#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.

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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.

#StayGrounded at Heathrow Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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London to the Isle of Wight pt 3

Day three: Thursday 15th September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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