Early morning, Richmond Green

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I love those early spring days. The hope that sunshine and warmth brings after a hard – or just wet – winter. The colour of daffodils relieving the winter monotones.

Today was a beautiful day. But it started with a thick fog in the Thames valley. I stopped the car to take this photo of a foggy Richmond Green minutes before getting to my riverside office.

The photo below is of Black Park, a lovely Buckinghamshire country park near Slough, on a beautiful sunny Sunday last weekend.

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Long distance cycling: Cardiff to Bucks

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Above: departing Penarth, Wales for England

As 2013 draws to a close, I’m reflecting on one of my most memorable experiences of the year: fulfilling an old ambition of cycling from Wales to Buckinghamshire. I set off on Monday 2 September from my parents’ flat on the seafront at Penarth, just outside Cardiff.

It was a real challenge. This was my first cycle tour carrying my own luggage since 1998. I’ve put on a few pounds since that tour of Normandy, so I wasn’t surprised to find myself struggling up the hills. This was also my first tour relying on digital rather than paper maps, which proved very frustrating. I couldn’t help looking back to my 325 mile cycle tour of the West Country in 1995, when I got lost just once while navigating the most obscure country lanes, thanks to a stack of Ordnance Survey maps. This time, I wasted a huge amount of time as my Garmin Edge 800 failed to alert me to my programmed turns. (I had a back up with the Bike Hub app, but it wasn’t the same as having a map on the handlebars.)

It was a wonderful ride, but I’ll be honest and say I enjoyed it more in retrospect than at the time, with some exceptions. It was wonderful bowling along at 18mph on the levels between Cardiff and Newport. I loved the 25mph race towards Tetbury, as the first day’s 73 mile ride came to an end and I looked forward to dinner with my sister and her family in Cirencester. The Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire was a delight. I relished my al fresco lunch at the Cherry Tree pub in at Kingston Blount, Oxon on day 3, in glorious sunshine, followed by tea and cake at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre at Great Missenden on the final leg home.

My least favourite bit? The interminable attempt to escape from Swindon. My route past Purton was closed, so I had to navigate Swindon’s characterless sprawl. (I’d have been better off going straight through the town centre.) I was very relieved to reach open countryside – no wonder I enjoyed the Vale of the White Horse.

My biggest lesson: cycle touring rewards those who keep fit. But it’s still a peerless way to enjoy the countryside.

PS: my 16 year old Raleigh Randonneur proved a superb choice for the challenge, as did my Ortlieb front roller classic panniers and my old Camelbak classic hydration pack.

IMG_7583Above: into England, old Severn Bridge

IMG_7589Above: near Hawkesbury Upton, Glos

ImageAbove: Oxfordshire’s lovely Vale of the White Horse: Stanford in the Vale

ImageAbove: ploughman’s lunch at the Cherry Tree, Kingston Blount

How to use GoPro Hero 3 with iMovie

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Above: a still from one of my first GoPro videos: Hodgemoor Wood, Bucks

Way back in 1998, I cycled at speed down a Normandy valley wishing I could have videoed the experience. Some 15 years on, I have the answer: the GoPro Hero 3 video camera. I’m still learning how to make the most of it, but I love this clever bit of kit, which brings together two of my passions, cycling and video.

I usually edit my videos on my Mac with Apple’s iMovie app. All the reports I’d read suggested that GoPro videos needed converting from MPEG 4 to a format iMovie can handle. But the first time I tried importing directly, iMovie seemed to handle everything fine without converting. But then I ran into difficulties. I had to cancel the first import – and couldn’t get the Mac to resume. (It wouldn’t do anything without the camera being connected.) I had no better luck the second time. So today, I bit the bullet, and converted my latest video footage in GoPro Studio before attempting to edit it in iMovie. It worked flawlessly.

So my best tip for anyone else wanting to edit GoPro footage in iMovie is this: accept you need to convert the footage first. You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration.

I’ll end with one last still from my Hodgemoor video. There’s nothing better on a wet and windy evening than reliving a wonderful sunny day on the bike. I wish I’d had this for my 2002 Land’s End to John O’Groats ride…

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Here’s the Hodgemoor Wood video:

PS: read my review of the GoPro jaws clamp mount.

In praise of Great Missenden’s Roald Dahl museum

Willy Wonka wall

Willy Wonka wall

Roald Dahl was a wonderful storyteller. Over 20 years after his death, millions of children and adults still love his tales of the unexpected. So it’s no surprise that the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden is so popular.

It’s a wonderful place, with storytelling sessions, displays telling Dahl’s life story and even a wall with fighter planes screaming across the sky. (Dahl was a pilot in the second world war, and was badly injured when he crashed in the desert.)

I’ve always had a soft spot for Roald Dahl. He was born in my own home town, Cardiff, growing up in Llandaff. He was christened in Cardiff’s Norwegian church in 1916. His stories are dark rather than sugary confections. Great Missenden has done him proud.

Measuring up against the BFG

Measuring up against the BFG

See my earlier post about the museum here.

Happy 150th birthday, London Underground

Going Underground

Going Underground

The London Underground celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday. On 9 January 1863, a Metropolitan Railway steam train made its way from Paddington to Farringdon to launch the world’s first underground railway.

The tube has played a vital part in London life: commuter network, bomb shelter and icon. It remains a precious symbol of life in the capital, even for those of us who don’t live in London.

It’s hard to imagine sulphurous steam trains operating in the claustrophobic stations and tunnels – amazingly, some Victorians thought the smoke health-giving, like going to a spa. In time, electricity made the Underground smoke-free. (And the first true ‘tube’, the City & South London Railway running from the City to Stockwell, was electric from the start in 1890.)

The Underground’s iconic status owes a lot to its long-lived corporate identity. The roundel is over a century old, and the typeface (although later modified) dates from the dark days of the Great War. Frank Beck created his famous map in 1933 as the Underground began life as a publicly owned institution: the London Passenger Transport Board, better known as London Transport.

The 1930s were in many ways the tube’s golden era with constant expansion, stunning architecture and new trains that served two generations and survived a world war. (I started working in London in 1987 as London Transport brought back 1938 trains to cope with demand.) Under Frank Pick, London Transport led the world as an integrated system of underground trains, buses and trams, as well as a patron of industrial art and design.

That public ownership has long outlived the nationalised British Railways – whose celebrated 1960s corporate identity has given way to an explosion of liveries and typefaces, destroying the very idea of a common network. In today’s Guardian, Andrew Martin rightly describes the tube as the people’s railway. Whether you’re rich or poor, you’ll usually find the tube the fastest, most convenient way to get around the city.

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Despite its name, most of the Underground is actually overground. Amersham (above, with then one year old Owen with a 1962 train – built the year of the first Beatles single) is at the country end of the Met Line. Trains from Amersham only head into the tunnel at Finchley Road, a handful of miles from the 1863 line at Baker Street. That 1962 unit was one of the trains that replaced the last passenger steam services on the Underground after almost a century. Curiously, London Transport was still using steam for engineering trains as late as 1971 with former Great Western pannier tanks.

Finally, as Britain (apparently) faces a cold snap, here’s one of those 1960s Met line trains arriving at Farringdon on 17 December 2010.

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

A pain in the back

The human back is a delicate thing. I’m writing this on my way to the chiropractor after injuring mine last week.

I’d like to claim I was engaged in extreme sport at the time. The truth, however, is mundane and ridiculous. I was turning on my Mini’s hazard lights. I must have twisted awkwardly. Ouch!

This is simply the latest example of the farcical things that cause me back pain.

The first time? Running up a spiral staircase after overseeing a TV interview in 1988. This was followed by sneezing (1997) and picking up a spoon (2006).

The spoon incident happened in the beautiful Czech town of Český Krumlov. My poor wife had to drive all the way back to Britain. It struck me that (up till then) the incidents all happened nine years apart. I was fearful about what might happen in autumn 2015. But the latest incident came three years early!

Touch wood, I’ve made a swifter recovery this time. But then I got to the chiropractor within seven hours. Did that make all the difference? It seems like that tonight. But time will tell!

NB: I’m being treated by the Amersham Chiropractic Clinic. Highly recommended.

Chorleywood: the best thing in sliced bread?

Chorleywood is a pleasant but unassuming village on the Herts/Bucks border. I take Owen there every Saturday for his football class. So it came as a surprise to learn that the village created the modern loaf of bread.

Back in 1961, the British Baking Industries Research Association, based in Chorleywood, invented a new way of making bread. The Chorleywood process was much quicker, with the extra benefit that loaves lasted longer. Low protein British wheat could be used to make bread easily and quickly. Eight out of 10 British loaves now result from the technique, which has spread around the world – even France. Yet critics say Chorleywood bread is low in nutritional values.

We buy our own bread from the Stratton Bakery in nearby Chalfont St Giles. The bread is made on the premises. Stratton also has a branch in … Chorleywood.

Tale of a tank engine (and it’s not Thomas)

Borrowed time: BR 80072 in Barry, 1986

Owen and I went on a steam train today. We took the short ride on the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway.

The train was pulled by an impressive tank engine, BR 2-6-4T 80072, built the month my sister was born, November 1953. Like most engines on preserved lines, it was rescued from Barry scrapyard in South Wales – steam’s graveyard. I’ve blogged before about this remarkable place, and today wondered if by chance I’d taken a photo of 80072 on my visits to Barry in the 1970s and 1980s. It seemed unlikely – I always made a beeline for express engines such as GWR King Edward II, rather than the less glamorous British Railways standard tank engines. But going through my old photos I found out that I had snapped 80072 on my last visit to Barry, in October 1986. By then, the remaining engines were in a very bad way.

It’s little short of a miracle that this wreck is today pulling trains again. All credit to everyone who made it possible.

80072 had an interesting history even before the great escape from Barry. It hauled commuter trains from Southend and Tilbury to London’s Fenchurch Street. It then had a complete change of scene, moving to Swansea to work the beautiful central Wales line. The month before I was born it moved back to England, to Leamington, working parcels and car transporter trains.

PS: curiously, I didn’t take a photo today. That’s almost as remarkable as the fact I photographed our engine 26 years ago…

Our brilliant Paralympics day at Olympic Stadium

Arriving at Olympic Stadium

We had an unforgettable day at the London 2012 Paralympic Games today. We were lucky enough to get seats in the packed Olympic Stadium in Stratford, experiencing three new world records.

We had a great journey to east London from Buckinghamshire (birthplace of the Paralympics in 1948). We caught one of the new Met line trains from Amersham to St Pancras before catching a Javelin high speed train for the six minute trip to Stratford. (What a brilliant idea to give free London travelcards with London 2012 tickets – it made the Paralympic tickets the biggest bargain of the decade!)

It was lovely to see our niece Siân at work as a Games Maker at Stratford Gate as we went through. Volunteers like her, and everyone involved in organising and running the games, have done the country proud with their incredible efforts.

Running shared

Inspiring a generation

It was so good to see the Olympic Stadium packed for the Paralympics. Great Britain was the birthplace of the Paralympics just after the second world war, as a new start for soldiers who had suffered spinal injuries during the war. (Karen took part in the opening ceremony of the 1984 Paralympics at Stoke Mandeville.) We were keen to support the games and to celebrate amazing athletic achievement.

Anyone watching the Paralympics would have been inspired even more than by the achievements of Olympic athletes. I couldn’t help thinking of that old expression to describe the disabled: differently abled. That epithet was mocked by some as politically correct, but you can see this week why people wanted to redefine disabled people by what they could do rather than what they couldn’t. (As I write this, David Weir has just claimed another gold medal on the track, proving my point.)

We have lift off…

We saw so many families with children at the Paralympics, as we had at the Olympics football opener in Cardiff. London 2012’s aim of inspiring a generation seems to be doing just that. I heard children on a Cornish beach talking in awe about the speeds recorded by amputee cyclists at the Paralympics. And it may be a coincidence but Owen has become a swimmer during the London 2012 summer! Above all, we wanted Owen to understand that personal endeavour and determination can overcome life’s setbacks to achieve amazing dreams.

Bladerunner bruised: Pistorius’s protest

The sour note of the Paralympics came on Sunday night when South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius protested about his defeat in the T44 200 metre final. Some commentators said this showed that the Paralympics had arrived as elite sport. Perhaps, but it would be sad for the Paralympics to witness the kind of lack of sportsmanship that now plagues football. Happily the Olympics and Paralympics have been graced by tremendous sportsmanship.

The Paralympics summer

Stratford: the ugly lovely town

The Olympics have transformed Stratford. The stadium, velodrome and aquatic centre are stunning additions to the east end of London. As we discovered, Stratford has brilliant transport links across London and beyond. But it’s a shame that many of the other developments do little to lift the spirits. Leaving the Olympic Park towards the Westfield centre, every building ahead of us was an ugly box. This is a big opportunity missed. We just hope that London 2012 provides a longer benefit here.

One amazing day

Homeward bound

We’ll remember our day at the Paralympics for the rest of our lives. Thank you to everyone who made it happen. Especially those amazing, inspiring athletes.

Diamond Jubilee: party time

Diamond Jengalee, Chalfont St Giles

Our village went red, wet and blue today as it celebrated the Queen’s diamond jubilee. The centre of the village was one big party, and children played Jenga on the zebra crossing.

It’s a familiar pattern: the Golden Jubilee was well marked here as well.

My mind went back to Britain’s only previous diamond jubilee: Queen Victoria’s in 1897. The world is a totally different place today, yet I have a personal link to that far-off celebration. My late grandmother, born in 1891, told me how her brother had climbed a tree to see a procession go by during the queen empress’s jubilee. I wish I’d asked her for more details when I had the chance. I assume it must have been an event in her hometown, Cardiff rather than the imperial procession in London.

Jubilee joy

More than 11 decades later, our son Owen had a similarly joyous time at another diamond jubilee.

Jubilee party