101 Uses for a Brompton: Going Singing

January 31, 2018

As I mentioned, I’ve been trying out a new choir (if it was the sort of choir where it was the other way round, I’d probably not have got very far, but they claim to be able to work with ‘the voice you have’ …). The main reason for choosing this choir, which is in Notso Bigtown (there are others which are nearer) is because a pal and ex choir member from Old Nearest Village found out about it and offered to give me a lift there and back. But this means her first driving five miles in the wrong direction to our house and then turning around to go back past her house on our way out. Clearly this is just dispiriting, even in a car, so after trying a few cunning alternative routes which turned out to be slower, I decided the easiest thing would be to ride the Brompton down to hers, at least on evenings when it isn’t snowing, pissing down or hailing frogs, all of which seem equally likely given the weather we’ve had recently (snowing again today, thank you, although none of it seems to have stuck around). It cuts out at least one of the unnecessary journeys, and crucially it’s almost all downhill, so it doesn’t feel like anything but a pleasure on my part.

So last night, I zoomed happily down the hill, blessing my new C&B Seen lights (which I should probably review one of these days), and arriving feeling refreshed and ready to head off for a happy evening of singing, and learning, and generally not looking at a screen, which is all good.

Even better is the fact that we pass through the village on the Big A Road that has recently had two Stoplights of Shame installed. These are amazing. If you’re detected doing more than 30 as you get into the village outskirts, they turn red on you and you have to sit there for all to see, having saved precisely no time. Instant karma. There was of course an almighty fuss when they were first installed and they were taken down to be tweaked after people complained they were stopping people who weren’t speeding, but they’re now back up again and working a treat. I have to admit I love the wonderfully sedate pace everyone now adopts through the village (there might even have been some unholy cackling), at least until the last SoS is negotiated. Why we don’t have these installed everywhere I have no idea. They’re bloody brilliant.

And the choir? Well they seem to be coping with the voice I have, which is only really an alto in the sense that I can’t hit any of the higher notes, rather than being particularly comfortable in the lower ranges. We’re learning some quite challenging-to-me stuff, but so far we have always managed to pass through the ‘God we’ll never get this’ stage, to the ‘hang on, that sort of makes sense’ stage to the ‘oh wow actually that managed to sound quite good’ part, at least for a line or two. And no being singled out or shamed, at least unless my pal puts her foot down on our way home.

Watching Where the Wind Blows

January 29, 2018

One of the advantages of our house on the side of the hill is that you can watch the weather coming out of the windows at the back – and then going away again out the front (assuming normal prevailing winds apply and the weather actually is planning on leaving, which isn’t always a given).

So it was very satisfying to be able to time my trip to Bigtown this afternoon just behind this heavy shower – just moderating my speed enough to stay out of its skirts.

rain falling on Bigtown

Even better to get to the roundabout on my way into town and realise that the queue of cars that has built up is merely stuck behind a working bin lorry, leaving me able to filter past the lot of them and skip onto the roundabout scot free.

It’s little moments like this that make it all worth while.

Wheel Adventures

January 28, 2018

With the snow and thaw replaced by milder weather and rain, I have finally had to admit that the real reason I still had the spiky tyres on my back wheel was that I was putting off changing my back wheel as it was a real bugger to get done the last time. Somehow it’s been easier to just pump up the slow puncture every morning when I need to use my bike than to wrestle with switching wheels. But with the temperatures creeping into double figures, and with a biggish ride coming up today, I finally broke down, got the maintenance stand out (a task in itself, frankly, as it was designed to be used by someone with far more manly thumbs than I have) and changed the wheel, which, in the end, only took half an hour, a record for any bike maintenance task undertaken by me.

In fact, broken down in more detail, actually changing the wheel only took about 10 minutes, most of which was spent wishing for a third hand because actually getting a wheel on and off is one of those things which is easier with the bike upside down so that the stupid thing doesn’t slide out of the dropouts the minute you let go of it to pick up the spanner. The rest was spent as follows:

– assembling and disassembling the maintenance stand: 5 minutes
– searching for correct spanner: 2 minutes
– muttering ‘lefty loosy, righty tighty’, while turning the spanner the wrong way: 2 minutes
– wandering around the garage looking for the tool I had put down while cursing myself for not putting the tool down next to the pile of tools so I could find it again: 3 minutes
– finding the tool in the pile of tools where I had put it down so I wouldn’t lose it: 30 seconds
– putting chain back onto front cogs: 1 minute
– desperately searching for the horrible mechanical thing that was causing the drive train to jam with a worrying-sounding clunk after I’d got the chain back on: 2 minutes
– realising I’d left the kick stand deployed and it was jamming the pedals: 30 seconds
– cycling up and down the road in front of our house to test everything was working: probably far longer than was necessary but then again, this is the fun bit

There was also a lot of swearing and some whimpering with frustration but, crucially, no going into the house and asking for help, even when my feeble girly hands couldn’t at first get the wheel nuts undone (it turns out getting cross and shouting at them while giving it another go helps with this one). Even more crucially, I’ve since taken the bike on a 30+ mile ride with no problems, not even the usual one of realising I haven’t done the wheel up tight enough and it jamming.

So, onwards and upwards. Who knows, 2018 might even be the year I manage to crack the unassisted sub-60-minute puncture repair. Stranger things have happened. Even with Marathon Pluses.

Five Things I have Learned about Sourdough

January 24, 2018

So, I promised you an update on my sourdough baking adventures, and who am I to disappoint, especially now that all the picturesque snow has melted (it’s amazing what a day of rain will achieve) and been replaced by a slightly worrying new burn running half way round the house, which we’re hoping will disappear again when the currently saturated ground dries out some time in ooh, May …

1. there are more ways to bake sourdough bread than you ever dreamt of. And every single one of them is _the_ way

If you start googling for sourdough recipes you pretty much soon find that everyone who’s ever baked sourdough bread has then gone and started a blog about it (a bit like cycling, then), laying down their absolutely failsafe method for making sourdough bread, which is of course slightly different from everyone else’s. I’ve yet to discover whether the sourdough bread world is as riven with factions and controversies as cycling is – or what the sourdough equivalent of vehicular cycling or helmet wearing might be – but I’m hoping that all that soothing carbohydrate and delicious bread products is keeping them mellow because I don’t want to stumble into some horrible twitterspat over dutch ovens or kneading vs no-knead techniques.

2. It’s aliiiiiive. And it’s everywhere

I originally got the impression that the hardest thing about sourdough starter is keeping it alive. But it turns out Jimmy (Carter, the starter) is pretty vigorous for an old guy, and has already escaped from his container into the fridge at least once. The way the starter works, you keep making more of it too, and because the dough is sticky it gets everywhere (I keep looking down and realising that the respectable not-gardened-in trousers I thought I was wearing are now spattered with sourdough). Given that it’s all alive, I am starting to wonder if it’s basically taking over the house and possibly even the septic tank, and you really don’t want that rising up in the middle of the night. Some people have suggested composting any leftovers but I don’t want our army of compost daleks becoming sentient …

3. You cannae change the laws of physics

But what about the bread, you cry? Well the first loaf I baked followed a recipe that claimed it didn’t need to be proved in a basket, but would rise unsupported. Ha. Hahahaha. The result was a fine looking and very tasty discus, because sourdough bread dough takes forever to prove and even though it is rising while that happens, it is also spreading slooowly because it’s quite wet compared to normal bread dough.

first sourdough loaf

4. I’m a much shallower person than even I imagined

As a result of the whole laws-of-physics thing, I went back to basics for my next two loaves and (following the Bread Matters recipe) used a loaf tin to create a more loaf-shaped loaf. This worked – it was delicious, it made reasonable sized slices for making sandwiches and toasting, it could be sliced without bending the bread knife, but it looked a bit …

sourdough loaf from tin

Dwarf bread. 

Not so much rustic, as pretty urban, as if it had lost a fight in a dark alley (it was a bit of a struggle getting it out of the tin). What can I say? My instagram feed is full of gorgeous pictures of beautifully risen and marked loaves nestling in baskets lined with checked cloth, while mine got dubbed a brick and ‘dwarf bread’ by Twitter which, if you read your Terry Pratchett, is not a compliment.

So, following a recipe from another Twitter user, I sorted out an improvised proving basket from a serving dish and a tea towel (after 26 years of marriage it’s quite something to be able to finally use one of your wedding gifts).

loaf of bread proving

I gave it a nice long time to rise, failed to make any pretty patterns in the top, bunged it in a dutch oven, only burned myself a little bit trying to get the lid off half way through and bingo

Fourth sourdough loaf

I am ready for my closeup

5. Even so, it’s totally worth it.

So now the only problem is that I’ve got to keep it up because I don’t think we can go back to normal bread. My ambition now is to see just how long we can keep going without resorting to the back-up loaf of shop-bought bread that’s been sitting in the freezer since the beginning of the year. So far, I’ve been keeping up with demand (which appears to have doubled since I started this project) but given it’s a 24 hour lead time minimum, it takes a bit of planning

In fact, I now have to go and set off another Amy (which is what I’m calling the production sourdough, i.e. the offshoot you make the bread out of, rather than Jimmy the ancestral starter that lives in the fridge – this all makes perfect sense in my head) and maybe pick another recipe to see if I can hit my next goal: a loaf that actually remains oval rather than mysteriously going round while it’s in the oven. Oh, and mastering those pretty patterns on the top

What recipe do you use?

They Think it’s All Over …

January 22, 2018

We did think on Saturday night that we’d seen the worst of the snow. We’d even got out in the evening to see Bill Bailey performing in Bigtown’s ‘shack of whimsy’, albeit in a neighbour’s 4×4, our road had been more or less cleared, and there was only a puny yellow warning of snow from the Met Office (after about 5 amber warnings in a row you tend to get a bit blase). We were looking forward to life returning to something like normal, being able to get the car out of the drive, little things like that …

And then it started snowing again.

snowing again

And snowed, and snowed.

walking in the snow

And snowed.

gate in snow

Fortunately, that really was the end of it, and the promised thaw has finally begun although, like the snotty end stage of a cold, this is likely to take far longer and produce more liquid matter than you would really wish for.

As someone commented, we can’t really complain we haven’t had a winter this year – and it is all on balance good for the garden (although I did notice that the hare has nibbled the tops off all of my kale plants, which some might argue was a win win) – but I think we can say that we’ve had enough snow now, thank you all very much.

In other news, the sourdough project has flourished while I’ve been largely confined indoors, if anyone’s interested …

The Best Thing about this Snow …

January 19, 2018

still snowy

… is that we definitely know the hares are back. One picked its way down our path this morning at first light and settled in a little hollow it has made for itself above the pond. It’s not as chilled as past visiting hares have been – I suspect it knows it’s a bit more conspicuous than usual (it not being one of the mountain hares that goes white for the winter) so its ears keep swivelling around like a radar dish and it takes flight at the slightest movement from the house, leaving only a hare-shaped hole in the snow.

hollow in the snow

Place where hare was, sans hare. You’ll just have to use your imagination

Some clearing and ploughing from neighbours with way better toys than we have (our retired lawyer neighbour up the hill has not one but two diggers and relishes any opportunity to use them) means our road is somewhat passable; postal deliveries have been resumed and I was able to cycle almost all the way to and from our door, thanks to the magical ice tyres.

snow on the hills, green below

We walked in the woods today and our footprints from two days ago had been completely obliterated by the snow since then. Apart from a glorious bullfinch, looking even more gorgeous than usual against the snow, the only signs of life were the tracks of badger and deer, foxes and squirrels. There’s something a little strange about coming out of the woods, having waded through pristine foot-deep snow, to see the cars back up to speed on the road across the valley and the green of the fields reappearing down below us, while everything around us remains buried in snow.

single green field

(except this one field, mysteriously, which doesn’t seem to have any snow on it at all. What do you think the farmer has done to it? Extra potent slurry? Underturf heating to make it a luxury sheep spa destination)

Papershop Run, Viking Biking Style

January 18, 2018

As will possibly surprise nobody but myself, I didn’t make it to Glasgow today. Perhaps having someone from your very own coonsil on the Today Programme explaining why they’d effectively told everyone not to attempt to go anywhere at all overnight might have been the clue – that and the additional few inches of snow that meant we weren’t going to get the car out in time for me to catch the morning train – and even if we did, there was no guarantee that the other half would be able to get in again to meet the 10pm train back once the temperatures had dropped and the next yellow warning had rolled around.

BT track marks in snow

By mid morning, indeed, the only vehicle that had attempted to get up our hill was the BT van which had ignominiously ground to a halt half way up (‘it was stopping to look at the telegraph pole that did it’, according to the driver; I imagine it’s an occupational hazard) and then slid back down again. We could see that the main road was moving okay so, with the sun briefly out, and a newspaper to fetch, I kitted up the bike with the second spiked tyre and wheeled it down to the main road to give it a go.

Bike in the snow

Actually, once up and running it wasn’t too bad – slushy rather than icy, and I could probably have got away with ordinary tyres. I considered staying on the main road all the way down, but after a close-ish pass from a bin lorry, of all things, I decided to take my chances on the back roads, where not everyone had been so lucky.

lorry slid off road in snow

(The advantage of being on a bike is that when you are on your way back and the rescue lorry has arrived and is blocking the road and there are four men just standing around having a blether about how it all happened and what to do now, a bike can just slip through the gap and get past)

clouds and snow

Plus it was lovely to be out – and even lovelier to get back just as the next snow shower rolled in.

Snowed Under

January 17, 2018

It seems odd to recall that only two days ago, it was mild and sunny enough in the Borders for me to take my visiting Irish uncle out and get him thoroughly lost* on a Paperbike.

Uncle and paperbike

The next morning we woke to falling snow and and by the time I had returned home (via England, for reasons too complicated to go into, and Notso Bigtown to try out a local choir that seems open to new members who can’t necessarily, technically, sing all that well) the snow was falling and settling thickly enough to possibly merit the approximately 17,000 warning messages the Met Office App has has been sending to my phone.

snowy dawn

We woke to find that perhaps yesterday might have been better spent panic-buying supplies than gadding about and singing, but with a bit of wheelspinning the other half got the car out of the drive and went and emptied out what was left in Tesco. With him safely home again, a full fridge, and the path to the garage cleared and gritted, so we can get at our fuel supplies, we decided we weren’t going anywhere else today than a nice gentle walk between snow showers.

snowy track snowy woods snowy fields

The Met Office is predicting more of the same overnight, and I’d love nothing more than to hole up and make inroads on our emergency cheese supplies, but I have a couple of meetings in Glasgow instead, if we’re able to get out of our drive in the morning. The weather may be wintry, but spring – and peak cycle-campaigning season – is just around the corner.

speaking of which, fingers crossed the Weather Gods will either relent for this – or give us enough snow for it to be double the fun.

* fortunately, he is surgically attached to his iPhone so was able to navigate us a route home

Four and 20 Campaigners Came Down from Inverness…

January 13, 2018

… and found someone had left a load of excrement on their doorstep.

bags full of horse manure

Fortunately it was the well-rotted horse kind and I was expecting it. We’ve been trying to sort out a delivery of a friend’s horse poo for ages, somewhat hampered by the lack of a trailer, so before Christmas I gave her a load of empty feed sacks* and she filled them with the end result by way of a new year gift.

It’s lovely stuff, too.

manure in greenhouse beds

This afternoon I topped up one greenhouse bed with some of the contents and did a bit of garden pottering which has filled my head with things that need and could and should be done with it. I’ve still not quite got to grips with it all but now that the greenhouse is almost ready to go, plans are afoot.

Electric trike in Inverness

Big beast and little beast: the Brompton meets the Beast of Inverness

Inverness was fun, if a bit too much of a fleeting visit. Just time to try out the local GP’s electric trike, nicknamed the beast (she started off applying to get some bike racks installed at her practice and it seems to have escalated from there. It’s easily done), meet some local campaigners, rummage through Leakey’s book stocks, and hatch plans for a proper return trip one of these days.

* Top tip if you live in a rural community – don’t ask your local freecycle list for empty feed sacks. You will end up beating them off with a stick.

101 Uses for a Brompton: Coffee-Cup Holder

January 11, 2018

For a long time I have regretted that trips with my Brompton by train – requiring as they do two hands to lug both Brompton and Brompton basket up and down stairs – have precluded being able to drink coffee on the train, because obviously I can’t drink train coffee, and neither can I buy a cup of coffee at the station to take with me on the train.

But now – thanks partly to Blue Planet and the current tide of anti-plastic feeling – things have got better. Not (yet) for the poor baby albatrosses, but at least for me because I got a giveaway keep cup at the end of last year, and also you can now ask for your coffee in it without the embarassment of being That Person.

So behold, a Brompton with on-board coffee.

Brompton basket with coffee cup

So excited was I by this new development that I totally forgot to pick up any sugar so my enjoyment of the coffee wasn’t exactly unalloyed. Still, the technology worked and a world of productive train journeys has opened up ahead of me

Anyway, here I am in Inverness allegedly for cycle campaigning reasons but possibly also because I wanted to visit Leakey’s Bookshop (and test my new coffee carrying technology, obviously). Unfortunately, for reasons which really are too humiliating* to go into, I shall be visiting with almost no cash and no means to get hold of it until I get home.

This might actually be for the best.

* Put it this way – don’t attempt to efficiently sign your new debit card and cut up and get rid of your old one while you’re very jetlagged after 24 hours of travelling when the new debit card looks very like the old debit card. Just saying.