Flower of Scotland

May 30, 2011

It is, I’m afraid, entirely my fault that I’ve got a thistle approximately the size of Wales in my front garden. It emerged late last year when I cleared away a large clump of Lady’s Mantle and I decided that it had a certain architectural quality to it which stood it in good stead over the winter when everything else just gave up and went brown. And then spring came and things got busy and I had other things to do than tackle what was by now a rather scary, albeit still quite impressive-looking plant. So now I’m stuck with something that not only looks as if it could take me and a whole battalion of monster parsnips single-handedly, but it’s about to have about a million thistle babies. And thistle seedlings, as I have found the hard way, come up just as spiky as the parent plant.

I still think it’s sort of cool, but it’s time to find myself a kevlar gardening outfit or a flamethrower and get rid of it.

Wish me luck.

Business Opportunity

May 27, 2011

Can’t write much because I’m busy busy at the moment (put it this way – if you really want to retreat to the country for a quiet life, don’t go starting a cycling campaign and if you must start a cycling campaign don’t decide to go for a funding proposal three days before the deadline…), and also I’m being a bit discreet here, but it has come to my attention that with large numbers of townies moving to rural areas and taking up chicken keeping, and with chickens being on the whole somewhat prone to going wrong, and yet also being – when it comes right down to it – quite difficult to actually kill humanely especially if you’ve led a sheltered life up until now, that there is a gap in the market for some sort of Chicken Dignitas clinic.

And that’s all I’m saying

There’s No Accounting for Folk

May 25, 2011

I’ve long wondered why it is that Nearest Village doesn’t have a proper bus shelter when Intervening Village has the full-on rural style timber-panelled half shed affair beloved by smoking teenagers everywhere. It’s not as if we’ve got so much better weather or less rain (or, indeed, fewer teenagers) than Intervening Village that we don’t need one. So when I happened to be sitting next to someone on the community council at the plant sale tea, I took the opportunity to bend his ear about my idea for an Integrated Transport Hub for the village, aka a bus shelter with built in bike racks so that on miserable days I can ride down for the bus and leave my bike in comfort and relative security (everyone knows my bike now well enough in the village that it will be kept an eye on) for the day.

‘That’s a good idea,’ he said, not backing away much at all. ‘I don’t know why the bus shelter has gone. We used to have one once next to the phone box. We could try and get it back.’

‘Maybe it was stolen,’ I suggested.

‘I don’t think so – it was a great big concrete thing. Do you know what happened to the bus stop that used to be there?’ he asked the Oldest Inhabitant.

‘Och weel, that was outside old Jock McPloppy’s* house and he complained to the council it was attracting the wrong element and so they came wi’ a big lorry and took it away.’

*Not his actual name.

Blown Away

May 24, 2011

‘Do you think the tree is going to be all right blowing like that in this wind?’ the other half asked me at some point yesterday afternoon.

‘It’ll be fine,’ I said. ‘It’s pretty sturdy, and besides birch are fairly bendy. It’s the ones that don’t bend that you have to worry about.’

‘Plenty of birches come down in the back woods though,’ the other half said.

‘Yeah, but they’re all thin and top-heavy. This one will be fine.’

Which just goes to show how much I know about trees.

‘Um, look at the tree now,’ the other half said a few hours later

An entire day of high gusting winds, rain and saturated ground had half uprooted the tree, leaving it finely balanced, but rocking with every gust. While the other half – a man with his priorities right – went to rescue his bird feeder, I rang the landlord and we stood and watched it for another hour not quite falling and not quite not falling until a man came with a chainsaw and put it out of its misery.

It could have been a lot worse. The tree managed to fall between the woodshed and the road, missing the telephone wire, our car, the house, the cat and any passing people on the road. The part of the garden it mostly landed on was the part that was getting a bit out of hand, and now I feel that at least I didn’t waste too much time weeding that end of the flowerbed. If it had been anywhere else, we might have had a go at righting it – sometimes they will just re-seat themselves, none the worse for wear – but we just couldn’t risk it that close to the road. And it was ‘only’ a birch tree, not an ancient, magnificent oak or beech, something worth making an effort to save.

But all the same, a tree is a tree is a tree and I do feel bad now for enjoying the wind so much earlier. And extra light or no extra light, I feel the view from our kitchen window this morning is rather diminished by its loss.

Although, looking on the bright side, that is quite a lot of firewood…

A Breeze

May 23, 2011

I wasn’t expecting to cycle at all this morning. I knew there was an amber weather alert for gales and high winds* and when we woke up this morning it was beyond grim out there: raining, blowing, visibility down to mere yards at time. But then something odd happened – the wind didn’t drop but the rain stopped and the sun even put in an appearance and I decided to seize the opportunity and nip down for the paper after all.

Well, I say ‘nip’, but with the wind being what it was, ‘battle’ might have been a better word, at least for the outward leg. Coming down to Nearest Village wasn’t too bad, although the road was running with water from all the rain and the tarmac was scattered with debris from the wind (it’s always a shame when we get late spring gales to see the fresh new leaves all shredded on the ground, and coming into the village I also saw the body of a fledgeling rook that had probably been tossed out of its nest). But it was as I left the relative shelter of the village and the road turned directly into the wind that it got interesting. There were a few moments when I did actually grind to a halt, despite pedalling with all my might, and others where the bike skittered sideways in a sudden gust of crosswind and it took all my luck to stay upright and out of the hedge. But even on the way out it was an exhilarating ride. Every overhead wire hummed with its own note as I passed and every tree was in movement, the forests roaring like the sea. With the clouds racing through the sky everything was patterned with fleeting sun and shadows and where the grass had been left to grow long for silage whole hillsides seemed to be alive, rippling like the play of muscles under an animal’s skin.

And then there was the ride back. I’d not put my GPS on the bike so I don’t know what speed I hit, but I’m pretty certain that some records may have been breached when the wind and the downhill sections coincided. There was definitely one point when I felt the wind take me like a boat before a storm and it’s probably fortunate that there wasn’t much else on the road around me because I’m not sure I could have either braked or steered around any sudden obstacle.

Cycling in Manchester over the weekend we were all struck by the ferocity of the headwinds which don’t so much blow there as ambush you round every corner. The Manchester cyclists we were with were united in their dislike of wind, which they considered far worse even than the rain. I’m sure if we had winds like this constantly, or if I had to get anywhere quickly and looking in any way shevelled, I’d probably go off the wind here too. But when it’s just occasionally and coincides with an otherwise sunny-ish day on empty roads, all I can say is it’s an absolute blast.

* I know the weather’s going to get interesting up here when my London friends start emailing me the forecast…

I’ve Got a Ticket to Ride…

May 20, 2011

… several in fact.

I’m glad now that I decided to pop into the station yesterday to pick up my tickets to Manchester rather than waiting until just before I caught the train tomorrow. Because I hadn’t realised that I would have to wait while the little machine spat out 14 of them, for one simple return trip for me and my bike.*

When the second Cycling Embassy of Great Britain meeting was planned for Manchester I was happy because I knew it was a relatively simple journey for me and I didn’t even bother trying to book until a week or so ago. But that was because I hadn’t counted on the dreaded engineering works. By the time I did get around to booking I found that my simple one-change journey had turned into an epic monster trip complete with ‘replacement’ bus service – which meant no way of bringing my bike – and arriving at Bigtown station just shy of midnight. Further investigation revealed that there was some sort of football match on in the city that day, making accommodation hard to come by. I was faced with a choice of attending the meeting without a bike – again – making joining in on the infrastructure safari a little difficult, or staying overnight in a city centre hotel at a minimum price of £100.

Fortunately the wisdom of the internet prevailed, and after toying with the idea of coming back the scenic way via the Settle-Carlisle line, I managed to get an offer of a sofa from a kind and hopefully not too murderous stranger. Not only that, but I discovered that you can book your bike onto any train in the UK through the East Coast Main line website without any of the normal to-ing and fro-ing that that entails (the not-at-all helpful National Rail site just puts a little cycle symbol next to every train which means that the train company in question has a cycle policy. What that cycle policy is, is up to you to find out by clicking each individual company’s name. Normally it involves ringing a premium rate number AFTER you have booked your own train in order to find out whether your bike can come with you too. Given that most trains have very limited capacity for carrying bikes, this may be a risk you don’t want to take if you’re buying an Advanced ticket. I really wish I was making this up). I’ve got to catch three trains, run by three different operating companies, only one of which (take a bow Scot Rail) allows you just to take the damn bike on the train already. Although it also reserves the right not to allow you to take the bike on the train if it’s full, which may end up being a problem…

So anyway, yay! for Twitter, yay! for EastCoast Mainline and boo! to everyone else, hopefully non-murderous strangers excepted. Now all I have to do is figure out a foolproof way of attaching four reservation tickets to my bike and actually get to Manchester for the meeting.

What could possibly go wrong?

* Outward and return halves, four seat reservations for me, and four for my bike, consisting of two halves each, one for me and one for the bike.

Bike Campaigning 101

May 19, 2011

‘So will you be able to get hold of a bike for the photo?’ the local reporter asked me on the phone

‘Erm, I’ll be coming on my bike,’ I said.

These past few weeks (indeed months…) I’ve been finding out the difference between talking about cycling policy on the internet and actually doing something about it. First there’s been the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, with a meeting coming up on Manchester this weekend, which has meant doing such glamorous things as helping draft a constitution and adding material to a wiki (if only bike campaigning involved more bike rides, maybe more people would do it). And then, deciding I Wasn’t busy enough, I decided to get together with a few like minded souls and start (or revive) Bigtown’s cycling campaign which had gradually faded away in recent years (if only bike campaigning involved less banging of heads against brick walls, maybe more people would do it).

But that’s not really what I wanted to write about today. Today, I had to tackle the really important question all Bike Campaigners have to answer: what to wear for the photograph to go in the local paper. Obviously, I needed my bike, and I knew I didn’t want to be dressed up in hi-vis, lycra, tap shoes and a helmet, if only because I don’t own any of those things except the hi-vis and I won’t tell anyone that if you won’t. Cycle chic would be the answer, if only I did any actual chic. Wear what you’d ordinarily wear, Twitter suggested, but I’m a writer who works from home and gardens when she’s got a spare minute, and who’s long since stopped worrying what’s in fashion these days, and nobody wants to see that over their breakfast. So after careful consideration I got dressed this morning and asked the other half what he thought. ‘That’s a good shirt for radio,’ he said. Three changes later, and now running only slightly late, I was out the door looking, I hope, vaguely presentable, and without (as I found out later) my door keys…

Fortunately the shirt will still get an outing later, as we’re also going to be on the local radio station’s drivetime programme next week. And yes, the irony of that has not escaped me. Hopefully we won’t send too many drivers distracted enough to end up running some poor cyclist off the road.

The Carrot Saga Continues

May 18, 2011

The recent rain has made everything spring into growth – everything except my carrots.

Despite all my elaborate precautions these are down to just 4 survivors. One of the victims had apparently been decapitated just moments before I came to check on them, which is a low blow. I’ve got another two dozen waiting to be planted out which suggests that, if the present rate of attrition continues, I’ll be dining on a solitary carrot come September. And that’s even before the carrot fly get going …

Watch this space. There will be updates, I can assure you

Darn Tooting

May 17, 2011

I suppose it’s a sign of how sheltered a life I lead these days that ‘car driver hoots at cyclist’ counts as news. But that’s what happened (and besides, it was this or a post consisting of me moaning about the rain again, and nobody wants that). I had just turned onto Big A Road to get out of Papershop Village and the car coming up behind me – which was towing a caravan, I might add – decided I should get out of his way because I was holding him up. Now he decided to sound the horn just as I came up to the bus stop lay by where I normally pull in a little to let anyone who’s behind pass me, because I’m polite that way and because I prefer to have the imaptient drivers ahead of me instead of breathing fire up my tail. Naturally, once Mr Caravan Tower had let me know that he was there and important and in a hurry, I decided that, perhaps, I wouldn’t pull in after all. In fact, now might be an excellent time to take the primary position, just in case anyone was about to pull out of the side road or emerge unexpectedly from one of the houses. Funnily enough he then discovered that he could overtake me after all without sending me into the gutter, by going over to the other side of the road, and he roared away, sending the postman who (poor sod) has to cross Big A Road twice to deliver Papershop Village’s post, scuttling for the safety of the pavement.

I looked at the postman as I passed and gave him a look that said ‘what was all that about then?’ and he gave me a look that said ‘search me’ and we went on our separate ways reflecting that it takes hypocrisy of a certain monumental scale for a caravan driver to complain about being held up by something slower on the road.

And it is STILL raining.

Hissing Down

May 16, 2011

OK it has now been raining ALL day, despite the Met office site confidently stating that it wouldn’t rain and persistently denying that it had rained, and despite Raintoday also agreeing that it wasn’t raining and hadn’t rained and never would rain when patently, looking out of the window, it was doing nothing but rain. This was especially annoying because I had been spending the time while waiting for it to stop raining reading up about the scientifically proven benefits of cycling (did you know, for instance, that regular cycling, quite apart from making you thinner, healthier, less depressed and 40% less likely to die,* can basically take up to 10 years off your actual age in fitness terms?**) and it was making me want to get out on my bike. I’d arranged to go out for the paper in the morning with a friend but cancelled that and then I spent most of lunchtime staring out the window trying to convince myself that it was easing up a bit. Finally, at around 2:30 it paused for breath and I dashed out, not so much thinking that the rain had stopped as knowing that it was my best chance to fool myself that it would be all right.

I’m slowly, slowly, getting better about cycling – or rather setting off – in the rain. The everything-bar-the-apocalypse-proof jacket helps, and has proved to be entirely waterproof and breathable although that doesn’t help with my bottom half. And I can’t say yet that I actually enjoy it in any meaningful sense of the word. But mainly I have been managing to just grit my teeth and concentrate on my own personal entirely unscientific and supported-only-by-anecdotal-evidence belief that regular drenchings on the bike, preferably accompanied by a chill wind, are what keeps the old immune system going. All the periods of my life when I’ve been cycling regularly, through wind and rain and fog and hail (including sitting around in soaking wet things for hours afterwards) I’ve had almost no colds and never had to take a day off work, whereas at other times I’ve been as sickly as the next person. It goes against everything your granny’s ever told you but that’s what I’ve found. And after this afternoon’s ride, I’ll either have topped up my immune system for another few weeks, or I’m due a nasty bout of hubris-induced double pneumonia. Only time will tell.

* In the short term. Obviously in the long run the probability of dying is 100%; cycling’s good for you but it’s not that good…

**Of course that’s according to Cycling England and cycling didn’t do very much for its longevity did it? No amount of cycling-related fitness will save you if you get hit by a truck marked ‘we simply can’t afford it’. Coalition bastids. But that’s a rant for another day