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Interview: Jack Thurston

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Lost Lanes
Lost Lanes
Jack Thurston / Wild Things Publishing

Jack Thurston, host of The Bike Show podcast and author of the Lost Lanes cycling guidebooks, pops into the Café to talk about the series and some of his own favourite guidebooks.

Podium Café: It’s been six years since Lost Lanes first appeared and in that time the series has grown quite a following. One that feels as warm and gentle as the books themselves, I’d say. I’m not going to ask if you expected that – you can’t have – but you must be quite pleased by the reception the book’s have received.

Jack Thurston: I really didn’t know what to expect. My publisher estimated sales of around six thousand for the first Lost Lanes and we’re well over five times that now. The Wales book is not far off ten thousand sales and the West Country book has sold about six thousand in its first year. So they’ve done a lot better than we expected. I think the books have tapped in to a side of cycling that isn’t very well represented in the media, but is actually closer to the kind of cycling that most of us do. We’re not all out barrelling down dual carriageways or chasing KoMs. We’re outside in the open air, enjoying the countryside, stopping for a coffee and a cake, or a pint and pie. The arrival of bikepacking and adventure cycling as a new category in the bike industry has helped by promoting what is, effectively, lightweight cycle touring, to a new audience.

On a more personal level I occasionally get emails from readers who want to say thanks, that the books have introduced them to new places, and it’s a wonderful feeling to know that. On social media, Instagram in particular, I get to see people out riding routes that I’ve designed. Sharing something I love with others is a real privilege and it motivates me to make sure the routes in the next book are as good as they can be.

PdC: The latest Lost Lanes is Lost Lanes West, that peninsula bit of England that sticks out in the south west. It’s a part of the country I’ve limited experience of. I’ve been down as far as St Michael’s Mount but have really only cycled at the top end, doing a six hundred that had three loops out from Salisbury, the Wessex Star. I don’t know if that counts as knowing the area, but I am at the least familiar with some of it. If you had to recommend just one of your routes to me from the new book – to send me somewhere new or even somewhere I may have galloped through too quickly – which one would you pick?

JT: You’re asking me to pick a favourite child. It’s really hard to do because all then routes have got something unique about them, a character of their own. I reckon I’d send you across the Irish Sea to the tip of Cornwall for Promised Land, a 35 mile route around the West Penwith peninsula. It’s got everything that makes the south west such an alluring place to explore. Some seaside kitsch in Penzance, art galleries and seafood fresh from the boat at Newlyn, a mostly traffic-free coast road to a classic horseshoe harbour at Mousehole. Then a foray inland with a bit of rough stuff to keep you on your toes past the Iron Age settlement at Carn Euny, then a must-ride clifftop coastal track past the old engine houses and chimneys that you’ll have seen in Poldark. On the way back, the B-road through Zennor is one of the best cycling roads in the British Isles. This is the wild Atlantic coastline that bewitched DH Lawrence and there’s usually a brisk tailwind, enough to make you believe you’re a truly great cyclist. The last leg is on a very lost lane that recrosses the peninsular with a great reveal of St Michael’s Mount, where you can have a pint before trundling back along the seafront to Penzance and the setting sun. It’s a day’s journey that could only be made by bicycle.

The Promised Land, from Jack Thurston’s Lost Lanes West - 36 Glorious Bike Rides in the West Country
The Promised Land, from Jack Thurston’s Lost Lanes West - 36 Glorious Bike Rides in the West Country
Jack Thurston / Wild Things Publishing

PdC: Can I go back in history a bit here and ask about the sort of guidebooks that influenced you, the ones you yourself like. I think you’ve mentioned Fitzwater Wray to me a few times, who wrote under the name Kuklos, so I’m guessing he’s in there. And there’s a bit of Edward Thomas, I guess, yes?

JT: Before we get too literary, I should tip my hat to Nick Cotton’s cycling guidebooks that I used a lot during the 1990s and early 2000s. They’re not especially good to look at, but the routes are generally excellent. While researching the first book I came across Charles Harper’s Cycle Rides Round London (1902). It feels good to be part of such a long tradition.

I prefer guidebooks that focus in depth on a particular subject rather than the broader approach of Lonely Planet and the Rough Guides. Common Ground’s England in Particular is a useful compendium of local tradition and lore, and the Campaign For Real Ale’s books on heritage pub interiors are invaluable. The Wild Guides and Wild Swimming books by my stablemates at Wild Things Publishing are useful too.

I’m a big fan of the early Shell Guides by John Betjemen and John Piper. They were quite radical in their time, both in design and content. Though they’re not guidebooks in the traditional sense (they’re much better than that) I love Ian Nairn’s writing on architecture and place, and his television work, especially his journey by Morris Minor, canal boat and train from London to Glasgow.

I really enjoy the short essay on place, and envy the talent of writers like JB Priestley, Dorothy Hartley, Clive Aslet (Villages of Britain, Landmarks of Britain), Simon Jenkins (England’s Thousand Best Churches) and Candida Lycett-Green (Unwrecked England). They’re at once stylishly written, informative, entertaining and thought-provoking. Jan Morris is always worth reading, Roger Deakin’s Waterlog is a touchstone in both style and substance and I’ve recently really enjoyed William Atkins’ book on English moorland.

Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas, HJ Massingham are worth reading, especially on the chalk downlands of Southern England, which is perhaps the single most English landscape of all. Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring has gained a cult following and it has some fantastic bits but I struggle with the cycling travelogue as a genre. It’s hard to pull off. There’s always far too much about bikes in them, and many get trapped in the chronological ‘this happened, then that happened, then I ate this, then I did that...’. Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt is the only cycling travelogue I’d recommend without qualification. Max Leonard’s Higher Calling has some passages that stand comparison with the very best writing on nature and place.

PdC: You’re researching Lost Lanes IV at the moment. People who follow you on Twitter will have some clue as to what’s next. Care to share?

JT: Yes, I’m in my second and final year of research for Lost Lanes North. It’s a big area to cover in a single book and there’s so much great riding. The challenge will be how to fit it all in.

PdC: In general, how do you research a series like this? You live in Wales, so I’d guess rides in Lost Lanes Wales were culled down from your own favourites. Some of the others – particularly here, and in the next book – there must be an element of exploration for you, following up tips and seeing if they work for you?

JT: I grew up in London and so the first book was a greatest hits of all my favourite rides in my own backyard, so to speak. Lost Lanes Wales was a bit of what I already knew and some new roads I discovered after moving here in 2013. I’ve got family in the West Country and have toured a lot there over the years. The North is much less familiar to me and it’s a bigger challenge in terms of getting to grips with its topography and its local variations.

The research process begins in winter as I pore over maps, generally the Ordnance Survey Landranger series (1:50,000), and read up on landscape, history and that kind of thing. Then I ask people I know who have ridden a lot in the area to share their favourite routes and places, before trying to stitch some draft routes together. I use Google Streetview and a lot, as well as researching from my ever-growing reference bookshelf – there’s still a whole lot of knowledge that’s not found its way onto the web.

Once I’ve got an outline of a route that looks promising in terms of scenery, the lanes it uses and the things along the way, I’ll head out and ride it, checking out any variations and options so I’m satisfied I’ve got it as good as it can be. Sometimes a route will meet the standard for inclusion in the book, sometimes it’ll need a bit of reworking, and some don’t make it into the book at all. I tend to travel around by train and wild camp (or stay in youth hostels if the weather’s bad). It’s definitely the best part of the whole process.

PdC: Is there a trick to designing a good route? Do you have to try and pack the climbing into the first half and leave time for recovery and wind-down on the second?

JT: A good route has a sense of flow, a feeling of having travelled, that things are noticeably changing around you. That’s the thing about cycling compared to walking, you get much more landscape for your day’s travel. If there’s a thematic connection linking various places along the route – historical, cultural, architectural, gastronomical – that’s a bonus. On hills, I only send people up hills if there’s a good reason. You don’t want to backload the climbing at the end of a ride, or immediately after a lunch stop. Where there’s a choice I tend to ride up the steep side so they can coast down the shallow side. This means the hard work is more concentrated and there’s a longer pay-off. Physics and psychology. I pay attention to vistas and try to choose lanes with the best views. If there’s a really good pub or café I try to place it at a point in the ride where a stop would be welcome. If the last ten miles or so can be easy, so much the better.

PdC: The photography in the Lost Lanes books: it’s a big part of the books, it’s helped create an identity for the series. How do the pictures come about?

Photography has helped to create a distinctive identity for the Lost Lanes books
Photography has helped to create a distinctive identity for the Lost Lanes books
Jack Thurston / Wild Things Publishing

JT: I take almost all the photographs myself, while out riding my draft routes. This presents challenges if the weather isn’t great, as I don’t want to fix in the reader’s mind the idea that a certain route is the one where it rains. I try to capture all four seasons in the book, and to show the landscape in its best light. It’s about making readers think, ‘I really want to go there’. Sometimes I persuade a friend or two to come along for company and so there’s a few cyclists in the photographs.

Great light is the single most important part of a good landscape photograph. As long as you have a basic grasp of photography and composition, if you spend enough time out on the road you will chance upon great light. As well as the landscape, I like to capture the feeling of cycling, to convey the sensory qualities of being outside and moving through space, in a way that makes a deeper, more emotional connection with the reader. But that’s a much harder thing to do and I’m still learning. Using a digital camera helps as I can take a lot of photographs and learn quickly what works and what doesn’t.

PdC: You mentioned earlier how it’s nice to feel part of a long tradition and I’d like to refer back to a story you told in Lost Lanes Wales, about Wayfarer (WM Robinson) and the Berywn Levellers. You were recently involved with the centenary celebrations of that ride. With the Rough Stuff Fellowship book out as well does it feel to you like there’s a growing sense of awareness of, and pride in, an alternative British cycling heritage, something beyond time trials and record breaking?

JT: There’s always been an interest in the heritage and the retro side of things and the Rough Stuff Fellowship was itself founded (in 1955) in part to revive the ‘good old days’ of cycling in the interwar years. There was a debate in the cycling press about whether road improvements and interest in modern lightweight racing machines and all things new and continental meant that cyclists were no longer riding the rough tracks that Wayfarer enthused about. What’s great about the photographs from the RSF archive is how they showcase cycling as a pastime and a way of life where it’s not about competition and where you don’t need to take yourself too seriously, yet you can make remarkable journeys and have some pretty intense experiences along the way.

Roger Deakin wrote that cycling, along with walking and swimming, is a subversive form of travel and I’ve always been attracted to the counter-cultural side of cycling, going right back to the socialist Clarion Cycling Club and the vegetarian cycling clubs but also taking in Reclaim the Streets, Critical Mass and now perhaps Extinction Rebellion. We had an interesting debate on The Bike Show podcast years ago about whether cycling was of the left or the right, politically, and it seems to me that it combines the best elements of both – democratic, egalitarian and efficient yet also embodying freedom, self-expression and a degree of self-reliance. The bicycle is such a powerful machine but it is very difficult to imagine it being used as a tool of oppression. You can travel far on a bike but you will always travel gently.

Jack Thurston is the host of The Bike Show podcast and the author of Lost Lanes - 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England, Lost Lanes Wales - 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Wales and the English Border, and Lost Lanes West - 36 Glorious Bike Rides in the West Country, all published by Wild Things Publishing. All three books, along with original art prints, can be purchased direct from the author.

The Lost Lanes books
The Lost Lanes books

You can find Jack Thurston on Twitter, @JackThurston.

You can find reviews of all three of the Lost Lanes books on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Jack Thurston for taking part in this interview.