Octoberfest

October 31, 2019

October sunshine

Well, it’s a turn up for the books, but October has been remarkably un-Octoberish this last week. While the weather further south has sounded pretty dire we’ve had a succession of fine and surprisingly mild days, light winds, a bit of frost in the mornings and clear starry nights.

It will surprise nobody who reads this blog to learn that this has coincided with a collision of work and campaigning deadlines – but that’s the beauty of getting about by bike, because busy or not I’ve been forced out into the sunshine most days anyway.

It’s a hard life.

Someone’s got to do it.

On Sunday night we headed out into the dark for the Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign annual celebration of the clocks going back, where we ride up past the reservoir in the fading light, and then careen down a long winding potholed descent in the darkness before racing back home before the hypothermia sets in permanently. Nothing about this ride makes sense on health ‘n’ safety grounds and I sometimes find myself wondering why exactly we (I) chose that route apart from a vague association of the reservoir with bats, it being round about Halloween. But then I head out with a bunch of people who think this is an excellent way to spend a Sunday evening, and we are forced to stop on the way down because how often do you get to admire the Milky Way, and I ride back the last few miles home on my own under the stars knowing that the fire is lit and the house will be warm – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


One and a Half Feral Hogs

October 26, 2019

Glancing up from my desk this morning, I happened to notice an addition to mammal list for the garden:

Pig in the garden

Fortunately, I didn’t have to resort to weaponry – our new neighbours in the farmhouse up the road have a bit of a menagerie (it’s not the first time we’ve had some of their charges in the garden) and this was one of their Tamworth pigs that they’d brought in to do a bit of ground clearing (in this case Japanese knotweed but apparently they love ground elder, although from the sight of their enclosure, it’s a bit of a scorched-earth solution to weed eradication). They’re clearly well treated because its reaction to a couple of strange humans, one armed with a camera in search of blog material, was to come over and try and make friends.

friendly pig

It was easily encouraged back home, happily following the other half up the hill while I followed on behind in case ir decided to make a run for it. Then I kept the pig in place by scratching it behind the ears while the other half hunted around for our neighbours. They were out, but with a little bit more encouragement we did manage to get the pig more or less contained next to its companions, closed it in with a gate that was leaning against a wall (this is a smallholding very much of the Grundy persuasion), and hoped for the best.

pig on verge

And the half a hog part? Well, when I went back up later to let our neighbour know what had happened, he enquired whether we wanted to purchase half a pig for Christmas. This leaves me in something of a dilemma. On the one hand, if you eat meat, which we do, albeit less than we used to, then we’re urged to choose meat from animals that have had a good life and were raised on a small scale, and we know that this one at least is definitely very free range. But on the other hand, and this is nothing but sentimentality, it’s hard to face tucking into an animal whose ears you have recently been scratching.

Maybe if it makes another break for it, we’ll give it asylum instead…

* with thanks to Stroppy Cow on Twitter for the title suggestion


101 Uses for a Brompton: Transmuting Spiderplants

October 25, 2019

I’ve had a bit of a work crunch on these last 10 days or so, with a tight work deadline combined with events in Edinburgh and Glasgow and a big consultation exercise on the Scottish National Transport Strategy to respond to (because we know how to party in the Town Mouse household). So obviously, one of my number one priorities was to spend time photographing just some of our growing army of spider plants and posting them on Bigtown’s newly created bartering group online.

baby spider plants

I joke, but it was becoming a matter of growing urgency as we were in danger of becoming overwhelmed by them. We bought one spider plant about three years ago, after we decided that our new-to-us bathroom storage unit looked wrong without a plant sitting on it. Pretty soon the spider plant started doing what spider plants do, which is the same thing rabbits do, but without the need for another spider plant to get the process going.* I’m a sucker for planting up the babies because they look a bit desperate just hanging there, but I always forget that the first thing the babies do once they’re settled in is start creating babies of their own, so we’re on about our third generation now.

Anyway, amazingly – because you’d think the world would have enough spider plants for everyone to have at least one by now – there were takers, and after a trip down to Bigtown in the Brompton (plant transporter of choice), two of the spider babies have been transmogrified into a nice sanseveria, with further offers of a peace lily and a couple of aloe veras still in the bartering pipeline.

Sanseveria

In fact the whole bartering group has proved to be something of a delight: a simple idea that appears to have taken off among the good people of Bigtown in an unexpected way. Quite a few people are using it just to get rid of stuff without wanting anything in return (‘space in my house’) but it’s been fun to watch some of the more creative swaps actually take shape – as well as the emergence of packs of coffee and chocolate bars as an ersatz currency.

The only slight downside is I’m now feeling a little bereft, as gaps appear on the windowsill where the spiderlings once sat and others are earmarked for swaps. Still, as long as I don’t get rid of the motherplant, that’s a problem that will quickly solve itself.

What would you barter?

* I used to volunteer for a charity which used to help old people who’d lost control of their gardens, back when we lived in London. One old couple had made the mistake of planting out a spider plant to see what happened. There was basically nothing else growing in their garden, and every nook and cranny was filled with spider plants. You’d think I’d have taken this as a Dreadful Warning but apparently not.


Blast from the Past

October 20, 2019

It’s not often you hear that your (old) home has been demolished, especially via a random tweet on a Saturday night.

A quick glance on Google Streetview revealed that it was absolutely true, with the cameras capturing a last glimpse of the condemned terrace (and the fact that some subsequent owner had painted it an unfortunate shade of blue).

boarded up terrace

It was the first house we ever bought, in around 1994, back when people in their twenties could buy their own house. Actually, even then it was a bit of a stretch for a young couple in an affluent part of the south east, but it was the cheapest house on the market and we managed to get in right at the end of the housing price slump.

When we moved in, the wallpaper was hanging off the walls, having been up since apparently the 70s and it had no central heating just wall-mounted gas fires. This became a problem a few months later when we smelled gas and called British Gas. It was a freezing November evening and I remember being both horrified and impressed at the thoroughness as the engineer went round and condemned pretty much every heating appliance in the house.

It had no pavement in front of the house when we lived there, and as it was right in Maidenhead town centre, there was nowhere to park a car so when we did finally buy one, we had to rent it a garage about a mile away – and in a much nicer postcode, which meant the rent paid for itself in reduced insurance premiums. I can highly recommend keeping your car 20 minutes walk away from your house to cut down on frivolous car usage, by the way.

Like a lot of Victorian houses, it was pretty poorly built; there wasn’t a right angle or horizontal surface in the whole place, and no insulation to speak of. When we bought it the loft was one continuous space along the entire terrace – sadly, the forces of health’n’safety insisted we put up firewalls, thereby preventing us from either taking up a very localised career in burglary, or setting up an awesome extended model railway layout.

Its best feature was the garden, my first ever. It was south facing, and as the house had been built on the Thames’ floodplain, had the most beautiful alluvial soil. I created my first veg patch in that garden and I had absolutely no idea how lucky I was. It wasn’t very big, but it had everything we needed: a tiny warm patio with evening-scented plants, a lawn just big enough for one person to sunbathe on, raspberry canes that kept us in raspberries for most of July (£5 from Woolworths; bargain), my fancily named ‘vegetable parterre’ (what can I say, it was the nineties, we all watched Gardener’s World when we weren’t watching Changing Rooms), and a shed that came with all of the contents thrown in when we bought the house, including Arthur’s Bike.

I loved the process of turning what was a bit of a wreck into a home although it’s fair to say the other half was less keen, preferring a house where you weren’t woken at 5:30 by the street sweeping machine which always sounded like the approach of the end of the world, only more menacing. This often after a night when the party people of Maidenhead would have chosen our street (indeed often our front garden wall) to wait loudly and drunkenly for a taxi, fall out noisily with their boyfriends, or – at least once, anyway – knock on our front door to explain that they were too drunk to remember where they lived and could they come and sleep in our house instead.

Despite all this, it proved a sound investment, with almost as impressive returns as those £5 raspberry canes from Woolies but on a larger scale, and helped us to afford the place we live so happily in now. We often wondered if it would be compulsorily purchased – our little terrace was a strange anomaly in the midst of the office buildings and car parks of the town centre – but it seems it took another 15 years for that to actually happen. I hope that in the intervening years it was a happy home to more young people starting out on the housing ladder – and that it’s turned into more homes for people to be happy in, and hopefully with better soundproofing.


And Back to Reality

October 16, 2019

After a fun-packed trip fuelled by wine, pastries and cycling shenanigans, there’s nothing quite like coming home to a flat front tyre to bring you back down to earth with a vengeance. Back when I worked in IT it was well known that UNIX servers would sense when their primary caregiver was on leave and choose that moment to develop a baffling ailment (‘insufficient entropy’ was always my favourite) and bikes are clearly cut from the same cloth.

This time there was no Bastard Big Thorn, just a genuinely slow puncture which turned out to be a hole tiny enough to require the traditional bucket of water to find it. This at least led to the moderate satisfaction of getting the Marathon Plus off, the inner tube replaced (I have now twice run out of patches in my tyre repair kit, surely a make-do-and-mend achievement worthy of some sort of award – perhaps a leather elbow patch?) and the Marathon Plus back on again in time to head into Bigtown with plenty of time to meet a friend, have lunch with the other half, run a couple of errands, and be back in time for an important work conference call in the afternoon.

What I had not quite accounted for was the possibility of the visit taking several hours so yesterday afternoon saw me time-trialling back up the hill at a speed that was definitely incompatible with looking cool, calm and collected during a call to New York (I think I’ve mentioned this before, but of all the enticing visions of the future the science fiction writers have come up with – benevolent robots, teleportation, space travel, well-fitting jump suits – why on earth does it have to be video calling that actually came to pass?)

Sadly, the work call also heralded the arrival of a delayed piece of work with what is now an almost unfeasibly tight deadline, so it’s back to lugging the laptop round with me at all times, getting behind with the gardening, short changing the rest of my activities, and generally living the freelancing dream…


Cycling in Paris: A tale of two cities

October 14, 2019

It’s fair to say that, once we’d arrived safely at our hostel near Gare du Nord yesterday afternoon, we weren’t particularly impressed by the cycling conditions in Paris. Heading out of Gare Montparnasse we’d made our way to the Seine along a mixture of bus lanes and ‘put on your big girl pants*’ type scary roads.

drowned cycle symbol

Once actually at the river, once we’d found our way down to the path along the Seine, things were a little better as we joined ‘le tout Paris’ in pootling along the former expressway, enjoying the tranquillity of a space that had been designed for cars but then handed over lock, stock and barrel to the people instead.

Seine expressway

All good things must come to an end, however, and without an actual cycle route map, we weren’t sure how best to make our way up to the Gare du Nord safely. We figured the canal would be the best bet, and soon found a narrow but functional segregated track that would have been all right if every cyclist (and scooterer) in Paris wasn’t impatiently but silently trying to squeeze past in a bicycle space that really wasn’t built for two.

narrow cycle track

Our next cycle track was even narrower but on the pavement which was better for the bikes but worse for the pedestrians – as a little old lady let us know in no uncertain terms when we made the beginners’ error of obeying the signs telling us to give way to pedestrians. Having finally got the attention of the only four cyclists in Paris who actually knew how to stop, she made the most of it, delivering us a lecture that my French didn’t entirely keep up with but we managed to get the gist (it ended ‘Paris merde‘) and frankly, given the way many cyclists wove  past pedestrians you have to admit she had a point.

pavement cycle track

We arrived at the hostel somewhat sweaty, nervewracked and ready for wine, and it’s telling that when I suggested we leave the Bromptons and explore the area on foot during the evening, none of us demurred. Fortunately, Paris was ready for us and had laid on a wine festival in our honour. This morning, fortified with pastries and caffeine, we felt braver and ventured forth again, and I’m glad we did for this time we happened across the real infrastructure – not, perhaps, up to Dutch standards, but a number of wide, forgiving and reasonably well implemented cycle tracks that gave us space away from both the frightening traffic and the terrifying old ladies and gave other Parisian cyclists space to get round us when we stopped for red lights.

Bidirectional track

They’d even solved the ‘van parked in the bike lane’ problem by providing delivery bays outside the cycle tracks, which most drivers seemed happy enough to use (not all, obviously – but how would you know if your cycle track was wide enough if there wasn’t the occasional van parked on it?)

bidirectional cycle track

The network wasn’t exactly extensive but it took us more or less to the Pompidou Centre and right past the Louvre so we had a whistle stop tour of the tourist highlights before we had to turn around and head back for our train in what would have been plenty of time had we actually known that we needed to have our Bromptons in a bag to get them on the Eurostar. It’s safe to say, I’ve had less stressful starts to a train journey …

Bromptons in Paris

Compared to Nantes – or indeed, Seville – cycling in Paris was not exactly relaxing – but then again, even five years ago there’s nothing on God’s green earth that would have got me cycling through Paris at all. This time, there was only one time where I actually felt in fear of my life – and that was at a junction at the end of a bus lane when a driver decided to muscle in on the space that I was actually using to exist in at the time, something that happens approximately every 20 minutes in urban traffic in the UK. On the whole the cars (and bikes and scooters and little old ladies) are way more in your face than they would be in the UK and there’s a bit of give and take needed (as in give the drivers even an inch of hesitation and they will take it a mile) – even when you get a green signal, there seem to be vehicles turning across your path if you don’t deploy a Paddington hard stare and visible determination to cross anyway.

It’s hard to do more than form anything more than a superficial impression after a few days, but the lesson I’d take from our brief visit to Paris is that you need to build the infrastructure at a scale that works for your city. If you have a big and congested city then you need to build infrastructure that doesn’t mess around and gives space to cyclists without making things merde for the pedestrians. Fortunately Paris has the space and it is starting to use it – those big wide boulevards have room for everyone, once cars stop taking the lion’s share. A city like Glasgow should take note.

And as for me – while it’s been an interesting and enjoyable couple of days, I’m quite glad to be heading home to a place where the only traffic jams tend to be made up of cows.

Bike by the Seine

* For those wondering, we found some actual ‘big girl pants’ at the market in Nantes where apparently there are women who want something that makes their bottom look bigger, rather than trying to squeeze everything in, and I for one heartily approve of that.


The Kindness of Strangers: Steampunk Cycling in Nantes

October 12, 2019

cycle symbol in Nantes

So we made it to Nantes, via four trains and a ferry – with no thanks to Portsmouth’s frankly confusing cycling infrastructure and laissez faire attitude to signposting, but every thanks to the passing cyclist who noticed our bewilderment and guided us safely to the ferry terminal.

bicycle stop light

Once in Nantes, helpful strangers do seem to have been a bit of a theme because, while Nantes has some decent infrastructure (and some frankly bizarre stuff, of which below), the junction treatments tend to be of the ‘head across this road here and the drivers will probably stop for you’ variety which, mostly, they do – French (or at least Nantais) drivers have definitely lived up to their reputation for better behaviour around cyclists than their cousins across the Manche.

nantes cycle crossing

Sometimes the street designers add a bit of discombobulation in with a crazy painted crossing, although to be honest, the standard zebra crossings tend to work equally well (which is to say, it helps to be both confident and apparently oblivious to the approaching traffic*).

painted junction

In places, the tracks are wide enough to reach the international gold standard: being able to park a van on them.

van in bike lane

In others, for reasons nobody has fully explained, the cycle tracks are right down the middle of the road – which is fine (actually it’s kind of fun), until you come to a double roundabout, and then it’s anybody’s guess what you’re supposed to do.

central cycle lane

Chats with a couple of locals – more strangers, who have been kind enough to interrupt their day to chat to a bunch of visitors from Scotland – suggest that Nantes is keen on a bit of experimentation – and in a city with a massive steampunk elephant (and a children’s carousel that’s the stuff of nightmares) – perhaps it’s not surprising the infrastructure tends towards the wacky in places.

nantes elephant

steampunk carousel

On the whole, though, Nantes does feel like a genuine cycling city – there are certainly a huge variety of bikes on the streets (if not many children – possibly too traumatised by the carousel). The city is still investing, and it seems as if the new stuff has dialled down the craziness and taken on board some of the lessons learned from the original cycle tracks. Thanks to the chilled drivers we’ve generally never felt in fear of our lives – despite the fact that we’ve often ended up dithering in mid junction when we realise we have no idea where we’re supposed to go next. Head away from the main cycle routes and there’s not much other than contraflow cycle lanes and paint on the road – but space has been taken away from the cars and returned largely to pedestrians, particularly in the city centre. It helps too that the sun has shone and the weather has been kind and we did manage to get that ice-cream.

Nantes ice cream cones

As we head into winter in Scotland, that’s not just a bonus, it’s positively medicinal.

Paris tomorrow, if we’re spared.

* If this post proves to be the last in this blog then this technique may have let me down.