Epic Shambles

Bike leaning against fence by rural road in lovely valley

This time last year my greatest concern was my ability to carry 5kg of coal on my bicycle, closely followed by the activity of Storm Dennis and the vagaries of ScotRail cycle carriages. This list of anxiety was in preparation for my first cycling adventure of the year with my pal Claire, both of us (perhaps unconsciously) deciding that we’d rather spend Valentine’s night together in a remote wooden hut with no bathroom than with our long-term romantic partners.

The haulage of coal, inclement weather and uncooperative trains were just the start of our challenges that weekend. Our destination – Cadderlie – was infested with teenage boys that had also eschewed romance and were staging a drinking, shouting and stomping competition that started late evening and continued into the night. Claire and I, warmed by our glorious coal fire, pushed the wooden table in our room across our door and settled down on the floor of the bothy to sleep, having decided to flee in the morning for the safety and comfort of an Oban hotel. Had we known what was to come in March we may have joined in the drinking and stomping.

We survived our weekend with Storm Dennis and the teenagers, the unrelenting rain and moments of fear quickly evaporated by the the law of Type 2 Fun. Then Claire and I, like the rest of the world, were confined to our local areas until the summer, trying to work out how and where we could manage a Covid-safe adventure between work and caring responsibilities. 

July was our first opportunity to get away and we used it push the limits of Type 2 Fun by attempting to cycle the Herring Road, an ancient route – between my home in Dunbar and Lauder, in the Scottish Borders – where women used to walk the 30 miles carrying herring in baskets on their heads. Fishwives of the 18th century were clearly made of tougher stuff than us, although we did inadvertently try recreating this feat by carrying our laden bicycles over a bridge, and the innumerable stiles and stone walls on the way to Lauder. Hours pushing laden bikes up grassy fields, with a herd of threatening cows following at one stage, saw our collective strength sapped. We arrived at the Black Bull pub and hotel in Lauder at 9.30pm in a fairly fragile state and incapable of wild camping. By the time we collapsed into comfortable beds we had abandoned our plans to cycle home the following day. After eating all the breakfast the hotel could muster we got ourselves to the nearest train station and vowed that our next adventure would be easier – and go to plan.

We enlisted the help of someone that knew what they were doing for our third adventure, and headed off for the glorious Kingdom of Fife in August sunshine for a proper, mapped route – the Pilgrims Way – that takes you from Culross or North Queensferry to the ancient university town of St Andrews. Good views, manageable hills, organised (garden) camping and with absolutely no shambles in sight we knew we had swapped some of the epic for simply enjoyable.

The plan of going to plan didn’t last and in September we headed off to the Scottish Borders for our second attempt at wild camping. We were still less than 30 miles from my front door, but with deserted roads and the wild beauty of St Abbs Head we could feel the epic all around. We had again picked a weekend with weather that was better enjoyed indoors, and when it came to venturing onto a windy headland to find a remote camping spot we got the fear and scurried back to the corner of a farmers field. Then we worried about the farmer and what he might do if he spotted us – a worry that came to nothing, as worries of this variety are probably destined to. The worst actual incident that weekend was the terribly disappointing soup in a Duns pavement cafe, but we bravely overcame it by eating more cake.

We squeezed our final adventure of 2020 into October, thankfully and unusually booking accommodation ahead, as Covid closed the doors on unplanned adventure. We climbed over the Granites to Innerleithen and the surprisingly good food of the budget Corner House Hotel. This final effort provided a perfect balance of scenery, challenge and cake, with the harder push on the off-road route chosen for our way home, over the Lammermuir Hills, ensuring we wouldn’t be lost and alone too many miles from home if the plan really unraveled. 

There was undoubtedly a significant quantity of Type 2 Fun in our adventures of 2020, created by the weather, circumstances, our ineptitude, inexperience and fears. But despite, or because of that (and I’m not sure which), these are some of the happiest memories I have of an otherwise hard and relentless year. I learned (again) that adventure can be close at hand, and not confined to long trips in exotic places. Through finding the edges of some of my physical limits I discovered that fear and challenge are part of the epic equation, but even when I’m scared and tired I’m stronger than I thought. And perhaps fitting for a weekend that celebrates love, albeit of a different kind, I know I’m deeply blessed to have a friend that regularly chooses to have an epic shambles with me.

Love your local

Dunbar Bear in the winter sunset

Love it or loathe it, local has been the only option for most of the world in recent months. I’ve taken my time to love where I live, but lockdown has highlighted the pleasures (and privilege) of calling this part of East Lothian home, where a 10 minute cycle can take you through town to woodlands and beaches against the backdrop of an everchanging seascape.

‘Community’ is a quicksilver and contested concept, but it felt palpable this spring as local volunteers put notes through doors to find who needed assistance and our local school parent council swung into action to ensure every child had a laptop for distance learning. The essential shops stepped up and provided vital provisions in the safest way that they could; our small community-owned grocery swiftly moved to a delivery-only service to prioritise the shielding community and the local supermarket staff worked round the clock to restock, providing a friendly smile at the same time.

We’re all adjusting to a new normal for the long haul now; where our commuter train services are relatively deserted, many of us don’t know when we’ll see the inside of an office or meeting room again and most of us don’t want to return to office working full time anyway. Coronavirus isn’t the only change agent around either; climate change hasn’t gone away and we’re looking straight into recession. It’s now even more evident than ever that we need a more radical change to the way we live now and into the future, providing an equitable quality of life for all over unsustainable rises in standard of living for the few.

The rise in homeworking and reluctance to restart expensive and soul-destroying commutes are perhaps why the 15 minute city and the 20 minute neighbourhood have started to gain attention beyond the usual suspects. If exchanging a long drive for a short walk to work has the same impact as a raise of 40% or falling in love, it’s possible that working where you live will make us all happier, as well addressing climate chaos and air pollution.

Most of us live in a town, or something that looks like one; 90% of Scots live in settlements of more than 500 people although they cover just 2% of our land area, and around 4.5m of us live in settlements of over 3000. Even our cities are more like collections of towns, with clustered services and a clear identity that defines them from the wider anonymity of a city.

Our decision to live in a small town was driven by marital compromise and economic reality, with my husband needing a substantial garden to call his own and I shuddered at the thought of being too far from my beloved Edinburgh. We live on the High Street, where you can find a butcher, baker and candlesticks (if not their maker), a greengrocer, a Co-op, two pharmacies, a sports shop, fishmonger, two charity shops, numerous cafes, gift shops, two galleries, a fancy beer shop and a (peculiarly high) level of hairdressing and beauty establishments. The bike shop is round the corner, we have primary and secondary schools and a three-practice GP centre and a train station. All of the 9000 or so residents of our former royal burgh are within a 10 minute cycle ride of these services, and yet the High Street looks like a car park and our streets crawl with vehicles.

Our High Street has a lovely ice-cream shop, but you’ll get a taste of petrol with your chosen flavour if you stand outside on the street for long. What could turn High Streets like mine from transport corridors where cars loiter to places that people want to linger?

Dunbar and surrounds, showing area within 10 minute cycle of the High Street

Spending so much time in the same few square miles has sharpened my focus on what I love about my town, but also on what I’d like to be different as we loosen lockdown and look to revitalise civic and social life, revive the economy and establish longer-term working patterns that protects people and planet. We need to recreate (and re-engineer) our town centres as places that care for people, that create space to linger, providing sustainable services that don’t cost the earth – and where walking, wheeling and cycling are the natural, safe and convenient choice for most, not just because of a public health crisis keeping cars off the road.

The Town Centre Action Plan Review call for evidence might have slipped under your radar as Spaces for People and related consultations have drawn most of the active travel attention. Despite some years as a cycle campaigner, I confess I’m a complete stranger to the Town Centre Action Plan. Having found it I wondered if the Town Centre First Principle guidance letter got lost somewhere on the way to East Lothian because all I can see springing up is out-of-town development.

Question 8 in the public survey asks ‘What could be done to improve local town centres’ and this will be my response – my Ten Tenets for a Ten Minute Town:

  • Pedestrianisation – it creates the space needed for people to distance and provides an experience that encourages to lingering; business owners consistently overestimate how much trade comes from people in cars but you can’t argue with this:
  • Reprioritise private car parking spaces – for car share vehicles, taxis and disabled drivers that need that access protected, and on-street, secure cycle storage for town centre flat dwellers and short-term cycle parking for shoppers and visitors.
  • Reallocate road space – to accommodate networks of separate and protected space for walking, wheeling and cycling, keeping everyone safe in their space at the pace that works for their needs
  • Designate on and off street loading bays and a significant investment in wheeled trolleys and the time to use them – to reverse the delivery driver priorities that create pavement, cycle path and double parking and the excuses that go with them.
  • Create happy homeworker services – even if we are allowed to go back into offices, it seems that most of us would just rather not do it. Invest in co-working and meeting spaces, provide high quality digital connections and be prepared for people wanting to spend time and money in the community that they live in if you create the right environment
  • Nurture a local wellbeing economy with the places and space we have available in our towns – incentivise the green, healthy and fair so that our small cycle shops can flourish with confidence, local food growers can provide quality produce on an affordable budget and it makes sense to repair and reuse (and not reorder) because the means to do so are on the doorstep and available to everyone
  • Repurpose empty shops into integrated logistics hubs where cargo bikes deliveries can take the strain for those that want their High Street shopping delivered to their doors – it will reduce car journeys and associated pollution and congestion and protect those that need to stay at home.
  • Create attractive and accessible places and spaces that don’t require a financial transaction to use them – benches, pocket parks, play space – so sticky streets aren’t just for those that can afford to sit down but for everyone.
  • Develop accessible transport hubs – that will loan you a bike, non-standard cycle or mobility scooter to suit your individual needs, a helping hand to get onto a train or bus without pre-booking and point for local leisure and tourism information
  • Join up your policy and implement it – Town Centre transport measures need to be in tandem with housing development, which is currently in-built with car ownership as standard, so that you can walk, wheel and cycle from your doorstep into the new and more sustainable normal. Build nothing that looks like this:

The Town Centre Review call for evidence is now closed but the public survey is open until 30 September. As the philosophers Moloko said so emphatically ‘the time is now’ – get responding and tell the review group that the future of our town centres shouldn’t be motorised.

Space for Everyone

Dear Cllr Innes and Ms Patterson

Firstly, I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for the work that you and colleagues are doing to ensure the safety of East Lothian’s population during the Covid19 crisis. I know you must be working around the clock to protect our elderly and vulnerable residents, ensure that our schools continue to provide education online and maintain all the lifeline services that are so desperately needed.

Now we have adjusted to the immediate crisis situation, we are already thinking ahead to a world beyond the lockdown; we know there will be different challenges as people try to re-establish connections with friends and family, get back to work and education within continued social distancing restrictions. It’s vital that decisions are made now that will safeguard residents, and reduce our impact on the NHS, over the coming months.

I’m writing to ask you to consider measures that will create and maintain safe spaces, particularly in our towns, for people as we start this next ‘new normal’ for the following reasons:

Air pollution will impact those already most vulnerable to Coronavirus

During lockdown there has been a reduced level of motorised traffic, and consequently reduced levels of air pollution. Evidence suggests that our shielded communities and most vulnerable residents are likely to be at more risk if air pollution starts to increase, with emerging evidence suggesting that Coronovirus could be transmitted in pollution particles. This new information only adds to the body of research that shows the negative impact of air pollution on human health.

Maintaining low levels of motorised traffic will be vital in enabling our most at risk residents to come out of isolation. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that low levels of car use has enabled more people to cycle safely for essential journeys, as well as their daily exercise, which will have a positive impact on all our health and wellbeing.

Additional space is required for those with impaired mobility to have equal and safe access to services

Decades of land use decisions have lead to prioritisation of motorised transport in our towns and cities, with limited street space dedicated to pavements and separated cycle lanes. Whilst this has always been a challenge for people that walk and cycle for transport, the need for social distancing means it is now particularly difficult for people that use wheelchairs, older people and blind or visually impaired people. Whilst we all have responsibility to be considerate and reduce the risk of close contact we do now need reallocation of road space to provide more room for safe walking, cycling and wheeling, particularly in town centres and along popular leisure routes.

We risk exacerbating existing socio-economic inequalities

It’s true, as the First Minister stated, that ‘we’re all in this together’, but it has been widely recognised that we’re in the same storm, not the same boat; we know that those who are already most disadvantaged will have worse outcomes from this crisis. We know that women and in lower income households are more reliant on public transport, which may carry an increased risk of infection if we do experience a ‘second wave’. Families without adequate space for children to play, people with no private outdoor space and families that do not have access to a car will benefit from additional safe public space to exercise and access services within walking, cycling and wheeling distance from their homes.

Towns and cities across the world are using temporary measures to enable key workers to cycle safely, and others are already looking at a road reallocation revolution instead of returning to ‘normal’.

There are no silver linings to this crisis, but enabling more people to walk and cycle safely, accessing shops and services without the need for a private car would be a long-term benefit to people in East Lothian.

It’s been reported that traffic is starting to return to our roads in some areas of Scotland, and it’s certainly felt that way on my regular cycle routes between Dunbar, Haddington and North Berwick this week.

I appreciate that you have competing priorities, limited resources and are no doubt worried for your own families as well as our communities across East Lothian. But now is the time to act on measures that are preventative and will make a significant difference to the health of our population in the weeks and months to come.

Yours sincerely, and with very best wishes to you and your families

The Forup Family

Normal 2.0

We’re still carrying on here with the aid of cycling and cake but, in the spirit of adaptation to new circumstances, are bringing gin cocktails in to the equation to welcome the weekend and set sail to our beloved Scottish islands – if just in our imagination.

There has been a two week ‘Easter holiday’ respite from the outpouring of Google Classroom, so one source of anxiety has been in abeyance at least, although trying to manage a child whilst conducting back to back Teams meetings probably wasn’t particularly well received by any of the parties getting half my attention. Always late to a party, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for audiobooks and particularly the varied works of David Walliams; his daily readings have provided light relief and distraction for at least one member of our household, although it has unfortunately increased the discussion of bottoms, toilets and associated fluids.

Obviously I’ve got nothing but the C19 version of first world problems; this beautiful and reflective blog by a GP in Hackney details the inequalities that the current situation is compounding better than anything else I’ve read. The daily tweets from Nursing Notes rip at my heart as I carry on avoiding the storm that is taking the lives of so many that already have a life of public service behind them.

The interweb is full of posts about adjustment to ‘the new normal’, a phrase that I’m completely over, despite it being just a few weeks old (see also furlough, social distancing and flattening the curve) as it seems an understated sanitisation of activity that incorporates working from home alongside the ever-present spectre of death. I’m glad to see the proponents of using the ‘great pause’ for self development have been shouted down by people suggesting that getting dressed and not drunk by 10am is a win.

Just four weeks in, and no real end in sight, and the commentary about what we don’t want to get back to has already started. There are no silver linings in a crisis that is costing so many so much, but it’s clear that we don’t want to go back to what was our normal. I’ve seen calls for ‘build back better’, but we need to ensure its not just improving the seating arrangements on the Titanic we were on. A just recovery will require a complete revolution in how we use our resources, for the benefit of all and not the few, in alignment with planetary capacity.

It’s probably no secret that my contribution to almost all issues, local to global, is that cycling is probably the answer. However, I’m well aware that asking our local authorities to do anything other than cope with providing essential services to the most vulnerable could be seen as insensitive. But looking at our streets it’s never been more clear that space allocation is set to prioritise the movement and storage of metal boxes, and not people on foot, bicycle, scooter or wheelchair.

If we don’t act now we risk coming out of lockdown straight into carmageddon and back to its negative impact on our long-term health.

My Twitterverse is an avalanche of the emergency responses other countries are making to provide more space for safe walking and cycling, and the long-term opportunities to create better cities that enable activity and access for all. I know those conversation are happening in Scotland, but we all need to play our part in supporting our politicians and officials to make choices now that will create the path to the future we want.

Pedal on Parliament are calling for #SpaceforDistancing, as enabling people to choose walking and cycling as lockdown ends will be vital in safeguarding the health and wellbeing of communities across Scotland. Out on our daily exercise yesterday it didn’t take long for my mini-campaigner to suggest pavements and footpaths around our town that aren’t adequate for safe distancing. Rest assured we’ll be practising our handwriting skills on this topic shortly.

It seems like there’s no time to waste, and reaching out to our decision makers is vital, but we also need to remember that there is a person behind every public sector and political social media account and email address, a human that is also worried about the future. They could be fearing for their key worker partner or scared that their parents won’t see the other side of this crisis. They could be covering for unwell colleagues, or simply overworked in our strained public services. In our passion for progress, let’s remember to be kind too and try to be the people remembered for compassion in a crisis – not just critics.

Keep calm and carry on with cycling and cake

At the time of writing cycling and cake are both legal, but judging by the media commentary on the Sunday sunshine tempting Londoners out of their homes the cycling element might not last for long.

Two weeks into lockdown and we are well aware of our household’s privilege, with a home that has enough room for solitary confinement, continued employment and sparsely populated, glorious outdoors available on our doorstep.

Like many households not yet in the eye of the Coronovirus storm, we are trying to keep calm and carry on by juggling work, home learning and monitoring the notifications from the local community resilience group. We each have our (different) preferred form of exercise but the Lesser Spotted Cycling Husband has gained some moral superiority as his is a manly display of digging for victory.

Being middle-aged with a prematurely born primary aged child has proved to be a reasonable training ground for coping with a global pandemic – we can wash hands with the best of them, understand that physical distance keeps you safe from people incubating disease and have not gone to a public house on a Friday night for almost a decade. We also know what it is to fear for the life of someone you love, and that placing your trust and hope in the NHS is rarely wrong.

The internet is awash with advice on how make best use of this pause in ‘normal’, but I’m finding that being in a pause is quite enough. At work I’m wading through the paperwork to ensure that we can soon provide useful and safe cycling services to key workers throughout the crisis. At home (conveniently co-located with work for the last four years) I’m trying not to let the unending flow of emails and learning activities into my son’s Google Classroom account give me parental performance anxiety.

To combat stress I’m relying on cycling and cake, having found through long-term use that both help me keep the balance I need to be a reasonable wife, parent and colleague. State sanctioned exercise once a day in the form of cycling feels slightly virtuous for once as it’s appeared as an actual directive from both NHS Scotland and Scottish Government.

The cake is perhaps less obviously virtuous but, given that my son’s interest in the contents of his Google Classroom is the inverse of mine, we’re looking for engaging learning activities in the wild and ‘baking’ has been the only activity that has ever induced him to voluntarily write anything down. We have already produced two cakes, pizza and a set of scones (of dubious quality) so at this rate we might manage enough content for a Coronavirus Cook Book by the end of lockdown, if absolutely nothing else.

Life has changed immeasurably, and perhaps forever, in ways that we can’t yet know. We do know that those already disadvantaged will come out worst from this global crisis, and some are just realising that ‘key worker’ is a term that applies to people that we pay the least. At the moment I’m just going to wait awhile in the pause, braced for what might come and with gratitude and awe of those that are fighting head on for us all.

Learning to be a local

I love where I live. It’s not always been the case, in fact it’s taken most of the last six years for this city-loving, anti-socialite to appreciate the charm of making conversation before 8am on public transport. The image I had of my future didn’t contain a small rural town, but there is magic in the smell of the sea and becoming a kent face.

I’ve always equated adventure cycling with exotic places, yet my abject failure to manage a monthly microadventure last year was surprisingly overshadowed by the regular pleasure of cycling the 30 miles home from Edinburgh and exploring the roads and tracks on my doorstep at the weekend. My unexpected brushes with bats, owls and weasels gave me the same delight as glimpses of elephants in India, and without the threat of rabid dogs.

East Lothian is blessed with ‘accessible epic’ and you don’t need to pedal too many miles to find yourself lost and alone if that’s what you’re looking for. With a breathtaking coastline and a network of quiet backroads and off roads paths, there are adventures that can be had without leaving home.

That said, the commute to and from Edinburgh isn’t all fun fun fun, in fact much of the ‘infrastructure’ is on the spectrum between shockingly poor and none existent. We have some distance to travel before cycling becomes a safe and appealing transport options for everyday journeys.

But once free of the sprawl outside Edinburgh, the sky opens up over East Lothian, the roads become less congested and you can pedal for miles in salty air or by farmers fields. You can skip the worst part by taking the train to Longniddry, which deposits you by NCN76 off route path that takes you to Haddington, and starting from there (other towns and train stations are available).


The Cycling Scot website is a great resource for routes and local historical information, the Edinburgh Bike Co-op has a good article on the East Lothian Garden Trail if plants are your thing and the FatBike people can show you our beaches. Yes, dear reader, we have it all: seaside and scenery, history and hills, wildlife and nightlife (one of these I haven’t tried). Most importantly, and if you have any sense and follow Edinburgh Night Ride on Twitter you’ll already know, we also have high quality cake providers. Here are a few of my favourites, featuring some routes that might get you there:

On the NCN76 you’ll find the Loft in Haddington – its about 12 miles on shared use ‘path’ and quiet roads from Dunbar. You can also check out Hailes Castle on the way if you need some historic ruins.

One of the first places I cycled with my son in a toddler seat was Smeaton Garden Centre and tearoom – at less than 7 miles from Dunbar, heading towards North Berwick, it provided a perfectly timed stop on quiet roads. You’ll also get to see a great ford, which is high on some people’s sightseeing lists. Now my son can pedal himself we often cycle to the Store at Belhaven Fruit Farm for lunch to maximise the off road miles.

If you’d like a small off road adventure, particularly suited to small people, you can follow the walking route of the John Muir Way from Dunbar, taking in the Foxlake Boardside cafe just outside town – I tend to go for the Oreo milkshake, which is like cold, liquid cake.

If you like some hills with your cake, then the cycle-loving Lantern Rouge in Gifford is perfect and just 14 miles from Dunbar. There are a number of different, quiet routes you can take through East Lothian villages. If you’re feeling particularly hungry, you can pop in for cake and then head to Haddington a couple of miles down the road for posh cake at Falko.

By following the cycling route of the John Muir Way for the first 12 miles from Dunbar to North Berwick you can sample the fabulous cake selection at Steampunk just of the main shopping street. They have a bicycle on the wall so you know you are in the right place.

Further afield you can follow the NCN76 east, passing over the glorious Coldingham Moor. I’ve not discovered great cake yet in Coldingham, although the beach is lovely, so usually stay on the NCN until Eyemouth to cake eat at the Rialto, a lovely family owned cafe close to the beach.