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.
I’d had overly-grand ambitions for the trip (as usual). I was going to write a daily blog of the no-money travelling experience, Instagram the highlights in photos, write a chapter of a book each day, and possibly shoot a documentary too. (This was as well as actually pedalling from Land’s End to John O’Groats on a budget of precisely £0.00, with no backup cash or cards, in just 20 days, and in a way that could be replicated by others.)
Of course I was failing to do any of these things properly, and constantly reminding myself of this was draining my energy. I wrote a long-winded piece on the blog about it all in an attempt to unravel my thoughts and make sense of them.
Encouragement, perspective and wisdom poured in. I was truly grateful as I’d spent way too much time inside my own head – a common affliction during the first days of a long solo journey. It was Jane Talbot who told me what I needed to hear in the simplest terms:
@tomsbiketrip Wow! What would you do if it didn't matter what other people thought? Which option makes you feel most alive?
— Jane Talbot (@IntrepidJane) May 19, 2014
(Thanks to Jane, and to everyone else who wrote in.)
I had pedalled several hundred miles already, felt extreme hunger, experienced extreme kindness, made myself useful in various ways, panicked a lot, and definitely not died. But I was still climbing the lower reaches of a very steep learning curve. I wanted to feel that – by the end of this short trip – I had got to grips with free travel in a way that I knew could be prolonged indefinitely and investigated further. Telling the story would have to wait.
And so, after a week on the road, I dropped all of the live-blogging plans to concentrate on the experiment itself. I’m back home in Bristol for now, and the next few articles will tell how I succeeded not only in travelling the length of England without spending a single penny, but experienced one of the most rewarding and eye-opening journeys of my life in the process. (As regular readers will know, I’m not exactly short of long bicycle journeys.)
* * *
After a long 80-mile day to Bristol I found myself trundling down to the harbourside to meet Tim and Kate, friends of a friend who’d recently started a stand-up paddleboarding microbusiness right in the heart of the city. In return for lugging the boards around and helping set up an evening lesson and pack away at the end, they treated me to a meal at the infamous Nova Scotia, a nearby pub serving truly adventurer-sized portions of food.
The following morning I pedalled up Gloucester Road to the workshops of Life Cycle UK, a charity who among many other good things run bicycle maintenance workshops in Horfield Prison to provide productive employment, training and qualifications for inmates. They’d got in touch via Twitter, and on the promise that I’d do a fundraising talk for them after the journey was complete, their volunteers fed me croissants, fixed parts of my bike I didn’t even know were faulty, and sent me off with a packed lunch and a shopping basket to carry it in.
Wanting to get more miles behind me, I followed the surprisingly cyclist-friendly A38 to Cheltenham where lived an old university friend. It seemed a shame to have blasted through Somerset and Gloucestershire at such a pace, Somerset in particular seeming to host an abundance of farms and smallholdings whose signboards and plaques exuded a positive, inviting aura. But I had not allowed myself sufficient time to make enquiries; at least, that was the excuse I made to myself for why I had still not bitten the bullet and knocked on a stranger’s door in search of work for food.
In rainy Worcester I tracked down John Summerton, a friend and collaborator on various projects including websites we’d developed for Brazil 9000 and Secret Compass. He’d recently launched the first printed edition of Sidetracked magazine and was exploring ways of turning his exquisite adventure-storytelling platform into something that he could pursue full-time.
But from Worcester onwards I had no more numbers to call. Today I would have no choice but to begin engaging directly with the notoriously private populace of England. More farms, smallholdings and country estates drifted by through the drizzle as I finished the last of my food supplies from Worcester.
And then came the moment when I knew that for the remainder of the West Midlands it would be all up to me. I had no food, no money, no contacts: just me, my crap bike, a heap of makeshift camping gear, and several hundred miles to ride. The thought scared me tremendously.
At the same time, I could identify this feeling. I’d had it many times before. It was a mixture of trepidation and amusement; a deep fear of public mockery with a smattering of rejection, coupled with a vague sense of reassurance from the well-practiced habit of asking myself what exactly was the worst that could happen, the assumption being that as long as I didn’t die, I would probably be OK – and learn something new in the process.
It was precisely the feeling I’d had when I first started making long hitch-hiking trips. I met huge resistance against taking the first simple action – walking to a roadside and sticking out my thumb – for precisely the same reasons of fear of rejection and mockery. Having made that initial leap, however, I’ve now hitched from Italy to England, Armenia to France, and England to Turkey, as well as countless shorter trips in dozens of countries when the occasional need has arisen.
I could find an even closer parallel with the anxieties I experienced during my early days on the bike, in which I realised that approaching strangers for a place to sleep was more reliable (and more interesting) than attempting to stealth-camp in muddy fields. All it required was a well-tuned icebreaker (“Excuse me, can you help me? I’m cycling to Country X and I’m out of water…”) followed by a dice-roll (“…by the way, you wouldn’t know somewhere safe around here I could put up my tent for the night?”). It was a simple game of numbers: if at first you don’t succeed…
My requirements were not remotely onerous. I pursued nothing more than a few calories in a country rich enough to waste 40-50% of its edible food between field and plate. By asking a stranger, I knew I risked making the jump from one category to another; from asking for place to sleep (lost camper) to asking for something to eat (homeless tramp). But somewhere upon the road ahead was a person who would entertain my request. My job now was simply to find them.
Some time later I saw, on my right, a typical-looking country pile with a long gravel drive and a couple of paddocks, one of which contained two healthy-looking horses. There was a skip on the forecourt; evidently work was being done at the property. Then I spotted a figure on the phone, standing on the drive by a gate into a field.
I pedalled on.
Then I kicked myself, pulled a U-turn, dismounted my bike, took a deep breath, and started up the drive.
She was on the phone, spotted me, indicated that I wait. She was having an argument with a contractor. The workers had not arrived on time. She had people visiting that weekend and her plans were being ruined.
It would definitely be a no.
I hung back awkwardly until she hung up.
“Can I help you?”
“Hi, er, yes, possibly… basically, I’m cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats…”
“…without any money. At all. And what I’m basically trying to do…”
Get on with it.
“…is to see if I can help people out along the way, in exchange for, erm, something to eat. So I just thought I’d stop by and see if you could use an extra pair of hands this afternoon?”
It was a no. I pedalled on. But it didn’t matter, because I had taken the most difficult step of overcoming my misgivings, stopping by the wayside and asking the question.
“Knocking on the first door will be daunting,” wrote a wise friend. He was right. Some might chortle that it took a week of hopping between the houses of friends and family to pluck up the courage to do it. But just like everyone I have fears, doubts and insecurities. I set out on this journey in part to discover what they were, and in part to have a go at dissolving them.
A little later I saw a hand-painted sign in a village for “Asparagus”, pointing down one of those underused side-roads with a trail of moss and detritus down the middle. Something about the lettering gave me a good feeling, so I acted upon it, and this time there was no resistance. A mile or so later I came to the farm, stopped by the honesty box, took off my helmet and looked about for people. A lady about my age saw me from the other side of a window, got up from her desk. I walked over to the door; she opened it.
“Hello there! Did you want to buy some asparagus?”
“Er, no, actually! I’ve got a bit of a strange request…”
“Right…!” A wry smile.
“I’m cycling the length of the country without a penny to my name, seeing if I can work for food along the way, and I wondered if I could help out for an afternoon in exchange for a square meal? Or some asparagus?”
She laughed. “You are absolutely mental. I’m sure we can find something for you to do. Come on in! Cup of tea?… Mum, check out what this guy’s doing…”
I grinned and followed her inside. Everything was going to be just fine.