Sunday, 27 May 2012

My First Venture in to Bicycle Touring/Camping

Bicycles have always been a great interest. They can give anyone freedom of travel at a more respectable pace than walking, and with some simple knowledge, can be kept on the road for very little money.

Aesthetically I think the bicycle, in all its many varieties, is a work of art.

My only regret is that I don't ride my bike enough! So in a conscious effort to reverse the tide of lets-jump-in-the-car mentality I've got so used to, I decided to head off out for a couple of days cycling and would have to carry everything I needed.

Blue line outward journey, Red line back
 I wanted a route that was somewhat familiar but with a sense of entering the unknown. So I decided to head out of Horsham towards Crawley but to keep going East towards Turners Hill and East Grinstead. I've never explored this part of the world except for fleeting visits when I was much younger.

I announced my plans, quite triumphantly, on a Wednesday. I wasn't to leave for a few days but felt I needed to tell someone! (And also to gain their opinions!) I always find it funny when I propose a 'ridiculous' idea to people and enjoy their 'can't do' attitudes. It makes it all the more important to do it!

With surprise Kerry's dad showed great interest. "When are you going? Who you going with? How long for?" all flew from his mouth, half-Geordie-half-Mackem accents clashing to make, sometimes, no sense to a Southern Fairy like me. The questions made sense though, not only aurally but semantically too. He was weighing up whether he was able to come! Mike isn't one to turn down a good adventure!

I knew then that I had a companion! And one I was grateful for. I should think the hardest part of a lone cycle camp would be just that, being alone. So I welcomed Mike's company and we frantically readied the bikes for departure the following Saturday.

Disaster struck in the early hours of Saturday morning. I woke to a massive pain in my face. Its difficult to describe but that's the best I can do. A pain IN my FACE. I couldn't get rid of it, I couldn't allieveiate it at all. Just a dull, numbing pain behind my cheek bone but enough to keep me awake for hours on end. I text Mike to tell him I couldn't cycle. I had slept all of 4 hours during the night. I was gutted. I drifted off to sleep at about 7am, disappointed.

But I was determined to get out cycling. I knew Mike would be feeling as gutted as I was and didn't want to let him down. I was up again at 10am and rang Mike to ask if he could still make it. He could! and we arranged to meet at half past 10. Thirty minutes to get ready. Easy, the bike was already packed, all I needed was to get dressed!

Mike out on the road
All set I hurriedly cycled to meet Mike, we arrived at the rendezvous at the same time, handy! We already knew our biggest issue. Rusper hill. Whilst not in any way big, the hill is quite steep at one section. The bikes felt good. It was the first time I had ridden with it fully laden and I couldn't tell there was any weight on the back. Until I hit the hill that is! I had to get off straight away. I struggle without any panniers but with this weight any incline felt like a tug of war match with a stern bull.

Once we had made it up everything seemed plain sailing. The first 5 miles were all very familiar territory. I ride this route to work sometimes so know exactly where I will need to push harder or where I can afford to relax a bit. It was a pleasant ride, the sun shone gloriously through the trees and we were soon in Ifield where we had decided to stop and grab some lunch from a shop.

Two 'meal-in-a-can's' and a few bread rolls strapped to the back and we were off again. We would traverse Crawley and stop just outside town in some woods to cook up the cans and generally chill. We found a nice green just off the road and I could try out my new stove.

The 'White Box Stove' is a nice little aluminium meths burning stove that ... comes in a white box! It is awesome. It's amazing how such a little amount of meths in such a tiny stove can produce good, sustained heat for 10 minutes, easily heating our food which we ate dipping bread rolls.

Stomachs full and the pace slowed. I was certainly feeling pretty tired at this point so the sight of a pub a few miles down the road was welcomed! Pint in hand and sun on face I thought about how I could easily get used to this! Then when I stood up my legs reminded me its not all rosy! The last miles were difficult. We hit Turners Hill which is not to be estimated. The 16 cans of lager we bought then hampered our ascents even more. We needed to find somewhere to camp.

I'd set my heart on camping next to Weirwood Reservoir, a view across the water and a decent camp fire. A few dead ends later and we found that it was impossible to get to the water edge. Tired and weary we settled for a nice bluebell wood. A small copse of mainly birch trees just next to the road. Just what we needed after cycling 24 miles.

The tent was set up with ease and we settles down to building the camp fire. It turns out Mike has some sort of compulsion to find any piece of wood and put it in the fire. So I was left to sit back and enjoy the countryside.

The cycle had really tired me out. It was very hard, alot harder than I had thought it would be, but sitting back against a tree watching the fire made it all better. And it was keeping the midges away! I cooked up a nice 'Curry-in-a-can' meal with one piece of chicken in no bigger than my little finger nail. I'd regard that meal as more a curry flavoured soup!

The beers went down very easily, and soon the light was fading (as was I) to the point where we had to retire to our sleeping bags. It was fairly cold through the night and we both had to get up for the toilet, cursing at how cold it was outside!
I woke up at about 06:00 and successfully managed to get the fire re-lit from the embers. The orange flames were perfect for warming my socks. Mike slept slightly longer, however I think this was to make up for what sleep he hadn't got through the night.
We were both knackered, even putting the tent away was a struggle and packing everything back on to the bikes took real time and energy. We were in no rush to get back on the saddle. I had a suspicion that the first few miles would all be up hill which made it even worse. I kept these dark thoughts to myself!

Lo and behold! we hit hills as soon as we left the reservoir. Big ones that seemed to go on and on. Cycling up them with a very tired and aching bottom wasn't fun. Each corner just gave way to another long incline. We'd only eaten a bread roll each. toasted on the fire that morning, and it was very hard to muster any energy. This is why I've never been so pleased to see a Costcutter shop in my life. I grabbed meat pasties and bottles of water which we wolfed down quickly and we soon felt a bit better and ready for the journey home.

After walking the bikes up Turners Hill for the second time in two days we decided to take a more direct route home. And we were so pleased we did! We seemed to roll on and on through the countryside, not a hill in sight except for the gradual descent we were on. Mike shouted in delight "Now THIS is more like it!"
The journey seemed to take less time and we stopped just short of Horsham to have a quick pint in The Dragon at Colgate. It wasn't even midday yet and we were only a few miles from home!

I could tell the mix of cycling and a restless night had taken its toll on Mike. I too was tired but had atleast done some cycling the weeks before hand. That and I'm half Mikes age!

Whilst supping our beers and admiring a large group of old MG cars growl past I spotted this little hitchhiker! He must be from Weirwood reservoir and had made it all the way to Colgate with me! A quick 10 minute blast and we were in Horsham. I bid Mike farewell and headed to the local shop to load my panniers up with wine. I needed it after all that cycling! 20 miles back, a shorter distance home which was appreciated.

Ever done any Cycle Touring or Camping? Epic bike rides?

Monday, 7 May 2012

Vagabonding Types: Hitchhikers

Hitchhiking is the process of asking people, commonly strangers, for a lift in their vehicle. It was once widespread before the 1970's but since then has been on the decline.

Photo by Leo Reynolds
The sight of a backpack laden traveller holding their thumb out is known the world over. Very few countries have laws against hitchhiking and some even encourage it by assigning areas that are suitable for hitchhiking such as in the Netherlands.

It's slow decline can be attributed to a few high profile news stories where hitchhikers were killed or other terrible tales. The media put out stories of similar ilk where hitchhikers, after accepting a lift, would then turn on their trusting drivers. Obviously hitchhiking can be dangerous. Getting in to a car with a complete stranger can bring about unwanted situations. For instance I heard a story of a 20 something bloke in America who feared for his life after a crack-head woman picked him up with her equally psychotic crack-head husband. A knife and then a gun appeared and the guy had to make a rather hasty get away. The experience shook the guy so bad he vowed to contact his Dad and tell him he loved him.

So hitchhiking can have its dangers, but that doesn't deter thousands of people who regularly partake in hitchhiking every year. It is sometimes used for charitable gain too. Universities hold contests to see which of its participants can get the farthest in a set amount of time. Or have to reach a pre-determined destination in the least amount of time.

Hitchhiking can also be an essential and valid form of travel to alot of people. People pick up hitchhikers for many different reasons. Whether to give something back to the hitching community (something I try and do when ever I see a hitchhiker) or simply for a bit of company.

Hitchhiking has changed with the times and the internet is now widely used to pre-arrange car shares. Websites like Digihitch and allow potential hitchhikers and picker-uppers to contact each other ahead of time.

I am pretty sure that I shall be hitchhiking in some capacity during my vagabonding adventure. Except this time it'll be very different. Not only do I need a lift for myself but also Kerry.

It's a free mode of transport afterall! One thing I would urge anyone and everyone to do is to head over to the hitchwiki and read the whole thing! There is definately an ettiquette to hitchhiking and for it to be done safely you should be armed with knowledge and never feel pressured to take a lift just because it's there. Something doesnt feel right? Just say 'No thanks I'm happy walking'.

You can read about my first hitchhiking experience with all its ups and downs in A Tale from a Novice Hitchhiker

A Tale from a Novice Hitchhiker

The story of my first hitchhiking experience;

Early one Saturday morning during the tale end of an Indian summer I decided to set off. I had 4 days off work and with it came a great sense of freedom. The only thing I had to commit to was the need to be back home and ready for work in 96 hours time. And it felt gooood!

I never have trouble getting up early. In fact to any of my mates who've had the pleasure of waking up with me after a night out, its somewhat of an inconvenience! But I'd managed to sleep until 9am this morning. An achievement in lieing in! I made a plan from my pillow. Pack up, walk out of my apartment and aim for Canterbury. I had a good friend who lived there who I hadn't seen in a while.

My pack consisted of very little. One change of clothes, a travel towel, sleeping bag and a brand new bivvi bag in case I had to sleep rough anywhere. A few chocolate bars and a litre of water were thrown in for good measure and I was off.

My first 'pick-up' wasn't your typical hitchhiking procedure. I didn't even have the chance to hold out my sign! I'd walked the 2 miles to the edge of town and had drank nearly half of my water! I blame the late summers heat but I think if I'm honest it was a reflection on how unfit I was. I sat down and lent against a garden fence, triumphantly withdrawing my sharpie marker like a brave warrior preparing for battle. I'd only managed to outline 'Peas' in my best bubble graffiti (intending on completing 'Pease Pottage' but realising it wouldn't all fit on the page!) when the lady who owned the garden fence popped her head round the corner;

"Need a lift?" She asked, obviously catching sight of the letters I'd scribbled on the page.

"Please!" I replied eagerly. Surprised and kind of disappointed I didn't have to finish my masterpiece.

It was all very pleasant. I helped load her kids' bag in to the boot of the car and broke one of the rules of hitchhiking, 'Always travel alongside your bag', by chucking mine in with it. I clambered in to the passenger seat and waited patiently while the lady strapped her kid in to the car seat.

We agreed that she'd drop me off at the services a mere 4 miles away, but I was happy! The services was the 'hitchhiking hub' in my eyes and a sure thing for the next pickup. We exchanged chit-chat until we pulled in to the car park, I grabbed my bag out of the boot, and she wished me good luck. How easy was that? My first experience of hitchhiking had gone without a hitch (excuse the pun).

The rest of the journey seemed to flow with the same amount of ease as my first pickup. I'd write the road I wanted to travel on and the direction (M23 N or M25 E) on a piece of paper, hold it out for all to see whilst worrying someone I knew would come along. It was quite scary holding it out at first. It was new.

I made it as far as Dettling Hill, 40 miles in an hour. I'd struggle to do that journey in that time if I was driving! I've probably got Neil to thank for that who picked me up and drove at 110 mph up the motorway while telling me about his very interesting Yurt rental company. He lived in a converted horse box but had the VW Golf we were in for business meetings etc.

Then it struck ... I think every hitchhiker must go through this process at some point in their hitching career, and I'll bet on more than one occasion. I called it The Wait. 3 hours of standing on the same road, holding your sign out, with no success. It is soul destroying. I lost all faith in humanity. Convinced myself that the world we live in was occupied by selfish, arrogant people. I don't know why I felt this way. I was asking people to sacrifice their time and petrol to give me a lift. For nothing in return! At the time it felt like there was no good in the world.

This thought was bolstered when a van pulled over about 50 metres up the road. I grabbed my bag and ran hurriedly along the road towards my new lift. The sense of relief, belief, I don't know what it was? Elation? I felt like I could cry and was preparing my thank you speech as I ran up to the back of the van. Just as I got alongside the passenger door and reached for the handle the van sped away. Cackles of laughter trailing in the wind behind it. A prank. One that hurt.

"Let's walk!" I proclaimed. Somehow it was as if I was getting one over on all of the cars that passed. I didn't need them. I still held my sign out though. Sheepishly, but it was there. I hadn't gone far when I stopped to pick some blackberries at the side of the road. I worried for a second how much exhaust fumes had coated the berries but they tasted too good not to eat. I felt like Ray Mears! Still disheartened though.

A big artic truck pulled in to the lay by roughly 200 meters up the road and I thought nothing of it. I didn't have my hand or sign out and was quite enjoying choosing the biggest, juiciest berries to eat. A shout came from up the road, towards the truck. The driver had got out and was waving and hollering. I walked normally up to the cab, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of watching me run, only to speed off like the van driver.

"Tibor! You need lift?" said the driver holding his hand out. He had a thick eastern european accent. Lithuanian if I was to go by the 'LT' on the numberplate.

Tibor's truck cab smelt horrible! I don't know where the guy went to the toilet but I bet he didn't stop to pull over! There were dirty clothes hung all over the place as if they were drying after a wash. The smell ruled that out! But I was thankful. Tibor was making his way to Dover to head home. He'd been in the truck for 9 days and it would take another 5 before he was back. We tried making conversation but the language barrier was too tough. I knew no lithuanian and Tibors English was patchy to say the least. I simply told him what number junction to drop me at and we drove.

I caught 2 more lifts and was dropped off at my friends doorstep! The 70 mile trip took only 5 hours. My belief in human kind had been restored and I'd arrived to brilliant sunshine and the cobbled streets of Canterbury. I knew it worked. Hitchhiking had been an adventure, different. But I now knew it was possible for someone to thumb a lift in this day and age. I arrived in Canterbury with several sheets of road names places and directions as well as wanting more.

The next day my friend gave me a lift out to a suitable service station. I cradled a hangover as I wrote out my first sign, immediately hitting The Wait and sat for 2 hours. I'd set my sights on going to Brands Hatch race track to meet 4 of my friends for the second day of superbike racing. With no lift and a banging headache I'd settle for a lift home! The 30 miles to Brands took all day. Long waits and spots of rain made the hangover worse. I walked for 10 miles texting my friends updates on how long I thought I'd be until an old man with his car filled with furniture picked me up. We drove with my seat too far forward and I had to hold a chair steady but the discomfort was all made up for driving 15 miles up a hill.

My friends had miraculously managed to hold back a ticket stub from the Marshall's on their way in so I didn't have to pay. I used the entrance money I'd saved to buy a round of drinks that night and I slept under the stars in my bivvi bag much to the neighbours surprise. (It looks as if your sleeping on the grass with just a sleeping bag. In fact its like a mini tent and very warm!)

The racing at brands the next day was top class. I chilled, drank beer, took pictures and was generally pleased with life. I'd travelled over 100 miles on others peoples good will. I was amazed at how it could be so easy one minute and so hard the next. Next time I know I'll have to get in to the hitchhiking mindset before setting out. Because there will be a next time. It was awesome!

Have you ever hitchhiked? Or picked a hitchhiker up? Let me know your experience and any tips to bring The Wait down!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Money milestones...

We've hit a major financial milestone. £10,000 sits in our high interest savings account after 7 months of saving. Quite an achievement for a compulsive gadget buyer and a clothes fiend.

I've always found it hard to save money. Ever since I was a child I can remember dropping coins in to a savings tin only to break it open the next day so I could buy some pokemon cards instead of the really cool bike I wanted. Saving always seemed somehow impossible to me.

Even as I got older I couldn't save. The trouble with being older is that people are willing to help you not save. 2 weeks in to starting my 4 year engineering apprenticeship and I was £3,500 in debt. BUT I did have a shiny new 50" TV and a super fast laptop. Both were slapped on 4 year Hire Purchase terms of god-knows how many % APR.

As impressive it is for 2 people to save ten thousand pounds, it somehow seems even more impressive for Kerry and I. And I have no doubt as to the reason. Desire.

There is a real wanting for vagabonding. It isn't a hair brained scheme, merely a dream that stays in a dream world. Vagabonding is now very tangible. We talk about it every day and there is always something to organise, sort out or worry about.

Its possible that I didn't want that bike enough, or didn't deserve that TV enough. In both these instances I circumnavigated saving, resulting in me either not getting it, or paying through the nose for 4 years for it!

However I feel we really do want and deserve to go travelling. We've made saving work for us. And its been quite easy!

Yes we've sacrificed things, yes we've said no to things, and yes we've both worked very hard to earn more money. But on the flip side we've also rewarded ourselves. Our lives haven't had the depressing, boring, insular image I always had of frugality as a child.

Things are only looking up from now on as well! Kerry has just taken a new shift pattern at work. One that compensates limited notice period and extremely unsociable hours for an extra £900 a month! That coupled with a £1200 a month saving when our flat starts paying for itself next month will mean we can bolster our saving efforts quite considerably.

Our goal is to have £25,000 when the ski season starts and our adventure begins in November. Anything more is a bonus, but we always keep that target in our heads. Especially when looking at new gadgets and clothes!

Have you been particularly pleased with your saving attempts? What did you find worked most? Drop us a comment below ...