Freedom — or the sense of it, at least — is the one thing that keeps bringing me back to cycle touring. I have all practicalities whittled down to a slender routine; there is nothing more to learn from the act itself of travelling by bicycle itself. Yet back to it I come, year after year, because of the sense of boundless liberation that comes from simply being on the road.
At least, I thought it was freedom. Then someone pointed out that my adventures had all involved using money to get where I was going — just another tourist with slightly different priorities. I’d still had to earn that money beforehand. That’s not real freedom. I’d escaped, yes, but sooner or later I’d been recaptured and bound by the same old shackles.
So this year I decided to pedal the length of my home country without any money. I pronounced my plans with swagger. All that experience must’ve toughened me up by now. But I was sweating, boarding that one-way train to Penzance with not a coin, note or bank card on my person. What had I let myself in for?
On balance, I was fairly confident that I wouldn’t die (a consideration I’ve long used to weigh up new trip ideas); ergo I would find ways to survive. Still, I sweated. I sweated through Cornwall and Devon and Somerset, and each night some friend or family member would call to say they’d found someone nearby who’d shelter me for another night.
In the West Midlands, my contacts dried up. I reprised an old routine of sleeping behind hedges. I got hungry. Really hungry. Then I discovered bin diving, and that carrots alone can sustain a man for days. I’m not much of a freegan, but hunger, apparently, turns you into one.
I set to work on infiltrating communities — something cash would have allowed me to bypass, now a necessity. Down-to-earth farmers laughed at my pleas to work for food, invited me in and fed me anyway. Campsites dished out chores for leftover croissants. Rural pubs providing on-the-spot pot-washing work for meals. Cyclists bequeathed new innertubes and good wishes, with one or two raised eyebrows thrown in for good measure. And in this way the exuberant North embraced my itinerant quest, my fears a distant memory.
When I arrived in Scotland, it’d been weeks since I’d even touched a coin. And writing this now — cappuccino beside laptop — my urban lifestyle seems shallow. Every handover of coinage represents a missed opportunity to befriend a stranger, and every paid writing gig will only facilitate more such lazy, anonymous transactions.
It’s the way things are, of course. This penniless ride through the values of a nation will change nothing. My tours will continue as they always did. But I’ve seen another way, now. Counterintuitive though it may seem, perhaps true freedom in travel (and in life) really does only come when you take money out of the equation altogether.
An edited version of this piece originally appeared in the Cycle Guy column of the Sunday Times. Read the full story of the #freeLEJOG project here.
This piece was originally written for The Ride Journal, created to share personal stories from people obsessed in one way or another with bikes. You can download past issues for free from TheRideJournal.com, and connect with the project on Facebook and Twitter.
The gates swing back with an affirmative bleep and I wheel my bike onto the platform. I hunt through the hordes of hurried commuters to scan the departure board. It’s a lonely old place, a railhead at rush hour; no talking, just mis-matching footfalls, heads down, like marching to prison or war, and I feel like the one man who’s leaping the ring-fence of riches for freedom through poverty.… oh — there it is: the 09:13 to Penzance.
I prop the bike up by a small branch of Café Ritazza, stuffed panniers pressed against coffee-stained graphics. One or two nine-to-fivers glance sideways; not at me, but at it. It’s a symbol of sweet liberation for those few sad split seconds on the morning commute; a sudden awareness of the boundless potential of two wheels and pedals carrying all of one’s worldly possessions… but no: let’s get back to the grind.
The crowds diminish, and soon the point of no return announces itself through hidden loudspeakers. The train sidles in, the engine goes past with a hiss and a diesel-fuelled growl; I join in the jostle to bagsy a bike space and depart for the far end of England. Each day a few dozen folk do this; there’s nothing strange there. It’s the manner that’s making me twitch: for I, in my infinite wisdom, have left every tie to the cruel world of money at home.
Yes; cash-free and card-free on Britain’s old end-to-end ride. Just another of Tom’s silly experiments, they’ll think, those few of my friends and my family who’re still in the loop. Shirking ‘real’ work again! Just how has he done it this long?
I’ve somehow become known for it: pedalling, peeling back layer after layer of fabric of places and people. This inventive mythology gives comfort and meaning as I struggle with the truth that to everyone else I’m a crazy young guy on a bike. Last time it was language learning in Persia; before that, an ill-advised trip to the Arctic. Mongolia; a mind-shift to riding through lands without roads, where I trundled by compass through yurt-studded steppes. And the biggest of all: that round-the-world ride, sidetracked quite drastically by the surprise intervention of love — now my wife!
She’s probably thinking the same, right now, as I sit watching Devon and Cornwall roll past from my seat at the end of the quiet coach. Why, just why, would a right-minded man leave his home and his loved one, tasked by himself to seek hardship and toil in a meaningless quest for obscure-sounding truths?
Catch me at a particularly reflective moment and I’d mutter something about simplicity in motion, the beauty of true self-sufficiency, the undeniable power of transformative personal journeys, the endless potential for using a bike trip to reimagine life in as many new ways as people on bike rides. I’d bang on about discovery; of self and society; of the dazzling way that spacetime and consciousness expand when each day on the road is a self-contained story — and one worth telling too. I’d evangelise an existence so diametrically opposed to ‘everyday life’, that thing so unremarkable it can be summed up in just two depressingly well-understood words.
Ask me right now, though. Just try it. I’ve nothing to say. I’m terrified; paralysed. I have set into motion a chain of events that will prove utterly fascinating in hindsight, but the train is approaching the end of the line, and all that I have in my once-useful pockets is a ticket back home from a very long way north on a date three weeks hence and until that day comes I must fend for myself, use all that I’ve learned, strip life back to basics and simply survive.
In the days that await, I’ll go hungry and suffer; get lost in the woods, eat food out of bins, make friends with hard workers and wasters and farmers and wannabe vagabonds en route up through England. I’ll work for my meals; I’ll work for the hell of it, no purpose but helping a person in need. I’ll lend a kind ear and be fed in return for my presence alone. I’ll ride… I’ll ride! I’ll ride this old bike, seeing all that it brings; I’ll soak up the sun on a hot summer’s day; I’ll soak up abuse and I’ll laugh at it later as sunset descends and I spend one more night — of countless since past — sleeping rough on the side of the road.
But right now — as I take the first downstroke — I am plunging into a world of unknowns, going too fast to stop.
It is not the first time. And nor will it be the last.
Want to find out what happened? Start reading the blog series on this no-money cycle touring experiment here.
Last summer I offered to give away a full touring bike and equipment. The winner was Tegan Phillips, a South African student looking for a way to spend a month or so before starting a semester as an overseas student in the UK.
Tegan won the giveaway by making this awesome video:
Then she turned up at my flat in Bristol and wobbled off to catch a ferry to Spain. Her blog about this trip, Unclipped Adventure, was – quite literally – the best blog I’d ever read about cycle touring.
Now? She’s cycling through Africa with her whole family. Her amazing blog continues here, but in the meantime, I asked her to put together another video telling the story of what happened and what she learned on her first big bike trip:
Amazing. Thank you for telling your inspiring story, Tegan, and safe roads!
P.S. The journeys of Charlie The Bike continue! Last I heard, he was heading to Portugal, and there’s a growing queue of riders waiting to continue the journey in the same spirit. More when news becomes available…
If you haven’t heard of #freeLEJOG, start catching up here. Otherwise, enjoy the final chapter!
Good travelling is characterised by a great number of very painful goodbyes.
It is a difficult thing to accept; that the better the time spent in the company of new friends, the more torturous will be the moment you venture forth once again in the knowledge that this episode of your life is over — done for, never to be returned to, incapable of being relived in any form but in some happy daydream — and that even your memory will one day let you down and it will be as if it had never happened at all.
This is what I experienced as I pedalled down from the upper valley of Great Langdale, a whole universe into which I had slotted so neatly, yet from which I had willingly departed after just a few days in pursuit of my mission, of a conclusion to my experiment.
Had I been more footloose… if I had set out with nothing to come back to; if all I was gunning for was a new way of life in which having nothing and needing nothing would be my ultimate expression of freedom… then it is likely I would have stayed there much longer.
I’d finally found a way of going about things that made sense. A foot in the door, one way or another, allows you to spend time in a community, and if it’s one which values co-operation over personal gain it’s not long before you’ll find a place to lend a hand, build some trust and have some fun. Your needs will be met from all sides, as long as you aren’t greedy, and some juducious stockpiling will get you a pretty long way — by which time you’ll have got your foot in another door, one way or another.
But that is not me. I’m a fraud, a jester, having temporarily put the mundanity of modern life on hold to pretend to be someone else, to pretend that my circumstances really were as down-to-earth and simple as that, to provide some light entertainment to people seeking a temporary distraction from reality.
I’ve known the truth all along. This so-called experiment — supposedly done in order to prove a point and lead by example — was also an expression of my own longing for life to really, actually be that simple, thinking no further ahead than the next meal or place of rest, possessing nothing but common sense, a good heart, an eye for an opportunity and the ability to laugh when things went wrong; becoming the envy of the rest of the ‘free world’ in the process. The truth is that it was just as much for my own entertainment — my own temporary distraction from reality — as for yours.
Just three days of cycling separated me from the train, booked in advance of leaving home for Land’s End, that would snap me out of this fantasy, one in which real people lived, and back into the life I have wound up in and from which I am ever seeking to escape, if only temporarily, just like everybody else in it.
Back to a world of authoritative-looking letterheads filled with passive-aggressive demands for money, words of false friendliness with threatening undertones, written by psychologists in the pay of monstrous automatons whose function in this world is to churn up people and spew out cash.
Back to a world of calendars and deadlines and counting the days until the next payment’s due to the person who owns our home, stands above us, keeping an eye on the bank account; for I am nothing to them but a monthly source of cash at whatever rate the market will bear.
Back to a world in which we are forced to compete with unseen strangers for the ability to do any more than chase after pay packets — slim ones that will sustain our basic needs while we chase after slightly fatter ones that will, one day, hopefully — as we’re reminded by all the more successful imaginary people out there — ease off the pressure a little and allow us to relax; to start doing what we’re really supposed to be doing with our lives.
But I digress. For I was, in reality, not up to my eyeballs in abstractions and figures but cycling through the northern reaches of the English Lake District, wind in my face, prickly heat up my back as I ground the gears up another incline, the weather threatening to finally turn but managing nothing more than a few spots of rain and a turbulent-looking but ultimately benign sweep of black cloud overhead. Wild, bleak land; mankind’s hand had been relatively gentle here, the earth now left more or less to its own devices and allowed to heal.
I camped just shy of the Scottish border, between Carlisle and Gretna. My first attempt to heave the bike into a spinney full of tangled undergrowth had failed, so I had now elected to sleep behind the hedge that ran parallel to the motorway. My Tesco Value 2‑man tent had so far been used just once, in fair weather, and I was pleased to discover the following morning that it had performed admirably at keeping out the handful of showers that passed over during the night.
My route ducked in and out of National Cycle Network routes, taking all-but-abandoned minor roads through the fells of the Scottish Borders and Midlothian. There were few people around to talk to, and with a shopping basket still overflowing with bread and cheese and other assorted delights I had no need of anything but water, which I drew from taps in churchyards and public conveniences.
I suppose I was actively seeking solitude for these last couple of hundred miles of riding. I needed to recharge anyway after the madness of the Langdales, but I also knew that the end of this ride was drawing close, and I wanted to spend a few days — just a few days — reliving the uninterrupted simplicity of life on a pushbike that I’d been so spoilt by on remote solo journeys in years gone by. My head was now blissfully empty of thoughts — just pure connection with the winding road and the act of pedalling, observing life on Earth as it passed by, feeling the strength in my legs, now, and covering mile after mile of new and unexplored ground… and what better place to carry out such a meaningless pursuit than in the silent backcountry of Scotland?
Another wild-camp, another day of riding, climbing high upon the moors, dodging thunderclouds close-up, and then a familiar outline appeared on the northern horizon through the summertime haze: the stark buffer of Salisbury Crags, stoically defending the volcanic pile of Arthur’s Seat from incursions to the West. This was Edinburgh, and it would be here, not at John O’Groats, that this little ride would end.
Fitting, really, for Edinburgh was the place where all of this began, nearly eight years ago now — all this cycling, all this adventure, all this restless chasing of impossible goals.
It began on the Meadows, sitting under a tree with a book just bought from Blackwells on Southside when a prophetic text message arrived from a mate.
There’s a time and a place for nostalgia; I felt I’d earned the right to indulge in it here, whiling away the last few carefree hours before the night train to London and early connection to Bristol.
I ate my last slice of bread with the remaining cheese outside Waverley station. My basket was empty, and here I was, at the end of the road: my experiment a complete and resounding success. Some would scoff; tell me that because I had not cycled to John O’Groats I had failed, the last three weeks of my life null and void. But notions of success and failure in these things are and will forever be defined exclusively by me, a non-cyclist on a bicycle, in competition with and accountable to nobody. I had set out prove one thing, and it wasn’t whether or not it was possible to cycle from one end of the nation to the other. Thousands of people do it every year.
Speaking of travelling without any money, you might well ask how train travel factored into all of this. And yes, I’ll admit it: I booked the trains before I began this journey. A single from Bristol to Penzance, then another from Inverness to London via Edinburgh, and finally a ticket from London back to Bristol. Booking in advance, and using every trick in the book to bring the fares down, I managed to get this itinerary together for £65.25. And yes, it would have been nice if I could have avoided paying somehow, or covered the costs during the journey, thus making the pre-trip and post-trip ‘free’ as well.
Hang on a second…
I opened a pannier. Dug out that plastic-wrapped wad of paper, the one stuffed into my hand by the manager that night in the pub kitchen in Great Langdale.
I unwrapped it, unfolded crisp, sharp-edged notes inked in indigo and orange and turquoise. Counted them.
I’d been bequeathed with banknotes from the tip-jar to the value of £65.
Which means that my entire trip; from front door to Land’s End, the length of England, into Scotland, to Edinburgh and back to my front door; a three-week bicycle journey more affecting and poignant and damn well interesting than any I’d undertaken before…