A Melting WorldCycling from Bristol to COP26With a Block of Ice
Jet McDonald made an epic dash across Britain to emphasise how time is running out for action over climate change. How did the people he met on the way react?
When I came back from the ride there were so many questions. How long did it take? Did the ice melt? How are your legs? But one question stood out, from a woman being dragged along the road by her toddler, more to herself than to me, “What do you do with it? What do you do with the grief?” Whose grief and for what? The oceans, the polar ice caps, my middle-aged knees?
Day One: Wetlands Café – Slimbridge – Gloucestershire
A man approaches at the café where I’ve paused to change my damp socks.
“No much point is there,” he says as he gestures with his walking stick and his wife lines up her phone for a snap, “if Russia and China and India aren’t doing anything?”
“Someone’s got to take a lead,” I say, “and we started the industrial revolution.”
“Well I don’t trust the politicians. It’s got to come from the people.” And then, somewhat unexpectedly, he lifts up his hand for a fist bump. “You’re a good man.”
Day Two: Canal Path – Stourbridge – West Midlands
I get lost on Stourbridge canal path. Which is pretty impressive given there is only one canal. A young man with a carrier bag in one hand, the other pulling an anorak hood over his head against the driving rain, watches me try to manoeuvre the bike, with its trailer and block of ice, up another series of steps.
“You ok?” he says, barely able to make out my blurry image in the rain and encroaching dark.
“Yeah,” I say, in a voice clearly not ok.
“Where have you come from?’
“Where you off to tonight?’
“Stafford?” Stafford is sixty-five kilometres down the road.
He stares at me as the rain pummels our faces.
Day Three: Bus Shelter – Stoke – Staffordshire
I get a phone call from a producer for Talk Radio.
“We’d be interested in having you on the evening show.”
A moment’s pause. The producer gives me the name of a notoriously antagonistic interviewer.
“He won’t haul me over the coals, will he?”
“Don’t worry,” the producer says, “it’s not like Newsnight.”
“I’ll call you back.”
I park the bike trailer outside a cafe and order a jacket potato with beans. There is the warm burr of Staffordshire accents, as I scroll through the presenter’s ranting twitter feed. And the only thing I can get to grips with is that he’s “not like Newsnight.”
I ring my Mum. Poor mum. Head of press relations for the middle-aged man towing an ice block to Glasgow.
“Shall I go on Talk Radio Mum?”
“That doesn’t sound like a good idea. Who’s it with?”
“He’s a bit like Jeremy Kyle.”
“Jeremy Kyle?” I can see images blooming in my mother’s mind of her long grown-up son wrestling with love cheats and drunk drivers.
“He’s like Jeremy Kyle.”
“But Jeremy Kyle?”
“You don’t need to worry, it’s not like Newsnight.” And then I realise, as I pierce the bottom of my jacket potato with my fork and dangle the skin over my mouth, that actually, actually, I’d much rather be on Newsnight.
Day Four: Pub Garden – Chorley – Lancashire
I’ve told everyone I have to be in Glasgow by 4pm on day seven. Ostensibly this is to keep the light so a TV crew can film my arrival but it’s actually a deadline of my own making. Like Superman flying around the planet in reverse, to save Lois Lane, I’m trying to turn back time. If I don’t push my body to the absolute limit, if I don’t fold my imagination like origami into a new physical reality, I won’t make any difference to the darkness surrounding the floodlit conference centre.
At a pub beside a canal a couple in their sixties with a grown-up daughter with Down’s Syndrome, peer curiously at me and the trailer and ask carefully, politely, what I’m doing.
“Bristol to Glasgow towing a block of ice.” That’s all they’re getting. I don’t have time to actually talk to people. I mean time is literally pouring through my fingers. Can’t they read what’s written on the side of the trailer? If I don’t get to Glasgow by 4pm on Sunday. Then it’s over. Forget the United Nations. It’s all down to me and my block of ice. The world turns around my legs. Or rather my legs turn the world.
Their daughter stares through a back seat window, as I hunch and clatter and roll out of the car park.
Day Five: Cake Shop – Beetham – Cumbria
Towing an ice block up a hill is just about achievable but past a certain angle you’re on the road to nowhere, spinning to stand still. So I determine to avoid any of Cumbria’s Lake District. On the outskirts I find a café in a quaint village. The man at the window seat is moderately interested in the harried cyclist who is not prepared to wait five minutes for his espresso and just wants a bun.
“I’m cycling from Bristol to Glasgow, mmmpfph,” cinnamon whirl half in mouth, “with a block of ice.”
He peers out at the bike trailer. “Can I take a picture?”
“Sure.” I offer him a few more syllables between bun chewing. “I’m doing it for my son really.”
And this seems to stop him in his tracks, punch at something in his chest, as if he’s been struck by a thought he can’t yet bear to say.
“Hills this way,” advises the walker, pointing with his spiked walking stick over the hedgerows.
Hasn’t he seen my twitter feed? Nothing can defeat me. I eat these kinds of bumps for brunch. I ring the bike bell and the hedgerow starlings shake, like shattered shadows from the hawthorn, from the Dogrose and Old Man’s Beard.
And then a trailer tyre punctures.
Kefudder. Kerfudder. Kerfudder.
The inner tube has torn around the valve. Irreparable. So I ride on the plastic rim. One wheel pumped up normally, the other knocking on the road like a stone on a flywheel. And two hours later, in the smeary rain of the Autumn dusk, I get to a bike shop in Kendal, just before it closes.
“You want to take the A6,” says the mechanic as I pump up the new tyre, “Over Shap Fell. You can make it on a road bike in two hours.” He looks down at the haggard cyclist with his block of ice and sodden hair. “You can probably make it in three.”
“Isn’t there any other way?”
“There’s no way around Shap,” he says. As if Shap has its own melancholy intent, like a school bully with folded arms, in the drizzly dark.
And four hours later I am still spinning. With nothing to show for it but impossibly tired legs. Distant November fifth bonfires mark out the gradient above and below. The road is otherwise empty. This is the first time I really think about giving up. About heaving the ice block into the verge and calling it a day.
And then a car slows down, the headlights from behind light up the chill mist, coming closer and closer, as if focusing in on the trailer. It creeps alongside, puts its hazards lights on, and then a window burrs down. I’m expecting obscenities, like the trolls on Twitter shouting from a pub doorway.
#virtuesignalling #climatetool #twat
The engine turns over, keeping pace. Then the driver leans over the passenger seat. In the half-light he seems to look a bit like me.
“Are you ok? Do you need any food or water?”
“No…” I swallow my sadness. “Thanks.”
“You’re doing a good thing,” he says. Buzzes up the window. And is gone.
Day Six: Backroad – Gretna Green – Dumfries
The trees beside the path burn autumn red, a firestrip in the woodbrush. A man with his head down is walking in the opposite direction. If I didn’t stop he wouldn’t notice me. When I ask if he can take a photo he takes his time to remove his gloves to reveal swollen arthritic hands. At first he doesn’t understand what is going on but when I explain, he reaches out a trembling hand out to shake mine. “Good on ya.”
Day Seven: Service Road – M74 – Lanarkshire
Its four in the morning. I’m spinning in the darkness, no idea of how far I have come and how high I have yet to go, until with a pitch and a lurch, my front wheel, my centre of gravity, and then the whole trailer, cross the highest point of a hill. Suddenly I’m swooping down to the service road that runs alongside the M74 into Glasgow. Lorries roar along the motorway, three abreast in the gloaming. But on the service road there is no-one. Crumpling into the verge I try to eat my peanut butter sandwiches. My hand is so numb I cannot feel it. Rabid flakes of breadcrumbs and snack bars have accumulated around my mouth, whisperings of delirium.
By the time I reach Hamilton, the town near the outskirts of Glasgow, there is an hour left before my meeting with the TV crew. My navigation app is trying to make me follow a path I cannot find. Bemused families out for a Sunday walk in Hamilton park watch the frantic man towing a block of ice, go round in circles, searching for an exit that doesn’t seem to exist.
“Do you know the quickest way to Glasgow?” I ask a woman weighed down by two Tesco bags.
“Aye. Cycle there meself to work. When do you have ta be there?”
She reads the message on the side of my trailer.
‘TIME IS RUNNING OUT.’
“Ye shuid mak’ it.”
I turn too fast to follow her instructions and the trailer flips, so the ice block slides out onto the road. I fumble it back into the basket. The two bridges I was told to cross don’t seem to lead anywhere but at least they take me away from the park. I head towards a train station that leads to a bike path that leads to Glasgow. I check my phone – thirty mins to cover ten kilometres. “Come on. Come on.”
And then, like a vision in the afternoon sun, a sign appears.
Glasgow City Centre, A724
“Come on! Come on!”
And I’m into the arterial rush of traffic, dodging in and out of the bike lanes, traffic queues, potholes, roundabouts; no water, no food, no time; hands gripping the handlebars so tight it feels as if they might bend the metal.
The nearside wheel hits the edge of a speedbump and the whole trailer flips at speed so that the ice block skids out into the carriageway. I leap off the bike and into the path of an approaching taxi, indicating my apologies with one hand and grappling the ice with the other.
I shave the traffic lights, hop the junctions. What price when time is running out? When you’re so tired and hungry and fried? When your own personal safety seems to be the price of chasing the future?
I swerve into a red hatchback; a teenager leans out of the window and gives me the finger.
Ten km, Five km, Four km, Three, Two…
I follow the southern bank of the Clyde, the one opposite the COP26 conference centre, so the police don’t think I’m some kind of ice bomber charging the UN. I go past some old industrial buildings, a hotel, a TV studio. And there, at the turn off to a concrete plaza, I see the ‘Armadillo’, the COP26.
When the TV crew have gone, I leave the ice block by the side of the Clyde, in the lee of the conference centre, glowing electric blue. I give it a nudge with my foot and then a stronger kick. “There you go you f***ers. Now do something.”
The next day a man in a business suit who directs me to Glasgow Central station leans in close, closer than I’m used to in these COVID conscious times. “Th’ wankers wull ne’er dae anythin’ ”, he says, “Tis git tae come fae th’ people.”
“What do you do with it? With the grief?”, the woman asks on my return, the toddler pulling at her hand.
You carry it, but you also share it, and with that sharing you bear the fierce hope burning at its centre. You pass it on, night after night, from stranger, to stranger, to stranger.