Plant trees and build bridges, not walls!

Last weekend, by a happy calendar coincidence, I was able to take part in two very different kinds of activism. And no, I wasn’t yelling for the Garden Bridge…

On Friday, the day a certain Donald Trump is inaugurated to the highest office in the US, perhaps the world, I am holed up in a small room near London Bridge, as part of the Bridges Not Walls media and social media team, while up to 1,000 amazing people are taking part in coordinated banner drops on 9 (NINE!) central London bridges, including the iconic Tower Bridge, and thousands more are taking action around the UK and world.

This is the fantastic climax to a busy, beautiful journey from a crazy idea hatched back in November, the day after he was elected, to a worldwide, day-long expression of hope, anger, solidarity, creativity and activism: Bridges Not Walls.

After countless Skype calls, a couple of face to face meetings – where impressive facilitation meant all voices were heard and decisions were made democratically – plus many late nights, the big day has finally arrived. Now the bigger questions – Will we even be able to get onto Westminster and Waterloo Bridges? Will the London action be successful? Will anyone care?  What it it doesn’t take off? – are about to be answered, emphatically…

Cycling towards the Thames on Friday morning, one thing is already obvious – it’s a beautiful, bright, clear morning for a protest, and the banners are going to look amazing!

Had it been grey, rainy or even foggy (as it has been since), it would have been a very different affair and the film and photos would have looked soggy and miserable. Ironically, as photos of people taking Bridges Not Walls actions across Europe and the world flood in, it looks like the only place where it is raining on Friday is Washington DC. Maybe there is a God after all, and she doesn’t support Trump.

With some good momentum on Facebook and Twitter (thanks largely to a post-pub tweet I posted on Thursday night of a great action in Paris that quickly ‘went viral’) it seems like we are well set up on social media. But will the London images look as iconic as Paris?

As the first photos of the Tower Bridge and London Bridge banners appear on Twitter it quickly becomes obvious: yes, they will!

All the amazing hard work and diligence that went into their creation was not only worth it, but essential. Everyone who worked so hard on the logistics of the operation, and put in the hours (literally, thousands of hours) to make the banners a reality deserve huge credit.

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The combination of white fabric and dayglo lettering with a black outline just works so well. And the visual consistency of the banners make it clear this is a coordinated, yet multi-message action. Different messages, but a united cause.

Also vindicated is the late decision to change the direction of the boat’s journey, capturing the action starting at Tower Bridge and heading west rather than the other way, and the side the banners are hung – all lit up by glorious morning sunshine.

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As the first pictures come in from Vauxhall, there are a few tears of joy in the room. Those guys and girls are having a party and they want the whole world to know it! The rainbow flares are a genius addition and give Vauxhall Bridge, with its brilliant message ‘Queer Solidarity Smashes Borders’, added oomph.

Meanwhile, on other bridges, the decision to add raised letters to spell out extra messages above the banners is also proving inspired – the lettering stands out against the skyline and gives more room for messaging.

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In the ‘hub’, things aren’t going quite so smoothly though. We change the passwords to everything about 30 minutes before it all starts to go mental and in doing so nearly lock ourselves out of Gmail and Instagram. But at least it means all our sites and social platforms are secure as the traffic (and trolls) rocket.

After this, things settle into a pattern, and momentum starts to build. The first professional photos are starting to come in and they look incredible. We have Facebook Live from Westminster Bridge. We have live coverage on BBC London (TV and radio). Suddenly the hashtag is trending in London, then the UK, then the world!

Some time around 9.30am, the first real images of actions from outside London are starting to filter through, and they look brilliant. From rural Wales to urban Manchester, iconic to humdrum, hundreds of small but beautiful actions are being shared live on social media.

And then we start noticing that they’re coming in from all over Europe, thanks largely to Greenpeace Europe’s late involvement –  from the far north of snow-covered Sweden to Berlin to Greece.

We’re trying to add photos to the rapidly growing Facebook album as fast as they’re coming in, but can barely keep up. Every now and again there’s an exclamation of “wow, check out Berlin”, or, “stand by – first photos coming in from Aberdeen, they’ve totally smashed it!” and a quick rush over to look at a laptop screen. Check them all in this photo album on Facebook.

Meanwhile on Twitter the trolls have come out to play. From the baffled (“but don’t you people understand, Trump’s been elected fair and square?”) to the plain nasty and gruesome, it’s all there, but satisfyingly, the hate tweets are outnumbered about 1000-1 by positivity and love for #BridgesNotWalls.

Countless people are saying things like “I don’t know who you are but thank you for giving us hope on an otherwise dark day.” Or, when seeing a banner, “I don’t know who made the banner I’ve just seen, but it’s made my day.”

Across the UK and the world, people are jumping on the idea and running with it. One favourite is a woman who shares a photo of a bridge she’s built out of books about walls. That’s deep.

By 11am, #BridgesNotWalls is the second biggest hashtag worldwide, and my Tweetdeck is in meltdown. The tactic of taking action early (before work) and setting the agenda for the day has 100% paid off – and also provides the perfect comeback to the bores who accuse us of being workshy lefties who need to get a job.

Something funny is happening to the media coverage too. Big-hitting sites including Mashable (with their 8m twitter followers), BuzzfeedTime OutThe Guardian, Huff Po, Daily Fail and, most bizarrely, Breitbart (in an ‘exclusive’ – yeah, exclusive to everyone), have all covered the action and, almost without exception, covered it favourably. Much to the chagrin of their readers (check the DM comments for a laugh). Could all the staffers at Breitbart be over in Washington and it’s the intern who’s put the press release up without thinking to do a hatchet job first?!

By lunchtime, actions have come in from Sydney in Australia, Kathmandu in Nepal, Dubai in the UAE, and NYC in the US. What started as an idea in the mind of one person has spread around the globe in a single day and captured the imagination in a way we never thought possible.

In the afternoon, just about the same time as the first edit of the (excellent) film arrives, the internet in the office we’re in goes down. The first upload of the film to FB fails completely, and getting it onto Twitter is taking an age. We get wind of a ‘secret’ wifi network and pile onto it, just about managing to share the film before it goes down again.

The rest of the afternoon is spent sharing the film on Twitter with signatory and supportive organisations and individuals. It’s had thousands of views by the time we call it a day and hit the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate and chew over what has, I feel, been a ray of light on an otherwise dark day.

Plant trees, not walls

There’s no rest for the wicked though and early Saturday, complete with hangover, I struggle out of bed and into clothes vaguely suitable for cycling and tree-planting in sub-zero temperatures. I sleepily make my way to Clapham to hook up with around 16 other Time to Cycle cyclists who are ready to plant trees and help make the world that little bit less dull.

At 9am we set off in two groups, ‘fast’ and ‘fun’. I choose the fast group, although it’s not that fast, and it’s still quite fun. The route maybe leaves a bit to be desired though. We head out from Clapham towards Epsom on the A24, which isn’t an especially nice road to ride on. I’m pretty sure there are less busy routes to Epsom, although perhaps not from Clapham.

Our ride leader has to check his phone for the route on about 3 occasions (maybe writing down the route on paper would have been a good plan?) and he also takes us through red lights, which might be fine on your own in London, but in a small group it just means you get shouted at by Angry Surrey Drivers – a pretty common breed, especially on Saturday mornings.

Anyhoo, we get to the site, Langley Vale Woods, in one piece and, it turns out, I’ve cycled here before. In that blog post I described the path through the woods as “surely impassable in winter” and I’m not far wrong. It’s only because the mud’s frozen (and it’s been a dry few weeks) that we can cycle all the way to the planting site.

When we arrive, I say hi to some old Time To Cycle buddies, get a cup of chai to warm up, and then it’s straight into the digging and planting. Unlike the December plant, this is an almost military operation, with dozens of people, a full catering unit, and a huge field with the planting spots already marked in orange dots. This is the Woodland Trust – clearly they don’t mess about.

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It’s a big old space to fill but, with so many people, we make rapid progress. By lunchtime the first field is full of tiny beech saplings. The plan is to create a beech coppice and also to connect two existing areas of semi-ancient woodland. The land we’re planting is currently arable but was returning such low yields the Trust were able to buy it at a pretty low price.

Despite the overnight frost, we’re planting on a south facing slope and the sun has already done its work. Thank god it’s another sunny day! The people planting range from 5 year old children to OAPS, and includes a large contingent from a local Muslim group, and another large contingent from a nearby Hindu community. Worth mentioning, since so often conservation is portrayed as the preserve of the white middle classes and environmental issues as of little interest to minority groups.

During lunchtime, the ‘fun’ group of cyclists finally turns up. A puncture en-route slowed them in their tracks and didn’t sound like much fun at all, unfortunately. Also rather unfortunately for them, by the time we’ve had lunch and taken an official group photo for Time To Cycle, there’s actually not that much tree planting left to do.

Because the event has been so popular, and also because a small area of land that was in the shade all day is in fact too frosty, we’re rapidly running out of places to plant and we finish a little early, meaning some of the late arrivals have barely planted a single tree.

Job done though, with at least 5,000 trees planted!

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A smaller group of us set off back to London before it starts to get dark, but the group are heading back towards SW London so I decide to go it alone and see if I can re-trace my old route in reverse. I cycle through Epsom Racecourse again (fun!) and back along a few roads that seem vaguely familiar. But, as darkness descends and tiredness grows, I end up on fairly unpleasant roads that all seem to lead to Croydon. Isn’t it always the way?!

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It’s here that I end up tiredly cycling along a road shared with a tram, and without really realising it, accidentally get my front wheel stuck in the groove of the tram-line. I tumble to the ground but thankfully I’m not going fast and am not hurt – although my saddle and front light are both damaged, and a tram approaching from behind means I have to get out of the way pretty quickly.

I blame tiredness, which suddenly hits me like a wave. I realise I’m right outside West Croydon station so I decide to admit defeat and take the Overground the rest of the way home.

I’m knackered, a little bruised, but happy that I’ve managed to make some kind of positive contribution to the world in the last two days – in two very different ways.

Building Bridges, Not Walls

Not my words, but great, useful words…

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As President Trump is sworn in, thousands of people are protesting by dropping banners all over the world to spread the message that we need to build bridges, not walls. Below I share a little about my experience of taking part and the breadth of the action, reflecting on why it has been so successful, and looking to the future. I ask – how can we remain hopeful & organise against the rise of the right?

My morning

This morning I was up at 6am and it was literally freezing in London. Actually below freezing to begin with. It’s the day ‘President Trump’ becomes an actual thing, so for me it should have been a fairly depressing day, with such a symbolic victory of the rise of the far right so prominently in the news and on everyone’s minds. But I actually felt really excited and hopeful. I was up…

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On 20 January, build bridges not walls

If, like me and the rest of the more sane, compassionate bit of humanity, you woke up on 9 November and felt your heart sink with utter despair at Trump’s election – just a few short months after Brexit – then maybe you’ve since been looking for a way to express this.

Be it anger at, rejection of, or opposition to what he and his cronies stand for; fear of what his election means for your daily life; despair at how we’ve gotten to a state where a racist, homophobic, dishonest, misogynistic, climate-change denying brute can be elected into the most powerful position in the world – this action is for you!

The idea – to drop banners off bridges expressing how we feel about Trump’s election – was hatched in early December. Since then a group of people, some experienced activists, others absolutely not, have been working in cooperation to create a decentralized event that will allow people to express their feelings and show exactly why they reject all that Trump and his election as US President stands for – particularly in relation to racism, the rise in hate crime, and the creeping fascism that is stalking Europe too, because we recognise that although his election affects everyone, it affects some groups more than others.

We will actively unite as citizens, building bridges of trust and friendship between and within communities, rather than passively let the forces of hatred and division take over. We know that bridges are stronger than walls, as sure as love trumps hate.

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As well as being able to organise a simple banner-drop event in your local area (register it on the website, where you can also download the guidebook (pdf)), organisers are working on a more coordinated central London action on the morning of 20 January, that will see banners dropped on as many as 10 iconic London bridges, from Tower to Vauxhall.

There’s a meeting about this taking place in East London on Saturday at 1pm – see the Facebook event here for more info. This will be followed by a banner making weekend (party!) on 14-15 January (materials provided) before the BIG DAY on 20 Jan.

Additionally, a small bursary is available to support banner-making costs for non-London events. Please email bridgesnotwallsuk@gmail.com for more details about this.

Get involved, and show the world that you reject Trump and what he stands for. Together, we’ll build bridges not walls on 20 January 2017. See you there!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bridgesnotwallsuk/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bridgesnotwallz

Planting trees is the new fun

Time to Cycle, the group I cycled to Paris with for COP21 in December 2015, have been quietish since their epic summer 2016 events, cycling to (and helping close down) opencast coal mines in Wales and Germany.

Turns out they were busy working on a brand new idea – cycle rides to tree-planting sites around the UK, bringing climate activism (getting off yer bum), adaptation (cycling rather than using fossil fuels to get around) and mitigation (tree planting to absorb CO2 and provide cool/shade) together into a beautiful single event.

The first event takes place on Sat 8 December at Knepp Castle Estate, near Horsham in West Sussex, at a time of year when many people are out buying a dead tree to stick in their front room (or, weirder still, decorating a fake plastic tree). It feels good to be planting trees rather than shopping, a kind of rejection of what Consumeristmas has become.

I confess, I take the train as far as Horsham and cycle from there (it would have been a 5am start otherwise!) It’s about another 8 miles down a beautiful little back route (Two Mile Ash Road, Marlpost Road and Dragons Green Road) which at 10am on a Saturday morning is as peaceful and calm as Oxford Street is manic and stressful. The weather is dull, damp and mild for December (the new normal); thankfully the proper rain holds off until the evening though.

I turn up just in time to catch the briefing by some nice folks from the Ouse and Adar Rivers Trust, and then it’s off to work we go. We’re planting in a designated, fenced off patch (so the deer steer clear) about the size of half a football pitch, maybe a bit more, alongside the River Adar.

The idea is that in a couple of decades (as climate change really begins to kick in) the maturing trees will provide cooling shade above the river, and help lower the water temperature in this area at least. It’s called ‘Trees for Trout’.  It’s nice to think that in thirty or forty years (jeez, I’ll be almost 80) a tree you planted will be providing shade, food and habitat.

The species we’re planting include willow (obvz, we’re by a river), crab-apple, hawthorn, hazel, field maple and alder. There are about 2,000 trees to plant in total, although we won’t get through this many today.

We work in pairs; I’m with an Environmental Sciences graduate from Brighton. We have interesting chats while we work, about all sorts of environmental and political issues; trees, Trump, Brexit, carbon budgets, GM crops, you name it. I’m glad I came as it means I get to have an interesting conversation as well as knowing that if I hadn’t bothered, this person would have been on their own. Unlike with a few recent actions, my contribution here feels positive and active rather than negative and in protest. The activity feels both worthwhile and physically tangible.

There’s something satisfying and strangely reassuring about planting trees. Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s not that hard. It’s mechanical and repetitive, but there’s comfort in this, as well as absurdity. If planting trees is so easy, why aren’t we all doing it, all over the world, every weekend? It’s therapeutic I tells ya.

We break for lunch and some warming tea and then it’s more of the same in the afternoon, but we’re making great progress. It happens almost by stealth. Before we know it, we’re coming to the end of the session (3pm) and, looking around, the field which was empty of trees at 10am is now full of little saplings. What a neat feeling to have contributed to this.

About 700 trees have been planted by 20 people, working in pairs, so 70 trees per pair. About 40-50% are likely to survive into maturity, depending on how well we planted them and what the weather’s like over the next couple of years. Not a bad effort, although admittedly not quite up there with the 50 million trees planted by 800,000 volunteers in one day in India!

treesAfter we help pack up I and a couple of others cycle back, taking the same peaceful route, just as dusk is encroaching. On the way we pass some hunt saboteurs, a police car, and a few toffs, sorry, twats, on horses. Have they really not got anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon than terrify and kill foxes?

Back on the train to South London I can reflect on what’s been a fun, rewarding day, and I’m not even that tired.

Time To Cycle are organising several tree-planting cycle rides (don’t worry, not at the same time) in 2017, so soothe the soul and get involved.

#StayGrounded at Heathrow Airport

It’s back on the activism bike on the first day of October, for an action organised by Reclaim the Power called #StayGrounded.

The aim of the action day, part of a wider week of activities around the world, is to highlight the madness of airport expansion at a time when all the available, credible science is not just telling us, but yelling at us: stop extracting and burning fossil fuels!

Yep, a third runway at Heathrow will probably be given the green light this year, as part of this government’s deluded attempts to ‘keep Britain competitive’ and help transform us into a ‘global powerhouse’ post-Brexit (by importing and exporting more stuff to ever further flung destinations).

Oh, and to cater for the growing demand in leisure flights by frequent binge flyers here in the UK, and the swelling global middle class. Because it’s everyone’s right to fly as far and as often as they like, regardless of the harm done to others.

And the ‘others’ are primarily poor people in the Global South; those being hit hardest by climate change (already), who have never been on a plane, and their countries contributed almost nothing to global carbon emissions.

This is why the burning of fossil fuels by planes full of (relatively) rich (mostly) white people is a ‘race’ issue, and a global inequality/justice issue, in the broadest sense: one group of people’s behaviour and activity is negatively and unfairly affecting another group’s very livelihoods. A point seemingly too complex to be understood by most blinkered, ill-considered commentary and coverage of the recent Black Lives Matter protest at City Airport. Like this.

And for all those, like the Daily Fail, hysterically screaming, BUT THEY WERE ALL WHITE, that was the whole point you numpties, if the activists on that runway had all been people of colour they’d have been treated way worse by the police – even risking injury or death – called terrorists by muck-rakers like the Daily Mail, and given stiffer sentences by the courts.

The activists used their (yes, middle class) white privilege to take action. And the worst that the DM could throw at them after was that some are a bit posh maybe, one’s into organic farming, another into ‘lesbian theatre’, while two – shock, horror –  live on a houseboat. (A point made brilliantly by Josie Long in her amazing show, Something Better.)

To be clear, neither Black Lives Matter or Reclaim the Power is advocating “shutting down aviation” or closing down airports. Or saying that only white people fly. Duuh.

They’re saying this: let’s halt expansion, develop the alternatives to air travel, and change our habits (and they’re habits, not rights), so the businessman who flies 8 times a year reduces this to 2, the city-breakers cut back from 4 a year to 1, and so on. Let’s produce more of our own food and stuff in general. Let’s not reward frequent fliers, let’s chastise them. Above all, let’s question our god-given ‘right’ to fly and realise that all of our actions have consequences. Let’s even consider carbon quotas for individuals. Why not?

In an even broader sense, the living standards and cheap goods and services we’ve come to expect come at a price: the exploitation of those poorer and with fewer rights than we enjoy, in the Primark sweatshops or making the latest iPhone. There’s a reason that pair of jeans is so cheap. To a greater or lesser degree, we’re all complicit.

But anyway, you know all this already, right? Back to the action…

It’s raining on Saturday morning so I cycle from New Cross to Paddington (with a very quick stop to see the Serpentine Pavilion before it’s dismantled for another year), and then I train it from Paddington to West Drayton. From here it’s a short ride to Grow Heathrow, the appointed meeting place.

I’ve heard about GH before, but never visited, so it’s pretty great that we get to see what goes on here. Quite a lot by the looks of things. There are people living in tree-houses and caravans, communal living areas, wood-sheds, vegetable gardens, compost heaps, a bike workshop – everything you need to live, basically. Yep, there’s even wifi.

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We don red boiler suits, have a bit of a briefing and then, around 1pm, set off. There’s at least 100 of us on bikes, and another group of about the same number who are on foot and targeting Terminal 2 checkin area – their plan is for a peaceful ‘die-in’, as well as songs and poems.

Our plan (it later becomes clear) is to cycle towards the terminal buildings and if at all possible shut down the main access road for a while. We’ll also visit Harmondsworth Detention Centre to express solidarity and support for the ‘inmates’ at the largest detention centre in Europe (capacity: 615).

Right from the get-go, we’re accompanied by a police van, and a “police liason” vehicle. One police van quickly becomes four, but they’re happy enough for the ride to go ahead, and their presence helps us close both lanes of the dual carriageway as we ride… very slowly! With our red boiler suits and array of flags, we’re pretty eye-catching, and there are a lot of car hoots and incredulous looks from passers-by.

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At the detention centre we stop to unfurl some banners, a speaker from the SOAS Solidarity with Refugees and Displaced People group talks, and we yell ‘Shut it down’, ‘No countries, no borders’, along with some way more creative chants which I’ve forgotten now. There’s no telling if anyone inside, behind the triple glazing, hears us – above the din of the jets taking off every minute or so and the police helicopter circling us overhead – but it’s worth a try all the same. It’s important to make the connections between what goes on at Heathrow, climate change, the growing number of climate refugees – just a taste of what’s to come if we carry on as we are.

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From here it’s on to the Terminal buildings, but the police are one step ahead, and have blocked the access routes to the main roundabout we’re targeting. Although there’s more of us than there are them, no decision is taken to cycle through their roadblock of plastic cones, so instead we just cycle around another roundabout or two and cause a few traffic jams for a while. It’s fun, but I’m not sure exactly what it’s achieving, other than annoying people for a few minutes. We also unfurl banners over the motorway below.

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Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with inconveniencing people – by their very nature street and bike protests will inconvenience a few people for a short amount of time – but it should be justified by a legitimate and useful action or activity. And I’m not sure how useful this particular action was, in terms of impact. Shutting down the main access road would have been much more ‘noteworthy’ and maybe we should have just gone for it.

From here we cycle on to Sipson, a village still living under the threat of being flattened. A local resident talks to us about why the protest matters and why airport expansion is both a hyper-local and global issue. If it’s not their village, it will be someone else’s, while the temperature continues to rise.

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In this village, we stage a die-in, lying down on the tarmac to symbolise the death of a village, and the thousands of deaths already being caused my climate change. To that I’d also add, the death of species and ecosystems as climate chaos causes havoc in the natural world – already so terribly affected by human activities.

As we lie there, it starts to rain, heavily, but I feel strangely calm and peaceful on the tarmac. You should definitely try it (a die-in) some time, it’s such a powerful visual motif, especially when you’re all dressed in red. We get up off the ground, leaving lots of ‘rain-angels’, and as the dark clouds race away, the sky is filled with sunshine and a rainbow.

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Although symbolic to do it in Sipson, my feeling here is that the die-in would have been more effective had more people seen it; somewhere nearer the airport or perhaps near a road bridge on the dual carriageway, to get good photos from above and to bring traffic to a halt. In this case, stopping the traffic for a symbolic die-in would be totally justified and reasonable – just like those we do in central London are.

From here, there’s talk of splitting off into smaller groups and perhaps one final action that may carry a greater risk of arrest. I’m up for it, but for one reason or another, it never quite happens. Instead, we’re led down a path around the back of another detention centre. Unfortunately it’s a footpath and there’s one of those awkward kissing gates, which means we all have to get our bikes lifted over it – including the bike sound systems and the bike with the amazing rolling tea-urn attached to it. How they got that over without any spillage I don’t know…

Finally, we reconvene at Grow Heathrow to hear first how the activity inside Terminal 2 went (really well!), and then from speakers involved in similar activities and struggles around the world, including Mexico and the ZAD in France.

It’s an inspiring end to a positive, peaceful day of protest. It’s great to be around people who share the same concerns about climate change and want to try and do something about it, however pointless it may seem.

I go home tired but happy to have taken part. And then spend the evening checking all the coverage – Huffington Post, Reuters, ITV and the BBC have all covered it, with a lot of airtime and column inches for the cause. A massive success in other words.

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Huge respect to Reclaim the Power for organising (especially to Sheila, who must surely be skating on thin ice by being involved in protests so close to the airport), and everyone who got involved. I know these things aren’t easy to organise and the comments above are meant constructively.

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London to the Isle of Wight pt 3

Day three: Thursday 15th September

59km, av. 15.1km, max 52.8km/hr, 3hr 53 mins (MapMyRide)

Today’s ride is meant to be more leisurely, but there’s still a time constraint – getting the ferry back to the mainland in time for a 4.15pm train from Portsmouth Harbour. Also, with no swimming action yesterday, I’m determined to do at least one sea swim, so my plan is to check out as many of the beaches as time allows.

I’m on the road just after 9am (after a big breakfast), and first stop is the beach at Colwell Bay. But the tide’s in and it’s actually pretty chilly, so I don’t hang around. It’s a similar picture just down the road at Totland Bay (well, duh!) so I cycle on, up a massively steep hill towards Alum Bay and the Needles. The attractions here aren’t yet open, so I pretty much have the place to myself. I get a great view of the Needles, and those famous multi-hued crumbling cliffs.

Remarkably, the cable-car that I remember from my childhood holiday is still there and hasn’t fallen into the sea yet. It looks tiny though! When I was 8, going on it was possibly the most exciting thing that had so far happened in my life.

From here I hit the Alum Bay Old Road towards Freshwater Beach. Although the temperature’s rising it still doesn’t look that inviting, so I pedal on. Now on the Military Road (presumably built to allow the military to get all their firepower to the Needles Battery), the next beach stop is Compton Bay. Although there are now people in the sea (mostly surfers) and kids building sandcastles on the beach, it’s not quite what I’m after. Onwards…

The hills are getting bigger and seem to go on for longer – cliff passes, basically – and fatigue is creeping in as the temperature rises. It’s time for music, mostly songs that I listened to on the Asia trip (Nobody’s Empire by Belle & Sebastian) as motivation and a reminder that this is nothing really. It’s not even that hot in comparison to Cambodia…

Getting to Blackgang and beyond is a bit of a slog, but eventually done. At Niton there’s a junction and a choice. The quicker route – the one I was planning to take – via the appropriately named Undercliff Drive – is marked as ‘Road Closed’. The longer route via Whitwell is, well, longer, so I decide to ignore the warnings – which explicitly include cyclists and pedestrians (“that’s unusual”, I think to myself) – and hope that whatever is closing the road isn’t making it completely impassable.

There’s a big downhill to get to the scene of the closure, which makes me even more adamant that I’m not turning back. Before this, I speak to a lady pushing a pushchair if she thinks I’ll be able to get through. She says she’s heard people are getting through on bikes but can’t guarantee it. At the closure – there’s been a huge landslide from the cliffs above, by the looks of it – there’s a big wooden door across the whole road, and metal railings around it. I explore on foot and it seems pretty obvious that you can push your bike round it. The place is deserted so I decide to go for it.

Without too much difficulty I get through, and feel instantly vindicated. I hop back on and start riding, thinking “that’s it, I’m through”.

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Around the corner, another fence and more signs. Although most of the houses here seem abandoned, there is a lady in the front garden of one house and she tells me there’s no way through. Bugger. She says people are getting through when there are people working on the road, but not when they’re not, like today. She says the landslide happened two years ago!

Not to be defeated, I again investigate on foot as she and her husband look on. It seems much more difficult to get through the second layer of fences, but not impossible. There’s a rough, steep, slippy path in some scrubby woods to one side and, carrying first bike, then coming back for the panniers, I just about manage to get through. Just.

Cycling on, with the road at my sole use, I feel relieved to have squeezed through, then slightly nervous that some bored cops might pull me over for trespassing – there were surely CCTV cameras, as well as curtain twitchers, watching me.

I’m soon in Ventnor though, and worry quickly fades because I’ve finally found my beach nirvana. Fish and chip shop? Check. Hot sunshine? Check. Sandy beach? Check. Cool, clear waters and gentle waves? Check.

After a huge fish & chip lunch on the beach, I jump straight in (probably not advisable, but time is tight) and have 10 mins in the refreshing waters. Then, with the clock ticking, I have to dry off, pack up and get a move on, making a beeline for Shanklin, where I can pick up the train to Ryde, since I don’t think I’ve got the time or energy to cycle there and make the 3.47pm boat.

Although there is a cycle route on this stretch, I guess that since it’s off-road it will take longer, so I stick to tarmac. This means I have to go up another huge hill before a great stretch of downhill where I break the 50km/hr mark – with helmet dangling on my wing-mirror… oops!

I roll into Shanklin and make the train with about 10 mins to spare. From here, it’s a ticket to Ryde (always wanted to say that) on what can only be described as 2 old London tube carriages cobbled together to form a train.

It’s a rickety ride to Ryde, but fun, and I’m glad to not be slogging the final few inland miles, which don’t look especially scenic. Instead, there’s time for an ice cream on the beach before hopping on the ferry and then the train back to London, just before the sunshine gives way to massive thunderstorms. Fortunate timing!

It’s been a fun, challenging three days, although perhaps a bit more time to explore and relax wouldn’t have gone a miss. Maybe next time…

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A blue and groggy looking promenade train

London to the Isle of Wight pt 2

Day Two: Wednesday 14th September

118km, av. 18.5km/hr, max 47.8, 6hr 24 mins (MapMyRide Part one / Part two)

Day two is harder and longer than expected, despite the early start. Skipping breakfast (I still have food left over from yesterday), I’m on the road by 7.30am, aware that I’ve made a plan to meet a friend in Portsmouth for lunch at 12.30pm. I have no idea whether the wind will be in my favour, or how easy route navigation will be, so I decide to set off early and maybe, just maybe, get there early. All I know is it should be pretty flat.

Things start well, with a massive downhill from the youth hostel down to the seafront. Then, for the first 20 km at least, the wind is definitely behind me, as I cruise along effortlessly (OK, smugly) at 25km/hr, while hordes of huffing and puffing commuter cyclists go past in the other direction. It’s Cycle to Work day, so I shouldn’t be surprised to see so many of them.

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I pass through Worthing and I’m flying. At this rate I’ll be there by 11am. As usual though, things deteriorate. A mixture of tiredness, hunger, lack of concentration, strong headwinds, and crap route-marking all seem to conspire against me for the rest of the way. I guess I coulda shoulda done some actual route planning, rather than assuming everything would be sign-posted. The problem is that I’m not sure what route I’m following, National Route 2 or the South Coast CycleWay. They seem pretty interchangeable to be honest, and the marking is massively hit and miss.

At one point, NCR2 points me into a sort of park-cum-school-playing-field, but then doesn’t tell me how to get out of it. And more than once I end up on the really busy and fast A259, with no path or hard-shoulder. I don’t mind riding on roads, but this is one I don’t feel safe on and instinctively want to escape from at the earliest opportunity.

A can of coke at Bognor Regis (ah, the glamour!) restores some energy and purpose, and from here it’s inland on quieter roads to Chichester, and then on the (now much quieter) A259 to Havant and, eventually, Portsmouth. I meet Tom at 12.45pm, so only 15 minutes late in the end.

For lunch we head to Southsea, which to me still feels like Portsmouth but I’m assured is most definitely not, to Pie and Vinyl. I’m really interested to see this place, and to eat a massive pie of course. Happily, as well as their own pies, they do Pieminister, so I order my old fave, the Heidi Pie. It’s a great little joint, with quirky decor and a well stocked vinyl shop, even if it does feel a little cramped.

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There’s just time for a (possibly ill-advised) lager shandy in the sunshine at the harbour, before saying farewell to Tom and heading straight onto the 3.15pm catamaran sailing to Ryde. The 22 minute crossing is smooth as you like, and on the other side memories of Bestival (endless queues, carrying my rucksack along that bloody long pier) come flooding back. This time though, I have the pleasure of cycling effortlessly along the wooden slats to dry land.

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My target for the afternoon is to cycle across the island and make it to the hostel for about 6pm, so that I can put in my order for food at 7. I take the main road towards the ‘capital’, Newport, where somehow I end up on what must be the only stretch of dual carriageway on the island. Nice one, Joe!

The main road across the island, the ‘Middle Road’, is surprisingly busy so, part by accident and part by design, I take a slightly quieter route to the north, which takes me to Yarmouth. It’s hilly, but mostly those fun undulating hills that you zoom down and then momentum takes you halfway up the other side.

There’s the occasional bit of cycle route too, this time NCR22, but again, it’s piecemeal and sometimes frustrating. There’s a stretch which takes me off the main road, then the signposts give up, it take me a couple of minutes to get back on track, and within a few hundred yards, the route’s taken me back onto the main road again! Thanks, NCR22.

The only interesting thing that happens is  meeting a fellow cyclist heading the other way who is in need of some air in his tyres. Amazingly, I have a pump (unused up until now since I still haven’t had a puncture on the Dawes) and I am able to be of use to someone. Hurrah for forward planning!

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Yarmouth is pretty, and I have a little rest at a sweet spot overlooking the sea, the boats of Lymington in the distance. From here there is a proper cycle route, on the disused railway line, which takes me very close to my final destination. This is a lovely little stretch, with calm creek waters to the right, the odd dog walker, and yet more blackberries to scoff.

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I roll into the YHA at Totland (this time well sign-posted and easily found) around 6.15pm, to a very warm reception from the housekeeper, and well in time for dinner. My fears of there being no room at the inn are unfounded – I’m the only person eating and I have the entire dorm room to myself.

This is more like it! Peace, solitude, and a bottle or two of Ale of Wight to end the day. Bliss.