Sunday, 26 June 2011

A new path to a new world...

Andy and I posing for a self-timed shot at the bottom of the path.
A new world? What are you on? Yes, I know, it's only a bridleway and it's just down the road from a huge supermarket and we're not a million miles from London. I know. And it's not a case of 'little things please little minds, although I guess it could be in that ballpark somewhere along the line, especially at the moment, what with me being jobless and up against it. No, the reason for such elation, such over-the-top attitude, is that we found a new route, a new place to drink our tea and it turns out to be a haven of solitude, the sort of place you'd never find in a car – only on a bike.

The bikes against a pointlessly located gate similar to the one we'd just clambered over.
We were on our way to the Tatsfield Village with its predictable surroundings: the pub, the covered bus stop, the silent pond, the houses, the shop, that weird sculpture and, of course, the people in their 4x4s, driving a few yards to get a newspaper. But then, as we rode up the beginnings of the rural part of the B269, I suggested we turn left into Ledgers Road and go to the spot at the bottom of Hesiers Hill instead.

Me showing Andy how it's done – flicking a teabag.
For some reason, it's a sport I'm particularly good at.
But we never got there; halfway along the road, I spied a shaded track and we decided to investigate. The path descended fast and the bikes picked up speed, but neither of us expected ramps – speed bumps – but there they were, crafted out of mud and invisible until we hit them. Fortunately we managed to slow down enough before making contact with the first one and from then onwards we were cautious, and rightly so. There were more and in many ways, slowing down was good as the shaded path with it's uprooted trees and fields on either side was quite pleasant.

My crash helmet on a post.
At the bottom, there was one of those wooden contraptions to climb over, with the bikes, but on the other side, the countryside opened up and I found myself thinking how fantastic it all was – all I could hear was the birds tweeting, the bees buzzing and nothing else. Peace. I started thinking about coming here again, during the week, perhaps, with a can or two of Stella, a few sandwiches and a newspaper. What a spot! To be honest, both of us realised that, without commitments, we could happily spend the day here just lounging about, reading, drinking, whatever, the solitude was amazing and I get the feeling that not a lot of people come this way.

I won't even explain what this is, as it's self-explanatory, don't you think?
We considered following the path upwards over a hill and probably, ultimately, into Tatsfield or out on to the Beddlestead Lane. For some reason, I got a little confused. I knew that the road at the top of the path was Ledgers Road, but I kept thinking it was Beddlestead Lane and would lead us down to the spot at the bottom of Hesiers Hill. I was wrong. Eventually we climbed back along the path, on foot and pushing the bikes (it was steep and those speed humps would have been a real pain going up hill) until we reached the top. We turned right and travelled along to what I thought would be the bottom of Hesiers. It turned out to be the top and then I realised how close-by we were to civilisation.

Summer skies and rolling hills – all you need is a bike and a flask of tea.
It was a short ride, but an inspiring one and we'll definitely be returning to what is arguably the best destination of them all – but only in the good weather.

All photos by Andy Smith.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Round at mum's...

Sunday 26 June: Just got back from mum's having spent the night there; always very relaxing as mum has turned Number 29 into a kind of heaven on earth. It's like being on another planet where all the bad things of life have been disposed of and only the good things remain. It's like a good dream, one of those psychedelic visions after too much cheese late at night, there's lots of rich colours and, I don't know, it's how I imagine the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to be; it's like some kind of oasis hidden in suburbia, a secret garden open to the lucky few.
Mum and dad created a heaven on earth at home; it's like a good dream.
That's what's weird about suburbia: you just don't know what's behind those non-descript front doors.

I was awake at 0510. Mum gets up very early and feeds the foxes. If you look out from an upstairs window and peer down into the garden you can see them curled up on the lawn, about four of them, waiting for mum to throw out some sausage rolls, bought especially for them. The foxes hang around for some time, just in case more food comes their way. Mum sits in the armchair by the patio doors, sipping tea and listening to Radio Four on her digital Roberts radio, one of those retro affairs.

That round conifer has gone now, but everything else remains the same.
The house, the garden, it's all a bit Brambly Hedge or Beatrix Potter, it's the stuff of a good children's story, one of those cosy, illustrated books you might have found in your stocking on Christmas morning.

I enjoyed two cups of tea, one brought to my room at just gone 5am and then another just before 6am. Then I drove home, through the quiet, empty, suburban streets. Nobody was around, apart from a few people either returning home after a late night or on their way to work. On the Carshalton Road, waiting for a bus, I spied a huge woman who, for some reason, reminded me of an enormous skittle, the last one standing, perhaps.

Now it's 0655 and I'd better get the tea started and head off on the ride. Yesterday we went to the Tatsfield Bus Stop, not sure where we're off to today.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

To the Tatsfield churchyard...

Taking it easy at the churchyard in Tatsfield
We took a shortish ride to the churchyard in Tatsfield earlier today, keeping an eye on the weather. The forecast had been for rain and I was surprised to wake up and find sunshine and blue skies. It stayed that way, sort of, but there were blustery periods when the sun went behind the clouds – the skies weren't completely blue.

We sat on a bench, sipping our tea, eating our cereal bars and chatting about the Dunwich Dynamo ride and the Black Horse Ride, which we did last week (see earlier post).

On the way out of the churchyard, something went wrong with my bike. Okay, we all know it needs a major service as the gears are faulty, the rear brake is non-existent and the rear wheel appears to be buckled.

As I was about to mount the bike for the ride home, the rear wheel seized up completely and it turned out that the gear mechanism had slipped and wedged itself in the rear tyre, making it freeze up. We tipped the bike over and Andy fixed it, but then noticed that the smaller cog on the front crank was seriously dented.

The dent was baffling as we don't treat our bikes badly and rarely ride off-road, but I can't think of any occasion when the Scrap took a hard knock. But somewhere along the line it had taken a whacking - no wonder I can't use the lower eight gears!

I will get the bike fixed just as soon as I get a job. Until then I'll have to just make do.

Andy and I parted half way along the B269 and I went home to mow the lawn; it looks really good. Then I went to Sainsbury's, came back, had lunch, went for a walk around the block – that's entertainment when you've got no money – and then I remembered that I had a club to judge at 6.30pm – just when I thought I could relax and enjoy my Saturday. But then I discovered that it wasn't today so I relaxed for a while, watching the excellent Kung Fu Panda.

Weatherwise, outside now (1808) it's sunny. Earlier there had been heavy rain and thunder, but I missed the lot as I was in Sainsbury's.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Black Horse Ride 2011 – it rained!

9am, June 12 2011 – meeting on the A23.
Call it what you will: Sod's Law or Murphy's Law; either way it amounts to the same thing – that life just doesn't add up. For months we'd had the best weather imaginable, just check back on past posts for cloudless skies and bright sunshine, but on the day of the Black Horse Ride 2011 (12 June 2011) the heavens opened. It rained ALL day. It was raining before we set off, during the ride, on the ride home and then probably throughout the night. Looking outside now, at 0704, it looks as if it's just stopped.

Andy and I were alone this year. Nick was on holiday and Jon wasn't doing it, leaving the founder members of No Visible Lycra to ride their third Black Horse event together. We started in 2008, which was a sunny ride; then in 2009 it poured down (and was really unpleasant), last year was fine and this year was a wash-out.

Our bikes in the Black Horse pub garden – note how early we are!
We met at 9am outside the converted Exchange Bar pub, which is now an Indian restaurant, on the A23 and then cycled for 20 minutes to the Black Horse pub where we were miles too early. They were setting up the raffle stand and we were the only cyclists there so we registered and then just hung about until something happened. The tea was first, followed by the bacon butties (we had three each) and then there was more hanging about looking at grey skies and slowly realising that it was going to be a repeat of the 2009 ride.

Fortunately, I'd decided to bring my waterproofs – I nearly didn't – but the trousers were already in my rucksack. Phew! It could have been so much worse.

Free beer and food – arguably the best part of the entire day!
My brakes were still playing up so the ride's mechanic adjusted them, but they're still the same and they make a lot of screeching whenever I pull up. Effectively, then, I just had a front brake and eight (rather than 16) gears. With bad weather I was taking my life into my own hands a bit, but being a seasoned rider, I figured I could handle it.

We set off at 11am on a shorter, 36-mile route, which pleased us all considering the weather. The waterproofs negated the rain and even the fact that I had no mudguards – and was spitting rain all over the place – was irrelevant. I stayed dry throughout the ride and Andy and I didn't stop (apart from occasionally checking the route). In fact, while most of the route was fine, there were a couple of places where the signage was non-existent, leaving riders grouped together at T-junctions, consulting maps and wondering whether to turn left or right.

Enjoying a pint of Young's bitter
On one occasion, Andy and I had turned right into Punchbowl Lane but missed Tilehurst Lane on the right because there was no sign indicating that we had to turn into it; instead we hurtled down Punchbowl Lane and eventually hit the A25, which was not very far from the pub. I admit that I did consider just turning right and heading for the Black Horse, but thank the Lord for Andy who, fortunately, always does the right thing. To be honest, though, I wouldn't have gone through with it as I prefer to do the right thing too and, besides, I wanted my free burger and pint of Young's. Had the weather been nicer, we would have enjoyed another pint, I'm sure.

We ended up walking the bikes back up Punchbowl Lane in search of the elusive Tilehurst Lane and, on finding it, sped off towards the pub, reaching it at around 1430hrs. We crossed the line together, collected our vouchers and headed for the bar. I've said it before and I'll say it now, a pint of Young's Ordinary Bitter after a long ride is probably better than most things. I got the beers in and Andy went for the burgers and hotdogs and for about half an hour we sat there, waterproofs still on (because it was still dribbling down).

Burger and onions, hotdog with onions and mustard and a pint of Young's Ordinary bitter. Seriously, you can't get better. But then, of course, it was time to go home and the dilemma of should I get the train or cycle home raised its head. If the latter, then I'd have riden the best part of 60 miles. Andy was definitely cycling back and I thought that I might as well join him, even if he was turning off the A23 to head for Caterham and had a much shorter ride.

It was, to put it mildly, a horrible ride home. Having waved goodbye to Andy, I set off along the busy A23 in the rain, which was getting heavier. It was the most unpleasant ride and by the time I reached home I had that shiny look about me, which said 'drenched'.

It was 1655hrs when I pulled open the garage door, rested the bike against the garage wall, took off my crash helmet and padlocked the bike. When I entered the house a cup of tea and a freshly pressed pair of pyjamas were waiting for me, plus a quick game on a flight simulator. What could be better? I come home soaking wet, tired and weary and I'm given hot tea, biscuits, pressed pyjamas and a blanket. Top banana, as they say.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Helen Pidd mounts an electric bike...

Helen Pidd has reviewed the Giant Twist Esprit Power W, an electric bike, in this week's Guardian Weekend magazine and I think she feels a little like I do towards them: ie, that they're not something you want to make a habit of; and she's right, of course.

Electric bikes are a bit like electronic cigarettes or coal-effect gas fires or non-alcohol beer, there's something artificial about them. Bikes have pedals for a reason in the same way that cigarettes contain tobacco for a reason and beer is alcoholic for a reason – take away the key ingredient and bang goes the whole concept.
Never trust a bike with a stand: The Giant Twist Esprit Power W.
Photo: The
As I write this, for example, I'm only an hour or so away from riding in this summer's Black Horse Ride at Reigate. This year, it's 35 miles and not the usual 50 for some reason; it starts later too, but somehow the achievement would be hollow if I completed the route on the Giant Twist Espirit Power, what Pidd calls an e-bike.

That 'e' worries me, it's like e-books. I hope that I never own a Kindle for similar reasons because in the same way that a Kindle isn't a book, then the Giant Twist Espirit Power isn't a bike either.

In short, electric bikes are cheating, like tee-shirts that look like dinner jackets, dummy burglar alarms and Astro Turf. I'm not saying they shouldn't be allowed, but they defeat the object.

As Pidd quite rightly points out, "...if I had one, I fear I would get too lazy ever to pedal properly again."

Click here for the full article.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Westerham revival...

Wednesday 8 June: When we first set out on our bikes back in the late summer of 2006 after that famous curry in Whyteleafe, Andy and I rode to Westerham in Kent. It was our default cycle for many months before one of us decided to suggest that other routes might be worth trying. Okay, we had our short ride to Botley Hill where we stood by the roundabout sipping tea, but that was really it.

Matt (left) and Andy at Churchill's statue, Westerham, Kent, June 4th 2011.
We did eventually get round to new routes – the Tatsfield bus stop, Tatsfield Village, occassional rides over Biggin Hill way, Godstone Green, Merstham, Redhill and Boxhill – and, in a sense, we totally ignored Westerham. Yes, we rode down there occasionally, but invariably we found that Tatsfield became a regular haunt, be it the newly discovered churchyard, the bus stop or the village.

Westerham, of course, has always been an ideal ride, not only because there was always some kind of buzz going on when we arrived – teashops opening, fetes being erected, people milling about, shops open – but because the distance itself (and the ride in general) was good. It's a good 22-mile round trip and the hill coming out of Westerham (in the early days) was always a little daunting. In fact, I remember the days when I used to warn Andy about the hill as we approached it. Today, of course, there's no need.

Last weekend we went to Westerham on the Saturday and as we rode down there, we discussed how the hill coming back was now nothing in terms of effort compared with the old days. In fact, Westerham is an easy ride these days and takes me only 55 minutes to get there from my house (although I distinctly remember doing it once in 52 minutes). That aside, our fitness levels have, of course, improved, although getting there in under an hour is still quite surprising for some reason.

We leave Warlingham Green around 0730hrs and 45 minutes later, we're in Westerham. Only last weekend, as the church clock – I'm assuming it's a church clock, but it might be just a clock, albeit a large and noisy one – chimed a quarter past eight, I was mildly surprised that we'd reached this quaint Kent town, home of the great Winston Churchill, at such a healthy time. Andy checked his watch and confirmed that it was only a quarter past eight, time to chill and relax, drink tea and munch cereal bars.

We now sit on the green behind Churchill's statue and, as a recent post on the subject has already mentioned, we've watched as stall holders set up shop for a rotary club fete and we've looked on as a mother and child scoot around Sir Winston on a couple of those stainless steel scooters. This weekend we watched a traffic warden as he took photographs of illegally parked cars. He must be the most hated man in the village, Andy remarked, as the uniformed man with cropped hair emptied one of the parking meters and then threatened to place a parking ticket on a Mini, until it's owner scuttled over and drove off, having been lectured by the warden.

Our bikes resting halfway along The Ridge, Sunday 5th June 2011.
The plan was to visit Westerham on Sunday too, but I was getting a bit of pressure to come home early and cook sausages for breakfast. So, when I arrived at the Green, I suggested to Andy that we go to Tatsfield or somewhere closer to home. We decided to cycle along The Ridge, from Botley Hill, to a small car park half way along the road where there are amazing views of (ahem) the M25. Actually, the view of the entire surrounding area is good: Oxted can be seen clearly as well as the surrounding countryside.

There are two wooden benches on some nettly, brambly grassland and that was where we were headed on Sunday morning. It was a straightfoward ride and all the way there I was thinking about changing my mind and heading to Westerham instead; but I knew that sausages were in the fridge at home and that a speedy return was advisable.

As it turned out, when I reached home at 0930 nobody was in, but the sausages were still in the fridge and so I grilled them and all was fine with the world.

I say 'all was fine with the world', but it's not really. I'm still technically out of work and in need of a job and the recent death of my father hangs heavily in the air. Cycling, however, helps tremendously. I always look forward to meeting Andy at the Green on the weekend and now it's doubly important as it takes my mind off stuff. In so many ways, I don't know what I'd do without our regular weekend rides.

We're both looking forward to the Black Horse Ride next weekend (Sunday 12 June). It's a shorter distance than previous years (35 miles instead of 50) but that's okay with us; and it's a later start too (11am instead of 10am) meaning a later start. Hopefully, there will still be the free pint of Young's at the end and the free burger from the barbecue in the pub garden (that's the best part of the whole day) although this year will be interesting as the route's been changed.

Whether David (our mate with the yellow Harley) will turn out as a marshall, something he's done for the past few years, I don't know, but only time will tell.

The weather's been very good for some time now. Today (Wednesday 8th June as I write this post) it's bright at just gone 8am; yesterday was a bright, sunny day and Monday was rainy, but, as dad would have said, "it's good for the garden." Last weekend was great weatherwise. We've not had a soaking for a while and and long may it continue. Here's praying that decent weather is in place for Sunday's Black Horse Ride as I don't think Andy and I could stomach a repeat performance of the 2009 ride.

Both photos on this post were taken by NVL's resident photographer, Andy Smith.