Popping Out for a Paper – COVID Edition

July 7, 2020

Small outbreaks of polar bears notwithstanding, we’ve taken another small step back to normality in the Townmouse household – I’m going back to getting a daily paper.

Since lockdown started, we’ve made the judgement that going into a shop just to buy a paper was an unnecessary risk, if we weren’t actually going shopping anyway. That meant going down to one paper a week (the Saturday edition), rising to two a week once our lovely neighbour offered to get us a paper on her (different) shopping day. On occasion we have risen to the luxurious heights of three papers a week, on days when a trip to the post office has occasioned it (if I’ve been unusually eager to post things to people, now you know why). In between times I have become that person who reads a three-day-old weekend supplement, something I have never understood up to now.

I do realise, because everybody tells me so, repeatedly, that it is possible to read the Guardian online and that nobody actually reads a paper paper any more. But I still find that compared to having the physical thing in my hands, it is not the same. With the actual paper, I read the whole thing (time allowing), rather than just clicking on the articles that seem compelling enough. And, frankly, I spend enough time looking at a screen these days that being able to sit outside reading something that doesn’t notify me of new and exciting updates all the time is a positive luxury.

It comes at a price,* however

Alongside the latest easing of lockdown, we will now have to wear masks in shops in Scotland. I’ve no idea of how much benefit it will bring, but the consensus seems to be that this is probably a good thing. It doesn’t become compulsory until Friday, but on yesterday’s inaugural ride down just for the paper, I thought I had better show willing. It was … fine. Half the customers were wearing one (although on your chin doesn’t really count, fellow Bigtownites), nobody mentioned it, and I was able to communicate reasonably well with the woman on the till in so far as I needed to.

My current mask is an improvisation, though I’ve got a much fancier one coming tomorrow. I suspect we’ll all end up with a wardrobe of the things, as we search out the holy grail of comfort, safety, and unfogged glasses. Mine ticks the comfort box, and didn’t fog my glasses too much but I don’t know how much protection two layers of jersey cotton really offer. I also discovered that if you’re cycling up a massive hill and you decide to put it on to pass a roadworks lorry that is kicking up a lot of dust, your immediate instinct is to rip it off again. Fortunately, it seems that cycling is a low-enough risk activity that I won’t need to try that again…

Like so many changes we’re living through these days, I wonder whether I’ll look back on this post in a year’s time and marvel that I wore a mask at all – or whether going out without one would feel like going out without my flat cap. Which makes me wonder … how much protection would a Harris Tweed mask offer do you suppose?

What is your mask made of?

* not the actual cost of the paper, though. We have a subscription for the Guardian and we’ve kept it up throughout lockdown because it seemed to me that having a decent source of left-leaning journalism that wasn’t owned by a billionaire was worth the cost of continuing to pay for a paper we mostly weren’t reading in physical form.

Here I Come, Busy or Not

May 12, 2020

It seems we’re allowed unlimited amounts of exercise now in Scotland, which would be more exciting to me if I had even a limited time to exercise this newfound freedom. But no doubt by the time I’ve dug myself out from beneath my current stack of multiplying deadlines we’ll be back down in lockdown again, so despite not technically having the time to do it, I took the opportunity today to load up the basket of the freshly de-punctured Brompton with another batch of chlli babies and take them down to some friends in return for them not insisting on me taking away any of their spare cucumber, courgette or brussels sprout plants.*

chilli plants

Actually, this was probably allowed under the old rules – after all, I was delivering food, albeit in a very slow way – although I suspect we’re not really supposed to exchange quite so much chat (at a safe distance) in the course of such deliveries.

Either way, it gave me an opportunity to check out the state of the ford, which is bone dry; unsurprising given that the Weather Gods seem to have gone into self-isolation themselves. I don’t remember ever seeing the river so low.

dry ford

In truth, it was good to get out on the bike, whatever the reason. Running twice a week might be keeping me fit and walks in the woods are lovely and all, but they’re not the same as the couple of hours of moderate exercise that I’ve grown used to getting almost every day just in the course of running my regular errands. It might feel like it takes up time I don’t have, but at the end of the day I’m probably more productive (and certainly feel much cheerier) if I’ve been out either on the bike or in the garden.

dry waterfall

I’ll still be following the Scottish Government’s advice to stay at home rather than the UK government’s stay alert message (probably fortunately as I slept terribly last night). But, busy or not, I might have to make more time to ride my bike while stocks last. Or at least until the Weather Gods come out to play again …

bluebell wood

* They also offered a home brewed bottle of beer, but with the Brompton’s tyres at bike shop pressure, and the roads increasingly potholed, I declined the opportunity to cycle back home with what would effectively be a glass fragmentation grenade in my basket.

Ghost Town

May 1, 2020

So I finally made it into Bigtown proper this afternoon, having dropped off the Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign’s trailer for use in the volunteer effort. This was of more than idle interest – Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign have actually been invited by the Coonsil to discuss ideas for where temporary space could be made for safe walking and cycling. I know, I’m surprised too and am still slightly wondering if it’s some sort of a trap …

Having spent five weeks of lockdown on a hill overlooking Bigtown, I thought I had better see things a little closer up and so having delivered the trailer (and admired the street’s socially distanced Zumba class which was going on at the time – instructor on one side of the street, and what appeared to be the entire local nana population spread out across the other pavement) I ventured further into town for a quick tour.

I had already observed on Monday’s exciting visit that traffic wasn’t particularly different around Bigtown’s outskirts, but things really are strange in the town centre – the only time I’ve ever seen the carpark on the river this empty is when the river is actually in it (this hasn’t stopped your average Bigtown driver from just abandoning their vehicle wherever they fancy of course, including on our nominally pedestrianised high street).

empty car park

It was actually quite depressing and worrying to see the town so quiet. The traffic around the edges suggests that life, and commerce, continue – but it’s moved to the big supermarkets and the online retailers (and in our bid to limit our interaction with other people we’re no exception – if it can’t be bought during our weekly supermarket shop, or online, it doesn’t get bought at all). Bigtown actually had a reasonable town centre before this, with some nice independent small shops as well as the usual high street retailers, loads of cafes, and what must amount to approximately 60% of the pubs that Burns is known to have drunk in. It’s hard to see how much of that will survive the next few months.

So I was rather sobered by what had originally felt like a jaunt when I set out and was only really cheered as I approached home and realised that I had attracted something of a following. The cows in the field next to our B-road were chasing after me on the other side of the hedge. This never fails to amuse me when it happens, and I can only apologise to the cows for not after all having any tasty cow treats on me when they finally caught up with me at the top of the field.

crowd of cows

Or maybe they’re as bored with the whole lockdown experience as everyone else?

Emerging (or – Exciting Shopping News)

April 28, 2020

one tree in leaf, one not
We’ve reached the point when even the trees can’t agree whether or not to come out of their lockdown and risk bursting into leaf …

As for the humans – well I’m not going to venture an opinion on what we should be doing about it, and I’m very glad I’m not responsible for deciding either, although I was very glad to hear this ministerial announcement which means that when we do start to emerge in greater numbers, there will be space for people to walk and cycle while keeping a nice safe distance from each other and the rest of the traffic.

Lockdown might not have ended yet, but I did manage a little loosening of my own isolation in that I had an unavoidable trip to the post office yesterday so at last I had a chance to do things I haven’t done in five weeks, like cycle into Bigtown and visit an actual shop (the other half has been doing the supermarket run once a week). This was quite exciting to me, adjusted for our new reality of what counts as exciting – especially as I also had a chance to buy a paper, bringing us up to a massive three this week. I mean it’s not the ford, or even a new pipeline, but you’ll just have to take what novelties you can get on this blog these days.

view from the bridge

That said, as far as cycling into town went, I’d have been hard pressed to notice any difference. The post office is just at the edge of town and traffic has never been that heavy there and if I was expecting tumbleweed rolling through the streets then I would have been disappointed. What I did get was all the fun of negotiating the new rules having not had a chance to adapt to them gradually – so yes, I was that person attempting to circumvent the one-way system in the shop (I was deeply apologetic when I was politely but firmly told to follow the rules). To be honest, the strangest thing about it all was the continuing fine weather which meant those standing outside waiting to get in were just enjoying a nice blether in the sun. Regular readers of the blog will know just how strange a phenomenon that is around here.

Anyway, with that excitement over it’s back to my round of work, local walks, and the odd outing on the bike, enjoying the emergence of spring and wondering what the future lies in store.

trees coming into leaf

How is your lockdown going?

Not Running with the Bulls

April 23, 2020

One of less widely acknowledged benefits of using your bike for transport is that however busy you get, you still end up getting in some exercise – indeed, in normal times, the busier you are, the more of a workout you will build into your day just to run errands or go to meetings.

And then along comes a virus and everyone is stuck indoors and while some of my cycling friends are enjoying the government injunction to go out and take exercise, and others are getting inventive with indoor cycling (and even skipping), I’m not spending anything like as much time on the bike as I would normally just fetching the paper.

I’m actually really enjoying our daily walks instead – even if they’ve been temporarily curtailed in one direction by some escaped bulls that took up residence in our local forest (we think they’ve been rounded up but they were quite good at disappearing into the shadows under the trees so it’s hard to be sure and we didn’t quite fancy suddenly encountering animals quite so big and with quite such pointy horns without a stout fence between us and them). But they’re not proving quite as much of a work out as I’m used to. I could go out more on the bike, but I have got very busy in the last few days and when you need to get a lot of exercise in a short period of time there’s really only one option – going for a run.

So that’s why I found myself at some silly hour of the morning, heading down the hill on my bike to a quieter back road where I could get a bit of an aerobic workout. Unfortunately the bike – perhaps sensing a rival form of exercise in my affections – had other ideas. Half way down the road and the flat front tyre had become unignorable.

early start

I briefly considered doing my run from there – but even with the lighter traffic of lockdown, our local B road is not that inviting on foot without even a comfortable verge, let alone a pavement. Just wheeling the bike back up the hill didn’t feel all that comfortable, although it did give me a chance to pick up lots of squashed cans I’ve not managed to stop for in the past – and entertain the neighbours as well.

curious cows

What is she doing?

Once home, all dressed up with nowhere to run (unless I fancied my chances with the wild beasts of the forest) I considered just heading back to bed, but that seemed a little feeble. The only other place to go was up our neighbours’ drive (if you can call a private road half a mile long a drive). Which happens to go straight up hill for the first half. I wonder how many times I can run up the hill and back down again, I asked myself, which only goes to show that this lockdown has gone on far too long.

Anyway the answer – surprisingly to me – was ‘at least four’ – with the downhill parts proving harder on the legs than the uphill. It’s reassuring I suppose that a few weeks of less frantic gadding about haven’t really put much of a dent in my fitness.

So now, on top of everything else, I will have to sort out that puncture and find another morning to head out for my original planned (and rather gentler) run. And hope that by the time the lockdown ends I’m not the sort of person who does hill repeats for fun…

World Turned Upside Down

April 15, 2020

If mutant dandelions weren’t enough to worry about…

There’s a couple of other signs that the world is surely on its final approach towards the end times. First is that it hasn’t properly rained for weeks – yes, here, in South West Scotland. There’s been rain forecast but apart from a tiny spot of drizzle on Sunday morning it’s never materialised. And days that were forecast to be a bit meh have shaped up to be glorious. It’s wonderful, of course, but the gardener in me is trying very hard not to wish it would rain…

ruined tower and blue sky

The other thing is that I haven’t been out on my bike for a week (and I feel fine). This is probably the least cycling I’ve done (apart from a fortnight’s holiday spent on an island that consists mainly of flights of stairs) for years. It turns out that for me, riding a bike is largely an enjoyable way to get somewhere, not an obsession in itself.

caution bicycles sign

That said, when the sun shines and the wind drops and it’s another gorgeous sunny afternoon it would be churlish not to get the bike out and reassure it I haven’t forgotten it. So today’s state-sanctioned exercise was a tidy 12-mile loop around the local back roads, just because we could.

bikes on a bridge

It was good to know I could still get up and down the hills.

open road

If you’ve had enough photos of empty country roads and glorious sunshine (with the other half as a figure giving scale to the image as he disappears into the middle distance) just let me know.

bike and open road

Sociable Distancing

April 4, 2020

In the past week, the days have fallen into a bit of a pattern – at my desk doing a bit of work in the morning, lunch and state-sanctioned exercise with the other half, an hour or so in the garden in the afternoon, before coming in for coffee and the now-traditional (a fortnight is long enough to form a tradition these days, right?) huddle around the wireless for the latest announcement from the government and whichever chief scientific officer* they’ve dug out of self-isolation for today’s statistics (I’m not entirely sure *why* I’m listening to what is basically the sound of someone giving a powerpoint presentation – next slide please – but I can’t stand television news so there it is).

But today being Saturday we rang the changes a bit. The other half went shopping and (glory be) brought back at least half a Guardian (as well as food and, even more excitingly, bread flour) and I headed out on my bike to combine my allotted exercise with picking up some eggs from one pal, and delivering a baby spider plant to another, who lives down the road near our old cottage. This inevitably meant not just some suitably distanced chat with both pals, but as it turned out, further chats with an old neighbour whose husband has had serious health issues (both fine), our old landlord, and the latest tenant of our old cottage who was returning from his own state-sanctioned cycle ride. All this took a little longer than I’d planned, and so I headed back in a bit of a hurry as I had stock to make and a video chat planned with my family.

Unfortunately for my plans, the traffic was terrible…

sheep on the road

It took a while for the woolly roadblock to clear mainly because the farmers wanted the sheep to go in my direction and I was a cyclist and therefore the most terrifying thing on earth, so the sheep weren’t having any of it, a situation complicated by all the lambs wanting to go in every direction possible but mainly to get stuck in things. After I’d repositioned myself somewhat and made myself as unscary as possible, and various lambs had been disentangled from various bushes, the sheep finally moved into the next field and I was free to race home for my next social engagement.

lambs moving up the road

After a fortnight of pottering and not even much cycling, this all felt like an exhaustingly giddy social whirl and I think I might need a quiet few days to recover. Which is fortunate, really, given that’s exactly what I’m getting, like it or not.

* And who knew we had quite so many scientific and health bodies for there to be chief officers of? There seems to be an endless supply and a new one each day which makes me wonder what’s happening to them all…

Spider Woman

April 3, 2020

With lockdown comes many things, and one of them is the feeling that I really ought not to be putting off all those annoying little tasks I’ve been meaning to get on with when I’ve finally got time to do them. Normally, I just wait for a bit until the feeling goes away but our large main spider plant has been sitting in the downstairs bathroom looking miserable for a while now and, despite the arrival of spring, was showing no signs of perking up.

It also had a large number of spiderlings which were looking a lot more healthy than the parent plant. I did wonder whether it was suffering from having all its growing offspring hanging off it so I decided they could do with a spot of social distancing by each getting their own pot. And besides, it was raining and I fancied an excuse to spend an hour in the greenhouse doing gardening things, after we’d been out on our slightly truncated government-sanctioned walk.

Anyway, once out of the pot it was clear that this was not a well plant. I’ve long been of the opinion that you can’t kill a spider plant but I’d clearly managed to have a good go at it. The bottom half of the roots were dying off and the two resident woodlice were clearly enjoying feasting on the results. If nothing else, I needed to rehome the spiderlings in case the mothership didn’t make it. All six of them …

spider plants and babies

Assuming all survive (and I’ve yet to have a baby spider plant not ‘take’) this will add to the existing four spider plant babies I didn’t manage to turn into something else before the lockdown started – some of which are already busy having babies of their own. So far, we’ve (just) got enough windowsills to house them all but if the lockdown continues for much longer, then when liberation comes, we may have to fight my way out with a machete.*

* There was a picture book I remember as a child about someone who filled their house full of plants to the point where it was just all plants inside and I can’t remember anything about it except that final image of a house-shaped mass of plants. I think it might have been intended as a cautionary tale, but I seem to have adopted it as a life goal…

Out with the Old, In with the New

March 31, 2020

Gardening at this time of year always reminds me of the apocryphal resolution of some town council in Scotland somewhere to 1) build a new prison, 2) save money by using the bricks from the old prison in the new prison, and 3) to house the prisoners in the old prison until the new prison is built …

Veg plot in March

The focus at the moment is getting everything planted for the coming season but the old season isn’t finished yet – and at a time when access to fresh veg feels like a luxury I’m not ready to cut it off before it’s done. The purple sprouting broccoli is just getting into its stride, the kale is still hanging in there, the Swiss chard is gearing up to produce a final flush of leaves before it bolts for good, and the leeks … well the last remaining leeks are doing a convincing impression of spring onions. With the weather warming up and the days lengthening, they might well have plumped up a bit more before they bolted too but like time and the tide, seed potatoes wait for no man so today they got eaten, ready or not to make room for the spuds. ‘Baby leeks’ are totally a thing, right?

very small leeks

I’ve also been taking the chance to plant some of the hardier flowering plants I have been raising from seed. There’s still a lot of garden to take back control of, and I’m generally too tight-fisted to buy actual plants from a garden centre (village plant sales are another matter) but I have great difficulty in walking past a display of seeds without some seductively illustrated little packet ending up in my basket. Not all of these are successful, and my failure to find a plant labelling solution that remains legible after a few months means that those that do grow often end up as mystery plants before they are planted out, but I’m pretty sure that these are my white foxgloves (we have plenty of the normal pink ones) which I planted underneath our wedding anniversary birch trees while catching up with the latest government announcement on the radio.

foxglove seedlings

There’s a weird disconnect involved in doing something as generally pleasant and hopeful as planting out young plants, while listening to the daily announcement of the coronavirus death toll. I can only hope that by the time they are in flower (if indeed they do flower), the memory of this time will seem like something from the distant past.

Lockdown Life

March 28, 2020

We’re so lucky to be experiencing this lockdown where we are – with a large garden and plenty of places to walk and cycle safely nearby – that I’m almost hesitant to blog these days because it feels a bit like bragging. The fact is, I’ve basically been preparing for this for approximately the last 10 years: not just the gardening and working form home, but the knitting (there’s a real danger I’ll finish the jumper I started more than a year ago if this goes on), sourdough starter to deal with the yeast shortage, and even the fact that I haven’t troubled a hairdresser for a decade so I won’t be emerging on the other side looking any different from normal, i.e. as if I was recently dragged through a hedge backwards. So I’m sure all of you will be tuning up your very tiniest of violins because I can no longer get my daily paper because it’s not an essential purchase and we’re too far away from any newsagent to take advantage of the free delivery offer (I was still super excited this morning when the other half went shopping for the first time in a week and came back with the Saturday Guardian – and I’ll be making it last all week).

Meanwhile, with spring battering on as if everything was normal, which of course for much of the non-human world it is, I am getting on with as much as I can. This is the year when there will be no excuses for not getting everything prepared and planted in good time, although at least the garden visiting committee is also under lockdown and can’t spring one of his surprise inspections on me (at least, I don’t think so but he’s a bit of a law unto himself so I’m not ruling it out). Indeed I have actually made a fair start of getting the veg underway and tackling various projects, like sorting out my fedge, but the real luxury now that everything is cancelled is that I’ve time to just potter, which is my favourite form of gardening of all.

Mostly I like to work in the garden with Radio 4 chuntering away soothingly in the background but these days that can backfire. Apart from the mysteriously coronivirus-free Archers, the radio now delivers a steady diet of doom and disasters, distracting me from the job in hand. I can’t remember what I was listening to when I was planting my kale and broccoli seeds – the coronivirus special Moneybox Live? The coronavirus special Inside Health? – but it was clearly a bit too compelling. As kale and broccoli are both brassicas, and hence basically the same species, you can’t really tell them apart until the plants are fairly mature so it’s important to correctly label your seed trays after planting. Even more important is not absent-mindedly planting broccoli seeds in the same modules where you’ve just planted your kale. Oops. Especially as broccoli is about the only thing that really produces anything to eat at this time of year … I’m just going to have to do another sowing that’s definitely broccoli and see if I can work out what’s what when the seedlings emerge in the other tray.

Meanwhile, I’ll maybe stick to Gardeners’ Question Time when doing anything that requires any concentration. Although no doubt even GQT will be doing a coronavirus special in a week or so’s time …