Out of My Comfort Zone

February 19, 2020

There seems to be a rail-based conspiracy at the moment to keep me stuck in my corner of South West Scotland. First the timetable for trains to Edinburgh got so messed up that it’s barely worth attempting the trip, and now a landslip has turned the otherwise slow-but-civilised Bigtown to Glasgow chuffer service into an obstacle course of rail-replacement bus services and all the uncertainty that entails. Unfortunately, this happened after I’d agreed to head to Glasgow to give a short presentation (and, to be fair, attend a half-day networking event) meaning six hours of travelling to deliver one 2 minute slide show.

glasgow cycling bridge

In fact, the total travelling time was technically longer, but the rest of it was by bike which never feels like time wasted. Cycling in Glasgow is usually quite challenging but amazingly enough, I was able to do the four-mile trip from Glasgow Central to the venue entirely off road and only got lost twice and then only a little bit. Given that I’d responded to the pre-event survey question ‘describe cycling in Glasgow in one word’ with ‘terrifying’ this was a welcome surprise.

railway line cycle path

I had meant to use the part of the journey I could do by train to get on with some work, but in the end I got chatting to a chap who sat opposite me at Kilmarnock. He opened with a joke (as is traditional in the west of Scotland) and I responded in kind and by the time it became clear this was someone I’d probably steer well clear of on Twitter (pro Brexit, anti Independence, and an HGV driver who when he learned I was a cyclist asked me to tell my colleagues to cycle as far to the left as was possible) I actually quite liked the guy. So instead of hiding behind my laptop – the in-person equivalent of muting him – I decided to keep talking. After all, we’re all about getting out of our bubbles these days. I didn’t try and tackle anything contentious – but I asked him about his life and work (as he’d asked me about mine) and learned a lot about the pressures he is under – paid less than he was 30 years ago, coping with busier roads and worse drivers, under intrusive surveillance, competing with drivers who know less than he does and generally fed up with it all. But he also talked about the good things – seeing the length and breadth of the country, meeting interesting people, and the joys of an early morning run when it’s just him and the scenery and the wildlife, including one stag that stood blocking his way and wouldn’t move because it genuinely did think it owned the road.

No great revelations were had on either side, but we parted on good terms, having agreed that it was a shame kids didn’t have anywhere safe to cycle these days, and perhaps he learned something too – about why a bike might be in the middle of the road and that the person on board could just as well be the nice middle-aged lady he chatted to on the train, just trying to keep herself safe, as some tosser in lycra who was obliviously holding him up as he tried to get on with his job.

Glasgow cycle path

All in all, perhaps not such a waste of time after all.


Far From Disgruntled

January 19, 2020

frozen moss on wall

It’s been a long time since I was Disgruntled Commuter, so it was a nice nostalgia trip to appear in the paper as a ‘disgruntled cyclist‘ instead (although I can only apologies for our failure to be photographed in proper angry person in local paper style – we were feeling quite pleased with ourselves at the time and weren’t expecting the story to get any actual coverage).

Inevitably when these sort of stories appear we get comments asking why cyclists have to clear their own paths, while motorists get their roads maintained for them. Obviously the main point of such an exercise (apart from actually clearing the path) is embarrassing the council into doing something about it although at the moment Bigtownshire Coonsil is proving itself unembarrassable and keeps sending us tweets thanking us for our efforts and volunteer spirit.

And I would also like it noted that this morning, we headed down to the bottom of our road to the icy spot on the corner and spread some grit on it ourselves.

our road

Because frankly, when your road looks like this, you really can’t expect anyone to grit it for you. We’re fortunate to have not one but two nice full grit bins – one handily outside our gate – and we’re perfectly happy to do a bit of amateur gritting as needed.

Either way brisk walk on a frosty morning and a little purposeful activity to work off our morning cinnamon rolls really is no hardship indeed.

frosty woods


Heat Treatment

July 26, 2019

In this week’s edition of ‘be careful what you wish for’ – after a day spent energetically trolling the weather gods on Twitter, I was rewarded with the arrival of the heatwave in Bigtown yesterday, about 48 hours after everyone else had been forced to freeze their bedlinen to get a decent night’s sleep.

It was so hot, I even abandoned my tweed cap and gloves for the cycle down to Bigtown, where the drivers were extra grumpy (hello actually swerving at the cyclist for the temerity of existing) and the tar was melting on the roads. A few chips of stone stuck to my tyres aside, there’s little a heatwave can do (beyond heatstroke) to hamper my cycling – I just cycled even slower than I normally do and enjoyed the experience of being warm.

No such luck for my visiting friend who had hoped to escape London’s heat with a weekend in Scotland and instead got to spend 3 hours on a sweltering train outside Euston while our rail infrastructure went into meltdown. By the time she was rescued and taken back to Euston, even the Virgin rail staff weren’t recommending she get onto any of their trains so she is trying again today.

It did mean she missed our evening’s entertainment: the heat had brought thunderstorms to Bigtown below us so we switched off the internet (we’ve lost 2 routers since we moved to a house on the top of a hill …), and sat on the bench with a beer in the evening sunshine, watching it pass by us safely by.

approaching storm

According to the forecast, this now pretty much concludes our summer. If anyone’s feeling a bit hot still in London, bear that in mind as we put our jumpers back on and wonder how soon before we can start lighting the fire. Or come up and join us, always assuming you can find a working train.


Home. And Away

January 22, 2019

I’m back from London after far too many social engagements for someone of my normally retiring habits. I’d normally be looking forward to a restful few days to recover (and a chance to catch up with the blog) but this is only a brief pit stop to pick up clean pants and our funeral clothes before flying off to France to say goodbye properly to my brother in law.

cobweb

Normal service will resume next week.


Dirty Ol’ City

January 18, 2019

Ah yes, you know you’re in London when – in among the normal notices about standing well clear of the doors and taking care when exiting the train – you hear the following announcement

‘Please don’t urinate in the passages. Will men stop urinating in the passages. Will the man in the passage between platforms 3 and 4 please stop urinating in it.’

They say Londoners wouldn’t turn their heads to look at someone even if their hair was on fire, but I can assure you that the man who finally emerged from the passageway between platforms 3 and 4 had our full attention.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should make the effort to get back to my native city more often than once a year. This wasn’t one of those occasions.


Times Tables

November 19, 2018

What with one thing and another, I seem to have spent the last three weeks on a train with one or other of my bikes. This weekend it was Glasgow and the Go Bike AGM where I was filling in for my little sister as a speaker. Bigtown to Glasgow is usually pretty civilised by train, as long as you check the football schedules before making any plans – the train is slow but scenic and takes six bikes without any need to effectively lock yourself in a cupboard and have faith that someone will let you out, unlike when travelling on Virgin, so the big bike gets to go, which is fortunate as Glasgow has potholes that would swallow a Brompton whole.

bike on train platform

There’s a snag, however. I stayed overnight in Glasgow so I wouldn’t have to be rushing for the last train or, indeed, suffer the horror that is the last train out of Glasgow on a Saturday, a journey that can sometimes be a bit … lively. Unfortunately this meant that the first train I could get home on a Sunday was at 3 in the afternoon (and the next one after that at 10), which is the sort of service you might expect from a country bus, not the direct train service between Scotland’s largest city and a fairly major town about 75 miles away. So my kind hosts were stuck with me not just overnight but well into Sunday lunchtime too.

Fortunately, it being a sunny morning and they being cyclists too, they had just the plan to fill the morning. A nice pootle round Pollok Park (and fortunately it was a pootle – these being people who think nothing of 100 mile days on the bike), followed by brunch after we’d worked up an appetite. Brunch isn’t something that’s quite reached Bigtown yet as far as I know, so it was a welcome novelty. Indeed, it was a bit of a novelty not to be rushing anywhere, so maybe the Bigtown Sunday train service has a point.

cycling in Pollok Park

Today I had the luxury of having nowhere I needed to get to other than a ride out for the paper, and nothing I had to do except make inroads into a stack of work that’s building up. I don’t think it will last – indeed I have to be in Edinburgh on Thursday, having forced lots of Important People to rearrange their schedules because – guess what – the train service meant I’d have to spend three hours hanging around before the meeting if it had been at its originally scheduled time. Ironically enough, it’s at Transport Scotland (and yes they’ve had some full and frank feedback about rail services to the South West) but it turns out even they can’t make the Transpennine Express stop at Lockerbie on a reasonable schedule.

I seem to remember I used to spend quite a lot of time complaining about the train service in London back in the day. Man, I didn’t even know I was born …


Floundering

April 20, 2018

You know, when you have lived somewhere for almost 10 years (and how did that happen, I want to know), you start to think you’ve got a grip on the place and its little ways and strange customs like talking to strangers on buses. And then you have a conversation in your writers’ group that goes like this:

Local person: yes, it was like at the flounder tramping when I just couldn’t bring myself to stand on a flounder.

Other local person: oh God, they’re so wriggly, I don’t blame you.

Me: Wait, whoa, hang on, back up a minute. Flounder tramping?

So it turns out, there used to be an annual event where you waded out into the sea to go and stand on flounders (you can get a flavour of the excitement here).

Sadly (or perhaps happily if you’re a flounder) it has apparently since been banned on health and safety grounds – although not, presumably, the flounders’. You snooze, you lose, even in the world of bonkers rural pursuits it seems.


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