There are many varieties of adventure, so what do I mean when I use the word? I like this definition: A wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful).
Adventure, by any definition, is not limited to epic tours through foreign lands, climbing mountains and sleeping in cold huts. And it’s definitely not limited to air travel.
Since quitting aeroplanes in 2010, I have never travelled more: hiking all over the country, from the cathedrals of the south-east to the summits of the Highlands, hitch-hiking with strangers from London to Ben Nevis and touring tens of thousands of miles on my bike(s).
For me, adventure is a way of being in the world. It is a shortcut to two feelings that I treasure most in life: connection to people and place, and awe.
The reason I’m not writing to you until now is that I’ve spent the day hammering through the zillions of pettifogging tasks that cram the hours before a lengthy departure from home.
Tasks like these:
As you may or may not have gathered, on Monday I leave for Glasgow, for four days’ final preparation before meeting the first cohort of sadists cyclists taking on the first week of our two-month, 5,400km bike ride to Athens.
I should be back home sometime in September or October.
It’s not a vanishingly long time, but it is certainly something of a disappearance.
And so this morning began with me randomly chucking things into what I like to think of as my ‘packing room’.
I think every adventurer needs a packing room: a place to dump the first practical stirrings of an adventure before it either (a) fizzles out and is forgotten or (b) slams you in the oh-fuck face of last minute dread.
(I also think that every human being is an adventurer in a choose-their-own domain.)
Here’s what my packing room currently looks like:
And I thought it could be a nice idea to take you through five items that wouldn’t make it onto most touring cyclists’ packing lists (let alone into their blessed packing room).
1. A Flag
This flag was hand-stitched many years ago — 2018, I think — for the third edition of Thighs of Steel, which rode from London to Athens, through Slovenia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
This photo represents the stomach-popping logistical and administrative rough and tumble that we all go through, both before and during the ride, to grease the wheels of summer so that they spin as smoothly as could reasonably be demanded.
I mean: have you ever tried to acquire seven debit cards that are free to use in Europe for a non-profit that isn’t a charity and doesn’t have money to burn?
This entry could just as easily have been a photo of our Public Liability certificate, representing the last two months of nerve-clenching horror as ‘a costly claim in the events industry’ totally ham-slapped our ‘risk profile’.
The good news is that I’m spending my final Friday evening at home writing these words to you, so we must be more or less ready to ride.
After my experiences a month ago in Northumberland, it’s time to up my anti-midge game.
Smidge is a classic, but now I’ve added a citronella candle and a frankly awesome midge head net to my battlements — both bought from Totally Herbie of Scotland.
Their website might be from the nineties, but they mean business. And so now do I.
5. Dougal The Bugle
I bought Dougal from a Hastings junk shop on the first leg of my second ride around Britain back in 2020 so that I could have a part to play (literally) in the mock-funeral of a friend of a friend.
(It was something he’d always wanted to do: my friend played his spirit guide, a badger.)
Tragically, I recently found out that this friend of a friend has now passed away for real, which adds an appropriate sense of gravitas to the sounding of my most unusual touring accessory.
Some love it, some hate it (especially when it wakes them up at 5am for another expletive-sodden ride up a mountain), and none can ignore it.
Mercifully, every once in a while, someone comes on the ride who can actually play the blasted thing.
At those moments, atop a ravaging hill climb in Wales or at a sundown lakeside in the Italian Alps, Dougal the Bugle will sing a sweet tune that I like to imagine wefts its way into outer space, into the resonating space between atoms where the stardust lives.
It’s not every day that you meet a motorcycling electrician called Graham eating chips and gravy in the sunshine at a village tearoom in Northumberland.
In fact, I’d say that it’s only ever happened to me once in my whole entire life.
Just once. Last Sunday.
I was about 470km into my 560km ride from Liverpool to Newcastle and had just decided that it was time for lunch. Again.
Because, you see, If I’ve got any Northumbrian cycle touring advice for you it’s this: whenever you see a tearoom, it’s time for lunch. Again.
Quick Detour Regarding Bloody Bush Road (Unsurfaced)
Northumberland is the least densely populated county in England, with only 62 inhabitants per square kilometre.
This is an incredibly misleading statistic.
Across a 36 kilometre stretch of my route, on the terrifyingly named Bloody Bush Road through the high pine forests of Kershope, Newcastleton and Kielder, there were precisely zero inhabitants per square kilometre.
This means I went five hours of riding and sixteen hours overnight without refilling my water bottles.
Parched. Slightly panicked.
It was only at the very end of the rocky gravel track that I found a sign warning me against the route I’d just taken — READ THIS BEFORE RIDING —
This route is 20km through remote forest areas on unsurfaced tracks and narrow paths.
This route includes steep climbs and crosses exposed open hills and fells. It is therefore better suited to proficient cyclists with higher levels of fitness, stamina and good off-road riding skills. Quality off-road bikes are considered to be essential.
No water, no food, no phone reception and no houses except a couple of eerily abandoned rental cottages: this was not the place to hurt one’s self.
About halfway through my unwitting 20km off-road stint, rolling downhill on the gravel, my unsuitable road tyres skidded.
As the heavy bike slid out from underneath me — threatening to crush my leg under the weight of all my camping gear — my instincts took over.
Without knowing how, my left foot hopped onto the falling cross bar and I leapt over the moving handlebars, miraculously landing in a running stumble, on both feet.
I got away with it this time.
My dusty dry throat was finally lubricated at The Forks, a clutch of forest cottages, thankfully occupied (and each with a wolf-head door knocker), before rushing to the civilised and fully stocked activity centres of Kielder Water.
Lesson learned: population density matters.
Back To Graham Eating Chips And Gravy
So that’s why, only half an hour after tea and scones at the Tower Knowe cafe on Kielder Water, I rolled to a stop outside Falstone village tearoom.
And that’s where, for the first time in my whole entire life, I met a motorcycling electrician called Graham eating chips and gravy in the sunshine.
Quick Detour For Some Miserable Setup
I left to come on this bike ride two days late.
I was originally booked to get the train up to Liverpool on the Monday, but I decided to delay for a couple of days.
Helping to organise Thighs of Steel — an eight week fundraising bike ride with over a hundred participants across eleven countries — is a rat’s nest of responsibility.
Many aspects of facilitating the organisation of the ride are totally within my control: choosing dates and routes, finding ride leaders, paying staff, planning routes, recruiting riders and, of course, fundraising.
But some aspects are wildly out of my — or anyone’s — control. For the past six weeks, I’ve been wrestling with such a task.
And here it was again, that task, demanding more time from me and, if not forcing, then at least prising two days’ holiday from my short break.
Actually, this sacrifice of two days was actually pretty good going for me. In 2022, I would’ve cancelled the whole holiday.
Last year, I felt as much responsibility for the organisation of Thighs and the stress I held manifested itself as a dumpy lethargy and a claggy brain fog.
In my fatigue, I made the mistake of cancelling any extracurricular activities and staying at home, hoping to rest and recovery in the quiet hours when I wasn’t working.
I even took two courses of antibiotics, before realising that my symptoms were ‘just’ stress, far beyond the reach of pharmaceutical treatment.
I learned that, in the responsibility of a stressful situation, my mind and body tend to hunker down, shutting off function in the hope that, by hiding away in stillness, the danger or threat will pass by safely.
While this avoidant strategy might have worked for me in the past, it’s exactly ZERO percent fun and, in most grownup cases, leaves the problem worse than before.
What helps are precisely the things that, last year, I cancelled: seeing friends, playing games, going dancing and, of course, riding my bike for days at a time.
Anyway: turns out that Graham, the motorcycling electrician eating chips and gravy in the sunshine, goes through the same damn thing.
Graham Eating Chips And Gravy
Graham, a man with spectacles and the lived-in look of late middle age, arrived in his leathers and backed his motorcycle into the small parking lot beside the tearoom’s outdoor toilets.
He ordered chips and gravy and a coffee for afters — ‘I’m in no rush here.’
We sat outside, on high stools, with our plates resting on a waist-high sandstone wall, looking out over the shaded village green.
Graham had come up from Sunderland, a trip he often makes on a weekend. He likes to get to the tearoom before twelve, in time for their to-die-for breakfast.
He’s far too late today, which is why turns down their offer of a bacon barm — I can make that at home, like — and settles for chips and gravy.
Graham tells me that he’s an electrician, working for himself, but through an agency, mostly industrial.
I’m not sure what I imagine an electrician doing all day (I know it can’t only be lightbulbs and 3A plugs), but it’s nothing like what Graham does.
He’ll spend weeks wiring up identical units on an industrial site, ticking off the cabling on a schematic works sheet.
None of his work will connected to power until long after he’s gone, so he has to get it right, maybe not first time, but reliably, every time.
A lot of other electricians say they don’t have the patience for it, they get bored, but Graham likes it. It suits his methodical mind and that means he’s never short of work.
Graham felt he had to get out on his bike today: he’s got a job starting tomorrow, a job he already regrets taking.
He holds up thumb and forefinger, about a chip’s width apart: ‘Summer’s only this long up here.’
‘The agency said it’s a two month job, but that doesn’t mean anything. Could be two days, two weeks — two years,’ he says.
‘They said I could have a week off after a month, but that’s…’ He looks over at me, a little desperately. ‘I don’t want to put a time limit on it, you know?’
‘That’s My Sign I Need To Get Away’
Graham is out on his bike for the same reason I’m on mine: it’s his way of getting back into his body, opening up and letting go.
He’s learned to heed the warning signs and take to two wheels before things get worse.
A couple of years back, after his mother died, Graham was on a six-month job on the coast near Edinburgh.
As the months rolled on, he started getting a thick knot of pain in the centre of his chest.
Nothing he did shifted the pain until, one day, he jacked in the job and went for a long motorcycle ride in a loop along the green border and up through Dumfries and Galloway.
‘I was on the road, coming out of Ayr, when I noticed it,’ Graham tells me. ‘The pain in my chest was gone. Completely gone.’
It’s then that I realise who we are: two men, strangers, telling each other how we fall apart. And how we might put ourselves back together again.
‘When I feel that in my chest,’ Grama says, ‘that’s my sign I need to get away.’
It’s the same for me: when I feel that heavy veil falling across my brain.
We shook hands, Graham and I, and swapped names.
‘Good luck with the stress,’ he said, as I took the steps down to my bike.
‘It’ll be straight back when I hit that hill,’ I said.
‘And then you’ll get rid of it again.’
Mind IS Body
That’s been my motto the last few weeks. It’s one I’d like to wear through the summer.
The brain is all very good, but it’s only a tiny part of how we think.
And the poor thing is terribly self-obsessed.
The brain has such an inflated belief in its powers that it thinks (ha) it can sort everything out on its own — and frequently overheats in the attempt.
But when I remember that brains only work well when the whole body is moving, then my mind flows again.
Instead of trying to brute force my way through life on brain alone, I should remember instead to feel my way through the world with all-body senses.
A long bike tour works, but so too does a regular morning run or evening stretch time.
The older I get, the more I learn and the more responsibility I take, the more important it becomes, not simply to get out of my head, but to get into my body.
And welcome to Egremont Castle, in the shade of the ruined keep, where Amber has freaked herself out playing hide and seek and started first crying for her mama, before shifting up through the gears of shouting, yelling, screaming and now finally shrieking.
Amber’s mum walks up the steps towards me, wearing big shades and a tired smile: ‘Who said playing hide and seek in the castle was a good idea?’
Anyway, before I left Bournemouth to pick up the latest leg of my second ride around Britain, I was surprisingly emotional about my new debit card.
The old one, you see, has been with me since June 2018.
There aren’t many possessions in our lives that are so clearly timestamped and with so clear an expiry date and I took the cutting up of this old workhorse as an opportunity for a bittersweet taste of nostalgia.
This card has served me well, joining the team when I was rootless, directionless, empty, and there at my side as I found confidence and purpose in my writing and my outdoor work, both instructing and with Thighs of Steel.
The faded card leaves me thousands of miles richer and, daily it seems, on the edge of new life.
It feels stupid to be saying this, but thank you old 4543. You done well. I’m excited to see how your successor fares.
Liverpool to Newcastle: The First Three Days
Today’s story is going to be heinously short and primarily photographic. As I mentioned, I’m in the middle of a bike ride, stage seven of my second ride around Britain.
I have too many thoughts that will turn into stories, but perhaps not today, not when I am dictating this into my malfunctioning phone in the late afternoon sunshine on a castle park bench.
Today started gently, with a roll down to Lake Windermere and a glorious, bare bottomed soak in the fresh water.
I then spent an hour and twenty quid in Joey’s, a plant-based cafe at Wray Castle on the north end of the lake. Essential fuel for the climbs, the steep steep climbs, of Wrynose and Hardknott.
So steep, it was, that I watched one Belgian number plate sliding backwards down a 30% incline, engine squealing.
‘You have lots of luggage,’ the Belgian said through wound window as I passed. ‘Lots of luggage and lots of courage.’
Yesterday started early and finished late.
This had little to do with the illuminating distractions of Blackpool and Morecambe, and more to do with:
An inauspicious tide at Fleetwood, which made for a 14km detour around the estuary.
A series of failed camp spots, which resulted in an extraordinarily steep, unscheduled, hill climb as I came into the Lake District, and then a fairly unsatisfactory pitch on the slopes of a denuded Forestry Commission ‘forest’, cocooned in a cloud of ferocious midges.
Dinner was served at 10:00 p.m, a hasty repast of Co-op olive bread and vegan coleslaw.
Between yesterday’s beginnings and yesterday’s endings, I delighted in new discoveries: especially Silverdale, a no-reason-to-visit-it-unless-you’re-visiting-it outcrop of land to the west of the M6.
It’s exactly the sort of why-not place that I want to see more of on this second round of Britain.
And Wednesday? Who can remember that far back?
Suffice it to say that I still think Liverpool is an ace city, with a canalside run through Bootle that gently escorts the traveller into nature’s soft embrace.
I really enjoyed Crosby dunes until I came across a cycle path sign buried up to the hilt in six foot of shifting sand.
I wonder how many hapless round Britainers have met with such granulated fate underfoot?
Anyway. Sorry I can’t be more coherent in my storytelling this week.
It’s time to make myself scarce.
A couple of polite young lads just asked if I minded them flying a drone up here, and, besides, I must seek camp.
This morning, I decided to take that hoary self-help motto to heart:
Do something for yourself first thing in the morning. You won’t get a chance later.
I went for a run along the beach.
About a kilometre in, I heard the heavy foot-slap and raspy breath of a long distance runner coming up fast behind me.
Before long, I could feel them right on my heels. Subconsciously, though I didn’t mean to, I sped up until we were matched stride for stride.
My lion race instinct taking over.
(One for Narnia fans: in Turkish, the word for ‘lion’ is not ‘aslan’, but ‘arslan’ 🍑)
I looked over my shoulder to see with whom I was now sprinting down Bournemouth promenade: barefoot shoes, ponytail, nose piercing.
Between agonal inhales, they gasped: ‘Thanks for running with me. I’ve got one k left and I don’t want to ease off.’
I then proceeded to ask my fellow runner a battery of questions, none of which, I swiftly realised, they were in any position to answer, being (as they had so politely explained) into the last thousand metres of what had clearly been a long, hot, fast, hard training run.
I did manage to understand that they were training for some kind of biathlon, a run and swim, possibly in Tenerife, possibly as part of Team GB.
I did not manage to see them over the line, however. Five hundred metres short, I spotted two friends (👋👋) on a morning stroll, flasks in hand.
I stopped to chat, of course, before polishing off my run: my sweet spot is currently four kilometres.
As I turned at the halfway mark, I realised that I was gaining on a tanned cyclist loaded up with panniers. As I got closer, I noticed that they were flying a mini Welsh flag.
I said hello.
Jack was originally from Wales, but now lives in Oswestry, on the borders.
My head did the automatic mental route planning that is the reflex of all long distance tourers: Oswestry, Shropshire, probably down the Wye Valley trail into Newport, over the Severn Bridge to Bristol, then country lanes to Salisbury before dropping through the rolling Dorset hills, down to the coast.
Nope. Jack had just come in on the overnight ferry from Cherbourg, Normandy.
Two weeks of cycling into the wind, round through Brittany and back north. Would’ve taken him only one week if he’d been going the other way.
Living, as I do, by the beach, it’s considered bad ettiquette not to finish a sweaty run with a dunk in the waves and a handful of litter picking.
That’s when I met a council worker, litter tongs in one hand, bin bag in the other.
They wore that rusty, ruddy look of an outdoors dweller: eight hours a day on the beach, they told me, from March to October, walking eighteen miles a day, shovelling sand off the prom or shifting last night’s litter from the shore.
Normally there’s a three a.m. tractor that does the bulk of the litter trawling, but last night they were on a training course. So there’s a lot for the team of pickers to get through today.
There’s no real purpose behind these little vignettes of a Thursday morning, other than to make the point, again, that we are always free to make chance connections, to play the game of propinquity with the world: learn a little, expand a little, and — god dammit — commune with each other and this stupid little universe.
And, when you do get chatting with the universe, it’s always worth remember a little something that the Dalai Lama (fourteenth edition) once said to a pal of mine who runs a garage:
When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.
Ahem. Anyway. As I made my way back up the cliff slopes to my home, a silly poem, an aide-memoire, popped into my head:
Later than I expected, I returned home to start writing this email to you. I wanted to get it done by lunchtime so that I could prepare for this bike ride tomorrow.
Instead, I spent the morning in the Lush Green Hub with a friend (👋), picking out delicious donations, showertime products that might have unsellably passed their Lush-fresh peak, but are still very much fabulous.
Lush are kindly passing these intoxicating products onto Thighs of Steel so that our disgusting, smelly cyclists stay fragrant all the way to Athens this summer. Cheers!
A friend once blew my mind with his story about a friend from the States who’d spent twenty-plus years picking up lost playing cards — you know, the ones you see littering the streets? Keep an eye out, you’ll see ‘em — until he completed a whole deck.
Fifty-two unique cards, plus jokers. If that doesn’t blow your mind, then start looking.
Last summer, another friend and I were on a bike ride — actually, the last 125km of Thighs of Steel — and we spotted a blue baseball cap on the side of the road.
I didn’t think anything of it: one of the day’s less interesting roadside flotsam compared to the drifts of cotton fruit and the odd tortoise.
But my friend pulled sharp to a stop, picked the battered cap up and brushed it down.
‘I love these weird old caps,’ he said, showing off his find. ‘Look at that — !’
I looked. The word ‘Castrol’ was stitched into the forehead.
For the rest of the ride, the game was cap-spotting. We found no fewer than six caps that day.
Fast forward to a couple of weekends ago, instructing in the Chiltern Hills. One of those deceptive spring days where the sunrays were stronger than the ambient temperature.
I was surprised to get home and feel the heat still radiating off my scalp.
‘I need a cap,’ I said to myself, without really knowing what I was letting myself in for.
Since then, I’ve been on the look out, hoping to join the secret society of lost hats. So far, I’ve only come up with a luscious woven beach hat and a child’s baseball cap.
Anyway. If you know a kid called Aamilah, let her know that it’s tied up on the handrail leading down to the Durley Chine Harvester. Cheers.
This action is encouraging and it’s good to remember that oodles of Dartmoor remains open to backpack camping, a sign that landowners too stand by our right to the night sky:
Camping is free in these areas by permission, rather than by right, with landowners receiving an annual fee of £300 in return (although some have indicated that they will donate the fee towards conservation).
You’ll see from the map that camping isn’t generally allowed off the main roads onto Dartmoor.
This is, I guess, to discourage ‘fly camping’: people piling out of cars, spilling onto the moor with paper cups and beer kegs.
But I’m afraid that it only serves to discourage (as I wrote in 2021) people ‘not like us’.
The outcome […] 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.
We need education not litigation. We need more access, not more control.
Learning is what humans do best: we are (in the words of anthropologist Clifford Geertz) unfinished animals. Meanwhile, access to nature gives us somewhere to practice being what we are.
With education and access, our human footprint is lightened and distributed and generations will rise up, ready to take their place in nature, as one of nature.
Even with my experience and resources, I’m far from being an expert in the ways of the moor.
I still haven’t found the perfect campsite: the open moor is exposed to wind that bends the laws of meteorology, wraps itself around my ears, rattling the brain and shuddering me from sleep.
And, yes — this is a call out for recommendations!
I’ve been back home for less than a day and I’m already yearning to return for another night on the moor.
For, even in the long sleepless delirium, there is a moment, perhaps two a.m., when you brave the elements for a wild pee, look up at the fast clearing sky and see, returning your awed look, Gemini’s twins, Castor and Pollux.
A quiet strong voice rose beside me in the darkness:
While we’re stargazing, the stars are people-gazing.
Special thanks this week to the breath of Dartmoor and my companion beneath the stars.
While discussing the relationship between my favourite Heraclitus quote and cycling around Britain for the second time, a two-time acquaintance suggested I read a short article by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.
The four pages of Notes on memory and desire (1967) are clearly written for the psychoanalyst, but are fertile ground for anyone hoping to write a bicycling memoir.
‘Memory,’ Bion declares, ‘is always misleading as a record of fact.’
Meanwhile, opines Bion: ‘Desires distort judgement by selection and suppression of material to be judged.’
Again, horribly accurate: the halo effect being just one of a panoply of cognitive biases where our desires corrupt our conclusions.
Memory & Desire = Bad Bad?
Bion is pretty damning about the effect of memory and desire on the workings of psychoanalysis:
Memory and Desire exercise and intensify those aspects of the mind that derive from sensuous experience.
However inconvenient the distortions of memory and desire may be for psychoanalysts, they are good things for the writers of bicycling memoirs.
Cycling around the coast of Britain is indeed a sensuous experience and anything that intensifies that experience can only help the sensationalist storyteller.
Stories would be pretty dull if the writer’s fallible memory didn’t trim the facts, nor desire distort, select and suppress.
However: where Bion gets interesting is in his discussion of the ride itself, especially for those of us who repeatedly cover the same ground.
Staying Present = Improv?
Bion uses the metaphor of the psychoanalytic session, but I’m pretty sure he was talking about cycling around Britain twice when he wrote:
Every session bike ride attended by the psychoanalyst bicyclist must have no history and no future.
What is ‘known’ about the patient Britain is of no further consequence: it is either false or irrelevant. […] The only point of importance in any session bike ride is the unknown. Nothing must be allowed to distract from intuiting that. […]
The psychoanalyst bicyclist should aim at achieving a state of mind so that at every session ride he feels he has not seen the patient Britain before. If he feels he has, he is treating riding the wrong patient ride.
Staying present is not only the work of the psychoanalyst, but also the bicycling memoirist and, of course, our old friend Heraclitus:
No man can step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
Every landscape, every town, every human and beastly interaction is happening for the first time, every time, and the ride is an embedded, embodied improvisation: ‘Yes, and…’
Improv, like a good bike ride, only works when you’re open, creative, responsive and curious — four ways of saying the same thing — to what’s inside you, what’s around you, and to your partners and props on the stage.
Keith Johnstone, who taught so many actors, directors and comedians the games of improvisation, died last week.
There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.
The point is to help your partner in the improvisation, not to try to screw them up. A lesson worth holding onto. Thanks, Keith.
Staying Present With Notes
The only difference between a good improviser and a writer is that the writer takes notes. Which Bion would have hated.
Somewhat grumpily, Bion declares that notes should be ‘confined to matters that can be recorded’, i.e. bugger all.
Instead, Bion commands us to obey his number one rule:
Do not remember past sessions bike rides. The greater the impulse to remember what has been said or done, the more the need to resist it. […]
The supposed events must not be allowed to occupy the mind. Otherwise the evolution of the session bike ride will not be observed at the only time when it can be observed — while it is taking place.
Here, from time to time, the bicycling memoirist must respectfully disagree.
Writing, on my typewriter, eyes up, following the fluency of my fingers, helps me observe and recall my experience of the world around me in more detail, not less.
Like this, from my ride diary back on 2 August 2020:
Sunny lanes. Pandora told me about how Airbnb is ruining Athens so she can’t live in the areas she used to. She also told me about Halloween Alley Cat Races.
We detoured through a prison and passed another group of cyclists.
‘What were those cyclists pointing at?’ she asked.
‘They’re turning right,’ I said.
Nothing serves noticing more than notating. And nothing serves the reader more than writers who notice.
From Desire To Curiosity
I’ll leave you with a note on how Bion’s desecration of desire pertains to the bicycling memoirist.
Bion’s second rule for psychoanalysts is this:
Desires for results, ‘cure’ or even understanding must not be allowed to proliferate.
My initial response was YES. Desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience.
I teared up reading the end of Mark Beaumont’s book about his round the world record attempt, but that was the tension release triggered by the climax of a hard-fought result. His desire for the world record overtook any sense of experience: I remember nothing of his ride and I suspect he scarcely does either.
The reason I rode around Tunisia the year after I first cycled the coast of Britain was precisely because I wanted to take it more slowly and prove to myself that I could indulge experience over ‘getting there’.
Irritatingly, Bion would seem to be correct again: desire interferes with experience.
Then I paused: is this not a cop-out?
Freed from spontaneous impulses of desire, the bicycling memoirist is also excused from courage to retreat into their shell of individual experience.
A sign pointing the way to Twatt Church. A conversation overheard. A rumour passed around of a quarry camp. The salt wash scent of the ocean. The intriguingly lengthy queue for a hot stone bakery.
Are these petty squirts of desire not also the ripe ingredients of adventure?
There is nuance to Bion’s declaration. Yes, desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience, but it must be distinguished from our healthy desire to experience more: it must be distinguished from our curiosity.
Desire is forcing our way into a house: never going to end in anything better than a cricket bat to the belly. Curiosity is gently pushing on the door and seeing whether it opens, with a smile.
There’s train strikes this week: 40,000 rail workers united to protect their pay and working conditions against extraction by private shareholders.
In January, rail minister Huw Merriman admitted that, not only would it have been cheaper to settle the dispute months ago, but that the negotiations were being used to suppress the pay of all public sector key workers, including teachers and nurses. Ouch.
But that’s all by the by.
For the purposes of this story, the train strike merely explains why I was in my car at Southampton Airport Parkway and why vehicle delivery driver Arthur was standing on the M27 slip road holding his red trade plates.
I checked my mirrors and thought, ‘That’s a crap place to hitch,’ before pulling over and hitting my hazards.
Arthur ran up, pulled the door and chucked himself into the passenger seat.
He’d forgotten about the strike and found himself stranded after delivering a Motorway car to their depot in Eastleigh.
‘I don’t normally hitchhike,’ he said. ‘It was only fifteen minutes, but I had a bad feeling standing there — I’m very grateful.’
Arthur’s next job was to pick up a Hyundai Ioniq from an industrial estate outside Poole and take it up to Tamworth — a 180 mile drive in an electric car with 106 miles’ charge.
‘Normally I don’t touch electrics — something always happens and you’re left sitting around for hours. I didn’t clock this one.’
Seeing as I was on my way back to Bournemouth anyway, it was easy to save Arthur any more trouble. And I got to learn a little about the vehicle delivery trade.
For Arthur, it was all about supplementing his pension and getting him out of the house. A long day for £230.
This isn’t his usual patch. He normally operates in the band of territory south of Birmingham and north of London — ‘It’s much easier when you know where you are. I haven’t been to Poole since my honeymoon, 1975.’
Arthur’s phone rang: ‘Yes, love?’
His partner, Chris, was checking in and I got to hear Arthur’s take on his morning.
‘No, thanks, love, I’m fine, it’s all good now. This chap’s picked me up and I’m on the move. Good thing too — I was feeling a bit down back there, stood on the side of the motorway. Then along comes this miracle.’
I laughed. Not a bad way to start my day, being called a miracle. But it also made me wonder how we’ve come to be ruled by sceptics.
Arthur was standing on the side of a road rushing with cars driving his way. Every single one could have picked him up. It should be no surprise — much less a miracle — that someone stopped for him inside quarter of an hour. And yet he’d been anxious.
Sceptics are those who doubt their own humanity and the humanity of others.
Sceptics are those who believe that we’re not all in it together, that we’re not all playing for the same Team Human, that, contrary to all evidence, we’re not sociable animals, our nervous systems constantly regulating to each other.
I’m currently reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn Of Everything. It’s a remarkable work that will transfuse into my stories over the coming years. But one idea jumped out today: we humans are only fully self-conscious when we’re talking, laughing, rolling, relating with others.
But sceptics would rather believe that we’re each autonomous and independent economic units, acting in our own self-interest to the exclusion of others, certainly others beyond our immediate genetic milieu.
They couldn’t be more blatantly, even biologically, wrong, but somehow their scepticism has cast a spell over society.
Fearful sceptics have bewitched us into believing that it’s absurd to believe in humanity, their perverted tyranny twisting our minds such that a show of solidarity from a stranger is ‘a miracle’.
The good news is that the journey from false sceptic to true believer is no more than a single step.
All you need do is pronounce the believer’s creed: ‘I believe in my own humanity and the humanity of others’ and you’re ready to perform what those ridiculous sceptics have convinced us are fantastic miracles.
Of course, we can’t be miracles to everyone we cross, not all day every day. But keep your eyes open, hold out a hand, drop a smile and, from time to time, be the miracle.
This is a story about two songs, both written by men about women they met in New York, inside and outside the Chelsea Hotel.
(Before you switch off, I’ve also included one of the women’s side of the story. It’s hilarious.)
The Chelsea is famous for its residents and the work they created there: Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Edith Piaf, Jane Fonda, Allen Ginsburg, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix — and, of course, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.
Leonard Cohen Meets Janis Joplin
In the late night spring of 1968, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin met in the Chelsea Hotel lift, going up to the fourth floor.
She said ‘Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.’
I said, ‘Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.’ Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on.
By the time the lift reached the fourth floor, the love affair was on, a tribute to courage — if only for a couple of hours.
The next day, Joplin tracked down that handsome devil Kris Kristofferson, who sweetly sang to her the song that would become her biggest hit.
It took a couple of years for Janis Joplin to record her bootshaking version of Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee (Spotify | YouTube), on 1 October 1970.
Three days later, she was dead.
Shortly after, Leonard Cohen started writing a new song, which he eventually released in 1974 as Chelsea Hotel #2 (Spotify | Youtube).
Here’s how it opens:
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.
Now, to be fair to Leonard Cohen, the story he tells is more complex than these first lines would suggest, but it’s not Cohen’s song that I want to write about.
Jeffrey Lewis Meets A Woman In Glasses
In 2001, New York antifolk songwriter Jeffrey Lewis released his first single, an extended riff on Leonard Cohen’s song, which he called The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song (Spotify | Youtube).
Before you get too excited, this is not a song about oral sex. As Jeff Lewis explains:
Life doesn’t work out the way it does in old songs
That’s why we sing new ones to say what really goes on
So what really went on?
Well, if Jeff Lewis will allow me to summarise his seven minute masterpiece:
Late one night, ‘tired and alone’, Jeff is walking past the Chelsea Hotel
He overhears a conversation about Leonard Cohen between a woman in glasses and her two, possibly gay, friends
Jeff gets ‘uncharacteristically courageous’ and interrupts the strangers
Jeff and the woman in glasses chat for ‘a minute or two’ about Leonard Cohen’s song, Chelsea Hotel #2
The three strangers stop to look in through a pub window
Jeff says good night (though he hadn’t quite meant to)
The woman in glasses mysteriously says, ‘see you later’
That’s it. That’s the entirety of the narrative action: they never saw each other again; they didn’t even swap names.
The song is three times as long as the encounter it describes.
What About The Oral Sex?
In that two minute conversation, the woman in glasses told Jeff Lewis that Leonard Cohen’s line about getting a blowjob ‘made her want to do naughty things’ and Jeff heard the ‘faint knocking of opportunity’:
Right about then I should have asked if she knew
What the Chelsea charged if we got a room for two
But he didn’t. He got shy, waved goodbye, went home and wrote this song instead.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he did write this song — for two reasons, actually.
The first reason is, quite simply, this, the greatest rhyming couplet known to science:
If I was Leonard Cohen or some other song writing master
I’d know to first get the oral sex and then write the song after
The second reason I’m glad he wrote this song is because the narrative action of Jeff Lewis’s street encounter ends only five minutes into the song: what happens in the last two minutes transcends the self-deprecating story into a moment of connective awe for us all.
‘For The Love Of Other Folks That They Barely Knew’
In those last two minutes, Jeff Lewis turns his gaze onto the audience, as if to say, ‘Hold on, nothing happened with this woman outside the Chelsea and yet this song did happen, is happening, and, what’s more, you’re all still listening — what does that mean?’
In Jeff’s words, it means something wonderful:
That all around the world there may be folks singing tunes
For the love of other folks that they barely knew
This bit of the song usually gets a laugh because it’s so ridiculous. No one writes songs like that.
Except they do. The woman in glasses would laugh at this bit too — the laughter of giddy recognition.
And we can enjoy that same note of giddy recognition for ourselves right now, even without a gawky folksinger writing a love song for us.
Remember You Remember Me Well Too
Think of all the people you’ve ever interacted with. Go on: all of them.
Okay, okay — too much. How about just the ones who made you ‘sing’?
If you’re like me (and Jeff), they’ll fall into two camps:
There’ll be people still in your life who already know that you remember them well. Your best friend who taught you self-esteem as a teenager or the mentor who modelled how to change career late in life.
But there’ll also be people in your past who will never know that you remember them well. The Albanian plumber-mechanic who showed you the true meaning of hospitality, or that lost classmate in college who didn’t realise he was teaching you how to be funny.
Firstly: make a note to go and tell everyone in Camp 1 exactly what they mean to you. You can never do this too many times.
Now turn your attention to the people in Camp 2. This is where the magic happens.
Look at your list and ponder: there must be hundreds of fleeting moments in your life where a complete stranger made you sing and you will never be able to let them know.
Take a moment to acknowledge the ripples in the water, stones skipped by strangers.
Now flip it around in Jeff’s next lines:
[…] the next time you’re feeling kinda lonesome and blue
Just think that someone somewhere might be singing about you
A laugh again: fantastically unlikely. But it isn’t.
If you remember a hundreds strangers well, remember that a hundred more strangers remember you well too — they just never got the chance to tell you.
When you realise how even a brief interaction can connect and change us, that’s pure wonder. Never forget it.
The Other Side
Okay — reality check!
Songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Jeffrey Lewis are really good at turning their lives into stories: pinning the emotion that helps them process the encounter.
It’s a beautiful defence mechanism — transmuting their personal vulnerability into universal meaning.
As Jeff Lewis says, it’s much easier to write a song than it is to risk rejection.
You might think that vulnerability to rejection doesn’t apply to Leonard Cohen, but I’m not so sure.
We’ll probably never know what story Jeff Lewis’s woman in glasses would tell of their encounter, but Janis Joplin wasn’t one to stay in the shade.
Sometimes you’re with someone and you’re convinced that they have something to tell you. So maybe nothing’s happening, but you keep telling yourself something’s happening — innate communication. […]
So you keep being there, pulling, giving, rapping. And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realise that, flat ass, this motherfucker’s just lying there. He’s not balling me.
Leonard Cohen and Jeffrey Lewis would seem to offer two different approaches to a fleeting connection between strangers:
either we are courageous enough to stop and feel out the depths of the exchange
or we are sensitive enough to walk away and still find meaning in the moment
But it’s not a choice: we can be both.
As Jeff says:
Life doesn’t work out the way it does in old songs
That’s why we sing new ones to say what really goes on
So let’s sing a new song: a song where we enjoy both Leonard Cohen’s earthy physicality and Jeffrey Lewis’s abstract transcendence.
Let’s recognise that any connection with a stranger, in the lift, on the street, can go both ways.
We might flex our courage and take things further, but, when we don’t — and most often we won’t because we’d never get anything else done — let’s remain sensitive that the moment was meaningful.
And occasionally, occasionally, a connection that we didn’t explore, years before, can, in the most unlikeliest of plot twists, come back around a second time.
Then we are both.
I’ll leave the last word to Jeff Lewis:
So who knows if I’ll ever see her again? Maybe we’ll see
This whole time she could have been singing about me
Probably not — but it could be
ps: Just as I was finishing the final read-through on this piece, a woman snuck up behind me on the train and said in a loud voice, ‘Ahh, I LOVE that song.’
I turned around with a thump and realised she was talking on the phone, to someone else. But I hope that one day, by some serpentine logic of the universe, she gets to read this story, listen to the music, and say again, ‘Ahh, I LOVE that song.’
Thanks to Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Jeffrey Lewis and CW for showing me how it’s done.
This is something that I actually drafted in an email to a developmental editor. It’s my attempt to describe what I’d like to achieve with a book tentatively titled Coasting: Cycling Around Britain (Twice).
At the moment, I am strolling across an open field and I could yet turn this project in any direction.
Please switch on your critical creative mind — I am quite seriously interested in your response. Cheers!
Coasting: Cycling Around Britain (Twice)
I first cycled 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain over a couple of months in 2011. I left two days after my nan’s funeral and a week after my girlfriend left me. I’d just turned 29.
It was a solitary ride, figuring out stuff like confidence and courage, with a handful of nan’s last words bouncing around my mind: ‘Do it while you can.’
I wrote a book about this journey, called Life To The Lees. You can read it, if you like. I printed a few copies, mainly as a tribute to my nan, interleaving memories of her with the narrative of the ride.
Here’s a bit from the end:
I bump up onto the pavement and let Martin come to a silent stop. I climb off and lean the bike against a gas meter. Then I just sort of stare about me, marvelling at the new person who stands here, where I stood fifty-eight days ago.
I look around for nan’s ghost, waving from the rose bushes, but there’s nothing there, not even the roses. I barely recognise the house and gardens at all. You can’t go back. The tide comes in and will erase everything. All we can bring back, when the path returns us to our beginning, is memories. Everything is the same as it was, and everything has changed.
We all walk uncertain into our shared future, each of us making the other a little more human, each of us collecting a little more of the other, until that moment when there is as much of me in you as there is of you in me. And then we realise that our only regret is regret itself: Do it while you can.
And while I can, I swear, I will.
Flicking back through Life To The Lees now, there’s a lot to love about the text, but it’s a personal story: insular, isolated, individual.
My isolation on the ride didn’t bring me into contact with much of Britain. I felt like I was cycling around Britain, but not among Britain. The book doesn’t really do what I would want a story of cycling around Britain to do: connect.
The second time I left to cycle around Britain was after lockdown restrictions lifted in summer 2020.
As you know, this journey is ongoing. I’ve been riding in stages and have now covered more than 3,100 miles, clockwise around to Liverpool in the west and anticlockwise as far as Inverness in the northeast.
Ten years older, I give far fewer fucks as a human being and that means many more entertaining and meaningful hi-jinx with the people I meet — such as that time in Hastings when I got embroiled in a fake kidnapping.
I’m also a much more experienced writer (four BBC Radio series and a bunch of other random credits) and I’ve been sharing cycling stories with the wonderful readers of this humble newsletter, as well as keeping a diary — neither of which existed back in 2011.
This makes for a much richer palette of stories from which to paint.
But I don’t want to forget 2011: it’s an integral part of today’s story and I think there’s something stupendously powerful about what we lazily call ‘doing the same thing twice’, melding stories from both 2011 and the 2020s into one book.
This dual narrative would not only offer a unique saddle-eye view of Britain either side of austerity, Brexit and a pandemic, but might also say something interesting about how a human being can flourish over the course of a decade.
While I can identify the experiences of 2011 as ‘mine’, I barely recognise the lead character. Like who is this guy, too embarrassed to stop for takeaway pizza in Southend on that first sixty-mile ride out of London?
My hamstrings are quivering and my stomach is rumbling on empty. I cycle back along Marine Drive, looking in at the neon fast food joints, predating on Sunday night drinkers, but I can’t bring myself to stop. I feel their blunt stares. I’m a stranger on an overpacked bicycle, underdressed in swimming shorts and sandals, trespassing through their town. […]
I’m shrivelled and half-starved; all my reserves of fuel are flashing red. I haven’t eaten properly since that sausage and eggs at Ben’s. I struggle with the cookies, but can’t get into the damned packet. I curse myself for not stopping in Southend for a proper feed when I had the chance. As it is, I’m too tired to even brush my teeth.
Second time round, eating at neon fast food joints where people look at me funny is my number one reason for cycling. It starts conversations and connections.
My second time round Britain is blatantly inspired by the philosopher Heraclitus ‘The Obscure’, who held that everything is forever in flux.
Heraclitus’s number one smash hit aphorism deserves its own block quote:
No man can step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
That means I could easily write the story with two very different narrators:
2011 David feels fearful, lost and hurt, in dire need of the ride’s healing power, hoping only to survive the journey, at times desperate for it all to be over.
2020s David feels lucky, open, curious, bursting to get back out into the world, thriving on the chaos of misadventure, dragging out every mile, seeking a kind of immortality in a ride that may never end.
Perhaps I could juxtapose stories from each narrator, not only to show how the river has changed, but the man too.
First time round, Hastings left zero impression. Zero. Here’s the totality of what I wrote about Hastings back in 2011. Ready?
Retirement seaside towns skip by in a summer’s breeze of tea rooms and stately homes: Eastbourne, Hastings, Rye.
That’s it. It’s not a bad sentence, but stretching for poetry to make up for emptiness of content. Did I stop in those tea rooms, did I admire those stately homes? No.
My experiences of Hastings in 2020 were more like pages ripped from a James Joyce stream-of-consciousness.
Besides the kidnapping, it’s where I bought my BBC-famous touring bugle, from a junk shop for £13. I haggled them down from £20. If I’d known then what that bugle would become later, I’d have paid £40.
I suppose I’m wrestling with how to entwine the two rides without getting bogged down.
Help me: what’s the story here?
Is the story about how Britain and I have changed between 2011 and 2023? In which case, the balance of the two rides should be pretty even.
Or is the story simply the rippping-est yarn that I can spin? In which case, 2011 will play a much smaller role.
To minimise 2011 would seem like a waste of something that makes my perspective unique. Yet, if I were to include 2011, then there is almost too much material and I risk diluting the whole for the sake of the concept.
This feels like a weird way to approach a story about a couple of bike rides. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know.
But I would appreciate fresh minds working on the problem with me.
A warm welcome with cold hands clasped about a flask.
My blood responds to caffeine with what could be called an excess of vim, so I feel a pang of envious exclusion when I recall the arcadian utopianism of the Coffee Outside movement:
Aeropress. Bialetti. Briki. A kelly kettle or a coffee bag. Java drip, filter, press pot or percolator. A Moka pot and wanderlust for al-Makha. Perhaps you’ll gather twigs and light a fire for cowboy coffee or forage, roast and grind a beech nut substitute coffee. Or maybe you’ll simply carry your cup from kitchen to sunlit garden and sit for a while, caging the minute within its nets of gold.
Coffee Outside is an alchemical substitution, the transference of addiction to connection, but, as an enforced tea guzzler, my tastes are milder.
Then — eureka! — why can we not Movemberise this very month and reclaim these four weeks for the triumphal trinity of kettle-boiling, flask-filling, tongue-scorching?
Arise, unite, and light a fire for Fe-brew-ary!
Thunderstruck by genius, I was.
Turns out, of course, that the punmaster general of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust got there long before me. Naturally, too, the Brewers Association of Maryland.
But that won’t stop us, no. Doorstep, garden, beach and wood await your gentle brew.
It’s dark outside and the windows are misted up with rain. Our tans have faded and even our steely thighs have turned to jelly.
As all but the freshest or most cursory reader will know, I’m one of the infamous community of cyclists that make up Thighs of Steel and every year I help organise what is almost certainly Europe’s longest charity bike ride.
Last summer, our 93 cyclists not only rode 5,428km from Glasgow to Athens, but also raised a record-breaking (for us) £114,632 in solidarity with grassroots refugee projects through charity MASS Action.
I know that many TDCN readers contributed to the pot, so thank you: £114,632, including £12k in Gift Aid, is such a significant amount of money.
It means that MASS Action have been able to give a big YES to no fewer than sixteen solidarity projects, covering pretty much every aspect of the movement for migrant social justice:
Community centres offer everything from nourishing meals and legal support to bus tickets and hot showers in Thessaloniki (Wave Thessaloniki), Samos (Just Action) and Athens (Khora)
Several projects provide accommodation or work to improve living conditions in Sheffield (ASSIST Sheffield), Glasgow (Scottish Asylum Seekers Resident Association) and Athens (Chamomile and Mazi x FORGE For Humanity)
The Babylon Project offers drama, storytelling, film-making and dance in the UK, while Musikarama connects people through music in Athens
Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group supports people during and after immigration detention
Hakoura Organic is an ecological cooperative farm established by refugees in the countryside northwest of Athens
No Evictions Network, No Borders Network and Calais Migrant Solidarity take direct action to support the rights, safety and dignity of people on the move in the UK and France
In Scotland, LGBT UNITY is a peer support group made up of LGBTQIA+ refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow and Bike For Refugees runs cycling community hubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh
Phew! Hard to believe what a couple of months’ cycling can achieve.
It’s so significant that we couldn’t even display every project on one pie chart, so please hurry along to The Reason and read more about what all that money is doing out in the world.
And — YES — this isn’t even the whole pie. There’s still £7,445.23 for MASS Action to distribute after this summer’s ride, wherever the need is greatest.
We open for signups on Friday 17 February at 6pm — but ONLY if you’re on our special secret early access email list.
The most popular weeks sell out minutes after going live, so get on it!
Humanity is a team game. We don’t have to do it all — we can’t — but we can choose to play our part.
I’m lucky that my part, right now, is to help put on a bike ride that makes space for others to shine — not only the ninety-odd cyclists who surprise themselves with their own strength, but also the people and projects making change happen on the ground.
Everything we do in life either brings us one step closer together or pushes us further apart.
Belinda was expedition manager on the BBC 2 series Beyond Boundaries, in which eleven men and women trekked 220 miles across the Nicaraguan jungle and desert, dodging bandits, wading through crocodile infested rivers and summitting a live volcano.
In short: one heck of an adventure.
What’s this got to do with me and my knee cartilage?
The eleven members of the Nicaragua expedition included two in wheelchairs, one deaf, one blind, one double foot amputee, two arm amputees, one with spina bifida and three single leg amputees.
I read this as a gentle reminder that we all, all the time, have to ‘start from where we are’.
It’s not much use me dreaming of all the things I used to do or mourning for all the adventures I’ve had to cancel over the past month.
Better to start from where I am today and accept that hiking across Dartmoor or cycling through the Lake District just isn’t going to work for me right now.
That doesn’t mean everything else is off the table as well. Far from it.
But I must start from where I am, not from where I used to be or from where I think I should be or from where I would one day love to be.
The first challenge for me today is not to swim with crocodiles, but to interrupt an alienating cycle of inactivity.
Here’s my current pattern of thinking:
Rest my knee ➡️ Limit walking and exercise ➡️ Stop going outdoors much ➡️ More work, more screentime ➡️ Low mood, poor sleep ➡️ Stop doing much of anything and head back indoors ↩️
It’s a slippery slide, especially when I’m clinging onto the hope that this won’t be forever, that the knee pain won’t last and things will return to normal soon.
I mean, they probably will — I spoke to a very reassuring physio on Wednesday — but still, no.
I don’t believe that the best first response to any problem is to suck it up and wait it out. That’s not me.
Not only does such a solution fail to reflect the reality of where I am, it also spits on the unbelievable good fortune of every minute of my existence.
Instead, I’ll start from where I am and honour the time I have now — not mortgage it against some contingent future.
So this week I’ve instituted a new rule: no screens until I’ve done at least three beautiful things for the good of my today self.
This list of ideas is still growing and welcomes new suggestions. A ✔️ indicates what I’ve done since Wednesday:
Read a book ✔️✔️✔️
See or phone a friend
Go outside and watch the goats eat breakfast ✔️✔️✔️
Chancellor of the High Court Sir Julian Martin Flaux supported the plaintiff that wild camping was not ‘open air recreation’ — despite the breathless adventures of generations of school groups, Scout troops, Duke of Edinburgh and Ten Tors expeditions, and the countless escapades of a multitude of ‘commoners’, as we’re known.
To be fair to the judge, I’ve spent more than a few nights out on Dartmoor and not all of them have fallen neatly into most people’s definition of ‘recreation’.
But, for me, nothing beats shivering the night away through nine hours of wind and fog until murky dawn ekes across the mire and it’s almost safe to pull on drenched boots and quag out into the sopping halflight.
If that’s not recreation, then I don’t know what it is. We’re not all into pheasant shoots and deer stalking.
Perhaps the objection rests more on the ‘open air’ part of the phrasing.
But, when you can see your own breath crystallise, it doesn’t matter that a skin of canvas blocks out the worst of the weather, that, to me, is ‘open air’.
My friends know me so well that I had, in fact, already heard the news from the Right To Roam campaign newsletter:
Wild camping is pitching a tent when your body is tired and allowing the landscape to hold you where you belong, it’s learning about yourself and nature and it’s being inspired by looking up at the cosmos like we have done for millennia.
We will not back down. We will not let [..] entitled, misanthropic behaviour destroy the only remaining scrap of land where we are permitted to sleep freely under the sky.
This news was important, not only to me, but to society at large and it has provoked an instant response.
The first thing to say is that the Dartmoor National Park Authority have already struck a deal with The Dartmoor Commons Owners’ Association.
This agreement swiftly restored the right to wild camp on some parts of the Dartmoor Commons and, if your interest in this story is only tent peg deep, then you can stop here.
But if, like me, you’re unnerved by the summary dissolution of long-held rights by a single judgement — transatlantic echoes of the US Supreme Court decision on abortion last year — then please read on.
1 Pleasure Permit, Please
While, in a practical sense, wild camping on Dartmoor was only illegal for a few days, the legal judgement has dealt a huge blow to the spirit of our land.
Wild camping is allowed now only by the grace of the landed gentry.
That means, not only that the area for permissive wild camping is restricted, but that campers must now follow a code of conduct as a condition of their presence on the land.
Don’t get me wrong: much of the code of conduct is eminently sensible and is currently identical to pre-existing national park guidance.
But who knows what might be added to this code in future?
The nature of permission, of course, is that it is conditional and may be withdrawn at any moment — indeed, this hasty agreement only lasts twelve months.
Adding injury to insult, the Dartmoor National Park Authority must now pay landowners for the privilege of allowing access. Money that they do not have.
And You Want Us To Be Grateful?
Interestingly, Friday’s legal challenge was brought by a single landowner, a man scornfully described in the Guardian as a ‘veteran City fund manager’, for the broader narrative of this story — and the reason why it’s worthy of your attention — is the greed of the super rich against the freedom of the commoner.
As Guy Shrubsole from the Right To Roam campaign told the BBC:
The public have just had their right to wild camp summarily snatched from them by a wealthy landowner — now we’re expected to be grateful to landowners who grant us permission to wild camp, and pay for the privilege. It’s a ransom note.
But the law protects wealth and it is very difficult to challenge the super rich in court, on their home turf.
So Right to Roam are also organising something more embodied, on the veteran City fund manager’s actual turf: a mass gathering tomorrow afternoon to ‘summon the spirit of Old Crockern, Dartmoor’s ancient defender against greed’.
From the panicked tone of the event page, they are expecting a lot of support.
Which Side Are You On?
If, like me, you can’t get down to Dartmoor tomorrow, I urge you to go again (and again), alone, with friends, with lovers, with enemies, and camp on inalienable soil.
This isn’t about judiciary interpretations, this is about that ancient socialist incantation: Which side are you on?
Are you on the side of the alienating privilege that would threaten with force your quiet enjoyment of land, river, forest, stars?
Or are you on the side of what I’ve learned to call Team Human?
Do you listen to Douglas Rushkoff’s podcast Team Human? He recently wrote a book based on the fact that loads of the world’s richest people have hired him as a consultant to tell them how to stay safe in a societal breakdown. His answer is the same as yours: humans.
Little did I know that following this trail would be like stepping away from a jigsaw and suddenly seeing how the pieces fit together.
Our 260,000 Year Winning Record
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s basic premise is that there are two competing approaches to solving the catastrophes of late-stage capitalism — two teams, if you like.
There is the team led by escapist billion- and trillionaires, who propose technological solutions for every planetary and societal ailment and who believe that their wealth can isolate them from the misery that their ways of life and business has helped cause.
You know the ones: those who think that the way out of the climate crisis on Planet Earth is to set up a plutocratic colony on Mars.
Whatever his problem was, his victory is Pyrrhic: he has only made things worse for himself.
In contrast, the Team Human playbook declares that the only way to solve our problems for everyone, including veteran City fund mangers, is not with alienation, but with closer community, mutual aid, and human interdependency.
Making Power Irrelevant
My friends know me well: I really do avoid all news media.
It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the part that leapt out at me:
[The] more resilient and self-sufficient we can become on a local level, the less pressure we put on […] larger systems and decisions.
The more sustainable our local economies, the less brittle will be their response to a sudden influx of immigrants or Covid-related business closures.
The more quickly and efficiently we can assist each other during extreme weather events, the less dependent we’ll be on […] centralised authorities for cash.
Such cooperation may actually require that we reduce our exposure to the most inflammatory messaging coming from our for-profit news opinion shows and Internet platforms, which work hard to undermine the collaborative spirit we need to face the challenges ahead.
Until I read these words (and heard them at the beginning of this episode of the Team Human podcast), I’d never really understood why it was so important to me to restrict my exposure to news media.
I always knew there was something going on, that undirected consumption of news media had a deleterious effect on my soul, but I’d never framed that as part of the wider struggle for our future as a species.
Douglas Rushkoff showed me how the pieces fit together.
Connection and cooperation on a local level — human to human, here and now — makes the relentless negativity of the news media, and the power it represents, not only harmlessly avoidable, but ultimately irrelevant.
Team Human Very Rarely Loses
It may feel like we have a long way to go to establish social justice through connection and cooperation — and we do.
But it begins with a small decision that we take today to play on Team Human.
The good news is that Team Human has a roster of billions and all we have to do is take our place on the field.
A united response to one man’s interpretation of the law renders that interpretation irrelevant: a mass camp-out will not, cannot be budged by the threat of violence.
Repeated camp-outs, combined with other citizen responses, will, inevitably, repeal that interpretation and create new laws that protect access to nature.
The high court’s decision over wild camping on Dartmoor is a setback, but I can now see that it is an invitation to make The Choice.
Will I choose Team Privilege and plan in vain my escape from humanity and the common life, or will I take the side of Team Human and, not only join the fight to repeal this judgement, but keep on fighting until we have extended the right to roam across the whole of England and Wales, as it is today in Scotland?
It’s a choice for us all.
Perhaps the right to roam isn’t your home ground, but humanity is a team game and we need everyone to pull on a shirt and play.
So, whatever position you find yourself in, whatever special powers you bring onto the field, Team Human needs you — right now.
Thanks to Dan Sumption for pointing me in the direction of Team Human. Dan writes a concise, conscious newsletter over at The Mycoleum.
If you have any suggestions on how I can expand my mind, I’d be very grateful if you’d take a minute to reply to this email with a book, a podcast, an article, an intellectual or a musician that changed your paradigm.
Speak to silence, speak of fire and fire, to the zero future of ice light
Future of fire and ice, with broken silence, speak to love
Speak, broken country, of love and roses, cold wind, gifts and night
Future of ice and fire, in broken night, speak to laugh
Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.
Over two days earlier this week, mum and I walked 45km from Peterborough Cathedral to a tiny church hidden by trees in a tiny place called Little Gidding.
Little Gidding — named for the madness of divine possession — is the toponymic title of the fourth of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, a collection first published 1936-1942.
Last winter into spring, you might remember, we walked from the first of the quartets to the second: Burnt Norton to East Coker.
It was a journey of no particular end, but at least in its beginning was its end.
This week’s hike had no such defined beginning. As the house painter at our guest house said: ‘Why Peterborough?’
I’ll leave an answer to Eliot himself, from the first part of Little Gidding:
Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
Swan carcasses, evensong, rotting sculptures, masked graffiti, community tree planting, heron flights and invisible medicine — all before leaving the bounds of Peterborough.
What is your own description of what the songs on ‘Love and Theft’ are about?
You’re putting me in a difficult position. A question like that can’t be answered in the terms that you’re asking. A song is just a mood that an artist is attempting to convey. … I really don’t know what the summation of all these songs would really represent.
… I don’t consider myself a sophist or a cynic or a stoic or some kind of bourgeouis industrialist, or whatever titles people put on people. Basically, I’m just a regular person. I don’t walk around all the time out of my mind with inspiration.
Over fifty years of interviews, Dylan is enduring in his intention: he’s nothing more than a ‘song and dance man’, trying to capture a mood.
Whatever meaning you take from that mood, well that’s up to you.
Just reading and repeating those words makes me come up short: that’s not what it’s about. Not for me, anyway.
That’s the danger of reading the critics.
Good for them for spotting all these biblical references in the text, but I am Dylan The Relativist when it comes to poetry: I don’t want to be told what something means.
(Not even by George Orwell, who thought Four Quartets was a bit of an Anglo-Catholic, Royalist, political let down. Even so, as Orwell goes on to say: ‘To dislike a writer’s politics is one thing. To dislike him because he forces you to think is another.’)
I don’t know whether Eliot was of a similar mind to Dylan when it came to the interpretation of his work, but I know as a writer myself that part of what makes writing so magical is precisely the batshit readings that some crazies put on your work.
Writing scripts for radio means putting words into the mouths of actors. But it’s not a one-way track.
A great actor takes those words and spins them in a direction the writer never dreamed. And when it works: gold.
Not only does fantastical interpretation make my work easier (and make me look much cleverer than I am), in some sense, creative interpretation is the goal of my work.
I write down images, you recreate them in your head.
Sometimes, if I’m lucky, those images land as significant — but never forget that it’s your recreation that generates the significance.
At best, I can be credited with nudging your thoughts in the vague direction that my own were heading.
Just as often, I’m sure, my words send you off another way altogether. And that’s fine.
(Of course, our efforts are usually a footnote in your lives and, all too frequently, our words scarcely survive as CONTENT, passing by your eyeballs for a moment’s distraction.)
But it’s right and noble for a writer’s words (or music) to be nothing more (or less) than a prompt for your own creativity.
That’s what Eliot does for me: his poetry prompts.
In this case, it prompted a hike.
Now: I suspect that a hike is not what Eliot had in mind as he laboured over his poem, while ‘highly civilised human beings’ flew overhead trying to kill him.
But my creative response is none of his business.
Altered In Fulfilment
I’m not saying that intended meaning isn’t important for everyday communication.
If I say something to you, I usually have a clear intention to communicate some kind of meaning to you. If you get it wrong and I find out, it’s likely that I’ll try again.
What I am saying is that, when it comes to poetry, interpretation is far more important than intention.
Art is what an artist puts before an audience. The work is done. It’s gone. There’s nothing more the artist can do about that. The monkey is out of the cage and the work stands alone.
That’s not to say that artists have no right to try again (and again) to capture and convey the mood they have in mind.
That must be what has powered Bob Dylan across eight decades of creativity: striving to capture and convey some element of ineffable human experience.
Otherwise why bother writing another bitter lover jilted ballad after Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (1963), a song so successful that it’s been recorded 237 times since?
Why should Dylan follow that up with One Too Many Mornings (1964), I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (1964), Mama, You Been On My Mind (1964), Like A Rolling Stone (1965), One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) (1966), She’s Your Lover Now (1966), Dirge (1974), Idiot Wind (1975), If You See Her, Say Hello (1975), You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (1975), Most Of The Time (1989), Love Sick (1997) and Forgetful Heart (2009) — to name, off the cuff, thirteen of my favourite songs, not only in the bitter lover jilted ballad genre, not only of Dylan’s, but in the whole of recorded musical history?
Dylan is trying to convey the ineffable. With great songs — or poetry — we get it. And each time we get it, we get it in a slightly different way, bringing our own past, present and future to the poem.
Bob Dylan consistently rejects the labels that other people want to put on his occupation and on his lyrics.
And I’ll do the same with Little Gidding.
We Shall Not Cease
Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
Both Eliot and Dylan were influenced by the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the poet whose inept gun-running granted Ethiopia the arms to defeat the colonising Italians and remain the only unfettered nation in Africa.
Rimbaud was once lauded as France’s greatest poet. Novelist Henry Miller decided that ‘contemporary French poetry owes everything to Rimbaud’.
Here’s a snippet of Rimbaud to give you a flavour:
It has been recovered.
What? — Eternity.
It is the sea escaping
With the sun.
I can see both Dylan and Eliot waiting to burst free.
But the word ‘Poet’ is nowhere near Rimbaud’s gravestone. It’s Arthur Rimbaud, Adventurer*.
Maybe that is some validation of my interpretation of Eliot’s poetry as a call to adventure (yes: it’s not Abyssinian gun-running, but even a hike in Cambridgeshire can be adventure).
It’s right there in the poetry of Little Gidding, too:
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.
Time is cyclical. Creation is cyclical. Sunrise to sunset.
In My End Is My Beginning
So let’s read the batshit opening of today’s story again — and know it for the first time:
Speak to silence, speak of fire and fire, to the zero future of ice light
Future of fire and ice, with broken silence, speak to love
Speak, broken country, of love and roses, cold wind, gifts and night
Future of ice and fire, in broken night, speak to laugh
Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.
This nonsense poem definitely means something to me, something about walking through midwinter England with poetry on my mind and my ma by my side.
If I’m lucky, it might mean something to you. Something strange, maybe.
But if you know your Eliot and Dylan, it might mean something altogether else. If you look closely. Look closely.
Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.
It might entertain you to know that my little poem was written using only the fifty-two words found in both Eliot’s Little Gidding and Dylan’s Love Minus Zero/No Limit.
What does that mean?
Nothing at all — except that the little poem now exists in the world and maybe it means something to me and maybe it’ll mean something to you.
Besides, I got nothing else to do, man.
*I got this detail from an interview given by Bob Dylan to journalist Jonathan Cott in the January 26, 1978 edition of Rolling Stone. It’s not true. Rimbaud’s grave credits neither poetry nor adventure, only the resigned words ‘Pray for him’.
But I was really struck by something that the first speaker, Emma, shared during her re-telling of a Christmas adventure on the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia.
The Carretera Austral is a 1240km road that runs dead south through one of the most wild and remote places on the planet, with the Andes mountain range to the east and the Pacific ocean to the west, in a region populated by fewer than one person per square kilometre on average.
It’s a forbidding road to cycle alone: hundreds of kilometres of undulating hills, with scarcely any of the demographic distraction of towns or villages — or even any opportunity to make a turn left or right.
When, in the distance, Emma saw a sign that said 18km to her campspot for the night, she rejoiced. When, close up, she saw that the sign read 48km, she despaired.
But the relentlessness of the ride worked over her psyche in the way that only physical exercise can. Her mental landscape gradually turned with the wheels she pushed.
The road is here. The hills are here. I am here.
I chose — and I choose — to be here.
In such a situation, dread for the road ahead is, well, pretty absurd.
636km in Winter
On Wednesday night, I fell asleep in Inverness and woke up in London.
(Full marks, incidentally, to the Caledonian Sleeper — cheaper and far more convivial than a day train.)
I was on my way back from completing the sixth stage of my second tour around Britain, covering 636km from Edinburgh to Inverness across nine days.
Last week I wrote about how we should rebrand November as Yes-vember and shift our wintertime adventuring mindset away from ‘cold, miserable’ to ‘crisp, magical’.
(For those of you wondering: nope, I never solved the problem of cold feet. Not even the mysterious air-activated chemical foot warmers that G kindly bought me did the job. Next time: get sponsored by a heated sock company?)
What I heinously failed to mention last week was my dread.
Without really meaning to, I might have given the impression that I decided to go cycling in Scotland at the end of November and then that’s what I went and did.
It wasn’t that simple.
In the run-up to the ride, I wasn’t feeling my best and I went through the motions of preparation on autopilot.
Mechanically, I filled pannier bags with sleeping kit and warm clothes and fitted Martin (my bike) with water bottles, snack bags, tool kits and all the other accoutrements of cycle touring.
I did just enough work to get myself into a position where I could still go up to Scotland.
But even as I was driving crosscountry to meet G, who kindly offered to give me a lift up to Glasgow, I was still not convinced that I would go — that I should go, even.
Who cycles around Scotland in the frosted tip of November? Shouldn’t I rather stay at home, bed down for winter and work? Wouldn’t I rather take saunas and watch the World Cup?
At This Point…
Huge thanks are in order to G, without whose logistical and psychological support I wouldn’t have had the gumption alone to get my ass up north.
Somehow, she made adventure the path of least resistance.
We all need allies like that: thank you!
But Still: Dread
Even after we’d arrived in Glasgow, even after a day of rest and recovery, I was still hesitant to catch a train to Edinburgh and begin the ride.
Breaking inertia is always the hardest part of doing anything. Going from zero to one: The Doorstep Mile, as Alastair Humphreys calls it.
Why not stay in the warmth and maybe leave tomorrow?
Or, actually, there’s no need to push myself to ride at all.
I could find somewhere to work from Glasgow and enjoy the company of my friends up here for a week of warmth instead of cycling alone around the cold coastline.
In the end, I was decided by the gentle persuasion of my own preparations, bolstered by memories of past experience with inertia and a growing sense of expectation from those around me that I was here to ride.
And the weather forecast signed rain for tomorrow.
Best would be to start today, now, this evening, with a few hours of night-riding to camp, across the water from Edinburgh on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth.
There was nothing left to do but get moving. And with decisive action, dread dissolved to thrill.
The road is here. The hills are here. The cold is here.
I chose — and I choose — to be here.
Fortune Favours, Erm, Me Sometimes
As you can hopefully see from my photos, my choice was paired with fantastical fortune.
Aside from two hours of drizzle through the morning of my first full day’s ride and a hail squall near Carnoustie, the weather was clear sunshine, unbroken but for the long nights, which were filled by the light of more distant stars and an otherworldly crescent moon.
Such fortune went untarnished by yet another snapped chain — I wonder what I’m doing wrong? Probably just cycling too much.
My nine days of sunshine and stars couldn’t have been in more extreme contrast to the experience of a fellow tourer I met on that sleeper train from Inverness.
Nurul had cycled from the west instead of the east. Her ride had been a battle of winds and rain, off road or main road, through the central highlands.
Originally from Malaysia, Nurul is one of those ordinary humans going about doing extraordinary things while the rest of us are writing emails and washing duvet covers.
Her ride began when she woke up one summer morning to the realisation that she was vanishingly alone in the world: no ancestors, no descendents. Everyone who had ever cared for her was dead.
So Nurul quit her job and flew to Amsterdam, determined to start connecting with some of the other seven billion humans on this planet.
I’m lucky that one of them was me.
Fuelled by a dim memory of how much she loved the freedom of cycling when she was a kid, Nurul’s original plan was to spend a couple of weeks riding from Amsterdam to Hamburg.
But a chance meeting with some Danes led her further on, and, once in Denmark, why not keep going?
Eventually, in the long light of Sweden, she met a Dutch guy who was cycling back home to Amsterdam.
‘But this is Sweden! How do you get to Amsterdam from here?’
By the time Nurul got back to Amsterdam, she realised with a shock that she only had four days left on her 90-day EU visa — too much of a scramble to get her bike packed up and a flight home.
So she cycled across the Netherlands and hopped onto a ferry to Harwich.
(I’d never considered how handy Britain’s exit from the EU is for long distance cycle tourers!)
Nurul’s plan was to take a few days in London to sort her travel back to Malaysia, without the pressure of a four-day deadline.
But you’re getting a good idea of what happens when Nurul makes plans…
Yep: she cycled a thousand kilometres up country to Inverness.
Nurul still hasn’t learned her lesson, though. Worried, perhaps dreading, the onset of winter, she now, finally, plans to fly home.
I get it: Malaysia is a tropical country. Even if it wasn’t, hell, I myself was dreading the prospect of cycling in the UK in November.
I wouldn’t blame Nurul for returning home. But that didn’t stop me, as we said goodbye at Euston station, from beseeching her to tilt her handlebars southwest.
Midwinter in Cornwall is no worse than Scotland in November, I told her, certainly not the November she’d experienced, with its freezing hail and sub-zero temperatures.
Come stay with me, come ride with me. There is so much more to see, so many more of the seven billion here to meet.
Three Shifts: Statistical, Logistical, Psychological
Since 2020, when I left home to cycle the first stage of my second round Britain ride, I’ve cycled a total of 5,109km over 73 days.
The biggest statistical shift between this multi-year, staged journey and the first time I cycled around Britain is how far I travel each day.
In 2011, I averaged 50km per daymore than I am cycling this second time round. Madness.
The biggest logistical shift is from doing the whole thing in one 58-day sprint in the summer of 2011 to splitting the ride into nine stages, spread over five years.
Half a decade. Wonderful.
But the biggest shift between this journey and the first is the shift in my internal and external outlook, from isolation to connection.
This, as some of you will certainly know by now, is my second time cycling this way.
Back in 2011, this section of my 58-day circumcycle of Britain took me six summer days.
This time around I’ve been on the move three days already and I’m less than a third of the way to Inverness.
Well, actually, I got to Perth yesterday lunchtime so that’s only half a day and I left Edinburgh on Tuesday as the sun was setting athalf past three. So that was only four hours’ riding in darkness and mist.
Wednesday was a full day’s ride, but a full day’s light in November in Scotland is less than eight hours. A scarce comparison to July 2011, when the light lasts more than twice as long.
I guess this is why November — the end of November, no less — is not the typical time of year for a bonnie bike tour.
It also explains why I haven’t seen any other tourers on this ride so far. Only swaddled commuters and university students pushing around Saint Andrews.
All the fun, but none of the heaviness of Christmas. Mince pies and Christmas cake, but not yet wall-to-wall East-17 and Mariah Carey.
All the amazing kit. Okay, I acknowledge that kit does cost money and it helps that I basically do this sort of thing professionally now, but… Proper winter kit is thrilling for what it can do for your comfort. Key items so far: insulated sleep mat (£££), thermal base layers (£), quality lights for hours of night riding (££).
The weather can never disappoint you. It’s winter: you’re expecting cold and rain. It doesn’t always happen. Rejoice. (In fact, it’s only drizzled for two hours out of the 18 that I’ve been riding.)
PS: Aren’t You Cold?
97.2 percent of me: absolutely not. While I’m cycling, even in the drizzle, I’m cosy from helmet to heel.
The solution to cold feet doesn’t seem to lie in layering. I’m wearing two pairs of socks (one waterproof), plus two sets of overshoes (one thermal).
Layering isn’t the solution because trapping warm air doesn’t seem to be the problem.
The problem is inactivity — an odd thing to say given how much exercise I’m doing, but hear me out.
Cold feet aren’t a problem when I’m hiking through snow, for example, where my feet are active players, flexing this way and that.
This only happens when I’m cycling in winter, where my feet are nothing more than terminal platforms; contact elements between piston thighs and crank pedals.
They are the selfless heroes of the journey: closest to the upspray from the wet road, toes to the wind, sixty times a minute pushing on the pedals, and with every pounding what warm blood remains further condensed and crushed.
The problem might not be layering, but I’m determined that my toes know how grateful I am.
So yesterday I went out and bought not one but two more thermal layers for my poor phalangeal platforms — and my shoes are in the oven.
What are we really looking for when we’re really looking for something?
That was the question I found myself asking as I tore onward through the sodden undergrowth, shredding myself on brambles and pulling myself up on slippery fern roots and inquisitive cables of rhododendron.
I reached the top of the bank covered in liquid soil, faced with a thick hedgerow and a stand of barbed wire. From the comfort of his finely mowed paddock, a horse stared back at me, through the mizzle, over this impassable fence.
I was looking for a footpath — clearly mapped, I might add, right here. But the map is not the territory. In this case, the territory is the thorn.
I slid back the way I’d scrambled.
With three days to spare between two activities inside the M4 Corridor, I decided to drive through to the old red sandstone mountains of the Brecon Beacons, ostensibly on a mushroom-hunting escapade.
Given that my mushroom identification skills are almost non-existent — there is only one species I can name with any confidence — the hunt is rarely more than an excuse to spend time foraging the humid air.
In that sense, I found exactly what I was looking for.
When we look for something, anything, we usually start with something in mind. And so it is that these grades of knowledge also frame the context of our search:
Unknown knowns: unconscious competence, flow, mastery — but also unconscious bias, blind spots, invisible privilege, systemic violence, racism, etc. (Žižek’s example was the US military’s atrocities at Abu Ghraib)
Known knowns: conscious competence and confidence, closed mind, fixed mindset, our comfort zone
Known unknowns: conscious incompetence, growth mindset, learning, open mind, self-awareness, the wisdom of Socrates, managed risk, beyond our comfort zone
Unknown unknowns: unconscious incompetence, adventure, mystery, faith, more blind spots, unmanaged risk, recklessness, the danger zone
If we start our search with our minds filled with knowns (whether known or unknown), then we’re unlikely to find much besides the thing we are looking for.
As of 2020, mycologists had named about 148,000 different species of fungus. The current best guess is that there are at least another 2.65 million more to be stumbled upon.
At the absolute most, my ignorant, but open-minded walk unwittingly uncovered 0.0001 percent of fungal diversity.
For every one of those beautiful waxcap mushrooms that caught my eye in the wet grass, dozens more species were growing hidden in the soil beneath my feet — the overwhelming majority unknown to even the most prolific mycologist.
This brief peer behind the taxonomic curtain gives us but a glimpse of the fathomless possibility of what we could be ‘looking for’ if we open our minds as well as our eyes.
Imagine searching for a tin needle in a haystack — and missing that each blade of straw is solid gold.
What are we really looking for when we are really looking for something?
Perhaps life is at its most wonderful when we acknowledge that we don’t even know ourselves.
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.
(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.
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.
6 Thighs of Steel London Cycle Club rides and 4 New Forest Off Road Club rides
1 day hiking and 1 day mushroom picking on the Purbecks, plus another day doing conservation work on Brownsea Island
18 days’ travelling overland to spend time with friends in Paris, Rudenoise, Chantilly, Bayonne, Madrid, Lisbon, Barcelona and the inside of a long-distance coach while trying to stifle a heavy cold during a pandemic panic
I said that Thighs of Steel left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.
I also said that 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km over the course of 49 days.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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:
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…
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Back up the hill, in silence.
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 😂
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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. 💪
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.
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.
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.
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.
No — I should be boring you with an endless slideshow of what I done on my holidays.
Alright then, here you go:
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.
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.
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…
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
How long does it take?
How much does it cost?
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:
At 30 hours, it would take three times as long as flying (including getting to the airport and going through security and immigration).
One way and booked three weeks in advance, this journey would cost about £240, compared to about £140 by plane.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.