Oh Nos…

August 30, 2012

We’ve not had much of a summer this year – although I don’t think it was particularly worse than last summer – but we have at least had the lovely long days that summer brings. As the rain often clears up in the evening, it gives us the (largely theoretical) chance to get out and do all those summer things even when it’s been hissing down all day, even if in practice I mostly spent the evenings on twitter.

But then, tonight, leaving the choir after the first session – restarted now that the schools are back – horrors! It was dusk! Time to put my lights on and pedal back to the whirr of the dynamo, the first time I’ve heard it for months.

It’s all downhill from here. And not in the good, cycling sense of ‘downhill’ either…

Earning My Stripes

August 28, 2012

Cycling back from the papershop today on a glorious morning* I was startled to encounter a sheep moving at a fair lick towards me along the road, with a farmer on a quad bike in hot pursuit. The sheep, seeing a person on a bike (the scariest thing in the world if you’re a sheep), faltered for a moment and I – responding to some waving from the farmer – swiftly cut it off at the pass. He was able to then corner the sheep and manhandle it into his trailer, thanking me warmly for my assisstance. I pedalled on, feeling immoderately pleased with myself. It’s a bit like when you’re standing on the dockside in some picturesque fishing harbour and some trawler coming in alongside throws you up a rope to wrap round a bollard in your best seamanlike manner. Undoubtedly had you not been there, the farmer or fisherman would have managed without you, but for a moment you feel entirely as if you too could turn a hand to sheep wrestling, or trawling, or lumberjacking or whatever. There I was, writer, cyclist, blogger and sheep cornerer – escaped livestock a speciality. Anyone might have mistaken me for a proper country person.

Of course, I know I’ll never really be a proper country person, but I do think I’ve made a bit of progress over the past four years with such rural arts as wood stacking, talking to total strangers and not locking things up unnecessarily. In fact, I was thinking there really ought to be some way of recognising such things (apart from my second prize in the ‘any other vegetable’ category in the village show – not the most hotly contested competition, I must admit). I was never a girl guide long enough to earn any badges (they didn’t give them out for ‘making up rude alternative versions to campfire songs’, unfortunately) but perhaps I could earn some rural ones? I could sew them onto the sleeve of my fleece, which is the rural uniform around here. I think I’ll start with my ‘putting livestock back in fields‘ badge, which I must surely have qualified for by now…

*Especially compared to yesterday. I mean, I set out in what turned out to be the only five minutes when it didn’t rain ALL day, and came back so soaked my shoes are still full of water, and still got the best of the day. Can I just remind the weather gods that it wasn’t a bank holiday in Scotland?

Round Scotland with my Godson (and his mum, of course)

August 26, 2012

There are holidays where taking a pre-breakfast dip in the sea just yards from your accommodation to free dive for treasure in sparkling clear waters would signal the sort of luxury break most of us can never ever actually afford but often dream about. Unfortunately, those holidays don’t normally involve a stay at Tobermory youth hostel where the sparkling clear waters are also freezing cold and the treasure in question is my friend’s iPod, chucked over the harbour wall by her fifteen year old son, my godson.

Tobermory Harbour

It’s only as I look at this picture now that I realise we could just have waited for the tide to go out…

My godson is autistic, and if you’re thinking ‘Rain Man’ or that chap at work who’s a bit odd sometimes, then think again – he’s not just on the spectrum, he’s slap bang in the middle of it: a mixture of a ginormous toddler and a teenage boy – which of course he is – who talks constantly but rarely makes any sense (echolalia) and who is obsessive, liable to frustration, distressingly fond of cheesy 80s Christmas pop music* and only really truly happy when he is on a train. Or at a pinch a bus or a ferry or a coach, but only if there’s no train available as we found out to our cost in Oban when we attempted to fob him off with a city link bus taking two hours to Fort William when there was a perfectly good train going to Crianlarich and changing there and taking several more hours to do the same journey. If the paralympics ever introduced the sport of ‘finding the nearest transport hub in any town or city’ he’d be a shoo-in for a gold medal. We had a minor meltdown on the very last day when he discovered the Glasgow underground (I mean, who even knew Glasgow had an underground?) and was disgusted we weren’t willing to use it. So, instead of the normal approach you might take when planning a break in the Western Highlands and Islands – keeping the travel simple and to a minimum, allowing plenty of time to take in the beautiful scenery or have a leisurely lunch on arrival – got turned on its head. Fortunately the trains, ferries and buses in the region all go through spectacular scenery because we spent the trip maximising the amount of travel we did each day. That way, my friend and I could chat, godson was happy, and the lochs and mountains and moors unrolled past outside the windows for our delight.

view from the train

As well as scenery, the trip made a good viewpoint for observing human behaviour. I’m sure there were plenty of people who wished we weren’t sharing their train, bus, youth hostel or ferry but there was very little tutting done on the whole; the British habit of simply ignoring anything that doesn’t fit in to the normal run of things stands you in good stead when travelling everywhere with a teenager who shouts ‘Get OFF me! What are you DOING? Naughty boy. Bye bye elephant …’ more or less on a loop. And the kindness of strangers came out in force too. A low point came early on in the trip in Mull when we missed the bus to take us to the ferry. My friend had gone to retrieve something from the hostel, not realising her watch had stopped and the bus driver wouldn’t wait and left without us. With the next bus two hours away we were looking at an expensive taxi ride if we weren’t to be stranded on the island. And then, miraculously, the bus came back to get us after all, a grumpy knight in chugging diesel armour, but a knight all the same.

I won’t give you a blow by blow account of all six days, you’ll be relieved to hear, but here are some points should you be planning something similar, with our without an autistic teenager of your own:

  • The Highland Rover is incredible value. Just over £78 gives you four days travel over 8 days on all the Highland trains including the ridiculously scenic Fort William to Mallaig line and the only slightly less scenic Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness line, ferries to Mull and Skye, and the city link coach between Inverness and Fort William and Oban. I think we’ve probably squeezed every penny out of it too. I’d recommend not trying to cram the whole thing into four days though…
train window

it wasn’t always raining …

train window 2

… honest

  • Smidge is the business. You see why they recommend testing it by only coating one arm and leaving the other arm bare because it’s so effective at deterring midgies that you start to wonder (at dusk, on the shores of Loch Ness) whether maybe there just weren’t any midgies out. It’s only when you leave a patch uncovered that you realise that yep, the wee biting beasties are still around.
loch Ness dusk

Loch Ness at dusk. That isn’t blur from a cameraphone, that’s midgies…

  • Fort William has the most incredible setting – right at the foot of Ben Nevis, on the shores of a loch, with the highlands looming all around. It’s quite an acheivement, then, that it still manages to muster all the character of Slough, only with a bit less charm. What we saw of Oban and Mull and Kyle of Lochalsh were all pretty lovely but we didn’t see much of them unless they were on the route march from one transport terminal to another. We’ve vowed to go back and see them properly, although we’ll probably give Fort William a miss.
Skye morning

Sky reflected in the Skye coast

  • You can get to some really remote spots by public transport, particularly by bus, but you have to plan ahead (Traveline Scotland’s journey planner is pretty brilliant at this) and you have to be prepared to wait – rural buses are pretty infrequent and apart from on Mull just don’t seem to join up with other forms of transport. The only bus from the Skye ferry terminal at Armadale left an hour and a half after the ferry arrived – and ten minutes before the next ferry got in. It was the last bus too. If I did the trip again, I’d definitely take my bike for the last leg. And I wouldn’t be persuaded off the bus at Drumnadrochit for an emergency cup of tea, however parched my friend was. There’s a two hour wait between buses there and there’s approximately half an hour’s worth of enjoyment to be had in Drumnadrochit, once you’ve exhausted the amusement to be gained from Nessie-related tat. It wasnt just my godson who wanted to shout ‘what are you DOING?’ as she dragged us off the bus.

lighthouse on Mull

  • I believe – but have not tested the theory – that you could probably survive the whole trip cooking only the ‘free food’ left behind by other travellers in youth hostels. Although you’d have to be pretty inventive and fond of pasta and reasonably resistant to scurvy. Still, I offer it up as a challenge to anyone who wishes to try.

So that’s it. I hope my next holiday will involve going nowhere, and doing nothing, in perfect peace and quiet. Fortunately that more or less describes the rest of my life, so I expect I shall recover, given time. And my friend and I – having done some growing up in the last 20-odd years – are still speaking to each other to boot. Although that cup of tea in Drumnadrochit still rankles a little…

mull and beyond

coming into Mull on the ferry

And what did you do in your summer holidays?

*in retrospect, my failure to retrieve the iPod might have been the making of the trip

An Awfully Small Adventure, Comparatively Speaking

August 18, 2012

Many moons ago – many, many, many, many moons – a friend and I set off on a huge adventure, travelling round the United States on an unlimited Amtrak pass. Over the summer of 1988 we more or less circumnavigated the country on glorious double decker trains, through awesome scenery, gathering memories (but not apparently taking many photos), including a train which was more than 24 hours late (take that, Silverlink), a tour of every two-story building in a town in New Mexico (we made the local paper too) and a poker school which started up as the train pulled out of San Francisco and was cashing up as we pulled into Chicago around two days later. We were young enough to sleep where we could (oh to have a neck that forgiving) and foolish enough to think it would all work out fine and just savvy enough that it did, although we had to dodge the attentions of the creepy guy in the hostel at the Grand Canyon who let us share his room when everywhere else was booked solid. This was before the internet and mobile phones and everything was arranged by letter or ringing up, and astoundingly we made every connection and caught every train and made it home safely albeit not technically talking to each other for about a year and a half afterwards. If you’ve ever travelled with me, you’ll understand why.

Compared with that, five days by train, bus, ferry, and coach around the West Highlands and islands with each other and her son, my godson, who is, to complicate matters a tiny bit, autistic, should be a doddle, right? I mean, what – apart from everything – could possibly go wrong?

I’ll let you know next week, on my return.

Hold onto your Hollyhocks*

August 17, 2012

Looks like there’s been some raining done while we were away. Sigh. One day I will stake up my taller perennials *before* they fall over. See also, broad beans

*our neighbour was tickled to discover that there were such a thing as hollyhocks and that they were growing in our garden. Apparently he’d only ever heard of them in relation to this phrase. Goodness knows what it was he’s been holding onto all these years…

It’s not for Me it’s for my Mum

August 16, 2012

As regular blog readers will know, I’ve got a bit of a thing for the Paper Bike and would dearly love (but have not quite yet managed to manufacture) an excuse to buy one. And as regular cyclists will know, the next best thing if you can’t get a shiny new bike of your own is egging someone else to buy one – vicarious N+1, if you like. So I was fortunate today in being able to persuade my mum that what she really wanted was to buy a Paper Bike or at least to try one. So, this morning being fine, we snuck off to Embra to Laid Back Bikes for a test ride.

The one she tried was an eight speed model in a colour somewhere between burgundy and claret (you can have your Paper Bike any colour you like so it’s important to be precise). I was reunited with my steed from the last test ride just to keep her company and we set off for a stately spin around the Meadows, dodging festival goers with cheery tings of our bells. Given that Mum’s been hacking around on my old bike for the last year or so, she found her ride to be gloriously smooth, the position sufficiently relaxed and elegant for a former Copenhagen girl, and the completely enclosed chain and low step through extremely convenient. In short, she’s sold, so all we have to do now is choose the specification (eek! They’re not cheap) and choose the colour. I’m thinking something about the colour of a pinot noir, with perhaps a dash of merlot and not too heavy on the oak…

Setting off to the Meadows

Sliding Block Puzzle

August 15, 2012

It’s not just my mornings I’ve been rearranging – the veg patch has reached the point where it’s time to start moving things around as the winter crops start to grow out of their seed bed spaces. The first early potatoes are all* dug (and the second earlies are looking a little sorry for themselves … I hope that’s just them having done their stuff and not something more sinister).

Time to move the purple sprouting broccoli to their winter quarters (er, well past time, come to think of it)

I am currently testing to destruction my theory that it’s not actually possible to kill off an entire crop of purple sprouting, however hard you try. So far, caterpillars, slugs, cruel winters and benign neglect have not yet seen them off entirely and we’ve always managed to get something. This year I seem to be trying both caterpillars and benign neglect, as the summer has finally cheered up enough to let the cabbage whites do their stuff. Quite a few caterpillars got premature flying lessons as I moved the plants, I’m afraid

And now it’s time (er, also well past time) to move the leeks to where the broccoli was. A gardener’s work is truly never done.

* and by ‘all’, I mean that I will undoubtedly be hoicking at least a dinner’s worth of stray potatoes out of that bed come spring, despite having dug it over three times