Preamble

A journey usually starts with the clichéd first step, but mine started with a phone call. A new manager, appointed in the US, decided that my job ought to be based in Paris, rather than London. My employer, a US research firm with global aspirations, but the inability to think outside of its home town, called to warn me that my job might be at risk. This turned out to be a euphemism for “we’ve already decided to get rid of you”. Consequently, at the end of April 2014, I found myself on extended garden leave with a pitiful severance package and the firm belief that most Americans fall into the see you next Tuesday category.

To be honest I had known this for a while. I had never seen a company so determined to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot, leg, cock, head or any other body part that would prevent it from growing and being successful. Strategy was changed as regularly as a vicar’s underwear. One year the CSO (Chief Sales Officer), decided to change the sales commission plan so that no-one could be paid commission until they had reached their annual target. This was called achieving breakthrough, and was intended to drive 20% year on year growth. As the sales staff were all on 30% basic pay and 70% commission, this effectively meant they would be on field rations for the year. I discussed this with the CSO and was told in no uncertain terms that “The finest minds in the company have worked on this plan, and who are you to question them?” Who indeed. Most of the sales force left shortly after, plunging the company into a huge recruitment drive. Due to the change in account managers many of the company’s customers left too, and shortly after that the CSO was asked to move on and probably given a respectable golden shower as a leaving gift.

Just as I was given the more usual type of golden shower the Chief Exec, (and Chairman), issued an email to tell the company that 1% of the company had been given the boot and that he thought this was like the company shedding skin. Irony not being an American strength, the realisation that only animals at the bottom of the evolutionary tree, such as lizards and snakes, do this, was clearly missed, but reinforced for me exactly the sort of company I had been working for. Thinking about it, this is a company that doesn’t so much shed skin as moult.

I lacked a clear idea of what I wanted to do next and instead had a sizeable list of what I didn’t want to do. This included working for another US firm. That list wasn’t going to get me a job, and while I don’t particularly share Jerome K Jerome’s attitude to working, “I love work, I could watch it for hours”, I work best in environments where I’m at the front and where there is plenty of variety. I needed some way to blow away the cobwebs and resentment and come up with an idea of what I wanted to be when or if I grew up.

Prior to starting this job, I had been entertaining a pipe dream of cycling to Namibia. I had put together a dream bike and kit list, and planned a routed with the help of a weekend course at the Royal Geographical Society. Things had changed somewhat since I planned that adventure, and I didn’t think a year long journey would be a good idea, but looking at other long distance cycle routes such as the tempting EuroVelo-1 I hit on the idea of doing Land’s End to John O’Groats.

The first stumbling block was how to get to Land’s End and get back from John O’Groats. The train fare from John O’Groats was over £200 which brought out the stingy git in me. Penzance to where I live was a much better £50, so with the help of a handful of airmiles I decided to fly to Aberdeen, cycle the route backwards and get the train back from Penzance.

I did the 835 mile journey during May and June 2014, and while thousands of others have also done it, by unicycle, penny farthing, for charity, while juggling and probably even with no-hands, this was to be my journey, and this blog is going to tell you all about it.

 

Exploring cycle routes

I’m think that there are two choices of routes, warm or cold, and probably wet. I can either head south through France or cycle in Britain. Land’s End to John O’Groats is a possibility, as is Thames, Severn, North Devon, Cornwall and back, along the Sustrans routes. In France I’d follow the Eurovelo route down the West coast. Assuming no jobs on the horizon, I’ll aim to leave after 5th May and be back for Glastonbury. I think I have pretty much everything I need except for a bicycle pump, some spares and a new sleeping bag. Looking for the weather to warm up just a bit before I head off.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes. Picture this; Ripe, deep red, juicy, rich, full of flavour. As you bite into them, they yield gently, and fill your mouth with a slight tang. I had vague memories of tomatoes like these, and I was getting tired of the slightly green, crisp, hothouse grown Dutch bullets that the supermarkets pass off. As I cycled to the gym one afternoon I noticed that several of the houses near me had greenhouses, complete with old men with pipes and dozens of gorgeous succulent tomatoes.

I looked on Ebay for a greenhouse and found one at a reasonable price not too far away. Ben the teenager and I drove over to look at it and, over a couple of hours one evening took it apart, put it in my Wife’s Kangoo and brought it home, with the loss of just one pane of glass due to Teenage Son not realising that without clips there was only dirt holding the glass in place. Laid out on the grass, it was difficult to see how so little aluminium could support so much glass, and being second hand there weren’t any instructions. It took a bit of thought to put it together and I had to go and look at a couple of other examples to work out how the door and the ventilator fitted back. But after a few hours the frame was in place. Positioning it took a while; as the garden faces North finding a reasonably sheltered but sunny spot took a bit of thinking. Glazing it was easy and despite the blood on the glass it seemed to do the job. I used border edgings to make a raised bed inside, found some staging and shelving, filled it with potting compost and was all ready to go.

A trip to the local garden centre was surprising, I hadn’t realised how many types of tomatoes there were. I chose moneymaker and alicante and planted the seeds out in room by the airing cupboard. Each packet had around 50 seeds and about 90 plants came up; seedlings surrounded us. Having coaxed them to life it seemed really mean to only pick the strongest; some were given away, 15 went into the greenhouse and the rest were dotted around the conservatory and garden in a plethora of grow-bags, pots, crates and anything else that could be encouraged to hold compost. Then, just like the song, the rains came. Tomato blight spread like, well like tomato blight I guess. The greenhouse was full of a fine dust that spread to the other plants nearby; what little fruit I was able to save by spraying looked inedible. Overall, this was a failure. Ten or so plants though. were in grow-bags about 30 feet from the greenhouse. They had been planted out fairly late and hadn’t been doing very well because of the cold weather, however once all the other plants were laid waste they shot up. The result was a reasonable, albeit late, crop and several jars of green tomato chutney, which I am still enjoying a year later.

Learning from my mistakes, this year has been slightly different. I sterilised the greenhouse and the soil with Jeyes Fluid. The smell is earthy but the glass has stayed clear and the plants inside have all done well. Only 25 seeds were planted and all 25 came up. The greenhouse has about 12 nicely separated plants all doing well. There is also a paraffin heater in there for the cooler nights. In the grow bags on the floor there are aubergines, sweet peppers, long peppers and chilli peppers. Two cucumber plants are also beginning their climb up the wall as well as several pots of courgettes. There are flowers on most of the peppers already and small buds on the indoor tomato plants, the outside ones are just starting to pick up.

Overall, this bodes well for a good crop of fruit nicely spread over the summer. What really struck me about the whole experience though was thinking how marvellous it was watching fruit develop from such tiny seeds, only to suffer a major disappointment when they all died. There were however, lessons to be learned. The first one was not to give up. The second was to review what happened last year and the third was to plan properly for the coming growing season. I spent a significant amount of time over the winter preparing the greenhouse and reading up on where I went wrong last year. This year I chose blight resistant varieties and planted fewer of them. I have also expanded into other fruits and have been watching them leaping out of the pots. The real joy in all this was creating something as brilliant as a tomato from something as tiny as a tomato seed and watching this ancient process play itself out while I watched.