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).

The Breacon Beacons to Exeter, pt. 4

Seaton to Exeter
circa 65km, av 13km/hr, lots of very steep bits (Lost the data today after bike fell over and ‘computer’ got reset, while I was trying to take a photo of an award-winning carbon-neutral housing estate, as you do…)

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On paper, today’s ride should be easy – not too far and plenty of time to do it, since I set off early (there’s no way I’m hanging around in last night’s field any longer than I need to). But, as usual, I conspire to make it harder, with a couple of detours to local beaches along the way. This means steep descents down to the sea, and even steeper ascents back out again.

The first beach I call in at is Branscombe, a lovely little village nestled between rolling hills down to the sea. It feels completely remote, like you could live in splendid isolation here, in one of the little houses between the hills and the water.

The beach is pretty deserted – it’s not yet 9am – but I do spot signs of life: there’s a tent pitched on the beach. Damn! Why didn’t I think of that, instead of camping behind an old dung heap!? I could have gone to sleep my favourite way: to the sound of the sea. It coulda been beautiful. Oh well, next time.

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I continue on, and up – past a beautiful house covered with flowers, just as the sun starts to come out and things start to get warm. It’s a long climb out of Branscombe, so I take a recovery walk around a wooded area near Salcombe Regis, bursting with berries and birdsong. It’s gorgeous. But, onwards…

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Next I chance across an observatory, the Norman Lockyer observatory. The buildings are closed but the grounds are open so I have a good nose around. It’s fascinating. My fave thing here is the human sundial. The sun comes out from behind clouds just on cue, and at first I think the dial is an hour out, before reading that you have to adjust to allow for BST.

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From here it’s a fun descent  down Salcombe Hill into Sidmouth. This place is a bit bigger and quite busy. I grab some baked goods (yes! they still make iced buns) and sit on the seafront in the sunshine.

Then it’s another climb – this time a long slog – out of town and on to Budleigh Salterton. Another pebbly beach. Despite the ‘yellow’ on Google Maps. Why haven’t they got a way to indicate pebble beaches? And where did all the sand go? Important questions.

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By now it’s really quite warm, so it’s time for another swim. Again, it’s pleasantly warm enough for a long swim. After, I think I may have dozed off on the rocks for a bit; I’m certainly tired enough, and anyway, I have time to kill. By the time I’m ready to move again, clouds have started to roll in. The weather seems to be on the turn.

Next stop is Exmouth, a proper seaside town complete with crazy golf course and mini-big-wheel. After a delicious fish in a bun, I cycle to the other end of town to explore the Jurassic Coast. There’s a prime bit of it jutting out on the headland – millions of years of geological time right there in front of your face. It’s staggering. I walk up to the headland, where a simple but stunning needle sculpture marks this World Heritage Site.

It’s getting on for 4 by this time, so it’s time for the final stretch, a cycle route that follows the railway line along the estuary to Exeter, passing Lympstone and Topsham along the way. It’s a lovely little ride, almost all off-road.

As I approach Exeter, navigating past a family of swans that have taken up residency on the cycle path next to the River Exe, the heavens open. It’s been at least a week since it last rained – I’ve been massively lucky with the weather – but even so, the timing is rotten. I pedal on, reaching my friends Ollie & Anna looking a little like a drowned rat. On a bike.

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It’s been quite the (little) adventure. I’ve loved seeing more of this island I call home, but I’m ready to take the bike on the train tomorrow, rather than cycle to Totness for the start of the SeaChange music festival. Sometimes it’s good to let the train take the strain.

Over and out.

 

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The Breacon Beacons to Exeter, pt.3

Glastonbury to Seaton:
91.7km, av. 15.3km/hr, max 45.7km/hr, time moving: 5 hrs 57 mins

Day 3 of the ride starts with me unzipping my tent to see a lone cow standing a few metres away (I thought I could hear cud-chewing…) A lone cow that wasn’t here last night. A few minutes later and I spot a couple of men standing at the gate of the field, and they definitely spot me.

They seem pretty chilled though, and are mainly interested in trying to coax the itinerant ruminant towards them, perhaps so they can identify it (it has a tag on its ear). After a few minutes they succeed in their task and happily wander off, without saying anything to me. Which is nice of them.

I pack up the tent, push out onto the road (closing the gate behind me) and set off – but still undecided as to my final destination for the day. My original plan was to head west, to Bridgewater, through the Quantock Hills AONB and onto Exmoor National Park. But, looking at the map, it’s further than I thought. Plus, I’m not sure if I want to spend a chilly night camping up on the moors.  So I decide to go west for a bit to explore the Somerset Levels, and then south, to the sea!

The first stop along the way is Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve. What a place! A guy I’d been volunteering with at Green Man had been telling me about it, since it was he that helped secure the funding and (from what I could gather) was the architect of the whole project, which has been to turn an old peat-cutting area into an incredible wetlands nature reserve, with a cycle track running right through it.

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Unfortunately, for reasons I still can’t fathom, I somehow miss the cycle track! Instead, I go the long (and hilly) way, only later realising my mistake when I have to double back on myself. It’s an annoying mistake, but not fatal.

I still get to explore a decent chunk of the reserve on foot, and “walk the plank” along a restored stretch of neolithic walkway. Tens of thousands of years ago, the area was inhabited by early human; they constructed elaborate walkways to traverse the flooded wetlands. I also find a hide, but don’t have binoculars to try and spot a little egret – they are in plentiful supply here.

It’s an incredible spot, and a place I’d like to see more of another time – along with the Huntspill River NNR & Bridgewater Bay NNR. But, after a spot of brunch, it’s time to get moving, and start heading south. It’s mankini time…

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I pass through some wonderfully named places: High Ham, Low Ham, Muchelny Ham, Kingsbury Episcopi, Curry Rivel, Shepton Beauchamp. Some of them via the Stop Line Way, named after the ‘Stop Line’ – WW2 defences against a possible German invasion in the southwest – that now forms part of NCR33.

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After the long stop this morning, there’s not much time to rest or pause for very long again; all effort is now focussed on reaching the sea. And reach the sea I do. After passing through the very lovely Axmouth, I roll into Seaton, with its pebbly beach and warm early evening sunshine. I park my bike and head straight into the water, which is refreshing but by no means cold (it’s been a hot summer after all).

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Next task: find food. There’s a fairly dilapidated pub on the sea-front that only has one thing on the menu but that’s OK because it’s fresh mackerel.

Dusk is starting to gather, so the next task is to find a place to camp. I’m less sure how this is going to work out; the land around here feels a little more fenced off and, er, ‘owned’, than it did in Somerset. I cycle out of town a bit, through a village called Beer (mmm, lovely beer), and then uphill and inland a little, in search of countryside.

Eventually I find a field that looks promising. I enter through a gate, and look for a place to pitch. Unfortunately, the field borders a local football ground, and there are people in there having a drink or something. There’s also a barking dog that picks up on my presence and won’t shut up. So I push on into the next field, which is green and secluded.

But, there’s a problem… in a field further down, there’s a tractor going about its noisy business. It’s not clear if the fields are connected, but I figure there’s a risk of the farmer driving out through this field, and spotting me.

I decide to abandon this location, and continue on. About 500 metres up the road, I pass a field with a gate wide open, and a huge old dung heap near the entrance. A perfect place to hide a tent behind – I’ll be invisible from the road. Ah, the glamour of wild camping!

Without thinking too much more about it, I pitch up, feeling smug at this stroke of luck, just as it’s getting dark. I then investigate my surroundings a bit more. And that’s when I make an awful discovery. OK, no dead body in a ditch, but…

In the distance, I can see and hear the same tractor rumbling around the fields. My nemesis. And from this angle, it looks like this field is very much joined onto his field. And he left the gate open… (I’m assuming it’s a he, but of course it may not be).

I am now convinced that Night Tractor is going to drive into my field at some point, and turf me out. I watch him for an hour or so while nursing a beer. Sometimes he disappears behind a hill, and all goes eerily dark and quiet… then a couple of minutes later he’ll come roaring back, headlights beaming right onto the place where I’m sat, hiding. It reminds me of the film ‘Duel’.

It’s gone 11pm and he is still out there (god knows what doing), so I decide to call it a night and hope for the best. I drift off to sleep… but after maybe half an hour dozing, I hear the sound of a tractor; the same tractor. And it’s getting louder. I stick my head out of the tent and can see the headlights in the distance; but it looks like he’s on the road. Perhaps he’ll just stay on the road, jump out to lock the gate, and be gone?

Alas, no. Suddenly the tractor (actually it looks much bigger than a tractor) is in the adjacent field, and then… shiiit! He’s in MY field, goddamit! And he’s driving right at me, floodbeams blazing, engine roaring. My head is still stuck out of the tent, I must look like a rabbit in the headlights. The lights are so bright I can’t see into the cab – I can’t see the manic grin on the face of this psychotic driver. OK, this is not looking good. I don’t want to go out like this!

Like something out of a movie, at the last second he turns the wheel and swerves away… Thanks fuck for that. He simply drives towards the gate, stops, shuts the gate, and drives off.

After this slightly hair-raising experience, I don’t sleep so well, dreaming that he’s coming back with all his farmer mates armed with pitchforks.

So, lesson learnt: if a gate’s been left open, it’s not an open invite to set up camp; in fact it’s the opposite.

 

 

 

The Breacon Beacons to Exeter, pt. 2

Bristol to Glastonbury:
64km, av 14.3km/hr, max 40.7km/hr, time moving: 4hrs 26 mins

Day 2 and, after a deserved lie-in and a vegan feast of a breakfast (there’s a theme developing here – thanks Amy!) I set off sometime around 11am. On paper, today’s ride looks like it will be easier. And it is.

First stop is a general store in Bristol to pick up some new bungie cords. One was nicked or lost at Green Man, and another has gone the way all my bungies go – mashed up in the chain when I forgot to attach everything before setting off.  That job done, it’s south-west bound – to Glastonbury!

There was no Glastonbury Festival this year, and I’ve never actually properly seen the town, so I’m excited about the prospect of visiting. If all goes to plan, I’m also going to “wild camp” somewhere near Glastonbury Tor.

Despite all the cycle lanes, or perhaps because of them, it’s a bit of a dull escape out of Bristol suburbia, flanked by busy roads. Not especially fun, but these eventually give way to  country lanes and open countryside – the Mendip Hills AONB.

Before that, I pass through the excellently named Chew Magna and Chew Stoke, although I’m nursing a throbbing toothache which takes away some of the enjoyment. Skirting past Chew Valley Lake is lovely, but I decide to press on.

It’s really great cycling country round here, and I also have plenty of time and perfect weather, so I decide on a scenic diversion to Cheddar Gorge. I don’t *think* I’ve been here before, so it seems like a shame not to.

Racing down the hill through the gorge is pretty thrilling, as buzzards and red kites circle overhead. I want to look up at them but I have to concentrate on the road. Nestled among the rocks makes for a perfect place to stop for food, before free-wheeling past all the grockle-shops as we used to call them (aka: tourist traps).

Once through, I decide to swing a left onto a completely perfect little winding lane which runs parallel to the main road – for a while, at least. Somehow I miss the turning for Rodney Stoke National Nature Reserve, so I make no mistake about finding Ebbor Gorge National Nature Reserve.

I lock my bike up then hide it, and panniers, in some bushes (there’s very few people around and you’d have to be nuts to try and ride off with that lot in tow…) before heading off on foot around the reserve.

What a stunning place it is, with shady nooks and crannies, as well as a couple of amazing wicker beasts that give you a real surprise when you come across them – a nod to the wild animals which would have roamed here millions of years ago.

At the top of the Gorge there’s a stunning view of the Somerset Levels, with Glastonbury Tor standing proud above it all. With clear blue skies and a supply of roadside-bought strawberries, it really isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

I also come across another touching memorial, this time to some unlucky lad more recently departed. Turns out he died on my birthday last year, of a ketamine overdose. Part of the structure is made of a bike chain, so I guess he must have been a cyclist. Another reminder of mortality, and the surprises that life has in store for us all.

If I do one day die on a bike, at least I will die happy.

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Next stop is Wookey Hole. No further explanation needed…

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From here it’s a short ride into the Glastonbury sunset. I’ve heard the stories about it being a bit of a hippy enclave, and it turns out that this is something of an under-statement. It’s brilliantly out-there and I love it.

Imagine if every high street was like this – tarot readers, crystal healing, acupuncture clinics, yoga studios, vegan cafes and no doubt tantric brothels if you enquire in the right places. What I’m looking for though is a little more pressing; a decent meal. After a couple of false starts, I find Hawthorns, a nice little pub doing veggie curries for 9 quid. Jackpot.

Fed, and with a couple of pints to go with it, I head off outta town looking for a place to camp. I don’t really know what I’m doing, apart from the fact that it will be vaguely illegal but round here they probably won’t care too much.

I head off into the nearby countryside and choose a quiet looking lane away from houses and any obvious attractions that might cause people to stop. I soon find a dirt-track and go investigate. It feels pretty OK around here, and briefly consider putting my tent up on the path itself, but then think about early morning dog walkers and joggers.

There’s an empty field (many have cows or sheep in them) so I decide to go for it. There’s a gate, so I throw all my stuff over the top (including bike) before realising the gate isn’t actually locked. Doh!

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By now, it’s dusk, so I figure that I’m fairly invisible from the road, and most drivers will probably be experiencing tunnel vision anyway, since they now have their headlights on. So I pitch my tent in the far corner of the field, hidden from any passing walkers. I’m within sight of the Tor, and bats are flying all around me as I bed down for the night.

This’ll do nicely.

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The Breacon Beacons to Exeter, pt 1

Breacon Beacons to Bristol:
87km, av 15.5km/hr, max 44.2km/hr, time moving: 5h 38 mins

After 4 days of late nights festivaling at Green Man, the exact thing you want to be doing is cycling almost 90km with a heavy tent and two fully loaded panniers to Devon. Right? Right.

And so, nursing a hangover (and with last night’s glitter still showing) on a dreary Monday morning – when most sensible people are leaving by coach, train or even car – I set off from the bucolic Glanusk Park, speeding past a long line of vehicles queuing to make their escape.

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I do sometimes question my sanity. Soon though I’m riding through beautiful countryside along the River Usk and I’m OK with my life decisions again. My route takes me south of Abergavenny, towards Usk, where I pause briefly for supplies. Then it’s onwards and upwards towards Shirenewton, via a particularly killer (16%) hill and Penycaemawr Methodist Church – so tiny it’s not even on Google Maps.

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Here I rest and seek solace among the stones – each grave telling a sometimes intriguing story of lives lost. Andrew Charles died ‘accidentally’ on 4th July 1977 (just a month before I was born), aged 15 years and 9 months. His grave is immaculate. It’s a tranquil, quiet resting place for the dead – and the weary.

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From here, it’s (mostly) downhill all the way – along a road called ‘Smoothstones’, then a left at a tiny roundabout that nearly trashes my navigation skills. Suddenly I’m at the (old) Severn Suspension Bridge, and back to thunderous reality.

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Cycling across this bridge is a much more visceral experience that I’d envisaged, as lorries go racing past. If you stop for a moment, you can feel the vibrations as they whiz on by. It’s also huge – at least a mile long (or it feels like it). But once I make land on the other side, I’m back in good old Blighty.

Now, in my mind, I’ve made the mistake of thinking that once I’ve crossed the bridge, I’m basically in Bristol. Unfortunately for my tired legs, that ain’t necessarily so. There’s a good 25-30 km still to go. Fortunately, the supply of luscious roadside blackberries is just as plentiful here as it was in Wales, and it’s these that keep me going. Or rather, cause me to stop every 5 minutes as I pass another irresistible patch of fine-looking berries (just a couple more!)

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Eventually, I make the outskirts of Bristol, pausing to stop for a quick celebratory tin of cider (when in Brizzle…) at the promising sounding Blaise Castle Estate. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a bit of a diversion and from here, getting to my final destination in Bristol proves incredibly tricky (and surprisingly hilly). I’m so tired I can’t be bothered to navigate, so “follow my sense of direction”, and end up going round in circles. Bristol is bigger than I thought. I inadvertently add about an extra 10km and hour of cycling to my already long journey – and don’t make it to my friend Amy’s until gone 7. Thankfully though, her shower’s working and she cooks up a vegan feast before we slump on a sofa and watch the surprisingly touching Netflix romcom The Big Sick.

It’s been a long day in the saddle, with some tough hills, but still plenty of “this is why I love cycling” moments – just as well given I’ve been wearing an I Love Cycling t-shirt by Sustrans (who are based in Bristol – it’s all starting to make sense…)

 

#BonnVoyage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howlin’ Fling 2017 – aywwoooooh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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