It’s a tribal thing

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

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

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

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

Nowt so queer as folk

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

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

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

Now where's that kitchen sink?

Now where’s that kitchen sink?

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

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

You're not having one Gill.

You’re not having one Gill.

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

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

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

Phone the path police!

Quick, phone the path police!

A day in the life of..

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

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

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

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Just arrived

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

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

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

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

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First brew is always the best

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

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

And repeat

Day one, we did it.

Wow, that was an emotional roller coaster of a day. I finally started to get excited in a can’t sleep kind of way at 2:30am and that’s when I put the last blog post together in my head. After a few hours more sleep I woke just after six and the anticipation kicked in big time. By the time we left the house I was buzzing. A small gathering of friends turned up in the rain to see us off and after lots of hugs and cries of ‘bon voyage’ we were off with three cycling buddies to escort us for the first twenty miles.

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Up to this point I had only felt excited and maybe a little emotional at saying goodbye for six months to such good friends. We settled into an easy pace along the front through Lytham with a lovely tail wind to push us along. I then found myself riding alone for a short spell and that’s when something really strange happened. I just thought about the whole journey ahead of us in terms of distance and time and I found myself welling up with tears. Of course I put the watery eyes down to the cold wind and shook off the feeling but five minutes later I tentatively tried the same thoughts with the same powerful result. It really was like nothing I have ever felt before and suddenly the enormity of the whole venture hit me like a sledge hammer. Not in a bad way I must stress. It was just like standing at the bottom of an enormous mountain and knowing that you are going to be climbing it. Daunting, but thrilling and irresistable all at once.
Later when I was riding alone with Gill I told her how I had felt and she said it had been exactly the same for her. The same moving emotions and the same teary outcome. It felt like we had tapped into something deep inside us with the final realisation of what the next six months of our lives would involve.
We left our three friends, Les, Peter and Pete after a short cafe stop at Fleetwood and hopped on the ferry for the five minute crossing of the river Wyre. Once alone the mood changed and it just felt like any first day of any tour, all that raw emotion subsided as did the rain and grey clouds to leave us with a lovely sunny first day. As we crossed the first bridge into Lancaster a young lad amongst a small group shouted at Gill as she passed, trying to scare her but he looked a bit surprised when she just told him he was pathetic and before she could be upset by the incident we were engaged by a chap called Steve who was keen to know what we were up to. I had been waiting all morning for the chance to remark casually that we were on the first day of a round Britain ride and I wasn’t dissapointed by the effect it had. We gave Steve a contact card and left him with big silly grins on our faces. It happened again in Morecambe when we met Carol as she locked up her bike next to ours. She was bubbling over with enthusiam for our adventure and I think we may have another follower of the blog there. By contrast, I chatted briefly with a couple as I queued in the supermarket and my suspicions that they hadn’t really grasped what I had told them were confirmed when they left me with the words, “well I hope you have a nice weekend”. Can’t win ’em all I guess.
We are now all cosy in the tent listening to the wind thrashing about outside and the rain is starting to rattle on the flysheet.
For anybody interested dinner was herby mackerel in tomato sauce with pasta followed by a strawberry fool and very nice it was too. Sorry for such a long post, I’m sure I’ll calm down eventually

Moving house

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

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

"excuse me, this is my pitch"

“excuse me, this is my pitch”

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

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

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

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

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

Room with a view

Room with a view

With a different view every day of course.

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