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.

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).

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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.

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Epic in East Lothian

“Mummy, I’d rather be at home” was not what I wanted to hear just a couple of hours into our first microadventure of the year.

I thought I’d planned a low-key challenge for our first microadventure, our destination a cycling bothy just 10 miles from where we live in East Lothian. However, being a parent is the ultimate in ‘learning opportunities’ (that’s ‘opportunity to fail’ in English) and my usually weather proof, risk loving offspring was not happy. It was raining, freezing cold and he’d had a tumble from his bike, all challenges he usually shrugs off with ‘I’m not bothered by the {insert challenging condition here}’. But not today.

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On the road to (mis)adventure

Being just a few miles from home, we were able to call the emergency services (my husband) and get a rescue mission in place quickly after we’d established that sweets, hugs and relentless enthusiasm were not working. My ace pal Claire was with us, which meant I didn’t have a crying-child-induced-meltdown and still got to have an adventure after the littlest cyclist left.

With the small one safely on his way back to the warm, we got out the stove at Hailes Castle, had a cheeky hot chocolate in the ruins and ate our Co-op sandwiches. All of which tasted delicious in that ‘everything tastes better outdoors, particularly when you are freezing’ way.

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Waterproofed to the hilt..

Cycling progress was quick after that, which proved to be fortuitous as it started to sleet as we entered Haddington in search of provisions for dinner and a cup of tea. The acquisition of Aldi skiing gloves, along with burgers and a bottle of wine, improved everything and we raced towards the bothy in the fading light, feeling epic as the sleet fell around us.

Meanwhile, the smallest adventurer decided he wanted to rejoin the party and was deposited at the bothy soon after we’d got the stove going. Wooden toy railways were built, dinner was eaten and Claire got more chat about poo than she probably felt was necessary..

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Home sweet bothy

It was cold and clear the following day, but my munchkin still wasn’t keen to find his cycling legs so the Daddy Taxi turned up again as Claire and I turned out wheels slowly towards home, loving the still air, blue sky and crunchy puddles.

So, what did I learn from our first 26 hour microadventure?

You might need a Plan B – I had that covered this time, being just 10 miles from home with a emergency ready husband on call, but when we venture further from home I may need a more cunning plan.

Be prepared for the unexpected – My son has cycled further in colder conditions than we tried last weekend and usually tries to wriggle away from every coat, hat and set of gloves that go near him. However, last weekend he was cold and once all the gloves were wet he was an unhappy chap. So, waterproof gloves are on the next adventure shopping list.

Anywhere can be epic – cycling in the local sleet felt great, reminding me that you don’t need to go far to get that tough adventure feeling.

Now, February, where next?

 

 

 

 

This is adventure calling

I’m no stranger to resolutions, a jolly good list and a heavy dose of planning; without these basic tools I’d still be a tired community worker in London, wondering how to get a job in Scotland, instead of living in Dunbar, doing this at work and this in my spare time.

As I’ve gotten older my lists have become more detailed as my brain cells have died off. I can sometimes barely remember conversations unless it was accompanied by a particularly memorable piece of cake. My daily lists have become swollen with email reminders, budgets to re-forecast, funding to chase and reports to write. Necessary, practical and focused on *channelling Bob the Builder* getting the job done. Ditto on the home front with childcare arrangements, holidays and household finances.

My lists haven’t always been so utilitarian. As a carefree singleton in 2005, with two of my oldest friends, I started a yearly ‘self-development’ list containing 10 ambitions each for the year ahead. Or something less pompous. In October each year we’d gather together for the weekend and report progress, or lack thereof. Over the seven years we documented I managed to move to Scotland, go to Italian classes, do a sea kayaking course, learn to like (some) fish and finish a Salman Rushdie novel – but I failed to learn anything about Scottish history, run, make an item of clothing or get arrested. Our annual celebration of resolution through the combined challenges of home-schooling (conducted by one friend), and the continual reorganisation of the probabtion service (affilicting the other friend), faultered in 2011 when my son arrived earlier than expected, putting everything but action necessary to sustain life on hold for around a year. My ambitions in 2012 and 2013 were to drink hot tea, go to the bathroom on my own and sleep for more than an hour at a time.

So now 2017 is looking right at me, and I’m sleeping for around four undisturbed hours at a time, I’m feeling a new list coming on. In pre-pregnancy years I cycled in Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and India, took a road trip from Vancouver to San Francisco and got to Arran, Cape Wrath, Orkney, Skye and Applecross. Not adventures by some people’s standards but not bad when you’re trying to hold down a full-time job, finish an MA and not get married to various people.

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Now gainful employment, a school age child and a husband who is terribly fond of gardening are preventing exotic or prolonged adventures for a while yet, so I’m going to jump on a crowded bandwagon – the microadventure.

I’m more than fashionably late to the whole microadventure business, or the cycle-specific version Bike Overnights, but like any late adopter I’m going to make up for timing with enthusiasm.  I’m planning 12 overnight adventures in 12 months as suggested by the king of adventure Alastair Humphreys and the first one has been booked for the end of this month just 10 miles from home. Judging by the excitement of camping in our friend’s garden last year, I’m expecting more smiles than miles cycled.

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Playgrounds, paintings and pedalling – our first family cycle tour

The washing has been done, the photos downloaded and the bikes have been put away (although admittedly not cleaned..) – we’re home from our first family cycle tour and reflecting on what worked and what we’d do differently next time..

Equipment

I was very pleased with how our ‘child carrying’ set up worked out over the holiday. Our cheap and cheerful Halfords single trailer held up remarkably well, as did the Pound Shop bungee cord securing our son’s bike to the back of it. This arrangement allowed him to ride where it was possible but ensured that he was safe on the busy city sections.

Although our son dropped his daytime nap many months ago, the later than usual nights plus general activity and excitement meant he needed a nap during the day – the trailer provided a cosy bolt hole for that as well as being ‘snack central’.

He loved being on his bike so I’m not sure how long he’ll tolerate the trailer, perhaps just another year or so, so we’ll need to think again about mileage and busy city cycling on our next tour. I’m hoping that a Follow Me Tandem might provide an answer.

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Distance

Our total distance was around 150 miles, including the day trips and miles to and from the Newcastle ferry, over eight days. We could have cycled more, but the route we chose (Ijmuiden – Amsterdam – Leiden – The Hague – Rotterdam – train to Bruges and train back to Amsterdam – Ijmuiden) worked well for us. Each day was leisurely and we had time to incorporate breaks, our son cycling and frequent stops to have a ‘discussion’ about where exactly where we thought we were (and how to get somewhere else). Our son is also mastering toilet useage at the moment so there were many additional stops to discuss this too..

We spent a couple of days each in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Bruges so we weren’t packing up and cycling every day. This allowed us to get washing done, explore a little more and inspect a few paintings, which was my husband’s top priority. Oh, and take photos of bikes.

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Accommodation

There was no way I would have been able to convince my husband to camp and cycle on the same holiday, so we booked Airbnb apartments in Amsterdam and Bruges, found an apartment in Rotterdam and stayed in hotels for the rest of the journey. Comfortable but expensive, this isn’t a solution for more than a week or two. Warm Showers has been recommended as an affordable but comfortable option so we may try that next time if camping doesn’t meet the required accomodation standards of everyone in our family.

Maps and/or GPS

I freely admit that I’m regularly lost. I can get lost a few miles from where I live with no difficulty. If route planning and navigation are left up to me I plan to get lost and organise appropriately (snacks, warm clothes, back up power for phone). My husband doesn’t get lost so I bought a map and handed it over. Unfortunately it seems that I should have bought different maps – not just the ANWB A to Z but also the local, detailed maps. Although the junction system is notoriously simple, it does require some time to get used to. We also found that some signs were missing and there were a few issues with the same number being used twice quite close together. I did download the route planning app but without a data connection it only worked until you got lost or confused. Despite all this we got to our destinations with few problems and on lovely paths, although we may have covered more or less miles than we’d originally planned.

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I think that my next touring purchase will be a GPS that can be pre-loaded with routes and maps. It would also tell us where we’d been, which would be super as we’ve got no account of how may miles we did or where we actually went.

Touring Tips!

Family holidays can be challenging at the best of times. Add uncertain weather, physical exertion and map malfunctions into the mix and you could be looking at a disaster zone. Based on our couple of weeks away, the following are my recommendations for happy families on bikes:

Stop to smell the flowers – Cycle touring is rarely about blasting through onto the next destination but family touring is an altogether slower pace. Our longest day was 30 or 40 miles (we’re not sure – see ‘maps’ below) and we averaged about 5mph.

If you’re a parent you’ll know that everything is new and exciting to a three year old; stopping to talk about butterflies and point out the herons was lovely as it helped us see what was important and interesting to our son – he particularly loved stopping to pick flowers for us along the pathside, which made me look at weeds in a new way..

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Visit playgrounds – Playgrounds are great for a picnic lunch (we didn’t do this, but saw others and realised we’d missed something) and a run around if your child has been in the trailer for a while. Strong enticement to move on is needed, so be prepared..

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Watch out for other road or path users (all of them) – In India I had problems with cows and goats in the road but in the Netherlands the good quality infrastructure attracts people on all sorts of vehicles. We had some challenges keeping our little one of the ‘right’ side of bi-directional paths. Scooters and tiny little cars (not really sure what they were) are also allowed on Dutch paths, which took us by surprise too.

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Pack snacks, and then some more – as I’ve said before, you can’t underestimate the fundamental importance of snacks. I put both good and naughty snacks in every bag, having learnt from painful experience. Next time I’ll also be packing some pre-mixed gin and tonics.

Just Do It – I wish we’d done this when our son was younger!

There are some great blogs out there about cycling touring, Travelling Two being the most comprehensive. Their son was born in 2012 so their most recent blogs and films have included an additional passenger – it’s a great source of information and inspiration!

Happy Cycling!

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Getting from the gate to the goats..

Thrilled by my son’s newly acquired pedal power, and feeling confident after our initial adventure to a local cafe with friends, I felt we could get to East Links Family Park on four wheels (six if you count the trailer) without inviting disaster. It is just less than three miles from our house and Husband was on standby at home, dealing with unending DIY, in case of mechanical failure or histrionics from either cyclist..

Actually getting out of the door is the first barrier, as our cheap and cheerful double trailer doesn’t fit through the doorway onto the steet in the normal way; this means I have to  drag it on its side through the door or assemble it on the pavement in front of an audience. Neither is elegant, although at least assembling in the courtyard and dragging it through the door means no-one sees how long it takes me to fit two wheels to a trailer..

Finding the fossilised remains of the repeatedly requested ham sandwich from our last outing in the trailer reminded me to learn from my mistakes, so I prepared a round of ham and cheese sandwiches to fend off unnecessary complaining. If only everything in my life could be placated with a savoury snack.

The next challenge was attaching the new Islabike to the trailer, which was solved by a bungee cord from the Dunbar Pound Shop and my own ingenuity (I don’t have much of this so was very pleased with the result).

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And then we were off! We had covered less than a mile when it transpired that I have created a backseat cyclist; behind me I heard a shout from the trailer ‘use your brakes Mummy, so you can slow down’. At least it shows that he’s listening to me, even if he ignores all the advice.

Halfway through our journey I decanted the Islabike and rider onto the lovely path behind Belhaven Bay, which forms part of NCN route 76, to admire the view and get some pedalling done. I confess I parked my bike to allow me to ‘run and hover’ beside my son as the path was icy and I’m a risk adverse control freak mother. He’s also slightly too short to mount and dismount with ease so we practised using the brakes and tilting the bike to help him get on and off without falling.

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Back on the trailer, Islabike safely hitched, we went on our way and emerged back onto the main road. Here there is only fading paint, and the hope that drivers will show some restraint, to keep us safe. I noticed the need for car drivers to park outside their houses is prioritised over the safety of active travellers. I’m no road engineer but I suspect something could be done to improve this:

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Arriving at East Links on this sunny, crisp and beautiful day it was sad to see that we were the only bikes parked outside. Admittedly their cycle parking was rudimentary, but it probably isn’t the primary factor in preventing families from cycling there. Travelling home I felt the ever present spectre of slightly irritated car drivers pressing us to move faster or move over (I can’t do faster and there is only so ‘over’ you can do on a narrow road with a wide trailer) before accelerating past us. It makes me shudder to think that our lives are so often in other people’s hands.

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But, as always, the pleasure of the journey outweighed the challenges. Instead of a few minutes in the car, we spent a lovely couple of hours together, my son improving his co-ordination and balance whilst I was again awestruck by the loveliness of where we are privileged to live. And I got to fondle a whole load of gorgeous goats.

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From incubator to bike trailer

Part 1: Our son arrives early..

This is me in India, nearing the end of a two month cycle trip. At that time I couldn’t imagine not cycling for miles every day; touring, commuting, to the shops, the cinema. I was ‘a cyclist’; a cyclist that couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t. And I wasn’t sure why we needed cycle lanes either.

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Just over 3 years later I became pregnant, after 16 sad and painful months of not being pregnant. I was delighted and terrified in equal measure, knowing a fragile new life was inside me. I looked again with different eyes at the Edinburgh streets packed with cars and stopped cycling. I also didn’t drink alcohol, eat undercooked red meat, goats cheese or uncooked eggs. I ate more fruit and vegetables than was probably wise. I walked daily, in moderation, and even thought about pregnancy swimming and yoga (yes, I thought about it, I confess I didn’t actually do it). I could have been a cover girl for the NHS ‘Ready Steady Baby’ book. If there was a guideline, I followed it.

My pregnancy was perfectly normal and I felt fine, tired but ‘fine’. My husband and I did what lots of expectant parents do, we bought a house that needed extensive building work, where we knew no-one and had never even been before we viewed the house. I think the nesting instinct gets increasingly out of control the longer you leave parenthood.

My maternity leave was arranged, my cover sorted with a month handover. My boss and I were very pleased at how organised we were.

And then our son arrived 9 weeks early.

Everything explodes when you have a premature baby. If, like us, there is little or no warning, you are the exact definition of not prepared. No baby clothes, no birth plan, no nappies, no idea what has happened to you..

The NHS has my undying devotion for how it helped us through that night, and the weeks that followed.

The night he arrived was the most scared I have ever been. The fear that he’d not be ‘ready enough’ to live was almost overwhelming. Like many premature babies he was in a rush to arrive and he was born less than 6 hours after my waters broke. He weighed 3Ibs 10oz and was taken straight to the Neonatal Unit wrapped in a plastic bag. I read in our medical file later that he wasn’t breathing. Like most babies of his gestation he needed a CPAP machine to support his breathing and to be under a blue light to keep the (potentially dangerous) bilirubin levels under control. I wasn’t able to hold him until he was three days old.

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For the first few weeks we were only able to hold him for a short period of time each day as his body temperature had to be kept stable. We learnt to feed him a few millilitres of my milk with a syringe connected to a tube in his nose. Every gram he put on felt like a significant step.

He didn’t seem tiny to us then, he looked perfect in every way. We look at the photos now and can’t remember him being that small, or at least we only remember it in fragments or in a particular moment. Parenthood alters your perception in every way, so perhaps it alters your vision and memory too.

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A premature baby requires some complex coordination and planning: getting to and from the hospital, expressing and freezing breast milk every 4 hours, learning how to change miniature nappies inside a plastic box, learning not to become hysterical when the alarms and flashing lights attached to your child go off.

The Bliss booklet we were given was a great help, with lots of useful information to help us judge how our son was progressing. But the section ‘Saying goodbye to your baby’ made my stomach turn; how can any parent prepare for the death of their child?

The NHS was magnificent and provided us with the tools we needed to care for our tiny baby; the calm, professional, caring support gave us the balance between being prepared for challenges but hoping for the best.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur son spent five weeks in hospital, first in a covered incubator then in an open cot as he grew and became more stable. Each night I had to leave him, fearing that he’d cry out in the night for me.

He wasn’t quite 5Ibs when we took him home – we turned up the heating in our partly built house and settled down.

We stayed in lock down mode at home for the recommended 6 months, for fear of coughs and colds or worse setting back our son’s progress. Only friends in the best of health were allowed to visit. I fled the greengrocers if someone sneezed.

When I became a parent I stopped being who I was, I became the parent of a premature baby. Everything was different for us, the ‘normal baby’ rules didn’t apply and I couldn’t imagine a time when I’d not say ‘but he was two months early’ every time someone asked how old he was. I washed my hands like a heart surgeon for months after we left hospital; contact dermatitis made my hands look like I felt.

A friend offered me a baby bike seat, which I rejected, horrified, as if she’d offered me a tiger. I couldn’t imagine ever cycling again.

Part 2: Back on my bike

It has taken well over a year for the fear and anxiety to start to lift. Our son has thrived and we’ve been incredibly lucky. My husband and I are not religious, but this experience has made us feel like someone/thing should be thanked for our good fortune. In a different time or place we might have experienced a very different outcome. We know that some babies leave a neonatal unit with many more months of hospital care ahead of them. And some don’t leave at all. Shortly after we came home with our son there was an outbreak of Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterium in the neonatal unit in Belfast and three babies died.

At the start of this year I noticed some posters around town for the Dunbar Cycling Group, advertising family rides through the spring and summer. This was exactly what I needed to get me back on my bike, and cycling with my son.

We went out for our first ride in April and haven’t looked back. We’ve ridden regularly with the group, gaining confidence in the crowd of other families. I’ve learnt to handle a bike, bag and baby so that the baby doesn’t fall to the ground, although I still can’t get us on a train without asking for assistance. My son loves being on the bike (for an hour or so, he’s not keen to stay still for long..) and our baby seat is on the front so I can talk to him as we ride. Primarily he enjoys pointing out the animals on our rural rides around East Lothian, although at the moment he’s under the impression they all make a similar noise – a cross between a sheep and dinosaur – which can be quite startling if I haven’t spotted them first. He also seems to find the whole experience quite relaxing so he often has a nap..

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Becoming a parent has changed my view of cycling, and of the way I want to use the roads. I no longer want to fight for space with cars, I want my own cycle space away from the cars. I don’t want poor infrastructure that ends abruptly, spewing us out into the road. I  want to feel safe for the whole length of our journey, knowing that car drivers won’t be trying to squeeze by, brushing my son’s little feet.

We need to equalise the power on the roads by giving bikes, cars and pedestrians their own space. I’m no urbanist or infrastructure expert, but as a parent I know now you won’t get the cycling modal share that Amsterdam and Copenhagen have without their commitment to high quality infrastructure. There are lots of other barriers to cycling – confidence, health, culture, knowledge, money, the weather – but safety is the key.

Our family holiday to Denmark was a perfect lesson in how to create and maintain a cycle culture where everyone feels safe on a bike. The biggest threats I felt was from tourists who stumbled into the cycle lanes and from other cyclists who weren’t impressed by my leisurely pace.

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My son regards sitting still (and sleep) as the enemy so we’ve never covered more than 20 miles together in one go, but as I thought we’d never leave the house at one point, this is a huge achievement.

We’ve bought a bike trailer for longer rides in gruesome weather and a balance bike is wrapped ready for his birthday this week. Even my husband has been tempted out on his (neglected) bike with us. It might have taken me a while to get from incubator to bike trailer, but I’m delighted to finally be a #cyclingfamily.

Finally, in case I never get to give a Nobel speech..

Friends, colleagues and family have been been a huge support in the last two years, but I want to thank the following in particular:

The midwife who was with us throughout my labour, who was so kind to us in our terrified and traumatised state. I’m so sorry that I don’t remember her name.

All the neonatal nurses at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, who cared for our son 24 hours a day. Their kindness and professionalism reassured us that he was getting the best possible care, which allowed us to go home at night and sleep.

Magda, our neonatal paediatrician and Hilary, our neonatal physiotherapist, have been a huge support over the last two years. They’ve always had time to discuss our concerns and have made us feel like people, not an NHS number. In January we will say goodbye to them, as we’ll be signed off from the prematurity service. We’ll never forget them.

Within days of our son’s birth we enrolled in a epigenetic study, lead by Dr Chinthika Piyasena, looking at the long-term health outcomes of premature children. Chinthika provided great help, advice and good fun, as well as giving us the opportunity to ‘give something back’ through her research.

Our local Lloyds pharmacy in Dunbar has helped us with every cough, cold and ear infection with genuine concern and care. Similarly, the Harbour Medical Centre staff have been superb, responding to our every phone call with calm compassion and sensible advice.

My friend Jane, who has walked with me through every joy and sorrow in my life since we were 8 years old. For everything you’ve done, ‘thank you’ is never enough.

My husband has been my steadfast support throughout. He took a 3 month share of our parental leave, allowing me to go back to work and start the process of becoming me again. A new me, as it turns out, but back on my bike with my new bike accessory, our beautiful toddler.