Thursday, 27 April 2017

In Dusseldorf, day four

I had a strange dream, somewhere between 0500hrs and 0800hrs. The dream involved Donald Trump and my old green sofa, which, for some reason, was no longer mine but Trump's and he was using it for some kind of television appearance, an acting role of some sort. The problem was it needed to be painted yellow (I'm guessing the colour of his hair, but I can't be sure). So, with a tin of paint and a brush I set about the task and the end result was piss poor, not that Trump seemed too bothered about it. At roughly this point in the dream my alarm went off and I remember feeling relieved that it was a dream and nothing more. It was vivid and realistic and when I initially regained consciousness, a few minutes elapsed before I realised I had been dreaming. There were other sofas in the dream, one a kind of floral pattern, but they were not to be painted, I was told. And then I woke up, as the saying goes. Very odd.

I had breakfast (this time I added a cake and an extra cup of tea) and then I checked out, much earlier than necessary, but I figured there was little I could do in the surrounding area so I pulled my suitcase towards Dusseldorf HBF, purchased a ticket for the Flughafen and then spent some time in the station bookshop. I eventually bought a novel, Hotels of North America by Rick Moody, and boarded the 1123hrs train to where I am now, at the flughafen. I've just enjoyed a chicken stew and rice with a glass of red wine, not bad, but a little slow on the service front. It was one of those mildly stressful situations where I needed to put my cases down to secure a table before I could deal with the self-service scenario that had presented itself, but I was aware that 'leaving my bags unattended' (in an airport) could result in them being blown up for being a security risk! I might be branded a terrorist in the process and slammed in the cells to await trial. So while I was waiting for what seemed like ages to be served, I kept looking over in the direction of where I had left my bags, on the look-out for 'uniformed officers' or 'armed police' and while dealing with a member of the cafeteria's staff who was uncertain what I meant by Merlot. I didn't see any police – always a little worrying – and my bags seemed fine. Soon I was clasping my tray in both hands as I weaved my way towards the table I had chosen earlier. Bistrot Airport was where all this was taking place. The food was fine and during the shortish time I was there I called my taxi company in the UK to arrange a pick-up at T5.

They can't even spell 'bistro' properly...
Right now I'm sitting at gate B35 awaiting the moment when I can board the flight. I'm glad I've eaten already because I resent paying BA any money to eat food. It's normally free, but they're cashing in and I don't like that. Fine for easyJet and other 'budget carriers', that's what they do, but not BA. Why should they join the dark side? Well, they have and it changes things, believe me, although I'll be flying with them again, long haul, next Saturday, not this coming Saturday but next week, to Chicago O'Hare, and I know that on long haul flights passengers get their food for free, just like it should be. And listen here, I love airline food. Seriously! If I had my way there would be restaurants shaped like aircraft fuselages and seating inside laid out just like on commercial airliners. Instead of waiters and waitresses there would be cabin crew serving the 'passengers' and yes, airline food would make up the entire menu, right down to those 187ml bottles of red wine I love so much. I doubt it will ever happen, but where's the harm in dreaming?

As somebody who reviews a lot of hotels for Trip Advisor – yes I know, I'm terribly sad – I'm really pleased that I found Moody's aforementioned book. I made a start on it once we were in the air. I've got an exit seat (10a) but that's not always as good as it seems. First, if there's a problem in the air I'm the guy who has to save everybody. Me! And just because I wanted a seat with a view! Sod that! While there's a little bit more legroom, there's often no window in the exit row, defeating the object of the initial request, but on this flight there was a full window so I was happy and fortunately there was no need for me to rescue anybody.

The flight home from Dusseldorf to T5 was just 55 minutes and we arrived 'ahead of schedule'. While I said I wouldn't buy anything on board, I weakened and bought a small bottle of red wine and a couple of biscuits. I could have done without them, of course, but I can be a serious pig when the occasion demands it. I'd barely finished my feast when the plane landed and then, after going through immigration and customs, I emerged at arrivals, found my taxi driver and headed off around the M25 towards home.

I reached the house around 1600hrs and then realised I'd be heading for Nashville Saturday week. In the USA they take their food seriously, or rather they take something that is relatively healthy, let's say fish, chicken and vegetables, and add a few gooey sauces or some batter, or both, and transform them into something worth avoiding. The only time I ever ate anything a little minimalist and decent in the USA was in Irvine, California, at the Hyatt Regency. Everywhere else it's veered towards unnaturally large portions accompanied by copious amounts of French fries and cheese and, strangely, the word 'chipotle'. But enough already! Time to forget about planes and hotel rooms, time to chill and sleep in my own bed at last. But first, chilli con carne with rice and (ahem) a small glass of Rioja.

I write a lot of hotel and restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor, which can be read by clicking here.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

In three

Whenever I travel I tend to lock in to whatever my situation happens to be and then stick with it; by that I mean I arrived in Dusseldorf without any reading matter – and getting hold of anything decent, other than the Financial Times, is difficult. I'd end up with a James Patterson or Wilbur Smith novel or a book by Kate Garraway. I met her once (she won't remember) on an East Coast train that was stuck for hours and hours due to the overhead power lines going down and she was really nice, but her book, The Joy of Big Knickers, is probably not for me. The title alone would mean I couldn't read it in public.

A shot taken on my walk towards the Alt Stadt earlier today...
So I can't really enjoy the 'Starbucks in a foreign country' experience as it always goes hand-in-hand with having something decent to read and I have nothing. Likewise, as I've mentioned in previous posts, breakfast isn't the same without an English language newspaper or a decent book. So I cut my cloth accordingly, I steer clear of coffee shops, where I would be reduced to staring out of the window or, worse still, poring over my iphone like I did earlier over dinner and in the hotel bar. There's nothing worse than dining alone.

Statue in a pleasant park en route to the Alt Stadt
Work finished around 1700hrs so I decided to stroll to the Alt Stadt (or old town) and chill. Or rather that's what I thought I'd do, but in the end I didn't bother because I lacked reading matter; I took a look at the river instead, peeked through a few shop windows and then steadily retraced my footsteps back to where I'm staying at the top of Karlstrasse. It was a great walk. I found a small but peaceful park and then the Alt Stadt, which is fine, but some of the roads leading off from the area down by the river are a bit run-down. There are bars and restaurants that have closed down and I was reminded of London's Soho or Amsterdam, minus, of course, anything sleazy.

Well, I hadn't really mentioned cycling so I thought a photo might do...
It was approaching 1900hrs and I considered dining earlier than scheduled, but then I found the hotel bar and decided that a couple of small (and I mean small) dark ales would go down a treat. I sat at the bar giggling to myself about Viz magazine's Profanisaurus and then, as the time approached 2000hrs I moseyed on down to Da Bruno, my favourite all-time Italian restaurant, for dinner. I'd booked the table on Monday and soon I found myself sitting there perusing the menu. Da Bruno, especially after a hard day 'at the office', is the perfect place to be and I was looking forward to an hour or so of simply chilling and eating good food.

Very close to the Alt Stadt I found this rather impressive piece of work...
Mushroom consomme, seabass with spinach, sautéed potatoes and brocolli, a glass of red wine and a chocolate mousse, not forgetting a cappuccino – and all for just 37 Euros. This really is the best restaurant in town and I defy anybody to find a similarly priced trattoria that offers the same quality of food and the same vibe. I can't think of one and by that I mean anywhere in the world, not just in Dusseldorf.
"Down by the river..."
Towards the end of my meal I was approached by the waitress. Would I mind if somebody else shared my table? No, of course I wouldn't mind, so she directed a German guy towards the vacant seat opposite. I was settling my bill but we managed to pass the time of day and both agreed that Da Bruno was the best restaurant in town, and I suggested probably in the world too. He, like me, has eaten at Da Bruno before and tends to come back for more, just like I do. We parted company and I walked back along Karlstrasse towards the Mercure. Earlier I had considered a return to the hotel bar for one more tiny dark ale, but as I passed it, I noticed it was a little rowdier than earlier on (a football match possibly) so I took the stairs and headed for my room and here I am now, writing what is likely to be my last post from Dusseldorf before I fly home tomorrow.

The Alt Stadt...
My post yesterday was probably a little too critical of the Mercure City Center. Breakfast this morning was, for some reason, better than on Tuesday and has led to me reconsider my remarks; it was alright. The main problem was that I didn't have anything to read. I didn't have anything today either, but let's just say it was better, even if it was exactly the same.

In the park and going back towards Karlstrasse...
While making my way to the Alt Stadt earlier, I found an Apple store and went inside to mess around with the tablets and the lap tops, but in all honesty Apple has lost its appeal – it has, if you like, become the norm. Yes, I am an Apple computer user, always have been, but I think Apple has got a little too smug and a little too mainstream these days and that is epitomised by its stores, which have a certain shrine-like arrogance I can live without. Apple is far too big for its boots in my opinion. The iphone is ubiquitous  (dare I say a 'bestseller') rather than cult (like Apple computers used to be back in the days of Mulder and Scully). Mind you, there are so many examples of 'cult stuff' becoming mainstream. There was a time, for instance, when those who listened to Pink Floyd were considered 'out there', but now they're pretty mainstream too, or when Philip K Dick was a real 'underground' author. Now, of course, there are movies of his books starring Tom Cruise and Arnie. Shit happens.

I left the Apple store empty-handed – not that I had any intention of buying anything. In the past I might have been content to play on the laptops and secretly wish I had the money to buy a new MacBook, but not today. I don't see the point in tablets or the Apple watch and I already have an iphone, albeit an iphone 4S that's four years old and out of contract. It's great being out of contract as all 02 have to do is piss me off and they can sling their hook! Get in! There's nothing worse than being beholden to a phone company. It's bad enough having a loan or a mortgage.

So I'm back in my room, I fly home tomorrow and I can lie in for longer too, although not too long as I've got to pack all my stuff and check out prior to heading for the central station and a brief train ride to the airport. That's what's great about Dusseldorf, everything is close-by, including the flughafen.

It is now 0445hrs and I've woken up, probably because I had a cappuccino for dinner last night or because of that rich chocolate mousse. I could have done without that. I'm finding that eating out is often a kind of culinary Russian roulette, last night being a case in point. Generally speaking I've been pretty 'good' on the food and drink front. My alcohol intake has been very low – last night just those very small beers and a glass of wine with my meal – but when I weaken and opt for dessert it's like crossing a mine field. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those people who has to watch what he eats, but when the dessert menu was offered (my fault for requesting it) I was presented with a kind of loaded gun, albeit a 'gun' I'm familiar with.

Some of the dessert items had form and I knew to steer clear. Tiramisu, once my all-time favourite dessert, will now always be avoided, not because it gives me a stomach ache or anything like that, but purely because it's so rich and full of things that ain't good for me. Grand Padano, a nice cheese, yes, but the last time I ordered it here the portion size was huge, even if I did, eventually, work my way through it with the assistance of an additional glass of wine; and then there's the dessert that is basically some kind of dessert wine or liqueur accompanied by biscotti; for a start the biscotti is so hard and the drink so thick and syrupy. There are other desserts I know to avoid: the Creme Caramel, the Zabaglione, the pannacotta and so on, but the chocolate mousse, I thought, that can't be too bad. I imagined an elegant wine glass with a light chocolate inside, possibly a fresh raspberry as garnish on top. But no, it was three large 'quenelles' – 'dollops' would be more appropriate – of the stuff, three dog turd shapes in a large white dish, the sort of shit you're proud of before you flush. One dollop would have been enough, but I ploughed through it in between sips of the cappuccino, wishing I'd simply ordered the coffee like I did on Monday night.

And now I'm wide awake as the time creeps towards 0500hrs. There's a bottle of Evian next to me and I'm considering opening it, like I did yesterday in the early hours, thanks, perhaps, to that rich Indian meal, who knows? It might well be that it's 'the hotel life' and unfamiliar surroundings. It takes a while for me to get acclimatised to sleeping in a hotel room and just when I think I've cracked it, it's time to fly home.

My next dilemma is whether or not to go back to bed or simply stay up; but there's little to do at 0512hrs and having not switched on the television since I arrived Monday night, I'm not going to break the habit now.

I write a lot of hotel and restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor, which can be read by clicking here.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

In Dusseldorf...Day Two, part two (the desolation of Mogg)

Breakfast was fine. Not brilliant, but fine. Why not brilliant? It was plenty to do with the hard chairs and the glass roof, which lent a kind of basic feel to the whole experience, but they had everything one might expect from a hotel breakfast room. There were sausages, scrambled egg, sautéed potatoes, a variety of breads, including croissants, yoghurt, fresh fruit, cereals, tea and coffee and fresh fruit juice. I chose a bowl of fresh fruit and a bowl of yoghurt plus a banana, some scrambled egg with sautéed potato and a cup of English breakfast tea. Tea is always such a faff as it is contained in sachet that needs to be opened – sometimes a big problem – plonked in a cup into which hot water must be poured and so on; that's the problem with self-service, I tend to get fed up with the process.

Why the long face?
Earlier, in the room, I had a small battle on my hands with some unruly coathangers, which hadn't bothered me last night purely because I'd left everything in my suitcase. Flustered from the experience and still smarting a little from the locked minibar and safe I left the room to have my breakfast and it was something I was looking forward to despite the fact that I had absolutely nothing to read; and there's nowt better than a book or a newspaper with a hotel breakfast. But then again it wasn't a cosy breakfast space so reading a book or a newspaper wouldn't have been as good as it might have been in a less basic, and slightly more cosy, environment – a softer chair, perhaps, a tablecloth, waitress service, tea brought to my table rather than me faffing around trying to open a teabag prior to immersing it in hot water. But then I guess you get what you pay for and one thing I won't do is complain too loudly about the Mercure City Center because it is what it is and in many ways it's a cut above so the only causes for complaint that I can see are the locked safe and minibar, the unruly coathangers oh, and the bathroom. Well, not the whole bathroom, just the hot water situation, particularly in the shower: it wouldn't warm up and the only way to make it hot enough to use was turn the lever in such a way that the flow was severely limited to just a dribble; it was the same with the sink tap. It made showering less of a pleasure than it might of been, that's all, but still it's another negative to add to the locked minibar, the locked safe, the unruly coathangers – you know the ones I mean, not proper hangers with hooks but those you can't get off the rail. Again I find myself thinking that the hotel doesn't trust its guests – they can't trust them to tell the truth when asked "did you use the minibar" so they lock it; they don't believe their guests will have anything worth putting in a safe, so they lock that too, and because they think their guests will half-inch the coathangers, they provide the unruly variety. "That'll teach them!"

I decided to wander about town in search of a decent restaurant. To be honest I wasn't really sure what I wanted. I started first with the internet and keyed in 'Italian restaurants in Dusseldorf' but the best ones, according to Trip Advisor, were a good 25-minute walk away and I really wasn't inspired enough to go on some kind of trek. In the end I wandered out having checked the menu of the hotel restaurant. I've dined here before and it's not brilliant, although in retrospect it would have been fine. But still I wandered, up past the Thai restaurant next door to the Burns Art Hotel and around some of the surrounding streets. I passed Jaipur, an Indian restaurant, and suddenly thought I fancied a curry. If I'm honest, I didn't. I just wanted to get off the street and into somewhere cosy where I could chill for a while. Jaipur wasn't really it, and while I've already broken my 'never eat in an Indian restaurant outside of the UK' rule once before (The Spicy Grill, Brussels, arguably the best Indian restaurant I've ever visited) I found myself breaking the rule again, except this time it simply didn't cut the mustard. First I ordered a Warsteiner but was given a Paulaner – odd when Warsteiner is advertised all over the place – on the menus, outside the restaurant – but I wasn't complaining. Then I asked for poppadams, expecting the usual plate-sized variety but getting instead a couple of dozen mini poppadums the size of a 2p coin. Very disappointing.

I certainly picked the wrong table, right by the door. Every time somebody walked in I got a cold blast of April weather. It went right through me. Decor-wise it was fairly basic: red and beige tablecloths with a bar/servery counter on the back wall and tables in front of it.

The waiter was the height of good manners: polite, friendly, he passed with flying colours.

A hot plate arrived, always a pleasant moment of the Indian restaurant experience, but not today. It was cold. Put it this way, I could easily place my had palm down on it without risk of burning myself. The food followed and, fortunately, it was warm, hot and fine to eat.

I had ordered a chicken curry dish with pillau rice and a nan bread and found the entire meal a disappointment. First the rice was a little on the crunchy side (not what I'm used to) and the chicken, while fine, was, I don't know, chewy? Gristly? Not like the prime chicken breast meat I would have been served in an English Indian restaurant, and I can't help but compare like for like, it's only natural. Theoretically they should be in the same ballpark, Germany is, after all, a Western European country, just like the UK. The meal was sort of average and I kind of regretted making the decision to cross the threshold of Jaipur, although, that said, I might be completely wrong about the place. I say that because as I was about to leave many Indian customers came in, virtually taking over the restaurant and having so many Indians sitting in an Indian restaurant is, in my opinion, the best review an Indian restaurateur can get. So I started to reappraise my attitude towards the place, although I stand by what I have written. Put it this way, I felt reassured about Jaipur's credentials.

At the end of the meal I was given scented 'bird seed' – a kind of Eastern Trill – to refresh my mouth. It did the trick.

The bill was around 26 Euros, which was a fair price for what I'd eaten. Soon I was back on the streets and heading for my hotel from where I now sit, writing this review.

It's just gone 2130hrs, I'm tired and looking forward to my bed, which is next on my agenda.

I've enjoyed eating a few of these excellent snack bars.
Snack of the trip!!!
Arguably one of the most moreish, tasty snack bars you'll ever eat, the Briiggen Sunny Erdbeer Joghurt bar takes the biscuit. I'm guessing that 'Erdbeer' is German for strawberry as the English translation says just that, 'Strawberry Yoghurt'. Either way it's tasty and I'll be getting hold of some more tomorrow. This is serious competition for the Balisto bar.

Monday, 24 April 2017

In Dusseldorf... day two

This morning, around 0540hrs, I was awoken by an alarm, somebody else's alarm. It was a slow beeping sound that continued for the best part of 20 minutes. At first, I just stayed put, lying on my back looking at the ceiling, waiting, I suppose, not to hear it or, in other words, I was expecting somebody to depress a button and shut the thing off. Nothing happened. A deep sleeper, perhaps, I thought; or whoever occupies the room, which I'm guessing is the room next door to me on the left hand side, Room 212, had vacated the room and forgot to switch off his (or her) alarm. They could have left early but not taken their alarm clock with them when they checked out of the hotel. Or, I thought suddenly, they're dead. They died in their sleep or were murdered, and the murderer forgot or overlooked the fact that an alarm had been set and, for all intents and purposes, was now miles away, on the autobahn, perhaps, heading God knows where: to Russia or Kazakhstan or anywhere. They might be in the air as I write this, far from the crime scene and never to return. I started to imagine what scene might await whoever entered the room: a blood-stained bed, a knife protruding from the chest of the former occupant, his eyes staring blankly, like mine were, at the ceiling, but lifeless. I can't recall having been awoken in the dead of night by the sound of gunshot, but then if I was going to murder somebody in the dead of night in a place full of people sleeping in the centre of a big European city I think I'd use a silencer. Then the alarm stopped and I figured that my first guess was correct: the person in the room next to mine was a really, really heavy sleeper and probably needed those clocks from Dark Side of the Moon to get him up in the morning. But then the alarm resumed; it was clearly gathering strength for the long haul task of waking up its owner. Either that or my suspicion that somebody had died or had been murdered by a trained assassin was closer to the truth. Perhaps the alarm clock had drawn the short straw back in the store waiting for somebody to buy it. Perhaps it watched on helplessly as a huge, hairy, fat bloke with serious health issues waddled towards it and plucked it from the shelf. "Oh no! A lifetime of hard work," it thought as it reached the cash desk and to this day has regretted all of its bells and whistles that had prompted the sale in the first place.

Should I in some way get involved, I wondered to myself. Perhaps whoever occupies the room 'next door' is in some kind of trouble, unconscious, perhaps, having a heart attack, needing immediate medical attention and the people in the rooms on either side, including me, both having heard the alarm, did nothing. Perhaps as I write this he or she is breathing their last and are lying contorted and half naked on the bed. Perhaps they committed suicide, an overdose, and as I'm sitting here now, half naked myself but very much alive and awake, they are about to die, or they died hours ago?

But what to do? Call the front desk and tell them what's happened? Go next door myself and rather than waste time, kick down the door as if I'm Tom Cruise in a Mission Impossible movie only to find an indignant individual, his face covered in shaving foam, headphones covering his ears, looking at me as if I'm half crazy and reaching for the phone to call security. "But your alarm, it wouldn't stop ringing. I thought you might be in some trouble," I might say in my defence, but perhaps he doesn't speak a word of English and instead is now advancing towards me holding some kind of weapon. Perhaps I turn and run, but not back to my room, down two flights of stairs to the front desk and out of the door, on to Karlstrasse dressed only in my Alfani boxers (poor man's Calvin Klein's) that I purchased about a year ago in a store in Chicago. The sound of police sirens reach my ears prior to my arrest and incarceration and as I sit there, alone, in my cell, a white towel draped over my shoulders, trying to come to terms with what has just happened, a small paper cup of steaming hot tea is put through the aperture in the cell door and I accept it gratefully. What next, I wonder? I'd have some explaining to do at home and at work, but the reality of the situation would be that I was only trying to help in some way. I'd be done, no doubt, for criminal damage of the hotel room door, that's all, but how humiliating it would all have been!

The alarm stopped and started a couple of times and just this second I heard somebody knock on the door and then enter the room. A woman's voice, but no screams so she obviously hasn't found a dead body, unless she's the sort of person that's calm, very calm, in stressful situations. There's a few noises of somebody, the woman I'm guessing, pottering around in the room, looking, perhaps, for the rogue alarm that is probably hoping its owner is dead so that it can be re-housed somewhere else, sent to a charity shop where it might find somebody a little more considerate, a little more alive.

It's 0626hrs and in four minutes my own alarm will sound and I'll have to take a shower, have some breakfast, find a shop that sells toothpaste and then head out for a day's work. I'll need some shaving foam too, although I'm used to relying on the soap provided. With two minutes to go until my own alarm sounds I hear the sound of the alarm in next door's room again. It sounds briefly but is then silenced, possibly by the woman who entered the room a few moments ago. She can't work the alarm. It might be a clock radio. I've never understood them; they seem to have a mind of their own. Perhaps the room was unoccupied, but the clock alarm, set by a previous occupant, somebody who checked out yesterday morning, had not been deactivated. I don't know and I don't care, but if when I leave my room in about half an hour to get on with those miserably mundane chores of hunting for toothpaste and shaving foam and a notebook, there are police in the room next door, I'll know that my initial suspicions were right and that I and the man or woman in the room on the other side of next door, not forgetting those opposite, all of whom are probably wondering what's going on, were wrong to simply surmise things and then decide to take no action whatsoever, based on the assumption that stuff like this doesn't happen to them.

Was it anything to do with an unanswered alarm clock?
When I did eventually leave the building after breakfast this morning a police car pulled up outside the hotel and two bulky-looking German policemen entered the hotel. Perhaps there was some truth in what I was thinking, I thought, as I walked in the direction of the railway station in search of a shop that might sell notepads.

I write a lot of hotel and restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor, which can be read by clicking here.

In Dusseldorf... day one

I'd like to call myself a 'biscuiteer', but having mistaken a small, wrapped block of hard foam designed to clean shoes for some kind of free snack, possibly even a biscuit, I think I seriously failed the entrance examination.

I'm safely ensconced in my room at the Mercure Hotel and I thought I'd scout around for any freebies and that's when I encountered what I thought was a biscuit. Life can be infuriating. There's not much for free: a sachet of premium peppermint tea, two elongated sachets of instant coffee, some 'Zabielacz de kawy creamer' – that's powdered milk to you and me – and a couple of sachets of sugar. Oh, there's a bottle of Evian mineral water.

Hoteliers can get a little angry when I suggest that a locked minibar means they don't trust their guests, but I hate that unmistakable feeling of exclusion. There's a couple of locked doors, one being a small safe that has been rendered unusable, and the other some kind of fridge, which I'm guessing is either empty or jam-packed with beers and wines and wasabi nuts, but just not for me for some reason. I wonder if they thought, 'hold on, we've got Moggridge staying with us, lock the minibar and don't give him access to the mini safe either'. There must be some kind of policy decision that says 'lock the fridge and the safe and don't leave any keys floating around'. Annoying, but so far I have very little to complain about, well, apart from trying to find the elevator. One of them was out of order so I was directed along a corridor to where I would find another, but I got lost and had to ask for directions. It turned out the lift was up some stairs, on the first floor no less, so I figured what was the point? I walked instead and soon found my room, which was absolutely fine. There was a carpeted floor, a single bed, a flatscreen television, power points, a telephone (that worked!) and various leaflets. The bathroom was small but perfectly formed, there was space for my suitcase and suits and I was pretty pleased for another reason: I was under four minutes' walk from my all-time favourite Italian restaurant, Da Bruno, where I had booked my usual lonely table for one.

The flight over from Heathrow T5 was fine: some initial cloud, but fairly smooth and now that BA has decided, a la easyJet, to charge for its food I decided not to bother, opting instead for lunch at Huxley's (butterfly chicken and a glass of Pinot Noir followed by a single espresso and the bill). I'd arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare and once lunch was out of the way I moseyed around getting angry about the assumption, made by airport operators the world over, that once people find themselves 'beyond passport control and through security' they're somehow able to afford Prada handbags and Rolex watches, not forgetting Burberry coats and sich like. I found a WH Smith's but couldn't find a book decent enough to warrant my attention and left for gate A18 empty-handed.

Bang on time, the train from the airport to Dusseldorf HBF...
Once I had landed in Dusseldorf, German efficiency kicked in: passport control was a breeze, jumping on board the Skytrain was simplicity itself and when I reached Dusseldorf HBF I walked for five minutes until I reached the hotel, from where I write this.

Time is moving fast and it's almost time for dinner so I'm skipping off to my favourite restaurant of all time, Da Bruno on Karlstrasse, which is under a four-minute walk away from the hotel's front desk. I couldn't ask for more if I tried. The reason I'm in the Mercure is because once, when I bowled nonchalantly into Da Bruno expecting a table and not getting one, I wandered around and eventually decided to have dinner in the Mercure's restaurant. Alright, it was a last resort and wasn't a brilliant meal but at least I knew there was a hotel close-by that was even nearer than the Burns Art Hotel a few doors along. The only reason I knew of Da Bruno's existence was because the receptionist at the Friends Hotel, which is located at the other end of Karlstrasse, recommended it to me about a year to 18 months ago. Now, whenever I'm in Dusseldorf, I book a table, like I did tonight.

After dinner (Parma ham with melon, pappardelle with mushrooms, two glasses of red wine and a cappuccino) I took a stroll in the direction of the Friends hotel, but turned left and found myself in a kind of Japanese area of town. I milled around for all of two minutes and then turned back, whistling that guitar riff from the Rolling Stone's Last Time single. "This will be the last time, maybe the last time I don't know..." and I can't remember the rest, or whether what I've just written is even correct, but I do remember the whining guitar riff.

Fortnum & Mason, where we all shop!!!
I'm back in the room. To be honest I now know when to stop; in the past I didn't have a clue and would happily prop up the bar drinking beer into the early hours – oh how foolish I was! It's not yet 10 o'clock and I'm already thinking about switching on the television, possibly drinking that bottle of Evian and then hitting the sack. While I drank the bottle of water I refrained from watching the television, but then, lying in bed, lights off, deep in thought about this and that, I felt restless enough to get up and start sub-editing this blog post and, as you can see, write something extra too, but now, as I look at the clock in the top right hand corner of my laptop's screen, I see that it's now ten past midnight and this time I really am shutting things down and hitting the sack.

I write a lot of hotel and restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor, which can be read by clicking here.

To Westerham!

As always we met at the green and it wasn't long before we were on our way to Westerham, 'heads down' along the 269, Andy carrying that tennis racquet I lent him a week or two ago. I'd already realised that, once again, the weather was deceptive and that it was much colder out there than I thought. I wasn't wearing the old rust-coloured jacket, now ripped to shreds and old-looking, so initially I was cold and thinking to myself 'go back and put something else on'. But I persevered on the basis that the exercise of cycling would warm me up and sure enough, it did. I found myself powering along the road on the Rockhopper, loving every minute of the fact that this new bike of mine (I say 'new' but it's six months old – and no punctures!) was a great performer. It was a theme that stuck with me throughout the ride, the fact that coming back up Westerham Hill wasn't an issue. Alright, it's a chore, but a 'do-able' chore. Not that I ever failed to come up the hill (I never once got off the bike) but it's all about having the right bike for the job. For me the Rockhopper fits the bill.

Bluebells close to the 269
On the outward ride along the 269 we noticed a blanket of bluebells in the woods. Andy stopped to take the shot accompanying this post (right) and I continued towards Botley Hill, wondering when Andy would catch me up, surely before I reached the pub, I thought, but no, it wasn't until I was riding down Clarks Lane, passing the Tatsfield churchyard, that he rejoined me.

We pedalled fast into Westerham, past the sign welcoming us to Kent, the 'garden of England', and soon found ourselves sitting at our usual wooden table on the green opposite the Grasshopper and behind the statue of General Wolfe, eating BelVita chocolate chip biscuits and drinking tea.

The worse thing about cycling to Westerham is the ride back, but these days, as I said earlier, it's not that bad, thanks to the new bike, but was it ever that bad? No, of course not, it's just an effort, like all hills. It's psychological. The problem with the climb out of Westerham is simple: it's long and drawn out and continues all the way to Botley Hill, but if you prepare yourself for it, engage in conversation en route, it's soon over and that great sense of relief kicks in. Hills are there to be conquered and I'm often amazed, when I go out for short rides around the block with people or, like recently, chatting about cycling in the area, that they all say, "Ooh, not round here, it's too hilly." But that's the point, surely? Cycling, in many ways, is all about hills, even if based purely on the notion of what goes up must come down. Hills are not to be avoided, they're to be tackled. Half the fun of cycling, in my opinion, is cranking the bike down into a low gear and going for it, staying in the saddle (and on the bike) being the ultimate goal. And yes, it helps having the right sort of bike. But that said, when I was a kid I used to ride a single-geared bike and when the hills got bad I'd get off and walk up the hill, so what's the beef with these people who don't like hills?

I reached home at 1003hrs, the sun was shining and the rest of the day lay ahead of me. I padlocked the bike in the garage and got on with my day.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

To Woodmansterne Green with Jon (and then round to mum's)

One thing that has characterised the weather of late has been a cold breeze or rather a general coldness masked by blue skies and sunshine. Yesterday there was little in the way of sun, but it was fairly bright and, as Jon remarked as we made our way from Woodmansterne to mum's, a little on the cold side.
Felpham beach will soon be Jon's back garden
We had met earlier on Woodmansterne Green – now there's a place I hadn't been to for a long while – and spent an enjoyable time just chatting about various things, in particular Jon's impending move to Felpham, pronounced 'Fellfam', a small town on the south coast nestled between Bognor and Littlehampton, but much closer to the former. As avid readers of this blog will know, Felpham was where we spent our summer holidays in various houses on the beach. We loved those holidays and often spoke about how nice it would be to live there, close to the sea, and now Jon is living the dream; he's moving out of Epsom, where he currently resides and moving 60-odd miles to the south coast. I mentioned that he could develop a few decent rides, like Felpham to Arundel, and we spoke of other, longer journeys, like Felpham to Pulborough or Arundel or simply into the South Downs. Needless to say that Jon will be doing just that in a few weeks from now.

Woodmansterne Green is a great place and a fine destination for cycling. For yours truly it involves riding into Purley and following the leafy Foxley Lane towards the top of Wallington and beyond and turning left at the lavender fields close to the Oaks park. From there it's about 10 minutes and soon the green appears. It's dotted with big, mature trees and plenty of grass, there are tennis courts and surrounding fields, a decent village pub and a newsagent and there are plenty of places to sit down. The green was once a regular Boxing Day ride destination and there are many occasions, documented here on NoVisibleLycra, when Jon, Andy and yours truly would meet here to discuss this and that and sip tea and cereal bars (BelVita biscuits came later).

Mum, 86, and her two sons: me on the left, Bon on the right, in the garden
Today Jon and I discussed his new house close to the sea – I say 'close' and I mean close, there's a road in front of the house, then another house and then the sea; you can see it from the upstairs windows, he told me.

We spent a fair bit of time on the green before jumping on the bikes and heading for mum's. Jon's bike is in dire need of an oiling. It creaked its way towards a considerably lengthy piece of off-road track, which we both followed into Carshalton Beeches and then down Park Hill towards the Windsor Castle pub, passing on the way the Village Bakery where Jon and mum often enjoy lunch. At the lights there's a left turn and then, opposite the garage, a right turn, but with the traffic heavy we both dismounted and then jumped back on once safely across the Carshalton Road.

Mum knew we were coming and already had two mugs, with milk and teabags ready, on the counter top. We both opted for a slice of the wedding cake I mentioned a couple of posts back and then sat in the 'lounge' (as we always call it) chatting to mum about this and that, one of the topics of conversation being the amount of cars in the road and how the family in the house across the street have five cars to their name – one each for the mum and dad, one each for the two sons and one for the girlfriend of one of the sons, who also lives there. They can get three on the drive, which has been concreted over, and two are parked, along with many others, on the road itself. Back in 'our day', of course, had there been so many cars we would never have been able to play football like we used to as there would too big a risk of damaging parked cars. It's a shame in many ways that people allow cars to rule their lives.

Cake eaten, tea finished, we donned our helmets and bade farewell to mum. Instead of parting company at the bottom of the road, where traditionally Jon turns left and I turn right, we both turned right and retraced our route to Carshalton Beeches, going off-road again and parting at the crossroads by the lavender fields, which pretty soon will be in full bloom. Jon continued off-road and so did I but going in opposite directions. I rode along the Foxley Lane and through the back streets of Purley, which eventually became Sanderstead, my last exertion being the ascent of West Hill's south face. I reached home at 1033hrs, later than usual, but it was good to see Bon and, of course, mum.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Around the world on a bike...

Camping in Bolivia. Pic: BBC.
It's taken him seven years, but this Saturday (today) Leigh Timmis returns home to Derby after riding around the world on a bike. What a guy! He's a keen diarist, according to the BBC, which means there might well be a book involved. If so, I can't wait.

As always, when somebody sets off around the world or around the UK or wherever, they return home with their faith renewed in human nature. Timmis was no exception. His bike, Dolly, was not stolen. "People see it's my whole life and they have respect for this. There is an element of trust in the world," he told the BBC's Laura Lee who writes, 'He [Timmis] says this simple living and the kindness of strangers saw his values change.'

What can I say other than this is a piece of good and inspiring news. Hats off to Leigh Timmis.

To read more about Leigh Timmis' adventure, click here.

Monday, 17 April 2017

To Tatsfield Bus Stop for tea and fruit cake...

"When the spirits are low. When the day appears dark. When work becomes monotonous. When hope hardly seems worth having. Just mount a bicycle and go out for spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking." Arthur Conan Doyle.

16-17 April 2017: It's the Easter holidays, time for chocolate eggs and roast dinners, except that, so far, I've had a roast dinner but no chocolate eggs. I'm happy with that because it means I'm not going over the top, which is good. My mum came over on Saturday for some pan-fried Loch Fyne salmon, new potatoes, carrots and kale; a bottle of wine was involved, but so was driving the car so I refrained from overdoing it.

Today, more Easter festivities, it being Easter Sunday, and I've just returned from a ride to the Tatsfield Bus Stop – the slow way – and, thanks to mum's visit yesterday, I was armed with fruit cake, a big chunk for Andy and a couple of slices for both of us to eat with our tea,  a welcome change from the BelVita biscuits. It was heaven: the sun was out, the sky was blue and we were sitting at the bus stop with steaming hot mugs of tea and a large slice each of fruit cake, it's difficult to imagine anything better.

There's a story behind the cake, which I may have told before. It was supposed to be a wedding cake for one of my nieces, but mum dropped it – not on the floor, but on the countertop, and it developed a crack that rendered it unworthy for the planned nuptial nosh-up. Another cake has since been made for the celebrations. But the old cake was perfectly edible and was more than intact enough to be eaten by whoever else turns up at mum's place in search of comfort. Yesterday I drove over to mum's to pick her up and bring her here, to my house, and before we left she gave me a large chunk of the cake so I cut it in half this morning and gave one bit to Andy when we reached the Tatsfield Bus Stop.
Tatsfield bus stop – alright, I know, I know...

The weather this bank holiday weekend has been interesting: dry and sunny, but there's always been a cold breeze to make wearing summery clothing, like shorts, a little premature, although that didn't stop Andy from donning his and then grinning and bearing it, although it wasn't that bad. I stuck with my winter attire minus the scarf and balaclava.

We rode the long way to the bus stop on Easter Sunday and chatted as we made our way along Beddlestead Lane. The time flew by and soon we were gliding along Clarks Lane towards the bus stop where the cake was unwrapped. It was, I hasten to add, top quality: a rich fruit cake, very dark, but moist. As we ate cake and sipped tea we looked back along Clarks Lane at groups of Lycra monkeys making their way towards us wearing those awful luminous shoes and the skin-tight, faux sponsored, Lycra, not a good look. Andy and I constantly question the Lycra monkey 'look' and wonder why, or rather what these people are thinking as they pull on their cycling clothes. Surely they don't peek in the mirror and think, "Whoa, steady, ladies, form an orderly queue." I've said it before and I'll say it again, my only question for Lycra monkeys would be simply, "Why?"

We rode back the fast way along the 269 and nothing was awry. At Warlingham green we agreed to meet again tomorrow – Bank Holiday Monday – although the weather forecast wasn't looking good and rain was on the cards. I awoke early on Monday and it was dark and gloomy outside. It had clearly rained overnight, but was drying fast, there being just a small puddle on next door's conservatory (or extension) roof when I peered out of my bedroom window just after 0600hrs. I checked the mobile for any potential abort texts from Andy, found none and then had breakfast (Weetabix with grapes, blueberries, banana and chunks of an orange, not forgetting tea).

By the time I left the house around 0710hrs the bank holiday Monday weather had brightened a little as I rode towards the green. Before we set off I bought a box of PG Tips teabags and a small bag of sugar and then we cycled towards Botley Hill with every intention of riding to Westerham, but changed our minds and stopped at the Tatsfield Bus Stop. The Lycra monkeys were out in force again wearing their silly outfits and clippy cloppy shoes. There was no cake today, just BelVitas and tea, but we weren't complaining.

Rockhopper at the Tatsfield Bus Stop...
Andy had risked the shorts again while I stayed safe with my usual scruffy attire: trousers with a lot of pockets, a paint-stained hoody and, of course, my rust-coloured jacket, which has seen better days, but there's plenty of life in the old dog yet. although I need to address the way I look as it's neither big nor clever to look like an unshaven vagabond of the western world.

The Tatsfield Bus Stop is a very relaxing place and we're both glad it's back. The only problem is getting too settled and not wanting to ride back home. It is, as Andy pointed out, the spiritual home of NoVisibleLycra. I suggested a plaque was needed.

As for the Arthur Conan Doyle quote above, there are many reasons for it; for a start it's the God's honest truth: if you're feeling down, pissed off with life, upset by the futility of things and letting people (and 'stuff') get on top of you, just jump on your bike, get out in the fresh air and put all negative and depressing thoughts behind you.

Another reason for the quote is Mike Carter's One Man and His Bike – every chapter carries a quote, like this one. It's a book I continue to rave about and one I have often taken off the shelf just to relive the 'ride' taken by Mike around the coastline of the UK. A week or two ago I was in Waterstone's in Redhill, looking at books in the travel writing section. I had a book in my hand, I can't remember the author or the title, but an elderly man approached me and told me it was brilliant and that I must read it. If I go back there, and I will, believe me, I'll remember it's title and author and I might well buy it and read it. After the man had dispensed his advice, I felt I couldn't leave it there; I reached for Carter's book and told the man that it was the best book I'd ever read (I wasn't exaggerating). He took it from me and went to the back of the shop, where there is a sofa, just like I had done when I first discovered Carter's masterpiece. I can only assume that he bought it and enjoyed it as much as I did.

Blending the Conan Doyle quote and Carter's book, I can honestly say that if I'm feeling down or depressed, I often reach for One Man and His Bike and enjoy a randomly chosen section of the book to enjoy for a few minutes.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The 'Woodland Trek' and then bed...

Sunday morning and it was one of those unfortunate moments of hesitation. I should have got out of bed immediately, enjoyed a quick cup of tea and then headed out to mum's for breakfast. That was the plan. But no. I hesitated and soon I was having breakfast at home and not riding the bike. A missed opportunity on what was the best day ever with temperatures supposedly higher than they were in Ibiza. Oh well, a lesson learnt.

But all was not over. After a day enjoying the weather I resolved to ride out in the evening, at 1815hrs and I thought it was about time I rode the Woodland Trek again – it's a shortish ride combining on- and off-road. I was back at home by1845hrs.

I stopped briefly in the woods to take this photograph...
What is the Woodland Trek? Well, I've written about it before, but in a nutshell I leave my house, turn left on to West Hill, left on to Ridgeway, right into Hook Hill, straight up Briton Hill Road, left on Church Way to Morley, right at the roundabout and back up Church Way but turning left into Norfolk Avenue and following the road round to Ridge Langley where another left turn is needed. One circuit of Ridge Langley is followed by a short ride up an alleyway, emerging on the Upper Selsdon Road, cycling a few yards before turning right towards the golf course and on to the off-road element of the ride. It's fantastic. The woods look great and it's quite a ride, keeping to the outskirts of the woods rather than venturing into them (there is another version that takes the rider to the very top of the woods and then back down again, adding about 15 minutes). But not today! Back on the road again I rode around the woods and soon found myself back on the Upper Selsdon Road, turning right on to West Hill and then home.

It was a high-energy 30-minute ride and when I reached home I had dinner, a glass of water and then hit the sack around 2000hrs. I was out for the count, waking up around midnight and then drifting in and out of sleep until morning. Either I wore myself out on the ride or I simply needed an early night – probably a bit of both.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Great weather prompts a ride to Westerham...

Time passes fast. It seems like only a week or two have passed since I walked home from work along Hayling Park Road in the dark, wearing a bright red beanie hat and a raincoat, wary of the icy pavement or, indeed, riding the bike wearing many layers, a scarf and balaclava.

March has just passed, we're in early April, the clocks have gone forward and already we have experienced summer-like conditions. Last night and all day yesterday we had blue skies, the buds on the trees are transforming themselves into green leaves, the blossoms are out and hedgerows give out a pleasant perfume.

Last night, at almost 1900hrs, the skies were still blue and both the sun and the moon were in the sky, the former shining brightly against the house fronts as I made my way home on foot.

General Wolfe casts a shadow in Westerham
People seem happier too and there are more of us on the streets. Old men pass the time of day with a comment about the weather and, when it comes to riding the bike, everything is pleasant. The roads are dry for a start, we can get away with wearing less clothes, although right now there is a kind of transitory period in progress when cold breezes can still catch us off guard, like last week as I rode along Essenden contemplating whether to return home for another jumper. But other than that, summer is rollercoastering its way towards us and that means pleasant rides and decent weather ahead.

I left the house around 0710hrs and headed for the green, but halfway along Ellenbridge I turned around: I'd forgotten a tennis racquet that I'd promised Andy for a photoshoot. I lost a few minutes, but soon I was back on the road.

Our bikes in Westerham, Saturday 8th April
Andy suggested Westerham, or I did, I can't remember, and we both hesitated, but eventually decided to take the plunge. My Specialized Rockhopper had yet to go there so that was good enough reason.

The weather was wonderful so we decided to get our heads down and save the chat for Westerham. I figured we'd arrive around 0830hrs, but when we eventually got there I forgot to check the time.

We rode along the 269 with relative ease, both bikes performing well, and soon we were passing Botley Hill and heading east along Clarks Lane towards the Tatsfield Bus Stop, which we soon passed and continued down hill. From Clarks Lane we could see a lot of mist below us, like clouds, and when we descended into the valley the temperature dropped considerably and we were both glad we hadn't yet opted for shorts and a tee-shirt. While April is a very optimistic month in terms of the weather – let's not forget that snow in 2008 – it's still packed with uncertainty especially where clothing is concerned. While scarves and balaclavas were left at home, we were still pretty sensibly dressed for any eventuality, like a sudden drop in temperature.

We sat at a wooden table behind the statue of General Wolfe and did what we always do: drink tea and munch on biscuits. We saw a few Morgan cars heading east on the A25 towards Brasted but otherwise Westerham this Saturday morning was quiet, sleepy almost, and certainly basking in a hazy spring sunshine.

Neither of us was looking forward to the hill leading us out of Westerham. We both knew that it continued all the way to Botley Hill, but, as always, like most things, it wasn't as bad as we expected it to be and soon we had passed the Surrey Hills totem pole and were heading towards the Tatsfield Bus Stop and Botley Hill. Andy said goodbye at the Ridge; he wouldn't be riding again until Easter Sunday.

Heading out of town and then up the hill...
I roared down the 269 towards Warlingham and then headed towards the green and soon I found myself in Sanderstead High Street. The bike was performing well or was it the weather that was making me feel good, probably a bit of both. I circumnavigated the pond and rode down Church Way, hanging a left on Morley and then a right on Elmfield, but I didn't take my usual left into Southcote. I continued along Elmfield and soon I was home, at 0957hrs. Not bad for a 22-mile round trip.

Feeling energised I spent most of the day in the garden, mowing the lawns front and back and sitting under the umbrella drinking tea and reading the papers.

In the news at the moment, Trump has fired off 59 (why not 50 or 60?) missiles and taken out an airbase in Syria. The suspicion is that Syria has been using chemical weapons again and unlike Obama, who pussy-footed around and did nothing, at least Trump, for all his faults, has taken decisive action and received the support of the international community, bar Russia and Iran, both allies of Syria.

There's been another terrorist incident, this time in Sweden: a lorry went on the rampage killing around four people in Stockholm, only weeks after something similar on Westminster bridge here in London using a rental car. It goes without saying that we're all getting a little fed up with it.

Lastly, Brexit. Theresa May has invoked Article 50 and we've now got a couple of years of watching the politicians mess up the economy as they struggle to get a 'deal' out of Europe. We all know they're going to get a bad deal. Why should they get a good one? Anyway, enough. The news is all very depressing and these days there's no media you can trust to tell the truth.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Sunday – an urban ride to mum's!

Sunday 2 April: Riding alone requires plenty motivation and, needless to say, some kind of a reward at the end of it; and that's why I decided to ride to mum's. The urban ride. With the blossom trees out and the daffodils in full bloom on the Purley playing fields I headed in that direction full of the joys of spring.
Blossom trees on Purley Playing Fields, Sunday 2nd April 2017
Riding down West Hill, however, wasn't exactly Spring-like; there was a cold breeze, which you might expect at 0700hrs, but it always takes me by surprise and I consider going back for an extra jumper – another layer of clothing. Needless to say I powered onwards and tackled, with relative ease, the hill that is the eastern approach to Hayling Park Road. When I reached the playing fields, there they were: daffodils in a long line behind which stretched the fields. There were also blossom trees so I stopped to take a few photographs before re-mounting and heading for the A23 and the Princess Way industrial estate with its art deco buildings and white vans.

Daffodils on parade, Purley Playing Fields, Sunday 2nd April 2017

On the Stafford Road I continued towards Wallington High Street and this time, instead of riding straight across at the mini-roundabout on Boundary Road I turned right and then left into Grosvenor Road, followed by another right into Park Avenue, at least I think it was called Park Avenue, it might have been Park Road, but either way, at the end of it there was Carshalton Park, which is always a pleasure at this time of year, so I stopped and took another photograph before continuing on my way, turning left on to Carshalton Park Road and remembering a great moment from childhood: that of riding in an Express Dairy milk float at the end of my round with Dynamic Norman, the film buff, when the float turned into Benyon Road. It was a strange sensation, one of familiarity and surprise. The sight of Benyon Road bringing to my 13-year-old attention the fact that I was almost home and the round was over.

Going through the industrial estate...
I used to love that milk round as it took me around the sleepy, leafy, middle class Woodcote area of South Wallington with its manicured lawns, water sprinklers and tall trees swaying in the summer breeze. Those roads still exist for sure, but the magic has gone and, sadly, will never return, not for me at any rate.

There's a phrase that has become commonplace in my family, one I used whenever I was asked if I was going on my milk round. "Might, I dunno," I would reply to whoever posed the question, but invariably I went out because the Express Dairy was just around the corner, a short walk up Shorts Road where Dynamic Norman, cigarette in mouth, would be waiting for me. We used to stop half way around, somewhere in the middle of Wallington, where a strange, dark-haired, unkempt man who lived in a huge Victorian house, offered us a mug of instant coffee before we continued on our way. I'm guessing the man was Dynamic Norman's friend, but I don't remember ever saying much to him, just drinking the coffee, which was always fairly strong, and then getting on with the round. I never remember doing the job during the winter months.

With these childhood memories fully intact, I rode along Benyon Road to the lights at the Windsor Castle, trying to remember what it felt like sitting in the cab of the milk float, and then I rode straight across and right into Shorts Road. The dairy has long gone, replaced by flats, but the road is the same, lined with Victorian houses and then 'Radnor' a single-storey bungalow where Adams used to live. His mum was the lollipop lady outside St. Philomena's convent school for many years. Sadly, she died recently and the house is now undergoing some kind of renovation. There was always a huge radio mast on the roof, so I guess that somebody inside was a radio ham – probably Adams.

Bare trees still in Carshalton Park...
Once under the bridge I sped into Westmead Corner and round into mum's road. Mum allows me to bring the bike into the hallway (I never bring a lock with me, that's why) and because it's so clean, being only five months old, she's fine with it and always remarks on how nice my bike looks; praise indeed!

Boiled egg, Special K, chunks of freshly chopped orange and a slice of buttered bread accompanied by a mug of tea and we sat, as always, in the 'new room' chatting about this and that: how mum has been 'doing the edges' in the garden, how one of my nieces was about to fly to Israel (she calls from the airport while I'm scoffing) and how Jon has Freddie over. Freddie is one of his many grand children and is up for the week, mum says.

Breakfast at mum's – the prize at the end of the ride
I leave and head for the smallholdings, but as I reach the Village Bakery the phone rings. It could be Jon, I thought, as I did text him to say I was about to ride over to mum's, but no, it was mum. "You've left your rucksack behind," she said, so I pedalled back, mildly frustrated with myself, to retrieve it and then set off again, deciding this time to head up Shorts Road, turn left and go straight across at the lights. It's a bit dangerous, what with the traffic, which builds up as the day progresses, but I kept my nerve and soon I was back in Wallington and powering towards the aforementioned mini roundabout at the end of Boundary Road. I turned left, rode through the High Street and out towards the Princess Way turn-off, right on to the A23, left at the Hilton National and past the playing fields, not stopping this time to admire the blossom trees or the daffodils. I rode down Hayling Park Road, heading east, turned left, then right, then right again onto the Selsdon Road, past the now derelict Rail View pub, and soon I was home. It was 0930hrs. Originally I had left mum's at 0838hrs, but I returned to pick up my rucksack, so let's say I departed around 0850hrs and it took me 40 minutes to get home. I parked the bike in the garage, padlocked it, closed down and locked the garage door and then opened my front door. I was home and all was well.

The Rail View – soon to be social housing
Postscript, the Rail View. On 30 December 2016 I visited the Rail View for the last time. I sat there, at first watching the football alone, but then chatting with a small group of regulars that had congregated near the bar. It was very late when I left and strolled for 20 minutes under dark skies in the direction of home. Having enjoyed many a 'quiet pint' at the Rail View – the nearest pub to my house – it was a shame to hear it was to close and become social housing.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll by the Manic Street Preachers...

What exactly is music all about? Is it something to listen to on a top-of-the-pile hi-fi system that enables you to hear every note as if you were not just at the concert, but one of the musical instruments? Or is it purely about reminiscence, evocation, the joy of the moment, mood? For me it's a bit of both, but the latter qualities are most important: the thinking back, the memories, the sunshine and those moments in life that are somehow captured by the music like a butterfly in a jar.

And let's be honest, where's the best place to listen to music? It's in the car, of course. The moment you switch on the music player, be it CD or MP3 or whatever, you find yourself in the opening scene of your own movie, where you're the star until you turn off the music and get back to reality. The music dictates the mood and for me there's nothing better than finding an album I purchased a while back, in 1992 to be precise, recommended by a bloke called Roger in the days when I could still buy cassette tapes and CDs were a relatively new phenomenon.

Generation Terrorists was the album in question and it was one of those moments when I first played it, that I distinctly knew that every track would be good; a bit like Nirvana's Nevermind from roughly the same time, and Therapy?'s Troublegum – three albums that haven't lost an inch of their power and all the tracks are still 100% on the money.

As for memories, they're all car-based. Driving through the English countryside on a lazy summer afternoon, a week off work, watching the meadows pass by, window down, a cool breeze, the open road.

For me the 'movie' kicked off the moment track one of Generation Terrorists started – Slash and Burn, but before we go any further, this isn't going to be a track-by-track appraisal of the Manics' first album, which I believe will be remembered as their finest, although there are others, and everybody has their own opinions on which is best. But enough, there's just one track – Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll – that I want to rave about because of its ascendant guitar riffs and the sad desperation of the last lyric: "There's nothing I wanna see, there's nowhere I wanna to go...". Potent, tear-jerking stuff, but for me the ecstatic, soaring guitar work that precedes this haunting line almost beggars belief in its brilliance.

Musically, it's the ascendancy of the riffs and the way the guitarist, James Dean Bradfield, goes higher and higher as if he's running up a wrought iron fire escape into the sky and belting across metal landings before ascending again and again, adding something new each time, it's almost vertigo-inducing, a bit like the opening animation to a Dreamworks movie when the balloons safely deposit the boy on a crescent moon only to float higher and higher, into infinity, perhaps. Quite scary. I've been on planes before where I think we've broken through the clouds only to find there are more, higher up, even at 38,000 feet. Incredible. Those riffs on Condemned to Rock and Roll induce similar giddy but ecstatic feelings of joy. It's a fantastic end to an absolutely amazing album that simply doesn't let up from the moment it starts to that final, desperate lyric on the last track.

Should I ever find myself on a desert island, I would request a CD player, two powerful speakers and, of course, Generation Terrorists by the Manic Street Preachers.

Generation Terrorists by the Manic Street Preachers (1992).

Saturday, 1 April 2017

To the Tatsfield Bus Stop! Yes, it's back!!!

On Wednesday the week before last (the day of the terrorist atrocity in Westminster, London) I was driving towards Westerham in Kent and found myself passing the old Tatsfield Bus Stop. Hold on, the council have finally put seats in! Yes, after some considerable time, Tandridge Council has got its act together and fixed the famous (in our minds) Tatsfield Bus Stop, one of our great cycling destinations. I related this information to Andy via text and it was only a matter of time before checked it out; in fact it was this morning.

The great Tatsfield Bus Stop now has seats again! Hurrah for Tandridge Council
The weather: Well tomorrow is supposed to be good, but today was characterised by rain showers and grey skies, although I didn't get any rain until I was riding down Church Lane having completed the ride. I'd left the house at just gone 0700hrs as usual, headed the usual route (Ellenbridge, Southcote, Elmfield, Morley, Church Way and then the Limpsfield Road all the way to the green. Andy arrived minutes later and we headed for NoVisibleLycra's traditional destination – the Tatsfield Bus Stop!

Avid readers might recall that a car (or something) hit the wooden bus shelter some time ago, easily a year, although I'll have to check for sure. Week after week, month after month, whenever we rode past, normally on our way to the bus shelter in Tatsfield Village (opposite the Olde Ship) or en route to Westerham, although we rarely visit the old Northern Kent market town these days, there was no seating. They'd cleared away the debris from the crash and fixed up the shelter, but they'd clearly forgotten about the seats – or so we thought. Since the crash we had both resigned ourselves to the fact that we'd never be enjoying our tea and biscuits at our old faithful bus shelter again, but hold the bus, there are now seats and what fantastic seats they are too. Made of sturdy, varnished wood with arm rests dividing what would otherwise be a straightforward bench into around five or six individual seats (I'll count next time we're there) the wood is a perfect resting place for all our tea and biscuits shit. There's nothing precarious, our tea cups can be placed on the surface of the seating without fear of toppling over – it's all good news.

And guess what? That great sport of seeing how far we can flick our used teabags off a teaspoon is back too (it should be an Olympic sport) AND we can watch the occasional idiots lose control of their cars when they rev up the engine as they attempt a right turn at speed on Approach Road. Once a guy with a Beamer lost complete control and ended up on the other side of the road facing in the opposite direction to his original plan. How we laughed!

We had decided to ride the slow way along Beddlestead Lane – always a chore – but it gave us a chance to talk about this and that without worrying about traffic, which can be quite dangerous on the 269 even early in the morning.

Last week Andy rode to Godstone Green on the racer...
On the return journey we rode the conventional way: up to Botley Hill and then down the 269 to the green where we parted company. Andy's not riding next week, I don't think. He's certainly not going tomorrow, leaving me to either ride alone OR take the urban ride to Carshalton to visit mum, although I've just been over there in the car listening to one of the best albums in the world, Generation Terrorists by the Manic Street Preachers. My favourite track? Condemned to Rock and Roll. Sheer brilliance.

Yes, it's me, Botley Hill, April 2008...
Weather report...
What is amazing is the way things have brightened up so quickly of late. It seems like only yesterday when I used to walk home in the dark, but yesterday (Friday) it was broad daylight as I trudged the half-hour walk along Hayling Park Road and up Jarvis to reach my house. Furthermore, the blossoms are out on the trees, including the one in my front garden. This a good sign because it means that summer is coming and we won't have to wear scarves and balaclavas and layer upon layer of clothing and have lights that work, not that mine ever do work properly. Normally either the batteries are flat or, well, that's about it, the batteries are flat, but now we don't need them at all. Ok, look, it's 1926hrs right now as I write this and it's still light outside. Wonderful! Soon it'll be tee-shirts and shorts weather, but hey, let's not forget this: it once snowed in April, back in 2008, and we were caught out in it. I still remember my face freezing up. Talk about face ache! But things are good, my California lilac is in full bloom, which is amazing, there are blossom trees lining the road, there's one in my front garden, and all is well with the world. I'll leave it there.