Friday, 27 February 2015

In Brussels (again)

On Wednesday morning, just ahead of my journey to Brussels, I took a last walk around Langenhagen. I'd only been there a few hours, but there was something about it that I liked and, as I trundled my way towards the tram stop a few hundred yards from the hotel, pulling my suitcase behind me, I wished I'd had more time to wander around.

The tram journey to Hannover Hbf was straightforward, but the view out of the window was pretty boring: car showrooms, industrial estates, that sort of thing, but all neat and tidy. That's what I like about the Germans, everything is neat and tidy and efficient, the trains arrive and depart on time, it's all good.

At Hannover I bought a roll – smoked salmon and egg – and ate it on the train as it pulled out of the station. While I had reserved a seat, it was occupied and I couldn't be bothered to argue the toss with somebody who probably didn't speak English and besides, there were better seats available, seats with tables. My reserved seat was stuffed into the rear of the coach and didn't have a table. The thought of staring at the back of the seat in front wasn't very appealing.

The train went as far as Cologne where I had to pick up a second train to Brussels. I had a half-hour wait, during which time I ate a smallish, custard-filled pastry, and soon I was heading out of Germany. At Liege, there was a notable change in the scenery. The clean lines of German architecture was replaced by a considerably less tidy outlook. The buildings were older and resembled the Victorian houses of South London. I could have been in Streatham. Despite this, I do like Brussels, especially some of the quiet streets and small squares and cosy restaurants.

The view from room 704, Best Western Royal Centre
I was booked to spend the night in the Best Western Royal Centre, a hotel I hadn't been impressed with when I last stayed there about a year ago. I'm not keen on hotels that don't have restaurants and this was one of them, but the hotel redeemed itself by directing me towards a district of the city where there were a handful of restaurants and I settled for Napoli, an Italian pizza and pasta place that was absolutely superb and under 10 minutes' walk from the front desk.

Earlier, I noticed that there was a full minibar in my room (Room 704) so I enjoyed a glass of wine and a bag of crisps while watching Pointless. Unlike in Germany, the Royal Centre offered a couple of BBC channels, which meant I could catch up on the latest news 'back home' – they're hounding Sir Cliff Richard again, but no more news on Prince Andrew.

The reason behind this particular trip being the way it was – and by that I mean that I had to visit Germany and Belgium – was because one of my appointments had decided to postpone a meeting that had been originally scheduled for last week. I managed to re-arrange my Brussels visit, but the initial postponement meant that I had to travel by train to Belgium. I figured it would be easier than taking a taxi to Hannover Flughafen and flying there as that would have meant the usual hassle of arriving at the airport a couple of hours prior to take-off, going through the hassle of airport security and so on when the alternative was simply jumping on a train. I reckon that, pound for pound, the train was the easier and the cheaper option.

The Brussels Metro at Troon
Thursday morning and my interview wasn't until the afternoon so another late (ish) start. I say 'late' but I was still up with the lark and enjoying breakfast downstairs and then I tried to do some work, but the poor hotel wifi prevented this and the business centre in the lobby proved equally troublesome – the keyboard of the computer was different – the A was where the Q is normally located, the M was where I would normally find a K, the W was where the Z should be and so on. In the end I gave up, emailed my contact in Brussels and the meeting was scheduled for an hour earlier than originally planned.

Rather than spend a fortune on a cab, I checked out of the hotel and walked to the nearest Metro station where I took the train to a place called Troon and then, after a cup of tea in a drab restaurant called Pulp, a number 80 bus that took me across town to where my second and last meeting would take place.

The rather stark Pulp café
I grabbed a sandwich and a banana for lunch, conducted my business and then jumped on a bus towards the centre of town followed by the Metro to Brussels Midi where I picked up a Eurostar train to London. I got home around 8.30pm, enjoyed a chunk of fish pie and a pear and after watching the news went to bed.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

In Hannover, Germany...

I've never been one for early starts – and by early starts I don't mean the usual 0600hrs when I routinely get up on a Saturday and Sunday morning to meet Andy on the Green. No, I'm talking about getting up at, say, 0400hrs with a cab due at 0500hrs, a suitcase to pack and all the usual stuff: making a cup of tea, having a shower and so on.

Well, this year – and I appreciate that we're only in February – I've had two 'early starts' and both have involved catching an early flight. Avid readers might recall that last month I flew off to Marrakech; this required getting up around 0400hrs and then being picked up by a colleague at 0500hrs. And now, here I am moaning about my early start this morning and the scenario was very similar; in fact it was virtually the same – up at 0400hrs, a cab coming at 0500hrs and then an early flight, this time to Hannover.

Heathrow Terminal One – a dreary place to be...
Heathrow Terminal One, incidentally, is a very dreary place; there's some alterations going on and very little in the way of anything mildly inviting in the shape of catering outlets. There was a Giraffe restaurant that hadn't opened yet – someone had gone off with the key – a Harlequins 'pub' and a Pret a Manger, but that was it. Admittedly it was early. I'd cleared security pretty fast and was wandering the terminal looking for something to eat by around 0615hrs. The taxi ride from my place to Heathrow was pretty uneventful – a smooth ride that took exactly one hour with no traffic and no hassles.

And then I was airborne, sitting in seat 12a. A pleasant flight, all 90 minutes of it, during which time I consumed nothing but a cup tea having enjoyed my breakfast – granola, yoghurt and two slices of toast with German butter – back at Harlequin's on Terminal One (and very tasty it was too).

During the flight I skimmed the newspapers and attempted a couple of Sudoki puzzles, but failed dismally, in between looking out of the window at the clouds below. It was a little 'choppy' coming in to land at Hannover, but overall I had no complaints. I jumped aboard the train from the 'flughafen' (that's 'airport' in German) to Hannover Hbf, the central station, and from there jumped another train to somewhere called Braunschweig Hbf and then a shortish taxi ride to my appointment after enjoying a bowl of goulash soup and a slice of pizza from Leifert, a bakery and café – very nice even if it was a self-service cafeteria. Besides, I much prefer paying up front for my food and not having to sit there trying to attract the attention of an unattentive waiter or waitress.

After lunch I hauled my suitcase on wheels around the station before jumping into a cab to my aforementioned appointment after which another cab took me back to the railway station where I enjoyed a couple of cups of English Breakfast tea in a Starbucks on the platform before heading back to Hannover Hbf and then a smaller, local train to where I am now, Langenhagen, which is close to the airport, although I won't be flying back to the UK, I'll be taking the train from here to Brussels Midi and then from Brussels to London St Pancras International, reaching home around 2100hrs if I'm lucky.

It was dark when I reached Langenhagen and I relied upon my iphone's satnav to get me from the railway station to the hotel, the Best Western Nordic Hotel Ambiente, which was 10 minutes' walk, and from where I now write this blogpost. I'll review the hotel on Trip Advisor but it was one of the best Best Western hotels I've visited in a long time – it had a restaurant for a start (always a plus point) but that didn't stop me taking a stroll to investigate the local eateries. Not that I found anything. I was looking for an Italian restaurant that was supposedly on the same street as my hotel and should have been virtually next door, but I never found it. There was a Chinese, but I thought no, the last thing I want tomorrow is a dicky stomach (remember that seafood restaurant inAmsterdam?). Keep it simple, I thought, and eventually wandered in from the cold and opted for a meal in the hotel restaurant.

Room 210, Best Western Nordic Hotel Ambiente, Langenhagen
I ordered a Paulaner, a salmon starter followed by cod for mains and an ice cream dessert. Excellent food, excellent service and a good vibe. I sat and read an article in The Economist about Putin and his motives – very interesting – and then I retired to my room where I sit now writing this.

While I love this hotel, I'm looking forward to getting some shut-eye. Fortunately I don't have an early start tomorrow, although I need to be downstairs for breakfast; if it's anything like dinner, it'll be worth getting down there early.

View from room 704, Best Western Nordic Hotel Ambiente
At around 1230hrs tomorrow afternoon I take the train to Brussels via Cologne – plenty of time to catch up on my reading of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

I haven't seen any bike share scheme in either Langenhagen or Hannover and even if I had spotted some bikes, time will not be on my side in the morning.

The next day...
Well, perhaps time is a little on my side. I hit the breakfast room around 0830hrs – fresh fruit, cereal, yoghurt, a banana and a couple of small croissants, not forgetting tea. All very pleasant and followed by a walk around town.

The downtown area of Langenhagen is dominated by a shopping mall. Quite a nice shopping mall, very clean and there were plenty of interesting-looking cafés and, believe it or not, a Woolworth. Mind you, I think I've mentioned Woolworth before, possibly when I visited Hagen, also in Germany. It seems that the Germans have the secret to keeping shops like Woolworth open. The one here in Langenhagen is certainly alive and well and doing a roaring trade.

Yes, it's Woolworth, alive and well and living in Langenhagen, Germany
I need to get back to Hannover Hbf for a train to Cologne and, ultimately, Brussels, and it looks as if trams take around 17 minutes to get there, but there's still no time dawdle about. I've tried to engage in a bit of work this morning and might have to see if the hotel business centre can assist as my laptop seems to have problems whenever I'm abroad. It's working (otherwise, how would I be capable of typing these words?) but for some reason when I log on to my office email remotely it plays up). I know, this is boring so I'll stop right there.

Langenhagen's claims to fame...

As I wandered around I begin to wonder what, if anything, happened here. Well, quite a bit...

• Langenhagen is where Ulrike Meinhof, a German left wing militant (a terrorist basically) was arrested on the 18th June 1972. She was a co-founder of the Red Army Faction and is widely believed to have hanged herself in prison, although, had she not done so, she would have been handed down a life sentence plus 15 years. There are theories that she didn't hang herself. For more on Meinhoff, click here.

• Langenhagen was also where the first mass production of compact discs (CDs) took place.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Twats of the Antarctic...what were we thinking?

People sleepwalk through life; I know I do. Take Saturday morning, for instance. I woke up around 0600hrs, got out of bed, went downstairs, made myself a mug of tea, put an egg on the boil, made up some fingers, boiled some milk for a couple of Shredded Wheat and then sat down and watched BBC Breakfast while enjoying my very early breakfast. Outside it was dark. Not that I knew this for an absolute fact as the curtains were drawn and, as the clock edged its way towards my departure time (0700hrs) I'm sure it was getting brighter out there, but other than the darkness I saw through the kitchen window earlier, I wasn't sure what was happening outside. For all I knew it could be raining and that's a real downer for cycling. Nothing worse than getting wet through. But Andy hadn't sent any text messages warning me of the weather...or had he? Hold on a minute, what's all this? I'd picked up the iphone and spotted a couple of texts just as I was walking into the conservatory (now fully dressed and ready for the ride) and then I saw it: snow, lots of it, and it was hanging around too. The grass was getting progressively whiter as the iphone began to ring. Well, vibrate, as it was on 'silent'. It was Andy.

Twats of the Antarctic –my cycling outfit does me no favours whatsoever
"I can't believe this," I said. "It's snowing. I think we'll have to abort."
"Really? Are you sure? I say we go for it, head for The Ridge..."
"Well, we could, I guess. Let's aim for reaching the green and take things from there."

So off I went without any waterproof trousers or top, just me in my Tesco ASBO specials and the M&S hooded top, my rust-coloured old jacket, a baggy old jumper and, of course, the 'New York' beany hat – my Peter Storm flappy hat, incidentally, was absent-mindedly left on a train earlier in the week.

The bikes on their own. Note the snow... everywhere! Pic by Andy Smith
Outside, while I noted that the weather was oddly rather mild – certainly not balaclava weather, although I hadn't left that on a train – I also noted that the snow was relentless: laying on front lawns, covering parked cars and dissolving on my lips like chilled Disprin. But I ploughed on: along Ellenbridge, up Elmfield, up Church Way, along the Limpsfield Road to the green where I found Andy who, like me, was covered in snow. What were we thinking? The last time we experienced weather like this was April 2008 – something I always bring up whenever the subject of snow raises its head. "Well, we've had snow in April before, you know," I will remark smugly, and the response is often, "Really? That's late!"

The off-road bit I despise so much!
We stood there on the green wondering what to do when what we should have done (apart from turn around and go home) was head for somewhere offering a bit of cover, ie the Tatsfield bloody bus stop or the village, but for some reason we opted for a couple of exposed benches in a car park far, far away, on The Ridge, a stone's throw from Al Fayed's gaff. This meant riding down Slines Oak Road and along a lengthy stretch of off-road track that I absolutely abhor. It's part of our route to Godstone, a place we rarely visit because of the punishing hill on the return ride, but off we went nonetheless, the snow raining down upon us. It wasn't long before I was wet through and dreaming of having mudguards, but no, I didn't have any mudguards and I wasn't wearing any protective clothing. And while I wasn't cold as such, I was getting increasingly uncomfortable and there was to be no salvation, no nice, warm bus stop to shelter from the snow, and even if there had been a covered bus stop, sitting down would have been unpleasant. As unpleasant as, say, having a bath and then getting dressed or, worse still, getting back into bed, without drying myself. As unpleasant as being in a crowded train with a few sausages under the grill or eating an unexpectedly soft pickled onion.

View to the right of the bike along the off-road stretch
When we reached our destination there was no cover. There were no leaves on the trees and all we could do was stand under the bare branches of some shrub or other trying to pretend everything was alright, the sun was shining and we had a nice cup of tea and some BelVita biscuits to eat. We DID have a nice cup of tea and we DID have the biscuits, but it wasn't in the slightest bit pleasant and, after taking the shots that accompany this post, we mounted our trusty steeds and headed along a short stretch of off-road track (not the one pictured) before rejoining The Ridge and heading for Botley Hill and the return ride along the exposed 269 towards Warlingham Green. By this stage, of course, as any seasoned cyclist will tell you, we'd resigned ourselves to being wet and uncomfortable. I think I was more uncomfortable than Andy as his bike has a sensible pair of mudguards and, give or take, Andy was 'nice and comfy' – he certainly didn't have a cold, wet behind like I did.
View to the left of the bike along the off-road stretch I dislike
The roads were largely clear of snow and, as we headed home everything was getting wetter and wetter. There was still snow on the grass verges and in front gardens along the route, but it was thawing and within 30-40 minutes people would look puzzled if I suggested that there was thick snow everywhere only half an hour ago.

Andy and I parted at the green, vowing to meet up again on Sunday, weather permitting. I rode home and saw a sensibly dressed, clean, tidy and (more to the point) dry Phil about to drive off to Southampton with his daughter. I felt decidedly under-dressed in my wet-through Tesco ASBO specials, my face speckled with mud and, let's make no bones about it, I looked a complete mess.

A discarded Coke can heightened our sense of desolation
"Respect is due," I said, explaining how it really wasn't that cold, but who was I kidding? After bidding farewell to Phil I waddled off, locked the bike in the garage and then peeled off my wet clothes, chucked them all in the washing machine and made myself a cup of tea. Now don't get me wrong. I didn't just strip off and stand in the kitchen with no clothes on, making myself tea; I dried off first, put on some clean and dry clothes and then headed for the kitchen.

Bare trees meant little in the way of shelter
Later in the day I noticed that I was developing a sore throat and all because I hadn't really looked after myself. I was Twat of the Antarctic and if I caught a chill it was nobody's fault but mine.

Shortly after leaving the house the snow began to fall...
Sunday – to the Tatsfield Bus Stop
On Sunday we rode to the Tatsfield Bus Stop – where we should have headed yesterday. Mum had given me a couple of slices of Christmas cake so we enjoyed tea, cake and BelVita biscuits. Andy had a puncture close to where he lives and was sorely tempted to abort, but we agreed to meet at the Tatsfield  bus stop as I didn't fancy standing around in the cold. I pedalled off from the green alone, but while the snow had gone, it was much colder than yesterday. I had the beany hat and balaclava combo on my head today, a scarf, the aforementioned rusty old jacket, a pair of trousers covered in white paint and an uncomfortable pair of gloves that were still wet from yesterday's lunacy.

On the way back we saw what looked like a nasty car accident. An ambulance and police car were in attendance and there was a small car – something like a Renault Clio or a Corsa, or even a Toyota Aygo – upturned in a field and some way from the road. How? That was the question we kept asking ourselves as we cycled past. It must have happened after 0800hrs, although Andy reached the bus stop from along The Ridge, not the 269, so he wouldn't have seen anything. We were guessing but the car must have been travelling very fast, lost control, mounted the verge, smashed right through the Hawthorn bushes and turned itself over. There were other cars parked up on the verge so I'm guessing they were involved or purely witnesses.

How seriously hurt those involved in the accident might have been we didn't dare to guess, but when we reached the junction at Beech Road the ambulance passed us slowly and without its sirens blazing – it could have meant that all was fine and that there was no need to rush or that there was no point in hurrying back as those inside were dead.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Slow way... to, yes, you've guessed it, the...

... Tatsfield Bus Stop! And why not? I'm still climbing through the turbulent clouds of slothfulness left over after a long Christmas break, it's been a bit chilly on the weather front and I need a bit of warmth, I need the clocks to go forward before I fully embrace the ecstasy that is cycling in the Surrey and Northern Kent countryside.

We were going to ride to Westerham, but in all honesty, while I went to bed at 2100hrs last night (Saturday) and had a fairly good night's sleep, waking refreshed and finding myself singing (if that's what it was) while downstairs making myself tea, a boiled egg and two Weetabix at the crack of dawn, I was thinking about the ride, getting back early and all the usual preoccupations. When Andy and I met on the green at 0730hrs we decided to head for the Tatsfield village. I was armed with fruit cake, Christmas cake to be precise, made by mum, and I suggested that if we have cake then we'll need somewhere dry and sheltered with a seat in order to stuff our faces in a civilised manner. Who wants to stand up when there's cake to eat?

The weather was damp and foggy. It was much foggier than Saturday – when we rode to the Tatsfield Churchyard – meaning that benches exposed to the air would be damp, like they were yesterday,  and we'd have to stand up. There's no cover at Westerham and there's no cover at the Tatsfield Churchyard meaning that it was down to the village or the bus stop. We opted for the latter.

Customised NoVisibleLycra frame transfers – you know you want one!
On the way we didn't see any Lycra monkeys. Andy believes that most of them shun the cold and foggy weather and prefer to stay indoors on their 'turbo trainers'. But we're not wimpy like them, we're out there in all weathers, taking the rough with the smooth.

Beddlestead Lane in the fog – it was thicker than it looks
Going the slow way, around the lanes towards Hesiers Hill and then up Beddlestead Lane, is a hard work-out for early on a Sunday morning. In the fog it was difficult to see where we were, but sooner or later we emerged on to Clarks Lane and virtually free-wheeled to the bus stop where the tea, BelVita biscuits and cake were brought out and we sat there discussing how the internet, by and large, was a complete and utter waste of time.

Take Linkedin, for instance; I've had an account since 2009 and has it done me any good? No. It's just full of pretentious posers pretending to be dynamic and 'on the ball' by posting links to articles and stuff they want me to think they're very interested in. It's so boring! And then there's that bit where it tells you who has been looking at your profile; and while I might know some of the people – and find myself wondering 'why are they looking at my profile?' – most of those interested seem to be recruitment agents and they never, ever, get in touch. Not that I particularly want them to.

Matt and Andy at the Tatsfield Bus Stop...the fog cleared
And what about this blog? What about it you may well ask? While I tend to get around 25 to 50 hits a day, sometimes more than double that depending on whether or not I tweet a post on my Twitter account, it's really a waste of time outside of the fact that it's a kind of diary of our cycling over the past God knows how many years (I think it's six years this coming August, not sure, I'll have to check). I've never had the call from some guru or other (not that I want one to call me) saying wow! your blog's amazing, you must accept this £150,000 salary and come and join us! Wow! You're brilliant! No, nothing of the sort, and I have other blogs and they're equally as nowhere as this one. In short, being online, having an 'online presence', whatever you want to call it, is a complete and utter waste of time.

Fortunately, because it's online and not in print, it's not a case of 'woodman, spare that tree' and to be fair – and I don't know why, but probably because there's a stronger element of an 'audience' online when compared to the paper equivalent – I have kept the blog going, updating it at least weekly and sometimes daily. I've tried keeping paper-based diaries before and I tend not to get very far into the year before I lose interest, so in that sense alone, the blog has been worthwhile. With this blog we have a record of our cycling 'adventures' that we can refer to, glance at, whatever, at our leisure, even on our smartphones. Yes, I'm that sad! And I'm sure that Andy is too. Jon and Phil are a little more divorced for the whole thing.

But then why should one expect anything from anything? Why should there be any kind of end result to anything we do or say? I've often wondered whether my blog (or blogs) have ever directly affected anything in my life and I can say, almost without doubt, that no, they haven't had the slightest affect on anything. I wonder how many people, having arranged a meeting with me, have then Googled my name and found this blog? Actually, I'm sure people have done that – we all Google people, after all – but has it in any way altered their actions. "Quick, give that guy a call, I don't want to see him next Tuesday, he's taking the piss out of Lycra monkeys and (ahem) I'm a Lycra monkey!" Or, "Hold on a minute, if he's the bloke in the Tesco ASBO specials and the flappy hat and balaclava combo then he's not getting an interview with me!" Hmmm...come to think of it, some people have cancelled meetings. Perhaps...but no, I really don't think so. This blog is pretty harmless one way or the other. It's just a diary of my weekend cycling with Andy and Phil and my brother Jon. Alright, there's a few 'humorous' articles – well I think they're funny – a few satirical sketches, a few limp and misguided political commentaries, nothing that's going to set the world alight, but I can't believe that any of it would in any way negatively alter the course of my life and career. Why should it? And more importantly, why should I expect it to? And that goes for any other bloggers out there in cyberspace. We all do it because we can, perhaps there's a little vanity in there somewhere, I don't know, but ultimately that's about it. It's a distraction, a hobby, something to do, a way of giving stuff structure.

Red leather Converse All-Stars...
So what is the internet good for? Well, booking cheap flights, selling stuff on ebay, looking at the BBC news website instead of buying a newspaper, emailing people, social media (don't get me started on social media, although I suppose a blog is 'social media'). I don't have a Facebook account, but I do have Twitter and it's also a total waste of time. People on Twitter think their tweets are going to make them famous or rich. The reality is the complete opposite, I'm afraid. Alright, of late I'm a little guilty of going on Twitter and commenting on tweets left by pals and associates and reading Russell Brand's Trew News occasionally, but ultimately it's a waste of time and is getting me (and everybody else) nowhere fast.

Where it does come in handy is at work. Being a journalist, life is so much easier these days, thanks to the worldwide web. Finding addresses, reading news from around the world and not just from the UK, setting up Google alerts on certain subjects, having relevant articles to what I'm writing/researching at my's all far easier than relying upon a telephone directory and the Yellow Pages to reach the people I need to talk to; and then there's 'digitalisation' and the fact that photographs can be emailed and I no longer have to rely upon the post (or 'snail mail' as it's called). Remember those stiff, cardboard-backed envelopes required to post off photographs?

Yes, in a work sense, the internet has made things a lot easier on all levels, but unless I come up with the next Google or the next Ebay then I can safely assume that while the internet makes my working life much easier, it's not going to bring me fame and fortune and, you know what? I don't want fame or fortune, just good health and happiness.

And on that bombshell, we headed for home, the fast way. The thick fog, which had engulfed the entire area around the Tatsfield Bus Stop and beyond had lifted. Only minutes earlier we watched bikes and cars disappear into the thick 'pea souper', but now, disillusioned as we were about anything connected with the word 'online' we pedalled off towards the Botley Hill Farmhouse and the road home. We parted at the Green and vowed to be back there next weekend for another exciting episode of NoVisibleLycra.

Until then...

Sunday, 8 February 2015

A cold and frosty morning as we head for the Tatsfield Bus Stop...

The start of the year is, as I've probably said before, slow. Slow in the sense that I'm always feeling a little lethargic and still trying to kick myself into gear after the Christmas break. Cold weather doesn't help as it makes me want to lie in bed rather than jump out of it and ride the bike.
At the Tatsfield Bus Stop in the frosty weather...

Last week, because of the trip to Morocco, I didn't ride out at all, although this was partly due to the cold weather. While Saturday's no-show was to do with getting home at 0100hrs from North Africa, Sunday morning's laziness was purely down to the cold weather outside. The cars and the ground were frosted over and I had to reach for the phone and type out the word 'abort'.

It's now Sunday morning and it's 0913hrs as I write this. I didn't go out, but that was because I awoke at 0300hrs and had a devil of a job getting back to sleep. I started to think about getting up and going cycling and I knew that, if I did fall asleep, I'd be in a right state of weariness when the alarm rang out at 0555hrs. I've set the clock to this time because I really enjoy Tweet of the Day on Radio Four, which comes on just before the news. But I missed it, if it was on today, but when I did regain consciousness at 0739hrs (I'm only precise because I have a digital clock) I started having the usual regrets and the usual fretful conversations with myself: perhaps I should get up now and ride to the green and back, or call Andy, find out where he is and arrange to meet him somewhere along the route. But in all truth, I was tired and when I did get up I realised that I wouldn't be riding anywhere.

Yesterday it was freezing cold. There was frost everywhere: on the cars, on the grass, on the pathways and on the road, but I was up early (around 0530hrs) and raring to go. I made myself tea and Shredded Wheat and after watching the television (BBC Breakfast – not all of it) I sorted out the tea, packed the old rucksack and rode out towards Warlingham Green wearing the flappy hat and green balaclava combo. I also had on FIVE layers: a tee-shirt, a normal shirt, a thick jumper, a hooded sweatshirt and my rusty-coloured jacket, not forgetting a scarf and the Tesco ASBO specials. The only part of me that was cold was my feet.

It was a clear day, a crisp day, and when I reached Warlingham Green there was no sign of Andy. When he arrived he complained about his bike's gears and said that he was fed up with always having to fix something. I agreed. There was always something wrong with our bikes and it was normally related to the gears. You've read previous posts on this blog in which I've moaned about gears and bottom brackets and brakes and Andy's right, it's a constant in our lives and that's leaving aside punctures. Punctures are like Voldemort, we tend not to talk about them because as soon as we do we feel we're tempting fate. I mentioned to Andy again, yet again, that we'd be better off with 'normal' bikes with mudguards and block brakes and at that suggestion we headed off for the good old faithful Tatsfield Bus Stop.

Sanderstead Pond was still icy as I rode home
It was a good ride. We went the fast way as I don't think either of us could face the long climb up Beddlestead Lane; and after damaging my left foot the other week (I blame Hesiers Hill) it was a route I didn't fancy taking, even if it did allow us to engage in conversation, safe in the knowledge that there were no cars around.

When we reached the bus stop we sat and drank tea and munched on our Belvitas (I love Belvitas). A man walked by talking into a mobile phone to somebody or simply talking into a dictaphone, we couldn't see properly, but he said something like "...and the temperature is one degree Centigrade." He was wearing a complete, body-hugging Lycra outfit and carrying a rucksack. We watched as he crossed Clarks Lane and walked down White Lane and then, after laughing at a few of the entries from my Viz Das Krapital 'profanisauris' we mounted our bikes and headed home, parting at Warlingham Green and vowing to be back on the green at 0730hrs the following morning. Sadly it was not to be as I awoke in the middle of the night and had trouble getting back to sleep. But this, of course, is where you, oh humble reader, came in. Until next week, when we really MUST get our acts together. Alright, not 'we' but me.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

'We're off on the road to Morocco...we certainly do get around!'

29-30 January: Air travel is probably the closest we're all going to get to time machines, apart from ignoring when the clocks go backwards or forwards and then spending some time in the past or future.

Within the grounds of the Le Meridien N'Fis Hotel, Marrakech
On Thursday morning I flew out of London Gatwick to Marrakech in Morocco, North Africa. I've never been to Africa before. The weather in the UK was cold. Snow had been threatened and, as usual, I was not really dressed for the occasion: the cold wind howled right through me whenever I found myself out in the open air.

Le Meridien N'Fis, Marrakech
It had been a busy schedule from the word go mainly because I'd decided to spend Tuesday night in Leicester so that I could attend a small seminar and exhibition the following morning. It was cold in Leicester too and while I should have stayed in the hotel for dinner, I foolishly ventured out and rather than arrive at my destination chilled, I was blast-chilled and then I had to endure the cold again for the walk back to the hotel.

An orange tree inside the hotel grounds
When I reached home on Wednesday night the power had gone off. Well, not all of it, just stuff that was linked to a specific 30-amp fuse. I didn't have any 30-amp fuses so I spent until 10pm driving around the streets of Croydon in a desperate search so that my family would be able to use things like the iron and the oven. No joy. It also meant that I couldn't iron any clothes for the trip to Morocco and time was running out.
The labyrinthine streets of the Marrakech souk
I was due to fly out of Gatwick for Marrakech on Thursday morning and, as usual when an extremely early start is involved, I didn't get a good night's sleep. I was up at 0400hrs slinging a shirt or two in a suitcase and getting together all the things I thought I would need for the trip. The blown fuse meant that I couldn't use the power shower the night before so I resorted to the olden day practice of having a bath, which was quite pleasant. Bathing and shaving the night before saved time and when a colleague from work, who lives locally, rang the doorbell at 0500hrs I was virtually ready to leave.

Looking down on the souk
We drove along the A23 towards the office where we met our other work colleagues and jumped into a coach for a short ride to Gatwick airport. Within around 15-20 minutes we were there and I had what amounted to breakfast: a large paper mug of tea and an almond croissant from Starbuck's before heading to the gate and flying off to Marrakech.

Another aerial view of the souk – check out the rugs
The flight lasted just three hours and it went by pretty quickly. The skies were clear, there was very little in the way of turbulence – none, in fact – and we arrived safely in Morocco where the sun was shining and there was neither cloud nor snow.

Yours truly on the main square, Marrakech
How incredible when you sit and think about it: just three hours from Gatwick airport and I was in North Africa looking at camels and snake charmers, monkeys dressed in suits and men wearing hooded garments and those hats made popular in the UK by the comedian Tommy Cooper (the Fez). It was even more incredible that I was there for just one night, although, effectively, with such an early flight, we would have the best part of two days in an environment reserved for the likes of Peter Laurie, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Ustinov, not forgetting Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour (the last three from Road to Morocco).

Avenue Mohammed V1, Marrakech...nearly back at the hotel
Our hotel was a short drive from the airport and it was an oasis of palm and orange trees, trickling sprinklers keeping the lawns green and the pleasing and calming sound of birdsong from the lush foliage of the flora and fauna. In short it was another world; a world far-removed from what I was used to, but a world strangely appealing. Like in most hot countries there was the sound of whining mopeds on dusty roads, but there were camels and snake charmers too.

Only yards from the hotel. Out of shot to the left is a shopping mall
The hotel room was roomy and luxurious, like any hotel you might find in the western world. There was the obligatory Samsung flatscreen television and a fully-stocked minibar and decent and proper coathangers. Two things that bug me about hotels everywhere is a locked or empty minibar and those awful coathangers that don't have proper hooks. Both are signs that the hotel doesn't trust its guests, but not the LeMeridien N'Fis in Marrakech. It was perfect. I didn't get much of a chance to sample the food other than the breakfast – fresh fruit, yoghurt, cereal – and a club sandwich, but what I did try I enjoyed, especially the Moroccan mint tea – if you haven't tried you really must. I know that Whittard's sell it. In fact, let's have a little rave about Moroccan mint tea. It's amazing. I had my first glass when I arrived at the hotel (it's the way the hotel greets its guests). It's minty and sweet-tasting so I'm assuming there's plenty of sugar, but it's wonderful. I had a pot of it in the souk and the pot was crammed with mint leaves, but there's more to mint tea than mint leaves and hot water and I'm guessing the extra ingredient is sugar. I'll have to check it out online, but next to Twining's Lemon & Ginger tea and some amazing jasmine tea I enjoyed in Qatar, Moroccan mint tea gets a tremendous thumbs up from yours truly.

We had the whole of Friday as free time as our return flight didn't depart until 8 o'clock. There was plenty to do: a bike ride into the Atlas mountains had been mooted and I was kind of up for it, until I realised that it wasn't an organised trip with other like-minded individuals but one of the guys in the office checking out a route on his iphone GPS, and besides, who wanted to ride 56 miles to and from the mountains when there was a risk of kidnapping in Morocco's remoter outlying regions (I'm guessing that means the Atlas Mountains)? Well, what about a spot of quad biking? Rik Mayall immediately sprung to mind and so did Ozzie Osbourne, both of whom had quad bike accidents. Ozzie is still with us and so was Rik until recently and it is widely believed that his quad bike accident contributed to his sad demise. Alright, well, what about horse riding? I've never riden a horse but I know people who have and one of them fell off and broke her back. Not pleasant. She's alright now, but why take the risk? I wasn't alone in my cautious attitude. A group of us headed into town to mooch around the famous souk where Moroccans sold everything from leather holdalls and handbags through to woollen hats and it was well worth it. The souk was like a kind of shanty town: narrow, dark alleys twisting and turning and never seeming to end. I love mooching around too. I do it all the time. Mooching about. If I had the financial wherewithal I'd be a professional moocher.

We wandered around and eventually stopped for a cup of tea in a restaurant offering an aerial view across the top of the souk – corrugated iron roofs, satellite dishes, rugs draped over the sides of buildings and a hazy blue sky. Temperatures reach almost 50 degrees C in the summer but now, in January, it's a pleasant 20 degrees, just like a summer's day in England.

The people are pretty friendly too. In fact I wouldn't mind returning to Marrakech for a holiday.

Left to right: Martin, Jezza and Jason on the main square, Marrakech.
After a while I decided to walk back to the hotel, which took about 20 minutes in the warm sun. After a club sandwich and a jolly decent glass of draught ale, the name of which I can't recall – although the bottled Casablanca beer was also very pleasant – I waited for the coach to the airport, then endured the usual airport security and the long wait until the flight was called.

The journey home was fine, but I was tired out and wanted to get home. We were in the air for about three hours and because it was a night flight there was nothing to see out of the window. When we eventually landed we all queued for passport control and because I only had hand luggage the whole process was fairly smooth. A colleague gave me a lift home and at around 0100hrs I hit the sack. I was so glad to be home, even if it was freezing cold.

Over the weekend I decided to take it easy and not go out cycling as it was far too cold.

As for Marrakech, it was fantastic and if you haven't been there yet, I suggest you book a flight immediately.