January 12, 2020

drowned field

I suppose I should know by now that winter in Scotland means a choice between reasonably mild but wet and windy weather, or sunny and sparkly but bitterly cold weather. Yesterday was the former,* but today – through some bureaucratic error – it was both reasonably mild (above freezing, anyway) and sunny. For January, this counts as a miracle, especially as I’m not buried in work for once.

That meant only one thing – into the garden (I did suggest a bike ride but my suggestion was spurned). The problem is, while it might have been fine and mild today, we’ve got at least another 3 months of potential frost, snow, gales and rain (well, technically speaking, 12 months recurring of rain) and there isn’t really much you can usefully be doing in the garden at this time of the year, unless you’re of the tidying-up persuasion which I’m not for both ecological and can’t-be-arsedness reasons. I’ve mulched all the beds that need mulching and cut back all the growth that means cutting back, and the rest of the garden would be happier if I just left it alone to get on with things.

I believe this is what January plantings of sweet peas are for: scratching the gardening itch without compacting wet soil, destroying overwintering spots for wildlife, or encouraging tender shoots to sprout too early. I even had some sweet pea seeds because I took a last-minute trip to the garden centre to pick up a gift before Christmas and made the mistake of wandering into the seed department just to have a quick look at what was there and not buy anything (if anyone has actually managed this feat, please do go ahead and let me know how in the comments).

sweet pea planting materials

And so a pleasant morning in the greenhouse ensued. I don’t think I’ve ever grown them before, at least not in Scotland, so I was a little sceptical about planting them now but it seems worth a shot. I didn’t have the requisite number of toilet roll inners due to some over-efficient recycling, but we have plenty of newspaper and I bodged together some paper pots by rolling them round an old spice jar. According to some sections of the internet I was supposed to have soaked the seed overnight but I googled until I found some advice that said you didn’t need to bother, and then I split the difference and soaked them while I made and filled the pots (you all do this, right?). Twenty-four pots have been filled and planted and are on the utility room windowsill. I don’t actually have anywhere to put any sweet peas if they emerge, but I’m sure that a space will be found; for now they have done the job for which they were intended and any actual plants will be a bonus. Especially as tomorrow brings our next weather warning, and winter is all set to resume.

planted sweetpeas

* I did actually venture out for the paper in the rain, once the wind had died down a bit. Looking at the floodwater in the fields along the way, I did briefly consider that a better blogger than me would extend her trip by a few miles on the way home to check out the ford, and then I came to my senses. Fortunately, a local pal is made of sterner stuff:

The Wrong Kind of Leaves on the Path

January 10, 2020

This January is shaping up to be a month for slipping out in between weather warnings; today’s adventure involved heading down to Bigtown with a shovel for a cross bar because the coonsil are apparently incapable of getting some leaves off a cycle path.

shovel on a bike

Have shovel, will travel

This has been a long-running saga: two months ago, noting that the leaves were falling off the trees – again! in autumn! just like last year! – I reported several stretches of cycle path that were getting dangerously choked. I did this through the official channel, plus two separate coonsil officers, who both assured me that something would be done. Time passed, more leaves fell, armies of coonsil employees spend hours with leaf blowers tidying other leaves into nice piles in the parks, and nothing was done about the leaves on the cycle paths. I chased again (every time I do this I get an automatic email saying that my email will be responded to within 20 days and then … silence). I emailed my councillors. I emailed our climate champion (‘every council policy will be looked at through a climate emergency lens’). More silence. Christmas came and went and new year and when everyone was back at their desks, I chased again. This time I got a reply telling me that it was difficult because they didn’t have a machine that was capable of cleaning up the resulting leaf mulch. The leaf mulch that would have been nice leaf-blowable leaves had they actually tackled them when they were first reported.

path covered in leaves

At this point, we cracked and just did it ourselves, using that bleeding edge piece of technology, the shovel. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a busy woman at the other end of it (we had one camera shy man) but some level of willingness to get out of your wee machine and put your back into it does seem to help. Four volunteers, two hours, and several slices of gingerbread later, we had cleared one of the paths entirely (just another half dozen trouble spots to go).

working on the cycle path

Riding home, I pondered on the way that every interaction with the coonsil – at least when it comes to any form of transport that isn’t in a car – ultimately leaves me questioning either their sanity or my own.* Especially after the coonsil responded to our tweet about the whole thing by helpfully asking if we wanted any bags of leaves uplifted (I’m still now undecided if this represents extreme cluelessness or extremely clever trolling). I know that when I speak to individual officers and politicians that they often seem to get it and are simply trying their best to get things done in difficult circumstances. But somehow the end result is often still indistinguishable to what an evil genius would come up with if they wanted to discourage cycling without actively banning it.

Even so, while it would be nice if if we didn’t have to do the coonsil’s job for them, we still got the better end of the bargain. We were the ones who had a morning in the fresh air and the winter sunshine getting some healthy exercise in good company – and the satisfaction of a job well done, something I suspect is rare if you work for Bigtownshire Coonsil.

And I got home while it was still dry. With 24 hours of rain forecast, that counts as a win these days.

* It’s not just me – I’d stopped to chat with a friend who is attempting to get some sort of traffic calming on her rat-run road so she can safely take her autistic son to school, and has been told that nothing can be done because not enough people have been knocked down there yet.

For Those in Peril Up a Pole

January 7, 2020

So, I’d like to say that it was a hardship today being the one who had to wait in for the Openreach engineer to come and sort out the fact that we’ve had no landline since before the new year and crappy internet since the last deluge – but given today’s forecast was similarly grim, it would be a complete lie. True, I had to cancel a regular appointment and I would be missing out on a bike ride but I probably would have done that anyway, frankly, given the weather.

Instead, after the engineer had been, pronounced there was indeed a fault on the line, and headed off in search of it, I had a moderately pleasant and productive morning sitting in my nice dry study watching the rain being whipped sideways across the fields and working around our on-again, off-again connectivity. Our intermittent internet has been pretty annoying over the past few weeks, especially as I work from home and do actually need a decent connection for much of my activities (but also, if I’m honest, because I like to waste far too much time on social media). However, I have been gradually learning how to spend the down time doing productive work where that is possible, which it mostly is, and when that fails, turning to things which might actually be a bit better for my general wellbeing than arguing with people on Twitter about why it’s counterproductive to argue with people on Twitter (Reading books! Actually reading the newspaper! catching up with my knitting!).

Despite this, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t want reliable broadband back – although I do have to admit feeling a mild twinge of guilt when I looked out the kitchen window as I made myself a coffee and watched the engineer battling with his ladder in the wind to climb up poles in the rain all so I could watch cat videos and argue about cycling with total strangers. Remind me next time I’m moaning about the freelancing life, or getting a bit damp on the bike, that at least I’m not a telecoms engineer…

openreach engineer

I love work, I could watch it for hours

Oh, and nothing to do with the rest of the post – but if you live in Scotland and would like to see the government investing in transport infrastructure that isn’t just ever more roads then could you please head over here before Friday and let them know?

Never Mind Self-Care …

January 6, 2020

dirty bike
… time for some bike care.

I had absolutely no plans to go anywhere by bike today but I did have some bike-related business to take care of. It’s been a wet and muddy autumn and winter so far and in recent weeks my bike had crossed the border from ‘showing that I’m not a fair weather cyclist’ to ‘active bike neglect’. This is not just the superficial matter of surface muck – I’m not that fussed whether you can tell what colour my bike is or not, but I do know that a little bit of attention to the drive train would undoubtedly make the bike work better and probably reduce my maintenance bills to boot.* I did go through a phase of at least running a wet wipe round the chain and re-oiling it every so often (and yes, I know about wet wipes but I put them in the bin, not down the drain) but somehow that has fallen by the wayside as I come home wet and tired and decide that the bike can probably wait. I know, it’s a terrible way to treat the one you love …

Anyway, yesterday my comeuppance came as I realised that not only was my chain looking a bit neglected, but that it had actively started to seize up making it almost impossible to oil the damn thing without three hands – it wouldn’t let me turn the cranks backwards to run the chain around the mechanism so I was reduced to holding the bike saddle with one hand, pressing down the pedal with the other, and wheeling the bike round in a big circle to get the chain back onto the ring.¬†Naturally, having got enough oil on to get the bike going again, I took it out in the rain and the muck and then chucked it back in the garage unwashed. So today, I made amends, and in a gap in the rain, gave it a good wash and properly cleaned and oiled the chain.

cleaned bike

A quick test run suggests it’s still long overdue for its annual service but at least it won’t be embarrassing to take it into the shop. Although given the continuing state of the roads and the forecast, I expect it won’t stay looking respectable for long.

How often do you clean your bikes?

* In another life, I’d be regularly measuring the chain wear – probably during its weekly cleaning and oiling, haha – and replacing the chain so as to avoid wearing out the chainset quite as frequently as I do now but I’m not in that life now and if I’m honest I’m not sure I ever will be.

Going Bananas

January 3, 2020

Among my Christmas gifts this year was a book from my wishlist – How Bad Are Bananas, something I’d been wanting to read since it came up at a wine-fuelled Big Climate Conversation* in October. It’s a little out of date, having been first published in 2010, but it’s still pretty topical given that the climate crisis isn’t going anywhere. It’s a fairly easy read, running through the carbon impacts of everything from which is better paper towels or dryers for drying your hands (answer: a Dyson airblade, strangely enough, although if you’re taking lots of flights and driving around in a 4×4 then don’t fret about how you’re drying your hands) to volcanoes and (sadly topically as Australia burns) forest fires.

As well as the carbon footprint of the individual items it covers it gives a few useful rules of thumb for everything else, which can basically be summed up as: don’t buy anything new if you can help it (for almost everything the bulk of its carbon footprint is in its manufacture, not its use), buy at the cheapest end of the market if you must buy something (all other things being equal, cheaper things will have been made with fewer inputs and hence less emissions), and buy British or European if you can (not just because of the transport emissions, but because European manufacturers tend to use cleaner energy to produce things).

All of this has provided fuel for thought for some unavoidable purchases we need to make for the house, but it’s also got me thinking about what we eat. Food has a huge carbon footprint, and it’s not exactly something you can buy secondhand. I’ve known for a while that we should probably be eating less dairy – and, much as I love Moo-I-5, having a dairy farm next door has just reinforced that – but I’ve struggled with the thought of giving up milk, butter and cheese, all of which I love. In the end, I realised that I’ve been thinking about it the wrong way. Just as you can benefit the environment by cutting down on how much you drive and cycling some journeys where it’s practical, even if you don’t give up your car, I could cut out some dairy products and cut my carbon emissions a bit, without going completely vegan. After trying various alternatives, I’ve discovered that oat milk is perfectly acceptable on cereal even if it’s rubbish in coffee. It also seems to have few of the environmental downsides of other plant milks – and at the back of my mind is the thought that oats are famously a traditional Scottish food so might actually be a feasible local alternative to dairy farming (I noticed that one of the local farms was growing oats last year). So we’re experimenting with replacing half the milk we buy with oat milk.


You’re doing what?

The other change we’re trying to make, which might surprise some people, is to eat more seasonally. You might have thought we already ate pretty seasonally, given all the gardening I do, but we certainly don’t grow enough to provide all the veg we eat. We’d never buy anything that had been airfreighted in – no Kenyan green beans or Peruvian asparagus for us – but we do eat things that have probably been grown in heated Dutch greenhouses or trucked in refrigerated lorries from Spain. Those little mini peppers that suddenly appeared in the shops a year or so ago, for example, have become a bit of a staple on our shopping list, and we’ve never really thought about when they might be ‘in season’. Fortunately the book has a handy list of what’s in season in the UK month by month and we’re attempting to stick to that for our fresh produce as well as what we grow already. This will also mean we’re ahead of the game when Brexit starts to really bite – I hope you all like leeks and kale. The one thing I won’t be doing, despite the fact that they’re really not bad at all, is eating bananas, because despite being a cyclist, I really cannot stand the things.

weed free leeks

Set down in black and white like this, against the unfolding reality of what’s happening with the climate, it does feel a bit feeble – like attempting to bail out the sinking Titanic with a thimble – but it’s added to my existing commitments to cycle everywhere I can (and campaign for better conditions for everyone), put on extra jumpers rather than turn up the heating, and buy as little new stuff as I can get away with, without risking arrest for vagrancy.

What are your new year’s resolutions, if any?

* We ran one for the Women’s Cycle Forum in Glasgow and I seem to have neglected to blog about it, which is a shame because it turns out that when you get a load of stroppy cycling women together and add a couple of bottles of wine, the suggestions quickly move past ‘topping up loft insulation’ to ‘smashing capitalism’ (and the patriarchy).

Hitching Up Again

December 31, 2019

After a Christmas week with just the one token cycle ride, I’m not entirely sure that a 20 mile round trip towing a trailer was exactly what either my bike or its rider were after, but that’s by the by.

Bike and trailer

Did I ever mention that we live at the top of a large hill?

The fact is, we’re home, and there was bartering to be done – I continue to be unnaturally fascinated by the local barter site. My old yoga mat was surplus to requirements (I have a fancy new cork one, and very nice it is too; I think the other half has worked out that if things don’t come in merino then I would like them in cork, seventies child that I am) so on it went and a swap was quickly arranged for a couple of miniature roses.

The only problems were that a) my barteree lives in one of the more cycle-unfriendly parts of Bigtown and b) my non-rolling yoga mat did not fit in my saddle bags and could not be usefully bungeed onto my rack.

Fortunately, the two problems cancelled each other out – it turns out that if you have to tackle the more car-centric roads around here on a bike, then towing a trailer is the way to do it. As I’ve remarked before, despite the fact that it’s actually no wider than my handlebars it seems to give me far more presence on the road and only one driver (because the rule is that there’s always one) felt the need to squeeeeeeze past and that was the one who always seem to do it when I encounter them on our B-road on the way home (well, it’s the same car – I assume it’s the same driver).

I did wonder – as I took a pot of plants off a stranger’s doorstep and thrust a bin-bag containing an old yoga mat under their car – whether someone would stop and ask me what the hell I was doing, but if anyone noticed they didn’t challenge me at all. Either this sort of bartering behaviour has become commonplace in Bigtown (the site has taken off in a big way, and some of the most implausible swaps seem to be arranged in matters of hours), or they were still too flabbergasted at the sight of someone at that end of town On A Bike let alone Towing A Trailer to take note of what I was up to. Clearly a career as the world’s most brazen potplant burglar looms, if I can manage to pedal my ill-gotten gains up our hill.

miniature rose

I wish you all a happy Hogmanay and a fulfilling year to come. Who knows what the next decade will bring, but as long as it includes plenty of cycling, gardening and even combining the two, then I shall have some measure of content.

Tinsel Town

December 25, 2019

Christmas tree decorations

I’m generally a great believer in family Christmases – especially if the family in question is not your own. In return for putting up with someone else’s weird Christmas traditions, you get all the fun and festive trimmings you could ask for while remaining completely oblivious to all the underlying tensions. If the family in question has had the good sense to live somewhere bright and sunny, and keeps a pair of bikes in the garage just for your visit then all the better…

This year, though, we’re at my parents’ in Duns, which has at least dressed up for the occasion.

Christmas yarn bombing

We did manage a token Christmas Eve bike ride in the fading afternoon, but I have to admit I’m wistful for the blue skies of Colorado (or even last year’s sunshine break in Norn Iron).

dim afternoon light

Still, for all the dubious joys of a family Christmas, I know that I’m lucky to still have most of my family around to drive me up the wall – and our own comfy double bed in a proper spare room.

So have a great Christmas everyone, if such a thing is possible, and if not hang in there because, if nothing else, we have had the winter solstice and the days are getting longer. bikes waiting