Recently I’ve been stepping up the cycling, with a couple of 50-60km jaunts around south west London (along the Wandle Trail) in preparation for… this!
A five day ride to Paris from south London, to demonstrate that another way is possible; low-carbon travel that is slower, for sure, but also an exciting, fun adventure and, without wanting to sound too wanky, a minor journey into self-discovery, testing myself and maybe learning new things along the way.
It all starts in a Tulse Hill church, the Holy Trinity, where the vicar or whatever (actually a very nice guy called Richard Dormandy) loans us his church for the night for a “getting to know each other” session that is way less cringeworthy than I’d expected. (Note to self: try not to have preconceptions and expectations). We hear from him and his attempts to build Europe’s first straw-bale community building, which is pretty damn rad when you think about it.
We also hear from Kate Rawles, a cyclist, writer and ‘outdoor philosopher’. Kate cycled 4,500 miles along the Rocky mountains in just 2 months – in searing heat and freezing cold, at an average of around 75 miles a day – and talking to American’s about climate change at every opportunity. A truly impressive achievement, whichever way you look at it. By the end of her talk I’m totally inspired, and rush over to pick up a copy of her book, The Carbon Cycle.
We also use the evening to talk about what we hope to get out of the experience, identify ourselves as North/South/East/West people (logical, rational, emotional, creative, etc), and eventually get into loose groups based on expected cycling speed. We also have a tasty dinner, where I end up sitting next to another Joe, one of the main organisers of the event and a lovely, unassuming guy to boot.
As for the other cyclists, they’re from all over the UK (including a group from Scotland who arrive late in the evening to loud applause, having already been on the road for several days) and are universally lovely, friendly, positive people. Many are sleeping over in the church before we set off early Sunday morning but since I only live a couple of miles away I head home for one more night in my comfy bed.
Day one: Sunday. Tulse Hill, South London to Brighton.
87km, av. 14.5km/hr, max 50.3km/hr.
Calories: 942, CO2 offset: 13.07kg, time: 5hr 59mins.
Day one of the ride, and it’s a biggie: London to Brighton via the good people of Balcombe. After finding my group – the Bee Team – limbering up and generally buzzing around with excitement, we eventually get going some time around 9am, with me at the controls (with a little help from Google Maps).
We’re in groups but for the first part of the day there’s a fair amount of overlap and overtaking, as we’re all going the same way – namely, navigating our way out of the endless south London burbs… Streatham, Croydon and then, eventually, the unexpected wild open space that is Farthing or Fairdean Downs. This is where one of our group, Morgan, has her first puncture. While she’s replacing her inner-tube, I’m having my first nature experience: a wee behind this stand of trees and bushes, also home to several cows looking at me suspiciously.
We victoriously cross the M25 – officially the end of Londonshire – at speed. So fast in fact, my ‘Cyclists Stay Awesome’ sign falls off but is retrieved – phew! We nearly miss a hidden left turning which takes us off-road for the first time, but thankfully another group shout at us to follow them.
Despite further puncture problems with Morgan’s tyre, we make it to Balcombe in decent time and are amazed at the reception we get. Loads of locals have turned out to welcome, feed, and put make-up on us! We’re not entirely sure about the make-up, but go along with it anyway.
These guys have been fighting the good fight against fracking in their local area – a fight which has national significance. They were also leading the way with their alternative vision and pioneering approach to local renewable energy – until the ‘greenest government ever’ pulled the plug on their dreams and ambitions.
After a hugely satisfying, warming lunch (thanks guys!) the rain begins. At first it’s just drizzle, but as darkness falls it intensifies, and the final few miles into Brighton, alongside the A23, getting sprayed by the speeding traffic, is pretty miserable. We also lose some of our team after Morgan’s puncture returns and a mix-up in the groups (at this point we’ve joined another group with a sound-system and don’t hear calls to stop) mean that we get split up.
So most of us arrive at the Brighthelm Centre in Brighton cold, wet, tired but… and it’s a big but… just in time to hear Caroline Lucas give a fantastic speech welcoming us to the city she represents in Parliament and commending us on what we’re doing; for being the change we want to see.
After that and speeches by a couple of others, we get an amazing meal from the Real Junk Food Project, made up entirely of leftovers destined for landfill, plus some tasty home-brewed ale and elderflower fizz.
For some – including me – the cycling isn’t quite over for the day as accommodation for about 30 of us is in a small hall on the other side of town, so it’s back on the bikes for a short ride to the Exeter Street community hall.
Although I’m still in my damp cycling clothes due to one of the support vans having a puncture (word of the day!) the hall is warm, the people friendly and the beer, well, there if we want it.
Eventually, the van (and dry clothes) arrive, and I have a shower in the house of a local woman who’s come down to welcome us. Pretty awesome, Brighton! It’s then roll-mats out for sleeping, and I think it’s safe to say we’re pretty much all out for the count before the light’s even switched off.