Tour de France

June 15, 2018

french maps

So, we’re setting off today with our bikes via 5 trains (including one sleeper), 24 hours, and an exciting ‘you may well not die’ bike ride through central Paris. We’re going to be doing a week or so of what I hesitate to call cycle touring, because I associate that with the sort of people who think nothing of 90km days, sleeping in bus stops, and crossing continents alone equipped with nothing but a bike, a map they picked up in a garage and a bag of jelly babies in their back pocket.

Our own plans are resolutely non-epic: approximately 30 miles a day, long lunches, sleeping in hotels, plentiful stops for cake and coffee – in short, cycle pootling, or in other words a holiday with a bit of cycling attached. Hopefully it will be enjoyable, because it’s costing approximately what we’d have paid for a fortnight in Barbados, once we’d booked all the trains. Also, I could now go on Mastermind with ‘taking your bike on European trains’ as my specialist subject.  We’ll have to tear ourselves away from the hares, which are being particularly adorable at the moment, and the garden which is just getting going (when the hares allow). Actually, I have no idea why we’re going on holiday at all, now I come to think of it, but it’s too late now …

I am also NOT taking my laptop so there won’t be any blogging for a bit. I’ll undoubtedly be tweeting and (if you’re desperate) posting carefully curated pictures on Instagram. Hopefully we will come back tanned, toned and ready to take on the world. Always assuming we make it through Paris on day one.

Wish us luck.

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Back to the Future

December 13, 2016

So, tomorrow we set off on our Christmas holiday which in a break from our usual tradition will involve visiting neither set of parents. Instead, we’re possibly foolishly attempting to recreate a fondly remembered holiday we took some time in the last century* in La Gomera.

Back then,* booking a holiday involved sending off for a brochure (in this case it was a pack of postcards), choosing the accommodation you wanted and ringing up to book it, then sending off a cheque* to pay for it. We were met on arrival at the island by the resident holiday rep who had sorted out a hire car, introduced us to his favourite bar, and then left us to get on with it. We knew absolutely nothing about the place, and I only chose it because the holiday company advertised every week in the Guardian Weekend supplement and eventually wore down my resistance through pure repetition. Our research consisted of buying the Lonely Planet guide book and a teach-yourself-Spanish cassette* and our visit consisted of driving around La Gomera’s precipitous roads, hiking, bird watching, and then deciding which of the seven restaurants in the town we would eat at that night, bearing in mind that they took it in turns to be closed on different nights of the week and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. During the week we were there we heard absolutely no news at all, with our only contact from the outside world being the evening we spent in a bar where a football match was on the television, apparently being played in a blizzard. On our arrival home we quizzed the cabbie (this was back when you could afford to take a taxi from Heathrow*) about what news we had missed and he couldn’t think of anything (I believe it may have been during the Major government – ah, happy uneventful years) although when pressed he did dredge up a mention of the football match. We have been to many more exciting places and seen and done many more ‘bucket-listy’ type things, but that holiday remains one of my fondest memories.

Of course, arranging this holiday has been way more complicated, thanks to the Internet, which meant a painful evening of trying to sort through a bewildering variety of options until eventually I just plumped for a couple of places that sounded okay and were available at the right time. Since then, I’ve been able to stalk the local weather forecast (sunny and 21C at the moment, thanks for asking), check out the accommodation on Google Streetview, fail to learn any more Spanish than we got to with our cassette the first time (dos cervezas por favor) and order a comprehensive bird guide. On mature reflection, given the steepness of the terrain, we will not be doing any cycling, so it’s back to the hiking boots and binoculars. Last time we failed to conclusively identify the one possible canary we thought we saw. This time we hope we will do better.

One aspect of the holiday may be rather too reminiscent of the last time, however. In my haste to get something booked, I neglected to check whether our accommodation actually had any WiFi. The place where we are staying for the first week has, rather ominously, WiFi in ‘some rooms’. The place where we are staying for the second week – a remote cottage on an organic farm in the interior – does not mention any WiFi at all. This may make for an interesting few days…

I could spend the next fortnight desperately hunting for hotspots in order to keep up on Twitter, post the odd blog post, and trying to stop the pile of email that will await me from becoming overwhelming. But on the whole I’m inclined to try and roll with it, get some reading done and unwind. It will either kill me, or do me good.

And oh how wonderful would it be to get back to the UK and discover that nothing at all noteworthy has happened in the world while we’ve been away…

* stop me if I start to sound old here at any point.


Happiness is…

December 14, 2012

two_bikesTwo borrowed bikes, a quiet trail, a sunny winter’s day – and a couple of Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls.*

*latter may only apply to those who grew up in the Midwest, and the people who love them.


And Breathe…

September 20, 2012

It’s been a hectic few days weeks – make that months. Even my holidays have been a bit hectic, to be honest. I have had too many places to be, things to do, emails to read, and documents to write. Not an unusual problem, I admit, although if any of you are thinking about quitting your jobs and moving to the country in order to have time to smell the roses and watch the grass grow, I would caution you to only get involved in, say, two cycling campaigns at once if you want to have time to actually cut the grass and prune the roses.

As it is my poor old garden will have to remain neglected a bit longer as we have finally dug ourselves out from under a pile of work to get away for a week in Northern Ireland (the South West of Scotland is probably the only place in the world whose inhabitants go to Ireland to enjoy the drier weather). I still have a few things to do, but the busyness appears to be returning to background levels at last. Hopefully it means a chance to unwind, relax, and sit on the sea front watching the rain head its way across the Irish sea to fall on Dumfries and Galloway. Even better, we have brought the Brompton and the other half’s bike, so there will be cycling done. And, no doubt, the odd tale or two to tell for the blog…


Round Scotland with my Godson (and his mum, of course)

August 26, 2012

There are holidays where taking a pre-breakfast dip in the sea just yards from your accommodation to free dive for treasure in sparkling clear waters would signal the sort of luxury break most of us can never ever actually afford but often dream about. Unfortunately, those holidays don’t normally involve a stay at Tobermory youth hostel where the sparkling clear waters are also freezing cold and the treasure in question is my friend’s iPod, chucked over the harbour wall by her fifteen year old son, my godson.

Tobermory Harbour

It’s only as I look at this picture now that I realise we could just have waited for the tide to go out…

My godson is autistic, and if you’re thinking ‘Rain Man’ or that chap at work who’s a bit odd sometimes, then think again – he’s not just on the spectrum, he’s slap bang in the middle of it: a mixture of a ginormous toddler and a teenage boy – which of course he is – who talks constantly but rarely makes any sense (echolalia) and who is obsessive, liable to frustration, distressingly fond of cheesy 80s Christmas pop music* and only really truly happy when he is on a train. Or at a pinch a bus or a ferry or a coach, but only if there’s no train available as we found out to our cost in Oban when we attempted to fob him off with a city link bus taking two hours to Fort William when there was a perfectly good train going to Crianlarich and changing there and taking several more hours to do the same journey. If the paralympics ever introduced the sport of ‘finding the nearest transport hub in any town or city’ he’d be a shoo-in for a gold medal. We had a minor meltdown on the very last day when he discovered the Glasgow underground (I mean, who even knew Glasgow had an underground?) and was disgusted we weren’t willing to use it. So, instead of the normal approach you might take when planning a break in the Western Highlands and Islands – keeping the travel simple and to a minimum, allowing plenty of time to take in the beautiful scenery or have a leisurely lunch on arrival – got turned on its head. Fortunately the trains, ferries and buses in the region all go through spectacular scenery because we spent the trip maximising the amount of travel we did each day. That way, my friend and I could chat, godson was happy, and the lochs and mountains and moors unrolled past outside the windows for our delight.

view from the train

As well as scenery, the trip made a good viewpoint for observing human behaviour. I’m sure there were plenty of people who wished we weren’t sharing their train, bus, youth hostel or ferry but there was very little tutting done on the whole; the British habit of simply ignoring anything that doesn’t fit in to the normal run of things stands you in good stead when travelling everywhere with a teenager who shouts ‘Get OFF me! What are you DOING? Naughty boy. Bye bye elephant …’ more or less on a loop. And the kindness of strangers came out in force too. A low point came early on in the trip in Mull when we missed the bus to take us to the ferry. My friend had gone to retrieve something from the hostel, not realising her watch had stopped and the bus driver wouldn’t wait and left without us. With the next bus two hours away we were looking at an expensive taxi ride if we weren’t to be stranded on the island. And then, miraculously, the bus came back to get us after all, a grumpy knight in chugging diesel armour, but a knight all the same.

I won’t give you a blow by blow account of all six days, you’ll be relieved to hear, but here are some points should you be planning something similar, with our without an autistic teenager of your own:

  • The Highland Rover is incredible value. Just over £78 gives you four days travel over 8 days on all the Highland trains including the ridiculously scenic Fort William to Mallaig line and the only slightly less scenic Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness line, ferries to Mull and Skye, and the city link coach between Inverness and Fort William and Oban. I think we’ve probably squeezed every penny out of it too. I’d recommend not trying to cram the whole thing into four days though…
train window

it wasn’t always raining …

train window 2

… honest

  • Smidge is the business. You see why they recommend testing it by only coating one arm and leaving the other arm bare because it’s so effective at deterring midgies that you start to wonder (at dusk, on the shores of Loch Ness) whether maybe there just weren’t any midgies out. It’s only when you leave a patch uncovered that you realise that yep, the wee biting beasties are still around.
loch Ness dusk

Loch Ness at dusk. That isn’t blur from a cameraphone, that’s midgies…

  • Fort William has the most incredible setting – right at the foot of Ben Nevis, on the shores of a loch, with the highlands looming all around. It’s quite an acheivement, then, that it still manages to muster all the character of Slough, only with a bit less charm. What we saw of Oban and Mull and Kyle of Lochalsh were all pretty lovely but we didn’t see much of them unless they were on the route march from one transport terminal to another. We’ve vowed to go back and see them properly, although we’ll probably give Fort William a miss.
Skye morning

Sky reflected in the Skye coast

  • You can get to some really remote spots by public transport, particularly by bus, but you have to plan ahead (Traveline Scotland’s journey planner is pretty brilliant at this) and you have to be prepared to wait – rural buses are pretty infrequent and apart from on Mull just don’t seem to join up with other forms of transport. The only bus from the Skye ferry terminal at Armadale left an hour and a half after the ferry arrived – and ten minutes before the next ferry got in. It was the last bus too. If I did the trip again, I’d definitely take my bike for the last leg. And I wouldn’t be persuaded off the bus at Drumnadrochit for an emergency cup of tea, however parched my friend was. There’s a two hour wait between buses there and there’s approximately half an hour’s worth of enjoyment to be had in Drumnadrochit, once you’ve exhausted the amusement to be gained from Nessie-related tat. It wasnt just my godson who wanted to shout ‘what are you DOING?’ as she dragged us off the bus.

lighthouse on Mull

  • I believe – but have not tested the theory – that you could probably survive the whole trip cooking only the ‘free food’ left behind by other travellers in youth hostels. Although you’d have to be pretty inventive and fond of pasta and reasonably resistant to scurvy. Still, I offer it up as a challenge to anyone who wishes to try.

So that’s it. I hope my next holiday will involve going nowhere, and doing nothing, in perfect peace and quiet. Fortunately that more or less describes the rest of my life, so I expect I shall recover, given time. And my friend and I – having done some growing up in the last 20-odd years – are still speaking to each other to boot. Although that cup of tea in Drumnadrochit still rankles a little…

mull and beyond

coming into Mull on the ferry

And what did you do in your summer holidays?

*in retrospect, my failure to retrieve the iPod might have been the making of the trip


Long Term Outlook

July 9, 2011

Get your shorts and sunscreen out – the next two weeks are almost guaranteed to be hot and dry and sunny, at least in our little corner of Scotland. For by the time you read this, we will be on a train (several trains…) to the South of France, where I hope they’re braced for a fortnight of unaccustomed drizzle. Oh, and the imminent unveiling of the whitest pair of legs in Christendom. It’s not been a summer so far for working on my tan.

The first week will be spent in the bosom of my sister’s family (the non-blogging one), the second will be rather a more intimate break: just me, the other half and approximately 3,000 chickens. There will, undoubtedly, be blogging to be done, but not as frequently as usual, so watch this space.