1987: The last Victorians

The clocks just went back and our evening’s suddenly got a lot darker, so I was really glad when I popped to the post office and my new toys had arrived. I have got myself a very powerful white LED torch for the front of my bike and a fancy new laser rear light that projects two parallel red lines behind me, to create a virtual bike lane around me as I cycle.

It’s a really small thing, but it is another example that we are living in the future.

We have just experienced the worst storm since 1987. As I was out and about, I am ashamed to say that I was a little disappointed to not see more carnage. If you did experience any significant damage to your property then I am very, very sorry if I seem insensitive, but to be honest having spent the night worrying about the tree outside our house coming in on us I was disappointed to see that the only trees that had bitten the dust last night were sort of smallish medium sized ones of a single species.

I don’t really remember 1987 I was 4 years old, so I thought I would take a quick look online and try and work out for myself how the world has changed in the last 26 years.

It is almost half a degree C warmer and there is about 13% more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and 2100,000,000 more people live on the planet. British Airways is in private hands now, The Simpsons is still going, as is the rugby world cup which both started that year but the Berlin wall has fallen and unfortunately the Dusky Sea sparrow was not the last species to be driven to extinction.

Computers are loads better now. I do remember the boast that there was more computing power in a Gameboy (1989) than it took to get men on the moon, well guess what, we now think Gameboys are rubbish! They’re basically more like rocks than modern computing devises.
Houses on average were £40,000, they are now £200,000 but on the other hand microwaves have really come down in price. 90% of households own one now rather than the 25% in 1987 which had one, so it’s not all bad.

To be fair in Western Europe in the last ten years only drug offenses have increased. All other forms of crime have decreased and the global picture looks even better: All world total battle fatalities jumped 65 percent in 2011/ 2012 because of Syria, but remain less than one-fifth of the average level of the 1980s.

So the truth is that some stuff is worse now: the average age of a first time mum is now 29.8 years rather than 24 years and the average age of a first time home buyer is 35 as opposed to 24 years in the past. In fact in London the average age of a first time buyer is now a not so spritely 52years old.

But many things are much, much better now. Electronics are much cheaper and therefore entertainment and communication is much cheaper. Gas, petrol and steel are more expensive, but then there are quite a lot more people competing for those essential things. Most of us now live in cities, huddled together we will probably use less materials per head than in the past, and it has to be a good thing that globally more people are better educated.

So in conclusion; I can now order a 500 lumen light emitting diode lights for my bike. In 1987 this would not have been possible because neither the internet nor the high intensity white LED had been invented. It’s harder than ever to own your own home and/or procreate, but you get HBO dramas on Sky Atlantic pretty much the same day they are out in the USA and the entirety of human knowledge can be accessed instantly in moments.

Looking back to 1987 amuses me, because I can’t help but think in the fossil record there will be a sort of visible fossil layer that appears in the late 80’s early 1990’s. I think it will be the change over from the industrial Victorian period were everything was mechanical, and then the age we are living in now, which I think is electrical, but who knows what it will turn out to be.

My old bike lights had a bulb. Just think about how ridiculous that is. Even lighting your home off the mains that way is ridiculous. A bulb works by heating a filament until it is so hot, that it glows white hot. That means we used to light our homes and our bikes with electric heaters that just happen to give off some light. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a very pragmatic Victorian approach, but sophisticated it is not.

We are wrecking the climate so storms like St Jude will increase in intensity and become more frequent. Technology means we are much better at predicting the weather so some of the damage to our stuff is mitigated. Any animals without a web connection will just have to take their chances. Humans are safer and more comfortable now than they have ever been. We are fatter and less healthy, but safer for sure. In developing nations people are being lifted out of poverty faster than at any other time in history, but in the west living standards have arguably plateaued at a quite high level.

I personally am a bit of a fan of the present and am very hopeful about the future. I have tried to be as objective about the differences between the Britain hit by St Jude and the Great storm of 1987. How you feel about these differences is up to you.

Personally I think it is interesting and important to be aware of the areas where we really are worse off than in the past. But it is equally important to acknowledge where we are materially much better off.

Making Wine and Friends with Transition Towns

Laura with grapes

Laura picking grapes

I am Alex Baines-Buffery, the Director of Wine Rides. It is a company that provides short cycling holidays, where the guests camp on British vineyards. Recently I was delighted to be invited to lead on a wine making project with the Crystal Palace Transition Town.

We picked the grapes from a local garden. The owner’s late husband used to grow grapes and make his own wine. Having her husband’s kit lying in the garden collecting algae and the grapes being left to the birds was upsetting her and it would have been criminal, to just throw the stuff away. So the Transition Town group picked up that baton and my loose association with wine meant I ended up “leading” this project.

I work with vineyards, but I am not a wine making expert. I am just someone who likes to do things. I particularly like making processed foods from scratch at home in my own kitchen so I learn how it’s done. I had brewed alcohol before but it was always made in isolation, for my own consumption. In the past when I had dabbled in these things it has been driven by my curiosity. This time it was different, it was fantastic. I was brewing as a social activity.


Proccessing grapes

When I was a bee keeper, I used to enjoy making mead which is honey wine.  I had never made wine from grapes myself so this was an opportunity I jumped at. Grapes make the best wine because they have a higher sugar content than other fruit. As a result the alcohol content produced is high, and that in a nutshell is what you need for making wine. At the end of the day wine is a method of preserving food. Personally I think it is really important to keep that in mind.  If you forget what wine is for, you leave most of the pleasure in wine behind.

Sadly wine has been partially captured by thugs. It has been elevated beyond food and turned into a commodity. In the past, many people had a line of demijohns running up the steps of their house, the Silent Generation made their own wine. In fact home brewing only fell out of favour with the Baby Boomers. Almost all my brewing equipment was kindly donated to me by strangers in their 70′s and 80’s and it is a source of immense pride to me that I can help the Transition Town keep these country wine making skills going.


Grape tred

Grapes being tread

grape tred 2

Feels great

I level that charge of thugary at anyone who would sneer at a hobbyist making their own wine. Professional wine makers through years of experience and skill will be able to make a materially better wine. But getting involved with the Transition Town has taught me that buying a bottle and consuming it will never be as rewarding as drinking wine you have made yourself with friends.

If wine is just about consumption then we should be drinking: Tempranillo Garnacha at £3.29 a bottle. It is a quite nice and very drinkable Rosé wine from Aldi. The price has been dropped simply because the weather has got cold, and customers have turned away from rosé in droves.  The way to get the most enjoyment out of wine as a commodity is to buy low and drink high.

Wine is a preserve, it isn’t perishable, so the clever thing to do is track the price of wine and pick them up when they are on offer and lie them down until they are back to their average price.  That sort of thing is a lot easier than it used to be. Set up a series of Google alerts track wine critics on twitter and read the wine sections of all the major papers online and you will get a few tips.


I’m not much of a stamp collector, so if I see good wine sold under value, I buy it and drink it and as a result can’t get any further recognition from my friends for my cleverness.

Let’s face it: many are put off wine because the thugs use it as a status symbol. Some people wreck the fun for all of us by using wine and their knowledge of wine as a proxy for their wealth and therefore status. Knowing about wine signals you have disposable income. It indicates that you either have enough wealth to have repeatedly drunk an expensive product or you are so intelligent that you can remember the minutia of some fairly similar drinks or both.

Wine should be about taking the harvest and capturing it. It’s about taking the good times and spreading them out across the year.  If you want something fun to do with a bunch of mates, or even your family, I really encourage you to go to the grocers and see what is in season. Sweet fruit is a natural source of sugar and any fruit can be turned into wine.

Whatever is in season that month should be cheap in the grocers. EVERYTHING you need to know can be found in First Steps in Wine making: http://amzn.to/1aVwajJ. 


Wine stur

October is the time for grapes and hawthornberry wine. November is the time for bilberry, cranberry, sloe wine, sloe gin and English Port which is made from elderberrys, black berries and sloes. Every month has its own flavor, all you have to do is get involved and discover them for yourself.

Many branches of Wilkinsons (http://www.wilko.com/) still sell the kit you need and everything is easily available online. It is not hard to do; it’s just hard to master. It takes time, your wine probably won’t be ready to drink for 12 months, and you may have to give up some space in a cupboard for the brew but here’s the thing. The old boys that home brew wines and beers regularly beat the professionals in blind taste tests. This is because they don’t need to worry about the bottom line. Hobby brewers gild the lily and know how to make fantastic drinks.

I am not there yet but I know what knowledge I would rather have. If I drink a wine and there is something wrong, I would like to be able to say what I think the maker did wrong and how I would remedy that problem.  I don’t particularly feel the need to be able to say “ummmm, that was a very good year, in …… but I prefer the ….. “.  It is the difference between being an artist and a collector. As soon as you accept that wine making is an art you can see it for what it is.

Please don’t be put off by those who would scoff. Haven’t you always wanted to tread some grapes? I have only made wine a few times, and the fact is that the first few times it won’t be your best. That’s the nature of skill. If you want to have a go at this and insecurity is holding you back, just remember, if it isn’t good, you can change the recipe, you move on and learn.

Hayley and wine

My feeling is that people who really know about wine, as in they have made it, tend not to harbor prejudice against the country wines. Most people will admit grape wine is the best, it is the highlight of the year but there are some really good country wines.

The trouble is wine is exactly like art, people who know what they are doing, tend to know what they like, people who don’t seek validation from others. They don’t have enough points of reference and so they panic and dismiss things out of ignorance.

There’s no need to do that. If you’ve got grapes, make grape juice add sugar if needed, add yeast, and BOOM! You will have wine. Let the yeast settle and decant it the liquid into another vessel. Repeat once a month, until you have a crystal clear, highly alcoholic fruit beverage.

If you don’t have grapes use something else. The only thing you have to remember is to consume with friends and it’s all about the journey, not the destination.

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Loire Valley France


IMG_9612 The first thing to say is that it is a really beautiful place to go cycle. As described in the previous post we rented a camper van from Spaceship Rentals, loaded up at home the night before and then drove to Dover and got the ferry to Calais and drove the rest of the way down starting our holiday proper at Chateau Chambord.


Normally we do “proper” cycle touring holidays, so using the campervan was a departure for us. While we were out Hayley and I tried to remember why we had booked this instead of doing what we normally do: Look at where we can get the train to in Europe and then see if we can plan a nice multi-day ride in that region.


As far as we can work out there were a few reasons: The seat post on my bike has fused to my frame. So we thought it wouldn’t go in a bike bag and therefore we would not be able to get it on the Euro star. It turned out this was wrong.


Even with the seat still attached, I can get my bike in a bike bag. However if you do want to take your bike on the Eurostar you have to be able to bag it. Or you will need to book your bike a ticket and that is more expensive. At the moment my bike doesn’t have a Pannier Rack, so it takes up less space, which is why I can get it bagged with the seat in place.


I think the other reason we booked this holiday was that I had recently become quite interested in camper vans. One of the first people to come on Wine Rides was a chap called Sam Woolf, who owns a campervan, which he created himself. I think in the back of my mind I wanted to see what campervan holidays were like in case I one day decided to emulate him and convert my own van.


Spaceship rentals, who we used, are an excellent company. Their camper vans are well appointed, well-organised and their staff are very friendly and professional. We were unlucky, the first vehicle they gave as had a few problems.


When I picked up the vehicle, the one thing they emphasised was not to drive it with the check engine light on. Our vehicles seemed to be one of the older ones and there was quite a lot of vibration coming from the engine. The first time I attempted an overtake on the motorway, the check engine light came on. After that, if I drove over 55 mph or we went up a steep incline, the check engine light came on. As a result, from the car Hayley had to call Spaceship rentals and tell them what the problem was.


We had a ferry to catch and were determined to use our ferry ticket. I’m not sure whether they guessed, but our plan was to get the car to France and then call the RAC out and have roadside recovery.


To their absolute credit Spaceships dealt with the problem immediately. They offered as a replacement vehicle and told us that they would refund any cost from changing our ferry ticket. As it happened, we only had to pay £40 to change the ferry and push it back a few hours.


Jose from Spaceship’s drove a new vehicle down to us and met us in the car park at Dover. We did have to wait, but because there was an on-board DVD player we basically just chilled out in the campervan watched a couple of episodes of Black Books and looked at what we might do the following day. We got our refund and the second vehicle performed perfectly for the whole trip and they were very apologetic.


Because we live car free, the one thing that really surprised me is how totally shocking the traffic in France is. I know we were travelling down on a Friday, but the congestion around Rouen is amazing.


We had time, so we’d set our satnav to avoid toll roads in France. If we do it again, I think we might just pay the tolls and make our way south, avoiding the traffic. The 2 ½ hours of bum numbing boredom, is not something I want to repeat on a holiday.


Hayley doesn’t drive, and normally when we go away, I really enjoy getting lost in my Kindle while on the train. So having to do this long drive on my own, that was something I really missed.


View from our pitch

View from our pitch


We were there out of season, and the Loire Valley was very quiet. All the campsites we stayed in were beautiful quiet, clean and lovely. We found them using the Michelin Camping France 2013 book, which I recommend.

These are the main ones we stayed in:

- Municial le bec de cisse near Tour

- Azay la rideau Camping municipal le sabot in Azay- Le- Rideau

- Camping municipal de L’ile Auger in Chinon

High Lights:

Magnificent Chateau Chambord

Magnificent Chateau Chambord

Chateau de Villandry

Chateau de Villandry

Hayley Chateau Chambord

Hayley Chateau de Villandry














The two highlights from the things we visited were Chateau Chambord which I can only describe as a BSO (Big Shiny One) and Chateau de Villandry, which has the most amazing ornamental kitchen garden in the world.

The town of Tour is lovely and they have a great cathedral but the best place we went for dinner a was a town called Amboise. It is small and touristy, but very, very beautiful. We half chanced upon it on a day ride and I liked it so much that I insisted we drive back on our selves and have dinner there one night. I like to relax have a drink with dinner and therefore hate driving in the evening. But in this instance it was totally worth it. True to form as an Englishman, I had Steak and Chips followed by three cheeses, Amazing.

I love it when your on holiday and you find somewhere, where you cant help looking in estate agents windows and seeing if you could afford to live there, followed by a whimsical discussion of what job you could do that would let you live in a country where you only have a “reasonable” grasp of the  language: “Adequate jobbing author” was what we settled on. If anybody knows a moderately talented, though not exceptional, British author living in Amboise, then please could you ask them how they are finding it and let me know. I may be interested in adopting their lifestyle.

Cycling in the Loire Valley:



It is really good. There’s this Loire Valley cycle path which runs for hundreds of miles. For the majority of its length. It’s basically a single carriageway of tarmac which is exclusively used by cyclists and pedestrians. The landscape is (I think) very flat. Hayley really enjoyed it and thought it was a brilliant place to ride.

It’s not pancake flat. It does undulate and that means that you’re always comfortable on the bike. You are never held in the same position for too long. Personally I thought it was a little bit tame, although I totally agree that the landscape is really beautiful and there are some amazing vistas that allow you to see for a long way. But to be honest, I prefer it to be a bit more up and down, because I like going fast downhill and enjoy the challenge of getting up a big incline. That being said, the Loire Valley is probably the perfect place to go cycling particularly if your fitness level is not amazing, or you’re starting out cycle touring and for whatever reason you’ve been gripped by some madness which means you’ve decided against booking a Wine Ride with us!


We are probably not going to do another campervan holiday anytime soon. Although I can see the appeal of it. I think bikes work best with camper vans when you use them as an ancillary mode of transport for just getting to and from dinner. We both really like making cycling the primary activity when we are away. It’s the way I want to see the countryside and its the best place for me to get away from all my day-to-day worries.

The trip also really brought home to me how much I absolutely hate being stuck in the car. The trains in France are great and although the journeys are more expensive I think the costs basically equal out in the end anyway. As for the Loire Valley, that is definitely somewhere I would go back to. I don’t feel we saw it all, and it’s such a beautiful part of France that it shouldn’t be missed, whether you’re a cyclist or not.

Oh and the wine is good!

Very excited about our own Wine Ride Which starts on Friday


Wine Rides is over now for this year. We don’t start up again till, may 2014 (see dates here: http://winerides.co.uk/book/).

So Hayley and I are off on our own little adventure. Normally I would say there are three kinds of Cycling Tours: Dead runs, loops and flowers

Dead run: is get the train. Get off at a stop and cycle in a roughly straight line to another station.

Loop: get the train, cycle in a massive loop around a region and get back to the same entry point.

Flowers:  Get train to a location, cycle to a self-catered apartment and then cycle a different little loop away from the appointment in a radial pattern. Therefore the whole trip resembles a (badly) drawn flower when see on a map.

Well we think we have found a fourth. It is either, a bunch of straws or a tungsten light bulb filament.

We’ve rented a camper van from this cool company we found: http://www.spaceshipsrentals.co.uk.  If it is good I will let you all know. Obviously if it’s not, I am not going to slag another tourism company off on my company’s blog!

I am picking it up tomorrow and then we are getting the ferry to France on Friday morning, with a bottle of Sedlescombe wine in hand. Which I know is a bit like taking coals to Newcastle, but there you go.

The nice thing about running our own holiday company is that we now own all the extras for this anyway, so we just had to rent the camper. Normally on cycling holiday s we never have a car. But as we have a vehicle this time we are taking a bit more kit. If you fancy doing a similar trip to France please feel free to use the info below.


france trip map

(click to enlarge)

Places we may visit in Loire Valley:

  1. Chateau de Chambord – East of Blois. Worth spending a day there. Campsite not too far away called Camping Rural de Chatillion.
  2. Nearby there is also Chateau Chaumont sur Loire
  3. Vouvrey – has some good vineyards. Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau is recommended by Decanter. Located just east of Tours, also worth visiting
  4. Azay le Rideau is a chateau, with a campsite overlooking it. From here, Chateau Villendry (a must see, with its kitchen gardens) and Chateau d’Usse are both within cycling distance
  5. Nearby there is Langeais which is meant to be a nice town
  6. Chinon – a nice town, with a nice looking campsite right on the river. This is at the heart of another wine region. The vineyard Domaine de la Noblaie is just south of Chino and comes recommended by Decanter. It’s within cycling distance of Chinon
  7. Saumur itself is a recommended town, with vineyards nearby including Domaine de la Paleine, recommended by Decanter. The closest town to this vineyard is Montreuil-Bellay where there is also a campsite. Chateau de Breze is also an easy ride from the campsite.

Addresses and Directions:

1. Camping Rural de Chatillion, 6 Rue de Chatillion, D33, 41350 Huisseau sur Cosson (not in Michillen Guide)

2. Closest campsite to both the Vineyard and Tours itself is “Municipal le Bec de Cisse” Page 289 Michelin Guide described as a small site beside the river

2. Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau is located just off the D46, west of Chancay

3. Camping Municipal Le Sabot is right next to the chateau Azay La Rideau. The campsite is located just East of the Chateau on the Rue de Stade, off of Rue de Pineau

3. To get to Villendry from the campsite, we head North of Azay La Rideau onto the D39 passing through Valleres, then turning right onto the D7 which will take us to Villendry

3. Chateau d’Usse is located on the D7, West of the other two chateau

4. Campsite L’Ile de Auger in Chinon is just South of the town on Quai Danton, Chinon 37500.

4. The vineyard Domaine de la Noblaie is not on any main roads so may be trickier to find.

  • Head South of Chinon on D749 Av. St Lazare
  • At main roundabout turn left onto Rue Rene Cassin
  • At the placename La Galvaudrie, turn right onto Rue de Vindoux, which later becomes Rue D’Lors (we’ll probably see vineyards and hopefully signs!)
  • Turn left onto Rue de Vileneuve then right onto Rue des Hautes Cours.
  1. Campsite is called Le Nobis, Rue Georges Girouy near Montreuil- Bellay.
  • To visit the vineyard from here we will need to cycle (9km total) over the river on Av du Pont Napoleon, then left onto Av Paul Painleve, and follow D77
  • D77 will reach Puy Notre Dame, here we need to head North on D87 on Rue de Paleine. Here we will find Domaine de la Paleine.
  1. Chateau do Breze is close to Saumur, and 12.5km from the campsite
  • Take D360 North of M.B towards Saint Just sur Dive
  • Turn right onto D162
  • Turn right onto Place de la Gare and continue onto Rue Belles Caves
  • Turn right onto D93 and you will reach the Chateau


Kits List:


-    Pass ports

-    Driving license

-    Ferry Tickets

-    Directions

-    Van Booking

-    Euros

-    Wallets

-    Phone

-    Keys

-    Guides

-    Maps

-    Call sheets-plan

-    Do we need and sterling Cash?


-    2 x batches flapjacks

-    Oats

-    Tin of spagbol

-    Pasta

-    Cheese

-    Nuts (snack)

-    Dry fruit

-    bananas

-    apples

-    Water x 5

-    Crisps x 6 (for drive)

-    Cake

-    Milk

-    Bacon

-    Eggs

-    Butter

-    Tea

-    Coffee

-    Wine

-    Shampangie


-    black bin bags

-    kettle

-    Stove Gas spear.

-    Cafetiere

-    Large chopping board

-    Bread knife

-    Thermos

-    Pims Oclock bag

-    Cereal bowls

-    Cooking pots.

-    Frying pan

-    Cool blocks

-    Cool bag

Bath room

-    toilet roll

-    Wash bag

-    Towels

-    Contact lenses and sunglasses

-    Soap

-    Tooth brush

-    Bungies (washing line)


-    Hot Water bottles

-    Lantern

-    Torch

-    Pillows?


-    Croquet set

-    Camera

-    tripod

-    Dvds

-    Kindle

-    Book


-    In car phone charger

-    Wine Rides Ltd satnav


-    Bike tool box

-    Bike pump

-    Locks

-    Water bottles

-    Spare inner tube

-    Sun cream

-    Basic first aid

-    Lights


-    Bike gloves

-    Bike jacket

-    Clip shoes

-    Lycra

-    Glovee

-    Wooly hat

-    Shirts

-    Trowsers

-    Sock

-    Pants

-    Jumpers

-    Big jacket



Lycra Is not a gimp suit, I promise

lycraYesterday was the first day of the year that I donned my lycra.
Normally I tend to “cycle chic” as in I just wear my normal clothes. But now it is getting chilly again. In winter, particularly if I am traveling for more than 20mins I will wear lycra. For years I didn’t use it and I have to be honest, that was a mistake. You don’t need it, but if you are a super commuter, as in your commute is more than 45mins, and you do that “super commute” by bike, then I think it is worth shelling out for a bit of geek chic.
In 2002 when I started cycling, if you told people you were buying a bike, they would ask you “Are you going to wear all that lycra?” Aware that I was really being asked: “Are you going to become a sexual deviant, who commutes in a gimp suit?” I would quickly respond, “No, I am not into that stuff. It is ridiculous and unnecessary”.
Still to this day the word “lycra” is used to fetishize cycling and identify us as a weird out group but it is clear that the sting has gone out of the tale of the lycra prejudice.
Now a typical discussion goes like this. Q:”Do you wear all that lycra?” A: “Yeah, of course I do.” Q: “Why?” A: “Well my commute is over an hour, and the shorts have padding in the seat and it is more comfortable”. Q: Oh, so you don’t wear the full body lycra then (laugh)? A: Yes I do. Q: (some shock) Why? A: Because in winter, at some points in my journey I am doing more than 30 mph and the wind chill is unpleasant. So I prefer to be warm and comfortably dressed. The lycra means I don’t over heat if I ride fast and don’t get cold when I am on a descent.
Convinced? Well Lycra is clearly still a very divisive issue. It you want to buy it then I think the best place to go is Wiggle. Their DHB range is cheap and has served me well through a few winters now. I always rode my bike all year round but now I am perfectly comfortable whatever the weather.

A good kit list for the all-weather cyclist is:
Thick walking socks

Clip in shoes

DHB over booty things

Onesie lycra


Cycling jersey

A cable knit sweater (one that lets the air through, so you can open your jacket and let the icy winds in if you are over heating)


Lycra beanie


Gloves: absolutely essential, riding without them in winter is hellish.

Normally, I would say, wear normal clothes and only wear a helmet if it makes you feel more comfortable on the bike. But in the depths of winter which will creep up on us fast, I am glad I have this stuff.

Lastly if you really can’t abide any of that then, the only thing left to do is head south. Next week we are off to the Loire Valley. :-p
Yes, sorry for the boast but I am really looking forward to our own little cycling adventure!
Seriously though, don’t let the bullies put you off. If you are thinking of getting lycra, just do It. I use to worry about what people would think, but now I never even give it a moment’s consideration. You know it’s great, it works well and you won’t look back.