Days 22-26, Sep 27-30, Exploring London Pt 1.

Musty, dank and smelling a little of mildew, the family room that I stayed in for the night wasn’t quite what I expected but at least it was clean. Then again, at only £35 a night, and located in the centre of London, one can’t complain.

Julian’s House Hotel, and the rest of the hotels on the same street, were typical of old English town houses — tall, narrow and deep, and even going below street level to maximise the space, and that was where the room I was given for the night was located.

It was quite a task negotiating my way down the narrow stairwell, especially when I had 4 panniers, a handlebar bag, a tent, a sleeping bag, the thermarest and, my Surly, which Yamar, the manager was kind enough to allow me to bring into the room.

It was just as well that I wouldn’t have to lug my bike up and down the staircase; I was pretty much done with serious cycling for the trip. Rather, I was looking forward to exploring the city by that most endearing of London’s transportation icons — the red double-decker bus. I mean, what’s more fun than sitting on the top deck of a double-decker bus taking in the sights as it makes its way across the Monopoly streets of London?

Yamar was in more chirpy mood this morning. Another colleague of his, Munir, was just as friendly. In between cups of coffee from a machine in the reception, I asked them the usual questions tourists asked and they were very kind to give me maps, advice and instructions on how best to get around.

Yamar then told me that if I wanted to stay on, he would only charge me £30 instead, and after tonight, he would move me to the Globe Hotel down the street (which turned out to be a much nicer room, one with a nice view as well), and at the same rate.

Well, everything was turning out great. So it was time to explore London.

Note: If you’re in London, the Argyll St area is a very strategic place to stay, especially if Paris is in your plans. Eurostar trains to and from Paris depart and arrive at St Pancras station which is just a few minutes walk away. As well, King’s Cross station is just opposite St Pancras.

The family room where I stayed in for 2 nights.

At Globe, I stayed at the 2nd floor, with a view of greenery and the street below

The simple but clean room at Globe. My bike is in the corner on the right.

From the window, I could see St Pancras station

St Pancras is somewhat of an icon

As my first stop, I decided to visit another famous London icon, Trafalgar Square. There were plenty of bus options from Kings Cross

To retain some old-world charm, more likely for tourists, old double-deckers are still in service

.. as well as charming old conductors (this one was rather effeminate) who have to swipe Oyster Cards and season tickets the good old fashioned way. New buses only have one driver, and passengers are supposed to be honest and swipe their cards themselves. I did see some dishonest Londoners who pretended to swipe their cards but when the driver wasn't looking, they would keep their cards instead.

Britain's greatest war hero, Lord Horatio Nelson, stands high and proud ... immortalised on this column in Trafalgar Square overlooking the city, and the country he defended with his life. But today, it is a totally different scene below.

It was the London Week of Peace, and a talentime, among other activities, was being held.

Today, the ubiquitous pigeons had to roost elsewhere ...

... in a deserted corner. Birds of a feather do flock together after all, like these ones here. The homeless vagrant and his displaced feathered friends finding solace in each other.

Nearby, there were stalls selling stuff related to the theme and I was particularly drawn to this one -- young black kids from the London ghettos who took things into their own hands, urging other kids to better themselves. I bought 2 of their T-shirts in support. They were definitely more worthwhile souvenirs than the ones that proclaimed the wearer's love for London.

After I bought the T-shirts, they insisted I took a picture with them. Nice kids.

Another must-photograph icon, but I decided I wanted an altogether different way of capturing Big Ben 🙂

The London Eye was just nearby and it was doing roaring business.

The august Westminster building where the country's lawmakers meet.

A short distance away was 10 Downing St. I'd always thought it was a very approachable place...until I saw the extreme security measures that went into protecting the Prime Minister.

But today, he was fair game for the press which took potshots at him for his party's dismal performance of late. Nothing is sacred to the British press...not even their own PM

As I made my way along the streets of London, I came across this theatre promoting the other famous Queen of England. It was a musical portraying the colourful leader of the band -- Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury.

I loved Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid, so when I came across Baker St, I was surprised to find that there really is a 221B address, where according to the stories, was where he lived. It turned to be more of a tourist attraction although the furnishings do depict the Victorian era very faithfully.

Oxford St, shoppers paradise.

The biggest disappointment for me ... after years of singing about a certain bridge in London that kept falling down, one would have thought it looked more romantic. Nope, this was it; a bland-looking structure across the Thames. I'd have walked by without a second glance if I didn't know better.

The buildings nearby were more interesting, including this one where it was used as a bomb shelter in WW2 and now reconstructed as a tourist attraction.

Now that's what I call a bridge -- Tower Bridge, where heads used to roll at the whim and fancy of the King. It is also reputed that should the crows in the tower, which are pampered to no end, ever desert it, the kingdom would fall. And these 'ang mohs' laugh at us for our silly superstitions?

London has many great (and free) museums. The Tate is one such place. An absolute gem for its art exhibition.

The other freebie -- the British Museum. You need a week to fully appreciate its contents.

An anomaly (or not, depending on how you look at it) in the British Museum -- all the male statues were missing a very important appendage ... well, almost all.

Outside the museum, I decided to take a break and have a go at London's pride -- Fuller's London Pride to be exact, an 'outstanding premium ale' fresh off the tap.

I have to admit it was outstanding for an ale.

No, I'm not filled with too much London Pride, just a self-shot pic while I was talking to an American couple next to me. I can never not talk to people in such conducive surroundings. In any case, at £2.50 a pint, I couldn't afford to enjoy too many.

Hyde Park. A huge green lung in the city. Actually, the main reason I came here was to visit Malaysia Hall which was located nearby. I was dying for some curry rice and teh tarik, a taste of home after almost a month on the road. I was not disappointed ...

One of Hyde Park's idyllic lakes filled with majestic swans.

At the edge of Hyde Park is Kensington Palace, ex-abode of their royal highnesses, Princess Diana (until her death), the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Princess Michael of Kent etc etc and other luminaries. I couldn't bring myself to part with £8 to look at some rich person's home so I just walked around its impressive gardens. I made friends with one of the many squirrels scampering around the garden. Very friendly fellows.






Day 21, Sep 26. Dieppe to London – England ho!

My tent was sweating profusely. Gazing up from where I was lying, comfortably ensconced in my sleeping bag, I could see the inside wall of the fly-sheet awash with droplets of dew. It must have been due to the humid air that blew in from the sea.

Camp Vitamin was a quiet place. I had only seen one other tent last night and they had left early this morning. I remembered the couple — American cycle tourers. I remembered because I had asked them if they had a wine-opener, but no luck.

On the way to the campsite, I had stopped by a supermarket to stock up on some groceries and, since it was my last day of cycling on the European continent, I thought I might have a bit of a hurrah, and celebrate the occasion with a 5 Euro bottle of 2007 Malesan Bordeaux, the very same one that I toasted with the Rovens at their home in Marines.

Well, the wine got to age an extra day, and I toasted the night with water instead. Everything in town was also closed by then, so I might as well tuck in early.

The tent may have been damp but the weather certainly looked very promising, even though the early morning wind chilled me to the bone the moment I stepped out of the tent.

My little corner in the sun ... might as well make it laundry day today.

Breakfast was a grand affair -- yogurt to start off the meal, baguette with a choice of camembert, jam, butter and pate, and hot freshly brewed coffee -- a veritable feast, even by a cycle-tourer's camping standards.

The ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven on the Sussex coast only sailed twice a day — 5am and 6pm. Both weren’t the best of options. One was too early, and the other was too late and, if I went with the 6pm option, the 4-hr crossing would mean arriving at night. I had no intention of cycling around looking for the campsite and then setting up tent in the cold and in the dark.

I opted for the 5am ferry, which meant I would have to stay another night in Dieppe … well, almost. The ferry required passengers to check in at least an hour before it sailed, and I wasn’t eager to wake up in the freezing cold of the night, pack up the tent, then ride down to the terminal.

I decided to stay in camp until 10pm, pack up at leisure and then sleep in the terminal until boarding time. But I hadn’t bargained for the evening dew that descended upon my tent like a shower the moment the sun went down over the horizon.

By the time I was ready to start packing, the tent’s flysheet was once again drenched to the seams. Oh well, damp or otherwise, and as much as I hated it packing a wet tent, I packed up and headed for the ferry terminal.

At the first bridge that spanned the bay, I was jarred out of the reverie of my casual ride. Where the heck was the bridge? I could only see a barrier and a ‘route barree’ sign. The bridge, which turned out to be a movable one,was on the other side, and was probably undergoing maintenance of some kind. No choice then but to take a long detour.

At the ferry terminal, I checked in early and headed for the waiting area. Among the pool tables and empty chairs, I unpacked my Thermarest, laid it on the floor and tried to get a few hours sleep.

At 4.50 am, the friendly officer who checked me in told me to get ready to board the ferry. It was still dark and there was a freezing wind blowing outside. The kind man had waited until the last minute ‘so that you won’t freeze to death in the cold wind’.

He was right. Even with a jacket on, I shivered as I made my way across the 200 metres or so to the yawning belly of the ship’s vehicle hold. I was the only cyclist so I was told to ‘park anywhere you like’.

Where'd the bridge go??? On the other side of course.

The waiting area of the ferry terminal. I slept on the floor where I parked my bike.

The ferry looked more like a hotel to me...lots of wood panelling and comfortable chairs to lounge around

The ship's reception.

Passengers can choose to sit anywhere

Another seating area ..this one had a big LCD but only French programmes

There were even distractions of the lucky kind, but it seemed the authorities had sealed the machines.

The cafe, where very expensive breakfasts were sold.

Out on the deck, the wind was refreshingy cold.

One of the most spectacular sun rises I had ever seen -- a clear horizon, and a golden orb that slowly made its way up the sky.

Au revoir, France. You can just barely see France in the distance

Nearing England, with the white cliffs off the Sussex coast coming into view.

At Newhaven, I was the first vehicle off the ferry.

It felt great to be finally in England...and switching to the 'right' side of the road.

Oh, the joy of finally reading signs in English.

Just out of Newhaven, I was passed by one fast cyclist after another. It turned out to be some kind of race going on. But there weren't too many 'hellos' as they passed by. It was so different from the other countries in Europe.

Brer Rabbit was once faster than the cyclists who passed me ... now just a sad roadkill.

About 5 kms out of Newhaven, my stomach alerted me to this promising sign by the roadside

It was just after 9, and they had just opened for business.

but I was very warmly welcomed. We even had a conversation we could both understand, including ordering my breakfast.

Naturally, I went for the biggie ... a full English breakfast -- fried potato wedges, fried bangers, fried bacon, grilled tomato, fried egg, fried mushrooms, plus toast and butter .. all complemented by a pot of English tea served in blue china. It was nothing short of a cheerful cholesterol catastrophe in the making, but who cares? Life should be so good....

Good thing I didn't bring out my own food as well.

Some mornings are just meant to be lazy, what more with the sun shining brightly through a clear blue sky, and the air crisp, cool and laced with unmistakeably English farm fragrances. All I wanted to do was sit in the sun and drink more English tea and eat more oily English food but … London beckoned …

And so, with the contents of a full English breakfast making its way down the digestive system, I headed out of the farm, passing a pig and a goat incarcerated in a pen going at each other head to head. It was fascinating to watch.

The meadows that I had read about as a kid, and seen so much of on tv, were stretched out on both sides of the road before me. There didn’t seem to be any really flat elevation anywhere, and the roads followed the same. All around, the scenery was as rustic as English countrysides could be. Now I knew how and where the author and illustrator of ‘The wind in the willows’ drew their inspiration from.

Maps I had none, but I had downloaded GPS tracks that would lead me all the way from Newhaven to The Thames river in London. As I rode along, I realised the author of these tracks chose to follow quiet country lanes as much as possible, avoiding the busy secondary roads, which was fine by me. In fact, at one point, I was actually riding on a dirt path through a chicken farm!

Rolling meadows ... and so were the road elevations

Autumn was beginning to make its presence felt

Rustic English cottages...very Enid Blyton too.

Somewhere, underneath all that ivy is a home...I think.

Some cottages had perfectly manicured hedges and lawns ...

while others, like this free-range chicken farm, had electrified ones.

Every lane, cottage and farm that I passed seem to have a name, every single one of them …

Some were more 'cheerful' than others. This one boasted of a rare windmill in the vicinity

Some of the lanes I rode through were really narrow... narrow that only 1 car could pass through at a time.

These 3 little girls were farmkids, selling some produce outside their farm by the roadside.

At a small village called Ardingly, I decided to stop for lunch at this pub. Unfortunately, the owner had a slight racist streak to her demeanor. I didn't pay it no mind and still gave her my custom in spite of it. Must be a supporter of the British National Party 🙂

Meal #2 of the day -- English fish and chips, and that isn't a piece of Vietnamese catfish usually passed off as Dory.

The pub owner's compatriots, nice friendly customers that they were, hailed from the other extreme. They were fascinated with my travels and invited me to sit with them and chat over lunch. English pride redeemed.

I came across many other pubs today. Well, this is pub country after all.

I'd never seen such a sign before, so I slowed down to avoid reducing the local frog population crossing the road. But there were none to be seen.

After climbing a particularly long and strenuous hill, on a road aptly named Hilltop Lane, I came upon Farthing Downs. Now, I knew what downs looked like. Actually, this one was nothing more than an ridge on top of a hill, running straight for some 200 metres with thick grass growing on both sides of the road that ran through the ridge. It was quite unique in its own way, though.

The top of Farthing Downs

After Farthing Downs, I came into the outskirts of greater London, and frankly, I wasn't prepared to see how scrappy it was.

As I made my way through the suburbs, this little boy came up alongside me and asked inquisitive questions like any normal inquisitive kid, at one point even riding hands-free.

As I neared the Thames, cycle path signages came into view but unlike in Europe, these weren't very helpful. I got lost ...

and had to ask for help from passing cyclists, who never turn you away...

A little later, I had to stop this couple who even went to the extent of consulting Googlemaps on their iPhone to help me find my destination in London.

Finally, with the Thames on my right, I rode the final kms to London.

It was fast becoming dusk, and I still couldn’t find the hostel. When I finally found it, I was still out of luck. It was full. I headed back the way I came into the busiest part of the city and tried another hostel. It was also full. I even tried the Indian YMCA, looking thoroughly out of place walking into the reception (think busy Mumbai).

Apparently, it was a busy Saturday night and all the hostels were full. I was advised to try hotels instead.

I was lucking out big time. I had wandered into Argyll street, near St Pancras and King’s Cross, and which was mostly occupied by budget hotels and yet I was being turned away one after another.

It was already dark and I was at wits end. I was tired, hungry and frustrated to be in such a situation at tour’s end. I decided to knock on one more door which had a ‘vacancy’ sign, failing which, I was going to head out of the city and look for a campsite I knew existed some 16km away. Not the best option but …

I guess my faith was being tested 🙂

At Julian’s House Hotel, I rang the doorbell and a surly-looking middle-eastern fellow opened the door …

‘Hi, do you have a room?’

‘Sorry, no room’

‘But your sign says vacancy’ I reminded him.

‘It’s a family room, I can’t give that to you’ (Actually, what he meant was that he couldn’t let me have the room at single-occupancy rate)

I decided that I was going to be firm and stand my ground….so I put on my most pathetic look and implored him with ‘Please, I only need it for tonight’.

He blinked first. I went for the kill.

‘The family room is £45’ (single was 29)

‘Errr… what about £35?’

He was wavering. I decided to look even more pathetic.

‘Ok’ he finally agreed. ‘But only for tonight’, he added as a last word.

His name was Yamar, and he turned out to be a splendid fellow instead. I ended up staying not 1 but 4 nights…the second 2 nights at the nicer Globe Hotel (also owned by them) just a little down the street.

What a day it had been. Tomorow, I explore London.

Distance today: 131km
Distance to date: 1300km (also the trip total)

Playback today’s ride on Garmin Connnect

Check out the 360 view of Argyll St, courtesy of Google Maps Street View:






When the leaves turn colour …

The European summer is almost at an end. Most of the tourists will be leaving for home, the crowds are thinning out, the temperature has begun to dip a little — and hopefully, so will prices. All good signs for free and independent cycle-tourers like me embarking on a Tour of Europe.

The plan, as always, is simple 🙂

5 countries, 26 days (4-30 Sep), 1,500km; give or take a couple of hundred kms.

The starting point will be Frankfurt, Germany. From there, I’ll flow with the River Rhine all the way to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, about 500kms to the north.

From Amsterdam, I head south-west to Belgium, crossing into France and then into Paris.

From Paris, it’s a north-westerly ride to Dieppe on the French coast; then a ferry ride across the Channel to Newhaven, England.

The last leg will see me heading north towards London, and then home on an AirAsia flight out of Stansted, 60km to the north.

The first part of the journey will be fully along the cycle paths of the River Rhine. It would be pretty hard to get lost following the river so that’s less one worry. At the end of this leg, Amsterdam should be good for a few days of rest and sightseeing — and of course, blending in with the 700,000 or bicycles that rule the roads of this canal city.

Campsites, or campingplatz as they call it in Germany, are easily found throughout the length of the river so camping is how I intend to overcome the expensive issue of accommodation . Even in big cities like Amsterdam and Paris, there are campsites to be found, right in the heart of it all, and all costing less than 10 Euros.

However, once I reach Belgium, I intend to retrace part of the route that Robert Louis Stevenson (he of Treasure Island fame) took when he sailed from Belgium to France in a sailing canoe. RSL is one of my favourite authors and, without a doubt, one of the finest travel writers of the 19th century.

In his first real book, An Inland Voyage, Stevenson chronicles his travels in a canoe with his good friend, Sir Walter Simpson, along the many canals that define this part of the world. The language may be a bit archaic but if one perseveres, one will be rewarded with the beauty and colour of the land that fairly leap out of the pages.

One of the reasons I’m following in the wake of his inland sailing adventure is that part of the route happens to coincide with that of the other famous French bike race — the Paris-Roubaix Classic — a one-day, 250km race across the countryside. In dozens of stretches along the way, the peloton goes bumpity-bump on some of the most vicious cobblestones that trace back to Roman times (they don’t nick-name this race ‘The Hell of the North‘ for nothing).

At Roubaix, and if allowed, I’m going to ride on the oval timber track of the town’s hallowed velodrome that always plays host to the traditional final km of the race.

Paris will probably be the longest stop of the trip — doing the tourist stuff, eating the best baguettes in the world, drinking coffee by the Parisian sidewalks and, the icing on the cake — riding the traditional Parisian loop of the Tour de France‘ s final stage along the boulevards of Champs Elysees, the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe.

From France, it’s merely a 2-day ride to the coast and, after a short ferry ride across the English Channel, I shall be in the land of fish-and-chips, steak and kidney pies, stiff upper lips and all …

A simple plan, no?

I can’t wait 🙂

The map below is an approximate route of the area that I will be traversing.





Tour of Europe, the making of a dream.

As all travellers will tell you, it’s the preparation and planning that make up half the excitement of a journey. Likewise, in preparation of my upcoming Euro tour in September, I’ve been scouring the many travelogues, forums and cycle-touring blogs on the net, notably — a treasure trove of tales and research material for any would-be cycle tourer.

Inevitably, one comes across many inspiring quotes and catch-phrases, some albeit a bit cliched, but nonetheless, one particular quote resonated with me : ‘It’s risky business travelling alone, but it’s equally risky when dreams remain dreams.’

A few years ago, I had planned to do something any self-respecting, bicycle-racing afficionado dreams of doing — to stand among the crowds along the Champs-Elysees in Paris and cheer on the winners of the final stage of the Tour de France, the greatest bicycle race in the world.

Well, it was a grand dream, and the plan was simple — ride from London to Paris (including a ferry crossing of the English Channel, of course) and then fly home from Paris. But somehow, Europe seemed so far away and the whole thing never quite shifted into higher gear and it remained a dream.

Occasionally, in casual conversations with my boss, SP Lee, the topic of France would crop up (his wife is French) and he would say, ‘Go la, Mike, you’ll love it, especially if you’re cycle touring. It’s hard to find any part of France that’s not nice.’ Well, I can fully attest to that claim, from what I’ve seen following the daily live coverage of Le Tour on the Eurosport channel.

Interestingly, one of the reasons people all over the world tune in to watch the Tour is to see France in all its glorious summer splendour —  the cameras on board the helicopters covering the race would would zoom in on notable landmarks, even circling them to give viewers a proper look — well, at least half the non-bike racing viewers were, if the commentators’ claim are to be believed.

2008 rolled in and still Europe didn’t feature in my touring plans; I had decided to ‘conquer’ Vietnam and Laos instead — 21 days across some of the most massive mountains I had ever ridden. It was a magnificent tour and I finally ticked off the last 2 Indochina countries on my  list that I had yet to set foot on.

In 2009, there was still no sign of Europe in my plans; this time, I had decided that I would take it ‘down under’ — Oz-try-lia!

As usual, the plan was simple — a 1,200km jaunt from Melbourne to Sydney on the south-eastern flank of the Australian continent. Along the way (if I was lucky), I’d get to throw a couple of snowballs in the Snowy Mountains.

I had also timed my arrival at Melbourne to coincide with the annual Around the Bay in a Day cycle ride — a 140km ride around Philip Bay that’s so popular, all places are usually taken up. I had registered but luckily, I hadn’t paid yet.

Then sometime in May this year, my recumbent-riding friend (and ‘No to ISA Freedom Ride‘ buddy) Joseph Koh reported from out of the blue that he’d just come back from a mini Euro tour — 2 weeks in Germany, Czech republic and Austria.

Actually, he had gone there with Jorge (another ‘No to ISA Freedom Ride‘ buddy) to participate in some solar-vehicle challenge in Stuttgart, and he’d taken the opportunity to do a tour while he was there.

Intrigued, I called him up to ask about his trip and in the ensuing conversation, I also told him about my intended Aussie trip. But his reply was, ‘Eh, why you want to do Australia? The scenery is boring la … and it’s pretty much the same all the way!’ Of course, he was speaking from experience, having ridden there before.  It then occurred to me that he might just be right.

I recalled seeing the photographic results when using Googlemap’s street-view feature to visually check out the route, and it really was pretty much the same the entire way — sparse, not very green in some areas but still captivating in its own way. Fortunately too, that I hadn’t succumbed to AirAsia’s incredible early-bird offers to fly with them to Australia yet.

And so, my Tour of Europe dream finally came to the fore. It seemed like now or never. Yes, it could be risky business travelling alone in Europe. German, Dutch, French or Flemish — I did not speak nor understand any of these languages.

Europe is far away. Europe is expensive. But, it would be equally risky if my dream remained a dream…..

Next: Realising my dream, even though July has come and gone and the Tour de France peloton had long crossed the finish line at Champs Elysees …