Back In and, fairly soon after, Out of the Saddle

May 24, 2010

Sleeping in a tent is an experience. Once you’ve seen past the uncomfortable bed and the initial fight with the sleeping bag and the fact that you may, on occasion, have woken up with a really cold head it’s certainly an experience. You’ll also learn things that you may not appreciate when you’re in your lovely, sturdy, brick or stone permanently fixed to the ground house. Travelling folk, those of the tent and caravan, tend to work with what the day brings – up early with the sun and in bed when it gets dark. This is why you find yourself up and awake at times that, if you were at home on a workday, you’d be reaching for the alarm’s snooze button. There’s another thing though, more important than the sunrise or the early morning dew.

Nature is noisy.

Birds singing is, in equal measures, beautiful to listen to and really, really bloody annoying but, for us, the experince didn’t end there. We were camping on a working farm. Well, a field adjacent to a working farm. We were told when we arrived that there were cows in for calving and that it might get a little bit noisy. As such we pitched our tent about as far from the farm buildings as we could get. Now, I’m a big fan of the James Herriot books – I devoured them as a child and have read them many, many times. I’ve watched All Creatures Great and Small. Neither of those experiences can prepare you for the sounds of a cow pushing smaller cows out of its lady parts. By the time we were getting ready to leave the noises were so loud and so strained that we’d both automatically shout “push” in the direction of the farm building.

But today, the first full day of camping was all about Dalby Forest. When I mentioned that I was going camping, my boss suggested that we head off to Dalby Forest and look at hiring a bike each and going for a ride through the forest. It sounded like a genuinely good idea and, having researched the costs and wotnot online, we headed out for the forest with only a minor detour into Pickering to visit the tourist information centre on the hunt for a postcard to send home. It turns out that the tourist information people in Pickering are incredibly willing to help you. They’ll ask if you’re just browsing. If you’re slow to answer or your reply of “yes, just browsing, thank you” is not firm enough they will pounce. They will ask you questions about what you’re doing in Pickering, or what you’d like to do in the area. They’ll even, and this is my favourite part, read the leaflets to you while handily indicating the part they’re reading with their pen. It’s not an unpleasant experience, it was excellent service, it was just a little unnecessary. But, having said that, I made it out with a Sealife Centre leaflet that I was able to read all by myself.

So, our quick trip to Pickering allowed us to get the lay of the land and, more importantly, some water and other sustenance for the day’s adventures. With our bag packed and a spring in our step we headed off to Dalby Forest, Yorkshire’s Great Forest. That’s no understatement. It is a great forest. It’s huge. It’s full of trees and cycle hire and walks and even a Go Ape where you can hang from wires and slide down things. It’s also one of these places that you have to pay to get into. It’s a seven pound entrance fee if you’re in a car and, while that seems quite high, it’s a well maintained and picturesque place and, best of all, when you pay your money you’ll be giving it to one of the greatest men of all time. It’s always exciting when you see famous people out and about – I’ve seen Ghandi on the bus, you may remember – but this blew everything before it out of the water. As we pulled up to the cabin to pay our way in we caught a glimpse of the attendant and let out a little gasp – the first of many gasps that day – as we saw the round belly and white beard and realised that we now knew what Father Christmas did when he wasn’t at the North Pole. I suppose when you only work one day a year you need something to fill your time but you’d never expect that the bringer of Yuletide Joy would be collecting the entrance fee for Yorkshire’s Great Forest.

Once Santa had our money we were allowed into the forest proper and before long were pulling up next to the vistor’s centre and our reason for coming, the bike hire. It’s been about twelve years since either of us were last on a bike but there’s that phrase isn’t there “it’s like riding a bike” which seems to imply that once you know how to ride a bike you’ll be absolutely fine if you’re ever given a two-wheeled mode of transport again. As we jumped onto the saddles of our professional looking mountain bikes we started to think that it really was like riding a bike. Our glances at each other said “ha ha, we are on the bikes. Nothing can stop us now.” We weren’t moving at this stage. We were completely stationary. Outside the rental place. Waiting for the bike person to tell us which way to go for our route. Showing us the map, we were shown a route of approximately seven miles, taking about two hours to complete. “It starts off a little steeply, but it’s well worth it. You can push your bikes up there if you want, but the ride down is well worth it.”

It’s important at this point to make it clear that when we went into the shop we were not in disguise. We didn’t send in two people who weren’t us. We actually went in the shop. We spoke with the man, requested two bikes and a route suitable for people who were a) not very fit b) hadn’t ridden a bike in ages and just wanted to get back into it.

That doesn’t explain, then, how we came to be guided onto the blue route. A steep, windy uphill section which, at some point, levels out onto a forest track. The blue route we later find out, having stopped to die by the roadside, is an intermediate route. Nothing about either of us screams intermediate. Nothing. We tried riding the bike in the courtyard area a bit before we set off and “its like riding a bike” is, apparently, another way of saying “shaking like a shitting dog”. We were wobbly as hell, veering off to the side, shaking like leaves and generally not screaming out “intermediate.” But there we were, on the intermediate trail, pushing our bikes up the hill because we’d been promised it was worth it. We’d occasionally get on the bikes and try to ride a little but our natural tendency to shake and veer widely, coupled with the sharpness of the brakes, threatened to throw us to our doom with ever turn of the pedals. What we’d done, essentially, is paid £25 each for the pleasure of pushing a bike alongside us. Once we reached the top of the hill and were on a forest track it got a lot better – we were able to ride and had room to veer off a little here and there, without the prospect of ending up tumbling down an incredibly steep hill.

It was a two hour bike trail. By this point we’d be gone about 40 minutes and had done almost none of it. We were knackered, sweating and somewhere close to death (I may exaggerate slightly, but it was quite draining – especially as it was boiling hot as well). It was about now that the chain on my bike broke. Of natural causes, I hasten to add. I didn’t attack it with anything to cause it to snap. It just broke. Maybe it was God intervening in our plight, looking down on us and saying “no, my children”. Or, more likely, the chain had been snagged on something during the push uphill and was weakened. Or maybe I just don’t know my own strength. Whatever the reason, our ride was over.

So we turned round, and pushed our £25 walking companions back down the hill we’d just spent an eternity walking up. All the way to the bike hire place, we pushed out faithful friends. On the way back I had a quick look at the map. That’s when I learnt that the blue route was intermediate and quite clearly out of our depth. There was a lovely green route following the route of the river. We should have been doing that. We’d probably have been ok on that. There was less chance of death on the green route. No steep hills to accidentally plunge off. That route didn’t have any TTFs. The blue route did. I didn’t even know what a TTF was. It turns out it’s a tactical terrain feature. In laymans terms it’s a bit of the track that makes you swear when you get up to it – or something that would make your groinal area impact with the bike in a way that’s less than desirable. It’s not something that two unprofessional cyclists should be attempting, that’s for sure.

When we got back to the shop the bike hire people offered us more bikes.

We politely refused.

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The Best In-tent-ions

May 24, 2010

For a while now (and I do mean a while – it’s been about four years or so) my girlfriend has been asking me (begging/nagging/persuading me) to go camping. In a tent. In a field. For fun. My answers have ranged from “no” through “maybe” and all the way up to “we’ll see.” Quite recently, as the costs of redecorating (or accidentally destroying – why didn’t we just paint over those tiles that were holding the wall up, eh?) the bathroom threaten to spiral hideously out of control, I said yes.

I’ve been camping before. I’m not a total n00b at this, you know. Way back in secondary school there was a trip to Harlech where we did all manner of exciting things that you can only do in Wales – we went to Welsh castles (well, just the one – Harlech castle, oddly enough), we climbed Welsh mountains – Snowdon to be precise (there’s nothing better than walking all the way up and down a mountain all the while being able to see the little train that’s ferrying people up and down the mountain just rubbing it in a little) and we played on Welsh beaches. I’m sure we did other educational things as well. I can’t remember any. I remember developing a crush on Louise Raper at some point during this week, everything else is a blur.

Anyway, I have been camping before. Fair enough, all we had to do was sleep in a massive tent, go to educational places (see above) and not fall in the cess pit. Everything was already set up by the time we got there so, in effect, it was like going to a hotel, just a hotel made of canvas and poles (sticks, not the nationality). So, on balance, I’ve been camping of sorts. I’ve slept in a tent, essentially. This is probably why, as we came to prepare for our trip, I didn’t realise that we needed so much bloody stuff.

Obviously there’s the tent, the airbeds, the sleeping bags, the plates, the mugs, the cutlery, the tent pegs, the clothes and the portable stove but then there’s a ton (literally) of other stuff that we might need. Books for the quiet time, a kite and more in-car chargers than you can shake a stick at.

Notice that I have not mentioned a coat. Having already returned home once (for aforementioned chargers – we made it a mile or so before we had to turn back, I think) it was about twenty minutes into the journey that my mind’s eye painted a picture of my coat, draped over the armchair in the front room (I say draped, others may say thrown). It was a little bit like that scene in Home Alone where loving but non-observant mummy McAlister realises she’s left Kevin behind to bounce on beds and thwart a neighbourhood crime ring. I’ll say it now, if my coat did any of that they I’m quite glad that I left it at home. I suspect, though, that the most exciting thing that happened while we were away was that the cat slept on it.

So, deciding that it was too late to turn back and this subjecting me to three days on a hilltop with no coat, we continued our evening drive to the campsite. We’d told the site owners that we’d arrive at around 8 o’clock that evening. It was nearer 9 when we pulled up, and the sun was sinking ever lower in the sky but, on the plus side, it wasn’t too cold and (as luck would have it) it turned out to be a belter of a warm week so the fact that I’d left my coat at home was a) a brilliant bit of planning and b) one less thing to worry about.

So, as the sun began to sink behind the North Yorkshire hills, and the sky turned a darker shade of blue as it edged it’s way ever closer to night, we began the task of assembling the tent. We’d done a dry run of tent erection in a garden a mere week ago, under the watchful eye of Carole’s dad – think of him as Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid but without all the silly little tasks and the tiny trees. Luckily, and this was in our favour, we are no strangers to the assembling of complicated things in low light situations. We once bought a metal arch from B&Q at some ridiculously knocked down price and, for some unknown reason, started to assemble it just as the sun was setting. While it wasn’t easy fumbling with that giant erection in the dark, we managed it and it’s still standing strong today. So, knowing we could do this we had the tent up and standing in minutes. Pegging the bloody thing down was harder than assembling it as the ground appeared to be made, primarily, of a layer of incredibly hard stuff with a topping of soil. With some perseverance, and a small modicum of gentle persuasion from a hammer, the pegs were driven home. Our temporary abode, our home for the next three nights, stood before us. It looked a bit wonky but it was getting dark and, well, these things are best left until the daylight hours.

It goes a little downhill from here. In a bit of theme for the week my bed began to hate me. Having set up too late to use the car-powered air pump and, having shunned a foot pump from ASDA for reasons I don’t even understand myself, the darkening sky saw me trying to inflate a double air bed using only the air in my lungs – the single bed had inflated in double quick time – home long would it take to blow up a double one? Apparently, somewhere close to forever. As my lungs emptied for the squillionth time and the airbed looked, if possible, less blown up than when we unrolled it we had to admit defeat. There was a nicely inflated single airbed and a double airbed with a small amount of air in it. An uncomfortable night’s sleep was in our future…


Ich bin ein Hamburger

May 14, 2010

McDonalds are doing a promotion at the moment where they’re bringing us the taste of America. So, that’s McDonalds the American corporation who have already brought their American burgers over here bringing us some American burgers? 

This week I had the Chicago burger. It was ok, but was essentially just a burger with cheese and bacon on it. In a seedy bun – by which I mean a bun with seeds rather than a bun that keeps magazines in paper bags and exposes itself in parks, I have looked at the pictures of the next four weeks worth of burgers capturing the taste of America. They all appear to be a burger with cheese and bacon. The onlydifference, from what I can tell, is the bread. There looks to be cheesy bread at one point and bread with some different seeds on. Maybe the sauces are different. I don’t know, but I feel slightly under-whelmed and also of the belief that, should I go to America, everywhere will taste of a burger with cheese and bacon on it.

The McDonalds closest to us is a magical place. It’s a place that, although designed to sell fast food to people who want to buy fast food, is incapable of living up to it’s reason for being there. Sometimes it’s fun to go just to see what they don’t have. Or how long it will be before you’re either served or you have to sit down and wait until something resembling Quasimodo’s uglier brother lurches across the shop floor clutching your freshly warmed burger in their malformed hands. There was a period where you could go to McDonalds and request things but if any of these things were required to be cold you’d be sorely disappointed.

They also, in a trait shared with Greggs and countless other places, manage to give you the impression that you have, by offering them your custom and money, inconvenienced them in some way. By asking them to swivel their bodies and pass a burger to you, you have somehow ruined their day. And that’s before you throw in the madness of the drive-through.

Our McDonalds, as do many I would assume, have a speaker point where you give your order. This is topped off by a handy screen which displays, in massive letters, all that you have ordered and the total price. This tends to hang around as each car pulls up enabling you to judge the fat bastard levels of the person in front of you, and the people behind to make a snap judgement on your based on the number of  onion rings you have ordered. You then drive to another window to pay and to another to collect your meal. The drive through is apparently quicker, but somehow takes more staff to run it than just walking up to the counter and doing everything with one person.

It’s a bit like the self-checkouts in supermarkets that require staff to stand with them all the time because they either break or the person using it has no idea what they’re doing. Our Sainsburys is one of the first in the country to get the newest model of self-checkouts. Where once there were four there are now about fourteen of these things – along with at least four members of staff hanging around just in case – one of them gets to direct you to which machine is empty which seems a bit surplus to requirements as I’m fairly good at being able to tell the difference between a machine with someone in front of it and a machine that no one is using. Two or three people have to hover in the middle of the self-checkout area in case someone can’t scan something or, as I saw the other day, tries to feed their money into the slot marked, quite clearly “coupons only”.

And then there’s the other issue, the main thing that bugs me about drive throughs. You don’t drive through. You drive round.

Why do we never call them drive rounds?