By the Barrowload

September 29, 2011

this was about 2/3 the total

I took advantage of yesterday’s indian summer (which now seems to have vanished up here and been replaced with grey drizzly weather. *sigh*. I can get that in a REAL summer) to harvest my maincrop potatoes.

Digging them up was backbreaking enough, but the real work comes once they’re up and have had their hour or two in the sun (hence the timing) to dry off. They all then have to be sorted into those that will keep and those that need to be eaten up quickly because they’ve been nibbled on or had a fork stuck through them. The perfect ones will hopefully see us through most of the winter, if we can keep them away from the frost and the mice…

Speaking of mice, and the cats who love them, someone else had a better use for the barrow while I went in for lunch, and who can blame her. Get your vitamin D in while stocks last

She was seriously unimpressed when I suggested she might move to make room for more tatties though

The next step? Dig the beds over again and find all the potatoes I missed. There’s always some – and then you dig them over again and there’s some more.


September 28, 2011

We may be having our indian summer – and it has been gloriously hot, yes, hot, today – but it is still September. And that meant we woke this morning to the thickest fog I’ve seen, thick enough that the other side of the yard was hazy and the other side of the road was non-existent.

Fortunately it soon burned off, leaving just this remnant behind, trapped in a spider’s web.

I’ve read that spiders eat their webs each morning to get the water from the dew, then spin them anew. I hope this one was feeling thirsty…

Pile them High and Sell them at Twice the Price

September 27, 2011

One last vignette from my travels. I was in Newcastle train station, attempting to buy a ticket from Carlisle to Dumfries as I only had a return half taking me as far as Carlisle. The conversation went like this

Me: Can I have a ticket from Carlisle to Dumfries please.

Dead-eyed Train Company Employee: That’ll be £9.10

Me: What? Normally it costs me £5.50

D-ETCE: It says £9.10 here

Me: Is that the off-peak rate?

D-ETCE: yep*

Me: is that a single or a return?

D-ETCE: It’s both. Single and return

Impasse while I tried to think of another way to ask the question that didn’t result in an almost doubling of the usual price. Normally I’m a bit of a pushover and hate arguing about prices but this seemed insane. Time passed and I began to wonder if I should just back down and not miss my train for the sake of less than four quid. But fortunately she blinked first.

D-ETCE: Of course, if you bought a cheap day return, that would be £5.50

I can’t even now work out if this was an example of deadpan Geordie humour or just an example of rank incompetence and/or poor IT systems (even the national rail site offers you the cheap day return even if you only ask for a single). I know the supermarkets have been getting some stick about those special offers that actually cost more than the regular price but I hadn’t realised Tesco was running the railways. At least, not yet…

*She lied, I’ve just checked on the National Rail travel site and it’s the anytime fare

Long Range Forecast

September 26, 2011

I can confidently predict (and not just because I heard it on the radio) that we’re in for a run of unseasonably warm and fine weather. Why? Because we’ve finally got the Rayburn serviced and relit. We’d have done it a couple of weeks ago when it was really miserable but Rayburn man was busy and this was the soonest he could come.

We could have left it switched off a little longer but it’s always better to make sure it’s working properly before you allow Rayburn Man off the premises, just to make sure it’s behaving. And besides, we thought we owed it to the rest of the country to ensure this fine spell lasted and so once more the kitchen is a warm and cosy place to be again…

… just in time to enjoy the little piece of the Netherlands I brought back with me (I couldn’t get a bike lane in my bag)

Second Class Citizen

September 25, 2011

Well, I knew I was back in the land of reality before I’d even got through passport control yesterday: rolling off the ferry, the half-dozen of us on bicycles were held up waiting in the queue while all the very important people in their nice warm comfortable cars went through before us. *sigh*. I suppose I should just be grateful that it wasn’t raining.

Karl McCracken (of Do the Right Thing) was then on hand to lead me and Claire Prospert of the Newcastle Cycling Campaign on an impromptu tour of the best and worst of Gateshead’s cycling provision (it turns out that the Tyne, like the Thames, has a very distinct north-south divide, and Claire had never cycled on its south bank either. She looked a lot happier once we were within sprinting distance of a bridge…) If I hadn’t just been in the Netherlands, I might have thought that some of it wasn’t all that bad: there were a few off road lanes, an underpass bypassing a nasty big roundabout and the millennium bridge with its own special section for bikes. But there were some horrors too: like a large three way junction on a dual carriageway where we needed to turn right without so much as a pedestrian crossing, let alone a bike one. The bike lane we were following (a painted line along the pavement at this point) gave us no clues as to how we were supposed to get across. In the end, we took our lives into our hands and just sprinted when it looked like the traffic was stopped at a red (we couldn’t see – the lights were just for the cars). We survived, but it didn’t exactly seem like an invitation to get on a bike. You wonder whether, really, the powers that be would actually prefer it if you didn’t.

I promise, I really do, not to bang on too much more about cycling infrastructure and return to regular updates about the state of the ford (around 3 ins of water this afternoon), the weather (raining again) and my poor neglected garden (neglected. And the bastard mouse has eaten the rest of my beetroot). But before I do I have to emphasise just how different it is across the North Sea. It’s not just that Dutch bike lanes are nice and wide (and by nice and wide, I mean up to four metres wide …) or that you get the green light first at traffic lights so that you’re out of the way of cars turning, or that there are loops in the cycle lane to detect oncoming bikes so they get a green light as they approach a junction, or that you have your own dedicated lane on roundabouts, or that on some roads bikes have priority over cars, or that it’s cars that go all round the houses on brick paving to make speeding uncomfortable while cyclists go direct on smooth tarmac, or that cyclists get their own bridges and their own multi-story parking and even their own bins – you could probably find examples of that even in the UK, in places. It’s that it’s like that everywhere. Wherever we went, from tiny villages to big cities, every single road seemed to have bikes catered for in some way or another. Every single road. From what I’ve seen, you could drop a novice cyclist – or a child – anywhere in Assen or Groningen and they could cycle safely and comfortably to anywhere else without needing a native guide to get them there. There’s nowhere in the UK where you could say that now. When it comes to cycling, the Dutch travel first class. In the UK we barely make it out of steerage.

And for those of you thinking, well, that’s very nice but really, it’s not very realistic to think we could do it here – well, just watch this video of kicking out time at a primary school in Assen and tell me that life in the UK wouldn’t be 100% better for everyone – but especially the (reportedly) unhappiest children in Europe – if we could have that too.

The holiday snaps are below.

Read the rest of this entry »

To the People of Newcastle: an Apology

September 22, 2011

Tomorrow I leave Assen for Amsterdam, and from there to my ferry home. This means I have to get across Newcastle to the train station on my bike, having quite lost my UK cycling instincts – you know, those things that keep you alive when everyone is trying to kill you. Three days of blissfully stress-free cycling will do that to a person, I find. The Dutch have awesome bike handling skills, in that they can swerve around a dithering English cyclist without really breaking off from updating Facebook on their phone, but they don’t have the sort of paranoid sensibility required to keep oneself alive on the UK roads when you’re only one misjudgement away from being a statistic. I really do worry that I’ll roll off the ferry and right under the wheels of a bus, having got used to being in a country where bikes are everywhere and drivers are polite to the point of giving way to them when they don’t even have to.

Fortunately, Twitter and the Newcastle Cycling campaign will be springing into the breach once more, with a couple of them meeting me off the ferry on Saturday morning. With one leading the way in front, and one riding sweep behind, hopefully they will be able to keep me from leaving too much of a trail of chaos and destruction in my wake as I cycle blithely along assuming that side streets give way to cycle paths, that car drivers have seen me coming and will stop, and other such mad assumptions.

Just follow the sound of honking horns and squealing brakes and there I’ll be …

To the People of Assen: an Apology

September 20, 2011

You were only trying to get home from work, or back from school or down to the shops or out to coffee with your mates. There you were, minding your own business, texting while leaning on your handlebars, or chatting to your companions, or simply dreaming along thinking about something else, when suddenly a bunch of strange British people screeched to a halt in front of you in the middle of your perfectly normal bike lane and started earnestly discussing and photographing something so ordinary to you you’d never even noticed it before. You probably didn’t realise that you were using ‘cycle infrastructure’, you thought you were just going to work or school or coffee. You probably weren’t even aware that you were ‘cycling’. You see, hard as it is to believe, there are places where the bike route is not the most direct route from a to b, and where the cars actually take priority over people getting around under their own steam. Or where bike paths have to give way at every driveway and where the normal way to get your child to school is by car. A place where – and I know this must seem so strange you can’t quite conceive of it – people wouldn’t even consider moving a whole canal a few metres north in order to make room for a secondary bike route on the flimsy excuse that there’s a perfectly reasonable bike route on the other side of the canal already. I know. What sort of an excuse is that?

Imagine a group of people from, say, North Korea first setting eyes on a branch of Poundland – or standing blocking a whole aisle of Tesco, minds boggling over the choice of cereal – and you’ve got a good idea of what the Cycling Embassy infrastructure tour is like from the outside. So all I can say is, we’re sorry, and we’ll be going home again soon, leaving you to get on with your perfectly ordinary, perfectly sensible, well-adjusted lives.

You utter jammy sods.

Bike Bingo

September 19, 2011

Right, I’ve been in the Netherlands for less than a day and already I’ve got my Dutch bicycling bingo card almost full: Bike with flowers in the basket? check! Old guy cycling along at a stately pace with his knees out, waving at his friends? check! Other old guy on a sit-up-and-beg bike with tri bars out the front (it’s for the headwinds, you know)? check! Gaggle of teenagers cycling five abreast while texting each other? check! Dude cycling along bolt upright with his hands in his pockets? check! Girl on a bike with crutches? check! Implausibly cute apple-cheeked baby carried on a sling by Dad on a bike? check! Stations stuffed full of bikes, bikes tethered to railings by canals, bikes with beer crates on the back, bikes with teenagers riding sidesaddle on the rack, bikes with adults riding sidesaddle on the rack, cargo bikes, delivery bikes, folding bikes, bikes, bikes, bikes … check, check, check, check, check. We even saw a guy in full lycra and a helmet, because truly there is every kind of bicycle imaginable. I’m sorry, I think I’ve gone a bit delirious.

I hope to post something a little more coherent later, but so far the Netherlands is proving to be exactly as I imagined it only a little bit more so. Though my B&B is right next to a motorway, so it’s not quite Nirvana yet…

You Shall Go to the Ball

September 17, 2011

Well, there’s been some exciting news for my bike – tomorrow I’m heading off to the Netherlands for the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain Infrastructure-safari-to-end-all-infrastructure-safaris and it turns out I can take my bike after all.* This saves me renting a bike when I’m over there and, while I’m a little disappointed at not getting to try a real Dutch bike, I am at least relieved to be saving some money on the trip. All is not entirely plain sailing, of course – while there are no longer any of the dreaded engineering works on the line, there’s a strange quirk in our train service that means the first train out of Bigtown on a Sunday leaves at 1pm, presumably to ensure that people can go to Kirk first. This means it’s impossible for me to make it to Newcastle on time for the ferry’s departure unless we first drive to Carlisle where the Godless English have no such Presbyterian qualms.

And then, at the other end, the bike and I face the prospect of the journey from the centre of Newcastle to the ferry terminal armed only with my sense of direction – and we all know how good that is. I had a vauge idea (head for the Tyne, then keep it on my right until reaching the docks) but I was hoping for something a little more reassuring by way of guidance.

This is where blogging – and latterly twitter – gets brilliant. first Bill Gibbon responds to my plea for help by sending me a PDF of the bike routes across the city. Then Katja Leyendekker of the Newcastle Cycling Campaign trumps that by offering to meet me at the station and escort me to the ferry. I have a feeling that there’s now no town or city in the UK where I couldn’t find a fellow cyclist to offer me advice or routes around their patch if I needed it. This goes some way to making up for the fact that attempting to get around by bike without a native guide is fraught with difficulty if not actual danger in this country. Maybe when the revolution comes we can have nice cycling meet-ups AND well-signposted, separate infrastructure for visiting cyclists. Until then, thank goodness for Twitter…

For those of you who come for the gardening, cat updates and wildlife, you may find the next week is a little heavy on the wonders of Dutch cycle infrastructure and a little light on the rest of it (although fear not weather god fans – it looks as though I’m taking the rain with me). And those of you who come for the cycling stuff – be warned: too much exposure to really first class cycling provision can cause side effects such as envy, irritation, sleepless nights, outbursts of rage, depression, and drool on the keyboard.

*Ahem. Someone had got August and September confused when reading the timetable…

On the One Hand…

September 16, 2011

Ah September. Miserable as the summer has been, it has at least been warm enough to go without my gloves on the bike, but no longer. The last couple of rides have been chilly enough to require gloves but, as seems to happen every autumn, I discover that I’m the proud owner of 3 left gloves and no right gloves. At the moment I’m making do with the least handed glove on my right hand, but it’s only a thin woollen glove that won’t do once the winter really gets into its stride.

As I haven’t been knitting much recently, I’m wondering if it isn’t time to rectify this with a pair of nice thick mittens (they’re warmer than gloves and also have the advantage of not requiring me to knit any fingers) Anyone got a pattern they can recommend for the spatially and knittingly challenged? The warmer the better, if last winter is anything to go by…