Category Archives: Flash-dash…. the new microadventure
What kind of collective madness brings thousands of people together on the dawn of mid-summer’s day at megaliths like Stonehenge? Ask each one of them, and you will get a different answer…..like asking different people what chocolate tastes like (apart from nice, that is). The annual call to madness gets a hold of me too, but I celebrate the moment in a rather different way.
Some 30 years ago, I began the habit of setting off on the bike at sunset, about 21.20, riding through to sunrise, about 04.45, stopping mid-ride for a rest and refreshment (which I had to carry with me) and arriving back home something after 05.00. I would crash out for a few hours and be at my place of work by 08.30, ready to take my first class. (Alastair Humphreys might call this a ‘micro-adventure‘). Since those distant beginnings, a few things have changed. One year I took a small group of students with me, encountered a mid-summer car rally at midnight (scary, to say the least), waxed lyrical over a perfect sunrise, lay down on the warm surface of a normally busy road, and ended up in the school outdoor pool at 05.30 (having climbed over the fence….). The lads jumped in and immediately disappeared beneath the thick carpet of mist covering the pool. Health & Safety, if it had existed, would have had a field day!
Another year I headed south and had a mid-ride rest outside Castle Ashby, a rather splendid country manor in Northamptonshire. The whole place was ablaze with light and music, and I’d arrived in time for a mid-summer all-nighter…… but, damn, I didn’t think lycra would have counted as fancy dress.
Another year, I again heard music wafting across the countryside, and as I wended my way along the dark lanes, it got closer and closer. At its loudest point, I stopped to look for its source, but couldn’t see any dwellings in the vicinity, until I spied what looked like chicken sheds, ablaze with light and music. I learned afterwards that light and music through the night kept the chickens laying…..
So what have I learned from years of night riding through mid-summer nights? First of all, it never fully gets dark, even as far south as Cambridgeshire, so you can actually ride through the night without lights to see by……though be ready to switch them on should a vehicle come by. Secondly, wild life never actually goes to sleep or even goes silent during the night. You have to be prepared for all kinds creatures lurking on, and beside, the road. They can scare the life out of you, dashing across your path and squawking in panic. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be there! And finally (for now anyway) the coldest moment in the night is just before the sunrise, and it will remain cool for another hour or so. So be prepared…..
Last year, I rang another change to my routine. I rode out after sunset and found a small rural redundant church to sleep in, and discovered another truth. If you have never slept in an empty church, be aware that they are not silent places. If you are of a nervous disposition, and not sure about ghosts, this may not be for you. In the morning, I stepped out to a glorious view of the sunrise across the countryside.
This year, I rang yet another change, and decided to combine it with a ‘flash-dash’ ride. This is my name for the following: you look at the forecast for the next few days, discover the weather is going to be fine and verify the wind direction, and ‘in a flash’ you decide to take a bus/train to a starting point, then start ‘making a dash’ for home (or other destination) with fine weather and the wind on your side. It’s great. This was my fifth flash-dash ride, and it never fails. Last weekend (the solstice weekend) I caught a train over to Norwich, with the promise of two days of fine weather and a tailwind all the way back home. Crazy……
The 197 km trip took me through some fascinating places like Wymondham (pronounced ‘Windum’), Thetford Forest, Mildenhall, and an array of old Norfolk and Suffolk villages with their flintstone churches and occasional ruins of priories and abbeys. And the night I camped on the perimeter of RAF Mildenhall airfield rewarded me with the most perfect sunset……and a bit of plane-spotting, to boot.
I wanted to get to the White Cliffs Visitor Centre, and a fingerpost pointed the way for both walkers and cyclists……what it didn’t tell me was that I would be pushing my laden bike up horrendously steep dirt tracks to 400ft above sea level, when there was a nice surfaced road (albeit longer) that allowed cars to get up there. What the hell….I was wearing my superman suit anyway.
The Visitor Centre was very disappointing. It didn’t even have an information display, so when I asked about cycling along the cliffs to South Foreland Lighthouse, I got a ‘big no, no’. The National Trust had recently banned bikes, so I teamed up with another biker, on his fat tyres, looking every inch the gravel biker, and he showed me the alternative route……if you are familiar with the shipping forecasts, you will have heard reference to the North Foreland Lighthouse…….it always seems to succeed Gibraltar Point (the Wash), and precede Selsey Bill (nr Portsmouth). The history of the lighthouse was fascinating, including one of a dynasty of keepers who fathered 13 children in the nearby cottage…..(well, it was Victorian England, after all. What other fun was to be had?)
I passed kite surfers………
this gentleman on his new elliptical pedal cycle, which roared past me at twice my speed, but made pedalling look like climbing stairs…..
crossed this narrow gauge railway…….
and found myself wending my way along quiet country tracks strewn with autumnal leaves…..
And when all is said and done, and the going gets tough, do the ‘tough really get going’? Not really…….they just eat chips…..
On the train home, I met a friend from the same village, and showed him the GPS app I use on my phone for tracking my rides……I switched it on as we sat there and detected that the train was hitting over 130mph….and it was just a normal commuter train out of London taking people home from their day’s work.
Oh, and btw, this must be the most photographed signpost in the whole country. You couldn’t make it up……reality is sometimes stranger than fiction.
And finally, the route……. (total distance for the whole trip: 237km)
When the landscape was flat, it was extremely flat. When the roads went skywards, it was like a kick in the gut. There are extensive marsh lands (Romney Marsh, for one) along the coast, meaning a high cruising speed on the bike with a gentle following wind. But when the road climbed one of the notorious escarpments, like the one out of Folkestone, tailwinds were of no assistance. They were like a sympathetic friendly arm over my shoulder….understanding my pain, empathising, but powerless to do anything about it.
The morning was miserably misty with a sea fret that seeped through the clothing, but the sun protested loudly in the afternoon and poked its face through the gloom. This coastline is truly dismal when it’s wet, but when the sun shines, it has a magic all of its own.
Hard concentrated riding tends to rob me of my appetite, but mid-afternoon a breakfast muffin filled an empty space, and fuelled the climbing muscles for the final big climb out of Folkestone, steep enough to keep me in my lowest gear, and long enough to require 20 minutes of my attention. This was the view of the escarpment as I started the climb….
And if I had done my route planning properly, my Garmin should have taken me to the front door of my overnight…..a backpackers hostel in Dover.
But when I arrived, it was completely enshrouded in scaffolding, the whole place a building site, so I wheedled my way into another place, overlooking the port.
41 conubial years celebrated, now this man has hit the road yet again for another ‘flash-dash’……I pedalled down to Bedford, jumped on a Thameslink train and stayed with it until it’s terminus two and a half hours later: Brighton, which seemed to be ‘rockin’ and rollin’ with half term fun fairs.
So at 2pm I climbed on the bike and began to follow the wind, heading eastwards along the coast, and the meteorologists are promising I’ll have a supportive breeze all the way to Broadstairs and Margate, where I might jump on a homeward bound train…..or I might head into Canterbury and take the train from there.
Don’t be impressed by the tracking map. I left it running while on the train. My total of 61km on the bike topped and tailed the journey, and I am now in a youth hostel in Eastbourne, where the average hosteller is well beyond middle age…..time for the institution to have a name change? Age Hostels UK, perhaps?
And a fellow dorm companion has given me a dire warning…….there’s not just one, but two snorers to provide the entertainment in the small hours…..now where are those earplugs?
OK, you’ve never heard of it before, because I have just coined the word. No, it’s not stolen from some online video game, but it definitely has a line of ancestry. For those of you who have heard of Alastair Humphreys, you will be familiar with his concept of the ‘microadventure’, aimed directly at the 9-5 wage slave, and asks the beguilingly opportunistic question: so what about your 5-9? Those 16 hours from every 24 hour period when you are not at work? How do you use them?
From his musings spawned the brilliant idea of the ‘microadventure’ which, for the cyclist, could mean jumping on the bike at 5pm after work, and heading off to the countryside/hills/lakeside/forest with a bivvy and a camping stove, and sleeping out under the stars. It may mean occasionally getting a bit cold and wet, but heading directly back to your place of work the next day, the regenerative impact of doing something so adventurous on a micro-scale can raise the happiness barometer enough to turn a dull boring week into something much more memorable. Instead of watching your favourite panel game or soap in the evening, you may have gazed at the setting sun, seen an owl on the hunt, or even a murmuration of starlings. And instead of joining dozens of other bored commuters on the train in the morning, you may have descended directly from a nearby hill and had breakfast at your desk. So, let me take this concept one step further, and bring a degree of spontaneity to it, and less of a reliance on bivvies and camping stoves, which are not for everyone. This is the knee-jerk reaction of the ‘flash-dash’.
One evening last week, after taking delivery of the internet food shopping at 9.30pm, I clicked on a weather-app only to discover that the following three days were going to be fine, even sunny in parts and, more importantly, with the wind generally blowing from the west. I suddenly got excited. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my travelling brain sprung the crazy idea of ‘what if I head off with the bike, on a train, in an upwind direction and spend the next few days cycling home, with the wind behind me…….?’ I didn’t need to look at a map to realize that the Peak District in Derbyshire would be the perfect location……cycle 25km to a local station, spend 90 minutes on the train, and then head up into the hills of the Peaks for what remained of the day. Brilliant idea, but ……………I still needed to float it by Jenny for her approval….and that meant waiting for her to return from a choir practice.
By 10.30 I was granted AWL (absence with leave), I stuffed some tools and a change of clothes into a saddlebag, quickly booked two £10 overnights online at Youth Hostels, and jumped on the bike after breakfast the next morning to head to a nearby station. By 2pm, I was leaving Chesterfield station and heading out into the hills. Admittedly, I had to battle against the wind for 58km that day, but the next two days were generally wind-assisted, taking me through some of the most stunning countryside in the Peak District National Park, following rail-trails and NCN routes, meeting steam locomotives and crossing micro-streams, sometimes in the footsteps of legendary fictional heroes like Ivanhoe, sometimes stumbling across a road named in my honour.
I didn’t sleep under the stars, nor heated a tin of beans on a camping stove, but I did wake up to the sunrise from my top-floor window in the hostel, I did encounter numerous reminders of the impact of the industrial revolution, and I did meet a host of people from all walks of life, some from Canada, others from South Korea and China. In many ways, this ‘flash-dash’ was in direct contrast to my normal full-on adventures, that take weeks to put together and several months in the planning. It was an unpremeditated response to a weather forecast, and a certain itchiness to get out of my normal comfort zone and go with the unplanned.
If you have read this far and have been just a little intrigued, why not open your own mind to the spontaneous, to the here and now? Although pre-planned microadventures are a great idea, you never know what the weather is going to be like in a few days’ or a few weeks’ time, so what if you can respond immediately to a sudden impulse, to the promise of a few days of fine weather and act on it immediately with minimal planning? The chance of it being successful is increased enormously. So too is the chance of it being serendipitous……. not just taking the road less travelled, but choosing the least expected moment. Make the ‘flash-dash’ a wardrobe that takes you into Narnia, or a hidden doorway that takes you into the secret garden.
As I hammered the 123km that separated my hostel overnight in the National Forest from my home, a generally favourable wind drove me into a lashing rainstorm just one hour from my destination, and I arrived home soaked, hungry and exhausted……but ultimately thrilled by the whole experience. Try it sometime……it is exhilarating.
As I woke up this morning and peered out of the window, I was visited by the piercing rays of the dawn….
Oh, and not to forget the 86km route from Ravenstor to the National Forest at Conkers (Moira)……quite a route, with plenty of climbing…..
On the road again, and heading for the hills……the wind, the rain and, ultimately, the pain. But why? Why do roadies look for the pain? “No pain, no gain?”. That’s only a very tired cliché…..but without a doubt, getting to the higher elevations has its rewards….and more fundamentally, getting into fresh territory has even more rewards. Not knowing what is round the next bend, over the next brow, what may be flying overhead or scurrying through the undergrowth…..they all enrich the travelling experience.
and found myself gazing at the icon of the town, the crooked tower….
but I was soon into the Peak District…
and onto one of the many old railway trails, starting at Hassop, the private station of the Duke of Devonshire….unbelievable, I know…
and thinking it was going to be plain sailing (ie. flat) to the end, I forgot that in these parts, railway lines have to climb, and they do imperceptibly to the eye, but not to the legs…..you have to work hard….
till I got to Miller’s Dale, the famous station that provided a connection to the Manchester-London line….
and eventually found the entrance to my overnight…..
a former mill owner’s mansion, now a Youth Hostel, and paid the ludicrous sum of £10 for my bed……
with an amazing view from my top-floor dormitory…..
and a little bit of humour that accompanied having a pee…..
What more could you ask for the first day of a lightening break that I only decided to take at 9pm last night? Viva! the flexibility of retirement……