Bordering on the Ridiculous

December 22, 2018

So, we’ve safely arrived in Newcastle (County Down) for Christmas, which means I’m statutorily obliged to quote Percy French.

mourn mountains

“Where the Mountains o’ Mourne sweep down to the sea”

But before we settle into our normal programme of quality control of the cafes and ice cream parlours (it is indeed December, and your point is? Morelli’s is still open), we first paid a lightning visit to some of my Dublin relatives. We thought we’d also take the opportunity on the way back to make the acquaintance in real life of Twitter celebrity, The Irish Border.

This is easier said than done. Clearly too busy tweeting to be actually present on the ground, we crossed where it should have been three times in less than a mile, with no sign of it on the ground.

It’s one thing to talk about a ‘frictionless border’ in the abstract. It’s another to realise that you can come off the dual carriageway on a slip road and cross an international border, only to recross it when coming off the roundabout – and cross it again up the road with no clue that you have done so beyond an unexpected cluster of fireworks sellers and petrol stations suggesting there might be some arbitrage opportunities to be exploited somewhere not entirely clear where in the vicinity.

I’d hoped to get a photo of the change, but we blinked and missed it, so this was the best I could do. Seriously, they make more fuss of the border between England and Scotland.

welcome to Newry, Mourne and Down

I was going to make some solemn point about the amazing changes that have taken place since the Good Friday agreement and the dangers of a return to check points and so on, but having seen what it’s currently like on the ground, all I can say is that if we think we can put a functioning border of any description between the Republic and the North, then we’re deluding ourselves. No wonder our Dublin relatives can’t seem to tear their eyes away from the impending disaster.

What an almighty cockup this all is. And a Merry Christmas to you all …


Shouldering On

December 14, 2018

With my half century approaching I’ve not really suffered any of the real problems of age – but ever since I turned 40 and realised my warranty had effectively expired, the ageing process has been an accumulation of small inconveniences and indignities (the latter usually visited by some dangerously young-looking health professional or other pointing out that x is only to be expected at one’s advancing age). I remained braced for the menopause, and resigned to the possibility of reading glasses, but what I wasn’t expecting was to have a lifetime’s habit cruelly snatched away from me.

Not cycling (it remains my chief hope for holding back time), but reading in bed. Ever since I can remember, I have read my books in bed while lying on my side. This remains the last thing I do every night, even if only for a page or two, curled up under the duvet and reading until the words stop making sense, before falling asleep. Sadly no more. For I have developed what Dr. Google has diagnosed as a rotator cuff injury (so much more impressive sounding than a sore shoulder). Not only can I not read comfortably in bed, I now can’t sleep comfortably either and – most distressing of all – it’s painful to reach out for my cup of coffee from the coffee table when lounging on the sofa.

Obviously the response to ‘Doctor it hurts when I do this’ is to stop doing it, so I’ve had to try various tactics – reading on the other side (but then my bedside light is in the wrong place and I’d probably only end up knackering the other one too), reading sitting up in bed (wrong), reading lying flat with my book above my head (wronger than wrong), and (inevitably) hoping it’s got better and going back to reading on my right side (ouch, but oh it just feels so natural). I’ve also discovered that when I wake up at four am and need to go back to sleep before I start systematically visiting all my anxieties in turn to keep them all fresh, my body’s signal to the brain that it’s time to go back to sleep is to turn onto my right side. So I’m getting up either in pain or unrefreshed, or a combination of both, and it’s making me grumpy.

More to the point, it’s got so that I no longer really look forward to going to bed with a book which, as a former boarding school pupil, has always been one of my chief pleasures in life (I discovered fairly quickly that going to bed early was the best way to get undisturbed reading time alone, something it had never occurred to them to ban until then). A quick search of the internet suggests that the answer may be better pillows and/or a replacement mattress (this mainly according to sites that sell mattresses). It also suggests that the world of pillows has moved on from just being a bag stuffed with feathers (I don’t know about you, but I’ve read enough fairy tales to be wary of sleeping on anything that bills itself as being made of ‘memory foam’). This all feels a bit complicated because you can pay anything from £15 to £100 for a pillow and no guarantee that it will do any good.

So, loyal readers – any recommendations as to pillows for the confirmed side sleeper? Or is this just one of the many downward steps on the road to dereliction?

Come Back Rita, All is Forgiven

December 8, 2018

I think I write a variant of this post every time I’m forced onto two feet instead of two wheels for extended periods around Bigtown and realise that it’s often actually worse for the poor beleaguered pedestrian than it is for us cyclists who can at least pretend we’re cars. Still, it’s my blog and I can repeat myself if I want to. And the subject has been on my mind for the past few days, partly because I’ve been taking part in a mostly pedestrian street audit, albeit armed with the biggest, baddest trike in Bigtown, and paying closer than usual attention to the all the things that make walking feel like a third-class means of transport: the caged in crossings and railings, the cracked pavements, and the endless wait for the green man.

bike at the butchers

It’s also been on my mind since I used this old photo last week to illustrate something for the Bigtown Cycle Campaign and realised I could tell it was taken a good 4 years ago (and not just because it was two panniers ago) – because the street in the photo shows people freely strolling down the street, happily checking out the nice independent small shops. Parking in Bigtown has always been a bit of a freestyle affair but ever since people have taken on board the fact that there really are no parking wardens in the entire county a small but growing minority of drivers have taken to effectively parking wherever they sodding well like. The street in the photo is still, officially pedestrianised, but a photo of it taken from the same spot today would basically show a linear car park. It’s a change that’s crept up on us so gradually that we’ve barely noticed what we’ve lost.

So on Thursday, in town without my bike for once, as an experiment, I tried just walking down the same street on Thursday as if it was the genuinely pedestrianised street it used to be. I think I got about two thirds of the way down it before the driver behind me couldn’t stand it any more and hooted their horn, to let me know that there was someone in a more important means of transport behind me, someone I must clearly not have noticed as I would otherwise have got out of their way. Confirmation, if confirmation were needed that the street has been reconquered by cars, all in the name of the God of Parking.

We’ve started trying to fight back – but I think it’s going to take more than the odd pop-up park. Traffic Wardens may once have been the most reviled officials in Christendom, but conversations I’ve had around town in the past week or so suggest they’re starting to be missed. There are complicated legal reasons* why the Coonsil can’t just bring back traffic wardens, but I do occasionally fantasise about the day when they finally do.  And as they turn the corner into the Vennel with their little notebooks in their hands (or whatever the modern traffic warden uses these days), their eyes lighting up at the rich pickings before them, I can only hope I’ll be there to witness the carnage that ensues…

* Anyone who wants an explanation, touching on decriminalised versus criminal parking enforcement and the implications of current Transport Bill going through the Scottish Parliament – feel free to ask in the comments because, sadly, I know …

Loyalty Card

December 2, 2018

One of the (many) downsides of living life in a trail of scattered belongings – and other mishaps – is that I’m constantly needing to get new bank cards after my current one has been lost, stolen, or (a particular high point) efficiently cut in half by me after I’d got my new and old cards muddled up. But it turns out that this has upsides too, and not just the fact that I’m almost on first name terms with my bank’s call centre staff.

You see, because I generally buy all our insurance online using my credit card, by the time it comes up to need renewing the card has usually long gone, so even if I don’t notice the renewal notice, the automatic payment doesn’t go through. This forces me to ring up the customer service line and, while I’m at it, gently enquire why the premiums have gone up, only for the call centre staff to discover that (sound of frantic tapping on the keyboard) actually, they can offer it to me for much less. About what I paid for it last year, in fact. Amazing coincidence. Happy to be of service.

This year, though, it turns out I’ve managed to go an entire 12 months with the same credit card, and while this almost feels like an achievement it also means that when I missed the auto-renewal reminder on our travel insurance, the payment went through automatically. All HOW MUCH?!? of it. A doubling, indeed, of last year’s premium. A year in which we did not trouble our insurers with any claims whatsoever.

Now I know that companies have a way of letting premiums and charges creep up year on year if you’re foolish enough to stick with them, whether out of loyalty or idleness. But I’m pretty sure that it did use to be just that – a creeping up. A ten percent rise here, an extra £20 there. A reasonable price to pay sometimes, just to save yourself the effort of getting a better deal. But it seems as if in the past year, they’ve stopped creeping about and have resorted to daylight robbery. Our house insurance also almost doubled in two years (and is now back down to almost the original premium after I pointed out it was still being offered online at that rate – and, irritatingly, I was made to feel as if it was I who was doing something shabby by insisting on them not massively overcharging us for our ‘loyalty’, not them).

Anyway, thankfully, there’s a 14-day cooling off period on all insurance which means I can ring up and cancel and get the premium back, and we’ll get new travel insurance when we actually need it, assuming we’ll still be able to go anywhere come the 29th March. And I may also go back to regularly losing my cards, too, as a precaution – because it turns out that that 14-day period comes courtesy of the European Union, along with many other barriers to the sort of go-go capitalism I’m sure the Tories would rather see. Never mind your chlorinated chicken, keep a close eye on your insurance premiums. And your mobile roaming charges. And anything the chiselling bastards think they might just get away with.

Funny how caveat emptor wasn’t one of the fine Latin phrases that otherwise seem to trip so easily off the Brexiteers’ tongues…

Knocking the Stuffing Out

November 24, 2018

A fair amount of crashing and banging from the garage this morning heralded the fact that the other half was getting on with a sad but necessary rite.

Sofa being dismantled

The sofa we had bought as newlyweds from the ramshackle little antique shop (I spotted it on the pavement outside just as the proprietors were scratching their heads and wondering how to rearrange their stock to fit it inside, and I made them a fairly cheeky offer to save them the bother) was for the chop.

Described as ‘a good sofa for cuddling on’ it proved extremely comfortable as demonstrated here by the cat.

sleepy cat

But 25 years of service takes it out of even the most robust upholstery and when we moved to the new house and there was only room for one sofa, it was this one that didn’t make the cut. It has spent two years in the garage which didn’t really do it any further favours. A spring had gone, the stuffing was coming out of the bottom and the sides were peeling off. Re-upholstering it would have cost more than it was worth, and we still wouldn’t really have had a place to put it even if we had returned it to its former glory.

sofa springs

And now we need the space in the garage, so it had to go, broken down into its constituent parts (and yielding 85p in change and the remote control to a digi-box we no longer own in the process). I’m sad we let it get into such a state we couldn’t find it a new home, but at least as much of it as possible will be recycled or reused.

sofa parts

Sorry old friend. Not the most dignified way to go, but perhaps better than the dump.

And at least, courtesy of the stove, you gave us one more comfortable evening in …

bucket of wood

Getting Off at Haymarket

August 8, 2018

So I thought I had worked out Haymarket. After several episodes when I have confidently headed in any number of wrong directions, I should have learned that if I know anything, it’s that I don’t know which way to go when I come out of Haymarket station and that – due to the fact that Edinburgh’s topology is in some indefinable way just wrong – whichever way I think I’m going, that way will be the wrong way. Indeed, I should know by know that the only sure way I can ever navigate around Edinburgh is to head for the Pedal on Parliament route and go from there, as, after 7 years, I’ve just about got that one committed to memory (unlike the Glasgow one…) or failing that just break down and turn the GPS onto my phone and let the magic of technology guide me.

However, having arranged to meet a friend for lunch yesterday near where I’d got the Brompton serviced, I might have got a bit too cocky. After all, I had navigated the route before, and I had looked at Google Maps to check, and I had cross referenced it with the map outside the station. I was fairly certain which direction to head off in, so it was just a question of discarding Google’s walking route suggestion as clearly insane and … heading off confidently down the wrong road. I swear to God Edinburgh rearranges itself every time my back is turned.

This may also explain why, having had a very enjoyable 3-hour lunch (there wasn’t even any booze involved, but there may have been cake and there was certainly gossip) I managed to completely fail to find the Central Library, despite it actually being on the POP route, someone having unaccountably moved it to the other side of the George IV Bridge when I wasn’t looking. Honestly, the festival really has gone too far these days.

The worst part was I was on foot, which meant battling along Edinburgh’s unnacountably narrow pavements through festival crowds, every single one of whom appeared to be either handing out flyers or doing the mime act of ‘man stopping to consult mobile phone abruptly in the middle of the pavement’ (although, to be fair, they might have been trying to work out where another Edinburgh landmark had rearranged itself to now). As I had already been walked off my feet by my friends in Fife, I was pretty footsore and weary when I finally made it down to the Princes Street Gardens, which was still where I’d left it, and a very welcome bench. How anyone manages to survive Edinburgh in August I will never know.

Fortunately, after five bikeless days in strange lands we will be back home tomorrow, and I will know never to leave my Brompton behind ever again…

Tour de France

June 15, 2018

french maps

So, we’re setting off today with our bikes via 5 trains (including one sleeper), 24 hours, and an exciting ‘you may well not die’ bike ride through central Paris. We’re going to be doing a week or so of what I hesitate to call cycle touring, because I associate that with the sort of people who think nothing of 90km days, sleeping in bus stops, and crossing continents alone equipped with nothing but a bike, a map they picked up in a garage and a bag of jelly babies in their back pocket.

Our own plans are resolutely non-epic: approximately 30 miles a day, long lunches, sleeping in hotels, plentiful stops for cake and coffee – in short, cycle pootling, or in other words a holiday with a bit of cycling attached. Hopefully it will be enjoyable, because it’s costing approximately what we’d have paid for a fortnight in Barbados, once we’d booked all the trains. Also, I could now go on Mastermind with ‘taking your bike on European trains’ as my specialist subject.  We’ll have to tear ourselves away from the hares, which are being particularly adorable at the moment, and the garden which is just getting going (when the hares allow). Actually, I have no idea why we’re going on holiday at all, now I come to think of it, but it’s too late now …

I am also NOT taking my laptop so there won’t be any blogging for a bit. I’ll undoubtedly be tweeting and (if you’re desperate) posting carefully curated pictures on Instagram. Hopefully we will come back tanned, toned and ready to take on the world. Always assuming we make it through Paris on day one.

Wish us luck.