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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.