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.


The Way We Leave Now

May 26, 2021

How do you give a proper sendoff in the time of Corona to two people who have been stalwarts of your local cycle campaign since its inception?

Group riding bikes

With a bike ride, of course (sorry, what was the question?)

Normally we’d have headed to the pub but even though they are open, numbers are limited, sitting indoors still feels too risky, and besides an evening bike ride in the long days of May just felt like it might be a nicer idea.

Group arriving at the nature reserve

We headed to one of my favourite places, a peat bog that almost ended up buried under a pine plantation. It’s been neglected in the past but I was pleased to learn that it is being restored (‘rewetted’ in the trendy new phrase) and it was looking rather fine in the evening sunlight. As we went for a quick walk (after coffee and home baking had been consumed, naturally) and heard – and then saw – a cuckoo. There are nightjars there as well, and plenty of insect life (almost certainly 99.9% of which by number was in the form of midgies, but you know, biodiversity is biodiversity and it doesn’t always have to be pleasant to be around). The weather more or less played ball – at least, it didn’t hail, which is the new low bar for May – and as we finally headed for home, the almost full moon rose over the clouds beside us and much as we like to scoff at the modern fad for declaring everything a supermoon, it was an impressive sight.

I don’t believe that in the end any of us would have swapped the evening for a more traditional leaving do down at the Dog and Duck. Indeed, as someone who has long substituted a bike ride for any form of birthday party, I am fully on board with the idea of swapping pretty much all celebrations for a cycling excursion, even when the pandemic (hopefully) fades. Friends and family, you have been warned …


Jabbed

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?


Blue-Letter Day

March 19, 2021

I have a birthday coming up, which means the postman brings me exciting things every day but today he brought us the most exciting thing of all: our first vaccination appointments!

Blue envelopes with vaccine appointment dates

(this beats the hell out of the NHS’s birthday greetings for my 50th, which was an invitation to send them some poo in the post).

Not all of the delivered goodies are presents, though. Fortunately the other half was alert enough to realise that the package labelled ‘live plants please open immediately’ shouldn’t be squirrelled away alongside the other cardboard boxes (I’m old enough to remember when birthday presents came in actual wrapping paper) until the big day arrives. So the strawberry plants I ordered for the fruit cage got planted out today and are hanging out in the greenhouse waiting till they can go into their new home.

Strawberry plants in hanging baskets

Alongside some peas – given the mice’s exploits last year, I’m not taking any chances…

Peas suspended in the greenhouse

Not all my birthday goodies come in the post though – there’s one birthday present that I got for myself that arrives every year just when I’m beginning to wonder if it’s forgotten this time. Chionodoxa ‘Glory of the Snow’ pops up every March to cheer me up and/or remind me just how far behind I am with everything I need to do each spring…

Chionodoxa flower in lawn

On the whole, the cheering up just about balances out the unwelcome reminder. One day I’ll greet spring with equanimity, knowing that I’ve got everything in hand … right?


Call Me Mystic Meg

March 17, 2021

A year ago, I was watching my diary empty out, and looking forward to what I thought might be a few weeks of lockdown before things got back to normal and slightly dreading how busy things were going to be by, ooh, September.

Today, my big excitement of the week was needing to go to the surgery to pick up a prescription and taking the opportunity to go the long way round …

Empty rural road

(well, on roads like this, you would, wouldn’t you?)

Another empty quiet road

I no longer even pretend to think I know what lies ahead and yet, in contrast to last year, my diary is filling up rather than emptying out as we all just go ahead and make plans anyway (I’ve even tentatively started planning an event in September). Tomorrow, I’ve got the excitement of meeting a pal for a (takeaway) coffee and a socially distanced natter (there might be some PoP planning in there too). Gosh, I might even get some cake – I’ve been carrying around the same pocket full of change since the beginning of March; it will be beyond exciting to actually spend it.


Give Us This Day our Daily Cycle

February 9, 2021

More than a month into this latest lockdown, I’ve made the decision that I’ve got to get back to regularly cycling again. On Sunday I went for a walk with a friend which meant a five mile bike ride, an hour’s walking, and then the five miles home and couldn’t work out why my legs were so tired later in the day.

sunshine and open road

Unfortunately, it’s become abundantly clear I’m not going to just go out for a cycle for the heck of it, however much I might preach the joys, health benefits and all-round excellence of riding a bike. So, now that our case numbers locally have declined back down from the scary peaks of January (I’ve been checking the excellent Travelling Tabby site for the latest data almost obsessively since the new year), I’ve decided to bribe myself with the prospect of getting an actual paper as long as the numbers remain heading in the right direction. So far, this has been enough to get me out cycling further in three days than I’ve done in the past few weeks, despite the Baltic east wind (perhaps it would have been better not to make this decision during the arrival of the Minibeast from the East although so far we haven’t had any proper snow, unlike apparently everyone else in Scotland) and the Weather Gods experimenting with their latest innovation: snow flakes that seem to materialise randomly out of clear skies just when you’ve set off on your bike.

Anyway, today I had a proper excuse for an outing – inspecting an underpass and photographing all of the broken lights (basically 4/5 of them) so I can report them to the appropriate authorities. Never let it be said that the life of a cycle campaigner is not a glamorous one.

Underpass with broken lights

And I was cheered on the way back to encounter one of the older litter-picking locals who I often stopped to chat with back in the day. I haven’t seen him since the first lockdown in March (and if my can collecting efforts are anything to go by – I hit a high score of 15 today – he hasn’t been out that much in recent months) so I was pleased to find him fit and well and rejoicing in having received his jab* three weeks ago so he should now be protected. As the weeks pass, and the rollout continues, I’m hoping to find that many more of Bigtownshire’s indomitable senior citizens have made it through and are – at least for now – in the clear.

* I know, I’m supposed to say ‘jag’ up here but it just looks wrong.


Move Over, Sourdough

January 19, 2021

There’s a new fermentation kid on the block

Not that I’ve given up on the sourdough – if anything, now that we’re both at home all day, I’m baking more of it than ever, it’s just that it’s become somewhat routine. I was excited during the first lockdown to be godmother to a number of baby sourdough starters as various friends and Twitter contacts started asking my advice, for some reason (I hope they also consulted a few people who actually know what they’re doing), but I did slightly envy them the excitement of starting a new project seeing how much pleasure I’ve got out of my own sourdough adventures.

After miraculously managing to lose weight during the first lockdown, despite cycling drastically fewer miles, we’ve been somewhat pushing our luck in this latest incarnation by upping our culinary game. Not only did we try once of those fancy ‘restaurant in a box’ meals for our wedding anniversary, but I’ve also been trying to spend a bit more time away from the computer by attempting a few more elaborate dishes that take my fancy that I wouldn’t normally have time, which for me tends to mean sweet things.

pecan pie

Given that I also gave the other half an ice cream maker for his birthday last year (the best present ever, certainly from my point of view), it was clear that if I was to continue to fit into my jeans, I was going to have to develop some slightly more healthy ambitions than ‘perfect my shortcrust pastry technique’, hence sauerkraut which has all the potential rabbithole ahoy interest of sourdough for those who want to take it further, plus plenty of reputed gut flora benefits, without going completely down the path of kimchi, kombucha or (the one I’d really try if I had the courage, because who doesn’t want to be nursing what is effectively an improvised explosive device in their pantry?) home-brewed ginger beer.

So anyway, a couple of weeks ago, following the instructions helpfully supplied in the Weekend Guardian I sliced up a cabbage our neighbour had given us, massaged in the salt as instructed, added a few flavourings (if the last few 8-year-old juniper berries from the bottom of the spice jar count as ‘flavouring’) and left it in a ‘cool well-ventilated place’ to await its miraculous transformation.

After the suggested few days I tasted it to discover I had basically made some very salty raw shredded cabbage. So, I tried diluting the brine a bit, left it a bit longer (faintly tangy and ever-so-slightly less salty cabbage), left it a bit longer (possible faint echoes of sauerkraut) and then decided that perhaps keeping it in the effectively unheated utility room might be part of the problem (I should remember that London-based cookery writers’ interpretation of ‘a cool place’ may be different than for those of us living in Scotland). So it’s now found its niche in our kitchen where – a fortnight after I started – the other half has pronounced it as tasting ‘almost like sauerkraut’.

sauerkraut in jar

I’m reminding myself that this is probably better than the internet dubbing my second attempt at sourdough ‘dwarf bread’, and will persevere, hoping this isn’t something that ends in tears. Or, indeed, botulism…

What’s your latest lockdown project?


Are we Feeling Christmassy Yet?

December 24, 2020

One problem with our plan of minimising all contacts for the fortnight before Christmas – apart from the whole emergence-of-a-mutant-virus-and-country-going-into-imminent-lockdown thing – was that we forgot to stockpile any actual Christmassy food or treats. This is partly because the other half is American and has no affection for dried fruit so he places almost all UK Christmas food on a scale that ranges from curiosity to derision (I hadn’t realised until I turned up for Christmas one year at his parents proudly bearing Christmas cake that fruit cake is considered a punchline in the US, rather than a foodstuff. That said, I had a similar reaction when I was served sweet potatoes with marshmallows; I’ve got a sweet tooth, but that was beyond even me. Some traditions are really best left in their own countries).

So although we have had plenty of healthy and nutritious meals in the last fortnight, we have not had anything that would really get us into a festive mood, something which is more urgently needed with every news cycle. Fortunately, there is one Christmas treat we both enjoy, the cinnamon roll – ideally, in the other half’s eyes, Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh cinammon rolls, although he’s willing to accept my hand-crafted home-made inferior substitutes in a pinch.

Unfortunately, our careful menu planning hadn’t taken into account the need for an egg for the dough. Since the 10th, we’ve basically bought nothing in person that can’t be purchased from the garage, which, while I’m sure its petrol is excellent, offers quite a limited selection of human fuel. I wasn’t sure it would have any eggs at all, let along free range ones (the honesty box eggs tend to disappear during the winter as back-garden hens stop laying), but then I remembered it had this:

Egg vending machine

An egg vending machine with impeccably local credentials, which lurks between the car valeting area and the bags of coal. A quick inspection revealed that the eggs were sold in open trays of 15, a bit of a challenge when you’re on a bike (sure, you can transport your Christmas tree by bike, but unpackaged eggs are another matter), so yesterday I cycled down with some empty egg boxes, paid my £2.50 and hey presto, another chance to make an exhibition of myself in front of the right-thinking driving inhabitants of Bigtown by repackaging eggs in a garage forecourt to fit into a bike pannier bag.

Anyway, with the eggs safely transported home, it was time to try and generate a little Christmas spirit in the face of 2020. They may not live up to the wonders of Pillsbury, but they disappeared quickly enough (after they’d been immortalised for social media, of course).

In terms of Christmassy-ness it sort of worked, although I’d probably be feeling more festive if I hadn’t inadvertently got up at 5:30 this morning having read my watch wrong in the dark. This may be why I then capped my cinnamon roll triumph by forgetting I’d put a loaf of bread on to bake. Clearly the part of my brain that keeps track of needing to take things out of the oven had been fooled by the fact that it had already taken something out of the oven and switched itself off.

burnt loaf

And then, having thoroughly over-indulged ourselves, it was time to make the most of the brief appearance of the sun with a bike ride. We do miss our Christmas visits to Colorado, but occasionally Scotland makes a decent fist of a winter blue sky.

blue skies

I hope you manage to scrape some festive spirit from the bottom of the 2020 barrel, whatever this skip fire of a year has brought you.


In 2020 …

December 19, 2020

… you take your victories where you can.

wet road and flooding below

It feels we’ve been woken every morning this week by the sound of rain on the skylight above our bed, except on those days when it’s kept us awake all night so when there was a brief window in the weather this morning I decided to nip out for the paper while the going was good …

Sun on wet road
sun on trees with clouds behind

It’s been wet all right.

River starting to flood

But sometimes, just sometimes, you manage to get out and get back home and (more or less, adjusted for being 2020) dry before the rain resumes.

Rain through window

As our Christmas plans are thrown into confusion and we head back into lockdown, that might be as good as it gets.


Stockpiling

December 10, 2020

In a fortnight’s time it will be Christmas Eve, and we’ll be heading to my parents to spend two days attempting not to spread any germs and have something resembling a festive Christmas, adjusted for 2020. I’m somewhat conflicted about the whole thing – it’s possible I now follow too many epidemiologists and public health specialists on Twitter (some of them actual epidemiologists and public health specialists; the rest somewhat more self-appointed) as half my timeline seems to consist of ‘well fine to spend Christmas with your family if you want to KILL GRANNY’ or variations thereof (the other half is cycling Twitter which, you’ll be relieved to know, carries on mostly unchanged, as it has throughout the pandemic. Those kerbs won’t criticise themselves, you know).

I’ve read all the advice on how to have a COVID-safe Christmas and to be honest I don’t think I’ll be managing to persuade my parents to throw the windows open for the duration of our stay, let alone eat Christmas dinner outside. So we’re taking the alternative approach of minimising our contacts with people for the next 14 days, which is relatively easy for us to do (‘How will you tell the difference?’ my sister asked). I’ve done all the Christmas shopping that it’s possible to do in Bigtown and Notso Bigtown, and today the other half took the hit of shopping for two weeks’ worth of meals in one go, so we can avoid the supermarket from now on. We’ll still need to do a couple of post office visits and I’ll still get the paper, but I’ve already stopped going to the shop on the outskirts of Bigtown in favour of the nearest garage, which has the papers outside the door and where I can be in and out in less than a minute. It feels a bit wierd to be supporting a petrol station, but everyone at the garage wears a mask and it does mean I don’t have to stand in the shop silently fuming while the inevitable unmasked customer chit chats obliviously at the till or edges up behind me in the queue because clearly standing half a metre away from someone is going to make you get to the front faster than if you just stood on your little dot and waited like everyone else.*

We’re in one of the lower risk areas in the UK – although now that we’re about to be moved into Tier 1 I imagine that will change – but even with all our precautions it’s still not zero risk, so I imagine that epidemiology Twitter isn’t going to be too impressed, but it’s the compromise we’ve come to and I can only hope that it’s enough (meanwhile, cycling Twitter won’t be impressed to learn we did our stockpiling by car either).

Come Boxing Day, we’ll be home again and bracing ourselves for another big shop for enough supplies to see us through a (now looking inevitable, I fear) no-deal Brexit. This would have been a good year to have done better with my leeks which, despite the gift of some spare plants from the Garden Visiting Committee, are still pretty puny. If the snow and frost holds off then we’ll still hopefully be picking chard, and we’ve enough stored potatoes to see us through January, but other than that we’re may be looking at eating a lot of kale for the next few weeks unless Boris pulls something out of the bag in a couple of days.

plenty of kale
Somehow, there’s always plenty of kale …

Any recipe suggestions gratefully received …

*I actually stopped going not because of the slightly increased chance of catching coronavirus, but because of the approaching 100% chance of me being banned from the shop for good for standing in the middle of the aisle shouting ‘just wear a fucking mask, people, how hard can it be?’ until I’m bundled out by security.