Winter Ready

January 30, 2019

This was the scene that greeted me as I stepped out this morning – and with a meeting to go to, there was no question, it was time to get the ice tyres on the bike again.

ice and snow on road

Despite my love-hate relationship with bike maintenance and my general inability to do anything bike-related quickly (and that includes riding the thing), I did have the weird sensation this morning of actually feeling as if I knew what I was doing. Not only did I efficiently take my tools out of my saddle bag before I’d turned the bike over (top tip!) and remember where I’d put them down, get the wheels on and off with a minimum of fuss, remember to check they were centred and running freely before tightening the bolts, and smoothly adjust the brake pads, but I also took the opportunity to clean and oil the chain and give the bolt on my Brooks a turn or two while I was at it (although I’m still not 100% sure I’m turning it in the right direction because nowhere does it say which way you need to be facing when you decide if you’re turning it clockwise or not). This sensation even survived the discovery that I’d efficiently put the front wheel on the wrong way round, despite having a 50% chance of getting it right AND carefully comparing it with the back wheel before doing so. Indeed, such are my spatial skills, this might actually have reduced my chance of getting it right than if I had left it to chance.

winter ready bike

Suited and booted

This strange sensation lasted approximately 10 minutes, whereupon I suddenly couldn’t turn a pedal and my first thought was ‘oh what have I done to it NOW?’ Fortunately this turned out to be the chain getting snagged on the bolt of my rack because the cogs at the back are slightly closer to the chainstay – a problem, but not actually one of my causing. It means I may be down to just four gears but the two I can’t use are the top ones, so it’s survivable until the current icy weather eases and I can go back to my normal wheels.

sun through winter trees

Meanwhile, I’ll just carry on enjoying the sparkly weather and the all but deserted roads and the unaccustomed feeling of mechanical semi competence. We have to take our satisfactions where we find them, these days.

frost and fog ahead

Straight Talking

January 29, 2019

So, I’ve finally taken my shoulder to the physio and this afternoon – after she’d mildly electrocuted me and taped me up – the conversation came round to my posture. Having been raised by a physio I know all about the importance of sitting up straight and not hanging on the small muscles of my back, at least in theory. But in practice I have terrible posture, especially when I’m on my laptop, which is most of the time (and it’s even worse when I’m peering at my phone over the top of my glasses). So I cycled back home full of good intentions to sit properly at my desk, use a separate screen, and keep my shoulders back and my head up and a nice well-supported back.

Probably what the physio didn’t have in mind was that I should get home and discover that a tweet of mine had gotten a bit more attention than usual and I had several dozen replies to respond to, all of which garnered more replies and retweets and likes, and it was all very gratifying except that it meant I ended up spending the next hour hunched over my phone having a lively good-humoured multi-way conversation – yes really, on Twitter – about women in cycling. Because it turns out lots of women and not a few men have plenty of trenchant, funny and pertinent things to say about why women don’t cycle which has very little to do with lack of confidence and everything to do with the very real desire not to end up squashed under the wheels of a lorry. And while some folk have (civilly) disagreed, and a few have just blatantly missed the point, mostly what it’s done has introduced me to a whole load of opinionated and articulate cycling women on Twitter (and also kept me from scrolling through the Brexit – Trump – Arguing with Clueless Drivers carcrash that is my usual Twitter timeline).

So, while none of this is likely to have done my shoulder any good, it has done my morale a world of good and I’ll just have to remember to sit up straight* tomorrow in penance. And now that I’ve found a Twitter army of like-minded women to join forces with I feel that nothing can stop us now until we’ve built a New Holland for cycling in this country, and then gone on to dismantle the patriarchy by way of dessert.

* In truth, the best posture I’ve ever had was when I tried out a proper Dutch bike, which more or less forces you to sit like a retired ballerina with excellent self-esteem. Perhaps … N+1?

Blown clean away

January 27, 2019

‘This’, I thought, as I cycled down the hill to Bigtown this morning to lead the latest Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign ride, ‘is exactly what I need right now after yesterday’ – ‘this’ being a bright if blowy winter morning, and ‘yesterday’ being an endurance test of a day spent travelling on a train, bus, two flights and a two hour drive back from Edinburgh Airport, getting in at half past one in the morning. There’s nothing like a good cycle ride to blow away the cobwebs after too much* time spent sitting in airports, especially when it involves a nice bunch of people who understand the importance of riding at the speed of chat, and a bonus visit to the only place Robert Burns drank in that wasn’t a pub.

Brow well sign

This sign never fails to amuse me

And, indeed, if I wanted the cobwebs blown away, the day outdid itself. We knew as we headed out that it was going to be a bit of a slog on the way back, if only because we were bowling along without pedalling on an epic tailwind. There was some wild talk of the wind dropping a bit (if anything it got stronger) or even changing direction (if any cyclist in the history of ever has ever experienced a tailwind on the way out changing into a tailwind on the way home, I’d love to hear from them because in my experience you’d be more likely to experience a unicorn turning up to help you fix a puncture) but we knew in our heart of hearts that this was no more than talk.

bikes at Brow Well

We took our photos, were underwhelmed by this important local slice of history, and then there was nothing for it but to turn and face the wind and slog it home. Riding in company as far as Bigtown did at least offer a bit of shelter, and I had a companion for the first five miles back home again, but as I turned to tackle the hill, I was on my own and pretty much dead into the wind for the last mile and a half.

Reader, I made it. It hasn’t done much to help me learn to love headwinds, and nor was it exactly what my dodgy shoulder had in mind for ride home, but at least I can say that if there were any cobwebs, metaphorical or otherwise, lurking about my person, they are now thoroughly gone.

* anything longer than 20 minutes, in my opinion.

Home. And Away

January 22, 2019

I’m back from London after far too many social engagements for someone of my normally retiring habits. I’d normally be looking forward to a restful few days to recover (and a chance to catch up with the blog) but this is only a brief pit stop to pick up clean pants and our funeral clothes before flying off to France to say goodbye properly to my brother in law.


Normal service will resume next week.

Dirty Ol’ City

January 18, 2019

Ah yes, you know you’re in London when – in among the normal notices about standing well clear of the doors and taking care when exiting the train – you hear the following announcement

‘Please don’t urinate in the passages. Will men stop urinating in the passages. Will the man in the passage between platforms 3 and 4 please stop urinating in it.’

They say Londoners wouldn’t turn their heads to look at someone even if their hair was on fire, but I can assure you that the man who finally emerged from the passageway between platforms 3 and 4 had our full attention.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should make the effort to get back to my native city more often than once a year. This wasn’t one of those occasions.

In the Midst of Life …

January 16, 2019

Snowdrops come up in the darkest days

It’s been a sad few days for us as a family, with my brother-in-law taken from us far too young by galloping cancer. He was a lovely man and a committed environmentalist, dedicating his life to keeping his small organic farm in France going and preserving the wildlife and habitat it harboured.

It’s times like these, I find gardening can be the best solace. My continuing dodgy shoulder is preventing me from doing what I should be doing (heaving bags of horse manure onto my raised beds) but I did manage to cut the ground (literally) on another project that seemed a fitting way to mark Adrian’s passing.

fedge preparation

Sadly our own farming neighbour doesn’t share his commitment to wildlife and agriculture and the field on two sides of our garden is a classic green desert – sprayed and cut and slurried to the max. Much as we enjoy our friendly coo neighbours for the two months they are with us, it has been eye opening just how intensive a dairy farm needs to be, having only had beef cows for neighbours up to now. The garden fence keeps the cows out but that’s all it does – unlike a hedgerow it doesn’t shelter us from the wind (or whatever is drifting in on that wind from the field) and nor does it shelter any wildlife. But establishing a hedge in the face of Moo I 5 will be an uphill task, if the fate of the ash tree is anything to go by.

willow fedge

We spotted this impressive woven willow hedge at Paxton House last weekend

Enter, hopefully, the fedge – a fence woven out of willow that will take root and sprout into a hedge. We have plenty of willow growing in the garden (some of it where it shouldn’t) and it seems that the main drawback to a willow fedge is all the pruning it requires. The hope is that our neighbours will see to the pruning while the willow will be vigorous enough to survive their attentions or at least numerous enough that some of it will survive. We’ll get a bit of a screen from the worst of the slurry drift, and the birds and the hares and other creatures will have somewhere to hide, while the cows will have something to chew on that isn’t grass, which seems to be their aim in life.


So this afternoon, I started peeling back the turf along the bottom fence, and filling the gap with some of the pile of woodchips from when the willow was pollarded. And – because it appears that there’s an iron law that if you reduce any of the various piles of stuff in our garden you have to replace that with another one of a similar size – creating another pile of the resulting turf.* Theoretically, once covered over, this will turn into beautiful crumbly loam in a year or so. At least, that’s what happens in normal gardens. Given that all ours wants to do is grow grass, I expect I’m just creating a three dimensional lawn, but I live in hope.

turf pile

An hour or two’s work was enough to prepare a decent length of ground, and the next step will be to plant the willow and weave it into shape once spring looks a bit closer at hand. And if it goes even a small way towards making our garden a better sanctuary for wildlife, then it will be a fitting tribute to my brother-in-law’s too-short life.

* Please can some well-known garden designer create a show garden at Chelsea this year that consists of random piles of stones, landscape fabric, bricks, old railway sleepers and lawn clippings?

Drive, Interrupted

January 11, 2019

As part of my bid to get more walking done without doing too much in the way of additional driving, a visit to Duns presented an opportunity to try a walk we’ve long talked about doing, but never left enough time to actually do: the walk up past the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall to Loch Skeen.

Grey Mare's Tail

Today, we finally got ourselves organised and packed some sandwiches and left a couple of hours early to give ourselves time to explore. It’s a steep climb at the start but with a well-made path; I’ve done enough conservation volunteering in the past to appreciate the effort that goes into these trails. It was especially appreciated when there are precipitous drops – this isn’t maybe a walk for those prone to vertigo.

view from the climb

For everyone else, although it’s pretty strenuous to start with, the views are worth it.

tail burn

It levels off once past the main waterfall and soon we were walking along a pretty burn that tumbles down cascades and into rocky pools. We spotted some of the wild goats that roam the area, and the sheep that were busy keeping everything close cropped. After our visit to Carrifran, I couldn’t help wondering what the valley might be like if the sheep and goats were vanished and the trees and scrub allowed to return. It might help a bit with the erosion, too (that said, our sandwiches had lamb in them, so I confess we’re part of the problem).

landslip at the Grey Mare's Tail

On the whole, it’s better not to think about this giant landslip until you’re back at the car park… (the path is the line above it)

All good walks need a great endpoint (apart from the part where you finally get to sit down and take off your boots). It was only recently that I realised this walk took you up to a loch hidden up in the hills – and even though I knew it was there, it was still very striking to turn a corner and find Loch Skeen filling the whole bowl of the valley.

loch skeen

It was also rather nippy, so we didn’t linger over our sandwiches.

Loch skeen

And then it was just a matter of walking down again…

walk back down

Much as I love the whole active travel thing, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t grateful for our car’s comfy seats and internal combustion engine, wafting our tired legs onwards to Duns in time for tea. But all in all, it was a good way to break up the drive, get in some hill walking and explore another corner of our world that we’ve been passing by for so long.