A Year in the Saddle

Sam Blom-Cooper and Francesca Delany escaped the Bar for a year to cycle across Europe and Asia to Cambodia. Here they report back to Counsel

“Don’t be ridiculous!” – Not the exasperated plea of a Head of Chambers nor the disapproving words of a concerned Senior Clerk, when informed of our plans to cycle across the world for a year, but the words of a somewhat over-sized and sweaty border-guard, patrolling the Iran-Turkmenistan frontier that marks the gateway to more than 500km of Karakum Desert sands. Our friendly immigration official seemed equally bemused, however, by our declining his offer of 8am shots of vodka as he was by our choice to head out onto the lonely and already melting desert highway. By 9:30am the thermometer would be nudging 50°C. Sticky tarmac and absurd heat notwithstanding, at least Francesca was now freed of the uncomfortably hot, conservative attire that crossing Iran had entailed.

Even before coming to the Bar we had both toyed with the idea of one day taking a sabbatical to cycle from East London to the Far East before family or professional commitments would make such a hope unrealistic. As the frost thawed through the flatlands of Essex in February 2011, however, we finally waved good-bye to the friends, families, Courts and Tribunals that had become the backdrop to our daily lives in London, and tipped our handlebars towards the East Anglian Coast and an overnight boat to Holland, the home of Sam’s forefathers.

We knew we were not leaving our profession at the easiest of times. Far from it. Nigh on daily conversations of cuts to both Criminal and Immigration Legal Aid raised serious question marks for us as to the wisdom of departing at such a precarious moment. Yet, we were cajoled and urged onwards by our ever-supportive colleagues not to abandon our plans, irrespective of the unsettled times our line of work was, and continues, passing through.

While we left behind upheaval within our own profession, our journey through old Europe, the Middle East and ultimately onto the Silk Roads of Central Asia and China would draw us close to shifting political landscapes, shaped not least by the Arab Spring, economic boom-times in China and the ebbs and flows of Central Asian dictatorships.

One central wish for our voyage was, in part, to retrace some of the footsteps taken by our respective parents and grandparents as they fled the perils of wartime Europe and migrated to new and safer lands. Our route would take us past the ports from where they sailed, and on through and under the Suez Canal that once ferried them in both directions, as their lives would begin to settle following the end of the Second World War.

On the smooth highways and byways of Europe our hours in the saddle sailed by with each passing day carrying us further out of cruel Winter and into an embracing Spring. Our swifter than expected progress to the Mediterranean coast of Greece allowed for a change of route to take in revolutionary Cairo, at a time when optimism remained tangible on every street corner, before we eventually escaped the wildly chaotic traffic of the capital for the open expanses of the Sinai Desert and its gateway to Jordan and beyond.

The Silk Roads of Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan all came and went beneath our wheels as Summer gave way to Autumn, and the plains rose up to the near 16,000ft high passes of the Pamir Mountains. During these days we gulped greedily at the thin air as we camped under shivering stars on lonely roads that felt as far away from civilisation as they were. Although as physically distant as we would ever be from life at court, a plan was forming in our minds to marry a year’s adventure on a bike with legal life on the other side of the planet.

Our eastward progression would now trend southwards, through the Tibetan communities of south-west China, across the Tropic of Cancer, and through the tribal lands of northern Vietnam in the direction of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. It is here that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (“ECCC”) currently sit, trying the senior leadership of the Khmer Rouge in what can properly be described as extraordinary proceedings.

The timing of our visit could not have been better. Sam’s colleague, Diana Ellis QC, currently representing the Khmer Rouge’s “First Lady”, provided us with front row seats as the Trial Chamber heard its first day of evidence and the country listened for the first time to the free-wheeling account of Nuon Chea – “Brother Number Two” – as he described life alongside Pol Pot, the rise to prominence of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and its struggle against US-backed South Vietnam.

Notwithstanding the grim facts surrounding the years of torture, forced labour and mass murder under Khmer Rouge rule, it was an utterly absorbing experience to be back in court, in proceedings we might not naturally recognise as a criminal trial but that, nonetheless, felt like history unfolding.

Since that frigid February morning when we crossed the M25 and headed for Harwich, 304 days of cycling, 15,613km and 24 countries had passed us by as we watched the world’s landscapes and cultures, politics and people, evolve – all from our gentle bicycles.

We are now back again in the throes of Criminal and Immigration practice, rolling up our sleeves as we had done before we departed but with a fresh sense of perspective, not least for the countries across whose roads we pedaled, and up whose hills we struggled but ultimately free-wheeled down. Thoughts of overweight Turkmen border officials and desolate mountain roads now seem a world away but we find happy reminders of our year in the saddle each day when we now pedal away from a day’s work at court.

You can read more of Sam and Francesca’s bicycle odyssey on their blog: www.odycycle.wordpress.com. As part of their journey, Sam and Francesca have been raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. If you would like to show your support, please do so at: http://www.justgiving.com/odycycle.

Sam Blom-Cooper, 25 Bedford Row
Francesca Delany, 1 Mitre Court Buildings

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