From London to Bonn for climate justice! Part 2

<Part one here>

Day six

Today is a designated rest day, and the first time in nearly a week that we’ve stayed in the same city for two nights running. But with an opportunity to visit the Hambacher Forest calling, it’s back on the bikes (for some of us at least). About half of us decide to cycle the 30, or was it 40, km out to the forest, while the other half jump on a local train instead. I’m in the riding group, obvs.

The ride out of Cologne is dreary, at least for the first 10km or so. One very long, very straight street, divided into blocks of about 200m, which means a lot of stopping and starting at the crossings, because we’re not riding on the road. It takes forever, and once you’ve seen one German suburb you’ve pretty much seen them all.

Very gradually, the city subsides and gives way to the standard mix of agriculture and industry that we’ve become accustomed to. Eventually, we close in on our destination, via a weird, abandoned village called Sindorf – one of two in this area that are likely to be consumed by the growing mining operations. Shutters are down on the houses and nature is already making a comeback, with weeds in the cracks in the pavement.

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We meet the train crew in an area called The Meadow, which is populated by self-built homes, caravans, and even a library. We sit on some palettes and eat lunch (thanks sandwich makers!), before walking into the Hambacher Forst.

This place is incredible. High up in the trees are dozens of tree-houses, many two or three stories high and only accessible by rope. There are banners with slogans like “Respect existence or expect resistance”, and structures on the ground too. There have been activists – forest defenders – living here for over 5 years.

It’s inspiring to see, but there’s also a sense of pessimism here. The defenders fully expect a forthcoming court case to rule that the ancient woodland – the last remaining in this area that hasn’t been subsumed by the mine – can be felled to allow further coal to be dug up.

We climb up into one of the structures and have a look round. There’s a kitchen/living room on the ‘ground’ floor (some 30 ft up in the tree), with sleeping quarters above. It looks cosy, but it must surely be bitterly cold in the German winter, which is when the cutters are most likely to move in – fully expecting the number of defenders to be at its lowest.

A guy gives us a guided tour of the area, and takes us out to the perimeter of the mine. We can’t see it in full as it’s hidden by a layer of scrubland, but it’s clear just how huge it is. As dusk falls, we thank him for his time, make a donation to their kitty, and head back (on the train) to Cologne.

Visiting the forest, and talking to the people who call it home, was massively enlightening. These guys are the real climate heros, living on the frontline, in tough conditions, and at constant risk of eviction and violence from the police and security firms. And for Germany to be talking themselves up at COP23, while planning to give mining company RWE permission to expand, really does highlight the hypocrisy.  Or bullshit, as one of the activists labels the Conference of Polluters.

You can find out more, and sign up for a text alert when the ‘cutters’ move in, here.

Day seven

Today, we cycle to Bonn. Although it’s not far, we still somehow manage to make a meal of the journey! For the first time, I lead a group and navigate a ‘scenic route’ along the Rhine, which is an extra 10km compared to the more direct route, but worth doing as it’s a lovely ride, for the first part at least. We hug the Rhine and cycle through autumnal woodland, on a flat, well-maintained cycle path (of course).

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Heavy industry can’t be hidden away

Eventually, heavy industry forces us inland, and from here onwards it’s less scenic and more like the industrial heartlands that the Rhineland is known for. We rejoin the Rhine a few km out of Bonn, where we bump into another group of cyclists – an advance party from Climate Express (riding from Brussels), who are putting down route markers for the 300 or so riders who are about 10km behind. If only we’d thought of that!

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Red wine on standby…

As we arrive into Bonn, we meet up with the other TTC group, and we congregate on some grass outside the Opera House, for an impromptu celebratory dance to ‘Praise You’ by Fatboy Slim, a run through some hoops, and a huge group hug with two unsuspecting locals caught in the middle of it all!

From here, it’s on to the Big Top on the other side of the river,  to hear more about the actions planned for Ende Gelande on Sunday (today is Friday), meet other activists, get food and generally get clued up.

In all the excitement, we accidentally miss our time slot for getting to our planned accommodation for the night and are then told that we’ll have to find somewhere else to sleep. Potentially a big problem until one of the Ende Gelande organisers steps in and saves our bacon porridge by finding us space at a local (very warm) sports hall. Thank you!

Day eight

It’s Saturday in Bonn, and there’s heaps going on. As well as what is being billed as Germany’s biggest ever march for climate justice, there’s also a Critical Mass bike ride from Cologne to Bonn, and action training for Sunday’s trip into the mine.

But first, we have to move accommodation. We’re woken at about 7.30am by a gaggle of Danish students who’ve just got off a coach – and we’re in their sleeping quarters. Hurriedly we pack up (I seize the chance to have a shower before we’re turfed out) and vacate the building. As we leave, the young women are jostling to bagsy the comfy mattress thing I and a few others were sleeping on.

We have breakfast on a ping-pong table out the front, as you do (we’re in a school playground) and then I lead an ‘advance’ group to the new accommodation. My map-reading skills take us the scenic route again, and the others arrive 10 minutes before us…

The new place is a building attached to a church, about 5km SW of the centre of Bonn, in a quiet suburb. It’s lovely and spacious, with plenty of room to sleep, a nice kitchen, this sofa, and even a breakfast bar (but sadly no showers).

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Once everyone’s sorted themselves out, I volunteer to lead a ride to go and look for the Critical Mass lot. There’s no way any of us fancies cycling all the way to Cologne to join a ride back to Bonn, so instead we decide to try and intercept it a few miles out of Bonn and join them for the last bit.

After lots of emails, texts and tweets from a very helpful guy called Ulrich, and with the help of a cool little app called Critical Maps (other Critical Mass riders turn it on for rides, which helps people locate it), we find the Mass. It works a treat, although the helicopter hovering overhead is also a bit of a give away that they’re approaching.

And wow, is it big! And red! There are literally thousands of people taking part, including lots of kids, which is great to see. The vibe is good natured and relaxed. So quite why the cops decide to try and break it up and stop its progress as we enter Bonn is beyond me. There’s a stand off and then the mass breaks up and cycles past the first blockade. Then there’s another, and this time the police are getting a bit lairy, grabbing at the odd bike as it passes. Why?!?

Our group of six all get through fine and we continue to ride into Bonn, where we fortuitously join up with the huge climate demo, making for a sea of red, bike bells, sound-systems and cheers from people as we cycle past, our bright red ‘Clean Air Now’ and ‘Clean Energy Now’ flags fluttering behind us.

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Cycling – a low CO2 activity

From here, some people choose to hang back and mill around, join the demo, or just do their own thing. I decide to cycle over the bridge and back to the Big Top for some of the Action Training. Unfortunately, the lure of food sidetracks me and I lose the others. From here, I can’t find any Action Training in English (turns out they moved into a nearby field), so I watch some of the German session, including a mock ‘run’ at police lines, which is pretty funny to watch. It’s unlikely to be as funny tomorrow, when the police will have pepper spray and batons.

At a loose end, I decide to cycle back into town to see where the demo has got to. It’s not hard to find – I just follow the weary looking people with placards walking in the opposite direction. The final resting place is a street on the edge of town, where there’s a live music stage, lots of NGO stalls, and a carnival atmosphere as the sun goes down.

It’s then back to the Big Top, for a final meeting of ‘the fingers’ (these are the different teams that will make their way into the mine tomorrow). I listen to the plans for Orange, while Rob listens to Green. We learn hand signals, and some of what to expect, but beyond that it’s basically, “stay together, stay peaceful, and follow our lead”.

Back at base, we eat and then have our pre-action meeting. Shit’s getting serious. We form into three affinity groups: i. Those who won’t actively go into the mine ii. Those who will go into the mine but may not cross police lines and iii. Those who will go into the mine and cross police lines.  I join group ii.

In hindsight, I perhaps wish I’d gone into group iii. I’m unlikely to ever again take part in an illegal action that’s so well organised, so well supported, I’m so well prepared for, and alongside so many others (and therefore, safety in numbers). But I know none of this at the time.

We affinibuddy-up (I’m with Jacinta) and discuss how we’re feeling. It seems we’re in the same ball-park with what we’re prepared to do.

There’s a good feeling as we go to sleep – emergency phone numbers scrawled on our arms – although some trepidation too. Lights don’t go out until midnight – and we need to be up at 5.15am for the big day tomorrow…

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Bedtime reading

Day nine – Ende Gelande

We wearily, blearily wake and grab breakfast in the half-light. There’s a nervous excitement in the air. But before we get to the mine, we have to get to the mine. We dash for a local bus, waiting at the bus stop in the dark and rain, and, as it turns out, on the wrong side of the road. It’s scarily punctual, and we all have to dash across to jump on. It’s a minor miracle we all make it in time – faff has reduced by about 80% this morning!

Next obstacle – the train. We’re at the station for a 6.45am train, but it’s mysteriously cancelled, leaving us and hundreds of others milling about on the platform. Is it a conspiracy between RWE and the train company, which must be a major energy consumer, to stop us from even getting close to the mine? Apparently not, as eventually a train does arrive that’s heading in the right direction.

By about 9am we’re back at Buir, the station we were at a few days ago for our visit to the forest. It’s good to know the lie of the land and to have seen first hand the ancient forest which this action is hoping to defend. There are hundreds, thousands of people assembling here. And then, at about 10.30am, we’re finally on the move.

It’s slow to start with, thanks to another police check, where they’re stopping people with strawbale bags or other forms of ‘soft protection’ from coming through, making sure no-one has their face covered (and no doubt filming everyone as they pass through the bottle-neck). Pointless, since about a mile into the walk a van drives through the fields, flings its doors open and a couple of people start throwing straw-bale bags towards us, before they’re eventually stopped by the cops.

After a long wee stop in a field, we kind of lose the Green finger we were walking with, as they’ve peeled off. Rob makes a quick decision to try and catch them up, rather than stay where we are, with Orange. Just for a moment we (a group of 6) are isolated, and there are police apparently closing in on us. We run. It’s slightly exhausting but we eventually catch up with the rest of the group, the police seemingly happy not to “pick us off” just yet.

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The huge excavator that activists make their way towards – shutting down operations for the day

And then it’s “over the top” and into the mine. The sight of hundreds of people dressed in white boiler suits piling over the sandy banks is almost surreal, and one that will stay with me – especially since, with my phone and all identification documents left at home, I am viewing everything vividly and first-hand, not through a screen. And I’m not just viewing, I’m sliding down scree slopes, sand in shoes, wet feet, a sense of jubilation all around that we’ve got this far.

Having been on the march for a couple of hours, a few groups start eating their packed lunches, and pretty soon everyone is. Again, completely surreal. But is it a planned tactic to lull the police into a false sense of complacency? Since at about this moment, a finger, Orange, suddenly goes for it – making a run across the sand, down and up through a moat which has been dug, over the crest of a sandbank, and then they’re running through a thin police line which is hopelessly out-numbered. One or two get sprayed but the vast majority make it through, and that’s the cue for everyone else to follow – hundreds of people. It’s incredible to witness.

But our group won’t be joining them. As agreed last night, we’ve reached our limit, and at least two of us aren’t keen on going any further. Also as planned, the other TTC group has gone for it. Instead, we distract / act as decoys / help people out of the trench, but that’s about it.

With everyone else now making their way towards the mine machinery, we instead walk up to a sort of viewing platform, and then observe what’s going on down below, in front of the huge mechanical excavator. More police arrive, then horses, but the activists are standing united, holding hands in a huge circle, while another finger has somehow marched off towards another piece of machinery. It’s crazy to watch.

Eventually, a huge rain shower passes over and we decide to head back to the station, a 45 minute walk away, glad that we can and feeling desperately for our friends and everyone else below who are now effectively kettled.

Regrets? Yes. But also no. We stuck with what we agreed, and no-one did anything they were uncomfortable with, which is something to be proud of. My regret is purely personal – that I wasn’t more brave or bold in putting myself in the “Will cross police lines” affinity group. I think the scare stories got to me. But there is always a next time, and it’s been fantastic to bear witness, and to learn from the experience.

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Affinibuddies

Wet and cold, we head back to Cologne for a beer and then on to our base in Bonn, to await news of the other group. Eventually, a call comes in and it’s good news – everyone is safe and well, and all were released without having to give ID or being charged.

They finally arrive back at base about 10pm, to a bit of a hero’s welcome. We drink celebratory beers, order in some pizza, and finally kick back a little. We did what we came here to do. We had a lot of fun along the way, made new friends and have a shared experience that will stay with us.

We bloody well did it!

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We did it!

PS. Watch out for this man…

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Not to be trusted 😉

#BonnVoyage

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Find out more about Time To Cycle on the website here, Facebook here, and Twitter here.

Read The Guardian’s story of the Ende Gelande action here.

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From London to Bonn for climate justice! Part 1

<Part 2 here>

Ok, so it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as London to Paris for climate justice, but this is exactly why we rode to Bonn last week – sustainably (with low or no emissions), to protest against the expansion of fossil fuel extraction, express solidarity with those on the frontline of climate change, to make new connections and look for better ways of living.

Finding the ‘Time to Cycle’ crew back in 2015 for the Paris ride has certainly changed my life. Connecting with people who care as much as you do about climate change and the impact we are having on the world, but who are also fun and like to do cool things like ride bikes and plant trees, has been like discovering the light at the end of a distinctly dark, cycle-unfriendly tunnel.

Caring about the climate, the planet, and biodiversity, in an ever expanding, ever busier world of rampant consumerism and friends – good people – who think nothing of jetting off on their next overseas holiday without a care in the world, can be a lonely experience.  Hooking up with Time to Cycle has challenged my cynicism and made me realise I’m not going slowly mad, and nor am I alone.

Combining cycling with activism – whether this be positive acts like tree planting, or acts of civil disobedience, like entering the open-cast coal mine at Hambacher – really is a powerful thing and something I’m grateful to have discovered, albeit rather later in life than I’d have liked. I spent most of my 20s being caught up in the London meeja world (working at the BBC, thinking I was gonna make a career there), and most of my 30s in a never-ending partying/work/culture bubble, which of course has been a lot of fun, but ultimately perhaps not that fulfilling.

So now, hitting 40 I feel like I’m finally finding my feet and in the place I want to be; a part-time activist (not quite ready to give up the creature comforts / consumerist trappings of a warm flat and a large record collection), and a soon to be employee of a major environmental organisation. It’s taken a while, but I’m getting to a good place. Better late than never! And I’ve not given up the London life of going to gigs, theatre and clubs completely…

So, to the journey.

After a lovely little Friday afternoon ride from Walton on the Naze, I meet up with the others in Harwich. Our lodging is a former chapel which is in the process of being converted into a home. There’s no furniture but it’s warm, dry and the plumbing has just been turned on, so it has all we need. Thanks to Jacinta’s mystery friend for putting us up!

We eat communally, play a bizarre game of snakes and ladders (snakes made out of bananas, ladders out of clothes) to decide who gets which flag on their bike, then turn in for the night. It’s great to put faces to names finally – especially Rob, one of the other organisers who I’ve only previously skyped a few times, and now here we are!

Day one (38.2km, av. 15.6km/hr, max 34 km/hr, time cycling: 2hr 26)

Next morning, we cycle the couple of miles to the ferry terminal and board a huge vessel which will take us to Hook of Holland, where the ride proper will start. The daytime crossing is uneventful. We read, look at Google Maps, doze; some slope off to watch a bad movie in the ship’s cinema.

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Waiting to board the ferry

It’s dusk and windy when we arrive in Holland, and where we meet Paris compatriot Tim (giver of hugs), who has been riding around Europe solo for the last three months. But the wind is blowing in our favour, and the 30km ride to Rotterdam is, literally, a breeze. Cycle lanes all the way and a generous tailwind. These off-road cycle lanes are a revelation – if only London had a 10th of this kind of cycling infrastructure.

Our lodgings for the first night are a church hall. The place is pretty huge, so we all fit in easily. A few of us cycle off to the nearest supermarket, which involves using the river tunnel, where no-one bats an eyelid if you take your bike on the old wooden escalator. We eat soup, play games, and hear a few words from the local minister. Then it’s time to turn in, as we have a long ride (85km) ahead of us tomorrow.

Day two (86.9km, av 16.7km/hr, max 30.2km/hr, time cycling: 5hr 12 min)

The next morning, we load up and set off with relatively little faff, and head south. Once again, the wind is kind to us, and progress is easy. It’s cool, there are some light showers, but nothing too serious. The landscape is completely flat, regimented. Straight lines. Lots of water, few trees and little signs of wildlife except the odd buzzard. This is what intensive agriculture looks like, folks.

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Snaking our way through underpasses

Some time around lunchtime we experience our first puncture. It’s perhaps little surprise that Tim’s bald back tire is first to go, given he’s been on the road for 3 months. But it’s easily repaired and we are soon on our way.

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Bikes rest while punctures are repaired and lunches eaten

With only the odd map-reading mishap (finding the right cycle lane is tough when there are so many) we make good progress. We even find a couple of huge ‘puffball’ mushrooms on the way – that’s dinner sorted, then – nature provides!

Our overnight stop is a squat (although that description is doing it a disservice – it’s an awesome place) called Transfarmers. It has everything we need, including some cosy sleeping quarters and a big kitchen. It’s also right next to a supermarket, so we stock up on supplies and, inevitably, beer. We feast on mushrooms (big thanks to our chefs!) and sleep like particularly happy, sleepy logs.

Day three (54.5km, av. 15.6km/hr, max 27.2km/hr, time cycling: 3hr 29 mins)

A slightly shorter ride, and today’s destination is an eco-garden somewhere close to the border with Germany. Blessed once again with clear skies and light winds, once again the off-road riding is good, and our navigators for the day – some doing it for the first time – do a grand job.

But before all that, we have to get out of Transfarmers – something our film-maker Lizzie captures on film… I promise this ain’t a set-up!

Along the way, people are having conversations; where are you from, what made you decide to do the ride, what do you think about climate change, what do your friends think about you doing the ride? Having these chats is such an integral part of the experience, as these rides are about being open, sharing your thoughts and your self. Being generous of spirit. Supporting others.

While we’re not chatting, we’re (bike) dancing. We have not one but two sound-systems on the go, pumping out everything from Chic and Queen to Debussy and Bonobo. I manage to sneak in a bit of Euros Childs and some new LCD Soundsystem.

Once again, we arrive at dusk, to be greeted by a large field with an open (but roofed) kitchen area, a fire pit, and two gloriously cosy yurts, their wood-burners already blazing. Het Eibernest – what a great place this is!

We have another puffball mushroom, as well as other delicious foods, and we eat in darkness around the blazing fire. The local owner brings us a crate of beer, and we sing songs. Kat teaches us this one:  “I walked to the end of the road / And I looked in both directions / As far as the eye can see / I’ve got the blue sky, sunshine / Ain’t nobody here but me.”

We turn in to our yurt – there’s about 9 in ours – tired but full (of food, beer and song), sleepy, cosy and content.

Day four (after this, pedalometer – yes, it’s a word – stopped working)

Today we ride into Germany. The border is unmarked and in some woods (pretty much the only ones we come across in Holland). As soon as we enter Germany the landscape changes. Less neat and tidy. More unkempt, more random, more wild areas. It looks a lot like the UK in fact.

Fortunately, the cycle paths don’t just stop at the border, and we continue to cycle safely, off-road, for the most part. In this respect, it’s not at all like the UK.

Once again, Lizzie is capturing every moment – racing ahead to get us as we cycle past something visually interesting – a bridge, an industrial plant, a hedge… I feel terrible though when our ‘back marker’ system fails completely and she gets left behind with a puncture. Luckily, she’s able to repair it herself and catch up, but still, it’s not great of us (me).

The ride isn’t the most interesting, but it doesn’t matter too much. Today is all about getting to our first overnight accommodation in a few days that has a shower. It’s a weird little place in Dusseldorf called Staffboarding – essentially a hostel for mostly migrant staff working in the catering industry and suchlike. They look a bit confused when we all turn up with our bikes, dayglo clothing and flags, but it’s all good. We shower, then treat ourselves to a meal out at a vaguely posh (for us) Italian restaurant, where our latest addition Clare (or Clara to her friends) joins us.

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Fraya admires Tim’s new hair-do

There’s a slightly bizarre situation whereby despite being a group of thirsty cyclists 15 strong, ready to spend 10-15 euros each on food and drink, they won’t give us free tap-water. Negotiations are getting us nowhere, so I drop the ‘tripadvisor‘ bomb and suddenly the water arrives… I feel for the guy waiting us; he says his dad objects to giving customers tap water when he can charge 5 euros a bottle, and that he’ll get it trouble, so we have to drink it covertly!

Day five

Today, a shorter ride on to Cologne. With a huge amount of faff (the amount of faff is mathematically proven to increase by 5% each day of the ride, and a further 5% for each additional person in a group) not helped by a damaged back wheel, we set off in two groups and enjoy a relatively stress-free ride to this big German city.

The days are starting to blur a bit, so I’m not sure there’s much more to say about this ride, other than when we arrive at our destination there’s a bit of confusion as to whether we’ve found the right place (it’s looking really unpromising), until a friendly lycra-clad man rocks up and leads us through the garage door to the secret little bunker behind. It’s a perfect little spot for us (or at least, most of us), with a general room for sleeping, a fussball table, a kitchen and a toilet (no shower, natch).

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First sign we’re getting closer…

He heads off, as do about half the group, who are off on a ‘warm showers‘ adventure (staying with local hosts), and the rest go shopping, so I stay back and make the place warm and inviting for their return (candles, low lighting, mood music… it’s as if I’m trying to seduce them.)

Once again, thanks to chefs Sam and Declan, we eat like vegan kings and queens, and have a lovely evening in our cosy hideout, chatting, reading and planning tomorrow’s activities.

We’ve decided (OK, fate has decided) that we’ll be staying two nights in Cologne – and tomorrow we plan to visit the Hambacher Forst resistance movement, and see for ourselves what’s going on out there…

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.

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.

Bike near Beachy Head

Ambling around SE England, part 2

Day two: 62.3km, av. 15.3km/hr, max 49.2km/hr, time on bike: 4hrs 3 mins

The plan for day two is to take it easy, cycle to somewhere with a station and then head home. I debate heading deeper into the South Downs, towards Royal Tunbridge Wells or perhaps the High Weald AONB, but decide I’ve had enough of hills.

I think to myself that I’ll stick to the coast where it’s flat, and have an easy ride to Eastbourne. Unfortunately there’s the small matter of the South Downs where they turn into the huge cliffs at Seaford Head and Beachy Head to content with.

Once the morning rain eases, I head out of the YHA and head south towards Newhaven, via a field full of sheep and a path covered in sheep shit. Bike and, to a lesser extent, rider, are both covered in the stuff by the time I escape their enclosure.

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There’s not much to see at Newhaven, so I head east – and into a strong headwind – toward Eastbourne, on NCN Route 2 . It’s not brilliantly marked but I do eventually manage to find the remains of Turnmills, a small village built around a tidal mill and evacuated in the 1930s after one too many flood. I also come across a bizarre road which ends with a roundabout and two roads to nowhere. Maybe the money ran out.

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From here it’s on to Seaford, passing one of the Martello towers along the way. It’s unfortunately closed today. After admiring the spectacular cliff view, I head inland, following Route 2, but at a junction which is missing a marker, I decide to take a right, and end up at the top of the cliff, Seaford Head, and find myself cycling around a golf course / nature reserve! Exploring on foot, I come across a small wooded area / cubby hole with a path leading into it, so have a look. Inside I spot about 5 or 6 empty packets of codeine + paracetamol . Not a great thing to take when you’re next to 100ft cliffs. Hope the person didn’t jump.

Speeding back downhill, I pick up the route again, which then sends me cycling through more fields full of sheep. This is pretty off-road stuff that a road bike might struggle with, but I just about manage it on my tourer. It’s great fun though, and the views are pretty great too as you head down towards the Cuckmere River.

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After crossing the river I again must have missed a routemarker as I find myself going uphill on the busy-ish A259, not a massively fun experience. At Friston I spot a chance to take a right and head towards Beachy Head, so take it. Immediately back on quiet roads and countryside, and the clouds start to lift. Beachy Head is spectacular, and spectacularly accessible. I don’t quite realise how close to the edge of the cliff I got (for a photo, obvs) until thinking about it after. Anyway, it’s a great spot for lunch.

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From here, there’s more up, until eventually there is no more up, and it’s all downhill towards Eastbourne. By the time I’ve got there the skies have cleared and it’s positively beach weather. I celebrate with some fish and chips (eaten indoors, to avoid the seagull attacks), where I bump into the OAP guy from the hostel last night. He’s on a motorbike, and despite leaving the hostel later than me, arrived at Beachy Head much earlier, when it was still covered in thick cloud and drizzle. My timing, it turns out, was impeccable.

I then have a wander around the pier (there’s literally nothing to see) and a bit of a sunbathe on the beach. It’s even warm enough (just) to dip a toe in the sea.

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It’s now decision time. Do I spend another hour or two chillaxing with all the oldies in Eastbourne, taking care not to be hit by a mobility scooter and maybe checking out the model railway village(!) Or do I cycle on to the next place of note, Bexhill, where I can check out the De La Warr Pavllion if I get there before 6. I decide to go for it. Into the headwind, again… Why Joe, Why?

The ride isn’t that great, mainly because I lose Route 2 somewhere along the way, and end up on the now massively busy, super-fast A259 instead of the no-doubt lovely Herbrand Walk route. And, truth be told, the Pavilion is a bit disappointing. I’ve seen it before, and think I was disappointed last time, too. At least I made it in time before it closed for the day.

And with that, the day is done and I hop on the train back to the Big Smoke. An enjoyable couple of days although I probably shoulda stopped in Eastbourne. Sometimes you can cycle too much!

 

Dead wood forming natural sculpture among flowers

Ambling around SE England, part 1

Day one: 124.5km, av. 17.4km/hr, max 45.9 km/hr, calories 1668, co2 saved 18.6, time on bike: 7hrs 7 mins  (a new record!)

With the sun shining and an unexpected few days off work and in the UK (plans to cycle in Germany as part of the ride to Ende Gelande didn’t quite come off) I decide instead to ride for a couple of days in SE England, staying over night at a youth hostel for the first time. I’m no youth but I’m reliably informed that doesn’t matter any more, and at £13 a night (£10 for members) you can’t really argue.

I set off relatively early (for me) at around 10.30am in glorious sunshine on my now usual route out of South London, although this time going via Sydenham Hill station (Fountain Drive) to get to Crystal Palace, which is a much nicer route and makes me wonder why I haven’t done it before – it also avoids the absolutely killer steep bit directly up Sydenham Hill Road.

After Croydon and Purley I take a right and head towards Banstead. Somewhere near Epsom I end up cycling right through the racecourse, which is kind of odd, and then through some woods along a bumpy, steep uphill dirt track which is part of the national cycle network (Route  22) but would surely be impassable in winter. Fun though!

Eventually I get beyond the M25, though this time  via a dark little tunnel going under, rather than a euphoric downhill woosh going over. Beggars can’t be choosers; it’s still great to escape London’s clutches.

Suddenly, I’m in the Surrey Hills and find myself back on Leith Hill, for want of taking the quieter route. I stop for lunch part 1 (split lunch into two halves for double the enjoyment) at the top, in woods, sitting on a log as the birds sing around me and the sunshine peaks through. It’s lush. As is the downhill…

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Back on the main roads, I dick-up near Dorking, riding about an extra 5km for no good reason. Back on track, I suddenly find myself again in glorious countryside, heading towards Coldharbour. Whizzing downhill, ringing my bell thrilled at how amazing it is to be cycling here in such beautiful, green surrounding, I (stupidly) get my phone out to take a photo and somehow capture the moment (you can’t, silly!)

At this point, with only one hand on the bars, I hit some kind of pothole and nearly – oh so nearly – come off. I pull on the brakes instinctively, skid a little, and head towards the verge, but somehow stay upright. I breathe a huge sigh of relief and begin to think just how much damage I might have just done to myself had I come off at 35km/hr, which is probably what I was doing. And of course while I packed a tool kit in case the bike needs any patching up, I didn’t pack anything to patch myself up…

Lesson well and truly learnt.

Finally, and a little later than planned, I hit the Downs Link in the village of Rudgwick. The link is a cycle track on an old railway line down to Shoreham, shut after the infamous Beeching report in the 1960s. The guy rightly gets a lot of stick, but at least on the plus side we now have a legacy of green corridors for wildlife and cyclists, walkers, and horse riders.

The first thing I come across is the crazy double bridge, which also makes a great lunch (part 2) stop. They built one bridge but then realised it was too low, making the gradient too steep for trains to get to the nearby station, so they built a second bridge on top of it. Genius. Nearby there’s a beautiful glade and nature’s own sculpture…

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From here on the ride is enjoyable, although the surface is a bit tricky at times (you couldn’t do it on a road bike), and I do start to yearn for a bit of tarmac. Or just a track you can ride on without shaking all of your bones. It’s also sometimes a bit weird being stuck in a green corridor without much of a view – although it would be amazing in summer if you need shade. By now, it’s clouded over and there’s even a few spots of rain when I stop at the abandoned station of West Grinstead, so it’s actually quite gloomy cycling under the canopy.

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Somewhere near West Grinstead, my phone (and with it MapMyRide) dies, and it’s around here that I accidentally lose the Downs Link route as it passes through a housing estate. But this is no bad thing as I need to get to a place called Southease (love that name!) in time for dinner at 7pm, so it’s time to get back onto the roads.

I end up on the A281 heading through / over the South Downs, near to Devil’s Dyke, passing the 100km mark as I do. I won’t lie, it’s hard work, but I push on through, and then enjoy the long descent into Brighton.

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There’s no time to enjoy any of the attractions in Brighton though, and I ride on, via the coastal path that I last cycled on in December, with the waves crashing over the sea wall. There’s no such drama this time, but it’s still great to be beside the sea, after a day spent cycling in the countryside. Eventually, Google Maps tells me to take a bridleway for the last bit of the route.

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The bridleway is basically grass, uphill, through a huge field. Completely nuts but good fun. It eventually returns me to a road, and there’s a final bit of downhill joy before I eventually hit the Youth Hostel at Southease. It’s in an old farm building and has real character. I’m just in time for dinner (no time for a shower first) so I literally sit down and then eat. Lots. It’s pizza and I have to say I temporarily put any pretence of being vegan or even veggie aside as I pig out.

Apart from post a load of pics to Instagram, and chat to the two guys I have dinner with (one a retired guy riding a motorbike, the other a young Lithuanian carpenter staying overnight between jobs), there’s not too much to do other than go to sleep. I’m in bed by 11, tired but glad to have cycled further in one day than I ever have before!