Tour De Frack 2018

Yes, it seems a long time ago now(!), but way back in June I joined around 50 others on bikes to take part in the inaugural Tour De Frack – a bike ride with a difference.

The idea of the ride is simple; highlight the ongoing threat from unconventional oil and gas exploration in the heart of SE England: the Weald and Surrey Hills. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty that is under threat from fracking, and with it the wholesale industrialisation of the countryside in this part of the world – Surrey and Sussex – as well as many more places like it across the country.

The ride has been organised by resilient and long-standing campaign groups, including Frack Free Surrey, Frack Free Sussex, the Horse Hill Protection Group and the Weald Action Group, with support from collaborating groups such as Time To Cycle, Reclaim The Power and Frack Free London.

Some of the individuals involved today are also subject to an (at the time forthcoming) injunction limiting their right to protest, courtesy of INEOS, which has since been partially upheld – itself a worrying development

The riders convene in a local park in Dorking for a briefing about the ride, time to ‘flag up’ (attach a flag to your bike) and join a riding group – short, medium or longer distance. I go for medium – it’s been a while since I did a longer ride this year, and I want to enjoy the ride rather than bust a gut on the Surrey Hills.

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Some time around 10.30am we set off. With perfect weather, we ride out en-masse at a steady, enjoyable pace, weaving our way out of Dorking (with a few quick laps of a local roundabout, just to make sure the traffic sees us all) before splitting out into our smaller groups – ours is about 20 strong.

Our first stop is Brockham, where local anti-frackers have come out in force to provide welcome refreshments and to talk about the battles they’re fighting. Time for a quick, shambolic group photo, then it’s back on the road – we’ve got 50km to cover so can’t hang around too long.

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The roads are mostly quiet and mercifully lorry free. Of course, if a fracking industry is allowed to develop here, they’ll be full of tankers and construction vehicles for years to come – not something local people or cyclists want to see happen, and another good reason to resist and protest (even if you don’t care about climate change!)

After pausing at the drilling site on Horse Hill (just west of Horley) for a recap on what’s been going on here, and what the Horse Hill Protection Camp has been doing to resist – including ‘slow walks’ in front of delivery trucks, included in the INEOS injunction and upheld by the judge. At the junction of Reigate Road we pause for lunch – again, local people have turned out to supply cold drinks, hot drinks, cakes, soup, you name it – and to listen to speakers.

One lady speaker rightly points out that as long as we continue to build thousands, even millions of new homes that are gas-heated, the demand for gas will only continue to rise and we lock in fossil fuel technology for another generation.

Why aren’t we building to Passivhaus standards, why aren’t we insisting every new development incorporates solar panels and heat pumps? Oh yes, because developers aren’t forced to, and they’re only interested in making as much money as possible, not reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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Meanwhile we have an out-of-control plastics industry that uses up around 17% of all crude oil supplies – pumping out single use plastic that no-one needs and which is ending up polluting our environment.

And guess which company is at the heart of this industry in the UK…?  Yes, it’s our faves, INEOS – incidentally, headed-up by Jim Ratcliffe, the UK’s richest man. It’s good to know that our economic system rewards so handsomely the people who do the most damage to the environment. No polluter pays principle here, thank-you, we’re British.

All food for thought as we cycle onwards and upwards, past Gatwick Airport (unchecked aviation growth representing yet another challenge to keeping within 1.5 degrees of warming), Charlwood, Ockley and eventually Coldharbour and beautiful Redlands Wood – home to a well-built protection camp and our final stop today.

We sit around the campfire, have a beer, and hear incredible stories from local Protectors about what it’s been like to live here throughout the beast of a winter we endured. In a word: cold.

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It really beggars belief that anyone other than greedy bastards and speculators seeing pound signs, with no climate conscience (or no conscience full stop), can think drilling here makes any kind of sense.

And so, we’re done here for the day and it’s time to say goodbye. It’s been a great ride, illuminating of course, but – more than that – by riding these contours you get a sense of what’s at stake. We can’t turn our countryside into an oilfield. It’s under enough pressure as it is. We need to be protecting and enhancing what’s left of places like Holmwood Common, not drilling them. Our wildlife is already in decline, our roads are already getting busier, our air is already illegally polluted.

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All these things will get worse if we frack here – and for what? To lock ourselves into decades more of fossil fuel extraction and burning, at the exact moment in history when we need to be doing the exact opposite – upscaling renewables, including onshore wind and solar, developing a smart grid and encouraging local energy generation and ownership.

We don’t need a ‘bridge’ fuel, and fracking won’t make us ‘energy independent’ from those pesky Russians. All these are myths drip-fed into the media and the public conscience by people like Jim Radcliffe and others who stand to gain financially from fracking. Really, Jim and his ilk just want to get (even) richer by extracting more fuels, in ever more ‘unconventional’ (read: batshit crazy) ways.

Interestingly though, since the ride, there’s hope that the tide could be turning – despite big setbacks including the imminent start of fracking at Preston New Road, and the ridiculous jail sentences handed down to 3 protestors there.

In short, more and more Tory MPs are beginning to realise that actually, people don’t want fracking where they live – and they especially don’t want it forced on them by central government, as is currently happening.

There’s a real risk that fracking could become an election issue and Tory MPs supporting it could be at risk of being unseated. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens (obvs) are all against fracking, by the way.

Like a good BBC documentary, the ride was educational, informative and entertaining. Can’t say fairer than that. A big thanks to all those who helped organise the event and supported us on the day.

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From London to Paris, for climate justice. Pt 1.

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.

Saturday evening

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.