OK, So Maybe TWO More Bins will Fix it

August 11, 2022

When it comes to composting, I’ve found, there are a number of camps: those who make a rough bin out of pallets, those who swear by the compost daleks, and those who prefer the high-tech compost tumbler approach. And then there’s our garden, in which we are now resorting to all three in a bid to somehow be able to compost plant material faster than the garden can produce it.*

In the past couple of months, the tumbler has not been keeping up with the mowing and the daleks have not been keeping up with the weeding, after a bit too much neglect in spring meant the weeds have been even more rampant than usual (perhaps its compost Tardises we need). The resulting emergency piles of vegetation left lying around the garden were beginning to take on an air of permanence so the other half has cracked and repurposed some pallets and doors in time-honoured fashion to add more capacity to compost corner:

Composting space in the garden with compost bins, tumbler and two new heaps made with pallets and old doors

Any illusion we might have had that this might be a permanent solution was dispelled by a morning’s work (although to be fair that was mostly moving the giant haystack of weeded material off the back patio into its new home). Hopefully it will bed down a bit before the next bout of weeding so we don’t have to start the second bay prematurely. But I’m ruling nothing out.

Composting bays with one already filled.

* Visiting last month, my cousin estimated that if we turned over two-thirds of the garden to compost management, the resulting loss of weed-growing capacity would mean we might just about break even.


August 6, 2022

Recently (having realised I missed it), I resurrected the idea of tracking my Eddington number. Having been bitten by the loss of my tracking spreadsheet, and not wishing to get involved in the murky waters of Strava (even though it might have made the latest regional transport analysis a tiny bit less skewed), I have gone low tech:

Notebook with 'Eddington Rides' on the cover

I don’t do many Eddington rides – I’m unofficially aiming for one a month, where anything over 37 miles would count towards increasing my number, but longer is better – so it’s not a massive bureaucratic burden to write a brief note of each qualifying ride and then update the various tallies accordingly. Indeed, I’m hoping that, in time, the notes themselves will act as a prompt to remember some memorable days (and nights) out on the bike, even if this blog itself is long gone.

Yesterday was a case in point. The occasion – a chance to meet up with a friend who is holidaying out west for a walk and a catch up. The distance – a total of 55 miles, largely on the quiet roads we do so well out here …

Road lined with beeches

Along wooded river valleys …

narrow road with woods on either side

And up into what I think of as raven country …

Empty road across moorland

Coming back, I had a tailwind, and on a warm late summer afternoon there’s really nothing finer than bowling along for miles and miles and miles on an open empty road with the wind at your back. No pressure of time, nothing to achieve, nobody to please but myself and nowhere I needed to be except (eventually) home. It’s not something I’d want to do every day or even every week, but yesterday filled a hole I didn’t even know needed filling until it was gone.

Eddington number tallies

Getting one step closer to increasing my E-number is just a bonus, really.

Repositioning Cruise

August 3, 2022

It’s been a busy week; we came back from our US holiday with just a week to prepare for a massive family reunion, possibly the first time the whole of my mother’s side of the family have been together since the family Christmases started getting out of hand once my generation started having children of their own.* Fortunately for all concerned, even though we held the event in Bigtown in honour of the Pepperpots’ new home, I wasn’t on the organising committee (my idea of a party being going for a bike ride instead). Instead, my sisters managed the impressive logistical feat of assembling nearly 30 of us in one place ranging in age from 3 to 85 and did so remotely, and what can I say, I’m glad they did and I’m glad it wasn’t me as I’m shattered enough as it is.

Selfie with family members

My contribution to the weekend was more limited and consisted of helping assemble a motley fleet of bicycles for those who preferred to be pedal powered over the weekend. Bicycles make wonderful transport but they are also a bit of a bugger to transport themselves, resulting in sort of logic puzzle where you’re trying to get a fox, a chicken and a cabbage across a river, but with a big hill instead of a river and a couple of Bromptons, a hired mountain bike, a Paperbike and other machines standing in for the rest of the cast. This meant the weekend started with my sister driving my nephew up to our house, and swapping him for my cousin (do try and keep up at the back) so my nephew could ride the other half’s commuter bike down to Bigtown, and ended with a relay arrangement that for reasons too complicated to go into involved me riding twice into Bigtown on the big bike first to retrieve the Brompton from one spot and then leave it in another (and, the ultimate indignity) actually walk somewhere in between to make it all join up.

The end result of all this is that two thirds of our working bike fleet are now at my parents’ house, and I’ve conclusively determined that Covid has had no effect on my ability to cycle up our hill. We may have to resort to the car to repatriate the last of the bikes (I’ve towed the Brompton down the hill on the trailer in the past but I’m not sure I fancy the return trip) and I might just invest in a combination lock in case we ever decided to do something similar again.

* I recall sending an email out to the wider family after the last Christmas we actually managed to have all together titled ‘a modest proposal’ although, to be clear, I was only suggesting finding self-catering accommodation, not actual cannibalism.

Literary Criticism, Rural Style

July 27, 2022
Calm river with early morning light

Cycling into Bigtown early yesterday morning in something of a jetlagged daze, I noticed a car waiting in the road ahead. As I passed it, the window wound down and a waving hand emerged. I stopped to see if I could be of assistance and it turned out to be one of my road pals – the people I regularly wave to and occasionally stop and chat to on my regular trips into town. Along with the yellow raincoat woman with the big dogs, the very smiley woman with the small dog (we always exchange very enthusiastic ‘hiyas’ and I think now neither of us is certain whether or not we actually know each other or have just been saying hello for so long we think we might) and the small chap with the large tree (he doesn’t always cycle with a tree, to be fair) who updates me with a slice of his life every time we’re on the same road together, there’s the woman I met in the shop who had been waving at me from her car for months and hadn’t quite realised I wouldn’t recognise her when she wasn’t wearing a silver jeep.* And now she had somehow worked out that I had written a book (have I mentioned that I’ve got a book out at all?) read it and really enjoyed it and wished to let me know.

Anyway, she was delighted to hear I’d be happy to sign her copy and was genuinely planning to achieve this by just keeping it with her as she drove around until we bumped into each other again, which isn’t actually the worst idea in this part of the world (in the end we decided that exchanging phone numbers might be a tiny bit more efficient). All of which made for a nice boost for a tired brain as I pedalled on into town.

This has reminded me that I did rashly promise a book signing by bike this year. So far I haven’t managed to work out a window of time, weather and fitness to make this happen but I have not abandoned the idea. And if anyone is too impatient to wait for me to get it sorted, they too can just randomly roam the back lanes of Bigtownshire until they bump into me. It’s surely only a matter of time.

* I could have sworn I’d blogged about this incident, but I haven’t been able to find it again so apologies if I’m repeating myself here.

What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been

July 25, 2022

And we’re back, after not quite 24 hours of travel back from the US, mildly surprised to have made it almost without a hitch AND with our luggage to boot. TransPennine Express had laid on a little mild travel chaos in the form of a broken train door for our journey home, and it was sobering to walk past the massive queue to get into Manchester Airport as we made our way out, but on the whole the return trip went about as well as anything involving two planes, three trains and a drive home could be expected to go.

Swimming in the lake

As holidays go, it’s fair to say, we’ve had better ones. Fortunately we were staying with family and could isolate ourselves effectively enough on the screened back porch, enjoying the hot weather and trying not to snack too much. The sole upside of getting Covid while on vacation is that you really are forced to kick back and relax (despite, in my case, having a bit of work to do, because being on holiday and contracting coronavirus don’t stop the joys of the freelance life…). And now we are recovered and we are rested, jetlag excepted, and we even managed a bit of holiday-type activities towards the end once the Covid had relented.

Man 'hovering' on two jets of water

(We didn’t actually do the hoverboard thing, just admired the guy attempting to look nonchalant while being held up several metres in the air by two jets of water)

I even got a bit of cycling in towards the end. The rides were all pretty short and gentle and on the flat, but didn’t leave me feeling out of breath or too exhausted. I’ve heard from lots of cycling people that Covid can leave you pretty wiped out, even (or especially) if you were pretty fit to begin with. This afternoon I’ll be heading down into town and the ride back up our hill will be the moment of truth. Although, if I do struggle, it may just be three weeks of largely lounging around and eating that are at fault. Wish me luck.

Bike trail through the woods

Be Careful What you Wish For

July 18, 2022

Did I say I expected to be spending a bit more time sitting down this week after the exertions of our weekend in New York?

I’ll be honest, I was expecting to be spending at least some of it sitting on this

But instead of tooling around on my sister-in-law’s sweet little titanium road bike, checking out the best swimming beaches (and Dairy Queens) and learning not to be afraid of drop handlebars,* we have instead been sitting around on my brother-in-law’s back porch with Covid.

What can I say, it’s not a fun disease. The symptoms appear to be completely random, and change by the hour, although the ‘throat that feels like swallowing ground glass’ has hung about for longer than I’d like, along with sneezing, headaches, earache, eyeball ache (a new one for me) and – most random of all – having absolutely no desire whatsoever to go for a bike ride.

Today did feel as if we’ve turned the corner, so hopefully we are on the mend. Fingers crossed we may even get to meet up with the rest of the family before our holiday is over.

I might even manage to get back on the bike.

* The last time I rode my sister-in-law’s bike (about 20 years ago) I went straight over the handlebars, having failed to factor in the fact that some people actually maintain their brakes so that they stop the bike quite suddenly, rather than giving off an advisory squeal as mine mostly did at the time.

Take the A Train

July 12, 2022
Brooklyn Bridge

So we made it to New York and it’s been a full on few days of walking for miles, getting confused by the subway (the trick, I’ve discovered, is to forget everything you know about taking the tube or reading the tube map and instead treat it as a system for trapping unwary tourists into heading the wrong way on the wrong line and that will be $2.75 to turn around and go the other way, thank you very much), and taking pretty much every form of transport available (ferry, the dreaded Uber) except bikes.

the 'A train' pulling in to a Subway station

What’s that, you cry? Not cycling? Isn’t there a bike share scheme? Well, yes there is, but it’s expensive compared to the subway ($15 for a day pass, and then you have to keep under the 30 minute limit or its another $4 per ride, versus $2.75 a trip on the subway), and even with lots of wide and mostly well-protected bike lanes it did all look a bit scary. Had I had a native guide, or been on my own, I might have given it a go, but as it is, of the two people I met up with (other than the other half’s family), one was from Edinburgh

And the only native New Yorker (the lovely Ellen who mans (or womans – and she’s the person to ask if that’s correct) the Grammar Table) admitted she was too scared to ride a bike in the city either, though she does walk everywhere.

Brooklyn Bridge bike lane

That said, it’s clear that the city has done a lot to try and make cycling more attractive. It was impressive to see wide, protected, bike lanes along the main north-south avenues (at least on the west side of Manhattan) and also on some of the cross streets.

Parking protected bike lane

There was enough parking in the unprotected bike lanes to make it a bit hit-or-miss otherwise and the general sense that New Yorkers take no prisoners, whatever their mode of transport, might make for some high stakes mistakes. Even so, had we had a few more days in the city, I might have given it a go once I’d got my bearings a bit more (trying to ride a bike on unfamiliar infrastructure with everything on the wrong side of the road is bad enough, combining it with navigating is almost impossible), if only to give my poor aching feet a break.

High Line Park

What was really nice was the clear commitment to taking space away from cars. I enjoyed the High Line Park, as a nice place to visit, but what I really liked was where they’d turned Broadway into a pedestrian plaza.

Broadway closed off from traffic to make a pedestrian space

There were loads of parklets, some more finished looking than others (New York infrastructure is pretty rough and ready looking – if a large concrete block will do the job, then that’s what they use and you have to admit it’s effective). The little on-street cabins that all the restaurants had been allowed to open during Covid were also a boon. I think at times my companions might have preferred to sit indoors in the actual air conditioning but I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to sit and have a meal in what had used to be a parking space. Apparently there is a debate over whether they will continue, but they seem like a straightforward win to me. Add in the weekly ‘Open Streets’ events further closing off streets to traffic every Sunday, and there’s a clear commitment towards rebalancing the city’s streets towards pedestrians and cyclists.

Parklet in Brooklyn

However, after four days in what to us felt like baking heat (and Ellen described as ‘the last of the cool weather’), the main takeaway for me was the importance of street trees in making a hot and humid city bearable. New York has a surprising amount of them, along with lots of shady little parks with playgrounds and fountains. I note that there are heat warnings again in the UK. If we can’t put bike lanes everywhere – or even if we can – can we at least start planting trees?

shady tree-lined street

And the ferry is an absolute bargain, especially on a hot day. The same price as the subway, but with spectacular views. We’ll draw a veil over the fact that some sort of transport chaos meant we had to wait an hour in the queue (standing on aching feet after walking all the way from Central Park to get to the ferry stop). It still felt a worthy way to end our trip.

view of Manhattan from the ferry

And now we’re in Minnesota in the suburbs, where the driving (and actually the cycling) are a lot easier. Stand by for more adventures of a gentler kind…

And We’re Off (Fingers Crossed)

July 6, 2022

As I think I’ve mentioned before, 2022 is the year of doing-things-originally-planned-in-2020, including a couple of much-postponed weddings. And so we find ourselves in Manchester awaiting a flight to New York tomorrow for a couple of weeks with the other half’s family – the first time we’ve seen them all since 2019. It’s been the usual scramble to get away, concluding with assembling all the pot plants that will need watering in one place for ease of access, and wondering just how on earth one unwary purchase of a spider plant about five years ago has turned into the Temperate House collection at Kew. Apparently, they breed. Who knew?

Assembled pot plants

Flying from Manchester to avoid the start of the Scottish school holidays price hikes north of the border seemed like a very good wheeze a few months ago, before the ‘flight chaos’ headlines started, but we’re staying in a hotel within sight* of the airport and don’t have a massively early flight, so we should be able to weather at least a normal amount of chaos (from my mouth to God’s ear, and all that). We’ve already managed to get this far without being stymied by train cancellations (the Trans Pennine Express service around our neck of the woods having become largely theoretical), COVID, or family emergencies. It’s starting to feel as if maybe, just maybe, we might make it off on holidays (assuming we can tear ourselves away from the breaking news, with the government apparently collapsing around our ears.

Assuming we make it, stand by for adventures in New York and the midwest, with undoubtedly some cycling along the way…

* But not, it turns out, within easy walking distance unless you like bolting across four-lane highways and hacking your way through a bus station.

New Hare Just Dropped

June 30, 2022
Path and borders at Broughton House

Yesterday I was speaking at an event at Broughton House. My photos don’t really do it justice but it has a garden that is, for me, pretty much the platonic ideal – not huge, but a glorious haven with wonderful borders, a productive but decorative veg plot, benches thoughtfully placed in a variety of sheltered spots and an optimistically large number of sundials when you consider the climate we have around here. It even had a resident cat who graciously allowed herself to be stroked and then plodded around in front of us as if giving us the tour.

Lawn, sundial and benches at Broughton House

My own garden is … somewhat less manicured, although it is about a thousand percent more manicured than it was at the start of the month. In fact, my clearing efforts have overwhelmed the capacity of the compost daleks so I have had to resort to just piling up the resulting weeds, to the point where there’s already a dalek’s worth waiting to go in.

Large pile of weeds

Part of the point of my latest frantic binge gardening efforts have been to get it into a state where two octogenarians can safely reach the greenhouse to water it, for we are going away next week to the US for almost three weeks, leaving the Pepperpots in charge of the tomatoes (and keeping up with the salad). As our garden is already one big trip hazard (whoever laid it out was very fond of shallow steps with treads made out of old wooden sleepers, aka the slipperiest substance known to man), I was keen not to add to the dangers. It’s not quite National Trust standard, but you can at least now see where the paths are supposed to be and watch your footing.

slightly overgrown path by fruit cage

Anyway, as the title of this blog post suggests, our garden does still fulfil its primary function of being wee hare habitat; something that would be less likely if it was at the more manicured end of the spectrum (or, indeed, had a resident cat). The latest leveret is a lot less chilled than its predecessor – it hasn’t come close enough to be usefully photographed, for example. But it has got wonderfully striking extra-dark tips to its ears which swivel constantly as it nibbles the clover on the drive before bolting the minute we step outside. It’s also got a worrying habit of hiding under the car when it rains, something to bear in mind when we need to drive anywhere.

Every year I try and work out how to combine an intermittently busy life with a steady application of gardening effort, and every year I revert to a cycle of binge and neglect. I’ll never have a garden quite like the one at Broughton House, but one day I hope to have one that approaches its level of charm, while still providing a steady supply of young hares to enchant us. That’s surely not too much to ask, is it?

Rode to the Sun

June 28, 2022
Sunrise at Cramond at the end of the ride.

So, we did it. And if you want to know what 100 miles of cycling and no sleep does to the brain, consider that 4:15 on Sunday morning found me standing in a church hall, completely stumped by the simple question: tea or coffee? ‘It’s always the simple questions that are the hardest to answer’ the woman who was asking remarked kindly, although had she tried me with anything more complicated I doubt I’d have done much better.

Cup of tea and bacon roll

Anyway, I had tea, and a bacon roll which was the single best thing I had ever eaten, apart from the flapjack that Edinburgh Night Ride had given me at 2 in the morning when the hunger hit. The sky then was just beginning to lighten after never really getting completely dark and our trousers (if not our socks) had dried out after the thunderstorm that hit us just as we completed the big climb (but, crucially, before we’d managed to get our extra waterproof layers on). That was the point when I began to feel that this thing, this mad idea, this terrifying challenge that’s been looming over me for the last few months, was going to be doable.

It’s been a weekend of firsts: first evening meal eaten outside a Tesco (‘like proper long distance cyclists’ as Back on my Bike pointed out), watching an earlier rainstorm pass overhead, first attendance (briefly) at a midnight rave, not least one at an abandoned pub in the middle of nowhere, where the drugs of choice were bananas and Smidge (the midgies of Tweedsmuir could not believe their luck as a horde of sweaty cyclists appeared out of nowhere). First actual century ride (our total distance once we’d made it back to the city centre was 103 miles), first overnight ride – indeed the first time since my teens that I’ve been up all night for anything except an overnight flight. First mass cycling event that wasn’t a protest (although there was plenty of overlap with people I knew from POP). Most of these things I feel I have no need to repeat having ticked them off the list. In particular, while I’ll probably do more centuries, and maybe even longer distances, I don’t think I need to pull another all nighter.

Tesco with approaching dark cloud

That said, it was amazing to ride along roads that would have been terrifying at any other time of the day. Once we got out of Moffat, the few other cars on the road appeared to belong to long-suffering partners picking up their significant other (and their precious bike) in the small hours. It was quite something to see a road sign that said ‘Edinburgh 29 miles’ and know that it actually would be 29 miles, because we would be taking the direct route, not wiggling around on back roads to avoid the traffic. This was fortunate as I don’t think by the end of it I was fit to deal with anything other than other cyclists. I do remember thinking that if anything happened – a deer running out in front of us, or the need to make any sort of decision (like ‘tea or coffee?’) then I wouldn’t be able to handle it at all. (The photo below is not only the most flattering one of me I’ve seen for a long time, it also accurately reflects the amount of cognitive functioning I had at the time …)

Group photo at the finish, where my head has been obliterated by the sun

As cyclists say, this was definitely ‘type 2 fun’ – an event best enjoyed in retrospect, rather than at the time (although I never felt any envy, only a pang of pity, whenever a car passed with a bike loaded up on the back). It was great to hit the beach just as the sun appeared, and share war stories with my fellow riders, and spend the rest of the day doing absolutely nothing and not even feeling bad about it (you can forget your baths and your scented candles – it turns out ‘total exhaustion’ is the true road to relaxation). I mostly got the fuelling part right (and didn’t even have to break into the emergency pork pies), and it was good to know that there are road surfaces in Scotland that worse than anything I’ve encountered in Bigtownshire, and that is saying something. Next time, I’ll know to bring better waterproofs, and gloves that don’t tie themselves into a knot internally when they’re wet so you can’t get your hands back into them.

Except that there really, really, really isn’t going to be a next time. Really. And I expect you all to hold me to that …