Author Archive: Chris Ware

Spirit of Britain

While we waited on the tarmac at Calais, a tanker reversed down off the ferry with 5 people sitting atop the tanker.  Several high viz police were ushering the vehicle away from the ship grandly named the Spirit of Britain.   You could tell we were heading to Britain, the border at Calais was the first time we had our passports rigorously checked.  There was no doubt we were about to pass over into a different country.  You can sense a fortress mentality as Britain is surrounded by an expanse of water on all sides like a castle moat.  As we watched the migrants on the lorry and fellow passengers took pictures, I wondered what these migrants hoped to find in Britain that they wouldn’t in a European country such as Germany, France or Sweden.  The immigrant I worked with in Sheffield told me it was the language, he had tried to learn German but found it too difficult compared to English.  I guess if you’ve crossed deserts and seas and survived imprisonment at the hand of Libyan people smugglers, the English Channel doesn’t seem like a big deal.

On our journey from Brussels we had stayed with a lovely social campaigner in Kortrijk who again showed us a humbling generosity and welcome.  She talked about the frustrations of working within a political party and how she had left to go back to social work.  She was also an impressive photographer.  The day we left her the gentle landscape of Flanders and a pleasant tailwind ensured us easy riding on our last long day on the continent.  Once back on the roads in England I instantly missed the wide cycle lanes and respectful drivers of Belgium.  Speeding lorries accompanied me to Folkstone where I was getting a train home.

As I sat on a cushioned seat hurtling across the country mesmerised by the speed of travel, I wondered how the pilgrimage had changed me.  I heard the thick eastern European accent from the man selling drinks and felt reassured that our connection to Europe was still intact.  The Brexit vote hadn’t isolated us from Europe yet.  Whilst I’m sad we voted to leave the EU my main concern is with the tone of the referendum.  The kindness of those we met along our way made me feel we have friendly neighbours who understand us.  They have a similar rising of nationalist parties across Europe and population divides of their own.  Our challenge is to improve the debate we have.  Brexit it may make us poorer but it alone isn’t the Armageddon it was made out to be.  It is up to us to decide how this independent Britain relates to the world.

You Broke My Star

After 215 miles we’ve arrived in Brussels, the home of the trinity that is the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.  In amongst these three institutions that make up the EU is the Parlamentarium.  The free museum at the heart of the European Quarter of Brussels.  Brussels is defined by the EU as London is by ‘The City’.  The industry of the EU brings jobs and languages from all over the world to work in the myriad tower blocks of offices.

EC

The European Commission

The Parlamentarium is well worth a visit, it charts the formation of the EU as leaders respond to the aftermath of the second world war.  In this context is was widely supported.  Churchill was with others calling for a United States of Europe.  Out of this history of conflict, the European Union has been a resounding success.  In the context of war, the case for the EU is overwhelming.  At one of our host’s I listened in to a conversation between a Spanish lady and her Dutch boyfriend.  She had recently started working at the commission and spoke with passion and conviction about the good of the EU.  The dutch boyfriend was less convinced and was sympathetic to the Brexit vote, complaining that regulation hurt small businesses.  In response and as a finale to the discussion the young Spaniard simply replied “its about peace”

parlamentarium

The Parlamentarium

It is fitting that Belgium hosts the centre of this endeavor to unite conflicting regions.  It has been fought over relentlessly and is now host to three parliaments and languages within the boarders of Belgium.  The political factions divide by language creating an array of parties that struggle to work together resulting in the record breaking 589 days without a government that started in June 2010.  The art of compromise that is needed to bring difference sides together can result in absurdities.   For the EU an example is the monthly trip to Strasbourg where the whole parliament moves for 4 days of voting.  A price worth paying for peace, but when we learn to expect peace this becomes a symbol of bureaucratic waste.

you broke my starWhilst we walked through the museum one recording jumped out at me.  A slightly triumphalist comment bragging of the democratic support received from so many referenda.  I couldn’t help chuckle as this would have been recorded before Brexit.  I wondered how much editing would need to be done in light of our vote.  I assumed these events too recent to get a feature but there at the end of the corridor display was a photo marking our referendum.  The picture shows a woman with a placard reading “you broke my star”.  We were told by our electronic guide that the diversity of Europe is it’s greatest challenge and it’s greatest opportunity.  It’s easy to see the challenge faced by Brexit, but maybe we need to look for the opportunity.

 

 

Heading for the Exit

Leaving London I was pleasantly surprised by the cycle lanes starting to thread through the city’s busy streets.  I followed my brother on his usual commute over Tower Bridge and thought there is hope for British cycling infrastructure.  We were heading towards Faversham and our first host who showed us the town, fed us and regaled us with astonishing stories of her cycle tour from Paris to Peking.  I was delighted that my brother witnessed the abundant generosity of the hosting website Warm Showers, and more was to come.  We got to Dover in plenty of time the next day and queued to present our passports with Bulgarian lorry drivers who were struggling to get their goods past unsympathetic customs officials.  There seemed to be a laissez-faire attitude with regard to our passports and tickets and before long we were rolling into Calais.

Menin Gate

Menin Gate

I have developed a theory that cycling infrastructure improves the closer one gets to the cycling Mecca of the Netherlands.  Once we got into Belgium there was a marked difference and the roads became easier with wide cycle lanes and before long our route took us alongside beautiful canals away from any sound of an engine.  As we went through Flanders there was a plethora of war cemeteries and memorials to the soldiers who fought and died here.  When cycling through the Menin Gate in Ypres I saw the inscription above which read “to the armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918 and to those of their dead who have no known grave.”

I was already starting to mourn my perceived rejection of this place through Brexit and once we arrived at our host family the pangs of loss were felt all the more.  They were such a kind and welcoming family who spoke fluent English as a third language.  The youngest daughter had been shown kindness as she toured across America and this was their way of paying it back.  They treated us like royalty and as we ate delicious food in their courtyard the days warmth slowly faded.  We told stories of past adventures and dreams of future journeys.  We discussed politics across the globe and noted the seismic changes and instability of politics the world over.

vorbeke

New friends in the EU

It pained me that this family with which I shared so much in common, which was so kind and good, were distanced by a feeling that the UK had turned their back on Europe.  It pained me that they had friends and family living in the UK who now felt rejected.  The vote to leave was interpreted as isolationist and I wanted desperately to say it wasn’t so.

Taking on Travelers

A week before departure my brother requested to join me in this adventure.  Consequently we agreed to rendezvous in London to prepare for the journey.  I arrived in London to a wonderful apartment overlooking the Olympic velodrome with the company of my brother and his lovely friends.  It struck me that the London my brother lives in is inhabited by an abundance of beautiful and talented young professionals.  A metropolitan and liberal elite for whom the world has offered itself as a rich buffet of opportunity.  It is these young London professionals who sit demographically at the extreme remain end of referendum voters.   The antithesis of the deprived northern industrial towns that voted so overwhelmingly to leave.  The nearest I get to the other extreme is the young homeless people I work with in South Yorkshire who have nothing and rely on £57.90 a week in Job Seekers Allowance or low skill apprenticeships that pay £3.30 an hour.  Many of the the young people have family in Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley who demographically voted 70% to leave the EU.

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My Lovely Brother

These two groups are not opposed to each other.  Many of my brothers friends work and vote with the intention to alleviate inequality and help the people I work with.  The divide in this case in not between two groups seeking self interest at the expense of the other, but rather a difference of opinion on how to most effectively achieve a goal.  This feels like a healthier way of discussing Brexit.  Rather than vilifying those with different political opinions we should be seeking to find solutions we agree on.  We have several years of reshaping the UK and it’s relationship to the world and we need all parts of the UK to be involved.  We may have ignored the negative impact that globalisation and mechanisation has brought to industrial towns but perhaps now’s time to look anew.

Other than talking politics in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency I have found time to give my brother tips for his first cycle tour, from the advantage of going commando under your cycling shorts to the importance of flapjack.   As a professional writer I’ll leave him to explain his thoughts on our Brexit journey for the next blog post.

Meanwhile I have been sending requests on couchsurfing.com and warmshowers.org in the hope that we’ll be welcomed into homes along the way.  Whilst I expect that the people I meet will be self selecting in the views and outlook I hope that I will get a variety of opinions from people who are getting on with life since the Brexit vote.

 

What Just Happened

On the 23rd of June 2016 I found myself sitting alone through the night at a friends house in Solihull.   When I arrived we chatted casually into the night, nervously confident of a vote to remain in Europe.  I was frantically following twitter for updates and when Nigel Farage conceded remain would win I breathed a sigh of relief, put my phone away and played cards for an hour in the warmth of the conservatory.  As we all headed to bed I briefly checked my phone.  Sunderland had announced a much bigger vote to leave than expected.  As my friends lay down their heads, I turned on the telly to worried faces and a sinking feeling as the result unfolded.

I was one of the 48% who voted to remain, and since the result, it feels like we’ve had a political whirlwind rushing through the UK.  Once the referendum result was in we watched the pound plummet and financial markets react with cliff edge graphs for a few hours before David Cameron walked out from his front door to steady the ship.  But his wife was there too and suddenly it became clear he was resigning.  The opposite of what he said he’d do.  And we were cut adrift without anyone in charge.  Since then our politics seems to be disintegrating as Theresa May becomes party leader and Prime Minister with 183 mp’s support and not a vote from members of party or public.  Meanwhile the opposition leader loses the confidence of 172 MPs, can’t fill an opposition cabinet and refuses to go because of the mandate of his 251,417 membership votes.   The icing on the cake of this farce is the appointment of Boris Johnson, winner of The Spectator’s President Erdogan Offensive Poetry competition, as Foreign Minister a week before an attempted military coup in Turkey.  With this appointment, political satire as we know it is dead, it can’t compete with real life.  

Our frantic 24hr news cycle doesn’t even let us sleep.  The sacking of Hilary Benn at 1:30 am on Sunday morning snatched me from my slumber.  There has been too much change and not enough time to process my thoughts and feelings.  I decided I needed to carve out a space to deal with my own reaction to Brexit.  I will cycle to Brussels, the home of the European Parliament, to pay my respects to British membership of the EU.  I hope this will allow me to come to terms with the seismic shifts in our politics and meet people from the UK and the EU who haven’t changed since the vote.  

The End of the Road

After 2157 miles, 9% of the globe’s circumference, I have arrived!

I have been told that there is no nice way to cycle into Istanbul.  The route I had been advised to take certainly wasn’t.   Technically the 12 lane road I took is not a motorway.  Lanes and lorries appeared on the left and right and no amount of adrenaline fueled attentiveness could stop the feeling that I was about to be crushed.  In those moments when instincts react before the brain, it is my belief that the muscle reaction of a Turkish driver will lurch to the horn as opposed to the brake.  Braking is a last resort once other alternatives have been exhausted.

The recommended road into Istanbul

The recommended road into Istanbul

A few miles out of Istanbul I was overtaken by a group from Edirne cycling team who had a police escort.  I decided it was prudent to keep  up with them and I enjoyed the luxury of state protection on my entrance into the city.  I tried to have a chat with my fellow cyclists and I got the impression it was OK for me to stick with them.

My parents have come out to visit me here and in the comfort of familiarity and a rented apartment I realise that I am quite tired.  My hankering after home and the familiar is in sharp contrast to my parents excitement of new smells and the hustle and bustle of the exotic city.

My route across Europe

My route across Europe

Having reached my destination, I feel this blog needs to come to an end.  If this is the case I must take a moment to thank the people who made this journey special.  Every host did something wonderful and shaped my view of humanity.  Thank you to Heather, Mrs. Slocum, Josephine, Joost, Margitta, Paul, Sophie, Christine, Freya, Lawrence, Philipp, Nadja, Julia, Lisa, Agnes, Agnes, Kriszti, Lee, Nigel, Carmen, Andrea, Aleksa and his family, Elena, Ahmet, Yalcin, Ayhan and Zafer for hosting me.  I believe people in this world are fundamentally kind and intrinsically want to do good.  Where we see people act differently to this I am sure it is not their true nature but a distortion of who they really are.  Face to face, people of this world are kind and a welcome awaits you if you wish to explore it.  There are many websites you can use eg. Couchsurfing, Warmshowers and BeWelcome.

The Headbanging Holy Man and the Turkish Brothel

A dolphin from the Turkish coast

Turkey has rivaled Serbia in its friendliness and welcome.  Many times when I was cycling with Robin we were beckoned into a house or petrol station for tea or food.  One man stopped his car to chat and later bought us lunch in a local restaurant.

Ahmet was our first host in Turkey and it was in his flat that I first noticed the call to prayer which rings out all across Turkey.  Ahmet is a practicing Muslim and prays 5 times a day and although he says he only does the minimum required I’m impressed by his devotion.  Several times when he was showing us his city, Edirne, he would hop into a mosque to say prayers before the tour continued.   The mosques are the most impressive sights and it was in the Selimiye Mosque, watching Ahmet and the others pray and listening to the imam sing his beautiful song that I felt my most peaceful moment on this tour.  It was a strange contrast when Ahmet then took us to the basement of a tower block and led us to a back room to experience his other act of worship.  A large flat screen was surrounded by plastic guitars and drums and a games console with Guitar Hero 5 lay on the floor.  Robin and I were on the guitars and Ahmet fronted the band with the energy and intensity of a rock star, head banging and screaming along to Rammstein.

Strange tan lines

Strange tan lines

Ahmet was one of the profoundly generous people I’ve met on this journey.  He is a 6th year medical student and had to be at hospital from 8:30 am til 1 pm both days we were there.  We had arrived in the evening with no Turkish money and Ahmet took us around town, fed us lambs intestines and took us home at 2 am.  We woke at 11 the next morning.  The table had been laid and two parcels waited for us with a note.  He had crept out and bought us breakfast before leaving for work.

After Edirne we stayed in Luleburgaz with another generous Turkish host and watched football with cold beers in his beautiful apartment.

leg

A bit of leg for the ladies

Robin and I separated at Corlu as I planned to follow the NFL all night in a cheap hotel.  I popped out to the local pub for a quick drink and found myself in a dark bar with music blaring out.  I settled down in a corner and started writing my diary.  A lady started drinking next to me and occasionally stroked my beard.  She spoke no English so I tried to gesture that I was only here for beer.  When I came to pay the bill I found I had been charged for my companion.  After 15 minutes of questioning the bill I found myself surrounded by 3 women and a handful of young men, one of whom spoke broken English.  I explained several times that I did not wish to acquire the services of anyone and would only pay for the beers.  After a while they tired and accepted 15 lira for the two beers I drank.  Since then I have been put off bars in Turkey and have stuck to tea shops.

The Coffin

Leaving a job take some time.  The morning after my last day at work, my mind clicks back to preparing for clients.  I’m thinking of things I forgot to say and do and even compose an email to my (now ex) boss from my bed.  My top tip for leaving work is to shred your to do list, whether finished or not.  The uncompromising teeth of the shredder have no discernment.  They gobble down my unfinished to do list at the same rate as every other document, and all of a sudden I have cut ties with all I have been doing.  Destroying the hook that pulls the load, unshackling me from my work.  But like the stretched leather and worn in grooves of a saddle, so the effects of work don’t just disappear.  It takes time and the use of oneself for other purposes to reshape and remold a person for a new way of being.

And now, five days away from D-Day (departure day) I’m starting to fret about things. Rabies, for example, from untamed Bulgarian dogs or that I’ve still never cycled 60 miles in a day and the super light-weight tent I bought resembles a coffin.  I’m hoping to spend as little time in the coffin as possible and plan to use the brilliant website www.couchsurfing.org to arrange my accommodation.  I have already planned my first stay in Chelmsford with a stranger who seems lovely and has kindly agreed to let me sleep on a floor.  Its now time to start asking strangers in Holland and Germany to host me.

I have also decided to add some philanthropy to my otherwise self indulgent adventure and will be raising money for a great charity called Bethany Village Leprosy Society (BVLS).  BVLS works to provide jobs through social enterprise to those living with the effects of leprosy in India.  I have been to Bethany village and seen the vibrant community created with the support of BVLS.  If you would like to support me you can donate at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/wareami.

One Sheriff Three Punctures

Bulgaria is also a dangerous place to stop if you want to get anywhere fast.  We stopped to buy a loaf of bread in a Bulgarian village and before we know it we are sitting down with the sheriff and a lady I assumed was his wife, chatting over coffee and chocolate.  The chat was fairly dysfunctional as they chatted in Bulgarian and we in English but with the aid of a map and some fabulous charades on my part I think we understood each other.  I did ask ask whether the role of sheriff was to catch bad guys and the lady laughed and gestured it was more about cutting ribbons.

I'm looking forward to shaving this off

I’m looking forward to shaving this off

The we I speak of is Robin and I.  I decided to follow Robin as he seems to know where he’s going.  We managed to ride 162.34 km on leaving Sofia which is significant because it is a fraction over 100 miles.  The next day we managed half that as I had a burst tube and two slow punctures throughout the day.  After 43 days with no punctures I get three in one day.  The repairs were carried out with the aid of a stream and we were able to find a nice camping spot in a petrol station.

Again Bulgaria has been a friendly place with an unexpected level of generosity.

 

Serbian Generosity Knows No Bounds

I am now in Sofia and our troop of riders will be splitting up today.  The 5 days of cycling together have been wonderful. We have wild camped three nights, been hosted spectacularly for one night and now have a hostel in Sofia.

Spot the Englishman

Spot the Englishman

On the second day we rode as a group I managed to loose my handlebar bag which is possibly the worst thing that could happen.  It contains my wallet, phone, ipad, insurance details, Turkish visa, keys and passport.  I searched in a frenzy and realised I must have left it sitting on the street in a town 4 miles back.  My fellow riders kindly waited and watched my panniers as I raced back wondering what on earth I would do with nothing but the clothes on my back and a tent.  I arrived and found my little red bag untouched, sitting where I had left it 40 minutes ago, nestled on the pavement.

Too much Schnapps

Too much Schnapps

It is this kind of thing that slows down a group of 6 riders.  There are 6 times as many bikes to break and someone is always wanting to stop for wifi or just to sit in the sun.  One day through the Serbian hills we passed a hunting lodge and were beckoned in for schnapps and a brief attempt at communicating through hand waving.  After three shots we hit the road again and after a couple of miles were accosted by a farmer with more schnapps and wine.  Three shots later and we continued.  No more than a mile on the road and a family gave us bread, 8 fresh eggs, apples and water.  They even apologised for not having schnapps to give us.  the friendliness and generosity of Serbia has been unrivaled and I was sad to leave.

Mild-Camping as we called it

Mild-Camping as we called it

Sitting now in the hostel in Sofia I am preparing for the loneliness of my onward journey. Istanbul feels close now and I have bitter sweet feelings as the end draws in.