Out of the darkness

As I write the rain is lashing down outside but I’m happy. Not because I’m warm and cosy inside but because today is the shortest day of the year, the Winter solstice. There is the promise of ever increasing daylight just around the corner and eventually Spring. According to Stephen Fry the Spring moves up the country from Lands End to John O’ Groats over a period of two months so we should catch it up somewhere around the north of Scotland in late May. I shall enjoy watching it make it’s slow but stately progress through Lancashire as we make our final preparations.

In the mean-time there have been several significant events that make our adventure ever more tangible. The first was really a bit of boyish indulgence in the form of a gadget purchase. My Nexus 7 tablet PC was delivered a couple of weeks ago and I am busy getting to grips with it. I don’t want this to turn into a technology review so I won’t bore you with technical statistics but rather simply say that it’s geeky goodness through and through. The high quality graphics and amazing sound quality are, of course, essential features required to enable me to type this blog on our travels and nothing simpler, cheaper or lighter would have done the job.

No going back now

No going back now

The second, and somewhat more concrete development, was the arrival of five hundred printed cards advertising our trip and web site. These are intended to make it easier to pass on our contact details to anybody who is interested but seeing it all in print has a certain “gulp, this is really happening” kind of effect. I have only given one out so far but it had the consequence of making me feel ever so slightly nervous about the prospect of not actually making it around Britain. Multiply that by a factor of five hundred and the pressure is really on. On that subject I read on Bicycle Touring Pro website that the number one fear of all people setting off on a long cycle tour is that of not finishing it. Not rabid dogs or wild axe men as you might have expected after all.

Finally, we had a good friend over for dinner last week to discuss the choice of charities for our fund raising efforts. There are more details on the dedicated fund raising page but essentially we are going to raise a bit of cash for two charities that were close to the heart of our friend’s wife who died recently. I am currently waiting for responses from the charities to ensure we go about it the correct way but I sense that once they have given us their blessing that will turn the pressure screws another couple of notches.

I may have been temporarily deflected from such things as blogging and house clearing by the demands of seasonal work but it doesn’t mean that the trip has been edged from my conscious. Quite the opposite; I’m beginning to feel the tiniest quiver of butterflies in fact. Exciting.

Abandoning the hair dye

In order to provide some balance and dispel any idea that this is Tony’s dream and I have been press ganged into keeping him company as he is “no good on his own” – his words not mine – I thought I had better have a go at this blogging malarkey. I can’t promise to be as amusing as Tony but if I don’t try I will never know how good or bad I am!

As most of you know, we have been planning this trip in earnest for about four months and thinking of it as something we would “love to do one day” for a lot longer than that. My first experience of cycle touring was in 2006, three days in Mid Wales cycling from home near Machynlleth on a circular route via Abersytwyth involving some of the biggest hills I have ever climbed.Dylife

Anyone who has done those roads will know that they are make or break. No-one can force you to enjoy that experience, or make you repeat it. Cycling to the top of a big hill, stopping to enjoy the view and then freewheeling down the other side is one of cycle tourings’ great pleasures, along with that first cup of tea after you have stopped cycling for the day and pitched the tent, the hot shower, and eating everything in sight!

Packing is an art that I have learned over the last seven years. It is a precision task made easier by the packing list that I grudgingly compiled. Life is pared down to the bare minimum, everything I take has to be hauled up every hill that we climb. Gone is the make up that I carried on the first tour (who’s looking at me anyway?) One on and one in the wash is the basic premise of the wardrobe. We very rarely eat in the same place two nights running anyway so no matter that I might wear the same trousers for two weeks – that may need some thought as I’m not sure I would get away with it for six months!

Abandoning the hair dye is a symbol of how simple life will become once we are on the road. It was as a result of a passing comment from Linda, my hairdresser, as she was applying the colours to my hair a few hair cuts ago. “How will you manage your hair colour while you are on the road?” She very kindly offered to send me off with a wash in, leave twenty minutes and wash out colour. Apart from the fact that the reason I let her colour my hair is that I hate all the faff involved, I have showered in some very draughty shower blocks, where having a shower involves 20p pieces or constantly pushing the button to keep the water running. The thought of having to wait twenty minutes to rinse my hair is not an attractive one!

I can’t promise to always be a cheery companion for Tony. There will probably be days when I hate the hills, my bike, my grey hair, camping, Tony. There will definitely be days when I am distracted by hunger and needing a wee when there is no loo in sight. The reality is that there will be lots of days – we are going for six  months after all. You can’t expect them all to be good, but I am expecting that most of them will be. I have survived the Dent day so I know that even when it is really bad there are moments of joy. There are jelly babies for the hungry moments and plenty of fields to wee in after all.

Rainbow on Barra

Rainbow on Barra

Tic toc, tic toc, five months to go.

Well, strictly speaking, as I type its four months, four weeks, one day, 22 hours etc. etc. and this is where we are with our plans:

Our landlady has been informed and she will be selling the house we currently rent so there is no option of coming back to our current abode. We will be officially homeless as of end of April 2014.

Gill has broken the news to her employers and despite their howls of protest and begging her to reconsider and come back to her job after the trip she has remained strong and told them it’s not an option. We are moving on.

My job is temporary anyway but if I am offered an extension beyond the end of January it will be on the understanding that I can only work until the end of March. They gave me the job on the clear understanding that I had adventures to live so they will just have to deal with it.

A lock up storage facility of 50sq feet has been booked and anything that doesn’t fit in there is up for grabs.

The disposal of the majority of our possessions has stalled since I went back to work but I will be back on it big time in the New Year. We are also trying not to acquire anything that isn’t edible, drinkable or has a life expectancy of more than five months.

Our route is as planned as it needs to be, i.e. we know where we are probably staying on the first night. After that we just keep the sea on our left.

Sea on left = good

Sea on left = good

Kit is sorted with the exception of a few items we still need to buy. These are:

Digital wizardry in the form of a tablet PC, a keyboard for same and a charging device. Only the first of these is a probable definite if I am to continue this blog during the trip. The other two are still being investigated.

Shorts for Gill because her existing ones are, as she says, “past their best”. I.e. they impinge on her sartorial elegance.

Trousers for me because Gill doesn’t like my current ones. They were a bit big and blousy to start with and now I have lost some weight they are ideal for sharing which is not a good look.

Collapsible plastic bowls but the jury is now out on these for two reasons. Firstly, experienced touring friends Vicky and Woolly that we stayed with last week suggested eating straight out of the cooking pans is the way to go. They may have a point. Secondly, the bowls cost £13 each which is ridiculous for a bit of folding plastic and I am struggling with this.

Two new tyres for my bike. I don’t expect anybody to get over excited about this.

Other than that we already have everything we need from our previous touring adventures. It seems to baffle some people that we won’t be carrying any more than we would on a two week trip but in practice we will just be doing more washing and shopping.

The blog is very obviously up and running. I am getting to grips with it and the keen eyed nerdy types will have noticed that you can now use http://www.gillandtony.co.uk to find it. I won’t bore you with details of DNS settings and URL forwarding because, well, it’s boring.

Emotionally I think we are both more than ready. It would be fair to say that we would be happy to leave tomorrow if we could. Well, maybe not tomorrow, but as soon as it warms up a bit definitely.

Moving house

I love the questions people ask us about our trip. “Where will you stay?” crops up quite frequently and has, on occasion, been followed by “will you have an electric hook-up?”.  That, after we have told them that we will mainly be camping. Goodness knows what they think we carry in our panniers.

Well the answer to the first question is very definitely, we will be camping as much as possible to keep the costs down and because we like camping. Yes you read that correctly, we actually do like to sleep in a small space with nothing more than two bits of thin nylon fabric between us and the elements. It’s as close to sleeping outside as you can get without having to worry about getting wet or cold. People talk about, ‘getting close to nature’. Well most of the time we are just two zippers away. The sounds of animals and birds, rain on the fabric, wind whistling in the trees and distorting the shape of our shelter and even the smells of the outdoors are all so close from inside our little cavern.

"excuse me, this is my pitch"

“excuse me, this is my pitch”

What was once known as the ‘bell end’ but is now, more often referred to rather pretentiously as the ‘vestibule’ of the tent has been home to beetles, hedgehogs, a robin, and once, rather alarmingly, a horse’s head. That last experience probably brought me a little closer to nature than I was comfortable with. (Aren’t they big?) Gill wasn’t with me at the time or she might have been put off camping for good. When we aren’t hosting local fauna it’s just magic to open the flysheet zip in the morning and be greeted by a glorious sunrise or a world turned sparkling white with frost.

With the kettle on, we relish the prospect of a lovely cup of tea whilst watching the world wake up from our morning campsite.

Of course there are occasions when a nice bed and breakfast might be preferable. Pitching the tent in heavy rain isn’t much fun and the same goes for packing it up in the wet. We once spent an hour huddled inside with all our gear packed and ready to go while we listened to the rain hammering on the flysheet. So loud was it that at times it made conversation difficult, and we gave ourselves several deadlines to get out and load up all of which passed without further discussion. What people who don’t camp or work outdoors don’t realise though, is that rain that goes on for hour after hour is actually very rare. Showers of varying lengths are much more common and easier to deal with.

Pitching the tent in normal conditions is very easy. It takes little more than five minutes between taking the tent off the bike and putting the kettle on from the comfort of our cosy little home. Complete with arm chairs and radio four. I loved it when we were assailed by a caravan dweller one morning who complimented us on our camp craft. “I watched you pitch your tent last night and I said to the wife: they’ve done that a time or two before haven’t they?” It’s so easy and convenient and unlike a hotel there’s no need to worry that the wallpaper won’t be to our taste.

Occasionally we will use a hostel or a Bed and Breakfast to avoid really bad weather or to catch up on washing and chores that don’t come easy on a campsite but mostly we will camp. We will also be using a web based organisation called Warm Showers which is brilliant for all sorts of reasons but that deserves a post all of its own. In the meantime, in case you are wondering, this will be our bijou residence for ninety percent of the time:

Room with a view

Room with a view

With a different view every day of course.

A temporary shift of focus

I launched this blog with the intention of recording an account of our six month tour starting next spring. Never having blogged before, I began early enough to get the hang of the process and to get into the habit of writing. With that in mind I want to try and keep the focus on the trip rather than let the blog become my personal diary. Recently I have found my focus has shifted temporarily from our plans for travelling and onto starting a new job, hence the absence of any posts. The process of re-writing my CV, registering for Job Seekers Allowance and applying for numerous jobs has been, quite frankly, depressing. I got through it by constantly dreaming of next year’s adventure, reading other traveller’s blogs and learning the process of creating my own. I was probably becoming a bit obsessive but then I got a phone call inviting me to an interview. The shift in focus was dramatic. Now, suddenly, I have a job! Not the kind of job I ever imagined doing to be honest but it has the advantage of being a fixed term until the end of January so I can be open about our plans. I didn’t have to confront the dilemma of going for an interview for a permanent post and deciding whether or not to come clean about my limited availability. I feel a real sense of release and the pendulum of my focus is swinging back again.

The process of being invited to and attending an interview, waiting to hear the outcome and then being rejected for the job I actually wanted but accepted for one I didn’t, has been interesting. It may seem like a stretch of the imagination but it has reminded me so much of cycle touring. Just as I was saying in my last post, it has been a roller coaster of emotions; excitement, concern, disappointment, elation and more. For the first time in three months whole days have gone by when I haven’t given our trip a single thought. Now I have the job, I can go back to day dreaming and boring a whole new group of acquaintances, trying to explain to them why camping for six months is anything other than just plain stupid.

"Are you mad?"

“Are you mad?”

Starting a new job is always a bit daunting. I’m sure it’s natural to worry how you are going to fit in and how people will react to you but I had extra reason to be concerned. After all, I’m a cyclist. I went to work on my bike on the second day of the job, demonstrating to many of my new work friends that I am plainly a bit bonkers right from the start. “You must be mad” being the most common response. Which reminds me of a delightful character that I met on the bus a few months ago. He exploded up the stairs and bounded to the back of the bus, crashed down onto the seat adjacent to me, shopping bags spilling their contents everywhere and said, “Hiya, I’m Steve, they call me Mad Steve. I know lots of people say they’re mad when they aren’t really, but I really am mad. Do you want a biscuit?” I liked him immediately. Goodness knows what my new work mates will think when they find out what Gill and I are planning. Perhaps they will think we are mad. I’m quite looking forward to finding out.

Plan? What plan?

I was thinking about some of the questions we get asked when we tell people about our plans. Amongst the obvious ones and the just plain daft ones (which may be the subject of a blog one day) some of the more common ones are about the route. “Have you got a route planned?” and “Do you know where you are staying on the first night?” seem to crop up regularly. To the second question I would answer that given a favourable wind, we will camp somewhere around Carnforth. A strong northerly might mean a B&B in Blackpool. As for the first question, the answer is yes and no.

We did originally conceive of the trip as a ride around the coast of Britain but this has now morphed into more of a crude hook to hang the plan on. It sounds better than “cycling all over Britain for six months but we don’t really know where we are going” and it gives people something to picture that’s easy and tangible. In practice we do plan to make our way in a clockwise fashion around the coast but we are deliberately not promising to stick to all the roads closest to the sea and we may, shock horror, take a ferry or two across an estuary or inlet. And if that isn’t radical enough for you, we may go to France or Ireland at some point. It was suggested by someone that we would surely be the first people ever to complete a circumnavigation of the country on bikes. I think not. There are books and blogs aplenty testifying to such achievements every year so we certainly won’t be the first but I can guarantee that our trip will be unique. Because they all are. (If you want a better idea of what we are taking on you can read about someone else’s adventure here.)

So this is the plan: Cycle north up the west coast as far as about Ayr then start panicking about the endless options around that really crinkly bit of Scotland. Once we get to Oban we may go to the Outer Hebrides to do the bits we missed on our last trip. The weather might be a factor in this decision. Once around the northern coast of Scotland there will be more decisions about the Orkney and possibly Shetland Isles. I would love to do both but by now we might be in a position to start judging how much time we have on our hands, or don’t. At some point towards the end of June we are hoping we will be on the east coast of England. This would be very convenient as we have accommodation booked in Harrogate to watch the first two stages of the Tour de France. We booked it before making plans for this trip and it seemed a shame to cancel. After a visit to London and hopefully seeing a few friends we turn our attention to the south coast and some serious decision making. We have to tour the Isle of Wight to see my lovely niece and her growing family and we have to visit our two boys in Dorset. BUT, and it’s a big capital letter but, we may, at this point go over to France, travel along the north coast and come back to England, MISSING OUT A SECTION OF THE BRITISH COAST! I know, I know, we are just so edgy. (No pun intended). Then comes Devon and Cornwall which I believe may induce tears at the very least if not a decision to pack up and go home. (“But you won’t have a home”, I hear you all cry. Ha ha.) Everyone that does this trip says the hills around the south west are horrible and make your legs hurt a lot. We’ll see. After more family visiting it’s Wales which is largely familiar to us and rather convenient for popping over to Ireland for a while. Round the corner from Wales of course is north-west England and we will be back where we started.

So there you have it. A rough plan which may change a lot. No rules, no promises, just a relaxed bike ride, mostly around Britain.

Six months and counting

Today it is exactly six months from the day of departure for our grand tour around Britain. I have a geeky little countdown gadget on my computer desktop which tells me to the second how long is left and I’m slightly concerned that I may be getting a little obsessive. I’m worried that the pre-adventure anticipation may peak too early and I’m not sure what I will feel like if that happens. I have been reading a lot of blogs about long distance bicycle tours and they all seem to have a preamble that starts a few weeks or months before the leaving date and usually incorporates various degrees of panic because nothing is organised and there is still loads of kit to buy. In our case, we have virtually everything we need already from many previous shorter tours. In fact, not only do we have all the right gear but we even know what goes in which pannier. We also don’t have any real route planning to do because we will be travelling around the coast of an island and it doesn’t take much in the way of navigational skills to work that one out. This only really leaves the task of shedding our belongings (see previous post) and organising a bit of a leaving do. I’m thinking six months might be a tad on the cautious side to achieve those two things. Which is not the best news for anybody looking forward to a riveting read, because you have six months of inane drivel to get through before anything really happens.

For example:

Today I realised that it is perfectly possible to have good punctures and bad punctures. Bad punctures are like the one I had on our recent tour in Scotland. We were cycling around the island of Arran and really enjoying a bit of sunshine after getting thoroughly soaked by previous heavy showers.

Holy Island

Holy Island from Arran

Gill was about fifty yards ahead of me as we gathered speed down a good descent and I was contemplating the corresponding ascent that lay ahead. I was estimating just how much speed and momentum I could gather and how far up the next hill it would get me when I felt that horrible blancmange like sensation under my rear wheel. Shouting to Gill at the top of my voice to save her any wasted effort (she was at the bottom of the hill by now) I braked hard before the tyre destroyed itself on the rim and managed to stop at the lowest point of the descent. Great. A rear puncture means unloading the tent and panniers, getting oily from handling the rear mech and to top it all having changed the tube and loaded everything back on the bike we would have to start the climb from zero miles per hour. That’s what I call a bad puncture. Today, by contrast, we turned the corner to our house at the end of a really nice morning spin on our road bikes and five yards from home my back tyre deflated. “I’ve got a flat”, I called to Gill, with a big smile on my face because that’s what I call a good puncture. Funny isn’t it?

Getting rid of stuff

We made the decision to go on our ‘big tour’ three months ago and quickly set a date of 26th April 2014 for departure. This means that I know exactly how much time we have left to get rid of stuff.

I should explain that one of the purposes of this trip is to change our lives. To kick us up the backside and make us review the way we live and earn our living. To this end we will be giving up our tenancy, our jobs (made easier for me by my employers making me redundant) and our current way of life. We will also be discarding the vast majority of our possessions in anticipation of a less materialistic way of life on our return. Not that we are particularly materialistic in the first place. We don’t have a fancy car, televisions in every room or a coffee maker that cost more than a month’s salary. But we do still have a remarkable amount of stuff.

The task of getting rid of stuff seems fairly straight forward on the surface. It’s only once you actually start to empty the cupboard/drawer/box-from-the-loft that you realise that stuff falls into different categories. There are three broad types of stuff which can then be subdivided as follows:

Stuff we need – split into really need and think we need. (There lies the first complexity)

Stuff we don’t need but want – art, sentimental things, books etc.

Stuff that doesn’t fall into either of the above. This is called rubbish. It turns out we have been storing a remarkable amount of this third category for many years.

So, now we have broken down what we are dealing with it should surely be fairly easy to get rid the things we don’t need. Wrong.

Let’s start with the rubbish. This is easy isn’t it? You just put it in the bin don’t you? Wrong again. If only it were that simple. Each item must first be examined to see if it has a symbol on it indicating that it shouldn’t be put in the bin. (Like a wheely bin with a cross through it.) The problem is, it doesn’t have an equivalent symbol telling you what to do with it. Then there is the guilt problem. As you lift the lid of the bin and are about to drop the offending item in a voice in your head says, “Somebody would be glad of that toast rack/cardigan/broken watch etc”. At this point you are doomed. You can’t now throw it in the bin but must decide how to get it into the hands of the needy person. Charity shop?  Freecycle?  E-Bay?  This list goes on and that’s without e-mailing everybody in your contacts list to ask them if they want your old cardigan. (On reflection that last one is probably a really bad idea.)

Before you know it your rubbish is in several distinct piles according to how you are going to get rid of it. There are bags for the charity shop, bags for the dump, items that need to be photographed for re-sale and items that need to be advertised on Freecycle. It’s really tempting at this point to do one of two things; throw it all in the bin regardless or put it all back in the cupboard.

Don’t even get me started on the sentimental stuff or the books. The more threadbare or broken the Teddy or the more smelly and tattered the book and the harder it is to discard it. It’s a nightmare.

We are getting there but as I look around the house after three months of moderately concerted effort I have to say I don’t see much difference. We still have loads of stuff.

In my head I have ranked the various methods of disposal according to preference. Dropping it in the bin being the easiest and most satisfying, and giving it away the most complex and bewildering. Selling it is somewhere in the middle being complex but satisfying.

One way of giving things away is to advertise them on a website called Freecycle. The concept is admirable; stop things from being thrown into landfill by giving them another lease of life with somebody who will appreciate them. The volunteers who run the site have my utmost respect. The people that request the things I have advertised for free can be a little more challenging. You wouldn’t believe the questions that people ask. For example, in response to an advert for something titled “White board, 90 x 60cm”, “will it fit in the back of a car?” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great concept but you do have to grit your teeth when five people are requesting an old spin drier and you are trying to be fair about who gets it when somebody asks, “can I come and have a look at it?”. Er, no, it’s free JUST COME AND COLLECT IT! Anyway it went to a lovely lady who ran a dog rescue service and had mountains of wet towels to deal with from washing the rescued dogs.

We have booked a small storage unit now, limiting ourselves to a 50 square foot unit which has focussed our minds on what we keep. Hopefully it’s just a matter of keeping at it over the following six months. Now what shall I do with this broom. There’s really nothing wrong with it that a new handle and head wouldn’t fix.

To blog or not to blog? Daft question now really.

My wife Gill and I plan to do a long cycle tour around Britain next year. Whenever we mention it to anybody, friends and family in particular, once we get beyond the “why’s” and “are you mad’s” type of responses the next one is more often than not, “will you be writing a blog?”.  (Oh and not forgetting, “what charity are you doing it for?” We are doing it because we want to and for no other reason. We don’t want it to become a fundraising ‘event’ so we are still undecided on the subject.)  My standard response to the blog question is usually something along the lines of I am writing it just because we want a record to look back on in our old age. Well that’s rubbish isn’t it? If we just need a record then I could keep a diary, digital or otherwise so the real reason for publishing a blog has got to be the vain hope that people will read it, and hopefully like it. We all like praise and I’m no exception. Then comes the creeping doubt. What if nobody reads it? Or worse still, what if loads of people read it and they all think its crap. I can’t hide behind the idea that I’m not bothered; because it’s just for our own amusement. Once made public the cat is somewhat out of the bag is it not?

So I’m going to write a blog of our trip. I hope lots of people will follow our progress through the blog, make nice comments on it and generally enjoy it and find it entertaining. And if they don’t?  Well, I’ll just have to man up and deal with it won’t I? That’s if I don’t get fed up and pack it in after the first week. Oh God, I hadn’t even thought of that until now.

I should also mention that I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing so hopefully it should all eventually make sense once I learn how to drive it.

So the decision is made and I’ve now got six months to practice blogging before we leave. Better get started then ……………