I’ve read that grief is the shadow love casts in the light of loss, and this past year has been lived in the shadow left by the loss of Ian Findlay. As leader, mentor, friend, and colleague Ian touched the lives of everyone that he worked with, and in those first weeks after his sudden death it was hard to focus on anything but his absence.
Ian was loved by many and was taken too soon, which is perhaps why the shadow has felt so large for so long. A year on and the tears still come easily and often unexpectedly, prompted by a stray word in a meeting, or his last emails appearing as I search through my inbox because I cannot delete them.
The last year has been relentless and overwhelming, but, whilst at times I’ve felt heavy with loss for Ian, there have been moments of magic. We have seen the active travel sector in Scotland achieve its ambition of securing 10% of the transport budget for walking, wheeling and cycling, helping us become the country we want to be. Many people and organisations contributed their energy, time and expertise to help us reach this, advocating for the disruptive power for walking and cycling for over a decade. Ian was at the centre of this work, pushing hard inside the system and ensuring the campaigning community knew it also had his heartfelt support.
Ian gave his time generously, led with compassion and kindness, listened and provided thoughtful views. His passion for the outdoors, for physical activity and the natural world were inspiring and he radiated the vitality of an active life that was lived to the full.
In some of his last emails to me Ian talked of the recent loss of his mother, not speaking of his own grief but of gratitude for the way his family has been treated by the doctors and nurses involved in her final days. That is how I will remember him, as someone that valued kindness and could find positivity and a cause for optimism wherever he looked.
Tomorrow I will, like many in Scotland’s third sector, #WalkForIan, and remember him with love and gratitude – not just for the profound difference he made on the walking, cycling and health agendas in Scotland but the impact he had on us.
Hope and despair have been on the rampage in recent months, with commentators wondering if we’ve found the pathway towards kindness, equity and radical environmental change or just keen to throw ourselves back into climate change creation and unsustainable consumption. Our political overlords in East Lothian have positioned themselves clearly for the latter by forcing the council to remove temporary measures for social distancing before most of the cones were even laid out. The faint hope that we might see some creative alternatives to cars dominating our town centres has been crushed by the grumbling of opposing business owners just as we’d started to dream of how we might reuse the space to revitalise our car dominated streets – or simply let people walk safely. In other worlds, not that far away, they aren’t just dreaming of redefining street space, they are providing play spaces, outdoor living rooms and places to just be:
Our transport choices are more complex than the ‘it’s not far, leave the car’ rhetoric that gets plastered on the side of bus shelters. Every harassed school run mum, zero hours care worker and disabled shopper will give you legitimate reasons for their car journey. Part of that reasoning will result from historical decisions to prioritise the movement and storage of cars in our towns and cities – leaving walkers, wheelers and cyclists to battle it out for the leftovers of our streets and public transport too expensive, too infrequent, too delayed, too unsafe or just plain inaccessible to be considered an option by many.
This state sanctioned appropriation of space for cars has created a culture where the storage of metal boxes is prioritised over the health and wellbeing of people and our planet. There is not one other item of personal property that you could leave in the street without causing a passive aggressive note from your neighbours, but you can leave a car sat on a public road for weeks and no-one says a word. Most cars don’t even move that much, spending most of their expensive lives parked waiting sadly for their owners to return whilst they take up space where something joyful, life enhancing or simply useful could be instead.
The Coronavirus restrictions and subsequent easing have brought a fresh edge to the discussion about how, where and why we travel – and also the space we allocate to different forms of transport. It’s been said that the truth of a city’s aspirations isn’t found in its vision, it’s in its budget. The same could be said of its land use – are we investing in walking, wheeling and cycling, greenspace and play space to improve quality of life or are we giving up land to storing unsustainable levels of private vehicles?
Some Local Authorities across Scotland have responded to the Coronavirus with a range of temporary measures to enable people to walk, wheel and cycle safely, increase space for distancing on pavements by removing on street parking and enabling businesses to creatively use parking spaces to encourage people back to restaurants and socialise outdoors on the street; even car loving, gas guzzling Aberdeen is at it:
In East Lothian we have about the Scottish average level of car ownership, with around 75% of household having one or more cars, as a relatively affluent and partly rural area. The town centres of East Lothian do a good impersonation of car parks and during lockdown many cars remained parked on our High Streets despite the closure of almost all the shops, which may suggest that our absolutely vital town centre parking spaces are not taken by big spending shoppers but by residents leaving their personal assets in the street. East Lothian business owners might not be convinced, but there is a mountain of evidence that shows people on foot, wheelchair and bicycle keep the cash registers ringing and not the cars drivers.
Gentle nudges to change behaviour isn’t the radical response we need to a crisis – any of them. We need to prevent a rush back to office-based working, provide widespread and convenient alternatives to private car ownership, deliver infrastructure to enable safe walking, cycling and longer multi-modal journeys, give incentives to swap cars for cycles (not a slightly better bad choice) and to value our land as our most precious resource – not use it for unsustainable levels of storage of vehicles. In Japan’s radical, evolving, imperfect response to limited land space you have to prove your can park your car before you are allowed to register one. What better way to show that land has a value than charge for using it to store private property?
We also need to change the way we talk about car-free cities, parking restrictions and space reallocation, ensuring that those that need to drive are acknowledged front and centre in the narrative. Car free spaces look like exclusion zones when you rely on a car or taxi for freedom of movement and independence.
We get nowhere as non-disabled active travel campaigners if we enter an oppression Olympics or argue about car use with disabled advocates. We antagonise people that should be allies if fail to recognise our own privilege, and I’m ashamed to be seen as part of a lobby that acts in an aggressive way towards a community that is already excluded from our streets in so many ways:
In the work that we’ve done at WalkCycleVote we’ve had conversations with disabled advocates about what creates #Street4All for different people. Whilst we all felt that there is too much priority given to motorized vehicles, it was clear that there are people that feel they need to drive and park, like the 230,000 blue badge holders in Scotland. Disabled people need to be able to travel independently and safely by the mode that enables them whilst we work on fixing the streets and modes that exclude them. But that doesn’t mean all disabled people have or want a car: 46% of disabled people in Scotland have no access to a car, and may not be able to drive, which means it’s vital to invest in safe and accessible public transport and safe walking, wheeling and cycling infrastructure that enables active travel for everyone that wants it.
Now let’s put our action where our hope is and demand radical action that includes and improves our towns, cities and villages for everyone.
I wake up most mornings and think about riding my bike, which is perhaps not unusual to regular readers of this blog but may need explaining to people who thought this was going to be about party catering and are here by mistake.
I cycle because I love it – a bicycle can turn an everyday journey into an adventure, a chore into an encounter with nature and an opportunity to create special memories with people I love. It improves my health and wellbeing, maintains my cake-based lifestyle and generates a sense of strength and resilience by challenging what I think I’m capable of.
Unfortunately, with no ‘daily commute’ my working day contains no cycling unless I introduce it – the school run is barely a walk, the shops are on our doorstep and I can almost roll out of bed onto the train platform.
Enter an entity that I had almost forsaken with parenthood – leisure cycling. Obviously, by its nature, one needs ‘leisure’ to accommodate it and this has been in short supply; a couple of years ago I could count the time I had ‘to myself’ in a few minutes a day, mainly the exhausted ones between finishing the washing up and getting into bed. This was an improvement on previous years, when I counted doing the washing up as time to myself.
Then we entered this glorious phase, where our son doesn’t need constant supervision, entertainment or containment. He can be left unattended for minutes at a time and not cause harm to himself or others. I can’t really leave the country for weeks on end, but with a husband and child happy in the garden I can take my bike out for a couple of hours and not feel too negligent as a wife and mother.
Perhaps having so much potential time went to my head, or the lack of an election made me feel I wasn’t quite stressed enough, but I managed to come out of a conversation with a friend this time last year agreeing that a ‘5000 mile target’ might just be The Thing to focus on for 2018. This random agreement has propelled me to cycle through rain and snow, wind and sunshine, at home and abroad. Despite the newly acquired leisure, finding the 527 hours has been more of a challenge than the 5000 miles; I’ve squeezed miles into the days by starting early and pedalling late, missing meals and some bedtime stories, riding into the night after the working day and ignoring housework, homework and volunteer work at the weekend.
The best miles have been with friends and involved significant quantities of cake that one just can’t justify on non-cycling adventures. I’ve celebrated birthdays with bike rides, enjoyed cycling holidays, and managed some campaigning mileage too. Occasionally these activities haven’t involved Sally Hinchcliffe:
I’ve cycled my 30 mile non-commute from Edinburgh 34 times this year, feeling epic every time I’ve done it. I’ve seen my son’s self-esteem flourish as he pedalled 70 miles over five days in Orkney and enjoyed feeling my own strength and stamina grow as I cycled over 100 miles each week. Escaping my laptop for a lunchtime spin added many miles to my total and unexpected joy into ordinary days.
I’ve loved my solitary miles too, as time to think and sometimes not to as well. I’ve had my breath taken away by the beauty of our country, and felt my heart leap with every encounter with deer, bats, pheasants, hares and hawks.
I’ve nurtured a plan to live in Venice since I first visited over a decade ago, falling in love with the light, the lagoon and the language. I was entranced by the way the water defined everything, the ease of movement provided by boats and the simply delightful absence of cars. Venetian friends provided a glimpse into the hidden corners of life away from the tourist masses, giving my first couple of visits that insider enjoyment of feeling different to the madding crowd moving in a tide between St Marks Square and the Rialto.
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn seem determined to destroy my Venetian dream, unless I’m prepared to take radical action and swop my current husband for one originating from a more immigration-friendly EU country. With these thoughts in mind it seemed a half-term break in Italy could be the answer to my own Brexit nightmare..*
I’d delayed my return to Venice until my son could reliably walk without moaning every 20m as walking is the main mode of transport for everyone that doesn’t have their own boat. If you have working feet, legs and eyes, and the energy to use them, then Venice is a highly walkable city. Although the tourist hoards have increased in the last decade and ramps are now covering several of the larger bridges, Venice is still notoriously car free and hard for anyone to navigate on wheels. Cycling is on the list of prohibitions, and the only cyclists I saw were children balance biking up Via Garibaldi with enthusiasm. It’s one of the few cities I haven’t felt the need to clutch the hand of my child and shout ‘watch the road!’ in ever more frantic volumes. Boats provide the only sound of motors, and the city’s conspicuous consumption a living daily proof that you don’t need to park a van directly outside a shop to deliver goods.
But Venice isn’t just Venice. There are over 100 islands in the Venetian Lagoon and access to many of them is easy by vaporetto. Frustrated by the tourist crowds and needing to give my husband a quality day with ‘the art’, my six-year old and I headed to nearby Lido, where we knew there were cars, in search of adventure on two wheels.
Off the boat and with bike hire easily arranged, we were off. Only of course we weren’t because I needed to look at a map, check Google Maps five times, go the wrong way for a while, push the bikes across the road and then check the map again. Then we were off, heading towards the beach road in an attempt to find lunch that we didn’t need to re-mortgage our house to buy. We cruised along the wide road, alternating between the familiar tension of adventure and terror as the small number of cars on the road passed rather to close to my son for my comfort. We eventually found an off road path beside the beach and enjoyed a few miles off the beaten track until hunger took us back to civilisation.
We consumed the cheapest lunch available in a 20 miles radius before we pedalled off to see what the main island road held for an anxious mother and her pint-sized explorer.
*drum roll and some sort of trumpeting sounds*
There was an on road separated cycle path. It wasn’t wide, but it was several miles long and had side road priority as far as I could make out. It eventually turned into a shared use pavement and then disappeared altogether just as you needed it to guide you safely into town. But still, little Lido di Venezia has managed what some cities don’t dare to dream of – safe, separated space along its main transport corridor. And, in these times of Brexit, climate chaos and Donald Trump, that somehow gave me hope that the future isn’t so bleak for our self-destructive species.
*For the avoidance of doubt and to calm any relatives reading this, it is a joke
When the text came – “Car Forup didn’t make it” – it wasn’t a shock. Our ageing Honda Civic had been threatening to die for half a decade and with every surprisingly passed MOT, our mechanic had smiled and muttered mysteriously “aye, well, its a Civic”. But not this time. Our reliable motor finally steered into the great car park in the sky last summer and wasn’t replaced.
It seems to be an expectation that when you have a child and/or you live outside a city you must be in need of a car but we found that wasn’t true for us, and this post reflects our first year of living carlessly..
Location, location location – part 1: do I *really* want it?
We live on a small town high street, with just a 5 minute walk between the train station, greengrocers and Co-op. The ‘weekly shop’ isn’t a thing for us, with most weekday meals planned and bought for in the few minutes between train, afterschool pick up and home. Not having a car means I can’t go to Tesco’s 12 miles away if our edge of town Asda doesn’t have ‘it’. If I want something not obtainable in our town it has to be worth ordering online or carrying from Edinburgh. On a good day this reduces our food waste, prevents us from buying things we don’t *really* need and insulates us from the ‘pester power’ emanating from our 6 year old. On a bad day it means I wander around the Co-op unable to think of a single thing to cook, having already used up all my brain power during the working day.
"Mummy, the wind is lovely music" – a sensory adventure in the downpour, taking the long way to the shops because ❤ 🚴♀️ pic.twitter.com/ZHAa2UIxys
Location, location location – part 2: childhood freedom
It has been a revelation in recent years to find out how much parental time is dedicated to the transportation of children, not just to school but to afterschool activities – ballet, horse riding, Cubs, gymnastics, swimming, judo; an actual endless list if you have the resources. Thankfully both my husband and I subscribe to the can’t be arsed parenting theory and we’ve limited our son’s programme to two classes a week that we can walk or cycle to, preferring to encourage free play with friends.
He might be missing valuable horse riding experiences, but our High Street location enables our son to go to our closest shop and buy milk (or cabbages..) without crossing a road. Judging by the screams of delight from a gaggle of friends staying over recently, it’s not something many six-year-olds are able to do and is an adventure of its own. We are within easy cycling distance of school, the sports centre, swimming pool and community centre so I’m looking forward to years of not being an unpaid taxi service whilst our out-of-town friends continually ferry their offspring around.
Is your journey really necessary?
We have quite a lot of middle-class privilege going on in our household, with our four degrees and management jobs we decide what our schedules look like. We aren’t tied to desks at a particular time, although the flipside of this flexibility means that you’ll often find us both working at different tables in the evening or in different cities. What it also means is that we can work around the ‘rural’ train service from our part of the world, reaching Edinburgh about 45 minutes after school drop off, rather than joining the queue of cars on the Edinburgh Bypass each morning.
In theory I work from home, reducing unnecessary travel, but in practice this is usually ‘working from train’. Some mornings I stand at Edinburgh Waverley looking at the two tides of people struggling past each other to get on/off the Glasgow train and wonder if people are going to vital meetings, or just to sit at desks in another city.
The ‘Beast from the East‘ should have provided an opportunity for us to reflect on our need to travel, with the (then) Transport Minister asking almost everyone in Scotland individually if their journey was essential. The question really is ‘essential for who’? For your boss to keep an eye on you, or for you to carry out your work? I appreciate that many jobs need you be there – heart surgeons really need to show up, but for keyboard warriors like me the Beast had negligible impact on my productivity once our child was occupied and I stopped looking out of the window.
A real excuse for n + 1?
The cargo bike is widely recognised by civilised countries as the ‘second car’ for families, or simply a car-replacement for those wanting to drive anti-cycle lane campaigners out of their minds. However, my husband’s Danish genes must have gone off after so many years out of Denmark so instead of a Christiania or Nihola entering our lives, this thing turned up:
Husband is keeping our 23 year relationship exciting by buying a homemade cargo bike off the internet for £150 without discussing it with me.. pic.twitter.com/LTjsr6iRit
As its ‘challenging’ to use on hills, and has something fundamentally wrong with the breaking mechanism, it’s had limited use this year and has been mainly clogging up the shed.
Mobility as a service
Car Forup wasn’t an expensive car to run, with about £50 tax and insurance going out each month and no significant bills that we can remember. But he didn’t run very often, so as a sedentary extension to our storage capacity (he was mainly used by me to leave things in) he wasn’t providing good value.
We joined the local car club, Co-Wheels, for journeys that we really wanted to do by car but looking through our bank statements we’ve spent less than £90 on Co-Wheels over the last three or four months months. Our most expensive usage this year, at £50, was for a long weekend camping in the Lake District, mainly due to our child needing to bring this ridiculous creature:
A year on and we have no plans to replace Car Forup, which is just as well as I spent every penny we have on this beauty
My great-great-grandfather was born in Orkney, gifting me a slender genetic connection to the country I call home, and providing my son with another dose of Viking heritage, which might explain his passion for pirates. I love the wild, raw beauty of the Orkney Islands – it’s unlike anywhere else, but with strong, gusting winds, a temperamental ‘summer’ and almost no cycling infrastructure. It might not be an obvious choice as a family cycling destination. But really, who wants to read another blog about safe and easy cycling holidays in the Netherlands?
Aberdeen and losing the will to move
We started our journey by train from home in East Lothian to Aberdeen, where the nice people at NorthLink ferries let you roll on with your bike and take you to Orkney (or Shetland if you fall asleep) for a surprising small amount of money. Unfortunately this means going to Aberdeen with your bike, which should not be undertaken lightly. I was pretending to be an organised cyclist, so the usual train/bike/booking tension didn’t arise but Aberdeen presents significant mobility challenges to anyone not encased in a metal box. After several attempts to escape the train station, on its island in the sea of traffic, we gave up and spent our two hour wait outside on the station plaza. We decided that it was less damaging to be surrounded by toxic fumes than risk the more imminent danger posed by the cars. My son, a cycle campaigner of few words, provided a summary comment for Twitter:
Mini-campaigners assessment of conditions for walking and cycling in Aberdeen, after unsuccessfully trying to find somewhere to hang out before our ferry: "poo roads" pic.twitter.com/q5jtngPR8k
Once boarded, it was literally plain sailing and six hours later we were in the “not dark at 11pm” excitement of Kirkwall where I demonstrated my powers of organisation again and had a taxi waiting to whisk us to prepared youth hostel beds.
Weather with you
This was my fourth visit to Orkney so it was obvious to me that the resident weather gods had recently gone AWOL, leaving Orkney to enjoy a rare summer of sunshine and low wind speeds. On previous trips I had wondered how people managed to walk anywhere, let alone cycle, as you have to brace yourself against the wind to stay upright for eight months of the year. To increase our chances of not being cold, wet and windswept at the same time I’d booked two nights camping and two nights in a wooden chalet at the superb Pickaquoy Campsite plus the initial youth hostel room and a final night on the boat taking us south again. This regular movement maintained the feeling of cycle touring without going very far, and indulged my passion for packing. Posting our tent home after use reduced our luggage and enabled the purchase and carriage of a large quantity of puffin related items home.
Bikes + ferries = simples
Orkney is a collection of 70 islands, 20 inhabited, spread 50 miles from north to south and 10 miles off the mainland of northern Scotland. You can fly between some of them but for us the boat and bicycle combination was magical, transforming each journey into another part of the adventure.
We visited two islands, Sanday and Shapinsay, on different days and found they were perfect for family cycling, with low levels of traffic and barely a hill. With very little wind we were able to cover the miles easily, enjoying the wild, open landscape almost alone on the road. The ferries were easy to find, simple to take bikes onto and had adventure written all over them. No booking, no bother. <insert irate comment about bike booking policy on trains here>
We found shops, cafes and a pub for refreshments plus locals that were keen to talk and share their experience of living in this wild, beautiful place. My son chased a male chicken with a new found friend of the same age on Sanday, giving him the ideal opportunity to shout ‘it was a cock!’ repeatedly at dinner later that day.
Mainland Orkney, home to 75% of the 21,000 population, proved more of challenge to cycle around than the smaller islands. Cars dominate the two main towns, Kirkwall and Stromness, and the cruise ships provide a regular influx of coaches on the narrow roads. Unlike our part of Scotland (which has a network of low traffic roads in addition to the main roads) the main roads are often the only roads, leaving little choice for finding a family friendly route.
For a small town it’s remarkably hard to cross the road in Kirkwall and quite easy to find yourself surrounded by cars on a road that looks like its pedestrianised. I’m aware that the weather gods decree that walking is an endurance sport for much of the year, but it seems a shame that its isn’t easier to get about this lovely town. There have been plans presented to improve conditions for walking and cycling and I hope that eventually Kirkwall will be able to show off its highlights free from vehicles impeding the views.
Not separation anxiety
One of the main considerations of the week was how to get ourselves from Kirkwall to Stromness for our ferry south. After canvassing the opinion of everyone we spoke to, including a Dutch born Orkney resident that stopped us in the street to tell us we were ‘very brave’, I decided on the longer, hillier route to avoid as much as possible of the fast and frightening A965*. I rationalised that an exhausted child was better than a squashed one in any circumstances. However, I underestimated the Viking potential and my 6 year old sped through the 18 miles, only concerned that we hadn’t managed to get through many of the snacks we’ve purchased for the journey.
Orkney doesn’t have the cycling facilities of the Netherlands, reliable weather or the dramatic mountain scenery that draw so many people to Scotland. But the sense of freedom, of being alone on the edge of the world, sandy beaches with turquoise sea and islands where no one thinks to lock a door – that’s worth coming back on my bike to visit again and again.
*There is a desire from the Council to provide a separated route on the main road, linking the two towns and providing an excellent opportunity to increase cycle tourism. It would be an expensive undertaking per capita of population, but one that could start to put Orkney and its raw beauty of the cycle tourism map. Ebike facilities and an off road route around the main neolithic sites are also being discussed, and all these could enable Orkney cycle tourism to flourish outwith the main tourist season.
Disclaimer: I did meet several political representatives from Orkney Islands Council whilst on holiday and should declare that they gave me a lovely cup of tea, as well as a fascinating insight into some of the planned cycling developments.
Being a Smug Know It All is a time consuming occupation, particularly when you have to do it across both your personal and professional lives. Remembering all ones own sage advice can also be a challenge, which I thought about at length at the start of the year as I pushed my bike up a snowy verge and recalled some of my own advice on the topic of safe cycling in rural and remote Scotland.
Last year my ire was irked by a perfectly pleasant new guide on my work website because it failed to mention that Scotland Is Much More Dangerous than cycling elsewhere and a phone signal and nearby provisions should not be presumed. I rattled off a disgruntled email, got a lovely accommodating one back and put the resultant task on my long list of things to do after I sorted this out. In my defence, several friends are mountain rescue volunteers and I’ve spent many an evening hearing about lost map-less morons in flip flops, partners with no real idea of where their beloved had gone on the hills and what it’s like to find a body partially eaten by wolves. Alright, I made the last one up but you get the idea. Despite this grounding in outdoor safety basics I managed to make a selection of textbook fails on a solo ride in January, which I now present as a slice of cold humble pie:
Don’t tell anyone where you are going
This is most effective if done in combination with not knowing where you are going, which I find a particular hazard due to having no sense of direction or ability to read a map. This set of personal challenges led me to using my Garmin’s ’round trip’ function, putting all my navigational faith into a blue line after telling my husband I was ‘going cycling’ and I would ‘be back later’. All of which seemed perfectly sensibly when I was standing in my kitchen, but less sensible a couple of hours later when I realised no-one knew where I was. Not even me.
Don’t take a map, or know how to use one
Like the point above, this can lead to both being lost and then unable to tell anyone where you are. I managed to get my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award when I was a teenager but failed to really understand navigation and despite renewed efforts last year I still don’t. I’ve found my Garmin to be helpful in telling me where I’ve been but helping me know where I’m going, not so much. Particularly when it tells me I’ve cycled 26000 miles, freezes and the screen goes grey. Thankfully, the little blue line was consistent that day and I was able to follow it home – apart from one final fail, which was too idiotic to relate – on good roads with few navigational choices to make.
Go alone, preferably somewhere remote
You can die horribly on a bike in company in any city around the world, but perhaps being alone somewhere isolated makes the fear a little more tangible. I passed three or four cars in around five hours and as each one passed I wondered if I was more scared of them stopping or not stopping. I’d cycled through the winter months in the dark and finally discovered that I enjoyed the solitude on rural lanes, but out on the hills on my own I felt the the other side of ‘epic’ and I found real fear – of not knowing quite where I was on icy roads I couldn’t cycle on, in a temperature that had me shivering in my layers of wool.
Misjudge elevation, mileage and the weather
Standing in my kitchen, Garmin in hand, my rough 30 miles = 3 hours cycling equation looked feasible and meant I would be back as it got dark. But that doesn’t work when hills are added into the mix, which I *know* but failed to recognise in January due to I don’t know what – perhaps an excess of hygge over Christmas in Denmark? In a similar brain failure, I’d not recognised that although it was ice-free on my sea level road it would be snow covered by the time I’d climbed up into the hills.
Set out after lunch, without having eaten lunch, in winter
In my enthusiasm to enjoy the best of the winter weather I set out around 1pm, after the rain passed. Only I didn’t eat lunch ‘because busy’, thinking that the two cereal bars and the ’emergency’ chocolate pilfered from my son’s Christmas stores would be adequate. This meant I was cycling on my breakfast bowl of porridge for around five hours with three hours of daylight left.
Ensure you’re in an area with no phone reception
In the modern world its now rare to be without internet access, much less a phone signal. Unless you live outside a city in Scotland, where you can enjoy impromptu social media breaks just by leaving the house. I rode for miles without phone reception, stopping to panic and check every few miles as it started to get dark. The little black lines finally reappeared as Torness came into view in the distance. I never thought I’d be pleased to see a nuclear power station, but I could barely contain my delight as I recognised the light in the darkness.
Bad mistakes, I’ve made a few..
If you really want to max out on poor practice you should forget your lights, take no water or extra clothing and leave essential medicines back at base camp. These, at least, I avoided and I had a flask of tea and a fully charged battery pack and associated cables.
Just don’t ask me about the whereabouts of my bike pump that day.
Car Forup* came into my life as part of the small number of ‘non art’ possessions my husband brought into our marriage, and was soon put into service as a workhorse as we started our house renovations and family life in Dunbar. With the renovation completed and my working life altered, Car Forup was often sat unused for weeks at time, waiting for the weekends that it could live its best life as a vehicle of adventure.
Car Forup was a reliable helper in those frantic weeks after our son was born, transporting breastmilk to the hospital and our belongings to our new house. He enabled me to reach some of my further flung colleagues better than our rural train network could manage and get the whole CTC/Cycling UK promotional bandwagon to more Pedal for Scotland’s than I want to remember.
As the legal owner, the final words are from my husband in a Facebook goodbye back in July last year after we received the news from our mechanic:
“I’ve never been much of a car person. As a child it was perplexing when other kids asked me to name my favourite car. And our reliance on cars is part of The Problem (I think).
So it is a surprise how emotional it is saying goodbye to Car Forup after nine years. I was its third owner. Never any serious problems; for years flying through the annual MOT, mechanics remarking: “Well, it’s a Honda Civic.” Some minor works were needed in recent years; much more would be needed this year. And so it is goodbye.
You have been a great help over the years, used for fieldwork, visiting friends and family, going camping, transporting bikes, visiting National Trust properties, going on long weekends away. Driving to hospital one scary October night, when the waters broke two months early, and fives weeks later taking Sebastian and Suzanne from the hospital to our new house in Dunbar. Picking up friends and family from the airport, Milly from the cat rescue, plants from the garden centre, Christmas trees. Taking rubbish to the recycling centre. Moving furniture; it is astonishing what could fit inside you. Thank you for everything. You will be missed”
Four years ago, on the eve of my son’s second birthday, I started this blog to document my crash landing into parenthood and thank those who helped me survive the impact.
Our tiny premature baby has grown and thrived and, although cycling isn’t everything*, he learned to pedal just after his third birthday, cycle toured the Netherlands before he was four and was mansplaining adequate breaking technique to me at five. He has distributed hundreds of Pedal on Parliament leaflets, handed #walkcyclevote postcards over the least receptive looking people in two elections campaigns and been my inspiration to keep campaigning when it felt like we were getting nowhere.
The world has been chaotic, confusing and often downright depressing over the last few years. But throughout that there has also been joy, learning, growth and excitement too. Here’s just a few of things I’ve discovered with my son over the last four years:
‘Share nicely’ must be one of the most overused phrases in early parenthood, but it’s at least one that my son paid attention to and he’s now an excellent sharer as long as he doesn’t want whatever it is that much.
When it comes to road space I’m really not into the sharing thing so much myself anymore. I realised in early pregnancy that soft bodies and large metal objects don’t mix well and stopped cycling. You can ‘encourage’ mutual respect, ‘educate’ drivers until they can recite the Highway Code and dress every child in Scotland in flashing high-visibility vests but none of that will prevent a ‘momentary lapse of concentration‘ which seems to affect drivers on a daily basis. Let’s have segregated cycling infrastructure networks in our towns and cities – as well as keeping us safely away from motorised traffic, it would enable modal shift, create places that people want to be, reduce air pollution and mean we can all eat more cake.
I’ve told my son that no-one likes a moaner, so I’m just offering some friendly feedback here to the designers of cycle paths based on our ‘user experience’ of this NCN route in East Lothian where we live. Sometimes ‘useable’ but imperfect is acceptable, but if a five year old is making judgy comments about your infrastructure then you have seriously under performed.
Excellent is possible and we’re seeing more local authorities take the plunge and start to design streets for people in towns and cities across Scotland. Often city schemes get the attention, but I’d like to give a high-five to whoever worked this magic in one of Scotland’s smallest local authority areas, Clackmannanshire, enabling us to cycle for miles on safe, separated paths, discovering a corner of our own country we’d never seen before.
Use the Mummy Measuring Tool
A number of highly respected cycle campaigners carry measuring apparatus with them to assess by how much our cycling infrastructure fails to meet the mark. This is great as it gives something objective to work with, but the only question that matters to me is simply ‘is this safe for my child?’. If our planners brought their own children to work we might start to get what the Dutch and Danish have already, because until we have infrastructure that most parents feel safe using with their children we won’t see the modal shift our Governments want.
Yes, we’ve learnt a lot over the last four years, not least that we need to stop campaigning for ‘cycling’ and engage people in a conversation about where they want to live, work, bring up families and grow old. When we start to talk about what we want we can perhaps stop building communities in a way that deliver what we don’t want – congestion, air pollution and inactivity.
With the new investment in active travel I have hope that my son’s cycle campaigning career will be short, and that his children will be able to walk and cycle safely whenever and wherever they choose – because we decided to really make Scotland the best place to grow up and put our families first.
“If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people” Enrique Peñalosa
*Cycling is everything, but my husband looks at me strangely when I say it out loud.
With Storm Ophelia still giving us a hard time I’ve battened down my hatches and got the summer photos out to remind myself of what the world looked like before it went grey and wet.
Ah yes, I live in Scotland so the summer isn’t all ice cream and sea bathing, unless you are one of those really hard people that wear shorts because ‘it’s summer’ rather than after a sensible assessment of the weather conditions. I am not one of those people and so carry a good supply of high quality merino wool clothing with me at all times of year, particularly when cycling. The carriage of said merino wool items occupied much of my ‘free time’ (time that I should be using to encourage my child to eat vegetables, read, be kind etc) over the summer in preparation for An Adult Microadventure. No, nothing weird, just an adventure where I don’t have to say ‘please sit on your bottom’ every minute at every meal time.
Gloriously released from all my domestic duties by my husband taking our son to Denmark for a few days, my friend Claire and I planned a weekend cycling adventure to try and keep my monthly tally on track. Claire looked at many maps and I procured a new Alpkit bag for the merino items. We were ready to pedal. But where?
We’ve both travelled, are quite adventurous, not too short of cash and love good food. So naturally we booked ourselves into the Kirk Yetholm youth hostel and jumped on a ScotRail train to the Scottish Borders. (NB For those of us that have lived through the will they/won’t they ever re-open the railway line between Edinburgh and the Borders saga the previous sentence is much more exciting than it initially appears).
Our plan was to ride the Four Abbeys cycle route clockwise and slowly, enjoying the views, the cake shops and take a peek at the Abbeys. This is what we found:
Seen one Abbey? You’ve seen them all (probably)..
Starting out in Melrose, we soon realised that we were simply too tight-fisted to pay the entrance fee and our money was much more likely to be spent in bookshops and cake shops. I’m sure someone is itching to point out that a Historic Scotland Explorer Pass is well worth the money, but now I’ve done it you don’t need to. Kelso Abbey is fee free, so we did have one full immersion abbey experience. I’m very glad I’m not a 12th century monk as the monk lifestyle seemed to contain very early mornings and very little cake.
The sun shines in Scotland (but please don’t tell anyone)
My parents sweetly phone or text after every weather event hits the UK, because somehow they think it will be so much worse in Scotland and we may have been swept away in a flood/hurricane/snowstorm. Okay, so the rain is much wetter here but I have mislaid my waterproof trousers due to infrequent use. However, in the interests of Keeping Scotland Beautiful (and free of more people) please don’t share the following two photographs widely.
We may be at peak gin
I understand that gin is fashionable, which may or may not be related to my taking it up in later life, but I hadn’t quite realised that everywhere is now producing its own. We found this excellent local example at the superb Plough Hotel in Town Yetholm. Historic Scotland’s loss is the Kelso Gin Company’s gain as I spent all my excess money on gin. Just doing my bit for the rural economy.
There is no-one here
Well that isn’t quite true, as both the hostel and pub in Yetholm were packed and there was an extensive selection of tourists and locals in each of the towns we passed through- several of whom stopped me to admire my bike and its baggage. But there were also miles and miles of quiet roads, smaller towns – big shout out to gorgeous Morebattle and its lovely Teapot Street – and villages. The Four Abbeys route coincides at some points with St Cuthberts Way, a long distance walking route between Holy Island in Northumberland and Melrose in the Scottish Borders so you can expect to see some ramblers too.
You can have an adventure close to home (even if you aren’t five)
Claire has taught me many things in the few years that I’ve know her, but one of the most significant is that you can have a great adventure just a few miles from where you live. My eyebrows have raised slightly in the past as some of her holiday plans involved travelling no further than an hour on a train from Edinburgh. In my yearnings for exotic adventures I’ve overlooked the enjoyment to be found on my doorstep. Not any more.