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Those pesky blackthorns

If you read yesterday’s blog then you will know that we were supposed to be hosting a woman called Adrianne Hill on the first night of her round Britain bike ride on the exact anniversary of our own departure two years ago. The good news is that we did host her; but only just.

Firm new friends

Firm new friends

We were expecting her sometime in the afternoon so the first hint that things weren’t exactly running smoothly came with a text informing us that she would be with us early evening. We just assumed that she was taking her time and enjoying exploring the lovely Lancashire countryside. Several texts later though it became obvious that the horrible headwind, frequent wintry showers and unpredictable Garmin route suggestions were taking their toll. I offered to ride out and meet Adrianne to give her a bit of company for the last ten miles which she gratefully accepted but before I was five miles from home she phoned to say she was being hampered by multiple punctures which explained the delays. I immediately went into emergency rescue mode which achieved nothing apart from proving how incredibly unfit I am at the moment and the idea of sprinting to her aid was nothing more than a figment of my imagination. I finally found her and discovered that my damsel in distress was in fact a very cheerful, funny, optimistic, independent and resilient soul whose only flaw was a tendency to be just a teeny weeny bit disorganised. By this I mean that the punctures she was dealing with were in the 20” wheels of her trailer whilst all her spare inner tubes were of a 27” variety to fit the bicycle wheels. She had persistently patched the offending tube but unlike her mood, the tyre remained obstinately flat; no doubt due to an unseen thorn remaining in the tyre. We had no choice but to call for Thunderbird 2 in the form of Gill in the car who quickly loaded up the trailer and Adrianne’s bags and took off up the dual carriageway for home. Fortunately she had to return past us after turning round and fortunately she noticed that we weren’t speeding homeward but rather we were looking dejectedly at yet another flat tyre, this time it was Adrianne’s front wheel! Those black thorns have a lot to answer for. To her credit Gill stayed with us for moral support while I changed the tube as fast as my now freezing fingers would let me.

In fading light and a bit late for supper we finally made it home sometime after 9pm and salvaged what was left of the evening with copious amounts of food, a little wine and lots of laughter. I’ve said it before but cycle touring is always a roller coaster of ups and downs of every type but they don’t normally all come along on the first day. Welcome to touring Adrianne.

Off she goes

Day two, here we go.

 

We packed her on her way this morning with cheese and salad sandwiches, a homemade scone and two brand new 20” inner tubes. As I am writing this she has reported yet another puncture but she is battling on regardless. I have every faith in her ability to make it around our coastline because beneath her petite frame and beaming smile I think there lies a character that is tougher than the toughest blackthorn and believe me, they don’t come any tougher.

Mixed emotions

Bicycle security chickens at the first campsite

Bicycle security chickens at the first campsite

It’s coming around to the second anniversary of our big adventure cycling around the coast of Britain and as always at this time of year I find there are endless memory joggers that cause me mixed emotions of joy and consternation. Joy at such happy memories and consternation over whether we will ever manage to tear up our new anchors and break away to taste that amazing freedom once more.

I have always followed other people’s adventures but for obvious reasons I am now particularly drawn to any endeavour to circumnavigate our coast by whatever means. I am currently following Quintin Lake who is walking the coast and creating a stunning photographic record of his journey, Elise Downing who is running the circuit and Sean Conway who has upped the anti and is attempting an extraordinary triathlon cycling, running and swimming the route. All of these adventurers have been reminding me acutely of our own experience but when it turned out that Elise and Sean would both be passing through our village the week before our two year anniversary I found myself reliving our departure like it was yesterday.

Great to meet you Sean

Great to meet you Sean

But just when I thought these coincidences couldn’t get even more profound we received an e-mail from yet another intrepid soul about to embark on her own odyssey.

Adrianne Hill wrote to us via the Warm Showers cycle tourers hosting site and asked if we could put her up one day next week. She went on to explain that she was cycling the coast of Britain and we could learn about her journey from her website. Obviously this piqued my interest so I went to find out more only to discover that she has raised the bar in more ways than one. Not only is she cycling the coast but she then intends to run from Lands End to John O’ Groats before crossing the country SUP style (Stand Up Paddle) to complete her own unique triathlon. That is an impressive and ambitious trip but what really bowled me over was when and where she was starting from. She is leaving Liverpool today, Tuesday the 26th April, exactly two years to the day since we set off and she is staying with us tonight! I’m not a believer in fate and all that stuff but really, Mystic Meg could not have written this stuff.

Ready for the off on day one.

Full of nervous anticipation two years ago today

All of these poignant reminders only serve to put me in reflective mood as I look back with timely perspective at our own trip and contemplate what I learned from it. As predicted it really did change me in all sorts of ways, most of which I couldn’t see without the benefit of two year’s hindsight. Trying to assess the effects of a trip like ours immediately on our return was a bit like standing two feet from a very large oil painting and trying to take in the subject. All you see is a blur of colour and texture which may be interesting and even attractive but you get no sense of what the painting is about. Looking back over a decent time span is like stepping back from the work of art and all of a sudden everything comes into view.

I wrote a whole list of the ways in which I believe I have changed as a result of our adventure which included things like being less materialistic, believing in the good in people and appreciating the simple pleasures in life but the one thing that really stands out for me is that I just feel more content. I feel like I have found my place. I think I have always had a yearning to find out what it would be like to throw caution to the wind and metaphorically set sail, leaving the safe harbour behind and chancing to the wind to explore and discover. Our cycle trip has scratched that itch for me and left me feeling simultaneously sated and happy to be where I am. It doesn’t mean I would never want to set out again, but I am happy for now to just enjoy the moment. I remember writing something before the trip about squeezing every last drop of juice from life but the trip has taught me that you don’t necessarily have to be pedalling thousands of miles to do that. I would love to go off again to find new adventure but I don’t have the same sense of urgency that used to gnaw at me. Standing on the start line of a 4,500 mile bike ride is daunting and magnificent, as is looking back at it after two years, but the reality is that the journey itself is no different from any other part of life and the trick is to recognise the value of now and exploit it for everything it is worth.

I’m looking forward to hosting Adrianne and to sharing her excitement at the very beginning of her journey. I’m looking forward to following her adventure along with Quintin’s, Sean’s and Elise’s and enjoying their experiences as they push themselves to new heights. The difference now is that I won’t be jealous of them because I don’t need to imagine what they are going through, I know.

Wildlife on wheels

Bit of a dearth of blogging lately I know, my only excuse is starting work and spending all my spare time trying to stop the big fat pigeon from eating all the food we put out in about thirty seconds. There will be more on that and my new job in another post soon.

In the mean time I have been guest blogging for the Wildlife Trust junior web pages on the joys of combining cycle touring with watching wildlife. The result is over here: http://wildlifewatch.org.uk/wildlife-cycling I hope you like it.

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At last I have my focus.

Maybe more for me than for you, I feel compelled to place a full stop in this blog. A marker to move forward from after a fair bit of reflection on my part. I should warn you that it isn’t funny.

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At last I have my focus! After spending the last twelve months and more thrashing around trying to work out what the hell this blog is supposed to be about I finally have some answers. I have been reading advice from other bloggers and focus seems to be the one requirement of a good blog that everybody agrees on. Now, after giving it a lot of thought, I am finally making some sense out of what it is I want to write about.

It really is so very simple and it’s been staring me in the face all along. The blog started as an account of a life changing adventure when we decided to sell everything, give up our jobs and take off on a six month 4,500 mile cycle tour round the coast of Britain. But that was only how the blog began, not our story. This story really started several years earlier when we had one of those; late-night, second-bottle-of- wine, what’s-it-all-about type of conversations that ended with an agreement that we should never settle for the mundane and never stop questioning the way we live.

We have been focussed on those ideas ever since and that, of course, is what the blog is about. I may have gone off on some pretty wacky tangents at times but when I look back on all the posts and consider what I want to write about in the future it’s the same topic as that which forms a fundamental thread running through our lives.

I don’t think we ever had a road to Damascus moment but we have gradually moved from a focus on jobs, money and possessions to one that centres on free time, new experiences and living a simple life. It’s all about needing less rather than earning more. All the big events and decisions in the last few years have revolved around this including the bike ride, although we probably didn’t realise it at the time. The move to part-time, low paid work, and the recent purchase of the mobile park home are further steps along the way. There is a narrow boat somewhere on the horizon but that’s still a dream at the moment. Each event has led to less stuff, less space and a lot less money. It has also given us a huge sense of freedom and flexibility. It feels a bit like the first day of our big bike ride when tears rolled down my face as we rode the first few miles and I contemplated the scale of what lay ahead. The unknown emptiness of the next six months was exhilarating, like a long dark night just waiting to be filled with sweet dreams. (Ironically, it may well be possible to achieve a similar sensation by having unlimited money but that option was never coming our way.)

The blog is my attempt to provide some insight into what our chosen route involves. We don’t have a manual entitled “Nirvana in six easy steps- the simple life” though I expect there may well be one. We have no idea whether what we are doing is the answer but it’s an option. It’s not about knowing the answers anyway; it’s more about having endless questions. What if? Could we? Should we? We are just attempting to answer the questions rather than letting them hang in the air. It’s about not getting to the end of the journey still wondering what would have happened if we had taken that fork in the road.

A simple life

A simple life

So there is the focus for this blog. It’s about our journey trying to make the most of whatever time we have left. Just like everybody else I suppose. We’re not trying to say it’s the right way. It’s just our way.

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?

Jam sandwiches

The thing I remember most acutely about riding my bike as a child was the sense of exploration. In the endless days of the summer holidays we would make up a few jam sandwiches and take off on another intrepid voyage into the unknown. The fact that so much is new during those tender years makes it easy to have an adventure. There is so much to discover and to wonder at. Whether it’s how far you can ride in a day or venturing deep into the woods to discover that witch’s grave we have heard about. It’s all a bit magical. Somebody asked me the other day how I got into cycling and I realise now that I gave them the wrong answer. I told them about how I started to ride a bike but that’s a subtly different thing. Learning to ride the bike is one thing but discovering what possibilities it opens up and going exploring on a bike is a whole new world. I think it was those early day rides that really got me into cycling and sowed the seeds of my life long cycle touring passion.

All this rose-tinted reminiscence was prompted by a short ride that Gill and I undertook last week. It wasn’t very long but it brought back all the wonderful sense of exploration and discovery that was so easy to find as a child. The idea for the ride came while I was looking at Google Earth and trying to work out exactly where in Preston the Lancaster Canal terminated. It was originally supposed to connect to the docks but it was never completed and its end point has been further truncated by a remodelling of the city centre. It now comes to an abrupt halt in the middle of a mixed residential and commercial area about a mile from the modern marina. It was strange to zoom in to what appeared to be closely packed terraced houses on narrow streets and find myself looking at the tops of narrow boats. This was something just crying out to be explored.

Inspiration

Inspiration

We picked up the canal along the wonderfully named Sidgreaves Lane and ducked under the first bridge bumping over the cobbled paving on our less than ideal touring bikes. We have walked this bit of the canal before and we passed under roads that were regular cycling routes but it wasn’t long before we were trying to work out the unfamiliar surroundings. It’s amazing how you can be in the middle of an area that you think you know well but when seen from a different perspective it all looks totally different.

Towpath tranquility

Towpath tranquility

The open fields either side of the water were soon replaced by sports facilities on the right and the odd bungalow on the left heralding the outskirts of the city. Modern houses, or urban sprawl if you prefer, encroached on both sides now and manicured gardens were adorned with private moorings and waterside decking. In contrast we glimpsed the Tulketh Mill chimney in the distance, a very familiar Preston landmark alongside the busy Blackpool Road reminding us that this watery artery would soon take us deep into the city. It was a marked contrast with the scene of peaceful serenity around us as moorhens and mallards went quietly about their business. A pair of proud swans glided by, protectively escorting their single tiny cygnet.

Mum, Dad and the little one

Soon we were passing right by the mill and under the main road and suddenly those terraced houses I had seen on the map were packed tightly along the far bank. Their gardens tumbled steeply down to the water’s edge, some immaculately terraced and trimmed, and others a wild riot of bramble and weed. More than one boasted its own private pub like construction complete with mock terrace bar and parasols. They were just crying out for our overdue summer to get underway and the opportunity to sip cool drinks in the balmy evening air. I was more than a little jealous of these idyllic havens hidden behind what would undoubtedly be unremarkable red brick terraced streets.

G and T for me please

G and T for me please

We had to lift the bikes over a short flight of stairs but there on the other side was the small marina and the narrow boats that had so intrigued me on Google Earth. That was it, the end of the canal and suddenly we were battling with busy city centre traffic as we made our way down to the marina. A completely new world of noise and fumes, traffic lights and five way junctions to negotiate, just yards from the canal terminus. It was like emerging from the peace and tranquillity of a cathedral into the chaos of the city centre. Ten minutes of mixing it with the traffic and we were at the old docks, now a smart residential and retail centre.

On the south side of the marina you can find Common Terns nesting. They have chosen to fly 12,000 km from Namibia to raise their new families in Preston. Sometimes nature is just beyond explanation. They squabble and bicker amongst themselves and with the coots, pigeons and seagulls that they share the nesting pontoons with. With their striking and sleek appearance they remind me of spivs, all slick and sophisticated on the outside but with a message that says, don’t mess with me.

Common Tern

Common Tern

We leave them to their aerial conflicts and head for the end of the dock and the channel that links it to the river Ribble. Massive lock gates control the tidal waters and I can see why narrow boat skippers are wary of this route back to the tranquil waters of the canals. There is no choice; it’s the only way to get from the Lancaster canal to the rest of the national network. Flat bottomed boats designed to cruise at 4mph are not well suited to fast moving tides and winds and it must be an exciting dash to the shelter and safety of still water.

Holding back the sea

Holding back the sea

Unfortunately the tide is out so there won’t be any boats on the river to entertain us today. That’s enough exploring for us and we turn tail and head for home on familiar cycle tracks and roads.

We had managed to spend over two hours covering a measly eighteen miles but it felt like a real voyage of discovery. The idea of riding into Preston city centre from where we live sounds about as appealing as an hour on a spinning bike in the gym but we had managed to turn it into a real adventure. For a couple of hours I was a carefree teenager once more, exploring the world around me and uncovering hidden gems right in my own back yard. It was wonderful, even magical.

We were starving when we got back. Next time I’ll take some jam sandwiches.

 

It’s all about compromise

I have thought of a synonym for partnership:  Compromise. Because essentially that is what a partnership always is. Whether it’s marriage, a business partnership or two people cycle touring together the greatest challenge to success lies in the level of compromise that can be achieved.

Gill and I spent last weekend at the first ever Cycle Touring Festival at Waddow Hall near Clitheroe and it was amazing how often this topic popped up in conversation. There were many touring couples there, some of whom gave inspiring talks about journeys half way, or even all the way, around the world. Nobody talked about falling out, though obviously we may have been missing those that did, but they all agreed that touring as a couple is not dissimilar to marriage or a partnership in that it’s a long learning curve and it ain’t easy.

By the time we got back to our starting point on our tour last year there was some question as to whether Gill would ever get back on a bike again and this caused me to think long and hard about why that was and if I was in some way responsible. It was obvious that she had become exhausted after 3,500 miles of riding and coupled with a lot of pain she experienced in her hands it was all just too much for her. Why didn’t I have these problems? We talked a lot around the issue and eventually we came to the conclusion that we hadn’t managed to compromise enough. Or to be more honest, I hadn’t managed to compromise enough. Day after day I had been enjoying what to me was a reasonable and not too arduous pace and distance whilst Gill had been pushing herself just that bit harder to keep up. My compromise was probably waiting regularly at the top of hills whilst Gill’s was riding harder than she really wanted to all the time. It wasn’t fair or balanced.

Re-grouping at the top of the hill.

Re-grouping at the top of the hill.

We met a cyclist at John O’ Groats who had completed the ‘end to end’ ride of around a thousand miles in eleven days.

Not learning lessons at John O' Groats

Not learning lessons at John O’ Groats

He was totally exhausted and bitterly disappointed in the experience because he hadn’t enjoyed it. It turned out that having originally conceived of the idea as a solo effort he had subsequently agreed to ride with a younger friend who had totally outpaced him every day. Rather than split up or compromise this chap had pushed himself to the limit day after day and as a consequence his dream ride from Land’s End to John O’ Groats had been ruined. What a terrible waste of a dream. Sadly, even listening to his story a third of the way through our trip we were completely unaware that we were doing the same thing, albeit to a lesser degree.

Loading up our bikes to cycle to the festival last week couldn’t have made me happier. The fact that Gill is now talking enthusiastically about another big tour is music to my ears but I am more conscious than ever of the need for compromise. The answer may lie in a tandem but I am not yet convinced. Just about every aspect of a cycle touring trip is a compromise, from which route to take to what to have for dinner at night. We seem to manage about ninety percent of it really well so if we could just crack the pace and distance conundrum I think we would have a winning partnership. We have managed sixteen years of marriage, surely a few thousand miles of cycling together in harmony can’t be that hard can it?

Somebody at the festival thought a good solution would be for me to carry a lot more of the heavier kit on my bike to reduce Gill’s load. I’m not convinced. You can take this compromising lark a bit too far you know.

I'm not convinced this is a good idea.

I’m not convinced this is the answer.

There are no immediate plans for a long tour so we have plenty of time to get it right. The kit from last week has been cleaned and sorted is ready to go. I’m looking forwarding to finding our solution. It’s all about balance, in more ways than I thought.