Chew Magna Lake

December


Chew Magna Lake – 10 miles
I looked at the sign, looked at the trail, and made a step froward. But no, I was on foot and twenty miles was just too much for one afternoon. But I would have my bike again soon and then I would be able to visit the lake.

January, February, March


I bent over the map from Sustrans and followed cycle route three with my finger, all the way to Chew Magna Lake. Only ten miles from home. On my next day off, I would go. But nothing happened.

April


Do you want to cycle to Chew Magna Lake?
Sure
I received the text with a smile on my face. I was finally going to make it to the lake I’d been dreaming about for so long.

On the first proper day of sunshine, we wheeled our bikes outside of Bristol, following the signs from Sustrans. Country roads wound their way between hedges, inclines dropping down to quiet villages where the occasional car would pass by. The trees were still bare but buds had began to appear and as the sun warmed the earth it felt like winter was finally at an end.

We arrived at the lake happy for a ride out of town. We parked the bikes and went to explore the trails around the water on foot. Streams and pools encircled the footpath providing freshness in this unexpected warm day. We followed the bittern trail, stopping at a viewing point to admire the view and listen to nature around us. There were bird calls we couldn’t identify, the gentle swaying of long grass, and in my imagination the fishing lines of fishermen in the small boats we could see.

We eventually walked away, back to the bicycle for a bite to eat. Our lunch over, we lingered by the lake, the sun warming our skin. I could feel it burn my skin but couldn’t find the resolve to cover my skin. After month of long sleeves and coat, this felt too good to pass.

The afternoon was drawing to a close and my friend had to get back to Bristol. So we unlocked the bicycles and rode away, following another route from Sustrans, another entry into the city, another landscape.

Women & Bicycles

The alarm rang and I rolled out of bed still half-asleep. I had a train to catch to Oxford for the Women & Bicycles Festival organised by Broken Spoke Bike Co-op and The Adventure Syndicate. I went through the motion of my morning routine and still dozing hopped on my folding bike to the train station. The train whizzed away and I slowly awoke, wondering what the week-end would bring. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was already cycling and doing things people thought of as crazy, so I thought the week-end wouldn’t bring me too much. But I would meet new people, like-minded people and that was why I had booked a place.

Before I knew it I was in Oxford, following Google Maps to the events venue. I parked my bike and entered.

‘Hi,’ I waved tentatively to the first person in sight. ‘I’m Allysse, one of the workshare.’
The woman who I was talking to went in a frenzy of paper checking and looking around for the volunteer organiser who was not around yet. But just as we were trying to figure out what to do with me, she waltzed in the door, bike in hand.

We briefly introduced ourselves and she went away to tidy her bike. I was left standing there, a still figure in the constant flow of woman trying to get all the last minute details ready for launch. It was awkward being there, knowing no one and having nothing to do. But soon the one person I knew came back and my hands were put to work until there was nothing else I could do. So I went to the lounge for a much needed coffee. There were a few people on sofas and chair. I spotted another lonely figure and went to introduce myself.

And that was it. The conversation had began. Bikes were mentioned but soon we drifted to other topics. We didn’t have to explain to one another why we choose to commute by bike, even when it rained.

As the clock ticked, we made out way to the lower hall where the first panel was taking place. We settled in plastic chairs and I began to feel myself shaking slightly. All around me, I was spotting my cycle heroes, but most of all there were just women everywhere. I was overwhelmed by the sea of unknown faces that all owned a bike of some sort. I have spent a lot of my life in female dominated world but when it comes to bicycle, I have always been the only one. This was not the case here and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was thankful, I was afraid, I was outraged, I was angry, I was joyful, I was in heaven. But I didn’t have much time to think about it. The first panel was starting. Alex Feechan, Cheryl Reid, Jools Walker, and Sarah Connolly took to the stage for a discussion about making space for women in cycling. They talked about fear, anger, discrimination, sexism, racism, and their own stories of feeling stupid in bike shops, awkward in male cycling clothes, and how they decided to do something about it. And in that moment, I realised how much I had normalised being a lonely woman cyclist and suppressed a craving women cyclists friends near me.

By the end of the panel I was still shaking and wondered if I would be for the entirety of the week-end. That seemed ridiculous but I couldn’t figure out how to stop my limbs from vibrating. I walked back to the lounge for tea and cake and introduced myself to another woman. We began chatting about touring and well, bikes. We were soon called away. The second panel was about to begin. This time Lee Craigie, Kimberley Tew, Laura Moss, and Naomi Mahendran stepped up tell us about how the bicycle had brought them places. This was not about how far you can travel on two unmotorised wheels, but how this vehicle has widened their world socially, educationally, professionally and emotionally. It became evident that for all those women, cycling was a therapy of sorts. No one was able to articulate it simply, but we all understood that when things go wrong, a bike ride is always a piece of solace.

Lunch was consumed to the delight of all taste buds (food really was one of the most amazing part of the festival). Conversations flowed and were only brought to a close by the bike bell reminding us of the time. There were workshops to attend. I joined the Yoga class with Polly Clark. More than yoga exercises, she took the time to listen to what we expected from the class, what aches and pains we experienced and based on this discussion targetted the exercises so we could all benefit from them and know what would help us best.

This was followed by more tea and cake (yes a lot of cake was consumed that week-end) before we all regrouped in the Lower Hall to listen to Rickie Cotter. As we listened and laughed to her journeys of endurance, discovery, pain, and fun, cogs turned into my head bringing forward ideas that had been floating at the back of it for months.

Dinner was served, the bar opened, music was played, and I got chatting with more women. Bicycles were our links but we soon tired of the subject. We were more than racers, tourers, commuters, couriers, cyclists. We were human beings.

Tired and happy I eventually retreated to the quiet home of my host where we spent more time talking, sharing our stories, building friendships.

The following day I didn’t linger long in bed. I had to be back at the venue by 9am to help out in the kitchen. I had selected a work-share ticket which meant I was dedicating some of time to make sure everything would run smoothly. I arrived in the kitchen and following brief introductions, I was put to work. We had two hours to prepare brunch for more than a hundred people. So I cracked eggs, washed dirty trays, checked on bread, peeled a mountain of carrots, and chopped them off in batons. Meanwhile, the other women were enjoying workshops and bike rides. Finally the clock struck eleven and we were ready. I stood behind a huge pot of cabbage, standing on tip toes to drop an allocated portion per plate. Everybody was chatting and smiling, the ladies coming back from rides ready for an intake of food and the warmth of the venue.

The following panel focused on cycling as a family. Having little interest in the subject for myself I retreated to the lounge. A few people were relaxing on the sofa and around the tables. I sat on one of the chairs and relaxed. My gaze unfocused and I lost myself in thoughts. Why do you think we need a Women & Bicycles festival? This was one of the question on the wall of the lounge, a question I had asked myself a lot and hadn’t known the answer to before coming. People were talking of inspiration, of not enough women on the roads, of male dominated culture… but for me, it was about finding your tribe. Much like I had found a tribe when I attended the Cycle Touring Festival and the HearSay Festival, here was another one. I had become less lonely. The faces I had seen online and the occasional women I had passed on the roads now had names and voices. They were real.

The panel finished and a flow of people walked in to refuel and chat before the final hours of the week-end. We were to assist to the launch of the North Coast 500 film, shot back in May 2016 when the Adventure Syndicate rode 518 miles of Scotland’s North Coast 500 route in 36 hours. We followed those riders from preparation to completion, living their fears, sharing their laughs, and cheering them on as they reached the finish line. Faces merged, all female, all on bikes. It was not the story of a superhero, it was a community, a group much like the one in the room that had set out on a ride they weren’t sure they could achieve, but did.

The room slowly dispersed, everyone present riding a wave of elation and happiness. I found myself next to a woman I hadn’t spoken to before. So I introduced myself and soon I was telling her about my dreams of Audax (cycling long-distances within a set time limit) and long-distances. But there was a problem. I don’t have the right bike or kit for it. That had been the one excuse holding me back, the one sentence I had repeated to myself over and over again. But hearing it now seemed ridiculous. So I promised myself to stop moaning and get on my touring bike for an Audax soon. After all, I did start touring on a Brompton in Devon. That was not adequate but that was a lot of fun. The week-end could have ended there but the woman turned out to be Ellie from Bicycle Explorers who had raced several times on the Transcontinental. From Belgium to Turkey (now Greece), you ride to arrive there first. I had first heard of the race a couple of years ago and since I’ve had a strange obsession with it. Without trying, the name kept popping up in my feeds and I kept reading posts and stories of the race. And so with Ellie telling me she only had two weeks preparation the first time she entered the race, I began to think I could possibly ride it to. And just at that moment, one of the festival organisers arrived with a microphone for an interview for an upcoming e-zine. And I, stupidly, still elated from the North Coast 500 film, said, ‘I will sign-up for the Transcontinental.’ And ever since I have basked in a sea of fears and doubt. But I’ve said it now. The cat is out of the bag and I don’t know how to put it back there. 2018 might not happen. I do after all have plans for that year and probably won’t have enough leave from work for everything. But there is 2019 and with calendars on computer I can add a date that far in the future. So I have.

A 2016 retrospective

When I look back over 2016, I cannot deny that my trip to the Iberian Peninsula dominates my mind. I spent nearly six months away from home and the memories I created during this time are still vivid, feeling indelible. But 2016 wasn’t just about fulfilling my dream of cycle touring for longer than a week. It was filled with many other outings and experiences.

January

The plan was to go to Reading and cycle towards Bristol following Sustrans cycle route 4 along the Kennet and Avon canal. I was going to meet up with Pete whom I had last seen in September and we would make a week-end out of it. Only, Pete wasn’t feeling too well and I missed my train to Reading and found myself in Windsor instead. What followed was a very enjoyable winter day ride.

February

The ferry to France that marked the beginning of my cycling escapade was booked for late February, so my partner and I took the opportunity of left-over annual leave to book some time away. We ended up in Lyme Regis, enjoying long walks by the seaside and on the cliffs, retreating to a cosy B&Bs when night fell.

March
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My journey into the Iberian Peninsula began. Nothing was going according to plan. The weather was colder and wetter than expected, I got sidetracked from the Camino del Norte almost on the first day of it, and I ended up cycling in Spain for almost a month. But it all worked out for the best and those guys are the perfect illustration of it. They invited me for some coffee as I was waiting for the shops to open and we got chatting. They extended their invitation to their home for the night. We took the train to their place only to find out that the wife of one of the guys was not up for it. I ended up in Bilbao after another train ride where I met a man who led me to a hostel, saving me the struggle of finding it in the dark.

April
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I was finally in Portugal, the weather was brightening up, and I was discovering the most beautiful region of Portugal: the Alentejo (I may be extremely biased). I spent my time cycling under the sun, devouring Alentejo bread (that rivals French bread), eating freshly caught fish and amazing sausages accompanied by hand-picked vegetables. All while hopping from dam to dam sleeping by peaceful lakes in the company of other travellers.

May
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In May I discovered the joy of Warmshowers.org, frequently getting kidnapped by my hosts and learning more about the Portuguese way of life. This was also a time when I struggled with the fact that I was on my own and the company of strangers became essential to my well-being. Meeting the family pictured above was a blessing. They had been cycling from Morocco and were heading home (Belgium) via France and the UK. We spent a week cycling together and it undeniably became one of my fondest memory of the year.

June
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I was back in France, cycling long hours of flat straight roads in the Landes region to meet up with my father at the estuary of the Gironde river. It was almost Summer and although the weather wasn’t always up to it, the landscape certainly was with its long, long stretches of forest, immaculate beaches and lakes. It was idyllic. And so was the company of other cycle tourists.

July
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My partner came to France and we spent an unforgettable two weeks travelling between family members and city escapes. There were barbecues on an almost daily basis with beers, wine, and cocktails (and even a bottle of Champagne once). There were long swims and games in the pool. There were football matches and long hikes with my niece and nephew. But most of all there was the sun and long hours shared with my partner, my bicycle gathering dust in a shed at my grandparent’s home.

August
There is no record of August.

I was back in the UK and finally took the time to go through everything I’d recorded and photographed while away. But I didn’t stay cooped up inside. I made the most of the British summer and cycled to Bristol from London (and back) to be re-united with the Belgian family on wheels. I also made my first friends in Bristol, cycled 100 miles as it if was nothing for the first time, and enjoyed being alive and free for a little while longer before the struggle of house viewings and job hunting began.

September

I met up with Jonathan and we set off to walk the 1066 Country Walk, reacquainting me with my walking boots and the English countryside. The sun was still shining and I was full of optimism for what lay ahead.

October

I ended up in Wales sleeping in my tent once more for the #OutdoorBloggers week-end. There were new friends and the crackling of the fires, a long hike up Snowdon and nature all around. I was being reminded of what mattered in life. The strain of modern life and bills had led me to accept a job I barely tolerated. The week-end was all I needed to hand in my resignation.

November
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This was the lowest I had ever been this year. Landlords kept turning us down, job interviews didn’t work out (and the feedback was never helpful), and money was running low. I spent long hours on my longboard, the focus needed to acquire new skills obliterating every thoughts from my mind. But however long I stood on that board, I always needed to come home, to check e-mails, to apply for jobs, to arrange for viewings. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. My partner took me away for a much needed break in Sussex. We followed Constable’s footsteps and discovered Colchester, making me forget about everything else for a week-end.

December
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Not much outings other than walks and rides on Bristol many footpaths and cycleways. So I will only copy what I wrote a few days earlier on Instagram:

Five carefree months on the road when money was no issue (so little was needed, it could be earned easy enough). Four months struggling to find a job when money was a constant struggle (what with rent and food and transport to interviews). And finally today when I receive the first pay check of my new job (well-earned and much appreciated). This year has seen many ups and downs (literal and metaphorical) and I am grateful to end the year on a positive note. A new life lies ahead of me and to celebrate its beginning I treated myself to churros at the Christmas market. It felt overly indulgent and I savoured every last bit of it.

I hope your year was as good as mine but with less emotional roller-coaster.
Feel free to drop links of your best posts and 2016 retrospective. I’ve missed a lot while away and I’m really enjoying discovering what you’ve been up in the first half of the year.

And finally, as a little thank you if you’ve made it this far into the post, a collage of sounds from this year. This track includes sounds from my trip in the Iberian Peninsula, a little sneak peak of what’s to come in 2017.

Visit SoundCloud for a full description of the track.

Cycling home along the Grand Union canal

The plan was to go to Reading and cycle towards Bristol following Sustrans cycle route 4 along the Kennet and Avon canal. I was going to meet up with Pete whom I had last seen in September and we would make a week-end out of it. Only, Pete wasn’t feeling too well and I missed my train to Reading and found myself in Windsor instead.

I could still have followed cycle route 4 but decided instead to head north and meet with the Grand Union Canal. I knew this would bring me at the edge of London but it didn’t matter. I could still have a good day ride and ditch the wild camping plan if necessary.

I pedalled out of Windsor in search of route 61 and met up with it at the outskirt of the town. For a while I meandered between fields and railway lines before penetrating Slough and Langley and their tangles of residential streets. Sustrans signs became scarce and barely visible as they transformed into stickers placed on random posts. I tried to follow them, guessing which turning was meant by the crooked arrow and more often than not got lost. I circled in a residential estate for an hour, occasionally taking a foray on long countryside B roads before giving up by Langley train station. I was sure I was going in the right direction but the signs had run dry at the T junction. I cycled up and down the road, trying to spot the familiar blue logo in vain and decided in was time to give up on Sustrans. There was a canal by the station and if I was lucky it would be Grand Union Canal and I could join route 6 later on.

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The path was a mix of mud and ice and I found it difficult to judge if my wheels would crunch over the many tracks from previous cyclists or if they would just sink in. I trudged along, content to have the canal to myself apart from the occasional runner. A few hours went by in this fashion before I realised I was approaching London. There was an increasing amount of litter on the path and in the distance I could hear the never-ending roar of the M25 traffic. I cycled under it, pedalling away from its noise as fast as I could and stumbled upon a sign that declared I was now in the London Borough of Hillingdon. I had not seen any traces of Sustrans since leaving Langley but by that time my mind had drifted to other matters. My plan to wild camp was scratched off and I was looking forward to cycle from north to south London and make my way back home in the evening. It had been a long time since I’d criss-crossed the capital on a bike and I’d missed it. City cycling is never my top choice but there is something exhilarating about flying through the streets of London while buses, cabs, and cars are stuck in traffic and you are free on your bike, seeing all the major landmarks around you.

Cycling on, I happened upon a T junction at the canal and spotted the familiar blue and yellow map telling me where I was in London. I found out that I had been cycling along the Slough Arm of the Grand Union Canal and was now faced with two other directions, the names of which didn’t ring any bells. On a whim I decided to follow the many runners all heading the same way. I accompanied them for a while before I spotted one wearing a tag identifying him as a runner in the Country to Capital run. I had never heard of it but judging by the number of people in running shoes many other had.

I meandered behind, letting them take the lead until they noticed a bike behind them and apologised for not having letting me pass before, which I hadn’t minded at all. I wasn’t on a bike to go fast. I stopped at a bench for lunch and watched coots skid over water and runners puffing and panting past me.

Warmed up from a large pot of instant noodles, I mounted back on the saddle and joined the runners once again in their race to the capital. But soon we lost sight of each other. They veered left and away from the canal while I continued on along the water’s edge. I whizzed past a sign that informed me I had reached Ealing. I stopped the bike and backtracked to it to double-check. I had not mis-read it. I was now in Ealing. I laughed. I had not meant to cycle in the direction of home so soon but here I was, not far away from the Thames and my flat.

Grand Union Canal slowly lost its wildness and became gentrified, the paths well-maintained and even occasionally tarmaced. Large fancy barges made their appearance and a few people were busy working at locks until I reached a new T junction and the familiar nut appeared on a post to let me know I was joining the Thames Path. I couldn’t see or hear the mighty river though and for a while I cycled along busy roads and narrow streets until it ended and the murky waters of the Thames expanded wherever I looked.

I parked the bike next to a row of cars, sat on the edge of a wall, and smiled as geese and rowers passed by under the cold golden light of winter. When I got back on the bike, it was a matter of minutes before the scenery became familiar and I navigated my way out of habit, losing sight of the river after Richmond Bridge, the flow of water being replaced by the flow of cars that carried me all the way back home.

A cycle tour in Kent – Part 02

Catch up with part 01 here.

I stopped the bike as the first hill came into view and dug in my pocket to get my inhaler out. I breathed in the small particles hoping for the best before climbing back in the saddle. My leg spun as fast as they could while the wheels of the bike slowly turned and made their way to the top. My breathing intensified and my heart pumped harder but I remained able to breathe freely. On top of the hill, I dismounted for a moment and looked down smiling. I was still out of shape but at least my chest wasn’t constricted anymore and it was impossible to deny that the climb had been fun. I put my feet on the pedals and pushed the bike forward, the descent carrying me closer to Ashford. The wind blew against my ears, roaring and deafening all other sounds but I didn’t care. I was freewheeling down the road, propelled on the flat at speed, and I had forgotten that I had ever thought of stopping this cycle tour at Ashford. I cycled in and out of the town before lunchtime, barely sparing a glance for its structure of steel and glass.

The sign pointed to a dead-end. I raised an eyebrow but followed it nonetheless, expecting a shared path would appear at the end of the street to take me away from the traffic. But Sustrans had other ideas. Before I could reach the first houses, the familiar sign pointed up a hill. I looked doubtfully at the path. This was not a road. This was a steep muddy footpath. I checked the sign but there was no indication that it had been dislodged. I pushed the bike up, carried it through two kissing gates and found myself at the edge of a wood, fallen leaves littering the undulating ground.

‘This is not a bike path Sustrans,’ I stated a little apprehensive of what was to come. I was not in the habit of taking to muddy footpath with a bike, especially not when the land wasn’t flat and I only had the front break partially working. ‘Oh well… let’s do it.’ There was no point in turning back. A forest path would always beat a busy road, even if I had to walk most of the way. I climbed on the bike and went on. The wheels turned surprisingly easily on the leaves and I gained confidence that this path would be alright. I stopped at Catha’s seat for a while and admired the views. Green fields were surrounded by brown skeletal trees. I could only imagine what this view would be like when everything was in bloom. I made a mental note to come back and check in springtime.

Back on the saddle, I was soon confronted with my first real downhill. I breathed in deeply, checked the brake a couple of time and let go. The bike went down and my adrenaline shot up. It was going fast, too fast. I applied pressure on the brake as the first bend appeared in the distance but the wheels slipped below me and I barely avoided a fall. I released the brake and focused entirely on the path in front of me, hoping nobody was walking their dog as the bike kept shooting down and I was utterly out of control, unsure of how I remained on the saddle through all the bumps and bends. But I did and eventually the road flattened out. My heart was pounding as I rejoined the road but I was grinning from ear to ear happy to have made it in one piece.

Canterbury came and went, its cathedral looming in the distance, as the Sustrans signs numbers changed from 18 to 1. I had no interest in cycling towards John O’Groats although the signs told me I was on my way. I was after the Crab and Winkle way. It had been a route I had often thought about, its name creating a whirlwind of pictures in my mind. I smiled at the sign and took a picture of it, proof that I had finally met up with this path. I must have looked odd among the other walkers and cyclists that day. They were all on a commute back home and I was excited like a child at Christmas. The way left traffic behind and took me between fields on muddy paths and forest trails. I considered stopping for the day but there was still daylight in the sky and I wanted to hear the sea. So I cycled on and rejoined the road at the outskirt of Whitstable. I headed straight for the beach, sparring no glance to my surroundings until I was sat on a bench by a small pebbles beach. The sun was falling fast below the horizon and I started to think of bed again. Sleeping on a beach has long been an item on my microadventure list but my body was aching and I was still undeniably very tired. Maybe I could find a hotel or B&B before settling for the beach. This cycle tour wasn’t about spending 24 hours outdoors but about fun. And I didn’t want to start the third day in a haze, pedalling only for the sake of it. So I went to the tourist office and found myself a warm room for the night.

It was just before 10am when I left the B&B and got back on the bike. As I found the cycle path that would lead me to the Viking CoastalTrail, I was happy with my decision not to have wild camped the night before. I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the sea wind.

I pedalled onwards on the concrete promenade by the seaside and reflected on the oddness of British people. It had always struck me as odd to meander so close to the beach and yet not to enjoy the clink of the pebbles under your shoes, and a paddle in the water no matter how cold. I quickly forgot the thought as my gaze got lost at sea, watching massive ships standing still in the water. There was a long line of them and I couldn’t help imagine a traffic light some miles off showing bright red. I was glad to be on solid ground with a path mostly to myself and no red lights in sight.

I continued on, feasting my eyes on the landscape and quickly reached Reculver where the Viking Coastal Trail began. Huge cliffs rose to my left and I was left alone with the sea. I slowed my pace to better watch the waves crash on the wall on which I was cycling knowing that soon the sea would not be my own any longer. The seaside resorts of Margate and Broadstairs were looming around the corner and I knew they would bring their share of houses, high-rise buildings, and mansions. I ignored the resorts, their shops, restaurants, and amusements parks desolate under the grey sky of December. The wind picked up and I battled my way into Ramsgate. I was surprised not to be greeted by arcades and tacky shops. Instead it looked like a normal town and I felt compelled to stop. There was still plenty of daylight left but this ride had been good enough. I was content, my stress completely shed away, and I was now happy to go back to my flat in London. But there was still one thing to do before finding the train station. I wanted an ice-cream. There was something about the seaside that demanded of me that I eat ice-cream. So I hunted the streets for an open shop, got myself a scoop of vanilla a scoop of pistachio before going back to the beach. I pushed my bike to the water’s edge and sat in the sand, ice-cream in hand.