Snow Day

January 30, 2015

sun and snow

Well, I needn’t have worried about missing out on all the snow – there was plenty left today, and it was a gloriously sparkling day to boot.

chain oil on hands

I really must remember to moisturise with something other than bike grease…

But first I had to get my hands dirty – and at least try and get the hang of swapping my wheels around to put my ice tyres back on the bike. It’s not that I don’t know what to do – it’s the actual doing I struggle with, from making sure the wheels are on straight, to doing the bolts up tight enough that they’ll stay that way, to adjusting the brakes (annoyingly, the ice-tyre wheels are a different width), to translating ‘lefty loosey, righty tighty’ into actually turning the spanner in the correct direction. Even turning my bike upside down is a bit of a struggle, but I managed about two-thirds of the wheel changing process, and then let the other half finish off the tricky bit of getting the wheels on straight. What I probably need is more practice … and if the weather continues the way it’s been recently, I’ll be getting plenty of that.

It was worth it in the end, though.

sun and snow and road

Sunny, snowy, winter days never get old…

The Impossible Journey

January 29, 2015

So we woke this morning to two inches of snow and everything looking extremely pretty – the perfect day for a wintry walk followed by an afternoon of hibernating by the woodburner. Sadly, what I had actually planned for today was a trip to Edinburgh for a couple of important plotting meetings and, as one of them was already twice postponed I thought I should at least show willing, ‘blizzard’ or no blizzard. As this involved a 25 minute rural bus journey with a 15 minute connection to the only train for two hours, I was fairly certain that the attempt was doomed, but the internet suggested that the trains were running and the buses not cancelled, so I set off all the same.

I did at least have the sense this time not to attempt the eight miles to Bigtown by bike but this meant fossicking the other half out of bed to give me a lift to the bus stop. Having dug out the car, we abandoned all thought of the back roads and ended up in nose to tail traffic on Big A Road, and then total gridlock as we came through the outskirts of the town. It was a forlorn hope that I could still catch my bus but I hopped out of the car and hoofed it, overtaking everything on the road, and was startled to get to the bus stance to discover the bus waiting for me, just as the snow began again in earnest. The bus then crawled through actual proper white-out conditions, shedding great drifts of snow from its roof at every bend, with me running through various contingency plans for what I’d do when I, as I inevitably would, missed the train – only for our destination to appear unexpectedly through the murk, merely five minutes later than we were due to arrive. ‘I’d be surprised if there’s any trains running,’ the bus driver said cheerily as he let me off but not only were they running, they were only a few minutes delayed ‘I know, I’m astounded!’ said the ticket collector. ‘And isn’t it just gorgeous.’

snowy hills from the train

And indeed it was.

I’m still sorry that I didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the beauties of the freshly fallen snow, beyond a snatched glimpse from a train window, but then again I did experience something much rarer: the UK public transport system mysteriously not collapsing despite an amber wintry weather warning. Let others tackle Alpe d’Huez on a Boris Bike or cross the Gobi on a Brompton – I have made it from Bigtown to Embra and back on public transport in the snow.

Going Ill-Equipped

January 28, 2015

Note: Mum, if you’re reading this, obviously what follows is a fictional imagining of what might have happened had I been completely intrepid enough to cycle to Bigtown for the evening in the middle of an amber weather warning for snow. Which, obviously, I’m not.

‘I’ll be along unless there’s a blizzard,*’ I said to my friend and literary co-conspirator about his planned book launch this evening. Sure, the forecast looked pretty dreadful, but the forecasts have been so wrong recently and you tend to get a bit blase about weather warnings when there’s been one pretty much every day this year so far. And in fairness to me, it wasn’t a blizzard when I set off on my bike, although it had started to snow a bit. When I was half a mile down the road it started snowing harder and, realising I had forgotten my lock, I began to reconsider the whole enterprise as being on the wrong side of intrepid. But as always happens when you decide to bail out, the snow lightened up, so I retrieved my lock and set off again a little faster, relieved to note that the snow had almost stopped.

I was a good three miles in when I realised that the worst thing that could happen was for the snow to stop completely because it might then freeze hard and I’d be riding back on black ice. ‘But what’s the problem?’ I hear you cry, ‘don’t you have magical ice tyres?’ Well, yes I do, and they were magically on my spare wheels which were sitting in the shed at home, not on my bike, because I had got the other half to swap them out on Monday and I had been too embarrassed to ask him to switch them back again – I really must get the hang of changing my wheels myself. And besides, I had wanted to keep my new wheel with its magical hub dynamo so that I would have a decent light to ride back by. So all I could hope for was that it would keep snowing enough to provide a surface I could ride on, but not so much that I might end up in a snow drift, and so I pedalled on.

I arrived to cries of amazement that I had come on a bike, peeled off a mountain of kit, heard some excellent poems, had some gingerbread** and a warming cup of tea, learned how to do a monoprint, heard more excellent poems, had a go at monoprinting myself, and then headed back out into the resumed snow – fortunately just the right amount of snow – to brush off my bike and pedal home. This was slightly complicated by the fact that my rear light, which has long needed a new battery, was now giving off the feeblest of flashes.

Snowy high street

Just the right amount of snow

I rang the other half to let him know I was on my way, and set off feeling uneasily as if I was in the opening credits of an episode of Casualty. The snow was settling by now, and getting heavier, and also blowing directly into my face and I realised that sacrificing grip for lighting was a bit of a false economy because once the snow has started to accumulate on your glasses, you can’t see a damn thing anyway. Once out of Bigtown and onto the road home, I ended up following the wheel marks of the few cars that had passed – mercifully clear black tarmac standing out against the white of the snow. And I amused myself as I plugged on into the wind and the swirling flakes by enumerating my many failings on this potentially doomed expedition: no overshoes, no working rear light, didn’t stop off at the last shop before I left Bigtown for new batteries, no dynamo rear light, a rear reflector which would me more effective if it wasn’t dangling sideways off my rack, no magical ice tyres, and now that I came to think of it, I was missing a couple of pedal reflectors too. Oh and no defogging spray on my glasses, and following wheel tracks is all very well but what do you do when the wheel tracks turn off into a farm yard (that’s funny, I thought, I didn’t think there was a bend in the road like that…) and you’re left with the last mile to cover on unbroken snow…

Reader, I survived. In fact, I probably wasn’t even in mild peril, realistically. The three whole vehicles I encountered gave me ‘dangerous lunatic’ amounts of space as they passed – in fact I had to wave the white van driver to overtake. The road stayed mostly unfrozen, the bike stayed rubber side down, and my back light was still giving off a last firefly glimmer as I wheeled it into the shed. I was greeted by a glowing woodburner and the smell of the other half’s pot roast and never have either seemed quite so marvellous as they did tonight.

Still, I think that next time there’s an amber weather warning, I shall pay a little more attention.



My attempt at a monoprint.

Well, unless there’s art to be done.

* Note to North American readers: the word ‘blizzard’ is being used here in its British English sense of ‘snowing a bit’, not the sort of white-out conditions that you might imagine. The other half, who is Minnesotan, still hasn’t quite recovered from his encounter with the English headline ‘Blizzard dumps centimetre of snow on Kent’ during his first winter here.

** Technically not cake

Wet January

January 26, 2015

Well, I’d been hoping the Weather Gods would follow the lead of the bulk of my increasingly grumpy Twitter timeline and go in for a ‘dry January’ (we, on the other hand, are having a cake-free January, which is worse) but no such luck – in fact they seem to have been competing to see just how much of a soaking they can give me whenever I venture onto a bike. On Friday, even my wellies failed to keep my feet dry after the water just rolled down my trousers and into my socks, a fact I had forgotten until I put them on again the next day and went squelch. The Rayburn has been working overtime drying out my damp cycling gear; the kitchen is always permanently draped with yesterday’s trousers, socks and gloves, waiting for me to return from my latest drenching so I can swap them for today’s.

Today, though, it was neither raining nor icy. The sun was out and all the birds were singing as though spring was just around the corner. I stood around admiringly making helpful comments as the other half switched my ice tyres off the bike, and it was off for the paper with a song of my own in my heart, a song which lasted approximately half a mile until I could no longer ignore the fact that the icy-cold spits of water landing on my face were in fact raindrops and that it was in fact raining, again, stopping only briefly to sleet.

Oh, well that’s not quite true. It did stop for a moment and the sun came out and lit up the silvery underwings of a flock of fieldfares as they flashed away from me and over the hedgerow into the next field, before the soaking resumed. A nice reminder that there are birds that fly south for the winter and end up here as a balmy alternative to wherever it is they are from. Wet and miserable as I was, it’s good to know that somewhere further north there is therefore undoubtedly a cyclist who is enduring conditions which are even worse.

Although they’re probably not having to endure it without cake.

Small Victories

January 24, 2015

It sometimes seems as if the embuggerisation of modern life – the process by which large corporations gradually shave away at the corners of customer service in defence of their bottom line by making their customers do the work that they used to pay staff to do while simultaneously trying to squeeze as much cash out of them as they can – is unstoppable and unrelenting. But sometimes, just sometimes, the customers fight back. And sometimes, just sometimes, they actually win. And it seems that one such tiny victory has been acheived in Bigtown, at least for now.

Normally I avoid buying my paper in WH Smith ever since they abandoned the honesty box system in favour of making you stand in an enormous queue made only longer by the need for the poor cashiers to upsell something to every single customer (would you like a bottle of water for 50p with your paper? Unfeasibly large bar of chocolate? Or how about a useless voucher that gives you 50% off everything except newspapers, books, magazines, unfeasibly large bars of chocolate and indeed everything else we actually stock in this shop?). Then, just before Christmas they brought in self-service tills, an act of genius in a shop that sells things like newspapers (which are often bought with vouchers which are enormously fiddly to use on those machines) and tobacco – which now has to be kept under the counter.

Naturally, the good people of Bigtown studiously ignored the self-service tills, as is only right and proper, and simply queued up for the remaining tills, and when I went in this morning it seems as if the customers might have won. Bigtown WH Smith still has the loathed self-service tills in place, but when I went in this morning I found they had simply turned one of them round and put a cashier behind it to ‘help’ the customers by basically scanning everything through herself, taking their money, dealing with the vouchers and issuing receipts. Presumably as far as head office is concerned, the self-service tills are doing wonderfully well – and as far as Bigtown is concerned, things are back to normal. Indeed, we’re rather better off than before, because the machines aren’t expected to do any upselling, so we no longer have to fend off huge bars of chocolate when we’re in a hurry for our change, although we do still get the useless vouchers. All they have to do now is bring back the honesty box system and my life will be complete, although I suspect what will actually happen is that head office will discover the ruse and crack down on it, and we – customers and staff – will be re-educated to use the self-service tills if it kills us all. It is, after all, the modern way.

Squatters’ Rights

January 22, 2015

I suspect just by posting this I will reveal just how very unsuited I am to yoga – no doubt I should be all about letting go of material things and concentrating on inner beauty and all that – but there is a problem: someone has stolen my spot in yoga class. I’m not sure if this is the normal way of things in yoga classes, but everyone else has been coming for aaaages and they all have their favoured spots, so newcomers get directed to a free place, usually the emergency newbie spot beside the teacher, but I lucked out early on when someone dropped out and I got a yoga-mat-sized slice of prime real estate in the corner under the heater and right by the mirror so I can discreetly check that my downward dog is channelling a stretching whippet rather than, say, a giraffe at waterhole, in so far as my hamstrings will allow.

All was going well until I had to take a break from yoga due to my hernia op. The first week back after Christmas, the class wasn’t very full and I could resume my place without any problem. But then last week – disaster. The class was rammed with both all the old timers and some newcomers and when I got there SOMEONE WAS IN MY SPOT. To add insult to injury she was wearing a top with ‘Yoga Bunny’ on it, which I feel is a low blow. I think she may have started coming while I was away and been assigned my favoured place, meaning I am now back to square one, relegated back into the newcomer’s spot alongside someone who was there for the first time. Or worse – for this week not only was yoga bunny still in my spot, still wearing the yoga bunny top, but I was assigned to a temporary place because someone couldn’t make it that week. I am now effectively homeless in my yoga class, a transient, carting my yoga mat from place to place, with a new neighbour to get used to every time. This is seriously unsettling

The only solution, other than turning up half an hour early and reclaiming my territory that way, which I suspect is a major breach of yoga etiquette and besides may start an arms race I can’t hope to win, is to wait it out and hope that yoga bunny sees the light and takes up pilates or Zumba or something more suitable, leaving me with vacant possession. Barring any further surgery, I should be able to outwait her. She may be more punctual than me, but I have both time and patience on my side, and besides, I’m not having to do yoga with me glaring at me resentfully from an inferior temporary spot in the draught from the door, if you see what I mean. At least it gives me an incentive to turn up rather more regularly than I was in the past, which should be good for my neck and back. Or at least it would be, if only I could ungrit my teeth…

And breathe…

Hungry Gap

January 20, 2015

I was reading some cookery writer in the papers describing the ‘hungry gap’ as this point in the year, when there’s nothing to eat but kale and root vegetables, which had me muttering ‘hashtag firstworldproblems‘ at my weekend supplement (yes, I do spend rather a long time on twitter these days, why do you ask?). In fact, as anyone who grows their own vegetables year round knows, the real ‘hungry gap’ is May and June when all your winter vegetables have either been eaten or sprouted and the rest haven’t really got going. At this time of the year, as I was tweeting smugly only the other day, we’ve got relatively plentiful fresh produce – leeks, parsnips, kale, more kale, a bit of perpetual spinach, some over-eager purple sprouting broccoli, and, bizarrely, spring onions.

Or at least that was the picture until the ground froze solid. The parsnips will now need a pickaxe to extract them from the ground, and the leeks and spring onions aren’t going anywhere until it thaws either. That leaves some beetroot which has been frozen and defrosted enough times that it has started to delaminate in interesting ways, and the kale, which is looking a bit … well over-harvested (you’ll have to excuse the quality of the picture; my phone camera gets almost as excited about a bit of sunlight as I do these days).

kale patch

Tell me, does everyone’s kale patch look like this at this time of the year or is mine the only one channelling Dr. Zeuss?


January 19, 2015

wintry skies

Oh, okay, not really. I have to admit it was a bit of a wrench to leave the Rayburn and head out on my bike for the paper this morning in minus whatever temperatures but I did have the bright idea of trying the overshoes again and it was a revelation – no more frozen toes, which is a bonus for a chilblain sufferer like me (at least I think that was down to the overshoes – but the only way to know for sure would be to wear one on one foot, and my usual boot on the other foot and even in the interests of the blog I’m not doing that). So now all I need is a pair of overshoes that has been printed so they look like a pair of normal* shoes so I can still have warm toes without going around looking as if I have absent-mindedly put my socks on after my shoes.

The bike was also decently shod – despite stretches of road that were decidedly dodgy, the ice tyres meant it continued to handle most of it with aplomb. On black ice, they’re brilliant – your only worry being that any car behind you isn’t going to be able to stop half as well as you are if the driver hasn’t noticed how slippy it is. On sheet ice the main problem was the glare of the sun bouncing straight into my eyes, although at the steepest part of a climb up a shaded bit of road I did get that uneasy ‘up a down escalator’ feeling as the back tyre began to slip downwards even as I pedalled upwards. The only stretch where I actually had to slow down and concentrate hard was a gnarly stretch of rutted ice on a bend. There are even more magical ice tyres that allow you to climb out of an ice rut but I don’t have those so I just had to pick a rut that was going the way I wanted to go and stay in it – and remember not to try and steer, just let the bike go the way it was going to go. Other than that, I had to stop myself from actually seeking out the icy bits of road to ride on just because I could…

We did hope that the freeze might be be deep enough to make the path up through the woods behind us less of a quagmire but that wasn’t an unqualified success.

frozen path

There’s really nothing that beats the sensation of breaking through a thin sheet of ice into the ankle-deep mud beneath to make you wish you were safely on a bike instead.

* or indeed abnormal ones – why not a pair of leopardprint kitten heels?

Eyes Wide Shut

January 16, 2015

falling snow

Hello and welcome to the blog that gets results, as clearly my recent rant has had the Met Office scurrying down to their server room to administer the three-fingered salute to their supercomputer: today’s forecast was spot on, with the snow starting more or less to schedule as we got up this morning, breaking for some sunny intervals and then getting back to business just before lunch. Unfortunately, I have become so used to totally ignoring the forecast, that meant I didn’t take advantage of the said sunny intervals to go and get the paper (and besides the other half was putting my ice tyres back on my bike. Mental note to self: stop being so feeble about your bike maintenance) so I set off just as the snow was getting going again. Not that cycling in snow is really a problem – even without the ice tyres, fresh snow isn’t too bad and of all the forms of precipitation we get around here it’s actually the most pleasant to ride in, although I could have done without it blowing directly into my eyeballs (at one point I was freewheeling down a hill with my eyes screwed shut* thinking ‘this probably isn’t a brilliant idea’).

In fact the only real worry about cycling in the snow is that I get the distinct impression that the few drivers I do encounter think I’m a dangerous lunatic, especially if they’ve seen me cycling along with my eyes shut. Normally on our narrow roads, drivers coming up from behind will hesitate for a few seconds and then (if I haven’t pulled out to take the lane if there’s a bend coming up or some potholes) pass me reasonably promptly. Today I ended up having to pull over to let a couple of them by. Which is better than them just squeezing past me, obviously, but as I’m a nice person it also means I have to cycle a lot faster than I like, while they wait behind me going, ‘Oh my god there’s a nutter out here on a PUSHBIKE! They’re going to fall over! It’s all icy and snowy! What will I do?’, especially as these are mostly my neighbours. Perhaps every set of Marathon Winters should come with a sign for the back of the bike going ‘Panic not, drivers: this bike has magical spiky tyres and can probably stop more safely than you can! Don’t make the poor cyclist hurry up the hill but pass with care! Thank you for your concern.’

snowy hills

Once the drivers had passed, and the snow had stopped and the sun had resumed its sunny intervals, it was all rather lovely.

snowy road

If you’d like to join the ranks of dangerous two-wheeled lunatics (and frankly, who wouldn’t?), our American friends have this fine site where you can pledge to ride to work, whatever the weather, on a day in February. On Friday the 13th to be exact. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh and for those wondering, both Growly Dog AND her sister had a go at me today.

*I do open them at frequent intervals, I’m not completely intrepid

Meeting the Enemy

January 15, 2015

There’s a spot on my route to and from the papershop known as Growly Dog Hill, because there’s a collie dog who lives at the house there whose dearest wish is to get out the gate and bite the cyclist’s leg off. Being a collie, she’s brighter than the average mutt so she doesn’t just bark furiously as I approach, oh no. She waits silently right by the gate and just as I pass the gate unleashes either a bark or a growl, invariably startling me out of my skin (I’m not a collie, so I am clearly not bright enough to remember that this happens every single time I ride past).

Anyway, I now know she’s a she because I met her owner out the other day walking her and her sister. I thought I recognised him and guessed that this was my nemesis, which he confirmed. It’s all about context with dogs, clearly, because despite the fact that here she was within biting distance of the dread cyclist, she just totally ignored me while her sister happily said hello and got her ears scratched – or then again, perhaps she was just trying to lull me into a false sense of security. ‘They’re very different personalities, despite being sisters,’ he commented. ‘Well, perhaps that’s sisters everywhere…’

I wasn’t on the bike today, which was probably sensible because with the wind I would have likely taken off, if not been blown into the next county. So I haven’t yet ridden past Growly Dog’s stronghold yet since meeting her in person. I will be interested to see whether our having been introduced makes any difference to her stated desire to bite my leg off.

And also whether, having written all this, I remember anything about it until she once more startles me right out of my skin.