Sunday, 28 July 2013

Punctures lead to Tatsfield Churchyard, but we make Westerham on Sunday

The hot weather continues. Saturday was wonderful, despite weather forecasters warning of heavy rain for the most of the day. It didn't arrive until late afternoon, by which time we had enjoyed a pleasant ride despite punctures for yours truly and Phil.
Yours truly at the top of Clarks Lane, bike dangerously exposed to traffic

En route to Westerham initially, my bike was the first to suffer just past the roundabout beyond Botley Hill. Andy noticed it before me, exclaiming, "You've got a puncture!"

I slowed to a stop, turned the bike upside down and got on with the painfully frustrating task of removing the rear wheel, levering off the tyre, pulling out the inner tube and trying to find the hole. It's the same old, same old. All the familiar things were there: unable to pump up the inner tube to hear the puncture, eventually finding a small tear that was likely caused by the spokes or some part of the wheel itself rather than a genuine puncture in the sense of a thorn.

Phil eventually spotted the tear and I fixed it with a leech before cycling on towards Westerham, but then disaster struck again, this time for Phil who found he had a puncture as we began our descent into Westerham. We stopped and Phil set about fixing it on the roadside. Two down, one to go and we were waiting for Andy to announce that he too had a puncture. Fortunately, it never happened and we resolved to ride back up the hill to the Tatsfield Churchyard and abandon all hope of reaching Westerham.
Moments later, Phil's bike falls victim to a puncture

Oddly, while we drank our tea, my bike decided to let out all the air in its rear tyre. We looked round and found it flat. Andy lent me one of his 'leeches' and I set about fixing it again, although within seconds of getting the tyre back on the wheel and resuming our chat, the tyre deflated itself again with a loud hiss. Andy lent me a spare inner tube, a brand new one, and all was fine.

By late afternoon, the promised rain arrived, drenching a parched landscape and continuing throughout the night. While the rain did cool things down slightly, the night was still hot and I slept badly listening to doors knocking, foxes squealing and the distant shouts of revellers making their way home from somewhere. When the alarm went off I wasn't sure what to do. During the night I had considered calling Phil and Andy and aborting the ride, but decided against the idea – thank God I couldn't find my mobile phone, although whether I would have aborted or not was never a foregone conclusion and in the end I got up around 0600hrs, made tea and cereal, watched a bit of breakfast television and then headed off for the Green with Phil at 0630hrs.

The rain had cooled things down and there was a pleasant breeze as we headed up the 269 towards Botley Hill, hoping that we wouldn't be dogged by punctures for a second day. We sailed past the Tatsfield Bus Stop, noting that another cyclist was taking refuge there, and then virtually freewheeling all the way down the hill towards Westerham. The breeze and the cool air were very pleasant and when we arrived in Westerham, out came the tea – and Phil's bacon sandwiches – just what the doctor ordered.
...and then, at Tatsfield Churchyard, another puncture for yours truly

We sat on the Green, behind the statute of Winston Churchill, watching cars and other cyclists and chewing the fat about this and that: Top Gear, the Hungarian Grand Prix, holidays without mobile phones and computers and then we headed off home.

We cycled up the hill towards Botley and then north along the 269, parting company with Andy half way along the road as usual and then powering our way into Warlingham and then Sanderstead.

The weather was wonderful, albeit mildly cooler and now, as I write this, it's very warm and there's a mixture of blue skies and white cottonwool clouds, the sound of distant airliners and the tinkle of wind chimes disturbing the peace.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

July 20th and 21st – Tatsfield Churchyard and Tatsfield Village

Do you ever find yourself thinking how amazing everything is and how you're somehow existing behind your own eyes in a body that belongs to you, but at the same time, doesn't belong to you; it's as if you've got it on loan...until another one is offered up and then you move on. That's how I felt this morning as I bounded off towards the railway station, looking at mundane objects, like cars and houses and front lawns, and just thinking, 'hey! All this is really amazing!' I don't know, I just felt 'alive' and it felt a little strange. I can't really put my finger on it. In a way it's quite scary: that notion of existence.
Tatsfield Village

And then, this evening, I found myself randomly singing to myself Night Boat to Cairo by Madness. Why? I don't know, but what a great track! I reckon Night Boat to Cairo is 'up there' with Baggy Trousers as the best Madness track ever. I've got travel on the mind at present. I'm trying to work out the best way to travel to the USA. And you know what I find really amazing? That in the USA, home of the railroad and movies in which people jump on goods trains and travel for miles with little more than a stick and a spotted hankerchief, the train service is pretty poor.

I logged on to the Amtrak website and keyed in various journeys – Chicago to Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh to Chicago; Pittsburgh to Portland and so on – only to discover that, most of the time, the trains either departed at an ungodly hour or arrived at one. It transpires that, on one route, the train leaves at 1159 and gets in at 0845hrs the next morning. Not only is the time a problem, there's also just that one train per day. Over here in the UK, there is a constant stream of trains throughout the day; you never have to wait for hours or board a train in the middle of the night. And you would have thought that in a vast country like the USA, the train would be the main mode of transport – all those miles! And yet, sadly, it's the motor car that rules.

What amazes me even more is that, in a world where we're all trying to be more environmentally friendly, it turns out that taking the train – as opposed to the plane – is the most expensive option. It's the same here in the UK. Fly to Scotland or take the train? The latter is more expensive. Why? It should be the other way around, but it isn't.

Along Beddlestead Lane towards Clarks Lane
I had great plans: fly to Chicago then Cleveland and then train it to Pittsburgh and then go from Pittsburgh to New York by train and fly home to London; but no, it's not possible. Somewhere along the line you start thinking: sod this, I'll fly! Oddly, it's both quicker and cheaper when you might have thought that the quicker alternative would be the most expensive.

Oddly, I remember reading a great book, Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady, all about living with Neal Cassady, real-life hero of Kerouac's On the Road and part of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters in the 1960s. Before his mad, drug-taking life at the heart of the counter culture, Cassady had a job as a brake man with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Wow! What a job! And he gave it all up to take drugs and drive across America! What a nob!

Anyway, for all the USA's perceived railroad bravado, you can't just rock up at a station and buy a ticket to somewhere. If you did, you'd probably hear something like, "There ain't no train outta here until sunrise, sonny, but there's a cheap motel downtown...". Okay, that's cool too, but it's not like the UK where you can be guaranteed no longer than a 30-minute wait (unless there are big problems).

So, that's one thing that's been bugging me. Then, of course, there's the royal baby. It's all happening over here! Kate and William are out of hospital, but, at the time of writing, have yet to consider a name for their new baby boy – watch this space.

Neal Cassady
Cycling-wise, last weekend was good. We headed out for the Tatsfield Churchyard on Saturday, going the slow way round, hanging a left at Sainsbury's in Warlingham and then following the winding roads past St Leonard's Church, down Hesiers Hill and up Beddlestead Lane before turning left and riding down Clarks Lane to the Churchyard turn-off. It was a pleasant ride, punctuated by conversation about one of my old jobs and a great freelance assignment for Club Mirror magazine. I related the tale of my Spearmint Rhino interview and how, sitting in Sergio's Continental Bar & Diner, my colleague and friend David Foster came up with the cover line: Wriggling Spearmint Bum – a play on Wrigley's Spearmint Gum.

On Sunday we rode to Tatsfield Village where the conversation continued. It was good to laugh about stuff. Only recently, I was talking to a photographer friend of mine (Rob Wilkinson) about a time in Berlin when we both found ourselves laughing uncontrollably. I remember how good it felt. We got close on Sunday in between the tea and the bacon sandwiches, courtesy of Phil.

The ride home was good too and mention must be made of the weather. We've had a heatwave over here for a good fortnight, if not longer. Last night (Monday) saw night time temperatures reach 22 degrees. Windows were left open at night, there were thunderstorms on the horizon and I'm sure a lot of people were longing for air-conditioning (something you couldn't be without in Abu Dhabi and other hot countries). No end is in sight, which is great news as it means we can wear shorts and tee-shirts on our rides and not worry too much about the rain – there isn't any! And if there is rain, who cares? It would be warm rain and much welcomed.

We probably rode around 32 miles last weekend, which was fine, but next week we're thinking about Westerham. It all depends on time and commitments.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Godstone Green and the Tatsfield Bus Stop (the slow way)

The weather here in the UK has been amazing and some say it's related to the heatwave in the USA. How true that is, I don't know, but it's been very hot and more heat has been promised for the coming week. From a cycling perspective, it's been great, as last week's post testified.
Team shot: From the left: Andy, Matt and Phil, Godstone
Green, Sunday 14th July 2013

We're all wearing shorts and tee-shirts and rain is the last thing on our minds. With the sun rising early, I'm finding myself sitting downstairs at just gone 0500hrs, drinking tea and messing around listening to the radio or checking the emails before heading out at 0630hrs and meeting Andy on the Green.

This weekend, we headed out for the Tatsfield Bus Stop, via Hesiers Hill on Saturday, and then, on Sunday, Godstone Green. We haven't been to Godstone for a long while and the first hurdle (quite literally in many respects) was a 'Road Ahead Closed' sign at the top of Slines Oak Road, which, clearly, meant exactly what it said. But we decided to ignore the sign on the basis that 'no roads are closed to us', and then found ourselves climbing over heavy, red, plastic barriers and squeezing through tight spaces until we emerged on the other side, bikes intact. We hadn't been this way for a while, mainly because of my non-existent rear brake and the steep downhills en route. It was good to be there again, although the lake was almost drained of water and was looking a bit down in the dumps.

We parked up and Phil produced the bacon sandwiches while I prepared the tea. Ducks sat by the side of the pond (it's definitely a pond, albeit a large one, although it begs the question: when does a pond become a lake?).

The weather was so good and we all agreed that we could quite easily sit there all day if only we had a few cans and a radio. The fact that Godstone Green has both a pub and a club makes it even more attractive as a venue for simply loitering around on a hot day, although the only problem with drinking beer on a hot day on Godstone Green while in possession of a bicycle and living in the Croydon area, is that a huge hill stands between you and home. Fine when you're sober, but not so good when you're feeling a little sleepy and in need of a kip.

And talking of the hill, we soon found ourselves changing down to a low gear and tackling the problem. On reaching The Ridge we decided to tackle the obstacle course of the closed road rather than go all the way to Botley Hill to avoid it.

We parted company with Andy at the Woldingham end of Slines Oak Road and then hurtled down the hill until we reached Butlers Dene Road where we turned left and wound our way to the Warlingham end of the road and that rather trying obstacle course.

The ride ended just before 1000hrs and the rest of the day was still ahead of us. For me, mum was coming over for lunch and then a swim in Waddon, a new pool that we've taken a fancy to.

As I write this, it's Monday morning and outside the sun is shining brightly, the skies are blue and a hot week lies ahead. Oh to be on South Coast, but no, I'm in Croydon and I've got to work all day... and all week. Still, there's always next week's ride.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Botley Hill and a slow ride to Tatsfield Bus Stop via Hesiers Hill

I could say it's too hot to ride a bike and most people would probably agree, although, if you go out early enough – say 0630hrs – then it's very pleasant. The heat woke me early – at 0530hrs – so I made some tea and literally pottered around until it was time to meet Phil.
On the road towards St Leonard's Church.

Saturdays are always Botley Hill during term time so off we went laden with tea and chocolate bars. Little to report about the ride other than the weather was amazing and I had a bad dose of hay fever. This weekend has been the worst ever, in my opinion.

After the usual things we do on a Saturday morning, we headed for mum's for lunch and to watch Bartoli beat Lisicki in the Wimbledon women's final. Not a very inspiring match, but at least it's not the usual suspects. In fact, most of the usual players have been knocked out. Lisicki knocked out Serena Williams so why she didn't make an effort in the final is anybody's guess.

After an evening of streaming eyes and a sniffling nose, I went to bed early and awoke early again (at 0530hrs) except this time I'd be going cycling alone. Andy was on holiday and Phil had attended a 50th birthday party so it was a case of self-motivation. But when the weather's hot and sunny, who needs motivation? At 0705 I left the house, having called my brother to see if he fancied meeting at Woodmansterne Green. No answer so I decided to head for the Tatsfield Bus Stop via Hesiers Hill, a tranquil and picturesque route.
More rays of sunshine.
I passed Warlingham Green and headed for Sainsbury's before hanging a left at the roundabout and following the road down to the village of Chelsham where I turned right, passed the Bull public house on my left and continued along the road, past Scotshall Lane towards St Leonard's Church.

On the way I saw a deer running parallel with the bike before crossing the road ahead of me, plus a few rabbits. Rays of sunlight filtered through the trees, the birds chirped away and there was the occasional rustle in the woods. I stopped a few times to take shots of sun rays through the trees and sunny fields and a shot of myself at the bottom of Hesiers Hill and then made steady progress along Beddlestead Lane towards Clarks Lane where I turned left and cycled to the Tatsfield Bus Stop.
Fields along Beddlestead Lane heading towards the bus stop.

Having not been to the bus stop for a while, I enjoyed sitting there, albeit alone, sipping tea and eating a chocolate bar that Phil had given me yesterday morning (I think it was meant for Andy, but hey, he's on holiday and there's nowt better than tea and chocolate, especially sitting in the sunshine at the Tatsfield Bus Stop.

I debated cycling back the way I'd came, but the thought of riding up Hesiers Hill in the hot sun put me off. Instead, I headed for Botley Hill, leaving the bus stop at 0855hrs and reaching Sanderstead Village 30 minutes later.

When I reached home I enjoyed a hearty breakfast of bread and marmalade, Shredded Wheat and a boiled egg with fingers, not forgetting a mug of tea and a bowl of raspberry yoghurt. Lovely! A little bit of gardening followed and then a can of Stella Artois. I fancy another one so I'd better say goodbye.

Yours truly at the bottom of Hesiers Hill – pure tranquility!

Monday, 1 July 2013

Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Mosque...well worth a visit

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is the third largest in the world and has the world's largest Persian rug.
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi has to be seen to be believed.
It's difficult not to spot the mosque as you head along the main highway from Dubai into Abu Dhabi or, indeed, if you're driving around the centre of town. It's a huge and wonderful piece of architecture and well worthy of closer inspection.
I nipped down there this afternoon (Monday July 1st) as I had a bit of free time and I'm really glad I made the effort. Earlier, I found myself thinking why bother, it'll be the same old thing: tour guides and the like; but no, this was fantastic. The best thing about it, outside of its beauty and the generally tranquil environment surrounding the mosque was the fact that it was in Abu Dhabi and not London.
Had it been in London the whole experience would have been ruined by tacky gift shops, a restaurant or café and, dare I say, Brits in football shirts with tatooed calves. Fortunately, it was in Abu Dhabi where, despite the heat, you'd need to go somewhere else if you were gasping for a glass of water, and believe me, the weather is so hot, you WOULD be gasping for water. That was one reason why I left my visit until the late afternoon when the sun loses its heat slightly. It was still sweltering hot and a mild breeze had probably lulled me into a false sense of security, but I found the weather very pleasant.
Mosque manners – don't turn up in shorts or a miniskirt
The idea of a guided tour appealed, but then I figured it would be best not to listen to a tour guide and have to wander around with a load of Japanese tourists and western women in burkas. Women have to cover up if they want to visit the mosque and there's a room set aside for women to don the full burka if they want to, although being suitably covered up is enough, the full burka is there for those who want to wear one... unless the women I saw in full burkas were the genuine article. Actually that's more like it, but if you are a woman and you're in shorts and a sleeveless tee-shirt, expect to be asked to cover up and, as I say, there are things you can wear: headscarves, the whole lot. Men, as long as you're not wearing shorts or are either topless or wearing a sleeveless tee-shirt, you'll be alright.
I decided to wander alone because it was more tranquil that way. Shoes must come off before entering the mosque proper and this I did safe in the knowledge that some scumbag wouldn't steal my shoes – there are no scumbags in Abu Dhabi as far as I can make out. In the UK, I'd think twice about leaving a pair of shoes in a wooden rack outside the building. Here, I didn't think twice about it.
Once inside, I witnessed the largest Persian rug in the world for myself, took a few photographs and then wandered the grounds, listening to the birds in the trees and taking in the general atmosphere. Feeling sufficiently chilled out I sauntered out to find a taxi back to my hotel and here I am now, writing this blog post.
Another view of the mosque showing some of the gardens that surround it.
The Holiday Inn, Abu Dhabi – an excellent hotel
It's my last day here and because of this I feel I must say something about the hotel, The Holiday Inn, Abu Dhabi; it's simply the best in my opinion and has been from the moment I arrived yesterday morning at around 0900hrs (I can't remember exactly what time I arrived). The service has been impeccable, the food unrivalled. The Lemon Tree restaurant served top notch Mediterranean cuisine and the Silk Route Café was out of this world too, serving up a range of cuisines in a self-service, all-you-can-eat fashion, but without the British tackiness implied by the phrase. I will definitely be going back there this evening and I might even take a dip in the hotel pool before dinner. Last night I went for a dip around 7pm, when the sun had cooled down a little bit, any earlier and it would have been unbearable and, worst still, I might have burned myself. Fortunately, these days, I'm sensible. Ten years ago – probably less – I'd have thrown caution to the wind and paid dearly for it.

Mind you, having enjoyed dinner yesterday night and lunch today at the Silk Route Café, perhaps going back there is a mistake and I should visit The Lemon Tree again. Not sure. And I've yet to visit the bar on one of the higher floors (for a nice cool glass of Heineken).

The catering is good, the people are good (especially Kace down in reception, who is arguably the most friendly person in the world). But what about the room? It's fantastic as you might expect it to be; the whole hotel has a wood decor running throughout. The walls in the corridors are wood, there's a pleasant wood finish to the room, a good-sized and comfortable bed and let's not forget free WiFi too, otherwise I'd have to use the business centre on the ground floor to write this post.

Last night, the only one problem I faced was the sound of a man's voice over the intercom saying, "There has been an incident in the hotel. Please evacuate the building and do not use the lifts." This was at gone 0130hrs and it was repeated a few times. I think I heard it first in my sleep and then for real. Quickly putting on some clothes, I left the room and joined other guests walking down the stairs to the ground floor where an apologetic member of staff informed us, "Sorry, it was a false alarm."

We all turned around and went back to our rooms, but what was really impressive was that nobody saw fit to complain. Imagine the same thing happening in the Holiday Inn Birmingham in the UK. There would have been some irate Brit moaning to somebody about how he's got to get up early for a meeting in Rhyl and he'd be seeking some form of compensation. Yawn! No, there was nothing at all. We all simply turned around and got on with our sleep. 

Because I arrived too late on Sunday morning and had to be out of the hotel for 6am this morning, I've yet to sample breakfast, which is a shame. It's in the Silk Route Café and starts at 0615hrs. I'm being picked up tomorrow at 0645hrs so there's time if I'm up really early – I'd like to experience the full service of this excellent hotel.

And, fortunately for me, I'll be returning here in November for a big conference taking place in Abu Dhabi, so I'll be staying at the Abu Dhabi Holiday Inn once more. They can expect a glowing report on Trip Advisor, that's for sure.

Why, I wonder, aren't all Holiday Inns like the Holiday Inn, Abu Dhabi? The sad truth is that they're not.