Simple Pleasures

As I begin to type we are just over four days away from the start of our big adventure. I have had lots of conversations with friends about how I will manage on the road without life’s perceived creature comforts.

Of course this trip is going to bring new challenges. The most we have done is 17 days, so from day 18 it is all unknown territory. We have a budget and in order to stick to this we need to eat at the tent most of the time, so I am going to have to become acquainted with our Trangia stove. On holiday we only boil water for tea on it and Tony has always done that. I’m sure I won’t get away with not cooking for the whole of the six months, and anyway I’m not sure I want to do all the washing up.

Instead of the myriad items contained in the bathroom I will have shampoo and shower gel, (at least at the beginning of the trip) moisturiser, deodorant and toothpaste (which more seasoned touring friends will think is more than enough!). I have worked hard to need less and have even considered giving up shampoo all together and joining the “no-poo” brigade. I had a foray into this a couple of weeks ago, managed about five days and realised that I can’t even consider this until I am on the road when most of the time my hair will be under a cycle helmet or tied back (and no-one knows me!). I’m not even sure I will be able to give it up completely but am willing to try. It will only reduce my load slightly but would be one less thing to restock.

The absence of bathroom accessories doesn’t reduce the immense pleasure of a hot shower after a day on the bike, and dressing for dinner is a simple affair when you only have a selection of two outfits and one is in the wash!

Life in a tent is very much connected to the daylight hours. We find ourselves getting up earlier and going to bed earlier as a tour goes on. Going to bed is bliss, I love my down sleeping bag. It’s so snuggly I never want to get out once I’m in.

Snug as a bug

Good night everyone

The truth is that life becomes simpler and the things that bring pleasure are more basic.

Nerdy, Geeky, Techy stuff

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Those two little symbols above are going to save some people a lot of precious time. You see they are going to serve as a warning whenever I post anything even remotely geeky about cycling, camping or the combination of the two, often referred to, unsurprisingly, as cycle camping. (I prefer cycle touring as it doesn’t have to involve camping). When we are talking to people about our trip they often ask about the bikes or the tent but as soon as we start answering their questions it usually takes about thirty seconds before their eyes glaze over and they remember that urgent dental appointment that they have to get to.

The challenge of talking or writing about the actual equipment we will be using and making it entertaining may well be a challenge too far so the symbols will allow you to ignore such posts and do something more useful with your valuable time. If on the other hand, you can’t get enough of gear ratios and steel tubing materials, then feel free to indulge and I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. (It might be wise not to comment on these posts unless you want all the world to know about your problem.) I am also considering trying to find something interesting or amusing to point the non-geeky readers to as an alternative.

I’ll start with the bikes in the next post just to give a general idea of how they differ from your everyday road bike and why they are specifically better for touring. Don’t forget to look for the symbols and the alternative entertainment.

You have been warned!

Warm Showers

Warm Showers is an internet based membership organisation aimed squarely at cycle tourists. It enables like-minded people to offer a bed and maybe a meal and a shower to travelling cyclists and to share good conversation, comparing notes on the ups and downs of our passion.

Now I would like to think that I might be able to make this blog a little bit interesting to a wider audience than purely other cyclists and that’s why I want to share something about Warm Showers with you. You see, despite the fact that its purpose should only really appeal to cyclists, what it represents is important to everyone. It represents the very best of humanity and something that the popular media would have us believe does not exist anymore. It represents human kindness and generosity, provided for no other reason than because it is a nice thing to do.

Of course I accept that there are bad people out there but believe me they are a tiny, tiny minority. Most people are good. Most people will help a fellow human being in need and that is why Warm Showers works.

It was first set up in 1993 by Terry Zmrhal and Geoff Cashman and is now maintained by a group of volunteers. The idea is that you register on the site and offer accommodation for free to passing cycle tourists. Conversely, members who are travelling can send a message to prospective hosts requesting one or two nights shelter. I can hear some sceptics muttering, why on earth would you want strangers staying with you but I can assure you it really works for both parties. Gill and I hosted our first guests last month and it was a wonderful fun filled experience providing dinner and a bed for the night to John and Di. They arrived very wet and somewhat dishevelled after a hard day’s riding in the rain but they were full of smiles and laughter and from their bulging panniers they produced wine and beer! Despite it being a school night, the dishes went unwashed while the talking and laughter went on. We will certainly keep in touch with them and no doubt cycle with them in the future. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience all round.

I think Warm Showers represents something very precious. It is like a beacon, but a beacon that is struggling to be seen from under the black cloak that the media casts over us with their scaremongering stories of bad things lurking around every corner. The reality, when you travel, by bike or by any other means is quite different. There are endless examples in all travel blogs and books of generosity and kindness. Indeed we have experienced it ourselves on numerous occasions. We have been offered accommodation by complete strangers who just want to help, to be useful and for no other reward than the satisfaction that it brings.

One of my favourite stories comes from just outside Londonderry in Northern Ireland. We had walked a couple of miles from our campsite in search of a meal but we weren’t having much luck. The bar we ended up in didn’t serve food in the evenings but once we explained out situation the barman didn’t hesitate. “I can run you up the road to Harry’s Bar and Restaurant*; it’s only five miles over the border”. So after we had enjoyed a pint with a few locals he duly took us up the road but he wasn’t satisfied with just giving us a lift. He wanted to know how we would get back to the campsite. We said we would try to get a taxi so he then phoned his nephew who ran a taxi service and told him “an English couple will be phoning you later and you need to pick them up from Harry’s Bar and take them back to their campsite. And make sure you look after them”. The poignancy of this in such a location was striking. But it happens all the time. Travellers like Alastair Humphreys and Josie Dew have endless stories in their books of this kind of selfless kindness from strangers as do all of the travellers we have encountered ourselves. There is strong evidence that helping others is a key ingredient of living a happy life. Don’t take my word for it: Mahatma Gandhi once said that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

So, next time you go to the newsagents and are confronted by yet another doom laden, fear inducing headline about a tide of criminality don’t buy the paper. Go and buy a travel book instead and then go help somebody and be happy.

* We found no evidence that the barman was in any way related to Harry and shame on you for even thinking such a thing.

A temporary shift of focus

I launched this blog with the intention of recording an account of our six month tour starting next spring. Never having blogged before, I began early enough to get the hang of the process and to get into the habit of writing. With that in mind I want to try and keep the focus on the trip rather than let the blog become my personal diary. Recently I have found my focus has shifted temporarily from our plans for travelling and onto starting a new job, hence the absence of any posts. The process of re-writing my CV, registering for Job Seekers Allowance and applying for numerous jobs has been, quite frankly, depressing. I got through it by constantly dreaming of next year’s adventure, reading other traveller’s blogs and learning the process of creating my own. I was probably becoming a bit obsessive but then I got a phone call inviting me to an interview. The shift in focus was dramatic. Now, suddenly, I have a job! Not the kind of job I ever imagined doing to be honest but it has the advantage of being a fixed term until the end of January so I can be open about our plans. I didn’t have to confront the dilemma of going for an interview for a permanent post and deciding whether or not to come clean about my limited availability. I feel a real sense of release and the pendulum of my focus is swinging back again.

The process of being invited to and attending an interview, waiting to hear the outcome and then being rejected for the job I actually wanted but accepted for one I didn’t, has been interesting. It may seem like a stretch of the imagination but it has reminded me so much of cycle touring. Just as I was saying in my last post, it has been a roller coaster of emotions; excitement, concern, disappointment, elation and more. For the first time in three months whole days have gone by when I haven’t given our trip a single thought. Now I have the job, I can go back to day dreaming and boring a whole new group of acquaintances, trying to explain to them why camping for six months is anything other than just plain stupid.

"Are you mad?"

“Are you mad?”

Starting a new job is always a bit daunting. I’m sure it’s natural to worry how you are going to fit in and how people will react to you but I had extra reason to be concerned. After all, I’m a cyclist. I went to work on my bike on the second day of the job, demonstrating to many of my new work friends that I am plainly a bit bonkers right from the start. “You must be mad” being the most common response. Which reminds me of a delightful character that I met on the bus a few months ago. He exploded up the stairs and bounded to the back of the bus, crashed down onto the seat adjacent to me, shopping bags spilling their contents everywhere and said, “Hiya, I’m Steve, they call me Mad Steve. I know lots of people say they’re mad when they aren’t really, but I really am mad. Do you want a biscuit?” I liked him immediately. Goodness knows what my new work mates will think when they find out what Gill and I are planning. Perhaps they will think we are mad. I’m quite looking forward to finding out.

Ironing – just like cycle touring really.

I hate ironing. Most people do. OK, I know there are some really weird people out there that claim to enjoy it, but most people don’t. And if it’s not ironing then substitute some other banal, tedious chore of your choice. Hedge cutting, grass mowing, whatever, the principle is the same so bear with me and let’s go with ironing. Here is my point. Why is it that whenever I get to the end of a pile of ironing, when I flick that socket switch to off, curl that cable back around the iron and gaze at the neatly stacked pile of clothes I feel really happy? Why does doing something so pointless and boring end up giving me pleasure. Well, I put it to you, it’s because you can’t have one without the other.

There is no way of measuring pleasure other than against something like misery or suffering. You can’t quantify happiness other than by comparing it with sadness or some other negative emotion. And you can’t have that smug ‘I’ve just been to the dentist’ feeling unless you have actually been to the dentist. That is why cycle touring can be like ironing. You see, not all of cycle touring is pleasurable. In fact, as many of you have suggested, a lot of it isn’t pleasant at all. So why do it? You might ask. We do it for a combination of the good times and the bad times. The good times are just that, good. The bad times enable us to recognise the good ones.

What follows is an extract from a report I wrote about a tour from Edinburgh back home to Lancashire a few years ago. (It’s a bit long so I’ll post it in two halves) We did have some reasonable weather, albeit cold for the time of year, which was May. We also had some wet and windy weather but this day still holds the accolade of most memorable of all our touring so far. See if you can see beyond the misery, to that moment of switching off the iron. (…and no, before you ask, we will not be taking an ironing board with us.)

I was woken once or twice in the night by the sound of the wind gusting in the trees around us. They were serious gusts and I was a bit concerned when morning arrived and there was no sign of them weakening.

 Our ritual of taking down the tent never changes. Whatever the weather we practice the same procedure; weighing down the flysheet, inner and undermats with panniers to prevent them being whisked away by a sudden gust of wind. This morning all the practice paid off and we managed to strike camp without losing any vital component.

 The walkers we had met in the pub last night were waiting by reception for their luggage transport and we had a nice chat before leaving. They were a bit concerned about us cycling in such strong winds but we assured them we had been in worse conditions. Little did we know.

 We would be following the Settle Carlisle railway for much of today so although we were passing through fairly high ground I hoped that the gradients wouldn’t be too bad. This famous scenic line opened on 1st May 1876 and was the last main line in England to be built entirely by hand. Six thousand men toiled on it for seven years and many died either in accidents or from contracting small pox. No doubt they were weakened by the hard labour and the harsh conditions in these beautiful but unforgiving landscapes. Fortunately, I knew none of this as we began what would turn out to be ‘a most interesting day’.

 The plan was to cycle to Ingleton, about twenty five miles away, have brunch and then head either south east towards Clitheroe or South West towards Lancaster. Either way would put us about thirty miles from home for a short final day on the Saturday.

 We stopped at Nateby to put on wet weather gear. It wasn’t raining yet but the forecast said; showers, occasionally prolonged, and the wind was so cold that we needed the extra layer for warmth. It was obvious from the start that this was going to be a tough day. After an hour of pushing against the wind we had covered a measly seven miles. It was depressing but I suggested to Gill that even at this pace we could easily cover fifty miles in the course of the day.

 Entering Mallerstang Dale we could have been back in Wales as we passed Pendragon Castle but the next hamlet, Outhgill reminded us that this was very much The Yorkshire Dales. As we climbed the scenery grew bleaker, empty farm houses stood testament to the harsh lives people must have lived here in the past. That is when the rain began. After a couple of tentative showers the weather Gods got their act together and the practising was over. We came alongside the railway and eventually crossed it at the first high point of the day but there was to be no freewheeling down the other side into the headwind. By the time we reached Gardale Head we were soaked and getting colder by the minute. It was much too early to take shelter at the pub so we pressed on directly into the full force of the wind and the increasingly heavy rain.

But it was May

But it was May

 We had planned to use cycling route 68 over the tops to Cowgill but there were road signs warning of wintery conditions at any time of year as the road climbed to 1750’ above sea level. We had a really tough decision to make. The alternative was ten miles on the busy main road down Garsdale. This would be an easier road and it would guarantee shelter and warmth in the small market town of Sedburgh but it was directly into the wind and would take us further away from Ingleton. The other choice was straight up the minor road and over the top. Only three miles but we had no idea what we might or might not find at the hamlet of Cowgill on the other side of the hill. We ummed and ahhed but we really needed to get going as we were both beginning to shiver in the biting wind. Having opted for the short high route we managed to cycle about fifty yards before being forced to get off and walk up the steep narrow ‘Coal Road’. I tried to say something encouraging to Gill but the best I could come up with was, “I promise you, this will end”. Pushing the loaded bikes up that hill against the wind was stupidly hard but at least it warmed us up and it wasn’t long before we could start cycling again. I looked in vain for any sign of a break in the weather as we were buffeted and battered but the sky was a uniform grey and the clouds hugging the lower slopes of the hills were going nowhere. It was just a matter of keeping our heads down and gritting our teeth in the knowledge that eventually we must reach the high point and drop into calmer conditions. On the tops the rain turned to hail and my face felt as if was constantly being sandblasted. So painful were the impacts that I half expected to find blood on my gloves as I wiped water and snot from my face. When the descent did eventually begin it was no relief because of the squally wind. We daren’t pick up any real speed as the road was winding and steep and with freezing hands it was hard to hold the brake levers tight enough to control the descent. Never have I been so glad to reach the comparable calm of a valley floor as I did on reaching Cowgill.

 A couple of walkers, out braving the elements, assured us that the nearest place to get any food or shelter was Dent, three miles in the opposite direction to the one we wanted to go. We were past caring. We desperately needed to eat and to get out of the wet and restore some feeling to hands and feet. It’s easy to get things out of perspective when you are cold and wet and I dare say we could have turned left and continued on our chosen route to Ingleton but the prospect of warmth, food and being dry was simply too much to resist. We turned right and cycled hard for Dent and survival.

……..to be continued.

Six months and counting

Today it is exactly six months from the day of departure for our grand tour around Britain. I have a geeky little countdown gadget on my computer desktop which tells me to the second how long is left and I’m slightly concerned that I may be getting a little obsessive. I’m worried that the pre-adventure anticipation may peak too early and I’m not sure what I will feel like if that happens. I have been reading a lot of blogs about long distance bicycle tours and they all seem to have a preamble that starts a few weeks or months before the leaving date and usually incorporates various degrees of panic because nothing is organised and there is still loads of kit to buy. In our case, we have virtually everything we need already from many previous shorter tours. In fact, not only do we have all the right gear but we even know what goes in which pannier. We also don’t have any real route planning to do because we will be travelling around the coast of an island and it doesn’t take much in the way of navigational skills to work that one out. This only really leaves the task of shedding our belongings (see previous post) and organising a bit of a leaving do. I’m thinking six months might be a tad on the cautious side to achieve those two things. Which is not the best news for anybody looking forward to a riveting read, because you have six months of inane drivel to get through before anything really happens.

For example:

Today I realised that it is perfectly possible to have good punctures and bad punctures. Bad punctures are like the one I had on our recent tour in Scotland. We were cycling around the island of Arran and really enjoying a bit of sunshine after getting thoroughly soaked by previous heavy showers.

Holy Island

Holy Island from Arran

Gill was about fifty yards ahead of me as we gathered speed down a good descent and I was contemplating the corresponding ascent that lay ahead. I was estimating just how much speed and momentum I could gather and how far up the next hill it would get me when I felt that horrible blancmange like sensation under my rear wheel. Shouting to Gill at the top of my voice to save her any wasted effort (she was at the bottom of the hill by now) I braked hard before the tyre destroyed itself on the rim and managed to stop at the lowest point of the descent. Great. A rear puncture means unloading the tent and panniers, getting oily from handling the rear mech and to top it all having changed the tube and loaded everything back on the bike we would have to start the climb from zero miles per hour. That’s what I call a bad puncture. Today, by contrast, we turned the corner to our house at the end of a really nice morning spin on our road bikes and five yards from home my back tyre deflated. “I’ve got a flat”, I called to Gill, with a big smile on my face because that’s what I call a good puncture. Funny isn’t it?

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