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.

Am I really like my Dad?

For reasons best known only to the inner workings of my brain I found myself lying awake last night pondering why we are doing this trip and somehow linking it to the anniversary of my Dad’s death. He died thirteen years ago on November 11th. Maybe there was a logical explanation to link these two things or maybe it was just random synapses making connections. Either way, my thoughts turned to what is driving this desire to take off on an adventure and how it might be tenuously connected to how much like my Dad I am.

At his funeral all those years ago several distant relatives that I hadn’t seen for ages came up to me and declared with gaping mouths how I was the spitting image of him. I don’t see the likeness myself but I do recognise that I have many of his mannerisms and habits. I suppose it follows that I might also ape him in my thought processes and in what makes me hungry for this adventure of ours.

When people ask the all too obvious question of why are we doing this trip I find myself rattling off a whole gamut of reasons. I use words and phrases such as; adventure, life changing, challenging and memorable. I also want something special to look back on when I get older and I am taking stock of what I have done with my allotted time. I want something that stands out amongst the routine experiences of life. Something different, exciting and, well, memorable.

Sometimes I think it’s because I never did anything out of the ordinary when I was younger. Lots of friends did something special during a gap year in between school and university, travelling and working abroad but I didn’t do this. I wasted my first year at A levels doing the wrong subjects and then left school and went to college to start two more years of study before going to Polytechnic. (For anybody under thirty that’s a bit like a University)  I’ve always regretted this and felt that I missed out, unlike my Dad.

Nobody can argue that he didn’t do anything special when he was younger.

Dad at the end of the war

Poona 1945

You see he had the ultimate gap year(s). At the age of just nineteen he was called up to do his bit to defend his country. He joined the Border Regiment and after some basic training found himself on a ship travelling to the Far East to fight the much feared Japanese army in the jungles of Burma.

As a child I would have loved to have heard his stories of battles and guns but he never ever talked about it. Later, when I was much older, he directed me to a couple of books about the campaigns he was involved in. I have read both but one of them really hit a nerve in me.

Quartered Safe Out Here” by George MacDonald Fraser (he of the Flashman novels) is a soldiers recollection of the last great land campaign of World War II. Like my Dad, he was just nineteen years old and a member of the Border Regiment and found himself in the very same jungles in 1943. It’s a story of courage, camaraderie, hardship, laughter, shocking suffering and gruesome horror. Once I had read it I understood why he would never talk about his time out there, including contracting typhoid and nearly dying in hospital before recovering and re-joining his colleagues to fight another day, as they say.

Happy families

I’m the one on the left

He came back to marry my Mum, produce his perfect family of one daughter and one son and live a wholly unremarkable life being nothing more nor less than a good, honest and reliable man. He brought back with him, honourable principles, a devout Catholic faith and a life-long hatred of curry. He certainly had an adventure to reflect upon in his later life, though one that might have made for uneasy contemplation. I suspect he had enough adventure to last a life time, quite literally.

His was an extreme way of experiencing life on the edge and while I am not comparing what he went through with our little jaunt I like to think he would have approved of our plans. I think, unlike so many of those who ask ‘why’, he would have just ‘got it’. We are so lucky that we can manufacture our adventure to our tastes.

Contentment

No further adventure required

His was totally out of his control. What they have in common though, is stepping out of your comfort zone and into the unknown. We know a lot about what to expect on our journey but there is also a lot we don’t know, which is the whole point. I like to think of our trip as our chicken korma to his beef vindaloo.

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 ……………