The Adventure of Scrape Bottom Last night I walked to Markway Hill in the New Forest to watch the sunset, part of my Winter Forest Sunsets challenge to visit all twenty-two high points in the national park, witnessing and celebrating as the envelope of our days is gently eased apart.

Last night I walked to Markway Hill in the New Forest to watch the sunset, part of my Winter Forest Sunsets challenge to visit all twenty-two high points in the national park, witnessing and celebrating as the envelope of our days is gently eased apart.

I chose Markway Hill because I left home a little later than I should’ve done to catch sunset. Markway Hill is right next to a main road: easy to access in a hurry.

Or so I thought.

The car park was separated from the trig point by two kilometres of bog.

Sunset at Clayhill Bottom

After going in ankle deep, I chose not to pursue the waterlogged path across Clayhill Bottom. I struck out for higher ground of (no joke) Scrape Bottom and immediately went in up to my knee.

I had no option but to persevere, climbing as best I could as the ground — if you can call it that — shook beneath me. I’ll admit: it was hard to admire the shivvering miracle of mossy abundance that turned water into soil while I myself was sinking to my doom.

With sodden boots squelching at every step, I traversed the hills through heather, bracken and gorse so deep and so thick that it unravelled the laces on my right boot. This was proper Lewis Carroll snicker-snack Jabberwock territory.

It took me forty five minutes to cover those two kilometres and it was long dark by the time I got to Markway Hill, whatever sunset there might have been totally obscurred by clouds of mist settling over the mire.

It’s fair to say that the New Forest schooled me last night: not as mild mannered as all those picture perfect ponies would have you think.

On top of all that, Markway Hill is, of course, right by the main road. The trudge back to my car not total fun either, blinded by the booming rush of electricity and gasoline.

And do you know what I thought as I stumbled eyeless along the roadside verge, unsure whether my next invisible step would pierce me on the needle pins of a gorse bush or right into the path of an oncoming Volvo?

Give me thigh-deep blanket bog over this!

It’s funny. I’ve watched three sunsets from three different high points in the New Forest this week and none of them have been much of anything: a gradual dimming of the lights.

But every morning’s sunrise, watched, like now, from a window overlooking the ocean, has been determined to dazzle and delight, the sun splitting the sky into colour strips of orange and blue, white and fire.

Sunrise over the ocean

Maybe I should flip my Winter Forest Sunset quest to the morning.

5 Incredible Things I’ve Learned From 340 Days Of Adventure NUMBER FIVE WILL BLOW YOUR MIND! 🤯

Lockdown was a bit of a piss-pot for all of us.

But I wonder: can you think of one positive thing that came out of those months of loneliness? I can, just about.

Lockdown, by taking away almost everything I’d ever taken for granted, gave me the time (so much time) and introspection (so much introspection) to notice what really matters to me in this world.

I mean, of course, this world. More specifically: getting out in it.

At the end of 2020, after our first ‘bubble’ Christmas, I decided that the next year I would try to have 100 Days of Adventure; days where I would spend a significant chunk of time outside on an adventure.

I left my definitions deliberately wide open. ‘Outside’ was vague because I’m a firm believer that adventure can be found anywhere: yes to the mountain tracks of Macedonia, but also yes to a walk through Peterborough. Both outside.

‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ were as broad as possible because those terms will mean very different things to different people — including myself, depending on what hat I’m wearing that day.

I don’t think I’ve counted many outings less than a couple of hours, but that’s me. For someone with kids and a full-time office job, getting outside for twenty minutes could be properly significant.

And adventure, well, adventure could be cycling with a hundred people from Glasgow to Athens or it could be asking for a free cup of tea at a snack bar on Bournemouth beach.

Back in 2021, I had serious doubts that I could do 100 Days of Adventure in a year.

It might not seem like a lot, getting outside in a significant way twice a week; but the challenge was to keep the momentum going for the whole year, rain or shine, sickness or health, lockdown or freedom.

Spoiler: I did it. So I did it again in 2022. And again in 2023. Over the past three years, without really paying attention, I’ve racked up 340 Days of Adventure. That, all of a sudden, is a body of work.

I thought it was high time that I look back and distil everything I’ve learned about myself and this world into an internet-friendly listicle.

I have, of course, totally failed in that task. Not really my thing.

But here, nonetheless, are five things that I’ve learned from three years of 100 Days of Adventure (AND NUMBER FIVE WILL BLOW YOUR MIND! 🤯).


1. Even when adventure is a central part of my job, I still have to make time for adventure.

I’m so lucky that my work over the past three years has included 29 days’ supporting schoolkids on their own outdoor expeditions as well as 123 days’ cycling and supporting other cyclists on three mega adventures with Thighs of Steel — but that’s still less than half of all my Days of Adventure.

Even with my vocational head start, 100 Days of Adventure is still a challenge and that challenge has motivated me to do the things that I know make me feel good, but that are not quite as easy as much less adventurous things.

It’s easy to go for a walk along the beach because the beach is right outside my window here in Bournemouth — but that’s not an adventure (unless I get lost and accidentally explore The Millionaire’s Ravine).

It is not so easy to get on my bike, onto a train or into my car and go for a walk somewhere I’ve never been before. That takes a little extra push.

Sometimes that push comes from work: I’m hired to walk with a bunch of kids around the Chiltern Hills. Sometimes that push comes from friends inviting me to stay with them at an off-grid cabin in the Lake District. Sometimes that push comes from a stupid and arbitrary target to go on 100 Days of Adventure.

Whatever the push, the outcome is I feel good. Oh, and also…

2. Adventure is precursor to genius (ahem).

In chemistry, Wikipedia tells me, a precursor is ‘a compound that participates in a chemical reaction that produces another compound’.

Adventure — doing new stuff outside — smashes together not one but two precursors in an alchemical reaction that produces a third really cool thing: genius.

No, really.

This alchemical reaction has been tested by scientists, most famously in a 2014 study by experimental psychologists Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford University.

Their coolest results came when they tested human guinea pigs on a test of creativity called Barron’s Symbolic Equivalence Task.

The BSE gives people five minutes to come up with analogies for three prompts. For example, you might be given the prompt ‘a candle burning low’ and you might (if you’re feeling really creative) come up with an analogy like ‘the last hand of a gambler’s last game’.

Importantly, the BSE has what psychologists call good ‘external validation’: it really does measure creativity in the real world. Someone clever went out and gave the BSE to loads of people with all different jobs: famous writers came out top.

Anyway. Oppezzo and Schwartz administered the BSE to forty people randomly assigned to four different conditions: sitting down indoors, walking on a readmill indoors, sitting down in a wheelchair outdoors and walking on legs outdoors.

In five minutes, the sitting indoors group came up with an average of 0.6 high quality novel analogies (fair play: not sure I’d get that many).

But here are the cool bits:

  1. Just sitting outdoors more than doubled the number of high quality novel analogies the guinea pigs came up with.
  2. Walking indoors on a treadmill more than trebled the number of brilliant analogies.
  3. And the combination, walking outdoors, quadrupled the number of analogies. These geniuses were churning out an average of 2.4 high quality novel analogies in their five minutes.

Remember: all these people were randomly assigned to the different conditions. There was no underlying difference in their ‘natural’ creativity. Genius was the result of the alchemical reaction catalysed by the combination of activity and the outdoors.

I’ll say again: creativity quadrupled! It really is that simple. Go. Out. Side.

Without claiming to be a total genius, I’ve certainly reaped the benefits of adventure myself, both in ways that are hard to pin down, such as keeping my day-to-day sanity, and in my working output, most obviously the 67 stories I’ve written based on various Days of Adventure, but also pretty much everything else I’ve done in the past three years.

If you want to become a more productive worker bee in 2024, then you could do a lot worse than committing to a habit that regularly gets you outside doing stuff.

3. I’m so lucky that where I live is so rich in adventure…

As this clutch of photographs will attest, I’m incredibly lucky to live so close to New Forest National Park, the Isle of Purbeck and Brownsea Island: three vast adventure playgrounds between twenty and forty minutes from my door.

4. … But I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the adventures this place has to offer!

I have only recently begun to explore the 71,000 acres of the New Forest, while I scarcely know my way around the Purbecks at all. Brownsea Island, meanwhile, is a hotpot of biodiversity that keeps a team of full-time ecologists entertained for their entire careers.

There is more here to see, feel and learn than is possible in a thousand lifetimes.

Even along the same route, the forest today is not the forest I walked through yesterday. There is always something new to discover. (And hopefully it won’t be so boggy.)

As Heraclitus might have said:

‘You can’t go on the same adventure twice: it’s not the same forest, mountain or ocean as it was yesterday, and, besides, you’re not the same person.’

5a. Do something every few days for a few years and — abracadababoom — you’ve got yourself an awesome life…

This is a lesson that every creative person learns at some point: producing good work consistently is not about intensive sprints or pulling all-nighters; it’s about putting in a decent shift and sticking to a regular routine over the course of years.

The same applies to living a life of adventure, or any other existence you want to cultivate on this sweet Earth. Routine is paramount.

In the kind of quote that makes me want to underline every sentence and italicise every other word, Author Annie Dillard praises the ‘scaffolding’ power of routine in her book, The Writing Life:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. […] A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order — willed, faked, and so brought into being.

I also love the poetic words of William Osler, founding professor of Johns Hopkins Hospital, lauding the generative and enduring power of routine to Yale University students in 1913:

One day must tell another, one week certify another, one month bear witness to the same story.

100 Days of Adventure is a schedule, a mock-up of reason and order, that wills into being a particular kind of life, each month of progress bearing witness to the same story: that I am now the kind of person who routinely goes on adventures. Awesome.

5b. … and an awesome body of work.

Over the course of three years, I’ve racked up 340 Days of Adventure and, in partnership with the regular routine of this newsletter, I’ve written a story for 67 of them.

All of a sudden, without really paying any attention, not only have I learned a lot about myself and the world, but I’ve also accidentally built up enough material for a whole book. That’s a body of work.

I didn’t intend this, but here we are.

Now then. I’m aware that I can’t just print out 67 blog posts and call it a book, so I’m curious: what do you think? What would get YOU excited about reading a book about living with many more Days of Adventure in your life?

Gaping Abundance If an hour when you were a kid was worth tuppence (who gets bored on their summer holidays? Kids, that’s who), then an hour today is worth The Bank of England.

2024 will be my first year without a major Thighs of Steel cycle-raising adventure since 2017.

  • 2023 & 2022: Glasgow to Athens co-organiser
  • 2021: Spell It Out record-breaking co-organiser
  • 2020: Around The World lockdown cyclist
  • 2019: London to Athens core team facilitator
  • 2018: Ljubljana to Sofia cyclist
  • 2017: Bugger all

2017, it’s fair to say, was not a great year. To be honest, I felt like shit most of the time — it was (famously) the year of raging Man Sloth Mode.

For about a year, I did nothing…

Thighs of Steel, it’s fair to say, saved my life. At least, it saved the purposeful part of me that needed something to do, rather than simply something to write (although it also helped with a heck of a lot of that).

The last three years in particular have been dominated, all year round, by organising and then riding Europe’s longest charity bike ride. Ergo: 2024 has a whole lot of gaping hole where Thighs of Steel once was.

As well as crapping my pants about not having anything to do, I’m also choosing to see this hole as a gaping abundance of opportunity.

Quite apart from all those Thighs of Steel bullet points, my life has changed a lot since 2017. I think this is best illustrated with a couple of photos, taken six years and about six miles apart:

In other words: six years is a lot of lifetime and there is no reason to suspect that the next six years will be anything other than, well, full. Almost certainly fuller of life than any previous six year segment in the soap opera Dave (now in its forty-second season) because (and here’s the kicker) that’s how life works, kiddo.

If you thought childhood was wasted on the young, just wait until you try adulthood. It’s amazing. All the dreams of youth, but with the utterly misplaced power to make those dreams a reality (or at least some updated adult version).

Unbelievable (for this city dweller) starlight in the dark skies over the Lake District National Park. Side note: I just learned that Glasgow is the most light polluted place in the UK.

This time we have on earth is damnful of promise. If an hour when you were a kid was worth tuppence (who gets bored on their summer holidays? Kids, that’s who), then an hour today is worth The Bank of England.

That’s why it seems like our six year segments only get richer and richer as we age: we make our time count double and double again.

Time might seem to pass more quickly now we’re older and, sure, part of that is because our brains are slowly calcifying, but it’s also because we compress more meaning into our hours.

Now I’m an adult, I’ll be devilled black and blue if I’m going to spend a second longer than I have to on anything that I don’t see as majorly meaningful, even if (especially if) that means making my own meaning.

Everything I’ve done and almost every word I’ve written since 2017 has edged me closer to an expansively dense existence that prioritises the healing power of jolly well getting outside, and sharing those connective encounters and experiences with other people, both in the flesh and on the page (hello you 👋).

Thighs of Steel has been a huge chunk of that story so far, but it’s by no means the end. More like the prologue.

This year, I have signed up to study for something called The Certificate in Advanced Wilderness Therapeutic Approaches.

Big scary title.

But, if my experience is anything to go by (not to mention the experience of the hundreds of people I’ve guided in the outdoors in the past six years), then the blockbuster slamdunk approach of all our therapeutic encounters with wild nature is this: healing by being.

Unlike the pell-mell of what seems like everything else, nature is there.

Nature is there. Always there*. Simply there. Abundantly there. Quietly there. Raucously there. So go: go! See for yourself, feel for yourself. Slow down to tree time. Stretch yourself over aeons. Be outside forever. Lean your forehead against a tree and breathe in the oxygen that this living tree breathes out. Heal by being.

Two humans healing by being on Great Rigg above Grasmere, looking south into the wintery sun.

* Not necessarily always there if we fuck it up too much. Still: by and large, on our puny human timescales, it seems to be always there. Even if ‘it’ is a weed and ‘there’ are the cracks in the crumbling concrete of a carbon junky civilisation. 😘

Two sheep also

The Vengeance of King Edward III I haven’t moved, but these deer are tuned in. One turns and stares right at me. We stand and stare for a breath-holding minute. No danger. They walk on.

Happy Solstice and a warm welcome from the first day of next summer.

We have eight hours thirty-two minutes of sunlight to gain before our zenith in June. Tomorrow we earn barely five seconds, but every day we claw back a little more, and each day until the equinox our gains compound.

Let’s ride that momentum.

The shortest day comes to an end, bleeding out over Andrew’s Mare lake in New Forest National Park

Another Walk In The Woods

A noise alerts me. I freeze, masking my predator outline with a bare tree trunk. I watch in silence as a herd of two dozen deer cut across the forest floor ahead of me.

I’ve been enjoying my winter side quest to watch sunsets from each of the twenty-two trig pillars in New Forest National Park.

Today I walked from Eyeworth Pond out to Bramshaw, which is not only the highest pillar in the Forest, but also perhaps the least impressive, squatting, as it does, on a slightly boggy triangle of flat ground squeezed between three roads.

You’d think there would at least be an expansive view from this lofty altitude of 125.1m above sea level, but the pillar is somewhat plonked in the middle of the kilometre square of Longcross Plain.

And plain it certainly is: the bog never quite rising to the challenge of becoming scrub.

Nevertheless, the slanting beam of sunlight catches the turf in a rather pleasant, hyperrealism sort of a way and, turning west, I already feel much better.

Howen Bottom, a short descent from Longcross Plain

I spent this morning doing infinite spirals of the aisles of Hobbycraft, battling with the paralysing inertia caused when the immovable object of Christmas meets the unstoppable force of inscrutable children.

After what could have been a week, I finally reach exit velocity, my trembling hands clutching a collection of I-don’t-know-whats, snatched from a shelf I might have passed on my way through the outer rings of Saturn.

Voyager 2 is no stranger to the Bournemouth Hobbycraft. Credit: NASA

It’s not that I don’t like Christmas. I do. It’s not even that I don’t like buying other people presents. I really do.

It’s just that the festive season always seems to land on the shortest days of the year, when all I really want to do is lie in the boughs of an old beech and doze until sundown.

Today, the forest is my reward for polishing off my shopping list. Stirred up, agitated, uncalm, I feel like I need it.

After Longcross Plain and Howen Bottom, I turn into the dark thickets of Eyeworth Wood, a tangle of storm-felled oak, navigating the lost old ways by eye and compass.

Eyeworth Wood

That’s when I see the deer. Probably fallow, by some margin the most numerous in the New Forest, but it’s hard to tell from this distance.

They walk sedately, heads up and proud. Hoofsteps crackle in the brushwood.

That prickly sensation you get when you sense you’re being watched is eerily subconscious: even totally blind people get it.

I haven’t moved, but these deer are tuned in. One turns and stares right at me. We stand and stare for a breath-holding minute. No danger. They walk on.

The closest I get are these deer tracks on the banks of Latchmore Brook

I cross into the Island Thorns Inclosure, over a humpback of earth that marks the line of an ancient fence, the park ‘pale’ that once kept deer in and commoners out, and I follow my compass north, uphill, to what my map calls Studley Castle.

Historic England has this to say about the fourteenth century Studley Castle:

The royal hunting lodge at Studley, in the New Forest, survives reasonably well … it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance.

Well, here’s what I say to the Secretary of State:

Sorry, what castle?

What we’re talking about here is the slightest indication of a ditch and the merest suggestion of a raised bank. It’s the one time on this walk that I have to use my phone’s GPS, just to double check that I haven’t missed something like this:

The other Studley Castle, in Studley, Warwickshire. Credit: Amanda Slater

I haven’t. All I’ve missed — I now realise — is the sunset, right now happening somewhere out there, beyond the pale, if I could only see through the flailing limbs of the winter oak.

The ‘castle’ is, however, adorned by the most remarkable tree: splintered into neat planks that I’m tempted to cart home for a bookshelf.

(Having written that sentence, I’m now very annoyed that I didn’t.)

A splintered oak on the site of Studley Castle. Look at all that shelf material!

Searching for ‘what causes a tree to shatter?’, I come across the phenomenon of exploding trees.

I couldn’t see any evidence of lightning on this poor specimen, so I’ve decided it was caused by frost. One winter, the tree sap froze and expanded, bursting its bark skin with an almighty gunshot crack.

It was either that or the vengeful ghost of King Edward III come back to ask what the bloody hell we’ve done to his favourite hunting lodge.

With darkness descending and no head torch, I leave the castle to its mysteries and make a beeline for the trailhead, back over the brooks and through the bracken, walking in the bootprints of history.

I have nothing to end this little story, except this trail thought, found yesterday, on the way over Lucas Castle (also not a castle):

There is an abundance of everything for everyone, especially if you focus on the most important things, which are not only super abundant but infinitely renewable. Love, friendship, fresh air, music, laughter, fresh food, water, stretching and sleep.

Here’s to that — and thanks for reading, friends.

Winter Forest Sunsets: 3/22


A pink sunset sky in the east, over Eyeworth Pond

Sundown In The Forest My winters are usually spent sheltering from the darkness, bathed in electric light. By celebrating sundown, I hope to keep up a strong connection to the outdoors, discover beautiful new places — and maybe even sleep better.

And a warm welcome from Bournemouth, a ‘once desolate heath — now home to famous sequoias, cedars and cypresses’.

I am lucky to live beside the sea for so many reasons. Here’s one: the infinite horizon of the ocean means that, even on the gloomiest of winter days, I still see sunshine, if only for a moment.

In the precious minutes after the sun has risen from the waves, before she disappears into the thickening clouds, the sunlight hits the beach through a band of clear sky, far, far away.

And I start the day secure in the knowledge that, no matter what shit goes down today, there is always somewhere the sun is ringing strong through cloudless skies.

I’m aware that this intro might be bloody annoying for anyone living between tower blocks, where the horizon is manmade and sunrise is artificially delayed, sometimes, in winter, for hours. Sorry!

London shade map at 9.30am: some shade in the narrow strips of green.
Bournemouth shade map at 8.09am: full sunlight across the whole seafront over an hour earlier

Maybe climb that tower or find a river flowing east? Or use ShadeMap to find your own local bright spot.

Failing all, take solace in the knowledge that a video of an awesome sunrise can give your brain a tiny dose of the good vibrations of nature.

Sunset at Blissford

Yesterday afternoon, I had an errand to run a half hour drive out of town. Looking at the map, I realised that I could leave early and catch sunset in the New Forest.

I parked in Frogham and walked out along Hampton Ridge to the trig point, where I watched the sun set over Blissford, Chilly Hill, Long Bottom and Burnt Balls.

Don’t you just love Forest names?

All hail OS Maps!

I was only there for about an hour, but this most micro of microadventures gave me an idea for wintering.

There are forty-seven trig points in the New Forest National Park, twenty-two of which are beautifully photogenic pillars.

My idea is simple: watch twenty-two sunsets in the Forest this winter, one from each of its pillars.

My winters are usually spent sheltering from the darkness, bathed in electric light. By celebrating sundown, I hope to keep up a strong connection to the outdoors, discover beautiful new places — and maybe even sleep better.

As I mentioned last week, I suspect I might be one of the ten percent of people who especially benefit from spending more time outdoors at dusk.

I’m generally an early-to-bed-early-to-rise kinda person, and I know it’s only a single data point, but after my hour in the Forest at sunset yesterday I slept until 8.30am.

I awoke astonished, but rested. Hallelujah to more of that feeling, please.

Winter Forest Sunsets: 1/22


Eudaimonic Adventure Eudaimonic adventure is not about what you’ve done; it’s about why you (really) did it. Who are you? What are your values? What does adventure mean to you?

Days Of Adventure 2023: 94

🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕ What is this?

We’re in the last month of 2023 — no, really, here we are. At times it’s all been a bit much, hasn’t it, this 2023 what we’ve done here?

But the times when it hasn’t felt all a bit much are represented by those 94 little green circle emojis; these are the days when I have put myself outside in nature for a neat slab of what I call adventure.

I’ve been counting my Days of Adventure every year since 2021 and this year I’ve been a little stricter on what counts, with a greater emphasis on time spent in nature, rather than simply adventuring.

I’m lucky that my whole summer was spent travelling, from Glasgow to Athens and back, but simply being elsewhere doesn’t necessarily give me what I’m looking for in an adventure.

What I’m looking for is restoration: a place of balance, connection and purpose.

At last week’s Adventure Mind conference, academic Susan Houge Mackenzie drew our attention to two species of ‘happiness’: hedonic and eudaimonic.

Hedonic wellbeing is characterised by the dopamine buzz of achievement. It’s all about what you’ve done: you climbed that mountain, cycled those miles, swam that ocean. And, once you’ve done that, it’s all about what’s next — higher, further, tougher.

The adventure industry, led by elite adventurers and their awe-inspiring stories and images, is OBSESSED with hedonic wellbeing. But, actually, chasing the dopamine dragon gets quite boring after a while. Boring or flat-out unsustainable physically, emotionally and existentially.

Eudaimonic wellbeing, on the other hand, is all about the human search for The Good Life. Eudaimonic adventure is not about what you’ve done; it’s about why you (really) did it. Who are you? What are your values? What does adventure mean to you?

Eudaimonic adventure is where we find restoration and the good news is that it works, and will continue to work, in small doses. Eudaimonic adventure can be found in the little wood round the corner from your house; a place where you could sit on a log for ten minutes during your lunch break.

That little wood (or riverbank, heathland or field hedgerow) isn’t striving with you for higher, further or tougher. The wood is not doing; the wood is being.

When we step away from the straight-edges of modernity and enter the magic circle of organic growth, our doing becomes being too and, here, under the leafy canopy with the beetles and the fungi, we can restore our sense of ourselves, our values and our intentions, in symbiotic relation to everything else.

As naturalist John Muir wrote, ‘Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.’

That might sound ambitious, but I don’t think he’d mind a wee edit: ‘Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of lunch.’

See you out there; bring sandwiches.



Adventure Mind We need to start valuing adventure, not as a ‘nice to have’, but as a life-support system for our bodies, brains and personal development, for our friendships, families and communities, for the global village, our lived environment and the whole planet.

Derwent Reservoir, Peak District National Park (Credit C)

On Monday and Tuesday, I was at a conference for mountain guides, bushcrafters, ocean riders, forest bathers, vagabonds, doctors, psychologists, neuroscientists and therapists of all stripes.

The theme of Adventure Mind 2023 was ‘small adventures, big impact’ and that tagline would also nicely sum up the two days I spent listening, learning and throwing myself off a small platform precariously balanced on top of a telegraph pole.

(That last one was a Leap of Faith workshop run by psychologist Dave Gallagher to demonstrate how we can use our breath to regulate wobbly emotions while climbing a wobbly pole.)

Adventure means something different to everyone, but there are a few design elements that are common to most:

  • Novelty: even if it’s simply the recognition that our physical and emotional experience is renewed in the flux of every moment.
  • Challenge: even if the challenge is simply getting out of the house, out of bed or out of our heads.
  • Nature: even if nature is simply the weeds that grow in the cracks between the concrete slabs of our local skate park.

Similarly, there are some emotions, brain states and psychological responses that are common to most adventures:

  • Autonomy, purpose, meaning, choice, direction, control.
  • Competence when an adventure is successfully carried through.
  • Connection to the natural environment and to our adventure buddies.
  • Resilience developed by facing challenge and adversity.
  • Mental flexibility and problem solving under stress.
  • Flow, being in the zone.
  • Beneficence: helping others get through tough times.

These things are all really sodding important to human life, even — or especially — modern human life, so often mediated by screens and radiator thermostats.

Sure, there are other human activities that promote these things, but adventure gets there faster and in a way that we don’t usually forget. There are no better training courses for life than going on an adventure — whatever that means for you.

Benefits of outdoor sports for society, as evidenced by science and stuff

Perhaps the most powerful feeling that I took away from the conference was the feeling of strength from being with hundreds of others who also know that the role of adventure is overlooked and undervalued in our society.

In the words of Belinda Kirk, adventure is not frivolous but essential; adventure is not only for elites but for everyone; adventure is our human nature, our wellbeing.

We need to start valuing adventure, not as a ‘nice to have’, but as a life-support system for our bodies, brains and personal development, for our friendships, families and communities, for the global village, our lived environment and the whole planet.

Abbey Brook, Peak District National Park

I’ve been inordinately lucky to spend this past week in some beautiful places with some beautiful people. Much love to C (👋), P, C, B & A, G (👋), E (👋), H (👋), J (👋), S and the rest. Special thanks to the Peak District, Northumberland National Park and the Cumbraes.

We woke up to sunrise on the first day of advent, singing Mariah Carey and Shakin’ Stevens while surrounded by four dancing, racing dolphins.

Impossibly enormous thanks to Somerled and her skipper Scott from Yachting Scotland for making this happen.

The west coast is a playground/sea for hikers, climbers, beachcombers, bikers, spotters and sailors alike. Somerled (and Scott) are available for adventure sailing charters and expeditions all year round. And you don’t need to know your beam-reach from your close-haul, #dolphinsguaranteed.

‘What the hell have I been doing for the last 20 years?’ It’s tricky when you have a lot of people die and you think you’re going to die yourself. You do go inwards, no matter how hard you try, but don’t put your life on hold — ever.

And greetings from La Piazza cafe on Brightside Lane in Sheffield. This week, I’m sharing the story of Lis van Lynden.

In 2022, with her fiftieth birthday on the horizon, Lis set off to cycle around the whole coast of Britain and Ireland, raising funds and awareness for people — like her — who are living with multiple sclerosis.

This is her story, but it’s less a story of cycling around Britain and Ireland and more a story of the twists and turns that bring a person through the depths of tragedy to the threshold of a marvellous adventure.

So don’t expect lengthy discussions about bottom brackets and twist shifters (phew). Instead, this is a story for everyone who has ever sat on their dreams for too long.

As Lis says:

It’s tricky when you have a lot of people die and you think you’re going to die yourself. You do go inwards, no matter how hard you try, but don’t put your life on hold — ever.

‘What the hell have I been doing for the last twenty years?’

I’ve never seen rain like it. It had been rain, rain, rain, rain for the last six days — wet tent every night. I mean, it was depressing.

Lis van Lynden needed a break. She was as far from her Chiswick home as she could be while still on the island of Britain.

She couldn’t afford a hotel or a bed and breakfast, so Lis rolled into a waterlogged campsite on the northwest coast of Scotland, with stormy views of the isles of Raasay and Skye on the horizon and Britain’s greatest road climb, the infamous Bealach na Bà, at her back.

The Applecross peninsula might have been ‘one of the most beautiful areas of the entire trip’ — but gorgeous landscapes don’t keep down hypothermia.

Desperate for something more protective than her sodden canvas, Lis spotted an empty glamping pod and offered the campsite owners a tenner — all the cash she had. After a little humming and hawing, they accepted the offer and Lis moved into her humble abode.

Good thing too: there was a colossal rainstorm all night.

Miraculously, the next day was forecast clear and Lis was keen to get moving. She popped to the campsite reception to say a huge thank you — and noticed outside a fully-laden touring bike, fitted with a numberplate that read ‘Yello Velo’.

It was Alice Baddeley: the only other woman to cycle around the coast of Britain in 2022.

In disbelief, they leapt into a gigantic hug and gabbled fast-swapping stories of their adventures, riding that ‘pure joy’ rush of finding your exact kind of person.

Round Britain cyclists Alice Baddeley (left) and Lis van Lynden (right)

‘It’s extraordinary,’ Lis says. ‘Alice was going clockwise, I was going anti clockwise, and we were both leaving almost at the same time. We would have missed each other within moments.’

Two women out there doing what they love, meeting the world.

At the age of fifty, Lis has truly rediscovered her life’s purpose and her love of adventure, a love that was suppressed for twenty years by grief.


Lis grew up an adventurer, spending summers sailing in the Mediterranean, and, in the winter, skiing in the Alps with her parents and two brothers.

In 1993, when she was twenty-one, Lis trekked up Mount Kilimanjaro with Alan Hinkes, the first British mountaineer to climb all fourteen Himalayan mountains above 8,000m.

Totally inspired, the next year Lis signed up for a mountaineering expedition with the aim of reaching the summit of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak.

It had been snowing heavily for the past couple of weeks and, with Mont Blanc itself shrouded in mist, the expedition team reluctantly shifted their goal to a slightly lower summit in the Mont Blanc Massif: Gran Paradiso.

But only halfway up the mountain, Lis was exhausted, utterly drained from the constant effort, sinking into the snow, one thigh-deep step after another. She didn’t realise at the time, but she was already suffering from the ‘unreal’ exhaustion caused by her undiagnosed multiple sclerosis.

That day ended with the expedition leader yelling at Lis and taking her back down the mountain, still hours from the summit, to the refuge hut where the team were staying.

Lis was emotional, angry and embarrassed, yet, at midnight, drawing on unimaginable reserves of determination, Lis found the strength to go again and convinced one of the guides to give her another chance.

This time, with the snow lit up by starlight and the sun rising over the summit, Lis made it to the top of Europe.

‘It blew my mind,’ she remembers, and, at twenty-two years old, Lis dedicated herself to a life of adventure.

Life had other plans.


In October 1991, two years before Lis’s summit of Gran Paradiso, her seventeen-year-old younger brother and his friend had died, presumed drowned, after their dinghy got into difficulties on Loch Fyne. Exactly one year later, in October 1992, her father died of stomach cancer aged just forty-six.

The van Lynden family was deep in grief. When Lis arrived back home from the Alps, she was surging with young lust for life, for exploration, discovery and adventure. It was too much for her twice-bereaved mother, who begged Lis: ‘Please, please don’t do any more mountaineering. I can’t lose anybody else. I just can’t cope with that.’

So Lis got a job as a primary school teacher and channelled her love for adventure into running an after school club for young explorers.

Over the next two decades, Lis worked at the school, fell in love, moved in with her partner, got married and, although she never had kids, the couple did buy a house together, which is almost the same thing.

After Gran Paradiso, Lis never went mountaineering again and, although she still went on the occasional more grounded expedition until her thirties, the unprocessed grief of losing her father and one of her brothers as a young woman meant her dream of living a life of adventure faded into the background.

Then, at two a.m. one cold night in March 2013, Lis was startled awake by a shooting pain down her right arm. Taking care not to wake her wife, she took a hot shower.

Then she realised: ‘Shit, I can’t feel the whole right side of my body.’


In January 2005, Lis’s fifty-eight-year-old mother had died of lung cancer. Now, only eight years later, Lis assumed the worst: a decade of smoking had caught up with her. Like mother, like daughter.

Lis went straight to her GP, who recommended an emergency MRI scan. They thought she’d had a stroke.

The MRI results came back showing a cerebrospinal fluid leak. In July 2013, a specialist confirmed her diagnosis: Lis had multiple sclerosis. She was forty-one.

Multiple sclerosis can be a frightening diagnosis: an overactive immune system mistakenly attacks the coating that protects the nerves, damaging the connection between brain and spinal cord, and causing a wide range of symptoms, including, in Lis’s case, tingling, pain and numbness down the right side of her body.

There is no cure, only pain management with medication, and quality of life interventions like meditation and, most importantly for Lis, movement.

MS is something you live with — or don’t. Lis’s wife chose the latter.

‘My marriage was not a great one,’ Lis says. ‘My wife wasn’t really supportive. She told me, “You’re gonna be in a wheelchair and I’m just not cut out to be your lifetime carer.”’

All Lis needed was for someone to put an arm around her and tell her that they’d work it out together, as a team. She never got that. The divorce came through in 2018.

Within a few months of the divorce, Lis found out her ex-wife had re-married. The day after that bombshell, Lis flew to the Tromso in the Arctic Circle, to support her cousin on an incredible human-powered expedition from Marble Arch to Svalbard, Norway.

You see: adventure runs deep in her family, deeper than any diagnosis. Lis could only resist the call for so long.

‘That experience in Svalbard opened everything up,’ Lis says. ‘It got me back to my adventuring days, back to when I was twenty. And I suddenly thought: What the hell have I been doing for the last twenty years?’


Until September 2019, Lis was not a cyclist. She knew how to ride a bike and she did technically speaking own one, rusting away in a corner of her garden. But Lis had lived in central London for three decades and, frankly, she thought cycling in the city was ‘so bloody dangerous’.

Everything changed one fateful day in September 2019: Lis was running late for a travel event at the Corinthian Hotel. Instead of messaging to say she’d be late, Lis wondered to herself: ‘If I cycle really fast, could I get there before the Tube? Let’s try it!’

There are over 130,000 people living with MS in the UK. You might be more likely to associate the disease with wheelchairs than with bicycles, but Lis is one of thousands whose lower body mobility is good enough that cycling gives her ‘absolutely no pain whatsoever’.

In fact, Lis was about to discover that cycling could change her life forever.

She arrived at the hotel drenched in sweat, five minutes early, having cycled faster than she ever thought she could. Someone pointed out: ‘Oh, you’re the only cyclist here!’ Instead of confessing that it was her first time cycling to work, Lis smartly replied: ‘Well, we need to change that — we should all be cycling!’

And, from that moment, she was.

In early 2020, Lis read One Man And His Bike, Mike Carter’s tale of cycling around Britain. Then she read it again, cover to cover, totally entranced.

‘At the end of that second reading, I suddenly thought that maybe this is my adventure,’ Lis remembers. ‘I never have one hundred percent conviction that I can do something, but I had it then. I knew that I could do it.’

With her brother egging her on, Lis planned her adventure: she would cycle around Britain that very summer. That very Covid summer of 2020. Just like Alice Baddeley, Lis found herself postponing the trip, but the delay only served to cement her determination.

That autumn, Lis started following the adventures of Vedangi Kulkani, the youngest woman to cycle around the world. As it happened, Vedangi was running a competition to win a bunch of cycle touring goodies, including a blueprint on how to plan an expedition and a year’s subscription to Komoot, a tour mapping app.

Much to her surprise, Lis won. Reading Mike Carter’s book, winning Vedangi Kulkani’s competition — these were all signs to Lis that she was on the right path.

The final push was attending the Covid-struck online edition of the Kendal Mountain Film Festival and watching a film called Gitonga, about a man pursuing his dream to become the first Kenyan to climb Mount Everest.

A conversation with Gitonga producer Joe Bunyan underlined the importance of listening to the nagging voice in her head: it would never shut up, not her whole life, not until she finally got on her bike.

‘I have to pursue this,’ Lis told herself. ‘I have to do this cycle adventure, even though I’m shitting myself with fear.’

Finally something like normality descended on the country: 2022 would be her year. All she had to do was rent out her Chiswick flat for a year — how hard could that be?



The first estate agent got cold feet (literally?) when a leak sprang up in the corner of the living room. Without the ready cash to fix the leak, Lis simply found a new estate agent, who soon phoned back with good news:

ESTATE AGENT: Lis, you’ve got a contract!

LIS: Fantastic!

EA: The thing is, it’s not for one year.

L: What do you mean it’s not for one year?

EA: Well, erm, it’s for three years.

L: Three years?! What am I going to do for three years?

EA: Well, you know how you’re cycling around the coast of Britain — couldn’t you just do another trip?

L: No, absolutely not. Sorry, I’m not being dictated to go and do it for three years. Absolutely not. That’s lovely for you because you’ve now got three years’ worth of monthly rental income. What about me? You know, where’s my home?

EA: …

L: Look, I tell you what, give me twenty-four hours and I’ll come back to you.

That night, Lis thought long and hard about the offer, turning over the different scenarios in her mind, balancing the allure of the adventure of a lifetime against the instability of three years of placelessness.

Should she stay or should she go?

The next morning Lis phoned her biggest supporter, her brother, to chat through her decision.

‘Sis,’ he said, ‘there’s no point us chatting about this: you’re going to say no anyway.’

‘Well, actually,’ Lis replied, ‘I knew you would tell me to say no, so I rang them up before speaking to you — and I said yes.’

Her brother couldn’t believe what she’d done. Halfway into her three year exile, I think Lis can’t quite believe it either. ‘I still think it was the best decision,’ she says, ‘but it’s quite a hard one, that.’


At the beginning of this email, I promised you a story that would bring you from the depths of tragedy to the threshold of a marvellous adventure. With her three-year flat contract signed, sealed, delivered, Lis had not so much stepped over the threshold, but flung herself down an entire flight of stairs.

Not that it means she felt well prepared. Her only training consisted of the odd lap of Richmond Park, without the inconvenient burden of any of the camping, cooking and living kit she’d need for the next unknown months in the saddle.

The night before she left, her brother rang to wish her good luck.

‘He said, “You must be excited; nervous, but really excited,”’ Lis remembers. ‘And I said, “Actually, I’m really pissed off. I cannot fit a single thing into my bags.” That’s how I started: with no knowledge whatsoever — or with just enough knowledge to go.’

And, on the morning of May 7 2022, go she very much did.

Spoiler alert: on Saturday 10 December, after six months of adventure, Lis completed a lap of Britain and arrived back in Chiswick.

Not that everything went to plan, mind.


Only an hour after being waved off by a party of friends and well-wishers from The Multiple Sclerosis Society, Lis’s Garmin GPS ran out of battery.

Scrabbling around in her bags for any kind of a charger, Lis realised that she’d left them all on her kitchen table. ‘I really didn’t know what I was doing,’ she says, ‘not at all.’

While she was wondering what to do without her route maps, Lis noticed a man standing by the side of the road, smiling at her. Lis struck up a conversation and found out that, by chance, he was there to pick up his daughter, who’d been at the farewell party for an amazing woman who — would you believe it — was going to cycle around the whole coast of Britain.

Slyly, Lis asked him, ‘And how amazing was this woman, exactly?’ The man looked confused and then laughed: ‘Wait, it’s you, isn’t it!’

After she’d explained her current predicament with the out-of-battery GPS, the man offered Lis his own charger, right there and then. Being a well-trained, self-sufficient Londoner, Lis couldn’t possibly accept, but the man insisted. Lis was bowled over.

One of the first things that struck me about Lis when I asked her about cycling around Britain was that she immediately said, ‘There are so many people I need to thank.’

Before she left, Lis knew that she was going to meet lots of generous and supportive people on her journey — ‘Mike Carter bangs on about it at length,’ she says — but she could never imagine exactly how (or even why) they would help her. And she certainly never dreamt she’d get such above-and-beyond support so soon into her journey.

Since time immemorial, the people of Greece have lived by a moral code of philoxenia: generosity towards strangers, guests, gods, gods in disguise, foreigners, travellers and friends of friends of cousins of friends.

I’ve written before about my own experiences of philoxenia while touring (here and here and here) and, as Lis quickly discovered, it’s while moving through this land that we so often encounter the best of the British people and our shared human capacity for the kindness of strangers towards strangers.

A ‘solo’ and ‘unsupported’ ride around Britain is anything but.

‘The whole trip was all about people,’ Lis says. ‘If there were no people, I would have struggled. It’s the people I met that made it so interesting.’

Like that time when a dog peed on Lis’s tent and the dog’s owner was so mortified that he not only cleaned up, but made Lis a bacon sandwich for breakfast.

Or that time when Lis was offered a cup of tea by a couple in Wick and, before she could say ‘two sugars’, found herself and her Multiple Sclerosis Society fundraiser splashed all over the local news.

The same couple stayed in touch with Lis and, a couple of months later, on her fiftieth birthday, she got a message from them: ‘We’ve paid for you to stay in a hotel for the night. Happy birthday!’

But that was thousands of miles into the ride, full of confidence, with the sun on her face and wind at her back. On her first day, leaving London, Lis did sixty-eight miles, along the same route that Mike Carter took.

Her summary? ‘It was hell — it nearly killed me.’


Day one was something of a wake-up call for Lis: sixty-eight miles fully loaded without much training is a huge distance. Especially crawling through the sprawl of East London.

Within a week of departure, Lis ripped up her carefully prepared blueprint of the ride and her plan to cycle at least fifty miles a day. In fairness, the blueprint had done its job: it’d got her out the door. But now she was on the bike, Lis re-committed herself to enjoying the adventure and that meant doing whatever she felt like.

‘I could take three years to get around the coast of Great Britain!’ she says. ‘So why am I counting the miles?’

The first few days and weeks of any long bike tour, especially your first one, represent a steep learning-about-yourself curve. Lis made three radical adjustments: she stopped counting miles (‘I totally relaxed; it was the most amazing feeling’); she started wild camping (‘that’s when I truly loved it’) and she threw away her multiple sclerosis medication.


In June 2022, a month or so into the ride, Lis chucked her boxes of medication into the bin. Nearly eighteen months later, she’s still off the meds.

I’m going to put the next paragraph in bold type to emphasise how important the following caveat is to Lis:

Although she says that coming off medication has ‘done me the world of good’, Lis is very clear that she is not a medical miracle and she would not recommend that anyone, particularly those recently diagnosed, stop taking their pills.

‘I’m not an advocate for getting off your medications,’ Lis says. ‘Medication made me feel so much better: they kept everything really stable. I’ve lived with MS for 10 years and I know what it feels like when I have a relapse. I absolutely wouldn’t hesitate to go back on them.’

So what happened in June 2022 to trigger such a radical change?

MS medication is powerful stuff and Lis had a pretty strict schedule, taking one pill in the morning and one pill in the evening. Missing doses could be hard on a body and mind accustomed to regular pharmaceutical support. The problem was that bike touring doesn’t play nicely with strict schedules.

After accidentally skipping five days, Lis decided she was better off either all-in or all-out. She took a risk and threw her meds away. She was ‘dumbfounded’ by what happened next.

‘I realised that the pills had been blunting a lot of sensation around my body,’ she says. ‘When I came off the pills, I was dumbfounded to feel sensation coming back in different parts of my body.’

Another bold paragraph:

This is not the story of an inspirational maverick thumbing her nose at conventional medicine. ‘I’m still being monitored,’ Lis says. ‘I have a yearly MRI scan, with online meetings with a neurologist, and I can always go back on medication if needed.’

It is a story of a woman getting into her body and looking after herself. ‘Before the bike ride, I didn’t listen to my body,’ Lis says. ‘Nobody knows what will happen, but I feel strongly that if I carry on with the cycling, I’ll be fine.’

Lis comes from a ‘very stiff upper lip’ family that didn’t talk openly about their grief. That silence and suppression might have cost Lis her health. She now draws a direct correlation between her family tragedies and, decades later, her burnout and subsequent illness.

Getting back into her body by cycling really bloody far has not only transformed Lis’s health and helped her rediscover her life’s purpose, but the ride has also helped her process her grief.


About twelve miles short of John O’Groats and the northernmost tip of Britain, Lis found herself getting ‘quite emotional’ about cycling almost the whole way up the east coast, a journey of a thousand miles or more.

Here she was: living the life of adventure of which she’d always dreamed. Finally.

‘I suddenly felt this big warm hand on my back,’ Lis says, ‘almost telling me, “It’s okay, you’re gonna be fine.” I actually turned around and looked back to see if there was anyone there.’

There wasn’t, of course. But her mind instantly went to her younger brother, father and mother.

‘They were all very young when they died and I suddenly thought, gosh, all three of them are with me — they have to be because that’s the strangest sensation I’ve ever had.’

Her whole family, this big warm hand, were reunited, cheering her on, celebrating her return: her return to adventure, her return to joy.

The final word is with Lis:

‘It’s tricky when you have a lot of people die and you think you’re going to die yourself,’ Lis says. ‘You do go inwards, no matter how hard you try, but find little things to keep you moving forward.’

‘If you get diagnosed with something like MS, grab anything you can to move yourself forward rather than standing still. Find out how you want to live and how you want to spend your days. Why not be happy?

‘If you’ve got a really big idea in your head, yes, it will scare you. It will scare the living daylights out of you and maybe you’ll not do it for some time because it scares you so much.

‘But if you’re still dreaming about it three months down the line, for God’s sake, get to the start line. Conquer your fear because, actually, you’re always going to have that fear.

‘Don’t put your life on hold — ever.’


Huge thanks to Lis for taking the time to tell me her story over two fascinating phone interviews. This is, of course, only a small part of the tale: Lis is writing a book and I can’t wait to read it.

Until then, follow Lis van Lynden’s adventures on Instagram @coddiwomple2wander and please consider donating to her Multiple Sclerosis Society fundraiser.

The more I see, the more I realise that it’s just fantastic Don’t always think that you need to go abroad for a big adventure. Don’t underestimate the value of things on your doorstep. Don’t underestimate Britain.

This is Alice Baddeley

Alice Baddeley arriving at Camber, the last village in Sussex

It’s 2021 and, in this photo, Alice has just arrived in Camber at the end of a long bike ride around Sussex, her home county.

It wasn’t the bike ride she’d had planned for that summer, but you remember — that wasn’t really the summer for best laid plans, was it?

I was meant to be doing the coastline trip [cycling around the whole coast of Britain], but it was Covid and obviously I had to keep postponing it. And, you know, we had this message of ‘stay local’, stay in Sussex…

So boy did Alice ‘stay local’ — in the most extreme way imaginable:

Alice’s Sussex 1000 route on Komoot

This is the story of how Alice ended up on a one thousand mile bike ride that passed through every single city, town and village in Sussex. Every. Single. One.



Even though it was on my doorstep, it was a real adventure. And the great thing about doing things locally is that now, when I’m a bit bored on a weekend, well, I know pretty much every pub in Sussex.

And, thanks to Alice’s obsession with map-making, now you do too.

Clearly, this is a very silly route to cycle. And I’m no stranger to very silly bike routes myself: in that same summer of 2021 Thighs of Steel rode out the words REFUGEES WELCOME in GPS artwork across the entire south of England.

Crucially, however, I did none of the route planning for that ride. I graciously let Georgie take that task. It sounds like a total nightmare.

Not so for Alice:

It did take a long time, but I love route planing so it was sort of like a hobby during the evenings — time that most normal people would spend at the pub.

The west to east zigzags were actually version two of her route: a pattern of north to south rides wouldn’t work because, Alice quickly realised, that would mean cycling up the steep hills of the Sussex Downs over. and over. and over. and over. again.

Instead, by going west to east and east to west across nine switchbacks, each day Alice got to see the same landscapes at different levels: yesterday’s ride followed the contours below her; tomorrow’s ride will follow those above.

It was a bit psychologically exhausting because you go from one end to the other, and then you have to go all the way back again.

Ah, yes. The psychological torture of the arbitrary cycle route!

‘Hey Georgie — why are we going around Dartmoor again?’

For no good reason, Alice made her goal of cycling through every habitation in Sussex twice as hard with the entirely arbitrary rule that she would neither leave her home county, nor cycle down the same road twice.

Why, Alice, why?!

It was like being in a video game

Golf, it has been said, is a good walk spoiled. And it’s spoiled by some very silly rules about tiny balls, long sticks and holes.

But the same thing that spoils a walk for some is considered sport — and even a profession — by others.

Likewise, cycling means many different things to all kinds of different people.

Besides a universal love of whooshing downhill, what Alice and I do has little in common with what those folk on the Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes do.

And I love how Alice is bringing playfulness back to cycle touring. By introducing silly rules, Alice turns the art or drudge of riding her bike into a challenge and a game.

(And, as a Collections Editor for Komoot, now her profession too.)

It was like being in a video game. I find cycling a bit pointless if I don’t have rules — I’m not in it for the pedalling. Physical exercise is a good byproduct, but a lot of people do rides to really punish themselves. Imagine — that’d be hell!

I didn’t realise it was possible to do massive long distances

Alice got into cycle touring back in 2008, when she rode Land’s End to John O’Groats with her friend, er, Alice.

I’m always really interested in what first moves people from Not Doing A Thing to Doing That Exact Thing. In Alice’s case: what inspired her to go from Not Cycling Long Distances to Cycling Long Distances?

What triggered the notion that this would ever be a good idea?

A long time ago I remember overhearing a group of men talking about cycling Land’s End to John O’Groats and I remember at the time thinking, wow, I’d never be able to do that. Like: that’s not something that is possible.

But something in this overheard conversation stuck with her. She shared what she’d heard with Alice 2 and together they started to wonder aloud: ‘Hang on, wait… Maybe we could?’

They pulled out some maps (this was before the whole world had smartphones) and started to break the journey down, day by day, until ‘maybe we could’ morphed into ‘fuck it, let’s try!’

So they did.

(The self-help aficionados among you will have spotted an absolute classic of the genre: Alice and Alice broke down something that felt intimidating and abstract into smaller concrete and achievable pieces. The technique works, people — use it!)

From that first Land’s End-John O’Groats ride, Alice got obsessed, following up with two more ‘end-to-end’ diagonals of Ireland and New Zealand.

I knew that I loved cycling, but I didn’t realise — I think a lot of people still don’t realise — it was possible for a normal cyclist to be able to do these massive long distances.

Actually, once you do it, it does become a bit of an addiction. I felt such a high. The combination of daily exercise and constant adventure is like an actual drug.

But the one place that keeps Alice coming back for more is the place she calls home: Britain.

The more I see, the more I realise that it’s just fantastic

Starting with her Sussex ride in 2021, the past three years have seen Alice take on three massive long British rides that form an impressive body of work.

I think cycling in Britain is so underrated. The more I see of it, the more I realise that it’s… it’s just fantastic. Some people would say they want to do Europe or travel around Asia, but I feel content with this island — and I suppose I’m on a bit of a mission to see all of it. I want to be able to say I’ve done it all.

And she’s totally on track: the following year, Alice cycled around the entire coastline of Britain.

Round Britain is a ride that we both have in common — although Alice rode 700 miles further because she didn’t do any cheating island hopping AND she did it ‘backwards’, starting instead of finishing with the toughest cycling in the whole world: Devon and Cornwall.


Alice could make millions as a cartographer

I won’t dwell on our shared love of coasting round Britain because, in a way, those rides make the least interesting stories: impressive, sure, but so dense with experience that it’s hard (for me, anyway) to process and package the whole into a beginning, middle and end.

Besides, Alice’s trip is sumptuously documented on her Instagram, including Very British Observations, such as this analysis on the three species of Co-op:

  1. Tiny Co-op: ‘All pastries gone by mid morning. Most customers are on first name terms with the staff. You can leave your bike unlocked outside.’
  2. Medium Co-op: ‘My favourite type. Well stocked, quick to get around and a choice of humans at tills.’
  3. Too big for its boots Co-op: ‘These stores are so big that you have to manually pause your GPS recorder in case it thinks you are still active. All self service check outs. I often get stuck for ages over an item that confuses the system. Usually a banana.’

So let’s skip her 80-day coastal epic and fast forward through to this summer, when, with very little forethought or planning, Alice rode the full length of the country from south to north — wait for the twist — in as straight a line as possible.

Wonderfully silly:

Shoreham to Oldshoremore on Komoot

And shockingly hard (at least once she’d chugged through the first few days of commuter land).

From the Midlands to the Borders, central England is dominated by the Pennine Hills: the backbone of Britain, the English Andes. And, when you’re trying to cycle in a dead straight line, there’s no question of following the gentle, but meandering, dales.

No: Alice was cycling the more direct Pennine Bridleway: ancient drovers roads and packhorse trails over grassy gravel and stone setts.

The road between Monyash and Glossop

I say ‘cycling’ — there was actually a lot of walking, a bit of a first for Alice and Cindy (her new mountain bike).

It’s opened my eyes to what’s possible by combining hiking and biking. A great invention would be a ‘comfort handle’ that could be clamped to a seat post.

(Note: bike carry handles already exist, including ones like this and this that you can — and I have — make for yourself.)

Alice kind of enjoyed this hike-a-biking — she wasn’t in any rush and didn’t have a rigid schedule, unlike previous tours — but it wasn’t the pedestrianism that was the problem.

The problem was fuel:

It was very remote in stretches. You think you’re just gonna find a shop, but there were times where I didn’t have any food and I was like, ‘Oh god!’

It turns out that the middle of Britain is far less inhabited than its edges — a fact that makes sense when you remember that we are, by and large, a lowland people.

Roughly 85 percent of people on the British mainland live south of the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and the North Pennines.

North of that famous band of national parks, people tend to be concentrated in the cities — Middlesborough, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Inverness Aberdeen — while inland village communities are spread further and further apart, meaning fewer and fewer Tiny Co-ops and fewer and fewer bananas.

Unexpected hunger in the biking area.

The upside of cycling through quieter country? Random encounters with generous strangers, especially those who dole out massive slices of vegetarian lasagna from the back of a colour-coordinated campervan, lime green inside and out.

Ahhh, the joys of cycle touring!

I always have that fear: ‘What if I hate it?’

I’m curious to hear how Alice’s mindset has changed off the back of three consecutive years of epic British cycle touring.

Out of all of the rides, the straight line was probably the most physically challenging, but also the one I was most casual about beforehand. That’s the great thing about pushing your limits: it makes big things seem less daunting.

And big things do feel daunting:

Before all of these trips, I always have that fear: ‘What if I hate it?’ But that never happens. I always love it. More and more, I’m trusting that this is what makes me happy.

And what makes us happy is such an important thing to learn about ourselves.

It is good to acknowledge that doing big things is hard, but equally to remember that we have chosen that path and to know ourselves well enough to trust that, one day, maybe not today, we’ll look back and see how this path guided us all the way to happy.

For me, for many years, the fears of failure, unknown disaster and hating the whole experience would only ease as the finish line came into view and I’d realise that it’s all going to be okay.

Then, before I know it, it’s over.

Nothing good ever ends well

And so here we are: at the end.

Gosh. Endings can be a bit weird, can’t they?

I always have a little bottle of wine or something to celebrate finishing, but I tell myself don’t expect to feel really good because it’s kind of the saddest bit, isn’t it, when it all comes to an end?

There’s this great line I heard earlier in the year that’s been rattling around my head ever since: ‘Nothing good ever ends well’ — and I love it because it sounds so horribly pessimistic, but is in fact wonderful.

The quote starts with the joyous recognition, so easily glossed over, that this Thing that’s happening right now is actually good; and it ends with the Stoic acknowledgement that, in addition, this Good Thing shall soon pass by, as all moments and feelings have passed before.

It reminds me to cherish what I have now.

When Alice finally rolled onto the beach at Oldshoremore, onto the ‘roof of Britain’ after twenty days of hiking and biking, technology and landscape conspired to create ideal conditions for an eminently cherishable ending:

I didn’t have any mobile phone signal, which I think was really good because otherwise there’s a real temptation to get on my phone and start texting people. Instead, I found this lovely spot on the beach to camp and just had a really nice evening.

That’s one thing I will always do at the end of these trips now: have that moment to myself and soak in the atmosphere.

Soaking it all up at Oldshoremore

Alice’s Three Take Homes

1. Don’t underestimate yourself

My one big thing is don’t underestimate what you’re capable of.

The worries you have are really normal, but they’re kind of pointless because most things that you worry about don’t happen on the trip. And if they do happen, or if something else happens that you haven’t worried about, there’s always a way to overcome it.

2. Make your own way

Route planning is a real part of the whole trip.

A lot of people think that they have to stick to ‘official’ paths or do a route that’s waymarked. But there’s a real joy in making up your own trips. Often the roads I’ve cycled are not part of a cycle network or named route.

Discovering stuff: that is the joy of touring — and there’s loads of undiscovered turf in Britain so don’t be shy.

3. Don’t underestimate Britain

Don’t always think that you need to go abroad for a big adventure. Don’t underestimate the value of things on your doorstep. Don’t underestimate Britain.

And not every adventure has to be loads of days in a row or wild camping every night — there was one night I stayed at Champneys health spa!

As backpackers or bike tourers, we can be a bit hard on ourselves. We think we have to do everything on the rough. Touring with a bit of luxury is also an option.


Please follow all of Alice’s ridiculously wonderful adventures via her Yello Velo website, Komoot cycle touring profile and as @yello.velo on Instagram.

We All Need Living Room There is a medicine that you can only absorb through eyes, ears, nose, feet, breath: wind, air, sunshine, rain. Nature, the moor, the relentless acceptance and infinity of it all.

And greetings from Okehampton Youth Hostel, where I’ve spent the last ninety minutes on a work Zoom call.

But the six hours before that were spent up on Dartmoor, happily tramping around in the sunshine. Yes: sunshine. Look!

True love on Dartmoor

But all I know is that I felt super grumpy this morning.

State of mind: gloomy

The man with whom I was sharing a hostel room got up three times in the night to empty his bladder — once every two hours, like the shittiest cuckoo clock — each time he’d clump woodenly across the floor in what can only have been vintage Dutch clogs before setting off the scary movie cree-erk-thunk of the snap-close fire door.

Then, exactly three and a half minutes later, like the shittiest runny egg timer, the same cacophany in reverse.

I was then terminally awakened in the lightless pre-dawn by a persistent bleeping alarm — you know the ones: a fridge door that’s been left open, a washing machine that’s reached the end of its cycle, a smoke detector overwhelmed by the nocturnal farts of too many teenagers — that came from somewhere both way too close and not close enough for me to punch repeatedly until it stops.

This delightful morning chorus went on and on and on until the ensuing headache forced me out of bed around seven, the opposite of rested.

I feel, then, not unreasonable in my opinion that, this morning, I did not want to see, speak or share space with any other human being.

In other words, not a good time to find oneself in a popular youth hostel, surrounded by the lowest rung of humanity’s ladder: the loudest jolly good morning people who could ever have summoned the temerity to wantonly occupy what I thought of as very much my kitchen.

‘Can you please not do that here?’ I told a couple peacefully preparing porridge on the stove, before turning to a healthily-dressed, Wheetabix-obsessed family of four: ‘Why don’t you all shut up and sod off until I’ve had breakfast?’

But none of them heard my silent cries.

They all just kept on saying syrupy things like, ‘Good morning!’ and ‘Doesn’t your breakfast look delicious!’ and ‘Do you know where we can get more Wheetabix?’

So I gritted my teeth, kept my head down and did the bare minimum to ready my stomach and rucksack for a day’s hiking on the moor.

It was not going to be a good day, but I didn’t have to enjoy it: I’m here with a job to do.

A fork in the life / railway

Since late 2018, I have been training as an outdoor expedition leader.

The impulse to retrain came from the fact that, as a writer, my work can make me feel boxed in. Writing is an indoor and solitary occupation, but humans have undeniably sociable and outdoorsy brains.

So when I realised that some people actually get paid to mess around in the outdoors all day, I quickly signed up and passed my Lowland Leader award. Despite a false start due to the Covid lockdowns, I have been lucky enough to work in the outdoors ever since.

(Side note: If you even have mild feelings that you might like to do more work outside, then I urge you in the strongest possible terms to get your Lowland Leader award. The barriers to qualification are low and there is currently a shortage of leaders so you will immediately find work paid in money.)

Since I got that Lowland Leader award, I have been working towards assessment on the next rung in the outdoor hierarchy: Hill and Moorland Leader.

This qualification wouldn’t massively change the work that I actually do — I enjoy working in the lowlands of England, which is handy because that’s where most of the opportunities are — but technically becoming a Hill and Moorland Leader would mean I could work in areas like Dartmoor, Brecon Beacons and the Peak District.

This is what Dartmoor looks like (sometimes)

Before I can take my Hill and Moorland Leader assessment, however, I need to log at least forty days hiking in hilly and moorlandy terrain (logically enough).

Regular readers will know how much I’ve enjoyed getting to know Dartmoor in particular.

But there is one problem: I think the Hill and Moorland Leader assessment requirements are very… how to say? Masculine.

Forty days out on the moors — fantastic. And, naturally, in order to lead, one must know the land.

Where I take issue with these days is the stipulation that they must involve at least four hours of ‘travel time’.

At least four hours of watching, listening, sketching, writing, meditating, sensing — none of that is good enough.

We must have four hours of travelling, each and every day. And what that means is hiking. A lot of hiking.

For me, even across the boggiest moor, four hours’ hiking covers at least 14km. Today it was nearer 19km. Over my forty days, I’ve stomped down about 600km of heather, gorse and sphagnum moss.

I know that, historically, a lot of hiking is exactly what people expect when they come to places like Dartmoor.

But I am saying that this is wrong and we should not be training our outdoor leaders to follow this very masculine ‘smash out a proper hike’ mentality.

The emphasis of the training falls too easily on breadth of coverage rather than depth of experience.

But it’s depth that I desperately need — particularly after grumpus nights like last night — and it’s only in wild open places like Dartmoor that I can sink down and reach the fathoms of nourishment and restoration.

Clocking kms, bagging tors: that speaks to our masculine energy of domination. (Especially when the literal red flags are flying around the military firing exclusion zone.)

Here be guns

The energy of domination is not what our often addled bodies and brains need. And it’s not even what nature does best. We’re wasting the riches that time on the moor affords those of us lucky enough to be out here.

A 14km yomp is basic military efficiency. It’s not going to teach me anything I don’t already know: that my body can follow orders.

What I need to learn and relearn is much slower and more delicate: I need to learn to stare at the ground and notice the eyebright, knapweed and oxeye daisy; to stare at the sky and read the changing cloudscape; to close my eyes and listen for skylark, snipe and cuckoo.

From time to time, I need to lie on the ground like it’s my sofa and soak up nothingness.

I don’t need an intense day of exercise. I need the moor to become my living room, literally: an open expanse with room for all living things.

There is a medicine that you can only absorb through eyes, ears, nose, feet, breath: wind, air, sunshine, rain. Nature, the moor, the relentless acceptance and infinity of it all.

Welcome, it says, welcome all. You are whole, it says. We are together, it says, together at last.

I probably stayed irritable for about two hours as I stomped across the moor this morning.

And then, from one minute to the next, for no reason in particular, I noticed that I wasn’t so grumpy anymore.

I wasn’t even tired. (I am now, mind.)

I needed restoration and I got it.

We all need living room.

All living beings; our precious living room

Taking Adventure Out On The Town Keep your antenna up for moments you could explore. Shelter from the rain in a public museum, slow down to soak up a stone-grey street scene, swivel your lobes for a little light earwigging on the bus.

Days Of Adventure 2023: 83

🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢🟢⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕ What is this?

Every year since 2021, I’ve tried to fill my days with at least a hundred adventures.

‘Adventure’ for me has a pretty low bar compared to the sorts of things that some people do. I’m not sailing across the Atlantic, like my friend Jess (and 200 other skippers) will be very soon.

My kind of adventure is the kind that you can do around your day-to-day: it need be nothing more than a bike ride to a woodland for sale or a morning spent getting in the English grape harvest.

Having said that…

The bulk of my summer, 43 days’ worth, were spent cycling from Glasgow to Athens with Thighs of Steel. So there is definitely big-ticket adventure in my life as well.

But now I’m back from Greece, things are about to get small.

I can’t wait.

I’m so excited that I’ve come up with a neologism.

From Outdoorsy To Exploresy

We all know what outdoorsy means:

Associated with or characteristic of the outdoors; fond of an outdoor life.

We often use the word to describe people, like in this example from 1952:

In my attempts to be a truly outdoorsy woman at all times I had a ludicrous crab-hunting misadventure of my own.

Despite spending approximately 94 percent of most days closeted away indoors, I also like to be known as an outdoorsy sort of a person.

I don’t know how to crab-hunt, but I do own a pair of boots and can (just about) light a fire in the woods.

However, there are two limitations to being outdoorsy:

  1. No one thinks that an urban existence is compatible with being outdoorsy, even though, technically, a traffic island on Oxford Street is entirely outdoors.
  2. Outdoorsy doesn’t necessarily include the sniff of adventure: novelty, daring, audacity or excitement.

That’s why, humbly, I think we need a new word: exploresy.

Exploresy is used in the same way as outdoorsy, but to describe someone who is fond of exploring — whatever that means to them.

Indoors, outdoors, online, offline, together, alone, in walking boots or fluffy slippers.

The only unifying requirement is that the exploresy person sets out to discover something new (to them).

Now then. There is a school of thought that says that neologisms need justification.

But you know what I say to that:

Even so: why make a new word when an old one will do. Isn’t exploresy the same as being curious?

No. Well, yes, but I can’t copyright the word curious, now can I? Also, it’s a bit insulting to call someone a curious fellow. It just means they’re weird.

(Fun fact: curious used to be a euphemism for porn.)

So, as we crawl head down into winter, I would like to propose an expansion of adventure. It doesn’t have to be outdoorsy, especially if (like me) you find yourself more urban than Alpine.

It can, instead, be exploresy.

Keep your antenna up for moments you could explore. Shelter from the rain in a public museum, slow down to soak up a stone-grey street scene, swivel your lobes for a little light earwigging on the bus.

While the great green outdoors is a wonderful place to explore, it’s beyond okay to invite adventure inside and take it out on the town.

Together Through The Flood Barely a week before we cycled through, the region was hit by more than a year’s worth of rainfall in just 24 hours. At least 17 dead. Homes, farms and villages wrecked over an area of 730 square km.

And a warm welcome from the back of a 2005 Ford Transit called Beryl, doing 110kph into the Aosta Valley, an hour shy of Chamonix and our beds for the night (👋RK🙏).


I left home on 10 July, eleven weeks ago, to ride Thighs of Steel 2023.

This was the sixth time we’ve cycled to Athens and the second year we got there all the way from Glasgow.

It’s a bloody long trip: in fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s Europe’s longest fundraising bike ride.

It took our freewheeling community of 101 cyclists eight weeks of hard sweat to ride the full distance.

I was there at the beginning, rolling down from Glasgow Youth Hostel under drizzle skies, and I was there at the end in Athens, calves burning, asphalt melting, song shouting, up Mount Lycabettus, the steepest of all finish lines.

It feels mad weird to be unravelling our tyre tracks in only six days of diesel-powered vanlife.

Our community (including a fair few of you👋) has now raised over £90,000 for grassroots solidarity projects that support people on the move.

Sorry Not Sorry

I can’t promise that I won’t shut up about this fundraising for a few weeks because it’s important to me to ensure this ride makes the biggest possible contribution to the grassroots solidarity movement.

It takes about eight months of hard work to prepare and launch Thighs of Steel. It’s another three months of work to, not only cycle across the continent, but facilitate the experience and ensure a safe environment for more than 100 participants.

We don’t do all that just for the jollies.

We do it to support grassroots solidarity initiatives, starved of cash in a hostile environment for people on the move.

Since 2016, Thighs of Steel cyclists have raised about £740,000 for projects like the Khora Collective’s social kitchen, Hakoura Organic cooperative farm and the Chamomile housing project for displaced people with mental health challenges.

If you believe in free movement, or even free-er movement for people having a rough time, you can share and donate here.🙏

The Flood

The final week of the ride brought together sixteen mostly-strangers to cycle 600km down the east coast of Greece from Thessaloniki to Athens.

That was the plan, anyway.

This was a week with some breathtaking highs — sunsets over Mount Olympus, sea swims and watermelons every day, hot springs and mineral mud baths, beach camps, olive groves and a spooky abandoned hotel resort frequented at all hours by teenage canoodlers.

But our little bike ride was, of course, dominated by the devastating floods left after Storm Daniel passed through central Greece.

Barely a week before we cycled through, the region was hit by more than a year’s worth of rainfall in just 24 hours.

At least 17 dead. Homes, farms and villages wrecked over an area of 730 square km.

Thessaly floods. You can just about see where the reservoir used to be. Everything else was once fields, vineyards, homes — there’s even an airport under there somewhere. Before Storm Daniel, this region provided 15 percent of Greece’s domestic agricultural produce.

It will take five years for the bread basket of Greece to recover its soil fertility. Assuming no further catastrophe.

And that’s a big assumption.

Finding A Way

We reached the floodlands on Day 3 of the ride. After an open discussion, one group of cyclists formed an advance party to find out whether our planned route was even remotely feasible.

From our beach camp, we climbed 20km up and over a mountain to gather more information (and a bag of frozen spinach) from the nearest town, Kalamaki.

The local supermarket owner encouraged us to try the old road that ran alongside the reservoir that had once drained the fertile plain. The reservoir had burst its banks and now the water stretched beyond the horizon.

The end of the road

At the end of the road, we found only a police blockade and had no choice but to cycle straight back over the same hill in the heat of the day with flies swarming our faces.

It wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had on a bicycle, but finding perspective was easy. A fly swarm sandwich is no hardship at all compared to the massive rescue and cleanup operation happening in the fields and villages below.

Former vineyards, former livelihoods

While we climbed back over the mountain, the rest of the cyclists pioneered a rocky off road route along a ribbon of coastline, which blessedly and eventually joined asphalt roads that, we were told, would circumnavigate the floodwaters.

Thank you to the people of Kamari for welcoming us in that night and letting us camp on their beautiful beach, now littered with storm debris, flotsam and jetsam swept down from the hills.

Almost cut off from the rest of the country, supplies of fresh food were at a premium in the coastal settlements. The crates stacked up on the back of a single pickup truck was all they’d seen for several days.

We were lucky. Our resourceful cyclists rustled up a dal dinner from the dry stores we’d brought with us from Glasgow — plus that long-defrosted bag of spinach.

Here & Now

Gazing out over the inland sea was a sobering reminder that climate disasters — massive and accelerating drivers of displacement — are here and now.

Globally, more than 20 million people are forced to flee their homes every year due to climate catastrophes.

Here and now.

Here and now, the kindness shown to us by the people of Thessaly was humbling. Their lands and in many cases their homes and livelihoods were underwater, yet everyone we met was open and supportive.

People helped us navigate off-road between devastated vineyards and orchards, find safe places to camp at night, and opened their shops, bakeries and cafes to we travellers.

These acts of generosity made a huge difference to us and helped us complete our quest.

The devastation we witnessed made each of us feel powerless in the face of inexorable nature.

The support we received from the local people made us feel strongly that anyone, any one of us, still has the power to make a difference.

We can still ride. We can still fundraise.

We can still tell the story of solidarity with people whose lives have been turned upside down by increasingly frequent disasters like the recent cyclone that struck Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Libya.

Even when we’re up against unstoppable forces, we are not powerless. Small acts of solidarity are signficant.

So Thank You

Thank you to all the cyclists who made this final week, with all its highs and hardships, a supportive and joyful space.

The Thessaloniki-Athens cycling crew. Somewhere in the background: Athens.

Thank you to all our hosts and the dozens or hundreds of humans who supported us along the way, from the octogenarian neighbourhood watch in Thessaloniki who helped us lift a car out of the way so we could get out of our parking space, to the team at Vicious Cycles Athens who once again welcomed us with cold drinks and spray bike tattoos.

We’ve now raised over £90,000 for grassroots refugee solidarity projects through our charity partner, MASS Action.

2,908 people have already donated to the main page, anything from £5 and up. A fiver might not seem like much, but it could be a hot meal with friends for someone who might not have much of either during a difficult time in a hostile environment.

Thank YOU for all your donations and your sharing of our stories. This kind of fundraising, so important for organisations working on the ground, only works because of our shared networks.

Thank you for caring. Thank you to every person reading this.

We reserve our deepest gratitude for the people leading the real work, putting in a shift at projects that open up dignified and sustainable spaces for migrants and asylum seekers.

100 percent of your donation (more if you Gift Aid) will be redistributed by MASS Action to grassroots solidarity projects across the UK and Europe.

Every pound you donate makes the world a richer place. 🙏This is happening, right now. Bring your friends.

A Midpoint 738km and 8,672m of climbing from Kotor to Thessaloniki in six and a half days

And a warm welcome from Thessaloniki, named contemporaneously for the sister of Alexander the Great of Macedon, an etymology that hints at the long human history for culture and conflict at this crossroads of the world.

But (in the words of The Tim Traveller) we’re not here to discuss any of that.

Or maybe we are, but not until after showing you a map that does absolutely nothing to hint at how hard and beautiful the last week has been: cycling 738km across (what felt like) a dozen mountain ranges through Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Greece.

738km and 8,672m of climbing from Kotor to Thessaloniki in six and a half days

There will be some of you who will now be expecting a 6,000 word story about cycling hundreds of miles clean across the Balkan Peninsula, from the Adriatic to the Ionian.

Sadly, I shall have to disappoint you, for tomorrow at dawn I don once more my padded shorts and prescription sunnies and take to the saddle.

For tomorrow we ride to Athens.

This is but a snatched midpoint.

For some ridiculous reason, after four weeks of crewing Thighs of Steel from Glasgow to Milan, I decided to cycle the whole of the last two weeks: a lucky thirteen days riding from Dubrovnik to Athens, via Thessaloniki.

No wonder the ride began with some pretty heavy anxiety.

The night before we left Dubrovnik I found myself eyes wide open until past three in the morning. Breakfast was at five.

I couldn’t. I shouldn’t. It wouldn’t have been safe so sleep deprived on those hectic roads out of the city.

So I cancelled my alarm and caught a few hours’ kip.

I spent the morning in the support van, back as an auxiliary core team member, helping fetch and carry crates as we packed up the weekend.

Fast driving, slow borders, and finally I joined the ride further down the road in Kotor.

I spent the rest of the day sweeping and scratching up the infamous Kotor Serpentine — twenty-five or more switchbacks offering views grander and ever-grander, south, north, south, north, for a thousand metres of elevation and a place in the heavens with a sunset never beat.

The point of this whole ride is to raise funds for refugee solidarity projects across Europe.

You can donate with love and gratitude here.

You’d be joining 2,726 other supporters who, collectively, have donated £86,257 so far this ride.

Thank you.

And that’s where I’ll leave this update. I’m sorry I couldn’t be more profound.

Not A Miracle The extraordinary ordinary, or: how lucky we are when we work hard together on something worthwhile

A warm welcome from the walled city of Lucca, a sacred grove of luminous space in Tuscany, Italy.

Eight hundred years ago, a beloved domestic servant of Lucca was buried.

Three centuries later, her body (definitely not her body) was exhumed, discovered miraculously undecomposed, and put on display for veneration.

A hundred years more and the dead woman was canonised by the Catholic Church as Saint Zita, patron of maids and lost keys.

Today, for three Euros, you can visit her ‘incorrupted’ shrivelled body in its glass case on top of an altar in the Basilica di San Frediano.

If that’s your sort of thing.

But I didn’t come to Lucca to ogle cadavers; I came here to lie in the shade, eat pizza by weight, and find perspective on the last five weeks.

Perspective: Lucca, Tuscany

Since I last wrote — a glance at the stranger side of my cycle-tour packing list — the forty-four cyclists of the first four weeks of Thighs of Steel have successfully ridden all 2,384km of road between Glasgow and Milan.

That’s a heck of a long way.

The vast distances, the never-ending hills, the sleepless nights and the heavy summer rain stretched many cyclists well past what they once thought their physical and mental limits.

Summer cycling in Versailles, Île de France

More significantly, we have now collectively raised over £70,000 for grassroots refugee and migrant solidarity projects.

Last year, the whole ride raised £114,632. It was a record total for one of our summer mega group rides and I genuinely thought it couldn’t be beat.

This year, with four weeks more to ride before Athens, we are £1,000 ahead of where we were this time last year.

The ride is not a race and our fundraising is not a competition, but I have been gratifyingly dumbstruck, once again, by the generosity and support shown by thousands of ordinary citizens for a cause unpopular with both politicians and the press.

Thank you to everyone who has already donated. Your money is already being used to keep the doors open at the Khora Collective in Athens.

Khora is an association that runs a community centre across three buildings in Kypseli and Exarcheia, and provides services to anyone that needs them.

We value solidarity, autonomy, community, and the right of everyone to access the basic means to live in our city.

Khora includes a social kitchen, asylum support centre, a free shop for clothes and toiletries and a maker space with a focus on arts and crafts as therapeutic practice for women and LGBTQIA+ migrants and asylum seekers.

In the days before Thighs of Steel left Glasgow, we heard that one of Khora’s major funders had run into financial difficulties and been forced at short notice to withdraw their €60,000 grant.

Khora costs €8,000 per month to run. They had enough in the bank to stay open until August. Then: nothing.

Luckily, at this point, MASS Action, the charity for whom Thighs of Steel fundraise, were able to step in and grant out €32,000 from this year’s ride donations.

That’s enough to keep Khora running until the end of the year.

I say ‘luckily’; it’s not luck.

It’s what happens when a load of people get together to do something they believe in, and when they stay focused on the purpose of why they do that something.

I’m talking about the cyclists, Thighs of Steel organisers, MASS Action volunteers, and of course the thousands of people who donate.

Cormet de Roselend: a warm-up of a climb to 1,968m in the French Alps

Saint Zita, a humble house maid, was known in life for doing ordinary things extraordinarily well — such a rare quality that she’s been credited with a hundred and fifty miracles.

This summer, Thighs of Steel cyclists are doing ordinary things.

We’re all just spinning wheels, sharing stories and inviting our friends to donate in solidarity with people on the move across Europe.

Nothing of what we do is a miracle, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think we do our ordinary things extraordinarily well.

If you would like to donate and join the 2,225 people already supporting this cause, then please do.

If you’re a UK taxpayer, then you can also choose to add Gift Aid and the government will automagically slap an extra 25 percent to your donation. That’s money they can’t spend on building prison boats.


Finishing Week 4 at the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, Italy

Enter The Packing Room Five items that wouldn’t make it onto most touring cyclists’ packing lists (let alone into their blessed packing room)

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:

Kudos to DRL’s Points Productivity Planner for keeping me on track. This is working document, so keep your spelling spots to yourself. Mainfest indeed.

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.

Ljubljana to Sofia — 1,400km riding, 14,000m climbing and 78 hours of saddle bum — was my first thighs ride and I was mightily proud that they entrusted me with the carrying of the flag.

I still am.

That’s me on the left after two weeks of cycling Ljubljana to Sofia, 2018

2. Seven Debit Cards & 500 Albanian Leke

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?

Thank goodness for Equals Money.

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.


3. A Very Specific Book

Lights In The Distance by Daniel Trilling

I wrote about this excellent book a few weeks ago, so I won’t say any more.

The purpose of Thighs of Steel is to raise funds in solidarity with refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and people on the move across Europe.

We help grassroots organisations keep doing everything they do.

We share a dream of a borderless world once again, with free movement for all.

You can add your heft to the hew by donating here. Thank you.

4. Defence For The Defenceless

It’s summer and we’re cycling through Scotland.

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.

This one’s for you, Jimi.

Round Britain Twice: Graham Eating Chips And Gravy 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

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.

Some Maps

Round Britain So Far… 2020-2023. Built using Jonathan O’Keeffe’s Strava Multiple Ride Mapper
Last week’s ride: 558km from Liverpool to Newcastle. Map built using GPX Studio
Extra geek points: all 5339m of last week’s hill climbing. Built using GPX Studio

Round Britain Twice: From Egremont Castle The faded card leaves me thousands of miles richer and, daily it seems, on the edge of new life.

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:

  1. An inauspicious tide at Fleetwood, which made for a 14km detour around the estuary.
  2. 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.

‘Hi, I’m Dave.’ No shame. Do something for yourself first thing in the morning. You won’t get a chance later.

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:

Be brave.
Say: 'Hi,
I'm Dave.'
No shame.
'What is
Your name?'

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.

I failed.

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!

The Secret Society Of Lost Hats

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.

The Stars Are People-Gazing Oodles of Dartmoor remains open to backpack camping, a sign that landowners too stand by our right to the night sky

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every time I visit Dartmoor, the sun will shine strongly.

That’s why I’ve picked the gloomiest photo I could find, from our wild camp on the leeward (ha!) side of Great Mis Tor on Tuesday night.

I wrote at length in January about the current court battle for the restoration of our right to wild camp on Dartmoor.

Last week, members of the Dartmoor National Park Authority, emboldened by a spring tide of public support, decided to appeal the High Court decision.

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:

Dartmoor National Park Authority camping map

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’.

I was writing about proposed changes to the byelaws governing Dartmoor — changes now on hold until the High Court judgement has shaken itself out — but my words apply equally to any and all attempts to curtail popular access to the outdoors:

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 might look proud, but this was a noisy pitch, an hour’s hike from the Whiteworks car park, on Higher Hartor Tor (the clue should’ve been in the name, really)

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.

Gemini as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. (Wikipedia)


Special thanks this week to the breath of Dartmoor and my companion beneath the stars.

Writing In Public: Memory & Desire However inconvenient the distortions of memory and desire may be for psychoanalysts, they are good things for the writers of bicycling memoirs

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.’

He’s not wrong: despite being consistently underestimated, our memories are naturally, even occasionally tragically, fallible.

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.

SIDE BAR: Keith Johnstone, RIP

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.

That’s a quote from Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (neat summary here by James Clear).

Impro For Storytellers, his second book, perceptibly changed my life after picking it up at random from a shelf at Oxford library in 2003. The subtitle is ‘The Art Of Making Things Happen’. It works.

There is, of course, more to improv than The Cult Of Yes, And… As Keith Johnstone points out in this 2017 interview, ‘a story that only says yes is a very limited story form […] A master improviser can do what they like’.

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.


Thanks to everyone who responded to my first Writing In Public post on Coasting. Thanks in advance if your mouse is right now hovering over the Reply button.

Special thanks to two-time acquaintance CW for introducing me to the insane ideas of Wilfred Bion and for leading me through my own memory and desire.

Be The Miracle 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’

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.

Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin & Me 'She wasn’t looking for me, she was looking for Kris Kristofferson; I wasn’t looking for her, I was looking for Brigitte Bardot.'

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.

Cohen gathered his courage and asked if she was looking for someone:

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:

  1. Late one night, ‘tired and alone’, Jeff is walking past the Chelsea Hotel
  2. He overhears a conversation about Leonard Cohen between a woman in glasses and her two, possibly gay, friends
  3. Jeff gets ‘uncharacteristically courageous’ and interrupts the strangers
  4. Jeff and the woman in glasses chat for ‘a minute or two’ about Leonard Cohen’s song, Chelsea Hotel #2
  5. The three strangers stop to look in through a pub window
  6. Jeff says good night (though he hadn’t quite meant to)
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

This is what she made of that same one night stand with Leonard Cohen:

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.


Be Both

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.

Writing In Public: Coasting My attempt to describe what I’d like to achieve with a book tentatively titled Coasting: Cycling Around Britain (Twice).

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.

Thank you.

Movemberising Feb’ry Let us Movemberise this very month and reclaim these four weeks for the triumphal trinity of kettle-boiling, flask-filling and tongue-scorching - arise, unite, and light a fire for Fe-brew-ary!

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.

No, I don’t know why that last one looks like I’m standing in front of a painting.

Make Space For Others To Shine 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.

Summer feels like a loooong time ago, eh?

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.

Sorry, did somebody say ‘this summer’s ride’?

Hell yeah.

Once again, we’ll be facilitating the highlight of your summer, starting in Glasgow on 14 July and finishing a continent later in Athens on 17 September.

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.

Go Team Human.

Adventure When You Can’t Adventure? 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. We start from where we are

It’s been a slow start for Days of Adventure 2023: I’ve been recovering from the traumatic combination of road and gravity on my knee cartilage.

My usual vectors for adventure are out: no hiking, no cycling, no running, no skating, no surfing, no climbing.

Or at least, I thought they were out until I read Belinda Kirk’s book Adventure Revolution.

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.

Right, okay.

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 ✔️✔️✔️
  • Meditate
  • See or phone a friend
  • Go outside and watch the goats eat breakfast ✔️✔️✔️
  • Play guitar
  • Do press ups ✔️✔️
  • Do yoga ✔️
  • Take a cold shower ✔️✔️✔️
  • Write morning pages
  • Prepare dinner or bake bread

This is nothing remotely like trekking up a live volcano in Nicaragua without any feet — heck, it’s not even anything like hiking across Dartmoor on a sunny winter’s day.

But it is starting from where I am.

260,000 Year Winning Record For Team Human Cooperation on a local level — human to human, here and now — makes the relentless negativity of news media (and the power it represents) not only harmlessly avoidable, but ultimately irrelevant

My friends know me well.

This week, three people, independently, sent me the news that a high court judge had decided that wild camping was never permitted under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985.

As of last Friday, nights like this are no longer legal without permission from the landowner:

My friends indeed know me well: they know that I don’t read the news and that this news would be important to me.

Damn right.

The judgement balances, precariously, on one man’s interpretation of the phrase ‘open air recreation’.

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’.

Instant Response

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.

There is still much to explore on the current map of permissive wild camping, including Hangingstone Hill, Fox Tor and the wonderful (and relatively accessible) Great Mis Tor.

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.

Dartmoor National Park Authority has two weeks to to submit intention to appeal the judgement, but the Right To Roam campaign are already raising funds to fight in court.

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?

After reading last week’s sauna stories, Dan Sumption sent me this line:

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.

And there is Team Human, who believe (perhaps like JFK) that ‘No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.’

Whatever the disease, the cure begins with humans getting together, communicating and cooperating.

(Here’s a tangental and tantalising example of what JFK meant when he said that ‘our problems are manmade’: did you know that ‘war’ was invented and only 13,000 years ago? — that’s 20,000 years after the invention of the flute, for goodness sake.)

Team Human might not be as sexy as an iPhone or the Metaverse, but at least we’ve got a winning record going back at least 260,000 years.

And we get to decide which team we’ll play for in every decision that we take.

We’re On Team Human

Everything we do in life either brings us closer together, or pushes us further apart, back into our illusory bubbles.

The veteran City fund manager, I’m sure, only brought his legal challenge in an attempt to solve a problem that he sees out in the world.

I genuinely believe that, according to his vision, the veteran City fund manager acted in good faith.

But he chose the escapist route, so beloved of the extraordinarily wealthy, and has used his riches to push others away.

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.

The idea that No News Is Good News is something that I’ve written about a lot, but I’d never placed my media diet in its wider context until I found this article by Douglas Rushkoff.

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.

As Erica Chenoweth, Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard, has found, rebellions involving 3.5 percent of the population very rarely fail.

In the UK, that’s 2.4m people. Just so you know.

The Choice

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.

Great Mis Tor

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.

Thanks 🙏

Dylan, Eliot, Orwell, Rimbaud + Peterborough Swan carcasses, evensong, rotting sculptures, masked graffiti, community tree planting, heron flights and invisible medicine — all before leaving Peterborough

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.

In Fulfilment

Swan carcasses, evensong, rotting sculptures, masked graffiti, community tree planting, heron flights and invisible medicine — all before leaving the bounds of Peterborough.

Now the hedgerow / Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom

The to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road’ voices the choir of our walk and we stop the night, like Turpin of old, at The Bell, a fifteenth century coaching inn at Stilton.

Bull in field. Frost. Cows with calves at foot. Stark shadows across the cropped fields. An animal skull. Church ruins.

But the fulfilment of footstrike on footstrike (Achilles heel on Achilles heel) is nothing compared to the loose connection of companions on the hoof.

‘We shall not cease from exploration…’ at the storm shelter, in the sunshine, overlooking a Lidl distribution centre.

The End You Figured

A pizza seller came up to me at a bar in Inverness last week and asked, ‘Hey, I’ve seen that book around — worth reading?’

It was a book of interviews with Bob Dylan called Dylan On Dylan.

The pizza seller wanted a yes/no; I gave him a synopsis.

The book is almost hypnotic in the consistency of Dylan’s responses to the question that’s dogged him since Blowin’ In The Wind: ‘What do your lyrics really mean?’

Like this television press conference, from 1965:

What’s your new album about?

Oh, it’s about, uh — just about all kinds of different things — rats, balloons…

What do you bother to write the poetry for if we all get different images? If we don’t know what you’re talking about?

Because I got nothing else to do, man.

Or this, a little more constructively, from Rolling Stone thirty-six years later in 2001:

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.

Beyond The End

Little Gidding (the poem), I’m told, is about how ‘humanity’s flawed understanding of life and turning away from God leads to a cycle of warfare’.

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.

The adventurer’s name etched on a temple block, Luxor, Egypt. Tut tut.

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.

If I told you this was sunrise, would you believe me? If I told you this was sunset, would you believe me?

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’.

Never Dread The Road Ahead Everything I do for this bike ride is about finding the courage to connect. And it’s not just the bike ride. Cycling around Britain is a cypher for *everything* I do

Last night I went to the second ever edition of Professional Amateur Story Time, hosted by The New Forest Off Road Club.

The principle of the PAST Adventure Series is simple: three women stand up and tell stories of adventure to a rapt audience at a local bike shop.

We heard about the Adventure Queen Mother’s pre-Google adventures in Iceland and Nic’s wonderfully naive and frankly insane experience of the 2021 Women’s Torino-Nice Rally (ten Alpine passes in eight days WHAT).

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.

Leaving Elgin

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.

The Dread

My feelings pre-ride

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.

Kinnoull Hill outside Perth

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.

Also Kinnoull Hill outside Perth

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.

8am, Euston Station

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.

Come Ride

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 day more 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.

First time around Britain, I scarcely spoke to a soul. I did barely anything but eat, sleep and cycle (in the words of fellow round Britian cyclist Anna Hughes).

Although I had a wonderful two-month adventure, at times I felt vanishingly alone.

Of course, as Nurul well knows, I was never alone: I was alone in my mentality. I chose isolation and dread over connection and courage.

Always Connect

Nine, ten and eleven years on, everything I do for this bike ride is about overcoming dread and finding the courage to connect.

Connection between body and bike, between bike and road, and between myself and enlightened, enthused, inspired people like Nurul.

And it’s not just the bike ride. Cycling around Britain is a cypher for everything I do.

In one of my favourite of his essays, George Orwell wrote:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.

Now I cannibalise his words:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 2015 has been written, directly or indirectly, against disconnection and for connection, as I understand it.

At the top of this email, I said that I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better.

And the throughline of understanding is connection.

To cannibalise another great writer:

Always connect.

Postscript: Connection, Reconnection

After writing today’s story, I received an instant lesson in the principles of always connect.

Half an hour ago, I was sitting in my post-work sauna, when two women, one in her twenties, one in her fifties, walked in.

‘Hello, how’s it going?’ I asked, as I always ask — trying for a connection.

They were down from Oxford and Birmingham on a little pre-Christmas mother and daughter break.

‘Oh, I grew up in South Oxfordshire,’ I said.

It turned out that I was sitting next to Jane, my pre-school babysitter.

Always connect. Who knows — it might turn out to be reconnection.

Yes To Yes-vember! Selfless heroes of the journey: closest to the upspray from the wet road, toes to the wind, 60 times a minute pushing on the pedals, and with every pounding what warm blood remains further condensed

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 at half 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.

On previous sections of this ride, I’ve enjoyed connecting with other tourers going my way: saying ‘Yes’ to the tribe in Brighton, catching tailwinds along the north coast of Wales, camping on the beaches of whisky-soaked Islay.

None of that this time.

Instead, I’ve been received with blunt wonder. At the Kangus Cafe in Kirkcaldy, I was literally cheered off the premises, clutching a bag of delicious plant-based baps.

It reminds me why I love swimming in the sea in January: the look on the faces of passers-by, wrapped up in thick winter garb, as I emerge dripping in icy relief from the salt spray.

No easier way to feel like an everyday superhero, I reckon.

A driver gives me the big thumbs up through his rain-pocked windscreen. Fair play, mate.

That’s just one of the tiny reasons why I’m proposing we ditch the lame branding of this most sinuous of months.

No to November — Yes to Yes-vember!

  1. Colder temperatures mean fewer picnics, but more hours in cafes and pubs, where easy community is found.
  2. The warming, centring wonder of tea.
  3. Fewer cars on the road, fewer tourists to share the attractions and (crucially) table room at cafes.
  4. Fewer dog walkers to sniff out your camping spot. In the deep darkness after five, basically anywhere flat is a great, secluded place to pitch up.
  5. More night time = more sleep time, particularly the long morning lie-ins, cosy in the tent.
  6. Night riding is excite riding.
  7. Meltable food doesn’t. Chocolate, vegan block, butter, cheese — even ice cream!
  8. 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.
  9. 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 (££).
  10. 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.)
Tentsmuir Forest

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.

Layering for the win.

Even though my two feet make up only 2.8 percent of my total body weight, it’s a wonder how much misery that final fraction can cause, with blood vessels swollen to bursting from liquid to solid.

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.

Fingers and toes crossed for today…

Seek And Ye Shall Find… But What? What are we really looking for when we’re really looking for something?

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.

A gorgeously red waxcap (according to my plant identification app, PictureThis)

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.

More waxcaps. These ones look like flowers in bloom

In the famous words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are three grades of knowledge:

  • Known knowns: ‘things we know we know’
  • Known unknowns: ‘we know there are some things we do not know’
  • Unknown unknowns: ‘the ones we don’t know we don’t know’

As Slavoj Žižek pointed out, Rumsfeld forgot the fourth category: unknown knowns, ‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself’.

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.

That’s how human perception is built: founded on expectation.

When we are focussed on searching for knowns, we risk missing all the unknowns — the wondrous worlds that we didn’t even know were out there to be found.

Also waxcaps?! At this point, I’m beginning to doubt the utility of the algorithm…

The overwhelming majority of existence is made up of unknown unknowns.

As you can see from the photographs I took on my hunt, I was hopelessly unsuccessful in my search for known knowns.

What I found instead were three extraordinary and previously-unknown-to-me species of fungi.

Despite their apparent heterogeneity, each one, I learned to my growing astonishment, belonged to the genus known as waxcaps.

Further research tells me that there are about 150 described species of waxcaps. I guess I now have some level of conscious ignorance of 2 percent of all known waxcaps.

But it’s estimated that at least 90 percent of fungi species remain undiscovered, unnamed, unknown.

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.

Cordyceps jakajanicola: first discovered in 2019. The fungus grows inside a cicada and ‘sprouts its reproductive parts outside the host’s body’. Gross. Source

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.

Not waxcaps! Perhaps the hallucinogenic Deconica coprophila — shit lovers

Oh, and I never did find that blasted footpath. The Ordnance Survey denies using trap streets in its mapping, but I have my suspicions. And the torn trousers to prove it.

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


Friday 9 September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That day was my hundredth day of adventuring in 2022.

215 Days of Adventure (And Counting)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Big Year

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

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

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

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


(Seriously, I mean that: yay 🥳)

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

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

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

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

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

Goals Are Dangerous

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

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

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

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

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

Then he found it.

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

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

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

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

And then what? Emptiness.

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

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

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

The Country Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intrinsic Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

And after that?

Visit another country, score another point.

And after that?

Visit another country, score another point.

And after that?

Visit another country, score another point.

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

Protect and Prioritise

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

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

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

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

And That’s The Point

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

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

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

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

BONUS CONTENT: 17 Stories of Adventure

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Also truth.

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

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

We missed a bit.

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

Probably A Hill / Gravel / Borek

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

And not just because of the distance.

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

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

Albania. Go. Now.

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

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

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

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

Before The Lake

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

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

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

The guilty Lake Shkodër (Montenegrin side)

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

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

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

The Author, On His Death Trolley

After The Lake

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

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

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

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

A rest day was the only option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we caught a train.

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

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

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

Connecting The Dots

Why is it that we feel compelled to finish things?

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

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

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

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

It felt good to join the dots.

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

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

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

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

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

The What What Now Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Happy Friday! And greetings from Athens.

It’s been quite the ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not A Charity Auction

CREDIT: Zeina Hawa (Glasgow to Bristol)

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

But here’s my answer.

We’re Not Movember

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

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

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

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

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

CREDIT: Grace Compton (Glasgow to Milan)

We’re Not A Cycle Club Either

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CREDIT: Catriona Mallows (Trieste to Dubrovnik)

Are We Fundraising Or Cycling Here Or What?

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

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

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

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

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

CREDIT: Linde Geerinck (Glasgow to Bristol)

Zoom Zoom Zoom Out

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

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

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

The connection is connection.

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

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

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

He wasn’t disappointed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

CREDIT: Jim Yeoman (Trieste to Dubrovnik)

Let Me Count The Ways

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

But there’s much, much more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connection on connection.

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

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

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

It’s connection.

CREDIT: Georgie Cottle (Milan to Athens)

Only Connect

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

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

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

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


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

CREDIT: Jim Yeoman (Trieste to Dubrovnik)

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

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

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

More Like Communisn’t!

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

As political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1989:

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

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

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

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

It really didn’t go well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grounds of the Hotel Grand, c.1997

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hotels at Kupari

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

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

Bridges Over Borders

Dalmatia is divided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End Of The End Of History

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

Sorry — did somebody mention Russia?

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

Close up, it certainly looked that way to Fukuyama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make Them Lunch Today

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

Let me explain why this is a wonderful thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So too have you and I.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about the collapse of civilisations:

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

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

The Lunch I’m Making Today Is A Bike Ride

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

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

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

What lunch are you making for your beloveds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Luxury Beach Resorts, Two Socioeconomic Systems

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

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

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

Luxury Beach Resort #1: The Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera

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

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

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

An enduring triumph of twentieth century American capitalism.

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

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

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

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

A triumph of twentieth century Yugoslavian market-based socialism.

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

Hotel Pelegrin c. 2022

Even The President-For-Life Loves To Sunbathe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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


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

Boredom & The World Heritage Site

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A week in Bologna yawned ahead of me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I needn’t have worried.

Walking The Portici

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

Lorenzo was quite clear:

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

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

I nod enthusiastically. ‘Exactly!’

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

I nod enthusiastically. ‘Exactly!’

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

Lorenzo is thinking of my mental health.

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

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

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

I switch on my GPS tracker and begin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiles and almost shakes his head.

Now Lorenzo’s Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead of walking, I meet people.

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

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

Carpocratian Touring

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

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

I know how they feel.

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

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

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

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

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

Also sleep.

Turning Points

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

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

The change in scenery has been mildly dramatic:

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

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

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

But that’s in stories.

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

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

For two weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

Glasgow to Bristol: A Short Ride Across Town

The two months before this ride began were stressful.

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

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

I needed, or thought I needed, a holiday.

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

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

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

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

Bristol to Paris: Cheese On Toast

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

But we had done it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cafe’s closed.

Back up the hill, in silence.

Another cafe.

They only serve cheese on toast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris to Lyon: Pineapple Chess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyon to Milan: No Ikaría

I was worried about crossing the Alps on my bicycle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it proved.

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

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

Routine Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And learning that is one hell of a turning point.

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

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

I don’t believe you.

Philoxenia and the Magic Cobbler

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

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

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

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

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

Britain is beautiful by bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast: Talking Thighs of Steel with Bikepacking Buds

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And I won’t sleep for two months.

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

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

Enough typing!

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

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

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

So what has this got to do with my birthday?

Next Friday, I’ll turn 40.

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

I’m going to make this easy for you.

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you 🙏

The Bad News

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

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

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

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

The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis Nothing propinks like propinquity

Nothing propinks like propinquity
~ Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever

Propinquity is the property of nearness.

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

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

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

That’s the law of propinquity in archaeology.

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

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

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

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

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

Why the heck am I going on about this?

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

Stand by for a bold statement:

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

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

Not convinced?

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

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

The brakes fail. You get hit.

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

The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis

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

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

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

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

Our nearest becoming, truly, our dearest.

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

As I pompously wrote back in 2008:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing Propinks Like Cycle Touring

But why am I banging on about propinquity?

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

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

Alright then, here you go:

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

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

Nothing propinks like cycle touring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Propinquity And The Port Sunlight Wheelers

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

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

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

It’s remarkable simply because he stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, a complete stranger.

Stay Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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