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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 Higher numbers seem to be the newer roads which have superseded the old ones, leaving them for me to enjoy.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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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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Reasons… Part 1

I’m surprised that not many people have demanded to know why I’m doing this. Some have asked “Why now?”* but it seems most people who know me know what I’m like, and that this is simply something I need to do. Cycle 2500 kilometres to the edge of Spain in 26 days with only my tent and the Atlantic for company. Typical stuff. But despite the persona I like to portray, (that of a grizzled outdoorsman and expert cyclist) ’til now I’m merely an armchair expert. I really have never done anything like this before. And that is one reason in itself.

The challenge of the elements, coupled with the terrain appeals and frightens in equal measure. If I was making this trip in summer I’d start from Amsterdam, and cycle through Belgium and across northern France. As it’s winter, I start in Brittany and hug the Atlantic coast to avoid the severest cold and iciest roads. Yes, I know this means I’ll get wet. I’m fine with that. As my Dad says, (precious morsels these- he doesn’t say much…) “It only goes to the skin, then it runs off.” And there’s always the Human Condom to climb into at the end of the day.

The Human Condom

But it’s the Cantabrian Mountains which have me a little nervous. I plan to skirt them to the south on the way west to Cape Finisterre, and follow the coast back to Santander for the ferry. But there’s no doubt- there will be hills. One author at the highly useful Freewheeling France suggests parts of the Camino Di Santiago route I’ll roughly follow are closed November-March. Not to worry, I’ll leave the true mountains to the bears (yes, really, there are bears!) and ride round anything I can’t ride over.

The solitude of a long bike ride punctuated by stealthy wild camps really appeals to me. Time to think. Time to write songs (more of that in a later post)  Time not only to ask the big questions of life, but perhaps to answer them too. The luxury of so much time to replace that of a warm bed or the arms of a loved one. Time to go.

* Why now? It’s the time I have available. Between episodes in my life and my work. At a crossroads. On the bike, as in life I’m awful at crossroads. Indecisive. Instictively knowing the way, but lacking the faith to take it. Self-doubt wins again. I check the map with cold hands and a heavy heart. I tell myself that next time I’ll roll through with confidence and trust myself. Trust the road. But I never do. Now it’s time to learn.

Reasons… Part 2 is here.


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This is easy!

So, today I got my rail tickets, which completes the (admittedly straightforward) travel picture for my little expedition. My surprise has been how easy the whole thing was. Alastair Humphreys, round the world cyclist and microadventurer, advises in this lovely post, that when planning an expedition, do the difficult things which will commit you to the expedition first. Expensive stuff like travel tickets. Then there’s no way out. But a couple of mouse-clicks and a trip down to the folks at Chester-le-Street Station and I’m there already.

A word about Chester-le-Track (as they like to be called) There are no direct trains for me from there any more, I just cycle to Durham these days, but I always go there for advance tickets and complex journeys. They are real experts at getting the best fares and unpublished connections. I’ve even had First Class from Bristol cheaper than a standard ticket. So for Portsmouth, with a bike, for the most important journey of my life, there was nowhere else I’d go. And their improbably titled website, nationalrail.com should be a World Heritage Site, if only for the animated map showing Chester-le-Street as the centre of the railway universe.

As I’m returning to no full-time work, this trip has to come cheap. I’m challenging myself to live as simply as possible. I’ve spent all I’m going to on travel, and Newcastle to St. Malo and back from Santander has cost me less than a return to King’s Cross for tomorrow morning. If I spend roughly the same while I’m out there, I’ll still be solvent enough to look for a job when I get back, but I’d have done something wonderful in the meantime.

The hard part about beginning this journey has been deciding to go. For me, when I’d told my loved ones I was doing it, it was to be done. Pipedream to pipeline in one conversation. And now it’s real. The proof is there on my kitchen table. Wish me luck.

P.S. I was chatting to the guy in the ticket office about my trip. “Don’t get lost.” he warned. My response was the pithiest summation of the trip I’ve yet to come up with.

“If I head South till they start speaking Spanish, then turn right, how can I get lost?”

Simple, right?


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Reactions

Today I’ve had some interesting reactions to news of my trip.

“Are you set on France and Spain? New Zealand is much warmer this time of year.”

From an experienced bike tourist I asked for advice. He clearly has a bigger budget than I, but perhaps smaller horizons. Couldn’t countenance midwinter in a tent I call The Human Condom on account of its catherdral-like spaciousness. No, I am not flying halfway round he world to avoid exactly what I hope to experience.

“Are you sure that it’s sensible?”

This was my mam. Seems the unconditional support I’ve had from her all my life may be being stretched here. Used the stock responses, “Of course it’s not sensible, I wouldn’t be doing it if it was…” and “If not now, when?” But somehow it felt a little hollow. I must own up to the fact that this trip will be harder on others than it will be on me. Perhaps a telling reaction is the one I’ve not had: from my children. I’ve not explained to them yet what I’m doing, or for how long. To them I’m going on a bike trip. What’s new?

“If there’s anything you need, which I have, take it.”

I got this same response from two friends whom I value deeply.

So I must decide between my bodged, basic, budget gear, or the best I can borrow. And though I thought of little at the time, down sleeping bags, thermarests, drybags, GPS, and a proper (non-condomlike) tent with titanium pegs all sound like tempting items, generously offered from people I’d take with me if I could.

Finally, someone I love, who asks only that I wear one of these, inscribed with her name, who always knows just what I need, who makes me laugh every day and encourages me when I’m uncertain, sent me this:


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You find me…

You find me coming to the end of a job which I loved, though I muddled through. Still, young people began to enjoy cycling because of me, and the groups I helped will continue after I’ve gone, for example at Coast Cycling.

You find me uncertain and insecure of my future job or career. The need to live and provide and participate weighs heavily when I don’t know how I’ll do it.

You find me at the start of a beautiful relationship which I deliberately call time-out upon, so that on my return I might understand it better.

You find me planning a bike ride through France and into Spain, sleeping wild but not rough in the dead of winter, perhaps as pilgrimage, or purely as challenge; as a search of the soul as much as discovering a place.

You find me wondering about kit to take, borrowing what I can’t afford, (thanks to Davy for the 1990s Dawes Super Galaxy…) trying to remember if I have a passport, or where it might be.

I hope to realise that I deserve the happiness I feel. I hope to settle an unsettled mind and rest a restless soul. I hope I can feel my fingers and dry my clothes. I hope you’ll join me.