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

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.

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 – 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.