They Paved Paradise …

March 15, 2023

I can’t now remember what I was originally planning to do this week. Something useful or creative, possibly, like writing my next novel,* or getting ready for a local cycling networking event we’re planning at the weekend. Instead what I’ve been doing is cycling round Bigtown on a daily basis, counting empty parking spaces in the many car parks dotted around the town.

Bear with me, for there’s a reason, beyond idle curiosity. You see, the coonsil, in its infinite wisdom, has had plans to build flood defences (it has in fact had plans in development since about the time we moved up here but, you know, all in the fullness of time – I mean, the town only floods once or twice a year). As part of these plans, the main – or at least the most obvious – car park in the town centre was going to disappear under the new flood barrier (I was baffled when we moved up here as to why Bigtown had decided that the obvious use for the banks of a beautiful river complete with resident otters and salmon was parking cars on it until I realised said river regularly bursts its banks). Obviously they couldn’t actually lose any parking spaces, for fear of opening the Hellmouth (the coonsil has a parking strategy which says that no parking place may be lost without an equal or better parking space replacing it, and I really wish I were making this up), so plans were hatched to turn the Greensands, a nice patch of green space upstream, into a replacement car park.

Grass surrounded by trees by the river.

(Joni Mitchell classic lyrics aside, perhaps paradise is a bit of a stretch, but it’s a pleasant enough spot where kingfishers and treecreepers can regularly be seen, and besides we need all the green spaces we can get these days).

Then, due to local political shenanigans that I don’t even pretend to understand the latest coonsil administration fell, and with it the plans to build the flood defences at all. This has left some of the more dinosaurish parts of the coonsil in a quandary: how were they to get their lovely new car park now? The answer was clear – they would put in a planning application to build it anyway, just in case. After all, sometimes the main car park was flooded, and then where would people park their cars? The fact that even they admitted that paving over yet more of the open areas would make the flooding more likely was neither here nor there (nor indeed the fact that when the floods are really bad, that area will be underwater too). And sometimes the fair comes and closes off the car park (never mind that every time we complain that the fair also cuts off the cycle path we’re told that the fair has been coming here since James the 6th’s time and we should just get used to it). Clearly, if we might occasionally lose some parking capacity then we need a spare car park (long time readers may recall that they have form on this sort of nonsense).

Now ask anyone in Bigtown (who isn’t a cyclist) and they will tell you that there’s not enough parking. Especially when the fair is in town. Which it is this week, as it happens. So, taking the opportunity to check whether, in fact, we do need a whole spare car park when the main one is closed, we’ve been spending this week surveying the town’s car parks at various times of the day and counting any free spaces.

massive empty car park

The week is yet young, but we’ve already found a few things out. For a start, Bigtown has dozens of little car parks scattered around the centre of the town, all of them free to use and, in truth, mostly fairly full most of the time – it’s no wonder they estimate that a third of the town centre traffic is people driving between car parks looking for a space (there’s also the issue that some of these car parks were laid out in more innocent times and the spaces aren’t large enough to accommodate your average All-Terrain Global Warmer that you definitely need for nipping out to the shops so in some cases one vehicle takes up two places). There’s also a massive car park, right next to the main riverside car park, which is always, even at the busiest times, almost completely empty (this – it may not surprise you to learn – is pretty much the only one which charges for parking). It’s actually quite refreshing to find that there’s one part of the town that’s not completely dominated by cars – at one point there were more cars parked illegally on the nearby supposedly pedestrianised shopping street than there were in the pay and display car park. There is also another large car park, free to use, which is pretty close to the High Street but maybe not quite close enough for some people, which always has a good number of spaces in it. And finally, there’s the Greensands itself, site of the proposed car park, which already has a bit of parking on it, and which is never full. So they’re going to make a half empty car park bigger, despite the fact that even the car drivers of Bigtown don’t want to use it.

half empty car park

It makes no sense. Even the people who want to bring cars back onto the High Street agree it makes no sense. And yet, we’ve had to drop everything positive we could be doing in order to battle this nonsense to prevent Bigtown becoming even more car-dominated and car-dependent than it already is. It does, genuinely, make me despair.

On the other hand, if you want any advice on where to park on a busy Tuesday morning in Bigtown, I’m your woman.

* Just kidding, obviously.

The Unknown Unknowns …

March 3, 2023

One of the things I’ve been vaguely thinking about doing this year was making more use of our local buses, such as they are. Not our actual local bus, which remains a mystery to me, but perhaps some of the other buses that go further afield and which might even take me places where a bicycle cannot.

All of which might have remained no more than a vague intention – after all, I rode 70-mile round trip on my bike to go to a meeting last summer rather than chance the bus – had the Pepperpots not somewhat forced my hand.

Mrs Pepperpot has had to stop driving, temporarily we hope, and that means finding alternative ways for them to get about. They can just about manage to get to the top of the High Street on foot, although that’s the limit of Mr Pepperpot’s range. Fortunately taxis are reasonably cheap around here and handy enough for trips in town which are too far for them both to walk. And there’s also deliveries which sort out the bulk of the shopping. But the cost will add up, especially when they want to go further afield. So we decided it was time to get to grips with the local buses.

Despite my tweet, hospital appointments are probably the least of their problems as the new hospital has a good bus service which goes past the end of their road. And, as it happens, the same bus stop has buses to Notso Bigtown, going right past their favourite farm shop, which has become a fixture in their weekly routine since they moved here. So today we hatched a plan to take the bus out in time to meet the fish van, stock up on their organic necessities, and then take a taxi back with their laden bags.

Parents standing at the bus stop

Amazingly all went swimmingly on the way out (although a combination of my and Mr Pepperpot’s time-related anxieties meant a 15-minute wait at the rather sparse bus stop – benches are accessible infrastructure just as much as dropped kerbs are, planners take note). The bus arrived only a few minutes late, swung by the hospital as if to demonstrate how easy it was to get there, and then deposited us a couple of hundred yards from our destination. The driver even kindly ‘kneeled’ the bus to make it easy to get off (an actual pavement to walk along once we’d done so would have been even nicer but that’s the country for you).

Parents on the bus

In the end, it was the taxi leg of the journey that let us down. What we hadn’t quite realised was that between 3 and 4pm you can’t get a cab for love nor money as they’re all doing the school run. Fortunately there’s a nice cafe where we could while away the time between the Pepperpots emptying the shop of impeccably sourced olive oil, and the taxi arriving. It might even make for a new weekly ritual for them both.

But it does go to show that getting around without a car takes a level of planning and knowledge that isn’t always easy to come by, even in today’s digital age. You can’t google what you don’t even know you don’t know, like the fact that rural taxis disappear during the school run. You just have to learn these things the hard way, preferably while you still can. For sure, a car (or a bike) is a wonderful convenience – as long as you’re able to drive (or ride). But do you know what you’d do if you suddenly got told that you couldn’t? Maybe it’s time to start practising.

I might even have to work out where our own wee bus goes…

Hats Off

February 18, 2023

I’ve been on a bit of a knitting jag recently. It started because Mum wanted a hot water bottle cover for Christmas, which seemed like a good opportunity to master knitting cables, which proved easier than I expected.

And then having armed myself with a new hammer, as it were, I went in search of a nail, or rather suitable cable knitting projects. This started with an attempt at a hat for my sister which would have gone better if a) I had checked I had enough wool before I started, b) I’d used the right size needles and/or knitted a gauge swatch before starting (does anyone seriously do this? I mean, really?) or c) my sister had the same tiny size head as I do.

Blue cabled hat with white pom pom

I then got ambitious and knitted myself a very complicated hat, or rather I knitted a hat that turned out only to fit my aforementioned tiny head and, because it proved good at keeping my ears warm (the only fault of my tweed bunnet being the lack of ear protection), I decided to keep it as my outdoor non-cycling hat, to complement my indoor hat (which is lovely and cosy to work in but it’s also pink, sparkly, and has a faux fur pom pom so it’s not really for public consumption).

Blue wool hat with complex cabling

I then embraced the whole tiny head thing and made my new great-niece a hat, which ended up costing about 40 times more to post to the US than it had cost in wool in the first place.

And then I finally managed to make a hat for my sister that fitted a normal person’s head, which she seems to like (she doesn’t realise it yet, but as she’s planning to move from France to Bigtown, she may soon find she needs it for indoor wear. Hopefully she won’t discover that until it’s too late…)

Cream and burgundy hat with a burgundy pom pom

Hats are kind of perfect for knitting projects as you can make them as simple or as complicated as you like, but they’re still quite quick and unlike socks you only have to knit one of them. The trouble is, I’m running out of suitable heads, unless I decide to take my brother in law at his word when he claims that he wants one. Indeed, I might soon need one fewer hat myself. On Monday work starts on our heat pump installation and I’m daring to dream of being able to work bare-headed in comfort indoors. Luxury indeed…

Good Fedges Make Good Neighbours

February 10, 2023

By popular request (well ok there was one comment…) an update on the fedge …

Line of willows

Regular readers may recall that I attempted to create a willow fedge back in 2019 and while I did things as much as possible by the book, the willow hasn’t exactly played its part – while most of the carefully woven in whips have repeatedly failed to take, the stakes we’d hammered into support them have flourished like the green bay tree. Or the misplaced willow, if you prefer.

willow whips woven together

I’ve resorted to weaving in some of the side shoots, but they too are not behaving themselves – the idea is that by tying them together the branches will fuse into a wonderfully strong and self supporting structure, but these particular willows are having none of it and have either escaped the ties altogether or been damaged by rubbing together. I’m not sure if it’s using the wrong kind of ties (the gardening books suggest using old tights – or if the books are really old, ‘your wife’s old tights’ – but I have neither tights nor a wife so that’s not much help) or that I’ve got a particularly stubborn breed of willow here. I’m a bit reluctant to tie them back in and inflict more damage so for now I’m concentrating on cutting off all but the side shoots and hoping something fedgelike will eventually emerge.

Closer view of the fedge

Meanwhile, having joked about the gardening police, I was immediately rewarded with a visit from the garden inspection committee, fortunately too early in the year to expect anything too impressive from my gardening efforts. At least I was able to show him my pile of cardboard and the other half’s rabbit-proof fence. In February, that counts as progress.

I didn’t show him the other, slightly more macabre feature our garden has developed:

It turns out our neighbour in the farm up the road had shot a couple of deer in the woods and left the heads behind. Something, possibly a badger, had decided to relocate one of the heads to the rhubarb patch and left it there. Unfortunately, after setting up the surveillance for two nights to no avail, I forgot to put the camera out last night and of course this morning the head had disappeared.

Anyway, at we now have a venison hind leg in the freezer – via the neighbour, I hasten to add, not brought in by the badgers. Recipe suggestions welcome …

Don’t Make Me Tap the Sign

January 15, 2023

In ‘be careful what you wish for’ news, the coonsil have upgraded their ‘road closed’ sign on my nice cut through to town to a ‘road really closed’ barrier (backed up with the stern injunction that this also applies to cyclists, horses and pedestrians).

Road closed sign with barrier behind it

Clearly they’d got a bit sick of picking their sign up out of the hedge and/or moving the cones back as the locals decided what was a bit of road washout between friends as long as there was enough tarmac hanging on over the void for their vehicle, and kept moving the road block out of the way to get past.

Road closed sign lying in the hedge
Road closed with cones moved aside

I can’t really point the finger here as I was equally willing to risk it and keep cycling past the sign (although I did try and help by moving the cones back into position when they’d been moved aside). The thing is, the alternative route involves an extra couple of miles on a relatively busy and fast (and also prone to flooding) road so the risk from traffic feels much more immediately present than the largely theoretical risk of the damaged road collapsing while I’m cycling over it. But I imagine everyone else who’s been taking the shortcut has argued the same, so I’m being good and sticking to the main road rather than picking my bike up and hopping over the barrier.

It’s a shame not to get the rural filtered permeability I’d hoped for, but if that’s the worst weather damage we suffer this wet winter then we’ll have got off lightly. And at least it gives me some new perspectives to test out the shiny new phone…

Trees at dusk

It’s a Washout

January 2, 2023

Previously on Town Mouse, your intrepid/foolhardy (delete as applicable) heroine was cycling through flooded roads to get her paper safely home. The road was closed shortly afterwards, and even as the waters receded and the river reverted to its normal banks, it has remained closed. A short incursion past the ‘road closed’ sign* this afternoon revealed the reason why.

Road with the side of the bank all washed away

My intermittently working phone crapped out on me before I could get a better shot that shows just how badly the intact-looking tarmac was overhanging the washed out road, but it really doesn’t look safe at all, and it won’t take too much more rain for the road surface to collapse altogether.

I was at a virtual briefing about the Scottish Government’s target to reduce car kilometres driven by 20% by 2030, and one of the officials basically said ‘we can do it intentionally, in an orderly fashion, or we can do it the hard way as climate change starts to destroy the roads infrastructure.’ I thought that was putting it a bit strongly at the time; now I’m not so sure.

Selfishly, I’m rather hoping they take their time fixing it and keep the road closed. I ride this road every day and it’s narrow and twisting and there’s really nowhere along it where it’s safe for a driver to overtake, or even where it’s easy to pull in to let someone past. It doesn’t serve any houses except at the top, just acts as a short cut between two slightly busier roads, one of which is also very heavily used by cyclists. Keeping it accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and horseriders, while eliminating the SUVs too wide to comfortably pass anything on this road, would make my life so much nicer. And might even tempt a few more people out on their bikes as well. Filtered permeability, rural style.

* And if you’re thinking ‘bloody scofflaw cyclists’ (I was feeling it a bit myself, TBH), at least I wasn’t driving a massive van, like the delivery guys who squeezed through the traffic cones to take a short cut along the road while I was taking this photo

I’m not Superstitious

November 11, 2022
Road strewn with hedgecutting debris

‘With all this on the road it’s a miracle you haven’t had a flat tyre yet,’ the other half remarked before I could stop him on one of our state-sanctioned daily walks this week (yes, we’re still doing them; judge away). Obviously, I don’t believe in the puncture fairy, but why would you risk deliberately invoking her? Either way, whether due to confirmation bias, regression to the mean or, more likely, the fact that our local farmers have spent the past few weeks energetically coating our roads with Bastard Big Thorns, the next day my bike had a flat back tyre.

So far the puncture is only a slow one so I’m nursing it along by pumping the tyre up every morning and hoping for the best (I may not believe in the puncture fairy but I can’t shake the belief that you only get one puncture at a time, so it’s safer not to fix a slow leak that gets you to town and back until you absolutely have to, or you’ll only end up with a worse one). But I believe the time has come to look into upgraded puncture protection (standard disclaimer: I already have Marathon Plus tyres, slime made absolutely no difference, and no I’m not going tubeless, but thank you for your suggestions). Last year I tried out supposedly puncture-proof inner tubes, which shall remain nameless as front and rear wheels both went flat within two weeks of being put on the bike). So now I’m considering inserts, possibly instead of the Marathons or perhaps as well as, considering the density of blackthorn around here. My hesitation – as with all of these solutions – is that they tend to make fixing a flat even harder in the event that they fail. But if it saves me another walk of shame (or cyclist’s full-body workout) then it will be worth the risk.

Even better would be if the local farmers could somehow find a way not to coat the roads with the local equivalent of caltrops. I am reliably informed that the Germans have special hedge cutting machines which blow the debris into the field rather than spreading it along the road, but that’s the Germans for you (they also apparently have special slurry spreaders that just directly dribble it onto the ground rather than spraying it everywhere, which lessens the stink). I had hoped that the past few weeks of rain might have at least rinsed off the worst of the debris, but no such luck. Meanwhile, I might have to resort to sweeping the road again myself. So perhaps I will get that full body workout after all …


November 2, 2022

Previously on Townmouse, your heroine had resolved to tackle her existential despair by heading up to Edinburgh make her puny voice heard at the Climate Day of Action – it’s not much but the mere threat of it seems to have been enough to persuade Rishi Sunak to change his mind and head to COP27 after all.*

So that just leaves the small matter of getting there. The march kicks off at 12 noon and as it turns out there’s a train from Lockerbie that arrives just after 11:30 – perfect. There’s a bus that connects (with a half hour wait, granted) from Bigtown. All about as seamless and convenient as you can expect when you live in a rural forgotten corner of Scotland, and a journey I’ve done a dozen times without a single second thought in the past.

But that was back in the before times. I’ve not taken that train to Edinburgh since Covid changed lots of things, including any sense that a TransPennine Express service might actually get you somewhere as advertised. The last time I had to take the train back from Edinburgh the last one of the evening was abruptly cancelled about 5 minutes after the preceding one had departed and I was left with the replacement bus (actually a taxi) and a long and overly stressful wait at Waverley while the station staff attempted to work out where this might be departing from (the train company has at least put an end to this particular fun by simply removing the – by now largely mythical – later service from its timetable). The mid morning service to Edinburgh is a little more reliable, but when you’ve got two hours to wait for the one after that, it only takes one cancellation to throw your entire day’s plans out of the water.

cyclist crossing into the Scottish Borders

It’s no wonder that the last three times I’ve headed to Edinburgh it has been by bike or, slightly less epically, by bus. Indeed if the bus weren’t scheduled to arrive 20 minutes after the march has departed, I might have opted for it again, as it may be slow and uncomfortable but it does have the reputation of actually turning up and getting people to Edinburgh. The Lockerbie trains, not so much (there is also the option of taking the slow train to Glasgow and heading across from there, but that will require leaving at silly o’clock).

View of the hills from inside the bus

I think the real stress in all this, is that there’s no real plan B. If the train is cancelled, that’s it. The only option might be to have found out in good enough time to take the bus instead and hope the march sets off late enough that I can catch it. Or to aim for a much earlier train in the hope that they aren’t BOTH cancelled. I suppose I’ll just have to go as planned and hope for the best. But is it any wonder people drive?

I suppose that’s why we march …

* Other explanations are available.

The Dying of the Light

October 5, 2022

Riding back from the Bigtown Cycle Campaign AGM last night, I found myself wondering how I could have been extolling the joys of night riding barely more than six months ago. As the nights draw in, I’ve twice had to ride back in the dark from various events recently and I’m finding the experience increasingly testing. In particular, for whatever reason, I no longer feel confident that I’m able to read the road surface in time to avoid the worst of the potholes. Mostly this doesn’t matter, because I have ridden the road home so often I know where they all are, but in places I’ve found myself forced to brake going downhill to stay safe (a crime against momentum) and even lost track of where I was on the road on some of the twistier bits. It’s taken me back to the days before I got my lights properly sorted out and riding home in the dark meant gambling on there being a full moon.

The problem may be due to my light set up – the way the bracket is mounted, the front mudguard casts an unfortunately phallic shadow onto the road ahead which certainly doesn’t help matters. I’m also wondering whether the light itself – which is, after all, 10 years old – might simply be dimmer (do LED lights fade with age?). And then there’s the worry that the problem is my end – that I’m seeing less well in the dark. I’ve always had terrible eyesight, and I know that your night vision can deteriorate with age, although I had hoped it wouldn’t be happening quite yet. I’ve noticed that the issue is actually worse at dusk or as I’m leaving the bright lights of Bigtown, rather than when it’s fully dark, which suggests my eyes might be taking longer to adjust. Either way something to get checked out at my next eye test which is due in a month.

Matters aren’t helped by the fact that I’m currently nursing a sore knee – possibly due to tripping over my Brompton on an escalator in our haste to catch a train in Brussels (in fact, now I come to think of it, almost all of the injuries I’ve had in recent years seem to have been Brompton related; it’s possible the bike is out to get me).

General decrepitude is one thing, and probably to be expected as I advance further into my fifties. But when it starts affecting my ability to cycle, then it’s a bit of a problem. Hopefully the knee will sort itself out, and a new light will restore me to happy night cycling. But if not, perhaps my e-bike – and varifocal – years are coming sooner than I’d hoped.

Lockdown …

April 6, 2022

At the risk of this becoming an ‘all hare content, all the time’ blog, we were just heading out for a walk this evening and on checking the back door was locked, discovered that our resident wee hare was behaving adorably, so obviously we had to stop and watch that.

Just as we were about to head out the front, it scampered round and settled down for the evening by the plant pot just beside the door.

Walks are over-rated, I guess. I expect we’ll manage to leave the house eventually.