Why I didn't take the train

Switching out a familiar public transport route with a non motorised option might take longer, but it offers exercise and a new perspective of a similar journey and it’s probably cheaper, too. Last week I decided to travel the 50 miles between home and a woodland campout on a running bike instead of taking the train, and despite being gloriously unfit, here’s how it went.

“It would be easier to take the train.” I thought, as I changed a punctured tyre on a Burley Nomad trailer that hasn’t seen much action since we shared a 2000 mile journey between Liverpool and Nice six years ago. The chariot that supported me and pulled the trailer back then is again hooked up to do the donkey work, a bright orange ElliptiGO that lets the rider run without impacting on the joints. This, I figured, was perfect for my current physical state, best described as 'round in the middle’.

Adding a 50 mile ride to an already physical stay in the wood (where felling dead trees and chopping wood are order of the day and has previously left me beat!) worried me a little.

The two ruptured discs in my lower back are once again showing their weakness. It hurts to sneeze. My right ankle has been twinging since I failed gloriously in safely stepping off a wall in Thailand last November. And my mind hasn’t been in the best of places these last few months.

All are reasons for why I’m not feeling very healthy.

All are reasons for why I haven’t exercised much this year.

All are reasons why I’ve decided to break the cycle with a little adventure. Usually it would take two and a half hours by public transport to get too the YesWoods in southern Oxfordshire.

The public transport route to the YesWoods. Convoluted to say the least.

The public transport route to the YesWoods. Convoluted to say the least.

Today I’m going to swap DLR > Underground > Train > Train > Bus > Walk for an ElliptiGO and a trailer with around 30kg of woodland tools and camping gear.

I’m not much looking forward to the aches and pains afterwards and somehow, I’m struggling to imagine arriving at the woods on the ElliptiGO. It feels like a long, long way off.

But some simple maths eases the worries. If I can average 10 miles an hour it’ll only take 5 hours of riding to get there, so even with a couple of cake stops I’ll be there in plenty of time for the 6:30pm meet-up I’ve scheduled with those members of the YesTribe who will join me for a camp in the woods tonight.

And of course, the money I’m saving on public transport can go towards food. And today I can eat as much as I like!

Once the trailer is loaded and my first steps had taken me away from the marina, there was no going back. I left at 6:58am wondering if the heavy trailer would mean I’d have to get off and walk the hills and got my answer after 300 metres, a run-up to a short bank hill interrupted by an impatient cyclist who cut in front and blocked my acceleration up and over the Rotherhithe Tunnel walkway. I had to giggle, hadn’t even been riding for a minute and I was already pushing this thing uphill.

An hour later, thanks to the Super Cycle Highway network, I was in Putney with 10 miles under the belt. 5 miles later I crossed the Thames at Richmond and gently hobbled into an entrepreneur’s cafe called Hobby & Co, grateful for coffee, a bagel and that all important charging point. Note: a three year-old phone’s battery will last for perhaps two hours when recording a GPS route, which makes for a convenient excuse to stop!

Refreshed, I bundled on for the least enjoyable ten miles of the route, a wiggle through cycle-unfriendly suburbs, traffic lights, bumpy pavements and lots of wiggly road crossovers which require care when pulling a trailer. Through Hounslow, past Heathrow, over the M25 and into the countryside, satisfied with a human powered escape from the city.

Would definitely not have seen this on the train! The royal garden at Fifield with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s heads sculptured in giant size!

Would definitely not have seen this on the train! The royal garden at Fifield with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s heads sculptured in giant size!

The battery was back in the red after thirty miles, and a Harvester Pub in Windsor tempted me in with a two-course meal deal. Over halfway now, and that always feels good. I could still walk and the old back hadn’t seized up, so back onto the ElliptiGO with Henley in the sights, a Thameside town that I knew was just 5 miles from the woods.

The Komoot route plan, showing way types and surfaces - thankfully, mostly paved and asphalt

The Komoot route plan, showing way types and surfaces - thankfully, mostly paved and asphalt

All the while I’ve been navigating with the Komoot app, which is a dream for planning ahead of a ride like this, and can then record the basics when you’re on the road, offering navigation advice as you go which reduces the stops. Komoot highlights expected elevation and also, and this bit is deeply satisfying, the surface types one should expect.

A steady uphill on the approach to Henley was mitigated by the Velolife Cafe and Bicycle Workshop, which offered an energy blast in the form of Mochachino and chocolate brownie (have bike, will eat cake) and a small mountain of bike themed books. Always nice to see Joff Sommerfield and Mark Beaumont’s round-the-world rides getting some attention. And also puts into perspective my current venture, if they can go around the world, I’ve got 50 miles in my locker!

A final push to the highest point of the route and then a delightful 28 mile an hour “wheeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!” downhill to the Thames at Henley. A quick check of Instagram and there’s a message from my old friend Ben Keene who lives in town, and his invite for a cuppa came at the perfect time. As soon as the door shut behind us the rain started to welly down, which always makes crumpets and peanut butter taste extra good.

I remembered Ben’s wise words - “then you’ll go down this great little path” - as I laboured on foot, pushing the ElliptiGO through the undergrowth on a muddy, tree-rooted track that was too narrow for my trailer. Two dog walkers advised that “you don’t want to take the road around the golf course, it’ll add a mile onto your journey” after I’d told them I’d ridden from London, and then I rode around the golf course and made it to The Unicorn Pub just in time for fish and chips, a drink and a wander into the woods with some new friends.

The route map and final tour stats on Komoot. 5 hours 39 riding time, 51.3 miles distance, 9.1 mile per hour average, 1,250 ft of climbing and 950ft descent.

Let’s talk about money

If I’d travelled by public transport this would have been the outlay:

DLR & Underground from Limehouse to Ealing Broadway: £2.80
Train: Ealing Broadway to Reading: £16.70
Bus: Reading to the Unicorn Pub: £3.50
Lunch: A £5 sandwich
Total: £28

And in reality, although the journey took considerably longer, it cost £6.01 less

Breakfast in Richmond: £7.70
Two-Course lunch in Windsor: £8.99
Cake and Coffee Stop @ Velolife Bicycle Workshop: £5.30
Tea and crumpets with friends: £priceless
Total: £21.99

The stats

So, was the exercise and extra time worth it?

Of course it was. A day away from the computer is always good for the soul, as are the unexpected views, the guilt-free refuelling stops and the satisfaction of passing the Heathrow/ M25/Henley milestones without the help of anyone else.

The body aches a little more but I needed to remind myself that I could do this kind of thing, and it’s the first step to getting fit again in time for a much longer ride later in the year.

It’s almost hard to imagine that two and half hours on the train is within a day’s reach of riding a bike (or some form of non motorised transport) and there’s something wonderfully healthy about widening my bubble, seeing that journey with a different, sweatier pair of eyes, and feeling like a celebration is due at the end of a journey.

Next time you have the time to play with, why not ride your commute or the route out to the next YesTribe wild camp? I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it.

Something had to change

I’ve been working on my storytelling recently, by condensing what could be pages and pages (or books and books) into a few sentences.

I’ve just finished the first episode of a series of 60 second films that tell the story of my last few years. This is the first one, a general overview that ends with what feels like a natural call to action: which is, how can I help? Other episodes will zero on on each one of my Expedition1000 journeys, and different aspects of SayYesMore’s creation. But for now, here’s Part 1! Let me know what you think!

To paddle around an island

For some time I’ve suffered from an affliction that arrives in the form of a shoulder-mounted gremlin, who maintains silence until I arrive on a tranquil island for some much-needed downtime. Then it pipes up with a word that can’t be ignored…


God damn. It always sounds so romantic and intrepid, the concept of rounding an island on the sea, but nature also has her way of ensuring that we continue to do silly things by painting upcoming pain-fests as baths of honey.

In reality, these sweet, ever-huggy thoughts don’t last forever. Not when the ocean is gently bopping you on the head and your poor weedy arms are trying to pump out 25,000 paddle strokes in 12 hours.

Emms and I are enjoying an extended honeymoon in Thailand, as you might have read earlier. We’ve spent our first weeks on Koh Phangan, the middle island in a chain of three in the Gulf of Siam, which also includes Koh Samui and Koh Tao. It wasn’t long before I wondered whether some kind of adventure might interfere with our bliss, and slowly a plan developed to paddle round each of the islands.

The decision was made partly because of the distances. Long ago, in 2014, some friends and I paddled around Martinique in the Caribbean. It took around 10 days and was intended to be the first of a series of twenty-five mini-journeys that might go some way towards padding the gaps in between my longer 1000-mile+ trips. Each one, I proposed, would be on a Stand Up Paddleboard, at least 100 miles in distance, and in a different country from the previous paddles.

In order of circumference, Koh Samui is 75km around, Koh Phangan 50km, and Koh Tao 25km. Which comes pretty darn close to 100 miles in total.

We have ourselves a little challenge. As Koh Phangan is the current base this is where we’ll start. The maths are easy. My average speed on an inflatable SUP hovers around 3.5miles per hour, including the odd water and photo break. The sun rises at 6:15am and sets at 5:55, so with Twilight I’d have twelve hours to cover a touch over 30 miles. Normal speed + a couple of meal stops and this felt more than doable. 

Morning view

Morning view

When you’re away only between sleeps then preparation is minimal. We’ve already got our boards here, inflatable 12 foot Pathfinders by Lakeshore. Mine’s called Mud, after its maiden voyage on the Mississippi. And then I gave myself a £20 budget for the whole day, which is hearty living in these parts.

I was excited, I really was. It had been a while since my last adventure, largely because that waterbike trip along Norway’s rugged coastline had properly kicked my ass, but as we pulled ourselves out of bed at 5:30am I didn’t even hold the slightest envy knowing that Em would be right back in the bed as soon as I paddled off. 

Morning thunderstorms were 50% likely but this is normal during late monsoon season, and the grey-blue surface was mirror-calm as I headed north along the coast, Emms and the co-working hub’s two dogs – Jay and Bruce, bounded alongside briefly until their beach ran out.

Pace was fast, it felt great to be on the move. After half an hour I was into new territory, far beyond my previous recreational paddles. This newness is forever a motivation and for the entire morning I’d be treated to a convex coastline, each headland acting as a carrot before the next one would slowly reveal itself. I was being pulled around the island two or three kilometres at a time, with the rest entirely secret – a reward I had to work for.

The headland carrot

The headland carrot

The night before I’d made a map for Em with distance markers around the island and my estimated time of arrival at each spot. She anticipated renting a moped (for a massive £7 per day) and coming out to find me, but the eastern half of the island is only accessible by boat or 4x4, so I didn’t expect to see her before lunch.

I hit my first mark, which always feels good. 3 hours after starting I’d covered 18km and it was time for a breakfast. A wide open beach seemed to offer plenty of cafes and I paddled in under the curious gaze of holiday-makers, confused by this man who had apparently come in off the sea. “Passport?!” asked one bearded tourist, jokingly. I grinned, shrugged with a wink, and ordered eggs and coffee. 

After ten the wind picked up but, at least for the backside stretch of the island, it was mostly to my tail. This is rare in SUP, where as a rider you’re doing a half-decent impression of a sail. In years-worth of adventure and expeditions I can recall perhaps ten days of solid tailwind. 

We whizzed along, Mud and I, swell and wind encouraging us both south. Headlands were often mounds of strewn, house-size rocks, toppled into the ocean over the centuries then smoothed over by salt water and nature’s encouragement. The swell to my back would bounce off the rocks and return to whence they came, offering a confused, mogulled landscape as a reminder that this wasn’t all simple.

Why nam Beach

Why nam Beach

Over halfway I popped into a small, isolated cove and landed on a beach where the early seeds of a party were developing. It’s easy to forget that most foreigners come here to howl at the moon and spread their well-earned cash widely over a considerable amount of cheap cocktails and Asian beer. This was a party I’d been invited to, and dropping in was worth the endless, wide-eyed, “You paddled around the island to get here?”

This is what I love about water travel. When you make it a habit, the world is your oyster. The secret coves and offshore islands become a playground, while the rest of the world still looks out to sea and wonders what it might be like, one day, if they ever headed out there. The truth is, for a few hundred dollars and a recognition for modern-day inflatable technology, this freedom can now be carried around the world, and then becoming a sea creature is just an easy, daily decision. I said my hello’s, waved goodbye and left the soon-to-be-drunk in their spot of paradise. 

At Mile 20, my two-thirds marker, my enjoyment of the day changed. The wind and tide had switched and I only realised as I rounded the boulders of Haad Riin, the southern-most point of the island. From here, home was north west, then north, and immediately the wind howled in my face somewhat inexplicably, because it had never blown in this direction before. My pace halved, the next two miles was akin to crawling through mud, uphill.

Image by  @EmKarembo

Image by @EmKarembo

By the time I caught sight of Emms and her camera, I was a mess. We collapsed into a raised bar roughly shaped out of driftwood to become a pirate ship. Flags fluttered in the increasing wind and I stared along the coast, no longer a mysterious cascade of headlands — just the ten mile infinity beach that left nothing to the imagination. When you can see your upcoming challenge laid out from the beginning, the incentive to explore with effort is greatly decreased.

A mound of chicken and a bit of prodding from my masseuse wife was just, just enough to get me on my feet again. This was it, the final stretch, and I wasn’t looking forward to these final four hours into wind. 

The wall. Marathon runners will be familiar with it. Endurance adventures offer them up at least once a usual day. Beyond the new perspectives and exercise, the thrill of optimism-paid-off and a gentle notch-in-the-self-confidence-belt, the value of a self-set adventure is in hardening the mind more than the muscles. More is gained from the battle than freewheeling.

Two hours later I could still look back and see that damned pirate restaurant. But the distance ahead had been reeled in, inching slowly and painfully towards the island’s main port of Thong Sala. This, with the ever in-and-out of local ferries, kept me focused. Mother Nature can try to splash, drown, blow and exhaust, but the most likely danger on any venture is man. And man at the control of a big metal craft that doesn’t expect or care for a lone paddler down below — this is a dangerous creature.

This safety is up to me. The boats stay their course, they have their channel. I just need to pick my moment. The safest route would have been under the beach-side struts of the pier but the tide was out and my fin dragged on the sea-bed 100m away from shore.

Once past the port I was on the home straight. 6 kilometres left, around an hour and a half into the wind. Problem is, the sun was already licking the horizon and twenty minutes of twilight was the cushion before darkness.

I was beat. Lifting the paddle for each stroke was now an effort and the easiest thing to do would be to go to land, deflate the board and jump in a taxi. Perhaps finish off the rest of the distance tomorrow. I want to do this yet I don’t want to, and my solution is always to carry on until the giving-up solution is not the obvious one. I started with the intention of paddling around an island and just because I’m tired, hungry and out-of-energy, and just because my enjoyment of the scenario has greatly decreased, I must hold onto the original intention because I once knew going all the way round would be good for me. 

So, going to land packing up is the easiest thing to do until the easiest thing to do would be to carry on regardless and arrive back where I started, without having to deflate the board tonight, then inflate it once again tomorrow (or in four days when I’m ready for a paddle again).

My hands were screaming, and I finally found a reason to begrudge the temperature of the water. The sea is 28 degrees here, and while this is lovely for a quick sun-escaping dip I actually missed being able to cool-down my hands and feet, long-numb from gripping paddle and board. Cold water is an elixir for claw-finger. After my Mississippi paddle in 2011, three months of paddling left me with slightly curled fingers for two months afterwards. It would have been longer were it not for the chill of the lower river.


For the last hour I was in pitch darkness. The wind has slowed and I was alert to the danger of incoming fishing boats. What I didn’t expect was an enormous whooshing of water to my right, an out-rushing of air and the circular retreating wave from a smooth, rounded back. At first I thought, ‘how the hell did I paddle so close to that rock without noticing?’ but then I realised that I’d paddled this bay before and there had been no rock before. In the ever-so-pale combined light of the stars, the final refractions of sunlight from far below the horizon and the luminescence of coastal road lights over a kilometre away, I wasn’t able to make an exact identification, but I’m around 90% sure that a Whale Shark just surfaced five metres away from me, and then disappeared forever.

Twenty minutes later the end of my paddle was out of sight, and this meant that I only saw the turtle when it was beside me. It shat itself and mightily kicked downwards, throwing up a shower of sea water and leaving my little heart panting like Freddie Kruger had just jumped out.


Finally a familiar noise, “Woooo whoooop.” Em! Immediately post-wedding we’d venture to the Lower Mississippi and she’d picked up the paddler’s call. There she was, Jay the dog a faithful Boy Friday on her board, and suddenly we were paddling alongside the Srithanu channel navigation tower, a three metre high lighthouse that takes us three minutes to paddle to from our beach.

From the beach where I started this morning. From the start of this little journey. And the end. 

Twelve hours and forty seven minutes after setting out, Mud’s nose touched the sand again. Koh Phangan had been circumnavigated.

With a couple of hundred Baht to spare, the day’s budget of £20 had been spent. But this included Em’s moped hire and a good lunch for both of us, and welcome-home treats in the shape of a pizza, three large Leo beers and a Magnum each. I managed a few slices, slid the Magnum down, sipped about a quarter of one beer, then passed out.

Thanks for reading, if you enjoyed this article please do leave a comment, a like, an applause, and even better — share with one person who you think would appreciate it.

My website is stocked with over 13 years of adventures, blogs, projects, photos and films. I share these in the hope that others will experience similar feelings to those that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy.

And here are my homes on Facebook and Instagram, for daily tidbits, stories, ideas and habits.