Cycling to the end of the world


In 1980 two gangly teenagers cycled across the arctic tundra to find themselves heading over the rocky wastes of Mageroy to the Nord Kapp - the most northern tip of Europe.

The trip across Mageroy is a golden memory and, therefore, I write it with anxiety. For a start, by writing it, I'm somehow fixing it, getting it out there and not in the lovely updateable space of my head. I'm also worried that someone will tell me things are different now. Perhaps, it has changed beyond all recognition. Maybe, it's a theme park with fast food outlets, where cyclists can hook their bikes on to a little road train and be driven in comfort to the northern tip of Europe. But my memory is fitting for such a destination. Built on the wonder and boggle-eyed amazement of a boy who had, only a few years previously, cycled down Stone Lane and got lost on the way to Ilchester.

It is filled with a sense of the final assault - something Hillary and Tenzing about it. The weather is fitting; dramatic, dark, grey sky filled with heavy drizzle. The wind gathers in our faces as we stoop and push our bikes up the mountain. The single-track road weaves amongst rocks and boulders and fields of snow lie by the roadside. We look down, beyond hairpin bends, to glaciers where herds of reindeer pad around softly. The rain sheets across this wasteland.

Each time I push my bike around the corner at the top of a rise, another one spreads out before me, laughing and jeering. At last, I come to the distant brink. I look down to see a long glorious sweep of road curling and weaving down the mountain and then the wind hits me like a salvo, howling in my face. I can't breathe, so I turn sideways to keep from suffocating. I sit on my bike, craning into the force of the wind, and push off down the slope. The bike doesn't move, glued to the road. I turn the pedals. They are stuck fast as if rusted tight to the frame. I stand on the pedals. Still no movement and the wind buffets me off balance so I topple onto the damp road. It is an abomination of nature, downhill stretches in front of me and yet the wind is so strong, that I have to buck my head like a ram and push the bike down the hill.

If it is this bad here, what will it be like 20 miles further out on the headland? We stop for a conference, laying the bikes on the rocky ground and crouching behind a boulder for shelter. Ice-cold rain runs through the trusty kagool as if it is tissue paper.
'It's too hard,' I yell into the screaming wind. 'Maybe we should go back and wait for the weather to improve. Let’s try again tomorrow or the day after.'

'I've not turned round yet and don't want to start now.' As with so often on the trip, Brains was the one pushing on, be it debate or theory or end of the world goal, the Old English Sheepdog with the bone.

'What are we trying to prove?' I said dallying and pathetic. 'We've cycled a long way. It's just a cliff. It's not like we're the first to discover it or anything.'

'It's a destination. Come on, get your head down. We'll get there.'

We push on.

The clouds part and I look down, past a couple of hairpins to see a red VW camper van spluttering its way up the mountain, past a field of glacial snow. It edges past us and disappears, peeping enthusiastically.

All day we push against the sickening wind, pushing down the mountain and pushing back up to the top. Head down. One foot in front of the other.

Finally, the journey stutters to a finish; a dead end, a cul de sac on the edge of a continent, this road will go no further. The only way is back. A wild grey sky plays out a drama of warring Gods and way below the sea churns and broods. The rain sheets in vertically, the wind crying like a banshee. The little coffee shop promised by the Germans glows, a shielded match in the grey.

The ledge of the cliff is a few yards away. We lay our bikes on the earth, bend our heads and walk the final few steps to the end of the world, calling out jokes about it being a small step for a man and a big step for mankind.

'Wait,' I yell. I turn and am lifted by the wind back to the waiting bike. I pick it up and start to push it towards the ledge. Brains does the same.

The edge of the cliff inches into view but the danger seems distant and far off because, all the time, the wind blows us back from our goal. It is as if we can lean vertically over the edge and watch the ocean, smashing and foaming, a thousand feet below. I imagine rowing on through the violent sea, the next stop the frozen Arctic, beaching the boat, pulling the Kagool over my head and stomping out across the ice.

I turn to Brains and each of us thinks about what to say. Aware that anything will be nothing more than cliché. We turn to each other and hug, slapping each other, manfully, on the back. Cliché.

The red VW camper van was camped by the cliff edge. Brains was the first to notice the English number plate, two jolly faces pressed against the steamed up window. They beckoned us over and opened the door. We clambered in and sat huddled on a long flowery cushion seat.

'Would you like a cup of tea?' asked Michael jovially.

'You've got an electric kettle,' marvelled Brains.

'Oh we couldn't manage without it,' said Janet, as she pulled down teabags neatly stored in a tin marked 'tea'.

'And you've cycled all the way? Well done, you!'

It was like being congratulated by your auntie, who'd come as a nice surprise, just to check everything was getting along fine.

'Rich tea biscuit?'

'Oh yes please,' I said, politely.

'She always keeps emergency rations of biscuits, hidden from me, of course,' said Michael and blew a kiss past Brains to Janet.

'Well just think, you've cycled to the most northern part of Europe,' said Janet. 'Your parents must be very proud.'

'Absolutely,' agreed Michael, 'Although, it's not actually the most northern part of Europe. You see, it's on an island, so by that reckoning you could say that the North Pole is the most northern point of Europe - except that's just ice and technically not land at all. The most northern point of Europe is Svalbard.'

'He's very clever,' said Janet impressively.

He blushed modestly and continued, 'But on the mainland, the most northern place in Europe is a place called Knivskjelloden but there's no road there, and no cafe, so the tourists can't get there,' he laughed.

Janet saw the disappointment on our faces, 'but well done, it's still a jolly good effort.'

We looked at our feet sheepishly, came down from an adventure to the edge of the world and consoled ourselves with our 'jolly good effort.'

Jon Seal

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