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29 September 2006

I Kan't Ever Again

I've just had to go to Ikea. I decided that a good strategy might be to leave it until late - they open until 10pm - and thus avoid the rush. Silly, silly plan. I left home just after 9 to make the 10 minute journey around the A406 to Wembley. This was all easy runnings. Step two of my plan involved parking as close to the loading area as possible, and enter against the flow, leaping the barriers at checkout, briskly walking through the warehouse bit at the end, and then into the Market Place or whatever tossy name they give it, to the curtain area, for the curtains, and then return to the exit.

What I hadn't banked on was that the place would be, well, pretty much like it is on Saturdays. Rammed to the gun'whals. Heaving. Turgid with humanity. And so, I had quite a flow to work against, each of them giving me a slightly quizzical look. Eventually - and my dread was building as I approached, as I mentally scanned all the people passing me, all the people who would be joining the already-swollen queues at the end before me - I got my curtains. I spun on a sixpence and started walking briskly back towards the checkouts. I survey the queues, and go for the Small Items & Bags Only line, which - for some unknown and unproven reason - I felt would move more quickly.

Ikea claims to have revolutionised the home furnishings experience. Streamlined it. Made it more cost effective, by letting you do the assembly at home, while 'passing the savings on to you'. This is certainly one way they've made things more cost-effective. The other major way they've achieved that is by employing people who don't really even deserve minimum wage.

It's unfair to blame it all on the idiot human resource at the place. It's also the fact that - and I think I can say this has happened every time I've ever been to the godforsaken pit - the scanning system and barcoding just doesn't seem to work properly. I wondered whether another way the company had streamlined was to get the cheapest-ass EPOS system, and was passing that saving onto the customer in the form of long, tedious queues, manned by increasingly-frustrated staff. And there's nothing worse than a wound-up dumbass.

It occurred to me that Ikea was not capitalist - it was communist. As I stood in line, tutting and having light conversation about our lack of progress, it reminded me of Nigeria. I thought: Ikea has brought the Third World, slap bang to the heart of capitalism. Here we all are, hot and bothered (well, I was, and I'm sure I wasn't alone), standing in a nigh-stationary queue, grimly accepting our fates. At the mercy of the chugalong electronic dinosaur system, operated by drones, to buy objects we've still got to build and get blisters off. Sucks, dunnit?

27 September 2006

Canal Desires

Yikes. Me and the missus have just been to look at a house, that we propose to purchase and live in together. Scary and exciting at the same time, but the fear greatly allayed by the sheer quality of the proposal on offer.

It is a two-bedroom house. It is an 80s build, so pretty darn featureless: it's a box, with a slopey roof, from an apex to the front and rear of the property. There is a well-developed front garden, with a small flint-chip pathway for access for weeding and tending (I can feel the missus getting excited). There is a driveway from the road leading to a side garage. This is currently full of renovations crap and stuff the previous owner didn't want. You could easily get my wheels in here, maybe even the missus' tank, but I wouldn't want to be the one to scrape it in. There is a door from inside the garage directly into the garden, which is locked. Anyway, without either of our cars in the garage, we would be able to fit both of our current cars onto the drive and not be on the road or even the pavement. There are two 'front' doors - one leading to the square of floor at the foot of the stairs/living room door, another into the rearmost kitchen/dining area - so a 'dirty' entrance and a 'tidy' entrance, though this does raise some security issues. Come in, through the tidy entrance. Sorry about the post.

The living room is more spacious than we imagined, though, once you've got a triple-sized double sofa-bed and a twin sofa in there, a coffee table and a telly, you're pretty much maxed out. Nice lights on the wall - aluminium squares and oblongs (lateral, not vertical) with creamy, opaque perspex lenses, plus a central dangling bulb, natch. There is a horrendous gas fire, which would have to go. The windows are newish double-glazed in a slight bay, four panels with the outer two opening, wood-finish to the exterior and white to the interior. The carpet is of a hard-wearing, waffle cut. Through a door into the kitchen: this has clearly been done up. The units are new, the oven still has instructions in plastic wrappers inside it. The washing machine is, if not actually new, very recently new. There is a new, but mildly nasty, lino on the whole floor. There are French doors out into the garden (again, wood-finish to the ext, white to the int), and a window above the sink looking out. There is a larder beneath the stairs that could conceivably fit a full-height fridge-freezer inside, though this would block the rear, shallow part from access. Currently, there are two separate units - chest fridge (door) and chest freezer (lid), with the liddy freezer at the back. Wondering where mops, brooms and hoovers might go.

Upstairs, and the first room you come to is the bathroom, at the rear of the house. Why this room is not on the photos on the website, I don't know, as it is gorgeous. Sure, it's the only toilet, and it's small, but the tiles are this lovely, earthy rough-cut look, and the units - sink, toilet, bath and shower - are clearly all brand new. It's a picture. Once again, the waffle carpet, which followed us up the stairs from the living room and the 'tidy' front door. Next to the bathroom, and also to the rear, is the second bedroom. This would be a spare bedroom with sofa bed/office. This would, in all likelihood, be 'my room', where I can ferret away in the 'editing suite'. You would have to knock and wait for an answer before entering, for definite. To the front of the property is the master bedroom, within which there is (over the floor space above the stairwell) the boiler (hmm, noisy in bedroom? certainly toasty warm) and a recessed storage area, which is where some cupboarding would go. Room for nice big bed with space to walk all the way around, plus side tables with power points and phone line. Throughout, there are the same waffle carpet, save for the kitchen/dining.

Let us go back into the kitchen, and out those French doors into the garden. The garden is neither particularly small, nor particularly large. It's a nice size, what can I say? To the left as you head out, is the locked side entrance to the garage, which we've seen from the other side. Behind the garage, further towards the bottom of the garden, is a garden shed. Mmm. Powertools. And so, the garden.

The garden extends perhaps ten metres, before it comes to an abrupt halt. There is a low, picket fence just before the bottom, and a small rose-gate arch with a little gate. And, just three feet beyond this barrier, lies the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. 'Egret' chugged past as we were there. Bless. On the offside of the canal is the towpath, complete with dog-walkers, cyclists, power-walkers, runners and ne'er-do-wells, and beyond the towpath is a fence, barriering you from the London-Birmingham train line. The garden itself is a bit of a mess: some vague attempt at making a rockery has been planned, only with most of the garden. There is a fishpond, which I like a lot, and means that Pete and Edgy might get a nice big house outdoors, and be like real fish, not realising that just 30 feet away was all the freedom, gunk and predators they could ever want. There is a bird-table, and two nesting boxes attached to silver birch trees at the bottom of the garden. Clearly, the previous owner liked to encourage nature, and I approve of that most heartily. The garden, already great because of the canal, has a lot of potential, given some planning, investment and sweat.

Now all we have to do is get involved with dregs, like estate agents, surveyors and lawyers. That's the only bit I don't like about it.

26 September 2006

The Boys Are Back In Town

And so, unfortunately, are the girls. Even now, just shy of one decade out of university, I notice when the kids go back to school, and then, the even greater shudder to the senses as term begins back at university: first the freshers, all young and giddy, before the old hands turn up, experienced and ready for another onslaught. I'm not sure which type makes the most noise, but it's clear to me that both are very noisy. I guess as the university halls are just across the way from me here in Birmingham city centre, that I - not to mention all the other hard-working, decent folk who call this area home - that perhaps we should accept this? But, even when you know you've done the same, you can't help wanting to be that miserable bastard that yelled out of his window at you ten years ago. Sometimes, it seems to me like some kind of national swearing contest. You've got this bunch of bright young things from varying social backgrounds and locations, all descending on one town, trying to make friends, to establish their personalities. It's this last bit that makes most noise, and in the panoply of accents available here in the British Isles, from west coast Irish, to Cockney, Scouse, Scots, Panjabi, Cantonese, you name it. Sometimes, I think a kind of police curfew for students and young people might be a good idea. Bah humbug.

25 September 2006

Fish Are Friends, Not Food

I've never liked eating fish. Sure, as a kid I was plied with fishfingers. But I'm talking about a whole fish, grilled, steamed, roasted or poached. Fried, even. The whole, stary-eyed, fish-looking thing on your plate never really did it for me. Shrimps, and shrimp-shaped things I can handle, from the prawn upwards to the lobster. Otherwise, shellfish are out: oysters, clams, mussels. I don't know why this is. It's not that I particularly object to the fish as a taste (though a strong fishy taste or smell does have me gagging): I think my swimming and snorkelling and diving and generally being at one with the water from a very early age has made me think of the inhabitants of the water as, well, nice things. Not things to be hunted and eaten.

I don't feel the same about cows and pigs and sheep, but then, if I owned a farm, perhaps I'd be the worst kind of farmer: I'd start getting attached to those lumbering sources of income, who, once I'd given each their own name and developed what I considered a personal, one-on-one relationship with every single one of them, I'd find myself unable to kill them and realise that I wasn't running a beef farm, I was running a cow zoo.

Why fish, why now? Well, sadly, I have to report a death in the family. A devoted, little-seen, quietly-spoken, keeps-himself-to-himself member of the clan has passed to his Watery Grave, is now Swimming With The Fishes, and has Gone To Davey Jones' Locker. Ugly, who is - sorry, was - an ancistrus, a bristle-nosed catfish - has passed away over the last 24 hours. He was dead in the tank when we got back from London. He was also rather stiff, and rather niffy, almost like he'd started decomposing rapidly, but then, I suppose fish do. In fact, maybe all things do, it's just that fish don't get put in cold storage. Anyway, this prompted me to do a thorough tank-clean, which did turn up quite some gunk. This wasn't what killed him - he was quite old, for a bristle-nosed catfish. He wasn't young when I got him, he was at least a teenager. I imagine a very contented, algae-filled, quietly-chirpy 80 year old man (in fish form) has just passed on after spending a lovely life in a warm tank with lots of algae-covered rocks for him to munch on, with the odd algae wafer or plecostomus tablet chucked in as a treat. He had a good innings.

Tonight, the mood in the tank is sombre. Pete (a Bristol shubunkin) and Edgy (a yellow comet) seem grateful for the freshening of the water (if I could smell Ugly, God knows what the poor lads sitting in water infused with dead, rotting tankmate could detect), and the zip of antifungal, antibacterial and so on has definitely perked them up a bit. However, despite their chemical shots, both seem to be looking, trying to find a mate who's disappeared, wondering where he is, what happened to him. There's a new closeness between Pete and Edgy. Edgy was only recently introduced, and Pete was quite bullish with him when he arrived. Of course, the natural order established itself, and the two of them both know where they stand. Beyond that point, their relationship is friendly and respectful: Pete even seems quite protective of Edgy, now. Tonight, they are swimming together a lot, united in grief, comforting each other for their collective loss, finning gently and reminiscing about their good friend, Ugly.

24 September 2006

This Is Tranquility Base

Since we last met, I've celebrated my uncle and aunt's 40th wedding anniversary (not to mention my uncle's 80th year), before jetting to Grand Cayman for a fortnight's holiday that felt like a month, got back on Wednesday, had two job offers since then, been to London to my old radio wife's wedding party last night, and am now collapsed back in Birmingham like some tired dog. But I feel so chilled out, even tiredness is fabulous.

I'll be regaling you at some length on the Cayman holiday, but that won't be now. You can, however, jump to my YouTube account (search for user hunterswalsh - get to my channel page - and check out Cayman Daze and Scuba Diving Grand Cayman North Shore Wall). Suffice it to mention the following highlights: amazing weather, great tropical storms, white sand beaches (empty), excellent diving (rays, sharks, barracuda, turtles, dolphins), excellent snorkelling (10 nurse sharks at once! more rays, turtles, barracuda, etc - and right off the beach!), okeyish food (Cayman largely caters for the American market - note use of word 'largely'), fantastic accommodation, great locals, lovely society, superb ramshackle 'pirate' bars all along the coast...)

We arrived back pretty knackered on Wednesday late afternoon. The flight routes via Nassau in The Bahamas, and you only get a little carton of orange juice between Grand Cayman and there. We got on the plane at Owen Roberts Airport in Cayman at 1715hrs. We took off at 1800. We landed at Nassau at 1915. We took off again from Nassau at 1830. So, over four hours (I haven't adjusted the local times - it's all the same time from Cayman) without any food at all. I'm sure most people hadn't eaten since lunchtime. Not really very good for British Airways, to be honest, and while we're in the area, the crew changes for the transatlantic hop to Heathrow: all I can honestly say is that they clearly use the local Caribbean legs for the trainee staff. The ones who can't handle giving out more than a single carton of OJ per gasping passenger. Quite rude too, some of them: we'd asked a female member of cabin staff for a paracetamol for the good lady's headache. She returned, with two tablets, and a consent form, which she had to sign saying that she was taking them for her headache.

"Blimey, what's all the paperwork for?!" I teased.
"It's to ensure that she knows what she's taking, and why she's taking them," came the response.
"But - for a headache?" I prodded.
"Some people take them for other reasons, sir," came the curt, purse-lipped response.
I couldn't resist.
"Do they take them to get high?"
I started chuckling inside.
"No, some people take them thinking that it works the same way as aspirin for DVT - deep vein thrombosis," she pressed in revealing.

I wondered so hard why the mysterious 'other reasons' had even been mentioned. Just skip to the end, honey. You are not the keeper of deeply secret knowledge. We were fed once the professionals joined us as we left Nassau (and it was actually very passable - unlike the good lady's vegetarian option - that's two aeroplane meals that have disappointed her), watched Mission Impossible III (actually not bad for mindless stunts, shooting, guns and shit - strange cameo from Simon Pegg, though), before drifting off onto into a pitching, rolling sea of warm and cold air currents and clouds passing us at 600 miles per hour.

Thankfully England was sunny as we disembarked bang on time at 1100 hrs on Wednesday. We sorted the suitcases with no hassles at all, and were out and back at the car for midday. We were back at the London flat by 1300 and left at 1430, to avoid the traffic in the capital, but knowing we'd probably get it all the way back. Which we did: eventually, around 1630, we dropped our bags in the flat and collapsed. The good lady went home after an hour (I'm sure she'd had quite enough of me, too, these last 14 days) - her work stuff was there, and she was back at the fun factory on Thursday morning. I sat around here and unpacked, opened post, threw most of it away, and generally mooched in a waking dead mode until sleep overtook me.

Thursday I woke late, and met the good lady for lunch at 1330. We ate at Cafe Rouge - I had seriously missed their baguette poulet - and then bumped into some ex-colleagues on my way back home, who were made to suffer a brief pictureshow and videoreel of the holiday. They hate me, now.

Mid-afternoon found me back on the bike and exploring another canal route out of Birmingham city centre, this time the Birmingham-Wolverhampton line, which is replete with several old, unused canal paths and loops. Great fun to explore. I was amazed to find that I'd cycled 15 kilometres once I'd got back and checked on Google Earth. If keeping fit can be as much fun as this, I'm up for it. Just don't expect me to run around like some hamster in a wheel in a gym full of body-nazis. Danke schoen.

Once I'd showered and changed, I headed to Mum's for dinner - one of her gorgeous steaks, with baked potato, and pan-roasted vine tomatoes and sugar snap peas. Mmm. Don't forget to drench those steaks in Martini Rosso before serving... now, that's a taste that will always remind me of Mum cooking when I was a kid. We had a lovely time, she loved the chocolate rum fudge from Cayman (as did I), I sorted her PC out a bit (not a tricky one), and headed back to Brum.

Tommy came over for 10pm and we headed to O'Neills on Broad Street. Strange experience in there. The lights came up for last orders at - actually - 1055pm. Now, you and I know that, in English licensing law, a drinking-up time of 30 minutes is the maximum time allowed to finish up and leave. Oddly, at about 10-past eleven - just 15 minutes since the call - a female security guard (what a nice place Birmingham is, they need day-glo gorillas on every pub door) approaches, asks us to finish up and leave.

"What about drinking up time?" we chirrupped.
"There's no such thing in this pub. It's at the landlord's discretion."
"Forgive me, but it's not. It's the law. 30 minutes. And only 15 have elapsed."
"Would you drink up and leave, please," she repeats, before approaching another group with her message of doom.

So, we sit there, nursing our pints at a very slow rate. At least ten minutes elapse. We've had the best of drinking up time. As we leave, I approach the barman.

"Excuse me, mate, do you know the licensing laws in England?"
"Erm...mmm...I...er..." he fumbles. The chap is clearly Eastern European, which I don't hold against him, but which didn't quite immediately qualify him for a discussion of the statutes in the UK on licensing.
"They stipulate 30 minutes of drinking-up time. Now, you called time late - at 5-to-eleven. We were asked to leave at 10 past, when we had until 25-past, which is 30 minutes after 5-to-eleven, which is when time was called."

The power-crazed porky cow is back in my face.
"You, outside, now, or I'll bar you for life!" she spits
"Sorry, you're going to bar me for life for having a conversation with the barman?" I enquire.
"Yes I am. Get out now, or you're barred."
"I might be barred, but at least I'm not wrong. 30 minutes. Look it up, love."
And we leave. Tsk. Country's gone to the dogs. Or if not gone, very much scampering playfully, tongue lolling stupidly to the side, towards the great, concrete dogpound.

I woke late again on Friday, and started getting all the loose ends tied up for the London flat rental, and generally getting all the outstanding stuff covered off. With some amazing luck, I managed to cancel the big bill for mooring in Penarth marina. The day before we went down to London, I'd got a letter from Penarth Quays presenting me with a bill for £800. Which rather surprised me.

I had indeed applied for moorings, and I had given the start of October as the commencement date - but, since that communication from me, I'd had no response from the place, and rather thought that some form of confirmation might be sent to me, before billing me. Anyway, apparently not. I decided to give them a call, and spoke to the marina manager. He'd been wondering where the boat was.

I explained the situtation: that I'd applied for the berthing in early August, after getting the boat into the hands of Peters in Mallorca at the end of July. I thought a couple of months would be a reasonable time in which to get an 18-foot speedboat back to England on a trailer. Not so. I've been fobbed off with lots of excuses, the main one being 'preparations for Southampton Boat Show'. That finished today. They can expect a chivvying call from me tomorrow.

Anyway, the chappie at Penarth was a top bloke: he's cancelled the whole shebang, with me chalked up for moorings 'at some point to be announced'. So: no £800 bill, for now. That's for six months. This is gonna be a pricey business, boat-keeping. As my old man always said: it's not the cost of purchase, it's the maintenance. One to bear in mind when getting married, chaps.

Friday night found me back at Penny Black's with the old-work crew, bidding 'farewell' to someone lovely who's moving across the office to another department. That was good, nice to see everyone, give Dan his pressie, and so on. Great chat with Steve, as usual. A nice, healthy pizza and salad combo and we headed for the sack, ready for our trip to London tomorrow, where we would witness a Parkerson party, which are not for the faint-of-heart.

I need to rest before I even begin that one.

01 September 2006

Raise Metabolism Today! No Fees!

I might be about to jet off for two weeks in the sun, but this 'getting fit' malarkey is preying on my flabby mind. I did sweet FA on Tuesday - to be honest, I think my bloated, battered body was still recovering from the excesses of Bank Holiday. And so on Tuesday, I awoke with an intended new vigour.

By 930am my car was at KwikFit getting a new rear nearside tyre. I'd noticed a slow puncture while in London, but it seemed to be OK if I regularly pumped it back up. Having dropped it off, I walked through Hurst Street and The Arcadian area of town - these night-time areas, they're strange at 10am, when all the life has been sucked out of them - and on towards Digbeth, where the bike shop is. Repeating the attempts of Monday, I handed over my keys and cards and went off swooping around Digbeth on what I knew was going to be the right bike for me. The bike is a Cannondale, the model is a Bad Boy. It's black, light, solid, no-messing. 27 gears. So far, I have used about three or four of those 27. My mind cannot imagine the hill that requires me to be in lowest gear. Shudder. The bloke needed half an hour or so to get the bike ready to go. I wandered down to the Custard Factory and mooched in their shops - they've got lots of lovely stuff too, from sheesha bars to hairdressers to top-end hifi shops and record shops. Such a nice vibe around there. Medicine Bar, like Hurst Street, seems odd, all shut up and inactive.

I picked the bike up at 11am and rode home. It nearly killed me. OK, it was a traffic run, and with my backpack on, I couldn't see much over my shoulder. Riding back via Hurst Street, I shot up Hill Street to the side of New Street Station and The Pallasades Shopping Centre, before cutting under Sutton Street Queensway, up past the Atkins building and along Holliday Street, under the bridge, right into Granville Street and home. I was drenched in sweat, panting like an old dog, and by the time I'd actually carried the vehicle up two floors, I was ready to collapse in the shower. My head and legs were tingling, probably each desperately trying to remember the last time they ever did anything like that...well, get used to it, both of you.

Once my heartrate had returned to a resting state, I examined the book of Birmingham & The Black Country bike rides that I got at the shop, as well as starting my magnum opus: putting all of the local canal routes in on Google Earth. I started with the central Birmingham stuff, but soon realised that I should commit to each canal route in it's entirety - and so developed my city-centre ideals further afield. First, I did Birmingham to Worcester, amazingly known as the Birmingham & Worcester Canal. That's about 30 miles. Then I did Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon (yes, The Stratford Canal) at 25 miles. I notice that this canal passes not awfully far from from my Mum's village, Henley in Arden. I foresee a bike ride to Mum's. I quickly slot in the Wolverhampton and Walsall lines, plus all the old canal loops on the Wolverhampton line. There is a lot of history to uncover, here...

I was beginning to wonder when my car might be ready when Jimmy (Asian) called from KwikFit to tell me it was all ready. I walked down there for 1pm, collected the car and went straight to the garage for a clean. I always usually put my car through the automatic washer with the whirring Dougals that spank your vehicle clean. Today, I was in shorts and t-shirt, so nabbed a proper, manual jet-wash - any man will tell you they do a much better job, largely because you're not leaving all the decisions to a machine. And she looked spanking. Did I use the word 'spank' too often in this paragraph?

Home and some more Google Earth canal retention, before meeting the accountant to cover off business, freelance and personal financial matters. Didn't tell her about the bike. Best not to. It'll only upset her.

I'm due to meet the missus to view another flat with her at 530, which leaves me a couple of hours from now. So, despite the blood, sweat and tears of my debut journey on it, I get the bike out and head out to the canal at The Mailbox. Taking a right, I head out on the Birmingham & Worcester towards Birmingham University and Selly Oak. This canal route passes many of my childhood nooks and crannies: from The Vale halls of residence where we used to walk the dog and go sledging in winter; to the Somerset Road bridge, just up from the house; under Pritchatts Road bridge, which I'd pass over each day on the way to school. Then you're through the University campus, past the hospital, the rail station, and you're in Selly Oak, behind the OVT, the Soak.

There's a nice little pull up off-route, which I investigate. In an alarming Health & Safety transgression, I was able to touch the base of an overhead power line, and could have quite easily got into the sub-station beyond, all bulbous, shiny and humming. The area around here is strewn with empty bottles, spliff ends and used syringes. That's the thing about canals: they are the unseen routes of the city, like looking for rats in the sewers...

I cycle a little further on, before I come to a sign that tells me it's 5km to Gas Street Basin - which is where I started. Content with the idea of a 10km ride, I cycle a little further and stop on a bench for a fag. Only, I can't find them. Shit. I've left them back there next to where I was sitting, the place I left when oddballs started walking through the area, looking at me shiftily. I get back on, and cycle the short distance back to my stop-off. Fags and lighter are where I left them. I collect, ignite and start back.

Now, this was a bit annoying. On my return, I noticed that my handlebars were a bit wobbly. I could rotate the crosspiece towards and away from me. After a little further, I could slide it left to right in its clamp. Hmm. So, about this pre-delivery check you did on the bike...I get back to base with ten minutes before I'm due to collect the lass. I head home and nab my Allen key set, and sort the problem out. I don't believe that I've shaken it loose. I just think the servicing dude needs to sort out his biceps a bit.

I meet the lady, who is very impressed with it. Her appointment has been cancelled (again) and so we pootle up to Brindleyplace, 'round the back of the National Sealife Centre (handily placed in land-locked central England) and home. We have some splendid beer-battered cod, chunky chips and mushy peas, before settling down to watch Tsotsi, the Academy-Award-Winning Johannesburg drama about a bad boy trying to go straight. It's brilliant. I can highly recommend it. The missus was slightly taken aback when I said that the townships in the movie look like the Bangkok Hilton compared to those you'd see along Agege Road in Lagos, Nigeria. One day, I might take her there just to show her what human horror can really be like.

Yesterday, I went out around mid afternoon and covered another 17km, going from Brindleyplace to Newhall Flight, down and down, on to Aston, around to Typhoo Wharf and then out towards Tamworth. I got as far as Heartlands, where the big gas tanks are, before heading back. Coming back was hard - the glee of my downhill cruising on the outward journey replaced by, largely, an uphill stretch all the way. But, what a rush when you finally get back to your home canal level.

Slightly boring aside: obviously, canals are at different levels around the country. Locks are the gates that stop a higher level canal's water running off into the lower levels and drying out the higher. You will find basins all the way along canal routes, which are used to top up the level you're on. To call the British canal system a feat of engineering falls rather short. Anyway, I live on what is called the Birmingham Level, and where I got to was on the Walsall Level. I think there's about 100m height difference, so that's what I zoomed down, and what I panted back up.

Canals attract an odd mix of people. There are your 'nice people': walkers, some with dogs, joggers, runners, cyclists. Then there are the 'odd people': young lads who look like they've just dropped off a score on their bike; badass-looking mofos who just stare at you; hobos; winos; druggies. Thankfully, on the 30km I've ridden in the last two days (?!), I've seen no less than four bike cops, all dayglo yellow but carrying a badge. That's reassuring.

Anyway, it's lunchtime and I've been rabbitting for ages. I'll be off down beyond Selly Oak today and back - I'm gonna get to the junction with the Stratford canal and come back, should be around the 20k mark. God, I'd never even consider running that far.