Sunday, 28 June 2015

To the Tatsfield Churchyard to talk about Glastonbury and stuff...

Great weather – blue skies and sunshine – and Andy and I met on the green and decided to ride to the Tatsfield churchyard. Armed with tea and BelVita biscuits we rode along the 269 and discussed our working week and then, on reaching the churchyard, we parked up, sat on our bench and put the world to rights as usual. Today's topic was Glastonbury and after we'd exhausted the subject, we rode home and that was it for the weekend. I slept badly on Saturday night and so aborted in the early hours, sending texts to Andy and Phil. Andy had already aborted and Phil was glad that I'd aborted as he'd had a late night.

Sunday's weather was changeable – raining one minute, sunny the next – but we would have escaped a soaking. Not riding was good in a way as it meant a later start and a more leisurely breakfast.

At 10am I drove Phil over to our mate Dave's house to buy his Kona Smoke. I had brokered a deal whereby Phil bought the Smoke as Dave never used it and Phil needs a new bike. It all went smoothly and Phil rode back home on it. Now we all have Kona bicycles. I really ought to be a Kona salesman.

Getting back to Saturday's ride, here's roughly what Andy and I discussed as we sipped tea and munched our BelVita biscuits.

Has Rock and Roll finally died?
There's always a danger of sounding like your dad, whenever discussing how things used to be. Back in the day – and that's another sign, the phrase 'back in the day' – when I discovered rock music and being a 'yoof', I often heard my dad passing comment on the music I was listening to, along the lines of, "he can't sing" or "that's just a noise" referring, perhaps, to an album by Frank Zappa or Pink Floyd or The Clash. He would often hark back, longingly, to the music of his own youth – Bing Crosby and other crooners were name-checked alongside phrases like 'they don't make 'em like that any more'.

Library image of the Tatsfield Churchyard steps
In all honesty, I find myself doing the same thing and I think it's because we all have our moments in time, our eras, and somewhere along the line we turn a certain era into our default, boot-up setting, our home page, so to speak. There are people, for instance, who epitomise certain times – in my mind Dawn French and Ade Edmondson, for example, will always remind me of the 'eighties' and if you want to be a little more 'international' Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame would fit the same bill. There are loads of people who can be pigeon-holed this way, obvious ones being famous icons of popular culture, such as Mick Jagger and Twiggy who would represent the 'swinging sixties'.

But once past the 1990s – a decade characterised by 'Britpop' – we enter a bit of a cultural wilderness that cannot be defined by a specific type of music or a particular group of bands (it's populated by X Factor contestants and hip hop artists) and that means only one thing: there are no more 'tribes' or cults, such as teddy boys, mods and rockers, punks and hippies with their own attendant group of bands that somehow support the cause and provide countless songs that define the people who follow them – and introducing the age-old 'chicken and egg' argument (in this case what came first, the band or the cult they represented?).

It's the Glastonbury weekend and these days, like most things, the festival has been hijacked by the corporate world, which means it costs a fortune to gain admission. In short, like most festivals, it's no longer the home of the great unwashed, but a place where the washed and the well-educated can play-act at being part of a phenomenon that is long past its sell-by date. The great unwashed and the middle class bohemians are either dead, mad or vagrant – or they've grown up and live respectable lives – and the entire premise behind music festivals (and the music itself) is not only greatly diminished but, in a sense, pointless – a bit like Roger Daltry singing My Generation the other week on a one-off (but soon to be repeated) TGI Friday on Channel 4. When Daltry dies, thankfully, he'll definitely be 'old'.... and so will Pete Townshend.

Anthems of rebellion that might have resonated with somebody speeding their brains out in the mid-70s have somehow lost their potency in the 'sober' new world of today, bringing into question, perhaps, whether they were ever potent in the first place. In fact, the aforementioned anthems, when performed by now crusty old people who manage to retain a sense of youth by dying their hair and relying upon their hefty fortunes to fight the ageing process, are often viewed by the BBC's Glastonbury presenters with mildly amused nostalgia in memory, perhaps, of a time before Health & Safety and the nanny state.

Nineteen-year-old girls in 'shorty shorts' and Wellington boots are, in short, a contrived version of those who went before them and many – according to Mark Radcliffe on Friday – are simply apeing Kate Moss from a few years ago when she made a fashionable appearance at Glastonbury, possibly arm-in-arm with Pete Doherty. Doherty and Moss, incidentally, were pretty rock and roll and, arguably, kept the flame of yesteryear burning bright – because, like American comedian Bill Hicks used to say – I want my rockstars to rock!

In fact, that phrase, "...a contrived version of those who went before them..." encapsulates the problem of today's rock music scene.

As I write this, Lionel Ritchie is on stage at Glastonbury. Lionel Ritchie! Back in the day it would be unwise to admit to liking Lionel Ritchie. Only 'straight people' with aeroplanes all over their round-collared shirts and little in the way of street cred liked Lionel Ritchie! Now he's headlining the festival, albeit in a kind of "while we're all pretty wild rock and rollers at heart, we like to tone it down a little now and then and appreciate the dulcet tones of Ritchie" sort of way. Or perhaps, more alarmingly, he's just headlining the festival.

Perhaps I'm mourning the loss of my own youth, but that's not the whole argument. In fact, there are many points to be made. I've got mates who would still go to, say, an AC/DC gig. Why? Are they going to drink half a dozen pints of lager in the pub before the concert and then headbang their way through the gig in front of the stage? No, they're not. They will be way back in the auditorium, tapping their feet lightly... as if listening to Lionel Ritchie!

Then there's the question of whether today's bands are as good as those that went before them. I would argue no, they're not as good – but then, perhaps I'm starting to sound like my dad again. The last album I bought and enjoyed for all the usual rock and roll reasons was Nevermind by Nirvana and, around the same time, Troublegum by Therapy?.

Lastly, there's the lack of any discernible youth culture: teds, mods, rockers, hippies, punks. You only tend to see them at certain rock concerts. Where they go in between I don't know, but they're rarely seen on the streets. If there's no 'yoof' culture what is there to hang the music on?

Equally, who cares? Perhaps it's just a case of those days are gone for good, the festivals are now corporate affairs – in the same way that football matches are no longer about grassroots supporters – and, in short, everything is 'controlled' by the authorities (and Simon Cowell) and any sign of rebellion is beaten down with a stick. If that's the case then rock and roll is dead and probably has been for years and that makes festivals and rock music 'contrived' affairs, like boutique hotels, in the same way that 'cult movies' no longer gain cult status, as in days gone by, but are produced with 'cult status' in mind. Quentin Tarantino springs to mind.

And with that I must fly as the very last Top Gear featuring Clarkson, Hammond and May is about to be screened on BBC2 – yet another example of something good leaving the building, although word has it that once this last episode is out of the way, Clarkson and the team will set to work on a new show...


Sunday, 21 June 2015

Are churchyards the ultimate place to set up camp?

We met at the usual place at the usual time and headed off in the direction of Botley Hill, but with every intention of reaching the Tatsfield Bus Stop. When we got there we broke out the tea and biscuits and had a chinwag, as always, and this time it was about Chris Evans taking over on Top Gear. Neither of us are sure he can pull it off, but only time will tell. I'm still enjoying the repeats on BBC 3, which I'm guessing will stop as soon as the Evans version of the show starts (they won't want viewers comparing and contrasting).

Then Dawes Galaxy turned up. We don't know his real name. Dawes Galaxy is the name of his bike. We see him sporadically, but he's been convalescing – now there's a word – from an operation to remedy an enlarged prostate. He told us all the gory details. It's good to see him, though, and we're both glad that all is well as he's 'no spring chicken'. For a short while after he left we debated how old he might be and decided he was definitely in his seventies.

Phil made an interesting observation about Dawes Galaxy: he never gets off his bike. Whenever he turns up at the bus stop he stays on it, standing up and straddling the frame, but he won't park up, dismount and sit on the bench. I guess it takes all sorts.

They say you learn something new everyday and this week we learned that a churchyard is a good place to camp. Dawes Galaxy said he received a telephone call from a cycling pal who was travelling around the country on a bike and camping in churchyards. Churchyards? Well, apparently, they're good places to camp as they invariably have water on tap, literally, as people need running water to tend to their flowers. So, if you see a load of tents in your local churchyard you now know why.

Dawes Galaxy heads home, Sunday 21 June 2015
So-called 'wild camping' – meaning camping in fields that aren't campsites – is now illegal in England but where churchyards fall in that respect, I don't know. Andy says at least you can count on the vicar not being too upset to see you.

I used to have a mate who rented a flat in my hometown but felt he had to leave the flat because a friend of his – who was also a friend of mine – died there under rather tragic circumstances (he overdosed on heroin). One day, as I was walking down the high street, I bumped into the guy. He was selling The Big Issue (a magazine sold by the homeless) and I questioned why he was selling it. "You're not homeless, Alex," I said and he told me about Keith. I told him I knew that Keith had died and then he said that he couldn't stay in the flat any longer because the whole thing had freaked him out. Fair point. Instead, however, he was staying in the local churchyard with a few other down and outs. Whether he was kipping in the graveyard because of the running water, I'll never know, but I guess one word of warning for those with a bike and a tent: you might not be alone in the graveyard – and it's not the dead you have to worry about.

For more on this subject, click here.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

A wonderful flight from Düsseldorf to London City in a BA Saab 2000 turbo prop

I checked out of the Friends Hotel in the morning and spent half of the day at the convention I'd been attending, finishing off with a business lunch and then making my way back by tram (the U78) to Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof (Hbf) where I nipped around the corner, retrieved my bag from the hotel and walked back to the Hbf to catch a train to the airport.

I love the way this shot has captured the propellor blades
While I was driven by a colleague to Düsseldorf (via a brief stop-off in Bruges) I flew back to the UK in a British Airways Saab 2000 turbo prop aircraft and, prior to take-off, was warned of early turbulence due to low cloud. Often, warnings like this fall on rough ground – meaning they are groundless or exaggerated – and it proved to be the case on this occasion. In fact, the only time when I heard the word 'turbulence' mentioned by the pilot (over a crackly intercom) – and then experienced a bumpy flight – was when I boarded an early morning Emirates flight from Dubai to Doha about two years ago.
A nice pen and notebook prompted some long hand writing

Once through the cloud we were greeted by blue skies and sunshine and a very pleasant flight unfolded during which I used a new pen given to me while at the convention in Düsseldorf. I'd also been given one of those Moleskin notebooks so I set about writing something longhand rather than simply stare out of the window.

"The weird thing about writing on a plane, like now, is that there's little much else to do other than look out of the window. Normally, that's what I do because I've realised that I also rather like flying too, especially when the weather is good, like now. Admittedly there was low cloud after take-off, but once we were through it, like now, there's nothing but blue skies above and white cotton wool clouds below, and also a bright sun too."

Well, there's too many 'like nows' in the above sentence and, because it was written long hand on to a piece of paper there's no way of editing out the repetition, unlike on a blog or, indeed, a computer – so I'm left with a piece of writing that shows the joins, so to speak. Also, there's plenty to do on a plane other than stare out of the window. There's eating the airline food for a start, which I love, and then, of course, there's reading or chatting with your fellow passengers (if they're in a talkative mood, they rarely are).
Seconds from touchdown at London's City Airport, Friday 19th June
I managed to write three and a third pages and sip half a glass of red wine (and munch two biscuits) before the plane landed at London City Airport. I'd checked in my luggage for the simple reason that I didn't want to lose my shaving foam, and a colleague had presented me with a Swiss army knife (I've never owned one before). But when I waltzed through to the reclaim conveyor my bag was already there and soon I was on the train to London Bridge. I love the convenience of London City Airport and the fact that it's bang in the centre of London makes it much easier than Heathrow.

The plane had landed at roughly ten past six and there were cotton wool clouds and blue skies.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Da Bruno, Karlstrasse 16, 40210 Düsseldorf, Germany

Da Bruno, Karlstrasse 16, Düsseldorf, Germany
There's a first time for everything and for me visiting one restaurant every night for the last four nights is a first. The eaterie in question was roughly a 15-minute walk from my hotel – so no taxis were involved – and in terms of value for money it scored highly, costing around 21 to 25 Euros (excluding tip) for one person. What's more the quality was there and so was the service and the ambience.

After a tough day – and all the last four days have been tough – I looked forward to visiting Da Bruno a small Italian trattoria located at Karlstrasse 16, 40210 Düsseldorf – telephone (0211) 38 23 00 and prefix that number with 0049 if you're calling from outside of Germany (and exclude that zero before the 2).

I dined alone every night and took with me a copy of The Economist on one day and Thursday's Times today. For the other two days I had my iphone to fiddle with, which was fine, but as all of my colleagues were staying in different hotels, some a considerable distance away, I dined alone every night.

Today was to be my last night at Da Bruno and, as always, it was busy. In fact, thinking about it, I should have reserved a table, but despite not doing so, they still managed to find me a table. What did I like about this great little restaurant? For a start it was Italian and I love Italian food. Then there was the fact that it was a small, cosy restaurant – they're rare these days – and then, of course, there was the service, which was perfect, and we can't forget the food as it was amazing. I made a point of not overdoing it as I wanted to be relaxed and chilled and happy to walk the 15 minutes along Karlstrasse without feeling tired and bloated. With this in mind, I had pasta dishes every day: pasta with mushrooms, penne arrabiatta, linguine with pesto and tonight pasta with lamb chops. On two occasions I had a small mixed salad, there was always bread and I also tried the minestrone soup (yesterday) and the tomato soup this evening. And I couldn't resist the proscuittio with melon. Fortunately I managed to avoid dessert as I knew that had I weakened I would have opted for the tiramisu (my all-time favourite dessert).

Despite being small and intimate there was plenty of hubbub, which I like; there's nothing better than feeling cosy in a restaurant, listening in to the banter of the other diners and taking in everything else like the smell of the food being cooked and the conversation between the waiting staff.

Every day has been different in Da Bruno. On day one there was only a group of men plus myself in the restaurant, but then it was fairly late. I remember being pleasantly surprised at the size of my glass of house red – it was huge – and then being taken aback by the waiting staff who were quite happy during one of my visits to put a bottle of red wine on my table and charge me only for what I consumed. No rigid portion control policy! But it was a policy never abused by yours truly. I never overdid anything and left the restaurant every night feeling at peace with the world and ready (hopefully) for a decent night's sleep.

There really is no praise high enough for Da Bruno and whoever runs the place. It's definitely a community restaurant with a strong local following and I'm pleased to say that while the restaurant was once on the other side of the road, it's not anymore as the building in which it resided was recently sold. One of the waiting staff told me they were lucky to find their current premises and I found myself thinking 'too right!" I would imagine that locals would mourn the loss of Da Bruno for many years and may never have gotten over it. I know I wouldn't.

So tonight, as I paid up the bill, gathered my stuff together and bade farewell to the waiting staff, there was a tinge of sadness as I walked into the evening air and headed back to my hotel. But I know that one day I'll be back as Düsseldorf has become a regular haunt of mine.

I've got roughly a half day of work ahead of me tomorrow and then I must head to the airport for a flight to London City Airport – a 70-minute hop as opposed to hours of driving on autobahns and motorways.

Here's to the team at Da Bruno for running an excellent restaurant and charging a reasonable price for above average food and impeccable service.

Da Bruno
Karlstrasse 16
40210 Düsseldorf
Telephone: (0211) 38 23 00
Fax (0211) 384 0147
www.dabruno.de


Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Ah! I get it! The theme is sixties fashion icons!

Twiggy in Room 207's bathroom
Not being either a fashion icon or in anyway fashionable myself, it's taken me a day to work out that the theme of my 'boutique' hotel is fashion and, in particular, fashion icons - Twiggy in my bathroom, framed photos of Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent on the breakfast room walls and others whom I am sure my 'fashionista' fellow guests recognised immediately. Except that, looking around me I see businessmen, not fashion victims, so, clearly, if you're a 'fashionista' - don't you hate that word? - there are other places to stay in Dusseldorf.

Breakfast here is not brilliant, although it's not bad either; everything is arranged as if it was thought about at the last minute and is crammed on to a shelf on the bar and a window sill. I miss the big bowls of fruit and the dishes of raspberry or strawberry yogurts found in the bigger branded hotels, but in all honesty there is little to complain about here and I really am clutching at straws. Even the brightly-coloured room has grown on me and now that I've found the perfect Italian restaurant - Da Bruno - about 10 minutes from the hotel I'm made up if I'm honest. More importantly, it was the hotel that recommended the restaurant so top marks to them.

As I write this it's Wednesday night, 1130hrs, and despite having attended a function in the old town of Dusseldorf at a venue on the banks of the Rhine, I still managed to catch a tram in the general direction of Da Bruno and eat dinner there – minestrone soup followed by linguine with pesto, a glass of red wine and some still mineral water. I never thought I'd get there tonight, but I did and I'm so pleased. I'm planning on going there tomorrow too.

Da Bruno is a local Italian trattoria located at Karistrasse 16, 40210 Düsseldorf (tel: 0049 (0) 211-382300). It offers everything you might expect from an Italian restaurant – including quality food and incredibly good value for money. It's homely, the service is good and, most importantly, it's friendly and I feel right at home, even if I do have to dine alone – an occupational hazard for me, I'm afraid,  but one I've gotten used to; I bought a copy of the Economist in Folkestone, Kent, on the journey out here and this morning, sitting alone in the breakfast room (like a few others) I read about Atlanta's growing problem with Asian gang culture. Last night (Tuesday) in the restaurant I read about the need for the national governments of rich countries the world over to let the dust settle on the recession before making any rash decisions about putting up interest rates and thereby setting the whole recessionary nightmare into fall swing again. Last night (Wednesday) I had nothing to read so I messed around with my iphone's Notes facility, writing down how much I'd been eating and generally faffing around like somebody with absolutely no friends. There had been a huge party of Japanese in the restaurant – they kept bowing at one another for some reason – but when they left only seven of us remained – two couples and then two men at diagonally opposed corners of the floor, with me completing a kind of triangle (if you joined the dots so to speak).

After a while I got chatting with one of the restaurant staff. I told her that I'd come from London and that I was flying back there on Friday and that I would be returning to Da Bruno tomorrow for my final meal in Dusseldorf – I've never visited the same restaurant on four consecutive nights. Soon it was time to settle the bill and walk back to my hotel in the dark.

Thursday morning...
This morning (Thursday) I was awake around 0630hrs and when I peered out of the window I noticed that the Buddha statue on the rooftop below the room had, for some reason, been moved closer to my window – I reckon it's all part of a plan to freak me out, a bit like the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who. I'm guessing that in a few days' time the statue will move to the left and eventually make a complete circuit of the small rooftop area that I can see from my hotel window.

I've got a haircut booked for this morning at 0930hrs as I noticed, on leaving the room yesterday evening, that I'm starting to look a mess. After a while – between six and eight weeks after having it cut – my hair becomes a little uncontrollable, like a Brillo pad, and there's no alternative other than to have it cut short, but then, of course, I resemble a criminal, a bank robber on the run or some other kind of miscreant, so in many ways I can't win.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Boutique hotels – getting 'quirky' right is an exact science

"Good morning, Twiggy," I said, undoing my trousers and preparing to answer the call of nature in front of her. As usual, she says nothing but simply stares back at me in a disinterested way. What else could I expect from a framed black and white print of the sixties fashion icon that will stare at me every morning this week whenever I enter the bathroom of my hotel room? Because the framed photograph of the model's head is life-sized – and nailed to the wall directly above the toilet – it is mildly disconcerting as the eyes follow me around the bathroom and they're even staring at me when I'm in the shower. It's one of the perils of staying in a 'boutique' hotel where the concept of 'quirkiness' is always taken to another rather irritating level and the guest – or me at any rate – has to suffer, endure, put up with, deal with, accept, the 'joke' and laugh along with it, silently and in good humour. Why else would I choose to stay in such a hotel if I wasn't prepared to be amused by the proprietor's sense of humour or the absurd? Why else indeed.
Friends Hotel, Dusseldorf, Germany

I have a problem with boutique hotels because, very often, they are the living embodiment of the phrase 'you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps'. They are the one place where interior designers forget themselves and ignore the golden rule of 'function before form'. How many times have I fallen victim to this? Too many times – and the problem takes many forms.

Oddly, the most common area where designers fail to follow their own rule – that of 'function before form' – is in the bathroom. That framed photograph of Twiggy is a case in point, but there are other things I can moan about. The over-sized soup bowl sink doesn't have a plug for a start. There's no way of stopping the water running away, which is both annoying and not very good for the environment. It's no good asking your guests to hold on to their towels rather than expect them to be changed daily if you're just wasting water.

I've stayed in 'quirky' hotels where they've had a mannequin in the room on which the guest can hang his or her coat. The only problem being that when they wake up in the middle of the night – as I did once in Didsbury, Greater Manchester – they get the shock of their life and would be forgiven either for having a seizure or lunging at said mannequin and wrestling it to the ground before realising that it's (ahem) just a mannequin.

In another 'quirky' boutique hotel in Leeds the porter carrying my bags to the room asked me if I required any help with 'operating the room'. I hadn't the foggiest idea what he was talking about and said no. Later that night, after eating out nearby, I returned to my room and spent most of the night trying to turn out the bedside lamp. There was a control panel on the wall that dimmed the lights, switched on the television, moved curtains up and down, everything BUT switching off the bedside lamp. I remember growing increasingly impatient and was on the verge of calling reception when I discovered that the switch was on the lamp and not in any way connected to 'the system' operating the room. I felt an exasperated fool but I was alone so it didn't matter.

There's nothing worse than quirkiness. It's slightly more bearable when you've only travelled a few miles by train in the UK from London to Manchester or Leeds, but when you've endured a transatlantic flight, say, or a long haul in premium economy to the Far East, it's the last thing you want to deal with – a prankster proprietor insistent on making your stay 'entertaining' and unforgettable. To be fair, it will be just that – 'entertaining' (in inverted commas for good reason) and certainly unforgettable and perhaps that's a good thing.

As always, there are places that get it right and one place that springs immediately to mind is the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon, USA, where they've taken the idea of the beatnik hotel – the sort of place that Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy might have frequented back in the late forties and fifties – and transformed it into a wonderful space that is far from annoying – in fact its a sheer joy to stay there and I only wish I had an excuse to pay another visit.

The Ace gets it right on so many levels and mainly because its quirkiness is understated and it's coolness is subtle enough almost to go unnoticed.

There was a time when the Ace was not as it is today. There was a time when it was like its neighbour across the street. The Joyce is very much a modern day 'beatnik' hotel that some travellers have described as a dangerous place to be avoided at all costs as it houses some of the city's undesirables. Some have described it as a hostel for winos and streetwalkers and a local paper even published an article based on spending a night in the place where fights often break out in the hallways and the best policy for self-preservation is to keep your head down and keep yourself to yourself.

During my stay at the Ace I had a room that faced the Joyce and I could see into one of its rooms where a guest watched television 24/7. I could pick out graffiti on the walls inside the room and there was never a time when the TV wasn't on; I was so intrigued by the place I even thought about spending $15 to stay the night, just to say that I did it, but in all honesty I couldn't drum up the courage and remained instead in the comfort of the Ace hotel where I could live out my Kerouac/Neal Cassidy/William Burroughs fantasy safe in the knowledge that I wouldn't be making headlines the following morning.

It's been eight years since I checked into the Ace, Portland, and I've been missing it ever since. Here's hoping that one day soon I'll have a legitimate reason to make a return visit and, who knows, I might just wander over to the Joyce for a nerve wracking night to remember – or, perhaps, forget.




Monday, 15 June 2015

In Bruges...

... for all of one hour having lunch in the main square. I've never been before and because I was only there for lunch – and two dark ales that played havoc with my digestive system for the rest of the journey – I couldn't really pass judgement on the place, although judging by the shops and the general vibe, it's the sort of place to visit for a long weekend, although there was something a little 'samey' about it. For a start there were global brands: H&M, Claire's Accessories and Zara spring to mind, and then there was that air of 'tourist destination' about the place. Cue horse drawn carriages and restaurants with outdoor seating. I'm sounding ungrateful, I know, but after while I did find myself saying ' alright, I get it' and then wishing I could turn around and go home – metaphorically speaking, of course, although going home would be nice especially as the weather this week is odds on to be hot and summery and I'm going to be stuck in an exhibition hall all day when my family and back garden await me.

Er, tone it down a bit! Room 207, Friends Hotel, Dusseldorf, Germany
Half of me wanted to remain in Bruges instead of pressing on to Dusseldorf, my ultimate destination, which I reached just before 9pm. It's been a long day: up at 0600hrs, out of the house by 0800hrs, driving with a colleague to Folkestone to catch the EuroTunnel shuttle and then the hour and a half ride to Bruges, which is en route to Dusseldorf.

When I reached my hotel – the Friends Hotel on Worringer Strasse – I was full of so much gas from the dark ale that I could almost have floated to my room, but I had to check in first. It was all very efficient, but then I was in Germany where, fortunately, everything works, trains arrive and depart on time and everybody seems to be driving a decent German automobile.

Because tourists are money! The main square in Bruges, Belgium
Having checked out the website for this hotel prior to leaving the UK, I knew what to expect: it was a quirky boutique hotel so there would out-sized angle poise lamps and whacky colours and I wasn't to be disappointed. I had two of the aforementioned lamps over either side of my bed, the wall behind the bed was painted a shocking orange and the carpet was brightly-coloured stripes. Had I taken mind-altering drugs, I wondered, as I noted with mild amusement the purple curtains? No, I hadn't. I didn't need to as this place was a kind of Korova Milk Bar and acid trip rolled into one.

Eager to sort out my digestive problem I headed straight for the bathroom – a shocking white affair with a black and white framed photograph of Twiggy looking surprised to see – she had an even bigger surprise coming, I thought, as I gulped down a bottle of complimentary Evian mineral water, lit the blue touch paper and waited. It all went smoothly bar a moment of panic when I thought I'd blocked the toilet. Horrific visions of calling up a member of staff to sort it out crossed my mind but, fortunately my fears were all in vain as suddenly the water level receded and all was well with the world.

I'm in Room 207 and it's a pleasant enough space if I ignore the brightly-coloured decor. The main thing is that everything works and the guy on the front desk even had an adaptor for me and it worked! I plugged in my iphone to charge it and then, grabbing glasses, money and a credit card I headed outside to check out the restaurant scene... only to discover that I was in kebab land. Better make that 'kebap' land. And there were only men in the restaurants, groups of them in denims, trainers and open neck shirts exposing hairy chests chatting, I could have been in Istanbul or the Yemen.

A short distance from the main square, but still very much in Bruges.
I walked up all the streets joining Worringer Platz but found nothing but 'kebap' houses. Eventually I went back to the hotel and asked if there were any restaurants in the area, good restaurants, that weren't kebab shops. Yes, was the answer. There was an Italian restaurant about 10 minutes' walk along Karl Strasse called Da Bruno. It was dark outside but I'd decided that I better eat something and made the short trek, past a few down-and-outs until I eventually stumbled across the restaurant. It was good and very authentic but again only men could be found grouped together at one of the tables talking, no women.

I ordered pasta with mushrooms and a glass of red wine – no wine list was produced, just a fairly generous glass of red wine and some bread rolls. But it was good food and much welcomed, although I had considered simply hitting the sack until I realised how little I had eaten today. The bill came to EUR15.00 but I liked the place so I gave the waiter a 10 Euro tip and then made my way back to the hotel from where I now write this blog post.

Oddly, at night, the wild colour scheme of the room seemed muted (unless I switched on a light). What I do like is the guest book for room 207. Shortly after arriving I flicked through it and found the comments of other guests who had spent the night in this very room. Half of them were written in foreign languages I didn't understand, but there was one from Jan and Natalie – 'Lancashire Girls, UK' who now live in County Mayo in Ireland. They even drew a funny face. Their message was clear, that the Friends Hotel was beautiful and had friendly staff and there was a small piece of advice for guests like me: the caff next door offered superb ice cream. They were only here for one night, but say that they hope to be back for longer in the not-to-distant future. I'm looking forward to adding my comment, but I'll wait until I've stayed here a little longer before I put pen to paper. Or perhaps I'll do it now.

Just a word on that caff next door. Earlier I'd considered it for my evening meal but my first impression was that it might be an ice cream parlour. But then I saw a blackboard advertising pasta and soup and ciabatta, but it didn't appeal, not for an evening meal at any rate, but I might take up Jan and Natalie's advice and check out the ice cream – but not until I've exercised, stretched my legs and possibly even hired a bicycle (I need to check the availability of a bike share scheme).

Right now it's time to hit the sack. With such bright colours I'm not planning on setting my alarm clock as I'm sure the purple curtains and striped carpets will wake me up as soon as daylight dawns.


Sunday, 14 June 2015

Tatsfield Churchyard...and I get a puncture on the way home...

Sunday 14 June 2015 – I get a puncture on the B269
A far better day than yesterday in terms of the weather; it was warmer and brighter and the Tatsfield Churchyard seemed like a good destination. We got there, drank our tea, munched our biscuits and then I set about trying to take a decent image that would, in some way, epitomise the ride. Except that most of the shots we've tried before and, let's be honest, when you're in a churchyard it's all a little morbid. One of the shots I snapped today featured Andy and I between two headstones – very depressing – another was a shot of me posing, crouched down, at the end of a wooden bench; this shot was over exposed for some reason and so was another shot of the grass and bushes in front of our bench.

However, on the way home my bike wobbled slightly – I had a puncture! The shot above proved the most exciting. It shows my bike having its rear wheel puncture repaired and Andy's somehow defying gravity in the background.

Fixing the puncture took about 20 minutes and soon we were back on the road. As usual we parted company at Warlingham Green. I reached home around a quarter past ten and I'm guessing Andy got home at roughly the same time.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Chilling at the Tatsfield Bus Stop...

I took last Tuesday off and the weather wasn't appalling but it wasn't very pleasant either. It was dull and blowy and not really conducive to sitting in the garden and chilling. Then, once back at work, the good weather was back. In fact, it remained good all week with Friday (yesterday) being the hottest day of the year so far – according to the TV weather forecasts. Needless to say I think we, that is Andy and myself, expected the good weather to continue for the weekend, but no, sod's law dictates otherwise, it always does, and this morning, when I woke up prematurely around 0400hrs, I peered out of the window and noted a dull, dark and dreary world, the grass wet from overnight rain. It was early, I said to myself, what could I expect? It was four in the morning. But the dullness lingered and was still there at 0700hrs when I left the house and opened the garage. There was no sign of Phil, but I knew that Andy would be waiting at the green and I was running late.

My bike at the Tatsfield Bus Stop, Saturday 13 June 2015
As I cycled wearily up Ellenbridge Road I noticed the odd spit of rain, but it never went any further than that. Instead it remained dull and dark and just like an October morning rather than June. The fact that I'd been awake since four o'clock made cycling and, dare I say it, life in general, seem a little depressing. As I rode through the churchyard I found myself sighing with despair.

We had planned to ride to Westerham and Andy, perhaps a little ambitiously, had sent a text earlier suggesting we simply ride there and back, stopping at the Botley to catch the 'Botley on the Road' catering truck that we had been promised would be waiting for us. It seemed like an unnecessarily harsh ride: all that way to Westerham and then, without so much as a cup of tea, a ride back up the hill without rest until we reached Botley Hill. I suggested by text that having tea at Westerham would be miles better than waiting for the van and he agreed. But with the dull weather and the threat of rain looming large, we decided to head for the Tatsfield Bus Stop instead.

A mist rolled in from the West as we rode past the  Botley Hill Farmhouse, noting the absence of the aforementioned catering van, and when we reached the bus stop we drank tea and ate chocolate chip BelVita biscuits.

"You know what I think?"
"What?"
"Would could break into the art world."
"How?"
"Well, some works of modern art are little more than squares of colour on canvas. We could do that."
"Yeah, it's all about the bullshit, that's how we'd sell them."
"Technically, though, it would be easy: get a few brightly-coloured oil paints, get the canvas and then off we go! In fact, even better, place a bicycle wheel on the canvas, spin the wheel and then throw on the paint. It would create a kind of Catherine wheel effect..."
"Yeah, and then if we come up with something pretentious to say about it..."
"...and a pretentious name for the work..."
"Like 'Cog'."
"...we'd be quids in."
"How would you convince the art world to visit the gallery?"
"More importantly, how would we be able to afford the gallery in the first place?"
"Perhaps we'd just persuade an existing gallery to exhibit the work."
"It takes years. There are waiting lists apparently."
"Really?"
"Yeah."
"Well, we'd have to bullshit them. One of us would be the 'artist', the other the artist's agent and we'd have to develop some kind of pretentious clap trap about the work..."
"Sounds a bit like our plan to open a cycle caff in Westerham."
"You mean doomed to failure?"
"Yep."
"Actually, it wouldn't be a con, would it? I mean the 'art' would be real in a sense so we wouldn't be faking anything."
"Did you watch Chris Evans last night?"
"No."
"He did a one-off TGI Friday and, if I'm honest, it was a bit lame, a bit embarassing almost and a bit dated. Roger Daltry singing My Generation with Liam Gallagher."
"There's a certain irony about Roger Daltry singing 'hope I die before I get old'."
"Yeah, he's seventy years old – or thereabouts."
"I don't know why people don't just accept that they've had their day, made their money and that's it."
"But listening to the original recordings is alright, it's just that I don't want to hear them attempting it in their old age."
"Yeah, you're right."
"But with TGI there's something wrong about, I don't know, recreating the past. I mean was it THAT good in the first place? I don't think so. In fact I reckon that whole 'anarchic TV' thing that started with TisWas is now a thing of the past. All that 'boozy' rowdiness and the stars of the time who epitomised it: Sean Ryder, Liam Gallagher..."
"I used to watch The Word when I came in after the pub."
"Yeah, me too. A class piece of television – produced by Paul Ross – but not for today's audience."
"No, you're right. For me, certain broadcasters – Clarkson, Chris Evans – they're good in their own right, they don't have to recreate their past successes."
"Wasn't Clarkson on TGI?"
"Yeah, but don't get me started on that subject, I'm still mourning the passing of Top Gear."

And with that we decided it was time to head home.



Wednesday, 10 June 2015

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking...

A friend of mine recently announced the death of his father and whenever news of that nature finds its way to me I reminisce – if that's the word – on the time when my father died back in 2011, a turbulent time for yours truly as, in addition to bereavement, I had to deal with an unscrupulous employer who decided he wasn't going to pay me. I won't go on about it because it would be an unwelcomed digression I'd rather not make, but he was a despicable individual who, to this day, continues to con people. Hopefully, he'll meet with a sticky end sooner rather than later – for more on the most insecure moment of my career, click here.

When your father dies it's not good, even when he's had the proverbial 'good innings' – my dad was almost 82. It's something to do with being a dad yourself, I think, as you find yourself imagining your own death and you start imagining your own kids mourning their loss – you. It's all very sad and it's advisable not to dwell on the subject as it will start to make you question virtually everything.

When my dad passed away I did my level best to keep things together and this meant never outwardly showing any emotion about the situation. In short, I maintained the great British stiff upper lip and saved my feelings for when I was alone on the bike, riding along the 269 having bade farewell to Andy.

It was a strange time and was made worse by the fact that I knew dad was on the way out – it wasn't a sudden death, but equally it wasn't a long and drawn out affair either. I remember taking him to the hospital on a Sunday, hopeful that things would be sorted out, and a week later he was gone – I missed his actual passing away by minutes and to this day I'll always remember the sensation of rubbing his forearm, his body still warm, and not seeing him again until the heartbreaking moment in a local chapel of rest when my mum, on seeing the man she had shared her life with lying there, peacefully, but nevertheless not of this world, broke down.

In all honesty I didn't know what to think. Either way the most dreadful thing imaginable had happened and there was no going back. Everybody would simply have to deal with it and, in retrospect, I think we all dealt with it in a perfectly respectable manner.

When somebody passes away – I mean when somebody close like your dad passes away – all is not really lost. I am firmly of the opinion that in some way we all do carry on; something gets transferred and I often find myself feeling that, for some reason, I'm talking like dad, using one of his expressions, or in some way looking like him. I've seen many a photograph on this blog where, when I see myself, I see my dad and even now, writing this, I feel as if a part of him has transferred to me – that urge to write something down. Had dad been of the generation that embraces technology he too would have had a blog and he, like me, would have recorded silly things like hotel bedrooms and views from hotel room windows. In that sense I've taken on his tenacity.

There are so many things in which to find solace, be it a book or a piece of music, or simply mowing the lawn. Dad loved his garden and I think it's something he's magically transferred to me as I now enjoy being 'out there' tidying things up and moving away from my age old argument that puts forward the notion of 'the futility of gardening'. Dad used to tell me that my garden was my gym, I didn't need anything else and while I would still disagree about not needing anything else (I couldn't give up the cycling) I know what he means about gardening and exercise and I feel duty bound to keep my garden under control.

In the weeks leading up to my dad's demise, I had a small bonfire at the top of the garden. Like dad might have done, I made a kiln of sorts out of some spare bricks and then set about burning a few twigs of an evening. There's something primeval about fire. I could sit in front of glowing embers forever and a day and would make do with a candle if need be. The other day I noticed that the parched patch of ground where the kiln had once blazed was still visible – just – and those memories of taking dad to the GP a week prior to that final ride to the hospital flooded back to me. Despite the dire nature of his predicament – of which he was blissfully unaware – he still managed to joke with those waiting to see the doctor about something or other, I can't remember exactly what.

I try not to think about my own mortality. I prefer to rely upon the phrase 'I am me and this is now' in direct appeal to the magical 'here and now' and the fact – the reality – that we all live in the moment, in the immediate present, always on the edge of the future, the edge of time no less, but never, ever getting there, a bit like that scene in The Wrong Trousers when Gromit, sitting on the locomotive, throws down the track ahead of the train, thereby creating reality as he goes along, or like Jory Miller, the 12-year-old boy in Philip K Dick's UBIK who, living in a state of 'chill half life' creates reality for other people by imagining what they might expect to see as they walk along a street or drive along the freeway. Perhaps that's how it is – we're all creating our reality as we go along and none of it really exists until we get there.

The other day I was trying to work out what might be the best album and the best album track in the world. I came to the conclusion that it had to be Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and the track Time, which, in my opinion, sums it all up to a tee. Here's the lyrics in full:-

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over
Thought I'd something more to say...







Monday, 8 June 2015

To the Tatsfield Churchyard...

Botley... on the road. We'll be here next weekend enjoying tea and cake
No Phil this weekend and none of us ventured out on Saturday due to other commitments, but Andy and I were at the green on Sunday morning (7th June) and we decided to ride to the Tatsfield Churchyard.

Looking down the steps from the Tatsfield Churchyard, Sunday 7th June
On the way back – after tea and chocolate chip BelVita biscuits – we discovered that the Botley Hill Farmhouse pub was under new management – the same people who run the White Bear in nearby Fickleshole. They've introduced 'Botley on the Road', a grey mobile catering van that's going to be around most weekends serving tea, coffee and snacks. There's even two wooden tables and chairs so we can sit there and enjoy it. The plan is to ride to the Churchyard next week but not stop. Instead, we'll cycle back to the Botley for tea and possibly cake in the open air, weather permitting.

Andy brought the racer to the churchyard...
The Botley is also hiring out bicycles – not a bad idea as pub goers can ride out from the pub along some interesting country lanes; they can ride to Westerham or Tatsfield Village and back or they can ride to Godstone Green or even make a wide circle into Woldingham, back up Slines Oak and right on to the 269 heading towards the pub. The permutations are endless – St Leonard's Church, Hesiers Hill, even Biggin Hill.

Bikes for hire at the Botley...
While it was sun and blue skies on Saturday there was also a cool breeze. On Sunday there was no breeze at all, in fact, I got a decent tan through spending most of the day in the garden doing my Sir Lawncelot bit. I also cleaned the car inside and out and then sat at the very top of the garden in the early evening, concealed from view by shrubs, and enjoyed a bottle of Banks's Bitter – you can't beat a bottle of Black Country beer in my view. In fact, you can't beat a bottle of beer, full stop.

Good weather's been promised for the entire week so this morning (Monday) I waltzed off to work without my black raincoat only to discover that it clouded over at lunchtime and was chilly as I walked home (briskly) this evening, trying to keep myself warm. I've got the day off tomorrow, so hopefully it'll be warmer than today...although I doubt if I'll have time for a ride.

Our bikes at the Tatsfield Churchyard... Sunday 7th June