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.

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Canal boat with lock gates 'staircase' in background

Glastonbury Festival on two wheels

As a regular Glastonbury-goer (thanks to volunteering with WaterAid for the last few years), in recent times I’ve thought about whether it might be possible to cycle to the festival, especially after one too many arduous queues at Castle Carry station…

Last year I spoke to a couple of people who had done it and survived to tell the tale so this year, with the SE Asia jaunt still fresh in the mind and the legs Rachel and I (now just good friends, regular readers) decide to go for it.

Our decision is aided by having a very supportive WaterAid volunteer manager, Anna, who said it would be OK to take some of our gear to the festival and put our bikes in the van for the return journey – the thought of having to cycle back to London after five days of festivaling was just too much to contemplate!

The decision is also made easier by a very active Facebook group and the fact that we’d be able to leave our bikes in a secure area for the duration of the festival. By providing this facility Glastonbury Festival is supporting cycling, which is hugely appreciated, although next year it would be great to see them doing even more, such as extending the size of the cyclist’s camping field, which was vastly over-subscribed.

Our next steps are to plan the route and decide whether we’d do it in two or three days. The fact that I have tickets to see Reigning Sound in London on the Monday make that decision for us, so we decide to do it over two days and go via the Kennet and Avon Canal rather than a more southerly route. We order two cycling maps from Sustrans and book camping accommodation at Stowford Manor Farm. We’re ready to roll…

We decide not to over-reach ourselves in terms of distance and take a train some of the way to avoid the boring ‘getting out of London’ bit. Some call this ‘cheating’… er, we call it ‘pragmatism’. So, on Tuesday morning we cycle to Paddington and take a 10.30am train to Reading, and then on to a small place called Midgeham.

Two people and a cycling sign

National Route 4 at Midgeham

The station is right by the canal path and we start the ride. It’s perfect cycling weather – some sunshine, light winds and about 20c – and the canal path is pretty delightful to start with.

Although picturesque, cycling along canal towpaths can be quite slow as there are lots of obstacles to negotiate – bridges, gates, dog walkers, anglers, that sort of thing. The path is also pretty narrow at times as it cuts a swathe through the abundant vegetation. So our initial progress is pretty slow. We also have to keep an eye on the map as although we’re on National Cycle Route 4 you have to keep your eyes peeled for the signposts.

We’re in Newbury around lunchtime and from here the route veers off the canal and onto tarmac roads, which is kind of welcome as we need to pick up the pace up a bit. Somewhere in Newbury we miss a signpost and we end up on a major A road, but fortunately there’s a roadside path we can cycle on, and pretty soon we’re off the main road, and on a glorious downhill B-road back towards the canal.

At about this point the countryside starts to open out and we start to really enjoy the ride. There are a few small ups and downs to negotiate, but we’re cycling through some glorious English countryside and we quickly remember why we chose to ride!

Van with a sign saying 'cyclists you rule'

Cool cycle sticker spotted near Devizes

Among the sites are the North Wessex Downs, one of Wiltshire’s famous chalk horses, the fair-trade town of Devizes and, finally, the amazing series of lock gates between Devizes and Trowbridge. Here, the canal path is much more cycle-friendly and we have a great stop for a late afternoon snack by a beautifully restored swing bridge.

By the time we get to Stowford Manor Farm campsite – having stocked up on festival booze at a Co-op in Trowbridge – it’s gone 8pm; it’s been a long day’s ride with around 95km on the clock (not including the journey to Paddington).

sunshine and a girl on a bike next to a tent

Evening sunshine at Stowford Manor Campsite

The campsite, set by a babbling river, is absolutely gorgeous (there’s a reason it’s in the Cool Camping guide), but there’s no time to sit and admire it. As soon as the tent is up we race to the nearest pub in order to get a meal before they stop serving food (9pm!) The pub is set by a cricket pitch and the food is pretty decent – and wolfed down.

We’re now within about 35km of Worthy Farm so day two should – on paper at least – be much easier, hence we don’t exactly rush to get going (there’s a rope-swing over the river for gawds sake, why would you ever want to leave?!) We aren’t on the road til about 11am.

Guy on a rope swing over a river

Messing about on the river

The roads aren’t as much fun today, and seem to be mostly uphill. It also doesn’t help that between us we can’t agree on which to take – the confusing country lanes or the busy but ultimately unavoidable A361. In the end, we do a bit of both.

We lunch and stock up on final festival essentials (cash, apples, etc) in Frome – a really cute little market town. After this, the last 10km or so seem to take forever, and we eventually hit Pilton some time around 3pm.

The final downhill towards the festival site is great fun though (overtaking all the coaches) and there is definitely something satisfying about getting that first festival glimpse on a bike, wind in the hair, rather than stuck inside a stuffy bus.

On our arrival I think we’re secretly expecting some sort of triumphant welcoming committee but it quickly dawns on us that we’re definitely not the only ones to have cycled to Glastonbury (there are hundreds of bikes in the secure area already) and a lot of cyclists have come a lot further and are carrying all their gear!

Two people in front of a Glasto sign

We made it!

Still, the guys at the lockup are very nice, giving us our cycle-wristbands and putting a band on our bikes too.

Feeling just a little bit pleased with ourselves, we walk into the festival arena lugging panniers, not rucksacks for a change… We did it!

Made it!

At the campsite – not quite ready to put a tent up though!

After the Festival (which was amazing as ever) on Monday morning, we need to bring our bikes in from the lock up to the central markets area, where the WaterAid van is parked. Security are relaxed about this – thank God – and it means we get to experience, for a few minutes, the pure joy that is cycling (carefully, of course) around the Glastonbury site post-festival, including across the Pyramid Stage area and down the hill from the Stone Circle.

So much fun and an unexpected little bonus Glasto experience… just don’t tell anyone! 🙂

Girl on bike in front of Pyramid Stage

Rachel in front of the Pyramid Stage