Thursday, February 24

Never too old to learn

The Curse is fond of saying 'every day's a schoolday' and I have to agree with him - sometimes, however, I find myself re-learning lessons that I thought I'd learned ages ago!

Today was a good example. I'm generally the sort of person who doesn't mind spending a little bit more money to get something that will last longer, be more durable or do the job better. For some reason, though, I seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to bicycle tyres. And this is a really silly attitude to have when you cycle 13 miles every day!

Last time I went to buy some new tyres I got a bit annoyed by the shop assistant trying to flog me the ones that were £25 each and almost in spite, insisted on buying the cheap ones that were only £9.99 each. I wouldn't even consider buying the £20 ones, so narked was I!

Decision-making fail!

Since that day I've been paying for my miserliness in spades, and also in inner tubes. Although I saved about £10 on each tyre, I've suffered several punctures because of the thinness of the tyres; inner tubes cost £5 each and I've been getting through them with ridiculous speed. Not to mention the aggravation of having to change an inner tube in the rain in Tesco's car park on the way to work. And I compounded the miserliness by not just throwing away the tyres and buying new ones - I don't like throwing stuff away until it is finished, and even though they were only £10 each I wanted to get the wear out of them before I changed them for new.

Another decision-making fail!

About 4 miles into this morning's journey to work I went over a piece of glass and suffered a pretty dramatic puncture in the back wheel. When I got the tyre off I found that the glass had not only shredded the inner tube, it had cut a big hole in the tyre. I put on a new inner tube and rode the rest of the way, but the tyre was knackered and just round the corner from the office, the brand new inner tube which had only done about 2 miles, also met its end. Bah.

Luckily the local bike shop had tyres and inner tubes in stock in the right size. I went right out and bought a new, quality tyre which hopefully will give me plenty of trouble-free miles. No more cheap tyres for me!

Sunday, February 13

Lewes and the South Downs

Some days everything comes together nicely; Saturday was one such day. Armed with confidence in the weather forecast, a bit of forward planning and a few slices of chocolate brownie, Gareth and I met at Victoria station at 10am for a day out on the South Downs. We first did this walk a couple of years ago, at about the same time of year, and the few months I've been yearning to repeat it.

It is a fairly strenuous walk - about 10 miles with three fairly steep climbs and the corresponding descents - but the effort is rewarded with fabulous views of the downs, the south coast, and the surrounding countryside. The walk starts in the lovely town of Lewes, which is dripping with chi-chi delis and quirky little gift shops, very pretty and heaving on a sunny Saturday morning. Halfway round is an excellent pub, The Ram at Firle, which serves Harvey's beer (made in Lewes) and hearty sandwiches or full meals if you are really hungry.

If you are interested, the walk is in this book by Helena Smith, although my version is an earlier edition. While this particular walk is easy to follow (you could probably even work it out from an Ordnance Survey map) I wouldn't recommend the book as a purchase. Ms Smith has a very flexible approach to distances; what's the point in saying 'after 50m take the path on the right' when in fact it is more like 250m? If you are using the book it's wise to carry a map with you so that you can check your route - of course you should carry a map anyway and I'm sure it says that in the book itself, but it should be there as a back-up rather than as the main source of information. There is a bit too much focus on quirky notes about places along the route (very interesting and adds to the enjoyment) but not enough on the actual route description (yes I know it's the 'boring' bit but essential!). I get the feeling no-one has test walked them, and there is a lot of reliance on landmarks which may not be permanent. 'Cross the rusty metal gate' is not a reliable instruction. Six months later than might be a new shiny wooden gate or even a stile.

But we'd done it before and knew the route; the walk didn't disappoint. After a steep climb out of Lewes you drop again into a silent and strangely other-worldly valley which seems miles from the hubbub of the town.

Through the valley and up Mount Caburn from where the South Downs and the last stretch of the walk can be seen. From here you descend again into the village of Glynde, which has a lovely working forge housed in an Arts & Crafts building which is almost painfully cute.

After lunch in Firle - a pleasant interlude only slightly marred by a braying hoard of Hooray Henries and Henriettas - we set out for the final climb, up onto the South Down Way. It's a steep climb and quite long - we struggled partway but were urged on by the fact that the elderly woman in front with the walking stick was leaving us behind, and the family with young kids behind was catching us up!

From the top of the ridge the views are glorious - right across to Newhaven and the English Channel. The sun was low and we were walking right into it, but despite the annoying factor of having to squint the whole time, it did create some beautiful shadows across the hills.

As we started the final descent to Southease station, along with some model plane enthusiasts who were just packing up for the day, the light was fading. It was almost 5pm. Even having a half hour wait at the station for the next train had its benefits; as we surveyed the surrounding scenery from the top of the footbridge we saw a barn owl flying low across the fields, off on its evening hunt.

The day was rounded off by a soak in a hot bath laced with Origins ginger bath foam to ease the aching muscles. Champion!

Monday, February 7

Many hands

Loved this worn metalwork on the door of the church at Dover Castle. How many hands must have pushed against these doors over the years?

Saturday, February 5

Dover Castle

What a day to choose for a trip to Dover Castle! Winds of 80mph, grey skies and intermittent showers.

My parents gave both myself and the Curse membership of English Heritage for christmas last year, and although we made good use of the cards last September in Whitby Abbey and Scarborough Castle, we hadn't used them since.

I've wanted to visit Dover Castle for ages, and since it stays open throughout the year it seemed like the ideal place for a visit to get us out of London for the day.

We were very disappointed to find when we arrived that the Great Tower (one of the most impressive and interesting parts of the site) was closed 'due to high winds'. Considering that visitors were allowed to wander the whole of the very exposed site, including the battlements that overlook the white cliffs, I couldn't really work out why this part of the castle was out of bounds. Yes, it's the highest point of the site, and I wouldn't have expected them to let us out on the roof, but why else would it be shut?

This seemingly-impregnable fortress was surely not at risk of incurring structural damage or dropping bits of stone on the heads of visitors? I admit I was rather dischuffed by this situation. I tried not to be too grumpy, but it was difficult when the lunch offerings were not particularly great either, and rather pricey. Vegetable soup was delicious, but it came with sliced bread rather than the advertised crusty roll, and at a cost of £4.50. The sandwiches on offer (about four left) were wrapped in those half-cellophane half-paper bags, and had been in the chill cabinet for some time, so the crusts had gone rather stale.

With all this moaning you might imagine I hated the trip, but in fact we still had some fun and it was good to be out and about even in gale force winds. Only a handful of other visitors were around, so we enjoyed the almost-deserted grounds of the castle and it made the trip down the dimly-lit, deserted medieval tunnels rather spooky on our own.

We also went on the tour of the underground military hospital, which is housed in the first level of the 'secret wartime tunnels'. They have kitted out some of the tunnels with props to recreate the conditions that would have been experienced by people working or being treated there. They were, as our guide was prone to repeat every few minutes, not the best of conditions. It was pretty atmospheric, especially with the soundtrack, fake explosions and occasional loss of lighting, and gave a good impression of what it must have been like when it was in use. It left us feeling rather sober.

The gatehouse in the background of this picture houses a rather sumptuous-looking self-catering apartment, and the house on the right is a larger property sleeping six.  The gatehouse in particular has spectacular views across Dover, although it's a long walk back up the hill from the town centre.

You probably won't want to go there just to sit in the square and watch TV on this enormous screen that Dover council agreed to put up in 2009 so that people can watch the Olympics on it in 2012. Whether or not you agree that it's a daft idea and a waste of money, you can't deny it's rather premature.