On Your Bike

It was always our intention to stay overseas as long as possible, to make the most of this opportunity to travel and show our kids just how big and interesting this world of ours is. Our funds were limited, but we’d come up with a few strategies to reduce our costs and make our Dollar/Euro/Pound stretch a bit further.

One of these was to try our hand at housesitting – looking after strangers’ houses and/or pets while they take a break and do some travelling themselves. There are many platforms out there, but after doing a bit of research, we elected to join up to two – Nomador and Trusted Housesitters (TH). About a month before we left Australia, a sit came up on TH in rural Somerset, England. We’d always planned to jump across the channel the UK while we were on this side of the globe, to visit friends and see some of the places our ancestors came from.

To my surprise, they accepted our application and we had dates locked in – UK in August, right in the middle of summer. It was a double win because it’s supposed to be about the only time the weather in Somerset is bearable, but also it would give us a chance to escape the searing Iberian summer heat, when Spain is traditionally at its least bearable.

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There are many hills in Somerset. This was just one of them.

So August came and we landed at Stanstead. As the date for the housesit approached another idea started forming in my mind. Another of our travel objectives is to minimise our environmental impact while passing through the landscape – admittedly not easy when you’re flying to the other side of the world – but we’ve been trying to achieve this goal by using public transport or walking whenever possible. The property we’d signed up to sit was about 25km outside the main regional centre, Taunton. What if, I thought, we were to hire or buy second hand bikes and ride there?

Now Mem’s written a separate article on our growing love affair with bicycles, so I won’t go into too much detail about the ride itself. But in researching the idea I discovered a really fantastic organisation from whom we ended up hiring four bikes and a trailer for our Somerset adventure.

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Riding’s not all about movement. Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the roses – or pick the blackberries like El Chico here.

On Your Bike is a local charity based in Taunton. The founding principle of this social enterprise is that they accept donations of old bikes, which they then repair and resell, while at the same time offering the chance for disadvantaged people, ex-services personnel and the long term unemployed to learn the mystical art of bicycle maintenance. this gives them the opportunity to develop valuable skills, while at the same time enhancing their self belief and employability. On Your Bike’s graduates receive industry-recognised qualifications and are more than capable of servicing bikes and repairing just about any bike-related fault.

When I contacted the charity about our plans, I received a reply shortly afterwards from Lucy Workman. Lucy, having grown up 15 miles from Taunton, describes herself as “a proper Somerset girl”. She started out at the charity as a volunteer and eventually worked her way up to the the role of Manager, which she’s held now for three years.

Lucy Workman from On Your Bike

Mem & the kids with Lucy Workman, Manager at On Your Bike

When we arrived in Taunton on a train from Swindon, we realised that it was even easier than we’d anticipated, as On Your Bike has a shopfront literally right next to the station! Lucy was about as helpful as a person can get, and in short order she’d sorted through our plans, located four excellent work-horse bikes and even dug up a trailer from somewhere. She gave us an excellent deal on the hire, delivered the bikes to the station for us and was even kind enough to sit down for a quick interview once the details had been finalised.

Within half an hour we’d picked up the bikes and gear and were humming our way along the banks of a canal through Taunton (completely the wrong direction, but that was our fault – another story for another time), the kids riding through every puddle they could find.

For anyone thinking of a riding tour of or through Somerset, we can’t recommend On Your Bike highly enough as a source for everything you might need to get and/or keep you on the road.

Footnote: If you visit Somerset and are looking for somewhere to eat, Lucy recommends The Halfway House in Pitney, which has been voted one of the 20 best in the British countryside, or The Scrumper in Taunton itself.

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Surfing the Severn Bore

In August 2017 my family and a group of complete strangers helped me to fulfilled a childhood dream and rode the Severn Bore. A huge thank you goes out to Stuart Matthews for his excellent and detailed advice on surfing the Bore, and to Matt Hammersley, who generously lent me his Bore-log and booties and gave me all the information I’d need to successfully achieve this bucket-list item. Thanks also to Josh and Ollie at Phrenix Surfboards in Somerset.

To read more about this adventure, check out my article on Swellnet: To ride a tidal wave.

Cycling Towards the Horizon

Traversing mountains, swimming in oceans, and getting lost in forests has increased our deep commitment to travel with  minimal impact. In an attempt to take it to the next level, our new favourite method of transport is cycling. We now travel with some cycling gear and hire bikes in every town possible.

It all began when we were given the opportunity to housesit on a farm in England, we decided not to hire a car. This was a major decision because our farm was four kilometres from the nearest village and 24 kilometres from the closest town, Taunton. It was a chance to stretch our pedalling legs, so without thinking it through, we made the decision to cycle there from Taunton and use bikes as our primary transport for the next four weeks.

Cass did a lot of research and found a bike shop, On Your Bike in Taunton, who fix up old bikes and sell them for charity. They also train and employ disadvantaged people (people with disabilities, ex-services personnel and homeless) to be bike mechanics. We loved their values, and they agreed to hire bikes for us and the kids.

There were a number of obstacles we needed to overcome. The biggest was working out how to carry our luggage. We travel light (see What’s in our luggage?) with approximately 40kg between four of us, but our bags are not pannier bags and it was too much to ask the kids to ride that far with extra weight. Cass and I would need to carry it all.

On Your Bike had a trailer for hire, but it wouldn’t fit everything, so we decided to buy an additional new trailer to put the rest of the luggage in. After researching all of our options, we decided to buy a 2-Child Steel Bicycle Trailer for our luggage (we successfully sold it afterwards on Gumtree).

We arrived in Taunton the day before our ride, so we could prepare the bikes, buy helmets and some lights and just get organised. We are so glad we did, because it took us the whole day to get everything together and go for a little test ride.

On the morning of our ride, we had a tight schedule. The people we were housesitting for had to leave in the middle of the day, and we needed enough time to learn about looking after their animals. We really needed to arrive by 11:30 am so we got up at 5:30 ate a buffet breakfast, and headed off.

There was a misty rain as we set off but it kept us cool as we rode. Cass had one trailer with half our luggage, and I had the new trailer with the other half, and a bag with all our snacks on my back. The trailer was hard to pull. Hills I could usually ride up with ease were very difficult, and I had to walk up many more than I would have liked.

The first half went well, we rode at a good pace and were enjoying ourselves. Cass and I were nervous about the ride and whether the kids would make it, but being in the open air and seeing the English countryside was a good antidote.

12 kms in and feeling hungry (but good)

After a snack break at the halfway point, the rain set in. The temperature dropped dramatically, and our raincoats were only keeping our top half dry. The hills started increasing (as we expected from our meticulous route planning) and the kids were tiring. We started questioning ourselves. Had we made a terrible mistake?

After a lot of hard pushing, under the dark clouds and heavy rain, we finally reached the last kilometre. We knew this was a continuous uphill climb to our housesit, and we very slowly trudged up feeling tired, uncomfortable and not really enjoying it anymore. We had no choice but to keep going, and much to our incredulity, we finally made it. The kids were amazing, remained positive and were so relieved when we arrived. They nicknamed the last hill ‘Giant’s Hill’ and called it that every time we saw it after that. I told them they were my heroes.

For the time we were away, we only took the kids to the nearest town once as their faith in riding was a bit diminished by the ride up Giant’s Hill in the rain. Cass and I did the trips over the hill to the closest supermarket. With the kids we did small rides down to the creek, or to the nature reserve for a bushwalk, but kept the rides small so they could renew their love of riding.

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You can find secret swings when riding a bike.

When we returned to Taunton it was all downhill without any rain and the kids absolutely loved the ride. We stopped to pick blackberries, look at horses and eat our snacks with beautiful vistas.

When we returned the bikes, the kids were sad to see them go. They lamented it for the next few days. We kept our helmets and other paraphernalia and then hired some more bikes in Cambridge.

We were treated to some lovely weather in Cambridge and cycling was the perfect way to get around (no hills either!). We saw so much more of Cambridge than we would have otherwise, and we were able to ride to the Orchard Tea Gardens in Grantchester, where we drank tea under the apple trees.

A few of my favourite things – tea, apple orchards, sunshine – after a beautiful bike ride.

Now the kids want to ride everywhere, and we hire bikes often. It can be difficult navigating the traffic, and making it all work, so here are some lessons we’ve learned along the way:

  • A strong peloton goes a long way – We ride in single file with one adult up front and one at the back. There’s a number of reasons this works; we are more visible to drivers, the kids feel safe sandwiched between us and we can adjust our speed based on how the kids are going. The one at the front has to navigate and watch for traffic for themselves and the first child, while the one at the back can stay in pace with the slower ones.
  • Teach the kids the road rules while on the road – This seems obvious, but our kids knew the rules in theory before we started. We constantly go over them before we set out, but it is a different thing when they are on the road thinking about steering, pedalling, changing gears and dealing with traffic. It is like everything they know goes out the window. El Chico constantly heads straight into a roundabout without looking for cars, or sometimes even noticing that it is a roundabout. We stop at every corner and wait for everyone to catch up, talk about what we need to do at the corner, then go across in pairs so that we aren’t holding up traffic.
  • It isn’t a money saving venture – For four bikes it sometimes costs more than hiring a car. We don’t have to pay for petrol so it probably comes out even. The benefits outweigh the costs though, as it’s a beautiful way to travel. You are out in the world on a bike, rather than being removed from it inside a car. And your impact on the places you are visiting is diminished.
  • Check your maps – A lot of places have dedicated bike lanes and paths. These are invaluable with the kids because you don’t have to worry about the traffic, you can stop and smell the flowers and go your own pace. Galileo Maps are very accurate when it comes to cycle paths and footpaths, (and can be used offline) and Google Maps has a function where you can show a layer of the dedicated cycle lanes and paths.
  • Gears are best – The kids always find it easier when they have gears. They don’t always use them, and we find it frustrating, but when they have fixies they struggle up the hills.
  • Think about your equipment – Some bike hire shops provide you with lights and locks, but not all of them, so we now travel with lights, locks, helmets and some occy straps.
  • Fuel up – Riding makes the kids hungry (this is good for us because our kids are usually fussy eaters), so we need to have a big stash of healthy snacks in our backpack
  • Bikes + trains = more fun – In our experience, you can take bikes on trains in both England and Spain at no extra cost. This means you can go more places and take your bike with you to ride around at the other end. Many of the Spanish trains have a carriage where you can chain your bike to a dedicated rail. Although a word of caution, we did get in trouble once for trying to take bikes on a long distance train (we were only going to the next stop and didn’t realise it was any different).
  • Water is your elixir – Don’t underestimate how much water you need, especially in hot climates. A good rule of thumb is to have one litre per person per hour of riding.
  • Enjoy it – Riding is such fun so relax, enjoy and explore!
DISCLAIMER: We are not affiliated with any of these towns or attractions and were not paid nor given any free bikes, tours, accommodation or food. We paid for all these journeys with our own money and these are our own opinions. Some of the links in this article are affiliate links.