In an Ideal World …

November 16, 2022
Train pulling into Lockerbie station

‘… woman takes train to Edinburgh without any problems’ would not exactly be interesting even by the low bar for ‘interestingness’ set by this blog.

After all the contingency planning and general fretting, Saturday’s trip to Edinburgh was entirely trouble free – the train came in approximately 2 minutes late, and the return train left without a hitch, and I even got a coveted table seat in both directions. It was notable that every person who walked into the station while I was waiting (ahem about an extra half hour as I’d decided to get the early bus just to be sure) felt they had to ask the ticket lady if the Edinburgh train was actually running. But other than that (and the fact that two trains to Glasgow had been cancelled), the only evidence that this could be a difficult journey fraught with complication and delay, was in my own head. Had I done entirely no contingency planning and rolled into Bigtown a good half hour later after a leisurely coffee at home, it would have had absolutely no impact on the outcome. There’s a lesson there, but I’m not sure I’m ready to learn it.

Holding the Pedal on Parliament 'this machine fights climate change' banner

And then we marched, along with thousands of others (and then went to the pub, because marching and shouting is thirsty work).

I know from my own experience that it took a hell of a lot of planning and preparation by what was probably a team of unpaid volunteers to get all those people out on the streets in an orderly fashion. And I also know that lots of people had come quite a long way, and given up their Saturday, to be out there. So it’s kind of galling, but not surprising, that there was effectively zero coverage of it – compare and contrast with a small handful of people closing the M25 or dishing up some soup to an artwork. Whenever someone glues themselves to something inconvenient there’s a massive outcry at the use of such disruptive tactics, and angst that it’s not doing the cause any good. But then again, if asking politely and doing things the proper way doesn’t work, what are people going to do?

Don’t worry, I’m not about to start gluing myself to anything soon (if I were to take any more direct action, this would be much more my style). But I can see why people do.

Meanwhile, I am glad to see that the slogan I thought up (or rather stole from Woody Guthrie) last year for POP has taken on something of a life of its own, and has even popped up on a bike at COP:

Perhaps if it goes far enough it will end up having more impact than anything we’ve directly organised, legally or less officially. Either way, every little helps.


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.

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.

There and Back Again

August 8, 2021

It seems to be an ironclad law* that the one thing you worry about most, is the thing that doesn’t happen, while you’re then blindsided by the thing (or things) you never even thought about. So when I set off yesterday on my epic(ish) journey south, my main concern, apart from actually catching Covid, was the fear of other people’s behaviour – as if the last 18 months had somehow managed to turn the UK into a live version of Twitter where people would feel the need to harangue other people in public about their life choices, instead of simply pretending they weren’t there or – in extremis – perhaps tutting, even possibly audibly.

If you weren’t following along on Twitter at the time, here’s the blow-by-blow version, or at least the edited highlights.

Or if Twitter’s not your thing, suffice it to say, that the least of my worries was being accosted by strangers in any way, even on the evening train heading to Blackpool North. Instead what happened was I got completely drenched on the bike ride down to the station and spent the rest of the day squelching round in wet socks, and I ended up booked onto a train that didn’t exist, that would anyway have connected to a cancelled train and hence very nearly ended up spending the night on a bench in Preston. Fortunately, I was rescued from this fate by the man in the ticket office who managed to find me a route that got me on the very last train home, and very grateful I am too.

It’s clear that over the last 18 months, I’ve completely lost my train travelling skills, because despite facing a complicated 3-train journey home, with very little wiggle room, I never even thought to check on line that the trains I was booked onto were running, or whether there was an alternative route should things go wrong. After 18 months of barely having to cycle anywhere except at a time of my choosing (not to mention three weeks of unprecedented sunshine) I would have said that I’ve lost my ability to deal with the Scottish weather but the truth is, I never did master the ability to cycle in the rain and not arrive at the other end looking like a drowned rat, however much wet-weather gear I accumulate. And nor do I ever manage to spend the few dry days of summer resourcefully re-proofing the kit I have.

As to my Covid fears, I can report that, once over the border into England, the number of people wearing any form of face covering was pretty low – about 30% at best, despite many signs and announcements encouraging people to do so (in Scotland it was more like 70%). I even overheard a mother telling her kids ‘you can take your mask off now, we’re in England’ as I boarded the train in Carlisle (although I was slightly cheered to note that at least two of the children in question were still wearing them as they got off the train a few stops later). I suppose I could have guessed that leaving things up to people’s common sense was never going to work in a country where a goodly proportion of the population pick up their dogs’ poo and then leave it dangling in a plastic bag from the nearest tree. Hopefully, I won’t have caught anything but having taken all manner of risks in one day that I’ve been avoiding for the last year and a half, my plan is to limit my interactions with other people as much as possible for the next few days (and take a couple of lateral flow tests just in case).

On the positive side, yesterday’s adventure has jolted me out of my cosy little retreat, and that’s probably a good thing. If I’d stayed home much longer, there’s a risk I’d never leave southern Scotland again. As it is, after my seven trains epic, not to mention my brush with trench foot, my next couple of outings should be a complete doddle.

I’m a great believer in diving into something scary headfirst to get it over with. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out that the pool had been drained…

* At least I hope so, because in that way I’ll manage to solve global warming through the power of fretting alone.

If Not Now, When?

August 4, 2021

I do love a train journey, and I haven’t been on one for almost 18 months so this ought to be exciting …

Train tickets

… but if I’m honest, I’m finding the prospect rather daunting. Saturday will see me on not just one train, but seven, as I make my first proper trip out of Southern Scotland since this pandemic began (walking over the Chain Bridge briefly into England doesn’t really count). I wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t something I felt I had to do – a memorial bash in celebration of a man who was one of those people who tirelessly worked away in the background turning someone’s vision into reality, and who was still working away even into the last weeks of his life. Lockdown robbed his family and friends of a chance to say goodbye, and I couldn’t let my own misgivings prevent me from joining them now that they can gather again to do it properly.

Even so, and even though I tell myself that I’m double jabbed and that cases are (at least for now) declining, I can’t help feeling The Fear at the prospect. Partly I’m worried about COVID itself, having got this far without catching it, and partly about people taking it upon themselves to object to my wearing a face covering on the trains, even though I’ve no idea whether they will or not. I think I’ve spent too long seeing the world filtered through social media to know what actually happens out there beyond my quiet little rural corner of Scotland. While it’s possible that every train will be crowded with coughing strangers who want to explain to me at close quarters why Coronavirus is a hoax and they’ve not had Bill Gates’s jab, it is surely much more likely that everyone will be carefully spacing themselves out to the maximum extent possible and avoiding all eye contact like normal British people, because that’s what we do best, after queueing.

Either way, it’s time for me to put on my Big Girl Pants (and my Big Girl Triple-Layer Mask, let’s not go mad here) and get out there and find out for myself. And once I’ve braved that, I have other more purely pleasurable trips in the offing to look forward to.

If, as Huttonian used to say, I am spared.

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.