Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 21 seconds
Everyone has a story. Could you cycle to Amsterdam – and remember the experience as a truly enjoyable holiday? That’s the challenge accountant and cycle tour leader Simon Izod set himself when setting up Beespoke Tours. He’s already run four trips and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, ie, that he provides comfortable, safe trips that enable you to reconnect with the world. Interview by Nicola Baird
Beespoke Tours, the quirky Islington based cycle company run by Simon Izod and his partner, Clarissa Carlyon, offers big cycling adventures for people who don’t perhaps imagine themselves as super-fit lycra-clad cyclists.
“We’ve done four trips, all to Amsterdam, although we do offer Paris and Bruges,” explains Simon, 39, in his sunny living room over mugs of herbal tea. His apartment, in a converted block at the old Barnsbury School site, is full of home comforts – fresh flowers, music open on the piano, cosy sofas and an armchair designed to curl up in and read books. So it’s fascinating to discover that Simon’s mission in life is to get more of us outside pedalling long distances.
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“The Amsterdam trip works out really well. We start at King’s Cross and then it’s two days to Harwich. We get the evening ferry across, enjoy a cooked breakfast and then are off the boat at 8am ready for the 60-65 miles to Amsterdam. We aim for 50 mile journeys – a generous six hour cycle – and choose routes away from main roads. We go through places of interest slowly and then a bit faster when we are out of London,” he says. By now I’m convinced this is the next Baird family holiday, but I like cycling, and have done it pretty much every day for years. However… my husband isn’t a big fan of bikes and my teenagers prefer buses.
Simon explains that it was Clarissa who helped him realise anyone could enjoy long distance cycling. “I was really into snowboarding and surfing, and friends with people who saw themselves as cyclists – they liked speed,” he explains, “but then I invited Clarissa to a trip to Thailand where I was meeting a friend who was cycling from London to Auckland. Clarissa felt she wasn’t a sports person, but then she came along with me and we all cycled 606km in five or six days. Most people underestimate what you can do on a bicycle! Clarissa came back saying ‘I can do this’. That was the extra push that enabled us to turn Beespoke tours into something that was not just alternative sustainable holidays, but also opened cycle touring to people who lack confidence or knowledge about what cycle touring entails.”
He’s convinced me… Now I need to sweet talk the rest of my family. Perhaps I will need to tell them that Simon got into cycling after he broke his neck while surfing.
Places Simon Izod likes in Islington
- Simon Izod: “Union Chapel is a beautiful venue. My partner Clarissa once played there with the London Gypsy Orchestra and a band called the Bleeding Heart Narrative. I like the Almedia theatre too.”
- I go to the farmers’ market in Chapel Market – it’s one of the highlights of my weekend. There’s a great place that sells veg, it’s not organic but they don’t spray. I also get my eggs and bakery goods there.
- I’m a member of ICAG (Islington Cyclists Action Group) and I’m campaigning to improve beautiful Canonbury Square – the oldest square in Islington and an important heritage site, it’s where George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh lived. I would like to love it, but it’s incredibly dangerous. I’ve had several near misses and been really shaken.
- The New River is an oasis – I’ve seen goldfinches and long-tailed tits there and I do like the moorhens. I like the way the New River is not a river and it’s not new. It feels in balance and connected with nature and our city.
I enjoy pubs – the Hemingford Arms has beautiful flowers and is a proper boozer with some good value Thai food. It’s full of artefacts – prams and stuffed animals – it’s like being in the country.
- Sunday, on 169 Hemingford Road, opposite the pub, does amazing breakfasts.
- I do quite a lot of running so I’m drawn to Highbury Fields. I love the canal but it’s even better running around Islington’s squares. Thornhill (which is oval) is my favourite.
- “I love the fact that Islington still has a sense of community. It’s such a melting pot of different people, and I love the little hidden gems that I became aware of only after living here a couple of years like Culpepper Garden, Barnsbury Wood and Gillespie Park nature reserve.”
“It was eight years ago in a very remote part of South Africa,” he says before recounting a traumatic five hour off-road drive to a public hospital. “There was a long wait. There were people with bullet shot wounds and a guy with a piece of wood impaled on his foot… They said follow the red footprints to the radiologist for an x-ray. I was laughing because there were two sets of footprints – one was painted, the other was blood. Then the radiologist looked at the x-rays and said ‘oh my god, just stand there’. Fortunately my friend was a nurse and helped put on a neck brace correctly. Then I was taken to a private hospital,” where he needed an operation to fuse the vertebrae. After that there was months recuperating before a slow recovery saw him taking up pilates and swimming, then triathlons and more cycling.
“People tell me I was lucky. But I didn’t feel very lucky. I’d broken my neck!” says Simon smiling. He’s a good conversationalist with some excellent stories. Several times he claims that breaking his neck didn’t change his life, but it coincided with his early 30s when he was rethinking what his place was in a world and “where we can’t carry on like we do. Anything eco-related has an image problem: it’s ascetic. You’re not allowed to fly on your holiday or you shouldn’t eat meat. The perception of environmentalism can be negative and I wanted to reframe it so I made positive choices, and by doing so I feel more connected.”
Turns out that the humble bike scores well for this task.
“On a bike you can experience travel around the countryside or the city. And you can see more stuff than if you walk. You also get the chance to stop and see things slower – time to appreciate things. I feel that for people a connection with nature is often missing. On our tours I’ve enjoyed experiencing the different seasons and seeing flowers and birds. There’s a meditative quality to cycling as well, it puts you more in the present.”
Beespoke Tours tips for enjoying a cycle ride
Simon Izod, who has been told his name can be traced back to the Phoenecians, learnt to ride a bike in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. When he was nine his family moved to Royston, Hertfordshire. “When I was five or six I had a small yellow bike with stabilisers and I remember riding along the pavement, and then my dad set my free and I crashed!”
- The most important thing is to have a saddle that fits you – most are a standard shape meant for men. You can measure your bum – it’s all about the seat bones. Try Specialised (Cycle Surgery) at 11 Mercer Street in Covent Garden.
- As well as that good saddle, you need good tyres.
- You don’t have to buy expensive stuff: padded lycra and helmets can be a barrier. You need a breathable shirt for comfort and something waterproof.
- Clarissa and I want to normalise cycling on our Beespoke Tours. In Holland the way the infrastructure is set up everybody is encouraged to cycle. You see people in lycra, but ordinary people too, and they’re all together on their bikes.
So now Simon runs Beespoke cycle tours during the better weather, and during the winter he works as an accountant who makes time to run and cycle around Islington and Hackney to keep up his fitness and stay invigorated by life. But when he wants to relax he knows what to do too – showing me a wide blue and yellow scarf he’s begun for his first knitting project. “It should be ready by next winter,” he says holding it up. Judging by Simon’s ability to make time for the important things that’s going to be a splendid scarf.
- In 2016 Beespoke Tours will be running “easy and fun” 3-4 day cycle trips to Amsterdam on 28 April, to Paris on 16 June and
Bruges on 14 July. Prices start from £650. www.beespoketours.co.uk @BeespokeTours
- Look at this map to see the planned North-South and East-West cycle routes which will make crossing London by bike much easier.
Over to you
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.