Ouch! That’s half a decent bicycle.

This is really an update of this earlier post about our gas supply saga. Read that first if you want the whole picture.

I am nervously awaiting an e-mail from our gas supplier in reply to my notification that they have been charging us 2.83 times more than they should for our gas. That’s a big multiplier when you apply it to a year’s supply of fuel. About £560 worth in fact. Ouch! That’s half a decent bicycle for goodness sake.

The reason I am waiting nervously is because when we moved house before Christmas we took the bold decision to go with the cheapest gas supplier we could find despite the fear of becoming entangled in some kind of ‘consumer tells of million pound gas bill nightmare’ story in the Daily Mail. Up until now we have enjoyed a perfectly satisfactory and very efficient e-mail relationship with the new people but what I dread now is an e-mail along the lines of: Thank you for pointing out the problem with your gas meter. We have arranged for an engineer to remove the unit immediately for safety reasons. Please arrange to heat your home by some other means for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately you are responsible for the cost of removing the meter …… etc. etc.

I’m posting this so that you can have a laugh at our gas supply/meter replacement horror experience but there is actually a serious point behind it which I maintain justifies my spreadsheet obsession. Here’s the story: (I’ll try and keep it brief)

We bought our 26 year old park home knowing that the old boiler and gas fire belonged in a museum of pyrotechnics and we would have to fork out for a new one. So before we moved in the plumber took out the old gas fire and back boiler and fitted a shiny new combi boiler. But he couldn’t get it to work. After much head scratching he and his mate concluded that the old gas meter might be faulty. The meter sits in a box buried in the ground outside the van which isn’t unusual on this park but the very high water table also means that it sits under water at times of heavy rain. Which I would imagine is quite unusual and probably isn’t a good thing. Anyway, National Grid kindly fitted a brand new gas meter which still lives under water most of the time but who am I to argue. It seems to work OK so maybe it’s a dual purpose domestic/submarine model.

The boiler now works fine, we are lolling around our park home in scantily clad bliss and everything is lovely until we get a bill from British Gas (the old supplier) for £900 for two days gas supply! That story is covered here if you want more background. Having sorted that out, we settle into cosy domestic heaven once again until we get the first bill from our new supplier and it’s three times more than expected.

I now go into spreadsheet design mania and start to monitor our consumption. It involves a slightly complex formula that converts units used into kwh and ultimately pounds and pence and we are even more horrified. We appear to be monopolising the North Sea gas supply! After two weeks of analysis, worry, shivering and looking like Scott of the Antarctic whilst watching Countdown we had another look at the figures this morning.

Ready for a relaxed evening in front of the TV

Ready for a relaxed evening in front of the TV

Gill very bravely suggested that perhaps I might have a teeny weeny error in my formula. I didn’t even flinch. I just smiled at her through my mortally offended pride and began to do some checks.  Finally, after studying our bills from our old house and the new ones from the new supplier we spotted the problem. It wasn’t so much an error in the formula, (phew) but rather a combination of errors on everybody’s part. It seemed that our new gas meter is metric, our new gas supplier thinks it is imperial and that tiny little detail represents an annual bill inflated by over £560!

There's the little blighter

There’s the little blighter

While I have been writing this I have had a reply from Andrew at our current supplier and it would appear that champagne might be in order. With the least possible fanfare he simply said, “Sorry, we have the record of your meter wrong. We’ll sort it out and amend your statement.” Or words to that effect. The Daily Mail are going to be bitterly disappointed. No drama, no fuss, just a simple, common sense solution. I am so relieved and more than a little flabbergasted. In fact I am so pleased that I am happy to announce that the supplier in question is Zog Energy and I would tentatively suggest you might want to check them out. (Other utility suppliers are available.)

So, what have we learnt from all this?

1.       Gas meters work under water

2.       New boilers really are very efficient if you give them enough gas to burn

3.       Plywood houses are quite cheap to heat

4.       British Gas wouldn’t be my first choice to organise a brewery based knees-up

5.       Zog Energy might be though and I would definitely go to the party

6.       And SPREADSHEETS ARE WONDERFUL!!!!

Pour me another pina colada darling and don’t spare the ice.

What is it like living without a car?

It’s been two weeks now since we sold our old car and we are still waiting for the new one.

CarlessFB

That little exchange on Facebook made me smile. I have been trying to write something about the complications of living without a car but the words just wouldn’t come. I had almost given up on the subject until I read those comments above and I finally understood what is at the core of car ownership for me.

So here is the answer to the question:  What is it like living without a car?

Well it’s not such a big deal as it turns out. This probably explains why I have been struggling to write about it. I imagined that we would have all sorts of tales to tell about missed buses, taxis that arrived late or not at all or the terrible toll the experience has had on our shoes. In practice however, we have gone about our business without drama, and the only difference is that we are probably marginally fitter than we might have been had we had a car.

Friends and family have been very kind with offers of help and we have taken advantage on a number of occasions so I suppose in that sense it hasn’t been a genuine test of living without a car. If we did actually choose to abandon ownership for good I suspect the novelty would soon wear off and we would be on our own. That isn’t a dig at friends and family I should point out, it’s just inevitable that once people got used to the idea the offers of help would largely dry up except maybe in exceptional circumstances.

We have been really lucky with weather even though it has been pretty cold*. We have had hardly any rain and the winds have been mostly light. These things make a massive difference to getting about on a bike or by public transport which brings me to what we have learned and particularly that last comment about appreciating the car when we get it.

I must say that I’m not a big fan of cars in general and I struggle with the cost of them, the pollution they cause and the terrible toll in terms of death and injury that they are responsible for. The vast majority of journeys seem to take place with only the driver in the car which is a shockingly inefficient way of travelling and they isolate people from each other, stifling social interaction and turning normally level headed individuals into demonic monsters at the slightest transgression by another driver. But the one thing that I have really missed during the last two weeks has been the undeniable convenience of the ubiquitous four wheeled metal box.

As well as the convenience of the car I have also learned that a lot of us cyclists have been duped into turning the relatively simple act of cycling to the shops into some kind of cross between a sports event and a major expedition. Just look at the difference between taking the car or the bicycle to the supermarket to do a bit of shopping:

Car

  1. Put on a coat and perhaps a hat and gloves if it’s really cold
  2. Drive the three point five miles to the supermarket in about seven minutes
  3. Do the shopping
  4. Load the shopping into the boot
  5. Drive home and unpack the shopping

Bicycle

  1. Remove all clothing
  2. Realise you haven’t got your cycling kit to hand so put clothing back on
  3. Assemble special cycling clothing and repeat step one
  4. Put on; padded shorts, two pairs of track pants, thick socks, merino wool long sleeved vest, cycling shirt, fleece jacket, special cycling shoes with clips to attach to pedals, overshoes to keep out nasty north east wind, waterproof jacket (just in case), buff to keep neck warm, woolly hat, helmet and winter gloves.
  5. Leave house feeling like spaceman on a moon walk and retrieve bikes from shed
  6. Attach panniers and front bag to bike
  7. Assemble locks, lights, spare inner tube, pump and tools and add to bag
  8. Cycle three point five miles to supermarket in about twenty minutes (two minutes less than it took to get ready)
  9. Lock up bikes
  10. Do the shopping whilst looking faintly ridiculous in Tour de France special winter edition outfit
  11. Reluctantly forgo best value toilet rolls which are in sixteen packs the size of a small family car
  12. Load shopping into panniers
  13. Unlock bikes, ride home against cruel headwind that has mysteriously been against you in both directions
  14. Unload shopping
  15. Put bikes away
  16. Reverse entire costume pantomime
  17. Feel smug and enjoy best cup of tea ever
20160216_120330_compressed

Just popping to the shops

We haven’t actually got the new car yet and the forecast for the next few days is horrendous with heavy rain and strong winds so there may well be another chapter to this post in which I will declare the car to be my all-time favourite invention and offer a used Dave Yates touring bicycle for sale at a bargain price.

*Got soaked today riding to the benefit office and back!

Urgh, what’s that between my legs?

Stop it! It’s a bicycle of course but after a nine month layoff it did feel a bit strange to be astride my two wheeled friend once more. After spending yesterday afternoon wallowing in self-pity while Gill was out at work and failing miserably to do anything useful with my day I gave myself a really good talking to when I woke up this morning. There was no doubt about it, it was time to get on my arse and go for a bike ride. I must have been really stern with myself because after spending an age locating various bits of cycling paraphernalia and topping up the pressure in the tyres I was out on the road before it was fully light.

I half expected to have to learn to ride again but as in the old adage ‘an elephant never forgets’, it was like falling off a bicycle …….. no hang on I think I might be getting mixed up there. Anyway steering around corners, balancing on two wheels and alternate pedal revolutions all proved to be firmly wired into my brain still but I confess I had forgotten what a miniscule amount of headwind it takes to sap your energy. I was a bit nervous if I’m honest; not of the road or the traffic, indeed there wasn’t any traffic at such an early hour on a Sunday morning, but of my body and its ability or inability to propel me further than the end of the drive. I saw this first ride as a kind of tentative prodding of muscles to see what state they were in. It reminded me of selecting an avocado in the supermarket, you know when you press your finger into it to see if it’s ripe and then having found that it is you look around furtively and then change it for another one because you’ve just bruised the first one? I pushed a bit harder on the pedals to maintain speed on a very gentle rise and, like most of the avocados you pick up I found that this one wasn’t really ready yet.

Fair enough really, what did I expect after such a long break. It’s a credit to the efficiency of the machine (the bike, not my body) that I was able to ride fifteen miles at a modest pace and only be a little bit knackered at the end of it. It isn’t a great distance I know, and I didn’t overtake any other cyclists but it’s a start and as soon as I can sit on a saddle again without crying I intend to repeat the operation.

Look, proof that I went cycling

Look, proof that I went cycling

How much proof do you need?

How much proof do you need?

I have to say it was lovely to be back cycling again and remembering why I love it. I was reminded at intervals of how much more you see and hear from the saddle of a bike as opposed to the inside of a car. For example, I love the sight of geese flying in formation so when I heard their plaintive honking overhead I looked skywards hoping to see a spectacular and classic V like the avian equivalent of the Red Arrows. I was so disappointed. There must have been about fifty of them but they looked for all the world like they were on their way home from a very drunken party. Never have I seen such a shockingly bad flying pattern or such ill-disciplined behaviour. They weren’t alone either. The young man walking slightly unsteadily between Lytham and Freckleton and looking as if he really hadn’t planned to spend the night away from home left me speculating on what he might have been doing in the previous eight hours. I found myself reminiscing about the good old days. The days when I could manage an all-night party and then walk home through the dawn in my trendy short sleeved shirt; looking cool but without feeling the cold.  And the days when I could get back on a bike after nine months of not cycling and ride fifteen miles and still be able to move my legs when I got home. I wish we had a bath in our new home.

It was still the middle of the night!

The sun wasn’t even out of bed properly!

 

Why go cycle touring?

Could this be the answer to goal free touring?

Could this be the answer to goal free touring?

I was reading a friend’s blog this morning and he wrote something that struck a chord with me. James is currently riding from the most northern tip of Europe south towards Spain and beyond and he is now in central France. This is what he wrote; “this tour is a bit like a scouting trip finding cool places to come back to ……”. (You can read James’ blog, Self Propelled Life here.) The reason it made me smile is because I can remember Gill and I making exactly the same observation more than once during our travels last year. I’m pretty sure I have heard the same sentiment from other travellers too which is why I am pondering the very nature of cycle touring and why we do it.

With a few exceptions where people are trying to break records I think it is reasonable to describe cycle touring as a leisure pursuit rather than an endurance sport but the more I think about it and the more complex it gets. I always used to think of it as moving from place to place at a relatively relaxed pace, stopping to explore wherever interest dictated. In reality I have found it is rarely as simple as that and there are numerous reasons for this.

Firstly, most people touring are on a holiday or a fixed term break from work. In other words they have a pre-defined amount of time at their disposal and this immediately introduces an element of urgency into the trip. It shouldn’t but it does in my experience.

Secondly most tours have a goal of some sort. Given a fixed time span most tourers will pore over maps calculating how far they might get in the given time and working out a route accordingly. The problem is that no matter how relaxed you are about the daily mileage and ultimate destination you have still set yourself a target to measure your progress by and thereby introduced that element of challenge. It’s this element of challenge that adds a further complication I feel. You see if you take away the challenge, the target, the goal, then you are in danger of taking away the motivation and incentive that keeps you going when times get tough. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is why are we going on the trip in the first place. I have heard endless criticism of foreign tourists, particularly Americans, who come to Europe and ‘do’ Scotland for example in a couple of days. As cycle tourers with a goal of reaching a particular destination in a given time are we not guilty of a similar mistake? This isn’t a criticism of anyone by the way, with only one exception every trip I have done has had a proposed duration, length and end destination. If I am questioning anybody’s motives then they are my own. Of course travelling on a bicycle at the limited pace that it dictates will always reveal more of a land and culture than racing around in a car or a coach but the principles are the same. I am certain I have used the phrase, ‘done the coast of Britain’ once or twice in the last few months. What does that mean?

That black line did become a bit of an obsession I admit.

That black line did become a bit of an obsession I admit.

Gill and I are tossing around ideas for what we might do in the future in terms of another adventure. We haven’t even decided yet that it will necessarily be by bike but if it is then I would like to think that we might set off with a very different goal to the last time. I like the idea of taking away all goals that involve places, times, distances and pace and replace them with learning, observing, meeting and talking. It sounds like a simple thing to achieve but I don’t think it is. We can certainly avoid any final destination in a given time and we can avoid setting any kind of daily mileage target. We can go away without a computer on the bike and even, to some extent without a knowledge of how long we will be away. What I can’t imagine doing though, is touring without maps. Once you introduce maps into the equation you get distances and with distances comes times and before you know it you have fallen back into the old traps of measuring progress. This leads to feelings of achievement or the lack of as you inevitably trace your route across the map. When I first moved to Essex as a twenty something with no friends down there I used to amuse myself at weekends by walking a compass bearing through London. I discovered all sorts of interesting places that way. It certainly added an element of adventure to a walk across London and I wonder if it could work for cycle touring. We live in Lancashire so maybe if we took a bearing on Dover to start with, mounted the compass on the handlebars and set off in a vaguely south easterly direction. It might work.

The idea of drifting through a country or region with no set agenda sounds lovely to me. To stumble on a place of interest and rather than making a note to come back another time simply pitch the tent and stay as long as necessary to explore it. But there is a catch. I do wonder if I would be able to just let go and really enjoy the moment. Or would I suffer a constant itch at the ‘lack of progress’. I wonder if having no geographic goal would simply lead to lethargy and ultimately to losing interest in the trip. But does it matter if it does? If we go back to the question of why go cycle touring in the first place and answer it; to see places and meet people, then surely it doesn’t matter how far you go or where you end up does it? What do other tourers think? I would love to know. Anybody out there that has toured like this?

Falling in love again

It’s been over four months since I went for a bike ride. Since we got back from our tour around Britain neither of us have had much interest in cycling. It felt like we were all pedalled out and the thought of pumping up the tyres and getting back in the saddle just didn’t appeal. Until today that is.  I’m not sure whether it was the signs of spring all around us or the sight of so many people enjoying a ride in the sunshine yesterday but all of a sudden we both felt as if it was time to get back on the bikes.

We didn’t go very far but it was a very special ride because it has resulted in me falling in love again.

There is no doubt that after a break of this length the bike always feels uncomfortable. The reach to the bars is too long, the saddle is too hard and I feel like the whole bike is too big. It just doesn’t feel right. I know from past experience that it will take several rides of increasing distance before that old oneness with the machine comes back and we become a team again. Before muscle and metal meld into a single entity once more. It’s nothing to worry about, just odd. I suppose we are both just a bit rusty.

My trusty steed at Land's End last year.

My trusty steed at Land’s End last year.

Contrast this with the amazing feeling that I get just one or two miles into the ride. Despite the awkwardness, I am struck all over again by the efficiency of this marvellous machine. If you have even a small amount of fitness then it takes no effort at all to propel both rider and bike along at an amazing speed. For the same effort as walking at a modest pace a bike will take you many, many times further in any given time-span. It is like a magic trick.

This sense of magic comes over me as if I am riding the bike for the very first time. As if the bike itself is a completely new invention and it fills me full of joy every time it happens. I am convinced that this mechanical advantage is partly responsible for the sense of freedom that every child gets when they first learn to ride a bike. They might not consider the physics of it, but suddenly they are moving faster under their own steam than they have ever done before in their lives. One minute dad is hanging onto the saddle to keep them upright and then the next moment he is history. He is completely unable to keep up with the child who up until this moment has always been just a stride or two away. Always under his control. Not any longer. The bike gives a child a freedom of such scope that they may never experience anything quite like it again. Many of us will spend a lifetime trying to recreate that feeling but it can never be available with such intensity again. The pure joy it brings is dependent on its very transience. It simply can’t be had twice.

I think what I felt today, just like I do whenever I get back on the bike after a break, is a faint but very tangible connection with that special moment from my childhood. That unadulterated joy that comes from being able to travel so easily, so simply and so independently. I think it’s this simple childish pleasure that is at the core of cycling and especially cycle touring. It gives me a sense of freedom that nothing else manages to do. It’s magic. Like being a child again.

Perhaps it is time to get the maps out of their boxes. Time to start dreaming once more.

Signs of Spring

Signs of Spring

Who knows who I’ll be?

Your guess is as good as mine

Your guess is as good as mine

“What will you do when you get back?” She/he/they ask. It’s one of the regular questions and my stock answer is, “I don’t know, I don’t know who I will be when I get back.” I’m not trying to be flippant or clever with this response, I really do believe that this journey will change me. Of course, I have no idea whether that change will be so small as to be almost imperceptible or whether it will be a paradigm shift so dramatic that I am no longer the person I am now. Probably somewhere in between.

“Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” (or woman), a saying attributed to St. Francis Xavier makes a lot of sense but it is by no means the end of the story. It may well be true that much of our behaviour and attitude is fixed in those first years but we go on changing right up to the day we die. Everything we experience up to that point and beyond it helps to shape the person we are. That is why experiences matter so much. The greater the impact of the experience and the more likely it is to bring about change. We have all heard stories about people who have cheated death, found God or won the lottery and the common theme, more often than not, is about how their life has changed as a result of the experience. That is why I believe that the next few months will result in change. Travelling by bicycle for six months and living with very basic possessions will be an experience of significant impact. It surely will lead to change. I just don’t have any idea what form that change will take.

This isn’t some fanciful theory that I have dreamt up by the way. It’s based on real life examples of people I know, or know of, that have been there and earned the right to wear the T shirt. Jamie McDonald has just returned from running five thousand miles across Canada raising tens of thousands of pounds for children’s charities in the process. He camped and slept rough but also received outstanding kindness and hospitality along the way. He was mugged at one point and was in very real danger at times, especially when running through the Rockies in the depths of winter. He has been back home in Gloucester for a couple of weeks now and this morning he tweeted that he was finding it really difficult to adjust to ‘normal life’. Has he changed? Of course he has. Similarly we have friends that spent fourteen months cycle touring in South and North America, Australia and New Zealand last year. They had some really fantastic experiences and their fair share of tribulation too. We met up with them a little while after they got back and they told us how difficult it was to slot back into a conventional lifestyle. They are both bright, intelligent people who could easily settle into well paid career jobs in the city and start planning their distant retirement but there is no sign of that happening. On the contrary, they seem, to me, to be less conventional, less easy to pigeonhole since they got back and that really excites me for them. Long may they remain restless.

What Gill and I are about to do isn’t as grand or spectacular as Jamie or our friend’s adventures but that doesn’t matter. Doing anything at all that takes you out of your comfort zone will challenge, and ultimately, change you. Almost inevitably for the good.

If you want to know what today’s Tony would do when he gets back I can probably tell you. He would probably get a job in IT. Probably rent a new house in Freckleton and probably go on dreaming of adventures. As to what the Tony who comes back next October will do, I have no idea.

 

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