England is a small and beautiful place. Even the south of England and particularly the South East, which is usually associated with massive overcrowding and urban encroachment, can still surprise even me, and I’ve grown up, lived and worked here for 30 odd years! A big part of this journey has always been about the time spent travelling between communities. For this I decided to travel by bicycle, a Dawes Karakum to be precise affectionately named ‘The Revolution’! For every revolution of the wheel I travel approximately 2.4m. Given my average speed is roughly 12mph; I calculated that I travel 5.3m (just over 2 revolutions) in a second. Compare this to a car travelling at 60mph, at this speed you cover approximately 26.7m in a second! At this speed you are travelling so fast that you can’t even focus on what is right in front of you, you have to look further away or you get dizzy! At the slower pace you can see everything, you have time. Combine this with the fact that for every turn of the wheel you feel your muscles work, your heart pump, and your body sweat. You hear everything from the roar of rubber wheels to the sound of birds in the trees. You feel your face hitting and splitting the wind. You can smell the pine trees, the freshly cut hay and the fumes of cars as they accelerate past you: It is a whole body experience that grounds, roots and connects you to the reality that you are on the move.
One of the great things about cycling across the south of England on a bike is that you have to find appropriate routes. Heading in to London on my way to Grow Heathrow I couldn’t use the M4 or the M40, but instead had to take in towns like Windsor and Maidenhead, before crossing the M25 to get to the community.
Heading out West from London I couldn’t use the M3 or indeed many of the dual carriage way A roads. It can be very hard to find small direct roads so the way usually includes a kind of zig zag across the country. For me it also means that I see a lot of new places in an area of England I thought I knew like the back of my hand. One revelation was the canals. On a three day cycle trip to Lyme Regis in Dorset I discovered the Basingstoke canal and decided to cycle along that for a while. It wasn’t direct but it did mean that I didn’t have to look at a map every few minutes, or face the stress of noisy tin boxes overtaking me every few seconds!
Canals offer a different path on which to travel across the land. I have often said that I know very well how to navigate the South of East of England, but after spending time alongside canals I realise that actually what I know is how to navigate the roads in the South East. On a canal it is like being in a completely different place. You are positioned lower down and surrounded by nature. I spent one night pitched beside the canal and woke up to these glorious surroundings the following morning:
Another delightful find was the village of Fair Oak on leaving the beautiful, but painfully hilly South Downs on the second day of this particular ride. They have a Scarecrow festival every year and many of the residents set to work on creating the most beautiful and elaborate scarecrows you could possibly imagine.
As I was cycling through I reflected on just how much local tradition and culture exists in all these tiny places on this crowded little island that people just never have the time or inclination to find out about. I felt so grateful to have passed through this unassuming but humorous village which reinvigorated my tired legs and put a smile on my face.
That very same day I entered the new forest, just as light was fading. Despite having ridden around 80 miles through and between two national parks over the course of 9 hours, it felt so good to be on the flat heath lands of the New forest. Wild horses, the smell of pine trees, and a blanket of blooming Heather soaked the landscape. It was like being in a dream. I cannot express how tired my legs were at this point, but somehow this glorious landscape and the satisfaction that I had pedalled to this place I have been so many times before made me feel utterly joyful.
My personality has always included a healthy dose of stubbornness. For richer or for poorer, I’m not sure there is an awful lot I can do about this, other than be aware of it and mindful of how it might affect others in my vicinity! One positive outcome of this trait is a bloody minded, don’t give up, and push through the pain approach to physical challenges! So, when I cycle up a hill with 20 Kilos of Panniers and a tent on the back of the bike, I am not easily able to surrender, get off and push! I say this is positive because the feeling you get when you look out from a stunning Devon hill top at undulating green hills dressed with fluffy clouds and blue skies as far as the eye can see; as you gradually regain normality to your breathing and face colour, the feeling of knowing you pedalled yourself to this inspiring place fills you with a sweet shiver of pride and delight. And then there are the down hills! As I rolled into Sidmouth town in Devon I did something I have never done before:
I reached 42 mph on a push bike! With my helmet pulling the chin straps against my chin like it was a parachute, pedalling like an absolute madman, I entered Sidmouth, breaking the speed limit by 12mph, screaming at the top of my lungs…Yes! Yes!! Yes! What exhilaration!
It is not just the hills that go up and down when on a bike. I have found that my mind clicks through a whole assortment of gears from the positively pumped feeling of strong muscles working with ease in a body bristling with determination, to feeling like every revolution of the wheel is an eternity of struggle followed by another eternity of struggle! This isn’t just dependent on the incline; it seems to be affected by so many things. Even a large granule asphalt (found on A roads) combined with a slight breeze can send me spiralling and descending into a deep forlornness, compounded by the disbelief that you are going so slowly despite going downhill!
It is truly an emotional roller coaster when touring by bike. But at the end of every day’s cycling, whether I have done 30 miles or 80 miles, I am filled with an enormous sense of satisfaction and joy. Having stopped whenever the mood takes me, to smell the flowers, identify a tree or simply take a swig of divine Adam’s ale, I have experienced a day’s worth of electrifying views and painful ordeal to reach a resting place I could have probably driven to in under an hour. A physical tiredness fills my whole body and makes the feeling of being horizontal and not sitting on a saddle simply delectable. I just checked my speedometer and it tells me I have cycled 530 miles over the course of the last 2 months. One thing I have learnt on this tour is this: While a fast speed is exciting, productive and satisfying, a slow pace is fulfilling, eye opening and enriching to the very core of my soul!