Pedalling Portugal – I’m back

It has been over a month since I’ve come back home and ever since I have been trying to write a ‘I’m back’ blog post but I’ve always failed.

I couldn’t write about my journey. I couldn’t even talk about it. When friends asked me how it was, I could only answer ‘Great. I loved it,’ before hastening to add ‘What about you? What have you been up to?’. People wouldn’t pry much after that. They were as little interested as I was and it suited me fine.

In some regards, I felt a similar way than I did when I came back from cycle touring in Scotland and the Orkney Islands back in September 2014. There was something too personal about the experience that held me back from finding words to share it. So I preferred not to speak to avoid uttering bland generalities that would ring untrue.

I remained quiet and went about my life. I updated my CV, caught up with friends, wrote job applications, visited Bristol, and little by little I transitioned to a new life off the bike. It was different from what I expected. I thought I would hate living in London with it noise and pollution but I have not felt any resentment against the city. I thought I would find it difficult to be still but I relished being home surrounded by my stuff. It all seemed very normal. But it wasn’t and I knew it. My eyes would fill up with tears every time I tried to talk about the future. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was standing on shifting sands. By quitting my job to go cycling in Spain and Portugal I had forsaken my old life. By stopping my wandering life on the bike, I had closed another chapter. But I didn’t want to admit this so I fought and pretended all was fine.

Last week, I was standing on the terrace of a Warm Showers host in Bristol, watching the light of the city dissolve into the countryside. Everything was quiet but for the murmur of a television program and the dull whistle of a distant road. I felt still and happy, part of a city but not trapped by it. And as I rested my glass of wine on the table, I let myself be swallowed whole by the sand. I have no grip on what’s to come and that is okay. The past is gone and I don’t have to hold on to it. I’ll fall onto steady ground soon enough.

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Pedalling Portugal – Questions on my mind

My last day at work is this Friday and the week after I’ll be heading to France to visit my family and start making my way to Spain on the 3rd of March. My trip is no longer an idea I mention casually. It is happening now. I am not pedalling yet but it is impossible to backtrack on my plans. A train ticket has been purchased, travel arrangements have been made with my family, an insurance has been selected, and lists of things not to forget have been compiled.

I try not to think much about the journey. I have no real routes planned. I had hoped to begin in Faro but it turns out to be too complicated without flying so instead I am starting in Irun, in Spain. I am thinking of following the Camino del Norte before descending into Portugal but this may change. So the preparations are done and all that is left for me to do is wait.

But still my mind doesn’t leave me alone. I think about being on the road. I do not ponder what I will see or what will happen. Guessing at answers would be akin to divination or lead to hours on Google Earth. Instead my mind pushes me to consider how I will cope on my own. I have no illusions of a bicycling idyll. I will get miserable. I will throw tantrums and yell at my bike and equipment. I will cry. I know that. This happened on a solo tour of ten days, how could it not happen on a solo tour of three months?

‘I felt a strange mixture of freedom and pointlessness. The self-containment of the solitary traveller gives you an otherworldly, off-to-one-side lightness of being. You have not the slightest bearing on the events. You cannot even converse about the business of the day, supposing you have heard it about on the radio. You do not matter. The irrelevance of the traveller, your absence of responsibility, most of the time, for anything but yourself is a strange condition. You might as well be a ghost.’ Horatio Clare – A Single Swallow

How will I cope? This is the one question I cannot answer with satisfaction or shrug away easily. And if I’m honest, it is the only aspect of this journey that scares me. So I avoid thinking about it. I stop my mind from forming assumptions based on the past, or guesses based on nothing at all, and hope for the best.

I do not know how I will react with days of my own company in countries where my grasp of the language is minimal. I repeat to myself that this is okay. I will manage as thousands before me have, and thousands after me will. And if all fun ends and there is no joy to be had during the days on the road, I can still turn back and head home early.

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Pedalling Portugal will begin in March 2016. For more information about this upcoming trip, visit this page.

Alone on the isle of Hoy

In September 2014 I went cycle touring in Scotland and the Orkney Islands. It was my first cycle touring trip with a tent on the back of the bike. It was also my first time alone in sparsely populated areas where nature was everywhere. This is an account of my first day on the Isle of Hoy.

I stopped the bike and listened. There were no sounds to be heard. The boat was on its way back to the mainland by now. I looked behind me but there was no one to be seen. The few people who had disembarked were gone on other paths. I thought of the young woman I had talked to on deck before the wind carried our words away. She was heading to Rackwick on the west coast of the isle, like me. But I knew I wouldn’t see her here. She was not one for the roads. She was somewhere to my right, walking among the hills.

I looked at the road ahead and shivered. I took my phone out of my pocket. There was no signal. I glanced over my shoulders, tempted to cycle back to the pier. The boat was gone but there had been houses and a road going south, to Lyness where there would be more houses and even a hotel. I got back on the saddle and pushed the bike forwards. I was going to Rackwick.

My heart was thumping hard even though the road was flat. I tried to ignore it and immersed myself in my surroundings. The sky had disappeared behind the fog leaving me alone with the hills. They stood enormous above the ground as if coming from another world and it wasn’t hard to visualise the tales of a giant building this island as he threw lumps of earth around. My legs began to slow and it was difficult to keep a momentum going. I wanted to get to Rackwick and find the safety of the village but at the same time I couldn’t tear my eyes from the hills. They encompassed everything around me and in that instant felt like they were the entire world. And I, I was the only human in it, on a bike with a tent for only shelter and a few scraps of food in a bag. A chill ran through my body and settled in my legs, grinding me to a halt. I knew this was irrational. This was a very small isle, there were people around, and I was not in any danger. But reason was of no use. My frailty was too glaringly obvious between those hills and I had to face it.

‘I’m okay,’ I whispered tentatively. ‘The worst that can happen is a fall from my bike. I wouldn’t break anything.’ I paused, considering. ‘Would I?’ I took a deep breath. ‘No. I wouldn’t. And why would I fall from my bike? Stop being ridiculous and get back on it.’

I obeyed my own order, trying not to let my sudden fear of death take over me. I was starting to fall into a rhythm, the movement of the bike emptying my mind with each pedal stroke, when I saw stones protruding from the hill. I stopped, intrigued. This had to be one of the burial chambers the guide at Maeshowe had talked about. Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave from 2800BC. I had visited it the day before and had learned about death rituals on the Orkney Islands from all those centuries ago when people were deposited into small chambers made of rock. I left my bike by the side of the road and followed the path leading to the grave.

History and legends had been what drew me to the Orkney Islands. All I had know prior to my visit was what the Arthurian legends had taught me, and I knew most of it was lies. I had wanted to find out for myself what those islands were truly like and how people had lived in the time of King Arthur’s legends. What I had found had been more fascinating than I could have imagined. A whole village from ancient times (between 3180 and 2500 BC) had been preserved at Skara Brae, stones circles still laid on the land free for all to visit, and burial mounds littered the ground. Those traces of the past were mostly left on their own, or so lovingly cared for you couldn’t help but feel initiated to their secrets when being guided through them.

This particular tomb (Dwarfie Stane) was a large rectangular slab with a small hole on one side. A smaller rock was placed in front of the hole, obviously carved out of the main block. How did people transport it here when all I could see was peat and heather? How did they carve such a block out of this huge slab? It was unfathomable to my mind. I knew that all those millennia ago, the world had been very different and there had been more people on this isle, but they hadn’t had the technology we have today. Carving a block of stone, and then creating two small chambers within the main block must have taken ages and be a difficult job. What had it meant to them? Why hadn’t they simply buried their loved one in the ground? All those questions remained unanswered as I explored this ancient tomb, sticking my head in the hole, walking around it for signs of runes and modern graffiti, and leaning against the smaller rock watching the circle of white the sun created in the grey clouds. Eventually I walked back to the road and pedalled towards Rackwick, my head full of questions and my fears extinguished for a moment.

As I approached the village, the road divided into a fork. On my right, I could continue uphill towards the village, or I could follow the road for a few more metres before it petered out into a footpath on my left. I wanted to walk to the Old Man of Hoy, a 449 feet high sea stack, and I knew I needed to go right for that but I veered left. I could see a motorhome before the start of the footpath and I was hoping to be able to pitch my tent next to them, but when I reached the vehicle I discovered that the parking area was entirely made of tarmac. Anxiety began to bubble inside of me and once again I forced myself to ignore it. Instead, I pushed my bike through the grass and leaned it against a toilet block before walking down to the beach. There was an old blackened out house at the edge of the sand.

‘You must go to Hoy’s bothy when you’re there.’ The words of the campsite owner I’d stayed at a few days before echoed in my head. This had to be the place she had talked about. It was as she had described it. Magical. A lone house by the sea with a garden plot on the side, it was easy to fall in love with the sight. But all I could feel were my hands trembling and my breath growing shallower. The shelter was only a few metres from the sea, barely raised from its level. What if the weather turned and a storm battered the beach? This was a stupid thought. This house had obviously been on that spot for many winters without being torn to pieces. This was a safe place to be. I knew it but couldn’t reason with my body. So I walked back to the junction and wheeled my bike to the village.

I didn’t know what I was hoping to find, but a hostel wasn’t on the list. I walked to the door, read the notice on it, and phoned the indicated number hoping someone would come to open the locked building for me or let me know where to collect the key. Instead a grumpy woman told me in no uncertain terms that without prior notice the hostel wouldn’t be unlocked but that yes, I could pitch my tent in the garden but that there was a bothy down by the beach. I hummed and agreed, relieved to be allowed to sleep in the garden.

There were a handful of houses around me, and although they were clearly empty I felt safe in their midst. Nothing bad could happen here miles above the sea level and away from the cliff edge. I leant my bike against a wall of the hostel and prepared a snack for the walk to the Old Man of Hoy.

‘Hey!’

I raised my eyes, a little unsettled to hear a human voice I recognised. ‘Hi,’ I replied to the young woman from the boat. ‘How was the walk?’

‘Great. How was the ride?’

‘Great’, I lied not wanting to reveal how scared I had been feeling since disembarking at Linkness.

‘Are you staying at the hostel too?’

‘Not really. They’re closed and when I called the number I was told no one is going to come unlock it as I didn’t book in advance. But you can try. They know I have a tent so probably can’t be bothered to come.’

She dropped her bag to the ground and tried the number but it quickly became apparent that she was receiving the same answer as I did.

‘Well I have my tent if you want. I only have a sleeping mat but if we spread some clothes on the floor I’m sure it’ll be okay and we can open my sleeping bag into a big blanket?’

We agreed this was probably the best course of action as there was no boat leaving the island before the following day. I finished packing my pockets with sweets and went to refill my water bottle from the tap in the shed. As I came out, I noticed a piece of blue plastic sticking from under a flower-pot. I lifted it and found a key ring full of keys.

‘Heather,’ I called from the back of the house. ‘I’ve found keys.’ I run back to the front of the hostel and excitingly inserted one of the keys in the lock. It fitted perfectly and under my command began to turn.

‘Tadam,’ I exclaimed pushing the door wide open. ‘We have a bed for the night.’

We giggled like two school girls and stuffed our bags in the entrance hall before pocketing the keys and setting north in search of the famous sea stack. The village receded behind us, the waves crashed at the bottom of the cliffs, and the wind ruffled our hair, all isolating us in a world shaped and dominated by nature. But I wasn’t scared anymore. I had a bed for the night and a friend by my side. I was alright.

Explore the darkness

Last week I went in search of darkness. In London.

You probably think this was a foolish idea and you’re right, but I still wanted to try. At night, London is a city filled with lights trying to reassure its citizens it is safe to go out. This has gone unnoticed to me for most of my life. But recently, I became aware of the concept of light pollution and city lights have begun to bother me. They disrupt wildlife and ecosystems, waste energy, and have banished the stars from most of our skies. They have also helped make people very uncomfortable with the dark.

I was recently walking home with my partner along the Thames Path and witnessed this apprehension. Her pace slowed and her arm tensed against mine as we reached Hammersmith Bridge on the south bank of the river. In front of us, tree branches concealed the path from the street lamps of the north bank. I didn’t care. This was a path we had trodden dozens of times and I knew it was safe, darkness having sent people  away. But my partner did not hear my words and we switched to the north side of the Thames where pubs were full of noise and the streets full of lights.

So, when I proposed the challenge ‘Explore the Darkness’ for Jonathan‘s monthly microadventure challenge, the first idea that came to mind was to go back to Hammersmith Bridge and walk a stretch of the Thames Path after dusk. I wanted to see if it really was dark.

Standing below the bridge, I could see the same emptiness as before filling the space under the trees. I smiled. For a while now, night-time had come to feel safe and almost alluring but it didn’t use to be this way. As a child, I could barely go to the end of my street for fear a wolf would attack me. This was ridiculous and I knew it, but I couldn’t help being overwhelmed with dread. I would often try to fight this feeling, forcing my legs to slow down and not break into a run, but I would inevitably lose. For almost a year, I have been wild camping every month and have come to know the world after sunset. There is nothing to fear from it, not in Britain anyway. I took a step forward and advanced towards the trees. Colours faded almost instantly into shades of grey, their nuances deepening as my eyes adjusted to the low light. It wasn’t as dark as it had appeared from the bridge. The illuminated structure had made it seem sombre.

I went on, knowing the vegetation would get thicker around the Leg O’Mutton nature reserve. Branches densified on my left while on my right trees expanded in an effort to grow into a small wood. I couldn’t see into it. I stopped and focused my gaze on it but I could only distinguish the masses of trunks. I remained on the path, thinking anyone could sleep here without passers-by noticing.

A hiss echoed in the distance and I jumped, not immediately recognising the sound. I laughed when I realised it only came from a cat. Darkness still held a sway over me. I rolled my shoulders and took a deep breath. A man walked past me, his smartphone screen turned on. He was using it as a torch but it wasn’t more than a glimmer. His pace was brisk and within a few minutes I lost sight of his figure. He had been engulfed by the shadows.

I carried on for a while longer, listening to the crunch of my footsteps on the leaves and the occasional quack from a duck. But soon the trees began to recede and street lights reclaimed territory on my left, bringing colours back to the trees. I stopped and leaned against a wall overlooking the Thames. The river was flowing black as ink, and above it, trees were an outline, their features painted black. But I knew it wasn’t really that dark. It was only a trick of the lights, their pollution distorting the views.

I carried on along the path, making for home but the world didn’t fade to monochrome again. The flats flanking the river shared too much light with me. I ignored it, glad to have found some darkness in London. It hadn’t been all-encompassing, it hadn’t lasted for long, and it certainly hadn’t allowed for stars but it had been there, fighting for its right to exist.

If you want to learn more about light pollution and how you can help reduce it visit darksky.org. It’s easy and you can really help. Unlike many other forms of pollution, this one is reversible.

If you want to explore the darkness further, I can highly recommend the Nocturne Podcast by Vanessa Lowe.

Talk to strangers

“Don’t talk to strangers,” we are told by well-meaning family and friends. “The world is full of murderers, rapists and thieves,” the media adds, fuelling our beliefs.

I’ve never had much faith in those statements. I was called naïve and reckless but I didn’t bulge from my position. How could the world be so bad? Weren’t my family good people? Weren’t my friends simple strangers I had started to talk to?

And yet, I didn’t act on my convictions. It was easier to live in my comfort zone and not engage with others unless they took the first step. After all, I have a family I chat with weekly, a few good friends I speak with and meet on a regular basis, and a good relation with my colleagues at work. Why would I need to accost strangers?

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This past September however, I moved away from my routine. I set out on a two weeks cycle journey in the Scottish Highlands and Orkney Islands. I was on my own and only had a dinosaur phone to text my girlfriend to let her know I was still alive.

I would stop by the roadside and people would start chatting to me. I was after all an oddity as a lone female cyclist in normal clothes with all she needed to live packed on her folding bike next to all the LEJOGers (Land’s End to John O’Groats) on their fast bikes and with their support crew. I would receive waves and car horns in encouragement, and in the evening I would settle at a campsite and discuss with the owner and my camp neighbours. Life was easy and the only time I was scared was when I was on my own encircled by towering hills or forests blocking my phone reception, and knowing the closest human beings were miles away.

I was safe with human, unsafe alone in nature.

By the end of the trip, my comfort zone was blown to pieces and when a fellow train passenger asked for my home address to sent me a brochure about a walk I shown interest in, I did not hesitate and shared the information.

When I arrived back in London, I forced myself to remember how simple and harmless it was to chat to strangers. In a city this large it is easy to be afraid of others and not speak with people because they will not start a conversation with you. But it was time to change this and act on my beliefs. I smiled a lot, received a few odd stares but kept on smiling undeterred. And every now and again I would chance a word and would often be rewarded with a few sentences exchanged, a smile and maybe even a laugh if I was lucky – my day and theirs suddenly made brighter by this small interaction.

Those few success boosted my confidence and this is when I remembered I had signed up to couchsurfing.org in the Summer. I had however never made my profile public or filled in any information – my bravery flagging at the reality of welcoming wanderers in the sacred space of my flat. So I changed all of this and within a day I had a couch surfer booked.

My friends and colleagues were a mixture of disbelief, horror and envy when I mentioned it but I ignored them. This man who was about to live with me for a few days was not going to murder me. I would be safe. And I was.

He came, we chatted long into the night about our thoughts and passions, shared a beer and some food and by the end of his stay I was convinced and had another surfer booked for a few days the following week.

People are nice and today I can’t quite remember why I ever let this slip out of my mind. I had sheltered myself in my daily routine and forgotten that life is better when you talk with strangers. So “Talk with strangers,” I will tell my niece and nephew. “The world is full of wonderful and friendly people. Ignore the media and trust your instincts.”