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Sep. 28th, 2018

The Spy Who Loved Me

Småland Perfectly Formed 5: Tuesday 18th September

Nybro is the home of the world's only James Bond Museum, run by a fan so committed he has added 'James Bond' to his name. Obviously I was going to check this out.

The museum's parking spaces are named after Bond films, so Howard took 'GoldenEye' while I parked in the space with the JB007 number plate. There was nobody around, but after a few minutes owner Gunnar James Bond Schäfer appeared to let us in.

I have a particular interest in foreign film posters and editions of the books, so the museum was a delight. It's one man's private collection, but a huge collection, including the bikini worn by Swedish Bond girl Izabella Scorupco in GoldenEye. There's a tiny cinema, and a luxurious loo where you can sit surrounded by cases of Bollinger watching music videos (I selected The Living Daylights).

A recent acquisition was a hovercraft from Die Another Day, purchased from the Hovercraft Museum in Lee-on-Solent (which I visited earlier this year). To my great joy, I was allowed to sit in the driver's seat.

When we'd looked at everything, we asked Gunnar, who had given us just the right mixture of space to enjoy the museum and personal guided tour, to recommend us somewhere for lunch. He suggested a nearby bakery called Konditori with 1960s decor; he and Howard agreed that I would like this. I did.

I had a prawn and egg open sandwich followed by a thing like a Tunnock's Teacake on a macaroon base, filled with a pale green cream that tasted of pear drops. We also bought a loaf of lingonberry bread for later; it lasted for days and was delicious. Then it was back on the road again.

Sweden is very cautious about its roads, with many completely unnecessary STOP lines. At one point we passed a sign warning of a 10% downhill gradient, which is really nothing. While I was still laughing at this we made the descent and it revealed a blue lake so beautiful it took my breath away.

The sat nav took us to the location of our guesthouse, down a residential cul-de-sac near Linköping, but there was no sign indicating which of the houses we wanted. We knocked on a likely door and were greeted by a surprised-looking woman in slippers, holding a puppy, who had no idea what we were on about.

Luckily I am a secret agent extraordinaire and spotted a booking.com sticker on the mailbox of what turned out to be the right house.

Miles: 176.2

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Sep. 27th, 2018

Alice Street

Småland Perfectly Formed 4: Monday 17th September

Our aim for today was to visit Öland, Sweden's second-largest island. Howard had scoped out a potential coffee stop on the way at Kalmar Airport. When we arrived, I was thrilled to find a Saab Draken fighter on a pole outside, a testament to the airport's past as a military base.

Then it was over another impressive bridge to the island. We made a stop at the tourist information centre, where I had an actual conversation in actual Swedish with a postman who'd come to empty the postbox in front of which I had helpfully parked:

- Oh, sorry!
- No problem!

The island is very flat, and must be bleak in winter, but now, with fields the soft colours of early autumn, the sea away to one side, and a landscape dotted with sheep, cows and little red windmills, it was pretty. You could buy pumpkins - pumpor - from wagons and stalls at the side of the road, leaving your money in an honesty box. I bought a tiny gourd for 5Kr (about 50p) and brought it back to the UK. It's in the airing-cupboard, where I hope it is drying out.

It was the end of the season, and all the cafés and restaurants seemed to be closed. Eventually we reached the southern tip of the island, a nature reserve with a lighthouse, a birdwatching station and, most importantly, an open restaurant. I had 'sillmacka': fish and new potato on a sweetish, crumbly brown roll, with sour cream and finely-chopped onions.

Returning, we realised we'd gone round the island the wrong way, as shops and café were considerably more open. Two pale, velvety deer shot across the road in front of our bikes, and we stopped to watch them bound away across the fields.

Back at camp, I sought out Haider and requested to use the sauna, which we'd been told we could do by arrangement.

"Sure," he said, delightedly, and led me off to inspect the facilities: "Here is wood, here is axe."

He explained that the light bulb had gone, "so you must twinkle with your eyes," and patted my shoulder in the way that harmless old men are allowed to pat women on the shoulder.

Howard showed me how to split the logs and we built a fire in the stove. An hour later, we were sitting in the warm scent of woodsmoke, watching the thermometer rise as the sun set outside.

Haider had suggested a swim in the lake after the sauna. I wasn't sure how serious he was, but I went for it anyway, ploughing through cold, black water filled with duckweed and possibly pike to touch the wing of the aeroplane before swimming back towards Howard and the lantern he was holding aloft to guide me in.

On my return, Howard informed me that I had disappeared into the dark almost immediately and he'd been worried he'd be going home alone. I had a shower, then we retired to the kitchen to eat tinned ravioli with IKEA cutlery.

Miles: 193

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Sep. 26th, 2018

:)

Småland Perfectly Formed 3: Sunday 16th September

My 41st birthday dawned bright and sunny, and I was unable to resist going for a swim. After all, the opportunity for a dip in the Baltic might not come my way again. It was chilly but lovely, with shoals of tiny fish in the shallows and transparent jellyfish washed up on the sand.

I needed another shower and more coffee after that, but eventually we got on the road for our next destination.

Sweden was exactly as I had pictured it: pine woods, lakes and farmland, with clapboard houses painted butter-yellow or dark red. Off the motorways there was hardly any traffic, and the Swedes are careful, law-abiding drivers, sticking to the (low) speed limits and moving aside for overtaking motorcyclists. I loved the roads, with their safe, gentle curves and climbs and the famous signs warning of possible elk.

Around lunchtime we stopped at a roadside café and ordered pizzas after much puzzling over the lists of toppings. I had the 'Africana', with bacon, banana, pineapple, peanuts and curry powder, plus a can of a soft drink called 'Trocadero'. It was my birthday, after all.

In the late afternoon we passed through the town of Nybro and took a gravel track down to our holiday camp. There were old petrol pumps by the side of the road and a model DC-3 the size of a family car in the lake. It was my kind of place.

We were greeted by an older man who had been sitting outside the reception and introduced himself as Haider.

"This is the last I was expecting," he said, slowly and carefully. "I was not expecting cyclists. But you are most welcome."

Howard counted out the cash we owed for two nights' stay plus the loan of bedlinen and towels, and Haider waved away the last 20Kr note: "Buy yourself some ice creams."

Like the previous night's accommodation, this was self-catering. In Ystad we'd had our own tiny kitchen and bathroom, but here they were communal. We headed for the lounge to enjoy the bread and cheese we'd picked up from a supermarket. Mid-supper, the sole other guest, a Swede, walked in and chatted for a bit before disappearing into the kitchen.

A few minutes later, he popped his head out again.

"Have you heard of David Icke?" he asked.

We finished our meal quickly.

Miles: 215.4

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Sep. 25th, 2018

Dangerous Curves

Småland Perfectly Formed 2: Saturday 15th September

I'd picked Kiel as our overnight stop because it was a great opportunity to catch up with schnee, who lives there. He'd picked a French café for brunch, and we made our way through rain showers, past a pretty harbour where impressive warships lay at anchor, to join him.

It was lovely to see a familiar face, and to hole up out of the rain drinking coffee and eating buckwheat pancakes with bacon, fried egg and cheese while we talked about travel, Kiel, whisky and Tintin.

We were sorry to leave, but we had many miles still to go and a ferry to catch from Puttgarden in Germany to Rodby in Denmark.

Before the ferry we experienced the border shop: a vast, floating hypermarket on three floors, filled with booze. A Carlsberg poster claimed it as 'Probably the biggest border shop in the world', and they're probably right. Scandinavians emerged pushing trolleys laden with crates of beer, wine and spirits, as well as soft drinks, sweets and washing-powder. I bought a litre of cloudberry vodka for €12 - only slightly more than I would pay for two coffees on the 45-minute ferry crossing.

Denmark! Flat and wet, with rainbows dancing in the spray thrown up by other vehicles. We took the Öresund Bridge, nearly five miles across and a long-held ambition of mine, and then we were in Sweden, our third and final country of the day.

Autumn, if you're lucky with the weather, is a lovely time of year to travel by bike: not too hot, not too crowded, with the leaves on the turn. We left the motorways for a road that ran along the coast of the Baltic sea, through little port towns, past churches with stepped fronts and low houses with high roofs. We noted that speed limit and Give Way signs have yellow centres rather than white, while chevrons warning of danger are a patriotic blue and yellow.

Our home for the night was a holiday camp in Ystad, a short scamper from the beach, where we stayed in exactly the sort of little red wooden cabin I had imagined. As we arrived I startled a red squirrel into running down a tree and immediately up it again.

Miles: 238.7

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Cat Air

Småland Perfectly Formed 1: Thursday 13th September - Friday 14th September

We went to Småland because over Easter we met two Swedish blokes in a pub who recommended it.

This is a somewhat random way to go on holiday, but it all worked out.

We started by taking the overnight ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, which meant I could put in a full if slightly distracted day at the office, go home, get changed, strap my luggage on the bike, fight the rush hour to meet Howard at Thurrock Services and still be on board in good time to relax over a nightcap as we waved goodbye to Essex.

Miles: 92.8

At eight on Friday morning we emerged from the ferry and began the journey to Kiel, in Germany near the Danish border. It was a long day of motorway miles, with morning coffee at a Dutch service area and lunch at a German one.

"Or you could have a bratwurst?" the lady at the snack counter suggested to me as I examined the selection of sandwiches. She must have been psychic.

We arrived in Kiel to discover that our hotel doubled as student accommodation and our high-ceilinged room was equipped with two single beds: one conventionally arranged and one in a sort of eyrie above, reached by a steep staircase. Obviously I bagged the crow's nest, and slept very cosily.

Miles: 390.3

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Sep. 11th, 2018

Cat Air

Tintin in Toulouse

When I found out that the Aeroscopia aviation museum in Toulouse was having an exhibition called Tintin et ses Avions, I knew that I had to go and that I had to take wardy with me.

We set out for Stansted obscenely early on Saturday morning and boarded our Ryanair flight. I had the middle seat next to a crying baby, but it stopped when I said 'good morning' to it and was fine for the rest of the flight.

I was thrilled to spot a Beluga transport plane from my window as we taxiied; a good omen for the weekend of geeky delights ahead. We disembarked into a warm, sunny Toulouse and celebrated with airport coffee and doughnuts before walking to our Ibis Budget.

We took the tram into town, had lunch in a 'British pub' and wandered around a little, delighting in being abroad.

Late in the afternoon we'd booked on Let's Visit Airbus, a tour of the factory. This is so super secret that you aren't allowed to take photos, or enter without showing your passport.

The tour was in three parts: first we watched a video showing the first test flight of the A380, then visited the assembly line, then explored the military A400M stored at the museum. We'd booked on the English tour with a wonderfully funny guide: "You will see there is nobody in the factory. This is not because we are on strike or on coffee break, but because it is the weekend." She also complimented Wardy on his V-bomber T-shirt.

We spent our evening looking for somewhere to eat, eventually finding an Italian restaurant where we sat outside in the warm dusk. Afterwards we walked to a riverside bar for a nightcap.

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On Sunday we headed back to the museum, via a bakery for breakfast and a supermarket to pick up sandwiches for lunch. I spotted a Beluga in flight from the tram and we fell over ourselves watching it pass by.

The Tintin exhibition was beautifully done, with pictures and models of the aircraft from the books throughout the museum, and plush Snowies hiding in various cockpits. Early art showed how Hergé had quickly cottoned on to the aeroplane as an exciting modern development. I found it especially interesting that the planes often changed model between the original magazine strips and the redrawn comic book versions, so a 1930s airliner becomes the 1950s equivalent.

After spending a fair amount of time and money in the gift shop, we rewarded ourselves for our frugal lunch by ordering coffee and waffles at the posh museum café.

This kept us going until dinner, which was at a Vietnamese restaurant and delicious. I'd never had Vietnamese coffee before and now I want no other kind forever.

We returned to the Ibis, and I suggested we slip over to the much posher hotel over the road, the Pullman, for a drink. At the bar we got talking to an American former pilot, now avionics engineer, who had come over to teach a course. We started off talking about planes and ended up looking at photos of his cat and dog.

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On Monday morning we headed to the airport, where we got one last Beluga sighting as it took off and vanished into the low cloud and I had a tin of supermarket cassoulet taken off me at security because I was too stupid to realise it counted as a liquid.

Wardy kindly drove me home before heading back Oop North. We'd been abroad for just under 48 hours but it felt like a real proper holiday.

More photos on Flickr

Aug. 28th, 2018

Of Rassilon

Bank Holiday Bonding

I spent the Bank Holiday weekend in Peterborough with my friend M, a trainee vicar I met through the furry fandom and bonded with over our similar tastes in Bond (i.e. mocking Pierce Brosnan and perving over Timothy Dalton).

I got very cold and wet travelling up on Friday night, but was welcomed with fried chicken and a viewing of The Living Daylights ("God he's pretty." "Yes he is.") before heading to bed in a guestroom hung with aviation art.

On Saturday we took a bus into town for the Peterborough beer festival, where M was recognised by three separate sets of his parishioners and we met a delightfully wiggly collie puppy.

In the evening we went to see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, principally to laugh at Brosnan and his manly chest thatch (which appears within milliseconds of his first screen appearance; I swear he has a special clause in all his contracts).

M was dubious about this entertainment and pushed for Mission: Impossible 6 instead, but he turned out to know all the words to 'Fernando' and we both had a lovely time. A charming, inoffensive film it's hard not to like. (We decided afterwards that Pierce employs a personal groomer for his chest hair, called the Moobraker.)

On Sunday I accompanied M to Eucharist to see him do his church thing. The congregation were terribly nice to me and kept telling me how lovely M was, which of course he is. Miserable weather provided an excuse to spend the rest of the day having a pub lunch, watching DVDs and playing computer games.

On Monday M collected his friend E from the station and brought him back for an impressive fryup. Then the three of us set off for Bletchley Park, currently hosting an exhibition of Bond-inspired art.

We looked around a few of the huts, then M bought us all ice creams and I got harassed by a swan who started pecking my legs every time I tried to sit down at one of the picnic tables, to the great amusement of all witnesses.

Afterwards we drove to St Mary the Virgin in Wellingborough, an impressive 20th-century church, where I was chuffed to spot a memorial to First World War flying ace Edward 'Mick' Mannock'.

We had a sort of late lunch/early supper at Wimpy, mostly so I could experience the joys of the Bender in a Bun, then it was time for E to head for the station and for me to pack up and set off for home, exhausted from a long weekend of doing cool stuff and laughing hard and often.

Aug. 21st, 2018

Cat Air

The adventures of Local Kingsize Fox

My corner of London, like most corners of London, has a thriving population of urban foxes, often heard yawping in the night or seen loping purposefully along the street as if they own it.

We are blessed, here, with a large and magnificent specimen whom I have dubbed Local Kingsize Fox. He must be getting on for a metre from his nose to his tail, which makes up in length what it lacks in floofiness.

A while ago I was sorry to note that he was limping (although I still laughed cruelly when I saw him try to jump into a hedge and miss), but he's back on form now, and looking extra lush and handsome for summer.

Yesterday evening my flatmate called me into the living-room to witness LKF climbing up on the flat roof opposite, which was probably nice and warm from a day of sun. I spent a good 20 minutes watching him snooze and groom up there. Here are some of the best results from my bridge camera.

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Aug. 15th, 2018

Karate

Back in Black

When my bike was stolen last year, the thieves also got my karate bag, which contained, as well as my wallet and phone, my black belt.

This was a special belt with my name and the name of our club, Kenshukai, embroidered on it in Japanese characters. We order them from Japan and they're expensive (like, nice restaurant meal for two expensive). I'd been wearing a plain black belt, thinking I'd replace the good one next time I graded.

Last night, at the end of class, Shihan had us sit comfortably, the way he does when he has an announcement to make.

One of the instructors had organised a collection, not just around the Tuesday class but from everyone in our area who used to train with me or knew me from gradings and tournaments, and Shihan had ordered me a new belt. It was a complete surprise; nobody had dropped so much as a hint.

I've been going to karate for 15 years and even though I only see these people once a week, we are a family. We do birthdays and Christmas and sorry-you're-leaving. But I was not expecting this, and I am touched and amazed.

The belt wasn't a matter of life and death, but it was important to me and symbolic of the effort I've put in to reach this level. Thank you to my karate friends for recognising that and for being thoughtful and generous enough to put things right.

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Jul. 19th, 2018

Game Boy

Go Go Gadget

The makers of Pokémon Go have a knack for introducing new features just when everyone's getting a bit bored and thinking about maybe using their phones for something else.

The latest update brought the ability to add other players as friends, and send each other gifts. I am loving it, as I'm very nosey and enjoy seeing how my pals have dressed their avatars and where they've been (the gifts come with a little postcard to tell you which Pokéstop they came from).

Anyway, add me!!

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