Sunday, 28 August 2016

I am not Mo Farah, or Team GB. I am Parkrun!

I did my 76th Parkrun yesterday.  It was a beautiful day and in a beautiful location (Nostell Priory). If there was ever a better day to be alive, I wasn’t there.  But for some reason I wasn't in the mood for all the #IamTeamGB flag waving that was going on.

It could be simple Olympics overkill. Back in the days of Daley Thompson and Sebastian Coe I could remember every gold medal we won because there were only about 4 or 5 each Olympics and they were for proper Olympic Sports like running fast. Now I'm waking up at 5 am every Olympics morning to discover that people I've never heard of have won golds for shooting and kayaking.

Maybe it's because we now get interviews on TV with every gold medal winner's dad and brother and dog and PE teacher, and because Claire Balding is permanently so ecstatic about it all.   

I don't like the name TeamGB either. Can't we just be called Great Britain? Anyway, I'm not Team GB because I'm not and never have been good enough to go to the Olympics. Congratulations to all those people who are. Unfortunately I am not one of them. I am most definitely not Mo Farah, and I'm unlikely ever to be mistaken for him in the street. 

Luckily for us non-Olympians, somebody dreamt up Parkrun, and anyone can join in, so those of us that aren't good enough to go to the Olympics can go to the Park instead.

On the day when Mo Farah won his gold medal in the 5000 metres last week, I broke my PB at the Park by 1 second, and although he was running almost twice as fast as me and he got a medal for it, I can’t imagine he enjoyed his day anymore than I enjoyed mine. 

If you were to draw a Venn Diagram and the two circles were the Olympics and Parkun, Mo Farah and I would probably overlap.  I know the Brownlee brothers would be in the overlap, because I’ve seen pictures of them at Parkrun. 

I was genuinely inspired watching Mo Farah winning his two gold medals in 2012, I even shouted at the telly.  I was also inspired meeting the Brownlee brothers in a cafe in Burnsall the same summer (although I was completely ungracious and I totally blanked Jonny).

But I didn't start running until 2014, so the Olympics didn't exactly spark me into immediate action. 

The main reason I started running was because I moved back to Leeds in 2014 after 20 years away and I didn't have any friends there.  Also, my mum was immobile and indoors all the time, and that made me want to be the opposite. 

So basically I started running because I was lonely, and I needed some people to talk to, and because I didn’t want to be trapped in a house with someone who was dying.  

Some weeks during the last 2 years I’ve felt really miserable and like my life is coming apart but that 30 minutes or so at the park has always made sense to me. 

Parkun helps me a lot more than the Olympics does, because it’s every week and it’s for everyone.  And the Olympics is not.  Well done Olympians, but I am not you.  I am not Mo Farah and I am not TeamGB.  But for half an hour or less each week, I am Parkrun.  

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Leeds Half Marathon - Am I a runner yet?

I did my first half marathon on Sunday.  I've run plenty of 10Ks in preparation, so I told myself it's just two 10Ks back to back and then a bit more.  But it really wasn't.  

Normally I run in the early mornings when it's about 5 degrees if I'm lucky, but on Sunday it was hot enough to prepare a cooked breakfast on my own head on the way round.  

I don't like forced jollity, so listening to the DJs from Radio Aire (or it might have been Radio Leeds, they're all the same) being super jolly for 45 minutes before the start put me in a bad mood.  I suppose they were only trying to do their jobs and whip up some enthusiasm, and they were good enough to remind us about every 20 seconds that it was hot and to remember to drink loads, but then they handed over to some aerobics instructor who tried to get us all to wave and pretend to ski in unison, and I thought 'Bollocks to that, I'm here to run, not to do the Birdie Song'.  


Been there, done that, got the T-shirt
As I was standing round at the beginning, I saw some people being interviewed and I imagined that someone was interviewing me and saying 'So, Jonathan, why are you running the Leeds Half Marathon?'.  And I thought about what I'd say.  


I thought I might say 'I'm doing it for lots of reasons, but I'm also doing it for no reason at all.  I'm not doing it in memory of anyone, or to raise money for anything.  I'm only doing it for myself, to see if I can.  I did a lot of cycling for 10 years, until I got sick of it, and so I decided to run instead, because it's simpler and you need less equipment'.

Until recently I wasn't a proper runner.  Despite 60 odd Parkruns over 2 years, I haven't quite adapted yet.  I've still been wearing cycling shorts and carrying a bike computer, as if I was only pretending.  But for my birthday Joy bought me a proper runner's Garmin that goes on my wrist, and then on Saturday I finally got rid of my falling to bits 11 year old cycling shorts.  And also on Saturday, I went and bought a runner's bumbag so that I wouldn't have to have an inhaler and a phone and keys digging into my legs through the pockets of my flimsy new running shorts during the run.  And Joy also lent me a hat, to keep the sun off.  I've never been so close to being a runner.

If I was in a DJ induced bad mood before the start of the run, I was transformed during the first couple of miles by seeing all the well wishers at the roadside who'd come out of their houses to cheer on the 8000 plus runners. Some were kind enough to set their garden hoses on us (hopefully they're not on a water meter), and many had prepared bowls full of jelly babies and Haribo and oranges and an old lady was holding out some grapes towards me, but I was too tired to reach them.

A couple of the residential homes along the way had brought some of their residents out in wheelchairs to wave at us. There's nothing makes me feel so grateful for running as seeing people who don't have the option.  And there was a Sikh man playing a big trumpet (fairly badly it seemed) and a steel band. 

There were lots of kids on the route too, stood in lines trying to high five as many runners as possible.  If they were close enough to reach I was happy to oblige.

It may have been nerves, but even though I went for a pee just before the run started, I was desperate for another one as soon as we got going.  I really didn't want to lose any time by stopping to use a toilet, and I did toy with the idea of just peeing myself deliberately at one point, but then I saw some bushes alongside Meanwood Road, and so I ran in there and things were much better after that.  

I knew that the route was uphill a lot in the first half, and in theory I thought it would be easier in the second half, but that's not how it turned out.  I did the first 10K in 58 minutes which is the same time as I ran the Abbey Dash in November. At the halfway point I was still optimistic (for about two minutes) that I could do the whole thing in under 2 hours, but then between the 8 and 9 mile point I could feel my legs just fading away.    

I don't normally drink when I run, but because it was such a hot day I took on water whenever possible.  A lot of it I tipped over my head.  There's an old film called the Games with Michael Crawford in that I saw about 30 years ago where he's trying to run the Marathon in less than 2 hours in the heat, but he goes a bit mad in the attempt and starts stumbling around in the road falling into spectators and I tried not to end up like him.  When I realised I couldn't do it in 2 hours I decided to try and run it in around 2 hours 3.  I was inspired watching the serenity and fluency of Eliud Kipchoge in the London Marathon a couple of weeks ago, and I thought it would be nice to run half as far as him in the same time, even if it was with a lot less style.  But even that became too much.  

I got some nipple chafing from 10 miles, and the last 3 miles were really hard and very stop / start.  I heard some people around me saying 'Never again!', but even though I was suffering I just kept thinking 'Yes, I'll do it again, but hopefully on a flatter route and in the cold and I might then be able to break 2 hours.  


If the stats aren't recorded, it didn't happen
As it was I did 2 hours 6 minutes which was pretty good in the circumstances. Because I was very tired, I didn't fully appreciate all the good stuff that was happening at the roadside as I was running, and although I thanked the ones who gave me sweets and used hosepipes on me, I wasn't able to thank everyone, even though I wanted to.

It was lovely that so many people turned out to make it a really good event, and it made me feel pretty good about the City of Leeds.  The last half mile or so was probably the best, because there were so many people cheering us home.  And thankfully Joy came to meet me, and drive me home, and that was lovely too, not just because it stopped me from having to walk too far or look at bus timetables. 

At the end, when I was slumped on the ground drinking Powerade a man said to me that it was the hardest half marathon he'd ever done, and I asked him how many was that out of and he said a hundred, and so I didn't feel so bad for finding it hard, when it was my first time. But hopefully not the last.

They gave me a T-shirt and a medal at the end, and the medal was so big it nearly smashed the screen on my mobile phone, and it says something like 'I finished the journey' on it.  I think in some ways it would be better if it said 'I survived the journey'.  And unlike people on reality TV who say they've been on a journey even when they've never left the studio, it was nice to have actually been on one.  



Sunday, 3 January 2016

Parkrun - There's a clue in the name but it's more than just a run in the park

Although I grew up in Leeds, I didn't live here for 24 years between 1990 and 2014.  I came back here in April 2014 to offer some support to my mum, because she was seriously ill.

To enable me to come back, I gave up my job and moved away from my circle of friends.  I'd built a network of friends on Teesside, which largely grew out of St Francis Church Ingleby Barwick. People I'd been on holiday with, and on crazy cycling expeditions, and spent Christmas at their houses, and had countless Sunday dinners with (and Saturday mornings and Friday and Saturday nights).

When you go somewhere new, it's hard to replace those kind of connections overnight.  But you have to start somewhere.  Going to places where other people are is a start.  Especially when you live on your own.


Apart from the mum-helping part, I felt a bit lacking in purpose in Leeds.  I can't remember now why I looked up Temple Newsam on the internet, maybe I was trying to reconnect with familiar places. Anyway, I noticed this thing called Parkrun.

I hadn't run for over 12 years.  The last time I remember running was around 2002, after entering the Great North Run.  I started training for it, but found it really hard to improve, and so I gave up.  Later that year I started getting swollen feet after walking my dog, which turned out to be Rheumatoid Arthritis.  At first my symptoms were really bad, and even walking downstairs was painful.  Running was out of the question.  Just getting out off the bath, unscrewing the lids off jars, and tipping water out of a saucepan were challenges enough.  The hospital did put me on some drugs and that improved things a lot, but I still never considered I'd be able to run again.  I just thought the impact would be too much.

Anyway, from about 2009 I started taking some bigger and better drugs (Methotrexate) and the pain in my joints wasn't so bad after that.  But I still hadn't considered running again, until I moved to Leeds.

The first Parkrun I did was over the first May Bank Holiday in 2014.  I thought about training for it, but I only got my Parkrun barcode printed at the very last minute, and so I never got round to it.  I was amazed that I managed to run (I say run, that may be false advertising) the whole 5K without stopping.  My time was 35 minutes and 46 seconds.  It was a hot day, and on the finishing straight a girl called Sarah shouted to me 'Try doing it without a jumper next time'.  Good advice, I thought.  I went for a coffee afterwards at the Park cafe, and I got chatting to Sarah.  It turned out she lived in the same place as me, and she offered me a lift home.  She was training for a marathon, and subsequently she gave me some good advice about local routes to get some practice in.

Here's me almost beating a young girl at running.  These days I can't catch her anymore, she's really improved...
So far so good, except for at least 3 days after that first Parkrun, I couldn't move.  My muscles and joints felt like they'd been smashed to pieces.

However, because I'd opted for the cunning plan of doing a really slow time on my first attempt, once I started putting in a bit of midweek training, I found that I could beat my PB each week by about 30 seconds.  So my first 9 Parkruns at Temple Newsam were all PBs.  That's the kind of statistic that has to plateau eventually...

One week in July 2014, Temple Newsam wasn't on, and so I looked for the next closest run.  It was at Woodhouse Moor in Leeds, a place I'm familiar with because I went to school right next door to it for 7 years (when Leeds Grammar School was still in central Leeds).

Leeds Grammar School Under 16 Rugby Team - 1983-1984.  Graham Tyler (front row, third from left is now my Parkrun nemesis)
I have lots of memories associated with Woodhouse Moor from those schooldays.  Most of them involve balls and violence.  I once went Crown Green Bowling there with George Yap in 1979, before he emigrated to Toronto.  We couldn't be bothered with any of that using the magnets on the side of the balls to curve them in to their targets, we just preferred to thrown them as hard as we could, and try and knock the jack completely off the green.

I also once got kicked really hard in the unmentionables by Rakesh Anand during a game of British Bulldog on Woodhouse Moor, but more satisfyingly, I also hit Duncan Owen in the back of the head with the perfect snowball there too.  Life is full of ups and downs.  In my sixth form years, I used to meet girls from Leeds Girls' High School there at lunchtime, (or rather I used to go there with people who were meeting girls and try to somehow get noticed in my own right.  With limited success).

I left school in 1986, and until that July Parkrun I hadn't been back since.  Coming back to Woodhouse Moor after all those years, it felt like coming home.  Anne and Sam and the other Parkrun organisers give it such a welcoming feel, that it always cheers me up being there.  It also has the massive plus that it's a flat course.  Temple Newsam has the so-called Hill of Boom, which you have to run up twice, and it's a killer.

Another plus about Woodhouse Moor Parkrun is the involvement of Wrangthorn Church (St Augustine's), which borders the park.  They put on free teas and coffees (real coffee too, you know like in cafetieres, not just instant) and cake on the first Saturday of each month, and this has turned out to mean much more to me than just a hot drink and a sitdown after the run.

Garmin - Never leave home without it!
The first time I went there was in July and as well as talking to the Vicar Joanna Seabourne for about 5 minutes, which would prove important months later, I also got chatting to a Polish girl called Marta.  She'd only just moved to Leeds, so I offered to show her round, to help her settle in.  We met up quite a lot over the summer, and at one point she even did a small amount of housesitting for me while I was away at Youth Camp.  The only thing that changed over time was my perspective.  I realised I was probably the one who was most in need of the friendship, and the help settling in, even though I was the one in my own country and home town.

In November 2014 my mum died, very late at night one Thursday.  Although still in shock I still went to Parkrun as usual on the Saturday, and I remember it being a beautiful day, and I felt so glad to be not just alive, but able to run.  Over coffee afterwards I chatted to Anne and Roy and Daisy, who was in an advanced state of pregnancy, and again Parkrun did its magic, and I realised that life goes on.

During the week that followed I was trying to arrange my mum's funeral.  Because she wasn't part of any religious faith my brother and I thought it would be appropriate to hire a humanist minister to do the funeral.  We couldn't have been more wrong.  We told him what we wanted, and he went away and he must have copied out the verses from about 100 Helen Steiner Rice greetings cards, and cut and pasted them all into this ridiculous order of service which bore no relation to the mum we remembered (the only saving grace was that he sent us the draft for approval).  We were separately appalled, and with less than 48 hours to go before the funeral, we decided unanimously to sack him, whatever the consequences.  We said we'd rather just do it ourselves if it came to it.

I know lots of priests, but I didn't know any in the Leeds area.  Oh, except for one.  Joanna Seabourne, who I'd met after Parkrun 4 months earlier, for 5 minutes.  At Wrangthorn.  5 minutes was long enough to know that I'd trust her with the funeral.  By some fluke (or possibly miracle), she had a vacant slot at just the time we needed her, and she gave us exactly the funeral we'd wanted all along.

I've now done 51 Parkruns.  There was a double header on New Year's Day, where I managed to do numbers 49 and 50 back to back, and I did my 50th back at Temple Newsam, where it all started, which pleased me no end, since I'm such a fan of symmetry when it comes to numbers.  29 of them have been at Woodhouse Moor, 11 at Temple Newsam, 9 at Wakefield, including a Valentine's Day run with Joy, and 1 each at Huddersfield and Roundhay Park.  

For quite a while, I got obsessed with how fast I was at Parkrun, and from that initial limp-a-round that I did in nearly 36 minutes, I did get my time down to under 25.  It has gone up again recently, but these days I'm happy to go around in 27.  It might be two minutes longer, but I save the time I used to spend being doubled up at the end.

I recently completed a 10K (The Leeds Abbey Dash).  For a long while, I held out the hope that I could run it as fast as the 10K I did in 1986 (around 47 minutes) but in the end I was satisfied with 57.  I didn't think 10 minutes longer was bad considering I've added 30 years to my age.

I'm not as fast as I used to be.... But then I'm not as slow as I used to be either
I sometimes think I'm too driven, and too single minded about Parkrun, but then I'm so wishy washy in so many areas of life, that it's nice to have something I'm so certain about wanting.  I got properly obsessed with getting to 50 and as a result I've done every one available since early September. Some weeks between then and now have been properly rubbish for me, to the point where I've had whole weeks where the only half an hour that made any sense to me was the Parkrun half an hour.

Although it's coming up for 2 years since I moved back to this area, my life still lacks direction, and I'm still finding it hard to put down solid foundations.  But Parkrun is one of the few things that gives me a purpose and some stability in my life here.

I've moved around a lot since 2013, and struggled to find anywhere that really feels like home.  A few weeks ago I thought about going back to Teesside, and trying to pick up parts of that life I left behind, but I don't want to give up on Leeds just yet.  It takes a really long time to build up a network of friends and contacts in a new place, and to put down roots, but that square of green at Woodhouse Moor, next to where I spent so much time between ages 11 and 18, and where I now run round and round at almost the right age to book a Saga Holiday feels as much like home as anywhere these days.

Despite my inability to settle down in other ways in life, when I'm running in the Park I always feel like I belong there, and that I'm part of something bigger than myself.  And it stops me navel gazing for a while, and keeps me looking at the bigger picture.

This Christmas Day I walked to the Park on a beautiful clear but cold winter morning, did the run, then I stood around chatting with a hundred people in Santa hats and dressed as elves, who like me were drinking coffee and eating chocolates that had been brought by volunteers and set up on a makeshift table in the middle of the Park.  And at that moment, I felt that I was in the best place in the world.

And that's how I felt the other 50 times too.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

I amsterdam - or at least I wish I was

I went to Amsterdam this week, with Joy.  And it was very good.  Excellent even.

I first became aware of the Netherlands during the World Cup of 1978.  They were nearly undone by Archie Gemmill's wonder goal for Scotland in the group stage, but then, after that scare, they managed to get all the way to the final.  Despite their ability to play the so-called Total Football, they mostly seemed to win their games in 78 by smashing the ball into the net from absolutely miles out.  Some of their shots seemed to originate in space.  This was especially necessary against the ultra-defensive Italians.  It was the only way, as they couldn't get anywhere near the goal.  like this..


Although the Dutch lost in the final to Argentina, they became my second favourite team from then on (actually considering England were my number one team, they were pretty much my first favourite team).



In the year 2000 I read the book Brilliant Orange by David Winner, and if I didn't like the Dutch before, I did then.  His literally brilliant book interweaves the story of Dutch football with the story of the Dutch themselves, and it's wonderful.

I have to admit, I did sort of go off the Dutch in 2010 when their football team got to the World Cup Final again, only to try and win the thing by forgetting they were Dutch, and kicking lumps out of Spain in a mostly forgettable kung fu fighting yellow-card-a-thon, which was a million miles from 1978.  But then in 2014 there was Robin van Persie's header, and all was well again.

The College Hotel, Amsterdam
Anyway, my love for the Netherlands came flooding back to as soon as I arrived on Sunday in Amsterdam.  All the signs are in English, the taxi driver wore a tie and was very polite, the hotel was a beautiful converted College full of eager trainee hospitality staff, and there are bikes everywhere.  But not bikes full of middle-aged men in lycra, bulging out everywhere.  They're full of stylishly dressed Dutch people, making it all look effortless and relaxed.

Look out!  It's rush hour...
I know the English have a reputation for not learning languages, but nowhere is as easy to get away with this as the Netherlands.  If the locals speak Dutch to you and you clearly don't understand, they effortlessly switch to perfect English.  If you don't understand the Dutch menu, just turn it over and there's English on the other side!

Sunday evening, shortly after checking in, we went for a meal to a place called Bouf, just a short walk from the hotel.  The lighting was so subdued I couldn't read the menu.  This contributed somewhat to both of us deciding to have the 4 course 'Chef's Choice', which was just whatever he felt like bringing us.  This began with an amuse-bouche, or appetiser of a small piece of meat on a piece of slate.  This panicked me as I worried it might be one of the four courses but it wasn't, and it was followed by a veggie risotto course, a fish soup, a meat course and a pudding.  None of the courses were very big, and I didn't really stop being hungry all night, but I liked the surprise aspect.

Bouf!
The restaurant is on a bend in the cycle path, so while you're sat there, you see a never ending stream of cyclists riding directly towards you, but then veering off at the last minute.  And mopeds.  For some reason mopeds are allowed on the cycle path.  They even have some really tiny two seater cars, that are a bit like mobility scooters, and you can ride them on their too.  Who'd have thought it?

Museumplein Amsterdam
The guidebook says Amsterdam is pretty small, so you can walk all around it quite easily in about 45 minutes, but a bit like Tony Blair and the deployment of those non-existent WMD, this estimate didn't turn out to be quite true.  Despite that, after breakfast on Monday (at Wildschut) we tried to do just that. It probably helps if you walk in a straight line, instead of around in circles, but hey ho!

At the Vondelpark on Monday
The weather was beautiful on Monday and so is the Museum District with its big open green spaces, and as well as going there, we also found the Vondelpark, and walked round there too.  After we'd walked ourselves almost to a standstill we stopped off for some Bitterballen (veggie goo in batter) and chips with mayonnaise, and then carried on towards the City Centre.  The queue for Anne Frank house was massive, so it was just as well we didn't really want to go there anyway.

Also, there were millions of boat tours going on, but they all had rooves on, and the boats looked like mobile greenhouses except for instead of tomatoes they seemed to be growing old people, and it was too sunny to be under a roof, so we hired a pedalo and explored the canals that way instead.  An excellent decision.



After pedalling round for an hour, we got back on dry land and stopped at another cafe.  The service was very slow, and it took most of the day to get our order.  I had a Dutch sausage toastie with tabasco and cheese, and Joy had a BLT.  We were in there so long, we gave up on trying to find the red light district that day, and decided to head back to the hotel.  Due to the foot knack we were now suffering from, we had to make one more stop on the way back to rest our feet and eat some giant pancakes.  It was nearly 5 by the time we'd had those, so it kind of ruined our appetite for a big dinner.  As a result we popped in to a deli on the way back and bought wine, cooked meat and some crackers and had that for tea instead of going out again.


Tuesday we were up early to go the Rijksmuseum.  It was another beautiful sunny day, and we stopped at a bakery for a breakfast of coffee and pastries, where again the lady who served us spoke immaculate English, and then we went to look at some art.

Here I am somewhere near the Night Watch by Rembrandt
I've sometimes found art galleries boring, especially when they're full of 200 identical portraits in gold frames, but some of the stuff in the Rijksmuseum is really good.  They've even got really famous stuff I've seen in books or on TV, and even though a lot of the paintings are worth billions, you can go right up to them and lean in with your face and look at the brush strokes.  And a lot of them are 400 years old, but they look new, like they were just painted yesterday.  They're not at all dusty.



There was a self-portrait by Van Gogh and the Milk Maid by Vermeer, and the Night Watch by Rembrandt, but my favourite was a village scene from the 1600s.  In the days before photos and Facebook, where people now feel the need to do a status update just because they've eaten an orange, all those people would have lived and died their whole lives unseen and unknown by history, and the only record would be paintings.  I know nothing about art but what I noticed was how real and 3d many of the images appeared, and also how fine details like velvet and the pages of books were rendered with an almost photographic quality by the artists.  Speaking as someone who can't draw at all, I found it all pretty impressive.



After the museum, we had a waffle each (I had mine with cherries and whipped cream) and then we caught a tram into the city to find the red light district.  We could tell we were getting close when it started to look a lot like Blackpool sea front, and when the smell of weed was in the air.  At first it was just shops selling sex toys and bondage gear, but then I saw what I assumed at first glance to be the most lifelike tailor's dummy I'd ever seen.  When she started moving around, I realised of course it was a prostitute in the window.  There were quite a few more in the windows next door, and although I didn't like to make eye contact, they mostly were on their phones looking pretty bored.  There seemed to be one street in particular where the windows were mostly full of large black women.  A lot of the windows were empty or had curtains drawn, so I guess they were either on a break or had customers.



I'd started to wonder if it was possible to get high from second hand smoke, since the stench of drugs was pretty overpowering, but decided to challenge my equilibrium further by having a beer.  I don't really like beer, but somehow it tastes nicer abroad.  Joy had one too, and then nearly walked under the wheels of a muttering woman on a bike.  After that, we were going to go into the Botanical Gardens, but didn't bother because of the entrance fee, and we also went to the outside of Rembrandt's house and didn't go in there either, but I had a Rembrandt burger from just round the corner, and we shared another beer.

It was sunny and warm and it was great to be able to sit outside with a drink at the end of October while it's raining at home.  We got another series of trams back to the hotel by about 5, and feeling knackered we didn't want to go out for a meal, so had one in the hotel instead, although it turned out to be very small.  It was all very nicely presented and tasty, but sometimes what you really want is just a big plate of stodge.



I felt very sad that night and the next morning that our short time in Amsterdam was over.  I knew I'd miss the mood of the place and the lifestyle and the little bakeries and the people and the works of art, and the weather and the sitting outside with a beer.  The hotel staff asked me on checkout how many I'd give the hotel out of 10 and, without thinking about it too much, I said 8.  I never like to give anyone a 10 because there's always room for improvement.  But then they made me justify the two marks I'd knocked off, so I ended up getting into a protracted discussion about what they could do to improve the place, but it was early and I just wanted to go really.  I had a plane to catch.

Having said that, the hotel was generally excellent, in fact one of the nicest hotels I've ever stayed in, although they didn't give us any complimentary coffees on the last day, and they gave us one pillow which had no filling and which was like sleeping on a pillow that didn't exist.  Oh, and also the room had the most confusing system of switching lights on and off I've ever seen.  It seemed to be only possible to switch lights on and off from the opposite side of the room to where the lights were.  But all these things are minor, first-world quibbles.  It's a lovely building, and the rooms are great, and the staff were all incredibly polite and helpful.

Coming back to England, it was of course raining in Manchester, and it was full of English people, and I missed the Dutch with their 'sit up and beg' bikes and their relaxed multi-lingual natures.  Going abroad is like holding a mirror up to your own country, and since I've been back, the parts of England I've been spending time in, just seem that little bit more bland after Amsterdam.

Monday, 27 July 2015

CELTA - Adventures assemble. Thinking outside the box, finding your inner Super-hero and starting to believe.

Last year I went on a crazy expedition, cycling from Land's End to John o' Groats, with a group of 18 strangers, many of them North Americans.  We journeyed the length of Britain following a continuous purple line, all in the name of conquering an acronym called LEJOG.  In total I cycled 1094 miles in 18 days and I almost destroyed my thighs in the process.

CELTA!
For this year's attempt at self-destruction, I didn't go anywhere.  I assembled a new group of 18 strangers but this time, my adventure took place in a basement in the centre of Leeds. and this time it wasn't my legs that got destroyed, it was my brain.

LEJOG!
This year's five letter acronym of doom was called CELTA.  It's an intensive 4 week course designed to equip you to teach English anywhere in the world.  The course is 120 hours long over 20 days, containing 8 teaching practices (TPs) totalling 6 hours, as well as 4 written assignments, and lots and lots of homework.

I know some people who've done the CELTA before.  They told me it was really hard work, and not to expect any sleep, or any free time at weekends, and I took all this with a pinch of salt.  I thought it was like the legal warnings at the gates to the Monkey Enclosure at Longleat, which say things like 'Be warned!  If you stop, these monkeys will tear your car to pieces'  And you think 'Yeah right, they probably have to say that for the insurance'.  And then you go in and before you know it, they're making off into the trees with your windscreen wipers and your wing mirror and the handle off your sun roof.  With the benefit of hindsight, I'd have to say that, if anything, those people who warned me about CELTA, they played it down.....

Here is Green Group.  All except for Sunny (we couldn't find him).  Again North America was strongly represented...
I chose to do the CELTA at a place called Action English in Leeds, and I have to say, they were excellent throughout.  If you're contemplating this kind of madness yourself, you couldn't go to a better asylum.

My journey to the CELTA course every day over the last 4 weeks has reminded me very much of my schooldays.  I went to school between 1979 and 1986 less than a mile from Action English.  My walk up from the city centre was the same in both cases.  My younger self used to walk to school from the centre of Leeds to save the 15p bus money each day, first of all for sweets and then latterly for beer. The daily walk reminded me what temporary creatures we are, as despite the passing of 30 years, much about the walk remains the same, even if my bones are a bit more creaky these days.  

Despite LEJOG and CELTA being very different activities, there were certain parallels.  Not only the acronyms and the number of participants, and the presence of some North Americans, also some of my routines were the same.  As on last year's trip, I got into the habit of eating the same things for lunch every day, to save a bit of thinking time.  This year's favourite was cheese and red onion.  Also, like last year, the evenings became something of an eating competition, although this year instead of 3 course hotel meals, I called in almost every night to Trinity Kitchen and tried almost every food they have on offer.  Indian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Middle Eastern etc,  Each day the tea-time blow out on a big takeaway was my reward for surviving the day.

CELTA is full of mountain top moments.  Either you're on top of the mountain, or the mountain is on top of you...
As for the course itself, it was full-on from the start.  The first input session on Day 1 was about classroom management.  It was made very clear that as teachers of English we are there to create an environment which facilitates learning, not to stand at the front imparting wisdom.  I wrote in my notebook during it. 'Take your ego and throw it out the window'  And I meant it in two ways:

1) You're not there to be a wise man or a sage, a clown, a show-off or a stand up comedian, You're there to help people learn.  If they're not learning, you're not doing your job properly.  

2) You're going to get plenty of feedback on your performance, and some of it might be bruising.  It's not personal, so don't take it as such.  Whatever they say to you, whether you like it or not, take it on the chin and keep going.

But before we taught any lessons ourselves, we had to see how the experts do it.

I've been working for a charity in Leeds called St Vincent's since last October.  Mostly being a teaching assistant but I've also done a bit of amateur teaching.  After a few months of volunteering I thought my knowledge of the English language was pretty good, but one observed lesson with an expert was enough to reveal whole chasms of missing knowledge. I knew nothing about phonemes and pronunciation and word stress and intonation.

Another thing that stuck with me was my first TP tutor saying that you can have fun in the classroom, but you have to earn the right.  I figured out that was mostly going to be by knowing things, and getting something of a handle on phonemes later in the course was one of the parts of the course I enjoyed the most.

Hasta la vista Phonemic chart!!
It was pretty clear from meeting all the tutors on the course, that they practise what they preach. Every input session was run along the same lines as we were meant to run our own lessons, and every minute was worth paying attention to.  I remember thinking by Day 4 that the tutors were all sadists who were enjoying our suffering, but that wore off pretty soon.  It was undoubtedly just the tiredness talking.  I realised the course is hard for them too, and I know they felt our pain, but they had to be hard on us to get us through. Even in our darker moments and when it was necessary to give us difficult feedback, I always felt that knew and understood what we were going through.  

If only I'd had the mental capacity to take it all in.  I was writing so fast every day I nearly set fire to my notepad. My brain was so overwhelmed most of the time, the hamster in the wheel of my brain hadn't just died, he'd set on fire and his charred corpse was going round and round the wheel and setting fire to the bedding in the bottom of the cage, which then was becoming a wider fire hazard, which had the potential to burn the whole house down.  

How do I get myself into these scrapes?
My first real crisis came on the morning of Day 4, before my second Teaching Practice (TP2).  At 6 am that morning I was ready to quit the course.  I'd been awake between 10 pm and 2 am writing my lesson plan for the following day but then I was so tired I'd closed the file without saving the changes and so when I woke up again at 5 am all those changes were lost.  Despite the calamity, I talked myself into going in anyway, and the lesson went okay in the end, even if the lesson plan was a bit ropey.

During my volunteering at St Vincent's, even when I've had to take classes myself, I've never felt like a teacher.  I always felt like an impostor, someone pretending to be a teacher, but during my TP3, I had a period of around 15 minutes where I actually felt like a teacher.  It was like the Matrix subway fight between Neo and Mr Smith.  I knew I couldn't beat him yet, but I knew I was good enough to have a go.  I was starting to believe....

However, progress can have its ups and downs.  My TP4 on Day 10 wasn't such a success.  I was so tired by then.  I'd been following a sleep pattern advocated by Leonardo da Vinci, which involved going to bed for really short periods of sleep and then getting up again about 3 times a night.

Here is our basement classroom.  Escape routes via both door and window are possible....
It was a sunny day.  Our classroom was in the basement, but it had steps from outside the window leading back out into the real world, and partway through this TP, I really wanted to climb out the window and run away.  That hour was like an eternity.  It was definitely Crisis Number 2.  My intro to the lesson was too obtuse and abstract, and nobody understood it except me, and the lack of clarity knocked all the timings for the lesson to pot.

However, the feedback I got after it was my favourite of the whole course.  It was that you can't think outside the box, if you haven't built the box.   I've been told before many times that I have a tendency to go off at creative tangents and I often have trouble keeping this in check, but sometimes it's necessary to hold myself back. And so the rest of the course and TPs 5-8 were all about building the box. 


Also when I start talking it can easily become mangled into gobbledigook, so I realised the safest thing to do was to get the students to talk instead of me, and luckily that's what we're supposed to do anyway, so problem solved!

Despite the emotional ups and downs on the course, I always tried to keep a sense of perspective, and remember that although it was a course I really, really wanted to pass, it was still only a course.  I remembered reading about a female athlete in the Olympics who'd trained for years to perform in a race lasting minutes, and just before her race she calmed herself down by thinking 'It's only the Olympics'.  It helped her not to freeze on the day.  At times early in the course when I thought I might fail, I reassured myself that even if I fail, the experience wouldn't be wasted.  It's only CELTA!

Something else that helped me keep a sense of perspective was thinking about my mum, who died last year.  Again, this reminded me that it was only a course, and not life or death.  My mum left me a small amount of money when she died, and I spent some of it on doing the course, so even if I'd failed, it would have been her money I was wasting, not my own.  It was probably just as well she wasn't around during the course though, she would have only worried that I was running myself into the ground and kept pestering me to eat better and get more sleep.

It's a strange and artificial thing to teach a class with a tutor and 5 of your peers observing (the 18 trainees were split up into 3 tutor groups of 6 trainees each), but I tried to always remember that this wasn't a gameshow or a simulation, these students were real people, with real lives and real learning needs, and ultimately the least stressful way to deal with the whole course was to remember that it was all about them.  The times during my TP when I felt most at ease were when I tuned into a difficulty they were having and a lightbulb went on, and I thought 'Hey I can solve this'.  By a fortunate coincidence, one of the main emphases of the teaching was to tell us to take the focus away from the teacher and put it on the students so doing that actually worked in my favour.  Also, it helped me to stay calm and feel less of a rabbit in the headlights.

Mutual support.  Sometimes it's the only thing that stops your brain melting...
Mutual support from my peer group was another great help on the course.  It's sometimes difficult for experts in a subject to really understand the problems that novices face, but we had the support of each other, and we knew exactly what each other were going through. It's a good system (and another similarity with the Lejog I did).

The last week of the course I decided to scrap the Leonardo sleep pattern, and go to bed around 10 pm, but get up again at 4 am, and do 2 hours finishing off before the day ahead.  I was definitely more productive early morning than late on.  Thankfully TPs 5-8 showed a steady improvement and in each of them I tried to build on the successes and iron out the failure of the ones that had gone before.

There were a couple of 'A-ha' penny drop moments in my last few lessons where I knew that learning was taking place. And it's a wonderful feeling.  I had spent what seemed like 14 hours preparing for each 1 hour lesson, and getting a few of those moments made it all worthwhile.

Here's a drawing I did during my buddy Zahra's last TP, to try and encourage her to find her inner Super-Hero.  I really tried hard to find mine during the course.
The tutors on the course would often compare CELTA to taking your driving test.  All those lessons and maneouvres and 3 point turns and reversing around corners and stuff, but it's only to get a permission to drive.  The real learning takes place after.  

I've said before that during really intense experiences, we don't have whole happy and unhappy days. We only have moments, and the swing from elation to despair can happen in an instant.  Well, I had enough moments of elation on the CELTA to know I want more.

The first weekend of the course, and to celebrate finishing my first assignment I'd been to see the new Terminator movie, and it was Arnie who saved my last lesson too.  I'd given the students some famous people to talk about and to one group I gave Arnie and also the Dalai Lama.  They had to decide as a group who they looked up to most and he would go through to the final.

Sadly, Arnie lost out and the last 2 minutes of that lesson were taken up with my tutor laughing uncontrollably at my muttered disappointment at his demise.  Just as well as by then I had nothing left to pad out the lesson.  The laughter that you have to earn, maybe I deserved it by then.  I'd worked as hard as I possibly could.  I doubt I could have given any more.

For some reason I often see parallels between scenes from my own life and scenes from Action Movies.  As well as Arnie, I felt a lot like Neo from the Matrix during CELTA.  Grappling to understood this crazy code he's been given to deal with.  In my case it was English I was trying to deal with, not the mathematical code of the Matrix, but by the end, I was starting to be able to read the code. Not just the overall language anymore, but I could see the building blocks too.  Stative verbs, phonemes, collocations, superlatives, lexical sets, modifiers, tenses.  I was starting to see them all.

Come over here and use a stative verb in a continuous tense (if you think you're hard enough)...
I'm not sure what the future holds now I've passed the course,  Initially, and now that I'm properly equipped, I'd like to go back to St Vincent's, and take my own classes, and put everything I learned on the course into practice.

But whatever I do in life, I now know that for a few hours at least I was an English Teacher.  And a proper one at that.  Not a pretend one or an impostor any more.  And that knowledge is in itself worth a lot.  It's nice to have started to believe....

Friday, 26 June 2015

I'm on a mission... And a bit like the Terminator I cannot be stopped!

Since last October I've been trying to learn how to teach English to foreigners.  I thought it would be much easier than it is.  I'm a native speaker so I thought I knew all there was to know about English.  Unfortunately, English is a bit like a mobile phone, I only know how to use it, I don't know what all the bits are called inside it and how any of it actually works.  In other words, I knew how to speak, but I didn't know what I was saying.


So for the last few months, I've been learning the language back to front.  Basically just saying things, and then having people tell me what I've just said, what tense I've used etc.  A lot of the students know the names for the parts of the language better than I do, because that's how they've learned it.  I myself learned it mostly by small corrections, by saying things like 'I buyed it' and being told 'No, you bought it!'.  Millions of small corrections just like that.


Anyway, despite the fact that I've been told that the most difficult part of learning any second language is understanding jokes in that language, that hasn't discouraged me from my personal mission of trying to teach English through telling jokes.  This has mostly gone really badly, in that after every joke I've told, there has been only silence.  Sometimes a very confused silence at that.  Some of this has been because I didn't choose my target audience carefully enough.  Attempting to tell jokes to a group of 17 absolute beginners, well all I can say is 'They were a tough crowd'.  And then yesterday I had a breakthrough.  I made an Argentinian laugh!  Twice!  And then today a Polish person once!  Although to be fair, his was a delayed reaction, and he could have been laughing at the silence in the room.


Next week I'm starting on the CELTA course.  It's a very intensive 4 week course, and the point of it is to receive an internationally recognised qualification to teach English to speakers of other languages.  Everyone I've spoken to who has ever done it, tell me how absolutely rock solid it is, and how most people on the course will cry at some point, and occasionally participants will go off screaming into orbit like a misguided satellite from all the stress.  People tell me I'll be lucky to survive....

Why do I even want to teach English?  I think because it's the most brilliant and colourful and amazing language, and ever since I learned to use it I've been fascinated by it.  And above all I love using it in new and creative ways.  And if I could convey just 1% of my passion and enthusiasm for it to others, then it will probably be worth it.



I've spent a lot of this week searching for things that I find hilarious on the internet, with the express purpose of relaying this hilarity to blank faced groups of non-English speakers.  After I've told each joke, I take a pause to let the silence really kick in, and then I go on to try and explain why it's funny.  I rarely succeed, but that doesn't mean I'm giving up.

Anyway, here are some of my absolute side-splitting favourites.  I hope you like them.  In case you think I was just being not funny for the sake of it, I wasn't.  I was being not funny in order to explain various parts of the language, including phrasal verbs, idioms and collocation.  So I wasn't just not being understood, I was not being understood for a reason.


I saw a TV for sale in a shop window. It was going cheap because the volume knob was broken.
I thought to myself 'Wow, I can't turn that down!'.

A big hole in the ground has mysteriously opened up in the centre of Leeds.
Local police are looking into it.

Patient: Doctor, doctor, I feel like a pair of curtains.
Doctor: Pull yourself together!


Why did the deep-sea diver find it hard to trust the people he worked with?
Because he was always being let down by his colleagues.

What training do you need to be a rubbish collector?
None, you just pick it up as you go along

Why don't baby birds disagree while they're all in the nest together?
Because they don't want to fall out.
I couldn’t remember the best way to throw a boomerang, but then it came back to me.

Student: I'm sorry I'm late for college, I broke my foot on the way in.
Teacher: That's a lame excuse!

What’s the definition of a will? It's a dead give-away.

Why did the burglar take a shower? He wanted to make a clean getaway.


I’ve spilt glue all over my autobiography. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I couldn't believe my dad had been stealing all the safety notices from work, but when I got home all the signs were there.

My physiotherapist says I’m getting taller, but I think he’s just pulling my leg.

I tried cooking something from the ‘Titanic Cookbook’; it was a recipe for disaster, but it did go down well.

Apparently you can use matchsticks to help you stay awake; now that’s a real eye-opener.


Staring at the back of a computer monitor is pointless; it's always best to look on the bright side.

Finding out how to preserve pork with salt has really saved my bacon.

I think I might have food poisoning. I just have this gut feeling.

I can remember really important dates, such as 1066, but the rest is history.

I tried to set up the Déjà Vu Travel Company, but it wasn't very successful. People said they'd seen it all before.

I've been doing a survey to find out what people think of their wristwatches. So far it's been going like clockwork.

Why did the penguin jump up and down at the party?
He was trying to break the ice.

Someone broke into my house, and left me some modelling clay. I don't know what to make of it.

I bought my wife a wooden leg for Christmas. It's not her main present, it's just a stocking filler.


I hope you liked them, and more importantly I hope you're now rolling around on the floor unable to breathe from all the laughter.  If you're not, try telling them to another English person you know.  You could also try telling them to someone who is learning English as a foreign language, but if you do, don't be surprised if there's only silence...... 






Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Cycling the Length of Britain - It's like a Saga Holiday but without the bus

Last September I cycled from Land's End to John o' Groats.  The longer ago I did it, the more unreal it seems.  As I recall, I didn't enjoy it much at the time, at least I didn't enjoy the cycling part.  It was more of a war of attrition 'don't waste time turning your neck to look at things at the side of the road' mile-crunching how-far-till-the-next-hotel-a-thon.  I often think it's one of those things where it's more about the satisfaction of having done it, than it is about the actual doing.

I wrote about the trip here.

And this is the bunch of total strangers I did it with...
I have to say though, the parts aside from the cycling were great, helped no end by the lovely group of fellow cyclists who I met on the trip, none of whom I knew in advance.  Many of them were decades older than me, but they were all deceptively young looking and generally much fitter and faster cyclists than I was.  Some of them were English but there were also Canadians and Americans as well as a Frenchman, a Malaysian, someone from Scotland, and worst of all some people from Lancashire... That last line is meant to be a joke...sort of.

Actually Land's End to John o' Groats was pretty easy.  I just followed this massive purple line
As well as being thrown together for 17 or 18 days with 17 or 18 people I'd never met, I also got randomly allocated a room-mate who I'd never met as well.  I could have paid extra to have a single room, but I was prepared to play twin room roulette in order to save a bit of money.  I got lucky.  I got paired with Erwan, a man who I assumed was from his name was Welsh but who turned out to be Malaysian.  He was a 5th year medical student at the time, and he wasn't just riding with us, he was studying us as well.  As part of some research he was doing into what happens to old people on long and exhausting cycle trips where they eat mountains of fat and fall off their bikes into nettles and crash into walls.  He must have thought he'd signed up for a Saga Holiday.  I ended up sharing a room with him because I was the next youngest in age, even though I was twice as old as him.

Hey! Look what I won in the room-mate Lottery
Throughout the trip Erwan would have to weigh us all and pinch bits of us with callipers and measure the circumference of parts of us with a tape measure.  All in the name of research.  Most people lost fat during the trip, I was the anomaly.  I put fat on.  This can easily be explained by the number of apple pies, Victoria Sponges, scones, cooked breakfasts, Boost bars, biscuits and other 5 meals a day that I ate.  I didn't eat because I was hungry.  It was 'just in case' eating.  I ate out of fear, fear of running out of energy.  I tried and failed to eat a range of energy bars too, but they were either like the stuff you hang in a budgie cage, too dry to swallow, or they were so chewy you couldn't detach the part you were trying to eat, it would envelope you like a lasso as you tried to bite a bit off.

Hey! This apple pie isn't fattening enough.  Can I please have a teapot full of double cream to pour over it?
I'd like to think that before the trip I made an honest assessment of my strengths and weaknesses.  Strengths: strong legs and ability to ride a bike.  Weaknesses: No sense of direction or ability to read maps and with a brain that has a tendency to go to scrambled eggs when I'm tired.  For me the planning of the trip alone would have been a headache I didn't need, so I paid Chris Ellison of CTC Holidays to take all the stress out of the equation.  And for me it worked.  It was great value for money too.

Thanks to Chris I made it to John o' Groats.  Without his help I would probably have gone the wrong way and ridden into the sea somewhere in Cornwall
Some people I know who've done the journey before me preferred to slog it out solo, getting up at 5 in the morning and doing 120 miles a day and carrying their own luggage and living on nuts and berries, but not me.  I did it the easiest way possible and still I mostly didn't enjoy it.

I may have fallen out of love with cycling, but I'm still capable of eating 7 meals a day
Anyway, last week I went to meet up with Erwan again, to do a reunion bike ride.  He lives in Aberdeen and I live in Wakefield, so we decided to meet on the Isle of Arran.

I've cycled round the island once before but it didn't go too well.  Amongst other things I got slightly electrocuted.  I've been told by people who are very keen on semantics that I didn't get electrocuted at all, as this often results in death or at the very least serious injury, and all I got was a small electric shock.  But electrocuted sounds better.

When I was 7 I wrote a story called 'Martian Maroons' about some people who were marooned on Mars, and my teacher crossed out the title and called it 'Marooned on Mars' and I went mental.  She said there was no such thing as a Maroon.  I said yes there is, it's someone who's been marooned, and I also told her 'Marooned on Mars' was a shit title that even a 7 year old would be embarrassed by.  Actually I made the last part up, but I was just making the point that language isn't just about meaning, it's also about creativity and how things sound, and that's why I love certain words and phrases.  Because they sound good.  And although I always try to write with the truth, sometimes I'll just pick a word or phrase because I like how it sounds.  This is not a test, I'm doing this for fun!  We only learn to read and write when we're 5 and up till then language is entirely aural anyway.  If language wasn't about sound Peter Kay would never be able to make a living.  Repeating 'Garlic Bread' over and over is only funny because he's from Bolton.  If he sounded like the Queen he wouldn't have an act.  But I digress....

Which way are we going again?
The Isle of Arran has a road round the outside and to do a full circuit of the island is 56 miles.  I thought this was a good distance to do with Erwan as it wasn't far off the length of one of our Lejog days, it's just that it's going round in circles rather than in a line.

No purple line this time!  We followed this red one instead
There's a saying that you can't jump into the same river twice.  I don't think you can ride round the same island twice either.  The wind was blowing in the opposite direction to last time I did it, and all the bits that were hard last time were easy, and all the bits that were easy last time were hard.

Choice is Hell
On a long day's bike ride, it's tiring to have to think, to have to make choices.  Even choices about where to stop and what to eat.  On the trip we did last September, all choices were taken care of by Chris.  A Garmin on your handlebars with a little purple line to show you the way, a pack of notes in your pocket with all the food stops on, so you knew where you were stopping and when.

In September I even started ordering the same thing in every cafe, so I wouldn't have to waste time choosing.

Meeting Erwan this week, having to think for ourselves, even choosing when to stop and what to eat was a pain.  Also, our day of riding round Arran was less mileage than almost any day on the Lejog, but yet we still managed to be out until nearly 7.  Most days on Lejog we were finished and eating biscuits by 5.

Some of the extra time it took was because we had no-one to give us the hurry-up.  We spent quite a bit of time setting up Erwan's tripod to take some pictures of us with Pladda and Ailsa Craig in the background.  Not sure Chris would have approved.  With hindsight it's probably a good thing he was keeping an eye on the time for us every day on Lejog, otherwise we could have had some very late nights.

Is this a good enough place for this scenic shot or do we need to move the tripod 100 metres to the left?
Erwan and I finished our reunion ride with some Pot Noodles.  Erwan cracked an egg into his after amazingly dropping all 6 eggs on the floor without breaking any of them.  And then we went out for some unnecessary burgers...


These binoculars are rubbish - I can't see a thing....
Earlier in the day I'd had some fruit and yoghurt, and coffee.  And a full Scottish, and some Whisky cake at Lochranza Distillery, and some cullen skink and chips at the Lagg Hotel, and half a Snickers, and a Picnic and a Boost bar and a big bag of Cheese and Onion McCoys.  And so after my burger I laid down on my bed with a full stomach and aching legs and passed out.... Just like last year.

This time I was in a slow group of One...
It was strange for the two of us to be together, but without the rest of the group from last year.  And it made me think of them all.

When I look back now at that picture of us all at Land's End, those people who hardly knew each other, I think about what we went through together, and how much we'd bonded by the time we reached John o' Groats.

Here's a picture Ray took at JoG.  Which came out better than the one taken by the man there who supposedly takes pictures for a living
We didn't all have the same stories, we didn't all ride together, but we were riding all those same roads on the same days, and eating all those meals at the same hotels.  Very rarely on the actual ride last year did I ride with Erwan, but so often in the evenings we would stay up late wasting valuable sleep time laughing about our very different days.

And so last week, despite the absence of everyone else, Erwan and I once again sat up remembering the funny bits of our trip.  In the absence of being able to reassemble the whole gang again from Canada and America and various parts of the UK, this was good enough.

This time we only spent one day riding a bike, and eating ourselves stupid and then lying around our twin bedroom hardly able to move with leg knack, but it made us reflect on how amazing it was that  we managed to do this for 17 days in a row last year.  This year one day in a row seemed enough.

Abington Motorway Service Station - quite far down the list of best hotels on the trip
On Wednesday on my journey back from Arran, just before I got stuck in a massive traffic jam, I stopped at the services at Abington in Scotland.  Which gave me some further reminiscences.  And not good ones.  Abington I think was the worst day and night of Lejog.  We got the World's worst custard at the Abington Hotel and Cathy got offered an omelette as the veggie option and then the next day we had to take laminated tickets into the motorway service station to get our breakfasts.  Sitting in the traffic for several hours on the M74 was only marginally worse than cycling up National Cycle Route 74 in the opposite direction last year, when the surface was so bad the whole day that all my teeth nearly fell out.

Here's Erwan and me on the cobbles
But if that evoked a bad memory, I had some much better ones on Sunday when I went to Haworth, and I spent some more time on the cobbled street that I had been in such a rush to ride up and not look at in September last year.

Chris is just about to break it to us that we have to cycle over some massive hills before we can go to bed
On that occasion all I saw were a few cobbles and the outside of Emma's Cafe.

Better get a move on!  The clock is running!
It was lovely to go back there this Sunday with Joy and spend a very different day eating cakes and pancakes from different cafes, and visiting the Bronte Parsonage Museum, where I saw the actual desk where the Bronte sisters wrote their novels...

This time I wasn't in such a rush to get up those cobbles

We also went on an unexpected steam train ride to Oxenhope and back, which was great except the steam engine almost shattered my eardrums by blowing out some steam right next to my head.
Who knew that Haworth had steam trains?

It makes you realise how many places you miss when you go on a trip where the point is just to get to the end.  So many lovely places we stopped in only for long enough to eat a toasted sandwich, like Haworth or Ludlow or Ironbridge.  And so many other places we didn't stop in at all, and so I don't even remember their names.  Probably hundreds of places that you could easily spend a week's holiday in each.  But on Lejog you don't get the opportunity to immerse yourself fully in the places you visit, you have to keep moving and you can't hold on to things.  All you get are snapshots.  It's a metaphor for life!    

But sometimes in life you do get the chance to go back, and take a bit more time, and see what you missed and I did this week.  
And since last year's trip, as well as Haworth and Abington, I've been to Huddersfield and Carlisle and some other places that crossed the route we did last year, and each time I'm glad.  Glad that I did it, but also a bit glad that I'm not in the middle of doing it all again.