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Holy stones and dancing pigeons

I am conscious of my lack of blogging just recently but there are mitigating circumstances. The combination of starting a new job, travelling the length and breadth of England visiting family and not to mention the stress of trying to outwit a fat pigeon have just left no time for writing I’m afraid. They are feeble excuses I know; the job is only three days a week, the family visits did, in practice, leave me with time on my hands on occasions and the battle of wits between me and the pigeon is largely won for the time being so it’s high time I started writing again.

This was before I made him mad.

This was before I made him mad.

If you haven’t already worked it out from my social media posts, my new job is that of, “Wildlife Supporter Officer” working at Brockholes nature reserve for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Unlike the Ronseal tin, the job title doesn’t really reveal very much, but in essence I try to persuade people to become supporters of the Trust by engaging them in fascinating and witty conversation about wildlife and why we need to protect it. The visitors are intriguing, ranging from very serious bird watchers who are so well camouflaged that I don’t usually notice them unless they move, through to courting couples that have absolutely no idea why they are at the nature reserve other than it seemed like a nice romantic backdrop to a first date. What makes the job so interesting is that it turns out that the hipster and his vertiginously heeled beauty are just as likely to be interested in the charity as the telephoto toting twitchers, once you get into conversation with them. They all seem to be really lovely people including most of the children. I say most of the children because the one that told me his idea of a fun day out would be to hunt down everything that moves with a high-powered rifle and kill it was probably beyond even my powers of persuasion. The rest of the little darlings are lovely though and we have all sorts of fun engaging in earnest conversations, mostly about badges, stickers and dinosaurs but occasionally also about wildlife. I have also discovered that my owl impersonation is a real ice breaker with four-year olds.

It’s early days but I am gradually building up my knowledge of the nature reserves across the region so that I can enthuse about the best location for observing the buff tailed bumble bee or explain which varieties of native newts are to be found amongst the courting couples in the St. Annes sand dunes. There is a lot to learn it seems. I still can’t see any difference between the Black Headed gulls and the Mediterranean ones and most days when I get home I have to turn to Google to find out if some wag of a naturalist has been pulling my leg or not. (It turns out that there is a partridge with red legs actually. It’s called a Red Legged Partridge.)

Despite the ridiculous number of miles we had to drive on the motorways to get around the family we did manage to squeeze a few lovely walks into our grand tour and I am more than pleased that both of our grown up boys and their partners are not averse to a stroll in the countryside. Something must have rubbed off on them somewhere along the lines. It was an amazing example of how easy it is to find yourself a bit of peace and quiet and to connect with nature no matter where you live. A Somerset canal, a Dorset beach and a Hampshire water park all proved to be delightful places for a bit of casual bird watching and, in the case of the beach, the discovery of some really intriguing stones with holes in them. A little research revealed that the holes are made by Piddocks, a bi-valve mollusc that literally eats its way into the rock to create a home. I picked up a couple of them and they are proving to be a great hit with the kids when I’m working. You can’t beat a rock eating mussel to create a bit of interest.

Holy stones

Holy stones

And so, the pigeon. As you know we have been feeding an ever increasing variety of birds (you can add chaffinch to the list now) from our bird feeding station as it is grandly called and it’s all been a huge success apart from the pigeons. Well it’s been a huge success for the pigeons from their point of view because for them it’s like a free Michelin star restaurant has opened up in town. The problem is we can’t afford their appetites so something had to be done. Ten minutes work with a wire coat hanger and our bird feed station food tray, the one that contains the avian equivalent of a three course gourmet dinner, is finally pigeon proof. Don’t be alarmed, I didn’t stab the pigeons with the coat hanger, I just made a simple cage that prevents them from getting at the food.

My pigeon rattling cage

My pigeon rattling cage

I may have stopped them eating us out of house and home but they, on the other hand, have worked out a very effective revenge. You wouldn’t believe how much noise two dancing pigeons can make on a tin roof at four o’clock in the morning! I’m on the case though; I’m making them a pair of slippers each next.

 

You can’t beat a good wake

I like a good wake if I’m honest. Not least because unless I am driving it’s a rare excuse for a couple of drinks in the middle of the day which often happens to be in the middle of the week. Its got that slightly naughty feel about it and the alcohol helps with all those awkward moments when we find ourselves talking to somebody whose name you can’t remember, let alone whether or not we are actually related to them. All that changed today because our health conscious government has decided that we are all drinking too much and they have issued us with new lower limit guidelines. A couple of pints or a large glass of wine to oil the social wheels at such a gathering now has serious implications for how much of our allotted entitlement we have left for the remaining week.

We have been told, like so many irresponsible children, that we must cut down on our drinking in order to reduce the risk of life threatening conditions such as liver disease or cancer. Now, so long as we do as we are told, we can look forward to living on to a ripe old dementia riddled age instead.

As it happened I was driving to and from today’s funeral so my quota is safe for now. Aside from the alcohol issue I stand by my opinion that you can’t beat a good wake. For a start everybody is in a good mood. I know that might sound a bit odd having just buried a loved one but the whole point of the funeral tea to me is to finally let go and release all that pent up grief and emotion that the death has created. There is a kind of collective sigh of relief as you enter the pub or restaurant and I am always slightly taken aback by the sound of laughter so soon after the tears but it’s always there. The rest of the afternoon is usually divided between remembering funny anecdotes involving the deceased and catching up with seldom seen members of the family. At some point somebody will always say, “lovely to see you but isn’t it a shame that it always has to be at one of these occasions” and that is generally followed by promises to get together more often which rarely come to anything. Nothing changes.

I find at a wake that there is a sense of letting go of the one that has passed on accompanied by a gentle reminder to cherish those that remain. It’s a nice warm feeling that reminds us of our own mortality but also of how important it is to make the most of whatever time we have left. I said to somebody today that we should live every day as if it was our last one and she corrected me immediately by saying, “no, we should live every minute as if it was out last one”. I’ll drink to that. Or maybe I won’t. Or maybe I shouldn’t. But hang on, this might be my last minute. Pass me that bottle opener.

 

Back on the roller coaster rails

Go to to the first blog post

Is it possible to ride two roller coasters at the same time? Well yes it is actually. It’s also possible to have an adventure within an adventure but more of that in a moment.

We left Penzance last week in a whirlwind of emotion. Gill was no longer riding her bike but driving our borrowed van (which we have christened Vera) and I was now riding alone for the final thousand miles or so of the journey. The emotions were a mix of fear, elation, sadness and excitement. Quite a cocktail to sip on as I rode out of Penzance and the drizzle added yet another layer to play with my mind.

Leaving Penzance. My mind was busier than the harbour.

Leaving Penzance. My mind was busier than the harbour.

First night with Vera

First night with Vera

We were both still coming to terms with the change to our plans and the fact that we would not now be finishing the ride side by side on our bikes. If the only point of this adventure had been to tour the coast of Britain, unsupported and on bicycles, then you could say we had failed. But it wasn’t the only point at all. The idea of cycling the coast came out of discussions we had around a much bigger challenge, that of changing our lives. Of jumping off the merry-go-round whilst it was still spinning, a scary and dangerous thing to do. We both wanted that change and the inevitable fallout that would come from it, whatever that may be, and cycling around Britain just happened to be the means that we chose. For that reason, the fact that we will be continuing with me on my bike and Gill driving Vera doesn’t matter one little bit. The life changing adventure continues.

The next few days involved some of the steepest ups and downs of the route so far. As I ground my way up the climbs and nervously rolled down the other sides of the roller coaster like terrain my mind was travelling it’s own big dipper with equally stomach churning results.

Turning points

Turning points

But it worked. As I came to terms with the periods on my own, Gill gained confidence driving the van and navigating to rendezvous points and slowly a whole new adventure began to emerge from the old one. It was like recycling an original adventure and making a new one from all the old bits plus a few new ingredients. We continued to talk about the bigger picture and that is when I realised that this bike ride around the coast of Britain was actually an adventure within a much bigger and more important adventure in our lives together.

We both began to see the stunning views once more as the curtain of worry and doubt was slowly drawn aside and Cornwall put on a truly spectacular show for us.

Minack

Minack

The riding was as hard as any I have done and it was bliss to find Gill waiting for me by the side of the road with a smile and a sandwich just as I was beginning to flag. We’d plan the next meeting point, reflect on the common sights we had seen along the way, describe the ones the other might have missed and genuinely share the whole experience together. To our delight it really was working and slowly, mile by mile, day by day, all sense of failure faded away and just the journey remained.

We left Cornwall behind in spectacular fashion tackling 30% gradients (on foot in my case) and gawping at vivid blue seas, white sandy beaches and the grandest of vertical cliffs framing both. Devon brought a brief escape from the ridiculous gradients and a very pleasant ride along the completely flat Tarka Trail to Barnstaple and Braunton and  a two day break with family and friends. We reconnected with some amazing people and met some new ones too.

Thanks for the bed Uncle Richard and Fiona

Thanks for the bed Uncle Richard and Fiona

Gill and Georgie on the beach

Gill and Georgie on the beach

The feeling of really sharing our odyssey with others was strong and brought us right back to where and why it all began. A splendid farewell dinner, late night and one too many glasses of wine weren’t the best way to prepare for the rest of the Devon hills but I have no regrets.

Happy times

Happy times

I left Braunton mildly hung over but very content despite the early morning hill climbs. The sun was shining, there was a cool hint of autumn in the air and everything felt right again. Gill would be meeting me at Lynmouth along with Georgie, Annabelle and Sabrina and I was really looking forward to the next twenty five miles. If only I knew what those roads had in store for me.

Into the unknown

We have just made plans for exactly how we intend to restart our ride and it’s got me all excited again but also a little bit edgy. Having looked at the maps and worked out where I am going to ride tomorrow afternoon and where we might camp in the evening the trip feels very much alive again. Now I am imagining what it is going to be like to be riding alone and only seeing Gill at intervals along the route. I have also had a closer look at the first 200 miles and it’s definitely going to be the hardest in terms of terrain. I have a jumble of feelings going on in my head, some positive and some not. I’m looking forward to riding without so much weight on the bike but still daunted by the amount of climbing that I will have to do. I’m really happy that Gill has found a way to be with me but I will still miss her even during the short periods on my own. I am excited to be moving again but trying not to think that there is still over a thousand miles to go. It’s a mixed bag of emotions but on balance it makes me really happy.

In the intro to our blog I made reference to how rubbish I am at being on my own so the next few weeks are going to be a challenge of a very different kind. It may be that the format we have worked out will carry me through but I’m still a little bit nervous. It may turn out to be just another really laid back way of touring, like a long holiday, but it doesn’t feel that way at the moment. It feels like a serious undertaking that may push us into yet more unknown territory. Maybe that’s a good thing. All this stepping out of our comfort zones is what it was all about in the first place so I’m not complaining. I will just be glad to be on the move again, extending that wiggly black line around the coast and heading for home.

What I am really looking forward to is reaching particular milestones that only a week ago I thought we might not reach at all. Lands End is the first and most obvious one but it’s the visits to family and friends that are the most important. After all the build up, the support and the anticipation of people dotted along our route the idea of not reaching them was a hard one to contemplate. I think that, above all else, would have made our journey feel incomplete. Now we are both looking forward tremendously to catching up with friends old and new and the remaining members of our coastal dwelling families. (You know who you are).

The same applies, of course, to seeing everybody back home in Lancashire. In some ways with all the contact that the blog and social media gives us it seems like we haven’t been away at all but we still miss people lots.

I don’t know the north Cornwall and Devon coasts all that well. I do know that they are very beautiful but that the beauty comes at a price for cyclists. Everybody that rides Lands End to John o’ Groats says the first two or three days are the hardest and I’m getting a little tired of that knowing look on people’s faces when it accompanies phrases like “ooh you’ve got a few hills to climb there”. As a friend said just the other day, “it’s not called a ‘push’ bike for nothing” and I’m not too proud to push if I have to. In my mind it’s a going to be a tough ride back to Somerset and then apart from a few lumps in Pembrokeshire it will be a breeze all the way home. I can’t wait to get going now.

A few pictures from South Cornwall

The joy of small ferries

The joy of small ferries

They can be erm, intresting

They can be erm, interesting

Cornwall is hard to beat on a sunny day

Cornwall is hard to beat on a sunny day

St. Michaels Mount

St. Michaels Mount

Pivotal moments

Moving on

Moving on

It has been an interesting couple of weeks here on our personal tour of Britain. For the first time there has been serious discussion of whether or not we will complete the full circuit. I suppose it started with the recognition that we were both very tired and in need of a break but the simple solution of stopping for a week didn’t completely fix the problem and that’s when it got a lot more complicated.

After our lovely break in Brighton we both set off expecting everything to be fixed and we were quite surprised when we found that it wasn’t. OK we did have strong blustery winds to contend with and Gill’s problem with her hands hadn’t gone away but it was both shocking and a bit depressing to find that after just fifteen miles of that first day back on the road we were both really down in the dumps. We sat on a bench by the seaside and talked about the consequences of simply throwing in the towel and heading back home to Lancashire.

The Needles over troubled waters.

The Needles over troubled waters.

It was a difficult moment. Gill was teary, I was bitterly disappointed and underlying these feelings was the terrible fear of the potential damage this might all do to our relationship and our future. Looking back with a measure of perspective I can see that this was a pivotal moment and the point at which all kinds of things about this trip changed.

Time for reflection. Bosham harbour.

Time for reflection. Bosham harbour.

Before we left lots of people referred to how brave we were to give up everything and set off on such a daunting journey but we never saw it that way. For us it was anything but brave. We were simply, finally, doing something that we had wanted to do for a long time and bravery didn’t come into it. We were fulfilling a dream, not facing our fears as many people seemed to think. All that changed in those five minutes on that seaside bench. Suddenly bravery was absolutely what it was about. Facing the question of carrying on when things had become difficult or giving up and going home was about as daunting as anything gets and the more I thought about it the harder it became. Now was the time for facing our fears. We had had three months of having a good time. No work, pleasing ourselves, drifting along on a wave of happy emotions. It really hadn’t been difficult at all. Yes there were tough days of wet and cold weather. There were rubbish campsites and never ending hills but on the whole we had just been having a ball. Now, all of a sudden somebody had moved the goal posts and our endless holiday had turned into a very real test of strength and courage.

Over the next few days we stayed with friends and family and we talked the whole thing through which helped a lot.

I spent many hours unable to sleep as I wrestled with my own selfish perspective. Gill had always been enthusiastic about this project but deep down I think we both knew that it probably meant more to me than to her. I knew Gill would push herself to ensure my dream could continue but I was also aware that pushing herself to breaking point was not a solution for either of us. Something had to give.

We always talked about this experience being life changing but to be honest, up until this point I was beginning to have my doubts. I know that our lives are constantly changing in small ways, mostly so small that they aren’t even noticeable but we were expecting something a bit more spectacular. Now I am starting to understand how such a paradigm shift might come about. We are finally being tested. Really tested, in a way that will change the way we think. The way we understand ourselves and each other and the way we want to live our lives at the end of this process. It’s scary, exciting and challenging but now I know that this is what this trip is really all about.

Scary but challenging times

Scary but challenging times

As somebody posted on Facebook just this morning, “nobody changes inside their comfort zone”. We are so far outside our comfort zone right now that change is inevitable. We both think we may have turned a corner and we are both determined to finish what we started but we now understand that it isn’t a party anymore. This is when the hard work starts. This is when we find out just how much we really want this life changing experience. There is no easy way out from here. To go home would feel like a massive failure (I know, I know. It’s not really a failure but it doesn’t stop it feeling that way). Continuing is going to be tough and may test us physically and mentally. It will almost certainly reveal any weaknesses in our relationship and in ourselves. It’s dangerous but I think it has to be done.

Catching up with family helped a lot.

Catching up with family helped a lot.

We are both enormously grateful to everyone who has supported us and encouraged us so far, we really are. Don’t go away just yet. You are as much a part of this journey as we are and we need you now more than ever before.

And so to Devon and Cornwall. Something of a nemesis for us. We’ll see you on the other side.

 

Cousins galore

I’m sitting in the most idyllic situation on a Camping and Caravan Club site at Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast. It’s been a tough hilly day and that may be contributing to just how good the beer tastes. Pasta is boiling on the stove while I do a bit of catching up and Gill is doing her Pilates exercises in the tent. There is a constant chorus of song birds and crows providing audio backing while rabbits and lambs provide visual entertainment. It’s all a bit Watership Downish to be honest. The fact that the sun has shone all day may also be playing it’s part in my general feeling of well being. Just wait for the first blog at the end of a day of persistent rain and it may have a different flavour to it.

We’ve had a great start to the trip with fine weather and nothing to spoil the mood at all. As I cleaned my teeth on the morning after our first camp (well I was flossing actually) I was engaged in conversation by another camper. Within five minutes I had been given his name, address and phone number with a promise of whatever help we might need when we eventually get to South Wales. It was a bit awkward with me standing there holding a piece of half used floss but Mike’s attitude was typical of everybody we have met so far. There are lovely people out there folks, go and meet them at every opportunity.

Our second night was spent with my cousin Jane, her husband Peter (who cycled out to meet us) and their culinary genius of a daughter Emily who produced a fabulous three course dinner. Needless to say there was wine and beer too and heaps of warm and very fun filled conversation. We did it all again over breakfast (without the alcohol) and then it was off to visit another cousin, Margaret in Dalton. We soon knew that we were approaching the edge of the Lake district both from the spectacular views and the huffing and panting as we took in the first hills of what was to be quite a hard day for our unacustomed muscles. Yet another cousin, Veronica arrived and we had a lovely time drinking tea and being shown around the extensive garden by Margaret’s husband Dennis. I particularly liked the story Dennis told of my Uncle Teddy replacing the petrol engine on his cement mixer with an electric one from a washing machine. Now that is recycling.

We arrived in Ravenglass to great drama. Some poor chap has gone missing, presumed drowned and the entire emergency services of Cumbria seemed to have descended on this quiet little seaside village. There were even TV crews, all a surreal contrast to the peaceful haven of our nearby campsite.

For those who like these things we’ve covered about 140 miles so far. I say about, the cycle computer has packed up already so we will be calculating mileage from our maps until we get it sorted. Here are a few pics from the first three days

Silverdale

Siverdale

Cousin Jane

Cousin Jane

Millom

Millom

Morecambe boats

Morecambe boats

Chicken attack!

Chicken attack!

Idyllic camp at Ravenglass

Idyllic camp at Ravenglass

 

Thank you. We’re off!

Gill and I were talking yesterday about how the process of planning, preparing and executing our plan to date has already been a life changing experience and a very positive one too. That may sound a little dramatic but it isn’t at all. The response we have had from people and the acts of paring down our belongings and giving up home and jobs have had quite an effect on us even before we start the actual cycle journey. I was lying awake at some point in the early hours of this morning, predictably, and it struck me that we had a lot to be grateful for in getting this far. So even though it may seem a little premature I would like to say a few thank-you’s to people.

By the wonders of WordPress technology I am hoping that you will get notice of this post as we leave at 9am so we will be pedalling north, nibbling at our 5,500 mile target as I say:

To all the family, friends, acquaintances and cyber chums who really understand what we are doing and why and basically said ‘go for it’ in a completely positive way, thankyou.

To the same group but those that don’t really get it at all and have expressed, concern, fear and even horror at our plans but have still said good luck. Your reaction is special as it makes our journey special because it isn’t for everyone.

To the people who have helped in a practical way to organise things like social events, moving our stuff to storage and accommodating us before we leave, we couldn’t have got this far without you.

To a few friends who have offered to drop everything and come running should we find ourselves in dire need of anything at some point in the trip. You know who you are and we are touched by your offer. We’ll give you a call if we run out of beer or wine at ten o’clock at night on a wild camp site in Northern Scotland.

To all the people who may have paid over the odds to buy our stuff on E-Bay. I hope you get lots of pleasure from your purchase, we certainly will.

To the staff of Freckleton Post Office for letting me down gently each time they have told me that my parcel is too long, too fat, or too heavy and will cost over six pounds to send, not two pounds. It’s tough coming to terms with the fact the postage is more than what you sold the item for. I did learn eventually.

To the many interesting members of the Freecycle community who made it so incredibly difficult to actually give things to you for free. I’m sorry if some of my e-mails got a bit tetchy at times but thank you for an abundance of blogging and dinner party anecdote material. Oh, and for eventually taking the rubbish away of course.

And finally, thank you to our friend’s haidresser who, on having our plans revealed to her responded simply and directly with: “Why?” I don’t know you but I would like say a particular big thank you to you because it is reactions like that which tell us we are definitely doing the right thing.

So thank you all very much and we will be in touch from the road soon. (I will add a picture or two from our Petit Depart later if I can).

G&T