Category Archives: UK

The Christmas Letter 2014

It’s that time again when I try to remember where the year has gone and what I’ve been doing. Once again it’s been a rather varied year – with only a couple of lows in between numerous highs.

As the closure of the synthetic rubber factory where I worked for almost three years in the south of England loomed, the first half of the year was rather quiet on the travel front as I tried to save money for the approaching unemployment. While I was never too concerned with how I’d cope with losing my job (other adventures & parts of the world beckoned), it turned out to be very difficult seeing the demise of a plant that had been going for over fifty years and about one hundred and thirty people lose their jobs. The last few months after production ceased were particularly tedious – but I enjoyed throwing myself into my study of the Italian language (which I’d started learning at work at the end of 2013).

The exception to the difficult first seven months of the year with little happening (except riding bikes – I was still doing that, of course; the highlight was finally riding the South Downs Way) was May. Mum visited for almost six weeks and Adele was also over for three weeks of that. There were plenty of little trips here & there, as I tried to show Adele a bit of Europe and a holiday that didn’t include some sort of extreme adventure. Highlights were a long weekend with Mum in Barcelonafive days in Paris with both Mum & Adele; a rushed weekend showing London to Adeletaking Adele up to Scotland to visit a friend and do a little bit of hiking; and finally, a fantastic family wedding in Tuscany – with plenty of enjoyable time with extended family, some sightseeing, great food & wine and some hiking in the Chianti hills.

Tweed RunWe came across the Tweed Run in London. It was all rather odd, but looked a lot of fun.

Glasgow – I was pleasantly surprised to be so impressed.

Ben NevisOn top of the UK – most of the way up Ben Nevis was really nice, it was only a little bleak at the top.

San GimignanoBack in San Gimignano.

Work finally finished at the end of July – I promptly moved back to (the ever dependable and hospitable) cousin Trish’s in London the following day and took ten days preparing for three months of bikepacking (backpacking on a bike – minimal luggage carried compared to traditional cycle touring to enable more off-road riding) of west-Europe, with two months touring Italy being the main goal. I had hoped to do a big cycle tour of Europe in 2015 before moving back to NZ, but with work being what it was the timing changed.

In the end I only managed three weeks and two-thousand kilometres of touring, as I found the wet August and mud in Belgium was not much fun – after a week of that I was getting tired of solo-touring. Having said that, there were plenty of good times and highlights – including some of the people I met along the way; visiting a huge old ironworks in the Saarland (sad, I know); my birthday spent in Strasbourg; the Jura mountains (in France, near the Swiss border) and best of all: crossing the Alps into Italy over the same pass my grandfather rode over on his Euro cycle tour sixty-five years before me – that was a very special & memorable day.

All ready to leave.

I quite liked what I saw of Antwerp.

Another night, another forest, another wild-camp-site.


On the shores of Lake Geneva.

Pretty happy to be at Great St Bernard Pass – four hours of steady, but rarely difficult, climbing.

I’d organised (about a week beforehand) to stay a week working on a vineyard in the Aosta Valley (the most north-west province of Italy, in the Alps bordering both Monto Bianco & Monto Rosa) – in exchange for my labour, I would get food & board. I enjoyed the food (so much pasta, cheese, wine, grappa & all manner of things from the garden); the work (it was harvest season – so we mostly picked grapes and I learnt to make wine); trying to practice my Italian speaking; mountain scenery & lifestyle; hiking in the Alps; and most of all, the wonderful people I met and got to know. Although I left to see more of Italy, after a day by myself it seemed rather pointless leaving such good friends (& food) to have to worry where I was going to put my tent each night as the autumn weather deteriorated – so I returned to the vineyard. I ended up staying almost four weeks in total.

A day spent looking at Monto Bianco while we hiked.

If I ever got bored of the work in the vines, the scenery was always worth looking at and appreciating.

All of sudden October was free – so I hastily arranged for another visit to East Africa and close friends Adrian & Carmen, as it’s so much easier & cheaper to visit from London than NZ. Biking around Kilimanjaro was fantastic and we went up to Kenya to visit friends – the camping trip was unusual. I’m still not sure what scared me more – camping with ten children under the age of five or the injured lion we had resident in our campsite for much of the weekend.

Our lion friend for the weekend.

Back in England for November, it was a mixture of winter cycle touring saying goodbye to friends & family in the south & south-west and trying to pack my life up to move back to NZ. It was great to see so many people that have been a big part of my life for the last five or so years, sad to say goodbye of course.

As of December, I’m back in NZ – hopefully for good. For now, I’m enjoying the sudden change from northern winter to southern summer (if you think twenty-four hours in a plane counts as sudden), being with family – especially for Christmas, getting plenty of riding in (it’s easily been my biggest year on a bike ever – approaching 7000 km on my mountain-bikes [of which, I now only have one left – the big heavy touring one]), and generally reacquainting myself with life in NZ.

I’ll slowly start looking for a job in the new year, hoping to find one that means I can live in a large town/small city that has easy access to good mountain-biking – I think then there would be a chance I may be able stay still for a while and not spend so much time and money on travelling…

Thanks to all that were along for the ride (literal or figurative) this year – whether providing food, a bed, travel opportunities, quality mountain-bike rides or simply time. Merry Christmas & a great 2015 to all.

Five and a half years

Well, my bike is packed up in its bag again, most of my possessions were collected yesterday for shipping back to New Zealand and, really, I’m a bit bored of packing. I leave London for NZ – five and a half years to the week after I left to see a little bit of the world – curious if I can settle back in a beautiful country far at the bottom of the globe. At the least, I should get a good summer of riding in. Over dinner with Trish at our favourite local Italian pizzeria the other night, there was plenty to reflect on – many excellent things, only two or three not so great happenings, all memorable.

So excuse me while I try to remember most of them and jot them down for posterity. Naturally I’ll start with the highlights in no particular order, as there are many.

As I delve into the archives, this is proving more difficult to narrow it down than I expected, …

My first port of call was the States – little did I know that would be the first of four visits and about six months in total in the country, it turns out the west is fantastic for scenery and mountain-biking.

A west-USA road-trip with plenty of mountain-biking was always a pipe-dream for when I was in my forties or fifties – thanks to living in Canada & the company of my aunt, Valerie, it became a reality much earlier.

The best biking holiday was my return to Moab last year – fantastic trails, great company & beautiful scenery – click on the photo above to watch the video Megan put together.

I also never intended to visit Africa four times, but somehow that happened. Each of the four safaris were quite different, but all excellent.

But the first one in the Masai Mara was the best.

Seeing the Pyramids on Christmas day was excellent – not very crowded either.

I only briefly went to Asia, on a visit to Turkey:

Gliding over the spectacular landscape of Cappadocia in a hot air balloon is indelibly in my memory.

Five weeks’ vacation almost five years ago in the Canadian Rockies saw me learn to ski, a bit, and then all of a sudden, living in Bow Valley for a year of mountain-biking in the summer and skiing in the winter.

Returning to the UK, I managed to settle into a job that I quite liked – that was, until the rather horrible drawn-out experience of plant closure & many redundancies. It was a good base for travels near & far while it lasted – the long, dry & hot summer of 2013 was especially good with many mountain-biking trips around the south-west. Always good to visit Taunton & also ride with my Somerset riding buddies, the Combe Raiders – whatever the weather.

That summer saw me enter a few biking events too – a six-hour solo (nice trail, but boring riding round & round the same thing for six hours), a couple of marathon events, & culminating in my first multi-day stage event.

That event, as you can probably tell from this photo taken while riding along, was in Africa.

Apart from the redundancy experience already mentioned, only two other notable low-points are worth bringing up. The mugging incident in San Diego the day after I left NZ is still the best if I ever have to tell one story from my travels. The ongoing shoulder dislocation saga was painful in a different way – but after four dislocations I had surgery and it’s been fine ever since.

With all the trips to North America & Africa, I perhaps didn’t see as much of Europe as I originally hoped. But I managed a fair few trips – with Italy being the most visited country, five times now I think. I also loved the time spent living in London wandering around all parts of the city & delving into the history. Due to the demise of work, my bikepacking tour of western Europe was brought forward to this year & shortened (& then shortened even more when I got sick of travelling alone in the August rain & mud).

Straddling the German-Belgian border somewhere.

One of the most pleasing & proud parts of the trip was crossing the Alps over Great Saint Bernard Pass – because my grandfather did the same on a bike sixty-five years ago.

Somehow I ended up spending four weeks living & working on a small vineyard in the north-west of Italy – eating a lot, hiking a bit, making new friends & thoroughly enjoying myself. Learning a second-language, Italian – thanks to work, was something I never thought I’d do – but it turned out I really enjoyed it.

Hiking near Monto Bianco.

Oh, almost forgot the whirlwind two-week trip back to NZ (the only one) for some friends’ wedding, and coincidentally my thirtieth birthday & many celebrations with friends & family all over the country. Hectic, but most enjoyable.

The visit also coincided with my shoulder being declared fit – so after six months of no biking, it was great to be active again – here skiing near Wanaka.

I’ll be back with these fine folks next week – hard to believe we’ll have our first Christmas all together since 2006.

That’ll do for unashamed self-indulgence – thanks to all the family & friends that made all this possible in many different ways (usually providing somewhere to sleep & plenty to eat). Biggest thanks goes to cousin Trish in London for repeatedly opening up her home to this often-vagabond – all this would not have been possible or lasted nearly as long otherwise.

The South & South-West Farewell Tour

With redundancy rather inconveniently (in more ways than just timing, it must be noted) for me being timed for the middle of summer, I didn’t waste any time in moving out & leaving the area before heading off on my European bike travels lest the weather get colder.  As such,  I never really said a proper goodbye to all the people in the south & south-west that I’d spent so much time with over the previous three years.

So, another little bike tour was in order to do so.  At least as winter approached & then took hold, I had the luxury of knowing I’d be staying with friends & family – & therefore could carry more clothes in place of sleeping bag, mattress & tent. Luxury. I managed to see many people & almost all that I really wanted to see.  Most of the riding was a means-to-an-end (except for two great final MTB outings around Winchester & on Exmoor), but pleasant as the leaves are all sorts of shades at the moment and the English countryside doesn’t fail to be pretty.  I also managed to time rides so that I’d mostly miss the rain.

Schedules dictated I depart a day earlier than I intended, but as the weather was strangely warm and the first of only two big days was spent riding all day & into the night in shorts & short-sleeve top.  Threading my way across south London & then beyond I followed the Basingstoke canal to the eponymous city before taking the train to Bournemouth.

The next morning it was around 20oC, so I hardly needed much persuasion (actually, it was probably my idea) to get some gelato.

Popping back into the plant (former-work) that afternoon, it was eerily quiet and all rather strange. A couple of hours was enough it was so silent. But it was nice wandering around chatting to those that still survive, for however long that may be.

Great to get out for one last ride on the trails around Winchester with Dan & Chris – my only regular riding buddies I had in the area.

Chris recommended an American burger joint, Seven Bones, excellent food & value. Once again, riding so much just provides an excuse to eat excessively.

Due to timings of visits, I ended up crossing the New Forest four or five times – here along the Bournemouth beachfront as the sun sets.

And my last look at the Isle of Wight – I had some nice long & hilly MTB trips out there.

After a couple of nights in Poole, I used the other half of my return train ticket to get back to Basingstoke and ride north of Reading to Rich’s.

I’m going to miss the history of being in Europe; this a typical discovery while just riding along – a Roman amphitheatre seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

As I was riding through a park in the north-west outskirts of Reading I heard a loud & obnoxious ringing – eventually I saw that it was coming from a phone on top of a bin. Thinking that someone had probably lost it, I answered it feeling I was in some strange bicycle-touring Spooks crossover. I was right, a woman had lost her phone & I tried to describe where I was not really having much idea. I wanted to hand it in at a nearby business and carry on my way as the light was fading fast, but she insisted I wait ten minutes. Eventually, a rather old Ford Galaxy rolled up and I was almost forced to take a tenner from a large roll of cash as payment for my waiting around doing nothing. All rather weird, but it paid for my lunch.

Startling pheasants of the game variety was becoming more normal as I continued; I must note that the pheasants in Berkshire and Oxfordshire are much more handsome – darker colouring. And just rolling down the hill to cross the Thames, again, on a quiet country lane I came across the largest bouquet (who knew?) of pheasants I’ve seen.

The goal for the next day was Bristol & it promised to be one of my longest on a bike.  But as I planned to do most of it alongside the Kennet & Avon Canal, it wasn’t to be too hilly.  Rich kindly plotted a route for me to follow on my GPS that would take me most-directly to the canal on quiet roads.  With rain overnight, the tow-path was decidedly wet – and the rain that continued to fall didn’t help all that much.  Unfortunately, the National Cycle Route I was following left the canal for quite a while and seemed to insist on gradually climbing into a stiff sou-wester – not some of my favourite moments on a bike.

In time I reached Devises and what turned to out to be the end of the climbing. Deciding I was much too muddy & wet for the cafe recommended by a passing cycle tourist, so I quickly snacked before rolling quickly down beside the Caen Hill Locks.  With sixteen locks all in a row here, they do form a rather impressive staircase – navigating in a boat must be tedious, five to six hours apparently.

The rest of the way into Bath was pretty flat, but with about twenty miles to go on top of what I’d already done wasn’t particularly fast. As the night closed in I decided I didn’t have the light or energy to ride for another couple of hours – so I took the train to north Bristol to arrive at Laura & Luis’s. I was quite pleased with about 145 km/90 miles for the day and over eight hours moving time. While I had remembered that L&L’s first house is undergoing extensive work, I’d forgotten there was no shower – one was much needed after all the mud & work into the wind. Never mind, nothing a walk in the rain around the corner to the gym couldn’t fix.

A most enjoyable weekend catching up, watching the All Blacks narrowly beat England, checking out a local fireworks night, ripping the kitchen ceiling off and popping down to the centre of Bristol to learn a bit of the city and walk in the sun. I’m still of the mind, if I was to come back to England for any length of time, this is an area I’d try to live.

Builders turning up early Monday morning meant an early start to my departure from Bristol for Winscombe. But this did mean that I got to see the day dawning on Bristol as I rode across the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Carrying on through Ashton Court I enjoyed trying to spot bits of the course I rode & rode for six hours last year in the Bristol Bike Fest – six hours of riding the same short lap is rather boring. It was a pleasant dry morning for a ride across Somerset Moors and through cider country; I was pleased to do the half of the Strawberry Line that Mum & I didn’t ride in April (that is, the Yatton – Winscombe half).

While Andy & Jo were still at work I managed to occupy myself getting stuck into War & Peace, wandering around the village, cleaning the mud off my bike (an exercise in futility considering the subsequent ride to Taunton), sitting out a truly miserable Tuesday of rain and generally relaxing. Somehow I found myself recounting my travels since April (my previous visit) in greater detail than anyone else has been subjected too – for once I became a very slow eater.

Across more of the moors on the Wednesday I once again escaped the rain before reaching Taunton – which must be one of my most visited places over the last five years, considering how much John & Anna have had me to stay under the guise of popping over from Hampshire for many great rides in the south-west with the Combe Raiders. Unfortunately, Thursday was rather wet so John & I couldn’t get out for a long ride while Anna was at work and Lydia & Esther were at school – a much needed bike maintenance session wasn’t all that successful for my creaking pedal.

The Final Pheasant ride for the Saturday Combe Raiders outing was back on Exmoor – where I first rode over six years ago with John, Andy & Rich. It was great to have all of them back for my farewell ride and with a few others we had a good group of eight to head out on a day that promised all sorts of weather. A very enjoyable and memorable ride that had some decent climbs, stunning views over the Bristol Channel, some rain, the standard navigational debate, a short very muddy hike-a-bike section (that turned out not to be on the route) and much fun on some long rocky descents. Near the end the cloud really rolled in and above Dunster the woods were so misty one could hardly see twenty metres in front – it was all rather eerie. With one last pastie stop in Dunster my Combe Raiders riding career was over; I’ll miss it all the more as I don’t even get to defend my Christmas Hill Climb title this year.

Map discussions – my stopping to take photos was rather woeful throughout this whole trip.

Before long I’d said all my goodbyes to many friends & family in the south & south-west and I was on the train back to Paddington and then riding across London (which I really enjoy, I suspect I’m in the minority) – home for a couple of days’ breather. Thanks to all who took the time to see me & especially those that had me to stay – it sure beat wild-camping in winter! For the record – it was quite a leisurely tour: nearly 800 km/500 miles in two and a half weeks, only two big days over 120 km, the rest nicely between 30 and 70 km.

Bikepacking the South Downs Way – finally

For well over a year I’ve been meaning to ride the nearby South Downs Way as an overnight bikepacking trip. An ancient trail, it runs from Winchester generally south-east for a hundred miles along the South Downs to the coast at Eastbourne. To avoid the wet low lands, the path goes along as many ridges as possible – meaning that while the highest point is less than 250 metres above sea level, there is a lot of climbing.

With my time in the south of England running out, I gave up on trying to find a weekend that suited both John & me – and decided to ride it solo. I also gave up on trying to find a weekend with a good weather forecast – otherwise I’d never get to ride. So I packed my tent instead of my bivy bag and set off just after noon on a glorious Friday afternoon. I’d ridden the first 35 km section a few times, so there was nothing new there – just the views to admire.

The first half of the trail generally stays above 100 m altitude and had plenty of descents and then ascents quite close together. As you’re getting tired, the second half has the pairs of climbs and downhills spread further apart – but usually dropping down to a river close to sea level before climbing all the way back up again. Enjoying the views I was making faster progress than I imagined I would with a loaded bike – when I passed my first possible dinner stop, it was much too early to eat.

I found the biggest problem riding solo was that I had to open all the gates, of which there are many – close to a hundred, by myself. It sure breaks up the flow. Also without company the stops are less frequent and shorter – quite nice, but it also means I take fewer photos. As I neared 100 km in, the forecast rain finally started – conveniently there was a big empty barn to hide in for the night. While the steel roof was great for hiding from the downpours – it did keep me awake for a lot of the night.

As the wind also picked up as the barometer continued dropping, I made up my mind what to do for Saturday. I had briefly flirted with the idea of getting to Eastbourne and then turning around and making my back towards Winchester as far as possible before running out of time & having find a station to get a train back to my car. But with that idea now involving a strong headwind and the trail not being so interesting in the cloud, I had no desire to do the SDW double. So I stayed in bed until nine – luxury.

With little sleep and no time-pressure, the remaining sixty kilometres were a little slower. It was very overcast – so even fewer photos. In amongst the longer climbs, that were quite manageable, a couple really steep but short pinch climbs were hard work with a heavy bike – I was pleased to get to the end having ridden everything. There’s a new YHA at Southease near the end that serves a very good all-day breakfast roll – suitable fuel for the last couple of hills. With a big descent to the sea at Beachy Head I was in Eastbourne with the station to find. A very soft chocolate brownie didn’t last long – washed down with some refreshing, & surprisingly NZ, ginger beer.

Then started the three-hour & three-train trip back to my car – on which I found plenty of people to talk about bikepacking with. First an elderly couple returning from their break at the seaside (who kept talking about bikes in the thirties and the practicalities of carrying girls on bikes – apparently mine is no good) and then a fatbike (Salsa Mulkuk if anyone is interested) wielding bicycle repairman (without a cape) who was setting out to ride the SDW overnight back to Brighton – we had a lot to talk about.

An excellent day or so out on the bike, where I managed to stay dry, I was pleased to finally tick this ride off in its entirety before I leave. It also proved handy in seeing how I managed my bike (which was excellent) loaded on a longer hillier ride.

Starting out under the watchful eye of King Alfred – who made Winchester his capital