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…