Untrammelled Womanhood

March 7, 2018

So the Women’s Cycle Forum Scotland wants your stories of cycling and liberation, in honour of International Women’s Day and Susan B. Anthony

Susan B Anthony quote

I was actually scratching my head about this one because I couldn’t think of a time when I felt that riding a bike had particularly set me free mainly because it feels like I’ve always ridden one. But then someone mentioned the joy of switching to a bike from the bus and I remembered how I first started cycle commuting, back in the last century.

I was working at Kew and living in Maidenhead and my journey to work meant the train to Ealing Broadway (relatively painless but expensive) followed by the dreaded 65 bus from Ealing to Kew. The bus company had a ramshackle fleet of double decker buses, including one which smelt strongly of mould and leaked so badly in the rain that there would be water sloshing about on the top deck (hardened bus goers knew to lift their feet up as the bus accelerated or braked heavily and the resulting pool of water raced the length of the bus). The buses turned up when they felt like it, and then inched along the South Ealing Road so slowly I reckoned that I could probably halve the journey time by getting off, walking past the queue of traffic, and getting onto one of the two or three other 65 buses that would be inevitably stuck in the same jam ahead of it. There was a Jehovah’s Witness who would come and sit next to you and engage you in conversation if you weren’t careful, although she was often drowned out at the end of term when the bus was packed full of school kids about to go on a day trip to Chessington World of Adventures and whose voices reached a starling pitch of excitement as a result.

I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that I could lock up an old bike at Ealing Broadway station and just cycle the three miles or so to work instead, even when we had an old bike in our shed, which we had inherited from the former owner of our house (the shed key had been lost and Arthur had sadly died, so we just took over the contents lock stock and barrel, including his collection of tobacco tins with assorted screws in them). Arthur’s bike was an old black three-speed Raleigh and probably a classic although at the time I saw it as a bike that was simply too ramshackle looking to steal. After about a year of humming and hawing, I took the plunge, bought a backpack and a yellow Sam Brown reflective belt and transported Arthur’s bike by train down to Ealing. I had calculated that if I managed to ride just three days a week, it would save me money on a weekly bus pass, which I reckoned I could probably manage. I worked out a route using back roads and through a park that didn’t seem that likely to kill me and with some trepidation, I gave it a go.

Anyone who’s ever swapped a bus commute for a bike knows what happened next: I basically never got the bus again. Far from having to push myself to cycle, I positively relished it. The only tiny fly in the ointment was looking back on all those hours I’d spent waiting on the bus, stuck on the bus, inching down the Ealing Road, missing one train home after another. What had I been thinking?

Arthur’s bike didn’t survive the experience, sadly. After a year of faithful service, its chain broke and nobody I knew could fix it (the local bicycle repairman had already declared it unsafe to ride and refused to touch it), so I wheeled it to the dump (I know, I’m sorry, I’m an idiot – in my defence, I left it outside the gate so hopefully someone salvaged it). It didn’t stop me cycling though – I kept on riding between Ealing and Kew right up until I went on sabbatical and we sold the Maidenhead house (including the contents of the shed, having once more misplaced the key – I’m rather sad now that Arthur’s bike wasn’t in it) and moved to Hackney, which wasn’t the cycling hotspot it is now.

Perhaps it’s not quite in the spirit of Susan B. Anthony to be dependent on an old boy called Arthur who I’d never met for my moment of liberation, but I like to look back at myself on that very first ride as I realised just how easy it was going to be, relishing the feeling of freedom and self-reliance, the very picture of free untrammelled womanhood.

I’m just sorry I didn’t take better care of your bike, Arthur.


Well, that Escalated Quickly

February 26, 2018

So I might have thought I was bestriding London as a returned exile triumphing in her native city – but it turns out that at a microbial level I was but a lamb to slaughter: to the average London virus my poor naive immune system was about as defenceless as a bottle-fed fawn stumbling into a live deer cull.

bare trees and blue skies

Yesterday, despite a continuation of the vague aches and pains I was complaining about before, I managed to lead a 25 mile winter ride on what turned out to be a beautifully sunny but pretty baltic sort of day. But by the time I had got home (having scrounged a lift from one of the ride participants) I was not feeling at all well and today I have spent mostly in bed, dragging myself up only to light the fire and lie on the sofa by way of a change of scene in the evening. Given the increasingly apocalyptic tone to the weather forecasts (Britain colder than the Arctic Circle! Polar Vortex split! Amber warning of the Seventh Seal opening!) this may be no bad thing.

Looking back, this happens pretty much every time I go to London; I really should learn either to avoid the place altogether or at the very least not risk the tube…

For this Relief, Much Thanks

February 24, 2018

So, I am home, and I may be banned from going back to London as I came back with a range of complaints some of which I admit were probably self-inflicted.* This morning, I woke up with a tickly cough and a headache which developed into a generalised ache in and around my back, which left me unable to find any ease at all – neither sitting, nor standing, nor lying on the sofa. In fact, only moving gave me any relief, so after I had made a loaf of sourdough bread, hung out the washing, and even done some vague tidying up (there are limits, even in extremis), there was nothing for it but to head out on the bike.

Fortunately I had an errand to run that involved cycling steadily across the length and breadth of Bigtown at a speed of around 8 MPH** which turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered, if only temporarily. What with cycling in and back, it meant a steady four hours on the bike during which I didn’t cough once, the headache dissipated, and the ache disappeared. A miracle indeed.

Sadly, the effects now seem to be wearing off, so just a temporary miracle. Tomorrow means another day of steady riding, as we’ve a winter ride scheduled, but if that doesn’t sort it I may be in trouble. Much as I like cycling, I can’t make a living doing it, and all my other cycle campaigning activities depend rather more heavily on me sitting down and doing things on the computer than they do on me riding round on a bike, sad to say. I may have to join the ranks of those using a standing desk (although standing still isn’t much better). Or finally learn how to sit up straight and properly the way my mother told me…

* galloping heartburn, possibly the least sympathy-inducing ailment ever, even though it turns out it hurts like hell. I mean, even the NHS site’s advice on heartburn is effectively ‘try to be a bit less of a greedy guts’.

** working out the timetable for a bike bus, since you didn’t ask

Maybe Because I’m a Londoner

February 21, 2018

Apologies for the radio silence – we’ve had a great and inspiring weekend touring the mini hollands of Enfield and Waltham Forest – and now suddenly it is Wednesday and I have neither written it up nor anything else that has happened (although if you are desperate you can catch up via our hashtag). The truth is I have been largely working (the downside of being a freelancer that they never tell you about is the way your work follows you around so that you are never quite free of the dreaded laptop and the hunt for a quiet corner with WiFi to squeeze in some work) and catching up with old friends leaving little time for anything else.

This afternoon, being free of the laptop for once, and having some time to kill between coffee and cake and chat with one friend and the book launch of another (go buy the book, by the way. It’s got a bicycle on the cover and everything), I decided to walk across central London from Trafalgar Square to Bank. There’s no city in the world other than London that I could dare to do this in without a map – while I can (and do) get lost coming out of a pub toilet, I can generally navigate my way around my old home city based on the map that’s indelibly ingrained in my head and the fact that it’s laid out like a sensible city with the river down the middle and a gentle slope down towards the centre (Edinburgh, I’m looking at you).

Saint Pauls

With time still to kill, I crossed over the wobbly bridge to Tate Modern to check out the swings (and, ahem, offload some of that coffee). I noticed as I sat down on one to take the weight off my feet that I had instinctively done so tube-passenger style – even though the swing would be better balanced had I sat in the middle, I sat at the end, so that if anyone else wanted to sit on the swing they could do so without sitting right next to me. These are the things that get into your blood if you live and commute in London, and they are habits that cannot be shaken.

sitting on a swing

Never mind the centre of gravity …

In fact, as I stopped on the bridge to marvel at the ever changing skyline (if London had a state bird, it would be the crane), I realised that I may not have lived here for 10 years, but I will always walk fast and chafe at being trapped behind slow-moving tourists to the point of stepping out into the road rather than be held up. I will always know that if you’re going to Covent Garden you actually want to get off at Leicester Square and nip down the back alleyway behind the theatre. I will always walk up the escalator even if I’m not in a hurry and glare at the people who don’t stand on the right. I will always mind the gap and move right down inside the car. I will always cross the road when there’s a gap in the traffic, regardless of what the green man says. I will always know which side of the river is the right one. I will always pedantically insist that Big Ben is the bell. And I will always ensure that I sit down in such a way as to enable us all to maximise the distance between ourselves and everyone else for as long as possible. In short, I am a Londoner and will always be a Londoner and the fact that I no longer live here is an irrelevance.

London buildings

Who put those buildings there?

That said, I’m quite looking forward to going home tomorrow…

Health Checkup, Rural Style

June 19, 2017

To the clinic for my annual checkup, where my weight and blood pressure are measured (no signs of damage from my cake-based lifestyle), and then the usual three questions:

“Do you smoke at all, and if so how much?”

“Do you drink at all, and if so how much?”


“No need to ask you that question, you’re out on your bike all the time.”

It’s nice to know someone’s noticed…

Homeward Bound

May 23, 2017

I was going to blog last night about our urban osprey spotting adventures but then I heard the horrific news about Manchester and it all seemed a little pointless.

bike and spring flowers

In an hour or two I set off on the long journey home, alone, because the other half is staying on an extra week to spend a bit more time with his parents. I don’t know what the mood is like in the UK, because I’m getting my news from a mixture of Twitter and the US news networks, but I’m hoping I will get back to the usual mixture of off-colour humour, persistent grumbling about peripheral issues and quiet acts of kindness that has traditionally got us through these sorts of attacks in the past. There’s a lot I haven’t recognised about my own country in recent months, but when our ability to take the piss in the face of danger deserts us, then I know that we are truly lost.

On a cheerier note, we were out for a last bike ride this morning and got chatting to a young Glasgwegian lad with a nice looking touring set up who is busy cycling across the United States. We’ve lived near Bigtown long enough now that we were completely unsurprised to discover he had done some of his medical training at Bigtownshire Hospital, and was good pals with the son of our GP. But of course. Indeed, these days wherever we might roam – Outer Mongolia, say, or half way up Kilimanjaro, or down at the bottom of the Marianas Trench – we’d be surprised and disappointed not to bump into someone from Bigtown who knew someone we knew.

A Mini Infrastructure Safari

February 15, 2017


So it turns out that, even if you leave your Brompton at home, when you’re staying with London’s premier cycle campaigner* that doesn’t let you off the hook of going and inspecting the first actual spade-in-the-ground development of her local Mini Holland. Which is how I found myself on a borrowed bike heading for a mini Mini Holland infrastructure safari along Green Lanes, possibly the least accurately named road in London, following the ghostly turn of her tandem’s rear pedals,** remembering how foul London’s air tastes and how fond London drivers are of just nuuuuudging out of a junction to make a turn with little consideration for anyone who might technically have right of way.

flowers in remembrance

We passed a sad little bundle of flowers on a lamppost and the garage where my sister witnessed a pedestrian being stretchered away (and where on our return trip I almost got stretchered away myself after a driver decided that her need to turn right onto the road completely overrode, almost literally, my actual right of way on the particular bit of road she wanted to turn onto).

Mini Holland roadworks on Green Lanes

Defending this work against a nasty backlash has been something my sister has put her heart and soul into in recent years, and so it was nice to go and witness the things she has been fighting for start to take shape on the ground. From a British (if not a Dutch) perspective, the first few bits are promising, if not perfect – it’s nice to finally see a parking-protected bike lane, albeit one that’s just a shade too narrow for easy sociable cycling. Orcas and wands will hopefully reinforce the idea that the parking isn’t over the top of the bike lane, as is more or less standard in this country, but as a shield between cyclists and the traffic.

parking protected bike lane

It took a little puzzling to work out what this was – it’s enabling cyclist to more comfortably turn right out of this side road. Perhaps a spot of sign-make-it-better might be in order here.

right turn lane

There are other quibbles I can make, like the bus stop boarders that double as mini roller coasters (although they are quite fun, in their way). But even so, the signs are that Green Lanes will be transformed into something that is still neither green, nor a lane, but where my nieces will at least be able to cycle safely (if not comfortably side by side).

And – given how cycling infrastructure like this makes roads safer for everyone, not just cyclists – we can hope that one day the only flowers we find on the streets are old Christmas wreaths left puckishly decorating a plastic wand, rather than memorialising yet another needless death on the road.

Christmas Wreath

Oh and – entirely off topic, but top marks to the anonymous Londoner who had decorated a gleaming black Porsche all over with post-it notes casting aspersions on the owner’s parentage, personality and general road manners – whether because of something they did or simply because they own a Porsche I don’t know, but it did make me giggle the rest of the way home.

* who happens be my little sister. I tell you, I taught her everything she knows

** there was no way on God’s green earth I was actually going to get on the back of it; I might acknowledge her success as a campaigner but she is still my little sister and there are limits