As I cycled out one midsummer morning 

The Spain of Laurie Lee’s day has very much disappeared but as I cycle South his vivid descriptions of travelling through this county still resonate and at times it feels like nothing has changed. Both of us on a journey of discovery with a time lapse of just over 80 years. 

So it was as I left Pamplona that I encountered a country unaccustomed to road cyclists and within an hour I was on a dust track next to a motorway with a couple of donkeys looking as bemused as I was.  The roads are unforgiving and the drivers uncompromising.  There are two choices – playing chicken with trucks on one of the national routes or roads where all signs of life have disappeared. Villages lie abandoned, shuttered and silent, with the crumbling decay of a world that has taken the young to the glittering cities of work and promise. Other than the sound of the wind there is a silence I’ve rarely encountered before as valleys and ridges unfurl like geological petals of layered time in every shade of brown to rich iron red. 

With the Pyrannes behind me I was under no illusion that the road South would be flat, and I was ready and happy (within reason) to churn up the hills of the Navarra.  I was not prepared however for the intense headwind. A wind that stole the exhilaration of a downhill after a climb of nearly 1000 metres up to San Felices and had me shouting and screaming only for my words to be carried away and dissolved into the atmosphere behind me.  After sobbing with frustration for several kilometres the sight of a truckers motel was like reaching the doors of paradise and 20 euros has never been better spent despite the lumpy bed, paper thin walls and an early morning wake up call of the guy next door vomiting loudly. 

The Spanish haven’t displayed the same curiosity about what I am doing as the French and the words cyclist + touring + female + solo in one sentence is almost incomprehensible.  On occasion I will stop in one of the villages I am passing through and hunt down the only signs of life in the bar.  These bars are seemingly reserved largely for older men, one arm on the bar with a glass of wine or beer in the other no matter what hour of the day.  The discarded white tissues of tapas and sunflower seeds scatter the floor.  The barmen march up and down their domain with a territorial efficiency whilst conversations like rapid fire bullets shuttle across from person to barmen and back. There is a momentary fraction of silence when I enter and a quizzical glance before they turn back to their conversations and the barman will give me a perfunctory “di me” as I falteringly ask for some tapas and a beer to keep me going on the road ahead. 

And once the day is done and my tent is pitched, I devour Laurie Lees descriptions of  the world I have the privilege of travelling through before falling once again into the dreamless sleep of 100 or so kilometres covered. 

I have increased my target from miles to kilometres (i.e £5,000 to £8,000) to hopefully raise £4000 for each charity.  A huge thank you to everyone that has sponsored me – it really does help keep those wheels rolling. Xx 

Youth Adventure Trust – https://www.justgiving.com/cycleodysseyYAT

Re-cycle – bikes for Africa- https://www.justgiving.com/cycleodyssey

San Felices – a big climb up

the wind that left me broken

Spain’s Navarra

Medinaceli Roman arch

olite

running of the bulls in centrenuigo

Viva Espana!

The Ginger Ninja has had to undergo major surgery.  I hasten to add this name was not given by me! After many kilometres of crunching up and down, the gears have had the equivalent of a hip replacement. The surgeon of which was a small chest height French man in the historic town of Blaye who spent many minutes sucking air through his teeth as he assessed the situation claiming that new parts would take at least a week. Perhaps him being chest height worked to my advantage as he managed to fix Ginge by the next day but still only cracked a weasly smile when I reluctantly handed over my credit card.  
As I have so often found on this trip, serendipity must have been working in my favour as he was probably the only person within cycling distance who could have fixed it, and ascending the Pyranees with only three gears was not going to be an option. With a day lost and a flat route ahead through monotonous pine forest I sped down the Atlantic coast on one of the off road Eurovelo routes, covering nearly 300 kilometres in 2 days and wild camping by a fresh water lake to avoid the huge campsite empires that line the coast for mile upon mile. The charm of tumbleweed villages, creaking farm houses, and glimpses of chateaus through oak trees very much gone. With the long lazy days of Summer drawing to a close, the campsites are closing and forlorn and the restaurants are empty. The first blush of Autumn is in the air with trees and bracken just turning golden and abundant blackberries lining the road.   
Since the inception of this trip the Pyranees have loomed large. Hours have been spent trying to work out the best and flattest (!) route so it was with trepidation that I left Bayonne. My brother comforted me by pointing out that the Spanish are the best road engineers there are, and while you can’t engineer a climb out of a mountain, I slowly crunched my way up round hairpin bends from St Jean Pied de Port to the top at Roncesvalles. I shared the winding road with a vintage car rally, a few butterflies and the weary and slouching pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago and I arrived at the top jubilant and emotional. Two landmarks – the Pyranees, and crossing the border into my final country achieved in a day. The descent down through the pine forest foothills to a dusty sun scorched landscape and into lively and bustling Pamplona is a joy I will never forget. 

Nowhere more so than between France and Spain has the culture shift been so dramatic. In other countries the change of landscape, architecture, food and national stereotype has seeped into one another like paint. But with the natural barrier of the Pyranees, arriving into Pamplona was an assault on the senses. Throngs of people taking their evening stroll, groups of young people sitting on pavements drinking beer and delicious pintxos displayed on every bar top.  

As I sit in Cafe Iruna in Pamplona, one of Hemimgways favourite haunts it seems like a fitting place not only to write my blog but also to reflect that the end (of this trip at least) is almost in sight. And with that a variety of conflicting emotions… the desire for the adventure to continue, the desire to spend time amongst the people I know and love and of course the uncertainty of what happens when the wheels stop rolling. But for the moment – que sera, sera.

A word of thanks to Stewart who I met on the road in France and cycled with for no more than half an hour but donated to Re-cycle after our brief conversation and to the anonymous donor whose large donation was a huge boost just before the Pyranees. 

Youth Adventure Trust – https://www.justgiving.com/cycleodysseyYAT

 Re-cycle – bikes for Africa- https://www.justgiving.com/cycleodyssey

On top of the world on top of the Pyranees

It is flat but after a few hours the novelty wears thin

My own private beach – one of my top 3 wild camps

Dune de Pyla – the largest sand dune in Europe

Sunset from Blaye citadelle while getting bike fixed

Ready for the road after a wonderful break chez Godfather Pip and family

La belle vie

When I’m not camping in a hideaway field or by a stream I sometimes use a “warm shower”. This is not as dodgy as it sounds! Rather like sofa surfing, the worldwide cycling community open their doors to random strangers who know how wonderful a bed, a shower, food at a table, and local knowledge can be. I have found this the best way to meet people from the countries that I am travelling through and their kindness and generosity are humbling. In France Jean Noel took me to see the Amiens cathedral son et lumiere, Eric came out on his bike to meet me and escort me back to his house, Yves Marie the bee keeper and his friends gave me beer and delicious honey.  

Even without the warm shower community when I have rocked up and asked in my faltering French if I can camp, I have been welcomed. No more so than Corinne and Herve who live in a beautiful water mill on le Loir. I am always on the lookout for the perfect pitch and after a very hot day of cycling, jumping into their mill pond with dragonflies and lily pads was as idyllic an end to a hot day that I could possibly have asked for. Not only that, the next day they took me to see the best of the Loire chateaus and we spent two balmy evenings on their terrace discussing everything from brexit to the best route south. It could not have felt more like “la belle vie”. All these people feel like an extended family supporting me along the way with their hospitality and kindness with no expectation of anything in return. 

I have left the vast open vistas of northern France behind me and the brick houses with grey slate roofs are evolving into the white stone and red curved tiled roofs synonymous with Southern Europe. The huge army of electricity pylons continue to stride through the landscape delivering power to the French nation. The fields of sunflowers that stood so proud before are now bowing in their final homage to the sun. The distances between villages is lengthening and I have to remind myself that shops (when there are any) close not just for lunch but for the whole afternoon. I can spend many hours on roads and only be passed by a couple of cars and the landscape feels like mine alone especially in the early morning when nothing stirs. Village churches provide respite from the heat. Autumn mists reveal a patchwork of undulating vineyards and there is a smell of pine and scorched earth that pervades the air synonymous with the heat and languidity of warmer climates. 

The heat and the hills of Spain loom large, and as I take a couple of days rest staying with my godfather and family in his beautiful house near Bordeaux I am nervous and excited by this final phase. 

Thank you to everyone who has sponsored me so far – I’m about a third of the way towards my target. My goal is to raise £1 per mile so if you can sponsor me a few miles along the road it will really help to motivate me in my final push.  

Youth Adventure Trust – https://www.justgiving.com/cycleodysseyYAT

Recycle – bikes for Africa- https://www.justgiving.com/cycleodyssey

Thank you in advance! X

Gladiator ready! at the amphitheatre in Saintes

electricity pylons march through fields of sunflowers

la vrai france!

a fellow cyclist ..

Chenenceau chateau – one of the many in the loire

an idyllic spot at the water mill

monets garden giverny



Flying solo

France wins the competition of fulfilling all national stereotypes. Suddenly cafe culture is very much alive and kicking, glamorous women in high heels ride bikes around town and everyone smokes. The French have shown more interest in this odyssey and as a solo female many a “Bouf – Bon courage” have been the parting words along the way.  

Katherine, cycle buddy extraordinaire has swapped her padded shorts and life on the road to return to reality. I will miss our “top 3” conversations. Many hours were spent choosing our top 3 of anything – the subject matter is usually completely inane but can range from cooked breakfast items to countries you would love to live. Thankfully I had the cushion of a VIP visit from my mum and sister in Lille where I was spoilt rotten. While they treated me to steak frites and moules marinieres, I returned their generosity with a culinary insight into my usual picnic lunch of a cheese and ham baguette.  

While there we visited the grave of my great uncle Norman who died in WW1. And as I cycled on through Flanders fields the many cemeteries proved a constant sobering reminder of that futile waste of life. With armed police patrolling in every big town and even at somewhere as benign as Monet’s garden it seems sadly that human nature has learnt little. 

After the flatlands of the Low Countries and northern France the landscape is getting more undulating and although my legs will not forgive me for saying so, I am enjoying a more varied and interesting terrain. I can spend many hours winging my way through one horse villages where the only sign of life is the red geranium flower boxes on every shuttered window and a barking dog as I speed through. However small, each village will always have a town hall, a disproportionately sized church and a bar tabac where pot bellied men can be seen with a fag in one hand and a beer in the other at 10am.  These are interspersed with enormous vistas of fields of golden stubble punctuated by tractors like beetles ploughing the earth and creating a billowing dust storm in their wake. 

Since heading on solo this part of France has decided to show me a taste of the heat to come. As it heads into the thirties, it is a tarmac melting, energy zapping heat that makes me jump from shady tree to shady tree and on occasion just jump off the bike to lie down in cool grass panting like a conked out dog. I’ve been told my body will get used to it but for the moment I am getting up as early as I can to get as many sweat free kilometres in before the fire of the sun burns too bright.  

france. – country number seven

a special few dats with mum and lizzy in lille

a la carte lunch

heading off solo for part deux

the japanese bridge in monet’s garden obligatory photi


a familiar landscape


Amiens cathdral

Apple pie and windmills

We left Northern Germany with a sigh of relief leaving busy trunk roads and the constant whoosh of arctic lorries spitting up a vortex of grit and rain from the road. 
Each time I enter a new country I feel like there should be prancing horses and a fanfare to recognise my next level of the odyssey but at best it is a line in the road and usually rarely more than a change in road signage. However entering Holland is like cycle utopia. I could write an entire post just about road surfaces and Hollands perfect flat Tarmac paths through sunlit forests, farms, villages and towns would take first prize. We have weaved our way through an impressive network spiders web of paths along dykes with cows grazing, storks flying, eagles hovering and two girls on bikes flying. At each point a handy map has shown us the next direction to take and on we go with “onwards and downwards” as our mantra. Our camping home for the night have been plentiful and varied – by a riding stables, by derelict buildings, in a public park roundabout, a tree farm and by a fishing lake to name a few. And no one has batted an eyelid. 

Towns and villages are plentiful and close together so my days of carrying three days food and wondering where the next shop will be are well and truly over.  Katherine and I have fallen into adopted roles.  I am navigator and cook while she is water collector, translator and masseuse which has made a dramatic improvement to my useless arm. 

So to get the inside scoop I asked Katherine to write about her experience of life on the road…. 

It has been a fabulous couple of weeks of tagging along with Phil’s amazing trip, filled with laughter and nonsense chat. 

There is a wonderful simplicity and rhythm to this life. The wild camping, packing up, eating raisin buns and then back on the bike and off on the open road again. 

Holland has been a surprisingly wonderful country – extremely friendly people even when we’ve held up the traffic checking directions – and we’ve cycled through perfect country lanes, along canals and past windmills, only contending with the odd tractor and a remarkable number of cheery elderly Dutch cyclists.

Slightly in awe of Phil’s mileage to date, I packed with a strong focus on weight – even cutting the labels out of my clothes, which has enabled me to keep up with the cycling warrior herself……only to find Phil has squirrelled away over half a kilo of porridge oats, a family size shampoo bottle and who knows what else! She’s even tougher than I thought she was! 

We have happily indulged in Dutch apple pie on most corners, particularly when it’s been raining and a healthy supply of chocolate has kept our legs going and our spirits high in the face of rather a lot of wind and rain. My sunglasses were decidedly surplus to requirements in week one. 

A slight worry for her route planning is Phil’s left and right – it was always worth checking which ‘left’ she actually meant….although in truth when left in charge of navigation in Bruges and I was found to be considerably worse! 

We’ve engaged in a daily ritual of sketching – our evening view or a cathedral over coffee in a town square. The results are mixed (mine are rubbish), but prices for copies are available upon request!

It’s back to work for me sadly but given half a chance, I’d be pushing on for another day on the road with Phil! 

the tarmac forest path

windmills in abundance

Belgium – country number siz

a cycling selfie




Two is company

Copenhagen was a wonderful city to explore and recuperate. The road has taken its toll and both my left arm and hand have decided to take a holiday. This isn’t particularly convenient when cycling relies on 2 arms and 2 hands as well as legs and can make simple things like clasps, hooks and zips a bit tricky. Commonly known as “sleeping” hand it is known as a cyclist condition. ADanish magic man physiotherapist poked, massaged, needled and cracked and has been a bit better since but at the end of most days it feels like I’ve been given a dead arm by my bike. 

A few more fields of wheat and horizons of wind turbines and I was at the ferry port to cross over to Germany. Country number four – wow. How did I manage that?! The landscape has been less inspiring with industrial agriculture – fields of corn, wheat and turnips flattened out over many kilometres. Flatter than pancake Denmark even. 

Germany has welcomed me with rain and busy roads. Without the comfort of a sat nav or the Where’s Wally signs on every corner plus a spiders web of roads to choose from, navigation has been less easy. I was daunted by this at first and could (and still can) often be found at a crossroads looking nonplussed, phone in hand, trying to work out where I am. I speak no German so pronunciation of places and trying to remember words with syllables longer than my (useless) arm has proven tricky. But the beautiful ancient towns with dominant Gothic churches and the sight of a copper green church spire ahead heralding a cake stop is always a welcome one. 

I also now have a (German speaking – hooray!) travelling companion for a couple of weeks. My intrepid friend Katherine joined me in Hamburg. There aren’t many people I know who would be willing to cycle all day then sleep in field and be shower free for days but she has taken it all in her stride. Although Germany’s roads are busy there are often dedicated cycle paths which means politics, religion, and dating disasters are regular topics we can chat about whilst covering the distance. It makes a welcome change from the hours I spend on my own deciding how I can make my dinner more exciting or trying to remember song lyrics I can sing. Katherine is also my weather forecast. If she gets out the suncream it will start raining.. a lot. 

We are staying with Lother – the cycling pensioner super star who happens to live on the border with … Holland! It has been wonderful to catch up and hear about his cycling adventures through America (the next trip?!) and to meet Renata his wife who has fed and watered us and offered us wonderful German hospitality.  Next stop.. Netherlands. 

sparked out after a day on the road

lubeck cathedral in its gothic green glory

a coastal “road”

raining … again!

dinner on the terrace

hungry!


german flat lands

Three is the magic number

Norway, Sweden and now Denmark – a cyclist’s paradise of flat, quiet roads and a well signed route.  Norway vs Sweden felt “same, same but different” – words recognisable but spelt slightly differently, canary yellow Alpine style architecture rather than ochre red and conifer forests abundant – dark impenetrable worlds lining the road.  Country number three on my route South feels far more Anglophile with deciduous trees, small villages and more densely populated. 

Denmark is a land of wide open farmland with huge, endless wheat and barley fields stretching as far as the eye can see.  It has a reputation of cycle touring nirvana but everything isn’t always as it seems and Denmark has thrown a couple of curve balls my way which I wasn’t expecting. Pancake flat it is not.  After following the coast for a day I headed inland for a change of scene to unexpectedly encounter endless undulating hills like waves across the countryside.  This in itself wouldn’t be such a problem after the mountains of Norway, but with nothing to stop it the wind is a force to be reckoned with. Like a boxer it seems to always be blocking in front of you and pre empt every direction so that legs feel powerless and you drift everywhere but in a direct line. 

This energy sapping, disillusioning, and constant force has been counter balanced by roads which have little to no traffic and feels like they are specially reserved for me to roll along to my next destination.  And on the seemingly few occasions I had a tailwind it felt like gliding effortlessly with an invisible hand pushing behind me. 

But then my second curve ball suddenly appears.  The gravel track.  Unlike Norway these are loose rocky gravel paths that slip and slide from underneath my wheels and like the road runner cartoon character realising his legs are turning but there is nothing underneath him, there is always a split second where my legs keep on peddling but my bike has stopped and I fall sideways still spinning. Thankfully, cushioned by pannier bags, I have just collected a few bruises, a lot of bad language and a couple of dust downs before I’m back on my bike.  It is the only time (so far) that I have got off my steady steed and walked. 

Denmark embraces cyclists with a warm hug and segregated well signed bike routes.  Route three is my magic number that has directed me through the small lanes, along bigger roads and in and out of towns and villages.  It is a little bit like playing Where’s Wally.  Just when you think that you don’t know where to go a little blue sign with a red number will tell you exactly which direction to take.  Bliss. 

Denmark also actively encourages everyone to experience nature through its enormous 1000 plus strong network of shelters in out of the way places.  These consist of bunk houses, compost loos, a fire pit and sometimes running water and have been my home for a couple of nights. 

After nearly six weeks on the road with one day off a week and no more than two nights in the same place I have a few days of normal life in Copenhagen and have had a weekend break with my wonderful friend Claire. I was feeling mentally and physically exhausted by the time I got here and to be in a hotel with a bed, drinking wine in trendy cafes and absorbing the atmosphere of a cosmopolitan city is like a restorative tonic which will stand me in good stead for the next 4000 kms of road. 

The road is long… but flat and just for me!

Endless wheat,barley and oat fields

My bunker home for the night

a burial mound for viking king gorm and his son bluetooth (i’m not making this up)


not all roads are beautiful