Those Who Dig in Glass Houses

November 7, 2017

The weather seems to have made a decisive shift from ‘variable’ to ‘downright bonkers’ in recent days – yesterday started with a sharp frost, then turned into a stinging cold drizzle (as a passing neighbour commented as she overtook me, “it’s wet and cold and miserable, what are you DOING?”), and then, as I reached the outskirts of Bigtown with the sun struggling to come out, the wind suddenly turned almost warm: not exactly an oven door opening, but maybe something like a tumble dryer. Today we woke to blustery wind and rain and overnight temperatures of 11 degrees, while tonight – having cycled back from the community council meeting wondering if I should have put my magical ice tyres on – it is once more officially effing bloody cold.

frosty morning

Still, whatever the weather, at the moment it doesn’t matter because our main outdoor project is effectively indoors: digging out where the greenhouse beds. The idea is to replace the current mixture of (inevitably) gravel and rather compacted clay soil with whatever will grow us lots of tomatoes and chillies. Following my usual technique I have googled various gardening sites to find one which agrees with what I was thinking of doing anyway, and decided we’ll probably go with a mixture of one third soil, one third sand and one third peat-free compost.*

greenhouse progress

So this afternoon I spent a happy few hours out of the wind and the wildly variable weather, shovelling the soil and gravel into our ever growing heap, removing an encouraging number of worms (some slightly shorter than they might have been originally, sorry worms) to safety, and remembering not to chuck the bigger stones too carelessly towards the open door…

* It appears that the whole peat vs peat-free compost question is as controversial in a gardening forum as helmets are on a cycling forum; having stumbled upon some entertainingly bonkers but very heated ‘debates’ on the subject, I decided to stick to lurking.


Making the Most of Meetings

November 4, 2017

So today I had to be at someone else’s AGM in Notso Bigtown. I had an offer of a lift but as my fellow attendee was also a cyclist, and the forecast was for a lovely day, I had a much better idea.

en route to the meeting

The meeting, like most meetings, was probably best filed under ‘one and half hours of my life I’ll not get back’ – and there were NO BISCUITS despite being organised by cyclists – but Notso Bigtown is 20 miles away as the bike flies (19 miles there and 21 miles back to avoid a horrendous hill from a standing start). In my book, a total of four hours of riding, mostly on roads where we could chat as we went, the excuse to wolf down an egg, sausage and tattie scone roll, and racing back home in the gathering dark with the wind at our backs, to arrive just as a glorious moon was rising, meant we ended the day ahead on points.


Even so, it’s not too much to ask that all meetings come with biscuits, is it?

The Grass is Always Greener

November 2, 2017

Today the various planets aligned to produce not just a gloriously sunny and calm November day, but one in which I had no pressing work to do indoors – so a chance to get to grips with some of the garden.

garden in November

Normally I’m a bit of a potterer in the garden – I’ll start doing half a dozen different jobs and flit from one to the other (normally based on keeping in the sunny patches) but today I knuckled down and got one bed in order – the worst of the weeds removed, leaf mould around the shrubs, topped off with a mulch of woodchips; it’s almost as if I know what I’m doing.

tidied flowerbed

As I start to understand a bit more about how this garden works, I’m also beginning to understand my predecessors’ obsession with gravel and landscaping fabric, because what this garden really wants to do is grow grass. It’s hardly surprising, I suppose, as this garden was clearly made out of the corner of the field, which seems to grow grass like nobody’s business. There’s and awful lot of spraying, slurrying, cutting and tending goes into it, but maybe just leaving it would work just as well. Or, indeed, covering it in landscaping fabric and several inches of gravel, as in our drive …

grass in the gravel

Even inside the greenhouse, which was just the beaten earth and gravel that had been under the chicken shed and then roughly levelled and used as a building site for the foundations is now in need of a good mow …

greenhouse and grass

Please admire our lovely path, which pleasingly is made entirely out of slabs and bricks we found lying around in the garden, in some cases buried in the grass

Meanwhile, the parts of the veg patch that I’d cleared barely a month ago is already looking like you could get a decent cut of silage off it. You leave things lying around at your peril here – the turf can close over it while you go in for lunch. This may explain the large number of bricks, and blocks, as well as the odd pile of coal and bag of gravel and even a whole rake that have emerged as we’ve cultivated the ground a bit more.

veg plot

Hopefully, with time, we will be able to persuade the garden to turn its hand to growing other things. Or maybe we should just get a sheep.

Slow Cycling Champion

November 1, 2017

Barely had I unpacked from our Northern Ireland trip when I had to head up to Glasgow for the Cycling Scotland conference, where some of you might have gathered on Twitter, I won an award:

(my favourite response on Twitter to the announcement was “over what distance?” “Five years”, I suppose would be the most accurate answer …)

Anyway, it was nice to be recognised even if I feel a bit of a fraud as so many other people do a hell of a lot of work too. It did mean that I then had to work out how to cycle back up the hill from the station with not only a large glass weight* but a bottle of prosecco, a bag of chocolates and a rather delicate looking little pot plant. I feel certain that a real cycling champion would have managed but in the end I had to give the pot plant away to a good home. My shiny new pannier otherwise rose splendidly to the occasion though, and the chocolates certainly helped…

cycling champion plaque

Cycling champion award loot

After a lovely couple of weeks off, and an energising and interesting two days (not something I would have said about the Cycling Scotland conference back in the day when it was usually a bunch of men in suits reading their powerpoint slides to you), I am hopefully now refreshed and ready to get back into the campaigning saddle for the next five years…

* As someone on the night commented, “Typical cycle campaigner, even when you give them an award they moan about it.”


October 28, 2017

So, we’re home again – leaving an Ireland bathed in sunshine and arriving back in Bigtownshire to the massed and looming clouds…

clouds over scotland

This morning, checking to see what was still standing in the garden (pretty much everything thanks for asking, including the greenhouse – and the daleks kept their heads screwed on as well), I was admiring these flowers which seem to be unstoppable. My mother picked them up in Aldi for five quid as a garden-warming gift when we first moved in, and they’ve been pretty much flowering ever since.

Dianthus in the rain

This photo doesn’t do justice to the colour of this flower which is a much deeper red

Certainly in June this year they were flowering their little heads off and kept on going and when they started to fade and look a bit ragged at the end of this summer I almost hesitated to cut them back because I knew it would encourage them to put on a second flush and I was worried it might actually kill them. So far, though, despite the haircut, combined with wind, storms, rain, slugs and hares, nothing seems to dent their enthusiasm. Clearly, wherever Aldi gets its plants from is doing something right.

dianthus in June

the same plants in June – everything else in this photo has realised it’s autumn and gone to ground

The only problem was that for ages I had forgotten what they were actually called (they did have labels but I lost them), making it harder to find out how to look after them – had they needed any looking after which, apparently, they don’t – or, more importantly, to sound as if I knew what I was doing when other gardeners came to visit. A quick Google suggests that they are some kind of Dianthus, possibly Neon Star, which should come in handy when I need to replace them when they inevitably die after I post this. Or I can just keep calling them what I’ve been calling them up to now when pressed – “Oh, those? They’re Fromaldi forafiver”.

pink dianthus


October 26, 2017

Today being our last day here, we headed to Tollymore Forest Park because it’s got to be done: one of those places that was a fixture of my childhood, but which I am only now beginning to properly appreciate.

Tollymore entrance

And despite having come here regularly for over 40 years, I still somehow managed to miss the entrance and was practically at Bryansford before I realised my mistake.

tollymore autumn

tollymore in autumn

Worth the uphill pedal though … if only to work up an appetite for our tea.

tollymore in autumn

Back home tomorrow, to find out if everything is still standing in the garden.

Tollymore in autumn

A Stroll in the Park

October 24, 2017

While all these bike rides and seaside walks are all very well, what else is Newcastle for if not for walking in the Mournes? So today, we decided it was time to go and tackle some of those contour lines directly, on foot. Paradoxically, the easiest climb for us is also the hardest, because Slieve Donard rises right from the back of where we’re staying, and is reasonably easy to navigate because there’s a pretty clear path all the way to the top. The fact that it’s 850m pretty much straight up from our sea-level house is neither here nor there – in recognition of our lack of climbing fitness, and out of respect for our ageing knees, our only aim was to go up as far as could and then come back down again with ligaments and self-respect intact.

all-terrain barrow

How to carry your tools up a steep and rocky path … I did suggest suspension forks for the next iteration

Stopping off to chat with the cheery volunteer rangers of the Mourne Heritage Trust* (and their impressive all-terrain frankenbarrow) who were busy repairing the path, we headed upwards, very grateful for their efforts as this route up Donard gets a lot of visitors and even mountains made of granite aren’t immune to the effects of lots and lots of feet.

donard path

There were pauses to admire the view, and how far we’d come

view from donard

Quite frequent pauses …

view from donard

In the end, reaching the saddle between Donard and Commedagh, we decided that was a good enough point to stop and turn around (550m worth of climbing in the end). It wasn’t just the steepness of the climb that remained that gave us pause – as the realisation that it was already a long way down …

long way down

Given the way we felt by the time we’d reached the bottom and staggered into Maud’s to be revived with millionaire’s shortbread and salted caramel ice cream (delicious, in case you’re wondering), that was definitely the right decision.

*Who, I note from their website, also suffer from an ASBO buzzard