Categories
#freeLEJOG 2014

#freeLEJOG: The Moment When, Aged 30, I Realised What Money Actually Was

Lancashire was where it all started coming together.

I had been on the road for a fortnight, two thirds of the all-too-meagre time allowance I had in which to make this journey. It had been a fortnight since I’d last spent or handled money in any form, and the notion of carrying around bits of paper and metal and plastic to give to people in exchange for goods and services was a fast-dwindling memory.

What the hell is money, anyway? I wondered as I rode through the tangle of canals and motorways and industrial estates that populate the corridor between Manchester and Liverpool.

I’m no economist, and perhaps that helps as much with perspective as withdrawing from the financial economy for a while. In any case, money seemed to have revealed itself to be nothing but a token of debt. Just that. No more.

Some examples might illustrate this best:

When I do some work for someone, or give them something I’ve made (which equates to the same thing, since it’s time you expend when you work or when you make something), they are now indebted to me as a result. They now owe me an equivalent amount of services or goods in return for what I’ve given to them.

Rather than my debtor repaying me in man-hours or objects, however — things I may not have any immediate need for — they instead give me a physical object, a physical reminder which we both agree represents that debt. I carry in my pocket a promise that my time will be repaid in the future by the person who gave that physical reminder to me. The physical reminder is also known as money.

And because — by accepting money in repayment for work — we all implicitly agree on what that money is worth, relative to all the possible types of goods and services it represents, I can then pass a reminder of what I’m owed to a third person in exchange for something they have that I want, rather than exchanging my own goods or services for it directly, which under plenty of easily-imaginable circumstances would be a pain in the backside.

(Gathering asparagus in a muddy field in exchange for a bowl of soup comes to mind; far easier to give the soup-bearer a couple of quid, right?)

This means, of course, that my original debtor now owes that third person, rather than me, even though the two may never meet! And that’s the crux: the currency itself — originally gold, silver, bronze; now just numbers on coins and notes and bank accounts — becomes a token of some unknown amount of time that someone else spent somewhere else doing something.

And so it is that we have built a planet-sized social structure upon the notion of passing around the future promises of total strangers — hence the phrase, ‘time is money’.

And that’s why large sums of money are powerful: all that debt, all those owed man-hours, can be called upon to wreak change on a massive scale. Powerful, and potentially very dangerous.

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Staying with Romanian villagers

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That’s assuming, of course, that we all continue to agree on what our currency actually represents; what it’s worth, or indeed whether it’s actually worth anything. I remember cycling through two particular countries — Romania and Turkey — shortly after people had disagreed enormously on what their bits of metal and paper with numbers on them could be exchanged for. The result was hyper-inflation… all those tokens; suddenly nobody wanted them, which meant nobody else wanted them because they couldn’t be exchanged for anything useful with anyone else. At which point — to paraphrase a line from a truism I once read — a nation discovered that money could not be eaten.

Istanbul by night

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Apologies if you’re reading this first thing in the morning and it’s giving you a hangover. But I do feel it’s something worth talking about, if for no other reason than because by eradicating money from my life — just temporarily, for the duration of a single journey — I hoped that I would rehabilitate my relationship with it. Not just in the well-worn way of supporting local businesses and what-have-you, but by going beyond that and reaching a better understanding of what money actually is and how it works at a fundamental level. I feel like I’ve made a start on that. Just a start.

Ridgeback Expedition: overview 2

Interestingly enough, there are various attempts in progress to address this collective amnesia — or delusion, if you like — when it comes to the nature of money and the large-scale effects of using it as a means of exchanging our time with each other. Who knew, for example, that Bristol (my current place of residence) had it’s own currency, the Bristol Pound?

You may open an account with the Bristol Credit Union, exchange your sterling and begin exchanging tokens of your time with a list of people and organisations just on the right side of meaningful (i.e. the size of central Bristol).

You will know that when you pass a banknote denominated in Bristol Pounds to the barista at Roll For The Soul, there are only so many other places that banknote can be exchanged for anything else, and they’re all within a stone’s throw.

Bristol Pounds cannot be rerouted elsewhere; they cannot be accumulated in the coffers of investment banks and later wielded recklessly in the name of global capitalism.

And so it’s easy to see why they’re forging stronger human relationships between the people and businesses who use them.

None of this addresses an even deeper issue, which has to do with the very idea of the transaction; of always being able to account for what changes hands, which seems to me to be a very modern, industrial, Western thing. Our default mode of behaviour is to give with the expectation of receiving in return. It’s so blindingly obvious that we don’t even think about it, and when you’re indoctrinated into it from birth, it’s incredibly hard to shift it — even harder to see and come to terms with the alternative, which is to give freely without expectation of repayment — whether that’s time, work, help, food, love, or anything else — and on the flip-side to receive the same things freely when they’re offered, without feeling guilty about whether or not you’ve earned it.

But that, my friends, is probably a conversation for another time.

* * *

Manchester Ship Canal

Back to Lancashire, then, I was riding strong, having raided Burnley FC catering department for on-the-road supplies, coming up trumps with a box of cereal bars with added something-or-other, a kilo of dried mango and — best of all — a selection of pre-packed cakes, free retail samples sent by manufacturers hoping to score a season’s contract with the Premiership’s newest football club.

(For the record: the Eccles cake, the chocolate fudge cake and the cupcakes were all excellent; the treacle tart on the other hand was a bit of a let-down.)

Happy host 1

Rather than living in a perpetual state of fear that I might go hungry, it seemed logical to begin stockpiling high-energy food that would not perish, using it as a fallback when fresh food and spontaneous meals could not be found. It would also allow me to ride for a full day — or potentially several, if I played my cards right and found the right opportunities. This model of doing things seemed much more sustainable, and I also felt hopeful about my chances in the Lake District, where I’d been promised an introduction to the manager of a campsite in the Langdales.

From my time living in Cumbria, I knew that the geography of the place engendered close-knit networks of people — isolated valleys, sparsely populated, no phone signal; you couldn’t help but get to know your neighbours. It would be a short detour from my route, but with a foot in the door I hoped to find something to do for a couple of days which would earn me enough food to ride uninterrupted to Scotland.

Grim industrial cycle route near Warrington

On a long descent from the Forest of Bowland towards Lancaster, however, my optimism was dashed when — for the second time — my front tyre became unseated from the rim, the wheel suddenly lolloping unsteadily. I slammed on the brakes, peered down; just in time to watch the inner tube bulging grotesquely, like a balloon being inflated in slow motion, and a split second later… BANG.

All went silent. A flock of blackbirds rose noiselessly from a nearby tree. I could hear only muffled crackling, like a glug of milk added to a bowl of Rice Crispies in a sound-proofed booth. The strangest sensation I’ve experienced for some time, this, I realised, was what it was like to be deaf, all ambient noise removed, no obvious correlation between what I saw and what I heard.

As my hearing gradually returned I realised that the crackling had come from my bin-bag waterproof ‘jacket’ as I’d looked about in confusion, trying to relocate my sense of sound in the surrounding undergrowth.

The inner tube had exploded with such force that it had physically buckled the wheel.

Irritated — for this was the second time this had happened — I cursed the steel rim. It was something I’d scrounged when renovating the bike for this trip, as the original front wheel had been missing when I’d rescued it from the local recycling centre, doubtless having been stolen while the bike was locked up on the street somewhere.

My only spare inner tube was the one that still had a big hole in it when a 2‑inch screw had gone through the tyre on the outskirts of Gloucester. Wearily I dragged out the pump and the puncture repair kit from Poundland, patched the spare tube, installed it and continued on my way. But after just a few miles I realised that it was still slowly deflating.

Needless to say, I know how to fix a puncture. Once again I unbolted the wheel, pulled out the tube, tore off the patch and installed a new one, pumped it up and sat down for a snack on a bench outside a cafe. Ten minutes later, the tyre was once again flat, and it had begun to rain.

Cursing would not change anything, so I ignored the 50 miles I still had to ride and the fact that it was already almost lunchtime, wasting yet another patch as the same thing happened again. Over the course of the next two hours, I used up every single patch in my so-called repair kit as cyclists came and went, locking up expensive ultralight racing bikes and heading into the warm, dry cafe to spend money on all-day breakfasts and bacon sandwiches and hot beverages.

After the lunchtime rush was over, the cafe’s proprietress came out to see what I was doing, having noticed I’d been loitering outside for almost three hours with a bag of tools and a bicycle wheel and increasingly blackened hands. We chatted about my Land’s End to John O’Groats ride; she mentioned a crazy Austrian who’d come in recently:

“Just cycling around with no plan at all — he was having the time of his life.”

We chatted how she’d been meaning to get some inner tubes to sell at the cafe, given that they were the most common spare part a rider would need, but that she hadn’t got round to it. And we chatted about what a lovely ride this particular coastal route was, past Lancaster and up towards Kendal and the Lakes.

“Can I get you a tea or a coffee?” she asked. “It’s on the house.”

“Ooh, thanks, that’s really kind of you. I’d love a coffee!”

At no point had I ever mentioned that I was riding without money.

Eventually I wound Gaffa Tape around the injured tube, pumped it up and set off. It felt like I was hitting a small pothole every couple of metres, but I could pedal, and nothing else really mattered.

At 7pm I calculated that it was another three hours’ ride to where I needed to be. I’d ridden 50 miles already, had eaten nothing but cake for a day, my bike was falling apart, and it had begun to rain once again. To round things off, a sharp metallic twang on the way up the hill towards Windermere heralded the first snapped spoke in all my years of touring.

Earning the beer

Then a text message arrived. It was from my friend in Great Langdale. If I could make it to the pub by last orders, there’d be a pint of ale waiting for me.

I smiled.

Then I began pedalling a little harder…

Celebrating a successful 3 days

And next time, I’ll let you know how I came into ownership of the enormous box of food in the photo above.

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#freeLEJOG 2014

#freeLEJOG: On Eating Food Out Of Bins

The West Midlands were not particularly kind to me.

As a result, of course, I learned a hell of a lot.

The weather was the least of it. Leaving Bridgnorth and finishing the last of my leftovers I found myself riding in the rain once again, with no food and no prospect of finding any. I was getting used to being utterly soaked, fingers wrinkly and cold, feet tingling and throbbing as they dried out after having been soaked for hours each day.

I followed railway-cutting green routes which in nicer conditions would have been lovely, but which today were just a traffic-free method of getting very, very wet. In Ironbridge I found frustrated tourists hurrying across the road to glance at Darby’s world-famous feat of engineering before dashing for the nearest safe haven of dryness; havens from which I, as a penniless tramp, was excluded. Polite enquiries at a couple of quiet-looking cafés yielded nothing but looks of pity and explanations that the staff rota was drawn up in advance, so there was nothing I could help out with today — and besides, it took time to learn the ropes. All of which was perfectly true.

Bleak weather up norf

Further on I spotted a signpost for a vineyard. Yes, a vineyard in the English West Midlands!

Weaving between industrial units I came upon the most unlikely sight: neat rows of bent trunks, branches wrestled and woven along horizontal trusses, the familiar-looking leaves with which I’d wrapped so many delicious little parcels of rice and meat and herbs while living in Armenia. It was an incongruous sight, yet it turns out there are hundreds of wine-producing vineyards in Britain, from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides. This may be old news to many, but to me it was a revelation and a mood-lifter.

I walked in to the visitors’ centre. In an adjoining café, a noisy collection of OAPs were enjoying a day of wine-tasting, clearly several hours into the programme.

“I’m a writer conducting an experiment to see if I can travel the entire length of the country without any money,” I explained to the most authoritative-looking figure in the kitchen, “and I wondered if you could use any help this afternoon in exchange for a square meal?”

(This was just the latest in a growing list of variants of my spiel.)

“I’ll be completely honest with you,” she replied after listening patiently, “we don’t need any help at the moment.”

Of course. It’s May. Hardly grape-picking season. Duh.

“But you’re very welcome to a slice of pie.”

Straight up. No fuss.

“Er… yep, that works too… thank you!”

“You’re welcome. Lindsay, get this gentleman a slice of pie, would you.”

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Pie. #freeLEJOG

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The meat pie was deposited in front of me, a leftover from the pensioners’ lunch next door. I ate it with gratitude, said my thanks and continued on my way, perplexed. Spontaneous work-for-food exchanges were not really working very well, and I set to thinking about why this could be. But before long I found myself sidetracked once again by hunger.

Whitchurch on a Saturday evening was just about the least likely place to score a free meal, and it was here that I almost broke, emptiness tangibly clanging about in my stomach and reducing my thoughts to naught but endless elaborate food fantasies. I spotted a sticker in the window of a kebab shop, put two and two together and realised that if I could remember my debit card details and find a free wifi hotspot I could use my smartphone to order and pay for a takeaway online. Yes! And it would be the best damn takeaway I had ever eaten too — plus, I could fulfil a long-standing life ambition to have a pizza handed to me through a gap in a hedge by the world’s most confused delivery boy.

But I clearly was not quite hungry enough — either that, or I considered the integrity of my mission too important — for willpower prevailed, and in any case I could not remember my card details. But before heading off down a canal towpath to find a field to camp in, I did make a mental note of the location of the town’s most likely-looking supermarkets, as I planned to be back the following morning to try yet another increasingly appealing method of feeding myself.

The wild-camp was a lovely one, made all the better by the blessing of a local narrowboat resident and a tip-off about a roadside cafe whose back entrance was at the far end of a nearby dirt road. It had a toilet block which was left unlocked overnight; the ladies’ even had a hot shower! Together with unlimited fresh water from a tap intended for passing boaters, this earned my pitch the title of Most Luxurious Wild-Camp Ever (Probably) — even if I had eaten nothing but a slice of pie since breakfast.

Wild camp outside Whitchurch

Early the following morning, two old ladies strolling past the car park behind Iceland in Whitchurch were alarmed by the sight of a pair of human legs hanging over the edge of a skip. As they watched, the distant figure struggled before dropping to the ground, triumphantly clutching a large bag of carrots, still in their packaging.

The figure mounted a rickety-looking bicycle, deposited the carrots in the bike’s front basket with an audible whoop, and set forth from Whitchurch, destination Burnley, where — unbeknown to the pensioners — he would find himself sanding seats in Turf Moor’s away stand in exchange for two days’ food and a bed for the night.

And they shook their heads and tutted.

Manchester Ship Canal

Burnley FC (Turf Moor)

Will work for food: Burnley FC

First and last time in a football stadium press room

My carrots kept me on the road for two days. They were a mere sample of the collateral from an astonishingly wasteful globalized grocery supply chain. It’s not just supermarkets sending edible food to landfill: the consumer is equally wasteful, an appreciation of the human effort required to grow food having been eradicated, reduced to a number on a sticker. In such a way it transpires that we now take a full quarter of the food we buy and throw it in the bin before it reaches our plates.

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Roadside snack

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In rural Devon — I forget where exactly — I experienced this madness first-hand when I happened across a recycling bin outside somebody’s house, full to the brim with unopened cans of food bought absent-mindedly from a supermarket, shoved to the back of a cupboard and forgotten for several years. Best-before date lapsed and misinterpreted as meaning the contents were no longer edible (untrue and the subject of ongoing changes in legislation), cans of still-edible food had simply been chucked.

Unable to glean much in the way of energy from the wild garlic by the roadside, I’d selected a can of Tesco Value Broken Mandarin Segments in Light Syrup for a balance of vitamins and sugar, then hacked the can open with the novel combination of Allen key and rock. Then I’d devoured the contents with a tyre lever, citric acid stinging my mouth, the sugar propelling me the final 20 miles to where I was staying the night.

At that moment, the contents of a discarded can of mandarin segments (in light syrup) was the only thing in the universe that one human being had needed to further his existence, the focus of his sole desire, the very means by which he would prolong his life. And someone had simply flung it carelessly in the bin and dumped it on the roadside to be buried out of sight for a million years. That this is considered normal is, to me, and indication that something is wrong.

People of a like mind are attempting to tackle it. There are organisations like The Pig Idea, working with the catering industry to turn leftovers into bacon; Fare Share, who collect and redistribute sell-by produce from supermarkets to people who can’t afford to buy it when it’s on the shelves; and Love Food Hate Waste, who campaign for awareness of the issue.

And there are people like Tristam Stuart, part of a movement now known as freeganism; people who — despite usually not being short of a penny — make a point of dieting on so-called rubbish, as I did for one memorable day on the road in Cheshire. Tristam’s message is so poignant that he received the ultimate accolade of being invited to give a TED talk on the subject.

Lancashire cycling selfie

I don’t like to draw conclusions too quickly from experiences like this. But I learned a lot of new things about our society from the act of ditching money and going hungry, coming across both reassurances and repugnancies. This is just a tiny portion. (Excuse the pun.)

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#freeLEJOG 2014

#freeLEJOG: Unexpected Adversity in the West Midlands

Rain started to pound against the kitchen windows. I had collected heaps of asparagus, been taken on a tour of the farm, discussed at length the changing nature of British agriculture, and now I was sitting at a big oak table, having devoured two bowls of the heartiest soup imaginable while my kind-hearted host waxed long and lyrical to a stranger she’d taken in off the street about the inhumanity of mankind. (Catch up with last week’s blog to find out how I got here, or start at the beginning.)

Tea was offered. More tea. Cake, perhaps? And it was all too easy to accept, with the heatwave of previous days now dissolving into a miserable rainy greyness that looked well and truly set in. But soon I had to grit my teeth and march out into the pouring rain, my only defence a crumpled second-hand rainjacket and a pair of overtrousers with a broken full-length zip procured from Freecycle and mended with an untidy row of safety pins. My outfit quickly proved itself as waterproof as a colander, and soon I was soaked to the skin, heading north along puddled Shropshire lanes towards… well, I had absolutely no idea.

* * *

Linley station house

I had never done any real bicycle touring in England before. This was one of my lesser motives for attempting to ride LEJOG as opposed to riding to Russia or Morocco, two previously-considered destinations for my month of no-budget cycle touring.

And the delightful thing that I had discovered about touring in your home country was that once you announce to your friends and family that you are going to travel the length of it in such an unusual way, you find that offers of hospitality start to pop up all over the place. It’s often said that the humble nature of bicycle travel brings out the good in those witness to it, and this seems to be just as true in the virtual world, as from a single (private) Facebook post to my modest circle of friends on the day before I began riding, offers of beds and meals had simply flooded in. By the time I’d begun to pedal, roughly half of my journey’s overnights had potentially been accounted for.

I am convinced this is something that almost anyone could replicate in their home country. We all now have in our pockets the ability to communicate instantly with our friends and family, wherever they are; most of you, I promise, will maintain far larger ‘friend lists’ on these social networks than I do. Most of us dabble on a daily basis in sharing the most inane of things; I suggest you try using Facebook and such to do what they’re advertised to do: bring people together. Make and maintain real-life connections. Isn’t this how social media and smartphones are sold to us?

It had been truly astonishing to discover how well-dispersed my network of second-degree contacts was. But perhaps it should not have been such a surprise. I shared my time at university with peers who’d come from all over the country to spend three years in one place together. Since then, my various lines of work have brought me into contact with people from similarly diverse backgrounds. Mobility is one of the modern world’s taken-for-granteds; the result is that we all build up networks like this.

If you collected together the people you know and mapped out the locations of all of their friends, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, would you be surprised if the resulting collection of map pins extended far and wide? And, given a call from your contact with an explanation of a trusted friend’s curious purpose and basic needs, who wouldn’t happily feed and house that guest for a night in exchange for stories, a break from the norm, and the satisfaction of having made a small but priceless contribution to their mission?

This aspect of my journey, I realised, was not about moneyless travel. It was about making a journey through a world of people, not of landscapes and weather and asphalt — a topic I’ve written about before. The currency of such journeys is trust, and the method of exchange is the introduction. This has always been the way, particularly for closed societies like ours. Encounters with the bureaucracy of world travel unearth linguistic evidence of it, embassies and ministries still swapping around ‘letters of invitation’, ‘letters of introduction’ and ‘letters of recommendation’ to get you to where you want to go. What do you suppose a ‘letter of introduction’ meant in the time of Ibn Battutah? I can assure you that it was far more valuable than the relatively modern invention of the passport.

Undoubtedly things would be different abroad, because few of us would have contacts anywhere near as extensive as at home — at least, to begin with. But travel itself — if you make a point of engaging with people you meet — has a habit of expanding your network of contacts considerably. And when you’ve got no money, and you’re suddenly unable to get exactly what you want, exactly when you want it, and you realise that this is the whole point of money, and you’ll now have to take what you can get, whenever it’s available? You’ll realise that engaging with other people is by far the best way to stimulate such opportunities. So you meet, you build rapport, pass some time, and a ripple effect occurs. One thing leads to many others. That one connection has the potential to spiral outwards. Like launching a stone into clear, calm waters, you can anticipate what will happen in a general sense — but you cannot hope to predict with any precision when, where and how each ripple will arrive.

* * *

Wet and miserable

My clothes became utterly saturated. My cheap trainers began to exude murky rivulets of water each time I pressed a foot against a pedal. A wonky mudguard, rather than preventing a further drenching from below, instead channelled drawn-up water directly into my left shoe. My steel front wheel squealed and shuddered as I braked, and all the force in the world applied to my rear brake inspired nothing more than the hideous scraping sound that heralds the exhaustion of yet another pair of brake blocks. Yet as long as I continued to ride, and to ride hard, my body remained tenuously balanced on the right side of hypothermic, my brain still clinging to the memory of hot soup, hot tea, and more hot tea in the warmth of that farmhouse kitchen.

This part of National Cycle Route 45 appeared to have been conceived by a focus group consisting solely of world class cross-country mountain bikers, then waymarked by a team who’d spiced up their days seeing who could hide the signposts most thoroughly while still having installed them, technically speaking, in roughly the right place.

After hauling my struggling hybrid up and down the dirt paths of Wyre Forest, wading along a waterlogged railway cutting with my clothes and baggage catching on increasingly viorous undergrowth, and finally finding myself descending a root-stricken singletrack trail towards an impenetrable well of dripping foliage and mud and unclimbable slopes, I uttered my first audible curse of the day. The cycle routes were shit. The weather was shit. I had voluntarily left the comfort and friendliness of a farmhouse kitchen and set forth into total and utter shit. And now I was lost in a flipping rainforest.

Turning round, I began pushing back up through the woods, through the cold swamp of branches and brambles, and back to the last place I’d seen a sign for anywhere. I peered at the stupid map on the screen of the stupid smartphone; attempted to match up four identical forest tracks surrounded by green and topped with grey and rain with the map’s brightly coloured lines and contours; then realised that my wet fingers could no longer operate the touch-screen and that I had nothing left to dry them on and that every direction looked the same anyway. I looked back at the stupid sign, which pointed back the way I had come and offered no clue whatsoever as to which direction a newly-arrived rider should go in order to continue. And I cursed the world once more.

Choosing the only path I had the remotest hunch might eventually transport me north, I continued pedalling. The only time I can remember having been so wet, uncomfortable and utterly despondent was in northern Turkey many years ago. It had been much colder then, the hills steeper, the pain and discomfort far greater, but it was the feeling of loneliness and the complete absence of any rationale for putting myself through the experience that had made it so utterly miserable. It was the same right now.

I peered among shiny wet tree-trunks and dripping leaves, contemplating putting my tent up, shedding sodden clothes and clambering into a hopefully-still-dry sleeping bag for the next 12 hours in a vain bid to escape from it all, because Wyre Forest, under other circumstances, would surely have made the perfect venue for wild-camping. But all that I would achieve was the delaying of the inevitable, for after those hours elapsed I would have to drag those same wet clothes back on and continue pedalling — only colder, hungrier and more miserable — into the featureless drifting greyness of the set-in West Midlands rain, which showed no sign of abating.

Something about rejecting the idea of camping in the woods sparked a mood change, though. Suddenly all was absurd to the point of comedy, and this is really the only method I have ever found to deal with a situation which seems utterly hopeless: to remember that it will end, and to laugh while it persists.

Another ridiculous cycle route sign had me pushing the bike up a steep, rocky riverbed, emerging victoriously alongside a reservoir, abandoned sailboats and clubhouses just the other side of the fence, devoid of people, and I roared in victory over the terrain and the weather and idiotic infrastructure. A downhill followed, the narrow footpath overgrown with cow parsley as tall as a man, festooned with a million hanging droplets of water; I charged through the mass of fronds and flowers at full speed, and a more invigorating full-body shower I have rarely experienced. I’d been feeling the pangs of hunger for some time, but it had turned out that hunger is just another unpleasant feeling you can more or less get used to.

Then a moment of possible genius: did one of my London-based friends not grow up near Bridgnorth, and was that town now no more than a dozen or so miles distant?

A text message was fired off in hilarious desperation; meanwhile I finally escaped the mess of woods and bridleways and began looking for another likely-looking farmhouse or nicely-painted signpost indicating open-minded people doing something a little bit different, for it was obvious now that these would be good indicators of the kind of receptive, sympathetic folk I needed to meet.

This was a suspicion backed up by my previous hosts and redeemers who’d said precisely the same thing of Britain’s agricultural community, so often stereotyped as either conservative yokels or disinterested servants of mass-scale industrial agriculture. Even a cursory look at websites such as HelpX and WWOOF, set up specifically to put travellers in touch with smallholders and farmers in need of extra help (usually, as it happens, in exchange for accommodation and food), confirms that this is not a realistic picture of tucked-away ruralists.

Then my phone rang. It was my friend from London, and a friend of hers lived just the other side of Bridgnorth. We had met at a birthday gathering the previous year. There was a hot shower and a meal waiting for me, and she would be more than happy to have me to stay.

Host in Cheshire

It was human nature at its best, a passing-on of trust, the magic of technology simply lifting the requirements of physical proximity, and it would have happened regardless of whether I’d left my wallet at home.

And all I would have to do in return was to make a silent pledge to forever exhibit the same kindness and openness towards my fellow man.

The impatient among you will be pleased to know that I’ve already published photos of the complete #freeLEJOG story on Flickr. Check back next week for the next written chapter of this tale…

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#freeLEJOG 2014

#freeLEJOG: Pedalling North Without A Penny

Were it not such a clichéd turn of phrase, I’d be tempted to describe the adjustment to travelling without money as an ’emotional rollercoaster’.

The first few days of my Land’s End to John O’Groats attempt felt like a series of nervous dashes from one safe haven to another, like a river paddler hopping between eddies in avoidance of its potential unknowns and dangers.

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Books & Reading Other People's Adventures

New Travel & Adventure Books For June 2014

This week sees the publication of two new books that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for several months. Both are written by accomplished and experienced writers who I highly respect; both sit within the category of adventure; yet these two books could barely be more different in theme and content.


Life Cycles by Julian Sayarer

Lifecycles1Julian Sayarer is probably better remembered for the utterly epic post-trip rant he published on his blog than for the feat of athleticism he’d achieved during the previous 169 days of riding.

His words, preserved online since their publication in 2009, were those of a man who — exposed and vulnerable and at 12 miles per hour — had just spent half a year experiencing a vast cross-section of global society, arrived back in London and perceived in a moment of clarity the sheer insanity of mainstream Western society.

Looking for a way to make sense of it, he’d lashed out publicly at the previous record holder, who’d taken the big-corporate sponsorship route to funding his own endeavour and thus represented all that Sayarer saw wrong with the developed world today.

The problem, of course, was that the insanity he’d perceived was one that only he had eyes to see, having earned a perspective almost impossible to gain in any other way than by doing what he’d done. This, together with the demonisation of the sponsored record-breaking rider in question, earned him infamy which doubtless lingers today, as well as the informal moniker of ‘Angry Young Man’.

Life Cycles, published this week by Blake Publishing, begins by acknowledging that while it may have been a slightly rash decision to hit the ‘Publish’ button on the aforementioned article before sleeping on it, there were a great many reasons why things looked that way at the end of the road.

We begin by learning of Julian’s background and upbringing, his deep love for cycling as an escape from the demands of social integration, and his self-identification as a questioner and misfit in a society that seemed blindly off course. We learn of the part the aforementioned record-breaker played in igniting Julian’s reactionary streak:

…it was the final straw… to see the bicycle reduced to no more than a corporate marketing strategy.

And how this spark, combined with the author’s being at a disillusioned loose end in his mid-twenties, set off what would be a self-fulfilling prophecy for his journey:

I was in need of a crusade and, however ridiculous it might sound, a small, embarassing part of me thought that, in beating him, perhaps I could change the world for the better. I suppose, at the very least, it was a worthwhile quest in which to fail.

It seems, perhaps, that the beginnings of the infamous rant were in place before the wheels began to turn. So it will come as a relief to many that Julian’s departure from home also marks a departure from anti-capitalist sentiment — at least, for most of the time — as he reveals himself as a supremely talented wordsmith, weaving an exceptionally succint and poetic tale of the events you’d expect from a long bicycle journey which in other hands would fall flat. Don’t expect a formulaic tale of hardship after hardship overcome; do expect sparkling vignettes of life observed as it passes him by, interspersed with the reflections of a thoughtful idealist who thankfully manages to poke fun at his own indignancy, as in this scene in a brand new Hungarian hypermarket:

Giving up on bread, I make my way to a delicatessen selling pizza and hotdogs. I point at pizza. ‘Ketchup-chilli-muzterd-méjonez?’ she yells. Above her head are four large teats, squeezed by her gloved hand. Down splatter sauces. Shuffling on, I move to another window with chicken legs at a price that guarantees those birds have not led happy lives. I gobble down pizza, lukewarm chicken flesh. She gave me too much méjonez, but all calories are valuable, so I dip chicken bones into surplus méjonez, scoop up a good globule and lick the bone clean, a lollipop of hydrogenated fat. And it’s that, it’s méjonez licked from cheap chicken bones… that’s progress… that’s the future… right there at a French multinational in central Hungary.

This incisive and critical eye, of course, is the one that made his original blog such a refreshing and worthwhile read in a blogosphere swamped with dry, diary-entry-style travelogs about people toddling around the world collecting consumable, commodified experiences. Some will inevitably rile against his tone, his focus and his views; others will be right there with him, wishing they’d both the gall and eloquence to express themselves likewise.

Throughout the story runs an undercurrent of disconnection, of frustration at the unbridgeable gulf between how the long-haul cyclist perceives the world at large and how the world at large perceives the long-haul cyclist. Are the author’s views a beacon of clarity and realism in a world gone utterly mad, or a collection of well-articulated but ultimately abstract rantings in a world that’s getting on with it, despite its various madnesses? Where does Life Cycles figure in its author’s quest to “change the world for the better”? How many traveller-adventurer-writers would put their hands up and say ‘actually, Julian, you’re damn well right’ if they had the bollocks to publicly do so?

I happen to be in a position to see many things through Julian’s eyes, because I’ve been to many of the same places (literally and figuratively). Others may not, and I’d rather not speculate how his tale will read to them. Regardless, Julian’s uncompromising perspective is bound to stir things up (again), and his talent for writing will ensure that he will do so by means of a unique and very worthwhile read.

Life Cycles was released on June 2nd, 2014. Order online via hive.co.uk with free delivery or collection from your local independent bookshop.


Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys

This week I finally made it into every decent bookshop in the UK and became an Amazon UK Bestseller… as a small, unidentifiable bearded bloke on the back cover of Al Humphreys’ superb-looking new book, Microadventures.

For those familiar with his long-running blog, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this new offering, published today by Harper Collins, is every bit as on the money as his previous books. If you took everything Al’s done with the ‘microadventure’ concept over the last couple of years — including the immaculate photos and short films his own excursions have engendered — and boiled them down over your beer-can stove into a rich, well-seasoned reduction of adventurey goodness, this book is what you’d find at the bottom of your hard-anodized titanium saucepan.

If you’re not yet initiated, the #microadventure concept simply reduces ‘outdoor pursuits’ from specialist hobbies requiring time, skill, preparation and money (i.e. something you never get round to actually doing) to the simple act of going outdoors and pursuing something — whether it’s a daft idea to cycle from your mum’s birthplace to your dad’s, to walk from the highest point in your county to the lowest, or any number of other arbitrary concepts that aren’t actually the point at all. You use the time you already have available if you bother to use it — the 5‑to‑9 in between your 9‑to‑5; the three full nights’ wild camping you can squeeze into a normal weekend.

The point of Al’s new book, I feel, is to prompt you to stop making excuses and get out there doing this kind of stuff already. After leafing through the first part of this full-colour paperback, packed full of Al’s own excursions in the UK (including a couple of cameos from yours truly), you’re bound to be inspired to do something, else risk missing out on all the good old fashioned fun that people like Al are obviously already having. In the second part, you’ll find you’ll be given the tools and starting points to go on a few microadventures of your own.

For me, it’s the photos as much as the words that make this book a success: it is not a linear narrative, but a book to leaf through, see something that catches your eye (and there’s a lot to catch your eye), and dive into the text to see what it’s all about. Al’s photography skills are superb and they shine in both quality and quantity in this book.

It’s worth mentioning, also, that getting a book like this put out by one of the world’s biggest publishers is a huge coup for a previously self-published indie author who hasn’t had a helping hand, pushy agent or stroke of luck to get to where he’s got to: just self-belief and hard graft. And to think it all began with a little idea to cycle round the world…

Microadventures is released today, June 5th 2014, and is available from Amazon UK in paperback* and Kindle* editions, as well as a special iBook edition for the iPad.