Riding and mourning

My grand dad passed away. It was mid-April when I learned the news. It didn’t come as a shock. For the last few years, his health had been worsening with every passing month. So when I learned he had pneumonia, I had little hope of seeing him again. I was right. This didn’t make it feel any better. So I did what I knew best to clear my mind. I packed my panniers and went cycling for a couple of days.

I locked the front door of the house and pedalled away on my local Sustrans route. I began to cry as I exited the city, thankful for how few people were wandering the path in a mid-week morning. By the time I was out of Bristol, my tears had stopped and I was feeling a bit better. The route was going up and down and required no navigation. I knew this stretch like the back of my hand. There was a farm on the right, and then to the left a view would emerge through the leaves of the trees but I wouldn’t get to see it for long. The downhill was too much fun. A few more stroke of the pedals and I had to navigate the always muddy stretch of road. A down, an up, another down and I was at Chew Valley Lake. The sky was grey and I knew it was going to rain. It didn’t matter.

I stopped by the lake, sat on a bench, and munched on a cereal bar before cycling away. There was nothing to keep me around the water that day. Lost in thoughts, I took a wrong turn but soon realised it and turned around. I pedalled on, the rain beginning to fall. I didn’t bother with waterproofs. There was a couple of big hills coming. They would keep me warm.

Panting my way up the last hills into the Mendips, I began to feel numb. I wanted to turn around and go home. I wanted to wrap myself into my partner’s arms and cry my heart out. It was stupid to be here, struggling up a hill in the rain. Why was I always assuming that a bike ride and sleep outdoors would make things right? I pushed the thought away and absorbed myself in the looming fog. Soon, all views disappeared. The landscape that I had filmed almost a year before was now gone. I stopped to put on lights around the bike. I couldn’t see much further than my front wheel. It was like the landscape was engulfing me in its own embrace. There was nothing to be distracted by. I let go of all thoughts, pushing away my desire to go home, and focused on the turning of the pedals.

The time was soon approaching twelve and I was feeling hungry again. I ignored my stomach for a while knowing a picnic area with a view of the Somerset Levels was coming. I had no illusion about the view but at least I would have a table and bench. The rain had stopped and the sun was slowly chasing the fog as I arrived at the view point. There still wasn’t much to see but I carried with me last years Summer expanse of green and blue in my mind. I ate a quick lunch before freewheeling my way down the Mendips. From there on, it was going to be flat.

I passed through Wells, stopping at a sweet shop for some on the road fuel, before settling on a bench on the outskirts of town. I got my eReader out and began a new book, Maigret chez le ministre by George Siménon. It had been my grand father who had introduced me to the detective. I can’t claim that I knew my grand father well. All of our conversations combined wouldn’t even fill a week. And yet, he was not unknown. He had often shared his love of woodwork and Maigret in his own way. I remember going in search of wood in the Jura mountains for his workshop. I remember being shown into his workshop, allowed to sit at the side while he operated his machines. I remember the dark blue covered books lining his holiday house in the Jura. All Maigret stories I was allowed to read when he wasn’t. I remember him bemoaning Bruno Cremer’s interpretation of the detective and praising Jean Gabin performance. It had been one of the rare time I’d seen him so passionate. I felt like crying again. I shut off the eReader and went on.

The land around me was wet, damp, and still resolutely winter brown. The weather had been incomprehensible this year. I wandered what my grand father would have made of it. A farmer for most of his life, his livelihood had depended on the whims of the weather. I used to climb in the tractors with him sometimes, but being a girl I was never initiated in the secret of the land. That was knowledge of the men.

I arrived in Glastonbury and stopped for a moment to decide which way to go. Home was no longer an option. I’d gone too far and I didn’t want to climb the Mendips Hills again. I settled on a loop around the Somerset levels. I pedalled away from the city, passed sodden fields and noisy agricultural machines. Wealth was gone from my surroundings. Houses began to look sad and abandoned. Few cars passed me by and I wondered if life was as bad as it looked here or if the long winter was making it look that way.

The route took me along a river and I was surprised to see it still sitting in its bed, just. Houses were brighter here and garden bigger and well maintained. But the land was still desolate of people. I don’t know much about agriculture but I know there was nothing to be done yet. The frenzy of spring had not began and wouldn’t until winter decided to loosen its grip.

I arrived at a crossroads and was about to check my map when I saw Burrow Mump. A low hill I had climbed a year before on my way to Exmoor National Park. I had wanted to sleep on top of that bump in the earth ever since. It was early still but I didn’t care. I would sleep in the ruins of the abandoned church standing on top. There was a pub not far from it. I parked the bike and order a pint of ale. I almost ordered a cider in memory of my grand father but didn’t. He used to make his own. Every year the taste differed but it was always very homemade. I couldn’t remember him drinking any other cider.

‘Where have you come from,’ a man asked seeing my helmet and the bike.
‘Bristol.’
‘On that?’ He pointed at the bicycle.
‘Yes.’
‘But there’s no motor on it.’
‘I’m refuelling the motor now,’ I said pointing at the beer and smiled.
He laughed and we began chatting about his life as a farmer in the Somerset levels. I wondered how his parents lives would have compared to my grand dad. They probably had had a similar story. The man eventually left. The clock ticked on and I judge it was time to haul my bike and camping gear up the mump to settle for dinner and sleep.

My tent put up and dinner on the go, I observed the scenery in front of me. As far as I could see the land was flat and full of fields. This would have been a place my grand dad would have understood and I was glad to be here.
‘You would know this land,’ I said aloud. ‘What it all means and how to live of it. You would have soon argued with tonton (uncle) on how to best manage the fields.’ With those words, I realised that he had passed away on the eve of Spring. His body would be carried into the earth as everything was about to be reborn. I’m not a religious person but that thought comforted me. I smiled a true smile for the first time that day and felt a weight lifted of my shoulders. I went back to my stove for diner, and spent the rest of that evening nestled in my sleeping bag reading Maigret chez le ministre. I fell asleep with the book by my side.

—*—

The sky was still overcast when I awoke but at least it wasn’t raining. I ate a cereal bar, and boiled water for tea as I packed my belongings. Once everything was in the bags, I sat on the broken wall of the church and watched the morning scenery with my cup of tea. I felt rested and calmer. I wasn’t happy but I was good.

Tea finished, I carried the bicycle down the mump and began cycling. The road I needed was flooded over 100 metres. I sighed at the idea of getting my shoes wet so early in the day but there was nothing for it. Carefully, I pushed on, my feet dragging into the water and pushing me forward. What had been a desolate landscape the day before began to take on some colours. There were subtle buds of green and quaint villages. One even had a fancy village shop and café. I stopped in need of some fruit. I didn’t plan to stay long but the café was too alluring and I ordered a second breakfast of cream tea. I settled on an outdoor table with my book. It was a little too cold for that but I didn’t care. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.

I savoured the scone and tea, slowly sipping at it. My grand father never told me what he thoughts of my journeys. I wondered if he approved. A part of me wanted to think that he did, but another suspected he didn’t. I had never asked and never would be able to now. Second breakfast finished, I hopped back on the bicycle and followed the road as it wound its way upwards. I struggled up the hills, getting down to push the bike at regular interval, the efforts obliterating all thoughts from my mind.

On top, I sat at the edge of the road and looked down. The sky had cleared and everything was springlike now. The trees were still bare, but the grass was resolutely green and higher up, the land was saturated with water. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back, and enjoyed the shy warmth of the sun. On a day like this, my grand dad would have headed to his garden to tend to his vegetables. He was so proud of his tomatoes, the one crop he was able to grow in his last years. Memories of my childhood flooded me. I smiled at them, my eyes shining with happy times of spring and summer at my grand parents house. There had been barbecues, homemade alcohol of all sorts, an endless freedom to roam, and my grand father always there overlooking the family quietly while everybody babbled away happily.

‘I love you,’ I whispered.

I looked up at the sky, as if this link between England and France could carry my words all the way to his village. He wouldn’t be able to hear but I wanted the words to brush his ears anyway.

I left the side of the roads and went back on the saddle. The road continued rolling up and down along gentrified villages and national trust properties until I emerged on the edge of Yeovil, crossed a park, found the train station, and booked a ticket back home. The landscape I had cycled the day before rolled at speed by the window and I felt content. I now knew this land better than I had the day before. I could name memories and places that people around me couldn’t. And I could trace the shedding of my tears and sadness along the roads, a last goodbye to a quiet man I’ll never see again but who had left a strong legacy in me.

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Why I still haven’t written about my four months cycle tour

On this day, two years ago, I woke up in a forest by the seaside in Andalucia. It was the end of a chapter and in a sense, the true beginning of the journey I had set to undertake.
If you have been following this blog for a few years, you will undoubtedly know which journey I’m referring to. If not, let me explain.

In March 2015 I went on holiday in Portugal for a week and fell in love with the country. By the time I had flown home, I knew I wanted to go back and see more of the country. So I set a plan in motion. I would quit my job and go cycle in Portugal for a few months. And I did. But my trip actually began in Spain. I pedalled from Irún in the north, to Huelva in the south. And that led me to the forest by the sea in Andalucia.

It was the first wild camp of the journey, the first step into the unknown. Up to that point, I had mostly kept to the fellowship of the Camino (de Santiago). But this was over. There were no more pilgrim’s hostels and no more waymarks. And it was fine. I was ready. But I digress. This is not what I want to write about.

I have mostly not written anything about this journey, and I’m not about to. I probably never will. Not unlike my first cycle tour to the Orkney Islands, I find myself unable and unwilling to share my experiences.

The deeply personal nature of those journeys lock them within myself. I can’t find the right words to express them. Sure, I could write what I saw, who I met, and what I experienced. But this feels too superficial for those trips. I would lie by omission because both of those adventures changed me. They didn’t make me into another person, unrecognisable to my friends and family, but they shifted something. I could tell you what but what would be the point? It would be nothing you haven’t heard of before. Which doesn’t make sense, because I tell you about most other adventure I go on. I have no problem sharing those words.

The truth is, not sharing my time in the Orkney Islands and in Portugal is also a choice. If I let the words out, those journeys would not completely be mine any longer. Part of them would be yours too. I would fix a version of their stories with you. And I don’t want that. They are my journeys, my memories, and I unapologetically, selfishly want to keep them to myself.

But this does not mean that I don’t want to share anything. When I came back from Scotland, I shared my photos, and I did the same coming back from Portugal. I even made an album relating that second journey. And soon there will be a zine or a book of some kind. No words about the journey, but unpublished (and some published too) photos and sounds. I may not want to tell you about the stories and memories that live within me, but I do want to tell you about my love for those special places.

So I remove myself from the equation as much as I can, and bring you moments of my journey. All of the photos and sounds have memories attached to them, but you won’t see that. Because those are mine. What you’ll see is a reflection of beautiful places. A reflection curated by my eyes and ears, chosen by me with all that this excludes, and this is the most of my experiences I am willing to let go of.

If you want to remain updated of progress with this zine/book/photo-sound thing, subscribe to my newsletter.

A bicycle love affair

When I was in secondary school, my parents drove me to our nearest Decathlon store in France to get a bicycle of my own. I don’t remember how old I was, I don’t remember what I was wearing, and I don’t remember who exactly who was with me, but I do remember the bicycle. It was dark blue with yellow brakes and ‘Decathlon’ written in big letters across the frame. I couldn’t touch the floor of the shop when I tried it on. But I loved it. It was to be my bicycle. Even though I was too short for it, my parents bought it. The idea was I would grow into it and wouldn’t need another bike for a long time. They were right. The next bike that came into my ownership was bought from my own money as a grown-up with a proper job.

Now modified by my uncle for work in the fields of northern France

I did everything and went everywhere with that first steed. I knew nothing of bicycles. I couldn’t fix a puncture or even tighten a screw. So by the time I was 19, the handlebars were loose, the saddle was wobbly, and the brakes near unusable. But it worked. It took me from A to B. It wasn’t particularly safe but I knew the bicycle so intimately that it didn’t matter. I trusted it.

Then I moved to the UK and became an au pair. The family let me use one of their bikes but I hated it. So I remained on foot that year. But then, I got a job and began saving for a new ride. Little by little and with the help of birthday and Christmas money I purchased my first bicycle as an adult. It was a Brompton folding bicycle. It had a black body and white extremities . I couldn’t afford something that didn’t fold. I just didn’t have the room and my living/working situation almost demanded that I ride  folding. I took it everywhere, and like my previous bicycle, I didn’t care if it wasn’t fit for purpose. It took me to work, it took me to the shops, it even took me to Scotland.

I still didn’t know much about bicycles. I couldn’t fix a puncture (but I learned to tighten screws). But that didn’t matter. I could still get from A to B. That is until I got a puncture and spent an entire afternoon learning how to fix it with the help of YouTube.

Life changed again and I fancied a full-sized bicycle. I didn’t have a lot of cash to expand and just wanted something fun to ride. So I walked in a second-hand shop and bought a gorgeous dark blue Dawes Londoner. It only had one speed but that suited me fine. As I gained confidence in the streets of London, I kept the folding bicycle in the cupboard more and more and wheezed around in the capital on this new steed. It even took me to Cambridge once.

By then, the touring bug seriously got hold of me, and while I loved my Brompton, I wanted something more suited to the task. So I began to save, hatched a plan to explore Portugal from my saddle, and eventually bought a sky blue Oxford Bike Works. By this time I knew how to fix a puncture and how to change brake pads (in theory). And these were all the skills I needed to feel confident to set off in the Iberian Peninsula for four months. This bike has truly taken me places. It has taken me from A to B, but mostly it has enabled to be get lost and travel with no destination in mind. I trust this bike so intimately, it’s like an extension of my body when I get on it. And while it’s a delight to ride, it’s also very heavy. And today I fancy something lighter to nip into work, something easier to carry for day rides and week-ends microadventures. None of my bikes can give me that, so it was time to get a new one.

My single speed put up for sale, and with money from my birthday, Christmas, and job, I started to look around and found a red, white, and yellow old school Graham Weigh bicycle at a local second-hand shop. I hopped on it for a test ride and fell in love. My feet couldn’t touch the ground and my body was falling forward but I knew it was the bike I was after. I tweaked the saddle and stem, and it was perfect. I swapped saddle, I got new bar tape, I changed pedals, and there it is. A new bicycle. One that will stay with me for years to come. And this time I know how to fix a puncture, I know how to change the brakes (in practice), I know how to tighten bolts, and I even know about pedals, bottom brackets, chain, brake levers, bar tape, saddle, panniers, racks, tyres, inner tubes, and more. I still don’t know much about gears other than they can make you life easy or hard. But then, it doesn’t matter. I’ve lived this long without knowing about it, I can spend a few more years blissfully ignorant.

I haven’t ridden many miles on it yet and I don’t have the luggage I want for light touring, but that will come in time. The days are getting longer and I’m hatching plans. There’s a whole lot of Somerset I haven’t explored, most of Wales and a huge chunk of the Cotswolds I’ve never seen. But that will soon be rectified.

Album – Passage – A cycle journey through Spain and Portugal

In March 2016 I left my home in the UK to cycle in Portugal. My panniers were full of camping gear, road essentials, and microphones. From the beginning of the trip I knew I was going to record a lot of sounds. I had no idea what I would produce out of those sounds. I imagined simply sharing the files, creating a sound map, maybe integrating them in a story in words. But never did I think, I would create an album.

When I came back home in July 2016, I was at a loss of what to do with all of my material. I wanted to share my story but I didn’t know how. Writing about it felt trivial. There was (and still is) nothing exceptional about what I did. I pedalled a lot of miles, slowly, and with a lot of breaks, in Spain and Portugal. I am one among hundreds of others.

Sharing the sounds as they were felt not enough. There was so much material, so many stories behind each sound. I wanted to give them more meaning, a way back into the world that was more than a dump of files on SoundCloud.

I struggled and beat myself up for not doing anything. Times was ticking on. I’d been on my journey, it was now time to share. But a friend reminded me that no, I didn’t need to share my story immediately. In a world that seemed dominated by the speed of social media and instant gratification, I forgot, I didn’t need to share straight away. I was allowed time to digest, time to forget and move on, time to come back to my memories. So I did.

I went on living life, creating a new home for myself, exploring new areas, building new friendships and stories. Until July 2017.

Out of the blue, Thaniel from Humanhood Recordings got in touch. His first message had nothing to do with creating an album but soon the conversation veered that way and I saw an opportunity, the possibility to find a home for my field recordings.

So I got to work. Evenings and commute time often taken by thoughts and questions about the album, days off spent staring at the audio editing software, moving files here and there, altering them, deleting everything, and starting all over again. Until late November. The album took shape, became as ready as I could get it, and it was time to release it into the world.

As I worked on the sounds, my sister worked on the booklet, and the album was complete. Get the booklet for free here.

There are no words in the album, albeit the ones from passer bys and friends from the road. The sounds are the story. But if you want something less metaphorical, the video below sums up four months in five minutes. All the photos can be found on Flickr. And if you want specific stories, you’ll just have to get in touch and ask.

Listen and buy the album here.*

*If the cost of the album really is a barrier, let me know. But before you get in touch, consider that your money will help a small label and me get more content like this in the future.

Exploring Somerset – A solstice microadventure

‘Do you want any specific days off in June,’ my manager asked as she prepared to write the team rota.
‘If I could have the 21st and 22nd off it’d be brilliant.’
‘No problem.’ She left the shop floor for the quiet of the stock room, leaving me grinning like an idiot at the idea of having the whole solstice off work.

Planning for what to do was a short affair. I had wanted to cycle south from my front door since moving in, following Sustrans cycle route 3 to Glastonbury. After that, I didn’t know or care very much. There were plenty of options. So on the 21st of June, I packed my panniers, pumped my tyres, and pedalled away from home, my skin lathered with sun cream.

My handlebar bag was full of camera and recording gear and my mind breaming with ideas. I had been wanting to film one of my journeys for a while but I didn’t see the point of filming me. There seem nothing extraordinary or worth recording about me, not on film anyway. So for a long time, I did nothing. It was only when attending the Cycle Touring Festival a month earlier that an idea had began to emerge. I had joined the ‘Filming your trip‘ talk and discovered another way to record cycling journeys. Most videos focus on a person, but Geoff Broadway offered another possibility. His film excerpt was about the place he had visited, not about him. It was a simple idea but one that, for some reason, hadn’t occurred to me. I kept thinking about what I could bring to a cycle touring video and this is my answer:

For photos of the trip, visit my Flickr account.