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

JFDI

There are various definitions of the acronym JFDI ranging from the polite (just focus and do it) to the obscure (Joyful Frog Digital Incubator) and of course to the more common one which you can work out for yourselves.

This morning it was freezing at 8am and although the sun was shining the forecast gave a high of 6c by mid-afternoon, so it was easy to think of all sorts of important things to do rather than go for a bike ride. Finally, at half past ten, having exhausted Facebook, Twitter and even the washing up those four letters popped into my head and it was time to stop prevaricating and JFDI.

Apart from being a bit chilly it really was a perfect cycling day. The image below says it all. If ever something should put a smile on the face of a cyclist it is the sight of a completely limp flag set against a blue sky.

Looking good for a bike ride

Looking good for a bike ride

It wasn’t a really spectacular or lengthy ride, just a pleasant jaunt on a wonderful winter’s day. There were moments that stood out. Like the one when a buzzard flew just ten yards in front of me screeching as it went. It made me jump then it made me gasp, then I considered briefly, and rather ridiculously, that it might be eyeing me up for dinner. It was a beautiful sight all silliness aside.

Tree

Tree

The model sheep made me smile as they always do. I just don’t understand why somebody would build a big house in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by fields of real live sheep and then decide that they need some stone ones on their lawn. Then again, there are lots of things I don’t understand. Like where the two twenty pence pieces that I specifically put in my shirt pocket had gone to when I came to pay at the toll bridge. Gill paid in the end so that worked out rather well.

Stone sheep

Stone sheep

Real sheep

Real sheep

We cycled about thirty mostly flat miles in the end but I ran out of body fuel after twenty five so the last five miles were rather a slog. Gill kindly pointed out that she had an energy bar in her pocket. About ten minutes after we got home!

Trees and Sky

Trees and Sky

After a quick shower and change of clothes we treated ourselves to lunch in a local pub. Which brings me to two pieces of signage that I saw today that I feel you should know about. The first one was on a van and it irritated me. It was advertising a car valeting service and said; “keeping your car mucky free”. Now I’m no expert, as you may have gathered, but that simply isn’t English. The second one was grammatically correct but amused me for other reasons. It was in the toilet at the pub and read; “We aim to keep these toilets clean at all times. If you have any concerns please speak to one of our team”. I went straight back to the bar and said; “Excuse me young man, your toilets are spotless but I’m a little bit worried about the state of the economy at the moment”. I didn’t really but the idea made me smile.

Warm Showers

Warm Showers is an internet based membership organisation aimed squarely at cycle tourists. It enables like-minded people to offer a bed and maybe a meal and a shower to travelling cyclists and to share good conversation, comparing notes on the ups and downs of our passion.

Now I would like to think that I might be able to make this blog a little bit interesting to a wider audience than purely other cyclists and that’s why I want to share something about Warm Showers with you. You see, despite the fact that its purpose should only really appeal to cyclists, what it represents is important to everyone. It represents the very best of humanity and something that the popular media would have us believe does not exist anymore. It represents human kindness and generosity, provided for no other reason than because it is a nice thing to do.

Of course I accept that there are bad people out there but believe me they are a tiny, tiny minority. Most people are good. Most people will help a fellow human being in need and that is why Warm Showers works.

It was first set up in 1993 by Terry Zmrhal and Geoff Cashman and is now maintained by a group of volunteers. The idea is that you register on the site and offer accommodation for free to passing cycle tourists. Conversely, members who are travelling can send a message to prospective hosts requesting one or two nights shelter. I can hear some sceptics muttering, why on earth would you want strangers staying with you but I can assure you it really works for both parties. Gill and I hosted our first guests last month and it was a wonderful fun filled experience providing dinner and a bed for the night to John and Di. They arrived very wet and somewhat dishevelled after a hard day’s riding in the rain but they were full of smiles and laughter and from their bulging panniers they produced wine and beer! Despite it being a school night, the dishes went unwashed while the talking and laughter went on. We will certainly keep in touch with them and no doubt cycle with them in the future. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience all round.

I think Warm Showers represents something very precious. It is like a beacon, but a beacon that is struggling to be seen from under the black cloak that the media casts over us with their scaremongering stories of bad things lurking around every corner. The reality, when you travel, by bike or by any other means is quite different. There are endless examples in all travel blogs and books of generosity and kindness. Indeed we have experienced it ourselves on numerous occasions. We have been offered accommodation by complete strangers who just want to help, to be useful and for no other reward than the satisfaction that it brings.

One of my favourite stories comes from just outside Londonderry in Northern Ireland. We had walked a couple of miles from our campsite in search of a meal but we weren’t having much luck. The bar we ended up in didn’t serve food in the evenings but once we explained out situation the barman didn’t hesitate. “I can run you up the road to Harry’s Bar and Restaurant*; it’s only five miles over the border”. So after we had enjoyed a pint with a few locals he duly took us up the road but he wasn’t satisfied with just giving us a lift. He wanted to know how we would get back to the campsite. We said we would try to get a taxi so he then phoned his nephew who ran a taxi service and told him “an English couple will be phoning you later and you need to pick them up from Harry’s Bar and take them back to their campsite. And make sure you look after them”. The poignancy of this in such a location was striking. But it happens all the time. Travellers like Alistair Humphreys and Josie Dew have endless stories in their books of this kind of selfless kindness from strangers as do all of the travellers we have encountered ourselves. There is strong evidence that helping others is a key ingredient of living a happy life. Don’t take my word for it: Mahatma Gandhi once said that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

So, next time you go to the newsagents and are confronted by yet another doom laden, fear inducing headline about a tide of criminality don’t buy the paper. Go and buy a travel book instead and then go help somebody and be happy.

* We found no evidence that the barman was in any way related to Harry and shame on you for even thinking such a thing.

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.

Ironing – part two

The George and Dragon in Dent is the best pub in the world and that is official. We awarded it this accolade by dint of it being open when we got there and having an open fire roaring in the grate within five minutes of our arrival. The barmaid seemed somewhat bemused by her first customers, focused as they were on having the fire lit before anything else. We rearranged the furniture around the hearth and dripped water everywhere as we traipsed from the fire to the toilets to wring out first gloves and then socks as we peeled off layer after layer and turned the pub lounge into a drying room. We started with tea and followed that with sausage baguettes followed immediately by more tea and scones with jam. Other customers came in and kept a safe distance from us at first but gradually the atmosphere changed and soon it was all camaraderie and tales of weather based bravado flowed freely. A couple of mountain bikers paddled in and we rearranged our various sodden items so that they could share the fire. We talked of backpacking, cycling and climbing and near death experiences in heavy showers. The food and drink came and went and the tales grew taller but nothing got much drier unfortunately. The conditions outside were improving and before long we had to face the fact that we would have to leave this haven of warmth and comfort. We entertained the crowd as we pulled on wet socks and gloves and demonstrated how to put on our weird looking ‘Rainlegs’; half chaps, half waterproofs. We said our goodbyes to our new found soggy friends and stepped out into a freshly laundered landscape. Seven more cyclists were preparing to take a few more gallons of water into the pub as we set off back the way we had come.

Our route now would take us back up Dentdale to Cowgill, over Gayle Moor and Blea Moor to Ribblehead and the famous twenty four arch viaduct before finally descending gently down the dale to Ingleton. (Well that’s how I pictured it in my imagination)

All the other sheep had blown away

All the other sheep had blown away

We would be crossing the Settle railway once more on Wold Fell but first there was the little matter of regaining the 600 feet we had descended from it earlier. We wouldn’t be directly into the wind for a while now and with the rain gone and the occasional break in the cloud we were enjoying ourselves. First hands, then feet and finally backsides dried out and after a few miles the discomfort of the morning was almost forgotten. We grunted and pushed up some steep sections as we climbed back up the valley and under the railway and then for a few blissful minutes we had the gale on our backs and we were gently nudged up the last slopes to join the B road to Ribblehead. As we waited at the T junction to turn right I commented to Gill that although we would be turning directly into the wind, which must now have been gusting fifty to sixty miles an hour, we would be generally descending so it should be an easy ten miles to Ingleton.

How wrong could I be? We dropped for about half a mile with the wind not quite in our faces and then as the gradient eased and we veered south west we just ground to a halt. Or we would have done had we not pushed hard in our lowest gears to maintain any forward momentum at all. The valley was acting like a super funnel, squeezing the mass of air into a narrowing space. It seemed as if the elements had decided they didn’t want us in Ingleton and they were mustering all their strength to push us back the way we had come. As we passed through Ribblehead we stopped to admire the viaduct and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to perform the back breaking work, day after day and often in conditions as bad or worse than today’s. Surrounded as we were by Ingleborough and Wernside, the situation was spectacular but it would have to wait for a return trip for us to appreciate it as all our concentration was needed just to stay upright on the bikes. Nearly two hours later we finally arrived at Ingleton with all our original plans in tatters. It was already late afternoon, Gill was shattered and I was more than happy to capitulate and look for a campsite. It would mean a longish day to get home tomorrow but the chances of having winds that strong for a second day were remote and we could always opt for another early start if necessary.

We had covered a miserly thirty two miles since setting off at 8.15am and it was 5pm when we arrived at the camp site. We do cycle slowly when touring but this had to be some kind of record, even for us. After showers and a quick change we strolled to the pub and sat in a kind of stupor over beer and a fabulous lamb tagine dinner. We reflected on one of the most interesting days on our bikes we had ever experienced and one that wouldn’t be forgotten for a long time. On the plus side, we weren’t showing any symptoms of small pox.

Next time you are doing the ironing, hedge trimming, etc. just remember, it will end.

Ironing – just like cycle touring really.

I hate ironing. Most people do. OK, I know there are some really weird people out there that claim to enjoy it, but most people don’t. And if it’s not ironing then substitute some other banal, tedious chore of your choice. Hedge cutting, grass mowing, whatever, the principle is the same so bear with me and let’s go with ironing. Here is my point. Why is it that whenever I get to the end of a pile of ironing, when I flick that socket switch to off, curl that cable back around the iron and gaze at the neatly stacked pile of clothes I feel really happy? Why does doing something so pointless and boring end up giving me pleasure. Well, I put it to you, it’s because you can’t have one without the other.

There is no way of measuring pleasure other than against something like misery or suffering. You can’t quantify happiness other than by comparing it with sadness or some other negative emotion. And you can’t have that smug ‘I’ve just been to the dentist’ feeling unless you have actually been to the dentist. That is why cycle touring can be like ironing. You see, not all of cycle touring is pleasurable. In fact, as many of you have suggested, a lot of it isn’t pleasant at all. So why do it? You might ask. We do it for a combination of the good times and the bad times. The good times are just that, good. The bad times enable us to recognise the good ones.

What follows is an extract from a report I wrote about a tour from Edinburgh back home to Lancashire a few years ago. (It’s a bit long so I’ll post it in two halves) We did have some reasonable weather, albeit cold for the time of year, which was May. We also had some wet and windy weather but this day still holds the accolade of most memorable of all our touring so far. See if you can see beyond the misery, to that moment of switching off the iron. (…and no, before you ask, we will not be taking an ironing board with us.)

I was woken once or twice in the night by the sound of the wind gusting in the trees around us. They were serious gusts and I was a bit concerned when morning arrived and there was no sign of them weakening.

 Our ritual of taking down the tent never changes. Whatever the weather we practice the same procedure; weighing down the flysheet, inner and undermats with panniers to prevent them being whisked away by a sudden gust of wind. This morning all the practice paid off and we managed to strike camp without losing any vital component.

 The walkers we had met in the pub last night were waiting by reception for their luggage transport and we had a nice chat before leaving. They were a bit concerned about us cycling in such strong winds but we assured them we had been in worse conditions. Little did we know.

 We would be following the Settle Carlisle railway for much of today so although we were passing through fairly high ground I hoped that the gradients wouldn’t be too bad. This famous scenic line opened on 1st May 1876 and was the last main line in England to be built entirely by hand. Six thousand men toiled on it for seven years and many died either in accidents or from contracting small pox. No doubt they were weakened by the hard labour and the harsh conditions in these beautiful but unforgiving landscapes. Fortunately, I knew none of this as we began what would turn out to be ‘a most interesting day’.

 The plan was to cycle to Ingleton, about twenty five miles away, have brunch and then head either south east towards Clitheroe or South West towards Lancaster. Either way would put us about thirty miles from home for a short final day on the Saturday.

 We stopped at Nateby to put on wet weather gear. It wasn’t raining yet but the forecast said; showers, occasionally prolonged, and the wind was so cold that we needed the extra layer for warmth. It was obvious from the start that this was going to be a tough day. After an hour of pushing against the wind we had covered a measly seven miles. It was depressing but I suggested to Gill that even at this pace we could easily cover fifty miles in the course of the day.

 Entering Mallerstang Dale we could have been back in Wales as we passed Pendragon Castle but the next hamlet, Outhgill reminded us that this was very much The Yorkshire Dales. As we climbed the scenery grew bleaker, empty farm houses stood testament to the harsh lives people must have lived here in the past. That is when the rain began. After a couple of tentative showers the weather Gods got their act together and the practising was over. We came alongside the railway and eventually crossed it at the first high point of the day but there was to be no freewheeling down the other side into the headwind. By the time we reached Gardale Head we were soaked and getting colder by the minute. It was much too early to take shelter at the pub so we pressed on directly into the full force of the wind and the increasingly heavy rain.

But it was May

But it was May

 We had planned to use cycling route 68 over the tops to Cowgill but there were road signs warning of wintery conditions at any time of year as the road climbed to 1750’ above sea level. We had a really tough decision to make. The alternative was ten miles on the busy main road down Garsdale. This would be an easier road and it would guarantee shelter and warmth in the small market town of Sedburgh but it was directly into the wind and would take us further away from Ingleton. The other choice was straight up the minor road and over the top. Only three miles but we had no idea what we might or might not find at the hamlet of Cowgill on the other side of the hill. We ummed and ahhed but we really needed to get going as we were both beginning to shiver in the biting wind. Having opted for the short high route we managed to cycle about fifty yards before being forced to get off and walk up the steep narrow ‘Coal Road’. I tried to say something encouraging to Gill but the best I could come up with was, “I promise you, this will end”. Pushing the loaded bikes up that hill against the wind was stupidly hard but at least it warmed us up and it wasn’t long before we could start cycling again. I looked in vain for any sign of a break in the weather as we were buffeted and battered but the sky was a uniform grey and the clouds hugging the lower slopes of the hills were going nowhere. It was just a matter of keeping our heads down and gritting our teeth in the knowledge that eventually we must reach the high point and drop into calmer conditions. On the tops the rain turned to hail and my face felt as if was constantly being sandblasted. So painful were the impacts that I half expected to find blood on my gloves as I wiped water and snot from my face. When the descent did eventually begin it was no relief because of the squally wind. We daren’t pick up any real speed as the road was winding and steep and with freezing hands it was hard to hold the brake levers tight enough to control the descent. Never have I been so glad to reach the comparable calm of a valley floor as I did on reaching Cowgill.

 A couple of walkers, out braving the elements, assured us that the nearest place to get any food or shelter was Dent, three miles in the opposite direction to the one we wanted to go. We were past caring. We desperately needed to eat and to get out of the wet and restore some feeling to hands and feet. It’s easy to get things out of perspective when you are cold and wet and I dare say we could have turned left and continued on our chosen route to Ingleton but the prospect of warmth, food and being dry was simply too much to resist. We turned right and cycled hard for Dent and survival.

……..to be continued.

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.

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 ……………