You Know you’re not in London any more…

March 28, 2014

… when you find your train journey enlivened by a stranger’s life story. I caught the Bigtown connection by the skin of my teeth this afternoon, and slid into one of the table seats beside what I took to be a mother and teenage daughter. The girl was soon chatting away merrily about the Brompton, the train service, her international gymnastics career (now retired), her As in maths, English and child care, her three-year-old daughter, the various fights she had got into in school after the announcement of her engagement, her plans for this evening (chicken curry cooked by her fiance’s sister if you’re interested), the fact that you can no longer get a half on the bus if you’ve got your own toddler in tow, and much much more. It soon became apparent that the older woman was not her mother – indeed, she was a stranger too, and as bemused as I was, as well as being slightly concerned. The barrage continued until the stop before Bigtown where the girl got off, with a cheery ‘see you later’. It was certainly an eye-opener and I suppose it beats one of those overheard telephone conversations that used to enliven my morning commute down in London, although it wasn’t much less one-sided…

You also know you’ve been in London when you come back feeling like you’re coming down with a lurgy. What with the public transport, all the people, school-age children and the pollution, my isolated country immune system just doesn’t stand a chance…



January 9, 2014

A short post today because I am ranting elsewhere – but it was as I was crafting a point-by-point rebuttal of a council employee’s email explaining why they couldn’t put two lousy toucan crossings in to complete what would otherwise be a safe and convenient route to the new hospital instead of a death dash across two 60 mph roads,* that I noticed the message at the bottom:

Please consider the environment. Do you really need to print this e-mail?

It’s so good to know that the planet is in safe hands…

* variously: you can’t put toucan crossings in on a 60 mph road, not enough people are likely to use it, it’s up to the hospital to create a Travel Plan (so that’s all right then), I cross the road on my bike and it’s fine, we don’t think the road to the hospital will be that busy, and people can just find a gap in the traffic and sprint across. Or something…

Committing Pedestrianism

December 20, 2013

I suppose in the interests of strict accuracy, I should report that it’s not always blue skies and gloriously sunny weather here – while yesterday we had lunch sitting in the sun before going on a 3-hour bike ride, today the temperature barely crept above freezing, and we decided it might be time for some of those car-based errands we’d been putting off while the weather was so gorgeous, like going to the grocery store and the giant bookshop and other shops surrounded by acres of parking. And hunting down the mysterious pop-up baklava shop that had no website and appeared to be in an abandoned used car lot, if Google Streetview was anything to go by…

We decided that we’d better do something a little bit active as well, especially if we did find that baklava shop, so we headed down to the riverwalk where you can walk a mile, sponsored by Toyota (the river was actually diverted away from the city centre after it flooded the whole place, but when they wanted to create somewhere for people to walk, they diverted some of it back as long as it promised to behave).

toyota_mile toyota_mile_2

For those who find walking sedately around a glorified duck pond a bit tame, you can always try sprinting across the roads instead…

downtown street

It’s fortunate the drivers around here are mostly pretty patient, but there’s no doubt that round here the car is king. Outside of a tiny historic downtown area, and the mall of course, even parking and walking from shop to shop just feels, well, wrong. Not illegal or anything, but wrong. Well, maybe a little bit illegal if you don’t cross in the crosswalks. If you want to walk and not get funny looks, get a dog. Or stick to the Toyota mile…

Oh and the baklava? We found it in the abandoned used car lot as promised, and it proved absolutely delicious if a little calorific. Looks like we’ll need to do a few more circuits of that riverwalk pretty soon….

They See Bikes Too

December 15, 2013

I’ll say this for the drivers of Colorado – they have this uncanny ability to see bicycles. Coming up to an intersection on the way down to the river path yesterday I could see a line of cars queuing to turn across my path and started to brake, assuming that even if they did see me they would continue to turn either on the grounds that I was on a bike and thus obviously going too slowly to worry about, or that I was on a bike and thus didn’t matter. But no, as I got to the junction the massive pick up waiting to turn sat there still waiting to turn until I had got safely out of the way. And then on the way back, turning into a petrol station for essential lubricants (chapstick) and fuel (Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls), the car waiting to pull out waited until I had pulled in. And if you’re reading this waiting for the surprising part of the story, then you haven’t cycled much in any British city.

But it’s not just on the bike. On foot, the cars actually stop when you want to cross the road, even if they are some way away or turning, which is fortunate as it will be at least a week before I can work out which way to look before crossing the road. There’s none of the UK-style game of chicken that you need to play to assert your rights on a zebra crossing where the drivers only grudgingly stop once you’ve stepped out into the road and only then if you pretend you can’t see them and act as if you’re going to walk right across the road in front of them – they just roll to a stop and wait patiently for you to cross, which given the width of the roads around here could be a while. Then again, it may be merely astonishment at seeing someone on foot at all.

And it’s not even just the drivers. Walking through the University campus this afternoon, some young skateboarders were tooling about at the entrance to the building we were headed for. ‘Stop and let these people past’ one young lad admonished his friend before he could launch himself down the steps we were heading for. I don’t know what the youth of today is coming to, frankly. Perhaps they’re just practising for the day when they have cars of their own and can freak the hell out of a visiting UK cyclist by noticing they exist.

More Testing Times

December 11, 2013

We’re off to the US tomorrow, via an airport hotel this evening (I should probably pack) so stand by for what I hope will be a few weeks of bright winter sunshine, cycling adventures and cookies. Apart from the usual worries of travelling (I would feel more confident, for example, if the online check in would actually let me check in, although on the plus side, if it won’t at the airport then at least I won’t have to fly anywhere), there’s a slight worry about coming back in as they seem to have instituted a quiz to let people back in. Now, my informant on this is a man in a hat at a bus stop in Bigtown* so it may not be 100% reliable, but it was a very nice hat. According to him the process goes like this

Airport official: Are you British?

Man in Hat: Of course not, I’m Scottish.

AO: Well, can you tell me the name of the naval hero of Trafalgar?

MIH: Admiral de Villeneuve

AO: (I suspect quite exasperated by now) Who is the Archbishop of Canterbury then?

MIH: Whit kind of a question is that to ask a Scot? John Knox

AO: And who was the wartime leader who defeated the Nazis?

MIH: Eamon de Valera

He admitted that the last one was a bit cheeky – but he still seemed genuinely outraged about the Archbishop of Canterbury question. I hadn’t realised the Presbyterian battles were still so fresh in the folk memory. Despite all this, they seem to have let him in anyway – you’d have thought just asking for his passport would have been easier. But should Scotland ever get independence, I’m hoping they don’t institute a similar system as I would surely fail…

* I can blame the Brompton for this one as it starts more conversation than a dog. ‘Can you no make it any smaller?’ was his opening gambit

Out of Sorts

October 8, 2013

Mostly, I manage to live my life in a nice generally-right-on vaguely greenish bicycle-shaped bubble. Pretty much everyone I follow or who follows me on Twitter has ‘cyclist’ in their bio, except for the ones who prefer to be known by the more politically correct ‘person on a bike’ (the rest are mostly poets and probably consider most of my more rabid cycling tweets to be some sort of extended metaphor about the cycle of life and anyway aren’t in any position to judge someone else’s eccentric lifestyle choices). And most of the people I know locally are also either writing people or green people or cycling people, with a few ticking multiple boxes. But occasionally I have to step out of my comfort zone and be reminded how the world really is, and that (here in the UK anyway) it’s completely dominated by the car to the point where even questioning whether that’s a good thing is considered a bit odd.

Take our community council meeting, for instance. Now, on the whole it’s a lovely community council: it’s not riven by disputes, it only spends 10% of each meeting discussing dog poo, most planning applications are uncontroversial, and generally we whip through the agenda at a brisk trot. We don’t even get too het up about wind farms. Last night was no different, except that we ended up discussing the issue of the purchase of a piece of land to create a larger car park for the (newly delivered – it looks pretty good too) school. The dropping off area outside the current school is too small for all the cars, so there is a bit of chaos (although not as bad as this – the staff supervise things fairly strictly), which means that the kids who walk (and the three who cycle) are at risk. So a new car park would, technically, make active travel more attractive although it would also of course make completely inactive travel even more so. And I can see their point – the catchment area of the school is pretty large, and while most of the roads are lovely and quiet, there are enough quarry lorries bombing up and down the road beside the school to make parents think twice about having kids cycle however much they may enjoy any one-off biking events (and no, we can’t stop the lorries from roaring through the village because, well because we just can’t, and we can’t even restrict them for an hour around the start and end of the school day, because when they’re mending the roads they need to be delivering tarmac and gravel all the daylight hours because you cannot hold up the mending of the roads and obviously that is more important than anything else). They are considering having parents park up near the village hall and walk down with their kids but that all seems a bit complicated and difficult compared with just buying a bit of field and tarmacking it. And – as the others said – a bigger car park would be an asset to the community. After all, when there are events on in the hall, there’s not enough space for everyone to park.

I didn’t say anything. Well, I did try and press the case for the ‘park and stride’ option and I may have made a small whimpering noise at the ‘asset to the community’ part, but I did manage not to just put my head on the table and give up. After all, I knew that every single member of the community council except for myself and one member who lives in the village, had driven there, mostly less than two miles. The thought of any of them choosing to walk or cycle to the village instead, even on a summer evening, let alone in October when the nights are drawing in, just seems totally improbable even to me. Looked at objectively, it’s not the community that’s wrong about welcoming the prospect of a new car park, it’s me. Not building a car park won’t suddenly make everyone cycle everywhere, or walk, or even arrange to share lifts down to the village. So I kept my mouth shut and my opinions to myself and so another little piece of the countryside risks getting tarmacked over in service of the great god car.

There is a school of thought even among cycle campaigners that the UK is so car-centric that there’s really no point investing in cycling because most of the population just won’t countenance the idea. I’m not quite sure what lesson we’re supposed to take from that (give up? Start looking for a new planet? Move to the Netherlands?) so mostly I choose to ignore it. After all, in the cities where there has been investment in cycling, rates have increased markedly. Give people the facilities, and they will come. Even in Bigtown, you see more and more people on bikes using them simply to get around. But every so often, I am brought up short by the realisation that here and now, to most of the population of my own country, I am, in fact, a weirdo, and I should remember that fact. A tolerated, indulged, even occasionally admired weirdo, but a weirdo nonetheless.

Raining in my House

January 28, 2013

Well, the thaw came, exactly as predicted, with a night of heavy rain to wash the snow away – accompanied by the usual dire warnings from the BBC Terror Centre of flooding and mayhem to come.

flooded road

Which were entirely justified, as it happens – although you can’t go too far wrong predicting flooding in Bigtown these days; it’s been more or less a monthly occurrence this year. The bits you can see underwater there are a Very Important Road and some Very Important Car Parking spaces the closure of which would cause gridlock, traffic chaos, economic devastation, the opening of the Hellmouth and quite possibly the end of the world, not to mention people having to walk a few hundred yards from their cars.*

The forecast now is for more rain, for more or less the foreseeable future. Which makes it an excellent time for us to discover that there is a hole in our roof…

*I mock, but as it happened I was supposed to be holding a workshop in the building just behind where the photo was taken and six people who had booked and paid in advance didn’t show up. It turns out they really won’t come if they can’t just drive up and park outside…