Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The M25 on foot (in the snow)

The week after New Year, me and my old cycling friend, Al Humphreys, decided to walk a lap of the M25. The last adventure we did together was cycling across Siberia in the winter. But now we were living in England and only had a week spare.... so the M25 seemed like the obvious choice.

We also wanted to test two theories:
1. That you don't have to fly to the other side of the world to have a big adventure
2. That it is not just in other parts of the world that people are friendly (on our far flung travels on bicycles we had often been invited to stay with complete strangers and looked after admirably) - surely people in England could be friendly too?

We put the date for our departure in the diary. When the day came, the 6th of January, it turned out that it was also the day that England plunged into some of its worst weather for 30 years. Half the country took a week off work, but for us it was time to go walking. Over the coming week there were regular snowfalls, and plummeting temperatures.

As we had not even brought a tent with us (just bivvy bags, and a sheet of waterproof material for making a makeshift shelter), this led to some quite chilly nights outside and yet with also some stunning and exceptionally beautiful landscapes.

Almost immediately it felt like a brilliant adventure, on par with many of things elsewhere in the world. However, on our second day, after enjoying our first night sleeping outside, a different problem began to dawn on us: how slowly we were going. We were walking in the fields and on small roads and paths near to the motorway, but often our way was obstructed by forests, fences and houses. This meant that we had to climb over lots of fences, and also that we often had to detour around properties - sometimes walking three sides of a square to progress. This meant we would have to walk a lot further than the 120 miles which the motorway covers in a car. We only had a week to complete the walk, so worked out that we would have to walk a minimum of four junctions a day - about 30 miles - if we were going to make it. As the daylight was short, this meant we were in for a lot of night marches.

We pressed onwards, and were delighted to discover that the people we encountered were - by and large - amazing. We decided that the snow actually helped make people even friendlier than they would be normally - perhaps our walk appealed to the British sense of the absurd.

A case in point was our second night - the night we reached the town of Redbridge (not a place that I have ever been particularly motivated to visit). We stumbled into a pub to have a warm dinner inside. The girl behind the bar said the drinks were on her. And then we got chatting to an Irishman and his wife, and a few minutes later they had invited us to stay! We enjoyed having a hot shower and dry bed that night.

A few mornings later, after we had just set off from our latest campsite in a forest, a cyclist appeared on the road and stopped as he reached us. He announced that he had been following our walk through Al's Twitter, and had actually come looking for us so that he could invite us back to his house for a cooked breakfast! Another time, in another pub one evening, a city commuter invited us to camp in his garden (he wasn't quite brave enough to invite us inside, but did appear at the door the next morning in his boxer shorts with 2 cups of tea).

As the week wore on, the walking became harder and harder for me. Both foot blisters and knee ache were getting worse and worse. I began to move in less of a walk, and more of a stagger . It made me realise what a relatively painless form of travel cycling is compared to walking - in large part because you can carry all of your gear on the bike racks, and not on your back.

A few days later, I was delighted when I found an abandoned child's sled in the hedge. This meant I could drag my pack for a while. Then, another day, I found an old shopping trolley, and so pushed my pack down the road, Cormac McCarthy style (if you haven't seen the movie 'The Road' yet, then I highly recommend it).

Finally, after seven long hard days of four junctions a day, we made it to the Dartford Bridge. A policeman told us we could not walk across, but he then had pity and gave us a lift in his police car.

That night, enjoying a well-earned beer at Al's house, we reflected that our two theories had been put to the test - and proved beyond reasonable doubt. Indeed, you do only only need to step out of your front door to have an adventure... and the people of England are a lot friendlier than we sometimes expect!


Rebecca said...

I am just starting to read your book, and I have to say, it's giving me the beginnings of a crazy idea! I don't know how I could afford to bike the world....but would certainly love to do it!!! What an experience!!

jason said...

nice one! I wish i knew more people like you, if i suggested this to my mates they would think i were stupid....I think adventure lies within, so close to home or far away, there are adventures to be had, whatever the mind cooks up.....i reckon there are more boundaries put up with peeps here, but once broken people are generally really friendly and hospitable