Meadow Larks

September 21, 2019

It’s been a bit of a crunch week for me this week, with the Bigtown Bike Breakfast last Thursday (this was a roaring success, helped by half a primary school turning up on bikes (despite the school in question being one of the most difficult to get to by bike in Bigtown, so chapeau to the teachers) and tomorrow’s Fancy Women ride to organise (current status: finely balanced between panicking about nobody turning up and panicking that too many people will turn up and it will be chaos). There’s also the small matter of my Anniversaire which is next Saturday and didn’t even have a route planned until late last night. But it’s also September, and a gorgeously fine one to boot, and gardens wait for nobody, however busy they might be.

As always with my garden I have a lot of half-baked projects on the go and the current one is establishing a bit of a wildflower meadow in the bottom corner which will hopefully function as more hare habitat as well as joining up with the bit of the field that has been left uncut. There’s an easy – or at least quick – way to establish a meadow, which is to remove everything that’s already growing there (“herbicides may be needed to remove perennial weeds”, as the guides say, which seems a bit counterproductive for a wildlife-friendly garden) and then replant with a mix of seed, but anyone who’s been following my gardening adventures for a while will probably guess that’s not the way I’m going about it. As far as I can tell from what I’ve read, the other way to establish a wildflower meadow is to only cut a piece of ground once a year, while being progressively beastly to the grass – removing fertility from the soil and sowing yellow rattle, which parasitises grass – and encouraging other things to grow in its place.

Given that – as I’ve said before – what this garden really wants to do is grow grass, I may be in for an uphill struggle here. But nothing ventured – and at least it will save the other half some strimming.

future meadow

Watch this space …

So far, we’ve let the grass grow long in our chosen corner over the summer, and have now cut and raked it to remove some of the grass. I’ve also transplanted what I’m fairly certain are wood anemone rhizomes – but realistically, could be anything, so a nice surprise for spring – from another part of the garden, and started creating bare patches where I’ll sow yellow rattle seed and maybe some other wildflower seed that we were given at a wedding last year. Then, hopefully, it will just be a question of time, an occasional strim, and sitting back and watching our meadow bloom. Or, possibly more likely, entering into a battle royal with dock, nettles and brambles – and of course grass – until we give up and take it back to lawn …

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A Nice Day for a Climate Demo

September 20, 2019

If a freelancer goes on strike, does anyone notice? Apart from the freelancer, who then ends up having to work the missing hours at another time to catch up.That didn’t stop me heading down the hill into the clearing mist to attend Bigtown’s second youth strike, we old people having been invited to join in.

misty morning

I even made a sign this time, having failed the last time.

bikes not bypasses

This wasn’t on the scale or Edinburgh or Glasgow (or even Kirkcudbright, if the photos on Facebook were anything to go by) but it is an encouraging move and was mostly well received by the passing shoppers of Bigtown. It even turned into something of an ‘open mike’ demo with everyone who had anything to say invited to take a turn at the megaphone. The kids, I have to say, were better at this than the adults, not being given to anything like as much rambling.

No politicians bothered to attend, but after someone pointed out that the Secretary of State for Scotland’s offices were just round the corner, a couple of us did venture round afterwards to see if our MP fancied a word. He wasn’t in (and apparently almost never is – his consituency hours haven’t been upated since May), so we left our signs on his door instead.

And then we sat in the sun and put the world to rights for an hour or so. I suppose I should worry more that we’re able to do this in September at all …

Hopefully the weather will last until Sunday when we’ll be demoing again, in a far more fabulous way (for a certain value of fabulous, at least as far as I’m concerned).

Fancy Women Bike Ride


Buried Treasure

September 15, 2019

This might seem obvious in hindsight, but my top tip for the over fifties is not to spend your first weekend home after a fortnight’s holiday in the US attempting to undo all the overeating by going for your first run in several years, followed by two days of binge gardening in an attempt to undo two weeks’ neglect. Especially when the run in question was a 5km park run that involved a 20 mile* round trip bike ride to get there and the first chore on the gardening list was digging up your potatoes.

Neglected vegetable beds

Still, I’m pleased to report that I actually made it round the course without stopping or injuring myself, and even finished about two-thirds of the way down the pack (admittedly most of the people behind me were either running with a dog or a buggy or both, or started walking almost immediately the whistle blew at the start, but we take our victories where we can find them these days). If I can manage to get up and down the stairs without making a variety of wincing noises by the time next Saturday rolls around, I might even go back and see if I can improve my time.

weed-filled potato beds

There was a potato bed under there, somewhere

The potatoes were also a bit of a bonus. I’d planted five International Kidney seed potatoes (effectively Jersey Royals, but you can only call them that if they’re grown in Jersey so I can only imagine the Jersey Royal Marketing Board spent an entire meeting brainstorming the most offputting potato variety name they could come up with to discourage anyone from growing them elsewhere) in the greenhouse and we’ve had the most delicious potatoes from them, but all good things must come to an end, and the rest of the potato plants had started looking sickly and dying off back in July. Pretty soon they had all gone, and the weeds had taken over so I wasn’t hopeful when I put my fork in the ground but they’ve come up trumps with a reasonable crop:

dug up potatoes

About half the haul

Complete with a bonus florin which, given the speed with which our country appears to be going back to some imagined past, I fully expect to be legal currency some time soon.

two shilling coin

We also have one, count ’em, reasonable looking fennel bulb and a handful of what I will be marketing as ‘baby fennel’ if it doesn’t get a move on in the next couple of weeks.

fennel bulb

On the downside, it would appear that in our absence the mice discovered the beetroot and have spent a blissful undisturbed fortnight while we’ve been away hollowing almost every single one out, the bastards.

mouse-nibbled beetroot

I am now aching in all directions but I have at least made a start at restoring order to the raised beds, and the potatoes have all been sorted and stored, ready for the winter. Bring on your food shortages, Operation Yellowhammer, we’ll be fine. At least for as long as we are happy to survive on potatoes and beetroot-fed mice and whatever a florin will buy you these days …

partly dug potato patch

* I know, I know, but park runs are in kilometres and I still think of distances in miles and I’m not going to start converting either of them just for the sake of consistency.


Corn Fed

September 11, 2019

It’s fair to say, we’ve not gone short of a calorie or two (thousand) on this visit to the US. Most of them have been entirely delicious* and I don’t (currently) regret any of them for an instant but, having done a fair bit of driving and sitting in the last few days, there haven’t been too many opportunities to compensate for all the eating. Today was our last full day, and the forecast was to be fine, so we took the chance burn off some of the surplus if we could, starting with a bike ride with a view of wild turkeys (I’m stupidly excited about wild turkeys although apparently they’re quite common in these parts)…

wild turkeys

And a last chance to enjoy one of the many thousands of lakes.

Sucker lake

We then headed up to Stillwater for lunch which is historic (= has actual streets with shops on them)

Stillwater street

And has a converted grain elevator, which is actually pretty cool

stillwater elevator

Most importantly, and not to be outdone by Iowa, it has an impressive bridge, and although this one is mostly for cars, they let people use it too.

St Croix Crossing

As you can undoubtedly see, it’s an “extradosed” bridge – a hybrid of a cable-stayed and segmental box bridge structure.**

St Croix Crossing closer

Obviously we had to give it a go, especially when we realised we were effectively walking to Wisconsin (I think this is probably the first time I’ve ever crossed a state line on foot although I have walked across an international border that’s getting more contentious by the minute while the other half has walked across an ex-international border that now no longer exists, back in the days when it was the other side putting walls up, not us).

Wisconsin / Minnesota state line

All told it was about a mile there and a mile back – quite long enough to walk on a hot afternoon, although there will soon be a nice circular bike trail once the historic lift bridge is back in action. Just enough to burn off a healthy lunch, with calories to spare to cycle down to the local farmers’ market in Shoreview and buy some more food and rack them all up again and then some.

historic lift bridge

Back to Blighty tomorrow, if we are spared, with, undoubtedly, enough fat reserves to survive the most disastrous of Brexits.

* And can I just say that of all the delicious calories we’ve had on this trip, the sweetcorn (50c per cob at the farmers’ market) has probably been the chief revelation. If you’ve been buying sad little shorn cobs wrapped in clingfilm in British supermarkets you have no idea what you’re missing.

** according to the helpful information sign along the way

 


The High Trestle Trail: Non-Silo Thinking

September 7, 2019

grain silos

Apologies for those who are here for the gardening, hares and persistent light rain – normal service will be returning soon when we return home next week. But meanwhile we have been down to Iowa for a couple of days and our hosts were keen to stick us on a couple of bikes and send us off on their local tourist attraction, the High Trestle Trail (‘it’s a 46 mile ride but serious bikers like you should be fine’ … um).

iowa farms

I can’t tell you much about utility cycling in Ankeny or Des Moines (although there were an impressive number of bikes parked outside the local elementary school as we set off in the morning) but I can tell you that Iowa takes cycle tourism seriously. As well as an annual mass ride across the state (around 450 miles; Pedal for Scotland, eat your heart out) they’ve invested big time in leisure cycling with a massive 1,800 miles of cycle trails. And by ‘cycle trail’ we’re not talking ‘a goat track interrupted by steps’ or even ‘a blue sign alongside an A-road‘, but (at least as far as the route we took) something that’s an absolute pleasure to ride on a bike

toilets and bike parking

Complete with actual toilets, oh glory be.

honesty lights

Oh and lights sold on an honesty box system.

It helped that we chose a glorious day to cycle out to ‘the bridge’ (as it’s labelled on the direction markers) with a nice breeze (more of that later) to counteract the forecast 30 degree heat. The cycle to the start of the trail was mostly along the usual American shared-use sidewalk (‘double wide’ to accommodate cyclists) but once on the route it was completely off road, almost entirely level, and smoothly paved (unlike many of the roads we crossed, which in a reversal of normal practice, were often just gravel).

flat tire lounge

This unpaved gravel road is for the cars – the bike path is paved. Sustrans take note.

These routes are largely intended to be a tourist attraction and the towns we passed through are clearly keen to take advantage of all those passing hungry cyclists.

BBQ sign

 

This shouldn’t be rocket science, and yet it’s something we often forget to do in the UK – sending cyclists out into beautiful countryside, often bypassing any towns with any actual shops in them, and then neglecting to do anything to take their money from them.

We were a little nervous about committing ourselves to such a long ride on unfamiliar bikes (especially once we realised we were riding a strengthening tailwind) but the trail was so pleasant and the miles ticked away so easily, it seemed churlish not to go and at least look at the bridge, so sustained by granola bars (and a free banana) from a shop in a small town en route, we pedalled on.

High Trestle Bridge

The bridge was entirely worth it, too. Photos don’t really do it justice, but I did wonder at the sanity – and climbing skills – of the graffiti artist who had tagged the nearest pier.

view from the bridge

Bridge admired, and ridden over, there was nothing to do but turn around and go back again, but first we had to inject some of our tourist dollars into the local economy, in an extremely pleasurable way (not quite up to the standards of our taco safari, but very tasty nonetheless and the standard ‘feed a family of four’ serving size was welcome after a morning of steady pedalling).

The last 12 miles were into what was now a stiffish headwind, and my bottom was beginning to comment unfavourably on the non-Brooks saddle on my otherwise lovely borrowed bike and wonder in increasingly insistent terms where its comfy leather hammock was, but we got our heads down and took turns to be in front and before we knew it we were back at our hosts and ready to go out and eat All the Food once more.

If you’re ever in Iowa (and why not?) I would highly recommend getting onto a bike and exploring the trails. Now all we have to do is build something of similar quality in Scotland and start hoovering up those tourism pounds.

Bison

Moo-I-5 might need to up their game a little though …


Shoreview: A Suburban Cycling Adventure

September 4, 2019

So we might be staying in the depths of American suburbia – but that doesn’t mean we’re not attempting to get around by bike … In fact, it’s been a pleasant surprise to discover that it’s actually easier to cycle around this particular corner of suburbia than it is in Bigtown – as long as you’ve got time on your hands.

So far we’ve been out and about a few times – enough to get a feel for the place and work out our way around. Crucially, we’ve also tried actually cycling to places, rather than just going out for a nice bike ride – I reckon there are very few towns and cities where you can’t find at least one nice bike route if you’re not fussy about where you go or whether there will be anything to do when you get there.

Snail lake park

Shoreview and the surrounding areas has plenty of those sort of routes – in a state famous for its lakes, there are plenty of places where you can cycle along through parkland and alongside the water to your heart’s content.

roadside cyclepath

But you can also cycle along most of the main roads completely away from traffic – which is not so pleasant, but much more helpful if you’re trying to get to a shop (any shop …) or anywhere that isn’t a lake.

big intersection

Not somewhere where you want to be ‘finding a gap in the traffic’ …

We’ve felt catered for at every crossing, which is a good thing because some of the intersections were not for the faint hearted, and we’ve found very few gaps in the network (at least in Shoreview – the next suburb down is less well catered for, and apparently in the nearby private estate the police will come and escort you off the premises if you attempt to cycle into it). The drivers have been unfailingly nice (another thing the state is famous for) – sometimes to a fault when we ended up in a standoff with the driver of a massive pick up, each trying to let the other go first.

bike locker at bus stop

In short, Shoreview passes the ‘could I live here?’ test – with pretty much all everyday journeys eminently cycleable and there are even bike lockers at some of the bus stops, so you could go properly multimodal should you need to go further afield. Its cycle friendliness is borne out by the other people we’ve seen out on bikes – from a high proportion of women among those riding to plenty of kids cycling independently – and even a couple of teenage girls, the true unicorns of the Anglo Saxon cycling world.

baguette and bag

No bike basket and the baguettes prove too tempting at the farmers’ market? No problem … (that is what the side pockets on your backpack is for, right?)

What there were not, were all that many other cyclists (aside from out on the lakeside trails). There were a few parked up at today’s farmers’ market, but otherwise we’ve had the bike parking more or less to ourselves at the various shopping locations we’ve stopped at. The problem is that, lovely as all the lakes, parks, spacious houses, leafy gardens and wide roads with ample room for bikes are, they do mean that everything is a long, long way from everywhere else. So, apart from kids and stubborn visitors from the UK with time on their hands, everyone just drives, because it’s a heck of a lot quicker.

The more I look into what makes for mass cycling, the more I realise that it’s complicated. Yes, the infrastructure is important, but that’s a necessary condition not a sufficient one. You also need places to be in easy reach, for shops not to stand marooned in an acre of parking, for the wait for the green man to be brief, and for driving simply not to be the easiest option. That’s happening in the cities – but if Shoreview is anything to go by, the suburbs have a lot further to go.

boardwalk cycling

Coming up next – cycling in Iowa if (as my father used to say on his blog) we are spared.


Onna Stick

August 30, 2019

It’s a sad truth, but when you’re on US time and the bulk of your followers are on UK time, your scintillating Minnesota State Fair Twitter thread is going to largely fall on deaf ears. This is especially so when the only members of your entire UK-based Twitter timeline who are awake are lying staring in the dark at the ceiling contemplating the latest grim twist in UK politics* and aren’t interested in carnival princesses being carved in butter, for some reason.

But – should you be looking for light relief, proof that Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler is alive and well and living in the Midwest, and an 11-day extravaganza that can only be described as a cross between an eating competition and an agricultural show, the Minnesota State Fair is the place to be.

big Fat Bacon on a stick

Although I think the US version of Moo-I-5 lacks a little in animation.

inflatable cows

We spent a glorious four hours there yesterday and I think we poked into most of the nooks and crannies and managed to try pretty much all the major food groups that can be served onna stick. We climbed what could be climbed, marvelled at tractors, slid down the Big Slide, said hello to the cows, and emerged somewhat footsore, excessively well fed and more knowledgeable about walleye conservation than we were when we went in.

I also finally found a slice of frozen chocolate-dipped cheesecake onna stick – something I once tasted when I was 19 and travelling round the States on the train, and have never managed to track down again. I may have mentioned it a few times to the other half because he was the one who spotted the stall amidst the competing stands offering alligator (onna stick), Pronto Pups (onna stick) and mini-donut beer (not onna stick, but I suspect not from lack of trying). Readers, it was exactly as delicious as I remember it from 30 years ago. And there’s no photo because I scoffed it instantly and wasn’t going to let anything slow me down.

All in all, the fair was $15 well spent (plus how much?! for the cheesecake) and should Brexit end in the way the worst case scenarios predict, we’ll be able to survive the resulting food shortages for at least a week just on the fat stores we laid down over the course of the day. And you can’t say fairer than that.

cow at the fair

* I know we’re not all ardent remainers here on this blog, but I can’t see how the current political shenanigans do anything but make us look like a banana republic without the bananas. Or a stick.