Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Dunwich Dynamo

For Directions Always Ask Three People

When my son Sam and I were cycling from Ireland to Japan, there were a few occasions when we had to ask for directions. For various reasons, people sometimes send you the wrong way. Why?

1. You haven't made yourself understood (usually a linguistic problem).
2. They don't know, but don't want to feel stupid or don't want to let you down.
3. Even before you ask, they're sure of where you want to go. So they stick to it, blindly.
4. They think it's funny to send someone the wrong way.

From painful experience, we learned that the surest method of avoiding this problem, was to ask three separate people. That nearly always seemed to work.

The Dunwich Dynamo is an overnight cycle ride. It's a 'Turn Up & Go'. It requires no registration or collection of sponsorship money. People do it for the fun of it. At around 125miles, fun would not be the word used by most people. And it's 125miles if you don't go wrong. With minimal signposting (a candle in a jar at some key junctions) and no marshals, it's easy to miss turnings – especially if you don't have GPS (spits in disgust). Last year a bunch of about 20 of us went the wrong way after the half-way refreshment stop (in a village hall around 1am). For us our ride became hillier and extended to 145miles. I also ran out of water last year since after around 1am everything is closed and there are no water stops. I was dizzy and ready to collapse with dehydration 20miles from the finish and only made it by dogged refusal to get off the bike. The pint of Guinness I downed after I staggered through the door of the Ship Inn in Dunwich at 5.30am, was the best thing I ever drank. "Never again," I said as my wife arrived. But this year, there I was again – ready for more 'fun'.

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of last year, this year I had energy drink to sustain me and a plan to buy more water before the shops closed. I ate a good dinner with plenty of carbs at 7.30pm in Essex Road before heading down to the start area at London Fields in Hackney. Like last year the park was already packed with cyclists and a dense swarm surrounding The Pub on the Park. Slipping behind a car I removed my trousers and underpants before niftily getting into my cycling shorts – eating in a restaurant wearing lycra cycling shorts still rates somewhere below the plimsoll line for me. Getting naked behind a car in a busy Hackney street in broad daylight, however, is fine.
Outside The Pub On The Park before the start

At 9pm the diverse mass of cyclists began to move off. As the ad says, 'total gridlock'. The Kingsland High Road, running out through Lea before it hits the edge of Epping Forrest, is not a cycle friendly place at the best of times. At 9pm on a Saturday night, gangsters in pimped-up BMWs and Mercedes compete with peroxide blonde mothers in huge hoop earrings in a game of cyclist swatting. They're pissed off to be held up, but at the same time elated by the chance of verbally abusing and splatting so many cyclists in one place. "Like shooting ducks in a **kin' barrel," one said as she passed us.
Filtering out onto Hackney main roads - Bewildered drivers

Fortunately, this urban street hell doesn't last long at the speed most of us start at. Within half an hour you are in Essex countryside, passing Harvesters, Indian megga-restaurants and wayside inns now turned into pole dancing clubs. Gradually it gets quieter and darker until the streetlights disappear and you are in the world of old English villages, churches and small country pubs. Some cyclist begin to peel off for early refreshment at this point. Others plough on, head down until they are nearing the Suffolk borders in the early hours. I waited until around 11.30pm and stopped at The Bell. A lovely old pub in the small town / large village of Bardfield. Here, to my delight, I found they were serving free tea and coffee with Mars Bars. This explained the popularity. Inside at the bar, a lady at the head of a long queue filled water bottles. I chatted to a fellow cyclist outside for 20mins and got back on the bike. I'd already covered 49miles in 2.5hrs. Not too bad.
The Bell at Bardfield - Free Tea & Coffee

After you get into Suffolk it becomes very dark. Villages are more spaced out and there are no street lights. Now I found myself sticking with groups of cyclists with crazy headlights and separate battery packs. Without them you often find yourself hurtling at a sharp bend in pitch black and suddenly losing vision as the road turns but your light is still shining straight on. Later I discovered the benefit of putting on my head-torch so I could look around the corners. Even at 20mph, hitting a tree can be somewhat painful! This kind of riding continues for a very long way. All the way through Suffolk in fact until daylight begins to break. At around 80miles there start to be a few painful hills. Don't let anyone tell you Suffolk is flat. It's not the Alps but it still hurts. By around 2am you get the first indications of needing to re-stoke the boiler. Last year I didn't eat enough and this had compounded my dehydration problem. You don't want to suddenly run out of energy 20miles from the end. At around 2:30 I stopped and ate my packed dinner/breakfast. Peanut butter and cheese sandwiches with some cherry tomatoes and dried figs. Delicious. When I got back on half an hour later I felt pretty good. I had learned my lesson, I told myself.

By the time it got light, most of us were cursing the weather reporters. It was not dry and clear. There was now a wet mist that seemed to drench you without it actually being visible. But it was not cold. My route plan, however, was in my back pocket and I could feel it was papier-mache. Not a problem, I knew the way and there were loads of people in possession of GPS who I could follow. I passed the 100mile mark still feeling good. At 110 my wife texted me to say she would be at the finish area by the beach at 6am. It was 4.30am, so I had plenty of time. Soon after I saw a tea stop and pulled in. No point arriving early, I told myself. I asked how much further.
"Twelve miles," said the man behind the tea counter. I took my tea, filled my bottle from a hose and lay down for a well earned rest on the wet grass. I was almost there.
Last tea stop - 22 miles from the end (not 12)

At  5am I set off to complete the final 12miles. It seemed a tiny amount now. I stepped up my pace, racing past other groups of cyclists. After about 10 miles I asked a guy with a GPS how much further.
"Ten miles," he said, looking down at his screen.
It seemed impossible, yet I knew how these things worked. Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me now, I reminded myself. It easily happens after such exertion and no sleep. I speeded up, feeling my legs burning and a sick feeling in my gut. But I'd be there soon.

Ten miles later there was still no sign of Dunwich. Stupidly I had raced ahead of the group with the guy who had a GPS. I looked back. They were nowhere to be seen. I had to face the fact that I'd missed the turning. Just about to turn around though, I saw two other cyclists arriving from another road. They were heading for Dunwich, they said, but had got lost. We headed back towards the way I'd come but met two other cyclists speeding along. One had a GPS.
"Is this the road for Dunwich?" I asked.
"Yes, follow us," said the guy at the front.
The three of us raced after them and managed to catch up.
"How far is it to Dunwich?" I asked.
"About twenty miles, he replied." He had a strange accent. He almost sounded a little drunk.
"Twenty miles! I choked. I was told 6 miles back that it was 3 miles!"
"Twenty miles," he repeated, pointing at his GPS.
I was going mad, I told myself.

After a further ten miles I felt sick and exhausted. Surely we must nearly be there now, I asked him as we approached a junction. He stopped and suggested I cycled back to London with them. The other two guys seemed to have got left behind.
"I can't, I laughed, my wife's waiting for me in Dunwich."
"It's about another ten miles," he said. Still speaking like he might be drunk.
Then, all of a sudden, through blurred exhausted eyes, I noticed something. A transparent plastic earpiece inside his ear. That explained his speech. He was hearing impaired. We cycled off together, with me trying to get my brain to work enough to work out what this all added up to. I was ready to keel over into the ditch, I was so tired.
"Sorry," I said, "I just have to have a break."
I watched the two of them cycle onto a roundabout and along a dual carriageway. I was sure there was no dual carriageway last year. It was definitely wrong. Then I saw another group of cyclists. I waved and shouted, then spent my last ounce of energy to catch them up.
"Mate, is this the road for Dunwich?" I called breathlessly.
"Dunwich? the back-marker said, open mouthed, "that's thirty miles back the way you've just come!"
I pulled over and stopped. They did the same. They could see the look of bewilderment on my face. How could this have happened, when I was only 3 miles away?
"Mate, this is Ipswich!" one said. "You'd be better off getting the train back to London from here."
"Wife's waiting in Dunwich," I murmured, turning my bike around.
I looked down. 139 miles, my cycle computer said. I got out my phone.
"Is there a hotel or a cafe there?" said my wife.
I told her there was a sign for a big country hotel called Scatfield Hall.
"Go there and order breakfast," she said. I'll be there in an hour.
Lycra was not the dress for breakfast in this hotel. A cravat might not have gone amiss. I piled energy-giving food onto my plate and slipped a croissant into my backpack to pacify my wife when she arrived.
Later I completed the last three or four miles and we had dinner in The Ship Inn, in Dunwich. The car-park was deserted. I still couldn't believe what had happened.
"But I asked three separate people!" I kept saying.
It didn't feel like my fault (which of course it was). But how can you be cross with a deaf man for not hearing you?
Next year I'll get it right.
A deserted Dunwich beach car park. They don't call it 'The Lost City of Dunwich for nothing you know!

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, or his collections of short stories (including the prizewinning "Special Treatment"), you can find them on Amazon, Smashwords etc. Click the link:

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Saturday, 13 July 2013

Cycle Travellers See So Much More

Slower But Deeper

I remember back in the 70's people used to say that the best way to travel and really experience a country was overland. Overland meant taking buses and trains, buying a VW van and putting a mattress in the back, sometimes even hitch-hiking. I did a great deal of this in the 70's and 80's and certainly found it to be true. You got to meet real people and to get some idea of what it was like to be a local, living there. You also got to travel at a relaxed pace; giving yourself time to absorb your experiences, meet people and also to adjust to changes as you moved on. But by the turn of the century (hah, I sound like old father time!), I had taken up long-distance cycling as a means of travel.

Hippy Travellers - Courtesy of Flickr

Once you travel through a country by bicycle, you realise how much you miss when you travel by the usual 'overland' means. Buses and trains allow you to meet local people, but more often than not, backpackers use them to get between two major towns – either that or to a beach resort, temple or other place that draws travellers (and tourists). There are plenty of places out in the sticks that buses and trains don't go to. You could take a taxi, but how many do? And this is the reason for what I have come to call 'Lonely Planet Syndrome'.

Sam as we pass through rural North Vietnam (one of the better roads)

Lonely Planet Guides are fantastic. They have been around since the early 70's. I think they started out as something produced by amateurs on a hand operated bandalith copier (or similar). I actually had one. It was called 'Overland to India and Beyond' or something like that. It had a tatty pink cover and was available from BIT information office in London. It was bought by hippies like me (then) wanting to doss their way across the world in flipflops, shorts and t-shirts with very little cash, smoking dope, living in caves and meeting other beautiful people. It was a great time. The book was hard to obtain and got out of date quickly but it told you stuff that Fodor and Letts guides (All the important tourist locations along with useful phrases to use in your hotel etc) didn't. It told you about places young people wanted to go and things they wanted to know.

My copy was more pink than red. It eventually disintegrated.

Of course over time, Lonely Planet Guides have become more like the old fogeys guides they replaced. No longer do they tell you where you can score great dope! Like modern day music festivals, they have become sanitised and are aimed at a more establishment crowd (wipes away a tear). Now they say of places 'Nothing to see here,' just because a town has no 'attractions' for tourists. They ignore the possibility that interest can be found just in the local people and their simple way of life. Hence, young gap-year back-packers along with many others, follow the guides travelling to the same towns, the same back-packer attractions and the same 'home-food' cafes. I have long stopped caring. It keeps the hoards from spoiling the real life of the country by staying on that well beaten track.

But how to get to those out of the way places if you want to? Bus routes are often there to supply the demands of these happy bands Lonely Planet naives. This is where the bicycle comes into its own. It will take you anywhere (almost). My son Sam and I even climbed a mountain in Tamil Nadu (Mount Adai Mudi), carrying our bikes, passing through tiny mountain hamlets with little wooden houses on stilts. People at both ends of that trek told us that few people in the villages below had ever climbed over that mountain let alone foreigners. It is a tough, two day experience burned into our memories.

 A tiny hamlet at the foot of Mt Adai Mudi. Adimali Reserve, Kerala, India.

Nearing the summit of Mt Adai Mudi, carrying our bikes.

That 10,000mile cycle trip from Ireland to Japan took us through numerous countries. It was of course incredible getting out into the backwoods of countries like India, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. But one needn't go so far to experience the surprises of a different world beyond the well beaten paths. We had similar experiences in Romania, Bulgaria and even Germany. It taught me to keep an open mind about what may lie just beyond the routes most people take. Indeed, since returning from that trip, this has become even more clear to me. Over the four years since our return to England, I have made many shorter cycle trips and many of those on my own doorstep. I am regularly surprised by what I find cycling through the backwoods of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Devon. Even my local county of Kent holds many hidden treats. A bicycle takes you everywhere, and at a pace that puts you in touch with everything and everyone. It immerses you. You can hardly avoid it. And let's not forget, that you can do all of this very cheaply, avoiding jams and without causing harm to the environment. No wonder bicycle use is increasing so rapidly!

My cycling friend Martin Ashton struggles against wind somewhere in wilds of Yorkshire

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, his two collections of short stories and other books on Amazon, Smashwords etc.