Vengeance is Theirs…

April 12, 2015

The ‘Friends’ of Bigtown’s park are a lovely bunch. Enthusiastic, committed volunteers who only want to see their newly refurbished park used and loved by everyone in the town, supported by a similarly enthusiastic and proactive coonsil officer. They are also, clearly, terrible sinners in the eyes of the Weather Gods; I am, by comparison, their ewe lamb.*

Exhibit one: Easter last year. The opening of the newly refurbished park. All week, the sun shines. Then, on the day of the actual festivities, for which we had arranged a family ride among other events, the heavens open and it rains all day, until all chance of fun has evaporated and then the sun comes out and the evening is rather gorgeous

Coincidence? Perhaps. But then, Exhibit two: the Christmas fun day in the park. Lots of activities planned including our cycling Santa and Christmas bike ride, for which many reindeer heads had been created. OK, so a weekend in December is always going to be a bit of of a gamble, but we weren’t expecting rain, hail, sleet and horizontal snow – right up to the moment when the decision was taken to cancel, upon which it naturally cheered up.

And then today. Exhibit three. Another Easter fun day with a bike treasure hunt planned. I have to say, my expectations for the day were fairly well managed by now, although we’ve had almost a week of glorious weather, The forecast was for heavy showers, which can mean anything. This morning the Met Office had moderated that to ‘light rain’ which sounded like an improvement until I realised this was just the Met Office averaging out ‘heavy rain’ and ‘no rain’ over the course of the day, which is not the same thing at all. But never mind, we had a gazebo to shelter under, while should any kids actually turn up, they could be out in the rain hunting hidden bike parts. The rain duly started as I was preparing to set off so I packed spare gloves and dry socks and donned my rain gear. And then the rain started to look a bit funny. A bit like snow. A lot like snow, actually. Snow AND rain. Rather hard icy painful sort of snow, as I discovered as I pedalled doggedly into Bigtown, arriving just in time to learn that the event had been called off.

Well, I say called off. Postponed to next week, in fact, although I’m not sure we will be joining them this time around. Not unless they’re planning some serious whisky libations to the Weather Gods, possibly backed up with a goat sacrifice or three. Otherwise who knows what weather we might have to endure.

wet cycling kit

Still, at least my kit might have dried off by then. Oh and the minute I got home? It stopped snowing and the sun came out.

* Actually come to think of it, that enthusiastic coonsil official may be the problem – can’t have the natural order of things turned on its head like that…


A Trip Down Memory Lane – part 2

April 10, 2015

Continuing from yesterday’s post, here is Hannah‘s guest post of her memories of growing up in the area and the freedom she had as a child. My comments in the photo captions…

The top of my track seems like the right place to start.  There are various adventures by bike that head off from here, but my clearest memories are of the land immediately surrounding my old house.  I say immediately, but this is relative – our nearest neighbour was about a mile away.  This meant that the woodland and farmland around my house was like an extension of my own garden.  It was very rare to see anyone else around – if you did they were probably up to no good, or lost – so as a child I had pretty much free reign to go wherever I liked in the area I describe here.

Top of the track

The track heading down. The woods to the left have been replanted with conifers, on the right it’s mostly birch. Although there were sections of tarmac, plenty of cobbles and rough forest track remained…

Head down the hill from the top of the track.  It used to get progressively rougher as you went down, starting off as a sort of smoothish cobbled affair, but degenerating into a typical rutted forest track.  Just on the left as you head down the hill there was a sycamore mixed up with an elder tree.  This is where I used to leave my bike – unlocked – while I was away at school.  Having been dropped off by the school bus, I used to either pedal as fast as I could (with no helmet) to see how quickly I could get down, or see how few pedal strokes I could use.  Tricky, as there are a couple of flat sections.

The woods to the left of the track were blown down in a storm in the 80s, and what was left was an impenetrable tangle of roots and branches.  At the bottom of the first hill, on the right, there’s a small forest track – Lovers’ Lane, sometimes frequented by couples in cars.

The stream

The stream flows down into the woods.

logpile

The woods had been clear felled to the left of the track but some log piles remain – not sure if they’re the same ones Hannah would have clambered over

Heading down along the next flat section, there are fields on the right and another forest track off to the left.  Walking up the stream under the concrete bridge here was possible with care – but woe betide if you got water in your wellies.  Follow this track up and the woods either side are growing on a steep hillside.  Somewhere in a photo album there is a picture of me with Dick the horse – a carthorse used to pull thinned trees up the steep bankings and onto this track.  Huge logpiles of felled trees were a favourite climbing site before they were taken to the sawmill.  I remember the ditch on one side of this upper track was covered in a huge deep carpet of moss which made a soft, if damp, spot for a picnic or just to lie down and look at the sky.  In spring, at the right spot you could head down from this track and find yourself in a birch wood with a carpet of bluebells round your feet.

moss

There was still some thick moss in the ditch

Back on the main track, it heads downhill again after the flat section.  On the left here is a deciduous section of trees around the stream that flows here.  There are a few pools here, where we used to paddle, swim and make dams.  I also use to try and tickle the trout that escaped from Loch Fern further upstream, but never managed to get near enough for a stroke, nevermind tickling them into a stupor and landing them on the riverbank.

stream and woods

Stream running through the woods. I can see how this must have been a fantastic playground for any child

Continuing on down the track, there’s larch trees on the right and another storm damaged section of conifers on the left.  I remember going for a walk after the storm and getting completely lost as all the usual landmarks had disappeared in a mass of fallen trees.  Eventually the Forestry Commission cleared the site, leaving all the branches behind.  These were shaped like giant feather, and were perfect for making big igloo shaped dens.  A fast growing creeping plant grew up all over the cleared woods, and I remember planting it on top of the dens to bind the branches together.  I spent days and weeks with two friends building and refining the dens, trying to make them weatherproof and giving them floors.

The track levels off briefly, and then descends again towards the house.  On the right of this final descent you can head into the woods, past our secondary well (only used for outside taps because it had frogs living in it) and on the other side, at the edge by the field, there’s an old ruined cottage (called Quahead on the map).  This was a mass of snowdrops and then daffodils in spring – whoever had lived there must have planted a few and then over the years they’d completely naturalised and formed a carpet throughout what would have been the garden.

[editor’s note: I really wanted to see this and even timed my visit to coincide with peak daffodil season, but in the end felt a bit shy about tramping around too near the house itself – it just felt a bit too close to trespassing…] 

At the bottom of the track is my old house.  It used to be a station on the old Paddy Line, closed during the Beeching era, and when I lived there consisted of a large white single storey house, a garage, and a former toilet outbuilding which housed our goats, hens, and my dad’s knitting machine (not all in the same room!).  The field to the right of the track contains a small stream, and many hours were spent catching sticklebacks, and on one startling occasion, a water scorpion.  On the left was a path up to the main stream, where more swimming and dam building took place.  There was also a particularly squishy bog, where we used to play at standing in it for as long as possible while still being able to get out again.  Getting stuck and having to call my mum for help to be pulled out resulted in the inevitable telling off.

The track continues round the garden, where on one edge there was a sycamore with a branch that was handy for hanging upside down from (not sure why this was such a favoured pass time!), and at the bottom of the garden there was a huge old chestnut tree in which we had a swing.  My mum would send us here to play with any noise making battery operated toys that she didn’t want to have to listen to!

There’s a couple of faint tracks from the bottom of the garden that led to the old railway lines.  One of these led to a field where my Great Aunt and I would go mushroom picking, another led to a thicket of brambles where we could pick blackberries, and for a while the old railway line itself could be relied upon for a few wild strawberries.

clear felled area

The whole area after the house had been completely clear felled, so I imagine this all looks quite different from how Hannah remembers it…

more clear felling

Heading across the old railway line (on the right there’s a swampy pond where, through the exchange of a number of messages in bottles, my younger brother became convinced that a pirate was living) up a slight incline, there’s more larch trees on the right.  These would carpet the track in gorgeous lime greens in spring, and autumn golds at the end of the year.  Note the little track off to the left here, we’ll come back to it, but keep going until you get to a large open turning area.

Green Quarry

I think this must be the quarry area Hannah means.

On the right is Green Quarry, and old quarry with a shelf of rock heading diagonally up to the left.  I was allowed to climb up here, and it felt very intrepid, although I never enjoyed it quite as much after the time that I came within an inch of standing on a large adder.  Its black zigzag and grey body provided the perfect camouflage against the granite rock, and as it reared its head and hissed at me I was glad I had wellies on to provide plenty of protection from its fangs.

The track peters out and bends round to the right, and up to another old quarry.  Here there was a particular tussock which could usually be relied upon on warm days to have a brown adder sunning itself.  There were lots of adders around – you never rode over a stick without checking first if it was in fact a stick – and they found their way into the conservatory beside the house with such frequency that we had a net and jar on permanent standby.

Second quarry

No adders, thankfully, and the quarry area was fenced so this was the closest I got to it – no chance of checking for newts either

This old quarry has a pool of water in the bottom of it that was home to newts.  It was quite a discovery when we first saw them there, and the quarry became forever known as ‘The Newt Pond’.  Whenever I see signs warning people not to swim in lakes or quarries, I think of the water here.  It was so dark, you had no idea where the bottom was, but in dry weather the water level would drop and pieces of rusted and mangled machinery would emerge from the depths.  I can never quite get rid of the image of getting my foot stuck in such a thing when I’m swimming in open water now.

Past the old quarry is a small sheep farm that was only connected to the National Grid when I was a child.  The farmer here hand dug huge ditches across the farmland, and on foot you can walk round in a loop back to my house – this was a regular dog walk for us outside the lambing season, and we used to run in circles and use the ditches to try and make the lose our scent in games of hide and seek.  They always found us.

Going back along the track to the turning spotted before, now on the right, you’ll come to a small building on the left, and a gate.  This was the shortcut to Dalbeattie, avoiding the hills of the road route, but taking you through the old ammunitions factory, known by some overly imaginative locals as the haunted village.

abandoned machinery

This sounded fascinating but the gate was quite firmly padlocked, and I didn’t fancy clambering over it. Maybe I need a bit more of an adventurous spirit … or maybe when it comes to old munitions factories, discretion is the better part of valour

Heading over the gate and along the track, there’s a selection of buildings, some underground bunkers, and a complex network of canals and waterways.  Some of the buildings have mysterious cogs, machinery, and dark openings to black waters below.  On the right, just off the track, one of the first buildings has a sort of concrete porch along the front of it – it looks a bit like it should be in the wild west with a rocking chair on it.  This building had poetry and graffiti pencilled on the walls by the workers in the factory.

From time to time, the army would come and blow up a building and carry out training exercises on this land, but I think eventually someone thought that maybe the buildings should be preserved, and they stopped blowing them up.  I spent many days exploring the network of bunkers, buildings, and walkways, always a bit scared of what you might find, on the look-out for holes in the ground (there were lots), but never finding anything more frightening than a dead sheep. [Hannah adds: Just found this link  which suggests the whole site is now unsafe!]

The track continues on next to the railway line for a bit, over bridges that seemed worryingly rusty even to me as a child, then past the radiator factory with its distinctive smell of chemicals and paint, through an industrial estate (where, on days where I was feeling particularly committed to the cause, I would take my roller skates – this was the nearest bit of smoothish tarmac) and on to the main road to Dalbeattie.  This marks the outer edge of my childhood world, save for a few cycle routes that seemed epic as a 9 or 10 year old, and would probably be surprising to today’s generation where children rarely go past the end of the street alone – and even then they have a mobile phone just in case.  But then, the scale of the land and the freedom I had to roam in it surprises me now I reflect on it.  I can’t recall ever having any accidents or encountering any real dangers, and I wonder whether this is a sign that letting your kids explore by themselves isn’t as dangerous as many might think, or whether I was just lucky.  Certainly I feel lucky to have had a childhood where this kind of exploring was a possibility.

no entry sign

This marked the end of my adventure, although I would have loved to continue along the old railway. Maybe it can be reopened as a cycle route one of these days…

 Thanks to Hannah for sharing these memories. 


A Trip down Memory Lane – part 1

April 9, 2015

In a departure from the normal programme of ford updates, gardening mishaps, wildlife-related mild peril and #bloodycyclists, I’ve been off on a nostalgia-related adventure today – but with a slight twist, as it was somebody else’s childhood memories I was exploring. Blog reader Hannah grew up about 12 miles away from where we stay and has recognised a few spots from my photos so I suggested she send me a guest post about her experiences, which she duly did. Meanwhile I have been waiting until the weather improved enough and I had a free day to go and take some photographs to accompany it – which has taken a couple of months but today the weather was pretty glorious, adjusted for being April in Scotland. While I still had a ton of things to do, I decided that I probably wasn’t going to do any of the indoor ones anyway with the sun shining and the garden could wait – I was going off on an adventure, guided only by an email sent by a complete stranger I knew off the internet. What could possibly go wrong?

bold lambs

Having printed out Hannah’s directions and found the place on the map, I made a cheese sandwich* and, pausing only to photograph some lambs that hadn’t got the memo about cyclists being the most terrifying things on earth yet and thrust a POP flyer at two cyclists I met in the shop, I set off into the unknown.

winding road

Fortunately, the directions proved accurate, nobody accosted me to ask what I was doing, I didn’t encounter any adders, and apart from all but rattling my poor not-very-offroady bike almost to bits along some forest tracks and jolting my phone out of my pocket, everything went to plan. Some of the places Hannah remembers are now off limits (ex-Army exercise ranges and half-flooded quarries no longer being places where adults are encouraged to explore, let alone even the most freerange children). Whole swathes of forests have been cut down, and others have grown up, in the intervening years, and I suspect the house she remembers has been extensively renovated, but I could recogise all of the places she identified. All in all, a satisfyingly random adventure for no particular purpose except curiosity and because I could.

no through road

The start of my adventure …

As I made my way back and out of the track that led to Hannah’s old home, I saw a family coming towards me: mum and dad on foot and two little girls (maybe about 7 or 8 years old) on bikes. As I headed up the hill I saw them turning down the track, possibly heading for Hannah’s old house, now perhaps theirs. Had I been a proper blogger – the kind that thinks of this sort of thing at the time, rather than two miles up the road – I might have actually gone and talked to them and found out for sure. I could even have shown them the email and explained my mad mission and learned whether those two girls have anything like the freedoms Hannah enjoyed, living in the same idyllic spot. I suspect not – but you never know.

Tune in tomorrow for the rest of the photos and Hannah’s reminiscences.

no entry sign

The end of the road

* because in my own childhood, Robin Hood and his Merry Men always seemed to have ‘a hunk of bread and cheese’ to eat when they were out adventuring, investing cheese sandwiches with a probably unwarranted glamour in my mind. It has only just now occurred to me to wonder where they were getting either from in Sherwood forest.


Hoaching

April 8, 2015

We’ve not checked the tadpoles in the ditch recently, but the other half reported yesterday that there were lots of tadpoles in the pond. Lots and lots of tadpoles. Lots and lots and lots of tadpoles. He then went and ferreted out his camera and dashed out again which is an unusual enough occurrence that I decided to go up and have a look.

tadpoles soup-sm

Yikes.

By ‘lots of tadpoles’ what he hadn’t quite managed to convey was that the surface of the pond was basically fizzing with them and that the margin of the pond was now about 90% immature frog by volume.

This is one of those cases where a picture might speak a thousand words, but nothing really beats a video

I don’t think we’ll be risking swimming in there any time soon. And what do tadpoles eat, anyway (apart from unwary bloggers)? From what we can see it would appear to be ‘unhatched tadpoles’. It’s a frog eat frog world out there you know…


Air Rage

April 6, 2015

Continuing on the theme of imaginary footage I could have taken had I only had a helmet camera (and indeed a helmet): I witnessed a spectacular display of close passing and aggression on my way back with the paper this morning. A raven, bored of being mobbed by a couple of crows, decided to show those upstarts who was the real boss of the air with a series of spectacular spiralling dives combined with what I am certain was some corvid swearing. We regularly see ravens displaying around here – they seem to like flying upside down just because they can, and you can see their point – but it really never gets old. It’s lucky our roads are so empty though, as I was definitely not paying attention as I cycled along craning my neck to watch what was going on with the birds.

And if those of you who were wondering if ASBO buzzard was back – no sign so far, but according to a couple of posts on Facebook, there’s one a few miles further west that’s already started terrorising cyclists and taking lumps out of their helmets. I’ll be sticking to my tweed cap, but I’m seriously considering rigging up some sort of backwards facing cap cam to try and catch the buzzard in full swoop. That’s got to be more entertaining than a close pass by a white van at a pinch point, right?


Sharing the Love

April 4, 2015

seeds at the seedshare

To Bigtown, to help out for an hour or so at the local guerrilla* gardening group’s seed swap, where we discovered how hard it is to give stuff away to the canny people of Bigtown, and the people of Bigtown discovered how hard it is to wriggle out of being given some seed by sufficiently enthusiastic gardeners (‘I’m no really much of a gardener’ ‘Oh well try some leeks, they’re pretty foolproof’, ‘We’ve no much room’ ‘how about some of this cut-and-come-again lettuce?’ ‘well I’ve not really actually got a garden’ ‘No problem, how about some basil, that’ll grow on a sunny windowsill’ – seriously, you think cyclists are persistent in sharing their addiction…)

plants at the seedshare

And then, the seeds and plants mostly distributed to mostly consenting adults (although if you were out shopping in Bigtown this afternoon and didn’t keep too close an eye on your bag it might be worth checking there aren’t a few unsuspected strawberry runners lurking in there with your messages) I rode home, and for the first time this year I kind of wished I had a camera running to record the ride. Not because of any horrible incident with a driver – the opposite of that, in fact. The fluid way on a bike you can slip through the traffic and escape it altogether onto the paths. And all the little interactions on the way – the two kids playing policemen who whistled at me and held up their hands to make me stop (scofflaw cyclist that I am, I pedalled off laughing), the two teenage girls practising a dance move on the bridge, the dad having a go on his daughter’s scooter. It would appear that spring has sprung and everyone has taken their mental coat off and is enjoying the release.

* “we’re not really guerrillas, but some of us are quite hairy”


All Talk

April 3, 2015

I was out on the bike delivering the village newsletter today* reacquainting myself with the cunning places everyone hides their letter boxes and driving the neighbourhood dogs into a complete frenzy (well, everyone’s got to have a hobby). One of my least favourite is a dog which looks like a big teddy bear but has had a go at me in the past whose owners leave it running free in the garden. Thankfully, the letter box is on the gate so you don’t have to tangle with the dog directly, but the gate is not very high, and the letter box is basically at dog height and the whole arrangement feels somewhat unsafe especially as all the time you’re trying to fold up the damn newsletter and stuff it in the narrow slot of the box, the dog is going round in circles, launching itself periodically at your hand. This was made all the more frightening, somehow, by the way the dog doesn’t bark or growl at all, just circles around in silence to have another shot.

My next port of call was the place where my old enemy Growly Dog lives and it’s a similar arrangement of flimsy gate, narrow slotted letterbox, and rabidly anti-cyclist canine so I wasn’t looking forward to the experience. Growly Dog came galloping down to meet me and barked, as expected but as I parked my bike, got out the newsletter and started folding it up to stuff it in the slot, she was completely thrown. Instead of barking or even growling she just gave a sort of whimper and backed away, casting accusing glances in my direction. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I actually ended up feeling quite sorry for her. I wonder if ASBO buzzard is similarly timid if confronted. I’ll have to find someone who’s braver than me to find out…

In other news, the wet weather means the frogspawn is still hanging in there, and one thing about them being in a tiny pocket of water not much bigger than the mass of frogspawn itself, is that you can see the little tadpoles developing inside (or at least you could if my cameraphone was any better). It’s been wet enough so far that they haven’t dried out; I’m not sure I can bring myself to wish that situation to continue…

developing tadpoles

Frogspawn. Honest.

*I probably should have used the car, but I’ve failed miserably on my challenge already, sorry. Just too difficult and besides, I was faster on the bike than the postman was in his little red van.


Taking the Pledge

April 1, 2015

Regular readers of this blog know that I like a mad challenge now and again – mostly around the bike, like the Errandonneering and Coffeeneuring challenges from Chasing Mailboxes. But today being the first of April, I thought I’d try something a bit more out of my comfort zone, and a lot harder: #30daysofdriving.

The thing is, although I can (technically) drive a car, I do it so rarely I’m becoming pretty rusty, as my mother keeps reminding me. And driving is important. Having the right to get behind the wheel (and not be stigmatised as a ‘woman driver’) was a key liberation for women in the 20th century, and I owe it to my forebears not to end up having to be driven everywhere I can’t go by bike by my husband. It’s also an important part of the economy, especially up here in Scotland. With oil prices plummeting, it’s practically a patriotic duty to support the North Sea oil industry by buying petrol, rather than cycling, which is largely fuelled by bananas, which have to be imported. It will also help make sure the Scottish Government’s planned investment in dual carriageways between every town and city doesn’t go to waste (the car campaigners always argue ‘if you build it, they will come’ – so we’d better prove them right if we want to see more investment in infrastructure like major motorways).

It’s going to be hard. As a cyclist, I’ve got far too used to the convenience and simplicity of the bike. No need to fill up with petrol, just hop on and go, and fill up on cake afterwards instead. Free parking right outside the door of everywhere I go (in fairness, it’s the same for cars in Bigtown, although you might have to drive around the block several times to find that perfect spot especially if, like me, you find parking a car a challenge). Never ever ever stuck in traffic. And no fear that a moment’s inattention could end in a tragic accident, especially given how badly I drive…

But I think it’s worth taking up the challenge all the same. After all, practice makes perfect, and after a month of it I’ll probably no longer feel like I’m trapped in a tin box in a queue of traffic, envious of the bikes whizzing along past me on the river path. I’ll have learned to love my nice weather-proof little bubble and even if I’m stuck in traffic I’ll know I’m doing the right thing in the long run. I might even learn how to parallel park. And looking out of the window at the rain, it looks as if the Weather Gods are totally on my side

Will you join me in the challenge? Sign up today!