Back in 2001/02, I cycled from London to Cape Town (yes, I’m forgetful enough to do this twice) with three friends: Laurence, Phil and Rich.
It was an extraordinary journey in all sorts of ways – partly because it was so full of happy endings, or beginnings; Laurence, Phil and Rich all got engaged during the trip – Rich to his girlfriend Cath when she visited him in Kenya, and Phil and Laurence to each other in Zanzibar.
In the seven years since then, Rich and Cath (both Australian) have married, had two children and set up home in the outskirts of Sydney. Laurence and Phil (French and half French respectively) have married and moved from London to a farmhouse in the Midi-Pyrénées where they live with their sons, Hugh and Leo.
This beautiful spot surrounded by rolling hills is where we’ve been staying for the past week, alongside the resident chickens, sheep, cats and Cheops, a border collie who was fired from a local farm for being a rubbish sheepdog. As well as fixing our bikes’ rattles and creaks and getting our panniers down to a sensible size, we’ve been catching up with Phil and Laurence and their new life here.
When they bought the farmhouse three years ago, it was derelict, uninhabited for 40 years. It had no mains water or electricity, not a lot of roof and no habitable space at all. Since then, Phil and Laurence have installed electricity, mains water, a woodburner and solar thermal panels for hot water. They’ve rescued and refurbished everything usable from the original house, and rebuilt everything else from local reclaimed or low impact materials (including hemp insulation, home made milk paint and straw bale walls).
It’s a work in progress but it’s lovely home, and a lovely life. On a good day, you can see the snow-capped Pyrénées in the distance. On a bad day (and there’ve been a few; the Autan wind has just blasted through the region, bringing heavy rains after it), once the chores have been done, you can sit in front of the woodburner, drink wine and chat.
Phil is one of the world’s better travelled citizens. Over the years, he’s clocked up around 100,000 kilometres on his bike, including cycling from London to Australia, London to India, London to Cape Town and the length of South America. Laurence too has done her fair share of travelling, cycling, living and working abroad.
While Huw and I are setting off on a new, itinerant adventure, Phil and Laurence are enjoying the adventure of a raising a family, building a home and becoming part of a local community (and there are adventures aplenty - I’m not being facetious when I say that The Saga of the Village Baker is one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever heard).
“Tempted?” Phil asks every now and then.
Hugh pokes a slug. Leo bounces around with a pirate patch over both eyes. Cheops chases the sheep in no particular direction (and stops as soon as he thinks you’re not looking). The lamb, copying the collie, tries to herd chickens.
My honest answer is yes. From where I’m standing, it looks idyllic. But not just yet. Right now, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than cycling across Africa (except maybe motorbiking across Africa…). At the same time, I can’t imagine Phil and Laurence swapping their life here for anything else.
Vive la différence, and here’s to happy beginnings.