Sunday, February 24, 2013

Beach Huts, Southwold, Suffolk

Sleeping beach huts on Southwold Beach, Suffolk.
Safely back from my annual visit to Rotterdam, my parents invited me to spend a few days with them in a small holiday cottage in Southwold, Suffolk. Give or take driving through Newmarket a few years back when studying at Anglia Ruskin University, I'd never really seen much of the county.

Southwold itself is a beautiful seaside resort which happens to be the home of Adnams, a well known brewery, which means that for a small place there are a healthy number of pubs - suddenly Dad's choice of location made sense.

On the early afternoon of Wednesday 20th February I took a walk to the Harbour Inn to meet my parents for lunch. The pub was just under two miles away from Grace Cottage, where we were staying. This gave me the opportunity to take some pictures of the sea.

On our way towards the see we also spotted Georgie Glen from Waterloo Road humming happily to herself on the High Street.

Southwold is lovely, photogenic and friendly in the iciness of February, so one can only imagine how nice it is in the warmth of summer.

Friday, February 22, 2013

London to Brighton: Part Three - Countryside nr. Gatwick to Brighton Pier

Heading up Turners Hill

If we were in Uganda, with the sun at the angle it was by around 10am, we would be baking to a crisp. As it was, at 10am, we were crossing the county border into West Sussex and despite the sun beating down on us, it was still pretty cold. 

After a brief flirtation with an A road, we started a three mile decent towards the foot of Turner’s Hill. With the others tailing off into the distance slightly, I tried to build up some decent momentum with which to attack the climb.

The hill is a category 5 climb, but seemed very different to Marlpit Hill earlier on in the day. Maybe it was the fact that the blood was circulating more freely around my body now, but I seemed to make reasonably light work of the half-mile climb. Before I knew it, I was at the village green at the top of the hill and the ‘half-way jitters’ had not even had chance to appear. Maybe I am getting better at climbing.

The sign on the village green in Turners Hill.
Page followed up the hill about three minutes behind, with Jonesy around five minutes further back, creating a healthy traffic jam as he went. At this point, the peloton paused for a few minutes. Jonesy hit the corner shop, and evidently feeling that his luck was in, now that we were only 20 miles from the finish, decided to buy Lucozade, sweets and three lottery tickets.


Time for a Puncture

Back on the road for a few miles, riding through water from melting snow that was running down the road in icy rivers, and reflecting on the good health of our bikes seemed to bring about the inevitable. Just as we were about to begin the descent out of Ardingly, Page, who was at the head of the peloton, shouted and pulled over. He had the dubious honour of having the first puncture of the day.

Of course, any kind of mechanical procedure gives everybody the chance to die laughing at the number of sexual innuendoes that can arise. With Jonesy running around still singing the wrong words to ‘Clique’ and me stood there looking smug because my bike was doing well, Page set about fixing the puncture which, give or take a small issue with his pump, he did quite quickly.

Three miles later, outside Lindfield, Jonesy, who’d fallen to back of the peloton again, shouted. Admittedly, I thought maybe he’d forgotten how to use his pedals again, but he too had got a puncture. Cue five more minutes of bad singing, innuendo and disapproving looks from some elderly locals who were clearly concerned about the proximity of our bikes to a flowerbed.

Moving off once more, with some blatant attempts by Page to jinx my bike and only one incident involving Jonesy falling sideways off his bike in front of a car whilst stationary, we made good progress towards our final challenge; Ditchling Beacon.


Ditchling Beacon to Brighton

Around six miles from our intended finish line of Brighton Pier, Ditchling Beacon poses more than a challenge to most casual cyclists. It is considered a category 4 climb by Strava and MapMyRide and is a climb of around a 1.7 miles (including the road that leads to it), at an average grade of approximately 9%, a maximum grade of 16.4%, and a total elevation gain of around 450 ft.

We gathered at the start of the lead-up road. Our bikes were generally intact, although Sasha’s chain guard was dead so I snapped it off. We had a quick strategic chat about the mound of chalk shrouded in thick woods that sat mockingly in front of us. Taking in the sheer height of the hill momentarily made our hearts sink, but with a few words of mutual encouragement we set off.

Our basic rule: every man for himself, but however many times you had to stop, you must ride the whole hill. I went off ahead, wary of being caught on a narrow road behind slower cyclists. Page, cursing his gears slipped into second place, with Jonesy bouncing along at the back.

The effect of the gradient started to kick in after around 200 metres. There was a noticeable difference between this an previous hills we'd climbed and the tops of my quads started to burn like crazy. I turned to look behind me and I could no longer see the others. At this point I was still moving forward at a reasonable speed. 

Just when I was into a rhythm, the road hit a bit of a hairpin and switched back on itself. A few hundred metres later and my whole body felt like it was on fire. I had to stop for a minute to remove my woolly hat and bike helmet after which I dug-in and carried on.

Around 1200 metres in, the trees to the side of the road started to thin out and a view over the Sussex countryside unfolded into the distance. Unfortunately, I found that looking at the view caused me to wobble and I chose to keep my head down and carry on with the climb. Finally, I emerged from the trees and the top of the climb came into view. I stood on the pedals to finish and aimed for a small mound of chalk by the side of the road to sit and wait. 

My legs ache. My lungs hurt. I feel so hot that I fear I may combust. I wait for the others whilst taking in the view. Sure enough my iPhone 3GS decides to protest against my taking photos of the view, so I sit and wait. After a few minutes I move to a better vantage point and stand there, cheering like a madman, as first Page and then Jonesy come into view.

We now knew that it was pretty much all downhill from here. Setting off after a brief regroup, past the snow that still adorned the tops of the hills, the edges of Brighton came into view.

A little cold, but a whole lot more smug, on Brighton Pier.
Whizzing downhill, clocking 40 mph in the process, the countryside gave way to houses, buses and cars, and after a brief pause at a final few traffic lights, Brighton Pier came into view. Completely ignoring all road markings, we cut pretty much straight across the roundabout to be greeted by Page’s fiancé Siobhan. We had made it.

Our feat may not have been as epic as a Grand Tour race, but this was my Tour de France, Jonesy's Giro d’Italia and Page's Vuelta a España. We’d endured rain, sleet, icy head winds, a couple of punctures, some cases a distinct lack of preparation and in the process raised around £400 pounds for All Our Children (UK).

A final reason to be smug was that Sasha, by Specialized Allez 2013, had survived unscathed and without a puncture en route.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank: Vassilia, Tavia, Jenny, Fay, Naz, Celia, Reuben, Jana, Phil, Ebunola, Niamh, Tackela, Pia, Minie, Jas, Emma, Siobhan, Zahra, Diane, Page’s workmates and my family for their donations to the cause. Also thanks to the anonymous donors - you know who you are. Your money will make a difference not only to my students, but to children in southwestern Uganda too. In addition to this I’d obviously like to thank the Team Ayohcee members, Simon Page and Chris Jones, for their hard work on the day - there were times I didn't think we'd make it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

King's Cross Station, London

The roof of the new departures concourse at Kings Cross Station.
You might not think that a railway station would make the most interesting photographic subject, but I can safely say they can. The new departures concourse at King's Cross railway station in London has been completed for nearly a year now, but I very rarely have any reason to be in the area and so this interesting work of architecture had slipped from my mind.

On Saturday 9th February I happened to appear from the Victoria Line straight into the new concourse - more by accident than design. I had seen pictures of it on BBC London News on the opening night, but standing beneath this flow of illuminated ironwork I was awestruck by its beauty. 

Indeed, it is described by Keiran Long as "like some kind of reverse waterfall, a white steel grid that swoops up from the ground and cascades over your head towards 16 perimeter columns in a flurry of 1,200 solid and 1,012 glass triangular panels."

The picture was taken using an iPhone 5, before being cropped and ran through a filter using Instagram. For more information about the redevelopment work around King's Cross, visit: http://www.networkrail.co.uk/aspx/6288.aspx

Saturday, February 09, 2013

London to Brighton: Part Two - Wallington to Smallfield Road, nr. Gatwick

Marlpit Hill and a Lady Feeding Ducks

After exiting Wallington and needing to stretch my legs, I decided to head off a little into the distance, before a long decent down to Coulsdon Station. Page zipped along closely behind, with Jonesy beginning to recover from his initial dip in energy.

Just through the viaduct carrying the A23 and the old Southern Railway mainline to Brighton we faced our first major hurdle. It came in the form of Marlpit Hill, a category 5 climb up a silent suburban street. A major challenge that, once overcome, would mean we had finally escaped the clutches of London and would be out in open country.
Sasha waits by the duck pond in Coulsdon, Surrey.
Feeling confident, I set off, once more slightly ahead of the other two. Page, complaining about his gear ratios – he rides a motorbike so knows a little about this technical stuff – decided to hang back a little as he didn’t think he’d be able to go as fast up the hill. Jonesy, still a little befuddled by the gears on a road bike when compared to an MTB held further back.

The hill had nothing by way of a build up, instead it just began and sustained the same gradient for 0.9 miles. After my usual psychological jitters about half-way up, that feeling of doubt where you feel the hill may never end, or worse that you might suddenly stop going up and start rolling uncontrollably backwards, I just put my head down, undid the straps on my bike helmet and dug deep for the remain 500 metres or so. With my legs beginning to feel the burn, I stopped a few metres beyond the summit of the climb and waited by a small pond.

As I dismounted, panting like a madman, a lady appeared and started explaining to me that there was a duck in the pond that shouldn’t be there – subsequent research has failed to find out the identity of the duck. In my slightly knackered stated, I just about managed to mumble something about calling the RSPB which satisfied the lady to the extent that she left me alone and wandered off to feed the ducks.

After a pause of a minute or two, Page appeared over the brow of the hill. We stood and waited, beginning to wonder whether Jonesy had got off and started to push, or whether he’d collapsed in a heap halfway up the hill. 

Just as I was about to walk to the brow of the hill and see where he was, Jonesy appeared, red in the face, bouncing out of the saddle due to riding in his easiest gear, and to a chorus of cheering and support from Page and myself. He managed to roll his increasingly dirty Cannondale CAAD10 to a halt by the pond before hopping off and bouncing around with cramp.

After five minutes of respite, we got moving once more, but not before Jonesy, losing his balance whilst getting back on his bike, had grabbed on to Page bringing the pair of them crashing to the ground. The ducks seemed unimpressed by the commotion and even the sea cadet walking by on the other side of the road seemed unmoved, as I stood there dying of laughter.


Out into Open Country

The next five or six miles simply flew by as we passed through Old Coulsdon, bisected Coulsdon Common avoiding the epic puddles, darted off the main road, along the winding Roffe’s Lane and through Grub’s Wood. 

Once out of the other side of the little woods we started to roll down the sharp decent of Whitehill Lane. My confidence in Sasha – my Specialized Allez 2013 named for Beyoncé’s alter ego Sasha Fierce – meant that after a 100 metres or so of braking, I let go of the brakes, started to pedal, and, with water streaming from my eyes, the Garmin registered around 32 mph. Our reward was to be spat out of the woods at what felt like great speed onto a bridge over the M25 motorway. Free at last.

Page leading the peloton forward, followed by Jonesy, just coming up to half way.
The mood in the peloton had suddenly lifted, as had the threat of imminent rain. The endorphins were clearly kicking in as I decided to start singing ‘Clique’ by Kanye West. A decision that I later regretted as Jonesy, mistaking the lyrics slightly and singing things I couldn’t repeat in the polite company of my dear readers, continued to sing the song for the duration of the ride.

The peloton, with Page keeping good speed and Jonesy revived, snaked its way around the country lanes, passing through Bletchingly and a number of anonymous hamlets, and with the sun rising across the fields as we rolled along a B-road, my Garmin beeped. We had reached the halfway point and suddenly Brighton felt that little bit closer – although the challenge of Turners Hill and the category 4 climb of Ditchling Beacon still lay ahead.

⇐ Part One: The Mall to WallingtonPart Three: Countryside to Brighton Pier ⇒

It's still not quite too late to donate to the cause if you wish. Visit https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/ayohcee to find out more.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

London to Brighton: Part One - The Mall to Wallington

Best Laid Schemes...

I have been bitten by the road cycling bug. It is as simple as that. I bought a £600 Specialized Allez 2013 road bike shortly after the Olympics with four simple cycling goals: get fitter, get faster, go longer and stay alive.

The decision to ride my bike from London to Brighton on 19th January arose as a result of needing to lead by example. With my students struggling with inspiration and motivation to start their fundraising projects for this year’s trip to Uganda, I figured I would show them how it was done.

My idea was simple: set up a fundraising page on BT MyDonate supporting All Our Children (UK), say that I am going to ride from The Mall, outside Buckingham Palace, and ride, via the countryside, to Brighton on the south coast, with a fundraising target of £100 for the event.

The snow came, the ride was delayed, but at least it looked pretty.
Before I knew it, I had amassed £300 of sponsorship and had some riding support in the form of two old school mates from my time at Aylesford School, Warwick, namely Simon Page and Chris 'Jonesy' Jones. 

Of course, "the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley" and sure enough on Friday 18th January all of England and Wales was covered in a thick layer of snow. Cue a one-week delay where no training could be done. Our new start time would be 6am on Sunday 27th January.

After what seemed like not enough sleep, the 5 o’clock alarm was ringing on my phone playing Bob Marley's 'Sun is Shining'. I got up, staggered to the spare bedroom to wake Jonesy, and looked through the window to see the rain lashing down against the parked cars. So much for Marley's sunshine.

To try and counter the rain, waterproof jackets were dinned and a little invention used to protect our feet. Using a roll of cling-film, we wrapped our footwear and secured the film with sticky tape. I couldn’t imagine Team Sky doing this, and looking a little ramshackle, but with some protection for our toes, we set off, in the driving rain, towards the start point to meet Page.


The Mall to Wallington

With the rain coming down at a seemingly impossible angle, Jonesy and myself arrived having already completed an 8-mile journey from Walthamstow to the Mall. Although warm within our jackets, the rain was already beginning to take its chilly toll upon our not so waterproof cycling trousers.

Flashing in the distance, or rather his bike lights flashing in the distance, Page could be seen doing circuits around the Victoria Memorial, like a hamster in a wheel, presumably to keep warm. With a quick shake of hands, we set off, only a few minutes late, along the vast, wet expanse of the Mall, towards Trafalgar Square.

Stopping at the junction of the Mall and Trafalgar Square, a performance in itself for Jonesy who’d not quite got the hang of using his clip-in cycle shoes, we paused briefly to acknowledge the fact we were passing Uganda House and remember the reason we were even partaking in this cold, rainy madness in the first place – helping my students to get involved in an education partnership with a school in south-western Uganda.

Turning the corner, heading along Whitehall and past Big Ben we encountered what would become our biggest bugbear on this journey: an epic headwind. The ferocity of the wind became apparent the closer we got to the Thames as it battered us intermittently before we turned left onto Chelsea Bridge, crossing the immeasurable body of inky water beneath us, and headed to the relative shelter of Battersea.

Winding through the early morning London streets brought a regular smile to my face as we passed the bemused faces of the walk-of-shamers and Sunday-morning workers waiting at bus stops more in hope than expectation for a bus to arrive. What must they have thought of the sight of this sodden peloton rolling along the hitherto deserted roads?

Instagramming whilst riding, not advised and attempted only when on empty streets.
We rolled on regardless, chatting about funny incidents, and not so funny incidents, at work and home. Stories of being in the wrong part of London at the wrong time. Discussions about how you don’t have to be crazy to ride through central London in rush hour. Life seemed sweet as the relatively flat roads of Clapham, Balham and Tooting came and went.

It was shortly after Mitcham that we had our first real hitch. Jonesy seemed to be struggling, Page had slowed down, and me, being in full-on Tour de France mode, had ridden on unaware. We had a regroup by Mitcham Junction station. Jonesy said his saddle seemed a tad too low and he was taking to much pressure on his quads. A quick adjustment was made and off we went again.

A little further down the road, crossing the rail bridge at Hackbridge, Jonesy yet again disappeared. After a wait of a few minutes, Jonesy reappeared in the distance and caught up. It was clear that he was struggling, not only with energy levels, but also to get used to his brand-new, £1,200 Cannondale CAAD 10 road bike. I handed him an energy gel and figured it was best to keep him rolling to get the gel working.

Ten minutes later, and with the peloton crawling at a somewhat less than Olympic pace of 8 mph up Woodcote Road in Wallington, I was concerned we’d never get to Brighton by nightfall, let alone in less than 5 hours riding. Jonesy was out of energy and we hadn’t even reached our first ‘categorised’ hill climb of Marlpit Lane, Coulsdon.

With our peloton only as strong as its weakest man, and as the rain cleared and the sun rose over the houses, it was all looking like coming to an ignominious end in the sleeping suburbs of south London.

It's not quite too late to donate to the cause if you wish. Visit https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/ayohcee to find out more.
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