No Pasarán

July 26, 2020

Walking down to our road end, on our daily state-sanctioned exercise (you’re all still doing this, right?) we noticed that one of our ‘passing place’ signs had succumbed to a dreadful fate.

felled passing place sign

Bigtownshire does seem to have quite an inconsistent approach to passing places on its single track roads. I know up in the Highlands they take them very seriously and there’s a whole etiquette around their use, but round here you can go for miles down a single track road and never encounter a single formal passing place (in fact it’s one of the things that makes cycling along these roads more pleasant because the few drivers you encounter will know that going along them is a process of negotiation, not a matter of barrelling along unimpeded as you can on a road with a white line down the middle). And then you get a road like our road, all 500 yards of it, serving half a dozen households and some farm traffic, which is surprisingly well-endowed with passing place signs.

two passing place signs

Now you might be thinking – well, it is a very narrow and twisty road, so plenty of passing places would be helpful – but you note I didn’t say it was well-endowed with actual passing places. Some of the signs are next to a place where two vehicles might be able to negotiate pass each other with care …

passing place sign with no passing place

… and others, not so much.

We haven’t heard what actually happened to the felled sign, although there have been mutterings about one of the farmers’ son’s habit of taking some of the sharper bends at speed on his tractor, as if it were a hot hatch. That may well be it, but closer examination of the scene of the crime suggests another possibility

Could it be that a local visitor, perhaps from the Highlands or with a touching faith in road signs, actually attempted to use one of our passing places?

I should probably report the fallen sign to the coonsil, but then they’d just put the sign back up and on reflection, I think it’s probably better where it is …

Sticking to it

July 24, 2020

In today’s gradual easing-of-lockdown news I made my first charity shop purchase in over four months this afternoon (you know you’re middle aged when your exiting day’s shopping consists of a pack of pants – from M&S, not the charity shop, I hasten to add – and the triumphant discovery of a set of storage jars).

kilner jars

It was actually quite heartening to see Bigtown Town Centre gradually coming back to life (although I wasn’t as happy as the seagulls who have clearly had a lean few months and were pretty vocal about how people weren’t sharing their chips). It was slightly less heartening to see that the car parks were all full again (although seeing as the coonsil has done nothing so far to actually lock in the elevated cycling numbers* we’ve seen during lockdown It was hardly surprising). Still, having been relieved of my fears that the town centre would never rebound at all, I headed for home with my purchases in a mostly positive frame of mind, even allowing for the van driver who looked at me cycling along the road he wanted to turn into and turned into it anyway, right across my bows. Thanks pal, it’s good to know things are back to normal – all the patient drivers I’ve been encountering in the past few weeks have started to freak me out.

road closure

And then I came to the turning to our B road and remembered that some time this week they were supposed to be closing it to spray tar over the surface dressing and yep, that’s exactly what they had done. I had the choice of detouring round in a massive loop or deciding the road closure didn’t apply to me. I didn’t want to be that person (and even worse, that cyclist), but then again, I didn’t want to go on a big 8-mile hilly detour so I compromised. I get all the road closure notifications and they usually state that pedestrian access will be maintained so I transformed myself into a pedestrian and started walking up the road. Unfortunately, there’s no footway, or even anything resembling a verge, on that road so this meant walking on the fresh tar, which was slow going, and I was relieved when a procession of cars going the other way indicated the road was open again and I could get back on my bike for the rest of the hill.

The only problem is, tar is sticky stuff and while it didn’t seem to affect my bike, I soon realised that the soles of my shoes were getting stuck to the pedals. I’ve spent my entire cycling life avoiding clipping in because I just know that attaching my feet to my bike would be a recipe for disaster; it would be just my luck to have a ‘clipless moment’ without even having clipless pedals (I’ll leave it to a proper cyclist to explain why pedals that clip to your shoes are called clipless pedals). If anyone passed me on the final mile home and wondered why I was yanking my feet off the pedals every other stroke, that was the reason. I’m happy to report that, while it might have looked a little odd, I did at least make it home safely without capsizing when I came to a halt at our gate. Any suggestions for removing tar from the soles of my shoes in the comments will be gratefully accepted …

* I tell a lie, they opened a gate to a park. And moved a bin. More soon, apparently, hopefully before the second wave …

Masked and (Slightly Less) Dangerous

July 16, 2020

So it turns out, if you blog or tweet about your somewhat improvised homemade mask, then people take pity on you and start sending you much fancier ones.*

selection of masks

I see that the Westminster government has decided that mask wearing in shops will become compulsory next week, cueing much wailing and gnashing of teeth online. Meanwhile, if the evidence of Bigtown is anything to go by, the people of Scotland (and indeed much of the rest of the world) have been getting on with it – I won’t say happily, but more or less consistently. I was in town the day it became compulsory in shops and everyone was wearing one, while it was probably less than a third the day before. I expect England will be the same, for all the showboating on social media. I hope so, because for whatever reason we seem to have done a good job of suppressing the virus up here and it would be a shame if all that got undone once the visitors from England return.

Anyway, I felt eight masks was excessive for my needs so I parcelled up a couple to post on to my sister and her family. As I pulled on my winter gloves for the ride down to post office – because at some point over lockdown I finally lost all of my summer-weight gloves except the mismatched ‘pair’ that are actually two left-hand gloves with one tortured into fitting on my right hand – I realised this might be a strategic error. I foresee that over the next few months, losing masks may well become the new losing gloves, but with the added complication of not being able to get into your destination if you lose it on the way down. I may have to start stashing strategic spares in various bike bags so I am never without.

*The natty polka dot one actually went astray and ended up at our old address. Fortunately, I know the person who lives there, because of course I do, this is Bigtownshire so I was able to go and retrieve it and provide this bonus ford content on the way.

Ford with low water

Popping Out for a Paper – COVID Edition

July 7, 2020

Small outbreaks of polar bears notwithstanding, we’ve taken another small step back to normality in the Townmouse household – I’m going back to getting a daily paper.

Since lockdown started, we’ve made the judgement that going into a shop just to buy a paper was an unnecessary risk, if we weren’t actually going shopping anyway. That meant going down to one paper a week (the Saturday edition), rising to two a week once our lovely neighbour offered to get us a paper on her (different) shopping day. On occasion we have risen to the luxurious heights of three papers a week, on days when a trip to the post office has occasioned it (if I’ve been unusually eager to post things to people, now you know why). In between times I have become that person who reads a three-day-old weekend supplement, something I have never understood up to now.

I do realise, because everybody tells me so, repeatedly, that it is possible to read the Guardian online and that nobody actually reads a paper paper any more. But I still find that compared to having the physical thing in my hands, it is not the same. With the actual paper, I read the whole thing (time allowing), rather than just clicking on the articles that seem compelling enough. And, frankly, I spend enough time looking at a screen these days that being able to sit outside reading something that doesn’t notify me of new and exciting updates all the time is a positive luxury.

It comes at a price,* however

Alongside the latest easing of lockdown, we will now have to wear masks in shops in Scotland. I’ve no idea of how much benefit it will bring, but the consensus seems to be that this is probably a good thing. It doesn’t become compulsory until Friday, but on yesterday’s inaugural ride down just for the paper, I thought I had better show willing. It was … fine. Half the customers were wearing one (although on your chin doesn’t really count, fellow Bigtownites), nobody mentioned it, and I was able to communicate reasonably well with the woman on the till in so far as I needed to.

My current mask is an improvisation, though I’ve got a much fancier one coming tomorrow. I suspect we’ll all end up with a wardrobe of the things, as we search out the holy grail of comfort, safety, and unfogged glasses. Mine ticks the comfort box, and didn’t fog my glasses too much but I don’t know how much protection two layers of jersey cotton really offer. I also discovered that if you’re cycling up a massive hill and you decide to put it on to pass a roadworks lorry that is kicking up a lot of dust, your immediate instinct is to rip it off again. Fortunately, it seems that cycling is a low-enough risk activity that I won’t need to try that again…

Like so many changes we’re living through these days, I wonder whether I’ll look back on this post in a year’s time and marvel that I wore a mask at all – or whether going out without one would feel like going out without my flat cap. Which makes me wonder … how much protection would a Harris Tweed mask offer do you suppose?

What is your mask made of?

* not the actual cost of the paper, though. We have a subscription for the Guardian and we’ve kept it up throughout lockdown because it seemed to me that having a decent source of left-leaning journalism that wasn’t owned by a billionaire was worth the cost of continuing to pay for a paper we mostly weren’t reading in physical form.

Loaded for Bear

July 2, 2020

‘You’ve a better chance of meeting a polar bear on the street in Notso Bigtown than coming into contact with the virus round here’, my dentist said reassuringly from behind his multiple layers of PPE, as I went in for a checkup last week. And it’s true, it had seemed in recent weeks as if we’d got this virus thing in check in Scotland, and especially around here. There’s been a bit of nervousness as we watch the news reports from down south and wonder what will happen when the current requirement to ‘stay local’ gets lifted this weekend, but also a fair bit of excitement as people start to tentatively plan visits to further flung places and proper family get togethers that don’t have to take place outdoors in the somewhat hit-or-miss weather of the traditional Scottish summer.

Today, worrying reports of a small outbreak of polar bears to our east notwithstanding, life started to feel a bit like normal, if only because I suddenly had to be in three different places in short succession. It was all perfectly doable – or at least it was until the guy coming to install our bathroom blind (ordered in mid March …) announced that the B road up to our house was closed for surface dressing, my very least favourite kind of road repair, turning the eight-mile net downhill route into town into a fifteen mile detour over several unnecessary hills and putting my whole carefully dovetailed schedule into disarray.

Fortunately, disaster was averted by the person I’d arranged to meet in Bigtown not showing up. If I weren’t a cyclist, this would be cue for much gnashing of teeth, but I’d just had rather a nice 15 mile ride so it didn’t really feel like a wasted trip. It also meant I had time to head up to the high street and get a new battery put into the other half’s watch, which had stopped about a week into lockdown. Truly, times – and time itself – seemed to be getting back to normal, little by little.

And then I got home and discovered that here in the Bigtown area, we’re not moving forward with the rest of Scotland, partly due to the polar bear outbreak, but possibly due also to the worry that the entire population of Bigtown under the age of 30 might be planning to head to England to go to the pub this Saturday – despite the fact that, if my reading of the regulations is anything to go by, all pubs are going to have to be run as old man pubs by law.

It’s Scotland’s hard luck that, despite having a largely sensible* government that has taken a cautious approach to opening up, its nuisance neighbours to the south seem determined to undo all that good work for the sake of a Saturday night on the piss. Hopefully this little hiccup will be enough to moderate the response to the next lifting of lockdown and we’ll continue to take things slowly enough to keep the polar bears under control.

Although, that said, perhaps a few hungry polar bears patrolling the border wouldn’t be that bad an idea after all…

* Their cycling policies could do with some work, mind.


May 27, 2020

If all goes to plan, we should be looking at the first real easing of lockdown in Scotland from tomorrow – I know that some friends of mine are very excited about the prospect of garden centres reopening, while I’ve already set up a socially-distanced walk date with a friend for tomorrow.

Cows on top of hill

Perhaps it’s the imminent easing of the lockdown, perhaps it was the weather, or perhaps it was a bit of social media chat about cycling during this crisis (basically, all the new and leisure cyclists are having a wonderful time getting out on the quiet roads, while the bikes belonging to us gnarly old utility cyclists are sitting gathering dust in sheds and garages, wondering what it was they said …) but as I started down the road for my daily walk I suddenly thought ‘sod it, this is too slow, I’m getting the bike.’

And so I did.

bike under trees

When the sun shines in late May around here, it’s just heartbreakingly lovely. The photos are one thing, but they don’t capture the smell which – assuming the slurry spreading has not been too recent – is a gorgeous mix of gorse and hawthorn blossom.

back road

I had to take a side detour in a little loop round Nearest Village because just as I was heading up towards the village and planning to turn round, I had greeted a lady walking down the hill the other way. It took me perhaps a little longer to get past her than she might have anticipated so, we had to repeat a couple of variations on our ‘lovely day’ remarks in order to fill the time. Obviously, I couldn’t then just turn around and cycle back the way I’d come and past her again, so I made a little detour to avoid any more social awkwardness. This is entirely normal behaviour, no?

sunny view

Normally I hate riding this road, because it’s fast, bendy, and I get at least one close pass, sometimes on a blind bend every time I ride it (and incidents like this are sadly all too common). If lockdown easing does start to mean increasing traffic, I shall miss the relative calm of the last couple of months (even though I’ve still encountered far too many dangerous drivers for my liking).

empty b-Road

Perhaps I should be getting out more, while the going is good.

Flattening the Tyres…

May 3, 2020

So today’s excitement was the chance to ride down to my pal with the hens to deliver some of our empty egg boxes and surplus chilli and tomato plants, in exchange for some eggs.

plants in Brompton basket

When it comes to transporting tender young plants, the Brompton – or rather its basket – comes into its own. With six pots each wrapped up in a protective sleeve of newspaper and snugly sitting in the basket, all was well until I was half way down the road and heard the all-too-familiar bump-bump-bump of a flattened back tyre.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may be aware I’ve been plagued by punctures recently, compounded by my inability to do even the most basic bike maintenance. Over the last couple of weeks I have spent a total of two and a half hours effectively turning two fast punctures into two slow punctures, one on the front tyre of my big bike and one on the bike trailer. During the course of this effort, I have also run out of patches in my various puncture repair kits and discovered that I am now managing to fail at the one part of the puncture repair process I used to be vaguely competent at – actually patching the hole. This means every trip out on my big bike now starts with pumping the front tyre back up to a reasonably pressure and hoping it holds for long enough to get me home – a recipe for disaster, as I well know, but still preferable to spending any more time swearing at inanimate objects in the hope that that will work where brute force, cunning, and supposedly failsafe methods have all failed (actually, sometimes it does) (and before you dive into the comments, thank you but I am already using the puncture resistant tyres you are about to recommend, and have tried slime, and I’ve watched the video with the zip ties, and the problem is I’m just very bad at fixing bikes and blackthorn will go through anything).

Anyway, the good thing about puncturing the Brompton back wheel is that I have absolutely no intention of fixing it myself or even pretending that I wished I could – much to the disgust of some of the more old-school members of the Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign – so I won’t be wasting another hour or more of my time wrestling with another Marathon Plus tyre (on the other hand, I will probably be waiting a week before the bike shop can get to it – one of the downsides of everyone discovering the joys of cycling during lockdown has been that the few bike shops still operating are operating a waiting list). And the other good thing is that Bromptons are easy to just throw into the car so I avoided the walk of shame and sent the other half home to get the car and pick me up – the first time I’ve actually been driven anywhere for six weeks.

scenic route

And then we took the scenic route home so we could charge up the car’s battery properly after six weeks of nothing but short weekly trips to the supermarket and back. We weren’t sure if it was entirely necessary but decided better safe than sorry, the way the last two weeks have been going … and some flats are easier to deal with than others.

Frying Visit

April 18, 2020

Say what you like about the lockdown, it’s certainly making us appreciate the little things in life. Like the fact that one of our neighbours shops on a Tuesday and has been picking up the Guardian for us, so we now get a paper two days a week instead of just on Saturday.

And the excitement of discovering that the mobile fish and chip van was back in business and coming our way …

Today was the day so, having booked our slot via Facebook Messenger (all you people who loftily tell me they’re not on Facebook … how are you surviving? As far as I can see it’s the only place for almost all local information in these pandemic times), we duly set off on a gorgeous spring evening to pick up our order.

The mobile chippy is one of those things we’ve been meaning to try out pretty much as soon as we moved up here, but have never quite got round to doing until three weeks of lockdown made any sort of meal we hadn’t cooked ourselves into an unimaginable luxury. Ordinarily, the community pub opens early for the van’s arrival and your chips can be consumed in comfort in the bar with a pint, but with pubs consigned to the distant era of, ooh, a month ago, there was nothing for it but to cycle back with our order to eat it at home. This made for a bit of a time trial home: three miles, several unnecessary hills and an unexpected headwind versus the rate of cooling of a couple of chip suppers wrapped in insulating newspaper in a bike pannier bag.

fish and chips

I have just paid for the unexpected exertion with a bout of thigh cramp – clearly all this not-cycling is beginning to get to me – but on balance it was still well worth it. The chips were still hot, the beer in the fridge was cold, and the garden was just about pleasant enough for an al fresco supper. Michelin starred restaurants, eat your heart out.

State-Sanctioned Exercise

April 1, 2020

Well, it’s taken a while but more than a week into the lockdown and we’ve finally started to see a noticeable drop in traffic on our local roads. Partly this is because most of the roads we frequent are so quiet anyway that it’s hard to tell if they’ve got quieter, but Nearest B-road – which is unavoidable in getting to and from our home – really didn’t seem much different for most of last week, complete with a couple of unnecessary close passes the last couple of times we’ve been out on our bikes.

empty B road

This week, however, there’s been a real change. We would never walk along this road normally, which confines us a little in our choice of daily walks, but yesterday, just for the novelty value, we did venture along it. There were probably three passing vehicles the whole time, all clearly audible well before they posed a danger, so I enjoyed the novelty of walking right down the middle, just because I could. Normally even walking along the edge isn’t a very tasty prospect.

broken fence posts

Not everyone judges the bend right if the state of the fence is anything to go by

There are regular litter patrols in the parish organised from Nearest Village but they can’t cover much of this road just because there’s nowhere to walk safely, not even a verge. so today we took the opportunity during our allotted exercise period to do a little spring cleaning – with the satisfying thought that if the drop in traffic persists, the litter might just stay picked, at least for a while.

litter pick bag

And then we took the scenic route home.

burn and woods

Before the Storm

March 17, 2020

It’s safe to say we’re in a fast moving situation – even here in Bigtownshire, which is saying something. After the PM’s announcement of the latest coronavirus measures yesterday afternoon, I spent this morning alternating between sending out emails cancelling things and receiving emails from other people cancelling things. As of now, pretty much everything I had pencilled in for April, May and most of June except actual work has either been cancelled, moved online, or postponed until September (and boy will that be a busy month).

These are worrying times but although I’m generally a fairly anxious person, I’m not finding it’s quite cut through to me yet. In fact there’s been something quite liberating about watching all the things I usually fret about fall by the wayside, one by one. Other worries will take their place (and more serious ones, as the epidemic starts to properly take hold) but for now it all feels a bit remote from our daily lives.

empty rural road

Partly this may be because – so far at least – Bigtown and the surrounding area remains resolutely unpanicked. I enjoyed empty roads as I cycled into town this lunchtime to meet the other half for one last hurrah at our favourite (indeed, only) local Syrian restaurant but then again, our roads are always empty so that was nothing new. Once in Bigtown the traffic was pretty much as normal, the car parks as full as ever, and the restaurant – which we thought might need our support and possibly not even have opened – actually busier than it usually is on a Tuesday lunchtime. I suspect things will change – the other half was only in work because he was picking up the files and things he needed to work from home, and I imagine others will be in a similar situation. But as I cycled home again in the rain, laden with emergency supplies of baklava, it felt like, up here at least, we were still in the first stages of the phoney war, before the real dangers commence.

baklava boxes

I hope that’s the case, because we’re taking the calculated risk of making a quick visit to my parents for a couple of days before any possible lockdown takes hold. On balance it feels like the right thing to do, given how long it could be before we have another chance, but I hope it’s not a decision that will come back to haunt us.

Then by the weekend we’ll be back home and ready to settle into a peaceful few weeks of gardening, pottering and other socially distanced activities until all this is over and we can get on with our lives. If, as Huttonian always used to say, we are spared. A phrase that feels just a mite too close to the bone right now….