Thursday, 29 August 2013

Bank Holiday Weekend – two rained-off days and a ride to Westerham

Saturday was appalling: rain all day, like stair rods at times. Cycling was out of the question so 'abort' texts were sent out. Sunday was the same so once again, abort texts. Then, on Monday, there was sunshine, but only Andy and I were going, although I found out that Phil braved the rain on Saturday morning and rode the long route to the Tatsfield Bus Stop. Respect is due!
Digestive biscuits and Tetley tea – shame there was no real milk.

Monday was a fine day for cycling so we rode to Westerham where I had the brainwave of having breakfast in the Tudor Tearooms. Why not? We'd been saying it was about time we had a Full English! But it was not to be; the Tearooms were closed and so was the Costa! Our last resort was the NISA convenience store. Fortunately it had a hot water dispenser and some Tetley-branded paper cups with teabags in them. I decided to push the boat out and bought a packet of digestive biscuits and then Andy and I headed for the green and our bench behind Sir Winston.

The conversation revolved around Cannondale mountain bikes and how (ahem) effeminate-sounding they've turned out to be; take the good old Cannondale Badboy. Say that with an effeminate voice, "I've got a Cannondale Badboy..." and everything starts to get a little camp. And then there's the Leftie. Alright, it's got a funny set of forks, it's a bit 'leftfield', but 'Lefty', 'Bad Boy'... Soon they'll be the Cannondale Liberace and, who knows, perhaps even the Bandit or the Cannondale Chatty Man. Perhaps the creative team needs to get down the pub and start talking about football.
The Nisa Local in Westerham – they serve up a nice cuppa!

Monday, 19 August 2013

A heavy mist, an irritating knocking noise and some lively conversation...

My bike is sounding like a metronome and for those who don't know what a metronome is, it's a device used by musicians to keep time and it clicks monotonously depending on how it is set. The problem with my bike is the bottom bracket. It needs replacing, but I've been told by the man in the bike shop in Redhill to keep on riding it until it simply has to be fixed. I think it might be getting close to that time as the is there all the time and I'm sure it'll soon be annoying anybody cycling in close proximity to me, namely, Andy or Phil.
A spooky mist hung over the Tatsfield Churchyard on Saturday morning

The bike is suffering at the moment. Not only are punctures occuring with regularity, the brakes were recently fixed (readers might recall the extortionate bill) along with the wheel needing new spokes and so on and so forth. Today, while out on a short ride with my daughter around the block, the gears were playing up and the whole chain system froze up.

This weekend was another great one in terms of the weather. Both days were warm and, it has to be said, a little changeable: one minute sunshine then a little rain and sometimes a combination of sunshine and rain. But who's complaining? Not me. I've been off work all week, chilling at home and the weather's been nothing but fantastic. I've spent a lot of time in  Forest Row and Ashdown Forest enjoying the delights of a restaurant called Java & Jazz and Forest Row's rather exquisite bakery behind the main High Street. Today (Monday) we enjoyed Cornish pasties and Bakewell Tarts while sitting in the forest taking in the view. It's been a lazy week, but not much in the way of cycling was done (I needed the rest) and now, tomorrow, I'm back to work.

Right now, though, it's 2326hrs on Monday night and I can't sleep. Why is this? I'm beginning to wonder whether I drink too much tea. Anyway, I went to bed around 1030hrs, found myself lying in bed fully awake and now here I am writing this blogpost. It might well be that during the week I've taken life relatively easy and, therefore, I've got a lot of unspent energy keeping me awake. Perhaps it's the cake. I'm guilty this week of enjoying the odd slice of cake, the odd KitKat bar and plenty of bread and marmalade – all very sugary when you think about it (and it's got to stop) but I've been off work on what is likely to be my only holiday this year so I figure I can enjoy a slice of two of cake when I fancy it. The trouble, of course, is that I always fancy a nice bit of cake. Today it was Bakewell tart, the other day it was coffee and walnut cake, then there was the odd KitKat round at mum's (she keeps them in a house-shaped biscuit 'tin' – it's made out of porcelain. I know this because I bought it for her last Christmas).
This is an old shot of Westerham Green, our destination on Sunday.

Cycling wise, the weekend was good: a ride out to Tatsfield Churchyard on Saturday with Phil and Andy and then a ride to Westerham on Sunday, also with Phil and Andy.

On Saturday, en route to the churchyard, we encountered a heavy mist at the top end of the 269 and none of us had any effective lights. My rear light had run out of batteries and Andy's rear light was all but invisible in the thick fog.

This weekend we discussed loads of stuff as we munched our cereal bars, sipped our tea or stuffed our faces with Phil's excellent bacon sandwiches (a Sunday treat). On Saturday, at the churchyard, we discussed the prevalence of a growing so-called 'underclass' that is developing in the UK, something that many people have discussed over recent years in connection with the London riots, benefits and so forth. Phil brought it up this weekend, although I recall, about a year ago, possibly a little longer, that I brought it up having been for a wander around the Crown Hill area of Croydon. It's an interesting subject and it's well worth reading Owen Jones' Chavs in which he argues that the white working class has become it's own ethnic group characterised by people with 'dangerous dogs', hoodies and tattoos.

On Sunday we parked up on the green at Westerham, behind Churchill's statue and watched as a fellow cyclist parked up outside the Tudor Tea Rooms. "Can you watch my bike for me?" he asked and we said we would, but as soon as he'd disappeared into the shop, we started discussing how we could now nick the bike – which, we guessed, was very expensive. We were only joking, of course, but that didn't stop us working out the entire caper out loud, accompanied by much laughter. The man was wearing those strange cycling shoes that adhere the wearer to the pedals of the bike, so running after whoever rode off on the top-of-the-range machine would have been difficult. My view was that we'd need somebody in a van to take the bike to a safe house where, needless to say, it would eventually require a re-spray. The whole conversation reminded me of a conversation between Andy and I a year or so ago when we decided that being a criminal, a petty criminal, was simply not worth the aggravation. Imagine, for example, if we had stolen the bike, we'd have to re-spray it and then what? Risk selling it on Ebay? No, ultimately it would be more trouble than it was worth. Similarly, shoplifting; where would it get us? Nowhere and, as I've said many a time before, if I was caught with a tin of baked beans, I reckon I'd be going down.
The Tudor Rose Tearooms – next weekend we're having
our breakfast here!
Doing a runner from a restaurant has always been appealing and probably one of the most adrenaline-fueled capers on the books – if a chase was involved – but again, neither Andy, Phil or yours truly are capable of being criminals (we're all too nice). With that pleasing thought in our minds and having drank all the tea and eaten our bacon sandwiches, we headed out of Westerham, up the hill to Botley and home.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

So much for great intentions...

...I awoke around 3am and couldn't get back to sleep however much I tried. I thought the best way to try and nod off would be to listen to the sound of my own breathing, but, as usual, fretful voices got in the way as I found myself thinking about this and that: when to take a break from work, that garden furniture that won't fix together, and so on and so forth. I think I finally must have nodded off around 5am and somewhere along the line I sent Andy an 'abort' text. It's all to do with my trip to the USA and how, since I returned this time last week, I haven't really stopped to recover. Things started to catch up on me and I've noticed a general weariness that leads to me falling asleep or starting to nod off anywhere – on trains, on settees and so forth.
Skies between Chicago and Cleveland, USA.

So, when I eventually woke up this morning it was nearly 10am and a wonderful day: blue skies with cottonwool clouds, ideal cycling weather and I'm guessing Andy was out there early enjoying the coolness of the early morning as I slept on. I felt mildly ashamed of not getting up and going, especially after aborting yesterday's ride to the pub in Sevenoaks, but in all honesty I just didn't have it in me.

I feel a lot better as I write this, mainly because I've had one of those Berocca tablets in a glass of water. You know, like the ad on television with those two loggers dancing around on top of the logs – "You, but on a good day!" Perhaps I should have taken one earlier in the week as I do feel noticeably better. I'm back, so to speak, which is good.

Back on the bike next week for definite. Here's hoping the weather holds.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

That moment before it hits you – you've got to ride back home

One of the great things about cycling is the exercise it inevitably provides and the fact that there's no getting out of it. Alright, you might find you can jump on a train, even though we all know that's cheating, but, by and large, you ride out somewhere and as sure as eggs are eggs, you've got to cycle back again too.
Pints over, it's time to head back home.

That feeling, after a pint or two, can be pretty daunting and I'm guessing that Andy and Richard must have been feeling a little daunted by the prospect of cycling back from Sevenoaks in Kent to their ultimate base in Caterham, Surrey. Okay, it's not a problem, but when beer's involved and the weather is good, the temptation is to remain in the pub, soak up a few rays, have another couple of pints, get a cab to the nearest railway station and get home that way.

Either way, Andy and Richard had good weather and now as Saturday comes to a close – it's 2121 hours and already it's dark outside (amazing how the summer disappears so quickly once the summer solstice has passed) – thoughts turn to Sunday. Rain has been threatened, but if all is fine in the morning I'll be heading for Warlingham Green to meet Andy and head off for Tatsfield Churchyard.

Photography by Andy Smith.

Beer and a bike...

Beer and a bike. Pic by Andy Smith
...but sadly, I'm not there, just Andy and Richard. It's been over two years since we last ventured out on the bikes in search of a beer or two (the last time being April 2011 a month before my father passed away). While I was definitely up for it – the original plan was to head for the lakes and have a beer or two in the Bricklayers, like before – general fatigue took over. Ever since returning from the USA last Sunday morning, I've felt a bit sleepy. In fact, I nearly fell asleep en route to Redhill last week, but awoke just in time to gather my stuff together and get off the train.

So, it's Saturday and cycling didn't appeal. I was awake at 5am wondering whether I could seriously make it and decided that no, I couldn't. So I sent Andy a text and we decided we'd set off for the Tatsfield Churchyard tomorrow (I can handle that).

The above shot was taken by Andy in the garden of the White Hart pub in Sevenoaks. I'd love to be there as it's a nice day, just right for a beer.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Leaving Pittsburgh...

I woke up to rain and grey skies, but it seems to have stopped and I know from watching the weather forecast on TV last night that things will hot up next week. It's been good while I've been here: very hot and plenty of blue skies both in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Room 2318 of the Cleveland Marriott – too many pillows, too many beds.
Today I start the long journey home. First a taxi from here to Pittsburgh airport, then a flight to Chicago O'Hare and from there a flight to London, arriving at just gone 7am in the morning on Sunday. I'll be glad to get home.

On Friday night I found an Asian restaurant in the Oakland area of town where I'm staying. I was driven down there in the hotel shuttle bus and the woman driving told me she'd never been to London, but had been to Manchester and, for some reason, Kingsbridge in Devon, a place that holds a few bad memories for me.

Room 606, Quality Inn, Pittsburgh. No bulbs in those lamps, by the way.
The meal was good – a spicy Thai dish and a couple of cold beers – but I hate dining alone as you can't win either way: you're a sad man if you just sit there (as I did) and you're even sadder if you bring out a book and start reading. I was surrounded by couples and groups of friends as this was a Friday night, but once I'd finished my meal, feeling a little sad and lonely, I got the bill and walked home while it was still daylight, up the main street and then left past the Magee Women's Hospital and into the Quality Inn (which has been 'home' for the last couple days).

While I might have cast a few aspersions on the old Quality Inn, it's actually been very good. It takes me a day or two to acclimatise to some hotels – I had similar low views of the El Tropicana in San Antonio, but eventually warmed to it – and now I really like this place too. The shuttle driver was a pleasant, homely woman, born and bred in Pittsburgh; the service, generally, has been friendly and the room, while a little basic, was fine. I prefer a bit of plain-speaking decor: lamps, plugs, a desk and a bed, a TV set and a bathroom. What else do you want? Alright, bulbs in the bedside lamps would have been nice, but you can't have everything.

View from room 606 Quality Inn, Pittsburgh – note 'Cathedral of Learning',
the tall building, which is part of the University of Pittsburgh.
It's odd being in America again. I always feel, as I wander the streets, that I'm not really a human being, but some kind of bit player in the video game Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps I am. GTA's Liberty City could be any American city and that's possibly why, as I wandered around Cleveland and Pittsburgh they both seemed a little familiar to me; not that I spend my time playing GTA – I think I've tried it once or twice – but there you go. Having said that, as I wandered the streets, I occasionally felt as if I should have been trying car doors to see if they were open and, if not, smash them open with my elbow and then drive around the city, just like in GTA. I hasten to add that I never did any such thing – who said video games can be a bad influence?

I put off having to pack up and check out. I hate checking out of hotels, even if it is a little easier than it used to be, especially when my room has invariably been pre-paid. I just pay for my extras and that's only a couple of international phone calls. I had to check out by 11am and I left my bags with the concierge, not that The Quality Inn had a concierge, it's just a phrase that means they'll keep them in a store room until I return. The plan was to wander around, probably not very far, certainly not downtown as it's too far to go, so probably around the streets or down to Oakland's downtown, but I've been there before and there's little to see bar a few low-end stores and a handful of restaurants.

I decided to head to downtown Oakland where I sat in a Starbucks reading the New York Times and enjoying tea and lemon drizzle cake. Then I wandered into a few shops and eventually had lunch in Mad Mex, a Mexican restaurant along one of the back streets. Not sure if I like Mexican food. It's all very samey, but Mad Mex was pretty cool and I enjoyed a couple of vanilla stouts and a chicken burrito before heading back to the hotel to pack things up and head for the airport.

The flight home was a little touch and go in terms of making the connection to London. The Pittsburgh to Chicago flight was delayed by about 20 minutes, and when I reached O'Hare I had to leg it to gate K12 to catch the flight home. It wasn't as good as the BA flight coming out – inferior food – but otherwise it was a pretty cool flight. I had seat 21J, by a bulkhead and a window, meaning a little more leg room than normal. It was a smooth, seven-hour flight to London and I spent a lot of it reading Graham Greene's Stamboul Train. I managed to get about an hour or so of sleep and, when I arrived at Heathrow, I felt alright.

The Heathrow Express took me to Paddington where I took the Bakerloo line to Oxford Circus, changed on to the Victoria Line and then, at Victoria, took a train home. I was picked up at the railway station and we went to see mum for lunch; and then had a much-needed kip, followed by a shower and dinner and now, here I am finishing off a blogpost I started yesterday in Pittsburgh.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Leaving Cleveland and arriving in Pittsburgh...

The media circus in full swing outside the Cleveland County Courthouse.
With an afternoon to kill in Cleveland, I had lunch and then wandered around for a while, checking out caffs and coffee houses for my other blog – yes, I'm a sad, sad man who, very slowly, is turning into a bit of a computer geek. If you're interested in teashops and caffs, then you might like to check it out. The address is pretty self-explanatory, it's Rich drove me to the airport at just gone 4pm local time and around 6pm I flew out of Cleveland, bound for Pittsburgh, in a Bombardier twin-propped aircraft. It was tiny, but it was probably one of the most pleasant flights I've had to endure, although the word 'endure' ain't right – it was a pleasure. For a start, it didn't fly high. Then, because there was hardly any cloud, it was relatively smooth. Had their been thick cloud or rain, it could have been one helluva ride, so thank God for favourable weather.

It was a United flight and the air hostess was a little grating. She wasn't your usual 'trolley dolly' glamourpuss and I guessed her name was Martha and that she made a good apple pie. But that wasn't my problem; it was the way she talked to the passengers. Not unfriendly, just a little too homely and mildly condescending. I'm not sure if I could convey it using the written word, but she treated the us like a bunch of unruly kids who needed talking to in a specific kind of way to keep them quiet and well-behaved.
Real flying! It took around 40 minutes to reach Pittsburgh in this plane.
Propeller-powered planes are, basically, 'real flying' and I prefer it (as long as the weather's good). The total flight time was little over 30 minutes, which suited me fine and soon I was in a yellow cab en route to my hotel, a Quality Inn (not ideal and definitely not quality, although, it has to be said, what it lacked in quality it more than made up for in terms of the staff and service down on the front desk). They bent over backwards to be helpful, providing me with maps and suggestions on where to eat out, but with the time at just gone 9pm, I was thinking about an early night, watching the television and catching up on the Ariel Castro sentencing – not that there's much to catch up on.

Cleveland County Courthouse
While in Cleveland, I nipped over to the courthouse to watch 'the media circus' at work. There was Fox News and various other vans with satellite dishes on top of them and there were a few television journalists doing their 'piece to camera'. As for Castro, he's now serving something like 1,000 years in jail and one guy I spoke to earlier in the day said he wouldn't last long in the jail he was being sent to.

Mention must be made of my taxi driver from Pittsburgh airport to the hotel: he was friendly and helpful too, pointing out various landmarks once we arrived in the city.

As I say, the Quality Inn has nothing on the Marriott in terms of quality and I wish I'd been put in a better hotel. I knew that Quality Inn, as a brand, was very much at the budget end of the market, but after the Marriott which, don't get me wrong, is nowhere near as good as the Hyatt brand, I was kind of expecting more – my self-perceived status went from 'international businessman' to 'encyclopaedia salesman'  and now I'm wondering whether the latter still exists. Still, it's a bed for the night and if I don't like it here, how the hell can I talk about wanting to spend the night in The Joyce hote in Portland, Oregon (more of a hostel for drug addicts and down and outs, according to on-line reviews and, let's not forget the roaches and the fights in the corridors of an evening). Sounds kind of fun!

Coming into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
What's wrong with my room, Room 606? Well, there are no light bulbs in the bedside lamps for a start. I hate that sort of thing, but I think that's it; it's just a bit run-of-the-mill, a bit rough around the edges. There's a big, brown fridge with nothing in it, a microwave oven sitting on top of it, a flatscreen television, everything you might expect, but it's not polished and why should it be? It's cheap, but as I say, the staff are top notch and, ultimately, that's all that matters.

I discovered that none of my lights were working so I called the front desk and they told to check the plugs and to ensure they were switched on and then try the switch by the door; this I did and, sure enough, the lights worked (except for the bedside lamps, which, as I remarked earlier, needed bulbs).

It was getting dark outside when I considered taking a stroll down the road to the nearest restaurants. Being out alone after dark didn't really appeal as I wasn't 100% sure of the area I was in, but nevertheless I went out and when I reached the local downtown (I'm in the Oakland region of town) I found a neon oasis of coffee shops and mid-spend restaurants, none of which appealed. When you're on your own, you want a restaurant where you can merge into the walls and not be spotted as the loner with a book, but none of the restaurants here fitted the bill so I strolled back to the hotel, mindful of who was behind me. I never encountered any trouble and when I got back to the hotel I switched on the TV and jumped from channel-to-channel – all very boring so I switched off the lights and went to bed.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Cleveland – a blue collar, Bruce Springsteen kind of place

Travelling in a cab from downtown Cleveland out to an area called Beachwood and my taxi driver tells me that Cleveland is very much a blue collar town, similar to Pittsburgh. It's a good sort of place, he said, although it does have crime issues associated mainly with drugs.

View from Room 2318 of the Marriott Downtown in Cleveland, Ohio.
It seems like a nice enough sort of place, although we did discuss Aerial Castro, the guy who kidnapped and held captive three women. He gets sentenced today. The house in which he lived will be knocked down, but my cabbie told me, but it was only about five minutes' drive from the hotel I was staying in.

Sadly for Cleveland, it's what the place will now be remembered for, along the lines of, "You're going to Cleveland? Isn't that where that guy held those women captive?" Sad when you consider it's rock 'n' roll associations and, if it's right, the assertion that Cleveland was the birthplace of Superman. My cabbie, Rich, says that the rock 'n' roll link with Cleveland is linked to a Cleveland-based DJ who, apparently, coined the phrase 'rock 'n' roll'.

What was both alarming and mildly amusing was a situation that arose with a traffic cop. Rich thought it was clear to go because of a green light and because he thought the cop was beckoning him to start up, but no, he wasn't doing any such thing and instead came over and launched into a tirade of abuse and threatened Rich with a ticket for laughing at him. He wasn't laughing at all, he was merely taken aback by the cop's reaction. According to Rich, he's probably a regular cop on traffic duty. Most regular cops don't like doing traffic duty, hence his bad mood – perhaps. Perhaps he's just a nasty cop, who knows?

After my work was done, Rich picked me up from Beachwood and drove me back to the Marriott. I prefer dealing with taxi drivers I know and have established some kind of rapport with; Rich will drive me to the airport later today for my flight to Pittsburgh.

Outside the weather looks pretty good. Less cloud than yesterday. My room looks out over the First Energy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns and formerly known as the Cleveland Browns Stadium. In addition to being the home of the Cleveland Browns, the stadium holds other events, like school and college football and rock concerts. The Cleveland Browns are in the National Football League. The team's official colours are burnt orange, seal brown and white and they were founded in 1945 by businessman Arthur B 'Mickey' McBride.

Beyond the stadium is what looks like the sea, but is, in fact, a huge lake – so huge it has a horizon and waves. The lake in question is Lake Irie and Cleveland sits on its southern shore in Cuyahoga County. In 1969 the Cuyahoga River caught fire and Cleveland was once known as 'the mistake on the lake' as a result.

The sentencing of Ariel Castro is, in fact, the big news of the day here today. Castro held Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in captivity for a decade, fathered a child with one of them and played Russian roulette with them using a loaded gun, it transpires. Needless to say, he'll be going to jail for a long time.

More later...

In Cleveland, Ohio

Probably one of the best flights from London to Chicago (eight hours) was the BA flight out of Heathrow at 1150hrs yesterday (Wednesday). After we broke through the cloud it was plain-sailing all the way across and I had a decent seat, by the window, with plenty of leg room.

Eggs Benedict at Heathrow Airport – not brilliant.
During the flight I watched Toy Story (Toy Story 1) my favourite movie, but what was really worth watching was Karl Pilkington and Warwick Davis in An Idiot Abroad. What a fantastic programme.

The food was good too: a choice of seared fillet of British beef with barbecue sauce, spicy potato wedges and Mediterranean vegetables or roasted corn-fed chicken with summer truffle and wild mushroom sauce, herb mashed potatoes, baby fennel and carrots. For dessert there was vanilla strawberry checsecake, although I don't think that was on the menu as I recall a kind of chocolatey mousse thing, which was good. Tea followed and they were generous with the wine. All in all a perfect flight.

Daniel Day-Lewis at Chicago airport
I had to hang around Chicago airport for a few hours so I went to Romano's Macaroni Grill for Pollo Caprese, a glass of cabernet and half of a rather large cheese cake. Oh, and soup to start with bread. Very nice, but now I know why it's called the Windy City.

Flew out of Chicago for Cleveland at 1840hrs last night and, by the time I got to my hotel room, Room 2318, I was tired out. For me it was something like 0300hrs. Still, I've had around seven hours sleep give or take and I've just had an amazing breakfast, courtesy of the Marriott Downtown here in Cleveland. Tea (in a pot without a lid) but we'll let them off as the main course was excellent. Only the Americans can eat skin-on potatoes for breakfast. I enjoyed them with scrambled egg, some cheesy potatoes and a couple of sausages and this was all prefaced by a bunch of fresh fruit: melon, mandarins, that sort of stuff, not forgetting a large glass of orange (well, two large glasses of orange juice).

Feeling suitably refreshed, I organised a late check-out for 2pm and now I'm ready for work.

Cleveland, by the way is where Superman was invented (or, I guess, created). At least that was what it said at the decidedly deserted 'sorry for our dust' Cleveland airport last night. It's also home to the rock 'n' roll hall of fame museum, so I'm told, but I doubt I'll have the time as I've got to fly to Pittsburgh this evening.

Better call it a day there. Will report again later, probably from Pittsburgh.
Marriott Downtown Cleveland