I like roofs

My bike locked outside a community centre which has a hexagonal design.

I had to tune a piano in North Oxford so I kipped on the roof of the North Oxford Community Centre, which was an easy climb:

My bike locked outside a community centre which has a hexagonal design.

I like sleeping on a roof if I know it won’t rain at night. Thanks to modern technology I can be fairly certain from the weather forecast, which is very accurate for the first 24h ahead. If it does drizzle a bit, it doesn’t matter because my bivvy bag is waterproof and I can cover the face opening with my rain jacket.

So what’s my obsession with roofs? Well they’re high and dry, relatively clean, and best of all nobody will disturb me. I slept very well.

You shouldn’t climb on a roof, it’s dangerous. You should leave it to fully qualified homeless piano tuners.

The front face of the piano workshop with scaffolding all over it.

The above photo is of our piano workshop in Oxford. No I didn’t climb onto that roof! I was just surprised to see so much scaffolding on the wall, when they were only going to patch a leak on the roof. When I enquired, I learned that health and safety regulations require that there be a hand rail along the edge of the roof when you’re fixing leaks, which you can see along the top of the photo.

A simple ladder would have gotten the workers up there. But the landlord had to pay for a scaffolding company to come up from Abingdon and cover our workshop in metal poles. If they kneel on the roof to fix it, they can still fall under the safety rail. But even more surprising is the fact that the other three edges of the roof were not required to have a handrail. The roofing specialists are much more likely to fall off those than the front, because the whole roof slopes down from the front at an angle of about 20°. Perhaps it’s just for show.

So why do I choose to climb onto a roof when there is a risk of falling? Firstly, I’m confident in my climbing abilities. Secondly, I consider there to be a greater risk when sleeping at ground level, of being kicked in the head by some idiot. Well, it has never happened, but then neither have I ever fallen off a roof. Even on a low roof, if I lie down, nobody can see me. Nobody knows that I’m there.

Although in some scenarios questionable, I think health and safety regulations are a great idea and have saved countless deaths and injuries since their imposition. But there were several comments in the press suggesting that I should find safer places to sleep. That’s easy to say when you live in a secure house!

I have no control over what other people might do to me if they see me sleeping at ground level. However I do have control over the risk of falling from a roof. I prefer the risk that I can control myself.

I would never want to put anyone else at risk, and I take great care not to damage anyone’s property, including their roofing materials. I never leave any rubbish, not even a sweet wrapper. The only risks I take are to my own health: please let me choose my own risks.

I’ve slept at ground level in many places over the last year and thankfully, I’ve been fine. So far the worst was having my shoes stolen and put in the bin while I slept. This only happened once and it was just a prank (although quite a mean prank for a homeless person in the Winter).

I do not advocate homelessness as a safe way of life. On the contrary, it carries many risks. Risks of assault, theft, injury, illness… risks that I’m prepared to take for a life of freedom. For what is better: being stuck in a rut paying rent and having no life, or taking a risk and taking control of my destiny? The rat race is not life for me. I’d rather take some risks and actually live.

Random Photos

Just a few pictures from the last few days:

My bicycle in pieces

I finally did some work on my bike: changed bent rear axle, replaced broken gear cable, new brake blocks, new tyres.

I was at my local bike shop, Cyclo Analysts on Cowley Road, Oxford getting the bits and bobs. This shop has served my family and friends very well for the last 15 years. Their brilliant mechanic, Yan from the Chech Republic, built this wheel just for fun… note the alternative layout of the spokes, referred to as a ‘snowflake’ wheel:

I went to see three pianos in a United Reformed Church. They had two modern Yamaha uprights and one lovely big old Seiler upright.

tuning a Yamaha upright piano in the URC church hall

They were running a free lunch for local OAP’s on the day. They invited me to partake, generously filling my plate twice with delicious chicken casserole and then giving me a big piece of chocolate cake covered in hot custard. They had a jazz pianist who had volunteered to entertain:

There have been a lot of clothes moth around lately. Like many others, I had to take this piano apart, clean it out and spray on some nasty moth-killing repellent:

Zender upright piano in pieces

This bloke had wheeled an Eavestaff mini Royale piano into Oxford city centre to do some busking:

I went for a walk/run over Shotover Country Park next to Oxford. It’s amazing how quickly you’re really in the countryside. A disadvantage of being homeless is having to hide my stuff in a bush if I want to go for a run. Oh well, who’s going to search every bush in a country park? Just make sure no one is watching. However an advantage of being homeless is that you can start your run from wherever you happed to be, which means new scenery and fun exploration every time. I’m always on the look out for good sleeping spots, and when I stopped after running to change, I found this nice porch in a disused sports pavillion:

A small wooden sports changing room with a sheltered entrance

This chap was busking as a human statue on Cornmarket, the pedestrianised High Street of Oxford. He was a robotic soldier who moved every time someone gave him a coin. He was very effective, having some device in his mouth which he used to produce the sounds of robotic movement. I couldn’t help but think of all the people begging for money, who could so easily do something like this. I calculate the total investment to be less than £15: some old clothes and boots, a plastic toy gun, and a big can of silver spray paint. This guy was entertaining everyone very well, he must have earnt about £2 already in the five minutes I watched him!

A silver soldier standing on the high street

I paced around drinking a beer by the river Thames to refocus. Looking up at the road bridge, I noticed it was rush hour again, just like yesterday, and the day before that. I wondered how people bring themselves to do the same thing every day, every year. It’s only necessary because they’re committed to spending a lot of money every month. I’d rather be homeless and free. In my spot down by the river all was peaceful, the only noise was a goose and the odd bicycle bell.

traffic queueing on Donnington Bridge, view from river level at sunset.

I had made a resolution not to buy any more bottled or canned beer because of the environmental impact of manufacturing the packaging. I know bottles can be recycled, but just think of the amount of energy required to melt glass for recycling?! Instead I decided to only buy beer at the pub where glasses are washed and re-used. Unfortunately I haven’t fully kept to this resolution, sometimes I’m just not in the mood to listen to some random music and people in the artificial light of a public house…I just want to wind down in peace and quiet by the river and have a nice pint of ale to myself. Sometimes I find pubs by the river or canal which can solve this problem: I hope this to become more convenient when I live on a boat. In the meantime, the bottle cage on my bike is handy for carrying empties until I find a place to recycle them:

An empty Hobgoblin beer bottle in the bottle rack on my bike.

My house is round and pointy

A round open shelter with a pointy roof and brick pillars all round. IT has a wooden 260 degree bench inside with a centre raised area as a backrest, all decked in wood.

I found this ideal shelter in Florence Park, Cowley, Oxford. I say ideal because it’s a 360° shelter – if the wind’s blowing you can lie on the circular bench and use the back rest as a windbreak no matter which direction.

It was so warm, 10°C night time minimum, and only a gentle breeze, it might as well be summer! So I slept very well on the central backrest area which had wooden decking.

I knew a lot of school kids come here to smoke and some of the scribblings on the paintwork were quite entertaining. After I had slept well, a bunch of kids in school uniform approached and I thought, here comes trouble!

I kept an open mind, as is befitting a homelessman, I smiled and greeted them as they drew near. I needn’t have worried. They turned out to be the most well-mannered, sympathetic and inquisitive kids one could ever have the pleasure of meeting.


“Why are you sleeping here?”

“I’m homeless.”

“Aaaaah….why are you homeless?” One of them sparked a cigarette, then came 20 questions in very quick succession… “Isn’t it cold? But why do you look clean and shaved? Where do you shower? Do you drink and take drugs? Why don’t you buy a house?…”

I’d just woken up, and my brain is slow at the best of times, but these kid’s minds were sharp and quick and there were six of them, who by now were lounging all around me. I did my best to satisfy their youthful curiosity, still amazed at their complete lack of prejudice and genuine friendliness. Then I left to buy milkshake and hot crossed buns for breakfast, and they left to go back to school. I felt very happy. Being homeless in urban areas, one is forced to meet more random people. I’m quickly realising that most random people are actually quite pleasant.

I'm lying atop the decked backrest under the round shelter, 5 kids lounging beside me in school uniform wearing cheeky smiles.

Florence Park was donated by a councillor to the city in 1934, in loving memory of his sister, Florence.

Some evergreen trees, footpaths and a bench.

The park is renowned for its amazing flower beds in the spring and summer, but today it was the wild flowers that were strutting their stuff.

White and yellow wild flowers

Stanley

The old public toilets in the park has a built in shelter on one side. It's high and deep but empty, and the building is old and beautiful.

After a tip-off from a sympathetic council worker, I found this spacious shelter in Headington Hill Park. Sadly it’s quite grubby and smelly as students have left cigarette ends strewn all over it. There used to be public toilets around the sides of this little construction – I discovered that the ladies was derelict but had been broken open and there was running water.

As I was scouting the building I liked it so much that I wondered if it would be worth sweeping it out and mopping the floor. That was until I met Stanley, an old homeless fellow from Cheltenham who had made his home in the now disused sheltered entrance to the gents loo behind the building.

Stanley was very helpful and he saved me the trouble, explaining that the front shelter leaks considerably in the rain, that local students come every night and litter the place, and that they would keep me awake until 5am on weekends. However Stanley was well hidden away. Although his ash tray was full of several hundred cigarette butts, they were only in the ash tray; his sleeping area was swept clean and all his stuff in good order.

When I told Stanley that I was originally from the Portsmouth area, I was shocked to learn from him that if you sleep rough in Portsmouth local kids throw stones at you! Particularly in Southsea, he said, which was exactly where I lived for six years! (In a terraced house.) “I don’t go there no more,” he said, “Southampton’s better, they don’t stone you there.” I’m not surprised, because it’s not so full of stones.


However Southsea beach has trillions of hard pebbles of all shapes and sizes: unlimited ammunition! Some of them should class as heavy artillery – enough to literally stone you to death. I was saddened to hear this as I had hoped to revisit. I’ve slept on the beach there once, but only through the early hours of the morning on a more remote part near Eastney. That was two years ago and I had no sleeping bag or insulation, so perhaps I didn’t look homeless. It was summer and I had been walking for 10 hours so I didn’t care; lulled by the breaking waves I had fallen asleep anyway.

A long way east along the south coast lies Eastbourne, which also has a pebbled beach. Last October was the first night I slept rough in Eastbourne, and I nervously kept a few decent sized stones handy just in case there was trouble. However I quickly realised that although the promenade and pier look remarkably similar to Southsea, Eastbourne is actually a giant retirement home. I met many friendly people there.

Winter looses it's grip..

Giant duvet laid out on the office floor is my bed

I’ve spent a cosy couple of nights sleeping on the floor in the office. The giant duvets are from Japan and have been used to protect secondhand Yamaha pianos from the knocks and jolts of their long sea journey to England. We have loads of duvets now, they’re bit musty and dusty but I can use my silk sleeping bag liner inside them.

Several shipping duvets wrapped around pianos

This is real luxury compared to sleeping outside. I’m really not fussed anymore where I sleep. My experiment with sleeping outdoors in urban South-East England has come to a simple conclusion: it’s really easy.

I’ve slept ‘rough’ in all four seasons of the year: in heavy rain, snow, strong winds, icy frosts, by the river, by the sea, and have enjoyed it all immensely. I put sleeping ‘rough’ in quotation marks because, well, it didn’t feel ‘rough’ at all! With a simple inflatable mat, a waterproof bivvy bag and plenty of other insulation, I slept warm, dry and cosy from -5°C to +35°C in all weather conditions. And I always had a nice view to wake up to. And it was always free!

+35°C at night? Yes but that was actually three years ago on the beach in Oman, an outlandish story for another post!

Sleeping outside was an important step forward for me. Even though I have many friends, girls, family and other places I could spend the night, sleeping outdoors is my bread and butter, because it doesn’t depend on anybody’s permission. The outdoors is my new home. I might stay over at friends’ places or at the workplace, but I have no more fear of being homeless, because I know that I can sleep anywhere I want.

So what now? Well I have recently been forcing myself out on cold nights just to see what it was like, when some nights I was actually offered a place to stay. Now that I’ve established that I can keep warm and sleep through the English Winter, I’ve relaxed a bit and I’m just sleeping wherever I think I’ll sleep best, taking each night as it comes. If I get booted out of one office, I can find another empty one. If I’m evicted again, I can sleep in the park down the road. Or go to a mates house, or sleep by the river and enjoy the scenery. Just in case you don’t get it, I’m free and I’ll sleep anywhere I like.

Winter has lost it’s grip on our fair isle and retreated back to Siberia from whence it came. The days are getting longer and brighter, and the nights are warmer. My local homeless acquaintances are all wearing a big grin. Statistically, the latter half of January is the coldest period in Britain. Our weather is very unpredictable, but it’s almost March. The flowers are beginning to bloom…

A clump of purple flowers

Carpet of purple flowers

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A long commute..

My sleeping bag next to the piano I just tuned

Yesterday’s clients kindly offered me dinner, and after we’d sat around chatting and sipping wine they invited me to sleep over. They had many interesting things to discuss and experiences to share.

As you can see from the photo of where I slept, it was a very long and tiring commute after work! I spent a few hours tuning the piano, later on I made my bed next to said piano.

Being homeless I can take advantage of such invitations and I don’t have to worry about getting back to a building that I pay rent for. I get to spend a lot more time with interesting people.

Tea & Sympathy

My bivvy bag on the queueing pier of Osney Lock

I slept in exactly the same spot as last night. This was because the Oxford Mail reporter who had interviewed me yesterday wanted to come back with a photographer. I think they’ll use my story to highlight current problems with affordable housing. This is indeed a reason why I’m homeless. I can afford to pay rent, but I cannot afford to pay rent and save money to buy a property. Many people my age are in the same boat.

But I was happy to sleep here again as it’s an idyllic spot. I feel quite safe because there are no dogs, it’s quite a detour for anyone to walk up to me, and long before they do I sense the rattle of the metal pier.

Or at least so I thought… before the photographer had arrived the lock keeper walked over and gave me a nudge. In a warm and deep sleep, I did not stir. Concerned for my well-being, he called the local bobby. He later told me that many suicidal and intoxicated individuals come down to meditate by these waters, so he tries to keep an eye out for any mishaps.

After the reporters had arrived and taken their fill of photographs, the police officer arrived. He was very sympathetic and we had a nice banter with the lock-keeper who was even kind enough to provide us with mugs of tea and coffee.

Standing with the lock-keeper and police officer

The officer told me that I’m the first-of-a-kind he’s met in Oxford: a completely sober homeless-by-choice man who goes to work everyday. I was surprised by this, because cycling around London in the wee hours of the morning I had often noticed the odd person sleeping rough who looked tidy and organised like they were about to rise early and go off to work. They didn’t look like the stereotypical rough sleeper who will just get up and drink cider and cause trouble. These troublemakers are usually the only homeless people that the general public come across, because they’re in the town squares all day making a niusance of themselves.

Anyway I speculated that with stubbornly high house prices, rising unemployment and everybody tightening their belts, they could expect to meet a lot more people like me in the near future. On that thought, let me leave you with a nice window in the CofE school where I just tuned a piano:

A stained glass window

2°C is bliss!

my bivvy bag on a mooring pier of Osney Lock

Oh what a difference 5 degrees makes! After the last couple of weeks of freezing weather, 2°C feels like summer! Of course my sleeping arrangement was prepared for sub-zero temperatures, so in these mild conditions I slept really warm and cosy!

In fact I didn’t wake up at all and slept solidly until I was woken by two friendly Oxford Mail reporters who were curious at my choice of sleeping location. Just as well because I had to go off to work anyway, so after their interview I was off to the co-op to buy some hot crossed buns.

I had been planning to find a place to sleep near my place of work this morning and already had a bridge on the canal in mind. However opportunism got the better of me and as I passed Osney Lock on the river Thames I decided that would be a brilliant place where I wouldn’t be disturbed. It was the little pier opposite the towpath, where boats moor up waiting to go through the lock. So I slept on the water (well, two feet above it!)

If I fell in the freezing water during the night it could be quite dangerous, as I’d have to slacken the drawstrings on my sleeping bags before I could actually swim. However having the mats inside the bivvy bag means that I can’t roll off them, and from experience I’ve never moved more than 6″ in this arrangement, which has reassuring initial stability. In addition the pier had a low barrier on one side and a bollard on the other ‘twixt me and the water. Nevertheless you shouldn’t try it, it’s dangerous!

It’s mid-Winter and the waters are empty. I’ll be surprised if one boat comes through this lock today. There would need to be about 7 boats queuing up for the lock before I’d be in anyone’s way.

Seeing the beautiful river and canals devoid of any traffic always reminds me of the next lifestyle I want to try: living on a little boat. They’re perfectly good navigations but so few people use them except for the height of summer.

Anyway there’s no hurry – I’m learning so much just cycle touring and sleeping rough and I love the simplicity of it. A boat would be too much hassle and responsability right now. I want to continue homeless until I become super-efficient with the absolute minimum of possessions. It’s a path to enlightenment, quite literally, my Nirvana is ‘ultra-light’ cycle touring!