Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Pantsdown Parade

With Al away in Ireland J &J decided to do a ride from John's house but, as opposed to doing the usual route through town and around the coast, John thought it would be a good idea to show Jon part of the epic non TCA ride route he had done with some members of the Meon Valley Mountain Bike club the previous week: At this point it is worth minuting (albeit embarrassingly) that John had done the 19 mile ride with 3 other guys who were much fitter, much more serious and much, much faster; resulting in him getting home very late, absolutely knackered and with legs like jelly. What was even worse was that the ride had passed by the doors of two good pubs, one with an excellent view over Portsmouth and the other with a good view of Porchester Castle, but stops for suitable refreshment had not been allowed.

Anyway, taking into account Jon's still depleted strength from his "Delhi Belly" condition, it was mutually agreed to do the ride at a more sedate speed, and to stop at a suitable hostelry for typical TCA nourishment. After the mandatory cup of tea (John now having educated Jon on the art of making a good strong brew) and a couple of low fat but tasty and nutritious chocolate brownies the intrepid duo set out.

Steady progress was made, and both of riders took their chance to look at the spectacular views from the top of Portsdown hill which rises over Pompey (or 'pants down' hill as locals know it on account of the rather dubious nocturnal activities which take place at the location!). We then took a short cut, which lead us down to sea level in Pompey and then took a scenic route round to the Porchester Castle pub. Events were to transpire to stop us getting to the pub, notably two punctures in John's new Bontrager Mud X tyres: Although carrying a spare inner tube the two punctures along with then the inevitable need to keep stopping to pump the flat tyre up meant that progress was slow - we carried on to the Castle in the Air pub 1 mile from home.

It must be said John had lost his sense of humour at this stage, and even rang Mrs John to get her to drive the mile to pick the bike up, whilst we drank our pints of fine Abbots Ale. Mrs John's reply was choice but polite, so Jon cycled back to the Helyer's household while John could only push his bike home. Things could only get better!

Mrs John had prepared a fine shepherds pie made with Haggis (left over from a fine Burns night supper) which was eagerly consumed accompanied by fine wine and beer. To round the evening off we then had ginger cake with vanilla ice cream while watching Gordon Ramsey berate some poor (but must be said deserving) US restaurant owner and chief, with the usual Gordon mixture of colourful expletives.

Being that our erstwhile TCA founder member was not present the methods of route recording and picture taking were faulty or non existent, i.e. the Garmin GPS unit John had ran out of battery power, and a camera was forgotten. For the record the route can best be described thus: flat - slight hill - downhill - flat - bloody steep hill - slight incline - level - good downhill - flat.

(Posted by: John)

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Blue Monday

Taking into account factors such as weather conditions, debt level (the difference between debt accumulated and our ability to pay), time since Christmas, time since failing our New Year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and feeling of a need to take action, Dr Cliff Arnall has calculated that January 21st - Blue Monday - is likely to be the most depressing day of the 2008.

Jon in particular had good reason to feel a bit down in the dumps suffering as he was with a rare case of Delhi Belly after his recent holiday on the Asian subcontinent. We figured that under such circumstances there was nothing to lift the spirits like a bit of fresh air and exercise, a couple of beers with friends and a slap-up meal TCA-stylie. Assembling in Hambledon we eventually decided to experiment with a new route: Heading east out of the village following the steep ascent past Bury Lodge we used the country lanes and tracks which follow the ridge above the village, eventually emerging at the Bat & Ball pub. Jon's extended period of post-Delhi convalescence were telling as he lagged behind the other two in uncharacteristic fashion; John and Al made the most of the novelty of having to wait for Jon a the top of the climbs for a change. A shifty early pint was tempting but the consensus was that we pass by now we were back on familiar territory: We continued the ascent towards Mercury Park but on John's suggestion we took a flier on a lane which promised a short cut - it followed the perimeter of Combes Wood - and rather suprisingly (given past TCA experiences) it emerged exactly where we wanted to be; on the road joining Old Winchester Hill and Butser Hill. Having reached the summit of our ascent we followed the road and were treated to excellent views of a barn owl hunting along the verge. Although it was a mild evening we were heading into a stiff wind and were happy to reach Teglease Down and start the descent off the downs towards Brockbridge.

As the lane approaches the main B2150 the gradient steepens and it was within a few hundred yards of the road, at full speed into the wind that Al had to pull an emergency stop with grit behind a contact lens (protective glasses left on the top of the trundle some weeks before). Leaving the others somewhat in his wake, Al made haste for the sanctuary of the pub with eye clamped closed and streaming with tears. Oblivious to the rain that had started to fall outside Al grappled with his lenses in the toilets of the White Lion and was rather surprised when Jon and John appeared to have got a soaking as they brought up the rear.

A Toast to Absent Friends
White Lion, Soberton
(Left to right: John, Jon, Al)

Contact lenses and soaking were soon forgotten as, with beer in hand, we chatted to a local couple who had been walking their greyhound crossbreed. Having finished our beers (we all plumped for Pride of Romsey from the Hampshire Brewery) and put all our gear back on we were pleased to see that the heavy shower had passed through - we paused briefly to hose our bikes down (Jon also seemed to get hosed too courtesy of John) before heading up and over the hill towards Hambledon and the completion of our 14-mile circular route.

Back at base the hard work began - tonight the regular hoosh (yet another chilli) would be followed by a dessert of Clootie Dumpling with Creme Anglaise - a by-product of Al's pre-Burn's Night experimentation (see recipe below - click to enlarge)

Jon, whose culinary capabilities are limited to the operation of slow cookers, settled down in front of the TV while Trudy took charge of the main course. John arranged the sliced dumpling in a gratin dish while Al heated the double cream and vanilla. John and Al then took turns at the arm-achingly tiresome task of whipping the egg yolks with the sugar and careful observation of the boiling cream before construction of the final dish. Finally Al crossed his fingers as the rather unlikely concoction was placed into the oven. Needless to say, with such a high fat and carbohydrate content, Nick Nairn's delicious twist on this traditional Scottish speciality put a smile on everyone's faces. Blue Monday? Get some clootie dumpling inside you!

Route Map (click to enlarge):
Elevation Profile:

(Posted by: Al)

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Monday, January 14, 2008

A Passage to India

After the excesses of Christmas I met with Matt and Ian at Heathrow airport on Thursday evening to fly to Delhi and start a 17 day trip of sightseeing to India. After months of copious planning we were excited to be seeing the world’s seventh largest country with a population of 1.1 billion, its culture, its ruins and wildlife (and of course to do some cycling if an opportunity presented itself). The fourth member of the party Gary, an old Cardiff university friend, was due to meet us on the Saturday having flown from Darwin, Northern Australia where he now lives.

We arrived early on the Friday bamboozled by the early morning rush hour: All sorts of cars, rickshaws, cycles and ambassador taxis were madly trying to get ahead of each other and squeeze through impossible gaps in the traffic dodging cows, dogs, people and even the odd elephant in the attempt to get into Delhi. The rules of the road were simple - no rules! Just drive as fast as possible, break hard, blow your horn constantly and hope to get to your destination in one piece (similar to the TCA riding style)! Feeling a bit shaken up we eventually got to our hotel in the Paharganj Bazaar area.

Not being daunted, we decided to go straight to New Delhi Railway Station to get tickets for weeks ahead, part of our plan. However it is not easy being a Westerner in the streets of Delhi: After dicing with death crossing a road in front of the station, we could not get anywhere near the ticket office through being mobbed by masses of people, ricksaw drivers, tourist touts, street kids and sadly beggars despite being there being three of us. It was a draining experience. Help though was at hand, or so we thought. An official looking ticket collector said that he liked the UK and would take us to the official Tourist Office (instead of checking tickets?).

We got into a ricksaw and whizzed off to Connaught Place where we were taken to the Tourist office - Exotic Travel (recognised by the Gov.t of India - Dept of Tourism!), a non-public agency. We had walked straight into a scam! Things were made worse because I had hit my head, rather badly, getting out of the ricksaw and my head was streaming with blood rendering me a bit dizzy. Much to the amusement of the boys I received prompt Indian-style first aid comprising a fragrant ‘Duck‘ toilet cleaner as disinfectant and a big white tissue attached to the top of my head with office white adhesive labels. Finally we managed to hire a large taxi for four of us with driver available all day at just over £12 a day including petrol and unlimited mileage.

Using the taxi service, we saw all the sights in Delhi on Saturday and Sunday, The Raj Path (the centre piece of Lutyens Imperial New Delhi), the Red Fort (an imposing sandstone fort of the Moghul era), Jami Masjid (third largest mosque in the world closed to women), Hazrat Nizamudin (an intimidating old muslim part of the city) and Quith Minar (a fluted red sandstone tower with sacred arabic inscriptions) more like a factory chimney in our opinion. We also went to a “local employment site”.. another scam: Ian and I got duped into going and it turned out to be a carpet shop. Matt was not happy. After drinking cups of tea Ian and I scurried out and the Carpet sellers turned on Matt for putting us off from buying. What friendship!

Humayan’s tomb, a Moghul emperor mausoleum
constructed in 1564 and made of red sandstone,
inlaid with black and white marble.

By now we were getting into the our stride, getting up early to make the most of our days (Sort of 9am-ish) and on New Years Eve we left Delhi to get to Agra to see the Taj and the Red Fort. Our Taxi driver Shanka, though first took us to the great Moghul Emperor Akbar’s Mausoleum at Sikandra and the great deer park. After the busle and noise of Delhi, this serene and quiet oasis was welcome.

Moghul Emperor’s Mausoleum at Sikandra

In the afternoon, we visited the Taj Mahal. Despite the crowds and hype, this wonder of the world lives up to expectations. We stayed there until dusk seeing the different colour changes as the light diminished from white to cream to pearl to grey. Apparently the different colours supposedly reflect the different moods of women (sadly we had no women with us to put this theory into practice though). The palace was completed in 1653 by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan to enshrine his wife Arjumamand Bann Begum who died shortly after giving birth to her 14th child (Al and Trudy something to aim for?)! Poignantly he himself was overthrown by his son and interned at the Red Fort overlooking the Taj and the mausoleum of his favourite wife.

Ian, Matt and Jon by The Taj Mahal

On our return to the hotel a slight problem arose in that Matt and Ian found that they were sharing a double bed. However we had no choice and I can assure you that the beds were wider than ours in the UK so do’t be worried. By now it was becoming exceedingly cold and actually it felt rather like a cold winters night in Blighty. Apparently, Northern India was experiencing above average cold temperatures but we still wrapped ourselves in most of our clothes - in Gary’s case everything he had. We had our New Years day dinner on the roof terrace overlooking Agra and huddled around some coal fires with some Australian girls who sadly had no sense of humour and, much to the annoyance of Matt, had drunk the last of kingfisher beer on the premises! The night was close to being a disaster but not giving up, and after some fraught and tense exchanges, the waiter agreed to go out and get some more beer !

Matt and Gary's rooftop New Year's Eve

On New Years day we saw the Red Fort(another one!) followed the one overlooking the Taj and then Fatepur Sikri, the great imperial capital of the great Moghul emperor Akbar, built between 1569 and 1585. It was the biggest historical set of buildings we had so far seen. We soon discovered the reason for this: Mr Akbar had three hundred wives!

Later we arrived at Bharatpur, at the Birders Inn and another problem with a hotel. Ian had booked through an internet travel site who had accepted his money but not booked the hotel! We stayed elsewhere the first night and this time Gary and I had to make do with a double bed, and stayed at the Birders Inn the next two nights where, to our relief we were all furnished with single beds. Despite this we only ate at the Birders on the first night after which we realised it had a rather stuffy family atmosphere. Not to be intimidated, Gary decided to wheel off some jokes of highest crudity and offence (not humour I am afraid) - to all sexes races and genders the world knows - which soon had the desired effect. Clearance of the restaurant apart from us. It was a Champion as Gary would say impersonating the type of person sharing a bed with another of the same sex. Eventually we had to finish our drinks in our rooms!

Gary and Jon's nightcap

On Wednesday, we arrived our usual early time and promptly arranged for a guide to take us round Kaleodo National Park. No Siberial Cranes there now but 'wow!' what birds, Sarus Cranes, Jabiru, Grey Hornbill, Spotted Owlet, Collared Scops Owl, Grey Nightjar, Brown crake, Long-tailed and Bay-backed Shrikes, Egyptian vultures, White-naped Woodpecker, White-throated kingfisher, Greater Coucal, Oriental Magpie Robin, to name a few. Another highlights included a massive Python snake and we managed to get on our bikes around the various lakes and marshes seeing the birds (below).

The following day, we were even more adventurous taking a boat trip around huge reservoir and by now the boys were eagerly spotting birds. Gary thought he saw a white crane but it turned out to be a large white bag, and then Matt started discussing the varities of “Tomtits“ thoroughly confusing our guide (They were not in the bird guide) Lots more birds though, including Asian Openbill, Glossy Ibis and Slender-Billed Vulture.

Our boat trip on the reservoir: Name those birds

Now over half way through our trip, on the 5th January, the Saturday we started off from our Safari Hotel at Ramthambourne National Park and a 5 o'clock wake up gave us a shock. It was also exceeding cold and we wrapped ourselves all in our bed rugs to keep warm. We were in an open top canter bus and soon realised the bumpy tracks were not good for dodgy bottoms. We went Safaring in the morning and afternoon and trumped with 3 Tigers. Great views although the guide would not let us get any closer (something to do with our safety.) This was definitely another highlight of the trip seeing the colours and size of these beasts. We were extremely lucky and realised that some people had been at the hotel for some days and not seen then. As well as the Tigers we saw deer, antelope, mongooses, crocs, turtles as well as birds, For birders, Crested Serpent Eagle, Red-necked Falcon, Coppersmith Barbet and Pin-tailed Green Pigeon were highlights.


Unfortunately it soon became evident that I was the only one without Delhi Belly and was the last man standing, an accolade later regretted. It was clear by now that “Throne King” Matt was spending even more time than usual in the toilets - which is saying something. (This is expensive if you have to go toilets during the day as you have give a tip every time on the road).

After Ranthambourne National Park we travelled up to Jaipur known as the Pink City rather appropriate for us now as the Indians could not understand where our girlfriends were! (Not to mention the double beds we had at hotels). In the rough guide it looked no distance and Shanka said it was only just over 200 miles. We soon realised that it was going to take all day because there were just rough tracks many through fields but we eventually arrived safely.

Despite seeing the Amber Fort, our stop at Jaipur was really a staging post for Delhi and our final stop on the trip, Varansi, an ancient Holly Hindu City overlooking the Ganges. In Hindu religion, anyone who dies here receives instant enlightenment so may old people came, many poor and on the streets, came here to die. There are of course many cremations from the ghats on the river as well.

We arrived by train early on Tuesday to a crowd of taxi drivers and hotel touts at the platform. We took refuge in a breakfast bar and took a run for it towards a ricksaw and driver who did not look a crook waiting to rip us off. The drivers and touts though followed and surrounded us shouting and gesticulating for business. After a stand-off and us telling then to shut it, we realised that we had to go with a dodgy taxi driver and hotel tout as ricksaws were not allowed to take us. Despite us telling him, the hotel tout proceeded to take us to his hotel and not ours. We got left stranded in a dark alleyway, soiled with excrement and with a dead dog - probably the worst low we had on out trip. However, we headed downwards towards the river looking for our riverside hotel with a terrace dodging cows, beggars and touts. We found it and booked in but found hotel rule 7 prohibited alcohol. Obviously worried, Matt got me later to get my bins to scan the roof top terraces of other hotels to find other supplies but to no avail: Alcohol was banned in Varanasi.

During the three days we visited ghats where some of the cremations took place as well as visited the Red Fort, yet another one! We did the usual tourist trip of boating up and down the Ganges which is meant to be best at dawn but we did not quite mange that (the Ganges after sunrise was as horrible as the city, with even more dead things in it). At Sarnath, outside the city, we saw a cluster of Budhist ruins and temples where its founder Siddarttha Gautama, the awakened one, give his first sermon in the sixth century bc. From here back to Varanasi, we set up a “Clarkson Challenge” between Ian and I in one ricksaw and Gary and Matt in another to get back quickest. The experience is far better than a play station! (It was a dead heat)

We returned back to Delhi on a high having seen everything we wanted, not having fallen out with each other, suffered beer shortages, scams, beggars, bowel eruptions and double beds and got back to the UK on Sunday 14th January.

(Posted by: Jon)

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Friday, January 11, 2008

TCA Honours Everest Colossus

Sir Edmund Hillary, who has died at the age of 88, made it to the summit of Everest in 1953, and became the first man on the planet to reach its highest point. After a gruelling climb up the southern face, battling the effects of high altitude and bad weather, Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay managed to reach the peak at 1130 local time on 29 May. He took the famous photo of his Sherpa companion posing with his ice-axe, but refused Tenzing's offer to take one of him, so his ascent went unrecorded. On the Morning of Queen Elizabeth's coronation in May 1953, her subjects were told that Sir Edmund had made it to the summit. The TCA salutes Ed, a truly inspirational New Zealander.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

New Year Pilgrimage

A cup of tea and a slice of Auntie Babs' Christmas fruit cake was a welcome treat for Al as he arrived in Fareham: With snow forecast we wrapped up warm before fettling the bikes in John's garage - it was heavily overcast with a bitter easterly wind which made it feel colder than the 2ºC registering on the thermometer. We had decided on a departure from our regular rural activities in favour of an urban Solent-side adventure.

We set off from John's down the main road towards Gosport, whizzing past the queues of stationary rush-hour traffic. As we neared the sea John led us through the rat-run of alleys, bridges, bike lanes and housing estates which eventually led to the Gosport ferry terminal. We stopped to admire the view across to Portsmouth with the spinnaker tower all lit up before carrying on past Haslar hospital towards Gulkicker point; a quick cut through the golf course and we joined the seafront promenade at Stokes Bay.

John and Al take a breather
on Gosport Seafront

Ignoring the 'NO CYCLING' signs painted on the tarmac, but carefully looking out for un-illuminated dog walkers, we made rapid progress beside the Solent with the wind directly behind us. With the wind on our backs the conditions did not seem so bleak and before too long we were in Lee-on-Solent with it's neon lights, chip shops and curry houses. We were distracted by the smell of food and discussed the future possibility of a TCA curry night using a similar route. However, having passed the hovercraft depot, the lights disappeared and it was onto the darkened sea-front promenade once more towards Hill Head and our first pint.

The Osborne View is a firm TCA favorite (although we were later surprised to note that it's patronisation has not been documented since the inception of the blog, Ed. ) - it's an excellent place to break a walk or ride, or to enjoy a hearty meal. On a clear day it also affords spectacular views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight from the windows on it's numerous floors, and it's large pub garden which has direct access to the beach. It is a Hall and Woodhouse pub and consequently has a fine selection of Badger Beers - we both plumped for their seasonal Pickled Partridge winter ale. Al noted that 'the Ozzy' had undergone a significant refurbishment since his last visit but was pleased with how tastefully this had been undertaken.

Having left the pub guiding duties were passed to Al, since John had reached the geographical boundaries of his experience. In his capacity as guide and more senior Associate Al felt that the tenacity, dedication and enthusiasm with which John has embraced the TCA ethos over the last months, justified reward with the Return to Titchfield Ceremony. As we crossed the boundary to the spiritual home of the TCA (a place so sacred some dare not utter it's name) the brief ceremony was conducted, a few solemn words were spoken and photographs of the occasion taken for posterity.

John enters the hallowed shire
under cover of darkness

As TCA lore dictates we headed straight for the Queen's Head, where the Association was borne. Although the pub seems to have changed hands since the Founding Fathers last frequented it's cozy bar little seemed out of place. Thankfully there were still a fine selection of beers available which this time split the contingent; John opted for a pint of Good King Censlas from the Hampshire Brewery, while Al preferred a Swift One from Droxford's Bowman Ales - which seemed an entirely appropriate brew with which to toast absent members. To John's almost total ambivalence Al then provided a monologue on the brief history of this local microbrewery run by the former brewers of the defunct Cheriton Brewhouse.

Climbing out of the village towards Fareham the con was once again passed to John as we followed a suburban route back towards his place on the eastern side of town to complete the 20-mile circuit. Once home and hosed we enjoyed a delicious, healthy and nutritious version of spaghetti bolognese with garlic bread and cups of tea while watching the Hairy Bikers knock up regional dishes from the northeast of England.

Route Map (click to enlarge):

Elevation Profile*:
*Note that the maximum altitude is only 100ft above sea level :
this exaggerates the appearance of the ascents/descents from around the 13 mile point
at Hill Head, Titchfield village and the climb to Ravilles Lane

(Posted by: Al)

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