July 12, 1994. The Royal Observatory.Greenwich
White expedition tee shirts fluttering in the breeze, Steve and I stood straddling our bicycles, front tires resting on a two-inch strip of brass embedded in the ancient cobblestones. Above us, fixed atop a spike like a giant cocktail cherry, a large crimson ball would drop at precisely 13:00 hours, as it first had in 1883 for ships on the River Thames to set their chronometers by. Our great journey was about to begin.
My heart drummed faster and faster as the seconds counted down. It was a tremendous moment, made even more so by the history surrounding us.
As the centre of all time and space, calibrating every clock and watch on the planet, the prime meridian of longitude held the keys to the nation’s maritime past, and to our own futures. It was central to Britain establishing her superiority over the world’s oceans at the peak of Empire. And, after travelling three hundred and sixty lines of longitude westwards, using the same navigational increments of degrees, minutes, and seconds that once steered our explorer ancestors to the farthest flung corners of the globe and back, we could also hope to return to the same point from which we started.
The noonday sun shone at its zenith above assembled family and friends. My sisters, Julia and Vicky, stood smiling supportively, holding the hands of my nephews Edward, George, and Freddie, still too young to really understand what their deranged uncle was up to now. Earlier, dear Vicky had pressed two Cadbury’s chocolate bars into my hand. “For extra energy,” she’d whispered encouragingly.
It would be a long time before I saw any of them again. Just how long, I had no way of knowing…
The world would have moved on unimaginably in thirteen years. My old Motorola “brick” cellular phone, so heavy I had to keep it in a bucket hooked to one end of a broom handle at the top of my window cleaning ladder, counter-balanced with half a bucket of water at the other end, would transform into a device no bigger than a credit card. The Internet and climate change would be regular street talk, not just whispered conspiracy amongst geeks and tree huggers. Tony Blair would have come and gone. The franc, lira, and peseta replaced by the euro. Osama bin Laden and reality TV stars would be household names.
I glanced at Steve. His knuckles were chalk white from throttling the handlebars of his bike. His face was drawn with exhaustion. None of us had slept the past two days. At five am that morning, Kenny, Martin, and I were still vacating the squat, literally shovelling clothes and equipment into black rubbish sacks and tossing them into the back of the DHL van. I’d then pedalled hell for leather across London for a seven am interview at the Sky News studios in Isleworth, before backtracking via Hammersmith to close my account with Barclays. I’d walked out with £319.20 in my pocket, the sum total of my savings to circumnavigate the world.
“It should have dropped by now,” Steve said, looking over his shoulder at the crimson ball. I checked my watch. It was four minutes past the hour. Was it stuck? Of all the days for Grandfather Time’s one remaining ball not to drop…
“Sod it,” I muttered. “Let’s get on with it.”
We grasped each other’s forearms, nodded, and leaned into the first of some half billion pedal rotations. Waving to the cheering crowd, we swept out of the courtyard and entered an avenue of graceful sweet chestnuts, their verdant limbs bowing overhead in farewell bidding.
* * *
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