Thursday, May 21, 2009

Jet plane

"All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go.
I'm standin' here outside your door..."

Away for a whole week, and just for a change it's not Cyprus but In-Ger-Land. Regrettably, Beloved Wife has to stay behind because of work commitments and also because of co-producin', co-directin', props-buyin', programme-designin', programme-printin', scenery-buildin', set-paintin', publicity-obtainin', poster-distributin', rehearsal-attendin', social-organisin' for the ever-givin', cool-fizzin' Dubai Drama Group...

I have appointments with friends, boats, warm flat beer, the UK's rail network, and not least my sister and my extremely-soon-to-be-a-brother-in-law. The last bit is the real reason for spending the rest of the month in Blighty.

(I was going to call this post "Bridezilla III", but I didn't dare)


Friday, May 15, 2009

Twenty years in the saddle - Part II

At the end of Part One, I was safely back in the UK with my GS650, and hard at work studying Civil Engineering. Except for Tuesday nights of course, when PPMCC’s worshippers of the Reckless Right Wrist were allowed out unsupervised.

Back to a Kwak

Thanks to six months of salaried sandwich course industrial training, the Suzuki GS650 was traded in for a Kawasaki GT750 in 1984. Once again a shaftie, only this time with a huge fuel tank and no fairing. The much-used panniers found their way on to this machine too. Incidentally, the much-ridiculed leather trousers are featured in the photo.

My GT750 was on the whole excellent apart from a warranty issue that required a new cylinder head. There was apparently a batch of dodgy cylinder heads whose valve seats had been inadvertently made of Japanese liquorice. While that was being fitted, I borrowed a Honda VT500 to tour Europe with a friend on his GPz750, and we followed the motorcycle endurance-racing circus. I think it was on a motorway in Belgium when my luggage slipped and immolated itself on the exhaust pipe. I was reduced to using a black bin-liner for waterproofing as all my wet-weather clothes had given themselves a Viking funeral. Belgium, man. Belgium! One weekend we were at the Nürburgring Eight-Hour race, and a week later at the Circuit Paul Rockhard for the Bol d’Or vingt-quatre heures.

Biker behaving badly

‘Shadowfax’, the GT750, did some motorcycle courier work over the summer and autumn of 1985. Having graduated with an honours degree in Civil Engineering, gainful employment was not to be had, and dispatch riding paid marginally better than being on the dole. Six years into my motorcycling career I received my first speeding ticket. I remember it well: 86.8mph in a 70 zone that cost me £35 The policeman didn’t see fit to pull over the Renault 5 Gordini that I’d been following. Serves me right for not checking my mirrors enough. Clearly I hadn’t got the message, getting caught at 110mph a year later on the A3(M) and fined a whopping £120. Yowch! What made this worse was the protracted ribbing I received from my friends. Playing Iron Maiden’s ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ the morning of the court appearance was really appreciated. Thanks guys.

During this period I couldn’t understand why my Dunlop Arrowmax tyres which had been really grippy seemed to have deteriorated. Until one day I was going around a greasy and diesel-slicked Charles Church roundabout in Plymouth in the pouring rain and one of the footrests touched the ground. Ah, cranked over at 45 degrees in the wet and still not sliding. Those Dunlops were good. The lesson was nevertheless to slow down a bit. That close to the edge was probably asking for trouble, something that motorbikes are fully capable of delivering in spades.

That same bike went to the south of Spain and back two-up in 1986. “Never again,” was one comment from my pillion, and “Ouch my bottom.” Even the comfiest bike seat becomes uncomfortable when you do over 1100 miles in under 20 hours. I very much doubt that I could repeat that feat of endurance no matter how much café solo and/or Red Bull I consumed.

Another regular pillion was my mother. Astounding, or what? She had every confidence in me, although I was required to keep the speed down and cranking the bike hard over in corners was a definite no-no.

Naughty Ninja

I traded the GT750 in October 1987. In another ‘Paths of Wrongtiousness’ moment, I bought a used 900 Ninja: a GPz900R, along with matching racing leathers and a new helmet. Chuffed to bits with this amazing machine, I was gutted when some prune in a Peugeot sent it flying two days later in a hit-and-run. The bike was parked and the perp left the scene leaving his radiator grille behind. But what a machine! Immense power; a real 150mph missile, and precision handling even if the Automatic Variable Damping System never worked properly. Why they couldn’t simply call it ‘anti-dive’ is beyond me.

I came a cropper on the Ninja the following summer. Not paying attention, I realised way too late that the car in front on the open rural road somewhere in northern France was burbling along at about 15mph. I grabbed a massive handful of front brake, locked the 16-inch wheel and went skating down the asphalt into the back of the car. The Krauser panniers saved the bike from major damage, and my racing leathers ensured that I stood up without a scratch. L’automobiliste français and le pillock motard anglais exchanged details, I kicked the bike straight at a little workshop, and I was soon on my way again.

About thirty miles down the road it occurred to me that I’d left my passport, money and return ferry ticket at the little workshop. By the time I got back the place was locked and there was a sign on the door advising that the proprietor had gone en vacances for a fortnight. Should I call the police? How about breaking in and grabbing my stuff, which I could see through the window? I decided to call the authorities. I rang the doorbell of one of the row of terraced houses opposite the workshop and explained the problem in my rudimentary French to the little old lady who answered the door. It turned out that she was the proprietor’s mother, and went and fetched the key. At last some good luck!

The rest of that particular holiday passed without incident apart from when I had my camera, passport, ferry ticket and cash nicked out of my friends’ rental car in the car park at Puerto Banus. My feelings were spherical and in the plural.

During a different holiday in 1993, my girlfriend at the time and I had agreed to meet someone in Paris. GF had earlier that year passed her bike test and was the owner of a Honda CBR600F. While we waited at la Place de la Concorde wearing our precisely matching leathers, an elderly gentleman approached. “I like your bike gear,” he announced in a thick accent. “Red, vhite, und bleck. Exectly ze same colours as ze old Tcherman fleg…

The ideal machine

Despite the obvious charms of the 900R, I was never entirely happy with chain drive. Modern, sealed-for-life O-ring roller chains are good, but despite the additional weight, complexity and power loss I still prefer the cleanliness of a maintenance-free shaft. Thus early in 1989 a decent part-exchange offer created the conditions necessary for my next motorbike. I bought a 1000 GTR, yet another Kawasaki. This one came with factory-fitted hard luggage and huge barn-door fairing as well as Kawasaki’s tried and tested Ninja engine bored out to 997cc. At 110 horsepower this may not have been the most powerful bike to date – that accolade goes to the 900R - but it nevertheless went very well indeed with more power than I ever found it necessary to use. The GTR ended up being called ‘Idris’. It had become fashionable among some of my motorcycling buddies to name our motorcycles after dragons. The 900R was called ‘Smaug’ after the dragon in The Hobbit; ‘Idris’, as everyone over a Certain Age will recall, lived in the firebox of Ivor the Engine.

Any motorbike is inevitably a compromise, but the GTR was the closest I had yet found to my own personal ideal machine. The luggage was cavernous, the fuel tank an enormous 28 litres, and the fairing effective at keeping bad weather off. It was a tall and heavy machine though, and needed to be treated with care especially at low speed. In the eleven years I owned it, I never dropped or crashed the GTR. Clearly as my bag of luck was emptying the corresponding bag of experience was filling.

Idris went to northern Scotland, west Wales, all over France, Benelux and Germany, although it never got to Spain or Italy. I only got caught speeding once on the GTR. At 98mph it cost £35, the cost of a fixed-penalty way back in 1993. The policeman said he reckoned that I’d been doing in excess of 120mph (a likely tale) but he couldn’t get close enough for an accurate measurement until I slowed down. He also said that he’d have let me off if he’s been alone; as it was, 98mph was an invented figure just below the magic ton that would have involved a court appearance and disqualification. “I see. Thank you, Officer.”

Motorcycle clubs

A local chapter of the Institute of Advanced Motorists enabled me to pass the advanced motorcycle test. Training involved a series of rides with a volunteer observer. The test comprised a thirty-mile ride on lots of different roads, being followed and examined by an off-duty copper. Apart from getting an IAM ticket, the group offered social rideouts on Sunday mornings, treasure hunts, and similar bike club activities. Hopefully this crowd would be a somewhat calming influence! Promises about cheaper insurance because of passing the advanced test turned out to apply only to policies that cost more in the first place. As usual.

As a result of the IAM group, I also joined the Kawasaki GT Club, which provided yet more excuses for camping weekends and long-distance rides. Being a member of the Motorcycle Action Group (MAG) as well meant that I got involved with yet more socials and charity rides. The local MAG group considered me something of a Captain Sensible for reasons that in retrospect now seem unclear.

My original inadvertently fetishy jeans had long since gone the way of old clothes – into Fancy Dress along with that daft studded belt, and my original leather jacket was stolen one evening in a pub. I’d been using the one-piece racing leathers, but ‘exectly ze same colours as ze old Tcherman fleg’ didn’t match the GTR’s rather more sober colour scheme. In May 1996 at the BMF Rally where I was manning the KGT stand, I bought a two-piece black-leather touring suit, with plenty of armour and ‘Farmer John’ trousers that zipped to the jacket. It was brilliant. I wore it twice before parking the bike in my garage, locking the door of the house and jumping aboard a Doha-bound plane.

Between bikes

The GTR was swapped for a disappointing wad of cash in late 1999 when it became apparent that I wasn’t permanently returning to the UK any time soon, if indeed at all. I had planned to get 120,000 miles on the clock and then sell it as ‘low mileage but tatty’. However, circumstances dictated that the machine went at ninety-something thousand miles.

The departure of Idris saw what might have been the end of my motorcycling career. In Doha I toyed with the idea of having a bike, but such aspirations were rejected on the grounds of temperature, humidity, and every spare waking moment being fully absorbed with scuba diving or the Doha Players. Moreover, there seemed to be no motorbike culture in Qatar. How would I obtain spares such as tyres, brake pads and oil filters? “Not coming in Doha, sir. Have you tried Dubai?” Nevertheless, riding a motorbike was something that I missed a lot.

A couple of years ago I was contacted by an old friend in the UK who was seeking advice on starting to ride. Of course all of my knowledge and expertise was woefully out of date. UK motorcycle licensing has become a lot more complicated than when I did my basic training back in the early 1980s. But the gleeful stories of the fun my friend was having got me looking into bikes again. I checked out the BMWs and Harley-Davidsons on Sheikh Zayed Road, but ultimately decided to give motorbikes a miss on the grounds of cost.

Present and correct

A year later I was flicking through the Gulf News small ads while waiting for the Goatmobile to be serviced, and I noticed that Kawasaki’s new 1400 GTR was now available and indeed affordable. Checking for realistically priced insurance, obtaining consent from Beloved Wife and procuring appropriate gear I covered in a previous blog post, so I’ll not repeat myself here. Suffice to say that the final price was even better than the budget I had in mind. Not that any of my old bike gear would have fitted me anyway, I was disappointed to learn that all my leathers had somehow grown legs and run away whilst in storage in the UK. The new stuff is a lot lighter weight to cope with the hot climate, and has rather more body armour than my old stuff. There has been a marked improvement over recent years in the quality and quantity of armour now available in mainstream motorcycle apparel.

I’ve really enjoyed my first three months back on two wheels. ‘Born-Again Biker Syndrome’ is a known phenomenon where a middle-aged ex-motorcyclist gets back in the saddle and is extremely surprised (in a bent metal and broken bones sort of way) by the phenomenal power, weight and traffic differences from the Olden Days. I am at least aware of the phenomenon, and awareness is fundamental to avoidance.

It is also interesting how much I’ve slowed down since mis-spending my youth. “The older I get, the faster I was” as the ancient scrolls say. There’s nothing wrong with the bike. It’s very much at the sports end of sports-tourer, with decent suspension, huge grippy tyres and an incredible motor. My continuing inability to throw it around corners with my knee on the ground and the footrests throwing up sparks is entirely in my head. I have become what might be described as ‘sensible’. Or possibly ‘a boring old fart’. One thing is for sure: I am not one of the ‘Fast Old Gits’.

As June approaches, the weather is now getting too hot for biking, even while wearing hot-weather gear. My previous experience, which has included falling off and bouncing up the road, has taught me that not wearing proper protective gear is for idiots. I am an ATGATT biker.

Upon reviewing my text, it seems to read like a litany of crashing and getting nicked. Three speeding tickets in sixteen years of regular riding doesn’t seem excessive to me. The last time I was even stopped by the police while riding my bike was in 1993. No, I tell a lie: it was 1994 when I, like absolutely every other motorcyclist in the area that summer’s evening, was pulled over on suspicion of riding with intent to visit a public house. As for prangs, I seem to have learned my lesson since the 1988 incident in France. Since then I had eight years of regular riding without even dropping a bike. Part of the incentive is my pain threshold, another factor is the prodigious expense of replacing all that plastic. Half of my bike crashes resulted from the idiocy of car drivers and were perhaps unavoidable from my point of view. SMIDSY, therefore ATGATT. The other half were of course caused by the nut holding the handlebars.

The bike is going under a dust sheet in the next week or two. It can hibernate in the back garden until September or October when the weather decides to cool off.

Incidentally I still need a name for the machine. ‘Connie’ is what the Americans all call it because the bike is a Concours 14 over in the States. ‘The Black Beast of Aaarrgh!’ is Pythonesque. How about ‘Goatmobile II’?


Twenty years in the saddle - Part I

Well… nineteen, actually, plus a gap of around ten years. I’ve split the story into instalments because it goes on and on. I’m amazed what I’ve been able to drag out of archive memory without referring to any old paperwork.

Two wheels good; engine better

I suppose my interest in motorbikes started in about 1971. Living in Portsmouth at the time, my father was in charge of the Royal Marines motorcycle display team, so he’d been into bikes for many years. He gave them up for a while when my parents got together. I also have a distant memory of riding around the block on the pillion of my grandad’s Lambretta LD150 (the posh one with shaft drive and electric start). Grandad never owned or drove a car in his life. It was either the Lambretta or some railway locomotive or other.

My motorcycling career really took off when I was fifteen. I borrowed my German penfriend’s moped whilst on an exchange visit and proceeded to burn around the streets of Wendlingen am Neckar at this dismal vehicle’s top speed of 30kph. Meanwhile, my demobbed father had landed a job co-ordinating a new motorcycle training scheme; a job that came with a company bike. They wanted to give him a Suzuki X7, a two-stroke twin with a power band the width of a gnat’s tackle, but he insisted on having a proper motorcycle.

Thus upon my return from Germany there was a gleaming Honda 550-4 in the garage. I had never experienced the thrill of so much acceleration until the first time I rode on the pillion of this monster.

Dad suggested that perhaps I should resurrect my grandad’s Lambretta. After having a puncture and falling off some time in the very early 1970s my grandad never rode the scooter again. We hauled this ancient 1957 beast home in a trailer in 1978, and I spent a futile summer trying and failing to get it to run. Eventually I sold it for £15 to someone running a scooter museum, where as far as I know it is to this day. LCH 372; if you spot it please let me know.

By the time I’d turned sixteen, I’d already done the Star Rider Bronze course. This was a four hour session in a school car park one Saturday morning, riding around and between road cones, practising starts and stops, and generally learning basic machine handling before being allowed out on the Queen’s highway. At that time, it was possible to turn up at a motorbike shop with a provisional licence and insurance, and after crossing the dealer’s palm with silver and slapping a couple of ‘L’ plates on the machine of choice (up to a 250cc for those aged seventeen or more, eeek!) it was typical for a newbie to go wobbling off into the rush hour traffic. How times have changed.

Anyway, I had no money so I didn’t rush out and buy a moped. Aged sixteen, the only available option is 50cc. I occasionally borrowed my mother’s exceptionally feminine Puch Maxi, which I proceeded to thrash mercilessly at its top speed of 30mph. Downhill with a following hurricane I once saw 36mph on the clock. Oooh! Even a moped was a vast improvement over pedal power. Plymouth is mostly hilly, and not having to pedal was a new-found delight.

My first bike

As my seventeenth birthday approached, it was time for a proper motorbike. I’d been working furiously at weekends and evenings, and was thus able to find the necessary £400 for a used Kawasaki Z200 plus insurance. As my father sternly pointed out, “This is a real motorbike. You can kill yourself on one of these.”

Formal training was of course compulsory. Having made a realistic assessment of the British climate I went out and bought a decent waterproof two-piece suit, gloves and boots. The helmet was my father’s spare that I’d been using when riding the moped. Meanwhile Dad’s CB550-4 disappeared when he changed jobs, being replaced with a Honda CX500.

On went the self-adhesive ‘L’ plates, and I hit the road on my seventeenth birthday. It was a Sunday, and I had to go and work my shift in a petrol station. After the moped, the power was astonishing. Eighteen Japanese horses lurked in that little single-cylinder engine and, as I subsequently discovered, gave the tiny Kwak a top speed of almost 80mph. Later that afternoon, my father got his black Honda out and we spent the rest of the day riding around the Dartmoor lanes, with frequent stops where I was lectured on correct techniques. Eight days later the ‘L’ plates came off. I passed the driving test first time, woohoo! And that afternoon I rode off across Dartmoor with a pillion passenger for the first time.

Of course, passing the test is only one small step. My inevitable first giant leap came a few months later. I had already learned that loose gravel was nasty to ride on, so having gone into a gravel-strewn corner way too fast, I chose an escape route up an earth bank. The bike flew off in one direction and landed in a gorse bush. My soft landing was provided by the putrefying carcass of a long-dead sheep. Humble pie all round. I rode home and confessed, in a display of embarrassment never before seen. This was the first and only time I ever dropped the Z200.

Cornish nasty

It was lucky Friday 13th when I passed my car test a few months later. Car insurance was prohibitively expensive, but on this auspicious day I upgraded to a Kawasaki Z400. As it turned out, the Z400 had a number of electrical issues. It consumed headlight bulbs because the voltage regulator was duff, although I didn’t realise this at the time. I had also learned that constantly lubricating and adjusting the chain was a permanent pest. My father’s shaft-drive Honda had none of these woes, so when I was offered an interest-free loan to buy my own CX500 I jumped at the chance. I totalled that bike three months and 3000 miles later when I had a head-on collision with a Ford Capri that I met halfway round a bend in a Cornish village. As the car was completely on the wrong side of the road, the driver was done for Driving Without Due Care and Attention and fined £25. No that is not a typo: Twenty-five quid. I got up unscathed, although my jacket needed some TLC with silver gaffer tape to restore its waterproofing. I subsequently bought a leather jacket, much to Dad’s disapproval. He passed snide comments relating to sexuality and fetishism.

Speaking of which, when I answered a small ad to buy some leather motorcycling trousers, it turned out that the seller had gone to strenuous effort augmenting the belt with huge numbers of chrome studs. He said that he was selling the jeans on behalf of his friend, whom I suspected of being named Dorothy. Much uric extraction was undertaken by my alleged mates. After a brief appearance in a very low-budget post-apocalyptic movie (but that’s another, completely different story), the belt was demoted to Fancy Dress.


I borrowed my father’s almost identical machine for a couple of months while my own was repaired at the expense of Captain Capri, and went off to Portsmouth Poly. Here, I met the Portsmouth Polytechnic Motorcycle Club, a likeable bunch of high-speed hooligans who rather led me Yea, Unto The Paths of Wrongtiousness. A thrash out to some distant rural Hampshire pub every Tuesday evening was in order, along with weekend treasure hunts and bike servicing and repairs in the club’s lock-up garage, whose extensive facilities comprised, erm, one damp concrete floor and a couple of moribund bikes that could be illicitly scavenged for spares. At one point we’d even devised a street-racing circuit around Southsea. In hindsight, having an unofficial racetrack that went past a police station and the law courts was perhaps not the wisest move ever made…

In due course, my own bike was repaired, I stuck a full fairing and a pair of Rickman Alpine fiberglass panniers on it in addition to the top box. I could almost match a Ford Transit in luggage-carrying capacity. One of my friends speculated on what would happen if I fell off: “Newsflash! A motorcycle shed its load on the M27 motorway earlier today blocking both carriageways…

The motorcycle club made a point of attending race meetings, bike shows, bike rallies and at the end of the academic year, Racing School. This last item is why I fell off someone else’s bike at Brands Hatch. The following year I resolved to ‘ride it like I’d stole it’ and did rather better. At the 1982 University of East Anglia bike rally, I received a prestigious award on account of all my hard luggage. Everyone had a jolly good laugh at my expense; no-one else from PPMCC won a thing. I still have the UEA-82 badge somewhere.

The club also owned an ancient and battered Yamaha TY175 trials bike. This was regularly trailered along to some local chalk pit and horribly abused by the club members. Here is where I really discovered that I don’t like riding bikes off road. Wet chalk is the slipperiest substance known to man, snake oil excepted.

Teaching and learning

The following summer I trained to become a motorcycle instructor under the Star Rider scheme. I figured that learning how to teach might improve my own riding skills. Any and all promises that this would lead to cheaper insurance turned out to be as empty as a hermit’s address book. The only companies that would offer a discount charged rather more in the first place. Nevertheless, teaching complete newbies basic machine control in the relative safety of a traffic-free school yard made me a tiny amount of pin-money and maybe saved a few lives.

I was actually very happy with the Honda, despite its questionable handling and high centre of gravity. If the bike were as useless as its many detractors claimed, why were there so many CX500 ‘Plastic Maggots’ around? A point of criticism was the machine’s amazing appetite for rear tyres. I typically got 3000 miles out of a back tyre before it looked like Yul Brynner’s head, and this was with normal road tyres too. Later more powerful bikes have always been more economical - for a given value of ‘economical’ – with rubber.

It was around this time that I bought a full-face helmet. One winter’s day I was caught in a hailstorm, and had my face pounded by stinging ice. Never again. Despite any purported advantages of an open-face helmet, this one disadvantage continues to outweigh them all. I’ve stuck with full-face lids ever since.

Three years and 40,000 miles later, my CX500 died a violent death in the side of a Mini Clubman. On a dead-straight road, oncoming car turns right across path of motorcycle, and rider takes impromptu flying lesson. A little old lady with hot sweet tea got to the crash site first, shortly followed by the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, and then a breakdown truck so I could get home. I was, incredibly, completely uninjured. Some boot polish sorted out my scuffed leathers. Ms Mini was convicted of Reckless Driving, a much more serious offence than Without Due Care, and fined £50. Her insurance company finally coughed up for my written-off machine after a protracted battle based on the well-known legal principle of “It must have been your fault because you were riding a motorbike.”

Team Thrasher Tours

Over the summer I was on the lookout for replacement transport. A contingent of PPMCC styling itself ‘Team Thrasher’ was off to the south of France that September and this trip was on my ‘to do’ list. I settled on a Suzuki GS650GT, another bike with shaft drive and a full fairing to which I added the panniers rescued from the defunct Honda. The Suzuki proved comfortable and reliable, but as a tourer it was let down by a minuscule fuel tank. Nine people on five bikes rode the length of France and back again in just under two weeks. The most significant run-in with the Police involved some pop group we saw in Dijon (where the mustard comes from) fronted by one Gordon Sumner and supported by A Flock of Seagulls (if anybody remembers them…)

Apart from accidentally parking the bike sideways on the prone body of one of my mates in a fit of incompetence, I dropped the Suzuki only once. Actually, I highsided it while exiting a roundabout just north of Portsmouth. It was a Tuesday night, too, and consequently right in front of the entire motorcycle club. My pillion passenger was unsurprisingly less than impressed. We were both unhurt, and even the bike only suffered minor cosmetic damage. The club was very impressed with my prang; I still have the commemorative certificate. Thanks, guys!

End of Part One

That summarises my personal history of motorcycling up to 1984. The next twelve years featured more and bigger bikes and travel further abroad. I’m hoping that it doesn’t read like a monstrous thrash’n’crash-a-thon. My bikes generally stayed upright and my licence remained cleanish.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A villa in new DXB

A house in The Greens, an Arabian Ranch.
If you want to own it and not merely loan it
You'll need to come up with a million or more
In cash or a mortgage whose rates make you sore.

There is a catch!
Buyer beware!
Why should I take such care?
Because the rules keep changing,
Fair or unfair,
And you'll find yourself tearing your hair.

At first we were promised a visa with freehold
And then after buyin', it turned out they was lyin'.
No visa? No phone; no electricity.
Small wonder that expats were starting to flee.

Give them six months!
Months at a time
Residence should be fine,
Then send them on vacation.
Smile and don't whine
'cos the problem is yours and not mine.
I'm fine!

If you own a freehold apartment or villa
Your maximum stay's just a hundred'n'eighty days.
Then leave for a month, save up dirhams two grand
To buy a new visa to live in Sandland.

You wonder why
Don't buy Dubai?
My, how it goes awry!
Oh, the confusion,
'til from on high
Comes a missive that should clarify
Just why
To buy.


The original music and lyrics, by Ted Dicks and Myles Rudge, were made famous in 1965 by Ronnie Hilton.


Monday, May 04, 2009

Skywalker Day

It is with much delight that I note this year at least, the UK has declared a public holiday on Luke Skywalker Day. Celebrations are of course in order.

Excessive levels of celebration are however not recommended.


Friday, May 01, 2009

Thought of train

The usual routine for holiday travel plans in the UK involves car rental, collection of the vehicle from and return to the airport, and a lot of petrol being turned into pollution. Last year I realised that it would be futile to rent a car and pay £35 per day to have it standing idle and unloved for several days, so I decided to give public transport a whirl and, after learning that rail travel between Heathrow Airport and Plymouth was prohibitively expensive, I took a National Express coach.

Later this month I’ll be travelling again. Beloved Wife has to stay and work, otherwise we’d be renting a car for sure. I thought I’d give rail travel another try after discovering last time that coach drivers enjoy tailgating small cars on the motorway, coach seats are titchy, and there’s no room for any luggage in the cabin. Plus, the coach service from Heathrow was over three hours late “like it is every Friday.”

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I could book my train tickets on line. I could even select aisle or window, table, electricity supply, direction to face, near the loo, et cetera. Unfortunately it all went wrong when it came to the bit about obtaining the ticket. The Train Line is incapable of e-ticketing. Options on offer are to collect the pre-paid ticket from a machine at the station, or to have it mailed or couriered to a UK address. The only option available for an international traveller - and there are one or two of these milling around Heathrow - is to collect the ticket immediately before boarding the train.

Problem: No ticket machine at Heathrow. Obviously, no-one has ever flown in from abroad and wished to continue his journey by rail, leastways not from Heathrow. Leeds, Glasgow, Birmingham or Bristol airports don’t have this problem. The Heathrow idiocy is caused by various parts of the journey being operated by differing rail companies.

I contacted The Train Line’s telephone helpdesk. A kind lady in Delhi told me that the only option was to buy my ticket upon arrival at the station. According to the website, that would cost an extra £46 each way. The email helpline wasn’t much better. I was advised that:
    “The nearest station to Heathrow Airport is Reading which has a Self Service Ticket Machine, therefore, you can retrieve your tickets from the Reading station.”
I’m glad that's clear. I have to get from Heathrow to Reading. But how? By train? Bus? Helicopter? Rollerskates? Could I collect the ticket at London Paddington, I asked. I suggested that perhaps I could board the train at Heathrow without holding a ticket (although I had paid for one and would have a printout of the web page), alight at Paddington, collect my ticket for the whole Heathrow - Paddington - Plymouth journey at Paddington and continue my journey.

Er, no.
    “I would like to inform that you need a valid ticket, before boarding the train. It is possible to collect the whole ticket from the London Paddington station. However, you will not be allowed to board the train without the ticket on the first part of the journey.
    Hence, please book the ticket at the station on the day of travel.
    I hope this information is helpful.”
Indeed. About as helpful as a concrete lifebelt. I would have to make my own way to Paddington, collect the ticket, somehow get back to Heathrow, then use my ticket to travel on the Heathrow Express to Paddington in order to complete my journey.

I have at last solved the problem. It turns out after some on-line research that there are any number of ways to get between Heathrow and Paddington. The cheapest practical option is the Tube, at £4 each way, but it’s a pest when combined with suitcases. I simply booked two single tickets for the Paddington – Plymouth return journey using The Train Line, plus an open return on the Heathrow Connect rail service. In all, £20 less than attempting to do the whole thing through a one-stop shop.


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