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.

kt

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.

francois

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.

basjan

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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Around Scotland, with love

48km, av. 14.5, max 42.3, time on bike: 3hrs 18 mins

After last summer’s successful cycle/festival combo in Scotland, I decide to do the same again, but this time travel to the magical land of Eigg via Inverness, rather than Fort William. It turns out there’s a very simple reason more people don’t travel east to west across Scotland: head wind.

More on this in a bit.

Using Inverness as a base, my friend Tom (who’s on foot for the holiday) coaxes me into a 2-day hike along the Great Glen Way, despite my protestations that I’m not much of a walker, and haven’t done any long walks for, well, at least a decade.

Walking 18 miles in a day, while carrying a full pack (including tent), up small hills and across great glens is no mean feat, I discover. Walking is so much slower AND harder than cycling with panniers. My shoulders literally don’t know what have landed on them. I mean, look at me:

inverness_highroad

High Road or Low Road, it doesn’t matter; it turns out I’m not much of a walker. And by the time we get back to Inverness at the end of the second day, I can hardly move. I feel destroyed. There’s no way I’m cycling the width of Scotland tomorrow…

The next day is taken as rest, and I adjust my plans to take the bike on the train with Tom the following day instead. It’s a shame, as the road and the route looks pretty epic – there is literally nothing here apart from sheep and red deer. I’d also been looking forward to doing my first solo wild camping, but alas it isn’t to be, this time at least. There’s no point killing myself. Plus, it turns out the weather is pretty stormy on the day I was going to ride. No doubt that headwind would have been hard work.

The train journey instead is undeniably great, even if I do spend most of it looking to see where the road goes, how hilly it is, and where I might have set up camp for the night. When we get into Kyle of Lochalsh it’s absolutely pissing it down, and Tom has a coach to catch (to get him to Armadale in time for the ferry to Mallaig, in time for the train to Arisaig, in time for the boat to Eigg…) so he has to make a run for it. I wait it out, then get the bike ready for the short, easy (36km / 22 mile) ride to Armadale.

At least I think it’s going to be easy. It’s true it’s not that far, but it turns out to be one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done. That headwind…!

The first stretch, over the mighty road bridge which now connects Skye to the mainland, is great fun, with the added bonus of a mildly-alarming crosswind.

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On the main road running up the spine of the island (the A87), heading west, it’s not too bad, and my main concern is keeping clear of the moody storm-clouds gathering.

It’s when I take the turning south that life becomes tricky. The southerly wind is pushing me around like a toy. I can barely make 15km/hr. Going down hills, I find that unless I pedal furiously, I’m actually decreasing in speed, rather than zooming with reckless abandon. Going up them, I’m struggling to go forwards at all.

Luckily, I’m not under any time pressure to do this leg of the journey, so I am able to rest when I need to (often), and sit out a passing thunderstorm in a surprisingly hardy bus-shelter – I guess they need to be around these parts.

inverness_shelter

There are moments on this ride when I want to cry with despair. But, equally, there are moments when I am almost crying out with joy. THIS IS WHY WE CYCLE! An open road, clean air, spectacular views, a physical test, and a feeling of being utterly free and in complete control at the same time.

The ferry doesn’t leave until 4.50pm so I have ages, and in the end I spend a pleasant hour or so waiting at the sheltered dock, reading my book in the warm sunshine and drinking a still-cold beer.

The ferry across to Mallaig is stunning, with spectacular views of Eigg on one side, and the remote Knoydart Peninsular on the other. But it’s on the ferry that it dawns on me that the next leg – 12km / 8 miles to Arisaig to catch The Sheerwater boat to Eigg at 6.15pm – is going to be tight. Ridiculously tight. I’ll only have about 45 minutes to do it. Normally that would be perfectly do-able, but in this headwind I’m going to have to up my game.

Impatiently, I wait by my bike as the cars and coaches disembark; then as soon as I’m allowed, I grab Dave Dawes and ride off (there’s not even time to stop at the Coop to by some Buckfast), knowing I’m in a race against the clock. And the wind. The bloody wind!

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After around a mile, I realise that in that leisurely hour spent reading and drinking beer, I failed to refill my water bottle and now it’s almost empty. This is not looking good. It’s looking hilly and thirsty is what it’s looking.

I’d forgotten just how up and down this stretch of road between Mallaig and Arisaig is. As I cycle up the next bump, my average speed falls and I think there’s no way I’ll make it. As I cycle down, I speed up and I think maybe I’ll just scrape it.

A mile to go, ten minutes until the ferry leaves… one final hill to get over. I’m literally screaming at the wind… STOP BEING SO FUCKING WINDY… but the wind just blows my useless words away. Stupid wind.

I crest the final hill, gasping for breathe and water, then roll down to Arisaig, hoping I can remember where to go when I get there. Fortunately, the boat isn’t hard to find… and there are people still clambering on. I’ve made it!

I pretty much collapse into the boat, gasping for water (my friends Donna & Tom help out here, thank god) and too tired to worry whether or not the skipper will be cool with stowing the bike without warning and so late in the day. Fortunately, all is good on that front and before we know it we’re sailing to Eigg on very choppy seas.

Again: stupid wind.

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PS: While on Eigg, for the amazing Howlin Fling festival (lovely Guardian review here or my review here), I also find time for a quick ride north to Singing Sands. There’s a cute single-track road that goes up through the island, and Singing Sands, with its spectacular views onto Rum, is beautiful. The sun shone, providing an irresistible chance to swim too. A perfect half-day trip 😃

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.

dunwich_lake

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!

dunwich_end

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.

Building Bridges, Not Walls

Not my words, but great, useful words…

thinking, doing, changing

As President Trump is sworn in, thousands of people are protesting by dropping banners all over the world to spread the message that we need to build bridges, not walls. Below I share a little about my experience of taking part and the breadth of the action, reflecting on why it has been so successful, and looking to the future. I ask – how can we remain hopeful & organise against the rise of the right?

My morning

This morning I was up at 6am and it was literally freezing in London. Actually below freezing to begin with. It’s the day ‘President Trump’ becomes an actual thing, so for me it should have been a fairly depressing day, with such a symbolic victory of the rise of the far right so prominently in the news and on everyone’s minds. But I actually felt really excited and hopeful. I was up…

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