Monday, July 31, 2017

July 7th: Bridgnorth to Worcester

Under partly cloudy skies we departed from Brignorth, following the signs along National Bike Route 45. At the first intersection where the bike route signs differed from the GPS directions, I decided to take a chance and ride the bike route, as the road looked smaller and quieter. To my surprise this was a mistake:
The bike route quickly devolved into single track, and I hoped for relief when the bike route finally re-intersected with our GPS route, only to discover that the GPS route at this point also took up the bike route single-track around the Chelmarsh reservoir. The single track was mostly rideable, but the stinging nettles by the side of the path would occasionally brush against my bare legs and hurt! Fortunately, Bowen was wearing pants over his bike shorts and was spared some of the agony.
After the single track was over, the route descended and brought us onto Hampton Lodge, where the Severn Valley Railway had brought us to the evening before! The path was guarded by leaning gates that were narrow at the top and wide at the bottom so our panniers would clear, but still necessitate a stop and wriggle to get through. Once on the railroad grade, however, the path was very pleasant, shaded and woody with no cars in sight.
In the town of Highley, the bike route went on the Highley Trail, which dumped us out into a parking lot with a sandy playground. Bowen took some time to spend on the playground, which would warm and cool depending on whether we had cloud cover.
To my surprise, after the playground the bike route did some gentle climbing and then quickly descended back down to the river. At the river, the road dead-ended, but it turned out that we had missed a bike route sign directing us to get off the bike and get onto a pedestrian bridge over the Severn river.

The bridge was pretty, but a group of passing cyclists warned us of the steep grade ahead. We climbed the grade, which while steep was nowhere near as hard as the single-track hiking trails we'd already traversed that day. In fact, we caught up with the group when they rested at an inn after the steepest section, whereupon they said, "We did not expect you to catch us!" I took the opportunity to get them to shoot pictures of Bowen and I while we were riding, something that happened only rarely.
In the town of Bewdley, the route looked like it was going to cross the river again, but it was near lunch time, so I stopped a pedestrian and asked about a local bakery, whereupon he walked us to the nearest one! There, we bought a selection of savoury and sweet pastries, and asked about a picnic area. "Just walk across the street, through the visitor center/museum, and there's a nice park there!" Before doing so, I stopped at the local pharmacy to buy a replacement toothbrush for the one left behind at Market Drayton.


Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Gardens turned out to be a wonderful place to have a picnic. With shaded benches, a garden pool, gorgeously tendered flower gardens, and even statues of bunnies, it was very pretty. There's a frequent statement that children don't appreciate scenery, but Bowen has always liked flowers, and was happy to look at them after finishing both his sweet and savoury pastries. Passerbys would stop and ask us about the bike and where we were going, and never failed to be impressed that we were on a long trek from Manchester to London. One even made sure that I understood that Hindhead was past London and we'd have to double-back to catch our train, he was so concerned that we didn't know what we were doing.
After lunch, the ride took us into Burlish Top Nature Reserve, where more single-track riding awaited us. Fortunately, this wasn't lined with stinging nettles this time, and we made reasonably good time. Past Hartlebury, the route took us on the side of a busy A road once more, which meant that the riverside bike path alongside thee Drotwich Canal provided us with relief when we found it.

 To our chagrin, the bike path soon left the river, through a series of increasingly rough hiking trails, and finally terminated in a steep inclined which forced Bowen to dismount and me to get off the bike and push with all my effort (I was straining so hard that Bowen felt compelled to help push) to get off the bike path, where at the top we saw signs confirming that yes, we were indeed still on National Bike Route #45, and tourists following the route were indeed expected to get off and push! I don't know who the people are who designate the National Bike Routes in England, but they clearly have no expectations that anyone's going to ride tandems on these trails. They might be well-signed, but reasonable they are not!
Fortunately, that was the last of the crazy bike routes for the day, and the approach into Worcester on the bike route had us on quiet side streets without many grade changes until we got to our AirBnB. Our hostess, Jain, was clearly in the middle of either a remodel or a move, and was busy clearing the house. She was happy to do laundry for us, which is a sign that the major hotel chains are missing the boat when it comes to servicing customers: for the rest of the trip, we would abandon hotels and stay with AirBnBs whenver possible because when you stay in somebody's home, you almost always got access to a laundry machine, which is a big deal when you're touring with a 5-year old. While adults might not get their clothing so dirty that hand-washing was straight-forward, a 5-year old manages to get stains on their clothing that a hand-washer would be hard put to fix. I asked Jain when the shops downtown closed, and she asked me what I was looking for. When I mentioned that I needed a USB charger (so our devices could charge even when I was using the CPAP machine), she didn't even think twice and pulled out an old Apple charger for us. Wow.
We walked to the local supermarket but on the way there, saw a newly opened bike shop. I asked if they would take a look at our shifting since I'd failed for 3 days in a row now to fix the indexing on the tandem. They said they'd do it while we waited, and so we brought the tandem to them, bought ice cream, and visited the local playground which was full of kids since it was a Friday afternoon and it was late enough that school was now out. Bowen's been spoiled since he'd gotten all the playgrounds to himself thus far, and said: "This playground is too crowded!" I learned that school lets out in England somewhere around mid July to late July, and only starts in September, so American school districts usually let out earlier and start school earlier than English school districts by 6 weeks. This is nice, because Americans vacationing in Europe during the summer don't have to compete with locals for lodging, etc.
When the bike was returned to us the shifting now felt better than when we'd left the USA, so I was happy to pay the fee. We then took the bus downtown, where we bought some Hydrocortisone cream for the stinging nettles, and sat in a cafe drinking drinks while searching for our next destination on AirBnB. Booking.com wanted $500 for some hotels that were in pretty poor places for touring, so I compromised on an AirBnB in Winchcombe, which was some 27 miles away. I figured we could make up the deficit on another day, and risking no lodging on a Saturday night wasn't acceptable, especially since we knew that the Costwold was heavily touristed.
Bowen had a hankering for duck, so we went to the Singapore Restaurant in Worcester, which actually had pretty good reviews and delivered duck in plum sauce that Bowen devoured with unusual enthusiasm.

Friday, July 28, 2017

July 6th: Market Drayton to Bridgnorth

Our second day started with a great breakfast served by the Four Alls Inn, and we got going by 9:00am. South of Market Drayton, we rode through tiny towns, avoiding main roads. We had been told to avoid Telfords, but the tourist information center the day before had told us that Ironbridge is a good destination, since it was the home of the industrial revolution, and would have lots to do. That sounded intriguing, so we planned to visit.
Near Ironbridge, however, I chose to ignore the GPS and follow the street signs, which turned out to be a mistake. To direct car drivers to big parking lots, the road signs would lead you into Madley, which wasn't at all what you wanted. We recovered by asking a couple of pedestrians, and made it to visit Iron Bridge.
There, we visited the museum of the gorge, which included model displays and a film outlining the area. There was a coop supermarket near the museum, and we bought lunch to eat at the nearby park, which was beautiful and featured a playground.
After lunch and a playground stop, we rode onto the bridge, and visited the tollhouse at the other side.

 From there, the bike route signs pointed us along the old railroad track which then abruptly terminated just a couple of miles down the road, with the bike route sign pointing up the hill, signed for Bridgnorth. We would discover later on that there was a disused rail road path that was mapped, but not signed!

The resultant climb, coming late in the afternoon heat wore us out, and by the time we rode into Bridgnorth we were ready to stop. At the tourist information center, we again found no one to help us, except a couple of staff members who told us that it wasn't in their job description but pointed us at a list of B&Bs in the window. I called a few that all turned out to be closed, and eventually just booked The Croft on booking.com.

Upon checking in, I discovered that I'd left my MoKo travel charger in the Four Alls Inn! I fortunately still had the rapid charger for my Moto G5, but I still needed a plug adapter. Fortunatlely, the inn keeper had a stash of plug adapters (some of which no doubt were left behind by other customers) and simply gave us one. "It's a small town, so I wouldn't even know where you could buy one of these!" he said.
After asking where the nearest ice cream shop was, we walked to it and bought ice cream. Then we walked over to the "cliff railway" in town, which turned out to be a funicular taking us down to the river side, where a 15 minute walk took us to a bike shop next to the Severn Valley Railway. The bike shop told us that the next day's trip to Worcester was going to be hilly, and surprisingly enough couldn't help us with a good route. They claimed that the bike route was no good, and suggested staying on the roads, but all of the roads looked like they would be busy ones not suited for cycling.
I was reminded that the next day was a Friday, so I'd have to start searching for lodging early, preferably today. In fact, Saturday was going to be an issue as well! As a result, I started putting in queries on AirBnB, since Worcester was a big city and I could expect to find reasonable lodging there. I sent a few queries and hoped for a reply.
The Severn Valley railway turned out to be a steam train, though we arrived only in time to catch the last train of the day, with a round trip to Hampton Lodge (the first stop) being the only possible round trip we could do. So we paid for the ticket and hopped on the heritage railway. Bowen wasn't about to pass up a train ride no matter how short it was.
Upon returning from the train ride, the sky started becoming overcast with the thunderstorm in the forecast becoming more believable after the heat of the afternoon. We discovered there was a bridge from the railway station that took us halfway up the hill to where the town castle grounds were, which we took advantage of rather than walking back to the funicular.
The castle grounds/city walls garden turned out to be beautiful, with a mini bridge, wishing well, flowers, and a monument. We walked along side it, and Bowen threw in a coin to make a wish. He started getting tired, so I carried him into town where we looked for a restaurant to have dinner. We settled on Casa Ruiz, a Spanish tapa place that served excellent food in small dishes that suited Bowen. He was very excited about an impending thunderstorm, and quite disappointed that it didn't materialize.

At bedtime, I discovered that I'd forgotten another thing at the Four Alls Inn, which was Bowen's toothbrush. Luckily, I'd brought along the teeth-cleaning gum, so that's what I gave him, but I was determined to buy a replacement toothbrush the next day. I was not having a good tour in terms of leaving stuff behind that I didn't want to leave behind!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

July 5th: Manchester Airport to Market Drayton

Bowen's naturally an early bird, so we ate breakfast in our room and left around 9:20am, after leaving the rest of our luggage in storage at the hotel. Manchester Airport is actually surrounded by fairly rural-feeling suburbs, and with the fairly flat country, it didn't take us long before we found ourselves heading down beautiful single-track roads.
In Knutsford, we found a playground with a Zipline. My promise to Bowen at the start of the trip was that we would always stop at a playground with a Zipline, and I kept my word.
We discovered that English playgrounds, like their European counterparts, usually had Ziplines and other "dangerous" toys that have long disappeared from American playgrounds. As a result, the playgrounds are a treat for Bowen. Not only that, the English school year runs until at least mid-July or early August, so while we were touring Bowen would get spoiled by having Ziplines are other such high-demand play structures all to himself.
At Middlewich, we saw a supermarket and stopped to buy a supermarket lunch. I asked if there was a park nearby, but ended up with such confusing directions that after a while I saw a large piece of sloped green next to the main road and just stopped there for lunch.
Looking at the map after lunch, I saw that we had to ride on the road a bit more and then we'd be back on the route I plotted the night before. It was a busy A road, but the distance was short and soon we were on a much smaller road and eventually a bike path that led into Nantwich, where we had another playground stop, though this time, without a Zipline. Bowen needed to go to the bathroom, and the bike path led neatly to the sports complex, which was happy to let Bowen use the bathroom.
Near Swanbach, however, we were back on a busy road, which would lead us all the way to Market Drayton, where at 49 miles of riding I was determined to stop. My memory of my first tour in Scotland was that the tourist information centers were very helpful, frequently providing us with B&Bs that would be far cheaper than hotels. The one in Market Drayton, however, handed us a B&B list but didn't offer to call them for us. I called the first one on the cell phone, but another pair of cyclists had just filled their room, and they informed us that all the other B&Bs in town were closed, as was the lone hotel that was on the tourist information center's list. They suggested the one out of town, the Four Alls Inn, which was available on booking.com, so I booked it on my smartphone app and then bought ice cream for Bowen before heading out.
That hotel was out of town, but we didn't have much choice, so we headed over to it to discover it was actually a pretty reasonable place, serving dinner in a bar-like setting, and the owner was happy to do laundry for us at a very reasonable price. We took an after dinner walk among corn fields, but there wasn't much else to do, so we turned in early.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Prolog: Manchester Airport Etrop Grange Hotel

In the middle of March, my wife and I planned a visit to England. I realized that if I tacked on a couple of weeks at the end, this would be a chance to do a bicycle tour with Bowen in England, a country where I’ve never toured by bicycle before. I asked Bowen if he’d like to do this, and he said yes. 

I started the trip planning process thinking about a tour in the Peaks District or in Wales, but Bowen short-circuited the entire thing by asking if we could go to Gibbet’s Hill, which is a level in one of Bowen’s favorite game, Tearaway. I wrote to the developers and asked if Gibbet’s Hill was a real feature, and was sent to a Wikipedia link noting that Gibbet’s Hill was in Hindhead, near Guildford. 

I looked at the area and decided that between Manchester and Hindhead were the Cotswolds, Stratford Upon Avon, and Oxford, all worthy of visits. If time permitted, the rest of South Downs National Park looked pretty as well, so I did some  back of the envelope calculations which indicated that the entire trip would run about 300 miles, which was easily doable in 10 days if there was a train transfer back from Hindhead. 

Unfortunately, English trains do not typically take tandems, and in fact, the only tandem transfer service I could find back to Manchester ran from the London Euston station on Virgin Trains. This would add another 50 miles or so to the trip, but I figured in the worst case I could arrange a one way rental by car, take apart the S&S coupled tandem and stuff it in the car. It took several international calls via Skype to reserve a train ticket with a bicycle space, but that was accomplished by the end of May. 

The biggest challenge was coping with the bike. While Virgin Airlines’ website had led me to believe that a plastic bag was all that was necessary to bring the bike on the plane, at the airline checkin counter they insisted on a box. This completely messed up my plan to just ride the tandem to the hotel from the airport, and I ended up having to get a ride from the car rental company to accomplish this. 

After our 2 week family tour in England, Bowen and I put Xiaoqin and Boen on the plane, got back into the rental car, and immediately found a laundromat to do laundry. We then checked into the hotel with all our luggage, returned the rental car, and got a ride back to the Etrop Grange Hotel so we could assemble the bike. Bowen's bunny arrived safely, and he was happy to play with it while I worked on the bike.

Upon assembling the bike, I discovered that I had forgotten to pack chain oil, and so we had to ride to find a shop to sell us one. We also tried to get clear eye protection for Bowen, but could not find any, so he was stuck wearing his sunglasses for the entire trip, rain or shine. 

Our final goal was to get a hair cut, as the short ride to the bike shop had made both of us itchy under the helmet, since neither of us were used to having longish hair and helmets as a combination. I asked the hotel receptionist if we’d have to go to downtown Manchester for that, but she told us to just walk to the civic center, which turned out to have a barber shop, several supermarkets, bakeries, and a shop which sold me a SIM card for UK services. Last year, T-mobile ran a promotion during the summer which gave us LTE speeds in Europe but this year the promotion was over and I could definitely tell that performance was less than acceptable. 

In the Alps, I wouldn’t have minded, but in England with its dense road networks and multitudes of ways to get lost, I was dependent on the phone for navigation. So I paid up for a SIM card: 20 pounds for 12GB of data, 300 minutes of calls, and 3000 text messages, which would be very generous if not for the 30 day expiration date. 

After the haircut, we spent some time in the playground before returning to the hotel to pack. Painswick Park included a snake and ladders game, and this being Bowen's first exposure to that game, he insisted on playing it 4-5 times before returning to the hotel. On most tours, I’m a minimalist, trying to bring as little as possible. On this tour, however, I knew that there would be playground stops, and we wouldn’t spend all day riding, so brought a long more than the usual electronic luxuries, including the Playstation Vita and the Kindle

When in California, I’d plotted out a couple of potential first day routes , but looking at the weather forecast, I knew that any of the hillier options were off the table. Furthermore, it looked like the further south we went, the better the weather got, so our major priority was to head south as much as possible. 

One of the receptionists at the Hotel was a local, so I asked her advice on potential routes. I’m glad I did, since she immediately pointed out to me that the western towns (Wilmslow, Knutsford, Northwich and Nantwich) were prettier and quieter than the eastern towns near Birmingham, Telfords, and Stoke on Trent. That essentially caused me to replot the entire trip towards Market Drayton rather than through the Peak District.

Looking at the map, Market Drayton at 50 miles looked like a manageable first day, but of course, the riding would be full of unknowns: I'd never been in this country before, and I had no idea how much Bowen would want to do. It looked like there were plenty of towns to stop at should the need arose, however, so we went to bed full of optimism about the next day.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: Muse of Fire

Muse of Fire is Dan Simmon's novella about Shakespeare's plays, set in a far future setting. In this setting, human beings have been conquered by a hierarchy of aliens, and the narrator are a troupe of Shakespearean actors who travel human occupied space performing Shakespeare's plays. The plot starts when the alien overmasters demand that the troupe perform for them instead of just for the human audiences.

The inside-baseball account of being an actor in a troupe is well done, as is the commentary on Shakespeare's relevant now and far in the future, as well as Simmon's attitude towards various plays in the opus. The plot twist involving the alien overlords was also surprising, though perhaps overblown in its Shakespeare worship. It was a particularly relevant read for me as I was visiting Stratford Upon Avon at the time.

Recommended.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review: Jessica Jones Alias

I picked up Jessica Jones Alias: Volume 1 during the recent marvel sale. It's a reasonably good title, depicting a superhero (who still has her powers). She becomes a private investigator, and then deals with various issues in the Marvel universe from her perspective as a non-costumed ex-superhero with various connections to the higher powers.

The conceit of the series is upheld, but we never really get much of a view inside her character: what her motivation is, why she took up a costume in the first place, etc. The art's also not the best. I'm not going to bother picking up the rest of the series.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Bowen's First Bicycle Tour

From July 5th to July 15th, Bowen and I conducted a bicycle tour of the English Midlands from Manchester to London via Hindhead. The ride was 354 miles with 13,610 feet of elevation gain. We had 10 riding days with 1 rest day, 2 flat tires, and 1 train transfer. This is the index page for the daily trip reports.


Daily Trip Report

Friday, July 21, 2017

Review: Hidden Figures

Reading Hidden Figures after reading The Rise of the Rocket Girls feels like reading a prequel. While Rise of the Rocket Girls focused on the West Coast and JPL, Hidden Figures focuses on Langley, and starts out during the world war 2 era, where due to the shortage of man (and woman) power, various administrations were forced to hire women (and Blacks) to work as computers during the war effort.

The issues covered are very different from The Rise of the Rocket Girls. For instance, segregation played a big role in the story, and the author covers the entire civil rights era, where the state of Virginia (where Langley was located) at one point shut down its entire public school system rather than permit Blacks and Whites to be at the same school. One of the protagonists later would attend adult school in one of those high school campuses and remark that the place was so dinghy that it was a wonder that this was what they were trying to keep Black people away from.

The story is well written, and also covers the creation of NASA from NACA, which was meant to help with aviation rather than rocketry. The politics behind the formation of NASA was interesting as well. All in all, I recommend reading this book.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Pachinko

Pachinko is Min Jin Lee’s novel covering the Japanese occupation of Korea, and depicting the lives and various fates of Korean Japanese during the world war 2 period. As someone who’s always heard about how badly Koreans were treated in Japan for many years, I’ve always been curious about how it’s happened, and this book was a great way to find out about it.

The novel depicts Sunja’s family, starting from her parents’ lives, and including her children during the pre-World War 2 and post-WW2 period in Japan. Having been made pregnant by a Korean businessman living in Japan, Sunja refuses to become his mistress but then a Christian pastor on his way to his church in Japan feels sorry for her, marries her, and then they move to Japan proper.
Basically, Korean people in Japan have limited job opportunities. You can run a restaurant (or sell street food), or be hired into the Pachinko industry, which apparently has some ties to organized crime as well. As the war proceeds, we get views as to how the family survives (and in some case even thrive) and what the effects of the war is.

I enjoyed the book’s depiction of Japan and Korean people living in Japan. The book is a long read but at no point did I think it had filler. Definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle is Dianne Jones’ fantasy novel upon which Hayao Miyazaki’s movie of the same name was loosely based. Fans of the book often say that the book's much better than the movie. I haven't seen the movie, but if this is true then I probably won't bother with the movie at all.

The story revolves around Sophie, who as the eldest daughter  of the house is predestined not to find her fortune, and is so reconciled to being a hat maker. Then she runs afoul of the Wicked Witch and is cursed, whereupon for random reasons she ends up in the castle of evil wizard Howl.

Howl ends up not being so evil, and Sophie ends up being able to release herself from her curse. I didn’t realize that the book was the start of a series of (apparently well loved) YA novels, but in any case, the book while well written didn’t feel compelling. None of the characters felt anything more than 2-dimensional, while there aren’t any interesting reveals: magic in the novel doesn’t really follow any systematic approach, and it feels like a random series of events rather than the characters actually driving the plot.

I bought the book when it was on sale on Amazon, but I won’t be pursuing further books in the series.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: My Sister Rosa

My Sister Rosa is Justine Larbalestier’s hybrid novel  both about a coming of age and of psychopaths in families. It’s an excellent book and you should just run out and borrow (or buy) it. 

Che is a typical teenager, except that he’s been moved between various countries in the last few years  by his do-gooder parents. As a teenager moving to New York City for the first time, he has 3 goals: 

  1. Keep his sister Rosa under control 
  2. Get to the  boxing ring and Spar 
  3. Get a girlfriend 


Except for the last goal, these are actually pretty unusual goals for a teenager. But Che’s sister Rosa isn’t just a baby sister, she’s a psychopath, which Che has actually looked up in the DSM. What’s more, Che seems to be the only person aware of it. Both his parental units seem blissfully unaware, and Rosa when she wants to can charm other people easily, to the point where they do whatever she wants them to. 

Che then goes through the process of settling into New York City, going to a new boxing gym where he does meet a pretty cool girl. Then Rosa decides to start messing with his life and everything quick goes into pieces. 
The novel’s well written, with most characters being fully realized. The twist in the second third of the book was profound, and the set up for that was fair. Unlike most other books which nowadays seem determined to shove a happy ending down your throat no matter what, My Sister Rosa doesn’t end on an undoubtedly happy note, and Che doesn’t achieve all of his goals. 

Pick up a copy of this book and read it. You won’t regret the time you spend in Che’s world. I certainly don’t. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of (what else) Norse Mythology. It’s written in modern language, but with the tell-tale Neil Gaiman style --- easy to read and straight forward, by lyrical as well. If you’re not familiar with Norse Mythology except (for example) through the Thor comic books, Norse Mythology isn’t just a good introduction, it’s a well-written one. Gaiman writes that many of the stories from the folklore have been lost in time, and it would be interesting to know which he picked to put in this book and what was left out because it was incomplete and he didn’t want to add to the mythology with his own fiction.  It would also have been interesting to see what he would have wanted to add to the mythos.

A light, short airplane read. Perfect for a vacation. Recommended.