A tribute to a colleague and friend
Many people helped and supported me during my round-Britain bike ride by offering a bed for the night, a meal at the end of the day, or by riding with me for a section. Regretfully, many of these didn’t make the final cut of the book; restricted by a word count, I didn’t have the luxury of being able to introduce and develop each of them as characters, and simply mentioning their names would have been perfunctory.
One of those characters was Simon Wallis, a Sustrans colleague who supported me greatly, by hosting and feeding and riding with me. It was with great sadness that I found out that Simon passed away last year. He was a fabulous colleague, always bursting with mad-cap ideas of how to get more children and families into cycling. He would always sign his emails “Happy days”, and a memorial to him has been installed by Sustrans on the West Kirby waterfront where he lived, fittingly inscribed with those words.
I feel doubly sad that he was one of the characters that didn’t make the final cut, so I’d like to publish his brief role in the story here, from an early draft.
From the conclusion to Day 42: Tarleton to West Kirby
Across the Mersey, the Liverpool skyline stood in an endless panorama of cranes and docks and cathedrals and skyscrapers and warehouses. I was to meet my colleague Simon just outside Birkenhead station and I waited by the railings, the wind whisking my hair into my eyes with unpredictable gusts.
Simon soon appeared from around the corner, riding his old pack-horse mountain bike.
“Hello, Anna!” he said as he hugged me. “How was your ride today?”
“Very windy!” I replied, trying to control the strands of hair that danced across my face.
“It’s not quite over yet I’m afraid,” he replied. “Come on,” and off we rode, following the wide, traffic-free cycle way that traced the edge of the blunt-headed Wirral peninsula towards his home in West Kirkby, struggling to hear each other speak over the roar of the wind.
Simon was one of those people who always seemed to be smiling. Like Graham, he was one of the older Bike It officers, but he never acted that way; at work conferences he would have us in stitches with his comic routines and his off-the-wall fancy dress. “Always give them something to remember,” he would say of his assemblies – whether or not that was simply that he’d worn a swimming costume for no apparent reason.
“You know, this is a journey that I did in my early twenties,” Simon said as we rode.
“You mean cycling around Britain?”
“Yes. It feels like only yesterday,” he said, “though it’s coming up for thirty years now. It’s a fantastic journey, Anna. You are very lucky.”
“That’s brilliant! I had no idea!”
I’d known Simon for years yet had never spoken to him of this, so to find out that I was riding in his tyre tracks was a delightful discovery.
“I didn’t take a tent either,” he said. “I negotiated a great deal from the YHA which filled in lots of the gaps and I spoke to the local radio stations along the entire coast and put out a request for one night stop overs in areas where I was really stuck.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m asking too much from people when I stay in their houses.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that, Anna,” he replied. “I think the key thing is to accept, not expect. People want to help you; we’re certainly happy to do that!”
We had reached the northern edge of the peninsula, the tide low, the wind roaming freely over the sand which stretched for miles.
“I also sent some treat parcels ahead to half a dozen Post Offices marked To be kept for Simon Wallis – journeying around the coast” he said. “They were really welcome!”
We were ravenous by the time we rounded the north west tip of the Wirral and came inland, out of the wind. It had taken Simon only 30 minutes to reach Birkenhead where he’d met me, yet we took almost an hour and a half to return.
“Sorry we took so long,” Simon called as he opened the door. “We’ve been having a good old battle with the wind!” The smell of roast lamb came wafting through the house. “I hope you like roast,” he added.
“Yes, lovely!” I had forgotten it was a Sunday, the days passing with no significance other than where I was aiming for each night.
We sat round the table, his wife and two children warmly welcoming me to the family meal. “Help yourself to more,” Simon said as I polished off my plateful in half the time it took for the others to eat theirs. “You need the strength! There’s not that much of you to start with.”
I grinned as I tucked into my second helping, feeling part of the family for one night, blessed with the generous hospitality that had shaped so much of my ride as I had journeyed forwards.