My ear plugs are pushed in as far as they can go to deafen the collective rumble of snores (and other less pleasant bodily functions) while the soft glow of my headlamp is highlighting a page on my kindle as I waiver on the brink of sleep.
Suddenly a pale shape looms out of the corner of my eye and I quickly glance up as a cold trickle of fear slides down my spine. Standing mere inches from my bed is a skinny, milky-white boy in nothing but a pair of thread bare grey underpants while pointing an ET-esque finger at my head.
If I’d been more awake I would have screamed but instead my fumbling fingers rip out my ear plugs and sharply ask:
“Can I help you?”
The pale man, who is now beginning to look remarkably like Golum, mutters and stutters and manages to mouth out something that sounds like he wants me to turn my headlamp off.
I’m shocked. Not just because I’m in a semi dark dorm where the light of one head lamp is the least of your problems, and not even because an almost naked man is standing next to my bed, but more so that someone would get down from their triple bed bunk in the middle of the night to accost a girl about her headlamp while wearing underpants.
Scott’s snoring blissfully away in the next bunk over and I realise with another trickle of fear and anger that it’s just me, my headlamp, and the semi naked man.
I ask him if he would mind if I simple turned towards the wall so that the headlamp would be invisible to him (as his bunk is on the other side of the room) but he begins to chew his fingers while glancing so furtively around that I quickly say: “Do you know what, forget it, I’ll turn the bloody headlamp off.”
He nods mutely and slithers back to the other side of the dorm.
Forget wild parties, extrovert backpackers and hippy nomads, the modern day backpackers is just this – a haven for semi naked weirdos, sweaty middle aged men who clearly didn’t get the memo (and were hoping for barely legal blondes in bikinis) and 18-year-old Americans quietly chugging down a bottle of “Tesco Value” vodka in the corner.
It’s a slimy, dirty mix of smelly dorms, smellier bathrooms and the occasional free breakfast and for us, it’s the only feasible way to stay in a city on the Long Rode Home adventure.
For not the first time, I wish fervently we had the funds to stay in a nice private B&B but I quickly clamp down on that depressing thought while gently rolling over on the crickety old bed in a bid to avoid an earthquake for the poor Swedish woman above me. Springs are digging into arms and every flash of light from the nearby night club district of Cardiff make me fear Golum’s returned until I eventually slide into a light and restless sleep.
It feels like five minutes have passed when Scott’s shaking me gently awake pointing at the clock. It’s 8am and already we’re an hour behind schedule.
Today was the day we were to pack up and leave Wales for good in a bid to reach Bath, England, but my head’s pounding and I feel as sluggish as a snail.
It takes 30 seconds to find out Scott feels the same and as much as we want to ditch the 16-bed dorm and its extremely weird occupants we decide we’re both in no condition to do it today. The only option is to stay another night and the immediate relief that comes from knowing you can sit on your backside for an entire day makes it all worth it.
Eight hours later we’ve scarcely moved from the mould-riddled, dimly-lit “dungeon” serving as the common room where the exciting point of our day was cracking open a packet of biscuits in between reading and watching movies on the laptop. By this point I’m too tired and full to feel guilty and just the determination to get to bed before Golum appears motivates me to move my fast asleep backside from the smelly couch.
Somehow the snores, farts and Cardiff disco district lull us to sleep at a reasonable hour in readiness for the next day – cycling to Bath.
At 7am the phone explodes with a shrill alarm and we both roll creakily out of our tiny beds with as much energy as a pregnant walrus. If possible, I feel even worse than the day before and an hour later it’s obvious why. I’m not sure if it’s the biscuits, dodgy free hostel breakfast or the three day old sausage and two minute noodles consumed the night before but my stomach feels as though it’s taken up synchronised swimming. I’m running to the loo every 30 minutes while moaning like a whale in between and Scott’s feeling equally as dismal. On a rare break from the toilet we decide we’ll catch the train to Bath instead and make a judgement call on our stomachs when we arrive.
At 11am I draw my attention away from my ridiculously bloated and churning stomach to notice the train has rattled past exquisite Victorian architecture and minutes later Bath looms gracefully into view.
I can see why this stunning town is considered a “must visit” on English travel itineraries and even the train station (generally the dodgiest and dirtiest part of any region) looks like it belongs in a Jane Austen novel. Leafy trees and blooming, potted flowers line streets while sand stone buildings loom either side and a quick cycle along the river reveals a garden utopia.
By this point my stomach looks like it’s housing an alien foetus and Scott’s breaking into a mad sprint every 500 metres in search of a loo. Pitching a tent in these conditions seems irresponsible to the point of disastrous and so we sheepily waddle ourselves to the Bath Backpackers.
This shabby hostel advertises itself as “affordable accommodation in a Victorian building” but in reality its a crumbling behemoth that stinks strongly of incense and looks as though it hasn’t been renovated since the 70s when a bunch of hippies partied a little too hard there. In normal circumstances it would be hard to fork over 13 pounds each but as there’s a toilet and no underpant-clad Golum’s in sight, I’m happy to the point of ecstatic. Despite the state of our stomach’s we manage to haul ourselves off for a quick tour of the town before retiring to our somewhat less creaky than normal beds.
From Bath the plan was to meander towards Stonehenge before veering south to the coast but as we peddled slowly out of the town we stumbled across the Sustrans cycle route leading you along the famed canal towpath. A wide dirt track meandered along the deep blue waters of the Kennet and Avon canal all the way to Devises and we gaped in wonder at the colourful “narrow boats” brightly painted canal vessels and even the water gypsy boats piled high with drift wood, rusting bicycles and what looked like half a mechanical workshop.
The serene trail was broken up by impossibly charming villages named impossibly charming things like Bradford on Avon and eventually the lull of a waterside eatery (at the aforementioned village) grew too strong and we pulled up our bikes for some food.
Tables basking in rare British sunshine overlooked the canal and even the filtered coffee tasted divine as we settled ourselves down to their apparently “famous” big breakfast. It arrived piled high with baked beans, eggs, sausages, mushroom, chips, bacon, tomato and even fried bread which is possibly the most disgustingly delicious thing I’ve eaten since Belfast Baps.
Our decadent lunch left us with about a pound left in the budget but wild camping had proved fruitless so we forked out the hefty 15 pounds and pitched on what was the last remaining patch of greenery (about two metres square) in the heaving, noisy site. It turned out the pub was hosting some popular bands and every man and his dog had turned up with a tent and a keg to get in on the action.
“You must be here for the band,” our campsite neighbour stated jovially.
“No,” I muttered grumpily.
“We were actually just after a quiet site and a good night’s sleep.”
“Well you’ve come to the wrong place then haven’t you,” he said in a tone that implied he clearly thought we were idiots.
At 8.30pm the sun had set and we consoled ourselves with a packet of chocolate balls in the tent before stuffing our ear plugs firmly in to block out the band, the loud drinkers and the nearby group of girls that sounded as though they were on the blooper takes for Britain’s Got Talent.