It’s a tribal thing

We have bought our tickets for the second annual Cycle Touring Festival in May. The first one was a resounding success with about two hundred like-minded, two wheeling nomads coming together to share tales of misery and delight over beers, brews and a small mountain of cake. At that time we were not long back from our big trip around the coast of Britain which we thought was quite an epic adventure until we listened to some of the speakers at the festival. It turned out that what we had done was like a bit of a warm up for some of the odysseys that others had undertaken. Phrases like “that was our twenty second country” or “it was just towards the end of our third year on the road” were bandied about with a casualness normally reserved for discussing the weather. There were, of course, plenty of cyclists there who had yet to embark on their first multi week tour and even some who had never strapped a pannier on a bike or even sniffed a pair of socks to determine whether they would do another week or not. We were somewhere in the middle I suppose.

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What was brilliant about it though was that we were with our tribe. It didn’t matter whether you were a grizzled old warrior of the road or still dithering over which Swiss Army knife you should choose, you were one of the clan and as such safe and protected and in the right place. When people with a common interest and passion come together there is a real genuine feeling of warmth and support; especially if the common interest is a bit wacky and not really understood by other people. I’m sure there is exactly the same cosy sense of being wrapped in a protective but fluffy blanket at model train conventions or a velology festival. I’m not sure whether it’s because of a deep rooted ancient yearning to come together with others that share our passions and beliefs or simply a desire not to feel weird. It doesn’t really matter, it’s fun and it gives us purpose and place in a confusing and crowded world.

Being with ‘your own sort’ is easy and relaxing. It’s so refreshing to be able to emerge from the tent in the morning and talk to your nearest neighbour about the relative merits of synthetic or natural sleeping bag fillings as if it was the most normal thing in the world. When we share a campsite with the public at large we are often greeted by concerned caravaners who want to check that we survived the night without succumbing to hypothermia. We were even asked on one occasion if we would like them to boil a kettle for us. I don’t know if they thought that we might be desperate for a hot drink or a good wash but we assured them in the nicest possible way that we did actually have the means of boiling a kettle ourselves. When you are with your tribe you don’t have to explain the obvious and you can just get on with laughing hilariously at the shared memory of being wet for three consecutive days or making dinner from a spoonful of rice, a chicken flavour cup-a-soup and a lump of cheese that has been lurking in the bottom of a pannier for several weeks. Of course you both know that you are exaggerating wildly but that’s all part of the fun.

Most conversations will, at some point, turn knowingly to the non-tribal members of the population who are missing out on the true meaning of life and the route to ever-lasting happiness by not going cycle touring. But that’s the whole point isn’t it? We come together and celebrate our eccentricity. We revel in our difference from the masses and look to each other as living proof that we and we alone, have found the answers. Just like the train spotters, the sequence dancers and the cheese rollers probably do when they attend their annual tribal gatherings. The sense that we are a part of something is important, even vital, to our well-being so I for one can’t wait to gather around the camp fire once again and remind myself that I’m not the only weirdo on the block.

Nowt so queer as folk

Up north you will hear this phrase, there’s nowt so queer as folk. Well I put it to you that there is, and it’s campers and caravanners.

One of the joys of camping is watching other people on the site. There can be few more entertaining spectator sports than watching an otherwise loving couple fall out over the erection of a multi-pole mega dome tent. It’s mostly a macho dominated affair where the man becomes construction manager and his partner is reduced to pole feeding assistant. That’s when it all goes wrong. “That’s the wrong pole”, he cries in frustration only to be fixed with a steely stare and the reply, “well it’s the pole you gave me so you must have given me the wrong one.” The performance can go on for up to an hour and only the lack of a hostess with an ice cream tray renders it second to the best theatre experience available.

Once the tent is finally up there comes the business of setting up the kitchen and lounge and all the while the dog, which has been cruely tethered to a spike in the ground is going demented trying to catch the pigeons flying overhead. “Did you pack the washing up bowl?” cries the poor harrassed pole attendant, “no, you did all the kitchen stuff, I was in charge of the tent and sleeping stuff, which you will notice, is all here by the way.” Oh dear, it’s going to be a difficult weekend isn’t it? It usually ends with a truce over a bottle of wine and suddenly they remember how much they love camping and the curtain comes down on our entertainment for the evening. Occassionally there is an encore in the form of late arrivals but that is more a case of irritation than entertainment.

Now where's that kitchen sink?

Now where’s that kitchen sink?

Then there are the camp characters. There are two types that stick in my mind; the nice, sociable and generally interesting ones and the ones that just know better. Better about everything that is. They usually have a better tent, a better stove, a better multi function Swiss Army, air bed inflater cum wind generator device or something and whatever you have bought, brought or used for years without issue, theirs is better. Like the friendly chap tonight who bypassed the usual social graces to explain that his teenage children were noisy but his stove was even noisier. I beg to differ actually. I heard him cooking dinner and now I am listening to his children and believe me, his stove is not that noisy. I know teenage siblings argue all the time but actually arguing about what the time is? That’s just ridiculous. He latched onto us as a fellow cyclist so I should really cut him some slack but riding up and down the road with four empty panniers on the bike and ‘tweeking’ his brakes and gears while his exceptionally loud stove boils the water for the green tea is just a bit over the top isn’t it?

The sociable ones are the likes of John and Denise who turned up on big loud motorbikes and turned out to be the best of close neighbours and Chris and Margaret who kept Gill talking for so long I nearly reported her missing. It wasn’t their fault to be fair, Gill was telling them of our adventure and they were genuinly interested, I think.

You're not having one Gill.

You’re not having one Gill.

We have stayed on our current site for two nights and I’m pleased to say that most of our immediate fellow campers have moved on today. I  don’t know what the problem was but we didn’t seem to able to get any social interaction with any of them. It’s kind of normal on camp sites to smile and say hello to other residents but the bunch we have been surrounded by seemed to be too busy sucking on lemons and gazing intently at the ground to engage in any kind of greeting. We both managed to squeeze a mumbled good morning out of most of them eventually but boy it was hard work. They certainly weren’t the kind of folks that you would want to end up stuck in a lift with. I really don’t understand why anyone would choose to set up a temporary home in very close proximity to lots of other people if they don’t actually like people. Surely two weeks trekking across the wastelands of Mongolia would suit them much better. It’s a mystery to me.

Anyway it’s all quiet now and it looks as if we should be in for a peaceful night’s sleep. That is assuming that that wood pigeon and it’s lady friend go to bed any time soon.

P.S. Strictly speaking this morning’s encounter doesn’t fit this blog as the chap concerned probably wasn’t a camper but I’m going to tell you about him anyway. There was a path going out of the back of the campsite that connected with a lane into the village of East Runton and having walked it three times during our stay we had noted that it was easily rideable and would save us a long slog up the stony pot holed track we had arrived down. So we are rolling down this path at eight in the morning when we spot a man and his dog walking towards us. Gill slows down to a stop to give him room to pass and he greets us with a cheery “are you lost?”. At least I thought it was cheery. Gill explained that we weren’t lost but just taking a short cut down to the village. His reply was delivered with all the venom and hatred of a thoroughly ticked off snake as he said, “well this is a path and you have no business cycling on it.” His dog then joined in snarling and snapping at us as I played the innocent and said I thought it was a bridle path. “Well it isn’t”, he replied, “it’s a footpath and you shouldn’t be cycling on it.” I turned to him and said, “you know you are a miserable little man spreading spite and bile all around you and the world will a better place once you expire and I doubt very much anyone will mourn your passing! Oh and your dog’s not much better either.” Actually that’s not true. That’s what I thought of saying about ten minutes later as we cycled through the village. What I actually said was, “oh well I’m terribly sorry and you have a nice day too.” Really, some people.

Phone the path police!

Quick, phone the path police!

A day in the life of..

Here is a description of a fairly typical day on tour. Just to give a flavour for those who have never done anything like this.

We are typically awake between five thirty and seven and begin the morning routines almost immediately. For me that means wriggling out of my sleeping bag and starting my morning Pilates exercises. This consists of taking off pants and sleeping shirt, putting on cycling shorts and shirt and other items for the day which, believe me, is as good as any Pilates class when done in a small tent. I’m then off to the loos because I’m a creature of habit while Gill dresses. Once back I put the kettle on and Gill begins her packing. I’ll pack some stuff while waiting for the kettle to boil and then after tea it’s breakfast of weetabix with added fruit and nuts or porridge if we are having a slower start. I’ll then pack up the stove and cooking equipment and Gill goes off to wash the dishes. It takes a while to get everything back where it belongs in the right bags before we can start on the tent.

Our tent is a Hilleberg Nallo GT2 and it is extremely strong and waterproof but it does suffer badly from condensation on the flysheet on all but the windiest of nights. Rather than carry all the excess weight Gill dries the inside off while I do the outside. It’s amazing how much water we can remove this way. Taking the tent down is very methodical. We tie up all the guylines to prevent them getting tangled and remove the pegs in a particular order. As we take out the poles we always ensure the tent is weighted down with a pannier or two whatever the weather. It’s just a good habit to stick to. As I roll and pack the tent Gill rolls and packs the thin foam mats we use under it for extra insulation.

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Just arrived

All the bags, mats and tent are attached to the bikes then it’s back to the shower block for teeth cleaning and water bottle filling. Finally, we are ready to ride. About two hours after waking.

We usually take the first opportunity to stock up on snacks and food for the day though we always have some stuff in reserve. Fresh fruit and veg is proving a challenge so bananas and tomatoes are more often than not on our snack menu.

We tend to ride for about two hours or twenty odd miles before stopping to brew up or at a cafe if we feel like a treat. (Usually when the weather is really bad). We’ll stop frequently for a few minutes to take pictures, add or remove clothing and sometimes just to stand and gawp at another stunning view. It’s suprising how easy it is to fill the day like this and depending on terrain, weather and how we feel we will be considering our night’s stop after anything between thirty and fifty miles. We have campsites marked on our map and this is supplemented by local knowledge and the Camping and Caravan Club listings and those of the tourist boards. We are usually tired at this point in the day and it’s the time to be careful not to let emotions take over from logic and practicalities. It is also the time that we are most likely to snap at each other over silly trivial things. As time goes by we are more aware of these things and we are getting better at dealing with them.

We’ll shop for the evening’s meal at the last place likely before we camp ensuring we have plenty of comfort treats for later in the evening. Chocolate and tea feature most nights.

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First brew is always the best

Once at the campsite the tent goes up first. This is a team effort and takes only five minutes. The kettle is usually on within about fifteen minutes and then it’s off for a shower after tea and biscuits/cake/chocolate etc. Our inflatable sleeping mattresses double up as very comfy chairs and I am usually sitting in mine cooking the tea by six or seven o’clock. We supplement pasta/rice and tins or jars of sauce with fresh veg where we can and to be honest it always tastes like heaven whatever we cook. Last night we went off at a bit of a tangent with pasta cooked with cuppa soup, black pudding and scrambled egg. Don’t judge till you’ve tried it. (Unless you are veggie of course) It was followed by honey and butterscotch cake with custard. More tea and more chocolate round off our consumption for the day. Calories are only an issue if we can’t get enough of them. The evenings pass incredibly quickly just going back over the day, writing notes and sorting out photographs and listening to some obscure local radio station.

With teeth cleaned and one last wee (you really don’t want to be getting out in the night if at all possible) we are usually settling down to sleep around nine. There is often quite a bit of pillow construction to refine as this seems to by the key to a good night’s sleep. The next nine hours or more are lost in deepest dreamland.

And repeat

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.

Butterflies

Not the kind that flutter gracefully around the flowers, but the kind that flutter excitedly in my stomach when I think about what we’re soon to be embarking on. I have been asked if I’m scared or nervous, I must be a bit or I wouldn’t get butterflies!

Fluttering in my stomach

Fluttering in my stomach

It is a very big adventure for us and I appreciate how lucky we are to have the opportunity, time and means to do this. I want to do it justice and bring home some very happy memories and great stories – a lot of which I expect might be situated around days that don’t feel so good at the time – like the Dent day (which served to show me that no matter how bad it is, it does eventually end, and makes for endless story telling).

There are many reminders of how close it is.

On Monday it will be one month exactly until I finish work, I gave them six months notice and I can’t believe how quickly it has gone.

Next weekend we’re off to visit the Gloucester family for the last time before we depart. The next time we see them should be when we cycle up the West coast following the course of the river Severn to make our way into Wales.

The house is in uproar, there are boxes everywhere. We have a space marked out in the back bedroom the same size as the storage space we have booked, so that we can work out if everything we intend to keep will fit in. Watch this space, there may be more for Ebay, Freecycle or the tip!

It’s going to be strange to cycle away from our lives, home and friends but there’s lots to look forward to. Tony is compiling a map with markers to show where we have been offered accommodation (not all of them family or friends). People are incredibly kind and we have had offers of accommodation from readers of various blogs and forums that Tony has been posting on.

There’s another potential source of butterflies, accepting hospitality from complete strangers. One of my work colleagues is worried that we might meet an axe murderer! I’m pretty sure it will be OK, as Hannah Engelkamp found out when she walked the circumference of Wales with Chico the donkey. You can read about her adventures here – Seaside Donkey.

I can’t wait to start the adventure. Most of the family we don’t see before we go are en route or going to travel to see us. We have friends planning to join us for bits of it. There’s 5,500 miles of coastline to explore and six months of pleasing ourselves with no bigger plan than to head North and keep the sea on the left.

To quote Susie Burns “happy days”.

 

 

Indian Squats

Children squat without thinking about it too much

Children squat without thinking about it too much

When I paid a visit to Kelly Thorn at Inner Power Pilates  with a view to improving my core strength and learning some techniques to manage my back spasms and life on a bike and in a tent, I never imagined I would spend an evening happily Googling the phrase “indian squats” and reading about toilet habits!

According to Wikipedia “Young children squat instinctively as a continuous movement from standing up whenever they want to lower themselves to ground level. One and two year olds can commonly be seen playing in a stable squatting position, with feet wide apart and bottom not quite touching the floor, although at first they need to hold onto something to stand up again” .

As we grow into adults we lose flexibility and with it the ability to squat with ease. I didn’t realise this was going to be a problem but it seems that for a life on the road, wild camping at times, spending six months mostly living in a tent and disappearing into the bushes to perform bodily functions it will be an invaluable technique to develop.

Across the Indian continent squatting is a part of daily life as noted by Bombay Jules.  Kelly believes that if I can perfect the technique it will make a big difference to my life on the road, giving me a comfortable natural alternative to sitting cross legged in the tent, leaving Tony and his tight hamstrings with plenty of room to stretch out in. It will also come in handy when it’s my turn to be camp cook and I expect to utilise it fully when I disappear into the bushes with the trowel!

Maybe it won't be quite like this in the bushes!

Maybe it won’t be quite like this in the bushes!

Moving house

I love the questions people ask us about our trip. “Where will you stay?” crops up quite frequently and has, on occasion, been followed by “will you have an electric hook-up?”.  That, after we have told them that we will mainly be camping. Goodness knows what they think we carry in our panniers.

Well the answer to the first question is very definitely, we will be camping as much as possible to keep the costs down and because we like camping. Yes you read that correctly, we actually do like to sleep in a small space with nothing more than two bits of thin nylon fabric between us and the elements. It’s as close to sleeping outside as you can get without having to worry about getting wet or cold. People talk about, ‘getting close to nature’. Well most of the time we are just two zippers away. The sounds of animals and birds, rain on the fabric, wind whistling in the trees and distorting the shape of our shelter and even the smells of the outdoors are all so close from inside our little cavern.

"excuse me, this is my pitch"

“excuse me, this is my pitch”

What was once known as the ‘bell end’ but is now, more often referred to rather pretentiously as the ‘vestibule’ of the tent has been home to beetles, hedgehogs, a robin, and once, rather alarmingly, a horse’s head. That last experience probably brought me a little closer to nature than I was comfortable with. (Aren’t they big?) Gill wasn’t with me at the time or she might have been put off camping for good. When we aren’t hosting local fauna it’s just magic to open the flysheet zip in the morning and be greeted by a glorious sunrise or a world turned sparkling white with frost.

With the kettle on, we relish the prospect of a lovely cup of tea whilst watching the world wake up from our morning campsite.

Of course there are occasions when a nice bed and breakfast might be preferable. Pitching the tent in heavy rain isn’t much fun and the same goes for packing it up in the wet. We once spent an hour huddled inside with all our gear packed and ready to go while we listened to the rain hammering on the flysheet. So loud was it that at times it made conversation difficult, and we gave ourselves several deadlines to get out and load up all of which passed without further discussion. What people who don’t camp or work outdoors don’t realise though, is that rain that goes on for hour after hour is actually very rare. Showers of varying lengths are much more common and easier to deal with.

Pitching the tent in normal conditions is very easy. It takes little more than five minutes between taking the tent off the bike and putting the kettle on from the comfort of our cosy little home. Complete with arm chairs and radio four. I loved it when we were assailed by a caravan dweller one morning who complimented us on our camp craft. “I watched you pitch your tent last night and I said to the wife: they’ve done that a time or two before haven’t they?” It’s so easy and convenient and unlike a hotel there’s no need to worry that the wallpaper won’t be to our taste.

Occasionally we will use a hostel or a Bed and Breakfast to avoid really bad weather or to catch up on washing and chores that don’t come easy on a campsite but mostly we will camp. We will also be using a web based organisation called Warm Showers which is brilliant for all sorts of reasons but that deserves a post all of its own. In the meantime, in case you are wondering, this will be our bijou residence for ninety percent of the time:

Room with a view

Room with a view

With a different view every day of course.

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