The journey I began last week was always going to be an experimental one. One variable of the experiment that could not change is that I would have no money whatsoever. Having left my wallet at home, I would have no direct access to cash, cards or any other aspect of the monetary system.
I’ve been living like this for a week now and not yet starved to death. But in the meantime it appears I have opened up rather a large can of worms…
This blog post — written during a desperately-needed rest day after pedalling 260 or so miles across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset on a really crap bike with no training — will attempt to explain why, and then mostly fail to find resolutions to, the various quandaries that have come up since I set off to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats without any money.
The Time-Limit Quandary
I recently found myself with 21 consecutive days to spare in the latter half of May and early June.
Naturally I began looking for something fun to do, rather than sitting around at home in my pants checking Gmail, Facebook and Twitter with obsessive-compulsive regularity like most self-employed adventurers do.
To follow on from the No-Budget Touring Bike experiment, I started looking at possible tours I could do on an ultra-low budget within that three week window, and it didn’t take long for Land’s End to John O’Groats to come up. Most riders complete it in between 10 and 14 lightly-loaded days on nice racing bikes, usually as a sporting challenge. I’d do it in a more leisurely fashion and on a free bike, and so 21 days would be perfect.
To seal the deal, I booked cheap trains from Bristol to Penzance (£26) and from Inverness back to Bristol (£39) so that I couldn’t opt out in favour of sitting around in my pants. The leaving date was just two days away.
Now, because there’s some defect in my brain that causes me to want to make everything in life needlessly overcomplicated, I then decided that it would be fun to try and do it with no money whatsoever.
Yes! It would be a journey to prove that money really need not be an obstacle to travel; that it was possible to live on the road indefinitely having opted out of the financial economy altogether.
(I’m fully aware that loads of people do this already, in case it sounds like I thought I’d stumbled upon a new idea.)
What I failed to consider at the time was that a 21-day time limit might be insufficient. I’d need to ride at least 50–60 miles a day, given just one rest day. And that’s before taking into account time spent navigating without GPS or detailed maps or a guidebook, fixing the crap bike, socialising, Instagram-ing (a necessary evil if I was to communicate the journey), and of course finding ways to actually feed myself without being able to pop into convenience stores or buy anything of any kind along the way!
Would it matter if I didn’t make it to John O’Groats?
Was the point of this trip to complete an iconic cycling challenge, or to experiment with cash-free travel in all its forms?
The Method Quandary
After booking the train tickets, the next thing I did was to get busy sending messages to all of my friends and family in the UK asking if they fancied a visit from a passing cyclist.
I hasten to add that I did this only within my private circles. I did not make my mission public. I wanted the experiment to be one that could be replicated by anyone, as with the bike itself. We all have scattered friends, family and acquaintances who are long overdue a meet-up and a catch-up. And if our travels took us nearby, we would obviously drop in for a night or two, whether on a cash-free journey or otherwise.
So visiting friends and family across the country would not just be an obvious way of eliminating great chunks of accommodation costs; it would also be a valuable exercise in renewing ties with people I’d been saying “we really should catch up soon” to for way too long. In fact, eliminating the ability to spend money from decision-making would have the effect of putting human contact right back at the heart of the journey.
I put the message out, and within a single day had received overnight invitations for more than half of my 21 nights on the road; from everywhere from the hotel at Land’s End itself (no joke) to right up near Inverness, and a string of locations in between.
That’s what happens when communication technology combines with our natural propensity to be sociable, helpful critters. And I was fairly mind-blown.
Then something else happened.
On the day I left, I penned a fairly short blog post and sent it out to my mailing list and Twitter and all the rest of it. The hashtag #freeLEJOG was invented at the last minute, #hackLEJOG and #workLEJOG not quite seeming to encapsulate the mission, which was to make a 100% money-free journey.
Within this article, I mentioned that the point of the trip would not be to ask for handouts from strangers to get me to John O’Groats. (That’s been done, too, by folk more bolshy than me.)
Instead, when I found myself in need of food, I’d offer to help out with whatever needed doing in exchange. This idea came off-the-cuff and I didn’t get much more specific than that. Nor did I ask anyone for offers of ‘work for food’.
I left my flat, locked the door and boarded the train for Penzance with not a penny to my name, simultaneously the most terrifying and liberating feeling I’ve had since leaving on my first big bike trip in 2007.
In the meantime, all hell proceeded to break loose on the interwebs.
At Land’s End I got my first free meal from the father of a friend of a friend who it turned out manages the hotel. After wolfing down a chicken burger and chips, I obsessively-compulsively checked Gmail, Facebook and Twitter on the borrowed smartphone I’d brought along to share the journey.
Already, dozens of messages had come in from people — not just friends and regular readers but total strangers too — who’d seen the original article, picked up on the ‘work-for-food’ idea and were now offering me meals and beds all over the country in return for helping them out!
“Bloomin’ ‘eck,” I thought in a variety of comedy accents. “What could be more fun than travelling the length of the country, visiting like-minded people, getting involved in their projects, making myself useful and having all of my financial worries eliminated into the bargain?”
Clearly not much!
But to begin accepting these offers would be a significant departure from the experiment I’d had in mind.
It would no longer be a replicable experiment in cash-free travel, because I already had a modest online following who’d put the word out on my behalf (not that anyone else couldn’t borrow a phone, set up a Twitter account and invent a hashtag, but I had a headstart).
It would also not need to involve the spontaneous exchanges I’d imagined I’d have to rely on when the pre-arranged overnight with friends ran out.
Would any of this matter?
What was more important — the pure repeatability of the free-travel experiment, or the unearthing of the huge variety of stories and projects in progress across the length of the nation?
Would it be more interesting to turn this experiment into one that bridged the gap between the virtual world of online social media and the real world in which its participants lived?
Or would it be possible to combine all of these things?
These were the questions I used to distract myself from the cruel gradients of Cornwall as I pedalled first to Redruth, where I stayed with a friend’s sister and her husband who I’d met various gatherings, then onwards to the Bere peninsular where I stayed with another friend’s aunt and uncle who were renovating an enormous old tin-smelting works.
Western Devon was no easier; the third evening was spent in Lympstone with some old friends who I’d last stayed with when cycling across Switzerland many years ago. I helped them discover that the loft ladder they’d bought was the wrong type, foraged a large bag of watercress, and set off for Topsham, all of three miles away, where a fellow cyclist I’d met at a festival last year had offered me lunch in exchange for painting his fence.
Continuing north past Exeter, I arrived embarrassingly late in a village near Cullompton but still managed a bit of gardening for a couple planning a LEJOG of their own who’d messaged me on Instagram the previous day.
They sent me off early the next morning with a packed lunch which lasted all of the 80 or so miles to Bristol, one of the longest days I’ve ridden, and one of the best Sundays ever on account of the stupendous weather.
The Personality Quandary
I discovered in the process of cycling across Devon and Somerset that I am definitely not the right person to be doing this journey.
I veer naturally towards introversion (typical writer), and while I love spending time with old friends and new people as much as anyone, my energy is soon drained by socialising and eventually I need to go to a quiet place and recharge the batteries.
This is probably one of the reasons bicycle travel appeals to me; plenty of time spent whiling away the hours in the saddle in my own company, interspersed with regular but brief encounters with people on the road. That’s when you’ve got money to buy stuff, of course.
There’s something else at work on this journey, though. Especially in eastern Devon and Somerset on the lanes and byways of the National Cycle Network, I spotted numerous farms, smallholdings, renovation projects, rustic campsites and generally-rather-hippyish thingamajigs that would (in my inexperienced eyes) be prime for rocking up unannounced with an offer of another pair of hands for an afternoon. Yet on each occasion I cycled right past, mentally kicking myself even as I did so.
Partly this is because I haven’t yet needed to stop and work for a spontaneous meal, so comprehensively have people sent me off with packed lunches. There’s also the fact that the punishing schedule imposed by a 21-day time limit has left little time for spontaneous… well, spontaneous anything, really.
But partly it’s because there’s something lurking that’s so far stopped me crossing the threshold and asking straight up, on the roadside, if someone could use a hand in exchange for a bite to eat. And the more I think about it, the more it seems to stem (as these things always do) from childhood. I took my fair share of verbal bullying at primary school, which led to me being cast happily within a circle of ‘outsiders’ at secondary school — and ever since, for that matter. The result, I suspect, is that I’ve developed an aversion to putting myself in situations in which there’s a possibility I’ll be… not rejected, rather laughed at; particularly by people in the mainstream of the society in which I grew up.
It doesn’t seem to matter what people think when I’m away from the UK, perhaps because I already live on the outside under these circumstances. But there is a personal challenge here; an obstacle to overcome. And I like my journeys to involve a personal challenge.
Would rearranging things around a series of premeditated rendezvouses take this challenge away?
On an experimental three-week trip, would this even matter?
The Storytelling Quandary
The way I see it, there are at least three different stories vying for dominance here. (I can’t help but think about everything in terms of stories — as a writer, I’d be unemployed without them.)
The first is the story of a money-free journey from Land’s End definitely to John O’Groats, in which I’d rely on a no-budget bike, friends, family, acquaintances, wild-camping and probably a bit of bin-diving to get me there, thus cycling across a country for free without relying on the kindness of strangers.
The second is the story of a money-free journey from Land’s End probably to John O’Groats, in which I’d help out with and thus expose a vast array of incredible and inspiring things that people in this country are working on, simultaneously realising the potential of online social media to make stuff happen in the real world.
The third is the story of a money-free journey from Land’s End possibly to John O’Groats, in which I’d take a cross-section of a nation and what its inhabitants really value by removing the presence of money from all interactions and engaging people on the street, spontaneously offering to work for life’s essentials of food and shelter along the way and seeing what happens.
The first story is by far the one that best fits my schedule (though nothing particularly new).
The second story is by far the one that would be easiest to tell (though by no means easily replicable).
The third story is by far the most interesting, engaging and topical, to me and it seems to pretty much everyone else (though would only work given weeks or months, not days, to make the trip).
What to do?
The Final Quandary
There is one final thing I’m considering while I should just be enjoying a nice three-week cycle tour and visiting friends in a proper British heatwave.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, what I’m doing within these 21 days is hugely experimental and subject to change in any way at any time (excluding the no-money thing, which after just 5 days has strangely become the least daunting aspect of all).
What happens next, as a result of what I find out now, is something else altogether. I’ve been wondering about future projects since the ebook launch a few weeks back, and this trip wasn’t really supposed to be much more than a fun stop-gap.
But the idea of ‘spontaneous work for food’ seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people. As well as more invites to help out than I could possibly accept, I’ve had radio interview requests out of nowhere and a TV producer call me up out of the blue to see if I’m planning on filming the experience.
Last year I was at a lecture by Darren Rowse, who I doubt many here will know but who runs two of the most successful blogs on the web. He simply told his story of how he got where he was, and one of the things I remember most clearly was the idea of ‘looking for sparks’, the ideas-in-passing that smoulder with potential to become something much bigger and more powerful — if you’re actively looking out for them.
There’s obviously something in this work-for-food idea that I hadn’t previously realised was there. That’s the fun part of experimental adventures and questioning the status quo in general.
I’ve got 15 days on the clock to do whatever it is I’m going to do. But beyond that…?
(That Tom Allen, eh? Always overthinking everything!)
I suspect it’ll all look very different when I wake up tomorrow and it’s pouring with rain. Until then, however, I’ve got a stand-up paddleboarding session to help out with…
27 replies on “#freeLEJOG: Your Thoughts Wanted on a Selection of Mildly Interesting Quandaries”
Sorry — I missed this one so didn’t offer my tips.
Even though I’m WAY behind already, but I thought I will leave a few thoughts as well…
To some degree I understand the doubts when it comes to questioning if the core of the project remains the same when the “kindness of strangers” might be the “kindness of friends” and documenting your challenge accordingly.
Seems like your idea behind the trip became more of a burden than impetus. But there’s (or there was) no need to prove anything to anyone — except yourself! You set off on this journey in the first place, closing the door behind you knowing that there were probably more lints in your pocket than pennies. I think the kindness of strangers IS there (you know and praise that all too well!) and without a lunch in your pannier you would have had to challenged yourself a bit more.
I remember a saying that I encountered years ago: I was helping to renovate a wee house in exchange for lodging, sleeping on an air mattress in the future kitchen. The mum of the guy who bought the place used to say following: “The must-do is a good master”. So once you have no chance to find an excuse, you will find a way…
I already look forward to some of the stories you encountered on the rest of the way up to lovely Edinburgh. Btw, I wish I had known you were in the city, the windows in our flat look horrible… 😉 Just kidding! Have fun and speak soon, Oliver
Wish I’d known/remembered you were based there! Next time…
“once you have no chance to find an excuse, you will find a way” — this applies to so many difficult/impossible things. Thanks for the input 🙂
There is a show in France, on TV, that might be of interest to you. It is called Nus et Culottés. Here is a wikipedia link ( http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nus_et_culott%C3%A9s ). It is about two guys who travel the French country side on scooter and without bringing money. Maybe you already know about this show, but I thought it would be interesting for you. Also, I like the picture at the top of the page, the handlebars with a nice path right in front of it. If you have time, please visit our website http://www.relaxbiketours.com
I think these are the same french guys who filmed a documentary where they start totally naked with nothing at all and have to get to Iceland from South of France, it’s a great experiment along similar lines!
Awesome! Thank you so much for the link.
I have very intermittent internet connection because I am currently at the tail-end of a journey that is at least in a few ways similar to your own…but here are some thoughts. Apologies for their muddled nature…
I can absolutely level with the fear of being laughed at etc when you start asking from the side of the road if you can help. I am also naturally an introvert as well, and struggle with the accumulated social encounters that can come with this style of travel. That also makes me feel guilty (for tiring of generous, lovely, interesting company etc). But I have also found that with time, with increased exposure to such situations I have built up a slight (and slightly increasing “resistance”) to exactly that awkwardness.
Taking money out of the equation has particularly helped with this. Because when you remove the crutch of money you arrive at a place that is exactly the same as with money, but feels a lot more exposed and scary. It is then, in times of need, that you come to realise not just the abundant generosity of strangers, friends, family, acquaintences…but also the value of yourself as a willing and able human being. All the meals, drinks, sheltered nights etc feel so much more valuable to me if I have been able to reciprocate the generosity received in some way, whether that is painting a fence, foraging some food, buidling a chicken house, watching the kids etc.
I am feeling reinspired by what you are doing, and I think you are setting a great example in showing that money need not be a hindrance when travelling. The questions you are raising yourself, and from your readers, are also incredibly valuable in themselves, and to me make your trip super-worthwhile however you decide to continue on it. Also, as I am sure you know, this trip probably will not be the end of this experiment, which is exciting for us readers (and perhaps can ease your anxieties somewhat).
All of that said…you are a great storyteller, and the Bards have always been important.
I look forward to catching up properly with this adventure once I finally get back to the UK soon!
Anthony, thanks so much for this really thoughtful contribution. You’re absolutely right, too, that this trip probably isn’t the end of the experiment. I’ve found the experience incredibly inspiring and can’t wait to develop things in future projects.
Hello Tom, I am really interested in how this is going, and would love for you to write something for the Ride Journal once you are finished (If you are interested obviously). Hopefully by then you will have found the end of some of the threads you’ve given yourself, or at least found peace with the mass of quandries you’ve imposed on your trip. Others are being inspired, make no mistake.
I look forward to hearing from you (hopefully). Philip
The curse of the reflective personality eh?
Nobody wants to feel as though they’ve let down people who’ve invested in them emotionally. But I’d hazard a guess that the majority of people that regularly follow your adventures do so in part because of the spirit in which they’re undertaken as much as for the thrill and excitement that you so expertly convey through your writing and photography.
The kind of trip you’re on now, like all adventures past and future is a difficult place for idealism to survive and as in life, the richest, most fruitful way forward usually ends up being a compromise of some sort. As has already been said here and on twitter, the weight of expectation of/obligation towards your hugely supportive followers is probably not helping you to articulate the decision that I’d guess you have already made.
You’re right to drop off the radar for a while and get back to enjoying the journey.
And just imagine all the new things you’ve got to think about as you pedal now! Still it all informs your judgement and adds to your wisdom and that can only be a good thing.
May your days be sunny and your creams be chamoise.
Perfectly timed adventure from my purely selfish point of view. I’m touring the UK for 2 months this Autumn to give talks about my work in Borneo, and while I originally got all excited about doing it by bike, my mind wandered over time and last week I found myself looking at my options for hiring or buying a van… then you went and did this!
So I’m definitely going to cycle the UK for those 2 months, and this adventure of yours will have been a big source of motivation to do so. The value of your blog to other people, as I see it, is the inspiration people can find here — not just the adventures, but the mindset and creativity to imagine adventures and chuck yourself into them.
For tales of stoic adherence to an objective I’ll go read about the Scott Expedition. From Tom’s Bike Trip I’m excited to find a kindred spirit exploring life and the world in creative ways, and not being a hero or a pedant about it! Your site remains one of my favourite corners on the web.
Ride on, Tom!
Tom! It’s really exciting that you are out there right now as I type this, having yourself an adventure.
I sense that this trip, and perhaps the boundaries you’ve placed on yourself, is making you concerned when in fact you’re already doing something remarkable.
Stop worrying, live in the present, and the solutions you’re looking for will become apparent in their own time, whatever they might be (remembering there is no wrong or right answer)
Good luck and safe travels!
It’s hardly a social experiment if you’re just staying with friends, family and followers of your blog. All that says is, ‘look how big my social network is’. The whole work-for-food aspect you are interested in goes out the window. I think you should turn off your phone and see how you get on then. Presumably you’re paying for the network access so you’re not doing without money if you use it.
Also, if this is an experiment you need to be more scientific about it. What is the hypothesis and how will what you are doing prove or disprove it?
The experiment was simply to see what happened when money was taken out of the equation. There’s nothing particularly scientific about it and nor does there need to be.
As for communicating the journey, I’ve obviously paid (£12 to giffgaff, if you’re interested) for the ability to do so. But that’s been done in my role as a blogger, not a cash-free traveller.
Having said that, I do agree with you that it’s time to go offline for a while. In hindsight I should probably have done so for the duration. But none of us have that luxury.
Sorry if I sounded a bit confrontational. If you’re staying with friends and family then taking money out of the equation isn’t going to make a lot of difference (I would imagine). You definitely should try to do the rest of the trip without relying on existing social contacts. Although this may be unrealistic it will make a much better story. Looking forward to reading about it.
I think I would be happy if the trip combined several possible approaches. I think it will have to anyway – there are long stretches for which I know nobody at all.
Tom, great trip idea, even if it has or does morph into something different… and regardless of any of that, you can still decide at any point to go a day (or two, or three days) sticking to the original concept. That is, just spend a day or three relying on your wits and ability to offer something in return for a meal, without spending a cent (or a penny in your case) and without accepting any help from previously known friends or acquaintances. If you can go 3 days and be reasonably well fed you know you can probably go 3 weeks or 3 months doing that. And regardless of all or any of that… just enjoy yourself, because we certainly all enjoy and are inspired by reading your blog.…
I think that sums up nicely what will likely happen. I’ve got nothing north of here til the Manchester area so will have no choice anyway! Gulp!
Interesting thoughts. I would like to realize my plans 🙂 but sometimes is hard 🙁
So inspiring! Keep up the good work!
I liked your observation about the fear of rejection on your “home turf” It was something I could relate to. I think if I were to do the same trip, I would have to adopt some kind of persona that was my confident side, to approach strangers at point blank and explain my position and hope that a deal could be struck.
I loved the idea of letting go of the money side and being reliant on understanding of others and good will etc, however I feel that you maybe prohibited this dynamic to a degree by publicising your journey before hand, therefore attracting a lot of your “followers” to extend the hand of hospitality and support. I guess that can be an issue when u are not anonymous.
Overall I think that anything that encourages co operation, collaboration and the sense of togetherness between people is a great thing, and it seems that social media is quite an influential tool with this. I love the idea of people coming together for a cause and it’s great to use any means at our disposal to do this.
Hope the current weather isn’t too much of a hassle, you had a lovely beginning in Devon and Cornwall, and yes it is very hilly here!
You are an extraordinary person, doing extraordinary things. I suspect those people at school who were in the ‘in-crowd’ are now plumbers, carpenters, etc living a banal existence (nothing wrong with that), whilst you continue your extraordinary journey through life and entertain us along the way.
You asked for suggestions. In the end it doesn’t mater, you will continue to ride, we will continue to read about your adventures and invited us into your world. I suspect you could write about doing the washing-up and make it entertaining ! Just keep riding and writing !
Interesting thoughts. From your quandaries it seems rather obvious to me what you should do: stop using your network of friends and “premeditated rendezvouses”, cross the threshold and rely on complete strangers. This is the most unique aspect of the trip, the one you don’t want to compromise. Also, it is the most useful for your readers, as not anyone has such a large network. When the time is up just take the train from wherever you are and go back.
Maybe you should have done it and then posted about it, that way any offers of help wouldnt be from your online presence.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing!
1. You will have tested out the cheaply build bike.
2. You could repeat a ‘no money’ trip at a later date without publishing the fact.
3. I’m sure you will be able to entertain us with the story of this journey wherever you end up.
I don’t think the offers of your following belittles the efforts of your trip in anyway.
I feel you’re perhaps loading too much of a moral obligation upon yourself when the core message of this trip is not really that ‘you shouldn’t spend any money cycle touring.’
I think this trip and really most of your writing is about encouraging people to look beyond their perceived barriers and commit to travel if they really want to. I for one find the idea of travelling without money wholly inviting, but realistically it’s the ‘extreme’ nature of your commitment that will likely inspire myself and others.
You must also remember that the people you’re going to have offering you food and shelter are wholly of the same mindset as yourself. These are cycle tourists and other travellers who understand why you’re doing this in a way others may not. It doesn’t matter how you may come to know them!
As for the final outcome of this trip, be it writing or film, if I can give you any advise as an artist it would be to take time to reflect on what you’ve made come the end of your journey. Being truly self-reflective will make for a far more engaging and truthful story.
Enjoy your trip, take the opportunities you can and give me a shout if you want a bed, food, bike parts and all the advise you could ever want in regards to cycling north of Perth.