Howlin’ Fling 2017 – aywwoooooh!

Ok, so this post is not strictly cycling or activism related, but here goes anyway. I did sort of cycle to Eigg and, for this weekend at least, music is the answer. Hell yeah!

After 2016’s slightly parred-down event (although my recollection of Howlin’ Fling ’16 is that it was anything but low key), for 2017 Johnny Pictish Trail’s Fling is BACK in business, across two spaces – the Ceilidh Hall and the marquee – and we’re here to partaaaay! And listen to music. And drink lots of beer.

Things get off to their usual customary weirdness with Devonanon to Monoganon. The set progresses from bleepy, fuzzy electronics/histrionics, to on-stage croissant consumption, to a weird moment when Mon’s microphone seems to be making sweet love with Dev’s sax. From experimental to experiential to downright saucy, all in the space of 30 minutes. That’s ma boys.

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Meanwhile, over in the marquee, it may only be 9pm but a bona-fide pop star is in our midst. Our sweaty, rain-soaked midst. KT Tunstall, ladies and gentleman. I know little about KT apart from how she writes her name (like Katy, but KT), and that song that goes “her face is a map of the world“, which always struck me as an odd thing for a face to be.

KT absolutely smashes it though, with a song that quickly becomes our weekend anthem; It Took Me So Long To Get Here, But Here I Am could be the story of getting to Eigg, finally getting together with that special someone, or just, y’know, getting through life generally.

There’s also time for a rallying-cry version of 6 Nation Army. An “Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant on this fiercely independent Scottish island (celebrating 20 years of community ownership this year, no less) may not seem the smartest move, but she somehow gets away with it.

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As if to say “we’re all in this together”, soon after Johnny Pictish joins her on stage for a rousing cover of A Little Respect, with Johnny doing all the high notes, obvs.

Next up, Francois & the Atlas Mountains. A band I’ve only ever seen before in a support slot at Brixton Academy with terrible sound and a disinterested audience to contend with. Fence Records released their second album in the UK, fact fans.

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Tonight, they’re something else. From an unpromising start (and a song, Tendre, which my friend says reminds him of Coldplay), they build and build until eventually there are band members crowdsurfing and the guitarist is playing his instrument on his head, backwards. Yep, things are getting a little crazy, as Seal might have concluded. It all hinges on the incessant, funky highlife rhythm, which sets the crowd right off. Apres Apres!

Over in the Ceilidh Hall, the incomparable Bas Jan are doing their thing. From slightly scratchy and unpromising beginnings, they too grow into some kind of 8 legged groove machine – briefly becoming 10 legged when my friend Sam joins them on stage to shake an aganzá (or egg shaker, as it’s commonly known.) Songs about Sat Nav, Walton on the Naze, Anglo Saxon burials and the A36 are all ace, delivered in Serafina Steer’s anxious, paranoid drawl that I can’t get enough of.

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The party really gets started when Jon Hopkins takes to the decks and gets us all dancing like the mad gin-and-iron-bru swilling louts that we are (or was that just me?) Suffice to say, I can’t remember much but I do vaguely recall jigging like a loon to Todd Terge’s Inspector Norse.

And I can’t remember at all if I saw/heard Archipel or not. Did they happen? Can anyone help a brother out here?

And so, to Saturday. The big one. Well, the even bigger one.

I feel proud to make it out of tent in time to see Martha Ffion and band; their lilting Americana and her sweet, sweet voice is just the gentle start I need.

Seamus Fogharty, who I saw earlier in the year at Lost Map’s Strange Invitation in London, and again at Latitude Festival a few weeks ago, is a delight. Each time, he’s got better, and today he’s brilliant. Mainly because this happens..!

LOVE those moves. In all seriousness though, Seamus’ songwriting has really come on, and it’s about time he got a break… Luckily, he has. A new album is coming out soon on Domino. Yay! Props too to the band – the ever-excellent Emma Smith (who keeps popping up all over the place, as usual), and a dancing drummer, no less!

Exhausted from all the excitement, I have to head back for a little nap (so missing Manc poet Alabaster dePlume, something I don’t feel good about, but what can you do?) I’m back just in time to see the last couple of songs by The Poozies. The islanders are out in force to see these four brilliant women play their harp, fiddle, banjo and guitar with gusto. It’s the closest we get to a ceilidh atmosphere all weekend, and makes me yearn for just a little more traditional music on the bill next time Johnny, if ya reading!

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Withered Hand is/are as reliably brilliant as always (not to mention, hilarious). The drummer looks like he’s having a wonderful time, multiple times, if ya know what I mean 😉 (I later discover he’s camped right next to me… hellooo there big tall drummer man!)

Kid Canaveral are their usual solid selves, which is reassuring in these turbulent times. Well-equipped space cadets, ready for take-off, basically. And the perfect warm-up for The Main Event… Pictish Trail headlining his own festival, again!

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How does he do it? Is he super-human or is it that secret natural spring of Bucky in his back garden, maybe? As well as welcoming and waving off every Sheerwater arrival, introducing all the acts, hugging EVERYONE, running a real, live, this-is-happening-right-now festival AND helping look after a small child (plus all us big children), he somehow also manages to play a blinder.

It’s another cracking set from the entire band, with highlights from the last album, lots of dancing and even, to close, an old Silver Columns skeleton dug out of the closet, brushed down, and covered in glitter for the heaving throng. Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Jimmy Somerville.

An A-M-A-Z-I-N-G end to the night… but wait, it’s not even over yet.

James Holden and the Animal Spirits take to the stage some time around midnight for a set which can only be described as deeper than Loch Ness. It’s dark, it’s mysterious, it’s captivating. And the guy from Zombie Zombie is doing a very good impression of the Loch Ness Monster with his squirming, wriggly sax.

To close the night out we pogo a bit to Cutty’s Gym, but they’re making our ears hurt, so we retire to the marquee for a slow-burning set from Lord of the Isles. An hour in and suddenly, without anyone noticing, He (for it is Him) is dropping techno like it’s hot.

But it’s not hot at all, it’s raining. It won’t stop raining, which means we are effectively rave hostages, and we’re loving it. Rain, don’t ever stop…

Oh, it’s stopped raining and it’s getting light… time for bed, then. Thank our lucky stars we decided to camp in the small campsite, otherwise we’d be wading through THIS at 5am…

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Sunday… I make it up to the Ceilidh Hall in time for Ed Dowie’s stuttering, wonderful sonic lunchtime noodles; given extra structure from an accompanying sax. There’s a theme developing here.

It’s perfect Sunday recovery session music. Thanks Ed!

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Curtain-closers Meursault give it their all (and then a bit more) as usual, to the extent that even the drummer’s over-hung brother is roused from sleep for One More Dance. But by this point I’m struggling; we’re all struggling. I like this band, but I’m running on empty. What I need now is to sit in the cafe in the bay with a cup of tea and a chip buttie. So that’s what I do – after staying to the end of their set, naturally.

Later, we’ll jump on the back of a truck and get driven to the beach (cheers, drive!) Some will bravely go for a swim, while others will sit round the fire, drink what’s left of All of the Drinks, BURN THE STAGE (and their trainers, accidentally) in a ceremonial display of reckless abandon, eat some food while getting eaten by midges, and then hop back on the truck back to camp for some much needed zzzzz’s.

Incredibly, improbably, the next morning, as we set sail at 8.30am, Johnny is there to wave us off as we depart Eigg for another year; happy, sad, then happy again.

Planet Eigg is out of this world (© Hester & Sylvia, 2017). Aywwoooooh!

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Around Scotland, with love

48km, av. 14.5, max 42.3, time on bike: 3hrs 18 mins

After last summer’s successful cycle/festival combo in Scotland, I decide to do the same again, but this time travel to the magical land of Eigg via Inverness, rather than Fort William. It turns out there’s a very simple reason more people don’t travel east to west across Scotland: head wind.

More on this in a bit.

Using Inverness as a base, my friend Tom (who’s on foot for the holiday) coaxes me into a 2-day hike along the Great Glen Way, despite my protestations that I’m not much of a walker, and haven’t done any long walks for, well, at least a decade.

Walking 18 miles in a day, while carrying a full pack (including tent), up small hills and across great glens is no mean feat, I discover. Walking is so much slower AND harder than cycling with panniers. My shoulders literally don’t know what have landed on them. I mean, look at me:

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High Road or Low Road, it doesn’t matter; it turns out I’m not much of a walker. And by the time we get back to Inverness at the end of the second day, I can hardly move. I feel destroyed. There’s no way I’m cycling the width of Scotland tomorrow…

The next day is taken as rest, and I adjust my plans to take the bike on the train with Tom the following day instead. It’s a shame, as the road and the route looks pretty epic – there is literally nothing here apart from sheep and red deer. I’d also been looking forward to doing my first solo wild camping, but alas it isn’t to be, this time at least. There’s no point killing myself. Plus, it turns out the weather is pretty stormy on the day I was going to ride. No doubt that headwind would have been hard work.

The train journey instead is undeniably great, even if I do spend most of it looking to see where the road goes, how hilly it is, and where I might have set up camp for the night. When we get into Kyle of Lochalsh it’s absolutely pissing it down, and Tom has a coach to catch (to get him to Armadale in time for the ferry to Mallaig, in time for the train to Arisaig, in time for the boat to Eigg…) so he has to make a run for it. I wait it out, then get the bike ready for the short, easy (36km / 22 mile) ride to Armadale.

At least I think it’s going to be easy. It’s true it’s not that far, but it turns out to be one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done. That headwind…!

The first stretch, over the mighty road bridge which now connects Skye to the mainland, is great fun, with the added bonus of a mildly-alarming crosswind.

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On the main road running up the spine of the island (the A87), heading west, it’s not too bad, and my main concern is keeping clear of the moody storm-clouds gathering.

It’s when I take the turning south that life becomes tricky. The southerly wind is pushing me around like a toy. I can barely make 15km/hr. Going down hills, I find that unless I pedal furiously, I’m actually decreasing in speed, rather than zooming with reckless abandon. Going up them, I’m struggling to go forwards at all.

Luckily, I’m not under any time pressure to do this leg of the journey, so I am able to rest when I need to (often), and sit out a passing thunderstorm in a surprisingly hardy bus-shelter – I guess they need to be around these parts.

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There are moments on this ride when I want to cry with despair. But, equally, there are moments when I am almost crying out with joy. THIS IS WHY WE CYCLE! An open road, clean air, spectacular views, a physical test, and a feeling of being utterly free and in complete control at the same time.

The ferry doesn’t leave until 4.50pm so I have ages, and in the end I spend a pleasant hour or so waiting at the sheltered dock, reading my book in the warm sunshine and drinking a still-cold beer.

The ferry across to Mallaig is stunning, with spectacular views of Eigg on one side, and the remote Knoydart Peninsular on the other. But it’s on the ferry that it dawns on me that the next leg – 12km / 8 miles to Arisaig to catch The Sheerwater boat to Eigg at 6.15pm – is going to be tight. Ridiculously tight. I’ll only have about 45 minutes to do it. Normally that would be perfectly do-able, but in this headwind I’m going to have to up my game.

Impatiently, I wait by my bike as the cars and coaches disembark; then as soon as I’m allowed, I grab Dave Dawes and ride off (there’s not even time to stop at the Coop to by some Buckfast), knowing I’m in a race against the clock. And the wind. The bloody wind!

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After around a mile, I realise that in that leisurely hour spent reading and drinking beer, I failed to refill my water bottle and now it’s almost empty. This is not looking good. It’s looking hilly and thirsty is what it’s looking.

I’d forgotten just how up and down this stretch of road between Mallaig and Arisaig is. As I cycle up the next bump, my average speed falls and I think there’s no way I’ll make it. As I cycle down, I speed up and I think maybe I’ll just scrape it.

A mile to go, ten minutes until the ferry leaves… one final hill to get over. I’m literally screaming at the wind… STOP BEING SO FUCKING WINDY… but the wind just blows my useless words away. Stupid wind.

I crest the final hill, gasping for breathe and water, then roll down to Arisaig, hoping I can remember where to go when I get there. Fortunately, the boat isn’t hard to find… and there are people still clambering on. I’ve made it!

I pretty much collapse into the boat, gasping for water (my friends Donna & Tom help out here, thank god) and too tired to worry whether or not the skipper will be cool with stowing the bike without warning and so late in the day. Fortunately, all is good on that front and before we know it we’re sailing to Eigg on very choppy seas.

Again: stupid wind.

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PS: While on Eigg, for the amazing Howlin Fling festival (lovely Guardian review here or my review here), I also find time for a quick ride north to Singing Sands. There’s a cute single-track road that goes up through the island, and Singing Sands, with its spectacular views onto Rum, is beautiful. The sun shone, providing an irresistible chance to swim too. A perfect half-day trip 😃

Dunwich Dynamo 2017; more than just a very long cycle ride

187.3km, av. 19km/hr, max 40.9 km/hr, time on bike: 9hr 50 mins (includes short 30 min ride from New Cross to London Fields, about 8km).

I first heard about the Dunwich Dynamo perhaps three years ago. A colleague at work was raving about it – best group ride he’d ever taken part in; “It’s magical cycling by moonlight”, he said.

For the next two years I was away on holiday when it was happening, and I continued to miss out. This year, I put it in the diary nice and early – and then promptly forgot about it completely until a few weeks before. I was keen, but hadn’t booked transport back and didn’t really know anyone else doing it that I could ride with. I was resigned to missing out again.

Then, the fortune gods decide to do something about this sorry state of affairs. A friend has to pull out (not so fortunate for her, eek 😔), so I offer to take her place. Is this madness? Should I have been training for months?!?

It turns out that if you’re reasonably fit and a confident cyclist, you can cycle 100+ miles, even in the dark. Wow! This in itself is a bit of a revelation.

On event day – a warm, still evening, with plenty of cloud (and later, not much moon) – I load up on pre-ride carbs (Pizza AND Pasta you say?) and load the bike with plenty of snacks for the night ahead. I decorate Dave Dawes with fairy lights and, for good measure at the last minute, a PEACE sign saved from an anti-war demo. I tape the fairy lights around the sign, thinking this will look good at night, and also thinking I’d be one of many folk decorating my bike, bringing signs, flags, etc. dunich_start

When I get to London Fields, it turns out I’m pretty much the only one who’s done this! I feel a little foolish, but decide to stick with it. I’ve been so used to group rides where not having a flag attached to your bike has made you stand out, but this is the opposite. Lots of MAMILs. But that’s OK, and I’m wearing padded cycle shorts and am pretty much a middle-aged man, so can hardly talk.

There’s also a distinct lack of glitter. Memo to DD 2018 riders: wear glitter and face paint!

Anyhow, after supping a pre-ride beer alone, I eventually find the crew that I’m meant to be riding with. I say hi and desperately try and remember everyone’s names. I remember one.

It’s 8 o’clock (ish) and PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY CYCLING OFF. There’s no starting gun, folks just drift off when they feel like it, and it makes for quite an odd spectacle. Bikes everywhere. Bemused tourists. Pissed off taxi drivers. It’s like being on a Critical Mass ride all over again.

The first couple of miles out of London are pretty slow, slightly hairy, and generally amusing, although concentration is needed to avoid a collision with the ten bikes that are very close to you on all sides. It’s pretty much impossible to stay in a group, and since I can’t remember what my new-found friends look like (or their names), I don’t even try. I figure we’ll pass each other again at some point.

Cycling out towards Enfield, the huge gaggle of bikes begins to thin out. Going over the M25 roundabout there’s a glorious, fiery sunset, which bodes well for the ride ahead. Darkness begins to fall and my solar fairy lights begin to flicker into action. Totally worth it.

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It’s about this point, I guess 6 or 7 miles in, that I pass a young Japanese lady who is stopped by the roadside looking at her bike, so I check to see if she’s OK. She’s having trouble with the comfort of her bike and wants to adjust the saddle. Finally, my tool bag comes into use! I help adjust it with an alan key, which seems to cheer her up no end. I don’t see her again, but I really hope she made it to the sea.

I cycle on. It’s getting proper dark now. I’m glad I have a decent light (stuck to my helmet with tape) but am worried that its battery won’t last. It has a horrible habit of going dead with no warning, leading me to turn it off when I don’t think I need it, so I’m often riding in total darkness. Foolish? Yes. Dangerous? Probably.

I’m being passed more than I’m passing, but I’m cool with this. It’s definitely not a race. And anyway, they’re mostly on light-as-a-feather road bikes, while I’m on Dave. With a peace sign causing major drag.

After maybe 15 miles I roll into a small village which has been blessed with two pubs. The road is seething in bikes, lights and beer. It’s like an anarchic neon-lit carnival has rolled into town. I spot a few familiar faces here, gobble some food, then cycle on.

Gradually, it starts to thin out again and the reality of the ride dawns – that dawn is still several hours away and between now and then, all I gotta do is keep going.

Riding in darkness on country lanes is a totally different experience to daylight, urban riding. Once unseen pothole could take you down. You can’t wizz carefree down hills ringing your bell and whooping with delight. No, you have to concentrate. And concentrating when you’re tired is no easy task. I don’t know how the guys and girls whizzing past in pelotons are doing it.

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Some time after midnight I realise I’m very tired. Tea is called for. As if by magic, I pass a roadside house where a local resident is yelling “tea, coffee, free water”, so I pull in for a pit-stop (annoyed with myself for not stopping at the previous stop where “free chips” where being offered). Cup of tea and a Mars Bar though? Yes please!

And then, onwards. Cycling through Essex has its joys, but local boy-racers whizzing by yelling “Get a life, helmets” isn’t one of them. It’s in Essex that I have a near miss, as an oncoming car takes a mini-roundabout right across me just a moment before I cross over it. And it’s in Essex that some ‘friendly’ locals tell me to go straight on, when in fact I should have gone right. “Never trust advice from a bunch of people outside a pub at closing time” says a lady from Southwark Cyclists, who is helping people go the RIGHT way.

The Boathouse pub in Sudbury, on the River Stour, marks the halfway point, and I’m feeling not too bad, all things considered. I stop here briefly for food, before moving on only to realise that another pit-stop, Sudbury Fire Station, is just around the corner. Here, I’m reunited with the group, and we spend a while drinking coffee (tea just isn’t cutting it at 3am) and sharing our stories so far. Everyone’s loving it, and there are no major dramas to report.

It’s still dark.

Sometimes I’m riding with a new person who I’m just getting to know, through conversation; listening and learning. Sometimes I’m riding alone but I’m still having an internal conversation, learning stuff about myself. I’m not sure what I’d do these days without the time I spend on a bike just thinking about life – where am I headed, am I happy, how can I be a better person? I honestly don’t think there’s a better time or place to do this than on a country lane, riding a bike. But not necessarily at night!

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Another time, I put on some music through my phone (NOT headphones!) Now, I’m not sure what the etiquette of playing music on your phone in the middle of the night is exactly, but I figure it won’t upset anyone, apart from maybe the family who’ve put a big sign up outside their house saying “Quiet please, children sleeping”. In fairness, I think I’m the only person who can hear the music.

Listening to Nobody’s Empire by Belle and Sebastian brings memories of cycling up proper massive hills in Vietnam and Laos flooding back. This is easy in comparison, right?

The next scheduled stop is ‘the lake’ as everyone’s calling it. Needham Lake, to give it a name. Between Fire Station and Lake, something amazing happens. Suffolk wakes up. The dawn chorus of a local blackbird gives the game away – dawn is just around the next corner, and so it turns out to be, as a chink of light in the sky suddenly appears, lifting the gloom.

Over the next 30 minutes or so, dawn gradually takes over, winning the battle against night. More birds join in the chorus (who knew wrens got up so early?) and by the time I hit the Lake, the sun is rising – beautifully – and it’s daylight again.

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Having done their job, I pack away the solar fairy lights and finally discard the peace sign. Needham Lake will always be Peace Lake to me now. Friends and familiar faces from the night have all made it thus far, and there’s a communal sharing of final snacks, energy bars and encouragement before we mount our trusty steads for the Final Push.

Riding in daylight is so much easier – you don’t have to break as you go down hills, for starters, as you can see where you’re going – so the last leg isn’t as daunting as it might have been in darkness.

Overall, the ride isn’t too demanding in terms of hills (it’s pretty flat, with no long climbs at all), road traffic (it’s night), or navigation (just follow those hypnotic blinking red lights ahead), so you’ll probably never have a better shot at riding your first 100+ miles.

The road surfaces are mostly great too, although there’s one stretch, at around 3.30am, where road re-surfacing work has left a tricky amount of loose gravel which is VERY testing to steer safe passage through.

Kudos to the courier guys who came up with the route, and the crazy idea, all those years ago (25 to be exact).

Perhaps there’s less ‘camaraderie’ on the ride than I expected, but I guess you can’t say hi to every cyclist you pass, and there’s also a certain respect and understanding between the riders that if we’re not up for talking, it’s probably because we’re either in the zone, or lost in silent contemplation.

When I finally roll down to the beach at Dunwich some time around 9am (13 hours after setting off), the only thing that’s really hurting is my bum, but that may be TMI. Shoulda stocked up on chamois cream.

It’s super-exciting to see so many other riders on the beach, half of them in the sea. There really is no other choice after riding a bike all night but to GET IN THE SEA with them. It feels LUSH.

We made it! Too Easy!!

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Oh… and then the exhaustion hits.

Suddenly I am lying down prone in a sunny pub garden and finding it very hard to get back up again. I manage to eventually, and then it’s over to the seaside cafe for a bacon roll (I’m sorry – there really are no suitable veggie options for someone who’s just cycled 108 miles) and an ill-advised beer, before crawling onto one of the many coaches laid on by the excellent folk at Southwark Cyclists. Dave Dawes is safely stowed away in a truck which will take him back to Canada Water in SE London (oooh, handy!)

Needless to say, the coach back to town is pretty subdued and sleepy. So much so that I’m worried the driver has fallen asleep too.

I’m so very happy to have been able to do this ride; it’s been both a learning curve and a brilliant experience. I made new friends and now feel like I can ride further and more confidently than ever before. I have even more faith in my legs!

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When you’re doing something epic for the first time, it feels exhilarating and there’s a sense (for me at least) that it’s partly the not-knowing – and the adrenalin – which can get you through, just like running your first marathon.

I’ve not done a second marathon (yet) but I really hope to do a second Dunwich Dynamo.

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.

planting

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!

planting2

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?!

epsom

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…

thinking, doing, changing

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.

bnw1

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.