A year of living carlessly

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.

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:

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

Ancestral cycling

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:

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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.

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Orkney map by Mikenorton – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7876975

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 manoeuvres

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.

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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.

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*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.

Cold humble pie

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.

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Lovely East Lothian, but where am I?

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.

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Whiteadder Reservoir – pleasingly signed, so I knew where I was for a while

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.

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The Lammermuir Hills – surprisingly remote

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.

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Darkness descending on the frozen road

 

 

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.

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The bright lights of Torness Power Station showing the way home

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.

Obituary: Car Forup

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.

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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”
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*Car Forup is a highly amusing take on my husband’s artistic heritage..

Now we are six

Header photo: Rachel Keatinge

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.

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Nine weeks early and weighing less then 4lbs, our son arrived

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.

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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:

Cycling is child’s play

Want to get me raging? Just tell me about a great initiative that makes children more active but don’t follow it up with a comment about the most sensible and sustainable method of enabling everyone to meet physical activity guidelines. We design our towns and cities so many children need to be transported by car – to school, to friends and after-school activities – rather than enable independent mobility and then wonder why our children are inactive, obese and unhappy. In the Netherlands they aren’t content with enabling their offspring to gad around on bikes like it’s normal, they even built their communities to prioritise play. Thankfully there are now some people linking active travel and childhood freedom in the UK, supporting the re-prioritisation of our streets towards what we all really value – our families. Temporary street play initiatives are helping communities see that car dominance is having a detrimental effect – on children, health and air quality – and that another vision for our communities is possible, one where everyone, particularly children, can thrive.

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Playing out in Amsterdam – no special road closures, just your average street making active travel fun

Sharing sucks and size matters

‘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.

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Share the road? Hmm.. let me think – no thanks!

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.

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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.

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Can success be measured by smileage?

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.

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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

Photo: Iona Shepherd. My son thanking Humza Yousaf MSP, Minister for Transport and the Islands, for the increase of the active travel budget – on behalf of #walkcyclevote, a collaboration of organisations supporting investment in active travel in Scotland

*Cycling is everything, but my husband looks at me strangely when I say it out loud.

What’s that yellow thing in the sky?

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.

Ooh! The new station at Tweedbank!

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.

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Bikes looking longingly through the gates at Melrose Abbey
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Croix de Fer parking where it wanted to at Kelso Abbey

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.

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Claire in just one later of merino
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Shhh!

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.

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Does it get any better than Elephant Gin for someone that owns an Elephant Bike?

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.

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Cessford Castle, one of the sights on St Cuthberts Way
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Just one of the long and winding roads
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Someone needs to open a cycling cafe here immediately

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.

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A home from home adventure, thanks to ScotRail

Hills, heat, trams and tourists

Please note, this is my impression of Lisbon from an afternoon of attempting to cycle (and from discussions with local campaigners) not a comprehensive study tour!

I enjoy cycling in cities and have taken to two wheels in Mumbai and Panama City in the past and New York, London and Rome more recently so I was keen to try the streets of Lisbon at the end of our summer holiday in Portugal.

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Lovely Lisbon and my rented city bike

I’d arranged to meet some local campaigners to talk infrastructure and advocacy, and to give my husband a break from my incessant cyclist spotting:

Me: Look, there’s someone on a bike! It’s another Brompton!

Husband: *eye rolling incomprehension as to why that might be interesting*

Like many cities in the throes of summer, the streets were packed with tourists wandering aimlessly, disregarding all attempts to keep them on the pavements, and disgruntled locals trying to get on with their lives. Some car users had obviously done the Roman driving test and were putting their new parking technique into action by leaving their motors double parked, blocking entire streets.

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Street blocked by a parked car in the middle lane, right next to a police car

Lisbon streets felt quite hazardous, with the tram tracks snaking their way across the city, accompanied by hills steep enough to push my thighs and rental bike to their respective limits. These obstacles were compounded for me by the one way streets so I seemed unable to avoid them, leaving me wheeling my bike more than riding it.

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The tell tale signs of a tram system
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One of the hill busting trams

My friends Tito and Patricia rescued me from endlessly cycling around the pedestrianised Praca do Comercio by taking me to try out one of the few pieces of cycling infrastructure in Lisbon, a lovely green path perhaps a couple of miles long. Splendid. Unfortunately it suffers from the issues that plague cycling infrastructure across the world – it’s not part of a network and it doesn’t go where people want to travel.

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Tito and Patricia, lovely local cyclists
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Found! Safe cycling infrastructure!
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Where now?

After our enjoyable, if short, ride to the end of the path, we hauled our bikes over the railway bridge to try the path by the water, which links up to this usable but shared use confusion zone. Pedestrians, bikes, cafes crowded with people drinking alcohol in the sunshine adjacent to the sea. What could go wrong?

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After putting my hill climbing and tram track dodging capabilities to the test, Patricia and Tito handed me over to Ana, a cycle campaigner who runs a cycling social enterprise in the city. We found that advocacy in both our countries has some distinctive similarities – volunteer run, under resourced and over stretched – but the barriers to progress were different, possibly reflecting the cultural and political situations as well as the personalities involved.

I tagged along with Ana to a meeting arranged with Pedro, the R&D lead for a Portuguese cycling company that had been involved in developing the new ebike for the Lisbon bike share scheme. The bike was on display at the World Bike Tour, and I felt distinctly A-list as we cycled past security and into the exhibition area. The bike share promises to be cheap, with the electric assist helping on those thigh-testing hills. The prototype even had a phone holder to keep an eye on Twitter ensure you can keep your city map right in front of you as you ride.

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Pedro and Ana talking about the new Lisbon ebike

We didn’t get to try out another segregated cycle way on the other side of the city as my rental bike was due back so I pedalled and pushed, thinking about a glass of Vinho Verde in the evening sunshine, my way back to the shop. Then carried my bike up two flights of stairs before this:

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Street outside the bike rental shop

Lisbon has many attractions – fantastic architecture, excellent food, good weather and easy access to lovely beaches – but superb conditions for cycling is not one of them yet, and is unlikely to be for some time. However, it is evident there is a latent demand for cycling – the cycling businesses look like they are booming and there were more than a handful of fully kitted out roadies and mountain bikers, as well as tourists and locals weaving between the pedestrians on the pavements.

Looking at the Lisbon streets now it’s hard to imagine many parents choosing cycling as a convenient and safe transport option in the near future. But perhaps people used to say that about car choked Amsterdam forty years ago.

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My very limited explorations – the left half of the rectangle shape are the cycle paths  

 

 

Night Rider

I’ve always loved sleep. Call me Cinderella but even as a student I loved to be tucked up in my bed well before midnight with a good eight hours of shut-eye ahead of me.

Then I had a baby that didn’t sleep. That baby turned into a toddler that didn’t sleep much, who then eventually turned into a four-year old that slept in our bed and Kicked. Me. All. Night. Sleep became something I would dream about, if only I could be asleep long enough to dream.

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He slept once so I took a photo of it

So the thought of ever doing the Edinburgh Night Ride seemed farcical; why would I voluntarily torture my sleep deprived self, and try to cycle the furthest distance I’ve done since childbirth into the bargain?

Two factors converged this year to make me book myself a place and get my tired legs in training – our son was evicted from our bed (and we all started sleeping for more than four consecutive hours) and the legendary ultra endurance cyclist Mike Hall was killed during the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race.

I never met Mike, but like thousands of others I’d been touched by his passion for cycling and the way he inspired people to be the riders they dreamed they could be. From all accounts, he was a kind and generous man into the bargain, making the tragedy of his unnecessary and early death harder to bear. When the call came to #BeMoreMike – to be brave, to challenge yourself, to say yes – it was clear what I should do.

Despite my concerns I knew I was in safe hands because the Edinburgh Night Ride is organised by a cake loving, map reading, super planner with help from an elite squad of scone connoisseurs. In addition it’s semi-supported by Leith Cycles and the riders are divided into small groups led by a crack team of cycle ride leaders that ensure you aren’t left cycling by yourself in rural yokel land in the middle of the night. You might feel exhausted and desperate for sleep, but you won’t be alone.

The ride itself was on familiar territory, starting close to where I’d lived in Edinburgh to within a few miles of the town I now call home with my family, before back to the city for breakfast. Yet as I pedaled the familiarity grew less as we travelled along roads I’d never seen and in mid summer darkness that I’d not seen on purpose for some years.

The miles slid by easily, with some help coming from chat with friends and a restorative cake selection alongside the soup at Loft Cafe and Bakery in Haddington. My only discomfort was in my eyes, with contact lenses complaining bitterly that they really shouldn’t be out and about at this time in the morning and what the hell was I playing at?

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The hours followed the miles and sunrise took me by surprise by happening as I drank the Loft dry of tea. It was light as we left at around 4am and the well-past-midnight-snack did its job by convincing my tired eyes and legs that it was a sensible time to up and start the day, without having gone to bed yet. Just after 6am I was taking celebratory photos of my bike at Portobello Prom and at 7am I was face down into my first of about 500 cups of returner tea, tweeting to the world that I had survived.

For many people this wasn’t an epic, it was an average length ride at a peculiar time of day. But for me it was another turning point in my life as a cyclist, now a slightly braver one that’s looking to embrace a few more challenges and say yes, this woman can.

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Bold for change

When I started thinking about this post a couple of weeks ago I didn’t recall having had any female role models in the first decades of my life. I was too old for Girl Power, and the Spice Girls lacked ‘Head Girl Spice’ anyway. Darrell Rivers was full of school spirit, but her school was private whilst mine was distinctly comprehensive. I was already in my early 20s by the time Hermione Granger made it okay to love school, books, homework and being responsible.

Getting my first taste of charity fundraising when I should have been getting on with my A’ levels..

I might have spent my teenage years devoid of celebrity input but at least I didn’t feel that society had some gender defined silo for me until I was out in the working world. It seems now that from birth, girls and young women are overwhelmed with the world telling them who they should be, how they should look and how they should behave; from pink princess to Kardashian in one leap from childhood into tweenage.

I asked my girlfriends who inspired and influenced them as we grew up and got some silence, then a smattering of older sisters, fictional characters and singers of dubious quality. Only one came back with an impressive list of writers and journalists, but then she was reading her poetry on Radio 4 when the rest of us were still working on legible handwriting. As I’ve thought more about those childhood and teenage years I’ve realised that those that influenced and inspired me most were my peers, the girls I grew up with and am privileged to still call my friends. From encouraging my first campaign – Cruelty Out the Window (COW) – to ensuring I survived our A’ levels, my friends were the ones I looked to for advice, support and inspiration. Unfortunately, the support to purchase snow-washed denim was misplaced and I’m grateful for the lack of photographic evidence in that pre-digital age..

I’m now on the dark side of 40* but I’m still awed and inspired by the women that I know. In the world of cycling you only have to dig a little deeper than the #allmalepanels of the average cycling conference to find the packed field of women that are thought leaders on cycling for utility, campaigning for cycle infrastructure, academics, adventure cyclists, festival organiserscommunity workers, entrepreneurs, bloggerscampaigners and environmental advocates. I’m fortunate enough to have met all these incredible women, and many more, that keep me campaigning and inspire me to cycle further and more adventurously than I’ve done before. Women in cycling are getting louder and today, International Women’s Day, Women’s Cycle Forum Scotland will be celebrating both well known, and the less familiar, women that are changing the cycling narrative.

Outside in the mainstream media it’s great to see the new #ThisGirlCan campaign diversify their age and ability range, and focus on the benefits of activity not the objectifying of women through physical activity, although many would rather see it focus on #thiswomandoes. Gender inequality is so entrenched that some people barely notice it until it’s pointed out but we’re talking more about how women are using strategies to support each other in the workplace and how to lose that toxic competition that prevents us from encouraging each other. If we are to #beboldforchange we need to support all women, not just women ‘like us’, so that we aren’t improving the situation of some women at the expense of others, or ignoring the multi-faceted identities women have. And yes, as the mother of a son that has come home to tell me that the girls said he shouldn’t wear a dress, I know that we need #aboycantoo.

Over the last 6 months I’ve also been involved in a worldwide social movement, ULab, where I’ve found another group of inspirational women (and two men..) that are creating real and positive changes in their communities. It’s shown me that incredible women can be found working, uncelebrated, everywhere if you just take some time to look and listen.

I hope that this International Women’s Day we’ll all take some time to reach out to other women and tell them that they are amazing, and then tell someone else about them too.

*Since I crashed through the door of 40 I’ve been regularly reflecting on which women will be showing me a way into the next decade of my life, trying to be positive about those years that lay ahead in the distance. I recently came across this picture of Blanca, a 59 year old woman cycling round the world, looking fit, strong and radiating joy. I felt like I’d glimpsed some of my future inspiration and perhaps have reason to be ‘bold for change’ about ageing too..

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