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.

Thanks Dad

When my Dad died I wanted to stand up and say something about him at the funeral. Unfortunately I knew only too well that I wouldn’t be able to get through such a speech without dissolving into a blubbering wreck and spoiling it for everybody. In the end I wrote a short poem that tried to convey what he meant to me and what he would be leaving behind once his physical presence had gone. I still couldn’t read it out and had to give it to the priest to read on my behalf. I was thinking about him this morning and for some reason, sixteen years on I feel like sharing it, and him, again. This is what I wrote.

Hey Dad, me bike isn’t working,
I can’t get it into third gear,
“Well go and fetch me tools lad,
And bring your bike over here”.

I’d pedal away with me mates,
Having carefully watched what he’d done,
Another small part of his knowledge
Passed quietly from father to son.

All through our childhood, the lessons went on,
Showing us just what to do,
From mending a bike, to making a kite,
With scissors and paper and glue.

As I grew older, he taught me much more,
The subjects were never the same,
Now it was woodwork, and how to use tools,
A hammer, a chisel, a plane.

And so I left home, with skills of my own,
To get me through every day life,
The seasons came round, and I settled down,
With two boys and a wonderful wife.

I thought Dad had finished, the lessons all done,
So it came as a little surprise,
To find when I met with a problem,
He was there in my head to advise.

The lessons were different, not practical things,
Like tipping a new snooker cue,
But patience and wisdom, honesty, truth,
And knowing the right thing to do.

To love and to care, to listen and share,
To know when to guide, when to steer,
These are the things that you teach me now Dad,
And it’s wonderful having you near.

So keep looking on Dad, as I try to do right,
And when you think that I’m making a mess,
Say, “Excuse me son, would you like some advice?”,
And I promise I’ll always say yes.

Thanks Dad

Happy families

I’m the fat one on the left

Thoughts on ‘What Goes Around’ by Emily Chappell

I’ve never attempted to write a book review and I’m not sure if that is what this is but I promised you I would let you know what I thought of Emily Chappell’s debut book, What Goes Around, so here goes.

book

Great book, average carpet

I have to say that I approached the book with high expectations having read a couple of reviews and heard Emily being interviewed on Woman’s hour on Radio 4 and also on the BBC’s Meet the Author both of which refer to the quality of the writing in between asking crass questions like “why do cyclists jump red lights”. I freely admit that if I didn’t know Emily from her blog I probably would never have bought this book as the subject matter itself doesn’t really grab me. I will begrudgingly admit to a certain admiration for the combination of cool and skill that cycle couriers exude and having owned a ‘fixie’ (single speed fixed wheel bicycle) for a couple of years I do see the appeal but I am not a fan of London or cities in general and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know all the gritty details of a cycle courier’s daily grind. These things aside I still opened the book with a certain frisson of anticipation and excitement.

As I hoped and expected it didn’t take more than a few pages to realise that this was a book with layers. On the top there is the often exquisitely described feelings of triumph and terror when engulfed by the madness of London’s traffic whilst balancing on two skinny wheels and the sheer frustration of simply trying to find the destination belonging to the address written on the package for delivery. I loved the description of Soho coming alive in a morning and the refuse lorry that will  “shatter the silence, the ear-drums of passers-by and a thousand empty bottles as they pour from two upended dustbins into the open lorry’s mouth ” and many other lovingly crafted images of the sights and smells of the city. Constantly weaving through this graphic picture are the people and the relationships that are the real meat of the book for me. The tears and the laughter, camaraderie and friendship and most of all the love, the lovers and the heartbreak of loves lost. In parts the book is raw with emotion and Emily doesn’t hold back in laying bare her soul as she slaloms between battles with foul mouthed and sometimes violent van drivers, the unique pain that only a broken heart can bring and the sexual tension on meeting a potential new lover.

The final layer to this sweet, sweet cake is the writing. I freely admit that there were parts of the book where I had had enough of the minutiae of what it takes to get a parcel from A to B but the writing always carried me through via a turn of phrase or delightful analogy that brought a smile to my lips and, I confess, a certain envy of her craft. It’s a beautiful read.

Throughout this book about cycling and London there are subtle insights into the worlds of feminism and sexuality. Emily is refreshingly matter of fact about her own sexuality and gives us a sometimes painful and sometimes amusing glimpse of the subtle complications that being gay can add to the world of love and relationships. And a lot of men may find the book a subtle but firm reminder that there is still a long, long way to go before we can truly say that we have confined inequality of the sexes to the history books. I don’t mind admitting that I was taken aback several times by the word ‘she’ where I stereotypically expected to read ‘he’ and each time I was slightly embarrassed to be caught out again.

Finally, I want to mention passion. I recall very clearly during the early 80s watching David Bellamy on the television presenting programs about botany. I had no particular interest in the subject but his passion and enthusiasm were completely infectious. Whatever you might think of his more bizarre views on climate change, he taught me that passion for a subject was half the battle to making that subject interesting and he and other presenters and writers since have widened my perspectives on many topics I didn’t think I was interested in. Emily has that wonderful combination of passion and knowledge and an ability to communicate them through the written word and that is what makes the book as a whole a success for me. At no point reading it did I consider moving to London to pursue a career as a cycle courier but I did find myself desperately hoping that she will go on to write about her other cycling adventures around the world and whatever other escapades she gets up to. And if she suddenly develops a passion for crochet or macramé I’ll even give that a read too.

A message from an ‘oldie’

It’s strange not having any parents. I don’t mean in a tragic way that a young orphan might have no parents but I mean as a mature adult who has been lucky enough to see both of their parents reach old age before they died. I’m really struggling to pin down the feeling in my own mind so it might be a bit ambitious to try to describe it but I’ll have a go.

Many years ago when I was a lot braver than I am now I used to do a bit of rock climbing. If you were a novice climber and short of cash you generally climbed on a single 11mm rope but more experienced climbers employed two slightly thinner ropes of 9mm. Each rope would support you in the case of a fall but it was more flexible to have two in terms of placing anchor points in the rock. If in some unlikely circumstance one of the ropes became ineffective you could still rely on the second rope to support you. Having two parents alive is similar in a way and when my Dad died over fifteen years ago, although it was sad and I missed him, I didn’t feel anything like I did when Mum died many years later.

I was present when she died and it was a moving experience. In many ways it was a relief for her and for us so there was no sensation that it shouldn’t have happened. No blame or regret, just a feeling of inevitability. For a while I was wrapped up in the funeral arrangements and sorting out her estate and it was quite some time before I became aware of the feeling of climbing without ropes.

It was an odd feeling because it wasn’t as if Mum had been able to offer me any support in the last few years of her life; quite the reverse. As she succumbed to dementia and frailty she required more and more help from me (and the rest of the family) but as long as she was alive I was still a child. I was still the ‘next generation’ until the moment she passed away and then, as she breathed her last breath I became the ‘older generation’.

Those supporting ropes that are always there for us were gone for good. I became more acutely aware of all the other lines that form the network that we rely on to get us through life. I still had a wife, two children, a sister, cousins and other relatives and friends of course but to go back to the climbing analogy I now realised that all of these metaphorical ropes were different. They were of different strengths or thickness and perhaps the reason I felt so different was because the guys that bind us to our parents are often the strongest of them all.

I don’t feel like I am in danger of falling without Mum and Dad, it’s more like when a couple of spokes break in a wheel and it isn’t quite as strong as it was but it will still function with a bit of tweaking. Maybe, in time, the other strands that bind me to friends and family will grow stronger to take up the strain and this sensation that I have now will fade away. I’m not actually sure I want it to though. I’m not sad, not at all. No I am comforted by the fact that I am really aware of those missing support lines and it makes me appreciative of what they gave me for so long.

Supporting guys, Swansea Bay

Supporting guys, Swansea Bay

I am less enthusiastic about the sensation that there is nothing now between me and old age. I can’t hide behind the old age of my parents anymore, comforted by the fact that it isn’t my turn yet. No matter how many years and adventures I have left in my life, I have to face the fact that there is no looking up any more, only down to those that come after me. The next generation.

For many years our family used to gather at a hotel in St. Anne’s for a weekend get together. It was a lovely time and often there would be four generations sharing the experience. We used to refer, affectionately, to my Mum and Dad’s generation as ‘the oldies’ at those gatherings. We haven’t managed a reunion like that for a while now but every now and again, at a family funeral or wedding there is talk of reinstating the annual institution. I’m not altogether sure that I want to be an ‘oldie’ but I don’t suppose it’s a matter of choice any more.

Painting behind the radiator

Every day when I use the shower I am reminded of how similar to me the tiler that installed it must have been. You see the first time that I used the shower it looked pristine with its immaculate white tiles and chrome fittings. However, after a few days I began to notice black marks on the tiles that wouldn’t wipe off and eventually I worked out what was going on. We use a rubber squeegee to dry off the walls after a shower and it turns out that the tiler hadn’t bothered to clean the excess grout off the tiles when he did the installation. The hard grout was getting blackened by the rubber squeegee and confronting it every morning made me aware of two things about myself. The first is that I am really bad at finishing jobs off properly and the second is that I’m really bad at getting round to doing things. (Like cleaning off the excess grout and with it the black marks). I’ve done it now, it’s all clean and white again and now I am left thinking, ‘why didn’t I do that weeks ago?’

I admire people that see a job through to the final detail but I’m afraid I’m not one of them. I know from experience that when I put away the paint and brushes promising myself that I will get them out again and touch up that bit behind the radiator, I never will. The bit behind the radiator will fade from my memory and from my view and it will never get done. Does that matter?

Life is too short. Or is it?

Life is too short. Isn’t it?

There was a light hearted feature on the radio the other day suggesting that messy people live more interesting lives than tidy ones. On first consideration I would agree that while the tidy people are dusting, vacuuming and sorting, the messy people are having fun and making memories. Nobody is going to remind us, just before they pass away, of the day they cleaned the whole house from top to bottom or removed the radiator from the wall so that they could paper and paint behind it. Are they? But maybe it isn’t as simple as that.

I am one of those people who won’t bother to take the radiator off the wall so the decorating will take me less time and in theory I will have more time to do more interesting stuff. The problem is that having created all this extra time it’s just too easy not to do anything interesting or worthwhile with it. I may as well have done the decorating properly and at least have the satisfying glow of a job well done. Then again, I could just stop beating myself up for not being neat and tidy and not being interesting either.

Surely the only thing that really matters when we get to the point of departure is whether or not we are able to look back and say we were happy. Whether we feel content and ready to throw in the towel or whether we desperately want to go back and have another go at it. It doesn’t really matter if we did nothing more than paint behind the radiators or if we cycled round the world in the end. All that matters is that we enjoyed it. I’m not sure where that leaves me. When I open the shed in the morning do I get the bike out or the paint brush?

Wishing for the moon.

I have just read an article by micro adventure advocate Alastair Humphreys. As usual, it got me thinking.

Reflection on a long wiggly line

Reflection on a long wiggly line twelve months on

It is one year today since we got home from our long cycle tour around the coast of Britain. The anniversary brings with it a lot of reflection on what the trip meant to us and how it changed us. These challenging thoughts are accompanied by big decisions as we get closer to the time when we are in a position to stop working should we choose to. Right now, my thoughts are like a collection of washing tumbling backwards and forwards in a drier. Complex, tangled and not yet ready to be folded and stacked into neat organised piles.

In one sense we certainly got what we wanted from our break. It shook us up and gave us the thrust we needed to break away from whatever shackles every day life had tied us down with. We hoped that it would lead us in new directions and in some ways it has. We just aren’t too clear on which direction yet. Having a taste of adventure leaves you hungry for more, whatever form it might take.

We have made a decision recently that both excites me and worries me at the same time. We have been talking about the idea of living on a narrow boat and having weighed all the pros and cons we have come to the conclusion that it might be better to wait until we are in a position where we can do it without having to work. That’s fine except that it is probably at least five years away and that is where I am struggling. You see before we went away, and to some extent the reason we went away, was because we were really starting to understand the importance of living in the present. Making a five year plan feels like the very antithesis of ‘carpe diem’, or ‘seize the day’. In that sense our current idea seems like an abandonment of everything the trip taught us.

The plan I am talking about is to buy a cheap park home by cashing in some savings and to live rent free whilst clearing a mortgage on a house we own. That house produces a rental income and is part of the retirement plan. At about the same time that the mortgage is cleared a small private pension matures and we could then sell the park home, buy a narrow boat and sail off into the sunset free from the burden of earning a living. It sounds great when written down like that but for the small matter of wishing away those five years. So there lies our challenge. How do you maintain two focuses, one on today and the other years in the future, the second of which we have no guarantee of even reaching.

It doesn’t help that I happened to talk to a couple on a boat last week who live on board and manage to hold down part time jobs. Conversations like that fill me with doubt over whether we are doing the right thing. Maybe we should just throw caution to the wind and go for the narrow boat option now rather than wait. Who knows, we might not even like life on board. We might be waiting for five years only to find that actually, it wasn’t worth waiting for. I doubt that somehow though.

The challenge now is to seize the day, every day, just in case that distant dream, for whatever reason proves to be beyond our grasp. It’s a tricky one and it’s a good reason to set the alarm for 2am tomorrow and to get up and look at a giant red, eclipsed super moon because there wont be another one until 2033. By then, if we survive, we will know if we did the right thing waiting five years to do the right thing.

Moon

A narrow escape?

First of all, apologies for the complete lack of blogging over the last few weeks and thank you to those of you who noticed my absence. (Both of you) I’m very flattered.

The plain truth is, I haven’t had much to write about and even less motivation to try. I think that despite having found work and a nice place to live, we are both still a bit down in the dumps, wondering where the next adventure will come from and when. Life has become too routine in precisely the way that I promised myself it wouldn’t following our big trip last year. You know that feeling when you leave the house and you just know that something isn’t quite right but you don’t know what. Then half an hour later you get to work and find that you’ve left your phone at home. Well it’s a bit like that but on a bigger scale. Like we are getting things sorted but there is some undefined element that is missing. Yesterday however, I think we may have made some progress in finding that missing link. If was a funny sort of day all round really. We only had plans to go for a gentle walk but all the best plans end up in tatters don’t they?

We started by making an offer on a static home on a residential park close to where we live. Five hours later the offer was rejected but what happened in between was amazing. We sailed somebody else’s narrow boat down a canal, made two new friends, viewed another boat that was for sale and considered living on it and finally drove home with our heads whirling and the possibility of a whole new life ahead of us. Let me explain.

Lovely day for a stroll

Lovely day for a stroll

One of the consequences of having so much freedom last year is that we are both finding it rather difficult to settle back down. We don’t want to go off and do the same or similar type of trip again, at least not at the moment, but at the same time we find ourselves doing a lot of foot scratching. (No it’s not a fungal infection, just a bit of wanderlust.) My job working for The Canal and River Trust as a fund raiser has brought me into contact with a lot of people who live on board narrow boats and I think I may have infected Gill with my enthusiasm for the lifestyle. We have been doing a lot of walking on the tow paths and narrow boat envy doesn’t take long to take hold. Some of them are just beautiful. At about the same time we have been considering our financial future, retirement and what we want from the remainder of whatever allotted time we have left. With this in mind when a cheap property came up for sale on a local residential park we started to consider the possibility of getting out of rented accommodation and taking a big step towards making work optional rather than essential. Ok, it wasn’t a boat and nor was it on a canal but it was cheap and it was narrow, so it kind of fitted the bill.

After putting in a cheeky offer on the property we went off to take a stroll along the Leeds Liverpool canal on what turned out to be a glorious sunny day but not quite as forecast. A couple of miles down the tow path we came across Carol, sitting in the sun, alongside a narrow boat and looking more chilled than a frozen chilli. It turned out that Carol and her partner Roy had sold their house last year, bought the boat and moved onto it and had been in a state of euphoric relaxation ever since. We found ourselves pouring out our life stories, desires and dreams to each other and before we knew it we were sailing down the canal towards Parbold, our original walking destination. We had a good look around the boat, had a go at sailing it without going aground or destroying any other boats, spotted a kingfisher and generally fell in love with the whole business. After saying goodbye to our new found friends we began the walk back to Burscough unexpectedly discussing chemical toilets and boat licences. A phone call from the estate agent shattered the park home dream for now but by then it was only one option and we were already moving on to other possibilities.

Saying goodbye to our new friends Carol and Roy

Saying goodbye to our new friends Carol and Roy

Earlier in the walk we had passed a boat that was for sale and after our brief but wildly successful careers as skippers we now looked on it in a completely different light. The owner kindly showed us round and in our imaginations we were already managing locks, fishing for our supper and toasting the moon reflected in the perfect mirror of a midnight canal.

Seems like we might be at a cross roads

Seems like we might be at a cross roads

All of a sudden it feels like the rut we were in danger of getting stuck in is full of opening doors. Over the last forty eight hours we have discussed other park homes, motor homes and narrow boats. Maybe we are trying to find a compromise somewhere between the tent and a house, I don’t know. Whatever the motivation it’s exciting to experience all these potential options opening up before us like a glorious flower blooming. I do believe that we are heading for our next adventure. We might not know what it will be yet but there is a tangible feeling of it’s inevitability. There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. It might be the daylight at the end of rather dull period or it may be the light of a narrow boat coming towards us. It’s the not knowing that makes it exciting.

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