Out of My Comfort Zone

February 19, 2020

There seems to be a rail-based conspiracy at the moment to keep me stuck in my corner of South West Scotland. First the timetable for trains to Edinburgh got so messed up that it’s barely worth attempting the trip, and now a landslip has turned the otherwise slow-but-civilised Bigtown to Glasgow chuffer service into an obstacle course of rail-replacement bus services and all the uncertainty that entails. Unfortunately, this happened after I’d agreed to head to Glasgow to give a short presentation (and, to be fair, attend a half-day networking event) meaning six hours of travelling to deliver one 2 minute slide show.

glasgow cycling bridge

In fact, the total travelling time was technically longer, but the rest of it was by bike which never feels like time wasted. Cycling in Glasgow is usually quite challenging but amazingly enough, I was able to do the four-mile trip from Glasgow Central to the venue entirely off road and only got lost twice and then only a little bit. Given that I’d responded to the pre-event survey question ‘describe cycling in Glasgow in one word’ with ‘terrifying’ this was a welcome surprise.

railway line cycle path

I had meant to use the part of the journey I could do by train to get on with some work, but in the end I got chatting to a chap who sat opposite me at Kilmarnock. He opened with a joke (as is traditional in the west of Scotland) and I responded in kind and by the time it became clear this was someone I’d probably steer well clear of on Twitter (pro Brexit, anti Independence, and an HGV driver who when he learned I was a cyclist asked me to tell my colleagues to cycle as far to the left as was possible) I actually quite liked the guy. So instead of hiding behind my laptop – the in-person equivalent of muting him – I decided to keep talking. After all, we’re all about getting out of our bubbles these days. I didn’t try and tackle anything contentious – but I asked him about his life and work (as he’d asked me about mine) and learned a lot about the pressures he is under – paid less than he was 30 years ago, coping with busier roads and worse drivers, under intrusive surveillance, competing with drivers who know less than he does and generally fed up with it all. But he also talked about the good things – seeing the length and breadth of the country, meeting interesting people, and the joys of an early morning run when it’s just him and the scenery and the wildlife, including one stag that stood blocking his way and wouldn’t move because it genuinely did think it owned the road.

No great revelations were had on either side, but we parted on good terms, having agreed that it was a shame kids didn’t have anywhere safe to cycle these days, and perhaps he learned something too – about why a bike might be in the middle of the road and that the person on board could just as well be the nice middle-aged lady he chatted to on the train, just trying to keep herself safe, as some tosser in lycra who was obliviously holding him up as he tried to get on with his job.

Glasgow cycle path

All in all, perhaps not such a waste of time after all.


Far From Disgruntled

January 19, 2020

frozen moss on wall

It’s been a long time since I was Disgruntled Commuter, so it was a nice nostalgia trip to appear in the paper as a ‘disgruntled cyclist‘ instead (although I can only apologies for our failure to be photographed in proper angry person in local paper style – we were feeling quite pleased with ourselves at the time and weren’t expecting the story to get any actual coverage).

Inevitably when these sort of stories appear we get comments asking why cyclists have to clear their own paths, while motorists get their roads maintained for them. Obviously the main point of such an exercise (apart from actually clearing the path) is embarrassing the council into doing something about it although at the moment Bigtownshire Coonsil is proving itself unembarrassable and keeps sending us tweets thanking us for our efforts and volunteer spirit.

And I would also like it noted that this morning, we headed down to the bottom of our road to the icy spot on the corner and spread some grit on it ourselves.

our road

Because frankly, when your road looks like this, you really can’t expect anyone to grit it for you. We’re fortunate to have not one but two nice full grit bins – one handily outside our gate – and we’re perfectly happy to do a bit of amateur gritting as needed.

Either way brisk walk on a frosty morning and a little purposeful activity to work off our morning cinnamon rolls really is no hardship indeed.

frosty woods


Rode Hard and Put Away Wet

November 4, 2019

So I thought I had my current trip to Edinburgh well planned – I’m attending a conference at Murrayfield, with a workshop that started at 1, giving me a nice amount of time to take my usual train (getting in to Haymarket at 11:30), drop the Brompton off at the nearby Brompton dealers to get its mudguard sorted and various niggles ironed out, and then walk down to my afternoon session. It’s safe to say it didn’t quite work out like that – and not just because the Edinburgh Monsoon still seems to be in full swing. For a start, there was that fact that ‘a few niggles’ on a Brompton that has been somewhat taken for granted by its Bad Brompton Owner for the last few years translates into How Much?! and then some, and then some more. And for another start, there’s the fact that I hadn’t quite readjusted my mental scale for walking distances rather than cycling distances so once I was Bromptonless and trudging through the pissing rain, what had felt like it might be a nice leg-stretching walk quickly (or, rather, slowly) became a route march. It didn’t help that Murrayfield Stadium is huge and when it’s not holding an actual rugby match, quite hard to get into without walking about three-quarters of the way round it in the wrong direction in the pissing rain (did I mention it was raining? It was raining). Which is why I ended up at my workshop late, damp, and with VERY strong opinions about the need for better pedestrian wayfinding.

But that’s not even the worst of it. The worst of it was discovering that the train from Lockerbie – the one that connects reasonably nicely with the bus, that means I can get into Edinburgh for a late morning meeting or lunch without getting up at silly o’clock, the one that everyone in Bigtown uses if they’re heading up to Embra – that train is going to be no more from mid December. Instead, we can get the 8:30 train (and pay peak fare) or we can wait until after 12 for the next train. And it seems there’s nothing anyone can do about it, because that’s the mad way we run our train service in this country.

I’ve been feeling recently a vague sense that, at least in Scotland, the powers that be have started to – just a little bit – get the idea that we can’t just keep providing for car drivers and letting everyone else have the scraps. And then something like this comes along – effectively removing a key sustainable transport link between a major town and the Scottish capital – and it seems we just have to accept that’s the way it is.

Funnily enough, a few months ago, I sat through a long meeting about how transport links to Lockerbie could be improved, the subtext of which was ‘how can we avoid building a multistory car park to serve the train station because that’s clearly ridiculous in a town the size of Lockerbie’. Nobody thought to mention it at the time, but it would seem that TransPennine Express have had the cunning idea of cutting down the demand by not running any decent trains, so everyone will end up just throwing up their hands and driving direct to Edinburgh instead.

Remind me how we’re tackling that climate emergency again?


Dirty Ol’ City

January 18, 2019

Ah yes, you know you’re in London when – in among the normal notices about standing well clear of the doors and taking care when exiting the train – you hear the following announcement

‘Please don’t urinate in the passages. Will men stop urinating in the passages. Will the man in the passage between platforms 3 and 4 please stop urinating in it.’

They say Londoners wouldn’t turn their heads to look at someone even if their hair was on fire, but I can assure you that the man who finally emerged from the passageway between platforms 3 and 4 had our full attention.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should make the effort to get back to my native city more often than once a year. This wasn’t one of those occasions.


Someday my Bus will Come

March 4, 2017

So today I had to make it out to the Wild West which meant just your average multi-modal rural journey: six miles by bike (with a small portion of a popup bookshop in my Brompton’s basket) down to Big A Road, bus to Notso Bigtown, and then a lift onwards. After extensive consultation of the bus timetables, maps and Google Streetview (to check if there was a bus stop where I was planning to catch the bus – I have seriously no idea why I ever thought Google Streetview was a gimmick; I can’t imagine life without it now), I was fairly certain that I could make it in time although, as the next bus wasn’t for an hour, if I missed the first one it would actually end up being quicker just to cycle to Notso Bigtown, even with half a ton of books in the front basket.

on the road

bus stopThere’s an argument (I’ve made it myself from time to time) that more cycling could be the salvation of the rural bus service because the effective radius of a bike means that you can generally get away with taking just one bus instead of two,* and because buses can then take you further more quickly and on much scarier roads than you can comfortably manage on a bike. But then again, once you’re standing at a deserted rural bus stop with no timetable and no shelter and no indication of how you might know if you had missed the bus if you had missed it, then really nothing does seem more unlikely than the arrival of a rural bus.

Which is unfair, because the bus arrived bang on time and I even had time on the way to stop and photograph some sheep (I really will keep on posting photos of sheep here until you tell me that you’ve seen enough…).

reflective sheep

And while it will still never be my preferred mode of transport for any journey where I can feasibly ride a bike, as a writer I probably should try and spend more time on local buses. In London, when I was writing my old blog, I was continually confronted by people and little glimpses of their stories, intriguing enough at times to spark an idea or bring a character to life. This morning as we passed through one of the intervening villages, the bus picked up a cheery middle-aged woman who explained her leather jacket, eyeliner and semi-punk hairdo to the driver as she got on (I am guessing this was not her normal get up): “We all had to dress up as someone from the eighties and this was the nearest I could get to Siousxie and the Banshees. Or Siousxie and the Banshees with a shopping trolley in my case.”

You never get that kind of quality comment from a sheep.

* having to co-ordinate two rural buses turns a not-madly-convenient-but-doable journey into the sort of epic travelogue people write books about – the publishers surely only turned down Dervla Murphy’s ‘Across Galloway by Public Transport’ idea down on the grounds that it was clearly impossible and they couldn’t be responsible for sending someone off on such a fool’s errand.


Pull the Udder One

September 21, 2016
bovine audience

“What’s she doing? Doesn’t she know to check the train timetables before scheduling anything?

You might ask yourself, had you seen me yesterday opening the garage to the usual fascinated audience of cows and heading off on my Brompton for a couple of meetings in Edinburgh, why I was leaving at 8am to get to a 3 o’clock meeting. Sure, cycling to Bigtown to catch the bus to Lockerbie to catch the train to Embra takes an or three, but I was still in Waverley by just after 11.

Indeed, I was asking myself the very same question. I had blithely agreed to meet at three, thinking that surely there would be a lunchtime train that would get me in for then. After all, Lockerbie is on the main(ish) line to Edinburgh, it’s only an hour’s journey, we’re trying to cut carbon emissions … why wouldn’t there be a service at least every couple of hours?

But if you think that, you would be wrong. If you want to go to Edinburgh from here and you don’t want to go via Glasgow on the chuffer, or Carlisle, which is in totally the wrong direction, then you have to make a day of it. You can get in at 11 or you can get in at 3:40. But don’t get too comfy because the last train is just after 8. Is it any wonder people drive?

Still, at least it gave the cows something to talk about all day.


Come Fly the Friendly Skies

May 19, 2015

So we made it to Colorado, despite the best efforts of our airline which should really remain nameless although alert readers may just be able to take a guess at which one from the title. It didn’t help that we were booked to fly from Glasgow to Colorado Springs via Newark (sensible enough) and Houston (geographically senseless) – and when we got to Newark, we discovered our flight to Houston was delayed for three hours making catching our connection impossible. The airline-which-shall-remain-nameless was on top of the situation, though, and had booked us through on the next available flight from Houston to Colorado Springs, which was at 9am the next day.

‘So will the airline be putting us up in a hotel?’ we asked. The Customer Service woman looked at us as if we’d asked for the moon on a stick, dipped in chocolate and sprinkles. ‘No, we wouldn’t do that,’ she said.* Could we claim a refund? ‘Well, you can go to our website and click on our feedback form,’ she suggested, to a hollow laugh from the other half. Could she suggest anywhere we would be able to stay near Houston airport? ‘No I don’t know anything about the Houston area’ (Unfortunately she was not adjusted for sarcasm so this one went straight over her head). Could we phone our relatives who would otherwise be setting out to meet us? Well yes, we did at least get a phone call – after all, suspected murderers get nothing less – so while the other half was phoning up his parents to let them know the bad news, I went over to the departures board to have a look.

Back to the customer services desk. Could we get on that flight to Denver that was departing in an hour or so? She looked at her computer. Why, yes we could. And there was a connecting flight to Colorado Springs that would only get us in an hour later than planned – and with no need to go via Texas. Result. No guarantees that our luggage would go with us, but at this point we didn’t care (and it is, as we speak, being delivered by someone called Richard, having had an impromptu overnight stay in Houston; the luggage, that is, not Richard**). As to why the airline-that-shall-remain-nameless hadn’t thought of this itself, I have no idea. I suspect it just doesn’t have the sort of finely-tuned seek-out-an-alternative instinct that years commuting in London instils in you… Or maybe it just didn’t give a toss.

So after only 20 hours travelling we finally arrived in the lashing rain, to discover that the weather gods had preceded us by some days, presumably not having had to travel via US carriers, and the desert is looking a whole lot greener than it normally does. Indeed, the weather has been rather more Southwest Scotland than the Southwest. But the in-laws’ bikes have been brought out of the garage and patched up enough for another couple of weeks’ use … and checking the height of the water in the Fountain Creek is now the new checking the level of the ford.

*You know all that burdensome red tape that company bosses are always complaining the EU weighs them down with? Things like ‘if you strand your airline passengers in Texas overnight because reasons, you have to actually make sure they have somewhere to stay’? These are exactly the sort of regulations that those dastardly Eurocrats in Brussels are strangling red-blooded businesses with. The bastards.

** Update: just as I was about to post this, it arrived.


Old Habits Die Hard

May 6, 2015

Cherry trees in the Meadows

No rest for the wicked: today I had a flying visit to Embra to get the Brompton serviced (it has, after all, only been about a year since its derailleur stopped working properly, leaving me with just the 3 gears, but what’s 12 months between friends), and do some advanced plotting with @Backonmybike about the Women’s Cycle Forum which will be steaming back for another triumphant run at the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling (available for booking now! Come on, you know you want to…).

I should probably have done my usual multi-modal bike-bus-train route to Edinburgh (and by ‘usual’ I mean ‘haven’t actually done it since the other half has been around to give me a lift to the train station’. Oops. I do mean to, but there’s always a good reason) but it was raining and I had slept in, so I ended up getting a lift to Lockerbie (these are the sort of good reasons I mean). We had left plenty of time, or so I thought, but as we pulled up at the station I saw what looked like my train arriving at the platform. Thinking the trains must be seriously messed up, I was taking no chances. Out I hopped from the car, grabbed my Brompton from the boot, kissed the other half goodbye (these things are important even if you have a train to catch) and dashed onto the platform and into the train before I thought to ask ‘this is the Edinburgh train, isn’t it?’

Mental note to self: you are not a London commuter any more, and you do not have to treat every train like the last helicopter from Saigon. Fortunately, the doors hadn’t closed so I could get off what turned out to be the Glasgow train and go and buy a ticket for Edinburgh at a civilised pace.

pub puppy

Anyway, Brompton and I made it safely to the Brompton dealers (by walking; the one-way system around Haymarket is INSANE) where I was lectured about proper chain maintenance and then on to a pub with hot and cold running puppies, well, puppy, but a seriously cute one. The Brompton dealers relieved me of a not insignificant sum of cash (but I’ve still spent less on both bikes this year than we will on servicing the car) and I got to watch a newly minted Brompton owner take charge of his first fold (ah, bless … almost as sweet as a puppy) and then ride back to Haymarket on a freshly fettled but, disturbingly, still a bit squeaky Brompton. All in all, a satisfying day out for all concerned.


The Impossible Journey

January 29, 2015

So we woke this morning to two inches of snow and everything looking extremely pretty – the perfect day for a wintry walk followed by an afternoon of hibernating by the woodburner. Sadly, what I had actually planned for today was a trip to Edinburgh for a couple of important plotting meetings and, as one of them was already twice postponed I thought I should at least show willing, ‘blizzard’ or no blizzard. As this involved a 25 minute rural bus journey with a 15 minute connection to the only train for two hours, I was fairly certain that the attempt was doomed, but the internet suggested that the trains were running and the buses not cancelled, so I set off all the same.

I did at least have the sense this time not to attempt the eight miles to Bigtown by bike but this meant fossicking the other half out of bed to give me a lift to the bus stop. Having dug out the car, we abandoned all thought of the back roads and ended up in nose to tail traffic on Big A Road, and then total gridlock as we came through the outskirts of the town. It was a forlorn hope that I could still catch my bus but I hopped out of the car and hoofed it, overtaking everything on the road, and was startled to get to the bus stance to discover the bus waiting for me, just as the snow began again in earnest. The bus then crawled through actual proper white-out conditions, shedding great drifts of snow from its roof at every bend, with me running through various contingency plans for what I’d do when I, as I inevitably would, missed the train – only for our destination to appear unexpectedly through the murk, merely five minutes later than we were due to arrive. ‘I’d be surprised if there’s any trains running,’ the bus driver said cheerily as he let me off but not only were they running, they were only a few minutes delayed ‘I know, I’m astounded!’ said the ticket collector. ‘And isn’t it just gorgeous.’

snowy hills from the train

And indeed it was.

I’m still sorry that I didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the beauties of the freshly fallen snow, beyond a snatched glimpse from a train window, but then again I did experience something much rarer: the UK public transport system mysteriously not collapsing despite an amber wintry weather warning. Let others tackle Alpe d’Huez on a Boris Bike or cross the Gobi on a Brompton – I have made it from Bigtown to Embra and back on public transport in the snow.


And Back

October 26, 2014

My journey home was something of a descent from the sublime of East Coast first class (courtesy of Rachel Aldred’s East Coast Points and very gratefully received) as far as Newcastle, to the the volume-turned-up-to-eleven of a Northern Rail service full of northerners on a Saturday night (suddenly the sullen silence of a train full of Londoners didn’t seem so bad) as far as Carlisle, to the train to Bigtown complete with blocked and ever-so-gently sloshing toilet and enlivened by the addition of three rather respectable looking women in their fifties who got on at Gretna with a half-empty bottle of pink sparkling wine which they proceeded to empty over the conductor’s feet (he took it remarkably calmly, I have to say). So I was glad to get home, although I would have been gladder had a missing comma in my email to the other half not transformed our supper plans from a pizza from the place in Bigtown with the special pizza-dough rolling machine into emergency toast and peanut butter …

Still, he had made chocolate-chip banana bread (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) so all was not lost. In other news, it has not stopped raining since I returned. Stand by for ford updates, you have been warned.