Wednesday, 27 January 2016

In Paris, pretending to be in the secret service...

Room 507 – too many pillows again...
The last time I was here in the French capital was January 2013 and now I'm back after a relatively smooth journey on the Eurostar from London. I was on the 1531hrs from St Pancras International, sitting in seat 51 and reading Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. I can't pass judgement on the book yet as I've only just started it, but it's a promising yarn, I can tell you that much.

At this stage in the proceedings I think it only right to warn you: I am a complete and utter cock. Whenever I travel, while I like to think that I'm some kind of government agent on a special mission, a man who can tell the time just by looking at the sun, even when it's cloudy, a man raised by wolves who sleeps with his eyes open and is more important to global security than Jason Bourne and James Bond rolled into one, the reality is something completely different.

With my casual air, I breezed off the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord in full spy mode: head down, but aware of those around me, ready, should it be necessary, to engage a lone wolf Jihadi in mortal combat. I am, of course, a black belt in origami. I can make a paper dog with one hand tied behind my back and blindfolded.

I loitered for a while on the station concourse, wondering whether to take a taxi to the hotel or jump on the metro. The latter was my preferred option as it meant I could carry on the spy fantasy, pretend I was being followed by somebody from the Romanian secret police and barge my way through from carriage to carriage, pushing innocent passengers out of the way in my attempt to escape until my only option is to run into the tunnel itself where, no doubt, I'll a meet a down-and-out who turns out to be from the CIA and knows a safe house.

I put my suitcase on the counter of an information booth, unzipped it and took out my travel documents. I needed to check on the address of the hotel, give them a call and see if it was possible to catch the metro. This I did and in the process I discovered that it was possible. I put my travel documents in my lightweight briefcase, pulled my suitcase off the counter... and, because I hadn't zipped it up after opening it, I deposited the entire contents (shirt, trousers, lap top, camera, various leads, underwear, socks, the lot) on the floor. It made such a din and turned the heads of those who previously must have been thinking 'wow, this guy must be with the secret service, I bet he can tell the time just by looking at the sun'. But oh no. This guy is, quite simply, a complete and utter cock, somebody not to be trusted with sparklers, let alone small arms and plastic explosives.

A hotel room with a hallway...not bad, eh?
As a loud cheer went up and was followed by some applause, I stood there, utterly humiliated, wondering what to do. There was only one option. With an awkward smile I bowed to my audience and then self-consciously set about gathering my belongings together, stuffing them back in the case and making a hasty escape. How embarrassing.

Once on the metro, my neck still feeling red and tingly with humiliation, I decided just to stand there and not even bother about the Romanian secret police. I changed from line four to line seven, jumped out a couple of stops later and then trundled my way up the road, dragging my troublesome suitcase behind me as if it were an unruly toddler on the first day of school term.

After about five or 10 minutes I reached my hotel and tried every locked door before I found the ostentatious main entrance where I was greeted by a cheery porter who carried my suitcase to the reception area. I went through the usual procedure of checking in and was eventually given a key card and told to make my way to the fifth floor and room 507. The porter carried my suitcase, but having only small change in my pocket, I didn't furnish him with a tip. He didn't seem too bothered and besides, tips aren't claimable on expenses. Perhaps I should have told him that.

These days when I check into a hotel I'm always thinking about those pesky jihadists. What if they turn up later on, all guns blazing? How the hell would I escape? Well, in the case of room 507, with great difficulty. While it is possible to open the window, I'd have to be anorexic to get through the thin gap as the window refuses to open more than about five inches. Outside there is a ledge, which I could easily walk along, even though it's five floors up from street level, but the whole thing is academic, unless I smashed the window and if I did that then the jihadist could follow me. What's the good of that?

It's 2030hrs and I need some dinner. There's a restaurant downstairs and I've been given a piece of card that entitles me to a 20% discounted meal. Well it beats pounding the streets looking for somewhere decent, but ending up in a restaurant with a silly name, like Hippopotamus (I've done that before).

Tonight, Josefin, definitely...
I've just eaten in the best hotel restaurant ever; well, the best since the Hyatt Regency in Irvine, California back in 2013. First, the service – faultless. Then the food – amazing. Things can't get better than this, surely?

Banke is a boutique hotel. It has to be because it's full of quirky this and quirky that, slightly loud furniture and fittings and a hip vibe that I rather like. The smell of burning incense followed me wherever I went. Well, not in the public areas, but in the corridors, in the lifts, it was there and it was kind of pleasant. The corridors were a bit dark, but that was all part of the X-Files chic of the place – the room numbers were somehow projected on to the walls by the side of the doors. Fantastic.

Qua, qua, qua, qua quirky – facing the strange
I moseyed on down to Josefin, the hotel restaurant on the ground floor opposite a noisy bar and part of a rather splendid – and slightly over-the-top – galleried area that embraced the front desk and the elevators. But wow! What a restaurant. And what amazing service too – thanks to the waitress who was called Alice. The menu was fantastic too. Starters – branded here as 'foreplay' and followed by the 'flavours of the sea'. Well, hasn't that always been the case?

I opted for cooked ham with peppers and followed by roasted cod and an amazing Tahon Rioja and then I made the mistake of ordering dessert (a long French name, but it involved a pear and sorbet and some kind of bakery item with cream). The mistake was the accompanying cocktail, but I still managed to finish it and then I thought I ought to take some air. It was getting late, but I decided to walk further along the street, all the way to a shop that sold electric bikes – it was closed. An electric bike is the equivalent of an electric rowing machine – why bother if you're not getting any exercise?

Another humiliating experience...
It was gone 2230hrs, but there were a few people about so I walked along the Rue La Fayette for roughly 30 minutes (15 minutes each way) and then retraced my steps to the hotel in the spitting rain. And then, once more, I made a complete fool of myself. This time it was back at the hotel. The aforementioned galleried and ornate reception area is also very dark and when an employee of the hotel, wearing a silly hat, greeted me, I took my eye off the ball (taken aback by his ridiculous appearance) and managed to trip over a step that I should have seen coming (it was around seven or eight inches high). I stumbled spectacularly, but somehow managed to remain on two feet.

Hastily I made my escape, into Schindler's Lift and away from the source of humiliation. And now, at almost 2330hrs, it's time for bed.

The view from room 507, Hotel Banke, Paris – a wonderful hotel
During the night I awoke, first at 0345hrs and then again at 0705hrs. The room was miles too hot, I realised, blaming the heat rather than the rich meal on the fact that my pulse was up and my mouth was dry. I'd been having fretful dreams too. One involved meeting a former work colleague by a babbling brook and simply chewing the fat; another involved holding a baby and then finally I was in a hotel corridor, it was painted white, brilliant white, and I was making my way to room 207. It was fretful because I had meant to check out some time ago. When I reached the room a chambermaid with one of those trolleys full of soaps and clean towels told me I couldn't go in. She spoke in French, which I couldn't understand, but I told her that all my stuff was in the room. For some reason I was topless – first naked, now topless, what's going on? She pretended not to understand me and then, with a smile, started to talk English in an American accident, as if to say 'only kidding'. At that stage I woke up and it was just past seven in the morning. Better get some breakfast...

Postscript...

The Banke Hotel was so good, I thought I'd provide the contact details for the Josefin restaurant in addition to the link for the hotel, which appears earlier in this post.

For a related post, click here.

Josefin
hotel Banke
20 rue la fayette - 75009 paris
Tel: + 33 (0) 1 55 33 22 22
http://www.derbyhotels.com

Sunday, 24 January 2016

To St. Leonard's Church in thick fog...

It had been raining overnight. The roads were shiny and wet as I made my way up the hill towards the church. By the time I reached the top I was engulfed in thick fog. Riding through the churchyard alone was a haunting experience as one or two of the headstones were guarded by stone angels, their petrified wings outstretched and silhouetted against the grey skies.

Andy and I met at Warlingham Green as usual, but this morning it was shrouded in fog. We headed off for the Tatsfield Bus Stop, but decided to ride to St Leonard's Church instead. With fog so thick we figured it would be safer to stay off of the 269.
Warlingham Green, Sunday 24 January 2015 at 0735hrs

When we reached the church we bumped into the warden, who turned up from somewhere local in his Mercedes just to switch on the heating. We exchanged a few words and told him about our rides and how the longest route was to Dunton Green in Kent. He had taken all of five minutes to switch on the heating in the church and then returned to his Mercedes and drove off.

We drank tea and munched biscuits and talked about our early rides to Westerham in the pre-blog days and then we mounted our bikes and headed for home, vowing to ride out again next weekend.

The fog was thick for most of the ride back, but we both had front and rear lights so it didn't really matter.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sunday morning and, so far, all is well...

It's now Sunday morning and yesterday's frustrations are behind me as another day dawns. Last night I had some weird dreams, one of which involved walking naked with a woman up a steep concrete alleyway in nearby Purley. Half way up, for some inexplicable reason, I found a discarded bright red towel, which I used to cover myself, and then proceeded to walk up the hill. The dream also involved the Duke of Edinburgh who, for some reason, I knew. I recall the round tables of a formal occasion and many people – men in dinner suits, women in posh frocks – as I made my way to some kind of shrine, only to find two cakes, one chocolate, the other coffee and walnut. The former was fine, but not my favourite. The latter, my favourite, was spoilt in some way, it was too gooey, as if it had melted.

When I woke up, the news was on, but I can't for the life of me remember any of the stories, although, as I gradually regained full consciousness, I found I was listening to Radio Four's Something Understood, which this week was all about poverty and the 'scandalous inequality' that exists in Great Britain today. There wasn't time to lie-in so I got up and peered out of the window: dry and still and no sign of any frost. Last night, prior to falling asleep, I listened to the wind and the noise of the foxes on the back lawn – they make a strange, squeaky sound – and then, after catching the noise of a few slamming car doors, I made up some kind of scenario in my head about how I'd engage burglars in conversation; it went something along the lines of "there's nothing worth nicking here, mate."

Now I'm downstairs in the living room, on the laptop. I've got the harsh light on over the dining table and I'm sitting here writing having eaten two Weetabix. I'm hoping that when I go to the garage in about 15 minutes, that my two bicycle tyres will be fully inflated. Let's see.

Ride aborted prior to reaching the green

As crazy days go, you don't get much crazier. Perhaps craziness has nothing to do with it. Perhaps it's just, I don't know, fate, the luck of the draw, a bad day. But either way it wasn't good. Phil had overslept as when I stepped outside into the dark, mild, morning air around 0700hrs there was no sign of him. But then he appeared. He'd overslept and hadn't made any of his signature sausage sandwiches, but it didn't matter – he'd bought cake.

There was a chance that a guy from Phil's office would join us on the ride and probably meet us on the green. But it all went to pot. My bike started to wobble about a quarter mile away and it was terminal; and what's more I'd left all my puncture repair stuff in the garage. Things weren't looking good.
Limpsfield Road around 0745hrs, Saturday 23 January 2016

Andy could have helped, until I realised that the puncture was underneath the leech already on the inner tube. I'd need a new one so we aborted the ride and because I had yet to buy the milk (we'd run out at home) we didn't even eat the cake!

I walked back along the Limpsfield Road – that's a posh name for the 269 – listening to the familiar squeak of a deflated rear tyre, until Phil arrived in the Volvo to pick me up and we drove back home. He lives across the street.

Later I walked to the nearest bike shop, chewed the fat with the sales guy, checked out some of the bikes and then bought an inner tube. As I returned home a black cat crossed my path and I had to wrack my brains about that: was it good or bad luck? I'd just have to be careful all day. Then Phil texted to say he accidentally smashed up a set of crystal wine glasses; and then I found a mirror balanced precariously on the window sill of a back bedroom.

I fixed the puncture, had lunch (soup and bread) and then drove to Sevenoaks in Kent. There's a big stately home near there called Knole. It's surrounded by desolate fields and woods and bare trees and populated with walkers and a few runners. We walked for over 50 minutes, just me, my wife and daughter, and then we came home. Tomorrow, as they say, is another day. Andy's on for a ride so if the weather holds it'll be okay.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Waving goodbye to mild weather...

The view from the house Sunday morning
I aborted Saturday's ride out of general tiredness and the need for a lie-in, but I thought all would be well on Sunday. However, last night I received a text from Phil pointing out that it had started snowing and that he was aborting. I peered out of the window and sure enough there was snow on the ground. I sent an abort text to Andy and now, as I sit in the living room at 0923hrs on Sunday morning – having enjoyed breakfast (Weetabix, tea and toast) I'm wondering what the hell I'm going to do today other than 'stay in'. There's nothing worse than 'staying in', but in this weather there's little else to do, mainly because driving becomes ultra-hazardous and the only alternative is to put on the walking boots and heavy coat and tread nervously on the snow in fear that one might go 'arse over tit'.

Hopefully, things will warm up, the snow will melt and all will be well with the world. That said, whenever it's snowed in the past, it always snows again, normally the following day or overnight, making matters worse for everyone. As for public transport, the train operating companies will be completely at sixes and sevens and it will take an age to get into work in the morning. It's going to be a fun week.

Weather update, 1056hrs: It's warm outside, not cold, and there's every indication that the snow is thawing. Unless it gets dramatically colder later on, I bet it will all be gone in the morning.

Cycling update, 1102hrs: Earlier, when I went outside to attend to a garbage issue, I took the opportunity of entering the garage to check out the puncture I'd fixed last night. I was curious as to whether it would be flat, rendering last night's 'abort' null and void as, ironically, I wouldn't have gone out anyway. However, when I touched the rear tyre it was still as solid as a rock. Not going cycling, of course, is typical of this time of year, but here's hoping we'll be riding next weekend.

Postscript at 1452hrs: As for 'waving goodbye to mild weather', it's pretty mild out there now and the snow has virtually disappeared. I'm even wondering how cold it was this morning when we should have out there riding the bikes (probably not that cold at all). Still, we didn't go out and there's no point getting uptight about it.

Final word 1838hrs: Having taken a drive to Westerham and then a brief stroll around the main street, I thought I'd report that it's cold, and getting colder. It's not as mild as I described it in my earlier postscript.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

In Nice...

If I was the Camp Tramp I think I'd take advantage of the UK's membership of the European Union and move to Nice, certainly for the summer months, but only if I could still rely upon my British benefits. Yesterday I took a walk along the Promenade des Anglais. It was a cool and crisp day and the palm trees swayed gently in the breeze. The sea was blue, but I'm guessing it was very cold.

My thoughts exactly...
As the day progressed so did the weather. It was certainly much warmer than it was in the UK, but that was only to be expected considering how much further south I found myself. That said, the South of France gets a little chilly during the winter months. On Thursday night, for example, it was rainy and blustery and wet and a colleague and I took shelter in, of all places, a McDonald's. I rarely eat in McDonald's, but having only had a small chicken and bacon roll and a Mocha Iced Bun for lunch on the plane, I was in need of sustenance. A Chicken McTasty sort of did the trick, but I regretted it the moment it arrived.

Yesterday morning I walked with the same colleague to the eastern end of the bay where old people braved the wintry seas to take a dip. Apparently it does you good and to be fair to one old geezer, who we saw towelling himself dry after a bracing swim, he looked in pretty good shape. The sea was in good form too. Despite the fact that it was January, it was still blue – not the tea-with-milk-colour that characterises Britain's south coastal waters.

Up among the rocks we spotted some kind of 'camp'. Nothing major (nothing like the Calais 'jungle' – just a sleeping bag and a few blankets) and that was when I thought of the Camp Tramp. Why sit on a freezing cold Brighton beach drinking Stellas when you can do the same thing on a slightly warmer beach in Nice? Perhaps when I next see him, I'll suggest it, although I don't think the Camp Tramp is sleeping rough. I don't even think he's a tramp, just a wayward individual with a drink problem and some mental health issues. Perhaps I ought to give him a wide berth.

Looking west from the eastern end of Promenade des Anglais
While away I heard that Alan Rickman had passed away. He died aged 69 of cancer. Rickman played Severin Snape in the Harry Potter movies and he was the third well-known person from the world of entertainment (I wouldn't describe any of them as 'celebrities') to die over the last fortnight, the other two being David Bowie, also 69, and Lemmy Kilmister, who had just turned 70. All three died of cancer.

Watching those old people braving the cold seas and trying, perhaps, to hold back the years – why else would they do it, certainly not for their own entertainment – I found myself wondering whether there's any point in such behaviour. When the Grim Reaper calls, he calls, and there's nothing anybody can do about it. And then I had a frightening thought: what if you could see the Grim Reaper, perhaps walking on the beach in your direction, possibly even coming for you. Imagine the horror if you dived into a café in an attempt at losing him, only to look up moments later and see him looking straight at you through the window.

View of Nice from the Meridien Hotel's terrace....
I had a day to kill in Nice and I spent most of it wandering the streets, enjoying the view (and a cappuccino) on the roof terrace of the Meridien hotel and then lunch in Le West-End hotel, where I had spent the night. A light linguini with asparagus and a glass of Bordeaux and then another walk along the sea front that was interrupted when I passed the Hard Rock Café and found a group of work colleagues enjoying the winter sunshine and some nachos. After a glass of red wine we headed towards the main shopping area and then, after a cappuccino, we walked back to the beach where some more colleagues, wrapped up warm against the cool weather, looked out to sea and sipped pints of beer served up at a beach bar.

Room 626, Le West-End Hotel, Nice...
It was soon time for me to head to the airport and a flight to Heathrow. I took the 98 bus for six Euros rather than spend 40 Euros on a taxi and soon I was at Terminal One awaiting the 2030hrs British Airways flight home. En route I enjoyed another chicken and bacon roll and another Mocha Iced Bun. The latter was wonderful and I was tempted to ask for another one, but it would have proved slightly awkward. The French woman sitting in the aisle seat next to me had ordered a salad and a and a roll and bun contained in a box, but while she had eaten the salad, the roll and bun remained untouched. I feared that by asking for one more – and possibly being told that there were no more left – that she would feel obliged to offer me her's. I would, of course, refuse, but I didn't want the awkwardness so I kept my mouth shut. Another roll and bun would have made the two mini bottles of red wine I had ordered just that little bit more enjoyable.

View from room 626, Le West-End Hotel, Nice...
Once on the ground, pleasantries were exchanged between myself and those of my colleagues who had opted for the BA flight to Heathrow – the rest returned to Gatwick. I took the tube to South Kensington. On the train were two people who made me smile. First a rather rotund, bald-headed gentleman with an iPad who might have stepped out of a Dickens novel. In a jovial manner he engaged in conversation with a foreigner, somebody, no doubt, who had just arrived in the UK. I couldn't hear the conversation over the clatter of the train as it raced through the dark tunnels, but they laughed and joked like old friends, catching the attention of other, equally intrigued passengers, and that made me smile.

Nice-looking crepes, but I resisted the temptation...
Next up was a younger man with a beard who jumped on board at Baron's Court with a small bottle of vodka in one hand and a similarly-sized plastic bottle of Coke in the other. I watched as he topped up the three quarters full bottle of Coke with vodka. "Don't judge me," he said, and we both laughed.

It was so cold when I changed trains at South Kensington that I opened up my suitcase, took out a woolly jumper and put it on. I was on a late train bound for East Grinstead but I alighted at Sanderstead and then walked home along the alleys, dragging my suitcase on wheels behind me; it made such a noise I must have disturbed the neighbours who, at around 1130hrs, must would have been settling down the for night.






Thursday, 14 January 2016

En route to Nice...

I'd planned to use public transport to reach London Heathrow Terminal Five and, to be frank, it was much easier than I had anticipated. The train into town from where I live was fine – it was just gone 0730hrs and I still managed to get a seat – and then the tube journey was sort of fine, bar a couple of potential hassles. The first was a huge queue of people at the top of the stairs near the entrance to the Victoria Line. My plan was to travel to Green Park and get the Piccadilly Line all the way to Heathrow.

The problem I encountered was some kind of mechanical failure involving trains to Brixton (David Bowie's birthplace). They were not running so a huge crowd of people gathered. I was told to take the District Line, which I did, changing at South Kensington for the rest of the ride. The next problem was the signage on the platform: it didn't correspond with the destination on the front of the train. If the board said that the next train was for Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3 and 5, the train said it was going to Rayners Park and then, when you got on the train, the female voice from the train's internal intercom said something completely different.

Heathrow's Terminal 5 – arguably the London airport's best terminal
I jumped on a Northfields train (after hesitating on the platform and allowing, potentially, two or three Heathrow-bound trains to come and go) and sure enough, the female voice informed me that the train was going to Terminals 1 to 4, but not 5. I decided to get on board, get closer to my destination and then, should there be any real problems, I'd simply get a cab from somewhere drab like Hounslow Central or Osterley. I jumped off the train at the former and waited just three minutes for a train to Terminal Five.

Right now, as I write this, I'm sitting in Terminal Five's Starbucks having enjoyed a medium-sized tea with a caramel shortbread. I know, I shouldn't have, but all rules go out the window at airports in my book. In fact, flying in general sees the rule book thrown out of the window. If I'm on an early morning flight, leaving, say, at 0900hrs, I'll quite happily ask for two of those small bottles of red wine to accompany my chocolate Hob Nobs or whatever culinary delight they happen to be serving up. In the 'olden days' all flights offered breakfast in a heated foil container, but those days are long gone. Today, snacks are the order of the day so I figured I'd be better off going to Starbucks, ordering tea and a 'millionaire's shortbread' – the generic term for this type of confection – and taking pot luck when I get on the plane.

Prior to finding myself in the ubiquitous American coffee outlet I sailed through security – it's so much easier at T5 than anywhere else I've been. The whole place seems calm and orderly and, within a matter of minutes, I was in my favourite place – beyond passport control, that No Man's Land of duty-free goods, expensive perfumes, raffles for top-of-the-range sports cars and big brand name fashion retailers. I avoid them all like the plague, not being in the slightest bit interested in 'having the right stuff'. In my view, everything is 'designer' even if it doesn't say so. My M&S green cords must be have been designed by somebody, it's just that whoever designed them is clearly not as accomplished as Tommy fucking Hilfigger. Still, they do the job; they enable me to walk around in public without exposing my genitalia to unsuspecting members of the public, something I'd be virtually forced to do if, for some strange reason, I wasn't wearing a pair of trousers. I wear clothes because I have to, they're either to keep me warm or to cover me up and at this time of year they perform both functions. Not that I am in any way suggesting that during the warmer months I can be spotted without trousers.

It's quite a pleasant day. There are thin grey clouds and blue skies beyond and I'm sitting looking out at many British Airways jets that are parked up at various gates awaiting their passengers. One of them is probably mine, but I won't know yet as I got here miles too early and have to kill time – one reason why I'm glad I bought my laptop. Being early also justifies my millionaire's shortbread and medium tea.

Despite the number of people that must populate Terminal Five, it's not in the slightest bit 'noisy'. I'm wondering who I'm going to see milling around. Normally I spot a 'celebrity' – on previous occasions I've seen Miranda Hart and Jimmy Somerville. Who, I wonder, will it be today? As long as they're not shouting 'God is Great!' I don't really care.

The world is full of nutters
I woke up this morning to hear that there had been a terrorist attack in Jakarta, Indonesia. Suicide bombers and gunman had gone on the rampage and, of course, so-called 'Islamic State' are the chief culprits. At the time of writing, I'm not exactly sure of the situation, but online news reports are saying that at least seven people are dead following a co-ordinated bomb and gun assault and that there have been several large explosions across the city.

There are plenty of crazy people on the loose in the world, but fortunately for a Mrs Davidson of Fruitland Park, Florida, USA, her husband Keith is not one of them. Keith is currently being held at Lake County Jail on a charge of battery.

According to news reports, he got so furious when he discovered that the house had run out of jam that he used his wife's head as a mop. Mr Davidson flew into a rage while looking for jam to add to his peanut butter sandwich, couldn't find any and then engaged in a heated exchange with Mrs Davidson who, during their 'discussion' accidentally spilt milk on the floor. Keith then took the meaning of crying over spilt milk a little too far, and decided to use his wife's head to clear up the resulting mess. She later called the cops who found 'significant bruising' on the woman. One has to ask, what IS the world coming to?

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Thoughts on David Bowie's passing

As I sit and listen to the melancholy sound of David Bowie's latest and last album, Blackstar, I'll admit to feeling very sad about his passing away, and I'm sure that many people throughout the world feel the same way.
The late, great David Bowie...

I wouldn't say I was ever a true Bowie 'fan' – I only bought one of his albums, Hunky Dory, and, later, a compilation CD – but he was one of only a handful of musicians who, over the years, have been impossible to ignore. Who hasn't listened to tracks like Jean Genie, Young Americans, Fame, Heroes, Suffragette City, Starman, Fashion, Let's Dance, China Girl, Space Oddity – the list is endless.

One thing I think I'll always be grateful for is that my generation has been given the very best on offer as far as popular music is concerned. The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Who, AC/DC, Hawkwind, Motörhead, Elton John, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam, the list is endless. I wonder whether today's musicians – those who have come out of television talent shows like X Factor, will be held in such high esteem as the aforementioned rock greats? In short, the answer is no, they won't be because they will never be as accomplished or talented. They will never be THAT good or that 'respected'. Having said that, I swear that my dad said something similar whenever he found himself forced to listen to my Clash and Hawkwind albums. Something about Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra being able to knock out a tune.

Blackstar is the perfect album, tinged as it is with sadness and with an almost ghostly, choral quality.

It's a shame that Bowie had to die so young.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

To the Tatsfield Bus Stop on Saturday, but rear wheel puncture aborts Sunday's outing...

Yesterday morning, when I left the house around 0730hrs, I was amazed by how dark it was outside. It was pitch black. I put this down to the fact that the last few rides over the festive period were later than our usual departure time and, for some reason, I thought it would be lighter than it actually was.

Phil texted me just before I left saying he was coming and please wait for him. Not a problem. When I waltzed outside – I didn't 'waltz' outside at all, but it sounds good, even if it does make me sound a little dandy – there he was, bike parked by the kerb. He'd brought along the last of his Mary Berry Christmas cake, which we later enjoyed at the Tatsfield Bus Stop. Yes, despite New Year Resolutions it's still our preferred venue, although yesterday we reached it via the slow route.

An unwelcomed rear wheel puncture put paid to my cycling this morning
The slow route is fine if you want to chat and not worry so much about the traffic, as avid readers will already know, but there is one killer – Beddlestead Lane. Phil was out of condition and cited half a bottle of wine and some cheese and Port on Friday night, plus little in the way of cycling over Christmas – as the chief reason behind his sluggishness.

As we trundled up and along the tiresome Beddlestead Lane we chatted about this and that, but Andy powered ahead. It was a clear day and at one point I could see him in the distance ahead, his rear light flashing like a beacon, as Phil and I continued to chat and 'mosey along' trying not to over-exert ourselves. Eventually Andy returned to see if we were alright and we all cycled along together for the last 200 yards or so to Clarks Lane.

The weather was fine. In fact, the mild weather I've been going on about since November last year continues and while there was a few angry clouds dotted around, all was fine. Or rather it was kind of alright. It had been raining heavily through the night, leaving puddles everywhere – not ideal if, like me, your bike doesn't have any mudguards. Later, when we embarked upon on our ride home, there was a mild drizzle that quickly gathered momentum.

Once at the bus stop, however, out came the tea and biscuits and, of course, three huge slabs of Phil's interpretation of Mary Berry's Christmas cake. The guy is a genius! His culinary expertise knows no bounds – savoury or sweet – and it goes without saying that we all enjoyed the cake. We had a couple of Belvita biscuits too and soon it was time to head home in the aforementioned mild drizzle which, by the time we reached Warlingham Green, was bona fide rain.

Sunday morning...
And now it's Sunday morning and the time is 0646hrs. I was softly awakened at 0600hrs by Radio Four's Something Understood, which today, ironically, was all about 'sleeping on it' – something I wished for at that moment, it has to be said. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and then again around 0500hrs. I still managed to summon up the energy to jump out of bed, skip downstairs (alright, I didn't skip) make tea, toast and Weetabix and sit downstairs, at the dining table, laptop on, writing this post.

Today it's just Andy and I on the ride and, judging by a cursory glance outside, it seems to be pretty dry out there, which is good. Yesterday it rained on and off throughout the day and well into the night, so I'm hoping it'll need a rest this morning. The roads were dry and the trees were still, so I'm hoping for a trouble-free ride.

But then...
When I ventured outside to the garage and unpadlocked the bike I discovered a rear wheel puncture. How frustrating! I'd It would mean an 'abort' text so there would be no riding for me today, more's the pity.

Weather note: it's still fairly pleasant and mild, but of late there's been a lot of rain and today (Sunday) it's definitely turned a little colder and more in tune with standard January weather. As I walked back to the car park in Petworth, West Sussex, around 4pm this afternoon – after an enjoyable lunch in Tiffins – there was a cold wind and rain and it wasn't pleasant, especially considering my leaking Sports Direct trainers.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

To St. Leonard's Church, Chelsham – the first ride of 2016

Tiredness forced me to hit the sack earlier than usual last night. I was in bed around 2130hrs and immediately regretted the decision. As soon as my head touched the pillow I started to yearn for being downstairs again and vowed to get up in around 15 minutes to watch the news. The next thing I knew it was 0215hrs.

When the alarm went off – and by 'alarm' I mean Radio Four springing to life – I was in no mood for getting out of bed. I listened to the news in a state of semi-consciousness and around 0614hrs realised I had to get up. Oh for an abort text! I checked the phone and there was nothing but the photograph that accompanied my last post staring back at me, reminding me of the time.

Outside St. Leonard's Church, Chelsham. Pic: Andy Smith
As soon as my two feet touched the carpet there were problems. Problems are amplified when you're half asleep and don't really want to get up. First, a missing sock. Where the fuck was it? I found it pretty quickly, mumbling under my breath like the Camp Tramp, and then, having put both socks on, I staggered sleepily towards the wardrobe, the one with the squeaky, creaky door, in search of my cycling clobber. It was so dark that I couldn't see a thing, although I knew one thing: my cycling trousers were outside on the clothes line so I'd have to improvise in some way. This means using a pair of 'normal' trousers in the hope that it won't be wet and rainy and that they'll arrive home wearable and in no way damaged. I did, however, find a pair of 'trousers' that I use for painting the house complete with some white paint marks that date back years (I can't remember the last time I picked up a paint brush).

With the paint-marked trousers on, my next task was to find my cycling top. Where was it? I remembered that my iphone had a torch facility so I walked to the other side of the bedroom – it's dual aspect and pretty large – and retrieved it from the the ironing board, only to realise, while scanning the wardrobe, that the top in question was simply resting on the armchair on the other side of the room.

Eventually I made it to the kitchen. After the trauma of the last 15 minutes I opted for a big breakfast: Shredded Wheat (two biscuits) a couple of slices of toast and tea. Wonderful.

Later, after checking out the blog I felt the phone vibrating in my pocket (I was just about to leave the house). A tired-sounding Andy was on the other end. He'd just woken up and wanted to know if we could meet at 0800hrs instead of the usual 0730hrs. Why not? I could use the extra chill-out time myself, I thought. So we've agreed to meet at the usual place at the slightly later time of eight o'clock. Being as we're heading out later than usual, we'll probably ride to the Tatsfield Bus Stop, although one of my New Year Resolutions – I don't normally make them – is to ride to the lake at least once a month. Or, failing that, more often than we rode to the lake in 2015. I'll have to check the blog, but there's an outside chance that we never rode there last year, although I can't believe we never saw Longford Lake. We need to get to Westerham a few times too.

Later...
I left the house at around 0735hrs and found the cycling heavy going. There was a mild headwind as I rode along Ellenbridge, and Church Way proved to be equally hard work. I was glad when I reached the churchyard. I rode past Sanderstead pond and headed along the 269 towards the green where I found Andy. We didn't stop, but rode off in the usual direction, both wondering whether we should be riding to the bus stop in the rain. Yes, the rain had started and it prompted us to aim for St. Leonard's Church instead of Tatsfield, a shorter ride and, it has to be said, and a more picturesque one. Country lanes are more appealing than busy roads – not that the 269 is busy early in the morning.

The rain had stopped and started and by the time we'd reached the Warlingham Sainsbury's roundabout we changed our minds and decided to head for the bus stop. However, as we passed Ledgers Road – the last possible opportunity to ride to St Leonard's – it started to rain again so we did a U-turn in the road and cycled along Ledgers to where it joined with Church Lane where we turned right and kept going.

While the rain had stopped, Ledgers Road was swamped with puddles and wet leaves and within a matter of minutes I was soaked through. Just before the church there is a shortish climb and at this point I considered suggesting that we push on towards the Tatsfield Bus Stop, but the thought of Beddlestead Lane's slow and laborious climb put me off. Soon enough we arrived at our destination and set up camp under the gable-roofed gateway to St. Leonard's. No benches meant that we had to stand up to drink our tea and munch our BelVita's, but it didn't matter.

Everything was damp and after two cups of tea and a small pack of BelVita biscuits, we started to pack things away and consider the ride home. Unfortunately it had started to rain again, but it was fine rain and as we wound our way towards Warlingham Sainsbury's along rural lanes, it started to rain properly.

We parted company at the green and vowed to meet again next weekend. I rode alone towards Sanderstead while Andy made tracks towards Caterham.

I was soaked through by the time I reached home, thanks mainly to my lack of mudguards, but after changing into to dry clothes and drying myself down I felt better and now I'm simply chilling until somebody finds me a job to do – like sorting out the coats in the cloakroom or cleaning the washing machine's filter, two of many little jobs around the house that need to be done.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

New Year's Day 2016

A late night and a few drinks put paid to any thoughts of a ride on New Year's Day 2016. Instead, the programme was basically lolling about doing virtually nothing other than stealing odd moments to read or browse the internet, in between eating. Not that I ate a great deal: breakfast consisted of lemon and ginger tea and a slice of toast and then lunch was mushrooms on toast.

In the afternoon I took the family for a drive and after cruising through Edenbridge on a dark, rainy afternoon, we found ourselves in Sevenoaks and inside a rather cosy Costa Coffee drinking tea and eating a variety of confections. I chose a white chocolate finger. Now, there's something to savour. A white chocolate finger. Perfect! It's up their with Petit Filous desserts and BelVita milk and cereal biscuits. In fact, if the truth be known, it trumps the lot of them.
A typical scene on New Year's Day – this is Sevenoaks

Being in Sevenoaks in the late afternoon was perfect for some reason. It was dark, most of the shops were closed, but the Christmas decorations still illuminated the small precinct and there were a few people, not many, milling around peering into shop windows and then moving on, just like us. This, in many ways, is a typical New Year's Day. Nothing open. Darkness setting in around 4pm. Christmas lights squeezing out their last few days of meaning anything to anybody and a strange anticipation hanging in the air, the calm before the storm of whatever 2016 will bring. Going back to work loomed large and so did that desperate feeling of not wanting the peace and relaxation to end.

We dived into Laura Ashley and spent miles too long in the furniture department looking at sofas and tables and anything else the 'home' section had to offer. There's something cosy about furniture shops when it's dark outside and there's hardly anybody around.

Saturday 2nd January 2016
I really thought a ride was on the cards and for this reason I was up around 0600hrs and kind of raring to go, although, to be honest, I didn't really fancy going out. I was tired. The holidays were now over officially – today is just like any other Saturday – and a lie-in would have done me the power of good. But it was not to be so I sat at the dining room table, lap top out, checking the blog, checking the BBC news website and generally browsing stuff until I heard a text arrive. It was from Andy. "Raining here," it said, meaning that in Caterham it was raining. Normally, if it's raining in Caterham it soon rains here too, but when I peered out there was little but wind.

I sent back a text: "Which doesn't bode well. Abort? Or wait and see? I think it's going to rain so likely an abort. Not sure. Dry here now."

But Andy didn't have time to postpone the ride. "Too busy today," he texted. "Fingers crossed for tomorrow."

Well, that was it. No ride. So I texted an 'abort' message to Phil and sighed with relief  – although now I was up I figured I should go out for a ride, possibly to mum's or Botley, something short. But when I looked out it was raining and I had a legitimate excuse not to go.

Here's hoping there will be a ride tomorrow.

Friday, 1 January 2016

In praise of the Tatsfield Bus Stop

In his latest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson writes: "Bus shelters used to be like little cottages, with pitched roofs and built-in wooden benches. Now they are just wind tunnels with advertisements."

Later, he writes: "In countless small ways the world around us grows gradually shittier."

He has a point.

And while I often moan about the Tatsfield Bus Stop (on the junction with Approach Road and Clarks Lane just outside of Tatsfield Village) my moaning is not about the bus stop itself, which is in keeping with Bryson's ideal style of bus shelter, but the fact that we don't go anywhere else these days.

The much loved Tatsfield Bus Stop and my Kona mountain bike
The great thing about the Tatsfield Bus Stop is that it is made of wood, has a built-in bench, a gabled roof and is an ideal place to shelter from the rain or snow.

We are a little crazy to cycle eight miles just to stop and drink tea at the Tatsfield Bus Stop, but when all is said and done, it's a great place to be especially with a flask of hot water, a few Twining's English Breakfast tea bags and half a dozen Belvita biscuits. Throw in a newspaper and a decent transistor radio and you'd be very close to my idea of heaven.

• For details of Bill Bryson's latest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, and his other excellent travel books (and history books, books about the English language, Shakespeare and much more) click here.

• Bryson on the subject of Trip Advisor reviewers and their poor standards of literacy.
  Click here.

• While a New Year's Day ride was suggested by Phil, after a late night such an escapade has proved completely off the scale for yours truly. I have a mild headache – brought about more by a late night than excessive alcohol – and I could do with a good walk. Weather permitting, I'll be out tomorrow (Saturday 2nd January).

Happy New Year to all who might stumble across my blog.