Spring Unstrung

March 17, 2018

As spring cycling goes, struggling up the hill from New Nearest Village (which manages to be uphill from our house in both directions), towing a trailer full of empty feed bags (top tip for rural folk – don’t ask on your local village freecycle if anyone has any feed bags; it turns out everyone here feeds the birds on an industrial scale and they apparently never throw anything away), into an icy wind with the snow swirling about me at the same time as the (surprisingly warm) spring sunshine was warming my face, pretty much sums up the the kind of season we’ve had.

On the plus side, if it didn’t weigh so much even when it’s empty, I think I’d probably tow that trailer everywhere.* Whether it’s the apparent width of it (no wider than my handlebars, but it still manages to make me apparently more three-dimensional than when I’m not towing it), the fact that it makes it clear I’m not out cycling for the hell of it, I’m busy doing important things like moving empty feed sacks around, or perhaps the possibility that I have a child or even a dog in there, drivers do pass you with much more space even on our B road. This is an extra bonus when your eyes are watering so much you can barely see – and you’re having to pedal to make any headway even once you get to the downhill bit.

Still, it could be worse. We’ve visiting relatives who are (hopefully) on their way to us after a trip to Ireland. It apparently took three goes even to get out of the harbour and into the Force 7 gale. As cheering thoughts go, when plugging up a hill on a bike with the wind trying to knife its way into one ear and out the other, ‘at least I’m not on the Belfast-Stranraer ferry’ is a bit feeble, but for Spring 2018 it will have to do …

*I wonder if there’s a crowdfunder somewhere for a trailer that weighs almost nothing. It wouldn’t have to be much good at carrying anything, just take up space on the road. Maybe something inflatable? Or a hologram?


I’ll See your Veg and Raise you …

March 16, 2018

Vegetable plot in March

vegetable plot master plan

Master plan. Version 1 …

As I mentioned earlier, plans are afoot for raised beds in the veg plot, which is currently home to some overwintering and just-about-to-bolt leeks and some hare-nibbled kale. Indeed, I had gone so far as to measure out the space available, work out the size of raised beds I wanted and draw up an actual plan. I was quite pleased with myself at having done this by myself, no mean feat with a tape measure that’s not actually as long as the longest stretch of the vegetable plot.

Having sourced some locally made recycled plastic raised beds, and realised how expensive the whole thing was going to be, I then effectively parked the project to think about it for a while, until I either made a decision or some raised beds miraculously fell out of the sky, but with spring approaching and no alternatives magically presenting themselves, I ordered a single raised bed unit to see whether they looked okay in real life.

This arrived yesterday, about 3 hours after the email telling me it would be coming in 3-7 working days (always good to manage your customers’ expectations), so today I went out to do one last check of my measurements and set the bed up where it was likely to end up. Hmm. Top tip for gardeners: always best to ensure you have included the widths of the paths between the raised beds in your masterplan…

After recruiting the other half, a bit of re-measuring, the removal of one buddleia bush (don’t worry about the butterflies, the garden is currently about 30% buddleia by volume), the demolition of the hare defences, and the remeasuring of the space, we worked out that we did have space for everything, got the trial raised bed up and had a look.

recycled plastic raised bed

It is quite shiny, although I suspect that won’t last. Much as I like the aesthetic of wooden beds, I like the thought of adding to the market for recycled plastic products even more, so we’ve decided to go for it and buy 10 more to complete my master plan.

The master plan also includes better hare defences, and I’m thinking we can move our bay trees into the plot as well, as they seem to get fairly heavily nibbled by the hares, especially in the snow. But then again, there wasn’t much else in the garden they could eat during the snow apart from the kale. Obviously it would be ridiculous to have extra bay trees elsewhere in the garden, just for the hares. So we definitely won’t be doing that. Definitely. Ridiculous idea.

hare outside front door

Anyone know what other plants hares particularly like to eat?

Advance Warning

March 13, 2018

At the risk of incurring the ire of Huttonian – who is agin them, for some reason – here are some daffodils blooming away cheerfully at the foot of the climb up to our house

daffodils in bloom

Daffodils. Mental note to self: check for dog poo before getting off the bike to take photos

It says something about the difference a couple of hundred feet of altitude makes when you consider the most advanced daffs in our garden (which are right by the septic tank, coincidentally or not…)

daffodils not blooming

We find our raspberries and blackberries are a week or two later up here too, which at least gives me some notice to be ready to pick them (although the blackberries are actually much nicer at the bottom of the hill, probably through some quirk of genetics rather than the different microclimate.

This year, our tardy daffs may have the last laugh as it seems we’ve another bout of frost if not snow on the way. I read somewhere that we may also be due a gloriously hot and sunny May as part of this whole weather vortex thing. I can’t remember where – and to be frank it could be the Met Office or it could be the Daily Express or it could be someone with a strand of seaweed nailed outside their kitchen window and I’m still going to choose to believe it because that’s what I’m hanging on for at this stage of the game…

Potato Day: You can Run but you can’t Hide

March 11, 2018

We weren’t going to go to Potato day this year as I was supposed to be in Glasgow that weekend and anyway, my veg plot is in a state of dilapidation: having made the decision to switch to raised beds, I haven’t actually done anything about it, except to pile up some manure and compost where the veg beds are likely to be and spend a lot of time looking at raised bed options on the Internet.

This all seemed reasonable when the garden was under several inches of snow, but the snow has melted and there are unmistakable signs of spring everywhere, not the least of which was it being, help, March already. And then we learned that Potato Day had been postponed by the snow like everything else to today and it sort of all came together: we had the time, and my parents were planning on going, and perhaps picking up a few seed potatoes would be the best way to gee me into action in the garden. So the decision was made: a quick dash over to Kelso for a few seed potatoes, lunch with my parents, and back in time for tea.

potato day 2013

The doors were due to open at noon – an hour later than the normal time of 11am, a fact which had apparently had to be broadcast on Borders radio to prevent a gardening related riot when the military wing* of the gardening classes of southern Scotland arrived at the Borders Showground at 11 sharp and were denied entry. We arrived at about 11:45 – just as my parents did the same – to discover that the fleece-clad stormtroops had already forced the doors or otherwise gained entry, and Potato Day was in full swing, ready or not. The other half – an old hand by now – quickly bailed out from the serious potato scrum side of the event and went to check out the shortbread emporium side of the operation, which is generally more civilised. I headed straight for the hot tickets (Charlotte, Shetland Dark, Rocket) added in a wild card (Saxon), and got out while the going was good. My parents, also old hands by now, did the same and – after being briefly detained at the stall of the mad jam woman (I’m not being rude, that’s what she calls herself although she seemed fairly sane to us – that said, we haven’t actually tasted the chilli relish that she described as being ‘medium hot’ yet so time will tell (we declined to go for the rather more threatening sounding Arson Fire)) – we escaped just as all the people who had actually listened to the announcement on the radio and showed up for noon as they were told were queuing up at the door.

Once outside, having extracted our car and helped extract various others from the quagmire that the parking had become (possibly the fact that Potato Day was organised by BOG should have tipped us off…) we headed for lunch at a nearby garden centre, reasoning that it might be a bit quieter (TOP TIP: do not attempt to have a quiet lunch at a garden centre on Mothering Sunday), and then just thought we’d have a little look at the vegetable seeds on display on the way out, bearing in mind the state of the veg plot, etc. etc., no harm in browsing after all. And so now I have a full vegetable plot’s worth of seed to plant, not to mention three beds’ worth of seed potatoes, and it looks like I’d better get on with those raised beds after all …

* regular readers will be aware that potato day, far from being a gentle celebration of the humble tuber in all its variety, is a hotly contested competitive event and not for the faint hearted.

There are some days …

March 9, 2018

… especially at this time of year, when if you don’t have any errands to run on the bike, you have to invent some …

snow melting by the road

Now that the snow is mostly gone – for now at least – time to venture out into the garden to see what has survived the onslaught of winter.

My Fromaldi plants – having gamely kept on flowering for ages – are looking a bit sorry for themselves (on a spectrum from ‘battered but unbowed’ to ‘dead on arrival’), but two of the Gaura seedlings I planted out at the beginning of autumn have survived so far, although they are not looking completely convincing.

Gaura plant

The tulips I planted seem to be coming up, stripey leaves and all, which is exciting. The olive tree has completely shed its leaves again, clearly having failed to read that it’s supposed to be evergreen. At least, I hope that that’s the problem, although I’m beginning to think that if you want a Mediterranean garden, the best place to plant one is in the Mediterranean (but where would be the fun in that, the gardeners cry)

tulips emerging

And then there’s the greenhouse, last seen with snow drifting under its door. Ages back, being keen to get going, the other half planted out some mixed lettuce seed in there. Clearly this was a doomed enterprise as we have since had at least two separate weeks of sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow, and our greenhouse is not a heated one so tender little lettuce seedlings stood precisely no chance

lettuce seedlings

Fortunately, they haven’t read the instructions either.

Untrammelled Womanhood

March 7, 2018

So the Women’s Cycle Forum Scotland wants your stories of cycling and liberation, in honour of International Women’s Day and Susan B. Anthony

Susan B Anthony quote

I was actually scratching my head about this one because I couldn’t think of a time when I felt that riding a bike had particularly set me free mainly because it feels like I’ve always ridden one. But then someone mentioned the joy of switching to a bike from the bus and I remembered how I first started cycle commuting, back in the last century.

I was working at Kew and living in Maidenhead and my journey to work meant the train to Ealing Broadway (relatively painless but expensive) followed by the dreaded 65 bus from Ealing to Kew. The bus company had a ramshackle fleet of double decker buses, including one which smelt strongly of mould and leaked so badly in the rain that there would be water sloshing about on the top deck (hardened bus goers knew to lift their feet up as the bus accelerated or braked heavily and the resulting pool of water raced the length of the bus). The buses turned up when they felt like it, and then inched along the South Ealing Road so slowly I reckoned that I could probably halve the journey time by getting off, walking past the queue of traffic, and getting onto one of the two or three other 65 buses that would be inevitably stuck in the same jam ahead of it. There was a Jehovah’s Witness who would come and sit next to you and engage you in conversation if you weren’t careful, although she was often drowned out at the end of term when the bus was packed full of school kids about to go on a day trip to Chessington World of Adventures and whose voices reached a starling pitch of excitement as a result.

I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that I could lock up an old bike at Ealing Broadway station and just cycle the three miles or so to work instead, even when we had an old bike in our shed, which we had inherited from the former owner of our house (the shed key had been lost and Arthur had sadly died, so we just took over the contents lock stock and barrel, including his collection of tobacco tins with assorted screws in them). Arthur’s bike was an old black three-speed Raleigh and probably a classic although at the time I saw it as a bike that was simply too ramshackle looking to steal. After about a year of humming and hawing, I took the plunge, bought a backpack and a yellow Sam Brown reflective belt and transported Arthur’s bike by train down to Ealing. I had calculated that if I managed to ride just three days a week, it would save me money on a weekly bus pass, which I reckoned I could probably manage. I worked out a route using back roads and through a park that didn’t seem that likely to kill me and with some trepidation, I gave it a go.

Anyone who’s ever swapped a bus commute for a bike knows what happened next: I basically never got the bus again. Far from having to push myself to cycle, I positively relished it. The only tiny fly in the ointment was looking back on all those hours I’d spent waiting on the bus, stuck on the bus, inching down the Ealing Road, missing one train home after another. What had I been thinking?

Arthur’s bike didn’t survive the experience, sadly. After a year of faithful service, its chain broke and nobody I knew could fix it (the local bicycle repairman had already declared it unsafe to ride and refused to touch it), so I wheeled it to the dump (I know, I’m sorry, I’m an idiot – in my defence, I left it outside the gate so hopefully someone salvaged it). It didn’t stop me cycling though – I kept on riding between Ealing and Kew right up until I went on sabbatical and we sold the Maidenhead house (including the contents of the shed, having once more misplaced the key – I’m rather sad now that Arthur’s bike wasn’t in it) and moved to Hackney, which wasn’t the cycling hotspot it is now.

Perhaps it’s not quite in the spirit of Susan B. Anthony to be dependent on an old boy called Arthur who I’d never met for my moment of liberation, but I like to look back at myself on that very first ride as I realised just how easy it was going to be, relishing the feeling of freedom and self-reliance, the very picture of free untrammelled womanhood.

I’m just sorry I didn’t take better care of your bike, Arthur.

Cabin Fever

March 3, 2018

So, today should have been spent in Glasgow, in the company of approximately 50 active travel campaigners, variously networking, sharing ideas, putting the world to rights and (most likely) worrying that none of our speakers were running to time. But with the ongoing weather chaos (there are still no trains running out of Bigtown station even now) we had to reluctantly cancel. So what with that, and being ill and my Viking biking failure on Wednesday, I’ve not actually been anywhere since Sunday except out for a daily walk.

drifted snow

Today, feeling that this was getting out of hand, I decided I would either attempt to cycle down for the paper or we would dig the car out and drive down to do some recreational panic buying. No sooner had I made this decision than it began to snow again, so we dug out the car while we still could, made liberal use of the contents of the coonsil grit bin which is helpfully left right by our gate (and smells deliciously of treacle – do they mix it with molasses to make it stick or has the salted caramel fad finally jumped the shark?) and successfully made it to the main road.

It was slightly sobering to then come across an upside-down 4×4 a mile or two further down – it wasn’t exactly where I would have been cycling, but it did illustrate the fact that some people are still struggling to drive to the conditions. But, hey, apparently I’m the nutter, attempting to tackle these conditions on a bike …

Capsized vehicles aside, Bigtown was almost disappointingly back to normal – even the KFC is open again – and the supermarket’s shelves looked fairly fully stocked although we did almost end up with half a Guardian (apparently the middle bits fall out too easily and they seem to be dealing with this by bringing them out one magazine insert at a time when customers complain, rather than just sorting them all out in one go).

By the time we were heading home the snow was more or less stopped, the overturned car was being carted away and there was a sense that – the odd yellow weather warning notwithstanding – life might be returning to its normal rhythms soon. It’s been nice to have a bit of enforced downtime, I suppose, especially after a busy start to the year. But I think I’ll be ready to get out on the bike pretty soon. I just hope all the drivers out there concentrate as hard on keeping the rubber side down as I do …