A bed on a picnic table, a giant little brother's birthday party, Robin Hood is a Yankee and England goes into deep freeze!

The last few days have been interesting, as usual – let me fill you in. After my bivvy behind the Churchill Hospital, I spent three nights indoors, one at my folks’, and another two in the office which is empty on weekends =) I’ve been busy tuning pianos and web programming as usual.

a small upright piano with the keys removed and with the keys put back in

It was Sunday night and there would be no more kipping in the office as it’s always busy very early Monday morning. So after nodding off at this computer desk while trying to work late at night, I finally left about 5am to go and find somewhere to sleep.

-1°C was forecast but I went to the top of Headington Hill, the climb warmed me up and I think it was warmer up there, perhaps 1 or 2° above zero. I explored the estate of the Warneford Hospital for the mentally ill, looking for a hidden shelter, but there was CCTV everywhere. Right around the back I found that only a low fence separates it from an empty plot of land between two houses on a public street, Hill Top Road.

A lovely looking shed was all that stood on this ground, it was built so solid that it looked more like a miniature log cabin. There was no door and I thought, ‘ideal shelter’! I walked in the opening and almost tripped over a camouflaged sleeping bag…another homeless person like me was fast asleep!

Another homeless person in a military camouflaged sleeping bag occupying a shed

Fortunately he/she didn’t stir and I crept away with a chuckle, reassured that I wasn’t the only one out there. I continued exploring, which is all part of the fun, and was reminded that cycling up hills isn’t the only way to warm up on your bike – riding through mud and tall grass is just as much effort! By the time I got around the estate I was very warm indeed.

I came out onto a recreation ground that only has two rusty football goals and a picnic bench. To my joy, the picnic bench was exactly six foot long. I measure 6’2″ and found that with my heels just on the table, my head can also rest comfortably on my pillow with 2″ of my crown just off the table. My pillow is very comfy, it’s actually my Rab Primaloft jacket stuffed into its chest pocket. I was happy because I then made the very tentative assumption that most picnic tables in this country are exactly six foot long, it would make sense being a typical length of timber. That means a hundred-thousand more places to sleep on a dry night!

My sleeping arrangement atop the picnic table where I slept

I slept until 9am when I had to go off to work. Even though it started getting lighter after 7am only my mouth and nose were exposed so it was dark for me. I woke up and shivered a few times but always warmed up enough to go back to sleep. I thought my chesty cough had healed but it resurfaced again albeit only mildly. I made sure to wrap my shoes in my orange dry bag to avoid the kind of prank I had experienced before and to keep the frost off them.

Another photo of my bed on the picnic table, this time showing an interesting building in the background - low and white with several thin pine trees all in a row

Interestingly, I only really felt some cold through my sleeping bag above my body. I think the wooden table and the air underneath it, combined with my inflatable mat, insulated me quite well from below. But the occasional cold from above was probably due to me squashing my sleeping bag up against the bivvy bag in places. This is why it’s important to have a spacious bivvy bag, so that the sleeping bag can loft out properly inside and provide maximum insulation. I’m hardly a little fellah, but this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed it on cold nights and it comes as a surprise because I bought Alpkit’s extra large version of the Hunka bivvy bag. That said, I do love this bivvy bag as it has always kept the wind and rain off me. Perhaps I should shake it out more thoroughly next time and make sure that I’m making the most of the extra space.


Anyway I was not disturbed by anyone and felt quite rested when I went off to Brookes University sports centre to use the loo and get some drinking water, before heading off to work. I saw some nice views out and about on my bike in Oxford:

River Cherwell as viewed from Angel Meadow next to Magdalen Bridge in Oxford

Looking through the ancient arch entrance to the Botannical Gardens in Oxford, a little fountain sparkles amidst the lawns and flower beds inside

That evening I went back to my parents’ to celebrate my little brother’s birthday. I say little, but at 6’6″ he now dwarfs the whole family! There was pizza, tea and cake aplenty, an energetic crowd of all his friends from Church. Here are we three brothers:

With my two younger brothers, we all look up to my little brother who is very tall

We watched the 1991 version of Robin Hood starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. I really couldn’t take this film seriously. I enjoyed the humour and the fun action, and I liked John Little, the friar and the merry men. Morgan Freeman is always so cool that he can be forgiven here for not having an Moorish accent. But Kevin Costner makes no effort to hide his American accent and sounds so out of place in medieval Britain. I much preferred the recent version starring Russell Crowe.

Official movie poster for Robin Hood: Prince of Theives

Anyway back to reality, it’s -1°C outside, and getting colder. According to my weather brother, we now have a cold air mass over our country that has come from Siberia, where it’s below -20°C. Thank God it’s not that cold here, but he reckons it could get down to -7 here in Oxford. The image below is one of the models the weather forecasters use, courtesy of my brother, showing what their computers predict for the next few days ahead. The temperatures are in Celcius and at 850 hectopascals, which is usually more than 1000m above sea level, so at ground level it won’t be that cold, but it gives an idea of where the temperatures are going:

Graph showing what models predict for the days ahead: a huge drop in temperatures, about 10 degrees lower than the average for January.

There are many lines because several similar models have been run in different places, and the grey line gives the average result. Typically the first 2-3 days’ weather forecasts are quite accurate and as you can see all the lines take a big dip in concert. After 70 hours into the future there are so many variables that it’s very difficult to predict the weather, especially on a temperate island like ours. However it is with great relief that I observe that all the models estimate a rise back to average temperatures by Sunday.

The red line is the average for this time of year, so we’ll be getting a whopping great ten degrees below average! Apparently the frosty nights I blogged about before were just native to England, caused by a nights of clear skies and short days. What we have now is different, this is a huge, stable high pressure system from the Eurasian continent, the same type that gave us the deep freeze and snow of December 2010. Today’s BBC weather forecast says it all:

Screenshot from the BBC weather website showing that the next few nights in Oxford will be cold: -2, -3, -4, and -5°C all in a row this week!

I had stated after my night out in -1°C that I had learned enough and would no longer force myself to sleep outside in the cold unless I really had no choice. But I just can’t resist the temptation of the week ahead. I mean, look at the little numbers above for the night-time minimum temperatures: -2, -3, -4, then -5°C! It almost seems like mother nature has created the ideal trial week for Winter camping.

No I don’t enjoy feeling cold at night. But I’ve realised that for every degree colder that I experience a night out now, the rest of the year will seem a degree warmer. Back in Autumn I was all nervous about a forecast of 5° above zero. But after my -1°C night, a subsequent +5° night seemed like luxury. I now have such confidence in my sleeping gear and my body that anything above 3°C is laughable, I feel right at home outdoors. I never would have felt that way last year.

But having shivered around the 0° mark, I decided to try and upgrade my sleeping arrangement in preparation for the week ahead. Unfortunately my ideal Winter arrangement will not be available to me until next Winter. It’s the yet-to-be released Thermarest NeoAir Xtherm four season mattress combined with a four-season 900-fill-power goose down sleeping bag from PHDesigns which I would have to wait 45 days for if I ordered it now as they’re made to order.

So I went down the Go Outdoors store in Oxford to look for a cheap upgrade that’ll get me through what’s left of this Winter. I bought a closed-cell foam pad for £6, and a fleece sleeping bag liner for £14. They’re both heavy for what they are, but I’ll definitely be carrying them around this week, and add them to my existing set-up to boost its rating. The fleece liner will go inside my down sleeping bag, and the foam mat will go on top of my Thermarest ProLite air mattress. The foam mat should slow heat loss by convection (movement of air) because it’s closed-cell. Then the air in the Thermarest should slow heat loss by conduction into the ground, because air doesn’t conduct heat like solid ground does.

Blue foam mat
Black sleeping bag liner made of synthetic fleece

At least, that’s the theory

Hospital

I found a disused ambulance entrance in the Churchill Hospital estate that was all boarded up, and had a nice shelter from the rain. However the friendly security guard woke me up and said I couldn’t sleep there. He said someone had thought I was dead and alerted him!

I apologised, then cycled off around the back of another hospital building and settled down to sleep there. He didn’t find me there, as it was right on the edge of the estate facing a nature reserve. I had a nice long lie in as well.

There must be several dozen shelters around this hospital.

My bike and sleeping bag where I slept behind the hospital

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Tech Support

After work yesterday I went to help a friend set up a new TP-Link wireless router as a repeater, to extend the home wireless coverage out to the garden shed. In the end it was not I who solved the problem, but a lovely girl from the Far East who was very patient with me on TP-Link’s 24h customer support line. She wasn’t only reading from a script, she understood how the router worked and explained what we were doing wrong.

I don’t know why some people complain when their customer support phone call gets redirected to India or the Far East. I find they’re usually much more patient, polite, helpful and knowledgable than most call centres in the UK. And they answer the phone immediately. I think it helps if you’ve grown up in London or the South East because you’re used to hearing foreign accents. Anyway by the the time this kind girl had made everything work I really wanted to send her a bunch of flowers and chocolates.

We tested the connection by watching some ‘Super Hijitus’ on YouTube, absolutely brilliant old classic Argentine cartoons. It was quite late, so my friend invited me to stay the night there.

When I used to rent a flat, after staying at a friend’s I always felt I needed to get ‘home’ to wash, change, etc. Now I carry everything I need cycle touring, it’s quite liberating not having to get back across town to that building that I payed rent for. I took advantage of this and had a shower, brushed teeth, washed socks, charged phone, and the fact that there was no spare bed or long sofa wasn’t a problem as I had my sleeping mat and bag. I even got a nice bowl of meusli in the morning =P

my bivvy bag on the floor in a friend's house

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a Community Centre

I had to tune the piano in a community centre this morning. As it was chucking it down with rain I decided I’d sleep in the massive sheltered balcony at the back of the building. The caretaker woke me to move me on in the morning, he wanted me to go depiste the weather. It took some time to explain that I was actually here to tune the piano inside his building!

The porch where I slept outside the community centre

Well the caretaker has gotten over the initial shock and warmed to me. After having a good chuckle about our misunderstanding, he made me a cup of tea and explained that they’ve had all sorts hanging out there drinking and shooting up so he always moves them on. Isn’t it sad that because of a few drunks and crack-heads all homeless people get a bad name? I was just on my way to work, so to speak.

Anyway lots of mature women have arrived and are practising Morris dancing, meanwhile I’m in the room next door doing my job. It’s a nice piano probably the best upright ever made in Korea, by Young Chang. This doesn’t apply to all Young Changs – just like Yamaha they make a full range – some poor, some good, some excellent.

Somebody once told me that many decades ago an old boy from Yamaha’s factory in Japan went over to Korea and helped to start the Young Chang factory. Some of their models are very similar. This one is called a U-1, and is very similar in size and design to Yamaha’s old model, also called U1.

The Young Chang upright piano that I'm tuning today

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Puncture

I’m in a foul mood. I got a puncture on my rear wheel, and at the same time someone has stolen my puncture repair kit. If anyone knows who stole it, you’d better not introduce them to me tonight, it wouldn’t be nice.

I carry my puncture repair kit in a pannier bag which I’ve secured to the bike with zip ties. They’ve taken my brilliant multitool, my ultra light pump, spanner, repair kit et al.

With the extra weight on the back and the inner tube flapping on the pavement due to the outer tyre popping off, I decided that if I wheeled it around it would get damaged. So I carried the bike on my shoulder, along with all my touring gear, across town to my parent’s house where there are tools and a floor pump, muttering curses upon the thief as I went. How can anyone be so selfish?

**update** fixed it all now – it seems my rim tape has had it. I was going to fit a new axle and gear cable while I was at it, but they’ve stolen those too.

Anyway, one always feels better when one’s bike is repaired, especially if one does it oneself. It’s a small price to pay for the freedom of cycling. Just imagine if it were a motor car – I wouldn’t be able to carry that home on my shoulder, would I?

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Do you mind if I air my sleeping bag?

This is probably the most awkward question I have to ask some of my clients when I arrive, if it’s the first time they’ve met me and they know not of my lifestyle. If I’ve just been sleeping outdoors the sleeping bag might be a bit damp around the neck and hood from my breath. The rest of the bag can benefit from regular airing as well to make sure odour and moisture don’t build up. It also means the bag spends more time lofting out as opposed to being compressed, making for a warmer night’s sleep. This involves separating it from my bivvy bag and opening it out over some chairs, washing line, tree branches or whatever is to hand.

My red sleeping bag draped over two chairs in a client's lounge/diner

Airing my sleeping bag in a client's garden

Airing my sleeping bag next to a piano at work

I’m not ashamed of my homelessness and enjoy talking about it – but it was kind of cool before when I could show up to work all neatly packed and no-one would know that I’d just slept in the town square in front of their house… getting my sleeping bag out for air immediately sparks a few questions.

However it is very important. When I first became homeless I kept the bag all wrapped up and compressed very tightly, all the time unless I was actually sleeping in it. I did not use any liner between myself and the bag. If I stayed over at a friend’s the bag remained compressed, sometimes for several days at a time, sometimes with some moisture in it from its last use. I wanted the ultimate convenience of making my sleeping kit as small as possible and only getting it out when I needed it.

The end result was a very flat, smelly sleeping bag. The down had lost it’s loft and it wasn’t very warm anymore. In December it was getting colder and I finally read up on it and realised that if I wanted a warm, clean and light sleeping arrangement I would have to make some effort every day to get the bag out to let it loft and breathe. But to undo the damage already done I now had to wash it. If you’ve ever gone through the proper process of washing and drying a down sleeping bag, you’ll understand why I’m going to try to avoid doing this again.

It took two days. First I washed the bag in the bath, along with my Rab Primaloft jacket:

Sleeping bag and jacket in my parent's bath tub with soapy water

You’re supposed to only use pure soap – I bought the most natural bar I could find and grated it. Unfortunately I couldn’t persuade my little brother that it was a really nice cheese and that he should try some – he was too smart and he sniffed it first.

grated soap on a plate

It takes ages for water to soak into and fill a sleeping bag, as the linings are tightly woven to prevent the escape of little goose feathers. A day and night of soaking and rinsing and squashing produced two very sad lumps of wetness, and I began to wonder if they’d ever be lofty and warm again. Just looking at them made me shiver:

sleeping bag and jacket reduced to small wet lumps

Next day I insert about £20′s worth of coins to get 6 hours solid in the local laundrette’s drying machine. For the bag to loft properly it has to be a large capacity machine and on a low heat setting so as not to burn the liner. And yes it does take that long to dry.

sleeping bag and jacket in a drying machine

I put scented tumble dryer sheets in with it to give it a nice aroma of primrose. I also included my trainers which I had just washed – the attendant laughed her head off when I explained that they were there to kick the sleeping bag to make it loft again.

Two days and twenty-five pounds. In hindsight I probably should have posted the bag to one of those specialists who can take care of down sleeping bags. Oh well, at least I met some cool people in the laundrette including a bloke from Equatorial Guinea – did you know it’s the only country in Africa where they all speak perfect Spanish?

The sleeping bag grew and grew, I was amazed to see it loftier than when I had first bought it! I felt all warm and cosy just looking at it:

red sleeping bag all puffy and lofty

The whole experience gave me so much more respect for my sleeping bag. Never again will I let it reach that state of smelly emptiness. I determined to let it air and loft every day, and never sleep in it without a liner to keep it clean. A liner is much easier to wash and adds an extra bit of insulation. I got mine from Scotland from Terre Vista Trails – it’s made of pure silk. I have to chuckle every time I get into the smooth silk lined sleeping bag – I may be homeless but I sleep like a king!

me waking up outdoors in my bag and new silk liner

On nights when I stay at a friend’s place I get the bag out anyway and hang it somewhere. Likewise the silk liner, and I often separate all my other stuff if I feel it’s gotten damp.

I also bought a much bigger bag to keep it in – a 42-litre Ortlieb ultralight dry bag from Hitch n Hike in Derbyshire. After much deliberation I decided this was the minimum size I wanted. I keep my sleeping bag, mat, and bivvy bag all together ready to roll out and sleep. The 42l keeps the bag kind of half lofted all the time. I don’t have time to make camp then hang around for two hours for the bag to fully loft – I just roll it all out, puff into the inflatable mat and go to sleep.

The big bright orange bag is another reason I can’t hide my homelessness. However when strolling into the pub with it, it does generate interesting conversations and even offers of free accommodation.

Ortlieb dry bag containing my sleeping gear, on my bike on the canal towpath.

Neither do I have time in the morning to air the sleeping bag outside, especially on still frosty mornings when that would take forever. I usually bung a cheese roll in my mouth then go straight off to work. But one breezy morning two weeks ago I didn’t have an appointment and so hung it all on a tree:

My sleeping bag and liner hanging from a tree in the park

It’s surprising how quick and nimble one becomes at packing and unpacking one’s sleeping stuff, and it doesn’t feel like a chore getting it out for air all the time. With the addition of the silk liner, the clean lofty bag is much cleaner and warmer than it used to be and still smells of primrose. Last year I felt chilly at 4°C, now I get the same feeling down at -1°C. I’m glad I didn’t invest in an expensive Winter bag this year as this whole experience has taught me how to respect and look after my stuff.

Back inside

I’m spending a few days indoors at various places, focussing on work again. I feel I’ve nothing left to prove by sleeping outside since I was comfortable sleeping out in -1°C. I’ll sleep outdoors as and when the need arises.

I’m tuning pianos all over Oxford area and doing some web programming work. I hope to be back in London soon.

The centre of Oxford as viewed from Botley

Winter homelessness: Initial thoughts

Just in case you were wondering, I spent last night sleeping on an office floor. I had no need to sleep outside again last night. This month I’ve slept out in strong winds and rain, and on a still frosty night below freezing. I had offers from friends for places to stay, but I really wanted to test the limits of my sleeping arrangement.

Now I feel I’ve learnt enough and will only sleep outside if I either have to or feel like it. And believe me there are many times I feel like it, or it’s just more convenient.

Frost-coated plants by the river Thames in Oxford

walk by the Thames this morning

My objective is not to sleep outside every night of the year. It is merely to roam free – free of rent, possessions, geographical ties and commitments – I don’t care whether I sleep indoors or out, on the floor or in a bed. But I can only live like this because of the gear I carry everywhere: sleeping bag, mat, and bivvy bag. And now I know I can still sleep well outdoors down to 0°C, I can go about life confidently, knowing that if at the end of the day I don’t end up in free accommodation, I can just roll it all out and sleep anywhere I like.

It’s all about accepting help, but also being able to make do without. An opportunistic lifesyle. Being completely self-sufficient is way beyond my abilities at the moment, but a healthy mixture of help, convenience, and self-sufficiency is just right for me now.

The most I had hoped for the Winter was to be able to spend most of the day and the evening indoors in a warm place, then quickly ride out somewhere closeby and jump in my sleeping bag before the cold gets to me. A warm place like the workplace, or a public place like the Barbican Centre in London, or a pub, or friend’s house. I’m writing this entry from the public library.

The key to all this is having more than enough insulation, and to keep dry and out of the wind. Especially when sleeping, so the body can generate heat faster than it’s lost to the elements.

If I didn’t have all these warm indoor places to hang out in during the daytime and evening, I don’t think I could spend the Winter here, homeless. But then if I wasn’t busy working indoors all Winter, why would I stay in England? It’s only earning money and other projects that keep me here. My job not only gives me money but also provides shelter and free hot drinks during the day time. Otherwise in Autumn I’d be off South – a long way South, I’d keep riding until it’s warm which would probably be by the Mediterranean sea somewhere. I could come back to England in the Spring when it’s actually nice to be here.

Maybe one day I could become like one of those hardy Winter hikers who can spend days out in the snow above the tree line, outdoors both day and night. But until I’m that well seasoned and equipped, I’m quite satisfied with what I’ve learnt already: that with a little warmth here, a cup of tea there, nights out and cheeky nights in all over the land, I can make it through the Winter as a free man.

-1°C

Well once again, my life has reached a new low. This was my first night spent outdoors below freezing.

I felt a bit better last night and I wanted to make the most of the cold weather, so I slept outside from 0230-1000. I wanted to test what my brother has taught me about how on a still, frosty night it’s warmer higher off the ground. However there was a 5mph easterly breeze forecast so I wasn’t sure if this would negate the effect.

When I got out at 2am there was barely a waft of wind so I went to the top of Headington Hill and climbed onto the roof of a shed where I knew I wouldn’t be disturbed by man nor beast:

The shed atop which I slept

I had to cycle up and down the hill twice to warm up, climb on the roof then scoff some fruitcake before turning in. I woke up shivering a few times, but two minutes of shivering warmed up my bedding and I went back to sleep every time. I feel quite well rested.

My sleeping bags on the roof of the shed

I can conclude the limits of my three-season sleeping gear to be about 0°C for a good night’s sleep. Next year I shall have proper Winter gear.