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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Taking on the dark

Darkness. We’ve got alot of it right now in Scotland, about 16 hours a day of it to be precise. If you don’t go out in the dark or the rain during the winter in Scotland you might as well go full squirrel and hibernate. Darkness is hard to avoid but the experience of darkness is not the same for everyone.

The fears associated with being a woman in the darkness, alone, in both the built and natural environment was a theme running through an Urbanista event I attended this week and resonated with my own experience. Many women fear walking alone in their own neighbourhoods during the day, and it feels like this concern is endemic for women when it comes to walking, running or cycling in the darkness.

This fear is reinforced by others (see the charming example below to adventurer Jenny Tough), leading to men encouraging women to arm themselves for their own safety rather than addressing the real issue. Perhaps we should just all stay home and embroider things instead?

I’ve cycled home regularly from Edinburgh in the last year, mainly after work with a friend in tow. I’ve loved the last part of journey as the sun sets behind our quiet lanes; the opportunity to catch a glimpse of bats in the fading light and the owls a little later. Increasing my weekly mileage has made me feel stronger in every way, with the 30 miles slipping past with less effort each time. What felt like epic in March was enjoyably normal by November.

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Until this winter I’ve rarely cycled in the dark, away from street lights and peopled city streets. I avoid off road cycle paths, parks and quiet routes in the evening that I would always take in daylight. I choose the statistically more likely danger from people in cars and cycle on busy roads rather than the unlikely but emotionally compelling risk from people on foot in quieter places.

Infrastructure and urban design plays a part in how we assess risks, and a well lit, well used path with good sight lines in an open space is asking to be used and narrow, poorly lit canal side paths are deserted in the dark evenings. Or are they? Perhaps they are teeming with fearless cyclists, laughing in the darkness at those of us who are dicing with death on the roads. Am I at a greater risk as a woman, or do I just have the fear because I’ve been conditioned into being scared? Whatever the cause, we should all be able to travel without fear, and we need our urban environments to be designed in inclusive and creative ways to ensure that we all feel safe to walk, cycle and use public transport alone at any time.

 

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Last month I found myself at a dark crossroads, literally, as my cycling companion needed to get home a more direct route. Do I take the fast, unpleasant and busy road route in company or the quiet, dark road home alone? I pulled up my big girl pants, waved goodbye to my friend and cycled into the night.

In the absolute darkness of the country lanes my fear fought my exhilaration, a heady rush of emotion that fuelled the first few miles. I had 10 miles of complete darkness around me, with few houses and just my own breathing for company. The trees looked beautiful in their dark silhouette forms and my headlight created a small tunnel of brightness that kept me on the road.

As I relaxed and enjoyed the cold night air I felt sorrow that my fear had prevented me from experiencing this unique sense of solitude before. I resolved to have no new year resolutions this year, but I am going to take some advice from an Urbanista I met this week and ‘get off the path’ and go exploring in the dark some more. As the modern philosopher Lady Gaga says “All that ever holds somebody back, I think, is fear. For a minute I had fear. [Then] I went into the [dressing] room and shot my fear in the face..”

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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

Gods vs. microadventure

My regular readers, all two of you, will notice the distinctive gap in proceedings where some microadventures should be. As a life long organiser I was fairly convinced that I could plan a monthly adventure into this year but, to misquote Woody Allen and several world religions, women plan and the gods laughed. Possibly because they had seen my diary and knew they already had some dates with me:

The Work Gods

The main problem of having a job that you love is that you often can’t tell the difference between work and not work so you end up with many weekends that could be classed as either, depending on who you are justifying the activity to. I reflected on this in March when I ‘worked’ every weekend, spending most Saturday nights at the cutting edge of cycling campaigning with this woman in hotel rooms (see why hotels here) across Scotland in matching #walkcyclevote hoodies.

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The Wet Weather Gods

The Work Gods kept up their interference into April, then handed over to the Wet Weather Gods. The tone was set as I decided not to take the bikes on our planned camping cycling adventure in Ballachulish as the Met Office was indicting a canoe would be more suitable. This was one of the very few photos taken outside for fear of my phone being swept away in the raging torrents water pouring over the west coast of Scotland.

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The Hot Weather Gods

May arrived and I fled with my girlfriends to the heat of Seville. I can never be ‘too hot’ but I do appreciate camping in the extreme heat can have some drawbacks, so the budget was blown on an apartment for our post-We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote drinking cycling expedition to Seville. This adventure into Europe’s poster child for quick urban cycle way development has already spawned a Storify, two different blogs and a proper article so I really don’t need to elaborate further. My only contribution to the documentation of this trip is this photo, showing exactly what happens when wifi is restricted to a small area outside the reception of a hotel inhabited by cycle campaigners just after an election:

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The Gods of Comfort

My husband already tolerates me and (what he perceives as) my quasi-religious love of cycling, so asking him to cycle and camp on his own birthday weekend – my only free weekend in June – seemed abit much. My beloved prefers the finer things in life so to preserve some notion of comfort the duvet was duly packed with our family tent for the less wild alternative to the microadventure – a mini adventure to the Kirk Yetholm campsite in the Scottish Borders. It’s a lovely, quiet site with basic facilities and a great local pub within crawling distance and, based on the two visits we’ve made, the sun is always shining there.

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The microadventure strikes back

I did squeeze an almost microadventure into May, claiming it was ‘work’ to my husband and giving both Sally Hinchcliffe and I something to write about by surrendering my GPS in return for a paper map and compass. Oh, only I didn’t write about it. My lovely new tent, the Vango Banshee 300 if you’re interested, finally got its first outing with my neglected Dawes Galaxy along the backroads of Dumfriesshire. The local roads were gloriously quiet, the D&G CTC crew throw an energetic ceilidh and Scottish summer visited us in all its four day glory, giving me the impression that the gods might have finished giving me a hard time.

 

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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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