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Armed with nothing more than a shopping list.

This article on Radio 5 Live will hardly come as news to most people but it reminded me of my relationship with supermarkets and for that matter, just about any organisation that wants to sell me something. I don’t know about you but when I walk into a supermarket I feel a bit like a gladiator entering the lion’s den. Armed with nothing more than a sharp shopping list I am expected to take on the mighty power of the marketing psychologists that have laid out the store and set up the offers in such a way that my demise would seem inevitable. My carefully written note feels like a poor defence against the deadly sharp teeth and claws that I am faced with. I hesitate momentarily before entering the store and create a positive mental image of victory to boost my confidence before launching myself at the hungry beasts. Let battle commence.

Once in there I really quite like the challenge. It’s a battle of wits and wills. I like to think of it as two mighty intellects locked in mortal combat. My quest is to leave the building with nothing that isn’t on my list whilst theirs is to have me wheeling a trolley to the car that looks like somebody has just announced that there is a red warning for snow in Lancashire tomorrow and the government has just announced a 200% increase in wine tax from Monday.

If it wasn’t for this overpowering feeling that I am at war, engaged in a fierce fire-fight and seriously out-gunned, I might actually like going shopping. I might enjoy meandering along the aisles, browsing the products and selecting exotic new produce that I haven’t tried before. I might get ideas for tasty new meals from the delicatessen or the world food shelves. I could even wander into the clothing or footwear departments and treat myself to a new pair of slippers; but unfortunately it’s just too dangerous.

Buy one get one free?

Buy one get one free?

You see I know that this is exactly what the enemy is hoping for and like a carefully obscured ambush squad; the buy-one-get-one-free offers are lurking in unexpected places just poised to attack the moment I let my guard down. But I’m ready for them.

Unlike the highly trained commando who’s eyes are everywhere, on the lookout for snipers, mine remain firmly fixed on the few carefully selected items I have written down, wavering only momentarily to take in the overhead produce indicators lest I should stray into enemy territory. You really don’t want to find yourself in the electronics aisle when everything on your list is edible, believe me. I see myself as a member of the elite special forces, not only able to move swiftly, dodging bullets and grenades, but also, at the same time able to make rapid calculations based on price per unit or pence per 100 grams. The Weetabix may well be ‘LESS THAN HALF PRICE’ but I happen to know that in Lidl’s they are only eight pence per biscuit and your “LESS THAN HALF PRICE” works out at nine pence. Ha, ha! Victory to me!!

I arrive home feeling battle weary but smug. Another day, another battle and despite a mild but temporary bout of PTSD I have survived another round. Everything on my list is ticked off and as I am putting the shopping away Gill comes home and says, “Did you get any of that really nice beer that’s on special offer at just £1 a bottle?” Bugger! It wasn’t on the list.

The hare and the micro brewery.

A hare strolled across the road about thirty yards ahead of me. When I say strolled, hares don’t really do strolling do they? Maybe it was the heat but it kind of lolloped slowly looking for all the world like it’s back legs were just too long for it’s body. It reminded me that some things or some animals are made for a particular role and with hares it is racing across open grass land at breakneck speeds rather than strolling. I think I am the same. I’ve got two very different bikes built for different purposes; a sleek, lightweight aluminium road bike with carbon forks and skinny tyres and my trusty heavy steel tourer that is like an old comfy friend. The road bike, like the hare, is built for speed and I never feel quite right on it. I always feel obliged to try and ride as fast as I possibly can to do it justice and I worry constantly that I might be missing something. The bike may be built for speed but I don’t think I am. Today I am on the tourer. I am pootling about on quiet country lanes at something a bit faster than jogging pace. I’m enjoying taking in the roadside flowers, the country smells and the buzzard up above that no doubt has his eye on the hare that has just crossed the road. It’s a slow, lazy day.

Gill and I are aiming vaguely for a couple of pubs about twenty miles from home that we want to check out with a view to eating out tonight. We are meeting up with friends who are cycling from Lands End to John O’ Groats and are passing through Lancashire today. The plan is to pick them up from their B&B later this evening and drive them to a suitable hostelry to enjoy a meal and few pints and to hear their tales of adventure. They are bound to have some, I know.

Unlike them, we don’t have a set route today and when I ask Gill if she fancies ‘doing a bit of meandering’ she is more than up for it. I have no idea who Jacob was but we peel off onto his lane, a narrow, poorly surfaced road that makes up for the rough ride with a total absence of cars for the next few miles. Sadly these almost forgotten lanes probably don’t even feature on the local authority’s list of scheduled maintenance and I suspect that there will come a time when they are the sole domain of tractors and heavy wheeled mountain bikes. In the mean time we can relax and take the opportunity to divide our attention between the badly potholed road and the wide variety of birdlife that is all around us. Gill recognises the call of a greenfinch from the hedgerow which excites us because they are becoming increasingly rare these days, as are the lapwings that we are lucky enough to see regularly in this part of the Fylde Coast. It’s hot like a real summer’s day, the first one this year and finally we have lost the constant cold winds that have plagued us this spring. Everything about the situation suggests we should take our time and drink it all in.

Quiet lanes over even quieter canals

Quiet lanes over even quieter canals

Our route twists and turns like a writhing snake and we find ourselves criss crossing the Lancaster Canal over ancient hump backed bridges as we weave through countryside bursting with the growth of late spring. Twenty miles from home and we are beginning to realise just how unfit we have become but the first pub is an excuse for a sit down and a chat with the barmaid about menus and serving times. It’s a definite maybe for later. It is only another couple of miles to Ye Horn’s Inn near Goosnargh and this time we opt for a beer in the garden.

The Horn's Inn, a fine Fylde ale house run by Mark and Denise Woods

Ye Horn’s Inn, a fine local ale house run by Mark and Denise Woods

I am enjoying a pint of Goosnargh Gold ale which is apparently the product of the pub’s own micro brewery and I am delighted to see the brewer, Mark Woods, unloading barley from a pallet. I wander over to congratulate him on his beer and he is more than pleased to give me a whistle stop tour of the set up. The entire brewery could be slotted into a large garden shed but the quality of the beer it produces is no small achievement. I think we have found our venue for the evening.

Mark Woods, brewer, chef and all round nice guy.

Mark Woods, brewer, chef and all round nice guy.

We have been gradually ascending towards the foothills of the Trough of Bowland during the morning so the first part of the ride home is all downhill and the breeze created by the extra speed is more than welcome. I can see the tar in the road beginning to bubble and my mind wanders back to some of the really hot days of last summer. Days when we spent hours being scorched by the sun on our bikes only to pitch early and find that inside the tent was even more like an oven than outside. There were times back then when I longed for cooler weather but right now, after weeks of cold winds I can’t get enough of the lovely hot sunshine.

Life on the Lancaster Canal

Life on the Lancaster Canal

There is just time for one more twist to today’s ride and looking at the OS map I can see that we can use the canal towpath to link two dead end minor roads. Just as well we opted for the shire horses rather than the thoroughbreds. The going is bumpy but perfectly manageable on touring bikes and the abundance of summer vegetation against the backdrop of the water adds another dimension to the cycling and the wildlife to be seen.

Accessing the towpath

Accessing the towpath

Fishing

Fishing

Go anywhere tourer

Go anywhere tourer

Family life

Family life (unusual white neck for a mallard)

It’s great to meet up with Nick and Bill later and to while away the evening exchanging cycle touring tales and enjoying the warm glow of sunburn on our faces and arms. The Goosnargh Gold goes down a treat, complimenting the duck and the pheasant and three hours flies by in a flash. The dining room setting is quite genteel and I hope it isn’t our increasingly loud raucous laughter that has resulted in us being the last to leave. Dropping our friends off back at their digs we wish them well on the rest of their journey and say our goodbyes. They have another five hundred miles to go before reaching the northernmost tip of Scotland which makes our forty mile ride today seem a little pathetic. But I know now that miles covered versus time taken isn’t what it is about for me. Today was magical for all sorts of reasons, not least for taking the time to talk to Mark and look around his brewery and for taking the road least travelled wherever we could. In fact, maybe the hare had it right after all. Maybe even hares need to just kick back and do a little strolling now and again.

A Cycle Touring Festival. Really?

Pendle Hill

Pendle Hill on route to the festival

A Cycle Touring Festival? Really? It does sound a bit unlikely doesn’t it? In actual fact though it proved to be a huge success and very enjoyable indeed.

I’m not really surprised. Whenever we meet other tourers when we are away it inevitably leads to great conversations and many wonderful evenings in pubs or hostels swapping stories and sharing tips about gear and locations. The idea of bringing over two hundred cycle tourists together in the same location for a weekend could only ever result in much, much more of the same. Add to that some great food, a stunning location on the banks of The River Ribble in Lancashire, tales of amazing journeys by bicycle from all around the world and a couple or three beers and you have a heady recipe for a memorable weekend.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Although most of the speakers and slide shows revolved around amazing journeys, often around the whole world, there was no sense of feeling second class if your longest tour was a week or two in the Dales. I loved the fact that when you started talking to somebody you really didn’t know if you were going to end up discussing bikes on Virgin Trains or running out of water in the high Andes mountains. I particularly enjoyed the various snippets of conversation that I overheard as I wandered about. Things like; “then we ran out of money in South East Asia” or “we are touring novices, we’ve only done one trip. From Chorley to Istanbul”.

It’s tempting to make reference to the high points of the weekend but to be honest that implies that there were contrasting low points but there weren’t. Apart from when it was hammering on the tent in the middle of the night I wasn’t even aware that it rained for most of the first twenty four hours. Such was the quality of the entertainment and conversation all day long.

We have come home with a real feeling that we are part of a genuine community. We have made new friends, caught up with old ones and enjoyed some great laughs, mostly related to the ridiculous predicaments that cycle touring tends to generate. As a measure of how outstandingly friendly and generous people were Gill and I expressed an interest in trying out a tandem for touring and before we knew it we had not one, but three offers of a loan of one from tandem owners. The trust and generosity were truly moving.

Dinner with friends old and new.

Dinner with friends old and new.

The same message came over in talk after talk and in countless conversations; the world is full of kind and generous people, all you have to do is ask.

Pendle again but on the way home.

Pendle again but on the way home.

There is only one way to measure whether such an event was a success and that is to pose the question would we go again. The answer is a resounding yes from us, as it was from everybody I asked during the weekend. Well done to Laura and Tim and all the folk who helped to make it such a great weekend.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.

Four weeks of #Dryjanuary

Final thoughts after four weeks of #Dryjanuary

Wine carrier

Wine carrier

Nearly there now, only three days to go from tomorrow so it’s probably a good time to look back and try to understand what I have got out of a month without alcohol.

Amongst participants of #Dryjanuary there has been an outpouring on social media along the lines of “never felt better” and “full of energy” etc. etc. Personally, I have enjoyed the uninterrupted sleep each night, the fact that I have read a lot more (and remembered it in the morning) and of course, the financial benefits but that’s about it really. I think my concentration might be better but then again I may just be kidding myself on this one. Medical science assures me that there are all kinds of health benefits to be found in the abstainers they have tested and I have to go along with that and assume I am healthier myself. What really interests me though is not about health. It’s about whether or not a month of drinking excessive amounts of tea, milk and tonic water has brought me any closer to understanding why I drink alcohol as often as I do.

It may be that if I never drank again, or if I abstained for maybe a year, things might change but the overwhelming sensation I have looking back at the last four weeks is one of boredom. Well, not so much boredom as just sameness. There is a similarity about every day, every evening, every week and every weekend. I understand that this is my fault. I know I could go country dancing on a Monday and take up train spotting at the weekends to introduce variety and reduce the monotony. But I’m interested in how going without wine and beer affects me without substituting dodgy hobbies in their place. This is the conclusion I have come to.

I drink, a lot of the time, because alcohol is a simple, readily available instant solution to the need for differential. A glass or two of wine with a meal transforms the meal and makes it special. Makes it stand out from other routine meals. An evening with friends in the pub is very different when accompanied by beer than when not. It’s the drink that makes the experience different and it’s the difference that matters to me. I am a great believer that variety is the spice of life and putting three bottles of wine and half a dozen bottles of different ales in the supermarket trolley is like picking up pre-packaged, fun and entertainment. It’s the easily added spice for the often bland recipe of life.

Before anyone takes the opportunity to shoot me down by pointing out that there are a million other ways of adding variety to life other than drinking, I know. I realise that. That’s my point. It’s just so easy to pop that cork and take the easy option. For instant and easy variety just add alcohol. This would be fine if livers came with a spare like kidneys do. The irony is that the variety that drink can add to life very quickly becomes a habit and once it’s a habit there is no variety any longer.

What has really surprised me this month is that without intending to, I have found myself adding substitutes for drinking anyway. I have read more, written more and walked more than I would do during a normal month. I have also finally got round to doing something scary and challenging that I have been avoiding for a long time. That’s a subject for another blog though. The last four weeks have made me realise how convenient a drink can be as a substitute for something more interesting and often more rewarding. That understanding is what I have really got out of this month. The challenge now is not to slip back into the old habit of always taking the easy option when the evening comes, or the weekend. There’s that habit word again. Isn’t that what #Dryjanuary is really about? About breaking habits and seeing alcohol from a fresh perspective. Seeing it as something that enhances but in the way that an exotic spice does rather than everyday salt and pepper. Something to be cherished simply because it isn’t the norm. There is no doubt that alcohol had become a habit for me. I drank because it was nine in the evening, or Friday night, or Sunday dinner time, rather than because the occasion might be enhanced by a drink or two. It’s the reason for having a drink that I most want to change as a result of doing #Dryjanuary. I want that variety back.

I will come back and read this again at the end of February, and March, and April. Let’s see how hard old habits really die.

 

Sans ale, sans wine, some Christmas cake

Well I promised an update now and again on this driest of dry adventures so here are my findings after the first week of DryJanuary.

Actually, I’m not sure if I can tell you what it feels like to go without a drink for a week due to being full of a cold. It feels a bit like being asked to describe what bread tastes like having only ever eaten Marmite sandwiches. The cold may be masking the true experience, I don’t know. What is clear, but difficult to understand, is that I have found it remarkably easy to refrain from drinking for seven days.  All previous attempts at cutting back or abstaining have met with limited success or even abject failure. A typical scenario would run like this:

1. Pour the last of the bottle of red that was started with the Sunday roast and resolve to make it the last drink for the next four days. Well three at least. OK let’s not get ambitious, we’ll see how it goes.

2. Wake up Monday morning full of resolve and confidence.

3. 9pm Monday and an argument breaks out in my head. “One glass wouldn’t hurt.” “But it won’t be one glass will it?” “Well even if it was two it’s not unhealthy.” “But you’re supposed to be taking a break.” “You’re right, I’ll leave it alone.”

4. 9:30pm, “Oh sod it I’ll have a dry night tomorrow.”

5. Go to bed feeling like a failure.

It wasn’t always like that I should add. There have been successes. Even periods of months when two or three nights would be restricted to nothing stronger than tea with one or two milk chasers. The point I am making here is that it has always been a challenge to refrain. Yes I have done it but it has never been easy. This time, for some reason it has been easy. Very easy.

I can put my hand on my heart and say that in the last seven days I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol and I haven’t missed it either. I’m really hoping that the very boozy Christmas cake that our friend kindly made for us doesn’t count. So what is going on? What is different about this time?

Setting the cold aside, because I really do think that is a red herring, I believe that the reason I haven’t been in the least tempted to have a drink is because I went public with my intentions. You see all the debates and fights I have had previously have been with myself. Let’s face it, you are hardly likely to deal a knockout punch in a fight with yourself are you? It’s just too easy to cheat when there is no one but yourself to point the finger. I think that from the moment that I hit ‘publish’ on that blog post last week I cracked the problem. The idea of not completing the challenge is just too embarrassing to contemplate and my whole mind set has been dictated by that public declaration. No demons have come to argue with me in my head because they know it is futile.

I’ll never know for sure but maybe cycling 4,500 miles around the coast of Britain might be a factor in all this. Perhaps that public declaration of intent has taught me something.

I once read on Al Humphries’ web site that the best way to overcome the obstacles to an adventure is to decide what it is you want to do and then make it public. Shout out your intentions from the highest mountain, or blog about it, and it will happen. It has to. You are committed. That’s how I feel about this challenge, committed. That’s how I felt about the bike ride.

I’m not so naive to think I have cracked it with three and a half weeks to go but I am pretty confident. Hopefully, next week when my cold has cleared up, I should be in a position to let you know what bread tastes like without Marmite. I’m sure it’s delightful.

The odds may be high but I am confident of the winner.

The odds may be high but I am confident of the winner.

New year, new adventure

The merry go round that was 2014 is finally slowing down and I feel like it might now be going slowly enough for me to step off. The only problem with that is, I just know that within five minutes of being back on solid ground I will be looking for excitement and change. That’s why I have decided to go on another adventure starting tomorrow, 1st of January 2015.

Options for this particular trip are severely limited by a lack of money, the need to find a job and the desire not to actually travel anywhere far from home. I’m quite surprised by how much I have enjoyed making a home again after so much constant movement and I have no desire to spend January on the road. So, to sum up; I need something challenging to do that will take me somewhere I haven’t been before, or at least not since my early twenties, something that will stretch me and something that might teach me something about myself. It needs to be compatible with job hunting and enjoying our new home and I think I have got it.

You see I can’t remember the last time that I went more than a few days without a glass of wine, a pint of beer or some form of alcoholic drink so I thought it might be interesting to see what a month of abstinence feels like. That’s right I am going tea-total for the whole month just to see if I can.

I’m trying desperately hard to avoid phrase like that actually. “just to see if I can”, I mean. I’ve spent the last few days muttering, “give it a go”, “see if I can” and “I’m going to try….”. Now it’s time to stick my neck out with the much more committed; “I’m going tea-total in January just because I can”. Phew, sounds a bit scary put like that but having decided to go public with this there is little point in it unless I’m 100% determined to go through with it.

I am now well and truly set up to fall flat on my face. So be it, bring it on. It’s only pride.

If anything interesting comes out of the experiment I’ll write about it here. I’ll try to see the funny side and resist boring you with endless self pity (from the bottom of a pint glass) or patronising self-righteousness. If nothing else it will be an interesting personal record to look back on over a glass or two of red in February.

So, seven hours to go. Time to make a dent on what is left of the Christmas booze and put what ever is left at midnight somewhere out of temptations way. Mind you, with a great pub just fifty yards from our new home it’s going to take more than kidding myself to succeed in this little venture. I’ve tried hard to come up with a catchy little phrase for a dry January but with “Cranberry in January” being the best I have managed I’m open to wittier and more poetic suggestions.

If anybody fancies coming along for the ride you will be most welcome to join in via the comments sections at the end of each post. No cheating though.

Cheers

Cheers

Hospitality and kindness

I know I have talked about this topic before but I make no apologies for going back to it. Since I last blogged about the odd people we meet we have enjoyed the most amazing hospitality and kindness just to prove that one or two grumpy individuals do not in any way represent humanity as a whole.

Way back in May I told you about the lovely sisters we met in Moydart and how one of them who lives in Suffolk invited us to stay with her. Well two months on and a couple of thousand miles further into our journey and Juliet was true to her word and proved to be a wonderful host. She and her husband Brian live in a sweet village on the Suffolk coast and their house joined the likes of Ardnamurchan and Dunnet Head in being one of the few dead end destinations that we have cycled to on the coast of Britain. But it was worth the effort.

Shingle beach, Suffolk

Shingle beach, Suffolk

We enjoyed a fabulous time walking on the beach, eating a wonderful four course dinner with our hosts and their friends Miggy and Jim and generally unwinding from our normal routine.

From there we only had a short ride to Ipswich to stay with a cousin of Gill’s who she hadn’t seen for over thirty years. It was a very emotional reunion indeed and it was just as well that Anita’s husband Justin was around to entertain me while Gill and her cousin did some much overdue catching up.

Thirty year reunion

Thirty year reunion

For the second night running we experienced the novelty of eating in company around a table and talking till late into the warm summer’s evening. The following morning we were treated to breakfast at a nearby cafe and left Ipswich full to the brim with food and kindness.

By now the current heatwave had really started to kick in and the headlines in the tabloid press assured us gleefully that we would all probably expire as the temperatures hit 32 centigrade. They say that warm air is easier to ride in as it is thinner but I was too busy reaching for my water bottle every few minutes to notice. A short ferry ride across the Stour to Harwich provided slight relief but even on the open water it was still unusually warm. From Harwich we wound through our first Essex lanes via Walton on the Naze to Clacton where we became acutely aware of the change in accent from the softer Suffolk drawl to the one I remembered from my days living in Brentwood a long time ago. We phoned ahead to book a campsite on Mersea Island and check the tide times because the causeway often floods at high tide. Unfortunately our timing could not have been worse and there was no possibility of getting there in time. We navigated in and out of Colchester then as we approached the road to the island the queing traffic made it clear that we would just have to wait for nature to take it’s course and for the waters to recede. By the time we reached our campsite all the shops were closed but the warden gave us milk for tea and the pub across the road did excellent food and beer. It was a tough day having covered sixty miles in such hot conditions and I have to say those first couple of beers barely touched the sides.

Our next destination was Maldon and yet another example of extreme kindness. Our host Jen was a contact from an internet forum and despite never having met us she opened her home to us, fed us and even offered to let us stay a second night so that we could have a rest day. It was a very generous offer made even more exceptional because she herself wouldn’t be here because of a prior arrangement. Some people really are wonderfully kind and they more than make up for the odd misery guts patrolling footpaths and moaning at cyclists.

We have had a lovely day taking in Maldon town (including The Blue Boar Hotel which has it’s own brewery)

Haybridge Basin Maldon

Heybridge Basin Maldon

and we are now relaxing before what is likely to be another night of thunder storms.

The Blue Boar hotel bar. Circa 1400

The Blue Boar hotel bar. Circa 1400

I can’t stress enough what a difference the kindness of these people makes to us and memories of their generosity and trust will stay with us always. Please don’t believe a word of what the press tell you about the world being full of hatred and violence, it’s not. Oh and you’re not going to die from a bit of sunshine either.