Stolen: Keys to the city

For a long time I’d had a “to do” note in my mind: to write a blog piece about how, these last couple of years, I’ve felt so incredibly lucky to be able to have the confidence, fitness, experience, ability and (some might say) foolhardiness to cycle all over this ridiculous city we call London.

It was going to be called ‘Cycling – my keys to the city’, and it was going to chart how cycling has become my default transport of choice, to the extent that other methods rarely get a look-in these days:

  • Cycle to work in the pouring rain, or take the bus, get stuck in traffic and arrive 20 minutes late? No contest, just make sure you have good enough waterproofs and take it easy. A choice made even easier now that I’ve made the revelatory discovery, 8 years too late, that I can cycle down the old Peckham Canal greenway, then across Burgess Park, making about 70% of my daily commute off the main road.
  • Cycle to a gig in Hackney after work, then take the bike on the Overground train home, or struggle across town on the underground and Overground at the tail end of rush hour? No contest.
  • Cycle 40 minutes across town to my theatre group on a Monday in Docklands, including the always exciting crossing of Tower Bridge, then take the Greenwich Foot Tunnel home (flouting the NO CYCLING bylaw, since it’s so quiet at that time) and be back in 20 minutes. Or spend most of the evening figuring out how the DLR works and navigating that awful interchange at London Bridge. No contest.
  • Cycle to my workday volunteer sessions in Sydenham Hill Wood in less than 20 minutes (and get a heap of exercise in the process), or take 2 buses which would take 45 minutes.
  • Cycle all the way to Walthamstow to meet Bas Jan in a pub to buy their record, and have an urban adventure in the process, cycling across Walthamstow Marshes and getting soaked, but feeling incredibly alive. Or be boring and take the train.

In short, this humble little machine unlocks the city. It lets me go anywhere, quickly and almost for free. As well as exercising the body, riding also exercises the mind (both in terms of navigation and staying alert to danger). And, in those moments of cycling through parks or on quietways, it also affords thinking time: the day ahead, the day just gone, where I’m going in life (literally and figuratively).

So, when your keys are stolen away from you, it’s kinda hard. On Monday 10 December, at approximately 5.30pm, my trusty Dorothy Dawes was stolen from outside my office. I was sat at a desk about 20 metres away, with windows overlooking the bike rack!

Upset about the day’s events – my friend and 14 others had been found guilty in court of breaking into an airport and causing ‘risk to life’ after they stopped a deportation charter flight taking off at Stansted Airport – I went off bouldering at lunchtime and then, not thinking properly, I failed to lock the bike up properly when I got back (locking just the front wheel to the metal bike rack – doh!)

Annoyingly, there’s a “secure” bike cage in the basement at work, although I’d got out of the habit of using it after it was broken into earlier in the year, with several bikes stolen. I’m also lazy, and it takes more time and effort to take bikes down into the basement – no good if you want to pop out at lunchtime, as I often do.  It was also uninsured.

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The whole theft was captured on CCTV, and I’ve been able to take grainy stills from it, as well as hand over the footage to the police. The chances of them doing anything with it seem slim, even though I’m pretty sure a ‘sting’ operation could catch the person within a couple of hours. They almost certainly check the racks every day for carelessly-locked bikes, like mine was.

It’s also bizarre that despite us all having digital phones that can take pictures in millions of megapixels, all CCTV footage ever recorded has always been and always will be grainy, low-res and impossible to identify someone from. Them’s the rules.

Getting the bus home that evening, I was annoyed with my stupidity, and upset about my loss. Not just financially, but also the loss of my keys to the city, and the loss of a special friend – we’d gone *everywhere* together, doings thousands of miles, including:

  • Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and China – on the ‘bikepacking’ trip of a lifetime with Rachel Porter (which led to this blog being started)
  • Glastonbury Festival, Green Man, Supernormal, Wilderness, and the Howlin Fling on Eigg – twice!
  • The COP21 protests in Paris, and the Ende Gelende action for COP23 in the Rhineland, Germany
  • Tree planting rides all over the place (Hebden Bridge, Heart of England forest, Knepp, Epsom)
  • Countless trips around SE England, Isle of Wight, etc.
  • Two Dunwich Dynamos (count ’em!)
  • Twice London to Cambridge on FA Cup day (weirdly!)
  • Various cycle-based protests including a Stay Grounded action at Heathrow Airport and a Stop the Arms Fair action at Docklands Excel Centre, plus many Critical Mass rides and the Tour De Frack in summer 2018
  • Hundreds of rides across and around London

 

 

But, I reflected, a bike is also just another ‘object’. Inanimate, replaceable. No-one died and at least I don’t have an unjust prison sentence hanging over me. Keep things in perspective, man.

And luckily, I had a ‘spare’ Trek Hybrid in the shed – itself stolen from Brick Lane while I was having a ukulele lesson (what else?!) Miraculously, it was recovered by the police a couple of years later and returned to me, thanks to being ‘Bike Register‘ marked. Although a bit rickety, it’s kept me on the move during the last couple of weeks, and now my sights are set on a new bike.

One thing about Dorothy Dawes was that although she was rather heavy, she was  incredibly sturdy and reliable with it: no major mechanical or frame fault in four years, and no punctures either! Pretty incredible considering all the stuff I’ve asked her to do and carry.

I’ve joined a couple of rides with London Bike & Beer Group over the years, including one out to Box Hill in Surrey, which I got up fine, but I struggled to keep pace with the group, who were all on road bikes with slick tires. Even before the theft, I’d been contemplating getting a really cheap road bike as a second bike, for rides like this.

But typically, when I go cycling, I end up off-roading at some point; taking a short-cut across a farm, looking for that elusive Youth Hostel in the South Downs, a gravel canal-side path…

So, I want the reliability, sturdiness and comfort of Dorothy Dawes, combined with some of the speed and performance of a road bike. I’ve done a bit of research and, since 2014, it looks like there’s a new kind of bike in town called an Adventure Bike, imported from the US ‘gravel bike’ scene.

They have disc brakes (which would be a first for me), clearance for fatter tires, and can take mudguards and a back rack for touring. I already miss not having a pannier, so that’s a must. I’m not gonna spend heaps (I live in London) so here are my two options: The Calibre Dark Peak (£550, sale) or the Voodo Limba (£350, sale) from Halfords, which is 2.5kg heavier, has fewer gears (16 compared to 20) and slightly inferior parts.

I went to Halfords yesterday and they were worse than useless, but neither do I fancy a trip to Thurrock Lakeside just to look at a bike. Why is buying a new bike so difficult?!? I’m leaning towards the Dark Peak, as it’s so damn light, but also sturdy, which is the hybrid upgrade I’m after. It also gets a great review here.

Update: I went for the Voodoo Limba from Halfords. Time will tell if this was a good decision. I’m worried it doesn’t have enough gear range, but I have got up Jerningham Road and Sydenham Hill successfully so far..!

Any advice, recommendations or tips appreciated – as I’m not so tall, I need a smaller frame size, which limits options somewhat (especially on eBay/Gumtree).

Tour De Frack 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#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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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.

migrants

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?!

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.

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.