Whale of a Time

March 30, 2019

I find it rather soothing that Bigtown chose the day after we were supposed to be severing ties with Europe to unveil its new bench celebrating its ties with another European country (albeit one with a similarly semi-detached approach to the EU), refugees and, um, whales.

whale bench

Bench unveilings, however historically well timed, don’t normally attract a massive crowd so they livened up the occasion by with some bike-related activities, including our accessible cycling gang, who are always good for a bit of anarchic fun. I was helping out, which included taking this beast out for a few turns around the thankfully almost completely flat park (although when you’ve got a couple of passengers on board it turns out nowhere is completely flat).

pedal rickshaw

There are worse ways to spend a Saturday than piloting various contraptions (including the fantastic wheelchair bike which seems to be much appreciated by all who get a ride in it), and generally ensuring that anybody who wanted to ride a bike in one form or another got to do so. That, surely, must have added infinitesimally to the sum total of human happiness, whatever else was going on in the wider world. Plus it’s also, undoubtedly, a route to developing thighs of steel.

I note from our local MSPs photo, however, that my nice new trousers – described, misleadingly, as ‘conker’ on the website, and perhaps closer to rust in real life – appear to be channelling this late lamented blog. I shall ll just have to brazen it out regardless, because they’re extremely comfy and almost fit, and I’m not going trouser shopping again until I have to.

Welcoming our Compost Overlord

March 29, 2019

I mentioned we had exciting composting news and I can now reveal that the Dalek mothership has landed.

We’ve been curious about compost tumblers ever since visiting my friend’s parents’ amazingly productive plot. It’s fair to say that our own adventures in composting haven’t really been more than partially successful so far.

Enter the compost tumbler (or technically speaking the ComposTumbler), which cost How Much!? and promises speedy compost (as long as your average temperatures are high enough), or at least the opportunity to spend less time emptying and refilling an ever-growing platoon of daleks.

In between shelling out for this behemoth and it arriving, the subject of compost tumblers came up on Gardeners’ Question Time where they were roundly dismissed. All we needed to make compost, Bob Flowerdew opined airily, was four pallets joined together – and to turn it regularly. As it happens we do have four pallets but I also have A Shoulder and that has made turning the compost a bit painful, and probably unwise. And besides – while I’m all for frugal gardening and the creative use of pallets – there’s something about having a great big steampunkish metal contraption that is equally appealing.

The other half assembled it in the garage, and yesterday we carried it out onto its stand in composting corner where we filled it up with a starter load of stuff that had been festering (or, more properly, failing to fester) in one of the daleks all winter. According to the very detailed instructions that came with the beast, we should be taking its temperature daily (disappointingly it did not come with a spreadsheet for recording it, although it did include a few graphs) to ensure the magic is happening, and turning it at least four times a week.

You would think that would be enough, but I’m slowly realising that composting is an exacting science and we are also going to need a decent shredder. Plus, in order to get the right balance of carbon and nitrogen, separate holding areas for things like grass clippings and wood chippings. Not to mention somewhere for kitchen and garden waste while we wait for the tumbler to do its work and somewhere to store the finished compost once it’s completed it. Compost Corner clearly still has a way to go.

I have long suspected that gardening largely comes down to the accumulation of stuff to go into the compost. Now, I am sure of it.

Getting Away from it All

March 25, 2019

Apologies for the lack of posting in recent days – with my usual excellent timing, I managed to organise my relaxing birthday week away in Northern Ireland to coincide with an extremely unrelaxing editing job (hello 120-page international tax policy document) and POP planning suddenly stepping up a gear. So in the interests of full disclosure, for every relaxing barefoot* stroll on the beach, there has been an equal and opposite period spent chained to the laptop in a position that would make my physio wince.

beach footprints

We also learned that, at least in the UK, if you’re looking for a nice seafood lunch, a proper working fishing harbour is probably the last place you should look, but the cafe on the harbour front will do you a very good value fry up. I suppose if you work with fish all day, the last thing you want to do is eat the stuff. Presumably it all goes straight back out to Europe to be eaten by people who don’t consider seafood to be some sort of an aberration.

kilkeel harbour

Or it did, anyway. For the other thing we seem to have been doing – like approximately 90% of my social media timeline – is watching the numbers tick up on the Revoke Article 50 petition (you have signed it, right?), while the government, opposition, and apparently the entire political system falls apart around us. Not that you’d know about it around here, despite the fact that we’re in the region that will likely feel it the most. Perhaps it’s because it’s the sort of place where you go to get away from that sort of thing (we came here on holiday right through the 80s and 90s and the Troubles barely seemed to touch it either) but nobody’s said a word about it and everything is apparently just carrying on as normal. As long as there’s ice cream to be had, and mountains to climb and the harbour wall to be inspected, and black guillemots sitting in pairs on the sea wall, we might just find a way through this madness and come out the other side.

That in itself has got to have made this week’s visit worth our while.

*OK, I wasn’t the one who was brave enough to go barefoot. The weather’s been nice, but it is still March

Birthday Treat

March 20, 2019

We’re in Northern Ireland for my impending birthday and today, with the weather looking nicer than expected, we decided to spend the last day of my 40s climbing Slieve Donard (I had vaguely planned to do it actually on my birthday, but you take your windows in the weather where you can find them in March).


As we climbed up out of the town, it was sunny enough for us to almost regret dressing for hillwalking in March, with the sun turning Dundrum Bay an almost tropical shade of green.

sunshine on Dundrum Bay

As we turned the corner and looked up, however, it was clear that the blue skies were not going to last and that the clouds were gathering over our destination.

clouds gathering

Normally I’d never attempt any sort of climbing when the clouds were coming down, but the advantage of Donard is that you really cannot get lost even in the fog as there’s a well made path pretty much right to the summit (there was even a band of hardy volunteers out maintaining it today), as well as a steady stream of other people out tackling the highest climb in Ireland.*

climbing into the cloud

So on we went, re-donning the layers we’d shed on the lower slopes, and made it to the top in two hours to precisely no views but a sense of achievement all the same. A nice young Frenchman offered to take our photo at the top and managed to capture two frames of me with my hands over my eyes trying to defog my glasses, and then a further three frames of me looking down and trying to clear them properly, so I’ll spare you our triumphant summit photo. Instead, we were rewarded with the sight of the sun still shining down on Newcastle as we emerged out of the cloud on the way down.

sunshine on Newcastle

We’ve probably both now reached an age where coming down a mountain is at least as tough (and potentially injurious) as going up it, but we made it down with no more than the expected quota of grumbling hips, knees and backs.

And at least tomorrow, even though I will be 50 I know I won’t be feeling my age – because if this evening is anything to go by, I’ll be feeling at least 80 instead.

*It’s not the highest mountain on the island of Ireland, but it makes up for it by starting at sea level.

Crowning Glory Part Two

March 17, 2019

With my rhubarb having (so far) survived the winter:…

Rhubarb shoots

NB, this was one of the crowns that got carefully and lovingly planted in a prime location. The one that somehow got unearthed and left for dead at the side of the bed is also sprouting. Yup, they’re basically unkillable.

…It’s time to chance my arm with asparagus in one of the raised beds. Actually, it probably isn’t precisely the right time as we’ve got a bit of groundfrost forecast overnight, but the crowns I had ordered a few weeks ago arrived yesterday and tomorrow we head off to Norn Iron for a bit of R&R so it was plant them now or leave them in the box for over a week.

Asparagus crowns

Unlike rhubarb, asparagus crowns clearly favour a lot of root – if I saw this lot on something growing in the garden, I’d assume it was a pernicious weed, so I’m hopeful that it will prove tougher than its reputation might suggest.

The planting instructions were very detailed and specific. I declined to get a ruler out to determine whether my plants and rows were the prescribed 30cm apart but did go to the effort of raising a little ridge within the planting trench, so here’s hoping.

asparagus crowns planted

The instructions also suggested asparagus needs ‘protection from high winds’ which was good for a hollow laugh in this the most exposed of gardens, especially after yesterday’s adventure. For now I have erected some sticks around them, more more because I had a lot of sticks to hand than because they’re known for being particularly effective windbreaks. I have had some thoughts about how to reinforce them in some way that will let the sun in but keep the wind out but it hasn’t got any further than perhaps using some string.

sticks around the asparagus bed

Now all we have to do is wait, and resist the temptation to harvest any spears for two years. Hopefully the hares will be similarly abstemious.

Winds of Change

March 16, 2019

So yesterday, to my great excitement, the Climate Strikes came to Bigtown which meant a) I got to go on a demo I hadn’t organised and b) I got to watch a group of young people figure out in real time how to run an effective protest – they learn fast, these kids. Even if they probably need to work a little on their chanting (and they definitely need waterproof paint for their signs if they’re going to keep protesting in South West Scotland) I’m pretty confident that by next month they’ll be a well-oiled machine, or at least they’ll manage to look that way.*

climate strikers

In a way, that might even be a shame, because the best bit for me was when we all spontaneously decided to take the protest through the streets of Bigtown without so much as a risk assessment, event management plan, or meeting with the police to agree a suitable route. Sometimes it truly is better to ask permission than forgiveness.

burns statue

Taking the strike to the people, including Robert Burns

I’ll be back, and this time I might even make my own (impeccably punctuated) sign, instead of borrowing one from a generous Young Person.

oldies against climate change

You’d think the planet would be grateful for my concern over its climate and perhaps reward me for my efforts by providing a nice tailwind the next time I had an epic (for me, I appreciate that for some people 5 miles on a bike is epic and for some people 54 miles is a nice lunchtime pootle) ride to a not-that-nearby town for a meeting. Indeed, the weather forecast suggested that that was exactly what we would get – a nice Northeasterly as we headed 18 miles south west, swinging back round to the west as we headed home (accompanied by persistent heavy rain and/or sleet, but we’ll draw a veil). Clearly this was never going to happen, but I hadn’t appreciated just how much it wasn’t going to happen until we turned onto the cycle path half a mile in and were nearly blown backwards. For the next 2 and a quarter hours we had the wind in our faces the whole way, gusting up to 40 mph. Let’s just say that we got to our meeting with barely 5 minutes to spare, looking more than windswept, and (on my part at least) unable to string a sentence together for the next 10 minutes.

Some people might call that a result …

* People keep telling me Pedal on Parliament looks like a well-oiled machine, which is enough to make a cat laugh, so I’m aware that there’s a difference.

In Like a Sea Lion

March 13, 2019

I suppose people who install solar panels shouldn’t really be surprised when the result is unrelenting rain, interspersed with occasional sleet and snow.

sleet in march

“February fill-the-dykes”, our neighbour the oldest inhabitant is fond of saying, but as February didn’t really oblige this year, March has stepped in instead. We’ve had two nights of heavy rain blattering against the skylight in our bedroom which – when combined with high winds and thunder and lightning right overhead – tends to cross the fine line between ‘lovely and cosy to listen to when tucked up in bed’ and ‘lying awake worrying whether the solar panels are still attached.’

full river

We woke this morning to no power – fortunately just a tripped circuit breaker so I did not have to face the prospect of getting up without coffee – and no internet – less fortunately, a dead router – suggesting one of the lightning bolts came a bit close for comfort but we were back up and in time for me to head off, suitably caffeinated,* for a meeting about trains which was marginally more exciting than it sounds.**

Riding back I was pleased to notice that the brand new lambs were wearing their little plastic cagoules as the Met Office is predicting another night of double-dot rain. I might grumble at having it hammering on the skylight overhead, but at least I’m not out in it in nothing but a woolly jumper and a plastic bag…

lamb in waterproof coat

* The current coonsil austerity drive has extended from No Biscuits at meetings, which was bad enough, to No Tea and Coffee which I believe is banned under European human rights legislation, especially if it’s going to be conducted entirely in technical terms.

** top tip when in a meeting full of Serious Transport Men: don’t refer to the stopping service between Bigtown and Glasgow as ‘the chuffer’ as apparently that is not the correct technical term.

It Might Seem Odd …

March 9, 2019

… that someone who’s just installed solar panels (and been ranting about global warming) would spend the very next day wantonly uprooting baby trees.

pine sapling

But there you go, conservation is complicated and pine trees on peat bogs are a problem. It’s been ages since I went out doing any sort of conservation volunteering, mainly because I got busy saving the planet in other ways, and I was anyway a bit conflicted about driving somewhere to spend a few hours saving the planet.

However, I happened to spot that there was a work party planned in a particular favourite spot of mine – a remnant of peat bog surrounded by pines that manages to feel incredibly isolated and entirely in a world of its own. Perhaps because it’s not an easy place to walk, it’s not a well-known spot and it’s a little neglected even by those who are managing it, and so I felt we could not pass up the opportunity to show it some love.*

Kirkconnell Flow

Encouragingly, more than a dozen people thought so too, despite it being a grey and drizzly morning that was more old-school February than March. Fortunately, the sun came out for most of the day (we’ll draw a veil over the passing hailstorm that hit us in the afternoon) and we made good inroads into the encroaching trees.

One advantage of working in a very wet bog – apart from the fact that you can just pull the smaller trees out by their roots – is all the weird and wonderful plants (and lichens, which are only half plants) that live there, and when you’re spending all day bent down pulling up trees alongside some knowledgeable people, you can find out what they are. Plus the fact that the little red berries that looked almost like cranberries turned out to actually be cranberries (who knew?) and very tasty – in a zingy sort of way – they were too.


I spent many weekends in my 20s doing this sort of thing, and I was pleased that most of my tree-destroying skills were still intact (conservation work is about 10% planting trees and 90% chopping them down, sometimes trees which earlier volunteers had planted). My tree-destroying muscles, on the other hand, are strongly reminding me that I am no longer in my 20s. So now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for an ibuprofen nightcap and an early night.

* I’d love to say that I overcame my qualms about the driving part going down on the bike but the other half suggested we drove and, much as I love cycling, I was very happy to collapse into a warm, dry, and self-propelling car for the journey home.

Generation Game

March 8, 2019

To anyone in the vicinity hoping for a nice summer this year or any time for the next 20 years …

solar panels

Our apologies.

On what must have been the dreichest day yet of the year, some hardy workmen have been on our roof beavering away at what currently looks like an act of insane optimism on our part. Rain-power panels not being a thing, we’ll just have to hope we haven’t brought the Weather Gods’ wrath down on our heads completely, but let’s just say this might put the summer we rashly bought a barbecue into the shade.

We’ve been racing against the end-of-March deadline to get these in because, green as I am, even I am not prepared to install solar panels and then give away the electricity to our supplier for free. There’s a whole rant I could write about the ecological vandalism of this current government, but I’m not sure any of us can face that right now, so just assemble the following into some sort of coherent order and imagine me shouting it at you: “greenest government ever” “12 years to avert catastrophe” “economically and ecologically illiterate” “rising sea levels” “catastrophic climate feedback loops” “grrrr” “aargh” “FFS” “Christ we’re doomed, aren’t we” and “Sod it, I’m going out on my bike”.

George Monbiot, eat your heart out.

So far, the gloom being meteorological as well as metaphorical, our panels have generated precisely 0 units of electricity to combat the coming disaster, but perhaps we might see the sun again in time, before the waters close completely over our heads.

Habitat Management

March 6, 2019

I don’t know why I ever think this, but as I nipped out into the garden this afternoon to take advantage of a brief respite between downpours, I thought there wouldn’t be too much to do. Naturally, a couple of hours later, once the rain closed in again, all I had done was remind myself what a mammoth amount of work it’s going to take to get to grips with it all.

bed in garden

Normally I choose my camera angles carefully to highlight the good bits of the garden. This is more the reality

Today’s task was to clear up the dead vegetation that has been lying around being wildlife habitat over the winter. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that one clump of bracken was still being wildlife habitat in the form of a young hare whose parents hadn’t read the information that says their breeding season has only just begun.

I think I’d have things somewhat more under control if I didn’t have to garden around whichever bit of the garden was currently favoured as a hare resting place, but then our garden wouldn’t have hares in it, and that would be wrong. Much as I’d like a beautiful and productive garden crammed full of interesting plants, its key role in our lives is to look like the sort of a garden a responsible hare parent can leave her offspring in. So I can’t simply lay waste to all the undergrowth and patches of brambles and nettles – I’ve got to wait until I’ve got something to replace each bit with that’s a bit more garden like but also functions as suitable hare habitat.

Garden and wilderness

(This doesn’t explain the pallets, obviously, but we have plans for them and they will be put to use in the fullness of time)

Greenhouse and pallets

So I keep chipping away at the edges, clearing out bits as I have plants for them, and averting my eyes from the rest. Some of these plants even, miraculously, survive, if they are not too delicious to the hares.


I think this is the first lupin ever to last longer than a month in my care, let alone over winter…

Meanwhile, we have exciting composting news (and also another exciting delivery* lurking in the garage which I can’t blog about for non-fate-tempting reasons) but that will have to wait for another

*Not a bike, before you get too excited