I never consciously decided that I would ride a bike alone on the Worcester & Birmingham and Stratford-upon-Avon canals in the Midlands of England this May—it just sort of happened. And I never intended that I would film a documentary of my little adventure nor had I intended to write a book called Cycling the Canals of Britain—it just sort of happened.
Looking back on it, the thread of circumstances and the timing of it are pretty obvious, but it was certainly not obvious at the time. So let me back up and tell you how this came about. Over the holidays, I’d had a little success selling Narrowboating for Beginners, enough to convince myself that I might be able to eke out a small career writing about the canals of Britain and the joys of a narrowboat trip.
I tried recording an announcement about my trip while on the Cherry Creek Bike Trail, but a series of audio mishaps, incredibly windy days and looking goofy resulted in nothing usable, so instead I decided to film a series of videos about the camera and audio equipment I’m taking on the trip.
I knew, however, that I would need to update the book with better pictures and up-to-the-minute information, which would require another trip. My husband Jim and I had been thinking of taking another short England trip this year (2017) for that purpose, but money, logistics and concern for aging pets was making it difficult to plan. Eventually Jim said it made the most sense for me to go alone and from there it just mushroomed.
Without Jim, I’d be free to ride a bike on the canals, something I’ve always wanted to do. (Jim’s not a natural cyclist.) At a top speed of 4 mph for a narrowboat, it’s a challenge to travel the length of an entire canal and back in just four days or even in a week, especially if there are lots of locks and things to explore along the way, like ruined castles and stately homes. On a bike, however, I can easily manage 6–8 mph and can spend time taking pictures of locks rather than turning them. On a bike, I can easily visit those ruined castles and stately homes and explore the cities along the path of the canal.
Here’s an example of the footage recorded on the DJI Osmo while riding on a well-paved street near my house.
I quickly decided that I would explore one of the Birmingham canals. After all, Birmingham is the heart of the network and I could choose from a multitude of canals. The Worcester & Birmingham, at only 30 miles long, made the most sense, especially because it features the longest lock flight on the canal system. I could ride the length of the Worcs & B’ham and as an added bonus I could take a little detour on the Droitwich Canal, which connects to the Worcs & B’ham. But one thing leads to another and soon I realized that I could also ride along the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal.
92 miles on the Worcs & B’ham and Stratford canals
So I was now contemplating a 30-mile ride from Birmingham to Worcester, a 30-mile ride from Worcester to Stratford-upon-Avon, and a 25½-mile ride from Stratford-upon-Avon back to its junction with the Worcs & B’ham and then back to Birmingham. This would add up to about a 92-mile round trip.
Now I’m hardly one of those bicyclists—the kind who wears padded shorts and rides 100 miles a day on a $5,000 bike. I’m the kind of cyclist who goes to the grocery store on a 20-year-old hybrid bike, occasionally rides ten miles and very occasionally 30 miles. So a 92-mile ride would definitely be out of my wheelhouse, except that it would be spread out over eight days. On only one day would I need to ride 30 miles, from Worcester to Stratford, but the terrain should be pretty flat and of course practically at sea level.
So I’m not too concerned about being fit enough for the journey, although I am exercising a lot and trying to lose weight for the camera. I’m more concerned about the equipment, logistics and finances of the trip. To put it mildly, I’ve become a person obsessed. I’ve been mentally packing since I decided sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day to make this trip. I’ve struggled with how can I pack all my clothing and camera equipment into a fanny pack, carry on and checked bag and still have it fit on a bike. I’ve researched audio equipment, rain jackets, bike panniers, luggage and camera stabilization rigs. I’ve booked hotels, hostels, inns and bed and breakfasts. I’ve contacted canal societies, found out what Shakespeare play is being performed in Stratford (Julius Caesar) and pored over historical weather reports.
I’ve watched travel documentaries to get a sense of the structure of a documentary, and have decided to make three, 40-50 minute episodes. Although I toyed at first with being off camera, I decided that the documentaries I like best are those with a presenter. It doesn’t matter how odd looking or quirky a presenter is, a presenter keeps my attention far more than a disembodied narrator. This is a real challenge for me, because I’ve never liked being photographed or filmed, but I’ve decided the whole point of this trip is to go outside my comfort zone. After all, the appeal of this documentary and book will be that on a whim a woman of a certain age is doing this alone.
Not on a whim
As I mentioned earlier, however, I did not really do this on a whim. It came about because I turn 60 later this year and because my husband recently retired from The Denver Post last year and because I was feeling out of sorts because of the election. I felt I needed to do something bold and hopefully something that others would find interesting. I love England and I really, really love the canals and the history of the Industrial Revolution, so this project does make a certain logic.
If I’m honest, I must admit there are already many, many documentaries about the canals, but they are not all that easy to find or enjoy here in the United States. And if the BBC, Channel 4 or ITV produced those documentaries, then the web players at those websites block U.S. playback. Nevertheless canal documentaries sometimes do appear on YouTube, but they often disappear if there are claims of copyright infringement, or they have been reduced in quality to appease those claims. My documentary, however, will be freely available on YouTube, and I hope they will expose Americans to the joys of narrowboating.
Of course once I’ve spent all this money on cameras, bike panniers and rain gear, I’ll need to recoup the investment, so I’m thinking of all kinds of documentaries to make. I think it would be a lot of fun to explore Colorado and who knows, maybe hike the Colorado Mountain Trail. Or I could finally go back to the East Coast and bike the Erie Canal. Or, and this is very tempting, cycle Jane Austen’s England, riding a bike in Hampshire to Steventon, Chawton, Winchester, Portsmouth; or Lyme Regis in Dorset; the Peak District in Derbyshire; and Bath in Somerset.
Before I get ahead of myself, however, I have to focus on this May. I’ll be posting updates as I prepare—showing off my camera equipment; filming my Colorado training rides along the Cherry Creek Bike Trail, the Platte River Trail and the High Line Canal; and previewing some of the sights I’ll see in England. Once I’m in England, I’ll be posting, facebooking, tweeting, Instagramming and other made up words, with the hope it won’t all look like the Blair Witch Project.