Sunday evening. It was getting late to find a camp spot. I’d run out of water and I only had rice cakes in my panniers for dinner. Southwold was full, with queues for chips snaking down one-way street pavements.
My last hope for an open shop was a rumoured ‘filling station’ in Wrentham. I rolled to a stop in the empty village. A woman was picking weeds from her driveway. Debbie.
After some hand-wringing over the likelihood of an open shop on a Sunday evening in the Suffolk countryside, I spilled: ‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘I’m running a little low on water.’
Debbie looked surprised: ‘Well, I can fill up your water bottles!’ She led me around to the gate before adding, ‘Are you okay with dogs?’
In Coviddy Britain I don’t like to ask people for favours that might put them under uncomfortable pressure to accept. And filling my water bottles is a fairly intimate act unless there’s a hosepipe in the garden.
After ushering me through a remarkable garden living room (with a barbeque made from a North Sea pipeline!) and setting the kitchen tap running, Debbie invited me in. She leaned on the back of a chair and looked at me over her full moon glasses: ‘I wish I had more to offer you, but there’s nothing in the fridge.’
Then she had a revelation: ‘Would you like a hot shower?’
Debbie’s kindness was part of a noble tradition of hospitality for passing travellers. Over the past few years, I’ve met this generosity countless times, cycling through Europe with Thighs of Steel.
In Albania last year, for example, every single day at least one cafe owner would refuse payment for coffees, give us free chocolate bars or flag us down on the street to offer us a cold drink.
The concept has a rich history in Ancient Greek mythology—the famous Trojan War was triggered by an abuse of hospitality when Trojan Paris stole Menalaus’ wife Helen while staying with the Greek. Not cool.
Modern Greeks still have a word for this tradition: philoxenia, unquestioning kindness to strangers.
This bike trip has been a lesson that philoxenia is alive and flourishing in Britain too.
After inviting her husband Steve to join the gathering, Debbie offered me a plastic garden chair and the three of us shared a local ale.
Facing a barrage of relentless hospitality, I finally accepted a cheese and pickle sandwich that Debbie wrapped in tin foil for later. She put a Diet Pepsi on the table too.
As they told stories, it became clear that this was far from the first time Debbie and Steve had opened their hearts, minds and doors to strangers.
One night, not long ago, Steve met a trio of ex-army lads in the pub. They were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and were on a therapeutic camp trip to work out some of their problems. One of the party was hyper, another was withdrawn. So Steve invited them over to the house for breakfast the next morning. When they didn’t show up, Steve drove out to the campsite and dragged them back for their egg and sausages.
As I stowed my water bottles for departure, thanking her again and again for her kindnesses, Debbie insisted that it wasn’t anything unusual.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘A few bottles of water and the end of loaf of bread!’
‘When you put it like that,’ I replied, ‘it doesn’t sound like much. But it’s not about the water. Most people wouldn’t give up their time so readily to strangers.’
I can imagine multiple scenarios that could have played out when I first approached Debbie outside her house. She could have been sympathetic and wished me luck finding a shop. She could have brought out water so that I could fill them from her driveway. She could have invited me in to fill the water bottles and then bid me safe travels.
And those are the positive scenarios. We’re living through a global pandemic for heaven’s sake—strangers are dangerous.
I imagined precisely zero scenarios where I left her house with a cheese sandwich, a Diet Pepsi, a bellyful of ale, a head full of stories and a heart full of tenderness.
‘Maybe this crisis has changed the way people think about others,’ Debbie said. ‘Maybe it’s brought us all closer together.’
As I reached a beautiful beach to camp on, the rain clouds swarmed down. Scrambling the tent up in record time, I lay on my airbed in the gloom and unwrapped the tin foil: four neatly cut squares of a cheese and pickle sandwich.
Do you know what? I think Debbie might be right.
Philoxenia in action
Over the past three weeks I have been the grateful recipient of thousands of acts of philoxenia, large and small.
Huge thanks to the hospitable friends and strangers who have made the last seven days such a delight: Pandora, the Wickers family, Sarah and Chloe, John the ferryman, Lesley the artist, Debbie and Steve, Duncan of the incredible Dunx Cycles, Peter Langford the world record holder, and the extraordinary, expecting Matt and Lisa.
Thank you also to all the patient woodland creatures who put up with me wild camping in their homes. Even the ants.
But I reserve extra extra special thanks for my final hosts on this tour of southeast England: Documentally and his wonderfully generous family. Camping in a friend’s back garden was a celebratory end to this part of my journey and I was overwhelmed with too many kindnesses to mention.
Somewhere around midnight, Documentally captured this video of me attempting to pin down the difference between this cycle trip around Britain and the last, nine years ago.
I can wholeheartedly recommend Documentally’s own newsletter. You can read his take on my visit in the latest edition here. Cheers!