Monday, July 22, 2013

London Wetlands Centre

Despite growing up on the East Anglian coast and spending many a weekend in a damp and draughty bird hide looking out over salt-marshes, I'd never been to the London Wetlands Centre until this weekend. It really is quite civilised, and nicely laid out. 

Oh, and they even have otters!

There are lots of cute ducklings lining up to be photographed...

...though some are more co-operative than others!

It's a very civilised way to see lots of wildfowl in the heart of London.

Spot the heron

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I really like Germany!

In view of the weather, which was set to be hot again, we set off early to avoid the heat. Instead of following the planned route, we followed the canal east and then south to Strasbourg. The journey was flat, and, apart from a couple of well-signed detours onto large and slightly grim roads due to major roadworks, uneventful.

We stopped in Strasbourg for a cup of coffee. Strasbourg was full of young happy smiling people of all races and creeds living in harmony. It was sickening. However, things improved somewhat as we passed the cathedral and heard a band of buskers playing the cultured strains of Y Viva EspaƱa.

As with all big cities, we had to resort to the compass to escape in the correct direction. We found a cycle-lane-sign pointing towards Kehl, which seemed useful, so we followed it until we crossed the Rhine.* Once in Kehl, we found a wonderful map which showed a main cycle route heading directly to our destination, so we followed signs to Offenburg and Gengenbach.

Now, if you've never cycled in Germany, I thoroughly recommend it. Their cycle paths are entirely unlike anything I've ever encountered: well signed, smooth, and at each side-road the bicycles have priority. Not only that, but every single kerb bump-down has been smoothed so that there is no more than a millimetre's step to worry about. Oh, and segregation? Someone said "Segregated cycle lanes? What a great idea! Let's segregate all the cars and put them on the grotty by-pass roads and leave the pretty (and flat and direct) routes for bike and pedestrians!"

A fort somewhere near Gengenbach
We followed the bike lanes along a canal, and only had one navigational issue at an offset six-way junction where none of the villages listed were on our map. Fortunately, a helpful German stopped to assist us. Unfortunately, Tim and I don't speak a word of German, but were gratified to learn that it is entirely possible to understand (if not speak) the language due to War Movies.** The kindly German asked where we were going, tried not to giggle at our mangled place-name pronunciation, and then said (in German) "But... that's fifteen kilometres away!"

We assured him that we did indeed want to cycle such an heroic distance, and he gave us directions. We said "Danke", and toddled our merry way up the valley, eyeing the large anvil-shaped clouds which were beginning to build up.

Hills in the distance. And thunderclouds building...

We raced the rainclouds up the valley. Every time we stopped for a junction-check (Tim was having to concentrate so hard on the road surface so's not to bump the fragile rear wheel that we usually only saw road-signs when they went past me) we would feel a few drops of rain, but we left them behind as soon as we started cycling again, and got to our hotel fifteen minutes before the downpour began.


*It is possible that there was a cyclists-only bridge a few hundred yards upstream, but once the main Strasbourg-Kehl bridge was in sight, we aimed for it and used the cycle lane on there.

**This means that our vocabulary consists of "Achtung!", "Schnell!", "Danke", "Zigaretten" and "Good Luck." None of which we thought prudent to use, apart from "danke". 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Things get hot

Owing to a need to visit the bike shop and purchase a new pump for our toolkit (and also replace the pump of our neighbour which we broke the previous day), we didn't get riding until ten-thirty, and the day was already getting quite warm.

The plan was to ride some 75km, so the 10% rule meant we figured we only had about 85km to do, mostly following the Maginot Line.

Probably a bit of the Maginot Line, though we didn't go close enough to see a label.
Unfortunately, by Sarralbe, Tim was really struggling with the heat and his Achilles. He declared a preference for the longer but flatter (and hopefully shadier) canal towpath, so we followed it down to Bissert and then cut across to Sarre-Union. Still struggling with the heat (it was 29C, according to one pharmacy we passed), some drastic re-routing was planned. Rather than take the more direct route into Saverne, we decided to follow the river valleys from Drulingen and Bust around and enter Saverne from the North-East.

Bust! (And not bust).
The road down from Bust was one of the prettiest we rode all week - a deep ravine with a burbling river and troll-haunted forests. I took no photos, since we were riding (downhill) at a fast pace and on a new tyre whose traction-limits we didn't yet know.

I forget the name of this village, but it was after Bust
After a brief getting-lost on the road into Saverne and doing a section of hard-shoulder on a dual carriageway, we eventually found the town centre, removed debris from the rear tyre and blessed its strength, and found the campsite (plus a bottle of Beaujolais).

Saverne campsite!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

What could possibly go wrong today?

The plan was to head through the centre of Luxembourg City before aiming south for Saint-Avold. Owing to the Achilles problem (and also my "good" knee hurting, though my "bad" one was fine), we decided to take the flatter-but-longer route around the city, following route 13, keeping a clear eye on where the nearest train station was in case we needed it.

The Luxembourgers love their cars, as was shown by the rush-hour traffic jam which would have done central London proud. We got honked at a fair few times as we wove our way between the static vehicles, loving the smooth tarmac but not the hills. We left Luxembourg, wiped away tears of laughter at the sign for a titty-bar which was situated in the Rue des Dicks, and waved at a Cloud Factory.

Cloud Factory
We crossed the Moselle at Malling (for old Kent's sake), and began to feel confident that we might be able to make the day's ride. We lunched at Bouzonville in a pleasant shady spot by the river, but since this also turned out to be the location of the town mortuary, we moved on when all the mourners began to glare at us.

A very pretty town and castle Somewhere.
We re-stocked our ibuprofen supplies in the local pharmacy, where I marvelled at the displays. No make-up, just loads and loads of medicine. Mineral-based medicine, homeopathy-based "medicine", medicine for pets, homeopathy for pets... there was even an entire display promising to heal "heavy legs". I didn't even know that cycling was a medically recognised complaint, let along that you could cure it!

We continued towards Saint-Avold, and the afternoon became quite pleasant. I began to feel an odd sensation from the back wheel. Since we dented the rim in Dunkirk, braking had been a bit juddery, but the wheel turned well enough. Now however, it felt as if the tyre had a lump each time it rotated. I thought I was imagining it (I am often fretful and paranoid), so kept quiet, but the sensation became stronger and stronger. As we rolled down the hill into Porcelette, I finally told Tim about it, and he said "Hm, maybe the tyre's deformed, but there's nothing we can do about it."

We went up the hill out of Porcelette, and there was a BANG. The rear tyre exploded, eight kilometres from the end of the day's ride.

Tim began to boot the tyre with a piece of cardboard, and we wondered "what now?". A passing moped-rider stopped to offer a loan of tools, but (a) didn't speak English, and (b) wasn't local, so was unable to say whether there was a bike shop nearby. Having learnt from Dunkirk, Tim flagged down a passing roadie on a bling bike, and asked about bike shops nearby. The response was gloriously French - there was a shrug, a "Bof", an eye-rolling look at a watch, and the words "Saint-Avold", clearly implying that it would be shut by the time anyone got there.

We proceeded gingerly on the booted tyre in the hope we could limp the remaining eight kilometres. As we were planning on spending the night in Saint-Avold (the roadie had at least confirmed the existence of the campsite), time wasn't an issue. After three kilometres, Tim began to feel more confident, and asked me whether I was feeling happier now that the worst had actually happened.

There was another BANG, and now the hole in the tyre was large enough for me to poke my finger through. There was no way that a boot would last the remaining 5km, so we elected to not trash the final inner tube, and to walk into town, playing "name that roadkill" to pass the time.*

If you're ever in Saint-Avold, I can recommend the bike shop "Cycle Maxime". The staff don't speak English, but we'd learned enough in Dunkirk to know the word for "inner tube" and "un nouveau pneu bon, tres fort, s'il vous plait."

I also recommend the Camping Municipal in Saint-Avold, apart from two things. Firstly, the mosquitos,  though they largely bit Tim instead of me. Secondly, it's on top of a ruddy great hill - the sort that you encounter in school at the same time as learning the phrase "Motte and bailey castle" - and the road winds round in spirals adding an extra 2km to the journey. We later learned that it is possible to go via the Rue du Cimetiere (there's a gate which isn't locked, but we didn't know that at the time) and cut the corner, but had we done so, we would have missed the bike shop. In the campsite we met another cycle tourist who was heading from Germany to Spain, and who, when Tim broke our pump, kindly lent us her pump which we promptly broke as well.

*A red squirrel and a slow worm, if you're interested.

To Luxembourg and beyond!

The rolling hills of Belgium

The campsite owner had warned us that the road to Luxembourg would be hard: full of mountains and precipitous cliffs where, if one came off the road, one could fall for two days until one hit the bottom. Although it was only 80km by our route sheet (so at least 90km, as all our actual journeys came in at 10% over distance) we were a little worried until we remembered that she was Dutch. 

Certainly, the road was a little rolling as we left Bievre towards Paliseul and Bertrix* but it was nothing too scary.

Naturally, all was going too well. Since the bike seemed to be behaving itself, Tim's Achilles tendon decided to play up, and by Arlon he was suffering a lot. We went very slowly along the final flat 10km, admiring all the strip clubs which encircle Luxembourg (presumably there is a law against being nude-for-cash in that country). When we reached Steinfort, we applied medicinal beer and steak and hoped for recovery.

Route here, though we largely used the N40 and N4 into Luxembourg.

*Or "Beaver, Pauley-Saul and Beatrix" as we called them. When I'm reading a route sheet and calling place names for Tim to spot on the roadsigns, accurate pronunciation is the last thing you want. I have to say something that Tim can hear over the road noise and know approximately what the word will look like when written down. 

A Good Day

The next day we declared that nothing would go wrong. We left the campsite (me with a slight hangover due to the previous evening's beer-and-wine) and promptly followed the map down a bumpy unmade track. Using the direction of the rising sun (and also a compass) we aimed for the nearest big road (the N40), considered the fact that we kept getting lost with the route sheet and that our map didn't cover all of the next 30km, and decided to follow the N40 all the way to Beaumont, Philippeville and Givet.

It was a pretty dull road, with a bit of a headwind. Any time a big lorry came up behind us, we would gain about 5km/h, surfing their slipstream, but we were ground to a halt by any lorries which came towards us.

Stopping for lunch in Givet, we were briefly informed by a ZZ-Top-resembling passer-by that he liked English people and that he had been to the UK once, for a metal festival, where he had seen Whitesnake, and a host of other bands I can't remember. We made polite conversation, his doggy defecated near the tandem, and he walked on.

We then tried to pick up the route sheet heading out of Givet towards the campsite. This was the point where we encountered the comedy gates to a cycle path which had been designed by someone who had clearly never seen a bike with panniers attached. Having overcome this obstacle, plus a man painting the narrow cycle bridge, we came to an unmade track signposted "VTT" (French for "MTB"). Deciding that we had had enough of this for a game of soldiers, we went back to the N95, which we followed all the way to Bievre.

The Bievre campsite was perfect in every way: it existed, it was where it was supposed to be, and it had hot water! When the multilingual Dutch woman who ran the campsite asked if we wanted a shower (3€ extra), and we said that the last shower we'd seen was in the UK, she said "Yes, I can tell. Please shower!"

Planned route here, though as explained, we largely ignored the plan. It was meant to be 113km, but I think we did something in the order of 120km.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Stolen Bike!

An old photo of my bike. It did not have the panniers when stolen.

My pootling-about-town bike was stolen today, 15th June. It was parked at Leatherhead Station at ten in the morning, and when I got back at about ten thirty in the evening, it was gone!

The bike wasn't anything special, but it was quite distinctive: a green Claude Butler Ladies' frame bike (the model was "Cotswold", though I think that range is long-discontinued). The rear mudguard was torn and repaired with duct tape, and the front wheel has Mavic open-pro rims on a black Shimano 105 hub. Also, it had Crank Bros "Candy" pedals - so eggbeather-type pedals with a flat plastic side to allow cycling in normal shoes.

If anyone sees this bike, either in Surrey or on eBay, I'd appreciate knowing. Ta.