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 España.

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.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Things improve. Slightly.

Rather than learn the French for "Git orf moi larnd!" we decamped early and followed the towpath, watching the hares and herons basking in the early morning sun. Rolling in to Tournai, the cobbled streets in conjunction with our badly-battered back wheel were a test on my nerves, so we found a cafe full of beer-swigging Belgians (it was eight thirty in the morning) for a refreshing stop (and a toilet).

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful, with a decent mileage covered by the time we had lunch in Quaregnon. Looking forwards to a shower, we continued across countryside that grew increasingly hilly and covered in wind turbines (all facing the same way as us, which meant that the wind wasn't).

There were three problems with the campsite that night. The first was that it was just across the border back into France, and the road crossing the border was clearly disputed territory, with neither country wanting the responsibility of maintaining it. Consequently, about 3km short of the campsite, we punctured on a pothole, and had to spend some time fixing the deflation.

The second problem was that the campsite wasn't where the map said it would be. Fortunately we spotted a sign in the centre of town which led us eventually to the campsite, so disaster was averted.

The third problem was when we checked in to the campsite. The manager said something to me in French which I understood all too well but insisted she repeat in English in the hope that she would tell me something different. She handed me a piece of paper with the translation on: Unfortunately the campsite had no hot water, and the shower block was closed. They had only cold water.

Not really having any alternative, we checked in anyway, designated one travel towel as the "flannel" and had a most refreshing sponge-down in cold water, before sluicing the worst of the road grime off our cycle clothes and drinking several beers and wine.

Planned route here. Though I think we managed to cover some 98km that day.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Disasters begin to strike

The first day cycling in France/Belgium didn't go so well. The ferry wasn't due to dock until eleven o'clock, which means the best part of the day for cycling had already gone. We had initially planned an 80km (50 miles) day, which would have been a reasonable day's ride to recover from the more gruelling 150km previous day. However, by the time we'd added the 10km across Dunkirk, plus a bit of wiggling to avoid big roads and hills, it had turned into 100km.

Then it got worse.

The route-sheet I'd planned to get from the ferry port to the town sent us directly away from the town, down a dead end. We followed our nose into the centre of Dunkirk, and tried to pick up the route out. We had several false-starts before finally breaking free on the lovely smooth canal towpath which was to lead us to Belgium. There was a BANG, and the canal path was no longer smooth and our rear tyre was no longer inflated. The tyre had a snakebite puncture, the inner tube had at least twelve holes (I gave up counting at that point), and the rear wheel required percussive maintenance to make it round enough to hold a tyre.

The tyre was booted with cardboard, the old inner discarded, and we limped cautiously on for another ten or so km, keeping our eyes peeled for a bike shop. After Bergues we flagged down a pair of roadies and got directions to the nearest bike shop, about 15km away (and in slightly the wrong direction) in Wormhout. Once in Wormhout we found that we'd forgotten to bring the helpful cheat-sheet of parts-of-a-bike in French, so had to do a lot of mime and pointing to explain what we needed (the bottom bracket was also loose, so we had to borrow some tools). The new tyre was fitted, and promptly deflated while we ate lunch, because we'd pinched the inner tube when fitting it. The puncture was fixed, and it was three o'clock in the afternoon and we still had 80 km to do that day.

Eventually we got to Roubaix, and promptly became very lost. Getting in to a town that you don't have a detailed map of is easy: getting out is far harder. I think we must have cycled around three sides of the town (including some pretty nasty dual carriageways) before eventually picking up the road we wanted. It was getting late, we were tired, and looking forward to a campsite and a shower.

We rolled in to the campsite (as listed on the tourist board website), only to find a derelict set of buildings and a highly amused Frenchman who informed us that the campsite had closed ages ago. At this point, dusk was beginning to fall.

With not a lot else to do, we continued on our route, looking for somewhere quiet and discrete to pitch a tent. Eventually we found a welcoming canal towpath which was wide enough for a tent, crawled into our sleeping bags, and passed out with 130km under our belt on a very stressful day.

Edited to add planned (approximate) route.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

England's green and pleasant land

The journey from Leatherhead to Dover is a moderately pleasant 150km ride on a bike. To add a challenge, load said bike with all your possessions, and have a very fine extended lunch at The Three Chimneys, Biddenden, with a couple of pints of local 8.5% cider.

Most of the route can be done on reasonable roads (apart from one stretch near East Grinstead where Mr GoogleMaps decided to take us on a detour via the rutted and bumpy NCN rather than the empty and smooth roads), but the final stretch from Folkestone to Dover is a killer - the B-road between the two towns is the size of a motorway and so steep that we were only capable of pedalling fifty yards before then stopping for a rest, repeatedly.

When we did eventually get in to Dover, the staff at the Premier Inn next to the ferries were terribly helpful, and let us park the bike in the laundry room to save unloading it ("Bikes are far more important than towels!")

Am I a bike or a car or a pedestrian?

Route-planning's a fun game. You take a map, a start point and an end point, and draw a straight line between the two. You then check where the mountains are, adjust your line slightly to avoid it, count up the number of days you have to travel, and divide the route by that. You then check for fence-post errors, re-do your sums, and that gives you your approximate daily route.

Now's when the real gaiety starts. You find yourself something like Google Maps, and tell it that you want to travel from A to B. "Easy," says Mr GoogleMaps, and presents you with a choice of motorways to take. "Hmm,"you think, and click the "I am a bicycle" button. At this point, Mr GoogleMaps will either tell you flatly that "directions are not available", or will say in the manner of an enthusiastic puppy "Oh, a bicycle! I can do that! Look, I've got a cycle track over here, it's only a five-mile detour off your route to incorporate it, and technically it's a mountain-bike-track, but bicycle!"

A bridleway which led to a Sustrans-built NCN (which wasn't any better in terms of surface)

A French (or possibly Belgian) cycle-path. Beautifully smooth - just a shame we couldn't get the bike to it!

A network of well-surfaced, well-signed cycle-roads! All praise German efficiency!

I gave up with wheels, and told Mr GoogleMaps that I was a pedestrian. Sure, this meant I was directed via steps and wrong-way-streets, but it was better than motorways or bike paths.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

How to get from A to B

We all have our favourite methods of getting somewhere. For Mr S., a good journey should involve ferries; preferably the Harwich-Hook-of-Holland one. To get to France, I far prefer driving or taking the Eurostar to flying. So when a wedding was announced and we were told that the venue was Germany, the game was on!

Mr and Mrs S, naturally, declared that they would be taking the ferry from Harwich and driving down from the Hook of Holland. Mr and Mrs C declared that they would be caravanning across France: a plan only stymied by the logistic of moving their behemoth of a caravan. And Tim and I looked at the map and said “It’s only 600km across Europe. Let’s cycle!”

And so preparations began.

Firstly there was a question of navigation. If one is planning on heading down the France-Belgium border, it doesn’t do to rely on there being a helpful dotted line on the ground to follow just because there’s one on Google Maps. Fortunately, the Michelin Local maps of France have enough overlap to include all the necessary non-France bits as well, so that saved a bit of packing space. 

Because that’s the problem with a tandem – it transports two people, but it only carries one bike’s worth of panniers, so space is at a real premium. A packing list was drawn up, with superfluous items (clean socks etc) eliminated and only the bare essentials (corkscrew, crossword book, soundtrack to The Producers) on it. For off-the-bike clothing, a maxi-dress is the equivalent of an interstellar hitchhiker’s towel. You can stuff it in the bottom of a pannier where it takes up little space; it can keep the sun off your legs and prevent burning; in the evenings it will protect against mosquitoes and chill winds; the floor-length skirt hides unshaven, chainring-tattooed, road-rashed legs; and of course it looks chic enough to sit around in a continental café with a carafe of wine of an evening.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Canoodling Hippos

Thug, the pygmy hippo, lives by the sea in London Zoo with Nicky. For most of the day he snoozes, wallowing in mud, but in the evening once the crowds disperse, he frolics with his fair hippopotama who comes tiptoeing down to her love.

Note his inamorata's (red) garter!

Monday, May 6, 2013

London Zoo Photography

London Zoo run a photography course. It's really quite fun, and extremely tiring.

I need to practice my post-processing, but these are the ones I'm happy with in the unprocessed state.

Just a word of warning - don't keep bananas in your camera bag!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Summer Palace

Now the weather is better, we've been cleaning out the shed/hutch/chicken run so that the ferrets can have more spacious accommodation. Today they were allowed supervised access, to see if all the mouse-and-rat holes had been sufficiently ferret-proofed.

This corner needs investigation... does this one...

...and this one!

Do I fit through this hole?

If I climb up here...

...I can see how secure this lock is!

How about this corner?