All I want for …

December 31, 2016

Over on We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote, we have been looking forward to 2017 – considering the changes we’d like to see happen in 2017.

There’s lots of particular things I’d like to change locally, just for my own sake: I’d like the white lines removed down the middle of the too-narrow-to-realistically-pass-a-bike-when-there’s-something-coming-the-other-way road that I have to ride on to get home now (I’d also like the hill flattened out, but that’s possibly a wish too far …). And there’s things I’d like to see happen locally, like a safe route to school for every child, and a route to the new hospital for cyclists that doesn’t involve crossing a road that leaves you feeling you might end up in the hospital by another, more painful, route.

Haarlem bike path

Bike path in Haarlem. This is not a ‘cycle superhighway’ – it’s just how the Dutch build roads and bike paths.

But I tell you what I really want, and that’s to not to have to fight for all of these things all of the time. One of the things that was most impressive about our latest visit to Amsterdam was the way the infrastructure was just *everywhere* – not always perfect, not always very showy, but it was clear that when the Dutch built something, one of the first questions they asked was ‘what shall we do about the bikes?’ Nobody has to monitor all of the planning applications and make sure cycling isn’t at least going to be made worse if something new is going up, nobody has to jump up and down because a local transport summit is being organised which doesn’t even mention cycling, nobody has to go through a planning diagram with a fine-tooth comb to try and work out whether there is going to be a cycle path and if so is it going to be wider than, say, the width of a bike’s handlebars. It just happens. Well, I imagine so, or Dutch cycle campaigners must be the busiest and most effective people on the planet.

So here’s what I’m hoping for for 2017. I’m hoping that the new Cycling By Design guidelines will be as good as the Dutch cycle design manuals AND they will pretty much be compulsory when any new road gets built or upgraded – not just on the designated ‘bike routes’ but any street or road that goes anywhere. I’m hoping that the Scottish government (and all local authorities) will realise that if you want 10% of journeys to be by a particular mode of transport, then it’s only fair to spend 10% of the transport budget on that mode. And I’m hoping that I can stop having to read policy documents and go through budgets and write emails and ask questions and try and figure out how the Scottish government works, just to try and make some tiny percentage of this happen, and get on with doing the things I want to do like gardening and riding my bike and writing books again.

I’m not expecting any of this to happen, mind you. But I can hope.

Those Holiday Snaps in Full

December 28, 2016
view from the balcone

“…and here’s the view from our balcony”

Just kidding – after two weeks blogging absence you’ll be relieved to hear I’m not going to subject you to the full ‘and here is the view from the balcony looking the other way’ holiday slide show experience. But there were a few things I wanted to tell you about so stand by …

1. I have veg plot envy

La Gomera vegetable plot

For the second week we stayed in a casa rural on a small organic farm in a lush little valley where orange groves rub shoulders with potato patches and I am so incredibly jealous of the tiny little smallholdings clinging to the hillsides, because oh what a vegetable plot I could have here. I’m particularly taken with the way our host grows his lettuces in a neat spiral – for ease of irrigation, we assume, and although irrigation is not an issue at home, I may well adopt a similar layout for the new vegetable garden. And hell, we’ve already got the terracing in the garden at home, so we’re practically half way there


Look, we’re half way there already. just need to persuade some orange trees to grow in Scotland …

2. I have not cycled for a fortnight and I don’t care.

steps to the apartment

For a place like Playa Santiago, which is mostly steps, there were a surprisingly large number of bikes kicking about – not just road bikes being ridden by men in Lycra with the calves of superheros, but ordinary bikes with baskets and even a fair few folding bikes. In fact, a folder might make sense because outside of the approximately 500m of sea front in both San Sebastian and Playa de Santiago, La Gomera does not do flat, so anyone riding a bike is either toiling painfully uphill or gingerly descending down around narrow hairpin bends. A folder might give you the ultimate in Gomeran cycling – ride it downhill in the morning, and then chuck it in a taxi for the ride home. Although given the squirrely nature of the Brompton at speed, I’m not sure I’d even fancy that on some of the roads around here.

bench with pedals

3. We don’t walk anything like enough at home.

Los Gatos, La Gomera

The active travel mode of choice here is walking and so we’ve borrowed a book of walks written by someone who is apparently four-fifths mountain goat. So far we’ve managed at best a third of one of the easier ones. Book or no book, there are hiking paths anywhere and some of them seem like amazing shortcuts (30km by road, only 7km on foot) until you realise there’s a reason why they didn’t build a road over that ridge.

coastal path

‘Let’s try the coastal path, because it might be a bit easier,’ I said.

There are people who appear to make a thing of walking around the island and you can recognise them by their knee supports, hiking poles and the thousand yard stare that comes from realising that when their book of walks describes a stretch as ‘a steady climb’ it means a switch-backing scramble up a near vertical hillside, and that they have several kilometres of ‘steady climbing’ to go before lunch.

switchback path

“The path then climbs steadily for the next kilometre …”

A walk in La Gomera – hell, even coming back to our apartment from the sea front in Playa de Santiago – means doing more climbing than a postman in a tower block in a power cut. In the first week we almost killed ourselves and had to take a day to recover after each walk, but we have started to shape up a bit and have done a lot more walking, albeit with frequent stops to ‘admire the view’ ‘check out that tree for birds’ and ‘test to see if this rock is a comfortable as it looks’. Indeed, on our last full day we excelled ourselves by wondering if the path went all the way up to the ridge you can see in the distance – and discovered that, why yes, it did.

distant ridge

I am not kidding, the path went all the way up to the little notch you can see in the distance, and so did we


There was some amazing Laurisilva cloud forest on the other side, too*

Laurisilva forest

Literally 50 yards away, on the other side of the ridge, it was all agave and prickly pear. Microclimates in action

4. Hello birds, hello trees.

La Gomera plant

I got a bit obsessed with this bush which grew pretty much everywhere …

I hang my head in shame, but it’s been a while since we did much serious bird watching, but when there are actual canaries flitting around in the bushes you have to make the effort. We’ve done some proper bird watching (the kind where you need to distinguish between a buff or an off-white supercilium) and some just enjoying the spectacle kind (five kestrels enjoying a thermal at eye level to the rock where you are sitting ‘enjoying the view’? Here you go, then) and both have been great. Also the Monty Python fan in me can’t help but enjoy asking ‘African or European?’ as we attempt to identify the collared dove that has landed on our apartment balcony.

La Gomera plant

Not a legume

I also wish that despite over a decade working at Kew I knew more about plants than just being able to identify whether something is a legume or a not-a-legume. There are some fantastic plants here but I have no idea what most of them are. Except for the ones producing avocados, lemons, papayas, mangoes and chestnuts in the garden of our casa rural … did I mention I have veg plot envy?

tree in the plaza, Playa de Santiago

Now these are street trees

5. I can survive without the Internet.

map reading cat

It does help to have local knowledge when planning routes

Well, sort of. OK, so I’ve coughed up the 35p a day to get enough data on my phone to check email, send the odd tweet and google things (because without the internet we are now all completely helpless). But 10MB is not enough to do much more than that – I can forget whiling away a whole evening on Twitter, for a start. Instead we’ve had time to talk, chill out and above all read books. And that’s the rub. I had forgotten how quickly I can get through books when I’m not distracted by everything else. Back in the day, half my suitcase would be taken up with books when I went on holiday (and even then, one of them would be something heavy going by Dickens, to stop myself from tearing through them all in the first few days), but that was before they started charging for checked luggage (and weighing your carry on, for crying out loud). Having only shelled out for 20kg for both of us on this trip I panicked and made the fatal mistake of bringing too few books to read. Fortunately the local tourism office has a book swap arrangement but the choice is somewhat limited if you don’t speak German. I know, I know, you’re all screaming ‘Kindle’ at me at this point – and I think I may have to succumb if we ever do this again. Because while it’s been a real treat to reacquaint myself with the pleasure of settling down of an afternoon with a cup of coffee to hand and a good book – it’s been less so to remember the horror of being only one book away from having absolutely nothing to read.

Valley in La Gomera

*’Cloud forest’ sounds so much better than ‘dreich’, doesn’t it? I wonder if the Dumfries and Galloway tourist board isn’t missing a trick here. Forget messing around with the ‘Dark Skies Park’ and rebrand half the county as cloud forest and you’re laughing …

bush growing from rock

Back to the Future

December 13, 2016

So, tomorrow we set off on our Christmas holiday which in a break from our usual tradition will involve visiting neither set of parents. Instead, we’re possibly foolishly attempting to recreate a fondly remembered holiday we took some time in the last century* in La Gomera.

Back then,* booking a holiday involved sending off for a brochure (in this case it was a pack of postcards), choosing the accommodation you wanted and ringing up to book it, then sending off a cheque* to pay for it. We were met on arrival at the island by the resident holiday rep who had sorted out a hire car, introduced us to his favourite bar, and then left us to get on with it. We knew absolutely nothing about the place, and I only chose it because the holiday company advertised every week in the Guardian Weekend supplement and eventually wore down my resistance through pure repetition. Our research consisted of buying the Lonely Planet guide book and a teach-yourself-Spanish cassette* and our visit consisted of driving around La Gomera’s precipitous roads, hiking, bird watching, and then deciding which of the seven restaurants in the town we would eat at that night, bearing in mind that they took it in turns to be closed on different nights of the week and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. During the week we were there we heard absolutely no news at all, with our only contact from the outside world being the evening we spent in a bar where a football match was on the television, apparently being played in a blizzard. On our arrival home we quizzed the cabbie (this was back when you could afford to take a taxi from Heathrow*) about what news we had missed and he couldn’t think of anything (I believe it may have been during the Major government – ah, happy uneventful years) although when pressed he did dredge up a mention of the football match. We have been to many more exciting places and seen and done many more ‘bucket-listy’ type things, but that holiday remains one of my fondest memories.

Of course, arranging this holiday has been way more complicated, thanks to the Internet, which meant a painful evening of trying to sort through a bewildering variety of options until eventually I just plumped for a couple of places that sounded okay and were available at the right time. Since then, I’ve been able to stalk the local weather forecast (sunny and 21C at the moment, thanks for asking), check out the accommodation on Google Streetview, fail to learn any more Spanish than we got to with our cassette the first time (dos cervezas por favor) and order a comprehensive bird guide. On mature reflection, given the steepness of the terrain, we will not be doing any cycling, so it’s back to the hiking boots and binoculars. Last time we failed to conclusively identify the one possible canary we thought we saw. This time we hope we will do better.

One aspect of the holiday may be rather too reminiscent of the last time, however. In my haste to get something booked, I neglected to check whether our accommodation actually had any WiFi. The place where we are staying for the first week has, rather ominously, WiFi in ‘some rooms’. The place where we are staying for the second week – a remote cottage on an organic farm in the interior – does not mention any WiFi at all. This may make for an interesting few days…

I could spend the next fortnight desperately hunting for hotspots in order to keep up on Twitter, post the odd blog post, and trying to stop the pile of email that will await me from becoming overwhelming. But on the whole I’m inclined to try and roll with it, get some reading done and unwind. It will either kill me, or do me good.

And oh how wonderful would it be to get back to the UK and discover that nothing at all noteworthy has happened in the world while we’ve been away…

* stop me if I start to sound old here at any point.

All Good Things …

December 12, 2016

… must come to an end, and that includes the old veg plot and greenhouse.

destroyed kale

The rabbit has been systematically working its way through the curly kale (you know, you wouldn’t think rabbits were all that systematic but they do seem to like to eat things in order).

chillies ripening

I do like the way these chillies ripen, as if they had been dipped in paint (or held in the fire until they glowed red hot)

In the greenhouse, the tomatoes are finished and we should really put the tomatilloes out of their misery, but the chillies are still staggering on and producing chillies. In fact, there’s a three-line whip in the town mouse household at the moment – if it’s possible to put chillies in a dish, then in they go (fortunately they’re not that hot)

chilli crop

Meanwhile, after five years of trying, I appear to have cracked the secret of growing a decent crop of leeks: move house before they are due to be ready.


Fun as it is to have a new garden to play with and a whole new vegetable plot of my very own, I’m really going to miss the old plot. Not many people get a proper walled kitchen garden to play with (even a part of it) and a big greenhouse to boot. I’ve learned a lot in the past few years – mostly of the ‘what not to do’ variety – and we’ve eaten well as a result, even if occasionally it’s felt like an effort to get through all of the bounty that’s been produced. If I’m feeling sufficiently sentimental, I may even go through some of the edit highlights before I finally say goodbye.

We’ll have to wait and see what lies beneath the carpet in the spring and start a whole new vegetable growing adventure …

Heaping it on

December 10, 2016
before topping up

Before topping up

After yesterday’s post, on mature reflection, I decided I hadn’t quite gone far enough with the mulching process so today I decided it was time to do some topping up as there was still a big pile of weeds and grass clippings I could add to the new plots (and also I was still capable of standing upright without groaning so I clearly hadn’t worked hard enough yesterday).

Interestingly (interesting to me, anyway – I assume if you come and read this blog regularly you’ve got a high boredom threshold), the huge pile of vegetation that has been accumulating since we started clearing the garden hasn’t really rotted down that much. In places it was even bone dry – clearly a mat of grass clippings is an effective rain cover, something which perhaps wouldn’t surprise anyone with a thatched roof. The layer at the bottom had started to turn into something resembling compost, however, so hopefully the worms and other things will work their magic under the carpet for the next few months.

heaped up

Several barrowloads later the carpet has been replaced and very thoroughly weighed down with the bricks out of the old storage heaters, mainly so I don’t get any ideas about adding anything more. My back will be having a few strong words with me on the subject too. It’s all very well people waxing lyrical about the ease of no-dig gardening but they don’t seem to mention the part where you end up collapsed on the sofa having shovelled and barrowed and forked umpteen barrowloads of stuff back and forth.

carpet replaced

It shall all be worth it in the end, I hope.

Rolling out the Manky Pink Carpet

December 9, 2016
Carpet laid out in the garden

When the books tell you to design your garden as a series of rooms, I’m not sure they meant actually carpeting them

Back when I had a proper job, I always tried to schedule meetings for the afternoon as I’d long learned I never did anything productive between 2pm and 4 so I might as well go and have a nice chat with other people and eat biscuits until my brain woke up again around tea time. Now that I work my own hours, it means I can justify getting out into the garden on a winter afternoon and tackle one of the many jobs that are piling up out there.

Currently top of the list is preparing the ground for the veg beds. I’ve been swithering over whether to build raised beds, dig in manure, or go for a no-dig approach (it doesn’t help that the last three editions of Gardeners’ Question Time have had three different suggestions) but with our Christmas holiday looming, we’ve reached the stage where (in the words of a wise former colleague of mine) it’s better to take a wrong decision than no decision. In the end, the first two approaches involved too much hard work, so with time running out I’ve decided to attempt the no-dig approach.

So I spent this afternoon scavenging various bits of carpet from the attic and garage where the previous owners had stashed them and laying out where the plot will be.


Take that, 2016

Then it was just a matter of putting down the last few month’s worth of newspapers and my friend’s housewarming gift (and I can’t really think of anything more appropriate to do with what amounts to several hundred photos of Donald Trump than covering them in horse manure), followed by the contents of the compost dalek – which was wonderfully good stuff – and a pile of coarser weeds hacked down in our attempt to clear around the old chicken shed. Meanwhile, the weather gods were doing their bit by steadily drizzling so that everything was nice and damped down. The plan was to add the rest of the pile of stuff that has accumulated from cutting the grass and clearing the weeds, but winter afternoons are short and I ran out of time. As it was, I ended up putting the last bits of carpet on in the dark.

Ideally, I would have done this back in July when we first got the keys to the house, to give everything several months to rot down and to weaken all the perennial weeds, but if nothing else, I will have added several barrowloads of organic matter to the soil, and at least made the grass and buttercups a bit easier to deal with in the spring.

veg plot before

Before shot. Remind me to come back and post some progress pictures …

So now all that remains for me to do is to wait, and let the worms and other creatures do their work, and hope I’ve weighed everything down well enough that the carpet will still be in place come spring.

The Ghosts of Roundabouts Future

December 6, 2016

I think I may have mentioned in the past that Bigtown’s drivers take a somewhat freestyle approach to roundabouts. On the big ones, indicating is optional (and bikes are invisible, but that’s standard issue for most of the UK), and on the little pimplebouts pretty much anything goes: nobody appears to have any idea who might have right of way in any given situation so you might as well just wing it and see what happens.

As I was commiserating with a fellow cyclist on the subject – we had both had more than usually boneheaded interactions with our fellow road users, although in my case, unusually, the problem was that two drivers on a three-arm roundabout had decided to stop for each other and in the end it was me who went as the others appeared to be waiting for nightfall before either of them moved – I remembered a story one of my fellow cycling campaign members had told me. She had overheard two older drivers in Bigtown discussing a new (and by ‘new’ I mean ‘installed some time early last century’) roundabout. ‘Oh, I just take no notice of it,’ one of them said.

Thinking about it, that seemed to explain everything. If half the drivers are behaving as if there is no roundabout, then a lot of their more bizarre decisions make a bit more sense. It might also explain why they’ve effectively cut one larger roundabout in half and flattened the middle circle, presumably so that Mrs Miggins can plough through it in her 20-year-old Ford Fiesta without getting tangled in the sheets people hang on it to announce significant birthdays*

Of course, having thought I’d cracked it, my new theory failed to explain why a driver might be waiting at a side road today, see me coming, and then pull out in front of me anyway, unless she was anticipating a roundabout that had not yet been built. So I shall just continue to cycle as if anything and everything could happen at any minute. It seems the safest way.

* Is this just a Bigtown thing? Would anyone ever be delighted to discover that their impending 40th had been announced through the medium of a crumpled sheet to the assembled masses at the local Macdonalds?


December 2, 2016

cut paper bicycles

Chatting to our local archivist the other day (nothing to do with any archiving: she has a laser paper cutting machine at home and had made some fantastic little paper bicycles for the Bigtown Cycle campaign. Suddenly a whole new world of stationery possibilities opens up …) I was shocked – shocked! – to learn that Bigtown library now has no actual librarians. The staff at the counter who stamp your books are there to do all sorts of other council business as well, which I suppose could bring a wider range of clientele into the library, but you wonder who is doing all the other vital library stuff, from ordering books to setting up reading schemes.


This is why I have a special affection for books which disappear again after 3 weeks

After I had physically picked up my jaw and composed myself, I wondered what could be done about this. As a voracious reader in my childhood (at one point the school library disallowed me from returning books on the same day I had borrowed them) libraries were a lifesaver for me, even with their pettifogging rules about keeping a book for at least 24 hours before you returned it. As an adult with a non-infinite amount of shelf space, they continue to be a useful way of feeding my book habit without filling my house, and as an author (however unprolific), the Public Lending Right payment I get every year is a small but happy reminder that somewhere out there, people are still reading my book. So it’s safe to say, I was keen to support the library from any more cuts.

‘Footfall,’ my archivist contact said. ‘That’s all they look at. So keep using the library if you want to keep it open.’

Well, as activism goes, that’s something I can utterly get behind. It will be a terrible sacrifice but tomorrow I will have to get myself down to the library and borrow some books, take them home, read them, and then swap them for some more. All for free – and anyone and everyone can do it too.

Put that way, it’s amazing such a civilised thing has been allowed to exist for as long as it has. Perhaps you’d better get down there and be counted at your own library while stocks last.

Building Bridges

December 1, 2016

In our bid to meet All The Cycling Women in Scotland, Back on my Bike and I have been visiting Dundee (oh, okay there was also some Walk Cycle Vote business as well)

We were staying in Wormit, which meant negotiating the Tay Bridge, and also subjecting Dundee’s cycle network to its sternest test: can Sally and Suzanne find their way onto it easily without having to dash across multiple lanes of traffic or finding themselves on a Scary Road with no clue where they are going? Glasgow failed this test comprehensively earlier this month, and it’s fair to say that Dundee did no better, although as Dundee seems to be largely under construction, we will give it a pass this time.

lift to fife

Fortunately it’s a bit hard to miss the Tay Bridge, even for us, and once we’d spotted it, and navigated all the lanes of traffic we found the lift up onto the foot and cycle path that has been squeezed in between the carriageways.

On the way back, in daylight, we could see a bit more what was going on. I’d appreciate this view if it was my commute to work although it would be even better without four lanes of heavy traffic roaring past at 50mph (though thankfully on the other side of a stout railing).

view from the Tay Bridge

On the whole, Dundee seems to be doing interesting things – the council have an ambitious cycling strategy, they’re dedicating 5% of their transport budget to cycling, and if you live and work in the right places you can get between the two without tangling with traffic at all.

However, it’s also an object lesson into why massive roads and liveable cities just don’t mix. The waterfront is sadly cut off from the rest of the city – and it doesn’t look as if the Gateway development is going to do anything about that, although it is adding a few green spaces and we were told that the entrance to the bridge walkway is much improved.

Under the Tay Bridge

Top tip for urban designers: even some jolly paint does little to make the space under a raised highway a pleasant place to be.

I can only shudder to imagine what it used to be like. Coming home to the rather less spectacular but much more civilised Bigtown viaduct was a welcome tonic.

Queen of the South Viaduct