Attention to Detail

July 31, 2012
Lambeth bridge northbound cycle lane 1

Lambeth Bridge bike lane before

Cycling over Lambeth Bridge on our trip to London this weekend – once I had got over nearly being wiped out by a bus – I was struck by a small detail. The bridge used to have ludicrously narrow bike lanes on it, so narrow they were dubbed the ‘worst cycle lanes in London‘ but they were widened last year (coincidentally just days before we launched the Cycling Embassy on that very corner). And not just widened. One of the really scary things about those bike lanes was that they took you right over the expansion joint of the bridge, just at the point where it ran parallel with the road, forming a lovely trap for an unwary wheel. On Friday I noticed that joint had been filled with some rubbery material that presumably still allowed the bridge to move a fraction in the heat – but which would no longer grab a bike wheel if you were too busy concentrating on not being killed by a bus to avoid it. Which is good. I mean, it’s not as good as giving bikes their own space on the road, away from all the killer buses, but it shows that someone who was responsible for putting a bike lane on the bridge had thought enough about it to remove a hazard.

Whoever that person was, I must say you don’t detect their hand at work too often anywhere else. Central London is now full of handy little cut throughs for bikes which allow you to go the wrong way down one-way street or out of dead ends – great for making the bike the fastest way to get around but designed in a way that leaves them a bit lacking. For instance, you can cut through onto Waterloo Bridge from Covent Garden really easily – bikes even get their own traffic light. On the way south, the other half saw the green light, nipped across the road and promptly ran a red light as he got onto Waterloo Bridge. Why? Because he’s used to driving, and if you’re in a car you’d never get a green light that let you onto a junction and then a red light that stopped you from getting off it. On a bike? Well, who really cares? Bikes are going to run the lights anyway. And coming back, we took a nice little short cut that let us through a closed-off street and then I nearly cycled the wrong way down a one-way street. Why? Because there was no no entry sign to warn me. Well, why would there be, no cars would be coming that way… no wonder bikes in London seem to break every rule of the road. Sometimes it’s hard even to know what you should be doing, unless you’re doing exactly what the cars do.

Anyway, despite the best efforts of the traffic engineers and London’s drivers, we survived. I’m not sure I’ll be signing up for another 15+-mile trip through London traffic on a bike again in a hurry, but I’m glad we brought our bikes, if only so we could enjoy getting around in the blissful conditions when they’d closed off most of the roads for the weekend. Oh, and so the contrast with the final ride back from Bigtown Station to home, with barely a car on the road, could be enjoyed in all its glory. Although I feel duty bound to note that it did start raining the moment we set off…

Compare and Contrast

July 28, 2012

Well, we made it. We got off the train at Euston – an adventure in itself as the promised member of the station staff who was supposed to let us and our bikes out of the back of the train never materialised and we had to go find someone with a key – and set off through the sticky streets of London hoping we’d make it to Hampton Wick alive. We took a slightly circuitous route because we decided it would be easier to go via our old stamping grounds of Lambeth and roads we were familiar with. That was why I found myself on the roundabout at the foot of Lambeth Bridge, suddenly inches away from a double decker tour bus which had decided to overtake me and then turn left onto the bit of road I’d sort of been intending to cycle on before it was full of bus. You wonder whether ‘wiping out a typical London cyclist’ features heavily on the tour itinerary or whether it’s just a lucky bit of local colour. Either way I was pleased to discover that my city cycling reflexes were still intact, if only because it meant I was still alive.

For the rest of the ride there were only two further assassination attempts, both aimed more at the other half than me, and we easily evaded them, arriving sweaty but unscathed an hour or so later – and at least there were no buzzards. I then got up early the next morning and nipped out on my bike to pick up a paper. Suddenly it was as if I’d dropped through a wormhole and landed in an alternative universe, one where the only vehicles moving were bicycles and pedestrians wandered casually across the road. Was this London, or had some massive navigational error meant we’d somehow ended up in Groningen? I knew cycling was enjoying something of a boom in the leafier parts of the South West, but this was amazing. It wasn’t till I got back to my friends’ house that I remembered that they were effectively on an island – because of the road race that day, all of the roads around were closed. Nobody could drive anywhere they couldn’t practically walk or cycle, and so that’s more or less what people chose to do. With a few exceptions, the streets were filled with bikes and people on foot and the few cars that were moving just had to navigate with care.

The men’s road race itself was possibly a bit of a disappointment. Quite apart from the result, watching it from the side of the road gives you no clue what was going on – and then we got trapped on the wrong side of the barriers and couldn’t get back in time to see the finish. The best bit was probably getting onto the race route itself and whizzing round to the ironic cheers of a few remaining spectators. But it did show that closing off enough roads (on a sunny summer weekend, at least, when everyone was feeling a bit holidayish and not trying to get anywhere) makes even London feel like a pleasant and relaxing place to get around. Now all I have to do is persuade them to keep the race route closed to cars until Tuesday so we can get ourselves, our bikes, and all eight of our limbs safely back to the train. Because I’m not really keen to try jousting with tour buses again any time soon

For Those in Peril from the Skies

July 26, 2012

Sitting out last evening we were joined – briefly – by the cat, or rather she deigned to come over to be stroked, sharpen her claws on the bench, and make sure we weren’t eating anything interesting. Then her attention was caught by the sight of a swallow swooping in through the window of the swallow shed, where the second broods are busy making a squawking racket, and the rival delights of Swallow TV drew her over. She does love to sit on the windowsill and watch them flying around inside but the swallows aren’t quite as keen and have taken to making their displeasure known in an extremely vocal manner so the cat has taken on a bit of a hunted air in recent weeks, keeping one nervous eye on the sky. Even so, it was a lovely evening, the baby swallow racket was soooo tempting, it was getting dark so maybe the swallows wouldn’t fly, if she kept a low profile and didn’t look too much like a cat they wouldn’t attack. And besides they’re only birds it wouldn’t be that …


… frightening. Wrong. Cue enraged mama swallow, and cat bolting for the safety of the car. Perhaps I’m going to have to make her a cap too.

Anyway, we’re off to face a different kind of peril tomorrow – down to That London to see if we can get our bikes across town without being squashed or getting lost or possibly interned for the duration for daring to use one of the Zil Lanes without authorisation. That should give me something different to blog about – and possibly make the risk of aerial attack seem utterly trivial by comparison. If we’re spared…

Military Manoeuvres

July 25, 2012

It seems that gardeners, like generals, are compelled always to try and fight new wars using the tactics of the last. Take my brassicas. The first time I attempted to grow them they were plagued by cabbage whites. The next year I netted them against the butterflies and they were promptly munched by slugs. The year after that I planted them too close together and the broccoli bolted, not helped by a summer so grey that any right thinking vegetable of Italian origin assumed it was in fact winter. This year I have been carefully checking for caterpillars and guarding against slugs and planted everything out with reasonable spaces between them and half of them have promptly succumbed to club root. This is particularly annoying given that last year I went to the effort of testing my soil’s acidity and digging in some wood ash to bring it down a bit for the brassicas, which is supposed to help with club root. This year, I’m afraid I filed that one under too much hassle – after all, I’d never had a problem with club root – so I’ve only got myself to blame.

Of course, sometimes it works out in my favour (so far at least). Another crop which hasn’t done too well – with the exception of Seymour – has been squash. This year I decided to give my plants the best possible start in life in the hopes of raising at least one. I sowed only four seeds, paid them lavish attention, waited for a warm spell (ha!) before planting them out, put them under a cloche for extra warmth, propped them up on sticks so their leaves were out of the way of the slugs, fed them on coffee, and guarded the entrance to the cloche with a slug trap. I confidently expected perhaps one sickly infant out of all that – but all four have survived, nay thrived. One of them has even produced a female flower already. They’re crammed into far too small a space, but there’s no way I’m going to thin or move them now. They’ll just have to sprawl as best they can over the empty spaces where all my failures have been. And undoubtedly now I’ve typed all this they’ll promptly keel over from some disfiguring disease. I should probably have remembered to take a photograph before they all expire.

The slugs, meanwhile, seem to believe in taking the battle to the enemy. As I tweeted last night I was just nipping out last night to pick some spring onions when I saw this chap making a bee-line for the kitchen door.

But that was just the advance scouting party. The armoured battalions can be found lurking between the fennel and the drainpipe

I think some of them will be getting some parachute training – sans parachute – shortly.

Buzzarded Again

July 24, 2012

Are we bored of the buzzard yet? I know I am, and yet this morning – despite it being a typical summer day* – I set off hatless again. I thought about going back but by the time I had realised my mistake I was a mile or so down the road. Ah well, I thought. It’s starting to rain and the buzzard won’t fly in the rain. And I’ll keep my speed steady so I don’t look like prey and it won’t attack. And besides, it’s only a bird, it won’t be that…


…frightening. Wrong on all counts.

Coming back, I discovered that the hood on my everything-bar-the-apocalypse jacket was also effective against buzzards. Which just adds to my impression that when I bought it it was the best how much?! I ever spent.

I was going to end this post with a picture of a buzzard’s-eye view of the back of my head so you can see for yourselves whether it does or does not resemble a squashed rabbit but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to photograph the back of your own head and the other half is out, so you will just have to imagine it.

* threatening drizzle. The Jet Stream has clearly returned to its normal activity of dumping half the contents of the Irish Sea onto our heads. Readers in the South can keep their moans about it being too hot to themselves, thanks. I get enough of it on Twitter…

Hats Off! And Promptly Back On Again!

July 20, 2012

A brief glimpse of sunshine and absence of showers this morning tempted me out on my bike without (gasp) my gloves and even (sharp intake of breath) my hat. Well, all right, the gloves were in my pocket, I’m not completely mad. It is July, you know.

All went well until I got to Buzzard Corner and then I heard the ominous noise of an enraged mama buzzard who had spotted me and wasn’t happy. Since the first day when I felt the swipe of her talons she hasn’t given me too much trouble, but this time – although she didn’t actually make contact – she clearly meant business. There’s something very scary about seeing the shadow of a bird of prey swooping along the road and closing in on your own shadow on the bike. Any commenter who suggested slowing down or stopping at this point – well, that’s easy to say when you’re sitting at their keyboards with a great big roof over your head, frankly.

So what’s changed? The only difference that I can see is that I wasn’t wearing my hat, just like the last time when it was too windy to risk it. So clearly (as one commenter pointed out last time we were troubled by buzzards) my hairstyle must resemble a squashed rabbit. Cheers, guys.

Of course, scary as it was, it was still preferable to the moment half a mile up the road where a courier driver – clearly more intent on what the Sat Nav lady was saying to him than what he could see through his windscreen if only he had been looking – attempted to turn into a driveway just as I was crossing it. It takes a special kind of genius to almost hit a bike on a road so empty that you, the bike, and an angry buzzard are about the only things moving for miles around.

How does my Garden Grow?

July 19, 2012

well … with a few notable exceptions, not that badly amazingly

the garden in July

The exceptions being the French beans again. Possibly the clue is in the name: if they wanted to grow in a damp grey cool climate they’d be called Scottish beans. It’s a bit odd because the first time I tried to grow them they were fine – we had climbing beans and dwarf beans coming out of our ears, and some of them even won prizes. Since then? Nada. Last year the dwarf beans came up stunted and then just died and the climbing beans climbed, eventually, but barely flowered and completely failed to bean. This year I think I’ve got three climbers left (two of which, naturally, are trying to climb up the same pole) and while the dwarf beans are looking a bit less peaky than last year, they aren’t looking particularly good. Any suggestions (I’m already feeding them coffee) gratefully received

Still, you know that beetroot you can see in the background, happily growing in the middle of the path?

It was delicious.*

*adjusted for being beetroot


July 17, 2012

So with the world winding up for the Olympics, the rumblings from That London (so far as can be heard up here above the sheep baaing and the occasional tractor rumbling past) appear to be that the entire city is verging on travel panic. Towpaths are being closed off for security reasons, half the road network is being given over to VIP lanes, coachloads of athletes are wandering the city’s streets hopelessly searching for the Olympic village, motorways are crumbling into dust, train stations are being closed, and basically the authorities appear to be doing their level best to put all and sundry off from coming anywhere near the capital ever, or at least until it’s all over. As one friend put it on twitter, the only easy way to get around London will be on Google Streetview (and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t pull the plug on that too. I mean, security hazard or what?).

All of which makes our planned visit down there look like it might be a bit … interesting. We don’t have any tickets for anything, but the road races are going almost past our friends’ house, so, back in the innocent days of June we blithely booked some train tickets down for the first weekend, arriving on the Friday that it all kicks off. And to give ourselves more options for getting about we booked our bikes on too. After all, with the road, rail and tube network predicted to be completely gridlocked for the next three weeks, having a means of getting about might actually be handy, no? All we’d have to do is wheel them off the train at Euston and ride down to Waterloo to catch the train to Hampton Wick. But that was before SouthWest trains decided to panic and ban bikes from its entire networkfor the entire duration, because lord knows, you wouldn’t want someone taking a bicycle from Yeoville to Salisbury on a Wednesday afternoon – don’t these people know THERE’S AN OLYMPICS ON? Fortunately they promptly unbanned them after a brief outcry, so we should technically be able to get our bikes on the train down after all, but the whole fiasco alerted me to the fact that things are not going to be straightforward. Given that the standard official response to a bike in any shape or form is to ban it or impede it unless told otherwise, I’m beginning to wonder whether our bikes aren’t going to be transformed from ‘handy means of getting about’ to ‘albatross around our necks’ in the time it takes for an official to say ‘it’s more than my job’s worth…’

The obvious solution, of course, is to ride them all the way, which is, after all, what they’re for. A quick glance at Cycle Streets, and some advice from Twitter (including a few generous offers to escort us), suggests that it’s about 14 miles if we take a relatively scenic and peaceful route, which is no distance at all, really. Well it’s no distance at all on quiet roads – quite what it’s going to be like in London traffic, and allowing for my actual negative sense of direction sending us confidently 20 miles out of the way. And assuming London isn’t actually under water – or under curfew – by the time we arrive and we can avoid being caught, cooked and eaten by maurauding bands of starving athletes who will have been roaming the capital in buses in search of the Olympic village for weeks by then.

Secretly I’m hoping the whole travel chaos thing has been overblown and that everyone will end up locking themselves indoors to watch the whole thing on telly. In fact, thinking about it, I wonder if that hasn’t been what the organisers have been planning all along…

Dark Sky at Night

July 16, 2012

So last night, just as I was thinking of going to bed, Twitter* was all of a-twitter with the news that it would be a good night for viewing the Northern Lights – with reports coming in of sightings as far south as Darlington. Now one of the advantages of living up here – not too far from the Dark Sky Park – is that we don’t get much light pollution on the whole so when the heavens are putting on a show, be it a meteorite shower, a close pass of the ISS or the aurora borealis, we can go outside into pitch darkness and marvel at it happening up there right above our heads, completely concealed from us by approximately half a mile of thick cloud. But last night the skies were, amazingly, clear and as I thought I’d never get the chance again I postponed my bedtime and went out to have a look.

Unfortunately the other amazing thing about living here in the summer are our long summer days which meant that at 11pm there was still way too much light in the sky to see anything at all. Muttering about light pollution I went back in, read for a bit, checked twitter (still all of a-twitter), read a bit more and staggered out again at almost midnight to check again. By this time it was still not quite dark in the sky and I spent some time looking northwards wondering if that faint hint of what-might-be-dusk wasn’t in fact some not very impressive Northern Lights until I finally decided that they could be out there in the heavens dancing the Fandango, for all I cared. I’m a creature of habit, you see, and have a way of turning into a very grumpy pumpkin if I’m kept up beyond my bedtime. And besides I had stuff to do in the morning that I needed to be fresh for. And so I sacrificed the opportunity to be moved and enthralled by this amazing phenomenon in return for my beauty sleep.

All of which made it a perfectly brilliant night for the smoke alarm in our bedroom to announce its desire for a new battery with an ear-splitting burst of sound at 5:30 in the morning. Sigh.

Fortunately there are others more patient than me
* And by ‘Twitter’ I mean the bits of twitter I follow which means that it’s made up of about 80% bikes, 5% writing stuff and the rest vaguely nerdy science-y sort of things involving jokes about statistics. Apparently there are other versions of Twitter that get excited about female celebrities not wearing any makeup. Each to their own, I suppose.

Potato Fail

July 14, 2012

No, it’s not that they haven’t grown – if there’s one crop suited to our climate it appears to be potatoes, which may explain why they along with oats, kale and onions form pretty much the entire vegetable matter of the Scottish diet. And it’s not that they haven’t cropped – we’ve had the first few meals from our first earlies now. And it’s not that I planted too many – we could even do with a few more of the ones we’re digging up now. And it’s not that they explode when you try and cook them – they seem to be resistant to turning into starchy mush the minute they come into contact with boiling water. And it’s not that they don’t taste very good – they are in fact really delicious potatoes, which isn’t something I say that often. Definitely a keeper, and one to plant again next year and in greater quantities

And that’s where the fail part comes in, right from the outset, on potato day, which regular readers will remember is a bit of a scrummage. Reaching in to grab a handful of – more or less randomly chosen – seed potatoes, I chucked them in a paper bag and scrawled down what I thought was the name on the side of the bag, which is easier said than done on a bag full of potatoes in the middle of a crowd of people intent on hunting down the last pink fir apple. They were just really to make up the numbers and they sounded pretty good, from what I could remember. A first early, waxy, something like that. I’d look them up later in the catalogue, and check.

Only when I came to look them up I couldn’t find them in the list which might be because I couldn’t really read my scrawled  handwriting on the bag. A bit of googling, courtesy of ‘Did you mean’ suggests that these delicious and non-exploding potatoes might be Vales Emerald – but then again, they might not. Sigh. One day I’ll be a proper, grown up organised gardener… meanwhile, perhaps get your gardening advice elsewhere.