Huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.
Huge thank you to everyone who has made the last week such a friendly place. Especially to Yes Tribe Michelle, Rob Wills and Annette Coppin for heartful hospitality in Brighton and Hastings.
Thank you, thank you, thank you this week to my hosts and hospitable friends, old and new: Tom and Claire, Anna, Thom and Anna, Claire, Naomi, Ben, Annie and Poppy, Fern and Beth and Lucy.
Major major thanks to Anna Hughes, who not only guided me to a peaceful sleeping spot in Epping Forest, but also took the time to record a great interview about Flight Free UK—only for me to mess up the recording. Sorry!
Huge thanks to the hospitable friends and strangers who have made the last seven days such a delight: Pandora, the Wickers family, Sarah and Chloe, John the ferryman, Lesley the artist, Debbie and Steve, Duncan of the incredible Dunx Cycles, Peter Langford the world record holder, and the extraordinary, expecting Matt and Lisa.
Thank you also to all the patient woodland creatures who put up with me wild camping in their homes. Even the ants.
But I reserve extra extra special thanks for my final hosts on this tour of southeast England: Documentally and his wonderfully generous family. Camping in a friend’s back garden was a celebratory end to this part of my journey and I was overwhelmed with too many kindnesses to mention.
Part 2: The Southwest
Huge thanks this week to: David and Margaret, esteemed parents of The Tim Traveller, for a lovely cup of tea – only nine years delayed. David, a retired Anglican vicar, told me how Covid-inspired Zoom services are now spreading The Word to people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a church. In every crisis, an opportunity.
Thanks to Will and Daryl, the two tourers from Lincoln, who brightened my day with enthusiasm for life on the road. And then slagged off Exeter cathedral: ‘It’s not fit to wash Lincoln’s boots!’
Mighty, mighty thanks to Exeter Paul, a truly generous host who saved me from a thunderstorm and revealed the true meanings behind what I called ‘the racist elephant’.
Thanks also to the many other people who have shared fleeting wisdom and encouragement along the track. You enrich my days.
Finally, and above all, to the family Charles for a mid-cycling holiday in the heat.
Enormo-thanks this week to Andy and family for hosting me in Mevagissey and for keeping me company on an eventful ride to Helston: two ferries and a change of tyre.
Gigantic thanks also to the Granvilles of Helston for two nights of warmth and record-breaking hospitality. As ever.
Thanks also to the highways and byways of this southwest corner of Britain. We’ve been safe together so far – long may it continue!
A short list of deep gratitude to the people who were inordinately kind to a lost and bedraggled stranger:
Ricky the first-day-back otherwise-empty bus driver who took me and a very sorry-state Martin from Chew Magna to Keynsham.
Paul and Annie (and the two dogs) for goose-field camping, nettle wine, a pick-n-mix feast, with cups of tea looking out into cloudbursts. I found this loving home on Warmshowers.org—a community of legends who open up their doors to touring cyclists all over the world.
Peter and family (and two further dogs) overlooking the stormy Somerset Levels, who shared their medieval banquet and gave me a night’s dominion over their piano room and airing cupboard.
The wondrous people of Tudor Road in Bristol who warmed my cockles and combed my hair when all was tangled.
Storm Francis also made me feel welcome, blowing me all the way up the north west of the country to refuge. Bus shelters, cafe awnings and spreading oaks became dear friends.
Final thanks to the Granvilles, who teach me more about philoxenia every time I bugle my way into their presence. Big love.
On Tuesday, I kind of rolled into Bristol, after cycling 1,012 kilometres around the southwest of the country. That means that, since the easing of lockdown, I’ve pedalled the whole of the south of England: from Britain’s most easterly point at Ness Point in Lowestoft to its joint-most photographed signpost at Land’s End.
Combined, the two halves of the tour—southeast and southwest—have gobbled up 2,210 kilometres’ worth of tyre tracks. But one statistic is suggestive of the difference in my cycling experience. In the east of the country, my thousand-plus kilometres involved a little over 6,000 metres of climbing. In the west, my thousand kilometres dragged me up over 10,000 metres.
Update: Strava data puts my southeast ride at 7,742m of elevation and the southwest at 15,444m—almost exactly double the climbing over a slightly shorter distance. This data is much closer to my felt experience, but then I would say that!
The take home message is tourers beware! Komoot, Strava and RideWithGPS each appear to use very different maps to calculate elevation data, with variations of up to 50 percent in some parts of the world. That’s huge. This StackExchange post from 2013 concludes that Strava was the most trustworthy of those apps tested—but that might well depend on where you’re riding.
Devon and Cornwall are hilly: 10,000 metres is a Ben Nevis on top of a Mount Everest. But the statistics don’t really tell the full story either: these hills are sharp, up to 33 percent in places, on narrow, winding roads, with descents too dangerous to build momentum for the next.
Hence my twin fascinations this week with a) proper bike gears and b) everything happening for a reason. Hopefully the promise of b) will keep you reading even if a) makes your eyes twitch with boredom.
Why me, why now?
Eighteen kilometres from the finish line, riding in merriment along the shore of Chew Valley Lake. I was making good time—a friend called to ask would I be in Bristol for lunch?—and the rain, hard on my heels, flogged and foaming at the head of Storm Francis, was for now holding off.
The road alongside the lake had recently been resurfaced and there was a temporary 20mph speed limit to stop the loose gravel spitting out of car wheels and giving pedestrians and cyclists brain damage.
A car passed me at forty. I had scarcely finished my impotent admonishments, when my chain locked up. This wasn’t a mere clumsy shift: my cranks could spin neither clockwise nor anticlockwise. I skittered to a stop, looked down and saw a pretty pickle:
At this point—so near and yet so far—it’d be easy to curse the heavens. I hadn’t cycled 1,000 kilometres over the past two weeks to finish like this!
But what if this frankly tour-ending disaster was all happening for me, not to me?
After all, I was lucky. This could have happened an hour ago, as I aquaplaned through rocky off-road puddles in the Mendips, a soggy trog from all civilisation. But it has happened here: around the corner from a cafe. I could eat some chips, call some friends and find a solution.
The cafe was closed.
But the toilets were open. Swings and roundabouts. I laughed. Then called some friends. We found a solution: I could unmount the rear mech, break the chain, remove half a dozen links and turn my bike into a fixie: a one gear wonder.
I laughed again: the wind whipped the sound up into the hills. Over the summer I’ve met a lot of people more or less new to cycling. These gentlefolk are often the beneficiaries of a forceful rant about the witless cupidity of bicycle manufacturers.
A forceful rant
As far as I’m concerned, any cyclist who wants to preserve their knees-up-Mother-Brown talents absolutely must have a bike with gears. Many gears, yes, but more importantly the right gears.
Gears are at least half of the miracle of cycling. When they were first invented, gears were banned at the Tour de France. They made the race too easy in the sadistic eyes of the demented organiser.
But most of us, our yellow jerseys faded in the wash, want cycling to be as damn easy as possible—and that means getting the most out of the genius of gears: a tiny front chainring and a decent spread at the back.
These are the kind of gears designed so that even the steepest hill can be tackled in the saddle, giving you and I about another twenty years of squatting potential before knee surgery.
But these are precisely the kind of gears that the big bike builders ignore in favour of a set that suits the show-off accelerate downhill suicide slalom brigade. Who will pay more for their wheels.
And the lack of education around gear mechanics means that your everyday common or garden cyclist also ends up chasing the wrong metric when buying a bike. Instead of thinking hard about the physics of bicycle locomotion, people are eased in the direction of a simpler rubric: kilograms.
Almost understandably, bicyclists believe that a lighter bike will be easier to ride. It might be, but the difference will be scarcely noticeable and cost a lot of money. Ease is in the gears.
It’s frustrating when friends ask me about spending hundreds and thousands (not the cake topping) on lighter frames when all they need to do is switch to a smaller chainring. Shaving a couple of kilos from your bike’s waistline is nice, but won’t give you the massive mechanical advantage that better gearing will.
If you’re not a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. When you realise how easy cycling can be on all topography and terrain, maybe you’ll come around.
If you are a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. Hill climbing is no harder than cycling on the flat—slower, maybe, but not harder—so long as you have the right gears and know how to use them.
In Exeter, I did a quick hill-climbing test with a friend of mine, comparing the gearing on his bike with the gearing on mine. We found a short, sharp incline outside his house and I got him to ride up on his bike in the lowest gear.
‘Actually, this is pretty easy,’ he said as I watched his legs push hard down through the pedals.
‘Try mine,’ I replied, shifting it into the lowest gear. He swung himself onto the saddle, eased his feet down onto the pedals—and nearly fell off.
The gear ratio on my bike was so extreme that the cranks turned with barely any pressure: my friend had never dreamed that such mechanical advantage could make hills so comfortable.
Seriously: Alee Denham on Cycling About has a fantastic series of articles on the subject. Read them all.
Back to the story
As I pulled the ugly twisted metal that used to be Martin’s rear mech away from the hanger, I realised that it was still attached to the frame by the (new) shifter cable. I had no wire cutters and my teeth aren’t what they used to be. I inspected the scissors and wood saw options on my penknife. My penknife hid itself at the bottom of my bag and tried to look busy.
Then a man pulled up in a small white van: he was down here from pest control in south Wales to check on the toilets. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ I blurted at him, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a pair of wire cutters or pliers, have you?’
Smiling like the Mona Lisa, the workman ducked into the back of his van and rattled around among his miscellanea. A pair of wire cutters appeared in the palm of his hand. ‘Take them,’ he said. I laughed: this was going to work.
All set to go, I washed my hands in the conveniently located toilets, and wobbled triumphantly back past the Chewy ducks.
Getting in a fix with a fixie
The problem with building a fixie bike, I discovered, is that the chain needs to fit perfectly: neither too tight, nor too loose. This is hard to achieve on the road: I don’t even know if it’s possible.
My fixed chain was on the loose side. When I arrogantly decided to shift up to a larger chainring, the chain pulled taut over the cogs, the limber flex vanished and every turn of the pedals became a grinding tug of war.
My bike was, to put it politely, fucked. But the unlikely fix had held the couple of kilometres to Chew Magna and I rolled gently to a stop outside the Cooperative Food supermarket.
I knelt down and got my hands oily. A man, on his way to an eat-out to help out pub lunch with his girls, leant over my shoulder: ‘You alright? What’s the problem?’
The man lived over the road and offered me tools and spare parts; his two talkative young girls eagerly me a deathmatch game of Dobble.
I thanked them and decided that what I really needed was a peanut butter sandwich.
On my knees outside St Andrew’s Church, a rotating cast of onlookers sympathised with my plight. An hour’s worth of oil under my fingernails, busted chain links scattered on the holy ground, and I was ready to ride again.
Two hundred metres onward, my second technically incompetent foray into bike mechanics auto-aborted and the chain snapped. This time there were no conveniently located toilets.
Swings: Storm Francis loomed over the horizon.
Roundabouts: so too did the number 683 bus to Keynsham.
And this is how I met Ricky.
Ricky: Everything happens for a reason (or: you can’t deny that everything happens, so you might as well look for any reason that makes sense of it all)
‘It’s my first day back on the job since February,’ was Ricky’s opening line after taking my fare. For the twenty years before lockdown he’d worked as a coach driver, taking kids out on school trips mostly. Of course all that work has evaporated, like a skein of summer rain on his widescreen windscreen.
Now. I’ve spent the vast majority of my time cycle touring engaged in a battle of curses with other road users. That’s a horrible exaggeration, of course, but remember those Devonian and Cornwallian hill roads? They’re steep, narrow and windy—in both its whine-dy and win-dy phonemic forms.
Definitively not the kind of roads happily shared by both fossil fuelled and peanut-butter-sandwich fuelled modes of transport.
To be fair, most drivers are as considerate as can be given the anti-convivial infrastructure. There are plenty of passing places where either the on-rushing driver or the on-panicking cyclist can pull over. Waves, thanks and thumbs ups can then be cordially exchanged and both parties can put their feet to their respective pedals and hasten onward to their doom.
But some drivers…
Climbing up from a ravine beach in the sleeting sideways rain, up a 33 percent gradient, I was confronted head-on by the broad beam of an expensive Land Rover.
For context, a 33 percent gradient is about as tough a climb as a human-powered bike can manage. Climbs at the Tour de France rarely peak at such a steep incline. And those riders aren’t encumbered with an extra twenty kilos of camping kit (they don’t even carry their own peanut butter).
As I sweated up the incline, salty rivulets on my handlebars, the Land Rover ahead resolutely budged not. Something of a stand-off, except we were both sitting down—albeit at slightly unequal degrees of comfort.
There was no bike-sized gap on either side of the vehicle’s wing mirrors, which poked into the nettle-strewn hedge. But I’d be a poltroon of the highest order if I was going to turn around and cycle back down this Eiger impersonation so that this climate-controlled tourist could save himself the hassle of reversing thirty metres to the passing place behind him.
So I stopped and waited, catching my breath, until the man reversed and we could all get on with our tiny lives.
Now, though, I was on the other side of the glass, listening to Ricky talking about carting schoolkids round down the back lanes of the West Country.
‘Some cyclists,’ he started, ‘not you, like, but some of them…
‘I was behind this one cyclist, on a straight main road—and he had every right to be there, course he did—but there was about a mile of traffic backed up behind me. I could hear them beeping at him to move over, right?
‘A coach takes a long time to build up speed, see. I need a long straight to accelerate enough to overtake, right? But this road had double white lines down the middle. I can’t legally cross those white lines to overtake. Not with forty kids in the back, I can’t—I simply can’t do it.
‘So there I am, crawling along at ten, twenty miles an hour, and we come to a lay-by—a proper long lay-by, mind you, good surface and all—easy for this cyclist to pull over and let me and this mile of traffic behind me pass.
‘You know what? He carried right on cycling.
‘Course he had every right, every right to do that,’ Ricky finishes, ‘but that’s why some drivers get upset.’
So this is why I’m here. What would I have learnt from another eighteen cycling kilometres on top of over two thousand? Chances are, I’d only have got stressed out fighting through the kind of city limits traffic I’ve fought hundreds of times before.
But on this otherwise empty number 683 bus to Keynsham, Ricky’s passed on something worth passing on. And it wouldn’t have happened at all if something shit hadn’t happened to me and my bike eighteen kilometres from home.
‘I’ll tell you what, mind,’ Ricky adds, ‘white vans are the worst. I don’t lose my rag and tell them to eff-off—I leave that to my schoolkids!’
Welcome to Wadebridge, pride of the Camel Trail – a former railway line that’s been converted into a busy cycle path, following the gentle curves of the estuary from Padstow. It’s most glorious for families pulling trailers of toddlers and for tired tourers who win respite from the havoc of the Cornish verticals.
While sitting here, a father and son duo pulled up on their laden touring bikes (father carrying double his coffee-deprived son). We swapped the usual news: they are heading back the way I’ve come, along the Camel Trail to Padstow and then climbing up to Newquay, St Ives and, in a couple of days, Land’s End.
They aren’t from this country and are only here because America is closed. ‘So we will have to spend some more time in your country,’ says the father.
‘But we weren’t expecting so many hills,’ he adds, ‘and they are so steep. We are doing Devon and Cornwall so everything else after this will be easy!’
Tackling the slopes alone – with only the occasional ‘that looks hard’ or thumbs up from a passing road user – it’s gratifying to halve my efforts with another tourer.
Especially with these two. Where are they from? Switzerland.
Having said all that, earlier today, like Robert Frost, I came to where two roads diverged. Both were marked on-road cycle paths, both bore a sign to Padstow, which pointed the way to my second breakfast (the first taken under a bus shelter during a downpour).
But one sign said Padstow 4 miles, the other Padstow 7 miles.
‘Long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth’.
Making the most of technology unavailable to Robert Frost, I even checked the contour lines on the OS Map on my phone. Naturally, the longer route also afforded me another climb or two.
But the longer I tarried, the clearer it became to me: as the poet took the road less travelled, so I should take the road more difficult.
Any hesitation, really, is a clue. Adventure doesn’t happen on the straightest line from A to B.
What would have become of the Hobbits if there’d been a motorway or a flyover, taking them across the mountains of Mordor without stopping to admire the scenery or mingle with the locals?
Adventure occurs in the margins, in the moments I take to pause in a place – like my greetings of the Swiss – or in the detours.
It doesn’t mean anything to arrive (besides a sit down and a cup of tea), so take the harder, longer road. There will always be one moment that makes me agree that was all worthwhile – if only because, as Robert Frost puts it:
‘knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back’
Upon my arrival, I become the sum of all those momentary decisions of which cycle path to take (or which ‘ego tunnel’ to explore). Future me would rather that I’d taken the longer, the harder road, the road less travelled.
Looking back on these moments of decision, the left turns of life that we take for no good reason, we see that it’s the detours that make ‘all the difference’.
Indeed, this has been a week of detours. Here are two videos, one from a detour to Dartmoor and one from a detour to Land’s End.
Once I’ve recovered a faculty or two, I’ll be cycling across Dartmoor to a wild camp spot at Foggintor Quarries, following the trail of two awesome tourers I met/accosted in Exeter.
Will and Daryl have cycled the opposite way to me, down from Liverpool, around Wales and through Devon and Cornwall. It was a real joy to share stories and compare insect bites while they drank coffee and I ate a spectacular kimchi and tofu sandwich from The Exploding Bakery Cafe.
The past three days of riding have exhausted not only my sweat glands, but also my supply of adjectives. East Devon is not a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty for the purposes of a practical joke.
In this case, both words and photography are inadequate to the task of inserting you into the scene, but hopefully they might cement you in your budding opinion that, yes, you will leave your house and step outside to feel the rivers, glades, and pastures that quietly surround you.
In the absurdly pictogenic village of Branscombe, a strip of thatched cottages and rose petals that conspire before a cobblestone church, sits a garden that unrolls into the valley. From the top, you can see carefully tended beds and meditative benches and a sign that says: ‘Doreen’s Garden, open to visitors all year round’.
I didn’t meet Doreen, but I put a pound into the collection bucket for the Devon Air Ambulance with a prayer that Doreen is merely the spade-head of a new movement to open up ‘private’ space to public enjoyment.
As someone ‘wild’ camping around England, a place where such guerilla accommodation is technically illegal without the permission of the landowner, the concept of public and private space is very important to me.
I’m reassured by the old folks I meet on the road, the salt-of-the-earth types who have lived round these parts for years. They say things like, ‘Don’t worry about the No Camping signs – they’re only there in case a whole hoard of people move in and won’t shift.’
Despite this reassurance, wouldn’t it be nice if the default legal position was that leave-no-trace, short term camping is permitted so long as it doesn’t disturb livestock, wildlife or agriculture. Why not?
And you don’t have to look far for that legal structure. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code protects the right to camp responsibly: in small numbers, for two or three nights in one place, avoiding enclosed fields of crops or farm animals as well as buildings, roads and historic monuments.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the law and the perceived attitude to wild camping are very different. But I’ve been open about my accommodation choices and have met no one who has opposed them or even expressed disapproval.
So perhaps the public perception of wild camping is ahead of the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Perhaps that means we can change it. Perhaps it is already changing.
Maybe because of its long association with the military, the right to wild camp is protected on Dartmoor (very convenient because that’s the direction I’m heading).
In the Lake District National Park, the National Trust now ask that people avoid lowland areas and head to the higher fells – and of course to leave no trace.
The spirit of leave no trace is absolutely non-negotiable.
Leaving anything but an impression in the grass will have an adverse effect on the wildlife – and reduce the chances that wild camping, legal or illegal, will be tolerated in the future.
The pandemic has brought millions of people out into the countryside – a glorious rediscovery of the natural beauty and medicine of this island – but an unfortunate minority have conservation-shaped holes in their outdoors education.
Recently, the Guardian reported that a throwaway ‘festival’ culture has been brought into certain popular wild camping spots and the damage caused means that local rangers are having to clamp down on all overnighters.
Of course, clamping down is not the solution: the problem doesn’t seem to exist in Scotland, with its long history of outdoor access. Because it’s part of their birthright, Scottish campers also inherit an inkling of how to camp responsibly.
In England, it’s as if we’ve only just discovered an enormous lake of ice cream and we’ve jumped straight in, boots and all, without regard for spoiling the dessert that we share. Education, beginning with leave no trace, is the spoon that everyone should be given, long before their stomachs start rumbling.
We need a change in the law. And we need more spoons.
Every single day I’m on my bike there are moments when I think: ‘I could have been killed there.’
Cars passing at speed too closely is the most common one. Yet, every now and again, I come across a horse and rider enjoying the same country lanes as me and watch in awe as these same lethal cars slow right down, pull over to one side or stop until the horse has passed.
I wish that our nation’s car drivers understood that cyclists are as vulnerable (and as unpredictable) as horse riders. We sometimes swerve to avoid potholes that you can’t see; we sometimes are blown around by wind that you can’t feel. And our flesh tears as easily as any horse’s, I promise you.
While riding, I daydreamed of starting a cycle-protection campaign: Bikes are horses too!
Then I learnt that the government are currently consulting on a raft of changes to the Highway Code that would recognise the vulnerability of cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders to inadequate or inattentive drivers.
Finally, if you see someone driving dangerously then please (when safe) make a note of the vehicle’s registration, colour, make and model (a quick photograph works well) and report the incident to the police on their non-emergency number 101. It takes a few minutes and your phone call could save lives. The AA has more information on how to make a report.
I don’t know why drivers think they can get away with dangerous overtaking manoeuvres when their numberplate identifies them so conspicuously. It’s like a bankrobber politely presenting their passport to the teller before pulling out an uzi and screaming, ‘Open up the safe, bitch!’
If only attendance at the Ogmios School of Zen Motoring was compulsory…
Sunday evening. It was getting late to find a camp spot. I’d run out of water and I only had rice cakes in my panniers for dinner. Southwold was full, with queues for chips snaking down one-way street pavements.
My last hope for an open shop was a rumoured ‘filling station’ in Wrentham. I rolled to a stop in the empty village. A woman was picking weeds from her driveway. Debbie.
After some hand-wringing over the likelihood of an open shop on a Sunday evening in the Suffolk countryside, I spilled: ‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘I’m running a little low on water.’
Debbie looked surprised: ‘Well, I can fill up your water bottles!’ She led me around to the gate before adding, ‘Are you okay with dogs?’
In Coviddy Britain I don’t like to ask people for favours that might put them under uncomfortable pressure to accept. And filling my water bottles is a fairly intimate act unless there’s a hosepipe in the garden.
After ushering me through a remarkable garden living room (with a barbeque made from a North Sea pipeline!) and setting the kitchen tap running, Debbie invited me in. She leaned on the back of a chair and looked at me over her full moon glasses: ‘I wish I had more to offer you, but there’s nothing in the fridge.’
Then she had a revelation: ‘Would you like a hot shower?’
Debbie’s kindness was part of a noble tradition of hospitality for passing travellers. Over the past few years, I’ve met this generosity countless times, cycling through Europe with Thighs of Steel.
In Albania last year, for example, every single day at least one cafe owner would refuse payment for coffees, give us free chocolate bars or flag us down on the street to offer us a cold drink.
The concept has a rich history in Ancient Greek mythology—the famous Trojan War was triggered by an abuse of hospitality when Trojan Paris stole Menalaus’ wife Helen while staying with the Greek. Not cool.
Modern Greeks still have a word for this tradition: philoxenia, unquestioning kindness to strangers.
This bike trip has been a lesson that philoxenia is alive and flourishing in Britain too.
After inviting her husband Steve to join the gathering, Debbie offered me a plastic garden chair and the three of us shared a local ale.
Facing a barrage of relentless hospitality, I finally accepted a cheese and pickle sandwich that Debbie wrapped in tin foil for later. She put a Diet Pepsi on the table too.
As they told stories, it became clear that this was far from the first time Debbie and Steve had opened their hearts, minds and doors to strangers.
One night, not long ago, Steve met a trio of ex-army lads in the pub. They were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and were on a therapeutic camp trip to work out some of their problems. One of the party was hyper, another was withdrawn. So Steve invited them over to the house for breakfast the next morning. When they didn’t show up, Steve drove out to the campsite and dragged them back for their egg and sausages.
As I stowed my water bottles for departure, thanking her again and again for her kindnesses, Debbie insisted that it wasn’t anything unusual.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘A few bottles of water and the end of loaf of bread!’
‘When you put it like that,’ I replied, ‘it doesn’t sound like much. But it’s not about the water. Most people wouldn’t give up their time so readily to strangers.’
I can imagine multiple scenarios that could have played out when I first approached Debbie outside her house. She could have been sympathetic and wished me luck finding a shop. She could have brought out water so that I could fill them from her driveway. She could have invited me in to fill the water bottles and then bid me safe travels.
And those are the positive scenarios. We’re living through a global pandemic for heaven’s sake—strangers are dangerous.
I imagined precisely zero scenarios where I left her house with a cheese sandwich, a Diet Pepsi, a bellyful of ale, a head full of stories and a heart full of tenderness.
‘Maybe this crisis has changed the way people think about others,’ Debbie said. ‘Maybe it’s brought us all closer together.’
As I reached a beautiful beach to camp on, the rain clouds swarmed down. Scrambling the tent up in record time, I lay on my airbed in the gloom and unwrapped the tin foil: four neatly cut squares of a cheese and pickle sandwich.
Do you know what? I think Debbie might be right.
Philoxenia in action
Over the past three weeks I have been the grateful recipient of thousands of acts of philoxenia, large and small.
Huge thanks to the hospitable friends and strangers who have made the last seven days such a delight: Pandora, the Wickers family, Sarah and Chloe, John the ferryman, Lesley the artist, Debbie and Steve, Duncan of the incredible Dunx Cycles, Peter Langford the world record holder, and the extraordinary, expecting Matt and Lisa.
Thank you also to all the patient woodland creatures who put up with me wild camping in their homes. Even the ants.
But I reserve extra extra special thanks for my final hosts on this tour of southeast England: Documentally and his wonderfully generous family. Camping in a friend’s back garden was a celebratory end to this part of my journey and I was overwhelmed with too many kindnesses to mention.
Somewhere around midnight, Documentally captured this video of me attempting to pin down the difference between this cycle trip around Britain and the last, nine years ago.
I can wholeheartedly recommend Documentally’s own newsletter. You can read his take on my visit in the latest edition here. Cheers!
What were you doing nine years ago? Please, have a think. What’s changed? How have you grown?
I know exactly what I was doing: cycling around Britain. There is something physically, intellectually and spiritually potent about repeating a ‘once in a decade’ journey. The same routines of cycling and camping give ample space for reflection on how much has changed between then and now.
It’s the same journey, familiar, but by no means similar. As Heraclitus observed:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
On this day in 2011, I was cycling from Tentsmuir Forest to Perth in Scotland. It was a short day’s ride of 48 miles. By this point in the journey I’d already cycled over 100 miles on two of the fifteen days and taken only one day off—to replace my old bike with the new one I still ride today. On 31 July, I broke through the 1,000 mile barrier.
This time around, I’ve cycled 444 miles and already taken four days off. My longest day’s ride has been 55 miles—and that was only so long because I took ages finding a camping spot in the Mad Max wastelands of Sheppey.
The Isle of Sheppey: part industrial wasteland, part nature reserve.
Six in the evening, somewhere outside Basildon, forty miles around Britain. I’m hauling myself down the hard shoulder of a fast dual carriageway, the direct route to Southend-on-Sea, when there’s a popping sound. The weight shifts and slings my bike lurching into the road. A car swerves past, horn blaring. My feet hit the ground, skidding to a stop. I scoot myself to safety. I look back: my bag has slewed off to one side and is now dragging halfway down the wheel. One of the bungee ropes has given way. I climb off and fix it up again, double wrapping my spare bungee tight around the rack. I cycle away, heart shaking, checking the bags with every paranoid turn of the pedals. I wonder vaguely how close I was to death. If a bungee had caught in my spokes, if the wheel had locked, if that car had been closer…
I’d never done anything like this ride before—and I knew nobody who had. I knew nothing about cycle touring, nothing about bikes and bike repair, and nothing about wild camping except that it was illegal. I’d only started cycling regularly a year earlier and my most recent day trip had ended with a dislocated shoulder.
Half an hour later, the rack itself snapped. Some of my panic was justified.
Panic in large part explains why I finished that first 4,110 mile journey in 58 days, with only four days off in the whole two months. Scared of what might happen if I was discovered, I cycled from the moment I awoke in my bivvy at dawn to the moment I thought it safe enough to hide in the shadows at dusk.
I was also scared that I couldn’t finish the journey so was driven on, addicted to doing one more mile before nightfall. This meant I wouldn’t take detours and was frustrated whenever I got lost, sticking to well-marked Sustrans cycle routes or the B-roads between towns.
Worst of all, I was scared to speak to the people I passed along the way. I thought they’d be disgusted by a sweaty, stinky cyclist who clearly didn’t know what he was doing. I hesitated before going into cafes and kept my head down when I did. Thank god for the few, precious friends I knew who lived or met me along the way: Ben, John, Zoe, Dani, Patrick and my parents.
This time is very different. I have done plenty of cycle touring now, including the confidence-building community adventures with Thighs of Steel. Now I know loads of people who do exactly this sort of thing. We share stories, laugh about our mishaps and revel in the unexpected.
This time, I know that I can cycle long distances, lugging my home behind me. I know how to diagnose and fix the most common things that can go wrong with my bicycle. I’m confident wild camping and have faith that nothing bad will happen even if I am discovered.
This time, I can’t worry about getting lost because I have my phone. The app I use for navigation, Komoot, has an active online community of cyclists who recommend places to visit along the way. It’s how I’ve been finding beautiful woods to camp in.
This time, I know that finishing the journey is the worst that can happen. This makes me slow down and, in slowing down, find the detours and adventures that make the road worth travelling.
Best of all, this time, I have friends. I’ve already stayed or shared tea with friends in Brighton, Hastings, Margate and London. And I’m no longer afraid to make new friends and talk to the people I pass—like the Yes Tribe adventurers who I stayed with in Brighton.
Or like the man I met shortly after passing this sign:
I was waylaid in Sandwich marketplace by Mark Daniel, who spied from my baggage that I was a fellow cycle tourer. Mark had been forced by Covid-19 to delay his departure on a two-year around the world bike ride and we chatted for a while about our bikes, our kit and our plans.
It was this idle conversation with a stranger that helped me appreciate the value of the passage of time.
In the nine years since I last cycled around Britain, I could easily experience how much I’d grown. Not only in my confidence with cycle touring, wild camping and talking to strangers, but in almost every area of my life: the friends I have, the work I do, the hobbies I hob, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve helped, the lessons I’ve learned. The length of my hair.
But then Mark Daniel told me something that blew my mind. He told me his age.
He was 62.
That puts 24 years between us—or 2.67 times nine years. If I can have grown this much since 2011, then what growth lies ahead in the next nine years? And in the nine years after that? And by the time I’m Mark Daniel’s age?
And, after all those 24 years of experiences, adventures, friendships and growth, then I could still cycle around the world? That is a wondrous thing to contemplate.
For many people, myself included, lockdown seemed to collapse time and shut down the optimistic vista of future opportunities. This adventure is doing the opposite for me—and I hope you too will take a moment to reflect on how much has changed in the last nine years in your world and how much could still be done in the time you have left.
There is still time for action and optimism. But that optimistic future depends on something that my nan said to me before she died, shortly before I left on that first cycle around Britain in 2011:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
The Lord of the Rings is one of the great works of twentieth century travel literature and, cycling and camping over the Sussex Weald, I could very well be in Hobbiton.
Sunday was a mizzling day, so I was happy to fall in with the Yes Tribe tourers that I mentioned in last week’s update. They were riding to Brighton; I was riding to Brighton, so I switched off my phone and followed the tyre spray of fellowship.
Lockdown has opened up unexpected narratives for all of us and I’m still re-sourcing my conversational voice with company. At one point, over a menu in a Lebanese restaurant, it was gently pointed out that I was shouting.
In Fishbourne, I met a construction contractor who’s lost tens of thousands of pounds, with minimal support from the government, and has been forced to lay off his workers while trying to plant 76 lamp posts in 48 hours.
But I’ve also stayed with a fabulous Hastings-based performer/marine biologist who’s found a growing audience of kiddies and adults to introduce to sea creatures. In this video, I have a chat with the one and only David Annette-borough:
I’ve met adventurers, artists, office workers and people of all persuasions shrugging their shoulders and, by and large, following the one-way system of life.
While in Brighton, I stayed with fellow Thighs of Steel alumnus Rob Wills, a natural storyteller in multiple artforms: graphical and musical as well as conversational. He kindly gave me permission to record one of his songs for you.
So, without further ado, hit play on the audio up top and enjoy The Hobbit Song. Oh, and I’ve bought a bugle so you can also enjoy my bugling. If you’re subscribed to my Youtube channel then you can listen there too (sadly without my bugling at the beginning…)
You can get your dirty little mitts on Rob’s beautiful animal, astrolabe and poetry inspired art in the form of absurdly affordable giclée prints, greetings cards and story books on Folksy.
Finally: another huge thank you to everyone who has made the last week such a friendly place. Especially to Yes Tribe Michelle, Rob Wills and Annette Coppin for heartful hospitality in Brighton and Hastings.
At the precise moment this gentleman bestows ‘proper’ adventure upon my travels, I am picking sludgey flecks of porridge out of my jersey and arm hair. It’s not the most adventurous moment of the past two days, but perhaps sums up what really happens behind the scenes on even the most proper adventure.
Which, I hasten to correct, cycling around post-Brexit, mid-Covid and pre-Apocalypse Britain almost certainly isn’t. I’m only thinking one week ahead, so at the moment this bike ride still feels like a haphazard jaunt along the south coast, which is exactly what it is.
I’d been trying to cook porridge using an Alpkit Brukit (like a Jetboil, but cheaper) and, although technically successful, the clear up job was nigh-on impossible. Copious litres of graveyard tap water only served to turn the mutinous porridge into glutinous gobbets.
When I shook out my dishcloth, these turned into oaty missiles, which respectfully sprayed themselves across the cemetery, coating me head to foot in properly adventurous porridge.
I’m writing this now on the Hayling Billy cycle path. A steam train used to chuff up and down these tracks, with the wind blowing in its face and views across Langstone Harbour to the big city big lights of Portsmouth. They used to catch oysters here too. Now people charge up and down on their bikes—earlier I saw a guy pulling a surfboard on a trailer.
For more adventure stories, subscribe to my Youtube channel. I’m already getting better at doing these to-camera pieces. I think this one worked out pretty gud:
I’m now sitting atop a spectacular hill, moments away from sunset, with a vegetable jalfrezi sitting, in its turn, uneasily in my stomach. Next up is a short ride to my woodland campground, where I’ll sleep the sleep of the thoroughly windburnt.
In an alternate reality, right now I’m preparing to join Thighs of Steel on an adventurous detour through the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains as we wend our way from London to Athens.
In this reality, however, our epic fundraising adventure has long been cancelled and instead we spent May and June riding remotely, collectively raising over £110,000 for refugees hit by this thing called Covid-19.
I’m grateful that I haven’t been sick, that I’ve been able to continue working and that we’ve still managed to do some good for those less privileged. But lockdown does funny things to the brain and seeing my summer plans cancelled wasn’t a very nice feeling.
So back in April I promised myself that I would do Something Else. I drew up a few different options, which naturally depended on the state of the pandemic when July 2020 rolled around.
Top of the list was to cycle around Britain. Again.
2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. Barack Obama was in the White House (and ordered the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). Amy Winehouse died.
On 17 July that year, a few days after my nan’s funeral, I left home on a 58 day, 4,110 mile bike ride around Britain. It was my first huge bike tour and I knew next to nothing about bikes or the psychological challenges of riding so far. That ride gave me a wellspring of resilience that has stayed with me ever since.
Next Friday, exactly nine years later, I’m leaving home on my bike again to not cycle around Britain. Despite everything, I feel much better prepared. This time I know that this is not a bike ride. These are the tentative first pedal strokes into a physical, psychological and social unknown.
I’m not expecting anything. I’ll board my bike, fully laden with camping and recording kit, and do nothing more than turn the pedals to see what happens.
At the time of writing, cycling and camping in England is deemed safe by the government. How it will feel when I’m actually out there is a different question altogether: I’m acutely aware that camping in both Scotland and Wales is still forbidden.
2020 is not 2011.
It could be that the government, the virus or I decide that one day’s riding is more than enough and I come home on Saturday morning.
It could be that I enjoy cycling for a week, coasting between friends in the south, from my nest in Bournemouth to the concrete smoke of London. Maybe that’ll be enough. Maybe I’ll barely have time to catch a train to safety before the dread second wave winds through our communities.
It could be that I cycle on through East Anglia, pursuing the old roads to Lincoln and Durham and—if Scotland decides it’s safe—even onward to Edinburgh and Elgin. Perhaps the clouds will roll over and I will cycle on for six weeks and come back sunburnt in September with a sack of stories to keep me busy for another decade.
If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s to hold the future lightly. As the future tense in Arabic goes: insha’allah.
Under ‘pacing’ in my report card from 2011 you’ll find the words ‘could do better’. I cycled all day almost every day for nearly two months. I was permanently exhausted (my skin shrivelled up whenever I took a day off) and my encounters with Britain were more fleeting than I would have liked.
This year I’m taking the pace right down, concentrating more on the stories than on the distance. At a leisurely (!) 60km per day, six weeks is about enough time to trace half the country. If the tour is still safe and fun, I can continue with the second half in 2021. No rush.
The energy for this bike ride does not come from the physical challenge. It comes from a desire to understand the changes that have shaken this country. There’s a lot that confuses me in 2020 Britain:
What has lockdown done to our communities? What are we learning?
What state are we really in after ten years of Conservative rule? Are our politicians helping us build the society we want? Where are we succeeding and where are we failing?
How and why did we vote to leave the European Union? How are people taking this opportunity?
How awesome are bikes? What are bikes doing to bring communities together?
What, where and why is the north-south divide? And could Scotland thrive outside the United Kingdom?
Do Britons really believe that Black Lives Matter? Mark Duggen was killed by police while I was cycling in 2011 and I remember watching the news footage at a hostel in the Shetland Isles. Is this time different?
Are we turning the tide on climate change? Or is the tide turning us?
How has life changed since I last cycled this way nine years ago?
I hope to hear all kinds of interesting perspectives from people I meet along the way, which I’ll bring to you… somehow.
Although Covid-19 has made planning a last minute affair, I have been preparing the ground for more of a multimedia experience of storytelling this time around.
There will certainly be words; there may also be video and audio. Whatever happens, I’ll let you know right here.
Finally: huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.
I know this mailing list is full of awesome people. If you’d like to offer support, please please please reply to this email. Any cycle tour leans heavily on the goodwill of strangers and I’m grateful for anything and everything—from kind words up!
If you’d like to catch up on the story of my first cycle around Britain, I wrote a book about the journey called Life to the Lees. Get 10 percent off with code SAVE10 if you order today.
May we all lead responsibly adventurous lives.
Insha’allah and praise be to science-based risk assessments.
When it comes to bicycle maintenance, I am, by my calculations, precisely halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite.
I am competant enough to be technically able to replace worn brake blocks (those rubber things that stop the bike) (not the soles of your shoes), and yet incompetant enough to be incapable of fitting them so that they both:
a) stop the bike when I squeeze the brake levers
b) don’t rub against the wheel when I’m not squeezing the brake levers.
This second feature of my brake adjustments turns every bike ride into some kind of resistance training. Great for fitness, not so great for getting anywhere faster than a mobility scooter.
Why do I mention this? Well, in the British Library the other day, I came across a wonderful little pamphlet called Wheeling Adventure, written over sixty years ago by a chap called Frank Urry (the ghost in this tale).
Frank was, at the time of publication in 1951, in his 70s and could justly claim to lived through the very beginnings of what we now know as cycle touring. When he first sat on a bike it scarcely had pedals, let alone brake blocks.
To read his words from beyond the grave, gleaned from over sixty years of cycling, is to recall what a wonder the bicycle is and what joys we spurn when we “motor” instead.
“Why should I want to go swiftly from place to place with but a glimpse at the going? The day is no longer, nor do you crowd more into its hours, except miles, and what use are they if you have missed the sights along them, the music of the winds and birds, the gossip of the wayside people, and the satisfaction of the perfect achievement of your body?”
I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I smugly sat in the library, thighs still warm from the morning cycling up to King’s Cross, surrounded by academics who’d braved instead the morning rush hour.
But my smugness was not to last.
Chattering of neglect
For there followed a passage that really stung my attention, concerning bicycle maintenance:
“Oh! the thousands of bicycles that pass me – that I pass – squeaking, groaning and chattering of neglect, that were once the pride of their owners and are now wrecks of inattention, and all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”
Yes, my poor bicycle, the same beast that had carried me gamefully around the coast for two months without so much as a squeak, is now an old nag, scuffling about the streets of London, a bolt or a bearing or a brake or a bracket always only moments from breaking.
Frank’s spirit gently chastises me from across the chasm of years that separates us: “even with disregard and neglect the bicycle still runs, which is surely a proof of its marvellous design and simplicity of construction.”
“The handicap of this neglect ” he adds, with hint of disdain in his tone, “is the rider’s.”
And how right he is! Every time I take to the roads, I am frighteningly aware of a slight antagonism between my chain and my gears. Perhaps one in every hundred turns of the pedal grinds with a nasty gnashing of teeth as the chain skips a link or two, my foot slips forward, the momentum shifts in my hands and I lose momentarily my line on the road. Surely it is only a matter of time before a passing bus or a rubbish lorry decides to take a terminal interest in this careless instability.
Frank talks frankly: “It is so simple and so much neglected, that I often wonder why such a priceless property – or rather a property giving such priceless pleasure – should be so abused.”
I feel quite ashamed that, for my bicycle to whom I owe so much, I do so little. I vow to address its quiet complaints. Tonight.
Bicycle Workshop, Interior, Night
As things stand, I am aware that my bicycle has the following running problems:
The rear wheel wobbles laterally. This, I have been informed by someone less hapless, is a problem with “the cones”. I thought “the cones” were what they put on the side of the road when they’re doing roadworks. I have no idea why or where they might be on a bicycle.
The rear brakes are rubbing against the rear wheel. (When they shouldn’t be.) I am optimistic that this problem might be resolved when I’ve dealt with the cones.
The chain skips too often for my liking (or safety).
Not having a diagnosis for #3 and being optimistic about #2, I decide to tackle #1.
With the help of a bike maintenance manual, some spanners and no little brute force, I successfully dismantle the rear cassette (gears) and get right down to the cones. These are little nuts that keep the all the bits of the axle together and spinning freely, but not too freely. They just need a little tightening, I’m assured, to eliminate that wheel wobble.
So I tighten the non-drive side cone. I can’t get to the other one because something else is in the way. I put the wheel back together and back on the bike. I give it a test spin. Nothing happens. No wobble: good. No spin: bad. I’ve over-tightened the cone.
I pull the whole thing apart again, slightly loosen the cone and put it all back together again. This time the wheel spins: good. And wobbles: bad.
This pattern repeats several times over until eventually the Goblins of Bicycle Maintenance get bored of tormenting me and I have both a spinning and non-wobbling wheel.
I am pleased with myself.
For exactly 30 seconds.
That’s how long it takes for me to realise:
My brakes are still rubbing when they shouldn’t.
My wheel is misaligned to the right hand side.
Some of the spokes are loose.
The tyre is wearing so thin that you can see strands of fabric poking through the rubber from the inside.
It is at this moment that I recall Frank Urry’s words: “…all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”
I have been working on my bike now for well over an hour and, not only is it still a wreck of inattention, it is far more of a wreck of inattention for all the attention that I’ve given it.
Thanks to my lavish attention, I am now fully cognizant of the fact that my bike is a death trap. That tyre is so thin that it would puncture on a cotton bud.
Life after Frank
You must, by now, be wondering at my deluded sense of self-awareness: Halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite! With a tyre no thicker than a housemaid’s pinnafore? Pah.
But, dear reader, may I draw your attention to my bed. For lodged neath said furniture, until now only gathering dust, is my answer to the ghost of Frank Urry, tutting and head shaking:
One spare rear wheel – cassette, cones and all.
Which brings me to the lesson of the day: half the battle of competance is carrying spares. Or, as Blue Peter would have it: “Here’s one I made earlier.”
Have you ever read about approach and avoidant personalities?
This is the idea from psychology that people are born with a tendency to motivate themselves either positively (approaching a goal for its benefits) or negatively (avoiding the harms associated with failure).
Approach: “Cycling around Britain will be the greatest thing that I ever do, I’m going to enjoy every moment!”
Avoidant: “I’d better not screw up this round Britain cycle ride because then I’d look really stupid!”
Stumbling across this concept made me realise that, although I set myself and sometime achieve ambitious goals, I tend to tackle those goals in an avoidant manner.
Cycling around Britain… Really fast.
In 2011, I cycled around Britain. This was, as you can imagine, a stunning experience; rarely a day goes past without a glorious memory or three dropping in to say hi. However: I cycled the 4,110 miles in less than two months, at a frankly absurd speed of over 70 miles a day. I took four rest days and resented each one.
Why? Because I was terrified, all the way around, that I would fail. I wanted to get it done ASAP, so that I could enjoy not having failed!
Cycling to the Sahara… Really slowly
Slightly disturbed by this realisation, the following year I cycled around Tunisia, forcing myself to cycle much more slowly and to really relish the adventure.
As a result, I cycled at about half the speed and took a whopping nine days off in the month. Giving myself that time meant that I fell into all sorts of adventures:
By switching off the avoidant voice in my head, I allowed myself the time to have more adventures, which meant I had a lot more FUN too.
I was successful on this trip, but a lifelong tendency for avoidant motivation is not so easily overturned! It’s something that I have to work at every day.
Do you have an Approach or Avoidant personality?
If you’re approach motivated, then you probably rush into things and get excited by all the great things that will doubtless happen.
If you’re avoidant motivated, then you probably dwell on the things that might go wrong. Like me, you might rush things because you’re scared that you’ll fail.
Other signs that you’re avoidant motivated might include:
You dwell on criticism, failure or rejection.
You feel shy or anxious, even though you have a strong desire to achieve your goal.
You feel inadequate or inferior to others.
You’re self-conscious and tend to be self-critical.
You use fantasy to evade doing what you meant to do.
If you are avoidant – don’t panic! Me too.
Avoidants of the world unite!
Approachers might be the go-getters of this world, but they’re also the ones whose ancesters ended up between the jaws of a sabre-toothed tiger. They’re the stupid, fools-rush-in kinds of people. Avoidants, on the other hand are thoughtful, cautious and good-looking.
It’s also worth pointing out that approach-avoidance is a spectrum; it’s not black and white, either/or. Although I do a really good job at avoiding girls, blazing rows and sabre-toothed tigers, I will approach that Vienetta with all the recklessness of a Neolithic tiger dentist.
So, if you think you’re a tad more avoidant than approach, don’t beat yourself up about how nervous, worried or fearful you get about your goals. It is possible, as I proved with Tunisia, to reframe your adventures away from a focus on avoidance alone. I really had to force myself to slow down, relax and enjoy the weird situations I’d cycled myself into.
Yes, it will always be more difficult for us than for people who were born with approach personalities, but that just means that success will be all the more satisfying for us, glorious avoidants!
I know some of you are writers or would like to become writers, whatever that means. One of the problems with writing is that it’s almost entirely subjective. I say almost because there comes a point when the mass of subjectivity is so overwhelming as to become objective. Subjectively, I wasn’t entertained by the first dozen pages of the Harry Potter fiasco. 450 million book sales tells me I’m wrong. Objectively, Harry Potter and his minions are the very definition of excellent writing, writing that captures and holds an audience.
The only problem with this form of objectivity is that it requires a mass, a horde, of subjects. And this horde is precisely what the becoming writer does not, by definition, have. So we have to seek out other subjectivities, expert subjectivities, in the hope that they add up to something like a stab at objectivity.
(I should note that publishers have this exact same problem. Their decision on the worth of a new submission is taken on the basis of a dozen subjective opinions. That’s nowhere near good enough to match the objective opinion of the mass audience out there. Hence why many, many books fail, despite getting the seal of approval from an expert publisher.)
But to get back to the becoming writer. After friends and family, one of the places we can turn for a stab at objectivity is a manuscript assessment service, like The Literary Consultancy. In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I handed over my 257 page manuscript, along with a cheque for £449.75. And I held my breath.
Now, bearing in mind that I’ve scarcely earned £449.75 from my writing ever, that’s an awful lot of money to spend. Why did I do it? Because I had to know. The testimonials from writers who had used the service were glowing. I had to know if The Literary Consultancy could sprinkle the same gold dust on my manuscript as they had on Bruno Cassidy’s. “I can honestly say,” Bruce gushes, “that I received more engaged and positive criticism from him on this story than at any time during a two year part time Creative Writing MA.” I suppose £449.75 is a small price to pay in comparison to funding a two year part time Creative Writing MA.
I waited six weeks for the report. It arrived precisely on time, straight into my email inbox.
It was a touch over ten pages long, as promised – but some of those pages were not filled. It was double spaced. The whole thing totalled 3643 words, each one costing twelve pence. My first thought, on reading, was Have I wasted half a grand on this? I felt blood rush to my cheeks. I closed the email and forgot about it for a week.
After I got back from Calais, I printed the whole thing out and re-read it, with a pen in my hand. There must be some treasure to be found between these pricey pages. It was written by a man who had published books. He had won Wales Book of the Year. The Independent on Sunday had even called his most recent travel book “thorough”. So I dug deep down into his report, determined to uncover the treasure.
NB: From this point onwards, non-serious writers may get bored. Sorry. This isn’t really written for you. For the serious writer, wondering if it’s time to shell out for professional objectivity, I hope you find this report summary useful.
Approach (0.25 pages)
This was a short précis of my story, useful to ensure that he got the gist of what I was trying to do. He did. Phew.
Where am I coming from as a critic? (0.25 pages)
A short biography of the critic, establishing his bone fides as both a writer and a traveller. This made me feel more comfortable that he was a suitable critic for my book. I should say that The Literary Consultancy had given me a choice of two critics, so I had already done some research on the man. This put me at ease.
Opening Remarks (1 page)
This section addressed my cover letter and synopsis, as well as the title and the fact that I look young in my photograph. On the plus side, the manuscript was well laid out and “very professional”. Neither of us liked the title and he suggested a couple of alternatives.
Concept (0.5 pages)
This section placed the manuscript within the wider world of publishing. This is where the central problem with the manuscript was first addressed: “you have to offer something distinctive in delivering the story, to make it a commercially marketable book”. Storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
Technique (1 page)
General comments on style and structure. I have a “breezy no-nonsense prose style”, combined with a very good ear for speech. I’m particularly proud that he says: “There were no significant passages where my interest flagged.” Now there’s a review for the front cover! However, he is right when he says that there is precious little description of landscape and culture in the book. That is a weakness.
The Narrative (3 pages)
This is the meat of the report. Here he gets into more detail about the manuscript, its achievements and its failings. He addresses story-telling style, dialogue, characterisation, use of detail and description. He gives advice on how I could increase the reader’s emotional involvement and interest, through use of more encounters and personal reflection. He even raised the possibility of importing characters from elsewhere, à la Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin… By my honour!
Details (0.5 pages)
This addressed half a dozen typos, factual inaccuracies and general puzzlements. He missed several that I’ve later caught, but this wasn’t supposed to be a proof-reading.
Conclusions (2.5 pages)
Here he tackles the root problem of the manuscript and offers ideas for its development. The question is: “Will your book force its way to the front of the queue?” His answer is no, despite enjoying the story and seeing that I have the skills to write a publishable book. The manuscript as it stands is “a little short of rounded interest”. He urges me to “be more ambitious”, believing that I have “the potential to write at a higher level”. He finishes with a reading list of published books that could hand me the key to this higher plane.
Overall, I would say that the Literary Consultancy report told me nothing of the manuscript that I hadn’t already suspected myself. But I think that is a good sign: it would have been terrible if he’d hated all the parts that I thought were brilliant and vice versa. It shows, at least, that I have an honest eye for my own work.
Where the report hides its genius is in how it has inspired me to go back to the manuscript and improve it. That is what I have paid for, not the words of the report, but the encouragement. That encouragement, from an independent, experienced writer is invaluable.
I have since read and re-read the critic’s words many times and they have been an invaluable guide in my most recent edit of the book. I feel now that I have the thematic structure of a richer dish. The light shone by the report has improved my writing.
Was The Literary Consultancy worth £449.75?
In short: Yes.
Of course, I couldn’t afford to pay this every time I write a book, but perhaps I won’t have to. The report confirmed my suspicions of my literary weaknesses and affirmed the skills I do have as a writer, so perhaps all I will need next time is more confidence in myself.
As you may know, I have recently “finished” my book about cycling 4,110 miles around Britain. The only problem is that I haven’t got a title for it yet. And that’s where YOU come in!
Hopefully you’ve read a bit about the book, but in case you haven’t – it’s a book about cycling that is more about lost love and finding myself again after the death of my grandmother. It was she who inspired me to go on this journey, with the words: “Do it while you can.”
So please give us two seconds of your time and click on as many of the titles below as grab your interest.
I’ll probably slap in a sub-title as well, probably something like “Four Thousand Miles Cycling Around Britain”.
If you can come up with anything better (I know you can!), then please post them in the comments. You’re the best.
Cycling right around the coast of Britain is unquestionably the single most rewarding thing I have done in my life. The wonder of it is that I didn’t do something like it sooner.
1. You can do anything, if you just take it one wheel at a time. 4,110 miles is nothing but 1 mile done 4,110 times. Nothing is impossible when you break it down.
2. You’re not special. Anyone can do this. Anyone can buy a bike and cycle from their front door, to god knows where. Don’t imagine that you’re not fit enough to try: fitness comes with every mile you pedal.
3. Rain isn’t an excuse. Rain is a circumstance out of your control, like the condition of the roads, or the terrible music on CapitalFM. You’ll just ride through it.
4. Cycling is addictive. One mile breeds another, seeing the numbers click forward on your odometer turns every stretch of road into a game to be beaten. Make sure you spend enough time sleeping, eating and sight-seeing, though!
5. Ever fancied sending the waiter back for a second main course – and then having dessert? Ever wished you could eat a Full English every morning? Ever fancied seeing how long it takes you to burn off the calories contained in a full bag of Jelly Babies? Welcome to the cycling diet.
6. Britain is stunningly beautiful. You need never go to another country as long as you live. There is an infinite supply of fascination and adventure right here for us.
7. Cycling isn’t complicated. Modern bikes don’t break much. Modern tyres don’t get punctures. Absence of a degree in bike mechanics is no excuse.
8. The hardest part of doing anything is starting. Once the wheels have started turning forwards, they don’t turn back.
9. Achievement is the surest way to courage and confidence. All you have to remember is: 4,110 miles.
10. Nothing will be the same again. You will always have cycled around Britain. Your conception of the possible is transformed.
11. One day you will cycle around Britain – the other way!
Start an ambitious physical challenge, or die not knowing!
What inspires you? What do you admire in other people? What do you want to achieve?
I ask myself these questions all the time and the answer is always the same – at the risk of sounding like an idiot – awe and the awesome.
Warning: Much of this article is going to sound like a cheap Dale Carnegie knock-off. Sorry about that.
The awesome (according to the OED definition) inspires in us “a reverential wonder combined with an element of latent fear”. Hemingway on a fishing boat in the terrible sublimity of a storm – “The Old Man and the Sea”.
The day I left to cycle around Britain, that metaphysical “element of latent fear” had a very physical grip on my bowels. I had never done anything like this before. I was scared of my bicycle, a six-gear second-hand Raleigh with a proclivity for catastrophe. I was scared of my knees, which were about as strong as the hinges on our bathroom door. I was scared of my camping arrangements, which (in my imagination) involved ditches and shotgun-wielding farmers. But most of all, I was scared of the weather.
In some ways it was a typical English summer’s day, in other ways it was Hemingway’s sea-storm. The clouds were bursting in freakish pressure drop rainstorms every few hours and I sat in my friend’s kitchen for hours, clinging to my cup of tea as if it were a lifebuoy, prolonging the fear. This was the classic fear of the unknown. This was the fear that made me certain the whole trip would be worthwhile.
I did (eventually) overcome my fear, I did (eventually) leave my friend’s kitchen, I did (inevitably) get soaked in a rainstorm and I did (surprisingly) realise that rain isn’t so bad, but fear made it so.
Incidentally, I found that rain, more than any other weather, can provoke a whole range of powerful emotions: anger, hatred, depression and joy, as well as fear. It is emotion that bends our mind’s response to weather, not the weather itself. Once I realised that, I could bend my mind back again to something more positive. Sometimes.
Stop: The last thing I want to do here is write a puff-piece, showing-off about how great the journey was, about how great I am and how I did this and that and the other. I’m not kidding anyone: it was nothing more than a long bike ride. I didn’t have any good reason for the trip: I didn’t raise money for charity, I didn’t give talks in schools about sustainable transport, I wasn’t even going to write a book about it. I did it for myself alone. It was the cycling equivalent of a two-month asphyxiwank: pain and pleasure in equal measure for no discernible purpose. So, instead of writing about me and my bike ride, I’m going to try and explain why I did it.
For people who don’t know what I’m talking about, some background: this summer I cycled from London to London via Scotland, the Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides, the Lake District, Wales, Cornwall and just about every point in between. I went through two bicycles, three baskets and about four thousand calories a day. I slept most nights in a bivvy bag, got a bad-ass tan and am now as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog. It took me 58 days and cost way more money than I expected.
So: why did I cycle 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain? Because awe told me to.
There was one other reason as well. In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair amount. I’ve travelled all across Europe, North Africa and Eastern Asia, but only very rarely in the UK. It got to the point where I knew Cairo better than I knew any place in the UK, bar London and the environs of my South Oxfordshire birth-place. That had to change, but awe was the main reason why I did it.
Bear with me, please, while I talk about awe for a bit. The explanation of why comes at the end.
I think cycling is a good thing. It saves you money, it saves you time and it gets you fit. But the general idea of cycling somewhere is not awesome to me. For me, there’s no awe to be had in cycling down to New Cross. There might be fear – of the traffic, for example – but there’s no awe. I’m not struck dumb with wonder at my achievement when I step off the bike at Kismet Supermarket. I could imagine being awed by someone else cycling to New Cross – if they pedalled with their hands, say – but, because I’ve cycled that kind of distance thousands of times since I learnt to ride a bike, it’s no longer awesome for me. It might have been awesome when I was six, but not now.
This tells us two things: that awe is personal to us and that awe never stays still. My awesome isn’t your awesome and my past awesomes are no guide to my future awesomes. On the day of departure, sitting in my friend’s kitchen with a cup of tea, I was still awed by the prospect of cycling around Britain. I was probably still awed by it right up until I made it back to Sanford, gradually growing in confidence as I went. Now it is a past awesome, something I’m proud of, but not something that I’d be awed into doing again.
So here’s the why of the trip: somehow I picked up the crazy idea of cycling around the country. It was nothing more than that: a crazy idea. But the idea stuck. And the more I thought about it, the more it filled me with awe. The feeling is at least two-parts terror to one-part wonder and manifests itself as a tingling sensation in my balls (I’m sure there’s a female equivalent). And I know that, when I get this feeling, my future will be nothing more than a series of craven apologies if I don’t act on it. If I’d just cycled to New Cross, I wouldn’t be writing about it on this blog. It doesn’t interest me. Awesome, on the other hand, does.
Note: I’m not saying you should think I’m awesome, by the way. Like I said, awesome is personal, it’s all relative. Now I’ve done it, I myself wouldn’t be awed by someone who’s cycled around Britain. And even if you’ve never done anything like this, maybe you couldn’t give a toss. Maybe you reckon it was a shocking waste of time and money. That’s fine. This is about your personal awesome, not mine.
Inspiration, admiration and achievement are all connected and they are all connected by your own personal definition of awesome. You are inspired by awesome things. You admire people who do awesome things. And awesome, because of its fear-inducing properties, is always an achievement.
Not all achievements are awesome, of course. Achievement is simply what happens when you overcome a barrier. Driving a car, for me, is no longer an achievement. It’s easy. I can never unlearn it, as much as I might wish to. It has become automatic, and an automatic action is never an achievement to the person doing the doing. When I was seventeen, driving was definitely an achievement – hell, getting the damn thing out of the garage was a bloody achievement! There’s got to be some sort of barrier to an achievement – and the awesome is always blocked by the biggest barriers.
Believe it or not, there is an ugly brute of a barrier sitting right in front of me on my desk: a humble pot plant. The man who sold it to me told me that I should re-pot it soon, otherwise it will suffocate and die. That was two weeks ago. It’s not that I’ve been too busy, it’s just that I’ve never re-potted a plant before: a nasty little barrier. But if I can overcome that barrier (before the plant dies, ideally), then I’ll be as contented as anything: I will have achieved something worth achieving.
Now I’m not saying that re-potting a plant is awesome, but if you ratchet up that achievement, from re-potting the plant on my desk up to, say, planting a new forest in the City of London, there is a point at which the task becomes so daunting, the barrier to achievement so high, that it can be called awesome.
That point will be different for everyone, of course. We all have different barriers at different heights. This is why even our greatest heroes can have heroes themselves, even Bob Dylan has Woody Guthrie. In the 1950s, Woody had already achieved young Bob’s vision of awesome, so he won his admiration as well. The best news about this is that it’s a virtuous circle. Woody inspired Bob to achieve awesome for himself, and he in turn has inspired generations of singer-songwriters to do the same (for better or worse). By following your inspiration and overcoming your barriers, you become an inspiration yourself.
More good news: awesome isn’t necessarily difficult and in many cases it is laughably achievable.
There are a lot of things we don’t do simply because we’ve never done them before, like me and my suffocating pot plant. This is easy awesome territory. There are also a lot of things we don’t do because we’re frightened of them for no good reason. For me: making money, meeting strangers, falling in love or facing a crowd. It follows that I’m not very good at these things because I’m scared to try. But the truth is that there’s nothing inherently difficult about meeting strangers. If I could only overcome my pathetic social-fear barrier, I could pick up a pretty easy awesome, by making a few friends, or even by falling in love.
But there’s another kind of awesome as well, the kind of awesome that pushes something you are already very good at. We’ve had easy awesome, so let’s call this one epic awesome. For me: to go from writing novels in my bedroom to selling best-sellers in Hollywood. In many ways, this is the most productive strain of awesome. This is the way cures for cancer are found, the way revolutions change regimes, the way cooperatives are built.
But don’t underestimate the power of the easy awesome and doing something for the first time. I will never cycle one hundred miles in a day for the first time ever again. I will never free-wheel downhill at 43.2 mph for the first time ever again. I will never sleep rough for the first time and have a slug splat across my face for the first time ever again.
That first time breaks the barriers. It is a dopamine rush that we spend the rest of our lives pursuing, but will never recapture. It is the inspiration that drives further achievement. The first time opens up worlds. I can never go back to a time when I didn’t play guitar, when I didn’t write lyrics to silly songs and make even sillier videos for them. Now I can never go back to a time when I wasn’t a round Britain cyclist. The first time makes possibilities possible. Now I can plan more long-distance cycle trips, I can look at a map of Scandinavia and think: “Yes, that is possible.”
That first time also pushes our threshold of awe further forward. I’ll have to go further and deeper to find my next cycling awesome. However, this constantly moving threshold of awe means that it’s also very easy to become blind to our own awesomeness.
Cautionary tale: A couple of thousand miles into my four thousand mile trip, I was totally inured to the awesomeness of cycling seventy or eighty miles in a day. In fact, I was feeling a little down that I was barely halfway and I’d already been going for a month. That evening, I met some Swiss girls in a hostel in Oban and we chatted, as you do, about our respective travels. I was awed to hear that they’d been working for six months in Glasgow, thousands of miles from their homes, to learn a foreign language, English. But they were equally astounded that I’d cycled sixty miles that day. To me, it seemed a bit on the low side, but their awe allowed me to reflect on what I’d done so far and I was able, once more, to enjoy my achievement. It can be hard to feel our own awesomeness when we are always pushing for more.
Living the Awesome Life
Awesome burns memories deep into your hippocampus. You never forget awesome. I stopped for dinner one evening at an eco-hostel in East Yarde in Devon and I got chatting to the owner, another David. He told me about a cycle trip he’d done from Beijing, through Tibet, all the way to India. His eyes shone and his beard bristled as he talked about cycling through paddy fields, crossing the Himalayas and escaping from the Chinese secret police. It was as if he’d just got back that morning, so I asked him when it was: 1986. He hadn’t done another trip since, but he said that never a day goes past without him thinking about that cycle ride twenty-five years ago. It still inspires him, a well-spring of joy that will never run dry.
This story probes deeper into the nature of awesome. Why did this other David not feel the need to go on another cycle trip? The answer is that a trip like cycling through China, or cycling around Britain, is discrete. It has a very defined beginning and end. It is a wonderful learning experience, but it shouldn’t be confused with life. Chinese cyclist David made his trip, learnt his lessons and kept his memories, but his life is dedicated to sustainable tourism. This is his life’s epic awesome, the awesome that others benefit from, the awesome that will be left behind in other people’s memories. This sort of awesome is built gradually. Not every day can be escaping from Chinese secret police.
By following life-goals that provoke feelings of fear and wonder, like setting up a sustainable eco-hostel in the nowhere of Devon, you will be living the awesome life. And, by living the awesome life every day, like this other David, awesome achievements will naturally follow. You will astonish yourself and become an inspiration to others.
Never forget that you might be blind to your own awesomeness. Just living here on Sanford puts you into a bracket of awesome that most people won’t have the fortune of experiencing – unless you spread the good news.
For me, amazing isn’t enough any more. I want awesome.
* If you want an idea of how far 4,110 miles is, take a plane from Heathrow to New Delhi, in India. Or, if you prefer, to Chicago in the US. It’s far. If I’d cycled east instead of in a circle, I would have made it to Iran.
If anyone is planning a cycle trip and wants to discuss the practicalities and psychologies of long-distance cycling, then please get in touch.
You can’t rush around Britain. Even if you rush one day, you’ve still got hundreds, thousands of miles still to go. There’s no point. If you try and rush, then you’ll just lose heart (and probably do yourself an injury). You’ve also got to keep your patience when things go wrong. When it rains, when your bike breaks in half, when you get lost. It doesn’t matter. Just calm down and ask someone to help you.
Perseverance & Persistence
There is nothing remarkable in a philatelist who has collected one stamp. Long distance bike rides are the same. There is nothing remarkable in one day’s ride, it is only by persisting through day after day after day of rain and pain that you’ll reach your goal.
I don’t mean you have to be super-rich to go on a long expedition. But you do need to have money. Taking three months off work to do something like this is already a big financial commitment. And you don’t want to be scared of spending money on a lot of food, between £10 and £20 per day, even if you go to supermarkets. If you’re not wild camping, then that’s another £20 to £40 per day on accommodation. You’ll also want to put aside a few hundred pounds for bike repairs and maintenance, just in case. You could easily find yourself £1000 out of pocket without even thinking about it.
This is an important one, but also a misleading one. Cycling gets you fit. But: cycling long distances every day will not feel good and you won’t feel fit, at least to begin with. You’ll probably feel rubbish. Personally, I’m five days in and I can hardly walk, my knees are in pain and my neck and back ache. Anticipate it and forget about it.
Planning & Preparation
Planning, the art of plotting out a route or coming up with a cycling concept, is hugely overrated. The chances are that all your plans will be thrown off the bike as soon as you get on it. Preparation, on the other hand, the art of ensuring that you have the right equipment to be able to handle these capricious changes of plan, is worth investing time and resources in.
Purpose & Pride
If you don’t have a strong purpose for doing your bike ride, then you might find it mentally tough to keep going. However, you’ll soon find that pride takes over. As long as you can’t think up an excuse to all those people back home you told about your expedition, then your pride will keep you purposelessly pedaling.
And so back to my purposeless pedaling!
p.s. I’m in Burnham Deepdale, in Norfolk. Done about 325 miles so far…
It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It didn’t have to be: I was lying in a field of nettles, my feet above my head and a slug in my face.
This, my friends, is the glamour of attempting to cycle around Britain (…ha ha ha!) without a tent or a proper map.
I say “…ha ha ha!” because really this doesn’t feel much like an attempt to cycle around Britain, more like a race to see which will break first: my body, my bike or my mind.
So where do we stand on that score?
1: The Bike
The first to break was my bike. The rack, on which one of my bags is strapped, snapped off. I heard a clunking noise from behind me and stopped. I looked around at my bag and stared. For a minute or two I couldn’t figure out what had happened. The bag and the rack were still attached to one another. That was good. But the bag was somehow further away than it should be. Slowly it dawned on me.
So I got out the trusty gorilla tape (stronger than duck tape) and Heath Robinsonned the rack to the bike. It’s behaved perfectly ever since.
2: The Body
Second to break has been my body. Both knees are destroyed, but in fascinatingly different ways. The right has reverted rather truculently to the old injury that I did cycling to Bordeaux two years ago. But the left, always inventive, has found a couple of tendons around the back and is attempting to saw them away from the muscle. This means that I can’t go faster than about 10mph (except, lethally, downhill) and I can’t go up hill at all.
I am lucky that cycling and walking use two completely different sets of muscles. So, while my knees scorn any attempt at cyclopic locomotion, they are sweet as pie when it comes to perambulation around town. It’s at that point that my quads kick up a fuss and I spent a happy ten minutes this morning staring at my calves while they twitched and spasmed quite joyfully. I was only sitting on a park bench.
3: The Mind
This is the most insidious and the most dangerous. Furthermore, the other two, bike and body, feed it with self-pitying cream cakes of depression and pointlessness.
Every little thing becomes a test of mental resolution. From struggling with the bungee ropes on the rack, to being unable to get the plastic wrapper from a lipsalve. From the prospect of the weather, to the sound of a mournful song on the radio in a cafe. From finding a bite to eat, to finding a place to sleep.
And what makes it worse is that, with a broken bike or a broken body, there is no dishonour in going home. With a broken mind, there is no excuse.
That’s when I remember Ed Stafford’s walk along the length of the Amazon. He hated it. Absolutely hated the whole damned thing. He got depressed, he got shot at, he got infected with strange parsasites. But did he go home? No.
See you in Lowestoft then!
p.s. I’m currently in Woodbridge. I’ve done 150 miles so far. Hurrah.