#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.

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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.

monagaon

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!

withered

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!

pcitsh

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…

ragingtorent

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!

ed_dowie

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!

eigg_world

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!

inverness_skye

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.

dunwich_sunset

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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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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