Intrinsic Adventure The Days of Adventure project has made damn sure I protect time for my priorities. It’s taken me outdoors when outdoors seemed a long way distant

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Friday 9 September

I’d spent a pretty sleepless night trying to discourage the local dogs from chewing up our cyclists’ helmets that’d been left scattered around camp after a long day’s ride.

We were all still feeling pretty tender from our brush with some kind of Montenegrin lake-bourne vomiting bug.

Considering that, only two nights previously, I’d half-slept on a trolley in A&E, I felt incredible on yesterday’s ride.

Powering up the shady steep slopes of the Albanian Dajti and swooshing untrammelled down the other side, zipping through sixty kph mountain tunnels, out and over metalwork spans over thousand metre drop gorges.

I’d felt incredible, that is, until lunch.

Then things went rapidly downhill. Luckily, the last thirty kilometres of yesterday were indeed rapidly downhill.

So, although I woke up on Friday morning feeling okay, I was glad to be spending the day in Calypso, our twenty-year-old Ford Transit support vehicle*.

We waved the cyclists off, packed up camp and drove onward, over the Korab Mountains and into North Macedonia.

At the border, we discovered that we didn’t have valid vehicle insurance for countries outside the EU and would not be allowed to continue until we bought a 14-day insurance pass for €50.

Love that no border guards had cared about such legal niceties in Albania.

In 2019, as one of the conditions of their accession to NATO, the Republic of Macedonia agreed to adopt the geographical qualifier ‘North’, appeasing Greek political concerns.

As Calypso chugged into her ninth country of the tour, I noticed that someone had peeled away the cheap sticker that had announced the country’s new name, revealing the old beneath.

Together we flew over the border mountains to Lake Debar and followed the Black Drin all the way to Lake Ohrid, through pine forests and beside glittering water, marvelling at the beauty of the day’s ride from the hot cabin of Calypso.

We found camp on the shores of Lake Prespa and started to cook two tonne carbohydrates, with the moon rising over the distant blue of the Baba Mountain.

But we had no phone reception on the lakeside beach and, as time ticked on, somewhere out there in the gloaming, most of our dehydrated, delicate cyclists were climbing a mountain.

I climbed back into Calypso and drove the sharp zigzags to the top of Galičica, nerves rising with each switchback and no one in sight. Did they have lights? Had they run out of water, food? Or worse?

Then, somewhere near the summit, a dozen sweat-stained cyclists drifted like ghosts from the gloom before me, spirits high.

Sucking with relief, I refilled their waters and handed out lights and fleeces for the long descent.

Then I followed them down, headlights flickering against reflective cycle tape. The stars played on the lake below.

That day was my hundredth day of adventuring in 2022.

215 Days of Adventure (And Counting)

Last year, I wanted to spend more time outdoors and less time in front of the computer. To make sure that happened, I set a target to have 100 Days of Adventure.

This is my definition of a Day of Adventure, a simple yes or no: did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?

‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because I want DOA to be a binary measure that works for everyone. What’s significant and adventurous for you will feel different to everyone else: maybe dangerous, maybe dull.

After a slow lockdown start, I ended 2021 with 102 DOA, a healthy increase so far as I could tell from the years before.

The project was such a success that I decided to keep it rolling into 2022.

Today, we are 308 days deep into the year and I’m proud to say that I’ve spent over a third of that time outdoors, adventuring: 113 days.

A Big Year

I always knew this was going to be a big year: I was scheduled to spend 46 days on the road this summer with Thighs of Steel, cycling from Glasgow to Milan and then from Dubrovnik to Athens.

Days of Adventure are not necessarily biased towards these kind of exotic foreign epics: after all, I spent 35 days cycling around southern England in 2020.

But there’s no question that this big year owes much to the relaxation of pandemic lockdowns and border controls, allowing me to adventure abroad.

In fact, there was so much adventuring going on that I had no time to celebrate passing my 100 day target. So that’s what I’m doing today.

Yay.

(Seriously, I mean that: yay 🥳)

Although my definition of adventure is flexible enough to encompass almost anyone doing almost anything, I know that it’d hard for most people to hand over a third of their year to adventuring.

(Besides the fact most people wouldn’t want to!)

100 days in a year is ambitious. 113 days (and counting) is straight-up ridiculous. When I stop for half a second to think about it, I feel very lucky.

For some reason, tracking my Days of Adventure is really working for me. This story is about why that’s the case and how something similar might work for you.

It’s a story that begins with a cautionary tale.

Goals Are Dangerous

My old philosophy tutor told us of a friend of his who had a long-time dream to collect a first edition of every record put out by a ridiculously niche record label.

(I think the label was some 1970s Americana psychedelic weirdness, but that’s not the cautionary part of the tale.)

This was back in the days before eBay and Amazon so tracking down the records meant trawling through secondhand junk markets across the world.

There were only about twenty records to find, but the search took him decades. Every LP that he finally found only raised the rarity of the next.

By the late-nineties, we were told, he had found all but one of the records. It’d been six years since he’d added to his priceless collection, but for as long as he hadn’t found that last LP, the game was still on.

Then he found it.

What a moment. What a feeling that must have been, after so many years of searching, to have finally completed the set, to have won the game.

To our tutor’s enduring incredulity, his friend never bought that last record.

He picked it up in the shop, flipped it over and read the sleeve notes. Then he slipped it back onto the shelf, went up to the desk and sold the lucky shopkeeper everything he’d worked to collect over the past twenty years: the entire back catalogue of this ridiculously niche 1970s Americana psychedelic weirdness label.

That’s the cautionary part of the tale: even an extremely difficult goal will, with dogged human persistence, be completed.

And then what? Emptiness.

Once he’d found the final piece, there was nothing more for our collector to do but scrap the lot, like breaking up a jigsaw puzzle.

That’s the danger of goal-setting — and that could be the danger inherent in a project like 100 Days Of Adventure.

But there’s something different with the design of that game, a difference best illustrated by another project of mine — now permanently shelved.

The Country Game

Back in the early 2000s, I had a friendly competition with pals to see who could travel to as many different countries as possible.

(Okay, it wasn’t always friendly — Monaco and the Vatican really got people’s backs up.)

The only rule was that the visit had to include at least one overnight stay and at least one activity of cultural interest. In other words: travelling across borders on the night train did not count.

It was a great game because I was usually winning (especially after making up a rule that added the Canary Islands and Gibraltar to the list of officially recognised countries due to something or other about non-contiguous borders and nautical miles).

And therein lies the problem with this game: the joy, for me, was in winning the game, not the experience of taking part.

Contrast this with the DOA project: I didn’t even notice that I had ‘won’ the game. I was too wrapped up with the experience until I sat down to write today.

It wasn’t that I took The Country Game particularly seriously, but the nature of the game mechanics generated serious discussions about how to reduce duplicates (each country could only count once) and how to maximise border-hopping with every trip.

To the spitting jealousy of the others, one competitor snared six countries in a single holiday to the Baltics. All within the rules.

Intrinsic Adventure

In contrast, there’s no way to ‘game’ the DOA project without lying to myself.

I can’t score if I haven’t been outdoors for a significant chunk of the day doing something vaguely adventurous.

That kind of point-scoring is all about experience: it’s a reward that is intrinsic to itself. It’s found within, not without.

The problem with The Country Game is that its rewards were extrinsic, with no reference to the quality of experience within the game.

Quite simply, the reward of visiting a new country was to score one point.

And after that?

Visit another country, score another point.

And after that?

Visit another country, score another point.

And after that?

Visit another country, score another point.

And so on until there is no more ‘And after that?’, only the emptiness of the completed record collector.

Protect and Prioritise

I know I’m lucky to work the jobs I do, but over the past two years, my DOA score has been more than a mere coincidental symptom of my work and lifestyle.

Even this year, even with those 46 days (technically hard at work) with Thighs of Steel, I still wouldn’t have reached 100 Days of Adventure without making an effort to clear my diary to create space.

The DOA project has made damn sure I protect time for my priorities.

It’s taken me outdoors when outdoors seemed a long way distant — particularly at the short end of last year, when I was scrambling for days, a time that generated some of my most cherished memories that winter.

And That’s The Point

Since the first day of this year, hiking the double stone row at Hurston Ridge on Dartmoor with two friends, I’ve written seventeen more stories of adventure this year: a wellspring of memories filled with community, wonder and connection.

That’s what the Days of Adventure have brought me since 2021, a constant reminder that ‘how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’.

There are 57 days left in the year. I plan to spend at least 13 of them outside, adventuring.

Are you putting your time where your heart is? What’s stopping you from making damn sure?

BONUS CONTENT: 17 Stories of Adventure

Adventures make me think. And when I think I often write. Here are the other 17 stories that I’ve written while on adventure this year:

Postscript…

*It was Calypso’s fifth time supporting the ride all the way to Athens and back. She’s beginning to creak, so we’re looking for an upgrade for 2023.

Do you know anyone who might have a long wheelbase high top van they want to sell or give away to a small cycling community with a big heart?

Lies And The What What Now Now While livers and kidneys and stem cells do their surreptitious work, the rest of the world, friends, family and lovers from back home look on and ask of us the what what now now

Last week I told you no lies. But perhaps I was sparing with the truth.

I said that Thighs of Steel left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.

Truth.

I also said that 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km over the course of 49 days.

Also truth.

But there’s a gap between the truth and the whole truth, right? You know what I mean.

In those 49 days, we didn’t quite cycle all the way from Glasgow to Athens — even after you excuse us the cross-Channel ferry.

We missed a bit.

Let me take you back to Dubrovnik and the beginning of Week 7.

Probably A Hill / Gravel / Borek

Covering the 800km between Dubrovnik, Croatia and Thessaloniki, Greece inside one week was always going to be a big ask.

And not just because of the distance.

The mountains of Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia barred our way to the cotton and pomegranate plains of northern Greece.

Oh, and all this on a route we’d never done before, on roads that could run out at any moment.

Albania. Go. Now.

Naturally, it was hands-down the most popular week of the trip, selling out on day one on this hapless promise of unknowable adventure:

This is the week for people who LOVE not knowing what’s around the corner (clue: probably a hill / gravel / borek).

We’ve never been to North Macedonia before (have you?) so we’ve no idea what to expect, but the internet tells us it’s freakin’ gorgeous (if a bit hilly). We’re looking forward to the endless views and the bottomless mountain lakes.

As ever, we don’t know where we’re staying each night until that day, so we may be welcomed into homes, adopted by villages or wild camping beside a river. Expect to meet extremely friendly strangers and strangers who are extremely confused by us.

Before The Lake

After two days climbing through Montenegro, including the sixteen switchbacks of the Kotor Serpentine, we camped on the edge of Lake Shkodër, right on the border with Albania.

We arrived at camp in time to blow up the inflatable aubergine (yep), chuck a frisbee around in the shallows and then, because apparently we weren’t tired enough after a 97km ride, embark on a leisurely grueling swim out to a rocky island.

About halfway across, I was reminded that, over water, however distant your destination seems to appear, you should triple it.

The guilty Lake Shkodër (Montenegrin side)

The evening sun hurt our backs, the lake weeds caught our strokes, the vast current clubbed our legs.

We struggled back from the island, crawled ashore like wet things from the Pleistocene, and collapsed into a pot of dinner as mosquitoes danced.

Within 15 hours of that ill-advised swim, I was fixed to a drip in an Albanian hospital while my friend was being jabbed in the butt with a needle of drugs.

The Author, On His Death Trolley

After The Lake

We think we picked up the stomach bug from dirty water in the lake, but who knows.

What is certain is that, although almost everyone managed to cycle the 130km from Lake Shkodër to Tirana, by midnight all but five of the party were stricken.

There are no days off on Thighs of Steel, but there was no way we were going to cycle any further the next day.

Thighs of Steel, maybe, but bellies of jelly. Or worse.

A rest day was the only option.

Luckily, we had found a bucolic campsite up in the foothills of Mount Dajti, populated with ducks, chickens and a clutch of (now) horrified campervanners.

The proprieter was a jolly woman who, after seeing our condition, mocked us for not being able to handle our alcohol. When we revealed the true extent of our indisposition, she was appalled — until we explained that we’d picked up the bug in Montenegro.

‘Ah, Montenegro!’ she cackled. And restocked the toilet paper.

By the evening, most people were able to prop themselves up on an elbow and nibble a little plain pasta. A couple of us managed a game of Bananagrams. Some mad cats even cycled down to the city for a tour of the fleamarkets.

We called council and made the decision that anyone who could hold down the morning porridge could ride on the next day — with the proviso that Calypso, our beloved support van, would scoop up any strugglers.

But our recovery day meant we were travelling one day behind schedule.

In our fragile condition there was no way that we could make up the time, so, instead of reaching Thessaloniki on the seventh day, we ended the ride in Florina, a hot, flat ride over the border from Macedonia.

Then we caught a train.

In Thessaloniki, we snatched one last dinner together before saying our goodbyes.

The next day we welcomed the final week’s cyclists and rode six days to Athens.

5,304km from Glasgow, but somehow missing something…

Connecting The Dots

Why is it that we feel compelled to finish things?

Why, on Monday, did I feel compelled to take a train from Athens to Thessaloniki, meet fellow core teamer Fen, drive Calypso to Alexandreia, park her up in a quiet suburb and catch another train with our bikes to Florina — only to turn around after a night’s sleep and ride 124km (into a strong headwind) back to Alexandreia, thereby linking Week 7 to Week 8 and making an unbroken land route of 5,428km all the way from Glasgow to Athens?

I don’t know. But it felt really good. And not just because of roads like this:

It felt good to honour the ride that was a year in the making. It felt good to honour the other cyclists who couldn’t ride the full route during Week 7.

It felt good to take to the roads again and remember the purity of why we do this without the frantic circus that comes with riding in a large group.

It felt good to join the dots.

We have now raised £96,964 and if you want to help us join the dots to our £100,000 fundraising target for refugee solidarity charity MASS Action, you can donate here.

I know times are tough for pretty much everyone right now, but every donation makes a difference. Take these examples of what a donation could do for the Khora community spaces in Athens:

  • £10 buys 20kg of fresh fruit and veg to serve at the Khora community kitchen, free for anyone who needs a hot meal with friendly faces
  • £50 covers the costs of running the Khora Asylum Support Team for a day, providing vital, free legal support to asylum seekers in Athens
  • £100 pays the electricity, water and gas bills at the Khora kitchen for a fortnight
  • £250 covers food supplies needed at the Khora kitchen for a whole month

It does feel good to have connected the dots, to have finished a project. Like, really finished it.

But now, sitting improbably beneath a glacier, I’ve come to that other moment, where one project ends and I feel…

The What What Now Now

Well, the immediate what what now now is that I need to get to a secret location on the edge of the Morvan in central France. There, awaiting repair, is Calypso, fallen at the last, with oil spewing from her undercarriage.

But once the mechanics have been called, once the vehicle has been recovered, once she limps onto the ferry and makes her tired, troubled way back home, and I have, perhaps, showered and slept, then I will be faced with the what what now now.

Projects like Thighs of Steel take everything you’ve got, all thrown into a threshing machine, and scattered, in this case, across barren gravel tracks from the Clyde to the Acropolis.

During this grisly process, something powerful and enduring is created from the entrails of the various participants — no doubt about that — but it can take some time for everyone to regenerate.

In the meantime, while livers and kidneys and stem cells are doing their surreptitious work, the rest of the world, friends, family and lovers from back home look on and ask of us the what what now now.

The answer is I don’t know know now now.

But I do have some ideas, generated from a grid I made, which I’ll share because you might also find it useful if you’re having trouble figuring out your own what what now now.

To avoid jinxing all my nascent plans, here’s an empty one, drawn in the back of a notebook designed in Tehran, bought in Athens:

Get stuck in. Add or change the columns and rows until you have your own full-on personalised Zwicky Box of What What Now Now.

~

Thanks to everyone involved, to Fen and the tortoise, also to Tim Ten Yen, and of course The Much Much How How And I.

Not A Charity Auction 'Cycling together, reaching our destination and fundraising for refugees, brought everyone together and created a sense of intimacy that’s very difficult to find.'

Happy Friday! And greetings from Athens.

It’s been quite the ride.

Thighs of Steel, a rolling community of fundraising cyclists, left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.

Over the course of 49 days, 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km and climbed up 757,975 metres of elevation, the equivalent of more than 85 Everests.

Powered by 781 bowls of porridge, 11kg of peanut butter and untold megatons of pastries to fill a 2,341,500 calorie cycling deficit.

Brought together by at least 34 punctures (including one tyre pin-cushioned by 15 thorns along one apocalyptic goat track), 435 tent erections at 42 camp spots, plus two saline drips and a butt jab during one of two trips to A&E.

Together we have raised £94,574 and we’re open for donations for another few weeks before distributing the money to solidarity communities working with refugees and other people on the move in Athens, the UK and northern France.

Today’s story is about what Thighs of Steel does in the world (hint: it’s not cycling) and, inadvertently, how you might zoom out from the particular to uncover the universal purpose to everything you do as a human.

It’s big picture stuff, so I’ve illustrated the story with seven photographs taken by cyclists on the ride. You can find more on Instagram. Enjoy.

Not A Charity Auction

CREDIT: Zeina Hawa (Glasgow to Bristol)

A lot of people ask what it is that Thighs of Steel do and the answer is that the answer is different for everyone involved.

But here’s my answer.

We’re Not Movember

Thighs of Steel is a fundraising organisation. The way we fundraise is to organise bike adventures to give people an excuse to invite their friends to donate in solidarity with refugees.

Yet, in those two sentences alone, there is a contradiction.

If we wanted to maximise our fundraising potential, instead of spending nine months planning a bike trip, we’d throw all our energy and resources into schmoozing at charity auctions for High Net Worth individuals in The City.

Or, even better, we’d create mass participation events, like Movember or the World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, rather than a logistically complex continental adventure that is forceably capped at 96 participants.

Ergo: Thighs of Steel is not purely a fundraising organisation because, if it were, it’d be a horribly inefficient one. There’s something else going on.

CREDIT: Grace Compton (Glasgow to Milan)

We’re Not A Cycle Club Either

Thighs of Steel was formed as a Community Interest Company and, on our registration documents, this is how we describe our public benefit:

All communities within the United Kingdom stand to benefit from our company as our bike rides are open to people of all ages and fitness levels to join.

There are rides of different degrees of difficulty to challenge experienced cyclists and also encourage and include those who are new to cycling.

The individuals who participate and also those who follow our activities will benefit as we are promoting and encouraging healthy activities and challenges.

As well as health benefits, we are also promoting environmentally friendly travel (travelling by bicycle) which aims to inspire people to use their own bodies, thereby encouraging lives with a low carbon footprint, which has a positive impact on the whole community.

All of this is true, but there’s no at all mention of fundraising, the very reason Thighs was set up in the first place!

This is because the donations we raise don’t exclusively benefit UK populations and therefore fall outside the cut-and-paste regulatory requirements of a CIC.

And this isn’t the only time that our two primary activities of fundraising and cycling feel like they’re in competition with each other.

CREDIT: Catriona Mallows (Trieste to Dubrovnik)

Are We Fundraising Or Cycling Here Or What?

During the difficult moments, sweating through the Lake District, struggling up the Dolomites or vomiting into a toilet in Albania, it can take a certain amount of effort to remember why we’re doing this horrible thing: caught up in effort, we forget why we’re fundraising.

Conversely, at peak moments, during sunshine descents, pistachio ice cream or geothermal sea baths, many of us feel a guilty tension between our personal joy and the difficult reality of daily life for refugees, the people we’re riding in solidarity with.

Both forgetfulness and guilt are dangerous states of mind that can sap our appetite to do anything at all, whether productive or pointless, difficult or delightful.

At its worst, our activities could seem pretty crass: a bit of fundraising bolted on to a cheap bike holiday.

But rather than try to resolve this tension between our stated aims of fundraising and cycling, let’s zoom out to a wide perspective where we’ll see them feeding into each other as two expressions of a third, much greater, purpose.

CREDIT: Linde Geerinck (Glasgow to Bristol)

Zoom Zoom Zoom Out

Up close, things look disconnected. It’s only by zooming out that we can see the connecting lines between everything that we do.

This applies to our personal lives as much as the operational activities of a non-profit.

By zooming out, we can see what a £5 online donation from your cousin Frank has in common with rubbing someone’s back while they throw up into a toilet bowl.

The connection is connection.

One of the Thighs cyclists this year was Naoum Sayegh, a Syrian engineer who lived for 11 years in Lebanon before moving to the UK not long before Covid.

As well as being a great part of our little bike crew, Naoum is also super enthusiastic about embracing British culture, but until now has found authentic connection with his fellow citizens hard to find.

London is very individualistic so I don’t have the same social fabric as I had in the Middle East. I felt very isolated living in London alone. So, when I joined the ride, one of my main goals was to build this connection with British cyclists.

He wasn’t disappointed:

Cycling together and aiming to reach the same goal, reaching our destination and fundraising for refugees, brought everyone together and created a sense of intimacy that’s very difficult to find within British communities in England.

And because every night Thighs of Steel throw ourselves on the generosity of the communities we land in, Naoum was also able to connect with complete strangers across Britain (or at least along that thread of cycle road that connects Glasgow and Bristol).

Camping at community farms and being hosted by locals really helped me see the UK from a different perspective.

When we stopped at Claver Hill Community Farm in Lancaster, they cooked us a delicious meal with vegetables from the farm and gave us some outstanding apple cider — how sweet!

Then I sat down with the hosts and had a very interesting conversation about how they live and how community functions outside of London.

Being pampered by our hosts created a connection that is very important.

CREDIT: Jim Yeoman (Trieste to Dubrovnik)

Let Me Count The Ways

Naoum counts two obvious ways that Thighs of Steel fosters connection: within the tight team of cyclists and with our camping hosts.

But there’s much, much more.

Cycling connects me as an individual to my own mind (agh, why won’t this hill stop!) and my own body (yes! I am strong!), as well as to my bike (another snapped gear cable!).

As Naoum said, over the course of a tough week of cycling, groups bond through both joy and adversity: one of the incredible things about organising this trip is seeing week after week of cyclists arrive as strangers and leave as friends.

These connections can last a week; they can last a lifetime.

Naoum mentioned our hosts, but what of the hundreds of people who helped us with directions, pastries, water or a smile? Every single one a spark of a connection, acknowledgement of something shared, and inducement to share in return.

The ride also connects us to the world, to its nature and construction: the landscapes we pass through, the tortoises we protect from onrushing cars, the wind, the weather, the birds of prey, the waves of the ocean, the kittens.

We leave the ride more connected to ourselves, to each other and to the rest of reality.

That’s a whole lot of connection already, but solidarity fundraising is in itself another gargantuan act of connection.

The 95 cyclists all set up fundraising pages and invited their wide networks of friends, family and casual acquaintances to participate by donation.

The most successful pages used creative strategies to connect communities and pull people into the project: parties, wine tastings, raffles.

Even those who never donated still heard about the ride and its purpose in an unmeasurable circle of influence that reaches out still.

Connection on connection.

And finally, of course, the money raised is funnelled directly into refugee projects specifically set up to foster connection and community.

Thousands of people will connect with those projects over the coming year and, being humans, the connections that they find will help make the world a better place for us all.

It’s not just cycling, it’s not just fundraising, it’s not just a £5 donation and it’s not just rubbing someone’s back while they vomit into an Albania toilet.

It’s connection.

CREDIT: Georgie Cottle (Milan to Athens)

Only Connect

Connection, for me, is the purpose of Thighs of Steel. In fact, it’s what drives pretty much everything I do.

When I’m confused about why I’m doing something, I try to see how it will help me connect with the universe around me.

It’s usually not hard: everything we do connects us. If you want to get really zoomed out, then every act that you’re a part of is a small contribution to the workings of the cosmos.

The point is to amplify those connections and make them as generative as possible.

~

If you want to connect to this story, then my fundraising page is still open. Annoyingly, I’m £50 short of my target 🥰

CREDIT: Jim Yeoman (Trieste to Dubrovnik)

More Like Commun-isn’t! A pirate in shining armour, capitalism rode to the rescue, camera crew and cruise ships in tow

We finished the first half of the story on the cusp of making the big mistake of blaming an ahistorical socioeconomic system for the sharp contrast between two hotels only five minutes and three decades apart: the Sheraton and the Pelegrin.

Hotel Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera, Srebreno Bay
Hotel Pelegrin, Kupari Bay

More Like Communisn’t!

At the end of the eighties, the story that many people in Western liberal democracies told themselves was of the final triumph of Western liberal democracy.

As political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1989:

We may be witnessing not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period in postwar history, but the end of history — that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

A bold claim, but — to be fair to Fukuyama — one more or less supported by newsreels.

Even the market socialism of Yugoslavia, where companies were held cooperatively in competition with each other, had been successful only for so long as partizan Nazi killer, benevolant tyrant and war criminal Josip Broz Tito could hold the republics together through sheer cult of personality.

As Tito’s health ailed, decades of economic growth faltered and crashed. A chap called Slobodan Milošević took over the presidency of Serbia, one of the six Socialist Republics of Yugoslavia, with a rigorous programme of Serbian nationalism.

It really didn’t go well.

Although Croatia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991, the War of Independence only ended in 1995.

25,000 people were killed and over half a million displaced.

Ten kilometres up the coast from Kupari, Dubrovnik had been under siege for seven months of said war and more than half of the buildings in the famous old town were shelled and damaged or destroyed.

At the end of the conflict, UNESCO led a frighteningly successful mission to restore Dubrovnik to its former glory. The mission cost $80 million: money well spent for the million or more tourists who tramp those Hollywood walls every summer.

Like a pirate in shining armour, capitalism rode to the rescue, camera crew and cruise ships in tow.

The hotels at Kupari had also been subject to vicious shelling but, without the protection of thick medieval walls, their expensively assembled interiors were also ransacked and looted by the Yugoslav People’s Army.

Again, without the protection of heritage-worthy medieval walls, there was no post-war international restoration at Kupari.

The Croatian government has been looking for an investor since their first survey of the abandoned site in 1997:

The grounds of the Hotel Grand, c.1997

As of August 2022, it looks like an investor has been found, for at least part of the complex.

The Hotel Grand, designed in classic Belle Époque style, is the earliest and most appealing of the hotel husks and, during my visit, its perimeter was surrounded by electric wire, keep out signs and portaloos.

A team of men were busy blowtorching something in one corner, while a team of women on ladders were touching up the paintwork of the epicerie and boulangerie, incongruous among the wreckage.

Incongruous for good reason, it turns out. As a more savvy friend quickly realised, this is obviously the conveniently dressed set of a World War film set in occupied France.

There’s something uncomfortable in the repurposing of one country’s historical wreckage for the lionisation of another’s. But a profit is a profit.

The Dubrovnik Times reports that the Kupari site was purchased in 2016 by Avenue Group, to be converted into a five-star resort managed by, yep — you guessed it — Marriot, owners of the Sheraton brand and the world’s largest hotel corporation, with enough bedspace to rehome the entire urban population of Buenos Aires, Chicago or Paris.

That evening, with the last of the sunlight shining clean through the building, it’s easy to imagine the Pelegrin lit up by holidaymakers.

Whether it’s hotels or Hollywood, maybe, even here at Kupari, capitalism will yet ride to the rescue once again. Perhaps the restoration of failed ideologies is the moneylenders burden.

The Hotels at Kupari

But the mistake would be to assume that the story of civilisations is over: that this capitalist culture, by fluke or by nuke, has somehow won history and will sail ever on into the future, unperturbed by ruffles on the water.

There’s a brand new bridge just up the coast that puts a pin in that balloon right away.

Bridges Over Borders

Dalmatia is divided.

In the Treaty of Karlowitz of 1699, the Ragusa of Dubrovnik ceded territory north and south of their city to the Ottoman Empire in a pretty lame attempt to forestall a land invasion by their arch enemies: the Venetians.

It kinda worked actually and so this treaty of convenience ended up being the basis for the modern border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The thick grey line is the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Zoom in close on a map of the Dalmatian coast and it looks as if Bosnia and Herzegovina is dipping a toe into the Adriatic.

This tiny scrap of land, known as The Corridor Of Neum, stuck stubbornly to the sole of history, turns Župa Dubrovačka into an exclave.

Although it tosses Bosnia and Herzegovina a lifeline to the Adriatic Sea, it cleaves Croatian Dalmatia in two, with multiple border crossings for anyone travelling the coast.

At least, that was the case until the opening in July 2022 of Pelješac Bridge, a 2.4km cable-stayed bridge across the Neretva Channel that connects Dubrovnik with the rest of the country.

By diverting traffic onto the peninsula of Pelješac, it’s now possible to avoid Bosnia, The Corridor Of Neum and those pesky border crossings altogether.

But what on earth has this bridge got to do with the end of the end of history?

Well. This is where the ball of thread starts to wind itself up in knots, but let’s see if I can break it down in three easy bullet points:

  • The Corridor Of Neum, being located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is not in the EU
  • The rest of the Dalmatian coast, being located in Croatia, is in the EU and is scheduled to join the single currency Eurozone in 2023 and the free movement Schengen Zone in 2024
  • The Corridor Of Neum, being located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is not in the EU

Pre-Schengen and pre-Eurozone, traffic between the Dubrovnik exclave and the rest of Croatian has two border crossings to make. Faff, but doable faff.

Schengen will turn two border checks into three as EU customs officials are as curious about what leaves the Eurozone as what arrives.

That’s one whole new level of faff and, having kinda worked actually for 300 years, the Corridor Of Neum is now just a bit much.

So, in 2007, the Croatian government decided to build a nice bridge, linking the Croatian mainland with a Croatian peninsula that conveniently protrudes up the coast from the other side of Bosnian Neum.

A new motorway would then carry traffic around Bosnia’s toe-dipping territory and The Corridor would be no more (except for bicycles).

They could’ve put on a ferry or turned The Corridor Of Neum into a hyper-surveilled, no exit highway, but they went for the nice bridge idea.

A nice bridge that would cost a nice lot of money.

Nevertheless, this was 2007 and optimism was in the air. The Croatian government barrelled on with the expensive bridge idea and, in September of that year, announced that the tender had been won by a Croatian construction consortium, led by a company with the quaintly amusing and very on-the-nose name: Konstruktor.

The bridge was due to be completed four years later, in 2011. Blah, blah, blah, global financial crisis, etc., tender cancelled and konstruktion terminated in May 2012.

Luckily, as it was kind of their problem, the EU were on hand with a nice lot more money — €357 million of it, in fact — and the bridge project went back out to tender in 2017.

But ten years is a long time in the story of civilisations.

This time the winning bid was from a corporation with a name so on-the-nose that, instead of being quaintly amusing, it’s downright sinister: China Road and Bridge Corporation.

They undercut the Austrian and Italian bids by about 20 percent — prompting complaints that the Chinese were ‘price-dumping’ and receiving state aid from their motherland in exchange for investment opportunities to expand Chinese influence in Europe.

But, six months ahead of schedule, the bridge is up and running. You cannot deny the facts on the ground. Croatia is happy. The EU is happy. China is happy.

Marine ecologists and Bosnians are not happy, but you can’t have everything.

The End Of The End Of History

Strange that this beautiful stretch of coastline has become, and has perhaps always been, a ley line of international mystery, a seam of conflict and opportunity, the hypoteneuse of a triangle between Europe, Russia and now China.

Sorry — did somebody mention Russia?

The collapse of the Soviet empire was exactly what prompted Francis Fukuyama to declare the ‘end of history’: back then, Western liberal democracy really had won.

Close up, it certainly looked that way to Fukuyama.

In 1989, the year that he made his famous declaration, the ideological contrast between East and West couldn’t have been sharper.

In the East the Berlin Wall fell, the culmination of a year of Communist collapse; in the West, Tim Berners-Lee invented the freakin’ World Wide Web.

In the same way, close up, the Sheraton and Pelegrin hotels stand today in sharp ideological contrast on the beaches of the Dubrovnik Riviera.

But step back a little, take a little perspective, and its not their differences, but their similarities that really stand out to me:

Right now, the Sheraton sparkles with polished glass while the Pelegrin crumbles. But it’s easy to imagine the opposite.

As I leave the Pelegrin, I notice, high up in the empty space between smashed windows, someone’s strung out a washing line and hung out a t-shirt and a bedsheet in the last of the sunshine.

A single chair is has been placed right at the edge of the seventh storey roof: a good seat for the storyteller to pause and ponder the past, looking out over the mountain cliffs and the ancient city of Cavtat, founded as Epidaurus in the sixth century BC by Greek colonisers.

This coastline, its history, the story of its civilisations, is a labyrinth.

Make Them Lunch Today

I’ll end by returning to where this story began last week: looking down at the hopeless ball of tangled thread in my hand, with no end in sight.

Let me explain why this is a wonderful thing.

I can sympathise with Francis Fukuyama’s original urge to bring an end to the story, but, in fairness to Fukuyama, I confess that I have made something of a straw man out of his argument.

As described in this March 2022 interview with The New Statesman:

Fukuyama is willing to admit mistakes. He said that when he wrote his thesis he perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the concept of “political decay: the idea that once you became a modern democracy, you could also go backwards”.

Oh, great. Thanks for that cold blast of optimism, Fran.

If you care to look for them, symptoms of political decay are everywhere in the tales of our history told today on news channels and social media.

But (and here’s something to hang your hat on) somehow, despite the ‘end of history’, the people of Russia and China have found a way into the year 2022.

So too have the people of Croatia, even the people who once took their holidays at Kupari.

So too have you and I.

What’s more is that I reckon a bunch of us, Russian, Chinese, Croatian or whatever the heck you call yourself, will make it to 2052 — no matter what happens.

Don’t trust people who try to draw lines under historical events. They’re just trying to spin you a story. You can always tell it another way, a way that leaves space for you to act, for you (yes — you!) to take the stage, enter the arena, and play.

It’s easy to be despondent about the history that rushes through our lives, but despondency is the equal and opposite to Fukuyama-esque triumphalism.

Make neither mistake and you’ll find that history with no end is a dreadful and empowering thing.

As I wrote last week, The Most Haunting Truth of Parenthood by Mary Laura Philpott is not really about parenthood.

It’s about the collapse of civilisations:

We cannot really save anyone. Not permanently. The safeguards we set up all fall away. … I cannot shield my beloveds forever, but I can make them lunch today.

This might be an anticlimactic end to 4,000 words of story, but at least my take on history is actionable: stop getting room service and make them lunch today.

The Lunch I’m Making Today Is A Bike Ride

It’s a charity bike ride that I might have mentioned a million times before, raising money in solidarity with refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.

It’s also a life experience for a hundred cyclists, a mobile and temporary autonomous zone with no borders, free movement and free minds for all.

Building a new civilisation from inside the husk of the old.

What lunch are you making for your beloveds?

Room Service and the End of the End of History After two millennia, a collapsed way of life feels humbling, but safe — like sitting on the edge of a high cliff at moonless midnight, looking over the ocean at the dance of the Milky Way

I have a feeling that this story is going to be a difficult one to write.

Not because I’m way out of my depth — I’m used to that feeling — but because, no matter how much I pull on the thread, I can’t seem to find the end.

Writing this introduction, I look down at my hands and only see a tangled mess of what was once useful material.

But here goes. Let’s start at the beginning.

As a lapsed archaeologist, I’ve written before about the humbling effect of ancient ruins, in this case, at Sbeitla in Tunisia:

An entire ruined city leaves behind a cemetery of civilisation. It reminds us that, not only will our individual lives decay and be forgotten, but our entire way of living will also decay and be forgotten.

At the distance of two millennia, a collapsed way of life feels safe. Humbling, but safe — like sitting on the edge of a high cliff at moonless midnight, looking over the ocean at the dance of the Milky Way.

But on the coast of what I might as well call Dalmatia, in what is now the south of Croatia, a collapsed way of life stands only a short way off.

The gravestones are fresh, the dates comfortably inside my own living memory. The cemetery has not had time to decay into the aesthetics of ancient archaeology.

The ruins come with bed springs, soap dishes, smashed glass and room service.

Two Luxury Beach Resorts, Two Socioeconomic Systems

I’m staying in an unsmashed studio apartment in Župa Dubrovačka, the Dubrovnik Riviera, overlooking a string of beaches that, over the past couple of millennia, have seen the comings and goings of Greeks, Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Avars, Slavs, Ragusans, Ottomans, French, Habsburgs, British, Italians and Germans.

What can I say? This coastline has always been a popular place for marauding tourists. And, from the glittering array of exotic numberplates lined up in the seafront car parks, I’d say it still is.

Which is nice because today’s story is the tale of two luxury beach resorts.

Luxury Beach Resort #1: The Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera

This is the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera, a 239-room complex nestled around Srebreno Bay that includes swimming pools, tennis courts, a piano bar (without a piano) and no fewer than 1500m² of conference facilities.

Fun fact: Sheraton hotels are owned by Marriott International, the world’s biggest hospitality chain, whose 1.4 million bedrooms could happily accommodate the entire urban population of Buenos Aires, Chicago or Paris.

It’s fair to say that, despite the downturn in fortunes over the pandemic, Marriott are doing okay. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t waste so much water sluicing down their restaurant decking with a power hose every morning.

An enduring triumph of twentieth century American capitalism.

But a five minute walk around the headland brings me to Kupari Bay and luxury beach resort number two…

Luxury Beach Resort #2: Hotel Pelegrin, Kupari c.1970

Five minutes forward, five decades back, welcome to the Hotel Pelegrin, part of a five-hotel beach resort that, in its pomp, could accommodate 1,600 guests around the warm waters of Kupari Bay.

Stroll along the beachfront promenade and you’ll find a boutique hotel, two celebrity villas and ‘an underground structure called Potkop, once exclusively used by high government officials’.

A triumph of twentieth century Yugoslavian market-based socialism.

But if we come closer, in time and space, today the Hotel Pelegrin looks more like this:

Hotel Pelegrin c. 2022

Even The President-For-Life Loves To Sunbathe

Climbing that crumbling staircase reminds me of the sheer face of a time worn Pharaonic pyramid — yet it can be scarcely fifty years old.

Say what you want about Communist-era building materials, but nature’s decay was certainly accelerated by vengeful military vandals.

Despite the shattered glass, exposed brickwork and stripped light fittings, it’s not hard to reconstruct a stay at the Pelegrin.

You pull up to the concrete entrance way, step out onto the terrace for sundown lounging, greet other guests as you pass on the thinly carpeted corridors.

Fill the closet, test the bed springs, piss in the avocado colour-matched bathroom.

Something about seeing another civilisation’s soap dishes really brings it home: we’re not here forever.

A waterfront pedestrian footpath, the rocky shore coated in the poured concrete so beloved of mid-twentieth century architects, leads you past Hotel Pelegrin to Comrade Tito’s private villa.

I wonder if Yugoslavian President-For-Life Josip Broz Tito, sunbathing at his private Kupari villa, ever pondered his own evanescence?

Sadly, the the path abruptly ends in an all too modern military guardhouse.

Idly, I look up the Kupari complex on Google: 4.6 stars from 179 reviews. The Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera, pleasingly, scores no better and some of its guests sound like they should’ve stayed at the Pelegin:

Poor diner, poor food in general, piano bar without piano 🙄🤣. Diner area looks like an airport terminal. Everything looks just boring, no cosyness at all. Restaurants at the beach have the same boring vibe as the hotel in general.

There’s nothing boring about picking crushed glass out of your flipflops.

As I crunch around the enormous complex, I reflect on the gargantuan effort that went into building this thing.

And this thing is only one small corner of a civilisation that covered six republics — not only Croatia, but Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia too.

So what happened?

How come Srebreno Bay boasts the thriving Sheraton, busy with satellite restaurants, beach bars and umbrella entrepreneurs, while, five minutes up the coast, Kupari Bay is a ghost resort, riddled with actual bullet holes?

It would be all too easy to take these parallel beaches with their parallel histories and point to the parallel socioeconomic civilisations that built them.

Such finger pointing, however, would be a huge mistake…

~

…but it’s a huge mistake we’ll make in part two!

Boredom & The World Heritage Site

Lorenzo looks me in the eye, finger tips pressed together, and delivers his final verdict:

Seriously, there’s no point. Why would you even do that? Why?

Greetings from the portico-shaded streets of Bologna, where I’ve spent the past week relaxing — and, in peak moments, getting really, really bored.

Hence my appearance in the tourist office of Piazza Maggiore and the kindly intervention of Lorenzo’s baffled condemnation.

This is a story about boredom and Bologna’s World Heritage Site.

Boredom

We can think of all human emotion as lying somewhere along two axes of ‘activated’ and ‘deactivated’ brain states.

At polar ends of the activated axis we have sensations of elation (positive) and distress (negative), while at either end of the deactivated axis we have relaxation (positive) and boredom (negative).

What’s interesting is that we are at our most creative when we are either elated or bored. Relaxation, it turns out, is a bit meh — uninspiring.

According to this 2014 study by Karen Gasper and Brianna L. Middlewood, this boost in creativity comes because both elation and boredom make us seek out novel experiences.

When we’re elated, we’re well up for anything. And when we’re bored we’ll do pretty much anything to shake ourselves out of the torpor — even crappy things (as found by researchers Bench and Lench) like voluntarily giving ourselves random electric shocks.

After the non-stop hectic mess of the past month, cycling from Glasgow to Milan with Thighs of Steel, I was in desperate need of some restorative boredom.

A week in Bologna yawned ahead of me.

On Monday, uncertain of the precise voltage of the Italian electricity supply, I spent a listless half hour on Boring Games.

A ‘game’ called leftRight was particularly unstimulating, clicking the buttons ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ in order to print ‘L’ and ‘R’ character artwork:

When that got too exciting, I watched someone play a video game in which nothing happens. For eight hours.

That dealt with day one of my holiday. But how, I wondered, staring at the featureless expanse of ceiling above my bed, would I mine enough ennui to last the week?

The demise of the telephone book and the rise of the Internet has really foreshortened the tiresome traveller’s repertoire of pointless activities.

That’s when I discovered that the old town of Bologna has 38km of porticos, colonnaded, arcaded streets, crying out to be walked in their labyrinthine entirety.

Fearful that such a ridiculous idea might already be a firm fixture on the tourist trail, especially since the porticos were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year, I went to see Lorenzo at Bologna Welcome.

I needn’t have worried.

Walking The Portici

Not only have the porticos of Bologna not been mapped, not only have they not been walked, but such a tour would be a blasphemous insult to the fundamental reason for their existence.

Lorenzo was quite clear:

Let me give you an example. There is a park, the Park of Montagnola. You go there — and I’m not saying you should go there, but if you are passing — there is a very cool statue.

There are four ways to the statue, but there are also dealers in the park, you know? You walk up one way, you are at the statue. So why walk the other ways, with the dealers? There is no reason to do that.

I nod enthusiastically. ‘Exactly!’

Lorenzo tosses his head: ‘It’s like wanting to walk all the freeways in your city — after a while they are all the same!’

I nod enthusiastically. ‘Exactly!’

I’m thinking of the absurd futility of the every-single-streeters, walkers and runners who use A to Zs or CityStrides to mark off, well, every single street in their city. Or, in the case of a Canadian I met with this mission, pass The Knowledge.

Lorenzo is thinking of my mental health.

The porticos are where we go to meet friends, where we chat, have a drink, eat. They are nothing by themselves. Seriously: just go out and meet people — that’s the only way to understand the porticos.

Despite his misgivings over my desecration of his city, with the heavy heart of a noble man paid to enable idiotic tourists, Lorenzo hands over a map of the old town.

All the streets are here, all the porticos. You will see. There is no reason to do that. You will get tired of all the same view, the same view. But seriously: keep me posted.

I switch on my GPS tracker and begin.

Following my paper map, crossing off streets without porticos, tracing back and forth the ones that do, pursuing dead ends, blind alleys, crescents and courtyards, I fall into the monotony, the horror and freedom of this empty reverie.

15km of walking and over 60 photographs later, I haven’t covered a quarter of the city.

I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with Lorenzo. Each stretch of portico is the same and different.

Superficial architectural differences, of course: wood, terracotta brick, marble pavements, vaulted, domed, concrete slab ceilings, columns Doric, Corinthian, Bolognese.

But despite Lorenzo’s concern, the portici are a way into the life of the city. A postive constraint of a dérive, leading me through the streets, almost but not quite at random, nudging me into the creative act of noticing.

A missing cat poster. A beaked day-glo naked skulled statue on wheels ratchet strapped to a pole. A plaque dedication to a partizan killed in the second world war. Graffiti telling me that my flies are down. Anarchist, No Borders slogans: ASSALTA IL CIELO. Gumball machines, condom machines.

I never know whether the next door will open to a tabacchi run by Bangladeshi handing out cups of lemonade or a thirteenth century church of Saint Bartholomew and Gaetano.

Set into niches in the walls are shrines to Madonna and vending machines selling legal cannabis. Sometimes side by side.

At one point, outside the Oratorio dei Bastardini, where the offspring of students and whores were raised, a warm wind snatched my map from my hands and the updraft lifted it high into the vaults where it danced for a full minute as first I flailed and then I laughed on the flagstones below.

With even the portico itself mocking my dependence on direction, I turned my attention to the life-under-arches that Lorenzo spoke about.

Men lying in the shade, some with a cap of coins in front of them. One leaps up and shouts my name when he sees me.

A man ahead whose terracotta trousers matches the terracotta paint on the walls. Lovers twisted around one another. A student leaning against a column waiting for her email to open.

Smokers smoke greeting each other across the columns’ shadows cast. A courtyard glimpse of family life. Osteria and trattoria preparing for the evening, metal chairs clattering on cobbles.

As my spiral turns back towards the Piazza Maggiore, the tourists converge with a strangely listless jibberjabber: ‘I appreciate architecture so much more now,’ one young American says to another, without answer.

She sounds bored, but yet not in the creative blank space that I have been seeking. I wonder if there’s a sweet spot of boredom that the numbered tourists sights overstimulate.

Passively reading the phone book leads to a more creative state than copying out the phone book, so perhaps shines, frescos and statues take tourists one notch higher on the boredom scale: not high enough for elation, but not low enough to allow for creative daydreaming.

I walk back up the steps to the tourist office: it’s two minutes to closing and Lorenzo is cashing up the till.

He smiles and almost shakes his head.

Now Lorenzo’s Way

After my long day’s walk under whitewashed ceilings, I feel almost as indignant as a Bolognese local when I read that the porticos garner a paltry 2.83 stars on World Heritage Site. Beloved Rome, Venice and Florence all score over 4.58.

The written reviews of Bologna bemoan the imprecise, unexceptional, ineffable heritage value of a simple covered walkway.

Even as I agree that there is not much to see, in the traditional sight-seeing sense, I feel that these travellers have somehow missed the sensation of soft wonder that plays between the columns for anyone willing to suspend their qualifying instruments.

Only Maurice, from Switzerland, seems to have captured, in ALL CAPS, what Lorenzo impresses upon me again at the end of my walk:

In fact like the modern videogames Porticoes are INTERACTIVE but they are all TRUES…Here people get the joy to live and to do something together and Porticoes, are the glue that make it possible…

So the next day, I go out and try the porticos Lorenzo’s way.

Instead of walking, I meet people.

Sitting on the polished kerb of the portico outside the Cremeria Santo Stefano, sharing gelato of fig, marscapone and chocolate with new friends, I concede the point to Lorenzo.

If life here is a poem, then porticos are the metre: Bologna is what happens beneath the arches.

Carpocratian Touring

The second century followers of the gnostic Carpocrates believed that human souls must go through every possible earthly experience before they are released and return to god’s side in heaven.

For most ordinary people, this means reincarnation after reincarnation as they labour through tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich, poor, beggar, thief. But the Carpocratians tried to pack everything — absolutely everything — into a single lifetime.

I know how they feel.

Thighs of Steel is an undertaking of Carpocratian magnitude and the last month has seen a total of 48 cyclists riding 2611km from Glasgow to Milan.

Over a hundred kilometres a day, packed into twenty-five heatdawn, overdrawn days.

So please accept my sincere apologies for not writing to you the last couple of weeks.

I am now taking a break from cycling while the ride continues from Milan to Dubrovnik without me.

This break will be amply — even excessively — filled with the frantic gathering of thoughts as I seek to process what on earth has happened over the past month.

Also sleep.

Turning Points

I’m writing today from a farmhouse near Garlasco, a quiet town in a quiet corner of Lombardy, totally unremarkable to the locals, but nevertheless subject to a constant stream of remarks from me and my British companions, evenly split by topic between the heavenly pizza and the hellish mosquitoes.

Since I last wrote, our fundraising cyclists have covered every inch of the road (and sometimes gravel) between Bristol and Milan.

The change in scenery has been mildly dramatic:

Lovebrook Farm, our last night in England, on the chalk downs of Sussex
Climbing the Col du Mont Cenis (2083m), over the Alps, from France into Italy

Putting those two photos side by side gives an impression of distinct and dramatic movement. One moment your eyes are on the downs, the next on the Alps.

It looks like a clear and obvious turning point: that moment in a story where everything changes forever.

But that’s in stories.

On a bike ride, change is infinitesimal and incremental and our wheels are always turning.

Between that first and second photograph, we got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food, did some more cycling, drank our water bottles, refilled our water bottles, did more cycling, put on sun cream, did more cycling, ate dinner, went to sleep, woke up, got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food…

For two weeks.

There are no turning points — except those we choose to recognise after the fact for the purpose of understanding our lives, for telling our story.

Making sense of our experiences is one of the reasons I love writing to you and why it’s a shame in a way that the past three weeks have been so full of life.

I wonder if the Carpocratians allowed themselves any time to process, or whether ‘storyteller’ fell outside their definition of earthly experience.

Writing gives us a moment to put down a marker, recognise some turning point in experience or learning, and help us understand how what we’re doing fits into the universe at this moment in space/time.

So here are four turning points from this journey, one for each week of the ride so far.

Glasgow to Bristol: A Short Ride Across Town

The two months before this ride began were stressful.

In the manic weeks in the run-up to our departure, I wrote myself (and you) letters about the electromagnetism of responsibility and the need to replace control with trust, but I still arrived in Glasgow with a sneeze-cold.

Thirty blood tests, five Covid tests and two courses of antibiotics did nothing to alleviate the stress I felt, nor resolve the question uppermost in my mind: forget the century of cyclists signed up to ride, would I be able to take care of myself over the next 5,000km?

I needed, or thought I needed, a holiday.

Then, before we were anywhere near ready, it was already time to cycle across town to meet the first week’s cyclists at Glasgow youth hostel.

Spinning wheels, one, two, three kilometres. Friday rushhour, Clyde summer sunshine, giddy core team.

This short ride turned inertia to momentum, old questions to new, and blind doubt to blind faith.

By the time we crossed into Dumfries and Galloway, the stress was gone. The sneezes followed stress into the wind the next day.

Bristol to Paris: Cheese On Toast

That first week was tough. Thighs of Steel had never ridden so far in a week before: 754km with an Everest of climbing. In a heatwave.

But we had done it.

Together we had done it — and we had raised a lot of money in solidarity with refugees in the process. Most of the cyclists on the Glasgow to Bristol leg raised over £1,000 each.

In the heat of the struggle, the cycling had taken every ounce of our strength, while daily disasters had taken every ounce of our ingenuity and saying goodbye to fast firm friendships had taken every ounce of our social emotional energy.

And now we had to do it all over again, with ten complete strangers.

The turning point of this second week was relearning how quickly we humans can go from utterly depleted to utterly repleted.

Hunger draining our legs. Heat draining our minds. Off-road gravel draining bashed bikes. Then a smashed GPS screen.

We freewheel downhill to a cafe marked as ‘open’ on the map. Desperation for water-fillers and stomach-fillers.

Cafe’s closed.

Back up the hill, in silence.

Another cafe.

They only serve cheese on toast.

No matter: water at least, tea at least, shade at least.

But wait. This isn’t cheese. This is Cheese. This isn’t a cafe, this is The Milk Churn, home of Sussex Charmer.

Fifteen cyclists tucked well in. Even the vegans. Powered all the way to Lovebrook.

Turning point: there is nothing that can’t be fixed by comfort food. (Except perhaps smashed GPS computer screens: for that you’ll need Laka cycle insurance.)

It’s not inconceivable that the success of the first week from Glasgow to Bristol was a fluke. But Bristol to Paris showed us that the Thighs method works.

Fresh croissants at dawn, demi-bottles of lunchtime wine, massage circles at sundown.

Something in the alchemy of the way Thighs of Steel was founded attracts people with not only a strong, positive and collaborative work ethic, but one that’s paired with equal parts joy.

Paris to Lyon: Pineapple Chess

Sometimes the most signficant turning points are scarcely more than a dramatic inflection, an almost imperceptible change of emphasis, but one that leaves an important, lasting impression on our experience.

Paris to Lyon was exactly that, for me at least. It was fun, actual fun, cycling with friends old and new for a week through Comté, Beaujolais and Tour de France country.

Days in the hot saddle chatting shit, inventing songs, playing games: ‘I’ve got a business’, one word stories, Pineapple Chess. Nights wild camping under stars, nuzzled by donkeys, rescue piglets and other tame animals.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t a tough week. But when you’re having fun, things just flow, right?

It’s a virtuous circle of energy: other people love to gather around fun and, when people gather together, problems get solved easily, almost before anyone’s noticed there was ever a problem.

That was the turning point of Paris to Lyon. And, if you want the rules to Pineapple Chess, you’ll have to donate 😂

Every penny goes into our MASS Action fundraiser in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and other people on the move across Europe.

Lyon to Milan: No Ikaría

I was worried about crossing the Alps on my bicycle.

The Scottish Lowlands, the Lake District and Hay Bluff are one thing: the French and Italian Alps are quite another. Not helped by the realisation that I hadn’t even taken a dump on a serious mountain range since, ooh… 1990.

Now: I’ve always been proud of my heavyweight cruiser of a bicycle, but with some of the others riding carbon, I was a little nervous to be giving away an eight kilo handicap before we even left the start line.

I was so worried, in fact, that my bowels occupied the first 24 hours of the week unavoidably voiding themselves and I was forced to spend the first long, hot, flat day in the van.

But early the next morning, sitting in the Alpine garden of our hosts Pierre and Pascal (found through slow travel hosting site Welcome To My Garden), madly trying to swallow down the prospect of more than 2,000m of climbing in the day, I decided to seek inspiration from all the other tough rides I’ve ever done.

As I shoveled soothing porridge into my belly, I searched Strava, where I record most of my ride data, by elevation climbed.

I was pleasantly surprised. The rides I did last year through Cornwall and Devon were similar total elevation and, in fact, steeper climbs.

But nothing in the Alps — nothing — could be tougher, or even be close to being as tough as the ride I’d done three years ago on the Greek island of Ikaria: nearly 3,000m of steep climbing, in hot summer sun, increasingly off road.

The Alps, I decided, with their smooth roads and steady switchbacks, would be a cinch.

And so it proved.

Okay, so ‘cinch’ might sound like an overstatement, but when you’re riding in a generous community, always ready with a joke, a song or a word of encouragement, the metres and miles dissolve into the road.

And, besides, even in the toughest moments, there’s always the scenery.

Routine Strength

It’s fair to say that I started out on this journey pretty worried. As an organiser, worried about all the things that could go wrong with the ride, but also increasingly worried about whether I personally would have the strength to see it through.

The last time I was part of the Thighs of Steel core team, back in 2019, I was also worried — and amazed, amazed to discover that, rather than being depleted, exhausting day by exhausting day, sleepless night by sleepless night, my strength only grew over the weeks, until I was fit to burst as we rode into Athens.

But 2019 was a long time ago. Much has changed. Would those wells run so deep?

As we rolled on and on, I was relieved. They do.

Humans are amazingly adaptable animals and even our relentless routine — early starts, big climbs, late nights — has become quotidian, tapping into fathomless reservoirs of energy that my daily life never needs.

And I’m not special. This isn’t something unique that my brainbody does.

As we sweated and strained our way up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, dominating in gold and glass the skyline of Lyon, one of the cyclists remarked: ‘I can’t wait to go on more adventures like this — now I know what I’m capable of!’

Because I’m an irritating contrarian, I had to disagree with her.

‘No you don’t. That’s the whole point. You’ve cycled 600km in six days, in a heatwave, and you still haven’t hit the wall. You have no idea what you’re capable of.’

And learning that is one hell of a turning point.

What must terrify us most as humans is not how little can be done, not how powerless or puny our lives are, but rather how great and signficant, especially when we join together and reach for limits out of reach.

Have you hit the wall? Have you reached your limit?

I don’t believe you.

Philoxenia and the Magic Cobbler

For the next couple of months I’m cycling to Athens, as part of Europe’s longest charity bike ride.

5,000km, a hundred people, through ten countries, over nine weeks gives me a lot of time to experience things, but not a lot of time to write things.

Today I happened to wake up at 5am — so here we all are!

We started the ride last Saturday morning and yesterday we finished the first leg, arriving in Bristol in an absolute ecstasy of a downpour, raindrops the size of popcorn.

You can follow the ride on the Thighs Instagram, Facebook or my own personal agony, ecstasy and knee cramp via the Strava updates on my fundraising page. (Ahem.)

Britain is beautiful by bike

Philoxenia is the wonderful Greek concept of generosity and friendship towards strangers, guests, gods, gods in disguise, foreigners, travellers and friends of friends of cousins of friends.

I’ve written before about philoxenia and my own solo experiences of bicycle touring (here and here), but, when travelling with sixteen other cyclists and a bloody great van, the generosity of strangers towards strangers that we receive rises to truly Homeric standards.

It’s hard — impossible — to pay tribute to myriad of kindnesses, large and small, seen and unseen, that the people of Glasgow, Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, Lancashire, Shropshire and Wales showered down upon us over the past 750km, but here are a few that rise to mind this morning.

June in Hesket Newmarket who let us use her campsite free of charge, ‘Consider it my donation’, her fridge-temperature bathroom papered with sheep-based cartoons and proud newspaper cuttings of Prince Charles.

The elderly woman in Windermere who wasn’t quite sure how to use her garden hose, but, once shown, took over the task of hosing down our oven-hot cyclists with a cackling child-like relish.

Steve The Magic Cobbler in Preston who not only sorted us out with a new set of van keys (don’t ask), but also performed card tricks while we waited.

Paula, Paula, Pauline and Keith at The Kathleen & May Heritage Museum in Connah’s Quay for letting us doss on their floor, surrounded by exhibits on the River Dee and the local paint industry. Thanks too for the fried-up breakfast butties that put our porridge to shame.

Fathomless thanks to the communities at Claver Hill and Three Pools who hosted us in Lancaster and Abergavenny, and to Phil and Bec who Warmshowered us on the hills overlooking Offa’s Dyke near Montgomery. If you’ll have us, we’ll be back.

Joe at Rogue Welsh Cakes for donating three dozen exquisite Welsh cakes. I wish I could say that they’d been savoured, but after seven straight days of cycling, they were mainly devoured as delicious calories. Luckily, Joe does postal orders for easy at-home savouring.

In fact: thank you to all the strangers who heard about the ride and handed us cash donations in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and other people forced from their homes. The purest form of philoxenia: stranger to never met stranger.

All the pub landlords who patiently filled our water bottles and waved us in to empty our bursting bladders. There are now fewer than 40,000 pubs in England and Wales for the first time since the opening of the Domesday Book (probably).

Even as someone who doesn’t drink much, that feels like a bit of a shame, particularly for the countryside communities that we cycled through. We’ll keep on buying chips and Scampi Fries.

Finally: thanks to the rivers and lakes, the woods and fields, the mountains and valleys, the road and hedgerow, the wing, feather, snout, hoof and fur, the wild and the tame that swaddled us all in gentle cradle, wrapping the journey in threaded cloth of nurture and nature.

Podcast: Talking Thighs of Steel with Bikepacking Buds

If you’d like to listen to me telling stories about that unique intersection between a) cycling really far, b) migrant solidarity and c) bugling on the beach, then — snakes alive! — you are in luck.

I did my first ever guest spot on a podcast this week, chatting to Saoirse at Bikepacking Buds, a rad community that aims to create a network of bikepackers across the UK.

Listen on Spotify (you don’t need an account) and hear about cycling Britain on a £50 auction bike, riding to Athens four times, how to fix broken brakes with duct tape, doing laps of Dartmoor for the sake of GPS artwork, and, of course, the spirit badger origin of my touring bugle.

How To Give Me Birthday Presents (And accidentally take positive action on something you really care about)

I’ve spent the last six months working my ass off behind a computer screen to help make Thighs of Steel 2022 a sweat-n-spokes reality.

Now it’s time for the easy bit: cycling 5,000km from Glasgow to Athens.

SORRY WHAT?!?

Oh yes. I’ll be part of the core team for six of the eight weeks: from Glasgow to Milan (yep — over the Alps) and then again from Dubrovnik to Athens, through Albania and Macedonia.

Being core team means I’ll cycle about two thirds of the way and drive Mama Calypso the other third, supporting ninety pedal-pushing, wild-camping, fundraising cyclists through the biggest physical challenge of their lives.

And I won’t sleep for two months.

Together, we’re aiming to raise at least £60,000 for MASS Action, a volunteer-led charity that support grassroots projects like Khora, a social kitchen, asylum support centre and free shop for displaced people in Athens.

Our aim is to empower dignified and sustainable initiatives for migrants and asylum seekers in the UK and Greece. 💪

Enough typing!

If you’d like to listen to me telling stories about that unique intersection between a) cycling really far, b) migrant solidarity and c) bugling on the beach, then — snakes alive! — you are in luck.

I did my first ever guest spot on a podcast this week, chatting to Saoirse at Bikepacking Buds, a rad community that aims to create a network of bikepackers across the UK.

Listen on Spotify (you don’t need an account) and hear about cycling Britain on a £50 auction bike, riding to Athens four times, how to fix broken brakes with duct tape, doing laps of Dartmoor for the sake of GPS artwork, and, of course, the spirit badger origin of my touring bugle.

So what has this got to do with my birthday?

Next Friday, I’ll turn 40.

That seems like a nice round number and, when nice round numbers come along, it’s not unusual in our culture for people to mark the occasion with generous gifts.

I’m going to make this easy for you.

Instead of going to the hassle of wrapping up and posting me one of your old DVDs, subscribe to this newsletter between now and my birthday next Friday, and I’ll donate the entirety of your subscription fee (£30) to the fundraiser on your behalf.

As a bonus, you’ll receive all of the bragging rights associated with becoming a paying subscriber (and it will automatically renew next year, so stay sharp if you don’t want to go quite that far).

You might even receive gifts in return — like last year, when I sent out a book to all paying subscribers.

I am, for example, planning a surprise and surprisingly physical subscriber-only newsletter magazine-letter, on the theme of propinquity, delivered to your door (if your door is in the UK).

If this all sounds a bit much or you prefer random acts of kindness, you can simply donate to the fundraiser through JustGiving. Like, right now.

Thank you 🙏

The Bad News

What my impending sleeplessness also means is that, from mid-July to mid-September, these newsletters will inevitably become spontaneously irregular.

They’ll also, more likely than not, be obsessively focussed on cycling, cycling, cycling and, as you’ve already glimpsed, amplifying our message of international solidarity and maximising the impact of our and your financial contributions.

I hope that I’ll find time for one or two more thoughtful emails, but please don’t expect a whole lot more than a cache of images and word-images captured on the freewheel.

Think of it as a summer break. We all need one.

The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis Nothing propinks like propinquity

Nothing propinks like propinquity
~ Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever

Propinquity is the property of nearness.

On an archaeological dig, the closer together artefacts are found, the more similar their likely provenance. These artefacts are said to have high propinquity and, most likely, nearness in space equals nearness in time.

If beads from a lapis lazuli necklace are found in the dust around the bleached bones of a Neolithic hunter, then it’s fair to assume that they were both buried at the same time.

If the burial was uncovered in Orkney, then — bloody hell — you’ve found evidence that Neolithic Orkadian hunters had trade links with ancient Afghanistan.

That’s the law of propinquity in archaeology.

In social psychology, propinquity is one of the main factors in personal attraction.

Nearness in time and space, together with the regular frequency of encounters, explains why so many romances begin at work.

Work-based lovers are said to have high propinquity and are doomed to spend the rest of their days sharing long looks over a PowerPoint, sneaking a fumble at the fax machine and studiously pretending not to notice each other at the office party.

Propinquity can also be used to capture other, non-physical, similarities between people. We feel closer to those who share our political and religious beliefs, upbringing, education or sense of humour.

Even totally coincidental match-ups like sharing a first name can raise our sense of propinquity with another human. Davids are the best.

Why the heck am I going on about this?

The way most of us experience reality is linear. We feel bounded by time and space. Because of that, propinquity — hereness, nowness — is everything to us humans.

Stand by for a bold statement:

Your physical environment (space) is the most immediately relevant factor dictating the course of your life in that moment (time).

Because we’re such social beings, what this means is that the most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment.

Not convinced?

Think about this grisly scenario next time you’re crossing the street and a car comes fast round the bend.

Who’s most important to you right now — the driver, with his steering wheel and brake pedal, or your dearly beloved waiting for you to get back from the shops?

The brakes fail. You get hit.

Who’s most important to you right now — a passing grandma with an enthusiastic, but terrifyingly shaky memory of a first aid course she did sixty years ago, or the world’s greatest trauma surgeon twiddling her thumbs in a hospital in Basingstoke?

The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis

This macabre thought experiment is what I call The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis.

The idea made its first appearance back in 2008, when I thought I was going to become An Important Writer and wrote a 44-page manuscript modesty titled The Meaning Of Life.

If there is a cataclysmic event right now, I am going to be relying for my life upon those people in closest proximity to me.

Obviously, a cataclysmic event like being involved in a car crash is an extreme example, but isn’t this hypothesis exactly what we’ve learned during the pandemic?

Our nearest becoming, truly, our dearest.

Life made worthwhile again by the boy next door, the girl upstairs, neighbourhood support groups and a smile across the shared garden.

As I pompously wrote back in 2008:

[…] People talk even today of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’: catastrophic events tend to bring the best out in human beings. But why restrict our best behaviour to only after such a disaster?

[…] The most important things to you in any one moment are the things immediately around you: make things better for them and things will become better for you as well, because they are your environment and you are all part of one organism, the society.

As we’ve also discovered during the pandemic, virtual propinquity has changed the rules — but only somewhat.

Telephones, the Internet, social media and video conferencing help us maintain a sense of high propinquity with people far away, if not physically, then at least psychologically.

Equally, however — as many people have found during long periods of isolation and as that morbid thought experiment suggests — virtual propinquity is, when the chips are really down, an illusion.

No: we are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom we share our immediate physical environment, right now.

Nothing Propinks Like Cycle Touring

But why am I banging on about propinquity?

It’s not the usual topic of conversation for someone who just cycled 439km through the isles and kyles of western Scotland during a heatwave.

No — I should be boring you with an endless slideshow of what I done on my holidays.

Alright then, here you go:

1: Chain snaps. 2: Dave ‘fixes’ chain. 3 & 4: Rinse and repeat.

Well, besides being a generally interesting new concept that might completely transform the way you interact with everything and everybody in the world around you, forever until you lie stone cold dead in the ground, allow me to paraphrase Ian Fleming:

Nothing propinks like cycle touring

Sunday Afternoon: A Hill On A Tight Corner, In The Middle Of Nowhere, Scotland

I am 25km into an 85km bike ride and, crucially, 30km from the nearest bike shop. This is crucial because, two seconds ago, my chain snapped.

I have pushed my bike to the grassy verge and am now staring in disbelief at the metal snake lazily basking on the hot asphalt of the country lane.

It’s at this point that I have a flashback to a scene in my kitchen the week before, confidently fitting a new chain with all the smug satisfaction of an amateur who knows too much.

After ascertaining the above-mentioned crucial information, I have no choice but to attempt a roadside recovery.

Luckily (deliberately, to be fair) I have the necessary tools at my disposal. But fitting a chain is a pain in the ass (unless you have a thing called a ‘master link’) and, above all, a mess in the ass (especially if, only ten minutes prior, you heroically squirted a full litre of lubricant over the entire transmission, chain, sprockets, cogs and all).

Half an hour later, having used any excess bike oil to paint some pretty nifty body art, the chain is back on, the snake back in its bed.

I am mildly pleased with my handiwork, but not so proud that I don’t walk up the rest of this agonisingly steep hill.

Back on the flat, I test the chain with a few turns of the pedals. Despite the heat, every creak and twang sends cold shivers down the back of my neck.

I pull over and ponder my options: cycle back the way I came to the nearest bike shop thattaway (30km) or press gingerly on ahead, trusting my mechanical knowhow until the next town thattaway (45km).

It’s at that precise moment, oily fingers stroking oily beard, that another cyclist whizzes past me — gone, flying down the hill into the hazy distance, before I can blurt out the words, ‘Excuse me, you haven’t got any expertise in on-the-road chain repair, have you?’

Happily for me, cruising behind this bomber biker, is her husband, who sees my ponderous look and asks if anything’s up.

Propinquity And The Port Sunlight Wheelers

Iain pulls to a stop beside me and the exchange that follows is remarkable.

It’s not remarkable because he’s wearing an anglepoise mirror attached to his sunglasses so that he can keep an eye on his wife when she stops to chat to strangers.

It’s not even remarkable because he generously bequeaths me his own spare master link in case my chain snaps again later down the road.

It’s remarkable simply because he stopped.

About five cars passed while I struggled to tie my chain up in knots on the roadside. Hot-and-bothered people with places to go and children to feed, no doubt.

But Iain stopped. He alone acknowledged our high propinquity and he alone offered the words of comfort that gave me the strength to ride on ahead:

The exact same thing happened to me and the wife on Islay, ten years ago. On a tandem. With a kiddy trailer. Exactly the same: we were going up a steep hill and — crack — the chain snaps.

So I took out a link, same as you, and rivetted it back up, same as you — and it worked. It’s the exact same link that’s on the bike now, ten years later.

Get back on the bike and have some confidence in your work, lad.

Stepping back on the pedals with an oily handshake and a smile, Iain did indeed leave me full of confidence.

Utterly misplaced, of course — the chain snapped again not 15km later — but that’s not the point.

The point is that all the friends, all the money, all the power, all the joy and happiness in the world couldn’t help me out of my predicament in that moment.

The only entities that could possibly help me were those with whom I shared high propinquity.

Iain, in other words — Iain of the Port Sunlight Wheelers on the Wirral.

In other words, a complete stranger.

Stay Alive

So the next time you’re doing, well, anything at all, stay alive to your time and place, and embrace propinquity — even if, especially if, they are ‘strangers’.

Instead of ‘minding your own business’ or jacking up on virtual propinquity through your phone screen, look to strengthen the connections you have with the beings immediately around you.

You never know when and how they might need you and you might need them.

Arran – Islay – Jura Down on words, high on images

Apologies for the late running of this service – I neglected to bring the little duberry that magics words from my typewriter to my phone.

What that means is, rather than nothing at all this week, this story will be down on words and high on images.

I hope that’s okay by you. I also hope it might encourage you to travel in whatever sense of the word works for you this weekend.

If you do decide that the Western Isles is the place to be, then I must mention one huge / tiny element of the trip scandalously not shown in any of my images: midgies.

My advice? Grow a thick skin, or come in winter.

1 / 6

If you’re stuck inside in the rain and feeling envious, please remember: I am covered in midgie bites and itching all over. The image is not the experience.

(It’s still bloody nice, though!)

Three Small Things At The End

  • Every year, Islay has a whisky festival over the last two weeks of May. Each of the island’s 629,682 distilleries has its own special ‘open day’, with music and dancing and free drams for all.
  • George Orwell nearly died in a boating accident when he got caught in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan (the third largest in the world), off Jura.
  • In Sweden, apparently, secret beauty spots, away from the tourist tramp lines, are called ‘wild strawberries’.

I hope you find a few wild strawberries this weekend. Normal service resumes next Friday…

58 Days In Memory’s Universal Flux Cycling around Britain Part IV

In 58 days over the summer of 2011, I cycled 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain.

A decade later, in the foreshortened world of 2020, what better time was there to set out on a journey I’d always promised myself I would one day retrace?

But now, ten years older and wiser, instead of cycling over 70 miles a day for two months straight, I’m covering 40 miles a day in bursts spread over four years.

Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags

My 460 mile ride from Kings Lynn to Edinburgh was part four of what will become an eight-legged journey and my arrival into the Athens of the North marked my fifty-eighth day on the road.

Following Southern England in 2020 and Wales in 2021, I’m now about 60 percent of the way around the island…

Map made using Jonathan O’Keefe’s Strava Multiple Ride Mapper. If you’re really interested, you can also explore the ride in more detail on Komoot.

… Or am I?

Looking at the gaps in the journey already — the northeastern tip of East Anglia, the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, the Black Country, the Welsh heartland, and, not least, Grimsby — I’m wondering: shall this ride ever be complete?

Putting aside even the geographical lacunae, I feel the flux of the universe as my feet touch the pedals, every atom in the stream growing, flowing and dying on, even as I race down the road in pursuit.

‘The Road goes ever on and on, Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can.’ (JRR Tolkein)

This whole trip may be nothing more than a vain attempt to defy Heraclitus and ‘step twice into the same river’.

Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.

The way up and the way down are one and the same. In the circle, the beginning and the end are common.

Into the same rivers we step and we do not step.

Not wanting to get too deep on you, but the only thing holding this ride together (and perhaps my whole being) is the weak bond of memory — or at least the illusion of such a memory.

Building The House Of Illusion And Memory

As hard as my leg muscles have worked, my memory works six-fold, constructing from the basement to the attic, storeys upon storeys, as it traces back and forth between 2011 and the 2020s.

Topographical

Despite the passage of a decade, I’m amazed to find that I recognise many of the places I travel through.

Not exclusively the remarkable places either: I vividly remember cycling out of Middlesborough on a hot day in 2011. The broken concrete of a disused airfield, the abrupt silence of the birds and a sandy track between trees.

Leaving Middlesborough on Sustrans NCN Route 1

This time around, I knew what turns to take, running ahead of my GPS, marvelling at all the little blue Sustrans signs that were then my only guide.

Autobiographical

The circumstances of my nan’s death that led to my leaving on that cycle around Britain eleven years ago and what has become of me since that first journey.

Comedy writer, uncle, outdoor instructor, cyclist-at-large, skateboarder and surfer.

All shared with friends and loved ones, some here for good, others passing through.

Episodic

In 2011, I stayed in Newcastle with an old friend from childhood.

John taught me a lot about comfortable cycle touring: padded shorts for my long-suffering behind, glucosamine for my knees, handlebar ‘bull horns’ for hill climbing and to ease the ache on my shoulders.

This time around, John rode with me for 12 miles either side of his new home in Whitley Bay. Now it was my turn to share a decade’s worth of tea and cake touring experience with him.

Courtesy of the incredible Mister Ridley’s Parlour, a former bowling pavilion decorated in outrageous Victorian splendour in Ridley Park, Blyth

Flashbulb

Vivid memories of emotionally charged events. Like crossing the border into Scotland on 29 July 2011:

I cover the two and a half miles to the border with all the vigour of a man who’s just eaten an entire packet of Jaffa Cakes.

My overwhelming feeling at leaving England is elation.

For a hundred yards, I am in no man’s land. Ahead is a sign that reads, Welcome to Scotland; behind me a sign says, Welcome to England.

The last town in England: Berwick upon Tweed

I scan the foxglove hedgerows for some Scottish significance, in roadside flora, fauna or filth: none.

The significance I seek is on the inside: I feel the spreading butterflies of adventure.

I am a stranger here, in a strange land. The harder I smile, the harder the sun shines.

Procedural

Even the familiar motor skills required for climbing onto a fully loaded touring bike and pushing the pedals is a function of memory, laid down since childhood.

Every element of touring now is a rhyme from a decade of adventure. Pack up your bike, put up your tent, McGuinn. You ain’t going nowhere.

Going nowhere from Craigmillar Castle Park, Edinburgh

Collective

Interdependent and embedded among our personal memories are collective memories of our political, social and cultural milieu.

In 2011, it was impossible to escape the political landscape of scandal and austerity. War in Syria, Tony Blair on trial and police murder in Tottenham.

In 2020, of course, every interaction was marbled with the course grain of the pandemic.

This year, I lost count of the number of gardens, fences, windows, walls, rooftops that flew the flag of Ukraine.

As the muscle fibres in my legs stretch, break, grow and wither, the greatest survivor of this never-ending adventure is memory, creating meaning and character in every episode that I commit to words.

Thank you for reading and sharing these memories. Special thanks to the Shearers for their help in making them in the first place — have a wonderful dino-wedding!

Serving suggestion

Round Britain IV: Cycling Diaries Kings Lynn to Ravenscar

Day 1: Kings Lynn to Boston (66km)

Resuming where I left off two years ago, today I rode from Kings Lynn to a canalside camp just the other side of the lovely market town of Boston.

I’m dressed for Bournemouth, where it’s already summer, and today I froze in a biting northerly wind. Tomorrow I might see about replacing my sandals for shoes…

Big plus of riding in spring: cherry, hawthorn blossom and horse chestnut candles to cheer me!

Day 2: Boston to Cottingham (139km, maybe a touch more)

Lincolnshire knocked out in a day. Not too shabby! (It is very flat, to be fair…)

Some delightful off road sections and canal paths. Also wind.

Frozen toes somewhat comforted by the acquisition of overshoes from the Aladdin’s Cave of F&J Cycles in Lincoln.

Day 3: Cottingham to Ravenscar (107km)

Through the Yorkshire Wolds, including both the ‘capital’, Driffield (shout out to The Bike Cave vegan chocolate orange cake dipped in oat milk turmeric latte), and the ‘gateway’, Hunmanby (shout out to the ‘now very few’ members of the Hunmanby In Bloom committee who made my short stay there so peaceful).

This makes it sound like I had a nice time today. Well, I did. So there. Cycling doesn’t have to be a sufferfest.

This ride to Edinburgh is all part of my training for six weeks of Thighs of Steel this summer (including the Alps, which not even the Yorkshire Wolds can prepare me for!)

If you would like to get in on the game early and show your support for refugees and those rebuilding their lives after war, conflict and persecution, you can send a message and donate here.

Thank you!

If you would like to watch my stately progress as a dot on a screen, then YES, we do live in a Big Brother dystopia. You can do that here.

Alternatively, you could follow me rather less obsessively on Strava.

Up next: a coast ride to Middlesborough, aiming for an old friend’s place in Whitley Bay tomorrow evening.

This is the same friend I stayed with in Newcastle eleven years ago.

Our paths have taken a circuitous road since the last time I was up this way and, by great fortune, my friend has only recently moved back here after many years away.

A lovely circular story, chiming this ride with my last. And, yes, he’s getting married next week.

Cycling Connections from Kings Lynn to Whitby

I’m currently sitting in Sanders Yard Bistro, hidden away in a historic potted plant courtyard, a sharp cobbled descent down the looming cliff of Whitby Abbey.

It’s been more than 300km since I rode out of Kings Lynn, picking up from where I left off in 2020.

This is the fourth leg of my recapitulation of my 2011 ride around the entire coast of Britain.

Being now eleven years wiser, I am taking my time, and expect another three stages and two summers of touring before I have finished.

I ride and I write to make authentic connections, something I struggled with back in 2011.

(Believing, with unfounded mystery, that everyone hated people who wore socks with sandals, and that it was not only the vampires who were out to get me.)

On the first three days of this nine-day stage, my deepest connection has been with the spring.

Spring.

I’ve not done much touring in April before and I’ve been taken aback by how much is going on, everywhere I look, all the time.

Riotous nesting birds. Bluebells in the dappled woods. The first whiffs of cow parsley on the verges. Hens, geese, ducks, pheasants, fowl all busy with their own life admin, my passing only a clucking nuisance in theirs.

And, above all, the shocking silence of the blossoms.


There is never a dull moment, scanning the trees and the hedgerows for apple, cherry, hawthorn and the first candles of the chestnut.

There’s so much colour in our countryside that it’s frustratingly impossible for me to pin a name to the dozens of other pinks, whites, yellows and purples that I’ve marvelled on.

When I get home, I’ll consult a big book of blossoms and give these magnificent displays the quiet attention they deserve. I hear that’s a thing in Japan.

Human connection, perhaps because of the cold weather, has been less apparent than on my summer rides.

Positive, friendly, supportive, people and place, but nothing to fix a story in the memory.

Until this morning, when who should bring me breakfast and tea, but James Astin’s aunt.

James Astin’s aunt

There’s no reason for you to have heard of James Astin, and that’s kind of the point.

James Astin, his aunt confided, left one day from the bandstand right here in Whitby and cycled all around Europe, then into Russia, across China, south through Indonesia to Australia and then across to Alaska and all the way down through the Americas.

Quite the ride – but what struck me were the three stories that his aunt chose to divulge:

  1. Once, cycling through China, James battled along 92km of a four lane motorway, only to be stopped by the authorities and transported right back to where he began.
  2. The number of times he had to light a fire in his tent because of how cold it was. And the number of times he set fire to said tent.
  3. James had to break his trip halfway around to fly home for a wedding (not his own).

What this tells me is that the worst experiences make the best stories. Also weddings.

Something to remember next time things are going south.

One day, maybe, however terrible things are now, this’ll be something your proud aunt will tell a stranger in a cafe.

Failing that: drop everything and join a wedding.

How To Sleep In A Tent: A Story 11 Years In The Making

Ravenscar.

The last time I was here I was desperately searching, with the help of my dad (long suffering telephonist for round Britain cyclist) for Ravenscar youth hostel.

As darkness, rain and sea all closed in on the cliffs below me, I despaired, and threw my bike, my bivvy bag and myself under a bush for shelter.

Shame that the bush was a gorse.

The Great Gorse Of Ravenscar. A familiar sight.

I’m sure I can do better this time.

As the cold drops colder with the fading sunlight, I find myself surrounded by an abundance of excellent camping spots and frankly astounded that my younger self managed to get it so horribly wrong all those years ago.

I’m in the abandoned quarries for the Peak Alum Works on the edge of Fylingdales Moor.

The industry has left the ground nicely levelled out, a quiet copse of trees sheltering a cinder-soft, gorse, thistle, branble and nettle-free clearing.

Tucked away from the path, but still in earshot of the waves swooshing against the rocks below, the silver birch form a merry band, their leader volunteering to snuggle up with Martin II (AKA King Duncan I) for the night.

It’s so perfect, in fact, that I sleep until nearly 8am, a full ten hours.

For anyone wondering: yes, camp sleep can be that good.

The unfavourable juxtaposition of my two experiences at Ravenscar illustrates two developments in my wild camping strategy.

Three if you include the inspired suggestion (by a dog walker on the Isle of Wight in 2020) that I use poo bags, but I’ll save that discussion for a time less close to lunch.

1. OS Maps

Smartphones are a double edged sword for the general population and no more so than for the wild camper.

But what I risk losing in disconnection – that sense of always being elsewhere, of app-watching, media monitoring, and even just listening to the radio of an evening – I gain in knowledge.

OS Maps are a boon, not for touring navigation, but for quickly finding likely spots for wild camping.

Yesterday, for example, I cycled straight past the perfect wild camping spot. On the coast, in full view of the ocean, a short trundle off the path, but with easy access, a clutch of picturesque ruins for shelter and a drystone wall to shield me from view.

As hard as it was to drag myself away, I refused the lure. From OS Maps I could see that this was private land, on a likely busy footpath.

I couldn’t be bothered to cycle a circuitous route to the farmhouse to ask permission, so I looked further ahead on my route and pinpointed an area of flat open access land right on my route: the abandoned quarry.

But, looking out over the landscape, I was even more reluctant to move on. To me, it looked like a mess of woods, gullies and gorges. But I decided to trust the map. And was rewarded.

Funnily enough, I think I camped only yards away from the gorse that I threw myself under 11 years ago.

The difference between these two camping experiences, of course, is daylight and confidence built on a foundation of years of experience.

There is nothing like the unexpected discovery of the perfect camping spot, but on long tiring days, OS Maps has become an invaluable tool.

2. A warm mattress

This could be broadened to include the whole sleep kit, but the mattress is so often overlooked and, in cold temperatures like last night, often the most important element of a warm sleep kit.

Most of your heat will be lost to the ground, not to the air.

Did you know that your sleeping bag is only as good as your mattress? And that camping mattresses have temperature ratings exactly like sleeping bags?

Nope, nor did I until a couple of years ago and now I won’t shut up about it.

The best thing you can do for the planet is be here

I’m spending this weekend supporting young people as they devise and execute their first ever overnight outdoor expeditions. Pretty cool.

I am also cautiously optimistic on reading the following news that they might even have an outdoors when they grow up:

Analysis of climate pledges by nations at the COP26 meeting indicates that such commitments could ensure that global warming does not exceed 2 ºC before 2100 — but only if backed up by short-term policies.

It is easy to set ambitious climate targets for 30, 40 or even 50 years in the future — but it is much harder to enact policies today that shift energy systems towards a more sustainable future.

I’m a believer that the best thing you can do for the planet is be here. Properly be here. Show up to nature in all your glory and bask in the wonder of being.

Happily, Sunday is also the ninetieth anniversary of the 1932 Kinder Trespass, which has become a potent legend in the fight for our right to roam.

As I wrote in my anniversary article last year, ‘spending time in nature is the keystone of a healthy society and, in England and Wales at least, there is not enough nature to go around’.

These are not idle words, but based on scientific findings like this, from a Spanish study published last year:

Individuals with greater nature relatedness are more likely to adopt a sustainable lifestyle and have greater well-being. … This result implies that by nurturing nature relatedness, societies will achieve the double dividend of well-being and sustainability.

Again: for the sake of our future and the future of our children, we need you to trespass and win back our inalienable right to nature.

Stay honest, people.

100 Days Of Adventure: Tercile Update And Round Britain IV

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What is this?

We are almost a third of the way through the year and, happily, I am almost a third of the way through my target of 100 Days Of Adventure for 2022.

As it happens, 100 DOA is a low bar for this year, what with me spending six weeks on tour with Thighs of Steel in the summer.

I’m exceptionally lucky that my hobby has become my job. Starting on Tuesday, for example, I’m basically being forced to spend nine days cycling from Kings Lynn to Edinburgh.

It’s work, I tell you!

This is also the fourth instalment of my post-Brexit, mid-Covid, pre-Apocalypse cycle around Britain, a journey that I first sweated out in the 58 days after the death of my nan in 2011.

I pedalled into Kings Lynn on 5 August 2020, following in the footsteps and pushsteps I took on 21 July 2011, after my hapless police auction bike had bust a spoke for the nth time in five days.

On Tuesday, I’ll catch the morning train, just as I did after buying a new bike in London back in 2011 (RIP Martin), and continue north into Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland — and Scotland.

My younger self managed to reach Edinburgh inside a week, cycling nearly ten hours a day to cover the 884km at an average of 133km per day. Yikes.

Luckily, I have eight full days and two half days. I’m also reassured that the route I have planned out on Komoot is only 654km.

With the infinite zoom of a smartphone in my pocket and the all-seeing eye of a GPS on my handlebars, cycle touring is a far cry from the bygone days of map creases and keeping the sea on your right.

It means that I can worry less about navigation and concentrate more on story-seeking. I can’t wait to get started.

The Travel Triangle Heat, Fuel and Air. Oh no, wait - that's the fire triangle. So what's the travel triangle?

Welcome to the First Class carriage of the 9.10 from Barcelona to Paris.

I wouldn’t normally travel First Class, but these were the cheapest seats by far (€49) — a fact abundantly evident in the crowded aisles of the carriage.

There’s a family of five occupying the three seats ahead of me (fair play to them), beside an American husband and wife team with divergent approaches to crash-learning French in the six hours before we arrive.

The wife is patiently grinding her way through Duolingo, writing out convoluted sentences like ‘Voulez-vous aller en voiture au magasin?’ (‘Do you want to drive to the shop?’), while the husband taps ‘Hello, how are you?’ into Google Translate — whereupon the app promptly crashes. He’s now playing Candy Crush.

I’m three legs into my four-legged journey back to the UK from Portugal. I left Lisbon late on Wednesday evening and, after sliding through Madrid and Barcelona, I’m due back in Bournemouth tomorrow evening.

All the friends I was staying with in Lisbon will be making the same journey by plane, a fact that’s made me reflect on why I chose to travel overland instead.

It comes down to the three essential factors of any journey, which I shall pretentiously call the Travel Triangle:

  1. How long does it take?
  2. How much does it cost?
  3. How comfortable is the traveller before, during and after the journey?

Most people probably only think of the first two sides of the travel triangle when they’re planning their holidays and, thanks to government subsidies and low-cost airlines, planes are perceived as both faster (obviously) and cheaper (criminally).

That’s why I want to spend a little bit of time exploring how on earth I managed to end up with an overland itinerary that was not only justifiable according to the travel triangle, but actually preferable on all three sides compared to flying.

Plane versus train: speed test

Firstly, let’s look at what would happen if we tried to match up trains versus planes on the plane’s strongest side of the travel triangle: time.

Although my overland journey will take three nights and days, I’ve calculated that it is technically possible to leave Lisbon at 10.30am and arrive in Bournemouth the following afternoon:

  • 1030-0505 Coach from Lisbon to Bordeaux
  • 0558-0929 Train from Bordeaux to Paris
  • 1113-1230 Eurostar from Paris to London
  • 1315-1600 Train from London to Bournemouth

Unfortunately, this hectic itinerary would lose out to flying on all three sides of the travel triangle:

  1. At 30 hours, it would take three times as long as flying (including getting to the airport and going through security and immigration).
  2. One way and booked three weeks in advance, this journey would cost about £240, compared to about £140 by plane.
  3. On this schedule, the poor traveller would not only miss out on a night’s sleep, but also spend 25 out of those 30 hours on their backside. Not healthy.

Using the travel triangle, it’s easy to see that long distance overland travel cannot compete with planes on speed. If you need to get somewhere as soon as physically possible, it’ll probably be quicker, cheaper and more comfortable to fly. Sorry.

But there is good news!

If we tweak our itinerary to favour the strengths of overland travel rather than the strengths of flying, then it’s not hard to come up with journeys where overlanding is not only justifiable, but preferable — on all three sides of the travel triangle.

Train versus plane: rematch

The following sentence sums up the great strength of overland travel:

No one (but no one) wants their plane to stop mid-way.

(Once upon a time, while waiting for a delayed train in Brussels, I heard a fellow traveller lauding this particular benefit of air travel: ‘At least you either arrive or you don’t.’)

Assuming that most people don’t wish to disembark mid-way, my friends who fly get two stops: London and Lisbon.

In stark contrast, my terrestrial alternative needs freakin’ bullet points to encompass the delightful array of city breaks I’ll enjoy:

  • London (twice)
  • Paris (twice)
  • Bayonne
  • Madrid
  • Lisbon
  • Barcelona

This was my first trip abroad since 2019, during which time two friends had moved out of London to live in Paris and Bayonne respectively. So, when my co-writer Beth Granville suggested working together for a week in Lisbon, I immediately knew I could plan a trip that fully exploited the strengths of overlanding.

In Paris, Tim and I did some hiking in Rudenoise and Chantilly; in Bayonne I got to hang out with friends in Basque country, hiking in the foothills of the Pyrenées and visiting the pretty towns of Sare and Saint Jean-de-Luz; in Madrid I met up with a new friend who’ll be cycling with us on Thighs of Steel this summer; and in Barcelona I got to sleep off a cold I picked up in the Saharan dust storm that hit Lisbon on Tuesday.

As I write these words, our train is passing over a narrow spit of land that bisects a vast lagoon on the Mediterranean coast near Narbonne. It would have been easy to have added yet more adventures to my journey — the Algarve and Andalucía, Bilbao and San Sebastián, Montpellier and Nîmes.

The lesson is that, if we plan itineraries that take advantage of overlanding’s great strength, then the travel triangle magically starts to work in our favour.

Round 1: Cost

Yes, the face value of point-to-point train tickets are often more expensive than the plane equivalents, but this all changes when we start to add stops.

My overland journey from Bournemouth to Lisbon and back cost me £366.

(Incidentally, the London-Bournemouth leg is both the shortest and, horrifyingly, very nearly the most expensive of the entire journey.)

I booked only three weeks before I left and, while it’s reasonable to say that I didn’t get the best prices, it’s also true that I probably couldn’t do it very much cheaper. The Man In Seat 61 suggests around £300.

(Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to add the cost of overnight stays to the overall cost of overland travel because that’s all part of the holiday. For full disclosure, however: I stayed with friends in Paris and Bayonne and spent £60 on two nights in Madrid and Barcelona.)

Looking at flights, I can see that Bournemouth to Lisbon and back costs around £220-240. So flying direct would have saved me about £120 — but only if I’d been happy to miss out on seeing my friends.

(Note: If you book further in advance, and want to spend the night near Stansted Airport, you can get cheaper flight-based journeys at around £170-200 return from Bournemouth. But I want to compare apples with apples. Thanks to JCK for this research!)

If we only include my longer stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, then travelling by plane would have cost another £140. If I were to add Madrid and Barcelona as well, then flying would be sheer craziness.

Take home message: overlanding with stops is cheaper than flying with stops.

Trains 1 Planes 0

Round 2: Time

With cost out of the equation, the decisive factor in choosing between overlanding and flying will, for most people, be time.

I’m not talking about the time taken for each leg of the journey — the longest of my overland journeys was eight hours, which is less than I would have needed to get from Bournemouth to Lisbon by plane.

I’m talking about the total amount of time the traveller has for the whole trip — and how they want or need to spend that time.

If you have two weeks’ holiday and you want to visit friends in Paris and Bayonne or stop by Barcelona and Madrid on your way to Lisbon, then travelling overland is the best way for you to travel. End of.

If you only have a week’s holiday, then Lisbon is off the cards for overlanders unless you’re prepared for the hectic itinerary that opened this piece. Sorry.

The same is true if, for some reason, you need to be in Lisbon for as much of the whole two weeks as possible.

For example: flying to Lisbon would occupy about 6 percent of a two week stay. Even at its fastest, overlanding gobbles up 18 percent, with a more relaxed itinerary swallowing 22 percent of your total time away.

On this occasion, for me, the time allowed for the whole trip was flexible — a few days either side would have made no difference.

But overlanding did help me change the way I spent my holiday, not only by allowing those stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, but also in moments like this, where I have the time and comfort to do some writing.

(In fact, if you are lucky enough to be able to do actual work on the long train journeys, then you might even be able to earn back the cost of overlanding — good for you!)

Trains 2 Planes 0

Round 3: Comfort

This is where things become a little more personal, as we all define ‘comfort’ in different ways:

  • How anxious does this mode of transport make you feel — both before you leave and during the journey?
  • How many bags do you need to take?
  • How much space do you need?
  • How much information do you need to feel reassured?
  • How comfortable are you operating in foreign languages and in unfamiliar cities?
  • Militarised airport security, train ticket barriers or coach driver whimsy?
  • Drinks trolley, buffet car or service station?
  • How do you feel when you arrive?

For me, trains win on every count, every time. Coaches are a bit more problematic: less information, less space, less smooth — but I’d still choose them over the airport security and border checks that make me feel like a pre-criminal.

Trains 3 Planes 0

Think of the children!

Many people choose to go Flight Free because of the massive 95 percent reduction in carbon emissions when travelling overland compared to flying.

According to recent research by The Jump, individual citizens have primary influence over 25-27 percent of the total emissions savings needed to stop ecological breakdown. That’s pretty cool. It means that we can all take direct action today.

(Note: this 25-27 percent figure is an average and lower income groups are responsible for far fewer emissions. The more you earn, the greater your obligation to change.)

Of this 25-27 percent, reducing our use of aeroplanes to one short haul flight every three years would deliver a 2 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.

That’s a bloody good reason to stop flying. But it’s not my reason.

I have never chosen overlanding because of its lower impact on the environment and I’ve taken too many flights in my lifetime to waste my time preaching to anyone else.

I choose overlanding because, for me, it’s the most comfortable, most connected and most creative way to travel.

Now that’s what I call a travel triangle.

Rudenoise Under the very silly tour guidance of The Tim Traveller, where else, of all the entrepots, bordellos and gin-joints of the world, would we end up but here.

This story is coming to you live from the tramways, Thai eateries and new build blocks of Paris.

Yes! For the first time since December 2019, more than 800 sleeps ago, I’m not in the United Kingdom.

By my calculations, this is the longest period that I’ve spent inside the borders of the UK in my entire life. How lucky am I?

The next longest gap without stamps in my passport was between my eventful visit to pre-revolution Egypt and perma-conflict Palestine in January 2010 and cycling (and eating) around post-revolutionary Tunisia in February 2012.

2010-2012 was the two year period was when, after a series of thoroughly entertaining hitchhiking adventures, I decided to stop flying.

You all know the reasons for the latest hiatus in my stamp-collecting. That doesn’t mean that the last two years haven’t been full of adventures.

I have completed over 3,000km of a modular reconstruction of my first flightless adventure, cycling around the coast of Britain. Last year, with Thighs of Steel, I cycled most of the world’s largest bike-powered GPS art, 2,208km of generosity and solidarity.

Confinement to the country of one’s birth is hardly a punishment for people born in peacetime.

Indeed, the first lines of William Blake’s great anti-war poem, Auguries of Innocence, can be read as a mission statement for travellers:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Travel has depth as well as breadth.

Many of my most transformative travels have taken place no more than a few dozen miles from my front door. Many of my more far-flung outings have left nothing but the merest trace of an impression on the wax of my sloppy mind.

Nevertheless, to travel beyond our borders, and beyond the hem of the common fabric of language, is to travel more easily into empathy.

Empathy can be thought of as an inverse function of our comfort zone. The more comfortable we are, the less easily we will be able to empathise with those less comfortable.

As I have written before, travelling to a foreign country is an easy way to leave your comfort zone, become conscious of the ‘intractable conditions’ of your own existence and, as I have not written before, develop your empathic muscle.

In a foreign land — the more ‘foreign’ the better — we are at an immediate disadvantage.

Even something so simple as catching public transport is an adventure riddled with peril. We don’t know the rules and we struggle to ask for help because we don’t speak the language.

Foreign travel, if we allow it, is an empathy machine.

And this was what Blake was driving at with his paradoxes: to make us feel, first gratitude for what little we have, and then empathy for those that have less.

Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night

To capture this transformation in a single moment, as we arrived into Gare de l’Est, a long announcement came over the public address system in the unfamiliar diphthongs of a deeply foreign language:

Ukrainian.

~

The unexpected juxtapositions, misunderstandings, mistranslations, missteps and pratfalls of foreign travel, it has to be said, are also bursting ripe with pure silliness.

Under the very silly tour guidance of The Tim Traveller, where else, of all the entrepots, bordellos and gin-joints of the world, would we end up but here:

In Rudenoise.

Tim unreliably asserts that ‘Rudenoise’ probably translates as ‘raw hazelnut’ since the valley of the Marne, in which Rudenoise is nestled, is hazelnut (and champagne) country.

So it’s entirely appropriate that, since we arrived, I’ve eaten very little that hasn’t contained noisette. More specifically: chocolat aux noisettes, AKA Nutella.

(There were, on close examination, precisely zero vegan options in the boulangerie, but I have a cure for that if you keep scrolling.)

The nut in Nutella is, of course, hazelnut. In fact, the makers of Nutella, Ferrero, use a staggering 25 percent of the world’s supply of hazelnuts, nearly 70 percent of which is farmed in Turkey.

Harvesting hazelnuts is, I never realised, a dangerous job. The pickers — most often underpaid, overworked migrant labourers from Syria or Kurdistan — are sometimes roped up to protect against a deathfall from the steep rocky slopes.

But here in the Marne, we’re a long way from the harvest — the hazels are only now showing their catkins and, besides, the fields are crowded out with rows and rows of the more profitable champagne grape.

A bridge takes us over a ditch and onto the ‘L’île de la Rudenoise’, a small nature reserve of muddy paths, bare trees, and a burbling brook.

A young woman walks past with a wolfhound.

An information board tells us that trout eggs require a cumulative 400 degrees of temperature before they will hatch. So 50 days in 8 degree water or 40 days in 10 degree water, for example. If the water is boiling, we surmise, the eggs will not hatch.

An old woman comes down the hill towards us, making her way between the neatly trained vines.

‘I can’t feel my fingers,’ she says with a grin, holding them out to us.

The crimson of her painted nails are stark contrast to the white of her blood-drained palms.

~

Keep your eyes locked on The Tim Traveller channel for a sunnier day when Tim will finally do some filming at Rudenoise.

The Adventurer’s Journey Adventure today is not man versus wilderness. Adventure today is so much more complex and covers every imaginable subgenre of human experience.

As I was tramping over the clitter scattered in the moorland of Manga Hill, on the approach over the brook to the ruins of Teignhead Farm, I noticed that adventures, like most stories, follow a three act structure.

Act One

The adventurer-to-be is going about their mundane daily life when they first hear the ‘call to adventure’. A conversation overheard on a bus, an interview on a radio station, a tantalising glimpse of a map — or a nagging question in the back of their mind that won’t go away.

But they ignore the call because mundane daily life is kind of okay.

Then, perhaps all-of-a-sudden, perhaps in a glacial process unfolding over the course of decades, the adventurer-to-be realises that mundane daily life is not kind of okay anymore — and it won’t be until they scratch that itch and answer the call.

Emboldened by wise mentors, whether in person or culled from books, documentaries or the internet, the adventurer-in-waiting prepares for the journey ahead.

Preparation doesn’t have to mean much, maybe just a toasted bagel, but generally there will be at least an intake of breath between the adventurer accepting the challenge and then leaving the comfort zone world of Act One.

Act Two

This is what we usually think of as the adventure. It begins the moment we cross the threshold, board the train, slip our mooring, or step through the looking-glass.

Even though we may very well still be sitting in our own living room, everything has changed. We have entered the topsy-turvy, ‘funhouse mirror’ world of adventure.

They do things differently here. There’s a different logic, different rules for us to learn.

Strange things happen in this strange new world. With any luck, some of those things will be great fun and we’ll feel excitement rather than fear.

But, guaranteed, some of those things will be scary. They will challenge us. This is built into the definition of adventure. We left behind our comfort zone at the end of Act One, remember?

In adventuring terms, Act Two can last as little as five minutes or as long as five decades. There might be one little hurdle to jump or a seemingly endless series of Herculean obstacles to overcome.

However long the adventure, there will come a ‘point of no return’ when to push onward is easier than to return. For me, on my ride around the coast of Britain, this happened at Scarborough, the first town I came to where a return ticket home tipped over the £100 mark.

There may also be some sort of ‘crisis’ moment where the adventurer can fall no further and a ‘revelation’ when they realise how they must change or adapt before they can come through alive.

There are all kinds of other story elements that may or may not appear in an adventure: a moment of false victory or false defeat, ‘bad guys’ closing in, ‘the dark night of the soul’, a brush with death that ‘raises the stakes’, a ticking clock and so on.

Whatever happens, our adventurer does eventually have to leave the adventure world and return to the comfort zone world of Act One — where they discover that the world or they themselves have changed.

Act Three

Change is a baked-in part of adventure. Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

If that’s true for an adventure as small as stepping into a river twice, then bloody hell it’s true for whatever happened in Act Two.

Even if an adventurer finishes Act Two by building a cabin in the woods and never returning to the physical world of Act One, they’ll find one day that the cabin in the woods is no longer the world of adventure and has become their new comfort zone.

The world, and the adventurer, have changed.

The End

Or is it?

What I found exciting about the parallel structures of story and adventure is the implication that, just as you can tell a story about anything, so you can have an adventure about anything.

Back in the olden days, most stories were written about adventurers, and those adventurers were usually called ‘heros’ and they were usually men and they were usually fighting or being smartasses or harassing women or looting dragon caves or whatever.

But nowadays most stories are not written about these ‘heros’. The stories of humanity have become much more complex, much more interesting and cover every imaginable subgenre of human experience.

Paranormal romance, fine, but how about extraterrestrial sex fetish with a twist of French philosophy? It’s a thing.

The same is true of adventure. Adventure today is not man versus wilderness. Adventure today is so much more complex, so much more interesting and covers every imaginable subgenre of human experience.

I happened to be wandering the moors when I made this connection. But, in many ways, this kind of classical wilderness adventure is the least adventurous thing I could be doing.

My experience is now more heavily weighted towards a familiarity with wilderness; wilderness is creeping into my comfort zone. (Doesn’t stop me getting sucked into the mire up to my thighs, mind you.)

After two years of walking Dartmoor, I find myself heading back to Act One. Perhaps now I need to step through the looking-glass and into another world, another genre of adventure.

Anyone know any decent French philosophy?

~

Further reading

If you like reading about how adventure fits into everyday life, then I can recommend Al Humphreys’ book The Doorstep Mile.

A note on the title of this piece

It’s unfortunate that Joseph Campbell’s problematic description of ‘the hero’s journey’ has become the abiding popular reference point for story structure.

Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ is not only a hugely reductionist and wildly inaccurate piece of folk story analysis, it’s also been unhappily described as perpetuating racist, sexist, classist and despotic norms.

I like to think that the Adventurer’s Journey is not so much these things. At the very least, ‘adventurer’ is not a gendered word like ‘hero’.

However, I am conscious that artist and comic book illustrator Alice Meichi Li’s criticism of Joseph Campbell is still applicable to my description of adventure:

[It’s] the journey of someone who has privilege… In the final chapter, they may end up on equal footing. But when you have oppressed groups, all you can hope for is to get half as far by working twice as hard.

100 Days of Adventure 2022

The end-of-year rush to reach 100 adventures has passed — I actually ended up with 102 due to an accounting error and a wonderful New Year’s Eve hike through Dartmoor.

And so here we are again, back at zero. Or one, thanks to a wonderful New Year’s Day hike through Dartmoor. Start as you mean to go on.

This is the double stone row at Hurston Ridge. It was constructed thousands of years ago in the midst of a dense forest of alder, oak and hazel, most likely as a form of crowd control for Neolithic hunters waiting to have their crack at The Beast Of Dartmoor.

Sometime between lunch and afternoon tea on New Year’s Day, my companions and I processed solemnly down the stone row. It was a powerful moment that symbolised the transition from old year to new and from dry feet to soggy.

I love New Year for the same reason I love Mondays, birthdays, anniversaries, solstices, equinoxes, new moons, full moons, Kalends, Nones and Ides.

I relish the opportunity to exploit the psychological power of an arbitrary date on which I can wipe clean the soiled and besmirched slate of my own personal biography and, indeed, fate.

At these slate-polishing moments, I can afford myself the time to look back over the past year / week / month / moon / ancient festival season and decide that everything from this day forth shall be different (or the same, depending).

As the business management psychologists like to say, I use ‘salient temporal landmarks’ to create ‘new mental accounting periods’, which ‘relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce [me] to take a big-picture view of [my] lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviours’.

Yes, I have multiple lives. (At least that’s how it feels at the moment.)

That is why, after a short period of reflection (I think I was waiting for some soup at The Old School tearoom in Belstone), I arrived at the decision to reprise my 100 Days of Adventure adventure for 2022.

Why? Because I know from experience that adventures in the G.O.D.* make me a healthier and happier human being and I also know from experience that, unless I hold myself to account by counting them, one by one, I will adventure less and subsequently feel less healthy and less happy.

It’s simple. So simple, in fact, that I’m surprised that few people count the really REALLY important things in their lives.

Lots of people count their money, many people count their steps, but I haven’t met anyone else who, say, counts the number of friends they see every day — and what could be more important than that?

Whether it’s adventures, friends or enthusiasm that you want to maximise in 2022, I’d gently encourage you to add one little extra flower to the bouquet of your New Year’s Resolution: a simple, irrefutable way of tracking your serene progress.

Oh, and ideally a means of holding yourself to public account, such as by writing an unbroken chain of 302 weekly newsletters…

Welcome to 2022, people — it’s going to be a blast!

~

*Great Out Doors. Despite the fact that it doesn’t really work, I’ve been eccessively delighted with this acronym ever since I discovered it back in 2018. Please share widely. I’ll figure out a way to monetise it later.

A Sense of Adventure Psychologists at the University of Bhunkum have found that adding the words ‘at night’ or ‘by moonlight’ to any activity increases its AQ (Adventure Quotient) by an incredible 308 percent.

Leaving the car at the Picket Plain viewpoint, I stumbled quickly through heath and gorse and mud, using the light of the moon to see the pathshine and feeling my way over the contours.

I worked my way over the valleys and into the woods, the fractals of the trees in their winter coats standing brilliantly against the sky.

As the year scribbles its way to a close, and penned in by the invisible boundaries of good health, I’ve spent the last week sketching out adventure close to home.

I’m often asked what kind of experience counts towards my 100 Days of Adventure challenge. The answer isn’t very satisfying: you know an adventure when you have one. You can’t always predict it; it’s something you feel.

That’s why we call it having ‘a sense of adventure’.

Darkness definitely eases back the threshold of adventure. Indeed, psychologists at the University of Bhunkum have found that adding the words ‘at night’ or ‘by moonlight’ to any activity increases its AQ (Adventure Quotient) by an incredible 308 percent.

  • Getting lost in the woods: annoying
  • Getting lost in the woods at night: adventure
  • Climbing a tree: fun
  • Climbing a tree by moonlight: adventure

See? This is why wintertime is the best time for adventures: darkness falls in late afternoon, leaving ample time for adventure before cocoa and bed.

This reframing turns our usual seasonal preferences on their head: the long summer evenings are a barrier to adventure, not an opportunity. Winter is where we get our kicks, sunset marking time to shut the laptop and pull out the map.

Equal parts terror and wonder

Feeling the sublime sense of awe is pretty good for us humans: falliable scientific experiments have shown that these wow-experiences can make us happier, healthier, brainier, humbler and kindlier.

And nature is the ultimate awesome experience, equal parts terror and wonder.

That’s what I thought as I rambled through the Purbecks on a foggy Sunday night, anyway.

The Purbecks are famed for their crumbly white cliffs, dropping sheer into the rocky water from the pleasant and abrupty terminated grassy heath above.

On a clear day, it looks a lot like this:

For daredevils, there is a narrow spit of land connecting to a lonesome chalky pillar. The cliffs tumble away either side and you can look down into your doom and see it swirling in the foam below.

On a clear day, it looks a lot like this:

On a wintery night, when the sea fog has rolled in after dark, it doesn’t look anything like this at all.

All I can see, as I creep out into the void, is the ghostly white of the chalk and the angry foam of the waves.

I lie down, nothingness either side of me, wind howling above, sea raging below, and I laugh. This is why they named this place for the devil: Old Harry Rocks.

Cut off from the solid ground of the heath, I imagine a shadowy figure looming at the end of the lace thin path. Cackling with delight, I crawl back on my hands and knees.

That’s awe.

Ignore your smoke alarm and look up

Of course, awe is much more safely experienced by simply looking up on a clear night. The key word there is ‘night’. This cannot be done during the daytime. Score another point for winter’s early evenings.

(Yes, ‘clear’ was also a key word. Unless otherwise stated, assume all my words are key.)

I’m sure we’ve all stared up into a wintery sky and felt very small. Nothing turns burning the toast into the insignificant annoyance that it is faster than boggling over the number of stars in the universe.

So ignore your smoke alarm for a second and imagine: how many stars are there in the Universe? More than there are grains of sand in the world.

Having said that, more prosaically, on a night like tonight, using the eyes that evolution gave you, you might see anywhere up to 4,548 stars — although that number will depend greatly on light pollution.

Starry views from (L) Dark Sky reserve and (R) city centre. Source: Stellarium

Each one of these stars is its own solar system, each one is home (potentially) to billions of lifeforms, each one enjoying the unfathomable richness of your own earthly experience. Take that in for a second.

Now switch off your smoke alarm.

Given that it’s nighttime, the closest star you can see in the northern hemisphere is Sirius, the Dog Star, about 81 trillion kilometres away.

The furthest star that humans have ever clapped eyes upon is called Icarus, and it sits in the night sky about 5 billion light-years away from Earth. A light-year is more than 9 trillion kilometres.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, holds about 300 billion stars and the billions of other galaxies scooting along around us mean that there are about 70 billion trillion stars in the observable universe.

Beyond that..?

Silence, Senses, Solitude

But the value of nighttime is not only the ghoulish darkness or the Mills & Boon soft celestial lighting: nighttime, especially in winter, is also a time of solitude.

I met no earthly being but horses during two evening rambles through the New Forest and the Purbecks this week. On two similar daytime adventures in the Forest and the Heath, I could hardly move for chirpy off-schoolchildren and professional dog walkers.

That solitude brings with it the gift of silence — which is itself the gift of sensory abundance, for even the most silent night is full of sound.

The stochastic comforts of matter moving through matter. The crackle of boots through leaves. The percussive snap of twigs under weight. The creak and rustle of unseen insects laying a trail.

The darkness sharpen other senses too: I smell the moss-sucking damp of the bog before my boots get wet. Movement, real or imagined, is enhanced in my peripheral vision. My skin tingles, every follicle straining for sensory input.

I followed the stars of Cassiopeia out of the woods and back up towards the A31. The mud on my jeans gave me away to the petrol station attendant.

I feel a sense of adventure.

How to navigate… in fog… at night

Your sense of adventure can be sharpened, in order of descending visibility, by haze, mist and — as I enjoyed on Sunday night in the Purbecks — fog.

As the waves of the English Channel hurled themselves onto the white cliffs below, clouds of water vapour condensed around the flecks of salt in the cold air.

I was navigating towards the obelisk of Ballard Down. To give you some idea of visibility, here’s what that imposing monument looked like at ten paces:

The Obelisk: a 19th century souvenir taken from a church near Bank, London

Definitely a night to practice my navigational instincts.

  • Use all your senses, starting with your common sense. Foot feel is your most reliable feedback system in fog. Sound, smell and sight are also useful and sometimes combine to make an inexplicable sixth sense: if you get a funny feeling that you might be going wrong, pay attention.
  • Fog is low-lying cloud, so if you need to use a torch (generally you don’t if your night vision is switched on), then hold it at hip height or lower, otherwise it’ll just reflect water vapour back in your face.
  • Contour lines are your best friend: you can feel them through your feet and if you’re walking up a steep hill or along a ridge you can often see a change in shadow below the line of the fog.
  • If you really can’t detect anything, not even a contour, lie down on the ground and see if the view is any better from there. If you’re worried about cliff edges, a crawl is safer than a walk.
  • Expect a discombobulating sense of vertigo if you stare into the fog for too long: keep your eyes moving and check in with solid ground every now and again.

The solitude of stars Because the stars are slowly parading through our night sky, Draco’s head will once again shine forth as our pole star in about 21,000AD. Assuming we make it that far as a species.

One of the consolations of winter is the growing role of the moon and stars in our lives. Last night, I watched the moon rising in a fine crescent over the sea, backing into the inky gap between Jupiter and Saturn.

Together with Venus, these are the easiest planets to spot at the moment because, at dusk, they form a nice easterly curve up from the horizon in the southwest.

As the night deepens, you’ll be able to pick up the constellations ever present in the northern night sky: the two Bears, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Draco the serpent or dragon.

The first three are important to the nightwalker: the constellation of Little Bear holds the North Star and, when you know how to read them, both Cassiopeia and Big Bear point the way north.

Fascinatingly, the head star of Draco was the pole star for the ancient Egyptians, who constructed their pyramids so that the serpent’s head should be visible from the entrance passage.

Because the stars are slowly parading through our night sky, Draco’s head will once again shine forth as our pole star in about 21,000AD. Assuming we make it that far as a species.

In winter, we get the starry show of every child’s favourite pattern of stars, Orion the hunter, who draws his deadly bow in the east.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that winter is the finest time to explore, not only the celestial firmament, but also terra firma.

The weather is nowhere near as bad as we fear and the darkness brings the twin balms of silence and solitude.

I hiked about 72km over four days while on Dartmoor and saw no more than eight other human beings the whole time — and only one group of four who were close enough to bid good day.

The only action that broke the peace were military manoeuvres: four helicopters ploughing furrows in the sky over my head for half an hour.

Hiking back up to the car park, following the North Star with Jupiter at my back and Orion by my side, I saw two headtorches bobbing in the distance. I passed an empty tent.

Litigation not education on Dartmoor

Dartmoor is the only place in England where wild camping is allowed without seeking permission from the landowner.

Unfortunately, reactionary forces are trying to ban camping in many of the most popular places on Dartmoor, including around the quarries of Foggintor, where I spent my first night’s wild camping on the moor in 2020.


It’s a beautiful spot and, crucially, it’s easily accessible from the road on foot or bike.

It’s an area where many people like myself will have had their first wild camps before building the confidence and the skills needed to safely camp in the more extreme environments of the open moor.

I understand the reasons why the Dartmoor National Park Authority are trying to curtail our right to the land: humans inevitably damage the environment they travel through.

But the popularity of Dartmoor after the easing of lockdown restrictions in the summer of 2020 need not be the trigger for ranger patrols and keep out signs.

First time or inexperienced campers can be the most destructive because they simply don’t know how to behave in the outdoors yet.

So teach them.

(Did I mention that I’m an outdoor instructor?)

The Dartmoor National Park Authority has also identified a problem with ‘fly camping’ — disposible dump and run campers — as well as with hordes of revelling ravers.

These problems crop up where there is immediate road access. So is there reallly any need to change the byelaws when camping within 100 metres from a road is already banned? Not to mention the byelaws that prohibit noise disturbance.

Even so, similarly popular areas near to roads, towns and rivers have also been removed from the proposed camping map. It amounts to an 8 percent cut in the allowed camping area.

This doesn’t sound like much, but if those areas are where first time campers are most likely to be able to access, then it’s a huge barrier for people ‘not like us’.

The outcome of these proposed changes is that campers who are not white, wealthy and middle class enough will be discouraged from communing with one of our last expanses of wilderness.

How depressing.

Other proposed changes to the Dartmoor access byelaws include:

  • A clear ban on van or car-based camping, and even the occupation of a parked vehicle after 9pm. So I can’t prepare a bit of night nav or stargaze under some of the only dark skies in England?
  • A ban on tents of more than 3 people and groups larger than 6 people. So what — no families, no school groups, no Ten Tors expeditions?
  • A ban on hammocks suspended from trees. Fair enough. I’m not sure this needs to be in place for the biologically dead pine plantations, but byelaws aren’t built for nuance.
  • A ban on the gathering of fuel, as well as the lighting and tending of a fire. Camping stoves are still fine. I get it, but this is another byelaw that falls under the heading of ‘litigation, not education’.
  • A ban on mass participation activities involving more than 50 walkers or 30 cyclists.
  • A clarification and extension of the ban on paid guides and instructors. This inexplicable byelaw is ignored by almost every single school expedition, but hey.
  • A ban on the use of drones. At last! Now if they could only ban those blasted military helicopters who strafed my peaceful walk up Cocks Hill…

Bygone Bicycles There’s something exquisite about unfolding the worn creases of a forgotten map and following, again, the inky lines where my pen once traced the turning of my wheels

Unfolding The Map Shelf: Northern Scotland, 2011

There’s something very relaxing about not being able to type. In my case, not being able to type means not being able to work, at least not in the hyper-productive sense. It means more slow time for things like organising one’s map shelf. (You do have a map shelf, don’t you?)

When I did exactly that earlier this week, I found the old map of Northern Scotland, much tattered, which I’d used when cycling around Britain back in 2011. (Did you know you can read the book of the ride?)

You can see where, at the end of every day, tucked up against the trunk of a tree, I inked in my anticlockwise route. If you look very closely, you can also see where I camped every night — X marks the spot. If you look with a magnifying glass, you can even see where I had to double back to Alness to fix a tyre that exploded with shotgun terror on the Black Isle.

A map is a wonderful souvenir for an adventure. (So wonderful, in fact, that Alastair Humpheys once told the story of a pilgrimage along a sacred river in India using the medium of map.)

It’s all very well having our memories of adventure saved forever and ever amen in the databases of apps like Komoot or Strava, but there’s something exquisite about unfolding the worn creases of a long forgotten map and following, again, the inky lines where my pen once traced the turning of my wheels.

The Happening: Britain to Bordeaux, 2009

While planning the 2022 edition of Thighs of Steel’s London to Athens adventure, I had reason to go even further back in time, to 2009 and the diaries I wrote on my very first cycle tour: transporting my friend’s Halfords Apollo from our childhold home in Oxfordshire to his new home in Bordeaux.

So I loaded up, told my parents I was going some place and cycled out of the garage. They waved and took photos, did all those nice things, and then closed the garage door behind me. I turned left, then left again…

Mercifully, the rest of the diaries aren’t a turn-by-turn account. Re-reading them today, as a seasoned cycle tourer, I recognise all the aches, pains and unpleasantnesses of days on the road.

By day four, I’d already suffered a broken rack, brake failure (which, knowing nothing about bike mechanics, I ‘fixed’ with tape) and the hell that is Basingstoke.

Also: knee pain, stomach cramps, lips chapped like the ‘crust of an old baguette’, a bed-stricken fever and a sore neck that meant I couldn’t turn my head past 10.30 and 1.30 on the clockface.

The experience of being unable to raise one’s royal behind from the throne without excruciating agony gave me an insight into old age that I do not wish to experience again until a more appropriate age, when I shall have had the foresight to install some sort of pulley system, ramp or catapult.

It’s a wonder that I ever went back to bikes. But the diaries also show glimpses of my first ecstasies of unbounded exercise:

On the road, no one can hear you scream, shout, sing, snort. Storming fury, shouting defiance. Leaving the trapdoor of emotions far behind on the road.

As well as more pleasant postcard images, the ones all cycle tourers collect as they roll through strangers’ lives:

A group of elderly Frenchmen playing petanque, one of them wearing a stripy jumper. I feel like I’ve won the lottery in a game of I-Spy

The final day’s ride, from Saintes to Bordeaux, was spectacular in that it featured a solid eight hours of rain:

Steady streaming hissing rattling rain, seeping, steaming through the grey wall, piercing, prodding, poking as I ride, going left some, going right some, but mostly going right on ahead, into the misty wet, hopelessly putting one foot forward, the other chasing it endlessly. And all I pass are closed patisseries.

By this point, I’d got the brakes more or less working — in the dry, that is:

My brakes deteriorate so quickly in all this rain that I can only shake my head and shout ‘no!’ when a car pulls across my path.

Yikes.

Needless to say, I didn’t become another statistic for the mortuary (although my friend nearly did after I removed my brake tape fix without telling him). Somehow, I fell enough in love with cycle touring for it to be the least worst option for getting around Britain a couple of years later.

The clue for why is found in the diary too:

Too long waiting, too long waiting for something to happen. It’s only when something does finally happen that you realise how it was happening all along, just outside your front door, only you didn’t know how to see it, didn’t know how to feel it, didn’t know where to put your feet — didn’t know how to become the happen.

I discovered that, besides chapped lips, riding a bicycle along an open road also gifts us a euphoric sense of optimistic opportunity. Less than ten miles into the unknown of a 547 mile journey, I wrote this:

The Sun was starting to win, the grass was filling my nose and that open green lane was rolling out under my wheels. There was just something about it, something that said: ‘Yes. This is going to happen.’

A Road Poem

My first three long bike trips were all done alone and I would entertain myself by building poems over the rhythm of the pedal strokes. Here’s one from the Bordeaux diary, sung to the tune of ‘I Once Swallowed Three Hatpins’:

I once caught a bluebottle
Right between my teeth
When I tried to unlodge it with my tongue
It buzzed right underneath

Now I’m sick with fever
And I’m sure the fly’s to blame
But I’ve tried every medicine going
And my stomach just isn’t the same

It wouldn’t be much of a problem
But cycling over a bridge
I wish I’d paid more attention
When invaded my nostril a midge

So listen to this little poem
And remember my tale of woes
Wear a mask when you’re cycling the country
Cos if it isn’t the mouth, it’s the nose!

Can you tell I was running a fever? :))

Turkish Delight falls out of the sky If a picture speaks a thousand words, then each one of those letters yells a poem.

There are only three more days of cycling left before we finish spelling out Refugees Welcome in the largest bike-powered GPS drawing the world has ever hypothetically seen.

After 1,905km and 24,118m of climbing elevation, this is what we’ve got so far:


If a picture speaks a thousand words, then each one of those letters yells a poem.

Where Refugees was all about doing the distance and spreading the word, Welco has been all about other people, other cyclists and other fundraisers.

Georgie and I have been thrust into the background, supporting artists of an all-star ensemble cast. Humble van drivers, camp strikers, porridge stirrers.

We’ve hosted 27 cyclists so far, with another 27 to join us on the M and the final E. The energy of all those humans makes everything and anything possible. Whether that’s quite literally climbing Steep Hill…

Or dealing with the aftermath of an ominous popping sound when changing lanes on a dual carriageway…

This was first thing on Monday morning, ten minutes after waving off the ‘O’ cyclists at Falmer Station. I was hungry and needed the toilet, but felt like the first thing I should do is report the incident to the RAC.

I barely had enough time to find a toilet and buy a cuppa before Mark rattled up in his roadside recovery vehicle.

Mark’s ‘little trick’ involving a ball of steel wire didn’t do the job, so he towed Calypso to the inestimable PJE Automotive. But, as I watched Calypso and all our camping kit vanish into the pale distance, six hungry mouths were cycling inexorably towards a forest camp, expecting tents, clothes and a birthday dinner.

I walked back to Kemptown, where Thighs Core Team stalwart Bobby lived in a former Pupil Referral Unit. Bobby lent us a backup backup van (Harold) and he quickly talked me through its vagaries — the fuel pump, the shoulder shove to unlock the back, the steering wheel lock.

As I was pulling out of the Pupil Referral Unit, Bobby added one final warning: ‘Don’t panic if Turkish Delight falls out of the sky. A friend of ours hid thousands of them in every nook and cranny of the van and they have a habit of appearing unexpectedly.’

I screeched off into the Brighton traffic, only realising halfway into a snarl up that I hadn’t eaten lunch and it was almost four o’clock. At that very moment, braking into the red lights, a packet of Turkish Delight fell from the overhead mirrors.

I made it to PJE Automotive about half an hour before closing. Calypso was already being worked on. Three mechanics swarmed her undercarriage in a flurry of fixingness.

This was a heartening sight, bar one minor detail: Calypso was three metres up and I needed, not only everyone’s tents and bags, but also two cooking rings, an incredibly heavy gas canister, the crockery and cutlery and three crates of food, including a surprise Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake for Georgie.

So began an impressive recovery operation of an altogether different kind. As I shouted vague instructions from ground level, a tottering mechanic on an extendable ladder liberated as much of our kit as he could get his hands on.

It would have to do. I threw almost everyone’s tents, practically all of their bags and pretty much most of the cooking stuff into the back of Harold and, finally, headed for the forest.

A couple of hours later, Georgie was blowing the candles off Clive the Caterpillar (IT WAS A FAKE!) among a circle of friends — many of whom were at least partially dressed in their own clothes — as if this was exactly how we’d planned it all along.

This is what Thighs of Steel is all about: the collective pushing those pedals. Doing things that we never thought we could.

The clutch now moves ‘like butter’. I can hear the sound of chopping knives from the kitchen. Bobby has lit a fire on the beach. We’re ready for the last rides of the summer.

Brighton Palace Pier at sunset. At dawn, we ride again…

Talking politics with strangers Approaching a stranger to ask for their signature and contact details is pretty daunting when you think there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ll hate everything about you.

On Wednesday, we stayed with the wonderful Christine and Hayden in Alton (home of Sweet FA). We shovelled down a spectacular dinner in double quick time: Christine had invited a circle of friends to listen to our stories from the road.

I hadn’t prepared a Powerpoint, so instead I gave a impromptu bugle recital and a depressing speech about the Nationality and Borders Bill.

One of the high points of this bike trip is having conversations about immigration and asylum with the people we meet.

It’s great that everyone knows at least vaguely what’s going on in Afghanistan at the moment, but not so many people understand how our government is ripping up the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

So here’s my bullet point digest for you to share with friends:

  • The new Nationality and Borders Bill is in direct contravention of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. This strikes me as a bit of a shame, given that the UK was one of only ten original signatories of this landmark document.
  • The new Bill creates a two-tiered asylum system that distinguishes claims based on the means of entry to the UK rather than by whether the human being entering is actually in need of asylum. This prejudice is explicitly forbidden by Article 31 of the 1951 Convention.
  • Should the new Bill pass, the only admissable refugees will be the few who arrive here on painfully limited resettlement schemes. For example, the government has committed to resettle 20,000 Afghans over ‘the coming years’.
  • The UK currently stands in nineteenth place in the European league table of asylum applications per capita of population, below Greece, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, Malta, Italy, Finland… You get the point.
  • Even if the government’s resettlement promises can be trusted — which they manifestly can’t — the new Bill would send the UK spiralling even further down the list of safe nations for those fleeing war.
  • Furthermore, under the new Bill, those who enter the UK ‘irregularly’ — i.e. without a passport and visa — will have their asylum cases deemed ‘inadmissable’ and the government will try to deport them.
  • If you are a refugee, it is essentially impossible to enter the UK with a passport and visa. Do you imagine those fleeing Afghanistan had time to apply for a visa on their way out? The result: the asylum claim of every refugee coming to this country under their own steam will be ‘inadmissable’.
  • If the government simply can’t get rid of them (because their freakin homes are on fire!), then these people will be allowed to apply for asylum… but…
  • Even if these irregular arrivals are ultimately awarded refugee status, they will never be given the right to settle here and will be regularly reassessed for removal. Again: this prejudice is explicitly forbidden by the 1951 Convention because it’s manifestly unfair.

The British were very successful at promulgating the myth that their Empire was founded on good will and fair play. This was always a gargantuan lie, but it’s a lie that this government seems particularly eager to expose with the extraordinary cruelty and arbitrary injustice of its Nationality and Borders Bill.

Every time we stop the GPS for a bike break — lunch wraps, punctures, bedtime — we need to get our logbook signed off by a member of the public. This means that we talk to a lot of people about what we’re doing.

At the beginning of the trip, we were both a bit worried about discussing refugees with any old stranger on the street.

The anti-immigration, anti-asylum right wing press is the most popular in the country and, naturally, we thought that these newspapers would reflect the views of their readers. Not only that, but the elected government of this country is run by a man that the BBC can, without fear of slander, describe as ‘a liar and a racist’.

Therefore, basic probability told us that a good chunk of our unsuspecting witnesses would hold strong, negative views on the right of refugees to claim asylum in this country.

Approaching a stranger to ask for their signature and contact details is pretty daunting when you think there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ll hate everything about what you’re doing.

As the trip has gone on, however, we’ve come to the heartening conclusion that The Daily Mail and the Conservative Party can’t possibly reflect the real views of the people of this country.

We’ve not done a survey, but it’s statistically fantastic that zero of the 114 people in our witness book neither read the country’s most popular newspapers nor vote for the most popular political party.

Yet the vast majority of people we’ve met on this bike ride show great compassion towards those forced to flee their homes. Indeed: most people tell us that they think the government should be doing more to help.

This government, and the billionaire-owned press that goads them on, are not only heartlessly vindictive, but they foment a social atmosphere that divides us and makes us scared to share our true political beliefs with each other.

This trip has not only given me the strength to approach strangers and open up political conversations, but also the confidence that they won’t rip my head off. Far from it.

If we are going to defeat the Nationality and Borders Bill — and the countless others that this government are yet to write — then we need to be able to trust each other.

This bike trip has shown me that we can.

So let’s.

How to break things: an update ‘I set out to fail,’ he said, ‘and I nearly ended up winning.’

  • Days Cycling: 11
  • Distance Cycled: 842km
  • Everests Climbed: 1.54 (13,601m)
  • Tiramisús Devoured: 3
  • Guinness World Records Surpassed: 1

I can’t technically say that we’ve broken the world record because the ride isn’t over yet (nor the record verified), but Thighs of Steel have definitely surpassed the previous record and, with every day that passes, the world’s biggest bike-powered GPS drawing gets even bigger.

Since I last wrote, we have rounded off the ‘f’ in Exmoor, cycled the Jurassic Coast of the ‘u’ and passed the world record distance out on the Somerset Levels of the ‘g’.

As we crossed into Glastonbury, Mayor Jon Cousins met us to sign the logbook and mark this momentous occasion with a nice cup of tea. Georgie had Guinness — what else?

Speaking of tea: if you ever have the fortune to be cycling across Exmoor, make a stop at the Poltimore Arms to meet publican, politician and raconteur Steve Cotten. He looks and sounds a lot like comedian Bill Bailey.

Georgie had only stopped at the top of the hill to wait for me to catch up, but we were soon sitting down for a hot drink with Steve and the pub cat, Frederick Albert Hitler.

‘I never charge for tea or coffee,’ Steve told us. ‘Some call it bad business, I call it good manners.’

As we arrived, Steve had just received a parcel containing white jodhpurs and a pair of leather riding boots.

‘They won’t let me drive — I’m half blind — so I got myself a crazy horse,’ he explained. ‘Everyone says that horse will be the death of me, but I know all the local elite dressage trainers so I’m going to learn dressage and win Olympic gold at the next Paralympics.’

He must have seen the doubt in our eyes because the next thing he said was: ‘I’m serious. People don’t believe me, but they didn’t believe me when I said I was going to run for parliament and see what happened there.’

He points behind us to a massive canvas poster of Steve on the campaign trail: ‘A vote for Steve Cotten is a vote for North Devon’.

‘I set out to fail,’ he said, ‘and I nearly ended up winning.’

Putting the ‘f’ in Exmoor

I’ll restrict myself to three other highlights of the past week: homemade tiramisú, campfires and unbridled generosity. These recurred with pleasing regularity along the ride — or all together at once in the case of one memorable evening with Laura and Jon at Bulstone Springs.

What more could a steely thighed cyclist need? Courtesy of Bulstone Springs’ gorgeous new glamping grounds

Open hearted generosity is a feature of cycle touring. Not only from our wonderful hosts who welcome us into their homes, but also from many of the people we meet along the way.

Yesterday, six friends-we-hadn’t-yet-met donated in cash quids, fivers, tenners and even twenties. This makes Wiltshire by far and away the most generous county we’ve cycled through and it’s inspired me to spend my day off making a donations bucket to strap to the front of the bike.

I’d better get cracking actually — my bike suffered a mechanical yesterday and I don’t fancy testing the limits of my frayed gear cabling on the White Horse hills. With fair winds and good fortune, the next time I write, we will have finished writing ‘Refugees’.

Until then: choose love.

Admin or admiration? 4 days into our 27 day world record ride and it's no coincidence that all the roads here incorporate the word 'Hill'

We are now 4 days into our 27 day bike-powered GPS drawing of Refugees Welcome and it’s no coincidence that all the roads around here incorporate the word ‘Hill’.

Copstone Hill, Cuckoo Hill, Polson Hill, Beech Hill Cross, North Hill Lane. (There’s also a Cockrattle Lane, but that’s a different story.)

Since our departure from St Austell on Tuesday, we’ve climbed over 6400m: coast to coast to coast through Cornwall, followed by a loop-the-loop of Dartmoor.

For those of you catching up, Thighs of Steel (of which I am a mere cog) are attempting to create the world’s largest bike-powered GPS art by riding a serpentine route around the south of England that spells out the words ‘Refugees Welcome’.

If we are successful, it will break the current world record by a completely unnecessary 1500km.

FOLLOW THE RIDE

But, as they say, it’s all for a good cause. We are fundraising for Choose Love, a charity that re-distributes donations to dozens of grassroots refugee projects in the UK and abroad.

These projects have been hit hard by the pandemic and would be completely unable to offer any services at all without the generosity of hundreds of individuals making small cash donations.

What’s great about Choose Love is that they can send the money wherever it is needed NOW.

As you may have gathered from the news, forced migration happens suddenly and it’s often the small grassroots projects that are best able to respond fast enough to help people when they need it most.

Thank you for all your donations – they are powering both our thighs and (more importantly) the work of these refugee support projects.

DONATE

These first four days (we hope) will be the toughest of the whole tour, certainly in terms of distance and elevation, and I would be lying if I said that, at times, I have not reflected unfavourably upon my life choices.

Such as on Wednesday, when we cranked our way up two irrelevant hills to form the inlet of the ‘R’, only to return over the same exact same hills to finish off the tail.

And these are not hills in the sense that you might imagine if you live in the Home Counties, East Anglia, or even Scotland. These are Devonshire and Cornish hills. Road builders here seem to delight in driving you perpendicular to the contour lines. Not a zig-zag in sight, just a sheer wall of asphalt.

But the consolation in those absurd moments of repeated routing is not what we are doing, but why.

At the end of our hill reps on Wednesday, in the very butt of the R, a man called Ray Christmas signed our logbook. Ray Christmas!

Wait – the logbook? Ah, yes, the logbook! Every World Record Attempter’s nightmare – literally.

I swear, two nights ago, I dreamt that Philip Schofield agreed to sign our logbook in exchange for sexual favours.

Schofield, aside, the logbook is the evidence Guinness need to verify our record. Every time we stop, we have to write that information into the logbook: date, time, distance travelled, location – and get that information signed off by an independent witness.

It’s a lot of admin. Stop the GPS, check the time, check the distance, enter the time, enter the distance, add up today’s distance to yesterday’s total distance, eat half a flapjack, cast around for a human being who looks like not-a-dick.

Then we launch into The Spiel – ‘Sorrytobotheryoudoyoumindmeaskingafavourwearetryingtobreakaworldrecord’ – all the while gauging their eyes and frown lines for signs of curiosity and generosity or suspicion and derision.

No, this logbook is more than admin – it’s a total ballache.

But, I confess, these witness signing ceremonies are often the highlight of our day.

The vicar of Holy Trinity, St Austell, who prayed for our steely thighs.

Luke and David at Bodmin steam railway, who donated £5 and a Thomas the Tank Engine flag.

The family in the wind and rain who donated halloumi fresh from their barbecue.

The woman wearing the Choose Love t-shirt in Boscastle – how could we not stop her?

The inestimable Janet Downes who carted us from R to E and donated homemade cheesy flapjacks.

Margitta and Nick and Lee and Laura and Pippa and Rolf and Bri and Penny who have hosted and roasted us in their warm homes.

Ian the accordian player from Of Stone And Earth in Chagford.

Debbie and Rob from the village shop in South Brent, who insisted on doing a Facebook Live with us and donated £10 and a bag of dark chocolate gooseberries.

The volunteers at Spreyton community shop who donated two pieces of Bakewell Tart.

Gordon Ramsey.

Wait, what? Yes – TV celeb chef Gordon Ramsey. Spotted by Naomi out on a bike trail, enjoying a quiet cup of tea. At least he was enjoying a quiet cup of tea until Naomi fell off her bike in shock and I went up to him shouting ‘Are you Gordon Ramsey?’

To be fair, he took it pretty well – better than I would have done if someone had come up to me and shouted ‘Are you Gordon Ramsey?’

He signed our logbook, wished us well and gave me a fistbump. What more can you ask?

So, the logbook: yes, it’s a chore, but it’s also given us the moments that make this bike ride like no other bike ride.

This experience has made me want to make a logbook, a sort of a guestbook, for all my future rides too. How wonderful to make these connections as we pass through these villages and towns, how lucky.

I suppose it’s all about how you look at the world, isn’t it? My feelings about this baleful world record lurch, moment to moment, from admin to admiration.

Open minds, open hearts, open logbook.

Laughter lines My advice is nothing more than reassurance that the dream still fits the plan. The more people do this sort of thing, the more people do this sort of thing.

Through the window, as I write, I can see rusty-coloured containers, rusty-coloured cranes and rusty-coloured clouds. We must be approaching Southampton Central.

This week I’ve transitioned from bikes to trains, clocking up over thirteen hours on one or other of these coupled carriages, entertaining myself by reading books about Trainspotting and Breath, or estimating the proportion of mask-wearers in the population.

(FWIW: Mask-wearing varies wildly depending on time and location, from about 30 percent on the morning platform at Bournemouth to an impressive 80 percent on the London Underground in rush hour, before crashing to 5 percent on the train home after kicking out time at the pubs.)

Thank you so much for all the lovely comments on the last two weeks’ worth of stories from Wales. Stories in the Lamplight is already the ninth most-read post in these archives, so thank you to those of you who shared it around.

I’m glad the stories resonated: it feels like passing on the chain of connection, from the lives I crossed in Wales, through my brain, to yours—and after that? It’s up to you.

I passed along a few morsels of bike touring advice to Documentally this week. Tomorrow, he’s setting off on the longest ride of his life and asked me a few questions about route planning and lightweight tents.

As always, my advice feels like nothing more than reassurance that the dream still fits the plan. Quite simply: the more people do this sort of thing, the more people do this sort of thing.

Besides: the student has already outdone the master (ha!) with both the title of his tour—Cycling Hertz—and the generous fundraising he’s inspiring throughout his network.

Documentally and about fifty other cyclists who give a damn have managed to raise over £22,000 for Choose Love with Thighs of Steel this year. That’s enough love and solidarity to run a refugee drop-in centre for three months, or to pay for an expert caseworker to support unaccompanied refugee children for a whole year.

At a time when proposed changes to the asylum system are at risk of criminalising humanitarian organisations like the RNLI—our seaside lifeguards—it is important that we show the whole world that Britain still welcomes those fleeing persecution, conflict and terror.

This money is precious. This money sends a message.

We’re not finished yet. There is still space for you to join us, either as a DIYer like Documentally or as part of our supported Guinness World Record attempt.

This, somehow, is a bike ride.

Together with co-conspirator Georgie Cottle, I’ll be cycling more or less the whole 2,400km world record route, all the way from Holy Trinity Church in St Austell on 16 August to the Port of Dover on 18 September.

We leave in less than ten days so I’ve been frantically calculating elevation stats, ordering crates of chocolate and ginger flapjacks, and panic-phoning bike shops trying to source a 22T chainset.

The first four days’ cycling are each over 100km, with more hills than you’d get climbing from the sea to the summit of Ben Nevis. I thought Wales would prepare me. I was wrong.

The white-haired woman across the aisle announces to a disembodied ear that she’s on the train, on the way back from a funeral. A young man in headphones confirms the next stop to the dark eyes, dark curls peering over the seat in front. Two more bikes, belonging to unseen, potbellied cyclists, are strung up with mine in the vestibule, swinging on their meat hooks.

Hiya everyone! This is your onboard catering crew, Angela and Adam. If you’re feeling a bit hot and clammy, we’ve got a selection of cold drinks available. Water, wines, OJ, beers, Prosecco. We’re also happy to have a little chat if you’ve been watching Love Island or the Olympics—with one person at a time in the buffet car.

A funeral, an ear, headphones, dark eyes, potbellies, lifeguards, cold drinks, sweet dreams, used tickets, worn tyres. The seams between all these lives run like laughter lines across the face of our experience.

Stories in the lamplight We try to make sense of the scenes illuminated in our lamplight, but really there’s nothing out there but an unbroken string of stories, some told by me, some told by you.

Welcome to Liverpool – the world’s eleventh least stressful city, according to research commissioned by a CBD vaping company.

Make of that what you will, but, of the remaining British cities, only Manchester and Edinburgh made it into the top forty.

After all, with its literary riverside, leafy parks and leftie communities, it’s not impossible that Liverpool is a less stressful place to live than Amsterdam, Sydney and Lisbon. The Beatles certainly seemed like a cheerful bunch of lads.

Talking of the Fab Four (plus a few more), this morning I visited Penny Lane. Mainly because it was on the way back from the charity shop where I’d bought a much-needed pair of brown corduroy flares to make myself respectable around town.

I know that this is Liverpool and that, fashion wise (more than one person has remarked), anything goes. But my blue checkered Speedos – somewhat appropriate for the beach after a hot day’s cycle – were beginning to make me feel a little self-conscious around town.

Penny Lane itself is an unprepossessing street elevated to such lofty legend that its old painted sign has to be put behind protective perspex.

I spent a happy hour listening to the stories of Julie Gornell at the Penny Lane Development Trust, which was set up to save a derelict corner of the lane from developers. Now there’s a garden, a memorabilia shop, a mural called the ‘wonder wall’ and – what else? – the original yellow submarine.

Note 1: The name ‘wonder wall’ has nothing to do with Oasis. It was a 1960s psychedelic film for which George Harrison wrote the score.

Note 2: The original yellow submarine was built in 1966 as a functioning submersible by Arthur Johnson of Grimsby for his daughter. Nothing to do with the Paul McCartney song of the same name. Wild.

Note 3: Penny Lane is not (or definitely is) named for James Penny, a man who, in 1788, vehemently defended the Atlantic slave trade to Parliament with the astonishing claim that, on his ships at least, the slaves were not only ‘amused with Instruments of Music’, but also rubbed down and given cordial whenever the weather got a bit sweaty.

Note 4: Peaking at number two, McCartney’s Penny Lane (alongside its psychedelic twin, Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever) has the honour of being the song that broke The Beatles’ run of ten consecutive chart-topping singles in the UK.

Talking of strawberries: I’m eating one.

Welcome, after two weeks of camping, 1,181km of cycling and 13,106m of climbing, to Liverpool.

Note 5: That’s the same distance as London to Poznan and the height of one and a half Everests. If only all fortnights were this productive.

Working backwards, I took lunch today with three bike touring friends. In this Olympic year, I’m passing on the torch: as I finish, they begin, cycling off on full stomachs and their own ‘rolling equipment’.

Ghandi Manning is probably in the top two most-prepared cycle tourers I have ever met. He packed light for this Shropshire ride: only his hammock instead of a tent and none of his drone photography kit. But he still found room for a Swedish numberplate, a curved handle walking stick and, of course, Meg the Leg.

Meg the Leg is a leg that is also a lamp. What more do you need?

Suddenly, my stylishly eccentric bugle (which, I may add, brought a lot of pleasure to tourists on the Mersey Ferry yesterday) looks like the lightweight affectation of someone yet to fully commit to Saddle Life. I have much to learn about packing for pleasure.

Note 6: Ghandi is beaten into second place by a man we once encountered on the Danube whose bike was so fully-laden that he had to walk alongside, pushing.

As touring cyclists, we measure our days in meals, and breakfast was shared with two new friends I made out on the road yesterday.

Swept along on a tailwind from Abergele to Birkenhead, I gave Dan and Jonah the benefit of my GPS navigation. In Liverpool, Dan and Jonah gave me beer and a place to sleep.

This didn’t seem like a fair exchange, so I footed the bill for three rounds of eggs, avocado, beans and mushrooms on sourdough, which set them on their way home to Halifax.

Scrolling back through my timeline of the past week, I see more of these flashes of light.

There’s Mike, the Connah’s Quay cafe and heritage centre chef who sells egg baps for £1.50, grows tomatoes in raised beds on the harbourside and can feel the presence of three resident ghosts.

A Napoleonic-era sea captain marches up and down the museum in his three-cornered hat, disappearing through walls and the like. Mike often hears the laughter of a good-natured little girl ghost, who’s got one side of her face burnt off. But woe betide you if you cross an evil spirit who lives upstairs, pinches bottoms and tells you to fuck off when disturbed.

Back in the realm of the living, there’s Richard, hipster patisserie chef and owner of the last working windmill on Anglesey, who saved his cafe staff’s jobs over lockdown by pivoting to the production of chocolate, gin and Mônuts – doughnuts so popular that the queue starts an hour before opening (not that I’m bitter I missed out).

There’s another Mike, of Dolgellau Bikes, who – you might remember – once spun me around and set me back on the right way round Britain. Now his business is all hire bikes and, when I called in, ten years after that first visit, he looked hot and harried with twenty plus bikes out back, waiting for Covid disinfection. He dreams of retirement and more time for his true love: windsurfing.

There’s Dylan and Joy, who have retired, to the quiet foothills of the Rhinogydd, a steep climb east from Harlech (the steepest climb in the world until the Guinness Book of World Records had a rethink). They chose this remote location because, they told me, neither are people people.

These non-people people welcomed me in for tea on their hayloft balcony overlooking the blue mountains of the Llyn, filled my water bottles, invited me for breakfast and told me how they volunteer as part of the community rescue team that has saved Harlech swimming pool from shutdown. My kind of non-people people.

There’s James the fundraising canyoneer, Ffi the marbling postie, and Dafydd the trig-chasing wifi engineer: all Warmshowers hosts who took care of me when I needed a friendly face and a dunk in the hot, soapy stuff.

My ride, I realised somewhere on the mountain road between Machynlleth and Dolgellau, isn’t about me. It’s as if my bicycle is fitted with a lamp that illuminates brief moments in the lives of others.

It’s up to me, if I can, if I dare, to make sense of the images that flicker first here, now there, before moving on without interpretation to the next un-narrated scene.

There are lessons, I’m sure, in the memories like shards lodged in my brain: the van driver who silently raised his fist as he drove down and I rode up the Llyn; the white-haired woman who tooted her horn and shouted thank you as I pulled over to let her past on Anglesey; even the one-hand-on-the-wheel lorry driver whooshing by too close, whose spare claw was more gainfully employed in digging out his left nostril.

CYCLIST DIES, MAN CLEARS BOGEY

Even that headline is an image churned into the whole of what has already been pasturised and labelled: Round Wales 2021 (on both Komoot and Strava).

Waking up this morning, on a saggy mattress in a bare room in a dusty musty student house emptied out for the summer, I couldn’t help but grin.

What about? Finishing the ride – is that it? I looked around for some sign, some image that I could interpret, that would sum up in a moment the whole of the last two weeks.

A framed poster had fallen from the ex-student’s wall and smashed: MISTAKES ARE PROOF THAT YOU ARE TRYING.

That line doesn’t work as an epitaph for this bike ride. Here’s another that doesn’t work either, spoken to me by the guy whose house I’m staying in tonight:

You’re the first adventurer we’ve had stay. Most people just come here, get pissed one night and go home.

We try to make sense of the scenes illuminated in our lamplight, but really there’s nothing out there but an unbroken string of stories, some told by me, some told by you.

Whatever you do, do it while you can.

Wiener brecwast Greetings from west Wales: a corner has been turned...

I’m writing this from the west coast of Wales, as the wind picks up its suitcase and prepares to shake out the contents onto the bed of land that I ride through. Storm’s a-coming.

Talking of inclement weather, and continuing the Bob Dylan theme of the past couple of newsletters, today’s letter is inspired by A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.

Dylan once said that every line in that apocalyptic song was just the first line of a whole other song that he worried he’d never get around to writing before music itself was wasted by nuclear winter. Take these lines from the first verse:

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains

I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways

I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests

I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans

It’s evidence of the density of the writing and the concision that we’re sometimes forced into by the sheer fact that to write it all would be to fill six volumes – and who has time for that?

So, without wanting to stand my scribblings shoulder to shoulder with Dylan’s Nobel Prize winning catalogue, imagine that behind every sentence there are stories that I don’t have time, space or skill to expand right now. Just like the weather, the last week has been thick.

We cycled too far and forced stops in the churchyard stocks, following the hay trucks billowing dust in the wheat-gold afternoon.

We walked into a welcome as warm as the sundown, plated up salad, that coleslaw, barbeque and hair-dryer damaged paddling pool.

We ate stacks of Rogue Welsh Cakes: stacked and loaded with ice cream, before lying in the shade of an ancient Cypress that’d seen a hundred summers like this one.

We sought out the most southerly point of Wales, slipped our feet into the sea, and watched two women carry home two huge bags of rubbish, left by campers in the nature reserve built up around a former lime works.

We played Uno. We played rummey. We looked into the night and watched as the moon grew full and fat.

We ate melted flapjack on the cliff edge, while overheating sheep sheltered behind a dry stone wall.

In Bridgend, I replaced cycle shorts that had grown obscenely thin in the decaying tropical miasma.

We collapsed from the heat at the top of a deer park, the smoke stacks of Port Talbot pluming on the horizon, and slept in secluded splendour.

We sat in the shadow of Lidl, one of us breakfasting on salad with pomegranate and cashews, the other trying to make a meal of cold frankfurters and smokey cheddar slices. We will always have Lidl.

Swansea came and went in a slow afternoon of tea and company, piecing together tired muscles, sea swims punctuating the hills and rocks of Mumbles and the Gower.

We stayed with a UFC fighter and his family of seven dogs, wife and young baby, lying in the hot bed while he built up flat-pack garden furniture outside.

We rode the coastline fast, baking our backs in the desert sands, while 4x4s make like Jesus in the shallow water.

We wade out to sea and dip our heads before one last climb together, bicycles being now the instrument of our purpose.

At Carmarthen, heart hurting under cool canopy of oak, I cycle on alone.

That Wales ends; this Wales begins. Tens of metres become hundreds; hundreds become thousands: climbing, always climbing. Then coasting, always coasting.

The flying ants burst from the ground. One insect draws blood. A sheep runs out into the road. I chase it back to the flock.

Distant memories return, of a flick comb souvenier, bought at a gift shop in Tenby thirty years ago. I drink tea served by a woman whose legs are cut off below the knee.

I meet Ana, a cyclist from Ukraine who once rode from Luton to John O’Groats with no money, spending two months on the hospitality of strangers.

At St David’s I meet a woman who, in the 1990s, cycled 3,500km over the Andes on a £90 mountain bike.

I watch the glow of the dying sun through the ruined wheel window of St Davids Bishops Palace. I remember this moment from ten years before.

I climb and keep climbing. A man sitting in his garden leaps to his feet to applaud at the top of the hill: ‘Not many make it,’ he says, ‘but you’re past the worst now.’ I tell him that seems unlikely, as I’m bound for Snowdonia.

I collapse into a field of hospitality, exchanged for three barrowfuls of soil, and watch the red sun burn up into the Irish Sea. I sleep long and wake to fresh winds and tea and cereal from a new-found friend.

Too much more to come, but now it’s time to ride again, up towards Aberaeron, where I hear legend of an ice cream shop not to be missed.

Plumb lines and cockpits The upshot of my visit, on a hot June day, to Neil’s upstairs studio was spending a penny to save a pound. Reader: I needed not a larger frame. I needed data.

Of plumb lines and protractors

A couple of weeks ago, I thought I needed a whole new bike—or at least a whole new bike frame. The Dunx chassis that I’d driven a ridiculous distance to collect came out bigger than my old Marin and I worried that my pedal position was more torture rack than action settee on a thousand-mile ride.

Knowing the knee-clicking importance of a well-fitted bike, I was fully prepared to drop another undisclosable sum of money into the laps of the aluminium founders.

But first, fearful of returning to square zero, I needed confidence on exactly what size of metal triangle would best accommodate my thorax, levers and abdomen. So I booked a professional fitting with Neil of Fit To Ride, Poole.

The upshot of my visit, on a hot June day, to Neil’s upstairs studio was spending a penny to save a pound. Or spending £110 to save at least £500. Reader: I needed not a larger frame. I needed data.

Data worth ~£400

I perched astride Martin, fixed in place to a roller with a fan blowing hot air into my hair, distracted by a motionless wall-sized panorama of the Alps; Neil tinkered around me with plumb lines, rulers and protractors.

He’s used to tuning up road bikes for max power. I warned him not to laugh.

The most important thing I learned from Neil, however, was that frame size is much less important than I thought. In the hands of a professional, dramatic micro-adjustments of the seat post, saddle rails, handlebar stem, angle and rise can admit even the most monstrous of riding positions.

I ride upright—a position so unaerodynamic that I must be at least twice as fit as Mark Cavendish. I had managed to achieve my absurdly erect posture by cranking an adjustable handlebar stem way past its vertical limit for the utmost rise and utleast reach.

The effect was, in Neil’s words, cramped and hunched; in my words, relaxed and comfortable. Although, now he mentioned it, a folk memory arose from tours past: a shooting stiffness in the shoulders that only hypodermic massage could relieve.

After raising the seat post an inch and shuffling the saddle back a few mill, Neil proved his point with a protractor. My lower back was indeed of the military persuasion, but my handlebars were so close to my belly that, from the fourth thoracic north, my vertebrae had no choice but to volte-face, kink and plunge.

The results of such a posture are not only painful in the neck, but also, Neil assured me, inefficient in the muscle groups engaged in forward propulsion.

Neil’s response was to exchange my over-wrought stem for one that did the diametric opposite, one that pushed my fingers far over the front wheel. The knock-on effect was to straighten my back and edge the angle between spine and shoulder closer to its biomechanical sweet spot.

I’ve been riding with this new setup for the past couple of weeks, but Neil warned me that it could take five hundred miles before my body works out its new muscle memories. I haven’t had knee pain while cycling for many years: any change to my pedal practise, even change dictated by protractor, is a gamble.

Tomorrow, I leave for a thousand kilometre ride around Wales. Soon I will learn whether the gamble has paid off.

Of cockpits and cash

As anyone who owns a bicycle well knows, the goddess of the highway giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. The money I hypothetically ‘saved’ by not buying a whole new frame, was spent with thrilling liquidity on an array of instruments for what Neil persisted in calling my ‘cockpit’.

Ever since I’d been struck dumb in Romania by the enviable cockpit of a moustachioed Steely called Bertie, I have wanted aerodynamic tri bars on my touring bicycle. Goaded on by Neil—‘All the long distance cyclists have got them these days’—I have finally taken the swallow dive.

As the owner of a flat-bar touring bike, my life has already been transformed once by the addition of end bars (credit to John in Newcastle for that innovation). Could it be transformed a second time with these sleek arm rests? Time shall tell.

But that is not the only new member of my cockpit crew. I have also succumbed to bikepacking fashion and acquired a handlebar bag—supposedly of ten litres, but I’m not about to waste perfectly good drinking water checking that. In my case, this handlebar bag is nothing more than a robust dry bag zip tied to my bars.

The pièce de résistance of my pimped up cockpit is a brand new GPS computer—the admirably typo-ridden Wahoo Elemnt Bolt. This frighteningly loseable piece of hardware is a tiny, yet incredibly detailed world atlas, onto which I can superimpose the turn-by-turn instructions for my intended route.

The first time I cycled around Wales, back in 2011, I used a road atlas for navigation and, with no digital Hermes to guide my wheels, I furiously spent many hours lost, as this extract from my bicyclogue of the journey reveals:

Through Harlech, with its men, to Barmouth, where I cross the mouth of Afon Mawddach. Happily swishing through the fields and woods of the hills, I’m expecting to hit the seaside again soon. I’m constantly looking ahead, around this bend, over this hill, through this wood, soon I’ll hear the swish of the sea, soon.

Then I hit a town that shouldn’t be there. I cycle along vaguely, bewildered by my map. It’s a pleasant enough town, with grey slate and flint buildings and a few people enjoying the gap between rainstorms. It’s just that none of it should be here. Eventually, after dawdling through the town, trying to find a comprehensible road sign that might indicate where the hell I am, I find a bike shop. I tie up and go inside.

‘Excuse me,’ I ask the vigorously tanned bike mechanic. ‘You couldn’t tell me where I am, could you?’
In fairness to him, he would be well within his rights to look at me now as if I’m insane. But he doesn’t. He just says something like: ‘Dththgththaye.’
A look of panic flickers over my face. I check my map. ‘Erm, where?’
‘Dththgththaye,’ he repeats, patiently.
I panic again. He takes pity, turns the page on my road map and points: Dolgellau. There is no way we can be there.
‘Are you sure?’ I ask before I can stop myself.

Now he is looking at me as if I am insane. Somehow I have managed to cycle north-east, when I should have been going south-west. For eight miles. After all my anxiety about avoiding Anglesey and other diversions, I feel strangely liberated from the tyranny of Knowing. Not Knowing, I’m not worried about where I am, where I’m going or how fast I’m going wherever it is that I’m going.

That was then, but how now will I suffer this year, at the mercy of the all-knowing Wahoo? A Wahoo that, all being well, shall, by the end of the summer, be a world record holder, no less. Will I pass muster? Or will I long for the days of unknowing?

~

Thanks to Dunx Cycles and Fit To Ride for their help putting together Martin II.

If you’ve got any recommendations of places to explore in Wales, then please let me know. Likewise, if you live in Wales and fancy joining me for a turn about the hills.

100 Days of Adventure: Solstice Update

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What is this?

I’ll begin this six-month, solstice update on a downbeat note. Earlier this week, I was scheduled to instruct my first Duke of Edinburgh Award Silver Expedition.

I was very excited about this event, not only because I’d be working in the G.O.D. (Great Out Doors) with more experienced, enthusiastic young people, but also because it was in the New Forest, a wilderness I’ve not much explored (despite the fact it’s only forty minutes down the road).

Unfortunately, there was an outbreak of Covid at the school and they had to cancel. A shocking reminder that shit is still very much going down and we are lucky to be able to get outdoors whenever and however we can. Make the most of it, people.

Cumulative Days of Adventure so far: 28

According to my optimistic Equinox Update, I’d been hoping to get through 36 DoA by this point. Given that four days of outdoor work have been cancelled over the past couple of weeks, I’m not too far off my ambition.

July to September

This is where the battle will be won and lost. On 17 July, I’ll be resuming my Round Britain cycle, riding around Wales for a couple of weeks. My vague route is on Komoot.

NOTICE: If you live in Wales or have any recommendations for the route, please reply to this email or leave a comment. Thanks!

Then, in August and September, I’ll be part of the core team for Thighs of Steel’s epic world record-breaking Spell It Out ride across the south coast, helping make Refugees Welcome. (You’re invited too, btw.)

By the time I get home, I could be on 75 DoA. That still leaves a pretty stiff target of eight days for each of the winter months—but I’m hoping that my soon-to-be-booked Hill and Moorland Leader assessment will light a fire under my efforts to get outside a-venturing.

Do it while you can.

Spell It Out

This summer, I’ll be cycling about 2,400km with Thighs of Steel, following a route that quite literally makes REFUGEES WELCOME, while fundraising £100,000 for Choose Love.

This is the route we’ll be cycling

In a bold attempt to get loads of mercenary publicity for the cause, we’re also aiming to break an official Guinness World Record along the way.

You are invited to join us for 100km or more. I know of at least three readers of this humble newsletter who are committed. Together we can do more.

If you’d like to donate, then go ahead and click here (put your solidarity archetype into the comments!). Your money will go straight to grassroots organisations offering refugees the warm welcome that our whiffy government withholds.

🍲 £10 could pay for culturally appropriate food supplies (including fresh fruit and veg) for a family of 4 for a week

🚌 £50 could pay for destitution support for an asylum seeker, helping with essential costs like food, sanitary products, bus tickets and a phone top-up

⚖️ £250 could pay to run a drop-in centre for a day, providing vital, free legal support to asylum seekers

🧸 £500 could contribute to the salary of an expert caseworker supporting unaccompanied children as they start to rebuild their lives in the UK

Unexpected tea room The unexpected tea room is my favourite part of any English journey. The tea room that hoves into view at exactly the moment it shouldn’t, in exactly the place it shouldn’t, but, inevitably, must.

[Poetry is] a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating

The walk ended, as all walks must, at an unexpected tea room in East Coker, being persistently undercharged for an homemade fig quiche, a vegan hot dog (with red onion pickle) and pots of tea in the sunshine.

The unexpected tea room is my favourite part of any English journey. The tea room that hoves into view at exactly the moment it shouldn’t, in exactly the place it shouldn’t, but, inevitably, must.

The contradiction, you would think, must be unprofitable for these scions of Douglas Adams’ Improbability Drive, where the laziest deus ex machina is our hard-working deity in a world predicated against the odds.

But this contradiction is exactly why these unexpected English tea rooms thrive and, being so unexpected, can be utterly relied upon.

Unexpected Four Quart£!5

Like Douglas Adams, T.S. Eliot also understood the unexpectedness of the English journey. Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding: the titles in Four Quartets are themselves a journey.

Burnt Norton, East Coker and Little Gidding are old time English thatch and stone, dependable, ecumenical, wrapped in a comfort blanket of bucolic countryside.

The Dry Salvages, a garbled hearing of ‘les trois sauvages’—‘the three savages’, are a rock formation off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachussetts, infamous for wrecking fishing vessels in violent storms. The unexpected.

Four Quartets was written as Eliot entered later middle age and discovered that, contrary to the disinformation put about by stairlift manufacturers, there is nothing of value in the ‘autumnal serenity and … wisdom of age’.

Elders, Eliot reports with growing consternation, have no great secrets to hand down to us, passing on only a ‘receipt for deceit’, and their age begets, not wisdom, but folly, fear and frenzy.

‘It was not,’ Eliot writes, ‘what one had expected’.

Unexpected walk

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

My knowledge, derived from experience, of the fields and byways of the English lowlands and its villages, deceived the unfamiliar into the familiar.

Garlic, beech and bluebell

Evercreech, in Thursday’s six o’clock electric heat, is Midsomer by another name. The church, the stone, the inn, the fields cut about with hedgerows, ageless villagers taking a turn or pottering at the gate, jumpers folded over shoulders. It’s a pattern I’ve seen repeated in villages from Burnt Norton in the high Cotswolds, all the way through Gloucestershire and into Somerset.

 

In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.

But there is no pattern, for the pattern is new in every moment.

Walking in summer is not like walking in winter. Over four days of almost unbroken sunshine, I wasn’t expecting to get my feet so sodden that they wrinkled pink. But the lush young grass and cow parsley up to my ears conspired with the dewy mornings to drench my boots in a refined distillation.

With untroubled views over open country, garlic, beech and bluebell, I wasn’t expecting navigation to be so hard. The footpaths were untrampled, unreadable in places. Every field a question mark, as rights became wrongs of way, running into deadend brambles, thickets of thistles, shin-raking nettles or electric fences of cattlebeasts.

Unexpected cattlebeasts

In the field, human or beast, winter is a time for hibernation. But the hot stink of early summer, human or beast, tickles the hormones. The key is to distance yourself from biologically inaccurate catch-all terms like ‘cow’ and to correctly classify your cattlebeasts—before unlatching the field gate.

Dairy mothers are placid, calmly curious, watchful in the afternoon. But adolescents, the heifers, are troubled, unsupervised, driven to distraction from distraction by distraction—and keen to test their herd immunity against interfering walkers.

Chased, chastened and thrown over another indeterminate field crossing. Walkers 0, Heifers 14

Unexpected performance

All this time, I’ve been talking backwards, from tea room in reverse.

The journey actually began on Wednesday evening in Bath, where I had been to see Ralph Fiennes give a highly improbable performance of Four Quartets.

What were the chances that a famous actor would alight upon the idea of a staged reading of a remote poetry cycle, written by an author long-dead, performed in a socially-distanced theatre only a quarter full, in a town where I had elected, before Christmas, to break my pilgrimage walk based on the titles of that same obscure poem?

The chances, both Adams and Eliot concur, were so improbable as to be almost certain.

Having listened to Alec Guinness’s somewhat sententious BBC recital, I wasn’t expecting something so conversational. But Fiennes made total sense of Eliot’s variations and abrupt shifts in tone. Like someone trying to explain the ineffable. Which is exactly what he was. For the first time, lines I’d never fully understood came swimming into clear focus.

I think he was a little ill, however. 75 minutes into the 77 minute performance, shining with rheumy fever, Fiennes took a seat at a table and you could almost see the finish line reflected in his mind’s eye. He galloped onward through the final stanza—

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started…

—and then he stopped.

A dramatic pause, we thought. He closed his eyes. A very dramatic pause. A pause so dramatic that it burst beyond the confines of the auditorium and bent the laws of space-time.

Then he began muttering the lines to himself, trying to regather the unspooled thread. The most famous line, perhaps, in the whole poem. Brainwaves pulsed from audience to actor. One man could bear the tension no longer and cried from the stalls: ‘And know…’

Fiennes opened his eyes, switched on.

Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Fare forward, voyagers!

~

Huge thanks to mum, who joined me for the last couple of days of the walk. Thanks for sharing the footpaths, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, your snacks and your company!

‘Not too far from the yew tree’: The Church of St Michael and All Angels, East Coker, where Andrew Eliott was baptized in 1627, before emigrating to America and progenerating the line that led, eventually, to T.S.

Broken in Finding suppleness of mind and body in post-lockdown Dartmoor

Here in the UK, this was the week that we unlocked a little more. As I write, a paraglider drifts past my eighth-floor window. On my run this morning, the promenade was spilling over onto the sand and the bucket and spade buccaneers were doing a fast trade.

I’m late coming to you this week because I spent the last five days getting sunburnt on Dartmoor. As some of you know, I’m slowly working my way towards my Hill and Moorland Leader Award, chipping away at the forty logged walks needed before my assessment.

But the weather was so good this week that I worried my four hikes weren’t particularly good practice for the ultimate examination that will doubtless be undertaken in the filthy conditions for which Dartmoor is famous. Nevertheless, I’ve got only sixteen more training walks to go!

All my Dartmoor hikes. Map created thanks to Jonathan O’Keefe’s amazing Strava integration. Incidentally, you can see the pros and cons of car ownership: helping me access more remote parts of the moor, but forcing circular routes.

What I really valued about this week, however, was the feeling of breaking myself in again after a winter of semi-enforced inactivity. The sun rising over the horizon every blue-sky morning took on metaphorical overtones as I stood out in the chill dawn with a mug of tea and the birdsong.

Day three was the one that really did it for me. On day one, a fifteen kilometre tramp to the rising of the Avon river, I was powered by first day enthusiasm. But my enthusiasm drained overnight and, on day two, my feet dragged. I only survived a tour of Bellever and Laughter thanks to the morning addition of a hearty walking companion.

Resting atop Bellever, we watch a young boy hopping around the enormous boulders of granite, chasing the family dog. Mother, leaning back after lunch and looking up to us for solidarity, says: ‘Be careful—remember he’s got four legs, not two.’ But boy scrambles after dog. ‘These are too easy,’ he complains. ‘Can we find harder ones?’

Out loud, I suggest Great Mis Tor and the Devil’s Frying Pan, but what I’m wondering inside is whether I’ll ever have that boy’s energy again.

I perked up later in the evening after lighting the wood burner, but I was concerned for day three: did I have the strength to hike alone for four or more hours? Especially as, for some unknown reason, I’d decided to hike up the steep face of the moor’s highest peak, Yes Tor. It was yes again to my friend’s sound advice: ‘Go slow and take plenty of breaks.’

Trundling up the slopes from Meldon Reservoir, I ran into packs of army recruits, themselves making the most of a lifting lockdown. But as I clumped down the other side of High Willhays, I had the moor to myself, with nary a sheep to be spotted.

Somewhere between the solitude and the sunshine, the air and the exercise, I noticed that I hadn’t felt better in months. The stiffness of my mind and body had given way to suppleness, broken in.

When I made it back to base, after five and a half hours, eighteen kilometres and over six hundred metres of climbing, I felt stronger than when I’d left that morning.

The next day, we stopped at Haytor Rocks and spent the heat haze of Friday afternoon clambering around a mini version of the Ten Tors. Five hours down the trail, number ten on the horizon: from my lookout post in the clear blue sky, I see myself leaping from granite to granite, forever young in springtime.

Thanks to G.C. and B.Q. for fine company and penguin packets.

The sun rising over Bellever, seen from Powdermills

100 Days of Adventure: Equinox Update

Way back, you may remember, I resolved to aim for 100 Days of Adventure in 2021. In the spirit of accountability, I thought I’d better report back on how it’s going. So here’s my Spring Equinox DOA impact report, starting with THE HARD STATS.

Cumulative Days of Adventure so far: 1 (one)

No surprises here: I am well behind schedule. It’s been a frighteningly quiet start to the year in terms of adventures—primarily because, here in the UK, we are still under a ‘stay at home’ order. As a result, I have been staying at home—not the most adventurous of places, unless you count my daring habit of wearing the same shirt four days running.

My single day of adventure this year was a cheeky visit to the New Forest for an afternoon of drawing. I didn’t want to have nothing to report, but, to be honest, I’m not even sure it counts as adventurous under my own definition:

Did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?

It did feel significant, but maybe that was because I hadn’t been further than five miles from my house in months. If I’m stuck on 99 come 31 December, I’ll count it.

Positivity

April is looking much more optimistic. The ban on staying overnight somewhere fun in the UK is lifted on 12 April and so on 12 April, all being well, I will go to Dartmoor for a week of walking—possibly even with friends!

This kind of excitement has been unheard of since December, so I am indeed excited. I’m following Dartmoor with my first weekend of outdoor instructing work and then immediately going into a five-day bushcraft course.

Without wanting to tempt fate, I spent a happy five minutes sketching out how this year might look, if I were to meet my goal of 100 Days of Adventure:

  • April: 12 (already booked!)
  • May and June: 12 each
  • July and August: 20 each (hopefully cycle touring)
  • September: 12
  • October, November and December: 4 each

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that everything will go pear-shaped and we’ll spend the next six months honing our indoor adventure game. But it’s also perfectly possible that, confined for so long, this could be our greatest year of adventure ever.

If you’re hoping to be more adventurous this year, I’d love to know—how are you getting on? Anything planned for unlockdown?

Brutal! Look what happens to a bike after 18,000 miles On the importance of stuff

It is with some pride that I announce that Martin, my 2011 Marin San Anselmo touring bike, has finally met his match. At some point in the last few months, the chain stay of his frame cracked and snapped in two.

The fact that neither I nor a professional bike mechanic noticed anything wrong apart from a strange skipping in the chain is testament to how amazing bikes are. Martin was literally snapped in half and I was still more or less happily pootling around.

It’s impossible to say how far Martin and I have travelled together since I bought him in 2011, but a rough estimate using data from various bike computers suggests somewhere in the region of 18,200 miles—more than enough to qualify as a ride around the world.

The first picture I have of Martin, only a few hours old. Look how shiny!

Martin: A timeline of adventure

Note: if you’re not at all interested in bike touring or my holiday snaps, then feel free to skip ahead to the next subtitle…

Our first journey together, nine years ago, was around the coastline of Britain. Two months of putting one wheel in front of another, wild camping together in fields, under hedges, in forests and on canal towpaths.

A year later, we repeated the trick in Tunisia, cycling through olive and palm groves, between salt lakes, past Roman ruins, and through two different kinds of desert to the sand seas of the Sahara.

The largest salt pan in the Sahara: Chott el Djerid in south Tunisia. Martin took me there in 2012.

In the wet summer of 2016, Martin (now officially christened Martin) rode in duet with a vintage racer called Joy from London to Vienna. We matched tracks from the South Downs to the Bavarian Plateau, from the banks of the River Thames to the vineyard sprawl of the Danube. Our accommodation, still wild, upgraded to hilltop castles and monasteries.

Camping at Stift Melk, Austria. The abbey is famous for its 18th century frescos and the 11th century tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau, an Irish pilgrim mistaken for a spy, tortured and hanged. Martin took me there in 2016.

More recently, Martin found true companionship in the community of bikes that is Thighs of Steel. In 2018 and 2019, we covered over 2,000 miles together across Europe, discovering new countries, new friends and new talents. Martin got himself a chainring downgrade which helped us over the mountains. In Athens, he even got himself a blue tattoo, of which he is still very proud.

Climbing up into the mountains of Romania with Thighs of Steel in 2018. Martin carried me there.

Finally, in our swansong year, Martin learnt the healthy pleasures of daily rides during a catastrophic pandemic, playing his part in the incredible Around the World project that raised over £130,000 for refugees. And, of course, in the lockdown-lifted summer, Martin came full circle: imprinting the south coast with his tyre tracks exactly nine years after he last toured Britain.

Lands End 2020 (L) and 2011 (R). Martin carried me there—twice.

Consumerism gives stuff a bad rep

I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: we’re living through a pandemic. My old bike is broken. I’ll get another one. It’s no big deal. But I’ve never had nearly as much fun with any other object as I’ve had with Martin.

When I flipped him over and saw the thick black crack against his mud and sand-flecked white skin, I felt like I’d slipped into an alternate universe.

A broken frame was nothing more than we deserved: nine years of high-impact, heavyweight touring caught up with the partnership. It was bound to happen one day or another. I was lucky that it didn’t happen while I was out touring—although, on reflection, maybe it did.

Throwaway consumerism has, I think, dirtied the purity of possession. Many people, myself included, have hankered after ascetic minimalism: a glorious rejection of the waste and want that modern capitalism has brought us.

But it’s worth remembering why certain convivial objects are precious to their owners—and perhaps to hold all our purchases to a similar standard of value.

What did Martin ever do for us?

A bicycle extends our human frailties. We become bionic, able to move many times faster and further than we ever could on foot, and much more efficiently. I have done things with Martin that would have been unimaginable without him.

I’m thinking, of course, of the life-altering adventures I mentioned earlier, but I’m also thinking of our day-to-day. Martin made it possible for me to live an expansive twenty-first century lifestyle without ever needing a car or taking an aeroplane flight.

Every week, without complaint, Martin lugs my heavy shopping bags five kilometres across town. Together we’ve visiting sixteen different countries, excluding England, Scotland and Wales. Every day he teaches me something about perseverance, self-reliance and community.

Martin’s made me oodles of new friends and ridden me to work, school and social events—especially during my years in London, where the cost and patchy provision of transport makes travel in the city such an unequal battle. (Hence why The Bike Project gives free bikes to refugees.)

But at what cost?

You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve run the numbers… 🤓 The original Marin San Anselmo cost me £488.99—still the most I’ve ever spent on a single item. But I’ve spent many times more on maintenance and spare parts over the years. To be precise, over his entire lifetime, owning and maintaining Martin has cost me £3,323.

That’s a heck of a lot of money, but—get this—counting from the day I bought him to the day he broke down at the end of my cycle around southwest Britain comes to exactly 3,323 days. Martin cost me one pound for every day that I owned him. Or about 18 pence per mile.

That, to me, is incredible value. There aren’t many other possession that have given me so much. Certainly some of my books, my Alphasmart Neo2 typewriter, yoga mat, guitar, teapot, plants and running shoes. Not much else that I can think of.

What about you? What possessions bring outsized value into your life? I’d love to hear from you—especially if you hold all your purchases to this standard.

On the naming of things

It is only right that we celebrate our most highly prized possessions—and, yes, give them petnames. I never loved Martin so much as when he was baptized Martin and grew a personality. My girlfriend at the time misread the brand name ‘Marin’ and contrasted his blocky functionality with the sleek lines of her own vintage racer.

Giving names to inanimate objects might sound silly, but I think it helps combat throwaway consumerism. A name and a personality is the beginning of a story and, when we tell stories about our favourite possessions, we honour, not only their service, but also the ingenuity, engineering and natural resources that went into their construction.

And this ingenuity and engineering is what’s so beautiful about the design of a bicycle. When Martin’s chain stay snapped, what did I lose, exactly? Why didn’t I feel this way after the rear mech sheared off, or all those times my chain snapped or wore out?

Indeed: what is left of that 2011 Marin San Anselmo that I bought from the Cycle Surgery in Camden Town nine years ago? Nothing more than the handlebars, forks, frame and rack. Everything else has been replaced—even the name.

Stuff has a soul

This reminds me of the ancient philosophical conundrum known as the Ship of Theseus: if you replace, one by one, all the planks of a ship until there are none left of the original, is it still the same ship?

The same metaphysical question is asked of Abraham Lincoln’s axe, which needed its handle and then its blade replacing. It’s a question that could be asked of ourselves: we shed our skin every few weeks and every ten years we get a new skeleton.

But as well as posing an insoluble philosphical question about the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus prompts us to think about what happens at the end of our stuff’s life.

Aristotle decided that the fully-replaced ship was indeed still Theseus’s. And if a yes is good enough for one of the more practical ancient philosophers then it’s good enough for me.

A great ship is a great ship forever. A great axe is a great axe forever. A great bike is a great bike forever, even as the parts are replaced one by one. Because well-designed stuff has something about it that endures. We could call it a soul.

So I’ll keep what I have of Martin—the original handlebars, forks and rack, as well as all the other components I’ve bought more recently—and replace the broken frame as I have replaced bent wheels, snapped chains and worn brake blocks.

The bike is gone, long live the bike!

What now for Martin Jnr?

Thankfully, a friend has very generously leant me her spare bike to ride (thanks GC!) until I’ve found a new frame for Martin Jnr. One of the more alluring options is the idea of spending this lockdown building my own bamboo bike frame.

I first came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club ten years ago, when I had neither the money nor the cycling experience to justify investing £300 in a wooden bike. But now… Now they do ‘home build kits’—surely it’s meant to be!

VIDEO: Four Quartets Featuring TS Eliot, Alec Guinness and a cat named Furniss

I made you a New Year present! It’s a kind of a poetic slideshow of photographs and audio from the Four Quartets walk that I did before Christmas. Words by T.S. Eliot, narrated by Alec Guinness.

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world

Enjoy!

100 Days of Adventure

As you know by now, I love this time of year because of the artificial opportunity for self-reflection and, above all, STATS. One of the difficulties of STATS, however, is making sure that the thing you are measuring is a genuine correlate of the thing that is actually important.

For example, it’s easy for me to throw out a STAT like, ‘Last year I spent 2,117 hours on my computer’, but does that shockingly high number actually tell me anything shocking about how I spend my time? Only maybe.

I do a lot of things on my computer and, although some of my screentime is complete garbage and makes me hate myself, some of it is actually very important to me—like writing you this letter.

So yesterday I struck upon another metric that was relatively easy to collect from my diary and directly measures something that is extremely important to me. In many ways, it’s the equal and opposite to my existing measure of time spent in front of screens. Ready?

Introducing: Days Outside on Adventures (DOA)

DOA is simple to calculate. Every day of the year gets a binary Y/N score: did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure? Then you count the Ys and—voilà—you have your DOA score for that year.

SIDE NOTE: ‘Outside’ is deliberately wide open because I’m a firm believer that adventure can be found anywhere. ‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because DOA is a simple binary measure that should work for everyone.

‘An adventure’ for an experienced touring cyclist will look very different to ‘an adventure’ for someone who’s never camped before. Likewise, ‘a significant chunk of the day’ could be a very different timespan for a freelancer with no dependents, compared to someone with a 9-5 job and two kids. The point of DOA is not competition between adventurers, but a measure of outdoor adventure against your past and future selves.

Oh, and, yes, I am aware that DOA also stands for Dead On Arrival, a definition only metaphorically compatible with the very best adventures.

DOA 2020

In 2020, my DOA score was 67. To give you an idea of what qualifies as adventure for me, those 67 DOAs included:

This was about 18 percent of my days in the three months pre-Covid and, happily, about 18 percent of my days in the nine months post-Covid. Hopefully that proves that days of adventure aren’t impossible to find, even in a pandemic world. We just have to choose our moments carefully.

67 days also compares favourably with 2019, when my DOA score was approximately 56. I say ‘approximately’ because these things are difficult to measure in retrospect and, depending on my definition, I could easily add many of the 50 days that I spent travelling in Italy and Greece.

DOA 2021

However you measure them, I would like more of them. In fact, I would like a lot more of them. How many more? I hear you ask. Do you really expect me to be that silly?

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s the utter absurdity of ever expecting plans to turn out how you imagined.

So here goes nothing!

In 2021, I would like to have 100 days of adventure. If you like, that could be a slogan: 100 Days of Adventure.

I’m going to stop writing now, before I get carried away and do something silly like buy the domain name or design a logo.

I hope that your 2021 is ram-packed with days of adventure— and I hope too that our adventures intersect, or that we can at least share stories with each other.

Distraction by distraction Four Quartets (Part The Second)

Last week, I quoted a section of Four Quartets in which TS Eliot bemoans how easily human beings can be distracted (by ‘men and bits of paper’), away from our real business of connecting with the universe.

At least, that’s my reading of these (shamefully truncated) lines from Burnt Norton:

Here is a place of disaffection
[…] neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
[…] Nor darkness to purify the soul
[…] Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration

Both daylight (plenitude) and darkness (vacancy) can reveal to us the wonders of the universe, but in a ‘place of disaffection’—later Eliot specifically refers to London—we are more likely to turn instead to the distraction of meaningless fripperies.

In 1936, the great enemy of concentration was ‘bits of paper’. Today I can think of a surely greater distraction that spends a lot of time in our pockets, but much more time in our hands, causing neck pain without respite.

Eliot’s antidote to the alienation from nature caused by modernity is ‘destitution of all property’ and ‘evacuation of the world of fancy’. Walking through day and night with provisions and accommodation on my back, while not as extreme as Eliot’s asceticism, was a timely reacquaintance with what’s most important.

For me, that means noticing: noticing the details in my existence. Like this moment, described by TS Eliot a hundred years ago, but which the universe brought to me only on Monday:

Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes

A moment of stillness, once noticed, that enriches the whole. Until my belly starts to rumble and I need a pee.

Burnt Norton and the Catswold Way Four Quartets (Part The First)

Shouldering a much-too-heavy backpack, I finally set foot in the Cotswolds on Monday afternoon. Four days, and 131,000 metres of claggy stomping later, I arrived at Bath Abbey.

It was sort of a pandemic-friendly hiking of the Cotswold Way national trail, skirting the Tier 3 troubles of South Gloucestershire. An alternative trail demands an alternative name: I’m going with the Catswold Way.

His name was Furniss and he can be snuggled with at the foot of the hill leading up to Belas Knapp Longbarrow.

Four Quartets (Part The First)

This week’s tramping of the Catswold Way was originally conceived as the most pretentious of walks. I originally intended to connect, by way of pilgrimage, the locations that inspired each of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about: TS Eliot was a poet. His Four Quartets are a collection of four poems, written between 1936 and 1942, in which he tries to figure out humankind’s relationship to time and the universe.

If that’s not pretentious enough for you, then let me add that Four Quartets opens with two quotations from Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher. Untranslated.*

τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή

And, I hate to tell you, in all that follows there ain’t much rhyming.

Having said that, although Four Quartets might represent something of a high watermark for pretentious poetry, it’s still bloody marvellous. This, for example, is one of my favourite passages of poetry, rhymed or not, by anyone, anywhere:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

* Asterisk

I’ll save you a search and translate those fragments of Heraclitus. One note: ‘logos’ is what the Ancient Greeks called the divine principle that animates the universe. It’s often ill-translated as ‘reason’ or ‘logic’, a translation that renders Heraclitus’s aphorism pretty much meaningless. On with the two translations:

Although the logos is universal, the many live as if they had a wisdom all of their own

The way upward and the way downward is one and the same

Huge fan of Heraclitus, me.

Your turn

You can read Four Quartets for yourself here. But poems are meant to be read out loud, so you might as well get Alec Guinness to read them for you. That recording gave me goose-flesh (admittedly, that might have been because I was hiking through a muddy field in winter).

BBC 4

Conveniently enough for travel writers looking for destinations, TS Eliot titled each of his four poems after the specific location that inspired the verse.

After a little research, I learnt that the Burnt Norton of the first quartet is a manor house sitting at the northern end of the Cotswold Way. The second quartet is named for East Coker, a village in Somerset. The final poem takes its title from a village in Cambridgeshire: Little Gidding.

So far, all so very Merrie Englande. I gleefully imagined the highbrow BBC 4 series that would surely follow, as I made a learned pilgrimage between Thomas Stearns Eliot’s four poetical inspirations.

The television cameras would focus on a boot splashing into a muddy puddle, scattering a reflection of the stars, as my voiceover gently muses on how Eliot’s masterpiece, penned during a world war, can help modern humans make sense of time and the universe during a wholly different kind of calamity.

Then I looked up the third of the poems: Dry Salvages. Dry Salvages? What the actual fuck. It’s in Massachusetts, USA.

Walk

Picking through the wreckage of my documentary dreams, I reassembled some semblance of the idea. Scaling down the grandeur of my vision, I decided instead to walk from the manor of Burnt Norton all the way through to East Coker, where TS Eliot’s ashes are interred.

As you can tell, I haven’t finished this walk yet. From Bath Abbey to the church at East Coker, another 80km awaits (restrictions permitting) after Christmas.

So it was that I began: stepping off a train, then stepping onto a bus, before finally stepping off the bus (a few miles further on than I should have done) and onto the road from Chipping Campden to the stately manor of Burnt Norton.

My pack was full (inadvisedly so), my bivvy bag was dry and my feet were not yet hobbling, not yet throbbing.

Burnt Norton

It turns out that, for someone who does it on the regular, I’m a bad trespasser. Burnt Norton, you see, is privately owned.

Now, you might not think of TS Eliot as being particularly anti-establishment, but a century ago, he wilfully ignored the PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs that guard Lord Harrowby’s property and took a leisurely turn around the rose garden with his lover. (Side note: under a proposed new law, Eliot might today have been criminalised.)

The famous rose garden even made it into the poem:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Absenting the lover, I would still follow in Eliot’s footsteps and discreetly trespass. There followed a nerve-jangling yomp through quiet woodland that crackled underfoot, doubtless alerting the trigger-happy gamekeepers to my intrusion.

This felt nothing like Eliot’s ‘cheeky’ trespass. In the poem, his walkers are drawn on into the garden by ‘the deception of the thrush’:

dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air

I felt neither dignified nor invisible. The pressure over the dead leaves of this galumphing hiker made crispcracks that, at every footfall, had pheasants yawking up into the trees in a fluster of wings.

The path sank slowly into thick mud and wound past a gallery of shooting lookouts: would my backpack be mistaken for the hind quarters of a deer?

As it turned out: no. The trespass was all absolutely terrifying and all absolutely fine. In fact, the only thing that went wrong was my map-reading and I ended up parading up and down the Lord and Lady’s expensively-filled car park, in full view of their drawing room windows.

So much for discretion.

Burnt Norton manor house, as captured through the branches of a fallen oak by a nervous trespassing photographer

This Means Moor

Dartmoor demands from its ramblers an ancient glossary: kists, reaves and leats; logan, staddle and bond stones; clitter, cleaves and clappers; growan, pluton and tors. The map could be read as a found poem; the land invites explorations historical, geological and botanical.

Here you’ll find not only the eponymous moorland, but also featherbed bog, heathland and ancient oak forests. At least 13 rivers arise on Dartmoor. Rivers arise—wonderful.

Waterfall on the East Dart River, one of the many that arise on the moor

If you live in the southeast of England, then you don’t have ready access to wilderness—and you haven’t done since the Industrial Revolution. The closest for many is Dartmoor: 368 square miles of granite, an intrusive layer of plutonic rock; crystallised magma cooling into geology a sprightly 280 million years ago.

Wilderness is a charm. I write these words sitting in a box. Natural light does shine through the transparent panes on one edge of the box, but I’m isolated from the outdoors: not even a scent of nature can penetrate my sealed box. I had to buy an atomiser to pump out the restorative smell of Scots Pine.

My senses are no use inside the box, they can only cause discomfort—like when the rubbish truck goes past or the gardeners turn on their leaf-blowers. Inside the box, textures are polished smooth and geometry is planed square: these cushions, the carpet under my feet, the wood of the desk.

Unless I’m cooking, eating or bathing, this box holds my senses in suspension so that I can tether myself to the abstractions of the knowledge economy. The painted box makes me feel pinned, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

When I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin?

Well, I say that Prufrock should begin by leaving Middle England. Dartmoor, ho!

Wild camping among the ruins of Foggintor quarry, granite from which helped build Nelson’s Column

Wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. It’s where our senses can hardly believe their luck: gorging on stiff smells and stubborn ground. It’s where we revel in the full breadth of our human faculties: endurance, strength, ingenuity, forbearance, comradeship, imagination and foresight.

We seek the wilderness for respite from the human mania for order and abstraction. The welcoming wilderness of Dartmoor, all jagged sights and weathered touch, feels orders of entropy more chaotic than my little box—but even this alien wasteland isn’t there in spite of us humans; it’s there because of us humans.

A distinctive Dartmoor contradiction of ancient stone circle surrounded by modern pine plantation, Fernworthy Forest

Ten thousand years ago, I wouldn’t have found the barren land I trudge through today. Instead I would have been thrashing through the darkness of vast oak, hazel and elm forests, thorns clutching at my sides. It’s hard to believe, but this blasted heath once wore a technicolour dreamcoat of trees, covering all but the highest tors over 460m.

Indeed, the richness of the land and its warmer-than-now climate drew Mesolithic, Neolithic and then Bronze Age farmers and Dartmoor was once busily populated with industrious agriculturalists.

It was these happy-go-lucky folk who did the hard work of forest clearance, setting fires to burn clearings in the canopy for crop fields, which they parcelled off with stone wall reaves. On the high moor, where agriculturists fear to tread, cattle and sheep were grazed, happily gobbling up any green shoots of recovery in the forest.

These civilisations were a triumph, each successive generation a right winner. Writing of the landscape transformation in England more broadly, Oliver Rackham in The History of the Countryside goes so far as to claim:

to convert millions of acres of wildwood into farmland was unquestionably the greatest achievement of any of our ancestors

But with every tree cut down, landscape erosion tilted the ecology toward invisible processes that couldn’t be handled with the woodcutter’s axe. Over thousands of years of human occupation, the soil gradually acidified and the decaying vegetation of the dying trees became the peat bogs for which Dartmoor is now famous.

The climate changed, becoming wetter and colder, and gradually the people abandoned their huts and longhouses. And what they left for their ancestors was a wasteland: bare scraps of ancient oak woodland in an exposed landscape that is playground to the west wind.

The classic view of Dartmoor: pony, clitter (rubble), Bronze Age menhir (standing stone) and an awful lot of exposed moor and heathland. And the television tower

But our forebears left something else behind as well. Something special. Today we recognise how special this special land is with a scattering of special titles: we call them Special Areas of Conservation.

There are 256 Special Areas of Conservation in England and Dartmoor boasts no fewer than four of them: Northern Atlantic wet heaths; European dry heaths; blanket bogs and old sessile oak woods—the latter includes the stunted oaks and layered lichen of venerable Wistman’s Wood.

English oak growing among the moss-coated clitter of venerable Wistman’s Wood. Moss grew so thickly on the trunks that we found filmy ferns thriving at head height

If our forebears hadn’t stripped Dartmoor, would any of this wilderness be here? Would we find rare stag’s-horn clubmoss on the heath or Sphagnum imbricatum growing on the bogs? Would we have this sanctuary for the otters, the cuckoos and the horseshoe bats? And would I be here, unboxing myself?

On average, there’s two and a half times more rainfall on the moor than on the nearby Exe Estuary; I had four days of solid sunshine, only one where the weather got ‘a bit thick’.

I told you I was lucky.

Above: Maidenhair spleenwort, a wee fern, growing between the cracks in an old stone bridge across the Cholake River

Philoxenia around Britain Huge thanks to everyone who hosted me or simply made me smile

Philoxenia is the Greek idea of generosity and friendship towards strangers. During my cycle ride around the south of Britain in the summer of 2020, I was the happy recipient of many, many acts of generosity. This page is so that I can thank some of them publicly.

Thank you!

Part 1: The Southeast

On departure

Huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.

Week 1

Huge thank you to everyone who has made the last week such a friendly place. Especially to Yes Tribe Michelle, Rob Wills and Annette Coppin for heartful hospitality in Brighton and Hastings.

Week 2

Thank you, thank you, thank you this week to my hosts and hospitable friends, old and new: Tom and Claire, Anna, Thom and Anna, Claire, Naomi, Ben, Annie and Poppy, Fern and Beth and Lucy.

Major major thanks to Anna Hughes, who not only guided me to a peaceful sleeping spot in Epping Forest, but also took the time to record a great interview about Flight Free UK—only for me to mess up the recording. Sorry!

Week 3

Huge thanks to the hospitable friends and strangers who have made the last seven days such a delight: Pandora, the Wickers family, Sarah and Chloe, John the ferryman, Lesley the artist, Debbie and Steve, Duncan of the incredible Dunx Cycles, Peter Langford the world record holder, and the extraordinary, expecting Matt and Lisa.

Thank you also to all the patient woodland creatures who put up with me wild camping in their homes. Even the ants.

But I reserve extra extra special thanks for my final hosts on this tour of southeast England: Documentally and his wonderfully generous family. Camping in a friend’s back garden was a celebratory end to this part of my journey and I was overwhelmed with too many kindnesses to mention.

Part 2: The Southwest

Week 4

Huge thanks this week to: David and Margaret, esteemed parents of The Tim Traveller, for a lovely cup of tea – only nine years delayed. David, a retired Anglican vicar, told me how Covid-inspired Zoom services are now spreading The Word to people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a church. In every crisis, an opportunity.

Thanks to Will and Daryl, the two tourers from Lincoln, who brightened my day with enthusiasm for life on the road. And then slagged off Exeter cathedral: ‘It’s not fit to wash Lincoln’s boots!’

Above: Three cycle cap models and, in the background, an okay cathedral.

Mighty, mighty thanks to Exeter Paul, a truly generous host who saved me from a thunderstorm and revealed the true meanings behind what I called ‘the racist elephant’.

Thanks also to the many other people who have shared fleeting wisdom and encouragement along the track. You enrich my days.

Finally, and above all, to the family Charles for a mid-cycling holiday in the heat.

Week 5

Enormo-thanks this week to Andy and family for hosting me in Mevagissey and for keeping me company on an eventful ride to Helston: two ferries and a change of tyre.

Gigantic thanks also to the Granvilles of Helston for two nights of warmth and record-breaking hospitality. As ever.

Thanks also to the highways and byways of this southwest corner of Britain. We’ve been safe together so far – long may it continue!

Week 6

A short list of deep gratitude to the people who were inordinately kind to a lost and bedraggled stranger:

  • Ricky the first-day-back otherwise-empty bus driver who took me and a very sorry-state Martin from Chew Magna to Keynsham.
  • Paul and Annie (and the two dogs) for goose-field camping, nettle wine, a pick-n-mix feast, with cups of tea looking out into cloudbursts. I found this loving home on Warmshowers.org—a community of legends who open up their doors to touring cyclists all over the world.
  • Peter and family (and two further dogs) overlooking the stormy Somerset Levels, who shared their medieval banquet and gave me a night’s dominion over their piano room and airing cupboard.
  • The wondrous people of Tudor Road in Bristol who warmed my cockles and combed my hair when all was tangled.
  • Storm Francis also made me feel welcome, blowing me all the way up the north west of the country to refuge. Bus shelters, cafe awnings and spreading oaks became dear friends.
  • Final thanks to the Granvilles, who teach me more about philoxenia every time I bugle my way into their presence. Big love.

Cycling around Britain: Why is this happening? 2,210km DONE // Southeast and southwest Britain COMPLETE

On Tuesday, I kind of rolled into Bristol, after cycling 1,012 kilometres around the southwest of the country. That means that, since the easing of lockdown, I’ve pedalled the whole of the south of England: from Britain’s most easterly point at Ness Point in Lowestoft to its joint-most photographed signpost at Land’s End.

Combined, the two halves of the tour—southeast and southwest—have gobbled up 2,210 kilometres’ worth of tyre tracks. But one statistic is suggestive of the difference in my cycling experience. In the east of the country, my thousand-plus kilometres involved a little over 6,000 metres of climbing. In the west, my thousand kilometres dragged me up over 10,000 metres.

Update: Strava data puts my southeast ride at 7,742m of elevation and the southwest at 15,444m—almost exactly double the climbing over a slightly shorter distance. This data is much closer to my felt experience, but then I would say that!

The take home message is tourers beware! Komoot, Strava and RideWithGPS each appear to use very different maps to calculate elevation data, with variations of up to 50 percent in some parts of the world. That’s huge. This StackExchange post from 2013 concludes that Strava was the most trustworthy of those apps tested—but that might well depend on where you’re riding.

Devon and Cornwall are hilly: 10,000 metres is a Ben Nevis on top of a Mount Everest. But the statistics don’t really tell the full story either: these hills are sharp, up to 33 percent in places, on narrow, winding roads, with descents too dangerous to build momentum for the next.

Hence my twin fascinations this week with a) proper bike gears and b) everything happening for a reason. Hopefully the promise of b) will keep you reading even if a) makes your eyes twitch with boredom.

My round Britain rides since 17 July. You can scan more detail on Komoot

Why me, why now?

Eighteen kilometres from the finish line, riding in merriment along the shore of Chew Valley Lake. I was making good time—a friend called to ask would I be in Bristol for lunch?—and the rain, hard on my heels, flogged and foaming at the head of Storm Francis, was for now holding off.

The road alongside the lake had recently been resurfaced and there was a temporary 20mph speed limit to stop the loose gravel spitting out of car wheels and giving pedestrians and cyclists brain damage.

A car passed me at forty. I had scarcely finished my impotent admonishments, when my chain locked up. This wasn’t a mere clumsy shift: my cranks could spin neither clockwise nor anticlockwise. I skittered to a stop, looked down and saw a pretty pickle:

Among bicycle mechanics, this is technically known as ‘a right mess’. The rear mech has twisted at a screwy angle to the chain: like it had melted under tension.

At this point—so near and yet so far—it’d be easy to curse the heavens. I hadn’t cycled 1,000 kilometres over the past two weeks to finish like this!

But what if this frankly tour-ending disaster was all happening for me, not to me?

After all, I was lucky. This could have happened an hour ago, as I aquaplaned through rocky off-road puddles in the Mendips, a soggy trog from all civilisation. But it has happened here: around the corner from a cafe. I could eat some chips, call some friends and find a solution.

The cafe was closed.

But the toilets were open. Swings and roundabouts. I laughed. Then called some friends. We found a solution: I could unmount the rear mech, break the chain, remove half a dozen links and turn my bike into a fixie: a one gear wonder.

I laughed again: the wind whipped the sound up into the hills. Over the summer I’ve met a lot of people more or less new to cycling. These gentlefolk are often the beneficiaries of a forceful rant about the witless cupidity of bicycle manufacturers.

A forceful rant

As far as I’m concerned, any cyclist who wants to preserve their knees-up-Mother-Brown talents absolutely must have a bike with gears. Many gears, yes, but more importantly the right gears.

Gears are at least half of the miracle of cycling. When they were first invented, gears were banned at the Tour de France. They made the race too easy in the sadistic eyes of the demented organiser.

But most of us, our yellow jerseys faded in the wash, want cycling to be as damn easy as possible—and that means getting the most out of the genius of gears: a tiny front chainring and a decent spread at the back.

These are the kind of gears designed so that even the steepest hill can be tackled in the saddle, giving you and I about another twenty years of squatting potential before knee surgery.

But these are precisely the kind of gears that the big bike builders ignore in favour of a set that suits the show-off accelerate downhill suicide slalom brigade. Who will pay more for their wheels.

And the lack of education around gear mechanics means that your everyday common or garden cyclist also ends up chasing the wrong metric when buying a bike. Instead of thinking hard about the physics of bicycle locomotion, people are eased in the direction of a simpler rubric: kilograms.

Almost understandably, bicyclists believe that a lighter bike will be easier to ride. It might be, but the difference will be scarcely noticeable and cost a lot of money. Ease is in the gears.

It’s frustrating when friends ask me about spending hundreds and thousands (not the cake topping) on lighter frames when all they need to do is switch to a smaller chainring. Shaving a couple of kilos from your bike’s waistline is nice, but won’t give you the massive mechanical advantage that better gearing will.

Rant over.

Sorry—nearly over.

If you’re not a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. When you realise how easy cycling can be on all topography and terrain, maybe you’ll come around.

If you are a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. Hill climbing is no harder than cycling on the flat—slower, maybe, but not harder—so long as you have the right gears and know how to use them.

In Exeter, I did a quick hill-climbing test with a friend of mine, comparing the gearing on his bike with the gearing on mine. We found a short, sharp incline outside his house and I got him to ride up on his bike in the lowest gear.

‘Actually, this is pretty easy,’ he said as I watched his legs push hard down through the pedals.

‘Try mine,’ I replied, shifting it into the lowest gear. He swung himself onto the saddle, eased his feet down onto the pedals—and nearly fell off.

The gear ratio on my bike was so extreme that the cranks turned with barely any pressure: my friend had never dreamed that such mechanical advantage could make hills so comfortable.

Seriously: Alee Denham on Cycling About has a fantastic series of articles on the subject. Read them all.

Back to the story

As I pulled the ugly twisted metal that used to be Martin’s rear mech away from the hanger, I realised that it was still attached to the frame by the (new) shifter cable. I had no wire cutters and my teeth aren’t what they used to be. I inspected the scissors and wood saw options on my penknife. My penknife hid itself at the bottom of my bag and tried to look busy.

Then a man pulled up in a small white van: he was down here from pest control in south Wales to check on the toilets. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ I blurted at him, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a pair of wire cutters or pliers, have you?’

Smiling like the Mona Lisa, the workman ducked into the back of his van and rattled around among his miscellanea. A pair of wire cutters appeared in the palm of his hand. ‘Take them,’ he said. I laughed: this was going to work.

All set to go, I washed my hands in the conveniently located toilets, and wobbled triumphantly back past the Chewy ducks.

Getting in a fix with a fixie

The problem with building a fixie bike, I discovered, is that the chain needs to fit perfectly: neither too tight, nor too loose. This is hard to achieve on the road: I don’t even know if it’s possible.

My fixed chain was on the loose side. When I arrogantly decided to shift up to a larger chainring, the chain pulled taut over the cogs, the limber flex vanished and every turn of the pedals became a grinding tug of war.

My bike was, to put it politely, fucked. But the unlikely fix had held the couple of kilometres to Chew Magna and I rolled gently to a stop outside the Cooperative Food supermarket.

I knelt down and got my hands oily. A man, on his way to an eat-out to help out pub lunch with his girls, leant over my shoulder: ‘You alright? What’s the problem?’

The man lived over the road and offered me tools and spare parts; his two talkative young girls eagerly me a deathmatch game of Dobble.

I thanked them and decided that what I really needed was a peanut butter sandwich.

~

On my knees outside St Andrew’s Church, a rotating cast of onlookers sympathised with my plight. An hour’s worth of oil under my fingernails, busted chain links scattered on the holy ground, and I was ready to ride again.

Two hundred metres onward, my second technically incompetent foray into bike mechanics auto-aborted and the chain snapped. This time there were no conveniently located toilets.

Swings: Storm Francis loomed over the horizon.
Roundabouts: so too did the number 683 bus to Keynsham.

And this is how I met Ricky.

A broken bike on a deserted bus

Ricky: Everything happens for a reason (or: you can’t deny that everything happens, so you might as well look for any reason that makes sense of it all)

‘It’s my first day back on the job since February,’ was Ricky’s opening line after taking my fare. For the twenty years before lockdown he’d worked as a coach driver, taking kids out on school trips mostly. Of course all that work has evaporated, like a skein of summer rain on his widescreen windscreen.

Now. I’ve spent the vast majority of my time cycle touring engaged in a battle of curses with other road users. That’s a horrible exaggeration, of course, but remember those Devonian and Cornwallian hill roads? They’re steep, narrow and windy—in both its whine-dy and win-dy phonemic forms.

Definitively not the kind of roads happily shared by both fossil fuelled and peanut-butter-sandwich fuelled modes of transport.

To be fair, most drivers are as considerate as can be given the anti-convivial infrastructure. There are plenty of passing places where either the on-rushing driver or the on-panicking cyclist can pull over. Waves, thanks and thumbs ups can then be cordially exchanged and both parties can put their feet to their respective pedals and hasten onward to their doom.

But some drivers…

Climbing up from a ravine beach in the sleeting sideways rain, up a 33 percent gradient, I was confronted head-on by the broad beam of an expensive Land Rover.

For context, a 33 percent gradient is about as tough a climb as a human-powered bike can manage. Climbs at the Tour de France rarely peak at such a steep incline. And those riders aren’t encumbered with an extra twenty kilos of camping kit (they don’t even carry their own peanut butter).

As I sweated up the incline, salty rivulets on my handlebars, the Land Rover ahead resolutely budged not. Something of a stand-off, except we were both sitting down—albeit at slightly unequal degrees of comfort.

There was no bike-sized gap on either side of the vehicle’s wing mirrors, which poked into the nettle-strewn hedge. But I’d be a poltroon of the highest order if I was going to turn around and cycle back down this Eiger impersonation so that this climate-controlled tourist could save himself the hassle of reversing thirty metres to the passing place behind him.

So I stopped and waited, catching my breath, until the man reversed and we could all get on with our tiny lives.

~

Now, though, I was on the other side of the glass, listening to Ricky talking about carting schoolkids round down the back lanes of the West Country.

‘Some cyclists,’ he started, ‘not you, like, but some of them…

‘I was behind this one cyclist, on a straight main road—and he had every right to be there, course he did—but there was about a mile of traffic backed up behind me. I could hear them beeping at him to move over, right?

‘A coach takes a long time to build up speed, see. I need a long straight to accelerate enough to overtake, right? But this road had double white lines down the middle. I can’t legally cross those white lines to overtake. Not with forty kids in the back, I can’t—I simply can’t do it.

‘So there I am, crawling along at ten, twenty miles an hour, and we come to a lay-by—a proper long lay-by, mind you, good surface and all—easy for this cyclist to pull over and let me and this mile of traffic behind me pass.

‘You know what? He carried right on cycling.

‘Course he had every right, every right to do that,’ Ricky finishes, ‘but that’s why some drivers get upset.’

~

So this is why I’m here. What would I have learnt from another eighteen cycling kilometres on top of over two thousand? Chances are, I’d only have got stressed out fighting through the kind of city limits traffic I’ve fought hundreds of times before.

But on this otherwise empty number 683 bus to Keynsham, Ricky’s passed on something worth passing on. And it wouldn’t have happened at all if something shit hadn’t happened to me and my bike eighteen kilometres from home.

‘I’ll tell you what, mind,’ Ricky adds, ‘white vans are the worst. I don’t lose my rag and tell them to eff-off—I leave that to my schoolkids!’

Cycling around Britain: Detours

Welcome to Wadebridge, pride of the Camel Trail – a former railway line that’s been converted into a busy cycle path, following the gentle curves of the estuary from Padstow. It’s most glorious for families pulling trailers of toddlers and for tired tourers who win respite from the havoc of the Cornish verticals.

Views from the calm Camel Trail

While sitting here, a father and son duo pulled up on their laden touring bikes (father carrying double his coffee-deprived son). We swapped the usual news: they are heading back the way I’ve come, along the Camel Trail to Padstow and then climbing up to Newquay, St Ives and, in a couple of days, Land’s End.

They aren’t from this country and are only here because America is closed. ‘So we will have to spend some more time in your country,’ says the father.

‘But we weren’t expecting so many hills,’ he adds, ‘and they are so steep. We are doing Devon and Cornwall so everything else after this will be easy!’

Tackling the slopes alone – with only the occasional ‘that looks hard’ or thumbs up from a passing road user – it’s gratifying to halve my efforts with another tourer.

Especially with these two. Where are they from? Switzerland.

~

Having said all that, earlier today, like Robert Frost, I came to where two roads diverged. Both were marked on-road cycle paths, both bore a sign to Padstow, which pointed the way to my second breakfast (the first taken under a bus shelter during a downpour).

But one sign said Padstow 4 miles, the other Padstow 7 miles.

‘Long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth’.

Making the most of technology unavailable to Robert Frost, I even checked the contour lines on the OS Map on my phone. Naturally, the longer route also afforded me another climb or two.

But the longer I tarried, the clearer it became to me: as the poet took the road less travelled, so I should take the road more difficult.

Any hesitation, really, is a clue. Adventure doesn’t happen on the straightest line from A to B.

What would have become of the Hobbits if there’d been a motorway or a flyover, taking them across the mountains of Mordor without stopping to admire the scenery or mingle with the locals?

Adventure occurs in the margins, in the moments I take to pause in a place – like my greetings of the Swiss – or in the detours.

The reward for my morning’s detour

It doesn’t mean anything to arrive (besides a sit down and a cup of tea), so take the harder, longer road. There will always be one moment that makes me agree that was all worthwhile – if only because, as Robert Frost puts it:

‘knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back’

Upon my arrival, I become the sum of all those momentary decisions of which cycle path to take (or which ‘ego tunnel’ to explore). Future me would rather that I’d taken the longer, the harder road, the road less travelled.

Looking back on these moments of decision, the left turns of life that we take for no good reason, we see that it’s the detours that make ‘all the difference’.

~

Indeed, this has been a week of detours. Here are two videos, one from a detour to Dartmoor and one from a detour to Land’s End.

 

Cycling around Britain: Leave no trace

Once I’ve recovered a faculty or two, I’ll be cycling across Dartmoor to a wild camp spot at Foggintor Quarries, following the trail of two awesome tourers I met/accosted in Exeter.

Will and Daryl have cycled the opposite way to me, down from Liverpool, around Wales and through Devon and Cornwall. It was a real joy to share stories and compare insect bites while they drank coffee and I ate a spectacular kimchi and tofu sandwich from The Exploding Bakery Cafe.

The past three days of riding have exhausted not only my sweat glands, but also my supply of adjectives. East Devon is not a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty for the purposes of a practical joke.

The Jurassic Coast at Sidmouth

In this case, both words and photography are inadequate to the task of inserting you into the scene, but hopefully they might cement you in your budding opinion that, yes, you will leave your house and step outside to feel the rivers, glades, and pastures that quietly surround you.

Doreen’s Garden, Branscombe

In the absurdly pictogenic village of Branscombe, a strip of thatched cottages and rose petals that conspire before a cobblestone church, sits a garden that unrolls into the valley. From the top, you can see carefully tended beds and meditative benches and a sign that says: ‘Doreen’s Garden, open to visitors all year round’.

I didn’t meet Doreen, but I put a pound into the collection bucket for the Devon Air Ambulance with a prayer that Doreen is merely the spade-head of a new movement to open up ‘private’ space to public enjoyment.

As someone ‘wild’ camping around England, a place where such guerilla accommodation is technically illegal without the permission of the landowner, the concept of public and private space is very important to me.

I’m reassured by the old folks I meet on the road, the salt-of-the-earth types who have lived round these parts for years. They say things like, ‘Don’t worry about the No Camping signs – they’re only there in case a whole hoard of people move in and won’t shift.’

Despite this reassurance, wouldn’t it be nice if the default legal position was that leave-no-trace, short term camping is permitted so long as it doesn’t disturb livestock, wildlife or agriculture. Why not?

And you don’t have to look far for that legal structure. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code protects the right to camp responsibly: in small numbers, for two or three nights in one place, avoiding enclosed fields of crops or farm animals as well as buildings, roads and historic monuments.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the law and the perceived attitude to wild camping are very different. But I’ve been open about my accommodation choices and have met no one who has opposed them or even expressed disapproval.

So perhaps the public perception of wild camping is ahead of the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Perhaps that means we can change it. Perhaps it is already changing.

Maybe because of its long association with the military, the right to wild camp is protected on Dartmoor (very convenient because that’s the direction I’m heading).

In the Lake District National Park, the National Trust now ask that people avoid lowland areas and head to the higher fells – and of course to leave no trace.

The spirit of leave no trace is absolutely non-negotiable.

Leaving anything but an impression in the grass will have an adverse effect on the wildlife – and reduce the chances that wild camping, legal or illegal, will be tolerated in the future.

Leaving no trace in an empty field in Dorset.

The pandemic has brought millions of people out into the countryside – a glorious rediscovery of the natural beauty and medicine of this island – but an unfortunate minority have conservation-shaped holes in their outdoors education.

Recently, the Guardian reported that a throwaway ‘festival’ culture has been brought into certain popular wild camping spots and the damage caused means that local rangers are having to clamp down on all overnighters.

Of course, clamping down is not the solution: the problem doesn’t seem to exist in Scotland, with its long history of outdoor access. Because it’s part of their birthright, Scottish campers also inherit an inkling of how to camp responsibly.

In England, it’s as if we’ve only just discovered an enormous lake of ice cream and we’ve jumped straight in, boots and all, without regard for spoiling the dessert that we share. Education, beginning with leave no trace, is the spoon that everyone should be given, long before their stomachs start rumbling.

We need a change in the law. And we need more spoons.

I told you I’d lost a faculty or two.