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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.

Serendipity, Armageddon and a bit of a draught.

What’s the opposite of serendipity? Sod’s law I suppose. Well that is what we experienced as we departed for home after a short stay with Gill’s parents. I wrote about the journey down here and how frustrating and meaningless I normally find motorway journeys. This one turned out to be quite entertaining in a weird kind of way and it all started with a broken window.

As we pulled out of the drive Gill pressed the button to lower the window so she could wave goodbye to her Mum and Dad. The window descended smoothly until it was three quarters of the way down and then with a nauseating grinding noise it stopped in a way that meant you just knew it was broken. Sure enough, no amount of button pressing, window tugging or pushing or even foot stamping made the slightest difference and reluctantly I reversed back onto the driveway. If it had broken in a closed position or even a slightly open position it might not have been such a disaster but three hours on the motorway with a wide open window and a forecasted high of four degrees and snow wasn’t attractive. Luckily for me the window was on the passenger side but I’m not stupid so I didn’t convert my optimistic image of Gill all snuggly in a hat and scarf into words. We needed to fix the window.

Thirty minutes, a butchered see-through plastic storage bag and a roll of gaffer tape borrowed from a neighbour was all that was needed to fashion a perfectly suitable substitute for a window. In fact I was pretty pleased with the result. All it needed was access to a wind tunnel and a two hundred thousand pound research grant and I think we might have been onto something. The question was; would it withstand three hours at seventy miles an hour and gale force winds? Of course it would. We set off once again with only marginally reduced visibility and a strong sense of optimism.

I watched nervously with one eye on the speedo and one on the makeshift window as we accelerated to sixty, sixty five and then seventy miles an hour and miraculously everything stayed in place. Admittedly the acoustics of the car did seem to be slightly impaired by our modification but we tend not to talk that much on long drives and who wants to listen to the radio anyway.

I was impressed that we got as far as we did before the first bit of sticky tape made a bid for freedom threatening to take all of its mates and our new window with it. We pulled into Stafford services to assess the situation and to scout for more gaffer tape. If you have never been to Stafford services I should warn you that the actual services are such a long way from the motorway exit that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to build intermediate services between the two. We eventually reached the car parking area and went in search of repair materials. There was some debate about leaving the car with compromised security but we decided that a Morrison’s chicken and bacon sandwich and a multi pack of Cheddars on the back seat probably didn’t constitute a particularly tempting haul and besides we were parked next to a very expensive looking Jaguar that probably had a sat nav that was worth more than our car.

Gill without a hat or scarf

Gill without a hat or scarf

We failed to find any more sticky tape but we settled down to eat lunch in the car park and it proved to be much more entertaining than I would have imagined. It’s surprising how many people arrive at the services and then emerge from their cars to perform an impromptu set of yoga exercises completely uninhibited by their public location. It also turns out that positioning a car between two generously spaced white lines is quite a challenge for a lot of drivers and a surprising number seem to find a jaunty angle is the best option after several forward and reverse manoeuvres. We will never know what dramatic event caused the driver of the silver mini bus to pull into a parking slot, switch off the engine, pause for ten seconds, restart the bus and then drive away again. His whole life may have changed in an instant due to some pivotal message he received on his mobile phone. Maybe he would look back on that moment in time when all his dreams and aspirations were shattered by a few simple words on a tiny glowing screen. Or maybe he just decided that he didn’t need a wee after all.

We left the services after another lengthy drive and began the frustrating process of catching up and overtaking all the heavy goods vehicles that we had passed in the first half of the journey. Our repaired repair seemed to be holding fast unlike the previously unbroken blue sky which was now being torn in two by dramatic cloud formations. To our right the sky was the colour of stainless steel that needed a good polish. It was the kind of sky that caused people to say things like; “look at that sky, it’s full of snow” when they actually have no idea what they are talking about. I said; “look at that sky it’s full of snow”. To the left the sky could only be described as menacing. We were making good progress north and Liverpool was somewhere underneath the dark grey cloak of doom and I didn’t fancy its chances to be honest.  It looked as if we might escape the Armageddon unfolding alongside us but then a flurry of sleet gave way to a cacophony of ear splitting noise as we drove into a wall of hailstones like nothing I have seen before. It was like being on the inside of a snare drum with Keith Moon and Ginger Baker on the outside. I couldn’t believe our flimsy plastic window was holding up but then there was a moment of panic as a large hailstone ricocheted around the inside of the car! We had been breached and surely it was only a matter of seconds before the car filled up with deadly ice balls, and then it was sunny again. We had escaped what felt like the end of the world by the skin of our teeth.

Pre Armageddon

Pre Armageddon

I was beginning to think that despite the broken window we were going to make it home with nothing more dramatic than a melted hailstone and a slight draught to contend with when the overhead gantry sign ahead of us made a sinister announcement. SALT SPREADING. The capital letters and brevity of the message made it sound like some sort of government warning. In my mind a horrible mutation had occurred in common sodium chloride and it was rampaging across the country bringing seasoned devastation everywhere. I had visions of not being able to get home because our village would be cordoned off while a fresh outbreak of the deadly condiment was being investigated. Then a huge lorry splattered the car with grit and I realised my simple mistake. It wasn’t the end of civilisation as we knew it but just a fluke of the English language.

We finally made it home with the temporary window still intact but knowing that nothing more than a flimsy bit of plastic and some adhesive tape were all that separated us from an icy grave added a certain spice to the journey. The drive south earlier in the week had been completely unremarkable by comparison. What a difference a simple little thing like a broken window can make. Maybe I was wrong, maybe it was serendipity after all.

P.S.

Skoda Fabia for sale: Two owners, good runner. Original feature window. Make us an offer.

Virtual adventures

I seem to be spending a lot of time on virtual adventures at the moment. It is something I have always done since I was a teenager but today’s media makes it so easy that there is a danger of overdosing on armchair adrenalin. Back in my youth I read just about every account available of people climbing Everest or trekking to some pole or other. I attended lectures and slide shows given by the likes of Chris Bonington and Doug Scott and waited impatiently for their next book so I could conquer another unexplored peak vicariously. My own adventures were always a little less daring or exotic but they still fulfilled that deep rooted desire to explore both the world around me and the me, inside me.

With the profusion of TV channels now available and the blossoming of the internet there is no longer any need to wait for the next book to be published. There are countless tales of journeys available covering every corner of the globe, using all modes of transport and based on an ever increasing range of themes. In the last month alone I have followed Sean Conway’s run from John O’ Groats to Lands End, Emily Chappell’s ridiculous winter bike ride through Alaska in impossibly cold conditions and most recently Richard Reeve’s delightful odyssey as he visits a hundred British micro pubs by bicycle. Talk about a child in a sweet shop, the choice is endless.

Right now I am sharing adventures past and present both in the form of a good old fashioned book and various web sites. Anna Hughes’ book, Eat, Sleep, Cycle, is the account of her whirlwind ride around Britain, as is the blog of the same trip by Bill Honeywell back in 2011.

Moidart in Scotland, time for reflection

Moidart in Scotland, time for reflection

I read these things for lots of reasons. Reading an account of a journey I have made myself, like the one around Britain by bike, is a chance to compare and reflect and if it’s a blog by somebody I have actually met it lends another slant to the story. It is sometimes possible to fill in gaps in the tales based on a little knowledge of personality and circumstances. Dick Edie was a lovely host in Scotland that Gill and I stayed with last summer. He is riding across Canada worrying about bears but fulfilling a dream and James Harvey that we met at the Cycle Touring Festival has just left the northern most point of Norway at the start of a six month cycle trip that will take him to southern Spain and on to Istanbul and maybe beyond. Sometimes it is just the sheer audacity of what some of these people are doing that fills me with awe. It really doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the trip itself appeals to me personally. Following Sean Conway as he ran down the length of Britain covering up to thirty miles in a day was fascinating in a “you wouldn’t catch me in a million years doing that” sort of way. Likewise, Sarah Outen, who is about to put to sea in a rowing boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean on the final leg of her round the world, self-propelled  journey. James’ bike ride through Europe on the other hand sounds delightful, something I would genuinely like to do. Whether I am tempted by the trip or not, I can drift off to another world for a few minutes or hours and dream of future adventures of my own. I do find myself pondering what it is about other people’s fun and games that is so attractive though. What makes these journeys so fascinating and why people do them?

When I think back to those early pioneers that went to unexplored places I wonder how different it was for them. When the likes of Columbus set sail or Mallory set out from base camp they were literally going into the unknown. That is surely exploring in its purest form. Now it is almost impossible on this small planet to go to places no one has ever been to before so did they experience something that was fundamentally different from what James or Dick will? Maybe not. You see whilst I am a little bit jealous that they were the first to discover, conquer, summit or whatever, I suspect that the element of being the first was probably quite a small part of the overall experience. I am sure it is very satisfying to go down in the record books as the first person to stand on a particular mountain or complete a triathlon of the length of Britain (Sean Conway had cycled and swam the whole thing before he ran it!) but surely the journey is the real essence of the experience rather than the record.

It would be easy to think that there is nothing left to explore these days when you dig around on the internet and see so many amazing journeys taking place. Surely every ‘first’ has been claimed. Or has it? There is one goal that remains unconquered and will always stay that way. The goal of understanding yourself. That is what I suspect these adventures are ultimately about. All my reading and viewing of other people’s far flung challenges leaves me prodding and poking at what it is that makes me tick but I don’t get many answers. They only make me thirstier for knowledge and understanding. The answers start to come when I embark on the real thing. When I take the first step on the trail or ride the first mile of the road to somewhere I have never been before. That is when the exploration starts and that is when I learn a little bit more about myself. That is when I climb a little bit closer to that elusive summit of self-knowledge.

Reading other peoples stories is a little bit like smelling the Sunday dinner cooking. It gets the juices flowing and hints of something delicious to come. The blogs and books keep the excitement ticking over at a low simmer. For now the necessity of things like earning a living have to come first but the reading confirms that it’s only a matter of time before the pot comes to the boil and the next adventure into the unknown will begin. Until then I will settle for travelling in a virtual world and say thank you to all those that make that possible. Enjoy your journeys and keep those wonderful words coming.

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.

Ferries

There is something about wheeling a loaded touring bike onto a ferry that is very magical. I know I’m not alone in this feeling so I thought I would try to dig down into the sensation a little to see what it it is that makes it so special.

I have always liked ferries because, with exceptions like the Woolich, they are usually part of a journey that in turn is part of an adventure. More often than not they involve travelling to an island and that in itself promises all kinds of exciting new discoveries and very often changes of culture and outlook. If it isn’t an island it’s an estuary and then it is very likely to be a passage that goes back hundreds of years and carries a different kind of romance.

Arran to Kintyre

Arran to Kyntyre

Most of the ferries we have travelled on so far have been designed to take cars. They loom up above us as they creep up to the slipway and open their huge gaping mouth like a giant steel cuckoo expecting to be fed. Instead they spew out cars and trucks that are made to look like dinky toys and then we are invited to wheel our bikes on board while all the boarding vehicles wait behind us. We can’t help but feel slightly smug being first on board but the roles are reversed on the other side as we are made to wait amongst the diesel fumes before we can disembark. There is always a sense of urgency amongst the crew as they lash our bikes to some iron work and we scramble to collect what we need from our bags for the journey. Then we are off upstairs to the lounge or the deck to pick the best seats before anybody else gets a look in.

Cromarty ferry. We had to wait for an hour and a half for the tide to rise before it could dock. Not a problem really.

Cromarty ferry. We had to wait for an hour and a half for the tide to rise before it could dock. Not a problem really.

The smaller ones, like the Cromarty ferry we used yesterday are the most sociable as cars, bikes, drivers and riders all mingle on deck together and that is when we get the most attention. Somebody always wants to know where we have ridden from and where we are going and a short thirty minute crossing will often see us making new friends that will be following us for the duration of our trip. These brief encounters seem to cut to the quick, slicing through the small talk and getting strangely intimate in such a short time. Perhaps it is the sure knowledge that you can’t get stuck with some utter bore for anything longer than it takes for the boat to get from one pier to another that loosens people up. Whatever it is we often find ourselves waving goodbye in a manner normally reserved for loved ones on train stations after just a half hour conversation.

The huge catamaran that took us from St. Margarets Hope on Orkney to Gill's Bay on the mainland.

The huge catamaran that took us from St. Margarets Hope on Orkney to Gill’s Bay on the mainland.

I love all the ship paraphernalia too. All the tackle and equipment associated with tying up and casting off. The painters, capstans and hawsers that form the complex system of securing a massive ship of several thousand tons to the pier. The smells of engine oil, hemp ropes and salty sea and the sounds of crew shouting instructions and labouring diesel engines holding the ship at bay as the ropes are secured. Who can resist a little shudder of excitement as the last rope is lifted from it’s bollard and cast aside as the boat begins to move away from the harbour. It’s such a symbolic action that so many adventures have started with throughout history. That sense of excitement and thrill of exploration never diminishes whether we are boarding a tiny passenger only vessel for a ten minute crossing or some behemoth that will take us across the seas for hours.

 

Tobermory on Mull to Ardnamurchan.

Tobermory on Mull to Ardnamurchan.

Yesterday’s ferry was our ninth of this trip but there will be many more before we are done and I’m looking forward to every one of them.

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

It’s not a charity ride. Well maybe a little bit.

There really is no going back now. After initially stating that we weren’t going to do this ride for charity we have had a change of heart, albeit it limited, and we are now committed to raising funds for two very worthy causes. I know it probably sounds incredibly selfish to even consider not raising money for charity but to be blunt, this was always intended to be a selfish, personal journey that Gill and I wanted to experience. It was, first and foremost a learning opportunity, a journey of discovery in every sense. Yes we will, no doubt, discover interesting people and places, maybe the odd exceptional pub or cafe, but most of all we hope to discover more about ourselves and each other. Initially I was of the opinion this meant that we couldn’t involve fund raising and keep the purpose of the trip pure, but as time went on I changed my mind. I can’t speak for Gill of course, but I began to feel that maybe there was a middle ground. Perhaps we could raise a bit of dosh as a kind of side line, a low level sub plot if you like. So that is what we intend to do.

I got in touch with our chosen charities and after a couple of e-mails they seemed to ‘get it’ and were very positive despite the fact that we declined the T shirts and badges on offer. All we wanted from them was their blessing to use their logos and we got it. Thank you. So now we have some level of obligation to cycle around Britain, probably. We’ve opened up the facility to donate now, not because we necessarily expect people to start giving before we even set off but it’s just one more thing done, another tick on the list.

We still intend to keep the fund raising side of things in the background, so don’t expect to see us flying charity balloons from the bikes and there definitely won’t be any giant cheques involved at the end. This is still very much our personal journey, if people want to donate because they are enjoying following us and reading our blog then that will be an excellent bonus.

More details of the charities we have chosen and why can be found on the Fund raising page.