Monday, April 28, 2008

April Showers

I enjoyed the strange glow in the street as the sun went down a few minutes ago:

This shot was taken from my bedroom door - you can see my patio which is devoid of plants and table at present. It had rained minutes before, then suddenly blue sky just as the sun set behind purple clouds.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

London to Lille Charity Ride - 14th June 2008

Dear all,

The boys are heading back out of town! This year we decided to vary the old London Brighton BHF ride. In casting about for new routes we rejected Harlow to Holt and Dalston to Delhi, instead settling on..


Yes, that's right, Lille in France. Why? Well, why not? Now this is not an inconsiderable effort on our part, something along the lines of 75 miles to Folkstone, the Eurotunnel, then 106 km from Calais to Lille, if Google Maps is to be trusted. That's 141 miles! In a day! The day being 14th June 2008.

There is a point to this madness though, and the point is we are hoping to raise money for the very worthy cause of AVERT, a British charity working worldwide to combat HIV and AIDS, both through prevention and helping those already affected. Having personally seen the devastation this disease is wreaking in Southern Africa, and knowing that India and China are beginning to be affected too, I understand only too well how important this battle is for all of us.

So, donating? It's very easy, just put your credit card in to this secure page etc, and it automatically deducts the cash! Good, huh? Otherwise the old way will do too, I have a form somewhere, though I will grumble!

Any amount you can give would be appreciated, anonymous or otherwise, it all adds up. In return you'll benefit from amusing cheesy photos and the knowledge that we'll actually have to do the ride if the cash is there! Thank-you in advance, and please pass this on to anyone you know with spare dosh or by all means come along too!

Samuel Crawley
Adrian Wilson
William Herrington

AVERT is an international HIV/AIDS organisation. Through HIV/AIDS education, research, support and care, it brings help to people around the world. Its projects prevent people from becoming infected wtih HIV and improve life for those who are already living with HIV/AIDS.
Charity Registration No 1074849

Little Venice to Rickmansworth Canal Cycling Report

This afternoon on something of a whim, I decided to cycle to Rickmansworth. Why? Well I was actually considering routes for a charity bike ride, and happened to be tracing the route of the Grand Union Canal out of London on Google Earth when I came across the place. It's also on the Metropolitan Underground Line (yes, it stretches quite far out!), giving me an easy way back.

Setting off mid-afternoon (cough), the weather was fine, a surprise given the generally miserable outlook forecasted.

Blossom everywhere in beautiful England

Now, what’s this about a canal you ask? Well in my opinion, it’s one of the best features of London, and a relatively unknown one at that. Here’s the spiel from wiki:

The Grand Union Canal in England is part of the British canal system. Its main line connects London and Birmingham and stretches for 220 km (137 miles) and has 166 locks. It has arms to places including Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton..

The bit Londoners are interested in is in fact a series of canals, from Bow and Limehouse in the East, across (as the Regent’s Canal) Camden, behind King’s Cross, through the middle of Regent’s Park (and the London Zoo), before emerging in Little Venice, where I live.

The bit near me

For the non-cyclists out there, one can take a regular passenger canal boat between Camden Lock and Little Venice (just near Paddington). Lovely!

Setting off at Blomfield Road at the bottom of my street, I follow the towpath (left-hand side of the canal as one heads West) through Westbourne Park and Ladbroke Grove. Approaching Park Royal, one passes Willesden and White City on the left, depot home of Eurostar and lots of train lines.

This is a familiar ride to this point for me, as COLT have a data centre out here, and I would cycle along the canal for almost the entire route. Very pleasant, although one would find oneself going the opposite way to the rush hour cycle traffic, fine on the way out as being on the left side meant outside, but returning one would be waterside, and some of the towpath is quite narrow!

Canal’s busy today

Reading up about the history of the route, I learn than that the red-brick seemingly-disused building opposite the point where I would normally cut up off the canal for my work is an old Heinz factory! Perhaps they mixed baked bean sauce in with the clay before making the bricks? Shortly after, one passes the Grand Junction Arms, a Young’s outlet that I’ve visited before with Will, and the furthest I’ve been on the canal.

From this point onwards it’s all new and exciting!

Unfortunately, my excitement is short-lived, as a few yards on the towpath is closed for construction, so we’re diverted off into the industrial estates of Park Royal. Without any diversion signs and TomTom-less, I weave my way blindly through the quite well-tarmacked roads and roundabouts, before re-joining next to another nice-looking pub! Lots of temptations! Through Alperton, we pass over the fascinating and surreal North Circular viaduct. This is a two-lane canal crossing *over the top* of a ring-road around London, with a small island structure in the middle bearing the coat of arms from the previous bridge. Imagine the scene – canal boats drifting gently across the water as ten lanes of noisy traffic motors across beneath! And to my good fortune, a boat does indeed cross just as I do.

The track weaves its way on, through neighbourhoods, where there tends to be local traffic, pedestrian and other cyclists, and industrial estates, where it is quieter. We pass a large mosque on the right, and the path starts to deteriorate. After a shockingly bad yet strangely concrete section under a bridge, the path turns to dirt. I notice the signs here say that a cycle permit is required – I’d never realised this before. I later checked this out, and the rules have been relaxed – you don’t need the permit for the London area. The permit itself is just a form you print out from the Waterways website which declares that one promises not to be naughty.

We now approach Southall, which is one of the concentrations of Indian culture in London, especially Punjabi, i.e. Sikh. I actually haven’t ever visited here before, but today is not the day, a curry would not be conducive to my ride! Onwards, around Hayes I arrive at Bull’s Bridge Junction having ridden about 13-14 miles. This is the point where the Paddington Arm of the canal joins the main thoroughfare, which runs from Brentford (where it meets the Thames) up to Birmingham! There’s a signpost:

This was apparently once the sight of the canal company’s main dockyard. There’s now a large Tesco opposite the junction. My mind turns to Bacon and Egg sarnies, but I resist, turn right and begin the ride to Birmingham! It is time for a break though, so at the next pleasant opportunity, I stop, park the bike up and sit dangling my legs over the canal whilst enjoying the bananas and tea I’ve brought. The tea, incidentally, is Yerba Mate from Argentina, which one drinks in small cups with a metal straw. It resembles a pipe, and one generally receives some curious looks when partaking!

Back on the bike, and I decide to pick up a pace a little, especially as the weather is starting to turn. There are seven locks to cross before my destination, Rickmansworth – I haven’t come across a single one yet, being in the Thames basin, but now the canal starts to climb gently out of London. Along the path there are periodic kissing gates with narrow gaps through which one can pass a bike, presumably to stop youngsters bringing scooters down here. The number of lager cans piled up near some of the access points suggest it is a place to hang out in the evenings.

Some of the more elaborate house-boats

The path is of variable quality – at times narrow dirt track, sometimes terribly bumpy, sometimes smooth. Occasionally there’s beautiful smooth tarmac, but it never lasts for long. I’d say the quality of the path is such that it’s just feasible with a town bike – any worse and it really would be mountain bike only. My bike, a hybrid, has quite narrow tyres on it at the moment, plus no suspension (well, carbon forks don’t really count!) and I could just about tolerate it!

The locks provide interesting interludes – some request cyclists dismount, which is sensible as there’s generally a steep slope up to the far side, combined with a blind turn round a bridge. There are generally a number of features in addition to the lock itself – the bridge over, a pub or shop for canal traffic, often a boat-yard or mooring area on the lower side of the lock, and some seating for when you’re in a water-bound traffic jam.

Just before Uxbridge is Cowley Peachey junction, where the Slough arm branches off westward. Around here also, I cannot fight temptation any more, so stop in at the Malt Shovel pub, which has a lovely canal-side terrace with benches, facing a boat yard on the other side. Unfortunately they only have London Pride, their other ales being off. I also have to endure the following conversation without making comment: “Can I have a John Smith’s please?” “It’s off, I’m afraid”. “Ok, Fosters then”. Not my kind of place, clearly.

Brightly-painted boats

Leaving Uxbridge, it’s clear we’re leaving suburbs and hitting countryside proper. Through Cowley, the canal begins to climb the valley of the River Colne following a north-westerly course. There are many disused gravel workings in the valley so the canal is surrounded by lakes as it passes Denham and Harefield before veering north-east to Rickmansworth. This whole stretch is beautiful, and it’s remarkable that we’re so close to London.

Rickmansworth comes, but I’m at a loss as to where the train station is, so have to ask. It’s the other side of the pleasant town centre. I fight the urge to pop in for a celebratory pint, and head up for my ride home. To those who want a less strenous day, I think taking the Met Line to here then cycling to Uxbridge, perhaps with a picnic or pub lunch along the way, would be a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Incidentally, I have now settled on my plan for a charity cycle ride – London to Lille, with the chosen charity being AVERT, a British-based global AIDS charity. There are a number of route options – down to Folkstone, Eurotunnel then Calais to Lille, or perhaps we could head to Ramsgate for the Oostende ferry, or Dover for Boulogne. Either way, it’s about 150 miles, and I’m hoping to do this ride with Adrian Wilson and Will Herrington, my London Brighton bike-chums, on the 14th June, returning the following day (by train, I assure you!). If you’re interested in sponsoring me, please visit

P.S. The photos in this report are a mixture of low-quality shots from my camera-phone on the day, and some older pictures taken by Will Herrington in 2006 on a previous ride. They also do not necessarily correlate to the adjacent text. Apologies, all will be rectified when I purchase a camera.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Surely the Issue of the Day?

I could rant about Zimbabwe, recounts and arms shipments, or Chinese protests against all things French, but something more important has come to my attention. Where have Maggi Mee noodles gone? I was in Chinatown this afternoon picking up supplies, and nowhere, not in one single supermarket of the half dozen or so that exist could I find a single packet of Maggi. Now my plan was to pick up a box of Assam Laksa flavour to compliment the IndoMee Mee Goreng that is a compulsory purchase. Instead I have Mama’s Shrimp Creamy Tom Yum flavour – not quite the same thing as Assam Laksa I’m sure you’ll agree. Is there a conspiracy here? Nestle, I think we should be told!

With regard to China and the torch procession, I think people need to understand the Chinese mentality before they decide on appropriate actions with regard to Tibet. Now I’m as staunch a supporter of a free Tibet or Taiwan as you’ll find, but disrupting the torch procession is absolutely the wrong way to go about making this point to the Chinese.

The Olympics are fantastically important to China as a country, and every single Chinese person displays great pride that they are hosting the games, which are gently but surely opening China up to foreign interest. However, if the West disrupt proceedings, this will just reinforce Chinese views that they are better off isolated. So the key is to protest, to make it known that people are against the Chinese military invasion of Tibet, without actually spoiling the games. Thousands lining the torch route with a message is a step enough at this stage. Don’t burn the bridges on which freedom could eventually cross.

Zimbabwe. We missed a trick. Mugabe faltered immediately after losing the election, and that was the time that a strong message from the African Union (AU) would have possibly sealed the deal. Instead Mugabe has been given time to think and regroup, and now no doubt in addition to the recounts being rigged, we can expect retribution against any areas that voted against Zanu-PF, which is precisely what happened in the last election when Mugabe simply bulldozed vast urban areas that had dared vote against him, displaying millions of people and creating a huge humanitarian crisis.

Mugabe’s birthday is always celebrated as it’s the only time they hand out food aid

Why does the AU behave in such a limp fashion – it will clearly be counter-productive for the West to involve itself in what is an African issue, especially as Mugabe is playing the race card for all it’s worth. Thabo Mbeki has a lot to answer for in his inaction, which just supports the view that Africa can’t remove corrupt regimes without external help. Incidentally I listened to a BBC radio show yesterday about Zimbabwean white farmers who were invited to Nigeria to help kick-start commercial farming there. They were amazed to find the people and government so supportive and welcoming, and to note that the race card went away – in Nigeria they were skilled African farmers, their colour didn’t matter to the people of Nigeria. It would seem that once race becomes a dividing issue, it’s very hard to bind those divisions in society again, something we must bear in mind in the UK.

Anyway, I’m installed in a new house now, in the Little Venice or Maida Vale area of West London.

It’s a nice 1st floor flat, sharing with two other English chaps, and has a decent-sized living room and kitchen. My room is of a reasonable size, but is somewhat lacking in storage, which has been an issue for me with all of my junk. Currently my hifi sits on a waist-height pile of books!

The ceiling is high, and I have double glass doors opening on to a patio area, which will be great in summer. At one end of the street is the Warrington Hotel, a Gordon Ramsey pub, and the other is the canal, past a little row of shops and restaurants in Clifton Gardens. You’re all welcome to visit of course!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Badger Breweries and Fursty Tankards

Well I've enjoyed a sublime couple of days, seeing some of the best of England. First Whitstable, my family home, a fishing town in Kent. Then Aldborough in Norfolk, a beautiful village near one of my Grandfathers where we have a cottage on the village green, then Weymouth in West Dorset with Will to visit Badger Breweries, staying in his family's place there. I've also found a house in London, in Little Venice, near Paddington, and am planning to move in this weekend.

Aldborough with Lewis, my little brother, was fun. We drove up and hit a thick blizzard in the Medway towns. Blizzard in April! Madness! Lots of Norfolk is small winding country lanes, and it's crazy trying to find your way about the place. The Romans never really conquered all of this, that insurgent leader Bodicea kept causing problems, hence lack of sensible straight roads. Sheringham, where Grandpa Cliff lives, is a nice English seaside town, with an incredible number of ice-cream shops open even now in low-season. We also visit Blakeney and Holt, but the weather was awful.

Weymouth was a drive down via Blandford, where Hall and Woodhouse have Badger Breweries.

Temple of Beer

Est 1777

Looks like our living room after a delivery


The Badger!

The visitor centre was open but tours were full. We did however pick up a selection of beers, including old favourites - Champion, Blandford Fly, and then new ones, England's Gold (marvellous session ale), Hopping Hare (very hoppy!), Pickled Partridge (spicy winter brew), Poachers Choice (horrible, so sweet), Pumpkin Ale (as you'd imagine).

Hopping Hare


At Will's place in Brewers Quay we start the evening with our recent purchases, enjoyed in our Fursty Ferret tankards, then head out, visiting a variety of pubs around town. It ends up a fairly heavy evening, the latter part of which I have no recollection of, including the Dominos Pizza and getting home. Various unexplained cuts and bruises too! I am also barred from a certain pub for ringing their bell after being asked not to do so. Apparently. It was the way the barmaid suggested that bad things would happen if I did it which tempted me. Don't press the big red button!

The following day we cycled along the coast and some pretty villages along pathways which were clearly not designed for bikes - the number of stiles along the way was cruel and unnecessary!

Will and his white horse

The Smuggler's Inn

Long way to go still

Steps with heavy bikes

Ah ha, I sight Weymouth!

All in all, a marvellous couple of days, despite almost flipping Will's car on the way back to London. In other news, I have a Glastonbury ticket! Hurrah! Amazingly they didn't sell out on the first day, possibly because of the appalling mud last year (I am counting on the reverse being the case this year!). Anyone else going? Ursula, Farah, did you get tickets? Anyone have any wellies I can borrow? And lastly good luck to Paul Smith and Will Herrington for their marathon attempt this weekend in Rotterdam!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

And the beat goes on...

After watching Withnail and I for the umpteenth time, I feel the need to put key to electronic notepad. Carmenère flows, the log fire burns slowly, and Poppy snores quietly on the next sofa as the temperature plummets outside. The weather's mad, but England is much the same. I worry about the Duke of Edinburgh, long live the dear Duke. There's so much of interest occurring - beautiful Zimbabwe, will democracy prevail? The Olympic flame - don't disrupt the games - they mean so much to China, and believe me the protests are having the desired effect - despite what many would have you believe China is listening, Blogger, BBC and Youtube are all unblocked as of last week, journalists are being allowed in as never before, and China is listening. But ruin the games and we burn those bridges. Send a message but support the Olympic ideals. There are 1.3 billion Chinese with proud hearts making these games happen. The hunt for a flat continues. I've seen a couple of nice places near Baker Street and in Little Venice. I'm a world record holder by the way, for the largest emsemble playing the kazoo. Next task is job. First up though, is seeing Grandpa Cliff in Sheringham, then heading down to Dorset with Will to visit Hall and woodhouse, aka Badger Breweries. They seem to have a couple of new beers, Hopping Hare and Poachers Choice. Cases are up 50% in price on their website though. Tomorrow it's going to snow.