Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

October 28, 2018

Afternoon sunshine

As I ran through the unusually detailed pre-ride briefing for our Halloween ride this afternoon, it did occur to me to wonder why we (I) decided that the best route for an after-dark ride would be one that involved a mad, twisting, endless descent on frankly pretty crappy surfaces, when something flatter would probably be a whole lot safer. I *think* the original logic was that it was a good spot for bats and it’s away from the lights of Bigtown, so a chance to enjoy the stars. Either way, after three years, it doesn’t matter because it is rapidly becoming the traditional start to our winter ride programme and – the odd safety-related qualm aside, I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

cyclists in the dusk

There’s just something about riding in the fading light, with the tail lights of your companions (hey, I’ve been doing a lot of digging and lifting over the last few days, and someone needs to be at the back … besides, I was carrying approximately a kilo of gingerbread as a warming mid-ride treat) twinkling ahead of you like a string of animated fairy lights.

bike lights in the dark

And there’s also something else about navigating that mad, twisting, endless descent with no sense of where you are or how far down you’ve got – just keeping going round each bend, and concentrating on keeping the bike rubber side down.

And then there’s the stars, which were fully out by the time we were on our way home, and just filled the dark sky, a sight which never fails to amaze (best not to look up at them for too long though – the potholes on the road back were something else again, indeed I may need to check my wheels tomorrow to see if they’re still round).

Perhaps best of all is the fact that eight bikes with serious lights on them on a dark country road must look like an alien landing to anyone not expecting them. At least that might explain why the tiny handful of drivers we encountered mostly came to a complete stop to let us pass.

So it was another successful outing, cementing its place in local cycling tradition, and I can only apologise to future ride leaders for foisting the mad venture on them in perpetuity.

wheel shadows in the dark

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Snail’s Pace

October 26, 2018

With an unexpectedly quiet couple of days recently, I’ve been getting on with my latest garden project – digging out the bed next to the veg patch so I can plant rhubarb and also a few more ornamental plants (or at least something more ornamental than the tussocky grass, ladies’ mantle and pink Spanish bluebells that it has been harbouring).

bed being dug

Obviously, when the planets align and I finally have gardening to be done, time in which to do it, and reasonable gardening weather, this can mean only one thing: getting distracted by an interesting side project. In this case, it was a call out for stripey snails on the so-much-more-than-a-cycling forum from which I seem to get most of my gardening information these days. As it happened, the bed I was digging out had a fair few of these stripey snails (technically banded snails) and so I offered to photograph the ones I found so that they could be assessed for stripeyness and colour, as apparently they are an interesting example of genetic variability and evolution in action. Normally, any snails I found during the course of gardening get flying lessons into the neighbouring field, but instead I have been gathering them up, photographing them (they are indeed quite variable and rather beautifully so) and then letting them wander off back into the undergrowth (as it seemed a bit off to then hurl them over the fence), a decision I may later come to regret.

gathered snails

Unfortunately for the original poster, it turns out that a good way to reduce the snail population in your garden is to offer to collect them in the interests of science, as I only managed to find 10 in total, half the number needed for a proper sample. However, I have learned something about snail genetics and have a newfound appreciation for Cepaea nemoralis – and I suspect the local thrushes also had a profitable afternoon.

piles of bluebell bulbs

Side trips into snail portraiture aside, I did also manage to make some progress on the main project, if by ‘progress’ you mean ‘digging out a metric tonne of bluebell bulbs’. I don’t kid myself I’ve done anything but thin out (or possibly reinvigorate) the actual population, but we’ll have to wait until spring to find out. The next step will be adding compost and manure, covering the bed over for winter, and then I get the fun of filling it with plants come spring. Ideally, snail resistant ones …


Pedal, Bus and Train on Parliament

October 24, 2018

One of the unexpected side effects of being a leading* cycle campaigner is that you get invitations out of the blue to attend the Scottish Parliament for a round table discussion on the Transport bill. I wasn’t sure entirely what this entailed, although the invitation pretty much had me at “light buffet beforehand”, but I’ll never turn down an opportunity to bend important people’s ears about cycling, however tangentially. So today saw me getting into my one remaining respectable outfit, dusting off the saddle of my Brompton, setting off down the hill, noticing the front tyre was rather flat, pedalling furiously back up the hill, retrieving my bike pump, filling the tyre, and setting off again for the bus stop and an exemplarily multi-modal trip to Edinburgh.

Brompton on Parliament

I think the Brompton was a little put out to discover that, one day of the year aside, it has to share the route to Parliament with something other than thousands of bikes, but we got there safely enough, and more to the point it was still there safely waiting for me when I came out again having bent as many ears as I could get hold of. However, if it spent the intervening time dreaming of its next visit in April, I have news for it …

#POP2018 (5 of 230)

For, in an exciting development, I can announce that next year, it – and thousands of its colleagues – will not, for once, be pedalling on Parliament. Instead, we’re taking POP local, hopefully right around Scotland, with simultaneous events that take the battle to the local authorities. Theoretically, this is a genius way to spread the load, and widen the message, and bring cycling to every corner of Scotland. In practice, I suspect it will also mean a cubing of the complexity of actually organising it, so watch this space in April when I fully intend to be a nervous wreck…

If nothing else, it will be a chance to get out around Scotland in search of enough fellow nutters to get this mad scheme off the ground. So, although it might not be pedalling on Parliament for a wee while, the Brompton will not be gathering too much dust.

*Although I note that my little sister has just won another award and is ahead of me on points


Harvest Festival

October 20, 2018

The other half has been busy harvesting in the greenhouse …

jalapeno chillies

He’s also been busy with a needle and thread, making these jalapenos into a ristra. Handily, we only just used the last of our last dried jalapenos a few weeks ago. Each snipped-off chilli left a stem behind, like a tally of spicy meals. I was quite sad to see it go so we’re giving this one a little helping hand by hanging it next to the woodburner, in the absence of the Rayburn.

chilli ristra

Anyway, what with the drying walnuts (how long do walnuts take to dry, anyone?), our hearth now looks as if we’re ready for Santa, assuming Santa is up for a little Mexican cuisine alongside the more traditional offerings.

woodburner with drying chillies

The jalapenos were actually mostly not that hot, although every so often you’d get a zinger. I’d got into the habit of chewing on a seed whenever I chopped one up, to gauge whether or not to add the seeds to whatever I was cooking. But the Fresno chillies are another matter as I discovered when I tried the same trick and almost had to dunk my head in the water butt. There’s lots of those too …

Fresno chillies

Fresno chillies. Do not muddle up with jalapenos

And, after a slow start, the tomatillos are going strong. Not so strong as the first year we grew them, when I ended up leaving bags of them on people’s doorsteps, but strong enough. They’re pretty tasty and tangy but not the most versatile of ingredients – it’s no coincidence that when you start to google tomatillo recipes, the fourth suggestion is ‘tomatillo recipes not salsa’ (the first hit is a recipe for salsa…)

tomatillos in fridge drawer

Time to make some salsa verde, then.


Many Flies on Me

October 17, 2018

We’ve had good luck this summer with windowsill herbs in pots – some grown from seed, others rescued battery supermarket herb pots (top tip if you buy those herbs in pots – they’re always massively overcrowded so if you take out whole plants initially until the pot is more sensibly spaced out, the remaining plants should last the whole season). However, I noticed this morning that they had become somewhat infested with aphids so I stuck them all outside in a kill-or-cure measure.

A few hours later, I noticed that the plants were now buzzing with life – not bees, but flies, all apparently feasting on the honeydew* exuded by the aphids. I’d noticed the same flies flocking all over the flowering ivy and a spot of googling (I asked Twitter but it turns out that Twitter is better at ladybirds and fungi than flies) and this amazingly comprehensive site suggests it’s the charmingly named yellow dung fly.  Apparently they eat insects as well as nectar, when they’re not hanging out in cow pats, so hopefully they will deal with the aphids if the cold night doesn’t get to the basil first. I’d never heard of these creatures, which is a little odd considering they’re one of our commonest flies, but then again we’re all about the charismatic mega- and micro fauna round here, and flies just don’t have the same cachet (and besides, there’s zillions of them).

yellow dung fly

As an aside, how amazing is it that I could take this photo with the camera in my phone? We take for granted just how good the technology is these days … Also it helps when you work out how to turn the macro setting on.

Just in case the flies don’t do the job we also recruited a couple of ladybirds to the cause (I had originally picked a couple up in the woods, but it turns out that sluggish ladybirds wake up pretty quickly if you warm them up by holding them in your hands and that it is quite difficult to keep a lively ladybird trapped in your hands if you’re of a ticklish disposition. Fortunately there were more nearer to hand).

ladybird

Given all we read about the countryside becoming a ‘green desert’, I suppose it’s good to know that even in October our garden is still teeming with invertebrate life, even if they’re rather common and unglamourous flies, not to mention aphids. Good news for the birds and the other wildlife anyway, even if it ends up being curtains for the basil.

*I was slightly disturbed to learn that forest honey is in fact made from aphid honeydew rather than nectar, although I don’t really know why that should make it so much less appetising than the regular stuff.


Squeaky Wheel

October 15, 2018

So, one of my aspirations for this year was to get better at bike maintenance, which – unlike my other aspiration of regularly baking sourdough bread which is going swimmingly – has not progressed markedly beyond some vague and, as it turned out, unfulfilled plans to get some practice at taking my Marathon Pluses on and off my wheels. Today though, which was as fine and still and sunny a day as anyone could hope for in October, I took advantage of a gap in the work schedule and the nice weather to at least clean and re-oil my chain prior to riding down to fetch the paper.* This, I hoped, would sort out the intermittent squeak which had developed when I was pedalling with any sort of determination, and hopefully also the fact that the last time I’ve been out with the other half I’ve been badly dropped on all the hills.

Oiling done, I set off with the the light heart of one who has done a necessary chore and, more importantly Not Ignored a New Noise and who will shortly be enjoying the silkiness of a smoothly running drivetrain on her bike. Whereupon the bike started squeaking again, and now not just when pedalling hard. By the time I’d got to the bottom of the hill, it was now squeaking more or less all the time, so I got off and investigated a bit more thoroughly. Front wheel spinning fine and silently, back wheel spinning fine and silently, brakes clear of the rims, no sticks (or kittens) stuck in any of the spokes. Weird. Back on the bike, squeaking resumes. Eventually, I look again at my back wheel and discover that it is in fact skewiff and almost resting against the chain guard. With the bike unloaded, the wheel was spinning fine, but once I was on it and pedalling it was pressing against the frame, hence the squeaking. This, in retrospect, might go some way to explain my speed wobble the other day, which is also a little reassuring.

Now this is an easy problem to fix, one even I can do – but that’s when I also discovered that I have lost the allen key I need to loosen the wheel and reseat it. After a brief tussle between laziness (top tip: when your bike develops a New Noise, investigate at the top of the descent not the bottom) and common sense (the only thing worse than a New Noise is a Worsening New Noise), I have a stern word with myself and turn around and pedal, squeakily, back up the hill, raid the other half’s allen key collection and straighten the wheel.

sunshine in October

Still – there were worse days to have to add an extra 3 miles or so onto your ride down for the paper. And, in related news, I have discovered that a bike gets one hell of a lot easier to pedal when its back wheel is on straight. More findings from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious as they emerge.

sunny road

* and, er, lunch, as the sourdough bread baking schedule had broken down somewhat after a weekend away in Duns.


A Short Walk in a Small Wood

October 10, 2018

Sod’s law dictates that today’s uncannily fine and warm weather would come when I was labouring under both a work deadline AND a stinking cold, so I was largely confined to sitting in the sunniest part of the house, labouring over the laptop. But days like this are rare enough – and even rarer in October – so after lunch, when I can never really get anything sensible done anyway, I ventured out for a walk in the woods.

half obscured path in woods

Ordinarily, if I need a walk in the company of trees, I head up to where our road ends in a forestry track, but I have been reading the Hidden Life of Trees and I felt the need for something a little less regimented than a forestry plantation.

The other wood is not really a forest, just a scrap of wooded valley too steep and marshy to be of any real use which has been allowed to just get on with it.

steep valley sides

There’s only one path through it, and that’s one that increasingly only makes sense to badgers, so it’s only an out-and-back walk and a bit of a scramble in places. But I like how the fallen trees are just left to fend for themselves.

tilted birch tree

Or become homes for other things.

birch stump with hole

And the only real sign of man’s hand is this mysterious shed with its lucky horseshoe.

mystery shed

It’s not a long walk, and you never quite escape the sound of the road, but having read the book and realised just how much is going on in the apparently placid world of trees (you will never look at a beech tree in quite the same way again) it’s refreshing to be in a place, however small, which feels as if it’s there for itself, not for us. beech in the wood

Given what we’re doing to our poor planet, we need more places like this in the world.