Sunday, 30 March 2014

Forgetting the clocks went forward...

I went to bed early, disillusioned, as always, with the poor quality of British television. I have vague memories of listening to radio four and then I awoke, suddenly at 0530hrs, not by the alarm, but by the sound of my iphone vibrating. I'd received a message from Andy saying he was going to be late. What?  At 0530hrs in the morning? Oops! The clocks had gone forward – it was really 0630hrs.

I hastily wrote back admitting my failure to remember the beginning of British Summer Time and we agreed to meet at 0730hrs on the green, a loss of 30 minutes and that meant a ride to the Tatsfield Bus Stop, the long way was the only real option open to us.

Not getting up on time meant a slow ride to Tatsfield bus stop.
The weather this weekend has been fantastic. Bright blue skies, hot weather. Amazing. But yesterday I didn't ride out. I would have been on my own had I done so as Andy and Phil weren't going, but that's no excuse. Riding alone, even if it had been to the Bus Stop or Botley Hill and back or even to the Green, would have been enough, but I didn't go and, as a result, I was a bit grouchy for most of the day and the grouchiness was accentuated by having to mow the lawns – the first cut of the year, which is always a pain as the mower gets clogged up and keeps stopping and starting. I decided upon a strategy of mowing the back lawn about half a dozen times, starting on a high setting and gradually stepping it down to a short setting. It worked! And now all that remains is the front lawn.

So, this morning, I rushed out of the house, got the car out of the garage and set off for the green where Andy was waiting, looking a little bit Lycra monkey if the truth be known, although, on closer inspection, I let him off. He was wearing a high visibility top (with the word 'Prudential' on it (always a bad sign)) and his shorts, but was a far cry from the brightly coloured, all-in-one Lycra outfits we've seen on recent rides.

Why? That's what I want to know. Why does anybody get up in the morning and put it on? We saw a bloke today kitted out from head to toe in sponsored Lycra, but it goes without saying that he's not being sponsored, he just likes wearing the stuff. Last week there was the guy at Westerham with his brightly-coloured boots in addition to all the faux sponsorship. Mid-life crisis or what? It looks utterly ridiculous, of course, but why don't they see it? Perhaps, as they pass the hallway mirror in the morning, en route to the garage to retrieve their Conalgo or Bianchi, they stop, on seeing themselves, and are quietly chuffed by how tasty they think they look. But they don't look tasty, they don't look macho, they don't look anything – other than completely stupid. And still they jump on their bikes and ride down the street on the basis that, somehow, being on the bike in some way detracts from the way they look or, indeed, somehow defuses the ridiculous nature of their outfit BECAUSE they are on a bike and other people, out walking dogs or getting the Sunday papers from the local newsagent, would put two and two together and make four. "Ah! It's alright, Ethel, he might look a prat, but look, he's riding a racing bike so it doesn't matter, that's what they all wear. Precious grams and all that. Now it all makes sense!" Well, granted they would look even more foolish if they were out walking the dog while dressed in their Lycra nob-cheese clothing, but jumping on a bike doesn't make things any better.

We rode the long way to the bus stop and it was pleasant, even if Andy felt that Beddlestead Lane was never-ending (sometimes it seems longer than other times, he said). For me, oddly enough, it went by pretty quickly and soon we were sitting at the green drinking tea and munching cereal bars.

It was Phil's birthday yesterday and he went out for a curry. A text said he'd eaten twice his body weight in Indian food and would probably have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.

The weather was just as good today as it was yesterday. The blossoms are on the trees, there are daffodils everywhere and the summer is truly on the way.

Andy and I parted company at Warlingham Green, but we will be back there next weekend for, hopefully, a couple of rides to Westerham on Saturday and Sunday.

Today is Mother's Day in the UK and I'm later heading off to Sheffield Park for a mosey around after re-heating (and eating) some of yesterday's paella for lunch. Can't wait.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Spring is on the way...

Warlingham Green, 7am, Sunday 23 March 2014.
The clocks go forward next weekend and British Summer Time begins, although the weather forecast is for cold weather, some saying it'll be as low as - 3 degrees. Remember, we had snow in April in 2008.

We ride to Westerham, I get a puncture and some Lycra monkeys get our goat...

Another ride to Westerham, meaning 44 miles in total this weekend and good weather on both occasions, although there were mild rain showers as we made the return journey. Nothing major, no driving rain, just the odd squall.
My Scrap, upside down – the first puncture for a while.
Andy and I met at 7am and headed off on the usual route. When we reached Westerham, the tea was delayed by yours truly and a puncture that I must have picked up on the approach to the town. The offending thorn was about an inch long (see photo below), but the puncture was fixed relatively quickly – once I'd got the front wheel off. Andy says there's a problem with the bearings, something else that needs to be sorted out. So, that's the bottom bracket, new front brake shoes and now, the wheel bearings. But oddly, that knocking I was getting a few weeks back has gone and I'm wondering if it's anything to do with me losing weight (I've lost 21lbs just by doing the following:-

1. Reducing bread intake from 10 + slices per day to just two slices.
2. Cutting out/reducing virtually everything to do with the letter B. Bread, buns, biscuits and beer (yes, beer), not forgetting chocolate bars and sweets.
3. No eating between meals, just breakfast, lunch and dinner and if I do eat between meals it's either a raw carrot or, after lunch only, a small portion of almonds from M&S.

That's about it and I've lost 21lbs! And I haven't stopped dessert either, meaning I can eat, say, apple pie and crumble of an evening, should the fancy take me, and that's alright.

My intake of food consists, roughly, of the following:-

1. One bowl of porridge for breakfast and possibly an item of fruit, ie a banana or an apple.
2. One sandwich (two slices of bread) for lunch. Normally tuna and onion or cheese and tomato plus an apple and a raw carrot, which I eat mid-morning. I buy the almonds at lunch time and eat them around 2pm and that sees me through to dinner time.
3. Dinner can be anything: lentils and rice, salmon, potatoes and greens, whatever. The key is not to eat more than two slices of bread per day and NEVER eat between meals. I can drink alcohol, but nothing excessive and it must be during the 'dinner' period (except when travelling). At Prague airport last week, for instance, I had a pint of Pilsner Urquell with a cheese and ham toastie – fine, it was lunch time. But on the flight back I had nothing to eat or drink, waiting instead for dinner.

By following the above regime (which hasn't been too difficult) I've lost 21lbs.

So today, when Andy bought two rock cakes from the Tudor Rose Tearooms in Westerham,  while tempted, I resisted, making do with the cereal bar.

Lycra monkey idiots!
It's been a good weekend of cycling, but a bunch of Lycra monkeys left a nasty taste. Why? Because, outside the Tudor Rose, where the ridiculously dressed monkeys were sitting, there is a residential house adjoining the café. On the wall of the private address is a very clear notice, a 'polite notice' asking cyclists not to lean their bicycles against the wall. The monkeys had ignored this notice and leaned their bikes, one on top of the other, against the wall while they sat there discussing their annuities (that's all Lycra monkeys do: talk about 'matters financial' and you just know that they have a Phil Collins album somewhere in their collection.

So, the monkeys sat there, discussing the usual crap and one of them had the audacity to wear bright orange boots – he looked absolutely ridiculous. Then, two more monkeys arrived, not part of the original group, and they left their bikes obstructing the front door of the private house. Had anybody inside the house decided to come outside they would have had to move the bikes. The monkeys concerned were not concerned at all by this; instead they just sailed into the Tudor Rose, took a seat and ordered food and drink. We saw them laughing and joking from our position on the green.
The one-inch long thorn I found in my inner tube.

We were outside fixing my puncture or sipping tea and we just thought: 'what a bunch of nob cheeses!' In many ways it ruined the ride, but we re-mounted our bikes and headed out of town and up the long hill from Westerham to the Botley Hill Farmhouse pub and then powered our way down the 269 where we noticed there a distinct chill in the air.

I got home just before 1000hrs pleased with the fact that I'd riden 44 miles over the weekend. It was like old times and long may it continue.

Andy and I have vowed to ride out as early and as often as possible and we aim for 44-milers most weekends – weather permitting.

Main photo: Andy Smith.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

To Westerham...

Heavy wind and rain through the night left puddles everywhere, but the poor weather had cleared by the morning and now there are blue skies and plenty of sunshine.

We met at 0715hrs on Warlingham Green where the flowers were in bloom around the war memorial. There were blossoms on the trees too and, another sign of the changing season, Andy was wearing shorts. He'd riden out on the Blast today (not the racer) and said he noticed the difference: brakes that work properly and a much smoother ride.
My Kona Scrap at the foot of Water Lane, Westerham, this morning.
We headed off up the 269 and maintained a steady pace all the way to Westerham where the wet benches meant we had to stand to drink our tea and chat.

Phil must have been boiling his marmalade as there was no sign of him and Andy and I were wondering if we'd ever get to taste any.

We set off for home around 0845hrs and I got back at 0948hrs. The plan is to keep up the rides to Westerham, just like the old days with the added bonus of tea and a cereal bar as, in the old days, we didn't have tea, just a bun or some kind of bakery item from the Co-op where we used to stand around outside and then pedal home. It would be good to get back to 44-miler weekends so here's hoping we keep up the momentum.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

At Prague airport...

I checked out of the hotel just before noon, the taxi driver arrived and soon I was on my way to the airport on what turned out to be a beautiful day: there were blue skies and sunshine.
Minutes after take-off from Prague and heading for Heathrow...
There's so much to say. I'm now sitting in the Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant, which looks a lot better than it is; it's a pub offering a limited menu of microwaved panini breads – I chose ham and cheese – but the beer's good, so I'm not complaining, and there's the Czech version of MTV. As I write this, Avicci (that might not be spelt correctly) is belting out his latest hit. I've got time to kill before I fly off and there's still some power left in the laptop's battery so I thought I'd write a few more words about Prague.

What a great city! It is! Whenever I travel to Europe I realise how cultured it all is when compared to the increasingly 'Chavvy' United Kingdom. It always hits me when I leave the confines of a UK airport (Heathrow on this occasion) and start to mingle with the populus, which tends to be a lot of very shabby-dressed people with miserable-looking faces and I just know that it wouldn't take much to push them over the edge. Everybody's on a kind of knife-edge in the UK while over here in Prague (or wherever) it doesn't seem to be the case. Perhaps I'm seeing things through rose-tinted glasses, I don't know, but there's something not right about the UK at the moment and it's probably a lot to do with the Government and austerity and all the usual crap that pisses people off.

Even on a very peripheral level the UK seems to be lacking something. Take buskers, which I've mentioned before in a previous post. In the UK, buskers are normal playing an acoustic guitar. Here in Prague, I saw one busker playing a set of wine glasses filled with differing amounts of water and, wait for it, he was playing Strauss – beautifully – and he always attracted a huge crowd.

The driving standards here seem a lot better than those in the UK. My taxi driver took his time, not in an irritating 'get a move-on' sort of way, he simply drove properly.

I reached the airport with plenty of time to spare and that's why I am blogging in the airport. I checked in without any fuss. The only mildly worrying thing was the lack of security. Normally, after checking in it's time to go through the laborious procedure of taking the laptop out of it's case, putting it into a tray of its own and then being subjected to 'security'. Not here, though, and for a while I was a little concerned, until I noticed that 'security' takes place at the gate. Thank the Lord for that!

Travelling is odd and I can't help thinking of dad and what he used to say about 'travelling'. He thought it was pointless if it was being done purely for the sake of it, ie let's go travelling. Why? Travel if you need to go somewhere, but travelling for the sake of it is pointless, he would argue. It's a bit like when the TV news tells you only to travel 'if absolutely necessary' as if anybody would take a train to, say, Cockfosters – or anywhere – if they didn't need to.

The sticky word, of course, is 'holiday' as everybody needs a break. I'm guessing that dad would say if you're travelling for a reason – to take a break – then that was fine, but there are people, he would argue, who travel for the sake of it. "I'm taking a year off to go travelling." Where to? "Well, all over." But I think dad was wrong. If you're taking a year off to 'go travelling' you're not travelling around aimlessly, you're seeing the world, visiting places you haven't seen before and so on. Surely, that's fine too? In all seriousness, who WOULD travel for no reason? Although I must say that I really enjoy 'mooching' around, especially in foreign lands. Perhaps dad had something against 'moochers'.

The biggest problem for me is the 'universality' of everything. Everything is the same and by that I don't just mean the big brands I encounter everywhere. "Ooh look! They've got a Tesco!" No, it's more fundamental than that. All city centres do the same thing, they all look the same, they all have the same style of restaurant with canopies and those outdoor heaters and sail-like banners and we all get the picture when it comes to churches, cathedrals, castles, museums, towers, whatever it might be.

In the same way that all nations (or most nations) have central banks, they also have 'city centres' designed for the tourist. If there's a cathedral or a church or a museum it's the same as everywhere else and people stand there marvelling at whatever it might be: an ornate ceiling, whatever, but it's always the same. And then there's all the shops 'beyond passport control' at the airport – what's the point? All the tat you can buy anywhere: teeshirts with 'Prague' or 'London' or 'New York' or whatever written on the front; glasses, dolls, baseball caps, wherever I go it's always the same old thing – broadly speaking. In that sense you might as well not bother getting out of bed because, basically, you know what you're going to get: the bar of Toblerone, the bottle of whisky, the perfume, the ads in the back of the tourism magazine in your hotel room, bringing to your attention a forthcoming gig by the Blue Man Group.

Somewhere, somebody buys this stuff and it's displayed in their houses: plates, vases, snow domes, there's a wardrobe full of hooded sweat shirts with the name of a city on the front. Hell, every city has a Hard Rock Café – there's another one – and all the restaurants, by and large, look the same, offer the same sort of food you can get anywhere with the same poncy chefs pretending to be something they're not.

I think the problem here is standardisation. There's too much 'uniformity' and it doesn't matter where you go. Why does everything have to be the same? It's as if somewhere, somebody has decided on what they believe is a 'winning formula' and others have copied it, to their detriment. Oh for somebody, somewhere, to break the mould! Ultimately, branding is to be blame. Everybody feels they must have a logo, a brand identity, to convey 'brand reassurance'  to their customers and that creates uniformity based on the knowledge that people like the familiar and the expected. Branding drives everything: hotel brands ensure that every hotel room wherever you are in the world, looks the same. All cars look the same, we all have iPhones and iPads and people are the same too. Wherever I go people wear jeans and trainers and play with their mobile phones. In short, the world is homogenising and that, in my opinion, is a bad thing.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A wander through Prague to the Charles Bridge and beyond...

It's odd being a foreigner. Walking around a foreign city is strange, although, these days, you never feel that far from home thanks to the concept of 'globalisation'. You know when globalisation has overstayed its welcome when you find yourself, like I did, on the other side of the world, but standing next to a Claire's Accessories shop. I think I was in Calgary at the time, but since then, I've found myself in the Middle East staring at, say, a Dixon's or a Monsoon, and it's as if I'm a mere bus ride from home, let alone a few thousand miles.

One of many religious statues on Prague's Charles Bridge.
And you don't have to be that far away either. Any modern European city is the same (with a few exceptions). Now, however, I'm in Prague and I might as well be in Croydon or the Bluewater shopping complex. As I wander around the cobbled streets, what do I see? Zara, Debenhams, Mango, Apple, Tesco, and many more, some of which escape me as I write this. It wasn't so bad in Istanbul, but in places a little more developed, the big brand names all have a presence and I wish they weren't there; admittedly, Prague does have other, more quirky shops and if you get onto the other side of the river, preferably by crossing the Charles Bridge, you'll find a much quieter city with quirkier shops and quiet and cosy cafés and restaurants.

Once my business was over I did just that, as the light was beginning to fade. I headed off towards the river, although I really had no idea where I was going, I was simply remembering a street map I'd left in my hotel room. It wasn't a problem, however, as all I had to do was keep walking in a straight (ish) line and, lo and behold, I eventually reached the Charles Bridge. The bridge is strange as it is lined, at regular intervals with religious statues and peppered here and there with the odd beggar stroking his dog or holding out a paper cup, sponsored by another rather prevalent big brand name – Costa. Oh, and there's also Starbucks and Subway here too.

One thing I do find rather wearing is the shops full of tourist 'tat'. There's loads of it in the shape of tee shirts, glassware, Russian dolls, furry slippers, hats, you name it and it grates a little, but not as much as the big brand names.

On the other side of the Charles Bridge, Prague.
After walking for some considerable time I found a café and ordered a fresh ginger tea and a slice of honey cake. Alright, I know I should of held back on the cake, but generally I've been good so I treated myself, having found a very cosy little caff just on the other side of the Charles bridge, which was nice. I sat there for all of ten minutes and then headed back across the bridge and back to my hotel where I sit now penning this post. I'm likely to being going back in the direction of the Charles Bridge in a second or two as my colleague Nick and I need something to eat and tonight we thought we'd try out somewhere other than Al Forno, even if I did say I'd be going back there tonight for the final time.

It's ten to midnight (1150hrs) and I've just got back after what can only be described as a very pleasant evening. Nick and I met up as planned and we walked back towards the Charles Bridge and then wandered around and eventually walked over another bridge and back towards our hotel, having looked at (and turned down) spending our money in any of the restaurants we passed en route. In the end we decided to visit Ristorante Italiano Buschetto where we chewed the fat about this and that and had a very pleasant evening setting the world to rights and so on before a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, from where I write this post.

View from the Charles bridge...
I head back home tomorrow afternoon and while I love being here in Prague, I miss my family and look forward to being reunited tomorrow evening. It's work on Friday as normal and then the weekend. So here's to everything!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

An early night reading the newspaper – how staid I've become!

It's raining in Prague. Drizzly rain makes the cobbled streets outside my hotel shiny and the pathways a little slippery. Having worked all day, I walked back to my hotel in the drizzle, glad to get back to my room but conscious that I'd need to go and have dinner somewhere; the plan was to head back to my favourite Al Forno restaurant a few hundred yards from the hotel. But first, I thought I'd check out other restaurants nearby. In all honesty, I knew that I'd be heading for Al Forno, but I felt it was only fair to see what else was on offer. Not that I didn't know already. Back in 2004 (or thereabouts) while editing a fine dining magazine, I made the trip to Prague to review a few restaurants, but can I remember any of them? No. I've seen a few nice places on my route to the conference hotel, but I can't be bothered to walk back that way again, especially in the rain, and besides, I know Al Forno, I love the food, the ambience and the service so why go anywhere else?

 I eventually found myself seated at Al Forno. The menu arrived. I chose a vegetable soup (as always) and this time opted for a fish dish of flounder and a large king prawn on a bed of spinach with some cherry tomatoes and carrots. Very tasty. I ordered a glass of red wine and a small bottle of sparkling mineral water, the bread rolls arrived and I sat there reading the Independent on Sunday, a newspaper I'd picked up at Heathrow prior to the flight to Prague. I've virtually read it all.

I should be out on the streets of Prague, but I really can't be bothered
The restaurant was busier than usual, but just as good as it has been all week and I plan to go back there tomorrow, my last night here in Prague. I read a number of comment articles, one arguing that the end of China's boom need not trigger a bust; another headlined A good read is just that. Ask any child, which was all about how the newspaper will, in future, refuse to entertain gender-specific books. Then there was Master of reportage, whatever the cost, a story about Joe McGinniss, a writer who recently passed away, but prior to doing so he wrote about Richard Nixon, the Jeffery MacDonald case in the USA and the former Republican party vice presidential hopeful, Sarah Palin. I've reached the letters page now. It's amazing how one newspaper can last so long. After paying my bill I wandered back to the hotel in the rain and went straight to my room where I checked out the remaining articles in the Independent on Sunday. There's an article by Dom Joly entitled From VIP guest to abused idiot, it's a short hop, so I'm going to read that and then hit the sack. When I come to think about it (as I am now) that last headline could so easily be the title of my autobiography.

Quirky buskers
I tell you what I do like about Prague (there are lots of things) and that's the buskers. They're just a little bit more left field than what you find in the UK. In the UK it's always somebody playing a guitar, nothing quirky, just the same old thing. It could be argued that British buskers haven't really progressed from Ralph McTell's Streets of London. But in Prague it's a little bit more, I don't know, a little bit more unusual. Today (and yesterday) I felt compelled to stop and listen to a man playing some really complicated, mesmerising and magical stuff on, wait for it, a collect of different-sized wine glasses filled with varying amounts of water. An old trick, I know, but I've never seen it in the UK

Monday, 17 March 2014

Getting my bearings in this great city...

A much welcomed late start, but I was still up with the lark (until I realised it was to be a late start and even then I didn't go back to bed). Breakfast wasn't that good and that restaurant downstairs on the ground floor, not that inviting, but it's more suited to breakfast than it is dinner.

I spent the morning wandering around. First I needed to check whether or not it was possible to walk from my hotel to the venue for the conference and it was possible: only 20 minutes at most so I don't have to employ a cab, meaning I save money.

Old fashioned rickshaw on Vaclavske Namesti.
 The walk is straightforward: up to the end of Truhlarska, turn left and then right into Na Prikope and left into Vaclavske Namesti (all these street names have accents over certain letters, but I'm not sure how to reproduce them on my laptop). Na Prikope is full of many of the big name shop brands you can find almost everywhere these days, certainly in the UK (Zara, Mango, Converse, Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and many more). It's a shame in a way that globalisation has enabled these brand names to plaster themselves all over the world, but there you have it. Stroll along Vaclaveske Namestic for about 100 yards and then cross the road and take Stepanska where you'll find the Radisson Blu Alcron on the left, my base for the next day or two.

Once I knew I could walk it, I wandered back to my hotel to change and then I set out again, in search of a lunch venue near the Radisson, which I found in the shape of Ristorante Italiano Buschetto, a very pleasant place where I enjoyed a light meal of grilled fillet of salmon with grilled vegetables and a glass of wine.
This guy sits in front of Restaurant Italiano Buschetto on Vaclavske Namesti

After the conference I headed back to the hotel, met a colleague and we had dinner in the same restaurant I visited yesterday, Al Forno, just a few yards to the left of the hotel. Now I'm sitting here, at the lap top, at my desk in the hotel, wondering whether to walk off the meal for a bit or just hit the sack. It's 10:15pm so I think hitting the sack might be best.

Prague's a nice place. A lot less chaotic than Istanbul and certainly the food is better and it's easier to get around. In other words, it's more western and more people here speak English, which is good news. Not only that, Istanbul is almost four hours away while Prague is just 90 minutes. It has a lot to offer in so many respects – decent food being high on my list.

Couldn't find any 'Boris Bikes' anywhere so it looks as if a cycle is out of the question, but I did a lot of walking today so all is not lost. Early start so I'd better go.

I was wandering around this bit of Prague.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

In Prague...

I allowed an hour (by taxi) to get from South Croydon to Heathrow on a Sunday morning, but it took almost two hours due to slow traffic. It was the start of the travel hassles. When I reached Terminal 3 I went to the 'bag drop' area for my BA flight and found, to my dismay, that, despite booking my seat online on Saturday afternoon (at the cost of £10) I was given seat 7b (the middle seat in an aisle of three seats). I'd bought seat 15a (a window seat) but was told, by customer services, that I should have booked for both ways and that the seat I'd purchased was for the Prague to London leg. Fine, you might say, but this was far from clear and British Airways get a severe black mark for this.

However, the flight was good and it was only 90 minutes. Despite the pilot threatening turbulence over Paris, we didn't fly over Paris and the only 'choppy' skies were on our approach into a very windy and cloudy Prague.
Room 117, Grand Majestic Plaza Palace far, so good...

I jumped into a cab for the 30-minute journey into town and my hotel, the Grand Majestic Plaza. It's alright. The check-in was pretty straightforward and soon I was in my room. Downstairs, the receptionist had told me that there were a couple of good restaurants nearby. I'd been considering the hotel restaurant, but it didn't look too inviting: for a start it was empty, the seats looked a bit uncomfortable and, well, I just didn't fancy it so I went out and turned right out of the hotel and there, about 500 yards away, was the Italian restaurant, Al forno. I ordered soup to start, followed by chicken and accompanied by a glass of red wine and a bottle of sparkling water.

The restaurant was great: quick service, good quality food, pleasant wine and a great atmosphere. I'd happily visit this place for dinner most nights of this week.

More to report as the week progresses, but so far, so good. The room's fine too: there's a lead rather than a complicated password to access the internet, so it's just a case of plugging in the laptop and off I go.

I'm just sitting here watching CNN, but in all honesty I'm considering hitting the sack. The room's fine, but it's pretty unimpressive and there's an odd, 'walnut dash' design that grates a little bit. The bathroom's nice – although the washbasin suffers from the interior designer's inability to remember the golden rule: function before form; there is a plug, but it can't be sealed to prevent water simply flowing down the plughole. Ridiculous. Everything else about the bathroom is fine: there's a security safe for valuables and a minibar that's full of stuff – I hate it when I visit a hotel and find the minibar to be empty or locked. For me it's a sign that the hotel doesn't trust its guests. Not here, though! There's everything: spirits, wine, soft drinks, but no chocolate bars, not even a Toblerone or a tube of Munchies. Not that I'm bothered as I'm not planning on eating (or drinking) anything. Well, that's not strictly true. I will be eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, but nothing in between.

Talking of breakfast, it wasn't brilliant. Lots of cakes – and American tourists – which I avoided. The fresh fruit looked a little tired and then there was the usual selection of sausages, scrambled eggs and so on. I opted for cornflakes, a bowl of yoghurt and yes, the fresh fruit, plus a cup of tea and an apple. I'll scan the city for a decent caff on my way to the conference centre.

The rather uninspiring view from room 117.
In the news, two disturbing stories, the first being that of Malaysian Airlines' Flight MH370 which was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. It's disappeared off the face of the earth and nobody seems to know where it is, whether it's crashed or been hijacked – or both. It all smells a bit suspicious if you ask me, but there's no sign of wreckage, nothing at all and it's been over a week since the flight went missing. If it's not terrorism then it's got to be something to do with the plane being accidentally shot down by, say, the Chinese or the Americans and they're stalling for time while they think up an excuse. What amazes me is that none of the passengers used their mobile phones to make contact with the outside world.

Also in the news, Russia has done an 'America' – it's gone and 'invaded' a sovereign nation and guess what? The West ain't happy, despite the fact that they do this sort of thing all the time: think of Iraq, the lies over 'weapons of mass destruction', the mysterious and unexplained death of Dr. David Kelly...need I go on? But that aside, the West ain't happy and they're deeply hypocritcal in my book. Besides, the people in the Crimea seem to want to be part of Russia. They're all waving Russian flags and the Crimea prime minister has been standing proud, announcing to his people that they are going to be part of the Russian Federation, amidst cheers from the crowd. What, then, is the problem?

As I sit here watching CNN, there appears to be a lot of happy Russians, glad to be going back to the Motherland. The West says the referendum was illegal, but what exactly does that mean? Who knows what's going to happen next, but it seems as if the Russians have got their way – for the moment.

I'll be out exploring tomorrow – and looking for Boris Bikes – as I'll be walking to the conference venue so look out for further posts.

No cycling for Matt this week, but Andy got out on Saturday...

... and the reason behind my failure to get out of bed at the crack of dawn? A lack of sleep brought on by eating later than planned and drinking two or three glasses of wine. So I lazed about. But also, I've got a busy week ahead so I thought I'd take it easy. Andy's not going today, but he went yesterday and the annoying thing is the weather: it's been fantastic! Blue skies out there now (0926hrs on Sunday morning) and it was the same yesterday. As Andy might say, 'positively balmy', but the only balmy thing about it is I stewed in bed until around 0800hrs yesterday and didn't bother going out. Today I was up with the lark but figured there was too much to do this morning to warrant going out, although I probably could have squeezed in a short one to Warlingham Green and back. Still, there's next weekend when I plan to rise early, meet Andy at the Green at 0700hrs and head off for Westerham – on both Saturday and Sunday.

Andy headed out to the Tatsfield Bus Stop via Kenley and Warlingham Green.

Town and country – Andy's new racer and his Kona Blast mountain bike.

...but clearly, he chose to ride out on the racer, the Lycra Monkey!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Tatsfield in the fog and then Westerham in the sunshine...

Two early starts this weekend. We met at 7am on the Green on both Saturday and Sunday, heading out for the Tatsfield Bus Stop on a foggy Saturday morning and then to Westerham on a bright and sunny Sunday.

It's odd going up Beddlestead Lane in the fog; it's a long road and at least when it's clear you can work out when Clarks Lane is coming up. In the fog you rely upon the noise of cars.

Yours truly, Westerham, Sunday 9th March 2014.
Andy, Phil and I sat at the bus stop watching cars disappear into the fog and eventually mounted our bikes headed home. Andy had his racer again and turned left down The Ridge instead of riding to the Green (the off-road track halfway down the 269 is out of bounds for anything but a mountain bike) and Phil and I continued down the 269, the fog not really clearing until we approached the green.

Sunday was just Andy and I and we decided to head out for Westerham, somewhere we haven't been for a while, certainly not this year. I'd woken up at 0400hrs and hadn't really been back to sleep. At various stages I considered an 'abort' text, but once I'd gotten up and made myself a cup of tea I felt alright. 

A new routine for me is getting the car out of the garage. Fine during the week, but at weekends I can't get the bike out without taking the car out first. It's no big deal, but just another obstacle and I'd rather keep the car in the garage than leave it on the drive. Basically I'm turning into my dad, which is a good thing; he always put his car in the garage and now so do I.

So the car came out on the drive, followed by the bike and off I went towards the Green and then to Westerham. We decided to keep our heads down and not dawdle about and this proved worthwhile as we reached Churchill's statue (and General Wolfe's) at 0750hrs. The sun was shining and it was, quite simply, the first decent day of the year. There were blossoms on the trees, clear blue skies, daffodils, you name it, so we broke out the tea and the cereal bars and revelled in the greatness of the day.

Around 0820hrs we mounted the bikes and rode out of town, wondering when exactly we had last been in Westerham (I was guessing October time in 2013) and we both agreed that early starts are still the best as we get out early and we get back early and we get to ride for 22 miles. In the old days we used to get our heads down, ride to Westerham, buy a cream bun from the Co-op and then, after eating it, we'd jump back on the bikes and ride home. These days we're making mountains out of molehills. First, we've been leaving later, which means getting back later. Getting back later means we shorten the ride distance rather than leave the house earlier and as a result of this we only ride to what I'll now refer to as 'The Tatsfields' – in other words, the bus stop, the village or the churchyard. Yes, it's been getting boring. Alright, the slow way is pleasant but our mileage has been steadily going down because we haven't been meeting on the green at 7am.

So, we're going to try to get back to the good old Westerham days, the good old 44-mile weekends. Let's see how it goes.

We were back at Warlingham Green at 0902hrs and by 0920 I was padlocking the bike and locking the garage door. In total we rode just under 40 miles and hopefully next week, or soon, we'll be putting in the full 44 miles. Next week is going to be Saturday only due to commitments on all sides.

It was good to see Phil back on the rides; we haven't seen him for about a month.

Andy took this weekend's shot and the cropping is tremendous: just look at that cropping, it's perfect. Not a waste bin in sight, although I'm beginning to hate seeing photos of myself, this one included. That cropped hair cut looks a bit dodgy and as for those Tesco tracksuit bottoms, I've never liked them. Perhaps I'll keep on the other side of the lense until the hair grows out a bit and the tracksuit bottoms are in the wash.

The last time we were in Westerham was 8th September 2013. Click here for more.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Tatsfield Village and Bus Stop – two rides, approximately 32 miles

On Saturday morning I felt good: light, energetic, full of beans. I sailed up Church Way and along the Limpsfield Road, met Andy at Warlingham Green at 7am and then we powered our way to the Tatsfield Village where we sat, like last week, and discussed photography.

This shot was mine. Andy took the same shot but failed to crop the
bin so, on this rare occasion, my photo won through. Less is more.

Weatherwise, the salient feature was fog. Thick fog. It was the same on Sunday when we initially headed out for Tatsfield Churchyard, but with rain falling as we rode along the Limpsfield Road, we cut the ride short (not by much) and headed for the Tatsfield Bus Stop.

Sunday's fog was very thick, but it dissipated pretty quickly as we sat there drinking tea and discussing this and that.

On Sunday I wasn't as energetic as I was on Saturday and I put it down to eating a load of mince and pasta and a rather heavy, oily apple crumble (Sainsbury's own label). Thank God for not gettting a bottle of wine! I awoke with a headache at 4.28am, got up around 6am and considered an abort text. Andy said he would have welcomed it, but ultimately, we both felt good about getting out and taking a ride. We met on the Green at 7.30am.

Two rides at the weekend is good news. We did one early ride on Saturday (meeting at 7am) and then a later start on Sunday, but it was all good.

On Sunday morning there was evidence of rain throughout the night: large puddles everywhere; and this meant that I got the usual wet arse and vowed, as always, to buy myself some mudguards. I probably won't succumb (I never do, something about keeping the bike as it was when I bought it).

Andy had his new racing bike with him; he's breaking it in for a 100-miler in the summer, but prefers riding the old Kona. He'd had a few teething problems with the brakes, which have been sorted out by his local bike shop, but Andy's no Lycra monkey and I think next week he'll be back on the Kona Blast.