October 25, 2022

It’s that time of year – toughing it out through October as long as possible before succumbing to turning the heating on. This month, I’ve upgraded my working wardrobe to supplement my freelancer’s woolly hat with a wristwarmer bodged out of an ex jumper that had been overlooked by me – but not, crucially, the moths – when I put my knitwear* away for the summer. So far that has been just about enough to make sitting at my desk bearable, but it’s getting to the point where not having the heating on tips over from sensibly frugal to self-defeating, as I find myself struggling to concentrate properly on the days when the rain sets in and there’s no sunshine to warm my hands as I type.

It’s not that we can’t afford to turn the heating on, at least so far, but the steeply rising costs are a consideration (we only have electric radiators) and so too is the fact that we are in a climate crisis. But I’ve realised in the last couple of weeks that simply trying to tough it out for as long as possible is not really a sustainable solution to either problem. We’ve done a lot to insulate the house as well as we can, and we’ve got solar panels already, so the logical next step is to look at installing a heat pump, which will be way more efficient. I had thought we’d do this a few years down the line, rather than replace our current, working (and not that old) heaters – but when it comes to heating a whole house, the embedded carbon in our existing radiators will pale in comparison to the emissions savings from switching to a much more efficient set up. And besides, if we go for underfloor heating, we can just leave the heaters in place as a back up for when we need a quick boost of heat rather than the more steady background warmth that a heat pump might provide.

So now comes the tricky bit – working out just how to do it, and finding someone who can install one. After doing a bit of research on the requirements, I think we have enough garden to put in a ground source heat pump, which is more efficient (but initially more expensive) than an air source one, and works better in colder climates – we’re in a relatively mild corner of Scotland, but we are a few hundred feet up a hill. I’d like to explore that as our first option, or at least get someone who can advise on whether it would work, but it turns out ground source heat pump installers are much thinner on the ground than those doing air source only. So now we’re up against the familiar problem of finding a tradesperson who is a) qualified to do the work, and b) answers their phone (or even – the holy grail of builders – their email). If we do find someone it will mean a lot of upheaval and possibly a fair bit of mud – but I think it will be worth the effort. Watch this space…

River with bare and autumnal trees

* Obviously, this being Scotland, I don’t put ALL the knitwear away; usually one jumper ends up as my summer jumper and is then worn pretty much daily for the next three months until I admit defeat and get the rest of the woollies out.

Exciting Headwear News

August 26, 2022

A mere almost-three-months after I first decided I needed one, I have a new bunnet:

This represents something of a land-speed record for me when it comes to buying things, which just goes to show how important my tweed cap is to my general well being. I have actually had the relevant page open in a tab in my browser since I wrote the original blog post, but it took a combination of my mislaying my temporary replacement bunnet, and the return of tweed weather after the brief joys of the heatwave, for me to actually press the button and do the deed (normally I would spend the intervening months truffling through charity shops for a potential alternative first, but there are a few things I draw the line at buying secondhand, and it turns out hats are one of them).

It’s already had its first baptism, a sprinkling of rain as I headed down to the Pepperpots this morning, but I suspect its real test is yet to come. So far, all I can report is that for a hat designed for a small child, it’s still actually a bit roomy on my tiny head but I do like the elasticated back which makes it feel a bit more secure without having to be jammed on headache tight in a headwind. As to whether it will equal its predecessor in warmth, rain-proofness and its ability to give the wearer a feeling of general invincibility, only time will tell.

I know you can barely wait to find out.

Haud the Bus

August 20, 2022

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.

Bus passing through the Dalveen pass

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.

View from the bus windows

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.

Literary Criticism, Rural Style

July 27, 2022
Calm river with early morning light

Cycling into Bigtown early yesterday morning in something of a jetlagged daze, I noticed a car waiting in the road ahead. As I passed it, the window wound down and a waving hand emerged. I stopped to see if I could be of assistance and it turned out to be one of my road pals – the people I regularly wave to and occasionally stop and chat to on my regular trips into town. Along with the yellow raincoat woman with the big dogs, the very smiley woman with the small dog (we always exchange very enthusiastic ‘hiyas’ and I think now neither of us is certain whether or not we actually know each other or have just been saying hello for so long we think we might) and the small chap with the large tree (he doesn’t always cycle with a tree, to be fair) who updates me with a slice of his life every time we’re on the same road together, there’s the woman I met in the shop who had been waving at me from her car for months and hadn’t quite realised I wouldn’t recognise her when she wasn’t wearing a silver jeep.* And now she had somehow worked out that I had written a book (have I mentioned that I’ve got a book out at all?) read it and really enjoyed it and wished to let me know.

Anyway, she was delighted to hear I’d be happy to sign her copy and was genuinely planning to achieve this by just keeping it with her as she drove around until we bumped into each other again, which isn’t actually the worst idea in this part of the world (in the end we decided that exchanging phone numbers might be a tiny bit more efficient). All of which made for a nice boost for a tired brain as I pedalled on into town.

This has reminded me that I did rashly promise a book signing by bike this year. So far I haven’t managed to work out a window of time, weather and fitness to make this happen but I have not abandoned the idea. And if anyone is too impatient to wait for me to get it sorted, they too can just randomly roam the back lanes of Bigtownshire until they bump into me. It’s surely only a matter of time.

* I could have sworn I’d blogged about this incident, but I haven’t been able to find it again so apologies if I’m repeating myself here.

Getting while the Getting is Good

February 18, 2022

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.

cake spread

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.

pine sapling

To Market, To Market, Redux

December 19, 2021

Me: How fortunate that we’ve got an extra Christmas edition of the farmers’ market on today, given I forgot to make bread last night so we’ve nothing for lunch, we’re out of pancetta for supper, and there are still a couple of things I need to pick up for Christmas.

Weather Gods: About that …

Bike in foggy road

Regular readers will know I have ridden in plenty of inclement weather over the years, but this was definitely one of the least enjoyable rides we’ve done for a long time. Not only was it so foggy that the other half’s back light was worryingly all but invisible from barely 50 feet away, it was also extremely cold, that raw bone-chilling cold that reaches everywhere and leaves your fingers feeling as if they have been smashed with a hammer.

Still, there is a stall at the market that not only does haggis samosas (don’t knock them till you’ve tried them) but also an excellent Goan chicken curry so we pressed on, hoping that at least the sun would have burned through the fog before we had to ride back. Sadly, as we waddled out again, replete with curry and with the last piece of the Christmas shopping puzzle in the bag, it had neither cleared up nor, particularly, warmed up. I think we were more than three quarters of the way home before we burst out of the cloud layer and into the sun.

fog in valley below

At this time of year, it doesn’t exactly warm you, but it does at least allow you to remember what being warm feels like.

And how is your Christmas shopping going?

Gardens with Benefits

July 29, 2021

If you ignore the fact that the magnificent towering pink flower spikes to the left of this picture are, in fact, willowherb and hence, technically (but who decides these things anyway?), weeds, the garden is looking almost … gardenish from certain angles.

Garden in July

Much of my gardening activity in recent weeks has been in the form of making piles, moving piles and occasionally removing things from piles and putting them in their final home. It’s hard to tell whether any of this is ultimately going to be productive or not, but it gets me outside and keeps me happy and that’s the main thing. Today was the turn of the large pile of weed roots outside the fruit cage, some of which have rotted down sufficiently to be put in the compost (or would be, if all three compost daleks weren’t full) and some of which have sprouted and had to be pulled up anew.

raspberry canes outside fruit cate

In doing so, I noted that we actually have more fruit outside the fruit cage than within it, as the top half of our garden is rampant with wild raspberries, while I’ve just excavated the wild strawberries out from under some more rampant plants in the flowerbed beside it and they have been producing a steady trickle of delicious little berries. None of these have troubled the kitchen at all, as they tend to go straight into the gardener. There have got to be some perks to the job, after all.

wild strawberries

In other news, our neighbours report that they have had rabbits in their veg plot. This is bad news for the neighbours and turned out to be quite bad news for the rabbits, once they’d been caught. It will ultimately be bad news for us once the rabbits work out that there is another garden down the hill a bit with some southern townie softies who are unlikely to be as free with the shotgun but for now it is good news as it turns out that the rabbits ate their pea plants. The neighbours have been generously leaving surplus eggs on our doorstep at regular intervals, which is extremely welcome but has created an imbalance in the rural favours calculus. However, as we have a massive surplus of both peas and mangetout, I’ve finally been able to tip the scales back a little in our favour (as well as keep on top of the picking which has been getting away from me somewhat in recent weeks).


In other news, the Hare’s Toothbrush, given up for dead for the second winter in three years, is … not.


This would be better news if I hadn’t just planted what will be a massive cardoon right next to it.

A Sight for Sore Eyes

June 27, 2021

You can keep your green list countries and your vaccination passports … if there’s anything I’m excited about as lockdown eases, it’s the return of village plant sales

Sign advertising plant sale

Nearest village has gone all out this year, after having to cancel last year, and although I was held up and couldn’t make it until it was almost over (and it turns out there’s nothing like the fear of being gazumped at the plant stall to give you wings for the climb up to Nearest Village), fortunately there were still plants (and, importantly, cakes) to be had.

Plant stall

With these events I’m limited only by the capacity of my bike basket and the ability of any purchases to withstand a few miles of bumpy roads. This is probably fortunate, given I’m still not caught up with the gardening (and the work I’d hoped was over has returned for a final hurrah).

plants and pots in bike basket

Where You Wheely Bin

April 29, 2021

OK so it’s been an exciting weekend

Sadly I didn’t get to witness the giant projections in person, but you can see them on this film:

After all that excitement, you’d think that Bin Day might have been a bit of an anticlimax, but no! Cycling down into town on Tuesday lunchtime, I spotted that our neighbour’s wheely bin had gained two pals as Bigtownshire finally joins the 20th Century and gets a doorstep recycling programme

Wheely bin with two recycling wheely bins

Indeed, all the wheely bins that had been put out on the route into town had company.

This left us (OK, me) slightly anxious that we had been left out as we don’t have a wheely bin so we hadn’t been given any pals for it. I made a mental note to phone up and check, but then forgot about it. And yesterday, having returned home after a somewhat frustrating day, for reasons that were only tangentially related to the coonsil, we discovered that we too have recycling facilities, in the form of two stout canvas sacks, a large red one for cans, plastic and packets and a slightly smaller one – as designed by someone who clearly doesn’t take a daily newspaper* – for paper and card. There’s also a handy leaflet and calendar so we can join the rest of the country in having impassioned discussions about what can and can’t go in the recycling and what is supposed to be going out when (in my experience, these leaflets tend to raise more questions than they answer in these situations).

Now all we have to do is wait for Actual Recycling Day to come around (12 more sleeps!). I know, you can hardly wait.

* Annoyingly, it’s got just slightly too small a footprint to fit an unfolded tabloid (as the Guardian now is). Who designs these things?


March 23, 2021

Well, a day of excitement for us today – not only was it Bin Day (one of the few remaining Binday Classics as we count down to the new recycling system) but it was also V-Day as we had our appointment to get our first shot of the vaccine (Astra Zeneca, thanks for asking).

I was kind of hoping for a badge, sticker, or even just the little card you get saying which vaccine you got so I could do my requisite ‘vaccination selfie’ across all my many social media platforms, but sadly they’re above such things here in Bigtownshire so we just got a leaflet about side effects, which isn’t really the same. So far I haven’t had any side effects either, apart from the commonest one of being unable to shut up about having had the vaccine. That’s probably why they don’t bother giving out a sticker, come to think of it.

In lieu of a vaccine selfie, you’ll have to make do with this incredibly accurate recreation of the attack of ASBO buzzard, courtesy of my talented friend Vicki (although if I’m honest, I’m actually much less insouciant when under attack than I appear in the picture).

Cartoon image of me on a bike being attacked by a buzzard

And now I’ll go back to what has become normality – living in our rural fastness on the top of the hill, making the occasional foray into town for the paper, and riding my bike. The only difference will be if some unwary stranger should stumble into within hailing distance, when I can waylay them and (socially distanced of course) inform them that I’ve had my vaccine…

… did I mention that we’d had our vaccines, at all?