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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Planting trees is the new fun

Time to Cycle, the group I cycled to Paris with for COP21 in December 2015, have been quietish since their epic summer 2016 events, cycling to (and helping close down) opencast coal mines in Wales and Germany.

Turns out they were busy working on a brand new idea – cycle rides to tree-planting sites around the UK, bringing climate activism (getting off yer bum), adaptation (cycling rather than using fossil fuels to get around) and mitigation (tree planting to absorb CO2 and provide cool/shade) together into a beautiful single event.

The first event takes place on Sat 8 December at Knepp Castle Estate, near Horsham in West Sussex, at a time of year when many people are out buying a dead tree to stick in their front room (or, weirder still, decorating a fake plastic tree). It feels good to be planting trees rather than shopping, a kind of rejection of what Consumeristmas has become.

I confess, I take the train as far as Horsham and cycle from there (it would have been a 5am start otherwise!) It’s about another 8 miles down a beautiful little back route (Two Mile Ash Road, Marlpost Road and Dragons Green Road) which at 10am on a Saturday morning is as peaceful and calm as Oxford Street is manic and stressful. The weather is dull, damp and mild for December (the new normal); thankfully the proper rain holds off until the evening though.

I turn up just in time to catch the briefing by some nice folks from the Ouse and Adar Rivers Trust, and then it’s off to work we go. We’re planting in a designated, fenced off patch (so the deer steer clear) about the size of half a football pitch, maybe a bit more, alongside the River Adar.

The idea is that in a couple of decades (as climate change really begins to kick in) the maturing trees will provide cooling shade above the river, and help lower the water temperature in this area at least. It’s called ‘Trees for Trout’.  It’s nice to think that in thirty or forty years (jeez, I’ll be almost 80) a tree you planted will be providing shade, food and habitat.

The species we’re planting include willow (obvz, we’re by a river), crab-apple, hawthorn, hazel, field maple and alder. There are about 2,000 trees to plant in total, although we won’t get through this many today.

We work in pairs; I’m with an Environmental Sciences graduate from Brighton. We have interesting chats while we work, about all sorts of environmental and political issues; trees, Trump, Brexit, carbon budgets, GM crops, you name it. I’m glad I came as it means I get to have an interesting conversation as well as knowing that if I hadn’t bothered, this person would have been on their own. Unlike with a few recent actions, my contribution here feels positive and active rather than negative and in protest. The activity feels both worthwhile and physically tangible.

There’s something satisfying and strangely reassuring about planting trees. Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s not that hard. It’s mechanical and repetitive, but there’s comfort in this, as well as absurdity. If planting trees is so easy, why aren’t we all doing it, all over the world, every weekend? It’s therapeutic I tells ya.

We break for lunch and some warming tea and then it’s more of the same in the afternoon, but we’re making great progress. It happens almost by stealth. Before we know it, we’re coming to the end of the session (3pm) and, looking around, the field which was empty of trees at 10am is now full of little saplings. What a neat feeling to have contributed to this.

About 700 trees have been planted by 20 people, working in pairs, so 70 trees per pair. About 40-50% are likely to survive into maturity, depending on how well we planted them and what the weather’s like over the next couple of years. Not a bad effort, although admittedly not quite up there with the 50 million trees planted by 800,000 volunteers in one day in India!

treesAfter we help pack up I and a couple of others cycle back, taking the same peaceful route, just as dusk is encroaching. On the way we pass some hunt saboteurs, a police car, and a few toffs, sorry, twats, on horses. Have they really not got anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon than terrify and kill foxes?

Back on the train to South London I can reflect on what’s been a fun, rewarding day, and I’m not even that tired.

Time To Cycle are organising several tree-planting cycle rides (don’t worry, not at the same time) in 2017, so soothe the soul and get involved.

London to the Isle of Wight pt 3

Day three: Thursday 15th September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A blue and groggy looking promenade train

London to the Isle of Wight pt 2

Day Two: Wednesday 14th September

118km, av. 18.5km/hr, max 47.8, 6hr 24 mins (MapMyRide Part one / Part two)

Day two is harder and longer than expected, despite the early start. Skipping breakfast (I still have food left over from yesterday), I’m on the road by 7.30am, aware that I’ve made a plan to meet a friend in Portsmouth for lunch at 12.30pm. I have no idea whether the wind will be in my favour, or how easy route navigation will be, so I decide to set off early and maybe, just maybe, get there early. All I know is it should be pretty flat.

Things start well, with a massive downhill from the youth hostel down to the seafront. Then, for the first 20 km at least, the wind is definitely behind me, as I cruise along effortlessly (OK, smugly) at 25km/hr, while hordes of huffing and puffing commuter cyclists go past in the other direction. It’s Cycle to Work day, so I shouldn’t be surprised to see so many of them.

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I pass through Worthing and I’m flying. At this rate I’ll be there by 11am. As usual though, things deteriorate. A mixture of tiredness, hunger, lack of concentration, strong headwinds, and crap route-marking all seem to conspire against me for the rest of the way. I guess I coulda shoulda done some actual route planning, rather than assuming everything would be sign-posted. The problem is that I’m not sure what route I’m following, National Route 2 or the South Coast CycleWay. They seem pretty interchangeable to be honest, and the marking is massively hit and miss.

At one point, NCR2 points me into a sort of park-cum-school-playing-field, but then doesn’t tell me how to get out of it. And more than once I end up on the really busy and fast A259, with no path or hard-shoulder. I don’t mind riding on roads, but this is one I don’t feel safe on and instinctively want to escape from at the earliest opportunity.

A can of coke at Bognor Regis (ah, the glamour!) restores some energy and purpose, and from here it’s inland on quieter roads to Chichester, and then on the (now much quieter) A259 to Havant and, eventually, Portsmouth. I meet Tom at 12.45pm, so only 15 minutes late in the end.

For lunch we head to Southsea, which to me still feels like Portsmouth but I’m assured is most definitely not, to Pie and Vinyl. I’m really interested to see this place, and to eat a massive pie of course. Happily, as well as their own pies, they do Pieminister, so I order my old fave, the Heidi Pie. It’s a great little joint, with quirky decor and a well stocked vinyl shop, even if it does feel a little cramped.

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There’s just time for a (possibly ill-advised) lager shandy in the sunshine at the harbour, before saying farewell to Tom and heading straight onto the 3.15pm catamaran sailing to Ryde. The 22 minute crossing is smooth as you like, and on the other side memories of Bestival (endless queues, carrying my rucksack along that bloody long pier) come flooding back. This time though, I have the pleasure of cycling effortlessly along the wooden slats to dry land.

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My target for the afternoon is to cycle across the island and make it to the hostel for about 6pm, so that I can put in my order for food at 7. I take the main road towards the ‘capital’, Newport, where somehow I end up on what must be the only stretch of dual carriageway on the island. Nice one, Joe!

The main road across the island, the ‘Middle Road’, is surprisingly busy so, part by accident and part by design, I take a slightly quieter route to the north, which takes me to Yarmouth. It’s hilly, but mostly those fun undulating hills that you zoom down and then momentum takes you halfway up the other side.

There’s the occasional bit of cycle route too, this time NCR22, but again, it’s piecemeal and sometimes frustrating. There’s a stretch which takes me off the main road, then the signposts give up, it take me a couple of minutes to get back on track, and within a few hundred yards, the route’s taken me back onto the main road again! Thanks, NCR22.

The only interesting thing that happens is  meeting a fellow cyclist heading the other way who is in need of some air in his tyres. Amazingly, I have a pump (unused up until now since I still haven’t had a puncture on the Dawes) and I am able to be of use to someone. Hurrah for forward planning!

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Yarmouth is pretty, and I have a little rest at a sweet spot overlooking the sea, the boats of Lymington in the distance. From here there is a proper cycle route, on the disused railway line, which takes me very close to my final destination. This is a lovely little stretch, with calm creek waters to the right, the odd dog walker, and yet more blackberries to scoff.

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I roll into the YHA at Totland (this time well sign-posted and easily found) around 6.15pm, to a very warm reception from the housekeeper, and well in time for dinner. My fears of there being no room at the inn are unfounded – I’m the only person eating and I have the entire dorm room to myself.

This is more like it! Peace, solitude, and a bottle or two of Ale of Wight to end the day. Bliss.

London to the Isle of Wight pt. 1

With a week’s annual leave booked, and without the requisite short-haul flight for yet another anodyne city break to go with it, I started to think closer to home. The weather forecast for the week was spectacular (including the hottest day of the year so far – in mid-September), so a three day trip by bike to the Isle of Wight seemed like the obvious thing to do.

Day one, Tuesday 13th September 

At least 93km, av 17.4km/hr, max 47.3, 5hr 22 mins (route on MapMyRide up to the point the battery died)

For day one, I decide to keep things relatively straightforward, with a ride from SE14 to a youth hostel just outside Shoreham-by-Sea. On paper, around 90km. On the hottest day of the year.

Due to having some errands to run, I don’t get going until about 10.30am, by which time it’s already pretty damn hot. I head out of London via my ‘usual’ route through Croydon, Purley, up onto the expanse of Farthing Downs, and then that awesome downhill over the M25 that I’ve come to know and love. It’s then familiar country roads to Redhill, followed by a stretch on the Brighton Road, down past Horley.

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Here, road fans, I decide to stick with the more direct B2036 rather than the route suggested by Google Maps, which in retrospect is perhaps a mistake. This is a busy, narrow, fast road. Not massively fun to cycle. It got me thinking, is there an online map that shows how busy/fast (and therefore safe for cyclists) a road is, because clearly being an A or B road doesn’t really mean much in this respect. Turns out Google Maps does this already (of course it does), so will give this a go next time.

The road passes close to Gatwick Airport, and I enjoy a noisy lunch in a field right under the flight-path, as Sleazyjets take off over my head every couple of minutes.

After crossing over the M23, the road passes through woodland, providing some welcome shade, and then a turn onto the B2110 through Handcross provides respite from the traffic.

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There’s then a bit on the MapMyRide map where I seem to have gone on a bit of a tangent. I was trying to take a shortcut across some farmland to Burnthouse Lane, but it turns out that while there is a footpath, it’s got one of those annoyingly non-bike-friendly kissing gates halfway through the route, and there’s just no getting through. It’s also a ‘permissive’ footpath (ie: the local residents don’t really want you there at all, since the path passes through their estates) so I decide to give up and turn back rather than having the hounds set upon me.

After a pit-stop at the crazily air-conned Co-op in Cowfold to pick up some essential supplies (a nice cold cider and some Skittles), I carry on – making pretty good progress. Eventually I pick up my old friend the Downs Link, only this was the bit that I missed last time I cycled on it. It’s great to be finally cycling off-road and the path isn’t as bumpy as some of the other stretches.

Pretty soon I pass over a small river, the River Adur, with the sun still hot in the sky. It’s about 5pm, the perfect time for a swim, so I lock up and wander down to investigate. The river is barely moving, although there is a lot of weed and mud. It looks a little like other people have clambered down the bank before me, so decide it’s probably safe. One foot in to the soft mud, then another, and I’m in. So refreshing! There’s not much room to swim before becoming entangled in weeds, but it’s still totally worth it.

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Afterwards, I crack open the cider and enjoy what can only be described as a few minutes of bliss. The warmth, the stillness, the sense of having got here under my own steam, with 80km on the clock. This is why cycling rocks.

Conscious of the fact I need to be at the hostel by 7pm to get dinner, I can’t hang around too long though and it’s back on the road. I also keep on getting distracted by the plentiful and oh-so-tempting blackberries at my every turn. And sheep.

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It’s somewhere around here that phone #1 dies and I’m trying to navigate the last bit with phone #2 and its shonky GPS. Big mistake not to check the exact instructions and route for finding the hostel. Because it is literally in the middle of nowhere, on the top of a hill on the South Downs Way.

I totally miss the path (since I’m expecting a road) and cycle on way too far, almost all the way to Shoreham, as dusk falls. I end up turning around and pushing the loaded bike up a steep, bumpy track – the South Downs Way – in semi-darkness, finally arriving at the hostel at half 7, having done well over 100km… (my bike pedometer is playing up as well, recording only 93km). Knackered, but hugely relieved that they’ve kept my dinner!

The hostel itself is fine, if a bit basic (no plug sockets in the bedroom, what’s up with that?), and quite busy. I’m too tired to socialise so, after a much-needed shower, I just read and watch the news before nodding off to sleep in the super-warm, super-snory dorm.

Riding “Kathmandu’s M25”

Distance: no idea, maybe 40km? Average speed: pretty slow, maybe 10km/hr! Time on bike: all day (almost). Number of times lost: none.

When I heard I was going to get the chance to visit Kathmandu on a work trip, I got excited. Very excited. Nepal is a country I’ve always wanted to visit, and the possibility of a week living in a local village, learning more about their water and sanitation situation, sounded fantastic. But there was something else stirring in my mind… could I organise a day or two cycling in Kathmandu after the work trip?!

I don’t have time to research the idea properly (due to Glastonbury, and then Eigg) so I figure I’ll assess the possibility once out there. When I float the idea with one of our staff in Nepal he’s pretty lukewarm to say the least, saying it’s far too dangerous and a bad idea. Taking this advice on board, I research organised cycle tours, which will guide you on a day’s ride for about $90. This sounds steep for a cycle ride, and where’s the fun in being guided…?

It’s true, the traffic in Kathmandu is pretty crazy and very busy. There’s also the noise, fumes and dust that come with the territory. Not most people’s idea of fun I know, but as a cycling city, it doesn’t strike me as being any worse or more dangerous than Hanoi or Phnom Penh.

In common with those places, the traffic here moves relatively slowly, there are hardly any traffic lights/junctions, and few big lorries or buses. So the three things that make cycling dangerous in London – speed, traffic lights / hard junctions, and big vehicles – are all less of of an issue here. To my mind, it may actually be safer cycling in Kathmandu than London. Also, my free day is a Saturday, which means the roads are a bit less manic, and the weather isn’t too hot, so I decide to just go for it…

And I’m not alone. On the same day, more than 1,000 riders are taking on the Kathmandu Kora, a sponsored cycle ride around the city. I consider taking part myself, but the 7am start and the fact I still need to procure a bike make this sadly impractical. Instead, I follow roughly their route, but about two hours behind.

I hire a bike for 800 rupees, roughly $8, from a place in Thamel, and set off at about 9am, armed with the compass function, GPS, Google Maps and maps.me on my phone for navigation.

First stop: Patan Durbar Square in the south of the city. Taking a myriad of tiny back-streets, I manage to find this without too much problem, and encounter plenty of street markets and general hustle and bustle along the way. These little streets are full of people, bikes and motorbikes, so I blend in pretty seamlessly.

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My achilles heal is not having a bike bell, which renders me completely invisible in the sense that the horn or bell is how you make your presence known here. More than a couple of times I have to shout ‘beep beep’ instead!

Durbar Square is impressive but sadly not as impressive as it was pre-quake. There’s a lot of reconstruction work going on, but it’s still worth a visit. I decide to have breakfast (banana and honey pancakes) here, at a rooftop cafe overlooking the square. There are definitely worse places in the world to have breakfast.

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From here I head west to Kirtipur, crossing the Ring Road (their version of the M25, with 6 lanes of traffic and random cows sitting in the middle of it all) along the way. From now on, I’m navigating entirely by compass, leading me into taking all sorts of tiny little roads and muddy tracks. Fortunately, the mountain bike I’ve hired handles pretty much everything that I throw at it with ease. Hell, the brakes even work.

It’s a bit greener and rural around these parts, even though I’m still within sight of the city. Farming is the main activity, with fields growing mainly rice and tomatoes, although I do also cycle past some kind of brick factory.

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As was the case in SE Asia, I get a few quizzical looks from the locals, but it’s always with a sense of friendly bemusement rather than anything unpleasant.

At one point I stop at a junction and a group of local children who speak good English start talking to me. I cycle off but then the track fizzles out and I have to turn back, seeing the kids again. “Are you lost?” they enquire, giggling. “Not lost, just exploring” I tell them before taking the other track and hoping for the best..!

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From Kirtipur, I head north, cycling through countless little communities, all with similar shops, houses, kids running around, folks on scooters and dogs passed out on pavements. It’s so nice to be able to witness these scenes of daily life in such an inconspicuous, care-free way. Vive le velo. 

Eventually I hit the Prithvy Highway and ride back east towards the city on a long downhill, before hanging a left onto the Ring Road, north towards Swayambhunath Temple – aka the Monkey Temple.

I’ve already visited the temple on foot, so instead I cycle around the base, stopping off at another nearby temple, and also checking to see if the Natural History Museum is open (sadly not) before riding on, towards a region called Balaju.

Somewhere around here I spot a cafe promising, prominently in every window, ‘FREE WIFI’, so I decide to pull in, park the bike inside and order some lunch. I’ve not yet had the local speciality, momo, so I order a plate of veggie momo for just 85 rupees (less than a dollar). Essentially they’re similar to spring rolls, but really tasty and great for lunch. “Can I connect to the wifi?” I ask, while waiting for the food. “Wifi not working”. My Google Maps refresh will have to wait…

While eating lunch the ominous sound of heavy rain drumming on the tin roof starts, and doesn’t stop. I figure it’s not the worst place to get wet, given how warm it is, so decide to head out anyway. I’m headed for Balaju Park (not marked on Google Maps, luckily is on maps.me) but when I eventually find it I discover there’s a small entry fee and, given that it’s raining, I decide to give it a miss. Maybe a bad idea in retrospect, as there are precious few nice parks in Kathmandu as far as I can tell.

From here I head a bit further north before deciding that I’ve probably seen enough of the maze of hilly, pot-holed, muddy, back streets of the Kathmandu ‘burbs and decide to go back into town, on the Ring Road for a bit, before cutting west towards Boudhanath Stupa.

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The road to Boudhanath is perhaps the busiest and craziest I ride on, with hundreds of buses, cars and scotters trying to navigate through huge muddy lakes from the earlier rain. A friend said Boudhanath was peaceful – maybe I’ve got the wrong place. You also pass a tent settlement – a sobering reminder of the fact that many people are still homeless after the earthquake.

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The stupa itself is another victim of the quake and is being re-built, but it’s still an interesting place to visit. Here I spot a few mountain bikers – as muddy and bedraggled looking as I probably am – so I’m guessing they’ve taken part in the Kora event (the route ends here).

From here I head to one final temple, Shree Guhyeshwori, via a road which I’m going to name-check because the surface is so new and perfect (in comparison to almost every other road in Kathmandu). It’s called Tusal Marg and, going downhill, is amazing! Sadly, the big red building at this temple is now mostly reduced to rubble.

I don’t have time to go into the temple proper, but instead hang by the river and observe yet more manic monkeys terrorising people as they cross the bridge.

With one eye on the clock, and also the realisation that I have no real idea of how to find the place where I hired the bike from, I head back into Thamel. I cycle a few streets that look familiar and eventually find my man. Bike reunited with owner, that just leaves me to walk back to my hostel for a much-required shower.

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It’s funny, after a day spent in the saddle navigating these bumpy backstreets, walking suddenly feels pedestrian in comparison.

Toilet graffiti

Howlin and hooting on Eigg

Ok, so not strictly a cycling post, but instead a quick review of the Howlin’ Fling festival itself… the best wee festival in Highland Scotland, if not the world.

Fri 1 July

The adventure begins with a CalMac ferry full of festival goers. I’m alone at this point (friends Donna and Pete are on the smaller Shearwater boat), but this is fine as it means I can sit back, relax and enjoy people-watching a load of excited Scots drinking Tenants Extra at 11 in the morning. Respect. These guys know how to party 🙂

On the lash at 11am

Once we’re all on the island and tents are up, we hit the Ceilidh Hall for the start of the music. First up is Monoganon, who I’m sure I’ve seen before playing with a full-on band, but today it’s just him in his home made but very effective spider/batman crossover costume, plus a guitarist.

He places candles on the floor, a projector shows his other bandmates playing the instruments we can hear through the PA, and he wanders barefoot around the room singing beguiling laments/prophecies that will turn out to be correct – “you won’t see me / you’ll remember me” (or words to that effect).

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A sentiment that come back to me when he wafts into the room, back in costume, at about 3am on Sunday morning (or was I hallucinating?) Definitely an intriguing start to the weekend.

By comparison, you know where you are with Rozi Plain. Lovely songs AND great teeth. She’s joined by Rachel from Trash Kit; the extra guitar and vocals really add a level of subtlety and complexity. By the end, I’m singing along to Humans with a smile on my face.

Rozi

Slow Club are in no mood for ‘playing the hits’. Instead Rebecca fires off a series of hyper-personal torch songs and ballads, with Charles throwing in a couple of his own for good measure. As they get older, they clearly give less of a fuck what people think about them, in a good way.

Rebecca’s always been ballsy (yes, aware that this is a sexist term but vaginary sounds weird), so when a few people at the back chunter during a quiet one, it’s no surprise when she stops mid song to ask them to shut the fuck up while she spills her guts out. Even though I don’t like the vocal style as much these days, boy can she sing. So not exactly a crowd-pleasing set, if crowd-pleasing means nostalgia, playing the old hits and being untrue to yourself. Thankfully, up here it doesn’t mean that at all.

Rebecca Slow Club

It’s 11pm, it’s Friday night, everyone’s shit-faced, which means it’s time for… Pictish Trail. And wow, what a set. To be honest, all I can really remember is… amazing outfit, messianic tendencies, very young bandmates dressed in pink(?), lots of new songs, a big sound, very loud down the front, blimmin amazing. Is this becoming a cult?! If so, where do I sign up please?

Johnny Pictish

We all need to cool off, but pretty soon it’s the turn of Trash Kit to get us sweaty again, which they do without breaking sweat themselves. There’s one moment where some douchebag dude gets on stage and is promptly heckled back down again (“If you wanna be on stage, form a band”) and gently ejected from the hall, no doubt to think about what a dick he’s been.

Trash Kit are not about to give up the stage to anyone, let alone some meathead (to be fair, the only one all weekend, and I think he’d just had a bit too much to drink). They play on (mostly new songs but with the same jerky rhythms and mantra-like melodies), the party escalates, and by the end there are limbs flailing all over the shop to an encore track that I recognise from the debut LP.

I’d love to be able to tell you about Makeness but I think it’s at about this point I call it a night, for this is just the warm up to the main event tomorrow…

Saturday 2 July

Bleary eyed, we make it to the music just in time for the very mellow (yet not at all bland) sound of Victoria Hume. Mostly playing keyboard, her songs are fragile but often political beasts, just the thing to get the day started while supping tentatively on that first pint.

Life Model are a band I’ve never heard of, but really like by the end of their set. They have a kinda classic 90s grungey sound, shot through with shoegaze and pop, like a best-of mix of all my fave bands from that era (Chapterhouse, Lush, Belly). They sound great and am surprised more people aren’t into it as much as I am. Don’t you just hate that feeling?

Life Model band

Next up it’s Gwenno, formerly of The Pipettes and now re-invented as a Welsh-language musical mystery tour. I love her spacey, music-concrete inspired sound, visuals and dreamy vocals, even if I don’t have a clue what she’s on about (between song banter does give some clues). It’s a fun set, with political overtones once again – everyone here is reet fooked off about the referendum result.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the Lost Who’s Mappin Too: Back in the Habit supergrope, but probably not bearded nuns and one particularly talented ladee nun doing the complete, word-perfect rap from Blondie’s Rapture, as well as TLC’s No Scrubs. There are also Prince and Bowie cover versions (obvs) and a totally dancefloor-destroying version of Winter Home Disco by the man P.T. (a glaring omission from his Friday night set). All in all, a Buckfast-fuelled triumph!

Nuns on the run

Follow that, Bill Ryder-Jones, formerly of The Coral and still annoyingly youthful looking. In truth, he can’t, but his gentle, ambling, slightly melancholic set isn’t without charm. He reminds me mostly of that other great Liverpool act, Shack, and especially Mick Head – which is pretty high praise in my book.

Ah, Jane Weaver and band. What a joy it is to see them on this tiny stage, about a metre away, when last time I saw her, she was playing to a room of thousands (well, a thousand at least) at Liverpool PsychFest. Drawing mostly from the shimmering, dreamy Silver Globe record, this is all kinds of perfect pop, following on from where Gwenno left off earlier.

When they play The Electric Mountain – “look at the mountain, the electric mountain!” – you can’t help but think of Eigg’s bewitching, mighty Sgurr, looming large behind us.

Jane Weaver and band

IMG_1108

From about this point on, things get decidedly sketchy. I think I remember dancing down the front for some of Tuff Love and digging their sound. I definitely remember being blown away by Bossy Love’s boisterous feel-amazing pop. Did I chat to Charles Slow Club round the fire for a bit after? I think so.

Bossy Love

I surely remember at least one Blanck Mass tune and thinking, ‘fucking hell, this is good’. And I just about remember hearing the DJ drop this at 3am and having that moment of clarity and thinking maybe, just maybe, it’s time to go to bed (or at least leave the music and go chase sheep around the campsite instead for a bit…)

Blanck Mass

Next morning, a couple of people refer to me as “that guy who was dancing loads” – so I’m guessing that I witnessed both Blanck Mass and Operator in full effect. Whatever it was, it was almost literally mind-melting. The eco-toilet graffiti praising Johnny’s programming skills – “so it always ended in techno :)” – does not lie!

techno graffiti

An amazing night, for which I have my friends, all the amazing musicians and DJs, and of course the unicorn girl to thank. 😉

Sunday 3 July

To be honest, the morning after Sunday is a struggle, but I do manage to cycle on the island for at least a little bit (up to the solar panels and back) before I start to fear I’ve lost the ability to balance, and have to head back to the warm embrace of the camp fire.

Here, there’s a lovely little acoustic session to end the weekend. Johnny plays a couple of numbers, including the wonderful Good Morning, and tells his “balls out” story (sure I’ve heard it before…) before some other talented people play songs.

Victoria Hume, Rachel Trash Kit, and one or two others I think. Round the fire we drink Eiggman beer brewed on the island, burn marshmallows, chat shit, and feel thoroughly happy to have made it out alive from the pilgrimage once more.

Sofa session

Eiggman

Thank ye Johnny, Kate Lost Map (especially for the ferry swap!) and the good people of Eigg for once again making us feel so welcome on your little island paradise 🙂

bike makes it to Eigg

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