Sunday, 23 February 2014

Rainy, blustery weather returns (or did it ever go away?)

Up around 0515hrs and out of bed around 0529hrs. The plan was to meet at the Sline's Oak pond around 0700hrs, but things went a bit awry. Why? Silly hassles like my Tesco Tearaway track suit bottoms were not dry, meaning I had to rely upon the iphone torch to dig out a pair of old cords instead. I was delayed around 10 minutes, but then, on getting outside, I felt rain and sent Andy a text. He said let's see what it's like at 0730hrs, but I was already out and while the temptation to go back in for another cup of tea was strong, I carried on along the Ellenbridge Way as the spitting rain gently gave way to just a blustery greyness. The winds were strong along the Limpsfield Road, holding the old Kona back a little bit.
Andy's new racer (left) at the Tatsfield Village bus stop, Sunday 23rd Feb.
Photo taken by an amateur (yours truly) on an iphone.

I arrived at the Sline's Oak pond at 0722hrs – just in time to see Andy coming up the hill on his new racing bike, a 16-gear Carrera that he's breaking in; it looks good, but Andy's saying it's tougher on hills and he's got to get used to it. I must point out that Andy is trying his best not to be a Lycra Monkey. He didn't start talking about pension plans or his golf club membership and he didn't challenge me to a game of squash OR discuss the brilliance of Genesis and Phil Collins. He didn't even talk about the Sierra Cosworth.

The plan was Westerham but the weather was dictating otherwise: fast-moving grey cloud, the wind and the ever present risk of rain led us towards Tatsfield Village where there was cover, should we need it.
The same shot, taken by Andy on a proper camera (digital)

Fortunately it wasn't cold. In fact it was fairly warm, but there was rain, but only as we neared home. My bike's lack of mudguards led to a muddy, wet arse (as always) but generally speaking it was a good ride.

In the village, under the cover of the bus stop, we discussed photography as Andy was on a course during the week in Cobham. We talked about how, these days, photographers generally are losing out to enthusiastic (and no so enthusiastic) amateurs with digital cameras who think they're David Bailey. It's a serious problem for professional photographers, like my mate Rob Wilkinson (click here for his website) who finds that where editorial is concerned, publishers – for some time now – have not been willing to pay for photography. A lot of his work has been advertising and PR and I remember the days when he and I would travel to press events only to see journalists now doubling as 'photographers' with cheap, brushed aluminium digital cameras, taking photos without looking through the viewfinder: that was back in the early noughties. Since then it's got much worse. I've seen journalists and, wait for it, amateur bloggers (trying to replace bona fide journalists from respected publications) at press events with their iphones or more cumbersome ipads, taking photographs of food (surely the reserve of the professional).

The other problem, of course, is the web and the fact that high resolution images are not needed any more. So everything has been dumbed down, and quality is no longer a key requirement. These are tough times for photographers as there are so many people out there who think they're as good as a professional and are either prepared to work for nothing or a very low fee compared to what a professional will charge.

For more on this subject read this article by yours truly. Click here.

Anyway, enough already.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Walking from Besiktas to Kabatas...

One of many cobbled streets that make up the Grand Bazaar.
When I awoke this morning and looked out the window I thought the fog was still hanging heavy over Istanbul, but was pleasantly surprised, when I reached the breakfast room on the sixth floor, to discover that, by and large, it had lifted. Later I saw planes coming in to land at Istanbul airport so I knew that I wouldn't be stranded here for the weekend.

As has been my routine the last couple days, I took the tram from Beyazit to Kabatas and then a taxi to Besiktas and the Renaissance Hotel. Today it was a little smoother than normal and for no particular reason. I jumped on the tram, got off at Kabatas, jumped into a cab, showed him the address of the hotel and off we went; I arrived on time and enjoyed my last day at the conference, which finished at 1530hrs.
The Grand Bazaar – honestly, it's amazing...
The weather was perfect. It was like a spring day in the UK and I decided to walk from Besiktas to Kabatas and not draw money from a cashpoint. By walking I figured I'd be getting some exercise and saving the company a bit of money too. I was longing to get back to the magic carpet land of Beyazit, home of the Grand Bazaar. Up in the Besiktas area it's a bit, I don't know, a bit officey, a bit Croydon and it was odd how, when I set forth from the Renaissance Hotel on foot, the landscape grew more and more Indiana Jones as I walked towards Kabatas.
Another scene from Istanbul's Grand Bazaar...
It was a pleasant walk. The sun was shining and by the time I reached my destination I'd been walking for around 40 to 45 minutes – a good work-out and much needed as I had been sitting down most of the week.
Child mannequins – slightly spooky.
There's a first time for everything, of course, and today, for the first time, I saw a couple of cats shagging. In the UK this is not only rare, it's probably non-existent, but bearing in mind all the manky little street cats that populate Istanbul it's probably not so rare for inhabitants of this great city. I was tempted to take a photograph – the cats in question didn't seem too concerned about having an  audience – but it felt wrong so I passed on by and jumped on a tram bound for Beyazit.

Once off the tram I headed for the Grand Bazaar and was bowled over by its size and the fact that it was an Aladdin's Cave of all sorts of things: carpets, lamps, trinkets, lanterns, mirrors, boxes, everything and very colourful (see photos for proof).

The President Hotel's 'seasonal fruits' – seriously tasty, trust me...
Having walked from Besiktas to Kabatas and then having walked around the Grand Bazaar, I headed towards the harbourside with a view to eating a meal outside of the hotel. What a mistake! I hummed and hah'd to myself as to which restaurant to pick, but eventually found myself being cajoled by the manager of the Beyaz fish restaurant, who was standing outside trying to drum up custom.
The further away from Besiktas, the better the scenery. This was near Kabatas.
There were many problems. Some advice: never eat in a restaurant that has photographs of the food on the menu; never eat in a restaurant that has a television; and never eat in a restaurant with a crappy-looking menu. The Beyaz fish restaurant had it all, and yet it promised so much: right by the sea, a seafood-based menu, surely this was going to be something special, but no, it was crap and I felt cheated.
Down by the water's edge – the Bosphorous near Kabatas.
I ordered sole, but it wasn't succulent. It didn't fall off the bone and, well, it was just rubbish. Accompanying two sole fillets (which were shrivelled and lacked any real meat) was a quarter of a raw onion, some rubbishy McDonald's-style French Fries and a rocket salad. Toasted bread rolls were also offered, but I wasn't happy. I'd ordered a 'shrimp' salad of sorts, but it was completely tasteless and the only decent thing about the meal was the half bottle of wine. I sat there, no newspaper, nothing, just a blank expression on my face.
Back in Beyazit and close to the Grand Bazaar
It took a while of reasoning with myself, but my mind was made up. I was sitting there dreaming of how pleasant it was in the restaurant at The President hotel where I was staying and so I started thinking seriously about what I'd eaten and whether there was any possible excuse for having two evening meals. My reasoning was simple: what had I actually eaten? Well, that was easy: a handful of French fries, a couple of slivers of sole (it was on the bone so I spent miles too much time separating the flesh from the bone and not actually eating much in the way of fish. Alright, I'd had one bread roll and the prawns, but the 'shrimps' were tiny and tasteless so, in reality, all I'd eaten was a handful of chips and a half bottle of wine. I asked for the bill and left, climbing the hill to The President hotel and then taking the lift straight to the 7th floor where I took my seat, ordered chicken breast with rice and vegetables followed by my favourite dessert, none other than 'seasonal fruits'. Perhaps I shouldn't have ordered a glass of wine, but I needed to feel chilled out and the Beyaz fish restaurant had not achieved that for me.

I sat there gazing out over the twinkling lights of night-time Istanbul, watching the headlights of cars weaving their way here and there. Things had worked out fine, but only just and I did feel a tad guilty about 'pulling up a chair' and enjoying what amounted to another meal, although I was still starving hungry, thanks to that long walk earlier.

Tomorrow a late start and then departure – at 1330hrs – for the airport and a flight back to London Heathrow. I'm desperate to get home. It's fine being here and I'm glad I've paid a visit to this fantastic city, but there's no place like home and my work here is done. I'll nip out tomorrow morning to explore a bit more and, hopefully, find a decent 'caff' for my other blog about teashops and caffs (click here for a direct link).

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Heavy fog shrouds Istanbul...

... and there's a strong element of Groundhog Day too. Why? Because in 1987, flying home from Bombay (now Mumbai) my Turkish Airlines plane, which was due to land in Istanbul prior to flying on to London, was diverted to a military airport in Adana on Turkey's southern coast, due to heavy fog shrouding Istanbul.

Then, as now, the airport had been closed and should this fog continue, I'll be holed up here until it clears. Here's hoping that when I wake up tomorrow morning it will be a clear day.

One thing about Istanbul and, indeed, many foreign cities, apart, perhaps, from the USA, is their lack of concern for the safety of their people. Now, I'm saying this as a resident of the United Kingdom with its so-called 'nanny state' and its 'health and safety' culture, but it's only when you find yourself walking the streets of a city like Istanbul that you realise just how lucky you are...or not as the case may be. One of the attractions of Istanbul is its quirkyness, its chaos and the fact that it really is like one of those places you expect to find in an Indiana Jones movie or earlier films starring Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Ustinov and Peter Lorre – you know who is he, the guy in Casablanca who says to Bogart, "Why don't like me, Rick?"

Sydney Greenstreet
There's also a great smell of roasted chestnuts in the air, which I love. 

Yesterday I took a short walk in search of a shop selling a notepad. My first problem was trying to convey my need to the male receptionist of the Renaissance Istanbul Bosphorous Hotel, not to be confused with the Renaissance Hotel nearer to the airport (although that didn't stop my taxi driver yesterday costing me a cool 100 lira). But when I eventually got through to him, via sign language, I was cryptically directed to somewhere across the street and ended up walking considerably further than I needed to; not that it bothered me, but what I noticed, first and foremost, was the very dangerous conditions endured by Turkish pedestrians. For a start the quality of the driving in Istanbul leaves a lot to be desired; in short it's darn right dangerous as there appear to be very little in the way of rules. Motorcyclists think nothing of riding on the pavement, 'taksi' drivers duck and dive and drive at furious speed, nobody is averse to a bit of cutting up other drivers and it's fine to ride a motorcycle without a helmet.

"Why don't you like me, Rick? Actor Peter Lorre.
Worse still, pedestrians find themselves exposed to fast traffic on precarious (and narrow) pavements close to the looney drivers who simply do not care about anybody but themselves. Just a shortish walk  – I say 'shortish' but it was probably 30 minutes in total – and I quickly realised that it was a case of 'survival of the fittest' on the streets of Istanbul.

But it all got me thinking about the possibility of Turkey joining the EU and I soon realised that, on so many levels, it will probably never happen. When I think of all the EU directives designed to protect the individual, I can't really imagine the Turks ever conforming in any concerted way and becoming a 'nanny state'. Add that to the fact that Turkey is very much a kind of halfway house between Europe and the Middle East (and all the ramifications of its Islamic links) and I wonder whether EU membership will ever become a reality for Turkey. Having said that, Turkey doesn't strike me as a nation of unhappy people eager to escape and struggling with very, very low salaries; it's a nice place, an unusual place, where the weather is a million times better than in a lot of EU countries and where just going to work in the morning is an adventure of sorts. If Turkey did become a member of the EU, I don't think the British tabloid media would have to worry about hoardes of Turks queuing up to work in the UK. In fact, thinking about it, I wouldn't mind working in Turkey (while on the tram tonight I noticed a couple of English language schools near Kabatas – that would suit me fine!).

Peter Ustinov
It's worth mentioning Turkish 'taksi' drivers, none of whom appear to know much about the city in which they work. This morning I took two taksi cabs to my destination. I paid one 10 lira and then another 12 lira to a second one to get me to where I wanted to go; and this was after first taking a tram from Beyazit (where I'm staying) to Kabatas (pronounced 'Kabatash').

The traffic situation is very bad and it's not dissimilar to Bangkok or Bombay during rush hour. There's miles too much traffic and it takes an age to get anywhere – you can't even get nowhere fast. This morning I left before 0800hrs to reach my destination by 0900hrs. I was a good ten minutes late. The best part of the journey is the tram, but I was amazed by the way the Turks board the tram without letting passengers off first. Earlier this evening I had to travel one stop beyond Beyazit as I physically couldn't get off for people crowding into the carriage I was trying to vacate. In the UK there would be a voice saying: "Kindly let the passengers off the tram first before boarding." No such politeness here!

But it's all part of Istanbul's character – and I mean that. Staying in the Beyazit area is good too as it's a place of magic carpets and bazaars and street sellers offering cheap shoes and belts, there are cobbled streets which, incidentally, are hosed down by local shopkeepers – all very well, but it makes for a slippery surface and nobody's putting out any yellow plastic signs stating 'caution: wet floor' – and on street corners there are men congregating, drinking Turkish tea out of small hourglass-shaped, vase-like shot glasses. Is this, I wonder, real Turkish tea in the true sense of the word or just Lipton's served without milk and accompanied by two sugar cubes? I'll never know and besides, what IS 'real Turkish tea?'

For the past two nights now I've been having dinner in the hotel restaurant (I had lunch there too yesterday – chicken noodles and a small glass of Efes Dark, Turkish ale (very pleasant). The restaurant I've been using is on the 7th floor and on a normal day it offers great views of the city, but not today. The aforementioned fog blocked out virtually everything. It was a real 'pea souper' as they say and reminded me of Jack the Ripper's London.

There is a restaurant on the 6th floor, which doubles as the breakfast room, but it's always being used at night time for private functions and so is out of bounds for run-of-the-mill hotel guests like yours truly. Last night I had fillet of seabass on a bed of spinach with potatoes; not bad, but there were a few bones (which can't be helped) and I ordered a glass of wine as a wine list was not offered. Yesterday the 7th floor restaurant was virtually empty. Today there were more people and, for the first time, I was offered a wine list and chose a very good half bottle of a Turkish red to accompany my stuffed salmon followed by a chicken curry with rice (all very minimalist) and, of course, a selection of 'seasonal fruits' which today included kiwi fruit, banana, strawberry, tangerine and sliced apple; yesterday it was the same but minus the strawberries.

I love Istanbul although it does get frustrating sitting in a taksi during rush hour waiting for lights to turn green or shielding your face with your hands as your driver ducks and dives his way through horrendous traffic jams, but other than that there are so many good things going for this great city: the general street culture, the smell of roasting chestnuts, the exquisite-looking bakeries with their wonderful patisserie displays, the street sellers, the carpet salesmen, the list goes on.

Prior to flying back Friday I've got a couple hours to spare and might use them (and the tram) to reach other parts of the city. I've also seen what looks like a decent sort of 'caff' in Gulhane for my other blog, so I've got my work cut out. More to report later, but right now, with the time approaching 2330hrs, it's time to hit the sack in preparation for another busy day tomorrow.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Istanbul: a walk to the harbourside... and no sign of 'Boris' bikes (yet)

I awoke at 0810hrs Turkey time – two hours ahead of the UK – and jumped out of bed and into the bathroom for a quick shave and a shower and then 'up' to breakfast. My room is on the fifth floor, the breakfast room is on the sixth and I know why: the view. It was a beautiful sunny day, very clear, and, as I tucked into a healthy breakfast of muesli, walnuts, hazelnuts, a tangerine and stewed pear and peaches (for stewed read 'tinned') I took in the view, wishing that instead of being here to cover a conference I was here with my family on a holiday.
Looking down towards the harbour from The President Hotel.
I decided to take a walk and turned left out of the hotel and down towards the harbour along cobbled streets, wet with water, but not rain. Restaurateurs on both sides of the street were hosing down the cobbles and preparing for the day. There was an abundance of fresh fish being sold near the harbourside and most of the restaurants were serving fresh fish for understandable reasons. It's good to have such a wide variety of eateries within yards of the hotel.
Another view from the sixth floor of The President Hotel.
The President is located in an interesting part of Istanbul. It's a bit like an opening scene from an Indiana Jones movie: men carrying carpets, drinking Turkish tea on the roadside and, oddly, there's a lot of manky old cats just sitting around in front of darkened doorways, taking in the early morning sun. Yes, it's warm here and the sun is shining. I have a jumper and a lightweight bomber jacket on, but to be honest, I could ditch the lot as this is very much tee-shirt weather (or it will be later on).
Down by the harbourside, a shortish walk from The President Hotel.
After walking down to the harbourside, admiring the fresh fish and taking a few photos, I headed back up through the cobbled streets past the fish restaurants and then up a steep hill that brought me out on some kind of plateau where I discovered a tram – just like the one in Croydon. Earlier I'd discovered that the hotel where I need to be later this afternoon is about 30 minutes away by cab, but I've just worked out that a tram will take me most of the way there so I'll probably have a snacky lunch and then, having donned a tie and some sensible trousers,  head up the street towards the station and take it from there.
Fresh fish for sale near the harbourside.
I'd imagine in the summer it gets very hot here in Istanbul. I can tell by the appearance of the buildings and the whine of mopeds.

Cobbled streets lined with restaurants where fish is a speciality.

Monday, 17 February 2014

In Istanbul...

It was a bit rushed if I'm honest. By the time I reached Heathrow Terminal 5 in the taxi from home and cleared security – all of which was absolutely fine – I had about an hour and a bit to have something to eat. My last meal was two Shredded Wheat at around 7am this morning and it was now 3pm so I wandered in to Wagamama for a kind of Thai-inspired curry and rice (chicken and vegetables – nice and light) with a glass of Merlot, which was sorely needed. Sitting there after ordering, however, I began to worry about whether I'd be served in time. The last time I was here in October last year, waiting for a flight to Montreal, the service was terribly slow and when you've got a plane to catch you're constantly on tenterhooks, listening out for any gate announcements. Today, I felt that a repeat performance of last October would be the last straw, but I think they sensed my anxiety as my food arrived pretty promptly and it was very tasty – just what the doctor ordered considering the hectic morning I'd had and the rather long and tiresome cab journey from Sanderstead.
Room 533, The President Hotel, Istanbul. No time to take any more...
A window seat...
Right enough, there was little time to relax as I found myself paying up and striding towards the gate (A10) which wasn't a million miles away, thankfully. There was a short coach journey to the plane and then I found my seat (24F – a window seat and I had two vacant seats to my left so I could spread out a bit). But sadly I wasn't relaxed due to my stressful morning and after the plane had taken off and broken through the clouds I found myself pre-occupied with the morning's aggravation, which was clearly (and unfortunately) playing on my mind.

Thank God for John Simpson!
The flight was due to take off at 1620hrs and arrive in Istanbul at 2200hrs. It was bang on time, but a very boring flight, although, thanks to BBC foreign affairs editor, John Simpson, it was just about bearable. Simpson wasn't on board the flight, but he writes a column for High Life, the BA in-flight magazine (this one about how he was moving out of his residence in Paris) and my only slice of enjoyment was reading his column. I've read one before on another BA flight; not only is he a very good writer, he has that ability (reserved only for good writers) of drawing in the reader, making him (or her) a part of whatever experience he is describing. Oh for more of the magazine being written by Simpson. He's written books too and I really wished I had one as the rest of High Life is just like any other in-flight magazine: boring.

Once we'd cleared the UK and crossed the English Channel there were clear skies all the way to Istanbul, but it was night time and all I could see from my window was veiny trails of light, joined together to make cities and urban sprawl below me; occasionally I watched the map as the plane edged ever closer to Istanbul and soon there were only 39 minutes of the flight left. We started our descent soon after and I was amazed at how the plane swooped in across the bay (which I'm sure has a glamourous name but I need to find a map to look it up.

Clearing security in Istanbul was pretty efficient although I was unaware that I'd have to pay for a visa (around a tenner). Getting a visa slowed me down and by the time I reached Baggage Reclaim Conveyor 1 my bag was one of three left on the carousel waiting to be picked up.

A scuffle broke out at customs
As I waltzed towards customs a scuffle broke out and security guards were trying to restrain a man who was trying his best to break free of their grasp. Women were shouting and there was clearly some kind of altercation, but I breezed past the incident, a worthy distraction, which meant that my bags weren't checked. Not that there would have been a problem if they had been checked as I had nothing of any interest other than trousers, socks and pants and a digital camera.

I drew some money from a cashpoint and then ordered myself a private car transfer to my hotel, from where I write this post. The President Hotel is very pleasant, even if the hotel staff appear and sound a little abrupt. "Any questions?" I was asked twice, once by the receptionist and then again by the porter who took my bags to the room. I was in no mood for tipping, not that the porter didn't deserve one. Perhaps when I've had a decent night's sleep.

And now here I sit in my room, quite a pleasant room, but I feel homesick and want to be with my wife, who I called as soon as the plane landed and before I even got out on to the tarmac.

The weather here is warmer than the UK – it's about 13 degrees compared to about 8 degrees in the UK – and there are no clouds.

Time for bed...
I've got a couple hours to kill tomorrow morning so I'll take a walk around town as I think I'm pretty central here at The President and I need the exercise having sat in a taxi and then a plane and then another taxi. There's nothing worse than inactivity. Who knows? I might find a bicycle to hire. Right now it's 22 minutes past midnight and I'd better get some shut-eye.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Heavy weather, 'dieting' and losing my 'bus wanker' identity...

It's been tumultuous on the weather front and, for that reason worthy of a mention on NoVisibleLycra. Quite simply every adjective you care to mention: tumultuous, treacherous, even 'a bit blowy'. Although that last one might be considered an understatement too far.

For whatever reason the South West has been very badly hit, probably because the storms that have been ravaging the country have made their way across the Atlantic from the USA where, I've read in news reports, the weather has been even more savage.
Note blue skies – a far cry from hurricane conditions and severe flooding.
This shot taken on Approach Road, Tatsfield as, ironically, we cycled away
from the village, venue of Sunday's ride for Andy and I.

Somerset, Devon and Dorset have virtually been cut off from the rest of the country. The line from Paddington west goes only so far, but it certainly won't go further than Dawlish where the wind and rain has ripped up the line. I've been on that stretch of railway line many times in the past, as editor of a magazine called Pub Food. Yes, I spent six years (1995 to 2001) travelling the length and breadth of the country eating (ahem) pub food, but not just pies and apple crumble, top notch meals in pub restaurants run by top chefs, some well known, some not so well known. The job took me all over the place and I was often in and around Plymouth, meaning I had to take the train from Paddington. There's a stretch of the line that runs right next to the sea, only about twenty feet from it, and I clearly recall whistling through Dawlish and Teignmouth en route to Plymouth and beyond. I've even been to the end of the line – Penzance.

So it was odd seeing the line twisted and flooded and no use to anyone.

Stormy weather hits England hard
Houses not only in the above-mentioned counties but also in and around the River Thames have been severely flooded. There have been photographs of property submerged in up to 4ft of water, distressed homeowners turning away from the reporter's camera, upset about exactly what the future might hold and people getting around on kayaks. Alright, we have stuff like this every year, give or take, but not to this extreme. The army has been called in, even Princes William and Harry have been seen chucking sandbags around. In short it's a disaster and it goes without saying that everything has been disrupted: power, trains, planes, buses, you name it and there's been plenty of moaning too. People have to have somebody to blame and, in addition to the Government, the Environment Agency has been chief target, although, in all fairness, could they really have anticipated storms of this ferocity?

Last night, lying in bed, I listened to the roaring winds as they shook our house and I felt relieved that I was not flying anywhere the following morning, unlike my colleagues Anne and Nadine who were off to San Diego. I, on the other hand, had to take the train to Aylesbury to pick up a Toyota Corolla. As avid readers will know, I was branded a 'bus wanker' recently by a passing motorist. Since my old Kia Piccanto (easily the most annoying looking car I've ever owned) passed away (oil seal and gearbox gone to pot) we've been without a car and it hasn't really affected me as I get trains and planes everywhere (and buses) but other members of the family have been more inconvenienced so while I've often, over the past two months or so, said we could live quite happily without a car, my comments have been met with moans and groans, understandably.

Looking for a car
The last two months, therefore, have been characterised by looking for cars online and visiting a variety of car showrooms, listening to salesmen and women and test driving various cars. We soon realised that the car for us was a Toyota Corolla. Why? Because it's reliable and solid and known in car circles as the most reliable car (and the most popular in terms of sales) in the world. So we set our hearts on one and discovered that they varied in cost from around £2,500 right up to £5,500 – and all for models around 10 years old. The difference in price depended upon the mileage and we wanted one that had done about 45,000 miles and had just one or two owners. I test drove three of them but only one really fitted the bill (and it was in Aylesbury!). We bought it and last Saturday I travelled by train, in the wind and rain, to pick it up and drive it home, losing my 'bus wanker' status as I pulled out of the showroom and headed for the A41.

Because of the car-buying process I haven't been on the bike, but it's also been because of the weather. Last week, due to car-buying, no rides; this week there was no ride on Saturday, although, as I pointed out to Andy yesterday (Sunday 16th February) as we headed towards Tatsfield Village, minus Phil who had family commitments, we probably wouldn't have gone out as the weather was atrocious (wind and rain and dark skies, the usual stuff).

A diet of sorts...
In fact, as I pedalled up Church Way towards Sanderstead High Street – and then powered along the Limpsfield Road towards the bus stop at the top of Sline's Oak Road to meet Andy, I realised that a new, lighter me had been reborn. Ever since before Christmas when I decided that I was eating far too much bread for my own good – let's say 10 slices a day – I've been on a kind of diet. Nothing faddy, I've just stopped eating between meals, cut out chocolate and cakes and, of course, reduced my bread intake down to just two slices a day. Honestly, it was getting silly: I'd get up in the morning, make myself a bread and peanut butter sandwich around 7am, probably have another one to accompany my porridge or Weetabix and, oddly, wouldn't think twice (on some occasions) of throwing in a boiled egg and fingers. Then I'd make myself sandwiches for lunch (using four slices of bread). When I reached the office I would dip my hand into the Celebrations chocolates (should it be anybody's birthday) and then there were the cakes – not only mum's whenever I visited but also cakes brought into the office for birthdays. I was hovering around 14st in weight and was clearly carrying around a lot of extra weight. It slowed me down, occasionally made me short of breath, caused my heart to race at night in bed, prevented a decent night's sleep and so on and so forth.

Overnight I cut out the unnecessary food and the stuff that was probably not going to do me much good: I said goodbye to a sausage or bacon sandwich on the ride (nowt wrong with Phil's excellent creations, but I needed to get my act together. Breakfast was reduced to cereal and a cup of tea; lunch to  a sandwich (two slices only) and some fresh fruit; and then dinner, well, dinner was dinner, but my wife's cooking is light and tasty and very often, although not necessarily consciously, we found we simply weren't eating meat. Instead it was lentils, rice, courgettes (lovely with some curry powder!). In fact, dinner times I allowed myself dessert, figuring it was the big meal of the day, so freshly stewed apples, blackberries and blueberries with some custard – yes, I have Ambrosia Devon Cream – were the order of the day on a couple of occasions or, indeed, apple pie or crumble. The key was to eat at mealtimes and not in between and to reduce the bread intake.

The result is that I've lost just under 21lbs – or a stone and a half – and it shows. My cheeks no longer run into my neck, my trousers and shirts fit me, I sleep better and feel better generally. Sometimes there are pangs of hunger, but I've conditioned myself to ride the lightning and it works. If necessary I just tell myself that I don't need to eat, when I think I do, but the key is not to over-indulge. And where alcohol is concerned, now that I'm not in a job where alcohol is part of the job description, I find that I hardly drink. I hasten to add that I'm not saying no to beer or wine, but by and large, I simply don't drink anymore, bar a glass of wine with a meal on a business trip or, a glass of wine at home.

As I write this sentence, I have just finished two Shredded Wheat and a cup of tea. I won't be eating any more until around noon (it's now 0740hrs). Prior to engaging with this 'diet' I would definitely have eaten at least four slices of bread by now. In fact, the big noticeable difference is that bread is simply not being eaten. A virtual full loaf can be found in the bread bin at any time (in the old days the bin would be bare most days or just crusts would fester there. The key is to keep it going and I see no reason why not.

A pleasant ride to Tatsfield Village
Yesterday's weather for the ride to Tatsfield Village was very pleasant: not too cold, clearish skies, no wind, but it had rained through the night as there were big puddles in the road and Andy reported ice and flooding in the Woldingham area (he met me at the top of Sline's Oak as the Godstone Road has been closed to traffic while the authorities flood certain parts of it and adjoining roads (as well as the underpass by Purley's Tesco) to prevent contaminating local water supplies.

Me and the Kona Scrap, near Tatsfield Village yesterday
The water levels are set to rise, according to news reports, but the strong winds have gone. Outside now (0746hrs) it's grey but dry, but we'll see how the day progresses.

Last night was the BAFTA Awards 2014 and some good movies appear to be around at the moment: American Hustle and Captain Philips being two that I would like to see. Now there's something we rarely do anymore: go to the cinema.

Postscript on 'dieting'
While not eating between meals and not consuming vast quantities of bread, cake and chocolate is one way of not putting on weight, another is to be a 'bus wanker'. Buy yourself an Oyster card and use public transport. You'll find that you walk more than you did when you had a car and that means you'll lose weight. Just a thought!

Monday, 10 February 2014

Two years ago...

What's a bit of rain and wind? Remember this ride from two years ago? Click here.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Uneasy Rider by Mike Carter – another travel masterpiece

The mark of a good writer is that when you read their work they take you on a journey. It may be a fictional journey, it may be factual, but either way, it's a journey and one you don't want to end.
Uneasy Rider by Mike Carter – an excellent read

In fact, it's more than just being taken on a journey, it's a kind of virtual friendship, if that makes sense, between author and reader.

When I read One Man & His Bike last year, I loved every page of it because I felt I was on the ride with Mike as he pedalled anti-clockwise around the coast of England. In a way, Carter became a companion of mine, somebody with whom I had shared something special and when I approached the end of the book, I remember feeling a little apprehensive about the future; it was a bit like those awful moments when you're on holiday as a kid and the end of the vacation draws close. You don't want to face the inevitability, the pending doom, that goes hand-in-hand with packing up and going home.

So, after a wander down to my local Waterstone's and with a little bit of time to kill, I bumped into my old friend Mike Carter again – not literally, but by picking up his first travel book – Uneasy Rider – I rekindled the relationship and found myself embarking upon another journey with him, this time on a BMW RS1200.

It was an excellent book, as I expected and, in essence, it is all about a lone road trip by Mike throughout Northern, Eastern and Western Europe. It starts with a divorce – Mike and his wife called it a day – and then Mike, pondering the meaning of life, the universe and everything, treks off to Wales to pass his bike test – in true male mid-life crisis fashion – before heading off across the English Channel and beyond on what turns out to be a tremendous adventure of self discovery and everything else.

What always bugs me about travel books is the questions left unanswered that begin to niggle. The big one, of course, is always: how the hell can he afford to do it? Hasn't he got a job to do? Responsibilities? Well, in Uneasy Rider, Mike explains how and I was glad about this because, in One Man & His Bike, while I enjoyed the book immensely, there was part of me that felt conned, albeit minutely. Nobody, I remember thinking, simply cycles to work and thinks, en route, 'oh, sod it, I'll just go round the coast of England instead'. This is implied in the accompanying blurb to the book, making it seem as if Mike didn't inform his employer, didn't even bother doing anything when, in reality, he must have put in some kind of planning. I feel the same way when I watch Top Gear's travel-based challenges when 'the boys' try to make you think that cars rolling off cliff tops happened by accident when, I'd imagine, there were all sorts of bureaucratic hoops through which the programme's producers had to jump.

As a journalist, of course, Mike wrote a regular column on his Uneasy Rider trip, which must have kept him solvent, but he also released some equity on his flat in South West London and took on a tenant for while he was away travelling. Good, I thought, at least I now know that he's just like everybody else and can't simply afford to ride off into the sunset without due consideration to his responsibilities.

"I released a wedge of equity from my apartment so money shouldn't be an issue. Soon after I rented it out for six months so if I bottled it and came home early, I'd have nowhere to live, an incentive of sorts to keep going when the going got tough."

Being a pushbike rider, I felt I had something in common with Mike when I read One Man & His Bike, but not being a motorcyclist I didn't have that same affinity, although it didn't matter. This wasn't a book about motorcycling, it was a travel book that involved a motorcycle.

Mike got himself embroiled in the whole adventure after too many lagers at the Observer Christmas party and felt that he couldn't really back out after he'd sobered up and remembered exactly what had been said. "The last thing a man having a mid-life crisis wants to do is admit that he's been writing cheques with his drunken mouth that he has no means of cashing," writes Mike in an early chapter of the story.

And then, after organising everything, he sets off in true Mike Carter fashion: with a kind of idea where he might be heading, but no real set plans. It pays not to be too organised. I think if I was going to embark upon something like a mammoth bike ride around the world or a motorcycling trip to the back of beyond, I'd probably just get on the bike and go – alright, I'd sort out my finances first – and deal with 'stuff' en route rather than pore over maps and travel guides prior to departure.

Mike meets a lot of interesting people on his travels, some funny, some not so funny. He enjoys time with an Australian couple who, like Mike, are travelling huge distances on a motorcycle, but ultimately – and for the sake of the book – he opts to travel alone. I read somewhere that Paul Theroux believes that real travel is done alone without the influence of other people and I think he's right. When you're alone you go where the mood takes you and don't have to kowtow to anybody else. This, by and large, is what Mike does, but occasionally he hooks up with fellow motorcyclists.

Throughout the book, Mike tries his hand at self-analysis and discusses his failed marriage and other stuff – his relationship with his father – that are clearly bugging him. He hopes the adventure will offer up some answers and in the end it does and he returns home a changed man – for the better, I hasten to add.

Uneasy Rider is every ounce as good as One Man & His Bike and once again, I didn't want it to finish. I remember when reading One Man & His Bike how, sitting in a hotel in Irvine, California, I came to the conclusion that the absolute height of good living for me was that very moment, having lunch in a virtually empty hotel restaurant, a glass or two of Cabernet, good food and One Man & His Bike. I felt the same way about Uneasy Rider even if I did finish it on a train from Redhill to Purley.

I sincerely hope that Mike is going to embark upon another adventure as I look forward to joining him on the ride or the walk or the drive – bring it on.

For a review of One Man & His Bike by Mike Carter, click here.

Friday, 7 February 2014

In Milano...

I knew that there would be 'Boris Bikes' in Milano and sure enough, I spied some this morning just prior to boarding the Malpensa Express. Malpensa is Milano's 'Gatwick' airport, it's quite a distance out of central Milano, but a lot depends on what train you catch.
The view from Room 107 of the Melia Milano hotel. Not very inspiring.
Last night, having fallen victim to my travel company's mess-up, I had to fly into Malpensa rather than the more central Linate. I had been booked on the 1225pm flight, which would have got me into Milano around 3pm, giving me time to have a wander around in the daylight and possibly have some dinner with my colleague, Ken. But it was not to be. Why? Because while I thought I was booked on the 1225pm easyJet flight... I wasn't.

And then, to make matters worse, the girl on the counter said there were no more flights available that day, meaning I'd have to go back to work. I called my travel company and they told me there were still three seats on the 1500hrs flight to Malpensa. They smartly booked me on it and I had to spend the day in The Terminal, pretending to be Tom Hanks. This wasn't as bad as it might seem. I had an early lunch (at noon) in Frankie & Benny's where I ordered a chicken club sandwich and a couple of glasses of red wine and sat there for just over an hour reading Q magazine, something I haven't done for a long time.

Inside Room 107 of the Melia Milano – a wonderful hotel with an amazing restaurant.
Then, around 1pm, I wandered around the very boring South Terminal looking at things I couldn't afford and, if the truth be known, things I didn't particularly want either – like clothes from SuperDry. What is it about SuperDry? Over-priced clothes in my opinion and hey, who wants to 'follow the pack'. I've always been 'man at Millets' so brands like SuperDry leave me cold. Then there was the raffle for the super car. I'd never win it, so I resisted the advances of the salesgirl who thought I would be foolish enough to fall for her 'charms' – I smiled politely but didn't stop walking. In fact, I walked and walked and walked, wishing I'd dragged out my lunch for a little longer.

Eventually I made my way to the gate. While I'm now what you would call a 'frequent flyer', I hadn't flown since November, when I went to Dusseldorf from City Airport. I was a little apprehensive because of the weather. Outside it was dark and rainy. Visibility was virtually nil and it was only 1330 when the plane took off and headed for the clouds. I was expecting turbulence, but got none. Within ten minutes of flying through the gloom the plane emerged from the clouds and was bathed in afternoon sunshine all the way to Milan where there was no rain.

EZY 5294 back in Gatwick Airport having left behind a rainy, cloudy Milano.
But I was a long way from dinner. First a bus journey to Terminal One at Malpensa where I bought a ticket on the aforementioned Malpensa Express to Milan's Central Station, a rather impressive-looking building where I needed to get some cash for the taxi to the hotel. I thought the Melia Milano was in the centre of town – and it probably was – but the taxi took an age to get there: a good twenty minutes. When I arrived, Ken was waiting. He'd already eaten so I had to eat alone in the hotel restaurant. I hadn't eaten since that Frankie & Benny's lunch at noon UK time. It was now nearly 9pm Milano time (I'd gained an hour and hadn't eaten a thing). On the plane I'd bought one of those small bottles of wine, but hadn't opened it, and a cup of tea and a bottle of mineral water both of which I consumed with gusto as the wine at Gatwick had made me thirsty.

The hotel meal was one of the best I'd experienced in a long time: vegetable soup, risotto with tender lamb and a glass of red wine.

I was tired. Around 10pm I went to my room and watched Question Time – George Galloway and David Starkey are always good value for money – and then I hit the sack, waking around 4am, getting up just before 6am, having an early and very healthy breakfast in the hotel before heading out to a nearby caff – Puro Gusto – for a quick cappucccino before the meeting.

The rain that had been pelting England the day before was now pouring down on the streets of Milano and had been during the night. Had the weather been better I wouldn't have taken breakfast in the hotel. Why? Because it was EUR35.00! But it was raining so I had a load of healthy stuff – yoghurt, fresh fruit, muesli, nuts, a banana and a cup of tea.

And that was it. We left the meeting and headed for the Malpensa Express. Oddly, it only took 30 minutes. Last night it had taken me 52 minutes and stopped at many different stations en route.

Once at the terminal I checked in and immediately lost that miniature bottle of wine I'd purchased on the flight out from Gatwick. The suitcase went through the X-Ray machine and an eagle-eyed security guard spotted it. "Have a drink on me," I said with jocularity, but he didn't even smile. I'd have been okay had I checked the suitcase it, but because it was the right dimensions to be considered hand luggage, I kept it with me. On the flight out I'd done the same thing, losing, in the process, my shaving foam. This morning I had to lather up my hands with soap as I had no idea where the nearest pharmacy would be and, besides, it was drizzling rain. So, I'd lost a small bottle of wine and some shaving foam, but they were the only casualties.

The flight back was as fine as the flight out. This time I had a window seat (seat 3A) – on the way out it was seat 9E (the middle seat in a row of three). For the return trip I ordered another mini bottle of red wine and a cup of tea, having bought a cheese and ham roll from a small café at the gate.

The weather in and around the UK was lovely. Cotton wool clouds over the English Channel and as the plane approached the UK I could clearly see Beachy Head and Eastbourne Pier and then that huge white church in East Grinstead. The landscape below me looked very familiar, probably because it was familiar and not million miles from where Andy, Phil and I go cycling at weekends.

I'm told the good weather of today won't last and that the weekend promises to revert back to the crap of the last few days: blizzards and driving rain. Things have been very bad in the South West: extensive flooding, emergency conditions, waves hitting houses, you name it, and it seems as if today is the exception to the rule. In fact, I feel relieved that both flights didn't fall victim to the extreme weather – there wasn't any turbulence and that, in my book, is a result.

For more on a caff visited briefly while in Milano, click here.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Round at mum's...

Sunday 2nd February: Yes, alright, we went to mum's again, but why not? Andy, Phil, Jon and yours truly were there early for tea and cake and very pleasant it was too, although I'm conscious that early visits to mum must be the exception and not the rule for many reasons. One, mum's 85 this year and I don't want her to feel that we're all suddenly going to turn up expecting tea and cake at some ridiculous hour – not that mum minds us being there, she rather enjoys it. Second, the whole point of cycling: to get some exercise. Of late we've been leaving the house later and, as a result, having much shorter rides. Fine, it's not so much of a wrench as getting up at 0600hrs, but it's not in the original spirit of NoVisibleLycra – that of getting up early, heading off to Westerham, quick cup of tea and a cereal bar and then back home before 10am.

Jon, his Kona Fire Mountain and mum talking to Andy.
The plan is to start the early runs again next week and while it might take time to get re-accustomed to the early starts and the frosty landscape of February mornings, we've got to break out of the sloppy, late starts and the short runs. Alright, even if we do go to the Tatsfield Bus Stop (the slow way – arguably a better work-out than Westerham) it's best to go early rather than late as we all have commitments during the day.

So, we went to mum's. Phil and I met Andy at the top of Foxley Lane at 0815hrs and we headed off in the direction of Woodmansterne Green but then turned right instead of left, headed down through the smallholdings, past the Oaks Squash Club, into Carshalton Beeches, past the railway station and down the hill towards the lights at the Windsor Castle pub where we turned left, rode along the Carshalton Road, past the Cambridge Road BP Garage and M&S Simply Food and then right into Alma Road. We turned left into Shorts Road, under the railway bridge, left again at Westmead Corner and left again into Rossdale.
Everything stops for tea (and cake) at mum's, Sunday 2nd February 2014
Tea, cake and chit-chat followed, our bikes safe in the garage, and then we headed back exactly the way we came; and what a work-out it turned out to be: up Cambridge Road, right into Carshalton Beeches High Street, up Banstead Road South to Staplehurst Road, right at the mini roundabout towards the small holdings, left on to the Croydon Road, into Foxley Lane (where we bade farewell to Andy) and then crossing the A23 into the Pampisford Road and winding through the back streets towards the Purley Downs Road, hanging left into Norman Avenue and eventually surfacing on the Sanderstead Road (B269) before the punishing, but short, West Hill and home.

A good ride was had by all and the weather, incidentally was fine all day, a bit like it is now as I sit here on a Monday morning (I have today off). It's bright and there are blue skies and white clouds, although poor weather is promised in the shape of rain and heavy winds.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Dramatic skies...but we avoid a soaking

Moody skies. Taken from the Tatsfield Bus Stop, Saturday 1st February

A funny old day weatherwise. One minute it all looked fine, the next it was raining. When I left the house at 0730hrs it was fine, although it had been raining through the night. As I rode up Church Way, feeling surprisingly sprightly, and on to the Gruffy at the foot of Sanderstead High Street, evidence of the downpour was clear for all to see: puddles, wet roads, you name it. But as I rode towards Warlingham Green the weather was fine and remained so until we, that is Andy and I, reached the Tatsfield Bus Stop, when the skies turned grey and moody and soon the rain began to fall. At one stage it was even snowing! Seriously.

Oddly, while we could take shelter at the bus stop, the heavy rain during the night must have been horizontal – due to heavy winds – as the seat on which we normally sit was soaked through so we stood up to drink our tea – a first for NoVisibleLycra at Tatsfield (we've stood up to drink our tea on many occasions elsewhere – the car park beyond Botley Hill, Botley Hill itself, Westerham when the seats are wet and so on) but never at the Tatsfield bus stop.

The rain stopped and then started again and we passed the time drinking tea, munching cereal bars and chatting to a very friendly Lycra Monkey who stopped by for a breather en route to Westerham.

Westerham. Now there's a place we haven't visited for a while and, you may well ask why. Well, the answer is simple: later starts. And what do later starts make? Shorter rides. We've been meeting for the past few weeks at 8am on the Green and this has considerably cramped our style. Taking the long or the short route to the Tatsfield Bus Stop means getting home at roughly the same time as when we used to ride to Westerham and, if I'm honest, I'm missing the old place. Tatsfield Bus Stop can get a little tedious after a while, even if we have been enjoying our 'longer way round' route up Beddlestead Lane.

So next weekend we're going to get out early and ride to Westerham, making tomorrow the last of the late rides – and we're going to mum's – although next week I know I'm going to regret going back to early starts as later rides make everything less of an ordeal, less of a wrench from the warmth of my bed. We'll see how things go.

Looking east towards Westerham from the Tatsfield Bus Stop