Birthday Treat

March 20, 2019

We’re in Northern Ireland for my impending birthday and today, with the weather looking nicer than expected, we decided to spend the last day of my 40s climbing Slieve Donard (I had vaguely planned to do it actually on my birthday, but you take your windows in the weather where you can find them in March).


As we climbed up out of the town, it was sunny enough for us to almost regret dressing for hillwalking in March, with the sun turning Dundrum Bay an almost tropical shade of green.

sunshine on Dundrum Bay

As we turned the corner and looked up, however, it was clear that the blue skies were not going to last and that the clouds were gathering over our destination.

clouds gathering

Normally I’d never attempt any sort of climbing when the clouds were coming down, but the advantage of Donard is that you really cannot get lost even in the fog as there’s a well made path pretty much right to the summit (there was even a band of hardy volunteers out maintaining it today), as well as a steady stream of other people out tackling the highest climb in Ireland.*

climbing into the cloud

So on we went, re-donning the layers we’d shed on the lower slopes, and made it to the top in two hours to precisely no views but a sense of achievement all the same. A nice young Frenchman offered to take our photo at the top and managed to capture two frames of me with my hands over my eyes trying to defog my glasses, and then a further three frames of me looking down and trying to clear them properly, so I’ll spare you our triumphant summit photo. Instead, we were rewarded with the sight of the sun still shining down on Newcastle as we emerged out of the cloud on the way down.

sunshine on Newcastle

We’ve probably both now reached an age where coming down a mountain is at least as tough (and potentially injurious) as going up it, but we made it down with no more than the expected quota of grumbling hips, knees and backs.

And at least tomorrow, even though I will be 50 I know I won’t be feeling my age – because if this evening is anything to go by, I’ll be feeling at least 80 instead.

*It’s not the highest mountain on the island of Ireland, but it makes up for it by starting at sea level.


It Might Seem Odd …

March 9, 2019

… that someone who’s just installed solar panels (and been ranting about global warming) would spend the very next day wantonly uprooting baby trees.

pine sapling

But there you go, conservation is complicated and pine trees on peat bogs are a problem. It’s been ages since I went out doing any sort of conservation volunteering, mainly because I got busy saving the planet in other ways, and I was anyway a bit conflicted about driving somewhere to spend a few hours saving the planet.

However, I happened to spot that there was a work party planned in a particular favourite spot of mine – a remnant of peat bog surrounded by pines that manages to feel incredibly isolated and entirely in a world of its own. Perhaps because it’s not an easy place to walk, it’s not a well-known spot and it’s a little neglected even by those who are managing it, and so I felt we could not pass up the opportunity to show it some love.*

Kirkconnell Flow

Encouragingly, more than a dozen people thought so too, despite it being a grey and drizzly morning that was more old-school February than March. Fortunately, the sun came out for most of the day (we’ll draw a veil over the passing hailstorm that hit us in the afternoon) and we made good inroads into the encroaching trees.

One advantage of working in a very wet bog – apart from the fact that you can just pull the smaller trees out by their roots – is all the weird and wonderful plants (and lichens, which are only half plants) that live there, and when you’re spending all day bent down pulling up trees alongside some knowledgeable people, you can find out what they are. Plus the fact that the little red berries that looked almost like cranberries turned out to actually be cranberries (who knew?) and very tasty – in a zingy sort of way – they were too.


I spent many weekends in my 20s doing this sort of thing, and I was pleased that most of my tree-destroying skills were still intact (conservation work is about 10% planting trees and 90% chopping them down, sometimes trees which earlier volunteers had planted). My tree-destroying muscles, on the other hand, are strongly reminding me that I am no longer in my 20s. So now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for an ibuprofen nightcap and an early night.

* I’d love to say that I overcame my qualms about the driving part going down on the bike but the other half suggested we drove and, much as I love cycling, I was very happy to collapse into a warm, dry, and self-propelling car for the journey home.

Life in the Middle Lane

March 2, 2019

As I was outlining my plans for this weekend the other day, I realised that even though I don’t turn fifty for another few weeks, I’ve already fully embraced the reality of it ‘A fairtrade event at New Nearest Village on Saturday, then on Sunday it’s Potato Day, and we might fit in a trip to the garden centre.”

I’m not even going to pretend I’m embarrassed about it. As my contemporaries announce their impending half centuries with disbelief, I’m not all that bothered about it – much less so than turning forty or, worse, thirty. And besides, I like garden centres, and I always have (as a seven-year-old there was one at the top of our road and I was always spending my pocket money on packets of seeds). I completely failed to misspend my youth, unless by misspending you mean settling down, getting married, buying a house and working long hours to develop my career, instead of going out partying all night and smashing the patriarchy and/or capitalism by day (possibly I should have done more about the latter). My hope is that this precocious diligence (and a fair bit of luck and privilege) has set me up for a later life of growing radicalism and increased trouble making rather than sinking into the status quo. The bicycle may not have kept me as young as I might have hoped, but it has at least helped keep me at odds enough to mainstream society to want to fight for change – while my advancing years might just give me the wisdom (or cunning) to achieve it.

bike and defibrillator phonebox

A sensible parking spot for one of my advancing years

And besides, as a woman approaching fifty AND a cyclist, I should now be effectively invisible both on and off the bike. Of all the superpowers, that’s surely the most powerful one there is. I just have to work out how to put it to best use.

More Sheep Adventures

February 19, 2019

Setting off unforgivably late this morning, having already been delayed by a soft back tyre, a talkative neighbour and my unfailing need to act out a demonstration of ‘more haste, less speed’ whenever under pressure to do something to the bike quickly,* I worked out I could still be on time if I stepped it up a gear. As long as I didn’t encounter too many tractors attempting to squeeze past each other on a narrow section of road (just the one pair) and any wayward sheep I would be …

… which was when I saw the sheep caught up in barbed wire. For it is February, which means we’re getting into prime sheep escapology-and-attempted-suicide season (it runs from approximately the beginning of February until the 31st of January, as far as I can tell, but it peaks as spring approaches), and someone on the pipeline project had left a stretch of loose fencing, including barbed wire, just hanging about where they’d cut the fence to put a gate in. Obviously, this wasn’t in a field with actual sheep in it, but it was next to one, and that meant that at least one sheep had got out and was now tangled up in the loose wire and pinging around like a panicked woolly pinball trying to get itself free.

Late though I was, this didn’t look like it would end well for the sheep and, this being the countryside, there was nobody about who looked like they’d be any better at fence de-sheeping than me. So I stopped, approached the gate, and stood with my bike plotting how I might manage to grab hold of and subdue what was quite a large and by now quite panicky sheep, remove the barbed wire, and get it back in its field without doing any damage to myself or the sheep.

Fortunately, at that point the sheep spotted the scariest thing in the known world – my bike – ripped itself free from the wire, and then – in an act of genius unparalleled in the sheep world – got itself back into its field through the same hole in the fence from whence (from the evidence of the wool left all around it) it had escaped.

I live in fear that one day the bike won’t work its magic and I’m actually going to have to free a sheep from something, but so far it’s been 100% effective at injecting some sense of self-preservation into their little woolly heads. Long may it last.

sheep escape

Barbed wire, sans sheep

Oh, and I time-trialled it the rest of the way into Bigtown and was a scant three minutes late.

* For reasons known only to my subconscious, when returning to the house to pump up a tyre in a hurry, I always seem to decide that leaving the bike at the gate, going to get the track pump from the garage, walking back to the bike with the pump, walking back to the garage to return the pump, and then walking back to the bike to set off again will be quicker than just wheeling the bike up to the garage in the first place. No, I don’t know either.

Unfast Fashion

February 5, 2019

After knitting enough socks to get a little bored of the process, and then an unexpectedly successful tea-cosy for my mother, I have decided to risk knitting something a little more ambitious (and by ambitious, I mean ‘something any actual knitter can do with their eyes shut): a jumper.

tea cosy

Not a jumper, unless you’re a teapot

I have actually managed to knit myself a whole cardigan in the past (it even came out quite successfully, although sadly the moths got more use out of it than I did in the end), and then abandoned an attempt to do a jumper, but I thought I’d have another go having fallen in love with a pattern I saw on the Internet (I realise, looking at it now, that half the attraction may be that it’s a grey jumper in the picture, but never mind).

wool coneOne of the problems with knitting something like a jumper is that you end up spending a substantial part of your life turning about £60 worth of wool into about £40 worth of jumper, at least if you buy the wool new. Fortunately my cousin, who is a master of the car boot sale, found me a 50p bargain cone of 2-ply Shetland wool that’s been sitting in my knitting wool stash for *checks notes* five years waiting for me to work out what to do with it (never let it be said that I rush into things when it comes to knitting).

After a certain amount of calculation (and having actually knitted a proper test swatch rather than just assuming it will be fine like I normally do) I worked out that if I wound it into balls and knitted with two at a time, I should have enough 4ply wool for the pattern. This does mean acquiring a jumper that isn’t grey, which will be a bit of a shock to the system, but at least, given how slowly I knit, I’ve probably got a couple of years to get used to the idea …

Drive, Interrupted

January 11, 2019

As part of my bid to get more walking done without doing too much in the way of additional driving, a visit to Duns presented an opportunity to try a walk we’ve long talked about doing, but never left enough time to actually do: the walk up past the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall to Loch Skeen.

Grey Mare's Tail

Today, we finally got ourselves organised and packed some sandwiches and left a couple of hours early to give ourselves time to explore. It’s a steep climb at the start but with a well-made path; I’ve done enough conservation volunteering in the past to appreciate the effort that goes into these trails. It was especially appreciated when there are precipitous drops – this isn’t maybe a walk for those prone to vertigo.

view from the climb

For everyone else, although it’s pretty strenuous to start with, the views are worth it.

tail burn

It levels off once past the main waterfall and soon we were walking along a pretty burn that tumbles down cascades and into rocky pools. We spotted some of the wild goats that roam the area, and the sheep that were busy keeping everything close cropped. After our visit to Carrifran, I couldn’t help wondering what the valley might be like if the sheep and goats were vanished and the trees and scrub allowed to return. It might help a bit with the erosion, too (that said, our sandwiches had lamb in them, so I confess we’re part of the problem).

landslip at the Grey Mare's Tail

On the whole, it’s better not to think about this giant landslip until you’re back at the car park… (the path is the line above it)

All good walks need a great endpoint (apart from the part where you finally get to sit down and take off your boots). It was only recently that I realised this walk took you up to a loch hidden up in the hills – and even though I knew it was there, it was still very striking to turn a corner and find Loch Skeen filling the whole bowl of the valley.

loch skeen

It was also rather nippy, so we didn’t linger over our sandwiches.

Loch skeen

And then it was just a matter of walking down again…

walk back down

Much as I love the whole active travel thing, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t grateful for our car’s comfy seats and internal combustion engine, wafting our tired legs onwards to Duns in time for tea. But all in all, it was a good way to break up the drive, get in some hill walking and explore another corner of our world that we’ve been passing by for so long.

Right to Roam

January 5, 2019

After last weekend’s adventure, I’ve been wondering about finding some hill-climbing walks closer to home. Then the other day we were chatting with our octogenarian neighbour and she told us that they used to climb up to the nearby trig point on New Year’s Day. Today, with sunshine forecast, seemed the perfect opportunity to give that a go.


A less than appealing road for walking on (cycling on it is bad enough)

According to the neighbour there is a track part of the way up from the road, but the problem was getting to the start of the track, as the road is fast and narrow and we didn’t really fancy walking along it on what was a fairly winding stretch. The alternative was across the fields from our house which we have, as a commenter on last weekend’s blog pointed out, a perfect right to do:

You do realise you’re free to walk across *any* fields in Scotland, including those with animals or crops in them, and even ones that have barbed wire fences enclosing them? No permission necessary!

This is, undeniably, true but in practice – just as cyclists have the right to ride on (almost) any road – there’s a difference between being free to do something and it actually being a practical and enjoyable proposition, especially if you’re not a badger and can go under barbed wire fences instead of over them. So there were a few ‘interesting’ bits as we squeezed through gaps and over walls and sent flocks of sheep scattering over the horizon.

badger run

Once we’d found the track it was easier going, apart from the whole slogging uphill part – you can cycle up as many hills as you like on a bike and it doesn’t seem to make walking up them any easier. On the other hand, you can spot more interesting wildlife when you’re on foot

Tremella mesenteric (yellow brain or witches’ butter) (You realise, I don’t know any of this stuff, I just ask people on social media)

The highlight was an interesting shaped pond in front of an old ruined cottage – I couldn’t decide whether it was art or accident.

spiral pond

In fact, the only real fly in the ointment was the lack of the promised sunshine – the views from the top were less than spectacular on a murky sort of a day.

murky views

All in all, a less photogenic walk than last weekend’s, but at least it was on our doorstep and a bit of an adventure. Time to get the Ordnance Survey out and see if we can scope out a few more …