In a sign …

October 23, 2021

… that I have been in Scotland for too long – and particularly the western side of it – I have started celebrating the idea of ‘slightly warmer rain’.

Exhibit A:

Group of damp cyclists looking over the river

We had a ride down to the local wetland centre on Tuesday on a day that I can only describe (indeed, I frequently did, to nobody’s amusement) as ‘nice weather for ducks’.* As we made our way damply along the river’s banks, stopping frequently to admire the complete and utter lack of views, with our socks squelching gently in our shoes, I was surprised to note that we were all actually having a really nice time. It was wet, we agreed, and that wasn’t great, but at least it was quite warm rain. I don’t know if the weather equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome is officially known as ‘Glasgow Syndrome’ but I think it should be from now on.

Anyway, we went back on Thursday on a sunny day, and I can confirm that it was much nicer when your feet are dry.

Sunny view

Anyone saying ‘no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing‘ can get in the sea.

* I asked the wildlife people and they confirmed that ducks do like the rain, but geese are indifferent to it.

Pedalling Frantically

October 17, 2021

Of all the baffling things that people believe about Pedal on Parliament, the one that gets me every time (even though I’ve heard it a number of times now) is the fact that people think we’ve somehow got things under control. If I hear it described as a well-oiled machine (usually by someone explaining why they haven’t got involved themselves) one more time I might just cry. The fact is – as any regular reader of this blog has probably got an inkling by now – POP is about as well-oiled as my chain in between visits to the bike shop. It runs not so much like clockwork, or even on blood, sweat and tears, as on endless messages on every communication platform existing, emails dug belatedly out of spam folders, four a.m. thoughts, increasingly desperate attempts to bring order to multiply ramifying to-do lists, and pure nervous tension.

And occasionally, just occasionally, bike rides.

The earlier POPs were run using an organisational method best described as Death by Email. Since then we’ve mostly switched to Slack, supplemented by social media messages and painful Zoom meetings – as I believe is now required by law – and I’m grateful for the fact that modern communication methods allow us to misunderstand each other in real time on a wide variety of different platforms, instead of relying on getting our wires crossed on just one. All of which is very draining, so it was utterly restorative to be able to spend a long-delayed 24 hours with my chief POP partner in crime, setting the world to rights, showing her some of the delights of our local cycling routes, bugging her by talking at her during the climbs, and recharging our batteries ready for the final three weeks before we Pedal on COP and join the masses in Glasgow for the Climate Global Day of Justice Action (I’m hoping that by November 6th I’ll be able to get those words in the right order first time without having to go and check the website).

I suppose it’s true that almost every endeavour – especially one run by volunteers in what they laughably call their spare time – is like the swan: for all it might look serenely graceful above the water, there’s a lot of paddling going on underneath. Perhaps if there’s something you know about for which you’re grateful – and which appears to run like clockwork – it might be worth inquiring of the organisers if they’d like a hand from time to time at turning the key; you would likely make a tired middle-aged woman very grateful. And indeed, if one of those things is, in fact, POP itself, here’s your chance to do that very thing.

Meanwhile, it turns out I don’t have a photo of a swan, graceful or otherwise, so have a tranquil leaf instead which, despite doing no paddling at all, was quietly floating upstream as the water rushed past it down towards the sea.

Leaf floating amid reflections in the water

You may write your own metaphor for that.

For Mary

October 9, 2021

After my friend Mary wrote this about her cancer, we have all been out planting spring bulbs, myself included.

Bulb planter

We none of us know where we will be in a week’s time, let alone next spring. But sometimes it’s a necessary act of resistance to plant something for our future selves to enjoy.

chionodoxa flowering

I hope Mary will enjoy hers too.

A Hard Pass

October 3, 2021
cyclist riding along an empty rural road

We were once advised never to buy a house with ‘Mill’ in the name, advice which has stood us in good stead over the years, and a sound principle to live by. In recent weeks I’ve been wondering whether to add a codicil: never to plan a bike ride with ‘Pass’ in its name (especially if it tends to appear in lists of the ‘100 greatest climbs in Scotland’). Despite such wisdom, this morning saw me setting off, with some trepidation, on a ride that would take me over not one but two named passes: the Mennock, and the Dalveen.

Start of the climb to Wanlockhead

The reason is that as part of the Pedal on Parliament plans for COP26 we’re planning a two-day ride from Bigtown to Glasgow, and that involves going over one or other of these passes. It seemed sensible to both recce our chosen route and work out whether I personally had the legs for it before committing irrevocably to the venture. And so a 70-mile Sunday spin was planned with my riding companion to go out up the Mennock, and back down the Dalveen, and see how we fared.

In preparation, I made the mistake of googling the Mennock Pass, just to see what it was like. Unfortunately, what this threw up was mainly discussion of gradients (and the terrifying fact that the climb was ‘longer than Alpe d’Huez’, although this turned out to be only if you head all the way up to the radar station at the top of the hill). It turns out that most descriptions of cycle climbs on the internet start and end with how steep and long they are, without any information about what they’re like to actually cycle on.

Looking back down the Mennock Pass

So here’s my attempt at a corrective: the Mennock Pass is bloody lovely. It’s a long old climb, true, but it’s not an impossible one. The road takes you up between soaring hills, but it follows the river valley for the most part and with the hills on either side to give perspective, it barely feels as if you’re climbing for most of it.* There are signs that it’s been infested with camper vans over the summer (from the number of bins supplied at every possible pull-off point) – not so much ‘wild camping’ as ‘fly camping’ as my pal calls it.

sunshine and looming clouds

The weather was Octoberish: we started in bright sunshine, watched the looming clouds gather, pedalled on through showery rain, braced ourselves against chilly winds, admired a sudden rainbow, and found ourselves back in the warmth of the sun again – and that was just the first five minutes (a pattern which repeated itself for the next eight hours).

Wanlockhead - Highest Village in Scotland sign

We had planned to stop at the pub in Wanlockhead, which very much wants you to know that it’s the highest village in Scotland, but by the time we arrived we had the bit between our teeth and paused only to eat an emergency pork pie (in possibly the least well chosen picnic spot imaginable) and enjoy our flasks of coffee before pressing up the final stretch of the climb. We were briefly tempted by the bar of the highest residential hotel in Scotland, in Leadhills (is there another kind?) but settled for raiding the shop for supplies and then turned right for an excellent descent down towards Elvanfoot, and back round to the Dalveen Pass for a descent into a headwind so brutal we were pedalling all the way down. The Dalveen road is bigger and (relatively speaking) busier, so we were relieved to get to the bottom and back onto the tiny empty back roads that make this part of the world so amazing to cycle on.

Descent from Leadhills to Elvanfoot

My legs now ache and I will no doubt be enjoying some tasty thigh cramps during the night (my quads have already given me some warning shots for attempting to move from the sofa during the evening). But the rest of me is feeling refreshed from spending a whole day off my phone and off the computer, with a pal to chat to and some wonderful scenery to take my mind off the tougher parts. Some parts of the ride were so glorious – like the descent from Leadhills – that it was hard not to laugh out loud. In fact maybe I did.

Quiet back road

Having spent a couple of days somewhat dreading this ride, and then ending up loving it it’s got me wondering. If that was one of the 100 greatest climbs in Scotland … what are the other 99 like?

Dalveen pass

Perhaps I might go and find out.

When Bin Day Bites Back

September 29, 2021

We’ve almost got to grips with the excitement of having actual doorstep recycling (if by ‘doorstep’ you mean ‘half a mile away at the road end’) these days – although the thrill of lugging four weeks’ worth of Guardian’s half a mile down the road once a month will never quite pall for me. So far we’ve only had to resort to the car once (executive decision from the other half as it was absolutely weeing it down on a blue bag day, the blue bag being the paper and card one, please do try and keep up at the back).

Occasionally our neighbour takes our recycling down for us on his way, and occasionally he will bring the empty bags back, but mostly we save that excitement for our lunchtime walk. Yesterday, though, I had headed out early to get the paper because the forecast was looking pretty dreadful, and I decided to save us a walk in the rain, by picking up our emptied bag and cycling it back to the house.

Obviously the sensible way to do this would have been to fold it up and bungee it to my rack, so equally obviously I decided what I’d actually do would be just to grab it and cycle with it in one hand. It was pretty clear after about 200 yards that this wasn’t really going to work because the bags are weighted at the bottom, and rather large, so I was effectively cycling with an unruly pendulum in one hand that quickly got into a sync with the movement of the bike so that every pedal stroke sent it gyrating ever more wildly next to my wheel. And yet, somehow, I didn’t just get off and fold it up like I should have in the first place because if it had seemed like a faff to do this at the road end, it seemed even more like a faff half way up the hill to our house when I was so close to home. What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, maybe don’t answer that question. I’m still not entirely sure exactly what combination of swinging bag, pedals, spokes and feet left me sprawling on the road literally three feet from our gate, but it would have been embarrassing if there had been anyone to witness it, other than Moo-I-5.

I should have got away with it as long as no idiot shares it with the world by posting it all over the Internet …

(edited to add: now here’s a *really* exciting bin day)

Ford Watch … for Science!

September 23, 2021
low water at ford

One of the nice things about having a blog is the occasional random query you get, sometimes about using one of my photos (I think my high point was when Which Garden magazine printed my picture of a mouse nibbled beetroot), sometimes pitching ridiculously unsuitable guest posts, very rarely* offering me stuff to try, and just occasionally inviting me to take part in some Actual Science.

Yesterday was the turn of the science as I received this enquiry:

I am a second year PhD student at the University of Stirling studying the importance of freshwater environments for promoting health and wellbeing across the Scottish Population. I came across your fab blog and writing and wondered with your interest in the outdoors if you might be interested in taking part in my freshwater diary project.

The aim of the diary project I’m currently organising is to assess how the mental health and wellbeing outcomes associated with accessing freshwater environments might vary over time with changing seasons. Currently, there is a large evidence base detailing the importance of accessing green spaces like parks and woodlands, for reducing stress levels and promoting greater levels of wellbeing. However, less research has focused on the effect of accessing freshwater environments and so my PhD is looking to address this.

The project is running over the course of a year and I am recruiting participants at three monthly intervals to complete a three month freshwater diary. The diaries include a range of tick box questions to assess how calm/relaxed you feel after visiting a freshwater area and also include short questions about your visit. Participants can decide whether they’d like a paper booklet version or would prefer to complete a digital one. Each entry will probably take between 5 and 10 minutes. It’ll only involve writing up to 3 short diary entries per week after visiting a freshwater area. However, it is also fine to take a flexible approach and for instance write two entries per month or whatever suits. Any level of participation in the project is really appreciated! There will also be the opportunity to contribute to an online group photo album and share photos of inland waters in Scotland.

All data will be anonymised in the research process using ID codes rather than participant’s names. The overall idea of the diary is so that we can track how exposure to inland blue spaces can influence mental health outcomes over time – for instance do they consistently lift people’s moods or do other factors have a stronger influence on people’s overall mood.

The next phase of the diaries will start in mid-October so if you would like to take part I can get back in touch closer to the time to arrange sending you a diary to fill in. It’d be great to have you involved but no worries if you’re too busy with work and other projects at the moment!

Anyway, it struck me that since we moved and no longer had easy access to the ford, my interaction with bodies of fresh water has been somewhat limited. And I’m about to go into a super stressful period as we run up to Pedal on COP, so even though I clearly don’t need a new project in my life, it will be a pretty good test of whether something has a calming effect or not. And besides, how often do you get to just go and spend time by a lake, river or, indeed, ford and call it science (I haven’t read the small print or not so I’m not sure whether the ford actually counts, but I like to think it will)?

Anyway, the researcher in question is still looking for participants so if you’re resident in Scotland and interested in taking part, you can get in touch with her here.

Everyone else, have another gratuitous photo of the ford:

ford level

I feel better already …

* by which I mean once.

Fine Fettle

September 21, 2021

So, in this week’s exciting new return to normality / superspreader event (delete as appropriate according to your personal attitude to the current state of the ‘if we ignore it maybe it will go away’ pandemic), Sunday saw me travelling up to Edinburgh with Brompton, the fanciest outfit Bigtown’s charity shops could afford, and a bag full of knitted flowers to take part in the Edinburgh Fancy Women Bike Ride.

After 2019’s edition, when we were beyond excited to have 20 women prepared to brave the rain, we weren’t quite sure whether to believe that the 60+ people who had signed up online actually were going to put in an appearance, but after 30 minutes of alternating between panicking that nobody would arrive and panicking that they all would we suddenly had a street full of women on bikes in colourful outfits of all possible descriptions

I’d love to say it was great fun … but the problem with organising these things is that the fun for me only really starts once the ride is over and everyone is safely home. I was at the back, which makes for some terrible photos and makes it hard to get any sense of what the ride itself was like, but from the amount of excited chatting afterwards and the general reluctance of the riders to disperse, I can only assume that everyone had fun.

Back of the ride

Indeed, for the last couple of days my social media feeds seem to have been nothing but women in frocks on bikes, and honestly, I can highly recommend it as an alternative to doom scrolling, people arguing about Brexit as if it were still 2016, and the steady drip of climate catastrophe stories that make up my normal social media diet. For that relief alone, I think we should give the amazing international organizers of this most cheerful of bike protests, a vote of thanks.

The only thing I would quibble with is their suggestion that organisers invite ‘the wife of the mayor’ to come along. Edinburgh doesn’t have a mayor, as far as I know, but it does have a transport convenor and she has a fabulous red electric bike and – it turned out on Sunday – some very snazzy leopard print boots.

Me with co-organiser, Transport convenor, and Alison Johnson MSP

I hope she enjoyed experiencing the streets along with such a crowd, and that it’s given her renewed determination to keep transforming Edinburgh’s streets in a slightly more permanent way than the current trial measures (which we gave some knitted love).*

temporary barrier adorned with knitted flowers

And then, high on post-event relief and chat, including a meal spent catching up with my Edinburgh cousin, I was brought back down to earth by the realisation that, even in a world turned upside down, there are three things which are absolute certainties: death, taxes, and the fact that the last train to Lockerbie will always be cancelled, and it will generally be cancelled five minutes after the penultimate train to Lockerbie has departed. Fortunately there was a replacement laid on, and even more fortunately there was a fantastic customer service woman who took getting the four Lockerbie passengers home on as her personal responsibility. Especially when the train company sent the taxi that was taking us home to the other side of Waverley from where we’d been told to wait and she had to lead us up and down every flight of steps in the station at a brisk clip so we could catch it. This could have been a problem as I had the Brompton to carry and a rather silly pair of shoes on, but fortunately my cousin is a gent, and had stayed to ensure I got some sort of transport home. I don’t know that he was entirely signed up to the prospect of carrying the Brompton for me on a tour of Waverley but he did so without complaint and I am very grateful to him. Perhaps all this dressing up in impractical clothes has its upsides after all …

If you want your fill of fabulousness, go here.

If you want to hear me talking nonsense, here I am.

* Edinburgh council gets a lot of stick from cyclists over the quality of its cycling facilities and the speed of its rollout of programmes, but I can only suggest that those complaining come to Bigtown and have a go at banging their heads against the coonsil’s brick wall along with me before they get too critical.

Good Enough Gardening

September 17, 2021

Looking back through the blog this past year, there does seem to be a bit of a theme of garden neglect (interspersed with frantic catch up efforts from time to time). Despite this neglect (or perhaps because of it?), although the garden looks pretty shaggy from most angles, it does actually seem to be producing a surprising amount of veg, which is the main point after all.

vegetable plot in September

It may just be the good summer weather we’ve had but we’ve got French beans – usually a tricky crop – coming out of our ears, as well as continuing mangetout supplies and all the chard we’d care to eat, and then some. And the fennel, which has always been a bit marginal and tend to bolt, clearly enjoys being planted at the last minute and left to get on with things. I even threw a few random carrots into their midst, also at the last minute, which appear to be doing well. Perhaps it’s actually true that planting them amidst a strong smelling crop like fennel protects them from the carrot fly.

fennel growing

Even the gardeny bit which has been even more neglected looks almost, well, like a garden from the right angle. Crucially, this is the angle from which you view it from the kitchen window, which is often the only angle I get to see it at on many days. That, and when dashing out to the veg plot to desperately try and keep on top of the bean output…

Garden in September

Indeed, it was while glancing out of the kitchen window that I noticed a new flower blooming. My hibiscus, which was a moving in gift when we bought the house, and which has spend the subsequent five years either being eaten by hares or sulking, has produced its first bloom. I can’t take any credit for it, other than not actually giving up on it and grubbing it out. Maybe a bit of benign neglect does have its gardening merits after all.

Hibiscus flower

Meanwhile any good bean recipes you might have would be gratefully received …

Welcome to the New Normal, Just Like the Old Normal…

September 11, 2021

The last few weeks have seen a lot of ‘firsts’ for me (and, I suspect, for many of you), as I’ve been ticking off a number of ‘first X since the pandemic’. Today was my first parkrun since 14th March 2020, when we all stood around talking about herd immunity and speculating about what the future held. It was at once weird and utterly normal to be back. I was delighted that the elderly woman who used to be liberated from her care home every week to sit bundled up in a chair and act as a marshal was back at her post and still going strong, and slightly discombobulated by the new route, which has been modified to ensure better social distancing at the expense of making me much more likely to get lapped by the speedy folk. Other than that, the main sign of the profound changes we’ve all been through over the past 18 months was the willingness of more drivers than usual (including a posse of motorbikes) to ignore the park road closures because what force do a ‘road closed’ sign, line of traffic cones and, indeed, a large crowd of people standing in the way, have against the divine right of motorised traffic to go wherever the hell it likes?

Indeed, in general, despite case numbers in Scotland being higher than ever, it seems we have collectively decided to carry on as more-or-less normal, just with more face coverings, weird elbow bumps instead of handshakes and stroppier drivers. I’m not sure I am comfortable with this, but equally, I am fully vaccinated and I don’t want to miss out on some of the things which are happening as we resume ‘normal’ life. My response has been to take a cost benefit approach to balancing the risk of getting and spreading COVID with the benefit of going out and doing things again. Outdoor stuff? No problem (it was such a joy to replace grim Zoom meetings for a gathering in the park for the Bigtown Cycle Campaign on Tuesday). Eating indoors in a restaurant crammed full of strangers? Not so much. Head to England to celebrate someone’s life – or a missed wedding? Yes, albeit with trepidation, and leaving a long gap afterwards before going to see my parents. Agree to take part in a panel on women and cycling infrastructure, possibly without checking beforehand that it was an actual in-person event? Why, yes! To be honest, this last was organised so far in advance that I hadn’t really believed that it was going to actually happen, but it is and it’s suddenly next week, and I think it is one of those things which is worth the risk, whatever the risk currently is. As well as the opportunity to radicalise a few more cycling women, it is also a chance to meet up with some fellow campaigners who I haven’t seen since this whole thing started, and spend some time setting the world properly to rights, possibly with the addition of some alcohol. This, more than anything, I have sorely missed during these strange and socially distanced times and if the opportunity is snatched away at the last minute, I shall be bitterly disappointed..

As my legs have been reminding me every time I go up and down the stairs today, it has been a long old time since my last parkrun and those conversations about what the future might hold. I don’t think any of us had a clue then how long it would be before we gathered together again at what a friend of mine calls ‘jogging church’. And nor do I have any clue whether this new normal will be any more permanent than the old one. But maybe it is time to seize the opportunities we have – cautiously – while we can. Assuming – in the traditional caveat that gets less and less theoretical as time goes on – we are spared.

What are you doing in your new normal?

All Systems Go

September 7, 2021

Well, it’s been a lovely summer and now it is somehow already a week into September, and I’m not really sure how that happened. And now it’s that back-to-school feeling (without the existential dread, at least) as the cycle campaigning kicks back into gear again after a summer when it’s mainly involved just going for nice bike rides which is still my favourite form of campaigning; if only it actually changed anything.

Fancy Women Bike Ride poster

Or maybe it can, because first up on the agenda is a reprise of the Edinburgh Fancy Women’s Bike Ride which was a blast when we did it in 2019 (I keep trying to write ‘last year’ as if we could just roll the whole of the last 18 months and put them in the bin) despite the weather gods serving up a day of Edinburgh’s finest, ‘you’ll have had your tea’ unwelcoming dreich drizzle. This year is proving a little stressful – it’s never helpful when the council decides to remove some of the temporary cycle lane you were planning on using, and then another part of the planned route catches fire – but hopefully it will be bigger (and dryer) than last time and just as much fun. Getting dressed up with a bunch of other women and going out and taking to the streets of your city by bike shouldn’t be a radical act, and yet somehow it feels like it is.

And it’s just under two months until I find myself involved in the biggest event yet – the UN Climate Conference is coming to Glasgow in November, and there’s no way we’re going to let an opportunity like that pass.

Pedal on COP Global Day of Action 6th November in Glasgow

Thankfully I’m not involved in organising the actual march itself, but we’re part of the mobilisation effort which for our part means getting as many people as we can cycling there (from all corners of Scotland). We’ve long argued that bikes have to be part of the solution to climate change – and now it’s time to put our money where our mouth is.

And if that weren’t excitement enough, this evening sees the Bigtownshire Cycling Campaign meet in person once more, after a trying year of Zooming and people who are on mute and shouldn’t be (and people who aren’t on mute and should …) We’ve decided against returning to the pub just yet, but we will be cracking out the bike mounted samovar and meeting in the park over tea and coffee instead.

Bike mounted samovar

I can hardly wait.