Wednesday, 28 September 2016

In Scunthorpe... it's a bit like In Bruges, but not as good...

I wouldn't say Virgin Trains were tasty...
You know what? Jeremy Corbyn is right and I reckon he's there for the man in the street. Alright, if you're Richard fucking Branson, pretending to be the friendly face of capitalism, Corbyn's not for you; for heaven's sake, if Corbyn has his way, the trains will be nationalised and why not? The other day when everybody was having a go at Jezza for his ride on one of Branson's Virgin Trains, I for one, stood up for the Jezzmeister. Why? Because I've experienced exactly what he experienced on Virgin Trains. In fact, it's happened many times. Once I remember taking a Virgin train to Liverpool. It cost me over £200 (and this was a long time ago) and I had to stand all the way.

Today, similar, but let's talk first about the fare. Can you believe that it costs something like £150 to go to Doncaster? It does. I was issued a ticket by a dopey cow on my local station – a Super Off Peak Return – and, later, when I was standing in the aisle of a Virgin train carriage on King's Cross station looking, like Jezza must have, at all the little white tickets sticking out of the seats before me, I knew that I'd be 'doing a Jezza' and sitting on the floor somewhere. Already people were settling in for a long journey on the floor, put it that way.

My ticket cost £90, but it was while aboard the 1535 Glasgow train that I heard the conductor say that Super Off Peak Return tickets were not being accepted – until AFTER 7pm. I couldn't wait that long so I jumped off, at the very last minute, having discovered that it was going to cost me an additional £60. I had to check out whether this was true or not and I was not surprised to discover that it was true. The other day I flew easyJet to Vienna (and back) for £179 and I'm being expected to pay £150 to go to Doncaster. It's beardy's fault. He's so greedy he has to fleece the public. My view: nationalise the railways.

It all got a bit depressing on the Doncaster to Scunthorpe train...
I jumped off through the guard's door, which had yet to be closed. All the other doors had shut automatically and while the guard said I couldn't get off, I did. I then stood around on the concourse for a while and considered my options. Yes, I could sit around in assorted coffee shops for the rest of the day, awaiting the 1903 train that would eventually take me to sunny Doncaster (and then a local train to Scunthorpe) or I could just jump on the 1608 Leeds train, pay the extra money (which was looking inevitable) and get to my destination at a civilised hour. This I did and then I was pleasantly surprised to note that nobody checked my ticket. Yes, they said it would cost me more money over the intercom, but nobody bothered checking so I hopped off at Doncaster having paid an off-peak fare for what I'm guessing was an on-peak journey. Since when has the peak fare period started at 3pm? It's beardy again being greedy.

Not that I was bothered, I'd managed not to give him any extra cash, but then I found myself on Doncaster station faced with a criminal's dilemma. If I boarded (as I was intending to do) the 1830hrs train to Scunthorpe, perhaps the guard would notice that it was not yet 1900hrs and I was travelling with a Super Saver Off Peak Return – don't forget, folks, all I'd asked for when I bought the ticket was a return to Scunthorpe. So I thought I'd play 'the man' at his own game. I'd buy a single to Scunthorpe and not show my ticket from London. No problem. Now all I've got to do is make sure I get on a train to London before 3pm tomorrow afternoon, although I could always hide in the toilet if I see the guard coming my way.

The local train to Scunthorpe weaved its way towards its final destination and I was feeling distinctly depressed. Even up north, I noticed, pubs are being turned into restaurants. My train passed The Shapla, an Indian restaurant in a building that was clearly once a pub close to Thorne South station.

My fellow passengers looked as pissed off as I was, their faces either pensive, apprehensive or fretful. We stopped at Crowle, pronounced 'Croll' and then on toward Althorpe and over the River Trent.

Room 301, Premier Inn, Scunthorpe, UK...
By the time we reached Scunthorpe it was dark. I took a taxi to my hotel and after checking in went straight down for dinner. I found myself in a Beefeater restaurant and, well, it wasn't brilliant. For a start I was alone and bored – not their fault, to be fair – then there was the food, which was the usual pubby grubby affair. I ordered a prawn cocktail, which consisted of about six small prawns on a bed of salad smothered in a Mary Celeste sauce. There was more salad than prawns, but the sauce, oddly enough, made the bland lettuce just about edible. I forced myself to eat the salad out of sheer boredom. Oh, for a newspaper!

For main course, I ordered sea bass, 'gently steamed in a paper pouch' – they couldn't bring themselves to state 'en papillote' –  easily the best dish on the menu, as I felt there was no way it could be mass-produced. I supposed they might have employed cloning, who knows? But it was a fish and I figured it had to be just that, an individual fish. Everything else, almost everything else, might well have been manufactured in Basingstoke and shipped around Beefeater's national estate in frozen food lorries.

A glass of red wine and a bottle of still mineral water...
I ordered a large glass of red wine (Campo Viejo Tempranillo Rioja) and a small bottle of still mineral water and spent the entire meal time messing around with my phone. There was little else to do, other than people watch, but with some of the clientele, including the waitress, sporting tattoos, I thought it best not to stare too much. Perhaps they should ban people with visible tattoos from restaurants, that's what they were discussing on LBC the other day. Stick them outside with the smokers and 'vapers' and those with body piercings. Vaping is even worse than smoking in my opinion, that awful sweet stench exhaled from people's mouths is enough to make any sane person vomit. Mind you, I'm amazed that Branson hasn't cashed in on it.

In the end boredom beat me so I skipped dessert and asked for the bill. That said, why would I even dream of having dessert? Everything seemed incredibly unhealthy: not just a nice apple crumble and custard, which I would have ordered, but a "Salted Toffee Apple Crumble". How awful! Or a warm chocolate brownie or a baked cheesecake or a Banoffee Pie, a Mississippi Mud Pie, a Trio of Sponges (not just one, but a trio), Black Forest Gateau and, one nod towards healthy eating, a fruit salad with lemon curd sorbet. And let's not forget the range of heart-stopping sundaes. 'Nil by mouth' I thought as I waltzed back to my room. Alright, I skulked back.

View from Room 301, Premier Inn Scunthorpe.
Now I'm in my rather dreary hotel room, with its purple curtains, its 'tea and coffee-making facilities' – but no biscuits – and it's unruly coathangers, not forgetting the black Samsung television, the cheesy hotel art and the extra pillow stuffed at the top of the 'wardrobe' without doors. I almost forgot the bible 'placed by the Gideons' no doubt. I would love to enter a hotel room and catch a Gideon in the act of placing a bible in the bedside cabinet. Equally, it might be a worthy excuse for a criminal if caught in the act of trying to steal valuables from hotel guests.

"Oi! Who are you?"
"Me? Why, I'm a Gideon and I've just placed a bible in your bedside cabinet."
"Yeah, right! I'm calling the police."
"God bless you, son."

At least there's WiFi, but I can't be bothered with it, I'm THAT bored!

I'm looking forward to breakfast, though, as I know that this particular hotel chain excels with the most important meal of the day. I think the best Premier Inns are the ones not attached to a Whitbread pub brand. I prefer an integral restaurant, which, like most hotels, doubles as the breakfast room in the morning. Tomorrow morning, however, I'll have to nip outside, cross the road and make my way around to the Beefeater before I'll see any Coco Pops or buttered toast.

It goes without saying that there's no minibar here – perhaps they don't trust their guests – and, worse still, I can't really go for a walk as there's nowhere to go. The hotel is part of a complex of garages, fast food joints, a Morrisons supermarket and residential housing. Yes, housing, it's like being in the middle of a northern housing estate. No quaint little squares, no shop windows, nothing of merit, and the last thing I want is to be accosted by a tattooed, hooded 'youth' with a knife asking me for money, which I don't have. It happens, believe me.

So it's a night in front of the box, perhaps a bit of reading and then a bit of shut-eye. I'm reading Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a great book, it has to be said.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The rain stops and we hit the road...

Radio Four sprung to life at 0600hrs as usual and I listened the news headlines before getting up and peering out of the window. It was raining heavily outside. Stair rods hitting the puddle on next door's flat-roofed extension. Surely, an abort, so I texted Andy to this effect and then went about my business of making breakfast. Something said the rain might stop and when Andy replied saying that his weather app was claiming it would stop by 0700hrs, I was prepared to say, yes, okay, if it's all quiet on the rain front, we'll go for a ride. It was quiet and we did go for a ride. There was no rain and things had brightened up considerably.
Our bikes just outside of Tatsfield Village. Pic: Andy Smith.

We met on the green as always and decided that the best bet would be Tatsfield Village, bearing in mind the old Tatsfield Bus Stop was still taped off and out of bounds.

When we got there the tea and biscuits came out and Andy told me about a photographer who had sold a shot of a potato for one million dollars. A shot of a potato. This sort of thing annoys me – and I know it annoys Andy too. We start to think of the people in this world starving or living on the breadline and we think, What fucking arsehole is stupid enough to spend a million dollars on a photograph of a fucking potato?

"We're heading for a revolution," I said, looking over at the pub, The Old Ship.
"We've already had one," said Andy, referring to the recent EU referendum.
"That sign over the pub door doesn't really do anything for the pub, does it," said I. "And nor does all that writing on the windows," I added, having noticed writing advertising a "BBQ" and a live band. Why write all over the windows, it lowers the tone, I thought, remarking how, if The Old Ship closed what would happen to the Tatsfield community.
"Pubs aren't the heart of the community anymore," said Andy, and I had to agree with him. These days people are insular, preferring to 'stay indoors' watching Sky Movies and drinking supermarket beer.
"Technology is isolationist," I said.
"It is," Andy replied.
"Everything's designed to keep us indoors," I added, making reference to Skype. "Instead of a meeting in New York, we just go on Skype and stay in," I added. Andy nodded.
"I just want to know how one gets into a position to sell a photograph of a potato for a million dollars," Andy said, mildly peeved at the whole situation.
"I'm not sure," I said, checking Google on my phone and finding the story, about a man called Kevin Abosch, a photographer. The potato, incidentally, was Irish and organic and you can read all about it, by clicking here.
"It's probably a case of who you know," I said, "but I understand what you mean: how the hell does he get himself in a position where he can sell a photograph of a knarled old spud for a million dollars?"

We both wondered how. Andy filled me in a little on the story. The guy specialises in portrait photographs with black backgrounds. He was,  according to The Independent a 'celebrated photographer'. Celebrated for what? For somehow selling a photograph of a potato to some gullible idiot for a million dollars? It made me wonder whether the photograph he sold was a one-off, or whether he'd given the guy a JPEG. If the photograph was digital, that would mean it wouldn't be original or rare and that Abosch could sell exactly the same image to somebody else, making it far from being exclusive and valuable. He could print off loads of them and sell them to Ikea and we could all buy one for £20. That would put the buyer's nose out of joint and reduce his million dollar investment (if that's what it was) to dust. Did he check this, I wonder? I wouldn't pay a million dollars for a photograph unless I was the only one in the world with the image, the print. Fucking hell, I'd want the camera that took the photograph. Imagine how you would feel if you forked out a million dollars on a potato photograph only to find an identical image on the wall in your local McDonald's a few months later. You must have more money than sense if you're prepared to spend a million quid on anything, unless it's a decent house or life-saving medical treatment for somebody.

I know we live in a free country and that America is the land of the free and all that, but surely there ought to be some kind of law against people squandering so much money when other people are in dire straights.

We enjoyed our two cups of tea and Belvita biscuits and then we rode home. The rain held off and never really returned apart from a few brief showers later in the day. The ride home was very pleasant. As usual there were a few Lycra Monkeys around, but when we hit the 269 we put our bikes into top gear and roared towards Warlingham Green where we parted, promising to meet again next weekend for some more cycling.

I reached home around 1000hrs.

To Woodmansterne Green and then round to mum's...

Saturday 24 September: There was a light, blue-grey sky and a few wispy clouds and everything looked like a water colour painting when I drew back the curtains and peered outside. Somebody had left the plastic bin from the council on the lawn in the back garden. It was stuffed with cut-down shrubbery. What caught my attention was the huge, white figure 5 that I had painted on the side of the bin. It stared back at me and I felt quite proud of my handiwork.

I dressed in the usual garb and headed downstairs to prepare my breakfast of fresh fruit – blueberries, black grapes, raspberries, strawberries and sliced banana plus tea and two Weetabix with cold milk – and then set off on the ride.

Andy wasn't riding today and nor was Phil, he was preparing for winter hibernation and it will soon be time for the cardboard box, so I was heading to Woodmansterne Green for a meeting with Bon and then on to mum's for tea and biscuits.

Following the off-road trail home...
The weather was wonderful. It was dry and warm and bright. Perfect cycling weather, I thought, as I rode along Foxley Lane in Purley heading west. I half expected to see Bon, but we didn't meet until I reached Woodmansterne Green. 

Woodmansterne Green is a great place. It's peppered with big trees, there's the occasional wooden bench and it's a very pleasant place to wander around. Bon turned up seconds after I arrived, on his Cannondale mountain bike, and we walked around, chatting about old times. He remembered the time when we, that is Bon, Andy and yours truly, met at here at the green in the pouring rain and were forced to take cover under the church gateway. I mentioned how the occasion was well-documented on this here blog (click here to reminisce).

And here's a post in which you will find shots of Bon and Andy soaked through prior to taking cover under the aforementioned covered gateway. Click here. What you will find hard to believe is that it was SEVEN years ago – almost to the day.

Mind you, it is quite incredible how summery the weather was back in November 2009. Here's a few shots of Woodmansterne Green taken the weekend after our soaking. Click here.

It was nice being on Woodmansterne Green and I began to regret not bringing tea with me, but then mum's beckoned. It's a short ride to Carshalton along rural (ish) roads into Carshalton Beeches and then across the Carshalton Road towards mum's. We did this and regretted not taking the off-road path, which I later took on the return ride.

Mum was in fine fettle and made us tea and biscuits. We sat in the 'through lounge' as we used to call it, talking about old childhood memories. The 'through lounge' used to be two separate rooms and was knocked through in the seventies, when people did that sort of thing. I remembered when the space we were occupying was the back room. Where John was sitting there used to be a television set and I recalled a moment, long, long ago, when, aged six or seven, or not much older, we used to sit on the floor with a Bakewell tart, watching Doctor Who, in the days when William Hartnell was 'the doctor'. Back in those days there was no patio window, just French windows (or French doors) and I remember the 'radiogram', a Ferranti, that was a record player and radio in one polished wood unit. Dad had a number of Beatles singles (on the Parlaphone label) and we remarked how they would be worth good money if we still had them.

And then there was the gas fire. Make that 'the gas fires' as we had two of them, one in the back room and one in the front. The back room fire was a strange, petrol-coloured affair, brand name Cannon, and mum reminded us how we used to make toast on it. She hated that because of the crumbs we left behind. And then I remembered how we used to make chips in an old asbestos garage using a pair of pliers, a jam jar lid and a candle, not forgetting some cooking oil and a chopped and peeled potato. That in turn reminded me of the old wheelbarrow and how, when it had been raining, we used to pretend it was a swimming pool for our toy soldiers. The slant of the wheelbarrow gave it a deep end and shallow end, which we loved. Bon remembered how, one year, when, for some reason or other, we didn't go on holiday to the south coast, we once used a puddle behind the old garage and a broom to simulate the waves and the sea. How sad was that! But, as far as I can remember, we always went on holiday, so we weren't always using brooms and puddles to keep our dreams alive. In fact, it might have been that we had been on holiday and were just reminiscing, thanks to the puddle and the broom, I can't remember.

Further along the off-road trail...
Mum's house is full of good memories of days when it was always the summer and the sun was always shining. Days when the summer holidays seemed endless, the back garden was always bathed in hazy sunshine and populated by white butterflies, not forgetting the odd bee or wasp to make us run back to the house, and there was nothing to fret about. We didn't have a care in the world.

Soon it was time to leave and Bon and I would be parting company at the end of the road, he turning left and me right. I rode into Carshalton Beeches and back past the smallholdings and along an off-road section we hadn't used on in the inward journey, eventually turning left on to the Croydon Road and rolling into Purley, past Cycle Republic and home. Bon rode into Sutton towards Epsom, where he lives.

I reached home around 10am and later drove to Forest Row, which is near East Grinstead, where I found the Forest Row Festival in full swing. I nipped into In-Gear, the local bike shop, and purchased some oil for my chain and then enjoyed a millionaire's shortbread and a cappuccino in Java & Jazz before driving home along the A22, which is peppered with speed cameras, so I was constantly slowing down to keep within the speed limit – very annoying. Came home, watched Strictly Come Dancing – well, I had to see Ed Balls strutting his stuff – and then I hit the sack, after a bit of messing around on the lap top and reading the newspapers. All told, a great day.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Back to Tatsfield Village, but no sign of any rain...

I overslept and I know why. Well, there were two reasons: one, a kind of broken sleep. Things that go bump in the night and all that jazz led to me wandering around the house in the dead of night securing doors and checking things out. The second reason? Well, it's to do with the clock radio alarm that sits on my bedside table. It's good, don't get me wrong, nothing wrong with the technology, although, I don't know about you, I find clock radios baffling. There are times when, for whatever reason, I can't turn the damn thing off or when it suddenly springs to life for no reason. But not this time. It was my fault. On Saturday morning when the alarm went off and Radio 4's The Today Programme arrived in the bedroom, I turned down the sound after listening to the news headlines. I did this for one reason: I knew that the radio would mysteriously switch itself back on again and I didn't want to disturb those still asleep. The problem was that I didn't turn the sound back up on Saturday night when I hit the sack. Result? I almost woke up too late.

I awoke to find it was 0645hrs and that I only had 15 minutes to make the tea, drink a cup myself and chill before the ride. So I sent Andy a text along the lines that I'd be leaving the house around 0715hrs, giving myself time for a much-needed cup of tea and the aforementioned chill.

By 0715hrs I was ready to head out. The weather was roughly the same as yesterday. It had rained overnight – there was a puddle on next door's conservatory roof – but outside it was dry and overcast. We met on the green and decided to head for Tatsfield Village again. That way, if it did rain we'd have some cover.

It was warmer than yesterday, but there was a mist lurking in the trees as we made our way along the 269 towards Botley Hill and the left turn on to Clarks Lane.

When we reached our destination we chatted mainly about conspiracy theories, although we touched upon Gear Acquisition Syndrome again, see previous post, but also click here. Did I really need a new bike? Well, yes I did, so GAS didn't really count, I said. I rarely fall foul of GAS, it must be said. I'm not a consumer, not one of those people who buy things for the sake of it. You won't catch me with a new Apple iphone 7, not for at least five years.

As for consipracy theories, I was fired up by the BBC not coming out and stating, in a news article, that the recent Minnesota shopping mall stabbings were an Islamist terror attack. In one sentence they said that the motive was unclear, but that the man who stabbed people was chanting God is Great and referencing Allah. Definitely not a terrorist attack, then. And we went on from there discussing the way the media is basically a tool of the government designed to generate fear in the populous with a view to controllling everybody and restricting freedoms – and I mentioned Alastair Campbell's appearance on Question Time last week and how he said he really cared about the Labour Party. John McDonnell was there too and he said that Campbell was the reason why people didn't trust politicians (think 'dodgy dossier', think WMD) and that was why Jeremy Corbyn was leading the party.

We finished our biscuits, drank our tea and soon it was time to head home. The weather held out, we didn't get soaked and it was just as well as my rear mudguard failed and had to be taken off, although that happened on the outward ride. I put it into the rucksack and carried on.

Andy's not riding next Saturday, which means I'll be heading to mum's for an urban ride. Hopefully, Bon will be there.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

To Tatsfield Village, but not without a soaking...

When I was a kid, probably around 11 or 12 years old, I can't recall exactly, my dad bought me a new bike. I'd never had a bike before and, while I didn't know it at the time, the bike he bought me was pretty progressive. It was called a Moulton Mini, a red one, and the best way to describe it, by comparison with bikes today, would be that it looked a little bit like a Brompton, but it wasn't a foldaway bike. It had small wheels and, well, it was my first ever bike. It was only recently I read that the Moulton Mini was one of those breakthrough bicycles and that there was a guy called Moulton who really pushed the old envelope when it came to design.
A healthy breakfast before the ride...

Going back to my young self, however, all of this would have been lost on me. All I wanted – hell, all I was excited about – was having a new bike. The only trouble was it was December. My birthday is 10 December, always has been, and yes, like all of us, I was born when I was young. It's a lyric, from a band called Spirit.

So I had a new and unconventional-looking bike, but because it was December it was raining outside and I had this brand spanking new bike that I didn't want to get wet or dirty, so I didn't take it out. Not even to the end of the Cul-de-Sac. I was waiting for drier weather. I wanted to keep the tyres like they were in the bike shop. I wanted that bike to look new all the time.

I'd love to know where that bike went. I can't remember giving it up, although I know that when I joined 'big school' I bought a more conventional bike, with ape hanger bars, and then myself and my pal Alan set about transforming it into what everybody at the time called a 'track bike' – the forerunner of today's mountain bikes. Tracking cogs, cow horn bars, an old leather saddle that had seen better days. My bikes went through many different phases. Sometimes I had a fixed wheel, other times not, but one thing was for certain, I enjoyed many a carefree day riding here, there and everywhere.

The difference between then and now is my ability to fix things. Back in the day, I used to take bikes apart and build them up again; but ask me to do it today and I wouldn't know where to start.

The point of all is this is simple: when I have a new bike I don't like getting it dirty. Similarly new shoes, by the way. Anything for that matter. So now I have the Specialized Crosstrail Sport Disc, I don't particularly want it covered in mud – or rain for that matter. Ever since I bought it the sun has shone brightly and the bike has remained nice and clean. Until today.

Virtually identical to my Moulton Mini. Wish I still had it!
I left the house later than usual and rode to the green where Andy was waiting. The skies were grey and it was an overcast day. It looked as if it would rain so we decided to head for Tatsfield Village. We might have chosen the bus stop, but it was still taped up, like a police crime scene, ever since some idiot drove into it a month or two ago, probably longer. This morning, however, we didn't know that it was still taped up, it's just that every time we've passed by recently it has been. And sure enough, as we passed by today it was still taped up.

We'd been riding no more than a few minutes when the rain started. Spitting rain at first, but soon it was heavier and I remarked that it didn't matter because at least it wasn't a cold day. I can't recall the temperature exactly, but it was probably something like 18 or 19 degrees. We kept on riding, doing our best to ignore the weather and soon we found ourselves on the final stretch before reaching the village. We were soaked through, but thanks to that rear mudguard, the one I transferred from the Scrap, I didn't have a wet arse. The rest of me was drenched through.

Tatsfield Village bus stop...
Under the cover of the wooden bus stop we drank tea and ate Belvita biscuits – no sausage sarnies this week as Phil was not on the ride.  We chatted about this and that and then Andy brought up the subject of 'Gear Acquisition Syndrome' – or GAS as it's known. GAS means buying 'stuff' just for the sake of it, but don't take my word for it, read Andy's own blogpost on the subject by clicking here. The rain eased up and stopped and the warm temperature meant we soon dried out. The roads were wet, but there was no more rain and eventually we headed home.

The Botley end of the 269 was blowy and Andy remarked how exposed it was; he was right. There was a strong wind blowing and we didn't really escape it until the road dipped and we descended a little. We parted company at the green and rode our separate ways, Andy to Caterham and yours truly back to Sanderstead. I put the bike in the garage and yes, I'll admit it, I gave it dust-down with a dry cloth.

Here's to a drier day on Sunday.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

A Viennese whirl...

Tea and a Bakewell tart, Costa Coffee, South Terminal...
The first problem was getting confirmation. I needed confirmation before I could open up the lap top and book my flight and hotel. A week prior to the trip – and only one day after returning from Vienna – I sat at home and I knew that in seven days I would be back in Austria. Or would I be? Biting the bullet and booking the trip would have been a mistake. What if the meeting was cancelled? So I left it and the lack of any real confirmation continued. As the uncertainty mounted, the flights got more expensive.

I wanted to fly BA, like last time, but as time moved on, the likelihood of those Island Bakery Lemon Melts and a small bottle of red wine – for no extra money – and not forgetting the dulcet tones of the Biggles-like BA pilot, were fading fast. There was, I knew, just one option: easyJet.

I nipped in here to buy a Skipper's Tablecloth
And sure enough, when the meeting was finally fixed and set in stone, the BA flight was far too expensive. so I was left with no other choice than easyJet. Look, I'm not anti-easyJet, it's just that they're not as good as BA. Full stop. But I found myself online, booking my flight and my hotel and quietly regretting the whole thing.

On the train towards Vienna Hbf from Vienna Airport...
It was going to be a rushed trip. Flying out on Sunday evening at 1735hrs, getting into Vienna at 2050 and then jumping on a train to a place called Linz. Last week, somebody in my hotel (the Austria Trend Europa in Vienna) said it was an hour, but the reality was one hour and 52 minutes and that wasn't including the train from the airport to Wien Hbf. But hey, if the flight had been on time, there might not have been a problem. But the flight wasn't on time. It was late. I arrived in Vienna later than scheduled and it had a knock-on effect. I took the train to Wien Hbf, that was fine, but the train to Linz wasn't until 2255hrs. Time for an ice-cold fish burger! I was starving and you might be wondering why. I'll tell you. Once airborne, the easyJet cabin crew calmly announced that they would not be accepting credit or debit cards and were unable to provide receipts. Well, sod that, I thought. I was starving – and while I had a tenner in my wallet, I wanted to use my credit card, because that's what I use when I'm on business and the ten pound note was for my own private use. Furthermore, I didn't want to give those capitalist scum my money, not after being so inconvenienced. So I sat there. I couldn't even stare out of the window because, by the time we'd reached 'our cruising altitude', it was dark. I didn't even read as there was no in-flight magazine for my seat, and even if there had been, I wouldn't have read it. It wouldn't have been anywhere near as good as BA's High Life and yes, I was yearning for John Simpson's monthly column.

Crap wine and the remains of a cold fishburger
When the plane eventually landed, I found a Spar store – another brand, like Lipton's, that you no longer see in the UK (another sign of our decline as a nation) – and bought a cheese and ham sandwich for the train ride to Vienna Hbf, but I was still hungry when I got there, and now I was tired too and the thought of two hours on a train to Linz made me seek solace in a Nordsee fish burger. It looked great in the photograph over the counter so I bought one and a bottle of cheap 'rot' wine (plus a plastic mug). I took the food and drink to a table and it was there, having taken a large bite out of the burger, that I discovered the awful truth: it was stone cold. With an unpleasant expression on my face as if I'd been sucking a Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil lolly, I approached the counter. "This is stone cold, can you heat it up?" The woman looked at me as if I'd stolen her last Rolo. "No, sorry, we don't have any ovens," she said. No ovens? You mean everything is sold stone cold? Well, I didn't ask that question, I simply skulked back to my table and finished the burger, having realised that the Austrians DO eat their fish burgers cold. How do I know? Because as I sat there, pulling a face with every bite, I watched as other people bought the same fish burger, although I did wonder whether they were planning on taking their burgers home to a microwave oven.

And then there was the train journey to Linz. Not one hour, but two, in a train that might well have been in the movie The Great Escape. It was mainly a sleeper train and oh how I would have loved a cabin to myself and a ticket all the way to Bregenz on the border with Switzerland, the train's ultimate destination. But I was alighting at Linz, the first big stop, and sitting in one of the two compartment carriages, like something out of a Harry Potter movie. I shared a compartment with two elderly people, a man and a woman, who got off a couple of stops along the line. Then there was a beefy-looking bloke in a tight tee-shirt, and a fat guy with smelly feet who later stretched out, taken off his shoes and tried to get some shut-eye. He, like me, was travelling to Linz and eventually it was just the two of us in the compartment: him snoring and me sitting there playing with my watch, unable to take in the view outside because it was so dark.

A cold fish burger? No ovens to heat it up? Get out of here!
So let's have a recap. First, no food on the delayed easyJet flight. Then a cold fish burger, courtesy of Nordsee – I won't be going back there in a hurry – and now something else to add to the party. I found my way to the taxi rank, told the driver my destination – the Austria Trend Schillerpark – and what did he say? "That's just five minutes away, you can walk!" So off I went, my suitcase rolling noisily behind me. It was almost 0100hrs when I reached the hotel and the fact that I found the hotel was only thanks to the fat guy from the train who I caught up with while walking. He pointed me in the right direction and soon I was in a lift, heading towards room 306 and a few hours of sleep.

Room 306 of the Austria Trend Schillerpark

The following day I had a hearty breakfast of cereal, a croissant, scrambled egg with two sausages, fresh fruit and a small pot of tea. Later on, after my meeting was over, I made the same journey but in reverse. I took a train from Linz to Vienna Hbf and then a train to the airport where I checked in and then sat in the restaurant next to the gate awaiting my flight. I had around two hours to kill and fortunately time flew by as I'd met Mark – on holiday alone in Vienna – and we passed the time of day (or night in this case) chatting about motorcycles and travelling before it was time for me to stand in the queue, go through security at the gate and then wait to board the plane. It was delayed again, this time for longer than before due to a mechanical issue with the landing gear, and while we were scheduled to depart at 2130hrs, it was nearer 2230hrs when we were finally airborne.

The flight was pleasant enough. The cabin crew accepted credit cards so I enjoyed tea, cookies and some fizzy lemon drink in a can, although somehow I managed to get chocolate over my suit trousers – odd when you consider that the cookies were on the tray and my lap was underneath tray. We landed at Gatwick at past 2300hrs and after queuing for the electronic passport control, my taxi driver failed to show. He eventually arrived having gone to the wrong terminal and soon I was on the last leg of my awful journey. By the time I got to bed it was 0130hrs. Needless to say I went in to work later the following day.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

To Westerham...

We were, it has to be said, expecting sausage sandwiches on Sunday morning. Having been let down by Phil's spot of streetside auctioneering on Saturday, we were primed and ready to take on board one of his specials. Sadly, he aborted, leaving Andy and I with our staple diet of Belvita biscuits and tea. Not that it mattered and, besides, they ain't good for you, so in many ways we gained.

Comparing Sunday's weather with Saturday's is like comparing chalk with cheese. Saturday was dark and foreboding, but Sunday was absolutely perfect with clear blue skies and sunshine. We met at the green and roared off in the direction of Westerham, riding 'the fast way' along the 269 and racing each other along stretches of Clarks Lane.

We reached the northern Kent market town around 0810hrs only to discover that overnight rain, which had dried up along the roads, had lingered on our wooden table and chairs opposite the Grasshopper pub. It was standing room only so we strolled over to Churchill's statue to stuff our faces with tea and biscuits.

Just before 0900hrs we pulled out of town and up the hill towards Botley, chatting briefly with another cyclist on a Carrera who said he lives in Warlingham. I'm still annoyed at the fact that people, like this guy, suddenly appear and then, without much in the way of effort, quickly manage to steam off and be not only miles away from us, but completely out of sight. Even with my new Specialised Crosstrail Sport Disc, this guy left us standing, not that we were racing, but he wasn't either. So, somewhere, something ain't right. Perhaps it's the fact that I'm lugging a huge metal flask full of water that's holding me back? Perhaps I don't use the gears properly. Who knows? Who cares?

Talking of the old Crosstrail, it now has a rear mudguard and a front light fitted. On the former, I eventually worked out how to take it off the Scrap. When it comes to 'things mechanical' I'm completely useless. But then again, anything, such as DIY and fixing things in general leaves me dazed and confused. I'd rather get somebody in to do it.

Overall it was a great ride on a great day and we'll be back in the saddle next week for more.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

To the Tatsfield Churchyard – and we avoided the rain.

It seemed as if the threat of rain looming above us would eventually deliver and we'd get a soaking. That would have been a disaster for yours truly (when isn't a soaking a disaster?); a disaster because I had yet to transfer my rear mudguard from the old Scrap. The skies were dark and grey throughout our ride to the Tatsfield churchyard, passing the taped off Tatsfield Bus Stop en route. I wonder if they'll ever get around to fixing it?

We had met on the green as usual and rode along the Limpsfield Road, heading south. There were other cyclists around, but not many, and Phil had decided to do a spot of streetside auctioneering and wouldn't be joining us.

Yours truly admiring my new bike at the churchyard...
Dark skies and churchyards seem to embrace one another and for me there was something dismal about our surroundings, but it was warm and that was crucial. While there was a wintry appearance to the world around us, the temperature told a different story, but I needed Andy to remind me of this fact as I was quite content to play the winter card when, in reality, the summer was still very much alive, albeit waning slightly.

We sat and drank tea, but only had three tea bags instead of the usual four. The deal is simple: when Andy and I ride alone there's enough water for two cups each. When Phil joins us there's only enough for one. Thinking that Phil would be joining us, I decided not to bring that fourth tea bag. We made do, of course, and managed two cups each using a discarded bag.

It's easy to get comfortable at the Tatsfield Churchyard – or anywhere to be honest – and I think we both could have sat there for a while indulging the grey skies. We were both confident that we would avoid a soaking. Soon, however, it was time to go and it wasn't long before we found ourselves on Clarks Lane, heading west towards Botley Hill. And then we saw Phil and Steve, although I didn't recognise Steve at first, but Phil was wearing a brightly coloured striped tee-shirt as he raced past us, heading down the hill towards Westerham.

We carried on up the hill, past Beddlestead Lane where Lycra monkeys congregated and when we reached the roundabout we turned right and powered down the 269 towards Warlingham and, ultimately home.

Not long after locking the bike in the garage the rain started. It was a fine rain but it carried on for some time. Fortunately, we missed it.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

To Westerham!

Having returned late from Vienna on Friday night I decided to abort the Saturday ride. Andy rode to Godstone Green alone while I lazed around at home. On Sunday I was up around 0600hrs and an hour later I was out and heading for Warlingham Green.

Westerham around 0800hrs, Sunday 4th September 2016

Why not? So off we went. We made it in 30 minutes from the green, not bad going, and sat down at the wooden table to enjoy our tea and biscuits while we chatted about a programme Andy had watched on the Discovery Channel. A guy with a beard cycled around the UK coastline from Devon to Scarborough on a bike made out of bamboo and then he jogged from Scarborough to Brighton before swimming in the sea back towards Devon, making a complete circle of the country. But there were issues with the bike. He'd decided to ship over a bike made of bamboo in Asia with a view to being right on and saving the planet, but Andy figured it was a silly idea. For a start the bike had some kind of malfunction: the wheels were out of alignment, but he still rode it all the way around the country, clockwise, to Scarborough. Andy said he'd have been saving the planet more if he'd not had the bike shipped halfway across the world and burning all those fossil fuels in the process. He had a point. Why didn't he go to Evan's Cycles, get himself a top-of-the-range hybrid, like my Specialized Crosstrail Sport Disc, and ride that instead?

I wanted to watch the programme and hoped upon hope that it was on terrestrial TV, but it wasn't, it was on the Discovery Channel, Andy later texted me.

A big fat bloke dressed in Lycra arrived in a huge black van from which he took a racing bike and joined a group of cyclists congregating outside the Westerham Cyclery. "Some people eat more than they exercise," I said, munching a Belvita biscuit.

The weather was good, although we thought we might get rained on, but we didn't. On the return ride we noticed that the hay bales had gone, the ones we used in the post about summer leaving the building. Summer really is fading fast, we're now in September and while it's still tee-shirts and no gloves weather, the rain and the wind and the sleet and the snow will soon be heading our way. When we reached the 269 there was a blustery wind blowing, but it didn't stop us racing the length of the road before slowing as we hit the Limpsfield Road and suburbia. Alright, a slight exaggeration: we just overtook each other occasionally, nothing fancy, but it was good fun and now that I've got a lighter bike, it feels good.

We're on for a ride next week, both days hopefully, and we parted company on that note. I rode further down the Limpsfield Road, down Church Way and home.

I don't like 'temporary'...

"Let's talk about our favourite things," she said as we walked along the street. It was a pleasant afternoon, late in the day, and on the verge of creeping twilight.
"Yes, okay," said I, sauntering along the path, wearing the same clothes I'd worn earlier in the day when I rode to Westerham with Andy. I can be quite slobby at the weekends.
"I like it when it's winter time and we're watching one of those American movies that seem to go on all afternoon," she said.
"With some cake, don't forget."
"Yes, definitely with some cake, and it's raining. Remember that day when we walked to the supermarket in the rain when we didn't have a car?"
I did remember. It's an uphill walk on the way out and a downhill stroll on the return journey and it happens now and then, like when it snows and the car's stuck on the drive or when, for some reason, we don't have a car because it's in for repairs.
"I like flying too, especially the take-off," she said.
"I like settling in to a long haul flight," I said. "The meal's arrived, I've got one of those small bottles of red wine and there's about five or six hours to go."

Image: LaurenoLauren

"Clean sheets. I like getting into bed when there's clean sheets," she said, and I remembered my childhood.
"When I was a kid I used to like Monday nights – or maybe it was Sunday – when mum had washed all the bedclothes and it was the summer and we used to go to bed when it was light and the bedclothes were fresh-smelling," I said.
We turned right on to Morley and headed towards The Ridgeway and then a left on Arkwright.
"What about things we don't like?"
"Why be negative?"
"Because it's fun. I don't like British movies," she said.
"I know what you mean, but there are exceptions, although I can't think of any right now," said I.
"Chris Nighy, I don't like him," she said.
"You can't just not like somebody. You have to have a reason," I said.
"You said you don't like Jodie Foster," she said.
"Let's walk that way," I suggested, pointing in the direction of Arkwright, but not the stretch we'd just walked along; the other bit that leads down to the main road.
"I don't like Jodie Foster, but it's because I've never really liked her movies," I explained.
There was a girl in a small car sitting the wrong way around in the driver's seat.
"Wow! Now that's a nice house," said I. There was a woman inside and the house was new, possibly a new-build or a total refurb job. We passed by.
"I didn't like it," she said.
"What do you mean? It was great," I replied.
We turned into Willoughby.
"I know what I really don't like: temporary."
"Yes, you know. Like my room having no carpet, it's temporary."
"But that was your choice, you decided to take it up."
"I know, but it's still temporary."
"Yes, but you made it temporary," I said.
We headed towards Ewhurst and walked up towards Morley.
"I know what you mean about temporary. I can't stand it when somebody buys, say, a new car and then they say, 'It's okay, but I'll probably sell it next year', I find that too unsettling."
"That's what I mean," she said.
And it's true, I don't like it when people say things like that because it makes things unstable and not forever, temporary, just like she said.
"Renting, that's temporary," she said.
"Everything's temporary. Life's temporary. Where's granddad Gerald gone, for example?"
"What about gardening? That's temporary; you mow the lawn but it grows back."
"That's not temporary, that's a whole different argument, that's all about the futility of gardening. Take our house, we've been there 18 years and I mow the lawn every fortnight and yes, the grass grows back, but the garden's still the same garden, it's not temporary," I explained.
We turned on to Morley.
"Let's walk to West Hill," she suggested.
"Okay," I said and soon we were home again and it was just gone 6pm and already dark outside. The winter was coming.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Coming home...

Vienna airport. It's one of those places where you don't go through 'security' until you reach the gate. Not ideal in my book as, while you will need a boarding pass and a passport to get this far (I'm at the gate now) there's no stopping anybody from getting this far with a bag of guns and a stash of bombs. Still, if all goes well it won't be long before the cabin crew is handing out those Island Bakery Lemon Melts biscuits with the white chocolate icing – not that I'll be hungry. Right this minute I'm tucking into a chicken with blue cheese panini (EUR6.60) with a little dish of ketchup that I simply don't need. I'm enjoying a beer too, make that two.

The waitress acts efficient, but the service is slow, not that it's her fault, the problem might be further up the line, like in the kitchen. To add insult to injury, a fly has arrived and he's sniffing round my panini. I bet he hasn't got a boarding pass or a passport.

From noon today I was a free man. Free to walk around the city. I headed for the Danube, only to discover that it wasn't blue, but roughly the same colour as the Thames. Who can you trust these days, eh?

I was on my feet for over an hour and somehow found myself on Taborstrasse, a road that deteriorated the further I walked along it; one minute all was fine, but soon there was graffiti, the odd beggar, odd shops – like one selling dentists' chairs – and cheap-looking pizza joints. Eventually it fell apart and was a jangling mess of tram lines so I turned back and walked towards the river, crossed it and found a quiet Italian restaurant, Cavalieri, where I enjoyed a glass of Chianti, a small bowl of pasta and a cappuccino.

Vienna's famous Ferris wheel
There was still time, I figured, to do something 'touristy' so I headed off towards the big Ferris wheel, as featured in the film of Graham Green's The Third Man. It seemed to be very slow so I didn't take a ride and simply stood there watching the roller coasters and wishing I had three Euros in cash to have a go on the Dodgems, my favourite fairground attraction. In the end I decided to head back to my hotel, pick up my bag and then head for the airport and my flight to London Gatwick.

And now here I am, about ten minutes or so away from finally going through security. I'm sitting in Café Bistro Johann Strauss, it sounds more glamorous than it is; the reality is a place selling paninis, Berner Würstel, Gebackenes Schnitzel, cheeseburgers and something called a Vegetarian Wok. Reasonably priced and Suzanne Vega is playing as I write this, or rather a CD of her song My Name is Luka ('I live on the second floor') is playing. It's one of those songs that's always good whenever I hear it, there are many songs like this, tinged as they are with a little sadness, but good nonetheless.

The 1840 Vienna to Seoul is 'now boarding' and I don't envy those travelling on that plane, the very thought makes me want to go to bed. Fortunately my flight is around two hours so I'm not complaining and I can't wait for those Island Bakery Lemon Melts and a cup of tea. There's another flight, the 1935 to Taipei, and the 1850 to Doha (I've been there), a flight to Sofia (in Bulgaria) and, of course, my flight to London Gatwick, which is not a million miles from where I live. There's a huge queue of people ready to board the Taipei flight.

I'd better get myself through security. See you on the other side, as they say.

The Austria Trend Europa Hotel – it's very good
I must give the thumbs up to the Austria Trend Europa hotel. It was very good, centrally located – I mean really centrally located – right next door (almost) to the Stephansplatz underground station, and a couple of stops from the airport express station, not to mention the shops (there's loads of good shops here) and not a million miles from anywhere if I'm honest.

Room 1411 on the fourth floor... very good
The room was good, everything worked, there was free WiFi, a decent television (that I didn't watch) a pleasant bathroom, coat hangers that behaved themselves and, best of all, a very decent breakfast offering, not forgetting an 'executive' lounge that I never used.

If you're coming to Vienna, it's a sure bet and so easy to reach from the airport: simply take the airport express train – the CAT – (16 minutes) to the centre of town then transfer to the underground, keep an eye out for Stephansplatz and it's a very short walk from there.

And if you're the sort of person that likes shopping, then this hotel is ideally placed for you, bang in the middle of all the shops you'll ever need. And that means all the big brand names too, like Zara and Mango and, well, you get the picture.

I'm now through security and it's 1900hrs, but there's no sign of the plane. Apparently it'll be slightly delayed, according to the man who checked me in earlier, so, like everybody else, I'm amusing myself with technology. Most people are playing with their iphones or tablets, but me and one other person (as far as I can see) have our laptops out – both Macs. Some people are reading books, others are distracted by babies and some are just checking through their bags.

Room 1411, Austria Trend Europa, Vienna
There's a coffee machine branded 'cafe + co' and a vending machine selling packaged sandwiches and chocolate bars, but I'm hanging on for those Island Bakery Lemon Melts and a nice cup of tea.

Biscuit of the Week!
The award for best biscuit of the week goes to the Island Bakery's Lemon Melts. Fantastic! A lemon biscuit dipped in rich white chocolate – to die for!

For further information, click here now!