London to Glasgow cycle ride for COP 26 in 2021.

Below is a blog I kept during a one week cycle ride from London to Glasgow (510 miles) to arrive at COP 26 in late October 2021 and make our cycling point . The ride was created by a collaboration of individuals and Adventure Uncovered/Brake the Cycle, two environmentally conscious adventure companies . I’ve left the blog more or less as I tapped it out on my phone for social media each night whilst curled up in bed, but just added a few hopefully useful links.

I arrived in London from Totnes, Devon on GWR trains ( who will endeavour to break your spirit if you dare try to book and travel with a bike ! Not the fault of the actual train staff I might add) to meet with about 100 others to set off cycling to Bonny Scotland for COP26. 

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GWR bike booking fail – at least they gave me a free cup of tea.
Start point in South London . Where’s Wally ?

London to Oxford70 miles . I’m enough of a country bumpkin these days to get a buzz out of riding over Blackfriars bridge then past the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace . On then out through the outskirts of North London , into the Chilterns and a descent into Oxford. As hunger kicked in I remembered a South India cafe called Dosa Park from a previous trip 10 years ago, and there, by the railway station it still was. It looks like a pretty basic cafe superficially, but the food , oh yes, I highly recommend if you’re in the area .. 

Dosa Park Thali.

Oxford to Coventry70 miles 

Travelling through Oxfordshire and Warwickshire and areas I don’t know at all . Through Olde Englande type places with names like Bloxham, with an ancient public school in the middle, and a fat church and tall spire somewhat out of sync with the size of the place. To then arrive in Coventry where I’ve never been and don’t know much about apart from the cathedral ( which IS amazing when you arrive to it )  and of course the home of The Specials

My bike and Ganesh Power; some people on the ride ( many cycling geeks ) think my bike is bespoke in some way – but I have just stuck two Ganesha motifs on my frame – I adopted Ganesha from SE Asia a long time ago as ‘the remover of obstacles’ and ‘bringer of good fortune’ . I wear him round my neck too – I’ll take all the help I can get ! In actual fact my bike is a Specialized AWOL – an indestructible touring bike, the heavy tank of touring bikes. Add Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres and a Brooks saddle and it’s comfortable, not that quick but generally indestructible. Many of those on lighter road bikes had more mechanical problems and punctures. It was a case of the tortoise and the hare, had it been a race I would have been near the front by the end.

Coventry Cathedral
Ganesh Power.

Coventry to Stoke on Trent 65 miles

This was perhaps the easiest cycling day ( and will be ) with forgiving undulating gradients  and still kind weather ( so far ). I’ve found my cycling tribe of lovely people going at a similar pace , though we are really one big tribe of over 100 people , it’s impossible to know who everyone is so full are the days. 

We’re starting to push north now – into Staffordshire and Tamworth ( the royal centre of the old English Kingdom of  Mercia ) . An old castle , solid rectangular houses with Georgian windows and very randomly a Thai temple and meditation centre in Kings Bromley ( where ? Yes exactly ) . Samey but nice enough country side to arrive in Stoke on Trent , the Potteries ( Stoke away on a Tuesday night )

Human beings did not evolve to ride bicycles, that much is clear ,  as my ass and other parts of my anatomy are starting to remind me .  Everyone has their own way to become one with the bike ; for me as for many things in life, Yoga is the answer, even a book I recently read by a professional bike fitter in conjunction with Sports Scientists / Osteopaths etc concluded yoga had a big part to play especially for older cyclists . The body though does adapt – my quadriceps are morphing into something like swollen steel cables and so far the weedy hills of middle England haven’t touched me like the Devon ones . Perhaps where cycling does come into its own on the fitness practices spectrum is the cardio fitness – I can just feel blood and life force pumping through me . 

Onwards we go !

The Trusty Steed.
My Crew.
A small piece of Thailand in the UK.
The formerly fearless , currently a bit toothless.

Stoke-on-Trent to Preston 75 miles

Every day’s a marathon . I feel like I’ve been away a month already ! What day is it ? Cycling day 

We’re Ooop North , and my viscera and blood know it; home turf , you can never change where you came from. Out of Stoke into the  lanes and farm land of East Cheshire; flat , pretty at times , then through the tunnel under Manchester Airport runway and into Manchester for lunch at Alexandra Park. Our route through Manchester took in the more stoic and gritty parts of the city rather than the  more modern glam bits – but I love it for that too . Out through Salford and on the long steady up along Manchester road  through Swinton, Walkden and out into the Lancashire high ground . I enjoyed chatting to a fellow cyclist originally from Singapore about what she made of this raw , grey skied Northern higher ground – about as far from SE Asia as you can get – she loves it and so do I . I get that , the relentless heat in South East Asia can get to you. Eventually we rolled into into Preston in the dark and rain .

Despite this my initial impression of Preston is really positive. We were welcomed and fed at the local sports ground social club, and joined by local politicians who gave talks; it’s a safe Labour seat with a history of activism and which proactively supports cycling .  I’m not even sure who half these people are who keep turning up at at our arrival venues and giving us stuff ( a credit no doubt to  Brake the Cycle and other organisers )  , but we were even given Epsom salts for a bath (quite often a bath at Premier Inns !). These people are re-igniting my faith in the people of this country after the Brexity and Covidy divisions, squabbles and questionable behaviour (from some) of recent times. And let’s hear it for Premier Inns – potentially a faceless chain hotel but of course run by human beings – they let bikes in and the Preston one gave me breakfast free when I told them what  we were doing . 

Who’s on the ride ? Whizzy younger career sustainability specialists working with or for institutions and corporations to help them sort their environmental and social footprint, as well as individuals and randoms like me who believe in the cause and/or just like riding their bike a long way. Lots of young muscly fast riders on super light road bikes juxtaposed with fairly fit old bastards like me who know how to dig out the miles and keep smiling and everyone in between , some struggling, some flying, all riding on – warriors – I salute you all .

En route out of Stoke.
Home turf ( for me)
Alexandra Park, Moss Side Manchester, for lunch.
Somewhere between Manchester and Preston.

Preston to Penrith  89.9 miles. The longest day at 90 miles with serious hills and a challenging weather forecast . The shit’s getting real.

Okay I was warned,  but this was a hard day with the length and hills .  When my eldest son ( who has cycled a bit)  saw the mileage and elevation gain figures of this day, he astutely commented ‘YOU’RE GONNA DIE !’ Not quite but I get his point . 

Actually I handled the cycling fine , but in my group there were 5 punctures meaning we lost a lot of time – we are are waiting for each other while we sort out any problems – making a long day longer . 8 am to 8 pm with too much of that stationary sorting out problems – it’s not like this most days, why today!

The weather was wild and woolly as we hit the high ground of Cumbria . Amazing , dramatic and moody,  but a bit much at times ! Hills ( going up them ) are part of the story in cycling, I’m okay at them, and even like them in a way, but some do find them a bit soul destroying. If you pick up speed before a hill you can beast your way up them pedalling and dropping gears, and/or just relax your upper body and face and dig in to go up longer ones – relaxing really helps – there is an art to it .   

Food – channelling  the Inner Hobbit ( not  hard for me in some respects ) . Cyclists need to eat a lot including the infamous hobbity second breakfast to keep fuelled up in advance of getting hungry . It seems to work but I could  never eat this much normally. For breakfast this morning before 7.30 am I had eaten a bowl of fruit with two pots of yoghurt and muesli, a bowl of porridge and a full cooked breakfast ! Unthinkable normally ( I can’t normally eat anything first thing) but totally doable at the moment. Plus a full lunch and evening meal and endless snacks – it’s the only time I can get away with it without popping. 

Scotland tomorrow and a shorter day  ! 

Craig from Newcastle on his cargo bike – some guy, he also camped all the way.
Two punctures before we even got out of Preston.
Sense of humour test in the rain.
The moody skied Lake District.

Penrith to Dumfries 60 miles

What should have been a relatively easy cruising  day was livened up by the weather as it had to be at some point at this time of year; the theme of the day was water and that special quality of cold that only UK rain can give . After a comfortable enough morning and lunch in Carlisle the temperature dropped like a stone and there was about 2 hours in intense wind and horizontal rain that we had to cycle directly into . For a while it felt unrelentingly bleak with all the hope taken out , perhaps the hardest cycling I ever did . My wet weather plan of staying in shorts regardless sort of worked because everyone else said their waterproofs failed and became useless and heavy. But then hey , the wind dropped and the sun appeared and it all looked very different. Plus we were in Scotland which after a savage introduction suddenly looked stunning , if watery …  We were treated to food and an evening of short films at the Dumfries Robert Burns Centre. 

Am I Scottish ?  I’m a fairly standard mongrol product of these North Western European Islands – nothing to see here .  A few years ago I did the DNA test and it showed me  as 50% Western Continental Europe , 20 % Irish, 20% Iberian peninsula and a smattering of Viking and Roman . But I looked again recently and they have reviewed it ( which makes you wonder the accuracy ) to nearly 50 % Scottish plus a mix up of Irish and other Northern and Western European, either way, not English . So I’m home ? 

Actually miserable at this moment.
Water !
The Solway Firth – Dumfries and Galloway.
The river Esk in spate – Dumfries and Galloway.

Dumfries to East Kilbride 73 miles  

Today was why you might choose to come cycling in Scotland with awesome landscapes and skies . No rain but getting cold; wearing shorts has been great , and a few of us have continued, I’ve basically done this whole thing in the basic kit I use for going out for 2-3 hours in Devon , only just borderline warm enough for today. I might invest in leggings for this winter 

Through lots of beautiful high ground and then lunch at the Crawick Multiverse, an outdoors landscape art installation , maybe like a cross between Stonehenge and a Roman amphitheatre, a pretty awesome place . The lunch was also a multiverse of stuff I never eat – chocolate and ginger ice cream was amazing despite not  being no 1 on my list of fancies at that moment .

Tomorrow is a procession into Glasgow I think ! Very nearly there ..

The Crawick Universe.
Lunch at the Crawick Multiverse – just as well I was cycling a long way.
Wind Power

Getting dark !

East Kilbride to Glasgow 7.3 miles .

Well we’re in Scotland alright . The Covid contradictions so far have been pretty spectacular even compared to England; intense mask wearing , QR coding and phone number collecting at the Premier Inn breakfast. And then at the pub in East Kilbride the same ( sort of )  , wear a mask at the bar ( sort of ) then allow a rammed pub of drunken carnage ! No wonder there cases are high despite stronger ‘rules’. I don’t do so well in loud pubs these days , plus I’m on one year no alcohol, so added to ( super friendly ) people with thick Glaswegian accents asking me about the bike ride ( I think ? ) that I couldn’t really hear, I lasted about an hour; maybe if I was less knackered ( and younger )… Some of the younger ones went nightclubbing and met the locals and someone had battered pizza and deep fried cheesy chip cheesy chip wraps (apparently enough calories/ fuel to get you from London to Glasgow all by itself ). 

We all rode more or less together on a kind of victory parade into Glasgow which looked great for a first impression on my first visit ( All accommodation completely booked for COP26 , so I couldn’t stay). On arrival we met NHS doctors who had also cycled from London to highlight the hugely ( and not really properly documented ) damaging effects of air pollution particularly on children’s lungs . 

All in all the best thing I did this whole fractious, difficult Covid punctuated year of 2021.

A spontaneous outbreak of yoga at East Kilbride Arts Centre.
A bit of not yoga from the night before (not me)
A great welcome from Glasgow Community Cycling Network.

Learning Thai massage in Chiang Mai

I first went to Chiang Mai in 1995 as a backpacker . It felt like a largish provincial town, a gateway  to the Northern Thai hills to go trekking or visit the Golden Triangle where Northern Thailand meets Myanmar and Laos . It still is this , but these days also feels like a growing international city with hugely increased tourism including these days significant Chinese tourism. There is also a semi permanent sizeable international community comprising : non Thai retirees , younger non Thais who have settled and often run their own businesses , digital nomads , English teachers , Muay Thai (Thai boxing ) students/fighters and of course Thai massage students ! Of which I have been one for twenty five years, with now eight visits to Chiang Mai during that time . It’s a fascinating dynamic , there’s a lot going on there ..  

There are at least five major schools of Thai massage, as well as individuals, offering various courses and qualifications for both new students and people with experience. Many students return to explore different aspects of the massage as just the same as any discipline and practice there are many variations on the theme of Thai massage and different theories co-exist just as in western forms of massage and bodywork . Consider osteopaths , chiropractors, physiotherapists and remedial massage therapists all potentially trying to help people but from slightly (or sometimes significantly) varying perspectives of how best to do this .

There is though a lot of formulaic Thai massage being taught and practiced which unfortunately ( in my humble opinion ) misrepresents the potential effectiveness of Thai massage . These formulaic massages can feel good , but unfortunately not always, as in inexperienced hands Thai massage can feel a bit rough which unfortunately puts some people off .

Over my years of practice I have thought and experimented a lot with how to work with this approach that I love and believe in . I generally prefer to work slowly and build up to any deeper work which in keeping with traditional Thai massage takes a longer time . I’ve also been lucky to be introduced to working with heated herbal compresses and sometimes warming balms which greatly support this process at times.

I have an active practice in Totnes Devon, UK where I am available most days. Much more information on my Thai massage practice here .

Below is a walk in open Thai massage ‘clinic’ at one of the temples in Chiang Mai . There are also clinics run by blind practitioners , female ex-prisoners, street market practitioners , traditional medicine hospital clinics , small private shops/clinics , plush hotel spas – whatever you like !  

Table Tennis Training in Hungary.

Table tennis is a respected and popular sport in Hungary . I went to Eger, North East Hungary, to attend a table tennis training camp in 2017 before my first competitive season in the South Devon League Division Four (no less). It was also part pilgrimage to the home of many early world champions, part of the history of the game before the current era of Chinese dominance. There is still a strong table tennis culture throughout Eastern Europe, with every possibility of top players emerging, making this an exciting trip for me personally. 

As a relative novice at this point of my late starting fledging table tennis career (everyone over 40 is classed as veteran and I was 51 at this point) I hoped this would be a spring board for my competitive game as I hadn’t even played in local leagues as yet. 

The club in Eger is a full time one, with the tables permanently set up in a large dedicated hall a little outside the centre of the city. People can come and train anytime , a rare luxury in the UK. For those of us signing up for a week, mornings were spent on personal training and technique with a coach and evenings attending the open club nights either practicing drills or matches with regular members under the guidance of Balázs Pálosi , the head coach. Matches were, for the most part, me  getting whopped off the table by (nearly) everyone from demon athletic children, teenagers and younger adults, through to older, more awkwardly shaped, knee strapped warriors. All were kind , patient and generous with their teaching and advice, but while playing there was no such thing as a ‘friendly’ as such – many of these guys are seriously competing in the Hungarian national leagues at high levels – I learned a lot about table tennis ( and humility).

Balázs himself was one of the knee strapped gladiators who despite veteran status was still playing in the top Hungarian league. He had that competitive fire that I find hard to locate in myself at times, I loved watching him play.  I’m guessing I was a bit of a coaching challenge for him , as although at this stage I was competent in a flat / hard bat kind of game I was so much more clueless than I thought on the arts of spin shots and the proper game. 

My main morning coach was Kobe, a smaller whippet like player who patiently took me through drills and multi-ball practice attempting to install in me the core foundations of forehand and back hand topspin shots (work in progress).

I had wondered if my long apprenticeship in yoga would help in table tennis ? Yes and no . The principles of Table Tennis are governed unforgivingly by the laws  of physics, but also by the elusive ‘zone’ or ‘flow state’, the realm of the human mind and body in which everything: focus, movement, shots and tactics click together in fluid harmonious action. To train for this zone, rigorous repetition of movement and shots is needed in order to fully embody what you need to play in competitive matches under pressure. The mental preparation is perhaps more dependent on individual preference and temperament. The physical practices of yoga help – but not as much as I thought; relaxing and focusing generally is one thing, but staying loose, relaxed and alert in the heat of a match with an opponent pressuring you are not the same thing as a solo yoga practice. Translating what I know how to do in yoga into active practice was and has been an ongoing challenge. Yoga is stabilising and grounding, table tennis entails constant springy intensely alert movement and focus under pressure.  Meditation can help with attitude, approach and sometimes with finding the almost mystical flow state in a match which is happening too fast to be only technical. Who gets into or nearest this zone is often what will determine who, of two technically similarly skilled players, will win in a given match.  

Outside of table tennis , I stayed in in Villa Citadella a comfortable guesthouse just outside the centre of Eger and was collected and dropped off before and after each session by Kobe. Eger itself in an attractive partially tourist town made famous as symbol of Hungarian patriotic resistance due to their holding out against a siege by the Ottoman army in 1552 and also famous for strong red wine and beautiful women. Other than that my general knowledge of Hungary is limited beyond some recent history after the fall of Soviet communism. There is stunning baroque architecture , a strong classical music tradition and at times a very cultured seeming environment.  Am I in Austria, Germany , Turkey or Russia ? It feels like a bit of all of that in different moments . They love saunas, thermal baths and hammams but also don’t mind a salami sausage and a large beer for breakfast sometimes. Incongruously in Eger there’s a  Hare Krishna cafe flogging the Bhagavad Gita here , which despite my enjoyment of some Hungarian food has saved my diet a bit .. 

Overall I felt welcomed and at home for a week and it was a great cultural experience as well as a sporting one. I’m waiting for my next opportunity to get back . 

Information on how to go can be found here