No Pasarán

July 26, 2020

Walking down to our road end, on our daily state-sanctioned exercise (you’re all still doing this, right?) we noticed that one of our ‘passing place’ signs had succumbed to a dreadful fate.

felled passing place sign

Bigtownshire does seem to have quite an inconsistent approach to passing places on its single track roads. I know up in the Highlands they take them very seriously and there’s a whole etiquette around their use, but round here you can go for miles down a single track road and never encounter a single formal passing place (in fact it’s one of the things that makes cycling along these roads more pleasant because the few drivers you encounter will know that going along them is a process of negotiation, not a matter of barrelling along unimpeded as you can on a road with a white line down the middle). And then you get a road like our road, all 500 yards of it, serving half a dozen households and some farm traffic, which is surprisingly well-endowed with passing place signs.

two passing place signs

Now you might be thinking – well, it is a very narrow and twisty road, so plenty of passing places would be helpful – but you note I didn’t say it was well-endowed with actual passing places. Some of the signs are next to a place where two vehicles might be able to negotiate pass each other with care …

passing place sign with no passing place

… and others, not so much.

We haven’t heard what actually happened to the felled sign, although there have been mutterings about one of the farmers’ son’s habit of taking some of the sharper bends at speed on his tractor, as if it were a hot hatch. That may well be it, but closer examination of the scene of the crime suggests another possibility

Could it be that a local visitor, perhaps from the Highlands or with a touching faith in road signs, actually attempted to use one of our passing places?

I should probably report the fallen sign to the coonsil, but then they’d just put the sign back up and on reflection, I think it’s probably better where it is …

Sticking to it

July 24, 2020

In today’s gradual easing-of-lockdown news I made my first charity shop purchase in over four months this afternoon (you know you’re middle aged when your exiting day’s shopping consists of a pack of pants – from M&S, not the charity shop, I hasten to add – and the triumphant discovery of a set of storage jars).

kilner jars

It was actually quite heartening to see Bigtown Town Centre gradually coming back to life (although I wasn’t as happy as the seagulls who have clearly had a lean few months and were pretty vocal about how people weren’t sharing their chips). It was slightly less heartening to see that the car parks were all full again (although seeing as the coonsil has done nothing so far to actually lock in the elevated cycling numbers* we’ve seen during lockdown It was hardly surprising). Still, having been relieved of my fears that the town centre would never rebound at all, I headed for home with my purchases in a mostly positive frame of mind, even allowing for the van driver who looked at me cycling along the road he wanted to turn into and turned into it anyway, right across my bows. Thanks pal, it’s good to know things are back to normal – all the patient drivers I’ve been encountering in the past few weeks have started to freak me out.

road closure

And then I came to the turning to our B road and remembered that some time this week they were supposed to be closing it to spray tar over the surface dressing and yep, that’s exactly what they had done. I had the choice of detouring round in a massive loop or deciding the road closure didn’t apply to me. I didn’t want to be that person (and even worse, that cyclist), but then again, I didn’t want to go on a big 8-mile hilly detour so I compromised. I get all the road closure notifications and they usually state that pedestrian access will be maintained so I transformed myself into a pedestrian and started walking up the road. Unfortunately, there’s no footway, or even anything resembling a verge, on that road so this meant walking on the fresh tar, which was slow going, and I was relieved when a procession of cars going the other way indicated the road was open again and I could get back on my bike for the rest of the hill.

The only problem is, tar is sticky stuff and while it didn’t seem to affect my bike, I soon realised that the soles of my shoes were getting stuck to the pedals. I’ve spent my entire cycling life avoiding clipping in because I just know that attaching my feet to my bike would be a recipe for disaster; it would be just my luck to have a ‘clipless moment’ without even having clipless pedals (I’ll leave it to a proper cyclist to explain why pedals that clip to your shoes are called clipless pedals). If anyone passed me on the final mile home and wondered why I was yanking my feet off the pedals every other stroke, that was the reason. I’m happy to report that, while it might have looked a little odd, I did at least make it home safely without capsizing when I came to a halt at our gate. Any suggestions for removing tar from the soles of my shoes in the comments will be gratefully accepted …

* I tell a lie, they opened a gate to a park. And moved a bin. More soon, apparently, hopefully before the second wave …

They That Go Down to the Sea On Bikes

July 21, 2020

It’s fair to say, that we’ve been very fortunate during this crisis so far. I don’t want to complain, knowing what other people have had to put up with, and in many ways our lives have barely changed these past four months compared with most people’s. But recently – paradoxically as lockdown has eased – I’ve started to feel as if my horizons have been closing in. Day by day, week by week, it’s as if something has imperceptibly shrunk until suddenly it’s hard to imagine doing anything or going anywhere that isn’t part of our new diminished round.

So on Sunday, we (I; the other half nobly went along with it) decided to shake things up a little:

My mostly bike-obsessed Twitter followers thought a 48-mile round trip to the beach a perfectly sensible idea, but they probably spent lockdown cycling a bit more than we have. In reality, I have to admit that it was perhaps a tiny bit ill-advised.

But hey, we made it, and we were only a little bit broken by the time we battered our way up the final climb to our house (mental note to self: trips to the coast, almost by definition, are a net downhill on the way there and hence, inevitably, a net uphill on the way back) (see also: don’t buy a house on a Category 3 climb) (or, for that matter, bugger your bottom gear just before a big ride).

And, overdoing it aside, it did remind me that Bigtownshire has some wonderful cycling out there, if you stay away from the main roads. For the vast majority of our 48 miles we were cycling along roads that looked like this:

Or this:


Or this:

This isn’t lockdown conditions, by the way, it’s just what the roads are like around here.* Just don’t tell Visit Scotland

Oh yes, and (vegans, look away now) never has saturated-fat-laden pastry wrapped around cured pork of dubious origin tasted quite so good as the emergency pork pies we picked up in Papershop Village en route and devoured the minute we arrived at the beach (these were impeccably locally sourced, but I actually feel the same way about all pork pies, even crappy ones from motorway service stations. It’s why I only allow myself one when I’m embarking on a particularly epic cycle ride. And if I’m honest, one of the reasons why I embark on them in the first place).

On the other hand, when I say beach, I think the region and I need to have a talk about the local coastal arrangements. As in, don’t you need to have some actual sea to count? I carefully checked the tide tables, and we got to the beach – or at least the point where the land ran out on the map – about an hour and a half after high tide, and there was nothing but damp sand to show that there might once have been some actual water. It’s lucky this is Scotland in July so we weren’t actually expecting to swim.

As we got home and confirmed the distance we’d ridden, I realised that I was less than three miles (but a large amount of cake) short of the distance I’d need to do for this year’s anniversaire. I haven’t entirely given up on the idea that I might still be able to do this in September properly, with cake and chat and people I’m not married to, but just in case, I decided I’d better make up the miles to 51 and so I climbed back on the bike and did just that. Think of it as less a celebration, and more a middle finger raised to the passage of time. And a way to make sure that I *really* felt my age the next day…

* Naturally, this being Bigtownshire, one of the cars we did see was being driven by the other half’s boss. Because of course it was.

Slow, Slow

July 18, 2020

Alert readers may remember that at the beginning of May, I was complaining about a slow puncture in the front tyre of my bike. Regular and alert readers may not be surprised to learn that as of this morning, I still had it (and was still complaining about it, but not enough to do anything about), although I have found that since I started riding down daily for the paper again it has got slower.*

Now if I’ve learned anything about riding a bike regularly for transport it is that there’s no such thing as a self-healing puncture, however much you may want there to be, and there’s also no such thing as a slow puncture that doesn’t become a fast puncture just when it’s least convenient. Nevertheless, I have spent the last two and half months starting each bike ride with pumping up my front tyre – first because I had run out of patches and the bike shop was by appointment only, and then, once we’d got hold of a spare inner tube, because, well, if your bike’s tyre holds air well enough to get you into town and back, and you’ve got a nice track pump so it’s pretty quick to pump it up every day, and it can take you a good hour to wrestle the thing’s supposedly puncture-resistant tyres off and on and you already wasted an hour of your life doing so and still not fixing it – why mess with the situation? Feeble, I know, but before you cast the first stone, tell me you haven’t ignored a problem that was merely politely clearing its throat and mentioning things rather than waiting until it was knocking you to the ground, pinning you down and shouting about them in your ear, metaphorically speaking?

ANYWAY at this point, I would like to surprise you all by announcing that I have fixed the puncture BEFORE the problem became acute. And that it only took me half an hour, including also cleaning and oiling the chain, straightening the back wheel and, ahem, somehow unindexing my gears so I now no longer have the bottom gear (I feel that only I could do this while attempting to fix a front tyre). I have put in a new inner tube and patched the old one to act as a spare (the hole turned out to be on the inside of the tube, opposite an existing patch, as if a bastard big thorn hadn’t just made it through the supposedly puncture resistant tyres and the outer skin of the inner tube but all the way out the other side. When blackthorn sets out to puncture a tyre, it does not mess around).

The reason for this flurry of maintenance is that we are thinking on going on a little adventure tomorrow and it would be inconvenient to spend most of it at the side of the road muttering imprecations at my past self about the perils of ignoring slow punctures. It doesn’t mean I won’t actually get a flat tyre – for what has this whole post been but a red rag waved energetically in the face of the puncture fairy – but at least it won’t entirely be myself to blame.

* This chimes with my observation that bikes that are ridden regularly don’t need their tyres pumped up anything like as often as bikes that just sit in the shed. Perhaps there’s some clever physics explanation of why that should be, but I’m beginning to think that it’s just that bikes want to be ridden and if you don’t ride them they self harm.

Masked and (Slightly Less) Dangerous

July 16, 2020

So it turns out, if you blog or tweet about your somewhat improvised homemade mask, then people take pity on you and start sending you much fancier ones.*

selection of masks

I see that the Westminster government has decided that mask wearing in shops will become compulsory next week, cueing much wailing and gnashing of teeth online. Meanwhile, if the evidence of Bigtown is anything to go by, the people of Scotland (and indeed much of the rest of the world) have been getting on with it – I won’t say happily, but more or less consistently. I was in town the day it became compulsory in shops and everyone was wearing one, while it was probably less than a third the day before. I expect England will be the same, for all the showboating on social media. I hope so, because for whatever reason we seem to have done a good job of suppressing the virus up here and it would be a shame if all that got undone once the visitors from England return.

Anyway, I felt eight masks was excessive for my needs so I parcelled up a couple to post on to my sister and her family. As I pulled on my winter gloves for the ride down to post office – because at some point over lockdown I finally lost all of my summer-weight gloves except the mismatched ‘pair’ that are actually two left-hand gloves with one tortured into fitting on my right hand – I realised this might be a strategic error. I foresee that over the next few months, losing masks may well become the new losing gloves, but with the added complication of not being able to get into your destination if you lose it on the way down. I may have to start stashing strategic spares in various bike bags so I am never without.

*The natty polka dot one actually went astray and ended up at our old address. Fortunately, I know the person who lives there, because of course I do, this is Bigtownshire so I was able to go and retrieve it and provide this bonus ford content on the way.

Ford with low water

Popping Out for a Paper – COVID Edition

July 7, 2020

Small outbreaks of polar bears notwithstanding, we’ve taken another small step back to normality in the Townmouse household – I’m going back to getting a daily paper.

Since lockdown started, we’ve made the judgement that going into a shop just to buy a paper was an unnecessary risk, if we weren’t actually going shopping anyway. That meant going down to one paper a week (the Saturday edition), rising to two a week once our lovely neighbour offered to get us a paper on her (different) shopping day. On occasion we have risen to the luxurious heights of three papers a week, on days when a trip to the post office has occasioned it (if I’ve been unusually eager to post things to people, now you know why). In between times I have become that person who reads a three-day-old weekend supplement, something I have never understood up to now.

I do realise, because everybody tells me so, repeatedly, that it is possible to read the Guardian online and that nobody actually reads a paper paper any more. But I still find that compared to having the physical thing in my hands, it is not the same. With the actual paper, I read the whole thing (time allowing), rather than just clicking on the articles that seem compelling enough. And, frankly, I spend enough time looking at a screen these days that being able to sit outside reading something that doesn’t notify me of new and exciting updates all the time is a positive luxury.

It comes at a price,* however

Alongside the latest easing of lockdown, we will now have to wear masks in shops in Scotland. I’ve no idea of how much benefit it will bring, but the consensus seems to be that this is probably a good thing. It doesn’t become compulsory until Friday, but on yesterday’s inaugural ride down just for the paper, I thought I had better show willing. It was … fine. Half the customers were wearing one (although on your chin doesn’t really count, fellow Bigtownites), nobody mentioned it, and I was able to communicate reasonably well with the woman on the till in so far as I needed to.

My current mask is an improvisation, though I’ve got a much fancier one coming tomorrow. I suspect we’ll all end up with a wardrobe of the things, as we search out the holy grail of comfort, safety, and unfogged glasses. Mine ticks the comfort box, and didn’t fog my glasses too much but I don’t know how much protection two layers of jersey cotton really offer. I also discovered that if you’re cycling up a massive hill and you decide to put it on to pass a roadworks lorry that is kicking up a lot of dust, your immediate instinct is to rip it off again. Fortunately, it seems that cycling is a low-enough risk activity that I won’t need to try that again…

Like so many changes we’re living through these days, I wonder whether I’ll look back on this post in a year’s time and marvel that I wore a mask at all – or whether going out without one would feel like going out without my flat cap. Which makes me wonder … how much protection would a Harris Tweed mask offer do you suppose?

What is your mask made of?

* not the actual cost of the paper, though. We have a subscription for the Guardian and we’ve kept it up throughout lockdown because it seemed to me that having a decent source of left-leaning journalism that wasn’t owned by a billionaire was worth the cost of continuing to pay for a paper we mostly weren’t reading in physical form.

Loaded for Bear

July 2, 2020

‘You’ve a better chance of meeting a polar bear on the street in Notso Bigtown than coming into contact with the virus round here’, my dentist said reassuringly from behind his multiple layers of PPE, as I went in for a checkup last week. And it’s true, it had seemed in recent weeks as if we’d got this virus thing in check in Scotland, and especially around here. There’s been a bit of nervousness as we watch the news reports from down south and wonder what will happen when the current requirement to ‘stay local’ gets lifted this weekend, but also a fair bit of excitement as people start to tentatively plan visits to further flung places and proper family get togethers that don’t have to take place outdoors in the somewhat hit-or-miss weather of the traditional Scottish summer.

Today, worrying reports of a small outbreak of polar bears to our east notwithstanding, life started to feel a bit like normal, if only because I suddenly had to be in three different places in short succession. It was all perfectly doable – or at least it was until the guy coming to install our bathroom blind (ordered in mid March …) announced that the B road up to our house was closed for surface dressing, my very least favourite kind of road repair, turning the eight-mile net downhill route into town into a fifteen mile detour over several unnecessary hills and putting my whole carefully dovetailed schedule into disarray.

Fortunately, disaster was averted by the person I’d arranged to meet in Bigtown not showing up. If I weren’t a cyclist, this would be cue for much gnashing of teeth, but I’d just had rather a nice 15 mile ride so it didn’t really feel like a wasted trip. It also meant I had time to head up to the high street and get a new battery put into the other half’s watch, which had stopped about a week into lockdown. Truly, times – and time itself – seemed to be getting back to normal, little by little.

And then I got home and discovered that here in the Bigtown area, we’re not moving forward with the rest of Scotland, partly due to the polar bear outbreak, but possibly due also to the worry that the entire population of Bigtown under the age of 30 might be planning to head to England to go to the pub this Saturday – despite the fact that, if my reading of the regulations is anything to go by, all pubs are going to have to be run as old man pubs by law.

It’s Scotland’s hard luck that, despite having a largely sensible* government that has taken a cautious approach to opening up, its nuisance neighbours to the south seem determined to undo all that good work for the sake of a Saturday night on the piss. Hopefully this little hiccup will be enough to moderate the response to the next lifting of lockdown and we’ll continue to take things slowly enough to keep the polar bears under control.

Although, that said, perhaps a few hungry polar bears patrolling the border wouldn’t be that bad an idea after all…

* Their cycling policies could do with some work, mind.