From the English Channel

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing…

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Cycling around Ikaría

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ikaría doesn’t give up its myths easily.

~

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

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

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

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

Turns out: really fucking hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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The Next Challenge Grant Winners Announced!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cycling to the Sahara: On Killer Guard Dogs and Courage

For those of you following closely my twitter feed (ahem), you will know that yesterday I took an unmarked country track from el-Jem to Sfax. This was a slightly risky move, I thought, because the track did not appear on my map and I had no idea where I was or – aside from a vague notion that south was good – where I was going. Continue reading Cycling to the Sahara: On Killer Guard Dogs and Courage

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