Fancy Free

September 22, 2020

I feel that 2020 being what it is, social media sites could at least have the decency to turn off the feature that taunts you with posts from a more innocent past. This time a year ago, for instance, we had just held a record breaking bike breakfast, I was looking forward to a wonderful weekend of riding with friends and I was preparing to head to Edinburgh on a bus with the Brompton to join a flock of glamorous cycling women and take the city by storm.

group photo

Fancy women in 2019 …

What a difference a year, and a pandemic, makes (although even a year ago I was noting that the world was getting doomier and gloomier by the minute – little did I know…). This Sunday we had a very different edition of the Fancy Women Bike Ride, sadly. There was no way for even the indefatigable organisers to manage events in cities across the world at a time when restrictions are changing from day to day, so all they asked was for us to find a friend or two, local regulations permitting, get dressed up, and head out into the streets of our town or city by bike.

Sadly, I couldn’t even manage that much, being in Duns visiting my parents for what looks like will be the last opportunity for a while. I hadn’t brought any fancy clothes and my one local cycling pal had had to cancel our Brompton play date due to an injured foot. All I could do was dig out my mother’s Paperbike, repair its punctured front wheel and take it out for a solitary spin through downtown Duns – where we didn’t exactly take it by storm but at least Wojtek the bear had brought flowers.

Paperbike by Wojtek statue in Duns

I maintain that the Paperbike is a dress-up bike all on its own so hopefully this will do, adjusted for it being 2020. I was pleased that I had managed to sort out the puncture at all – given that the bike has both a dynamo and hub brakes, taking the wheel off wasn’t an option so I had to do it by ear* something I have long meant to master.

2020 or not, some things haven’t changed however – a year ago I was busy ignoring a slow puncture and we came back on Sunday to find my own bike has a slow puncture in its back tyre that I’m doing my best to ignore now. Was it too much to hope for that in a world turned upside down, the P******* Fairy and her attendants the Bastard Big Thorns would give it a rest for now? Yeah, I know, what was I thinking? This is 2020 after all.

* listening for the hiss of the escaping air, levering off that part of the tyre and pulling out the inner tube, patching the hole, and popping it back on again – or in my case listening for the hiss of escaping air, levering off the tyre, failing to find the hole, levering off more tyre, pumping it up again, hearing the hiss but being unable to locate it, levering off the entire tyre, pulling out the inner tube, going and getting a bucket of water and finding the hole the old fashioned way, patching the hole, and popping the whole thing back on again. At least they weren’t Marathon Plus tyres – it turns out other kinds of tyres just go on and off really easily … who knew?

Organised Grousing

September 18, 2020

My phone alerted me the other morning to the fact that there were a couple of apps I hadn’t used for a while and could delete to save space. These turned out to be the National Rail enquiry app and the Traveline Scotland app, both of which would have been heavily used in my gadding about days and untouched since the end of February when (looking back at the blog) the various inconveniences of the rail service had left me thinking that I’d had quite enough travelling for a while. Never has the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ seemed quite as apt.

Brompton at the station

Brompton at a train station, in happier days

For now, I can’t even imagine when I’ll be getting on a bus or a train again but – lockdowns permitting – one aspect of the old days is tentatively restarting next week: the Bigtown Cycle Campaign’s social group rides. We’d normally run them in the summer, but at the time everyone in Bigtown was out riding bikes without our assistance, and the restrictions were anyway too tight to make a group ride possible. However with traffic returning and lockdown restrictions easing, it seemed like a good time to run some nice beginner-friendly rides to give all our wobbly new cyclists a chance to discover Bigtown’s secret cycle routes (signs to alert cyclists to the existence of an off-road cycle path built at some expense but not immediately obvious to those used to getting about by car are just street clutter, apparently) in good company and at a gentle pace.

I knew that we might have a few willing volunteers to help run the rides when I put out a short notice call by email for anyone interested in a recce and five people showed up (fortunately two from one household so we didn’t violate the social gathering restrictions in force at the time). While almost everyone I know is wary of visiting pubs or restaurants or heading into an office, almost everyone is gagging for some sort of social interaction and a socially distanced informal ride around the less well signposted corners of Bigtown in the company of others clearly scratched an itch. It was, unfortunately, the day the ‘rule of six’ had been announced and we thought our planned rides had been scuppered as a result, but we headed out anyway, even if just as a last hurrah before the lockdown closed down around us again.

Fortunately, it turned out the next day that – as well as organised grouse shoots – organised bike rides (organised anythings, indeed) are still allowed as long as you follow the relevant guidance. So the week has mostly been about taking our usually quite disorganised group rides and working out how to turn them into something organised – booking in advance, names and contact details, two-metre distancing, hand sanitiser a gogo, and most painful of all – no home baking.

It’s been a slightly stressful process but I think we’re finally there – and we’ve already had 11 people book onto our first ride next weekend so it seems we’re not the only ones keen to get out and cycle in socially distanced company. Meanwhile, we’re taking the opportunity to visit my parents while we still can and they’ve had to do the heavy lifting of eating up the baking* I can’t distribute to our ride participants.

* carrot cake, of course.

Carrotted, Redux

September 13, 2020

So we came back from a lovely bike ride to get lunch in town yesterday, to discover we had been subjected to a drive-by carrotting by our neighbour

This was fair enough, as we had ourselves just potato bombed another neighbour’s doorstep – it is the time of year when gardeners with surpluses stop bothering to ask permission before distributing their largesse. It’s just fortunate that we got to them before the wee hare that has been keeping busy weeding our drive.

The neighbours concerned had taken to vegetable growing in a big way this year, so I guess it wasn’t too surprising that they had carrots to spare, although given the enormous faff of growing the damn things, I take my hat off to them for actually succeeding. It’s possible we’re just in a good carrot growing area (according to the Oldest Inhabitant of the neighbourhood, who grew up in the farm down the road, they grew carrots commercially back when she was a girl). Even so, remind me not to attempt them again myself, if only because still I don’t really like carrots…

Fortunately, we have a recipe for carrot soup which I actually like, some of which we had for lunch, and some of which has been stashed in the freezer against a hard Brexit.

carrot soup in progress

finished carrot soup

That’s used up two-thirds of the bounty, leaving enough for a carrot cake and some stock, unless anyone has any better suggestions.

Ready or Not, 2020 edition

September 8, 2020

In this week’s how can it be September already news, time to put the summer veg to bed and see how we are set for autumn.

veg lot in September

It’s not been a great season in the veg patch if I’m honest – when everyone else was spending the first part of lockdown getting their gardens to Chelsea standards I was working away indoors, and although I just about passed inspection in June, I haven’t really devoted the time needed to things to manage a decent succession of the things like peas, spring onions and beetroots that reward a bit of forward planning.

leeks and chard


That said, I tend to concentrate more these days on the veg that will keep us going into the autumn and winter for as long as possible. The signs are good for the potato crop, and the chard and broccoli are already providing the odd meal (the broccoli is supposed to wait for spring but this is 2020 and why should it follow the rules when apparently nobody else is?), while the kale and the leeks are coming on nicely. Given the way the news is going, we could well be grateful to have any fresh veg at all come the end of the Brexit transition; a diet of kale, leeks and stored potatoes isn’t quite the land of milk and honey we were invited to believe in, but at least we won’t starve.

broccoli and kale

Anyway I spent an hour or two clearing out the beds that are finished and emptying and refilling the compost bins to make room for the resulting plant material, but then I turned to what I really felt like doing which was laying waste to stuff:

pile of vegetation

For yes, the sitooterie project continues. To be honest, the way things are going, what with the climate and the virus, having some outdoor but vaguely weatherproof space to socialise in is beginning to feel less lie a luxury and more like an urgent requirement.

future sitooterie site

Looks like we’ve got a ways to go …

Maybe we’d better get going with the fruit cage too …

101 Uses for a Brompton: Media Stardom

September 5, 2020

Top tip for cycle campaigners – don’t send out a news release that will unexpectedly capture the attention of the local media on the morning the carpet fitter is due to arrive and spend all morning making banging noises upstairs just as you’re supposed to be recording a vaguely coherent WhatsApp voice message to the local radio station (my new least favourite way of interacting with the local media, worse even than posing for a sadface in the local paper, arms crossed in true Angry People in Local Papers style).

It turns out that spending a couple of hours counting bikes on Bigtown High Street and then pointing out that there might be more people shopping by bike (and fewer illegally abandoning their cars in the pedestrianised town centre) if it wasn’t actually impossible to cycle from the main cycle path to the High Street due to the one-way system has media legs on a quiet news day (frustratingly Bigtownshire Council actually decided to exempt bikes from the restrictions about two years ago and got as far as doing the traffic order, when someone raised the issue of street clutter (because giant 4x4s littering your pedestrianised street aren’t street clutter but a small blue sign with a bike on it is) and the whole thing got put on hold until after the outcome of the last High Street rejuvenation project but one, and then apparently filed under ‘too difficult’).

one way sign

Also apparently not ‘clutter’

Anyway, the upshot was that the local TV news decided they wanted to do a piece about it. Unfortunately this meant Friday’s plan to ride down to some local friends for a leisurely lunch and inspection of their village’s new allotment project turned into a bit of a logistical headache that ended with the Brompton in the boot of the car so that we could fit it all in and I would still be able to show up for the interview on a bike (I did cycle it home, so it wasn’t entirely cheating). Cue an hour spent not just being interviewed but the Brompton and I and a fellow campaigner being filmed riding up (but not down, that being illegal) the High Street and, most importantly, observing social distancing (‘we have to include at least one shot that shows how far away I stood from you during the interview, otherwise we get emails’ the reporter explained – I told him it didn’t matter because their inbox would be so full of people complaining that neither of us was wearing a helmet). They even got in the shot of the bike wheel spinning and coming to a stop, without which no local TV segment on cycling is complete.

Whether any of this will make it onto the actual tellybox depends on there being anything more interesting happening over the weekend (national paint-drying championships, anyone?) but at least the Brompton got its moment in the spotlight, something it has missed with POP being cancelled this year.

New allotments

I can remember when all this was fields …

There was no time to take any photos of the TV shenanigans, so have some of the new allotments instead. Not bad for something that was a ploughed field this spring. Perfectly timed for lockdown …


Old Friends

August 30, 2020

In today’s exciting news, our ford correspondent sent me a text that began

“Thought it might cheer you to know that ASBO buzzard has been located …”

Apparently the nice young man who now lives in our old house has also inherited my mantle of chief buzzard victim, after three buzzard attacks in a row. If it is indeed our old friend, she’s moved her location from her old cyclist hunting grounds but I like to think that she’s up to her old tricks in a new spot – at least as long as she keeps hassling my successor rather than me.*

Felled forest

ASBO Buzzard’s old home, now sadly demolished

In other news, Moo-I-5 are back, but proving rather elusive at the moment. Poor weather and too much work have kept me out of the garden, so I haven’t yet found myself the centre of attention of a crowd of cows. Or perhaps they too are getting to grips with social distancing.

cows listening in
* My close raptor encounter of the day was a sparrowhawk shooting across the road in front of me as I laboured up the hill homewards; birds of prey are always cool and never cooler than when they’re hunting something that isn’t you.


Eat, Drink and Be Merry…

August 23, 2020

In this weekend’s exciting easing-out-of-lockdown news, I have finally gone to a bar for the first time since about February.

Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign had spent an exciting couple of hours counting bikes on the High Street and confirming that your classic Bigtown cyclist is a bloke on a mountainbike, sometimes with a shopping bag dangling from the handlebars (the classic family cycling configuration, on the other hand, is a group of adults on foot accompanying a child on a bike). It was good to see the High Street pretty busy with people shopping or eating out – I had feared it would never come back but you would be hard pressed to see any difference from this time last year, were it not for all the masks dangling from people’s ears.

supposedly pedestrianised street

Anyway, counting bikes is thirsty work and there’s a new bar opened up (they had been due to open in April, poor sods) that has in very unBigtown fashion taken over a couple of illegal parking spots in a nominally pedestrianised street to make a little beer garden, and we wanted to celebrate the fact. They have a wide variety of fancy beer, at similarly unBigtown prices (not quite London levels, but definitely verging on Edinburgh in August) but this was slightly mitigated by the fact that they will sell it to you in 2/3 pints, a measure I have long felt should be on offer more widely.

outside seating area

I think it will be a long while before you find me in the inside of a pub or a restaurant, but sitting outside like this felt fine, especially after I’d drunk the 9.8% ABV stout which slipped down very nicely and made the 8-mile ride home somewhat interesting (it’s a good test of your town’s infrastructure if you can cycle safely back from the pub and the only danger you face is from yourself). The weather has backed off from the heatwave we enjoyed last weekend, but it was still pleasant to sit outside for as long as the showers held off, reminiscing about past beers and past adventures.

September is often a pleasant month around here – indeed, it’s generally more reliable a ‘summer’ than August. I’ve got my fingers crossed that this continues to hold true in this the most untypical of years, and that we can enjoy a bit more al fresco living while stocks last.

Making Connections

August 19, 2020

view of distant hills

So, a mere 14 months after the Scottish Government – at some expense, albeit not directly to us – installed fibre optic cables right up to our front gate, we are now connected up to the superfast broadband network.* I’d blame the pandemic for the time it’s taken but in truth it’s just been that we never quite got around to it and really there was no hurry until suddenly we were all in lockdown making video calls and it was impossible to get an installation (see also: not bothering to book an eye test because there was no rush and now there’s a six month waiting list and my glasses are scratched to hell).

lone tree

So far it’s passed the first test (still working even if it’s raining – very much not a given before) and the second (both of us on video calls at the same time) and is actually costing us less than the old service, despite being from effectively the same company, because this is 2020 and nothing must make sense by law. We’ve streamed a bit of telly, just to show willing, although to be honest the weather was just too nice last week to spend any time indoors playing with the Internet, however fast and responsive it might be. Streaming sunshine beats streaming video any day of the week.

empty back road

With impeccable timing, the ability to video conference with people who don’t look like characters from Minecraft has also coincided with my first actual in-person meeting since March. Having postponed it once already, I was determined to go come hell or high water (both equally likely at the moment) but the weather actually played ball this time and I had a lovely and impeccably socially distanced meeting with a community group who have taken matters into their own hands and are just funding their own cycle path to join two communities, without waiting for the coonsil to get around to it. Never underestimate the ability of a group of people who don’t know how difficult something is to do, to just go ahead and get it done.

distant church

It’s clearly a ridiculous waste of time to cycle a 24 mile round trip for a 90 minute meeting, especially when there are plenty of digital alternatives – but as their community just happens to be on one of my favourite routes, I was prepared to make the effort (are you bored of my photos of back roads yet?) And it was also refreshing to remember what it’s like to talk with a group of people who aren’t all trapped in their little video squares, grappling with their mute buttons. If meetings under the new normal could be guaranteed only to take place in beautiful gardens overlooking a fabulous view on a pleasant (adjusted for Scotland) summer afternoon, then I’m prepared to adjust. October’s going to come as a nasty shock, isn’t it?

sign saying dangerous hill

* Actually more like the superfastish broadband network because when you’re used to getting 3Mb/s (and that was an improvement over the speeds in our last place), paying extra for anything over 50Mb/s felt like an extravagance too far.

Plant a Fast Growing Vine

August 14, 2020

This week has combined fine weather with unusually few things for me to do, so I have spent as much of it as possible in the garden, contemplating the question: how overgrown does your garden have to be that you can spend four years there without realising that there is a massive planter on your patio?

chicken shed

The garden when we moved in.

To explain, at the back of the house there is a very overgrown woodshed/old dog kennel by the garage that has been on the list of things to deal with in the fullness of time. The current plan is that this will be converted into a sheltered sitooterie,* but while those plans mature we’ve just left that corner doing what it does best – growing ivy. Ivy is a brilliant plant for wildlife so we’ve just let it get on with it until we noticed that the path to the clothesline was getting a little bit compromised.

back garden

This week I was in a hacking back sort of mood, and the blackbirds had finished nesting there, so I thought I’d clear the some of the growth back a foot or so to the wall and reclaim that patio space when the other half started wondering what was lurking deep in the ivy: Is that … a planter?

lurking planter

Some enjoyable hacking away at ivy plants later, it became clear that was exactly what it was.

emerging planter

At first it looked as if it had a lid on it, but by the time I’d cleared the ivy right back to the back wall of the old woodshed, it was clear that what we had was something about three feet tall and two feet in diameter (and rather more space on the patio than we thought). The ‘lid’ turned out to be the base of the planter, which had broken off and been placed on top, and it also has a crack right down the front but more to the point it is really quite an impressively ugly thing.

excavated planter

The other half’s sensible suggestion was to take a sledgehammer to it and cart away the bits. And we may well do that (possibly inadvertently depending on how structural that crack is) and yet, and yet … I am still wondering whether it can be used in some way. It is somehow part of the place, and the fact that it has sat there quietly for so long makes me feel as if it belongs.

garden statue

After all, we’d never have actually bought a garden ornament like Mostly, yet we’ve grown fond of her over the years. Perhaps this too will grow on us? Or perhaps the ivy will just grow back and rid us of the dilemma for another few years.

Suggestions for sensible uses gratefully accepted in the comments. And now I’ve got several barrow loads of ivy to shred and dispose of…

* where you can sit oot, obviously

Summer Haulin’

August 12, 2020

I had feared that one of the casualties of the current crisis might be Bigtownshire’s barter economy as the local Facebook bartering group shut down at the start of the pandemic although I suspect this may have been more to do with the admins wanting a break. I don’t think they realised when they started it that they would shortly be acting as the central bank of an alternative local economy with an emerging currency based on prosecco, fabric softener and wax melts (no, me either). Fortunately, the local village freecycle list is made of sterner stuff and last week I spotted an extending curtain pole on offer which was just what we needed for the spare room.

Naturally, this was a job for the bike. Six miles to pick up the curtain rail was no problem but I had also made plans to see a friend about a bike and – as is always the case when you can arrange for a couple of things to happen at any time on an otherwise free day – suddenly the only time that was mutually convenient to all meant I had to be in two different places in a fairly short time frame. Which is why yesterday saw me heading off on a 10-mile cross country cycle trip with a four-foot metal curtain rail bungied onto my cross bar, the traditional hi-vis vest dangling from the end in case anyone fancied tailgating me (fittingly, the rail will be used for the curtains that have also been taken on a nice bike tour of the surrounding countryside, and no, I haven’t hung them yet, don’t be ridiculous).

summer back road

Fortunately, this involved one of my favourite routes

summer back road

And on roads like these, there’s nobody to hear you rattle

summer back road

Which is fortunate, because I was doing a lot of it.

summer heat haze

It was only as I was heading home – and realising that the one time you don’t want a tailwind is when the heatwave finally, properly sets in and you’re sweating your way uphill – that I encountered any real traffic. I was wondering whether the presence of a four-foot pointy-ended pole would make any difference to drivers’ behaviour, and was a little disappointed that it didn’t appear to (Twitter’s suggestion to mount it sideways might have been more effective but possibly impractical on the narrower back roads …). After a tractor had passed me in a reasonable fashion, the five cars lined up behind it all overtook too, regardless of the approaching bend (and indeed an oncoming van). I then pulled out to discourage any further passes until the road straightened out and was a bit disappointed to hear something shouted by the driver of the lorry behind who, when he finally overtook me, then put his hazards on in what seemed to me a pointed manner.

bike with mounted curtain pole

Just say no to hi-vis, people

Fortunately I didn’t rise to it because when I got home I realised that this wasn’t in fact road rage so much as an attempt to warn me that my load had come partially adrift and the hi-vis vest was threatening to get tangled in my spokes. So apologies, Mr Lorry Driver, for doubting your good will – and I’ll leave it to a certain corner of Bike Twitter to point out how this just confirms that you rely on hi-vis for your safety at your peril.