Thomas Stevens, a free spirit and explorative soul, lived in San Francisco, where he would listen to the constant whispering of the Pacific Ocean and dream of adventure – and what better adventure than to ride across the United States of America, in search of the opposite coast? In 1884 he set out on his Columbus penny-farthing, whose large front wheel measured 50 inches and heavy frame weighed 34 kg. He carried a change of socks, a spare shirt and a raincoat inside bags lashed beneath his seat, as well as a revolver strapped to his hip. For shelter he planned to sleep beneath his raincoat or rely on strangers’ hospitality. Eastwards he rode, following in the wheels of several others who had attempted the journey, though all had failed and turned back. There followed several months of riding, dragging and pushing his bike along wagon roads, railroads, canal towpaths and the few public roads that existed. Poor weather and rough terrain meant that around a third of his journey was spent walking.
The perils of the journey were many: at one point he escaped a mountain lion by using his revolver; another time he was bitten by a rattlesnake, though the poisonous fangs sank harmlessly into his canvas gaiters. But more dangerous than wild animals was the railroad; though ideal in many ways – a route flat and direct, its network of tunnels and bridges carving a smooth passage through state after state – the rumble of an approaching train would cause Stevens’s heart to beat fast in his chest. Once, he was forced to crouch beneath the tracks to avoid being hit, high above a ravine, his bicycle dangling in one hand.
Once he reached Boston, Stevens had achieved his aim: here was the Atlantic, to whose great waves he could now deliver the message of the Pacific. He spent the winter in New York, writing up the accounts of his travels for Outing magazine. Inspired by his work, the editors offered him sponsorship for his onward journey, if he chose to take it. So in April 1885 Stevens set sail for England for the next stage of what had become a round-the-world mission.
Through England, Europe and the Balkans he pedalled, then across Turkey, Iraq and Iran. In every nation he drew fascinated stares, folk intrigued by this tall, energetic white man with a curled moustache, riding a contraption which had never been seen before. Curious locals frequently blocked his path, asking him to entertain them with his bicycle. Though happy to oblige, this eventually became tiresome: when resting and eating at a cafe in Turkey the proprietor took away Stevens’s unfinished meal, not returning it until he had pleased the crowds. Yet Stevens’s overwhelming impression was of helpful, kind and hospitable people, willing to provide shelter, food and water. ‘Humanity is the same the world over,’ he wrote in his diary – a theme that would become familiar in the tales of generations of world travellers to come.
Thirty-two months after he had departed, with 13,500 miles under his wheels, he arrived back in San Francisco. An article in The New York Times written during his travels said:
‘But how the world shrinks and what a prospect does the adventurous cyclist open up before the eyes of wheelmen! What corner of the world will be left unvisited by the silent riders of the iron steed?… The inventor of the bicycle has done more to revolutionize the religious, moral and social ideas of mankind than all the philosophers of our time.’
Confession: I whacked a car window today. It was the conclusion of a conversation with a driver that had grown more and more heated as we both tried to make our voices heard, a conversation that had no end other than anger. She yelled expletives; I used my fist. Her transgression: daring to suggest I should use the cycle lane.
She was trying to be helpful; I was trying to get where I was going. She thought she was looking out for my safety. But the reality is, I don’t have to use the cycle lane. I can use it if it will help, but this particular lane (and many others) wouldn’t have. It was part of the pavement, a painted line all that demarcated the space between cyclists and walkers. Pedestrians wander across the line, paying scant attention to my passageway, and so they should; it’s easy to ignore. Partway along, the separation ends and the area becomes dual use, with a crowd of buggies and mums waiting for the bus. Here, pedestrians have priority; I have to slow down. Each time there is a side road the cycle lane gives way while on the main carriageway the traffic sails on by.
These are my choices: potentially endanger pedestrians, take longer getting to work, and give up my right of way at each side road, or potentially endanger myself by sharing with motor traffic, but take a fast, direct, well-surfaced, clearly signed route along which I can ride quickly. It’s a positive choice I make to use the carriageway, though the unsolicited advice and abuse is not quite so pleasant.
These are common problems with cycle infrastructure: too narrow, poor surface, unfavourable priorities, disappears just where you need it, doesn’t go where you want, unclear signage. We’re in a stage of transition in London at the moment, where there is plenty of new infrastructure going in, some good, some quite awful, and, at the moment, no legal obligation to use it. Motorists hate it because roadworks cause congestion, the new infrastructure takes away lanes from the main carriageway, and there’s still a bl**dy cyclist sitting in front of you; cyclists hate it because it’s not quite good enough to make use of, yet it encourages people to yell at you for not using it.
The frustration that resulted in my hand making contact with a car window is common amongst all road users. I’ve had my fair share of drivers who scream at me before winding up their window and driving off, offering no right of reply. I’ve also been the one to do the screaming. It’s impatience, frustration, but mostly fear that leads to these exchanges. None of us is perfect, and we’re all just trying to get where we are going. Currently, the infrastructure isn’t helping.
Perhaps at some point in the future there will be a good quality cycle lane along every road, and then I will use it. Until then, we all just need to share the space better.
International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. One of the chapters in my soon-to-be published book Pedal Power is entitled ‘Wonder Women’ and features stories of women throughout the ages who have repeatedly shown that cycling is not just a man’s domain.
One of the most inspirational of these was Beryl Burton, a northern powerhouse who dominated road racing and time trialling throughout the second half of the twentieth century. An amateur throughout her career, she juggled cycling with raising her daughter, often struggling for money, always determined and focussed and with a steely ambition to keep on going. Her time trial performances became legendary, earning her the Best British All Rounder title for an incredible 25 years in a row. In the 1967 12-hour time trial she rode a distance that not only broke the existing women’s record but also demolished the men’s. It’s a record Beryl still holds to this day.
Below is an edited version of the profile that appears in the book.
Beryl Burton – Northern Soul
Road time trials had been the staple of British cycling since the late 1800s, when massed sprints had been banned for being too dangerous. Over distances of 25, 50 and 100 miles, individuals would race against the clock and it was in these events that Beryl Burton dominated, obliterating the field. Dedicated, determined and bloody-minded, she never slowed down. The Best All-Rounder award was given to the rider with the best average score from all of their events over the course of a year. Beryl was crowned the winner every single year between 1959 and 1983.
An amateur throughout her career, she stayed at the top through sheer determination. Training runs would take place in the evenings and at weekends, slotted into gaps between working and raising her daughter, Denise. The family was never wealthy; before they could afford a car, Beryl would cycle to her races, arranging a rendezvous part-way back with husband Charlie, who would ride to meet her with Denise in a child seat. There was no money for the luxury of a track bike; Beryl had just one bicycle that she used for her races on both road and track, switching over the wheels and sprockets as necessary.
Even at the height of her career, whenever Beryl told people that she was a cyclist, they would say, ‘Oh, take it very steady. If the hills get too hard you must get off and walk. I’m sure the boys will wait for you.’
But time and again she proved she was stronger than ‘the boys’. In open events she would consistently beat top class male riders. Known for her gently teasing manner she would pass her fellow competitors with, ‘Eh, lad, you’re not trying!’ In the 12-hour time trial of 1967 she cycled 277.25 miles, beating her rival Mike McNamara and giving him a Liquorice Allsort from her jersey pocket as she passed. He took it with a ‘Ta, love!’ and Beryl went on to set the record. It was two years before a man beat her distance; no woman has ever bettered it.
Even as Beryl grew older, she refused to give up, continuing through illness and injury, her blind determination and sheer force of will keeping her winning titles well into her forties. Doctors advised her to take it easy; friends begged her to scale things back, but she would murmur about having ‘just this race and just that race to do’. She died the day before her 59th birthday while out delivering invitations to the party. After a lifetime of pushing herself to the absolute limit, her heart just stopped. It was a sudden and shocking loss, but in the end she had been doing what she loved: riding her bike.
‘Pedal Power’ will be published on 13th April 2017. Pre-order your copy here.
A recent programme on Radio 4 explored the concept of the Social network bubble – the fact that our Facebook timelines show us only a limited number of posts, using algorithms to determine the information it thinks we would most like to see. These same algorithms are responsible for bombarding you on any web page you ever open with adverts for a product in which you have shown a passing interest, or suggesting books or films you might like based on what you’ve just bought. It has a sinister undertone: we are being fed by machines rather than our own minds, and those machines create a bubble for our lives, presenting us only with the things in which we profess to be interested and thus perpetuating our existing values.
But surely our entire lives are lived in a bubble? We surround ourselves with people we broadly agree with, and with whom we have something in common. We watch the TV channels and buy the newspapers that align most closely with our values. We might have little concept of the worldview and beliefs of others because we have the capacity to separate ourselves from them.
The difference is, however, that though I live in my own bubble, I choose it myself. I am at liberty to pick the people with whom I want to hang out. Yes, Facebook edits my social circle in a similar way to the editing I already do. But it’s Facebook that chooses, not me.
Long before I heard Bobby Friction’s radio show, I had decided that this kind of choice was not for me. I had been one of those people who used Facebook every day, telling myself that I needed it to stay in touch with my friends and so I didn’t miss out on social occasions. But there remained an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with the platform. The people I saw on there seemed to be having a much better life than me. My group of “friends” consisted of people in whom I didn’t have much interest, from pupils at my primary school to random people from gigs. These connections cease to exist in real life, through age and geography, evolutions that are completely bulldozed by Facebook, whose platform insists you have a perpetual relationship with everyone you have ever met.
Looking at lives we cannot possibly emulate, seeing what all our friends are up to, gives us an unhealthy sense of inferiority (the ‘you’ that is presented on social media is only the ‘you’ that you want others to see – you at your best, your funniest, your most attractive) and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). It was a moment of realisation at a party of my best friend that finally made me question why I was on Facebook. Sitting in her garden, enjoying a glass of wine on her birthday, I overheard some of her other friends talking about the Facebook invite they had received to the party. Hang on, I thought. Where was my invite?? Then I realised, Anna, you are AT the party. You received a real life invite, in person, from your friend. It’s Facebook that instills FOMO in us. I had ultimate FOMO for the very fact that I was on Facebook. The time had come to hit ‘delete’.
Facebook tried really hard to keep me. “Are you sure?” messages popped up repeatedly. “If you delete your profile you won’t have access to …” I had to give a reason why I wanted to delete, and once I’d given the reason, they tried to answer the reason in order to keep me. Example: I don’t find Facebook useful. ”You may find Facebook useful by connecting with more of your friends. Check out our friend finder.” Example #2: I spend too much time using Facebook. “One way to control your interaction with Facebook is to limit the number of emails you receive from us. You can control which emails you receive here.” I thought about merely deactivating, the half-committal way of feeling good about yourself but still keeping one toe in the social media pool. Until up came a NOTE. Even after you deactivate, your friends can still invite you to events, tag you in photos or ask you to join groups. Read: Big Brother is still watching you.
The process to successful deletion was rounded off with a final attempt to keep me, by listing some friends who would MISS ME if I were no longer on Facebook. Among them was my best friend (who I only ever interact with in real life), someone I met once, and my ex-boyfriend. I doubt any of them would even notice.
Even so, I hovered over the ‘delete’ button for a long time. What if what they were saying were true? Facebook wasn’t all bad. It contributed to a large part of my social activities. I did have a network of friends that I enjoyed interacting with. There was definite social pressure to be part of it. Even my dad was on Facebook. Did I have the courage to remove myself from this?
As I confirmed my deletion (in about five separate steps, each reminding me there was no going back), I knew I had made the right decision. My life instantly felt more simple. I breathed a sigh of relief. No more pressure. No more wasting hours scrolling through a timeline just to see if the next post would be interesting. I haven’t missed it for a second.
And yes, I’m back to living in my own bubble, one I’m unlikely to burst out of any time soon. But at least I was the one to choose it.
My new book, Pedal Power, will be published on 13th April by Summersdale. It’s a collection of stories from all aspects cycling, from professional riders to stuntmen to long-haulers to those who use the bicycle as a form of rehab. It’s available to pre-order here, and below is a taster from the opening of the book.
Pedal Power: Introduction
I recently taught a ten-year-old girl how to ride a bicycle. Older than most of the children I teach, she had passed that stage of innocent abandon, when the stabilisers come off and just a push and some encouragement will do. The feeling of pressure was growing; she felt embarrassed to admit to her friends that she wouldn’t go to the park with them because she couldn’t ride a bike. It was such a simple yet significant thing. In our lesson she was determined and focussed, persevering even though it was hard work and the saddle was uncomfortable and she kept losing her balance. Her smile when she pedalled independently for the first time was incredible. She made me a card saying, ‘Thank you for teaching me to ride a bike. It was the best day of my life. I will never forget it.’
Most people can remember when they learned to ride a bike; I can vaguely recall my own first tentative attempt, wobbling down next door’s drive. Riding a bicycle means freedom. And it’s that freedom that can take us anywhere: to the park with friends, to school, to university or work, to the shops, to the countryside, on holiday. It can take us further afield, following in the footsteps of adventurers such as Dervla Murphy and Alastair Humphreys. It can lead to the world of sport – where speed, strength and skill are nurtured – through road racing, track racing or BMX, finding inspiration in such masters as Eddy Merckx and Laura Trott. It can be used as a way back to health from injury, a respite from mental health problems, or as an adrenaline rush for those who seek the thrill of downhill mountain biking, difficult terrain or extreme height.
The bicycle has huge historical importance, from the women who used it as a symbol of independence in their fight for liberation, to the workers who had a means of escaping to the countryside for the weekend, and the ‘Good Roads’ campaigners who literally paved the way for the road networks of today.
For me, the bicycle has always been important. It was a passport to exploration when I was a child, an independent means of getting to school as I got a bit older and a cheap way of travelling when I was a cash-strapped student. As an adult, it was a way of keeping fit on the way to work and it eventually became my work when I began teaching cycling for a living. It has also been my gateway to adventure: in 2011 I cycled 4,000 miles around the coast of the UK, documented in my book Eat, Sleep, Cycle: a bike ride around the coast of Britain. Through cycling I have met many people and made many friends. I have been on protest rides and leisure rides, I have joined groups who use the bicycle as a tool for social change, and I have raised awareness as well as money.
This is what this book is all about: a collection of stories from every aspect of cycling that have inspired me and many others throughout the ages, and which will continue to inspire people for a long time to come. I hope you too will be inspired.
‘Pedal Power’ will be published on 13th April 2017. Pre-order your copy here.
The curtains in my bedroom hang too long and the sunlight filters through them, nudging me from sleep each morning. Cutting them to size and stitching blackout material to the lining has risen to the top of the to-do list. Not for me the sewing machine, its power requirements too much for my 12-volt boat battery system. I’ll be sewing these by hand.
As I sit in the pale light of the day the stitches progress beneath my needle, a neat line of serrated white which lengthens with each pass. It’s a slow, sedate, methodical job, a creeping progression. It could be achieved in a few minutes using a sewing machine. This will take me several hours.
As I stitch, meditating on the rhythm of my needle, I ponder the worth of completing by hand those jobs that we delegate to machinery. It seems foolish, to dedicate so much time to something that could be completed so quickly. Think of the other things I could be doing with my time. Is this a waste?
The radio is playing, a commentary on life as the cotton rolls between my fingers. Each stitch has care taken over it, a physical effort having been taken to make it. I philosophise as I mark the time with my stitches. It’s not about what else I could be doing in this time, because I am doing this. Sewing by hand is simply that – there is no going faster. It takes as long as it takes. This is the task, and this is what I shall do, steadily working until it is finished. Albeit slow, progress is surely being made, with each stitch the end of the material moving closer.
It’s good for the soul, to understand the worth of what it takes to make things. Machinery is a wonderful asset to our lives but detaches us from ourselves. Don’t get me wrong; if I had a sewing machine I would use it. But to be labouring over this task, to look around my boat once I’ve finished and know that every stitch, every button hole, every hem was made by me, is my satisfaction. My heart and soul is in this boat – my sweat, too.
The fire has gone out. It’s dark outside; the candles flicker in the draught of the window. My neck is tired, my fingers marked from the sliver of the needle. There is still work to do. I will finish this tomorrow.
On 1st January 1938, a young lady named Billie Fleming set off from London to complete a challenge that no one had ever attempted before: to set the women’s record for the most miles cycled in a year. The challenge had been launched in 1911 by Cycling magazine and was initially a competition for the highest number of centuries (100 miles) ridden in a year, but soon morphed into a more general target of overall mileage. The first winner was Frenchman Marcel Plains who rode a distance of 34,366 miles, and repeated attempts throughout the early part of the century saw this mileage more than double. Billie was inspired to undertake the challenge by a simple love of cycling and an interest in keeping fit – those were the days when women were taking more notice of their physical health, rather than being chained to the hearth. Sponsored by Cadbury’s and the bicycle dealer Rudge-Whitworth, Billie cycled each day over the course of the year, averaging 81 miles per day, often ending with a fitness talk at a local community hall. She wrote articles for Cycling magazine calling for ‘A million more women cyclists.’ By the end of the year she had accrued over 29,000 miles to set the first women’s record, a distance that remained unbeaten for 78 years.
It was a remarkable feat to undertake, to commit to something so utterly consuming without really knowing what it would involve. But Billie loved her bicycle, she loved exploring, and she was determined to show what was possible, especially for females who had always been considered the weaker sex. ‘I was young and fit and ready to take on anything,’ she said. Billie attracted a fair amount of attention during her ride and was billed as the ‘Rudge-Whitworth Keep Fit Girl’ in the press. The legacy of her ride lasted throughout her life, with others riding in tribute to her, though there were few attempts to better her record, and none successful in her lifetime.
On 1st January, 2016, Swedish-born Brit Kajsa Tylén set off in pursuit of Billie’s record. Her motivations were largely the same: a love of cycling and a desire to get more people out there and exercising. Instead of sponsorship she collected ‘sweat pledges’ from people who promised to undertake some form of activity. Throughout the year she rode from the UK into Europe, wisely sticking to the largely flat sections that France, Belgium and The Netherlands have to offer. Riding into Scandinavia she pedalled beneath a midnight sun. It was an incredible adventure, taking her through the emotional and physical trials of riding for upwards of 100 miles per day for an entire year, persevering through illness and poor weather, testing her resolve and strength, but giving her experiences that she would never forget. By November she’d equalled Billie Fleming’s 29,000 miles and continued until the end of the year to set a new record of 32,326 miles.
The story of Billie and Kajsa is explored in my new book, Pedal Power, along with around 100 other stories of people who have done remarkable or inspirational things on bicycles. It has been a pleasure researching these stories, tales that range from interesting, unusual and challenging to astonishing and heart-warming. It will be published by Summersdale in April 2017. Copies can be pre-ordered here.
For these are the stories we love to hear, tales that make us gasp, smile, or stir us to get out and explore for ourselves. Bravo to both Kajsa and Billie – what a wonderful thing to have done, to have set a challenge and completed it, to have lived on the road, to have tasted all the excitement and freedom that cycling brings, and to have battled through hardship and emerged triumphant. As Billie said, ‘You have to really want to do it. Whatever the weather is that morning, you have to put your clothes on and get on and ride the bike. You will have bad days, but the good days make up for all of the bad ones.’
New bicycle for Christmas? Here is a simple check that will help keep it road worthy.
A – air
B – brakes
C – chain
D – direction
E – everything else
Pump tyres to the correct pressure – it is written on the side of the tyre the pressure to which they should be pumped. Floor/track pumps are recommended – it’s very difficult to pump a tyre to full pressure with a hand pump.
Riding on tyres below pressure can result in damage to the wheel rim and tyres, and increasingly likely punctures. Soggy tyres absorb your energy – you’ll find it far easier to ride at full pressure.
A common problem when riding on under-inflated tyres is that the tube moves independently to the tyre, slowly being pulled round as the wheel turns, so will become very bunched up at one point and very stretched at another. An indicator that this has happened is the valve protruding from the rim at an angle. Rather than try and shove the pump head on regardless, it’s best to remove the tyre and make sure the tube is correctly laid out inside.
Check brake pads for wear (there are grooves on the inside of the pad, so once these have disappeared, it’s time to replace) and correct placement. The whole of the pad should make contact with the rim, without hanging off the bottom or touching the tyre, and without the front or rear of the pad engaging first.
The brakes should engage instantly. If the brakes feel loose, either use the bolt on the brake callipers or the barrel adjuster on the brake lever. Tightening at the bolt is best, though it’s a bit more fiddly. Brake levers are sprung, so hold them in position while you undo the bolt to prevent them from springing open. Pull the cable through (a tiny adjustment is often all that’s needed) then re-tighten the bolt. The barrel adjuster is more of a temporary fix – it’s only a set length, so can’t be adjusted indefinitely. Unscrew the barrel adjuster to tighten the cable.
Brake levers come in a standard size, and can be adjusted for small hands. Somewhere on the lever housing there is a screw that can be tightened to move the levers closer to the handlebars. (This will also tighten the brakes so make sure you adjust them too.)
Healthy chains are free from dirt and rust, and are sufficiently lubricated. Use an old cloth and a lubricating spray (TF2 or GT85) to clean and remove surface rust. Oil sparingly using a dedicated chain lube. Excess oil will increase the likelihood of the chain picking up more dirt from the road and therefore wear it out more quickly. Wet lube is good for rainy conditions, as it doesn’t wash off, but being thick, it can pick up more dirt. Dry lube is lighter but will need to be reapplied if it rains.
If you buy your bicycle from a reputable dealer, this should never be a problem. If you’ve assembled the bicycle yourself, or it’s from Toys R Us or Halfords, definitely check this before riding.
Gripping the front wheel firmly between your knees and feet, try and twist the handlebars independently of the wheel. Try really hard – it needs to be completely firm. If the handlebars move, the bolt needs tightening. There are two common set-ups: a threaded headset, where there is a single bolt at the very top of the stem and a large nut around the base of the stem, and a threadless headset where there is a bolt holding on a cap at the very top and two pinch bolts on the side. Be careful not to tighten the wrong bolt. With a threaded headset, it is the bolt at the top that needs tightening – typically with a 6mm Allen key. With a threadless headset, tighten the two pinch bolts at the side, typically with a 5mm Allen key. Tighten them both incrementally and evenly rather than fully tightening one then the other. Tightening the bolt at the top will tighten the headset itself, rather than the handlebars, and will restrict the movement of the front wheel.
Give the wheels a spin to make sure they are running true.
Check all bolts are tight, especially those holding the wheels in place
Check the pedals are on the correct side – they will be marked with an L for left and R for right. It’s important to get this right – the left pedal is reverse-threaded to prevent it from unscrewing as you pedal. If they are on the wrong side, they will eventually undo themselves and fall off.
Saddle and handlebar stem should not be raised above the ‘minimum insertion’ mark.
Racks, mudguards and water bottle holders should be firmly fixed.
It’s the idea of my friend Ed, to celebrate the end of British Summer Time by cycling along the Meridian Line from capital to coast. We meet at the top of Greenwich Park, the whole of London laid out below in a blur of early-morning mist, the avenues of trees that lead southwards from the Royal Observatory glowing with the bright yellow of autumn. The four of us, me, Ed, Theo and Alex, roll away from the park towards Peacehaven. Clouds suffocate the sun.
The route is dotted with Meridian markers: a sculpture in a park, a compass rose set in the pavement, a finger post along a residential street. A line is drawn on the ceiling of the pedestrian tunnel at Hither Green station; an obelisk sits squat in a park in West Wickham.
Through the suburbs we meander, the countryside soon emerging as houses recede and farms take their place. The landscape is alive with the rusty hues of autumn, reds and yellows vivid even on this overcast day. We ride beneath leaf tunnels, chasing pheasants, chatting as the miles pass under our wheels.
We pause at the end of a climb for a snack. The sporadic drizzle has once more filled the air with moisture. I replace my jacket while we eat. After the next turn it’s a steep descent, says Ed.
I’m first down the hill. It’s steep, and I’m going fast – faster than usual. I’ve always been a cautious descender, never quite trusting that I won’t crash, but recently I’ve been trying to ease off the brakes a little, to let the bike do the work. The road is narrow and the surface is poor – the bike bumps over a rough patch and I loosen my grip on the handlebars to absorb the shock of the road, though they nearly rattle out of my hands. There is a bend in the road ahead, coming up fast. Gently on the brakes, but the bend is suddenly there, and the drizzle has slicked the tarmac, and my rear wheel skids. I shriek, regaining control for a second, but then it skids again, more significantly this time, and down I go. Knee, hip, elbow crashing to the ground, body skidding with the momentum, then head makes contact with tarmac. It bounces off the road and somehow I’m lying facing up the hill, my bike tangled up with my legs. ‘Shit, shit, shit,’ I’m saying as Ed rushes to my aid; ‘I hit my head. Fuck.’ Theo’s a doctor, he tells me, then calls to them: ‘Easy guys, Anna’s taken a spill.’ I’m looking at the sky, hip and elbow burning, the searing sting of ripped skin competing with the throbbing of joints swollen with shock. Theo is beside me: don’t move, he says, and feels my neck, and asks how my vision is, then eases me off the road. My head is cut and there’s a nasty bump, but I’m OK. I sit with my head between my legs, waiting for the dizzy spell to pass as Ed fixes my punctured front wheel. The bike took a battering: bent derailleur, snapped rear light, bashed bar grips, front light in pieces on the road. We pull the derailleur back into place and re-align mudguards, piecing together the front light and checking that wheels are true. The shock is subsiding. Both bike and I really got away with that one.
The crash was 17 miles in and there are at least 40 more until we reach the coast. I would rather keep going – the bike is rideable and moving is good for my bashed-up joints, delaying the inevitable stiffening that will see me unable to move my head properly tomorrow. I berate myself as we ride; I knew I was taking that hill too fast, and in slippery conditions I should have been more cautious. There are certain falls we can’t predict, like the time I skidded in a patch of oil, or when I came down on slippery gravel on the towpath, but here, I should have risk assessed better.
The whole of the right side of my body is in agony – why must I always fall that way? My elbow has barely recovered from the oil crash! I’m annoyed at myself because I wasn’t wearing cycle-specific clothing – I rarely do, because I don’t own much, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t ride my bike in normal clothes. But cycle kit exists for a reason, and had I been wearing my cycling gloves instead of the woolly ones that I removed earlier because it was too warm, my hands would be scrape-free. I wouldn’t have ripped my everyday leggings, or my t-shirt. Heartbreakingly, my lovely new ski jacket now has rips in it, although thank goodness I put it back on – the skin injuries would have been a lot worse had I not.
Mostly though, I realise the vulnerability of my fragile skull, and the terror that went through my mind when it bounced off the tarmac. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. I rarely do, though my family remind me often that they wish I would. I’ve never hit my head before, and now I have, it brings home that the crash could have been a lot worse, and my poor family would have worse news than me limping home. I stand by my previous blog post about helmet use – in my day-to-day life, I probably won’t wear my helmet. But on a ride like this, where speeds are greater and roads less predictable, I will.
Do I regret coming on the ride? Do I wish I had stayed at home today and avoided the whole thing? It’s going to take days for my skin to heal, and weeks for me to be able to sleep comfortably on that side again. But life is the culmination of our experiences – good and bad. If I avoided things that might cause me pain or damage, I would never leave the house. When we get to the end of our lives we want to be able to look back and remember the things we did, not regret the things we didn’t do. And this ride, for sure, is one I’ll never forget.
‘Easy on the speed, Hughes,’ says Ed as we take another descent. Noted. The knee pain has receded but my head is throbbing and my elbow jolts painfully with each bump. The coast is still fifteen miles away. I’m not going to make it that far.
We roll into Lewes and head for the pub. After a pint I’m going to take the train back to London while the boys ride the remaining miles, hopefully arriving at the Meridian obelisk in Peacehaven in time to watch the sun set over the sea. They have been terrific, making sure I’m OK, buying me food and tea and painkillers and now, a pint. We sit down and I raise my glass. ‘Thanks for looking after me. And even though I really hurt myself, I’m really glad I came. I’ve had a great ride. Cheers.’
My sister’s house has been home this week while my boat has some work done in the marina. To say thanks I’ve cooked dinner each night. For a sister and brother-in-law who are both meat-eaters, my vegan cooking has been something of a change for them. They’ve really loved it – James said the roast on Sunday was the best part of his week!
Here’s what I’ve been cooking, with approximated recipes (I’m less of a recipe girl and more of a make-it-up-as-you-go-along girl). Most of it has been made with the contents of the veg bag that I pick up from Growing Communities in Hackney.
Contents of bag:
sweetcorn on the cob
Sunday: mushroom and kidney bean pasties roast
Roasted vegetables are always delicious, and a Sunday is not a Sunday without them. I’ll often just have roast veg but this time I made a Wellington-style pasty as the centrepiece. Mushrooms and kidney beans are pretty meaty when mushed together. The leftovers were delicious eaten for lunch the next day with hummous.
potatoes, cut into wedges
carrots, halved and quartered lengthways
several cloves garlic, whole
corn on the cob
handful mushrooms, chopped
can kidney beans, drained and mashed
fresh herbs, chopped
pastry – I used Just Roll puff pastry
For roasted vegetables:
Heat oil in roasting tin in the oven. Around 170º C is about right. Add potato wedges, carrot sticks and garlic, and toss in the oil. Add salt and perhaps rosemary. Vegetables will take about half an hour to roast, depending on size of wedges. I like the potatoes to go a little broken at the edge – this makes that delicious crunchy roasted texture.
For boiled vegetables:
Place corn on the cob in a pan of water, bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. Broccoli takes around six minutes – I usually put a tiny amount of water in the pan and place the head of the broccoli in whole (no stalk), so the majority of it steams. Serve with vegan spread or olive oil and salt and pepper.
For the pasties:
Heat oil in frying pan. Fry mushrooms and onions until soft. Remove from heat. Mix together with kidney beans and herbs. Season to taste.
Roll out pastry in an oblong shape. Place the mushroom mixture on the pastry lengthways and roll into a sausage roll shape, sealing the ends and the seam by gathering and rubbing with water. Cook on a baking tray on a high heat until nicely browned. At 190ºC in a fan oven it takes about 20 minutes.
Serve the whole thing with gravy and plenty of salt and pepper.
Monday: pasta bolognese
I love lentils. They are so versatile, and can be surprisingly meaty in texture and flavour. Brown lentils are great when making a bolognese or chilli, or anything that would otherwise have mincemeat e.g. lasagne. They keep their shape when cooked. Buy in health food shops or local shops that sell ethnic cuisine – it’s rare you’ll find them in a supermarket. They are the whole version of the more popular red lentil. This pasta bolognese is rich, flavoursome and stuffed full of protein. A really easy comfort dinner.
handful mushrooms, chopped
one onion, sliced
garlic, chopped/crushed (I usually chop as it means less washing up)
cup dried brown lentils
tin aduki beans, with liquid
flavouring e.g. herbs, paprika, vege oxo cubes, vegan bullion, salt and pepper
pasta of choice
Fry the onions and garlic in the oil until soft. Add the mushrooms and fry until cooked. Add the lentils, aduki beans, tomatoes, flavourings and enough water to cover the lentils. Bring to the boil and simmer until the lentils are cooked – this takes around 30 minutes. Check the pan every so often and add more water if needed – the lentils will absorb the water as they cook.
Add pasta to a pan of cold water (I use two handfuls per person), bring to the boil, then remove from heat. I tend not to leave it boiling – the pasta will cook just as well in the residual heat of the water. It takes about as long as it would if you were to boil it, but saves energy! (I discovered this when I ran out of gas halfway through cooking my dinner one night. By the time I’d switched the gas bottle over the pasta was done.) Drain and serve with lashings of olive oil, salt and pepper, and top with the Bolognese sauce.
Tuesday: Thai curry
Thai curry is super easy to make and is a great way of using up any leftover vegetables you might have.
a good dollop of Thai curry paste (check instructions on jar. A few tablespoons is about right).
one onion, sliced
half aubergine, sliced
mange tout and baby sweetcorn, or any green crunchy vegetable – broccoli, green beans and okra all work well
can coconut milk (get the full fat stuff – coconut milk ‘light’ is always a disappointment)
Fry the onion and garlic briefly in the oil. Add curry paste and fry until it smells toasty. Add the coconut milk and vegetables, and simmer until the vegetables are tender. Serve with boiled rice.
Wednesday: bubble and squeak with garlicky tomato sauce
This was Sarah’s top pick of the week. I took her plate next door to where she was babysitting, then received a text from her saying ‘This is AMAZING’. Let’s face it, anything fried tastes great. Bubble and squeak is often forgotten as a Boxing Day leftovers dish, but there’s no reason not to make it fresh. It’s oh. so. yummy. And not really that bad for you…
kale, stalks removed
vegan spread (I buy Pure sunflower, olive oil or soy spread. Available in most supermarkets. Vitalite is also vegan, and Flora does a dairy free spread)
can beans (I love aduki beans but any dark bean will do)
herbs and spices of choice
salt and pepper
For the bubble and squeak:
Peel/scrub the potatoes (depending on age and quality. Skin-on mash is always good if possible) and cut into chunks. Boil in a pan of water until nearly cooked (about 10 minutes). Add the kale leaves and boil for for a further few minutes until soft. Remove from heat, drain and mash with the vegan spread, salt and pepper.
Heat oil in a frying pan. Fry small cakes of the potato and kale mixture – make sure it is patted together well, or it will disintegrate in the pan. Add small amounts of oil throughout cooking. Serve immediately.
For the tomato sauce:
Fry the onions and garlic in the oil until starting to brown. Add the mushrooms and fry until cooked. Add whichever herbs and spices you require and stir into the onion and mushroom mixture. Add the tin of tomatoes one spoonful at a time, making sure all the liquid is absorbed before adding the next. This is time consuming as it requires constant stirring and attention, but it’s worth it for the rich tomato flavour, succulent onions/mushrooms and thickness of the sauce. Once the tomatoes have all been used, add the can of beans, including the liquid, using the same method. Serve the sauce on top of the finished bubble and squeak with plenty of salt and pepper (I use sea salt flakes rather than table salt – much better flavour and texture, and better for you!).
Thursday: Dhal with kale and cauliflower
This is almost my favourite dish ever. It’s so easy and quick to make, and really makes a superstar of the cauliflower and kale. The ginger and chilli make it deeply-flavoured but not overwhelming. We served it alongside onion bahjis and popadoms from the local Indian restaurant. Creamy, rich and wonderfully spicy. Truly delicious.
fresh ginger (about a one inch piece), chopped
fresh chilli, chopped
spices: fennel seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric (about a teaspoon each)
can coconut milk
vege stock cube
cup dried red lentils
cauliflower, broken into florets
kale, stalks removed
fresh coriander, chopped
salt and pepper
Fry the onion, garlic, ginger and chilli in the oil until soft. Add the spices and fry for a minute. Add the coconut milk, the lentils and some extra water if necessary. Crumble in the stock cube and stir. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes, lid on, until the lentils are starting to cook. Add the cauliflower and kale and cook for a further 5-10 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want your cauliflower (I like it al dente). Stir in the chopped coriander, season with salt and pepper, and serve with rice or on its own.
Friday: Carrot soup
‘How is this so creamy?’ asks James of a dish that doesn’t have cow anywhere near it. Pureeing vegetables will automatically give a creamy texture and the lentils give the soup substance. It’s wholesome and warming – perfect for an autumn lunchtime.
carrots – as many as you have!
another root vegetable such as parsnip
leeks, sliced, outer leaves removed
vege oxo cube
dried red lentils, approx 1 cup
Fry the onion, garlic and leeks in the oil until starting to brown. Add the chopped carrots and parsnip. Cook for a few minutes. Add water, stock cube, red lentils and any other flavourings you fancy. Bring to the boil and simmer until the vegetables are cooked. Remove from heat and liquidise. Serve with fresh herbs and plenty of salt and pepper.
Saturday: potato salad
This is not just a salad, it’s a super salad. Don’t be afraid to mix everything together – the more mushing together of the ingredients, the better. It’s a great mixture of warm, cooked ingredients and raw, crunchy ones. The dressing brings it all together.
salad leaves, washed and ripped
tomatoes, sliced into thin wedges, or cherry tomatoes, halved
puy lentils, cooked (allow roughly 1.5 oz per person)
any other salad ingredients: sliced radish, ribbons of courgette, olives etc
for the dressing:
loads of olive oil
teaspoon Dijon mustard
teaspoon wholegrain mustard
large dash lemon juice
large pinch salt
Boil the potatoes (halved, depending on size) until just soft. The lentils should take around 20-30 minutes to cook. Add all ingredients to a large bowl. Place dressing ingredients into a clean jar and shake into a creamy consistency. Pour over the salad and toss really really well. Serve immediately.
This is the fifth year of the RideLondon-Surrey 100, one of the legacies of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the first time I’ve ridden in such a huge sportive. Nearly 30,000 people registered for the event, and I queue up at the start surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of cyclists. The logistics of such an event must be a challenge, but we are moved forwards and somehow leave at our projected start time: 0642. Though this is my first sportive it’s not my first century. I’m riding with a friend who really looks the part with a Rapha jersey and a slick bike. I don’t own a cycle jersey and I’m the only one carrying a backpack: sandwich, snacks, and spares.
ACDC blares from the speakers as we cross the start line and head straight onto the A12. It’s a real buzz to be riding on a dual carriageway empty of traffic, the peleton taking up the whole of the road, heading through tunnels and over flyovers that are normally inaccessible to bikes. “I won’t race,” my riding partner says, although his idea of slow and mine are probably very different.
We head westwards out of London through Chiswick and into Richmond Park, the early morning sun emerging as we flow through Kingston and towards Hampton Court. We’re being carried along by this tidal wave of cyclists at an average of 20mph. I’ve never known anything like it; mostly I ride at touring pace, either solo or in small groups, so the feeling of fast is new, and I love it.
Forty miles in, I start to lag. “How are you feeling?” I ask my riding partner. “Great. Doesn’t feel like I’ve ridden 40 miles. You?” “Definitely feels like I’ve ridden 40 miles! Feel free to drop me if you want to go faster.” I manage to hang on for another five or six miles, but as we near the halfway point he pulls away and is soon swallowed up by the riders ahead. Soon afterwards I pass the ‘Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ sign, followed instantly by the promised hills. It’s a tough climb towards Newlands Corner – the first of many.
I pull into one of the rest stops for a break – the pace has hurt and I need some time to recover. I eat my sandwich and help myself to some energy chews. This is the fourth rest stop we’ve passed, all packed out with drinks, sweets and biscuits handed out by smiley people. There are toilets and plenty of places to rack your bike. It’s all brilliantly organised.
Back on the bike, and back into the hills. It’s absolutely stunning – this is not an area I’ve cycled in before, but I can see why it has its reputation – it’s wonderful cycling, with challenging climbs and long freewheeling downs, winding lanes and picturesque villages. And it’s great day for it, too – the sun gives a rich shimmer to the surroundings. The road is full of bicycles, but despite the numbers it’s flowing really well. I pause for a moment, enjoying the lack of engine noise. Silence but for the whirr of thousands of bicycle wheels.
Soon comes Leith Hill – the steepest and longest climb of the day. The road narrows and cyclists come out of their saddles, weaving across the road. Avoiding touching wheels is almost more of a challenge than the actual climb. “This is the final stretch!” says one of the stewards, misleadingly: there are at least three more false summits and corners before the road finally levels out and the glorious descent can begin.
“Slow down!” the marshals are calling from ahead. There’s an ambulance and some cyclists receiving First Aid, and beyond, two riders lying on stretchers, one with blood covering his face. It’s a scary sight. A little while later I see someone come off and skid along the ground for several metres. It looks really painful. It’s inevitable that there will be collisions in an event with so many people but it’s worrying to hear of the serious crashes that caused chaos later in the day, leading to delays and diversions and two riders being airlifted to hospital.
Ten miles later it’s Box Hill, a famous climb. It’s not nearly as steep as Leith Hill and from having worried since the start line about this section, I really enjoy it. I’m good at steady climbing, and the views as the road creeps higher are astounding. As with any hill, all you need is a low gear and a healthy dose of determination.
With the big hills behind us and 70 miles under the wheels, the final 30 miles are a rip-roaring ride back to London. I’m pumped and stop once more for a sandwich break before the final stretch. “Last climb!” the stewards call as we tackle the hill at Wimbledon, then we pour down towards the river and across Putney bridge. I jump on someone’s wheel and stay there all the way along the Embankment, allowing him to carry me to Parliament Square. I don’t think he noticed. The Mall makes a triumphant finish and I pass beneath the hoarding 6 hours and 5 minutes after leaving. Not bad for my first sportive – I’ll definitely be signing up for another.
14th April 2016. David Cameron was Prime Minister. Boris Johnson was Mayor of London. Roy Hodgson was England manager. Bernie Sanders was giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the US Presidential Primaries. Chris Evans was the presenter of Top Gear. Peggy Mitchell was the queen of the Queen Vic. Great Britain was part of the EU. And a Canadian singer called Drake reached the top of the charts with his single ‘One Dance.’
Fifteen weeks later, Drake is the only one who is still there.
If Drake remains at number one for one more week, he will have equalled the record for the longest ever Number One held by fellow Canadian Bryan Adams. Adams retained the top spot with (Everything I do) I do it for you for nearly four months in the summer of 1991, helped no doubt by the song featuring on the soundtrack for Kevin Costner’s swashbuckling romp Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Drake has already beaten Whitney Houston’s I will always Love You (10 weeks) (which also featured in a film starring Kevin Costner), Rhianna’s Umbrella (10 weeks), Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy (9 weeks) and equalled Wet Wet Wet’s Love is all around (15 weeks).
What is the appeal of this song? Drake has had a string of hits, but none has caused quite such a storm as this. Musically, it is quite strange, a stitching-together of clipped female vocals, Bhangra samples and Drake’s smooth come-on to his girl, held together by a rim-shot dominated drum beat. There’s no rousing chorus, no soaring melody, no classic verse/chorus/middle 8 formula that served Bryan Adams and Whitney Houston so well. Lyrically it’s not particularly moving or uplifting – it neither invokes tears nor inspires joy. There is no video to watch. But perhaps therein lies its appeal: neither divisive nor controversial, it simply is a good song. It doesn’t stick obtrusively in your mind, spinning round and round annoyingly throughout the day, more, it gently sits there like a good friend. There’s nothing particularly to love, but neither is there anything to hate – these other songs tend to split audiences. I remember singing “I wish you would keep your mouth shut!” above Whitney’s warbling “I wish you love.” Even Marty Pello grew sick of his own song and withdrew the record before it became too permanent a fixture at the top of the chart.
With all the turmoil going on in the world, all the political upheaval, the uncertainty in the financial markets, perhaps we just want stability, something comforting, that doesn’t cause controversy one way or another, just a good, classy song that makes you smile each time you hear it because it’s solid and stable and, while politicians quit and establishments fall around our ears, isn’t going anywhere.
As a vegan, I’m often asked, “What do you eat?” One of my staples is lentils – a food I had barely eaten before becoming vegan, but something I couldn’t now live without. Lentils are high in protein and carbohydrates, and a good source of iron, fibre, B vitamins and zinc. They make a natural substitute for meat – high on the list of the questions is, “How do you get enough protein?” so I smugly reply that there is as much protein in the humble lentil as there is in a steak.
Trying to emulate meat in my cooking is not something I really do – if I’m not going to eat meat, I’m not going to eat something pretending to be meat. Tofu and soy are not on my shopping list. But lentils are great at providing a meaty texture if I so desire – especially useful if I’m cooking for non-vegans. Red lentils have a similar texture to shredded chicken, brown lentils make a great substitute for mince, and Puy lentils have a fabulous gamey flavour. Such is the similarity to meat textures, I have been known to question chefs who insist the dish prepared for me is in fact vegan; I’ve even questioned my own cooking, knowing full well animal products have come no where near!
My lentil shelf (yes, I have a lentil shelf) has five types of lentil: red, green, brown, speckled (Puy) and yellow. There’s definitely room for more.
I also have a few beans on my lentil shelf, but dried beans (though cheaper than canned) require forethought (soaking overnight) and energy (lots of boiling time). Living on a boat makes me very precious about overusing my gas stove. Lentils don’t require soaking which means you can buy the dried (cheaper) version and still add them to dishes with very little planning. Typical cooking time: 15 to 35 minutes.
Red lentils cook really quickly and are a great addition to soups and curries. They are good for bulking up a dish and their colour doesn’t fade with cooking. I often use them in carrot soup and always in a dhal.
Brown lentils are my favourite chilli-sans-carne staple. They hold their shape when cooked, and the colour and texture is close enough to the meat mince in my mum’s recipe that I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. They take longer than red (being the whole version of red lentils) so need to be added to the mix fairly early on. I add them to a Bolognese-style dish at the same time as all other liquid, giving a good thirty minutes on the boil in order to soften.
Green lentils are flatter than brown and retain something of their shape when cooked. They tend to lose their colour (though they never start off green – more a dull beige). They are good in stews and salads.
Puy lentils are a revelation. They are just great on their own, which is not true of other lentils. A whole plate of Puy lentils and a dash of soy sauce is just as nutritious and delicious as a steak. OK, only a vegan would say that, but… it’s a good meal. Chuck a few oven-roasted veg in there and some sautéed spinach and you have yourself a gourmet meal. I often add them (pre-cooked) to salads and stir-fries.
Yellow lentils are a new addition to my lentil shelf. They are more a split pea than a lentil, which means they take longer to cook and have the firmest texture of all the lentils. They also look a lot like I’ve poured several cans of sweetcorn into my stew. Tastes great, though, and really gives the dish an extra dimension in flavour and texture.
I used to eat meat three times a day. Now it’s lentils. All praise to the lentil.
This is the mother of all triathlons: a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run. In June I travelled up to the Lake District to take part in the Lakesman iron-distance triathlon, an event I’d been training for solidly for 6 months. I’d never run any distance before I started training, nor even competed in a triathlon. I worried in the build-up as to what I’d let myself in for (many tears were shed) which was made worse by a niggling running injury I’d picked up 5 weeks prior to the event. But I got there, I competed, and I completed it. This is what it was like (in post-event bloggy exhaustion)
4am: wake. worry I can’t do it.
5am: try to eat something. Nerves making it hard. I’m worried the water will be too cold, that I won’t complete the things in the time allowed, that it will be hilly, that my running injury will make it impossible to complete the run. Trying not to think about the total madness of the overall event.
6am: swim starts. It’s warm. The lake is beautiful. I find it much easier than I thought and I think of what my swimming coach taught me as I power through the water. It’s far but it takes me just an hour and ten minutes: 20 mins quicker than my best projection.
7.30am: start the cycle. I am an hour ahead of schedule – this gives me a boost. Overcast skies and a tailwind. My team missed me getting out of the water because I was so far ahead. They catch up in the car and we hug. Quiet roads at this time on a Sunday morning – a fast ride along the gently undulating A66 on good tarmac. I’m averaging 18mph, 4mph faster than the speed I need to make it back in time. I’m really good at climbing – every uphill, no matter how slight, I power past everyone else. They then pass me on the downs. First feed station – I take a banana and drink some of the oat smoothie I made.
10am: my tummy feels funny. It’s the combination of bananas, energy bars, my raspberry smoothie, nerves, not being able to finish my breakfast, and having got up so early. There are no loos provided on the route, and this is not something I can do on the verge. I see a man watering the plants in his garden and ask if I can come in and use the toilet. He is bemused but agrees. His whole house, including the toilet, is carpeted in beige.
11am: halfway through the cycle. I feel great. Tailwind, smooth roads, no hills. When they said flat they really meant it. Coastal route with a view over the sea. A touch of rain but mainly dry. My team has been popping up every so often and cheering me on. There is a big crowd here in Allonby holding signs – one says “don’t be shit.”
12.15pm: second time through Allonby on the mini-lap. I’m starting to struggle. My sister bought me some crisps – the ‘real’ food feels great. I chat to them for a while. I’m still way ahead of schedule, but simply being on the bike for this long is a killer. It’s nearly been five hours. I set off, the final flying stretch where I’ll have flat roads and a whopping tailwind soon over as the route reaches its most northerly point and turns southwards, with 42 miles still to go before I get back to Keswick. That in itself is a huge distance, regardless of the fact that I have already been cycling all day. I try not to think about it.
2pm: final twelve miles. Overriding thoughts: PAIN, whose idea was this, no way I can run a marathon now, PAIN, hungry, worry (leg feels fine, but might not last the run), PAIN, headwind, exhausted, hungry, who invented this – it’s a bloody ridiculous idea for an event.
3pm: back in Keswick. It looks like most people beat me to it – from being in the top 50 out of the water I’m now in the last 30. Rack bike, change, toilet, sit down, eat. I find my team and chat to them for a while. Longest transition ever.
3.30pm: start the run. It’s a five lap course – I’ve told myself I’ll do the first lap and see how I feel. Legs feel fine. Body feels great. I can’t believe it. Smiles all round.
5.15pm: onto the third lap. First two were easy, now it’s starting to hurt a bit. Head up, still smiling. It’s raining which is good for refreshment but not so good for the cross-country sections of the course which are slowly turning into a bog. Legs still fine. Body feeling good. Tiring but still going. Water and coke gulped at each station. I don’t even LIKE coke, but today, I love it. I am running faster than most people and have nearly caught up a friend who was a lap ahead of me when I started. Still smiling and getting lots of cheers. “You’re looking fresh!” people are saying. Keep smiling. Everyone else looks fucked.
6.30pm: final lap. My knees are in agony. I am no longer smiling
7pm: I can no longer run. Talking myself through it now. 100 steps run/stagger, 50 steps walk. Eventually I am running 20 and walking 100. I am finding it hard to breathe and I nearly start hyperventilating at a feed station, tears pouring down my face as I try not to panic. Everything in my body is saying STOP but I am so nearly there. Walk 100 paces, run 20. Final strait. I pick up the running again.
7.30pm: I cross the finish line, 13 hours and 28 minutes after I started. I can’t breathe, I’m cold, I can’t walk, I’m going to have to find the medic tent. My hands cover my face to hide the tears from the cameras, although when I look at the pictures later my gasping grimace looks just like a smile. Amazing.
So, there we are. Ironman done. It was unimaginably tough but at times felt great – just goes to show that if you prepare for something and set your mind on a task, you can achieve it. I’m by no means an athlete, and especially not a triathlete. But I crossed that finish line well within the time allowance and now have my Lake District slate medal to keep for the rest of time. Just never ask me to do it again.
For the second time in two weeks, I’ve fallen off my bike. This isn’t a great score for someone who teaches people to ride bikes for a living, but perhaps it’s for a reason; just call me Anna ‘I Have Accidents So You Don’t Have To’ Hughes.
The first fall was a tough one. Rounding a corner, I saw a patch of what I thought was water, but was actually engine oil, and hitting a patch of oil at an angle, regardless of how fast or slow you are travelling, means game over. I stood no chance: the front wheel instantly gave way and the whole bicycle slid along the tarmac, taking me with it. I landed hard on my hip and elbow, the skin scraping onto my clothing which thankfully kept the wounds diesel-free. Bumped, bruised and grazed, I cycled home to lick my wounds and add my oil-covered clothes to the laundry basket. There’s not much you can do about oil or ice: these are two surfaces that, once hit, mean you end up on the floor. Hitting the ground at any speed is horrible – after the skin wounds scabbed over I was left with two sizeable bumps and the bruises to go with it. I’ll certainly avoid similar patches in future. If in doubt about something on the road, avoid it, and if that’s not possible, try not to ride it at an angle, otherwise you’ll likely end up on the floor.
The second fall was less serious but, being a mere week after the first, and falling on roughly the same parts of my body, it hurt all the more. On this occasion it was a gravel path that caused my front wheel to slip – something that I really should have predicted. It’s a path along which I’ve ridden many times, but today it had rained so the path was wet. Gravel can be an unpleasant surface – in the heat it kicks up dust, in the rain it slides under the wheels – but it’s even more unpleasant when you have to pick it out from under your skin. “Exercise caution in wet conditions,” I tell my trainees. It’s good advice.
When it rains, you need to be twice as vigilant on the road. Everything is slippery, especially manhole covers and drains, and even painted lines. Avoid riding over these in wet weather, and if riding over them is unavoidable, be careful not to take them at an angle or in the middle of a turn. Avoid riding through puddles, as these can conceal potholes. Any bumps or changes in the surface become far more hazardous in the rain, so always take kerbs or bumps at a 90º angle to reduce the chance of slips.
Even in dry conditions, be aware of changes in the road surface: gravel, potholes, kerbs, textured paving, manhole covers and tramlines. The best way to ride across any of these is in a straight line and at a 90º angle. Keep your eyes on the road ahead to avoid suddenly swerving into the path of another vehicle if you need to manoeuvre around hazardous road surfaces. Always keep the brakes covered just in case and, if in doubt, reduce your speed or stop.
It’s the second annual Cycle Touring Festival and I’m here in the beautiful setting of Waddow Hall in Lancashire. The weather is gorgeous and it’s very green: trees and long grasses cover the steep slope that leads down to the water. Some local boys have been walking across the top of the weir. A group of us takes a dip in the river – it’s warm.
The festival has an intimate feel to it – ticket sales are intentionally restricted so it doesn’t seem too crowded. There are enough people here that there is a buzz, but not so many that you don’t know who anyone is. Faces quickly become familiar and connections are easily made. It’s a great melting-pot of people, some of whom are seasoned tourers, some of whom are just starting out on their first adventures.
One of my talks was about finding adventure on your doorstep, where I shared stories of some of my travels within the UK: a ride from Liverpool to Manchester along the river Mersey; a voyage of discovery along old railway trails in Somerset; an adventure within London around the Capital Ring; the magic of overnight rides such as the Dunwich Dynamo. My favourite type of ride is cycling to the sea (preferably following a water course to its conclusion), a wonderfully accessible adventure given that nowhere in the UK is more than 70 miles from the sea.
And it’s not just about the short routes: LEJOG is around 1000 miles; around the coast is about 4000, an epic distance in anyone’s book. But the UK can be overlooked as a venue for travels, not yielding all we might expect from adventure. It’s all here: hospitality from locals, foreign languages, new cultures, habits and traditions, rich history, wilderness, great weather (yes, really!), breathtaking beauty, grandeur of scale, epic distance and extreme physical challenge. A ride from Land’s End to John o’ Groats will take you from the luscious, sub-tropical South-West riviera to the pale evening skies of northern Scotland. The variety in landscapes between these points is huge: farmsteads, industry, sweeping plains, cities, hills steep enough to pick up your front wheel and throw you down, buildings made from the earth around them, mountain ranges, lakes, river valleys and moorland. There is much to learn about local customs, cultures and cuisines, and every region has something unique to offer, be it Cullen Skink, lava-bread, or a Melton Mowbray pie. It’s not unusual to be unable to understand a conversation going on in the local bakery – a delightful feeling of displacement within your own country.
Hearing of the hospitality of strangers is common in tales of far-flung travels. Perhaps it’s not so expected within the UK as we don’t think to ask for it. But our neighbours are just as warm, welcoming and friendly as anywhere in the world. In my round-Britain ride I was given a bed and food on an almost daily basis, mostly by people I didn’t know. People frequently stopped me to have a chat or share their own cycling stories, and gave me water and food. It was an incredible and refreshing insight to human nature: we are sociable creatures after all, and we want to help.
There are many advantages to cycle touring here: a common language, common currency, no need for a passport, close to get to, doesn’t require lots of time, money, logistics or planning. It also has great infrastructure, an easy get-out clause and no dangerous creatures or tropical diseases. There is plenty to be discovered within the UK and the adventure and discovery is all the greater for being somewhere familiar.
I love making an ordinary journey into an extraordinary one, simply by using my bike. When I set off on my sailing trip three years ago I rode my bike to the south coast over a course of four days rather than take a four hour train ride. So I concluded my talk with a little story about a ride from last year’s festival to my friend’s house in Manchester, a last-minute decision to make the journey one to remember. I loved every minute.
According to TfL, 77% of accidents happen at junctions. It’s understandable why this can be a hotspot for collision: there are two or more directions of traffic, visibility can be reduced, and confusion is common. For cyclists, the statistics are more scary: junctions are where most fatalities occur, especially when left-turning vehicles are involved.
Taking the lane at junctions (being in the centre) can greatly reduce the chances of an accident. Picture a typical T junction. If the cyclist hugs the kerb they are effectively inviting someone to come alongside them and turn either at the same time or turn in front of them. If the road has parked cars lining it, the cyclist is concealed from view for much of the manoeuvre. Being on the inside of a left-turning vehicle is the last place you want to be, so don’t invite it by sticking to the side. If you hold a central position you will have more road presence, better visibility, and another road user won’t have room to pass without going into the other lane so will have to wait behind – a much safer and more correct use of the roads (according to the Highway Code, if you’re in front you have priority, and overtaking on a junction is not permitted). If you’re turning right, the same principle applies – by placing yourself on the right hand side of the lane you are opening yourself up to being overtaken. Be bold and take the lane, whether you are turning left or right or going straight on, and take this position at all junctions including T junctions, cross-roads, traffic lights and roundabouts. Keep the central position until you have cleared the junction, then return to your normal riding position.
At pinch points or on narrow roads, there is often not room for another vehicle to pass you safely. If you stay to the left, drivers may try to squeeze past, so each time you approach a pinch point (e.g. traffic island), check behind and, if it’s safe to do so, move into a central position to discourage dangerous overtaking. If there’s someone directly behind, wait for them to pass before moving into the central position.
The way you behave on the roads affects how others behave, and your position can encourage others to drive more safely around you. Where you ride is a form of communication in itself; by riding wide and central you are saying, “Please wait before you overtake,” whereas a position to the side says, “Please go around me.” Think about which is safest for you in each situation and alter your position accordingly.
Your Cycle Superhighways are advertised as “safer, faster and more direct” routes into the capital, providing routes for cyclists along the roads they might otherwise drive down – quick, direct routes into the capital that follow trunk roads. The infrastructure for motor vehicles is direct and clearly signposted, whereas for bicycles, it is winding, slow, and, more often than not, poorly signed.
Why, then, does CS1 not follow these guidelines? The original idea was to build a route that followed the A10: a fast, direct route into the capital. The new Cycle Superhighway 1 follows the old London Cycle Network route: a quiet route meandering around back streets from Tottenham to Old Street. Not to be confused with the new ‘Quietways’ scheme, providing cyclists with ‘an alternative to busy main roads’ along ‘direct and clearly signed’ routes. Sound familiar?
I would argue that diverting the Cycle Superhighway from the A10 is slower, less safe, and definitely less direct.
Have you ever tried cycling from Tottenham to Dalston at rush hour? Because that’s when most of your target audience will be trying to get to work. The traffic on those ‘quieter residential streets’ is i n s a n e. Everyone is trying to by-pass the A10, or get to work, or drop off their kids at the many schools along the route. The junctions are narrow, the sight lines are poor, and the traffic is coming from all directions. It’s a symphony of the car horn. It’s impossible to filter safely, people are turning in and out of junctions all over the place, and there is precious little room to pass the queue. Doesn’t sound fast to me.
And as for safety: do you know what the highest cause of accidents is for cyclists in London? It’s being ‘doored’ – hit by a car door as it opens. We teach cyclists to ride wide of the door zone, but what about those riders who are unaware of the dangers, or haven’t had training, or simply don’t have space because of all the traffic? Let’s take a look at these ‘safer’ roads that you’re sending cyclists down. Every single one of them is lined with parked cars.
According to TfL statistics, 77% of accidents happen at junctions. On the CS1 stretch between Tottenham and Dalston, there are 16 junctions at which you have to make a turn. On the A10 there are three.
The signage isn’t great, either. It’s impossible to just follow your nose or the flow of traffic: instead of a straight line south from suburbs to city, it twists and turns all over the place. Wasn’t that part of the point of the Cycle Superhighways? That they would follow those predictable routes?
But whatever I think of the terminology, or the marketing of cycle routes, or the roads that have been chosen, my main concern is segregation. Many cyclists will see cycling infrastructure and think, “Great! This has been put here for me to use by someone who knows what they are doing. This will keep me safe.” They do not think, “OK, this is a cycle superhighway. This is intended for commuters who have some kind of road sense,” or, “Look at this Quietway! What a perfect way to travel for families who don’t have to use the roads at rush hour,” or, “Hmm, that cycle lane is in the door zone. Perhaps I shouldn’t use it.” I once taught a lady who lived on the trunk road south from Elephant and Castle, and was thrilled that a new cycle route had been built outside her house. She merrily went out for a ride on the blue paint, and was passed too close by a bus within minutes. She didn’t try a second time.
All cycling infrastructure needs to be safe for all cyclists all the time. The re-designs of large junctions such as at Pitfield St / Old St are terrific, but until we see large scale segregation that is well-maintained, spacious, and goes where you want it to go, cycling in the capital will not be truly safe.
Chris Stark from Radio 1 doesn’t shower in the morning. Scott Mills thinks it’s disgusting. I don’t shower in the morning; I don’t shower in the evenings either. Often I go an ENTIRE DAY without washing. But don’t I smell? Well, you’d be surprised.
So what happens to the body if you don’t wash it?
Let’s start with hair. It’s a fairly common rumour that hair will clean itself if you leave it long enough, though it’s very difficult to imagine how this could be if, like me, you wash your hair every day. Or, I used to. Towards the end of the day I would feel my hair begin to become limp and greasy, and by morning, I would have to wash it. Then, one summer, I went on a camping trip with Otesha, a sustainability and behaviour change group. We camped in the field of a farm house with a composting toilet and no shower. No shower. For. Ten. Days. I have never had such an itchy head. After a week of farm life, we cycled down to the nearest town and begged our way into the leisure centre so we could have a wash – bliss! It was one of the most amazing showers of my life. For those who have been to Glastonbury, you can understand a little of what I’m talking about. Then a strange thing happened. My hair felt amazing the next day. And the next day. And the day after that. I didn’t feel the need to wash it again for another week (which was lucky because we were on another farm by then). Toughing it out for those ten days meant that my hair had begun the self-cleaning process. When I returned to civilisation and regular showers, I only washed my hair once a week. Then I upped it to ten days, then every two weeks, then every three. Now, I wash my hair roughly once a month, or whenever I remember (or have to appear at a wedding). My hair keeps that newly-washed feel for at least four days, then it starts to settle down. It looks just about great for a few weeks, then when it starts to look a bit limp after three or four weeks I give it a wash. I could probably leave it for longer, and perhaps I will, eventually. Because the thing I’ve learned is that your hair needs to be washed as often as you wash it. If you wash it daily, it will need washing daily. If you wash it weekly, it will need washing weekly, and so on.
So why are we tricked into thinking that we need to wash our hair all the time? Washing it doesn’t just clean it, it strips the hair of its natural oils, removing all the good stuff as well as the bad stuff so our hair is incapable of coping with not being clean. A ploy by shampoo companies to get you to buy their product? Perhaps. More likely it’s a result of our evolution into the modern era: we no longer live in Victorian times, where only the rich have access to the bath tub. We are all equal; we can all be clean.
But it’s unnecessary, and it’s the same with skin. If you repeatedly strip your body of its natural oils, it will lose its innate ability to self-regulate. Akin to hair, the more you wash it, the more you need to wash it (though I’m not suggesting that you go for a month without taking a shower). Then, because we have removed all the good stuff, we add moisturiser to replace it. Which then doesn’t allow the skin to clean itself properly. So we have to shower more regularly. And then put all the oils back in with moisturiser. Etc etc.
It’s about the environment, too: bathing uses water, so cut the amount you shower and you cut your water consumption. Chemicals in the products we use to clean ourselves get flushed away into our sewerage system, where water has to be cleaned so we can use it again. We are literally flushing clean water down the drain. When I do shower I use natural cleaning products (especially as, on the boat, my shower tray empties straight into the river).
I don’t shower in the mornings often because I can’t be bothered, but mostly because I don’t need to. I am not going to shower before I go to work today, and I’m certain that my colleagues won’t even notice (and it’s not that they are too polite to say anything). Try it sometime.
When I have taken on challenges before, I’ve shied away from my vegan diet, unsure of whether I would survive intense physical activity on a plant-based diet. This time there’s no question: I’m vegan. Even with such a gruelling training regime, I’m sticking to it.
And it is gruelling: I’m training to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and run 26.2 miles. That’s a marathon after having been cycling all day. I’m training six days a week with a day off on Sunday to rest and recuperate before it all starts again on Monday morning.
At first I worried that I wouldn’t have enough energy to cope with all the training, but I needn’t have: my diet works for me in my day-to-day life, so why wouldn’t it work now? As long as I’m eating enough, I feel energised, healthy and strong.
I’ve never really calorie-counted so I won’t start now, but I am eating roughly twice what I normally eat. For example, instead of half a tin of beans on toast, I’ll have a full tin. I usually cook a huge meal in the evening so I’ll have enough for the next day – then I’ll end up eating the lot.
So, what do I eat?
Typical menu for the day
Pre-workout snack: banana and flapjack
Workout: 30 mins strength or 20 mile cycle
Breakfast: beans on toast
Morning snack: fruit and nut bars such as Nakd bars or Eat Natural (though these aren’t strictly vegan as they contain honey), oat bars, apple
Lunch: wrap with hummus, avocado, tomato, and whatever else I have lying around – last night’s leftovers, salad, lentils, kidney beans etc
Afternoon snack: oat cakes with hummus and salad, crisps, nuts
Workout: Run or swim
Post-workout snack: banana and flapjack/nut bar
Dinner: usually vegetables, lentils and beans, with a carbohydrate such as wholewheat pasta, brown rice or mashed potato. A favourite is vegan chilli: onions, garlic, mushrooms, aubergine if I have one, brown lentils, tinned tomatoes, red kidney beans, loads of spices and herbs.
At the weekend I’ll do a long swim or long cycle, which means eating while riding. Fuelling on the road is difficult, but it’s what I’m going to have to do on race day – if I can force down enough food that is, what with the adrenaline of the event playing havoc with my stomach as it did on the Half Iron. Food in liquid form is going to be best for that, such as smoothies and shakes made with fruit, oats, almond milk, bananas, and peanut butter (not all at once).
Yesterday I completed a half ironman. This is something I never thought I’d do – just the name sounds ridiculous. Maybe that’s why they call it that – to put people off. Because actually, I found it easy. Well, as easy as swimming 1.2 miles, cycling 56 miles and running 13.1 miles can be.
This ridiculousness began around Christmas time, when I decided that I needed a challenge this year. I’ve always wanted to do a triathlon but there needed to be something more to it than that – a standard tri seemed, well, too normal. So I started researching the Ironman, and pretty soon decided this was the event for me: a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a 56 mile run. Having never taken part in a triathlon before. Long distance appeals I suppose.
So, since Christmas I’ve been training regularly and have been steadily building up the distances (I’ve written about my running journey here). And yesterday I completed the half iron, my test event, with very little trouble. It all goes to show that anyone can do anything, if they put their mind to it. I don’t see myself as particularly strong, or as an athlete, but I somehow managed to run a half marathon as well as cycle 56 miles and swim 2k. It was all in the preparation: I knew what I had to do so I prepared for it.
My training schedule has been: run three times a week (one long run and two short), swim twice a week (I’m a member of a Masters swim club), cycle as much as I can (which basically means to work and back), strength training every day. I’m now going to step up my training to include three focussed cycling sessions a week and some outdoor swimming.
The full Ironman is in June and if I enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed the half, I’ll be doing fine! (again, using the word ‘enjoy’ for an endurance event seems so wrong. But I did!)
These are my times:
Swim: 38 mins 45 in the pool (time allowed: 1 hr 10 mins)
20 mins transition time! Need to work on that!
Cycle: 4 hrs 5 mins on the road (time allowed, 4 hrs 5 mins + whatever is left over from the swim)
28 mins transition time (I needed a rest and to eat!)
Run: 2 hrs 15 mins (time allowed: 3 hrs 10 mins + whatever is left over from swim/cycle)
Total time, including transitions 7 hours 48 mins (time allowed: 8 hrs 30 mins)
The full story is on Twitter here (I even found time for selfies on the road)
It’s 10.30pm when my alarm goes off, waking me from a brief nap. I set my snooze alarm twice before finally dragging myself out of bed and dressing in my cycling gear. It’s pitch black outside, with a few stars and an almost full moon visible between the clouds. I put some food and my waterproofs in my bag and head off, into central London, to meet my friends at Monument.
Why did I get up when I would ordinarily be going to bed? Why have we gathered with our bicycles at midnight when most other people awake at this hour are in the pub? This is the SeaCycles group: every month we ride our bikes to somewhere on the coast, we swim in the sea and we eat fish and chips. Except this time we are doing it overnight.
We eat biscuits, chat, and psyche ourselves up for the 56 miles that lies ahead. Then we set off, south, towards the sea. All around are the sounds of late night London: revellers spilling out of bars, the neon lights of chicken shops flashing to snare their prey, the gentle rumble of the night bus. The roads are less choked with traffic than usual; we negotiate Elephant and Castle and Camberwell with ease, then climb towards Dulwich, Sydenham Hill, and the red beacons of Crystal Palace.
What is the attraction of riding at night? Why have we set out at midnight to cycle all night to the coast? We could be in the pub; we should be in bed; tomorrow will be a write-off. Yet still, we are here.
“But you’ll miss the scenery!” one of my friends had said. We stand at the top of Crystal Palace hill and look down on a blanket of lights, the whole of London sparkling far into the distance. We smile at each other – here, London is a magician’s box, a treasure chest, a mystery. We rarely see it like this. The roads are quiet and the sky black above us.
A few hours later we have shaken off the city altogether and are deep into the countryside. The country lane winds narrow ahead, passing huge estates where houses sit grand behind iron gates, porch lights illuminating neat lawns and Mercedes in the drive. There is the faint suggestion of fields behind the hedgerows, the black horizon punctuated by the blacker outline of trees, and the moon shines above it all. We are privy to the night creatures: the quick dash of a fox, the slow glide of an owl, the shuffle of a badger. It’s a whole new world, one with which we are almost entirely unfamiliar. The roads are all but empty. Few people are awake at this hour, fewer still out on their bikes. I stop riding and an intense peace descends. This is the magic of midnight.
We didn’t see the fields, we didn’t see the folk who live in those houses, we didn’t see the sun sparkling on a lake, we didn’t see the new buds of blossom on the trees. But we saw so much else, things we rarely see, experiences we rarely experience, and that is enough. And, best of all, as we descended into Ditchling, we saw the dawn.
It was three exhausted and sleep-deprived cyclists who arrived on Brighton beach at 7am on Easter Saturday, ready to hit the sack as soon as we’d found breakfast. Unusual? Perhaps. Unforgettable, yes.
It’s possible to cycle round the world. I haven’t done it myself, but I know plenty of people who have (including Al Humphreys, whose map this is). The world might seem impossibly huge – but keep the pedals turning and the miles soon pass. It’s true of any distance – my biggest bike ride do date has been 4000 miles around the coast of the UK. On day one, it seemed an insurmountable, impossible distance, but day by day the miles accrued and soon I was into the thousands. I recently cycled 60 miles to Brighton with a friend – she was worried she wouldn’t make it because it was further than she’d ever cycled. But as we descended the final hill she was smiling widely and said, “Now I’ve cycled here I can cycle anywhere!” Approaching any task is just like cycling – take it one step at a time and eventually you will get there.
I moaned a lot about the weather on my round-Britain trip: It’s too cold / it’s too wet / it’s too windy. None of those things would change. The only thing that could change was my outlook, and only once I had stopped moaning could I deal with it. All I needed were appropriate clothes to keep me dry and an acceptance that the wind would make me go slower than expected, so I needed to throw my timetable out of the window. Once I did that I could relax and enjoy it. Though it being Britain, I never once complained about it being too hot!
Mileage was also a distraction: at one point I passed a sign for the next town which read 8 miles, and the next said 10. I almost cried – 10 when I thought it was 8?! Then I realised that the distance to the next town was the distance to the next town, whatever the sign said, and it would take as long as it took, and I calmed down and started to enjoy the journey rather than focus purely on the destination.
I’m a plan kind of girl, and for my circumnavigation I route-planned to a T. Sometimes I couldn’t go the way I wanted, and it took a lot of courage to let go of my carefully-laid plans and plunge into the unknown. But had I taken the route I’d intended, the ride itself would have been wildly different: I would not have seen what I saw, would not have met the people I met, would not have the memories I had. Each path taken led to the next path – whether I knew it or not. So it is with life. The decisions we make can change the path of our lives massively, and each decision influences the next.
When we take on any challenge we pace ourselves so by the time we reach the end point we have used up all our energy. So it is easy to assume that, on reaching the end point, you couldn’t possibly have gone any further. But distance is psychological; you go as far as you’ve set yourself up to go. When I reached John o’ Groats on my round-Britain trip I had cycled over 1000 miles, and I wasn’t remotely tired. I was less than halfway there, and this was simply one more day in my long bike ride. Yet everyone I met there was at the very end of their stamina – this is the end of the famous Land’s End to John o’ Groats challenge that takes cyclists from the bottom left hand corner of Britain to the top right. The people I met had cycled a shorter distance and spent less time on the road than me, and were absolutely exhausted. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t cycle 4000 miles if they tried. They just weren’t expecting to.
I have never been an ‘athlete’ – I was quite good at school sports but never excelled at anything. I don’t have the build of an athlete nor the drive to become one. But anyone who cycles 4000 miles by themselves is strong. Perhaps not in the conventional sense, but there are many types of strength: not only muscular strength, but also mental strength and tenacity, and while none of these are things I thought I had before, I realised I do have them simply by virtue of doing what I did. Doing something every day for 72 days makes you very good at it! I returned wonderfully muscular – which didn’t last long, but at least I experienced it! And when the physical strength faded, I could still do things that should be beyond me, simply because I told myself I could.
It’s a year since I became an author, the culmination of three years of hard work putting pen to paper (well, fingertips to keyboard) and scraping together the story of my 4000 mile bike ride around the coast of Britain. I wrote a couple of blogs about the writing process at the time: Writing a book and Which was easier, writing or riding?
In the past year I have given numerous talks about the book, mainly on my book tour, which saw me pedalling from Land’s End to John O’Groats, putting on talks and events in each of the towns I passed through. I have sold upwards of 3000 books – an incredible achievement that surpassed all my expectations.
I’m immensely proud to be a published author – if I never write another book, I wrote this one, and that’s a huge achievement. People ask if I have another in me – I might, but not just yet. Writing a second book would certainly be an easier process, but this one took an awful lot of time and effort to produce, and I’m not ready to make that commitment just yet.
An obvious part of becoming an author is having a public profile – anyone can look me up on Amazon and buy and read my book. They don’t know anything about me apart from what they read online, or the impression they get of the person I managed to portray in my writing. Everyone will interpret that differently. I receive emails and tweets from people who have enjoyed the book, and I am so grateful for these comments – this is why I wrote the book in the first place, so people would enjoy hearing about my travels and perhaps feel inspired to explore a bit themselves.
Of course, there is also the other side of this: the negative reviews. I managed to make twelve 5* reviews before the first 1* review came in. I have a screen-grab of those 12 perfect reviews, and I’m holding on to that! I am absolutely realistic about my book – I know not everyone will like it, and I don’t expect it to be to everyone’s taste. We are all different, and wouldn’t it be awful if it were otherwise? One only has to look at the Amazon reviews of a book they have really enjoyed/disliked to find there are just as many people who have the exact opposite viewpoint.
But when people are writing negative things about something you have worked so hard on, it can really hurt. I started off reading all my reviews – no matter how much you know you shouldn’t, you just can’t help it. I was amazed at how mean people could be! Dismissing my work in just a few cutting words. I wanted to riposte each and every one. I responded to a couple with what I judged to be fair responses, but you risk getting into a debate with someone whose viewpoint you are not likely to change, so I stopped.
I thought about why people write reviews. It’s a compulsion that we should express our opinion, especially if others have expressed an opposing view. You want your voice to be heard, and to present your argument in such a way that will convince others. I’ve done it myself, and I feel awful – I gave a fellow cyclist and adventurer a 1* review for his book. I simply didn’t realise he would read it – I just wanted to express my view. But of course he would have read it. In the end, the only person who really cares about your review is you, and the author. Other potential readers are going to look at the average and use that the inform their purchase, if they use anything at all. I went back to that 1* review and deleted it.
Now, I don’t look at what people say, good or bad. I am pleased with my book and that’s good enough. Other people can take it how they want, and are free to express this however they please. It’s taken a while to feel comfortable with this – it’s so easy to let those negative comments get to you, especially if, as with one man, they are sent direct to your inbox! Why he thought sending me a personal email about how much he hated my book would be productive, I have no idea. It took a while to get over that one!
So, if you’ve enjoyed my book, please, let me know. Not to massage my ego, simply to let me know that writing it in the first place was worthwhile. For this is why one becomes an author – for people to read and enjoy your work. And if you don’t like it, fine – just kindly keep quiet
I’m teaching myself to run a marathon. I’ve never run a marathon before, and this is not just any marathon – it’s a marathon after having swum 2.4 miles and ridden my bike for 8 hours. I am taking part in the Lakesman iron-distance triathlon this summer, something I’d never even considered six months ago. I have wanted to do a triathlon for a while – as someone who can swim and cycle it’s an obvious event in which to compete. But I am not a runner. For years I’ve been saying, “I’ll enter a triathlon this year,” but have never got round to it.
Then, as all ‘good’ ideas start, a pub conversation with a friend sowed the seed of the Ironman. This friend has taken part in triathlons before, and somehow he convinced me that I could do a half ironman without having had any prior Tri experience. So we agreed to both enter a half ironman. But the more I considered it, the more I decided that with all the training I would have to do to complete a half-ironman, I might as well go for the whole thing. It’s a skewed logic perhaps, but long distance appeals. And I’m a bit of a sucker for labels: why would I put ‘half ironman’ on my CV when I could put ‘Ironman’?
So, here I am, two and a half months into my training: bike, swim, run. I am a member of a swim club and I train with them twice a week. I ride my bike every day and I ride long distance as much as I can. I do half an hour strength training each weekday, and I rest on the weekend. All this I find easy.
Then there’s the running.
Before the start of this year, I had never run any distance, ever. I used to run the 1500 metres when I was at school, but I was terrible at it. I would often be on the verge of hyperventilation after the 3 3/4 laps that the distance requires. I think they chose me because no one else would do it.
My training started on January 4th with a 10.5 mile run. Straight off, just like that. I don’t know why I decided to jump straight in at the deep end, but I think part of me wanted to see what I was capable of. I took it really slow. It hurt, a lot: after three or so miles the tops of my quads and my hips were in significant pain. But I kept going, and though I walked a large portion of it, I finished it. It took me two hours and by the end I was in agony – I was unable to walk normally for three days. But it served its purpose – I knew, if I could run 10 miles having never run before, I could do a marathon.
So, I started training, properly, building up the distance, starting at 3.5 miles, and increasing incrementally. The pain in my upper quads returned on the first few runs but soon disappeared completely. I started having knee pain once I’d reached 5+ miles (one night so bad that it kept me awake) but, with a knee support and some strategic resting, that too eased. I invested in some proper running trainers which support my ankles and cushion my tread, and I haven’t felt pain since. The distances steadily increased and now I’m up to 12 miles, and going strong (well, I’m totally exhausted by the end of the 12 miles but at least I am physically able to walk afterwards).
I always resisted running because I thought cycling was so much of a better thing. I am a cyclist – I don’t even like walking that much. Running hurts, there is no resting, it’s slow and it’s boring. But much to my surprise and pleasure, once I’d started running, I found none of these things to be true. I really enjoy my running sessions. I didn’t take long to become run-fit, and for it to stop hurting. Sure, there is no freewheeling with running, but if I’m tired I can reduce my pace or simply walk for a while. Yes, it is slower than cycling, but it isn’t supposed to be fast. And it certainly is not boring. Running has allowed me to discover the world at a new pace, and I like it.
I don’t wear an ipod when I run – instead of listening to music I listen to my body, the breaths, the feet, the rhythm of the stride. The one occasion in which I did listen to music, I found it incredibly distracting, and I didn’t feel comfortable with my run. It’s like long-distance cycling: music is an escape, a blocking-out of your current situation. When I’m touring this is the last thing I want – I want to be in the moment, noticing my surroundings, accompanied by the soundtrack of whichever road I am riding. In all my touring, I find my iPod stays in the bottom of my bag, unused, even though part of my preparation in the last few days before departure is preparing a good playlist to pump me up and encourage me and keep me going when it gets tough. When on the road I find I don’t need it. The sounds of the ride, of nature, and the thoughts in my head keep me occupied.
So it is with running. As I run, I tune in to my body. I notice what’s going on around me. I look at the ground beneath my feet and I look up to the sky. I hear birdlife and traffic. My thoughts wander and I am content.
More than ever, I have to be in the present. It’s taken many miles of cycle touring to learn that I shouldn’t worry about what’s around the corner, or count down the miles to the next town, (things I am still learning). With running I think I am learning this more quickly. Because running is a little more relentless and higher impact on the body, the minute I start thinking about how much there is to go, it’s over. If I start wishing desperately for the end, or for a rest, or torture myself about how hard the next mile and the one after that are going to be, the run becomes impossibly hard.
A significant lesson in this is that physical strength alone is not enough; I must also be mentally strong. I have to consciously avoid thinking about how much distance there is to go, or how much I have already done. I think only about the step I’m taking at that moment. Everything is absolutely in the present. I concentrate on my body – how am I feeling? How are my legs feeling? How are my muscles? How is my breathing? I concentrate on my posture: head up, shoulders back, upright, core muscles tight, no bouncing. It doesn’t matter how I might feel after two more miles – what matters is how I feel now. And as long as I am still putting one foot in front of the next, I am doing OK. I don’t think about how much more I might be able to take. As long as I am taking it at that very moment, I am doing fine. Even at my most tired, as soon as I stop projecting and start thinking about the here and now, I feel better. I try to avoid thinking about distances or halfways or miles. Halfway is a fact, and miles are a fact, that’s all. What matters is how you’re feeling. Each stride will lead to the next, and will add up to be the number of strides I need to finish. And that is all I need to know.
Any Ironman is a culmination of months of training. Mine is going to be in the Lake District – a beautiful part of the world that I’m really excited about running/cycling/swimming in. But I can’t just look forward to that day – more than ever, I have to make the journey there count. Wouldn’t it be awful if my six months of training were just a miserable blur of struggle for the sake of a one day event? What if it rains on that day, or I become injured, or I don’t reach the time targets required to continue? What a misuse of my time and effort that would be! It’s a lesson I’ve struggled to learn in the past – in all my long journeys, it’s so easy to focus purely on the destination and forget that the journey there is a major part of it. It’s not just the achievement of reaching your end goal – it’s all the miles that lead to that point. I am guilty of having spent miles in the saddle staring at the tarmac ahead of my front wheel just to get it over with. It’s a tough lesson to learn, one that I still struggle with, but now that I’m running, I’m getting better at it with each step.
A little while ago I was interviewed by Alastair Humphreys for his Adventure 1000 blog which aims to demonstrate how you can have a big adventure without spending loads of money and without being a super fit adventurer. Alastair has collated that interview along with loads of others in his new book Grand Adventures. The interview appears on Alastair’s website here, and also below.
A 4000 mile epic without leaving home
Bicycle adventures are my favourite, because you can go anywhere on a bicycle, and the riding itself is free. A couple of years ago I cycled around the British coastline – a 10-week, 4000 mile trip, which cost me £1017 – roughly 25p per mile or £100 per week – cheaper than my London rent. (That’s a thought – I could have rented out my room while I was away and the trip would have paid for itself!)
This British adventure was fantastic. I am a huge advocate of exploring close to home, of doing something extraordinary on your own doorstep, of starting the adventure the minute you leave your house (without having to *get* to a starting point). I have often been asked, “What was your favourite part?” and it is easy to pick a place or a time – the time I reached John O’ Groats and could cycle north no further, the time I reached the top of the Bealach na Ba (the highest road pass in the UK), the incredible weather and rich blueness of the sea in Cornwall. But in fact, one of my favourite parts was simply that I was exploring my home country and discovering new things each day, even in somewhere that was so familiar.
Another question that people ask me is, “Did you take a tent?” Camping is certainly one way to travel on a budget. But I don’t love camping – I love cycling. I wanted to go on a cycling holiday, not a camping one. I don’t do well without my home comforts – a hot shower and a warm duvet at the end of the day makes me a happy cyclist.
So, what I did was ask for help. I contacted everyone I knew through work, friends, family, friends of family, family of friends etc. It helped greatly that I was working for Sustrans at the time, a national cycling organisation, so I had a couple of hundred email addresses of people who were all too willing to help!
Of course, planning everything in advance meant I was tied to the schedule (within reason – the people I was staying with knew that things could change on the road, so were quite flexible). This doesn’t work for everyone. But it worked for me. Yes, there were occasions when I had a few miles left in me when I reached my destination (and one occasion when I didn’t make it!), but most of the time, having somewhere to aim for each night was a great help.
I was overcome with offers of help – people who knew people who had a spare bed or sofa or floor space. I used all the networks I could think of – I’m a member of the Green Party, so googled local parties on the coast to fill some gaps. I used the website warmshowers.org – reciprocal hospitality for touring cyclists. It’s a fantastic network and I met some wonderful hosts, many of whom who rode with me for a little way, which was very welcome support. By the time I set off on my adventure, I had about 8 nights with nowhere to stay. My resourceful aunts set to work, contacting long-lost friends, emailing local bike clubs, and in the more remote areas, phoning up the local library and the local primary school. In the end, I paid for a total of 15 nights’ accommodation in the whole ten weeks.
Free accommodation is all very well. But then, why not bivvy, or wild-camp? You don’t have to pay for that either. But the main reason why staying with all these people kept the cost down so much was the food. Almost all of my hosts cooked me dinner, made me breakfast, and filled my panniers with lunch and snacks before waving me off in the morning. One lovely lady wouldn’t cook, but insisted on taking me out for a three-course meal. The generosity of my hosts was overwhelming. And not paying for food was the biggest reason that I spent so little.
My main lesson from all of this (and tip to pass on to others) is to accept, not expect. People want to help. Imagine someone on an adventure came to stay at your home. Wouldn’t you want to give them as much as you possibly could? I worried about this near the beginning of the trip, that I was getting things for free that you would usually have to pay for, and said as much to my sister (“I’m worried I’m just taking things from these people…”). She reassured me that they had offered to help of their own free will, and were more than happy to give me all these things. If you ask (in a non-expectant and non-demanding way) you shall receive. Accept the kindness of strangers. 34 out of 72 nights I stayed with someone I’d never met before, and they couldn’t do enough to help me. Humans are sociable creatures, yet we tend to shy away from this kind of thing. So often our view is, “Oh, I don’t want to be any trouble…” or, “I shouldn’t ask in case I don’t get anywhere.” Use networks that you know – friends and family, colleagues, friends and family of colleagues. Staying with these people rather than on my own in a tent or B&B enriched my journey beyond the physical bed and food – I received companionship, conversation, advice, local knowledge, and sometimes a lasting friendship.
(Disclaimer: I don’t want to downplay the joys of camping, which I have since discovered!)
When I was 18 I moved to Manchester to start a music degree at Manchester University. To get from my student house to campus I had to cycle up Wilmslow Road through Rusholme – the Curry Mile – a busy route shared with vans unloading at the kerb side, buses, drivers in a hurry, and rows of parked cars. One day, as I was cycling home from lectures, a man who’d just parked his car opened his car door and I went crashing into it, being knocked into the centre of the road. There was no other traffic using the road at that moment – thank goodness, because had there been a bus behind me, I would probably not be here right now.
Being ‘doored’ is one of the most common causes of accidents for cyclists in London. Every day I see cyclists riding close to a line of parked cars, in prime position to be hit if one of the doors should happen to open.
The best way to avoid being hit by a car door is simply to not put yourself in that position in the first place. Ride wide of the door zone: at least an arm’s length away from parked cars. The width of a door and a little bit more (otherwise you’ll end up on the floor).
This may mean you are towards the centre of a narrow road, leaving little room for traffic to pass, which can be daunting if there is a car behind you. Stick to your position and look around to make eye contact with the driver – this should encourage them to give you a bit more time and space. In this situation, you actually have right of way: you are the road user in front, and it’s up to the person behind to overtake when it’s safe to do so. If there’s no room for them to pass, they simply have to wait. If there’s someone in the oncoming lane, again, hold your position. Moving over is giving the driver ahead an invitation to pass, potentially too fast and too close. Staying wide means the driver will be forced to slow down, and as you get closer, you can negotiate past each other, in exactly the same way that you would if you were driving a car. Eye contact works wonders – not only does it make you a person rather than a ‘cyclist’, it shows you know what you are doing and the driver behind or ahead is more likely to act patiently towards you.
On wider roads it can be even more daunting to hold your position out of the door zone – traffic will probably be going faster, and there’ll be more of it. But there’ll also be more room for it to pass.
Another advantage of riding wide of the door zone is visibility. A driver is more likely to open the door in your path if you are riding in the door zone, simply because they won’t have seen you. A cursory glance in the wing mirror won’t pick you out if you’re hidden against a line of parked cars. Ride wide and you’ll be more obvious as an object.
More space gives you more reaction time and more room to manoeuvre. As cyclists, we have been historically taught to ‘stay on the left.’ But you must ride in a position that’s safest for you, even if it means taking more space than you think. Other road users will overtake when it’s safe; it is not up to you to get out of the way. Take the space you need.
And, as a final thing, always keep the brakes covered just in case!
For as long as I can remember I have ridden a bike. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision to be a ‘cyclist’ but it just so happened that cycling ticked all the boxes. It was the quickest way to get to school, the cheapest way to get to university, the most enjoyable way to get to work. As I became more aware of environmental issues I appreciated more the value of travelling in a way that doesn’t create any pollution. I got a job with Sustrans, encouraging children to ride their bikes to school for all the benefits it brings: health, financial, social, and environmental.
One day I decided to cycle the 26 miles from my home in London to my office in Basildon. It would save me the train fare, it was quite an easy route, and as Mallory said, it was there to be done. I arrived dripping in sweat and completely ravenous, unable to move from my desk for the remainder of the day — that two and a half hour ride had almost been my undoing. My colleagues shot concerned glances in my direction and offered me a lift home. Nevertheless I got back on for the return trip, and persevered over the next few months, eventually getting my journey time down to 1 hour 35 minutes. The benefits were enormous. I was fitter than I had ever been, in the end hardly breaking a sweat. I had saved myself hundreds of pounds in train fares. My commute was no longer a frantic rush to catch the train, sharing a carriage with the elbows and shoulders of my fellow passengers. My carriage was the wide open sky, my track the road stretching out ahead. The time taken was barely more than it had been when I relied on public transport. Even when I felt like I couldn’t be bothered, or it was raining, once I got going I never failed to enjoy it. I was utterly free.
After that I became a bit of a cycle nut. Any journey that looked like I could make it by bike, I would. I cycled seven miles to a friend’s wedding, wearing my dress tucked into my leggings. I refused a lift from a friend when I moved flat, instead shuttling my belongings the three miles to the next neighbourhood by bicycle. I made dinner plans with a friend in Manchester then decided to ride there from Liverpool along the banks of the River Mersey, turning an hour’s train ride into a day’s adventure. I cycled from London to Brighton to meet a friend for tea, and afterwards turned straight around and cycled back again. 120 miles just for a cup of tea! Any distance in London I would cycle, loving the fact that I could ride from east to west in an hour, getting to know my city in a way that you can’t by sitting on a bus. I found all the hidden back roads, the peaceful canals, the grand docks. Everything seems more exciting from the seat of a bike.
These are my everyday adventures — doing what I’d ordinarily do, in a way that is extraordinary.
In 2011 I did my first long-distance bicycle adventure: I cycled round the coast of the UK. I’d always wanted to do a long-distance bike ride, and not just from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, but something a bit more original. The 4000 mile journey took me 10 weeks — it was long, tough, and demanding, and by far the best thing I have ever done.
From here, I have ideas for grander, and in some ways, simpler, adventures. A few years ago I learned to sail, so I can one day travel around the globe by human power and wind power alone. On a daily basis I teach people to ride bikes — the joy of cycling is too good to keep to myself. I also go to schools and talk about my round-Britain bike ride, hoping to inspire the next generation to have an adventure.
I’ve always been fascinated by watercourses, the web of rivers and streams that dissects the land, flowing endlessly towards the sea. I love the path that they cut, both natural and manmade; it’s fascinating to see how we built our societies around rivers as a source of life, of trade, and of transport, and how we’ve built our own version in the form of canals. I love how they connect, how they meander, how they are formed. Being beside a river brings instant calm; even in the midst of city and industry, water is peace.
Liverpool sits at the mouth of the River Mersey; the Mersey flows near my friend’s house in Manchester. Would it be possible to reach one from the other simply by following the water? I decided to find out.
In Liverpool, the Mersey is wide and surging. It flows into Liverpool Bay, the wind and the waves and the tide giving it a ferocious personality, the estuary separating the city from the Wirral. I began my journey at the docks, among the huge boats, the bold colours of their hulls reflected in the still water in complement to the deep red bricks of the old warehouse buildings on the walkways. It was an overcast day, the wind high, the rigging of the sail boats knocking in ghostly rhythm against their masts. I turned my back on the city and the sea and followed the water’s edge, inland; I had no idea where I was going aside from my vague notion of following the river, and this was part of the adventure. To have no plan, no knowledge of the route other than the start point and the end point, and hope that I would be able to find my way using these ancient forms of navigation.
It soon transpired that this was part of the Transpennine Trail, a Sustrans route that winds west to east from Southport to Hornsea. So I’d be guided by the blue signs that were dotted regularly along the way; not quite the wilderness trail that I was hoping for, but useful nonetheless.
The city turned into suburbs, then the suburbs petered out to countryside, and soon the riverside path had turned from concrete to gravel and I was riding along wide cycleways with tall grasses to each side. The river had been growing rather than shrinking as I’d travelled away from the bottleneck at Liverpool and the Wirral, the estuary reaching deep into the land, but it eventually gave way to winding river as the trail reached Widnes. I passed beneath the Widnes/Runcorn bridge, the huge steel bridge arched in the shape of a pirate’s hat. Upstream the river would become unnavigable for both boats and bikes, the banks overgrown and wild, the river bed shallow and rapids-interrupted. Here, man-made waterways would once have carried cargo further inland, and now they would carry me. Parallel to the Mersey on the opposite bank lay the Manchester Ship Canal; on my side was the St Helens canal, a ruler-straight cut alongside which the river meandered. I joined the towpath and was soon heading for the outskirts of Warrington, where great plumes of smoke rose from power station chimneys.
A squat structure appeared across the water, four steel girder-like legs holding up a flat, straight and short bridge. I stopped. The Warrington Transporter Bridge! One of the trio of transporter bridges in the UK, these ingenious structures constructed in the late 1800s where a high bridge was required to allow shipping to pass but where the approach ramp to reach such a height was impractical. I have used the two other such bridges in the UK, in Newport, South Wales and Middlesborough. This was disused, the industry that had once required the constant shuttling of goods across the water now gone.
The route criss-crossed the meandering Mersey, reaching the south side where the gargantuan Manchester Ship Canal cut deep between cities, wide, deep and long, the bridges passing high above, double in scale to every canal I’d seen before. Here I left the water and followed an old branch-line railway from Lymm to Altrincham through tunnels of trees and over tracks of roots. The place names became familiar, outskirts of the city where I was a student. Dunham Massey, Altrincham, Sale, Chorlton, all drawing me to West Didsbury where my journey would end.
I finally re-joined the Mersey at Chorlton Water Park, the gently rippling water just a few metres wide; a wholly different animal to that which it had been at the start. It snaked its way through manicured golf greens, civilised and calm, the banks smooth and well-kept. I followed it through the golf course then exited through a gate to re-join roads, where traffic and society replaced water. The Mersey continued its endless flow, back the way I had come, where it would become wider and faster, meandering through Warrington and Widnes, into Liverpool Bay and eventually the sea.
It had taken almost six hours to travel the 40-odd miles from city to city. I arrived starving and exhausted, but with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction – I had set out to do something and I had done it, with no more preparation than my (at times questionable) sense of direction. I had breathed great lungfuls of Lancashire air, seen the landscape change through industry and nature, felt the benefit that exercise has on my body, and arrived thoroughly deserving of my dinner. I had spent hours under the wide open sky, feeling with every pedal that I was getting to know my country more and more. I just wouldn’t have got that on the train.
It’s been two weeks since I returned home from LEJOG, but real life starts straight away and this is the first time I’ve had the time (or inclination) to sit down with my laptop. On the road, everything is simple. You wake, dress, eat, and ride. Nothing is more important than the journey you are taking. Now I’m back home, the chaos of life has crept in – earning money, housework, friends, catching up with those tasks that were put aside in the lead up to the ride because they were not important then. It’s exhausting, and I’ve had neither mental space or time to tie up all those loose ends.
Ten days ago I was standing at the top right hand corner of Britain, in front of the famous signpost at John O’Groats, four weeks and over 1000 miles after leaving Land’s End. It was a bright, sunny, warm day – perhaps surprising for late September on the north coast of Scotland, but not surprising for a trip in which I’d had to wear my waterproofs only twice. That final day was wonderful – a relatively short journey from my camping spot in Thurso out to the northwest tip of Scotland and back, a round trip of around 50 miles if you include the long-awaited detour to Dunnet Head. This was one compass point that I’d by-passed on the round-Britain, not having had the chance to ride to the tip of the peninsula then, the most northerly point of mainland Britain. But here I was, striking out across the windswept farmland, the sun at my back, each pedal stroke overflowing with excitement to finally be there. I knew what I’d find: one of Stevenson’s lighthouses sitting squat near the edge of the cliff, and a headstone letting me know that I was as far north as I could possibly be. And there it was, exactly as I had imagined, predictable yet extraordinary, with a breathtakingly clear view of Orkney across a rich blue sea. I wanted to sit on the crumbling wall that had once hemmed in the lighthouse keeper’s garden, alone in my thoughts, deafened by the distant crash of the waves on the rocks, but I had to share it with other tourists, those who had driven there, those who took my picture badly, those who asked me where I was riding and where I lived and what I did for a job, questions that I had no desire to answer. Finally, I was tired of talking.
The approach to John O’Groats was less euphoric – exhaustion had begun to set in and the road seemed never ending, each village that came and went a teasing prelude to that which would signal the end of my journey. But eventually it came, and down to the water’s edge I went, thinking I would ask them to write “Eat Sleep Cycle book tour” on the signpost. I’d neglected to have my photograph taken at Land’s End, but I would definitely get it done here. Except, the signpost that I had anticipated had been replaced, several years ago it transpired, by a different signpost, a permanent one which was free for all to photograph. It explains the background to the story here. I was disappointed – as much as I thought paying for your photo was a bit cheeky, I was looking forward to getting it personalised with my book name. I liked the old signpost. It looked simpler. This one is a bit grand, and of course, open to graffiti – stickers and signature scrawls were all over it, along with a t-shirt from someone’s charity ride that had been wrapped around the bottom. I thought it a shame. Thousands of people do this ride every year, mostly for charity, so why should your cause be more important than anyone else’s?
I sat in the tea rooms eating my soup, feeling something of an anti-climax. That was it. All over. This point had been in my mind since day one, whenever anyone has asked where I was riding, whenever I wrote my blog or arrived at a venue with one of my posters displayed on the door: “Anna Hughes is riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats!” Well, I was, but not anymore. Now what?
It’s an interesting place, John O’Groats, a tiny settlement named for Jan Der Groot who used to ferry passengers across the treacherous Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands, now largely overtaken by tourism, with hotels, restaurants, and holiday lets reaching down to the seafront. It can appear quite dismal but thankfully has been spared the theme park treatment of Land’s End. I sat and watched travellers of all kinds stand beneath the signpost for a photograph, before making my way back along the now familiar coastline to Thurso.
The following day the Great Unravelling began, and I sat on the train as it chugged south from Thurso station through Lairg and Ardgay and Dingwall to Inverness, all places I’d cycled through, remembering how I’d felt in each. Then an overnight train from Inverness, and suddenly I was back in London. The roads were overwhelming. A taxi driver shouted at me. I sought the solace of the canal, riding as slowly as I could while those around me raced to work. I reached my boat, stepped on board, and cried. Happy tears – tears that showed how much I’d missed my home. Then I noticed all the maintenance work that needed doing and I stopped crying.
People ask me how it was. They mainly want to hear about the weather, because that seems to be the mark of whether the trip was good or not. Well, the weather was great, and the trip was great. But it was wholly different to the round-Britain trip, a trip in which excitement and discovery was to be found in every pedal. I was wide-eyed then. Now, I am seasoned; I know what I am doing. In practical terms the trip was a success. I arrived at each venue without a hitch and every night (bar one) I had an audience. I sold 200 books and earned almost £1000 (though I spent £1400). I achieved my goal of riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats, I revisited some familiar parts of Britain, and I discovered some new ones. I returned fit as a fiddle and with a glowing tan. And in personal terms, it was fantastic, though not without its challenges. People ask what’s next. My answer: I’m going to have a rest.
Knowing what to take on a cycling tour can be the trickiest part – you don’t want to take too much, as it ends up being dead weight, but you don’t want to take too little because you’re bound to need that one thing you omitted to bring.
Looking back at my kit list for the round-Britain trip makes me laugh. I certainly packed a lot, mainly clothes, and much of it contingency packing (why on earth would I need four pairs of gloves?!), but lots of it for comfort and because, being my first long tour, I didn’t really know what to take. I read others’ kit lists and took their advice, but mainly I just took what I thought I’d need. I wasn’t too far off – a few things made their way back home in the post, but I did use most of it.
This tour is entirely different. I’ve packed far fewer clothes and far less bulk. Let’s compare kit lists:
underwear (6 pairs), socks (6 pairs), padded shorts, normal shorts, leggings x3, cycling tops x2, hoodie, cycling shoes, cycling gloves, buff, baseball cap, waterproof jacket and overtrousers, sunglasses
Thin jumper, top x2, flip-flops, swimming costume
allen key, chain lube, puncture kit, spare tube, pump
tent, sleeping bag, roll mat, blow up mattress, wash bag, small first aid kit, towel, LEJOG guidebook, laptop & charger, iPhone & charger (no need for a separate camera), posters for my presentations, books (I sent boxes of books ahead to each venue then carried the spares or sent them on). And 30 flapjacks and cakes from Riverbank Bakery.
It probably weighs around the same, but feels far more simple – everything has a definite purpose, I know where everything is and I’m not scrabbling around in the depths of my panniers trying to find stuff.
However, the purpose of the tour is twofold: not only am I cycling from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, I am also giving talks to the public. Wearing sweaty cycling clothes to give my talks is perhaps not the best idea. Neither do I want to wear the same thing every day, dahling!
So, in each place I reach, I have been buying a dress in a charity shop, which I then donate to the next place. It’s been a great way of having a different outfit each night, something clean to wear (!) and doing my bit for charity.
So, I present, The Charity Shop Tour.
So, this was it: the final push to John O’Groats and the end of the tour. This was to be the longest week in terms of mileage (340) but the shortest in terms of events (only two). Without the pressure of a schedule, it really was all about the cycling.
And what fabulous cycling there is to be had in this part of the world. The week started with a ride north from Glasgow tracing waterways: the River Clyde, followed by the Forth and Clyde canal, then the River Leven, then finally the expansive and beautiful Loch Lomond, where the West Lomond cycle path led me for 17 wonderful traffic-free miles along its banks. I pitched my tent in Crianlarich in a perfect spot to watch the sun rise.
But the next morning, it was rain clouds that greeted me, rainclouds that started seeping shortly after breakfast and grew heavier and heavier throughout the morning. It didn’t stop raining for two days.
This was the section described in my guidebook as having some of the finest views in all of Europe. I had little chance of seeing those views. The rain clouds hung low, almost to the ground, swallowing up the peaks on either side. I rode over the pass of Glen Coe, the road creeping out of the mist ahead, unable to make out much of the scenery apart from the base of mountains as they rose into the white. But this in itself was a unique type of experience: ghostly, atmospheric, magical. I descended from the clouds into the valley of Glencoe, where the mist dissipated to reveal the Three Sisters rising spectacularly into the clouds.
A few miles past Glencoe I came across two boys taking pictures on the bridge. I stopped and asked if they’d take mine, then asked where they were heading. John O’Groats too, it seemed. They were just two of the many End to Enders I had come across, but most I’d waved on as they’d zoomed past with their road bikes and support van. Tom and Kevin were the first two who were riding a similar pace to me, so we set off into the (thankfully lighter) rain, the remaining ten miles to Fort William passing in a flash as we swapped stories of our respective trips and lives. It was wonderful to have such terrific company, and as we sat eating haggis (vegan, I might add) and drinking ale in the pub, I realised how much I had missed this. This had definitely been a solo tour – many people had offered to ride with me, and I had thanked them for offering their support, but had preferred to ride alone. I had been happy with that choice but now, nearing the end, sharing the trip with others was just what I needed.
I bumped into them again the following day after descending from General Wade’s Military Road at Loch Ness, probably the most difficult pass of the whole LEJOG ride. I was absolutely soaked to the skin and my extremities were frozen from battling with horizontal rain for two hours, but there they were, equally soaked but smiling. We rode the final miles to Inverness together then parted ways again so I could find a hostel and warm up before my final talk of the tour, at Waterstones Inverness.
My plan for the final stretch was to ride from Inverness to the Crask Inn, then reach John O’Groats on Saturday evening. Then I’d have a day in hand before my return train from Thurso on Monday. It would be two long days in the saddle. I woke early on the Friday morning and set off.
I’d barely left Inverness before I found a tick in my leg. I’d never had a tick before but I know about them, mainly that there is a risk of disease with any blood-sucking mite. I panicked and phoned everyone I knew, including two doctor friends and my doctor sister, to find out what I should do. I settled down with my tweezers to remove it but the head snapped off. Now, every article I’d read on tick bites are very clear that you should NOT LET THE HEAD SNAP OFF. But none of them tells you what to do if the head does, in fact, snap off. Between finding a GP and pharmacist who could tell me what to do, buying some magnesium sulphate cream to draw the head out (which didn’t work, by the way), and plastering the thing up, it was gone lunchtime by the time time I left Dingwall. My dream of reaching John O’ Groats by Saturday evening (and having a pint with the boys) was slipping further from my grasp.
So, that was the moment I decided that, for once, I wouldn’t have a plan. I always have a plan, whether that be a booked event or a pre-determined route or booked accommodation. So, this time, I wouldn’t. I had a day in hand. Why not use it?
So I set off, calm, relaxed (apart from the underlying panic that I’d just contracted Lyme’s disease), and without concern for miles or hours. There followed two absolutely wonderful days of cycling. From the top of a long pass north of Dingwall I saw the sea; the first glimpse since leaving it at Exmouth. I watched salmon leap in a waterfall at the Falls of Shin. I rode through deserted mountainous landscapes where sheep were more plentiful than cars. I crossed Strathnaver, a barren yet richly historical landscape which had once housed a huge population before they were booted out by the Lords in the Highland Clearances. I swam in the sea at Bettyhill, bobbing amongst the surfers and being drenched by the breakers as they crashed over my head. I traversed the incredible coastline of northern Scotland, the ever-present skyline of peaks a dramatic backdrop to the snaking road as it ascended and descended, ascended and descended all the way to Thurso. I pitched my tent for the final time under the light of the full moon and listened to the waves of Thurso Bay lulling me to sleep.
And then, there it was: the last day, where I would reach John O’Groats. The perfect weather had returned and I rode the final stretch in my t-shirt – a round trip of around 50 miles if you include the detour to Dunnet Head – arriving in John o’ Groats where the famous signpost indicated I’d just cycled 874 miles from the opposite corner of Britain.
The arrival promoted a mix of emotions which I’ve explored here, euphoria and exhaustion among them. I sat eating some snacks as I looked out to the Orkney Isles and up to the lighthouse at Duncansby Head, where I’d sat eating my lunch on my round-Britain trip. Such a lot had happened since then. On that visit, I had been barely a quarter of the way into my 4000 mile ride around Britain’s coast. I was a touring novice, naive in many ways, with the whole of Britain yet to be discovered. John O’Groats was simply a turning point in my journey, neither the start nor the finish, just one more day in my long ride.
But it was the reason I was here again: I have spent the intervening years talking and writing about my trip in a bid to inspire others that adventuring by bicycle is one of the best ways to see the world, and that the UK is a great starting point. The whole point of riding LEJOG was to promote the resulting book. It was a wonderful trip, and a success commercially – I sold around 200 books and spoke to around 400 people, hopefully inspiring others to get out there and discover a little more of this wonderful island on which we live.
Yesterday I spent most of the day tracing waterways, from the River Clyde to the Forth and Clyde Canal, to the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. The West Loch Lomond cycle path led me loch side for 17 glorious traffic-free miles, with absolutely beautiful views across the loch.
I pitched my tent in a little meadow in Crianlarich, not far from the West Highland Railway. This was the view as the sun rose this morning:
Since then it has rained pretty much non-stop.
My guidebook promised me that, on this stretch, “there can be finer views in all of Europe.” The views today were mostly like this:
and occasionally like this:
although I did see this:
I am now in Fort William, settled in a pub (which serves vegan haggis in a quesadilla!), my tent and belongings draped around the place while I wait for them to dry sufficiently so I can go and find the campsite. More rain tomorrow.
Anything can happen when you’re out on the open road, and here are a few tips of how to cope when things go wrong.
Prevention is better than cure
The main thing I’ve learned in all my touring is that things are less likely to go wrong if they are set up properly in the first place. Spend time with your bike before you set off, learning how everything fits and which part does what. Take it to a shop for a once-over. A basic maintenance course is also a good idea. Anything rattling or rubbing will get worse as you ride – a quiet bike is a happy bike.
The dreaded puncture
Limit the number you get by: using tyres with puncture protection; pumping your tyres to the correct pressure; checking the tyre frequently for shards and stones and levering these out (I carry a tiny screwdriver for this)
Punctures are more common in the rain and you don’t want to be taking your tyre off for the first time in a torrential storm, so have a practice at home first!
Check the inside of the tyre for stubborn shards of glass/thorns/pieces of flint otherwise you may make a new hole straight away.
Most cyclists swap their punctured inner tube for a fresh one straight away – it’s quicker and you can patch the old one at your leisure which you can then use as a spare. But don’t be afraid to patch – with touring, you have all the time in the world. Wait for the glue to turn tacky before putting the patch on – it will take far longer to stick if you rush. A patched inner tube, when done right, is just as good as a new one. I find glueless patches less effective. Again, when touring, you’re not so in need of efficiency.
If it’s a blowout you’ll need to use your spare tube, and you can use the old one as a ‘boot’ (a small piece of rubber that prevents the inner tube from bulging outside the tyre). Use a folded over section of the old tube to line the inside of the tyre.
Chains and gears
Be nice to your chain — avoid changing gear when standing up in the pedals, and keep it as straight as possible (e.g. if you’re in a high gear at the front you should be in a high gear at the back). Carry a Quick Link in case of snappage — remove broken link using a chain-breaker and snap the Quick Link in place. It’s possible to fix the chain without using a quick link, by pushing the rivet out most of the way, then pushing it back in once the broken link has been removed. This requires care and practice. Something to try out at home!
If the derailleur itself breaks, remove completely and shorten the chain so it sits on one of the middle rings — you’ll only have one gear but at least you’ll be able to ride.
Racks and frame
Bolts in racks can rattle undone as you ride so check them regularly. Cable ties can be fed through the bolt hole, but they break easily — string or twine is much better.
If the rack itself breaks, see what’s in your luggage or by the roadside that can be used as a splint. A spoon handle lashed in the right place can be very effective. Check for cracks in the frame as well. Use Milliput: ‘moulds like putty — sets like rock’. Amazing stuff.
There are some great youtube videos of how to straighten out a bent wheel – entertaining if nothing else! Check regularly for loose spokes and learn to tighten them with a spoke key (righty does not mean tighty with spokes… the nipples turn the opposite way to usual). Carry spare spokes. Broken spokes in the front wheel can be replaced without even taking the wheel off. The rear is more difficult because you have to remove the gears which needs a specialist tool. A broken spoke will cause a buckle in the wheel and put more pressure on the remaining spokes, so replace asap. Loosen off the surrounding spokes and the brakes if necessary to allow the wheel to turn.
Brake pads will wear as you ride, especially in wet conditions. Turn the barrel adjuster periodically to ensure the brake is still engaging (unscrew the barrel adjuster to tighten the cable). Keep an eye on the pads to ensure they don’t go beyond the wear line.
Broken cables are easy to replace with a little intuition (and of course a spare cable). Typical path of brake cable: Hook inside lever, through barrel adjuster, outer casing (may be two separate pieces of casing or one single), noodle (curved metal part – only on V brakes), bolt.
Multi-tool — Topeak do a good one with a range of allen keys, a chain breaker and a screwdriver.
Puncture kit plus tyre levers
Spoke key and spare spokes
Chain Quick Link
Electrical tape/duct tape
This week has seen me travel from the metropolis of Manchester to the Lancashire hills, through the grand scenery of the Lake District and onwards to the flood plains around the Solway Firth. I’ve crossed the border into Scotland and now I’m in the bustling city of Glasgow. The cycling is getting easier (or I’m getting fitter) and the weather has, yet again, held up so, while my friends back in London have been suffering in a downpour, I’ve been riding through the sunshine in my T shirt.
I’ve given talks to 70 people, sold 42 books, camped twice, cycled 200 miles and taken the train once (shh!). Find out why here.
The week began with an event at Popup Bikes, Manchester, a little coffee shop and bike store hidden away under the railway arches near Victoria Station. While in Manchester I called into both Waterstones stores to sign copies of the book and I was greeted at the Deansgate store with a stack of 11 books and a cup of tea while I signed them.
My Lancaster event was fab – armed only with a microphone (no projector to rely on) I spoke to a crowd who listened intently as I told the story of my round-Britain ride and read three short passages from the book. It’s always a challenge to rely only on my words, but I feel I’m developing as a story teller the more talks I give (and I hope the audience agrees!)
From there it was on to Kendal and the Lake District. It was in the Lake District that the book had been born: I took a ten day holiday back in 2012 to begin the process of turning my blog into a book, thinking that I would be done within a year. It wasn’t until three years later that the manuscript was finally finished and I was ready to publish. Photographs from that trip are on my Flickr page.
From Kendal I rode to Keswick, really enjoying being back in the Lake District; the scenery is breathtaking, the peaks are awesome, and the cycling is not as challenging as the terrain suggests, the roads following the banks of the lakes for much of the time with the occasional pass thrown in. From Bassenthwaite Lake it was an ascent of several hours to the Uldale Commons, that wild, rugged landscape where the wind roams freely and sheep wander across the path. There followed a ten mile descent towards Carlisle, the final stopping point before crossing into Scotland.
My first stop in Scotland was in Moffat, where the Moffat Bookshop had arranged for me to speak at the Baccleuch Hotel. A small crowd filled the small room, and I didn’t realise until halfway through that among them were Alec and Anne, who hosted me in Dumfries on my round-Britain trip! Alec is mentioned in the book – in fact, in the very passage I was reading out (thank goodness I didn’t attempt to put on his accent). It was fabulous to see them again as I remain indebted to the folk who offered me food and shelter on that trip.
I’m now in Glasgow where I’ll give a talk tonight at Tiso Outdoor Experience before setting off for Tyndrum tomorrow. My final event is in Inverness on Thursday, then it’s the last big push to reach John o’ Groats, which I hope to do on Saturday.
I’ve been vegan on and off for around five years. I don’t see anything wrong with humans using animals as a source of food per se, but it’s the way we do it that I don’t agree with. The environmental impact of the meat and dairy industry is something to which I don’t wish to contribute:
“…from crops and water required to feed the animals, to the transport and other processes involved … The vast amount of grain feed required for meat production is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction… This land contributes to developing world malnutrition by driving impoverished populations to grow cash crops for animal feed, rather than food for themselves” (from the vegan society)
I spent a few years being ‘mostly’ vegan, but I would eat meat and dairy if I couldn’t find anything vegan to eat. But after a while I decided it’s not just about the consumption (surely by cutting down I was doing my bit?), it’s the concept. I would profess to be vegan then go out and eat a pizza. It was easier to just eat what was on the menu – I didn’t want to make a fuss. People didn’t take my diet or my beliefs seriously so I decided to go the whole hog (so to speak).
I’ve now been 100% vegan for almost two years, and I love it. Most of the time, it’s easy. I have a diet rich in beans and vegetables, I feel healthy, happy and energised, and I’m rarely hungry. I feel satisfied to be doing something I believe in. I tend not to eat tofu or soy; if I’m not going to eat meat, then I don’t want to eat something that’s pretending to be meat.
Now, when I go out, I’ll ask what can be adapted from the menu to be vegan. Most of the time, the chef is happy to make something. Sometimes there is even a separate vegan menu. I’m increasing awareness of veganism by asking, rather than taking the easy option and eating something I’d rather not eat. And pizza without the cheese can be really delicious!
But it’s much harder being vegan on the road. When I cycled around Britain I didn’t restrict my diet at all; when you are relying on people’s hospitality, you eat what you’re given, and I didn’t know if I’d reliably be able to source enough food to keep my energy levels up. This time, however, I really wanted to try sticking to my vegan diet. I thought it would be fine – I’d get by on bread and hummous if necessary. But it’s much harder than I thought. Veganism isn’t always catered for in the far reaches of the UK. I am restricted by what I can find – which sometimes isn’t much.
For breakfast I can have beans on toast, tomatoes, mushrooms, hash browns, tattie scones now I’m in Scotland, and veggie sausages – whatever combination I can eat from the Full English menu. Or porridge made with water (yuk). Lunch tends to be soup, or salad with bread and hummous, or jacket potato with hummous, or anything with hummous – I try to eat as much hummous as I can, as it’s full of fat, carbs and protein, and it’s delicious. I’ve found some fantastic cafes, some of them dedicated vegetarian or vegan cafes, that have fed me richly. For dinner I’ve been eating curry or burrito or beany stew or veggie burger or chips.
The trouble on this tour has not been finding food to eat. There’s lots I can eat. It’s been finding enough food to eat, and eating enough variety. On the road I need to eat roughly twice as much as usual, and while in the past that has meant popping into a bakery or shop every couple of hours, those places typically don’t stock much of a range for vegans. Sometimes I can’t find a breakfast stop for the first 20 miles or so, by which time I’m exhausted. Sometimes I’ve gone without dinner, because the evenings are focussed on the talks, and by the time I’ve finished all the food places are shut. As I’ve been riding, I’ve been steadily using up my reserves, such that it came to the point last week when I couldn’t ride; I was too fatigued. I was feeling hungry all the time and no amount of eating would fill me up. I desperately didn’t want to give up my vegan diet, but I started to seriously worry about my health.
So, I took the train for leg 16 – Manchester to Lancaster – and made a concerted effort to eat as much as I possibly could that day. Since then I’ve been making sure that I stop every hour or two and eat something substantial (yesterday I ate three breakfasts before I’d even gone anywhere!) and I am starting to feel better. I have a lot to thank Riverbank Bakery for; they supplied me with a huge pile of flapjacks and cakes before I left (they are my favourite vegan cake-maker) which have been a real life-saver when I’ve not been able to find my next food stop. My bags are getting noticeably lighter as I go through the stash!
I’m going to stay vegan, but make more of an effort to eat properly at each stage.Today I had two breakfasts and a big lunch, and I’m about to have my second dinner, then maybe something else after the talk. It’s not easy being vegan… but I’m doing it.
It’s raining in London. While the roads that I usually ride down are surging with overflowing drains, I am pedalling from Lancaster to Kendal under a piercing blue sky. I feel exceptionally lucky: out of the 16 days that I’ve been on the road, there’s been only one day that I’ve needed my waterproofs.
My route follows the River Lune from Lancaster, the riverside path soon reaching the disused railway line at Halton where a derelict station building stands, the decorative overhang above the platform reminiscent of grander days. A narrow steel bridge crosses the river, and from there it is up into the hills and into the Lancashire farmland. After a couple of steep climbs I am rewarded with a fabulous view of the endless peaks of the Lake District, the silver glimmer of Morecambe Bay at their feet.
I pass into Cumbria, the final English county through which to travel before I reach Scotland in a few days’ time. The ride along Cumbria’s coast of Outstanding Natural Beauty during the round-Britain trip sticks in my memory as a time of Outstanding Rainfall and Wind, but today it couldn’t be more different; the skies are clear and blue, the wind gentle, the visibility across the fells fantastic. I ride at the foot of slopes with peaks of light brown and grey, the green fields below spotted with a scattering of grazing sheep and a grey scribbling of stone walls. Grey stone farmsteads sit nestled in the folds of the hills.
The route criss-crosses the Lancaster canal which once transported Lancashire coal to Kendal and limestone south (earning it the nickname “the black and white canal”). Just outside Lancaster I’d passed under a magnificent aqueduct carrying the canal over the Lune, a design of John Rennie’s. The stretch north of Tewitfield now lies largely derelict, its use becoming less important as freight moved first to the railways and then to the roads (the M6 physically blocks the water at points) and it’s the aim of the Lancaster Canal Trust to bring the canal back into use; maybe one day I’ll bring my own narrowboat up here.
The sun starts to drop to the level of the hills, painting their tips in a rich gold. The view on all sides is huge, three-dimensional, the landscape having been steadily building since just south of Manchester. I pitch my tent in a campsite just out of town, and by the time I’m ready for bed the sky is as black as tar, and a hundred thousand stars shine within it.
I’m now halfway through the LEJOG book tour: 13 days down, 13 to go, 490 miles down, around 500 to go. The halfway point on any tour is potentially difficult – I have as much to do as I’ve already done, and it seems an awfully long time ago that I left Land’s End. But the events are going well and the cycling so far has been terrific, so here’s hoping it continues.
I started this week with a short ride from Wells to Bath, tracing some of the old railway lines that once weaved their way through the Somerset countryside. I’d purposely planned a circuitous route that would take in the newly opened Two Tunnels Greenway, a Sustrans/Bath & NE Somerset Council joint venture that saw the reopening of two railway tunnels on the former Somerset and Dorset line. Approaching the tunnel entrance was fairly daunting (at over a mile long, the Combe Down tunnel is the longest cycling and walking tunnel in the UK) but lights throughout and a music installation partway through made it a pleasant, if eerie, experience.
My event in Bath was at Johns Bikes; I spoke to a small but attentive group, then headed off to the Bristol-Bath railway path to find a good spot to pitch my tent. A clearing by the River Avon partway along the path was perfect.
The next morning I continued along the disused railway path to arrive in Bristol, making it nearly 30 miles since I’d had to cycle amongst motor traffic. In Bristol I held two events, one at Roll for the Soul cycling cafe/workshop, and the other at Stanfords map and book shop. Both events were exceptionally well attended (60 people at Roll for the Soul and 40 at Stanfords!) and great fun.
There followed the most enjoyable day of cycling yet. The River Avon led me out of Bristol where I passed under Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s spectacular Clifton Suspension Bridge perched precariously halfway up a cliff, then onwards to Avonmouth where the Avon flows into the Severn. This is a heavily industrial area, and gives a wholly different experience to the traffic free riverside path of the earlier part of the day. I followed the Severn towards the older of the two Severn bridges, the ever-growing view of both the suspension bridge and the Second Severn Crossing (cable stayed bridge) a source of constant delight. Crossing the Severn by bike was utterly spectacular, if slightly terrifying!
From there the road ascended out of Chepstow, then descended towards Tintern to follow the luscious Wye Valley all the way to Monmouth; a delightful route of easy cycling and beautiful scenery.
I stopped overnight in Hereford then it was on to Shrewsbury where my event had a very small but very lovely audience, and after that it was on to Chester where I met Sarah who had just caught a train up from London. I had an afternoon signing at the Waterstones then we were free to explore Chester – which was packed with people in posh frocks who’d been at the races.
Sarah and I rode to Manchester on Sunday, picking up the Transpennine trail just south of Warrington and following it along a disused railway line almost all of the way to Sale. Sarah then headed home on the train while I settled in at Jackson’s Boat pub, where I later gave a talk to a lovely group of cyclists, one of whom had arrived on a Penny Farthing!
A lovely week overall. I’m enjoying the events and the cycling has mostly been great, and there’s only been one day of rain since I started – not a bad score for 13 days on the road!
Many people helped and supported me during my round-Britain bike ride by offering a bed for the night, a meal at the end of the day, or by riding with me for a section. Regretfully, many of these didn’t make the final cut of the book; restricted by a word count, I didn’t have the luxury of being able to introduce and develop each of them as characters, and simply mentioning their names would have been perfunctory.
One of those characters was Simon Wallis, a Sustrans colleague who supported me greatly, by hosting and feeding and riding with me. It was with great sadness that I found out that Simon passed away last year. He was a fabulous colleague, always bursting with mad-cap ideas of how to get more children and families into cycling. He would always sign his emails “Happy days”, and a memorial to him has been installed by Sustrans on the West Kirby waterfront where he lived, fittingly inscribed with those words.
I feel doubly sad that he was one of the characters that didn’t make the final cut, so I’d like to publish his brief role in the story here, from an early draft.
From the conclusion to Day 42: Tarleton to West Kirby
Across the Mersey, the Liverpool skyline stood in an endless panorama of cranes and docks and cathedrals and skyscrapers and warehouses. I was to meet my colleague Simon just outside Birkenhead station and I waited by the railings, the wind whisking my hair into my eyes with unpredictable gusts.
Simon soon appeared from around the corner, riding his old pack-horse mountain bike.
“Hello, Anna!” he said as he hugged me. “How was your ride today?”
“Very windy!” I replied, trying to control the strands of hair that danced across my face.
“It’s not quite over yet I’m afraid,” he replied. “Come on,” and off we rode, following the wide, traffic-free cycle way that traced the edge of the blunt-headed Wirral peninsula towards his home in West Kirkby, struggling to hear each other speak over the roar of the wind.
Simon was one of those people who always seemed to be smiling. Like Graham, he was one of the older Bike It officers, but he never acted that way; at work conferences he would have us in stitches with his comic routines and his off-the-wall fancy dress. “Always give them something to remember,” he would say of his assemblies – whether or not that was simply that he’d worn a swimming costume for no apparent reason.
“You know, this is a journey that I did in my early twenties,” Simon said as we rode.
“You mean cycling around Britain?”
“Yes. It feels like only yesterday,” he said, “though it’s coming up for thirty years now. It’s a fantastic journey, Anna. You are very lucky.”
“That’s brilliant! I had no idea!”
I’d known Simon for years yet had never spoken to him of this, so to find out that I was riding in his tyre tracks was a delightful discovery.
“I didn’t take a tent either,” he said. “I negotiated a great deal from the YHA which filled in lots of the gaps and I spoke to the local radio stations along the entire coast and put out a request for one night stop overs in areas where I was really stuck.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m asking too much from people when I stay in their houses.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that, Anna,” he replied. “I think the key thing is to accept, not expect. People want to help you; we’re certainly happy to do that!”
We had reached the northern edge of the peninsula, the tide low, the wind roaming freely over the sand which stretched for miles.
“I also sent some treat parcels ahead to half a dozen Post Offices marked To be kept for Simon Wallis – journeying around the coast” he said. “They were really welcome!”
We were ravenous by the time we rounded the north west tip of the Wirral and came inland, out of the wind. It had taken Simon only 30 minutes to reach Birkenhead where he’d met me, yet we took almost an hour and a half to return.
“Sorry we took so long,” Simon called as he opened the door. “We’ve been having a good old battle with the wind!” The smell of roast lamb came wafting through the house. “I hope you like roast,” he added.
“Yes, lovely!” I had forgotten it was a Sunday, the days passing with no significance other than where I was aiming for each night.
We sat round the table, his wife and two children warmly welcoming me to the family meal. “Help yourself to more,” Simon said as I polished off my plateful in half the time it took for the others to eat theirs. “You need the strength! There’s not that much of you to start with.”
I grinned as I tucked into my second helping, feeling part of the family for one night, blessed with the generous hospitality that had shaped so much of my ride as I had journeyed forwards.
I was asked at a recent talk if I got lonely on the road and how I coped with it. I don’t often get lonely – I am very content being by myself – but sometimes you feel that you need some kind of comfort. I’ve written a few tips on what to do if loneliness hits.
Posting photographs and experiences onto social media sites is a brilliant way of receiving instant feedback and messages of support from your loved ones back home.
2. Surround yourself with people
Whether this is friends by pre-arrangement, or cycling enthusiasts, or the people propping up the local bar. There are always communities to seek out, wherever you are. This can be a physical community or an online community – try warmshowers.org for a worldwide network of cyclists. Strike up a conversation with someone, even if you don’t quite understand what they’re saying. Some of the most moving tales I’ve read of other’s travels are sharing a cup of coffee with someone who doesn’t speak their language. Signs, smiles and laughter are the same, wherever in the world you are.
3. Make a list of the good stuff
It’s easy to let the bad stuff get you down, and it will keep you down if you let it. There are amazing experiences wherever you are – sometimes you just have to find them. Write down the things that make this trip special: If I hadn’t come on this trip I would never have swam in the Pacific Ocean/ had my apple eaten by a peacock/ seen a puffin diving/ learned to navigate by the stars
4. Have that one luxury in your pack
Travelling light doesn’t mean travelling miserable. Make allowances for yourself – take that one thing that you know is going to make life a little easier on the road, whether it’s a real feather pillow, your most cosy leg-warmers, or your iPad.
Music is magic – a motivational playlist can work wonders. Ask friends to suggest songs in advance, or ask the people you meet to let you know their favourite track and add it to the list.
6. Small steps = big adventure
If you’re finding it particularly tough, set yourself small targets. The big distances can seem overwhelming, but the miles accrue 10, 20, 30 at a time, and suddenly you’re in a new place, with a new adventure ready to greet you.
7. Enjoy your own company
You like you, right?
8. Have a chat with a cow
Animals are great at listening. Tell them your woes. Name them. They won’t be able to talk back, but a good chinwag with a bovine could make you smile for the rest of the day.
9. Remember it truly is a once-in-a-lifetime trip
Tough times are bound to come. You might feel miserable and lonely right now but there will, at some point in the future, be a high to compensate. It’s hard to tell yourself this when it’s raining and there’s a headwind and you’re ill and you’re missing that one special person and you’re wondering why you ever came. Don’t worry. You never have to do this again.
In 1963, the Government published a report entitled The Reshaping of British Railways, written by a certain Dr Beeching. It recommended the closure of around 5000 miles of railway line and over 2000 stations that had ceased to be profitable in the New Age of the Motor Car, and over the subsequent years these railway lines were duly closed.
One such railway was the Cheddar Valley line, running from Yatton railway station near Clevedon to Cheddar and Wells, and known as the Strawberry Line because of the volume of locally grown strawberries it carried to the markets at London.
Another nearby line was the Colliers Way, a tram line that carried coal from the Somerset collieries, built to replace the Somerset Coal Canal which had originally transported the coal but soon fell prey to the more profitable and convenient tram line.
The Colliers Way eventually became part of the Somerset and Dorset railway which ran from Bath and Bridgwater to Poole. Like many railways established in the late 1800s, much of this network was built for the transportation of industry, but soon became more commonly used as a passenger line for the workers who would travel to the coast on their days off.
This, too, was the case with the Midland railway which once rolled between Bath and Bristol, an amalgamation of many smaller lines along which horses had once pulled coal carts. When the route closed as a result of the Beeching Axe, a group of Sustrans volunteers began work to convert the trail to a shared-use path for cyclists and walkers – the very first route on what was to become the National Cycle Network.
Now all of these railways are part of that network, having been resurfaced and way-marked as leisure and commuter routes. From the short section of the Strawberry Line at Wells, to the sweeping Colliers Way that glides along the hillside while the neighbouring roads struggle up and down the gradients, to the Two Tunnels Greenway where the bed of the Somerset and Dorset railway disappears under the huge hills at Combe Down and Lyncombe, these Sustrans routes mean that, for nearly 30 miles, I barely encountered motor traffic. The approach to the Combe Down tunnel was daunting to say the least (at over a mile long I would be underground for at least 10 minutes) but the engineers had done a terrific job: well-surfaced and well-lit, with music to accompany the ride.
The conclusion of this section was the Bristol & Bath railway path, a well trodden and familiar route, and I freewheeled into the City of Cycling on a beautifully hazy morning, surrounded by ordinary people riding ordinary bikes. Thank you, Sustrans, for that memorable section – and keep up the good work.
The first week of the Eat Sleep Cycle book tour is drawing to a close. I’m sitting in a field just north of Wells, laptop on knee, eating the leftovers of yesterday’s curry, having pitched up in a campsite.
The tour started last Sunday with a cancelled train and a broken toe, then took a turn for the better on Tuesday when the cycling proper started. I had a wonderful first day, cycling in the bright sunshine down to Land’s End from Penzance, then making my way back towards Truro, along the coast initially then leaving my old constant to travel inland. The last time I went to Land’s End was on my round-Britain trip; it was neither the start nor the finish, just one more day in my long ride, and my colleague Nick and I ate our Cornish pasties at the last bench in England, the sea haze hiding even the Longships lighthouse just a mile offshore. This time, the visibility was fantastic; approaching the tip of the peninsula I could clearly see the lighthouse beyond, and even the Isles of Scilly perched on the horizon, 28 miles offshore. A large crowd of cyclists was there, ready for their End to End ride, with their lycra, their road bikes, and their luggage safely stowed in the support van. “Are you riding to John o’ Groats?” they asked. “With all that stuff? Rather you than me!”
From there it was a lovely 15 miles to Penzance, along the coastal road. I’d ignored the NCN on the previous trip and therefore missed Mousehole, so this time I was careful to follow the blue signs; not careful enough as it turned out, as I missed one of them and ended in a dead end at Lamorna Cove. Damn! I hate going wrong, especially as this had led me down a very steep descent. I stood halfway down the hill, grumbling to myself, trying to muster the strength to make the climb back out. But then I decided to make something of the mistake; why must I be that person who adheres so rigidly to the plan? Why can’t I go off-piste once in a while? So I freewheeled the rest of the way, parked my bike on the rocks, and went swimming. Day one: sea swim. Now, that didn’t happen on the round-Britain.
In Penzance, I popped into the Edge of the World Bookshop to sign some copies of my book, then headed off for the rest of the journey to Truro. I had forgotten just how hard cycling in this part of the world is; those hills are tough, especially so laden with luggage. I arrived in Truro with just an hour before I needed to be at my evening event, so it was a quick dash to the Waterstones there to sign the book, then a hurried meal, then a half-hour cycle back to Bike Chain Bissoe where my first audience awaited. The event had drawn a small but lovely crowd, and I gave my presentation then read Chapter One of the book – fitting for Day One of the tour.
Day Two passed in a blur of hills and ferries: I took the King Harry Ferry (a chain ferry) across the River Fal, then another ferry at Fowey, then a final ferry across Plymouth harbour from Torpoint to Devonport (another chain ferry). I was familiar with much of the route, having ridden it in part on the round-Britain trip, and also on the Penzance to Brighton ride that had taken place a couple of years prior to that. But despite visiting places I knew and loved, I really struggled. The hills were just so tough, tougher than I had remembered, and I realised just how fit I must have been the last time I was there – it had been eight weeks or so of cycling that had led up to the South Coast section, and those eight weeks had stood me in excellent stead for the brutal climbs that feature on this stretch. I tried to enjoy it, but it turned into a misery plod to the next location; something that I had been so keen to avoid (I’ve explored this in a little more depth here). I was also a bit sorry that my Plymouth event hadn’t drawn a bigger audience, but those few that came were really supportive and seemed to enjoy it. A swim off Plymouth Hoe before the event was a definite highlight and made up for the negatives.
Day Three: a shorter, flatter ride but a much less enjoyable one; I took the A road for speed and ease, which meant this definitely was a misery plod! But arriving in Totnes was fantastic – it’s a place I have visited before and loved, and I had time to wander the steep High Street, and unexpectedly spied my book on the shelf in an independent book shop! My event at The Curator Cafe couldn’t have been better: a lovely, cosy, quaint venue, with a vintage bike hanging on the wall and a large and appreciative audience. Best of all, I had been contacted by Lucy, someone I’d met at the Cycle Touring Festival, who lived a few miles away and put me up in her house, right on the banks of the River Dart. A swim the next morning made three swims in four days. Not a bad score.
From there I rode to Dawlish, once more along a familiar route, passing through Newton Abbot to pop into the Waterstones there and sign books, and arrived in Topsham for my evening event where I was greeted by a fantastic crowd with a few familiar faces. Route 2 Cafe were brilliant hosts – a lively venue in a really pretty village, right on the River Exe, with loads of boats and a great waterside pub. I gave my talk and, after a couple of beers, I returned to the family flat in Dawlish for a good sleep.
Day Five: it’s a 45 mile ride to Taunton, and with the event not starting til 7pm there’s no need to rush. I ride the Exe Valley trail alongside the river – a wonderfully flat and picturesque route made more enjoyable by the sunshine. At 2pm, however, I am still in Exeter, having cycled only 12 miles. It took a while to get going after my late night on Thursday, and the Exeter Green Fair has provided a significant distraction. I gather myself and set off towards Taunton. Puncture!! It only took four days for my bike to fall prey to a thorn or stone or similar, so I limp towards the bike shop for a fix (I have all the parts to fix it myself, but it’s best to save my spare tube for a wilderness tube change if the need arises). So, it’s almost 3pm by the time I finally leave Exeter for the 33 miles to Taunton. Suddenly the 7pm start seems ominously close.
I’m following the route suggested by Nick Mitchell in the Cicerone End-to-End guidebook. It’s a lovely route north east of Exeter, along country roads and through pretty villages, until I reach the edge of the Blackdown Hills. “Ascend sharply for 1.5 miles” says the guidebook, nonchalantly. This is going to be tough.
But, thankfully, the climb goes smoothly and soon I am out of the wooded hills, the remaining eight miles taking me soaring above the tree line on a quiet and mercifully flat road. The descent into Taunton is exhilarating, and I arrive at Brendon Books for my evening event with 45 minutes to spare. Here, I am welcomed warmly by Lionel and Jo Ward, who not only offer me a bed for the night, but take me out for a curry after the event, which is well attended and a real joy.
It’s a pleasure to ride the 35 miles from Taunton to Wells through the Somerset Flats the next day, the landscape north of Glastonbury giving fabulous views back to Glastonbury Tor and ahead to Wells Cathedral. In Wells I sign books in Waterstones for a couple of hours before finding a campsite in the surrounding hills.
It’s been a full-on week, with all the highs and lows one must expect at the beginning of a tour. I have relished being back on my bike, despite a few niggles, and I am enjoying being a ‘jobbing’ author – using the proceeds of book sales to pay for the tour. But this is only the beginning: here’s to week two!
Anyone who’s familiar with my round-Britain trip will know I’m not the camping type. Perhaps it was the forced nights-under-canvas on family holidays, perhaps it was the cold, wet, and fitful sleeps I suffered as a festival-going 20 something, or perhaps it was simply that a duvet and a shower at the end of the day make me a happy cyclist. Whatever the trigger, I reached my late 20s a self-confessed canvas hater.
So, when I cycled round Britain, I spent the six months leading up to the trip making sure I had a bed to sleep in each night. I contacted everyone I knew, and many people I didn’t know, arranging my accommodation for each place in advance. I would sleep in comfort each night, and the kindness and hospitality I received from my hosts was a wonderful part of my ride. Knowing where I was staying each night helped me when the going got tough, and I could travel relatively light without all that camping kit. I relied so much on the luxury of people’s homes, I didn’t even take a towel!
But I couldn’t help feeling that, despite the advantages, I was missing out. I found myself envious of others who had the confidence to just pack a bag and go, leaving the details of the trip to beautiful chance. And planning to such a degree meant I spent a lot of time unnecessarily worrying about what might happen if it went wrong. On the few occasions when the planned accommodation fell through, it was hard to enjoy the journey, anxious instead about where I might stay that night.
It was in 2012, the year after the round-Britain trip, that I went on my first Otesha tour. And part of the tour was camping. If I am going to camp, I’m going to do it properly, I thought. So I spent real money on real camping equipment, and took my luxuries, including a REAL FEATHER PILLOW. And, to my surprise, I loved it. I was amazed that this thin little layer of canvas could be such an effective shelter; I mean, it was warm inside! And with my roll mat, my blow-up mattress, a cosy sleeping bag and my proper pillow, I had a comfy and satisfying sleep each night.
Since that tour I have gone on other trips with varying degrees of organisation, and over time I’ve learned not to worry about the minor things. You never know what might happen on the road, and planning things in too much detail can take away some of the beauty and freedom of touring. I now have the confidence and desire to just pack a bag and go – I know how to tour; it will be fine.
Now, I am cycling from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, promoting my book as I go. So in fact, the planning for this trip has been almost more difficult than any other, as I’ve booked and promoted an event at every stopping point along the way. The wonderful thing is that the cycling itself hasn’t worried me at all. I haven’t been concerned about what to pack and where to stay, or about what to do if I get lost. I have a simple guidebook to the ‘LEJOG’, and I have a tent and a sleeping bag, and I have a small collection of clothes. It’s so freeing to know that I will cycle to the next place and when I get there I can work out where to stay.
So far, I have ‘wild’ camped (camping without the express permission of the landowner) in the picnic area of a National Trust property, stayed in a hostel, had two beds offered at the last minute (from people who’ve attended my talks) and now I’m set up in a campsite. I’m hoping to do more wild camping as I make my way northwards; I have truly come to love my cosy sleeping bag and tiny little tent, that does an amazing job of keeping the elements at bay, even in high wind and rain. Perhaps I didn’t really hate camping before. I probably just never did it right.
Day Four of the LEJOG book tour
Last night I gave a talk at The Curator Cafe, Totnes. It was the third talk on my Land’s End to John o’ Groats book tour, having started the tour at Bike Chain Bissoe near Truro, and spoken at Rockets and Rascals in Plymouth the previous night. This was my best event so far: Totnes is a vibrant town, full of green-minded people, and I managed to draw a crowd despite it all being a bit last minute (I only confirmed the venue two weeks ago). The crowd were friendly and attentive, and the cafe were fabulous hosts, putting on a special menu and providing wine and the great coffee they are famous for.
Ordinarily I show a slideshow of pictures and structure my talk around that. But at this venue, there was no projection equipment, so all I could rely on was me. Gulp.
And it turned out to be great. It was nice to be able to expand on a story if I felt the crowd were responding to it, and I could skim over parts that turned out to not be particularly interesting. I read three passages from my book, from three contrasting sections of the ride, and I really enjoyed sharing my written word as well as interpreting it through my spoken word. I sold a good number of books, but most of all people enjoyed the talk and told me how it had inspired them to be more active on their bikes and in exploring Britain – the very reason I wrote the book and decided to take it on tour in the first place.
Even though this is a book tour, I’m trying hard not to make the ride just about the talks. I am, of course, cycling from Land’s End to John o’ Groats; a significant ride in itself, without the added factor of presenting the book. The tour itinerary must go on (if anything were to go wrong with the bike, I would get on the train), but I need to make sure I enjoy the ride as well. It’s a lesson I’ve struggled to learn in the past, to focus on the journey rather than just the destination, and it’s one that I still struggle with. On the round-Britain trip, I had pre-planned my accommodation each night so had my destination in mind with each pedal, and when the riding was particularly tough I could think of nothing else. I am in danger of letting that happen on this trip, too – even more so, as I MUST get to my destination by a certain time each day for the event to go ahead.
The ride today (Plymouth to Totnes) was short, and I chose the A road rather than the hillier but quieter side roads. I am not nearly as fit as I was last time I cycled here, and the hills of the past two days have been a massive struggle, especially with a box of books in tow! So I compromised scenery for ease of travel, which meant that the cycling was almost solely a means to an end and was a real drag. It wasn’t until I reached Ivybridge (a quaint village around the river Erme) and stopped for tea that I made a conscious effort to stop pounding the pedals, take a look around, and enjoy the ride. I started saying hello to things (roadside streams, trees, pretty brick houses, sheep), and looking at the surrounding landscape (happy that I wasn’t climbing those hills but could still have a good view of them), and talking out loud to myself about where I was, and sure enough, the remaining miles flew by and I found myself in Dartington then Totnes before I knew it, having really enjoyed the last section.
I have already cycled through some stunning landscapes and there will be more to come, and many places that I pass through will be unfamiliar to me; though an expert on the coast, I haven’t done much cycling up the middle. So, my aim is to not worry about the venue, the audience, the talk, and the books while I’m riding… and just enjoy the cycling for what it is.
It’s the day before the LEJOG begins: in twelve hours I’ll be setting off from Penzance and pedalling to Land’s End, before turning back on myself and heading north west for that far-off destination of John o’ Groats.
I’ve never ridden LEJOG before, but this is a special kind of tour: as well as cycling, I’ll be promoting my book, Eat, Sleep, Cycle: a bike ride around the coast of Britain. I’ve planned an event in twenty venues along the way, where I’ll be giving a talk and reading from my book. It’s been a hard few months securing venues and promoting the events, and I’m looking forward to getting down to some good old cycling.
Except, the cycling nearly didn’t happen.
A few days ago I received a phone call from First Great Western: “Hello Ms Hughes, I’m calling to advise you that the sleeper train to Penzance has been cancelled due to strike action…”
I went cold; I can’t not be there! All my plans!
“…so would you like us to book you into a hotel in Paddington on the Monday night, then on the first train on the Tuesday morning?”
Oh dear. That won’t work – my first event is on Tuesday night so I need to start pedalling that morning.
“No, I’m an author,” I explained, “and I start a book tour on Tuesday so I need be there.” (I’ve decided my author voice needs to be posh).
“Certainly madam; I can book you a First class seat on an earlier train on the Monday, and issue a full refund.”
Wow, this author thing is paying off!
“And I’ll need a hotel when I get to Penzance,” I continue.
“I’m sure that won’t be a problem,” she says.
I feel like royalty as she gives me all the details and I hang up. Disaster averted: I’ll get to Penzance after all. And free First Class travel and a hotel when I get there! Brilliant.
Then, a day later, I dropped a D lock on my foot and broke my toe.
After the initial pain had subsided I started to *really* panic: my tour! I can’t ride 1000 miles with a broken toe – can I? Fortunately it’s not the big toe so it turns out I can still ride a bike – whether I can ride 1000 miles or not is yet to be seen.
I sincerely hope that bad things don’t come in threes!
Yesterday I met with Claire Taylor, author of Detour blog, a project that tries to open up adventurer culture in London. We spoke about what it’s like to go on that first tour; what you need to know, and how you learn it. As an experienced tourer it’s easy to forget what it was like to hit the road for the first time, and make all those mistakes that everyone does (like not carrying a spare tube, for example). The thing is, with touring, you kind of have to learn this stuff yourself – people can advise you, and share how they learned their lessons, but you never really get to grips with touring until you get on the road and do it.
Nonetheless, thinking back to my first tour (a five day ride from Penzance to Brighton), I learned a few things I’d like to share.
- Ride at the pace of the slowest rider
It sounds obvious, but I had never ridden in a group before. I led the way, setting the pace and expecting everyone to follow. But before we’d even go to the station where we would catch our train to Penzance, one of the group fell off his bike on the canal towpath (thank God he didn’t go in) and really hurt himself. It took me at least ten minutes to realise no one was following me – I hadn’t checked over my shoulder the entire way along the canal. It just didn’t cross my mind that the others in the group wouldn’t be there right behind me, following like good little ducklings. That was a tough lesson, and didn’t help with group dynamics!
2. Be realistic about mileage and terrain
My commute at the time was 10 miles, which I would ride in less than an hour. If I could ride 20 miles per day in less than two hours, then if we had all day to ride, 60 miles would be fine. 60 miles is a good distance to actually get somewhere.
I didn’t even consider that we would want to do anything other than just cycle. I didn’t appreciate that touring is about looking at things – it’s not about getting your head down and getting on with it. A commute is a very different type of ride.
60 miles quickly turned into 80 by the time we meandered, got lost, and realised I hadn’t quite planned the route correctly. It took us a very long time to reach our destination on day one – I hadn’t factored in breaks, lunch, weather, wind or terrain. The stretch from Penzance to Looe is very punishing and we arrived at our B&B absolutely exhausted.
This pattern continued on day two, three (where the projected mileage of 80 ended up being 100) and four, where I finally joined the others in taking a train to our destination rather than face more cycling (they had already been train-hopping for the past few days). I had broken myself along with three full-grown men.
3. Take a map – an actual map of the area you are actually riding (unless you are happy to follow your nose)
We relied on a road atlas and some printed-out instructions based on my online research of the National Cycle Network. The NCN signposts don’t always point the right way, though, which we realised having cycled in a large circle just outside Truro. The road atlas was pretty useless – when you’re in a car, you want the fastest, most direct route, and on a bike, you most certainly do not, as we found out while blundering down the A390 dual carriageway from Truro to St Austell in the hammering rain.
4. Take time to enjoy it
Cycle touring is supposed to be fun, but this trip was very much, “Follow me everyone, we have to get there!” Four of us started the trip and none of us completed the whole thing. It was too difficult, too demanding, and mostly, not what cycle touring is about. I have fairly miserable memories of that trip – I felt guilty for imposing ‘my’ ride on the others, and because of the poor planning, it meant that we were constantly at our limit and had nothing left to see us through the simple things, like the rain. The riding was awful and I can’t remember much about the landscape that we cycled through (other than that it was hilly). It was all about the destination and none about the journey (though that’s a lesson I think I am still learning).
Now, my touring is much more balanced. It’s good to go far and fast sometimes, just as it’s good to meander and stop and stare. It’s good to allow time for unforeseen set-backs or for extra push-ons if you have the energy. I do much of my touring alone, and I only have to answer to myself about the ride I am taking. When I am riding with others I allow lots more time to chat!
In September 2015 I shall be embarking on the famous End-to-End ride, from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. It’s a distance of 1000 miles, and I’ll take a month to ride it, because as well as enjoying the cycling and exploring new places, I will be promoting my book: Eat, Sleep, Cycle: a bike ride around the coast of Britain. I’ll be giving talks, readings and signings in various locations along the way, in cycle cafes, bookshops and community venues.
Any suggestions for venues, please add a comment below.
I never much liked the idea of organised bike rides. They seemed to make too big a thing of cycling, like it’s not something someone normal would do. I always baulked slightly at the forced sponsorship. The sheer number of people would spoil the enjoyment – I am much happier alone, determining my own route and speed. And the BHF London-Brighton bike ride was certainly not on my radar – who would sponsor me to ride to Brighton? I do that for fun!
But my friends were taking part so I agreed. I paid my entry fee. My start time arrived in the post: 6.30am. 6.30am!! I have to get up at 0430 to take part in a ride I don’t really want to take part in? No chance.
But everyone was doing it, so I went along with the plans. Arriving on Clapham Common at 6am, none of my misgivings were resolved. All around me was a sea of lycra and sparkling road bikes – Team Oddball stood out like a sore thumb. Charity shop clothing. A couple of single speeds and my ancient pack-horse mountain bike. There were too many people – I wouldn’t be able to ride up Ditchling Beacon among such a crowd.
It took two hours to cover just 13 miles to the first rest point – battling our way out of London on roads congested with cyclists, I felt a rare pang of sympathy for the drivers. All this for what? To make them hate cyclists even more? At this pace it would take 10 hours to reach Brighton.
But as we stood at the rest stop drinking our tea, I had a word with myself. I was cycling through beautiful countryside surrounded by my friends. The sun was shining. The pace was slow enough we could have a proper conversation – something that comes all too rarely in the city. Everyone taking part was there for a good reason – perhaps they had lost someone to heart disease, or perhaps they simply wanted to undertake the challenge. Most had probably never cycled this far before – 54 miles is not something to be sniffed at. So what if it takes all day? It was a great excuse to be out on my bike.
And once I relaxed, I really did start to enjoy it, and appreciate the value of rides like this. Once we had passed the 20 mile mark, the ride had spread out enough that we were free to ride at our own pace. All the participants, whether experienced or not, were supporting and helping each other. The people manning the rest stops and the marshals on the road were smiley and enthusiastic even though it would be a long, repetitive day. With over 22,000 participants, the charity would have raised an enormous amount of life-saving money. And even though these were not ‘my type’ of cyclists, and many of them would reach the finish line, strap their bike to the rear of their car and drive home, at least they were doing it. The joy of cycling is something that should be shared as widely as possible; who am I to judge?
That first glimpse of the sea from the top of Ditchling Beacon was as exciting as any of the times I’d previously stood there. And to my surprise I had been able to pedal all the way to the top! A unique buzz passed through the crowds, riders euphoric from having made the climb or relieved that it was over. One by one they took the descent to Brighton – the organisers were right – it was downhill all the way.
A glorious sea swim and two pints later, I was ready to go home. My friends were sticking around in Brighton but I decided to head back to the Big Smoke. I hadn’t booked onto one of the organised coaches and the trains weren’t accepting bicycles. How to get back? Cycle, of course
One of the panel sessions at the recent Cycle Touring Festival was entitled ‘Cycling as a Woman’. I was asked to sit on the panel alongside touring aficionados Emily Chappell and Helen Pike. We covered many issues in the discussion that I thought would be useful to revisit here, especially as I often receive emails from women wondering about the practicalities of their cycle tour, or from worried parents wanting reassurance that their daughters won’t be subjected to sexual harassment.
(Short answer to that final point – I get more sexual harassment from van drivers in London than I do on a tour)
- How to I keep my hair clean/tidy?
My unhelpful answer to this at the time was a smug, “Well, I don’t wash my hair,” so here is a much more useful and detailed response!
I used to wash my hair regularly, even daily on my cycle around Britain (easy when I was using someone else’s shower…). A year later I toured with Otesha around the South West of England. We camped and stayed on farms and in people’s back gardens – our shower was usually a solar shower (a rubber blister pack of water that you leave sitting in the sun until it warms up then dangle from a tree), or we’d beg our way into the local leisure centre. I really struggled in the first days and weeks – I’d never been without running water before, and I felt dirty and itchy and uncomfortable. This is one of the reasons I am such a reluctant camper! I’d heard the rumours that hair starts to clean itself if you leave it long enough, and not having access to reliable cleaning facilities, together with all that I was learning through Otesha about the environmental impact of using too much water, I decided to try and be more natural with my body. I trained my hair gradually, going from washing it every two days to every three, to four, five, six etc. This was four years ago and now I wash my hair roughly once a month, or whenever I remember. It doesn’t itch or flake (I used to have terrible dandruff, which has now gone), it doesn’t smell, and it looks fine. And, when I go on tour, it makes life so much more simple!
Of course, that was a sustained and concerted effort, but one I would definitely recommend as a long-term solution.
As a short-term solution, use a Buff or bandana to cover those greasy locks – Buffs are amazing at tidying everything away and come in a range of colours and designs. Dry shampoo is a great way of freshening you up. Try and get used to not washing your hair quite so often in advance of your tour, if you can. Or you can always shave your head…
2. How do I keep myself clean and tidy?
Two separate changes of clothes, one for cycling and one for when you’ve finished cycling, are great for keeping the sweaty smell at bay. Once you’ve parked up at your destination, off come the cycling clothes and on go the clean ones. I always have some sort of wash before you go to bed – even if it is just a baby-wipe shower. There’s nothing worse than climbing into your sleeping bag with filthy feet and sticky arms from all the suncream you’ve inevitably been slathering yourself in. Any source of water will do; on one particularly hot day on the Otesha tour we arrived at our farm destination with no shower facilities, so I sponged myself down using the water in the butt that the sheep drank from! I felt amazing afterwards.
3. Dealing with your period
I use Mooncup – a reusable menstrual cup. The benefits of Mooncup are on their website here, and I find it fantastic for touring – it packs lighter than a box of tampons, and there is no waste. If you insert it properly, you shouldn’t feel anything while sitting on the saddle. If you’ve never used one, I recommend getting one now. I swear by them and would never use any other form of sanitary ware. The difficulty is finding places to empty and clean it. Public toilets are fine – I often wait in my cubicle until I can hear the sinks are free, then come out, rinse, go back in and insert. If you don’t have access to proper toilet facilities, empty it in the bush – it’s organic matter so there’s no problem in doing this – then give the cup a rinse with your water bottle.
4. Personal security and sexual harassment
None of us had ever experienced any issues with personal security and sexual harassment. In fact, we found it to be the opposite – people the world over will offer help to a solo female, whereas the solo male will be left to fend for himself. A solo male will often also be a target for thugs, which tends not to happen to a female. It was very telling that Kevin from the ‘Cycling as a Man’ session told a story about having to use his wood-chopping hatchet to defend himself against would-be thieves. Dervla Murphey only ever used her pistol once, and that was on a bear.
Emily remarked afterwards that it had been lovely that the session focussed much more on the practicalities of cycling as a woman, rather than focussing on the ‘can I do it?’ mentality. It was much more popular than the Cycling as a Man session!
If there are other questions about cycling as a woman, please do email me or leave a comment below, and I’ll add them to the article.
Bank holiday weekend was spent in the Ribble Valley at the Cycle Touring Festival – a gathering of cycle tourers old and new organised by round-world cyclists Tim and Laura Moss. It was a melting-pot of ideas from over 200 cyclists, some veterans, some novices, the young, the old and everything in between. Everyone had something to share and the willingness to listen to the experiences of others. I saw some old friends – including the indefatigable Emily Chappell who’d cycled non-stop from London – and made some new; it’s always lovely to realise halfway through a conversation that the person you’re speaking to is such-and-such on Twitter and you’ve been following each other for ages. I also met two other round-Britain cyclists – James Harvey and Bill Honeywell. It’s a joy to meet others who have followed the same route that I rode almost four years ago, the memories as fresh as if it were yesterday.
After two and a half chocca-block days full of talks, workshops, panel discussions and lots of cake, the festival came to a close. I was to spend the night in Manchester with friends, and I decided to cycle; the sky had brightened so it seemed a shame not to take advantage of being in such lovely countryside, although I wasn’t best prepared – no ‘proper’ cycle clothing at all, just some leggings and plimsoles and a vest, no socks, no cycling gloves. I wobbled off with my tent strapped to the rear rack, my waterproof boots dangling by the laces, one from each pannier.
From Clitheroe my chosen route went straight over a pass – no warm up, no ceremony, just upwards, thank you very much. I overtook a solo male riding a road bike with no luggage and full lycra, wondering what he thought as I zoomed up the hill past him looking every bit the amateur. Who needs the kit when you have a healthy dose of determination? The landscape fell away as the road climbed, views over farm houses and lakes and viaducts framed with the endless hills on all horizons, hills with rain-heavy clouds snagged on their tips, waterlogged fingers reaching down from the heavens to the green, green earth. Each inching ascent was followed by the thrill of the down, the dare-devil speed accompanied by a niggling worry that part of my haphazard luggage might fall.
North of Accrington I joined the Leeds-Liverpool canal, route 6 of the National Cycle Network that would lead me the rest of the 40-odd miles into Manchester. A couple of villages then a disused railway line, following a slow upwards drag into Baxenden. I climbed from Helmshore following the ridge of the hill as the traffic on the M66 rushed far below on the valley floor. Farmsteads clung to the hillside and villages gathered around the waters of the Irwell, once centres of industry, their cylindrical brick chimney stacks elevated high above the rooftops. I saw Manchester about two hours before I reached it, its unmistakeable skyscrapers settled into the valley around which these old industrial villages spread. Another disused railway descended steadily to Bury, a tarmacked remnant of a branch line of the old East Lancashire Railway. Grand columns made of red steel lined the path, once having held the railway tracks aloft the river running beneath, now holding up the sky.
I approach Manchester through Prestwich where I bump across the roaring M60 on a narrow cast-iron bridge and enter the beautiful solitude of Drinkwater Park. The route criss-crosses the River Irwell as it meanders towards the city centre. Soon I enter Salford, uniform rows of clay-coloured houses behind low brick walls taking me back to my university days. It’s all so familiar, even in a part that is wholly unfamiliar. The rain had so far held off but, as one might expect, now I’m in Manchester the clouds are seeping. Whally Range, Withington Road, Princess Road. I’m hungry and nearing the end of my energy – why do I never pack enough food? I’m grateful to Lucy, the other vegan at the festival who had brought some vegan brownies with her – I have one left in my pocket and gobble it hungrily. She’s going to try to stay vegan on her next cycle tour – much better than I’ve achieved on previous tours (every time I cycle to the sea I seem to eat fish and chips…)
I could’ve taken the train and been there in an hour and a half. But I would much rather be on two wheels, breathing the fresh air, travelling slowly, earning my journey. I’ve seen a different view of Manchester, a city I thought I knew so well. I’m exhausted but energised; I had an idea and I followed it through. And as I stand on Princess Road scoffing chips (no fish) I feel glad to be a cyclist.
It’s the kind of outlandish idea that is conceived at the end of the night when too much booze has been drunk. We decide I’ll swim down to Jonny’s boat, then we’ll both swim back to mine. We are moored about 15 boats apart.
I wake and instantly remember the promise we made.
“I’ll do it if you do it.”
“You won’t do it.”
My insistence is going to be my downfall. No one wants to loose face.
I dress in my bikini with a t-shirt over the top. I know it’s going to be cold; it’s early April so the summer heat has yet to warm the river, and there is a chilly wind blowing downstream. The sky is overcast.
The longer I wait, the worse this will be. I step from my boat and sit down on the concrete shore, my feet dangling in the water. My toes recoil at the chill. I lower myself in, steadily but decisively, knowing a tentative approach will only delay the horror. It is gaspingly cold and my chest contracts as the water seeps through my t-shirt. The cold shock is instant, my breathing shallow and panicky, and I cling to the shore for a few seconds to acclimatise, 1, 2, 3, then push myself out into the water.
I tread water for a while, trying to regulate my breaths which continue to come in short, shallow snatches. I remember swimming in the Firth of Forth when I was on my sailing trip: one of the requirements of our training was to be able to swim around the boat. It was a sunny day in May, but the water felt arctic, the cold rising from the depths beneath my feet. This feels just as cold, and instead of swimming around my boat I have to swim fifteen boat lengths, and there seems to be more river between me and Jonny now I’m in the water. I’m still struggling to breathe, and start to think about the process my body is going through. I know from my sea survival training that cold shock can lead to cardiac arrest. It’s little comfort telling myself the first 60 seconds are the worse.
I move out into the middle of the river and start breastroking downstream. Every so often I try to take a deep breath but the cold won’t allow it. I swim in rhythm with my shallow breathing. My arms and legs are soon losing feeling, and my skin feels as if it’s being pierced by needles. I stop for a second to clench and unclench my hands, seeing if I can coax some warmth back into them. The fingers move as if in slow motion. I can feel my heart struggling to beat the blood round my body, and my breathing has still not settled down. What am I doing?
Stroke, breath, stroke, breath. I have reached halfway. Someone is on their back deck and spots me in the water. “You’re brave!” they say. My reply comes out as a gasp: “It seemed like a good idea at the time!” Onwards I swim.
As I pass under the bridge, I start to seriously doubt if I’ll make it. It’s a two minute walk down the towpath between the boats. I have been in the water for around fifteen minutes. My body feels under tremendous strain and I keep imagining that, as I swim, my heart will decide to give up on the pressure of having to beat warm blood around my body, and simply stop, leaving me to sink like a stone. I haven’t told anyone I’m here. Will anyone notice if I just disappear?
I can see Jonny’s boat. There are five boats to pass until I reach it. Even though I’m within reach, I decide that I cannot swim that far – it is simply too cold. I turn for the bank and catch onto one of the mooring posts on the concrete. The bank is high: my weakened arms have no chance of being able to pull me out of the water. I am shivering violently and at last I can catch my breath. But I can’t climb out. There is no other option but to continue swimming.
I return to the water a steely determination – there is no way I will allow myself to die on this stretch of water. Each boat seems to pass more slowly than the last, my weakened muscles dragging me pathetically onwards. At last I pass his bow, and lift an arm to knock on the hull, then struggle to the stern and grab one of the rails. It takes all my strength to haul myself onto the deck and I lie on my front, dripping water, gasping deliriously. He opens the door.
“Jesus Christ! I didn’t think you’d actually do it!”
He gets me a towel and makes me a cup of tea. By the time I’ve finished it I am shaking like a leaf. My jaw is chattering to such an extent that I can’t speak, and my legs seem to have a life of their own. Half of the tea has ended up on the towel. Outwardly I laugh, but inwardly I’m bloody thankful that I didn’t drown.
We do not swim back.
Part of my job as a cycling instructor is to deliver SUD (Safe Urban Driving) courses to lorry drivers. The SUD was introduced because, while HGVs make up the lowest percentage of vehicles on London’s roads, they are involved in the highest proportion of fatalities. The course involves taking a group of drivers (almost always men, and often large) out on bikes and showing them another perspective – what it means to be a good cyclist, and why there are so many bad ones. It’s an excellent programme – nearly every burly trucker who takes part says something along the lines of “I’ve been dreading this all week,” but by the end they are beaming and thanking us sincerely for a great day.
It’s just as educational for us to sit in their cab and see what they really can see, to see how tiny the bike looks in comparison to their vehicle, to get a feel for what it’s like to have several tonnes of truck behind you and to have to check all those mirrors.
I drove a white van once, along the same streets that I usually cycle down, the heavy tyres and suspension absorbing each blip, pothole and rough patch that I usually have to keep my eyes peeled to avoid. What scared me most (apart from the fear that I would hit a cyclist — imagine!!) was the number of bicycle riders that pulled out round parked cars or buses without looking. Nearly every one. I just wouldn’t feel safe on my bike if I didn’t check behind me before each manoeuvre. What surprised me most was how few cyclists there were. There seem to be more if you’re one of them. They’re much easier to ignore if you’re in a large vehicle. And what also surprised me is how little I envied them. Even the ones who sailed through the traffic, easily getting to the front of my queue. They just looked so cold! All wrapped up in scarves and gloves! And it looks so dangerous! All that traffic! They seem so vulnerable! Rather them than me. Even though I know how wonderful it is to be on a bike, warm as soon as you get going, reliably making your journey in the predicted time regardless of how heavy the traffic is, much less dangerous than it looks, the freedom of powering yourself an utter joy. I used to wonder why car users didn’t feel more tempted to join us cyclists. But having changed places for just a few hours, I’m now not surprised that more drivers don’t ditch their vehicles for two wheels.
So changing places really is vital for people to empathise with the other side. Make cyclists realise that being more aware and following the Highway Code is so important. Let van drivers see why that cyclist is riding so far from that car door, why they are sitting in the middle of the lane at junctions, or why they are not looking round all the time, and why they filter down the inside even though that’s the danger zone. It should be mandatory for all professional drivers on London’s streets: buses, taxis, delivery drivers. There’ve even been suggestions that a cycle lesson should be part of the standard driving licence. Perhaps that day will come, and hopefully it won’t take another cyclist death to make it happen.
Having cycled 4000 miles then written a book about it, many people ask me which was easier.
Before I started the cycle trip, I thought I knew a lot about cycling. I was a daily cyclist and had been my whole life – how hard could it be to turn that love of cycling into a 4000 mile adventure? Turns out I didn’t know much. I was underprepared and naive. I learned most of what I needed to know on the road, or from asking the advice of people who knew what they were talking about.
Before I started writing, I thought I knew a lot about writing. I’d blogged, I’d written articles and essays, and my written English was pretty good. I thought I could churn out a book in a couple of months. Turns out I didn’t know much. Knowing how to use a semi-colon didn’t really cut it. I learned most of what I needed to know through actually writing, or from asking the advice of people who knew what they were talking about.
Cycling around Britain was, at times, wonderful. There were days when the sun shone, the wind was at my back, and nothing went wrong with the bike. The views and the sense of freedom and the simple joy of cycling were irreplaceable. There were times when I wondered why I would ever choose to do anything else, and mourned the day when it would all be over.
Writing was, at times, wonderful. There were days when the words flowed from my fingers, falling in just the right order to capture the image that I wanted to portray. I would read back the words I’d written and think, yes, this is good! I would sit in coffee shops with my laptop and feel like a true artist, and I’d think forward to the time when the book would be finished, and I would feel sad. I loved those pyjama days when all I did was write.
There were times when cycling was terrible. It was boring, arduous, hard work, and made me question my sanity. The headwinds were strong. It rained. The miles passed agonisingly slowly. I thought each hill would never end, and all I wanted to do was give it all up.
There were times when writing was terrible. Boring, arduous, hard work. The words wouldn’t say what I wanted them to say. I couldn’t think of how to express myself in a way that would make the reader want to keep on reading. I couldn’t type fast enough to capture all my thoughts on the page, and by the time they’d caught up I’d forget what I had wanted to say. I would read back what I’d written and think, god, this is awful. I spent many hours staring at the screen. I drank too much gin. I thought I’d never finish the damn thing, and many times I thought I should just give up.
Eat/sleep/cycle. Eat/sleep/write. Both things were the most simple thing I’ve ever done. Both things were the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Both things were the best thing I’ve ever done.
Cycling around Britain took 10 weeks. Writing about it took 3 years. I think that was the only difference.
The terms of my boat licence mean I’m not allowed to stay in any one place for longer than 14 days. The Canal and River Trust specify certain areas that you’re supposed to move between but as long as you move a reasonable distance they tend not to mind. If you stay in one place for too long, or stay around the same area for too long, they give you notice – then you have to move otherwise you’ll receive a fine.
My boat is quite easy to drive, once you get the hang of it, despite its length (60ft). I didn’t have to prove that I could drive it before I was granted a licence. It seems anyone can buy a boat and set themselves loose on the waterways. You learn pretty quickly how not to crash.
Moving the boat can be a pain (poor weather, have to go to work, can’t be bothered) but it’s also one of the best parts of living on the river – why have a boat if you never go anywhere? If I decide I don’t like my neighbours I can move on to the next spot. If I need to be in a particular place for work then I can move my whole house there. I tend to cruise with a group – we’ll all park our boats near each other. Most of the time friends will come on board for the ride – I appreciate the help and they love the adventure. The most people I’ve had helping me was seven people on board – with nine bikes on the roof.
I’ve been as far north as Hertford, as far south as Limehouse, and as far west as Little Venice (Paddington). I love mooring up in new parts of London that then become home for a couple of weeks.
My favourite part of cruising is waking up for the first time in my new place, and stepping onto the deck in the morning with a cup of tea to see my new view.
The book ‘Eat, Sleep, Cycle’ has been in the writing for two and a half years. I never thought I would write a book, but I had lots of positive feedback from the readers of my blog, so about six months after I returned from my adventure I decided to go for it. I went on a writing holiday – ten days in the Lake District – to start to turn my blog into a story. I thought it would take a few months. A year later I went on another writing holiday – ten days in Oban and the Isle of Mull – to complete what I thought would be the finished manuscript. It was fifteen months later that I actually finished it, and it has taken a further six months to reach the stage where the manuscript is ready for proof reading.
I owe a lot to Jennifer Barclay who was working for Summersdale when she contacted me: “I’m enjoying your blog. Is there a book in this?” I responded saying, yes, as it happens, there was. I excitedly sent her my first draft. “Unfortunately as a book manuscript, this doesn’t really fit our bill, I’m sorry to say,” she wrote. It was too ‘bloggy’ – too much chatter about the practicalities of the ride, and not enough development of the characters, least of all me. There began two years of soul-searching – how do I write about myself? Making my voice come across in a meaningful way was the hardest part of the writing, and the thing that most of my test readers throughout that time highlighted.
I had some very candid and useful feedback from my friends, most notably Richard Gibbens, who had the unenviable task of trawling through some very badly-written early drafts and trying to tease out a sense of character and narrative from my writing. My friend David Charles (a proper writer) gave me some very useful tips on character and dialogue. My dad was my first copy-editor. I had never before used the terms “as if” or “fewer” or “bored with” and I’d ended far too many sentences with a preposition. I’d always thought I had a good grasp of the English language, but writing has taught me so much, and my spoken English is better because of it.
About three further drafts were rejected by Summersdale (Jennifer had left by this point, so I was liaising with Claire Plimmer), and after much to-ing and fro-ing I was finally offered a contract in June 2014. When I read the email I jumped up and down squealing on the deck of my boat.
One of the clauses of the contract was that the manuscript should not exceed 60,000 words. I had already written 110,000 and wasn’t quite finished. I negotiated 80,000 as the final word count. The final submission was 85,000.
Cutting that many words was hard work, but very useful. I really had to put myself in the reader’s head – some parts that I loved were deleted because, though they meant a lot to me, they would be inconsequential to someone who didn’t know me. And that process was essential for turning it from a barely-readable door-stop to something that people might pick up from the shelf and actually reach the final page. I found it similar to what I imagine film editors must go through – I’ve watched the deleted scenes of many of my favourite films, and though the scenes are enjoyable, they are by no means essential to the story. Making that distinction when deeply involved in the writing is very tricky.
Many characters didn’t make the final cut. I felt terrible about doing this but I had to be brutal: I met so many people during the course of the ride that I couldn’t possibly work them all in to the book in a way that was meaningful.
So, apologies to Sarah Wise, Wendy and Michael Norman, Laura McGinty, Chantel and Andrew, Julien Masse, Flora Lawrie, Martin and family from Arran, Frank and Judy Brzezinka, Jan Rees, Mary Kelland, Simon Wallis, Marianne and Sandy in Llangrannog, Andy Ashman, Huw Evans, Tim Anfield, Julie and Alan Frecknall, Tom Sutcliffe, Nick Ratcliffe (and extra apologies to Nick because he hosted and rode with me and I’ve omitted all that!), Adrian Balletto, Mr and Mrs Sherratt, Hannah and Nathan Gardner, Graeme Willgress, Colin and Kenny who I met in Acharachle, Tristan who rode with me to Western-super-Mare, and all of the people who rode me out of London on the first day: Will Smith, Dad, Georgie Fyfe-Jameson, Andy Casson and Juanita Hard.
I changed a couple of names to avoid repetition, so Martyn Wells, you are now Matthew, to avoid confusion with my ‘uncle’ Martyn, and Pete, you are now Patrick, to avoid confusion with my colleague Pete, and Sarah Varney, you are now Libby, to avoid confusion with my twin sister.
Once I had the manuscript down to a workable length, I was assigned an editor. I was thrilled that this was to be the now-freelance Jennifer Barclay – a lovely symmetry given that it was she who had initially introduced me to Summersdale. She gave me guidance on the continuity of story lines, the development of characters, and clarity of some of my descriptions (what do you mean here, give us a little more detail here, etc). Her input was brilliant and I am tremendously grateful to her, for both her excellent editing, and for contacting me in the first place. Had that not happened my book would probably not have been published (I sent the MS to many companies, but very few accept unsolicited manuscripts). I could always have self-published, but now the world would be burdened with a very dry and un-imaginative 110,000 word-long book.
The manuscript was then copy-edited (which involved checking LOTS of facts, including the spellings of all the place-names, of which there were many) and is now back at Summersdale for final proof-reading. Then the whole book will be finalised: cover design, acknowledgements, illustrations and endorsements – ready to hit the shelves in March.
It has been an interesting experience, to constantly re-live something that happened quite a long time ago now. It was August 2011 that I set out on my bike ride around Britain. It was a relatively short adventure (ten weeks) but has taken up so much of my life since. I’m really excited to be finally sharing my story in a proper book. Many people have asked, “What will you write next?” and I have been adamant that I’m not going to write another one – while enjoyable, writing this has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But then again, I didn’t think I’d write this one – so watch this space!
As a cycling instructor, I am frequently asked about helmet use. Many of the comments I hear from frustrated road users conclude with, “and they’re not even wear a helmet!” It seems that most drivers would prefer it if cyclists wore helmets – those who don’t are deemed irresponsible.
It’s a tricky subject, and one that has a huge number of arguments on either side. Some studies show that helmets can reduce injuries sustained when hitting your head; some show the opposite result, that a helmet can make injuries worse. Some studies suggest that wearing a helmet makes you feel more safe, and therefore less likely to use the roads sensibly, as if putting on the helmet ticks the ‘safety’ box and your risk assessing ends there. It can also cause other road users to drive less carefully around you.
Helmet wearing is not compulsory in this country. Cycling is, on balance, a safe activity, the benefits of which far outweigh the risks. Compulsory helmet laws may well discourage current or potential cyclists, which would have a negative impact overall.
I often don’t wear a helmet. Mainly because I would rather not – in the cold I’d rather wear a woolly hat, if it’s sunny I’ll wear a baseball cap, and if it’s raining I’ll wear a hood. I don’t have to wear a helmet so I don’t. It’s not what I wear, it’s how I ride that will keep me safe, and it’s very unlikely I would be involved in an accident in which a helmet would help.
My students often say to me, “I like that you don’t look like a cyclist” – I don’t have all the kit, I wear normal clothes, and I want to promote cycling as a normal, everyday activity that doesn’t require a huge amount of safety equipment in order to take part.
For me, the biggest consideration in this debate is that the helmet question detracts attention from other road safety measures which are more effective in reducing accidents. Helmet use often dominates discussions of road safety at all levels, whereas there are many more things that will improve safety on our roads. Infrastructure is one, training is another. If I become trapped on the inside of a left turning lorry (the biggest cause of deaths on London’s roads last year), it matters very little whether or not I am wearing a helmet. What would help me in that situation is: a) infrastructure that doesn’t encourage me to filter down the left hand side at traffic lights; b) training to make me aware of the dangers of filtering on the left; c) training for HGV drivers; d) better designed lorries that increase visibility of cyclists and won’t drag a cyclist under the wheels.
I recently had an accident, in which I flipped over my handlebars and landed on the floor. I smashed my chin on the ground and fractured my jaw. Having a helmet on would not have helped me in the least, yet the first question that I was asked by the ambulance man was “Were you wearing a helmet?”
I recently went to the Netherlands on holiday, and was absolutely bowled over by the culture of cycling. I knew that the Dutch are world leaders in cycling, but you have to see it to believe it.
Everyone cycles. Young, old, black, white, cool, geeky, students, office workers. Riding a bike is just, well, normal. The provision for cyclists is incredible, from the acres of bike storage at the station to the infrastructure – they have their own lanes, their own lights, and, mostly, right of way. In the Netherlands, the bike is king.
But why is cycling in the Netherlands so different to cycling over here? Is it so impossible to have what they have here in London? The style of cycling is completely different to London and the idea that adults or children can’t ride is unheard of. Cycling in the Netherlands is simply how people get around – it’s easy and safe and an attractive form of transport. Everyone does it, so there is no reason not to. The infrastructure is extensive and functional. People don’t jump red lights, because there’s no need. Traffic (of all kinds: motorised, two-wheeled, and pedestrian) flows. There was a massive investment in cycling around 30 years ago, which has created a culture of cycling which works.
Everybody rides a bike. All drivers take care of those on bikes, because they ride a bike too.
Bikes have priority at junctions, and if they don’t, there is a separate light for them.
Lights don’t stay red for long (for either bikes or motor vehicles)
All roads have infrastructure for cyclists – if it is a main road, there is a separate cycleway, either clearly marked at the side of the road or separated by a verge. Side roads or roads in town centres are often closed to motor traffic. If it is a dual carriageway, there is a parallel road for bikes.
It’s just as easy to get around by bike as it is by motor vehicle – just as direct, with signage.
No one wears a helmet
People rarely signal
Everyone rides a bike, regardless of age, creed or social position, and they all ride the same kind of bike. They are mostly sturdy upright bikes with baskets or crates or bags on the rack.
People ride in the rain. Many hold umbrellas.
You’ll often see two people on the same bike – either on the rear or on the handlebars
The cycle paths are wide and clearly marked, and they all go somewhere.
People leave bikes chained very loosely or with a wheel lock.
No one is in a hurry.
Bicycle ownership is 1.1 bike per person in the Netherlands, as opposed to 0.4 in England. There are 5 thefts per 100 bicycles.
Road transport makes up 36% of total transport emissions in the Netherlands, and 69% of those in the UK
The Netherlands has a relatively low rate of obesity levels and heart disease
As bike use goes up, accident rates go down: 1.1 fatality per 100km cycled in the Netherlands (with 26% bicycle use) and 3.6 fatalities in the UK (with 2% bicycle use)
From the Dutch website http://www.dutchcycling.nl
The arguments pro-cycling are overwhelming: it is sustainable, healthy, has zero emissions of everything, is silent and clean, cheap both in purchase and in providing infrastructure, is space and traffic efficient, enhances urban traffic circulation and provides more liveability to residential areas. Despite all this evidence, none of these are the reason for the Dutch to cycle. They just enjoy it.
I’m standing at the top of a hill in Richmond Park with four new friends, about to embark on a microadventure. The plan is to cycle from the confines of the city until we are surrounded by the Surrey countryside, to eat, drink and be merry, then sleep under the stars. It’s about 15 miles to the country pub where we’ll have dinner, and we’re armed with tents and Bivvy Bags – we’ve no idea where we’ll sleep, but with bellies full of food and ale we’ll seek out a quiet spot under the blanket of night. We’ll then watch the sun rise and be back at our desks in the morning.
Our little trip has been organised by Anna McNuff, an irrepressible bundle of enthusiasm who recently cycled all 50 US states. In real life she works as a marketing consultant. The rest of the group are Laura Penhaul, a physiotherapist who is one quarter of Coxless Crew, an all-female four hoping to row the Pacific Ocean in 2015, Sophie Radcliffe, aka Challenge Sophie, an Ironwoman and lover of hard-won fun and adventure, and Jo Pickard, a TV presenter, producer and actor. Jo doesn’t even own a bike. She arrives with her beautifully styled hair, the most glamorous among us, unable to contain her excitement because we’re about to have an adventure on an otherwise normal mid-week evening. We’re all ordinary women really, who choose to do extraordinary things.
Micro-adventure is the brainchild of Alastair Humphreys, round-the-world cyclist and adventurer extraordinaire. Tired with people saying, “I don’t have time to go on an adventure,” he came up with the concept of fitting adventure into daily life. “We are defined by our ‘9-to-5’ but what about the 5-to-9…?” Al asks on his website. “Too busy, too broke, too unfit…” – these excuses don’t mean much when it comes to microadventure. What would you choose to do? We choose to cycle into the sunset.
We nearly don’t make it before the pub stops serving food. We nearly get trapped on the wrong side of a road block. We nearly get stung by an electric fence trying to find our camping spot. We nearly get found by the farmer. We’re tired the next day. But none of this matters – we did it, something unusual, something exciting, something daring. The next day my colleagues asked me what I did last night as I hang my dew-sodden sleeping mat out to dry. “I cycled into the sunset then camped in a field” I reply. How often do you get to say that?
If you’re touring, you’ll be on that bike for hours, days, weeks and maybe months at a time. While there’s no such thing as a ‘right’ bike (people tour on town bikes, road bikes, recumbents, mountain bikes, even Bromptons!), it’s important to have a bike that’s right for you.
- The frame
Steel frames are great for touring, as they are strong, springy, and easy to fix. Aluminium is lighter and cheaper, but doesn’t absorb bumps and won’t take a load quite as well. Titanium is an option – it’s lighter than steel and just as strong, but much more expensive. A standard touring bike will most likely be made of steel.
- The handlebars
Most touring bikes come with drop handlebars. Drops aren’t for everyone, and a good alternative is butterfly bars or wide-sweep bars which can give a more upright posture. The important thing is being able to vary your grip position, as you may well develop vibration and pressure problems in your hands and wrists if you are in the same position for hours at a time. Drops offer at least three positions (bar, hoods and drops), and are good for climbing as you can pull upwards on them.
- The pedals
Pedals with toe clips, or clip-less pedals where a fitting on the pedal attaches to the cleat in your shoe, can be fantastic for touring. Hill climbing is easier, and you become less fatigued, as your pulling muscles are utilised as well as your pushing ones. However, clips usually mean that your foot remains static, which can cause problems in the knee. Make sure that you are unclipping every so often and shaking your foot out. Also there’s the danger of the comical fall while clipped in! I prefer pedals with a standard platform on one side and SPDs on the other, so I can use a variety of footwear.
- The saddle
Some people swear by Brookes, but be careful to buy in advance of the tour – they’re only comfortable if they’ve been worn in. The key is making sure you are comfortable, so whichever saddle you go for, make sure you’ve ridden on it a fair amount before setting off. You can adjust the saddle forwards and backwards as well as up and down, and also tilt it to get the best possible position for you. Use in combination with padded shorts and chamois cream.
- The luggage
One advantage of a ‘proper’ touring bike is that it will have plenty of fixings for taking racks, bags and bottle cages. There are hundreds of options: rear panniers, low risers on the front, saddle bags, handlebar bags, frame bags, backpacks, even trailers. Weight distribution side to side doesn’t matter too much once you’re riding, but front and back does: too much weight on the front and you’ll find steering very difficult, but too much weight on the back and you’ll find the front wheel lifting each time you go uphill. Trailers can be a terrific way of keeping the weight off the bike, but they increase the drag factor when climbing and in strong winds, though they push you down hills which can be great fun!
- The fit
Whichever bike you choose, it must fit you. Take the time to check this before you leave – it will prevent problems later on. A bike shop will be able to advise you. General guidance: the crossbar should be 1-2 inches below your crotch when standing flat on the floor; your leg should be fully extended when your heel is on the pedal at the bottom of its stroke, therefore just bent when the ball of your foot is on the pedal; with legs level in the pedals, your forward knee should be directly above the pedal spindle.
- The make
Ridgeback do excellent entry-level and mid-level touring bikes (the ‘World’ range). Expect to pay between £800 and £1250. Surly makes the fabulous Long Haul Trucker which comes in at around £1000. Dawes Galaxy can vary from basic (£600) to top-of-the-range (£1800). The more you pay, the better quality the components, and the more durable and versatile your ride.
Free from coots, I decided to travel as far up the River Lea as I could. The Navigation ends in Hertford so that is where I aimed – 15 miles away, which is only an hour and a half by bicycle, but approximately 10 hours by boat.
Start: Enfield Lock
This was my first single-handed cruise. I was worried about travelling by myself, but I really enjoyed it; this was the autonomy I had sought when I’d bought my boat. I was actually better at handling it than I thought, and the canal north of Enfield is gorgeous – all wide straight stretches surrounded by rich green countryside.
But it was hard work. Between Enfield and Hertford there are 13 locks, and going through a lock single-handed starts to become tedious after the fifth. Luckily I had a few boaters to lock-share with, and a few passers-by who couldn’t resist giving a hand to the skinny girl heaving at a lock gate. They all asked me, “Do you live here?” I was happy for the attention, until a male cyclist who followed me for a couple of locks kept asking, “Are you doing this by yourself? Are you really?’
“Yes!” I finally snapped. “Why is that so hard to understand? Now either help me or bugger off!”
Travelling upstream, you enter the lock when it’s empty, close the gates behind you, then open the upstream sluices to bring the boat up to the level of the next pound. The benefit of doing it this way is there is no chance of getting stuck on the dreaded cill (a concrete shelf at the upstream end of the lock that has the potential to sink a boat if your stern gets caught on it) but it does mean that, with each lock, I was clambering up slime-covered ladders with the centre line in my teeth.
It was 8pm when I finally passed through the last lock and arrived in Hertford. I’d made it without any major dramas (apart from crashing into a small plastic boat in one lock – oops. I cycled back down the towpath later to check it hadn’t sunk). I love it here – a quiet, Tudor market town with some beautiful parks and really good pubs. This is the county town of my birthplace, Hitchin, so it’s quite special to have brought my home here to live for a couple of weeks.
Toilets on boats are usually either a pump-out toilet, where the waste is kept in a holding tank until you can pump it out (either by taking it to a marina or waiting until the pump-out boat comes by), or a chemical toilet, where the waste is held in a small cassette which can be taken away to the disposal point. The chemical flush is necessary to keep the odour down.
The boat I bought didn’t have a toilet, so I decided to go for a composting toilet.
I’ve used composting toilets before, at festivals and on camp sites, and they are always so much preferable to chemical toilets. It is much more of a natural process and if they are managed correctly they don’t smell.
Since I made that decision I’ve done a lot of research into toilets, and the results in terms of waste and pollution make scary reading.
A conventional toilet in a house uses an average of 3 litres of water per flush. Unless there’s a grey-water recycling system in place, that’s clean water that we could drink, going into the sewer so we spend time and money cleaning it again. Only 1% of the Earth’s water is drinkable, yet we flush 40% of that literally down the toilet.
A sewage system requires a huge amount of water, chemicals and processes to make our waste environmentally safe. Our sewers are often full of run-off water, oil and grit from the roads, and chemicals from industry and agriculture, which complicates the cleaning process. Yet our human waste has been used for centuries for agriculture as a fertiliser – only in the second half of the 20th century did we stop reusing our waste. Our farming industry spends millions of pounds on artificial fertilisers that contain nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous – the very chemicals that are found in urine! It makes no sense to flush away something that can be so beneficial to us, especially as that then creates a pollutant.
The composting process is a much more natural process. I have a bottle that holds the urine, which I can discard in the bush, and a bucket that holds the poo. After a year or so the ‘humanure’ is safe to be used as a regular fertiliser.
Most people I talk to say, “But doesn’t it smell?”
As long as the contents of the toilet are kept dry, there is no detectable smell – it’s liquid that causes anaerobic bacteria to build up, which is what creates the smell. I dry the contents out by adding sawdust. The bucket itself is open so there is a constant flow of air.
There are many companies that make and sell composting toilets for boats. But that would have set me back around £800, so I made my own.
My toilet is the first thing I show my guests when they come onto the boat. I’m sure they are thrilled.
Building the toilet
Then covered it with a plywood board with a hole cut to one side:
Panelling and a toilet seat are added for comfort and professionalism:
Urine is filtered into an old milk bottle, with the bucket for solids behind.
I love my toilet. It’s comfy, odourless, and I love that it’s natural. I don’t like using normal toilets now – I’d far rather use my own.
The only negative thing is working out what to do with the poo buckets while they mulch down to compost. As a continuous cruiser, I don’t have a set place that I can leave things. It takes about two months to fill a bucket, so by the end of the year I’ll have six buckets of poo sitting around on my boat. The other thing is that small plastic buckets aren’t really conducive to making compost – it needs a bigger space that can drain. So far, I’ve been burying the waste in the woods. Every so often I go back and check on the ‘patch’ – it doesn’t appear to have done any harm. Phew.
Two coots have taken up residence in one of the tyre fenders on my boat. For some reason they have decided that this is a good venue to start a family. This means I’m legally not allowed to move the boat until they have finished nesting, which could be up to eight weeks.
At first, I find the coots very sweet. They are shy, and make little cooty noises in the mornings. I like being a mother to a pair of little birds.
A week later, I am starting to like them a little less. They make loud cooty noises in the mornings. They wake me up. Some of their noises are metallic banging sounds – I’ve often woken up thinking, “Who is mooring up at this hour?!”
But, they are still very sweet. I like being a mother to a pair of little birds.
A week later, I am starting to like them a little less. They are still building the bl**dy thing, which means I still have at least six weeks here for the laying, hatching and fledgling period, and though every boater loves a good excuse for why not to move, I am starting to worry that I won’t be able to go and fill up my water tank.
But still, they are very sweet.
A week later, I am starting to like them a little less. They have nearly (but not quite) finished building the nest. And now they like to protect it from visitors. There are a couple of Mallards nesting nearby who often come and have a nosey, and the coots are having none of it. They crouch low in the water and pelt at their adversary like some kind of torpedo, cooting noisily the whole time. The noise is almost like a bark. It goes on day and night. I am beginning to regret having tyres hanging from my boat.
A week later and the eggs still haven’t appeared. Four weeks and no eggs! But still, they are sweet. I like watching them take a bath and climb into the nest to preen.
Two weeks later, they have finally started to lay! Well done Mrs Coot. Here she is… not sitting on the egg.
Two weeks later… the egg hasn’t hatched. The coots are making as much noise as they ever have. They haven’t laid any more and seem to be ignoring their only child. I’m carefully monitoring the nest, as I need to move my boat, but don’t want to disturb them.
In the end, I move the nest off the boat. I’m not really allowed to do this, but I’ve spoken to the conservationist, and it seems that the coots have abandoned the nest. I really hope it wasn’t my fault. A week later I see another little cooty family cooting around. They are very sweet. Noisy though…
Rules for living on a boat:
- use a cork ball float as a keyring
- always put keys in zip-up pocket
- don’t have animated conversations when stepping on board
The evening that you’re entertaining guests is probably not the best time to ignore the above rules and loose the keys overboard. But that is what has happened.
So, I’m talking to my friend in an animated way as I step on board, keys in hand, and see them fly into the canal and plop as if in slow motion, slowly sinking to the bottom.
We look at the water in horror.
“Where’s your boat hook?” she says.
“Um, I don’t know if I have a boat hook…” I reply. (Another rule for living on a boat: find out what a boat hook is and find out if you have one.)
“Oh, yes, here it is!”
I take the boat hook from the roof. It is 7ft long. Briony dips it down into the canal.
“Er, I haven’t touched the bottom yet…”
Damn! It’s dark, we can’t really see what we’re doing, and the water is too deep to go paddling. There’s not much chance of us picking up the bunch with the hook. We are locked out.
“My aunt has a spare set. Let’s go,” I say. It’s a 35 minute walk up the towpath to her house.
As we walk, I wish that a) I had followed the above rules, b) I had hidden the spare in one of the lockers and c) I was still in the last place I’d moored where the water was approx two feet deep, and where my aunt’s house was only a five minute walk. Bri says she doesn’t mind. We keep walking. Thank goodness my aunt is home.
An hour and a half later we are back at the boat, able to get in and have dinner. I’ve written off the keys – I can get replacements cut, and I have spare keys for my bike. It could have been a lot worse.
The next morning, I ask a passing boater if he happens to have a magnet – one of those sea searcher things that yachties use to find missing winch handles. He does! I rig it up to my boat hook and start the search. I dredge for a long time, not quite sure exactly where the keys fell. I try to re-construct the incident (in thoughts, not action) to pinpoint the spot. At least there is no tide here, so the keys will not have moved far. The biggest problem is that they were flung, they didn’t fall straight down, so they could be anywhere within a couple of metres.
Twenty minutes later I am convinced I will never find them, but keep trying. I have brought up lots of weed from the bottom, but nothing made of metal. Then, something snags, and up come… my keys!
I remove the keys that I never use (they are just dead weight) and put the remaining ones on my cork ball. Lesson learned!
I had the recent privilege of being interviewed by Roz Savage for her Adventure Podcast. Roz is a record-breaking ocean rower – the first woman to solo row the world’s three big oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. She has written two books about her ocean rows: “Rowing the Atlantic: Lessons Learned on the Open Ocean” and “Stop Drifting, Start Rowing: One Woman’s Search for Happiness and Meaning Alone on the Pacific.” I’ve read the second of these books, which is excellent. I’m pleased that Roz has taken a sneak peak of my (as yet unfinished) book and is similarly complimentary!
The podcast can be found here, on Roz’s website: http://www.rozsavage.com/2014/01/08/adventure-podcast-17-anna-hughes-round-britain-cyclist/
Thanks to Roz for the opportunity, and the lovely chat.
Frosty mornings on the river are beautiful. I especially love it when the rowers are out.
I’ve moved onto a narrow boat on the River Lea. She’s called Slow Gin and she’s 60ft long with a 6ft beam. I moved in on 31 December and saw the New Year in on the water. “You’re brave,” people say to me. “This is the hardest time of year to move on to a boat!” Thankfully the winter is fairly mild, and if I can cope now then imagine how great it will be come the summer. The thing that I struggle with the most is the short days — it’s almost impossible to do any work on the boat after dark, which means my moving in and decorating time is limited.
“Why did you decide to buy a boat?” people ask. There are loads of reasons: alternative lifestyle, love of the water, cheap way to live, having lived on a boat for three months when I sailed around Britain.
The money thing was important — I was desperate to move back to London, but couldn’t find an affordable room that I could rent. Working freelance means I don’t have a regular amount coming in each month, but I had £30k in savings, which is a good deposit for a flat, or enough to buy a boat outright. It was a bit of a sudden decision — I didn’t consult with anyone over it, I just decided one day that I would have a look to see what kind of boats were available on the market, and less than a month later I’d bought one and moved in.
The boat lifestyle really suits me. It’s very peaceful here on the water, and the community is very open and friendly, with everyone helping each other out. I love living off-grid – from generating my own electricity with a solar panel to my composting toilet, it’s a low-impact lifestyle. Having finite resources on board encourages me to be even more frugal than I might have been in the past. This can be the most challenging part as well, though – I can’t necessarily get home from a night out and flick a switch – if the batteries are flat which they often are at this time of year, I have to run the engine for the electrics to work. Running out of gas halfway through doing the cooking is always annoying too.
It is a big challenge — I’m now a home-owner with all the concerns and considerations that brings, and I have yet to sleep through the night without worrying that the thing is going to sink!
ON 1st August 2011 I cycled from London to Southend — the first step of a 4000-mile, 10-week journey round the coast of Britain. The route is fairly flat, tracing the River Thames from the confines of the city to the salt-tainted air of the coast. At the time I was eager to let others know that it’s a journey worth trying: “Everyone should cycle from London to Southend,” was how the first draft of my book began. I wanted desperately to share my experience: the beauty of cycling to the ocean, the relaxed pace of travel, the satisfaction of covering a substantial distance by relying solely on your own power. It’s far enough that it’s a good day out, but not so far that it would be beyond the occasional cyclist.
Last weekend, I repeated the journey, and it reminded me of how much I love cycling, and why exploring this country by bike is the best adventure I know. Knowing more about my home with each pedal stroke, feeling connected to the landscape in a way that doesn’t happen zipping through on a train or car. It’s magical to cycle to the sea, to pedal until you spy that massive body of water that holds our island in its grip, to ride until you can ride no further. The sea is so compelling, so full of mystery and the promise of adventure. We have over 10,000 miles of coastline just waiting to be explored, and every inch is different. Nowhere in Britain lies more than 70 miles from the coast; a long ride, but not impossible. I can’t recommend it enough. Make it a day’s ride, or a weekend trip. Take food, take breaks, eat cake. Find out where the train stations are along the route if you want a get-out clause. But get on that bike and do it.
London-Southend, Sunday 8th December 2013, riding with Laura
Our route starts in the hidden waterways of east London: the Limehouse Cut canal, Bow Creek, the Greenway (built on top of a sewer). Then alongside the deafening traffic on the A13, before reaching Rainham, crossing the railway line and entering the marshes. A Eurostar rattles its way to Paris, a yellow and white caterpillar speeding through the countryside. The Queen Elizabeth bridge that carries the M25 across the Thames stands like a regal gateway above the water. The skyline of London steadily recedes, but it’s not far, really; even beyond the M25 we can still see the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf. Soon we’re deep in Essex, riding down country roads surrounded by fields and hedges and farm buildings. Villages come and go, a collection of houses and country pubs gathered around the squat Parish church. We reach the top of Bread and Cheese hill, a famously testing hill for a county that’s mainly flat. The gradient is 10%, and it’s long. We turn to look back at the industrial areas that not so long ago looked unreachable. But now they are behind. Keep the pedals turning and the miles soon pass.
It’s 3pm when we get our first glimpse of the sea, from the top of a hill in Hadleigh. We both shriek: “The sea!” “Amazing!” “This is the most brilliant day!” We’ve been looking forward to this moment for six hours, the magic of arriving at the seaside something that never fades, even in adulthood. It’s more exciting that we’ve cycled here, that we didn’t do anything other than pedal in order to achieve our goal. There are 45 miles behind us — not long miles, just lovely miles with the wind carrying us eastwards to the coast. Tankers float in the middle of the channel, and we can see the masts of boats moored at Leigh yacht club. Across the water lies Kent. The sun is low in the sky and at its richest, the grass and the water and the road itself blazing. We approach the seafront, clutching firmly at our brakes — the roads here are built into the cliff, and it’s a steep descent to the water. The pier stretches far into the estuary, seeming to almost reach the other side — at a mile long, it’s the longest in the country. The chilly waves suck at the shingle with great breaths; we aren’t tempted to paddle, this time. Huts sell hot donuts and ice cream, and packs of seagulls squawk in the sky above. We sit down to the best fish and chips we’ve ever eaten; we earned these. The rapidly dropping winter sun paints the sky the most impressive shade of orange. It’s a daily miracle that we often forget about, surrounded by buildings in the city. But here, the sky is wide open, and the water reflects the colours, and the sunset goes on forever.
It’s dark by the time we set off home; these short winter days fade fast. Laura finds the station but I still have a few miles in me so start pedalling back to London. I pause in the middle of the countryside somewhere past Basildon. It’s pitch black. The crescent moon is bright but it’s too cloudy for stars. I can hear nothing apart from my own breathing. I feel as if I’m wrapped in a bubble, standing in the middle of the darkness, the silence pressing down. Ahead, I can see London, the big city going about its business, a long line of lights spread from horizon to horizon. There is the white blink at the top of the pyramid at Canary Wharf, there the red spots on top of The Shard. Planes hang in the sky, landing lights glaring as they wait to come into Heathrow. Tall chimneys of power stations shine like red beacons in the darkness. All of it bustling, and here I am, surrounded by nothing. I stand there for a moment, breathing it all in, letting the silence fill me; once I pass under the M25 the lights will return, the road will become wider and the traffic heavier. We cycled to the coast today. We went to the seaside. There are hundreds of other things we could have done, but we chose fish and chips and chose to earn them the hard way. It’s cold, and my legs are almost done, but I’m smiling.
That was a question asked to me by my elder sister, who’s been told by her husband that he doesn’t want her riding a bike anymore. The statistic is terrifying — six deaths in thirteen days! — but, to put it in perspective, in total there have now been an equal number of cyclist deaths on London’s streets as there were last year. That many of them have come so close together has vaulted the issue into the public awareness. The sudden spate is horrifying and tragic, but the fact that it’s therefore hit the headlines could be seen as a good thing. Perhaps now something will change.
James Walsh asked on the Guardian bike blog, ‘Have you had a near miss owing to poor infrastructure?’ My response: no. But I assume that is because I am a better-than-average cyclist (you’d hope so, given that teaching people how to use the roads properly is what I do for a living); I cycle assertively, prominently and predictably and I know how to use the infrastructure I’m presented with safely. Too many people do not, and might see the left-hand cycle lane as somewhere they should be, and will use it even if it’s not safe to do so, and perhaps filter up the left hand side of a left turning lorry. Cycle lanes that are badly implemented lull cyclists into a false sense of security, and simply confuse road users — cyclists feel they have to use them, drivers yell at you when you don’t.
Is cycling more dangerous than it used to be? Statistically, no. Perceptionally, yes.
The debate rages about how we should improve things to make it safer for cyclists. Campaign organisations such as the LCC point to continental countries and ask why we can’t have similar provision for cyclists. Boris retorts that “there’s no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people’s lives.” It is the Cycle Superhighways that have come under scrutiny the most — this is where the majority of deaths have occurred, and these are the flagship, big-money, high-publicity cycle routes. I know a nervous, novice cyclist, who was thrilled when a ‘cycle path’ was built outside her house. She hired a bike and set out one morning, hoping to breeze from Kennington to Colliers Wood. When the first bus passed her, she shrieked and nearly fell off. She was expecting a safe, protected space that she could cycle happily and calmly in, and got a strip of blue paint at the side of a bus lane (thankfully, she signed up for cycle lessons as soon as she got home and is now cycling confidently).
Boris’s comments are madness; of course improved infrastructure will help save people’s lives. But until it improves, what we can do now is improve awareness — educating cyclists that the blue paint they see won’t physically protect them, and educating drivers about how to react to us vulnerable road users.
Even though I have never had a near miss owing to poor infrastructure, I have had hundreds of near misses because people don’t look properly. Almost every day. Drivers pull out from side roads without having seen me, pedestrians step out while looking at their mobile phone, people turn left in front of me, people change lane without checking that the lane they’re trying to join is clear. Sometimes I have unpleasant and intimidating exchanges with drivers. More often it’s the odd toot and a couple of words of abuse, which is equally frustrating. Drivers see me as “in their way” when I ride out of the door zone (I’ve been doored before and it’s not something I wish to repeat.) My response varies between, “You don’t ride a bike, do you, Sir?” and, “No I will not ‘get on the left’ — it’s my road too!”
I will never stop cycling. I love London, and I love cycling in London — yes, it’s smelly and busy and at times, dangerous. But my bicycle gives me the ultimate freedom to go far and fast for free. The roads frustrate me, but riding my bike is always a joy. I just hope that we can educate enough people — both cyclists and drivers — that everyone can use the roads as they were meant to be used: safely.
N.B. Please don’t let this post put you off cycling in London. Cycling in London is (most of the time) brilliant — quick, easy, free, enjoyable — and I find most drivers to be courteous and considerate. Then there are the unfortunate few…
This happened as I was on my way to teach a cycling lesson on Saturday morning.
Coming along Coldharbour Lane towards Brixton, a red traffic light shows at the junction with Atlantic Way. There is a bike box at the lights. A cyclist is waiting on the left hand side of the box, and I come alongside the traffic behind the cyclist, noticing a guy revving his engine to my right. He has stopped behind his stop line, but starts to slowly edge into the bike box even though the light is red. I take decisive action: the bike box is there for bikes, to keep cyclists safe, not for rev-happy drivers. I come into the bike box, in a central position, right in front of him. This is the way we teach people to use the bike box, to prevent dangerous overtaking.
However, on this occasion, it is a mistake. Note to self: *Do not anger an angry driver*
As the lights turn green, I go. Revvy-driver revs. I stay in the centre of the lane so I can safely overtake the cyclist on my left. Revvy-driver beeps. I stay in the centre of the lane until I have overtaken the cyclist on my left, then pull over into my normal riding position. Revvy-driver pulls alongside me and winds his window down. “What the f*ck are you doing?! I’m trying to overtake you!” he shouts. “You were in the bike box!” I reply. “You can overtake me when it’s safe to do so.” He zooms off. Then stops at the next lights ten seconds later. Then opens his car door.
“Oh, here we go,” I say to myself, pull my sunglasses off, and fix my face with my nicest smile.
The man walks back down the street towards me, leaving his car in the middle of the road.
“What the f*ck do you think you’re doing? Why are you getting in my way? Get out of my lane! Why are you in the middle of the road? You don’t know how to use the road! I’m trying to get home to my kids. You’re holding me up! Pull over! You should be riding on the left! You’re making me wait behind you! Learn the rules of the road!!”
This man is aggressive, and angry. I look around at the other road users for help, but I can’t tell if they’re on my side or his. I know what he’s saying is rubbish, but I can’t get a word in edgeways. I try to interject with “I’m not trying to get in your way… I was overtaking this other cyclist (other cyclist looks terrified, and I feel sorry for her)… You had plenty of room to overtake… The centre of the lane is the safest place for me… I’m sorry I added 10 seconds to your journey…” I don’t have time to even begin to explain that, as a cyclist, sometimes I need to ride in the middle of the lane, and the whole point of doing that is that I therefore make this car wait behind me. I’m intentionally holding him up until it is safe for me to pull over, or it is safe for him to overtake. I don’t think he would take too kindly to this.
I then point out that it’s the red light that’s now holding this man up, not me.
But I refrain from adding that I’m a cycle trainer, and that of course I know what the f*ck I’m doing. I’ve learnt that responses like this only lead to “Well you should bloody well get retrained.”
The exchange is unpleasant. He is intimidating, and won’t stop shouting about how he has to get home. His rant goes on. The traffic lights are now green, and he is late home for his daughter, but he’s still standing there, shouting at me. The traffic behind starts to get impatient.
Finally I shout at him, “YOU WERE IN MY BIKE BOX!!”
There. I said it. An eye for an eye.
“You sanctimonious piece of shit,” he hurls at me. “Learn how to use the roads.” He stomps back to his car, and I try not to hear the C-word thrown my way.
As I ride past, he takes a swipe at me, causing him to narrowly miss his exit and swerve back into his lane to catch it.
I cannot believe I’ve been yelled at by someone who drives like that.
I’m shaking as I cycle away. I run through his complaints in my head: “Why are you riding two abreast?” I tried to tell him I wasn’t riding two abreast, that I don’t even know that terrified-looking cyclist, that I was overtaking. Anyway, the Highway Code says “Never ride more than two abreast,” meaning that it is perfectly ok for me to ride two abreast if I need to. “What are you doing in the middle of the lane?” The middle of the lane is the safest place for me — I’m at the head of the traffic, I’m asserting my position as a legitimate road user, I can accelerate quicker than a car anyway, so by the time he’s caught me up I am back in my normal riding position. The Highway Code says “Advanced stop lines allow cycles to be positioned ahead of other traffic. You MUST stop behind the first white line. Allow cyclists time and space to move off when the green signal shows.” “I’m trying to overtake you!” Well, overtake me then — when it’s safe to do so. The Highway Code says “Overtake only when it is safe to do so”… oh Jeez, I sound as if I’ve swallowed a text book. Learn how to use the roads?! I know the Highway Code backwards!!
I’m not getting anywhere with this. I thought about taking down his number plate and telling the police, but he’d gone before I could get that far. I thought about phoning up my boss at the cycle training company and quitting (“How can I teach people to safely use the roads with madmen like that out there?!”) I just sob a little behind my sunglasses and continue with my journey, cycling as safely and competently as I can. Before I’ve finished my journey I see cyclists jump the lights, motorists wheel spin round corners, and a driver making a call on his mobile phone. None of these people get shouted at. Grrr.
The most saddening thing about the encounter is not that this man is so completely wrong. It’s not that he has mis-quoted the Highway Code at me, the thing that is designed to keep us all safe. It’s not that his rudeness and confrontation leave me shaking. It’s not even that, in an argument between car and bike, car is sure to win. It’s that at the end of his rant, he gets in his vehicle, winds the window up, and drives off. That’s the end of the argument, the end of the conversation, and he wins, the driver, who goes faster than me and has a bigger vehicle than me and can shut himself off from anyone he choses to at any given time. It doesn’t matter that I am right. He thinks that he is. And that’s what upsets me the most.
I’m currently living on a sailing boat, journeying round the coast of Britain. The trip is run by South West Marine Training, and is called the Round Britain Experience (as is the boat) — aside from a previous two day excursion, which involved motoring round a harbour, I’ve never sailed before. This is one hell of a learning experience.
This is almost the hardest trip I’ve ever done. Harder than riding a bicycle on my own 4000 miles round Britain’s coast. Harder than cycling the 120 miles to Brighton and back in the rain. Harder than climbing the highest road pass in Scotland with 15kg of luggage. It’s a leap of faith to live on a boat for three months with three people you have never met before. But each day I learn a little more about the boat, discover a little more about the ocean, and feel a little less sick.
There have been days that have begun before dawn, the tides and the wind needing us to rise early. We have stood on deck watching the sun rise in the wake of the boat as the wind catches the sails, powering us forward towards the next unknown land. There have been days that have ended in the early hours, where we’ve used the stars and the moon, the beams of lighthouses and the blinking of navigation buoys to guide us safely into the harbour. There have been days where we’ve relaxed on the sunny deck, toes wiggling in the breeze, the sunlight dancing on the waves. There have been days where we’ve huddled shivering under the spray hood, the deep swells of the sea tossing the boat like a twig, mocking this plastic tub that has dared to brave the waves. We’ve endured gale-force gusts, stinging rain, biting wind and rough seas. We’ve seen guillemots and gannets dart over the waves, and had dolphins ride alongside the boat, playing in the bow waves. I’ve seen puffins and solar halos for the first time in my life. The ocean is an endless adventure.
We might anchor, we might tie up on a mooring buoy, we might go to a marina. I love the transient nature of this life — our home is wherever we end up that night. I love looking at the other boats on the marina and thinking, “that’s where I live.” I love seeing our yacht floating on the surface of a calm loch. We go wherever the wind takes us. When you can sail, the world is your oyster.
A day on the boat begins at around 7am, when the combination of ropes and waves knocking against the hull forces me out of my cosy sleeping bag and into the cold heads. The boat is rocking even though we’re moored – a floating pontoon doesn’t offer much stability, and on the occasions where we moor up in a marina, it’s often on a river, susceptible to the racing tides.
Marinas are the height of luxury. It’s amazing how important it is to be able to step straight from the pontoon on to dry land, rather than having to clamber into the tiny tender to reach Terra Firma. They even have running hot water! What a novelty to have a shower that you don’t have to keep turning off while you pump out the water from beneath your feet, shivering as you lather up.
I stumble back to my bunk, trying not to succumb to the rocking this early in the morning, telling myself for the hundredth time that I will get used to it. No-one ever heard of anyone being seasick for three months. Although perhaps I’ll be the first. I can’t imagine being without this queazy feeling that has taken up residence in the pit of my stomach, and nothing will shift it – not eating, not drinking, not sleeping, not shoving ginger sweets into my mouth, not being sick, not even being on dry land. It will get better. It has to.
I can hear the others getting up, gathering themselves to start the day. The kettle starts to sing and I quickly dress, spurred on by the thought of my morning cup of tea. If I can get the forward-facing seat in the centre of the galley perhaps the rocking won’t bother me so much. I sit, sipping the hot liquid, making myself a banana sandwich for breakfast – without shore power we can’t use the toaster. Yesterday we had eggy bread, frying the slices over the gas hob.
Once breakfast is cleared away we set about to ready the ship for ‘slipping’ (casting off from the pontoon): close all the hatches, put everything in its cupboard and secure all the doors, empty the heads (toilets), prepare the sail, do the engine checks, make the lunch and store it in the cockpit (not having to come down to the galley while at sea really helps with the seasickness), prepare the vegetables for dinner (similarly), add mid-layer clothes (fleece, light waterproof, extra leggings) and top layer clothes (sallopettes and heavy waterproof fleecy jacket), come up on deck, bring in the ‘spring’ lines. Now we’re only attached to the pontoon by two lines – one at the bow and one at the stern. Once everyone is in their place we take off the lines and we’re away, motoring into the estuary. The fenders come off and go into the lockers, the lines get coiled and put away, then we set about getting the main sail up. Hoisting the main halyard is hard work – I can’t do it on my own yet.
Once the sail is up we motor-sail towards the mouth of the estuary, heading towards the open sea. The surf is usually high, the Atlantic waves magnified by the wind being tunnelled upriver, or by the depth-change between the deep sea and the shallow river. We stand in the cockpit watching the waves break over the bow, the boat pitching and diving, until with a squeal we duck underneath the spray hood as a particularly large wave crashes over the hull and rolls down the length of the boat. We’re unavoidably soaked, but can’t help giggling at the rollercoaster ride.
As we make our way out into the Channel we cut the engine, unfurling the head sail then adjusting the main sail, making sure the angle and size of the canvas is capturing as much wind as possible. Once clear of the land we set our course for the next stopping point, 30 or 40 nautical miles away.
All of this has distracted me from my sea sickness but it soon returns, the constant rolling of the boat causing my stomach to roll also. I sit on the foredeck, staring out towards the horizon, the powerful swell tossing our tiny boat about, trying to get my head around the fact that we are still afloat. The boat is heeling over as the wind fills the sails, living on its ear, threatening to send me into a panic if I think too much about the angle that we’re at. Instead I let the motion of the waves lull me, lifting and dropping, lifting and dropping.
Our boat is called Round Britain Experience – an unsurprising name for a boat that will take us all around the British Isles. We’re on a three-month expedition, run by South West Marine Training out of Brixham. All three of us are novices, and we spent a week in the south Devon marina ‘learning the ropes’ before setting out. I saw the whole of this coast when I cycled round it in 2011, so lots of the places we’re berthing are full of fond memories, although there are places I haven’t been – the Scilly Isles, Shetland, Ireland. I was really looking forward to seeing Blackpool Sands and Slapton Sands from out at sea, the spectacular sand bar at Slapton having made a great impression on my bike ride. The long strip of golden sand with white breakers rolling in is a view not to be missed – though unfortunately I was below deck throwing up at the moment the boat passed by. I vaguely heard the crew admiring the view; I also missed the porpoises frolicking near the boat.
The land recedes to our right, the cliffs becoming less detailed with distance and sea mist. To our left the sea stretches endlessly, apparently nothing but wide open ocean. Waves crest on the horizon, momentarily transforming the horizontal line to a serrated edge before melting back into the water. The occasional bird flaps across my eye-line, heading to who knows where – there is nothing as far as the eye can see. Guillemots dart past, tiny and black, their wings flapping furiously, just inches from the surface of the water. Blink and they’ve disappeared. Three gannets glide into view, their long white wings tipped with black as if they are wearing gloves. Later, some are bobbing near to the boat, their yellow heads and intelligent black eyes fixed on us. We pass things floating in the water – dead fish, seaweed, a discarded rope. If we are lucky dolphins might come and play in the bow waves of the boat.
I keep a lookout, not through necessity but more through being rendered immobile because of the feeling in my stomach. I sing songs to myself to keep busy. I understand why shanties were invented, to distract sailors from their sickness and boredom. Clouds cover the sun, and for the first time in my life I see a solar halo.
Eventually the motion gets to me and I quickly dash to the leeward side of the boat and watch the contents of my stomach go over the side. I instantly feel better, though not well enough to venture down to the galley for a drink. Instead I take the helm, hoping that the focus of keeping the boat on course will be enough of a distraction to stop that happening again.
After hours of open sea and constant swell, we sight our destination, changing our course to head inland. The head sail comes in and we start the motor up again, using the navigation markers to make our way into the estuary. The casting-off routine is repeated in reverse – hanging the fenders, preparing the lines, dropping the main sail, coming alongside, lassoing the cleats, securing the boat. If we have water we’ll scrub the decks, if we have electricity we can even boil the kettle. If we’re lucky we’ll be alongside dry land, otherwise it’s a case of inflating the tender and motoring ashore.
Once we’re away from the open ocean the rocking subsides enough for me to stop feeling sick, and suddenly realise how hungry I am. Dinner doesn’t have to be simple – full roast dinners have been known to come out of these tiny gas ovens on board. We have pasta, or curry, or Bolognese. Tinned custard is fast becoming a favourite.
By 10pm I am utterly exhausted, and tuck myself up in my sleeping bag, snuggled tight in my cabin. I sincerely hope that tomorrow will be the day that I stop feeling sick.
You might not have heard of Brixham — it’s a tiny fishing village on the south coast of Devon. There’s no railway station there, no way to get there other than by car or bus. It’s 270 miles away from where I live. I’m going there because that’s where my sailing trip departs from, and I’ve decided to cycle.
I could easily get a train to Paignton and take a taxi for the remaining five miles, and I could be there in 5 hours. My journey is going to take four days.
Why am I doing this? The forecast for the next couple of days is for snow. I can barely lift the rear wheel of my Ridgeback touring bike from the floor, now that everything I need for three months of sailing has been strapped to the back. I could, instead of struggling with my fully-loaded bicycle solidly for several hours a day, be enjoying lazy mornings with cups of tea. But I love riding my bicycle. I love being able to get anywhere I want to just by riding it. I will be living every inch of the journey, reliant only on myself, breathing great lungfuls of country air, getting to know the country that I live in a little bit better.
Day one, and I’m sitting on a bridge on the Thames eating my lunch. The river stretches out towards London ahead of me, Windsor castle sits on the hill to my right, and I’m grinning from ear to ear. I’ve been here a couple of times before, on a train from London, and I love the fact that I just cycled here from my house. The route wound its way through the Hertfordshire countryside, skirting London on the Grand Union Canal, and following an abandoned railway line through Rickmansworth. I’ll soon be riding through Windsor Great Park, past the grandiose Ascot racecourse, and onwards to my aunt’s house in a small Hampshire village. The wind is pushing me along at a fantastic rate and I’m enjoying every minute.
Day two is colder, and further, but I’m still glad to be on my bike, even though by the time I reach my destination my feet are blocks of ice. I pass through Winchester, a charming town with attractive architecture that I’ve never visited before, where two policemen give me directions. “You’re heading for Poole?! And with all that luggage?!” They are impressed that I can haul my load up the steep streets in the town. I cross the top of Southampton Water and meander down through the New Forest. A horse tries to eat my apple. I’m surrounded by scrub and endless woodland. I reach Christchurch and can soon see the vast expanse of the ocean at the end of a lane. I excitedly race towards it, hurtling from the cliff top to sea level, following the wide sweep of Bournemouth Bay towards Poole harbour, my bike allowing me exclusive access to the seafront.
On day three the hills really kick in. It’s an 85 mile ride to Exeter, and my choices are the roaring and exposed A35, where the gusting wind repeatedly knocks me onto the grass verge, or the winding country roads, which are much preferable, but longer and hillier. The countryside is stunning, but hard work. I cross the Dorset/Devon border, following an endless incline into Axminster, promising myself that I’ll reach the top before the song on my iPod finishes. Three tunes later I am still struggling against the gradient. By the time I reach the town I’m sobbing a little, exhaustion getting the better of me. All I can see ahead of me are more hills. I could knuckle down but I decide there’s no point — this isn’t a test of endurance. I find the station and take the train for the last ten miles to Exeter.
On day four the sun shines and the canal-side cycle path from Exeter to Dawlish is an absolute joy. From there it’s a short 15 miles up and down the cliffs along the coastal road to Brixham. The views across Torbay are stupendous. I ride down to Brixham Marina and meet the people I will be sailing with for the next three months. “Have you just come all the way here on your bike?!” they ask. I am smiling widely as I say “Yes.”
When I arrived at my aunt’s house she had asked me “Why do you punish yourself? I would have given you the train fare!” But it wasn’t about that. I could have paid for the train myself. Riding my bicycle is my way of exploring. Powering yourself mile after mile makes the arrival all the more enjoyable. Being in the saddle simply makes me happy. It’s a way to turn a normal journey into an expedition, and an adventure to remember.
I have just spent ten days in Oban, on the beautiful western coast of beautiful Scotland. It’s been a bitterly cold March everywhere and Oban was no exception – zero degrees and a hefty wind chill to boot. But the sun shone most days and there was only the occasional flurry of snow.
I went there to try to finish my book. I started writing it a year ago, on another holiday in the Lake District, hoping the scenery and peace and quiet would inspire me. I’ve been working on it since, while holding down the day job, and I’ve almost reached the end. 76000 words down, and, I hope, not many to go.
I chose Oban because I went there on my 4000 mile bike ride around the coast, which is what the book is about. When I’d come previously, I’d wished I could have stayed a bit longer (I did not want to go cycling. “All I want to do is drink tea and eat cake!” I wrote on Facebook). I also wanted to go back to Tobermory, a strikingly pretty harbour town in the north of Mull, having dashed through it before on the way to catch a ferry, and also go out to Ardnarmurchan Point, the most westerly point on mainland Britain, having missed that compass point on the circumnavigation.
So off I went – bags packed, hostel booked, bike hauled on to the train. I took the 5.30am from Euston and arrived in Oban nine hours later – a long time to spend on a train but worth it when, on the crawling ScotRail line north of Glasgow, I was able to gaze out on miles upon miles of mountains. After the urban jungle of London, Scotland was huge, wide open, and very three-dimensional.
Despite it being a writing holiday, I was determined not to spend all my time sitting at my laptop in the youth hostel. I took walks along the seafront, visited Dunstaffnage Castle, and frequented the various tea rooms and hotels where a warming cuppa or a cool glass of wine might help the words to flow. On one occasion I went up to McCaig’s Tower and propped myself up in one of the blank windows, looking out across Oban Bay, my laptop on my knee. The wide stone made a chilly seat, and, despite all my woolly layers, I managed only 30 minutes or so before a snowstorm drove me back to the warmth of my hostel.
After a few days in Oban I headed out to Tobermory on the isle of Mull. Simply boarding the ferry was an adventure in itself, with all the excitement of crossing a body of water and seeing the world as if from the outside in. Once on Mull, a 20 mile direct ride would have taken me to Tobermory and my guesthouse, but I took the long way round, cycling 40 miles round the north of the island past the Isle of Ulva, round the gorgeous beach at Calgary, and over the huge passes beyond Dervaig. The road was single track, the terrain deliciously wild. The wind was behind me, pushing me to the top of each rise, my legs forced to remember how to climb hills. Snow dusted the slopes of mountains like icing sugar. Tourists watched for eagles. The cold wind bit on the long freewheeling downs and my lungs heaved on the even longer inclines.
The next day I headed off for Ardnamurchan Point, seeking out Stephenson’s lighthouse that sat on the most westerly rocks of the mainland. The visitor’s centre was shut, the tourist season not yet underway, so I walked around the base of the tall tower, clambering over rocks to gaze out to sea, standing in front of the huge foghorn which was, on this occasion, thankfully silent. The views across to Rum, Eigg and Muck were spectacular, the islands floating in the vast blue ocean, the day clear. But the cold wind soon drove me back to Kilchoan in search of tea and warmth.
From Tobermory to Craignure I rode along the very same road that I had ridden along eighteen months ago on my circumnavigation of Britain. The road was mainly flat, I had written in my manuscript, but my memory could not have been more wrong. The single track twisted and turned between the hills, rising and falling for at least ten miles. I wondered why I had misremembered it – perhaps I’d had a tailwind that day, or I had been concentrating on cycling fast to catch my ferry so hadn’t really noticed the terrain, or perhaps I was simply so fit from the six weeks of cycling that had gone before that the inclines were mere blips in my progress. It made me worry that I had mis-represented every other road I had written about. Would I have to ride the whole thing again just to make sure?!
On my final night in Oban I treated myself to a posh fish dinner – so far I’d been surviving on lentils, my meagre budget not even stretching to fish and chips, but I couldn’t leave the Seafood Capital of Scotland without eating out at least once. I chose the local special, Turbot, hoping that the trawler docked next to the restaurant had been the one responsible for bringing it in. It was utterly delicious.
I love Scotland. I’d enjoyed being in one place for several days, having passed through lots of places quickly on my previous visit. I’d started imitating the accent and had enjoyed the friendliness of the locals. It was with sadness that I got on the train, ready for the nine hour trip back to London.
“Hello,” I said to a man sitting in the carriage, still in Scottish mode. He looked at me strangely. “Next stop London,” I thought wryly.
A sunny day in mid September. I’m riding down a street I’ve never ridden down before, and I see a man I’ve never met before, and then I notice his finger outstretched towards me, and I hear him say, “You’re famous!”
This is one of my favourite moments of my life.
The man is Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of the Transition Network, one of the charities I raised money for as I was cycling round the coast of Britain. My picture is all over my blog so it’s no surprise he recognises me, but his unusual greeting makes my face crack into a huge smile. I had spotted him fixing bikes by the side of the market square, which is why I’d caught his eye – such a typical thing for a cyclist to hone in on another cyclist and want to strike up a conversation.
This is Totnes, the final calling point of my Otesha tour; for the past six weeks I’ve been cycling around the South West with eight other young women, performing and running workshops in schools and city farms, trying to inspire change and promote sustainable living. The tour has been intense but good fun, and we’re relaxing in the nation’s first Transition Town while we wait for a train back home. It’s pure coincidence that Ben sees me – it has been a full year since I completed my round-Britain tour, where we first made cyber contact, and he had no idea I’d be here in Totnes, just like I had no idea this is where he lived.
Every weekend you’ll see Ben with his bike stand offering a free Dr Bike service to passers-by – it’s completely unfunded and he does it purely for the love. I understand his desire to fix people’s bikes for nothing save their thanks (which is often emphatic and overwhelming, accompanied by gifts) – I volunteer at the Hackney Bike Workshop, a free fix-it evening where people can come and get their bikes checked, and fixed, and learn basic maintenance skills by having a go under the watchful eye of their mechanic.
The bike workshop runs in two locations: Frampton Park hall in Hackney on the first and third Tuesday of the month, and St Michael’s Church hall in Stoke Newington on the second Tuesday. The Stokie version was initiated by Transition Town Stoke Newington, and has been consistently popular since it started almost two years ago. Doors open at 7pm and there are always mechanics on hand to talk you through how your bike works and show you how to fix it. After 9pm you’ll find said mechanics at the Royal Sovereign on Northwold Road enjoying the sustainable beer.
Ben says that while his free servicing is welcomed by the punters, he is treated with a little more caution by the local bike shops, some resentful that he is taking trade away from them. I can see their point, but I disagree. Teaching someone how to fix their own bike won’t make them need a bike shop less, but it might well make them need it more. No one is going to become an expert on bike maintenance in the twenty minutes it takes to tune brakes, but they will catch a breath of intrigue. People crave knowledge. And as soon as you empower someone a little, they will instantly want to know more. Someone who never quite got round to riding their bike because it didn’t quite work will suddenly be taking it out every day because of their free bike check, popping into the bike shop on their way home for some gloves or a puncture repair kit or simply to look.
I’m the same. Since learning how to fix bikes I spend more time in the bike shops, forever looking at all the stuff I need, or more to the point, don’t need but want. I won’t pay for a service, preferring to buy the parts and replace them myself, but I’ll buy replacements more regularly, or invest in the higher quality stuff – now I know what to look out for, I have the desire to keep my bike in top condition.
Anything we do to get cyclists on the road is good, and the more people that promote cycling the better. Dr Bikes can co-exist happily with bike shops, both helping people get out and about on two wheels in their various ways, creating a positive effect on people’s health and on the environment. I think what Ben does is fantastic, and I hope to see it more.
5.20am. My alarm goes off, rousing me from my light slumber; I never sleep deeply if I know I have to get up early. I quietly rise and dress, then creep downstairs to make breakfast – flask of tea, marmalade sandwich and an oat muffin to eat on the train. The traffic is scarce as I make my way along the Euston Road towards Paddington, the rush hour still a couple of hours away.
6.30am. My train pulls away from the station. Today, I am travelling to Bristol to give assemblies about my round-Britain bike ride; recently I’ve been working with my old Sustrans colleagues to encourage pupils to ride their bikes to school. I like the work – it’s interesting, varied, and it means I get to travel up and down the country. Even though I rose before dawn today, I don’t mind – I don’t have to do it every day. I hope I am inspiring the next generation of adventurer, or cyclist, or at the very least motivating someone to get on their bike a bit more.
7.00am. The train passes deeper into the countryside, the fields around glowing with the deep orange of sunrise. The hills are hidden in the early morning mist, each ridge swallowed by the clinging haze that is illuminated by the sun’s emerging rays. It’s a magical world as daybreak arrives, colour spreading slowly across the landscape as the sunlight creeps above the horizon.
9.10am. The first assembly of the day. I introduce the pupils to my friend Polly, the Playmobil cyclist who accompanied me on the trip and the subject of most of my photos; some of the children are more concerned about Polly’s welfare than mine and eagerly ask, “But how did Polly keep up with you?” or, “Did Polly get tired?”
9.40am. Bristol is hilly. It’s a tough climb to the next school, but we are rewarded by views over the Avon valley, the Clifton suspension bridge bold and bright in the now clear morning sun. I talk about what it’s like to cycle up a mountain, through a hurricane, to pedal every day for 10 weeks and my audience’s eyes are wide. In fact, it’s often the teachers who are most impressed by my tale, their understanding of the distance and effort of my adventure more profound than the children’s.
11.15am. A quick coffee break and on to the third assembly. I make the mistake of mentioning the Loch Ness monster (trying to relate the remote town of Inverness to something they might recognise) and the subsequent questions are mostly about the elusive beast. No, I say for the fifth time, I didn’t see it. “Did you see much wildlife?” It’s a good question, one that I’ve not been asked before. Flashing through the countryside on a bike there’s not much chance for wildlife spotting – one of my only disappointments of the trip is not seeing any eagles, dolphins or puffins, and only a handful of seals and deer.
2.40pm. We’re on our way to our final school, and I’m exhausted. Talking to hundreds of school children in one day takes a lot of energy. But arriving at the bike pod at the school gates, I recognise one of the bikes: it belongs to Sara, one of the girls I did the Otesha tour with last year. I knew she’d since moved to Bristol, but had no idea she was working in a school – what a coincidence for it to be this one! So it’s with renewed energy that I address the assembly, once more spinning my tale about my coastal trip. I’m sometimes asked if I get tired of talking about the same thing over and over. But each audience is different, making each experience unique. Out of all the things I try to impress the children with, the most gasps come when I say “we cycled all the way to Scotland.”
3.15pm. My day’s work is done, and I have a couple of hours before I need to meet my friend in Bath. I decide to ride the Bristol-Bath railway path, the first ever route that Sustrans developed, part of National Cycle Network route 4 that runs from London to Fishguard on the west coast of Wales. I’ve been on sections of this railway path before, but never ridden the whole thing – it’s a 15 mile ride and on this sunny afternoon it’s perfect. I layer up though – even though the sun is out, February is still bitterly cold. The first five or so miles are uphill – it’s only a gentle incline, but enough to make me push hard at the pedals and breathe heavily as I puff my way to the top. Soon I’m swallowed up in the countryside, the sun creeping lower towards the horizon as I ride, the air crisp and fresh. I pass remnants of the railway – sleepers turned into benches and station platforms, some with the station buildings remaining, some even with statues of people waiting for trains that will never come, giving an impression of what it would have been like before the railway was closed. Then a stretch of track emerges followed by a functioning ticket office – it’s the Avon valley line, running heritage steam trains along a three-mile stretch of restored railway. The station platforms are quaint, but the railway is quiet today. I cross the River Avon then follow its path into Bath, leaving the trail as I reach the city. The cathedral sits squat in the centre, high hills rising on all sides, buildings built on top of buildings up their steep slopes. The light is fading.
5.45pm. It’s dark when I arrive at my friend’s house and give her a hug. She cooks, we chat, I sleep, exhausted by my early start, the talks and the ride. Another day’s work done.
On 23rd December, I joined a group of 30 cyclists riding from the Western-most point of England to the Eastern-most point of England – Land’s End to Lowestoft. The total mileage was more than 450 – an epic effort in just three days. It was the brainchild of Daniel Hughes – an adventurer aiming to raise £1 million for comic relief as he puts the first red nose on top of Mount Everest next year. His website is here if you’d like to support him.
I joined in for the final day – a mere 120 miles from the capital to the coast. With a tailwind, dry weather and lovely flat roads, it was a walk in the park compared to the 175 mile and 161 mile rides the team had done in the two days previous, with hills and rain to contend with. Hats off to them all – they showed amazing strength and stamina, especially as when I met them they were recovering from just 5 hours sleep, having arrived in London after midnight the night before!
The ride was nothing like I’d ever done before. In the handful of times I’ve ridden that distance it’s always been a meandering ride along country lanes, at my own pace, carrying all my luggage with me on my trusty steed: a solid steel Ridgeback tourer. This was fully supported, with the peleton riding between two cars to control the traffic. Bringing up the rear were two vans and a minibus full of kit. Everyone else had super-light carbon road bikes, with no luggage in sight. My D-lock alone weighed more.
We set off. Initially I worried – would I be able to keep up? The team would be pushing 20mph for the entire ride – could I cope for that long? We joined the A12 out of London, our convoy protecting us from the vehicles that shot past at 70mph. I had been apprehensive when I’d looked at the proposed route – couldn’t we have taken the parallel road to the A12, just to stay away from the traffic? A lot quieter and less smelly there. But after a while I saw the sense in it: we were cycling the final 120 mile leg of a 450 mile bike ride – scenery was not the most important thing. For these guys, they just wanted to get there. At least we had an entire lane to ourselves on the dual carriageway – had we been on the country roads we would have been constantly in the way of passing traffic, which would possibly have been more dangerous. We received plenty of toots of support as drivers leaned out of their windows to give us the thumbs-up, shaking their heads at this crazy group of cyclists hammering up the dual carriageway.
Through Romford, Chelmsford and Colchester, we stopped for snacks after each 30 mile mark. “Well done!” one of the group said to me. “I thought we’d lose you but you’re doing great.” By the time we reached Ipswich it was pitch black, the final 20 miles to Lowestoft being ridden in the dark. We pressed on to Lowestoft Ness, the area of the docks that marks the most easterly point on mainland Britain. The sea roared in the darkness and we collapsed in front of the compass marker for the photo call, 11 hours after we’d set off.
No, not my usual type of ride, but I loved it – pushing yourself physically is always rewarding, especially when you can look back and marvel at how far it’s possible to cycle in one day. And the other people on the ride were great – people from all walks of life joining together to spend their weekend pedalling for a good cause.
I sincerely wish Daniel the best of luck in his challenge, and hope he can reach his target of raising £1 million. Go here to donate!
As it gets colder, and wetter, and colder, and snowier, it’s easy to leave the bike at home in favour of the car or the bus. But winter cycling can be fantastic – as long as you’re prepared, you shouldn’t have a problem.
It might be cold at first, but pounding away at those pedals will soon get your heart pumping and the warmth spreading through your body. Make sure you’re wearing gloves (I wear two pairs – one with fingers, with some waterproof mitts over the top) and good thick socks. Buffs are terrific for wrapping around your ears, and topped with a woolly hat/ear muffs/helmet you will remain nice and snug.
As long as it’s not icy, cycling can be easier and more reliable – the roads will be more congested with traffic as everyone tries to avoid the cold, meaning you get extra satisfaction from sailing past the people stuck in their motors.
In the snows last year, I was one of only two people who made a scheduled work meeting, because I’d arrived by bike – almost all my colleagues either couldn’t get their car to start, or were stuck in massive queues of traffic, or couldn’t get off their driveway. I felt so smug arriving on my mountain bike – the simplest things are sometimes the best!
And for those days when none of us have to go to work because it has snowed a lot, playing around on a thick-tyred bike in the white stuff is just brilliant fun.
London Fields, 8pm. Hundreds of cyclists mill about, some in groups, some by themselves, some nonchalantly sipping pints, as if they weren’t about to cycle over 100 miles. Some excited, some apprehensive, all ready to ride. Road bikes, mountain bikes, recumbent bikes, a Boris bike. Single speeds, tandems, tourers, some heavily laden, some with no luggage save a camel pak and a towel strapped to the back. Lycra and hi-viz is everywhere.
A constant stream of cyclists heads towards the coast as riders start out on their journey. East, through Hackney and Clapton, across the park and up Lea Bridge Road, drivers honking as the river of bikes floods towards Essex.
The convoy thins out as it reaches Epping Forest, riders choosing their pace for the next 100 or so miles. The sun is starting to set, the moon rising in the twilight sky.
Epping, 9.30pm. Pubs spill out with drunken revellers, some cheering us on, some shouting abuse. The bright lights and sights of an Essex Saturday night. We ride on. Deeper into the woods, the daylight slowly fading as the roads get quieter and narrower, away from the buzz of the suburbs. The sun sinks over the horizon. Trees enclose the road. Bike lights come on and suddenly the road is alive with hundreds of flashing bulbs. Follow the red lights ahead.
Punctures fixed by the roadside, fields, villages flash by. Last orders at a country pub. Bemused bar staff serve the closing-time visitors. It’s dark. Snacks, coffee, a pint: riders refuel for the remaining 92 miles. Onwards, onwards, into the night.
Midnight. The darkness of the sky is absolute. Stars prick the black ceiling, some hidden by a blanket of cloud. Fields pass without remark, all features hidden from sight. Only the blink of red lights ahead and the pools on the road from white head lamps punctuate the darkness. At 1am there is a unique kind of beauty: the almost full moon reflecting the sun’s hidden rays, a tree picked out against its light, the profound peacefulness of a world asleep. Silent except for the whirring of hundreds of bicycle wheels. Red lights snake ahead, an endless line following the meandering road.
3am and the sky is gradually lightening, a pale blue colour poised on the eastern horizon as sunlight slowly edges into the pre-dawn sky. The world begins to regain its shape, silhouettes of trees appearing and shaded grey clouds floating on the horizon. Pedalling onwards and onwards, we chase the dawn. Colours emerge: pale blue, yellow, orange. Details of hedgerows and flowers appear and the dawn soundtrack begins as birds anticipate the pending sunrise. The road is now light, featureless riders once only identifiable by the character of their bike lights now becoming faces. The intensity of the flashing red fades as visibility increases. The night ride is over.
Another tea stop, and while sipping the hot revitalising liquid, excitement bubbles over as a yellow globe surfaces over the horizon in a bloom of gold. “The sun!” Colour floods the landscape, the brilliant blue sky edged with pink and orange, white clouds floating at its edge. The break of day gives renewed energy to the riders, spurred onwards by the sun’s rays. 100 miles down. Cockerels crow, birds sing. The world wakes up.
The final painful 16 miles. At last, a signpost that says Dunwich. 7 miles. Sand begins to line the roads. The glimpse of a nuclear power station above the trees. The coast is near.
The long road to Dunwich stretches into the distance, the energetic few who have made it to the beach already passing us on their return journey.
Past the sign welcoming us to Dunwich, then at the crest of a hill, a strip of blue stretching across the horizon. Down the final hill, round a corner, and there, on the beach, hundreds upon hundreds of bikes. Riders eating, drinking, sleeping, scattered prone across the pebbles. Shrieks from the sea as a brave few venture into its cold waters.
Everyone seems dazed, whether from sleep deprivation, exhaustion, hunger, or simply the accomplishment of 116 miles under the wheels. Did we really ride all night? The journey becomes a surreal memory as sleep takes over on the shingle of the beach.
The sun beats down. Another Dun Run done.
I’d been curious about the Capital Ring ever since reading an article in the Observer about two people who walked it over the course of a week. The Capital Ring is a 78 mile route around the periphery of London, linking green spaces with river-side paths, winding quietly through the suburbs from Richmond to Wembley to Woolwich to Crystal Palace. It was the idea of exploring unfamiliar parts of my city that excited me; away from the main drag, I would see London from a whole new angle. At the time I was living next to Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington, where a green Capital Ring signpost stood. I would often look at the signpost and imagine the places on it: turn left and reach the Woolwich foot tunnel in 12 miles and Crystal Palace Park in 29 miles, or turn right and reach Highgate Wood in 5 miles and Richmond Bridge in 30. Being a circle, all I would have to do was follow these signs until I reached home again. My curiosity was piqued.
It’s officially a walking route, one that people tend to complete in stages. But I don’t walk – I cycle. Would it be possible to follow the whole thing on two wheels? There was only one way to find out.
One morning Nick and I caught the train to Richmond: this would be leg one, cycling back home to Stoke Newington along the northern half of the ring. We set off along the wide Thames Path, the river flowing steady and calm to our left, the rich, green banks peppered with houseboat moorings and waterside pubs. So far, so good. But almost straight away we were off our bikes and climbing the 36 steps up and over Richmond Lock, struggling along the narrow cast iron bridge that crosses the lock and weir.
This was to be a very blue route, following the water, the Thames Path soon turning onto the River Brent at Brentford then meeting the Grand Union canal at Greenford. No longer with the powerful current of the Thames, these canals lay flat as a mirror, lined with narrowboats, every so often a lock halting the flow. We passed beneath a railway bridge as a Piccadilly Line train rattled above. The sun flecked through the canopy and birds called to each other. Welcome to hidden London.
We exited the canal and were faced with a steep climb up Horsenden Hill – not a road climb, but a grassy slope and steps. So it was off the bikes again, heaving them to the top, arriving there breathless to a view of Wembley Stadium. We looped north of Wembley along residential roads and paths through parks, through Harrow and South Kenton, then reached another climb up another grassy slope with another view of Wembley.
We soon reached Brent reservoir, the vast blue expanse dotted with the white sails of dinghies, then the River Brent was once more our guide, more narrow and winding than before, branching off to Mutton Brook, the path waterlogged and overgrown. We passed below where the North Circular turns on to the A1, drivers roaring above us while we tiptoed beneath the trees. After the suburbs of East Finchley we reached rural solitude once more at Cherry Tree Wood and Highgate Wood. On the gate at the entrance was a sign: No Cycling. The gate was narrow, beyond it the quiet paths of the wood covered with fallen leaves. We hoisted our bikes over it and began walking, then cautiously re-mounted; with no one around to complain we quietly continued.
We crossed into Queens Wood then joined Parkland Walk, an old railway branch line that once ran from Finsbury Park through Crouch End to Alexandra Palace. The entrance to a tunnel stood to our left, its blank, overgrown face silent and eerie, so we turned away from it and began the two mile descent to Finsbury Park, our wheels bouncing noisily over the rutted path. We rode between old station platforms, and soared high above or passed below the roads that criss-crossed the track on bridges reminiscent of the golden age of Victorian engineering.
From Finsbury Park the route begins once more to follow water, this time the New River, a man-made aqueduct built in the 1600s to supply London with fresh water from springs in Hertfordshire. The river flows into the East and West reservoirs, huge expanses of water across which we could see the church spires of Stoke Newington in the fading light of the day. The reservoirs are nestled amongst housing estates and residential streets, a busy road running between them, and a main route out of London to the west. I had lived in Stoke Newington for five years, less than a mile from these havens, yet had never been here. We cycled slowly along the narrow path, drinking it all in, then back through Clissold Park and along Stoke Newington Church Street towards home.
Weeks later we caught the train to Richmond again: leg two, cycling back to Stoke Newington along the southern loop of the ring. This had a much greener feel to it, beginning in the vast park at Richmond, the route following tree-lined avenues and crossing plush grass in the midst of the deer park. We took the parallel route (easier to cycle) along the undulating sweep of the Queen’s Road, accompanied by the squawk of parakeets that was once exclusive to Richmond but can now be heard all over London. Then came Wimbledon, Wandsworth and Tooting Bec Commons, huge swathes of seemingly endless green.
Up Streatham Hill, through Norwood Park, and into Biggin Wood, a remnant of the Great North Wood that once stretched for seven miles between Croydon and Dartford, then Crystal Palace park where we freewheeled to the lake to discover a family of dinosaur sculptures lurking around the water.
After Cator Park, Beckenham Place Park and Grove Park it began to rain, and a quick dash to drink tea and dry off in Eltham town centre was a stark reminder of how close to the bustle of London we were, yet blissfully unaware of any of it in our bubble of green.
We returned to the trail and entered Shepherdleas Wood, then Oxleas Wood, then Jackwood, then Castlewood, a strip of ancient woodland stretching alongside the A2. Then once more we were at the River Thames, the tide-ripped waves surging between the banks, far wider and wilder than that which we had last seen at Richmond.
The route crosses beneath the Thames in the Woolwich foot tunnel but, being nautical folk, we joined the queue for the ferry, the roll-on-roll-off vessel passing back and forth between the southern and northern banks of the Thames from morning til night. Upstream sat the Thames Barrier, beyond it the Millenium Dome and the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf. An aeroplane roared from the runway at City airport.
We traversed Beckton Park and came up to the Greenway, a traffic-free walking and cycling route built on top of the sewer that carries waste from Hackney Wick to Beckton – flat, peaceful and easily cycleable, but smelly! Then finally, up the River Lea from Bow to Stoke Newington, passing by the narrowboats and the herons, up through Springfield park towards home.
It was a terrific adventure, discovering parts of London I’d never before been to, knowing at each step that we were a stone’s throw from the familiar rush of the city, yet being fabulously removed from it all. Every so often we would emerge from the trees to see a landmark pinpointing our position, a reminder that this was London.
And how was it to cycle? There were those moments when we were asked to dismount, as in Highgate Wood or along alleyways that don’t permit cycling, and every so often we had to lift our bikes over gates or carry them up steps. Where the surface was not suitable for cycling we took a parallel road. But most of the paths were easily rideable, and we had the advantage of zooming along the residential streets that make up a large proportion of the walk. A truly special adventure without leaving home.
This is an edited extract from my new book Pedal Power, available to preorder here. Thomas Stevens, a free spirit and explorative soul, lived in San Francisco, where he would listen to the constant whispering of the Pacific Ocean and dream of adventure – and what better adventure than to…
Confession: I whacked a car window today. It was the conclusion of a conversation with a driver that had grown more and more heated as we both tried to make our voices heard, a conversation that had no end other than anger. She yelled expletives; I used my fist. Her…
International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. One of the chapters in my soon-to-be published book Pedal Power is entitled ‘Wonder Women’ and features stories of women throughout the ages who have repeatedly shown that cycling is not just a…
A recent programme on Radio 4 explored the concept of the Social network bubble – the fact that our Facebook timelines show us only a limited number of posts, using algorithms to determine the information it thinks we would most like to see. These same algorithms are responsible for bombarding you on…
My new book, Pedal Power, will be published on 13th April by Summersdale. It’s a collection of stories from all aspects cycling, from professional riders to stuntmen to long-haulers to those who use the bicycle as a form of rehab. It’s available to pre-order here, and below is a taster…
The curtains in my bedroom hang too long and the sunlight filters through them, nudging me from sleep each morning. Cutting them to size and stitching blackout material to the lining has risen to the top of the to-do list. Not for me the sewing machine, its power requirements too…
On 1st January 1938, a young lady named Billie Fleming set off from London to complete a challenge that no one had ever attempted before: to set the women’s record for the most miles cycled in a year. The challenge had been launched in 1911 by Cycling magazine and was…
New bicycle for Christmas? Here is a simple check that will help keep it road worthy. A – air B – brakes C – chain D – direction E – everything else Air. Pump tyres to the correct pressure – it is written on the side of…
It’s the idea of my friend Ed, to celebrate the end of British Summer Time by cycling along the Meridian Line from capital to coast. We meet at the top of Greenwich Park, the whole of London laid out below in a blur of early-morning mist, the avenues of trees…
My sister’s house has been home this week while my boat has some work done in the marina. To say thanks I’ve cooked dinner each night. For a sister and brother-in-law who are both meat-eaters, my vegan cooking has been something of a change for them. They’ve really loved it…
This is the fifth year of the RideLondon-Surrey 100, one of the legacies of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the first time I’ve ridden in such a huge sportive. Nearly 30,000 people registered for the event, and I queue up at the start surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of…
14th April 2016. David Cameron was Prime Minister. Boris Johnson was Mayor of London. Roy Hodgson was England manager. Bernie Sanders was giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the US Presidential Primaries. Chris Evans was the presenter of Top Gear. Peggy Mitchell was the queen of the…
As a vegan, I’m often asked, “What do you eat?” One of my staples is lentils – a food I had barely eaten before becoming vegan, but something I couldn’t now live without. Lentils are high in protein and carbohydrates, and a good source of iron, fibre, B vitamins and…
This is the mother of all triathlons: a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run. In June I travelled up to the Lake District to take part in the Lakesman iron-distance triathlon, an event I’d been training for solidly for 6 months. I’d never run…
For the second time in two weeks, I’ve fallen off my bike. This isn’t a great score for someone who teaches people to ride bikes for a living, but perhaps it’s for a reason; just call me Anna ‘I Have Accidents So You Don’t Have To’ Hughes. The first fall…
It’s the second annual Cycle Touring Festival and I’m here in the beautiful setting of Waddow Hall in Lancashire. The weather is gorgeous and it’s very green: trees and long grasses cover the steep slope that leads down to the water. Some local boys have been walking across the top…
According to TfL, 77% of accidents happen at junctions. It’s understandable why this can be a hotspot for collision: there are two or more directions of traffic, visibility can be reduced, and confusion is common. For cyclists, the statistics are more scary: junctions are where most fatalities occur, especially when…
Dear Boris, Your Cycle Superhighways are advertised as “safer, faster and more direct” routes into the capital, providing routes for cyclists along the roads they might otherwise drive down – quick, direct routes into the capital that follow trunk roads. The infrastructure for motor vehicles is direct and clearly signposted, whereas…
Chris Stark from Radio 1 doesn’t shower in the morning. Scott Mills thinks it’s disgusting. I don’t shower in the morning; I don’t shower in the evenings either. Often I go an ENTIRE DAY without washing. But don’t I smell? Well, you’d be surprised. So what happens to the body…
When I have taken on challenges before, I’ve shied away from my vegan diet, unsure of whether I would survive intense physical activity on a plant-based diet. This time there’s no question: I’m vegan. Even with such a gruelling training regime, I’m sticking to it. And it is gruelling: I’m…
Yesterday I completed a half ironman. This is something I never thought I’d do – just the name sounds ridiculous. Maybe that’s why they call it that – to put people off. Because actually, I found it easy. Well, as easy as swimming 1.2 miles, cycling 56 miles and running…
It’s 10.30pm when my alarm goes off, waking me from a brief nap. I set my snooze alarm twice before finally dragging myself out of bed and dressing in my cycling gear. It’s pitch black outside, with a few stars and an almost full moon visible between the clouds. I…
It’s possible to cycle round the world. I haven’t done it myself, but I know plenty of people who have (including Al Humphreys, whose map this is). The world might seem impossibly huge – but keep the pedals turning and the miles soon pass. It’s true of any distance –…
It’s a year since I became an author, the culmination of three years of hard work putting pen to paper (well, fingertips to keyboard) and scraping together the story of my 4000 mile bike ride around the coast of Britain. I wrote a couple of blogs about the writing process…
I’m teaching myself to run a marathon. I’ve never run a marathon before, and this is not just any marathon – it’s a marathon after having swum 2.4 miles and ridden my bike for 8 hours. I am taking part in the Lakesman iron-distance triathlon this summer, something I’d never…
A little while ago I was interviewed by Alastair Humphreys for his Adventure 1000 blog which aims to demonstrate how you can have a big adventure without spending loads of money and without being a super fit adventurer. Alastair has collated that interview along with loads of others in his new book…
When I was 18 I moved to Manchester to start a music degree at Manchester University. To get from my student house to campus I had to cycle up Wilmslow Road through Rusholme – the Curry Mile – a busy route shared with vans unloading at the kerb side, buses,…
For as long as I can remember I have ridden a bike. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision to be a ‘cyclist’ but it just so happened that cycling ticked all the boxes. It was the quickest way to get to school, the cheapest way to get to university,…
I’ve always been fascinated by watercourses, the web of rivers and streams that dissects the land, flowing endlessly towards the sea. I love the path that they cut, both natural and manmade; it’s fascinating to see how we built our societies around rivers as a source of life, of trade,…
It’s been two weeks since I returned home from LEJOG, but real life starts straight away and this is the first time I’ve had the time (or inclination) to sit down with my laptop. On the road, everything is simple. You wake, dress, eat, and ride. Nothing is more important…
Knowing what to take on a cycling tour can be the trickiest part – you don’t want to take too much, as it ends up being dead weight, but you don’t want to take too little because you’re bound to need that one thing you omitted to bring. Looking back…
So, this was it: the final push to John O’Groats and the end of the tour. This was to be the longest week in terms of mileage (340) but the shortest in terms of events (only two). Without the pressure of a schedule, it really was all about the cycling….
Yesterday I spent most of the day tracing waterways, from the River Clyde to the Forth and Clyde Canal, to the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. The West Loch Lomond cycle path led me loch side for 17 glorious traffic-free miles, with absolutely beautiful views across the loch. I pitched…
Anything can happen when you’re out on the open road, and here are a few tips of how to cope when things go wrong. Prevention is better than cure The main thing I’ve learned in all my touring is that things are less likely to go wrong if they are…
This week has seen me travel from the metropolis of Manchester to the Lancashire hills, through the grand scenery of the Lake District and onwards to the flood plains around the Solway Firth. I’ve crossed the border into Scotland and now I’m in the bustling city of Glasgow. The cycling…
I’ve been vegan on and off for around five years. I don’t see anything wrong with humans using animals as a source of food per se, but it’s the way we do it that I don’t agree with. The environmental impact of the meat and dairy industry is something to…
It’s raining in London. While the roads that I usually ride down are surging with overflowing drains, I am pedalling from Lancaster to Kendal under a piercing blue sky. I feel exceptionally lucky: out of the 16 days that I’ve been on the road, there’s been only one day that…
I’m now halfway through the LEJOG book tour: 13 days down, 13 to go, 490 miles down, around 500 to go. The halfway point on any tour is potentially difficult – I have as much to do as I’ve already done, and it seems an awfully long time ago that…
Many people helped and supported me during my round-Britain bike ride by offering a bed for the night, a meal at the end of the day, or by riding with me for a section. Regretfully, many of these didn’t make the final cut of the book; restricted by a word…
I was asked at a recent talk if I got lonely on the road and how I coped with it. I don’t often get lonely – I am very content being by myself – but sometimes you feel that you need some kind of comfort. I’ve written a few tips…
In 1963, the Government published a report entitled The Reshaping of British Railways, written by a certain Dr Beeching. It recommended the closure of around 5000 miles of railway line and over 2000 stations that had ceased to be profitable in the New Age of the Motor Car, and over…
The first week of the Eat Sleep Cycle book tour is drawing to a close. I’m sitting in a field just north of Wells, laptop on knee, eating the leftovers of yesterday’s curry, having pitched up in a campsite. The tour started last Sunday with a cancelled train and a…
Anyone who’s familiar with my round-Britain trip will know I’m not the camping type. Perhaps it was the forced nights-under-canvas on family holidays, perhaps it was the cold, wet, and fitful sleeps I suffered as a festival-going 20 something, or perhaps it was simply that a duvet and a shower…
Day Four of the LEJOG book tour Last night I gave a talk at The Curator Cafe, Totnes. It was the third talk on my Land’s End to John o’ Groats book tour, having started the tour at Bike Chain Bissoe near Truro, and spoken at Rockets and Rascals in…
It’s the day before the LEJOG begins: in twelve hours I’ll be setting off from Penzance and pedalling to Land’s End, before turning back on myself and heading north west for that far-off destination of John o’ Groats. I’ve never ridden LEJOG before, but this is a special kind of…
Yesterday I met with Claire Taylor, author of Detour blog, a project that tries to open up adventurer culture in London. We spoke about what it’s like to go on that first tour; what you need to know, and how you learn it. As an experienced tourer it’s easy to…
In September 2015 I shall be embarking on the famous End-to-End ride, from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. It’s a distance of 1000 miles, and I’ll take a month to ride it, because as well as enjoying the cycling and exploring new places, I will be promoting my book: Eat,…
I never much liked the idea of organised bike rides. They seemed to make too big a thing of cycling, like it’s not something someone normal would do. I always baulked slightly at the forced sponsorship. The sheer number of people would spoil the enjoyment – I am much happier…
One of the panel sessions at the recent Cycle Touring Festival was entitled ‘Cycling as a Woman’. I was asked to sit on the panel alongside touring aficionados Emily Chappell and Helen Pike. We covered many issues in the discussion that I thought would be useful to revisit here, especially…
Bank holiday weekend was spent in the Ribble Valley at the Cycle Touring Festival – a gathering of cycle tourers old and new organised by round-world cyclists Tim and Laura Moss. It was a melting-pot of ideas from over 200 cyclists, some veterans, some novices, the young, the old and…
It’s the kind of outlandish idea that is conceived at the end of the night when too much booze has been drunk. We decide I’ll swim down to Jonny’s boat, then we’ll both swim back to mine. We are moored about 15 boats apart. I wake and instantly remember the…
Part of my job as a cycling instructor is to deliver SUD (Safe Urban Driving) courses to lorry drivers. The SUD was introduced because, while HGVs make up the lowest percentage of vehicles on London’s roads, they are involved in the highest proportion of fatalities. The course involves taking a group…
Having cycled 4000 miles then written a book about it, many people ask me which was easier. Before I started the cycle trip, I thought I knew a lot about cycling. I was a daily cyclist and had been my whole life – how hard could it be to turn that…
The terms of my boat licence mean I’m not allowed to stay in any one place for longer than 14 days. The Canal and River Trust specify certain areas that you’re supposed to move between but as long as you move a reasonable distance they tend not to mind. If…
The book ‘Eat, Sleep, Cycle’ has been in the writing for two and a half years. I never thought I would write a book, but I had lots of positive feedback from the readers of my blog, so about six months after I returned from my adventure I decided to…
As a cycling instructor, I am frequently asked about helmet use. Many of the comments I hear from frustrated road users conclude with, “and they’re not even wear a helmet!” It seems that most drivers would prefer it if cyclists wore helmets – those who don’t are deemed irresponsible. It’s…
I recently went to the Netherlands on holiday, and was absolutely bowled over by the culture of cycling. I knew that the Dutch are world leaders in cycling, but you have to see it to believe it. Everyone cycles. Young, old, black, white, cool, geeky, students, office workers. Riding a…
I’m standing at the top of a hill in Richmond Park with four new friends, about to embark on a microadventure. The plan is to cycle from the confines of the city until we are surrounded by the Surrey countryside, to eat, drink and be merry, then sleep under the…
If you’re touring, you’ll be on that bike for hours, days, weeks and maybe months at a time. While there’s no such thing as a ‘right’ bike (people tour on town bikes, road bikes, recumbents, mountain bikes, even Bromptons!), it’s important to have a bike that’s right for you. The…
Free from coots, I decided to travel as far up the River Lea as I could. The Navigation ends in Hertford so that is where I aimed – 15 miles away, which is only an hour and a half by bicycle, but approximately 10 hours by boat. Start: Enfield Lock…
Toilets on boats are usually either a pump-out toilet, where the waste is kept in a holding tank until you can pump it out (either by taking it to a marina or waiting until the pump-out boat comes by), or a chemical toilet, where the waste is held in a small cassette…
Two coots have taken up residence in one of the tyre fenders on my boat. For some reason they have decided that this is a good venue to start a family. This means I’m legally not allowed to move the boat until they have finished nesting, which could be up…
Rules for living on a boat: use a cork ball float as a keyring always put keys in zip-up pocket don’t have animated conversations when stepping on board The evening that you’re entertaining guests is probably not the best time to ignore the above rules and loose the keys overboard….
I had the recent privilege of being interviewed by Roz Savage for her Adventure Podcast. Roz is a record-breaking ocean rower – the first woman to solo row the world’s three big oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. She has written two books about her ocean rows: “Rowing the Atlantic: Lessons…
Frosty mornings on the river are beautiful. I especially love it when the rowers are out.
I’ve moved onto a narrow boat on the River Lea. She’s called Slow Gin and she’s 60ft long with a 6ft beam. I moved in on 31 December and saw the New Year in on the water. “You’re brave,” people say to me. “This is the hardest time of year…
ON 1st August 2011 I cycled from London to Southend — the first step of a 4000-mile, 10-week journey round the coast of Britain. The route is fairly flat, tracing the River Thames from the confines of the city to the salt-tainted air of the coast. At the time I…
That was a question asked to me by my elder sister, who’s been told by her husband that he doesn’t want her riding a bike anymore. The statistic is terrifying — six deaths in thirteen days! — but, to put it in perspective, in total there have now been an…
N.B. Please don’t let this post put you off cycling in London. Cycling in London is (most of the time) brilliant — quick, easy, free, enjoyable — and I find most drivers to be courteous and considerate. Then there are the unfortunate few… This happened as I was on my…
I’m currently living on a sailing boat, journeying round the coast of Britain. The trip is run by South West Marine Training, and is called the Round Britain Experience (as is the boat) — aside from a previous two day excursion, which involved motoring round a harbour, I’ve never sailed…
A day on the boat begins at around 7am, when the combination of ropes and waves knocking against the hull forces me out of my cosy sleeping bag and into the cold heads. The boat is rocking even though we’re moored – a floating pontoon doesn’t offer much stability, and…
You might not have heard of Brixham — it’s a tiny fishing village on the south coast of Devon. There’s no railway station there, no way to get there other than by car or bus. It’s 270 miles away from where I live. I’m going there because that’s where my…
I have just spent ten days in Oban, on the beautiful western coast of beautiful Scotland. It’s been a bitterly cold March everywhere and Oban was no exception – zero degrees and a hefty wind chill to boot. But the sun shone most days and there was only the occasional…
A sunny day in mid September. I’m riding down a street I’ve never ridden down before, and I see a man I’ve never met before, and then I notice his finger outstretched towards me, and I hear him say, “You’re famous!” This is one of my favourite moments of my…
5.20am. My alarm goes off, rousing me from my light slumber; I never sleep deeply if I know I have to get up early. I quietly rise and dress, then creep downstairs to make breakfast – flask of tea, marmalade sandwich and an oat muffin to eat on the train….
On 23rd December, I joined a group of 30 cyclists riding from the Western-most point of England to the Eastern-most point of England – Land’s End to Lowestoft. The total mileage was more than 450 – an epic effort in just three days. It was the brainchild of Daniel Hughes…
As it gets colder, and wetter, and colder, and snowier, it’s easy to leave the bike at home in favour of the car or the bus. But winter cycling can be fantastic – as long as you’re prepared, you shouldn’t have a problem. It might be cold at first, but…
London Fields, 8pm. Hundreds of cyclists mill about, some in groups, some by themselves, some nonchalantly sipping pints, as if they weren’t about to cycle over 100 miles. Some excited, some apprehensive, all ready to ride. Road bikes, mountain bikes, recumbent bikes, a Boris bike. Single speeds, tandems, tourers, some…
I’d been curious about the Capital Ring ever since reading an article in the Observer about two people who walked it over the course of a week. The Capital Ring is a 78 mile route around the periphery of London, linking green spaces with river-side paths, winding quietly through the suburbs…