The ‘Big adventures’ category:

I’ve written a book

November 30th, 2015

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I’ve written a book, a collection of thirty-five toungue-in-cheek guides on subjects ranging from ‘articles’ to ‘work’. I would be thrilled if you bought a copy, read it, enjoyed it, and then left a glowing 5-star review :-)

I went for another bike ride

May 12th, 2014

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I went for an 86 mile bike ride with my brother in the Massif Central this weekend.

My wonderful wife gave me a present of ‘an adventure’ for my birthday; she’d organised for my brother to come over from England and bought me a guide book to the Massif Central as a suggestion for where we could go. I did a (tiny) bit of research and opted to base ourselves at Condat, cycling north up to Super-Besse (a 2008 Tour de France stage mountain finish) on day 1 and then east into the empty hills on day 2.

Day 1
40 miles. 4 hours.

We arrived at our campsite around 1pm, and, after chatting to the guy who runs it for ages, we set up our tents, had most of our lunch, then set off around 1:50pm.

It was sunny and warm. The plan was to ride 18 miles to Super-Besse, climbing from 700m to 1,350m, then take some tiny lanes round the back for 20 miles all the way back down.

The climb up was long and relentless, but actually really nice; hard physical exercise in pleasant weather in beautiful mountain surroundings is a joy. We stopped along the way to finish our lunch.

Eventually we arrived at the foot of the climb to Super-Besse. After about 100 metres I had to get off and walk as, due to the gearing on my bike, I simply could not move forwards up the steep slope. My brother managed to ride the whole thing, partly due to having more suitable gearing, partly due to being fitter, younger, and more good looking.

The town at the top was pretty gloomy to be honest, and the weather had become cold and windy.

From then on it remained cold and windy and we stayed high for a long time. We had hoped to glide effortlessly back downhill and to our campsite but the reality was miles and miles of hilly climbs up cols.

The countryside was very pretty though, so it was worth the struggle.

Finally we arrived at the downhill. Unfortunately I’d discovered that my brakes were nowhere near good enough to stop me when going down steep hills so I had to keep jabbing them on whenever I reached speeds of around 25mph. It was exhilarating though!

Day 2
46 miles. 8 hours. 

Day 2 began a bit like day 1; the weather was sunny although slightly less warm, and we spent the first couple of hours climbing. This time however the road was a little twisting lane along the side of a steep-sided valley with a beautiful river running beneath us, the sort of mountain cycling we’d hoped for.

We made the most of it, stopping every now and then to watch a kite swooping overhead or to try to identify a wild flower. It was lovely. Progress was therefore slow and after a few hours we’d barely covered 10 miles, but it didn’t matter, it was fun. We sat by the roadside overlooking some big hills and had our lunch, then continued up.

Pretty soon afterwards the rain started, and with it came the wind. We were high up and it was bleak, the unimpeded strong wind whipping the cold rain into our faces like tiny pieces of ice. Then the rain turned into actual tiny pieces of ice – hail – and that really hurt. The timing was pretty bad because we’d hit the toughest part of the ride, but there was no turning back. We were soaked through, freezing cold, but oddly having a great time. Even when we had to pedal as hard as we could downhill into the wind just to move forwards at 4mph we found the challenge rewarding; it was pretty much as horrendous as it could be but we were slowly eating away at the miles.

We rode slowly over loads of cols, passing through seemingly deserted tiny villages. Most of the time was spent going uphill, and even when we went downhill it was slow and painful with the bastard wind pushing us backwards and pelting us with rain and hail.

After literally hours of this we finally made it down off the high hills and out of the clouds and, even though we were shivering and exhausted, our final 5 miles descent back into Condat was magical; the sun was out and was drying the wet roads, creating curtains of steam that we whooshed through as we freewheeled round the swooping bends of the mountain road.

Lessons learnt
– I definitely need better gears and better brakes; going up was hard and going down was hard.
– When heading into the mountains always take warm clothing even if the forecast’s good; I only had fingerless mittens and my summer bike shoes were sodden.

– Cycling in the Massif Central is awesome!!!

I went for a bike ride

May 23rd, 2013

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Since we’re now well into Spring I thought I’d go for a 2-day bike adventure. My mother-in-law is here at the moment and Corrie would therefore have some help with the boys so I wasn’t being totally selfish.

The trouble is it’s not very nice weather, and the forecast kept changing as my planned departure day approached until eventually I had to abandon the whole idea as cycling and wild camping in rain, wind and thunderstorms just isn’t much fun.

I decided to do a shortened, 1-day version instead; it didn’t matter if I got wet as I would be back home by evening. I put my balloon slick tyres onto my mountain bike, packed some lunch, and set off at 11am. I’d printed my route from Google maps and initially got a little confused by the scale, missing a couple of my turnings. Eventually I got the hang of it and was happily gliding down a nice dry track, admiring the greenery … then the track turned into a normal muddy track and my slick tyres really came into their own, skidding me all over the place. At one point I slid sideways and fell into some long wet grass with my feet still stuck in my pedals. I think I swore; it’s been about 10 years since I’ve actually fallen off my bike! I carried on like this – slipping and sliding – for about 1/2 hour, finally making it out onto a little tarmaced lane. The offroading had been fun but with the slicks I think it’s best reserved for when it’s dry.

At one point there was a torrential downpour so I quickly rode into an old barn by the side of the road to shelter. I was in there for about 20 minutes and took the opportunity to delete some of the old texts off my mobile. Over the next few hours I had to shelter under trees a couple of times but overall the weather wasn’t too bad, just a bit cold and windy.

Just before my route joined back up with itself I entered a village with a shop and eagerly went in to buy a cold can of drink. The only ones they had were Schweppes Indian Tonic. I gave it a miss and got back on my bike and just carried on. I was a bit gutted to be honest; I’d been looking forward to a sit down and a cold drink for a few miles.

By now I was knackered so I stopped in a village square and had a lie down on some church steps. A red squirrel came running along with its mouth full of twigs. It stopped when it spotted me then did a big loop to avoid me and eventually got to just the other side of where I was lying and went under a fence. He was cool.

The last 6 miles were pretty unpleasant and when I got back home I was absolutely shattered. It was good, but hard work. It turns out a 2-day bike ride would probably have been a bit much for a fat man.

Distance: 47 miles.
Time: 6 1/2 hours.

Christmas tree

December 7th, 2012

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We have a normal sized house; the ceilings are about 2.5 metres high. We also have a Corrie; my wife loves Christmas and big Christmas trees. I shall let the pictures of the tree we bought from a local farmer for 30 € speak for themselves….

We went on holiday

September 3rd, 2012

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Soren & the mountain

Living here has been a little like an extended holiday so we have never felt the urge to actually go on holiday. However, we have fallen into dull routines and got fed up of the things to do around here… so we went on holiday!

The whole of France goes on holiday in August so we timed our trip to be right at the end, just before school starts again, when everyone else has gone home. We drove down to the Ariège region of the Pyrenees (straight down from Toulouse) and camped at 800m in a deserted little campsite that’s actually a donkey farm. The owner told me as we left that one of his donkeys had been attacked by a bear in June, but he hadn’t wanted to tell me until we were leaving. That’s the thoughtful type of people you get in this area of France.

It was really cold. We drove around, going for walks and looking about. One afternoon we took the boys to a tree climbing place where they wear harnesses and do fun-looking things. We had a nice meal in a very pretty cafe. We ate the world’s biggest croque-monsieur.

After a couple of days there we drove part of the way back, stopping at Ikea (we needed some things and our nearest one is 3 hours away, so it made sense… except that it was heaving and took ages) before desperately trying to find a campsite in the dark. We finally found somewhere at 21:30 but it was closed. We drove through a gap in the fence and pitched our tent anyway, and it turned out fine.

The following day we drove to the Dordogne and had a splash about in the river. And that was it; we drove back home and the boys went crazy playing with all the toys they hadn’t played with for 3 days.

Just a short holiday, but a nice one.

Mini adventure vs free range adventure

May 10th, 2012

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Before we moved to France we used to live in the Lake District. Probably not officially the Lakes, but for a couple of years on the southern edge and then a year or so on the eastern side.

Anyway, my adventures back then involved waiting until Corrie’s mum was coming for a visit and then packing my rucksack and heading up into the Cumbrian hills for an overnight wild camp. (Not that I don’t like Corrie’s mum! It was that she would help look after the boys so I wasn’t needed).

It was lush. My dog Spooky would come with me, we’d walk for a few hours in the afternoon to our camp spot overlooking something beautiful, watch the sun set, marvel at the stars, sleep in the tent, wake up early (usually to mist), walk a few more hours and then drive home.

I miss those mini adventures to be honest. This adventure we’re on now is completely different and still quite exciting, but it’s not a camping/hiking/wilderness adventure, it’s more a lifestyle/family adventure. And I do still hanker after those camping/hiking/wilderness adventures.

If all of this sounds silly then watch this video which sums it up rather nicely (and triggered my nostalgia)…

Loft story

April 14th, 2012

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I’ll warn you in advance: this is quite a long and boring post but I know that if I don’t write down what we did I’ll forget.

My brother and I climbed up the ladder into the loft on 1st November 2011 to begin work on the conversion project. Five months later it was all done. Here’s a summarised account of what we did….

The boys' new room

The loft above the original part of the house was a traditional crop drying room with a door leading into it from the roof, thick soil on the floor beneath which was gorse then wooden planks. Overhead were the oak beams and roof framework. The loft above the extended bit of the house, which also had a door leading into it but this time from metal steps up the side of the house, already had wooden floorboards but rolls of loft insulation had been laid out over them for many years and it was all filthy, and also full of rubbish.

The first job was to remove all the junk that was up there: tiles, wood, cardboard boxes and loads of bits and pieces. It was dark and dirty up there but it was exciting to be starting on my biggest project yet. I’d spent a long time thinking about how things were going to be done up there so I had a plan, but it wasn’t written down anywhere so it was good to finally clear the space and start to visualise it.

The second job was to get the iPod and speakers up there. Over the next few weeks we listened to my entire music collection many times over. For one period all my brother wanted to listen to was Coldplay, and I, as usual, opted for Boy 8-Bit.

To help make things even easier to visualise, the next thing we did was put in the Velux windows, one in the ‘old’ loft (the boys’ bedroom) and one in the ‘new’ loft (our bedroom). Cutting a hole in the roof is very intimidating but once the tiles had been taken off and the wood sawn we were left with window-sized holes into which we slotted the Veluxes (Velii?). It wasn’t quite as simple as this, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d first feared. I also put a smaller window, just a skylight really, into the other side of the roof which would be the corridor. Once they were in it was lovely and bright up there – which was good!

Next up was some shopping. We hired a trailer from a local builder’s merchants, hooked it onto the back of the van and drove up to a big B&Q type place 60 miles away called Brico Depot (they were by far the cheapest and actually are part of the same group as B&Q)  to stock up on plasterboard, insulation panels, wood, more windows and the wooden floor. The trailer and van were absolutely full to bursting and driving down the motorway with such a precarious load was scary, but we made it back alright and unloaded all the materials into the garage in the dark.

Now that we had the supplies we made a start on building the frames for the ceiling and walls. There isn’t anything particularly dramatic to to recount about this stage other than it took a lot of wood and screws, and screwing into 100 year old oak beams is virtually impossible. Oh, and it took ages (about a week) and became rather tedious. Some sections were incredibly complicated and we discovered that the best way to work things out is to sit down with a cup of coffee and look at the problem for ten minutes or so. Once the frame was done we got to the part we’d been looking forward to for a while; insulation.

Pretty much as soon as we started to squeeze the insulation between the roof and the wooden frames we realised that this was a horrible job, and wished it would be over as quickly as possible. It took several days and we both developed nasty coughs, but once it was in we were very relieved.

The plumber and electrician came to set things up at this stage, running cables and pipes all over the place. He also rerouted some heating pipes that were in the way of where we were going to make a doorway through the 60cm thick stone wall to join the two lofts together. Once he was done we started with the floor.

First we had to build a frame. The loft floor was soil and, whilst most people round here remove tons and tons of this to lay their floor directly onto the floor joists when converting their lofts, I couldn’t face doing that. Plus all that soil and stuff worked well as insulation, so I figured it might as well stay. The frame in place we started to lay the planks, screwing them into place. This took a lot longer than we’d anticipated, mainly because we realised about half way in that we’d been putting the boards down the wrong way round so had to lift them all up to start again. Luckily we’d ignored advice and screwed the planks down.

Once that was in place we started with the plasterboard. I used four sorts of plasterboard: normal plasterboard for the partition walls (13mm); thinner stuff for the ceilings (10mm); medium insulating polystyrene-backed plasterboard for the sloping walls (10+40mm); and thick insulating polystyrene-backed plasterboard for the gable end (10+100mm). We had mountains of this stuff and carrying it up the ladders was a nightmare, as was measuring and cutting it. Oh and fitting it using adhesive cement and screws was also a nightmare! However, of all the jobs so far, this was the one which gave us the most satisfaction as we could really see the rooms taking shape.

Unfortunately my brother’s time was up and he had to head home. However, we’d done loads in just one month and I’d definitely have got nowhere without his help, so thanks little bro!

From then on it was lots and lots of smaller jobs. We hired a local builder to make the hole in the 60cm stone wall as I was worried I’d bring the roof down by not doing it properly, and once that was done I fitted windows into what had been the doorways into the two lofts. This involved building a short brick wall to fill the gap a bit and then fitting the windows. I built a step from the corridor into our new bedroom, cut a hole in the wall at the top of the stairs so that we could access our new rooms without having to go outside and up a ladder, and that marked the point at which we were weather-tight. Exciting!

Then I started with taping and plastering. The plumber and electrician came back a few times to do his stuff, including installing three radiators (luxury as it was a very cold winter), the builder came back to lime render the stone walls, and I just plodded on with filling gaps, taping and plastering.

I’d run out of enthusiasm by now and would go weeks without doing anything. But eventually the plastering was finished and I could sand the walls down. Then we painted, stained the floorboards, oiled the floorboards, put the skirting on… and moved in! All in all it took five months. If I’d carried on at the same pace my brother and I set at the start it would have taken two, but it just got so boring!

Anyway, it’s done and it’s awesome. Well, not 100% done: I still need to put the shutters on one of the windows and build the steps that join the stairs to the new corridor out of proper wood rather than cheap pine. But it’s very, very nearly all done.

Beard update

March 17th, 2012

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Me & my beard

I’ve never had such a big beard. You may remember that on my birthday last year I shaved my beard off completely. Well this year I’m doing the opposite and growing it to be as big as possible… before trimming it back to normal on my birthday.

To me, my beard is a symbol of my freedom from the social structure I was a part of before we started our adventure. I’ve had a beard for many years; I started using one during my first office job as a way of not having to shave every day, so even then there was an element of furry rebellion to it. Nowadays it doesn’t matter what I look like; I have nobody I need to pretend I’m not me to. So scruffy clothes, unkempt hair and a ridiculous beard are all fine since they make no difference to anything any more. (Except a big beard is incredibly hot and the weather’s getting quite warm so it is making a difference to my every day comfort).

Last year I realised that without a beard I look like a cross between Thom Yorke from Radiohead and Gail from Coronation Street. I shall therefore always have a beard, not, as I like to think, as a symbol of freedom but more to hide my hideous face.


We’re one year old today!

February 4th, 2012

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It was on the 4th February last year that we finally arrived at our modest French house and embarked on this little adventure.

That first night we camped in what is now the dining room, sleeping on inflatable mattresses that slowly deflated during the night. The next few days were spent exploring the house and the barns, excitedly discovering new things, figuring out where things would go and how we’d make our mark on the place.

A year’s a long time and we’d have done loads of stuff even if we hadn’t moved to France, but here’s some of what we’ve been up to.

  • We’ve renovated most of the house
    7 of the 8 downstairs rooms have been redecorated, the attic has (very nearly) been converted into 2 bedrooms, a septic tank and sand filter has been installed, the electrics redone, the little house in the courtyard has been re-roofed, and a couple of extraneous barns have been knocked down.
  • We’re self-sufficient-ish
    Actually we’re nowhere near self-sufficient, but we’re doing bits of it; the real deal must be seriously hard work!
    So we dug loads of vegetable beds and grew onions, garlic, peppers, aubergines, squashes, green beans, borlotti beans, carrots, parsnips, strawberries, rasperries, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. They were already here but we also had cherries, pears, peaches and plums.
    We got 6 chickens and set them up with a luxury chicken house and massive run, and they in return have given us 6 eggs every day.
    Corrie makes bread. Of course we buy baguettes but Corrie’s bread-making skills have been honed to the point that I prefer her loaves to those from the boulangerie.
    We don’t generate our own electricity, the well-water’s just for watering the garden, the heating is run on oil, we fill the van up with diesel about every 2 weeks… still a long way to go I think.
  • We’re spending pretty much all of our time together
    Apart from when Soren’s at school we’re all together. We’re not perfect – there’s the occasional *ahem* disagreement – but most of the time we have fun doing stuff with the boys or working on something as a family.
  • We have fun
    It’s nothing much and there are times when we’re bored, but overall we have fun. There’s weekly horse-riding for Soren, loads of stuff out in the garden such as a big sandpit, swings in various trees, a ‘secret den’, a slide, bikes and scooters, spades and soil and worms…. And for Corrie and me we have fun just doing everyday things, and seeing the boys enjoy themselves.
  • We’ve made friends
    We’ve got to know quite a few people, and even more to wave at as we’re driving along, and the boys have loads of friends to play with (all of whom are English I’m a little ashamed to admit).
  • We’ve explored a little bit
    Admittedly we’ve not gone very far, but we’ve been for walks around the tracks and woods around where we live and to be honest they’ve felt like enough of an adventure to satisfy us. We’ve spotted exciting wildlife and poked strange mushrooms and collected natural treasures and watched migrating birds and had picnics in the countryside and gone for bike rides….
  • Soren goes to school and is starting to speak French
    We’d originally thought home-schooling would suit us all best but that sort of thing simply doesn’t happen here. Plus we needed to kick-start his French as he was not keen on learning it from me! It’s working, and whilst he only goes to school for the mornings – 09:15 to 16:45 is a very long day for a 4 year old – he’s starting to enjoy it and develop new skills of which he is rightly proud.
  • I’m learning lots of new skills
    They’re mainly DIY-related, but I’m really enjoying making things and am getting pretty good. I don’t think I need to go into any detail as I’ve posted most of my projects on here already!
  • We’ve made another baby
    He’ll be here in May. Now that is going to be a real adventure!

In a year we’ve done all sorts of fun stuff. Hopefully we can have at least one more adventure-filled year.

La barbe à papa

April 20th, 2011

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The beard has gone.

I’ve had a beard for around 14 years. Initially I grew one for my first office job: with a beard I needn’t shave every day. After a while it was what I looked like and, probably like most grown-ups, I stuck with that.

I’m 38 years old today. I no longer work in an office. For the last couple of months I’ve not trimmed a single hair on my beard and it grew very, very big; I can look like a weirdo if I want to out here, I’ve got nobody controlling my career to impress.

And for that very reason – that how I look is of no significance – I decided that I should shave the whole beard off. And that’s what I’ve just done.

I’ll be honest: it’s weird. I look into the mirror and it’s almost literally someone else looking back at me. It’s my eyes but it’s certainly not my face. I don’t like it.

Here’s the shaving in 4 (mildly amusing) steps:

And here I am without my beard:

It’s quite a moment. I’m going for a cup of tea and a lie down.

The adventure begins today

February 2nd, 2011

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When we went on our big travels over 10 years ago we started off in Manchester and everything was normal. We watched movies during the flight to India and ate normal food and everything was normal. As we approached Mumbai we could see the lights below us and it hit us (metaphorically) that very soon we’d be landing in a completely different place where nothing was normal: it had all been a dream before but this was actually real! Sure enough, half an hour later we were standing outside the airport in the evening heat surrounded by noises and smells and crowds that were absolutely alien and it was exciting and terrifying.

That moment of realisation on the plane – when we knew that all the things we were accustomed to were about to be replaced by new and unknown experiences – is what it feels like this morning. I’m lying in bed and everything’s normal. It’s warm and comfortable and the internet’s working and at the other side of the house I can hear the faint sounds of cBeebies. Once I get up though that’s the end of normal: we’ll pack the last few things in the van and head south, into the (metaphorical) unknown. It’s exciting and terrifying!

I doubt we’ll be able to get online for a while, certainly not at the house. So this is my last post until we’re well into our adventure. I’ll update you on what we’ve been up to as soon as I can.

12 days to go

January 21st, 2011

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The plan is as follows:

  • I fly over to sign on the 31st January.
  • I return on the 1st February.
  • We pack up the van with all the rest of our stuff (including the 3 dogs) and drive down to stay with my parents in Milton Keynes on 2nd February.
  • We get the Eurotunnel on the 3rd February and stay overnight somewhere near Paris.
  • We then drive the remaining few hours to our new house on the 4th February.

Sounds simple, eh. Please, please, please let it be simple!