One Man and His Bike

28 June 2011 // Books

A 5,000 mile, life-changing journey by bicycle around the coast of Britain. By Mike Carter
reviewed by Nick Hand

A couple of months before heading off on my own adventure cycling around the coast of Britain I had come across Mike Carter’s weekly piece in the Observer Magazine. Mike had set off on the same journey leaving his London home and job at the Guardian. Mike described the start of his journey like this. ‘Instead of turning left at Blackfriars Bridge as I always did cycling to work, I carried straight on, along Upper Thames Street and kept going, Forrest Gump-style, following the entire British coastline anticlockwise for 4,625 miles, until I got back to Blackfriars Bridge on the south bank of the Thames’.

After eight or so Sunday pieces, I felt like I’d got to know him a little already. I emailed Mike to say I was heading off in a clockwise direction, and with him heading anti-clockwise, it would stand to reason that at some point our paths would cross and maybe I could buy him a beer and compare our journeys so far.

As it happened we met twice, once in Mull and once in Cornwall. In effect we kind of lapped each other. Our first meeting was on Mull in the early afternoon at a little roadside cafe, it was nice to recall that meeting in Mike’s new book One Man and his BIke. ‘We went through the ritual of lifting each other’s bikes, feeling the weight. I was happy to discover that Nick’s bike was, if anything, heavier than mine’. Indeed, I do remember just that, and thinking ‘the bugger has a lighter bike’.

I am a great admirer of the travel writer’s approach to recording an adventure through the people you meet on the road. And so it is with Mike, that through the folk he meets, he brings his adventure alive. Not only that but Mike revels in the humour to be found everywhere on the coastal paths of our islands. His book is a great read, and reminded me of the joy and humour in Tony Hawks book about hitch-hiking with a fridge around Ireland. With Mike’s book though, there was something extra. Both Mike (mid forties) and I (early fifties) were searching for a better understanding of the country we live in. I think it’s fair to say we both felt pretty let down by the Labour government that we (I’m presuming this on Mike’s behalf) both fought and waited so long to get into power. This adventure though seemed like a pretty good cure for those frustrations.

‘At the top of a large climb, I stopped and looked back. England behind me was flat as far as the eye could see: a vast plain. I could see the Humber, like a slug’s silvery trail, the proboscis of Spurn and the yellow angry cotton balls sitting over Immingham. If my legs were grumbling about the new workload, my spirits weren’t: HV Morton might have found great beauty in the flatlands, but for me, buckles and folds and creases provide a much more powerful aesthetic, with depth and perspective’.

Both Mike and I had got to an age where you look for a better understanding of who we are and what we’re still capable of. It’s seems a little rubbish to get to this age and still be seeking these things, but there you go. A couple of paragraphs from Mike’s final Observer writing sums up both how Mike began to feel and meeting great folk on this journey:

‘The exercise was helping, no doubt – as was the guilt-free scoffing of cakes that the burning of 6,000 calories a day allows. But I think the major factor was that I was outdoors. The vast expanse of the sea always on my right, I was surrounded by birdsong, lashed by the rain, burnt by the sun and the wind, and my previously dulled senses were deliciously alive. I felt like me for the first time in years.

This change in attitude had other positive effects. Nearly every time I stopped to check my map, or have a breather, strangers would come over and talk to me. HG Wells once wrote: “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race”, and perhaps there’s wider truth in that. But whatever the reason, people would ask what I was up to and whether I ever got lonely, to which I always replied, with total honesty, never. Then they’d give me some advice, or some food and, sometimes, offer me a bed for the night. It happened so often that it ceased to surprise me. I started to assume goodwill as a default setting, and this transformed everything’.

As the book progresses, you are transported around a magical coast, much more fun and adventure here than was ever squeezed out of the Coast TV series (with the little bloke with the long hair).

It was great to hear too about Jack Allen, a near legendary figure for me. Jack is 76 and has spent much of the last 25 years travelling the world on his bicycle. I missed him both in Britain and Ireland somehow and last I heard he was cycling around Cuba. Mike writes movingly about meeting up with this life affirming man. And it was great to read about him at last.

When I met with Mike on Mull I suggested he call in at my friends in Cardigan. When he finally got round to West Wales, and it was great to read about him arriving in time for the Do Lectures and having such a fine time over those days. In fact, I loved too that I heard from my Welsh friends that it was great to have him there. And they also said that he could be found most evenings in the little pub on the fforest site sampling the fine local beer.

Mike is an affirmed member of the ‘slow’ club. It seems to me that there are two types of cyclist. One type bombs along from Lands End to John O’Groats in 8 or 10 days (often I guess to get back to work on the following Monday). Nothing wrong with that, in fact I take my hat off to the stamina and craziness of those blurry riders. The other type (the lucky ones like Mike and me), have somehow managed to find a space in our lives where time is a bit more elastic. This means we can stop off at any café that takes our fancy. Take an excursion to some far off island that has a little ‘once a day ferry’ that links it to the mainland. And stop and natter to any passerby who looks like they might pass the time of day with you. And so it is that Mike manages to stop and seek out all the little interesting places that we might or might not of heard of. He does this with an open mind and a desire to seek out any ‘character’ that might be lurking in those places. So it is that we learn about the Canoe man of the Norfolk Broads, the meeting with the Bishop of Walsingham that ended at a pub at 2am, a lady in Devon who runs a gnome reserve, the Buddhist monk who captains the Salcombe ferry and staying on Holy Island with a Fanciscan monk.

I loved that Mike had set off from London with a full set of smart evening gear: (chinos, smart shoes and evening jacket and a full set of evening deoderants), but by the time he arrived on the Gower peninsula it had been pared down to an old T shirt and a pair trousers and I read with nodding agreement about the travails of riding the A35 before Bridport. I do remember it as one of the scariest of narrow A roads. Mike confirms it as the worst road for cycling in Britain.

A bit like the trip itself, I didn’t want Mike’s book to end. You know that somehow you have to find your place in the world again. Unlike Jack, Mike and I have have a bit more earning to do, before we can set out with our steel companion and discover Cuba and the like.
If you can I would recommend this journey by bicycle to anyone at least once in a lifetime. But if not, and for now, I can wholeheartedly recommend this brilliant book as a second best.

One Man and His Bike is now available in the Caught By The River shop, priced £9.00.
Nick Hand and Mike Carter will be discussing their journeys with fellow cyclist Rob Penn at the Caught by the River Social Club on Wednesday 6 July. More info on which can be found HERE.

Learn more about Nick’s journey at his Slowcoast website.

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