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from Littlehuan


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Finding my way.

Despite not wanting to be the sort of tourist that stares inanely at my iPad while pretty churches and grand vistas go unexamined, I’ve found myself staring at the map a few times too many already on this trip. I’m a bit too closely wedded to my carefully plotted path, which joins blue dots on an electronic map. The intense emotional upheaval which accompanies, at least for me, a “route barre”* or a missed turning (too many to count, I’m rubbish at wayfinding…) is perhaps a signal for me to slow down and enjoy the ride.

My route choice has been so far so good, an excellent balance between direct and quiet. It reminds me that this whole trip is a balance between a pure journey, and one with a destination.

The trick to finding seems to be to stick to D roads, but this can be misleading, since some are dual carriageways. I’ve found that the lower the number the better the road for cycling. I’ve spent many happy kilometres on the D1 in the Loire, and the D7 in the Vendee. Higher numbers seem to be the newer roads which have superseded the old ones, leaving them for me to enjoy. Please avoid the D105 into La Rochelle if you can though, the only place in France I’ve felt at risk of being removed from this life by a two-trucked HGV.

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One thing which has struck me is the number of roadside crosses and crucifixes you see, which are sometimes large and ornate. I even passed between an Our Lady Crowned Queen of Heaven gazing helplessly at her crucified Son from across the road. But the one I stopped to photograph was this, a really simple one from just outside Les Brouzils. I expect it flowers in the summer, too. As I was crossing to get the picture, a near-peleton of road cyclists went past, relaxed and chatting, perhaps three abreast, one of many I’ve seen. I wonder if such a group would be tolerated on UK roads? It confirmed for me I’d made a good choice of route and I carried on.

The lure of a warm bed tonight has been overwhelming. I thought I would miss my Couchsurfing host in La Rochelle for one more night, but just by pedalling along I found myself with daylight remaining and a couple of hours to go to my host. One more embarrassing text, to confirm the bed-space I’d postponed hours earlier, and here I am with the gracious Ilaria, and her charming children. I hope to take some time to see the city tomorrow, then it’s back to my little tent, parked unobtrusively at the roadside between dusk and dawn.

*The socialist French seem to be spending their way out of this recession with big capital works. I’ve seen a railway line being electrified, and every village seems to be getting their roads done. I hope it works for them.

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The first of many.

I’ve learned lots today. For example:

If you’re pedalling into a headwind, and suddenly there’s a tailwind, it’s unlikely that the wind has changed. It probably means you’ve taken a wrong turn and are heading back the way you came.

Navigation has not been my strong suit today, and as a result I’m not too far from St Malo. My brain has been so busy taking it all in that retaining directions for even a pedal revolution has proved impossible. But today, my first day has been a day of firsts.

First French conversation with a delightful woman outside the boulangerie. She wanted to talk about the Queen, and about her son, who travelled the world in a VW camper van. She also said “Chapeau” to me, the racing cyclist parlance for “Good effort” or literally, “Hat” for “I tip my hat to you.”

First (and second) of many espressos in the PMU. It’s effectively a betting shop with a cafe. They’re ubiquitous, and put the opening hours of every other French establishment to shame. Tomorrow’s Sunday, so I’m looking forward to Rennes being shut when I get there.

I spotted some ruins in Hede, but despite the urge to sleep in an ancient monument, I left it, on the account of it also hosting a basketball court. If young people hang out there of an evening I don’t want to interfere. As it happens I’m in the corner of a wood, next to a quiet road. A gale is blowing up, but I’m cozily hoping it passes before dawn. The newness is tiring, but the excitement I feel in small things, like a buzzard sitting unflinchingly on a post as I pass, is a privilege I hope to retain.

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Ferried away.

What a day. I woke this morning to a favourite sound: the happy murmurings of my children. Knowing I wouldn’t hear their contended voices for a whole month was a tough realisation. They will miss their daddy, and however wet, cold or aching I become, this trip will be hardest on them. And I’ll not forget the debt of gratitude I owe those three wonderful little people.

It was all a bit of a rush, really, but somehow they got to school kissed and hugged, and I gingerly made my way to the station atop 35 kilos of quivering steel and stuffed panniers. Christine and I shared a tearful platform goodbye, hearts touching through train windows, but it was all a bit much and she needed to be hugged by a passer by, the first of many acts of kindness that will surely characterise this trip.

I’m pretty sure I spotted the Red Arrows practicing in the distance as we sped through Lincolnshire. Time passed swiftly as the good luck messages arrived, and soon I was perched once more on Andromeda, my Super Galaxy, amongst the taxis outside King’s Cross for the transfer to Waterloo. And bless, her, she’s not the most nimble of beasts. In tight London traffic we wobbled and weaved, but my acceleration at the lights must’ve matched the ferry on which I sit as I write this.

I’ve bumped into two touring cyclist couples on the ferry, but neither is venturing south of Brittany, and one has only empty panniers to fill with wine for their return tomorrow! The seas are gentle and all is well.

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Hope for humanity, and a warm shower.

I’m just having a browse at Warmshowers.org and I posted this. Somehow it captures a bit of what the ride’s about.

Well it’s getting ever nearer. On Friday I take a train south from my home in Newcastle, UK, to Portsmouth, then an overnight ferry to St Malo in Brittany where my adventure will begin. Sleeping in a tiny tent by the roadside, I hope to eek out an existence cheaply and sustainably as I go, perhaps busking in villages with a travel guitar. I’ve been on quite an emotional journey to get to the start, as my fledgling blog will show, and my updates from the road will document the journey of a lifetime. 2500km in 26 days will keep me honest, and busy- I’ll need most of the daylight and all of my stamina to make it. I’ll need strength I don’t yet have, and determination I don’t yet know. I’ll discover as much about myself as the places that I’ll visit, and I’ll return to make an uncertain future my next adventure.

Warmshowers is one of those perfectly simple yet fantastically useful little sites for the travelling cyclist (another is crazyguyonabike.com). It’s a robustly non-commercial way for the adventuring rider to get in touch with like-minded locals on her/his route, and benefit from reciprocal hospitality along the way. That such a community even exists is a great encouragement for me. Humanity, as a whole, is warm and generous and safe to be around. While explosives are flung and devastation wrought between communities, I’m reassured of the goodness of people. If I’m able to find a host along my route; if I can leave their company warmer, drier and cleaner, but more importantly wiser, gentler and more grateful than I arrived, the value of my trip will have been so much more.

Tallulah. Isn’t she beautiful?

Andromeda (see what I did there..?)

P.S. I took the bike out fully loaded the other day and it rides like a dream. The handling, settled by my lovely new front panniers is true and predictable, and it seems to just roll and roll with minimal input from me. It almost seems to ride itself and take me along with it, a bit like my fixie, Tallulah. They both need a little persuading up hills though!


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Not so easy…

With only a few days to go, I’ve been feeling really nervous about the trip today. You know, lots of self-doubt, procrastination, a bit of insecurity, taking it out on those around me, that sort of thing. Horrid little questions I wish would go away.

“It’s too far, you’ll never finish, the miles will get on top of you, you’ll be a cold, wet, lonely failure.”

Here’s me looking anything but cold in a snowfield at minus 10. Yes, my kit is frozen solid.

Well I might have bitten off more than I can chew, with 2500km in 26 days; what, with the kit I’m taking,  my propensity to get lost going to the corner shop, and my desire to curl up into a ball when things get difficult. But there’s a chance I’ll make good progress on the flat of France and ride myself into form for the hills of Spain. That I’ll encounter fair weather and following winds. And that I’ll roll into Santander with a day to spare, wondering what all the fuss was about. But if I fail, on who’s terms will I fail? On the brilliant CTC Trail Leader course I did recently, with the inimitable Craig Walmsley, we spent a bit of time mapping out shortcuts; alternative routes and escapes back to base if things go differently to the plan. And I’ve planned such routes for this trip. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I took so many interesting detours, accepted so many offers of hospitality and thought, wrote or photographed so much that I had to ride straight to the ferry terminal or miss Christmas? Would my trip be of any less value if its destination was other than the westernmost tip of Spain?

“You’re irresponsible. It’s such a big risk for the future.”

Ok, Ok, I return home as an unemployment statistic. Jobs will be advertised and posts filled while I am away. But this trip is space for really good decisions about my future and deciding how I want to spend my days. Might my redundancy provide so many opportunities at a time when I’m able to take them? Can I convince people the skills I love to share are worth paying for, and make my passion my career?  Is someone who’s proved themselves self-reliant, determined and creative more or less employable? Why not read the intrepid and highly readable Travelling Two’s answer.

“You’re a bad dad for doing this.”

Yes, I’ve heard it in my own mind and even from others. I’m worried about my girls. Just now I want to shower them in love and never let them go. But there is absolutely no good time to do this from their perspective. They want their dad like they want ice cream before dinner- but if it’s good it’s good enough to wait for. I can’t wait to write them special messages. The eldest has asked me to write a letter. That’s great. In an age of email my child values the physical, written word. But I hope to befriend the technology to share stories face to face, or at least webcam to webcam. I’m determined that the dad they get for Christmas will be an improved, relaxed, calmer, more fulfilled version of the one they love now. And I’ll be the best beard in the playground at school. Except the terrifying headmistress, Miss Whiskers.*

If this was easy for me, it’s likely I wouldn’t be attempting it. I’ve planned something which takes me as far as can in the time I have. Long nights and short days add to the difficulty, as does the need to make and break camp each day. The weather will whisper threats of snow and ice, and silently deliver her promise. My journey will require my best and test my resolve to its limits. For how else will I find out what my best is, or where my limits are? I’ll be cold, wet, hungry and scared at times, but equally I’ll be warm, safe, energised and excited. Emotions will undulate and moods will swing. But I will do this. And I will do it well.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent…


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Keeping the home fires burning

Here’s a wonderful guest post from my partner Christine, about what it’s like being the one left behind. Needless to say, without her support I wouldn’t be making this trip. With it, I know that anything is possible. She showed me what adventure is by jumping into this river when I wanted to stay on the bank. Her boldness inspired me to make this journey. Christine, it’s all your fault.

So about 4 weeks ago Patrick asked me my ‘opinion’ on his plans.

“Sounds good.” I said holding back the tears. But what can I do? Because as I thought about it the more I admired his determination to do this, and I would probably like to do the same given the opportunity. (there will be time… Pat)

So I decided to be supportive and, given Patrick’s loveable forgetfulness, try to get him as well equipped as possible. We settled on a on a ID bracelet as I can’t guarantee that he won’t get his hand caught in a crevice for 127 hours, and my idea of taking him to the vets to get him chipped did not go down well. Then there was the obligatory Trip to Go Outdoors where I asked the bloke for small long johns (for myself of course) a sports bra (definitely for myself) and then tried on a number of silly hats. Although we did buy dry bags, a water pouch, a red plastic blanket thing, oh, and some energy bars… Dear me, it’s starting to sound like a 80’s games show.

Then, of course, there are the snippets of information that Patrick keeps telling me.

“I don’t want to plan my route too much.” I must  have gone pale as he has now at least looked at a map and decided on which way he needs to point the bike.

“It’s going to be really cold this time of the year.” Erm, exactly how good is your sleeping bag?

“They close the passes cos of the snow sometimes.” You’ll need that titanium spork to dig yourself out then, I say. And today… today!

“They have bears.” What am I meant to say? Pack a few tins of John West salmon, start growing a beard (he already has) and they’ll accept you as one of their own!? It’s ok, they are all called either Pooh or Paddington depending on clothing. Just don’t get them mixed up; it pisses them off.

Obviously I have extensive knowledge of all these things, so it’s just as well I’m staying home. That and the fact that I need 6 layers and 2 duvets just to stay in a caravan.

No, I’ll be waiting at home for Patrick just hoping that he has remembered to eat.

Thanks, Christine. I’ll try.


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Reasons… Part 3

Ok, I had to do it. A post entitled Reasons… Part 3 for all you Ian Dury and the Blockheads fans out there. But for one fan in particular.

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I first met John Kelly at a Disability Equality training session back when Bike Club was as new as a new pin. His passion for equality and access for all had a real effect on me. I also picked up that he was a massive Ian Dury fan. We kept in touch, as you do, on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @rockinpaddy. When I found out he’d landed a part in the Graeae Theatre Company production Reasons To Be Cheerful I was chuffed to bits. Singing Dury’s part in a raucous celebration of Ian’s finest music, hung upon a poignant father-and-son, coming-of-age love story, set in a pub! (I know, brilliant, eh?) What a job for a music-loving activist-singer from Sarf Landan! (that’s how they speak, by the way…) Surely things couldn’t get much better for one of the nice guys in life?

But I was wrong. After the success of the first run of the play, and with endorsements from the original Blockheads ringing in their ears, Reasons went on tour! So down to Hull I trooped to join the party, where I discovered that the rockin’, rockstar lifestyle rather suits wor John. Which is just as well, really. And again, life couldn’t get any better. Until…

…the Paralympics came a calling, and for five glorious minutes John Kelly was the most famous person on the planet. Hitting hard with the lyrics of Spasticus Autistics, (a song which when banned by the BBC prompted John to write in: “Dear Director General of the BBC, You’re a c**t.”) he and the cast were the talking point of the opening ceremony.

Finally, not content with world domination, John joined his heroes as bandmates, singing with the Blockheads at recent gigs.

What’s this got to do with a bike trip? Well, it goes to show me that when talent meets determination in a guy like John, the spectacular happens. And it shows me that a dream followed can be a dream realized. So I set off with dreams. A dream to ride to the horizon, and find the strength I need to do so along the way. To return and make my talents my living, and my lifestyle my job.  The will to make the impossible merely improbable. And the improbable happens every day. Just ask John Kelly.