Sunday, 15 January 2017

Rain rules out cycling...

Snow thaws on the lawn and rain drizzles down from the sky. It's been the same all morning since around 0600hrs when I woke up (and probably before I woke up). When I peered out of the window at next door's conservatory roof the puddle was being hammered by the rain. Later I noticed the bird bath was full to overflowing with rain water. In short it's a miserable day and any thought of a ride was thrown out when I sent an abort text to Andy. Well, let's face it, a ride would have been most unpleasant and we would have been soaked through when we reached the Tatsfield Village bus stop.

Pic courtesy of NBC News.
There's not much else to say so I'll sign off, except to say that we're all made of cosmic dust, according to Radio Four's Something Understood. On that note, see you next week.

Friday, 13 January 2017

In Prague...

An early easyJet flight out of London Gatwick and hey presto! Prague. The flight was smooth and took about an hour and 20 minutes. As the plane descended through thinnish cloud the snow was revealed, covering the city like a blanket. On the ground and once through passport control and out on the streets, the pavements were slippery and slushy and soon we were on a minibus heading into town.

I don't remember Prague being dreary, but it looked that way as we drove through the suburbs, past countless old tenement buildings. While others commented that it must be awful having to live in a small apartment on the outskirts of the Czech capital, I admitted that it wouldn't bother me in the slightest.

The Czechs clearly have no idea that Christmas is over. There are Christmas trees everywhere: one every 20 yards back at the airport and also dotted around in shop windows. Perhaps the Czech festive season lasts longer than in the UK?

The view from room 324, Hotel Fenix, Prague, Czech Republic.
Check-in at the Hotel Fenix was fine, although I don't like checking in as part of a large group of people. That said it was pretty smooth-going and now I'm in my room (324) and it's pretty average-looking. Cream-coloured walls (make that beige!) with a pine skirting around three feet high, the now commonplace flat screen television, a mini bar offering what minibars offer, including a Snickers bar, which I'm tempted to eat, but the plan is to have lunch, possibly across the street in a Mexican restaurant.

Inside room 324, Hotel Fenix, Prague, Czech Republic
There are two twin beds pushed together – again, pretty standard stuff – and the bathroom is also pretty much par for the course. But that's not to say it's rubbish, it's absolutely fine. I've never been one for flashy hotels, although I do like a decent hotel restaurant.

The last time I was in Prague was in March 2014. I was attending a conference for a few days and I stayed in the Grand Majestic Plaza Palace hotel, which was also fine. The time before that was either 2003 or 2004, can't remember exactly, let's say the 'early noughties', but I was here reviewing hotels and restaurants with photographer Rob Wilkinson.

Central Prague on a cold 13th January 2017
A brief walk was followed by a light lunch and another walk and then I headed back to the hotel for a meeting. I'm now back in the room, reading, online, about the first US execution of 2017 – some idiot decided to kill two men over a spoof drug deal that cost him a measly US$20.00. What an idiot! He was described by the DA as an old-time Wild West villain, somebody who was honest to the point of lunacy. And now, of course, he is no more, but I suppose he was lucky in one way: he didn't get to see Donald Trump inaugurated as President of the United States.

Street performer – how does he do that?
Anyway, executions aside – and let's remember, before we go any further with this article, that America is just as bad as any of the nations it claims has an awful human rights record – I went out for dinner and discovered that the restaurant in which I was booked was somewhere I had visited before! It was like a cave, it was as if we – 'we' being my fellow diners – were enjoying dinner in stone age times! We weren't, of course, but I was pleased to recall that I'd been here before, back in the early noughties, as referenced above, with my trusty photographer Rob Wilkinson.

Earlier I had commented to a colleague that I couldn't remember the restaurants I had visited all those years ago, but then, when I walked through the door of the restaurant in which I would be dining, it all came flooding back, and the food was top-end grub.
Czech fast food

Now it's late and I really ought to hit the sack, although there's no cause to get up early. In fact, I'll be literally hanging around this great city for most the day tomorrow and will probably find myself somewhere interesting in the daylight hours. But right now I'm going to hit the sack, so the next paragraph you read will have been written in the morning, the day after I've penned what I'm writing now.

And so it's 0800hrs and I've just woken up. Well, actually, that's not true; while I did wake up at around eight o'clock, it's now just gone 3pm, I've had lunch at the same Italian restaurant as yesterday (and the same meal, mushroom risotto and a glass of red wine) and I'm sitting in the hotel's business centre writing. This morning, around 1000hrs, I headed out of the hotel for a long walk through the city and down to the Charles Bridge, walking back towards the Italian restaurant where many people had taken up my recommendation and were sitting comfortably enjoying the food and hospitality.

I don't fly home until 2130hrs, meaning I need to be at the airport around 1930hrs. This, of course, means that right now I'm killing time. I might retrieve my book (The Circle by Dave Eggers) and decamp to a Starbuck's for tea and a cookie and a long read. It's either that or wandering the streets window shopping. Outside it is bitterly cold. In the UK there has been snow and poor weather. Yesterday, planes were cancelled out of both Heathrow and Gatwick so there's a little concern about whether we'll get home today or not, although I'm sure we will.

It's the cold that is keeping me indoors, although I might head out for a long walk in a minute and hopefully end up in a warm coffee shop somewhere far away. I say 'far away' when I really mean somewhere nearby but a fair distance from the hotel. I took a stroll, poked my head into a few bookshops and briefly checked out a teashop with a view to tea, cake and a bit of writing, but that would have meant returning to the hotel to get my lap top from my suitcase. I bumped into a colleague and we visited Hamley's and then headed back to the hotel.

I never saw any bikes, probably because it's too cold to ride around in the snow and ice. I never saw any evidence of a Bike Share scheme either, but later research led to me discover that they do exist. Click here for details.

A shuttle bus ferried us to the airport and a couple of hours later we were in the air. It was a clear night and the flight was relatively smooth. The approach to London Gatwick was, well, twinkly: lots of orange and white lights, like Christmas decorations, and then cars, headlights on, were visible. We flew over the M25 and touched down on the tarmac.

On Thursday a lot of snow fell in the UK, flights were cancelled out of Heathrow and Gatwick and I'm guessing that had we left it later we would have been unable to leave the UK. Twenty four hours later, however, and there was little evidence of the white-out described by the media. That said, in Prague, they de-iced the wings and tailplane of the aircraft I was on, sitting with a whole row to myself on the right hand side at the very back. Nowt better than having an entire row to myself as it means I can stretch out and spread myself a little bit. I remember a flight from Paris to London many years ago when there were only six passengers aboard, including yours truly, and we had the entire place to ourselves. Wonderful.

It seemed to take an age to reach the gate, but when we did there was no jetty, just a staircase down to the tarmac. Immigration was fine, probably because it was late at night and soon I found myself in a taxi to Redhill followed by a car ride home. I opened my front door around midnight and hit the sack.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The slow way to Tatsfield Village...

Sunday 8th January. Radio Four's Something Understood on Sunday morning was all about immortality. The programme, which airs immediately after the 0600hrs news at around 0610hrs, kicked off with the fact that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. All very depressing. I didn't want to get out of bed as the ride was our first early excursion after the traditional later start over the festive season.

I dressed and went downstairs to make tea and breakfast before I headed out, in the dark, to mount the bike and head for the green. It was dark and would remain so until 0800hrs. Fortunately I had front and rear lights having worked out a way of attaching my rear light to my rucksack.

It wasn't cold, but the balaclava always makes life a little more comfortable
At the green we decided to ride the slow way to Tatsfield Village where we noted with joy that the Old Ship pub was not going to be closed down and turned into housing or a convenience store. A man was varnishing a door so I went over for a chat. He invited me in to see a refurbished interior and told me that the place would re-open to the public on 13th January. Food would be on offer in February and, I was told, it will be traditional pub food, all home-made. There's even to be a coffee shop that will open at 0830hrs – a place to chill after a ride, I thought, and later relayed the information to Andy.

The weather was wonderful. It was dry for a start and there were clear skies. In fact, despite a lot of talk about poor weather, there hasn't been any. Over the Christmas period I was expecting plenty of abort texts due to promised storms, but we remained dry and active throughout.

When I reached home, the latest David Bowie documentary (about his last five years) was on the television. I sat and watched it and found myself getting depressed again. I thought back to Something Understood earlier this morning on the radio. Immortality, death and taxes, and poor old David Bowie who died roughly a year ago.

Later I decided to clean the bike (it was looking a bit dirty!). I oiled the chain too.

There's a train strike Monday, Wednesday and Friday and, as always, I consider riding to work. But the reality is something else. While the ride to work is simple and very pleasant, there's all the hassle of taking a spare pair of trousers and a shirt with me and sitting at my desk feeling, well, sweaty. I'll probably get the bus, which is fairly pleasant. It means I can read for a good hour and at the moment I'm reading Dave Eggers' The Circle. I've only just started it, but it seems promising and has received some good reviews from people that matter, like David Baddiel.

Monday, 2 January 2017

First ride of 2017

There was talk on the radio of ultra-cold weather, but when I peered outside, all seemed normal enough until I noticed the frosted windscreens and the solidified puddle on the roof of my neighbour's extension. A cold ride lay ahead, although, when I hit the air at 0745hrs it wasn't as bad as I imagined, although I was wearing a balaclava.

Rockhopper Sport 29 at Tatsfield Village, 2nd January 2017
The ride to the green was uneventful (when is it otherwise?) and Andy was there when I arrived so we headed off in the direction of, yes, you've guessed it, Tatsfield Village. We toyed with the idea of White Lane, but decided against it and instead rode the slow way to our destination, weaving our way around the quiet country lanes, down Hesiers and then along Beddlestead.

The conditions were icy – frozen puddles and sparkling roads – and when Andy suddenly hit the tarmac I realised that we had to ride carefully. Not that we were being in any way reckless, far from it. In fact, how Andy came off I'll never know, but one minute he was there, the next he was off the bike and sitting on the tarmac. Somehow the rear end had slipped, taking Andy with it. Because we were climbing the slow but steady gradient of Beddlestead Lane, Andy was fine and quickly dusted himself off before remounting, we were probably doing about 3 mph so all was well.

For the rest of the ride we played it safe, keeping to the middle of Beddlestead Lane and only moving over when we heard a car (or Lycra monkey) approaching. We remained cautious on Clarks Lane and when we turned left on to Approach Road we kind of free-wheeled into the village and arrived at the bus stop in what can only be described as a 'sedate manner'. I thought back to 1st October when I made that rather fast, sweeping left turn and took a nasty tumble. I shudder when I think about it and while I no longer bear any scars, there are still minor problems with my left knee; nothing worth visiting the hospital about, just aches when I bend my knees and then try to come up again. Things have improved massively, however, and riding is no longer a problem. Nor is walking and I'm not about to start running.

After tea and biscuits – no more cake unfortunately – we headed out of Tatsfield and rode home. The sun was up, the ice had thawed and the roads were wet, but the skies were blue so there was nothing to complain about.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Last ride of 2016...

It was New Year's Eve and I wasn't going to ride at all as I was feeling a little weary, but bearing in mind the 0800hrs start time, I pushed myself, ate breakfast and headed off for the green to meet Andy. White Lane was mentioned, but there was no way as far as I was concerned, so we headed (the slow way) towards Tatsfield Village, chewing the fat along the way.

Tatsfield Village's piss poor festive decorations. Not even a Christmas tree...
It was a clear day as we wove our way towards the tiresome Beddlestead Lane, but as soon as we reached Clarks Lane there was thick fog, but we pushed on and eventually found ourselves at the bus stop where tea and homemade cake was the order of the day. I'd made the cake myself, following a recipe given to me by mum and the end result got the thumbs up.

We rode out of Tatsfield where, incidentally, they had a piss poor festive presence – no tree, just a snowman made of pieces of wood painted white – and rode towards Clarks Lane where once again we were greeted by thick fog. We decided, for the sake of safety, to retrace our steps down Beddlestead Lane where there was no fog, but this meant a punishing hill climb up Hesiers. There were quite a few Lycra monkeys on the road.

When we reached the green we said goodbye and will probably ride again on Monday 2nd January. Today, New Years Day, we stayed in. Rain was promised and when I peered out of the window earlier the roads were wet so I assume it rained overnight. Either way, the threat of a soaking loomed large so the bike remained in the garage.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Day after Boxing Day – we tackle White Lane for the second time... and then eat Christmas Cake!

Tea and Christmas cake at Tatsfield Village, 27 Dec 2016.
Today was essentially a repeat of yesterday's ride, but with Christmas cake. Perfect weather, but not as warm as yesterday (there was sparkling frost on the roads and cars) but the sun was out, the skies were clear and all was good with the world.

Tackling White Lane for a second time was something I regretted suggesting, if I did suggest it, it might have been Andy's idea, but either way I think we both figured we could do it and sure enough, when we reached the roundabout just past Botley Hill we rode straight across and down Titsey Hill (a 16% descent) and then, with our brakes covered, we prepared for the left turn in to White Lane, slammed the gears down to low and knuckled down to the uphill struggle ahead of us. This time, there were two cars coming in the opposite direction, but we managed to hold our nerves and not lose momentum as they passed. Losing momentum on White Lane means giving up the ghost or going back to the start and trying again. I found it slightly harder today, compared with yesterday, but we made it and even considered making scaling the heights of this daunting hill a regular fixture, part of the route to Tatsfield Village.

We sat at the covered bus stop discussing the pointlessness of social media and after stuffing our faces with a couple of slices (each!) of mum's Christmas cake, we jumped on the bikes and rode out of town.

Photo credit: Andy Smith.

Boxing Day – to Tatsfield via White Lane

Today's now traditional Boxing Day ride was missing something very important. Cake. And it was all my fault. Or rather, well, no, it was my fault. Alright, others were involved, but I should have been a little more vigilant, a little more on the ball – but I wasn't.

Despite the fact that we had a cake, made by mum and supposedly for Christmas, it was finished with a good week prior to the big day, meaning that when Boxing Day came around there was nothing to take on the ride. A sorry state of affairs. I was desperate as there's nothing better than a slice of Christmas cake sitting on a wooden seat in one of those covered bus stops, accompanied by some tea. It was not to be, so I sent Andy a text, initially saying, some days before Boxing Day, that I was planning to make my own cake. I was too! I'd picked out all the ingredients from the supermarket (flour, mixed fruit, cherries, butter and so on) but crucially forgot to buy the grease-proof paper. I assumed (wrongly) that we already had some. Another text reminding Andy to bring the BelVita biscuits was pinged off and then, my head hung low in shame, I skulked my way to the green where I met Andy.
Our bikes at the top of White Lane after a tough uphill climb...
I was the first to arrive and used up the time taking a photograph of the Rockhopper next to a discarded can of Budweiser. It was good to note that the green had a Christmas tree and perhaps I should have taken a photograph of it, but I wasn't feeling overly creative so the beer can sufficed.

When Andy arrived we considered – for all of a minute – the prospect of riding to Westerham, opting not to go because of wet seats and no cover. A feeble excuse if ever there was one, but instead we threw in White Lane and a trip to the Tatsfield Village, based on the fact that the famous Tatsfield Bus Stop is still without seating. Andy reckons it won't ever have seating again. He might be right.

The weather was good. It had clearly been raining overnight as there were puddles everywhere, but as we set off there were blue skies and white clouds and no sign of any further downpour.

The decision to ride up White Lane wasn't as daunting as I thought it would be; in fact I was kind of looking forward to it. We rode 'the fast way' along the 269 and there was little traffic on the roads, which was good and then, instead of turning left at the Botley roundabout we went straight across and down Titsey (slowly) eventually hanging a left into White Lane, at which point I slammed the gears down to low and got my head down. It all seemed harmless enough until a car came down the hill in front of me, but I kept into the left hand side of the road and didn't lose the crucial momentum needed to conquer this amazing hill. The worst bit about it is the sudden increased gradient near the top, but I didn't lose my nerve and soon I found myself at the top of the hill feeling good about life and the fact that I managed to ride up White Lane. The last time I tried it I lost momentum and as we all know: once you're off, you're off, there's no way you're getting back on.

We rode into Tatsfield Village where Linda's, the store, was closed and, much to our dismay, there was no Christmas tree on the green either, just a rather sad-looking snowman made of wood painted white. Very poor.

The ride home was smooth and we parted company at the green, vowing to ride again tomorrow – the day after boxing day and this time with some much needed cake as I later stocked up round at mum's.