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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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…