During a cycling holiday in Cornwall, graphic designer Nick Hand wondered how long it would take to cycle right around the British coast and back to the same point. So a year later he did just that, setting off on a 5,000 mile adventure, and interviewing some of the fascinating folk he met, from a boat builder to a tea taster. A year later he did a similar trip round Ireland and all the interviews live on his website as compelling digital stories but now 20 of them have been brought together in a new book, Conversations on the Coast. We spoke to him to find out more.
Hi Nick, why did you decide to do a book to document your adventures now?
We never intended to do a book, in fact I remember in 2009 promising The Observer journalist Mike Carter, who did the same journey in the reverse direction, that I wouldn’t bring out a book (he has written an excellent book One Man and his Bike about the journey). But I think it is so different to his, he will forgive me – his is also much funnier.
The reason I changed my mind was that I have transcribed a number of the meetings from my journey for Boneshaker bicycle magazine and was surprised how well the photofilms of artisans that I met on the road transcribed into print. We thought how great it would be to craft a little hardback book with 20 of the people. It has been a great experience choosing a great little Welsh printer and a Scottish paper for the book, deciding on a header tape and ribbon colour, and cloth for the binding.
We have self-published the book and have barred Amazon from selling it, selling instead just on our website and in small independent bookshops. In some ways it reflects the independence of the makers in the book itself.
How hard was it to choose the 20 stories? What criteria did you use?
Harriet (Nick’s partner and colleague at The Department of Small Works) and I wanted to show a good spread of artisans and makers as well as spread the selection around the coast. It was difficult though, and we could easily do a volume two and three.
How much diversity is there on the British coastline? Are there characteristics that seaside towns share?
It’s intriguing to think that you can set off from one point anywhere on our coast and cycle around little roads (and some ugly bigger ones) to arrive 4,700 or so miles later at exactly the same point. I don’t know if that confirms how small our island is or how large.
I did though, visit many little islands, each has its own unique character from the Isle of Wight, to Anglesey to Aran or Mull. The almost treeless Orkneys are stunning and wild. The characteristics that are the same though are the people – you meet amazing people everywhere you go. People doing amazingly skilled things, some people struggle to survive as a craftsmen. But they are always generous with their time and will feed and look after a hungry and tired cyclist. I rode away from meeting so many people completely inspired and energised to ride.
As for seaside towns, in some ways they are like the people, sometimes a bit ragged and struggling, sometimes grand and beautiful. But again, each town has its little gems to seek out, like the Smokies of Arbroath, or talented people like Zoe Murphy in Margate.
Fish and chips would often be sought out as would a cake laden cafe (cycling 50 miles a day burns a lot of calories). And I’m happy to report pretty fine stocks of both in our seaside towns.
2009 was the first trip, 2010 was the second. What did you get up to this summer?
This summer, I’ve concentrated on earning some money (as a graphic designer and photographer), my bicycle journeys have been self-funded, so it was time to come back to reality and earn my way again. I will though do some kind of journey next year on my trusty Argos bicycle (not the Argos of your high street, but the little frame builder from my home town of Bristol).
We often hear that traditional crafts are enjoying a renaissance – does that tally with your experiences?
I think with the help of some great people like Robin Wood at the Heritage Crafts Association, traditional crafts are making a comeback. They never really disappeared, but the change is that we are looking to support apprenticeships more, so that the skills and crafts are in the hands of a younger generation.
I’m interested as well in the idea of merging modern skills – coding and web developments with making skills. I recently talked at the Do Lectures and spoke immediately before Zach Smith from Makerbot Industries. If you take a look at what they are doing with 3D printing, I think it is directly related to the awakening of making things in a small clever way.
Listen as well to Russell M Davies talk about making. I think we are suspicious of big business and naturally turn to things made in a careful slow way. Knowing the maker helps as well, we are tuning in again to things that last, things that are well made. I can’t help thinking it’s a good time for smart people who can use their hands and make beautiful, clever things.
Conversations on the Coast is available for £14, with £1 going to Parkinson’s UK.