Return to Mud Island

January 1, 2014
temple reflection in fountain in Salt Lake City

Don’t worry, this is not Bigtown under water, it’s an arty shot of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City (the blue skies may be the clue…)

So we’re back after almost two days’ travelling – via Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City, Paris, Manchester, Preston and Carlisle. It was weird after weeks of almost uninterrupted sunshine to be sitting in the airport on our way home reading about storms and flooding in Bigtownshire, but it seems to have done nothing but rain and blow gales while we’ve been away and we were a little worried about what we’d find on our return.

The sun at least was shining as we got out of Manchester Airport and we managed to catch an earlier train than I had expected, so we arrived home at about 7pm (and in my case, went to bed shortly afterwards…). Fortunately the cottage was still there, the Rayburn was still on, and all was more or less as we’d left it. The only problem was that the yard had obviously flooded at some point and some water got into the shed. The bikes were fine (first thing some people asked!) but we’ve been relying on heat logs for the woodburner this year and … well, let’s just say they don’t handle getting wet all that well and we now have a wheelybin full of sawdust and a new place to store our heat logs.

It wasn’t until this morning (quite late this morning …) that we actually looked out the window and noticed this in the back garden:

fallen tree

The landlords won’t be short of firewood next year

The only other casualty was my cloche, which I’d left up in the walled garden protecting the broad beans in case of a cold snap or heavy snow. It did occur to me – when I was approximately 3000 miles too far away to do anything useful about it – that it didn’t really handle high winds all that well. Sure enough, when I ventured up to fetch leeks for our supper this morning, bits of the cloche were scattered over the walled garden. The broad beans, fortunately, were just looking a little battered but unbowed.

broad beans and cloche

And the ford, you cry? Well, it started raining steadily this morning and didn’t really let up all day. However, you will all be glad to hear I did managed to drag myself out into it all the same to test the low-light performance of my new phone’s camera.

ford at 1 foot

I had hoped to get out and reacquaint myself with my bike and try out some of my Christmas loot but we’ve clearly gone soft after three weeks of sunny skies and American standards of central heating, so that was all the outdoors we managed today.

Fingers crossed the weather gods aren’t starting the year as they mean to go on. Meanwhile, have some random shots of the Temple Square in Salt Lake City – monumental architecture with a touch of the insane. But sunny…

Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City

Conference centre, Salt Lake City

And behold, they saw a great light…

If I was a Proper Grown Up Bike Blogger…

September 28, 2012

I’d have a post full of interesting* cycling infrastructure to show you from our recent trip to Northern Ireland (actually on the drive down there were some interesting bike lanes on the Ormeau Road that were on the pavement most of the time and then hopped back onto the road across the junctions so they had right of way. I’ve not seen anything like that in the UK – or anywhere, come to think of it – I wonder what Belfast Bike Lanes or NI Greenways have to say about those) (Update – thanks to the excellent NI Greenways for finding the Google Streetview link to the ones I mean).

I have actually written about cycling in Newcastle (Co Down, that is, not the other Newcastle) – but for the first time we had two bikes at our disposal, so we cycled a lot more, including places I had only ever been to by car before. It’s revealing experiencing somewhere you thought you knew by bike for the first time, if only because you discover where all the hills are. We used to holiday in Newcastle all the time when I was growing up (all through the troubles) and I remember the ‘Ulster salute’: one finger lifted off the steering wheel to greet an oncoming driver. That reflected a different age, when cars were rare. Now the place feels very car dominated, and there’s a new kind of Ulster greeting – the squeeeeeze by of a car that needs to overtake a bike when there’s no actual room to do so because there’s another car coming the other way. There’s a nice curve on a busy road between the cottage and the rest of town that, pretty much every time I cycled it, a car passed me despite being unable to see the oncoming traffic, whether I pulled out to ‘take the lane’ or not. The only car that didn’t had Dublin plates and left the other half slightly unnerved as it tailed him all the way along the seafront. Sometimes you get to the point where you’d rather they’d just hurry up and kill you and get it over with.

Despite all this, we saw quite a few bikes – more than I’ve ever noticed in the town before – of all shapes and sizes, about 95% of which (including all the posties) were on the pavement. Indeed, cycling back along a nice straight 60mph road with not even a strip of paint for a bike lane, that included us. I’m all for being a legal cyclist but I’m not that keen on being a dead one. And the only person we met on the pavement was another cyclist going the other way and a chap on a recumbent handcycle. Nobody seemed to mind, one way or the other.

Anyway, a you’ll be pleased to learn that a new battery has restored my phone into something resembling life and so, in lieu of all those interesting* pictures of bike infrastructure, here are some holiday snaps instead.

Mountains of Mourne

‘Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’ (it’s compulsory to quote that line in any article about Newcastle btw)

sunny cloudsplantation pines
*insert your own jokes here

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

An Awfully Small Adventure, Comparatively Speaking

August 18, 2012

Many moons ago – many, many, many, many moons – a friend and I set off on a huge adventure, travelling round the United States on an unlimited Amtrak pass. Over the summer of 1988 we more or less circumnavigated the country on glorious double decker trains, through awesome scenery, gathering memories (but not apparently taking many photos), including a train which was more than 24 hours late (take that, Silverlink), a tour of every two-story building in a town in New Mexico (we made the local paper too) and a poker school which started up as the train pulled out of San Francisco and was cashing up as we pulled into Chicago around two days later. We were young enough to sleep where we could (oh to have a neck that forgiving) and foolish enough to think it would all work out fine and just savvy enough that it did, although we had to dodge the attentions of the creepy guy in the hostel at the Grand Canyon who let us share his room when everywhere else was booked solid. This was before the internet and mobile phones and everything was arranged by letter or ringing up, and astoundingly we made every connection and caught every train and made it home safely albeit not technically talking to each other for about a year and a half afterwards. If you’ve ever travelled with me, you’ll understand why.

Compared with that, five days by train, bus, ferry, and coach around the West Highlands and islands with each other and her son, my godson, who is, to complicate matters a tiny bit, autistic, should be a doddle, right? I mean, what – apart from everything – could possibly go wrong?

I’ll let you know next week, on my return.

Mad Dogs and Englishwomen

July 11, 2011

Well, we made it after a journey that started at goat speed, at least until I managed to usher a pair of errant goats out of the road on the way to the station. The speed picked up considerably after that, although not enough to stop us from missing our connection in Paris, courtesy of a delayed Eurostar. That meant they paid for us to spend the night in Montparnasse, which we realised, as we walked down the Rue de la Gaiete, past numerous shops offering very specialised services, is basically Soho. At least the hotel they put us up in didn’t appear to rent its rooms out by the hour and although it was late by the time we got there the evening was gorgeous and we found a restaurant* where we could sit out and watch the parade of stylish people (and the odd stylish bicyle to boot).

Then it was down to Angouleme on the oh-god-fifty TGV service the next morning which managed to be delayed and mess up the seat reservations (may I just say now that the UK trains performed like clockwork and yes, the Bigtown-Carlisle service basically is clockwork). Fortunately my French, as well as not being able to fool Parisian restaurateurs, is not up to anything but the most direct ‘excuse me but you’re sitting in my seat’ and it turns out the French are just as bad as the English about insisting on getting the seat they booked**

Since then the weather has been glorious – well I think it’s glorious. It’s still about 35 C now at almost eight at night – the sort of bone-melting, limb-loosening heat I thrive in. It’s slightly putting a crimp in my plan that we can use our rented bikes to get between our chalet and the farm where my sister is. As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfect cycling weather, but the other half for some reason seems to think noon might be a bad time to be pedalling up a steep hill on a rented bike on a gravel road. Cuh. Lightweight.

* ‘We don’t do steak and frites,’ the proprietress announced as soon as I opened my mouth. Clearly I need to work on my accent. Fortunately we managed to persuade her we would be able to cope with a menu that didn’t come with laminated photographs of the food

** and in our defence, some Australians were sitting in what might have been our seats and weren’t taking hints either

Tomorrow we…

December 28, 2010

… have to drive to the airport, take a flight up to Chicago, catch our connecting overnight flight to Heathrow, take the tube across London, get a Virgin train to Carlisle, change to the chuffer to Bigtown, pick up our car from where it has patiently been waiting for us this last three weeks and finally drive home.

What could possibly go wrong?

Still, at least nobody in the party has been energetically taunting the weather Gods recently, so we should be fine.


Y tu Maleta También

December 9, 2010

If this blog post makes no sense it was because I was woken this morning at 1:15 by the other half wondering if it was time for coffee yet. As it happens, it was, but it was time for coffee in Scotland and we were in Colorado having travelled for the last 18 hours by train, disintegrating Picadilly line (signal failure in the Hatton Cross area), emergency detour to Ealing Broadway, Heathrow connect, 767, airport shuttle, scarily small commuter plane and car. As ever, the air travel part of the trip reinforced my suspicion that all airports are designed by Greenpeace to put people off flying for life – although we did manage to find the one corner of Chicago O’Hare airport where CNN isn’t coming at you from three directions – but the only really traumatic part was getting to Heathrow in the first place. Our cunning plan of booking a flight that left at the civilised hour of noon turned out on closer inspection to involve crossing Central London at the height of the rush hour with our enormous main suitcase, smaller emergency backup suitcase and, for maximum commuter annoyance, two backpacks. Turns out that there are some Londoners who, when encountering two yokel types (I was accused of dressing like a farmer by one of my ex-colleagues on Tuesday) and their assorted baggage attempting to squeeze onto the Picadilly line at 8:15 am, are actually pleasant and helpful about it rather than doing what I would have done and formed a human wall to prevent them getting onto the train at all. Who knew?

Anyway we have arrived, and our suitcase too, which is more than it did last time. The sun is shining, the weather is forecast to be about 15°C (59°F), there are rumours that there might be some bikes lurking somewhere and I’ve got myself a connection to the internet. What more could I possibly require?

Well, a copy of the Guardian would be nice, but that would be a hell of a cycle ride…

Now There’s a Novel Idea…

September 29, 2010

The other half was wrestling with the horror that is trying to book half-way non-bankrupting flights to the US over Christmas yesterday* when he had a sudden and brilliant thought. Wouldn’t it be amazing if – instead of struggling on with seven different tabs open looking for flights, each page taking a good minute to load through our rural broadband, and all suddenly changing their mind half way through as to whether the amazingly cheap price was actually available after all, and some of them adding taxes and some not, and some having extra costs for checked luggage and some sending you to the middle of the States via the West Coast and, I don’t know, Bratislava and Ulan Bator, and some giving you 14 hours to change plane and others about 40 minutes and some giving you a range of flights but no way of booking and others trying to add on insurance and hotels and car hire and dancing girls as default options, and the broadband going down at the crucial moment just as you thought you were getting there – instead of all that, there was someone you could ring up who would just do it all for you? An agent, as it were, acting on your behalf, to organise your travel. Or if you want something more snappy, how about ‘travel agent’? To our amazement we discovered there is such a thing and the other half rang one up and within half an hour or so she had rung back having tracked down flights almost as cheap as the cheapest ones advertised online. Even after having to drive into Bigtown in the sort of rain you only get when you have been energetically taunting the Weather Gods** with half the town flooded and every car park taken up by the preparations for the annual fair, it was still far, far nicer than actually booking the things on line would have been and we got to have lunch in Subway as well, which counts as a treat these days.

In fact I think the idea’s got a lot of potential in general. For instance, there could be secure places in town where you could do your internet banking and prove your identity by signing something instead of having to jump through seventeen hoops remembering what you claimed was your favourite book, or the name of your best friend in primary school’s dog. Or if you wanted to find something out there could be buildings with actual books full of information in them that you could read at your leisure without having to peer at a tiny squinty screen. Or there could be places with clothes you could try on before paying for them and waiting for them to be delivered and only then discovering that they didn’t fit. Or you could even bump into people you know and say hello to them instead of poking them or writing on their wall in Facebook. Well, obviously the last one’s ridiculous, but you know what I mean. The technology would be a challenge, of course, but I think it could be done…

*I know, I know, this basically wipes out all of our efforts saving electricity and putting in the woodburning stove and driving less and then some. But that’s where the other half’s parents live and I’d be in deep serious trouble with his Mom otherwise

** Yeah, sorry about that by the way.  I didn’t think their response would be that immediate and dramatic.

Trains, Trains and Automobiles

April 20, 2010

This is never going to work, I thought to myself as I had a closer look at the schedule National Rail had helpfully given me. I had just spent two days in Nottingham catching up with an old friend and was attempting to get home and, while the UK train network is very good (I mean, adjusted for being the UK train network) at getting people into the Great Wen and back out again, it’s not really designed for getting people swiftly and easily from one non-Great Wen bit of the country to another. So here I was, about to take a bus followed by four trains (run by four different train operating companies, natch) each with no more than a 9 minute interchange between them. How could that possibly work?

Would you believe me if I said ‘like clockwork’? No, really. And this despite one leg of the journey being on one of those one-car chuffers that meandered to Crewe via such places as Blythe Bridge, Longport and possibly even Royston Vasey. The only hiccup came at the end when the other half was late picking me up because he’d been stuck behind a tractor, but that’s the sort of delay I can handle. And now I’m home, shattered (I’d blame the trains but I think some alcohol may have been involved at some point) and plotting how not to go anywhere anytime ever again.

And thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t trying to fly…

Snow Joke

December 23, 2009

We woke up this morning in Duns, planning to head north tonight but it didn’t look all that hopeful – four inches of snow, roads closed under a light dusting of jack-knifed lorries, Traffic Scotland crashing under the strain, doom and gloom all round. We resigned ourselves to an afternoon’s sledging instead until we realised that the small house at Duns was inexplicably sledge free and there were none to be had for love nor money anywhere else in the town. So, noticing that – worst travel conditions in Scotland since the history of ever notwithstanding – the roads were in fact clear, we decided to give it a go after all. We set off with some trepidation, a steady diet of traffic chaos on rolling repeat on the radio. A1 clear, Edinburgh ringroad clear, M8 clear, M9 clear and hardly any other cars to boot. I think we made it up in record time – there’s nothing like the BBC Terror Centre for keeping the worst of the traffic off the roads.

Sledging tomorrow, if we’re spared.