Steven Primrose-Smith: No Map, No Compass

A minimalist autumn cycling project from Liverpool to southern Spain, raising funds for Samaritans

What's the project?

I've wanted to do something like this for a long time, to travel a sizeable distance without a map or a compass, using my wits, my geographical knowledge but a sprinkling of blind luck to get from A to B. I've decided to travel the 1,600+ miles (2,600+ km) from the UK's Liverpool to Spain's Competa (where I have friends), but avoiding any places I've been before.

It's nice to use this opportunity to raise some funds for Samaritans, who help people who are lost in a different sort of way. Coronavirus is putting additional pressure on them and it would be great if you could give them a donation via my JustGiving page.

Can't you just follow the signposts?

Some people have scoffed that it will be too easy, but then again they were all car drivers who use satnavs to get everywhere, even across their hometowns in at least one case.

Several people have said I could just follow the signs. Go on then, try it. Go out of your house and find the signpost for Competa. Or even for Madrid. Or Spain. Remember, I'm on a bicycle, almost always on backroads. Motorways may well tell you of a famous destination three hundred miles away but backroads don't. They direct you to the next town you've never heard of instead. And if signposts are so useful, what's with all the satnavs? And why did the AA ever bother to print road maps? I'm sure somewhere I'll see a sign that'll let me know I'm heading in roughly the right direction, but there's no way I'll be able to use them to hop from one town to another in a perfectly straight line to my destination. My knowledge of Britain, France and Spain, or anyone else's for that matter, isn't that encyclopedic.

Isn't this a really stupid time to do it, what with Covid and stuff?

This question was supplied by my mum. Look, we've no idea when, or if, there will be an effective vaccine. Or perhaps the virus might mutate each year like the flu and then we'll never be shut of it. Now might be the best life ever is again, and now is all we have.

Isn't winter a really stupid time to do it?

This question was also supplied by my mum. I've never cycled this late in the year before. And anyway it's autumn until the end of November. It might all be over by then. Besides, I have warm clothes, and the farther south I get, the warmer it'll become. That's assuming I end up cycling south.

Also, Brexit. Come 2021, Brits will only be able to spend 90 days at a time in the Schengen area, lest we're banned for five years. If I started this trip in the warmth of next year, I'd have to get to the south of Spain and back to the UK in that time, and I doubt that would be possible. Basically, it's now or never. (Or until the UK rejoins. Or until Scotland leaves the UK and joins the EU, thanks to Grandaddy McPrimrose-Smith!)

Doesn't this go against all normal cycle touring norms, y'know, where you plan your route carefully to have the best experience possible?

Prob'ly. But overplanning isn't good either. I'm excited at the idea of never knowing what's coming up over the next hill. (Hopefully it's not a precipice.)

What are the rules?

  1. I can have no use of a map, paper or electronic.
  2. I can have no use of a compass, mechanical or electronic.
  3. I cannot simply follow the coastline (except on the first day to get me clear of Liverpool).
  4. I cannot ask for general directions (but see rule 7).
  5. If there is a display map at the roadside, I can look at it but I'm not allowed to photograph it for later use.
  6. If I come to a town I've visited on a previous ride, I cannot leave the town in the same direction that I have in the past.
  7. Once I have arrived in a town, I can google it to find out if there is anything of interest there, but I still cannot look at a map of it. I can, however, ask directions to a specific location within the town, say, to a museum or a castle but not, for example, to the road out of town or to the next village.

When will you finish?

No idea. Under normal circumstances (i.e., using a map and a compass), the 1,600 miles (2,600 km) would take about a month. If I got there in less than two months, I'd be amazed.

How can I follow the ride?

I'll be posting regular (hopefully daily) updates on my Europe by Bicycle Facebook page (over there at the top of the right-hand column), including the name of the town I'm now in. You'll have a better idea how I'm doing than I will. BUT PLEASE don't tell me where this town actually is or whether or not I'm travelling in the wrong direction.

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