Would you cycle across Europe on a ‘sit up and beg’ bike with little experience and no map reading skills? Helen Moat talks about how her adventure unfolded in an inspiring interview that will have you reaching for the guide books and considering where you could travel next.
Helen Moat is an author and freelance travel writer for Wanderlust and BBC Countryfile, originally from Northern Ireland. Today we’re talking about her latest book, A Time of Birds: Reflections on Cycling Across Europe.
- Making the decision to plan a cycling trip without much experience
- Taking time to enjoy the journey
- Starting off on the flats near the Danube and the Rhine
- Restoring one’s faith in humanity by staying with strangers while couch surfing
- Facing fears about the journey
- Choosing the wrong bike for the ride
- Slow travel and seeing the world from the seat of a bicycle
- Travel as a time of healing
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Helen Moat is an author and freelance travel writer for Wanderlust and BBC Countryfile, originally from Northern Ireland. Today we’re talking about her latest book, A Time of Birds: Reflections on Cycling Across Europe. Welcome, Helen.
Helen: Hi, Jo. It’s good to talk to you.
Joanna: Thanks for coming on. So the book is about cycling to Istanbul with your son, which is super adventurous.
Why did you decide to take this trip? What led to it?
Helen: I think it was a moment of pure madness to tell you the truth. And actually, when I first had the idea, I mentioned it to my brother who really is an excellent cyclist. And actually, at that point, I didn’t really cycle, I like walking but I never cycled.
When I told him that I was planning to cycle the Istanbul, he looked really puzzled and he said, ‘But Helen, you’re a walker, you’re not a cyclist.’ But I had read a book by a guy called Nick Kant, who had walked to Istanbul in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor. And I thought, ‘I’d really love to do that.’
I was in a job I wasn’t very happy in but I couldn’t leave at that point but imagined it was something that would keep me going. And maybe three years down the line, I could take off and do this trip. And I figured that walking would take too long. So I decided, ‘Yes, I’ll cycle it.’ So that was the reason why I decided to do this trip, and a midlife crisis, I think.
Joanna: It was interesting that you went with your son though in the end. You mentioned your brother there.
How come you ended up going with your son? And how was that, because doing things with family can be good and bad!
Helen: First of all, I’m quite a sociable person. So I didn’t really fancy doing it by myself. I’m not that adventurous. But secondly, I’m really rubbish at reading maps, and so my son is just brilliant. So he was actually 15 when I first mentioned it, and I said, ‘Yeah, would you cycle to Istanbul with me?’
And like any other 15-year-old, he said, ‘Yes, okay,’ thinking it would never happen. And then when he left school at 18, I mentioned it again, and he’s such a lovely guy because he had made this promise to me, he decided he would keep it. He just didn’t tell any of his friends he was going cycling with his mum because that wasn’t cool.
Joanna: I can imagine!
How long did it take you?
Helen: Well, to be quite honest, a long time, it took us three-and-a-half months. But I did a degree in German at school, so I had friends in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. So we really took our time and we made sure we looked up the sights along the way.
We stayed with friends for a few days. So I really doddled, going really slow but that’s the way to cycle as far as I’m concerned.
Joanna: Absolutely. So let’s think about some of the highlights because three-and-a-half months, I imagine a lot of it was just pedaling.
What are some of the highlights or things that surprised you along the way?
Helen: We left on the 1st of May, right at the beginning of spring, well, not right at the beginning, but close to the beginning of spring. And the weather was a little bit cold to begin with but it very quickly warmed up.
I did mention I wasn’t much of a cyclist. So I had this cunning plan that I would cycle the Rhine and the Danube and I figured it would be pretty flat. And it was, especially the Rhine, but the weather slowly warmed up, and it was beautiful. There was so much birdsong. The riverbanks were bursting with wildflowers. It was just gorgeous. Definitely nature was a highlight.
The other thing that was a highlight for me was the people we met along the way. I did something called CouchSurfing, which is a hospitality website, you can link up with people online and they offer a bed or just a sofa, a meal, and they will put you up for the night.
To begin with, I was a little bit wary of this. I thought, ‘Oh, staying with total strangers, is that not a little bit risky?’ But I did it and we stayed with people right across the continent of Europe and in Turkey. And it was the best experience, it really restores your faith in human nature.
All along the way from strangers in Germany to a lovely lady and in Hungary who her and her son cooked up this amazing Hungarian meal, from the guy who ran out of his garden and Romania, total stranger, and just handed us some free tomatoes, to the farmers, two twin brothers in Turkey who put us up and took us into town. And we had this lovely evening with their farming friends. We’re drinking tea daintily from China cups as you do in Turkey. It was a fantastic experience.
Joanna: You’ve mentioned you didn’t like cycling before that, so what training did you do for this? I’ve had a look and you’re obviously a walker, you do a lot of walking, but cycling is different.
What did you do to prepare?
Helen: To be quite honest, very little. At that time, I was writing the Slow Guide to The Peak District for Bradt Guide Books and really didn’t have time. I had to do last-minute edits. So I did a little bit, I think, a few months before I cycled with my son to my sister in Hitchin from Derbyshire and the odd little bit but very little preparation for the trip.
Joanna: What kind of bike did you buy as well? I’ve done a bit of mountain biking and it really does seem that, for example, the type of saddle can make a big difference as to how comfortable things are and the saddlebags and that type of thing. How did you get the bike?
Helen: Well, again, really silly decision. I decided I wanted a sit up and beg bike. I could see around me better. I thought it would be more comfortable. You mentioned the saddle, the saddle was brilliant. It was really comfortable. I bought a giant sit up and beg bike.
My son joked that I was sitting on the sofa, he called my bike the sofa sometimes when he wasn’t calling it The Tank, and that’s why it was so inappropriate because it was a very heavy bicycle. Lovely to ride. Great on the flat, but absolutely terrible on hills. When I got to Dotrat, I stayed with a kite surfing couple there. And Asher, the guy, just looked at my bike and said, ‘Helen, this is a bike to cross town on, not to cross a continent.’
So totally inappropriate. But I got there by hook or by crook. And when it got really steep, I just got off my bike and walked up the hills and my son and I would jokingly call it we were doing a bike and hike, bike hike.
Joanna: I love that because I also like sit up and beg bikes. So people don’t know who are listening, it’s the one with the basket on the front. Isn’t it?
Joanna: So sit up straight and you definitely look like you’re riding around Oxford as a student or something. But no, that’s fantastic. So then the preparation, again, you mentioned you’re rubbish at reading maps. Now, when people think about let’s go from England to Istanbul.
Did you just set off or did you plan a route, you and your son, or how did you plan it?
Helen: We did two routes, basically two European routes, Route 6 and Route 15, I think they’re called the Bella Routes. The name just escapes me at the moment. But you can buy books to go with these routes as well.
The Rhine road was very easy. It’s very well signposted. Likewise, the Danube, we had all the bike books that go with that route. And then by the time we went off pace in Bulgaria and left the two rivers behind, Jamie just used his Google Maps on his phone. He was brilliant. He would stop his bike and go, ‘Three lefts, four rights, okay, straight ahead.’ And he wouldn’t need to look at a map again for another 10, 15 minutes. Without him I would have been completely lost I think.
Joanna: Did you get lost at all?
Helen: I think Jamie went wrong once for about 10 minutes and we had to backtrack. And consider we cycled well over 3000 miles, that’s not bad going, is it?
Joanna: Wow, that’s incredible. Okay, so you said you weren’t worried about getting lost because you had Jamie with you.
What were some of the fears that you faced both before the trip and while you were away?
Helen: I had so many fears that went through my head before we went. I thought, ‘oh, am I going to manage on this really heavy bike?’ How am I going to manage on the hills not having practiced much, not being very fit? I worried about something going wrong with the bicycle in the middle of nowhere.
I knew nothing about bicycles. I didn’t even really know how to fix a puncture, but we filled the bikes with slime, which is a great product. If you do get a flat, it just seals itself again, the tire, with sort of a glue-like substance, so that was brilliant.
I worried about the dogs in Eastern Europe that I’ve heard about, about the pickpockets. But actually, you know that saying that people say, ‘90% of what you worry about never happens,’ and that was definitely true about my worries. The dogs, I would just turn my bike at and shout at them and they’d slink off. So we didn’t have any problems with pickpockets or anything like that. In fact, quite the opposite. People were incredibly kind on the journey.
Joanna: Did anything bad happen? Or was everything was perfect?
Helen: No, that’s true. And actually, I did mention that I did worry about something going wrong with the bikes on the journey. When we were in Romania, I think it started in Croatia. Jamie had his first broken spoke in Croatia and we happened to be in a town with a bike shop. They fixed it, no problem.
But then we were out in the sticks and it happened again. And it happened a couple of times, and one of the times was in a very rural area of Romania. And there were no bike shops anywhere. And luckily, we found someone in a hotel who had an old bicycle where they took off a spoke that was the right size for Jamie’s big wheels, luckily, and fixed it.
And then it happened again in Bulgaria, and this time we were about to cross the Balkan Mountains and he broke 3 spokes within 24 hours. We thought we can’t cycle on but we were in the middle of the mountains. So we stopped at a little shop and the man in there put us in touch with his son on a mobile and they arranged for someone to drive us over the Balkan pass into Bulgaria. So that was really lucky. And it meant that I didn’t have to cycle the very steepest part of the journey, so it turned out to be quite fortuitous.
Joanna: Maybe you actually caused that somehow!
Helen: I sneakily snipped his spoke.
Joanna: But it’s interesting because it does seem like you just set off without massive preparation and it did really work, which is amazing.
If you were giving tips to someone else who wanted to do this, or if you were going to do it again, what would you do differently? Or how would you prepare differently?
Helen: I would have definitely chosen a different bike. As soon as I got home, I started cycling with a friend of mine in the Peak District and it’s not exactly flat so I had to get out of the valley floor and go up into the hills, so I bought a hybrid.
So I definitely wouldn’t recommend cycling across Europe on a sit up and beg bike, lovely as it was. I would get a good hybrid bike.
And apart from that, my advice would be if you like the idea, just do it. It’s the most wonderful experience I’ve had in my life. You don’t need to be that fit. You just need to turn the pedals. My idea was I’d cycle into fitness and I did to a large extent on the way.
Joanna: That is a good tip. When you say a hybrid bike, what is that? Do you mean like a half-electric bike?
Helen: No, I just mean a bike that is not a road bike with very thin tires. A hybrid is probably something between a road bike and a mountain bike, so you can go off surface roads on it. Because often on our trip, we were cycling alongside the river on rough tracks. Definitely no to sit up and beg bikes. Once you’re going on the hills, it’s not really that great.
Joanna: I love that. Now, you mentioned slow travel and you’ve written another book about slow travel. I do a lot of walking. I understand walking is slow, but I don’t see cycling as that slow.
How is the world different when you’re cycling? And what different perspective does it give you?
Helen: That’s a really good question. Obviously, walking is the ultimate slow travel and you can really take in your environment, but cycling is definitely the next best thing. If I imagine doing the journey I did in a car surrounded by metal…on a bicycle, you can engage all five senses, you smell the wildflowers, you smell the bread from the bakeries, you go past, you hear the birdsong, you feel the grass against your leg as you’re cycling along.
So it’s brilliant in that sense. You can stop very easily. If you see somebody you want to talk to, if you see something you want to look more closely at, it’s much easier to stop a bicycle than a car.
Joanna: Did you say, ‘Okay, we want to go see that place. We’re going to lock up the bikes and walk to that.’ Did you get off the bikes? Or did you just stay on the bikes the whole time?
Helen: Definitely. We would sometimes just chain up our bikes. I remember we went up to a temple on top of the hill in Germany. So we just chained up our bikes and walked up there. We did do detours on the bike as well. We didn’t always stay on the road. There was something or somewhere we wanted to visit, we would do that.
Joanna: The book is called A Time of Birds. And you mentioned the birdsong there.
Why are birds so important to you?
Helen: Yes, so the book isn’t just a description of the journey that I did it. It’s also a memoir. So as I set off in the journey, my father who was 92 at the time. He was ailing and he was in a care home, and he loved birds, he really loved nature as I do.
And so as I was cycling along, I thought about it quite a lot. When I heard the birdsong, in springtime, the birds were nesting and mating so there was lots of birdsong. So I thought about him.
And then at the end of the journey, he sadly died. As I was waiting in the airport to fly home with the bikes boxed up, this message pinged up on my phone to say that he was dying. We had a difficult relationship in some ways. And so the book was a little bit about coming to terms with my childhood and growing up in Northern Ireland.
There is that second journey, if you like, coming to terms with my past in the book.
Joanna: What were some of the birds that you particularly remember from the trip?
Helen: Well, obviously, the storks really were a highlight because that’s not something we see in the U.K. and all along the Danube you would have these huge nests and these fledglings that are quite big in comparison to other birds. So the storks were really something special.
And the other thing in the journey as well was listening to the cuckoo because my dad would say, every spring, beginning of May, ‘Ah, there’s the first call of the cuckoo.’ So all along the journey and again, the cuckoo’s becoming more and more rare in the U.K., in England especially, and so to hear the cuckoo on the journey was really something special.
Joanna: You mentioned at the beginning that perhaps the trip was a bit of a midlife crisis, and obviously, the situation with your father.
Did you feel like something had healed on that trip? Did you resolve your crisis?
Helen: Absolutely. I mentioned that I had this goal that would get me through this difficult job, but I ended up suffering from anxiety and depression. And in the end, I had to leave my job, I left quite abruptly. So, the journey was definitely healing, two aspects.
When you’re cycling, you’re very much living in the moment, I talked about engaging your senses. You’re just listening to what’s going on around you focused on what you can see. And the other thing was the people, the wonderful people I met on the way, and that really restored my faith in human nature. So it was definitely a very healing experience.
Joanna: How have you taken what you learned or the practices from that trip into your life now? Are you mainly walking or cycling? How has it impacted you?
Helen: Definitely, especially at the moment in lockdown, as you know, we can’t travel very far. So I’ve been doing lots of walks locally, not so much cycling because when I cycle, I like to cycle for a half-day or a whole day and do a good number of miles and hopefully go somewhere I haven’t been before.
But just walking around Matlock, where I live, and I’ve really been slowing down even more because we can’t go that far. I’ve been listening to birdsong. I’ve been very much trying to improve my knowledge of birdsong recently.
I don’t know if you feel the same way in your walks that were just slowing down so much more and listening and taking in just that little area around us much more than we would have done beforehand.
Joanna: I know what you mean. I live in Bath and nearby Little Solsbury Hill and the skylarks are nesting at the moment. So they’re flitting above this fort that we have on the hill and it’s just so lovely to hear the birds. But I’m like you, I’m kind of like, ‘I love the birdsong, but I’m not sure which birds it is,’ which is funny.
I was also going to ask you about borders because there’s a map in the book with borders, and you’ve talked about the different countries, and you talk about razor wire in Eastern Europe. And since you did the trip, of course, we have had Brexit, although, as you said, this year we’re meant to be leaving but who knows. It’s still difficult. And, of course, being from Northern Ireland, borders have had a huge impact on your life.
What are your thoughts on borders and the separations and what you’ve seen on the trip and in your life?
Helen: That’s a really good question, Jo. Growing up in Northern Ireland, of course, I was very aware of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It was a very dangerous place to go.
My father used to love going to Donegal and Galway, even down towards Dublin further afield. But once the Troubles started, he loathed to cross borders because there would have been ambushes and there would have been shootings there, he didn’t feel it was safe.
For me, again, in a different way and the time where I live, there was a kind of voluntary segregation between the Protestant and the Catholic community. I think I grew up personally feeling that I valued tolerance and an open world, if you like. When I was cycling through Europe, that sense that I could just fly through borders quite often not even being asked for a passport, that was really special for me. And because I did German at university, I spent a lot of time in Europe. So I am a real Europhile.
I feel like I’m a child of the world and traveling through, cycling through Croatia, and seeing so many houses that still had bullet holes in them, I think I really appreciate the peaceful world we have lived in since the Second World War, that openness that sadly we’re sort of forgetting that a little bit I feel at the moment.
I’m not a nationalist in any form. I think it’s great if we’re proud of our country, but if you think about the U.K., we’re such a mix, we’re so influenced by Vikings and the Normans and the Saxons. There’s no such thing, I don’t really think, as a monoculture. And that was really evident going across Europe as well.
When we went into Eastern Europe and we saw the influence of the Ottomans there, the Ottoman Empire. I’m definitely an advocate for open borders and tolerance and just celebrating the wonderful diversity we have in this world.
Joanna: I’m definitely there too. And of course, what’s nice about cycling, I think, is that you can’t tell what nationality people are. People cycle all over the world. Whereas with driving, you think, ‘Oh, that car’s got that number plate or it’s that type of car, so it must be German or whatever.’ I feel like bicycles are an international form of travel.
Helen: That’s a really good way of thinking about it. And of course, on the journey, I met cyclists from all over Europe and you stop and you talk to them, especially if they have panniers in your bicycle, you recognize your fellow long-distance cyclists. That was really special.
Joanna: And of course, you mentioned we’re in lockdown as we’re recording this beginning of May 2020 as we record this, but it makes travel sort of even more precious at this time because we can’t even travel. I can’t even visit my mum in Bristol, which is not very far away.
Why is travel so important to you and what does it bring to your life and your writing?
Helen: Growing up in Northern Ireland, my dad had a little grocery shop and he was self-employed, he didn’t have any employees. And so he couldn’t really go away for a long period of time. He would mostly do day trips or a Saturday afternoon to the beach, but he loved traveling and he would drive for miles and miles, whatever he could achieve within a single day.
I think I got that from him. I just have this curiosity about the world. I’ve traveled quite a bit. I’ve traveled in Asia and Africa, across all of Europe. And I love just the physical beauty of this world and the diversity of geology and geography in the world.
I’m really interested in people, in other cultures, how people live. So that’s something that is part of that curiosity, I suppose.
And also, the thing that struck me as well, traveling around the world…I have good friends in Sri Lanka. I’ve been a couple of times. And you see how different the culture is in some ways. But what you also see is human beings the world across, we have the same set of emotions, we feel joy, we feel jealousy, we feel love, fear, exactly the same kind of set of emotions wherever we are in the world.
Joanna: Where are you going to go after lockdown and we’re all free to travel again?
Helen: Oh, where do we start? Actually, I started cycling the Baltic Sea route a couple of years with my husband and friends of mine. We did the Denmark section of the Baltic Sea route, which was beautiful. We were on ferries and crossing bridges onto little islands.
Copenhagen is a very fun endpoint. So I’d like to continue that. There are some really interesting countries along the way like Lithuania and so on where I haven’t been. And so I’d like to do that cycle trip. But so many places I’d like to go to, I really don’t know where to begin.
Joanna: I know the feeling. When you’re not allowed to go places, suddenly you start your list, and I’ve got this list that I keep moving things around, which is quite funny.
Apart from your own book, which is A Time of Birds, what are a few other books about cycling or European travel that you recommend?
Helen: Have you come across Horatio Clare? He is an absolutely fantastic writer. One of my favorite books from him is called, Running For the Hills. He started off as a journalist working for the BBC, and he’s parents were journalists, and he grew up on a sheep farm, really in a very inhospitable place up in the Black Hills, I think, in Wales, and he’s just such a lyrical writer, brilliant writer, so I definitely recommend him.
And I suppose Dervla Murphy, the Irish writer, she really influenced me as well. She wrote a book, well, I think back in the ’60s, I’m not sure, called Full Tilt, when she cycled all the way to India and not something that women did back then. A really tough woman, takes no prisoners, passionate about travel, still very much alive and totally eccentric, living in a little town in Ireland. And she’s an absolutely inspirational travel writer.
I’ve got a friend, Elizabeth Gowing, who has lived for many years in Kosovo, and she’s written some wonderful books about Kosovo, and it’s not a very well known county. But she’s written a beautiful book called The Rubbish Picker’s Wife: An Unlikely Friendship in Kosovo.
She spent a lot of time working with Roma and Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo, and that’s a lovely book. And she also wrote another one called Travels in Blood and Honey, when she first moved out to Kosovo and started looking after bees. And she has lots of fantastic recipes in that book which use honey. So she’s a brilliant writer as well.
And Laurie Lee, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, another fantastic lyrical writer, and it’s a really interesting historical look at Spain before the war. And Amy Liptrot, she combines place and nature and a memoir. It’s about, I think, the Shetland Islands, so the Orkneys, I think, but anyway a fantastic book. She’s a really good writer as well.
Joanna: That gives us lots of things to read, which is brilliant.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Helen: So obviously, you can get my book from Amazon or Waterstones, certainly a lot of the independent bookshops will have the book. And if they don’t, you can even get it on lockdown they will order it for you and get it packed off to you. And Saraband, the publisher as well, you can buy the book from them too if you go to their website.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Helen. That was great.
Helen: Thank you, Jo. It was really good to talk to you.