Compare and Contrast

July 17, 2018

Arran in the sunset

Well, I’m back, after 100 odd miles, five ferries, three trains, one coach (do not speak to me of rail replacement services) and a fun four days exploring the delights of cycle touring in Scotland. As I’m sure you don’t want a blow by blow account of our adventures (you can get a feel for them on Twitter if you really do), here’s a few random thoughts instead, starting with the good …

hills sea and sky

Arran and Bute are lovely and you should totally go.

climbing the hill in Arran

I have to confess I still have a very vague idea about the differences between all the many Scottish islands and tend to default towards imagining them as being bleak and windswept but the inner islands are much prettier than you might expect, with wooded coves and cottages with roses round the doors, as well as the usual quota of hills and cliffs and castles and moorland roads. Arran, of course, (she says, quoting from a tourist leaflet she found in a B and B) is known as Scotland in miniature, with a little bit of everything while Bute struck me as a bit like a bijoux Isle of Wight, complete with a somewhat faded Victorian seaside resort, secluded coves and sandy beaches, and rolling rural roads away from the main (only) town of Rothesay.

Scalpsie bay in Bute

The ferries are completely bike friendly.

soggy five ferries ticket

Having experienced the joys of taking bikes on trains during our last tour, I can’t say I was looking forward to the ferry part of this experience, despite that being the whole point. But bikes and ferries proved a much happier combination with no sense that we might ever have risked not getting our bikes on (we arrived in Arran on the morning of some big bike event and apparently they had transported over 200 bikes the day before). In some ferries racks were provided for bikes, in others they were just leant up against a bulkhead but in all cases, we were treated like customers who had a precious thing they wanted transported safely, and not like potential terrorists who were bringing at best a nuisance and a trip hazard on board…

more bikes than cars

Bikes outnumbering cars on one ferry crossing

The weather can’t (quite) spoil a good cycle tour.

After miraculous weather in France, and 3 out of 4 gloriously fine days this weekend, we did get absolutely drenched on the Sunday. We were lucky it was only one day, and we’d booked accommodation that night with plentiful radiators for draping wet kit on (ah the smell of wet merino in the morning) but it turns out that no item of clothing, however expensive, is waterproof in Scotland when Scotland puts its mind to it (Ortlieb panniers are another matter). I think if we’d had more wet days it would have put a dampener on things, but it wasn’t too cold or windy, we were in good company, and in the end it was fine.

cycling in the rain

But blue signs do not a cycle route make.

A83

ceci n’est pas un cycle route

I’m sorry to bang on about cycling infrastructure all the time, but there was one massive omission on the five ferries route which stood out all the more after our French experience (and indeed our ride from Paisley to the coast on NCN7 which was mostly really excellent). Even though much of what we were doing was nominally part of the National Cycle Network, this effectively amounted to a few directional signs. While some rural roads don’t need separate cycle tracks, as traffic and speeds are low, this was not the case for quite a few stretches on our route. The A83 to Tarbert, on the Mull of Kintyre was a particularly bad example. It was a wide, fairly busy A road, with not even a strip of white paint to indicate any space for cycling. It was doable – we’re all grown ups and experienced cyclists – but it was not by any stretch of the imagination fun. Compared with the Velodyssee route, when we barely had to tangle with traffic at all, it’s a bit of an embarrassment.

climbing on Arran

The islands were better, if only because there were just fewer cars, but there were still far too many roads where we had to ride in single file, pulling in to allow impatient drivers to pass, or taking the lane around blind bends to prevent a close squeeze. At no time did we feel actually frightened on our bikes, but ‘you probably won’t die’ is hardly a recommendation for what is supposed to be a holiday.

NCN 7

Here’s how to do it: space for cycling AND a pub making the most of the passing trade

The result, sadly, is that routes like the five ferries will continue to be a challenge – one for the hardcore cyclist to take on, rather than something a family could enjoy. And that means that – like so many beautiful places in Scotland – Bute and Arran will continue to be dominated by car-borne tourism, something that will end up eroding the very thing people come to enjoy. It doesn’t have to be that way.

beach cycle parking

Just imagine if somewhere like Bute seized the opportunity to build cycle tourism and put in the infrastructure it needs: not just bike friendly ferries and the odd piece of cycle parking, but proper space for cycling all round the island, and marketed itself as a cycling island, the way similar-sized places in France do. Even if they never outnumber those who come by car, people on bikes are after all, kind of bonus tourists: easier to fit onto ferries, needing less space to park, not wearing out the roads – and always ready to stop and eat their body weight in cake should the opportunity arise.

cafe and patisserie

I don’t want to end on a negative note because we genuinely did enjoy the trip, even the hills (and maybe even the rain). But it could have been so much better – and Scotland would benefit if it was.

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Ferry Exciting

July 12, 2018

So, I’m back, and while all part of me really wants to do is get on with the infinite amount of gardening that has been building up in my absence, that will have to wait until next week because I’m off again…

weeds in the drive

Our driveway. The other half may need a machete when he returns with the car …

This next trip is a little bit more my speed than last weekend’s flying visit to America: the gang that brought you #5GoMad in Amsterdam, Seville and, er, Enfield are now heading west for the Five Ferries – something that is variously described as a challenge (for those hardy enough to attempt it in 24 hours) or the much-more-my-speed ‘island hopping adventure‘ for us wusses who are doing it over three days.

This is something that was hatched a while back, when the weather was unfeasibly fine, and I had absolutely nothing planned for the summer except going nowhere and catching up with myself, so a four day jaunt seemed just the ticket. Since then, life has happened, and I’m suddenly too busy again – but then again that was always the way.

And, besides, even though the heat wave has nominally broken, the forecast remains uncharacteristically fine for Scotland (everyone is wandering round Bigtown in shorts and sandals as if we were in the Mediterranean) and I think we’ll be talking about the summer of 2018 for decades to come. I don’t want to be looking back at how I spent it crouched over a laptop and weeding the vegetable beds, when I could have been wheeling round Arran and Bute in the sunshine. The weeding can wait (the laptop, unfortunately, is coming along for the ride).

leeks in raised bed

And besides, it turns out raised beds do make weeding a whole lot easier than it used to be

weeds and flowers in the garden

And we’re all about informal relaxed plantings these days now, right?


Eating a Rainbow

July 4, 2018

Never mind all that gadding about in the sunshine in France, I hear you cry: what of the garden? How is your veg plot growing?

veg plot in july

Well, funny you should ask that – thanks to the fine weather and a helpful neighbour it’s all looking rather good, at least for now, although the hares have done their best to remove any danger we might have a glut of french beans by nibbling the seedlings as they emerge from the ground. They don’t seem to have quite the same taste for kale and rainbow chard though…

Unfortunately, as we were on our way back from France we had news of a family bereavement which means that rather than spending the next few weeks as we’d planned, going absolutely nowhere, the other half has already had to hot foot it back to the US and I will be following him for the weekend.

rainbow chard

This has left me home alone with no company but the hares, and the feeling that I ought to be at least trying to keep up with the garden’s production before it all starts to get out of hand. As someone who is not one of nature’s vegetable eaters, this is proving a bit of an effort. On the other hand, after a trip during which I struggled to eat even one serving of veg and one of fruit a day, let alone five of them, it will probably be good for me. Even if I’m still yet to find a completely convincing recipe for rainbow chard.

garden veg ready to cook

Perhaps I should invite the hares around for dinner?


Five Things I have Learned About Cycle Touring

July 3, 2018

sunset

So, we’re back, and I’m guessing you don’t want a blow-by-blow account of how we brought the good news from Aix to Ghent (sorry, Nantes to La Rochelle). So instead, I’m going to treat you to my in-depth insights based on ooh, a week’s experience of something some people spend years perfecting, interspersed with my holiday snaps. You can thank me later.

Touring bikes by the Loire river

1. The cycling is the easy part

When planning this trip, I spent way too much time looking into and worrying about the route, considering what mileage we would have to average, how much climbing we’d have to do (none, as it happens), and how much mixing with traffic on the wrong side of the road* – but the truth is, anyone who cycles at all in the average road conditions in the UK already has black belt in combat cycling and there was very little France – even central Paris – could throw at us that we didn’t encounter daily at home (it helped that on the return leg through Paris the police had closed off most of the streets to traffic for some march or other and we had some lovely wide boulevards to ourselves, apart from the odd riot van and a few other slightly bewildered but very happy cyclists).

Nantes infrastructure

Some of the better infrastructure in Nantes. Sadly not typical

French cycling infrastructure seems to have taken a few leaves out of the UK design guidelines – hello cycle lane that runs along one side of the street and then switches unannounced to the other side – and Parisians using all modes of transport take a delightfully laissez faire approach to the rules of the road, but at least you get the sense that the drivers have actually seen you even if they are unimpressed by your unexpected stopping at a red light, throwing out the system entirely.

multimodal ferry

Once on the actual Euro Velo route, however, things improved (the odd goat-track and UK-style barrier notwithstanding). I would imagine that most named routes will be the same. In some towns it was amazing, with a separated bike lane running along the sea front, in others we were sent around the back roads like an embarrassing relative that couldn’t entirely be ignored, but pretty much everywhere offered relaxed, safe-feeling cycling away from the worst of the traffic.

track to the beach

2. This is not a cheap way to travel

baguette vending machine

So wrong. And yet …

So I imagine that when our parents’ generation went cycle touring, setting off for the nearest youth hostel with a spare pair of socks and a cheese sandwich in their saddle bag, it was a wonderfully democratic and cheap way to get about. When you’re staying in hotels and eating out for most meals, not so much (at least when there was somewhere to buy a meal – we quickly discovered that nowhere is more shut than a small French town at 1:31pm (except for a large French town on a Monday morning when you cavalierly rejected the hotel breakfast) and that an inviting-looking boulangerie can close in the time it takes me to find somewhere to leave the bike and get to its door just as the blinds come down and all those lovely carbohydrates are locked out of my reach).

beach cafe

Might as well make the most of it

On the other hand, eating out in France is generally pretty good, and we were ravenous most of the time, so in the end we threw budgetary considerations to the wind and made the most of any eating opportunities that came our way (including stopping at any market we encountered: when someone invents a means of carrying a bag of ripe cherries on a bike without transforming them into a squishy mess, I will be a happy woman).

market stall

With a bit more forward planning (or a willingness to camp) it could have been cheaper but we don’t do these sorts of holidays very often so we decided to enjoy it. And while I didn’t in the end try any oysters, I did develop a taste for moules, much to the other half’s delight. And besides, if anyone now questions the value of investing in cycle routes, I’ll be able to show them this month’s credit card bills as evidence of the value of cycle tourism to the rural economy…

eating oysters

3. A laden touring bike is a ginormous pain in the arse

Actually, that’s not strictly true: even fully laden, a bike is a thing of grace and ease and comfort as long as you’re riding it. But once you get off it (assuming you can get off it – not always a given with giant stuffed touring panniers), it becomes an awkward beast, liable to fall over at the worst moment, unable to hop up and down curbs, and with the turning circle of an ocean liner. More to the point it’s got all your worldly goods on it so it can’t just be securely locked up and left somewhere while you enjoy a leisurely meal, you have to find the pricey place with the shady terrace where you can eat and keep an eye on your bike at the same time (this becomes less of a problem later in the trip when any enterprising thief is only going to deprive you of a week’s worth of dirty laundry, to which they are increasingly welcome).

watching the bikes

Oh OK, sometimes it wasn’t that much of a hardship keeping an eye on the bikes

Add in trains it’s trebly so. On the whole, my preferred means of transport is either cycling or taking trains, but I’ve decided that the two don’t mix. At one point we were trying to change trains at Cenon, a station where every platform is a only reachable by a flight of stairs or a lift too small to get a bike in except stood up on its rear wheel, and the train information system was only showing what platform trains had left in the past, not what platform trains were going to leave from in the future, and the only staff member visible was the one putting up strike notices. Suffice it to say, that experience will haunt my train anxiety dreams (you all get train anxiety dreams, right?) forever.

Even with everything booked in advance and carefully researched, there’s still the fun of squeezing your bike onto a packed train, getting the panniers on and off, and then sitting in a carriage full of people who’ve had to move their luggage because of the bloody cyclists who wanted on…

cycling along the sea wall

4. Remember to stop and smell the flowers

poppies in a barley field

I suppose for some people, the cycling part is the point of cycle touring and that’s what they enjoy so it makes sense to spend all day doing it, racking up the miles. But the other half isn’t quite as rabid a cyclist as I am so we quickly got into a rhythm of stopping along the way to look at birds (Montague’s harrier, avocet, black winged stilt, a linnet in full breeding fig, and any number of larks singing their little hearts out) and spending our afternoons (and evenings; it was hot) at the beach. And eating (see above). After all, when you’ve done 30 miles that day, you’ve earned your artisinal glaces and your elevensies and pain chocolate for breakfast, and yes, maybe we will have a look at the dessert menu … did I mention this trip wasn’t cheap?

butterfly

Obviously, this isn’t a bird but butterflies let you get a lot closer when all you have is a phone camera

Fortunately the weather was glorious, the marshes and coastline spectacular, and there were shady forests and sea breezes to cool us off as the week hotted up. Plus, having spent a decade failing to use up one bottle of sun cream since we moved up here, we got through two in one week and I now have magnificent sandal tan lines on my feet which I shall be carefully curating for the rest of the summer.

miles of beach

shady forest

5. There’s no place like home

That said, after all we’ve seen and done, and every delicious thing we’ve eaten, and every glorious sandy beach and every nice piece of segregated infrastructure – at the end of the day we’re both really home bodies, and the best route of all was our own road and the final few hundred yards home. The garden has survived the recent heat thanks to a helpful neighbour, and when we sat down to a scratch meal of new potatoes, peas and kale all harvested from the garden, it rivalled much of what we’d eaten on the trip, although we’ll need to raise our artisanal glace game.

final road home

Of course, it helps that the sun is still, miraculously, shining – ask me again when the rain is going sideways and we’ve had the woodburner going half the summer and scenes like this are but a fond memory …

sunshine and marsh path

* It turns out the only time this was a problem was this morning, when I confidently set off down our local B road on the right hand side and only realised my mistake after I’d got very indignant with the car which was persisting on driving on the wrong side of the road. Ahem.


Tour de France

June 15, 2018

french maps

So, we’re setting off today with our bikes via 5 trains (including one sleeper), 24 hours, and an exciting ‘you may well not die’ bike ride through central Paris. We’re going to be doing a week or so of what I hesitate to call cycle touring, because I associate that with the sort of people who think nothing of 90km days, sleeping in bus stops, and crossing continents alone equipped with nothing but a bike, a map they picked up in a garage and a bag of jelly babies in their back pocket.

Our own plans are resolutely non-epic: approximately 30 miles a day, long lunches, sleeping in hotels, plentiful stops for cake and coffee – in short, cycle pootling, or in other words a holiday with a bit of cycling attached. Hopefully it will be enjoyable, because it’s costing approximately what we’d have paid for a fortnight in Barbados, once we’d booked all the trains. Also, I could now go on Mastermind with ‘taking your bike on European trains’ as my specialist subject.  We’ll have to tear ourselves away from the hares, which are being particularly adorable at the moment, and the garden which is just getting going (when the hares allow). Actually, I have no idea why we’re going on holiday at all, now I come to think of it, but it’s too late now …

I am also NOT taking my laptop so there won’t be any blogging for a bit. I’ll undoubtedly be tweeting and (if you’re desperate) posting carefully curated pictures on Instagram. Hopefully we will come back tanned, toned and ready to take on the world. Always assuming we make it through Paris on day one.

Wish us luck.


On not Going to Troon

June 14, 2018

The trouble with prolonged periods of fine weather is that after a while – despite ten years of evidence to the contrary – I start to believe that it will last for ever. And so, back in May when I was stuck indoors editing with the sun shining outside, and a suggestion came up of a meeting in Troon, it seemed an excellent wheeze to arrange to take the train up to Kilmarnock and cycle the ten or so miles to the coast with my co-conspirator. If nothing else, we would have had a nice couple of hours cycling, whether the meeting proved worth it or not, and I’ve never been to that part of the world.

Fast forward to this week, with Storm Hector on the horizon and a forecast 50 mph headwind and this was beginning to seem somewhat foolhardy. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and we relocated the meeting to Kilmarnock – which still meant I had an 8 mile ride to the station, in what turned out to be a lively headwind for at least some of the way and by lively I mean ‘pedalling downhill as hard as I can and barely making any headway’. I think, in fact, it was one of the strongest winds I’ve ever encountered on the bike. The road and cycle paths were carpeted with debris, but there were fortunately no trees down, and having turned the corner and found a tailwind I made it to the station with plenty of time to spare.

storm debris

Where, naturally, the train was cancelled. Although ScotRail were considering putting on a taxi for myself and the very pleasant young mum and her very lively toddler who were also heading to Kilmarnock, in the end the meeting was cancelled, somewhat to my relief. Troon will have to wait for another day.

That meant the small matter of pedalling home into the renewed gale, which seemed to have strengthened enough blow even the rainbows out of the sky.

strange light

The photograph doesn’t show it very well but this really was the strangest light…

As I got home – windblown, somewhat damp and entirely exhilarated I reflected that there’s something to be said for having braved a gale and ridden 16 miles and arrived safely home – and all by 10:30 in the morning…

All of which will hopefully stand me in good stead for our main adventure, which starts tomorrow.


East* of Eden

June 13, 2018

For those of you awaiting with bated breath to find out whether I chose to risk cycling the A701 to Eden, or indeed whether I survived, you may breathe out – apologies for leaving you all in suspense, but an unlucky lightning strike on Saturday took out our phone line and internet and we only got it back yesterday.

This enforced digital detox did not exactly bring out my best self, but hey ho. Anyway, it did tip the balance towards cycling to Eden, because what else was I going to do at home? And besides, it was a nice morning

view on the road

In the end 90% of the ride was just lovely. Avoiding the A701 for most of the way meant lots of zigzagging back and forth and a fair bit of unnecessary up and down but the day was warm and not too windy, the roads were quiet and it was pleasant to be out on the bike exploring new places.

road not takensignpost

Including the intriguingly named Murder Loch … a story there, surely?

Murder loch

“There’s been a murrrrder …”

As I approached the point where I had no choice but to join the A road, the gathering clouds started to feel a bit like a harbinger of doom, but in the end the mile or so was … doable. On the plus side the tarmac was lovely and smooth and flat all the way to the edge, and the lanes were reasonably wide so the fact that many of the drivers passed me without crossing the white line didn’t feel quite as threatening as it does on our B road where the road edge is crumbling and steeply cambered. On the other hand, with everyone doing at least 60, and only one driver bothering to wait before passing me until it wasn’t a blind bend, it did feel all a bit too high stakes for me. Uninviting, to say the least. Unsurprisingly, the festival itself looked like a giant car park, which is effectively what it was.

gathering clouds

When I got to Eden, it turned out that the gathering clouds were in fact a harbinger of rain. Fortunately I had got to the backstage area by there where we had a nice tent (even if it did have a stream running through it after a while). We sang, we had more people watching us at the end than we did at the beginning, and it was an enjoyable enough experience.

backstage watching the rain

There was no bike parking, but I think the bike enjoyed its access-all-areas luxury covered spot just behind the stage. Hopefully it won’t go to its head…

bike back stage

Personally, as soon as we were done, I was ready to leave, so I wheeled the bike back through the crowds and was happy to get out on the open road, especially once I’d turned off the main road and was back on my own. Even a little rain couldn’t dampen my enjoyment.

road home

I think I can now safely tick off ‘go to a music festival’ as an experience I have tried and won’t be hurrying to repeat. Who knows, I might even try oysters next, but I doubt that they will beat the pleasure of finally tearing into one of those Snickers bars on the bench at home, with 40 miles in my legs and a well-earned cup of coffee on the side.

On Friday we set off for an even bigger adventure, of which more tomorrow.

* Well, more like South West of, but what does Steinbeck know?