What Goes Up…

February 28, 2013

Some idiot – or at least non-cyclist – decided in their wisdom that the best place for our local doctors’ surgery would be the village-on-a-hill, which enjoys the sort of location that is usually reserved for hilltop fortresses, or possibly windfarms. Whichever road you take, the only way to reach it is up, but for us the most direct route involves a particularly heart-breaking climb, the kind that employs every kind of mind game on the poor cyclist from false summits to the old ‘going-round-a-bend-and-suddenly-kicking-upwards’ trick.

village in the mist

It was a frosty and misty morning, and I had been glad to have my ice tyres on as I made my way through the river valley (especially when 50% of the traffic I saw this morning – i.e. one car – decided that the narrow stretch of road with a substantially icy verge would be the ideal spot to overtake me. Well done spotting I had ice tyres on at 40+ mph) but as I crossed the bridge and started the ascent, I definitely felt every one of their thousand grams* and I was glad I’d allowed extra time to cool down and get my heart rate back to something approaching normal before my appointment.

mist in the valley below

But when I emerged, I was pleased to see that the sun had almost – but not quite – burnt off the morning’s mist giving me a chance to capture the way it lay in the valley below

And then there was nothing for it but to set off, and enjoy the ride down.

road downhill
* the additional kilo of rider since I last climbed it may also have had something to do with it…

Top Tips for Rural Drivers

February 27, 2013

snowdrop harvestWhen you’re accelerating hard at that puddle on the road – you might want to at least pretend to look out for any innocent gardeners who are busy working on the other side of the wall having been foolishly lured out by eleven days* of unprecedented dry weather and actual sunshine and having forgotten temporarily about the perma-puddle on the other side of the wall. Because, even though it was actually getting warm enough in the sun and out of the wind for me to at least consider shedding one of my many layers May be out be damned, I wasn’t quite ready for a cooling shower of muddy road water.

Just so you know.

Meanwhile, enjoy the picture of the snowdrop harvest being brought in – I can’t help feeling that the quad bike should probably have been driven by the Queen of the May, rather than a burly bloke with a buzz cut, but you can’t have everything.

*and counting


February 26, 2013

As we reach an unprecedented tenth day without rain, there are signs that this dreadful drought is beginning to take its toll…

still quite muddy fields
… our fields are nothing but an expanse of cracked and baking mud …

water still lying in the ditches
… our ditches and wetlands are beginning to dry up …

water still flowing over the ford

… even the ford is, well, not actually dried up yet.

You know what? After the soaking we’ve had for the last – what, 11 months now – I don’t think we’re looking at a hosepipe ban any time soon.

Still, if the weather gods would like to prove me wrong …

Spring Harvest

February 25, 2013

Heading up to the veg plot yesterday to see what it is like when it isn’t doing its best impression of a rice paddy,* I was surprised to hear the sounds of voices from people working in the woods beyond. It turns out that the landlords have had the cunning wheeze of getting their snowdrops thinned for fun and profit: some nice young men come along with implements of destruction, dig up the snowdrops while they’re still in flower (so they know what they’re getting) and then pay £20 for a tray of singles – and £35 for a tray of doubles. Given that the snowdrops very quickly grow back (in fact they’re better for the thinning) and grow like weeds up here anyway, it’s a bit like finding someone willing to buy rain, or mud, or midgies (all of which I have no doubt you’re going to tell me have a lively online commodity market. OK, maybe not midgies).

Still, it put the landlord in a good mood and meanwhile I have at least managed to convert mud and rain and midge bites into a number of giant parsnips, one of which I traded for one of the landlord’s giant leeks, my own being disappointingly weedy this year. These were then converted into curried parsnip soup for lunch and, ultimately, cycling fuel (or possibly extra padding and/or insulation…) I would like to say that there can be no nobler fate for my garden’s produce but honesty compels me to state that I wouldn’t mind finding someone willing to pay me cold hard cash for crocosmia corms or, come to think of it, ground elder roots, especially if they’re willing to dig them up themselves.

Offers in the comments please. Unless you’re about to tell me that ground elder is edible, in which case I KNOW, it’s just that it also tastes like hedge.

* we have had a week – A WHOLE WEEK, people – of practically no rain. I’ve not yet heard someone complain about the drought but it’s surely only a matter of time

Charge of the Bike Brigade*

February 23, 2013

I’m back home (and so is my Brompton you’ll be pleased to hear) after my flying visit to Copenhagen and still wondering if it was all quite real. Obviously 36 hours, most of which were spent in meetings, is nothing like long enough to form anything but the most superficial impression of a place – and besides other, and more eloquent bloggers, have already written about it in great detail – but such considerations have never stopped me in the past. So, for what it’s worth, here is the Town Mouse Guide to Cycling in Copenhagen for the Spatially Challenged:

1. Follow the bikes. The easiest way to learn how to cycle Copenhagen-style is just to join the stream of traffic and get swept along. It’s not hard to find the bikes, because they’re everywhere, and once you get onto the main bike routes the stream becomes a tide and you become part of the flow. It’s better if you do this when you aren’t trying to get to anywhere in particular at first because once you’re in the flow, you’re going where they’re going whether you like it or not until you master lesson two…

2. Learn the signals. Once I’d got onto one of the busier commuting routes I realised I was more or less stuck on it because there were bikes in front of me and bikes behind me and bikes beside me and I was going to have to go where they were going until I found a way of telling them I was stopping or turning or I risked causing a massive pile up. So I just kept on pedalling and watching until I’d worked out the basic rules and then I found someone who was doing roughly what I wanted to do or going where I was going and copied them.** Big UK style hand signals, designed to be visible to Smidsy from the cab of his truck, aren’t going to cut it when you’re in a crowd of cyclists – turns are indicated with just a flick of the hand, and you let people know you’re stopping by putting one hand up – somewhere between waving at a friend and letting the teacher know you want to do a wee – before gliding out to the side of the track and coming to an elegant halt. Or frantically waving, apologising and then hopping up onto the pavement if you’re a hapless British visitor on a Brompton. Sorry again, people of Copenhagen. I was just trying to work out how to turn left…

3. Turn left by turning right. OK, I’d read all about the Copenhagen left and it all sounded very simple in theory – you cross the road you want to join, get onto the cycle track on the right hand side, and then cross the road you were following. But I kept overshooting and crossing right over and stopping and getting onto the pavement and then attempting to rejoin the queue of waiting cyclists as they started up again with the green light which meant I was taking about three cycles of the light to get across. In the end I managed to master it by following the other cyclists as they slipped out of the stream of bikes to the right, then swerved round to the head of the crowd of bikes waiting at the light, which felt uncomfortably like queue-barging the first few times. As a Brit, this was actually the most painful part of cycling in Copenhagen, and I speak as someone who’d left her warm gloves in Edinburgh and was going bare-fingered on a freezing February afternoon.

4. Stick to the main roads. All of the big roads – including some huge three-lane urban monstrosities – have cycle tracks and lights and cyclists are catered for at all the junctions. My UK-born instincts to duck down side roads and quiet streets proved counter-productive: not only was I having to negotiate with traffic but getting back into the flow of bikes proved quite difficult. It’s hard to get used to it, but you’re not a second-class citizen if you travel by bike in Copenhagen so take the direct route and don’t feel you have to weave your way through side streets. Even on the biggest roads, the cars and trucks might as well not be there, they’re completely separated from the bikes. In fact, it’s the bikes you have to worry about, which brings me to…

5. Stick to your lane. Those main cycle tracks are WIDE and it means there’s a fast lane and a slow lane on them and you’d better not pootle along on the left if you’re not prepared to make some progress; style over speed my foot. That said, there was also plenty of space for ME to pull out and pass a Copenhagen Supermum with her Christiana bike loaded with kids and then safely back in again before I was swept aside by a cool kid on a gently clanking 50s Raleigh. In fact, as the rush hour began to get going I realised what cycling in Copenhagen reminded me of: it was like trying to master using the London Underground by changing trains at Kings Cross at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon. With a wheely suitcase. I was trying hard not to be the hapless tourist standing on the wrong side of the escalator or stopping to read the map right in the middle of the corridor between two platforms, and I think I more or less managed it in the end. Or maybe the Danes are just way more polite than the average commuting Londoner and just quietly navigated round me without too much audible tutting.

And if all that sounds a little daunting then here’s my final lesson…

6. Don’t forget to enjoy it. There’s something almost dreamlike about being swept along in a living stream of bicycles, of all shapes and sizes, flowing magically through the city, silent except for the occasional rattle of a loose mudguard. Thinking back, it still barely seems real. Were there really that many bicycles, so many people getting about on two wheels? Or did I just make it up? I’m going to have to go back and find out for real.

*Thanks to John Gibson (in the comments) for finding the title of this post for me – I tried quite hard to come up with something clever for a title that wasn’t ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen’ and failed

** This may be why I ended up crossing the bridge with the famous bike counter several extra times as I attempted to navigate my way back to the hotel…

Travels with My Brompton (part 2)

February 21, 2013

For those of you waiting with bated breath to find out whether I got my Brompton to Copenhagen okay or not …

I got to the airport and packed up the bike, with my coat over the top as padding*, zipped up its cover, strapped it with the luggage strap and took it to the check in desk. At this point I was quite nervous because the bus driver had already wanted it covered before I brought it onto the airport bus so I had no idea what an actual airline official would make of it. I’d even scoped out the bike parking at the airport in case I needed to leave it locked up somewhere while I was away. They asked if I had any bags to check and I put it on the scale (16kg with coat, lock, burqa and front basket, if you’re interested).

‘I hope it’s okay, it’s my bike,’ I said, having decided that honesty was the best policy

‘Ooh, I’ve never seen one fold up that small,’ said the check in lady.

‘Ooh yes, is there really a bike in there?’ asked the check in bloke (it was almost painful as a proud Brompton owner not to be able to demonstrate the fold then and there but I restrained myself).

All I had to do was take it over to the outsize baggage area, where I had more or less the same conversation with the chap there. Job done. It turns out that when it comes to travelling by plane a Brompton is not so much a means of transport or a problem as a conversation piece. And it appeared unscathed at the other end: I would have been able to ride it right out of the airport into the city had I not had a sudden loss of nerve and got the train instead – not so much because of the distance but because of my non-existent navigational skills. This proved a sound move as, once at Copenhagen Central and with the help of a tourist map, the map at the station and my GPS, I still managed to head in precisely the wrong direction on my way to the hotel, and was in fact well on my way to the airport before I worked out I was going wrong. Cycle-friendly city or no cycle-friendly city, there’s really no infrastructure on earth that will prevent me getting lost if I really put my mind to it.

Since then I’ve been pedalling around trying to master the Copenhagen left, recce my route for tomorrow and not cause a seventeen-bike pile up by stopping in the wrong place to consult my many navigational aids. Amazingly, I even managed to find my way back to the hotel all on my own.

More on my return. Assuming I ever find the airport again, that is…

* when you realise that this is my very expensive (even in the sale) cashmere Jaeger coat that I bought to celebrate signing the contract on my first book, you will realise how much I love that bike

Travels with my Brompton

February 19, 2013

In an exciting interruption to my rural existence, I have to go to a meeting … in Copenhagen. This is extra exciting if you’re a cyclist and long time reader of Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic, the two blogs that first opened my eyes to the idea that riding a bike doesn’t have to involve dressing up like a day-glo Christmas tree and going out and doing battle with the cars. Unfortunately, the meeting has nothing to do with cycling, and will take up most of my daylight hours, so I will only have a brief afternoon to experience what has become one of the world’s most renowned cycling cities.* Obviously I could go out and explore the city on foot, but I know from my recent trips to London that there’s nothing worse than plodding about on two feet when everyone else is whizzing past on two wheels. And while I could rent a bike, it was all looking a bit complicated and time would be short.

My Brompton. There's no real purpose for including this picture but you can never really have too many pictures of Bromptons

My Brompton. There’s no real purpose for including this picture but you can never really have too many pictures of Bromptons

Coincidentally, I then stumbled across this and it struck me that the best chance I was going to get to explore the city in daylight was to actually cycle from the airport. Which meant bringing my Brompton – after all, what is the point of having a nifty wee folding bike if you don’t bring it with you wherever you go? The only problem would be getting it onto the plane. Twitter suggested a couple of useful guides but they involved packing the Brompton into a big bag with all your other stuff, with the implication that you’d unpack everything once you arrived and then go for a bike ride. I wanted to be able to just unfold my bike at the airport – preferably without scattering my underwear across the terminal floor – and ride away. My next thought was just to check the Brompton as it was, on the grounds that the baggage handlers might actually take better care of it if they could see that it was a bike, rather than some anonymous lumpy package. But I wasn’t sure the airline would be happy with that, as it was a BIKE and hence all a bit complicated and it might tend to catch on things, and besides they’re just a wee bit too nickable for me to be entirely comfortable sending it on its way naked, as it were.

Bike? What bike?

Bike? What bike?

Fortunately a friend has a sort of burqua for a Brompton, that conceals its dangerous bikey-ness from any transport related jobsworth, and indeed its seductive curves from any thieving toe-rags and he kindly lent it to me. The plan is to use this and a luggage strap to pack it up along with its bag and lock. Hopefully it will survive the trip – and won’t come up against any hitherto unknown rules banning partially clad bikes from airline holds.

I probably could have taken it without the cat's help, but like Bromptons, you can never have too many pictures of cats

I probably could have taken this photo without the cat’s help, but like Bromptons, you can never have too many pictures of cats

I shall keep you posted. And meanwhile, worrying about whether the bike will be allowed, and whether it will make it, and whether I’ll be able to find my way from the airport, will be a useful distraction from my usual dying-in-a-plummeting-fireball worries that accompany most flights.

More on my return, if I am spared.

*I’m sure it has many other good features too.


February 18, 2013

I’m not generally one for bike related challenges – well any challenges, really, if I’m honest, as I’m far too lazy. I like to feel that my bike is just a practical means of transport rather than something for proving how fit/virtuous/deep in the midst of a midlife crisis* I am, and if I believe that I probably am deep in the midst of a midlife crisis, just not one that’s raising any money for worthy causes.

That said, I was momentarily beguiled by the idea of the Errandonneering challenge, which does sound like a bit of a fun way to spice up your various bike-based errands. The idea is to run 12 errands in 12 days (between the 9th and 20th Feb) adding up to a minimum of 30 miles. There’s a card you can get stamped and everything, and errands must be spread across a range of categories, no more than twice for each category, such as going to the bike shop, breakfast or lunch, coffee, dinner, work, grocery store (it’s American, obviously), other shopping, community meetings, health appointments, the library, and a wild card for any other type of errand not covered.

Unfortunately I only heard about it half way through – and although I do plenty of miles on my bike, it’s mostly down to the papershop and back, which wasn’t going to really cut it so I forgot all about it and headed out this morning for the paper as usual, although I did pack the pannier with my library books in the hope of catching the mobile library on its brief passage through Nearest Village (it has two regulars, apparently, and once they’ve been off it goes so you have to be quick). I missed the library (I was out by a week, and ten minutes), got the paper, and then bumped into a fellow-gardener in the village who swapped me some seed potatoes and jerusalem artichokes from his vegetable plot for some seed potatoes I’m going to pick up for him at the next Potato day. After lunch I headed off into Bigtown to catch the non-mobile library and, as I was going in anyway, I decided to pick up a new inner tube for the other half’s bike, get some luggage straps for my latest project and pick up some milk as we were running out. It was then that I realised I was about to run a total of seven qualifying errands in five categories in one day, not to mention clock up 27 miles:

  • bike shop x1
  • library x2
  • grocery store x1
  • other shop x2
  • plus wild card (vegetable swapping and garden visit) x1

Throw in, over the last couple of days, another wild card (looking for squashed wildlife), another grocery store (does the Papershop count?) and I’d only have to go and meet someone for coffee or a meal and I’d be there. Hmmm….

Unfortunately, on closer examination of the rules, I realised I didn’t take any pictures of any of these things so I have failed on the proof category. And I’d also struggle to mention one thing I’d learnt on most of these errands, apart from the date when the mobile library visits and the unfortunate side effects of jerusalem artichokes and strictly speaking I knew that last one already.

Still, it’s a pretty impressive effort for someone who didn’t even think about taking part until two days before the deadline – and there’s still part of me that thinks it might well be possible. I suspect, though, that if I were to complete the challenge, it would only prove to be the gateway drug to other, harder, challenges. You start off Errandonneering and maybe a bit of 30 days of biking, thinking you’ve got it under control – and the next thing you know it’s a Lands’ End to John O’Groats on a unicycle dressed as a camel for Comic Relief.

Stop me, somebody, before it goes that far.

*delete as applicable

Consultation Exercise

February 17, 2013

Or, why I love the community council…

“So, item three on the agenda is the draft new policing plan for Scotland, which arrived a couple of days ago and we’re supposed to respond with any comments by the end of the week [waves large densely printed document]. Seeing as they’re planning to go ahead with it anyway from the beginning of April I don’t expect they’re sitting in Edinburgh waiting with bated breath to see whether Nearest Village community council approves or not, but if anyone’s interested and wants to have a look … no? OK well I’ll just respond and say that we’ve received it then. Next item..”

Of course it helps if you hold your meetings in a draughty village hall where the one electric fire barely takes the edge off the chill and nobody removes their fleece or even their hat until we’re well into Matters Arising, if not actually Any Other Business. Presumably come April we’ll be more in the mood for more prolonged discussion but if you’ve got anything controversial you’d like to sneak through your local democratic institutions, I recommend you time it for the period between November and March…

Never Satisfied

February 15, 2013

After all the mud and flooding of yesterday’s post, we were greeted this morning by blue skies and gentle breezes, though it’s going to have to do a hell of a lot more of that if we’re actually going to see much difference. I set off for the paper in my not-quite-coldest-weather gear (buff, scarf, hat, two pairs of socks but just the one jumper, non-mutant gloves) and was soon working up a bit of a sweat although on inspection that turned out to be the effect of leaving the dynamo on…

It was, in fact, a bit odd to be pedalling along with snow still piled up by the side of the road in places, but the birds all singing away in the hedges as if it were March. It’s amazing how seamlessly you slip from ‘will this winter never end?’ to the gardener’s panic state of ‘ohmigod it’s almost spring and I haven’t ordered any seeds, the garden’s not ready, there’s too much to do, help, stop the world, I want to get off…’ Remind me just how horticultural therapy is supposed to work again?


Safety Chickens at work

Not – I hasten to add – that I’m complaining. And I was cheered to note the village safety chickens were still on patrol, clustering pointedly beneath the 30mph sign this morning. Although perhaps they would be a little more effective if they were wearing some hi vis?