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Space for Cycling: The Conference.

Dear readers of my blog: Here’s a post for Newcastle Cycling Campaign‘s monthly newsletter.

In May, a healthy North East contingent made the train bound for Leeds and the Space for Cycling campaigners conference. Space for Cycling is a campaign theme which was started in London by the London Cycling Campaign, but has resonated nationally and was launched by CTC and campaign groups at the conference. It’s a great way of communicating the sometimes fuzzy and disparate needs of people on bikes into themes that decision-makers can recognise, and act upon. The 6 themes of Space for Cycling are handily explained by John Snow in this short video.

They are:

 

  1. Protected space on main roads
  2. Removing through motor traffic in residential areas
  3. Lower speed limits
  4. Cycle-friendly town centres
  5. Safe routes to school
  6. Routes through green spaces

 

Conference workshops were relevant and interactive, including building a campaign from grassroots, working with officers (make friends with your cycling officer!?!) and using social media. It seemed Newcastle Cycling Campaign was held as a bit of a beacon in all these areas- people kept asking me how we did things- indeed out own Katja delivered a workshop on anti-cycling myth-busting and rebuttals. For our inspiration I’d keep an eye on Leeds Cycle Campaign as one to watch. As hosts they were incredibly wecoming- as campaigners they are seeing spades in the ground for cycling.

It was refreshing to see CTC- an organisation with which I have a long association- move into the forefront of campaigning for high quaility segregated infrasructure, from a position of being ambivalent at best on seperate provision.  What we saw from Mark Treasure of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain were examples of where it’s been done well, and not only from continental Europe, but from right here in the UK. Other workshops are summarised by Chris Peck, CTC here.

One message which resonated was that if we design for cycling, we get people-friendly spaces for everyone to enjoy. We get livable city-centres populated by people, not cars. We get play-streets with no through traffic. We get space on strategic routes and pleasant places to ride, not either/or. That’s the vision of Space for Cycling which takes it beyond a campaign for cyclists, into cycling as a ‘vehicle’ for improvements to everyone’s public space.

Getting my kicks in Leeds

Getting my kicks in Leeds

A final theme was to set a high standard with ambitious goals. Pragmatism, easy wins and working with the willing has only got us so far. We’ve seen incremental improvements for existing riders, but not the step-change that sees new people in their numbers turning to a bike as ordinary transport. What infrasructure we do have tends to be easier to install, along simpler roads where there’s already space. So we have cycle “routes” that aren’t routes at all, and end at the very junctions where we need them most.

As Rachel Aldred from LCC said- we can hold the Space for Cycling themes not as something to aspire to, but as standards not to fall below. With that level of ambition we are sure see space for cycling on our streets.


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A Christmas Microadventure.

Christmas was going to be different this year. The first Christmas morning in many that my partner Christine and I would be without our children. When we decided, almost two years ago, to build our life together we’d knew there’d be days like this. With five girls from our previous relationships at the centre of our decisions, parenting is complex and difficult; full of negotiation and compromise. And one compromise, this year, was that the kids would be with their other parents on The Big Day. The thought of waking up to an empty house, quietly opening gifts seemed far more scary than the alternative- a microadventure.

For the uninitiated, a microadventure is simply an adventure which slots into the rhythm of daily life. Local, accessible fun for anyone with the imagination to try. I like to make a habit of it. It’s as simple as sleeping on a hill and returning for breakfast. Or Christmas lunch. The idea is curated beautifully on the web by Alastair Humphries. Like many of us, he sometimes does bigger adventures.

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So we rose on Christmas morning with the excitement normally reserved for the much, much younger. Alarms were set but not needed. Sleep past 5am was made impossible by adrenaline. We ate an adventurer’s breakfast so familiar to me during my cycle trip last year; sweetest porridge and hottest tea. A quick check had pre-empted the perfect plan. On Christmas morning high tide and sunrise coincided perfectly. A dawn dip it would be.IMG_0687

We made haste in darkness to Marsden Bay, whose cliffs and rocks were to protect our modesty. This was not a far-flung beach- Christine had finished this year’s Great North Run not a mile from where we bathed. Thousands slept unknowingly in the streets above. But we were alone in the still, cold twilight, nervously setting out the tiny tent, dressing gowns and towels with which to chase away the chill. Then in an instant, naked, giggling and running into the foam. I was surprised how comfortable the water was on my skin. It was simply too much fun to feel cold. But hypothermia is no fun, so as quickly as we ran in and splashed about, we bounded out and into our little beachside resort.

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With the dawn came the dog walkers and some peculiar (envious?) looks. A couple in dressing gowns wandering the beach with smiles as wide as the mouth of the Tyne!? And what a dawn it was. I’d expected on the east coast to see the sun rise over the sea, but sadly, this far north in December the sun rises in the south and sets in the south. So as the warm sun chased the haze we were treated to the sandstone shadows of the cliffs retreating into melted caramel sunshine and the best winter illuminations I’d seen. And I’ve been to Blackpool.

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IMG_0736The inescapable flask of tea consumed we headed back up the steps and away to see our children. Our adventure was over in a few short hours. It will live in our memory, an our family’s little fokelore, forever.

It was this Christmas I discovered that the phrase “Jumping for Joy” has meaning beyond metaphor. I wonder how many of us, as adults, have jumped for joy. Building a new family life has been tough at times. But so, so worth it. Moments like these are priceless. So, I beg you, this New Year. You don’t need to be naked, or freezing, or in a far-off land. Do it. Jump for joy.

(Borderline NSFW warning. It’s just bums.)

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The Young Ones?

One of the most memorable encounters of my journey was with Jorge and Alfonso, who responded with generosity to a Couchsurfing request that I made before I set out. When they heard about my stolen gear and passport in Ponferrada, they were the first people on the phone to me. They offered all they had to help me. These two people have shown me more beauty than the great cathedral of their city, the snow-dusted Picos de Europa or all the art in the Guggenheim at Bilbao. This post is dedicated to them.

The Lads in Leon

The Lads in Leon

Jorge met me in the big cathedral square in Leon. I’ve spent a little time since I encountered him waiting in public squares or bars for hosts I don’t know. In Bilbao I sat for maybe half an hour, wondering if the long winter shadow which preceded the next arrival would be that of a generous soul who had offered me shelter that night. Guessing that it wasn’t from the gait, pace and deportage of a shadow was perfect entertainment for a people-watcher. A insistent but unhurried arrival, with openness in the shoulders is a good clue. In Bilbao I had a better one- Pintxa arrived on an unloaded touring bike, commanding the streets with aplomb.

Jorge and I arrived at a fairly central flat, and secreted the bike in the basement. Living arrangements seemed fluid. My arrival rang more changes, as I was to take Jorge’s usual room, and he would take the couch. So perhaps he’s the couchsurfer, then, I joked. Though I couldn’t have been happier to be there, Jorge was full of apologies. The place is small, your room is cold, it’s not so clean, there is no hot water… In fact the modest nature of the place made me more grateful, not less. I loved it, but ‘lived in’ is a euphemism too far. Knowing it was guys sharing a flat, I chose my welcome gift well. As the beers were passed round out of my pannier, everyone seemed to relax.

With flat mate Alfonso acting as translator when needed, Jorge explained his life to me as we sat in the smoky front room on comfy, well-worn sofas. He found what work there was in Spain as an occasional swimming teacher. But his passion was clearly poetry. His gestures were magnified, his narrow facial features animated whenever the subject arose. We talked of my songwriting, and of looking for meaning in the seemingly mundane. I mentioned my poet friend Seamus Kelly’s blog Thinking Too Much, an affliction shared by Jorge and I.

(Though this ride promised so much time for reflection, I found that the bike is a better tool for quieting the mind than opening it. Practical tasks of finding food and shelter, and so many new stimuli from the environment have led me to satisfied slumber at the end of each day, not creative energy. So I’ve not written much since I’ve been out here, though I thought I would.)

Jorge’s Magnum Opus is a work of love for his girlfriend, which comprises a verse of poetry for every kilometre which separates their respective homes in Leon and San Sebastián. I’d ridden each of those kilometres. I felt their distance, and mine, from home. Each short verse paints a deep image, some of hope, of loss, or of love. Love beyond distance, time, or even death. Jorge’s work had inspired an artist friend to create some of the images the poems inspired, and in the true spirit of art for all, fly-posted some around the city. Please, visit the collection here, to see them all.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

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We beat as one.

Alfonso seemed the more brash and streetwise of my two companions that night. He’d lived in Ireland, spoke with easy humour and had an excellent command of English. He walked his big old dog around the streets of Leon as if he owned them. He and Jorge made a good double act. I can’t help thinking that the world Jorge inhabits is a little harsh, given his gentle nature. With Alfonso around though, I think he’ll be ok.

It turned out there were more than two guys sharing the flat, but one was away at his stall in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, at the seemingly famous Christmas market I’d passed through a couple of days previously, selling his artisanal soaps. It’s likely I walked past his stall. I’d been enchanted by the costumes, music and juggling. I was even invited to join the piper with my penny whistle at a gig that night, when he’d exchanged his local pipes in the key of C with Ulilean ones in D to match my whistle. Sadly I had more distance to cover, so I declined.

When I thought back, the itinerant, bohemian occupants, the lack of hot water and the ‘lived in’ feel (I felt I must rise earlier than the residents just to clean the kitchen…) all gave the place the feeling of a squat, and it did feel like I’d stepped into a Spanish version of The Young Ones. But lazy caricature says nothing of the warmth and generosity of these people. In this little place, amongst the spilt tobacco, and in the local bar, I never felt more welcomed, or at home.


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There is a time.

“There is a time for all things, and a season for everything under the sun” Ecclesiastes 3:1

There is a face and a place which will always be imprinted on my memory. The place is the vast, flat plain between Burgos and Leon. For the second time I had the feeling of a pathway laid only for me. The N120 was a companion for much of my trip, its kilometre markers counting ever upward from 1 to 320 as I slowly passed by and finally turned off its course at Astorga. This original road had been superseded by a motorway, but instead of widening the existing carriageway, they simply built a whole new road a couple of fields away, leaving me with acres of Tarmac beneath only my wheels.

It could be argued that my paved Camino was a more authentic one. Walkers tramped an unsealed path often adjacent to the road, but it is likely that the original camino (it simply means Way) was built and improved until it became the surface along which I often rolled. At times of heavy traffic, to reach a village or just for a change of scene I would join their Camino. Andromeda, my trusty bike, seemed equally at home on both surfaces.

Yes, this was an empty place, but not one of solitude, as for a glorious 24 hours I had the company of Eyke. (Pronounced Ike. Yes, his sister is called Tina) A jockey, who worked in his home of Bremen, around Germany, and for a time in Newmarket; he possessed the drawn, hollow face of a man for whom food is an occupational hazard and tobacco is a meal replacement. Its lines told tales of pre-dawn waking and a life spent outside in harsh weather. I shared with him the song of the Jolly Plougboys which Kate Rusby had sung at a gig I was at a few weeks before. As a young, pony-obsessed girl the 4am starts it details put her off horses for life. Other creases betrayed a man who smiles easily and frequently. His journey had taken him the length of Germany, across the Alps and from France into Spain by foot and by bicycle. His wander without end required bags and a Croozer trailer, two tents, and quite the largest sleeping-bag I’ve seen. A couple of miles on his bike taught me the lesson of the old woman in Julia Donaldson’s A Squash and a Squeeze, that Andromeda was indeed light, fast and nimble, and not at all heavy or slow.

Eyke and his bike in typical pose.

Eyke and his bike in typical pose.

Perhaps because of his racing life he used expletives more frequently and effectively than anyone I know. He railed most at the lack of woodland. “What kind of a country cuts down all the f***ing trees!” We were both puzzled at the “Private Hunting” signs. “COTO PRIVADO DI CAZA” they exclaimed, in a landscape that seemed to support only bare, brown soil and weak, pale grass. Perhaps the red kites and kestrels which soared and hovered above us all day knew differently.

Our sometimes buoyant but often deep conversation, his aptitude for ignoring hunger and the empty villages, closed for business meant that it was 5 o’ clock before we stopped for lunch, and it was then we decided to camp together for the night. We slept soundly and comfortably as tent twins in a narrow strip of ground between a wall and a drainage ditch. The moonless night provided stories that sparkled like the stars. As morning dawned and the sun made stars of every frosty surface we both knew that the time for this relationship

Tent twins

Tent twins

was at a close, and the season for new ones was beginning. Perhaps that very day Eyke was making the decision to finally turn his wheels toward home. A hugged goodbye, a snapped picture and an exchange of addresses proved only the penultimate act of this brief friendship, as our shared ritual of the morning espresso stop saw us meet at the next village! But onward I pressed, to the next encounter…

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Lorenzo of the Mountains.

Descending mountains on a bicycle is as intensely cold an experience as I ever wish to have. To go instantly from maximum exertion and no wind-chill to freewheeling in 40mph winds does not make one toasty warm. No glove yet invented or shoe cover yet produced is enough. No amount of facial hair is protective. (I have plenty now) One time, my glasses iced over. Anyone who does this with only a newspaper shoved up their lycra top has my total respect.

Spartacus being nails

It was in this sorry state that I arrived at Lorenzo’s door, in a tiny village in the shadow of the fearsome Porte Belate. I was welcomed by his wife, who used my pitiful Spanish and her expressive gestures to usher me into the shower and fetch me a beer and pistachios. Now there was a Warmshowers welcome! Logs flickered and embers glowed in both the fire and the stove. The place felt like home instantly. My bicycle found a home in the only vacant corner of a stuffed woodshed. Wet things were hung over the local iteration of the AGA, my shoes stuffed with newspaper and placed beside it. The scene was perfect in winter, but sadly my language skills were not sufficient to ask, “This is all very well for December, but how do you cook and avoid boiling alive in your own home in July?!”

On Lorenzo’s return he set to work preparing the salad to accompany the meal. Not a salad fan at the best of times, let alone after the day’s riding I’d had I watched with suspicion. To my visible relief calorie-rich anchovies and olives went in alongside the leaves. Then began the almost ceremonial dressing. Dark olive oil poured on and on into the bowl, with balsamic vinegar, then a taste. Somehow more oil was needed, along with some cider vinegar for sharpness, and some salt. The resulting salad was the best I’ve ever tasted, and would have made a whole meal even for a starving cyclist. Praise indeed.

Lorenzo’s son was something of a guitarist, and musical instruments littered the house. After my failure to find a way to bring the Martin Backpacker along, and my unsuccessful attempt to learn the ukulele while living out of a one-person tent, I could not resist, and we shared music which crossed cultures and languages all night. At a late hour, Lorenzo and I chatted about my future, and I commented that my delicate musician’s fingers mark me out as using my brain, not my hands, to make a living. He gestured to the guitar and said, ” Maybe you can use your hands to make work. I think it’s better…”

Encouraged and affirmed by an encounter only hours old, I slept soundly. I’d hoped that this trip would allow me to find confidence to face the future, and though I’m not naive enough to think I’ll walk back into England a professional musician, maybe music can be part of what I do next.

At breakfast the next day Lorenzo gave me more local knowledge about a bike path into Pamplona. It turned out to be ace, for most of the way…

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He also bestowed me with a couple of gifts. Turron is a marzipan/fudge hybrid which is a popular Spanish Christmas gift. Though not so popular in Lorenzo’s house cos this stuff was from four Christmases ago and three years out of date. I tried it, but the sugar had leached out and it tasted rank. And I got some dried fruit, which I poured into my porridge the next day. But the raisins had pips in! Deseeding raisins an unexpected addition to my morning ritual then…

Lorenzo of the mountains. Great guy. Amazing salad. Crap presents. Cheers.


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Hot water, helping hands.

As usual when heading towards a host, the road seemed long and strewn with minor obstacles. I’d ridden under the Milky Way the night before to leave myself a little less to do, but this was still a journey that would take me from the deserted forest of Les Landes, through the urban conglomeration of Bayonne and Biarritz, and into a village nestled beneath the towering, snow-clad peaks of the Pyrenees. It was raining, and frequent stops to check my direction slowed me. At times all roads seemed to lead to the motorway, or something that looked scarily like one, as all living, working and transport must be squeezed in here between the mountains and the sea. Eventually my climb above Saint Jean de Luz was rewarded by my final descent into Urrugne, and my first warmshowers experience with Ingrid and Jon.

Ingrid and previous guest http://www.mundubicyclette.be/

Ingrid and previous guest http://www.mundubicyclette.be/

The first thing that struck me was that indeed, this was a warm shower. After a week in the woods, endless buckets of hot water poured over one’s head is quite some experience. Instantly as belongings that were dirty became clean, what was wet became dry and what was cold became warm I knew that these were people who understood the needs of a soggy cyclist. Jon and Ingrid have travelled Vietnam by bicycle, and plan to do more in Iceland. But it’s Ingrid’s love of not only travel but travellers which has led to them becoming a popular stopping point for so many voyageurs-a-velo. One even arrived by unicycle. This multilingual home in which five languages are regularly spoken and daily commutes cross borders, was a fascinating place in which to spend time, and once more I took an extra day to stop, to write, and just to be still in comfortable surroundings.

Ingrid, originally from Belgium, showed me around her adopted city of San Sebastián/Donostia, and instilled in me her love of a beautiful place with a unique Basque culture. I ate with the family and felt totally accepted and included. Ingrid’s is a gentle curiosity and a generous, listening ear. She shared with me the many stories and blogs of the other travellers who’d shared her home. I felt inspired by their big journeys and world tours, if a touch intimidated that my trip, ambitious though it is, was a bit little in comparison. Her photography of people and their places at times arrested my train of thought and I found myself returning a gaze from a far-off land.

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Ingrid’s images from afar

On Ingrid and Jon’s advice I took the hilly road south to Pamplona, to benefit from another night’s hospitality with a different host, and to join the Camino de Santiago there, where hostels would be plentiful and the way would be well signposted. I was to take a disused railway line up the valley which without Jon’s local knowledge would have been impossible to find. And with the thought of a second warm shower in as many days to motivate me, I set out once more.

As it happened I wasn’t the only touring cyclist who would be accepting hospitality at that time. A gentleman I know only as @specialized_guy needed a place to take stock and book passage home after a WWOOF that didn’t work out. As we were both leaving Jon passed us both a business card, saying that we ever needed any help while in Spain we should pop into an office of his company, MAPFRE, or contact him directly. I accepted it, never thinking I would need to. However, Ingrid and Jon’s generosity, thoughtfulness and multilingual negotiation skills would soon come to my aid in an hour of need. (more hot water…) Our paths would cross again much sooner than I’d anticipated, but no sooner than I’d hoped.


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Cold mountains, warm welcomes.

I write, as usual, from an Albergue, the improbably cheap pilgrims’ hostels that line the Camino De Santiago. My ride down from the mountains alongside swollen rivers into Pamplona, then onto the Camino itself has seen the countryside change. Near-vertical sided valleys clad with snow topped pines have given way to my first olive groves and vineyards (yes I did cycle past Bordeaux without seeing one..) planted on gentle, south facing slopes to make the most of the terroir.

Swollen river, steep sided valley

Swollen river, steep sided valley

Gentle slope

Gentle slope

My literal high point so far has been the conquest of the formidable Porte Belate at 854m, dwarfing on the same day my first ascent of note, the Col d’Ibardin which marked my passing from France into Spain. It is comfortably my biggest climb on any bike, let alone one with 20 kilos of detritus strapped to it. My sense of achievement was somewhat soured by the presence of the Belate Tunnel, closed to bicycles of course, which took the rest of the traffic off the high pass. How come if I had an engine I’d shortcut straight through the mountain, but because I’m leg-powered I must switchback up it? Doesn’t seem the right way round to me.

Je suis un grimpeur!

Je suis un grimpeur!

A dog (wolf?!) barked loudly at me about three quarters of the way up. And though my expectations of French dogs was that they might well be fenced in, I had no such expectations of Basque/Spanish Pyrenean ones. Which got me thinking, if one did give chase, what would I do? There’s no way I’d outwalk a dog going uphill, let alone outrun one, which leaves really only a couple of options…
1. Turn round and head downhill to escape. Not happening.
2. Kick it to death with my neoprene booties. No, it would probably think I was trying to tickle it.
Which, in my mind, only left option 3.
3. Be gnawed slowly but mercilessly, until I meet my sorry, bloody end here on the mountain.

The dog was probably miles away, its bark echoing eerily between the peaks. I made it up safely.

The triumph of reaching the summit, seeing the road I’d travelled minutes ago seemingly miles below me, was very real. As real as the mountaineer’s sense that I must get down again soon, lest I risk leaving a finger or two behind to frostbite in the gloomy dusk. It was dark and cold by the time I reached the warm welcome of a log fire and the warmer embrace of my first night in Spain.

My high point of Belate was to be surpassed later in the trip. But it had been overcome already by the hospitality and kindness of friends that were strangers mere days ago. It is these highlights that will remain most alive in my memory, and it is to these people I will dedicate my next few posts.

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