her credentials.
Kathy tells me to ride my bike into the warehouse, a cavernous aircraft hangar type of place inside of which are floor to ceiling shelves, pallets aplenty and two rows of bikes – several AJPs (the little Portuguese bike that’s great for scrambling off road), a couple of Ducatis, BMWs and a vintage Norton (respect, respect).
Off at the end of one row is a 2010 GS, with about 80k on the clock and a spattering of well-earned mud about it – Kathy’s bike. As she’s showing it to me, she leans down by the front left fairing. “It’s got a lovely little scratch,” she says, “right there, just by the BM badge.”
Ash Holyer is just three weeks in the job and is given the task of inspecting my machine. Clutching a clipboard with a printed check list on it, he goes around the bike, examining it in detail. “Perfect,” he says, “no marks at all.”
“It’ll arrive like that so,” I say.
“We get all types,” says Kathy, “but most of the guys and girls seem to be of retirement age, often, if they’re very lucky, into early retirement.”
A boat I seem to have missed.
I’m relieved to learn, however, that their eldest regular customer, a chap introduced in conversation merely as “Sir Charles”, has clocked up an impressive 75 years and is a still riding, off road at that.
“He’s got a bad back but he’s adventurous,” says Kathy. “He does gravel riding.”
That’s the spirit!
“Age should never put anyone off,” says Kathy. “It’s your mental attitude, through and through.”
I agree completely and no doubt my wife would have a slightly different take on Kathy’s use of the word “mental”.
Kathy spends much of her time at biker gatherings. “We talk to people at so many shows who say ‘God I wish I’d done this’. There’s always a reason not to.”
Yup. And with that, I leave Motofreight any my lovely machine to their tender mercies. Kathy and crew promise to dry my gear and pack it all with the bike. I have just enough time to nip into Piccadilly and go to Fortnum and Mason, for a decent supply of Earl Gray and Lapsang Souchon.
Standards are so important, no matter the circumstances, I’m sure you’d agree.