Last weekend I saw my first adder. I didn’t take a photograph because I was instructing a group of teenagers and we don’t do screens when we’re outdoors. Instead we watched in awe as it slalomed across the sandy path and into the tree root undergrowth.
You might not have much sympathy for the adder personally, but they are an indicator species: if adders are struggling, then so too are unheralded species who share the same habitat.
While no one wants to be bitten by a snake, adders are not aggressive animals and adder venom toxicity is relatively low compared to other vipers. There have been 14 fatalities from adder bites in the UK since 1876, and none since 1975.
If you’re bitten, seek medical attention immediately: there’s a buffet of at least eight different antivenoms to enjoy.
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.
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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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?
The People’s Parliament is defiantly held in the least democratic building in the United Kingdom: the Houses of Parliament. Every Gothic gargoyle, every vaulted ceiling and marbled floor, every gun-toting copper screams totalitarianism. My local Territorial Army base is more democratic than the Houses of Parliament. Never mind. Our parliamentary host, John McDonnell MP, flaps his hands in despair at the larger-than-life oil paintings of dead monarchs around him, glad that this feudal building is being used “for something worthwhile, for a change.”
A SIGNPOST: If you’d like to read a summary of the actual debate, then I politely usher you away from this post and to the very excellent Strike! blog. This post, on the other hand, will be a meta discussion on the very concepts of the People and Parliament.
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Two things immediately struck me about the proceedings of this People’s Parliament. Firstly, that second question – Why is politics scared of political ideas? – seems to be missing a pronoun. Politics isn’t scared of ideas, not at all – why, only today, chancellor George Osborne dropped the Bingo Tax! And, over the course of the current parliamentary term, we’ve also seen the biggest reforms of the National Health Service since it was founded, austerity packages that have contributed to the slashing of the deficit by around £60bn and an Act of Parliament ensuring the environmental protection of the Antarctic (celebrated, I kid you not, with a commemorative tea towel and tartan tie). What’s wrong with these political ideas? Well… they’re not ours, are they? The question should be revised: Why is politics scared of OUR political ideas?
Which leads me on to the second thing: for a self-styled People’s Parliament, there is a lot of talk of “them” and “us”. And, make no mistake, this imaginary parliament is composed entirely of us: the Left. Even the man sitting next to me, dressed in leather shoes, wearing a smart suit and waistcoat, carrying a handlebar moustache and a leather briefcase with shiny brass buttons – even he is one of us. Neither the organisers of the People’s Parliament, nor Zer0 Books are particularly to blame for this imbalance – there were no Marxist goons at the door to the committee room, checking Party subscriptions or testing for neo-liberal sympathies. Theoretically, anyone could have attended – but I’m not even remotely interested in why they didn’t. I’m interested in why there exists a “them” and “us” in the first place.
The Right are often spoken about by the Left as if they are a monstrous sub-species, blood-sucking vampires and one-eyed cyclopes (the Right, I’m sure, feel the same about us). Now, I have some bad news: despite appearances, the Right aren’t diabolical creations of Frankenstein (George Osborne might be), they are as much a part of the human race as we are. But if that is true, I hear you cry in horror and disbelief, then why don’t they all give up and become more like us? Can’t they see that they’re wrong?
But, dear reader, we could ask the same of us. What are the Left? Why do we exist? Please tell me there’s more to us than good haircuts and indie bands. Well, let us find out…
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Chimpanzees would vote Conservative. After spending ten minutes watching them picking nits at London Zoo, I’m almost certain that they’re Conservatives. In all my hours at the monkey house, I’m yet to witness any primate light up a spliff, read The Guardian or argue for a womanzee’s right to choose. And that’s why it’s the chimpanzees in the cages and us humans handing out the bananas. Chimpanzees don’t have evolved politics.
Cavemen were a fairly conservative bunch too, preferring grunts and wooden clubs to Marxist dialectics and nationalised healthcare. But, as well as the cave-conservatives, nascent human society had something else: mutant socialists. In order for evolution to proceed, there must be mutation. In political terms, this means we need people who blow away the status quo and do something Fucked Up and Wrong. And, politically speaking, that’s us, that’s the Left.
Sometimes, of course, those mutated ideas are genuinely Fucked Up and Wrong and result in a sicker society, one that ultimately destroys itself. Just as 99.9% of all species that ever existed are extinct, so too 99.9% of all societies that ever existed are now extinct. And that doesn’t mean that we have the best possible society now either – not at all. Just as some superb genes have been lost to the gene pool (I always thought that a pair of sabre teeth would have been useful for opening tins), so too have we in the West lost some superb social arrangements (anyone for matriarchy?). But without this constant Leftist innovation and mutation of politics and society, humans would still be stuck in caves, flinging shit at the walls, making friends by divesting their hair of head-lice and indulging in infanticide to preserve the purity of our bloodline.
You may wonder, then, why we’re not all brilliant socialist geniuses. The answer is that, sadly, for every one Lefty caveman who proposes the first primate parliament, there are a thousand who propose cooperation with sabre-toothed tigers, equal rights for head-lice or the League of Nations. Most ideas we have are Fucked Up and Wrong: the Right, then, exist to stand back and judge. If, by some miracle and contrary to all sensible advice, some loony Leftie has a break-through, the Right will immediately start copying us (and pretend that it was their idea all along). The Left and the Right are fundamentally different, but society is not them and us: human society is Left and Right together.
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None of this is to say that the Right don’t innovate: Hitler was nothing if not, ahem, an innovator. But the Right don’t innovate the future; they innovate the past. Hitler innovated for the past of the Aryan race; Mussolini for the Romans; the BNP for a time before immigration. And, of course, most humans are neither far Right nor far Left: most people are somewhere in between – but it’s the extremes that define the debate, as we are finding out with David Cameron trying to out-UKIP UKIP and Nick Clegg trying to engage Nigel Farage in a debate on the EU.
* * *
Ancient Roman society innovated like mad in the industries of straight roads, the military and the imaginative torture of Christians – but why did they never invent the steam engine? Answer: because they had slaves. Their authoritarian Right would not allow the widespread manumission of slavery: free slaves are dangerous subjects and they must be kept occupied, doing the things that a steam engine could otherwise do. In the West, we had to wait for the radical Left to abolish slavery before a gap opened up in our technology for the steam engine – which kicked off the entire industrial revolution (for better or worse). The Left believed that the industrial revolution would result in a Utopic civilisation where days could be spent in the idle worship of beauty and smog. But, of course, our authoritarian Right wouldn’t allow that: free wage slaves are just as dangerous subjects.
The history of human society is a history of this constant pushing back and forth between Right and Left. An optimist would argue that the general trend of evolutionary politics is to drift left (because we’re awesome). An optimist would argue that the current lurch (lurch is a technical term from political science) to the Right is a mere blip in the millennial trend that has seen the end of feudalism and the start of a comprehensive welfare state. It is my belief that the Left should take great pride in this, our DNA-given role in political evolution – to fuck up society with a scatter-gun of new ideas and direct action. But we, the Left, must not also be complacent. If we are not vigilant, then the Right will nick all our best ideas and use them to justify their own ends (see “parliamentary democracy”). Dare they? Do they? Yes. Because they vastly outnumber us. It’s a hazy estimation, but one regular US poll judges conservatives to outnumber liberals by about four to one.
From an evolutionary point of view, I’m reluctant to admit that this balance makes total sense. In the battle for survival from one generation to the next, a genome wouldn’t want the entire population to be loony Lefties, inviting tigers home for tea. A genome wouldn’t even want half the population to be loony Lefties. A genome would want most people to be boring, a genome would want most people to keep doing what their great-grandparents did to survive – but with just enough loonies to keep things fresh. Evolution is a cosmically slow process, which can be frustrating to us revolutionaries, but you can see evolution’s point: If the status quo has worked for a billion years, then why change overnight, in a year, or even in a generation?
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Apologies for going on so – that’s the nature of impotent Lefty theorising. I assure you that the end approacheth, together with a (gasp!) practical proposal, as reward for your patience.
* * *
So the Left will always be outnumbered by the Right: that’s pre-determined in human DNA, I’m afraid. But we can load the game in our favour by exploiting maths (heinously flawed maths, but stick with me, if you will). Supposing that the above-cited US poll is approximately correct: that only twenty percent of humans are Leftists. Then, given that there are 650 seats in the House of Commons, we should find about 130 are on the Left. Now, assuming that MPs of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Alliance, SDLP, Plaid Cymru, Respect, Sinn Féin and Green parties are at least Left-leaning (massive assumption given the last Labour government), then what we actually find are 333 Leftist MPs. That’s over fifty percent: a clear majority, even in this Tory-dominated government. The conclusion we draw from this anomaly is that Left-leaning humans are vastly more politically active than their Right-leaning counterparts. We are DNA’s anointed Philosopher Kings and Queens.
Why, then, do we find ourselves suffering such Right-wing authoritarian abuses as austerity, even under a coalition government including the Liberal Democrats? Why did those same Liberal Democrats drop their promise to abolish university tuition fees? Why did the Blair-Brown Labour governments embrace financial neo-liberalism? The answer, I fear, is terrifyingly simple: logistics. Societies with a large population, like the UK, are almost impossible to manage fairly. It’s hard to be democratic when 63 million people are represented by only 650 politicians. The very idea makes authoritarianism seem appealing, even to supposedly Left-leaning governments. By the way, it won’t surprise you to learn that David Cameron supports the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, making the country even more authoritarian (or “less bureaucratic”, depending on your viewpoint).
The Left has a difficult time wielding power in large societies. The poster-girls of Leftist European government are Sweden (population 9.5 million, 349 MPs), Iceland (population 320,000, 63 MPs) and Denmark (population 5.5 million, 179 MPs). I conclude that it is in the Left’s favour to build and work in smaller societies. In these smaller societies, Philosopher Kings and Queens aren’t so easily drowned out by the clamour of X-Factor.
Therefore, I would politely suggest that the Left should throw their entire weight behind the YES campaign for Scottish independence. This will make whatever remains of the UK slightly smaller and the Westminster parliament marginally more democratic, marginally more of an actual people’s parliament. But, far more significantly, a YES vote will also give us a glimpse of what a smaller, more democratic and more Leftist population can achieve on their own. Scotland will become a precedent for total regional autonomy: If they can go it alone, then why not Wales? Why not Cornwall? Why not Humberside? The referendum on Scottish independence takes place on the 18th of September 2014. The rules say that anyone whose permanent address is in Scotland, ahead of the deadline for registration on the 2nd of September 2014, can vote.
Finally, here follows my practical proposal:
This summer, gather your friends and allies, pack up your megaphones and polish your anarchist pin-badges and let’s move to Scotland en masse. Let’s create an independent Leftist state together, severing all ties with this most undemocratic of buildings forever.
It’s raining even before we leave. My toes are already burning with cold, poking out of my sandals. It’s a midnight in March. The weather forecast is for rain until two or three o’clock in the morning. Heavy rain in places. We won’t arrive at the coast until six.
It’s the first Friday Night Ride to the Coast of 2014. For the last eight years, a group of cyclists have been gathering at Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner at midnight on a Friday, to cycle through the night to the coast. I’ve done this once before, to Felpham last August. But it wasn’t raining.
My feelings at the moment are: I don’t want to do this. I hate everything about this. I hate the fact that none of my friends are with me, the fact it’s cold, the fact it’s raining, the fact I went for a run this morning and my legs are already aching, the fact I didn’t bring more clothes, the fact that I cycled five miles to get to Wellington Arch and now we’re going to cycle five miles back the way I came to the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the fact that I forgot to wear my cycling shorts.
There are more than fifty people on the ride and that means progress is slow, stopping every mile or two for everyone to catch up. Slow means cold, with nowhere near enough leg-pumping to warm me up. By London Bridge, my feelings are: How can I get out of this? I have plenty of excuses, starting with the fact that I’m freezing cold and wearing pneumoniac shorts and sandals. I’m also due to go on a road trip to Wales this morning – in just a few hours. I should be getting some sleep. And it’s hailing now, for fuck’s sake!
But none of these excuses are good enough. One of my friends is meeting me on the other side of the pollution-warmed Rotherhithe Tunnel – one of the glorious friends I have who are imaginative enough to see a night-ride in the rain as a good idea. She has even more excuses than I do not to come: she’s been working in Eastbourne all day, only got back to London a couple of hours ago and her cooker ran out of gas halfway through cooking a cycling-essential carbohydrate dinner.
So I keep going, for her sake.
The FNRttC (as it is known) is a superb idea: at midnight after work, meet up with some friends and cycle from the mucky city, through the mucky countryside, through the starlight, into the dawn, to the lung-balm coast and the sea. Have a swim and a full English breakfast, then take a lazy train back home. What better way to blast away the choke of the working week and begin an unforgettable weekend?
The FNRttC is a superb idea, but there’s one problem: other people. I’m sure someone enjoys crawling along in a peloton of fifty, but it’s not me. I want to stretch my legs and sprint against the hailstones – but I have to wait for the back-markers, the Tail End Charlies. The leader of the ride orders me to, “Drop back, young man!” when I dare to push up at the front. We have to wait at the bottom of London Bridge, we have to wait to be escorted through the Rotherhithe Tunnel. We have to wait and wait – and all in the rain. It’s miserable.
So, as soon as I meet up with Anna, we quit the ride and the hail and push our bikes into a chicken shop on the Barking Road. We order a couple of black teas and apologise for our puddles. It’s one o’clock in the morning and the only customers are garrulous drunks, astounded, admiring our audacity.
Over the brackish brew, we consider our options. Quitting is something I’d dearly love to do right now, but I can’t disappoint myself like that. Besides, Anna knows the way to Burnham-on-Crouch. We can go it alone, we can sprint into the night, we can throw off the shackles of organisation. It might sound strange to say that cycling all night from London to Burnham-on-Crouch is following the herd, but there were over fifty lycra-bonded white sheep that night and I have always been black. And hated lycra.
Organised rides might not be for me, but a thousand thanks to the FNRttC. Alone, I would never have had the audacity to even think I could pedal all night to the sea. Now, I am stealing your idea and taking it for myself, spreading it like jam across my life.
After five hours of cycling, the clouds roll away and I stare into the sunrise, into the eye of god and I swear to live: Why don’t I do this every night?
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.
I always knew fame would come some day, but I never imagined it would come like this. After two very countable feature appearances on Iranian PressTV and Singaporean StarSports, and after countless featureless appearances in the background of Midsomer Murders, I’ve finally made it. The BBC has called.
Tomorrow, at approximately 10:30am, I shall haul my heavily medicated vocal chords into the BBC studios to pass down some authoritative tips on how to hitch-hike to Fred MacAulay of BBC Radio Scotland.
It is on air from 10:30 on the 15th of June 2011, but you can always listen again, up to 7 days after.
So if you ever wondered how to get from London to Ben Nevis and back for free, or what to do when you’re stranded 150 miles away from your hotel in a foreign country, or how to raise loads of money for charity this summer – then now’s your chance!
Egypt? It’s near Stoke Poges, a delightful village near Burnham Beeches and a lovely little cycle from London.
It was well worth the pilgrimage too, not only for the beautiful woodland or for the wonderfully displaced North African country, but also for a certain stained glass window in Stoke Poges church. I learnt of this window from Wikipedia when I was researching a talk I gave last year on the history of the bicycle. Apparently, there was a window of an angel, stark naked, riding a bicycle.
So I pedalled to the church, wheeled my respectful way down the winding path through the cemetery, leant my bike up against the porch and, full of anticipation, pushed open the heavy wooden door.
Now, I was expecting to see a huge window with a glorious winged angel dazzling the congregation with his dangling member straddling a Raleigh six-speed. So it was with increasing frustration that I circled the small church two, three times, without seeing anything remotely resembling an angel of heaven on a bike.
Then I found this:
This is a small inset picture in a window installed to celebrate the lives lost in World War II. And it’s not so much an angel as a cherub, I’d say. Far from being glorious, it seems a little inappropriate. I’d like to know the thought process behind this one.
We want something nice to remember the 450,000 souls who died in the most horrific war in human history…
I know – a cherub on a hobby-horse blowing a trumpet!
Whatever the thinking behind it was, one thing is certain: Wikipedia is wrong.
This is what Wikipedia originally told me about the window:
There are several early but unverifiable claims for the invention of bicycle-like machines. The earliest comes from an illustration found in a church window in Stoke Poges, installed in the 16th century, showing a naked angel on a bicycle-like device…*
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the Second World War was a twentieth century event.
This is a valuable lesson I think.
1. Don’t believe everything you’re told. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes you do know better.
2. Check the facts for yourself. Go there. Verify the angel.
It reminds me of the British in Palestine, 1917-1948. A lot of government policy was set in London by people who had never been to Palestine (which then comprised the current territory of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). Their policy formation was based on idealistic dreams, unrealistic ambitions and sectarian politics. They often ignored the advice of the people on the ground in Palestine.
The administrators, soldiers and civilians in Palestine itself, faced with the day-to-day troubles, were practical and realistic in their suggestions. But they were ignored by people who thought they knew better – but who knew nothing.
I think this is one of the most important lessons of travel. How can I talk about Iran when I’ve never been there? Any talk that blew out of my mouth would be nothing more than so much hot air. How can I talk about a church window in Stoke Poges when I’ve never been there?
The more I travel, the more wary I become of talking about places I haven’t been – or of listening to other people who haven’t been either, no matter what their professional qualifications are. You can find the inaccurate angel-window story repeated endlessly across the internet, mindlessly regurgitated by people who’ve never been to Stoke Poges.
So I urge you: verify the angel!
* There are a couple of things here. Apparently the glass of the window was recycled (ho ho!) and a part of it has been dated to 1643. Which is the 17th century of course. The internet seems to be in some dispute about whether it is the bicycle part which is from 1643 or not. Either way, Wikipedia is wrong.
I’ve come to Cholsey, in South Oxfordshire. Very nice. Normally I live in New Cross, which is in the London borough of Lewisham. Different, but also very nice.
The population density of Lewisham is 7,441 people per square kilometre. It is the 12th most dense place to live in England. “People going down to the ground, buildings going up to the sky,” as Bob Dylan once put it. Indeed.
If one A4 piece of paper was one square kilometre, this is Lewisham – crowded. Click for bigger image.
I walk about a kilometre to get to New Cross Gate train station. The thought that I could have up to 14,882 eyes on me during that journey is positively terrifying. No wonder we walk with our heads bowed down.
By comparison, South Oxfordshire has a population density of 190 people per square kilometre. It is the 249th most densely populated area in England, out of 326.
The same idea for South Oxfordshire. You can see the blobs are smilies now!
In the towns and villages of South Oxfordshire, it doesn’t feel sparsely populated, but the surrounding countryside is accessible and near empty. A country walk might have you crossing paths with one or two other people and a few cows. But that’s it.
Lewisham, on the other hand, is surrounded by Southwark (9,635 people/sq.km), Tower Hamlets (11,154), Greenwich (4,708) and Bromley (2,015). Not too many opportunities for escape. Even the Thames in London is busy with pleasure cruises, police launches and boat-folk.
It is perhaps fitting that the least densely populated place in England is called Eden, in Cumbria. Here, you can expect to share your square kilometre with just 23 other people.
Look at all that lovely white paper – smilies never had it so good!
“I wandered lonely as a cloud,” Cumbria’s most famous poet William Wordsworth once wrote, “when all at once I saw a crowd…” The crowd Bill saw, though, was not New Cross Gate during rush-hour, but “a host of dancing daffodils.”
If Sartre was right and “Hell is other people”, then Eden is paradise indeed. Escape the statistics and get more of this:
Yesterday, I went on a day-trip to Stamford Hill ↑, home to London’s largest community of orthodox Jews. I was an unashamed tourist: dawdling around in the sunshine, gawping at the sights, noshing my way through bagels – and, of course, taking tedious photographs to share with you today.
↑ I have no idea what this means, but it sure as hell tells me that I’m a tourist, that I’m an outsider looking in. I like this feeling. I like to be a tourist, it makes me see things.
↑ I do know what this means: this is called irony*! I really wanted to take a photo of an orthodox man who was hanging around near this sign.
This appositely named street is slap-bang in the orthodox heartland. Opposite is a bagel shop, a kosher meat shop and a kosher supermarket.
Followers of irony will also be pleased to hear that the West Bank is separated from the East Bank by a “weak bridge”. The residents of the West Bank are also fighting a losing battle to preserve the West Bank nature reserve.
I kid you not. ↓ (Although these workers are undertaking important conservation work, I’m sure.)
Another highlight of my little holiday was bagel-based. And… ↓
Yes. ↑ Aubergine and chilli peppers. Very pink. Quite tasty with the application of bagel, reminded me of a similar Turkish pepper sos I ate during my No Supermarket days in January.
On the Street
Nothing screams Jewish orthodoxy like a pram. The women also have head scarves or hats (sometimes with charming flowers affixed) and black coats and these odd heavy shoes stitched in leather.
The men wear double-breasted dress coats and stylish wide-brimmed hats, with matching hair-cuts – and glasses. All the men wear glasses, even the kids. Comes from too much reading. I also wonder if it’s a fashion, in the same self-defeating way that kids in my neighbourhood wear their trousers halfway down their arses.
Nothing scares me quite like a large group of people in uniform.
Orthodox men hurry past with mobile phones pressed to their ears – in silence – carrying transparent plastic cases tucked under their arms, which hold (I guess) a book of the Talmud or the Torah and – a pillow?
Three kids walk past, shaved heads and hats and long coats and glasses all – they can’t be much more than twelve years old. They run across the road, chasing the flash of the green man, slightly awkward, like little boys tucked up in oppressive school uniforms.
A tired looking young woman rolls past with her pram.
I love the fact that I can travel eight miles in my city and find another place entirely. Stamford Hill isn’t all about orthodox Jews, it’s a diverse, fascinating area – like the rest of London.
I walked with swans, alongside the reservoir, admiring the community gardens. I choked on the dust of yet more ‘living space’ construction (19 minutes to Bank) – and was surprised that notices posted were inviting applications for jobs on the building site from local residents. And I took a stroll through the library, browsing the extensive Torah collection, with DVDs and CDs for children.
Yesterday morning, at about half seven, I walked out of Heathrow Terminal 5 heading for Cholsey, a proud village in Oxfordshire and my ancestral home. It was rather snowy, as some of you may have noticed. The longest walk I’d ever done before yesterday was about 16 miles. Now I was going for 38 miles – and the mathematicians among you will realise: that’s more than double.
I’m interested in travel. I’ve done a lot of aeroplane travel in my life, quite a bit either into or out of Heathrow. I’ve travelled many times from Cholsey to Heathrow and back. I’ve travelled even more times from Cholsey to London and back. I’ve done the journey by car, by train and by bus. But never by foot.
Travel by car, by train or by bus is forgettable, almost unconscious. A train journey we pass by reading a book or by staring vacantly out of the window. I’ve been gripped by a need to understand what it means to travel. Now I understand what that journey, Heathrow to Cholsey, means.
It means 13.5 hours of walking, trudging, shuffling, limping, tramping, traipsing, marching. It means never stopping, it means not letting the mind break down when the body does. It means country lanes, paths, bridleways, A-roads and B-roads. It means left-turns, right-turns and wrong-turns. It means foxes, crows, rabbits and cranes. It means walking at dawn, at day, at dusk, at sunset and at night. It means hills, valleys, woods, fields, rivers, streams, towns, villages and hamlets. It means West.
This journey is about understanding. I hope that my journey will help other people make their own journey and find their own understanding, just as Alastair Humphreys’ journey last year inspired mine. Next year, why not walk home for Christmas?
I got a train out to Gunnersbury to hitch from the side of the road onto the M4. It didn’t work. I stood near a bus-stop with my sign, people looked at me and accelerated up the slip-road. So I took a bus from that bus-stop to Hounslow West and walked to Heston Services. Unfortunately the M4 was half closed and going at a crawl past a traffic accident (I believe). But still, I got a lift no problems, from a travelling solar panel salesman. It took us an hour to get past the accident site, by which time there was nothing left and all lanes were open. But it was a great conversation, he told me all about his dad who was the first military pilot for Abu Dhabi and his brother who was a commercial diver up in Aberdeen. He dropped me in Reading and I walked across town to the railway station. I could have hitched from there to my destination, but time was short and the bus was only £2.90. So I caught a bus.
The next day, I caught a cold. No one would want to pick me up like that and I didn’t fancy standing on the road side in the sharp Autumn. So I caught a train from Reading back to London. It cost me £13, about what it would have cost if I’d bought a return ticket from London to Goring the previous day. My hitch had saved me nothing. So was it a waste of time? No chance. I’d know a lot less about solar panel sales, underwater oil rig repairs and the Abu Dhabi air force if I’d just caught the train.
Don’t hitch for financial reasons, hitch for the right reasons.
19 – 20 September 2010 Distance: 190 miles (including detours) My first solo hitch in the UK.
Lesson: The Right Question
I picked up my first ride from the side of the road. A man drove past me, stuck in traffic, went to the end of the road, turned around at the roundabout and came back, pulled up and waved at me from the other side of the road. I assumed he must always pick up hitchers, but, no, he’d never done it before. I would have just driven past. My second lift was from Fleet Services. I asked my usual demographic, an older, single male: able to look after himself, unlikely to want to rape me and likely to drive safely. He accepted me, but then revealed he had a wife and a five year-old daughter in the car as well. It was a joy. I just played around in the back with the daughter, watching a DVD with her, admiring her spelling homework, laughing. They dropped me in Winchester. It couldn’t have been a simpler journey. It took me an hour and a half from London to Winchester, 70 miles. There was no need to ask any questions: I stuck my thumb out, I asked people nicely and they all said yes.
But then there was the journey home. I was dropped off at Chieveley Services by my friend. No problem, it was just off the M4, perfect for heading East to London. Or not. I asked and asked and asked for two hours or more. No one was heading East from Chieveley Services. I was bashing my head against a brick wall. I was asking the wrong question. No one stops at Chieveley and then goes East, it is actually just off the A34, which goes North-South and is on the South-side of the M4, convenient for people heading West, not East. After three hours, I changed my approach. I would head West, go with the flow and then try to hitch back from the next Service Station along. The first man I asked took me. The service station was full of people only too glad to help me, but I was asking them the wrong question. I asked the right question and was back in London within three hours.
Ask the right question. Always think of the people you are asking, where are they going?
25 – 29 August 2010 Distance: 1125 miles (approximately) My first hitching journey in the UK.
This was a spectacular introduction to what is possible with hitchhiking. It took us a day to get up from London to Edinburgh, only an hour longer than the National Express bus and a whole lot cheaper. We had no idea where we were going to end up when we started – we even discussed what we would do if we failed to get out of London (try again tomorrow) – but the elation of that first lift, and then the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, pushing ever further North, was indescribable. Meeting the friendly and helpful people of this island was joyous and an education in itself. Walking from the Tube station back to my house, I felt the barriers to limitless travel falling away. Impossible situations ‘worked out’. Stuck in the outskirts of Edinburgh for a couple of hours, tired, failing, something turns up and three hours later we were in Lancaster. Optimism.