The Irish Motorbike and Scooter Show is on this weeked at the RDS showgrounds , running from the 27th to March 1st. Now, that may not be a massive fact or story in and of itself (“Show happening at major show venue on weekend, shock!”) but it is rather surprising considering that the Irish marketplace for ‘bikes and scooters barely manages to break the four-figure mark.
Last year, only a hair over 1,000 motorbikes and scooters were sold, with BMW’s Motorrad division taking close to 40 per cent of the ‘big bike’ market. Legendary names Ducati and Harley-Davidson were close on its heels. Ducati of course, now has the corporate, financial and marketing might of Audi behind it so could well start to make more significant inroads into a burgeoning market for sports ‘bikes.
Ducati in fact will use the show to launch two major new models onto the Irish market – the 1299 Pangiale and the stripped-back Naked Monster 821 Stripe. In spite of the far-out name, the Monster is actually a mid-size bike which Ducati expects to appeal to a broader market than its more extreme Monster models.
Ruth Lemass, event organiser told The Irish Times that ”Ducati have always been a dominant force in the world of motorbike racing. It is great to see the features that has helped their motorbikes produce world champions become available for the day to day rider. Their brand has always embodied the spirit of great styling and high performance. It is a real treat for Irish bike fans to have a company like Ducati exclusively display so many new bikes for our show visitors.”
BMW won’t let Ducati steal its Irish market thunder though – it will launch a seriously high performance new sports ‘bike, the S1000RR, at the show. So fast that it actually has a dedicated chassis setting for slick tyres (just in case nabbing the lap record at Mondello takes your fancy of a Sunday morning) the S1000RR has been described by Howard Godolphin, BMW Motorrad Ireland’s motorcycle manager as “a major draw to the show. The original version set the benchmark for the superbike class five years ago. It has managed since then to remain the quickest, the smartest and the most comfortable 1000cc superbike to ride. The new version we are launching surpasses this already high reference point and our designers have, without doubt, achieved their brief to create a motorcycle that has sharper performance while being even more rider friendly. I am looking forward to welcoming visitors to our stand and showing them why we set the standards that others follow.”
Honda, always one of the biggest names in bike,s will also be out in force, launching a 40th anniversary edition of its almost-car-sized Goldwing at the show. Robert Galbraith, chairman of Honda Distributors, said that “very few bikes have stood the test of time as well as the Gold Wing has. It’s a testament to the great styling and comfort that this motorcycle is sought after by so many touring bike enthusiasts today. It is our privilege to launch the most advanced and comfortable Gold Wing yet onto the Irish market in our 40th year of production. In addition visitors to the Carole Nash Irish Motorbike and Scooter Show will have a unique opportunity to see other exciting new entries to the market in advance of the first bikes arriving to these shores including a new CBR 1000RR Fireblade as well as the new CB1000R, NC750 and NSC50R scooter.”
Meanwhile the show will also get a proper world premier in the shape of the battery powered VOLT 220, a 100kmh electric bike designed and built in Wexford. Colin Darby, Managing Director of Volt Motorcycles, told The Irish Times that “we previewed a single bike recently at the MCN London motorbike show in the UK and received an incredible response. While we could have launched the full range there, it was important to me to have the world premier back home and the Carole Nash Irish Motorbike Scooter Show is easily the best platform to do so.
“Most interest we have had so far is from the urban rider who wants a low running cost solution for their commute. When you consider that the average commute is around 20 kilometres a day and that an electric alternative that will cost less than €200 to run a year, it makes great financial sense. We are not looking to replace but to supplement riders’ experiences and save them money in the long run. Of course, we want to do all of this while keeping the motorcyclist experience exciting and fun as well.”
The question still hangs in the air though – how has a market with barely 1,000 ‘bike sales a year managed to sustain a full-on show at one of the most famed venues in the country?
Part of it is merely that there is a strong affection for biking in Ireland, not to mention the fact that fans will happily pop along to see racing superstars such as Michael Dunlop and John McGuinness who will be attending. These visitors may have little or no intention of actually buying a bike, but they’ll certainly come for the racing heroes. Beyond that, there are around 40,000 people with ‘bike licences in Ireland, around 20,000 of whom are currently active in using their ‘bikes on a regular basis – that’s a significant market to be playing at, and generally quite an engaged market at that; getting on a bike is a lifestyle commitment, getting into a car is mere commuting.
The key reason behind the show’s success, according to the organisers is the support of the industry. With every ‘bike importer and manufacturer coming along to exhibit, the show can easily generate the sort of interest and appeal that has thus far eluded most car show events that have been tried. That and smart moves like alternating years with the National Classic Car Show have helped the Motorbike and Scooter Show prosper while others have fallen by the wayside. A final strand to the show’s success is the sheer breadth of the people coming to visit it and who are interested in the products. From barristers reclaiming their lost youth to bin-men looking for an affordable way of getting about town, once the leathers and the helmet go on, all bikers are equal.
Double Olympic gold and silver medalist, 11-time world record holder and 2012 London Olympic chairman Sebastian Coe is running to succeed Lamine Diack as the next head of the IAAF.
We’re honored that Coe has chosen LetsRun.com as the venue to make his case for the presidency to the US track and field and world (and mid-d and distance fans across the globe). Recently, Coe sat down for an interview with Brendan Foster, the 1972 Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist and founder of Nova International, and talked about his vision for the sport moving forward. The interview, which has been broken up into five parts, is being released first on LetsRun.com. We’ll have one video for five days straight.
The third video which is 5:30 long, where Coe talks creating a movement, appears below. We’ve provided a transcript of some the day three highlights and they appear below the video.
Seb Coe On The Need To Create a Running and Fitness Movement:
“We’ve got a sport, I think we’ve got to create a movement. Now let me focus on running for just a few minutes… There are millions of people around the globe that run. I don’t think enough of them see what they do as being related in any way with Usain Bolt does…. I think we’ve got to create a running movement. I think we’ve got to be seen as the sport that caters from everyone from 9 to 90….
“I want (the average road racer) to feel that what he (or she) is doing is related to – however improbably that may appear on the surface – what Paula Radcliffe has done, what I have done, what Daley Thompson has done and what Usain Bolt has done and what Michael Johnson has done. We have got to create a movement and at the moment we have got this disconnect where lots and lots of people are running (but aren’t fans). We have got to figure out how to make this much more assimilable and meaningful (so) people feel a part of it – the whole sport track and field.
“That’s why I was so keen to get the IAAF – the president and vice president – to witness the millionth finisher crossing the line at the Great North (Run last year). And I hope that now she (the millionth finisher) would feel a part of sport. I don’t think we’ve done anywhere near enough (of this type of stuff).”
Coe On Why The Sport Can’t Just Be About The Elite Athletes:
“(Now) we don’t want to ever be an inhibitor on ambition. I don’t want a child joining an athletics club to not think that they have the ability to get to a Montreal or Moscow or wherever those games (Olympics) are going to be, but it can’t just be about that. We know that if it was only about one or two people crossing the line (first) then on the day of the Great North Run you’d have 90 odd thousand people feeling, “Well I’ve failed today,” and only one happy person and we know that’s utter nonsense. There is more we can do to encourage people to be a part of that movement.
“And the other thing too is if you look at the health agenda now around the world – by 2030, half of the United States will be physically inactive, half of China, a third of the UK and a third of Brazil, that’s over a billion people. Now what sport is better placed to actually make a difference (with obesity) than athletics?”
Coe On How People Come Into The Sport From Different Directions:
“I do also think that you will encourage people into the sport from different directions. If you talk to (UK cycling coach) Dave Brailsford in cycling, he will tell you that there was no coincidence in the number of kids that suddenly took up BMX and mountain biking that then graduated into road and track (cycling) but so many of them came (into the sport) from different directions.
“I don’t think that any longer we can assume that the health and the wealth and vibrancy of our sport is going to be supported entirely and uniquely from people that join an athletics club with a view of being an elite athlete.”
Coe On The Need To Be More Open About How Much The Top Pros Make:
“I think we need to do more to explain the fee structure and income structure. I’ve never had a problem about appearance money. I think we should be really open about that. I don’t think we should be too coy or shy about pointing that actually if you get to Usain Bolt’s level or to (Haile) Gebrselassie’s or to (Bohdan) Bondarenko’s that yes you can actually make a good living from it. That’s not a moral maze I’ve been worried about stepping into. But I do think we have to be clear to young people and create a sport where that if they are good enough that they can earn very well to secure their future. It’s a sport that’s hard and careers are quite short – you’re only really an injury away from oblivion.”
Other Days: Day 1: Seb Coe States His Case For The IAAF Presidency (Intro Summary) “There’s not a sport in the world that has that universality (213 nations), that global reach (of athletics). It’s tougher to get a medal in a track and field championship than any other sport. But the sport has its challenges. I think we recognize that we’ve struggled, valiantly on occasions, but we have struggled to connect with the next generation…I take great exception to people from outside our sport trying to redesign our sport because they don’t fundamentally understand the nature, the history and the philosophy of it….If I’m in a position to shape the future of my sport, why on earth would I not want to do that?”
Day 2: Seb Coe On Why Trust In The Sport Is Critical/Why Drugs Must Be Eradicated “Fair play starts at the very top of the sport… The tone and style is set from the top… It’s absolutely vital that people believe in our sport….The spectators going into those stadiums have to go to know what they are watching is real…We have to open about this… I’ve always, always preferred to the face short-term embarrassment than the long-term genteel decline… This is not a war we can lose.”
Day 3 (Coming Thursday): On Growing The Sport Commercially For The Athletes: “We’ve got a sport, I think we’ve got to create a movement…. There are millions of people around the globe that run. I don’t think enough of them see what they do as being related in any way with Usain Bolt does. I think we’ve got to create a running movement…What sport is better placed to actually make a difference (with obesity) than athletics?…We need to do more to explain the fee structure and income structure. I’ve never had a problem about appearance money. I think we should be really open about that. I don’t think we should be too coy or shy.”
Day 4 (Coming Friday): On Marketing The Sport Across 213 Member Federations – One Size Won’t Fit All: “We’ve got to find the key drivers of growth.”
Day 5 (Coming Saturday): On The Possibility Of The Sub-2 Hour Marathon.
“It dwarfs any equivalent program, certainly in the UK, probably anywhere in Western Europe.” — Ben Plowden on London’s new $1.4 billion biking program
The last time he visited Portland, in 2003, Ben Plowden was several years into a job as the first full-time director of Living Streets, a small walking advocacy group. The city he worked in, London, had recently created a new regional government.
When Plowden returned to Portland last week, it was as the London regional government’s top surface transportation official – and he was here to explain how and why the region has just approved a $1.4 billion investment in biking over the next decade.
If spent as planned, Plowden said it’ll be one of the biggest municipal investments in cycling in the history of the world.
“It dwarfs any equivalent program, certainly in the UK, probably anywhere in Western Europe,” Plowden said of the $130 million annual budget, which will be divided among 1/3 education and enforcement programs and 2/3 infrastructure.
So something is working in London. But what? Last week we visited two events by Plowden, whose trip to Portland was sponsored by the public transport nonprofit Transit Center, to find out. Here’s what we learned London has.
1) An anti-congestion charge.
Since 2003, driving a car into central London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. has cost $18 per day. The proceeds go into the regional transportation budget.
How was this approved? The key, Plowden explained, was support from freight customers.
“The reason that the congestion charge went in in 2002-2003 was that business knew how much congestion was causing them,” Plowden said. “It took a whole lot of discretionary car use off the network overnight.”
Here in Portland, there’s deep awareness among businesses of the job-killing costs of auto congestion. The problem, as we reported last month, is that the Port of Portland and some other freight customers believe that increasing auto capacity is the only viable way to reduce congestion; in a region where toll roads are almost unheard-of, they see an anti-congestion charge like London’s as impossible.
I asked Plowden whether toll roads were common in London before its anti-congestion charge began. They weren’t, he said.
2) A politician who rides.
The most important person behind London’s biking improvement is the one at the top: London’s center-right Mayor Boris Johnson.
“It’s difficult to exaggerate how important Boris being a commuter cyclist is,” said Plowden. “He carries his stuff in a rucksack on his back. and he’s done it basically his entire working life. … Like the mayors of Copenhagen in the 1970s, that’s a really important part of of making cycling what it is.”
After two terms, Johnson is returning to Parliament next year with his eye on becoming prime minister. Plowden said his departure will be “a sad day indeed” but called it “unlikely” that the next mayor will do anything worse for biking investments than to slow them down somewhat.
“This is actually quite an important part of the political landscape of London now,” he said.
Johnson’s commute habits wouldn’t matter much if he, like his predecessor Ken Livingstone, weren’t in control of almost every lever of power in the region.
“Ken Livingstone said if I’m elected, we’re going to have a congestion charge, and within two years we had one,” Plowden said. “Boris Johnson said if I’m elected, we’re going to become the world’s greatest cycling city. And we’re now spending a billion pounds on that objective.”
The “lesson of the London story,” Transit Center Executive Director David Bragdon said Friday, is “unity.”
“These are the results of really good governance structures and clear accountability for who’s doing what,” said Bragdon, a former president of Portland’s Metro regional government. “Americans, we’re very much in these jurisdictional boxes. These structures, they constrict us.”
Bragdon argued that the problems of concentrating power among a few people are outweighed by the advantages of the public knowing who to blame for its problems.
4) An organization built to see the big picture.
One effect of London’s integrated governments is that it put the same agency in charge of both arterial roadways and public transit.
In Portland, the Oregon Department of Transportation wouldn’t save much money if people driving on Powell switched to buses, or if people riding buses switched to bikes. But because Transport for London runs the whole transportation system, it saves money when the whole system gets more efficient.
Transit and bikes are efficient. Transport for London noticed – and started investing heavily in making them better.
In terms of vehicle road space, Plowden said, “buses are way way way more efffieient than anything else. Cycling is second. … If we have a finite amount of space and amount of money and people are going to be moving around the city, what’s the most efficient way of doing that? You have to start making the hard economic arguments.”
But if Transport for London hadn’t been able to see the whole picture, those arguments might have fallen on deaf ears.
For all that, Plowden said, London might have accomplished little if not for two coincidences that created a sense that the city had no time to spare.
Starting in 2004, the year it won a bid to host the 2012 Olympics, London was on a deadline. If it didn’t have a massively functional system for car-free transport by that summer, it would be swamped by traffic.
“We set an objective that nobody except an elite athlete would arrive at any Olympic event with a car,” Plowden said.
In the run-up to 2012, London launched a bike share system, improved three rail lines, started running a new high-speed rail and built a cable car across the Thames.
Then, in late 2013, a series of six biking fatalities over two weeks seized the public’s attention around the need for biking improvements. Plowden called this a key catalyst for London’s massive investment to come.
6) Great ideas from other cities.
Plowden didn’t mention this at all last week. But one of the most important things about London’s accomplishments is that every single one of them had already worked elsewhere.
Amsterdam, just across the English Channel, has billions of dollars worth of the world’s best bike infrastructure. Modern bike sharing came from Paris; the anti-congestion charge, from Singapore. Seville, Spain, had seen biking soar from 0.5 percent in 2007 to 7 percent biking in 2012 by rapidly building a connected 80-mile network of protected bike lanes; biking advocates across Europe are now looking to it a model.
One of the best things happening in the world right now is that it keeps getting easier for ideas to spread from one country to another. London’s huge victory in the last few years stems from Londoners like Plowden who decided to start stealing neat ideas from Paris, Amsterdam and (yes) Portland, Oregon.
How do good ideas spread? One way is when smart people carry them across the ocean to talk about them.
See you again in 2027, Ben. Meanwhile, we’ve got some work to do.
One of the few flat stages… (Photo: Lagardère Unlimited)
“We’re not seriously going up that?!” I said to one the volunteers as I ran past her, my gaze fixed on the trail that appeared to be taking a detour from the relatively flat river’s edge and straight up a very sharp hill. She smiled back at me.
“Clearly we are,” I muttered to myself as my pace subsequently slowed to a zombie-like shuffle and I glanced at my watch, hoping my goal of a sub three-hour time wouldn’t be ruined. My mind simultaneously recalled the description of the course route: “Easy running on a mainly flat course, with a few undulations to keep it interesting.” This is one heck of an undulation, I thought.
Set in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, Queenstown is surrounded by the Remarkable and Crown mountain ranges, so why I’d ever thought this was going to be a “flat-ish” marathon merely illustrates that I clearly hadn’t been paying enough attention in geography class.
In fact, there’s nothing particularly flat about Queenstown, except perhaps the 80km long Lake Wakatipu, the third largest lake in New Zealand. And even that’s not really flat, thanks to its somewhat unusual tide.
So unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only one amongst the 1,890 male and female runners who could be heard mumbling a few unmentionables beneath his breath as we quickly began heading up a series of short and sharp hills, with a couple of big ones chucked in for our amusement. Yet even the rain, despite all of us hoping for a sunny day, didn’t dampen our enthusiasm.
The course, a perfect blend of 70 per cent trail and 30 per cent road, led us past all the local tourist hot spots. As we ran through the 19th century gold rush village of Arrowtown, I cursed that I hadn’t brought a camera. Charming cottages, cafes, hotels and a rather fabulous sweet shop set along a tree-lined avenue tempted us to stop and stay. But there was no time to linger, especially if I wanted to achieve my goal of a sub-three-hour marathon.
We suddenly found ourselves plunging on to the Lake Hayes Trail, a stunning single track that circumnavigated a small lake, teaming with wildfowl. The incredible mountain scenery around us had a keenly familiar look, reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings sagas. Frodo Baggins would certainly have been at home here.
But soon after this, the rain decided to give us a thorough drenching and, at the half way mark, we came to a long stretch of tarmac road and my feet were screaming at me to get back on the trail.
Despite the rain, every single hill we ran up offered another heart-wrenchingly beautiful view of the Remarkables, supposedly named because they’re one of two mountain ranges in the world that run directly north to south. The temptation to stop and stare had to be overcome and I eventually hobbled home in a respectable 20th place, a minute under three hours.
Like Chamonix in France and Boulder in Colorado, Queenstown is a veritable Valhalla of adventure sports: river rafting, jet boating, bungee jumping, skiing, hiking, trail running, climbing, mountain biking, kayaking – there is a never-ending supply of activities to put a grin of on the face of an adrenaline junkie like myself and the two million visitors the town receives every year.
Sure, it’s a long way to go to run a marathon, but the scenery is breathtaking, the hospitality warm and the organisation superb. My advice would be to put this race high on your bucket list and start training. It really is that good!
Tobias Mews crosses the line… (Photo: Tobias Mews)
How to enter
This year’s Air New Zealand Queenstown International Marathon takes place on 21 November 2015. You can enter online. But don’t hesitate too long, as entries will go fast. And if you don’t feel up to a full marathon, there’s a half and 10k option.
Air New Zealand offer flights from London to Auckland via Los Angeles. Once at Auckland, you can catch a domestic flight to Queenstown.
Where to stay
There are plenty of accommodation choices to suit your budget, from backpacker hostels to five star hotels. See queenstownnz.co.nz.
What else to do while you’re there
There are more activities to do in Queenstown than you can shake a stick at. If you want something relaxing, post-marathon, take a jet boat experience, do a 4×4 tour of the Lord of the Rings film sets or drive over to nearby Wanaka – New Zealand’s best kept secret. And if you’re feeling energetic, then climb a mountain, go mountain biking, or kayaking on the lake. There’s no end of things to do.
“Heat is a major factor and you should avoid situations that expose your testicles to unnecessary heat. Just before Christmas I had a couple who were looking to do IVF and there was hardly any movement in the man’s sperm. As I was taking the couple’s history, I found out that every evening he was coming home from work and jumping straight into the Jacuzzi, staying there for up to two hours. I told him to stop doing that and take cold showers instead – in January she was pregnant, without the need for IVF.
“The same thing can happen with laptops. It’s incredible how much heat comes off them. If you’re just resting them on your lap for a couple of hours a week it won’t make any difference, but if you’re doing it every day it will.
“Skinny jeans might be fashionable but they’re not conducive to fertility. If the testicles are squashed, this will generate friction which will in turn generate heat.
“I also see a lot of men who have an obsession with biking, they do 30-40 miles a week. Again, a little is fine but you shouldn’t cycle every day as it also generates friction. But with all this advice, you only need to think about this when you’re trying to conceive. There’s no permanent damage if you’ve been using a laptop or cycling a lot before.”
In early January 2012, I noticed that another Jon Ronson had started posting on Twitter. His photograph was a photograph of my face. His Twitter name was @jon_ronson. His most recent tweet read: “Going home. Gotta get the recipe for a huge plate of guarana and mussel in a bap with mayonnaise #yummy.”
“Who are you?” I tweeted him.
“Watching #Seinfeld. I would love a big plate of celeriac, grouper and sour cream kebab with lemongrass #foodie,” he tweeted. I didn’t know what to do.
The next morning, I checked @jon_ronson’s timeline before I checked my own. In the night he had tweeted, “I’m dreaming something about #time and #cock.” He had 20 followers.
I did some digging. A young academic from Warwick University called Luke Robert Mason had a few weeks earlier posted a comment on the Guardian site. It was in response to a short video I had made about spambots. “We’ve built Jon his very own infomorph,” he wrote. “You can follow him on Twitter here: @jon_ronson.”
I tweeted him: “Hi!! Will you take down your spambot please?”
Ten minutes passed. Then he replied, “We prefer the term infomorph.”
“But it’s taken my identity,” I wrote.
“The infomorph isn’t taking your identity,” he wrote back. “It is repurposing social media data into an infomorphic aesthetic.”
I felt a tightness in my chest.
“#woohoo damn, I’m in the mood for a tidy plate of onion grill with crusty bread. #foodie,” @jon_ronson tweeted.
I rented a room in central London. He arrived with two other men – the team behind the spambot. All three were academics. Luke was the youngest, handsome, in his 20s, a “researcher in technology and cyberculture and director of the Virtual Futures conference”. David Bausola was a “creative technologist” and the CEO of the digital agency Philter Phactory. Dan O’Hara had a shaved head and a clenched jaw. He was in his late 30s, a lecturer in English and American literature at the University of Cologne.
I spelled out my grievances. “Academics,” I began, “don’t swoop into a person’s life uninvited and use him for some kind of academic exercise, and when I ask you to take it down you’re, ‘Oh, it’s not a spambot, it’s an infomorph.’”
Dan nodded. He leaned forward. “There must be lots of Jon Ronsons out there?” he began. “People with your name? Yes?”
I looked suspiciously at him. “I’m sure there are people with my name,” I replied, carefully.
“I’ve got the same problem,” Dan said with a smile. “There’s another academic out there with my name.”
“You don’t have exactly the same problem as me,” I said, “because my exact problem is that three strangers have stolen my identity and have created a robot version of me and are refusing to take it down.”
Dan let out a long-suffering sigh. “You’re saying, ‘There is only one Jon Ronson’,” he said. “You’re proposing yourself as the real McCoy, as it were, and you want to maintain that integrity and authenticity. Yes?”
I stared at him.
“We’re not quite persuaded by that,” he continued. “We think there’s already a layer of artifice and it’s your online personality – the brand Jon Ronson – you’re trying to protect. Yeah?”
“No, it’s just me tweeting,” I yelled.
“The internet is not the real world,” said Dan.
“I write my tweets,” I replied. “And I press send. So it’s me on Twitter.” We glared at each other. “That’s not academic,” I said. “That’s not postmodern. That’s the fact of it. It’s a misrepresentation of me.”
“You’d like it to be more like you?” Dan said.
“I’d like it to not exist,” I said.
“I find that quite aggressive,” he said. “You’d like to kill these algorithms? You must feel threatened in some way.” He gave me a concerned look. “We don’t go around generally trying to kill things we find annoying.”
“You’re a troll!” I yelled.
I dreaded uploading the footage to YouTube, because I’d been so screechy. I steeled myself for mocking comments and posted it. I left it 10 minutes. Then, with apprehension, I had a look.
“This is identity theft,” read the first comment I saw. “They should respect Jon’s personal liberty.”
“Wow,” I thought, cautiously.
“Somebody should make alternate Twitter accounts of all of those ass clowns and constantly post about their strong desire for child porn,” read the next comment. I grinned. “Utter hateful arseholes,” read the next comment. “These fucked-up academics deserve to die painfully. The cunt in the middle is a fucking psychopath.”
I frowned slightly. “I hope nobody’s going to actually hurt them,” I thought.
Within days, the academics took down @jon_ronson. They had been shamed into acquiescence. Their public shaming had been like the button that restores factory settings. It felt wonderful. The wonderful feeling overwhelmed me like a sedative. Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right. It was the perfect ending.
In October 2012 a group of adults with learning difficulties took an organised trip to Washington DC. They visited the National Mall, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Smithsonian, Arlington National Cemetery, the US Mint. At night they sang karaoke in the hotel bar. Their caregivers, Lindsey Stone and her friend Jamie, did a duet of Total Eclipse Of The Heart. “They had the greatest time on that trip,” Lindsey told me. “They thought we were fun and cool.”
Lindsey was telling me the story 18 months later. We were sitting at her kitchen table, in a seaside town on the US east coast. “I like to dance and I like to do karaoke,” Lindsey said, “but for a long time after that trip, I didn’t leave the house. During the day I’d just sit here. I didn’t want to be seen by anybody.”
“How long did that last?” I asked.
“Almost a year.”
Lindsey and Jamie had been with Life (Living Independently Forever) for a year and a half before that trip. Life was a residence for “pretty high-functioning people with learning difficulties”, Lindsey said. “Jamie had started a jewellery club, which was a hit with the girls. We’d take them to the movies. We’d take them bowling. We heard a lot from parents that we were the best thing that ever happened to that campus.”
Off-duty, she and Jamie had a running joke: taking stupid photographs, “smoking in front of a no-smoking sign or posing in front of statues, mimicking the pose. We took dumb pictures all the time. And so at Arlington [the national cemetery] we saw the Silence And Respect sign… and inspiration struck.”
Lindsey posed in front of it, pretending she was shouting and swearing – flipping the bird, and with her hand to her open mouth. “So,” Lindsey said, “thinking we were funny, Jamie posted it on Facebook and tagged me on it with my consent, because I thought it was hilarious.”
Nothing much happened after that. A few Facebook friends posted unenthusiastic comments. “One had served in the military and he wrote a message saying, ‘This is kind of offensive. I know you girls, but it’s tasteless.’ Another said, ‘I agree’, and another said, ‘I agree’. Then I said, ‘Whoa! It’s just us being douchebags! Forget about it!’”
After that, Jamie said to Lindsey, “Do you think we should take it down?”
“No!” Lindsey replied, “What’s the big deal? No one’s ever going to think of it again.”
Their Facebook settings were a mystery to them. Most of the privacy boxes were ticked. Some weren’t. Sometimes they’d half-notice that boxes they’d thought they’d ticked weren’t ticked.
Lindsey has been thinking about that “a lot” these past 18 months. “Facebook works best when everyone is sharing and liking. It brings their ad revenues up.”
Was there some Facebook shenanigan where things just “happen” to untick themselves? Some loophole? “I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist. I don’t know if Jamie’s mobile uploads had ever been private.”
Whatever: Jamie’s mobile uploads weren’t private. And four weeks after returning from Washington DC, they were in a restaurant, celebrating their birthdays – “We’re a week apart” – when they became aware that their phones were vibrating repeatedly. So they went online.
“Lindsey Stone hates the military and hates soldiers who have died in foreign wars”, “You should rot in hell”, “Just pure Evil”, “Spoke with an employee from Life who has told me there are veterans on the board and that she will be fired. Awaiting info on her accomplice”, “After they fire her, maybe she needs to sign up as a client. Woman needs help”, “Send the dumb feminist to prison”. There were death and rape threats.
“I wanted to scream: ‘It was just about a sign,’” Lindsey said.
By the time she went to bed that night, at 4am, a Fire Lindsey Stone Facebook page had been created. It attracted 12,000 likes. Lindsey read every comment. “I really became obsessed with reading everything about myself.”
The next day, camera crews had gathered outside her front door. Her father tried talking to them. He had a cigarette in his hand. The family dog had followed him out. As he tried to explain that Lindsey wasn’t a terrible person, he noticed the cameras move from his face down to the cigarette and the dog, as if they were a family of hillbillies.
Life was inundated with emails demanding their jobs, so Lindsey was called into work. But she wasn’t allowed inside the building. Her boss met her in the car park and told her to hand over her keys. “Literally overnight, everything I knew and loved was gone,” Lindsey said. And that’s when she fell into a depression, became an insomniac, and barely left home for a year.
That year, Lindsey scanned Craigslist for carer work, but nobody replied to her applications. She was eventually offered a job caring for children with autism. “But I’m terrified,” she said.
“That your bosses will find out?’
This was a likely scenario. The photograph was everywhere. It had become so iconic among swaths of rightwingers that one man had even turned it into patriotic wallpaper, superimposing on to the wall behind Lindsey’s shrieking face and upturned finger a picture of a military funeral, complete with a coffin draped in the American flag. Lindsey had wanted the job so much she’d been “nervous about even applying. I was conflicted on whether to say to them, ‘Just so you know, I am this Lindsey Stone.’ Because I knew it was just a mouse click away.” She left it until the moment of the interview. And then the interview was over and she found that she hadn’t mentioned it.
Now she’d been in the job four months, and she still hadn’t told them. “And obviously, you can’t ask them, ‘Have you noticed it and decided it’s not a problem?’” I said.
“Right,” Lindsey said.
“So you feel trapped in a paranoid silence?” I said.
“I love this job so much,” Lindsey said. “I love these kids. One of the parents paid me a really high compliment the other day. I’ve only been working with her son for a month and she was like, ‘The moment I met you, seeing the way you are with my son, and the way you treat people, you were meant to work in this field.’ But what if she found out? Would she feel the same way?”
Lindsey could never just be happy and relaxed. The terror was always there. “It really impacts the way you view the world. Since it happened, I haven’t tried to date anybody. How much do you let a new person into your life? Do they already know?”
The Village Pub in Woodside, near Menlo Park, Silicon Valley, looks like no big deal from the outside, but when you get inside, you realise it’s filled with tech billionaires. I had recently discovered the world of digital reputation management – companies that “game” Google to hide negative stories stored online. One of these companies is reputation.com, launched by my dining companion, Michael Fertik. I told Michael that he was the only person from that world who had returned my email.
“That’s because this is a really easy sector in which to be an unappealing, scurrilous operation,” he said.
“Scurrilous in what way?”
“There’s a guy who has some traction in our space, who runs a company – he’s a convicted rapist,” Michael said. “He started a company to basically obscure that fact about himself, I think.”
Michael’s competitors were disreputable, he said, and he needed to be vigilant with potential clients. “Very early on, within two weeks of launching our website in 2006, I remember being by myself and getting a couple of sign-ups from guys. So I Googled them. They were paedophiles.”
“Do you remember their names?” I asked.
“Of course not,” Michael said. “Why do you ask that shit?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Curiosity.”
Michael looked different from our fellow diners. I didn’t recognise any of them, but everyone seemed insanely rich: preppy, with faces like luxury yachts, like Martha’s Vineyard in the summer, Waspy and at peace with the world, practically floating through the restaurant, whereas Michael was a big, angry, coiled-spring Jewish bear of a man. He was born in New York, attained a degree from Harvard Law School, and invented the concept of online reputation management while working as a clerk for the US Court of Appeals in Louisville, Kentucky. This was the mid-2000s. Stories about cyberbullying and revenge porn were just starting to filter though, and that’s how Michael got the idea.
After he turned down the paedophiles, Michael told me, he noticed he was getting sign-ups from neo-Nazis, albeit repentant former ones. One said: “When I was 17, I was a Nazi. I was an asshole kid. Now I’m in my 40s, I’m trying to move on, but the internet still thinks I am a Nazi.”
They were more sympathetic than the paedophiles, but Michael still didn’t want them as clients. So he drew up a code of conduct: he wouldn’t accept anyone who was under investigation or had been convicted of a felony violent crime, or a felony fraud crime, or any sexually violent crime, or anyone accused – even informally – of a sexual crime against children. And, he said, there was another moral difference between him and his competitors: he wouldn’t invent fake accolades; he’d only put the truth up there. Although, “I don’t think it’s incumbent on anyone to do massive fact-checking.”
“I have no idea what you actually do,” I had told Michael on the telephone before we met. “Maybe I could follow someone though the process?”
And so we planned it out. We’d just need to find a willing client.
“Are there any hobbies you’re particularly passionate about right now? Marathons? Photography?”
Farukh Rashid was in San Francisco, talking down a conference line to Lindsey Stone. I was listening in from my sofa in New York. I’d met Farukh a few months earlier, when Michael’s publicist, Leslie, gave me a tour of the reputation.com offices: two open-plan floors with soundproofed booths for the sensitive calls to celebrity clients. She introduced me to Farukh and explained that he usually works on Michael’s VIP customers – the CEOs and celebrities.
“It’s nice that you’re giving Lindsey the bespoke service,” I said.
“She needs it,” Leslie replied.
She really did. Michael’s strategists had been researching Lindsey’s online life and had discovered nothing about her besides that Silence And Respect incident.
“That five seconds of her life is her entire internet presence?” I said.
Farukh nodded. “And it’s not just this Lindsey Stone. Anyone who has that name has the same problem. There are 60 Lindsey Stones in the US and they’re all being defined by that one photograph.”
“I’m sorry to have given you such a tricky one,” I said, feeling a little proud of myself.
“Oh, no, we’re excited,” Farukh replied. “We’re going to introduce the internet to the real Lindsey Stone.”
“Are cats important to you?” Farukh asked Lindsey, now down the conference line.
“Absolutely,” said Lindsey.
I heard Farukh type. He was young and energetic, and just as upbeat and buoyant and lacking in cynicism and malevolent irony as he was hoping to make Lindsey seem. His Twitter profile says he enjoys “biking, hiking and family time”. His plan was to create Lindsey Stone Tumblrs and LinkedIn pages and WordPress blogs and Instagram accounts and YouTube accounts to overwhelm that terrible photograph, wash it away in a tidal wave of positivity, away to a place on Google where normal people don’t look – a place like page two of the search results. According to Google’s own research, 53% of us don’t go beyond the first two search results, and 89% of us don’t look past the first page.
“I’m passionate about music,” Lindsey told Farukh.
“That’s really good,” Farukh said. “Let’s work with that. Do you play an instrument?”
“I used to,” Lindsey said. “I was kind of self-taught. It’s just something I mess around with. It’s not anything I…” Suddenly, she trailed off. she seemed self-conscious, as if the endeavour was giving her troubling existential thoughts: questions such as “Who am I?” and “What are we doing?”
“I’m having a hard time with this,” she said. “As a normal person I don’t really know how to brand myself online.”
“Piano? Guitar? Drums?” said Farukh. “Or travel? Where do you go?”
“I don’t know,” Lindsey said. “I go to the beach. I get ice-cream.”
At Farukh’s request, Lindsey had been emailing him photographs that didn’t involve her flipping off at military cemeteries. She’d been providing biographical details, too. Her favourite TV show was Parks And Recreation. Her employment history included five years at Walmart, “which was kind of soul-suckingly awful”.
“Are you sure you want to say that Walmart was soul-sucking?” Farukh said.
“Oh… What? Really?” Lindsey laughed, as if to say, “Come on! Everyone knows that about Walmart!” But then she hesitated. The conference call was proving an unexpectedly melancholic experience. It was nothing to do with Farukh. He really felt for Lindsey and wanted to do a good job for her. The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the internet’s wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh to reduce herself to safe banalities – to cats and ice-cream and top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.
There was a time when Michael Fertik wouldn’t have needed to be so calculating. Back in the mid-90s, search engines were interested only in how many times a particular keyword appeared within a page. To be the number-one Jon Ronson search term on AltaVista or HotBot, you just had to write Jon Ronson over and over again. Which, for me, would be the most fantastic website to chance upon, but for everyone else, less so.
But then two students at Stanford, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had an idea: why not build a search engine that ranked websites by popularity instead? If someone is linking to your page, that’s one vote. If the page linking to your page has a lot of links into it, then that page counts for more votes. And that was it. They called their invention PageRank, after Larry Page.
This was why Farukh needed to create LinkedIn and Tumblr and Twitter pages for Lindsey. They come with a built-in high PageRank. The Google algorithm prejudges them as well-liked. But, for Michael, the problem with Google is that it is forever adjusting its algorithm in ways it keeps secret. “Google is a tricky beast and a moving target,” he told me, “so we try to decipher it, to reverse-engineer it.”
Knowing what he did about PageRank’s algorithm, Michael predicted that Lindsey’s love of cats (or whatever) would achieve “initial strong impact”, followed by “fluctuation”, and, after fluctuation, “reversion”.
Michael’s clients dread reversion. There’s nothing more dispiriting than seeing the nice new judgments disappear and the horrific old judgments bubble back up. But reversion is actually their friend, as Michael’s strategist, Jered Higgins, told me. “Reversion shows that the algorithm is uncertain,” he said. And during this uncertainty, Jered said, “We go in and blast it.”
The blasting – the bombardment of the algorithm with Tumblr pages about Lindsey’s trips to the beach, the shock and awe of these pleasant banalities – has to be choreographed just right. Google knows if it’s being manipulated (alarm bells go off) “so we have a strategic schedule for content creation and publication,” Jered said. “We create a natural-looking activity online. That’s a lot of accumulated intelligence.”
“I am a nobody,” Hank said. “Just a guy with a family and a job – a middle-America-type guy.”
Hank wasn’t his real name. He’d managed to keep that aspect of himself a secret. He was talking to me via a Google Hangout from his kitchen in a suburban house in an American town. He looked frail, fidgety.
On 17 March 2013, Hank was in the audience at a conference for tech developers in Santa Clara, California, when a stupid joke popped into his head, which he murmured to his friend, Alex.
“What was the joke?” I asked.
“It was so bad I don’t remember the exact words,” he said. “It was about a fictitious piece of hardware that has a really big dongle – a ridiculous dongle. We were giggling about that. It wasn’t even conversation-level volume.”
A few moments earlier, Hank and Alex had been giggling over some other tech in-joke about “forking someone’s repo”. “We’d decided it was a new form of flattery,” Hank explained. “A guy had been on stage presenting his new project, and Alex said, ‘I would fork that guy’s repo.’” (In tech jargon, to “fork” means to take a copy of another person’s software so you can work on it independently. Another word for software is “repository”. Just in case you wanted to know.)
Moments after making the dongle joke, Hank half-noticed the woman sitting in front of them stand up, turn around and take a photograph. Ten minutes later, a conference organiser came down the aisle and said to Hank and Alex, “Can you come with me?” They were taken into an office and told there’d been a complaint about sexual comments.
“I immediately apologised,” Hank said. “I knew exactly what they were talking about. I told them what we’d said, and that we didn’t mean for it to come across as a sexual comment, and that we were sorry if someone overheard and was offended. They were like, ‘OK. I see what happened.’”
And that was that. The incident passed. Hank and Alex were shaken up – “We’re nerdy guys, and confrontation isn’t something we handle well” – so they decided to leave the conference early. They were on their way to the airport when they started to wonder exactly how someone had conveyed the complaint to the conference organisers. The nightmarish possibility was that it had been communicated in the form of a public tweet. And so, with apprehension, they had a look.
They found a tweet from a woman, called Adria Richards, with a photo of them: “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles. Right behind me #pycon”.
Anxious, Hank quickly scanned her replies, but there was nothing much – just the odd congratulation from a few of her 9,209 followers for the way she’d “educated” the men behind her. He noticed ruefully that a few days earlier Adria Richards had herself tweeted a stupid penis joke. She’d suggested to a friend that he should put socks down his pants to bewilder security agents at the airport. Hank relaxed a little.
A day later, Hank was called into his boss’s office and fired.
“I packed up all my stuff in a box,” Hank said, “then I went outside to call my wife. I’m not one to shed tears but…” Hank paused. “When I got in the car with my wife, I just… I’ve got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying.”
That night, Hank made his only public statement. He posted a short message on the discussion board Hacker News: “Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to say I’m sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position. [But] as a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have three kids and I really liked that job. She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate.”
Ten months later, I was sitting opposite Adria Richards in a cafe at San Francisco airport. She seemed introverted and delicate, just the way Hank had come across over Google Hangout. She told me about the moment she overheard the comment about the big dongle. “Have you ever had an altercation at school and you could feel the hairs rise up on your back?” she asked me.
“You felt fear?” I asked.
“Danger,” she said. “Clearly my body was telling me, ‘You are unsafe.’”
Which was why, she said, even though she’d never before complained about sexual harassment, she “slowly stood up, rotated from my hips, and took three photos”. She tweeted one, “with a very brief summary of what they said. Then I sent another tweet describing my location. Right? And then the third tweet was the [conference’s] code of conduct.”
“You talked about danger,” I said. “What were you imagining might…?”
“Have you ever heard that thing, men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them?” she replied. “So. Yeah.”
I told Adria that people might consider that an overblown thing to say. She had, after all, been at a tech conference with 2,000 bystanders.
“Sure,” she replied. “And those people would probably be white and they would probably be male.”
“Somebody getting fired is pretty bad,” I said. “I know you didn’t call for him to be fired, but you must have felt pretty bad.”
“Not too bad,” she said. She thought more and shook her head decisively. “He’s a white male. I’m a black Jewish female. He was saying things that could be inferred as offensive to me, sitting in front of him. I do have empathy for him, but it only goes so far. If he had Down’s syndrome and he accidently pushed someone off a subway, that would be different… I’ve seen things where people are like, ‘Adria didn’t know what she was doing by tweeting it.’ Yes, I did.”
On the evening Hank posted his statement on Hacker News, outsiders began to involve themselves in his and Adria’s story. Hank started to receive messages of support, and then insults, from men’s rights bloggers. He didn’t respond to any of them. At the same time, Adria discovered she was getting discussed on a famous meeting place for trolls: 4chan/b/. “A father of three is out of a job because a silly joke he was telling a friend was overheard by someone with more power than sense. Let’s crucify this cunt.” “Kill her.” “Cut out her uterus with an xacto knife.”
Someone sent Adria a photograph of a beheaded woman with tape over her mouth. Adria’s face was superimposed on to the bodies of porn actors. Next, her employer’s website went down. Someone launched a DDoS attack, which overwhelms a site’s servers with repeated requests. SendGrid, her employer, was told the attacks would stop if she was fired. Within hours, she was fired.
‘‘SendGrid threw me under the bus,” she later emailed me. “I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I felt alone.’’
The death threats and rape threats and racist insults continued even after she was fired.
“Things got very bad for her,” Hank told me. “She had to disappear for six months. Her entire life was being evaluated by the internet. It was not a good situation for her at all.”
“Have you met her since?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied.
Ten months had passed since the day Adria took that photograph, so I asked what he thought of her now. “I think that nobody deserves what she went through,” he replied.
“Maybe it was [Hank] who started all of this,” Adria told me in the cafe at San Francisco airport. “No one would have known he got fired until he complained… Maybe he’s to blame for complaining that he got fired. Maybe he secretly seeded the hate groups. Right?”
I was so taken aback by this suggestion that at the time I didn’t say anything in defence of Hank. But later I felt bad that I hadn’t stuck up for him. So I emailed Adria. I told her what he had told me – how he’d refused to engage with any of the bloggers or trolls who sent him messages of support. I added that I felt Hank was within his rights to post the message on Hacker News, revealing he’d been fired.
Adria replied that she was happy to hear that Hank “wasn’t active in driving their interests to mount the raid attack”, but that she held him responsible for it anyway. It was “his own actions that resulted in his own firing, yet he framed it in a way to blame me… If I had a spouse and two kids to support, I certainly would not be telling ‘jokes’ like he was doing at a conference. Oh, but wait, I have compassion, empathy, morals and ethics to guide my daily life choices. I often wonder how people like Hank make it through life seemingly unaware of how ‘the other’ lives in the same world he does, but with countless fewer opportunities.”
I asked Hank if he found himself behaving differently since the incident. Had it altered how he lived his life? “I distance myself from female developers a little bit now,” he replied. “I’m not as friendly. There’s humour, but it’s very mundane. You just don’t know. I can’t afford another Donglegate.”
“Give me an example,” I said. “So you’re in your new workplace [Hank was offered another job right away] and you’re talking to a female developer. In what way do you act differently towards her?’
“Well,” Hank said, “we don’t have any female developers at the place I’m working at now. So.”
“You’ve got a new job now, right?” I said to Adria.
“No,” she said.
Later, I saw another photograph Adria happened to take that day at the conference. It was an audience shot. A sea of men – practically only men – stretching to the horizon.
In October 2014, I took a final drive to visit Lindsey Stone. Four months had passed since I’d last spoken to her or Farukh – and given that they’d only taken her on for my benefit, I’d half-wondered if maybe it had all been quietly wound down in my absence.
“Oh God, no,” said Lindsey. We sat at her kitchen table. “They call me every week, week after week.” She took out her phone and scrolled through her innumerable emails from Farukh. She read out loud some blogs his team had written in her voice, about how it’s important when travelling to use the hotel safe – “Stay alert, travellers!” – and how, if you’re in Spain, you should try the tapas.
Lindsey got to pre-approve everything, and she’d only told them no twice, she said – to a blog about how much she’s looking forward to Lady Gaga’s upcoming jazz album (“I like Lady Gaga, but I’m not really excited about her jazz album”) and to her tribute to Disneyland on the occasion of its 50th birthday: “Happy Birthday Disneyland! The Happiest Place on Earth!” “Happy Birthday Disneyland!” Lindsey blushed. “I would never… I mean, I had a great time at Disneyland. But still…” She trailed off. “One of my friends from high school said, ‘I hope it’s still you. I want people to know how funny you are.’ But it’s scary. After all that’s happened, what’s funny to me… I don’t want to go anywhere near the line, let alone cross it. So I’m constantly saying, ‘I don’t know, Farukh, what do you think?’”
“This journey started with my identity being hijacked by a spambot,” I said. “Your personality has been taken by strangers twice now. But at least this second time around it’s nice.”
Lindsey hadn’t typed her name into Google for 11 months. The last time had been a shock: it was Veterans’ Day, and she found some ex-army people “wondering where I was, and not in a good way”.
“They were thinking about tracking you down so they could re-destroy you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. She hadn’t looked since. And now she swallowed and began to type: L… I… N…
Lindsey shook her head, stunned. “This is monumental,” she said.
Two years ago, the photograph stretched to Google Images horizon – uninterrupted, mass-production shaming, “pages and pages and pages”, Lindsey said, “repeating endlessly. It felt so huge. So oppressive.” And now: nearly gone. There was still a scattering, and there would inevitably be some reversion, but for now there were lots of photographs of Lindsey doing nothing bad. Just smiling.
Even better, there were lots of photographs of other Lindsey Stones – people who weren’t her at all. There was a Lindsey Stone volleyball player, a Lindsay Stone competitive swimmer. The swimmer had been captured mid-stroke, moments from winning the New York State 500-yard freestyle championship. It was captioned, “Lindsay Stone had the right plan in place and everything was going exactly to plan.”
Here was a whole other person, doing something everyone could agree was lovely and commendable. There was no better result than that.
This is an edited extract from So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson, published next month by Picador at £16.99. To order a copy for £13.59, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.
• This article was amended on Saturday 21 February 2015 as the original picture layout was inconsistent with Guardian editorial guidelines.
• This article was further amended on Sunday 22 February 2015 to remove a sentence that suggested Hank was fired after Adria Richards wrote a blogpost. This was incorrect; a production error meant the sentence was not removed earlier in the editing process.
CONISTON Water was pretty wild when we visited, with waves crashing like a storm-lashed sea.
The rain was hammering down, in that way only Cumbrian rain can, so we sought refuge in the waterside Bluebird Cafe, where photographs on the walls reveal the fateful events of January 4, 1967.
That morning the water was calm and quiet – perfect for Donald Campbell’s attempt to break the world speed record in his Bluebird 7. He’d previously broken the record at Coniston in 1955, and returned to Cumbria’s third largest lake to regain it for an eighth time. He was killed reaching around 300 mph, and the chilling footage can be seen at Coniston’s Ruskin Museum, where part of the Bluebird, salvaged when the jet boat was finally raised from the water in 2001, is on display.
A memorial to Campbell stands in the village, although when we asked a shop assistant where it was she looked blank and consulted a colleague, who wasn’t much wiser.
There is something special about this southern corner of the Lake District. Driving around Lake Windermere, then dropping into Grizedale Forest approaching Coniston from the top, you can’t help but lose your heart to the spectacular landscape and vistas.
We stayed at Crag Cottage, one of the Coppermines properties in the area. Since re-building an old sawmill in the Coppermines Valley in 1989, the company has developed more than 70 cottages, many of them dog-friendly. With log fires, gorgeous views, walks straight from the door and, for added luxury, hot tubs and private lakeside jetties, there’s something for any break, from a romantic retreat to a family adventure.
Nestled in a row of 18th-century quarryman cottages, Crag Cottage stands beneath Yewdale Crag. With an open fire and thick Lakeland stone walls, it was delightfully cosy for our winter break. Perched on the fells, it’s a five-minute walk from the village, but waking up to a splendid view of the Coniston valley, it felt like we were in a hideaway high in the mountains.
Initially serving copper and slate mines, Coniston became popular with tourists in the mid-19th century, thanks to the Furness Railway. With holiday cottages, hotels and two youth hostels, it remains a tourist magnet, particularly popular with hill-walkers and rock climbers, but is refreshingly unspoilt. Although it’s busier in spring and summer, we found it quite low key – there’s not even a cash machine in the village – with a quirky “take us or leave us” charm. Surrounded by beautiful fells and lakes, there are countless walks in and around Coniston, not least Tarn Hows, Furness Fells, Grizedale Forest and the mighty Coniston Old Man, standing over the village like a protective grandfather. For families, the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway – one of the oldest and longest narrow gauge railways in England – offers a fun excursion, along with a rebuilt Victorian steam yacht gondola. And for thrill-seekers, there are off-road adventures behind the wheel of an ex-Army LandRover, as well as gorge scrambling and mountain biking.
There’s a rich cultural heritage too. The adventures in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons unfolded around Coniston Water, and the Monk Coniston estate was owned by Beatrix Potter, whose home, Hill Top, is in nearby Sawrey. Bought in 1905 with proceeds from her first book, the Tale of Peter Rabbit, the cottage and surroundings inspired her tales, and visitors can step into the property pretty much as Beatrix left it. Dove Cottage, home to William Wordsworth.
Heading into the village, we visited the Ruskin Museum, telling the story of Coniston from Stone Age fell-walkers to the speed jet era. Artefacts range from 500-million-year-old rocks to Mavis, the sailing dinghy that inspired the Amazon boat in Swallows and Amazons. The Ruskin Gallery holds an array of photographs, paintings, letters and personal items of Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin, who lived in the area for 30 years and is buried in Coniston churchyard.
Grey clouds circled the skies as we walked to Coniston Water and the heavens opened, as you’d expect in this part of the world. Drying out over coffee in the Bluebird Cafe, we decided it wasn’t the best day to attempt the Coniston Old Man so we retreated to the cottage and its crackling fire.
Behind the cottage is a footpath to Tom Gill, leading to Tarn Hows, a renowned Lakes beauty spot, and we vowed to do some walking on a return visit. But with the rain beating at the window, we made the most of Crag Cottage and its cosy sitting-room, well-stocked with books and DVDs. Another nice touch was the collection of Beatrix Potter books in one of the two bedrooms.
Later, we enjoyed a meal and a pint of Bluebird Bitter at the Black Bull, a 400-year-old coaching inn and home to the Coniston Brewing Company. Standing beside the lively village beck, in the shadow of the ‘Old Man’, it has a large piece of stone known as the Big Toe of the Old Man set in the wall of the lounge. The pub appeared in the film Across the Lake, staring Anthony Hopkins as Donald Campbell. It was a wrench to leave Crag Cottage, but on the way back we stopped at Windermere for lunch at the Lamplighter Dining Rooms, an elegant family-run restaurant and hotel. We chatted over a drink with friendly front-of-house manager James Tasker – whose parents founded the restaurant – who returned to the Lakes after working in London at The Savoy, The Dorchester and Claridge’s.
I started with a bowl of marinated olives followed by sea bass and delicious Cartmel sticky toffee pudding. My partner enjoyed ham hock, chicken, bacon and wild mushroom pie, from the Lamplighter Pie selection, and Eton mess.
Other choices included Lancashire beef suet pudding and drunken bullock pie, black pudding bon-bons and rustic bread with Hawkshead piccalilli, and ‘English Lakes’ ice-cream.
Particularly popular are the Lamplighter’s Sunday lunches, with quality cuts of local meat served whole to the table, allowing diners to carve and serve themselves. Not far from the Lamplighter is Orrest Head, Wainwright’s first ascent which gave him a lifelong love of the fells.
And this is the perfect way to walk off that sticky toffee pudding.
“Who wants to stay in their comfort zone?’ I asked myself as I abseiled down waterfalls, jumped from cliff peaks and snorkelled beside dolphins.
It was that same thought that persuaded me to board a plane and spend seven adrenaline-fuelled days in the Azores, one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal composed of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Having left behind a gloomy day in London, less than four hours later I touched down in Ponta Delgada – the administrative capital of the Azores located on São Miguel Island.
São Miguel, known as ‘The Green Island’, is the largest and most populated island of the Azores.
Even better, less than 3km from Ponta Delgada Airport was my new home for the week – Hotel Marina Atlântico.
A hotel with charm, an indoor swimming pool, perfect central location and a balcony with spectacular sea and harbour views; I couldn’t have asked for much more.
And just in case I needed any more excitement, the base of adventure tour company Picos De Aventura was just a few minutes’ walk from the hotel – and I had a lot to look forward to.
Planned activities for the week included a whale and dolphin watching trip, rock climbing, mountain biking, canoeing, swimming with dolphins and canyoning.
But my visit to The Azores was caught up in the path of Hurricane Gonzales, meaning half of the activities had to be cancelled due to safety reasons.
Even that couldn’t put me off though, and I used the spare time to explore the highlights of the island which included hot springs, the volcanic crater of Furnas, the Jardim António Borges pineapple plantation, Goreanna tea plantation and more.
On a trip to The Azores, visiting Sete Cidades is a must; the extinct crater is an enchanting natural wonder boasting two lakes – one blue and one green.
And here’s a tip; the best place to enjoy the lakes is from the view point ‘Vista do Rei’, which offers sweeping panoramic views.
The first activity of the week was a three-hour whale and dolphin watching trip across the Azorean waters, which I was told attract an impressive number of cetacean activity.
A total of 26 of the world’s 80 species have been sighted off the islands’ coast including pods of sperm, pilot, backed, fin, sei, humpback and blue whales.
The best time for these trips is the spring and summer months, but even in September I managed to see both bottlenose and common dolphins.
And the emphasis of these trips is not only to see the mammals in their natural habitat, but also on teaching and conservation.
During the trip, a marine biologist introduced the dolphin species and discussed their habitat, communication and behavioural patterns.
But if you think a dolphin and whale watching trip sounds exciting, the real treat was swimming with dolphins in their natural habitat.
I leapt at the chance offered by Picos De Aventura and took the plunge, swimming alongside common and bottlenose dolphins in the blue Atlantic waters ten miles off the shore.
Seeing dolphins swim underwater just metres away is an experience not to be sniffed at – and one that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
My favourite activity of the week overall has to be canyoning, an adventure sport steadily becoming more popular on the island.
São Miguel offers some of the best canyoning opportunities, with new and diverse routes being discovered all the time.
There really is no better place to take part in this exhilarating sport, which sees adrenaline junkies like me jumping, climbing, scrambling and swimming through canyons.
The opportunity to try exhilarating experiences like these first hand, the exciting atmosphere of the Azores and the memories I gained from the trip means I wouldn’t hesitate in returning one day.
For those who fancy something different and a holiday filled with excitement and adrenaline, the Azores is a must.
Leading operator to the Azores, Sunvil Discovery, offers a seven-night active holiday on Sao Miguel from £1,067 pp (two sharing).
The price includes return flights from London Gatwick, seven nights’ BB at the Marina Atlantico in Ponta Delgada, car hire and four activities (whale-watching, rock climbing, canoeing, and mountain biking with free entry to the thermal pools at SPA Ferraria). Optional swimming with dolphins is an additional £65pp.
For more information contact Sunvil Discovery by calling 020 8758 4722 or visiting sunvil.co.uk