Wine Rides - behind the scenes of the pilot ride

Alex Baines-Buffery, director of Wine Rides, a new company providing relaxing and enjoyable holidays that combines local food and wine with cycling in the South of England. The first Wine Ride took place at the end of May and here, Alex tells us what happened. Our earlier post tells the story of how Wine Rides started.

LCC readers can get 15% off the next Wine Rides holiday, a saving of £82. More info at the end of the article.

Until I set up Wine Rides I worked in documentary TV. As a result, I occasionally had to work with companies who would feature in my films. The most vexing aspect of working with companies is when they try and protect their corporate image at the expense of a good story. So when I sat down to write this blog, I had to decide which way I was going to go. Tell it like it is, or try and dress things up and just use the blog as an advert?

Well, in the end I decided the best thing to do is just give a full and frank account of how the pilot went.

For the last few months we’ve been collecting surveys about what people want from a Wine Rides holiday. The thing respondents are most worried about is the weather. And I’m not going to lie to you, the day before the holiday was due to start, as my brother Marcus and I drove down to East Sussex to set up the camp for the first night, the weather was playing on my mind. I will never forget the feeling of the sheets of water flying into my face as we set up the marquee restaurant. To make matters worse we had been delayed by about four hours that morning because our catering van which would be the field kitchen to prepare the nightly three course meal for our guests had failed to get off the drive. This resulted with us still pitching camp as the sun set after which we then had to drive our van through the night to pick up an emergency kitchen (my in-laws barbecue).

As we pounded along winding country roads in the dark Marcus let out a slight laugh.

“What are you laughing at, tell me”

Marcus smiled and said to me: “Alex, in all the time I’ve worked as a chef. I’ve never seen anyone cook a fish pie on a barbecue”.

I love the fact that in almost all adversity my family’s instinctive reaction is to try and make light of the situation. So, in the dead of night, somewhere near Dorking, long after they had gone to bed we picked up the barbecue which had been left outside my in-laws house. At least now, we had the absolute bare minimum to prepare the food we needed for the weekend. As I returned to my flat in South East London, my wife Hayley who was slightly delirious, was icing a lemon drizzle cake and telling me: “the sandwiches are made, but they look a bit rustic!”

Day 1 – setting up camp

On the morning of the ride holiday, we were up at 7am, loading the van with the rest of the equipment. Thankfully it was an absolutely beautiful day, We then arrived at our bike supplier and picked up our guests bikes. As I open the back of the van to load the bikes, I was relieved to see that we had managed to have just enough space to get everything in. As I mentally patted myself on the back and getting ready to get back on the road, one of the bike rental guys tapped me on the shoulder and said, “where is this one going?” pointing to the lone bike that wasn’t in the van. (You can choose your own expletive that sounded in my head)

But there we were, parked on double yellow lines, a van absolutely full to the brim and somebody won’t have a bike to ride unless we could work this out. In the end, the bike sat in one of the passenger seats, leaving Marcus behind at Tonbridge, with the plan to drive back once the van is emptied at the vineyard.

We pulled into Wadhurst station just as the first of our guests got off the train. I jumped out the van and greeted everyone with a big “HELLO” hoping to distract them from the fact that my wife was now disentangling herself from the bike on the passenger seat.

As I swapped bikes for bags with the guests, it was a very emotional and surreal moment. Wine Rides had started as a “wouldn’t it be cool if“ idea I had mentioned to Hayley two years ago and now here I was handing out directions, fitting people for rental bikes and greeting the kind, adventurous and utterly wonderful people who parted with their money to come on this first trip. As Hayley led our first group of guests onto the country roads and into the distance, I felt an amazing sense of relief and pride. Marcus appeared on the next train, shopping bags in hand and two bike tyres over his shoulder. In my experience, very few people at work ever show that level of initiative. Working with family can prove to be a nightmare, but in this instance, I was totally delighted.

As our guests sat eating door wedge sandwiches which I’m reliably informed had “exactly the correct ratio of meat, bread and chutney”, Marcus and I set about building what was to become the Wine Rides emergency field kitchen. Someone once told me that a brilliant chef, can cook a three course meal with a teaspoon and a candle. Things weren’t quite that bad, but I’ll always be amazed and grateful for what Marcus managed to achieve with this setup.

We had the first fantastic wine tasting and vineyard tour at Carr Taylor whilst Marcus and Hayley prepared a meal consisting of asparagus and tarragon tart, made with seasonal local asparagus, fresh tarragon, local cream and eggs, a Spring lamb tagine made from local Romney Marsh lamb and seasonal veg followed by a wonderful rhubarb crumble. One of our guests, Jenny described it as “a wonderful hearty but healthy meal, served piping hot with no one waiting long to be served”.

Dinner was followed by a series of competitive croquet matches and marshmallows roasted over the campfire. Sleep deprived and exhausted Marcus, Hayley and I looked over at our happy guests and elated with the day’s outcome. As the sun set, it became apparent there was one rather crucial thing we had forgotten, and sadly, that was to pitch our own tent.

Day Two – cooking fish pie on a barbecue

As day two dawned, breakfast was had, coffee was consumed and tyres were replaced.

Our hairs, the faster riders, took to the hills again to go visit every last vineyard the Weald had to offer. And our hounds enjoyed a leisurely pedal to the seaside over the stunning grassland of Romney Marsh.

Marcus, Hayley and I had a day that involved packing down camp and transferring it to Sedlescombe, an organic vineyard, setting up in time for our guests’ arrival in the late afternoon. We worked like the clappers, and managed to keep to what was probably a slightly too brutal a schedule which had been calculated meticulously using a spreadsheet. It’s funny how an optimistic plan can quickly become a brutal punishing day’s work. Nonetheless, it taught us what we needed to know. I won’t bore you with the details of aggregating pegs, or doubling up on certain bits of equipment, but let’s just say Wine Rides Ltd has a logistics geek and they learned everything they needed to from the pilot weekend.

A wonderful organic wine tasting later and fish pie was on the menu for dinner.

I went to the kitchen area behind our marquee to ask Marcus, “how the hell have you managed to do that?” as he dished up what looked like a restaurant prepared perfectly crispy topped fish pie. Marcus gave me that serious look he often does. It is a look that says, “Alex, I know you’re the older brother but you are a total idiot”. He said in hushed tones pointing at the side of our marquee, “Alex, that looks like a wall, but it isn’t a wall.” And in even more hushed tones, “they can hear you.”

It turned out that during his enforced absence in Tonbridge, Marcus had found his way to a hardware store and purchased a blowtorch. Via slow and careful methodical cooking on a barbecue, he managed to raise the fish pie to the desired temperature and then used the blowtorch to finish the dish, thereby mimicking the effects of a conventional gas oven.

Day three - the pilgrims return

Our guests packed their bags and brought them down to our main camp before they departed for their final day’s ride back toward the station. We somehow managed to pack everything into one single van and had the delight of seeing our group pedalling through the absolutely stunning Wealden countryside. As we passed the Wine Rides cyclists, we waved and cheered them on.

So what did I learn?

The UK is a country which is subject to weather, but every good story needs a bit of weather. My wife can’t cut bread straight for toffee, but wonky bread creates the perfect ratio of bread, meat and chutney. You can’t achieve anything without delegation and you can’t keep a talented Chef down. If you leave Marcus or Hayley alone for more than a minute they start working even when they have been told to take a break and you’ll spend the rest of the weekend thanking them for it. But most of all every plan has built in assumptions. Some of your assumptions work out, and others don’t. In the case of Wine Rides the one assumption I made that I am most pleased came true is that this weekend creates a self-selecting group of wonderful people, who are really up for a challenge and want to enjoy themselves. Giving people like this a brilliant weekend away was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done and I will never forget the first of what I hope is many, many Wine Rides to come.

 

LCC readers can get 15% off the next Wine Rides holiday, a saving of £82.

To claim your discount you’ll need the voucher code shown on the LCC Member’s Page.  Details of how to access the page are on the back of your membership card.

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