Friday 31 May 2013

Incredible Views From High Above London

I have been looking forward to today all week. If the weather was good I would get the chance to be one of the lucky few to ascend to the top of Tower 42 in the heart of the City of London.

Tower 42 - Taken with iPhone 5

Not able to take my Brompton inside Tower 42 and not wanting to lock it up somewhere outside, I was forced to use public transport for the majority of my journey - which I hated. I would have been much happier on one of my Brompton bikes.

At 10:00 a.m. we assembled outside Tower 42 and not long afterwards we were taken up by our leader David Lindo. For those of you who don't know who David Lindo is he is the brilliant chap who is famed for being the 'Urban Birder.' He is a successful author, presenter, speaker, tour guide and all round good egg who promotes trying to find wildlife in the urban jungle. He has an excellent book which I reviewed a while ago and I'll post the link to that review at the bottom of this blog post.

When we first arrived there was lots of haze and cloud making visibility poor. After about an hour the sun started to penetrate through and gradually the view became clearer.

Mt first photo and you can see the haze.

There are many words to describe the view but I will simply let the photographs try and convey what I could possibly write. Seeing so much of London at such a high vantage point is quite breathtaking...overwhelming even. London has so many iconic buildings and landmarks that it is difficult to take them all in.

From the four compass directions at the tip of Tower 42 there was an incredible view of the many landmarks. A tiny fraction of them I have listed below:

St. Paul's Cathedral
River Thames
Crystal Palace
Battersea Power Station
Hyde Park
The Shard
HMS Belfast
Tate Modern
The BT Tower
Tower Bridge
Canary Wharf
The O2
Emirates Skyline
The Gherkin
Barbican Centre
Centre Point
Heron Tower
Alexandra Palace
London Eye
Wembley Stadium

The list could go on and on...

Heron Tower - 230 metres at the antenna

The photos were taken unless indicated otherwise with my new Ricoh GR. The photos you see here are straight out of the camera with nothing done to them. I used aperture priority mode and generally shot at f5.6 - f8.

I have to say that I am really pleased with the results and the lens and sensor really do allow some pretty sharp images. I also love the colours which to my eyes at least look very accurate and as I remember them. I am loving my Ricoh GR! For me it is just a great little camera.

Again I have to report that the Ricoh GR produces some great images. When zooming in to the pictures on iPhoto the level of detail is extremely good, with little noise. At some point I will set up a Flickr account and put some of these and other photos on there so that you can have a good look.

While up on Tower 42 were were treated to a female Peregrine Falcon sitting on top of a railing on one of the Barbican Towers. Two Buzzards circling high overhead and several gulls.

Another thing I got up to on the top of Tower 42 was to set up my GoPro on a new tripod I bought (mainly for use with my new Ricoh GR). I set the GoPro up to take a picture every 5 seconds at a few locations on top of the tower. At some point I will put them together in a time-lapse type video. If I can work out how to put it on blogger I will.

One of the last photos I took was using the panorama feature on my iPhone 5

At 14:00 out time on top of Tower 42 was over. It had been a thrilling experience and I doubt if I could ever get tired of the view. Having a go at a bird migration survey in this location was very special. Special thanks to David Lindo (why does this man not have his own television series on urban birding or urban wildlife)?

As I write this I have another adventure to look forward to. At 23:00 I will meet a few Bromptonians at Charring Cross before heading off from Hyde Park to Whitstable. Keep coming back for me to tell you about that adventure...

Thursday 30 May 2013

Prep for the Nocturne - I have a go on a £4000+ road bike!

Don't worry unduly. I have no intentions or interest in buying a road bike. Now with that out of the way I will continue.

Early this morning I headed off to Richmond Park for an early morning spin. There weren't that many cyclists out apart from people who were on their commute. I completed four laps and managed to get round in pretty good time - I think. I had decided to go for a spin this morning as prep for the Nocturne. (More about that later).

When I was folding up my Brompton at the car and putting it all away. Another car pulled up. We passed nods and the gentleman that got out engaged in conversation as he was also a Moulton owner in addition to the two expensive looking road bikes he had strapped to a rack on he back of his car.

As we spoke it transpired that we had in fact met very briefly at the first IBikeLondon ride I had attended and I had commented on his orange Moulton. He then made me an offer I could not refuse after finding out that I had never ridden a proper road bike...

He was waiting for his son to turn up for a spin around park but as his arrival was going to be delayed he offered me the chance to have a lap his bike. I accepted.

The first problem was the bike having clipless pedals. I had to use his sons shoes and having considerably larger feet I had to squeeze my great big ones into the shoes. After a brief tour of the bike and how to operate the gears we were off.

As I gingerly moved off, desperately trying to clip in and not fall over the gentleman who was called Angus by the way, turned on the GPS device on my handlebar (not a Garmin and I didn't find out what it was) and then dropped the bombshell that the bike I was attempting to ride cost over £4000 but was probably more with all the extras. This only served to terrify.

As I cycled along the bike did feel odd and I felt as if I had just started cycling. It was certainly very, very different to my Brompton bikes. On the straights I was able to accelerate to 30 mph with almost no effort. Quite incredible. I don't know if I could have gone faster? I should say I didn't want to as I felt uneasy on this bike.

On the hills there were loads for gears to play with but I have to say I would have found things easier on my Brompton. The Brompton really is king of the hills.

After one lap of the park we returned to the car park. I thanked Angus, gave him details of blog, bought him a cup of tea and we discussed my thoughts of a road bike.

It was a very different experience and ride to my Brompton. I am not overly sure I liked it. The big wheels just didn't feel right to me. Things weren't as nippy or manoeuvrable as my Brompton (despite the quite incredible speeds one could achieve on this bike). It was fun but not as much fun as when out on my Brompton.

My training run for the Nocturne went well and a few hours ago I found out that I am going to the Nocturne on the 8th June. There are only 10 days left so I will have to get in some more training.

Angus, if you are reading this thanks again for letting me have a go on that lovely De Rosa bike!

Wednesday 29 May 2013

I get to Interview the Adventurer Alastair Humphreys

I first heard of Alastair Humphreys a few years ago when I was in the travel section of the famous 'Foyles' bookshop in Charring Cross Road.  I was looking for a book that might provide a few interesting locations in London and I picked up a book with a silhouette of a guy on a bike. The book was 'Moods of Future Joys.' I could not put this book down and less than 24 hours later I was back at another bookshop buying part two 'Thunder and Sunshine.' The books retell his trials and tribulations of cycling around the world. 

Since cycling around the world Alastair has walked across India, rowed the Atlantic and become a successful author and motivational speaker. His idea of having a 'Microadventure'   is very appealing to me. This is where you finish work and for example cycle to the coast, sleep and eat under the stars, to return in time for work the next day. 

I asked Alastair a few questions and he very kindly found the time in his busy schedule to answer them. I list my questions and Alastair's responses below. 

1) After cycling around the world do you still like cycling? If you do explain why.

I didn't ride for a while but now I do. I love its variety - zipping round London, getting into the wild on a Mountain Bike and tearing up the miles on a road bike are all such different experiences

2) What sort of bike did you take with you for that journey and do you still have it?

Steel Specialized Rockhopper. I got through 3 bikes and I have the final incarnation still. It's broken and dusty in a garage.

3) Cycling around the world must have been a huge commitment in terms of time and finances. How did you cope? How much planning went into it?

It cost £7000. I lived as cheap as I could for 4 years - sleeping wild, eating the cheapest food. It was a stressful extra aspect to the trip, but one that taught me a lot and for which i am retrospectively grateful.

I daydreamed for much longer than I planned. A few months planning is ample for any cycle journey - it's not rocket science.

4) In your book 'Moods for Future Joys' you said that you left behind your girlfriend. Can you explain how you were driven to make this decision. 

It was a selfish decision but I knew that if I did not go then I would regret it later in life. I had to see the bigger picture than immediate, now happiness. It was selfish, but I think it was right.


5) Cycling around the world took a long time. How did you maintain relationship with family / friends while you were out on he road?

Email and occasional phone calls. The good thing about friends and family is that they are still there, unchanged, however long you go away for. 

6) I love your idea of having a micro adventure. Can you explain what they are, what was your first micro adventure and why we should follow your lead and go on them ourselves?

See for this answer. My first main one was walking a lap of the M25

 7) I love your YouTube video featuring you and a friend travelling the length of the Shetland Islands on a Brompton and inflatable boat and must have watched it four or fives times. What was the background to this trip and is it as invigorating as it looks to go on a trip like this?

I have wanted to go there for years (explanation to Muckle Flugga / cricket on my blog post about it). I wanted to try to make my trip there more adventurous than mere tourism. And I was intrigued by the versatility of both Bromptons and packrafts.

8) When you were cycling around the world did you have a plan to write books about your adventures upon your return?

Yes - I dreamed of this, and hoped only that one day I might be able to pay for my trip through my book. That was the limit of the ambition.

9) What was your scariest moment when cycling around the world?

Pedalling away from my front door. Dodging Bosnian drivers. Getting held up at gunpoint in Siberia. And a strange man in his pants in Mozambique who was eager to get into bed with me….

10) Of all the countries you visited on your travels which was your favourite and why? Was there anywhere you were not particularly fond of?

India - for the colour and the people. Iceland - for the absence of people and the gorgeous landscapes. Ethiopia is the only country I have not felt very welcome but it was a beautiful, fascinating country.

11) Cycling around the for the best part of four was an incredible achievement. When you had finally completed were you able to return to a normal life?

Sort of. On the one hand it is very easy to slip back into normal life. On the other hand Pandora's box has been opened and nothing will be the same again...

12) You now do a great deal of work as a motivational speaker. What path lead you to this? What do you enjoy this or being out on adventures?

I began doing it via speaking at schools which I found very rewarding. I do enjoy it - it is satisfying and it pays the bills. But I'd have to say i prefer being out on adventure!

13) What sort of Brompton do you own and how often do you get to use it?

A 6 speed bright green one. I use it intermittently. 

14) Why do you think that people are so enthusiastic about their Brompton folding bicycle?

I love how easily they fold. I like showing it off to people! They are quirky, you are part of a cult club: it's fun!

15) I would love to see more micro adventure videos on YouTube. Do you have any plans for a dedicated channel for such videos?

I've got a Facebook page for it now and I'm trying to make as many videos as I can.

16) If you could give one piece of advice for the readers of my blog and myself what would it be?

Try a microadventure! Leave work at 5pm, head out of town, sleep on a hill, and be back at work by 9 again. It might prove to be an epiphany… (unless it rains in which case you'll just curse me!)

A very big thank you to Alastair and please check out his website where you will be able to find out lots more about what he gets up to.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Silly London Buses!

I witnessed a few bus related incidents this morning in the centre of London that yet again did nothing to enhance the reputation of the London bus driver.

I was peddling along quite happily and was overtaken by a couple of cyclists on Boris Bikes and a rather nice looking road bike. The road was narrowed as there were other buses at bus stops and all manner of delivery vans on the left hand side of the road. This meant that traffic was down to a little over a single lane of traffic for a 100m section of the road.

The road bike accelerated into the distance and then slowed to turn right. He put his hand out to indicate that he intended to turn right but had to wait a while as traffic on the opposite side of the road was much busier. He was positioned well and as far to the right of the road as was safe. It was then that something in my opinion particularly stupid took place.

As the bus went past the cyclist turning right and I should point out that it could have passed quite easily, the driver of the bus sounded his horn and instead of proceeding forward, he slowed down and again sounded his horn, almost as if the cyclist was blocking his path - which he wasn't. It was totally unnecessary. The road bike cyclists shrugged and proceeded right.

Further on I saw another bus pull in left to a bus stop and then do the usual thing many bus drivers seem to do which is to turn their indicators immediately on to indicate that they are to turn right. Why do they do that? The bus was at the bus stop for over a minute - indicators blinking right - while passengers got on and off. The two people on Boris Bikes waited behind and not wanted to wait any longer proceeded forward. At this the bus driver had obviously taken on board all his passengers and pulled the bus out quite quickly to the right! The person on the Boris bike wobbled a little and was shaken. Things were not made any better by the bus driver sounding his horn as he accelerated forward.

It would be ridiculous to say that all London bus drivers are all like this but I have to say that having cycled in central London for many years, I am not altogether impressed with many buses that I share the road with whether I be cyclist, motorist, pedestrian or passenger.

It would be good to hear your experiences and if anyone can suggest why many buses pull into a bus stop and then indicate immediately right when they are not going to do so for a while, I would be very interested.

Monday 27 May 2013

Footprint Leather Strap for my Ricoh GR

When I bought my Fuji X100 which I sold as swiftly as I could when I heard that the new Ricoh GR was being released I placed an order for a new leather wrist strap.

The company is called 'Footprint' and they are sold exclusively on eBay. The strap below cost £14.99 + £1.99 postage and packing and I think represents great value for money.

If you contact the owner of Footprint he will be able to offer the leather in a range of colours and even the waxed thread that binds the leather can be offered in a different colour. I opted for black as I wanted to maintain the stealthy, discrete, street photography roots that is the Ricoh GR.

The strap is really well made and will last for years. The more you use it the more subtle the leather will become but even brand new it is very comfortable and I prefer it to the cord strap that came with the camera.

Also supplied is an industrial strength rubber ring that can be used to slide up and down the strap to allow a tighter fit on the wrist. It is a brilliant idea and it works well.

For me a strap like this makes using the Ricoh GR more comfortable and it looks great! At some point in the near future I am going to buy a brown leather / brown wax thread binding version of this wrist strap as I think that would look great too.

Footprint make lots of different types of straps from neck straps to wrist straps with different fastenings. Check out eBay and you will also see that they have a Flickr page showing off the many colour combinations and types of straps they do.

Dover Castle with My Ricoh GR

Today we decided to head out of the big smoke and go somewhere we had not been before. The location was decided upon the previous evening and at just after 09:00 we headed off to Kent to pay a visit to Dover Castle.

Dover Castle is very impressive. It is the largest castle in England, a Grade 1 listed building and  'Scheduled Monument' status meaning that is an internationally important building.

Founded in the 12th Century is has been described as being key to England due to its defensive importance over time - Napoleonic Wars and Second World War - the latter being its finest hour perhaps.

I decided to take my new Ricoh GR but as it was so busy and I had an excited couple of children and wife to contend with, I didn't have that opportunity to consider my settings or composition, so the photos below are rough to say the least.

One of the oldest parts of the castle

There are some great view to be had and there are many vantage points throughout the castle grounds. It would be true to say that you would be hard pressed to see everything in one day - there is that much.

A great view from the top of the castle tower

I had to have a go at the miniature effect.

The whole of the Bank Holiday weekend was a special WWII event with lots of people dressed up as German soldiers and a few British soldiers.  I was rather disappointed not to see any people dressed as American soldiers as I have always liked the uniforms.

Strangely, almost all the people there dressed up in costume were in German outfits. I was told by a charming American tourist from Ohio that that is usually the way. He went on to say that in America most people that like to dress up as Civil War soldiers usually choose the Confederate side. (Is this true American readers out there)?

It is strange to think that France is but a step away from Dover, 22 miles in fact. On a clear day you can see across to our French neighbours.

The white cliffs and ferries about to depart.

Dover Castle was a great day out and I suspect we will be back again at some point. There is so much we didn't see and we didn't really scratch the surface.

Sunday 26 May 2013

New Ricoh GR Test Shots

I took my new Ricoh GR out with me today to take some photos of the family and the English countryside.

Today was a very bright, sunny day and the first thing I would have to report is that the new screen is pretty good when trying to view or compose shots on a day like this.

The new GR also has a build in ND filter which you can set on, off or auto. I set it to auto and it did a good job of allowing me to shoot wide open at f2.8 if I wanted to.

All of the photos below (which I am well aware are probably terrible to the more talented among you) are straight out of the camera with no post processing or tweaking. I think that the GR is able to reproduce the colours as I saw them.

The images are also very sharp. If you own a Mac and use iPhoto there is a zoom slider. When using it to zoom in to a photo the amount of finer detail is quite amazing. You would certainly be able to crop pictures and still retain loads of detail. This makes the in camera 35mm crop function all the more useful.

Today I shot in RAW and JPEG simultaneously. The GR is able to write files to the memory card very quickly and there was no waiting around for this happen.

A word about the RAW files. Most of the time I shoot JPEG's unless I know I might want to tinker around with things. (Not very often). Looking at the files side by side, to my eyes at least the RAW files are gorgeous. Don't get me wrong the JPEG's are as well but the RAW files just look so good. (Ricoh uses DNG for the RAW processing which means that you will be able to edit your files without having to wait for an update for your new camera).

There is much to learn about the Ricoh GR but at the moment I love using it!!

I had to get a B & W shot! 

Lovely bokeh!

Saturday 25 May 2013

London to Southend Via Burnham-on-Crouch

Last weeks rather good Brompton Urban Challenge saw the start of a head cold as I reported in that blog. That head cold managed to find its merry way to my nose and throat with the result that I was sputtering, coughing and sneezing my way through the week.

With this ride to look froward to I did not ride to work once last week and Friday night was my first outing on my Brompton since last Sunday. I took the view that being stoic was the best option. Besides I didn't want to be like the sickly give up type that sits on the touch line with a note from Matron.  Stocked up with three packets of tissues (which I used up by the time I reached London) I headed off to Charring Cross.

Just after 23:00 I headed in to Charring Cross where I saw Geoff, later Mark and later still David and Anne. We made our way to Hyde Park Corner for the big off. The weather all of Thursday was dire. It was cold and it rained. Friday was not that much better. I suspect because of the weather and not wanting to make my cold worse I abandoned my travelling light. I took the much larger Carradice Barley saddlebag, waterproof trousers and my heavier Altura Night Vision Jacket.

The start just after 23:30

The traffic in London was quite busy and as always getting out of the urban sprawl tool some time. The ride was again incredibly well organised and regular stops allowed the slower riders to catch up.

As we headed east we eventually reached Essex which was to be an eye opener. I have written before that I have had a sheltered life. On an Essex High Street not too far from Ilford this notion was again put to the test.

A young lady, I would estimate in her early 20's, was being helped along said High Street. The young lady was wearing next to nothing and attempting to walk in a pair of high heels that were so high they would have been been welcome in a circus. The gentleman helping her along decided that it would be quicker all round if he took his own shoes off and give them to the young lady. This seemed to work but sadly he did not put her shoes on and went barefoot.

An Essex street

At one particular moment the moon shone through the clouds to illuminate a large expanse of uninterrupted countryside with a lone oak tree and pre-dawn haze. It was quite stunning.

Just before the 30 mile point our route took us to a small ford that we were obviously intending The recent heavy rain had obviously increased levels and we had to carry our bikes along higher ground.

The ford

Sanctuary came in the form of the Stock Village Hall. There we were treated to homemade rolls, hot drinks and the meanest slice of homemade almond slice I have had in a long time.

Homemade almond slices

Isn't that Peter from the Tweed Run?

With our lovely refreshments over we hit the open road again and as we cycled along the sun was starting to rise, making the sky alight with a red/orange hue. Robins, blackbirds, wrens and yellowhammers all tried hard to out sing each other. It was a beautiful scene.

Sunrise in Essex

With over 50 miles under our belts we reached the welcome sight of Burnham-on-Croach and the even more welcome sight of the 'Cabin Dairy Tea Rooms' The Bromptonians decided to sit outside and view the picturesque river Crouch. Small sail boats dominated the view and wispy cloud was outnumbered by a cobalt blue sky, hinting that Saturday was going to be a fine day.

Breakfast for me was a full English with tea and toast. It was very good and once we had all finished we said our goodbyes to the other cyclists and headed off to Southend.

In order to make our way to Southend we had to cross the river Crouch. To do this there exists a ferry which is a dial a ride type ferry. We had been told that the ferry would be ready to take us to the other side, 10 minutes or so at 07:45. Looking out across at the lovely scene, like people who were shipwrecked we scanned the horizon for the boat...the ferry. Not knowing what the ferry looked like any object that moved on the river was fair game for us suspecting to be the ferry. Many boats came and went and non were the ferry...

The ferryman telephoned Mark who had rung him earlier (there was a noticeboard with the ferryman's number) to inform that we was not far away. When the ferry came in to view it was not a ferry in the sense of a large was a small boat. In fact I have been to the seaside and blown up with a foot pump larger vessels! 

Only able to take six bikes and passengers the we gingerly got on the boat/dingy and made our way to the other side of the river. The view from the boat was was stunning. This area was once a location where oyster harvesting was common. The landscape took me back to Dickens and 'Our Mutual Friend.'

Loaded on the ferry

Geoff, who lives in Southend guided us the last 10 or so miles and after travelling through some lovely countryside we reached Southend. While Geoff and David watched our bikes Mark, Anne and I took the train to the end of Southend Pier to experience the Victorian build worlds longest pier at 1.34 miles.

On the train to the end of Southend Pier

It is a shame that the funds do not exist to restore the pier to its former glory as being well over a mile long it is a stunning piece of engineering and deserves it.

With our return train 20 or so minutes away we retired to the pier cafe and had a cup of coffee. That done we boarded the train and returned to shore.

The cafe at the end of the pier

Geoff guided us to the train stations and Mark and I returned with only moments to spare for the train to Liverpool Street. Once back in the big smoke I intended to use the tube to get home but as there was a football match between two German teams, the tube was unusually busy so I decided to head back the 7 or so miles back on my Brompton.

As I type this I don't actually feel that bad at all. I suspect that I will sleep well but the ride did me good and certainly serves to help blow the cobwebs out. There is another ride next Friday and I look forward to that. These rides are good for mind, body and soul and although I cannot articulate it, there is something about a longer night rides that appeal to me.

You can click on the ride data for the various sections of the rides by clicking on the links below.

Hyde Park to Stock Village

Stock Village to Burnhan-on-Crouch

Cross the Crouch

Burnham-on-Crouch to Southend

Thursday 23 May 2013

Knog Blinder USB Rear LED Lights

Ever since I started doing more and more nocturnal rides I have been looking for some rear LED lights that are in some way rechargeable. When I was at 'Look Mum No Hands' and in line for a cup of coffee before the inaugural 'Brompton Urban Challenge' I spotted a range of lights by 'Knog' that caught my eye.

The light itself is quite a looker being aluminium on the front and sides and silicone and polycarbonate housing for the rear.

The locking mechanism is a rather clever affair and reminds me of the double clasps you sometimes see on watches. It is very easy to work and more importantly the rubber is very heavy duty and looks as if it could take a fair bit of abuse.

The light is waterproof and at 39g you will hardly notice it is there in terms of weight.

The other great thing about this light is that it is very small. I have placed a £2 coin so you can judge how big it is.

On the underside of the light a small USB flap can be flicked open and it can be plugged straight in to any UBS port. A charging light tells you if it is charging and it goes green when it has been fully charged. I left it plugged into a PC at work for a couple of hours and it was fully charged by the time I got back.

The light had four LED's and continued presses of the rear on and off button cycles you through the various lighting options. There are a few different flashing modes and on one of these settings the burn time will be 50 hours. If just on a steady light the burn time will be 3 hours. (I always have rear lights flashing so this is good news for me).

This light is more of a to be seen light but it puts out 44 lumens and is visible for 800m. I certainly thought it brighter than either of the rear CatEye lights I own. (I also think that the build quality of this Knog light makes my CatEye lights seem like a child's toy).

I pondered quite a bit about whether or not I was going to buy this light while drinking a cup of coffee and I am very glad that I ended up buying them. The first time I will use them in earnest is going to be Friday night / Saturday morning when I cycle from London to Southend. I will let you know how I get on with them after I have done that ride but if you are in the market for some rear LED lights, you could a lot worse than give these a go!