So yesterday saw us attending an exciting newish venture in Bigtown – an attempt to get a regular repair shop up and running in the town. We weren’t quite sure what to expect as it’s still getting set up, but we assembled a few broken things, of which there are many in our house, and went along to find out more.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m better at breaking things than mending them (the other half is a bit more skilled in the other direction) but the group seemed happy to welcome all comers and their broken stuff, and after a welcome and an initial safety chat, people pretty much dived in. There were a mixture of skills on offer and in demand, from sewing to electronics, and it was interesting to see how quickly small groups formed around objects of interest as the evening progressed. The room quickly started to buzz with a mixture of focused concentration and animated discussion. It turns out that taking things apart with a purpose is fun and fascinating, especially when the stakes are fairly low. Unlike the televised Repair Shop these items weren’t treasured heirlooms with a tear-jerking back story, but things which were probably just destined for landfill if they couldn’t be resurrected. Which was a good thing, because also unlike the televised version, we were (with some exceptions) not highly experienced restoration experts at the top of their game, but people with a varying mixture of skills, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. Indeed, even I managed to contribute something, more due to having small hands than any actual ability, but I’m taking that as a win.
After two hours had flown by, we’d helped sort out a lamp switch, I’ve got an idea of how to fix my beloved cow pannier bag and I’ve thought of many many more things that are sitting around in both our house and the Pepperpots’ in various states of disrepair. I hope the Repair Shop people are happy to continue to welcome breakers as well as fixers as they ramp up the system, as I think I will be keeping them in repair jobs for months to come …
Like the rest of the country, we’ve been in the midst of a prolonged cold snap, with temperatures failing to get above freezing at all for the last couple of days.
Fortunately, it’s been combined with (mostly) sunny and calm weather, with no snow apart from a few half-hearted flurries to keep us on our toes. Coming after a week of unrelenting grey (and three solid days of fog), the sunshine has made the cold bearable. It’s been cold on the bike – finger-agonisingly cold at times – but there’s no black ice to deal with and blue skies do just lift the mood. Especially when combined with a sparkly frost all over everything.
In fact, it’s hard to overstate just how beautiful it’s been. Coming back from town on Saturday, the slanting warmth of the sunlight striking the frozen pastel shades of the hills ahead was so beautiful I actually had to stop talking to take it in properly (that’s quite enough sniggering at the back).
So let’s just enjoy the pictures and we’ll draw a veil over the downsides. Like the fact that hanging out your washing in sub-zero temperatures results in frozen wet laundry rather than any actual drying (yeah, I don’t know why I thought the results might be any different now either. It was sunny though…). And that when the ground has frozen solid, harvesting leeks becomes impossible without a pick axe and/or a blow torch (thankfully we still had the neighbour’s monster beetroot to sustain us).
The forecast suggests the cold snap will be ending soon, although possibly not before we get a last hurrah of snow on Friday. Then back to slightly milder, damper, greyer weather. I for one will miss the sparkly cold if so.
Back in July I shared a petition about the planned axing of the only direct link between Bigtown and Edinburgh – the bus service. I was happy to see that, after a spirited campaign from Stand Up for Our Buses, the bus has been reprieved for now, with the hope that it can be funded on a more permanent basis after March.
Pleased as I was, I was also slightly guiltily aware that I personally have only used the bus once, when I was trying to get to Edinburgh on a Sunday (when no trains in the region shall move until After Kirk). Otherwise, I take the bus to Lockerbie and the train from there, a two-hour journey (allowing for connection times) in contrast to three hours on the bus. Signing petitions was all well and good but if I wasn’t willing to use the bus myself, then was it just sentiment to support it? Then again, the train service has become increasingly unreliable in recent months, and if you’re going to end up on a bus replacement service anyway, you might as well cut out the waiting around (and save a few quid) by going straight to the bus, especially with train strikes adding to the fun. So yesterday, with lunch in town with two old pals planned, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and take the bus.
I’ll confess now, that of all forms of public transport, rural bus services give me the most anxiety. In London, you catch a bus, and if one doesn’t show up as advertised, then there literally will be another one along in a minute. Out here, you catch the bus and, in the case of the 101/102, the next one will be along in three hours, so the stakes are quite high. There are no helpful announcements letting you know what’s going on (Bigtown did experiment for a while with electronic bus timetables in some of the bus stops in town but it turned out these were just showing you the schedule, not any sort of live information, and now they’ve all stopped working anyway). If you don’t have an app, then you’re stuck standing in a bus shelter (if you’re lucky), pondering the improbability of any sort of rural bus until it either arrives or it doesn’t.
On the other hand, the truth is that in all my time living up here and taking the bus on various occasions, it’s never not turned up, and barely ever even be late. And so it proved yesterday. Having arrived ridiculously early at the start of the route, the bus (and it very much is a bus; the service to Glasgow is a coach and has an actual toilet on board, as well as space for bikes, but this is pretty basic) arrived a few minutes before schedule. After a little puzzlement from the driver that I was attempting to pay cash (what can I say, I haven’t been on a bus since the Before Times), myself and several young people* were soon sailing north, past several other bus stops nearer our house that I could have used had I had the courage to do so.
This bus takes the scenic route through the Dalveen Pass (and also, crucially, stops at the motorway services along the way for a strategic comfort break for those of us without three-hour bladders). It wasn’t the emptiest bus I’ve been on by a long way, and once it got to Biggar it filled up nicely (and it was soon standing room only on the bus back). Three hours on a bus seat is, it turns out, about half an hour too long for my back and, unlike a train, it’s not possible to do any work on one, so the chances are I’ll be reverting to the train for future Edinburgh visits, unless I’m making the beginner’s error of trying to get there on a Sunday. But the experience has encouraged me to widen my travel horizons a little and try out more rural bus routes, especially out west where there are no trains anyway.
As for the Edinburgh service, I’m not that well versed in the economics of bus routes but it does seem strange that a bus that leaves the city with no spare seats (and with a good dozen folk still on board by the time we reached Bigtown) should be so unviable that it needs to be axed, when most bus routes around here are much less well used. It could be better advertised (it doesn’t help that at the Bigtown end the timetable in the bus stop gives no hint that the bus actually goes to Edinburgh at all, while at the Edinburgh end the timetable was out of date and the bus doesn’t appear on the live bus display), and it would be much more useful and less stressful if it ran a bit more frequently, as it used to do before the pandemic. Surely in these times of climate change, we should be encouraging people to take the bus, and supporting a service that is actually being used? But then again, we should also be enabling people to walk and cycle safely and look how well that’s going …
* Disappointingly, they were all wearing headphones and sat in silence for the entire journey. Normally on a local bus service the conversation quickly becomes general and some good stories are usually had en route.
To anyone who knows me in person, a warning that I’m about to become unrecognisable.
My tweed cap – or bunnet, as it is more properly known around here – worn in all weathers (we have very few days around here in which you would not benefit from something warm and waterproof on your head), is beginning to look more than a little worse for wear.
I’m disappointed, to be honest. This is a proper Harris Tweed cap and it gave every impression of being invulnerable, at least to anything the weather gods could throw at it. I’ve lost count of the number of rides where I’ve come home and the sole part of me that was still dry was the top of my head. I had hoped it would last a little longer than nine years, which appears to be when I got it (thank goodness for a blog which details the minutiae of your life, eh?) Nine years is barely broken in; I’ve only just stopped thinking of it as my ‘new’ cap. I suspect that it has been caught in one thorn bush too many while gardening the wilder reaches of our plot, either that or a dog got it at some point. Or possibly the moths…
Some people have suggested mending it, but I doubt whether my darning efforts, visible or otherwise, would render it properly waterproof, or even wearable in public. So this means buying a replacement, and of course it’s never that simple. The main issue is that I have a tiny head, and I need a cap that’s properly snug if it’s to stay on while cycling. There are innumerable tweed bunnets on sale locally and online (every male inhabitant of Bigtown appears to be issued with one on his 60th birthday, apart from anything else). But the men’s hats don’t go down to size pinhead, and the women’s hats … look like this.
Don’t get me wrong – I know many women and not a few men who’d absolutely rock that sort of head gear but they are NOT BUNNETS (and to add insult to injury, they cost £10 more than the men’s hats).
Fortunately, I have found a site that sells proper Harris tweed caps for kids, complete with an elasticated bit at the back to help keep it on. I’ve measured my head, and it looks as if I will be able to wear the kids’ size large, which they reckon is suitable for 4-7 year olds. Let’s just say this means I’m young at heart, eh?
Meanwhile I have a slightly inferior emergency cap so if you’re approached by a strange woman who looks vaguely familiar but doesn’t appear to be me, I now look a bit like this.
It seems it was over 8 years ago that I first dipped a toe into yoga. Since then, I’ve gone from irregularly attending a weekly class, to doing regular yoga videos at home, to doing yoga pretty much every morning once the pandemic hit and we were all stuck at home anyway. And then a few weeks ago, being too busy in the morning, I tried an evening session and was struck by how well I slept and how nice and mobile my neck was in the morning. Ever since, I’ve started doing ten or so minutes of yoga in the evening as well, which is great for stress and general bendiness, and unwinding the various kinks of the day.
The problem I now have is that if, for any reason, I skip the evening yoga, then I have a terrible night’s sleep (heaven forfend that I skip the morning routine). So I’m now stuck on two yoga sessions a day just to keep pace with the stresses of modern daily life and my ever-advancing years, and that’s just the start of it. I can’t help but wonder if this ends with about half of my waking hours spent undoing the damage I’m inflicting on myself during the other half. Or I could just not spend hours on my phone doing the damage in the first place, but let’s not go mad here…
In other news, I have now lived in the country long enough that I can get lambs back in their field by just pointing at them as I cycle past and saying ‘oy, you lot, get back in your field’, whereupon they do so, as meek as, well, lambs.
In other other news, the Pepperpots have landed and I never want to see another box again in my life.
It’s a sign of the times that tomorrow we’re heading out to a local peat bog to do a day’s volunteering that was originally scheduled for (checks notes) … March 2020. We’re not quite at the second anniversary of lockdown, but it seems we have reached the point where we are now busy uncancelling all the things we had to cancel back in those uncertain times (and watch this space for more news on that front). I was especially pleased to see that New Nearest Village is once more running its annual Fairtrade event complete with coffee and cakes in the village hall. Village hall baking-related events are the best kind, and I’m looking forward to a rock’n’roll spring of cycling around as many of them as I can find out about and hitting the tray bakes as only someone who has suffered a two-year coffee morning drought can do.
This hasn’t been a cold winter, but it has felt like a long one (perhaps even two years long …). Everyone I speak to seems to be in the same boat: uncertain, nervous, fed up, but ready to cautiously emerge (adjusted to our own individual risk appetites) while the emerging is good. Today I headed down early for the paper before Storm Eunice got going (in the end she largely passed us by, fortunately) and I could hear a lark singing above the wind and the rain. I don’t suppose the lark meant it as anything but birdspeak for ‘get orf my land’, but I am choosing to take it as a sign.
Life’s been gradually returning back to normal after all the excitement of COP26 and Glasgow and I seem to have finally cleared most of the outstanding post-event tasks, and even begun to catch up with the huge list of things that had been put on the pile marked ‘After COP’, some more glamorous than others …
Although as it happens, our septic tank is fine, despite not having been emptied, or even looked at, since we bought the house – it didn’t even smell too bad, which is a sign that its bacteria are working away nicely. And there’s something very satisfying about ticking something off your to do list that’s been nagging away at the back of your mind as something that ought to be sorted for over five years.
No such sense of satisfaction is looming for the Scottish Government, sadly, at least when it comes to its long awaited and now once more delayed deposit return scheme. This is incredibly disappointing, especially as they set up one of their shiny new Green ministers to announce it. It’s not just about litter and unsightliness of drinks cans (and broken bottles) along the hedgerows – each unrecycled aluminium can means an extra 8 times its weight in additional carbon emissions.
I’m still picking up cans when I’m out on the bike and every single time I go into town I easily find at least four – and that’s on just 5 miles of not very busy rural roads. Indeed, today I’d met my ‘quota’ before I’d even got half way into town. I’ve been looking forward to finding fewer of them once the deposit scheme kicked in (or failing that, having developed a lucrative new sideline). But now it seems I’ll have to keep on picking them up pro bono for the indefinite future. Which is bad news for the planet, as the scheme was expected to cut emissions by 160,000 tonnes a year, meaning every day this scheme is delayed, will cause over 400 tonnes of extra emissions.
After all the talk of the urgency of tackling climate change, and the need to get emissions down now, not at some time in the future, it’s beyond dispiriting to hear that this most anodyne and undisruptive of measures is being held up – and that by a government which fancies itself as a climate leader. What’s going to happen once they try and implement something properly difficult? They’ve announced that they’re aiming to cut car kilometres by 20% by 2030 for instance. Now that really will be interesting to watch …
We were once advised never to buy a house with ‘Mill’ in the name, advice which has stood us in good stead over the years, and a sound principle to live by. In recent weeks I’ve been wondering whether to add a codicil: never to plan a bike ride with ‘Pass’ in its name (especially if it tends to appear in lists of the ‘100 greatest climbs in Scotland’). Despite such wisdom, this morning saw me setting off, with some trepidation, on a ride that would take me over not one but two named passes: the Mennock, and the Dalveen.
The reason is that as part of the Pedal on Parliament plans for COP26 we’re planning a two-day ride from Bigtown to Glasgow, and that involves going over one or other of these passes. It seemed sensible to both recce our chosen route and work out whether I personally had the legs for it before committing irrevocably to the venture. And so a 70-mile Sunday spin was planned with my riding companion to go out up the Mennock, and back down the Dalveen, and see how we fared.
In preparation, I made the mistake of googling the Mennock Pass, just to see what it was like. Unfortunately, what this threw up was mainly discussion of gradients (and the terrifying fact that the climb was ‘longer than Alpe d’Huez’, although this turned out to be only if you head all the way up to the radar station at the top of the hill). It turns out that most descriptions of cycle climbs on the internet start and end with how steep and long they are, without any information about what they’re like to actually cycle on.
So here’s my attempt at a corrective: the Mennock Pass is bloody lovely. It’s a long old climb, true, but it’s not an impossible one. The road takes you up between soaring hills, but it follows the river valley for the most part and with the hills on either side to give perspective, it barely feels as if you’re climbing for most of it.* There are signs that it’s been infested with camper vans over the summer (from the number of bins supplied at every possible pull-off point) – not so much ‘wild camping’ as ‘fly camping’ as my pal calls it.
The weather was Octoberish: we started in bright sunshine, watched the looming clouds gather, pedalled on through showery rain, braced ourselves against chilly winds, admired a sudden rainbow, and found ourselves back in the warmth of the sun again – and that was just the first five minutes (a pattern which repeated itself for the next eight hours).
We had planned to stop at the pub in Wanlockhead, which very much wants you to know that it’s the highest village in Scotland, but by the time we arrived we had the bit between our teeth and paused only to eat an emergency pork pie (in possibly the least well chosen picnic spot imaginable) and enjoy our flasks of coffee before pressing up the final stretch of the climb. We were briefly tempted by the bar of the highest residential hotel in Scotland, in Leadhills (is there another kind?) but settled for raiding the shop for supplies and then turned right for an excellent descent down towards Elvanfoot, and back round to the Dalveen Pass for a descent into a headwind so brutal we were pedalling all the way down. The Dalveen road is bigger and (relatively speaking) busier, so we were relieved to get to the bottom and back onto the tiny empty back roads that make this part of the world so amazing to cycle on.
My legs now ache and I will no doubt be enjoying some tasty thigh cramps during the night (my quads have already given me some warning shots for attempting to move from the sofa during the evening). But the rest of me is feeling refreshed from spending a whole day off my phone and off the computer, with a pal to chat to and some wonderful scenery to take my mind off the tougher parts. Some parts of the ride were so glorious – like the descent from Leadhills – that it was hard not to laugh out loud. In fact maybe I did.
Having spent a couple of days somewhat dreading this ride, and then ending up loving it it’s got me wondering. If that was one of the 100 greatest climbs in Scotland … what are the other 99 like?
One of the nice things about having a blog is the occasional random query you get, sometimes about using one of my photos (I think my high point was when Which Garden magazine printed my picture of a mouse nibbled beetroot), sometimes pitching ridiculously unsuitable guest posts, very rarely* offering me stuff to try, and just occasionally inviting me to take part in some Actual Science.
Yesterday was the turn of the science as I received this enquiry:
I am a second year PhD student at the University of Stirling studying the importance of freshwater environments for promoting health and wellbeing across the Scottish Population. I came across your fab blog and writing and wondered with your interest in the outdoors if you might be interested in taking part in my freshwater diary project.
The aim of the diary project I’m currently organising is to assess how the mental health and wellbeing outcomes associated with accessing freshwater environments might vary over time with changing seasons. Currently, there is a large evidence base detailing the importance of accessing green spaces like parks and woodlands, for reducing stress levels and promoting greater levels of wellbeing. However, less research has focused on the effect of accessing freshwater environments and so my PhD is looking to address this.
The project is running over the course of a year and I am recruiting participants at three monthly intervals to complete a three month freshwater diary. The diaries include a range of tick box questions to assess how calm/relaxed you feel after visiting a freshwater area and also include short questions about your visit. Participants can decide whether they’d like a paper booklet version or would prefer to complete a digital one. Each entry will probably take between 5 and 10 minutes. It’ll only involve writing up to 3 short diary entries per week after visiting a freshwater area. However, it is also fine to take a flexible approach and for instance write two entries per month or whatever suits. Any level of participation in the project is really appreciated! There will also be the opportunity to contribute to an online group photo album and share photos of inland waters in Scotland.
All data will be anonymised in the research process using ID codes rather than participant’s names. The overall idea of the diary is so that we can track how exposure to inland blue spaces can influence mental health outcomes over time – for instance do they consistently lift people’s moods or do other factors have a stronger influence on people’s overall mood.
The next phase of the diaries will start in mid-October so if you would like to take part I can get back in touch closer to the time to arrange sending you a diary to fill in. It’d be great to have you involved but no worries if you’re too busy with work and other projects at the moment!
Anyway, it struck me that since we moved and no longer had easy access to the ford, my interaction with bodies of fresh water has been somewhat limited. And I’m about to go into a super stressful period as we run up to Pedal on COP, so even though I clearly don’t need a new project in my life, it will be a pretty good test of whether something has a calming effect or not. And besides, how often do you get to just go and spend time by a lake, river or, indeed, ford and call it science (I haven’t read the small print or not so I’m not sure whether the ford actually counts, but I like to think it will)?
Anyway, the researcher in question is still looking for participants so if you’re resident in Scotland and interested in taking part, you can get in touch with her here.
Everyone else, have another gratuitous photo of the ford:
It struck me, as I followed a knight in shining armour (well, he was in fact in lycra, but on a quite shiny road bike) through Irvine late on Saturday afternoon, that this was quite the contrast from the way my day had started. I had risen before dawn to pedal 10 miles down a single-track road on Islay to catch the first of three ferries that would take me home from our island trip and now I was pulling into the right hand lane of a multi-lane junction, dodging buses, lorries and cars, in a last-ditch attempt to catch my train. Having missed a crucial sign on the NCN 73, which allows you to avoid all the multi-lane junction nonsense, but at a cost of extra miles, I had used up all my contingency time trying to find my way back to the path and was beginning to despair when a passing cyclist came to my rescue and led me expertly through some scary roads to deliver me back on the path past all the wiggles and a straight run to the station in Kilmarnock.
For all the contrast in our surroundings this act of kindness from a stranger seemed a fitting end to a few days on Islay, where the drivers are famously courteous – and, indeed, they need to be. There are many narrow single track roads on Islay, and (at least when we were there, just to the end of the high tourist season) just slightly too many vehicles on them for real comfort. The roads tend to be long and straight, and give you plenty of time to overthink your passing-place strategy as you contemplate yet another approaching vehicle (fore or aft), meaning either periods of interval training as you race to the next passing place to allow everyone to keep moving, or time spent cooling your heels as you wait for a truck, and its attendant procession of following cars, to pass you. On the two-lane roads almost all the passes by drivers were pretty impeccable – fully changing lanes, and waiting for a clear view and a gap in the traffic, but that did mean the occasional build up of queues of vehicles or us needing to pull in occasionally at a field gate or similar if we were conscious of a lorry grinding its gears patiently behind us.
There’s a persistent undercurrent of opinion among some cycle campaigners that if only drivers would learn to behave around cyclists, then all would be well and everyone could cycle in perfect harmony and we wouldn’t really need any of those pesky cycle paths that are such hard work to campaign for and are never going to go everywhere anyway. From my (admittedly limited) experience, Islay already is that mythical land and … it’s not enough. Cycling felt largely safe and I’m not going to diss the idea of people being polite to each other, because it’s so much better than the alternative, but these are not the conditions to tempt most people out of their cars.
It’s telling that we saw more bikes on cars on Islay than we saw bums on bikes, except at Port Ellen where the Three Distilleries path starts, and that was also the only place where we saw what I would call ‘civillian’ cyclists, in normal clothes and on ordinary bikes who looked like they were heading for the shops rather than the Tour de France. The Three Distilleries path was also the reason why I’d suggested visiting Islay, because it seems like a model for rural cycle tourism: a no-compromises path set aside from what would otherwise be a very scary coastal road, joining up a local town with three fine opportunities to part tourists from their money in the form of three famous distilleries (in contrast, you can ride 18 miles along the NCN 73 from Kilmarnock to Ardrossan before you come across a single opportunity to spend any of your cash on anything, which is no good for either the local economy or the hungry cyclist).
They’d even cut through rocks, incredibly, to make the path work, rather than just dumping the cyclists out onto the road and suggesting they get on with it, or wiggling so much under and over and round that a moderately stressed cyclist with a train to catch can easily lose her way (looking at you again, NCN 73).
This seems to have been so successful that they’ve just built another one, from Port Charlotte to Bruichladdich distillery, which was similarly wide and direct (although with some signs that, brand new as it was, there had already been some adjustment of the bollards to ensure accessibility). With enough distilleries, and enough time (and fortunately the distilleries are fairly evenly scattered across the island) Islay may soon end up with a cycling network, and all those bikes can be taken off the tops of all the cars and ridden around instead, which they’d much prefer.
Interestingly, the other two islands we visited on our trip had many more cyclists, but very little infrastructure. On Jura, there’s just the one road , and effectively only as much traffic as one busy little ferry can deliver across the strait from Port Askaig, which was not enough to be properly annoying. On the other hand, that road does go up and down and up and down, which has the benefit of delivering any cyclists to Craighouse, where all the money spending opportunities are, properly hungry.
In the few hours that we spent in the village I’m not ashamed to say that we went to the cafe twice and the pub once and even then we needed to stop at another pub after we’d got off the ferry back in Islay for a restorative cup of tea before tackling the climb out of Port Askaig. Seriously, if you want high spending visitors to keep your cafes, shops and pubs open, welcome in the cyclists.
Arran was another kettle of fish altogether. Objectively, it’s the least pleasant of the islands to cycle on, with no infrastructure, massive hills, plenty of traffic, and the sort of narrow two-lane roads that I go out of my way to avoid on the bike normally. It is also absolutely hoaching with cyclists, especially on a sunny Saturday in August (apparently there had been around 100 come in on a single ferry that morning). These were almost all, to a man (and they were about 90 percent male), whippet-like creatures in lycra on equally whippet-like bikes – I had time to observe them as they passed me one by one on the climb out of Lochranza, usually with an encouraging word to me as they zipped by. They too are undoubtedly keeping the local cake-based economy topped up nicely, and must be pure jam to the ferry company (or at least its catering division from the way they made a beeline for the cafe as soon as they got on board).
I joke, but it was just such a whippety cyclist who rescued me in Irvine, for which I will be eternally grateful. His kindness meant I got home in good time so I could be up early for yet another bike ride – this time helping to lead a mass ride organised by a local community trust who can not only organise a day of celebration but have also done 80% of the fund raising they need to build a cycle path joining two villages, having decided this would be easier than prodding the coonsil into action to do it for them. In the last couple of years there have been moves locally to promote our own area as a driving destination, hoping to replicate the success of the North Coast 500 (and by ‘success’ they apparently mean ‘having visitors pooing in their laybys‘). How much more amazing would it be to replicate some of those Islay paths along our own twisty and, sadly, lethal coastal roads? We may not have sufficient whisky distilleries to make the basis of a full rural tourism network, but we do have communities who understand that they would benefit from becoming part of the cake-powered economy … it’s just a question of making it happen.