Life on the French Border

“Adventure” is far too flippant a word for this blog. I’ve just returned from my first visit volunteering for L’Auberge des Migrants (one of a handful of small charities attempting to meet the basic needs of 7,000 refugees living in abject poverty in the camps of Calais and Dunkirk  ( So far, the French and British governments have responded to this humanitarian crisis by erecting fences, drafting in additional security, and generally hampering the small charities’ aid efforts. What aid is getting in is mainly due to  the determination and dedication of an army of volunteers (many of whom are from the UK). This is humanitarian aid DIY-style, in the absence of anything else. Here’s a taste of some of my experiences

Day 1.  Journey from London went very smooth. Dropped off donations from Nottingham and London at the warehouse. Will be back tomorrow morning to volunteer. Asked them what they were most in need of, sugar and tinned fish was the answer. So, we went out panic buying sugar, drawing lots of weird looks in the supermarket. Another 400 Euros left to spend in the next few days on whatever’s needed. You lovely generous people! Not sure what’s happening in terms of the bulldozing of some of the camp. Eating cheese and chillin now – more news tomorrow…


Day 2. Busy, busy day spent mainly in the sorting warehouse. Started out packing up kits for individual men – a bin bag containing a pair of socks, pants, gloves, hats, scarves, hygiene kit, t shirt, jumper We ran out of gloves and me and another volunteer drove off into Calais to clear the contents of another shop shelf. After being fed a delicious veggie lunch, we switched jobs and moved onto boxing up specific types of clothes such as women’s waterproof trousers into sizes. These boxes will be taken into the camp for distribution. After work, we stopped off at the supermarket, and drew lots of curious looks by buying more sugar mountains, tins of fish and permanent markers (at the Warehouse’s request). Haven’t been to the camp yet – may go tomorrow and help out with conversational English class. Felt I was more useful in the warehouse today, as didn’t have a specific purpose on camp. The warehouse is great fun – lots of really interesting volunteers of all ages. Made lots of new friends today

Day 3. Spent most of the day helping to pack up some of the food bags which are delivered into the camp each day. First of all we made up lots of big packs for larger groups who cook and eat together. Then we made up some smaller packs for individuals. It was very busy work and made me fully realise the scale of this operation.

In the afternoon, we went into the camp for the first time and took in some notebooks, pens and felt tips(from donated funds) to Jungle Books. My friends made music in the lovely afternoon sunshine whilst a guy from Dafur told me of his love of Noam Chonsky. Then we went in and chatted with people at the conversational English class. During our visit, we met men from Sudan, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Syria. Everybody was very keen to talk with us. It’s a very difficult time afoot for the camp residents. They’re just learning about the plans to bulldoze their current home, and nobody really knows what will follow next. It may not be paradise, but there is a sense of community – shops, cafes, a library, churches, games of footie – it’s all they’ve got to call home at the moment, and it might all soon be gone.

Day 4.  Sorry guys but too shattered and strung out to do this right now. Today’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride – been out to the camp in Dunkirk – and nobody should have to live in these conditions, let alone children! Will update tomorrow night when I get home and have had chance to process it all!

Day 5. Today I’m back home, feeling totally overwhelmed by grief and a new sense of uselessness. These are the images my mind keeps replaying.

Meet Abdul from Darfur. We sit in the fading afternoon sunlight outside Jungle Books and talk literature. With no formal education, he has taught himself. He tells us of his love of linguistics and Noam Chomsky. His favourite book is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I later learn that he’s a genocide survivor. His eyes, the windows of the soul, reveal the trauma stamped upon his core by being witness to sights that no eyes should see. UN estimates assess that since the start of the conflict in Darfur in 2003, more than 2.5 million people have been displaced and 300,000 killed. Since January, 73,000 civilians have fled their homes to escape the violence of the militias. Within the Darfur camps, there is little humanitarian aid or guaranteed safety.

Meet Safi, a Bidoon from Kuwait, with his face disfigured by a police beating, with his family displaced around the globe, with minimal English, with his desperate attempts to reach his brother in the North of England. It’s a one to one phonetics class, interspersed with stories of violence and family love and the weight of Safi’s hopes and dreams pinned momentarily my way. But all I can offer is my knowledge of the English language and a little human compassion. All my questions are wrong – he’s wifeless, childless, and doesn’t have an occupation. Despite having been settled in the North of Kuwait for several generations, the Bidoon are denied citizenship and classified as illegal residents in their home country. They are unable to obtain any official documentation such as a passport, a birth, marriage and death certificate, and a driving license. Their human rights are totally violated with children unable to register for schools and adults unable to get access visas to work. Marriage is impossible and procreation pointless. Safi’s only been in the Jungle for 6 days and he has sparkling twinkling eyes. I hope they stay that way.

Enter the Dunkirk Jungle. Imagine you’ve escaped persecution, you’ve escaped genocide, you’ve escaped a war zone, you’ve travelled over 3,000 miles and witnessed your loved ones dying unnaturally at home or en route. And then you wind up at the world’s worst festival with 3,000 other people living in tents covered in tarps amidst acres of mud with inadequate toilet facilities. There’s no entertainment… there’s no nothing…just a sea of mud and a general air of desperation. It’s snowing but the French police (subsidised with British funds) won’t allow in firewood, duvets, sleeping mats, pillows or blankets. You need to be fit and strong to grab any of the food supplies that make it through the gates.

Meet Sophia, the 7 year old, wading solitary and smilingly through the quagmire, joyously clasping her brand new toy to her chest, in a place where a 46 year old woman has doubts as to her own personal safety.

Meet Mog, the silver tabby, sitting in the ocean of mud, determinedly trying to clean the mud from her matted fur.

Meet the swifts in Rob Cowen’s Common Ground; the miracles of nature that never touchdown, that know no borders, that in their lifetime travel a distance of 3 million miles (to the moon and back 6 times) in order to survive and to feed and breed, birds in decline and at the threat of manmade meteorological change. They’ll be here soon passing the camps on their way North to Britain. I wish they could lend their wings. We are all nature and the patterns of nature have no inherent understanding or comprehension of the concept of borders. This is the tip of a colossal melting iceberg.


The Storming of the Champs Elysees

We’re pedalling into the Parisian night to the Bike Train rendezvous at Porte de Maillot, anarchically regrouping at the head of Avenue de Grande Armee and reuniting with our Pied Piper beats. There’s music pumping, whistles tooting, and cries of “Justice Climatique”, as we take over 2 of the 4 lanes, and the joy of defiance fills the air (much to the bemusement of the Parisian pedestrians and motorists).

The Arc de Triomphe is a blur, but we all somehow come through it together unscathed and hit the shopper thronged Champs Elysees with its twinkling Christmas lights.

Paul Powlesland pic of ADT

Paul Powlesland’s pic

The policeman winks, smiles and waves me on. “We’ve done it”, I think, “they’re letting us through”. Five seconds later, Darth Vader’s henchmen are marching out robotically, blocking our passage. Le Grande Armee of glitterfaced, hi-vis cycling climate activists stop and raise their arms in unison. It’s all a little too surreal and sci-fi for words!

I have a strong urge and a moment of opportunity to bolt. I choose not to. The raising of the arms is a powerful symbolic moment. Although it could be construed as a gesture of surrender, it feels more like an ideological stand not only for climate justice, but also for peace.

We’re herded into the belly of the beast and kettled by padded action men with guns. It’s a waiting game, and the elders hover tentatively on the perimeters whilst the young people dance.

The kettle boils for about 30 minutes, but the 2.44 minutes of Bob Marley’s One Love is all I really recollect with any clarity. Never underestimate the emotional power of music. Like a shifting polar ice shelf, my fears and anxieties melt away, and I cease to give a shit about what what these dystopic beings do to me. It’s probably worth it! And with his lightsaber of love, Bob’s using the force on the Dark Side too; the padded shoulders are lowering, the shiny leather boots are tapping, and a few smiles crack across the face of authority.

Negotiations are afoot, and suddenly we’re off again on the understanding that we use only 1 traffic lane, have a police escort and disband soon after Place de la Concorde. It’s a victory of sorts. Under the State of Emergency, the authorities have compromised but still managed to stamp a degree of control over our protest. In reality, they had little alternative as arresting 100 peaceful cyclists would have been not only time consuming but could potentially have ignited a very ugly weekend. The 2 activists who ran with us trying to warn us of the police presence ahead fared less well and were subject to manhandling and body searches. One, of Algerian descent, was found in possession of a stinkbomb which was promptly activated into his shoe.

Oblivious to this, we’re off, noisy and jubilant; cycling, chanting, whistling and smiling our way to Place de la Concorde with our police escort corking the road for us. We dismount for a celebratory gathering in the middle of this huge traffic island. The banners are out, and there’s dancing, hugging, chanting, and euphoria in abundance. We know another world is possible. Even in this city besieged by terror and repression, we can feel her.

On the last leg, cycling to the hostel, I hit what marathon runners call “the wall”. The adrenaline is all gone. I can’t speak. I’m in Central Paris but my brain is unable to process any external information. I retreat into myself and focus solely on the physicalities of keeping my legs moving until we reach sanctuary. “After all, tomorrow is another day”.

Freneuse to La Defense

Sleep appears to have externalised my inner angst into a smoggy haze clagging to the Seine valley. It’s unpleasant to cycle in, but adds atmosphere to the watery landscape; muffling sound and yet somehow heightening vision, lending an eeriness to the grottoed limestone cliffs and the tortuous tendrils and fluffy seed heads of The Old Man’s Beard lining our route.

Orion's pic in mist for blog

Photo used courtesy of Orion

Group cycling is tough…there’s the guilt of holding others back with your own technical hitches…and the impatience of being held back yourself when you’re cold and wet. In part, old bikes and charity shop clothing don’t help, but finding a use for yourself within the group is key. Today, after the first fall, I find mine. The role is very simple; just to ride behind someone so they feel safe, like a mother hen. It’s a practical task that I have day to day experience of, and it makes me feel part of something and strong again.

Half way to Paris, the traffic’s thickening, and we take a lunch stop at Andresy where sculptures and curly black kale line the banks of the sluggish Seine.

We’re journeying into a great historical metropolis of culture, and our excitement hangs palpably in the mist of the river. Leaving town, an elderly man with a foxy dog invites us home for “a cuppa”. But the clock’s ticking and the road to Paris awaits us.

There are cars, lorries, vans and beeping horns aplenty. But it’s the pedestrians that I like; the solitary women on their way home from work who raise a fist and cry of support, the fluorescent vested groups of after school kids who react with spontaneous joy at our passing by, even the gang of youths who I persuade to High Five me instead of karate kicking me off my bike.

We’re crossing the Seine into the peripheries of Paris, pedalling towards the distant space age spires.

Suddenly, with the wail of sirens pulsating in our ear drums, we’re passing armed soldiers into a Ballardesque hell of high speed subterranean roundabouts and choking smog as a multitude of police vans sweep past us. Somehow, we survive and wind up at La Defense, an alien futuristic cityscape, but at least it’s above ground and car free.

Our cycling camaraderie overflows. We’ve done it! Together, under our own collective steam, we’ve powered ourselves 206 miles from a Brixton church to this sci-fi citadel overlooking the illuminated Avenue de la Grand Armee with the iconic Arc de Triomphe looming large in the distance.


The Dolphins arrive.

As a group, for now, this is the end of the road for us. Confinement and a criminal record is not easy for anyone to bear, so from this point we all make our own personal decisions. And strangely, I’m devoid of fear. Hot Chip’s “No fear, fear doesn’t live here any more” is my ear worm. I don’t want to scuttle into Paris alone, even though I know the French state of repression is awaiting us in some form. It’s not so much a conscious decision, as an instinctual gut feeling to go with the flow, to arrive in style, en masse, flying down the Champs Elysée with the smiles of my cycling compadres and their belief that another world is possible. Paris, get ready because la Grand Armee of cycling activists is rolling into town.

From the Normandy coast to the Big Bend in the River Seine.


Dieppe to Rouen

Another dark, bleary eyed beginning as we head South in an anarchic style peloton, soon to be strung out into smaller groups along the D3 which gently follows the winding and picturesque Scie valley upstream.

In a school of dolphins, I’m undulating through the autumnal mist of rural Normandy; a land of timber framed houses, smoking chimneys, solemn donkeys and goats philosophically chewing the cud. This is an old patchwork landscape of ancient woodlands, apple orchards and wheat stubble, little changed by modern agricultural techniques, though few of the 43 watermills that this river used to power are still in existence.


A school of dolphins navigating the Scie valley

Inspired by the landscape, I plough on, but we’ve lost our front and rear runners, Leo and Helen, in yet another deflationary moment. Pausing briefly to regroup in the farming town of Auffay, we decide to break the back of this journey and continue on to Cleres, a further 12kms up the road.

It’s a tough and gruelling slog. We leave the Scie near its source and head uphill into a harsh, exposed, open monoculture. There are no trees and the wind and rain begin to hammer into our faces.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After what seems like an eternity, we reach the sanctuary of Cleres’ 18th Century covered market place, Les Halles. And soon we’re joined by several other groups of soggy cyclists most of whom are still in surprisingly good spirits. The village mayor walks by and wants to know who we are. She would have organised a welcoming event if she’d have known!

One of the groups ends up having a 3 course meal here. But many of the young cyclists have chosen to be vegan to lower their own personal carbon footprint, and their eating options are severely limited in small town rural Normandy. I’m soaked to the skin and my hands and feet are numb, so I opt for frantically wolfing down my own body weight in pastries from the local boulangerie and hitting the road, carbo loaded, asap.

I hitch onto another group (the Dolphins are safely ensconced in the local creperie), but there’s soon another puncture and a broken axle. So, 5 of the coldest and most desperate folk peel off into the beautifully hilly ancient woodland of Northern Rouen.

The rain eases but there are still hills to climb. French Canadian, Michel, is an inspirational blur on the horizon. We plough steadily up the winding and silent forest road as the drenched beech leaves glisten in the mist, and then recklessly rocket down the wet winding slopes. Martha is recently recovered from a life threatening cycling accident, though you wouldn’t know it by the pace she sets down these treacherous roads.

We meet a major intersection on the outskirts of Rouen and we’re reduced to 3 cold wet women, Martha, Alice and me, a bit lost and searching for an elusive roundabout that will lead us to the Auberge de Jeunesse. I’m a bit useless in what follows but finally we reach “that fucking roundabout” and we’re there.

In a quiet nook of the hostel I meet James, who, in September 2014, was one of 50 Greenpeace activists who, using a polar bear model, defiantly halted and then occupied a coal freight train in North Notts during the one day climate summit in New York. This protest urging the Summit to end the age of coal is one of several peaceful direct actions that has inspired me to be here today, cycling to COP21.

And then I’m night strolling with Chas and Sayid through the heart of an ancient city of towering spires and gingerbread houses where a 19 year old girl was burned at the stake for cross dressing. And I’m reminded of a French journalist’s comment – “If Beryl Burton had been French, Joan of Arc would have to take second place”.

“Would you like to play a board game?” It’s not really a question. We’ve chanced upon Le QC des Avenjoueurs, a bar run by a young man with a passion for board games and cycling ( . And soon we’re drinking beer brewed by mad monks, engrossed in Tsuro (a game representing the classic quest for enlightenment), and being regaled with tales of the patron’s own cycling pilgrimage from Rouen to Stonehenge.

I dream the van and cyclists have left without me, and spend much of the night cycling up steep hills weighted down with all my gear in a never ending attempt to catch up.

Rouen to Freneuse

As the Bike Train gathers for our dawn mass exodus, I’m alarmed to discover a mashed up front derailer, wrenched apart by the hills of Northern Rouen. Infected by the buoyant camaradic spirits of my fellow cyclists, I fix the chain on the middle cog and hope for flat ground. It’s a belief not grounded in reality, but a certain amount of expletives manage to get me up them slopes. Plus “the sun is shining, the weather is sweet, makes me want to move these dancing feet”.


The dolphins setting sail

We stop at the roundabout near Fleury sur Andelle (hosting a gigantic Tour de France bike) for a photo shoot with our banner “Pedal Power not Dirty Power”.

Shortly after this, we hear the first reports of police surveillance. Excitement and apprehension are rapidly mounting in equal measures the nearer we get to Paris.

We stop for an alfresco snack in the cobbled market place of Les Andelys with its magnificent Our Lady’s Church. Other groups have found their own nearby picnic havens.

On a slight one-way detour, we discover the delights of the half timbered houses of le Petit Andely as we rejoin the Low Seine, and leave town with the Chateau Gaillard perched strategically high above us, overlooking the valley.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’re a school of dolphins meandering leisurely upstream in the bright afternoon sunshine, pausing at the Chateau des Tourelles on the river bank in Vernon to forage sweet chestnuts and admire Le Vieux Moulin, tottering on the remaining upright structures of the old bridge. This half timbered medieval mill looks familiar, and so it should. It’s the inspiration for Monet’s Houses on the Old Bridge at Vernon, and Theodore Earl Butler’s The Red Bridge in Vernon.

But the sun is lowering her wintry head, and, in a bid to grasp the remaining daylight, we power past Monet’s garden at Giverny. We’re nearly there, but at the bridge over the Seine at Bennecourt, we realise we’ve lost a cyclist. In the encroaching darkness, the lion like Leo heads back. Without our navigational chief, we tag along with a large group of cyclists and arrive en masse at the community centre at Freneuse, an island like settlement nestled into a deep meander of the River Seine. It’s a tumultuous reception with 20 school children and their parents banging on desks and cheering our arrival. Hot tea, cake and smiles abound. They’ve made a banner for us to take to Paris depicting two possible futures with the clarity that only children have. It’s a future earth of clean air, blue seas, green continents and life versus a future earth of pollution, grey oceans, deforestation and death. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe laughter of these children is a beautiful but bittersweet reminder of how much I’m missing my own rays of sunlight, Jack and Theo, right now.

I’m hungry, and emotionally and physically depleted, and in not much shape to participate in the ensuing consensus debate about what happens the next day on our arrival into Paris. We are entering into uncertain territory. Do we skulk into Paris in dribs and drabs, or do we defiantly storm the Champs Elysees in a peaceful bike train with music blaring, flags flying, whistles tooting and chants resounding?

There are French legalities concerning groups of over 50 cyclists. Under the current state of emergency, more than 2 people together sharing a political message is legally defined as a demonstration (guess we’ve already flaunted these 2!). Despite the cries of repression by the global movement’s academic leaders such as Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy, 24 climate activists have been put under house arrest by French police and tear gas has already been deployed on demonstrators in Paris.

In a hall full of hope and fear and hungry bellies, I calm myself with the mechanical practicalities and complexities of fitting a new front derailer as I watch the heroic Sayid fix my bike, the first of several that evening. All I know is that 125 people trying to arrive at a consensus decision scares the shit out of me especially when I have no clear ideas of what direction my own individuality will take me in. I want to get into Paris… I want to protest… but I’m really afraid of being tear gassed and arrested, and my emotional need to get home to my kids is greater than my desire to be a Joan of Arc for this movement.

What’s happening in this room is possibly a great example of grass roots democracy in action, but, before I can coherently participate in this debate, I’m seeking solitude and sleep and curling up in a corner under a table. And tonight my thoughts and possibly my dreams are haunted with the lonely wandering multitudes of humanity seeking sanctuary, displaced by war and the greed for natural resources.

Time to Cycle – From Brixton to le sol Francais

In 1967, Yorkshire housewife, Beryl Burton, fuelled by rice pudding and liquorice allsorts, cycled 277.25 miles in 12 hours, setting a new time trial record which still stands in the women’s event today. It was a further 2 years before a man managed to exceed her distance.

In comparison, 206 miles in 5 days may seem a bit feeble. But, I’m not a world class athlete, my ride was the antithesis of a competitive event, and there was a distinct dearth of rice pudding and Pontefract cake in rural Normandy.

It’s Time to Cycle ( and 125 hardy souls have rallied to the call to bike from a timber roofed church in Brixton to the Paris COP21, despite the vagaries of the December elements and the uncertainties of entering into a post-terrorist attack State of Emergency. Even Superwoman, Beryl, might have applied the brakes if she thought she was pedalling into the highly volatile and repressive tear gas haze of a locked down Paris (though I doubt it!).John's photo in Brixton

Beryl’s massive cycling achievements were largely unacclaimed in the UK during her own lifetime; receiving very little sponsorship and succeeding against the odds due to her gritty determination and the support of her local Morley cycling community. She would have approved of the mettle of the company I am keeping; through the tail end of Storm Clodagh, Peter has already solo cycled from Dublin, John, Martyn, Mary and Tim started 8 days ago in Edinburgh picking up Helen in Carlisle, James is attempting 206 miles on a bike with 1 gear, Audrey, Greg and John have had their bikes chopped in half and recoupled to transport them from LA and Alaska, and finally Sam has been on the road a staggering 4 months already – cycling and sailing his way East from Seattle.

Cumbrian, Kate Rawles (a woman moulded from the same millstone grit as Beryl, and author of The Carbon Cycle; Crossing the Great Divide) sees us off with inspirational tales of her 4553 mile cycling odyssey from Texas to Alaska over the spine of the Rockies to communicate climate change and debate solutions (

We’re a motley crew aged 21 to 75, from all walks of life. We’re not here to deliver grandiose messages and petitions to “the powers that be” at Le Bourget. Most of us have gone beyond the illusion that the politicians will miraculously remedy our climate change crisis. We’re here to act, to raise awareness, to grow this movement, to make a statement, and to be the change we want to see in the world.

We’re ordinary people on an extraordinary mission. This is my journey…


The sprawling peripheries of London drag on for an eternity. Then suddenly, we’re out into the Greenbelt, rumbling over cattle grids and up the chalky grasslands of Farthing Downs, a prehistoric settlement and Site of Special Scientific Interest.  We’re dodging cattle and half marathon runners as the dark clouds race by and the wind slams into our faces setting our flags aflutter.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m admiring what may have been an ancient holloway when I hear the unmistakable sound of a “pssssst” as the wind is taken out of my sails. 3 punctures and 3 groups later, and I can only conclude that glass is a bastard and glueless patches are shite! With the help of the Scots and the Californians, the threat of being loaded into the back up van is averted and I’m finally roadworthy again and raring to go.

balcombe pic for blogI stop to refuel briefly on home made tucker, storm-kettled tea and inspirational chat at the pop up cafe put on for us by the amazing Frack Free Balcombe (, who last year set a precedent and sent Cuadrilla scuttling away from the Lower Stumble Wood.

But darkness is descending, the drizzle has set in, and, I’m off following the Pied Piper beats of the Brighton Bike Train ( Duncan rides valiantly into the elemental furies of the South Downs carrying what looks like 2 tonnes worth of speakers on his back wheels.

hannah short's puncture picBalcombe to Brighton is a blur; a physical and metaphorical challenge, a rolling sprint into horizontal rain and driving head winds, saturated to the skin by the spray of a million cars travelling in the opposite direction. But using the theory of relative velocity, time itself can be dilated and bent, and this may explain why, perversely, it felt like I was flying to the coast on the wings of a peregrine falcon. Others are not so fortunate.

A sea of reflective vests is here in greeting to lead us on a shivery lap of honour around the UK’s foremost environmental enclave. Arriving at the Brighthelm Centre ( is like reaching a shining beacon of warmth and sanctuary after travelling down a long dark tunnel. Dripping exhausted bodies soon line its hall. The Real Junk Food Project ( fill our bellies with wholesome food. Caroline Lucas fills our souls with Arundhati Roy’s vision of another, possible world that she can hear breathing on a quiet day, concluding in her own inimitable style “I hear her breathing right here in this room…I see her in this room, and you are all a part of it”.

But the elements, the hills, the punctures and the heightened emotions have taken their toll, and soon I’m happy to be pedalling into the fraternal fold of my family and the luxuries of a hot bath, chocolate biscuits, the dulcet tones of David Attenborough, and a massive comfy bed to myself.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a short coma like sleep punctuated by visions of Orca whales gliding through azure waters, I’m bolt upright, ready for action and pedalling back through the dark silent streets towards the hi vis and flapping flags assembling on the Brighton Level. We leave en masse, Brighton Bike Train style, as the sun begins to raise her sleepy wintry head.

Hemmed in by a chalk precipice, the Undercliff Path is spectacular as the dawn deepens and the waves of high tide crash into the sea walls, showering us with their salty spray.

It’s a beautiful but ominous reminder of the Atlantic fury of Storm Desmond currently running amok in Northern Britain. (Researchers have since calculated that man made climate change made the torrential down pourings 40% more likely –

Then we’re joined by a woman and several children on their bike train commute to school, and the road to Newhaven is ours, much to the impatience of a few rush hour motorists. But, on this glorious morning, we are 130 cyclists on a mission and “we are the traffic”.

The fossil rich cliffs of the Sussex coastline recede into the distance as we head across the Channel bound for Dieppe and the fear inducing uncertainties of a French State of Emergency. I chat with the Americans and hear their grief, their self confessed “loaded guilt” and the stories of their landscapes already ravaged by the frenzy for fossil fuels.boat pic for blog The cyclists gather and ponder the question “are you prepared to be arrested?” I don’t have an answer right now. I wander the decks, charging up on the power of the elements and find solace on the bow in the happy smiles of my fellow cyclists, Shamila, Ben and Orion.

We’re met at Dieppe by the local mayor who leads us on a victory parade of town. Our wheels have touched down on French soil and have been greeted with warmth.

That’s one hurdle over and the group mood is exultant, but there’s a lot of obstacles left to climb, including the hill to the youth hostel.


Beware the Ides of March

The 15th March begins inauspiciously with no cards, no chocolate, and not even a cup of tea in bed; unfavourable omens indeed. Then it all goes rapidly downhill when I announce today’s trip to Trent Meadows for my first outdoor swim of the year. A difference of opinion ensues. Why on earth would I not want to spend Mothers’ Day playing footie on the Forest for hours? Much “weeping and gnashing of teeth” follows, but, in the absence of a card, the moral high ground is all mine and, if “the children of the kingdom” don’t start behaving themselves soon, they’ll find themselves “cast out into outer darkness”.

Caught up in Mothers’ Day traffic with a petulant child kicking the back of my seat, I wonder if it’s worth the effort. It’s a cold day and most of the party are here in a spectator capacity. Only brave Helen, a newbie to wild swimming, is still game.

Trent Meadows has been subject to extensive hedging work since I was last here, and Spring is no where in evidence as we strip off in the drizzling rain on the muddy bank. The gaping hole in the wetsuit I’m desperately attempting to cram my shivering limbs into, suggests that I’ve already been stabbed in the lower back 35 times today. It’s too late to worry about the Ides of March…we’re here all ashudder, teeth chattering and raring to go.

1,2,3…cool feet, cold legs, icy thighs. Aaahhh, the midriff…count to 10, breathe, sink in, breathe. Feet up, frog-like, and we’re in, breast stroking through the silky water, almost black in its reflection of the dark skies overhead. Numbness, then adrenaline surging home like a stallion unleashed from a stable. Sensory pain and pleasure interlocking. My hands hurt, but I’m here and I feel abrim with life.

To infinity and beyond (well probably just 50 metres actually), and I’m staggering back out onto the shore like an evolving amphibian adjusting to its new reptilian life on land. With much whooping, I clamber out of the wetsuit and into my clothes as fast as my aching fingers will allow. I have so many layers on, I could easily feature in an episode of Downton Abbey. The flask’s out, and I’m still shuddering as I try to negotiate the hot fluid to my lips without scalding myself.

As the blood returns to my extremities, I’m no longer Julius Caesar, waiting for the first knife to pierce my skin. I’ve metamorphised into Boudica, the Celtic warrior; invincible and ready for battle. Seditious children beware!

tm18As we sit in the warm cafe with a steaming mug of tea, the elation remains, but the post-cold water fatigue sets in and I’m yawn, yawn, yawning.

Later, possibly in recognition that they are now dealing with an Iceni Queen, the boys, looking suitably penitent, finally hand over a home made card with the muttered words “Happy Mothers’ Day Mum”.

Time to Act: Ramp it up and roll it out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly; wandering round Lincoln Inn Fields in the Spring sunshine, as the people gather amongst the crocuses under the massive London plane trees. Once a popular place for duelling, it seems a fitting start for London’s Time to Act on Climate Change march.

And just as I’m thinking about duellers, I bump into Sara-Jane Trebar and the Save Farm Terrace Allotments group, a grassroots campaign currently battling Watford Council’s plans for the redevelopment of their allotment site.  It may be a small battle in the grand scheme of things, but, for me, it’s campaigns like this that are at the heart of the climate change movement; fighting for the rights of people to grow their own food and live more sustainable lifestyles. With the utilisation of social and national media, the group’s gone from strength to strength, pushing the discussion around legal protection of all UK allotments into the public forum. A small group of dedicated gardeners are becoming a force to be reckoned with and I’m delighted to meet them.

Suddenly, we’re off – pushing bikes and buggies and holding home made placards and banners proudly aloft. Although the numbers are smaller than the September march, which was part of an International day of action aimed at pressurising the Summit, the mood is different. The atmosphere of hope and celebration is still here, with the Samba bands, the choirs and the fancy dress, but today feels more defiant, more militant. But maybe that’s because I’m spending a lot of time following the anarchists and Occupy Democracy around.

Although some may question the anarchists’ motivation for being here, I must confess to a growing fascination with this small band of black cladded youths with their neckerchiefed faces and their staccato chant of “One Solution, Revolution”. No faff, and they’re off in unison moving sideways, pincer-like, to stop the oncoming traffic and cause momentary disruption. Then they’re on an unofficial detour, taking a critical mass of the march with them. Blue vested policemen move in and I wonder if I’m about to get kettled. We stream through and soon rejoin the main march.

At who’s instigation I’m not sure, but a small, anonymous-looking, hand written parchment is OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcirculated around the marchers – “soon we will sit down for 10 minutes”. As we hit the Strand we do, and the march is halted as we enjoy our small act of mass civil disobedience; sitting in the road in the Spring sunshine chatting with our fellow marchers as the anarchists run amok amongst the stationery traffic, taunting the police with their red and black flags.

We’re soon up and off again, heading to Westminster. Being OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa Lancashire lass, I’m obviously biased; but what’s not to love about the Lancashire anti-fracking Nanas? Taking on the mantle laid down by the Australian Knitting Nanas Against Gas, their humorous depiction of Northern housewives taking off their oven gloves in order to fight fracking acts as much of a symbol for International Women’s Day as for the Climate movement itself.

The chanting intensifies as we reach Downing Street, and the anarchists are off round the back with the police in hot pursuit.

At the rally outside Parliament, the speakers repeatedly refer back to Selma and the need for peaceful civil disobedience tactics as employed by the American Civil Rights’ Movement. There are many parallels between the two populist struggles; both with a diverse range of supporters with shared aims but with a wide range of views as to how those aims should be met. The Civil Rights’ movement was organised by a coalition of groups dedicated to achieving change through peaceful civil disobedience. Despite a violent backlash at the hands of the Establishment, huge inroads were made into bringing about legislative change. By the late 60’s, without a unifying voice, the struggle became polarised and fractured with some questioning the efficacy of peaceful protest. It will be interesting to see how the climate change movement develops and what direction it takes next.

I suspect the movement needs a Martin Luther King; a charismatic leader to unify and energise its diverse elements. Groups like Greenpeace have demonstrated how acts of targeted civil disobedience by a small group of dedicated protesters can thrust clandestine acts like Shell’s despoliation of the Arctic into the public realm. The recent surge in support for the Green Party and a more ethical style of politics show that public awareness on climate change in this country is growing. The tactics employed by people under direct and imminent threat of fracking, and the 500 protesters who broke off from the main march and headed for Shell HQ only to clash with police on Westminster bridge suggest an appetite for civil disobedience is spreading within the movement. Maybe its time to ramp it up and roll it out.

And, if more tactics of mass civil disobedience are employed, what will be the retribution? On the face of it, today’s policing was relaxed and sensible for a predominantly peaceful protest. But other blogger’s reports suggest a large surveillance operation was under way.   And video footage shows heavy handed treatment of the break away group.  The signs from America are ominous with talk of the NYPD setting up a special squad armed with machine guns which will deal with civil disobedience activists along similar lines to terrorists. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What is certain is that the present British government have vested interests in the big energy corporations, and any legislative change will not come about easily. We know there are solutions, but we need action now. On April 30th, Lancashire County Council will vote on Cuadrilla’s application to drill and frack for shale gas on the Fylde. Lets keep the spotlight on them and make sure they vote with the interests of their constituents at heart. Lets work on getting the posh boys out of Westminster before they and their fracking cronies have totally raped and pillaged this green and pleasant land of ours. And just remember, its not them, its the people got the power.