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.

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 ……………