January 31, 2012

Well it turns out that spending two days in intense discussion on cycling policy and infrastructure has the effect of leaving my brain feeling as if it’s been taken out, steam cleaned, ironed on the linen setting and then put back in upside down. Which is my excuse for having lost my mobile phone AGAIN. It’ll be the third time I’ve mislaid this particular model and I’ve got the feeling the mobile phone gremlins are going to be the ones going ‘third time lucky…’

Still, confirmation – if confirmation was needed – of the need for the cycling embassy came at the end of the first day when we were assembling outside, preparing to set off for the nearest pub to continue the conversation there over beer. The woman who’d let us in dashed out because she wanted to see all the Bromptons (it’s not a proper UK cycle meeting if there isn’t a ‘fold’ of Bromptons in the corner). She wasn’t a cyclist and she knew nothing about bikes but she was entranced by the folding ones and she wanted to see us ride off on them. I asked her if she was thinking of getting one herself

‘oh no,’ she said. ‘My boyfriend cycles everywhere but it’s just too scary for me. I would if it was like Holland with those cycle tracks everywhere but here I have to mix with buses and everything and I’m just too frightened. I love the Boris Bikes, but there’s no point for me because where would I ride one?’

I’m about 99% certain that someone didn’t put her up to it … but we couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Back home tonight, or at least that’s the plan, although given the way a single broken down train at Wimbledon managed to bring the entire SouthWest Trains network to its knees last night, I’m not counting on it…


January 26, 2012

I’ve long been a proponent of the theory that regularly cycling – indeed regularly getting drenched and frozen on a bike – does wonders for the old immune system. This is partly borne out by the fact that since I’ve moved up here and regularly got drenched and frozen on the bike, I’ve barely had a cold, or at least not one that’s got beyond a day or so. So when the neighbour – as thanks for looking after his cat – brought back a stinking cold from Australia, the other half duly succumbed but I wasn’t worried. I even nobly headed out for the paper on some pretty ropey days to save the other half the drive and to top up my immune system in case it needed it. The problem was, having begun to believe my own propaganda, I’d mistaken ‘less liable to getting colds’ for ‘my superpower is not catching cold’. And yep. The day before I’m due to be in London for high-powered ambassadorial meetings I have come down with what promises to be a stinker…

I’m not going to let it stop me, though. I’ve spent the last year, one way or another, trying to make the case for decent cycling infrastructure in this country. Far too often, it feels like the very people who should be helping are the ones that hold us back. Never mind the Mr. Toads who hate cyclists – or the hardened vehicular cyclists who feel comfortable mixing with fast traffic and can’t see why everybody else should do so too – they were never going to support us in the first place. No, the real grief seems to come from the people who are nominally supportive of the idea of proper cycle infrastructure but who always seem to come up with a reason why it won’t work here and we should stop wasting everybody’s time asking for it. And the one that comes up time and time again is the ‘crap cycle lane’ argument. You know the one. Because half the time the facilities that get put in for cyclists are derisory, baffling, and occasionally downright dangerous then, so the argument goes, if you ask for cycling infrastructure – particularly separate cycle tracks as they have in the Netherlands – then you’ll just get more of the same. And worse – you’ll be MADE to cycle in them. Ergo, safest not to ask for anything at all and just keep on taking the lane, accelerating up to 20mph to get round multi-lane roundabouts, dicing with lorries 20cm from your wheel – and occasionally taking a cycle tour to the Netherlands to enjoy their superior cycling facilities with your family (who won’t cycle in the UK, for some reason, even though statistically it’s extremely safe) while reminding yourself why it is that such things would not work in the UK due to the fact that we’ve got different laws of physics from those crazy Dutch people.

Oh no, wait, hang on…

What’s really different here from the Netherlands is not the laws of physics but a failure of the imagination. We look at the crap we’ve got and we can’t imagine any different. We look at the amazing facilities the Dutch have and we can’t imagine how we would ever get there given the complete lack of will to create that sort of thing in the UK, and so we give up. We fight our inch-by-inch battles for an ASL here or a bit of shared path there or half a foot wider lanes along the potholed margins of our roads until we’ve forgotten we ever had a vision of something that wasn’t just not crap, but was actually a bit fantastic. And when somebody else comes along, all starry eyed and excited about their holiday in Amsterdam we snarl at them and remind them that it’s never going to happen here and besides who wants to cycle on those lousy Dutch bike lanes with their horrible smooth surfaces and their over-generous width when we’ve got the thrills and spills of a potholed roundabout to tackle…

What we’re trying to do this weekend is to close the gap between the UK reality and the vision that we want to achieve. We’re not trying to change the laws of physics – but we are trying to chip away at the laws of human nature. Which might be a lot harder, but it’s worth a shot. I’m looking forward to it, cold and all. I’m just sorry in advance that I’m going to give everyone my lurgy.

Advance Warning

January 25, 2012

I shall be heading down to London on Friday for this (just in case you missed my 17,000 tweets on the subject) and I feel I should warn anyone planning on using the West Coast Main line that I’m bringing down some Criffel for a friend: a fine cheese, which supports a good cause but – more importantly – generally guarantees me a carriage to myself. Even (I’ve tried it) on the Victoria line.

Sorry about that.


January 23, 2012

I feel like a real cyclist now! No, I don’t say any of this stuff that cyclists supposedly say (my version of the video would be full of things like ‘chocolate fetched by bicycle’s got no calories, right?’) but I have finally undergone a rite of passage that most cyclists seem to have to suffer on the road to becoming proper cyclists. I was riding back from Bigtown on Saturday, having been on a quest to track down The Last Guardian In Bigtownshire and was battling into the headwind and intermittent freezing cold rain shower when I heard a ‘beep’ behind me and turned round to look right into the eyes of a large furious man crammed into a tiny little Fiat, sitting right on my tail glaring at me. He was just at the point where the road calming consists of little ‘road cushions’ which mean that drivers have to absolutely hold their line if they’re going to drive fast enough to harrass cyclists without cracking their axles so he couldn’t overtake. I sped up as best I could (I didn’t want him bursting a blood vessel at the wheel) and then, as I got to the wider bit of the road, slowed up and moved over a little, anticipating he’d roar past me. Instead he hung on my tail and then turned left, winding down his window as he went to shout what could have been ‘get off the road’ but his enunciation was so poor that it could equally well have been ‘I have a very small penis’.

Now, other cyclists, particularly women, seem to get shouted at all the time but while I’ve had drivers do unpleasant things to me on the bike – mostly just casual assassination attempts, but occasionally something more bizarre – but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had them shout anything at me before, whether in London or up here.  Of course, were I really a proper cyclist, I would have given chase (he was heading down a cul de sac) and explained to the gentleman why I had every right to be on the road, and to give him a chance to make the observation that I don’t pay road tax so that I could explain to him the subtler points of Vehicle Emission Duty, but I’m afraid I didn’t. Maybe I’ll save that pleasure for later, when it’s not so effing cold.

Answered to the Name of Lucky*

January 20, 2012

A bad day on the bike today, and not just because it was drizzling throughout. No, the worst part came when I was almost back to Nearest Village and came across a sad little heap of white and ginger fur on the tarmac. A cat had been run over and who ever had hit it hadn’t even thought to stop to move it off the road. I stopped, checked for any signs of life, then moved it out of harm’s way; even though it was long past caring, I thought its owner might appreciate the gesture. I had just finished writing a note to stick in the letter box of the nearest house when a woman I knew slightly from village events – she always smiles and waves when she sees me on my bike – pulled up & I realised it was her house. As she wound down the window to say hello she was smiling as usual, someone coming home for her lunch, greeting an acquaintance, no clue what I was about to say. The instant my words hit her, she burst into tears, for it was her cat, her beloved old boy. She sat in her car and sobbed and there was nothing I could do but say over and over again that I was sorry, so sorry.

We got a blanket and we picked it up, still faintly warm, and as I left her she was cradling it in her arms and saying goodbye. ‘We thought we might have you a wee while longer,’ she said. Seventeen and still hunting mice, but its reflexes had slowed and no longer able to get out of the way of cars they way it used to. Someone came round so fast and in such a hurry that they either didn’t notice or didn’t care that they’d hit someone’s friend and companion, just left it on the road to die.

It’s only a cat, of course. It’s not as if it was a child – there are no children out on the roads anyway – or even a dog. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, except to the people who loved it. Not worth being late, just to move a bit of road kill out the way. But really, how much of a hurry do you have to be in not to at least stop? Round here I expected better. And when I opened the door this afternoon to a small wet grey cat – a distressingly road-coloured one – I ushered her in to a prime spot next to the fire. Hopefully we’ll never find her huddled in a heap on the road outside. Even though she’s not our cat, that would be just too much to bear.

*It really did, too. Though it did reach a grand old age, so maybe it wasn’t all that inappropriate.

Hentente Cordiale

January 19, 2012

Alert readers may have noticed that I have not been keeping you up to date with the chicken situation. Previously on Town Mouse, the landlords bought six shiny new chickens to complement their four old chickens. Sadly two of those quickly became ex chickens, but after a bit of aggro the eight remaining hens looked as if they were beginning to get on with each other. Things were looking good, not least for when we were on chicken-sitting duties (traditionally paid in eggs), but just before Christmas it all went a bit grim when Mr Fox came in and did for a couple more of the shiny white chickens. By the time we got back from Christmas there were just five birds left, and one of the brown ones wasn’t looking too clever: it had been put into the greenhouse on its own because it was walking around in circles and its chicken pals were having a go at it (think twitter when it’s got its knickers in a twist over something someone said, only with actual pecking). And then today there were four. They do at least seem to have formed a tightly knit little group: a mixture I suppose of huddling together to keep warm and uniting against a common enemy…

The curious thing is that the landlord reckoned the sick hen had something called ‘chicken palsy’. I checked on google and, astoundingly, it only came up with a few references to people on forums saying their hens had something called chicken palsy, without any other information. Could it be that there’s an entire chicken disease out there of which the internet knows nothing? I don’t think I’ve googled anything and come up blank since approximately 2004…

Any Colour you Like, as Long as it’s Green

January 18, 2012

Long time readers of this, and my other, blog, not to mention anyone who’s ever suffered going shopping with me, will be aware that I have a problem with buying trousers. This goes back to at least 2006 (it’s one of the perils of the blogged life that you know when you’re repeating yourself), if not actually 1998. Jeans, I can do, if only Levi’s would stop shrinking the damn things, because I’ve been wearing 501s since they were actually cool (I’m still waiting for them to come round again – it’s got to happen eventually, right?) and they’ve not changed design in all those years. Ahem. Decades. I have changed design a little bit, in that I’m no longer the stick insect* I was at school but I can more or less fit into the same size jeans I wore in my twenties so I haven’t turned into some particularly odd shape, as far as I can tell. And glancing round me I can see that there are other women around who are roughly the same shape and size as me so the market for trousers that don’t make you want to kill yourself when you try them on in the shop must be there. So far, in the last 6 years since I first wrote about this I have spent increasingly long hours wandering round shopping centres, trying on trousers to no avail. Either they’re skinny cut and impossible to do up, or they hang round your hips and give you the arse of an elephant, or they have NO POCKETS or zips on the sides or come with a nasty plastic ‘free’ belt AND don’t fit or they’re made of polyester and something with the texture of brillo pads. And they don’t fit. In all this time, pretty much the only sort of non-jeans trousers I’ve actually managed to bring myself to buy are the multi-pocketed outdoorsy kind, which do fit although they simultaneously make you look as if you are about to invade a small country and have come prepared.

However, as some people will be relieved to learn, my search is at an end. Well sort of. I have just bought two pairs of moleskin** trousers from Hoggs of Fife, which fit (well sort of – the size 12 jeans were gratifyingly large) – and are decently cut as well as being nicely put together (they even feature grippy bits on the waistband so your shirt stays tucked in, always assuming you remembered to tuck it in in the first place). They will do me for a while, if the last pair I had were anything to go by – I had bought the originals in, I think, 2005 – and I may even go back and stock up now I know they fit.

There’s just one tiny problem which is that they only come in two different shades of drab green. As a glance at the website should show, these trousers are aimed at people whose connection to the outdoors is owning most of it, and – if you look at the other stuff they sell – mostly venture out into it to shoot things. This may actually explain why the trousers are so practical and nicely cut. Women who spend time on grouse moors shooting things are going to want nice warm trousers that don’t leave a cold gaping hole around the middle (and they wouldn’t want to look like the back end of an elephant either, in case their menfolk think they’re on a hunt in Kenya). And clearly, women who come armed with a gun get the sort of trousers that they want.

* Not an actual stick insect

** Not made of actual moles

Stick it to ’em

January 17, 2012

It’s that time of the year again – I’ve just sat down with a gardening friend to go through the seed catalogues and put in a joint order. We save money by splitting the packets (because, seriously, who needs 500 parsnip seeds?) and then cheerfully plough the savings – and then some – into egging each other on to try things we wouldn’t otherwise have considered. This year, it looks like we’re trying black kale, celeriac and cauliflower (I did try very hard to persuade her against carrots but she’s bent on a path of self-destruction and is giving them an absolute final last chance. Fool!).

Of course I was already in a more adventurous frame of mind, as the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall washing-up creation experiment continues, reaching something of a local maximum with the consumption, by me, without TOO much whining, of mushroom and kale lasagne. I have long resisted mushrooms (apart from chanterelles) on the grounds that a) they’re slimy, b) they’re neither animals nor vegetables and are very possibly of alien origin and c) they just look nasty. Close examination of my conscience revealed that none of these reasons were based on my ever having eaten the things although anyone who’s a properly picky eater will know that that’s largely irrelevant because in order to taste something like mushrooms you’d have to put them in your mouth and why would you do that if it’s something you don’t like? Eeeuw. But anyway, I am in fact 42 and not 4, so I was persuaded to give them a go. I was hoping we’d start on mushroom soup which would get rid of the whole texture issue but lasagne it was and actually it turns out that the texture of lasagne noodles and the texture of sliced mushrooms are more or less identical and once they’ve all been cooked together for long enough, so is the taste.

Anyway. The other half made a lovely lasagne AND did the washing up (which is verging on the heroic) and I prodded it with a fork for a bit and then ate it. And it was fine. I’m not going to stand up and declare that the first four decades of my life have been spent in the darkness of non-mushroom eating and now the scales have fallen from my eyes and their deliciousness has been revealed – but they were fine. I no longer have to pick mushrooms out of my food or automatically discard any mushroom based options from a menu. The other half is looking forward to adding such delights as grilled steak and mushrooms to our menu (he’s not really on board with the whole ‘eating less meat thing’ is he?). And I take one small step towards being a slightly more normal person, food wise.

I did feel that, on the whole, my bravery at eating it all up should be recognised so the other half made me a sticker:

If we get onto sprouts – or courgettes – I’m holding out for a medal.

Winter Returns

January 16, 2012

Those snowdrops must be regretting their imprudence because the frost is back with a bang; we’re not complaining though because it’s dry and sparkly and sunny as well as bitterly cold. Well, maybe we’re complaining a little bit…

I don't think much of this episode of Sherlock

Either way, it’s just the sort of weather for snuggling up on the sofa with a warm cat but our days of doing that are over: the neighbour has returned to reclaim his cat, and there’s an enormous (though marginally smaller since the diet kicked in) furry cat-shaped hole in our life. We get visiting rights but it just isn’t the same…

Made in Scotland, from Girders

January 13, 2012

As I was walking up to Laid Back Bikes on Wednesday, ready to borrow the Paper Bicycle for the demonstration, I started to get a bit concerned about the whole single gear thing. After all, I knew the bike wasn’t ACTUALLY made out of paper, in fact it’s rather solidly built out of steel. And Edinburgh has an entirely unnecessary amount of topography with very steep streets, flights of stairs, roads that turn out to be about 40 foot below other roads and a nice scattering of cobbles to make the cyclist’s life more difficult. While I had been quite happy cycling around the malarial flatlands of South London on a bike with only one functioning gear, as soon as I moved to Scotland I quickly got that sorted. If I didn’t watch my route in Embra, I was going to be spending more time pushing this bike than riding it. And that would be no fun at all.

I needn’t have worried, as it turned out. For a start, Dave of Laid Back Bikes regularly runs recumbent tours around Edinburgh and so was adept at finding routes that avoided the worst of the gradients as we cycled to and from the demonstration. And besides, single gear or no single gear, the Paper Bicycle didn’t seem to have any trouble climbing hills, even with me at the pedals. After the first little ‘oh help, steep bit, change down, oh damn …’ I didn’t really find I missed the gears at all. I’m not saying that hills were effortless, for I was certainly a bit puffed as we came up the first significant hill, but I never had that feeling of running out of gears, and in fact I never even needed to get out of the saddle. Whether it was the geometry, the build quality, the big fat floaty tyres or some sort of hidden engine in the seat tube, the bike just kept on going up and up and up in a way that even my own bike doesn’t (there’s a rather more scientific discussion of why this should be so on Lovely Bike if you want to get all technical on me – see the comments). Of course, that could be because my own bike has spent the last few months cycling along awesomely muddy roads and through floods without, perhaps, the sort of love and attention lavished on it that it deserves. There’s a lot to be said for full chain cases in a Scottish winter. And I suppose, given that it was designed from the ground up in Ayrshire, that is entirely to be expected.

Other than the lack of a rack, which apparently newer models will have, I was generally pretty impressed with the Paper Bicycle. I’m not the most knowledgeable person when it comes to the technicalities of bikes, but I do know what I like, and I liked it a lot. It didn’t quite give me the upright regal bearing you get on a propr dutch bike (although if I’d had the handlebars a little higher it might have). There’s a level of attention to detail to the design that makes it really pleasing to the eye – like the fact that when you kick up the integrated kick stand it lines up with the chain case thing to look like a little chrome exhaust pipe. It has everything you’d expect from a sensible city bike – full chain case, mudguards, dynamo lighting, reliable brakes – a true get on and go bike. It attracted second glances (even allowing for the fact that I was following a bloke on a recumbent) and admiring looks, which is always nice. In a handsome, dress-up city like Edinburgh it’s nice to have a bike you can ride in smart clothes without worrying about oil. And you can get it powdercoated to order almost any colour you choose so you could even match it to your favourite outfit if you wanted to really work the cycle chic vibe. If I lived in London still, I’d buy one right now and ride it everywhere – although I’m not entirely sure, without the rear triangle, how I’d lock it up. As it is, even as a single speed and with our hills, I’d be seriously tempted. It’s one of those things where you start trying to think of reasons why you need one (it would make a great guest bike! It could be my winter bike! Err, I need a bike that matches my coat!) however tenuous they might be. Dave described it as a ‘Scottish Pashley’ which certainly captures the build quality (and possibly the weight – it’s not a bike for hoisting in the air at a demo, put it that way). But it’s not a retro looking bike at all, just a rather handsome one.

But don’t take my word for it. If you’re in Edinburgh at all, book yourself a test ride at Laid Back Bikes (or if you fancy becoming part of a real subculture, go on one of his recumbent tours). He’ll even show you round the city on your own bike, if you want to know the sneaky ways avoiding the worst of the hills. And that alone in Edinburgh has got to be worth plenty of your English pounds.