The Breacon Beacons to Exeter, pt. 4

Seaton to Exeter
circa 65km, av 13km/hr, lots of very steep bits (Lost the data today after bike fell over and ‘computer’ got reset, while I was trying to take a photo of an award-winning carbon-neutral housing estate, as you do…)

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On paper, today’s ride should be easy – not too far and plenty of time to do it, since I set off early (there’s no way I’m hanging around in last night’s field any longer than I need to). But, as usual, I conspire to make it harder, with a couple of detours to local beaches along the way. This means steep descents down to the sea, and even steeper ascents back out again.

The first beach I call in at is Branscombe, a lovely little village nestled between rolling hills down to the sea. It feels completely remote, like you could live in splendid isolation here, in one of the little houses between the hills and the water.

The beach is pretty deserted – it’s not yet 9am – but I do spot signs of life: there’s a tent pitched on the beach. Damn! Why didn’t I think of that, instead of camping behind an old dung heap!? I could have gone to sleep my favourite way: to the sound of the sea. It coulda been beautiful. Oh well, next time.

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I continue on, and up – past a beautiful house covered with flowers, just as the sun starts to come out and things start to get warm. It’s a long climb out of Branscombe, so I take a recovery walk around a wooded area near Salcombe Regis, bursting with berries and birdsong. It’s gorgeous. But, onwards…

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Next I chance across an observatory, the Norman Lockyer observatory. The buildings are closed but the grounds are open so I have a good nose around. It’s fascinating. My fave thing here is the human sundial. The sun comes out from behind clouds just on cue, and at first I think the dial is an hour out, before reading that you have to adjust to allow for BST.

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From here it’s a fun descent  down Salcombe Hill into Sidmouth. This place is a bit bigger and quite busy. I grab some baked goods (yes! they still make iced buns) and sit on the seafront in the sunshine.

Then it’s another climb – this time a long slog – out of town and on to Budleigh Salterton. Another pebbly beach. Despite the ‘yellow’ on Google Maps. Why haven’t they got a way to indicate pebble beaches? And where did all the sand go? Important questions.

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By now it’s really quite warm, so it’s time for another swim. Again, it’s pleasantly warm enough for a long swim. After, I think I may have dozed off on the rocks for a bit; I’m certainly tired enough, and anyway, I have time to kill. By the time I’m ready to move again, clouds have started to roll in. The weather seems to be on the turn.

Next stop is Exmouth, a proper seaside town complete with crazy golf course and mini-big-wheel. After a delicious fish in a bun, I cycle to the other end of town to explore the Jurassic Coast. There’s a prime bit of it jutting out on the headland – millions of years of geological time right there in front of your face. It’s staggering. I walk up to the headland, where a simple but stunning needle sculpture marks this World Heritage Site.

It’s getting on for 4 by this time, so it’s time for the final stretch, a cycle route that follows the railway line along the estuary to Exeter, passing Lympstone and Topsham along the way. It’s a lovely little ride, almost all off-road.

As I approach Exeter, navigating past a family of swans that have taken up residency on the cycle path next to the River Exe, the heavens open. It’s been at least a week since it last rained – I’ve been massively lucky with the weather – but even so, the timing is rotten. I pedal on, reaching my friends Ollie & Anna looking a little like a drowned rat. On a bike.

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It’s been quite the (little) adventure. I’ve loved seeing more of this island I call home, but I’m ready to take the bike on the train tomorrow, rather than cycle to Totness for the start of the SeaChange music festival. Sometimes it’s good to let the train take the strain.

Over and out.

 

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The Breacon Beacons to Exeter, pt.3

Glastonbury to Seaton:
91.7km, av. 15.3km/hr, max 45.7km/hr, time moving: 5 hrs 57 mins

Day 3 of the ride starts with me unzipping my tent to see a lone cow standing a few metres away (I thought I could hear cud-chewing…) A lone cow that wasn’t here last night. A few minutes later and I spot a couple of men standing at the gate of the field, and they definitely spot me.

They seem pretty chilled though, and are mainly interested in trying to coax the itinerant ruminant towards them, perhaps so they can identify it (it has a tag on its ear). After a few minutes they succeed in their task and happily wander off, without saying anything to me. Which is nice of them.

I pack up the tent, push out onto the road (closing the gate behind me) and set off – but still undecided as to my final destination for the day. My original plan was to head west, to Bridgewater, through the Quantock Hills AONB and onto Exmoor National Park. But, looking at the map, it’s further than I thought. Plus, I’m not sure if I want to spend a chilly night camping up on the moors.  So I decide to go west for a bit to explore the Somerset Levels, and then south, to the sea!

The first stop along the way is Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve. What a place! A guy I’d been volunteering with at Green Man had been telling me about it, since it was he that helped secure the funding and (from what I could gather) was the architect of the whole project, which has been to turn an old peat-cutting area into an incredible wetlands nature reserve, with a cycle track running right through it.

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Unfortunately, for reasons I still can’t fathom, I somehow miss the cycle track! Instead, I go the long (and hilly) way, only later realising my mistake when I have to double back on myself. It’s an annoying mistake, but not fatal.

I still get to explore a decent chunk of the reserve on foot, and “walk the plank” along a restored stretch of neolithic walkway. Tens of thousands of years ago, the area was inhabited by early human; they constructed elaborate walkways to traverse the flooded wetlands. I also find a hide, but don’t have binoculars to try and spot a little egret – they are in plentiful supply here.

It’s an incredible spot, and a place I’d like to see more of another time – along with the Huntspill River NNR & Bridgewater Bay NNR. But, after a spot of brunch, it’s time to get moving, and start heading south. It’s mankini time…

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I pass through some wonderfully named places: High Ham, Low Ham, Muchelny Ham, Kingsbury Episcopi, Curry Rivel, Shepton Beauchamp. Some of them via the Stop Line Way, named after the ‘Stop Line’ – WW2 defences against a possible German invasion in the southwest – that now forms part of NCR33.

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After the long stop this morning, there’s not much time to rest or pause for very long again; all effort is now focussed on reaching the sea. And reach the sea I do. After passing through the very lovely Axmouth, I roll into Seaton, with its pebbly beach and warm early evening sunshine. I park my bike and head straight into the water, which is refreshing but by no means cold (it’s been a hot summer after all).

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Next task: find food. There’s a fairly dilapidated pub on the sea-front that only has one thing on the menu but that’s OK because it’s fresh mackerel.

Dusk is starting to gather, so the next task is to find a place to camp. I’m less sure how this is going to work out; the land around here feels a little more fenced off and, er, ‘owned’, than it did in Somerset. I cycle out of town a bit, through a village called Beer (mmm, lovely beer), and then uphill and inland a little, in search of countryside.

Eventually I find a field that looks promising. I enter through a gate, and look for a place to pitch. Unfortunately, the field borders a local football ground, and there are people in there having a drink or something. There’s also a barking dog that picks up on my presence and won’t shut up. So I push on into the next field, which is green and secluded.

But, there’s a problem… in a field further down, there’s a tractor going about its noisy business. It’s not clear if the fields are connected, but I figure there’s a risk of the farmer driving out through this field, and spotting me.

I decide to abandon this location, and continue on. About 500 metres up the road, I pass a field with a gate wide open, and a huge old dung heap near the entrance. A perfect place to hide a tent behind – I’ll be invisible from the road. Ah, the glamour of wild camping!

Without thinking too much more about it, I pitch up, feeling smug at this stroke of luck, just as it’s getting dark. I then investigate my surroundings a bit more. And that’s when I make an awful discovery. OK, no dead body in a ditch, but…

In the distance, I can see and hear the same tractor rumbling around the fields. My nemesis. And from this angle, it looks like this field is very much joined onto his field. And he left the gate open… (I’m assuming it’s a he, but of course it may not be).

I am now convinced that Night Tractor is going to drive into my field at some point, and turf me out. I watch him for an hour or so while nursing a beer. Sometimes he disappears behind a hill, and all goes eerily dark and quiet… then a couple of minutes later he’ll come roaring back, headlights beaming right onto the place where I’m sat, hiding. It reminds me of the film ‘Duel’.

It’s gone 11pm and he is still out there (god knows what doing), so I decide to call it a night and hope for the best. I drift off to sleep… but after maybe half an hour dozing, I hear the sound of a tractor; the same tractor. And it’s getting louder. I stick my head out of the tent and can see the headlights in the distance; but it looks like he’s on the road. Perhaps he’ll just stay on the road, jump out to lock the gate, and be gone?

Alas, no. Suddenly the tractor (actually it looks much bigger than a tractor) is in the adjacent field, and then… shiiit! He’s in MY field, goddamit! And he’s driving right at me, floodbeams blazing, engine roaring. My head is still stuck out of the tent, I must look like a rabbit in the headlights. The lights are so bright I can’t see into the cab – I can’t see the manic grin on the face of this psychotic driver. OK, this is not looking good. I don’t want to go out like this!

Like something out of a movie, at the last second he turns the wheel and swerves away… Thanks fuck for that. He simply drives towards the gate, stops, shuts the gate, and drives off.

After this slightly hair-raising experience, I don’t sleep so well, dreaming that he’s coming back with all his farmer mates armed with pitchforks.

So, lesson learnt: if a gate’s been left open, it’s not an open invite to set up camp; in fact it’s the opposite.

 

 

 

The Breacon Beacons to Exeter, pt. 2

Bristol to Glastonbury:
64km, av 14.3km/hr, max 40.7km/hr, time moving: 4hrs 26 mins

Day 2 and, after a deserved lie-in and a vegan feast of a breakfast (there’s a theme developing here – thanks Amy!) I set off sometime around 11am. On paper, today’s ride looks like it will be easier. And it is.

First stop is a general store in Bristol to pick up some new bungie cords. One was nicked or lost at Green Man, and another has gone the way all my bungies go – mashed up in the chain when I forgot to attach everything before setting off.  That job done, it’s south-west bound – to Glastonbury!

There was no Glastonbury Festival this year, and I’ve never actually properly seen the town, so I’m excited about the prospect of visiting. If all goes to plan, I’m also going to “wild camp” somewhere near Glastonbury Tor.

Despite all the cycle lanes, or perhaps because of them, it’s a bit of a dull escape out of Bristol suburbia, flanked by busy roads. Not especially fun, but these eventually give way to  country lanes and open countryside – the Mendip Hills AONB.

Before that, I pass through the excellently named Chew Magna and Chew Stoke, although I’m nursing a throbbing toothache which takes away some of the enjoyment. Skirting past Chew Valley Lake is lovely, but I decide to press on.

It’s really great cycling country round here, and I also have plenty of time and perfect weather, so I decide on a scenic diversion to Cheddar Gorge. I don’t *think* I’ve been here before, so it seems like a shame not to.

Racing down the hill through the gorge is pretty thrilling, as buzzards and red kites circle overhead. I want to look up at them but I have to concentrate on the road. Nestled among the rocks makes for a perfect place to stop for food, before free-wheeling past all the grockle-shops as we used to call them (aka: tourist traps).

Once through, I decide to swing a left onto a completely perfect little winding lane which runs parallel to the main road – for a while, at least. Somehow I miss the turning for Rodney Stoke National Nature Reserve, so I make no mistake about finding Ebbor Gorge National Nature Reserve.

I lock my bike up then hide it, and panniers, in some bushes (there’s very few people around and you’d have to be nuts to try and ride off with that lot in tow…) before heading off on foot around the reserve.

What a stunning place it is, with shady nooks and crannies, as well as a couple of amazing wicker beasts that give you a real surprise when you come across them – a nod to the wild animals which would have roamed here millions of years ago.

At the top of the Gorge there’s a stunning view of the Somerset Levels, with Glastonbury Tor standing proud above it all. With clear blue skies and a supply of roadside-bought strawberries, it really isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

I also come across another touching memorial, this time to some unlucky lad more recently departed. Turns out he died on my birthday last year, of a ketamine overdose. Part of the structure is made of a bike chain, so I guess he must have been a cyclist. Another reminder of mortality, and the surprises that life has in store for us all.

If I do one day die on a bike, at least I will die happy.

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Next stop is Wookey Hole. No further explanation needed…

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From here it’s a short ride into the Glastonbury sunset. I’ve heard the stories about it being a bit of a hippy enclave, and it turns out that this is something of an under-statement. It’s brilliantly out-there and I love it.

Imagine if every high street was like this – tarot readers, crystal healing, acupuncture clinics, yoga studios, vegan cafes and no doubt tantric brothels if you enquire in the right places. What I’m looking for though is a little more pressing; a decent meal. After a couple of false starts, I find Hawthorns, a nice little pub doing veggie curries for 9 quid. Jackpot.

Fed, and with a couple of pints to go with it, I head off outta town looking for a place to camp. I don’t really know what I’m doing, apart from the fact that it will be vaguely illegal but round here they probably won’t care too much.

I head off into the nearby countryside and choose a quiet looking lane away from houses and any obvious attractions that might cause people to stop. I soon find a dirt-track and go investigate. It feels pretty OK around here, and briefly consider putting my tent up on the path itself, but then think about early morning dog walkers and joggers.

There’s an empty field (many have cows or sheep in them) so I decide to go for it. There’s a gate, so I throw all my stuff over the top (including bike) before realising the gate isn’t actually locked. Doh!

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By now, it’s dusk, so I figure that I’m fairly invisible from the road, and most drivers will probably be experiencing tunnel vision anyway, since they now have their headlights on. So I pitch my tent in the far corner of the field, hidden from any passing walkers. I’m within sight of the Tor, and bats are flying all around me as I bed down for the night.

This’ll do nicely.

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The Breacon Beacons to Exeter, pt 1

Breacon Beacons to Bristol:
87km, av 15.5km/hr, max 44.2km/hr, time moving: 5h 38 mins

After 4 days of late nights festivaling at Green Man, the exact thing you want to be doing is cycling almost 90km with a heavy tent and two fully loaded panniers to Devon. Right? Right.

And so, nursing a hangover (and with last night’s glitter still showing) on a dreary Monday morning – when most sensible people are leaving by coach, train or even car – I set off from the bucolic Glanusk Park, speeding past a long line of vehicles queuing to make their escape.

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I do sometimes question my sanity. Soon though I’m riding through beautiful countryside along the River Usk and I’m OK with my life decisions again. My route takes me south of Abergavenny, towards Usk, where I pause briefly for supplies. Then it’s onwards and upwards towards Shirenewton, via a particularly killer (16%) hill and Penycaemawr Methodist Church – so tiny it’s not even on Google Maps.

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Here I rest and seek solace among the stones – each grave telling a sometimes intriguing story of lives lost. Andrew Charles died ‘accidentally’ on 4th July 1977 (just a month before I was born), aged 15 years and 9 months. His grave is immaculate. It’s a tranquil, quiet resting place for the dead – and the weary.

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From here, it’s (mostly) downhill all the way – along a road called ‘Smoothstones’, then a left at a tiny roundabout that nearly trashes my navigation skills. Suddenly I’m at the (old) Severn Suspension Bridge, and back to thunderous reality.

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Cycling across this bridge is a much more visceral experience that I’d envisaged, as lorries go racing past. If you stop for a moment, you can feel the vibrations as they whiz on by. It’s also huge – at least a mile long (or it feels like it). But once I make land on the other side, I’m back in good old Blighty.

Now, in my mind, I’ve made the mistake of thinking that once I’ve crossed the bridge, I’m basically in Bristol. Unfortunately for my tired legs, that ain’t necessarily so. There’s a good 25-30 km still to go. Fortunately, the supply of luscious roadside blackberries is just as plentiful here as it was in Wales, and it’s these that keep me going. Or rather, cause me to stop every 5 minutes as I pass another irresistible patch of fine-looking berries (just a couple more!)

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Eventually, I make the outskirts of Bristol, pausing to stop for a quick celebratory tin of cider (when in Brizzle…) at the promising sounding Blaise Castle Estate. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a bit of a diversion and from here, getting to my final destination in Bristol proves incredibly tricky (and surprisingly hilly). I’m so tired I can’t be bothered to navigate, so “follow my sense of direction”, and end up going round in circles. Bristol is bigger than I thought. I inadvertently add about an extra 10km and hour of cycling to my already long journey – and don’t make it to my friend Amy’s until gone 7. Thankfully though, her shower’s working and she cooks up a vegan feast before we slump on a sofa and watch the surprisingly touching Netflix romcom The Big Sick.

It’s been a long day in the saddle, with some tough hills, but still plenty of “this is why I love cycling” moments – just as well given I’ve been wearing an I Love Cycling t-shirt by Sustrans (who are based in Bristol – it’s all starting to make sense…)

 

Tour De Frack 2018

Yes, it seems a long time ago now(!), but way back in June I joined around 50 others on bikes to take part in the inaugural Tour De Frack – a bike ride with a difference.

The idea of the ride is simple; highlight the ongoing threat from unconventional oil and gas exploration in the heart of SE England: the Weald and Surrey Hills. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty that is under threat from fracking, and with it the wholesale industrialisation of the countryside in this part of the world – Surrey and Sussex – as well as many more places like it across the country.

The ride has been organised by resilient and long-standing campaign groups, including Frack Free Surrey, Frack Free Sussex, the Horse Hill Protection Group and the Weald Action Group, with support from collaborating groups such as Time To Cycle, Reclaim The Power and Frack Free London.

Some of the individuals involved today are also subject to an (at the time forthcoming) injunction limiting their right to protest, courtesy of INEOS, which has since been partially upheld – itself a worrying development

The riders convene in a local park in Dorking for a briefing about the ride, time to ‘flag up’ (attach a flag to your bike) and join a riding group – short, medium or longer distance. I go for medium – it’s been a while since I did a longer ride this year, and I want to enjoy the ride rather than bust a gut on the Surrey Hills.

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Some time around 10.30am we set off. With perfect weather, we ride out en-masse at a steady, enjoyable pace, weaving our way out of Dorking (with a few quick laps of a local roundabout, just to make sure the traffic sees us all) before splitting out into our smaller groups – ours is about 20 strong.

Our first stop is Brockham, where local anti-frackers have come out in force to provide welcome refreshments and to talk about the battles they’re fighting. Time for a quick, shambolic group photo, then it’s back on the road – we’ve got 50km to cover so can’t hang around too long.

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The roads are mostly quiet and mercifully lorry free. Of course, if a fracking industry is allowed to develop here, they’ll be full of tankers and construction vehicles for years to come – not something local people or cyclists want to see happen, and another good reason to resist and protest (even if you don’t care about climate change!)

After pausing at the drilling site on Horse Hill (just west of Horley) for a recap on what’s been going on here, and what the Horse Hill Protection Camp has been doing to resist – including ‘slow walks’ in front of delivery trucks, included in the INEOS injunction and upheld by the judge. At the junction of Reigate Road we pause for lunch – again, local people have turned out to supply cold drinks, hot drinks, cakes, soup, you name it – and to listen to speakers.

One lady speaker rightly points out that as long as we continue to build thousands, even millions of new homes that are gas-heated, the demand for gas will only continue to rise and we lock in fossil fuel technology for another generation.

Why aren’t we building to Passivhaus standards, why aren’t we insisting every new development incorporates solar panels and heat pumps? Oh yes, because developers aren’t forced to, and they’re only interested in making as much money as possible, not reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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Meanwhile we have an out-of-control plastics industry that uses up around 17% of all crude oil supplies – pumping out single use plastic that no-one needs and which is ending up polluting our environment.

And guess which company is at the heart of this industry in the UK…?  Yes, it’s our faves, INEOS – incidentally, headed-up by Jim Ratcliffe, the UK’s richest man. It’s good to know that our economic system rewards so handsomely the people who do the most damage to the environment. No polluter pays principle here, thank-you, we’re British.

All food for thought as we cycle onwards and upwards, past Gatwick Airport (unchecked aviation growth representing yet another challenge to keeping within 1.5 degrees of warming), Charlwood, Ockley and eventually Coldharbour and beautiful Redlands Wood – home to a well-built protection camp and our final stop today.

We sit around the campfire, have a beer, and hear incredible stories from local Protectors about what it’s been like to live here throughout the beast of a winter we endured. In a word: cold.

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It really beggars belief that anyone other than greedy bastards and speculators seeing pound signs, with no climate conscience (or no conscience full stop), can think drilling here makes any kind of sense.

And so, we’re done here for the day and it’s time to say goodbye. It’s been a great ride, illuminating of course, but – more than that – by riding these contours you get a sense of what’s at stake. We can’t turn our countryside into an oilfield. It’s under enough pressure as it is. We need to be protecting and enhancing what’s left of places like Holmwood Common, not drilling them. Our wildlife is already in decline, our roads are already getting busier, our air is already illegally polluted.

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All these things will get worse if we frack here – and for what? To lock ourselves into decades more of fossil fuel extraction and burning, at the exact moment in history when we need to be doing the exact opposite – upscaling renewables, including onshore wind and solar, developing a smart grid and encouraging local energy generation and ownership.

We don’t need a ‘bridge’ fuel, and fracking won’t make us ‘energy independent’ from those pesky Russians. All these are myths drip-fed into the media and the public conscience by people like Jim Radcliffe and others who stand to gain financially from fracking. Really, Jim and his ilk just want to get (even) richer by extracting more fuels, in ever more ‘unconventional’ (read: batshit crazy) ways.

Interestingly though, since the ride, there’s hope that the tide could be turning – despite big setbacks including the imminent start of fracking at Preston New Road, and the ridiculous jail sentences handed down to 3 protestors there.

In short, more and more Tory MPs are beginning to realise that actually, people don’t want fracking where they live – and they especially don’t want it forced on them by central government, as is currently happening.

There’s a real risk that fracking could become an election issue and Tory MPs supporting it could be at risk of being unseated. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens (obvs) are all against fracking, by the way.

Like a good BBC documentary, the ride was educational, informative and entertaining. Can’t say fairer than that. A big thanks to all those who helped organise the event and supported us on the day.

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From London to Bonn for climate justice! Part 2

<Part one here>

Day six

Today is a designated rest day, and the first time in nearly a week that we’ve stayed in the same city for two nights running. But with an opportunity to visit the Hambacher Forest calling, it’s back on the bikes (for some of us at least). About half of us decide to cycle the 30, or was it 40, km out to the forest, while the other half jump on a local train instead. I’m in the riding group, obvs.

The ride out of Cologne is dreary, at least for the first 10km or so. One very long, very straight street, divided into blocks of about 200m, which means a lot of stopping and starting at the crossings, because we’re not riding on the road. It takes forever, and once you’ve seen one German suburb you’ve pretty much seen them all.

Very gradually, the city subsides and gives way to the standard mix of agriculture and industry that we’ve become accustomed to. Eventually, we close in on our destination, via a weird, abandoned village called Sindorf – one of two in this area that are likely to be consumed by the growing mining operations. Shutters are down on the houses and nature is already making a comeback, with weeds in the cracks in the pavement.

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We meet the train crew in an area called The Meadow, which is populated by self-built homes, caravans, and even a library. We sit on some palettes and eat lunch (thanks sandwich makers!), before walking into the Hambacher Forst.

This place is incredible. High up in the trees are dozens of tree-houses, many two or three stories high and only accessible by rope. There are banners with slogans like “Respect existence or expect resistance”, and structures on the ground too. There have been activists – forest defenders – living here for over 5 years.

It’s inspiring to see, but there’s also a sense of pessimism here. The defenders fully expect a forthcoming court case to rule that the ancient woodland – the last remaining in this area that hasn’t been subsumed by the mine – can be felled to allow further coal to be dug up.

We climb up into one of the structures and have a look round. There’s a kitchen/living room on the ‘ground’ floor (some 30 ft up in the tree), with sleeping quarters above. It looks cosy, but it must surely be bitterly cold in the German winter, which is when the cutters are most likely to move in – fully expecting the number of defenders to be at its lowest.

A guy gives us a guided tour of the area, and takes us out to the perimeter of the mine. We can’t see it in full as it’s hidden by a layer of scrubland, but it’s clear just how huge it is. As dusk falls, we thank him for his time, make a donation to their kitty, and head back (on the train) to Cologne.

Visiting the forest, and talking to the people who call it home, was massively enlightening. These guys are the real climate heros, living on the frontline, in tough conditions, and at constant risk of eviction and violence from the police and security firms. And for Germany to be talking themselves up at COP23, while planning to give mining company RWE permission to expand, really does highlight the hypocrisy.  Or bullshit, as one of the activists labels the Conference of Polluters.

You can find out more, and sign up for a text alert when the ‘cutters’ move in, here.

Day seven

Today, we cycle to Bonn. Although it’s not far, we still somehow manage to make a meal of the journey! For the first time, I lead a group and navigate a ‘scenic route’ along the Rhine, which is an extra 10km compared to the more direct route, but worth doing as it’s a lovely ride, for the first part at least. We hug the Rhine and cycle through autumnal woodland, on a flat, well-maintained cycle path (of course).

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Heavy industry can’t be hidden away

Eventually, heavy industry forces us inland, and from here onwards it’s less scenic and more like the industrial heartlands that the Rhineland is known for. We rejoin the Rhine a few km out of Bonn, where we bump into another group of cyclists – an advance party from Climate Express (riding from Brussels), who are putting down route markers for the 300 or so riders who are about 10km behind. If only we’d thought of that!

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Red wine on standby…

As we arrive into Bonn, we meet up with the other TTC group, and we congregate on some grass outside the Opera House, for an impromptu celebratory dance to ‘Praise You’ by Fatboy Slim, a run through some hoops, and a huge group hug with two unsuspecting locals caught in the middle of it all!

From here, it’s on to the Big Top on the other side of the river,  to hear more about the actions planned for Ende Gelande on Sunday (today is Friday), meet other activists, get food and generally get clued up.

In all the excitement, we accidentally miss our time slot for getting to our planned accommodation for the night and are then told that we’ll have to find somewhere else to sleep. Potentially a big problem until one of the Ende Gelande organisers steps in and saves our bacon porridge by finding us space at a local (very warm) sports hall. Thank you!

Day eight

It’s Saturday in Bonn, and there’s heaps going on. As well as what is being billed as Germany’s biggest ever march for climate justice, there’s also a Critical Mass bike ride from Cologne to Bonn, and action training for Sunday’s trip into the mine.

But first, we have to move accommodation. We’re woken at about 7.30am by a gaggle of Danish students who’ve just got off a coach – and we’re in their sleeping quarters. Hurriedly we pack up (I seize the chance to have a shower before we’re turfed out) and vacate the building. As we leave, the young women are jostling to bagsy the comfy mattress thing I and a few others were sleeping on.

We have breakfast on a ping-pong table out the front, as you do (we’re in a school playground) and then I lead an ‘advance’ group to the new accommodation. My map-reading skills take us the scenic route again, and the others arrive 10 minutes before us…

The new place is a building attached to a church, about 5km SW of the centre of Bonn, in a quiet suburb. It’s lovely and spacious, with plenty of room to sleep, a nice kitchen, this sofa, and even a breakfast bar (but sadly no showers).

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Once everyone’s sorted themselves out, I volunteer to lead a ride to go and look for the Critical Mass lot. There’s no way any of us fancies cycling all the way to Cologne to join a ride back to Bonn, so instead we decide to try and intercept it a few miles out of Bonn and join them for the last bit.

After lots of emails, texts and tweets from a very helpful guy called Ulrich, and with the help of a cool little app called Critical Maps (other Critical Mass riders turn it on for rides, which helps people locate it), we find the Mass. It works a treat, although the helicopter hovering overhead is also a bit of a give away that they’re approaching.

And wow, is it big! And red! There are literally thousands of people taking part, including lots of kids, which is great to see. The vibe is good natured and relaxed. So quite why the cops decide to try and break it up and stop its progress as we enter Bonn is beyond me. There’s a stand off and then the mass breaks up and cycles past the first blockade. Then there’s another, and this time the police are getting a bit lairy, grabbing at the odd bike as it passes. Why?!?

Our group of six all get through fine and we continue to ride into Bonn, where we fortuitously join up with the huge climate demo, making for a sea of red, bike bells, sound-systems and cheers from people as we cycle past, our bright red ‘Clean Air Now’ and ‘Clean Energy Now’ flags fluttering behind us.

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Cycling – a low CO2 activity

From here, some people choose to hang back and mill around, join the demo, or just do their own thing. I decide to cycle over the bridge and back to the Big Top for some of the Action Training. Unfortunately, the lure of food sidetracks me and I lose the others. From here, I can’t find any Action Training in English (turns out they moved into a nearby field), so I watch some of the German session, including a mock ‘run’ at police lines, which is pretty funny to watch. It’s unlikely to be as funny tomorrow, when the police will have pepper spray and batons.

At a loose end, I decide to cycle back into town to see where the demo has got to. It’s not hard to find – I just follow the weary looking people with placards walking in the opposite direction. The final resting place is a street on the edge of town, where there’s a live music stage, lots of NGO stalls, and a carnival atmosphere as the sun goes down.

It’s then back to the Big Top, for a final meeting of ‘the fingers’ (these are the different teams that will make their way into the mine tomorrow). I listen to the plans for Orange, while Rob listens to Green. We learn hand signals, and some of what to expect, but beyond that it’s basically, “stay together, stay peaceful, and follow our lead”.

Back at base, we eat and then have our pre-action meeting. Shit’s getting serious. We form into three affinity groups: i. Those who won’t actively go into the mine ii. Those who will go into the mine but may not cross police lines and iii. Those who will go into the mine and cross police lines.  I join group ii.

In hindsight, I perhaps wish I’d gone into group iii. I’m unlikely to ever again take part in an illegal action that’s so well organised, so well supported, I’m so well prepared for, and alongside so many others (and therefore, safety in numbers). But I know none of this at the time.

We affinibuddy-up (I’m with Jacinta) and discuss how we’re feeling. It seems we’re in the same ball-park with what we’re prepared to do.

There’s a good feeling as we go to sleep – emergency phone numbers scrawled on our arms – although some trepidation too. Lights don’t go out until midnight – and we need to be up at 5.15am for the big day tomorrow…

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Bedtime reading

Day nine – Ende Gelande

We wearily, blearily wake and grab breakfast in the half-light. There’s a nervous excitement in the air. But before we get to the mine, we have to get to the mine. We dash for a local bus, waiting at the bus stop in the dark and rain, and, as it turns out, on the wrong side of the road. It’s scarily punctual, and we all have to dash across to jump on. It’s a minor miracle we all make it in time – faff has reduced by about 80% this morning!

Next obstacle – the train. We’re at the station for a 6.45am train, but it’s mysteriously cancelled, leaving us and hundreds of others milling about on the platform. Is it a conspiracy between RWE and the train company, which must be a major energy consumer, to stop us from even getting close to the mine? Apparently not, as eventually a train does arrive that’s heading in the right direction.

By about 9am we’re back at Buir, the station we were at a few days ago for our visit to the forest. It’s good to know the lie of the land and to have seen first hand the ancient forest which this action is hoping to defend. There are hundreds, thousands of people assembling here. And then, at about 10.30am, we’re finally on the move.

It’s slow to start with, thanks to another police check, where they’re stopping people with strawbale bags or other forms of ‘soft protection’ from coming through, making sure no-one has their face covered (and no doubt filming everyone as they pass through the bottle-neck). Pointless, since about a mile into the walk a van drives through the fields, flings its doors open and a couple of people start throwing straw-bale bags towards us, before they’re eventually stopped by the cops.

After a long wee stop in a field, we kind of lose the Green finger we were walking with, as they’ve peeled off. Rob makes a quick decision to try and catch them up, rather than stay where we are, with Orange. Just for a moment we (a group of 6) are isolated, and there are police apparently closing in on us. We run. It’s slightly exhausting but we eventually catch up with the rest of the group, the police seemingly happy not to “pick us off” just yet.

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The huge excavator that activists make their way towards – shutting down operations for the day

And then it’s “over the top” and into the mine. The sight of hundreds of people dressed in white boiler suits piling over the sandy banks is almost surreal, and one that will stay with me – especially since, with my phone and all identification documents left at home, I am viewing everything vividly and first-hand, not through a screen. And I’m not just viewing, I’m sliding down scree slopes, sand in shoes, wet feet, a sense of jubilation all around that we’ve got this far.

Having been on the march for a couple of hours, a few groups start eating their packed lunches, and pretty soon everyone is. Again, completely surreal. But is it a planned tactic to lull the police into a false sense of complacency? Since at about this moment, a finger, Orange, suddenly goes for it – making a run across the sand, down and up through a moat which has been dug, over the crest of a sandbank, and then they’re running through a thin police line which is hopelessly out-numbered. One or two get sprayed but the vast majority make it through, and that’s the cue for everyone else to follow – hundreds of people. It’s incredible to witness.

But our group won’t be joining them. As agreed last night, we’ve reached our limit, and at least two of us aren’t keen on going any further. Also as planned, the other TTC group has gone for it. Instead, we distract / act as decoys / help people out of the trench, but that’s about it.

With everyone else now making their way towards the mine machinery, we instead walk up to a sort of viewing platform, and then observe what’s going on down below, in front of the huge mechanical excavator. More police arrive, then horses, but the activists are standing united, holding hands in a huge circle, while another finger has somehow marched off towards another piece of machinery. It’s crazy to watch.

Eventually, a huge rain shower passes over and we decide to head back to the station, a 45 minute walk away, glad that we can and feeling desperately for our friends and everyone else below who are now effectively kettled.

Regrets? Yes. But also no. We stuck with what we agreed, and no-one did anything they were uncomfortable with, which is something to be proud of. My regret is purely personal – that I wasn’t more brave or bold in putting myself in the “Will cross police lines” affinity group. I think the scare stories got to me. But there is always a next time, and it’s been fantastic to bear witness, and to learn from the experience.

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Affinibuddies

Wet and cold, we head back to Cologne for a beer and then on to our base in Bonn, to await news of the other group. Eventually, a call comes in and it’s good news – everyone is safe and well, and all were released without having to give ID or being charged.

They finally arrive back at base about 10pm, to a bit of a hero’s welcome. We drink celebratory beers, order in some pizza, and finally kick back a little. We did what we came here to do. We had a lot of fun along the way, made new friends and have a shared experience that will stay with us.

We bloody well did it!

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We did it!

PS. Watch out for this man…

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Not to be trusted 😉

#BonnVoyage

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Find out more about Time To Cycle on the website here, Facebook here, and Twitter here.

Read The Guardian’s story of the Ende Gelande action here.

From London to Bonn for climate justice! Part 1

<Part 2 here>

Ok, so it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as London to Paris for climate justice, but this is exactly why we rode to Bonn last week – sustainably (with low or no emissions), to protest against the expansion of fossil fuel extraction, express solidarity with those on the frontline of climate change, to make new connections and look for better ways of living.

Finding the ‘Time to Cycle’ crew back in 2015 for the Paris ride has certainly changed my life. Connecting with people who care as much as you do about climate change and the impact we are having on the world, but who are also fun and like to do cool things like ride bikes and plant trees, has been like discovering the light at the end of a distinctly dark, cycle-unfriendly tunnel.

Caring about the climate, the planet, and biodiversity, in an ever expanding, ever busier world of rampant consumerism and friends – good people – who think nothing of jetting off on their next overseas holiday without a care in the world, can be a lonely experience.  Hooking up with Time to Cycle has challenged my cynicism and made me realise I’m not going slowly mad, and nor am I alone.

Combining cycling with activism – whether this be positive acts like tree planting, or acts of civil disobedience, like entering the open-cast coal mine at Hambacher – really is a powerful thing and something I’m grateful to have discovered, albeit rather later in life than I’d have liked. I spent most of my 20s being caught up in the London meeja world (working at the BBC, thinking I was gonna make a career there), and most of my 30s in a never-ending partying/work/culture bubble, which of course has been a lot of fun, but ultimately perhaps not that fulfilling.

So now, hitting 40 I feel like I’m finally finding my feet and in the place I want to be; a part-time activist (not quite ready to give up the creature comforts / consumerist trappings of a warm flat and a large record collection), and a soon to be employee of a major environmental organisation. It’s taken a while, but I’m getting to a good place. Better late than never! And I’ve not given up the London life of going to gigs, theatre and clubs completely…

So, to the journey.

After a lovely little Friday afternoon ride from Walton on the Naze, I meet up with the others in Harwich. Our lodging is a former chapel which is in the process of being converted into a home. There’s no furniture but it’s warm, dry and the plumbing has just been turned on, so it has all we need. Thanks to Jacinta’s mystery friend for putting us up!

We eat communally, play a bizarre game of snakes and ladders (snakes made out of bananas, ladders out of clothes) to decide who gets which flag on their bike, then turn in for the night. It’s great to put faces to names finally – especially Rob, one of the other organisers who I’ve only previously skyped a few times, and now here we are!

Day one (38.2km, av. 15.6km/hr, max 34 km/hr, time cycling: 2hr 26)

Next morning, we cycle the couple of miles to the ferry terminal and board a huge vessel which will take us to Hook of Holland, where the ride proper will start. The daytime crossing is uneventful. We read, look at Google Maps, doze; some slope off to watch a bad movie in the ship’s cinema.

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Waiting to board the ferry

It’s dusk and windy when we arrive in Holland, and where we meet Paris compatriot Tim (giver of hugs), who has been riding around Europe solo for the last three months. But the wind is blowing in our favour, and the 30km ride to Rotterdam is, literally, a breeze. Cycle lanes all the way and a generous tailwind. These off-road cycle lanes are a revelation – if only London had a 10th of this kind of cycling infrastructure.

Our lodgings for the first night are a church hall. The place is pretty huge, so we all fit in easily. A few of us cycle off to the nearest supermarket, which involves using the river tunnel, where no-one bats an eyelid if you take your bike on the old wooden escalator. We eat soup, play games, and hear a few words from the local minister. Then it’s time to turn in, as we have a long ride (85km) ahead of us tomorrow.

Day two (86.9km, av 16.7km/hr, max 30.2km/hr, time cycling: 5hr 12 min)

The next morning, we load up and set off with relatively little faff, and head south. Once again, the wind is kind to us, and progress is easy. It’s cool, there are some light showers, but nothing too serious. The landscape is completely flat, regimented. Straight lines. Lots of water, few trees and little signs of wildlife except the odd buzzard. This is what intensive agriculture looks like, folks.

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Snaking our way through underpasses

Some time around lunchtime we experience our first puncture. It’s perhaps little surprise that Tim’s bald back tire is first to go, given he’s been on the road for 3 months. But it’s easily repaired and we are soon on our way.

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Bikes rest while punctures are repaired and lunches eaten

With only the odd map-reading mishap (finding the right cycle lane is tough when there are so many) we make good progress. We even find a couple of huge ‘puffball’ mushrooms on the way – that’s dinner sorted, then – nature provides!

Our overnight stop is a squat (although that description is doing it a disservice – it’s an awesome place) called Transfarmers. It has everything we need, including some cosy sleeping quarters and a big kitchen. It’s also right next to a supermarket, so we stock up on supplies and, inevitably, beer. We feast on mushrooms (big thanks to our chefs!) and sleep like particularly happy, sleepy logs.

Day three (54.5km, av. 15.6km/hr, max 27.2km/hr, time cycling: 3hr 29 mins)

A slightly shorter ride, and today’s destination is an eco-garden somewhere close to the border with Germany. Blessed once again with clear skies and light winds, once again the off-road riding is good, and our navigators for the day – some doing it for the first time – do a grand job.

But before all that, we have to get out of Transfarmers – something our film-maker Lizzie captures on film… I promise this ain’t a set-up!

Along the way, people are having conversations; where are you from, what made you decide to do the ride, what do you think about climate change, what do your friends think about you doing the ride? Having these chats is such an integral part of the experience, as these rides are about being open, sharing your thoughts and your self. Being generous of spirit. Supporting others.

While we’re not chatting, we’re (bike) dancing. We have not one but two sound-systems on the go, pumping out everything from Chic and Queen to Debussy and Bonobo. I manage to sneak in a bit of Euros Childs and some new LCD Soundsystem.

Once again, we arrive at dusk, to be greeted by a large field with an open (but roofed) kitchen area, a fire pit, and two gloriously cosy yurts, their wood-burners already blazing. Het Eibernest – what a great place this is!

We have another puffball mushroom, as well as other delicious foods, and we eat in darkness around the blazing fire. The local owner brings us a crate of beer, and we sing songs. Kat teaches us this one:  “I walked to the end of the road / And I looked in both directions / As far as the eye can see / I’ve got the blue sky, sunshine / Ain’t nobody here but me.”

We turn in to our yurt – there’s about 9 in ours – tired but full (of food, beer and song), sleepy, cosy and content.

Day four (after this, pedalometer – yes, it’s a word – stopped working)

Today we ride into Germany. The border is unmarked and in some woods (pretty much the only ones we come across in Holland). As soon as we enter Germany the landscape changes. Less neat and tidy. More unkempt, more random, more wild areas. It looks a lot like the UK in fact.

Fortunately, the cycle paths don’t just stop at the border, and we continue to cycle safely, off-road, for the most part. In this respect, it’s not at all like the UK.

Once again, Lizzie is capturing every moment – racing ahead to get us as we cycle past something visually interesting – a bridge, an industrial plant, a hedge… I feel terrible though when our ‘back marker’ system fails completely and she gets left behind with a puncture. Luckily, she’s able to repair it herself and catch up, but still, it’s not great of us (me).

The ride isn’t the most interesting, but it doesn’t matter too much. Today is all about getting to our first overnight accommodation in a few days that has a shower. It’s a weird little place in Dusseldorf called Staffboarding – essentially a hostel for mostly migrant staff working in the catering industry and suchlike. They look a bit confused when we all turn up with our bikes, dayglo clothing and flags, but it’s all good. We shower, then treat ourselves to a meal out at a vaguely posh (for us) Italian restaurant, where our latest addition Clare (or Clara to her friends) joins us.

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Fraya admires Tim’s new hair-do

There’s a slightly bizarre situation whereby despite being a group of thirsty cyclists 15 strong, ready to spend 10-15 euros each on food and drink, they won’t give us free tap-water. Negotiations are getting us nowhere, so I drop the ‘tripadvisor‘ bomb and suddenly the water arrives… I feel for the guy waiting us; he says his dad objects to giving customers tap water when he can charge 5 euros a bottle, and that he’ll get it trouble, so we have to drink it covertly!

Day five

Today, a shorter ride on to Cologne. With a huge amount of faff (the amount of faff is mathematically proven to increase by 5% each day of the ride, and a further 5% for each additional person in a group) not helped by a damaged back wheel, we set off in two groups and enjoy a relatively stress-free ride to this big German city.

The days are starting to blur a bit, so I’m not sure there’s much more to say about this ride, other than when we arrive at our destination there’s a bit of confusion as to whether we’ve found the right place (it’s looking really unpromising), until a friendly lycra-clad man rocks up and leads us through the garage door to the secret little bunker behind. It’s a perfect little spot for us (or at least, most of us), with a general room for sleeping, a fussball table, a kitchen and a toilet (no shower, natch).

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First sign we’re getting closer…

He heads off, as do about half the group, who are off on a ‘warm showers‘ adventure (staying with local hosts), and the rest go shopping, so I stay back and make the place warm and inviting for their return (candles, low lighting, mood music… it’s as if I’m trying to seduce them.)

Once again, thanks to chefs Sam and Declan, we eat like vegan kings and queens, and have a lovely evening in our cosy hideout, chatting, reading and planning tomorrow’s activities.

We’ve decided (OK, fate has decided) that we’ll be staying two nights in Cologne – and tomorrow we plan to visit the Hambacher Forst resistance movement, and see for ourselves what’s going on out there…