101 Uses for a Brompton: Getting Directions

September 7, 2015

I am in That London with my Brompton for a flying visit, having been asked to help chair a round table (I still get Monty Python songs going round my head whenever I hear that phrase; no doubt eventually I will grow out of it*) for the Near Miss Project which is researching cyclists’ experiences of all those scary moments where your life and usually the tail end of a double-decker bus passes before your eyes which means you get to both help science AND have an audience for all those ‘and then you won’t believe what the driver did …’ stories that your nearest and dearest have long since stopped listening to (and if you missed being part of the Near Miss Project last year, never fear, they are recruiting again). This meant Bromptoning from Euston to Vauxhall yesterday, a trip which went reasonably well, adjusted for the fact that I decided to improvise a little in Soho and found myself unexpectedly heading northeast with the firm conviction that I was going south, something that could happen to anybody as long as that person has the sense of direction of a compass in a tin mine.

Today I had to navigate my way from Vauxhall to Baker Street & when I asked my hosts for advice on timings and routes the suggestion was ‘On a bike? Don’t’. Twitter was a little more gung ho, however, and between us we worked out a route over Lambeth Bridge (Vauxhall Bridge has a fantabulous wide separated new cycle track but it’s only currently accessible going southbound), up to St. James’ Park, through Hyde Park and then working my way north – or, you know, possibly south if I wasn’t careful – to Baker Street. Some of this I knew well enough from Disgruntled Commuter days, so I only went the wrong way a couple of times (it’s been a while), and having crossed the river safely I paused at one of the map monoliths to check I was more or less where I thought I was. A passing Bromptonaut, spotting a fellow owner, paused to ask if I knew where I was going and reassured me I was on the right track. We then fell into conversation (I admired his very nifty arrangement of water bottle holders on the back of his saddle), and, having tactfully pointed out the off-road cycle path just as I was about to fling myself into the maelstrom of angry taxis that is the Mall, he more or less took me under his wing and guided me the rest of the way to Hyde Park. Clearly either Londoners have mellowed, I look even more helpless than I am, or the fellowship of the folding bike trumps all rules about not talking to strangers. Either way I was grateful.

I could have done with my native guide as I made my way to King’s Cross after the event. Somehow my cunning plan of riding parallel to the Marylebone Road along quieter streets by Regent’s Park turned into me being decanted straight back onto it. The last time I cycled along that road I was 22 and foolhardy and heading to Paddington with an enormous backpack on my back to take up a last minute place on a course in Bristol. With no greater sense of direction than I have now – but considerably more courage and less sense – I had simply followed the main roads and, when I came to some big junction as the lights were turning orange, accelerated instead of stopping, not considering just how much slower a bike is through a junction than a car. Somehow I made it across alive with traffic coming at me from what seemed like every direction, horns blaring. It’s a moment that is imprinted on my memory though, for ever more.

There were no horns this afternoon, and no near misses either, although I can’t say the experience was exactly pleasant. I’ll be looking forward to getting home again, where the main hazard is buzzards rather than buses and the only horns I hear are my neighbours, saying hello…

* OK, maybe not


At the Speed of Chat

July 15, 2015

Riding back from Bigtown yesterday after yoga (it’s like riding with freshly oiled legs; I recommend it) I saw a rider turn into the road ahead of me. He didn’t appear to be going that fast initially, but I had more trouble than I expected reeling him in on the uphills and when I did finally draw level and said hello, he told me he was riding an electric bike, so naturally I had to settle in alongside him and find out more, along with a fair chunk of his life story (mid-life tragedy, late found happiness and home decorating, among other things…).

I have to admit – much though my inner Londoner might cringe – that happening across some cycling stranger and spending a few miles setting the world to rights with them one way or another is one of my favourite things about cycling around here. Our roads are quiet enough that you don’t have to be constantly pulling over to let drivers past, and the culture is friendly enough that merely taking the time to pause, say hello and compliment your fellow cyclist on their bike (what do you mean you don’t do that?) and enquire if they are going far is often enough to start a conversation, should they be up for one (I hasten to point out that if I merely get a grunt in reply, or a pointed reference to the fact that they ‘must be holding me up’ then I take the hint and pedal on – you can take the girl out of London, but you can’t completely take London out of the girl). Obviously this only applies to cyclists who are slower than me or who overhaul me and are then happy to fall in with my pace, so it limits my options somewhat unless they’re carrying a tree, but I’ve still passed many a happy ride that way although I’m always a little startled at how much people are prepared to divulge of their lives to a passing stranger (it’s a boon to the practising novelist though). And there is something about holding a conversation as you pedal that makes the miles melt away much more easily than when you’re on your own, and it’s got nothing at all to do with wind resistance.


That Heatwave in Full

July 2, 2015

Tuesday

Awake to drizzle, and the news that the UK is in the grip of a heatwave, something that apparently knocks the Greek crisis, refugees, striking French ferry workers and even British players not quite losing at tennis out of the headlines. My Twitter timeline fills up with people telling me how hot it is already. Head out into the scorching 15 degree temperatures and intermittent rain for the village school bike picnic…

By the time we have escorted all the kids up to the caravan park and round and back down again, and ushered them back to school, the rain has stopped and the sun is edging out. Cycle into Bigtown for a paper and get a bit warm. Cool off the minute I get into the house, which is several degrees cooler than, apparently, the rest of the entire planet, according to  my Twitter feed.

As evening comes we realise we’re better off outside, where it is finally warm enough to eat outside. Sit out into the long evening, accompanied by Chilled Hare, who has decided to join us, and enjoying the fragrance of the night-scented stock for the first time since I planted it. Feel that this is the life.

Wednesday

Awake to clouds, but as we open the door and go outside we realise the heat has finally arrived, except in the house, of course. Rashly change into shorts. Head up to the walled garden until even I have to admit that it is too hot to do anything sensible. Tweet, to let everyone know how hot it is, in case there’s anyone left who may not have realised it (perhaps they, too, live in a damp Scottish stone cottage).

We take the bikes to Bigtown to recce a route and stop for lunch at the Greek cafe which has managed to survive two years still serving actual Greek food, rather than succumbing to dishing up haggis panini, the signature dish of all other Bigtown eateries.* For about half an hour, as we sit at the outside tables watching the world go by and listening to the assembled Greek population of Bigtown set the world to rights(I assume they were talking about the crisis, but who knows – Greek, like Italian, seems to make any discussion sound like an impassioned political argument; they may just have been reading tweets out to each other about how hot it was) it feels as if we are on holiday. Cycle home to find my timeline full of people’s cancelled trains and sweaty tube journeys and general meltdowns and feel a bit smug. Admittedly, by now it is raining, but it is warm rain.

Thursday

Awake to fog, and the news that yesterday was the hottest July day in the history of ever. Up here, normal service has resumed, the shorts go back into the drawer, and the neighbour takes delivery of a lorry load of firewood.

Still, it was nice while it lasted.

* I swear I am not making this up.


Northern Enlightenment

June 23, 2015

… and now, as they say, for something completely different, although having said that, it did start on Twitter. Last night just as I was thinking of going to bed, I noticed a tweet warning me that a solar storm was on and there was a high likelihood of seeing the northern lights in the UK in about – ooh, well about that very moment. Perfect timing. It was a clear evening and we have little light pollution around us so I could just pop out the door and have a look for any mysterious glowing lights to the north of us.

Just one slight problem, which was that at 11pm it wasn’t particularly dark yet. Nor was it dark once I had wasted a bit more time on the internet, brushed my teeth, and nipped out for one more look at around 11:30. Nor was it much darker by the time I had sat on our garden wall in the quiet for a while and watched the bats flying around overhead and got a fright as an owl screeched from a nearby tree, and the other half came out to join me for a look. There certainly was a light in the sky to the north of us but it wasn’t all that mysterious, and if we were honest, it looked much more like the last glow of the setting sun than the aurora borealis, or at least how we imagined the aurora borealis might look, given that we’ve neither of us actually seen it. So we watched it for a bit to see if it might do something, and then we strolled up along the road to the top of the rise to get a better look at it not doing anything, waking up the neighbour’s horses which galloped around their field in the dusk, and then we stood for a while and looked at it not doing anything and agreed that we had no idea whether it was the after-effects of a sun storm, or just the after-effects of the sun setting. And by this time, it being almost midnight, we decided it could be what it liked, it was bedtime, and so we returned home.*

And I would have liked at this point to add something philosophical about how it was worth it anyway, northern lights or no northern lights, just to take advantage of the wonderful long days and lingering dusks of summer and to take a break from the dreaded internet and go out and experience the beauty of the evening for ourselves – but the midgies were being absolute murder and frankly, I was glad to get indoors.

* I note that I came to exactly the same conclusion three years ago. Stop me when all this repeating myself gets boring, won’t you?


Cheerfully Misdirecting Londoners

June 17, 2015

A knock on the door, and I go to answer to find a genial well-spoken stranger on the doorstep.

GW-SS: ‘Oh hello, I’m looking for X, she’s staying at the holiday cottages.’

Me: ‘Ah, you’ve stopped too soon, you need to go on up the road and they’re on the left.’

GW-SS: ‘Ah, she said they were third on the left after the turning.’

He then looked at me expectantly as though all he had to do was wait and I would crack and admit that yes, these really were the holiday cottages and I had X bound and gagged in our pantry. Because obviously that would be much more likely than the fact that the person who lives here might actually know more about where the holiday cottages were than he did. But I didn’t say any of that because there’s no arguing with some people and after a while he persuaded himself that this wasn’t the third property on the left, but just the third property as some of them were on the right, and off he went. Presumably to argue with our landlords about whether *they* were the holiday cottages …

I do thank our lucky stars that we’re not the unfortunate inhabitants of the house at the dead centre of our postcode, who must have all manner of strangers turn up at their door and try and get them to admit that they were the house the strangers were looking for, on the grounds that their sat nav was insisting ‘you have arrived’, when in fact they might still be miles away.


Jam Tomorrow

May 8, 2015

Well, that was depressing. I went to bed at around midnight before any significant results were in, and got up to the prospect of a renewed Tory government possibly propped up by the DUP (slogan: ‘Ulster says no; what was the question?’*). Things are somewhat better in Scotland but, while I don’t buy any of the ‘most dangerous woman in Britain’ nonsense about the SNP, I don’t think it’s healthy to have one party sweep the board the way they have in Scotland. Add in the now inevitable EU referendum – you know, the EU that the Scots were told they would have to leave and reapply to join if they dared vote for independence, that EU – and the prospect of £12bn coming out of some unspecified part of the social security budget, and I can say that Scotland today – or maybe just this one Scottish resident – feels far more estranged from what’s going on south of the border than it ever did during the giddy days of the September referendum.

But hey. The sun shone (and that wasn’t forecast either – perhaps the Met office could start predicting election outcomes and the polling organisations could have a crack at the weather; they can hardly do any worse), I had to ride into town to put together a Fankle and catch up on almost three months of literary gossip, and by the time I was cycling back I was feeling somewhat restored to myself, if not any more optimistic about the immediate political future. And tomorrow, I have invited some cycling buddies to come and help me celebrate 46 years on the planet with a 46-mile pootle around our back roads and I had preparations to make:

Chocolate peanut butter brownies

Chocolate peanut-butter brownies

lemon and caraway cakes

Lemon and caraway-seed cakes. Round cupcakes are so last year, you know…

Two of them are coming from England. I’m semi-expecting them to claim asylum as soon as they step off the train. At least they won’t go hungry, anyway

*remind me again how awful it was going to be to have a party from the fringes of the United Kingdom holding the English to ransom, oh no wait, that was only a problem when it was the Scots, sorry, my mistake.


Old Habits Die Hard

May 6, 2015

Cherry trees in the Meadows

No rest for the wicked: today I had a flying visit to Embra to get the Brompton serviced (it has, after all, only been about a year since its derailleur stopped working properly, leaving me with just the 3 gears, but what’s 12 months between friends), and do some advanced plotting with @Backonmybike about the Women’s Cycle Forum which will be steaming back for another triumphant run at the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling (available for booking now! Come on, you know you want to…).

I should probably have done my usual multi-modal bike-bus-train route to Edinburgh (and by ‘usual’ I mean ‘haven’t actually done it since the other half has been around to give me a lift to the train station’. Oops. I do mean to, but there’s always a good reason) but it was raining and I had slept in, so I ended up getting a lift to Lockerbie (these are the sort of good reasons I mean). We had left plenty of time, or so I thought, but as we pulled up at the station I saw what looked like my train arriving at the platform. Thinking the trains must be seriously messed up, I was taking no chances. Out I hopped from the car, grabbed my Brompton from the boot, kissed the other half goodbye (these things are important even if you have a train to catch) and dashed onto the platform and into the train before I thought to ask ‘this is the Edinburgh train, isn’t it?’

Mental note to self: you are not a London commuter any more, and you do not have to treat every train like the last helicopter from Saigon. Fortunately, the doors hadn’t closed so I could get off what turned out to be the Glasgow train and go and buy a ticket for Edinburgh at a civilised pace.

pub puppy

Anyway, Brompton and I made it safely to the Brompton dealers (by walking; the one-way system around Haymarket is INSANE) where I was lectured about proper chain maintenance and then on to a pub with hot and cold running puppies, well, puppy, but a seriously cute one. The Brompton dealers relieved me of a not insignificant sum of cash (but I’ve still spent less on both bikes this year than we will on servicing the car) and I got to watch a newly minted Brompton owner take charge of his first fold (ah, bless … almost as sweet as a puppy) and then ride back to Haymarket on a freshly fettled but, disturbingly, still a bit squeaky Brompton. All in all, a satisfying day out for all concerned.


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