Popping Out for a Paper – COVID Edition

July 7, 2020

Small outbreaks of polar bears notwithstanding, we’ve taken another small step back to normality in the Townmouse household – I’m going back to getting a daily paper.

Since lockdown started, we’ve made the judgement that going into a shop just to buy a paper was an unnecessary risk, if we weren’t actually going shopping anyway. That meant going down to one paper a week (the Saturday edition), rising to two a week once our lovely neighbour offered to get us a paper on her (different) shopping day. On occasion we have risen to the luxurious heights of three papers a week, on days when a trip to the post office has occasioned it (if I’ve been unusually eager to post things to people, now you know why). In between times I have become that person who reads a three-day-old weekend supplement, something I have never understood up to now.

I do realise, because everybody tells me so, repeatedly, that it is possible to read the Guardian online and that nobody actually reads a paper paper any more. But I still find that compared to having the physical thing in my hands, it is not the same. With the actual paper, I read the whole thing (time allowing), rather than just clicking on the articles that seem compelling enough. And, frankly, I spend enough time looking at a screen these days that being able to sit outside reading something that doesn’t notify me of new and exciting updates all the time is a positive luxury.

It comes at a price,* however

Alongside the latest easing of lockdown, we will now have to wear masks in shops in Scotland. I’ve no idea of how much benefit it will bring, but the consensus seems to be that this is probably a good thing. It doesn’t become compulsory until Friday, but on yesterday’s inaugural ride down just for the paper, I thought I had better show willing. It was … fine. Half the customers were wearing one (although on your chin doesn’t really count, fellow Bigtownites), nobody mentioned it, and I was able to communicate reasonably well with the woman on the till in so far as I needed to.

My current mask is an improvisation, though I’ve got a much fancier one coming tomorrow. I suspect we’ll all end up with a wardrobe of the things, as we search out the holy grail of comfort, safety, and unfogged glasses. Mine ticks the comfort box, and didn’t fog my glasses too much but I don’t know how much protection two layers of jersey cotton really offer. I also discovered that if you’re cycling up a massive hill and you decide to put it on to pass a roadworks lorry that is kicking up a lot of dust, your immediate instinct is to rip it off again. Fortunately, it seems that cycling is a low-enough risk activity that I won’t need to try that again…

Like so many changes we’re living through these days, I wonder whether I’ll look back on this post in a year’s time and marvel that I wore a mask at all – or whether going out without one would feel like going out without my flat cap. Which makes me wonder … how much protection would a Harris Tweed mask offer do you suppose?

What is your mask made of?

* not the actual cost of the paper, though. We have a subscription for the Guardian and we’ve kept it up throughout lockdown because it seemed to me that having a decent source of left-leaning journalism that wasn’t owned by a billionaire was worth the cost of continuing to pay for a paper we mostly weren’t reading in physical form.

Loaded for Bear

July 2, 2020

‘You’ve a better chance of meeting a polar bear on the street in Notso Bigtown than coming into contact with the virus round here’, my dentist said reassuringly from behind his multiple layers of PPE, as I went in for a checkup last week. And it’s true, it had seemed in recent weeks as if we’d got this virus thing in check in Scotland, and especially around here. There’s been a bit of nervousness as we watch the news reports from down south and wonder what will happen when the current requirement to ‘stay local’ gets lifted this weekend, but also a fair bit of excitement as people start to tentatively plan visits to further flung places and proper family get togethers that don’t have to take place outdoors in the somewhat hit-or-miss weather of the traditional Scottish summer.

Today, worrying reports of a small outbreak of polar bears to our east notwithstanding, life started to feel a bit like normal, if only because I suddenly had to be in three different places in short succession. It was all perfectly doable – or at least it was until the guy coming to install our bathroom blind (ordered in mid March …) announced that the B road up to our house was closed for surface dressing, my very least favourite kind of road repair, turning the eight-mile net downhill route into town into a fifteen mile detour over several unnecessary hills and putting my whole carefully dovetailed schedule into disarray.

Fortunately, disaster was averted by the person I’d arranged to meet in Bigtown not showing up. If I weren’t a cyclist, this would be cue for much gnashing of teeth, but I’d just had rather a nice 15 mile ride so it didn’t really feel like a wasted trip. It also meant I had time to head up to the high street and get a new battery put into the other half’s watch, which had stopped about a week into lockdown. Truly, times – and time itself – seemed to be getting back to normal, little by little.

And then I got home and discovered that here in the Bigtown area, we’re not moving forward with the rest of Scotland, partly due to the polar bear outbreak, but possibly due also to the worry that the entire population of Bigtown under the age of 30 might be planning to head to England to go to the pub this Saturday – despite the fact that, if my reading of the regulations is anything to go by, all pubs are going to have to be run as old man pubs by law.

It’s Scotland’s hard luck that, despite having a largely sensible* government that has taken a cautious approach to opening up, its nuisance neighbours to the south seem determined to undo all that good work for the sake of a Saturday night on the piss. Hopefully this little hiccup will be enough to moderate the response to the next lifting of lockdown and we’ll continue to take things slowly enough to keep the polar bears under control.

Although, that said, perhaps a few hungry polar bears patrolling the border wouldn’t be that bad an idea after all…

* Their cycling policies could do with some work, mind.


June 28, 2020

Yesterday, for the first time in about three months, I got properly drenched on the bike – as in needing to change out of everything when I got back and being truly grateful that just because it’s late June doesn’t mean we don’t light the woodburner of an evening much of the time.

The thing is, we’re clearing out our freezer because it needs defrosting, which means eating our way through all those supplies we sensibly filled it with during those not-exactly-hoarding-but-definitely-stocking-up-on-stuff days in late March. We got through a lot last week when we decided to go without our weekly supermarket shop, in preparation for visiting my parents, but now we’re down to the trickier items that raise more questions than answers: uses for half a packet of filo pastry, anyone? What best to do with a lockdown-inspired pasta sauce that is a bit like pesto but it turned out the recipe was for feeding an army? And why did we think it would be useful to stock up on frozen sweetcorn when we never actually eat it?

In answering that last question, I remembered an old Hugh Fearnley-Washingup recipe for ‘extra corny cornbread‘ that was so old it was actually filed in our recipe folder instead of being stuffed in the back with all the other recipes we have accumulated since. This would go wonderfully with the pork stew we had planned for tonight to use up the last batch of salsa verde made from last year’s tomatillo crop. The problem was that the supermarket was completely out of cornmeal or polenta, and we didn’t really want to go traipsing round all the other shops in Bigtown looking for one that had it in stock.

Fortunately the barter economy is still alive and well in Bigtownshire (despite the actual barter group being shut down out of caution at the start of the lockdown) so thanks to the magic of Facebook I was able to find someone within cycling distance who had spare cornmeal, and wanted new potatoes (the plants in the greenhouse having finally produced a crop). The only problem then was picking a window in the weather when it wasn’t absolutely hissing down. As you may have gathered from the introduction to this post, I failed – although I did manage to set off while it wasn’t raining which is often half the battle.

I doubt that back in February, when I noted that I was getting the full use out of my new Aldi waterproof trousers, I could have even begun to imagine how little I was going to get rained on in the coming months. This should be the point at which I wax lyrical about how I long for the days when I regularly get soaked on the bike again, as things return to normal … but that would be a lie. Even after a break of three months, and with summer’s slightly warmer rain, I’m never going to pretend I enjoy cycling in the wet.

pieces of cornbread

However, I do enjoy baked goods and now we have cornbread, so every cloud …

Mr and Mrs Pepperpot Revisited

June 25, 2020

Of the many things I never imagine I’d end up doing until this crisis (ringing people up randomly for a chat, voluntarily making a video call, not riding my bike for a week) we can add another: driving out 100 miles in one direction just to have a picnic in someone’s garden, and then driving home again the same day.

But it’s different when the garden in question is your parents’, and you’ve been unable to visit them for over three months.

Since last week, we’ve finally been able to leave our local* area, as long as it’s to visit family and friends, and as long as you all eat your own food and don’t go into their house except to use the loo. We would have headed off earlier, but I had missed the import of the latest announcement, and then we had to find a date when we were free, combined with a forecast for suitable weather for sitting in a garden with two octogenarians. The weather immediately turned dreich for the first two days of this week, but today looked just right and despite various cautionary texts from my father about it being to cold, too hot, too windy, too sunny or too perfect, we took our lives into our hands and headed across to Duns with a packed lunch, a wide brimmed hat and a bag of salad from the garden (pandemic or no, we’ve reached the stage of the salad growing cycle where nobody escapes being given a bag of salad unless they actively fight it off).

selfie with parents

Oh yeah and you can add ‘posting a selfie’ to the list of things I never thought I’d willingly do …

It was just over two hours to get there (not helped by the coonsil deciding to close half the roads in the county for roadworks, just as the traffic was getting back to normal) and the same to get back, and it was very strange to be in the same garden but not to have a hug, or even go into the kitchen to help Mum with the lunch – but it was entirely worth it.

We’re so fortunate to have have been able to reach this milestone at all; so many thousands of families have not. The news as we drove back was full of stories of lockdown easing but I’m not champing at the bit to get to a pub, or eat a meal in a restaurant, or even go anywhere else but to my parents’ any time soon. I can only hope that things continue to ease enough that the next time we go, we can give each other a hug – and then that the other half can get to see his dad again, over in the US.


That doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?

* defined as about 5 miles, but that doesn’t even get us to the nearest shop here, so a bit of creative accounting has been applied.


June 23, 2020

It seems we are coming out of lockdown – even here in Scotland where things are proceeding at a more cautious pace than south of the border. Not only can we make the 100-mile round trip drive to see my parents (as soon as the weather relents enough to make sitting in their garden while we socially distance a realistic prospect) but I got a text from my dentist confirming that my checkup will be going ahead on Friday (of all the things I was looking forward to being able to get back to doing, I can’t say this was top of my list)

I’ve also had a bit of a break in the work schedule – as a glance out of the window at the weather would confirm – and a chance to actually get to grips with a couple of those lockdown projects I started back when I thought everything being cancelled for the foreseeable future might actually give me some more free time.

One of these was an attempt at a couple of timelapses from photos taken during our daily state-sanctioned exercise. I’m still wrestling with the technology to make a proper timelapse (including something that can compensate for the difficulty of taking a photo from exactly the same spot at exactly the same angle every day) but for now the WordPress gallery gives a good enough first draft of the arrival of spring at the wood at the end of our road.

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Sifting through the photos and trying to line them up is something of a thankless task, but I’m glad I made the effort – it seems an appropriate enough response to these timebending days. Weeks, even months can pass in the blink of an eye, while also being measured out in endless days: the same walk, the same spot, and time sneaking up on you all the while without your leave.

Passing Muster

June 19, 2020

So there I was spending my Friday morning sitting in (virtually, of course) on our local regional transport partnership meeting because that his how we cycle campaigners roll – and never let them tell you that it isn’t an exciting and glamorous life – when there was a knock at the door and I realised that the plot inspection committee had arrived. Or rather, my gardening pal from Old Nearest Village, who likes to drop by from time to time and see how my veg is getting on.

If nothing else, I had thought the pandemic might at least save me from this ritual humiliation, but clearly not. Fortunately, a slight easing of work deadlines in the past week has meant I wasn’t as behind as I could have been – but nothing could disguise the puniness of my leeks (they are in there somewhere, honest).

tiny leeks

I was somewhat relieved to learn that my pal had also had patchy results with his greenhouse tatties – and we agreed that those in the outside bed were looking magnificent, somewhat compensating for my fancy notions planting such things as fennel and Swiss chard.

potato beds

The ingenuity of my pea support arrangements was admired.

pea supports

My beetroot are growing a little patchily (could be pockets of acidity in the soil, apparently) but I was pleased to note that some of them are almost ready …

first beetroot

… and for those wondering, lonely Bertie Blueberry has found lurve with his new companion and it is proving fruitful.

blueberries forming

Joking aside, I was actually very happy to receive my annual inspection visit, and not only because it got me out of the rest of the transport partnership meeting. My pal is getting on in years and it has been at the back of my mind that if and when we do finally come out on the other side of all this, not everyone will be with us. Fortunately, so far, the pandemic has largely passed our little corner of the world by and it seems everyone in Old Nearest Village has come through unscathed – including the Oldest Inhabitant, who had had her 100th birthday party in the village hall just days before the lockdown. That could have panned out badly, but it didn’t and she lives on to sweep the board as usual at the village show, always assuming the village show is held at all this year.

This week, for the first time in months, my conversations have largely been about making plans for the future rather cancelling them, and I’m not sure I’m mentally ready yet. But I suppose whether it’s this month, or next, or some time in the future, we must all eventually emerge, blinking, to face the wider world once more.

And at least I will know that my garden will pass muster.

Marking Time

June 13, 2020

If all had gone to plan this year, today would have been the day for my anniversiare – the way I prefer to celebrate my birthday (observed) these days.

Given that it ended up raining steadily all morning, we may actually have dodged a bullet, but even with the weather I’m a little sad not to be spending the weekend in what has turned into a chilled celebration of tiny back country roads, cafes, cake, chat and generally enjoying cycling in its most civilised form.

anniversaire ride

It’s possible that something could still be managed – maybe in September, by which time the thought of people coming from across Scotland for a bike ride – or even coming into our house – might have stopped feeling completely outlandish. Or I might just head out on my own one of these days if the weather looks inviting to tick off 51 miles before the year is up. I might have to get into training though – I’ve barely ridden more than 25 miles at a time in the last few months.

For today I’ll just have to look back through past events and look forward to a time when we can all gather safely again…

setting off from the train station

2014 – the year we ate all the pies

chat and ride

2016 – the b******* to Brexit edition

Here’s to many more …

Pride Goeth

June 11, 2020

OK, I’ll confess it. I’ve been seeing a lot of fresh new eager gardeners starting up during the lockdown period. I’ve seen their questions, shared with them their joy at the first shoots, commiserated with them over their setbacks, even dispensed a little lofty advice. After all, I remembered when I was a new gardener, negotiating the perils of slugs and damping off and all the ills that befall young veg shoots if you’re not careful. If you’re not, say, someone who’s been growing veg for over a decade now and – despite the usual catalogue of minor mishaps – managing to get some decent results.

Behold, for example, the lushness of my potato plants in the greenhouse.

lush potato plants

This is a trick I learned from a fellow gardener (indeed, the garden inspection committee) who likes to throw a few early potatoes in under glass to get the first news a good few weeks before the outdoor ones are ready. With a nice early variety you can have them dug up and eaten in time to get the slower starting greenhouse plants in for the rest of the summer. In this case, our tomatillos have been knocking on the door for a while, wondering when they were going to get their feet into the soil. Given the potatoes had started flowering it was time to start harvesting and reap the benefit of my years of experience.

Behold, if you will, the magnificence of my potato harvest.

very few potatoes

In fact, this is actually an improvement on the original – the first plant I dug up had no potato tubers on it at all. I blame the insane weather – it turns out that if the soil is too warm, then potato plants don’t bother setting tubers. You would have thought the chances of this being a problem for us was exactly zero, but not so, given all the sunshine we had in April and May. I’ll probably still file it under ‘nice problem to have’, but it just goes to show, there are no surprises the Weather Gods won’t spring on the the unsuspecting gardener, however much they think they know.

Meanwhile the rest of the veg patch is looking almost as if I know what I’m doing…

… but we know better now.

Black Lives Matter

June 7, 2020

It’s fair to say, I wasn’t expecting the people of Bigtown to hold a Black Lives Matter demonstration. It was something of a culture shock when we moved up here from London to be in a place where there were so few people who weren’t white. Since then, it’s got a little more diverse – helped by the council agreeing to take in a couple of dozen Syrian refugee families, as well as the increasingly multicultural staff of the hospital – but it’s still by a long way the whitest place I’ve ever lived apart from the even smaller rural Scottish town where I went to boarding school back in the 80s.

Levantine restaurant

So, I was surprised, pleased, and a little conflicted when I saw the event announced on Facebook a few days ago. I wanted to do more than donate some cash to the cause and retweet a few stories – I felt that this was an occasion to stand up and be counted. But it was also an occasion to be standing in one place with more people than I have interacted with for the entire period of lockdown and even outside and with social distancing measures in place, it felt like a risk in the middle of a pandemic. But then again, I had merrily cycled off to the garden centre last weekend – for a far less pressing cause – without really feeling it was too risky a venture. If I could do it for a new blueberry bush, then I could do it to show solidarity with those suffering from systemic racism even here in the UK – even in Bigtown, indeed.

Even so, I have spent an anxious few days monitoring the Facebook event page (full of reassuring information about distancing measures) and the Bigtownshire Coronavirus numbers (thankfully very low), and hoping that the scenes I was seeing in London and elsewhere weren’t repeated here. And today with face coverings sorted, and emergency hand sanitiser in our pannier bags, we pedalled down into town to take part with some trepidation (at least on my part) at the risks we were possibly taking.

socially distanced protest

Thankfully, it was all very well organised and it felt like the potential dangers were well managed. We stood on our little tape crosses, 2 metres away from everyone else, and everyone was wearing a mask (which cannot be said for pretty much anyone else in the town). The only person who didn’t socially distance was the (sole) counter protester who took it upon himself to wade into the crowd complaining about people spreading the virus and – after a tricky moment or two when it looked like everyone was going to move forward to remonstrate with him and prove his point – he was somehow socially distantly ushered away and the demonstration continued. We heard from some impressive young Black people who had grown up in Dumfries about what that was like and then we all knelt, painfully, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which I can tell you is a very long time.

crowd taking the knee

We also supplemented our symbolic efforts by spreading a little financial love towards minority-owned businesses in the town, although this was absolutely no sacrifice on our part. Our favourite lunch spot – owned, indeed, by one of those refugee families – has reopened its doors to takeaway customers. This was the last restaurant we visited before lockdown began – and we were so happy and relieved to see it had weathered the storm so far, especially as our stockpiled baklava had run out many moons ago…

The truth is, Bigtown is a richer place for  its increasing diversity (even those who don’t come bearing pastries). I just hope that this continues to be recognised by everyone in the town – us included – and not just for today.


June 6, 2020

Back when lockdown started, and we all thought we would have loads of time on our hands, I idly wondered on Twitter what the last thing people would resort to doing

At the time, I had no thought of organising my own books having lived quite happily for most of my life with my books randomly crammed into all the available shelf space and overflowing into a number of piles in various parts of the house. This is fine when mostly what your bookcase is for is storing books you have read (the ones I haven’t read wait enticingly beside my bed) and occasionally ransacking them for something to re-read. It works less when when you wish to track down a particular book that your lockdown bookclub has decided to read and end up in this situation:

Two copies of Transcription

I’m sure there’s some sort of metafictional joke I could make here about having two copies of a book about making a copy of something

(I had thought the original would show up as soon as I ordered a second copy, but in fact it bided its time until the new copy had arrived, and been re-read, and then appeared in a pile I could have sworn I had searched already the morning after our bookclub session)

So as the bookcase needed moving today, I took advantage of the fact to impose a little order on the bookcase in my study, if only in the hopes that one day I will be in a position to attract the gimlet eye of Bookcase Credibility, and pass muster

In the end, I didn’t alphabetise them – that would have involved getting all the other books in the house out of where they’ve been breeding and rearranging everything, which might have been quite satisfying but would probably have taken a week and involved all sorts of complicated decisions about what books to keep and what to pass on, and frankly, lockdown or no lockdown, I just don’t have that sort of time. But I did impose some sort of order that made sense to me and had a lovely afternoon reminding myself about books I had forgotten I owned, and recalling happy times spent with others I remembered very well.

(This book suffered from my habit at the time of stuffing it in the waistband of my trousers to leave both hands free for holding my binoculars. I did see a German birder who had made a handy little carrier for his field guide – a cloth cover that came with two integral handles so he could dangle it from his wrist leaving his hands free. Unfortunately by that time our field guide was well on the way to disintegration but it has our list in it from two years spent in Swaziland and I could never throw it away).

Anyway, I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys the odd judgemental truffle through someone else’s bookcases, so here is the end result (bear in mind that you’re only seeing the front layer of books – most of the shelves are stacked two deep).

restacked bookcase

Next step: tackling the recipe folder. Or maybe I’ll save that one for when the second wave hits.

* Title courtesy of @MatthewSndeker on Twitter.