A Note on Warm Showers

A great camp spot; definitely NOT a warm shower

A few days ago, our good friend Jonesy sent me a message to say that he was considering signing up to the website Warm Showers. For those of you who know Jonesy, no, Warm Showers is not another dating website! (Sorry, Jons. Too good an opportunity to miss.)

Warm Showers is like Couch Surfing, but exclusively for cycle tourists. It is a brilliant, generous and friendly community of cycle tourists and those who support them.

The premise of Warm Showers is simple: the offer of a safe place to sleep and a warm shower for a touring cyclist passing your way. It is very simple to join Warm Showers too: you go to the website and click "join the ride". The first of only two real rules is that all that is offered is for free.

For free? For free? Yes, for free. There is thus an immediate and obvious incentive for touring cyclists to using Warm Showers: it is a money saver. However, the benefits of the Warm Showers community run much deeper than that.

On this trip, our richest experiences have been when we connect with other people. Sharing stories, sharing food, sharing laughs, giving thanks. Learning about our many commonalities and our nuanced differences has been so interesting and affirming. These are things that benefit cyclists and non-cyclists alike. Warm Showers has facilitated a deeper connection with the lands we have travelled through and the people that live there.

With Andrew in Nelson, New Zealand

Back to Jonesy, then, whose message has spurred me into action and prompted me to write a blog post that I have been considering for some time. 

Jonesy is a keen cyclist himself and at the moment mostly tours in the UK. Over weekends, long weekends and on week or two-week long annual leave holidays, Jonesy takes almost every opportunity to enjoy the 15/kmh approach to life.

Our mate, Jones

Jones has an upcoming trip to Wales planned and I said he would definitely be able to find a host or two if he signed up to Warm Showers. It doesn't matter if you are travelling for two days or two years, the second real rule of Warm Showers is that to request to stay with someone, you have to be travelling by bike.

However, Jones is one of the good ones and when he mentioned signing up, he meant as a host. He has recently moved into his own house and, in 21st century speak, he is keen to "pay it forward". "But", he said, at the end of our conversation, "are you sure I'm not going to get robbed?".

In short, no, I am not sure. I cannot guarantee it. But, as John of John and Ann, with whom we stayed for two nights, our tent pitched on their lawn in Whanganui, New Zealand, said, "the bike is a pretty good filter for folk".

What is this world we inhabit wherein we do not question raging forest fires, oceans filled with plastic, misogynistic celebrities and racist politicians, but we are immediately suspicious of kindness offered with no ulterior motive?

The Warm Showers community is representative of the world I wish to live in. It helps to redress the balance. "You must be the change you wish to see in the world". This isn't somebody else's job. It is yours, it is mine, it is ours. And as John also said, "you've only got now".

A week before we left for our trip, I signed up. A friend had told me about WS and Olly had read about it on the many cycling websites and blogs that he scours daily. I didn't sign up reluctantly, but it was with some trepidation. In true British fashion, perhaps, I thought it was unlikely we would use the site because we wouldn't want to impose on people, preferring to take care of ourselves.

How wrong and silly I was.

We first used Warm Showers about three weeks into our trip. We were having to rejig plans in order to meet and stay with my friend Corinne and her family before they went away on holiday, and this meant finishing a day's ride in the town of Angers.

Angers didn't have a campsite and European hotels are often priced outside of our budget. Until this point, we had been enjoying cycling along voies vertes and camping at the sites dotted along them. We had been reveling in the start of the trip which felt just like a summer holiday.

In Angers, we had to change tact and I vividly remember saying to Olly that we could "give this Warm Showers thing a go". 

We sent out four messages and quickly got three replies from people who said that they weren't available at the time. We were grateful for these replies despite the fact they left us wondering about accommodation. Any reply is better than no reply, which then leaves your request dangling and your clinging on to "the hope".

We've found the Warm Showers community to be really good in this respect: replying even if it's a "no". Often rejections come with sincere apologies and lots of advice for the area and its surroundings. 

It is undoubtedly to our own detriment that we haven't engaged much with Couch Surfing during the trip - to date! We know others who have and who love it. The few times we have logged on we have been overwhelmed by the amount of information both required and on offer; the demands for donations; and the five-messages per week limit.

Warm Showers is quite old-school and I like it. It is a much smaller community than Couch Surfing, but, from our experience, no poorer for it.

As I checked my phone for the final time before our departure that day, I had a reply from Aurelie in Angers. She had just returned from Burkina Faso and she claimed her apartment was a mess, but we were welcome to stay if no one else had offered to host us. We were thrilled! A bed and a pillow, something I have so come to miss, awaited us in Angers. Aurelie also offered to cook us dinner. Incroyable !

I hastily and enthusiastically replied to Aurelie who then sent us her address. Using Warm Showers for the first time in France, and being able to speak French, certainly helped to build our confidence. 

Olly located Aurelie's address on his Garmin and once we arrived in Angers, we wound down streets we would otherwise not have taken, glimpsing local life which, even in France, especially in the peak, summer season, can be hard to find.

When we stopped outside Aurelie's apartment block we had no idea what to expect. We sent text messages home to advise our parents that we were "about to go in", and also made sure to have pressed the "OK" button on our SpotGen GPS tracker too.

When we pressed the buzzer, Aurelie emerged smiling and greeted us like old friends. She immediately ushered us towards a basement garage where we could store our bikes and she told us to "come up when we were ready". We were taken aback. Although this is completely normal behaviour, we had only known Aurelie for about three minutes, and we were overwhelmed by her easy-going trusting of us.

When we had unpacked everything we needed, we went upstairs to the apartment, the front door to which had been left ajar to allow us to enter freely. Aurelie's apartment was such a positive and happy place: there were photos dotted around and pinned on the fridge, and there was a blackboard upon which Aurelie had chalked motivational messages. It was a colourful and welcoming apartment, and Aurelie encouraged us to feel at home.

After giving us a quick tour and a cold beer from the fridge, Aurelie announced that she was going to go to the supermarket to buy supplies for tea. And with that she was gone and we were alone in her flat. It had been barely five minutes since she had greeted us with "bonjour" at the front door. There was nothing left to it but to take a warm shower and afterwards dry off using the towels that Aurelie had kindly provided - a homely luxury just like the pillow.

And this was the taste of things to come.

In New Zealand, Lorraine and Neil had watched the weather forecast for the day we were due to stay with them and seeing that we were due to cycle in the rain all day, left their back door open so that we could go straight in, aware that we would likely arrive before they got home from work. Near Grenoble, we waved to Adrien and his two, young daughters through the window as they left for school whilst we continued to drink our hot drinks at their dining table; Adrien had told us where to hide the key when we were ready to leave. Derek and Sue in New Zealand had to leave early for work, but as she was hurrying out of the door, Sue called back to us that if we were still there when she got home, it wouldn't be a problem.

WS friends come in all shapes and sizes: Lorraine and Neil's kunekune pig

Derek and Sue's dog, Lucy

We had sent a message to Dave, also in New Zealand, who couldn't host us due to having a full house of relatives over to celebrate Christmas. Instead, he arranged for us to stay with two of his friends, and our time with Kevin and Megan, who said it would be such a shame for us to stay for just one day, has become such a treasured memory. A few days later, on 23rd December, we stayed with Diane and Ian on their kiwi fruit farm. They refused to let us cycle along the coastal road on Christmas Eve in the pouring rain and so drove us some 60km to the accommodation we had organised for Christmas, and bought us lunch before wishing us a merry and happy time - and are we sure we didn't just want to stay with them? (We had already agreed to cat-sit Steve.)

Preparing for Christmas on the Coromandel at Kevin and Megan's

In France, we met Thibault at his workplace who told us in which shoe we would find the key to his apartment. In Auckland, Helen and Richard welcomed us for four nights so that we could recover from jet-lag and swollen ankles. In Italy, Giorgio picked us up, cold and wet, from outside a supermarket. In Florence, Carlo taught us a thing or two about Italian cooking.

With Carlo

Bert, in Thailand, welcomed us into his new home in Hua Hin and proudly took us on a thoughtful tour of his town just before the sun set. In the morning, he offered us homemade Dutch bread. Toast tasted so good in Thailand! When we contacted Anne she was cycle-touring on the Atlantic coast, but said her neighbour could let us into her top-floor, chalet apartment in Chamonix and that we could stay as long as we liked. (We noticed her fine jam collection and so left another one on the kitchen table as a thank you.) With David and Marlene, we stayed up long past midnight drinking wine as if we had just been reunited with old friends.

With Bert at The Statues of the Seven Kings in Hua Hin

And this really is just the beginning.

These experiences have humbled us and there is no replacement for them. Each experience has been unique and wonderful for it. I think they have made us better people too.

Bar the two rules previously mentioned, there are no rules: it's up to you. You can offer a pitch on the lawn, the spare bed, a sofa bed, a teepee in the back garden or space in the lounge for camp mats. You can offer dinner and breakfast or grant free access to the kitchen. (If a guest stays for two nights, you could ask them to prepare dinner on the second.) You can take guests on a tour of your town; invite them to accompany you to the opera; allow them to ride your tandem to the beach; take them along to your neighbour's barbecue; or leave them be in their bedroom.

Striking a pose with Xavier's teepee in Salt, Girona

We are always grateful for a warm shower and a safe place to sleep. We appreciate being pointed in the direction of the washing machine, love being lent a towel and told the Wi-Fi password. We are moved when we are told to, and feel like we can, make ourselves at home. It's been a while now since we were last in ours.

I was inadvertently a Warm Showers host long before I had even heard of the platform or conceived of the idea of "Lorna and Olly" let alone "Lorna and Olly cycling across the world".

My friend Tom called me a little out of the blue to tell me that his friend Austin was cycling LEJOG and would be passing through Shropshire the following day, could he stay with me? I couldn't think of a reason to say no, and I trust Tom and like his outlook on life.

Tom passed my address on to Austin who arrived the next evening. I do remember being a bit nervous, worried that I was going to have to entertain Austin after an, inevitably, long day at work. (I absolutely didn't, but do recall voluntarily offering up a rendition of one of only three songs I can play on the ukulele....) 

Austin locked his bike in the garage and then waddled over to Asda in his cycling shoes to buy a bottle of wine whilst I finished making dinner. We chatted as we ate, conversation flowing freely; when someone is on an adventure, it's an easy place to start.

I offered Austin a towel and had OKed it with my housemates that he could sleep on the sofa. The following morning, I had to leave for work before Austin was awake. I left breakfast bits on the kitchen table with a note telling him to help himself to milk from the fridge. Austin sent me a message as he prepared to leave and I replied to wish him luck on his way. And that was that.

However, I went to work with a spring in my step that day, and telling the story some three years later still makes me smile.

It also makes me smile, and blows my mind a bit, that my parents hosted Sue, of Derek and Sue mentioned above, when she visited the UK earlier this year. It was brilliant to get a selfie (!) from my dad of my parents in the back garden with Sue from New Zealand there too. My mum made a rhubarb crumble with rhubarb from the garden and she said it went down well.

This concept of "loving thy neighbour" is not new, yet it is one that seems to have been forgotten. Or perhaps, moreover, it is one that has become overlooked. As we connect more with our phones than we do with the world around us, scrolling past pictures of natural disasters yet staring enviously at someone else's summer holiday, we build walls around ourselves, creating boundaries and borders that before too long, if we continue to sit back and wait for somebody else to make the difference, we won't be able to peer over the top of, let alone break down.

If you have been following our adventure and you think we're all right (!), joining Warm Showers would be an amazing way to support us. As we embark on the final few months of our trip, and Autumn approaches and campsites shut down, we will be hoping to stay with Warm Showers hosts across Europe to avoid having to find a place to pitch our tent in the dark.

You do not have to display your address on the website, or your phone number. You do not have to say yes to every request or provide a reason why it may be a no. You do not have to go obscenely out of your way and you do not have to have a dog, though Olly would like me to add that it helps.

If you're still not convinced to welcome strangers into your home, I leave you with this thought. We're all familiar with the old adage "don't speak to strangers". From a young age I took issue with this statement, wondering how it was possible to make friends if you didn't.

I hope this answers your question, Jones.

I've written this post from a luxurious caravan on the Greek island of Lefkada. We are spending two nights here (three: Karen and John have so brillintly allowed us to extend our welcome) thanks to Warm Showers hosts Karen and John.  Karen and John drove this caravan to Greece from England, leaving their home in Manchester to set up life on the island in a home which serendipitously became theirs and which they share with their two dogs Harry and Penny.

Olly with Penny and Harry, John and his neighbour, teacher and friend, Spiros

Karen joined Warm Showers just a couple of months ago as she prepares to cycle from Manchester to Lefkada next Spring.  Karen will be riding in memory of her son who died from an overdose in February this year.  Karen had been planning to do the ride with her son, Zachary, for whom cycling "felt like flying".  Karen will be riding Zach's bike and hopes to "talk and ride", meeting with people, especially mothers, along the way who have had a similar experience to her.  Karen is passionate about talking about the still too often taboo subjects of suicide, addiction, substance abuse and mental health.  In addition, she wants to break down the stigma of shame attached to all of these things which is often felt keenly by the person affected and their family and friends. 

It is a busy time on the island of Lefkada with tourists in and out of Karen and John's holiday villa, but they still made time to welcome us and we are under strict instructions to make ourselves at home.  Starting in March next year, Karen will also be riding for herself, seeking out to experience that same feeling of flying that Zachary did and so keeping his memory alive.  We urge you to read more about her upcoming plans here and on Facebook: Talk and Ride.