Plant trees and build bridges, not walls!

Last weekend, by a happy calendar coincidence, I was able to take part in two very different kinds of activism. And no, I wasn’t yelling for the Garden Bridge…

On Friday, the day a certain Donald Trump is inaugurated to the highest office in the US, perhaps the world, I am holed up in a small room near London Bridge, as part of the Bridges Not Walls media and social media team, while up to 1,000 amazing people are taking part in coordinated banner drops on 9 (NINE!) central London bridges, including the iconic Tower Bridge, and thousands more are taking action around the UK and world.

This is the fantastic climax to a busy, beautiful journey from a crazy idea hatched back in November, the day after he was elected, to a worldwide, day-long expression of hope, anger, solidarity, creativity and activism: Bridges Not Walls.

After countless Skype calls, a couple of face to face meetings – where impressive facilitation meant all voices were heard and decisions were made democratically – plus many late nights, the big day has finally arrived. Now the bigger questions – Will we even be able to get onto Westminster and Waterloo Bridges? Will the London action be successful? Will anyone care?  What it it doesn’t take off? – are about to be answered, emphatically…

Cycling towards the Thames on Friday morning, one thing is already obvious – it’s a beautiful, bright, clear morning for a protest, and the banners are going to look amazing!

Had it been grey, rainy or even foggy (as it has been since), it would have been a very different affair and the film and photos would have looked soggy and miserable. Ironically, as photos of people taking Bridges Not Walls actions across Europe and the world flood in, it looks like the only place where it is raining on Friday is Washington DC. Maybe there is a God after all, and she doesn’t support Trump.

With some good momentum on Facebook and Twitter (thanks largely to a post-pub tweet I posted on Thursday night of a great action in Paris that quickly ‘went viral’) it seems like we are well set up on social media. But will the London images look as iconic as Paris?

As the first photos of the Tower Bridge and London Bridge banners appear on Twitter it quickly becomes obvious: yes, they will!

All the amazing hard work and diligence that went into their creation was not only worth it, but essential. Everyone who worked so hard on the logistics of the operation, and put in the hours (literally, thousands of hours) to make the banners a reality deserve huge credit.

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The combination of white fabric and dayglo lettering with a black outline just works so well. And the visual consistency of the banners make it clear this is a coordinated, yet multi-message action. Different messages, but a united cause.

Also vindicated is the late decision to change the direction of the boat’s journey, capturing the action starting at Tower Bridge and heading west rather than the other way, and the side the banners are hung – all lit up by glorious morning sunshine.

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As the first pictures come in from Vauxhall, there are a few tears of joy in the room. Those guys and girls are having a party and they want the whole world to know it! The rainbow flares are a genius addition and give Vauxhall Bridge, with its brilliant message ‘Queer Solidarity Smashes Borders’, added oomph.

Meanwhile, on other bridges, the decision to add raised letters to spell out extra messages above the banners is also proving inspired – the lettering stands out against the skyline and gives more room for messaging.

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In the ‘hub’, things aren’t going quite so smoothly though. We change the passwords to everything about 30 minutes before it all starts to go mental and in doing so nearly lock ourselves out of Gmail and Instagram. But at least it means all our sites and social platforms are secure as the traffic (and trolls) rocket.

After this, things settle into a pattern, and momentum starts to build. The first professional photos are starting to come in and they look incredible. We have Facebook Live from Westminster Bridge. We have live coverage on BBC London (TV and radio). Suddenly the hashtag is trending in London, then the UK, then the world!

Some time around 9.30am, the first real images of actions from outside London are starting to filter through, and they look brilliant. From rural Wales to urban Manchester, iconic to humdrum, hundreds of small but beautiful actions are being shared live on social media.

And then we start noticing that they’re coming in from all over Europe, thanks largely to Greenpeace Europe’s late involvement –  from the far north of snow-covered Sweden to Berlin to Greece.

We’re trying to add photos to the rapidly growing Facebook album as fast as they’re coming in, but can barely keep up. Every now and again there’s an exclamation of “wow, check out Berlin”, or, “stand by – first photos coming in from Aberdeen, they’ve totally smashed it!” and a quick rush over to look at a laptop screen. Check them all in this photo album on Facebook.

Meanwhile on Twitter the trolls have come out to play. From the baffled (“but don’t you people understand, Trump’s been elected fair and square?”) to the plain nasty and gruesome, it’s all there, but satisfyingly, the hate tweets are outnumbered about 1000-1 by positivity and love for #BridgesNotWalls.

Countless people are saying things like “I don’t know who you are but thank you for giving us hope on an otherwise dark day.” Or, when seeing a banner, “I don’t know who made the banner I’ve just seen, but it’s made my day.”

Across the UK and the world, people are jumping on the idea and running with it. One favourite is a woman who shares a photo of a bridge she’s built out of books about walls. That’s deep.

By 11am, #BridgesNotWalls is the second biggest hashtag worldwide, and my Tweetdeck is in meltdown. The tactic of taking action early (before work) and setting the agenda for the day has 100% paid off – and also provides the perfect comeback to the bores who accuse us of being workshy lefties who need to get a job.

Something funny is happening to the media coverage too. Big-hitting sites including Mashable (with their 8m twitter followers), BuzzfeedTime OutThe Guardian, Huff Po, Daily Fail and, most bizarrely, Breitbart (in an ‘exclusive’ – yeah, exclusive to everyone), have all covered the action and, almost without exception, covered it favourably. Much to the chagrin of their readers (check the DM comments for a laugh). Could all the staffers at Breitbart be over in Washington and it’s the intern who’s put the press release up without thinking to do a hatchet job first?!

By lunchtime, actions have come in from Sydney in Australia, Kathmandu in Nepal, Dubai in the UAE, and NYC in the US. What started as an idea in the mind of one person has spread around the globe in a single day and captured the imagination in a way we never thought possible.

In the afternoon, just about the same time as the first edit of the (excellent) film arrives, the internet in the office we’re in goes down. The first upload of the film to FB fails completely, and getting it onto Twitter is taking an age. We get wind of a ‘secret’ wifi network and pile onto it, just about managing to share the film before it goes down again.

The rest of the afternoon is spent sharing the film on Twitter with signatory and supportive organisations and individuals. It’s had thousands of views by the time we call it a day and hit the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate and chew over what has, I feel, been a ray of light on an otherwise dark day.

Plant trees, not walls

There’s no rest for the wicked though and early Saturday, complete with hangover, I struggle out of bed and into clothes vaguely suitable for cycling and tree-planting in sub-zero temperatures. I sleepily make my way to Clapham to hook up with around 16 other Time to Cycle cyclists who are ready to plant trees and help make the world that little bit less dull.

At 9am we set off in two groups, ‘fast’ and ‘fun’. I choose the fast group, although it’s not that fast, and it’s still quite fun. The route maybe leaves a bit to be desired though. We head out from Clapham towards Epsom on the A24, which isn’t an especially nice road to ride on. I’m pretty sure there are less busy routes to Epsom, although perhaps not from Clapham.

Our ride leader has to check his phone for the route on about 3 occasions (maybe writing down the route on paper would have been a good plan?) and he also takes us through red lights, which might be fine on your own in London, but in a small group it just means you get shouted at by Angry Surrey Drivers – a pretty common breed, especially on Saturday mornings.

Anyhoo, we get to the site, Langley Vale Woods, in one piece and, it turns out, I’ve cycled here before. In that blog post I described the path through the woods as “surely impassable in winter” and I’m not far wrong. It’s only because the mud’s frozen (and it’s been a dry few weeks) that we can cycle all the way to the planting site.

When we arrive, I say hi to some old Time To Cycle buddies, get a cup of chai to warm up, and then it’s straight into the digging and planting. Unlike the December plant, this is an almost military operation, with dozens of people, a full catering unit, and a huge field with the planting spots already marked in orange dots. This is the Woodland Trust – clearly they don’t mess about.

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It’s a big old space to fill but, with so many people, we make rapid progress. By lunchtime the first field is full of tiny beech saplings. The plan is to create a beech coppice and also to connect two existing areas of semi-ancient woodland. The land we’re planting is currently arable but was returning such low yields the Trust were able to buy it at a pretty low price.

Despite the overnight frost, we’re planting on a south facing slope and the sun has already done its work. Thank god it’s another sunny day! The people planting range from 5 year old children to OAPS, and includes a large contingent from a local Muslim group, and another large contingent from a nearby Hindu community. Worth mentioning, since so often conservation is portrayed as the preserve of the white middle classes and environmental issues as of little interest to minority groups.

During lunchtime, the ‘fun’ group of cyclists finally turns up. A puncture en-route slowed them in their tracks and didn’t sound like much fun at all, unfortunately. Also rather unfortunately for them, by the time we’ve had lunch and taken an official group photo for Time To Cycle, there’s actually not that much tree planting left to do.

Because the event has been so popular, and also because a small area of land that was in the shade all day is in fact too frosty, we’re rapidly running out of places to plant and we finish a little early, meaning some of the late arrivals have barely planted a single tree.

Job done though, with at least 5,000 trees planted!

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A smaller group of us set off back to London before it starts to get dark, but the group are heading back towards SW London so I decide to go it alone and see if I can re-trace my old route in reverse. I cycle through Epsom Racecourse again (fun!) and back along a few roads that seem vaguely familiar. But, as darkness descends and tiredness grows, I end up on fairly unpleasant roads that all seem to lead to Croydon. Isn’t it always the way?!

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It’s here that I end up tiredly cycling along a road shared with a tram, and without really realising it, accidentally get my front wheel stuck in the groove of the tram-line. I tumble to the ground but thankfully I’m not going fast and am not hurt – although my saddle and front light are both damaged, and a tram approaching from behind means I have to get out of the way pretty quickly.

I blame tiredness, which suddenly hits me like a wave. I realise I’m right outside West Croydon station so I decide to admit defeat and take the Overground the rest of the way home.

I’m knackered, a little bruised, but happy that I’ve managed to make some kind of positive contribution to the world in the last two days – in two very different ways.

On 20 January, build bridges not walls

If, like me and the rest of the more sane, compassionate bit of humanity, you woke up on 9 November and felt your heart sink with utter despair at Trump’s election – just a few short months after Brexit – then maybe you’ve since been looking for a way to express this.

Be it anger at, rejection of, or opposition to what he and his cronies stand for; fear of what his election means for your daily life; despair at how we’ve gotten to a state where a racist, homophobic, dishonest, misogynistic, climate-change denying brute can be elected into the most powerful position in the world – this action is for you!

The idea – to drop banners off bridges expressing how we feel about Trump’s election – was hatched in early December. Since then a group of people, some experienced activists, others absolutely not, have been working in cooperation to create a decentralized event that will allow people to express their feelings and show exactly why they reject all that Trump and his election as US President stands for – particularly in relation to racism, the rise in hate crime, and the creeping fascism that is stalking Europe too, because we recognise that although his election affects everyone, it affects some groups more than others.

We will actively unite as citizens, building bridges of trust and friendship between and within communities, rather than passively let the forces of hatred and division take over. We know that bridges are stronger than walls, as sure as love trumps hate.

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As well as being able to organise a simple banner-drop event in your local area (register it on the website, where you can also download the guidebook (pdf)), organisers are working on a more coordinated central London action on the morning of 20 January, that will see banners dropped on as many as 10 iconic London bridges, from Tower to Vauxhall.

There’s a meeting about this taking place in East London on Saturday at 1pm – see the Facebook event here for more info. This will be followed by a banner making weekend (party!) on 14-15 January (materials provided) before the BIG DAY on 20 Jan.

Additionally, a small bursary is available to support banner-making costs for non-London events. Please email bridgesnotwallsuk@gmail.com for more details about this.

Get involved, and show the world that you reject Trump and what he stands for. Together, we’ll build bridges not walls on 20 January 2017. See you there!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bridgesnotwallsuk/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bridgesnotwallz

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!

Critical Mass riders over Waterloo Bridge

Critical Mass London

After working from home on Friday, it took some effort to drag my bones out of the house to join the first Critical Mass ride of the year. But drag my bones I do, and cycle my flesh over to Waterloo for what will be my first ever ride on a Critical Mass.

After one of the Lewisham Cyclists warned me that they were a bit crazy, and a bit too confrontational for her liking, I’m quite excited by the prospect, but also in a weirdly anti-social mood. (That’s what working at home all day with no human contact does to you.) I’m also late, which makes finding the London Beer & Bike’s pre-meet in Bernie Spain Gardens a bit tricky. By the time I’ve got there, they’ve already gone.

Not entirely sure where the main ride leaves from, I cycle around Waterloo until eventually I spot them. They’re not hard to miss, whatever sense you’re using – the sight of 100s of flashing bike lights, the din of the competing sound systems, or the smell of herbals being smoked liberally.

I don’t recognise anyone, so I just start cycling, but this time I’m not making any particular effort to socialise. We head over Waterloo Bridge – there must be around 200 riders in total – and it’s a pleasure to be slowing up the traffic again while listening to one of the filthiest track ever recorded (to much hilarity…)

As we approach the Strand, rather than go over Aldwych we head into the normally ‘cars-only’ underpass. This is one of the roads/tunnels I’ve always wanted to do on a bike, but never had the balls to do alone, so cycling it in a big group is amazing. Bells ringing, people whooping and cheering. I open my can of cider on the way out to celebrate.

We carry on up Holborn, and I help ‘block’ at the junction outside the tube station. One taxi driver is getting particularly wound up. When I tell him we’re blocking the junction for his safety and ours (with a can of cider in my hand) his eyes almost pop out of his head. Taxi drivers need to chill out.

It’s a similar story at Euston, with the traffic on the Euston Road not liking it one bit when we block them, even though we’re basically just stopping them for a couple of minutes as they sit in a traffic jam anyway. This is the strange thing about driver aggro at being ‘stopped’ by a load of bikes.

The mood on the ride is good natured and fun. Sure, there are a few naughty kids in bandanas and there are a few riding BMX’s etc doing pretty stupid stunts and jumps in the path of oncoming cars – ducking away at the last minute. It’s not particularly dangerous or scary though, and for the most part Londoners seem either bemused or are supportive, with plenty of cheers from onlookers and the odd honk from drivers going the other way.

At Camden I decide to call it a night as I have to be back in south London in about 40 minutes time (I’m late, needless to say). Cycling back south, having to stop at red lights and generally behave, is definitely less fun than being part of a Critical Mass. I reckon I’ll be back for more next month.

From London to Paris, for climate justice. Pt 2.

Day two: Monday. Brighton to Newhaven, then ferry to Dieppe.

23km, av. 11.8km/hr, max 31.8km/hr.
Calories: 201, CO2 offset: 3.47kg, time: 1hr 57mins.

A much easier day but it’s a heck of an early start!

We wake up some time around 5.30 am for breakfast, bid farewell to our overnight accommodation, and then convene in central Brighton with the other groups some time around 7am (it’s still dark at this time… who knew?) before setting off in one almighty ‘Bike-Train’ much to the bemusement of bleary-eyed Monday morning commuters, or ‘norms’ as they suddenly now seem.

We cycle en-masse along the Brighton sea-front, passing the ferris wheel and the arcades, and generally stopping the traffic. Then, as dawn turns into day, we’re on the sea-wall path heading towards Newhaven, but the tide is right in, which means crashing waves against the sea-wall and spectacular walls of water which somehow don’t soak us.

It really is an incredible way to start the day, and a fantastic little ride, but there are casualties along the way. The powerful waves have thrown into our path hundreds of stones and pebbles, among them razor-sharp flint which make easy work of unlucky tyres – at least three people are hit by punctures in a stretch of path no more than a couple of miles long.

The path then leaves the seafront and rises up to join the main road, and from here it’s a full-on BikeTrain all the way to Newhaven, much to the annoyance of the traffic. Some of the people deployed to block side-street traffic, AKA blockers, are having to deal with some pretty unpleasant drivers yelling and screaming that what we’re doing is illegal, etc, etc (as they sit in their metal boxes, waiting to join the traffic jam into Brighton).

It’s funny how my perceptions have literally been changed overnight. Yesterday I was encouraging the group to pull over to let the cars pass, today I’m more like “sod it, they own the road 364 days a year and they can’t deal with it for the one day of the year that we own the road.” As much as this is a ride about being low-carbon, it’s also (in my mind at least) a ride about reminding motor vehicles that other modes of transport exist,reclaiming the roads, and making them safer for cycling. If we slow the traffic down for the morning then maybe that’s a good thing.

So, at Newhaven we de-flag our bikes just in case the customs people don’t approve, and then – after a long wait – walk our bikes onto the ferry. It’s a four hour trip, but feels pretty leisurely and comfortable. It’s been a long time since I took a cross-channel ferry, and I’d forgotten how fun it is, especially the blast of fresh air you get when you venture out onto deck. We use the time to catch up on sleep, have lunch, talk together in our groups, and generally mess around until it’s time to depart.

At Dieppe, the local mayor has come down (on his bike, of course) to welcome us and, once we’re all on dry land and been reunited with our bikes (we reclaim bikes from the ferry at random, to save time), we’re led on a cycle around this seemingly sleepy little seaside town, as the sun sets. It’s a beautiful French dusk to match the spectacular English dawn we experienced a few hours earlier.

Next, to the hostel where, after a bit of a scramble for beds, Bee Team manage to get all the worker bees and our queen into two neighbouring bedrooms or, as we prefer to call them, our hive.

The evening is given over to food, wine, cheese (when in France…), map-reading, phone recharging, and preparation for our first full day riding in France tomorrow.

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.

London to Paris, for climate justice!

Time to Cycle flyerEver since I got back from the SE Asia jaunt I have been itching to ride long-distance again. Sure, there’s been a couple of longer rides, in Iceland and also to Glastonbury and Cambridge, but nothing over several days. It’s been back to the daily grind with barely any respite.

I had a little bit of leave left that needed using up before the end of the year, and in my mind I’d been toying with the idea of a solo cycle over a few days somewhere in the UK, maybe a coast to coast ride up north. But then a link or an invite or something in my Facebook feed popped up… cycle to COP21 Climate Talks in Paris. In December.

I mulled it over for a couple of weeks and then, finally, decided to go for it!

I’ll be riding, over five days, from Brixton in South London to Paris, with a bunch of like-minded people who care about climate change and want to do something to express this, however futile it might seem in the grander scheme of things.

Why ‘climate justice’? To me, it is a justice issue in the sense that in the western world we’ve been over-consuming and using more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources for decades, centuries even, but as things stand, it’s the poorest who are going to be hit hardest – are already being hit hardest – by a more unpredictable, more dangerous climate. If you have money, you’ll be insulated (to use a bad pun) against the worst effects of climate change, for a while at least.

Why a ‘liveable planet’? This speaks for itself; at the rate we are going, with 50% species loss since the 1970s, rising temperatures, dwindling resources, food and water shortages for a population in excess of 10 billion, the Earth will become less and less habitable, and our legacy will be ecocide on an almost unimaginable scale – it already is, in fact, we just choose to ignore it. We can’t really go on like this and need to start living more meaningfully and within our means – as well as practising what we preach, even if we’re ahead of our political leaders on this one!

I like the group’s name, Time to Cycle, which talks to me about taking the slow road and not being obsessed with speed and burning fossil fuels to get where we need to go. And yes, I’m aware I’ve taken as many EasyJets as the next man… but not this time!

The description of the ride sounds great too; on 8 December we’ll be staying at an organic cider farm, the following night in a village hall in a village called Freneuse, close to the Seine in beautiful ‘Monet country’ – although I guess in December there will be fewer flowers to paint…

The route map

The route map

The daily distances aren’t too crazy either, with the longest day being the first 60 miles to get to Brighton. I’m looking forward to Brighton as lots of people have been in touch on the friendly Facebook group promising us a great reception.

From what I can gather, it’s going to be a really interesting mix of people on the ride, from all walks of life and all parts of the UK but with one thing in common: concern for the future of our planet, and the conviction that riding their bike to Paris is as good as any other way to express this concern. I’m looking forward to meeting them and becoming an activist for a week!

Once we’re in Paris I’m not entirely sure what the plan is. There’s definitely talk of a protest ride around Paris, and it’s likely we as a group (there’s over 100 confirmed riders) will link up with other groups – there’s power in numbers, right? Whatever, it’s going to be exciting and I hope our presence – alongside the thousands of other peaceful protestors who want climate justice and a liveable planet – will have some impact, however small.

For me, the greatest unknown is winter riding. At the moment it’s ridiculously mild (that’ll be the climate change, then) but will it still be like this in December? Any tips for riding long distances in cold weather appreciated. I have gloves and a nice pair of wool ear-warmers from Iceland, but what about feet?! Any tips appreciated.

Anyway, looking forward to it and updates to follow nearer the time… actually, it is quite soon innit?!

PS. At time of writing there are still 16 places left if you have a spare £250 and can get a week off work in early December.