From London to Bonn for climate justice! Part 2

<Part one here>

Day six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day seven

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

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Heavy industry can’t be hidden away

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

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Red wine on standby…

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

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

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

Day eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cycling – a low CO2 activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bedtime reading

Day nine – Ende Gelande

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Affinibuddies

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

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

We bloody well did it!

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We did it!

PS. Watch out for this man…

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Not to be trusted 😉

#BonnVoyage

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

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

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From London to Bonn for climate justice! Part 1

<Part 2 here>

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

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

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

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

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

So, to the journey.

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

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

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

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

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Waiting to board the ferry

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

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

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

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

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Snaking our way through underpasses

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

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Bikes rest while punctures are repaired and lunches eaten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fraya admires Tim’s new hair-do

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

Day five

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

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

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First sign we’re getting closer…

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

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

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

#BonnVoyage

Two posts is a row with hashtags for titles. It’s the modern way, baby. So, what’s this #BonnVoyage all about then?

In short, at the end of October, I’ll be joining a group of awesome individuals for a bike ride with a mission, a sense of purpose. Why else would you cycle through the flatlands of Holland and western Germany at the business end of autumn?!

That purpose, that mission, is to get to Bonn in the most low-impact way possible, ahead of the annual climate change talks merry-go-round that is the Conference of Parties (this year, COP23), and draw attention to the fact that a lot of the talk will be just hot air – particularly from the hosts Germany, who are locking themselves into decades more of burning dirty coal, while extolling the virtues of avoiding dangerous climate change. The word is hypocrite, I believe.

Also at the talks will be the Pacific Climate Warriors, led by Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, who serves as President of COP23. Hopefully the irony will not be lost on him that less than 100km from the shiny conference venue in Bonn, lignite mining is responsible for excavating the very worst kind of coal on a scale that is breathtaking.

Fiji is just one of the many small island nations at the sharp end of climate change – vulnerable to both extreme weather and rising waters. If we go on with business as usual, many of these islands will simply be wiped out. End of.

But back to the cycle ride. The plan currently is to get the ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland, and then cycle on to Rotterdam for our first overnight. From here, we’ll spend the next 3-4 days cycling 60-80km a day, with overnights at various (hopefully free!) accommodation. Even we’re not crazy enough to camp in November… even with climate change, it probably won’t be as sunny or hot as it was for the summer rides:

On arrival in Bonn, we’ll hook up with the fantastic people from Ende Gelande, 350.org, Reclaim the Power, and others, and get involved in any way we can – from helping to cook meals to joining on the frontline against climate change as activists again seek to shut down the mine.

There are plenty of peaceful protests and activities planned in and around Bonn too, so it’s going to be a hopefully inspiring and supportive weekend of solidarity with some of the people worst affected by climate change, but who have done the least to cause it (historically and in the present day).

I don’t quite know what is going to happen, if I’m honest, but the key is that together our actions will let the people of Bonn, the delegates, and the world’s global media know that climate change hasn’t been “fixed” as recent reports (and scientific re-calculations) have suggested. Without serious and urgent action to make good on the Paris commitments, we really are looking at desperate times ahead.

The hurricanes, monsoons and droughts the world has experienced in recent years – against a backdrop of a human population which continues to rise and continues to consume in ever-vaster quantities – are a mere taste of things to come.

There’s still time to join the ride – visit the website or Facebook event to learn more. Time To Cycle is a not-for-profit organisation and is keeping costs as low as possible. A van will (fingers crossed!) be available as a support vehicle and to drive bikes back to London on Sunday 5th November. If funds are available after, this will be carbon offset.

#StopDSEI

Thanks mainly to the work of comedian-activist Mark Thomas, I’ve been vaguely aware that a big arms fair, DSEI, takes place in London with worrying regularity (every two years, as it turns out).

However, until recently, I hadn’t been aware that we (well, the UK Government, in all its wiseness), happily invite questionable regimes to the party to broker weapons deals. This year, five regimes which are currently engaged in conflict – Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Turkey and Pakistan – are among the invitees, plus Israel. Yes, that’s the same Saudi Arabia which will happily drop bombs on Yemen, while denying her own citizens many basic freedoms. The UK has sold Saudi Arabia £3.6bn worth of arms since the air strikes against Yemen began. Nice work, defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon; makes me proud to be British.

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Of course, Boris as mayor (and now, god help us, Foreign Secretary) was and still is all in favour of jolly arms fair bants if it means securing British jobs for people working at BAE Systems and the like, and keeps the sales of British weaponry, er, ‘healthy’. So much soHis Mayor of London successor, Sadiq Khan, says he wants to stop it happening in London but “can’t”. Fair enough, it’s not like he’s someone with any sort of pow… Oh, hang on.

So, that just leaves us, a committed, large, vocal, diverse and creative group of people, trying to #StopDSEI. And we’re up against the boys in blue, whose commitment to defending the rights of multi-national companies to facilitate mass murder, masquerading as good business for UK plc, is deeply impressive.

And behind the Met (paid for by the taxpayer, of course) is, essentially, the neo-liberal political order (government, media, ‘common sense’) that says this kind of thing – nation states selling weapons to other nation states in order for nation states to defend themselves and attack one another in pursuit of power or resources – is normal, just the way it is, baby. If you wanna stay ahead and tooled up, you gotta keep buyin’.

I hear that as part of the Festival of Resistance protests in the days leading up to the event – aimed at disrupting the setup and highlighting the Excel Centre and Clarion Events’ near-criminal role in staging it – there will be a bike block, Bikes Not Bombs, so happily I join in.

We cycle from a meeting point near Tower Bridge to the site in nowhere Docklands; an enjoyable ride snaking through the worst excesses of Canary Wharf and onto the lands served only by the DLR and private limos. Clearly, organiser think that if it happens on London’s fringes people won’t notice (you could never imagine this happening at London Olympia, for example).

As we move, we grow, from around 30 or 40 bikes (complete with killer soundsystem), to at least 60 or 70 by the time we get to one of the Excel service gates. Due to a railway bridge with lots of steps getting in the way, we take a slight detour that takes us past City Airport and also temporarily allows us to shake off our police escort as we go through a pedestrianised housing development (police cars not allowed, ET style!)

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No matter, there are plenty more of them waiting for us when we get to the service gate roundabout. From here, we ride merrily around the roundabout for a good 30 minutes or so, soundsystem blaring (Sound of da Police, obvs) as more and more police turn up, including some of the heavy mob. They gradually move in and try and stop us from blocking vehicles getting in and out.

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A guy dressed as Charlie Chaplin silently, stealthily attaches himself to the underside of a white van. Police officers ask us to stop blocking the highway, stop riding the wrong way on a highway, or just stop being annoying (get yer story straight!) One guy gets arrested for doing nothing more than wearing his cycle lock around his body, like many cyclists do.

The mostly good-natured, and fully peaceful, standoff lasts for about 90 minutes, during which time few vehicles come in or out and many give up and turn away. The operation has been a success, despite the 2 or 3 arrests. Meanwhile, flyers about the arms fair are handed out to plenty of tourists and passers-by who watch the goings on with baffled amusement.

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At some point it’s decided that our energies and efforts might be welcome on another access gate blockade, near the Camp (some people have been here for days), so most of us cycle on. The Camp is amazing – there’s hot drinks and vegan food, info stalls, face painting, colourful signs, and hundreds of people – mostly having a carnival in the middle of a dual carriageway, with one unfortunate truck (and driver) stuck in the thick of it and not going anywhere.

The police tactics are unclear. There are a lot of them around, but with so many people – including a bunch of quakers (pacifist to the core, so great to have on protests like this), they seem reluctant to move in. Instead, there’s a choir, a band, speakers, rappers. A proper street party, basically.

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When a bunch of people sit down right in front of the truck, police give them a ‘final warning’ but then – nothing. They actually withdraw. They obviously don’t have the stomach for mass arrests. In fact, the situation stays pretty stable for at least a couple of hours, before I decide to head off around 4pm.

I don’t know what happens next, but if the ultimate aim of the action is to disrupt the set-up, bring disrepute on Excel London, and to highlight the arms fair for what it is, then,  in all respects, and despite more than 100 arrests over the week, it has to be deemed a success.

Londoners can’t just stand by and let this kind of event take place in our tolerant, peaceful (but once bomb-ravaged) city without dissent and civil disobedience.

I later have an exchange with a guy on Instagram who argues that all the action has done is put honest traders (carpenters, etc) out of work for the weekend. To which I respond, an honest carpenter wouldn’t help set up an arms fair (what would Jesus do?!?) and, actually, we’ve heard that the disruption has forced Excel to pay staff overtime rates to get the setup done on time.

A useful way to spend a Saturday? Definitely. Did it achieve anything? Definitely. Would I do it again? Definitely. And hopefully with thousands more peace-loving Londoners next time.

It’s important we keep the pressure on. Tell Excel London what you think of them staging events like this.

Clarion Events, meanwhile, also runs other events like The Baby Show – why not tell them what you think about its parent company also running arms fairs around the world!

And of course the people who got arrested need help. Find out more here.

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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.

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.