They Paved Paradise …

March 15, 2023

I can’t now remember what I was originally planning to do this week. Something useful or creative, possibly, like writing my next novel,* or getting ready for a local cycling networking event we’re planning at the weekend. Instead what I’ve been doing is cycling round Bigtown on a daily basis, counting empty parking spaces in the many car parks dotted around the town.

Bear with me, for there’s a reason, beyond idle curiosity. You see, the coonsil, in its infinite wisdom, has had plans to build flood defences (it has in fact had plans in development since about the time we moved up here but, you know, all in the fullness of time – I mean, the town only floods once or twice a year). As part of these plans, the main – or at least the most obvious – car park in the town centre was going to disappear under the new flood barrier (I was baffled when we moved up here as to why Bigtown had decided that the obvious use for the banks of a beautiful river complete with resident otters and salmon was parking cars on it until I realised said river regularly bursts its banks). Obviously they couldn’t actually lose any parking spaces, for fear of opening the Hellmouth (the coonsil has a parking strategy which says that no parking place may be lost without an equal or better parking space replacing it, and I really wish I were making this up), so plans were hatched to turn the Greensands, a nice patch of green space upstream, into a replacement car park.

Grass surrounded by trees by the river.

(Joni Mitchell classic lyrics aside, perhaps paradise is a bit of a stretch, but it’s a pleasant enough spot where kingfishers and treecreepers can regularly be seen, and besides we need all the green spaces we can get these days).

Then, due to local political shenanigans that I don’t even pretend to understand the latest coonsil administration fell, and with it the plans to build the flood defences at all. This has left some of the more dinosaurish parts of the coonsil in a quandary: how were they to get their lovely new car park now? The answer was clear – they would put in a planning application to build it anyway, just in case. After all, sometimes the main car park was flooded, and then where would people park their cars? The fact that even they admitted that paving over yet more of the open areas would make the flooding more likely was neither here nor there (nor indeed the fact that when the floods are really bad, that area will be underwater too). And sometimes the fair comes and closes off the car park (never mind that every time we complain that the fair also cuts off the cycle path we’re told that the fair has been coming here since James the 6th’s time and we should just get used to it). Clearly, if we might occasionally lose some parking capacity then we need a spare car park (long time readers may recall that they have form on this sort of nonsense).

Now ask anyone in Bigtown (who isn’t a cyclist) and they will tell you that there’s not enough parking. Especially when the fair is in town. Which it is this week, as it happens. So, taking the opportunity to check whether, in fact, we do need a whole spare car park when the main one is closed, we’ve been spending this week surveying the town’s car parks at various times of the day and counting any free spaces.

massive empty car park

The week is yet young, but we’ve already found a few things out. For a start, Bigtown has dozens of little car parks scattered around the centre of the town, all of them free to use and, in truth, mostly fairly full most of the time – it’s no wonder they estimate that a third of the town centre traffic is people driving between car parks looking for a space (there’s also the issue that some of these car parks were laid out in more innocent times and the spaces aren’t large enough to accommodate your average All-Terrain Global Warmer that you definitely need for nipping out to the shops so in some cases one vehicle takes up two places). There’s also a massive car park, right next to the main riverside car park, which is always, even at the busiest times, almost completely empty (this – it may not surprise you to learn – is pretty much the only one which charges for parking). It’s actually quite refreshing to find that there’s one part of the town that’s not completely dominated by cars – at one point there were more cars parked illegally on the nearby supposedly pedestrianised shopping street than there were in the pay and display car park. There is also another large car park, free to use, which is pretty close to the High Street but maybe not quite close enough for some people, which always has a good number of spaces in it. And finally, there’s the Greensands itself, site of the proposed car park, which already has a bit of parking on it, and which is never full. So they’re going to make a half empty car park bigger, despite the fact that even the car drivers of Bigtown don’t want to use it.

half empty car park

It makes no sense. Even the people who want to bring cars back onto the High Street agree it makes no sense. And yet, we’ve had to drop everything positive we could be doing in order to battle this nonsense to prevent Bigtown becoming even more car-dominated and car-dependent than it already is. It does, genuinely, make me despair.

On the other hand, if you want any advice on where to park on a busy Tuesday morning in Bigtown, I’m your woman.

* Just kidding, obviously.

Making Do and Mending

March 12, 2023

It’s been a busy week for fixing things …

No sooner had I got safely home from Edinburgh on Thursday, than I had to hitch up the trailer and head back out into the evening – in the face of mounting yellow snow warnings which in the end amounted to a light dusting, somewhat disappointingly – for another session of the local Repair Shop:

This was somewhat thinly attended, perhaps due to said yellow warnings, but there were enough people and tools there to help me get new hooks put on the cow pannier, and to make some progress on fixing a wooden clothes horse, plus plenty of good cycling and general repair oriented chat.

Cow pannier mounted on bicycle

Emboldened by my success, I spent the next morning putting new brake blocks on the bike (in retrospect, this might have been a task to do before I’d cycled downhill with a trailer, but fortunately the old brakes held out this time) and have also finally had a go at a spot of visible mending on my jeans (after learning how to do it at the previous repair shop). The end result isn’t quite as beauteous as some of the examples you can find on Instagram, but are at least wearable.

Jeans with embroidered repairs at the crotch

I’m not the only one. The coonsil have more or less finished fixing the washed out road, and I was able to once more cut down to my usual quiet back road to get into Bigtown yesterday, instead of having to stick it out on the main road – at least at the weekend when the work isn’t going on. They’ve not just repaired the washed out banking with some mahoosive boulders, but they’ve also resurfaced a lot of it and even added a few passing places which will make it nicer to ride on with a giant 4×4 on my tail.

Road with cones along it and large boulders reinforcing the banck

Interestingly, though, two months of riding on the B Road have somewhat hardened me to it – and it is a good mile shorter than the more pleasant back-roads route. Now that I have tasted the forbidden fruit of simply going direct, will I want to revert to adding the extra distance just for a slightly more civilised experience? It’s already a bit of a dilemma when I’m short of time, although I imagine it will only take one nasty close pass to send me scuttling back to safety. I’m fortunate to have the choice, I suppose. But it would be nice to live in a world where the bike-friendly route was the direct one …

That said, given the amount of complaining my legs have been doing since taking the trailer into town and back, I could maybe do with the extra miles, just to get back into training.

What do you like to repair?

A Non-Rolling Stone Writes

March 10, 2023

So, Wednesday saw me on a beautiful, but Baltic, morning, waiting for the Embra bus to mark International Women’s Day in the best way possible – by riding a bike.

River Nith on a bright winter's morning

The InfraSisters have been lighting up the streets of Edinburgh with bikes, lights and a banging sound system (as I think the young people call it these days) to draw attention to the fact that the little cycling infrastructure we have is often unlit, remote and unsafe feeling – and that spending our hard-campaigned for active travel money on routes that 50% of the population feel uncomfortable using for almost 50% of the year is not on.

I’ve been watching from afar for a while, but (inspired by, and a little jealous of, my little sister organising a big IWD ride down in That London last weekend) decided it was time to join them. Of course, I did have to pick the week that our train service to Edinburgh went from iffy to non-existent (which, weirdly, feels almost like an improvement by removing the last vestige of hope), so the bus it was. And an unheated bus to boot so, although my top half was warmed somewhat by the sun, my feet were frozen by the time the Brompton and I disembarked. Still, that was a good way to acclimatise for an after-dark ride on what was to be the coldest night of the year so far. And I also had the blissful experience of rocking up to a cycle protest that I hadn’t had to organise in any way shape or form. I could just turn up and ride, admiring the excellent marshalling that kept us all in a tight pack, Critical Mass style, through the city streets to Bute House to see if Nicola wanted to join us (she didn’t, sadly) and then to the City Chambers for a spot of interpretive dance (don’t ask).

Night ride outside Bute House

It was brilliant to catch up with many cool cycling women I know who have picked up the campaigning baton and not just run with it, but thrown in some twirling along the way. And it was even better to see so many faces I didn’t recognise, young women especially, taking things to the streets. For a while, in a world where everything feels like it is going in the wrong direction, cycling policies in Scotland did appear to be on the right track at last, and I’ve been putting my efforts into battles closer to home. But for every step forward, there is always the threat of backpedalling – especially with a new First Minister in prospect. So it’s reassuring to know that there’s a fresh generation with the energy to keep campaigning for change.

As for me, I’m not going to lie, even getting to Edinburgh and back felt like quite enough stress to be going on with – I’ve simply got out of practice with gadding about the way I did before the pandemic. But I’ll keep on showing up for things when I can, if only to prevent the moss from closing over my head completely. And mark your diaries because POP rides on, as we take to the streets again on April 22nd. I might not be organising it, but I’ll be there, even if I have to cycle all the way

The Unknown Unknowns …

March 3, 2023

One of the things I’ve been vaguely thinking about doing this year was making more use of our local buses, such as they are. Not our actual local bus, which remains a mystery to me, but perhaps some of the other buses that go further afield and which might even take me places where a bicycle cannot.

All of which might have remained no more than a vague intention – after all, I rode 70-mile round trip on my bike to go to a meeting last summer rather than chance the bus – had the Pepperpots not somewhat forced my hand.

Mrs Pepperpot has had to stop driving, temporarily we hope, and that means finding alternative ways for them to get about. They can just about manage to get to the top of the High Street on foot, although that’s the limit of Mr Pepperpot’s range. Fortunately taxis are reasonably cheap around here and handy enough for trips in town which are too far for them both to walk. And there’s also deliveries which sort out the bulk of the shopping. But the cost will add up, especially when they want to go further afield. So we decided it was time to get to grips with the local buses.

Despite my tweet, hospital appointments are probably the least of their problems as the new hospital has a good bus service which goes past the end of their road. And, as it happens, the same bus stop has buses to Notso Bigtown, going right past their favourite farm shop, which has become a fixture in their weekly routine since they moved here. So today we hatched a plan to take the bus out in time to meet the fish van, stock up on their organic necessities, and then take a taxi back with their laden bags.

Parents standing at the bus stop

Amazingly all went swimmingly on the way out (although a combination of my and Mr Pepperpot’s time-related anxieties meant a 15-minute wait at the rather sparse bus stop – benches are accessible infrastructure just as much as dropped kerbs are, planners take note). The bus arrived only a few minutes late, swung by the hospital as if to demonstrate how easy it was to get there, and then deposited us a couple of hundred yards from our destination. The driver even kindly ‘kneeled’ the bus to make it easy to get off (an actual pavement to walk along once we’d done so would have been even nicer but that’s the country for you).

Parents on the bus

In the end, it was the taxi leg of the journey that let us down. What we hadn’t quite realised was that between 3 and 4pm you can’t get a cab for love nor money as they’re all doing the school run. Fortunately there’s a nice cafe where we could while away the time between the Pepperpots emptying the shop of impeccably sourced olive oil, and the taxi arriving. It might even make for a new weekly ritual for them both.

But it does go to show that getting around without a car takes a level of planning and knowledge that isn’t always easy to come by, even in today’s digital age. You can’t google what you don’t even know you don’t know, like the fact that rural taxis disappear during the school run. You just have to learn these things the hard way, preferably while you still can. For sure, a car (or a bike) is a wonderful convenience – as long as you’re able to drive (or ride). But do you know what you’d do if you suddenly got told that you couldn’t? Maybe it’s time to start practising.

I might even have to work out where our own wee bus goes…

Still Pumped

March 2, 2023

You know when I tweeted out last week’s blog with the words ‘exciting home heating news’, it was intended to be a joke …

But it turns out that heat pumps aren’t just a form of central heating. Oh no. They are also a minor battlefield in the endless culture wars, alongside bicycles and (checks notes) planning policies. And it seems that merely tweeting about the fact that we had a heat pump was enough to have people queuing up to explain to me why this was a mistake.*

I’m not sure exactly why people might care that a random person who they’ve never met or even previously interacted with online has changed the way they heat their house, but that’s the modern world for you. Their arguments (or ‘arguments’ in some cases) can be summed up as:

  1. A bloke on You Tube doesn’t think they’re a good idea.
  2. Anyone who fits one is an idiot.
  3. Heat pumps cost money (this particular gentleman had a timeline full of anti-bike nonsense so I refrained from pointing out that the cost is roughly comparable to a new car, and that it was partly due to me riding a bike for transport that we could afford one, because life really is too short to actively poke the trolls on Twitter).
  4. Heat pumps don’t work for all houses and therefore nobody should fit one (see also, you can’t take your nan to the doctors on a bike and therefore nothing should be done for cycling).
  5. Everyone needs to retrofit their houses to passivhaus standards before fitting a heat pump.

I mostly ignored them, although I was tempted to wade in with the chap who was determined to explain to me that we hadn’t done anything like enough work on our insulation or had the system designed well enough that it would actually work.

Meanwhile the house (to paraphrase Wendy Cope) went on being warm.

So far – six days in – the system has defied the sceptics and appears to be working very nicely. We’re not even missing the woodburner. The main downside, as far as I can tell, is that we keep misjudging the weather and going outside to discover that it is, in fact, cold out there. Just not in our house. Which we’re filing under ‘nice problem to have.’

In other news, there are lambs.

Lambs feeding from a ewe in a field

* most of the other replies were, worryingly, people asking me detailed technical questions about heat pump installations, having mistaken me for an expert instead of a customer.

And We’re Off…

February 24, 2023

Not literally, although our house does have a fancy new propeller:

After a week of drilling and banging noises, our heat pump is in and purring away. It’s been a relatively trouble-free installation, with the main hardship being having to have both ourselves and the house respectable* by about 8am every morning before the installers showed up.

I can report that the house felt lovely and warm when I got home this afternoon to find it all working, but then again, it always does after I’ve cycled up our hill. So the real test will be overnight (when there’s a mild frost forecast – I was rather hoping that heat pumps worked a bit like expensive new waterproofs, in that buying them instantly ushers in a period of nice weather) and how the shower works from the enormous pressurised hot water tank. We also need to get the hang of the controls – we have a fancy wireless controller and there is the inevitable app, but the manual leaves a fair bit to be desired (why yes, thank you for telling me how to put the system into DHW mode without happening to mention what DHW mode actually is). But so far, so good.

Our stove has a back burner, which will need to be disconnected before we can light it again (otherwise it could explode, excitingly). Hopefully we won’t need it except for the coldest nights – it’s nice to have the comfort and focus of a fire, but using it to heat our hot water and supplement the electric heaters did chew through the heatlogs which, like everything else, have been ramping up in price recently.

wood burning stove lit.

This winter we’ve been running the heating as minimally as we could so it will be nice to have the house at an even temperature and not have to be quite so conscious of shutting doors to keep the heat where it’s needed and turning the heating off in unused rooms. I expect there will be some amount of what they call ‘comfort take’ which will eat into the efficiency savings somewhat. But I don’t think we’ll be wandering around in t-shirts in January just yet.

I’m actually amazed to be here before the end of February, given that we only started thinking about getting a heat pump and applying for the grant back in October – and it would probably have been quicker if I hadn’t wasted some time exploring ground source heat pumps before settling on an air source. As I explained on Twitter the whole process has been remarkably painless (that said, we haven’t finished with the claim process yet):

So if you’re in Scotland and thinking about getting a heat pump (or any sort of energy efficiency changes to your house) – go for it. Home Energy Scotland have been great at guiding us through the process (once you get through to them on the phone, which can take a while to be fair). And watch this space for more updates on how it’s all working in practice.

* This would have gone better if they hadn’t unearthed what appears to the previous owners’ stash of adult videos from an obscure corner of the attic (or possibly even the owners before that, as they were on VHS). They left them in a nice tidy pile by the attic doorway and we put them in the bin and none of us has said anything about them, so we can all pretend that that never happened …

Hats Off

February 18, 2023

I’ve been on a bit of a knitting jag recently. It started because Mum wanted a hot water bottle cover for Christmas, which seemed like a good opportunity to master knitting cables, which proved easier than I expected.

And then having armed myself with a new hammer, as it were, I went in search of a nail, or rather suitable cable knitting projects. This started with an attempt at a hat for my sister which would have gone better if a) I had checked I had enough wool before I started, b) I’d used the right size needles and/or knitted a gauge swatch before starting (does anyone seriously do this? I mean, really?) or c) my sister had the same tiny size head as I do.

Blue cabled hat with white pom pom

I then got ambitious and knitted myself a very complicated hat, or rather I knitted a hat that turned out only to fit my aforementioned tiny head and, because it proved good at keeping my ears warm (the only fault of my tweed bunnet being the lack of ear protection), I decided to keep it as my outdoor non-cycling hat, to complement my indoor hat (which is lovely and cosy to work in but it’s also pink, sparkly, and has a faux fur pom pom so it’s not really for public consumption).

Blue wool hat with complex cabling

I then embraced the whole tiny head thing and made my new great-niece a hat, which ended up costing about 40 times more to post to the US than it had cost in wool in the first place.

And then I finally managed to make a hat for my sister that fitted a normal person’s head, which she seems to like (she doesn’t realise it yet, but as she’s planning to move from France to Bigtown, she may soon find she needs it for indoor wear. Hopefully she won’t discover that until it’s too late…)

Cream and burgundy hat with a burgundy pom pom

Hats are kind of perfect for knitting projects as you can make them as simple or as complicated as you like, but they’re still quite quick and unlike socks you only have to knit one of them. The trouble is, I’m running out of suitable heads, unless I decide to take my brother in law at his word when he claims that he wants one. Indeed, I might soon need one fewer hat myself. On Monday work starts on our heat pump installation and I’m daring to dream of being able to work bare-headed in comfort indoors. Luxury indeed…

Legend in My Own Lunchtime

February 14, 2023

So the beginning of 2023 found me undergoing a novel experience – my very own photoshoot for our local magazine, as found in all good doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms:

I can’t say I exactly enjoyed the experience even though I did get to ride my bike for it, so there’s that (the poor journalist had to wade through quite a bit of cycle campaign chat to extract a few literary nuggets from the interview) but this does mean reaching the very pinnacle of local fame, surpassing even appearing on the regional news programme. Indeed, I found out the issue was out when it was mentioned to the Pepperpots at church – and as I stopped by to see them this afternoon, a neighbour was already dropping round with her copy to share with them.

I know from long waits at the doctors myself that these magazines have a way of hanging around (or at least they did – perhaps Covid has changed that as well as everything else). So I’m hopeful this might be a bit of publicity that lasts. Indeed, from the age of some copies I’ve encountered, I may still be found in waiting rooms up and down the land, pedalling endlessly through the dreich of a January day, by the time I have a third book out.

Copy of magazine showing a photo of me cycling along a road

Just don’t hold your breath, eh?

Good Fedges Make Good Neighbours

February 10, 2023

By popular request (well ok there was one comment…) an update on the fedge …

Line of willows

Regular readers may recall that I attempted to create a willow fedge back in 2019 and while I did things as much as possible by the book, the willow hasn’t exactly played its part – while most of the carefully woven in whips have repeatedly failed to take, the stakes we’d hammered into support them have flourished like the green bay tree. Or the misplaced willow, if you prefer.

willow whips woven together

I’ve resorted to weaving in some of the side shoots, but they too are not behaving themselves – the idea is that by tying them together the branches will fuse into a wonderfully strong and self supporting structure, but these particular willows are having none of it and have either escaped the ties altogether or been damaged by rubbing together. I’m not sure if it’s using the wrong kind of ties (the gardening books suggest using old tights – or if the books are really old, ‘your wife’s old tights’ – but I have neither tights nor a wife so that’s not much help) or that I’ve got a particularly stubborn breed of willow here. I’m a bit reluctant to tie them back in and inflict more damage so for now I’m concentrating on cutting off all but the side shoots and hoping something fedgelike will eventually emerge.

Closer view of the fedge

Meanwhile, having joked about the gardening police, I was immediately rewarded with a visit from the garden inspection committee, fortunately too early in the year to expect anything too impressive from my gardening efforts. At least I was able to show him my pile of cardboard and the other half’s rabbit-proof fence. In February, that counts as progress.

I didn’t show him the other, slightly more macabre feature our garden has developed:

It turns out our neighbour in the farm up the road had shot a couple of deer in the woods and left the heads behind. Something, possibly a badger, had decided to relocate one of the heads to the rhubarb patch and left it there. Unfortunately, after setting up the surveillance for two nights to no avail, I forgot to put the camera out last night and of course this morning the head had disappeared.

Anyway, at we now have a venison hind leg in the freezer – via the neighbour, I hasten to add, not brought in by the badgers. Recipe suggestions welcome …

Call the Gardening Police

February 8, 2023

These days, winter is supposed to be a quiet time in the garden, as we no longer tidy the summer growth up but leave everything for the wildlife to shelter in. However, as spring gets closer and the days lengthen out, this is hard to stick to – especially as March and April are shaping up to be quite busy. With the Weather Gods having declared something of a truce in recent days I have been doing a fair bit out in the garden.

I always go out thinking there’s not much to be done, but one thing leads to another as I realise how much I could usefully be doing, so that by the end of an afternoon’s hard work, I’m somehow further behind than I was when I started. This week’s task started as ‘mulch the gooseberry bushes’ (a task I should probably have done in autumn so no real violation of the ‘no winter gardening’ rule), and somehow morphed into ‘reclaim this patch of brambles and willowherb’.

Overgrown patch of garden

No wait, officer, I can explain – I started off by deciding to fill the barrow for the return trip from the gooseberry patch with the leaves that had gathered under the corkscrew hazel and take them down to our leaf-mould bin, which is next to the pile of shreddings I was using for the gooseberries. While gathering the leaves, I thought I’d just snip off the straight shoots that come out of the rootstock every year, to stop them taking over. While I had the secateurs in my hand, it seemed like a good opportunity to cut back the brambles that had started to encroach on the gardened bit of the garden, as opposed to the reverted-to-hedgerow bit of the garden. And while snipping off bramble shoots is all very well, you know that as soon as summer gets going it will put on about a foot a week, so it’s better to root out as much as you can while things are died down and easier to deal with. And then once you’ve got the fork out, well, there’s nothing so satisfying as generating a huge pile of assorted weed roots even though you know that in the end the effort is probably futile.

Cleared out patch

If I do have a plan for this garden, it’s to reclaim one small patch of it from the wilderness per year, while trying, with greater or lesser success, to defend the territory that I have already taken (I do feel a bit bad at removing what is probably quite good wildlife habitat but there remain a LOT of similar bramble patches in other parts of the garden and I doubt I’ll ever get all of it under control, even if I wanted to). So having started the job, I decided to finish it with a spot of lasagne gardening – piling the ground with cardboard and organic matter to exclude the light and keep the weeds down, without killing the organisms that keep the soil healthy underneath. Supposedly you don’t even need to fork out the roots first, but I was pulling dock roots out the size of a baby’s arm and somehow I think that it will take a bit more than some flattened cardboard boxes to keep those under control.

Patch piled with compost and covered in cardboard

(Before anyone asks, yes I did weigh the cardboard down with some stones after taking this photo).

And besides, it’s not as if the garden reads the books or follows the advice either (case in point – my ‘fedge‘ which has managed to do precisely nothing it was supposed to do and everything it wasn’t over the past few years). So we’ll see what happens after a year or so of the treatment. If the snowdrops I found at the bottom of our manure pile are anything to go by, which were looking very sorry for themselves a fortnight ago, it takes more than a spell in darkness to keep a good plant down…

snowdrops poking through manure