Booting Up

December 30, 2018

A week in proximity to the Mournes (and also in a house that was walking distance to a town centre) has reminded me how little real walking I do generally, whether of the yomping up hills variety, or the popping out to the shops kind. It’s also reminded me that I used to quite like yomping up hills (and, indeed, popping out to the shops), but being fit on the bike doesn’t necessarily translate into easy hillwalking, especially on uneven surfaces.

So now that we’re home, and with a nice mild December day in prospect, we decided to go for a walk.

Two walks, actually – we cut our first coastal one short because lunch was calling. Having found ourselves a cafe of the ‘all day breakfast’ variety (often the best kind) we tried an inland one as well.

All in all, a very pleasant outing and a nice change. I’m a bit ambivalent about the whole idea of going for a drive in order to go for a walk, but we’re rather short of options around here otherwise. There are a few short walks we can do out of our front door, but anything longer would require walking along the B road, an even less appetising prospect than cycling along it. Clearly further investigation is needed to find some local accessible hills and get more walking in in 2019.

Let the Record Show …

December 29, 2018

…That I have successfully patched the slow puncture on my bike – something that involved removing and replacing a fairly new Marathon Plus tyre (and by ‘fairly new’ I mean ‘replaced this year’ – I like to get my money’s worth out of a bike component). Not only that but I did it with a minimum of swearing, sighing and looking around for A Man To Help. In fact, the tyre was actually the easy part (I may have been watching a few YouTube videos on the subject) – the difficulty came in getting the back wheel back into the dropouts and (embarrassingly) trying to pump the wretched thing up again afterwards. The other half did wander past at that point, heard me muttering something about why presta valves are even allowed to exist,* and beat a tactical retreat. The whole thing still took an hour, but that did include the whole ritual of waiting for the glue to get almost dry on the patch and washing approximately half a kilo of mud out of my mudguard.

Anyway, it doesn’t exactly count as ‘getting the hang of bike maintenance’ in 2018 but it has at least convinced me that I’m not going backwards. Next step – the unassisted roadside repair. Hopefully not any time soon though …

* despite explicit instructions to the bike shop to the contrary, I still have one wheel with a schraeder valve and one wheel with a presta valve although someone has now shown me how to turn my bike pump inside out so it can handle both kinds. I’m still unconvinced that whatever benefits there are to a presta valve are worth their tendency to just dump all the air out of the tyre in an instant if you look at them funny while detaching the pump. But no doubt there’s a YouTube video that will enlighten me…

Bordering on the Ridiculous

December 22, 2018

So, we’ve safely arrived in Newcastle (County Down) for Christmas, which means I’m statutorily obliged to quote Percy French.

mourn mountains

“Where the Mountains o’ Mourne sweep down to the sea”

But before we settle into our normal programme of quality control of the cafes and ice cream parlours (it is indeed December, and your point is? Morelli’s is still open), we first paid a lightning visit to some of my Dublin relatives. We thought we’d also take the opportunity on the way back to make the acquaintance in real life of Twitter celebrity, The Irish Border.

This is easier said than done. Clearly too busy tweeting to be actually present on the ground, we crossed where it should have been three times in less than a mile, with no sign of it on the ground.

It’s one thing to talk about a ‘frictionless border’ in the abstract. It’s another to realise that you can come off the dual carriageway on a slip road and cross an international border, only to recross it when coming off the roundabout – and cross it again up the road with no clue that you have done so beyond an unexpected cluster of fireworks sellers and petrol stations suggesting there might be some arbitrage opportunities to be exploited somewhere not entirely clear where in the vicinity.

I’d hoped to get a photo of the change, but we blinked and missed it, so this was the best I could do. Seriously, they make more fuss of the border between England and Scotland.

welcome to Newry, Mourne and Down

I was going to make some solemn point about the amazing changes that have taken place since the Good Friday agreement and the dangers of a return to check points and so on, but having seen what it’s currently like on the ground, all I can say is that if we think we can put a functioning border of any description between the Republic and the North, then we’re deluding ourselves. No wonder our Dublin relatives can’t seem to tear their eyes away from the impending disaster.

What an almighty cockup this all is. And a Merry Christmas to you all …


December 19, 2018

We’re heading off to Northern Ireland tomorrow for our Christmas sunshine break (from the perspective of those of us who live in Southwest Scotland) so this week I baked what will probably be my last sourdough loaf of 2018 (I did for one mad moment consider taking Jimmy-the-starter on holiday with us, but then I remembered how much I love the wheaten loaf we can buy at the baker there and I came to my senses).

sourdough loaf

This marks an unusually successful new year’s resolution for me – I thought I’d posted more regularly about my sourdough adventures but actually, even by the low standards of this blog, after I’d got the hang of it there was genuinely nothing interesting to say about it. I could probably have made life a bit more complicated for myself by experimenting more but once I found a recipe that worked, I didn’t really want to complicate things.

Instead I’ve just got on and have been baking a loaf of bread approximately every five or six days for the whole year, holidays excepted – we’ve only had to buy two loaves at the supermarket since the project started and that was only because we’d been away – the only real complication in baking sourdough comes from the lead time involved. I did a little calculating and – allowing for the cost of the flour and the electricity for the oven – we’ve saved somewhere between £20 and £45 (depending on the type of bread we would otherwise have bought) as a result. This is definitely a habit I will be maintaining and, who knows, I might even get a bit experimental in 2019.

So that leaves my other resolution, which was to get better at bike maintenance. To be honest – despite one or two minor successes – hasn’t gone so well. Indeed, I have to confess that a couple of weekends ago, when I got a puncture in town, I just took the bike to a shop and paid to get a new inner tube fitted. I go back and forth on this one. While I can perfectly well rationalise not needing to be handy with my bike, it’s still slightly annoying that I have taken to doing the stereotypically female thing* like a duck to water whereas it’s clear I’m never going to subvert expectations and become an excellent bike mechanic.

Having thought about it a bit more, though, I’ve decided that – while I have no ambition to learn how to do anything complicate – it’s still a bit feeble not to be able to do the absolute basics and, specifically, to view the prospect of fixing a puncture with dread. Like it or lump it, Bastard Big Thorns scatter the land around here, so one day I’m going to have to deal with it on my own, and I should be prepared. And besides – that expensively fitted inner tube I got last week? It’s developed a slow puncture.

old blackthorn bush

When hedges like these line your road, punctures are only a matter of time

* although if my twitter feed is anything to go by, making sourdough (or at least tweeting about it) is a largely male pursuit.

Today’s Cycling Adventures in Full

December 18, 2018

– Wake periodically in the night to the sound of the wind rattling the house

– Rise in the morning to the sound of the rain now blattering against the windows. Check weather forecast repeatedly to see if possibly it is going to relent on the double dot rain and gusting wind. It doesn’t.

– Check phone periodically for any text cancelling the thing I really need to be at today, or end up letting people down. None arrives.

– At the appointed hour, review my rain protection. Don actually waterproof jacket. Don not-actually waterproof trousers. Round up all my gloves – a pair to get soaked on the way there and a pair to get soaked on the way back. Cram hat on head. Zip jacket up to chin.

– Step over developing puddle where the wind has squeezed the water under the door frame and go outside.

– Almost lose the battle of wills between me and the wind and the garage door, but prevail. Step cautiously into the garage in case the wind decides to make it ‘best of three’. Wheel out bike.

– Decide bike will not be standing up in this weather, kickstand or no, and lay it pre-emptively on its side.

– Realise bike has a slow puncture. Get out track stand and pump up tyre.

– Pick up track stand from where the wind has blown it over.

– Retrieve hat and gloves from where the wind has deposited them.

– Do battle with the garage door again.

– Set off into the teeth of the wind. Get buffeted into the hedge about 100 yards from our house.

– Contemplate the B-road ahead.

– Turn around and get blown back up the hill, with another near side trip into the ditch for good measure.

– Text and cancel my appointment.

I can’t decide if I’m getting sensible, or cowardly in my old age…

Shouldering On

December 14, 2018

With my half century approaching I’ve not really suffered any of the real problems of age – but ever since I turned 40 and realised my warranty had effectively expired, the ageing process has been an accumulation of small inconveniences and indignities (the latter usually visited by some dangerously young-looking health professional or other pointing out that x is only to be expected at one’s advancing age). I remained braced for the menopause, and resigned to the possibility of reading glasses, but what I wasn’t expecting was to have a lifetime’s habit cruelly snatched away from me.

Not cycling (it remains my chief hope for holding back time), but reading in bed. Ever since I can remember, I have read my books in bed while lying on my side. This remains the last thing I do every night, even if only for a page or two, curled up under the duvet and reading until the words stop making sense, before falling asleep. Sadly no more. For I have developed what Dr. Google has diagnosed as a rotator cuff injury (so much more impressive sounding than a sore shoulder). Not only can I not read comfortably in bed, I now can’t sleep comfortably either and – most distressing of all – it’s painful to reach out for my cup of coffee from the coffee table when lounging on the sofa.

Obviously the response to ‘Doctor it hurts when I do this’ is to stop doing it, so I’ve had to try various tactics – reading on the other side (but then my bedside light is in the wrong place and I’d probably only end up knackering the other one too), reading sitting up in bed (wrong), reading lying flat with my book above my head (wronger than wrong), and (inevitably) hoping it’s got better and going back to reading on my right side (ouch, but oh it just feels so natural). I’ve also discovered that when I wake up at four am and need to go back to sleep before I start systematically visiting all my anxieties in turn to keep them all fresh, my body’s signal to the brain that it’s time to go back to sleep is to turn onto my right side. So I’m getting up either in pain or unrefreshed, or a combination of both, and it’s making me grumpy.

More to the point, it’s got so that I no longer really look forward to going to bed with a book which, as a former boarding school pupil, has always been one of my chief pleasures in life (I discovered fairly quickly that going to bed early was the best way to get undisturbed reading time alone, something it had never occurred to them to ban until then). A quick search of the internet suggests that the answer may be better pillows and/or a replacement mattress (this mainly according to sites that sell mattresses). It also suggests that the world of pillows has moved on from just being a bag stuffed with feathers (I don’t know about you, but I’ve read enough fairy tales to be wary of sleeping on anything that bills itself as being made of ‘memory foam’). This all feels a bit complicated because you can pay anything from £15 to £100 for a pillow and no guarantee that it will do any good.

So, loyal readers – any recommendations as to pillows for the confirmed side sleeper? Or is this just one of the many downward steps on the road to dereliction?


December 12, 2018

Waking to news of developing political chaos, somehow today seemed like a good day to sort out the stored potatoes (some of which have already developed ambitions to start growing), and do a bit of tidying up of the rainbow chard bed.

rainbow chard bed

I have to say, the chard has been a bit of a revelation this year – while it isn’t exactly my favourite vegetable, it’s proved more versatile than I thought and more to the point, it’s just gone on and on and on, providing at least one meal a week and proving a useful source of extra greens (and yellows and pinks and reds and oranges) for throwing into stir fries and other dishes.

chard in basket

Clearing out some of the bolted plants and the dead leaves I discovered that the mice have apparently discovered it too, so some of the roots at the base have been nibbled away, so it’s possible its days are numbered. Fortunately the kale has recovered from the caterpillar onslaught and is ready to take over the green leafy vegetable heavy lifting.

kale cavolo nero

Realistically, of course, none of this will help come March 29th, if we do end up with a chaotic Brexit. As any gardener could have told the government, it’s the worst possible time of year to be inadvertently blockading your own country of imports of perishable food. Our potatoes will have long started sprouting and any remaining leeks, chard and beetroot bolted, although we may well still have some kale if the winter isn’t too harsh and the hares too hungry. No, the real purpose was to stockpile a little sanity and perspective, something that I suspect will be in even shorter supply than fresh vegetables in the coming months. Sometimes you just need to let the politicians get on with it, and go outside and get your hands dirty with a bit of honest gardening toil.

That, presumably, will still be an option on March 30th next year. Whatever the politicians decide.

Come Back Rita, All is Forgiven

December 8, 2018

I think I write a variant of this post every time I’m forced onto two feet instead of two wheels for extended periods around Bigtown and realise that it’s often actually worse for the poor beleaguered pedestrian than it is for us cyclists who can at least pretend we’re cars. Still, it’s my blog and I can repeat myself if I want to. And the subject has been on my mind for the past few days, partly because I’ve been taking part in a mostly pedestrian street audit, albeit armed with the biggest, baddest trike in Bigtown, and paying closer than usual attention to the all the things that make walking feel like a third-class means of transport: the caged in crossings and railings, the cracked pavements, and the endless wait for the green man.

bike at the butchers

It’s also been on my mind since I used this old photo last week to illustrate something for the Bigtown Cycle Campaign and realised I could tell it was taken a good 4 years ago (and not just because it was two panniers ago) – because the street in the photo shows people freely strolling down the street, happily checking out the nice independent small shops. Parking in Bigtown has always been a bit of a freestyle affair but ever since people have taken on board the fact that there really are no parking wardens in the entire county a small but growing minority of drivers have taken to effectively parking wherever they sodding well like. The street in the photo is still, officially pedestrianised, but a photo of it taken from the same spot today would basically show a linear car park. It’s a change that’s crept up on us so gradually that we’ve barely noticed what we’ve lost.

So on Thursday, in town without my bike for once, as an experiment, I tried just walking down the same street on Thursday as if it was the genuinely pedestrianised street it used to be. I think I got about two thirds of the way down it before the driver behind me couldn’t stand it any more and hooted their horn, to let me know that there was someone in a more important means of transport behind me, someone I must clearly not have noticed as I would otherwise have got out of their way. Confirmation, if confirmation were needed that the street has been reconquered by cars, all in the name of the God of Parking.

We’ve started trying to fight back – but I think it’s going to take more than the odd pop-up park. Traffic Wardens may once have been the most reviled officials in Christendom, but conversations I’ve had around town in the past week or so suggest they’re starting to be missed. There are complicated legal reasons* why the Coonsil can’t just bring back traffic wardens, but I do occasionally fantasise about the day when they finally do.  And as they turn the corner into the Vennel with their little notebooks in their hands (or whatever the modern traffic warden uses these days), their eyes lighting up at the rich pickings before them, I can only hope I’ll be there to witness the carnage that ensues…

* Anyone who wants an explanation, touching on decriminalised versus criminal parking enforcement and the implications of current Transport Bill going through the Scottish Parliament – feel free to ask in the comments because, sadly, I know …

Safe Mode

December 4, 2018

Hmm, what was that I was saying about December sunshine? Things were looking a bit less inviting for cycling this morning, especially for someone who hasn’t yet put her magical ice tyres on the bike …

frosty start

I’d hoped the overnight frost would have been burned off by the forecast sunshine by the time I needed to set off for Bigtown, but instead we got fog, which was barely thinning by mid morning – and once down in the valley, it was thicker than ever.

foggy road

As cyclists we get lots of safety advice, much of it unhelpful, but there’s one thing I don’t see repeated anything like enough – for cyclists and drivers alike – and that’s to allow enough time, especially when conditions are challenging.

fog and sunshine

I know myself that when I’m in a hurry, that’s when I’m going to take those little extra chances which are normally fine, but occasionally end up with an altercation (or worse) with an equally impatient driver. Being in a rush also makes us less likely to be empathetic (there’s even some ingenious research I read with trainee priests that showed they were less likely to stop and help someone if they were in a hurry to get somewhere, even if the thing they were in a hurry to go and do was to preach a sermon on the Good Samaritan) which doesn’t help on the roads much either.

river and fog

So today, I made sure I’d left myself loads of time – to get off and walk if I needed to if the back roads were icy. Not perhaps as satisfying as steel spikes on your tyres … but just as important when it comes to keeping safe.

frost and trees

And if it turns out the roads weren’t too bad after all? Then there’s all the more time to stop and take photos …

temperature inversion

Pencils Down, Please

December 3, 2018

November’s been hard work this year, what with a bit too much travelling and general stuff going on. On top of that the weather has been distinctly Novemberish, which isn’t surprising, I suppose, but it doesn’t exactly help.

december shadows

December, on the other hand, will hopefully be a bit more sane. As someone who’s perfectly happy to let the festive season pass her by, there’s actually something quite restful about December. At this point in the year, I know I’m not now going to get everything I’d hoped to done, so there’s no point killing myself trying. Nobody plans meetings in December, at least not after the first week. And you’re allowed to pretend to be too busy to go to anything anyway. All this means that I have nothing – absolutely nothing – planned for this weekend (or any other weekend this year). This is the first time I’ve been able to say this since early October. No doubt I’ll still end up being too busy but at least it will be nobody’s fault but my own.

december shadow

All of this would be much nicer if it happened in the middle of summer, but hey ho. At least today, when the sun put in an appearance, I was able to get out for an hour or so to enjoy it. And at this time of the year, that’s a bonus in itself.