Posts Tagged ‘bikes’

Some lessons in brief and a run in with a mouse

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

After a slight hiatus, it’s time to resume blogging – apologies! Today’s entry is a mixed bag, a bit like London itself, really. Without further ado, let’s begin.

Three Mini Lessons

London has been an interesting place over the past month. We’ve had the Sky Ride, a city-wide cycling fest with over 80,000 riders enjoying the capital’s most famous sights and streets, all with the comfort of knowing road traffic was banned for the duration. I headed down with Maddy and although we didn’t catch sight of Boris Johnson or Kelly Brook (who were leading the event), it was pretty awesome being part of London’s cycling community (a community bigger than the population of other cities). In this mini-lesson, I can only implore you to literally get on yer bike. Being part of stuff like this is great fun and experiencing the city above ground, in the open air, is the only way to really see it. Cramming yourself into sweaty tube carriages and crowded buses is an ugly alternative – get cycling.

We also had the Thames Festival a week later. This was a weekend-long party lining the banks of the river, with hundreds of world food stalls, little craft shops, performers, dancers, etc. The highlight for us was the closed-off Southwark Bridge with a ‘feast’ laid out – tables lined the entire bridge and people were wandering around offering packets of seeds for your garden, free fruit originally destined for landfill sites, and bales of hay scattered around. The atmosphere was amazing and it was thrilling to feel the sense of culture and creativity going on. Mini-lesson here: ignore the haters who tell you London is full of grumpy people and mean, nasty locals.

One thing that did bring out the grumps was the recent tube strikes, though. These are a fairly irregular occurrence but are enough to prompt crisis-laden headlines in the press suggesting the capital will “grind to a halt” without the public transport. The first one a few weeks back was worse than the more recent one just yesterday, which only managed to shut down around 60% of the lines. The previous one forced many Londoners to work out new routes to work, so pavements were packed with reluctant walkers and bike lanes with nervous new cyclists. Traffic was gridlocked which made weaving in and out of cars on my bike a little more challenging, but overall it simply served to reiterate my first lesson once more: get on yer bike.

Lessons with Rodents

It was with mild horror a week ago that I heard the sound of Maddy, my girlfriend, screaming “ohmygod ohmygod OHMYGOD” from the kitchen. I ran inside, half expecting to find her with my surprisingly-sharp cleaver knife wedged into her wrist. “I JUST SAW A MOUSE!” she shrieked, pointing towards the microwave in the corner of the kitchen. I immediately closed the kitchen door and approached the corner gingerly, arming myself with a plastic container to trap the unwanted rodent in.

After poking around in the corner it became apparent the mouse wasn’t there. “Are you sure you saw a mouse?” I asked Maddy for the fifth time, pacing the room. I ended up on my hands and knees, exploring a gap in the boards under the kitchen cupboards with my bike light for illumination. None the wiser, I decided to construct a humane trap for our unwanted visitor.

The trap I came up with, dubbed “The Greasy Bowl”, was a thing of genius. Grab a large glass kitchen bowl. Grease the sides with butter, oil, or anything suitably slippery. Place a tasty morsel of food inside the bowl (we went with ham). Place the bowl somewhere easily-accessible (kitchen floor for us) and place a strategically-positioned cardboard ramp on the floor leading up the bowl. The result? Mouse walks up the ramp to eat the tasty meat; falls inside the bowl; eats the meat; belatedly discovers it is unable to climb out of the concave, slippery bowl. Problem solved!

I went to bed giddy like a child, straining my ears for the inevitable greasy squeak I soon expected from the kitchen. I woke up like a kid at Christmas, running into the kitchen to unwrap my present: a mouse in a greased bowl. Sadly, the little creature had outwitted me: the bowl was rodentless. I took some consolation from the fact that the ham was still there – either the trap was too insultingly simple for even a mouse and he chose not to risk it, or the mouse was scared away by Maddy’s screams (her theory), never to return.

Either way, the lesson here is obvious: keep an eye on bits of food that didn’t quite make it into the bin (we’ve all thought “screw it, I’ll pick it up later”) or crumbs and packaging left lying around. These things add up and soon you can end up with a serious vermin problem. Luckily for us, we’ve seen no more signs of our whiskered nemesis, but it may only be a matter of time before he and I are forced to battle intellectually once more in a very literal game of cat and mouse. You have been warned.

Lesson 2: Commuting/Cycling in London

Monday, August 9th, 2010

So, after a couple of days settling into my new flat in London, it rapidly became time to work out my journey to work. It was time to address the fear that had occupied the back of my mind ever since accepting a job in London: the morning commute on the tube.

Of course I’d used the tube before. I was familiar with all the classic unwritten rules: stand on the right, don’t clog up entrances/exits, let old people have a seat, invade people’s person space, etc. What I wasn’t quite ready for was rising to the challenge that the picture (below) aptly illustrates.

Packed commuter tube train in London

On my first day of work I started at 12pm so boarded a relatively empty Northern Line tube, breezing along and thinking “this is easy!”. All that was to change the following day.

Tuesday I was in at a more normal time, and found myself waiting on the platform at 9am with a bunch of other grey-faced commuters. One thing that’s not exclusive to London commuting is the unfailing way that every passenger glumly stares at their shoes, or keep their eyes fixed on the nearest wall or surface, willing themselves not to make eye contact with strangers and definitely not to smile. There’s exceptions to every rule, of course, but there were none today.

A rumble, and the train arrived. I was greeted with the sight I had wanted to avoid: a packed, sardine-like tube pulling into the station, squeezed with commuters.

“What’s the protocol here?” I wondered. Was there some kind of unspoken queue in place, like at the Post Office or supermarket? Would I be risking cutting in on someone who’d been there for ages and earning the silent wrath of my fellow passengers?

While I stood there pondering this and other issues, my dilemma was swiftly solved as the more mercenary commuters quickly filled the flimsy gaps in the bunch of bodies, and the doors squeezed shut as the train departed. That was that. I stood around with other the failed boarders, feeling slightly deflated like I’d just came last in a Mario Kart tournament, or was picked last for the football team.

Minutes later another train pulled up and this time I was ready, stepping quickly onboard and squeezing myself into the armpit of a particularly fragrant traveller. This was going to be a long week.

After 5 days of tube commuting I knew that I couldn’t keep it up. While it wasn’t too expensive (only £1 more per week than my bus ticket in Leeds used to cost) and the journey was fairly fast (30 minutes door to door), I was finding it stifling and stuffy, arriving at work or at home ready to go back to bed again.

It was time to pull out my bike, my trusty steed in times of need, and upon which I used to commute 10 miles a day on in Leeds. This time though I needed to exercise security. London traffic has a reputation all of its own and I was a little nervous of stepping right into it.

I decided to take a practice ride to work on Sunday, just to figure out the route and see how it felt to ride. I needn’t have worried. The roads were fairly quiet and all had dedicated bike lanes, and seeing the city on a bike felt so much more right. Several times I had to force myself to concentrate as I realised “so that’s where that is” or “I can’t believe this is only 5 minutes’ ride from the flat”, compared to my blind ignorance when squeezed into the tube.

Besides managing to get a puncture on my test ride and having to phone my girlfriend for money (I forgot my wallet) in a thankfully-nearby bike shop, the journey was fine and took me about 18 minutes to cover the 4 miles, much quicker than the tube, not to mention cheaper.

Riding on a Monday morning was slightly different, though. For one, I felt like a rider in the Tour de France. So many cyclists! At one point there were over 8 of us occupying almost the width of an entire lane together. I’ve never felt so empowered on two wheels before. Traffic was busy but manageable and the exhilaration of riding over the Thames with the wind in my hair was awesome, as cheesy as it sounds.

It wasn’t all fun and games though – I arrived at work to find that my bike wouldn’t stay upright when stood in the strange vertical bike racks. It seemed that it was too heavy at the back due to my panniers. I locked it up stood horizontally and gave it no further thought. Later that day when I came to get my lunchbox from my saddlebags I spotted a piece of paper stuck to my bike.

Some friendly fellow employee had written:


I felt a bit upset but found a pen and added a little note clarifying that a) my bike wouldn’t stand up in the stands and b) it was my first day riding to work and thanks for the friendly welcome.

So what’s the lesson from all of this? Let’s have a list:

  • The tube’s not bad, but it quickly sucks the life out of your mornings/evenings
  • Cycling in London isn’t as intimidating as it might seem, but still needs to be approached with confidence and carefulness
  • Passive-aggressive notes aside, locking your bike up at work is serious business

So endeth the sermon.