One More Bin Will Fix It

January 16, 2022

I’ve had that rarest of weekend combinations: no pressing deadlines to meet or places I needed to be, and weather conducive to gardening. It’s even been mostly dry enough in the last week or so that it’s been possible to get on with a few winter projects that I’ve had in mind for a while.

Compost bins with big pile of material to be shredded

First up, tackling Compost Corner. Somehow, despite have three daleks and the compost mother ship, we’ve reached the point where compost storage capacity has become the limiting factor in most gardening tasks. Our garden is big and still pretty overgrown and so over time the pile of things to be shredded has started to become a feature in its own right (possibly not something that will be appearing at Chelsea any time soon, but you never know) while the bags holding the already shredded material were themselves beginning to disintegrate, where they hadn’t actually been completely devoured by the encroaching nettles.

Pile of nettle roots

Having salvaged as much as I could of the shredded material, and spent a satisfying few hour hoicking out nettle roots, we had room enough beside the current dalek army for more composting capacity. Ordering two more bins was tempting, but we know all about induced demand in the cycle campaigning community, so I decided instead to make space for the slightly more efficient management of our composting needs and get away from our use of unsustainable plastic bags: a space to make leaf mould and to store the output from the shredder until it could be mixed into the bins and/or used as mulch.

Having put down a few paving slabs to slow the nettles (I’m not naïve, I know that neither digging out their roots nor laying inch thick concrete slabs will actually stop them, but might give me a bit of a head start), today we managed to bodge together some wire frames to keep the shreddings in, and then spend some time with the shredder filling them up again. Satisfyingly, everything involved in this project was done with stuff that was lying around in piles in the garden or had been stored in the garage in case it came in handy. There is honestly very little in life that brings greater satisfaction than that.

Wire containers holding shredded material and leaves

I also managed to plant out some of my rehomed roses in my new rose bed, which in turn has been the partial answer to the question ‘what shall I do with all these stones?’ because, as I may have mentioned before, you cannot put a fork in the ground around here without producing a pile of stones (this is the real reason for drystane dykes, in my opinion).

Newly planted roses

The only slight downside to all this activity is that the to-be-shredded pile had been waiting for so long that it had started to turn itself into a compost heap in its own right and the resulting partially composted material has taken up all the remaining dalek capacity. Perhaps after all, I will need to order a couple more bins …


Some Day My Bike Will Come

January 13, 2022

So I can confirm it is an interesting experience when — as you’re bowling happily along a pitch dark country lane, feeling moderately pleased that the light you transferred from the Brompton onto the borrowed ebike seems to be lighting up the road ahead adequately, with a topped up battery that will easily get you home and a January chill in the air — you hit a pothole and watch your light catapult itself off the handlebars and cartwheel through the air to bounce off the bike and then the road into the verge just as all the power disappears from the motor leaving you effectively stranded.

Fortunately the light (a C&B Seen, if you’re interested) survived the experience and was easily reseated, but the e-assist remained stubbornly un-assisting as I tried all the different settings, switched it off and on again and experimentally tried pedalling without it (yeah. No. Not an option, especially with 34 quite testing miles in my legs already, and have I mentioned I live up a big hill?) It was only as I was contemplating returning back to my friend’s house (she who had lent me the bike in the first place) with my tail between my legs to abjectly apologise for breaking her bike and could I also have a lift home, that I remembered her mentioning that the battery did tend to unseat itself if you went over any rough stuff. Sure enough, it was half way off the rack and as soon as it was slotted back into place, power resumed and I could go on my merry way.

winding road ahead

Yesterday saw me do my longest trip on the e-bike to date and it’s confirmed my initial impression that I’m not yet ready to go permanently electric. The round trip to Notso Bigtown is (depending on the route you take) about 39 miles and the most direct route (not counting the Big A Road because I’ve not got a death wish) involves the Old Military Road and hence a permanent headwind and climbing every sodding hill. This meant more time spent looking at the battery indicator than the scenery, which was a shame because it was another beautiful day (seasonally adjusted for January). It also meant keeping the assist on its lowest setting, however steep the hill or testing the headwind, making me realise afresh just how heavy the bike is. My battery-saving tactic of powering up to over 16 mph (the point where the motor drops out) on the rolling sections was also taking it out of my legs somewhat, given that I’m more usually found pottering along at 10 mph. All in all, it means that over longer distances with plenty of hills, the ebike isn’t really any easier than a lighter but unassisted one, at least for this particular rider. Either that or six weeks of e-assist have taken more out of my bike fitness than I expected.

books and a mug with a bike on it

I suppose with time you get a better sense of what is and isn’t feasible, but I suspect also that almost all ebike users will end up doing at least one Walk Of Shame when they let their optimism get ahead of their battery capacity. Indeed, having reached Papershop Village on my way home with two bars of battery left, and knowing that I had roughly 11 miles to go to get home, I was tempted to see if I could make it the whole way without topping up as I stopped off at my pal’s to sign her books and refuel with tea and gossip. However my desire not to have to push a bike that weighs about as much as a baby elephant up our hill prevailed over wanting to know just what a single charge can do. Maybe I’ll save that little experiment for when I finally get one of my own.

In truth, though, yesterday just made me realise how much I miss my old bike. It wasn’t perfect but over the years I’d got it set up for miles and miles of comfortable cycling. With dynamo lights that just worked (and, crucially, were attached to the bike), the absolute hammock-like comfort of my Brooks saddle, and the ability to refuel with jelly babies and pork pies, I had started to feel that together we could handle almost any distance, given enough time.

Road stretching out into afternoon sunshine

I cannot wait for the new-old bike to be ready so we can start to build that sort of partnership again…


“All Book Launches …”

January 11, 2022
JoAnne with her copies of Hare House

“… should be like this”, my pal and local poet JoAnne McKay announced as we sat down to coffee and cake together to commence the real business of the day – exchanging gossip (the formalities of the actual signing being over).

Books with coffee and cakes

I have to say, I agree. January had served up a near-miraculous day of sunshine and light breezes, with barely any frost and she happens to live 12 miles away along one of my favourite routes in the area.

rural road and sunshine

I had stuff to do and (as I recalled later) a meeting to attend, but if I’ve learned anything since moving to Scotland it’s that when the weather calls like that, you answer. With the cake consumed and the coffee drunk along with the last juicy drops of literary gossip it was just a matter of caning it for the 12 miles back to make it home in time for my meeting.

late afternoon winter sun

And tomorrow I’ll be doing it all again only further, as I head to Notso Bigtown for the second instalment of my #BookLaunchByBike.


When Will this Relentless Self-Promotion End?

January 6, 2022
Copies of Hare House in hardback

Soon, I promise, but today is publication day for my book and as threatened I have made a little video trailer to celebrate.

It’s actually been an interesting little project for the whole Christmas/New Year period, and I’ve ended up learning a lot, mostly about how not to go about making a video, like attempt to shoot video hand held unless you’ve got the steadiness and low heart rate of a sniper. Also that three days spent listening to a recording of your own voice as you painstakingly align images, words and sound would send anyone over the edge.

I have edited basic videos before but mostly just cutting stuff and adding captions and I knew I needed something a little more functional than the video editing tool that comes with Windows. The other half recommended Blender, an open source programme that he’s used before and it definitely is a lot more functional in that it’s a fully fledged 3D animation rendering tool that does a bit of video editing on the side (when we were kids I remember my mother and aunt doing a jigsaw puzzle of Concorde’s cockpit and this is more or less what the Blender user interface is like, only perhaps somewhat more complicated). I was reduced to watching YouTube tutorials, my least favourite method of learning stuff, just to be able to get started, but after a few days of messing around I had got to the point where I could do most of the things that I needed to. And, as well as giving me the excuse to get out cycling round some of my favourite places, it has also reminded me that there is a real satisfaction in learning a new skill (and also filled me with even more admiration than I had before for those people who manage to put really good videos together).

Anyway, here it is, apologies in advance for the sound of my voice …

… and now I’m wondering what else I could do with my new-found skills.


Welcome to the New Year, Just Like the Old Year.

January 1, 2022

Back in 2020, when I first found a publisher for my second novel (cough Hare House cough), I was disappointed that it wouldn’t actually be coming out until 2022 but I do remember thinking that at least the publishing industry’s long lead times meant I’d be able to have a proper book launch … Bless us, how young and foolish we all were back then.

Now that the time is actually almost upon us (did I mention I’ve got a book coming out next week at all?) and with Omicron ascendant, gathering a lot of people together in one room just for a book launch seemed potentially murderous, even if not technically illegal, so I had to think of an alternative way of marking the publication and one that absolutely didn’t involve anything so awkward as a virtual event on Zoom.

ebike on remote rural road

So, as well as foolishly offering to cycle round most of the country to sign a copy for anyone who buys one (terms and conditions apply …), I equally foolishly suggested I could put together a short film of the landscape that inspired the book. Which has been the reason why I spent the last three days of the year roaming round bits of the countryside on my borrowed e-bike, discovering, among other things, that putting together a decent video out of handheld phone camera footage is bloody difficult.

tree on hillside by stream

Especially when the weather gods have clearly decided to set the dial to ‘dreich’ and take off for the entire holiday period.

sun barely breaking through clouds

Damp socks aside, however, I can’t think of a better way of seeing out the old year, and seeing in the new.

Here’s hoping 2022 brings us better times. And at least you’ll have something decent to read.

Copy of hare house and mug with hare on it

Merry Twigmas

December 27, 2021

We’re in Duns for Christmas, probably for the last time, as my parents will hopefully be making the move to Bigtown in spring (it’s amazing what some people will do to feature more prominently in the blog).

Parents walking in the park

Since we last visited, Storm Arwen had done a number on the trees in the area, especially in the castle grounds where allegedly 3,000 have been lost, some of them rather mighty giants too.

Felled tree

Rather than add another to the toll, Mum gathered up some of the twigs to be our ‘tree’ this year. It’s amazing how festive you can make anything look with a few baubles and some fairy lights.

Decorated twigs with lights

I hope everyone reading this was able to similarly salvage some sort of Christmas festivity out of the wreckage of this year…

Here’s to a better 2022.


Carrotted, Redux

December 21, 2021

‘That’, said the other half as I brought tonight’s contribution to supper in from the garden ‘almost looks like something you would buy in the shops’

carrot on kitchen counter

And it’s true: after a decade in which I was too scarred by my failures to even attempt such as tricky crop, and in a year in which I didn’t so much garden as dash out at intervals and throw seeds at the ground in an attempt to appease the gardening Gods, I have grown a reasonable crop of carrots with more or less zero effort involved (they don’t even need digging up, you can just pull them straight out of the ground).

Truly, the more I do this gardening lark, the less I discover I know. Do you think a similar benignly neglectful approach might also work for my asparagus?


To Market, To Market, Redux

December 19, 2021

Me: How fortunate that we’ve got an extra Christmas edition of the farmers’ market on today, given I forgot to make bread last night so we’ve nothing for lunch, we’re out of pancetta for supper, and there are still a couple of things I need to pick up for Christmas.

Weather Gods: About that …

Bike in foggy road

Regular readers will know I have ridden in plenty of inclement weather over the years, but this was definitely one of the least enjoyable rides we’ve done for a long time. Not only was it so foggy that the other half’s back light was worryingly all but invisible from barely 50 feet away, it was also extremely cold, that raw bone-chilling cold that reaches everywhere and leaves your fingers feeling as if they have been smashed with a hammer.

Still, there is a stall at the market that not only does haggis samosas (don’t knock them till you’ve tried them) but also an excellent Goan chicken curry so we pressed on, hoping that at least the sun would have burned through the fog before we had to ride back. Sadly, as we waddled out again, replete with curry and with the last piece of the Christmas shopping puzzle in the bag, it had neither cleared up nor, particularly, warmed up. I think we were more than three quarters of the way home before we burst out of the cloud layer and into the sun.

fog in valley below

At this time of year, it doesn’t exactly warm you, but it does at least allow you to remember what being warm feels like.

And how is your Christmas shopping going?


Regeneration

December 16, 2021

As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, it was a big day yesterday, as the bike and I went on our final trip together – back to Common Wheel in Glasgow where I’d originally got it from. They have sourced a frame that should fit me and take most of the components from my old bike, and so I was essentially taking it back to be scrapped, at least the frame.

Bike at the station

Since I first got the bike over 12 years ago, at a conservative estimate we’ve done at least 36,000 miles together (a number large enough that I’ve just double and triple checked my arithmetic). It’s been a comfortable and forgiving companion all that time and I was pretty sad to see it go. At the end of the day it’s just a bike, an inanimate object, but it’s hard to spend that amount of time with something that and not start to feel attached to it, especially when it’s something that can bring as much joy as a bike.

Touring bikes by the Loire river

It’s taken me through three countries, it’s handled my overpacking habits uncomplainingly (unless you count its habit of falling over, always at the least convenient moment, as a protest of sorts), it’s put up with neglect verging on the criminal, and it’s carried me through rain, snow, hail and ice – and even, occasionally, sunshine. In the past year, especially, we’ve tackled some more significant rides – my almost-century and, its final adventure, the ride to Glasgow for COP26. It has never been the lightest, or the coolest, or the fastest bike but it has always been a comfortable one and for the things I want to do with it, that is the most important thing.

snow-covered bike

So I’m not ashamed to say that I’m sad to see it go, and I felt a little twinge of guilt as I left it at Common Wheel alongside the frame that will ultimately replace it. I’m hoping that, with its wheels, dynamo, lights, rack, handlebars, and – especially – the saddle moved over, enough of the bike will be transferred into the new one that it will be with me in spirit. As a friend said on Twitter, I should think of it not as the end of the old bike, but a Dr Who style regeneration into a new one…

Either way, I’m looking forward to January when I can pick up my new/old companion and we can start off on a whole new set of adventures. I wonder where this one will take me?

two bikes parked together


Lord, Make Me Electric, But Not Yet …

December 14, 2021

I’ve long been saying – basically ever since we moved to live up a big hill – that my next bike would be an e-bike. That was back in the days when I thought I would have many more years with my old bike, and that it would be my legs that gave out long before the bike did.

As I mentioned before, since the untimely demise of my bike, I’ve had the loan of a pal’s e-bike, a five year old Raleigh Motus and it definitely has its advantages. It’s a fully equipped utility bike, with built in lights, skirt guard, wheel lock, rack, mudguards and – handy on our cratered roads – front suspension to boot. Add in the motor and the battery and it’s fair to say that not a gram of weight has been skimped in assembling this bike, which may well have its own gravitational field. It also has an almost Dutch style upright riding position which is a boon for those of us with neck and shoulder issues. Together, both of these factors mean that it definitely needs the e-assist for anything other than riding downhill (get it up to speed on a flattish road and I’ve found I can also bomb along for a fair way without but the first incline has me reaching for the on switch…). The motor itself is a Bosch and it is lovely and responsive, just giving you that boost you need without yanking you forward the way some drives can. I’ve been trying to keep the assist to a minimum, but even so, there’s something very willing about the way the bike will tackle a hill, and I have to admit I’ve taken to whacking it up a notch for the final kick up to our house, just to enjoy the sensation of the bike doing all of the work, while I just spin my legs enough to keep the motor going and sail home.

Raleigh e-bike

That said, I’m not going to be ordering one just yet. There have been some minor downsides, which I can live with, and one big one, which I can’t quite yet. The first is that I’ve found the sound of the motor unexpectedly annoying – I’ve never noticed it while riding with others on e-bikes, but when I’m riding it myself it’s quite obtrusive. This might seem a joke from someone whose bikes generally announce their presence via a symphony of rattles, squeaks and creaks, but there you go. The other minor issue is that I have found the whole experience of riding it somewhat disengaging in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Somehow the connection between the effort, the road and the result has been disrupted and something has gone missing along the way. I’ve always been slightly baffled by some cyclists’ insistence that cycling is all about pain and suffering, but it turns out that when you take the pain and suffering out of a long hill, what’s left is just … a bit boring? Although that said, after riding home into a blustery headwind today I am very much here for the way it takes the grief out of a headwind.

Control console for e-bike showing range

But the thing I can’t (yet) live with is the range. I’m not out there doing fifty mile rides every weekend, but I do like knowing that I could if I wanted to. The range on this bike is somewhat unknowable – you certainly can’t rely on the little reading on the control unit which is pretty erratic. I know that a trip into town and back eats up at more than one bar (out of five) of the battery. And I know that if I judge it wrong then it’s going to be a long old walk up the hill to get home. A house on a hill may be a powerful incentive for getting an e-bike, but it’s also a powerful incentive to be very conservative about leaving enough juice in the tank.

This past year has seen me redefine the way I think about distance on a bike. After my (almost) century, and our big ride to Glasgow, I’m increasingly drawn to to the idea of longer rides and seeing just where my legs will take me. At 52 I think I’ve still got a few years left to explore what I can do unassisted, powered by jelly babies and emergency pork pies. There will be time enough to settle back into the comfort of an e-bike after that.

empty road with winter sunshine

That said – for one reason or another, I didn’t get out much on any bike at all last week. Not uncoincidentally, I’ve also had a bit of a case of the blahs. Today and yesterday I was reminded that a bike ride – any bike ride, on any bike – is a good thing and that that doesn’t change whether it comes with a battery or not. Sometimes the thing that needs charging is the rider, rather than the bike. And if it ever comes to it that I can’t use my bike for transport, or I start being reluctant to do so, then I know that an e-bike of some description will be waiting for me to put that to rights. And that’s a comfort to know.

So it turns out that my next bike won’t be an e-bike after all. But the next one after that? Watch this space.