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”

Seacycles III: London to Brighton Night Ride

So we left at midnight from Monument. Kicking out time in Croydon. Kebab shops rushing with towered stacks of polystyrene boxes. Then breath down and sharp up into wilderness, a piss into the darkness and the wind. The city red white lights blink stupidly: What are we doing?
Continue reading “Seacycles III: London to Brighton Night Ride”

An Anatomy of Rambling, or Why Walk?

Yesterday, I arose before dawn and cycled to the New River Head in central London. From there, with my path companion Anna Hughes, we walked twenty-eight miles up river to Hertford, where I jumped into the water and finally let my swollen feet smolder. Then I came home.

Why? Why, oh why did I do this? Why, oh why, oh why did I do this again? In the last couple of years, I have walked from London to Canterbury and from London to Winchester: long, long rambles of dozens of destructive miles. It is now time to explain why I do this to myself.

But there are as many different explanations for my rambling as there are answers to the question, “Why do I breathe?” Anatomically-speaking, I breathe because my lungs expand and contract as I inhale and exhale air, because my blood cells demand a constant supply of oxygen, because breathing is a part of the process of respiration, because I must convert my food into energy, because I am alive and not dead.

Rambling is the same: explanations are buried from skin to spine, depending on where you look, but it’s all happening, it’s all true, all the time.

(I should warn you that I’m not a qualified anatomist, but that shouldn’t pose a serious danger to your health as you read my Anatomy of Rambling.)

The Central Nervous System of Rambling

A walk must have a destination. Please don’t take this literally. Yesterday, we walked to the source of the New River in Hertford, a clear geographical destination, but, in truth, this endpoint was arbitrary. “Getting there” was a sideshow in a destination that transcends geography; this was a destination of the mind. Journeys are not relocations, but transformations.

For that reason, journeys are popular in fiction: from The Odyssey, through Don Quixote to The Lord of the Rings. Odysseus is lost on the seas for ten years before reaching his home on Ithaka; Don Quixote rambles La Mancha as a knight errant, defending the honour of Dulcinea del Toboso; Frodo journeys across Middle Earth to cast the One Ring into the fiery Cracks of Doom.

But the ostensible “goal” of the story – home, honour, the Cracks of Doom – is never the true purpose of the story. Nobody reads The Lord of the Rings and wishes Tolkein had edited the story more concisely: “Hobbit walks to Morder, loses precious ring, saves Middle Earth.” That does not capture the essence of the story. (Although would make a reasonable stand first for the Daily Mirror.)

In the same way, I will not remember our New River walk as: “Walked to Hertford, went swimming, came home tired.”

A fictional story begins by breaking the stasis of the protagonist’s normal life. The characters then enter into a remarkable world, of blinding Cyclopes, tilting at windmills and fleeing Ring Wraiths. This is where the plot happens. Finally, their object achieved, the characters return to the real world to continue their lives.

But they, and the reader with them, have been fundamentally changed by the events of the plot.

A walk is the same. For the duration of the walk, Anna and I stepped outside of our everyday lives, into a fantasy world of coots and sunburn, until we reached promised land of Hertford. We collapsed to the ground and ate Nutella. Then we went home.

But the path and the journey had as transformative effect on my psyche as any journey by any fictional character.

The view over the reservoir at the beginning of the New River in Stoke Newington

The Skin of Rambing

These concepts of destination and transformative journey are the central nervous system of our anatomy of rambling. Now we’ll move more quickly through the skin and bones, starting with the skin, the superficial nicities of a good walk.

Maps. Maps, although not necessary, are beautiful. I make no apology for that.

Food. One of the untrammeled joys of taking physical exercise is the eating. As Anne from the Famous Five was wont to remark: “I always think food tastes so much nicer eaten out of doors.”

Walking companions. I’ve had the pleasure of many different companions on my walks, from friends to felines. Each one has shown me a part of themselves, and parts of myself, that I didn’t know existed.

Wildlife. This could be anything from watching two ponies groom each other to cuteness death on the bank of the canal, to spitting out an errant gnat; from the swish of tussock grass against your shins, to nettle rash.

Pain. Pain is central to the reality of rambling. Its purpose is to remind you that you are mortal, but, with fortitude, you can learn to persevere and create the order of progress out of the chaos of blisters and windburn.

Equipment. I revel in wearing a walking raincoat with a multiplicity of useful pockets or discovering that my pocket knife does have a tool for doing that thing.

Poetry and songs. Every walk has a particular rhythm, so it’s no surprise that every walk I’ve been on has heard me singing poetry and reciting songs. This time, Anna and I swapped Eliot and Hardy for Shakespeare and Browning.

Wayfarer’s Angels. (Not to be confused with Hell’s Angels.) There are always wayfarer’s angels, the people without whom the walk would be either impossible or difficult. The guy with ear defenders mowing the grass along the river path; the two young men tinkering with their sports car, who gave us an ice cold bottle of water; and of course Sir Hugh Myddleton, who four hundred years ago conceived and carried through his absurd idea of bringing drinking water from the springs of Hertfordshire to the slums of central London. Thanks angels!

Terrain and landscape. Nodules bobbling the path underfoot, water balming the blisters on your sploshed feet, hills that come tumbling down towards you, only to turn aside at the last moment. Walks are about the nuance of terrain, as well as the grandeur of landscape.

Weather. The breeze picking up the air conditioning coolness of the canal, the sun bleaching the cotton of your clothes, clouds twisting petit pains patterns in the sky. We’ve all seen the weather, but a walk makes you live the weather.

The Universe. It’s always there, believe it or not, but very rarely does it make its presence felt. On a walk, though, you can’t help but notice that the sun is traversing the sky, burning your neck in the morning and your nose in the evening; while, on a night walk, you can’t help yourself navigating by the stars and dreaming of the moonlight.

Anna striding (hobbling) to the source of the New River

The Bones of Rambling

The bones of rambling might often go unnoticed in the flash and fawn of the superficial skin, but fear not: they are the structure over which the skin is stretched.

Smallness. A walk seems impossibly slow, particularly in these days of aerobatic travel. But that slowness means you cannot help but appreciate the smallest of noticings: a water boatman on the surface of the river, a buttercup blowing in the breeze, an orange ladybird on the back of your hand. Without these bones of smallness, the skin delights of wildlife and terrain would go unappreciated.

Vastness. A long walk covers such unbearably painful distances in such constantly observable detail that its very smallness, its very detail, becomes an astonishing vastness that brings awe to the cuffs of your heart.

Depth. Smallness and the vastness combine to bring depth to a walk that is unlike any other human experience. A walk grinds into your soul and brings forth an unexpected spring of introspection, inspiration and insight. You’ll find this in the conversations that bubble up between you and your companion, or that bounce around in your head alone.

The moment you never want the walk to end. There are always moments like this: lying in the grass on the edge of the canal, the botanical breath of canal zephyrs filling your lungs; or the clump of every inevitable bootstep on the yielding towpath grass, in smooth mechanical perfection, walking into the dipping sun. You realise that it can’t get better than this and any complaints are quibbles. Don’t forget to take this feeling back with you into real life.

The journey home, also known as “the great unravelling”. There is nothing more satisfying, more awe-inspiring and more nostalgic, than watching the landscape that you’ve toiled through all day unravel through the flicker of a train carriage window. The experience heals you and forms the foundation for encorporating your transformation into your everyday life.

Hot air balloons over Camden

The Soul of Rambling

Just as the sum of our human anatomy creates a being of more significance than blood, flesh and bone, so too the rambling anatomy, all told, transcends mere walking.

The path is the ultimate symbol of this transcendence because, as you tread each footstep along your muddy, downtrodden mistress, you cannot fail to realise that you and she are one. You become the path you walk.

Let me explain. Each step you take moves you one step closer to where you will end up. That much is obvious, but that step doesn’t take place in an inert geography: the landscape of the path exerts its influence on you too.

The New River Path leads to Hertford. Anna and I have now become People Who Walked To Hertford, with all that entails: the smell of coots pecking over sludgy river waste; the sight of balloons slinking over the dawn-lit skyline; the sound of the M25 snarling beneath, while our river sneaks into open country; the taste of brackish water when I dunk my head into the Lea. We can never forget those experiences, they have changed us.

There is too an equal and opposite: the path becomes you who walk. Each step you take becomes part of the path, treading down the mud and leaves, marking out the track for the next generation of walkers.

Some paths are easy, well sign-posted, or even officially recognised by the asphalt of modernity; some paths are more difficult, sometimes impossible to distinguish from the wilderness that encroaches.

The path you choose will influence the paths that your successors will walk, just as the paths that your ancestors pioneered have influenced your walking.

I am obviously talking, not just literally, but metaphorically. Our choices about travel and life in general are profoundly affected by the choices of our ancestors and the rest of society; likewise our decisions consequently influence the options available to those yet to come. Our choices are not inert either; our choices are never means, they are always ends in themselves, whether we realise that fact or not.

The way that we do things becomes who we are.

Walk.

The Author and Sir Hugh Myddleton's Urn

HELP! Cycling Around Britain Book Title Poll

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.

[poll id=”2″]

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.

Most Living and the Meaning of Life: Sailing 3,500 Miles for Syria

Most Living at its Most: Simon and Maria embark on their journey of 3,500 miles.
Most Living at its Most: Simon and Maria embark on their journey of 3,500 miles.

On Saturday the 12th of July, Simon Moore and Maria Gallastegui stepped aboard ‘Rumi’, the sixteen-foot Wayfarer dinghy that they hope will carry them 3,500 miles by sea, from London to Lebanon.

A few hours after seeing them off with a pile of home-baked flapjacks, I joined a thousand other cyclists on a night-long joyride from London Fields to Dunwich, 114 miles away on the Suffolk seashore.

Two journeys: one political, one pointless. Both high on exertion, both involving the sea, both journeys into the unknown, testing our spirit and endurance. But the question is Why?

Why do we do these things?

Simon and Maria are sailing in solidarity with the people of Syria, hoping to raise awareness (and, incidentally, money) for the disastrous humanitarian crisis that is forgotten in yesterday’s newspaper headlines.

The Dunwich Dynamo, as it’s known, had no such charitable purpose. It was a last-minute decision to do something stupid.

But neither of those responses really answer the question. Why do we do these things?

There are a thousand ways that Simon and Maria could raise awareness (and, incidentally, money) for the plight of Syrians. So why this way? Why risk their lives doings something that has a high probability of failure and that will likely be forgotten the moment they leave?

There are a thousand ways that I could have spent my Saturday night. So why this way? Why risk my knees doing something that will only hurt and leave me sleep deprived for a week?

It is the purpose of this article to find a better answer this question of why.

Saturday Night Most Living: Halfway through the Dunwich Dynamo 114 mile night cycle from London to the sea.
Saturday Night Most Living: Halfway through the Dunwich Dynamo 114 mile night cycle from London to the sea.

Albert Camus and The Reason We Don’t Commit Suicide

Albert Camus was, in my opinion, the most successful of the French existentialist authors of the mid-twentieth century (he’d hate me for calling him an existentialist, but that is how he is remembered…). His philosophy, however flawed, at least made a stab at giving us practical answers to the problem of existence. And his works of fiction are streets ahead of Sartre.

Existentialism is most frequently diluted in our collective memories to become a particularly French form of nihilism (he’d hate me even more for associating him with nihilism!). If people make a distinction between the two philosophical schools, it’s mostly by sticking a Gaullois between their lips and shrugging their shoulders. And, unfortunately, nihilism is seen as a highly negative way of viewing existence: there is no purpose to life, existence is pointless, so why bother?

But Camus himself, in the first lines of The Myth of Sisyphus, asked this very question.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

In other words: Why, if there is no purpose to life, do we not just go and kill ourselves? His response, teased out over the course of a hundred pages, is the concept of ‘most living’.

Best Living versus Most Living

The existentialist idea that life is ‘absurd’, that there is no inherent meaning in the universe, means that there can be no such thing as universal morality. The only problem is that this leaves us with no road map for life. Without universal morality, there is no model existence for us to strive to follow: Jesus was just another guy. There is no such thing as ‘best living’.

But the only thing more absurd than the absurdity of life is taking the absurdity of life so seriously that you would kill yourself to avoid it. And, if the course of ‘best living’ is no longer open to us, as it was to our believing forefathers, then the only course of life that we can pursue is ‘most living’.

Most Living at its Most

And this is why we choose to spend twelve hours cycling overnight to the seaside, when we could be asleep and dreaming. This is why we choose to spend six months battling across the high seas in a dinghy with four holes in the hull, when we could just fire off a petition or two to parliament.

It’s not about finding the best way to spend our Saturday night, or finding the best way to raise awareness of the plight of the Syrians – because the mythical best does not exist. It’s about investing in our present moments the most we can. That is all we can do to rage against the absurdity of our life and our inevitable death.

And there was no greater ‘most’ way that I could have spent my Saturday night. There is no greater ‘most’ way for Simon and Maria to demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Syria. These are heroic challenges that take every ounce of strength. It is most living at its most.

Rowing a sixteen-foot dinghy under thunderous skies: insignificance is no obstacle to most living.
Rowing a sixteen-foot dinghy under thunderous skies: insignificance is no obstacle to most living.

From Theoretical Philosophy to Practical Psychology

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus implores us not to commit suicide, either physical or philosophical. He encourages us to throw ourselves into life with full force: as Don Juan, as Conquering Hero, as Stage Actor – without losing sight of the ultimate absurdity of our actions.

Yes, Camus was an optimist. You may, as a rigorous philosopher, be able to pick holes in his argument. It’s not the most logical I’ve ever heard. But that hardly matters now. What matters is that, half a century later, psychologists are offering some tantalising evidence of quite how accurate his dichotomy between best living and most living was.

Carol Dweck and the Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck has been researching motivation, personality and development for many years, at Colombia, Harvard and now at Stanford. In the course of her research, she has discovered that the human brain approaches the various challenges of life through one of two mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

The fixed mindset follows patterns of thought like this:

1. (MINDSET) Artistic talent is fixed, it can’t be improved. You’re either born with it, or you’re not.

2. (OBSERVATION OF THE WORLD) When I try to draw the still life of an apple, it looks nothing like an apple.

3. (CONCLUSION) I have no artistic talent and I might as well never bother trying to draw an apple every again.

The growth mindset follows patterns of thought like this:

1. (MINDSET) Artistic talent is something that you can improve through hard work and practice.

2. (OBSERVATION OF THE WORLD) When I try to draw the still life of an apple, it looks nothing like an apple.

3. (CONCLUSION) If I want to be able to draw an apple, all I have to do is put in the hours and practice.

In both cases, the challenge is the same and both people realise that they’re bad at drawing. But only the person with the growth mindset will ever do anything to improve themselves. It gets worse.

It got better, actually. For those most living, that is. For those best living, all that was left was knee surgery.
It got better, actually. For those most living, that is. For those best living, all that was left was knee surgery.

Fixed Mindset and the Fear of Failure

The fixed mindset also breeds fear: the fear of failure. If intelligence or strength or artistic talent is fixed, then any failure is final. If you have built your self-image around being superb at drawing the still life of an apple – and you lose the annual still life of an apple contest, then what are you? Any opportunity to be judged becomes an existential crisis and you will cease seeking out new challenges. This has the effect of shrinking the fixed mindset’s world until it only participates in the smallest fields of endeavour, where success is guaranteed.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, sees failure as an opportunity to learn. Any new challenge, opponent or obstacle is great fun because it is only by failing that you are able to improve and grow. A growth mindset says yes to everything, even when failure is almost certain. A growth mindset is greedy for new experiences, for shocks and jolts and tests and obstacles and difficulties.

Growth Mindset and Most Living

The fixed mindset is focussed on judging others and on being judged. Success is measured in concrete successes; a zero-sum game in a finite, competitive world. The growth mindset is focussed on learning and helping others learn. Success is measured in growth; an infinite horizon in a world with so many secrets.

The fixed mindset is obsessed with being the best in life. The growth mindset is obsessed with getting the most out of life. The fixed mindset yearns for a mythical best living. The growth mindset is Camus’ most living.

Which mindset would set you out into the world, sailing 3,500 miles in an absurd attempt to raise awareness of a crisis that you can never alleviate? Which mindset would put you into a thousand-strong bike ride through the night, knowing that you’ll end up with broken knees, sleep deprivation and a £100 taxi fare?

Which mindset would you choose?

Under open skies and an empty sea. What could be more than most living?
Under open skies and an empty sea. What could be more than most living?