Monday, 30 May 2016

May Bank Holiday – more Monday ramblings...

The weather took a downward turn today when compared with the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend. It would be fair to say that Saturday was, by far, the best day, then Sunday and then today.

The skies were grey today and there was a definite breeze. The cow parsley and the hawthorn along the 269 were suitably ruffled and it wasn't a particularly warm day. I wore gloves and had my coat buttoned up and, as we headed for Westerham, things didn't get any better on the weather front.

Yours truly in Westerham
On reaching our destination, we found a wooden chair and table, probably owned by the Grasshopper pub, and set up camp on the green. I say 'camp', we merely took out a flask of hot water, teabags, cups and milk and made tea. Andy produced chocolate chip Belvita biscuits and we then engaged in small talk, mainly about the fact that my bike was 10 years old, we'd been cycling regularly for 10 years next year and all was good with the world – our world, that is. We talked about servicing my bike and whether it's best to get a gear and brake service and call it a day OR get a bike 'rebuild', which all bike shops seem to offer at varying prices.

Andy's pint and bacon sarnie...
Andy had some time to kill this morning and was planning to head for the lakes. I had things to do at home (more gardening) so I couldn't join him. We both headed towards Pilgrims Lane where we parted company. I carried on up the hill while Andy headed east towards Chipstead village in Kent, home of Longford Lake and the Bricklayers Arms, a Harvey's of Lewes pub where he later enjoyed a pint and a bacon sandwich.

Westerham has been firmly back on the agenda of late. This weekend we covered 44 miles with two consecutive rides to the northern Kent market town, home of Winston Churchill.

As I headed north along the Limpsfield Road it tried to rain, but I managed to get home without a soaking and then got on with the rest of my day. Andy later reported that he enjoyed a pint and a bacon sandwich at the Bricklayers.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

May Bank Holiday – Monday ramblings...

It's Bank Holiday Monday, a day normally characterised by bad weather, but not this morning. The whole weekend has been brilliant so far and, as usual, it's coming to an end miles too quickly for my liking.

I spent most of yesterday in the back garden, mowing the lawn and then cutting back the edges, which I'd allowed to get a little overgrown – a bit like the top of the garden where I need to cut down the long grass and get rid of the branches and twigs that are lying around. The day involved basking in the sunshine, drinking tea and then, after dinner, settling down to the new Top Gear, the long-awaited continuation of the programme not so long ago vacated by the great Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, who, sadly, have moved on to Amazon Prime.
Le Blanc, Evans and the Stig – the jury's out...
Well, they say that nobody is indispensable and they're right, but there are times when the task ahead for the person challenged to carry something successful on to greater heights is a little tricky. Chris Evans has found himself in that position and yesterday was judgement day.

When the programme started it was, in my opinion, a little shaky, with Evans and Le Blanc delivering phrases immortalised by Clarkson, but without the great man's gravitas and panache. I felt that they should have moved away from the old format, but they'd stuck with The Stig and they'd kept the 'some say...' jokes, which I thought was a mistake as they're so closely associated with Clarkson. They kept the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car too, which is when I thought the programme picked up a bit, Evans being good at the celebrity interview, and then I realised that the real star of the show was Matt Le Blanc. He will, I'd imagine, carry the show forward and I feel confident that future shows, as we go through the series, will improve.

I think the best way to describe the first of the new Top Gear shows is by way of an analogy with the movie Liar Liar, starring Jim Carrey. I felt that keeping the show's Clarkson format was a mistake and that the 'some say' jokes about the Stig, told by somebody other than Clarkson, was uncomfortable to watch in the same way that, in Liar Liar, when Carrey's screen wife's new boyfriend tries to do 'the claw' for the little boy, it's just cringeworthy.

I felt that the challenges – something Clarkson and Co did so well – need to be vastly improved as they too lacked a certain gravitas. We need some good 'car versus other modes of transport' stuff and I felt that travelling to Blackpool in a couple of Reliant Robins didn't really cut the mustard. That said, it was watchable and I hope it will continue to improve. Evans is good, I've always liked him, but I admit I was a little sceptical about him filling Clarkson's shoes. Perhaps that's an impossible task, who knows, but he's doing a reasonable job as it's not an envious task.

It's all to do with chemistry at the end of the day and, let's face it, Clarkson, Hammond and May had that chemistry. Whether it exists between Evans and Le Blanc is up for debate, but I'm glad Top Gear's back and let's hope they pull it out of the hat. I get a strange feeling that they will.

May bank holiday – more Sunday ramblings...

Comparing yesterday's weather with today's is a fairly easy thing to do; yesterday was like a hot summer day, whereas today was slightly cooler. When I left the house this morning I considered putting on my gloves and there was no way I was going out in just a tee shirt.

It was weird being back on the bike after the my two rides in the USA, mainly because the hybrid I rented was much more in tune with the type of riding I was doing and, to make things even better, everything worked. Now, as I wound my way along Ellenbridge Road I could hear the old Scrap creaking and shaking as I changed gear, not risking standing up on the pedals as I rode up Elmfield Way just in case the gears slipped and I damaged the old Jacobs.

I left the house around 0730hrs and reached the green around 0800hrs. Andy arrived shortly after me and we both knew where we were headed: Westerham for tea and toast at the Tudor Rose Café – as always, just what the doctor ordered.

Sanderstead pond, Sunday morning around 1030hrs
The ride to Westerham was punctuated with chat about the forthcoming European Union referendum. Andy is 100% for Brexit, but I'm not 100% sure. I find it difficult to be certain that I will tick the right box and I really am convinced that most people haven't a clue about what they're doing.

There are plenty of Brexit voters who want out mainly because of immigration and the fact that if we remain in the EU – they say – we won't be able to do anything about EU citizens simply turning up on our doorstep and 'taking our jobs and reducing our wages in the process'. Before I start taking the piss, this is a serious concern. Many areas of the UK have physically changed as a result and wages have come down too. And if we really can't do anything about it if we stay in the EU, then, for a lot of people, uncontrolled immigration is one good reason to vote out.

The 'remain' camp, of course, will say that immigration  is a positive thing. The immigrants, they say, are doing the jobs we, the British, are not prepared to do, like picking strawberries and, they say, what's wrong with that? While they can come over here and work, we can go over there too! So what's the problem? Well, there's one huge problem. Who wants to go and live in Romania or Bulgaria? They are poor countries by comparison where, I'm guessing, the state isn't going to find anybody a home or pay for it with state benefits. While a lot of 'remain' voters will try to accuse Brexiters using immigration as a reason to vote out as racists, this angle no longer holds water. Being concerned about immigrants, be they fleeing war zones or simply opportunists looking for a better life, is not racism. For a lot of people it's a genuine worry.

There has, of course, been a lot of rubbish spoken by those in the 'remain' camp and most of it has come out of David Cameron's mouth. He's threatened World War lll, falling house prices, recession, more austerity, you name it, and the people are getting tired – sick and tired – of Cameron and his cronies trying to frighten people into staying put. In my view it makes me wonder why he's so desperate that we should stay in the EU. Perhaps there's something sinister afoot. I mean, take TTIP  – the proposed Transaltantic Trade & Investment Partnership between the EU and the USA. This has been largely negotiated behind closed doors by unelected officials who have been quoted as saying that they do not take their mandate from the European people. In fact 'they' is one person, a lady called Cecilia Malmstrom. She was interviewed some weeks ago by the Independent newspaper here in the UK and was quoted as saying just that, that she, an unelected official, does not take her mandate from the European people, meaning she doesn't really care European people think, they've got to like it or lump it. Malmstrom, incidentally, takes her mandate from corporate lobbyists.

My 10-year-old Kona Scrap on Sanderstead Green this morning
TTIP is supposedly on the ropes. Greenpeace has managed to get hold of the negotiation documents and has discovered some awful things about the agreement, like the fact that big US corporations will be capable, under the agreement, of suing the national government of a sovereign nation if they feel that certain legislation in any way negatively impacts their business. If this is true, then Philip Morris, the big cigarette manufacturer, will be able to sue, say, the UK Government for it's decision to keep cigarettes out of sight in supermarkets and newsagents and garage forecourts. They might argue that such a practice is restricting cigarette sales and therefore damaging their profitability. There are plenty of other worrying elements too, and I'll generalise a little bit here: first, you must remember that within in the EU there are some pretty stringent rules and regulations governing the quality of foodstuffs and also the use of pesticides. In the USA they are not so stringent. They, for instance, pump growth hormone into their beef products – we don't. But the big issue here is whether we trade down to meet their shoddy standards or do they trade up to meet ours? Now, I don't know about you, but what's the betting that we'll be trading down to meet them? In many ways it's really quite shocking. The fact that the EU has spent so much time and money developing rigid standards for food manufacturing and farming and the use of pesticides and so on, but when the USA says they want a deal, greed sets in, the EU sees the colour of their money and is quite prepared to sacrifice the health of the nation – or rather the health of the EU nations – in order to make a fast buck.

But guess what? The EU has been rumbled. There has been growing anxiety over TTIP for many months and now, thanks to Greenpeace, we know the truth: the EU is quite prepared to make deals with the USA that will have a negative effect on the European people in order to make money. And the don't necessarily care about the European people. Perhaps they'll say to the USA, "Fine, we'll accept your beef with it's cancer-causing growth hormone and we're quite happy to have your pesticides used on our farmland and consume your GM crops, we'll do anything, we'll compromise our rigid standards on food quality that we have developed over many years, whatever you say, Mr. President."

It is argued that if we come out of the EU on 23 June Dodgy Dave (that's David Cameron, our Prime Minister) will be eager to sign up for TTIP as he'll be desperate for any deal he can get with the USA, especially after Obama told us all recently that if we vote to leave the EU we'll have to go to the back of the queue when it comes to business deals. So much for that 'special relationship'.

I think one of the problems with the EU referendum is that people will probably vote on the personalities involved. On the Brexit side we have Boris Johnson, that phoney buffoon, and Michael 'call me Orville' Gove, not to mention the rather sinister Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) and, of course, Chris Grayling. The only one on the Brexit side who makes me think leaving the EU is possibly a good thing is Lord Owen. He's always struck me as one of those 'proper politicians' along with people like Kenneth Clarke and the late Tony Benn. I've always had a lot of respect for David Owen and was, until recently, unaware that he'd be on the side of Brexit. But he is, so there's hope for those who want out of Europe – it might not be that stupid an idea after all.

Sticking with the personalities, my view on Dodgy Dave and George Osborne is that if they want us all to stay in, then surely we should all vote out.

There is something sinister about the EU. We already know that it hasn't got our best interests at heart, just look at the way TTIP has been negotiated. So, I find myself thinking: Dodgy Dave, he of the Panama Papers fiasco, and George Osborne and, wait for it, Tony Blair, they all want in. Three good reasons to leave, perhaps?

EU immigration, however, won't stop unless we leave the EU – or so it is argued – and that, for most people, is a big issue.

As for me, I'm still undecided. I tend to lean towards staying in Europe along the lines of 'better the devil you know',  but also because I like to consider myself a European, I agree with our new London mayor when he says we should embrace the rest of the world, and in particular our place within Europe, rather than being insular and nationalistic and old fashioned and, some would argue, bigoted. I'm definitely not a 'Little Englander' and for these reasons I think I'll vote 'remain', but I won't say that I'm not concerned about the issues put forward by the Brexit campaigners.

The single market, says Cameron on Countryfile as I write this, is crucial for our future, but the Brexit campaigners complain about the mass of regulations involved. The farming community relies upon migrant workers from the EU, but nine out of 10 people working in agriculture are British.

There's a lot more to the argument, but the above is, roughly, what Andy and I discussed as we sat outside the Tudor Rose Café munching buttered toast and drinking tea from a dark brown teapot. Well, we had cups, it wasn't as if we were drinking Sangria in Spain. We poured the tea into China cups rather than suck it out through the spout.

Soon it was time to face our worst nightmare – the hill out of Westerham heading towards Botley Hill Farmhouse. It didn't phase us one bit and soon we were racing down the 269. We parted company at Warlingham Green and plan a ride to the lakes tomorrow (Bank Holiday Monday), although we might just go to Westerham again.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

May bank holiday – Sunday morning ramblings...

It's 0630hrs and, in all honesty, I never thought I'd be sitting here at this hour. Having planned an early night – or rather, having planned to go to bed 'on time' (around 2230hrs) – I then discovered that I'd be in the car at gone midnight picking somebody up at the railway station. Admittedly this meant that I could sit and watch a couple of episodes of the X-Files so I embraced the situation.

You might recall that yesterday I didn't go out on the bike because I had a 'drive' in mind. Well, that drive took me to Petworth (in West Sussex) and then the beach at Littlehampton. The weather, as I'm sure you'll recall, was wonderful. The reason for no bike ride was to conserve energy and not risk falling asleep at the wheel, which can happen if tiredness sets in; I know somebody who lost his arm having fallen asleep at the wheel. And, as the Greyhound bus driver told me in Pittsburgh last week, the key to any form of long distance driving is rest.

Rest is crucial, say Greyhound bus drivers. This dated shot I found online.
Now let's not make any wild claims here: the difference between the English and Americans when it comes to driving distances is vast. Americans are known to drive in excess of 10hours to get somewhere, often much more, working occasionally in shifts or simply stopping for cups of coffee en route and really going for it. In the UK, if you drive for more than about six hours you'll end up in the sea – and that's if you were driving from Lands End to John O' Groats. So my piddly journey of around 130 miles all-in was nothing to shout about, but I know one thing and that is 'tiredness kills' and I've had many an occasion where I've felt heavy-lidded while clasping the wheel and it's not good.

So, having got to bed, eventually, at gone midnight, I thought I'd check if Andy fancied a later start – meeting at the green around 0800hrs instead of the normal 0730hrs. Alright, just a 30-minute delay, but it makes all the difference. And then, when the alarm sounded – or rather the radio sprang to life at 0600hrs – I was up and out of bed. If the truth be known, I was awake at 0530hrs as the sun had already penetrated the curtains; and while I did get back to sleep, when the radio came on I listened to the first news headline – something about Michael Gove and Boris Johnson and all the back-biting going on within the Tory ranks over the EU debate – and then jumped out of bed.

It was another wonderful morning outside. The sun was shining and, well, that's all I know to be honest, it's another great day and perfect for cycling. I put on a tee-shirt, found my socks (one was on the floor, the other hiding in one of the legs of my trousers) and then headed downstairs for Shredded Wheat, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, not forgetting a cup of tea (with milk!). You may be wondering why I've included 'with milk', well, it's all to do with my recent trip to the USA and a tea company called Bigelow's.

Bigelow's makes some wonderful tea, and I discovered it by accident. Over by the tea station in my hotel – which, annoyingly, was closer to the front desk than the breakfast room (unlike the coffee) – I found a little red sachet of black tea but failed to notice that it contained orange rind and sweet spices. Initially, I thought there was something wrong with the water until I picked up a sachet of the tea the following morning and noted that it was a black tea with orange rind and sweet spices, something, perhaps, that I should drink with milk. For the rest of my stay in the USA I had the tea straight without milk and then, before checking out and flying home I half-inched a few sachets to take home (around 20!). All last week here in the UK I've been enjoying this wonderful tea, without milk, and I ran out yesterday, so now I'm back on normal black tea with milk and it's not the same. I'm planning to get some of Bigelow's tea delivered to me here in the UK.

So I'm sitting here at 0653hrs, having enjoyed my breakfast – and looking forward to another one in Westerham later this morning – and I'm feeling alive and ready to ride, which is odd when you consider I was expecting to feel tired and heavy-lidded and in 'abort' territory. There was a text from Andy saying yes to a later start and while I considered texting back and saying 'stick with our usual time' I remembered the wise words of the Greyhound bus driver and decided to chill out and leave at 0730hrs for an 0800hrs rendezvous at Warlingham Green. For a minute I thought I'd spelt 'rendezvous' incorrectly, but it's fine. "The key is rest," my Greyhound bus driver said and he was right. Remember that when I met the guy he'd driven a bus from New York City to Pittsburgh via Philadelphia and was heading back in the opposite direction the following morning. That's a long drive and with the added responsibility of having passengers on board.

Riding a Greyhound bus in America is probably one of those things we should all do at some stage in our lives. Perhaps the next time I'm out there, I'll ride one somewhere, but the distances are so huge and time at such a premium, it's something I'll have to think long and hard about before climbing aboard.

On the rest front, I haven't been doing too well. The worst thing about jet lag is often its subtlety. By that I mean it hangs around long after you think it's gone home. I got back last Saturday morning, not  yesterday, but the week before and I decided that day to stay up until it was time to hit the sack. This I managed quite well. During the day I had a few periods of nodding off for a split second or two, but I managed it all the way through to gone midnight and then, during the week just past, I found that while the jet lag proper had gone, I noticed that I had a new lease of life around 2300hrs and sat up watching late night television shows before hitting the sack around the witching hour. This has persisted all week and what with yesterday's late night I'm still not getting the early night my body deserves. I know that one of these days I'll feel need to crash early and that I'll simply stagger up to bed and fall asleep.

Right, it's time for a ride. See you later...

May Bank Holiday – Saturday morning ramblings...

What amazes me is the pointless decision that I made yesterday not to go cycling this morning. The idea was to be out early to drive somewhere and have lunch and then return home, but it's gone 10am and nobody's doing anything. Alright, nor I'm I. Here I sit on the computer writing this post when, perhaps, I should be 'doing things', although, to be fair, I have done things: I've put out the rubbish. Paper in the blue box and plastics in the green. Or is it the other way around? Either way I've done stuff. I've eaten breakfast, but I need a shower too, so I'm estimating we'll not be out of the house until at least 1100hrs. Beyond that and it's pointless going anywhere far.

My rental bike in Pittsburgh – everything in working order!
I've just discovered something interesting. Cycle Republic is basically Halford's in disguise! I went on to the Cycle Republic website and when it came to checking out new bikes – no, I'm not looking for a new bike – the website redirected me to Halford's. Now, there I was considering putting my bike into Cycle Republic for a service, but now that I know it's Halford's in disguise, I'm having second thoughts. You may ask why and it's because whenever I have taken my bike into Halford's for a service it's always come out slightly worse than when it went in. The last time I took it there they adjusted the forks (without even being asked to do so) and the net result was that the ride was spongy and like being in a boat in a rough sea. Also, I find with Halford's that whenever I take the bike in for whatever's wrong (gears, brakes etc) it's not long before the bike needs to make a return journey. I made a point of not going to Halford's after the last time. In fact, I've been using Cycle King in South Croydon. Now there's a bike shop I trust. It's £99 for a rebuild – which I need to have done on my machine – and, I don't know, but I trust the people who work there, they're not rip-off merchants either, which is good.

I've really got to get my bike serviced. It's currently running on eight of its 16 gears and has no front brake to speak of, and after last week's rides in Pittsburgh on a hybrid with working brakes and gears and tyres as hard as rock AND a decent saddle – I'm seriously thinking about losing the Spongy Wonder – I think it's about time I slapped myself around the face and took my bike in for a service. I like the idea of a rebuild. Basically they strip back the bike and rebuild it, making it (apparently) like new. It's something my bike clearly needs and deserves. I simply must treat it right and not just sling it in the garage every weekend and expect it to work. Nine times out of 10 it does work, but it's getting a little creaky, it's unsafe and I need to rectify matters.

I'm planning to ride on Sunday and Monday and we'll probably go to Westerham for breakfast at the Tudor Rose on one of the days, possibly Sunday, as who knows what their plans are for Bank Holiday Monday? They might be closed and we'd be stuck in Westerham without tea or biscuits. Now that would truly be a disaster, especially knowing that next on the agenda would be the hill towards Botley. I think I'd probably resign myself to sleeping rough in and around Westerham until I plucked up the motivation to head hom, although riding up the Westerham hill on an empty stomach? No way!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Flying home from Pittsburgh....

I had plenty of time to kill on Friday, but eventually I found myself in a taxi heading for the airport along the interstate. My cab driver wasn't the most talkative man in the world, but we exchanged a few words and the rest of the time I simply gazed out of the window.

When we reached Pittsburgh I still had plenty of time to kill, but I wasn't in the slightest bit hungry having had lunch at Eleven, so I checked out the books and considered buying Helter Skelter, it's all about the Manson murders in the 1960s and it's one of those books I've been meaning to read for some time. In all honesty, though, I couldn't be bothered and instead spent the entire flight – it was only short – staring out of the window again.

Another bridge over a Pittsburgh River – I'll miss this great city...
There was a woman on the flight with two young children. Her husband was in New Mexico with her other kids and I swear I overheard her say that she had five kids in total. The kids with her on the flight were very well behaved and the tiny one (a baby) didn't make a sound. I ordered tea with creamer and was given a small pack of pretzels.

Our descent into Charlotte seemed slow. There was so much cloud that we didn't see land until the last minute. For a while I thought I was going to have to go through security again, but I didn't; I just walked to gate D11 and discovered that I had just 23 minutes before the flight to London started to board. I considered buying a magazine, but in the end I didn't bother. Nothing appealed and while I did eventually opt for Newsweek, the credit card machine didn't seem to be working so I boarded with nothing but my notepad and a pen to keep me company. I figured that if there was nothing I wanted to read, I'd have to write something myself.

After take-off I sat there writing about my journey, but it was short-lived. When the food arrived – we all had a choice of chicken or pasta – I stopped and afterwards watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining (both Kubrick movies and both brilliant). But two cans of beer brought on drowsiness and eventually I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up we were about an hour out of London Heathrow and 'breakfast' was being served – blueberry muffin, blueberry yoghurt – and I ordered a cup of tea too.

Apart from a bit of turbulence, the flight was smooth, although there were some hectic moments while we were still on the tarmac. I hate it when a passenger goes missing (although it's never happened before) as I wonder whether the cabin crew does anything about it. As I boarded I overheard one of the crew saying, "there's a woman on board without a boarding pass" and I felt like saying, "Well bloody well kick her off the plane, you idiots, she might be a terrorist!" I said nothing, but I quietly seethed with anger. I think it was the prospect of a long night flight that had made me feel so short-tempered. I hate night flights.

And then there was Sabrina Wong. Apparently they couldn't find her and came asking the passengers where she might be, as if we'd know. Later I saw a Chinese-looking girl walking nonchalantly down the aisle and thought, "that's her, that's Sabrina Wong!" She took a seat behind me and I spent a few minutes wondering whether she was the passenger without a boarding pass. I never found out.

I felt remarkably chirpy when the plane landed in the UK and decided to wait for my local cab company to come and pick me up. I sat in Terminal Three's Caffé Nero drinking tea and munching an almond croissant and after about an hour the mobile rang. It was the taxi driver. The quality of his driving left a lot to be desired, he kept stopping abruptly, shaking me from a light slumber. While I replied 'no problem' when he apologised, I wasn't happy, but I was too tired to argue. That's what I hate about minicab drivers, it's the luck of the draw who you're going to get and whether you're going to enjoy their company or whether they're going to be any good at driving.

I got home and inspected the garden. Things had certainly grown since I left a week ago.

My plan is to stay up until around 10pm and then hit the sack, it's the best way to deal with jet lag. Whether I go on a ride tomorrow, I don't know. Let's see how I feel.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

On meeting a Greyhound bus driver...

Today I met a Greyhound bus driver. How fantastic. The Greyhound bus embodies the romanticism of travelling in the USA, along with Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Sean Cassidy and Ken Kesey's old school bus, destination 'Further'. The Greyhound bus, now there's something else I'd like to experience, preferably a long ride down to the Mexican border, something hardcore.

I went past the Greyhound bus station yesterday on my stroll through the city and I just love the whole idea of it, the distances that can be covered at a relatively low cost and the sort of people you're likely to meet en route. That's the great thing about America, that capacity for drifting, moving from state-to-state, working your way around, living in rented rooms and basically acting out that whole Kerouac thing.

One of many bridges spanning Pittsburgh's three rivers...
In the UK you simply can't live that life. In the US you can up sticks and move states, move miles away, and work anywhere too, jump on a Greyhound bus or roar off on a Harley Davidson - without wearing a crash helmet even - and that's what I like about the place.Yeah, you could say, "well, you can do that in the UK" and I'm sure you can, but it doesn't have that ring about it, does it? "Hey, man. I was working in Swindon and I got a little fed up, so I headed east to Norwich on the M11." I'm sorry, it's not exactly the Interstate, is it?

Some people say that America's just like the UK or anywhere else in the world; and, of course, on one level it is: there are restaurants and hotels and bars and cars and people work in office blocks and commute on trains, but the weird thing about being here, feet on the ground, so to speak, is that feeling that there's so much more space. Sitting here in Pittsburgh I'm aware of the fact that I'm up in the North East of the country, but I'm also aware of the vast expanse of land heading both south and west and north. Alright, go east and you hit the sea, the North Atlantic, but sticking on dry land, I could ride a Harley to the Mexican border and beyond, spending the night in motels, perhaps, or God knows where, but it goes on for miles.

You know what I love about American airports? I love wandering from gate-to-gate while waiting for my flight and seeing all the different destinations open to me: Grand Rapids, Baton Rouge, Knoxville, all places that are around two hours flying time from wherever I find myself and yet they're all big cities hundreds of miles away from wherever I happen to be. And then there's the people. Some of them have a kind of wildness about them that you don't get in the UK. They sport long hair and straggly beards and have a kind of weathered, sun blushed appearance that speaks of wide open spaces and living in the wilds. Not that all Americans live under canvas or in trailer parks. I know that, but this really is another country, full of great people, positive people, friendly people, and it's unrivalled in Europe where that same openness is simply not there. People won't stop to say hello or wish you 'have a nice day'. Over here people give you the time of day, they're interested in what you're doing. Not in Europe. In Europe people are a little miserable and unsociable and in England it's even worse.

But there are bad things about the USA too. There's the gun laws for a start and the fact that some people don't feel safe without packing a piece. And it's one of those places where, if you're down on your luck you can lose everything and the state won't bail you out.

I've heard people talk, quite nonchalantly, about driving for 18 hours non-stop to get somewhere or other and today, hearing from the Greyhound bus driver, well, I was chuffed to say the least. We were both over by the tea station in the hotel. I was making myself a Bigelow's black tea with orange rind and spices and he was brewing up his own kind of drink, I'm not sure what. He had driven all the way from New York via Philadelphia to here, Pittsburgh, and said the key to driving long distances was getting your rest. If you don't get your rest, well, you'd better watch out.

We bade each other farewell. I assumed he was going back to his room to get some rest as tomorrow morning he's driving right back to New York City and probably won't get there until early evening. He told me how today's Greyhound buses offer WiFi and rest rooms, making the journey that little bit more pleasant than it might have been in the past. It was great chatting to the guy, but when he went back to his room I went back to the television in the communal part of the hotel (on the ground floor close to the front desk) to catch up on the EgyptAir flight that might have been downed by a terrorist bomb. The big question is whether the bomb got on board when the plane was in Paris (these days Paris is a kind of European Islamabad, so it's not out of the question). I can't say I like Paris. It's a dirty city and now we know it's full of Islamist terrorists too. Still, it's too early to say what actually happened. The black box has yet to be recovered.

But it's all rather worrying. I've got to fly back home tomorrow afternoon and things like the EgyptAir catastrophe make the whole experience a little bit edgy. Ultimately, it's the luck of the draw and it goes without saying that I hope things are going to be alright.

You know what? I'd like to embark upon a road trip across the USA. I think I'd fly to New York or Chicago and then head west to Seattle and then down to Portland, Oregon, and west towards Los Angeles. I'd like to then drive back east, possibly towards Charlotte, North Carolina, before getting a plane home. If I was going to be more ambitious, I'd leave the UK from Southampton on a steamer to New York, right across the Atlantic, then I'd drive westwards to LA, try and take a boat to Hawaii and from there see if it was possible to get to Japan. I'd chill a bit in Japan, visit Tokyo and then search out a boat to take me to Vladivostok from where I'd board the Trans Siberia Express to Moscow and from there make my way through Europe to Calais where I'd board a ferry to Dover. I'd then get a train to London Victoria and then a suburban service back out to the burbs where I live; but I wouldn't want to be put any time limit on such a journey. I'd like to take my time and have my family with me all the way.

One day, when I've made loads of money, perhaps I'll buy the ticket. I have no intention of planning anything (apart from visas). The idea would simply be to pack a suitcase, walk to my local railway station and take it from there. Planning it would somehow defeat the philosophy behind doing it in the first place.

It's 1821hrs here in Pittsburgh and today the sun has been shining brightly. It makes a big difference. On Sunday the weather was appalling. Rain, cloud and a cold wind. Today it's wonderful, like a summer day, even now at almost half past six.

It's going to be a busy day tomorrow. I've got a meeting at noon, but before that I've got to tidy up my room, pack my suitcase and generally get things organised for the flight home, like booking a taxi to the airport. Yes, tomorrow sees the beginning of 'travel hassles' and all that phrase entails: going through security, getting the lap top out of the case, making sure that I don't have any toothpaste or shaving gel on me (unless I check in my suitcase) and so on and so forth. But hopefully, at the end of the process, I'll arrive safely in London and I can head home to my garden and enjoy a peaceful weekend with the family, listening to the tinkling of the wind chime and enjoying the decent weather - that's assuming there is decent weather.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A stroll before dinner in Pittsburgh...

After writing up a Trip Advisor review of the hotel I'm staying in - a risky practice when you consider that I still haven't checked out - and then penning another review of the restaurant Eleven, where my colleague Paul and I have been dining most of the week (it's across the road so why waste money on cabs?) I decided to take a stroll before dinner.

It was an interesting stroll around town that took me along Liberty Avenue and into the bustling centre of town, which wasn't really that bustling as it was after 5pm and I'm assuming most of the people I saw were making their way home from work. I ended up on Penn Avenue where yesterday I'd enjoyed a quick drink in Lefty's Bar with Paul and ended up in a Mexican restaurant where I ordered a paella and a beer. I can't say I really enjoyed the beer, but the food was alright.

I wandered about with the river on my right hand side and eventually I headed straight for it only to find that, for some reason, the bridge was closed. Not that I was going over it, but it's intriguing, isn't it, when a bridge is closed and you start to wonder why. "There's a match on," said a woman, pointing to the stadium on the far bank. "Oh," I replied, but I wasn't really interested. I couldn't tell you what kind of match it was, football, baseball, I just don't know, so I headed back towards the David L Lawrence Convention Centre, followed the road round and eventually decided that I ought to eat before it gets too late.

Eleven on Smallman Street – the best restaurant in Pittsburgh?
I knew I'd go back to Eleven because it's so good and on so many different levels. The service, the ambience, the food, everything, not least the convenience. I know that I can just cross the road and walk to the hotel where, incidentally, I am now, having just made that walk. It's just gone 9pm.

Having enjoyed dining with Paul all week, I found it hard going back to dining alone, but dine alone I did. A table for one. I knew the menu inside out. But sometimes it's good to 'people watch' and that's just what I did, but without them knowing I was watching. The last thing I wanted was somebody asking me, "What are you staring at?"

Earlier, as I walked up Penn Avenue I stumbled across the geekiest of geeky shops, a comic book emporium called Eide's Entertainment, billed as 'the world's greatest comic shop'. It was certainly that. Not only was the place crammed from head to foot with comic books, over three floors, it also stocked old vinyl records. A truly amazing place. I picked up a copy of the Clash's first album and their second (Give Em Enough Rope) not forgetting the triple album Sandinista, and found myself inwardly humming along to Hitsville UK, one of many great tracks on the album, although Sandinista was not the best Clash album.

When I picked up the Give Em Enough Rope album - and, indeed, the band's first album simply called The Clash - I was transported back to the late seventies when I was just a little bit older than my daughter is now. I have mixed feelings about those times and some strange memories, some of which sadden me. One of the latter memories involved my 21st birthday and a watch my parents gave me as a present. It was a gold Timex digital watch that I truly wished I still owned now, but I don't, and I feel particularly bad about that and the fact that I never really appreciated, at the time, the thought that went into the purchase of that watch. I was too tied up in being an angst-ridden young man to care about most things. Those days haunted me as I thumbed through the vinyl albums, particularly those first two Clash albums. While unemployed and down on my luck, working as an evening shelf stacker in Sainsbury's, I taught myself to type and I distinctly remember typing out the back cover of that first Clash album. As I looked at it, the memories flooded back. And now, of course, dad is no more. He passed away in 2011, in fact his fifth anniversary was last Sunday.

As I walked back towards the convention centre I thought of the moment when mum saw dad in the chapel of rest back in 2011. It was a sad moment for her, of course, but seeing her upset like that has stayed with me and came back to me as I walked along the street. 

When I reached Eleven I considered not going in just at that moment, but doing a little more walking before 'pulling up a chair' and tucking in, but I'd had a good walk already and I figured it best to get in there and eat something before it was too late. They sandwiched me in between a party of bankers, or businessmen, I can't figure out what they were, but one man was particularly annoying. He shouted rather than talked. "I'm 65 and my wife is just 39!" he boasted to a man who was so old I figured he'd never make it through the meal. "Give me another shot at president and I'll sort those Chinese out!". He was a real cock of the highest order and I wasn't that keen on his dinner companions. They all looked like greedy, money-grabbing sorts, the kind of people Michael Douglas might have targetted had they been characters in the movie Falling Down.

Whenever I drew back my hotel room curtains...
On my right was a young couple. I'm not sure if they were together or not, but they were fairly pleasant. She was from Tokyo, he was born and bred Pittsburgh. We eventually chatted (how else would I know that she was from Tokyo and he lived on the outskirts of town?) and they were great, wishing me well and hoping I'm treated right while in town. I told them that I had been treated perfectly well and that all was good on that score, but that was at the end of my meal. The chicken dish was fine: breast of chicken, greens and a risotto accompaniment. The banana cake was light and delicate, that's why I ordered it, and besides, I knew it would be good because I'd ordered it only a couple of days ago. The beers were pleasant enough too, although I'm going off of beer and I don't particularly like the new-fangled American 'real' ales, they're too syrupy and gassy. Give me a pint of Young's Ordinary Bitter any day.

When I wasn't talking to the couple or eavesdropping on the ruddy-faced business nob head, I played with my mobile phone, in particular the Roger's Profanisauras App where I learnt some excellent phrases, like 'clear the custard' - meaning to have a long overdue moment of gentlemanly relaxation. "I've got 10 minutes before I have to take mass. I'll just nip upstairs and clear the custard."

I had to be very careful not to suddenly burst out laughing as when you're dining alone there are certain things you simply don't do, one of them being laughing out load, seemingly for no reason. Here's another good entry: 'atomic mutton' - a mature woman trying to look younger than she obviously is and ending up looking like a tart in the process. An example being Liz McDonald out of Coronation Street.

I like Dangermouse too - a slim fanatella. But on that note I must hit the sack.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Taking a ride around Pittsburgh...

The last time I returned from Pittsburgh, one of my colleagues asked me if I'd taken a bike ride. My answer was a rather shameful 'no' having cycled around San Antonio and Indianapolis as well as other places, such as Berlin, Amsterdam and Essen in Europe.

That's the bike I rode on the left of the shot...
Now that I'm back in Pittsburgh I felt I ought to take a ride and, just by a stroke of luck, while out walking this morning I stumbled across Golden Triangle Bike Rentals and, having recently discussed with Andy how we rarely see any Kona bicycles on the road, this little outfit down by the river had a selection of rides all made by Kona. I was made up as you can imagine. It cost US$8.00 for an hour ride or US$30 for the day so my colleague Paul and I decided to take a ride – and it was well worth it, I can tell you.

This contraption probably transported hot metal from the furnace
Apart from the fact that the bikes were incredibly well-maintained (ours seemed brand new) the route was all mapped out and it was all off-road on paths that were once railroad tracks. In other words, no danger from cars and with that came a tremendous amount of freedom. We were told to pay when we brought the bikes back and that we did.

On the Hot Metal Bridge heading south...
The path followed the north bank of the Monongahela River along what was known as the Eliza Furnace Trail towards Hot Metal Bridge, which we crossed and headed west through the South Shore Riverfront Park on what was now the South Side Trail. Along the way we passed Birmingham Bridge, then 10th Street Bridge, Liberty Bridge and the Smithfield Street Bridge. We had a brief look at Station Square and then, somewhere along the route, encountered a dead end. We had been told about this, but it still confused us momentarily until we found a route across the Fort Pitt Bridge back to the North Bank of the Monongahela where it meets the Ohio River. We could have followed the Ohio River along it's northern bank on what was called the Chateau Trail or the Allegheny River's Strip District Trail on its south bank, or crossed the Fort Duquesne Bridge and followed the North Shore Trail, but instead we headed back along the Monongahela River towards the Golden Triangle rental shop where we started, although things didn't go 100% as planned. Once over the Fort Pitt Bridge we lost our way and ended up on the riverside looking for a way up to the trail level. Eventually we had to carry our bikes up a flight of concrete steps and eventually found ourselves back on the trail and yards from the rental shop*. We'd been out for just over an hour and had enjoyed an invigorating ride in threatening weather. It was bitterly cold.

The guy in the rental shop told us that the Great Allegheny Passage leads all the way to Washington DC, 345 miles away, and that just before we had arrived to hire our bikes, a party of cyclists had headed out on that very journey, described as 'a multi-day adventure'. To go to DC you cross the Hot Metal Bridge, but instead of turning right, as we did, you turn left and keep going. If you don't cross the Hot Metal Bridge but keep going you come to the Panther Hollow Trail that borders Schenley Park and stops close to the Phipps Conservatory.

An old slag pot...
The trail we took was full of Pittsburgh's steel heritage as the photographs illustrating this post testify.

What the cycle trail looks like...
There are 25 miles of traffic-free riverside trail in Pittsburgh and, in addition to the city's steel heritage, you might stumble across the odd homeless person asleep in a sleeping back or in a tent en route. I'm not mentioning this for any underhand reason, just saying that there are homeless issues wherever you go in the world and one thing I know is that in the cold weather, being homeless can't be any fun.

Pittsburgh's iron and steel heritage is recognised on the cycle trail.
The guys at Golden Triangle will also provide a map that not only details the routes of the trails, which are fairly easy to follow, but also list various restaurants, museums, ice cream parlours, bars and restaurants that can be found en route, and you don't have to ride alone as guided tours are also on offer.
The Canadian-Pacific Railroad – a never-ending goods train...
I'm not sure how many of my readers will find themselves in Pittsburgh, but here's the details, should you need them:-
More of the Hot Metal Bridge...
* On Thursday I hired another bike and revisited Sunday's route, but this time I managed to stay with the trail once over Fort Pitt Bridge – it meant a little time on Pittsburgh's roads, but it was fine.

Golden Triangle Bike Rentals and Tours
Downtown Pittsburgh
600 First Avenue
Pittsburgh PA 15219
Tel: (412) 600-0675

Travelling to Pittsburgh, USA...

When the conveyor toaster collapsed in front of me I knew that breakfast wasn't going to be that memorable an experience. Then, when I noticed that the cutlery was plastic and the crockery made of paper, my suspicions were confirmed. This was basic. But in many ways it didn't matter; it wasn't that bad a hotel.

I'd checked in the day before, at around a quarter to eight in the evening, having taken a taxi from Pittsburgh airport. It had cost me $60 and my driver told me he was a recovering alcoholic who claimed he didn't sleep well because he drank too much diet coke. More fool him, I thought, as I bade him farewell and entered the lobby of the Hampton by Hilton.

Now that's a huge hotel room! You can't see the kitchenette!
The check-in was friendly and the man at the front desk guessed it was me by my accent. He gave me my room card and directed me to the elevator where I travelled all the way to the top and discovered that my room was huge. And by huge I mean enormous. It was the size of a small conference room and would probably seat around 50 people 'theatre style' if the need ever arose. I found myself wondering why a hotel company would waste so much space. There was only a bed and a sofa in the room, plus a television, and I figured they could have made around four average-sized rooms out of the space occupied by mine.

I've probably mentioned before that I don't like large hotel rooms – or large rooms full stop.There's something about sleeping in a wide open space that unsettles me, but I was so tired that I could have slept anywhere. Earlier I'd endured an eight-hour flight from London Heathrow to Charlotte, North Carolina, and it wasn't the smoothest of journeys. There had been prolonged periods of turbulence that required everybody to be seated and, if I'm honest, I wasn't that happy with American Airlines. I much prefer British Airways, but for some reason I'd opted for the former.

The flight was late for a start. We were supposed to take off at 1215hrs but I don't think we left the ground until around 1300hrs, if not a little bit later, probably 1330hrs. But what annoys me is that I always get the feeling that the Americans, while supposedly being big on 'service' and 'have a nice day' don't actually give two fucks about the customer. They seem to be saying 'like it or lump it' and work on the principle of the captive audience. So, the flight's late but there's no explanation as to why and it goes without saying that everybody accepts it. I think if people were more reactionary – and by that I mean if they simply, en masse, said, 'fuck you, American Airlines, we're going back to our hotel, sort your fucking lives out!' then perhaps they might change their attitude.

The view from my hotel room...
And then, on the plane, that whole class thing came into play; the whole notion that the further back you are in the plane, the scummier you must be and, therefore, the least service you get as a result. I was in seat 30D, an aisle seat, and when it was time for the food to be wheeled out, the 'trolley dollies' rolled past me and headed towards the front of the plane. One of the American airline hostesses was a big mamma. She seemed pleasant enough, but man she was 'wide', but more of her later. I knew then that I'd have a long wait until they reached me and sure enough I did. Eventually, however, along they came and there was a choice between chicken and pasta. I opted for the former and, as airline food goes, it wasn't too bad. What I didn't like was the wine. It was awful. Normally on planes I ask for a couple of those small 187ml bottles of red wine and I get a Merlot or a Cabernet, but this time I noticed that the trolley carried a huge bottle of red wine and they were dishing out paper cups of it. Now, that's fine, you might say, probably much more wine than in a small bottle, but the quality was piss poor. It was so bad that I handed mine back after a few sips.

The view from my hotel room looking left...
But let's get back to the trolley dollies. One of them had such a huge arse that she had to shimmy diagonally along the aisle and every time she went past me she nudged me, and I had to make sure that my tea or water or whatever I was drinking was in my right hand, otherwise it would have been knocked clear out of my hand and into my lap. It got very annoying and even if I had advanced warning – and by that I mean if I could see her coming at me from a distance – she still managed to nudge me. Her arse was so huge she'd do a fine job acting as a fender for ships coming into port.

There was plenty wrong with the flight. The screen on which I was supposed to be able to watch movies didn't work and the speakers they gave me to listen to music were shit, so I simply didn't bother. There wasn't even a map showing the plane as it made its way across the Atlantic. And that was another thing: time passed slowly; very slowly. I passed the time reading. I had a copy of The Week, an excellent publication, along with The Times and not forgetting a copy of GQ that I'd bought a couple days earlier. There was a good article in there about the Manic Street Preachers, and an interview with Chris Evans ahead of Top Gear reappearing on our screens, and not forgetting an article by Tony Parsons on Brexit, which, I must admit, took me closer to voting out rather than stay, although I still think I'll vote to stay.

A bill poster in downtown Pittsburgh
The turbulence didn't worry me as much as it used to, which was just as well because it was prolonged. As a consequence I remained seated for most of the flight with only brief sojourns along the aisles just to stretch my legs.

Towards the end of the flight I struck up a conversation with a guy across the aisle from me. He was a really nice bloke who reminded me of the television journalist John Sargeant, although he was an American from North Carolina who'd been on a Norwegian cruise. His day was much longer than mine had been. While I didn't leave the house in London until 0900hrs, he'd been up around 0400hrs, in Copenhagen and had flown to London to catch the flight we were both on. Our conversation was friendly and touched upon all sorts of subjects: Donald Trump, gardens (or 'yards' as he put it) cycling, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Norway and so on. His wife, who had the window seat next to him, looked tired and didn't say much and in a way I envied them because they were getting home whereas I was miles from home. They would get to see their 'yard' but I wouldn't see mine for another week.

We were warned that the approach into Charlotte would be bumpy, but having spent most of the flight seated due to turbulence, nobody really cared and soon we found ourselves on the ground and going through the hassle of American immigration, queuing in a long zig zag queue and eventually coming out the other end. I had a connecting flight to Pittsburgh and somewhere along the line I managed to say goodbye to the man and his wife before going through security again – I hate going through security – and then striding purposefully towards the gate for last flight of the day.

I reached Pittsburgh around 1930hrs and jumped in the aforementioned taxi to the hotel and then, after dropping my bags in the room I went to meet a colleague in a restaurant across the street. It was something like 0130hrs UK time, but only around 2000hrs here in Pittsburgh. The restaurant was called Eleven and it was dark and bustling and the food was good. I ordered chicken with risotto and greens plus a glass of cabernet and finally managed to relax a little. I knew I'd have a rough night's sleep later, mainly because of the journey and I did wake up two or three times, but eventually I could see daylight so I jumped up and took a shower and then it was breakfast and that conveyor toaster and the paper plates and then we took a walk around town and eventually a bike ride too, which, arguably, was one of the best rides I'd ever taken in a foreign country, mainly because it followed disused railroad tracks and skirted the river, passing many old relics from Pittsburgh's steel industry heritage. I'll write a separate post about that later.

Right now, as I write this, I'm not in my room (as I normally am when I write stuff). I'm in the hotel's business centre, which is very good. In fact, if you forget about the paper plates and that conveyor toaster that took it upon itself to simply collapse in front me, this is a nice little hotel. There's even a pool, which I'm tempted to use this week, although I've just had a tremendous bit of exercise on the bike. In fact, going back again to the paper plates, they're not that bad an idea. There's no restaurant in the hotel – always a bit of a bummer in my books – but at least that means we get to sample the delights of Pittsburgh's culinary scene.

I've been to Pittsburgh before. In fact, as we came into land I could see the 'cathedral of learning'. The so-called 'cathedral of learning' is Pittsburgh University. It's a tall, grey building that stands out, a bit like a cathedral, and was close to where I stayed when I was last in town, back in 2013. I remember the street where my Quality Inn was located, the Boulevard of the Allies. What a great name for a street. I crossed it earlier today as we, my colleague Paul and I, walked around town.

Weatherwise, it's not so good. While it was 70 + degrees in North Carolina, here in Pittsburgh it's cold and cloudy and spitting with rain. Yesterday it was raining too. The guy in the cycle hire shop said things were going to improve, but the ride we took earlier was, shall we say, a little 'bracing', but worth every minute. It's so nice to ride a decent bike. Well, not decent, but a bike that works, a bike with all of its gears, a soft saddle and fully blown up tyres. I don't think my bike back home is ever in such a state, it's always got faulty gears or dodgy brakes or something wrong with it.

I'm amazed at how many hotel brands are owned by the Hilton Group. There's Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Waldorf Astoria, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Canopy by Hilton, Curio 'a collection by Hilton', Doubletree by Hilton, Embassy Suites by Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton by Hilton (where I'm staying) Homewood Suites by Hilton, HOME2 suites by HIlton, Hilton Grand Vacations, Hilton HHonors.

Last year in Cleveland at roughly this time I stayed in a Doubletree. What a great hotel! The main thing there was the free cookies. And on that note, it's time for lunch, or it will be shortly. Today, Sunday, is our only day off. From tomorrow onwards we have to work so I've got to make the most of my time today. We've had a decent bike ride and now it's time for lunch.

Somewhere I can hear Don't You Worry Bout a Thing by Stevie Wonder.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

To Westerham for tea and toast, and a solo ride to mum's

The word 'moreish' is often used to disguise greed, as if the notion that something is 'moreish' somehow excuses one from admitting that he or she is simply a pig. You know what I mean, you stuff your face with a bag of non-salted cashew nuts and when somebody mentions that you've 'scoffed the lot' your rather lame excuse is simply that they were 'quite moreish'. As if the person accusing you of being a pig is going to say, "Ah! Moreish are they? Well in that case I take back what I said."

But let's face it, unsalted cashew nuts ARE moreish. Once a packet is opened they have to be scoffed. Likewise sultanas or raisins, purchased for the purpose of making a cake, are soon consumed and at the risk of no cake being made. It's a sorry state of affairs, especially for somebody like me who finds quite a lot of things 'moreish'. Beer and wine being a prime example.

The breakfast table was set when I arrived...
I must point out that, as I write this, I am sitting in my back garden on a newly weeded patio. The sun is shining, the skies are blue, I can hear the distant sound of a light aircraft making its way somewhere and there's a wind chime chiming away in the light breeze. In short, it's absolutely wonderful. I am sitting under a large green umbrella, there's a towel swaying silently in the breeze on a rotary drier, birds are tweeting and, as I look out on to the lawn, I spy what looks like the discarded antlers of a reindeer but is, in fact, a branch from a tree that needed pruning and now needs to be cut into tiny pieces ready for disposal. I look at it with other ambitions. I'm thinking that I might have a bonfire later, in the twilight, with a beer. I want to enjoy the full primeval wonder of the flame, fanned by the breeze as the sun goes down. I even have thoughts of one day, lighting up a wood fire and pitching a small tent at the top of the garden where I might even spend the night, under the stars, as they say, with, no doubt, other members of my family looking out after dark, from the warmth of the house, and wondering whether I might have taken leave of my senses. Perhaps they would be right, but then I often think about sleeping in the wild. Yesterday, while driving through Ashdown Forest on the other side of East Grinstead, I felt a strange yearning to be under canvas and, as avid readers of this blog will know, it's a subject that has come up before on many a ride. I would dearly love to combine the two, cycling and sleeping under canvas, but as yet a suitable situation has yet to arise. One day, perhaps.

The reason I bring up cashew nuts and, indeed, beer, is that I've just enjoyed both. I remembered that there were cashew nuts in the larder and so helped myself to a couple of handfuls and I had just finished a bottle of Golden Summer Ale, I think that's what it was called, from the Hepworth Brewery in Horsham, West Sussex. Both – the nuts and the beer – are moreish and that, perhaps, is a good reason why I only have one bottle of the aforementioned beer in the house. Had there been two I would, no doubt, be drinking it right now; and if there were three, well, it wouldn't be long before I tucked into that too, putting paid to any idea of finishing off the garden chores and, indeed, anything else other people might have had in mind for my otherwise relaxing Sunday afternoon.

It is unbelievably peaceful out here in the garden. Earlier I threaded the lap top's charger through the kitchen window, enabling me to engage in a bit of alfresco blogging and I have to say that it's the way to go. The wind chime continues to chime, the breeze occasionally blows and the skies are even bluer than they were a few minutes ago. That towel still sways on the rotary drier and, lo and behold, the sound of an aeroplane brings back memories of my childhood when, on a similar day to this, I might have been sitting in a paddling pool with my brother and sister, back at home in Carshalton, feeling, perhaps, a little cold in the breeze and getting mildly disheartened when the sun disappears behind a cloud and all I could hear was the sad sound of a crying airliner, invisible to the naked eye, making its descent towards Heathrow. There was something strangely depressing about the sun being extinguished and the sound of a jet engine, almost moaning, as the plane prepared for its final approach.

Amazing weather
The weather this weekend has been truly amazing. I was going to say 'like a summer's day' but in all honesty, it IS a summer's day. It's early May and, for the first time in many a month it was odd to see Phil in a tee-shirt and shorts and wearing no gloves. Yesterday we rode to Westerham with Steve, but before we set off I quickly fixed that bulge in my front tyre, which, Phil informed me, had something to do with catching the inner tube in the valve. Once fixed we headed towards the Limpsfield Road and then, on Church Way, Steve's rear wheel of his Boardman mountain bike, seized up and he had to return to get another bike. Phil and I pressed on towards Westerham wondering how far we would get before Steve caught up with us. Steve, it must be said, is fit and a keen road racer. We joked that he'd catch us at the top of Church Way, but in the end we were sitting comfortably outside of the Tudor Rose café sipping tea and munching toast before he arrived. We sat and chatted for a while about keeping fit and about bikes and Andy and I's long lost idea about setting up our own cycle café and shop and soon it was time to head for home.

Nobody likes the hill out of Westerham, but, as always, it was a case of heads down and get on with it – and that we did. Soon we had reached Botley Hill where Steve decided it was time for him to power home without us, leaving Phil and yours truly on the Limpsfield Road, quite content to make our way home at a steadier pace. The weather was fantastic. There and back we were graced with the presence of a warm breeze, blue skies and sunshine and it wasn't long before we were sailing down Church Way having enjoyed an excellent ride. I reached home at 1019hrs.

The great thing about riding to Westerham, as opposed to the Tatsfield Bus Stop (our default ride for many months) is that we feel as if we've had a decent ride and that's because it's a decent distance – a 22-mile round trip. I think we should aim to ride to Westerham on at least one day of the weekend. To be fair, there have been two successive Westerham jaunts (this week and last week) so we're getting back into our stride.

A Sunday morning ride to mum's
This morning I decided to ride to mum's and left the house around 0730hrs having enjoyed Weetabix, blueberries and sliced banana plus a cup of tea before departing. Once again the weather was amazing, better than yesterday if the truth be known. There was the blue sky and the sunshine and a mild breeze as I wound my way down West Hill, turned left into Essenden, right on to Carlton Avenue and then down Jarvis Road, past my pal Martin's house, up Hayling Park Road and across the mini-roundabout towards Purley Playing Fields. Today, the fields seemed to be endless and green and peppered with goalposts minus the nets. They stretched off into the distance like a giant game of croquet. Dotted here and there was a handful of early morning dog walkers. I rode towards the A23 and the grey, squat Hilton National Hotel and then I turned right and left and found myself on what became the Stafford Road.

Mum and yours truly in mum's garden, Sunday 8th May 2016
There's little traffic on the outward journey to mum's on a Sunday morning, but it gets a little heavier on the return trip. I could have riden to Botley Hill or the Bus Stop, but it's no fun on my own so I pedalled over to Carshalton with a view to a second breakfast consisting of boiled egg, orange segments and a couple of slices of bread and butter, not forgetting the tea and the chat. I'd hoped to see Bon there, but mum said he'd probably gone for a drive. The fact that he didn't respond to my text messages backed this up so I chilled for a while, went out into the garden with mum and reminisced about the olden days.

While the garden has changed considerably since we all lived at home, the surrounding trees and the general environment have remained the same and that's what brings back those memories of dad sitting in the garden with his Tolly Cobbold and the Sunday Times, back in the day when the term 'the right wing press' held little significance. In those days, reading the Sunday Times was a sign of intelligence and astuteness, while reading the Daily Mail was something only women did – the latter is probably still true.

I think the reason why the summer months bring home those times of childhood is because the warm weather takes us out of the house and into the garden and that's where the happy memories lurk: the swimming pool, the hose fights, the cups of tea in the garden, mum's homemade lemonade, dad and with his beer and cigarettes – the smell of tobacco smoke in the air, dad in his blue shorts and white bush hat, and burning old newspapers with magnifying glasses. And let's not forget the trains at the top of the garden, hidden from view during the summer months, but exposed in the winter.

As I cycled up Rossdale I noticed how nothing had really changed. The road was still a golden colour, just like mum's hair, although it was patched up here and there with stretches of black tarmac (the road, not mum's hair). The houses looked the same too, because they were the same. Mum and the Browns, however, are the only original residents, the ones who were there when I was a kid. John Brown, who used to play tennis with dad and run the odd London marathon, turns 70 this week. I know this only because I spied an envelope with his name on it in the kitchen and mum told me it was his birthday.

We sat outside in the garden for about 20 minutes or so and while it was just gone 0900hrs, it was already warm. In all honesty I could have sat there for longer, but I was conscious of the impending ride home, so I made my farewells and headed home, following my outward route, but slightly more warily due to the build-up of traffic.

I can't remember what time I reached home, but it was probably around 1030hrs and I had the rest of the day ahead of me. The sun continued to shine, the wind chime played on in a light breeze and I sat in the shade nursing that beer I mentioned earlier before deciding to write this post in the open air.

It's now just gone 1800hrs, the sun is still shining, the wind chime is still tinkling in the breeze and as the sun heads west the shade races across the lawn. Those towels are still swaying gently on the rotary drier and the skies are still blue. It's warm too and time to consider dinner so I'll sign off until the next time.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Bank Holiday Weekend Cycling – Part two: to Westerham for tea, toast and cake...

Of late – and by 'of late' I mean for many years – my life has been largely devoid of music, mainly because it's impossible to listen to it without some kind of interruption, somebody asking me to 'turn it down' or requesting different music or wanting to discuss something. Ultimately, whenever I consider putting on some music, I think twice and decide not to bother.

As music has basically seeped away from my day-to-day life, like a burst water main, the machinery designed to bring music into the house started to fall into disrepair too. Old speakers soon found themselves in the garage en route to the municipal tip and now there is an amplifier and a CD player sitting self-consciously unconnected and redundant in the living room.

The music itself is in a state of disrepair. CDs can be found in a draw, not inside their original packaging but somewhere else: a New Order Best Of, for instance, might be residing in REM's Out of Time packaging and vice versa, and some CDs have no packaging at all. Needless to say some of them get damaged so that on the odd occasion when I find myself driving to mum's alone or nipping out to the supermarket to buy some milk, I place a CD in the player and it jumps, so I either switch if off or listen to the radio instead.

In all honesty, music has ceased to be important. I won't listen to anything produced beyond, say, 1995 – around that time good music stopped and a mixture of hip hop and Simon Cowell took over, giving the world some of the worst music it's ever likely to hear. It's not going to get any better either so I'm left with my memories and a few damaged CDs. When I say that music is no longer important to me, it used to define my very existence by providing the soundtrack to my life. I lived my life as if it was some kind of movie with me as the big star. Perhaps we're all guilty of this.

From an early age – probably around 13 onwards – I had been listening to music, trying to find meaning and relevance in the lyrics and, occasionally, transporting myself into a fantasy world where I was the lead guitarist playing in front of a huge audience, until the record ended and I came crashing back down to earth and found myself in my bedroom or, if I engage in such fantasies now, Sainsbury's or round at mum's house. And while I really should know better, I still engage in such fantasies.

Some people put music on as 'background' noise. I can't do this. Or rather I can, but I tend to want to listen to whatever is playing, drift off into some kind of other world and, hopefully, stay there for as long as I can. But, of course, such activity is impossible nowadays as there's always something else to do and, therefore, music is no longer relevant simply because there's never any time to just sit down and listen to it like there used to be. In many ways it's sad because I've always believed that music is good for the soul.

So, this week, on a mid-week drive over to mum's, I found All Mod Cons by The Jam – undamaged. What a tremendous album. From the word go it's brilliance shines through and it took me right back to 1978, a strange and formative year for me in so many ways. It reminded me of Bon, my brother, and going to the pub in Carshalton and drinking pints of Young's and not really having any worries – no mortgages, no bills, no responsibilities.

A few days later I found myself walking around the streets of Redhill with Jezza, a work colleague, who asked me to name any other artist – other than Paul Weller – who had not only remained relevant, but was still putting out cutting edge albums. I tried. The Rolling Stones? No, they're largely reliant upon their back catalogue. I wracked my brain and eventually scored: David Bowie. I was right, but Weller, as Jezza was keen to point out, was the only one of our contemporaries – Jezza and I are roughly the same age – who was still of massive relevance today and, of course, is still with us.

Yesterday, as I stood alone at the check-out in Sainsbury's, I spied Quadrophenia – a double CD set with a smaller version of the black and white story that's interwoven into the cover of the original vinyl offering. It was only £5. I'd earlier put a copy of the Observer into my trolley and now I picked it up and noted the price – a good £3. I cast it aside and put Quadrophenia on to the conveyor instead.

What can I say? Quadrophenia, in my opinion, is the best Who album. Better than Tommy, better than Who's Next, better than The Who by Numbers and so on. There are so many aspects of this great double album to bring out, but for now just two: Keith Moon's drumming and John Entwhistle's bass after Daltry has belted out, "Can you see the real me, can yer, CAN YER?!!!!" Driving home yesterday from mum's I found myself replaying it time and time again, it was that good. And when you think about it, what an achievement – the Who have had TWO albums turned into movies.

Another fantastic bit of drumming by Keith Moon can be found at the beginning of the track Bell Boy. Honestly, it's just amazing and, let's face it, they're all good – all four members of the Who.

Breakfast in Westerham. Pic by Andy Smith.
But right now, as I write this, my brain's in-built Walkman is playing In the Crowd from All Mod Cons. It's on from the moment I'm conscious or, as yesterday, when I rode along the Limpsfield Road towards the Green where Andy was waiting. We headed out to Westerham on what was easily the best day of the weekend – blue skies and sunshine and warmth. There was no heavy flask of water in the rucksack, no teabags and no milk as we were headed for the Tudor Rose café where we would enjoy tea, toast and the most amazing fruit cake.

The ride to Westerham was perfect. Great views, albeit with a few Lycra monkeys thrown in for good measure. We sat outside the Tudor Rose and watched the market traders setting up their stalls. Our tea arrived in a huge (and heavy) white teapot followed by two slices of thick, buttered toast and, of course, a couple of slabs of fruit cake. People walked past – dog walkers and old-age pensioners – and we sat there trying to put out of our minds the journey home and that long hill. But soon we were back on the bikes and heading towards the dreaded hill and I said something like, "Soon we'll be at Botley wondering what all the fuss was about." In truth, it was not that bad – it never is. The initial hill is peppered with flat sections and then, once beyond the Surrey Hills totem pole, it's a slow burn to Botley. We soon reached the pub and all that remained was the ride north along the 269 towards the Green. It was such a clear day we could see London stretched out before us, from the Shard to Docklands, but it soon disappeared behind the trees and suddenly we were back in suburbia.

We parted company at the Green and decided not to ride on Bank Holiday Monday, but, as I sit here now on that very day, with the time only minutes away from 0830hrs, I'm still mulling over a possible ride, although I don't think I'll bother. Instead, I'll take my exercise in the garden, sawing a few branches, pulling out some Devil's Forget-Me-Nots and sweeping the patio. Summer is fast approaching, the garden is starting to bloom... and In the Crowd is still playing in my head.