Sunday, May 29, 2011

Walking in England, The Nickey Line

April 2011 was an especially fine month to visit England. The big story of the month there was the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, but I was there to visit friends and family as well as to take on a series of rail trail walks. My third and final English walk was the 7-mile Nickey Line (map shown below). I began my walk by taking the train to the Harpenden end of the Line before heading south-west towards the town of Hemel Hempstead.

The Nickey Line follows the route of a railway spur that once ran off what is generally known as the East Coast mainline, shown below, that connects London and Edinburgh. Lots of trains to watch before starting off on my walk!

So it's down the stairs and onto the path, and away we go. Spring had arrived nice and early in England, and by mid-April everything seemed very lush and green. Warmer weather was to follow, but on the day of my walk the temperature was a very comfortable 17C.

The Nickey Line's former life as a proper railway line is evident here as the path follows the cutting below an old stone bridge. I saw lots of fellow walkers and the occasional cyclist along the route.

More railway history here, as we see the leftovers of a station platform.

It wasn't long before I left both the town of Harpenden and its adjacent woods behind, and reached some proper English farmland. This fellow was enjoying the day, and yes, pigs do snore!

Fortunately, our daydreaming hog had a buddy to keep watch just in case a truffle wagon happened along!

The farmland soon gave way to some open countryside views and a hydro right-of-way. It was a very pleasant walk.

Some more animals enjoying the outdoors. These horses seemed to be quite a distance from any barn that I could see.

At about the halfway point of the Line, the pathway plunges under a major motorway, providing a rare bit of man-made noise. Thousands of vehicles speed over this tunnel each day oblivious to the pleasures to be had in exploring this bit of countryside by foot or by bike.

More sleepyheads! They hardly gave me any notice as I wandered by.

Approaching the Hemel Hempstead end of The Nickey Line, the path returned briefly into some woods before ending at the sidewalk of a local road. There was a pub nearby to offer refreshments to happy travelers, but I opted to hop on the bus at the conveniently located stop and head directly onwards to catch a train.

What a great walk! Some lovely Herfordshire scenery bookended by a pair of easy to access railway lines. My English walks were a big success, and if I had known just how wonderful the weather was going to be throughout April, I would have perhaps planned for a couple of additional rambles.

Here's a final look back at The Nickey Line, from the northeast end of the trail at Harpenden.

NEXT: Fish and Chips...and Fish...and Chips!!!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Walking in England, The Centurion Way

What a wonderful place England is for walking, as long as the weather cooperates. I was lucky this past April to get in three superb walks without getting rained on at all! My second medium-distance walk was The Centurion Way, which follows a disused railway route north from the city of Chichester in West Sussex for a little over 6 miles to the hamlet of West Dean.

First things first: after leaving the Chichester railway station (after a scenic ride south-west from London's Victoria station), you have to follow the signed route towards the north.

Walking and cycling paths in Britain are very well-signed, so it was easy for me to find my way to the start of The Centurion Way.

Here's the map of the route I wanted to follow. No worries about getting lost here.

It's a bit of a low bridge here for trains nowadays, but it really was a railroad many years back!

The Centurion Way was named by a local student to reference the pathway's history as part of a route used by Roman soldiers some two thousand years ago. Now the line is marked with sculptures representing the history of the region - these chaps with spades, for instance.

More artwork! Showing critters of the area, I guess!

It's mid-April, and spring had really sprung in England by this time. The path has turned from asphalt to grass, but the scenery has opened up to reveal some lovely West Sussex farmland.

From grass to gravel and dirt, Centurion Way continues north for several miles before making a sharp west towards a main road. A clue to the path's railway heritage is seen here with the remains of an old bridge over the original train route, now used as a bridle path for riders.

What a wonderful walk this is! It's easy to turn the walk into a stroll, and hang about here and there to admire the scenery, enjoy the stream and listen to the sheep.

The northern portion of The Centurion Way runs parallel to an "A" road.

It's the end of the pathway, but it's well worth continuing north for just a little bit further. Do you see that white building in the distance?

Here we are: my destination. Nothing like a nice pub at the end of a fine English walk, and this one is a gem. It's The Selsey Arms, they feature Real Ale and Real Thai Cuisine, and it just so happens to be five minutes past noon. Yippee!

The pub owner married a cook from Thailand, and the menu offers some wonderful authentic dishes. I love Thai food, and this plate of spicy rice noodles with chicken was a delight after nearly three hours of walking. The Tom Yam soup was excellent as well.

I didn't forget the Real Ale either. This is a pint of Wadworth's 6X, highly recommended by locals in the pub. Yes, it was delicious! I could quite happily have spent the afternoon sipping this and chatting with the friendly folks there about the area.

Here are the Real Ale taps. I could have slummed myself down to Stella or Carlsberg, but hey, I'm on holiday here. Goddard's is a brewery from the Isle of Wight. I tried a half-pint of Scrumdiggity, but the 6X was the winner for me. I would return to a Goddard's product later in my visit, and enjoy their Fuggle-Dee-Dum with cousins during a very nice evening in Lymington. If I recall correctly, the Wadworth 6X originates in nearby Wiltshire, or "just down the road" as a fellow imbiber told me.

I recommend doing some research before you set out on these wonderful walks. Such as, is there a pub I can visit afterwards. And is there a bus I can take after that? Happily, a double-decker stops right at The Selsey Arms every half-hour and makes the trip back towards the Chichester railway station an easy affair. All in all, a really super day out and I hope to come back here again one day!

Last but not least, for those out there with speakers and video access, here's a clip of the sights and sounds of West Sussex from The Centurion Way!

NEXT: Hertfordshire Hogs and Horses!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Walking in England, The Alban Way

I'm back from a wonderful April visit to England and France, and am still floating in happy memories of walks, pubs, fish and chips, and get-togethers with friends and family.

I thought I'd post a few photos from my overseas adventures, and begin by concentrating on the Rail Trail walks I accomplished in England. I managed three in total, and the first one took place in Hertfordshire, north of London. It's the Alban Way, which I visited from west to east, beginning in St. Alban's and heading six miles or so eastwards to Hatfield.

Here's the map showing the Way...

The Alban Way's western end starts quietly enough, as a sidewalk drifting to the right of a hedge around the corner and down the street from St. Alban's Abbey railway station.

You have to be careful at the railway pedestrian crossing. St. Alban's Abbey station is just up the tracks a bit to the left. This spur line connects to the main line at Watford Junction, where you can transfer to trains for London, Birmingham or elsewhere.

Way in the distance is a view of the Abbey at St. Alban's, with some garden allotments in the foreground.

You can see how this was once a railway line in its own right. Also note how GREEN it is! It seemed to me that the mid-April spring season in England was a good six weeks in advance of Toronto. It was a wonderful day for a walk.

Further evidence of the Alban Way's past life as a railway line appears with the remains of a station platform on the left.

Towards the Hatfield end of the path, the route curves slightly upwards and crosses yet another main line railway. It's an easy ramble down to the train station, where there are frequent trains back to London.

I happened to make a special trip back to St. Alban's later in the week, specifically to visit this highly-rated brewpub called The Farmer's Boy. If you were walking the Alban Way from east to west, this London Rd. pub would offer a tasty reward for your efforts!

The reward? Some outstanding chips and a tasty home-brew called Farmer's Joy.

It was a real pleasure to have added The Alban Way to my list of Rail Trails, and I highly recommend it as an excellent day trip out for anyone visiting London. I felt physically energized and mentally refreshed after my walk, and was looking forward to the next path, wherever it may be!

NEXT: The Centurion Way and another gem of a pub!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reading Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol"

Dan likes to bring in the villains right off the top. Our Albino Monk for this trip is a guy with an apostrophe in his name, but he's not Irish or anything. He seems more like that "Teal'k" guy from Stargate. And instead of whipping himself, he gets his jollies from shaving himself bare and administering tattooes. So we've really moved on from "The Da Vinci Code", haven't we? Unless Mr. Brown is giving us wry references to Audrey Tautou from the film version. Rawwrr!

Early on in "The Lost Symbol", author Dan Brown gives us a glimpse into the nefarious mind of Entirely Shaven Tattooed And Apostrophe'd McNasty...well, let's just call him "Tat'too" for short. His thoughts are helpfully relayed to us via italics, and they are suprisingly concise for someone who has just attained the 33rd Level of the Ultra-Secret and Powerful Brotherhood of the Supreme Worshipful Master of whatever it is I Haven't Found Out Yet. The secret is how to die...They will never know my true purpose here...My God, they know!...Soon you will lose everything...Now they have opened their doors to me...I am an artifact...Child's play. Oasis is terribly overrated. Oops, that last one was me! And I'm only on page 23! Crumbs, what was he thinking about while attaining the other thirty-two levels?

Arriving at an airport can be a very unpleasant experience. Björk once famously beat up a reporter after arriving at an airport. Maybe she'd had a bad flight. Perhaps she mistook the reporter for a fan. In Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol", Our Hero (well, let's just call him "Tom Hanks" for short) arrives in Washington DC, only to be immediately accosted by a gushing admirer whose sole purpose is to remind us of Our Hero's, er, Tom's, previous adventure in "The Da Vinci Code", which we may wish to consider picking up the next time we're at an airport. Imagine getting off a plane, only to be faced with some trilling nutbar asking if you're the one that wrote about the sacred feminine and the church. I know what I'd ask Tom Hanks if I saw him at an airport. "Why didn't you try harder to save Wilson?! You Bastard!"

I haven't learned much so far about the Lost Symbol, but I guess I do appreciate Björk a lot more.

I've got a long way to go before finishing Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol". I haven't even got as far as the bit where they've lost it yet. But I have figured out how Dan managed to come up with over 500 pages of material. In a word, Advertising. In two words, Product Placement.

So far, I've come across completely unnecessary references to Otis elevators, Falcon 2000EX corporate jets, Pratt & Whitney engines, Harris Tweed jackets and Lincoln Town Cars, and that's just in Chapter 1, and he needed all that stuff to stretch the vital opening frame to three and a half pages of action.

He leaned back in his Staples Office Supplies ergonomic chair, noticing with satisfaction the Ariel text staring back at him from his 18-inch Acer monitor. Casually glancing at his Timex Flix Technology wristwatch, he allowed himself a moment to cross one leg over the other. A slow smirk spread over his face as he stroked his matching Arnold Palmer slippers. Child's play. The words came all too easily. He tugged at a cuff of his well-worn LL Bean Relaxed Fit blue jeans, and wondered idly if now was the time to consider changing into his Mark's Work Wearhouse pajama bottoms. They would suspect nothing. His smirk widened into a sinister grin. Maybe the Marithé et François Girbaud black denim French dancing pants would be more appropriate. His lips puckered as he considered the possibilities. In these pants, I will dance. He chuckled out loud. In France. Perchance to some trance. With a girl named Nance.

Oh, who am I kidding. I'm strictly minor league. A real player would have brought in a Lexus by now, along with See's Chocolate Truffles and the Sheraton Maui.

Does anyone ever have sex in Dan Brown books? I was thinking of that after reading the first couple of chapters of his latest (nyuk) Opus "The Lost Symbol". His previous best-seller, "The Da Vinci Code", featured an evil albino monk who liked to give himself frequent whippings. For "The Lost Symbol", he's been replaced as Head Nastioso by someone named Tat'too who gets off on yarning his own flesh.

The previous novel's film adaptation promisingly featured the lovely Audrey Tautou, but she was put off sex forever by showing up unannounced one evening at her Grandad's only to find him actively leading a sort-of religious congregation more devoted to Good Nooky than Good Booky.

Our Hero, played in the films by Tom Hanks, has a routine of plunging into his local swimming pool each morning before 5am for forty laps. This suggests he's got a lot of frustration to work through.

Tom's mentor is a gray-eyed power multi-billionaire who does a side act as Chief Worshipful Supreme Master of the Royal Order of Stuff, which seems to take care of his baser urges. Mister Master has a Sister (also gray-eyed, and I'd like a dollar, please, for every time the word "gray" appears in "The Lost Symbol"). She is "married to her work", so no dating for her. Maybe it's a good thing that none of these people are reproducing, as Mr. Brown makes very clear when the one offspring of a major character is finally revealed.

There is actually only one remotely likeable character in the entire novel, and she ends up face-down in a Squid Tank fairly early on in the action, which really pissed me off. Mr. Brown, don't piss off your readers.

So I ended up skimming through most of the rest of "The Lost Symbol", rolling my eyes at lots of it, and eventually racing to the exciting finish before my library copy's due date came up. Dare I mention that I was plowing through Kim Stanley Robinson's "Galileo's Dream" at the same time, which is somewhat akin to mixing a hazelnut gelato with a McDonald's vanilla cone. A 500-page vanilla cone.

This couple did not appear in Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol".

DEFINITELY not in the book.

NEXT: England. France. And I did Dance!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Spring Has Sprung?

Jeepers, another two months without writing anything! It's a lazy life so far in 2011, but there is a little bit of news here and there to report.

I've hit the 43-pound weight loss mark now (this all dates back to September 2010), and I'm continuing to take in the weekly Weight Watchers meetings. More pants are getting the heave-ho, and I finally decided to trek out to buy some better-fitting duds this very afternoon. Tilley's have a suburban Toronto outlet, and they were kind enough to help separate me from about $500 in exchange for a nice spring jacket, some lightweight jeans, and a new belt. I'm all set for my springtime walks (chief among which are the England and France hikes mentioned in my last entry). Now all I need is some springtime weather.

It's been a colder than normal late March in my area. There is still a bit of snow on the ground, and it's not going anywhere as long as the temperature persists in staying below the freezing mark. No matter, it's April as of this Friday and I've made it through another winter!

I have another holiday to think about and look forward to. I'm off to my favourite Switzerland destination, the village of Mürren, at the end of June. Four nights there, then a jaunt north to Berlin for two weeks, with a couple of new destinations thrown in. It will be great to meet up with old friends again, and yes there will be German beer.


NEXT: Mooncattie Reads A Book!!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Happy Well Into The New Year

Crumbs, two months have shot by since my last missive. I have been meaning to scribble down something, but I guess I've been too tired, too out of time, and basically too lacking in anything interesting (not that that's stopped me before, as you'll know if you've read any of my past rubbish). OK, Happy New Year everyone, and with Groundhog Day almost upon us, let me poke my head towards springtime and see what I hope to be doing.

1. Continue to lose weight. I've hit the 36 lb. mark since joining Weight Watchers last September, and although I'm really scraping to lose a pound here and there over the past few weeks, I'm determined to keep on going. I want to hit the 40 lb loss mark by the beginning of March. Can I do it? I'll keep you posted!

2. Travel. I decided to celebrate my 25 lbs loss Weight Watchers Official Ribbon with a holiday featuring the Theme of Continuing Improved Health. I set my sights on Europe, specifically England and France, and began checking out airfares. It's pricey to travel at the best of times, but springtime travel was looking to be almost unaffordable. Suddenly, KLM appeared with a wonderful cheap airfare! Roughly $1,000 to fly to Amsterdam...but if I changed planes at Schiphol Airport and flew back to Birmingham, England, the price inexplicably dropped by over $300. Yippee! So I fly to Brum in early April, and can't wait to meet up with the wonderful Collins Family, featuring West Brom Albion guru Andy, fellow Weight Watcher Sandra, and their two lovely children Ben and Rachel. There WILL be fish & chips, but there will also be a great deal of walking about.

3. Walking About. I won't be spending six weeks wearing a ski boot thing for a fractured foot this year, and hope to assist my weight-loss attempts with some walking opportunities. England will present me with several rail trails worth trying out. The Nicky Line from Hemel Hempstead to Harpenden is about 7 miles in length. Nearby is the St. Albans Way, from St. Albans to Hatfield - about 8 miles in total. Weather permitting, I'll have a go at the Centurion Way from Lavant to Chichester, and my biggie will be none other than The Cuckoo Line which will see me tramping from Heathfield to Polegate in the south of the country. I really hope the weather is nice for all this. I have a couple of shorter rail trail walks planned for Paris as well. Yes, I'll post photos!

4. Paris FRANCE, that is. I've got my French Rail Pass, and have booked 4 nights for April in Paris. I plan on travelling a bit in the country by TGV (le Train Grande Vitesse, I think the spelling is), combined with trying out some Metro systems for the first time. Lille, Rennes, and Toulouse all have driverless mini-Metros which should be fascinating to explore. It sounds exactly like what Toronto should be building for its Transit City project, but don't get me started on THAT. I'm returning to Lyon as well for a day trip, and of course hope to actually explore a bit of the Paris Metro and see a bit of the city as well. To be honest, Paris isn't my favourite city - but I'm looking forward to giving it another try.

That takes me through the first quarter of 2011. Things to look forward to, and things to plan. I hope your New Year is off to a good start, and that there are fun things in store for each of you, somehow, somewhere, sometime.

NEXT: So What About July?