School Daze

June 30, 2015
skull and crossbones valve cap

I’m pleased to say this was on one of the little girls’ bikes…

I was helping out at the village school bike picnic again today, which means I’ve spent the rest of the day in a state of nervous exhaustion on the sofa after helping lead three separate three-mile rides with eight kids apiece, not to mention trying to get 24 kids on bikes safely round three blind bends on the road to the recreation ground when one of them had his handlebars on crooked and rode into a bush (just as the headmistress was taking his photo, which probably made for a great shot, although not the one that will be appearing on the school website) and one of them proved quite capable of steering himself into a bush unaided. Oh and it turns out that when a driver is warned to pass slowly because there are a lot of kids on bikes around the bend, they will assume that the big bunch of kids is all the kids there are, and then accelerate round the last bend only to meet the stragglers bringing up the rear which, inevitably, includes the one who can’t steer his bike and so he’s halfway across the road… fortunately no children were harmed in the making of this blog post, although one parent helper is pretty angry and I imagine one driver is even now getting cold sweats over what might have happened, or at least I hope they are.

Fortunately, this being the village school, all the other vehicles we encountered, tractors included, were driven by someone related to one or other of the kids in some way so we saw some extremely patient driving, and the rest of the day passed off more or less like the last one, although we have a new iBike officer who has banned bell ringing except in an emergency; I expect she gets quite enough of bike bells in her line of work. We took them up a stiffish hill and then let them have their heads on the descent and that was, apparently, the most brilliant thing ever, to the point where they were quite prepared to tackle the hill again to have another go.

I also got a bit of an insight into the life of the average farm child. We were admiring some pedigree Suffolk rams, which turned out to belong to one of the older boys (his personally, that is, not his family’s). In fact half of them seemed to have their own animals – sheep or cattle – which they breed and show. That puts my childhood ambition to have a pony firmly in its place…

You Know you’ve been Neglecting your Garden When…

June 29, 2015

… you head up to your veg plot and discover that the rabbits are busy moving in under the purple-sprouting broccoli

rabbit hole

This is not good news, as getting rabbits out of a walled garden is harder than you might think. The sad truth is, though, that this is no more than I deserve as I’ve let myself become just too busy to put any real time into my veg. Fortunately, the other half, meanwhile, has been doing sterling work in the greenhouse, complete with our first tomatillos (hopefully – who knows what lurks inside all that packaging?)

tomatillo fruit

Still, today I finished one mega job that has been taking up most of my waking hours. And with the Cycling Embassy AGM out of the way, I now have no more places I have to be – except home – for a while. I have regretfully turned down the opportunity to go to Birmingham for a meeting, there are no deadlines looming, and life will, I hope, return to something like normality for a while.

dry ford

although what’s normal about a completely dry ford?!

Starting with routine ford inspections, naturallement


June 28, 2015

I am back from the Cycling Embassy AGM in Leicester, a weekend of deep cycling deliberations and, of course, the traditional infrastructure safari of the good, the bad and the ugly bits of our host city’s cycling facilities.

Unusually for a UK city, Leicester has a fair few places where the cycling provision is, if not entirely Dutch in its execution, is at least something we could show our cousins across the North Sea without them laughing openly at it. The city centre, for instance, is almost entirely car free, they’ve taken a whole lane out of the inner ring road to create a cycle track instead, they’ve taken out a whole flyover and replaced it with a walking and cycling path instead, and there’s a nice greenway that ties up the city centre with the suburbs to the north and south, meaning that (if you pick your host carefully – staying with cycle campaigners helps) you can cycle from your accommodation to your meeting place and barely have to tangle with any traffic at all. The details are pretty nice too – like road crossings that allow you to cross the road all in one go, rather than spend what feels like the rest of your life penned up on a traffic island, and forgiving kerbs on the edge of the cycle paths which slope gently upwards so that you aren’t likely to catch your pedal on them as you ride along side by side earnestly discussing the finer points of cycling policy. It is attention to such details as kerb angles that gets us dubbed “kerb nerds” by the rougher elements of the cycle campaigning world, a label we wear with pride, for we are largely at peace with our inner infrastructure geekery

That said, my favourite bit of the trip wasn’t really intended to be cycling infrastructure at all, dated from a few decades back, and was definitely not good practice in many ways.

Yes, the bollards here are too close together, and not reflective (they may need some colourful knitwear), and later on we came across some kerbs which were sadly vertical, but how wonderful to see such mature trees taking up space where cars had once roamed free. An entire neighbourhood had been turned into a series of cul de sacs and we saw plenty of kids playing out on scooters, which is in many ways even better (and rarer) than loads of cycling.

It wasn’t until I’d tweeted it that I heard the story behind why such a scheme had been put in in the first place – nothing to do with cycling at all, but to stop kerb crawling.

At least until we came along …

Grand Designs

June 25, 2015

As well as Chilled Hare, we have another new addition to the biodiversity of our front courtyard: the second home House Martins. At least, we hope it’s their second home they are building on our shed wall, as if it’s their first nest then they’re a) quite late in getting going if they want to raise a brood before the end of the summer and b) a bit useless at nest building. Every time they get about half way with their mud construction, most of it falls off and they’re almost back to square one. There also appear to be three of them, rather than the more conventional pair – I’ve decided that the third one is the house martin equivalent of Kevin McCloud and is busy wrinkling his house-martin brow in concern as the imported Cumbrian mud turns out to be not the perfect shade as envisaged by Mrs House Martin, while Mr House Martin, having changed his mind three times about the design of the frontage and sacked his architect, decides to quit his job and project manage the whole process himself in order to get it done. Or perhaps they are just slightly rubbish at nest building and I should get out more.

It will be a shame if they don’t finish it because house martins are brilliant little birds and would be an adornment to the courtyard, and besides, it appears the swallows are falling behind on their hoovering up of midges duties, if the amount I’ve been getting bitten is anything to go by…

The RSPB have some rather complicated instructions on what to do if a nest falls with the young inside, which  suggests that structural integrity is not your average house martin nest’s strong point, but no suggestions on how to help them build it in the first place, apart from providing them with ample supplies of mud, which is really not a problem around here. So I’ll have to be content with watching their progress out of the window and reporting back. If they build anything worth photographing, I will let you know.

Hare Today

June 24, 2015

One benefit of our extremely relaxed approach to weeding the courtyard:

hare behind woodpile

Can you see the young hare? We’ve nicknamed it ‘chilled hare’ because it seems equally relaxed about our presence – that photograph was taken with my (now resurrected – hurrah!) phone camera without any zoom at all, and while the hare was keeping a close eye on me while I took it, it was also continuing eating the weeds we’d left for its delectation. Mostly we only notice it when it gets bored of eating weeds and stands up for a stretch – occasionally, if we pay it too much attention it will lope off behind the woodshed but not for long.

We haven’t had hares around since the cat arrived, but now they’re back, I think that’s all the excuse we need to leave that section of the cobbles unweeded, don’t you? We might need to do something about that wood though…

Northern Enlightenment

June 23, 2015

… and now, as they say, for something completely different, although having said that, it did start on Twitter. Last night just as I was thinking of going to bed, I noticed a tweet warning me that a solar storm was on and there was a high likelihood of seeing the northern lights in the UK in about – ooh, well about that very moment. Perfect timing. It was a clear evening and we have little light pollution around us so I could just pop out the door and have a look for any mysterious glowing lights to the north of us.

Just one slight problem, which was that at 11pm it wasn’t particularly dark yet. Nor was it dark once I had wasted a bit more time on the internet, brushed my teeth, and nipped out for one more look at around 11:30. Nor was it much darker by the time I had sat on our garden wall in the quiet for a while and watched the bats flying around overhead and got a fright as an owl screeched from a nearby tree, and the other half came out to join me for a look. There certainly was a light in the sky to the north of us but it wasn’t all that mysterious, and if we were honest, it looked much more like the last glow of the setting sun than the aurora borealis, or at least how we imagined the aurora borealis might look, given that we’ve neither of us actually seen it. So we watched it for a bit to see if it might do something, and then we strolled up along the road to the top of the rise to get a better look at it not doing anything, waking up the neighbour’s horses which galloped around their field in the dusk, and then we stood for a while and looked at it not doing anything and agreed that we had no idea whether it was the after-effects of a sun storm, or just the after-effects of the sun setting. And by this time, it being almost midnight, we decided it could be what it liked, it was bedtime, and so we returned home.*

And I would have liked at this point to add something philosophical about how it was worth it anyway, northern lights or no northern lights, just to take advantage of the wonderful long days and lingering dusks of summer and to take a break from the dreaded internet and go out and experience the beauty of the evening for ourselves – but the midgies were being absolute murder and frankly, I was glad to get indoors.

* I note that I came to exactly the same conclusion three years ago. Stop me when all this repeating myself gets boring, won’t you?

Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s a Bacon Roll

June 22, 2015

There’s been more bad news in the cycling world with yet another female cyclist crushed by yet another lorry in central London at yet another junction where safety improvements have been discussed but not implemented (it kind of brings it home to you when you anxiously check your various cycling tweeps of the right age and location to make sure they’re still safely tweeting). And meanwhile on Twitter there’s been yet more … oh actually I can’t be bothered, imagine a circular firing squad for yourselves, with the media forming an outer circle and sniping about a ‘war on the roads’ and ‘vigilante cyclists’ because it’s obviously totally unreasonable to film someone at the wheel of a fast-moving vehicle who almost took you off the road while they finished their breakfast. And it’s all horribly depressing because we all know that the only thing that will really make a difference is changing the infrastructure so that it’s safe for everyone to cycle, and that will take forever and we’re barely started (and in some cases we’re going backwards). But at the same time, there are things that we can do now that – in small ways and with no doubt uncertain results – might advance the cause somewhat. Like making connections between the cyclists in your community, to try and build pressure locally for better cycling conditions. Or encouraging more people to use their bikes so that the coonsil can see that there might be votes in catering for them. Baby steps

So a small cheer, please, to the proprietor of BJ’s snack van in Bigtown who, when we suggested a little breakfast meetup near his fine dining establishment this Friday, promptly offered to give everyone who turned up on a bike that day a free hot roll and a tea or coffee. It won’t solve all our cycling problems, and it won’t save anyone from the wheels of a lorry, but it will at least add something to the sum total of human happiness while we battle on for cycling nirvana, Dutch style.

Build a Better World Bingo card

It should also (assuming I get my phone and camera sorted in time) help earn me a point (row 3, column 2) on the #BABWBingo challenge. Although, as I invented it, I’m not sure I’m allowed to play.

Meanwhile, for those in London or thereabouts who would like to do more to campaign directly – or just mark another useless loss of life – there is a protest at 8am on Wednesday

I Take it All Back

June 19, 2015

So yesterday, I had a little whinge on Twitter…

It’s been building for a while. I really loved twitter when I first started using it, because as someone who lives in the middle of nowhere and works from home, it was a chance to chat with like minded people (and the occasional non-like-minded person) and it was all generally fun and friendly and if you ever asked for advice the answer was normally along the lines of ‘a large gin’ or ‘sounds like you need more chocolate’* and not ‘have you tried eating more kale?’ or ‘six glasses of water every day’. But, whether because we’re all getting grumpier, or because I follow more people, it’s all started to get a bit fractious recently. It’s not just the guy who faithfully retweets every cyclist-hating tweet he sees, although it’s not exactly a jolly way to start the day to read a bunch of strangers threatening to run bikes off the road – what really gets me down is seeing the people who mainly agree with each other falling out over some slight deviation from the Accepted Doctrine of What Will Bring About Mass Cycling (or What Would the Dutch Do?) as first laid down by Saint Freewheeler of Waltham Forest and codified and elaborated by St David of Assen. Not, I hasten to add, that I disagree with either of those fathers of the Church of Safe Separated Infrastructure. It’s just that jumping on some poor innocent’s head who’s all fired up about cycling and wants to make a difference simply because they may have mentioned wearing a helmet, or suggesting cycle training, or other heresies** isn’t exactly going to encourage them to stick with this whole cycle campaigning lark, and not go away and take up something less controversial like kitten torturing instead.***

Naturally, having added my own grumpy tweet to the general whingefest, and got a host of lovely and funny replies, I immediately cheered up and more or less forgot about it. I then, having spent an hour or two fruitlessly looking for external battery chargers, tweeted again about my broken phone and got the following immediate response

I’ll say this about Twitter – it may not be quite as good fun as it was back in the good old days but it can still beat Google when you’re looking for a quick pointer to something specific – and is full of people who will take the time not just to answer but look up the exact link you need as well. An external battery charger has been ordered and is on its way. And if it actually works, I won’t have to take back this post as well.

Hopefully this also means I’ll have a working phone and camera at the end of June, when I will be repenting of this post, and reconfirming my commitment to the cycling cause by attending what is the Annual Synod of the Church of Safe Separated Infrastructure, the Cycling Embassy AGM. Stand by for more photos of Bromptons and interesting bollards than you can shake a stick at.

* pretty much regardless of what the question was

** Any non-cyclists reading this and scratching their heads and wondering what the problem might be – trust me, don’t ask. It’s long and complicated and at the end of the day it only matters a tiny fraction of the energy that is expended on the subject…

*** And nor, frankly, is criticising people who have spent several years organising mass bike protests on the seat of the Scottish Parliament because quite a lot of the people who turn up dare to wear hi vis jackets, because really we get enough flak from the people who actually hate cyclists to have to deal with the flak from our own side about what people who have given up their Saturday afternoon to Pedal on Parliament chose to wear.

Dumb Move

June 18, 2015

As I mentioned before, my phone is on the blink. Or rather, my phone works perfectly, but can no longer be charged because its USB port is broken and fixing this requires soldering which is apparently a dark art too far for the one phone-fixing place in Bigtown. I did try and persuade the other half, who has the same model phone as me, that we could swap batteries around, effectively using his phone as an external charging device for mine, but for some reason he wasn’t too keen on this solution. I eked out my phone’s charge as long as I could but it finally started to give out the ‘out of battery distress call’ and then transformed itself into a sleek but essentially useless lump of plastic.

So now I’m a bit bereft. I have a backup phone – you know, the kind that makes phone calls and with a bit of swearing will send a text, if you can still remember how to tap out texts with just nine buttons and honestly how did we ever manage that? – so people can still reach me although, to be honest, phone calls and texts aren’t really the way I tend to communicate these days. If I want to properly communicate – emails and twitter, basically – I have to open up my laptop. Which is fine, and I’m on my computer a lot, but it’s a revelation just how dependent on my phone I’ve become for things like quickly checking my email first thing in the morning, or tweeting my way through cooking supper because there’s nothing good on the radio. Or taking photographs, given my ability to destroy every proper camera I’ve ever owned. Sitting down and turning on the computer takes time, and by the time I’ve checked my emails I’ve generally got sucked into something else and it’s an hour later and that really wasn’t the plan.

I’m still hoping the phone can be fixed, or some magic solution will be found (there are apparently actual external battery chargers, but finding one that will work with my model of phone might be interesting). Meanwhile, I’m treating this enforced period of non-smart-phoneness as somewhere between a penance and an exercise in self-denial. It might even be good for me. Maybe I’ll go back to being able to go, ooh, a couple of hours without checking my email. Or being able to read a newspaper article all the way through to the end without just quickly checking to see if anyone’s responded to me on twitter. Or finally learning how to use a real camera instead of the one in my phone.

Or I might just break down and get myself a tablet instead…

Cheerfully Misdirecting Londoners

June 17, 2015

A knock on the door, and I go to answer to find a genial well-spoken stranger on the doorstep.

GW-SS: ‘Oh hello, I’m looking for X, she’s staying at the holiday cottages.’

Me: ‘Ah, you’ve stopped too soon, you need to go on up the road and they’re on the left.’

GW-SS: ‘Ah, she said they were third on the left after the turning.’

He then looked at me expectantly as though all he had to do was wait and I would crack and admit that yes, these really were the holiday cottages and I had X bound and gagged in our pantry. Because obviously that would be much more likely than the fact that the person who lives here might actually know more about where the holiday cottages were than he did. But I didn’t say any of that because there’s no arguing with some people and after a while he persuaded himself that this wasn’t the third property on the left, but just the third property as some of them were on the right, and off he went. Presumably to argue with our landlords about whether *they* were the holiday cottages …

I do thank our lucky stars that we’re not the unfortunate inhabitants of the house at the dead centre of our postcode, who must have all manner of strangers turn up at their door and try and get them to admit that they were the house the strangers were looking for, on the grounds that their sat nav was insisting ‘you have arrived’, when in fact they might still be miles away.