Book Review-Free Country, A Penniless Adventure The Length of Britain
Free Country - Getting From A to B with Nothing But A Smile
If any of you have read my other article, Book Review- Be Brave, Be Strong, A Journey Across The Great Divide, you will know that I do enjoy reading a good endurance cycling book.
Well George Mahood's book 'Free Country' is an endurance cycling book of a different kind - the endurance comes in the form not just of cycling but actually 'existing normally' for the length of the Land's End to John O'Groats route.
Let's keep it real though, Land's End to John O'Groats is no Great Divide - you can walk/run/cycle this famous British route in as few as 603 miles or as many as 1,000 miles depending on the route you take.
But what if you decided to take on this challenge with nothing more to your name than a pair of union flag boxershorts? The book begins with the wonderfully descriptive line "We were standing on our pants on the end of Britain."
Ah, now I've got your interest! Read on....
Map of Land's End to John O'Groats
Starting Off With Nothing...
Two young men George and Ben decide to get from Land's End to John O'Groats together.
George, in a moment of warm-hearted belief in his fellow Brits, thinks that a good way to do it would be to start with absolutely nothing; no money, no food, no drinks, no tent or sleeping bags.
George really wants to prove a point - that he and Ben can get from Land's End to John O'Groats on nothing more than 'goodwill'. In this case, the good will of the British public - the regular man/woman in the street.
Some people believed that as a nation, "the British had lost sight of the basic values of humanity and kinship." George Mahood wanted to disprove this notion. He wants to prove that he and Ben can survive on the kindness of strangers.
As a joke, they turn up at the car park at Land's End in September, not exactly the height of the British summer, in a pair of union flag boxer shorts. They are pretty chilly but still smiling. Ben has his doubts, it could all end here in Land's End with egg on their faces and hypothermia but George remains the optimist of the pair and asks Ben to at least give it a chance.
Barefoot, they set off into the town of Land's End on the scrounge for more clothes.
How Can You Cycle without Bikes?
George Mahood at least considered the possibility that they may not find bikes so the original challenge and the one he put to Ben was that they had to get from the foot of England to the top of Scotland either by foot or cycle. The first part of their journey was, by necessity, on foot. Neither George nor Ben had bikes or shoes so they needed to find one and then hopefully, the other.
Doing the whole journey on foot would be an endurance route and would take a long time. George Mahood's plan was for he and Ben to do Land's End to John O'Groats in 3 weeks. It was crucial that they found a bike at some point on the journey; the earlier the better.
And what about clothes, food, drinks and somewhere to sleep?
The first people they meet in Land's End are not even British, they are an Australian couple on holiday. When George tells them of his and Ben's plan, they think they are mad but still dragged out an XXXL tee-shirt from their car to help the boys out. George snaffles it gratefully, glad of the extra warmth Another clean white tee-shirt follows a few minutes later and Ben grabs it. They are both at least looking like regular holidaymakers, though still without footwear.
Luckily, a nice American guy comes to the rescue with a one pair of socks and trainers and at a local hotel, the receptionist rakes through the lost property box and finds them a pair of suit trousers made for a fat, short man and two old fashioned gents' cardigans and two baseball caps.
So already with no money, they have some clothes, even if they do look like a couple of scarecrows!
They set off towards John O'Groats without map or compass and in the first morning manage to blag a pair of size 6 wellies from a farmer; they are both size 10 so the wellies are a very tight fit.
Near lunchtime, they come upon a small airport offering flights to the Scilly Isles. The nice man in the restaurant hears their story and offers them coffee and a bacon sandwich. Other passengers hear their story and come forward with food they have in their hand luggage, grapes, pop, chocolate, flapjacks and the like. Their hearts swell a little, they begin to believe that this trip could be a success.
As well as the union flag shorts the boys have a camera, a notebook and a pack of postcards on which are written "I am OFFICIALLY a very nice person"; they plan to hand these out to people who help them and photograph them.
The book is filled with photos of very nice people!
So they are feeling quite optimistic on day one, clothed (sort of) and fed.
By later that night, they have two vehicles - a World Wrestling Federation scooter and a mini BMX.
They get fed again with the leftovers from a wedding buffet at the local hotel and sleep in a barn with a huge bull; thankfully, it is chained up in a pen.
They sleep like babies.
Is There Still Kindness in Britain?
If days 2 to 21 lived up to Day 1 then George Mahood's theory about British people having kindness and humanity would be proved.
I think it is amazing to consider how well the guys do on day one of their trip. George Mahood writes in such an optimistic way that you find yourself rooting for him and Ben from the first page.
In fact, it is too easy to forget that they are wearing one trainer each and are for the most part partially dressed in ill fitting, uncomfortable clothes. George Mahood hardly ever complains about things and they certainly get their fair share of bad weather and mishaps with their bikes, as well as some minor injuries and less satisfying food.
At some points in the book, I began to wonder if George Mahood had just been so overcome with the helpfulness of people that he had forgotten to mention the people who did not want to help and did not give anything to their trip.
By and large, Ben and George do very well. They are bought beers at the pub and allowed to sleep in the passageways of motels and hotels or in barns or occasionally offered beds in someone's home.
Ben is far braver than George when it comes to blagging stuff - he just asks for it straight out and does very well out of it; however he also takes advantage, putting himself first quite a few times with George often getting the raw end of some of his deals.
George and Ben survive on their wits but have their own personalities to thank for getting the things they need.
You will read this book and feel heartened by the behaviour of other people. And often when one person did a good deed, others in the immediate area followed suit.
George and Ben made it to John O'Groats on slightly better vehicles, having been given one full sized bike later in the trip.
They ate pretty well for most of the trip, only going hungry once or twice although finding suitable places to sleep proved difficult a few times with them still searching for a bed well into the night.
They argue along the way and make wrong decisions from time to time. Ben is moodier than George and on more than one occasion goes in the huff but George just lets him come round in his own time and he always does.
Free Country, A Penniless Adventure The Length of Britain is an excellent feel good book and just the tonic if you're fed up with society and feeling like the world is letting you down or disappointing you. It is also a very funny book and you will be smiling at George and Ben's antics from start to finish.
You'll be delighted at their small victories and their abilities to scrounge free food and drinks and will feel sympathy for them when they are riding children's bikes wearing wellington boots 4 sizes too small in heavy rain.
George and Ben made it to John O'Groats without too much fanfare after 3 weeks. They had handed almost all of their postcards out to 'officially' nice people who had helped them travel 650 miles with nothing more than their broad smiles and boyish banter.
They proved that there are still lots of good people in Britain. People who helped when they could, gave what they could spare and put their faith in what George and Ben were tryng to do.
Many thanks for reading.