Their story, in their words…
“On 27th June we cycled safely into Dulwich, having cycled 820 kilometres, been up almost 12,000 metres, and spent over 40 hours on the saddle. Although we were all very tired and glad to be back home, our week cycling around Europe will always be a memorable one. The generosity and hospitality of the people we stayed with along with the beautiful countryside eclipsed the fatigue and the depressing result of the referendum. Every day our enemy was time, as we struggled to complete the long distances before dusk. As Charlie said, “The Ardennes are like the bloody Alps”. Indeed we hadn’t quite anticipated how hilly Southern Belgium actually is and this made the days even longer. Before the trip we had feared getting lost, but the cycle path network is so well developed in Belgium that we needn’t have worried. We were also helped by the Europeans we met, who as well as answered our questions, gave us water and directions when necessary.
Throughout the week our hosts welcomed three exhausted English boys into their homes with great kindness. Others we met during the day were intrigued by our challenge and keen to talk. We asked them about Brexit and how they felt about the European Union. Almost all felt strongly European themselves and couldn’t understand what would be motivating the UK to think of leaving. They made being in Europe feel like being with a group of mates. European flags were omnipresent in the countries we went through. Many people we met were married to someone of a different European nationality or worked across a border. By contrast Friday morning felt like the English boys hadn’t reciprocated the kindness to our European friends by voting Leave. Our mates were asking why we didn’t want to hang out with them anymore. “What’s all that about?”, they asked us.
Friday morning I guess our mood changed too, it felt in some ways like our journey had come to a premature halt. We had been crossing borders and getting excited about seeing new countries every day – Holland, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Finishing breakfast in the youth hostel of Champlon on the morning of the 24th it felt like there was nothing left to do but to cycle home feeling like we wanted to belong in Europe but maybe we didn’t anymore.
The countryside was very verdant, very rural and calm. We took cycle routes where we could which threaded through forests and weaved along rivers. We crossed borders almost without noticing (truth be told we didn’t know which country we were in a couple of times). Despite the tranquillity some reminders echoed a more troubled past. We learnt at school that the dense vegetation of the Ardennes had been considered impenetrable to Nazi forces by the French (who were fatally wrong!). The french did have a point – it is hard to see how a whole army could possibly find its way through the never-ending forests that stretch over hundreds of kilometres. We managed to get lost even with downloads from google maps!
There were war memorials in every town we rode through, with the powerful words ‘mort pour la France’ or ‘unseren gefallenen zum Gedächtnis’ written on them. We stayed in a German speaking part of Belgium with a population of 70,000 people that was a legacy of the treaty of Versailles which had been part of Nazi Germany and now comfortably part of Belgium.
All reminders I guess that we shouldn’t take our mates for granted… it doesn’t take much to become enemies.”