Free country: a penniless adventure the length of Britain is the report of writer George Mahood’s quest to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats, the 1,000 miles length of Britain. The distance itself isn’t what makes this trip special. Many bikers and hikers undertake this journey. It’s the way George and his friend Ben want to do it: without any use of money whatsoever.
Oh, and they also start the journey in a pair of Union Jack boxers. Without a bicycle.
The higher goal
George and Ben set off in their undies because they want to proof that there is still some goodness in Britain. That, besides the teen pregnancies, obesity and football hooligans the nation has become known for (their words), there are also kind and helpful people.
Their goal is to obtain everything they need for their trip – clothes, food, accommodation, bikes – by depending on strangers. This way of traveling makes their journey automatically more about the people they meet than the landscapes they cycle (yes, on gifted bikes!) through. It’s also what makes this trip worthy of being written down.
George and Ben knew their trip would evolve around how friendly people would be. They took a pack of postcards with them that said “I’m a genuinely nice person”and handed those to each person that helped them along the way.
Each chapter of Free country: a penniless adventure the length of Britain also shows photos of these people holding up their postcard for the camera.
A clash of characters?
George is super motivated and very strict about the rules. He does not want to use money, not even if someone gives them money to go get a pint.
He’s also very strict about doing every bit of the route themselves. At one point they have to walk along a high traffic road because it’s so foggy that it would be dangerous for them to cycle. Suddenly they’re stopped by some road workers who explain that after that point there’s only one lane and that the cars from both directions have to wait their turn by the lights to drive up or down. It’s too dangerous for them to go on, so the road worker offers them a ride to where there are two lanes again. George refuses:
“(…) we’re cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats and, I know this sounds petty, but if we got a lift with you then I would feel like we’ve cheated as we haven’t technically cycled the whole way.”
Ben gets annoyed with George’s stubbornness, and not for the first time, but the roadside worker understands and arranges the traffic to be stopped in both directions so that the guys have the road to themselves to cycle beyond the point of the road works. He even gives them a high-vis vest.
Ben doesn’t share George’s view on the trip. While he might have at the beginning, he quickly loses his appetite for the hilly roads of Britain. While George seems to embrace pain and obstacles, Ben does all he can to avoid them. This often results in small clashes between the two friends. What surprised me is that they never seemed to get into any real fights.
Summing it up, I think that for George this trip is about the journey, while for Ben it soon becomes about just reaching the destination.
An entertaining read
Wearing clothes that don’t fit them, George and Ben ride around on a pink children’s mountain bike and an old racing bike, lovingly named The Falcon. They meet kind, inspiring and simply weird people in the British backcountry and sleep in so many different kinds of beds that a lot of backpackers would envy them.
All of this, in combination with a clever writing style and often funny dialogues between the two bicycling friends, are what make Free country: a penniless adventure the length of Britain an entertaining read.
One of the people George and Ben meet along the road calls their trip “life-affirming”, and I think that’s basically what every trip should be: life-affirming.
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