Post archive

The importance of being awesome: #1

#1: Friends who know you really well

It was my birthday relatively recently and a good friend of mine, Mel, bought me a present. A generous and nicely proportioned mug bearing a suitable message. Double birthday brownie points already for said message not featuring the words Keep Calm.  

But today’s Awesome Award doesn’t go to Mel just for being brilliant and remembering my birthday. It doesn’t even go to Mel because she bought and wrapped me a nice present, in an era where most people (myself included) often think that a quick text the day after the event will suffice. It goes to Mel – and to all friends out there in there in the world who know you really well – for the following reason.

Mel apologised in advance for the gift not because it was wrapped messily, or because it was a month late, or because she gave it to me while I was with my bike and would clearly have to try very hard to get it home in one piece. She apologised because the font on the cup was a serif font, and she’d remembered too late that I don’t generally like serif fonts (especially not the Playboy font which we soon realised this was, to add insult to font-aesthetic injury). We all agreed it could have been a lot worse…yes Comic Sans, we mean you.

So let’s raise our horribly-fonted mugs in praise of friends who know not only when your birthday is and what you drink in a round but how you like your eggs, how you like your tea and how you like your letters.

Apology accepted, Mel, I’m taking Playboy here up to privacy of my room to enjoy its hot, steamy contents...

'Janapar' film tickets

'Janapar' is a brilliant film by Tom Allen, and I'm helping bring it to Bristol's Roll for the Soul community bike cafe on Thursday 31st Oct. 


****WARNING: Give yourself time to lock your bike! There may be up to 80 more bikes nearby. Please arrive in time to pick up/ pay for your ticket as screenings will start on time. THANK YOU****

JANAPAR IS NOW SOLD OUT, BOTH SHOWINGS. SORRY! (But YAY!)

You can come along and 'chance your arm' if you like but may not get in - just come for a drink anyway and to experience Roll for the Soul at its buzzing best! 

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So, Janapar. I saw it this year and enjoyed it so much I immediately plotted to get it seen by all my friends, too. My only advice with this film - is to just watch the film. Don't Google it, don't read any blurb, don't even watch the trailer or you might see a few spoilers. No he's not a ghost, it wasn't all a dream, it's just that there are some twists and turns that are best enjoyed when you experience them suddenly...very much like life on the road in the saddle. Or, indeed, like life in general. 

There are 40 seats per screening (SOLD OUT NOW), and we are doing two screenings. One opens at 6pm for a 6.15pm start, one at 7.45pm for an 8pm start. Both showings include a Q&A with director Tom Allen afterwards. Tom's coming all the way down from the Lakes just to hear our funny southern accents and will be selling his books and DVDs afterwards in efforts to finance his return journey so, come with cash to buy some stocking fillers for your bike-loving friends. 

Support Roll for the Soul, support a fantastic adventure film maker and buy your tickets now. See you there. (What was that? Buy me a pint while you're at it? That's very good of you, mine's a cider.)  

PAYPAL LINK NOW REMOVED AS SOLD OUT

Ok, I do not advocate this at all, but for those of you who are going to choose to disobey and watch the trailer anyway, you might as well just do it here. But I won't be happy, got that?

Dingle on a fixie

Just saw this on Nick Hand's brilliant Slow Coast website. You go girl. I thought I travelled light... (not letting me upload pics at the moment...)


Cherry-flavoured dolphin(s)

Why is it, that dolphins seem so mystical and magical? Like, unicorns, say, which actually are both mythical and therefore magical. I’m now on the ferry home from Ireland (getting a lot of blog mileage out of this ferry journey, I’ve just noticed), sitting in the otherwise empty Little Chef-styled on-board restaurant. I think I’m their only customer tonight and even I was a little bit of a let-down with my ‘two slices of soda bread, one pat of Kerry Gold butter, one mini-triangle of President camembert cheese and some Smokey Bacon Taytos’ combo (€2.30). I think an apple costs about €3 so the staff can only be secretly impressed that I managed to rustle up such a tasty treat for so little. Added to my remaining packed lunch from a back-garden picnic in Cork today (cucumbers, gherkins, potato salad, chocolate Rice Krispies cake), it’s been a veritable feast. But back to the dolphins.

Once I’d recovered from the disappointment of the captain’s not using the term Muster Station any more in his tannoy’d welcome and health and safety speech – they’ve become rather boring Assembly Points – I caught another thing he said with interest: they’ve been seeing lots of dolphins this week. Say no more. Like Pavlov’s dog who, once he’s had a little nibble won’t give up ‘til he gets some more, I installed myself on the aft deck, eyes firmly fixed on the dancing wake until I’d spotted some dolphin. Dolphins. Not online at present, will have to check the plural of dolphin once I am as both versions seem simultaneously correct yet somehow wrong.

In Dingle, where I lived for most of last year, there is a famous resident dolphin, Funghi. I saw him dozens of times, you can’t move for his flips, rolls and breaches. Then in London last month, I saw a dead dolphin, bloated, which floated down the Thames beneath me and Waterloo Bridge. The fact that I was the only pedestrian on the bridge at the time and that no one else can corroborate this story is neither here nor there – it’s true. But real, normal dolphin(s), not showmen like Funghi, out in the wild? I’ve only ever seen that once before, on a misty evening in Cornwall. So I bedded in next to and not upon the seat with a large sign above it proclaiming that it ‘wasn’t for sitting on’ and waited for the magical dolphin-flavoured cherry to top off a brilliant and implausibly hot weekend in Cork.

Happily, within minutes of being truly underway, ploughing in a straight line across the Irish ocean with the bright sun just beginning to drop – there they were. Two or three of them playing around in the spoils, the sun bouncing from the water leaving them little more than sharp silhouettes. But dolphin(s) they were and cheered am I…doubly so as we’re just passing over the centre of my cultural identity. Happy sun-setting days. 

Ferry food

Just boarding the ferry to Ireland, see below. Though feeling very comforted by the fact that I’m about to go to sea, I’m feeling less comforted by the ‘picnic’ I bought with me. I left the house in too much of a hurry for culinary niceties. On the menu tonight is Spaghetti almost-Bolognese, sealed into a heavy-duty ziplock bag, and eaten with a lightweight folding Spork ™ in the passport control section of Pembroke Dock, much to the amusement of the border police who then decide I’m a bit peculiar and go on to search my bags. Search me? Really? In my down jacket, middle-class flip-flops and a reinforced Berghaus bag which, unbeknownst to them, carries my did-I-mention-I’ve-got-a-new MacBook Air laptop (to avoid endless complaints about the speed of my former, hamster-driven lap-top, avoid this entry). The worst they can accuse me of is wearing imitation Birkenstocks from TK Maxx instead of the real thrice the price thing. OK, you’ve got me, I submit. I’m not a real middle class person at all, I’m a charlatan. The spaghetti wasn't from Waitrose - I segued into Lidl en route. Please, I've admitted my sins, this cavity search really isn’t necessary. 

All at sea

I’ve just worked out why I’m happy on the ferry to Ireland (despite its abject awfulness and the fact that the woman who boarded the Eurolines bus behind me had to sit on a seat – the last seat on the bus – with vomit on it), and why my default state often appears to be ‘a bit at sea’.

I’m half Irish and half English so, geographically – if we’re talking equidistant from the steep winding alleys of Cork City’s north side and a quiet suburb in the west of Bristol – then a few nautical miles south-west of Pembroke Dock is pretty much the centre of my universe. Out in the middle of the cold, fished-to-death-by-the-Spanish Irish Sea. I’m never quite sure if I want to live in Ireland or England, I love water and indeed once owned and lived on a houseboat, and always think I might like to learn to sail. Though I never get round to putting this thought to the test. So as my inner magnet gets closer to its spiritual home, I find myself strangely comforted. Maybe I could set up some kind of platform out here, with a collection of buoys/ and or boys to keep the uninvited boats away. I could live out here happily ever after.

OK. Next item on my agenda…assembling the collections of buoys. 

Time to Escape the City again!

job with Secret Compass spottedI have just started a new job. At the moment, my blog entries are so few and far between that the last few of my blog entries might just as well all have begun with this same sentence. This job, however, is different. Different in a brilliant, great, finally, been waiting for 20 years kind of way. Hopefully, I will not need to write a blog starting with these words for…a good few years yet. Coming from someone who still doesn’t have enough faith in the future to get tied into even a 12-month phone contract, this is quite a statement. Actually, let me rephrase the lack of faith in the future element, for it’s quite the opposite. I have so much faith in the future that I want to be free to follow its scent wherever it might waft – and therefore don’t like the thought of 12-month phone contracts. This job, however, is so wonderfully scented, so spicy, so exotic, adventureful and bursting with opportunity and possibility, I can’t imagine needing to seek elsewhere for olfactory or other stimulation for quite a while. Let’s hope it has started how it means to proceed. 

Who’s the job with? Now that would be telling. Oh OK, but this is just between you and I. It’s with an expedition company called, ssssh, Secret Compass (please Like them on Facebook now to make me look good!). To get a highly irregular update from me about this blog and about life in the non-9-5 world, pop your email in the box top right and I'll send a digest every month or two. I spotted the job on Escape the City, so if that's what you'd like to do, give them a visit, too, or read their book, The Escape Manifesto

Castlewood House B&B, Dingle

I'm just back from another wee trip to Dingle. As for my Megabus euphoria below - it was short-lived but that's another story entirely. You get what you pay for after all. One place where you get a whole lot more than you pay for, is Castlewood House B&B. A Trip Advisor B&B of the Year (Readers' Choice, Best Bargain, Best Service), this great find is about to join Sawday's Special Places to Stay, so more people than ever will be able to enjoy its Dingle-icious charms. Here's what I thought of it...


Personable Helen and Brian's Dingle dream drips with as many awards as there are fruits in its breakfast buffet. Cinnamon pears in wine, peaches delicately stewed in vanilla, plums in star anise - it's hard to leave this sunny haven, where textured Honora O'Neill seascapes grace bright walls. Try the local Dilliskus (seaweed) cheese, or Helen's special treat: porridge with Irish Mist, whiskey or Baileys, stirred through with cream and decadently dark sugar. This twosome met while working at the five-star Ashford Castle Hotel, going on to build their own impressive, triple-glazed boutique property. Spacious suites overlook squawking gulls trawling for treasure. Classic rooms boast rich mahogany or bright New England-style furnishings; brocade drapes frame views of rolling green and the misty Eask tower across the boat--filled bay. Magpie Helen is an auction aficionado. Frames and Victorian tub chairs are restored by mum, whose oils adorn the wide staircase (there's a lift, too). Large bathrooms have separate showers and Jacuzzi baths; WiFi, DVDs, books and iPod docks rest in corners. Attention to detail is everywhere. Brian's bread and butter pudding and Helen's thoughtful cup-cake high teas, honeymoon treats and 'Little Slice of Heaven' breaks are legendary. Explore Mount Eagle, Great Blasket Island or Dingle farmers' market, finishing off with your nose in a creamy pint of Guinness in Tom McCarthy's bar.

Goodbye Dingle, again. Methinks it won't be long before we meet again...  

Dingle Megabus Double Whammy

A few days ago, I had the prospect of a long and unplanned Easter weekend ahead. The same few days ago, I popped into the wonderful Stanfords travel map and bookshop in Corn Street, Bristol, to buy a half-price 2013 calendar. And for travel inspiration of course. I accidentally bought A Lady Cyclist’s Guide To Kashgar and Tristan Gooley’s The Natural Explorer - I’ve told you before not to let me near bookshops just after pay day, thus negating the few quid saved on the calendar with the £20 spent on books, but let’s not quibble.

On my new calendar – which features retro skiing posters from classy resorts – I proceeded to punch in all my booked holidays for the year (Antibes in April, Dingle in May, Croyde and Dartmouth in June, Cornwall in July, Dorset in August, France in September…wow I sound a bit spoilt now! They’re mainly long weekenders, honest) and realised how little free time there is left this year. This prompted me to do two things. One was to put this coming long weekend to good use by escaping to Dingle for a pre-Dingle long weekend. The other was to ask my employer if I could buy back a week’s leave this year as I only get 21 days which isn’t much as far a I’m concerned and I could do with a few more days. Every few months I like to ask our HR department a taxing question (they aren’t actually HR trained staff as they have other jobs to do so this always throws them) and this was the question for this month. I’m still waiting on a response, come to think of it…I'm expecting a no but there's always hope.

But back to the Dingle weekend. It’s quite an exciting prospect. Even though I’ll be travelling overland which will take almost 40 hours return (and will only get to spend 66 hours in Dingle), I am immensely excited at the prospect. Even more so because I have a fighting chance of getting through the two books I’ve just bought. With mere days notice before Easter, flights were too expensive and Eurolines coaches were full, which led to another exciting discover that I’m sure will come in handy in the future: MEGABUS GO TO IRELAND. Why wasn't I told? This is entirely new news to me. £19 to get from Bristol to Rosslare in Waterford? Yes please. 

Diesel Bullseye

Anyone with a vehicle does this regularly. Once a month if you’re lucky, several times a month if you’re not (and no, I don’t mean ruing the day you bought the godforsaken money-guzzling thing). I’m talking about filling your vehicle with fuel in general, and trying to hit a £10 on the dot’s worth while you’re at it in particular. You know what I mean. As the tank nears full and the price approaches £30 or £40 (again, if you’re lucky. With a van like mine it’s more like £60 and I’m pretty sure I hit £70 once), you reduce the nozzle pressure to barely a drip, nervously edging a few more pennies’ worth into the tank in efforts to hit those magic zeros on the nose.

This week as I was refueling (after what felt like three round trips to work which is about five miles away…honestly I don’t know where the hours or the diesel goes), I was stealthily approaching £50 and could feel the will-it-won’t-it mini-tension rising…when I decided not to set myself up for a fall yet again. It always ticked over to £50.02, occasionally £50.04, leaving me feeling mildly disappointed and a little bit cheated. So I just turned away, let loose one final trigger happy stream of fuel, hung the nozzle back up and went in to pay. At the counter as I absent-mindedly sought out my wallet, the woman said, “Number 6? £50.00?” I was so pleased to have finally, accidentally and unwittingly struck the golden triple zero that I think I let out a little involuntary “Yesssss.” Never before had she seen someone so happy to be parting with so much cash for so little return.

The moral of this story (apart from “cycle instead of driving because it is better for you on absolutely all fronts I can think of”) is this. Sometimes, when you stop trying so hard to get exactly what you think you want, life acknowledges your efforts and delivers just what you need, when you least expect it. Enjoy it.

Beds for Cyclists...

My former Sustrans colleague, current housemate and ongoing friend (unless he keeps using metal kitchen utensils on my best frying pan) Sam, has started a brilliant new website with his friend Pete. It's for touring cyclists on short or long-distance cycle-ventures and is called Beds for Cyclists. Knowing the haute intellect and powers of deduction that you, my carefully selected readers possess, I don't think I need to elaborate further as to what it is. 


So if you're going anywhere on two wheels any time soon, whether on a wet weekend or a sunny coast to coaster - pick a campsite, hostel, B&B, hotel or self-catering joint that doesn't merely tolerate bikes and their riders, but one that positively welcomes them. And don't forget to tell them you heard about them on Beds for Cyclists. Spread the word. Like them on Facebook. Sleep in their beds. Put your bikes in their sheds. Share the news in your cycling circles. Bring on another year's worth of adventure!   

Lost in Dingle: a world-stoppingly good kisser

I kissed a boy and I liked itOver Christmas in Dingle last month, copious fun was had. In fact, one evening in particular involved a ridiculous amount of world-stoppingly impressive kissing - only I lost track of the fella in question and would be curious to find him again (I was debating whether to mention this or not because it's so cheesy, but thought what the hell. I'm a romantic. And no-one reads this anyway, do they). 


Here's the thing. On Wren's Day, 26 Dec, in the Droichead pub/ late bar in Dingle, at around midnight, after about 12 hours' marching and playing the tin whistle with the Ventry Wren back West and around town - I went into the Droichead with a friend. Alas I lost her almost immediately but then found, chatted to and eventually kissed a boy. And I liked it. Only, given the amount of booze that one imbibes when one takes part in Dingle's St Stephen's day celebrations for 12 hours, I decided to take myself off home alone, thinking that was The Right Thing to Do...before getting his number.  

Now, I'm sure this is for the best because he probably found solace elsewhere immediately, and is probably a dull jobsworth from Athlone anyway and if we met again it would be awful...but I'd love to see him again. So, beautiful man who in my clouded memory looks a bit like a happier version of Christopher Jones (pictured - the actor who played the English soldier in Ryan's Daughter): email me. Or, if you're a local civilian who knows who my mystery midnight man might be or where I might find him, let me know. He was Irish, alone, with thick dark hair, standing 6' - 6'3" ish, aged 36-39ish. If you're not sure if it's him or not, kiss him. If the world stops - that's my man. I'd like him washed and brushed and sent to my room.  

Round Ireland with the Dingle Bookshop

I’m a sucker for books, bookshops and the literature, ideas and inspiration that people them. I went into the Dingle Bookshop on Green Street looking for a novel set in Dingle, something to give me more of a taste of the peninsula. I’d wanted to spend a few Euro. Ten, max. An hour and 50 Euro later I forced myself to leave, giving the owner a photo-fit of my face and instructing her and her staff never to let me in again. I couldn’t afford it.

The house on an Irish hillside cover

What did I pick up? Well, I like the notion of ending up in Dingle, sooner or later, and so stowed away The House on an Irish Hillside, written by Felicity Hayes-McCoy and set in Dingle. Well, not so much ‘set’ as telling the actual story of her love affair with and eventual house purchase on the peninsula. I’m too close to the subject matter at present and am in particularly impressionable mood, so have put that one aside for now to concentrate on others, lest I…go and buy a house on an Irish hillside.

Book number two is The Poor Mouth – a bad story about the hard life by Flann O’Brien and illustrated by Ralph Steadman. A scathing satire on Irish and the Irish, it brought widespread outrage when first published in Irish in 1941. So I thought that’d make a light-hearted toilet read.  

Next up is Troubled Epic – on location with Ryan’s Daughter by Michael Tanner, which promises to be a pacy and racy read. With pictures. Brilliant. I like the idea of it not because I think Ryan’s Daughter has anything to do with the real Dingle, but because multi-media induced travel interests me greatly. My MSc thesis discussed how the book and film of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin affected the Greek island of Kefalonia where it was set. In fact, the two titles aren’t poles apart. Both feature culturally inappropriate relationships involving local women and ‘the enemy’ – the Italians in Corelli, the English in Ryan’s Daughter. And both caused huge temporary surges in visitor numbers.

Finally we have House don’t fall on me by Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé about a musical life lived in the West Kerry Gaeltacht. That joins the hip-high pile of books that I will get to when I get a moment, though such moments are becoming ever more elusive as time goes by. Maybe I need to move back to Dingle. A body can't move for moments over there. 

Round Ireland with roast turkey Pringles

Endurance

I spent Christmas Day alone in Dingle. Those of you who don’t generally do things on your own will find that prospect unimaginable, and lonely, and boring – none of which it actually is. Try it some day. I’ve worked lots of chalet seasons in Chamonix so often find myself cooking for 12 Russian oligarchs/ cleaning up after 18 drunken Aussies on the 25th so to have no-one to please but myself was actually highly enjoyable.

The last Christmas day I spent alone wasn’t through choice, though. It was back in 2002. I was working in Sheffield, and a shift overran on Christmas Eve so I missed my last train home to Bristol and had to stay up there in a house with no heating until my housemates returned a few days later. I distinctly remember sitting in a rocking chair in a down sleeping bag in front of the fire (it wasn’t working but psychologically this made it cosier) and chose a book from the shelf, which I then proceeded to read cover to cover, in one sitting I was so engrossed. It was Alfred Lansing’s 1959 book Endurance, a tale of Ernest Shackleton et al's adventures on the Weddell Sea in 1914. Reading about dozens of men marooned in an iceberg-crushed boat for months made my sitting in a moderately chilly terraced house in Sheffield feel nothing short of luxurious, while realising that if they could survive that (spoiler alert - they all did) then I could endure my own company for 24 hours.  

Trevor

But back to Dingle 2012. I slept off Eurolines’ epic overland bus journey until about noon. Then went down for breakfast, looked at the god-awful sky and went back to bed, taking a day’s worth of Christmas snacks with me, namely a tube of Roast Turkey Pringles and a 16-pack of Ferrero Rocher. I arranged my lap-top in a suitable position and finally and uninterruptedly watched Ryan’s Daughter – the David Lean classic filmed in Dingle I’d wanted to see all year. All 180+ minutes of it. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected but it’s worth a watch for the local vistas and the wonderful Trevor Howard who plays the unflinching Father. As the sun set, I decided that the Pringles weren’t a substitute for an actual roast turkey, and it was Christmas Day after all, so I ambled back down and rustled up a roast. All in all – a good day.

Bonus points available to anyone who can spot the geo-historic link between my two solo Christmasses: leave comments below


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Round Ireland at Christmas

Having lived in Dingle for practically all of 2012, it didn’t feel right not being there for Christmas. I’d heard all about Wren’s Day (see above) on 26th December and about the craziness of New Year’s Eve. So I packed up a few essentials* into a knapsack** and scooted*** back over the Irish sea to my namesake county – the Kingdom of Kerry for some festive fun.

* Four pairs of boots (one sturdy; one fashionable yet still comfortable; one fashionably heeled and not remotely practical with a maximum wear time of two hours, seated; and one non-water-repelling suede. What was I thinking – I was going to Ireland). One full-length mermaid costume. One rubber Richard Nixon mask – you never know. A tin whistle in the key of D. Three bottles of wine (one Champagne, one Rioja, one pre-mulled). 18 tops, four dresses, three bottoms, a bikini. All I wore all week, as predicted, was black jeans, a long sleeved black T-shirt and a pleather ('plastic faux leather) gillet. I could’ve just bought a toothbrush and a spare pair of pants and been done with it.

** One packed suitcase and one Osprey framed rucksack. Utterly OTT and unnecessary.
*** Sat for a total of 17 hours on five buses and one Fishguard-Rosslare ferry to get from Bristol to Dingle costing £80 return with Eurolines.

The European Outdoor Film Tour (EOFT)

For those who like this kind of thing, the European Outdoor Film Tour hits Bristol on 27 November and will be at St George's on Great George Street, off Park Street, Bristol. It's also at various other stop-off cities across the UK and Europe. I will be there handing out Wanderlust magazines (very quickly in order to race in and get myself a good seat) so if you'd like one of those - I have enough for the first 200 guests - get there early. It should be a great night; I predict the audience will be full of Rab outwear, North Face pants, Mammut jackets, and people who spend most lunchtimes in Cotswold Leisure and 98% of their salaries on clothing items stuffed with feathers. In short - my kind of people. Looking forward to seeing you there, get your tickets online now.  

I'm Wanderlust Magazine's Blog of the Week!

Wanderlust Travel Blog of the WeekI didn't make much of a big deal of this before but actually am really proud of this - I've just been featured as a Wanderlust Magazine Blog of the Week. How exciting! I may be back to hound you to vote for me if this ever goes to a Blog of the Year competition. In fact, what am I saying - please go there now and leave a message and rating and then I might automatically win Blog of the Year! Thanks for reading, mum. Er, I mean, thanks for reading all you thousands and thousands of people...


 Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Week

Desperately seeking...

It’s funny finding myself back on the Bristol room rental scene again. Well, funny isn’t exactly the right word. Expensive and time-consuming, those are the words. In Ireland this year I had the luxury of a spacious double room (with harbour view and en-suite facilities) in a lovely big, warm, clean, central house, with no smokers and a super cute Maltese Schitzu dog called Puddles. For £200 per month. This allowed me to enjoy a relatively high quality of life without needing to earn much money. For two years prior to that, I again had a large south-facing double in a well-located, gorgeous house for just £350 per month. And before that I lived on a boat which was even cheaper…if 30 degrees colder.

Having now secured myself a new job with a publisher of guides and directories in the superyacht industry that starts on Monday, I need somewhere new to live. Having looked at hundreds of ads and dozens of rooms for rent and houses to share, it’s amazing what some people will put up with. Filthy houses, smoky houses, rooms with no view/ space/ character/ soul/ beds (it is amazing the amount of boys who sleep on mattresses on the floor). Houses where every space has been let, leaving nowhere for the six occupants (sharing the one bathroom) to socialise. Though presumably they all stink due to lack of shower access so they might not mind.

So when you see a good’un you take it immediately even if it is £100+ more than you wanted to pay. I’m now moving to Windmill Hill, Bristol (near Victoria Park) into an en-suite loft room in a colourful, three-storey townhouse with two lovely friends from Sustrans. The view of Bristol is just incredible so makes up for the fact that my rent is going up as my wages are going down. I REALLY need to reverse this trend else I’ll be paying half my take-home pay to my landlord and giving the other half back to my employer for the privilege of working for them by the time I’m 40. Again, funny isn’t exactly the right word.   

Bristol's Wilderness Lectures

I'd forgotten how much I like Bristol, there's just so much going on. I just popped into Stanford's travel book and map shop to pick up some maps of the French Riviera, to hang in front of my desk at my new superyacht job so that when I'm speaking to Jean-Pierre in Monaco or Sabine-Estelle in St Tropez, I can visualise where they are. While in Stanford's (I'm very consciously trying not to use 'whilst' any more for, although that's what automatically wants to come out, my very modern sub-editor of a brother assures me that that is now deemed archaic), I spotted a flyer for their Wilderness Lectures series, and booked on to one in a few weeks (when I will have been paid yippee) by Jasper Winn, a man who paddled around the coast of Ireland. If you like this kind of thing, see who's on and book some tickets before they sell out. Some, like the lecture by local hero and global rockventurer, Tim Emmet, always do. 

I got me a job

superyachtjobThere’s been talk of my getting a new job in Bristol following my brief segue into Windsor and it's true. I know I give the impression of living on fresh air alone but that’s just not correct, I do lots of work when no-one’s looking (I haven’t slept since 1997) and then just pretend to be a lady of leisure. In truth, I’ve spent every spare hour since late July looking for a job to keep me occupied now the paid writing has dried up. So what is this job? 

Well, I applied for a copywriting job because its description featured the words sun, tan and lotion, as such things are right up my street. Alas when it came to my interview performance on the rather rainy day in question things started badly, tailed off a bit in the middle and the less said about the end the better. 

While on holiday in Dingle shortly after, the interviewer emailed me. He wanted to discuss something. Hours later I found myself crouching in a pocket of WiFi in the corner of a pub, near a very low phone socket, attached to my iPhone whose charger has a short leash and an even shorter battery span. During what turned into a lengthy ‘interview-debrief-telephone-call’ he spent so long telling me off for my interview style (or lack thereof) and various faux-pas that I wasn’t sure why he was on the phone at all. Didn’t he have a polished, successful Oxbridge candidate to be breaking some good news to? He then utterly unsurprisingly went on to say I hadn’t got the copywriting position that I’d applied and been interviewed for. But then.

But then a surprising thing happened. He offered me another position with his company, the Yachting Pages and Super Yacht Owners’ Guide, a marketing position. I love boats and used to own and live on one so at some point, I must have said a few of the right things after all. After much wrangling over salary (which, as far as I can tell judging by the outcome, involved me providing him with myriad reasons to pay me more while he placed his ‘phone on a window sill safely out of earshot whilst popping out to make a cup of tea and to scoff a few Bourbons) I accepted the job and begin later in October, in Bristol. Now, I don’t usually get particularly excited about the first week in a new job, nor the lengthy and generally dull induction program they insist you stay awake through. I’m a little more excited about this five-day induction though, because it’s at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, Florida. I’d better get cycling…

Prize draw imminent: join mailing list (right) to be in with a chance!

Hello hello - as my blog is teetering on the verge of receiving its 5,000th visitor (I know! Who'd've thought!) it's time for me to scrub my welcome mat, buy a new kettle, get some more tea and scones on the go and to celebrate with a little prize draw of a year's subscription to a lovely bike mag. Simply sign up to my mailing list (top right-hand corner of this page) and then at end October I will select a mailing list person at random to receive their prize. I won't inundate you with stuff or share your details, you'll just get an email from me every month or so telling you what's new in Grand Tour and Bristol world as well as on the bike scene in general. Thanks for reading, sign up, sign your friends up, bye for now x 

Good food for bonking

I’ve noticed something about my cycling. I ride like I drive. If you drive fast, you must put more fuel in as higher speeds are fuel intensive. So in the van, I stick at around 50mph (that’s 80kmh, continental friends) to conserve diesel…and in case the engine blows up a little bit like it did outside Bridgwater that time because my temperature gauge doesn’t work and it overheated. There’s just no point in cycling more quickly, as you just burn up more calories and have to find/ buy/ eat more of them pretty rapidly. Which ultimately takes up more time so you might as well have just gone slower in the first place. 

Having said that, I was cycling home yesterday from Windsor to Maidenhead and, due to what can only have been an accidental burst of speed ten minutes prior, I just ‘bonked’. In cycling terms, so I’m reliably told by a man who wears a lot of lycra so it must be true, this means that I hit the wall. Ran out of energy. Had nothing left to give. So I popped into a mercifully close garage shop and dragged my pannier and be-helmeted self inside to get some snacks. A Ginsters’ buffet bar (I know they’re merely awful, overpriced piles of salt and faux-pork mashed into a rude shape around some dodgy egg mayonnaise but they really hit my bonk spot – hang on, this is coming out all wrong) and a banana. On paying for them, keeping in mind my head gear and fact that I was getting my purse out of a luminous yellow Ortlieb pannier, with fingerless padded gloves on and with a freshly drained bike bottle on the counter, the cashier said: “Any fuel?”. My reply? “Yes, this is it. Good bye.” 

Apologies to anyone who was expecting a 9 and 1/2 weeks-styled blog entry there. If you don't know what I mean by that, watch said film at your earliest opportunity. 

Why are there cyclists on my road?

I’ve been working at cycling related charity Sustrans for so long, I forgot that not everybody cycles, for everything, in all weathers, all of the time. That a 50-mile ride to Glastonbury for fun, for instance, isn’t taken in the stride of the vast majority of Britons. I’ve just started working in a new office environment where cyclists are in the minority and it just feels weird. I have to explain what Ortlieb is, describe my route and explain to drivers why cyclists often use the road when there is (what appears to the motorist to be) a perfectly good cycle path right next to the road. This isn't an original topic so those used to cycling campaigning or blogs might want to leave this post now...but anyway.

The shared use path that does admittedly run the whole length of the bit of A305 that I need to use to get from Maidenhead to central Windsor, is impressively broken up. I’m thrilled and relieved there’s one there at all as the road is fast, with the sun directly in your eyes as you head both into and out of Windsor at the times I do, so I don’t particularly want to be on it. But the path is ridiculous. I had to try really hard not to put that word into capitals. There is a driveway, a curb, an eye-catching-in-a-bad-way thorny frond to avoid or a mini detour around something every, ooh, eight metres or so, which I think reduces my average speed from what might tip about 12-14mph on a good day to about 5mph. When the nine-mile journey takes over half an hour anyway, this added time does actually make quite a difference to my commute. So that’s why cyclists sometimes cycle on roads, god forbid, those pieces of infrastructure that their taxes helped build and maintain :o) I love this site

Windsor. It's just not Bristol.

Windsor is beautiful. It’s got a castle, guards, boutiques, a Waitrose, Eton, Olympians, all that jazz. But you know what it hasn’t got (not that I can find anyway, at least within a mile of wherever I want them to be)? Any blinkin’ bike racks. 

I've got wanderlust...

I’d been scouring online job sites for work back in Bristol since late July while I was still living in Dingle, Ireland. I bussed home FROM IRELAND for an interview (didn’t get it), spent about half a day each on eight different application forms (didn’t get any of them) and applied for myriad other jobs too, across a spectrum of sectors from charities and events to youth development organisations, universities, marketing companies and the National Trust. Guess what. Didn’t get any of them, either. In fact, although emails are free, many employers didn’t so much as acknowledge my application. It’s a little disheartening, as an experienced person with 20 years of experience across several industries, bags of transferable skills, a straight A education, great references and an MSc to boot, to be faced with such responses. If they want blood, I’ve got that, too.  

After another month of this, I had a bit of an epiphany. The jobs didn’t want me, because I didn’t want them. They could sense it. Jobs aren’t stupid. I didn’t want to sit at just any desk, and said desks didn’t want me sitting at them, either. I didn’t fancy working at a screen – and the screen dutifully didn’t fancy me in return. It was all mutual. I went downstairs, made a brew, debated how best to hitch-hike to southern France to meet up with a friend. Then I found myself on Wanderlust travel magazine’s website, looking for escapism, inspiration and perhaps employment – and there it was: a wee work experience opportunity at their Windsor office. Something I actually wanted to do and was passionate about. I fired off an email and days later found myself sitting opposite magazine founder and industry legend, Lyn Hughes. To cut a long story short – I heard yesterday that I start on Monday! Just a small matter of finding accommodation in a phenomenally expensive tourist hub to sort out and I’m away. This job obvious has impeccable taste.   

Be part of Bristol's community bike caff

bristol bike cafe roll for the soulRoll for the Soul is a Bristol's newly planned bike cafe with social aims, generating funds now to start setting up shop asap. It's headed by Dr Rob Wall (sounds a bit imposing - his beard looks a bit imposing too in this YouTube rabble-raising attempt if I'm honest - don't be put off!) but he's ace. I call him Bobbo. Anyway where was I? Ah yes, Roll for the Soul will be Bristol's hub for cyclists to meet up and hook up, make plans, eat starch. Any money it raises will be ploughed back into local enterprises like the Bristol Bike Project and the Bristol Cycle Festival. It will also create jobs for people who've learned new skills (ie in bike mechanics) at projects like the Bristol Bike Project. Pledge a few quid here today to help this start-up start up! Thanks, see you there. 


PS: if you want to buy my Bob Yak Cycle Trailer - please see eBay listing, ends around 23 September! Ta. 

Happy Birthday Grand Tour!

France's highest Col de l'IseranDo you know what today is, do you, do you? The clue's in the title. On this date last year (only it was a Sunday, I was hungover, full of fried breakfast, nervous, overslept, could barely lift my bike and didn't hit the road til gone noon) I left Bristol on my budget solo cycle to Rome, following the route of the Victorian Grand Tour, thus the name of this blog: The Grand Tour on a Grand. Can't believe that was a year ago. Events and memories have now percolated/ settled/ evaporated/ amplified, so I think it's now time, from this perch of perspective, to start thinking about writing the promised book. Jill Stynes, I know that you for one will be thrilled about this! Thanks everyone for reading and if you haven't already, pop your email in the box top right to get a monthly-ish update from me. 


I'm now sailing home from Ireland to England with Stena Lines to go to the Adventure Travel Film Festival in Dorset. Who knows who I might meet there, and what adventures, blockbusters and bestsellers this could kick-start! Thanks also to the brilliant team at my Travel Cash who helped me stick to budget with their no-fee, pre-pay currency card - get yours today.    

The Joy of Decks

Stena Line crossings for convenience

Having Stena Line sailed to Ireland back in February to research Irish B&Bs for Alastair Sawday, it now appears to be August. Six months later. I only came for ten days. County Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula has a habit of doing that to people. Swallowing them up. I’m just reading a mockthropology book (my new word to mean tongue-in-cheek people-watching) called How to be Irish, by David Slattery. I’m enjoying it. So much so, in fact, that it’s now two months’ overdue to Dingle Library. Only, they won’t charge me because they are so nice, which is how ten days turn into six months (I’ll insist on paying). How to be Irish has a whole chapter on Dingle and the people that ‘blow in’ and never leave it, henceforth known as blow-ins. There are lots of them here in Ireland in general and Dingle in particular. Poets, writers, painters, sculptors, students of the Irish language, musicians. I’m a blow-in – of as-yet undetermined specialisation. But I think it’s time I blew out, as the tourists dissipate along with the jobs created to look after them. So I’m leaving on Thursday to head for the Stena Lines ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard.

Stena Line crossings for convenienceI love ferries because they give you time to compute. To think about what went before and what lies ahead in melodramatic, olde worlde fashion. Melancholic gazes back at the world being left behind, anxious imaginings as to what might await beyond the actual and metaphorical horizons approaching. With planes, it’s all over too quickly. You’re still trying to remember the surname of your holiday romance when you touch down…or are nostalgically reliving a beautiful day on Mount Eagle when Mr Ryan Air butts in with talk of sitting down, shutting up and strapping in. It’s just not the same. Your mind needs time to acclimatise to its new surroundings, to work out which memories to stow safely away and which to jettison into the deep.

That’s why boats are so good. They are integral parts, starts and finishes of great journeys and I love them. You can change decks if you don’t like your neighbour. Go for jogs, sleeps and strolls. Watch films, charge phones, buy food. Boats don’t a) nosedive, b) get hit by surface to air missiles, c) pull into the hard shoulder for their engines to cool off, d) lose your luggage, e) charge you to use their toilets and f) I can’t remember the last time I was snarled up in a ferry jam. I’m particularly looking forward to finishing off How to be Irish on the top deck, perhaps with a steaming latte, kissing goodbye to memories of Cork, Kerry, Dingle and the bloke whose surname the ferry journey has given me enough time to recall (though no ferry journey is long enough for anyone to work out how to spell it). Oh and figuring out how to post the book and accompanying fine back to the librarian at Dingle Library. Bernard, I will. I promise. Trust me, I’m a mockthropologist.

The Adventure Travel Film Festival

I'm excited about next weekend's Adventure Travel Film Festival in Dorset (England). I'm excited about meeting hosts Lois Pryce and Austin Vince. About hearing Alastair Humphreys speak again. About going to a few workshops on how to shoot adventure films and improve your trip photography. About maybe meeting some new travel, riding or adventuring partners. But do you know what I'm most excited about? The fact that I've just bought a half-board ticket to a festival. HALF BOARD. How civil is that? I won't have to worry about how to keep the milk cool for day three (freezing it before day one gets you to day two with no problems); to spend £10 per meal on unsatisfying burgers; nor to do any dishes. I love the sound of this festival. I want to live at it forever. 

On the (Eurolines) buses...

At Bristol bus station as I awaited Eurolines’ 22:15 departure to Cork, I met a man. In a dark suit. “Where are you going?” he asked. Three syllables in, I knew he was a Kerryman. Five syllables in, I had £5 on his being from Dingle. A few hours later, I knew a lot about Seamus. He plays keyboards in a local band, has two weekly slots on Kerry FM and is a native of the Dingle village Baile an Fheirtéaraigh. He teaches step dancing, there was definitely something about Riverdance in there – his accent got the better of me on that one – and he’s going to drop his CD in the next time he’s passing my pad. What did he learn about me? That I smelt of garlic (hummus is as scarce as summer sunshine in Dingle so I may have indulged a little too much prior to boarding); had a Tupperware tub full of cold roast potatoes as my only snack for the entire 12-hour journey; have cycled to Rome; and that I’m a champion fidgeter are among the more memorable facts. What neither he nor I knew at the time was that the two sleeping tablets I took in the half light, after fumbling around in the scratched depths of my old rucksack, weren’t sleeping tablets at all. What would be the worst tablets to take whilst at the beginning of a long-distance bus journey? Yes, very good, ten points. That’s exactly what they were. Thankfully, for all concerned, they didn’t work. And what they were doing in there in the first place is another question entirely. 

This reminded me of an incident in Lisbon in 1998. I was being observed teaching for the final assessment of my intensive TEFL course. I’d acquired some insect bites and was given a clear gel to apply, plus antihistamine tablets. On this final morning, I mistakenly took strong sleeping tablets instead of the prescription drugs, and was so far off the ball I’m amazed I passed the course at all. To make matters worse, the gel (that I’d applied for the first time upon leaving the hostel) actually transformed into a mask-like coating, so when I smiled my first smile of the day to greet the class and observers, the gel stretched, peeled at the edges then hung from various parts of my face and neck in manner of a snake shedding its skin. The students (close to the action) recoiled in horror, scouring their textbooks for the phrase “Are you contagious?”, as the bemused assessors simply wondered what this slurring, swaying sleepwalker was doing in charge of a class of minors. The moral of these stories? It isn’t Don’t Do Drugs. It’s more Do The Right Drugs. 

The Grand Tour Anniversary is approaching

Merrill and Jeff and Zeta the van in Amiens FranceNext week, 14 August, is the one-year anniversary of the day I left Bristol on my solo cycle ride to Rome. I can’t believe that was a year ago. As a first salute to the trip and the great folk whose paths I crossed, here’s a lovely email I got yesterday from someone I bonded with at a campsite in Amiens, France, a week or two into the ride. Kiwi Merrill warned me that surprisingly moist night mists enveloped the campsite, and let me dry my washing in her campervan, Zeta, whilst charging my gadgets overnight. Merrill and Jeff - great to meet you and thanks for updating me on your endless, seasonal adventures. If I’ve got even half the beans and joie de vivre you have when I’m your age, I’ll be one very happy lady!  

Dear Kerry, 

I’ve been keeping abreast of your blog and feeling guilty I’ve not emailed in a while. What am I like? Don’t answer that, my ego couldn’t take it. I have, however, been thinking of you of late as last month Jeff and I were domiciled yet again in the Amiens area. We thought of you pedalling away over plain and mountain, and even though you have writer’s block where your Grand Tour saga is concerned, still have hopes of a signed copy once the processes have unblocked. Maybe writing about such an experience needs a little time and cogitation to develop, just like a good wine.

Since our meeting last year during that fly-by of hot air balloons, Jeff and I have been to New Zealand and back. I’m now inflicting family and those who foolishly haven’t changed their email addresses about our further adventures of life in a tin can – our little motor home, Zeta. Currently we’re in Vendôme, having been to Bertangles, Les Andelys and Chartres. We have no fixed route, just 10 weeks in which to wander around, drying out after the UK where we had seven fine days out of 67. I love touristing and am making the most of it before we return to the motherland, Jeff returns to NZ and I find a UK job for the winter.

The care agency is already threatening to inflict me on another client. Being on the job 22 hours every day for several months caring for England’s ageing Upper Crust is not happiness-making; I just think of the money. Being an inveterate tourist though, I love the insight into their rarefied lifestyle. After my first winter slogging it out, someone in NZ actually asked if I’d made the whole thing up! I should have been flattered she thought me so imaginative I suppose, but in my job so much is beyond the experience of normal human beings it’s no wonder my correspondent was dubious. Imagine if I hadn’t sent a rigorously edited version…I could have published and made a fortune like what’s-her-name who wrote that salacious ’50 shades of…’ whatever it was. Now there’s a thought.

Time for Jeff to use the computer, so I’ll close now, my conscience salved somewhat. I wish you happy Dingling/ Bristoling from La Belle France.

Merrill. 

And so to Ireland.

And so to Ireland. Just packing up and heading to the Eurolines bus to Cork, which leaves Bristol this evening. It is hard to believe that the huge piles, swathes, stacks and general mountains of items sprawled across the room a friend is very kindly letting me sit for her whilst she’s cycling across Germany for a few weeks (yes, we Bristol Sustrans staff cycling types are all as bad as each other) will fit back into the one bag they came in. Not to worry, if they spread a bit, I can always take a second bag because am on the bus and they very reasonably let you do such things – without charging an arm and leg for the last-minute privilege as airlines do. As a pre-departure snackette, my housemate Mel is currently warming up some Arabic flat bread rubbed with Za’taar (Middle Eastern wild thyme). I seem to remember from my gap-year in Arab Lands that Za’taar is renowned for its aphrodisiacal properties. Am hoping it’s not too potent, else my upcoming journey over land and sea might prove…interesting. Let’s hope I end up sitting next to a hottie is all I can say. You know, just in case.   

Eurolines saved me 50 pints of Guinness!


Eurolines logoCheap flights are all well and good if a) you fly! and b) you know in advance where you’re going. My travel plans are generally made within seconds of departure, so cheap advance fares tend to elude me, so here’s a test. I want to travel Bristol to Cork (Ireland), on Sunday. 


Eurolines logo
Let’s check out the flights. I’m travelling with two heavy bags plus hand luggage. Aer Lingus is £159.99 including one checked-in bag – I’d need to pay excess baggage plus to get to and from the airports either end so let’s call that one-way journey £200. Hmm. As the crow flies it’s 250 miles, so that’s 80p per mile. 

Next – scheduled public transport. Train to Fishguard Harbour is £34. Foot passenger with Stenaline to Rosslare is £28. Bus or train on to Cork. Hmm, both Irish Rail and Bus Eireann websites are too hard to use so let’s call it £20. That’s £82 with two rather inconvenient changes due to heavy baggage. Eurolines, the inter-continental coach service from National Express: £49, no changes, simple website. 20p per mile. 40% cheaper than train and ferry separately, 76% cheaper than flying. Saving over £150 to splurge on 50 pints of Guinness. Thankfully there’s an on-board loo for the return journey…    

2065

I was just entering my details on a website to find something out (OK, I was looking at my projected pension entitlement upon retirement as my cousin, who’s in finance, enquired about my private pension at which I blanched. He in turn blanched upon realising that, alongside not having a private pension plan, I also have very few qualifying years’ of National Insurance contributions, having worked and travelled intermittently since I was 18). Anyway. This particular site, before I got anywhere near finding out the figure I was after, then gave me my life expectancy (90). On a rather bright and colour co-ordinated timeline, it then cheerily pin-pointed the exact year of my likely death. In a nice shade of pink. 2065. I’m due to die in 2065. I’d never thought about it like that before. Death, yes, of course. The big hereafter, time to sleep, the end of days. But not precisely when this chapter was likely to begin, all going ‘well’. And by ‘well’, I mean if nothing else kills me first.

This whole 2065 bombshell made worrying about what my pension’s going to be seem a little bit small in the great scheme of things. Rather than making me want to buckle down and jump on the career ladder in order to rectify the above two shortfalls, it actually made me want to fill my remaining 55 oops no 54 and going on 53 years with exciting things to make my life one worth living in the first place. Which is all well and good but I do get his point: how will I continue my technical clothing/ ultra-lightweight camping gear/ Nutella habit on £107 a week? 

Rounding off "Round Ireland with a...."

bbc weatherI’ve decided to round off the ‘Round Ireland with a…’ blog theme. Mainly because I’m not going round Ireland any more! In fact, the going around of the Ireland kind of came to a bit of a halt a) the moment I set foot in Dingle almost five months ago (was it really that long ago? It was) and b) since the accelerator cable snapped on my van. So now I shall just be writing about who and whatever takes my fancy on any given day. 

Today, the only thing worth talking about – predictability aside given that I’m English – is the weather. Seriously. Have you seen it out there? It is eye-meltingly bright and tattoo-burningly hot out there. My former work colleagues from Sustrans are saddling up and scooting down the Bristol to Bath cycle path for a swim at Bitton Weir as soon as the end of work bell rings (if there were such a thing that is), and I am off to be a health and safety marshal (aka a voyeur) at Madame Melski’s Cycle Speed Dating event, where 32 young hopefuls (16 of each) take turns to pair up and cruise around a beautiful local park in the hope of finding if not true love, then perhaps a riding partner for summer. Yes, Irish friends, I know exactly what that means in Ireland. And that’s not what I’m talking about in this instance. Although that would I suppose be a result, too.

BBC Radio 5 live appearance

Here's a quick update on my BBC Radio 5 Live ‘appearance’ on July 22nd 2012 – the historic day when an Englishman won the Tour de France for the very first time. (Does one appear on the radio? Or feature on it? Hmm, verb suggestions for what one does on the radio welcome – keep it clean.) It didn’t go too badly at all. If anyone wants to listen to the wonderfully lilting tones of Peter Nolan and his show, tune in to hear Sunday’s show here. Begin at 0:18:10 for the whole Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky cycling discussion, or from 0:27:20 for a couple of minutes to hear me. 

Londoner wins Tour de France. Allez Team Sky!

On my 'Grand Tour on a Grand' bike trip from Bristol to Rome last year, I cycled up a few Tour de France peaks such as the Col d'Iseran and Cormet de Roselend (never again etc). One bloke I imagine was pedaling a wee bit faster than me on his route up them was Bradley Wiggins, the first British cyclist - he's a Londoner - to ever win the Tour de France. I'm going to be live on radio tonight talking about what this historic feat could mean for British cycling. Will it raise cycling's profile, increase interest in the sport? Let's see what comes out of my mouth tonight. It's amazing what the prospect of a live radio show can do in the tying your tongue department! I'm currently writing a book about my rather less record-breaking solo cycle to Rome. For the odd email update and to be informed when the book's ready, please sign up to my alerts now, top right of this page. Thanks and congratulations again Bradley and Team Sky. 

Quick, order your my Travel Cash card for summer

Just a quickie. My friends keep asking me how to get a money-saving my Travel Cash card in time for their hols this summer, as they don't want to pay a £2 transaction charge every time they buy a round of drinks in a bar. It's simple. Go here, order your card. It will arrive, top it up like you would a pay-as-you-go phone, use it at will. Have an amazing holiday. The end! Told you it was quick. 

Round Ireland with Jill's Quiz at McCarthy's!

Tasmanian Jill is something of a legend in Dingle. She is to me, anyway! A former chef, Jill runs a periodic quiz in Tom McCarthy’s bar, the prize for which is having her turn up at your house (in chef’s whites and tall paper hat I like to think), to rustle up a delicious three-course meal for the winning team. How bad, lads? Back in Bristol, it’s so long since I’ve won a quiz my memory is fuzzy, but I vaguely remember once winning a crate of beer whose Best By date was long gone, alongside a metal tray full of crustless triangular sandwiches. Bring on the gourmet treat, I say. 

Tomorrow, on Tuesday 10 July, Jill is running a special one-off summer quiz to raise funds for the Kerry Rape and Crisis Centre in Tralee. Come along to McCarthy’s Bar from 8.30pm onwards to support the Centre and the quiz (which aims to start at 9pm). You might even win some of the brilliant prizes either for winning (if your common, local, esoteric, general and/or musical knowledge are up to par), or in the raffle if you’ve more money than sense. Local businesses have given generously and there are bottles of wine, whiskey and vouchers for local artisans like Louis Mulcahy pottery to be won. Come one, come all. With next to no local knowledge, I for one shall be holding out for the raffle.

When you wish upon a star...

For all purchases made on my Travel Cash card, 1% is credited back into the card account. From now on, my Travel Cash card holders have the option of donating this cash to When you Wish Upon A Star, a charity which grants wishes to children suffering from life-threatening illnesses. The CEO of my Travel Cash, says: “This is a fantastic charity and we are delighted to be one of its partners to help grant the wishes of these very special children. The donations start now and cardholders simply select within their account settings for the funds to automatically go to this very worthy charity." So first things first, get yourself a my Travel Cash card for your holidays. Secondly, just tick the box and those few pounds coming back atcha every month that you probably don't even notice can start to help children that really need it. Read more here

Round Ireland with a breakdown

breaking down in MacroomMechanical – not emotional! It’s quite hard getting round Ireland in a van when your accelerator cable has snapped, as I found out late one evening last week. I was just leaving my Aunt Christine’s in Ladysbridge (County Cork) in front of an assembled audience of about eight newly-met cousins, when my gas pedal decided to stick down. This created a high-octane racing noise and looks of consternation on the faces of the crowd. Was it meant to sound like that? Um, nope. 

I grinned and bore it for a while as had to get back to Dingle that night, changing gear as little as possible and apologising with my face to drivers stopped in front of me at lights and junctions who thought I was getting impatient. El Van had other plans however, and the cable snapped entirely upon reaching Macroom. Luckily, in fact, for at least there were people, lights and facilities around. Grinding to a halt in the middle of nowhere may indeed have induced a second breakdown of the emotional variety, too. Chatty John from Fitzgerald’s then towed me all the way back to Dingle, where the van is currently laid up at Griffin’s garage, awaiting its new cable. Whenever I try to leave Dingle, something happens to make me stay. Is it fate? Whilst I’d love to believe so, it’s more likely that I drive an ageing van around, and the only part of it that gets any TLC from one year to the next is the curtains. I haven’t got the garage bill yet. I imagine it’ll be a tad more than the petrol money I saved getting towed 100 miles home… 

Round Ireland with a bad taste bouncy castle...

titanic bouncy castleOnly in Ireland would you find a bouncy castle in the shape of the...half-submerged Titanic. Brilliant. 

Round Ireland with the Volvo Ocean Race

Volvo Ocean Race Galway 2012 imageHaving lived on a boat myself, I’m interested in all things sea-, harbour-, ocean festival-, sailing- and fisher people-related. So I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of the Volvo Ocean Race before going to it in Galway last week. This actually worked in its favour for with no hype to live up to, the nine-day-long free festival spreading out from Galway’s harbour had no expectations to exceed (though if it’d had any, it would’ve outstripped them all with ease). Galway was a stop-off point for the Volvo race a few years back, when the incoming boats on their nine-month race around the world received such an unforgettable welcome (tens of thousands of people lining their route in at 2am in the morning, not to mention lines of bonfires to guide them safely in) that they all voted in Galway as the finishing point of the 2012 race. 


There were wandering circus acts, a global village of food (not to mention food demonstrations with Martin from Dingle’s Global Village restaurant), free concerts every night – I caught the Maverick Sabre gig, never heard of the guy but he sampled my local band Portishead so that went down well – and streets full of happy if damp tourists from all corners. I even bumped into a stag group from Sea Mills, a village one mile from my own in Bristol. The accent stood out a mile. So, if you like to plan ahead and are looking for somewhere amazing to spend a holiday in about three years’ time, find out where the Volvo Ocean Race is finishing up and head there. Or make it easier for yourself and just spend a week overlooking beautiful Galway Bay instead (where I CHALLENGE you not to end up singing that line from the Pogues' Fairytale of New York for the entire weekend).  

Round Ireland with Infomar

Nope, I haven’t made the word Infomar up (I made this one up though: ‘commiserbrate’. This is what you do when you’re not quite sure if you should be commiserating or celebrating something, like the end of an era/ relationship/ job etc). But where was I…ah yes, Infomar. This is the name of the project run by the Geological Survey of Ireland to map in incredible detail the seabed and coastal areas around the country. As mentioned below, we met its crew of three whilst they were in Dingle: the awesomely named Icelandic skipper August; and two Galwegian geologist crew members Owen and Ronan. We showed them the sights and sounds of Dingle (Currans pub, the Blue Zone jazz café and pizzeria, the Courthouse pub, the bottom of a hundred shot glasses, sunrise the wrong side of going to sleep) and they gave us a tour of their boat, baffled us with science and generally impressed up with their underwater wizardry, sonar graphs and excellent tea making skills. Their boat, the Keary, is on its slow way round the coast, stopping at ocean festivals and related events en route. So if you spy the Keary's silver sides bobbing in a harbour near you, see if they’re doing any educational tours that day. And tell them Dingle sends its love. 

Round Ireland with a bit of homesickness

Bristol street signIt’s not often I get homesick. I carry my warm sense of security, stability and contentment around within me, so rarely feel a pull to be anywhere other than exactly where I have chosen to be at any given point. However, and despite Dingle’s boundless charms, I’m getting a bit homesick at the moment, a bit Bristol-sick to be precise. I blame it on two related things. My housemate Sarah and I recently met three guys based in Dingle for the week whilst working for the Geological Survey of Ireland. Their hi-tech vessel, the Keary, is mapping the seabed of Ireland. A massive and ongoing project, its 3D images of the shapes, structures, wrecks and surprises down there were just incredible. (Useful stuff, too, for if a ship runs aground or causes an oil slick due to hitting something not on their nautical maps – then Ireland is to blame. If the item was mapped – it’s their own bloody stupid fault.) 


So, the lads just brought a bit of the outside world with them, and it was refreshing to meet the same people in a pub from one evening to the next. The whole feeling just made me miss my Bristol mates. Then, heading up to Galway on the boys’ recommendation for the city-wide and free festival for the end of the Volvo Ocean Race party, reminded me how much fun city life can be. So I wonder, might it finally be time to head Bristol-wards? 

Round Ireland on an adult gap year

Three Sisters, DingleI’ve been off real work for a year now, since finishing at Sustrans last June. What have I done for the last year (more note to self than anything!)? Well. With friends, I walked some of the Way of St James pilgrimage route from SW France and across the Pyrenees ending in RiojaSpain. I then spent three weeks hiking through the mid and eastern Pyrenees visiting the Ariege and Perpignan, and climbing Pic du Carlit and the Basque sacred mountain Canigou at midsummer. Onto Chamonix andSwitzerland to catch up with friends from ski seasons past, then back to Bristol via a wine-world reunion in Paris. Phew. 


A few weeks’ planning then ensued for my Grand Tour on a Grand bike ride to Rome (blog here), from Aug-Oct. Next came a three-month stretch poring over my laptop, attempting to write a book about it. Oh and a cheeky ski holiday to Morzine which was so expensive it gave me something to worry about other than my writer’s block. In February I finally admitted defeat on the book front for the moment, and went to Ireland, reviewing B&Bs for Sawday’s publishing (info here and blog starts here). That delivered me to Dingle in County Kerry in March, where I still am come July. How did that happen?! It’s been a long, adventure-filled and inspirational year, during which my head and legs were racing; I met some truly unforgettable characters; my body became fighting fit and ready for action; my savings slalomed from the high fours down to the usual three figures; my heart was happy then broken and is now full again; and in which I took every opportunity that presented itself. And do you know what? I’m tired. I think I might need a normal job for a while, to give my mind and body a rest. Sometimes a bit of 9-5 can actually be a holiday.

Round Ireland with an intuitive barman

I’m just back from a trip home to Bristol; catching up with the troops and generally touching base with the myriad friends and family I haven’t seen since Dingle got its clingy little claws into me back in February. One thing that really struck home was that I didn’t know any of the bar staff in any of my local pubs and bars anymore and that they, therefore, didn’t know what ‘my usual’ might be. In Dingle, there’s an absolutely brilliant barman in an equally brilliant pub called O’Sullivan’s Courthouse (see below) who we’ll call Dara. Chiefly because that’s his name. 


The first time I ordered at the bar, I was paying little attention as was preoccupied looking out for the person I was an hour late to meet (who was in turn a further hour late for me so we’re quits). On revisiting the bar, Dara said “Same again?” which threw me as I thought no-one had paid attention in the first place. As it goes I didn’t want the same again, as I’d ordered a Guinness for Irishness’s sake and I’m more of a cider drinker, so I reverted to the apple. But on a Friday night I’ll almost certainly plump for a double dark rum and ginger ale to sugar my veins and fuel my dance-seeking feet or, if out with the housemates for a social sundowner, will more likely opt for a white wine. Sauvignon, not Chardonnay, with a dash of soda and – wine lovers forgive me – a few ice-cubes (regardless of the outside temperature it’s always 110 degrees Fahrenheit in there). And whether by the angle of my eyebrows, the tempo of my gait as I approach the bar or the lilt in my greeting, Dara knows what to pour. The correct change is in his hand before you’ve even chosen what note to pay him with and two further customers have been served before you’ve enjoyed your first sip. Dingle would die of thirst – or at least spend a lot longer at the bar – without him. Bristol needs a Dara. Every pub needs a Dara.  

WIN a Great British Adventure!

I've had enough excitement/ disappointment for one year on the competition front, trying to win the Visit England Fan in a Van competition. I didn't win but Rachel Kershaw from Newcastle did - congrats Rachel! So instead I am touting this next competition in the hope that one of YOU might win an all-expenses paid trip around the country instead. It's the Sawday's Canopy and Stars: Great British Adventure. I'm pretty happy here in sunny Dingle (County Kerry) anyway - as I may have mentioned once or twice already. Best of British/ Irish to you, anyway. And please take me with you if you win. 


For blog and book updates, don't forget to sign up to my mailing list, top right. Thanks. 

Round Ireland with Sawday's B&Bs

Hello hello, life's been so busy in Dingle I've just realised that I didn't update you on all of the lovely Sawday's 'Special Places to Stay' I visited and reviewed this spring. If you're visiting County Cork in southern Ireland, why not pop into the ever-entertaining Michael at Coolefield House B&B (review here) or for a regal self-catering retreat near Kinsale and Cork City, try the Merchant Ivory-styled Glendooneen House. More to come, or check out Sawday's B&B and self-catering and luxury camping pages for inspiration near you. 

Round Ireland with a stop in Schull

On the way to the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, myself and fellow road-tripper Jill (aka Thelma to my Louise), stopped in at Schull in West Cork for a brief sojourn on our trip down the coast. Jill had booked in at The Rookery B&B, run by Rita and John. A beautiful place, it was surrounded with gorgeous gardens, just a few minutes’ walk up from the harbour with its resident seal. I had already positioned the van on the end of the jetty and was thoroughly looking forward to waking up to the lapping of the sea on three sides. That was before I remembered what really happens at harbours in mornings. Fisherpeople make a heap of noise from 4am as they ready their rigs for a day at sea. Sailors stumble back to their boats at 3am after a night out at Hackett's (whose lamb shank was delicious might I add). Tourists in town heading for the early farmers’ market poke around from about 8am. Let’s just say I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at the comfortable Rookery, too. Rita's baked eggs with cheese and chorizo were just what the hangover ordered. The van was just fine without me, and I have recommended that The Rookery be included in Sawday’s Special Places to Stay Ireland so hopefully we'll be seeing them there soon

Round Ireland at a Fiddle Fair

baltimore fiddle fair poster

My van goes excruciatingly slowly. Its speed is on a par with that of my laptop. It’s not that it’s slow per se – it went a whole 90mph once – but the thermometer thingy is broken so I never know the engine temperature and don’t want to risk it overheating. Despite this, and safe in the knowledge that it’s going to take forever and a day to get there, the van and I and Dingle Pub Quiz Mistress ‘Gill from Tasmania’ are going to brave the 180km journey from Co. Kerry to Co. Cork this weekend to get some fiddle action in at the Baltimore Fiddle Fair 2012. It looks brilliant, with top talent from the region, the country and the world putting on gigs across the town – I’ve been listening to Fiddle Fair FM whilst writing this to get me in the mood. This was, as ever, a last minute decision and the result of a pint or two in Tom McCarthy’s Bar. But, like many decisions made under the influence in McCarthy’s recently, the next day it still seemed like a good idea. So we’re going with it. All beds in Baltimore are already full, though. I’ll be fine as I have my campervan (sorry Pea, I know you’re slow but you’re damn comfortable, I take it all back) but Gill’s gonna have to fend for herself. If anyone’s got a spare room going, let us know. 

Round Ireland with an Irish stand-up

pope as bond villain imageI’ve seen a lot of stand-up in my time. Whilst at Sheffield University in 1995 studying journalism – was that really 17 years ago? – I used to attend, get involved in and review the comedy at The Seven Seas pub for the student newspaper. During my London Years (do I sound like Mary Quant writing her memoirs?), we’d catch regular comedy gigs in Islington and, back in Bristol, I’m lucky enough to live on the corner of two great comedy venues. The first is the Hen and Chicken (frequented by Dylan I-love-you Moran and David I-love-you-also-but-let’s-face-it-not-quite-as-much-as-Dylan-Moran O’Doherty), and the second is the Tobacco Factory which, in a fortnight, plays host to the Irish comedian no-one's heard of outside of Australia where he is approximately as famous as The Queen: Jimeoin. That was a very long sentence, even for me, and I’ve forgotten my point…ah yes. So it was brilliant to be in teeny tiny Dingle Town and yet to be able to catch a fiercely intelligent and entertaining set by political comedian Abie Philbin Bowman last Monday in Ballyferriter, as part of Dingle’s Feile na Bealtaine (Festival of May). In addition to comparing the Pope to a Bond villain, commending Al Qaeda for being environmentally friendly and idly wondering why Catholic Europe is being bailed out by Protestant Europe, he also advised all men to heed the advice of their invariably wiser sisters. Sean, take note :o) Catch Abie live or get hold of his DVDs now.   

Round Ireland with Dingle’s Festival of May

dingle's festival of May logo

Put this in perspective. Dingle is, as it sounds, a teeny tiny little place. It has a population of about 1,900. And yet, at the slightest hint of a party, the tourists and relocated sons and daughters of the peninsula return in their droves to fill every bed, every hall, every caravan and every single sleepable space within Guinness spitting distance of Fungi the dolphin. Last weekend’s Feile na Bealtaine (Festival of May) was no exception, with thousands enjoying a varied programme of events including sea shanty singing on boats; a short film festival; cycling a 110km route around the peninsula; political comedy; soul bands; the Funk Ball; and of course loads of traditional music from the town’s resident and visiting musicians. Not for the first time I’m thoroughly exhausted and when the festivities had stopped – and my visiting Bristolian guest had departed – I slept for about 14 hours and am finally feeling sufficiently revitalised in order to look forward to the next big thing – The Baltimore Fiddle Fair down in West Cork this weekend. How Ireland can be broke I don’t know – it’s consumed my entire bank balance and that of everyone I know.

Round Ireland with some weather

It’s a crazy day out there. Doors are slamming, birds don’t know what’s hit them and slices of sun are sandwiched between cataclysmic downpours of hail and rain. Mount Eagle over there is floodlit, darkly silhouetted then completely obscured by cloud in rotating ten second intervals, and I’m trying to remember if sitting at the window in a storm attached to a laptop is an entirely wise thing to do. I’m thinking not. Shall I put rubber shoes on? Relocate to the Caribbean? Nope, I’m just gonna stay here and risk it. What doesn’t kill you and all that. And hell if my laptop short-circuits that would actually be doing me favour. Maybe I might sit a bit nearer to the glass after all...

Win £200 with my Travel Cash!

Just a quickie here from the one who likes to save you money and convince you to go travelling: take the my Travel Cash survey and you could win £200 quid to spend on your next holiday! Then, to order your travel money holiday card (to avoid all those sneaky UK banking charges whilst abroad), go here to order a currency card today. No, honestly, it's fine, thank me later :o)

Round Ireland with some penguins

Ok so on our journey around Ireland so far we've had peacocks, lambs, a dolphin and assorted musical instruments and musicians. Then yesterday, for the first time, penguins entered the Irish fray. I was at Dingle's Oceanworld Aquarium, filming an interview to submit for the final stage of the VisitEngland Fan in a Van competition, and Kate the penguin keeper kindly let us in to feed them. Follow the captivating Dingle penguins on Facebook now and keep your flippers crossed that the folk at Visit England like them too. See entry below for info on this Fan in a Van competition. 

Excuse the brevity of entries this week - very busy trying to edit the interview down from seven to three minutes, which is a lot harder than it sounds. I was all for cutting any words with less than three letters in them (how important can they be?) but apparently that isn't the way forward. Hmmm. Which penguins to cut? They're all so cute...


***UPDATE*** I didn't win this competition. But to be honest, I don't mind. I am already completely torn as to whether to stay in Dingle or to return to Bristol so the last thing I needed really was to throw a third prospect into the mix which would take me even further away from my golden olden Bristolian friends and my shiny new Dingle ones. So, on balance, I am thankful that I am left with just the one, two-pronged dilemma. 

Round Ireland as a competition finalist...



Visit England Fan in a Van competitionWell, it's all go here. I entered Visit England's Fan in a Van competition (to go on a ten-week all-expenses paid trip around England, in a VW campervan, following the route of the Olympic torch and blogging about the sites and sounds en route) and I'M THROUGH TO THE LAST HANDFUL! Just need to pull some more stuff together and keep my fingers crossed. You'll be the first to know if I win.

Round Ireland with a rubbish laptop

My computer is so slow, it makes paint drying seem manic. Oak trees add metres to their height as web pages change pixel by pixel, and economies explode and implode in the time it takes to open YouTube clips. It’s theatrically slow. I waste so much time staring at frozen screens that my hourly rate for writing work equates to £2 per hour. At least it creates little pockets of time in which I can do useful things like write blog entries. The source of today’s frustration is that I’m downloading a programme to do a job, to earn some money, to buy a better computer. (Ideally, but unnecessarily expensively, a MacBook Pro.) When you earn as sporadically as I do, a purchase of this magnitude is not something to be taken lightly. But without a working computer, I can’t take on the jobs that allow me to work so sporadically in the first place. Since I started thinking about getting a new laptop, iPhones have been invented and gone through three new iterations. Whenever I finally decide on a model, a new wave of technology hits; my choice is rendered obsolete; and the tortuous ‘What to buy?’ cycle begins afresh. This went on for so long with my previous laptop that when I tried to sell it I couldn’t get £5 for it on eBay. What’s wrong with an external floppy disc-drive? Let’s check on progress. 56% downloaded, seven hours remaining. Really? Yawn. Best close the Web for now to give my mono-tasking computer just the one thing to think about.

Round Ireland in the saddle

It’s been an age since I cycled further than the distance between my van and the shed (to put my bike to bed for the season, I was sick of the sight of it). So the thought of the 110km Dingle Peninsula Challenge is a bit daunting. A few months back, I wouldn’t have flinched at such a prospect, even with a few Alps or Tuscan hills thrown in for good measure. But 30 mile rides wipe me out these days – especially with the winds which prevail at me regardless of which direction I’m facing. A bit of training is in order. The trouble round here is, you set off on a practice ride, let’s say along the beautiful Slea Head route round the western extremities of the peninsula. Before you know it, you’ve stopped to whet your appetite with a quick read of the menu at Ventry Bay’s The Skipper restaurant, whose ‘all-you-can-eat’ mussels are more impressive than mine. Then the coast is so pretty, it would be rude not to ditch the bike for a sandy barefoot stroll round the glistening crescent of the bay itself. Back in the saddle, only a few more miles get crunched before a lovely pottery and café appear, whose tea and tempting homemade scones warm you up after the beach breezes. Next comes the obligatory detour down to the Blasket Islands centre, for information on the land masses looming ahead left through the sea mists. And so it goes on, and on, and on. Five hours later, you’ve consumed 4,000 calories; burned off 200; spent €46; could have got further walking; and night’s falling so it’s time to lock and leave the bike and hitch back to the local for a pint. Ah well. Training points: 0. Enjoyment factor: 10/10.   

Round Ireland with friends coming to visit

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got loads of friends in Bristol. I’m not running away from a broken relationship; from debt, doom or gloom; or from factors I can’t face. I’m simply staying in Dingle for now (County Kerry, Ireland) because I’ve had such a great time since stepping out of my van here that leaving would be nonsensical. If all my friends and family were to move here, life would be perfect. Rather selfishly, they all have their own lives in Bristol, so that outcome isn’t likely. Happily, two of my smiliest, loveliest friends are Dingle-bound for a long weekend of walking, surfing, music, drinking, dancing and what I predict will be an unstoppable, impenetrable tsunami of babble and chatter. High-speed Bristolian will be the perfect smokescreen behind which to hide our hushed talk of holiday romance and hot boys. Yes, yes, I know I should be past such teenage pursuits but, well. I should be past many things and I'm not (drinking bad cider out of cans whilst watching sunsets from cliff tops, sneaking spirits into nightclubs, wearing teal eyeliner) and none of the above seems to have done me any harm so far. So, come on girls, bring it on. Only six more sleeps to go.    

Round Ireland with a terrible travel writer

As a travel writer of sorts, I don’t like expediting the ultimate ruin of a place. On finding a fantastic destination, any travel journalist worth their salt sings its praises whereas I’m more of a “Sssh, don’t tell anyone!” kind of girl. At uni studying tourism (influenced by how books affect travel motivation), my thesis looked at how the Greek island of Kefalonia reacted to the exposure created by ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. Quick answer: it didn’t. Whilst researching, I unearthed an earlier study which looked at Lonely Planet’s coverage of a destination over the years – some alleged fountain of youth in South America. A 1980s edition mentions ‘a wonderful site where you’ll be the only Westerner, genuine locals’ etc. Over successive editions, this ends up as ‘too commercial, overrun with tourists and pushy locals, decimated attraction’ etc. Whose fault is that? The writer? Lonely Planet? The tourists? The locals? All/ none of the above? That’s why I’d make a terrible travel writer. Please ignore the rest of my blog and don’t ever come to Dingle. It’s rubbish. You’d hate it. 

Round Ireland with a too-good-view

There’s a fine balance between finding somewhere inspirational in which to write, and somewhere so inspirational you’re rendered incapable of creating anything at all. Alas (or perhaps thankfully), the view from my room in Dingle falls into the latter category. It’s so peaceful and beautiful out there (except when it’s grey and hectic with noise from the pubs, clubs, hail and dirty storms of course – let’s not paint it rosier than it is) that I can’t concentrate on the task in hand at all, namely trying to write about the Grand Tour on a Grand. In fact I can only drag my eyes away from the window for long enough to describe how distracting it is. Where do those lenticular clouds come from? What is the Pantone reference for the pink of the streaked sky over Eagle Mountain? Aaagh. Concentrate.

Maybe I should just ship back to a uniform house in a residential street in Bristol, overlooking other uniform houses in residential streets, in order to be able to concentrate once more. Hmm, that won’t work either. I think my error here is in trying to be inspired to do something other than talk about Dingle, whilst in Dingle. It’s like decamping to the Tropics in order to write about the desert. Maybe I should forget the Grand Tour on a Grand book idea and just enjoy the now, Dingle-ing it up? Yes, that’s the solution. I’ll be a lot more productive that way. Dingle it is. 

Round Ireland with 'The Last Chorus' (Song #1)

Even though they may well make you cringe, here are the lyrics to a song I wrote recently. I was at a singing night in a pub last week and everyone offered a song, whether they were capable of pitch perfection or of barely holding a tune in a bucket. When it got to me, brain wracking ensued but I couldn’t remember one single song all the way through. Not one. So I determined to do better next time. Rather than doing injustice to an old Irish folk song, I thought I’d write my own so no-one could spot any mistakes. ‘The Last Chorus’ was the result. Make up your own sea shanty-styled tune, something in a sombre key will do the trick.

The last words he said, still rang in her head, 
For it wasn’t the first time he’d said them.
He said “I’ll love you and leave you, ‘til I can love you again,
I’ll only leave you as long as I need to.”
But this time was different, he didn’t return,
W
hen the news hit the shore, heads were bowed.
The last words he said, still rang in her head,
T
hey were all she had left of him now.

She turned them over and over in the depths of her mind,
N
ot a single note since has she sung.
Her friends wait in vain for her voice to return,
T
hough it’s rumoured that grief took her tongue.
Then one night without warning she sang of her sorrow,
E
very eye in the house shed its tear.
When she sang the last chorus, she was saying goodbye,
N
evermore from this lass would they hear.

The last words he said, still rang in her head,
For it wasn’t the first time he’d said them.
He said “I’ll love you and leave you, til I can love you again, 
I’ll only leave you as long as I need to”.
Then she stole away to the edge of the cliffs,
H
er soul to reunite with her lover;
She took the last words he said, down to the sea bed,
S
he couldn’t die in the arms of another. 

Round Ireland with my Travel Cash

Just to drag myself away from the beaches and music and colourful cottages of Dingle (Ireland) for one minute to say - using your UK bank card abroad costs bucks! I forgot to top up my My Travel Cash card as was having so much fun here, so reverted to my UK bank card, thinking - what harm can it do? £2 a day is the harm it can do! Just checked my bank statement for something entirely other and spotted a forest of Visa Charge £2, Visa Charge £2, Visa Charge £2.....Grrrr! So I have just taken twenty seconds to save myself £14 a week.  Oh and it's just been commended as one of the UK's Best Prepaid Currency Cards, too. Going on holiday? Pack a my Travel Cash card. I'm off now to spend all my saved £££ on something more interesting instead. A round of drinks for the musicians, perhaps, or wetsuit and board hire at Inch Beach. 

Round Ireland with a flute

“It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. I’ve got that phrase on my mind for musical reasons, rather than for love-related reasons at the moment. For the record, though, I agree with the notion (unless they turned out to be a complete knob, obviously, in which case you are of course allowed to wish you’d never set eyes on them). But back to my not-particularly-close-or-relevant parallel. Is not getting round to learning the musical instrument you always wished/ still wish you could play, worse than no longer playing one you can play perfectly well? Is not taking an opportunity worse than squandering a talent so many wish they had? Why am I asking so many questions?!

I ask because I used to be very good at the flute. I’m rubbish now, and it’s all my own fault. It used to bring me so much pleasure, I don’t know why I ever stopped. I let the music slide, the flute blacken and the melodies fragment. Even in my three weeks in Ireland so far – most of that in famously musical Dingle – I’ve not got my flute out once. In fact I only remembered tucking it into the cubby beneath the rock’n’roll bed of my van whilst poking around in there to lend someone my extra-long jump leads this morning. I know, what a glamorous life I lead. But, I’ve brought it into the house now. Rubbed it down and warmed it through with a few tunes as rusty as it is. My visiting cousin Fearghal gave me a tune to play, the West Clare jig. I’ve been practising all afternoon, squinting at an eye-achingly small image of the sheet music, downloaded to my phone. When he next visits with his Uilleann pipes, we’ll play it together, maybe with some locals if they’ll be kind enough to humour us.

Some of the music in Dingle might be laid on for the tourists, its spontaneity a more regular occurrence for anyone staying longer than a few nights. But, well, so what? That doesn’t mean the musicians don’t love playing it – eyes closed, transported, surrounded by the transfixed likes of me wishing they hadn’t given up the flute. So thank you pipers, strummers, fiddlers and flautists of Dingle (notably in the Courthouse - logo above). I’m hoping that ole flutey will forgive me, and finally got round to playing it again, today. Because I’ve been saying tomorrow for the last 18 years.          

Round Ireland with a part-time job

Now, nobody would call me work shy. I once held down two full-time jobs for many months in Brighton (at a station café from 6am til 2pm then at a busy bar from 6pm – 2am) in order to get to Australia for ‘The Year 2000’. In hindsight, I needn’t have bothered working quite so hard. Once successfully in Oz, I withdrew all my hard-earned savings on Millennium New Year’s Eve in case the fabled and much-feared Millennium Bug ate all my money. It didn’t. But getting hammered in St Kilda and losing my wallet that night had exactly the same effect. I must be the only person who wishes that the Millennium Bug did actually exist – then at least losing all that cash wouldn’t have been my own stupid fault.

Where were we…ah yes. Having now decided to stay in Dingle awhile, I need work. My current job – exchanging a bit of work for a room in a hostel – is a great arrangement but isn’t paying my bar tab(s). An advert in the local listings magazine generated no leads so I did the rounds instead and now have a part-time waiting job at Doyle’s Seafood Restaurant, coincidentally founded by the B&B owner who was the reason for my visit to Dingle in the first place. Fate? Luck? Life? Either way, I’m looking forward to starting.

People knock waitressing, but I love it. Always have. It’s basically a) talking to friendly people all evening who are having a lovely time; b) walking about 10km per shift, carrying heavy things; c) learning about and sampling delicious foods and wines; and d) getting paid for this social experience/ work out/ culinary education. What’s not to like? That said, three shifts per week is more than enough, of any job. God forbid the work get in the way of the play.   

Round Ireland with my Irish family

I’m half English, half Irish. I was born and raised in Bristol, where my mum is from, but my dad is from Cork city. He’s one of eight siblings, so I have aunts, uncles and first and second cousins all still living in Cork. One of them, Eileen, came to visit overnight, last Tuesday. Overnight. She left on Friday. That’s what Dingle does to you. During her ever-lengthening sojourn in my new home town, we went to more bars, did more stuff and drank more booze than I think she’s done in the previous two years put together. It was fantastic. We ate beautifully crisp pizza in The Blue Zone jazz bar; hummed the odd harmony to traditional folk songs in Curran’s pub and marvelled at the fiery fiddling in O’Sullivan’s Courthouse; went out on a boat trip to see Fungi the local dolphin; and traced the Blasket Islands’ silhouettes on the incredible Slea Head coastal drive. After Eileen’s eventual departure, I went down for a lengthy cat-nap due to my physical and financial exhaustion. I woke to a text that her son Fearghal was so intrigued by his mam’s time here that he was now en route, would I mind if he stayed, too? “You can o’course, Fearghal. Just be sure to pick me up a second wind, a second mortgage and a second liver on your way over.”

Round Ireland with a Dingle detour

Now, my initial brief from Sawday’s (the guidebook publisher that sent me to Ireland to visit their properties in the first place) was to do a clockwise loop from Rosslare in the east, visiting some of the unique places to stay across the south of Ireland before returning home via Rosslare. With time on my hands thanks to having left my rented room in Bristol, I was in no rush to head home. So I tweaked my route to zigzag from east to west instead, thus ending up on the westerly Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry instead. I just thought it looked fun. Already, this is going down as one of my best decisions, ever. It’s up there with getting a campervan; my Chamonix ski seasons; and buying a guitar (for $20, from a hobo, outside a pawn shop, in Toronto, on my birthday. If he’d made it into the shop, the owner would have gotten the guitar for $20 and I’d’ve had to buy it from the shop window a week and $150 later. Music always was about good timing).

Within a few hours in Dingle I’d made some friends; learned about film club; joined a pub quiz team (and then come joint last – the shame); been cooked dinner by my new local pub’s landlord, Tom; been invited to an Irish-speaking singing circle; and found a part-time job working in a quiet hostel in exchange for my own cosy little room. Dingle’s got live traditional music nightly, multihued houses, surf competitions on wind blasted beaches and a ferry over to the history buffeted Blasket Islands. It’s even got its own resident dolphin (called Fungi), for gad’s sake. In short, it’s not the kind of place you stumble upon every day. I think I might take a leaf out of Fungi’s book and hang around for a while.

Round Ireland with an iPhone

Here’s an iPhone joke. “How do you know if someone’s got an iPhone?” Response: “Because they tell you they’ve got an iPhone.”

I’ve got an iPhone. Boom boom. And now I know why people tell people about it. You just can’t help yourself. I’m still in the Honeymoon Period, as my brother puts it. Having recently cycled from Bristol to Rome without a mobile wifi device, I often had no way of finding out where the next turn/ café/ campsite/ slice of humanity was. Now that definitely had its moments but would I do it differently next time? Hell, yes and abso-effing-lutely spring to mind. I was attempting to cycle light, but that still involved a whole bag filled with devices and cables for said devices, from Kindle and Dictaphone to digital camera and mobile phone. I now have all of the above plus myriad other gadgets – rolled into one with a single charger. As usual, I’m years behind the rest of you on the smart phone front but, seriously. Why did no-one make me get one before?

The best thing my iPhone has done to date though, is enable me to instantly download the sheet music for the brilliant jigs and reels I’m trying to learn on my newly-rediscovered-and-shamefully-blackened-with-age-and-neglect flute. At the moment I’m not sure what’s worse – the sound of my flute playing or the iPhone joke. 

Round Ireland with Hagal Healing Farm

Hagal Health Farm viewsContinuing my Sawday’s B&B-visiting trip west from Cork, I stopped in at the Hagal Healing Farm. It’s on the route of the Sheep’s Head Way, overlooking Bantry Bay. When I say stopped in, I almost stopped there altogether as had been down to my last drop of diesel for what felt like the final 30 miles, in the middle of nowhere, on a Sunday night in rural West Cork. As it goes, I was very disappointed not to run out of fuel for real (and considered faking it) because if you were going to get stranded anywhere, it’s with Fred and Janny at the living utopia that is: Hagal Farm. If you want five-star homogeneity and silver service, detour on to Bantry and beyond. But to experience a slice of a quite incredible world – and I don’t use that term lightly – then come here. Everything you’d like to do with your life if only you had the time/ talent/ money, is here. There is massage, music, art and peace. The pick’n’mix parcels of land tessellate beautifully – a classic Seven Rings labyrinth here, a willow den there, organic farming up the slope, tree-shaded camping enclaves below. Fred grows and serves up delicious seasonal produce; half-finished canvasses colour up the vine-topped breakfast conservatory; and Janny’s massages are as sublime as the views over the surrounding hills. The guest book is a thesaurus of synonyms for ‘wonderful’, ‘life-changing’ and ‘relaxing’. I add mine to the list. For massage breaks, special occasions and walking weekend packages in West Cork, visit Fred and Janny – and don’t worry too much about setting off with a full tank.

Round Ireland with rose tinted glasses

An old work colleague of mine (as in former, I’m not suggesting he’s old) just asked if I’d advise coming on holiday to Dingle and the Beara Peninsula in Ireland, or if a rash of unsightly and often half-finished building developments has ruined the place as he’s heard tell. First things first. You are asking the wrong person. I love Ireland. It can do no wrong in my eyes. I love Ireland in the way that Peter Mayle loves France, Bill Bryson loves England and WAGs love unattractive men’s wallets. As soon as I step off the ferry in Rosslare, I am happy. Even when the clouds above Dingle hang so low I can’t see the roof of my van, or the roads are so terrible they shake all the mugs off my tree (whose stupid idea was a mug-tree in a moving vehicle anyway? Ah yes, my own), I can’t get enough of the place. In what other country do people let you off £60 bills because they trust you’ll get it to them later? Do pubs sell turnips and inner tubes alongside pints? Do people you’ve asked for directions invite you in for tea and entertain you for entire afternoons? Yes, there’s the occasional blot on the landscape, deserted estate or ugly bungalow – but they are few and far between and won’t mar your memories. Nothing can detract from the stark beauty of Beara or the often waterside drive from Bantry through Kenmare to Dingle, nor from the drama of the rock-hewn tunnel-strewn highlands separating counties Cork and Kerry. Should you book your tickets? The intelligent reader doesn't need telling twice.  

STOP PRESS: Round Ireland with an incredible B&B

Right, so. Today’s destination is the unfathomably fantastic Lawcus Farm B&B. It’s just down the road from Kilkenny, between Stonyford (famed for producing Britain's Supreme Best Cheese) and Kells and its now-ruined priory (where, to have a stab in the dark, I presume the Book of Kells was found). Now, I’ve slept in hundreds of places, but I have never been anywhere like this. I’ve never been anywhere that comes remotely close to being even slightly near the ball park of Lawcus Farm. It's run by boundless energy and idea-fuelled Mark and Anne-Marie, who are in the process of adding to and improving their…their…what is it, a B&B? A farm? A whole body and mind experience? It’s so good, so unusual, so refreshing, so different, I don’t even know where to start. I don't want to be in here, working. I want to be out there, appreciating ironwork, marveling at budding flowers, enjoying the sunset behind the hills, stroking pets, and wondering who I have to marry to get to stay here forever.  

There’s a teeny Monet-styled bridge over the trout and salmon-rich stream; a light-streamed almost outdoor kitcheny/ breakfasting area where Jamie Oliver could film adverts; and views over the kingfishers of King River – a newly-certified bird sanctuary. The bedrooms (or are they suites, or mini kingdoms, or private havens of uniqueness?) are each utterly different, with character; one-off pieces of reclaimed, restored and reloved furniture; and a quirk in every corner. My camera battery was flat within the hour. Come with your mates. Come on your honeymoon. Come for the rich local cheeses. Come before someone else books the week you want. Just create an excuse, and book. I’ve already barricaded myself in - leaving peep holes for the view, of course - and have just lodged a squatters’ rights motion. In short, I'm not planning on leaving any time soon. So, well, see you when you get here.     

Round Ireland with a pair of peacocks

The Coach House, part of the Fruit Hill Cottages spread in Wexford is just fantastic. Peacocks tap at windows to come in, chickens supply irregularly shaped eggs (being a city and supermarket girl I’m not used to quirky, non-GM foods) and a slice of Susan’s delectable home-made chocolate cake appears on arrival. Mmm mmm. The Coach House itself sleeps six with oodles of room to socialise, eat, play and generally make merry in. If this property were in Bristol it would house about ten people and, if in a cramped ski resort (where the cupboard under the stairs is described as a two-person annexe), it would sleep about 18. The bedrooms were spacious, the storage capacious and kids have their own two-person annexe, ie a colourful playroom under the stairs. But the magic happens outside. Susan and Dick’s wild, wonder and wander-inducing grounds are pocked with triangular chicken hutches, the kitchen garden is poised to burst back to life and adventures will soon be happening in the tree house that is under construction. Exhausted after a day of driving, I nuzzled down into in a superb bed in Garden Cottage just next door. The sauna-scented wooden mezzanine was above the largest chimney breast I have ever seen – and around which the entire cottage has been lovingly reconstructed. If arriving on a late ferry, break up your journey to western Ireland with a mini holiday here. Once over the cattle grid – turn your mobile off and just enjoy.  

Round Ireland with a stop at Fruit Hill, Wexford

I am in Ireland to visit a pile of unique B&Bs and self-catering properties for Sawday’s Special Places to Stay website and guidebooks. My first stop is The Coach House, near New Ross. I already like my host-to-be, Susan. Although I’m arriving straight from the ferry after ‘her lot’ have already eaten, she’s promised to keep a little saucerful back for my arrival, lest I work up an appetite during my sea voyage. My former housemates will find this hilarious as I think I have subsisted for several years on the leftover saucerfuls left in the fridge – the remains of portion-uncontrolled dinners and moments of culinary eyes-bigger-than-belly-ness. Running an old campervan, one has to make economies somewhere…Thank you, former housemates, wherever you are, and thank you, mum, for instilling a waste not, want not ethos in me. 

The Coach House is a self-catering house for six, high on the Hook Peninsula. It has history by the hatful and comes complete with peacocks. My anticipation is mounting already…as is my curiosity as to what the saucer might be full of. 

Round Ireland with: questions about cheese

Just on a wonderfully calming sea crossing from green and sunny Fishguard (in Wales) to hopefully equally if not greener and sunnier still Rosslare (in Ireland). In the corner of the lounge bar are two blokes having a very loud conversation about cheese. It’s been going on for about 20 minutes already and I don’t think I tuned in at the beginning. I didn’t realise how many cheese rules I was breaking until eavesdropping on these two. When serving cheese, do you serve it after dessert, or twixt mains and dessert? Do you platter up the cheeses packaged; unpackaged; opened and left whole; or opened and with an initial please-take-me slice, pre-sliced? Do you include on the board semi-nibbled hunks from your own cheese box in addition to the special purchases for your guests’ enjoyment? If so how should these pre-loved truckles be introduced? So many questions, precious few answers. It’s a cheesy minefield – an explosion on which I don’t want to get in the way of. DO BE QUIET shouting cheese men: behold Ireland instead, and be silenced by its greenness and sunnyness.

Round Ireland with a VW campervan

I had to move out of my rented room in Bristol the day before setting off for Ireland, so things were a bit hectic. There were five trips home to the folks’ loft, with endless, untold vanfuls of stuff I don’t remember choosing, buying, needing or using. My van was the filtering process. If I love and use the thing, it stayed in the van and is coming to Ireland with me. Tin whistle, yoga mat, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, roll-out neoprene piano keyboard, Rab down jacket - tick. If I thought I wouldn’t use it, up to the loft it went: Paul McKenna’s Hypnotise Yourself Slim (or similar); lots of high-vis bike clothing; and a snowboard with dodgy bindings – no tick for you I’m afraid. The result is a loft full of car-boot-sale destined detritus and a van so crammed I almost had to leave myself behind to fit it all in. Managed to squeeze a bike in though, as an after thought. You never know when you might need one (see earlier blog about my rather long cycle). 

Round Ireland with a faux Irish accent

The Bristolian accent is of course blimmin lovely, as is every Irish regional accent I think I’ve ever heard. What is awful though, is the faux-Irish accent I just can’t hold myself back from slipping into whenever I get within Guinness-spitting range of Cork, my father’s home city. When I was about four, I went to Ireland for a wedding on the now defunct (well, erratic seasonal service at best) SwanseaCork ferry. Apparently, I left my coat on the boat and spent the entire holiday telling every member of my extended family - in my best Corkish accent – that I had “left ma caught an da bought”. Now, I’ve never lived this down so hope to God that I don’t leave my actual coat on the actual boat today. No-one in my family would sympathise, or believe me. They’d just think I was milking a very old joke. Now…where be my coat to?

Round Ireland: with a copy of Boneshaker magazine

boneshaker magazine issue 8Too exciting! Quick distraction from the upcoming Irish tour here to say that the latest edition (Issue 8) of Boneshaker magazine is now out. This beautifully illustrated and photo-rich mag is a treat for anyone who loves bikes, adventures, inspirational people, exotic backdrops and...beautifully illustrated magazines. Order using the link above or at the Sustrans shop (it's issue 8 you want - live soon). Oh and I'm in it a little bit (three pages worth of a little bit). Think I'm more excited about reading everyone else's stuff though. Talking of which, if you're Bristol based, see Ellie Bennett's 'Mud, Sweat and Gears' talk at Stanfords bookshop this March 10. You go, girl!



Round Ireland with: Stena Line

If you're new to my blog, then cead mile failte - or a hundred thousand welcomes as they say in Ireland. It's pronounced something like 'kade meela foylcha', if you've ever wondered. I'm trying not to fly for environmental reasons and so have decided to go and do my forthcoming trip of Ireland using land and sea-based forms of transport instead. I'll be travelling with Stena Line ferries as, having had a good fish around, these guys have the best rates for flexible car ferry trips to Ireland, and I just love arriving by sea. It's so much nicer to arrive to squawking birds, dramatic coastlines and eerie industrial silhouettes than to concrete, more concrete, wall to wall luxury watch adverts and dreary arrivals terminals. Fingers crossed the sea behaves...  

Round Ireland with a: red dot covered map

My route map for next month's tour of southern Ireland (visiting Alastair Sawday B&Bs) looks like it's got the pox. Red dots are everywhere, each representing a quirky B&B, homestead, farm or lovely family-run hotel to visit on my whirlwind tour of Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Kerry. There's everything from a farm in Kilkenny and a townhouse in coastal Kinsale to a wonderful looking healing farm near Bantry Bay and a stately country house on Rossmore Island, near Sneem. If you've got any other suggestions for one-in-a-million people and places for me to drop in on whilst doing the rounds, leave me a comment and I'll try to work it in. Thinking of an Irish escape yourself, with Easter and St Patrick's Day coming up on March 17? Spend a few moments with Sawday's Ireland and treat yourself to a long weekend on the Emerald Isle ('emerald' is from the Gaelic for wet and windy).   

Round Ireland with a: name like Kerry.

Most English folk can't imagine what an utter bain it is to be a girl called Kerry, in Ireland. In England, we have a plethora of, let's face it, mildly racist "Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman" jokes, in which the Irishman always gets the punchline. Within Ireland, the butt of the jokes is the Kerry man. Especially if you're from Cork. Irish parents just don't call their daughters Kerry, it's child cruelty. It's like third-generation Irish-Americans calling their kids Shannon, or Erin. That doesn't happen in Ireland, either. This fact appears to have been lost on my dad, though. He left Ireland at 14, stowing away on a ship to Liverpool so the yellowing newspaper cutting from the 1950s informs me. Perhaps naming his daughter after one of the most beautiful counties in Ireland (or - after a butter company, depending which explanation you listen to) was his way of keeping memories of home alive. That's all well and good and I'm proud to be half Irish, even if I am named after a butter company. But, seriously. KERRY? It's like Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger calling his kid Chelsea. It just wouldn't happen. I am just setting up lots of visits to go and inspect some Alastair Sawday Special Places to Stay in Ireland - and the emailed jibes and answerphone messages have begun already. I can hear the eyebrows rising in surprise and the jokes burbling to the surface even as I introduce myself. But it's OK. I've kissed the Blarney Stone. I've allegedly got the gift of the gab. I arrive in Ireland next week. So come on Corkies, let the banter commence!   

Round Ireland with a: decent map

I've decided on the theme for the mini Grand Tour of Ireland. It's going to be Round Ireland with/ without things. On my bike tour to Rome, I had road maps at 800,000:1. In real terms, this meant that practically the only roads marked on them were motorways. Anything remotely safe, scenic or lightly trafficked was too small to appear. Which is why I scraped holes in my apocalypse-proof panniers as lorries scraped me against metal sidings, and why leather-booted faux-policeman (they couldn't have been real!) escorted me from Italian motorways. My maps of Ireland are terrific. They practically show the rows of the raised beds in people's allotments, the weave of the wool in the locals' Aran jumpers, and the side on which the Taoiseach dresses. I'll know exactly where I am at all times; I shan't get lost! I won't!*


* just gonna pop a little Sat Nav in just in case. 

Around Ireland - without a fridge

Ireland with Alastair Sawday's Special B&BsSo my next escapade, on four VW van wheels rather than two Marin bike wheels, is to southern Ireland. The bike will be in the van, too, as I head over in March to do some travel research for Alastair Sawday's Special Places to Stay Ireland website. I'll be doing a 1,000km loop (I like doing things by the thousand, as we know) through Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny, Cork, Kerry and Killarney. My dad's from Cork so I imagine I'll spend the majority of my time having conversations with B&B owners about who we both mutually know in Cork and commenting on how I really do have my father's nose, so there is a very real danger of an anticipated two-week project spreading out into summer and beyond. We'll see. 


If anyone knows of any unusual, warm and wonderfilled B&Bs, farmhouses, self-catering properties or small and quirky hotels in the bottom half of Ireland, do get in touch and I'll pop my head in. I'll be blogging about my trip on the Sawday site too - more details as I have them. (The van does technically have a fridge, but it doesn't work.) For the censored blog on the Sawday's site, see here. Image courtesy Sawday's

Madame Melski's Cycle Speed Dating, Bristol

Bristol Cycle Festival July 2012Valentine's Day with a twist! Madame Melski is an undercover Sustrans employee who, along with her beautiful assistants, set up the fantastic Cycle Speed Dating event in Bristol's Queen Square this week on Tuesday, February 14th. It was a fundraiser for the Bristol Cycle Festival, ('like' them on Facebook) which will happen this July in and around the city. 13 lucky ladies met 13 lovely gentlemen and a great - if slightly toe-numbingly cold - night was had by all. Riding around a historic tree-lined square in pairs, chatting about life, love and, er, disc brakes, really was a tonic compared to dark, drunked attempts at finding cycle love, watch this space to see if any romance blossoms for any of the intrepid participants. Good work Madame Melski, and long live Sustrans, the bike-loving charity x

"What the Cyclist Saw" - Devon

This event was AWESOME! Thanks to those who came. David Piper enthralled us all by making an incredibly dull 2,500 mile trip across Australia's Nullarbor Desert sound interesting, before musical, big-haired, one-man entertainer Baz Bix (who runs an acoustic night in North Devon) took to the informal stage, describing a tremendous journey across Mongolia - on just $3.50 per day. I tried to follow that but, if I'm honest, a few weeks across France and Italy on an extravagant 20 euro per day didn't seem like much of a feat after that, though event host David very kindly said that "The presentation of [my] journey was just lovely and very much enjoyed by all." Phew! Graeme Willgress followed me with his standup-comedyesque take on his Ride to Recovery around the coast of Britain, with host David finishing off with the click-clack slides of a nostalgic trip in and around Tibet in the early eighties. I don't usually say this, but the whole even made me want to saddle up and set off once more. Keep an eye on the Yarde Orchard for further events or to bunk up if cycling down the Tarka Trail in North Devon.   

The Lady Bloggers' Society

Much as I'd love to think of myself as a lady who lunches, that's not strictly true. I'm a lady who grabs lunch on the hoof, chucks things in microwaves in unsuitable and normally thereafter ruined containers, and maintains garbled conversations with friends while changing gear on my bike and trying to take a glove off so I can actually use my iPhone properly. To be honest, even the word 'lady' isn't the best description. It is despite these obvious shortcomings that I have joined the Lady Bloggers' Society. I am very excited about getting to know fellow lady bloggers, and also of seeing what happens when I paste this little bit of HTML code below (if a pink button appears - all is well and they were telling the truth). And if it's not...they lied. Don't trust them.

”Photobucket”

Devon cycling event: come say hi!

Well, writing in my Bristol bedroom, hunched over a faded, tea-stained desk and watching the sun set that teeny bit later every day has made me need a bit of a break. So, join me, come to the brilliant and informal What The Cyclist Saw event at the Yarde Orcharde in Devon on Saturday February 11th 2012, for an evening nay weekend of talks, banter, music and barbecued goodness. Oh and you might have to have your fun ruined by me talking about The Grand Tour for a little while. Contact David at the Yarde Orchard directly via their website for further information and hope to see you there...

Yard Orchard Devon Cycling event

New Year's re(v)olutions

Happy 2012 cycle and non-cycle types. I've got a bit of a crook back following some strenuous dancing in a restricting dress at a masquerade ball, so am taking this opportunity to crack on with some heavy duty writing...which explains why I am of course back blogging already. The spots of this leopard are not for changing. 


In 2012 I endeavour to: 
  • Finish writing the book about my Grand Tour
  • Do something interesting as the basis for a second book
  • Keep myself out of gainful employment for as long as possible
  • Read ten books I have been meaning to read for a long time
  • Print out more stuff (pics, funny emails, writing etc, as all the e stuff will just disappear...)
  • Keep a written diary (see above).
  • Not make a buffoon of myself, live on national radio! 

BBC Radio 5 Live. LIVE!

Kerry on the Grand TourFor newcomers to this site, my name's Kerry. A former Sustrans employee, I'm just back from cycling from Bristol to Rome, recreating the Victorian Grand Tour on a budget of a grand.

This next bit is a little bit too exciting for words - I'm going to be on Radio 5's Up All Night programme tonight. It's an informal panel discussion and phone-in show, that tonight focuses on cycling. What with good ole
Mark Cavendish (fastest man on two wheels: fact) raising the profile of cycling yet further, the Beeb is getting the great and the good of the two-wheeled world round a virtual table for a chin-wag. Courtesy of my years working at the UK's cycling, walking and sustainable transport promoting charity, Sustrans, I get to feature, too. I think I might need a new strapline in the spirit of Mark's. "Kerry O'Neill: slowest woman on two wheels. Fact." (Fastest Speaker in the World: also fact.)

Tune in to the Radio 5 Up All Night live show tonight from 1am to 4am, the phone-in begins at 2.30am. And don't phone in to ask me mean and complicated questions, I'm nervous enough as it is :o) Oh and did I mention I am looking for a book deal and other publicity/ speaking opportunities? All I want for Christmas, is...a literary agent. Feel free to contact me with any opportunities...

I am a bit shiny in this pic...

Well, I would never knowingly appear in an online photo in lycra but, well this one was out of my hands! Check out the latest bit of Grand Tour online coverage from happy website Bright Shiny News. The image is from the UNESCO protected World Heritage Site of Pienza, in the heart of Tuscany. Never thought that cycling to Rome in dodgy apparel would get me onto the same website as Britney Spears' engagement announcement, Beyonce's odd crash diet tactics and the eligible bachelors of 2011. Have I 'made it'? 

Don't judge me.

None of that was my fault. I swear. All I did was get on a bus, and try to get to Chamonix in a not-overly-timely manner. How that guy got left on the ferry...and that other guy had some key items of his clothing given to a Swiss border guard when all he'd done was pop to the loo - none of that was remotely my fault. All I was trying to do was be helpful. Let's not talk about the issue any more, I feel bad enough as it is. I can only hope that the return journey isn't as fraught.  

Off to Chamonix

The web is the most useful slash distracting thing that ever was invented. Without it many things wouldn't happen, and yet with it, yet more things that otherwise might have happened, don't happen as it's far easier to sit here and play with Google Earth than to go and do the now-forgotten thing that you went to Google Earth for in the first place. 


After weeks of fruitless trying - and weeks of very fruitful faffing that have resulted in all manner of other projects getting invented and then completed - I have finally taken it upon myself to escape WiFi and The Web in general. I am off to Chamonix, top haunt of Grand Tourists since time immemorial, in efforts to get cracking writing up The Grand Tour on a Grand. Or, Look Mum No Hands as it may yet become known. 

I'm keeping up my green efforts and so, rather than flying and finding myself staring at the Chamonix Valley's wondrous, snow-capped sights mere hours from now having parted with the knavely sum of about £44 all in, I shall instead be sitting on a bus from Bristol - London - Dover - Calais - Paris - Geneva - Chamonix for about two days, at the princely cost of £114. What has happened to the world that flying is less than half the price of taking the bus?!

Blograstination

I've started writing the book, that is. Or, at least, I was about to then thought I would just ever so quickly blog about it, just for the record. I have procrastinated in every conceivable way from obvious things like, going on mini-breaks and painting my bedroom to just not getting out of  bed in the mornings, to less obvious things like tinkering with my dictaphone note transcripts, reading related books I've already read, reading for the first time related books I haven't already read, typing up highlighted notes from both types of book etc. When all I really need to do, is to start writing. I can add all these wonderfully colourful historical anecdotes after. Oh and blogging. This right now, before your very eyes, is blograstination. 

On being back.

"Hey, long time no blog!" Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it? I've been back three weeks now and things are finally taking shape. Week one was catching up with folk and typing up my dictaphone notes - which came to a staggering 51,289 words. Week two was then avoiding both my bike plus anything at all to do with the Grand Tour as my mind was about to implode with it all. Now, week three sees me knocking all those errant thoughts into shape, stacking up my books of further Grand Tour reading to inform the historical side of the book, and setting up a new Publicity page on this site. Marin bikes have got behind me too now, which is superb - as are their ladies bikes.

I'm trying to avoid getting a real job whilst writing the project up but, well, I'm just not getting up in the mornings. Having a bed is still such a novelty! So maybe a little part-time job, mornings only, is in order. If there are any literary agents out there just waiting to secure me a three-book publishing deal with a five-figure advance - could you let me know soonish to save my having to iron an interview shirt? Thanks.    

BRAND NEW photo gallery

Now I'm back I've sorted out a gallery! Hoorah. So in addition to the two facebook albums link-to-able below, visit the Photos tab above to see more pics from the trip.

The Ride Journal

Just been trawling the web for bike magazines and such and came across this little beauty - The Ride Journal. Have a look, you can get hold of physical copies of each issue too, if you're quick.

Painting

Before I finish transcribing my notes from the trip (or to be more precise before I even start doing so), I have to finish painting my room. I started this colourful job the day after I got back and have now recognised what I am doing: I am nesting. Having been on the road for seven weeks - apart from the times where I was pushed off it by articulated lorries in Italy - it is such a nice feeling to sleep and wake in the same place that I'm making it even homelier with a splash of colour and perhaps a few blown up pics on the walls. I don't usually get round to such things. So, after lots of micro-homes, mini-lodging places and temporary tent pitches, here's to home.   

Media coverage and more photos

Morning all. So, I'm home, have had a good sleep, lots of good eats and am generally refreshed and ready for the next mammoth task of Alpine proportions: sorting out all my photos and trying to decipher my dictaphone notes. Those of you who don't know me cannot possibly imagine how fast I talk, so one minute of dictaphone notes will probably equate to about 8 A4s of notes. I am not looking forward to it.

So whilst that distracts me here, here are three little things to distract you there. Firstly, another album of photographs. Secondly, an article from TravelBite about my trip, and thirdly a brilliant bit of coverage from GirlMTNbiker website (just for the record my tent wasn't strapped to my back as they suggest!). Thanks a million to the wonderful My Travel Cash team for helping me get my story out there and if you too want to save some bucks on your bike adventures or otherwise, get your own pre-paid Euro card and start saving here.

Truly bizarre coincidence

On the fifth section of my stunted, delayed, uncomfortable and generally awful overland journey home from Rome, something odd happened. My night train from Rome was four hours delayed. I then managed to get to my connection in Paris with moments to spare (I'd left myself several hours to have a leisurely lunch in Paris en route - this was out the window). Arriving in Calais Frethun with no problems, I got to the ferry port to discover that my ferry was delayed too, meaning that I missed my Dover - London - Bristol train the other end. Bursting with excitement to see my friends waiting in Bristol the other end, this was so frustrating I may have shed a little tear. Some expletives may have leaked out too. Er, at volume. Um, in the direction of the platform staff. I got to Rome on time on a BIKE. Going REALLY SLOWLY. Couldn't they at least get me home on time?!

I was advised by a Train Man to get on the next London train anyway then to change at some random station for a quicker train to London. So I did this, a bit glum that my welcome home party people weren't going to be able to make it after all as most of them have kids to attend to. Then I turned a corner, literally and metaphorically, and saw Alastair Humphreys sitting on the almost-empty platform floor, tapping away on his laptop.   

Al is an adventurer (on bikes or on anything he can get his hands/ feet/ bum onto). I'd read his book about his four-year cycle around the world. I'd met him earlier in the year; once when he was doing a Sustrans event for children and then again at his Evening for Adventurers at London's Royal Geographic Society. I'd attended this event with a sticker on my T-shirt saying I wanted to cycle the Grand Tour, hoping to meet others with similar interests. I was staggered at the lack of girls there - making me want to do my solo trip even more.

Anyway, in the long-distance cycling world Al is quite well-known so you can imagine how bizarre it was to bump into him on a platform I shouldn't've been on at a time when I should've been already winging my way to London. Doubly bizarre in fact as my train reading was Cycling home from Siberia - a book by Rob Lilwall in which Al is the author's cycling companion during the section I was reading! After a traumatic 28 hours journey (in civilised, Western public transport terms with what at the end of the day amounted to a total delay of a mere 50 minutes), sharing the end of my journey with a fellow bike bum was the perfect end to my adventure.

For Al's next Bristol event, A Night of Adventure (for Hope and Homes for Children) on Oct 17, see here.


Zero punctures

Did I mention that I didn't get one single solitary little puncture, the entire trip? I think it was because I was cycling so slowly that glass had time to decompose back into sand before I got to it...3,000km, no punctures. Come on, that must be a record!

"Rome Alone"

So I made it to Rome. Who'd've thought! On Thursday, at 2pm, I kissed the Colosseum - my self-imposed end point - and then sat very still in the shade of what felt like a 30° day for about two hours and did absolutely nothing. You have to concentrate very hard in Italy not to get squished by things, so this little repose was most needed.

The final bit into Rome was actually far more enjoyable than expected, Sometimes, traffic jams can work in your favour, ie when all the trunk roads are chocker so you get to cruise safely on past them and right into the centre. I then continued on to my host's home in Rome, and slept for 12 hours. The Pantheon, Vatican City, all that lot, they've been around for years, I thought they'd wait another day. I'm going to wander out and have a look around them now. Like a good little grand tourist.

Ciao!  

The Budget

I have to be honest, the budget is now tight. In France, 20 euro per day is more than enough as you can camp for average 10 euro. In Italy, however, you are charged a hefty 14-18 euro for a parched square on a desolate campsite where all the facilities and swimming pools are closed, and it's just you and 50 Dutch couples for company, all of whom are locked into their cosy vans playing cards. No fair. Bring back French prices. So, I think a little late-trip weight-loss is going to happen as I am determined not to slope off to wonderful smelling cafes every night for secret five-course banquets. That's fine though, I will more than make up for these calorifically stringent times when I get home to a full fridge and spend my first week at home eating and sleeping...

Cash-wise, I think me and My Travel Cash budget of 1,000 euro will just about make it, though there will be lots of eke-ing out of rations. By rations, by this stage, I mean angel-hair pasta (cooks quickest therefore saves on gas and also gets eaen quicker), bananas, and Frankfurters. Mmmm, cheap meat. So fingers crossed I've just enough to get to Rome. Talking of which: three more sleeps to go! Please come and meet me at Bristol Temple Meads station next week on my return, bearing edible gifts - the station on Monday will be a banana-free-zone.   

What's that Ultravox song...Oh - Siena!

Finally found an Internet cafe in Italy, will wonders never cease. It's been ages hasn't it, I've missed you :o) SO have finally made it from Bologna, over the Appenines and down to Florence, and am now in the middle of the hilly stuff otherwise known as Tuscany, between Florence and Rome. Just in Siena, now. Siena has a special place in my heart because when I was a child, I had a Crayola Castle full of crayons, and one of the pale blue colours was called Periwinkle (still no idea what a periwinkle is but it's a lovely shade) and one of the orange-brown hues was called Burnt Siena, and it was my favourite colour for a while. You can imagine how excited I was to find that there is actually a place called Siena, burnt only by the sun which, by the way, is beating down to the tune of I'd say 30+* today. Thus happy to escape into this dark little cafe! A mere 2 euro per hour, too, which is considerably better than the 2 euro for 15 minutes they charge in Venice. Bed bug scars developing nicely, by the way.

Fantastic Florence Campsite

I love hidden campsites. In built-up Bristol (UK), my home town, look hard enough and you will find one just beside the picturesque floating harbour. In Florence, the setting is even more impressive. Thousands of people sweat up the steps just south of the river to enjoy the views over the coty from Piazza del Michelangelo. What they don't realise is that they are a mere hundred metres from the brilliant Plus Camping Michelangelo site, with its cosy, terraced pitches and cafe with a fantastic view over the city. It's even better here than up at the Piazza itself because you don't have to listen to Peruvian panpipe buskers, take pictures of tourists with a Florentine backdrop, or have to avoid vendors trying to sell you aprons with images of David's tackle of them. All for just 13 euro a night. A blessing in a country where a pitch, for one person, one teeny (and did and did I mention lightweight) tent can cost upto 20 euro.

Final fortnight

Two weeks and a mere 500km to go. I know, I'm taking it pretty easy! If anyone has any suggestions for great and preferably off the trafficked-tarmac destinations for me to visit en route from Ferrara to Bologna, over the Apennines and then through Florence and Tuscany to Rome, do let me know by responding to this post below. I aim to be in Rome by Friday 30 September latest, in time to join Rome's Critical Mass bike riders as they overtake the capital. What a finale! Looking forward to hearing your ideas, and if you enjoy this blog, sign up using the box top right of this page to get the odd email reminder when I update it. Ciao.

Couch superstars

Just thought that it was high time I mentioned and said a quick thanks to the incredible, amazing, interesting, open-hearted and generally amazalating people that have been kind (or stupid :o) enough to let me stay at their places through the couchsurfing and WarmShowers websites. So far I have met an Austrio-Spanish couple who didn't let my presence get in the way of their Extreme Stretching routines of an evening; the head of Lons le Saunier's cyclists' rights society Le Velo Qui Rit (as Lons is famous for the production of the triangular Le Vache Qui Rit cheese); a yoga-going, full-moon meditating reflexologist (and her wonderful daughter) who are direct descendants of a respected Maori chief and the loveliest people you could hope to meet, on the road or otherwise; an art historian and antique shop owner who saved me from having to read a dozen books on Palladio and Venice's architectural history thanks to her indepth knowledge of all things Italian; and many, many more - and several still to come! My trip wouldn't be half as colourful without you, so grazie, merci, danke and cheers, I'll be in better touch once I'm home, you know better than anyone how infrequently I get to a computer!  

Venice the menace

Romance, bridges, gondoliers, Cornettos. That's what I was hoping for in Venice. A nice, pleasant weekend away from my bike P45 - the ole steed of steel. Or rather of aluminium to be precise. 10-storey cruise-ships, I was not expecting. Riot police containing all the political protesters in Piazza del Roma as we were ushered out of the station by armed forces, again, not top of my Venice must-sees. As the chopper buzzed overhead and I found my way to the ill-fated hostel, I began to wish I was back in architect Palladio's home territory of Vicenza. 


Things soon perked up though and several strolls and photos of food I couldn't afford later, I was quite enjoying myself. Then, within 36 hours, I was unable to access any cash for reasons too convoluted to go into (this was soon resolved); had been bitten to within an inch of my life my bed-dwelling critters; and was caught in a violently windy Venetian storm, my second bout of rain the whole trip. After an evening spent in the evocatively named and predictably canal-side bar, Paradiso Perduto, I was actually glad to see the back of the place! 

As I sit here, typing with one hand as I feverishly scratch my trillion bites with the other, I am very much looking forward to picking up the pace again after a lazy fortnight between Lake Garda and Padua, and heading to Rome. 

Blood sweat and tears

Ok, the tears bit is a lie, but the other two are true. The mozzies have sucked out all of my blood, and I have sweated out every ounce of moisture in my body. Riding about 60km in 30°+ heat is not easy. So by my reckoning, my body must be tinder dry. Off out to a gig now in Vicenza, home of the architecture of Palladio. Best make sure I don't stand near any naked flames. 

Cycle mechanics, cover your ears

In my quick, pre-trip cycle maintenance evening at Evans, they said ridiculous things like "Clean your bike every week" and "clean and oil the chain regularly". My bike hadn't been washed since I bought it the year before, so I wasn't about to change my spots and as for the chain, well. It goes round, doesn't it? That said, after about 1,400 miles on the road though, I find myself with a day off in beautiful Verona and so set about some bike housework. I washed it with aloe vera body wash, snaffled from The Expensive Hotel in Lodi, then cleaned it with a toothbrush, brought along for the occasion. Took ages, I got black smudges everywhere, and it looks exactly the same to me. If it ain't broke...

To date, the only things that have broken or not functioned properly are: my expensive ground mat (slow puncture that is so slow I can't locate it) and my Kindle eBook reader (plain simply broken - won't come back tot life when I slide and release the thing it asks you to slide and release to wake it up). Yes yes, I know I should have bought a foam roll-mat and - A BOOK! I need something to read nights; I can't sleep as my ground mat's broken :o)

For a second there I thought you said "77 euro per night".

A word of advice. Do not presume that any given town or city in Italy will have a campsite in or even near it, as you can almost guarantee to be in the case in France. On arriving in Lodi with no actual Plan of Action for once, I thought I would simply find the local hostel, auberge or campsite and get tucked in for the night. After considerable searching, all I could find on this by now dark evening was a hotel at 77 euro for a single room. This was not a happy moment for me and Mr Budget. I trawled back around town for something cheaper, admitted defeat, and returned to The Hotel, resigned to my budget-breaking fate but too tired and windswept to care. Happily, just as I was handing over my passport, another two tourists arrived, a mother and daughter duo from Eindhoven. They also baulked at the room prices so I thought I'd 'chance my arm' as the Irish would say, and suggest a triple room. They asked permission to confer, I granted it, and then they accepted my amazing way of saving us all several yoyos, as the receptionist looked on in amusement. Five minutes later Caroline, Katherine and I are the best off friends, each having paid 35e for a great nights sleep and brilliant (and in my case five-course) breakfast. I just love it when a plan comes together.  

Italy's a bit flat

After the highs of the Alps, on all fronts, Italy at first seemed, well, a bit flat - as was my mood after a month on the road. Once I'd whizzed down from the peak of Mont Cenis, the traditional Grand Tourist's route across the Alps, it's been pancakeville. Turin, to Montevalenza, to Lodi, to Desanzano del Garda, I've been in my top gear for once instead of the favoured and far more highly used bottom one! After four 100km days (that sounds so much more impressive than 65 mile days), I thought I deserved a day off so am staying with the descendants of a proper Mauri chief, on the gentle slopes overlooking Lake Garda. They are an incredible family with a cultural mix including the South Tyrol, NZ and Italy, with a bit of schooling in Clapham thrown in for good measure. We're off to a yoga class and then a moon meditation session later this evening. This beats cycling up 8% hills by a considerable margin. 


Photos

It's hard to get time and access to pooters but for a quick look at an album from the last week, see here.

The Highest Col in Europe

Sometimes, it's good not to have Internet access. On Monday 5th September, if I had known that the next day - my birthday - I was going to climb Col de l'Iseran, the highest col in Europe, I don't think I would have slept. As it was I thought it was just another hill, not unlike the Cormet de Roselend above Beaufort, mentioned below, so I snuggled down into my hotel duvet, turned the heater up, and slept for a blissful 10 hours. 


Next morning I popped into a bakery in Val d'Isere, the ski resort at 1850m altitude where I had splashed out on a 30 euro hotel as it was too cold to camp. I bought a lunch that weighed more than most other col riders' carbon bikes. It comprised a birthday brownie, a slice of ham and Beaufort cheese tart, and a chocolate chip pastry thing. I then set blithely off, not realising quite what lay ahead. It was such a beautiful day though, and the first rain-free day for three days or so, and the views were so phenomenal, that nothing else really mattered as I ascended 17km at a gradient of a mere 4, 5 or 6% - ok with a cheeky final kilometer at 8%. It was practically a walk in the park after Roselend.

I would like to claim that I did a sprint finish but that would be pure fiction. I did up the pace a smudge though, to a speed at which movement could be perceived by the naked eye, and not merely through examining stop-motion photography. When I say my name's not Lance (see poem below), I mean it. It took over three hours at a slow walking pace, for me to do what Tour de Francers probably do in under 30 minutes. In fact, the only thing I have in common with Tour de Francers, is that we both shave our legs. But I got there in the end, and that's what counts. And today, I'm going nowhere! Tomorrow: Mont Cenis and the downhill run into Italy.  

The Budget

I get asked three questions most frequently:

  • Do you have buns of steel yet? Answer: No, because I'm cycling with my legs, not me arse.
  • Aren't you scared? Answer: Only of falling rocks. I've seen the film 127 Hours
  • Are you sticking to your budget? Answer: yup, me and MyTravelCash card are on target.
This latter fact is actually surprising even to me, as even a day's worth of oxygen costs about 45 quid in Geneva, most expensive city in the known universe. But yes on the whole, budget and I are still getting on famously, helped by the fact that I don't incur any charges whenever I use MyTravelCash card anywhere. I am eating mainly pastries and fruit for breakfast; snacking on bananas, dried apricots and chocolate; eating ham and tomato baguettes, tabouleh and whatever I can get my hands on for lunch; then cooking up pasta variously with a veggie of some sort and bolognaise sauce, which in France has meat in it, too. 

Talking of food, I'm Hank Marvin, I'm off to buy us some breakfast. Pain au chocolate, anyone?

Onwards and Alpwards

The other day I left Annecy, aiming for Quiege or Beaufort at best up in what I suppose must be the foothills of the Alps, near Beaufortain. Although raining, finally and unabatedly, I managed to cover plenty of kilometers and found myself in Beaufort at 4pm so thought sod it - let's continue with this final 'hill' and then cruise down to Bourg Saint Maurice tonight; to give myself a decent head start on the ascent to Val d'Isere tomorrow. Just for the record: don't try that at home. 


The 'hill' had helpful little posts every kilometre, the first of which politely warned me that the next kilometer averaged a gradient of 8%. Things dropped down to 7% occasionally but otherwise that was how things continued for, ooh, three hours. For a comparison, imagine finding your home town's steepest hill. Add a torrential downpour. Wear not enough clothing. Cycle 60km first, just to tire yourself out a bit. Ask an 8-year-old child to sit on the back of your bike. Ready? Now cycle up that hill about 300 times. There you go, that's how it feels. 

After 18 kilometers of ascent and with nightfall slowly approaching, I spotted a sign for a mountain refuge. I stumbled up to it and, in manner of dramatic episode from Wuthering Heights or something written by Daphne du Maurier and set on a Cornish moor. I pushed open the door to a scene straight from an Aga advert, with five hikers roasting themselves near the flaming stove, tucking into their tartiflette and looking at my dripping silhouette with undisguised amazement. A few entertaining conversations later and we were all tucked up in our respective bunks, praying for a snore-free night*.

(*those prayers weren't answered, I don't think prayers work at that altitude.)  

Things that cost a grand (1,000)

So I thought, being in Switzerland, that it would be interesting to see what one can purchase for a grand. Two packets of crisps and half a bunch of grapes is about the size of it, I have never been to such a pricey country. It being Switzerland though, and Geneva in particular, I thought I should try my luck at a watchlery or whatever their official title is. I ended up at the Maison d'Horlogerie de Geneve. The highly accommodating man not only let me into the shop - in itself a miracle as I was in my one decent outfit which is by now a few washes past its best - he also let me try on a watch to the value of 1,000, and take photos of same to boot.

You find lovely people in the unlikeliest places sometimes, him being one of them. Whilst in a cafe in Nyon yesterday, as a comparison, as a paying customer no less, I asked the waitress if it was possible to fill my water bottles before I left, and she very kindly suggested I fill them from the toilet. Honestly. Anyways, all this will be but a distant memory as tomorrow I begin my ascent of the Alps. Aaaaaaaaaaaagh!


Remember, if you haven't already, join my mailing list to get blog and book updates. When I stop long enough to be able to, I will also upload the trillion pictures I've taken so far into the currently sparsely populated picture gallery.

My Name's Not Lance.

My name's not Lance.

You're mistaking me for speedy from the Tour de France.
You'll only see me rushing for a pastry, I'm rarely hasty.
My name's not Lance.

My name's not Lance.
The thought of cycling over the Alps makes me bleep my pants.
If you want me I'll be sitting in a low gear, or in a caff with a beer.
My name's not Lance.

My name's not Lance.
I've got panniers full of lycra and two pairs of pants.
Only when I get to Rome will I believe, that I can achieve this.
Cause my name's not Lance.

Chateau Chassagne Montrachet

Chardonnay for breakfast, anyone? Having come from Paris through Fontainebleau and Auxerre to Burgundy's Cote d'Or, one of France's top wine-growing areas, I thought it only proper that I should try to stay in a Chateau - budget aside. I'm not gonna tell you how I did it - come on, I've got to leave some surprises for the book - but I managed to get my very own Michelin-rated room with a view, in phenomenal Chateau Chassagne Montrachet itself. That level of luxury is just amazing at the best of times, let alone when you've just cycled about 70 miles and the closest you've come to comfort in a week has been not having to wear your goretex jacket to bed because it's so freakin cold!


The walk-in bath and normal-sized toiletries (as opposed to cold showers and teeny weeny versions of things squished into stuff sacks) was duly appreciated. I imagine it was also the first time any of their guests had aired their tent over the designer chair and cooked spaghetti on a camp stove on the windowsill...E.M. Forster would have been proud. If I had any budget to buy or strength to carry any wine, I would have maxed out my MyTravelCash card there and then! 

Um, there appear to be some hills in my way.

After over two weeks of, essentially, in cycling terms, flatness, I have finally found myself at the foot of some hills. Those of the Haut Jura, to be specific. I think that I may finally need some of the gentle fitness I've acquired in the last fortnight! I'm staying at a friend of a friend's, with a heated outdoor pool, indoor pool table and great company not to mention food, so I'm going to find it pretty hard to leave in the morning to drag me and my wide load of a bike up and over some 1,000+ metre cols. I think the problem is that I've arrived a bit early - a billion years too early. I'll come back then when the hills have worn down to flatness, just how I like'em. Holland, everything is forgiven, I take it all back, flat is not boring.

Orange Sticker Man

Have you got any idea how hard it is to get onto the Internet in France? When I wasn't looking, Internet cafes became obsolete and I appear to be the only traveller in the country without their own computer/ iPad/ iPhone etc, thus the lack of communication. It wasn't anything you said, dahling.


So the other day I was happily cycling along in the boilingness that is The French Weather when I saw some little flourescent orange triangular arrow things, attached to posts and trees. I soon realised they were marking the route of a cycle race that had come through the area. Saying things like "You can do it" and "Just a few more metres to the top" etc. Then I saw one that said, in English, "Two Mile Hill". I hoped Orange Sticker Man was joking as I could see another up ahead that I gleefully raced on to. Alas, it said "No, seriously, two mile hill." I went off Orange Sticker Man after that.

My Travel Cash

my travel cashcardSo, how am I managing to keep track of the fabled Grand of a budget I hear you ask? Well, I´ve got this rather clever little card called a MyTravelCash card, a pre-paid Euro cashcard. This way I incur no charges whether for withdrawals from foreign ATMs, or for purchases no matter how small. Now, you may think that bank charges are negligible. But here´s an idea. You try cycling 70 miles a day, which means I need to buy at least 5,000 calories of food per day, and then finding somewhere to sleep, and perhaps treating yourself to a...treat of some description for your efforts, on 20 euro a day. It ain´t easy. And the last thing you want is a two euro charge from your UK bank whenever you withdraw any cash or use your card for anything. So when a friend of mine mentioned this pre-paid. fee-free card, I did some research and MyTravelCash came up as the best deal on the market. Free to get, free to use, free to top up. Genius. The Grand Tourists of yore would have been travelling with letters of recommendation from their UK bankers, and struggling to change unrecognised currencies from one state to the next - I just use MyTravelCash for everything. Easy. Now, I´m not promising to do for MyTravelCash what the intrepid Alan Wicker did for Barclaycard (young people - you´ll have to google that one), but they liked the idea too and have just decided to support my efforts a bit, so if you´re going away and want to save some cash, get a MyTravelCash card, even the 'money saving expert' agrees. And I'm not selling out - I´m just tring to save you all some yoyos.   

Day 5: Sangatte to Berck-sur-Mer

It seems to rain every night in France, and then to clear up by the morning. I know this is tempting fate but I haven´t needed to wear my waterproofs once yet - it´s been too hot and humid anyway so I would rather get wet from the rain outside than the sweat inside. So, Sangatte to Berck. Berck is not a nice word is France I am reliably informed, because it´s what kids say when they don´t like something, ie. Yuk. So whilst Berck-sur-Mer might sound a little exotic, dare I say it even a little continental to us, to the French ear it is essentially saying Yuk-on-Sea.

I had a great time in Yuk, though. I stopped at the little sun-bleached cabin of Cyclofun, an unusual bike hire place on the seafront in this lovely little seside resort, to ask where the closest campsite was. Its entertaining proprietor Nicholas, himself a huge cycling fan, liked my project and offered the cabin itself as my accommodation for night. Who could refuse? One generously offered pizza later and I was bedded down, locked safely inside my cabin, just me and the pumps, paperwork and general paraphernalia that go with a beachfront business. I swept the sand from the floor, blew up my Amazingly Small Mattress and enjoyed the Friday night sounds of the city all around, from the jingling funfair to the drunken banter right next to me, and the traffic continuing all around. It was like lying on the ground, invisible, in the middle of a town.

What possessed me?

Given that, prior to this trip, the most exercise I had done for about a year was to cycle to and from work on a nice flat bit of road, I don´t know what possessed me to think I could cycle 70 miles per day carrying panniers. Turns out I can´t! So it didn´t take me five to six days to get to Paris, it took eight days. I am approx two days behind on my Grand Plan already. Ah well, luckily I budgeted in around nine extra days to the whole trip to allow for such things. I will try to claw back the time (to save the spare days for when I really need them, ie, cycling over the Alps) by spending one day instead of two in Paris, and by not taking a day off in Fontainebleu too, it´s only 40 miles from here after all.

This morning I am updating this blog for the whole of the last week, from a computer in Paris. It´s a Mac with a French keyboard and the operating system is in Spanish so I cannot begin to convey how time consuming this all is. I would rather be out Grand Touring around Paris but am instead here trying to work out where in God´s name things go on a Mac when you download them from a Hotmail message. It isn´t obvious and I fear that one wrong click and I could erase my friend´s entire thesis research! I´m about ready to jump out of my Eiffel Tower-view window with frustration. Any recommendations greatly received...

Day 4: Don´t miss the boat they joked...

peter and helen in CanterburySo I missed the boat. I put it down to stopping to help two hapless London cyclists with a puncture and no pump between them. My being immensely slow obviously had nothing to do with it, nor the fact that my knee started to hurt so I had to walk up anything steeper than a pancake. Nine hours in the saddle, six Ibuprofen and some budget-busting pain relief gel later and I decided to throw in the lightweight micro-towel (cut in half for yet more weight savings). I diverted into beautiful Canterbury instead, to see if I could create myself some tales. Ended up staying at the Camping and Caravan club campsite which, like all good end points on exhausting cycle journeys, was - up a massive hill. I met Peter and Helen there, two cycling Aussies, who gave me a good tip - carry a chamois instead of a towel as: they dry you off enough; you can wring your wet clothes out in the them to help them dry quicker; and they need to be kept moist so you don´t have to worry about drying out the actual chamois itself. Hmm, a competitor to my previously unsurpassed uber-micro-towel! God knows what they´ve got in their six panniers each though - ten years´supply of chamois. one can only presume.

The next day, the wonderful ferry lady let me change my ticket free of charge so I sailed to ´The Continent´ for a mere 12GBP, as previously booked. France, here I come! 

Day 2 - if only the world were flat

So, people (and when I say people I mean drivers) told me that it was flat from Bath to Marlborough. It wasn't. It was slog after slog. To someone like me, whose usual cycle trip is a seven-minute flat spin to work, this was a bitter pill. God knows what I'm going to do when I see the Alps raise their fearful heads before me! So when they (and when I say they I mean the people at whose gates I stopped to ask for advice) told me it was also flat from Marlborough to Windsor, I didn't believe them. I should have had more faith. Hours of unadulterated flatness, thatched bus-stops and beautiful pubs, mainly called the Horse and Carriage/ Horse and Wagons, which is of course how our original Grand Tourists would have been travelling.

Highlight of the day? Apart from arriving at my brother's house in London, a broken woman, 81 miles and around 10 hours later, it's this. I was just crossing the M25 near Langley in a cage-like bridge. I stopped to set up what in my mind was going to be an arty photo of the torrential traffic, framed by the bars of the bridge. Then, the back end of a car blew up beneath me, spuming dense smoke across three lanes and reducing oncoming drivers' visibility to about 1m - and I caught it on camera! Oh yeah. It was brilliant! That's with hindsight of course. At the time my fist was in my mouth as I prayed there wouldn't be a multi-car pile up. You can see how easily such things happen.

MIles covered: about 81. Hours riding: about 9. Accom:
a free sleep and massive curry dinner at my brother's. Money spent: £4.97 on food (a very nice man in an Italian restaurant gave me a half-price and delicious pasta/chicken lunch, with coffee, in honour of my endeavour. Oh and 55p on a banana and some photocopies of my passport. So, £5.52. I know - it's like watching Carole Vorderman in action, isn't it.


Bodycount

dead hareHere's the wildlife body count:

Day 1: two rabbits, a big badger, a dusty pheasant, three standard little birds, a pigeon.
Day 2: A kangaroo (ok it could have been a dog but important significant features were...no longer on the scene), two hedgehogs, a rabbit, two pigeons, one other bird.
Day 3: ... this is a bit morbid, eh. Let's just leave it at that and say that lots of hedgehogs didn´t make it across lost of French roads, and that I shall be doing my best to avoid things crawling, running and slithering across my path.

8mph - a poem

My cycling speed makes a snail look frenetic.
I'm a watcher, a listener, I'm not energetic.
But roll as I roll and you won't miss a trick.
Rusting sleepers, squashed rabbits, a penknife-skinned stick.
As wasps headbutt blackberries and scrumps attract bumbles,
My memory's awaft with mum's sugar-topped crumbles.
So that is why slow outruns quick to the title, of
'The favourite speed of me and my cycle'.

It's Day 1 in the Big Grand Tour house

An unexpectedly brilliant positive has come to light: being away when I am, I won't have to listen to any of the hype, overhear any of the conversations, or have anything whatsoever to do with Big Brother this year. YAY! One billboard on my wayout of Bristol was the sum total of my exposure. By the time I get back it should all be over and forgotten about and I won't have to pretend to be interested as people pick over the bones of it in pubs either.

So, day one: a major schoolboy error already. Changed my saddle (to a women specific one) the day before departure, just to try it out, and forgot to change it back - my bum is in ribbons. I won't bore you with the ins and outs of every day but highlights were meeting Mark from Divine Cafe, Cherhill (Wiltshire). What started with his filling my water bottles from the garden hose he was using to water his flowers ended up in a lengthy chat. Mark when budgetary restrictions are lifted I will be back for one of your phenomenal cakes. I also wrote a poem as was pootling along, listed separately above. It sounds a bit cheesy as does any rhyming couplet poem.

Amount spent: £5.50 on food and £6 on camping in Marlborough's Posten Hill Foresty Commission campsite. So, £11.50. Miles cycled - about 50, took about 7-8 hours - see I told you I was unfit. Plus I was carrying panniers for the first time ever. Winks slept: Approx none as it was so cold. Lessons learned: don't stay at campsites that have no showers. 

I now own four panniers

my van and my bikeJust had to reset the countdown calendar for the homecoming date, as the day is now officially nigh. The panniers never did arrive, I had to go and buy some more. So when they do actually arrive on Monday, I'll own four. Clever Ortlieb, clever - sound business sense. I've just waded through Bristol's incoming tide of partygoers as I came home early and sober, in readiness for whatever tomorrow may bring. I have a pump now, and everything, so think I'm good to go. Apparently I will be passing a crop circle in the shape of an alien tomorrow. I wonder if Lord Byron saw such sights on his grand tour? I'm thinking no. Ha, Byron, loser. Chamonix's Mer de Glace? Whatever. Venetian Palaces? Who cares. Amongst the stalks and stems of Wiltshire is where it's at. Right off to not-sleep-at-all-because-I'm-so-nervous.

where are my panniers?

pile of gear waiting for an Ortlieby homeOk that thing below about not worrying about the whereabouts of my panniers until 4.59pm tomorrow - that may have been slight exaggeration. WHERE ARE THEY? I need them. I have two little piles of things in zip-lock bags, dry bags and stuff sacks, waiting to move into their new homes which haven't arrived yet.

Pile One: 1 x Lightweight Vaude Power Lizard 2-man tent (weight: <1kg). One x down sleeping bag. 1 x Pocket Rocket stove. 1 x propane/butane gas (small). 1 x waterproof jacket. 1 x Pacific Outdoor lightweight ground mat. Stretchy weird knee and elbow warmer things. Tea, coffee, hot choc and electrolyte drink powders, all in zip-lock bags.

Pile Two: Pearl Izumi cycling shorts. Pearl Izumi cycling undershorts and Superstar skirt. Pearl Izumi Women's Elite combination jacket (gillet plus 'shrug'-styled sleeves which zip on). 2 x pants. 2 x normal socks plus 1 x SealSkin goretex socks. 2 x cycling tops, 1 x dress. 1 x luminous yellow outer layer. 1 x warm layer.

Ortlieb bar bag: sun glasses, snacks, maps in a map case, Petzl Zipka plus mini head torch, multi-tool, lights, pump, camera, wallet, lip balm and suntan lotion (surely it's still summer, somewhere?!). 2 x sporks. 1 x Kindle (ebook reader). Mobile phone. Dictaphone. Ferry ticket.

Think that's about it. Just need pans, really. Oh, and for someone to come and increase my fitness levels by about 280% and/ or offer to come and drive a support vehicle alongside and we're ready to go! 

Setting the record straight

A French friend I'm staying with in Paris has just said: "Ensuite, je te felicite pour avoir trouvé la manière de partager ton travail avec tes hobbies!" Anyone wanna have a go at this one? No? She says congrats for finding a way to blend your work with your hobby. I think that she, like many other people, think I am getting paid to do this, or that I'll be spending someone else's grand whilst out there. I have no job, ie, I am unemployed. No-one is paying me to do this, I am spending my savings. And if the ensuing book doesn't sell, then I'll be unemployed with no savings to boot. I believe this is called 'taking a risk'. If it all goes Pete Tong, looting seems to be the way forwards at the moment. Maybe I'll jump on that over-turned wheelie bin of a bandwagon - though I don't know the calorific value of a flat-screen telly...  

Rain is good

Rain is good during the preparatory stages.It stops me going out and faffing in the parks and shops of Bristol when I should really be doing things with bikes and maps and panniers at home. Today's task - now that Garmin have politely declined to loan me a GPS thing and as I can't afford one myself - is to stick together my ribbon route, on bits ripped out of my ancient French road atlas. The Grand Tourists managed to do it without a £400 piece of kit to tell them that "The Alps are in front of you and they're blimmin' steep" so I'm sure I can, too. I can always skip a meal and buy a map anyway if I have to...

the 80% rule as departure looms

I've just got back from a free maintenance class at Evans. Arriving late and slightly out of breath after my flat, 10-minute cycle there, the assembled others were therefore a little surprised to hear I was heading for Rome on Sunday. This Sunday. And yes, the Rome in Italy. But I've got it sussed. Southeast England is flat (warm up). France's Burgundy region has wine to soothe the aches and pains, then I shall be fully fit by the time I hit the Alps. By the law of averages, it must be downhill all the way to Rome? Talking of which, I leave this Sunday. Mustn't forget!

I've given up attempting to learn a useful modicum of Italian in time. I shall instead sport a Rome T-shirt, pointing at it quizzically at any crossroads until some kind local gently pushes me off in the right direction. I've just ordered a head torch and some spanking white Ortlieb panniers too, that in hindsight may not arrive until after my departure. This could pose problematic, I'll save any fretting until 4.59pm on Saturday. Other than that the 80% rule is going well. My bike is 80% ready; I've read 80% of the books I'd hoped to get through before departure; I've discarded 80% of the original 'bare essentials' I'd planned to take (apparently they have Nutella on the continent, too); and I've done 80% of the anticipated quota of worrying already. All I have to do is point south for a few weeks and then veer left a bit over a big hill. It can't be that hard.

Off to bed now to finish off the excellent 'Venetian Masters'. Its author, Bidisha, published her first novel at the age of 18. That's what I always imagined I would do. Ah well, I'm finally setting off on my book-writing journey, albeit at twice her age. If mine is half as good, I'll be very pleased indeed. Nite x

Pearl Izumi rocks

pearl izumi wonderclothesThis cycing season I shall be mainly sporting Pearl Izumi (available through Madison online). After a lengthy trawl around all the bike shops, I reckon that Pearl Izumi has some of the slickest women's kit around, and certainly the best "SPD Shoes That Don't Look Like SPD Shoes". I know I'm on a bike, but don't want to be hobbling along in some stiff, strappy, silver numbers, looking like a pained cyclist. I want to be strolling coolly along the boulevards of Paris and through the Piedmontese vineyards of Italy, in funky black and lime green Fuel SPD trainer-shoes; a sleek, body-hugging Elite gilet and a Superstar biking skirt. Yup, biking skirt. I'm going to be off the saddle a lot going over the Alps and, well. No-one needs to see that (at least not until Venice - it should be in great shape by then). The Victorian Grand Tourists wouldn't have even been showing their ankles, let alone their lycra-clad derrieres!

Pearl Izumi also does larger shoe sizes for women which is ace, up to a 44 I think. I'm sure I could even accessorize this outfit for evening wear...So come on then Pearl Izumi - let's see what you're made of.

Stuff you'd rather do with your life

I've got a friend, we'll call her Clever (for she truly is). We could also call her Wise, Tall and/or Speedy - as she's all of those things, too - but we'll just stick with Clever. She wanted to get into kids' books, greetings cards, all manner of impossible-to-break-into careers like that. So she just believed, and continued doing what she was doing, as to've done anything else would have been pointless. Today, if you throw a quick 360 degree glance around wherever you are right now, there is probably something (nice) in your house that she created. If you are on the High St, do the same and you'll either spot her actual stuff or poor (yet flattering) imitations of it. The point being: Clever always said that once you start doing the things you want, other things start happening. Good things. In curious ways. In chronologically coincidental and convenient orders. A breakthrough here, a spark-up of a conversation with the right waiter there. Things that reward your decision to do the only thing you've ever really wanted to do anyway. 

Maybe Clever read it in a card. Maybe she spent too much time in the Spirituality section of a now-bankrupt bookshop. Either way - I've just lost my job. I looked for another one, but really, just wanted to ride to Rome. So I decided to ride to Rome. It's not wise. It's not funded. And if nothing comes of it, I'll be broke and unemployed (oh and roofless, too), instead of just momentaily unemployed. Yet, already, an editor is interested in a story. A kit company is kindly giving me a bit of kit. Turns out I'm picking up Italian relatively easily. It's now inspired a friend to cycle across Italy, too. All this, within a week of truly deciding to go. Whatever next? Will it peak before I even depart? Am I already in the middle of my halycon hour? Who knows. If the universe wanted to put a little hot chocolate in my way in the next five minutes, that would be ok, too. I'm tired, it's just too exciting to sleep. G'night, Clever x

Is two weeks before too late to start planning?

There are 14 days to go before departure. Although I have been thinking about this trip for months, and have read one book on the subject (well, half of one until it got lost in the depths of my van), I haven't actually done much planning. Lots of thinking about it, even more talking about it, but very little actual planning. So in the 14 days remaining I need to pin down a route, buy innumerable things for myself and my bike, learn Italian - I've now added the words for no, but and very well to my Italian vocabularic arsenal - and do some more historical research, somehow whilst also dragging myself away from the computer lest my already negligible leg muscles atrophy entirely. I think the best plan of action today is to go to the Bristol Harbour Festival and to not think about the Grand Tour at all for a few hours/ the entire weekend, and to start again on Monday. I just need to cycle, eat and sleep for a few weeks on minimal money. How hard can it be?

To tent or not to tent

I'm having a tent dilemma. I need one because there'll be the odd occasion on the Grand Tour where I'll be camping (and will need one for general emergency use too). But I want it to be really light, as I won't need it often, and don't want to lug around a large, heavy tent. But decent lightweight tents are expensive (ie £200+), so it's a bit annoying to spend a lot of money on something I won't use much. But, a a weight-conscious cyclist - even more annoying to carry around something heavy that I'm not going to use much. I've got it - scrap the tent idea altogether and spend the cash on random hotels if need be. Then I'd at least get a coffee and warm croissant, to boot. Why didn't I think of this sooner? Could have saved myself days' worth of staring at the Vaude tent website... 

Is that countdown calendar correct?

If I'm not very much mistaken, I only have 18 days to go before setting off on a 2,000 mile cycle ride to Rome. How did that happen? My bike doesn't work, I still haven't worked out how to add commenting to my website, I've no idea what to wear, don't have a tent, can't find my lights and to be honest once I cross the border in to Italy I'm entirely screwed as I can't speak the lingo and have no idea where I'll stay. Ah well, best make use of remaining time well. Learning Italian mainly, and reading up on the Grand Tour - the whole inspiration behind this trip.

I've just discovered the wonderful online and actual communities of CouchSurfing (for any travellers) and WarmShowers for touring cyclists (sounds rude - isn't...at least I hope it isn't. Each to their own but I'm not into, er, that). What a bloody good idea both websites are. The people I have already met through these sites and who I look forward to meeting en route are going to make the trip. Otherwise it's just me, a sore bum and a long slow and frequently uphill countdown from 2,000 miles.

Well, better stop faffing and do something productive. I think lesson 2 of Pimsleur's Italian course might be useful. In lesson one I only managed to say, albeit correctly, that I don't understand Italian...

 

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