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Friday, 13 May 2011

Here comes the summer

Neither the rain nor the wind have been serious issues over the past eight weeks, but the 50 mile leg from Tongue to Thurso was beset by both. The road along the north coast is exposed and harsh, and we were buffeted about like the plastic carrier bag in American Beauty, without the lilting soundtrack or the romanticism (it's very hard to be pretentious when you're gurning your way up a hill with wet feet and a fluorescent yellow jacket on).

There was also no-one to film us struggling across the moorland, which is one of the many issues we've faced making a documentary without an independent camera crew, but the challenges have been offset by the freedom to travel how and when we like.

The last ride to John o'Groats, across lush green farmland and gentle rolling hills, was notable mainly for the sight of a cow eating the placenta of its newborn calf. Pushing through the pain in a thigh muscle I managed to strain the day before, we arrived without any more drama at our final destination.

Lady Luck, who has been perched on my handlebars, gave us one more gentle nudge to get our photo taken in front of the famous signpost taken before we had lunch. This was just as well as, a few minutes later, the official photographer had packed the sign up into his car and gone home. He said he doesn't bother sticking around too long during the spring months.

We got the obligatory stamp from the coffee shop and that was that. I have to admit that the end felt strangely empty. I wasn't expecting trumpets or congratulations. Hundreds of people have completed the same trip, most much more quickly or impressively or quirkily, or for a better cause. There was certainly a sense of relief because the relentless upheaval has really got to me. During the past few weeks I've felt like a stand-up comedian on a long tour, telling the same jokes, doing the same set every night to a different crowd. After a while comedians start incorporating the frustrations of life on the road into their sets, a temptation I've clearly failed to avoid. But we've been on the road for so darn long, and I've simply got so accustomed to living in this way, that it is hard to imagine it ever ending.

And yet, despite it all, spring is definitely drawing to a close. Having chased the yellow buggers across the whole country, we've caught the tail end of the daffodils, or at least the few dog-eared specimens still flowering among the dessicated brown stalks. But here they're flowering next to bluebells and tulips, a validation of the many people who said that, however early or late it begins, spring always catches up with itself.

This is only the story of one particular spring, along one particular route, as experienced by two particular - but very different - people. We have been exceedingly lucky in chancing on one of the most pleasant and dry springtimes in many years. But I defy anyone to disagree that it is by far the best season in this country, where the lands of England, Wales and Scotland are at their most "green and pleasant". It's a time for waking up early to watch the world wake, a few precious months filled with sounds that lift your heart and smells that sweep it away. Such that I pity people, like many we've met on the way, who live in countries where harsh winter leads straight into muggy summer and spring passes in the blink of an eye. To experience it for two whole months has been an indescribable pleasure.

Just one mile out of John o'Groats, all the rain that had held back came pouring down on us in one glorious go and the realisation that we'd actually made it finally hit me. Drivers seeing us slosh through massive puddles must have wondered at the massive grin on my face. Despite the many setbacks, my poor navigational skills (which have markedly improved), occasional frustrations and near permanent exhaustion, we made it through the whole of the UK in 1300 miles (425 more than were really necessary).

I'd like to say thanks to everyone who has supported us along the way - family, friends and strangers - who gave us food and somewhere to stay, as well as much-needed moral and financial support. I'd also like to say a massive thank you to Matt who agreed to take part in my mad and fractured plan after my previous cycling partner had to drop out at the last minute. We only met for the first time a few weeks before the start of the journey and it was a risk spending two months working and living cheek by jowl with someone I didn't know. A risk, it turns out, worth taking; instead of making an enemy out of a friend, I've made a friend out of a stranger.

The physical journey may be over but the really hard work is still to come; editing and selling Chasing Spring. I'll continue to blog here over the next few months, keeping you all updated as to what's happening with the documentary. But for now, I can't wait to jump on the train tomorrow morning, go home, put on a summer dress and get on with normal life for a while. I hope you've enjoyed following our journey and that the spring sunshine stays in your heart and stokes the internal fires until it returns next year.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Fell weather

I couldn't imagine cycling this stretch of the journey in anything but the rain, and the weather chose to indulge my romantic mental image of the Northern Highlands.

A few days ago we found Loch Ness bathed in mist and circled by rows of mountains like faded copies of each other stamped into the distance. The rocky shore was littered with driftwood, rubbish and, for some reason, nuts, and the peace was only disturbed by a German family with noisy children and a drowsy mallard annoyed that we had woken it up.

Standing there watching the mysterious waves lapping the shore of the loch, unclear whether they come from in or on or outside the unreadable waters, I got a sense of how this place breeds such successful legends.

There we met Steve, who lives in a converted mobile library on the loch shore and has spent the last 20 years watching out for and recording sightings of the monster. He was a great interviewee, talking eloquently about experiencing the Scottish springtime close-up and sounding relieved that we were asking vaguely original questions. So no, I didn't ask him if he'd seen Nessie yet - it wasn't the right question to ask this man.

The subsequent journey to a bunkhouse in Evanton was uneventful but the next morning, following my nose after reading an intriguing flyer, we found ourselves armed with bow-saws and secateurs felling a Western Hemlock. This is very much how this trip has turned out in recent weeks, in which we've stumbled across the most unlikely situations and people - and that's exactly what I had hoped it would be like.

It turned out that a section of nearby wood is being sold and has been offered to the local community if they can raise enough money to buy it ( for more information). So Matt and I helped a group of volunteers clear the ground by attacking the invasive species, which gave me an ideal opportunity to show off my budding woodland management skills. The group was very welcoming and tolerant of two strangers sticking a video camera in their faces, and hopefully we helped them a little.

We spent the night at a B&B riddled with swallows and house martins which dove and swam gloriously out of the garage and through the trees all evening. 

Awaking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning, we thought (nearly) nothing of going an extra 15 miles out of the way to see a waterfall and to follow the rumour of guy who gives husky rides. Turns out we went to the wrong waterfall - Achness instead of Shin Falls - but while there were no dogs I did see a fat Atlantic salmon trying to leap up the rocks.

The rain came and went but the road carried on relentlessly along the edge of the mountains and then flattened out to a broad plain brightened by an enormous sky. There were also plenty of wind turbines crowning the hills long the way, a sight that I genuinely enjoy; I consider objections on aesthetic grounds deeply frustrating as well as singularly narrow-minded. Those who make them don't generally consider the people who have to live near the coal-fired stations their energy comes from.

The ride was enjoyable, except for my ongoing fear that something on my arthritic bike will snap mid-journey, which means I don't relax until we get within walking distance of our nightly destination.

For tonight, however, we've made it and are now at the infamous Crask Inn, an 18th century travellers' tavern in the middle of the long road from Lairg to Tongue, surrounded for miles around by nothing but fields and forests. Although we didn't arrive in the driving rain (which would have felt more appropriate) I wasn't disappointed by the atmosphere. It's a very friendly place populated with cyclists and walkers swapping stories of the road, and is also surrounded by joyous swallows.

Which leaves me to say that the last weekend of Chasing Spring is nearly over, except for dinner from the famously good cooking at the Crask to brace ourselves for the last hundred miles or so. My bike's being safely looked after by a ewe in the lambing shed so I can eat my lasagne in peace.

Coda: Walking back from the inn to the bunkhouse at midnight I was faced with the clearest night sky I have ever seen and the ice-blue glow of the setting sun still in the west. I laughed my way along the silent road and all smiled all the way to bed.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

While you've Bin waiting...

Looking back on the last eight weeks and the map that traces the outline of our journey I genuinely can't believe what I've done. It seems unbelievable that I could have cycled such a distance when I'm still struggling through one day at a time. 

While I'm cycling everything I've managed so far becomes meaningless and all that exists is me, my bike and the next hill; that incline, this section of gravel and those bumps in the tarmac, the muscles in my thighs, the tendons in my shoulders and the beads of sweat running into my eyes, and the constant uncertainty of whether or not I'll make it this time. The difference is that now I nearly always do.

So the rides to Grantown-on-Spey and into Inverness have been a challenge but an enjoyable one, more than made up for by the scenery and wildlife; distant mountains with snow still tucked into their hollows, the flash of a red squirrel, the mating calls of oystercatchers and a couple of deer that watched us suspiciously through the fir trees.

In Grantown-on-Spey we spoke to Sally who runs a wildlife tour company in the area, as well as yet more elderly ladies who feel obliged to comment on how skinny Matt is - "there's not a pickin' on him" - and marvel at how he's still alive after 1000 miles, before stealing a look at me as if I've been pinching all the pies.

Meanwhile the glorious weather continues and we're about to hit the Highlands at full pelt. The tally is still just three mornings of rain over the past 54 days, but somehow I simply can't visualise cycling the next week in sunshine. I hope it lasts until tomorrow though, because I have my heart set on interviewing an ice cream vendor. And on eating some ice cream, of course.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Whisky Wonka

Yesterday was International Dawn Chorus day, which unsurprisingly we didn't get up in time for, but it was my bike that was singing like a lark - a disconcerting noise that I still haven't got to the bottom of.

I was quickly distracted from my ailing vehicle by the beautiful countryside we were, and still are, cycling through. When we set off on Chasing Spring back in early March it was snowing in Scotland but now the sun is glaring, beating and bouncing down from a clear blue sky. Many of the daffodils are still in bloom and the blossom is falling like snow from the sky and twinkling like shards of glass on the road.

The first stop yesterday was to Drum Castle, just outside Aberdeen, to see the May Day celebrations and interview pretty much the only Morris Men and clog dancers in Scotland. The atmosphere was happy and relaxed, even if people weren't exactly sure what it was they were celebrating except for the good weather. It turns out they're celebrating the start of summer, which is definitely on its way.

We stayed the night at the new Highlander Bunkhouse in Huntly. which is still a shining chrome peon to Ikea but won't look like that for long.

An easy 15 miles to Dufftown this morning was followed by a visit to the Glenfiddich distillery, where we interviewed one of the guides and 'nosers' about the seasonal aspects of whisky making. Spring in Dufftown means the Sprit of Speyside whisky festival, which we caught in its last few days.

The distillery is fascinating, bathed in thick fruity smells and heady heat. I felt like Charlie visiting Willy Wonka's factory; even more so as Matt and I lagged behind our tour group while filming. I imagined us having a cheeky drink from one of the giant bubbling copper vats and floating up into the corners of the ceiling. Then I remembered that the 'fizzy lifting drink' scene wasn't in Dahl's book but added in by the makers of the first Willy Wonka film. So I dismissed it from my mind.

Anyway, we were given some (free) samples of Glenfiddich and it turns out I like whisky. Tomorrow I'll be singing in harmony with my bike.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Who greased the pole?

I'm typing out this blog with my hands and arms covered in grease - a stain that all the power of cheap soap and a dilapidated wire scrubber can't remove. I'd like to believe it makes me look like a hardened cyclist but agree this is unlikely.

Since my rear skewer snapped yesterday morning I've been wrangling with my bike, which is starting to squeal and squeak, twitch and grind unnervingly. I'm worried that some crucial part will fail in the remote depths of the Scotland mountains, but having reliably carried me nearly 1000 miles so far I'm also holding out hope that it will survive another couple of hundred.

However, on arriving in Aberdeen we locked up our bikes and set out on foot to find our patient interviewees. Firstly, we foreswore wedding fever and took part in Royal Weeding Day, which led us to meet the friendly Kenny and help him out a little on his vegetable patch hidden behind a Chinese takeaway in Aberdeen. We then met Alan, who manages a community garden run on permaculture principles.

In fact, such was my faith in my bike's Chinese workmanship (and my technical skills) that this morning we took the bus to Drum Castle this morning to help put up that quintessentially British (but almost exclusively English) and quixotically phallic symbol of springtime awakening: a maypole. Perhaps the seven weeks spent looking at the world from a saddle have elevated a bus trip into an exciting adventure or maybe we've simply forgotten how to perform ordinary everyday tasks, but by the time we'd found the bus and got to the castle the pole had already been (for want of a better word) erected among the daffodils.

So I made the executive decision that on tomorrow's journey to Huntly we would pass by the castle's May Day celebrations in full swing, even though we have around 45 miles to cover as it is - what could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

For those about to read this (I salute you)

Yesterday we found ourselves at RSPB Vane Farm, a nature reserve and wetland area on the shores of Loch Leven. As Matt tried to film some of the local birds (and the wildlife too) I nearly ended Chasing Spring by grabbing a high voltage electrified fence. Thankfully it wasn't a live wire and the shock was purely psychological.

We then made our way to meet Enid, a beekeeper whose yard has been taken over by fluffy chickens. Matt and I donned beekeeping uniforms and, looking like overgrown space cadets, filmed Enid take apart a hive as its inhabitants swarmed angrily around us (what do they do for money? Honey.)

As Enid doused the bees in smoke to calm them down I wondered if she would give me a puff too; I was terrified the bees would smell my fear and launch an attack, and I refused to get too close to the hive (problematic as I was holding the microphone). It was a touch too much for me and I was left shaken, a feeling that lasted all night long.

Back in my black cycling gear we made our way to Dundee along a hellish highway. The hostel we stayed at was decent, although its inhabitants could only name two features of the city: the location of Games Workshop and a "dirt cheap" pub (does the dirty deed, presumably).

The mattress was rather uncomfortable though - hard as a rock, you might say - but I thought I might as well let it be. After all, I'd drunk a whole lot of Old Rosie by that point.

Despite waking up feeling as if I'd been kicked in the teeth, I warmed to the day as the day warmed up. Today's interviews fell through as I wrangled with the petty bureaucracy of press offices, but we got some nice footage of the waterfront.

Out of Dundee, it was a long way to the top of the hill but then the route curved through brilliantly green fields of crops and smooth pastures - we even spotted a hare.

It has a dubious name, but the sight and smell of a field full of oilseed rape in full bloom is wonderfully uplifting, like a scene from the Wizard of Oz but without the terror of the munchkins. It's as if the whole field has been shot down in flames, fired on by a gunman shooting to thrill passersby with its glorious glow.

We're now the guests of a cycling couple in Kirriemuir, the town where JM Barrie was born. Oh, and Bon Scott lived here too.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Sunny side up

When I started Chasing Spring, the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, I joked that I would be giving up living at home for Lent. Now that Easter has come and gone and I've spent over 40 days on the road away from home, family, friends, my own bed and hob, and privacy (blissful privacy!), I'm wondering whether there was more to that throwaway comment than I realised. I think there's value in the idea of depriving yourself of something, as long as it's approached with the right attitude - and that doesn't have to be a religious one. Being away from home has often been a stressful and lonely experience, but hopefully I'll appreciate it more when I return.

In the same way, I think a celebration such as Easter has a meaning above and beyond the religious one. It can't be a coincidence that most faiths have major festivals around this time of the year. People celebrated the end of winter and long hours of darkness, announced and divided the spring harvest, feasted, danced, sang, gave thanks and made promises for the coming year (which are easier to make in the sunshine). And they would have done all this together.

Shared events, festivals and celebrations are still an excuse to get together as families - nuclear and extended - and as local communities. They also make us feel part of a wider community, knowing that thousands, even millions, of people across the world are doing the same thing at the same time. Which is why I went to church yesterday morning.

We were staying in a suburb of Dunfermline, a town that's generally run-down and pretty deprived, so I approached not knowing what to expect. But the church was packed, sizzling with heat and spring flowers, and alive with children's laughter and tears. It was a genuinely joyful place to be, even if many people came solely for the Easter eggs dished out to the kids at the end. I wasn't with my family but somehow being in this church, side by side with families of strangers, I felt closer to them than I have done in weeks.

Afterwards, as if to compensate for the newly solemn mood, Matt and I tried to find and interview the Easter Bunny. I'd been told he (or she?) would be bouncing around the town but apparently they'd been through on Saturday and probably spent Easter Sunday nursing a pint (for the hops, yeah?)

So Easter has come and gone and my strange springtime pilgrimage continues. 

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Siege mentality

Chasing Spring is back on the road, loud and proud and comin' atcha like a bunch of wet daffodils to the face. Except that the daffodils are no more, they are desiccated, deceased and destroyed - they are ex-daffodils. The season has moved on and so must we.

Just before we left the Scottish capital yesterday we dropped by the famous Edinburgh Farmers' Market to interview traders about their seasonal produce. There I saw a man dressed in a kilt carrying a rucksack stuffed with bolts of fresh rhubarb which looked like a set of bagpipes. It was like the pacifist's version of a sensory siege weapon.

Afterwards we visited a church to film a traditional Polish (and Eastern European) Easter tradition where children bring pretty decorated baskets of food (coloured eggs, lambs made of sugar, bread) to the altar be blessed by a priest. The idea is that this food is eaten at a big Easter breakfast but I had a sneaky peek inside (most are covered with a little lace cloth) and saw some odd contents: half a jar of mayo, a nibbled piece of carrot, a Mars bar.

The journey to Dunfermline, mostly along the NCN1, was uneventful except that the crossing over the Forth Road Bridge rivals the Severn Bridge in grandeur and beauty.

We're now staying at the house of Lin, a cycling enthusiast who did Land's End to John o'Groats several years ago, and who very kindly agreed to put us up for two nights. We're going to need all the strength we can muster over the next couple of weeks. People are trying to reassure me that I'm 'nearly there', but some of the hardest parts are still to come. So I'm getting an early night and will update you on today's shenanigans tomorrow.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Don't get your cycling knickers in a twist. Seriously.

The last time I was in Edinburgh, last August, to see a friend's show at the Fringe festival, I never imagined I'd be back in less than a year - and that I'd have cycled all the way here. Chasing Spring was then but a twinkle in my mind's eye. I didn't even own a bike.

Now it has a life and momentum all of it's own, but it's still in its infancy and requires a great deal of nourishment and encouragement. That Twitter feed doesn't write itself, y'know.

Which is why a couple of days stopping in Edinburgh have done me a world of good, giving me a chance to explore, wander, think and, most importantly, not to be sitting on a saddle for two days straight.

Having said that, I've been pretty busy. I had a good day today interviewing Ally from local environmental charity Greener Leith, and in turn being interviewed by him for STV ( I then took the camera around the mist-shrouded city, watching the clouds billowing across the ground like the Scottish version of tumbleweed, and filmed an orchard in Leith Links planted by local kids through Greener Leith. I even managed to introduce a couple of druggies to their local park and gave detailed directions to two Spanish tourists. For someone who doesn't live here I feel I've done a pretty good job.

There are some great community and grassroots projects here; it really seems to be a place where such things thrive. There's been a big emphasis on cycling, for example, which may seem surprising in such a hilly and cobbled city. Unfortunately, despite the large number of bike shops, well signposted paths and widely available maps, I haven't seen that many cyclists, certainly not compared to London or even Manchester.

Still, there's a good vibe around that will hopefully grow. (NB - To the neighbour who left a prickly note on my bike saying that it had to be moved from this flat's driveway because it was chained to THEIR side of the fence - take a chill pill. Preferably as a suppository.)

So two thirds competed, one third to go. We have one more night in Edinburgh, where Matt's cousins have very kindly put us up and put up with us, and then we're plunging headfirst into deepest darkest Scotland for the last three weeks of the journey. Watch out for some Easter-themed blogs this weekend and enjoy the bank holiday!

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Can't see the wood for the trees

Something I hadn't anticipated about Chasing Spring was that travelling with the season makes it more difficult to spot the signs of spring. You spend your whole time drinking in so much new scenery that you don't, and can't, notice what's been growing and changing - to the casual traveller everything is new. So I've had to force myself to see the little signs that spring is developing. 

The last couple of days have been spent cycling through the forests of the Northumberland National Park. I've always been fascinated by forests, which promise mystery, magic and danger. I think they still pervade our cultural mentality, despite so few forested areas actually remaining.

But although Kielder Forest is the largest in England, there is no real sense of danger here. It is a working forest and most of the spruce and pine trees are planted row upon row, equally spaced and unthreatening. The only real threats are decidedly human: the gravelly paths desperate to displace our bikes or the possibility of getting crushed by a runaway log. There are adders, apparently, but we didn't see any. That isn't to say the landscape isn't stunning; it truly is, with the dramatic Cheviot hills, the sheer unalloyed joy of Kielder Lake and the endless near-empty dust roads that seem American in scope and ambition.

Even the uniform trees are beautiful in their sheer number, like an army during peacetime waiting to be called up but never really believing it will happen. But what thrills me is seeing nature creeping its way back; the fir tree seedlings poking gamely through the gravel where they're not supposed to be; the unruly daffodils spread by pollen from manicured lawns onto the roadside to make drivers smile.

Because the park is relatively high above sea level, spring takes slightly longer to reach this area, bringing us Spring Chasers roughly back level with the season. Which is why I've been gawping at lambs so newborn that they're being licked clean by their mothers and still have blood-red umbilical cords dangling from their bellies. On the other hand, the swallows have been accompanying us for much of the last few days and they're a relatively recent addition to the springtime repertoire. 

I've also been following the appearance of bluebells throughout the country on Twitter (#bluebellwatch) and seeing the beautiful photos being posted. I'm in two minds about this; I'd love to get some footage of springtime bluebells in the woods but that would mean the season has definitely overtaken us. But if we get to John o'Groats in May it's possible I won't get to see any this year at all!

Amid all this visual drama, I have started to worry about the lack of formal interviews we've done over the past few days. I've had to remind myself how much great footage we've already got, and that sometimes just getting to our hostel for the night is a real achievement, but sometimes it's difficult to see the larger picture when you're struggling to get through each day in a haze of exhaustion.

Yesterday it all got a bit too much me and I almost collapsed (see Matt's blog for an alternative retelling), which has given us some real 'gritty Bafta' footage (not that I was so pleased at the time). I am mentally and physically drained, and l know the next few days will be hard. But it's hard to stay in that mood when you're in such a gob-smackingly beautiful place.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Problematique of the Map

When I started this journey my mental map of Britain had marked everything between Leeds and Edinburgh with a big question mark - terra incognita? - which is now quickly being erased and replaced by bright green fields, red brick houses and generally friendly folks surrounded by daffodils. I've mentioned before that people are strangely possessive about their daffodils; in fact many seem to believe that no daffodils grow further 'insert town name 5 miles north of wherever they live'. This is always entirely untrue - there are daffodils bloomin' everywhere.

My mental map is only a tourist's map, of course, so it also has the sparkling Sage centre in Gateshead and Durham cathedral in all its splendour marked in technicolour. But I've added in my own colour too: a couple of Sikh temples and the location of every Greggs bakery within 100 miles.

Today we also passed the Angel of the North, Gormley's glorious celebration of human imagination and brawn, which was a definite and dramatic sign of being in the North. It's an apt time to pass it, because yesterday we hit the halfway point of our journey time-wise. In terms of mileage, however, we're well over halfway, which is why we've been slowing down a bit and taking the opportunity to stay more than one night in some places.

Last night was spent in the relative luxury of a room in one of Durham university's colleges - St Chad's - directly opposite the cathedral. In the morning we met a professor who described the meteorological recordings being taken near the university's 19th century observatory (originally housing a telescope) and what these revealed about spring. As he left, we were invited into the old observatory by the caretaker and given a guided tour. The lovely old building is sadly sinking into disrepair and occasionally gets vandalised but is still used for Gamelan (Indonesian music played on beautiful instruments) sessions and to house the caretaker's plants. The original domed roof is also still there, including the mechanism that would once have swung it round to align the telescope, as a reminder of the cutting-edge science of Victorian England. Apparently bits of it have had to be cut out because wasps were nesting in it...

Unfortunately it does seem as if spring has started to overtake us; the oilseed rape is in flower, the bluebells are making an appearance when they definitely weren't around further south, and some varieties of daffodils are on their last, bristly brown, legs. This is partly due to my timing miscalculations (thanks for mentioning it so subtly Matt), partly because the weather has been so good and partly because spring does not move fluidly up the country. I can feel the desperate blossoming and bursting of March, which fuelled the frenzy of the first weeks of Chasing Spring, starting to mellow and bed in, and it has been reflected in our slower pace of travel.

Now comes the hard work. From here on we're ignoring the flat, easy route to Edinburgh and pushing through the forests of the Northumberland national park; this is currently a generic green blob on my mental map and I'm looking forward to changing that. If we don't update the site for several days it's because we have no reception. If you never hear from us again it's because the wolves, or possibly bears, have got us.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Wallowing in wilderness

From Harrogate it was a speedy 25 miles or so through Yorkshire farmland towards Northallerton, and then we were clear up and out on the North York Moors. The usual lingering mist had cleared for one sparkling weekend giving us a wide, fresh view of the hills. We were shown around by one of the senior rangers, Simon, who explained what his work involves at this time of year.

He clearly loves his job, and gets frustrated at the insensitivity of some people to the stunning national park surrounding them. By leading us just a little away from the sunbathing crowd he showed how easy it was to get away and be alone among the wild moorland. Its anathema to me but many people tend to stick solely to areas that they know well and have visited for generations.

After leaving Simon, I went for a walk on the moors myself, and had a strange experience walking along an old drovers' track. As I imagined the many people who had driven cattle over tough terrain, I was listening to the retro-futuristic sounds of Radiohead's OK Computer (daring the landscape to "rain down on me") when the immensity and immediacy of the rising moorland surrounding me slammed me back into the present.

It's a beautiful place, but not at its best in spring; this is the bounty of autumn, when the heather blooms and the threat of winter is in the air. Having said that, there are subtle signs of spring if you look hard enough. The heather, for example, has been burned in patches to encourage tender new shoots to grow for grouse to feed on. If you look up you can see that the needles right at the tops of the larch trees are glowing bright and green, but if you were just to look down you'd see only a carpet of brown spikes from last year's fall.

The rest of the day saw me disappear into the bike shed and reappear smeared with grease and cobwebs but pleased as punch having successfully fitted new brake pads onto my Pinnacle (despite a cable that wasn't quite long enough).

Surprisingly, my handiwork stayed put during today's 18 mile ride to Middlesbrough, during which decent brakes came in very handy. Having misread the map, I directed us onto the lethally busy and fast A19 which, after a couple of hundred metres, we decided not to brave. We took the first turning off we could and cycled up a country track, only to be confronted with something far worse; the sight of a huge white goose craning down its long muscled neck, opening its beak wide and, with a horrific hiss, running at full pelt towards us. We fled back towards the A19.

No, spring is not all sunshine and flowers, it's where the battle for survival and the protection of the next generation is played out furiously and uncompromisingly. Just consider all the pheasants I've heard going 'quark quark' throughout the countryside, a call that sounds like the squeal of tyres (ironic given that that's the sound that accompanies most of them on the way to their final roosting place). Having watched these clumsy birds during their strangely clockwork mating flights, I'm surprised any manage to reproduce at all.

And now we're in Middlesbrough, where the daffodils are looking decidedly peaky and I'm beginning to wonder if spring is starting to overtake us - more on that tomorrow. On a positive note, both Matt and I visited BBC Radio Tees to talk about Chasing Spring - and this time I did remember to plug the website.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Smoke signals on the water

The morning started with a jaunt down to the local post office, to the tune of Rock the Boat, where I proceeded to annoy the grumpy cashier by packaging up the latest batch of Chasing Spring video tapes to send back to base. I had to borrow her stationery shelf, her pen, several sheets of paper and some sticky tape; well, I'm hardly going to buy everything from scratch each time I need to post a parcel and I'm certainly not ferrying it all around with me on the bike that's now become an extension of my body.

Unencumbered by panniers for once (having left them at my friend's house) we flew along the hills with barely a pause towards today's filming destination. But as the day grew hotter, I seared like a fillet steak in the heat and, mildly dehydrated, began to see water everywhere; mirages pooling on the brows of hills, polytunnels lying flat across the fields like shimmering rivers, shadows of trees rippling across the road (and making it difficult to see the potholes as I sped over).

Which is why it was timely that we spent the afternoon at the National Trust's Fountains Abbey near Ripon. The sunshine was glorious, the children running riot because they'd just broken up for the Easter holidays, and the sky was a vast swatch of cobalt blue. Although there are no fountains, per se, the property does have extensive water gardens which have been sculpted and maintained over the past couple of centuries to reflect the sky like vast mirrors. I managed to resist the urge to dive in and wriggle among the little tunnels and channels that make up this carefully laid out water system, but it was a close call.

In fact the day was so lovely that my heart barely skipped a beat when Matt announced that he'd left the key to the bike chain (firmly attaching our bikes to the rail) at home.  Oh, how I laughed* when I realised it was a particularly hilarious joke of his.

I got my revenge as we cycled through the rest of the grounds by encouraging (it's not bullying, Matt, it's direction) him to cycle through a shallow stream that I had just failed to ford. He got his feet wet. There is footage of this but it's pretty shaky as I was laughing so hard.

*swore blind.

Friday, 8 April 2011

We're all going to hell - but we'll have all the best stories to tell

It's been nearly four weeks since we started Chasing Spring, and we've covered about half the country already, meeting a motley collection of colourful characters along the way. 

One of the things I love about being a journalist is that it gives you access to people you would never otherwise have an excuse or reason to talk to. While some of the interviews for Chasing Spring have been planned well in advance (for example, yesterday's visit to BTCV's Skelton Grange centre in Leeds, which is a great model for environmental projects involving children) others come about following a chance meeting or an accidental discovery.

As we were cycling from Leeds to Harrogate today, we passed a Sikh temple with gold domes resplendent in the sunshine and carrying banners saying "Happy Vaisakhi". I braked hard. Matt crashed into me. "What's Vaisakhi?" I asked, "and does it have anything to do with spring?" A quick Google later, I decided it was worth investigating.

Which is how I found myself barefoot in the ladies' toilets of a Sikh temple arranging a headscarf in a peasants' knot, and then having a theological discussion with an elderly Sikh man. While we didn't film there, he suggested we go to a temple next week when the actual Vaisakhi celebration takes place, and where we will hopefully be welcomed. Which is exactly what I intend to do.

We then made our way to Harlow Carr in Harrogate (which is, incidentally, on top of a large hill) where one of the gardeners spoke lovingly of the springtime display on show, describing the deliberate arrangement of colours and textures of plants, how they played off against each other and how they were organised to shine and delight in every season.

I'm now safely ensconced at the house of an old friend, exploiting her washing machine and fabulous cooking...and getting carried away by the sound of her husband playing Beethoven on the piano...

...and the tension of the previous four weeks, which I hadn't even realised had wrapped itself around me, is unravelling uncoiling and unfurling. I've been so completely focused on Chasing Spring, which has completely dominated my thoughts over the past few months, that I haven't had much chance to actually enjoy the experience. I'm constantly tapping away on a cramped iphone screen (which cramps my thoughts as well), worrying about planning the rest of the route and organising interviews, that in some way I've built a wall between myself and the riotously anarchic joy that spring is and should be.

So tomorrow, whatever the weather, I will sit in the green grass and watch the shadows of the clouds. I will listen to the bees, find out where the ladybirds go and stick my nose into a daffodil; after all, how can I write about the pageant of spring if I'm not meeting its main characters?

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Why the YHA curries no favour with me

Another night, another hostel bed. The advantage of staying in certain remote hostels at this time of year is that you often get a whole dorm room to yourself, as I did at the friendly Mankinholes hostel last night. On the flip-side, the YHA's policy of letting people hire out whole hostels for functions means that many places simply can't be booked by individuals even if there are spare beds. This policy has angered many people, and has caused us a lot of problems in terms of booking places to stay on this journey - the concept of idly travelling through the country looking for somewhere to spend the night is simply not feasible any more; everything must be booked far in advance. One website attempting to alert people to this and to cater for individual travellers is worth checking out: UK Trail.

Before leaving Todmorden this morning we managed to get an interview with Nick from Incredible Edible, who told us about the community food growing projects in this interesting little town. The rhubarb is starting to make an appearance but apparently it's proven too popular with the locals - it's disappearing as fast as it's growing.

Despite my previous intention of avoiding the Pennines, we made our way from Todmorden to Bradford along the margin of the hills, and the pain in my knees was nearly worth it for the breathtaking urban panoramas laid bare at my feet.

Along the road I developed a theory about daffodils, which is that the way flowers are arranged is - to some extent - a deeper reflection of local political and social views, In the cities, for example, daffodils planted in council flower beds are separated strictly into colour and varietal groupings; it's probably someone's job to pick out the bulbs that dare to stray outside their designated territories. Here in Bradford, where the few daffodils are carefully allotted their special places, there is clear racial tension. People have ridiculously racist conversations out in public, while fish 'n' chip shops feel the need to clarify their ethnicity by stating that they're 'English' and flying ragged St George's.

By contrast, the willingness to mix up varieties and species of plants, and to accept the wilder, more random nature of nature in my experience reflect a general broadmindedness and sense of tolerance.

This crossed my mind again as we met the marvellous Marcela, a public artist who has recently embraced a more natural aesthetic. We spoke about how the spring has influenced her work, and in turn she left me with a reinvigorated passion for the whole concept of Chasing Spring, and some new ideas about where it could go.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Don't blame it on the weather, man

While staying at Matt's friends's house in Manchester (many thanks to Roisin and Bella) I discovered a blog written by a local lass about cycling in the Rainy City - Naturally Cycling Manchester. In one post she writes about watching the shadows formed by her bike shorten as a way of knowing spring is coming, which I love the idea of. I started doing this yesterday and noticed I was throwing more than one shadow. My first thought was 'Vashta Nerada until reality set in, I remembered I wasn't in a seasonal episode of Doctor Who and I saw that the streetlamps lining both sides of the road were throwing a spanner into my shadow-play.

As we left Manchester this morning, such trifling thoughts seemed ridiculous when faced with the practicalities of dealing with the rain. The Rainy City has truly lived up to its name and delivered the first April shower of the journey; this is proper weather you can eat with a spoon.

My sturdy canvas panniers are not fully waterproof but they are well-lined so the contents should be safe - or at i thought so until I tipped the soggy contents out onto the hostel floor. Meanwhile, my beloved and battered walking boots have finally given up the ghost and let me down so they will need to be replaced sharpish (to everyone who told me not to cycle in walking boots I respectfully disagree - they are a pleasure to ride in).

However, my biggest concern is the video camera, without which there would be no film. We have no waterproof cover for it so we're having to improvise with a Tesco bag and a rubber band (Note to my co-producer Chiara - this is only a half-truth). The camera itself is safely bundled up inside a hot water bottle cover, a jumper and a dry bag (this is a highly professional operation) so as long as we're not using it it's fine. For interviews it looks like we'll just have to film inside or from a dry vantage point looking out on the rain.

Apart from these concerns I'm enjoying the change in the weather, which fits my natural despondency better than the relentless chirpiness of the previous few weeks. As we played hide-and-seek with the cycle lanes (I use the term 'lane' loosely, as the green paint seems to bubble up at random among the black tarmac and then disappear again before peeking out of the inside of a foot-deep pothole), I thought that this is how Manchester should really be experienced - ankle-deep in water. The city seems to come alive in the rain; the brickwork shines, everyone bundles into steamed-up cars or shuffles through the streets, the siren song of ambulances fills the air. I realise this is a little like using "Your eyes look beautiful when you cry" as a chat-up line but I mean it as a genuine compliment. 

We made our way successfully out of Manchester, past the remarkably similar delights of Rochdale and on through the fantastically post-apocalyptic scenery of Calderdale, West Yorkshire, toward our current YHA hostel on the edge of the Pennines. Now THIS is a place made for and by the rain. The hills themselves were sculpted by water and ice, and then reworked by human hands; the moorish wastes are patchworked with fields, riddled with tunnels and dotted with disused bunkers and bits of machinery, and are best viewed, as we did today, through the billowing clouds that buffeted our bikes from side to side, and reminded us how small and fragile we really were.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

An epically irrelevant way of saying Happy Mother's Day

Many people have described Chasing Spring as an epic journey so as we're pausing for a day in Manchester I've decided to ham up the Homeric scope of our tale; I am the springtime Odysseus finding my way home after the war of winter.

I have left my personal Calypso far behind and this journey is in many ways a voyage of adventure. It is also a homecoming, a search for identity and meaning that can only be truly uncovered by travelling. My mother is my anxious Penelope, endlessly refreshing the Chasing Spring Twitter feed, her fingers knitting the cord of the mouse to fend away unwelcome thoughts.

The Siren song is the snoring of bunk-mates in cramped hostels, the sound of which has forced me to plug my ears with beeswax-coloured foam to avoid the urge to dive onto sharp rocks. Scylla and Charybdis are undoubtedly the mountainous national parks - the Pennines, Dales and Moors - that we will be navigating our way between over the coming weeks.

I fear I have yet to encounter my springtime Circe, who will try to turn half my crew into swine (Matt - watch out for women offering beer and crisps, and if you start to grow a curly tail, well, I've got a cream for that).

For Homer, Odysseus' journey was as important, if not more so, than the destination. Likewise, spring is not a discrete season punctuated by winter and summer, but a series of fortunate and fantastic events that humankind has chosen to weave into a single narrative. It's an eternal story in the true oral tradition, repeated annually but subtly changed, the frost forcing a late start one year or drought bringing destructive fires that rework the whole landscape. The plants and animals that populate this story arrive at different times and in various combinations each year, affecting their success or failure in surviving another season.

And as with all bardic stories, much of this tale is told in verse: birdsong, the beat of bicycle pedals, the tinny sounds  of the Beatles emanating from Matt's iPhone.

And what happens to Odysseus? Well if you can spoil the end of a several thousand year old story he gets home OK, gets dressed up, tricks a few people into thinking he's someone else and does some slaying; I'm not taking the comparison to Chasing Spring that far. I am, however, looking forward to going home.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Things can only get wetter

You've heard of Professor Brian Cox, I'm sure, although probably not as much as I have; he seems to be physically worming his way into this project. This is partly due to Matt's geek crush on the dashing scientist and partly due to his current omnipresence in the media. Either way, his explanations about the structure of the universe have led me to consider the very nature of time and space in relation to Chasing Spring.

We're made to be seasonal beings, to live through a cycle of cold and warmth, of rain and drought, of comfort and austerity. But travelling as I am with the spring is a little like trying to evade the passage of time, almost as if I were trying to cheat mortality.

To give an example: Yesterday we spent a fantastic day with Cheshire's resident daffodil expert, Len Tomlinson, filming the gardens where he gives annual daffodil tours to raise money for Macmillan. The variety of colours (from dusky pink to blueish-white to Seville orange), shapes (windswept, disc and 'Blue Peter'-like) and sizes and Len's passion for these beautiful flowers was a genuine pleasure to be around and made me look at daffodils in a whole new light. As we walked through the fields, Len would nod to a Tahiti or an Einstein, stroke a stem of Desdemona or point out the historic varieties that Wordsworth may well have looked out on so many years ago, all the while spinning tales about the history of the area and his own colourful life. So much of film-making, even documentary film-making, is faked, but enthusiasm on this level cannot be artificially recreated. 

The various breeds don't all bloom at once - they come and go from mid-February to late May - and their heady scents gave rise to heady thoughts; if I could keep cycling ever north, following the daffodils flowering around the globe, maybe I could evade the snare of death. After three weeks on the road the days are beginning to blur together, and cause and effect no longer seem to follow a linear pattern. Are we chasing spring or is it chasing us? After all, we seem to be literally taking the sunshine with us wherever we go (we've only had to cycle through one morning of feeble rain). Even today, we were warned that Manchester would be grey and wet but the sun has been dragged out kicking and screaming.

As we left Whitegate (where we were made very welcome by Len's family, to whom I'm extremely grateful) to cycle to Manchester we took a detour past Jodrell Bank which brought me firmly back to earth. While the telescope is pointing toward the stars the observatory itself is planted firmly in the ground, encircled by fields of moody cows. Having spoken to an astrophysicist at the centre, it seems that even those who spend their lives examining the celestial causes behind our earthly seasons watch out for the coming spring not by measuring the sun's angle to the earth but by the same simple, fallible and unscientific sign that so many of us look out for: the first daffodil.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Surfin' UK A-roads

Today took us from Wolverhampton to the sleepier climes of Shropshire, surfing along a busy A-road. I use the term 'surfing' deliberately, because that's exactly what it felt like today cycling in the rain. . .

. . .you're peddling along at a regular pace, not too slow, not too fast, bobbing along on the side of the road as cars slide past - a Fiesta, an Almera, you barely notice them pass by. A light coat of drizzle hits your face and trickles down your neck, but you brush it off without a thought. Occasionally you hear a dull thud and glance over your shoulder, but it's only a white van, nothing worth pursuing. 

Then you start to hear something in the distance - a deep rumbling, the dull crunch of rubber on tarmac and the clank of buckles on canvas - and your pulse starts to quicken, you start to peddle faster to match your racing heartbeats; it's coming, this is the big one. 

Faster and faster you peddle, trying to match your wheel-spin to that of the juggernaut coming your way. You'll never match it, but you will always try, and as it rushes past you feel the wind buffeting you along, the spray from those monstrous wheels hits you in the face and arms and you're riding in its terrifying and exhilarating wake. It's not over yet; even on this black sea all waves see double and there is always a frustrated Clio, or an impatient Yaris, sailing just inches behind, buoyed up by the feeling of being behind the big boy.

Then they're gone, and you're left peddling limply on the side of the road, feeling the strain in your knees now that the adrenaline has worn off. But chin up, the surf's always up on Britain's A-roads and you can always come back for another ride.

EDIT: I'd like to say thanks to the amateur phenologists we met in Shropshire, who make recordings for Nature's Calendar, and especially to Diana who put us up for the night when we had nowhere to go!

60 revolutions per minute - this is my regular speed

. . . Or at least it is now that the thorn in my bicycle's hide has been removed. My bike is now a roaring lion again, ready to take on the mountains of the Midlands. What, no mountains? Oh well, I'll go charging down the A roads instead. Thanks for all your repair suggestions - I may try out the 'slime' if it happens again!

The gentle land of Wales has transformed into the gritty panorama of the West Midlands, where rugged farmland gives way to multicoloured breezeblocks. I genuinely like graffiti and there's only so much quaint farmland you can absorb at once, so this new landscape is a refreshing change. It's also a stark reminder of just how much of Britain is rural. When you travel through like this, the cities are the exception, little islands in the middle of the patchwork of fields that the country is made of. But for people living in the cities none of this exists; instead they have little islands of greenery nestling in the middle of their patchwork of housing and roads.

Even here spring is edging its way in, but the signs are more subtle and more human. Bunches of daffodils still squat on the roadsides, in dusty cracks of building sites and in neat little front gardens. Primroses and coltsfoot are also trying to make a show of it, but are lost among their more showy neighbours.

The less said about Redditch the better, really, and the Travelodge could have been anywhere, but afterwards we travelled to a little strip of greenbelt land in a corner of Halesowen called Lutley Wedge. Here we met Craig, who I first got in touch with through the marvellous medium of Twitter, and who gave us a guided tour of the springtime delights of this lovely spot. Craig spends most of the year working in Scotland but travels back down here every year during the spring and is the perfect nature guide. 

It's surprising to find such a wild spot so near Birmingham, but it's not the only place where spring is making itself felt. We spent the night in the city itself, where I was lucky enough to catch up (beer, award-winning pies and great company) with an old friend who lives on a canal narrowboat. We ended up interviewing one of her neighbours, Dave, about his springtime experiences aboard ship.

We then followed the canal towpath north-west towards Wolverhampton, where we've spent the day involved in more prosaic matters such as planning the next few weeks (finding accommodation for Easter is a big concern) and trying to find a laundrette.

We really have been powering it along over the past few weeks (regardless of the occasional suggestion that we're doing the Land's End to John o'Groats trek very slowly) which seems to reflect the sudden burst of speed in the springtime flora and fauna. This means that we can afford to take the next few weeks easy, mileage wise, but it comes at a time when I'm feeling much fitter anyway. The feeling of managing to get up a hill that I was sure at the bottom was unachievable is a satisfying one - to do it without great pain in my legs is fantastic. I do have plenty of great interviews planned, however, so we'll still be busy as we travel to Manchester and Leeds in the coming weeks.

I'd like to take this opportunity to say that if you're enjoying following our story then please pay a visit to where we're looking for people to donate a few quid to the editing of the final film. We're collecting a mountain of great footage as we go but we really need your help to get this film realised. All donations are very welcome and all donors will be get a thank-you credit on the final film. There are also some neat perks to entice you in!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Rooks and grannies

Today we crossed the border again into England, so it seems a fitting time to summarise Chasing Spring's adventures in Wales. 

We spent an extra day in Cardiff resting, doing some more filming and being looked after by Matt's parents. With the help of my friend Gary, I also got to speak about the project on Radio Wales' drivetime programme (if someone can find it on iPlayer please post a link!). Waiting to be interviewed was nerve-wracking (I prefer to be on the other side of the table) and felt much like waiting for an extraction at the dentist but the presenters put me at my ease. Too much at ease, in fact, because as Matt has already pointed out, I did forget to actually plug the website.

Yesterday we got a last-minute interview with the city council's horticultural team and picking up our new mic took longer than expected, so the morning was pretty busy. Once we finally left Cardiff, we made our way back along the Lighthouse Road to Newport, picked up fragments of the NCN 42 (where it was actually signposted) toward Pontypool, crossed to Abergavenny and on until arriving, utterly exhausted, at a B&B near the village of Pandy. The landlady, Mary, made us very welcome in her home, to the extent of driving out to find us when we hadn't arrived yet, welcoming us with tea and sponge cake and showing me letters from her great-niece. I also spoke to her friend Olive on the phone - I think we'll be talk of the town for a little while to come. We forgot to bring cash to pay her, what with our hardened city ways, so she was kind enough to drive us down to Abergavenny to find a cash machine.

Leaving Pandy, we rode to Ross-on-Wye and then onto Ledbury. The mist was thick and cold today, dripping all the way down from the hills right into the valleys so there was no respite from the chill. The ride itself was mostly notable for the wide variety of roadkill on display, although I'm finding the physical side of the journey pretty demanding at the moment, so I'm not the most canny observer.

We're currently tucked into the attic of a bunkhouse (Berrow House) in a tiny village tucked in the Malvern Hills just past Ledbury, alongside a group of raucous teenagers and their teachers (who are having a few sneaky beers). The landlady here is also called Mary and is equally loquacious and welcoming. As with the previous night, it feels much like being enfolded into the pillowy layers of a giant bosom, made of grand-motherly affection, sloping ceilings and the rolling embrace of the hills. But what starts out comforting after a weary day of exercise soon starts to suffocate; I'm looking forward to the urban anonymity of the Travelodge in Redditch tomorrow.

Unfortunately we hadn't thought to bring food with us, and a two mile schlep to the nearest pub turned out to be fruitless as the place was closed (permanently it seems). However, we did acknowledge Earth Hour by not using any electricity for on the dark country roads, jumping at the barking of guard-dogs and the leathery wings of rooks in the trees. Bread and custard creams for dinner tonight.

Rolling with the punctures

As an aside, I keep getting punctures n my front tyre - we've had to change the inner tube four times in the past few days. Any idea what I'm doing wrong?

Friday, 25 March 2011

Lessons from a hilltop in the Brecon Beacons

I'm tired, very tired. So this will post will simply be a series of things I have seen in the past two days:


The inside of the BBC Radio Wales studio.

Clean socks and lovely bean salads (thanks Matt's parents!).

The inside of my front tyre after I acquired another puncture.

A dead badger on the road followed immediately by a pasty.

Our new camera microphone.

A woman who looks exactly like the Queen.

Boy racers.

A fly approaching my eyeball.

Letters from the great-niece of the landlady of the B&B we're currently staying at in Pandy. I was also instructed to speak to her friend Olive on the phone. I do not know who Olive is.

Things I didn't see:

Falcons nesting in Cardiff's city hall.

Signs of intelligent life from the boy racers.

That pothole.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

You can lead a horse to water. . .

As we left Glastonbury, I thought we'd left the hills far behind, but choosing to go along the Old Bristol Rd straight north towards Bristol (to avoid being pasted over the M5) meant more uphill struggles. Walking my bike along these roads is like dragging a stubborn and very stupid pack-mule, which can just about flail its way downhill but refuses to climb anything with an uphill gradient.

We rode towards the murky city of Bristol over the shores of Chew Valley Lake, which I never previously knew existed and which sounds and looks like it belongs in the US. The peacefulness of the calm water reflecting the clouds, the randy swans and moorhens chirping reedily was ruined, however, by the trucks endlessly clanking past on the way to and from the city.

Bristol is now marketing itself as a bike-friendly city, and the cycle routes are fairly well signposted (and free maps are easy to get hold of), if not entirely pot-hole free. But while the battle with drivers on the road is slowly being won, many of these routes involve bikes and pedestrians sharing many the same space - and not all walkers have cottoned onto this yet.

The night was spent at the surprisingly nice YHA on the riverside, although I was tormented by the sounds of a woman snoring in the bunk below mine and had to fashion earplugs out of toilet paper.

Leaving Bristol in the blazing sunshine along the road to Avonmouth I was struck by a sense that I was in Africa (maybe because I'm currently reading  Ryszard Kapuściński's Shadow of the Sun, about his time as a reporter in Africa). The brown waters of the Avon looked as dark and impenetrable as the Nile, with muddy banks that would slide under your fingers if you were unfortunate enough to fall in; the red bus lanes looked like patches of desert, bordered with scrubby bush and rusty fencing.

We cycled through an industrial estate and towards Avonmouth, which is notable for being a place to stop for change for the Severn Bridge toll, and little else. Even in this bleak area, spring is making itself felt, and perhaps  as a cyclist, riding on narrow paths and fringes of roads or pushed up against the hedgerows, you notice it more. Here at the edges branches are poking out, catkins are lying coiled in piles to derail you, grass is sprouting out of pot-holes. Everything is pushing, thrusting and grabbing, waiting to slap you in the face for daring to intrude on its territory.

Despite this outflux, the stories I hear are still ones of warning, that the weather is too good, too early, and that there will be a cold spell yet. All this life will have to shrink back, freeze and start over again.

And then we were over the Severn Bridge (more on that in a minute), which means the first part of our journey, the Westcountry, is complete! It's a part of the world I'm very familiar with, but it was interesting to see it to from a new perspective, out in the open air for long hours at a time and meeting people I would otherwise not have spoken to.

So the Severn Bridge - epic, glorious and wonderful. As a child I had a recurring nightmare about a long white bridge that stretched for miles but as I travelled along it got narrower and narrower until I was crawling on my hands and knees staring into the sea. The first time I crossed the Severn Bridge, I recognised it from the dream. I started the crossing in terror but the moment I reached the other side, realising there was an end, fell in love with it and have enjoyed crossing it ever since. Today, cycling over the old bridge further north (the newer one is only open to motor vehicles), I could see its vast beauty and the whole expanse of estuary glimmering in the sun. It's a shame how few people see this as they fly blindly over locked up in their cars and trucks. 

Then it was on into Wales, along the coastal road past St Brides, where the daffodils are rife. But that's a story for another day.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Where be that blackbird to? He's off to Glastonbury

Just a few miles can make a huge amount of difference. Today we managed to escape the mountainous murder of Devon to tackle Somerset and already the whole landscape has a different feel to it. 

Yesterday, the buzzing of the bumblebees that filled the hedgerows sounded like a crackle of electricity, a life-force running the roads, the veins of the countryside. Today the crackling came from pylons hanging heavily over the Grand Western Canal. The ducks seemed unperturbed but it gave the land an artificial feel.

We started today by following the NCN 3 along the canal bordered by farmland. It was such a pleasure to cycle on flat ground for a long stretch, and to be alert enough to notice the algae blooms and the reeds shedding their winter coats like little sheep. I even had a few moments of childish glee continuing to cycle under the tiny footbridges across the foot-deep canal, despite the authoritative notices that this was STRICTLY FORBIDDEN - CYCLISTS DISMOUNT.

The lulling ride also got me thinking about the outdoor music I'm hearing, now that I don't have headphones permanently plugged into my ears. It's like hearing a symphony that I can appreciate on one level but, at least at first, I couldn't distinguish the different strands that make it up - I've never been taught to listen out in the right way - and all I could really make out at the start was the bass-line cawing of crows. Now I'm starting to be able to hear the blackbirds' song (such a British bird, the blackbird, with its descriptively pragmatic name but with so many songs written about it) distinctly and I can clearly make out gaggles of bluetits arguing in the bushes.

I'm also learning the distinct melody of my bike, and hearing when something is wrong and out of tune. In fact, I get into such a sonorous mood rhythmically peddling on these stretches of flat ground that when my feet occasionally slip off the pedals it's as if a CD has skipped or someone has pulled the needle off a record - jarring and deeply unpleasant.

The most difficult part of the morning was trying not to run over the dogs that kept getting in the way, and keeping a smile plastered on when helpful people pointed out how much stuff we were carrying in our panniers.

At Taunton, we had to make our way over to Glastonbury on busier A and B roads, across the pleasant Somerset Levels (landscape stretching comfortingly into the distance) and the Mendip Hills (less hilly than they sound). Matt's bike has started making increasingly alarming clanking sounds (yet another thing that needs sorting in the morning). 

We ended up doing about 46 miles today, not very impressive for hardcore End-to-Enders but far more than we've managed in a day yet and without too much strain, so I'm very pleased. I hadn't originally planned to go through Glastonbury but there could be some good filming opportunities now we're here, at another hostel over a pub.

Tonight's playlist includes: Blackbird - Beatles; Blackbird - Unthanks; and of course Blackbird - The Wurzels

Saturday, 19 March 2011

No moor hills please

Having decided to stick to around 20 miles a day for the moment we took the NCN 27 north from Plymouth across the edge of Dartmoor. We arrived yesterday evening at the Tavistock Bunkhouse, newly opened in January in time for the spring and summer outdoor sport seasons (with enough time to sort out teething problems). It's run by the friendly staff from the Union Inn next door - specifically Fran, or 'Big FJ' as he's known, who keeps the beer and banter flowing in equal measure. It's a clean and functional place to stay but I did bristle at the idea of shower tokens limiting how long you can wash for. We christened the bunkhouse bikeshed by giving our bikes a much needed clean and oil, somewhat redundantly as it turned out as today's journey was just as muddy.

After a proper English breakfast we continued along the NCN 27, a well signposted and well-kept cycle path used regularly for the Devon coast-to-coast cycling challenge. It was busy with cyclists and walkers today. Thankfully there were few hills, although there was a scramble through a quarry at one point which was decidedly un-cycle friendly. The few hills we did have to walk up made me think of what a Sisyphean task this journey is at the moment - rolling bikes up one hill just to go up another one that is, to all intents and purposes, identical.

Along the way we passed people foxhunting on horseback, conspicuous in bright red jackets on the scrubby dark moorland. As we cycled towards them they stood stock-still and seemed to be staring right at us, looking like a strangely artificial tableau - alert but inactive. But at the reedy sound of a horn in the distance, hounds started to whine, the horses pricked up their ears and the riders seemed to come alive. I suppose that, like us, they were waiting for the signal from an animal to spring into action. Any chance of filming them quickly vanished as they smoothly outpaced our bikes on the bumpy ground.

I can hardly complain about the riders and their jackets, however, as I stick out like a sore thumb. With my bright yellow cycling jacket and orange hair I look like a mobile daffodil. Wilting in the spring heat and smelling of chocolate digestives, I've started attracting attention from curious bees. 

The second half of the route today took us along the Granite Way from Lydford to Okehampton, passing over the Meldon viaduct which crosses the stunning gorge below (the photos really don't do it justice). This is also the end of the line for the old Okehampton railway which starts up again in a few weeks time. For tourist venues like this the start of the season depends considerably on when Easter falls and therefore when families will start to visit.

Passing more postcard villages, I couldn't help noticing how many homes have twee names like Spring House, Sunny View or Mushroom Mill. These sit perfectly on a day like today, with a clear blue sky, but how about the rest of the year? Are they a reminder of the joy of spring? Or a slap in the face in the middle of winter? I wonder how many are holiday homes, forgotten in December in London when 'Sunny View' is just a bad joke.
I'm now safely ensconced in a B&B in Okehampton, planning another route across the moors and cursing the contour lines which seem to show no easy way out.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A right old knees up

It was a full 35-odd miles on the road today towards my hometown of Plymouth (where the marketing slogan 'City of Discovery' is mostly about the discovering the surprisingly varied assortment of hills - gradient, camber, it has the lot) and my knees now feel as if someone has stamped on them.

It was another lovely day for biking along country roads and past farms, and I managed to eat an entire meal simply from the insects that flew helpfully into my mouth, but we had to briefly go onto the busy A38 towards Plymouth which was intimidating - busy and fast and completely unaccommodating to cyclists.

I was told that I'd picked the hilliest route through the whole of Cornwall, which is mainly because I'm dictated by where our interviewees are. I did, however, manage to add on a few extra miles by leading us along several 'scenic routes' (also known as the wrong way) which unfortunately led us down (and up) a few more hills than we really needed to do. I've already abandoned the careful plans I made earlier to mindlessly following the GPS on my iPhone, so I don't know how anything could possibly go wrong, but anyone who has foolishly let me navigate before knows how infamously bad I am at navigation. Thankfully Matt is amazingly forgiving (he also doesn't know quite how often I make these mistakes). Still, it's all building up cycling muscle for the Devon hills, right?

The good news is that I've got a home-cooked meal and decent bed to look forward to tonight and that one county - Cornwall - is now done and dusted. After this is over I'm going to live in a bungalow. In Holland.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Pot holes and revelations

I woke up today dreading the long cycle to Plymouth but the day turned out much better than I'd anticipated (mind you, I am still writing this through a haze of exhaustion on a tiny iphone keypad so please forgive any glaring typos).

We got up fairly early to meet my contact at the Eden Project. We left our extraordinarily heavy panniers locked up at hostel and I deeply regret all the unnecessary things I'd brought with me (I have an empty black pot with me. Why? What on earth did I think I would put in it? Did I think I would trade it for a spare inner tube in a moment of dire emergency? My own thought processes baffle me on this point) and have every intention of abandoning a load of it at the first opportunity.

The cycle down to Eden was grey and difficult, bruised and aching, and we realised how deep the potholes were that we'd narrowly missed in the dark on the way in yesterday. But just as we cycled into the Bodelva valley the skies brightened and the domes twinkled in the sunshine. The domes are meant to look vaguely organic, a part of the landscape like insect eggs or honeycomb and the whole project itself is always a hive of activity. Today we spoke to a couple of gardeners about their springtime tasks and how they personally know spring is coming.

Getting back from Eden the thought of another 30 miles on the road was too painful to bear, so we decided to stay another night at Golant, go for a stroll for food in the gorgeous sunshine (I'm built for walking, not cycling, that's for sure) and generally rest the aching muscles for an afternoon. Spotted a pig that looked like it had been given a makeover by Peggy Mitchell and a gaggle of bluetits arguing in a tree.

I also managed to catch up with the news, which isn't so great as I'm now anxious for news of my friend in Toyko..

I'll post a video diary tomorrow from Plymouth once I've managed to get the blog to show them properly and will sort out any remaining feed problems. Lots of photos coming soon!

Monday, 14 March 2011

Blinking lights and revolutions

I woke up yesterday with the words 'horse sushi' in my head, which seemed to pervade my thoughts throughout the day. After a hilly start towards St Ives it has continued to be hilly. You're going to hear me talking a lot about hills so if you're of a nervous or nauseous disposition look away now.

The day started badly when Matt woke up with a painful neck. Some painkillers, anti-inflammatory cream, and a few hours of recuperation later, he felt OK enough to get back on the bike. We cycled down to St Ives harbour which was bustling with Sunday afternoon visitors soaking in the unseasonable warmth. The ice cream vendors were starting to trade well again and men were out painting their rowing and sailboats (a sure sign that spring is on it's way that people are starting to mend the damage and neglect of winter).

In the harbour we met Richard, a man who hand-makes willow lobster pots the traditional way. He claims to be one of the last people in the country to have this skill, if not the last, and here in the harbour his tough physical work is watched by curious tourists. One or two may buy a pot for decoration but at this time of year he mainly makes money by selling his homegrown daffodils (various breeds, whatever takes your fancy). He told me about visiting the Orkneys and watching the daffodils spring up in early May so it looks like we're pretty much on target on terms I'd following spring (mind you, he was last there in the 1970s...).

He's not the only one. All along the country lanes people are selling daffs by the bucket, even though you could pick a bunch yourself from the plants growing by the side of the road. There's a pride about the Cornish daffodils, which also appear to be the basis of the local economy at this time of the year. People tell me theirs have been out for a few weeks already and that we've missed them at their best: "They're all ageing now." We pass fields of workers picking daffodils, whole swathes left in the ground because their stems are deemed not quite long enough. Those will be ploughed back into the ground ready for next year's crop.

The country lanes we chose to go down yesterday were beautiful in the sunshine but the hills were relentless. No sooner have you got to the top of one than you can see the peak of the next and the steep climb to get up it. Even the simple ecstatic joy of speeding down a hill is tainted with the knowledge that a down will be followed
 by another up. Many times we simply had to get out and walk, catching our shins repeatedly on the pedals and bouncing off the panniers. Pushing my bike up one of these hills a babbling brook nearby seemed to be mocking me, giggling to the birds at my inability to perform a basic task. But then, what does a brook know about climbing hills?

At one point I saw what I'm certain was a swift, and earlier today the surprising scent of wild garlic put me off my stroke (isn't it far too early for both these species?)

The evening was spent in a pleasant family-run hostel in Falmouth, in an area where every house is a guest house of some variety. Because the holiday season hasn't started rates are low and we seem to be getting dorm rooms to ourselves.

Today was another difficult day but manageable. Unfortunately one of our planned interviewees, a commercial daffodil farmer, couldn't meet us because he's in the US, but that's the nature of this documentary and our last-minute planning. Instead we made our way across the water on the lovely St Mawes ferry to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, to speak to one of the gardeners about how the place prepares for spring. People were very accommodating and it made for a great interview, once we'd sorted our technical issues such as a low camera battery and spare tapes.

We then carried on toward St Austell and onto the friendly hostel in Golant, a large rambling house like the set of Cluedo accessible only by a mile-long track. After a hearty dinner I now need to make some decisions about our future route, and particularly how far we can realistically go tomorrow without our knees caving in.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single sand martin

Well it has begun. After months of preparation and literally hours of strenuous training we started the journey north. 

The fates seemed to have been on our side in the days running up to the start - ordered equipment arrived just in time, bikes were allowed onto trains (despite the warnings of singularly unhelpful First Great Western staff) and parents went out of their way to drive and provide a sustaining supply of sandwiches. 

To cut a long story short (and to begin a much longer, but hopefully more interesting, one) we arrived at Land's End this afternoon just as the rain began to spatter. We took our photos in front of the famous sign (turning down the £10  fee of the official photographer - a man who literally takes his work home with him to avoid people stealing it), signed into the hotel End-to-End book (we're the third group to have started from Land's End this year) took some preliminary footage and set off. (There was more faffing than this would suggest, involving a cream tea, but that doesn't make for good blogging.) Land's End is not the most salubrious place at the best of times, but the rundown amusement arcade and hasty cash-in of a Doctor Who exhibit look even tackier completely empty and in the drizzle. 

Despite this, we set off later than planned and the pressure to get to St Ives before dark was on. The first section along the coast was lovely, the drizzle giving the sea and moorside a sad quality as if it didn't want to let go of winter just yet, just yet. But there were splashes of daffodils all along the road banks and gorse flowers were bursting through, so spring has definitely started to spring here. 

Then there were the hills. We'd been warned about these and I'd vainly assumed they couldn't be all that bad. They were - and these weren't even the bad ones. I admit we were defeated by quite a few and had to drag our unwilling bikes up them, telling each other repeatedly that at the end of this trip hills such as this will seem easy. Maybe they will, but they didn't feel easy today. 

After 17 miles we arrived just before dusk in St Ives, checked into the backpackers hostel and had a well deserved pub dinner. Off to bed now and hopefully plenty of springtime stories to begin regailing tomorrow.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Sightings update

Over the last month, dozens of sightings of frogspawn have been coming into Nature's Calendar from across the UK, with a dense mass in the South-West region. Frogs take around a week to develop in the egg before they hatch, so we must be due an explosion of tadpole sightings very soon (people who record frogspawn tend to come back to record the tadpoles as well). There have been a couple already in Cornwall, so on that front we're ready to go.

All we're waiting for now is a sighting of sand martins in the South-West. The first sighting has just been recorded in Canterbury, so we're keeping our fingers crossed that more will come in soon. Otherwise I'm tempted to travel down to Cornwall and hunt one down myself (with a camera, of course).

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Hasn't spring started?

The beady-eyed among you may have noticed that we only recently announced which animals and plants we were looking out for as our markers of the start of spring. The reason for this is simply that we've encountered our first, very general, problem with living seasonally - that it makes life bloody difficult.

The species we originally chose as our marker of the start of spring - hawthorn coming into leaf - starting appearing way back in early February and we weren't at all ready to start the journey. It was a particularly early sighting for hawthorn but, even so, it made us reconsider our choices and forced us to plan more flexibly.

Some of the issues we've encountered are specific to our project, the most problematic of which was that I had to find a new team member to cycle with after my previous partner dropped out for family reasons. Thankfully, Matt appeared at the last minute, with all the experience and skills we needed, and was as stubbornly enthusiastic about the project as we were.

Then there have been technical and equipment problems such as stolen bikes, missing and obsolete microphones and the nightmare of getting affordable insurance. A large production company would have absorbed these costs, but our pocket-sized budget has simply not allowed it.

Thankfully we chose a variety of animals and plants to follow, which now includes sand martins and frog tadpoles. After the recent explosion in frogspawn, the first sightings of tadpoles have started to come in - there have already been two in the south-west (25th February in Launceston and 1st March in Truro). Of sand martins we have heard nothing yet but we expect sightings to start coming in very soon. So we're nearly there, we're watching the skies, the fields and the water and keeping an eye out for the sightings on Nature's Calendar.

To everyone who has asked whether spring has already started because the Met Office or Springwatch say it has, I say: 'Probably but maybe not'. Either way, it's so cold this week that I unashamedly admit I'm glad not to be on the road.

Friday, 25 February 2011

An introduction to Chasing Spring

To ease myself into this blog I’ll start by explaining where the title of the project came from. It all started when I was watching an episode of QI, in which Stephen Fry asked what travels at one third of a mile per hour across the UK.

The answer was spring and after some research it turned that springtime in the Orkneys is on average about two months behind Cornwall, when you examine the dates that seasonal animals and plants appear. I started wondering if it would be possible to travel at that speed, combining the famous Land’s End to John o’Groats (also known as Lejog) route with an extended nature trail.

I admit that at the start I saw myself cycling across the UK for two months with daffodils springing up at my wheels, but my romantic image was shattered pretty quickly. For a start, we couldn’t use daffodils as markers of spring because they’re not truly wild plants any more – most of the specimens you can see sprouting in gardens and fields are cultivars.

So the working title ‘Eight Weeks of Daffodils’ had to be replaced with something more general. Having teamed up with Chiara, we came up with name ‘Chasing Spring’, which led us into a much more unpredictable and interesting project.

We realised we couldn’t control how and when nature appeared, so we decided to go with the flow and to let it lead the way. Working with Nature’s Calendar, we decided to wait for sightings of particular springtime animals and plants, which would give us the go-ahead to start the journey. The title Chasing Spring emphasised the idea that the season is in control and gave us a framework for looking at how people and communities are influenced by the seasons.

Living seasonally can be a hugely positive experience, giving us a fresh connection to the land and the seasons that is healthier and happier, and ultimately more sustainable. But it isn't always easy. On a trivial level, it has made our project much more dificult to plan logistically because we can’t give our interviewees exact arrival dates or book accommodation well in advance.

For people who truly live their lives seasonally – for personal or professional reasons – it means totally rearranging their lifestyles and making stark decisions about what is really valuable in life. For myself, I hope to learn how far I'm willing to take the idea of living seasonally and what I might have to sacrifice along the way.