The chant of the waves, the warmth of the sun

The clouds hung low over the earth and I struggled to remember what the sky colour was. It had become an undulation of white and grey, shadowing the sun and darkening the nights. The calendar had ticked into Spring and apart from a slight warming of the air, it was difficult to tell winter had gone to other latitudes. I had resigned myself to a long wet spring, hoping summer would be worth the wait. Until, one day, unannounced, the clouds parted and the sun began to bathe the earth in its warmth. May had arrived.

I hoped on the bike and pedalled to the Cycle Touring Festival, I lazed in the garden after work switching my black uniform for summer clothes, I rode into Lincolnshire to reach a sunny work festival in Yorkshire before coming back home with a head full of microadventures plans. June was going to be a month spent outdoors.

I was sound asleep when the phone rang. It was work. I hesitated before picking up, but I did. It had been a long week since coming back from the festival and it was possible my colleague needed some genuine help. Instead of the familiar voice of my co-worker, it was the stressed out voice of my manager than reached my ears. Nobody had showed up in the shop that morning. Left with no solution, I had a quick shower and cycled the fastest I’d ever done to work. Phone calls after phone calls only lead to my colleague voicemail. The day went by and my worry grew. Nobody knew where he was or why he wasn’t picking up his phone, until 9pm when my manager texted. My co-worker had resigned, leaving me the sole employee of a shop about to enter its busiest period of the year. I felt all my energy drain out of my body as my microadventures plan slid away from my grasp. There was nothing for it. I would have to work almost every shift until we could find some help.

Day after day, I harassed the recruitment agency who kept sending unsuitable candidates. I was left with no choice, I had to hire the least worse person so I could get a  day off at least. A day of intense training took place before I was able to crash into bed. I had not had a proper day off for two weeks. I turned off my phone that day, resolute that I would not be dragged into work.

More frenzied phone calls with the agency followed. I had a holiday coming up for the end of the month and no plans to cancel it. I spent my days sifting through CVs, while trying to run a shop and train useless staff at not messing everything up. Until, three days before my flight, the agency called. They had found the perfect candidate, or so they said. I went through the formalities of the interview, knowing beforehand that if the person could talk and presented well, they would be hired. They were. Not only could she talk, presented well, but she had lots of desirable experiences and a strong work ethic. I knew then the agency had finally found someone reliable.

Three days of full-on training followed until 5pm rang on that Sunday. I rode back home, each pedal stroke pushing me away from work and shedding every thought of the shop behind. I was on holiday. At home, I packed my bag, checked-in my flight, and slept like the blessed.

The following morning could not pass fast enough but finally it was time to get to the airport. I emptied my bag for security, chatted with them about recorder music and licorice while they scanned my items repeatedly. Eventually, they found I carried no deadly weapon and let through. The plane journey was uneventful and I lost myself in ambient music, dozing off to sleep every now and again.

We flew over the clouds, over France, over the Alps, and finally we looped around Nice before descending over the sea to the airport. There was not a trace of clouds in the sky. The heat struck me as I took a step out of the plane. The thermometer was a lot higher than what I was accustomed to but I embraced it. The warmth was all-encompassing, like a hug from the arms of the sun, and after months of dreary grey and cold, I could not moan about it.

My friend was waiting just outside the security gates. We had not seen one another for three years. I could not believe this amount of time had elapsed. She is my muse and inspiration. Ideas and creativity flow inside of me like a raging torrent every time we meet. It is easy to live with her around, chatting endlessly into the night, walking miles after miles in cities, and eating all the good food. Life is better when we’re close.

We drove to her apartment and I met the new addition to her family, Hawaii, a beautiful gentle English cocker spaniel. I dropped my bag, emptied its content, and forgot about the world in Bristol. We talked, we walked, I met her friends, we made plans to go to the mountains and to the beach. Life was easy. We could just follow it wherever it lead us. Work that had been so difficult and tiresome seemed to be a distant memory as time stretched to the rhythm of my body.

A week passed and it was time to go back to the UK. I did not want to leave, not so quickly, but time was not my own any longer. My boarding pass dictated I had to sit in a plane that day. We said rapid goodbyes, better than lengthy embraces, and I fell asleep in the plane. Drifting into sleep was much easier than having to think about leaving my friend behind.

Late, we landed in Bristol, the clouds had parted and it was like I had brought back the embrace of the sun with me, a trace of my friend. My partner was waiting in the car park, ready for our holidays. We drove home, my head full of Nice, the mountains, and the seaside. I threw my clothes in the washing machine, hung them up, and packed them again the following morning. It was time to head to Devon.

The sun seemed to settle in the sky as we drove south and west. The drive was uneventful, a straight line down to the coast. Needing a break from the road, we parked by the seaside, ordered fish and chips, and settled on a sandy beach. It was all a bit cliché but we didn’t care. The food was good, the sand was comfortable, and the sun soft on our skins. I dipped my feet in the sea, the temperature so much colder than in Nice but I didn’t mind. I crouched, getting more of my body in the water and began to swim. A part of my brain was going berserk, imagining every shadow on the sand to be a monster, every wave to be part of a hand ready to cling around my body and drag it into unknown depth. I resisted the urge to scramble out of the sea and kept on swimming. One stroke at a time, I silenced my brain. I swam a length, another, another, another, and I began to enjoy the caress of the sea.

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Later that evening, we made it to our accommodation. Both too tired to do anything, we had a quiet dinner inside and an early night. The following days we explore the South Devon coast, dividing our time between hikes and sea swimming. The chant of the waves was our constant companion, one that I sometimes greeted with a song or two from my recorder. Time stretched on again as we forgot the hands of the clock and lived to our rhythm.

Eventually time caught on and it was time to head home. I had forgotten about the troubles at work, my ex-co-worker a distant memory of another time. The sun, the seas, the mountains had taken away my stress and worries. Ten days had elapsed but I felt like a month had gone by. I was ready to face whatever had happened in the shop in my absence. But nothing had happened. Everything had rolled smoothly and the shop was not a disaster. I slid back into my role, my shoulders relaxed, my smile fresh and genuine. Life was good.

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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.

The river Avon and me – Part 01

I love waterways.

I’m not sure I can explain it. All I know is that I love them. And for the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to live next to some.
There was the New River in Enfield. I would walk past it on my way to work, watching a family of coot live and grow throughout the seasons. It was my moment in the day to pause and forget about any worries I had. There was the river Lea in Enfield. It was further from me and I did not visit often, but it was always a pleasure to take a day out along its banks. There were industries, kayaks, fishermen, families, boats, and all sorts of life around it. There was the Thames in Richmond. I use to live within walking distance of it for a while. It was a completely different river, a mightier one I didn’t dare trade in. It lived according to the tides, sometimes overflowing to remind people it is still wild, still have the power of its long travel through England behind it.

There were other waterways too. The Regents Canal that would lead me to a climbing wall, to the London zoo, to happy memories of time shared with a friend. The Beverley Brook was a heaven of peace in a crowded, noisy London borough. The trickle of the Vesle marked the end of the village I grew up in and the beginning of adventure. The steady flow of the Canal latéral de l’Aisne would bring me to childhood friends.

Waterways have always been a part of my life, and I’ve always loved them. That is, until now.

I live within cycling distance of the river Avon. I see it everyday on my way to work. I often pause to watch the gulls dance in the air while below the muddy banks form intricate patterns of lines and shapes, making me wonder if those patterns are the same a few miles away at the estuary. And in those moments I love the river. But it is not an unconditional love as it was for the New River, for the River Lea, for the Thames, for the Beverley Brook, for every other waterways I’ve lived next to or explored. And I don’t know why.

So this year, I’m embarking on a mission. I’m going to find out what’s missing, or what’s added. I want to love the river Avon. I want it to become my river as the other ones have been. I don’t have a plan on how to best do this. But I’m starting with walking the river Avon trail. I want to see it at ground level, at the slowest speed I can go. So in that spirit, on the 10th of January, I packed a day bag and headed for Pill, one end of the trail.

The tide was out, leaving an empty basin of silt exposed and boats stranded on the shore. The land appeared barren, as if someone had pulled a plug and drained the river. The houses around were silent and closed. I felt like the only person in this area of Somerset. I knew I was wrong but the wintry scenery was not reminding me of warmer days. I remembered the ebb and flow of the Thames in London. It too is a tidal river, but not like the Avon. The tidal range of the Avon is the second largest in the world. At Avonmouth, it can rise and fall as much as 14 metres twice a day, and in Bristol where I live, the water level can change as much as 12 metres. Pill is in between the two, and looking at the empty riverbed, it wasn’t hard to believe those numbers. I pondered briefly if those drastic changes were hindering my relation to the river, making it change its character too often for me to grasp it fully at any time.

I cast one last glance at the mud below and walked away. The path veered from the river immediately, passing through a park. I dropped my skateboard to the ground and pushed away. Standing on the board, I glided along on the asphalt as the flow of the water above the silt. I passed a few dog walkers but mostly I had the place to myself. There were play area and benches, views over the countryside, and the constant hum of the motorway just behind. I paused as I noticed it and looked at the bridge in the distance. In the past, this wouldn’t have been there. Instead, there would have been the constant noise of boats and seamen. The stretch of water between the Bristol Channel and the Port of Bristol was notoriously difficult to navigate, and Pill was a place to stop and let experience pilots guide big boats up the Avon Gorge to Bristol. But those pilots have long since disappeared into history books. The way into Bristol is now by road.

I rolled on, spotting familiar cycle route signs. I looked for a red barge on a blue badge, the official trail waymark, but no trace of it were to be found. I didn’t see it for the entire day. The River Avon Trail was not announced. I knew it existed. There was a website for it, even a guide, and definitely a path. But you wouldn’t know this without digging around online.

I kicked my skateboard up and attached it to my bag. The ground was no longer tarmac. Soft mud cushioned my steps and dirtied my boots in a few seconds. Houses disappeared and long expanses of fields opened the view to the right. On the left, the brown murky river passed quietly. Above its bank, a train rattled every now and again. And higher still, the traffic of the busy A4 gradually replaced the hum of the M5.

There was no one on the water, not even birds. And there was no one on the path but me. The river was mine but I couldn’t bring myself to love it. Maybe it was the emptiness of the landscape. I walked on, my steps squelching in the mud. I stopped by an opening in a ditch that let its water fall into the Avon. I heard water for the first time, an outpouring of life into the silent river. A couple of cyclists passed me by. We smiled at one another and I began to appreciate the river more.

I walked on a little more relaxed, a little more appreciative of the waterway. Villages came into view on the north bank, bringing wildlife with them. There was the surprise squeak of a field mouse that I never saw, and the shrill call of gulls in a ballet over the water. In the field behind, blackbirds replied. And for an instant, I forgot about everything else.

As I approached Bristol, I entered the sheltered space of Leigh Woods. Trees enveloped me but their bare branches allowed for a view of the Avon. It began to change here. It felt wider. I knew this was most likely not true. Maybe if it was the reflections of the buildings and the sky ahead that made it looked that way. I paused often to watch the clouds in the river and made slow progress on the trail. I wasn’t in a rush anyway. I was here for the river and I needed to let its pull on me work its magic. It wasn’t quite like the draw of the Thames or the New River, but it was the beginning of something.

A long lorry drove past on the A4 and jolted me out of my reverie. I looked across the water to the unceasing lines of vehicles and wondered if they were not one of the cause that were keeping me away from the river. I do not like traffic sound and sometimes find it hard to block it out. It overpowers smaller natural sounds, making them disappear into the forest unless you actively pay attention to them. It felt like they were masking the river, the new thoroughfare erasing the old.

I continued on the path, human noises growing louder as the traffic of Clifton Bridge added its chorus to the A4. I was getting into Bristol now. The mud underfoot stopped to be replaced by tarmac. I unclipped my skateboard and rolled away from the cacophony of the road network above the Cumberland basin.

In a few kicks, I was within familiar territory. There was the Bristol marina and up ahead the floating harbour. Instinctively I headed for the north bank of the Avon but halfway across a bridge, I stopped. I wasn’t here to speed away from irritating aspect of the riverside. I was here to explore and get to know the Avon. I turned around and went back to the south bank and walked into the Underfall Yards. I had seen the old chimney from afar but I’d never quite ventured to it before, always passing in nearby streets. I was about to roll away when I was stopped in my track by the 78 feet (24 metres) long replica of the Matthew propped out of the water. Raised above ground, the boat looked even more impressive than on water, and I couldn’t help but wonder again how John Cabot made it to North America in the 15th century on such a small vessel. We have ocean liners today, big massive metal boats shaped like unsinkable tanks that look sturdy and safe. But this boat was only a caravel, a small wooden sailing ship. I sat down for a moment and listened to unseen workers carry out maintenance in its belly.

The maddening criss-cross of roads over Cumberland basin was just behind me and yet, I couldn’t hear it. A few metres from it I had found an island of stillness. The water was calm, people were on foot, and the only noises were of men working on boats. I felt like the river was its own here. It was controlled by men but it was allowed to breathe and live.

Bristol used to have a tidal harbour, grounding ship into the silt bottom of the river at low tide, causing damages to the hulls and hassle to commerce. So in the early 19th century, William Jessop created a dam and a lock not far from the harbour to control the water level. The excess flow was diverted into the freshly dug New Cut which was allowed to reveal its silt bottom while ships were safely docked in the level water of the floating harbour. The Underfall Yards where I was were crucial to its operation with its sluice system and I marvelled in at the feat of engineering.

After a while I got up and went on with my journey. I knew exactly what lay ahead. I would pass the SS Great Britain, the large tourist attraction forcing me to veer away from the river before returning to it and meet the old rails of the Bristol Harbour Railway. Trains used to run between the harbour and the train station but nowadays they go back and forth from the SS Great Britain to the industrial cranes at the end of the harbour, transporting tourists, train lovers, curious locals, and children.

I zigzagged my way between the rails, sometimes on foot, sometimes on the board. I wasn’t alone here. A handful of people were enjoying a scenic walk along the river. On our side of the river, boats of all sizes and shapes were docked along its edges. On the opposite side, Bristol coloured houses brightened the day, and all around us gulls danced and fought with one another provided a show in the air.

I reached the M-Shed, my favourite museum in the city, and sat on a pillar for lunch. This was the end of the harbour and the end of my walk for the day. I like it there. You can read Bristol’s history by sight. Often the replica of the Matthew is docked there, welcoming people on board for a tour or a private party. Opposite, the once Baltic trader three-masted barque Kaskelot rest, and further beyond, skateboarders practice their tricks while shoppers and arts lovers meander along the water’s edge. Back on the south bank, tall cranes are a reminder of Bristol trading heyday’s in the 1950s. But this is gone now, the smoke, the noise, the business of commerce. Instead there is the gentle footsteps of passersby, the conversations of people, and the clatter of plates and cutlery from the thriving restaurants and cafés along the goal ferry steps.

I unpacked my sandwich and took it all in. Here, at the harbourside, I was in love with the river. I basked in this feeling because I knew it was only fleeting. I loved this place, this harbour, but not the whole waterway.

My sandwich finished, I hopped back on the skateboard and pushed my way home. I was no closer to an answer to my original question. But I felt I had got to know the river Avon a little bit more intimately. Knowledge I had gained from books and the Internet was a little more concrete, helping me to understand who the river Avon is today. I am not in love with it, not like the other waterways of my past but I was left a little smitten, hopeful that this spark would grow. There is still half of the trail to go, and then miles and miles of water to explore in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset. There is still time. The river is not going anywhere and neither am I.

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.

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.