I’ve been riding motorbikes since I was 17. I know that those of you who have come to know me over the last five years or so may be surprised to discover that before I became a Priest my socials (and indeed this blog) was wall to wall bikes and adventure travel. I vary rarely wrote about ‘work’, but did create a lot of content about motorbikes, travel, and adventure (with some cooking thrown in for fun).
My first bike was a CZ125. My father bought it for me when I was in Caerphilly (two valleys over from home) doing my engineering apprenticeship with GE Aircraft Services. It cost £800 and my dad bought it for me because I was stuck in Caerphilly and we had just lost my step-mother to a heart attack. It meant I could get home to him most days and help where I could. It also meant freedom.
In those first early months the bike meant I could be there for my dad, but perhaps more selfishly it meant I was able to be in control of my own life.
If I wanted to run down to Cardiff to see friends, no problem. If I wanted to nip up to see my grandmother in Brynmawr, no problem.
If it was all a bit too much I and I wanted some time to myself, no problem.
It was that final use that really cemented the motorbike into my daily life. The ability to exit whatever situation I was currently in and just go away. It didn’t matter where, but it did matter that it was just me and my thoughts in my helmet.
The utter concentration riding a motorbike means you have to enter into a state of ‘flow‘. The CZ was a sod of a bike to ride. In many ways it was the perfect machine to take me away from it all. Not because it was fast, not because it could take me huge distances, but because it required every ounce of mental focus I could muster to keep it on the road (and I didn’t always achieve that).
In those early years of biking all I cared about was being on the road. The bike was a tool and one I didn’t look after properly. I blew it up less than a year after I had it because I didn’t maintain it properly – so the next bike – an MZ125 was cared for rather more carefully.
In many ways it was the maintenance of this tool that took me away from it all, that taught me the discipline of maintenance in my daily life. I understood how important riding was to me, but not why, and now I understood if I didn’t look after that tool I would loose it.
Without meaning to I’d discovered that my own wellbeing and mental health was something that required constant care and maintenance.
Then came the big bikes. By this point I’d left engineering to pursue nursing (long story), had moved to Birmingham via Swansea and was now in Nottingham (and London) with my wife who I had met whilst presenting the weekend breakfast show on Bridge FM in South Wales. (Never has so much been glossed over in such a short paragraph).
The first big bike was a Honda CBF600.
To ride this machine I’d needed to undergo new training and get a new licence. It was hard work and I failed the first test. But this machine was different to all the others that had gone before it. For the first time it didn’t feel like a tool I was deploying to escape, but a part of who I was.
I’d learned how to keep a bike on the road, how to maintain it, how to ride it – but now I had to learn how it could help me stay on the road, how it could help me maintain my mental health and how it could help me learn how to navigate an increasingly difficult and complex life.
Catherine and I had moved to Nottingham after I had got a new job with the BBC in London (I’d previously been at the BBC in Birmingham). Catherine was applying for jobs in London but they were not materialising and I was trying to live in two cities at once. Commuting on a Monday morning and Friday evening back and forth and camping during the week in a miserable bedsit in Muswell Hill.
The bike became the thing that held everything together. It was on one hand the easiest way for me to get in and out of work and back and forth to Nottingham. On the other hand it continued to be my tool of escape; but now that escape was twofold.
Not only was I able to spend time alone in my helmet (many hours on the M1!) I was also able to go further afield. With the new 600 engine a run out to France was entirely within my grasp and it was at that point that I discovered the joy of planning.
Now my bike could help my mental health as I commuted, and took weekend trips with a tent, as well as being able to expand that sense of wellbeing by planning trips away on the bike.
It may well be that I was planning trips that I would never take, but the action of sitting in the living room with an enormous map of Europe plotting trips and figuring out how long they would take, how much fuel I’d need, where the best place to camp was… extended that sense of wellbeing and joy.
All this planning inevitably led to planning extraordinary trips. Morocco and Russia were the first two insane ideas, both of which happened. In planning those trips I also discovered another great upside of riding a bike – a pleantiful and ready supply of fellow blokes who have discovered this amazing hobby already.
The best bit of discovering all these brilliant blokes was that the only thing they cared about was bikes… not where you’d come from, what job you did, or how much money you had.
If you arrived on two wheels and could talk about motorbikes then you were mates for life.
It was in this period of my life that I made two of my best friends. Patrick and Stace. I joined a bikers group in London called londonbikers.com and we’d organised a curry out at Brick Lane.
I didn’t know many people at that point but I found myself sat next to Patrick and opposite Stace. I inevitably started talking about my plans to ride as far east as I could in three weeks and Stace and Patrick both agreed they wanted to take part. It was your typical drunken curry with delusions of grandeur… but the odd thing was… we actually did it.
The trip was plagued by delays and fallings out. We argued with each other. We shouted at each other. Our bikes broke down. There were crashes. It was far from an ideal trip away with your mates. The difficulty was we’d ploughed too much planning into it and the trip had become something it could never be.
What we learnt on that amazing journey was that our bikes are tools to get away from things, of freedom, of time alone in our helmets – but they were not magic wands to solve the issues we were running away from. We had to tackle those head on.
Patrick and Stace remain two of my closest friends. Despite the fallings out and the arguing and things going wrong… perhaps because of those things.
The planning for that trip started a habit of my planning and running away. In fact in 2008 I did the ultimate running away trick and emigrated to Australia to work for Lonely Planet – leaving Catherine behind in London.
The moment I landed I bought a new motorbike so I could get out exploring and over the next two years I jetted around the world riding my new Yamaha XT and where I couldn’t take that I hired bikes.
A few years later I came back to London and Catherine and I moved to Bledlow in Buckinghamshire where we spent a good deal of time trying to figure out who we were and what was next. It was time to stop running away, and much as we’d had to on the way to Russia, actually deal with the issues in front of us.
That was hard and painful. I was without my bike (it was on a ship heading to the UK from Australia) and in more ways that one I couldn’t run away any more.
The running away aspect of biking may have been taken away from me, but the lessons I’d learnt about maintenance and planning now needed to be deployed in the real world.
After six months the motorbike arrived from Australia and our lives where somewhat calmer. Catherine and I had settled into village life and I’d returned to church after a period trying to be a Buddhist.
It turned out that going back to church in our little village started a chain of events that brought me to discerning a call from God to become a Priest. That journey took the better part of seven years and in that time the bike had gone back to being a tool that enabled time in my helmet to reflect and heal and was no longer being used to run away.
Then came Edmund, my little boy.
To start with I was determined the the birth of my son wouldn’t change a thing. Edmund would be strapped to the back and off we’d go on adventures! But I hadn’t considered the huge impact his being born would have on my riding. My confidence was shot, when I slung my leg over the saddle all I could think of was Edmund.
I still rode, but now only when I really needed space and time alone. It was almost like going right back to the start of my relationship with bikes – it was a simple tool that had some wonderful side effects.
As I entered theological college at Ripon College Cuddesdon we were encouraged to strip away all aspects of our lives to date. This ‘formation’ was designed to enable us to discover exactly who God had called us to be. Put away all worldly things and concentrate solely on God.
It sounds great, and in many ways it was, but this concept only works if you enable people to pick up those things that have sustained their lives to date. The thing about grown ups is that we’ve often figured out what enables, supports and enriches our mental health – and to remove all of that without encouragement to re-engage or find new ways to do so is at best, unhelpful, and at worst down right abuse.
I found myself riding less and less as the all encompassing world of the church surrounded and took over. In the end we decided to sell the motorbike. I can still see it going off on the bike of a trailer and to this day regret it.
But, scroll forward a couple of years and I found myself in London after a fairly horrid time in Hereford in my first curacy. Never was good mental health more vital in my life and never was I further away from it.
That was until I found myself outside Stanmore tube station waiting for Catherine to pick me up after meetings in town.
Under the arches was a tiny bike shop. And outside the tiny bike shop was a shiny 2005 Vespa 125. I bought it there and then on my credit card and rode it up and down the little private road outside with a huge smile on my face… at which point Catherine and Edmund discovered me!
I rode the little machine home with a very cheap helmet and gloves and stored it around the back of our tiny little flat in Belmont. I’d take it out most days and it was 100% fun. I couldn’t really maintain it as such, there was no way I was going to be planning great big trips on it, it was pure joy.
I re-discovered the thing that had kept my mental health in check and in balance for the better part of 17 years… motorbikes.
At first the Vespa was all I needed, especially as we entered the first lockdown and there was little opportunity to go very far. But as the world re-opened that travel bug and long trip desire started to re-appear and I found myself riding the very underpowered Vespa 150 miles to Walsingham for the Priest and Deacons retreat.
This was perhaps not the best idea I’ve ever had. But, I found myself once again riding for four or five hours at a time with just my thoughts and I in my helmet.
I came to terms with some things I couldn’t fix, I put aside things that I had held on to too tightly, I embraced things I didn’t want to embrace.
I returned from Walsingham and was determined to replace the Vespa with something that would enable that kind of space and fun once again.
To my surprise the opportunity to do so came not very long after my mammoth journey to Norfolk in the form of the 60th Anniversary Blessing of the Bikes organised by the ’59 Club at Westminster Abbey.
My friend Dan and I found ourselves invited to the run out from the Ace Cafe down to Westminster Abbey by Fr. Andrew Gough – a long time member of The 59 Club. Fr. Andrew thought the club needed a few more biking vicars and we were pleased to oblige – although I stuck out like a sore thumb on my bright red Vespa!
On the ride down I had been following a bike I’d not seen before. It rode ahead of me through the traffic and for a big bike was doing so with ease and style. The engine noise was stunning and it moved with such grace and poise. I fell in love with the bike as I followed it and told Dan I was going to buy one! I didn’t know what it was or who the rider was… but I wanted that bike.
It turned out to be an Aprilia Tuareg 660 and was being ridden by Saffron Wilson from MCN as part of a long term test with the bike for the paper.
I headed home and without discussing it with Catherine arranged a test ride. I did what all self-respecting bikers do and rang my best mate Stace up and we arranged a date.
I think the smile on my face after just 30 minutes with the bike tells you everything you need to know. The test bike was missing the front screen and the dealership I was testing it with had no idea what it was or how it worked (they really just sold scooters and Aprilia had sent this big bike). Whilst we sat having a cup of coffee half way into the test ride I rang another dealer who I’d spoken to previously and paid the deposit on a brand new bike.
The Vespa went up for sale and the Tuareg was on its way.
Interestingly, with Edmund much older, I wasn’t facing the same crisis of confidence and all I could think about was sharing this wonderful life on two wheels with him.
Catherine was less impressed with that idea and we agreed we’d wait a few years for Edmund to be a little taller and little more sensible before I started taking him out on rides.
That went the same way as many promises made by men to their wives about bikes and within the year Edmund is on the bike – albeit only for very short journeys.
Since then Edmund and I have been to our first motorbike festival and have more planned. We’ve started planning trips together and I once again find myself pouring over maps planning journeys that may, or may not, happen.
The bottom line is I’ve re-discovered the single best way to keep myself mentally healthy. Swinging my leg over a motorbike and heading out into the sunset. The best thing is… I’ve figured out how to do it with my son.
So to all of you who’ve got to know me in the last few years when motorbikes were a minor part of my daily life… now you know why they’re so important to me and why you’re seeing quite so much of them on my socials. It’s a return to my standard place of being.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in all of this it’s to trust what we discover in our lives helps us along. To embrace it and to never allow an outside influence take it away from you.
Here’s to many more years and miles on the saddle!