Not a bike ride
This week: cycling around Britain, river navigation, saving the cat, brain-melting thoughts and massive trees...
And welcome to this—actually what is this? This newsletter woke up this morning with an identity crisis. The problem is that this newsletter has recently noticed that a lot of other newsletters make big promises to big audiences hungry for big answers.
This one doesn’t. This newsletter doesn’t promise to make you happier, more creative or more productive. This newsletter tries to accept you the way you are. If it does anything, it might help you think about life in a different way. My way. The author has arrived, waving from behind his keyboard—welcome!
This week’s long read
Above: A soft day on the Thames
This is not a bike ride
In an alternate reality, right now I’m preparing to join Thighs of Steel on an adventurous detour through the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains as we wend our way from London to Athens.
In this reality, however, our epic fundraising adventure has long been cancelled and instead we spent May and June riding remotely, collectively raising over £110,000 for refugees hit by this thing called Covid-19.
I’m grateful that I haven’t been sick, that I’ve been able to continue working and that we’ve still managed to do some good for those less privileged. But lockdown does funny things to the brain and seeing my summer plans cancelled wasn’t a very nice feeling.
So back in April I promised myself that I would do Something Else. I drew up a few different options, which naturally depended on the state of the pandemic when July 2020 rolled around.
Top of the list was to cycle around Britain. Again.
2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. Barack Obama was in the White House (and ordered the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). Amy Winehouse died.
On 17 July that year, a few days after my nan’s funeral, I left home on a 58 day, 4,110 mile bike ride around Britain. It was my first huge bike tour and I knew next to nothing about bikes or the psychological challenges of riding so far. That ride gave me a wellspring of resiliance that has stayed with me ever since.
Next Friday, exactly nine years later, I’m leaving home on my bike again to not cycle around Britain. Despite everything, I feel much better prepared. This time I know that this is not a bike ride. These are the tentative first pedal strokes into a physical, psychological and social unknown.
I’m not expecting anything. I’ll board my bike, fully laden with camping and recording kit, and do nothing more than turn the pedals to see what happens.
At the time of writing, cycling and camping in England is deemed safe by the government. How it will feel when I’m actually out there is a different question altogether: I’m acutely aware that camping in both Scotland and Wales is still forbidden.
2020 is not 2011.
It could be that the government, the virus or I decide that one day’s riding is more than enough and I come home on Saturday morning.
It could be that I enjoy cycling for a week, coasting between friends in the south, from my nest in Bournemouth to the concrete smoke of London. Maybe that’ll be enough. Maybe I’ll barely have time to catch a train to safety before the dread second wave winds through our communities.
It could be that I cycle on through East Anglia, pursuing the old roads to Lincoln and Durham and—if Scotland decides it’s safe—even onward to Edinburgh and Elgin. Perhaps the clouds will roll over and I will cycle on for six weeks and come back sunburnt in September with a sack of stories to keep me busy for another decade.
If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s to hold the future lightly. As the future tense in Arabic goes: insha’allah.
Under ‘pacing’ in my report card from 2011 you’ll find the words ‘could do better’. I cycled all day almost every day for nearly two months. I was permanently exhausted (my skin shrivelled up whenever I took a day off) and my encounters with Britain were more fleeting than I would have liked.
This year I’m taking the pace right down, concentrating more on the stories than on the distance. At a leisurely (!) 60km per day, six weeks is about enough time to trace half the country. If the tour is still safe and fun, I can continue with the second half in 2021. No rush.
The energy for this bike ride does not come from the physical challenge. It comes from a desire to understand the changes that have shaken this country. There’s a lot that confuses me in 2020 Britain:
What has lockdown done to our communities? What are we learning?
What state are we really in after ten years of Conservative rule? Are our politicians helping us build the society we want? Where are we succeeding and where are we failing?
How and why did we vote to leave the European Union? How are people taking this opportunity?
How awesome are bikes? What are bikes doing to bring communities together?
What, where and why is the north-south divide? And could Scotland thrive outside the United Kingdom?
Do Britons really believe that Black Lives Matter? Mark Duggen was killed by police while I was cycling in 2011 and I remember watching the news footage at a hostel in the Shetland Isles. Is this time different?
Are we turning the tide on climate change? Or is the tide turning us?
How has life changed since I last cycled this way nine years ago?
I hope to hear all kinds of interesting perspectives from people I meet along the way, which I’ll bring to you… somehow.
Although Covid-19 has made planning a last minute affair, I have been preparing the ground for more of a multimedia experience of storytelling this time around.
There will certainly be words; there may also be video and audio. Whatever happens, I’ll let you know right here.
Finally: huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.
I know this mailing list is full of awesome people. If you’d like to offer support, please please please reply to this email. Any cycle tour leans heavily on the goodwill of strangers and I’m grateful for anything and everything—from kind words up!
If you’d like to catch up on the story of my first cycle around Britain, I wrote a book about the journey called Life to the Lees. Get 10 percent off with code SAVE10 if you order today.
May we all lead responsibly adventurous lives.
Insha’allah and praise be to science-based risk assessments.
Full marks to…
Three things I’ve been grateful for this week.
1. The River Thames and navigation in general
Earlier this week, I spent a glorious couple of days on a widebeam, slowly cruising down the Thames from Laleham to Windsor. Most river vessels or canal craft, whether barge, narrowboat or widebeam, move scarce more swift than pedestrianism: the ponderous pace of my thoughts. ‘Canal mania’ and the golden age of riverine industrial navigation may have lasted less than a lifetime before surrendering to the locomotive, but its legacy was savoured in the soft drizzle. Thanks H.S!
2. Big trees
Cruising along the banks of the Thames, I was constantly awed by the gigantism of the riverbank trees. Perhaps it was because our eyes were at duck level, perhaps it was the fertility of the water, but the sinuous ash, the weeping willow and the London plane loomed quite magnificently.
In the latest episode of Trees A Crowd, Foiled alumnus David Oakes talks to Dr William Tweed about giant sequoias in California. Tweed notes that we’re drawn to things that are old, huge and rare. Three attributes we readily find in trees.
3. What if this is happening, not to me, but for me?
I know I mentioned this before, but I’ve been trying to exploit the wisdom of this trite little question this week.
Late on Monday night, driving home from visiting my sister, I missed my motorway exit. The missed junction added ten minutes to an already delayed journey. I hit the steering wheel in frustration and then, somewhat sarcastically, asked myself whether this curséd calamity was instead happening for me.
Once I’d calmed own, I noticed that the rest of the journey would take me through Reading, along a route I first travelled as an eleven year old schoolboy more than two decades ago. Annoyance turned to grateful nostalgia.
Side note: I’ve no idea where this ‘for you not to you’ idea came from. I first heard it on a Tim Ferriss podcast, but Jim Carrey puts it well:
And when I say, “Life doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you,” I really don’t know if that’s true. I’m just making a conscious choice to perceive challenges as something beneficial so that I can deal with them in the most productive way. You’ll come up with your own style—that’s part of the fun!
Three things that have spiced the soup of my mind this week.
1. The Case of the Missing Hit
This episode of the Reply All podcast is a doozy.
A man in California is haunted by the memory of a pop song from his youth. He can remember the lyrics and the melody. But the song itself has vanished, completely scrubbed from the internet.
2. Brain-melting thoughts
At a certain point, hopefully far into the future, having a thought will make your brain melt. From The Infinite Monkey Cage podcast on the end of the universe, 32 minutes in:
Thought itself is a physical process and according to the second law of thermodynamics all physical processes yield an increase in entropy: they create waste heat. You can do a calculation to show that about 10⁵⁰ years into the future, even the process of thought—the heat that it generates—the universe will be unable to absorb that heat. Which means that any thinking being at that point which thinks one more thought will die, will fry in the heat generated by the very process of thought itself.
3. Saving a cat when cycletouring in Azerbaijan
Two touring humans are adopted by a stray cat in Azerbaijan and offer it a new home in their handlebar bag.
This video was found on Warmshowers, the world’s premiere community of bicycle tourists. If you’re thinking of going on a trip, join Warmshowers and find kind people to stay with. If you’re lonely, open up your garden to touring campers.
Any more for any more?
Playing Out is a great campaign led by parents who want their kids to be able to play safely out on the streets. Like in olden times. The idea is that communities club together to agree a block of time when they won’t drive on the roads.
There are so many reasons why this is a brilliant idea, helping children (and adults) reverse loneliness, health problems and inequality of access to open space, while giving them opportunities for free play and independence. The campaign has a government petition we can sign.
Right. That’s it! I’m going to try making a vegan chocolate mousse with only three ingredients: chocolate, lemon juice and bean juice. Sounds gross.
David Charles wrote this newsletter. He publishes another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, Center for International Forestry Research and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info. Thank you for reading!
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