We are starting to feel like Mr and Mrs Noah, travelling towards the flooded lands, two by two. Tandems, children, trailers, toy puppies, the only thing not duplicated is the baby; we have no plans to do that on this trip. As we bomb through Bristol, with its historic harbour and welcome hotel facilities, we consult the map, wondering if the waterlogged Midlands have dried out enough to accommodate our travelling circus. Can we get through Gloucester without our tent sinking?. Will our buggies grind to a halt in a puddle of Tewksbury? While we stop under the Severn Bridge to picnic and discuss it, the kids make a collage on the sand from bits of sea glass and driftwood. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man pedalling along with what looks like a large portion of a tree slung across his basket and handlebars. I half expect him to take off and soar over the Severn, like the child from ET. He dissapears towards a row of houses while we lay out our maps on the wide cycle path.
“How do you get on with your trailer?” The man is back, with his basket now empty. “Everyone’s been telling me to get one for years” he says, grinning through a rack of corrogated teeth, “but I’d never get it through all these gates.” We swap horror stories of getting the bikes stuck in some of the worst of the barriers, designed to keep out motorbikes, but unintentionally bringing a halt to our HGV style bikes time and time again. Jim explains he negotiates the gates each evening, riding the sea front picking up driftwood to heat his living room, making himsef and his wife self sufficient for fuel. “In the winter we move into the living room, make a right good fire, and sleep there,” he tells me. “It’s our only way of keeping ourselves warm.”
On his daily round he collects each piece of wood individually, throws it across his handle bars, then takes it home to dry out. Much of the wood he stores away for winter, although he collects it all year around. But over the last week or two he’s gone into overdrive. The floods in Gloucester have washed down so much driftwood that he’s concerned there’ll be nothing left to pick up in the autumn. We chat about self sufficiency and being green, and he shakes his head. “Agh, while there’s just a few eccentrics like me combing the beach there’s enough wood to go around. But if everyone was doing it I’d be finished. Ive been doing this for years and it’s funny how it’s come around again. You know, I modelled myself on the old girls from Liverpool after the war, scrabbling around on bombsites, picking up and burning the wood to keep themselves from freezing. ” He shows us his bike, a single geared 1950’s classic with a red plastic crate that looks like its been borrowed from the milkman tied on the front with string. “What do you think of this then?” Jim asks. He poses for a picture, “I’ll cover up me teeth; not so photogenic eh?” then he mounts his bike to get on his way. “Enjoy yourselves. You’ve picked a good evening for it. ” he says, peering out at the calm waters towards Wales. “This mighty Severn can kick up real nasty,” he shouts, moving off towards the sea. “ We fold up the maps, and decide for now to head for Wales. The rest we can work out on the road.