Archive for the 'travels' Category

Preparing to cycle Land’s End to John o’Groats

October 31, 2012

“Land’s End to John o’Groats” is a well know British term, but once leaving the island, no one knows what you are talking about. To compare it to the pilgrimage Santiago to Compostela for Catholics, is Land’s End to John o’Groats to any British charity challenger or record seeker. It refers to the ‘end to end’ journey between Britain’s most South-Eastern and North-Western point. The most common means to make this journey is to cycle it, I also heard of people walking it and met a guy doing it by public bus services.


This guy is doing a bus challenge Holt – Land’s End – John o’Groats – Holt

It feels like much longer, but it’s only been five months since I completed the challenge. I am trying to recap why I wanted to take on this challenge in the first place. Around Christmas last year I made the decision to do it. But the intention to do it I made during earlier cycle tours, once from Cranfield University to Dover in 2008 and in 2011 I went from Belgium to Calais followed by London to Cardiff. I loved those journeys as they gave me inner peace whilst putting me out of my physically and mental comfort zone. These tours also changed my awareness of distances and detail of places I am usually passing on long distance travels. So I taught that the end to end tour would give me peace after a stressful time and give me the opportunity to experience the full scope of the UK whilst improving my stamina.

My other tours were made without many preparations. The first touring was with a backpack strapped on the rack and without any accurate map nor camping gear. I learned navigating away from main roads is difficult and making last minute overnight arrangements is challenging and expensive. During my second tour, I decided to stick to the Sustrans National Cycle Network and to take a small pop-up tent with me. I was lucky with the weather being extremely good and realised if it was even a little bit colder, I would have needed cooking equipment.

So for a tour that would take about a month, I definitely needed to be prepared. Staying in B&Bs or hotels and eating out all the time would be too expensive, so camping became the preferred option. Considering that doing a prolonged self supported tour would require more stuff to carry and as a result put extra load on the bicycle, I found out that cargo trailers could reduce the ballast on the rear wheel. Since this tour was an experiment, I did not want to go for the expensive high end outdoors equipment, but it also needed to be of sufficient quality to at least sustain the full tour. This is a video and list of the equipment I took with me me:

  • Bike: Trek 7.3 Fx Disk
  • Trailer: Adventure Ct1 Single Wheel Cargo Trailer
  • Tent: North Ridge Sphinx 2p
  • Mat: Hi Gear Discoverer Sleeping Mat
  • Sleeping bag: Vango Ultralight 600
  • Stove: Wild Woodgas Stove MK II + Spirit Burner
  • Coat: Berghaus goretex + Regatta soft-gel + Regatta fleeze
  • Underwear and T-shirts: Howies Marino light 1 short & 1 long sleeve, cycling shorts, waterproof and wool socks
  • Trousers: Craghoppers quickdry and Mountain Warehouse rainproof
  • Shoes: Karrimor Waterproof Walking Shoe
  • Navigation tool: Sustrans App (OS maps) via iPad 3G
  • Power supply: Freeloader Globetrotter Solar Charging System
  • Action camera: Chilli Technology Action 3 HD 720P Head Cam
  • Head torch, Reelight battery free bike lights
  • Emergency kit, Bike-horn

The trailer has a maximum load capacity of 30kg and I packed my equipment to these guidelines. I also had one pannier where I could store things I needed quick access to during the day such as food, navigation and rain clothes. Now I was ready to do some test riding. I explained a little bit of my test ride to Schumacher College in a previous post. At that time I was able to eliminate about 6kg of luggage that I wouldn’t need. Devon was a good place to start and Cornwall put the test to an extreme. I encountered a few difficulties. First, quick-dry clothing isn’t good enough for continuously being outdoors, second, I still had too much load to carry, especially going up-hill and third I had problems with my disk-breaks vanishing going down-hill. I aimed to cycle from Schumacher College to Land’s End, but these three problems caused me to call a halt to the cycling in St Austell and to take the train to Penzance.

First miles into Cornwall, on the edge of a windy cliff. The gear and rider weren’t tested to the extreme yet.

bottom of hill where my brakes stopped working

I met up with Gordon about two months before the tour and told him about my plans to cycle the end to end. He bought a touring bike a year before and was keen to test it out. I am not sure Gordon committed himself to cycle the end to end but he was definitely up for some adventure. I arrived to Penzance the day before we were supposed to meet, but Gordon informed me he was delayed due to the delay in delivery of a tent he bought on ebay. But no worries, he pointed me towards a very nice campsite I could relax the extra day.

The campsite was at Treen, a tiny village a couple of miles out of Penzance in the direction towards Land’s End. The way to get there was extraordinary, first there were the coastal towns that had a Mediterranean atmosphere, once going up the cliff-side there was a deserted plane than valleys cut along it. These valleys had a tropical micro climate and finally arriving at the campsite felt as being on a Caribbean Island. Despite the beauty I was surrounded by, there was not much time to fully enjoy because of the three problems I had to sort out, i.e. getting waterproof clothing, reducing my luggage and fixing my breaks. This was challenging to organise at a remote place with few public transport links and poor mobile coverage. Luckily I was able to enjoy the beautiful evenings and went to see a musical an open air cliff-side theatre. After one more day, Gordon arrived without his new tent, I got rid of another 6kg of luggage and we were ‘ready’ to go.

‘old’ versus ‘new’ brakes


Musical ‘Titanic’ in memory of the boat sailed along this coastline exactly 100 years ago that day

The next post will elaborate on the route we took:

  • Day 1 – 13/04/2012: Land’s End to Truro (45m or 72km)
  • Day 2 – 14/04/2012: Truro to Bodmin Moor (46.5m or 75km)
  • Day 3 – 15/04/2012: Dodmin Moor to Tarka trail (59m or 94km)
  • Day 4 – 16/04/2012: Tarka trail to Exmoor (51.5m or 83km)
  • Day 5 – 17/04/2012: Exmoor to Tirverton Parkway (26m or 42km)
  • 18/04/2012 – 27/04/2012: break (meditation in Hereford)
  • Day 6 – 28/04/2012: Tiverton Parkway to Taunton (25m or 40km)
  • Day 7 – 29/04/2012: Taunton to Wookey Hole (48.5m or 78km)
  • Day 8 – 30/04/2012: Wookey Hole to Bristol (46m or 74.5km)
  • Day 9 – 1/05/2012: Bristol to Forrest of Dean (30m or 48km)
  • Day 10 – 2/05/2012: Forrest of Dean to Black Mountains (46.5m or 75km)
  • Day 11 – 3/05/2012: Black Mountains to Newbridge on Wye (40m or 64km)
  • Day 12 – 4/05/2012: Newbridge on Wye to Machynlleth (52m or 83.5km)
  • Day 13 – 5/05/2012: Machynlleth to Blaenau Ffestiniog (42m or 67.5km)
  • 6/05/2012: break (visit friend on Isle of Anglesey)
  • Day 14 – 7/05/2012: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Caernarfon (30m or 48.5km)
  • Day 15 – 8/05/2012: Caernarfon to Holyhead (32.5m or 52km) + ferry to Dublin
  • 9/05/2012: break (visit friend in Dublin)
  • Day 16 – 10/05/2012: Dublin to Clogherhead (36m or 58km)
  • Day 17 – 11/05/2012: Clogherhead to Portadown (64m or 103km)
  • Day 18 – 12/05/2012: Portadown to Belfast (35m or 56.5km) + ferry to Cairnryan
  • Day 19 – 13/05/2012: Cairnryan to Maybole (66m or 106km) via Galloway Forrest Park
  • Day 20 – 14/05/2012: Maybole to Isle of Arran (37m or 59.5km) via Ardrossan-Brodick ferry
  • Day 21 – 15/05/2012: Isle of Arran to Loch Caolisport (35mor 56.5km) via Lochraza-Claonaig ferry
  • Day 22 – 16/05/2012: Loch Coalisport to Oban (59m or 95km)
  • 17/05/2012: break (Oban visit)
  • Day 23 – 18/05/2012: Craignure (Isle of Mull) to Malaig (85m or 137km) via Oban-Craignure ferry and Tobermory-Kilchoan ferry
  • Day 24 – 19/05/2012: Isle of Skye to Isle of Harris (64m or 103km) via Malaig-Armadale ferry and Uig-Tarbert ferry
  • Day 25 – 20/05/2012: Isle of Harris to Knockan (48m or 77km) via Stornaway-Ullapool ferry
  • Day 26 – 21/05/2012: Knockan to Durness (55m or 88.5km)
  • Day 27 – 22/05/2012: Durness to Thurso (71m or 114km)
  • Day 28 – 23/05/2012: Thurso to John o’Groats (21m or 34km)
  • total of about 1300m or 2100km

Continuity in disruptive times

October 27, 2012

After some time of silence at this blog, I am back with the first in a series of posts I am planning to write this month. So far 2012 has brought many challenging, changing and exciting moments for me and I want to share with you the highlights of my stories via this platform. I could blame my silence on multiple difficulties I encountered to write blogs on an iPad whilst on the move. But lets be honest and admit that in times the flow of life counts may interruptions, its easier to jump into the action than to document the story.

The previous post was written whilst preparing the challenge to cycle from Land’s End to John o’Groats. The tour took about 30 days and as you probably can see from the pictures, I’ve got a few stories to tell about what happened in between. I’ll keep this for the next post.

Lands’s End 13th April 2012

John o’Groats 23rd May 2012

In my previous post I also mentioned briefly that I took a course at Schumacher College. For over 20 years the college has been a place for transformative courses on sustainability. Back in 2008 I took a course in designing for sustainability which at that time gave me a leap in my professional development. The course I followed this time was titled “Cultivating an Ecoliterate Worldview: Person, Place and Practice”. The two week-residential was an experience that changed my values and reconnected me with the ecosystems we are part of. The course is still ongoing via a global study circle. Although I see the whole experience more as personal development, I might write a post about “design and innovation versus emergence and transition for sustainability”.

Dr Stephan Harding explaining 1 meter will represent 1 million years

During the 4.5km walk references are made to the 4.5 billion years geological and biological evolution of the earth

Last 20 centimetres introduces the human species on earth, last 2 millimetres the industrial revolution

Other personal development experiences since my last post included a ten-day Vipassana meditation course and volunteering on a later course. Vipassana is a meditation technique where, by experiencing the impermanence, you learn to eradicate yourself form misery by controlling deep behavioural patterns of craving and aversion. I would recommend everyone to try a course! An unexpected outcome of a course that only caters vegan meals is that I have overcome my phobia about eating fish.

In July I went to Italy to attend a summer school in designing the semi public space. Izmo associations, the organiser of the summer school, are a dynamic bunch of people somewhere between architects, researchers, design activist and just very nice Italians. I was particularly interested to attend because of the participatory design workshop and the realisation of community based design interventions. As you can see from the pictures there is a lot to tell about this experience, too much for this blogpost.

Participatory design workshop

design team and installation

After the summer school I began actively seeking work, i.e. job-hunting. In hunting terms I can say the climate is changing and this season isn’t going to bring an easy catch, a good time to master some survival skills! How I approach my hunt will be for a next post. What I can tell you for now is that I want to make sustainability happen via design and for this I am looking into three possible types of meaningful work:

  • eradicate poverty by designing products, services or systems in third world countries
  • supporting meaningful and good design by providing qualitative research services to any type of ‘sustainable designers’
  • creating systems change by bringing design-led approaches to policy development/delivery

Another challenge was, and still is, the ambiguity of me being an expatriate versus native. I haven’t relocated yet and have been hopping between the UK and Belgium finding a space to work anywhere with wifi or 3G. It’s an organisational and legal challenge and sometimes creates interpersonal difficulties. I can now say I have an temporary operating base in my hometown, Poperinge, Belgium. This situation not only taught me to travel light, but also to live light. It has also been a time of (re)connecting with friends, family and masters two languages simultaneously.

So the last half year brought adventure, professional development, personal mastering, hunting experience and a nomadic lifestyle. I am keen to use this blog to go into more detail on a few aspects of this transitional period, starting with a long post on the big cycle tour. Leave a reply below if you are interested in a particular story. You can also follow me on twitter for instant updates.

Cycling the UK

April 8, 2012

At the end of last year, I made a decision to leave my job at the Ecodesign Centre in Cardiff and to look out for other adventures. When I made the decision, I came to the realisation I have been living on the island for about half of my adult life. I am not sure yet where my next adventure will bring me, elsewhere in the UK or maybe somewhere totally else on this continent or planet. In any case, I would like to see, explore, experience and get to know the good sides of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). And as a keen cyclist wanting to get closer connected to the real world, I made a plan to cycle the four regions of the UK.

The big tour will go from Land’s End to John o’ Groats via Ireland. Gordon will be my companion along the way and we aim to start on Wednesday morning. I have commitments in Belgium on the 27th of May so that sets the deadline for the challenge.

My weapons of choice are a decent bicycle with trailer, decent camping gear and an iPad. I am not sure yet if the last one will bring me closer to the real world. At least it will help me to navigate and keep you updated on this blog.

I left Cardiff behind me two weeks ago for a warming up tour to Schumacher College in Devon. I left too late to get on time for my course at the college, so I cheated a little by taking the train from Bristol to Exeter. The main learning, from that was I that had too much stuff with me

It will be a cycle tour, not a race so there will be time along the way to reflect, explore, enjoy and to build on a plan for the next adventure after this challenge.

Last night in Wales

Crossing the bridge between Wales and England

Taking a bridleway as alternative for missing cyclepath leading to crossing river near Newton Abbot.

Spectators whilst cooking lunch in Devon.

British customs

December 10, 2011

Yesterday at 6.30 in the morning, I had to pass British customs. This activity is routine for me so it shouldn’t be worth writing a blog post about it wasn’t it apart from the extraordinary amount of questions I had to answer and the timing of this happening. I was asked a series of about six questions that started around my Belgian nationality.

My lifestyle requires meeting the British border agency on a regular basis, in some occasions even multiple times in a single day. My Belgian ID card gives me a quick and friendly entrance to the UK. I rarely get any question, even with a rich collection of strong Belgian beers in my luggage.

Less than a couple of hours before my last entry to the UK, David Cameron blocked the new European treaty with veto. It is funny some British press put more emphasis on David’s veto than to the content of the treaty. To my understanding the treaty basically tries to prevent the collapse of the whole European economy, not only the euro countries. The Brits have historically been scared for the European continent, however their leaders understand the UK is part of the wider European economy. With his veto, David tried to defend bankers’ interests and gained more respect from the “great British society”. I am having strong doubts if any one is a winner here.

The day before, the British press was sharp to Belgium because British border staff have faced threats of arrest by Belgian police over the problem with the “Lille loophole”. You can read the full story here, but the following quote is worth a short discussion.

“This has got to stop. You are not in Britain now, you are in Schengen. If they make a complaint you will be arrested.”

I don’t see this as a threat from Belgian police, but rather a signal of companionship. They don’t want to be forced having to arrest their British colleagues.

I must say that my normal greetings with British customs take place at a French ferry port, a Eurostar station or a British airport. This time I entered via the port of Harwich after returning form a genuine one-day business trip to the Netherlands. The standard for this type of trip is to fly and have an overnight in a hotel. I opt for an environmentally friendly mode of transport and took the rail and sail from London to the Hook of Holland via the overnight ferry. This option was more convenient to me because I could stay online and plan meetings along the way. To my own surprise the whole trip was very comfortable, even during “severe weather conditions”.

Was the extraordinary amount of questions I had the first signal of how Britain is drifting away from Europe, was it revenge of the British border staff for the way Belgium blocked their work or did I have the wrong profile at that specific point of entry to the UK? I hope it was just the later. But even if this was the case, it also worries me because it indicates green business travel isn’t considered a genuine travel profile yet.

China visit (annexes)

December 12, 2010

China visit (part 2)

October 2, 2010

China visit (part 1)

September 21, 2010

Hi everybody,

This post comes straight from Harbin in China! You probably never heard about this city, however, some facts are impressive! With almost 10 million people it’s bigger than any European city. Taking a taxi at night brings you straight into a Chinese version of Las Vegas. It’s covered with skyscrapers and a kind of Eiffel tower, which is taller than the original one. There is no tube nor is there proper traffic control, here the car with the loudest horn is road lord!

Harbin skyline

Situated in northeast China, at the edge of Siberia, the temperature ranges from +40C in summer to -40C in winter. Visited Beijing last week, I could say China has already an incredible public infrastructure. However, the extreme conditions in Harbin create massive challenges for establishing and maintaining these infrastructures. You can see the imperfectness of the city everywhere, but I think this is a small price to pay and to be fair, I don’t see any western country establishing a mega city as this in similar conditions.

Beijing infrastructure ready to take more cars

Harbin Engineering University central heating system

The only problems I face here with fulfilling my needs are; publicly available toilet paper, having access to drinking water (no fizzy drinks) at the right moments and having decent internet access. The first two are easy to overcome by good forward planning. I could say internet access is a fundamental need for me. I am here for a summer school in sustainable design and the internet facilitates me in providing understanding and creation of own knowledge. Besides the great Chinese firewall, which blocks or seriously slows down all social networking sites, I experience resistance for a visitor to accessing the internet where it is available. Despite there is internet in my room and wireless on campus, the only place I can access internet is in the coffee bar. Luckily, Google translate is widely implemented and utilised.

green milk coffee

the joys of goolge translate (thanks to Hugh McCann for pictures)

Fight the power!

May 5, 2010

Last weekend, I went up to Nottingham to visit a good friend who recently moved there. Like it fits in British culture, we went out to get some beers. But you may know that this culture is getting infamous for violence, vandalism, sexual abuse and other anti social behaviour. This is especially a problem in mid sized cities.
Being misled before, we decided to go dancing in a club that offered four rooms with “different music styles”. Once inside, soon we were dissatisfied with the cheesy one-size-fits-all music style, so we decided to make our way out to get some fresh air and “food”, and return later. We asked the bouncer if we could get back in later that night. He refused and some kind of tens fuss emerged in the hallway. The bouncer gave the impression to be aggressive and wanted to go outside with us. Being a pacifist myself, I argued we paid for a service, giving us access the whole night. The bounces got angrier and guided us to the exit. But ones he passed the counter, he gave back the money we paid to get in and told us “not to come back”. To our surprise, the entrance price was raised at that moment and the bouncer gave us back the actual price. For once “fighting the power” paid off!

But what does this anecdote learns us? It is often argued that the social problems are caused by alcohol abuse of the party people. I agree that this is the direct cause, however I think party people have genially intentions. Moreover, by going out, they strive to fulfil deeper needs of affection, leisure and identity. The strategy to fulfil these needs can be seen as being in a collective and celebrate this by chatting and dancing. So basically I don’t see anything wrong with that, it seems to work in other places and cultures. Of course there will always be conflicts emerging, but why is it a bigger problem in British mid sized towns?
I think the main cause have to be found in the business model the party industry follows. A bar, pub or club perceives every other bar, pub or club in town as a major competitor. So a bar, pub or club feels threatened and this causes multiple problems:

  • They get scared of people not liking the music, so they can’t play new or unknown music any more. The only music you hear are Kylie Minogue look alikes.
  • They get so confused where to innovate, they try to create a place which seems to have everything. Cheap drinks, food available, long opening times, even possibilities to have breakfast at Sunday morning or business meetings during the week, including wifi and other amenities.
  • They get so scared of you leaving, they will intimidate you for staying inside.
  • They also don’t understand they are actually offering a service and not a product. Even a high quality product like a luxurious cocktail is mainly a service, more specific its creation and consumption creates an “atmosphere” in the room. This misperception causes their competition is product (price) and not service (quality) driven.

Going back to what goes wrong in the mind of the party people. It is not only the alcohol that causes the problems, to my belief it is the whole atmosphere that is not fulfilling peoples needs. Monoculture and fake scarcity creates a feeling that is not satisfying identity and is pleasing affection and leisure in an unhealthy way. Maybe alcohol can be seen as triggering dissatisfaction?
Why isn’t the party industry following a business model based on a diverse ecosystem as opposed to only predators? Every place should foster a unique culture and be beneficial to other places. It seems to work in bigger cities and other countries.

To all the party people: Fight the power, not your friends!