A sense of history and freedom – our long ride through Poland

Introduction

We arrived in Poland with very little idea of what this large, Eastern European country had in store for us. Over our time here we have come realise that the history of Poland – wether it be when Imperial Russia, Prussia and The Austro Hungarian Empire decided to wipe them off the map for a while, or the horror of the Nazi and Soviet occupation, or more recently the brutality of communism, the Polish spirit has prevailed. There is a kind of distrust and disregard for authority (on some level) that we really enjoyed. After the organisation and rule abiding countries of Northern Europe, we felt freer. It suited our vagabond life of wild camping and pedalling. We were treated with much kindness and despite the worrying move of some towards the political right, the people we met and spoke to, convinced us that this Polish spirit will continue to shine against a new nationalism.

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Things immediately changed as soon as we arrived at the ferry terminal to take us to Poland. Firstly everyone wanting to take the ferry was Polish. There was a kind of organised chaos that we didn’t quite get. And unlike everywhere in the last two months, we couldn’t pay for our ticket by card (so I madly rode around looking for an ATM, worried we were going to miss the ferry). Once on board it became apparent we did not have enough cash to pay for our ticket, but the kind captain let us on anyway, saying we could go to an ATM in Kolobrzeg. The boat itself was all red velvet, brass, wood and sailor uniforms. I felt like we had stepped back in time and I liked it.

We arrived in the port town of Kolobrzeg and I loved it in an instant. It’s weird perhaps, but I finally felt like I was somewhere else. Just the feel of it was different, even in the darkness. Our host Maciek greeted us enthusiastically and led us back to his place to meet his family. We probably couldn’t have asked for better people to introduce us to Poland. Maciek, Ewa and their kids were engaging and interesting and we spent a lovely few days getting to know our new surroundings. We talked politics, history and got information about what we should see while in Poland.

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Exploring Kolobrzeg

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Loving the colours and vibrancy

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Delicious craft beers

The Baltic Coast

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I wouldn’t have thought of Poland as a seaside destination…

Armed with information and bucket loads of enthusiasm we headed off on the Eurovelo 10 towards Gdansk. Eurovelo’s for anyone not familiar with the concept are long distance pan European bicycle paths. It depends really on the enthusiasm of the country and municipality on how the funds get spent. It Poland this varied a lot. At times we were on smooth bicycle paths complete with bicycle work stations, other times pushing through sandy tracks, or on awful soviet era concrete slabs. Never the less we much enjoyed our ride along the Baltic coast which was heaving with holiday makers. In the towns that hugged the beaches we were confronted with a brilliant mix of communism meets capitalism with and 80’s sense of fashion. Bum bags were all the rage. We remarked that had this been at home we would have cringed and avoided it, but here it was a delight to see how enthusiastically people embraced all the kitsch fun there was to be had.

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The photo can’t quite capture how loud and fun this street was..

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More beach happiness..

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Eurovelo 10 at it’s best…

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Hmmm… a little inconsistent at times..

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Smooth again!

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Probably not meant to be ghost bikes..

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And sometimes it was more a walk your bike kind of deal…

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More questionable biking surface

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Baltic Sunset

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Water refill with stag

Our days consisted of low kilometres, swims in the sea, searches for sorbet in the supermarket fridges, easy to find wild camps and beers in the warm evening. It was hard not to feel like our summer holiday was stretching on and on.

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Sometimes the eurovelo was very well marked

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Thumbs down for the cheapest beer

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Bus stop fish love?

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Sunset beer by a free camp

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Found this lake just by the coast

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Bread, tomato, peanut butter and chilli paste is a thing…

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Happiness is a Polish summer

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This is awesome. Tools on the eurovelo 10

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Cooking dinner on the beach

 

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Choice spot for our tent

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View from my bed

Our first destination was Gdansk where we were embraced by the friendship of Anna, Robert and their cat Ozzie. Warmshowers is always wonderful but sometimes you really end up making friends. So it was with Anna and Robert and we extended our stay. During the day we explored Gdansk (and went to probably the best museum I’ve ever been in – the European solidarity museum) and in the afternoon and evenings we’d hang out with Anna and Robert – going to the beach, eating delicious food and exploring the less known parts of the city.

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Gdansk Ship Yards

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Where it all started…

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Solidarnosc…the beginning of the end for communism in Poland

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Old town, Gdansk

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Robert sharing the delicious wine he made

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Ozzie

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Relaxing at the beach

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Candid swim shot..

Because the four of us really didn’t want to part ways, to give us an amazing send off, Anna and Robert rode 80k with us to Robert’s friend’s farmhouse in the countryside. There we sat by the fire, eating amazing food and sharing wine. It is these connections with people and the landscape that bring me the most joy. Looking up into the sky, the fire warming my face, conversation flowing around me I thought: this is why I travel. It was such a heartwarming, life affirming feeling.

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On our way with Robert and Anna

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Lunch!

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Through the Polish countryside

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Bus stop break

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The farmhouse

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inside the farmhouse

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fire and polish sausages 

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wine time…again

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Malbourg Castle

Saying goodbye to Robert and Anna was hard. We all shed a few tears. What wonderful, generous and fun people they are. I know we will meet again some day.

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Goodbye beers

The Mazury Lakes

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_10a96After exploring the Teutonic Castle of Malburg our route took us east towards the lakes of Mazury. This area is a network of more than 200 lakes, connected by rivers and canals. People mainly come here to sail and when we turned up at a (free) campground we were greeted by a handful of yachts already moored. We were quickly invited over to join the group around the fire. Astrid and I both felt a bit awkward as we didn’t want to make people speak english on our account. We decided to go over for half an hour to be polite. Of course this being Poland we were warmly embraced, given food and spirits and spent a wonderful night chatting and listening to the occasional spontaneous outburst of Polish song. I think we stumbled into our tent at about 3am.

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Right near where we camped

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sunset..

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The lakes are hugely popular for sailing

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Ready for a morning swim

The next day i kind of lived out my Robinson Crusoe fantasy. Being a little unfit to cycle we decided to stay. As it was the end of the summer holidays all our new polish yachting friends were leaving. So it was just Astrid and I and this beautiful lake. We built up a fire and kept it going all day, heating water for endless cups of tea. There was swimming, reading, meditation. A perfect, lazy day like we don’t often have, completely devoid of any technology (all our devices after days of camping were flat).

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Kettle is always on..

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Living the dream

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Bialowieza National Park

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In the far eastern corner of Poland on the border with Belarus lies one of Europe’s last primeval forests which is also home to half of Europe’s Bison. In 2017 the Polish government began logging parts of this forest that had until now not been logged (plus tripling the quota of logging permitted). There was an international outcry and EU’s top court ordered Poland to stop. While logging has slowed, it remains under threat with Poland’s conservative, anti EU government fairly keen to continue to devastate this wilderness for profits. Having heard about what was going on and wanting to see the forest for ourselves it was here we headed next. And what a magical place it was. It resonated with my soul, there was something truly wondrous about standing in a forest that had barely be touched by humans. Even though we had spent so many nights camping out in the woods, this place felt different.  It was wild in the true sense of the word. These places are precious in a way that cannot be easily described, let alone translated into profits. I hope for a day when human’s will stop decimating this finite home of ours and realise that we are all connected to the planet and by destroying it we are destroying ourselves.

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Watch out for Bison!

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Sadly we didn’t see them

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Old growth forest

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Mushrooms!

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There is magic in the forest

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Exploring

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Zubr beer in the Zubr forest?

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Our sweet camp spot. With vodka.

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more forest deliciousness 

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Meditation and forests

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While Bialowieza was the only true old growth we visited in Poland, our time here has been dominated by forests. Asides from the Baltic Coast and the lakes, almost every night has been spent in the woods. Often plantation pine but also natural forests. Being autumn and knowing a little about mushrooms we were able to pick and eat chanterelles and a new one for us “chicken of the woods” (this mushroom seriously tastes like chicken when cooked!). It was exciting to forage part of our dinner and it was very delicious. We also began meditating every morning, which fitted in so well with our quiet, natural existence. While this may be a cycling blog, I’ve never been one just to write about our experiences on the bikes. For me it’s a one dimensional way to tell this story. Travelling by bike with hours each day to think, reflect, meditate, really makes you face yourself; you cannot hide from who you are, or what is going on inside. I have written before how I find this life makes you feel and experience things more acutely.  And here in Poland we both began using meditation as a tool to foster even more calmness and happiness. At first I found it very difficult but before too long we were both meditating up to an hour each day and have completely made it part of our day.

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A typical forest camp for us

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I love lying on the forest floor and looking up..

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Many forest tracks were found

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Waking to this is always good

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such good cycling

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Salmon and Astrid on a mission

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Fungi!!

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Ready for the day

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Yum!!!

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Chanterelles, “chicken of the woods” and something else

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Bike repair

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Bliss

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Goodnight

 

Warsaw and Krakow

I kind of always enjoy seeing the capitals of the countries we visit as after all this is where the majority of the people live. A lot of locals questioned why we would want to go to Warsaw but Warsaw ended up being one of my favourite cities. It’s not always pretty but it is vibrant, rich in history and full of amazing vegan food. In fact Polish cities all had an amazing selection of vegan food which surprised and delighted us. Heading south towards Slovakia we of course visited Krakow, which everyone had told us we must visit. And yes, it is beautiful and special in a way those rare cities not destroyed by world war two are. It also would be weird to write about Poland and not talk about the Holocaust. The horror of the Nazi occupation, concentration camps and mass graves are hard to ignore. At one point we unintentionally wild camped right near a memorial where mass murder had occurred in a forest. And in Warsaw we stared at the place where the Jews had been loaded onto trains to be flung across Poland into various Nazi concentration camps. By the time we reached Auschwitz both Astrid and I felt like we had had our head in this dark part of history for many weeks. The camp’s themselves were obviously horrific. State sanctioned incarceration and genocide on such a scale with such organisation is absolutely petrifying. It left us feeling emotionally raw and haunted by the spectre of Fascism that is once again spreading across Europe, felt especially strongly here in the east.

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We made it!

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Love the street art

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Gardens in Warsaw

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These dudes

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Exploring Warsaw

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Exploring Warsaw

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This building still has shrapnel damage from WW2 

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University library with a garden on the roof

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Looking hot in a vegan cafe

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Bar in a train station. My kind of place.

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Border of where the Warsaw Ghetto once was

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Traditional Polish food but without cruelty

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Krakow

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Main square, Krakow

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Walking. In Krakow.

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Astrid v Herring

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Autumn is coming..

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Auschwitz 

The Tatra Mountains

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Lying on the grass in a park in Krakow, our bikes packed and ready beside us, Astrid and I realised we were a bit exhausted. Since leaving London we had been on the move most days, camped 98 percent of the time and been hosted the other 2 percent (aside from our cottage in Copenhagen). We had spent very little time inside, just the two of us. It’s a mental exhaustion I had forgotten about. The one that creeps in (at least for us) after a few months. We didn’t want to talk to anyone or see any sights. I wanted a kettle, a kitchen, a space that was ours (not our tent) and some wifi. I wanted to sit in my pants (undies) and watch netflix, or a film. Read a book. Write. Drink wine. Do yoga. Maybe go on a run. I didn’t want to engage with anyone but Astrid. I didn’t want to cycle. I wanted tea. And toast.

We made a decision and booked a flat on the edge of the Tatra mountains. This happened to coincide with a severe weather front that was about to hit (we’d had weeks and weeks of sun and it was September). We pedalled two days from Krakow into the beautiful mountains and late on the second day rolled up to a cute little place we were going to call home for the next five nights. What utter luxury. It was amazing to have this space and exactly what our brains and souls needed. We did all the things I mentioned above and by the time we were ready to leave felt well refreshed.

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Towards the mountains

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Towards the mountains

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View from our balcony

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Happiness is sometimes a kitchen

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Snow on the mountains…happy to have been indoors!

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Breakfast!

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The End

Now it was time to leave, not only the comfort of 5 days of indoor living, watching weather fronts rather than being in them, but also to finally leave Poland. When we arrived at the beginning of August, summer was still in full swing. Our two weeks here had somehow very easily become six and we could feel the hint of autumn. The trees were slowly turning, the air in the morning had a hint of cold and the light had shifted to be infused with gold. It was time to head into the mountains of Slovakia.

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Obviously gang material

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“Arm exercises”

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Graveyards is where we often collect water from

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Drying out and phone charging at the church..

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Lunch

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Pancakes with freshly picked berries

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Vegan pierogi. the best.

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A rest stop we decided to camp at

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Radler stop

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We got into “arm exercises”

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Morning swim spot. We ignored the sign that said NO.

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We were not expecting to see a bear. Warsaw Zoo is right on the main road. Disturbing.

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Chilling

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Churches offer a good place to place to do some subtle cloth washing…

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Love a pink church

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Typical lunch scene..

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Our favourite! We ate these most nights..

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Outside the budget supermarket..

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Oh dear..

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A tub of vegan ice cream! 

 

The Dunwich Dynamo

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I never intended to cycle the Dunwich Dynamo. In fact when someone had mentioned its existence a few months before, I thought it sounded crazy. Why would I want to cycle nearly 200km through the night from London to the Suffolk Coast?

It sounded decidedly unpleasant and would probably rain.

Yet, somehow in late June when a friend mentioned he was cycling it, I found myself enthusiastically saying I’d join him. Astrid was going to be away that weekend and I thought it sounded like a solid (possibly type 2 fun) way to spend a Saturday night. I’d conveniently forgotten I didn’t actually own a road bike – only the green fairy; a well made steel framed touring bike with the heaviest rims on the planet, fat off road tyres plus front and rear steel racks. The ideal bike to tackle the dirt roads of Kyrgyzstan fully loaded – not so ideal to ride 200km through the night on tarmac with a bunch of people (mostly) on road bikes.

The Dunwich Dynamo or Dun Run (as the cool kids call it) began sometime in the 90’s – when a group of friends decided it would be fun to ride to the coast overnight. Since it’s humble beginning it has grown into one of the more obscure and fun things to do in London during the summer. No roads are closed – it’s not an organised event – part of it’s charm. And it’s also free. You just rock up and ride. Famously people have done it on a Boris bike and a unicycle. While some people probably take it seriously, most don’t. Pubs along the route stay open and some villages have pop up stalls selling food and drinks to weary cyclists.

Although I had hesitations after my initial enthusiasm I realised having a heavy bike wasn’t actually an excuse not to do this. Instead I recruited Ben to join me as well. He liked long bike rides after all.

The week before the ride I had a brief fantasy that I could make the Green Fairy lighter, less like riding a tractor. I pedalled over to the London Bike Kitchen (an awesome DIY space where you get helped to fix your own bike) and set about giving her a slight make over. This included finally changing my chainring after more than 30,000km, replacing the chain and swapping my fat off road tyres to slightly less fat (but still huge compared to road bikes) tyres. I also spent a frustrating hour trying to take off my rear and front racks which was an exercise in futility.

By the time Saturday evening rolled around I felt more or less ready. I had even bought a novelty shirt from a charity shop to wear, deciding that being a bit ridiculous was going to be my way of tackling 200km. I mean, cycling a long distance overnight is kind of crazy. I packed what I thought I needed (which included a flask of whiskey) into my handle bar bag and pedalled over to London Fields, collecting Ben on the way.

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Ben and I looking keen

The park around Pub on the Park in London Fields was full of cyclists, milling about and sipping beer. I liked the vibe of the event already. After meeting up with Tony and his friends Lenny and Alex,  it was time for us to also partake in the drinking of beer.

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Tony and I – a pint is the best way to start a 200km bike ride!

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Looking keen and full of energy!

We milled around chatting and drinking beer until around 8.30pm when people began to move off. It was a bottle neck getting out of the park at London Fields but soon we were pedalling in a ramshackle group out of Hackney and north eastwards into the suburbs.

As we made our way along Lea Bridge Road I longingly thought about how my bed was currently 15 mins south of where we were. It would be a further 17 hours before I would see my bed again. I didn’t quite realise what the night had in store.

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Heading out of town

On the first bit I pushed a little hard, I wanted to keep up with the road bikes. I tried to ignore the fact that when they were coasting, I was still pedalling. Still, I felt good, the mood was light and we all intermitently chatted as the light faded from the sky.

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Feeling good and having a little whiskey..

Soon the suburbs gave way to the Essex countryside and it felt like we were really heading somewhere as the darkness enveloped us.  The others went ahead and Ben stayed with me as we rode into the night. Eventually we reached a village which was full of cyclists spilling out from a pub. We couldn’t see the others so Ben and I rode on to the next village.

Turns out we had somehow missed Tony and his friends so we waited and partook in the drinking of whiskey and beer to pass the time (15 mins).  To be honest I was beginning to get tired and worried about the road ahead. Ben mused that at the rate we were going we would reach Dunwich after midday (the idea is to make it for sunrise) and this instilled a quiet panic in me. We had barely done 50km and I was pretty shattered. The others soon arrived and after a quick break we rolled on. Our goal was the half way point at Sudbury, where the fire station puts on a feed.

The general mood began to plummet in our little group. We were all feeling it. I definitely did not have enough snacks and was running super low on energy. Plus I was cold and exhausted, the Green Fairy felt like a tractor and every undulation in the dark felt like a Kyrgyzstan style pass. Someone said it felt like a bad trip; we couldn’t figure out why everyone was having fun while we were all so miserable. My one consolation was, unlike all the guys in our group my  saddle which was basically moulded to my bum was not causing me pain. I think everyone else was in utter agony. Tony looked like he was done. Ben was morosely silent. Someone talked of getting the train back from Ipswich.

Although at this point I felt utterly melancholic I had an inkling that things would get better. Perhaps it’s the 2.5 years spent traveling on the bike, but you soon learn that often after the most difficult times come the most rewarding. There is something powerful in being okay with discomfort.

These are some of the things that I thought of as I pedalled those slow and grim kilometres through the darkness.

Eventually, after an eternity we seemed to be reaching a town. It was nearing 3 am, well passed the time I had calculated in my head that we should be at Sudbury, the half way point. Although the fire station was just ahead I stopped at an off licence that had remained open and bought a jar of peanut butter and some bread. I shoved some calories into my face and then set about trying to find the others.

I found them morosely discussing Ipswich and when the trains would start. Everyone looked as shattered as I felt. We limped on to the fire station to take a well earned break and to eat some food.

Disaster. The fireman nonchalantly informed us that they had run out of food two hours ago.

Devastated is probably an understatement.

I am not proud of this but a string of expletives left my mouth. Then I nearly cried. Looking over at the others I felt like they were in a similar headspace.

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The low point: bread and HP sauce

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4 am and everyone’s a little broken..

We were left with no choice but to eat the left over bread rolls with some left over HP sauce. Other cyclists were turning up all the time and being met with the same fate. It was probably the ultimate low of the night. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I had managed to shove some peanut butter and bread into my face before I got to the fire station. My mood despite the tragedy that is bread rolls, HP sauce and instant coffee, began to lift.

I think the break and the food (even if it was far from what we had hoped it would be) slowly began working their magic and eventually we all rolled out of Sudbury, towards Dunwich and the hint of dawn. Ipswich and it’s train station were forgotten.

We had been gifted with quite a mild summers night, and as we now cycled the light began to touch the sky, bathing the countryside in the most beautiful gold. The fields, hedgerows and woods we pedalled passed filled me with the pure joy of nature and my mood soared. It is hard to describe the utter delight the daylight brought. It felt more like a spiritual experience than a bike ride.

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Sunrise!

It was during this beautiful sunrise phase of the cycle that I gained the most important insight into a ride; I think in our modern life we spend a lot of time avoiding discomfort. Surrounded by modern conveniences in our daily lives we often don’t get very uncomfortable. We have cars and uber, takeaway delivery services, electricity, kettles, heating, soft beds, public transport, smart phones and fridges. Everything is designed to make our life easier. I mean when is the last time you collected wood to built a fire to cook a meal? We rarely in our modern, wealthy western existence get faced with real discomfort. And when we do it’s usually for short periods of time while we do exercise or perhaps are rammed on the tube with our face in someones arm pit.

To be honest, I’d forgotten what discomfort felt like. And that’s probably why in the end the ride meant so much more than just a novelty cycle to the coast. It reminded me of our cycle trip because travel, especially travel by bicycle makes you embrace discomfort; From pitching your tent in minus 10, to being soaked to your undies, or pushing your 50kg bike up a 3000m pass along something that more closely resembles a river bed then a road. Not to mention the countless times you are invited to stay with complete strangers, with whom you share no common language, or culture. These things, which happen almost everyday to some extent on a big cycle trip, push comfort zones.

And it is in these moments of discomfort that growth happens.

Obviously here on this bike ride I am talking about physical discomfort but it’s a metaphor really that you can apply to other parts of life. By embracing challenges; be it physical or emotional we force ourselves to reach somewhere beyond our comfort zone. It is precisely when we feel the most uncomfortable that we grow and push out our boundaries, making our world that little bit richer.

As the sun rose and wonderful pink hues coloured the sky my soul was reminded of this, and at the same time also filled with the utter delight of just being alive. It was one of those rare moments where I fully appreciated how amazing a sunrise is. How beautiful and perfect the trees and woods were and how everything just felt wonderful. Looking around at the others I felt like they were experiencing a similar high. It seemed we had all come out of the dark night of aches, pains and fatigue together. It now made sense to me why people do this ride. It is pretty bloody magical

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The magical morning

We were still a long way from Dunwich though. As the high of sunrise slowly wore off  I became a happy kind of fatigued. I knew we would all make it and I was tired but happy. We pedalled on, stopping a few more times at pop up stalls for a coffee and a bite to eat.

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Pretty chuffed with life

We rode on through undulating farmland and towards the Suffolk coast, eventually reaching heath land before at long last the coast. Ive often been tired after a bike ride but this was a special kind of exhausted. Some kind of combination of having just finished a night shift, an epic bike ride, and being on some kind of high. I was shattered but in a good way.

IMG-20170731-WA0003

Happy and exhuasted

We walked onto the beach, enjoying the early morning sunshine and the pure elation of having made it. Tired cyclists had spread themselves all over the rocky shore, the place was a hive of activity. People arriving and leaving, excited conversations and murmurs of congratulations filled the air. It seemed almost everyone was in a place of happy exhaustion. After eating, I managed a swim in the sea (wonderful!) before piling onto a bus with the others back to London.

sdr

We are done.

dav

Lovely

What can I say about the Dunwich Dynamo? It was difficult and amazing and to me much more than just a bike ride. It reminded my of life lessons I’d half forgotten and inspired me to keep pushing into the places that are that uncomfortable because they are often the most rewarding and inspiring.

Although next time I might bring more snacks.