A Kinder wind

The wind on Kinder is a sensory deprivation chamber.

The rattling, booming noise cuts out my sound sense; I can’t hear the tread of my feet in the bog above the screaming of my rain jacket and the howling of the withered grass.

My vision comes woozy from the wind: walking the path is like standing on the prow of a ship, eyes contending with a force that won’t be seen.

Proprioception is meaningless, my feet can only guess and hope where they might land next. Balance goes too, as moment to moment my ear canals rush with gusts and lulls.

The wind whips away my breath, making hard going over easy ground. Smells only come from the southwest, and much too quickly to distinguish anything of use.

Rushing up from the valley, the rain hits from below. I veer off course, staggering from one path to another until I reach a cluster of boulders, offering each other shelter since the last ice age, resisting the wind — and losing.

How to play Thighs of Steel Joining the world's longest charity relay bike ride

If you don’t know how the world’s longest (and bestest) charity relay bike ride works, then here’s a quick and dirty guide on How to Play Thighs of Steel:

1. Don’t worry – you’re not cycling the whole thing, this is a relay. Pick one week that fills you with butterflies of excitement rather than dread. There’s something on this route for cyclists of all abilities and we are totally non-competitive.

Historically, more than half of our cyclists have been women – I only mention that because cycle touring has a shit reputation of being lonely, miserable and macho. It’ll be challenging, but you’ll never be alone and, with smiles, songs and snacks, everyone helps everyone through. Most people only do one week of the relay – some crazies do two.

2. Do logistics. Book your time off work and your transport to and from the start and finish cities.

3. Train like heck. We have training rides every month in London and there are now over 200 current and former Thighs cyclists you can meet up with for beers and bikes. (In reality, you’ll probably only train a bit and then panic unduly. It’ll be fine. We all do this.)

4. Fundraise like heck. All the money goes to grassroots refugee organisations and we suggest you aim for a minimum of £500. We’re always on hand for fundraising advice. Putting on a party or a dinner is always a winner, but don’t forget the simple stuff like charity pots in your local cafes and pubs. Over the past four years, Thighs cyclists have raised over £320,000 for projects that are making a real difference to the lives of refugees in the UK and Greece.

5. Cycle a really long way. Wahay! Adventure and the unknown is our standard operating procedure as we wild ride, wild camp and wild swim our way across the continent.

People focus on the cycling, but what makes Thighs special is the people. Nothing bonds a campful of strangers like climbing a mountain in 40 degree heat, or getting sprayed down by a farmer with a power hose, or handing out a pannier full of figs picked straight from the tree, or mending a puncture in a thunderstorm, or just sitting by a lake at the end of a long day and watching the sun set in silence.

6. Come home with a suntan, steely thighs and stuffed full of stories to share. It won’t be the end unless you want it to be. Repeat with friends in 2021?

Signups open for real on Sunday 1 March, but you can get early bird access on Monday 24 February by joining a special mailing list. This is good because places go fast and no one wants to miss out!

All Urk and No Play Climbing the highest natural point in the Netherlands' lowest province

Windmills of De Zaanse Schans

Greetings from Amsterdam. I write this as the weekend is drawing its last deep breath, as I watch the sun diving into the IJ and stock up on black bread for an eleven hour coach back to London Victoria.

Aside from the windmills, the dijks, the pannenkoeken and the oil rigs, the main event of the weekend was, of course, Youtube sensation The Tim Traveller’s mass ascent of the highest natural point in the lowest province of the Netherlands.

It’s about an hour’s drive to Urk from Amsterdam and we had no idea how many people to expect at Tim’s first Youtube meetup. The sun was shining, though, so we thought maybe ten or twenty.

Arriving on Urk (‘on’ not ‘in’ – Urkers are proud of their former status as an island) an hour early, we had a cup of tea in a smokey sports bar before walking down to the rendezvous.

About a hundred Internet people were gathered at the foot of the lighthouse, most of them filming ‘the most exciting event to ever happen on Urk’ on their smartphones. Two drones buzzed overhead, flying out of the sun like a scene from Apocalypse Now.

Tim, it’s fair to say slightly overwhelmed, was soon swamped in a cloud of Internet people eager to meet the hero of the hour. Dozens had travelled for hours across the country to meet Tim. One guy had flown from Edinburgh.

After half an hour of hand-shaking and selfies, Tim addressed his public, announced the commencement of the climb, and we set off, a protest march without cause.

The walk from the lighthouse to the church took about five minutes. Visibility was good and there were no accidents, besides the outrageous accident that a silly travel video had brought a hundred strangers together for a very silly afternoon.

At the summit, we were met by a man dressed in traditional costume, who formally greeted the crowds before melting away into the churchyard.

Then we found a pub where, thanks to the extremely high average geek quotient in attendance, we proceeded to learn an awful lot about polders – an understandable point of pride for the Dutch, given that about half the land in the Netherlands is reclaimed from the sea.

‘God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.’

Other things I learned:

  • The Netherlands has a border with France. Can you point to it on a map?
  • In a politically correct move that divides the country, Zwarte Piet, Santa Claus’ black-face assistant, has become ‘Soot’ Piet.
  • People born on the Caribbean island of Curaçao are Dutch citizens, with Dutch passports, but they are not members of the European Union.
  • Every twenty-five years, the academy convenes to decide how the Dutch will spell words that might have shifted in pronunciation. In 1996, to the delight of menu printers nationwide, the word for ‘pancake’, ‘pannekoeke’ changed to ‘pannenkoeke’.

Talking of which, the day finished with a stop at a Hansel and Gretel themed pancake house, where animatronic statues of sinterklaas flapped their arms around and every fifteen minutes the tables started tilting up and down for the entertainment of the (mostly under eleven years old) guests. Very gezelligheid.

What was the point of all this? The Tim Traveller gave us strangers – united by nothing more than an interest in the world – an excuse to go out and do something, even if that something was as pointless as climbing the highest natural point in the lowest region of the Netherlands.

An afternoon outdoors, connecting with people you would never otherwise meet, in a place you would never otherwise go. Isn’t that the most beautiful expression of what it means to be human? I think so.

A hundred Internet people gather to climb the highest natural point on (not in) Urk. Photo: The Tim Traveller

The Next Challenge Grant: Applications for Adventure Now Open

For the past two years, I’ve supported The Next Challenge Grant, a wonderfully simple idea to crowdsource donations from people like me so that impecunious adventure-newbies can take on the kind of challenges that I’ve been so lucky to enjoy over the years.

My £200 donation – enough to fund one adventurous grantee – is dedicated to my nan. This is the dedication I wrote on the grant’s donor page:

My first big adventure, cycling 4,000 miles around the coast of Great Britain, was only possible thanks to support from my nan. She’d absolutely love The Next Challenge Expedition Grant so now it’s my turn to help you find your own awesome adventure. As nan used to say: Do it while you can!

This rest of this post was written by Tim Moss, the founder of the grant. Read on for the incredible stories of some astonishingly imaginative adventures made possible thanks to donations from the general public, people like you and me.

5 years, 60 adventures funded

Here’s a look back over five years of the Next Challenge Grant and the 60 adventurers that have won it…

We’ve had plenty of running expeditions like George Shelton running the Isle of Man ‘TT’ route, Dan Keeley running a thousand miles from Italy to England, Tina Page running the UK Three Peaks and Amanda McDonnell running across the Channel Islands.

Mike Creighton is running between all of the UK’s national parks as I write, while Ruth Thomas is preparing to run the Thames Path and Valerie Rachel is preparing to run the Trans-Labrador Highway.

Cycling’s been just as popular. Mikey Bartley rode up the legendary Alpe d’Huez eight times in a row, Dylan Haskin went round Costa Rica on a beach cruiser (sounds cool, looked brutal), Megan Cumberlidge bikepacked the GR247 and Geraint Hill explored “Everyman’s rights” in Scandinavia.

Karl Booth pedalled 2,500 miles to the top of Europe, off-road and then declined to accept any money from the grant. He said that he got so much sponsorship after telling people he’d won a Next Challenge Grant that he didn’t need the cash and I should give it to someone else. Legend.

Paddle sports have featured too. Graham Clarke tackled the Shannon on a home-made raft, Val Ismaili kayaked through Kosovo and Albania on the Drin, Anna Blackwell kayaked from the UK to the Black Sea, Jo Laird paddled the longest lakes in England, Scotland and Wales, Joanne McCallum paddled the longest lake in North Ireland, and Emily Fitzherbert and her daughter Lua paddle-boarding every lake in the Lake District.

There have been a few trips that combine sports too, like Heather Jones’ Welsh Three Peaks by bike (which ended in a snow-covered bivouac), Hajo Spathe’s home-made IronMan triathlon in the Rockie Mountains and Ed March-Shawcross’s triathlon around Arran.

We’ve let youth do it, with teenagers walking the Tour du Mont Blanc, canoeing the Rivey Spey, cycling across Europe, cycling across Jamaica, walking all of the UK’s National Trails, hiking from the Lakes to the Dales, and crossing a desert island.

We’ve had some really creative ideas, like Carmen Bran camping out for 100 nights in a year (around finishing a PhD), Oli Warlow climbing up and cycling between every route in the Classic Rock guide book, Nick Stanton cycling the length of the Berlin Wall on a hired bike, Joshua Powell running a marathon at Marathon (in ancient Greek armour) and Kate Symonds-Joy cycling to the northernmost point in the UK to perform a one woman opera in a lighthouse (!).

There are also plans to cycle the Netherlands in search of new food technologies, explore the worst-selling Ordnance Survey map, trek around Scotland with a pony and complete swimming escapes from the UK’s three prison islands.

Despite the grant being aimed primarily at smaller challenges, some expeditions have just been straight-up epic, like Jenny Tough running across the Kyrgyz Tien-Shan mountain range, Thommo Hart walking the length of South Africa barefoot and Elise Downing running five thousand miles around the UK (five thousand!). Plus, Sam Hewings is walking a couple of thousand miles along Britain’s watershed right now.

We’ve had expeditions all across the world too, with bikepacking in the Philippines, a circumnavigation of Gotland, a planned walk up Mount Cameroon, a father and young daughters walking in the Indian Western Ghats, a winter hike along the Great Wall, a trek along Ukraine’s Tendrivska Spit, Robin Lewis walking Japan’s tsunami-affected coastline, walking the length of New Zealand and a crossing of the Kolyma mountain range in the Russian Far East.

But we’ve also had plenty of trips closer to home, like Nate Freeman’s wonderfully simple walk to work (25 miles each way), Kerry Anne Mairs’ five bothies with a five year old, Bex Band taking a kick-scooter around the London Loop, Ben & Jude tackling the Caledonian canal in an inflatable boat, and Emily Woodhouse battling up every tor in Dartmoor.

The stories from these adventures would be enough on their own but the fact that they come from “normal people” who have been part-funded by “normal people” somehow makes them feel even better.

2020 grant applications now open

Applications for the 2020 Next Challenge Grant are now open. The deadline is Sunday 5th January. Read more and apply here.

It is open to people all over the world, of any age, nationality or background. Expedition experience is not necessary and, in fact, the grant is aimed squarely at those who are new to the adventure world and “don’t normally do this sort of thing”.

So if you’ve had a look at trips above and thought “I’m not the kind of person that does stuff like that”, then you need to apply.

The application only takes five minutes and – because Tim only has a small readership and typically makes 10 or more awards – the odds of success are high.

What are you waiting for? What is the worst that could happen?

Click here to apply

Click here to donate

Paris: Love Letter Hunting

As some of you will recall, back in August (not July as in the audio) I left a love letter, hidden in the crack in a wall in Paris, for someone I’d barely met.

You can read the first part of the story here.

Then I found out that she’d left me a letter in return. But my attempt to recover said letter back in August was frustrated by police.

You can read the second part of the story here.

Now, my friends, we arrive at the denouement! I am once again in Paris, footloose and fancy free (well, assuming I skip dinner).

But what will I find hidden away on the banks of the Seine?

Listen to the love letter hunting audio on Substack…

From the English Channel

Who would spend 86 hours and about £300 travelling from Athens to the UK when a four hour flight costs a third of the price?

The answer is, of course, me – but I was rebuking myself with this question yesterday afternoon when I found out that my ferry crossing from Cherbourg to Poole had been summarily cancelled because of what can only be described as British weather.

As I scrabbled to find an alternative route that wasn’t disgustingly expensive (Eurostar topped £200, the train from Dover was nearly £90), unhappily time-tabled, or, indeed, already fully booked, I was annoyed at myself for choosing the slow road home, horrified at the mounting expense of two extra train fares, and disgraced by the choices we’ve made as a species that put such a high premium on terrestrial transport.

Then I remembered the people I left behind in Izmir, Samos and Athens: the Afghan students I’d taught the days of the week, the Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi chefs who’d cooked for me, the friends of many nations with whom I’d hiked to the beach – the thousands of people who would give anything (their life savings, their youth, their life) for the chance to travel across the continent so charmlessly.

At the port, as police swept the underside of lorries for desperate stowaways, all I had to do was dangle my passport and cycle aboard. For me, there’s only the merest whiff of a border, and a delay of an hour or two is no delay at all.

~

As it happens, I feel very lucky to be on board – and not only because I’m winning the passport lottery.

Yesterday, after frantic re-routing analysis, I finally settled on the Caen to Portsmouth ferry as the least painful option. I booked the same, swiftly followed (naturally enough, I thought) by the booking of a train from Paris to Caen.

I agonised over the timings: should I book the languorous early train which would leave me a yawning two and a half hours of footling around in Caen, or should I book the dynamic later train, with time for a leisurely lunch in Paris and a snappy arrival 45 minutes before departure?

Eventually, my cautious nature won out and I booked the early train.

Good thing too – because the Caen and ‘Caen’ of my tickets are two completely different places. In fact, one of them isn’t called ‘Caen’ at all.

Caen, the actual Caen where my train arrived, is a landlocked town some 16 kilometres from the English Channel.

The spurious ‘Caen’ of my ferry booking is actually a place called Ouistrehem, which might look less catchy on the brochure, but has the singular advantage of being geographically accurate.

Good thing I had that spare hour for a rapid bike ride through the misting Calvados rain.


I have joined thousands of others in pledging to go Flight Free in 2020. You can help focus politicians’ minds on sustainable alternatives to air travel by joining the movement here.


UPDATE: I have just done the accounts on all my travels this summer.

I was particularly shocked by how expensive all the overland travel was – especially after my ferry on Friday was cancelled and I had to rebook a couple of trains as well.

So I looked up the cost of my 5 trips this summer if I’d used air travel.

(Drum roll…)

Total plane cost
5 days, includes airport transfers and bike carriage
£992.00
£198.40 per trip

Total cost of travelling overland
11 nights, includes hostels (and ferry and train cancellation costs)
£1,214.87
£242.97 per trip

It still feels a bit wrong that flying  through the air is cheaper than taking a train or bus, but it’s nowhere near as cheap as I’d thought it’d be.

Remember, too, that included in my £44/trip overland travel premium were three beautiful evenings in Paris, two with friends in Milan and a whole day to explore Brindisi.

Cheap at the price!

Athens to the UK with (not by) a bicycle

My route from Athens to the UK was scheduled to take ~82 hours, but that includes about 9 bonus hours in Brindisi and 16 bonus hours in Paris. And does mean that I arrive in Portsmouth, which might not be everyone’s idea of the UK.

Leg 1: Coach Athens-Patra (€20.70)

They’ll take bikes underneath. I had to take off my front wheel, but otherwise left the bike intact.

Takes about 3 hours. Has wifi. More or less airconditioned.

Another option is to cycle along the Gulf of Corinth, which I have done before, in the opposite direction. 3 hours versus 3 days.

Leg 2: Ferry Patra-Brindisi (overnight)

It’s a 3-4km ride from the coach station to the ferry port. Ignore the one way signs and take the first ‘exit’ into the port, saving yourself a huge loop. There’s a handy AB supermarket just before you turn into the port.

Do you really need to arrive at least 2 hours before departure for check-in? Probably not. Did I? Yes. Passport control doesn’t open until 60 minutes before departure.

Don’t worry about boarding: the bike just rolls on and gets tied up. Easy.

I got the overnight ferry so that I could make full use of the cabin. Some people will think this is a waste of money when you could just sleep on deck. I think it’s worth every penny. I slept like a log from about 10pm until about 7am.

Plus it’s nice to have somewhere to dump all your crap while you romp about the ship. And I met a lovely chap called John from Poland.

The ferry arrives a short 3km ride from Brindisi town.

Leg 3: Train Brindisi-Milan (overnight)

Again, I booked an overnight train to avoid spending money on a hostel in Milan. That meant two things:

  1. A full day in Brindisi to eat focaccia.
  2. Only 90 minutes to get between station in Milan for my connection to Paris.

There was no problem getting the bike onto the train, but Brindisi train station doesn’t have a lift between platforms so be prepared to lug.

Try to book a lower bunk so that you feel less like a prick when you take up the entire floor space with your bike. You can’t squeeze the bike underneath the bed, so it has to fit into the space between the ladder and the window.

Woe betide you if there are two bikes.

Try to book a cabin near to the train door so you don’t have to carry your stuff so far. Alternatively, I simply moved my stuff up the carriage into an empty cabin about half an hour before Milan. This is only really important if you have a tight change, which I did.

I got a three bunk cabin, by the way. You will not be able to do anything in a triple cabin. The beds are comfortable, but there isn’t much head room. There are stools to perch on in the gangway, but you’ll frequently have to stand up to allow passage.

In spite of there being shampoo in your deluxe complimentary pack, I couldn’t find the shower. There is a sink in your cabin, but you won’t be able to get to it because your bike will be in the way. There are adequate sinks in the toilet.

Leg 4: Train Milan-Paris

I only had 90 minutes to get off the train, put my bike together, cycle to Garibaldi and pack up the bike again. Luckily, it only took me 45 minutes.

The Milan-Paris train left from platform 11 – useful to know, but only if it always does.

I got a hostel and stayed overnight in Paris, where I wandered around and ate crêpes.

Leg 5: Train Paris-Caen

Easy: just wheel the bike onto the train.

Leg 5.5: Cycle to port which is actually 16km away

Ooh – unexpected! Thank god I allowed plenty of panic time.

Leg 6: Ferry Caen to Portsmouth

Easy. The bike wheels on and, some hours later, wheels off.


So that’s it: Athens to the UK in four travelling days. It is possible to do the journey faster, but I was quite pleased with my free time in Brindisi and Paris.

As with any journey, things went wrong. I was never meant to go via Caen and Portsmouth – I’d booked for Cherbourg and Poole, but bad weather scotched that plan.

But that’s all part of the adventure and I’d much rather have these disruptions than the misery and suspicion of airport security and customs. Overlanding wins!

And if you’re worried about expense, then you might be surprised…

Cycling around Ikaría

I have circumnavigated both Britain and Tunisia on my bicycle (he has a name, Martin). Now I can add the mythological island of Ikaría to that illustrious list.

There are many myths attached to Ikaría, starting with the island’s very name – does it derive from an ancient word for ‘fish’, or was it here that the ill-starred Icarus crashed to earth?

There is the myth of the ‘long-lived’ population (a myth that goes back at least as far as 1677). It might be the calorie-restricted diet, it might be hard-working lives and no retirement, it might be close family, or the radioactive hot springs.

There is the myth of ‘Red Rock’, the island where 13,000 communists were exiled – quite possibly all of them ribetiko players (in spite of the disapproval of the Communist Party).

There is the myth of the Free State of Ikaría, with its own government, armed forces, stamps and, most importantly, flag. The state lasted 5 months in 1912; you can still see the flag flying.

Then there is the myth that Ikaría can make for a relaxing cycle tour, even in the dying embers of summer.

Ikaría doesn’t give up its myths easily.

~

The first warning landed on my deaf ears even before I’d booked my ferry ticket: ‘It is very hilly,’ my friend told me, ‘and the road isn’t too good in places.’

The second warning came moments after disembarking, met in a port-side cafe by an Ikarían friend of my friend. ‘It is very hilly,’ he said. ‘Mountains. And there is no road in some places.’

The third warning arrived at the end of an afternoon that had fair zipped along, fuelled by Popis’s aubergine in red wine, on rollercoaster contours where descents powered the climbs. ‘The road goes straight up from here,’ the painter under the tree said. ‘And, from Karkinagri, the road is impassable. You might be able to get through, but you’ll have to carry your bike.’

The fourth warning was a map. If it’s possible to have deaf eyes, then I had them. A circumnavigation of the whole island was less than 140km – a day’s work on Thighs of Steel – how hard could Ikaría be?

Turns out: really fucking hard.

There were plenty of moments, perched high up on a wheel-spinning gravel track, bike in hand, where I fancied an Icarus-like plunge into the sea rather than take another heave on the pedals.

It’s amazing how fast your body forgets the sweat-earned hills when you’re racing to sea-level at 50kph. Every day is showtime here: the sun playing in the waves, the clouds decorating the Amazonian canopy, the Ikarían rock, polished or volcanic, changing colour from bleach to blush to black.

Yesterday I took rest in the far east of the island. I walked over the headland to a cove where stone held the sea close, and the sand paddled underfoot. I dived from a boulder and let the current drift me out to the sunset.

I hiked up to the Cave of Dionysus, startling two bull-like goats into the thickets of gorse. The maw of the cave hung open, the walls melting with the crushed skulls and bones of thousands of years. A bottomless fear stalked me.

I climbed up along a trail marked with scarlet splashes of paint, chasing the falling light, cresting the hilltop as the sun bent itself into the western mountains I’d climbed two days before. The stars flicked on.

Thighs of Steel arrives in Athens, all together

After more than 6,000km and 90,000m of climbing, Thighs of Steel is done and dusted for another year.

Over the past 9 weeks, more than 90 cyclists have covered every single inch of asphalt between here and London. As part of the core team for 4 weeks this year, I have cycled 1,670 of those kilometres (8.9 laps of the M25) and climbed 18,600m (2.1 ascents of Everest).

I also shared 7 van days, supporting the incredible sweat-work of the fundraising cyclists, finding wild camp spots, fixing broken bikes, cooking hearty dinners and generally trying to make everything run as smoothly as a transcontinental bike ride can be.

After the glorious hospitality of Albania last week, the final ride from Igoumenitsa to Athens was littered with unforeseen crises.

  • Two bikes arrived destroyed by airlines. On day one, another bike fell apart on the road. On day three, a fourth bike succumbed.
  • On the first night, the police broke up our beachside camp with hard stares and unveiled threats.
  • The starter motor on Calypso (the van) broke, leaving the van team stranded on a beach with hungry, tired cyclists rushing ahead expecting food and shelter.
  • At the tunnel under the Ambracian Gulf, the whole team were told that the shuttle service for cyclists had been terminated, they couldn’t cross, and should instead make a 100km detour.
  • We had our first serious accident: a gravel slip on a fast descent that left a bruising dent in an elbow.
  • After fixing precisely zero punctures in the past 3 weeks, this week I personally replaced three exploded inner tubes – other teams copped yet more.
  • On the final morning of the ride, a thunderstorm broke. Sheet lightning, thunder claps and hard rain laying waste to the camp we’d pitched among the stones of an ancient archaeological site.

But of all the weeks I have taken part in, this was the one I enjoyed the most.

Albania was the country I most loved cycling through, but this week gave me the sense – nay, the strong belief that no challenge was insurmountable for this motley collection of strangers that had come together to ride and raise money for refugees.

This disaster-filled ride most encapsulated the Thighs of Steel ethos: whatever troubles we face, we face together and we solve together.

It is testament to the resilience and generosity of the human spirit that, when we come together in common cause, anything is possible. I feel like the past few weeks, in the company of so many committed people, have filled me up with good faith in our shared humanity.

On Thighs of Steel we usually ride in two or three groups so that we’re staggered across the roads. It’s easier to manage smaller teams and groups of four or five dodge much of the ire of other road users.

But it was fitting that, after weathering the morning’s tempestuous thunderstorm, Thighs of Steel 2019 ended with the 16 cyclists gathering in a restaurant just outside Athens and riding into the city to meet the van team at the summit of Lycabettus, so that we could celebrate our ride all together.

~

Thighs of Steel 2019 Fundraising Update: £67,736

£10,000 of your generous donations will help fund Pedal Power, a cycle training programme for female refugees in Birmingham. I’ve written a bit about Pedal Power and Thighs of Steel on The Bike Project blog if you’d like to read more.

Thanks everyone!

The kindest country in the world?

There is a word in Greek, xenia, which translates (badly) as ‘guest friendship’. It manifests as generous hospitality to strangers and travellers and is a common theme in Ancient Greek mythology.

I remember studying xenia as a central theme of The Odyssey. As Odysseus is battered and blown from port to port across the Mediterranean Sea, his return to Ithaka is made possible thanks only to extravagant displays of xenia by the people upon whose shores he washes up. (With the exception of witches who turn his crew into pigs and the like.)

One of those to help him (after a seven year delay…) with wine, bread and a raft was a nymph who gave her name to the the Thighs of Steel support van – Calypso.

Thighs of Steel, like the famous Odyssey, is a journey entirely dependent on the extraordinary xenia of those we meet, those who fill our water bottles, find us camping spots, give directions and food and welcoming smiles.

Xenia may be a Greek concept, but there must surely be a similar word in Albanian. Everywhere we went this week we have been almost assaulted with outrageous generosity.

Three cafe owners refused to let us pay for our coffees or cold drinks, and one gave us chocolate bars when we asked if we could use his toilet.

A car wash owner (Albania is full of lavazh car washes) broke off his siesta and fixed my bike while his black-clad mother brought out a watermelon and ice water for the rest of the group.

It seemed that whenever we went to pay, we were met with a touch of the heart and a smile. Such was the hospitality that it became almost an embarrassment.

One afternoon, as the sun crushed us like bugs into the asphalt, we spotted what we thought was a bar where we might be able to buy drinks and eat our leftover lunches from last night’s dinner.

But when we rolled up to the establishment, the bar turned out to be a restaurant. Quite a fine restaurant, with white cloths on busy tables that were piled up with plates of salad and grilled fish.

‘Maybe they’ll let us eat our lunch here anyway?’

At this suggestion, two thoughts surfaced:

  1. This is Albania: of course the proprietor will let us eat our pots of chilli and bread rolls at his restaurant, use his toilet, fill up our water bottles and cool off in the shade of his veranda. He would touch his heart and smile.
  2. If this Albanian man showed up at any restaurant in the UK and asked to eat his packed lunch, use the toilet and fill his water bottles under the shade of the veranda, there is no way in hell he’d be given anything other than an angry clip round the ear.

I felt ashamed and walked off down the road, looking for any corner of unbleached stone where we could sit and picnic. By the time I came back, the rest of the group was pulling out our food as the restaurant owner welcomed them with a fresh table cloth. A neighbouring table of soldiers clinked beer bottles and translated.

As it happened, we ended up buying quite a lot of extra food, so I think it worked out pretty well for the kind restauranteur, but that’s not the point. I have never known such unrelenting generous hospitality from an entire citizenry on my travels before.

Chapeau Albania!

Thighs of Steel 2019 Fundraising Update: £65,587 which puts the total raised over the past four years at more than £300,000. Frankly ridiculous.

The 64 Hour Neapolitan Food Tour

Some people might like to go for a drink or something afterwards. Who knows.

Those were the last words I wrote in my diary before heading out for an evening food tour in Napoli.

64 hours later, my Neapolitan food tour finally ended in an orgy of pastries and coffee – my companion and I fervently insisting with each successive bite that we were quite replete and couldn’t possibly finish it all.

Reader: we finished it all. Not just that morning, but the whole long weekend. All of it. There was not a corner of Napoli that went unsampled by our insatiable taste buds.

The official tour started from the shadow of Dante’s statue and led us around the street food of Napoli.

Buffala mozzerella fresh that morning – quite unlike the mozzerella palmed off on us in Great Britain. Served with carralo biscuits made with almonds dry as dustpaper, best suited to mopping up the olive oil dripping from your antipasti.

Limoncello, of course, made with lemons from Sorrento and alcohol from Dante’s Inferno. Aperol spritz in cheap plastic cups, served from windows open straight onto the street.

Two species of pizza, from Sorbillo’s – the finest pizzeria in Napoli and thus the world. First pizza a portafoglio – a simple wallet pizza that’s eaten folded and on the run, then pizza fritta – a deep fried specimen that wouldn’t be out of place on a night out in Glasgow.

Frittatine di pasta is a depth charge of carbohydrates, macaroni, bechamel and pork weighted with enough oil to power a medium-sized caravan. One to be halved, quartered, and shared to soak up the limoncello.

Sfogliatelle, rhum babá and gelato to finish. Or so I thought.

‘You guys wanna come for a drink?’ asked a voice I would come to know well from the late night, early morning menu inspections that would plaster our weekend.

She’d come for the coastline, Capri and Amalfi. But the storm we watched roll in one night – sea spray dousing our wine – put paid to that. So we sacrificed ourselves instead to tracking down the city’s gourmet offerings of seafood and pasta.

I don’t have the heart to ruin your Friday lunch (nor mine) with any more distant dishes. Suffice to say that, were I still wandering the alleyways of Napoli, I suspect I would already have Type 2 diabetes and a drinking problem.

Smooth stone slabs and close houses make for a furnace. Narrow alleys burst open onto ornate cathedrals. Religious niches behind glass. A white dog with a pink tongue. Songbirds. The street spills into houses, households tumble onto the street. Families in states of undress around a floral tablecloth, bunk beds in the corner. Impromptu greengrocers and fruit-sellers. Washing lines decorate the walls. Courtyards hidden behind doorways and pillars. Cigarette vending machines. And, above all, mopeds.

Always take the swim

It seems hard to believe it today, as I dry myself off in the sun after a swim in the Bay of Naples, but in 2011 I managed to cycle around the whole coast of Britain without once going for a swim in the sea, or in any of the dozens of rivers, lakes and streams that I passed.*

It was this realisation that led me to the maxim that I carry around the world’s waters with me: Always take the swim.

Myriad are the times that I have really hated the idea of jumping into a river or lake, but zero are the number of times that I’ve regretted doing so.

When faced with a wild swimming opportunity, my brain does something silly and the combined efforts of willpower and desire are not enough to get me into the water.

I need automatic thinking – and I’ve come across enough other people in the same metaphorical boat to believe that many could benefit from this humble maxim.

Always take the swim.

Whenever there is an opportunity to swim, you should take that opportunity. And you’d be amazed how many opportunities there are in your day-to-day life.

Seas, oceans, rivers, streams, burns, fountains, lakes, ponds. The water is waiting.

Don’t let excuses get in the way. Your brain, for some reptilian reason, will furnish you with dozens of excuses ripe to fit any occasion. You must ignore them and instead trust and follow the maxim.

Always take the swim.

Not having your bathers is no excuse. I have taken swims naked and in my boxer shorts when nakedness is scorned.

Not having a towel is no excuse. On days like today, I dry in the sun, on less clement days I have dried myself with a t-shirt – or simply shaken myself down and put on my clothes still wet. It’s never that long before I have the chance to find a towel or a change of clothes. And I have still never regretted taking a swim.

Cold water is no excuse – although it is a very good reason to be cautious. Cold water makes for the most invigorating swims. Cold water should make your maxim yet more urgent.

But beware: enter the water slowly, and make sure you are confident about warming up again afterwards. It doesn’t take much (and you still don’t need a towel) – just run up and down on the shore until you’re warm again. Then put your layers back on.

Poor weather is no excuse. This overlaps with cold water, but I would hasten to add that there is no more joyful swim than that taken in pouring rain. How perverse, how apt!

Even better: high winds equal high surf and vastly more pleasurable sea swimming. Although, please be careful and watch out for rip tides.

Not having time is no excuse. Whoever said a swim has to take a long time? There aren’t many places in the world that are a long way from a water course – almost by definition. Humans need water, so settlements rise up along their route.

When I am in Bournemouth, blessed with a 10km shoreline, I calculate that the minimum viable swim (out to beyond my depth, plus three head dunking dives) takes exactly 13 minutes, from fully dressed at my desk, into the sea, and back. I defy anyone unable to find 13 minutes in their day for a swim.

Not being near the sea is no excuse. For some reason, rivers and streams are usually excluded from most people’s acceptable notions of outdoor swimming. This is madness for I find that they are the most rewarding.

The sea is relentless and – dare I say – a little dull sometimes. The river is never short of interest, from the sludgy coolness of the mud shore, to the abundant wildlife that coos and chuckles from the treeline. Plus there is the eternal pleasure of striking out upstream until exhaustion, before drifting back to base on the current.

If you have never thought of taking a river swim, I urge you to take one today. Be not afeared of cleanliness. If you are worried (and in the UK), check the government’s designated bathing water website or the Environment Agency Water Quality Archive for wilder swims.

I have swum now in rivers all over Europe and never once contracted ringworm.

I dread to think how many swims I missed out on during my round Britain cycle, but I am glad in a way that it has brought me to my fool-proof maxim. I cannot turn back the clock, but I can try to convince you to always take the swim.

May the tides be with you!


* Full disclosure: I washed myself once at a friend’s local watering hole in a river near Bath, and I also got my feet wet in the North Sea at John O’Groats. Up to my ankles. Doesn’t count.

The Trials and Tribulations of Van Days Thighs of Steel 2019

Being part of the core team for Thighs of Steel this year is a very different experience to riding the full week as a fundraiser. Mainly because I spent two of the six days driving Calypso, the team’s support van.

That’s not to say that van days are easy. There’s an intimidating list of jobs that need to be done:

  • Pack up the campsite
  • Plan a meal and buy food for dinner
  • Drive ~120km (on the wrong side of the road)
  • Find the perfect wild camping spot for ~15 cyclists, not too far from the pre-planned route, but quiet, secluded, flat enough for tent-pitching, and ideally close to a river or lake for swimming
  • Cook the perfect camp dinner

A dozen hot and hungry cyclists depend on the van team getting this right. Oh – and you have to do all of this while feeling like absolute crap.

It is an unfortunate side effect of long distance cycling that your body mistakenly believes that van days are rest days. The body shuts down, the mind follows suit.

I felt like an extremely hot zombie. This was not great news, especially as I was driving and my French was in high demand to help secure us a wild camp site.

But on Thighs of Steel miracles happen. Indeed, the ride depends on miracles, almost every single day.

I’d been warned that finding wild camping for a dozen cyclists and a humungous van is the hardest part of the job. The plan is completely reliant on some kindly farmer, landowner or mayor taking pity on our ridiculous endeavour and letting us camp on their land.

After all, what would you do if you saw a circle of chairs, filled by dirty-faced foreigners, set up in your orchard?

But, in more than 20 weeks of touring, only once have Thighs of Steel been asked to move on. It is a daily miracle. Thank you, kind-hearted people of Europe.

With the help of my co-driver, I rang the doorbell of a likely-looking landowner, not far off route. We’d spotted a campervan parked in a closely-mown field behind his house.

With the help of his excitable dog, the owner was roused. He opened the door, and the dog bolted for freedom.

The man apologised, but couldn’t help: the owner of the field was in Belgium. He suggested that we ask the mayor, gave us directions to the town hall, and started calling for his lost dog.

We drove Calypso up to the quaint village Mairie. It felt like we were parking our tank on their lawn.

I began in faltering French: ‘We are 12 cyclists looking for wild camping…’ And, hallelujah, it was as if he’d been expecting us. ‘I have the perfect place,’ he smiled.

What followed felt like the oral part of my GCSE French exam: ‘At the crossroads go straight on and follow the road for 3km. You’ll see a low, white wall, with a gap in the middle. Go down this track, over a disused railway line through a wood, and then over a small bridge into a field.’

I follow the directions with apprehensive nodding. The mayor finishes by kisses his fingers: ‘And the river is perfect for bathing!’

We took his address to send a thank you card from Athens, and then drive out – slightly nervous – to our campsite.

To my astonishment, I’d understood his flawless directions and we found the field atop a tiny island, split by lazy turns of the river. Fishermen dabbled in the shallows and a paddleboard drifted past.

It was perfect (especially when the insects clear off).

We set up chairs in a circle, looking out at the sun dunking itself into the stream away to the west. We set the pot boiling with a vegetable curry.

Half an hour later, the cyclists arrive, stinking of joy, bells a-ringing. It’s only then that we notice the chairs are arranged in a perfect ring around a single, plump dog turd.


Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.

So far, the cyclists and supporters of Thighs of Steel 2019 have raised over £38,000 £50,000 for Help Refugees.

If you want to help keep the lights on at grassroots refugee organisations across Europe, you could do a lot worse than contribute to my page here.

THANK YOU. I promise all donors something delightful by the end of the year…

The Next Challenge Grant Winners Announced!

When it comes to awards, I’m not just a taker (Hold on, we really still haven’t won?) – I’m a giver too.

I help fund The Next Challenge Grant, an annual bursary for adventures chosen and administered by adventurer (and accountant) Tim Moss.

This year’s grant winners have just been announced and they’re a terrific bunch of adventurers who I’m proud to help out.

My personal favourites: Mark Holmes who’s making swimming escapes from the UK’s three prison islands, and Sue Manning who’s walking around Scotland with a pack pony.

I particularly wanted to help The Next Challenge Grant because my first big adventure, cycling 4,000 miles around the coast of Great Britain, was only possible thanks to support from my nan.

One of the last things she said to me before she died was ‘Do it while you can!’ She’d have loved to help out these intrepid adventurers.

Learning to Walk On Dartmoor

I’ve been spending the last three days learning how to walk properly.

For those of you who have always known there was something excessively aquatic about my gait, I’m afraid that I have merely been training to become a Hill and Moorland Walk Leader.

What that means for me is lots of tramping, stomping and yomping across terrain ill-suited to my boots, which are, in turn, ill-fitted to my feet.

But what that means for this blog post is that it’s already 9pm and I’m squeezing in what writing I can with my laptop on my knees, my knees on a chair and that chair on a train clattering its way to a south coast resort best known for its twin Harvester restaurants.

Now, I suppose I could have written this post a few days ago, knowing that I would be spending the rest of the week on Dartmoor.

But then all I could have written about is the minor incident in which the car hire company (yes, I can drive!) upgraded me at no extra cost to what was effectively a Tiger Moth tank.

When it comes to cars these days, I feel like a great-uncle seeing a distant removable cousin for the first time in six months: My haven’t you grown!

My rented vehicle was exactly the sort of behemoth that, as an ardent cyclist, I usually bemoan. The SUV, a Renault, towered over the road, with the driver (me) a helpless mosquito in the cockpit.

Whatever happened to Nicole and Papa?

Despite the looming irony, I am grateful that I didn’t (to my knowledge) murder any cyclists, although I did very nearly have an altercation with a grazing of ponies.

But, you know, my graded-up monster truck did have in-built SatNav. Ooh, plus plus plus! … When you walked away from the so-called car with the key in your pocket it automatically locked the doors.

So probably worth the manslaughter charge anyway.


The only other incident of note before I stepped onto the moor was my arrival at the bunkhouse in Princetown.

When I sauntered into the attached pub to announce myself (having killed a family of four in the car park without really noticing), the barman smiled warmly and said, There are 11 of you, right?

Er, no. Not really. I mean, I can see why you’d think that thing outside is a minibus, but no.

Yeah, yeah, I’m sure there was 11 of you in the book. Let’s have a look.

(Cue much shuffling of leaves in the bookings ledger.)

See, look!

(We peruse the booking there indicated.)

It’s a half-sloshed local who has the tact to point out: You lummock – you’re looking at October.

We scrabble forward another couple of months and, in triumph, the barman jabs a finger down on today’s date: 11-13 David Charles.

See!

Erm. Right. I think what’s happened there is that you’ve confused the dates I am lodging – the 11th to the 13th – with the number of people that make up my party.

You lummock!

Anyway, the upshot of that little incident was that I had the entire bunkhouse to myself. Probably a good thing as I spent most of my resting hours completely naked thanks to the over-enthusiastic central heating.

So, yeah. Not much to write about this week. Sorry.

The Memory of Adventure

Ask me how I’ll remember 2018 and I won’t say ‘typing words into a computer’, even though that’s how I spent far too much of almost every single day.

Not all of that typing was unmemorable, of course. Writing the second series of Foiled was fabulous and I’m sure I’ll be writing about how I believe in creativity soon.

But these are the memories that stand out most in my mind from this past year:

  • Bothying in the snow-bound Cairngorms
  • Travelling around Greece, meeting with refugees
  • Cycling 1000 miles with Thighs of Steel
  • Hiking in the Brecon Beacons

In a word: adventures.

Adventure is a big word, of course. But the choice is deliberate.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adventure is:

  • A course of action which invites risk
  • A perilous or audacious undertaking the outcome of which is unknown
  • A daring feat or exploit
  • A remarkable or unexpected event, or series of events, in which a person participates as a result of chance
  • A novel or exciting experience

Personally, I like the roguish simplicity of this definition: A wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful).

But who defines risk, peril, audacity, daring, expectation, novelty and excitement? We do. Adventure is relative and I’m claiming it for myself.

The events that are most memorable from my year are the adventures, those moments when I made an audacious move to go beyond the limits of my comfort, surrendered to novelty, and invited risk and chance.

But there is nothing in any of those definitions that limits moments of adventure to epic bike tours through foreign lands, climbing mountains and sleeping in cold huts.

So this year’s adventures also include meeting my new niece, a family reunion, applying for a job, learning how to throw a Frisbee, talking to people in saunas, and breathing deeply.

Audacity, daring, novelty and wild excitement are opportunities we can dig up anywhere, at any moment. At any moment, we can stretch out our lives like vellum and print them with memories of adventure.

Do you not feel like you live an adventurous life? Are you sure? Don’t you ever feel challenged? Don’t you ever worry that things won’t turn out, and thrill when they do? Don’t you ever see things you’ve never seen before, or talk to unexpected strangers?

Well, go on then, here, take this word – adventure!

Adventure isn’t only for polar explorers and hitmen. We can have it for ourselves.

Further Adventures

  1. Professional adventurer Alastair Humphreys reading Seneca Letter 28: On travel as a cure for discontent. A beautiful reading, set to a beautiful video. ‘Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.’
  2. The Most Interesting Country in the World: Part 1 (10 minute read) ‘At home, our comfort zone is vast, like a great big sofa, sucking us in to watch endless re-runs of Miss Marple, where the Toff murderer always gets his or her comeuppance and order is restored in the form of a pillow-dribble nap.’
  3. What Makes a Person Do a Thing? (12 minute read) ‘It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act.’

The First Stile

One man chased after me waving his stick because my train ticket fell out of my pocket. Another beckoned me down a shortcut into town.

The pasty saleswoman seemed to be competing with me for variety and number of ways to say thank you.

The cafe owner took me outside to show me the Three Peaks (they were hidden by the houses and a dense bank of cloud), describing the distinctive challenge of each and the wonderful views to be had (on a fine day).

I set off down the pedestrianised centre of Abergavenny, clutching my map and compass, in a thoroughly good mood, and in thoroughly the wrong direction.

Correcting my course back to what turned out to be the wrong church, I realigned my map and strode up the lane to The First Stile. Continue reading The First Stile

Black Sheep Backpackers Hostel: A mild review

Exceptional holiday accommodation deserves – nay, demands – to be saluted in that most modern of valedictions, the online review.

Sadly, my 1,000 word review (not including photographs, diagrams, maps, illustrations and appendices) of the Abergavenny Black Sheep Backpackers Hostel exceeded Hostel World’s paltry 500 character limit, so instead I will post it here and urge you all to make your own visitation at the earliest imaginable convenience.

~~~

My attention was first drawn to The Black Sheep Back Packers by a Malaysian gentleman’s almost poetic review on the Hostel World website:

8/10 Fabulous
Value for money. Lovely staffs.
Just need to throw a stone to hit the train.

And I knew I was in for a treat the moment I checked in. Onto a perfectly professional backpackers business card, the barman copied out the front door code, my room door code and, hallowed be, the wifi code.

Security here was obviously of primary importance. I disregarded the lager umbrellas, the daytime telly gameshows, the rising taste of damp in my nostrils, the enormous bulldog fast asleep on the table, and I considered myself reassured.

I waved away the kindly barman’s offer to show me to my room and mildly asked, ‘Are you busy tonight?’ The barman checks his bookings book: ‘There’s a couple of guys in the other dorm, but looks like you’ll be on your own in Number 4.’

Gleefully, I bound up the stairs, ignoring the peeling paint and not testing the cracked bannisters with the full weight of my backpacker’s frame. I carefully tap out the dorm door code and throw open the door: only to be greeted by a wave of sweat and Lynx deodorant, then by the shock that I am far from alone.

Choking, I stumble to the windows, pull aside the curtains and, by now gasping for air, jam the windows open. The light reveals my predicament in all its glory. Room 4 is fully occupied by a menagerie of foresters who’ve been living here for at least a couple of months.

I return to the bar, where the barman frowns at his bookings book, apparently somewhat mystified by the presence of half a dozen woodsmen in his otherwise respectable establishment. I am reassigned to Room 5, across the hallway.

The barman, once again, meticulously copies out my new door code and I retrace my climb up the stairs, with somewhat diminished enthusiasm.

It soon becomes apparent that, no matter how carefully transcribed, I won’t be needing that door code. Although there is a keypad, there is no longer an actual lock mechanism in this door. Indeed, there is not even a catch.

A quick scroll through the online reviews for the Black Sheep shows that this may have been the case since at least April.

It is at this point that I wonder what possessed me to pay for two nights up front. And, of course, being congenitally English, it is my genetic inheritance to save complaints for the Schadenfreude of friends and family. You’re welcome.

Luckily, there is a fire extinguisher in the room which, when propped against the door, at least stops said door from swinging in the wind that blows through the ample cracks in the hostel walls.

To be perfectly fair to the Black Sheep, the bedsheets have been washed with Lenor or own brand equivalent and I’ve got the whole dorm to myself. Can’t think why.

That night, I struggle to sleep. Not merely because the broken bed (whose springs are like fists) is only held up by a tub of ‘Anabolic Muscle Fuel’, but also because I fear some benighted traveller might haplessly book into Room 5 and, in gaining access, set off the fire extinguisher and trigger a spectacular discharge of pressurised water all over my belongings.

Sleep, nevertheless, comes and with it the morning. I stretch, pull back the curtains, and admire that famous Brecons view: a pebble-dashed house sporting, in the garden, an aggressively massive Welsh flag and, on the exterior walls, an enormous replica spider.

I shift aside the fire extinguisher and step into the hallway to locate the showers. The first bathroom I try does indeed possess a shower cubicle. Sadly it appears to be for decorative purposes only: the shower head is Missing In Action. Perhaps the foresters prefer to hose themselves down of a morning.

Undeterred, I try another door. This one, perhaps, could be a broom cupboard, so imagine my delight when I see that the owners have snuggled another shower inside! Sadly, this one doesn’t even dignify its purpose with a hose. It’s just two taps and a shower tray.

Where the water emerges when the taps are turned remain a mystery that I will leave to the more adventurous spirits among you who follow.

I head downstairs and into the basement. A Times New Roman sign points the way through to the kitchen and ‘Backpackers Lounge’.

The kitchen, it’s fair to say, most resembles a warzone. The windows are barred and the brickwork has suffered heavy shelling. A George Foreman grill is covered in a thick layer of dust (and probably shrapnel).

A man sits on a leather armchair in the ‘Backpackers Lounge’, rocking gently back and forth, staring at the blank wall. Almost certainly Gulf War Syndrome.

With a faraway look in her eyes, another of the foresters directs me to a twin set of showers just down the corridor. Now, remember that this is a basement: ventilation is at a premium, and the walls bear the brunt of the mildew and mould.

One of the urinals has been ripped from the wall in what can only have been a fit of sleepless rage. Someone has tried to punch their way out of one cubicle, and another has had its floor stolen.

I undress on tip-toes, trying not to imagine the germs leaping delightedly onto the exposed soles of my feet. Needless to say, the taps marked H do not proffer H water, but most definitely C. Luckily, it’s a vice-versa situation and I’m able to wash off the worst of the bacteria.

Suitably refreshed, I load up my pack a day’s hill walking. I walk into the bar and see, like aboard the Marie Celeste, a breakfast abandoned midway. I dimly recall from the website that breakfast is included.

For a moment I weigh up the risk associated with eating anything that has emerged from the kitchen below. But, ultimately, the decision is made for me. There’s no sign of the proprietor and my damp allergy is rising, so I step out into Abergavenny.

Having said all that, I escaped with my life, my possessions and an entirely new set of anabolic muscles, so: 10/10 HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Hello you!

Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

Today is the final day of the epic seven week cycling relay fundraiser that is Thighs of Steel.

At about 5pm, the latest peloton of steely thighed cyclists will sweep into Athens, hot, sweaty and exultant after an 85km day’s ride – the culmination of a journey that started 4,600km ago in London.

The bike ride, and the 80-odd riders thereon, have already smashed their target of raising £50,000 to pay the bills at refugee community centre Khora – and are pushing on to beat the record set last year of over £100,000.

These are the numbers. On the face of it, they sound very impressive. But, let’s be honest, there are more efficient ways of raising money for charity. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

Why I travel slow, or “Delays? Really?”

I’m a slow traveller. I’ve taken only one return flight in the last 8 years – and that was to prove to myself that I wasn’t not flying out of pride or habit.

So while the other Thighs of Steel cyclists packed up their bikes and drove out to Sofia airport for a three-hour flight home, I cycled down to the bus station for the first leg in a journey that took three days.

Sounds slow, right? Continue reading Why I travel slow, or “Delays? Really?”

Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia

How do you sum up two weeks of doing almost nothing but cycling and refuelling?

We’ve cycled from Ljubljana in Slovenia, through the hills of Croatia, the plains of Hungary and the free ice creams of Romania to Sofia in Bulgaria. That’s about 80 miles a day for 12 days, with one day off in the middle to stumble around Timisoara in a daze and eat.

Sitting here now, in the cool of the shade of a fig tree, it’s time to wonder what will stay with me. Memories being what they are, what I write in the next 20 minutes may very well come to define my whole experience. So strap on your safety goggles and let’s see what comes. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia

A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist

0505: Wake up needing the toilet. Hold it in.
0515: Alarm. Switch off with eyes tightly shut.
0520: Open eyes. Stretch out back in child’s pose on air mattress. Fantasise about a spa day. Search for glasses.
0525: Struggle into shorts from yesterday. They are damp. Start packing away unused sleeping bag. Keep searching for glasses.
0530: Pack away sleeping mat and other camping detritus in hope of finding glasses.
0535: Emerge from the tent into the morning dew. Wipe hands on grass and rub into face. Fetch shovel and biodegradable toilet paper from Calypso (the van) and find a suitable patch of ground for the morning constitutional. On the way back, make a cursory hunt for glasses.
0536: FIND GLASSES! Conclude that today will be a good day. Continue reading A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist

Abu Falafel

Our guide and translator was a Syrian engineer I’ll call Abu Falafel. The first time I met him was at the house he’d been allocated by the ministry on the outer ring of Thessaloniki. It was on the ground floor of a unspectacular apartment building and he shared it with his youngest son, who is deaf.

Abu Falafel started, as all Syrians do, by ignoring our protestations that a second lunch would be unnecessary. He’d gone to so much trouble already, prepping ingredients, that we gladly acquiesced.

And so began the theatre of falafel that would give him his name. Continue reading Abu Falafel

How travel works on the mind

If ever you feel that life isn’t quite lining up, or that your blood isn’t quite circulating as it should, or that you haven’t seen or smelt or heard anything different in a while, take a trip out of your front door and ask strangers how you can help.

That’s what I’ve been doing this past week. Continue reading How travel works on the mind

A User’s Guide to Cycling in Athens

Here I present to you a user’s guide to cycling (with a bicycle) in Athens, Greece. The guide is presented in no particular order and intends to offer bicyclopaedic information on Athenian attitudes, traffic, roads and even the mythical cycle lane(s).

Last update: July 2018. Continue reading A User’s Guide to Cycling in Athens

Daily Dérive #2: The Museum of Parkaeology

What makes such a place eerie?

  • A place, like this, unfamiliar.
  • The only human sounds are far off shrieks, and you’re hemmed in by the screams of insects.
  • Everything is coated in a layer of dust.
  • Discarded cigarettes, feathers and condoms.

Continue reading Daily Dérive #2: The Museum of Parkaeology

Daily Dérive #1: Agios Panteleimonas ~ Exarcheia

The air is cool, but the sun is hot. I can smell that smell of hot stones and gasoline, sweet rotting rubbish, atomising flowers, or charring meat. It’s what my nose knows as the southern Mediterranean.

A man tidily dressed in a cotton shirt and trousers sits down beside me. He’s looking around like he’s lost a friend. He yawns ostentatiously. His beard is frizzled with grey and white. A toddler cackles and runs toward and away on the flagstones. Continue reading Daily Dérive #1: Agios Panteleimonas ~ Exarcheia

London to Greece via Paris, Milan and Brindisi with (but not by) a bike

Travelling by bike is a dream, travelling with a bike is goddam nightmare – if (like me a week ago) you don’t know what you’re doing.

This is a recollection of my ‘with bike’ journey from London to Patras in Greece, via Paris, Milan and Brindisi. The trip took 5 hot days in July 2018, encompassing 3 trains through France and Italy, and 1 ferry across the Adriatic. Along the way, I got to see plenty of Paris, a little of Milan, and probably too much of Brindisi’s gelaterias!

Before I left, I searched everywhere for information about travelling across Europe with a bike and, although I found plenty of Official Rules,  I couldn’t find anything like this – a straight-forward guide written by a cyclist who’d actually been there and done it.

I was pretty stressed on this journey simply because I didn’t know how much to trust the Official Rules – will Eurostar mistakenly send my bike to Brussels? will there be enough space on the TGV in among justifiably irate commuters? will my bike bag be 12cm too long? and will I be sent directly to jail without passing go by an over-officious guard?

Hopefully this guide will ease your troubled mind because this journey IS EASILY DONE. Continue reading London to Greece via Paris, Milan and Brindisi with (but not by) a bike

Travel from the Heart

This post is coming to you LIVE from the Milan-Brindisi train. Currently paused at Trinitapoli, where the air smells of rain and the clouds are ripped from oil paintings. Somewhere over there is the Adriatic, across which (with any luck) I shall be sailing tomorrow evening.

The man opposite me, in shirt sleeves and eyebrows, is eating one of those doughnut-shaped apricots, bringing the sharp tang of Italian soil and sunshine to the carriage. Continue reading Travel from the Heart

Brilliant Bivvying: The Mother Lode of Wild Camping Advice

The Top Line

A bivvy bag is not much more than a waterproof sack for you to sleep inside. Despite that unpromising description, bivvying is a superb alternative to full-blown tent-based camping – especially when weight or discretion is important.

Without exaggeration, a bivvy bag could completely transform your vagabonding – as one did mine 7 years ago.

The following is the mother lode of lessons that I’ve learnt over dozens of bivvying adventures since 2011. Take all this advice with many pinches of low-sodium salt, and find your own way. Continue reading Brilliant Bivvying: The Mother Lode of Wild Camping Advice

Sunswim

I was undeterred by the sight of a gaggle of ‘Run Doggy Run’ dogs being hauled into the water for a splash. Not even after one particularly enthusiastic hound decided to urinate over some reeds.

I’m sure his pee is already thoroughly diluted. Besides: worse things have certainly oozed in that water unseen, but still. Slightly distasteful to actually witness the event.

There is something magical about the swimmer’s view of the world. Instead of being on top of everything, you are 95% submerged. The banks rise up and the horizon stretches on forever as you gaze over your belly down stream. Continue reading Sunswim

Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

In 2016 I embarked on the somewhat ambitious target of cycling from London to Syria, reporting on the refugee ‘crisis’ from the saddle of my bicycle. In 46 days, I got as far as Vienna, before rushing back to work on Foiled at the Edinburgh Festival. It was a busy summer!

I always said that I’d carry on the cycle some day. Well, some day has arrived. Continue reading Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

From a log in a quiet noisy place with mud underfoot

After a week of fluctuating symptoms of flu, yesterday I was reminded of the healing power of a bike ride. The weight came off my shoulders as I cycled through the southerly reaches of Greater London, through back streets of spring sunshine, between grid-lines of daffodils, dodging traffic on green lanes and perking up parks. Has it been so long since that summer we shared?

The feeling was of a reflective moment during the playing of an old song: a moment of calm and clarity. It made me pick up the phone this lunchtime and call an old friend, stitching something together where it might have severed. That’s what a bike ride can do: that’s what being in-the-world can do – for me, at least.

It also ties the first loop in a chain of habit; today I walk out of my (borrowed) front door and into a wood. Continue reading From a log in a quiet noisy place with mud underfoot

Bothy Bothering: Cairngorms

Scotland, it turns out, knows how to put on a show.

As Ben and I walked out on Monday afternoon, squeezing in one last tramp before the drive back to civilisation, we were audience to a scene that the Scottish Tourist Board couldn’t have choreographed better.

The winter sun was setting in a mountain range v-neck, sending soft warm light down the glen. A small loch mirrored the snow-capped peaks in icy blue water. The green of the heather was crested with gold in the dying day.

Our boots (mine more than a little damp from snow) crunched in the easy Land Rover track, in places more of a snow-melt stream, running up over the tongues of our boots. I tossed a cricket-ball sized rock from palm to palm, feeling its friendly heft.

As we poked over a gentle climb, and the Ryvoan stone-built bothy came into view, I stopped and almost dropped a catch. Around the ancient hillside, a herd of reindeer strutted, antlers thrusting ahead as they strolled across the track, looking for dinner in the field below.

As they passed, the sun beamed, and light snow eddied in the air. Ben and I dropped to the ground, sinking into the rough grass, the herd surrounding us.

Some things you can look up online: everyone has seen photos of reindeer – most likely you’re sick of them after Christmas. But what struck me of the reality was the smacking sound of their lips and tongue clapping up the grass. Bad table manners.

Biking Bournemouth-Bristol

Instead of slogging across the M4 corridor from London to Bristol, I took a one day flying-cycle across three counties from Bournemouth to Midford.

If I needed any reminder of why Britain is the most beautiful country to traverse, then I got it. I haven’t always thought this way about our shores, always wanting to be elsewhere and ideally elsewhen. But what better place is there than right here? Continue reading Biking Bournemouth-Bristol

Tomsleibhe, Isle of Mull

Inspired by Robert MacFarlane’s book Wild Places, I’ve spent the last few days tramping about the Inner Hebrides, specifically the isles of Mull and Iona.

First, for any doubters out there: the weather has been glorious – which for this country means only a couple of rainstorms. Other than that, only drizzle and sunshine.
Continue reading Tomsleibhe, Isle of Mull

Robert Louis Stevenson at Skerryvore, Dorset

Robert Louis Stevenson’s former residence is a glum affair, not least because it was completely destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.

The day I visit is blue skies and October sunshine, but Skerryvore is cast in a shiver. Pines loom over the miserable ruins, given time to grow and overgrow since the bombsite was turned memorial garden 60 years ago.

RLS’s time in Dorset was not unhappy, but still plagued by ill health. I walk the stone path that steps through the house, foundations laid bare. Past the kitchen, down the hall, to the study and the drawing room. With their backs to the road, two graffiti-scarred wooden benches sit either side of what would have been his back door. You can imagine RLS writing at his desk in the bay window, looking out to the ceaseless sea.

On one of the benches a dishevelled man rolls a cigarette, between sips of a can beside him. He sits as he’d sit in his living room at home and sticks to his work while I kneel and read the stone inscribed to RLS’s memory. It tells me that the house, Skerryvore, was named after the tallest lighthouse in Scotland, built by the writer’s uncle.

A man-sized stone replica of the lighthouse stands as an appropriately nautical memorial for the man who wrote that ‘the proudest moments of my life have been passed in the stern-sheets of a boat’.

RLS only spent three summers at Skerryvore, but still found time to write both The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped. He never felt the chill of an October here, wintering more salubriously in the Alps, and after that hattrick of summers he left for good, freed from the shackles of Europe by the death of his father. RLS’s doctor urged a climate more suited to his health, and he did not hesitate.

I walk forty paces around RLS’s garden, pulling my shirt collar up as I do. I peer through the thick pines, across the scar of Alum Chine to a haphazard cliff garden on the slopes opposite. The smell is heavy damp. I know why he flew south for winter. I finish my short circuit and return to the lighthouse memorial. The dishevelled man is still rolling his tobacco.

The other bench is dedicated to another Scot, a Glaswegian. Perhaps he wished to be remembered alongside his countryman, believing he’d found a kindred spirit in the sutherlands. But with what alacrity RLS moved on, following those stern-sheets for Colorado, Hawaii and the South Seas.

Seven years after leaving Dorset, RLS died pulling the cork from a bottle of wine at his estate on Western Samoa – not exactly as he wished, but satisfactorily enough.

I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse – ay, to be hanged, rather than pass again through that slow dissolution.

What are we waiting for? A Box Hill Microadventure

When was the last time you caught a train to nowhere, walked across fields and up a hill, before sleeping out under the stars?

That was the question I was asking myself after finishing last week’s piece on A.I.. The next question was: What are you waiting for? Continue reading What are we waiting for? A Box Hill Microadventure

Camber Sands ride details

The sun will surely shine on Camber Sands, a beautiful strip of dunes on the south Sussex coast. It’s a moderately hilly ride from London on a mixture of country lanes and (hopefully quiet) A roads, through the beautiful High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s 70 miles from Greenwich to the coast, with an option to join the ride at Sevenoaks for a 45 mile ride. Continue reading Camber Sands ride details

Engineering Work Stops Play

So, the idea was to ride to the beautiful beach at Camber Sands on the first day of summer. A quick double-check of the return trains before we set off threw our plans into disarray with the dreaded words Rail Replacement Bus Service. Now, we’re tough, but not tough enough to cycle back after a 70+ mile ride. So we’re postponing the Camber Sands ride – keep an eye out for updates.

On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

Our journey along the storm-swollen Danube threads through castle-and-schnapps country into Austria. The further we cycle on this ride across the continent, the more we see how urgently Europe needs a plan, not only to cope with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, but to deal with widening social divisions that have little to do with migration. Continue reading On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

Since leaving London at the beginning of May, we’ve cycled about a thousand kilometres through England, France and Belgium, talking to residents and refugees about how their lives have been changed by migration.

It felt like France and Belgium (the less said about the UK the better) are socially and politically unable or unwilling to accept refugees wholeheartedly, but are trapped by international conventions into providing shelter and survival.

The result is an embarrassment for everyone: refugees packed away into buildings, containers or tents on the outskirts of towns and villages, with some eking out an uncertain existence in the asylum system for a decade or longer. Continue reading From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

#34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.

Augsburg is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, where guests arrive with or without asylum. Continue reading #34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

#25 Heidelberg Helps

Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industry laden north, we’re suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they’re replaced man-for-man by tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfying under the Schloss and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon.
Continue reading #25 Heidelberg Helps

They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Continue reading They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, ‘Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.’
Continue reading Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Story of the Day #24: Industrial Germany

The stench should have been a clue. I couldn’t work out whether it was a really foul cesspit, or a really good cheese. Whatever it was, it was strong and it was wafting into our tent.

In the photographs, our camping spot under trees on the banks of the Rhine, water lapping feet away from our… feet, will look romantic. The reality was suffocating, as the effluent sloshed the sulphuric assault past the feeble defences of two lines of canvas.

The signs were clear. After a week of deer frolicking, river burbling, bird tweeting Teuton we were about to enter Industrial Deutschland.

And about time too. So far, I’d seen no evidence that Germans did anything to justify their reputation as Europe’s most productive nation other than their consumption of a prodigious amount of baked goods and ice cream.

The change was immediate and well coordinated, like when the school bell goes to end playtime and everyone starts belching noxious fumes into the air.

The only thing that I knew about Worms was that a treaty had been signed there in the eighteenth century. I assumed, therefore, that modernity had yet to arrive, as if a mention in a history book was sufficient to hold back the exploitation of saltpeter and the discovery of cement.

Scores of chemical laden lorries, a horizon pricked with chimneys, complexes cased in steel piping and a constant drizzle put paid to those ideas. There was even a warning that cyclists should wear helmets. We had breakfast in a graffiti spewed motorway underpass.

I suppose it’s all understandable: heavy industry demands a lot of water and the Rhine has been a faithful servant to the landlocked southwest.

But all is not lost for the passing tourist. On the other side of a four lane highway in the riverside town of Ludwigshafen sat an unmissable attraction, a must-see museum, a touristic temptress: the BASF Visitor Centre.

Ducking inside from the continuing drizzle, decked head to foot in Decathlon’s finest waterproofing and several local varieties of mud, we enjoy the appreciative attentions of a sixth form chemistry school trip. Ignoring the less politely stifled sniggers, we muster as much self-respect as the puddles under our feet will allow and present ourselves at the reception desk. ‘We are visitors and we are at the visitor centre. What happens now?’

What happened then was a very expensively assembled version of that bit in chemistry when your teacher tried to convince you that science was FUN. We learnt how to cook the perfect steak by exploiting the Maillard reaction, investigated the properties of cobalt with anti-radioactive gloves and set off a rocket by cleaving water into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen.

In among the fun and games, we learnt how BASF stands for Badische Anilin and Soda Fabrik (I even had a glass of soda water) and how BASF Ludwigshafen is the world’s largest integrated chemical complex, with over 2000 buildings covering 10sqkm. Their overground piping, arranged more creatively, could carry soda water from here to Seville.

We could watch archive footage of their history and swish interactive interfaces over their future as BASF heroically struggle with balancing the needs of the economy, the environment and society.

As we enviously watched a gaggle of US students (what were they doing there??) cooing over a console that showed you what you might look like with different hair styles, I started to wonder whether there was more to this outing than a three minute steak and a cut and blow dry.

A lot of money had been spent on this visitor centre. It had even won awards for its creativity. But there was something else in the air: not quite the gangrenous lung-stopper that accompanied our slumbers, but something not quite freshened by the fancy display panels and interactive modules. The faint but unmistakeable smell of greenwash.