Yay, Let’s Hear it for the Snow

Just as we celebrated the New Year in snow-style in this part of the world, it’s a real treat to end the month with our familiar landscape again transformed into a silvery, shimmering wonderland.

The snow clad village pub
The snow clad village pub

True, it wasn’t so great for those who had to survive the ungritted roads earlier, but there’s something about pristine snow that, doesn’t just brighten up the landscape, but also seems to lighten the mood.

Quintessential winter visitor
Quintessential winter visitor

Children smiled this morning as they slid along the pavements and, although there wasn’t quite enough to force the buses off the roads and gift them an extra day’s holiday, it is uplifting to see kids actually experiencing snow. After an unsettlingly mild winter last year, the last month has seen the most snow around here in three years.

Snow transforms: old and new
Snow transforms: old and new

Hurrah: normal winter weather, essential to keep our ecosystems in correct working order and a welcome respite from the interminable months of wet, wet, wet, whatever the season, says me. Less selfishly, one of the few highlights from the end of my teaching career was witnessing 14 and 15 year old pupils gaze in wonder at the first sizeable amount of snow they had ever witnessed in their lives, in the early months of 2010.

Blue skies, russet leaves, silvery tracks
Blue skies, russet leaves, silvery tracks

Of course, slippery, icy roads are no fun for the elderly and infirm, but hopefully winter conditions do remind us to check on any vulnerable friends and neighbours. Equally, freezing temperatures take their toll on wildlife. But, keep the bird feeders full and you will be rewarded by a variety of garden birds,  survival instincts outweighing their natural reticence, hungrily scoffing within a few metres of your window.

Winter walks always best in the snow
Winter walks always best in the snow

I’m not sure what’s in store, weather-wise, for the remainder of the winter, but in what may well be the last couple of months I spend in Middle England, I fully intend to savour the snowscapes as long as they last and record for posterity. I will look back on the blue tits feeding on the silvery branches of the budding magnolia with as much affection as I will remember the earthy geraniums and burgeoning Buddleia of high summer.

If winter's here, can spring be far behind? First snowdrops sighted in the garden.
If winter’s here, can spring be far behind? First snowdrop sighted in the garden
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Hello Winter

Depending on whether you believe the seasons change by the calendar or the solstice, we are either in the last dog days of autumn, or are about to enter the final three-week run down to the shortest day and the ‘official’ start of the ‘miserable season’.

The cold, clear days of winter can provide some of the best vistas
The cold, clear days of winter can provide some of the best vistas

Me? I tend to compartmentalise the seasons in monthly quarters, so irrespective of the weather, autumn will end on November 30th and winter will begin, lasting until we emerge, blinking, into a bright, clear spring on March 1st.

Trying to work out why is not so simple.  I’m not sure I’ve actually thought about why before; perhaps, growing up in Scotland it may have been easier to differentiate between each season, although they all seemed to be mostly composed of rain, whatever the time of year.  I suspect it was much more to do with the amount of daylight, so that the beginning of December, for example, when it’s  dark by the middle of the afternoon, is classic winter, whereas the beginning of March, when we are approaching equal amounts of light and dark, should be regarded as spring.

Snow: always the highlight of the winter
Snow: always the highlight of the winter

 

However, it’s only fair to admit  that, not only have I always consciously divided the year into seasons, I have also divided those quarters into sub-sections: for example, December 1st to 21st is early winter; December 22nd to January 12th deep winter; the next three weeks is middle winter and, finally, February is late winter.

Weird? yes. Anal? most probably. So, why? Oddly, this is not something I devised in childhood, but thought up during the interminable years when the need to earn a crust forced me into a Monday to Friday, nine to five regime: the work pattern that shuts out daylight for the best part of three months.

Winter sunrises are often spectacular
Winter sunrises are often spectacular

For me, it was probably a tactic to combat depression, the black dog that, each year, began to hover around Hallowe’en and only started to ease by the half term holiday in February.  But it wasn’t winter that I dreaded: far from it, I’ve always loved snow, the still beauty of cold midwinter afternoons, the early, fiery sunsets and the resilience of nature through the cruellest part of the year.

What I couldn’t deal with was the lack of any opportunity to see daylight for most of the week.  As such, sub-dividing the season was an attempt to make the three winter months more bearable; a way to get through, particularly as at the end of each section I religiously logged the time of sunset, so I would have some concrete evidence of the slowly lengthening days after the winter solstice.  Indeed, although not enough of an anorak to learn how to to apply the principles of the analemma, I did become sufficiently obsessed with sunset times to learn that they actually reach their earliest around 10 days before the solstice, remaining constant until December 21st/22nd!

Winter sunsets equally so
Winter sunsets equally so

 

Rather sad, I admit but, as they say, whatever gets you through the day, or in my case, the darkness. And knowing that even by January 1st sunset is around 15 minutes later than at the solstice is a small comfort during the bleak, empty days of early January.

But, returning to my opening point, whether we consider winter starts on Monday, or three weeks later, we are now in the darkest part of the year with millions condemned to little or no daylight for the next 12 weeks. I now consider myself hugely fortunate, having given up the day job three years ago so now, however wet and dismal, I can enjoy some daylight and fresh air in the middle of the day.

Make sure you help the birds survive their winter
Make sure you help the birds survive their winter

When anyone asks me what is the best feature of working from home my answer is automatic: being able to savour a winter’s day. And, if I was world king for the day, I’d make it compulsory for all nine-to-five slaves to have a week’s extra paid holiday in the middle of winter and insist they spent at least part of the day outside during daylight.

Back in the real world, even little things can make a difference:  a few minutes to enjoy a sunrise or sunset, getting outside at lunchtime if you can, spending  time feeding the birds and spotting wildlife (often easier in the winter) and if you’re feeling negative, thinking about their struggle to survive.

The magnificent mountain hare in its winter coat
The magnificent mountain hare in its winter coat

Just find something, however small, however fleeting, to enjoy. Winter takes up 25 per cent of the year and it does provide some of its most memorable moments. Don’t wish it away.

 

Postscript: the mountain hare, an iconic, indigenous animal of these islands, is now becoming increasingly rare. Appallingly, many are being slaughtered by the shooting fraternity who erroneously claim  hares threaten the grouse they rear (reared, of course, to be blasted out of the sky in the name of ‘sport’).

Intensive management of upland areas for the ‘sport’ of grouse shooting has led to the near-extinction of the protected hen harrier in England, and has other negative environmental effects.

Please sign Dr Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting before we lose any more of our priceless, indigenous wildlife.

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No One Has a Divine Right to the Road: This “Them and Us” Mentality Has to Stop

Around 75% of adults in the UK hold a current driving licence, according to government statistics.  The same statistics also tell us that 80% of adult cyclists possess a driving licence and 1 in 5 motorists cycle at least once a month.

These figures are interesting, given the ongoing toxicity between some motorists and cyclists, and particularly in the light of yet more depressing examples of this ‘them and us’ mentality emerging over the weekend

A Conservative councillor in Birmingham, apparently, opposes proposed spending on cycling infrastructure because it will only benefit young, fit, white males. Elsewhere in a ‘Comment is Free’ debate on speed limits in the Guardian, a spokesman for a drivers’ organisation bemoans the

Cycliing infrastructure is an important, but not exclusive solution
Cycliing infrastructure is an important, but not exclusive, solution

continuing ‘war on motorists’ and opposes any reduction in the 30mph speed limit because “you need to drive at more than 20mph to overtake some bicycles”.

These points don’t just raise individual issues, but also highlight key problems in making our roads and streets safer and more conducive to all road users at a time when encouraging cycling and walking is central to combatting obesity and improving health and fitness.

While despairing at the inability of an elected representative to understand that it is the very lack of any existing safe cycling infrastructure that often ensures only young, fit males generally have the nerve to risk dangerous city streets on two wheels, it also reinforces the point that only when we can attract a wider cross section of the population on to their bikes, might the regularly antagonistic culture on our streets dissipate. Of course, we will not encourage those sections of society into cycling if they perceive it to be too dangerous, which is certainly the perception (however inaccurate) at present.  Providing more traffic-free bike lanes is one obvious way of making cycling safer.

Some (including fellow cyclists) believe that many of the young, lycra-clad (mainly) men on their lightweight racing machines hold the same competitive, confrontational mindset of many motorists in their high-powered cars and 4x4s and this has been a leading factor in cyclist/motorist antagonism.  Indeed, in London particularly, even a average-speed cyclist can outpace a car and this has led to predictable road rage among frustrated drivers.

But, it’s not quite as simple as this.  As a cyclist, motorist and pedestrian, I find it interesting to analyse my own responses when in different modes: as a pedestrian I curse motorists and cyclists who fail to stop at crossings and traffic lights; as a motorist I despair at pedestrians, usually engrossed in the mobiles, who step out, unthinkingly, in front of me, as well as cyclists without lights in the dark; and as a cyclist, I rage at motorists who regularly try to bully me off the road and entertain themselves by passing with only millimetres to spare. However, I reserve my greatest odium for road users, of all types, who believe their obsession with mobile devices outweighs their obligation (legal or otherwise) to look where they are going.

Better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians is essential, but is not not a total solution.  As long as we have people such as Brian McDowell, chairman of the Alliance of British Drivers, claiming that parents must keep children off the streets, as they are the preserve of motor vehicles, we have a long way to go in changing attitudes, especially towards the fallacy that excess speed does not influence accidents.

The roads are not the exclusive preserve of one group of users, just because they are more powerful. We all have a right to the roads, but equally, we all have a responsibility to treat other users, particularly the most vulnerable, with care and respect.  This needs to be drummed into everyone from the earliest age possible.

Little things, like copying the Dutch in insisting drivers open car doors with their reverse hand (thereby ensuring they look behind their shoulder and see cyclists overtaking their vehicle), cost nothing and could easily be incorporated into the driving test.  Knowledge and application of the Highway Code – like knowing the correct position for cycling is not in the gutter, or that overtaking bikes, and horses, requires as much space as you would normally allow for another vehicle – should be ongoing and not forgotten as soon as the test is out of the way.  Above all, sentences for those who drive without care, or dangerously, have to be far more stringent and also be consistently enforced. In no other walk of life is it possible to kill, or maim, a fellow human, claim you were unsighted and escape with a derisory punishment.

And, while we’re at it, maybe the following need to be written clearly on the Highway Code as well:

  • There is no such thing as road tax – it was abolished in 1936
  • Vehicle Emissions Duty (VED) is based on emissions
  • VED is not ring fenced for road spending – this comes out of general taxation, so all tax payers contribute, even if they don’t drive

Happily, there are much better role models among the motoring lobby, in particular, the AA’s Edmund King, who proudly describes himself as a motorist and cyclist and actively campaigns for better road safety for all. We need to reject the mindset that sees driving fast and/or aggressively as macho and the only way to counter this is to ride in an equivalent manner.

This ‘them and us’ mentality is as counterproductive and dangerous as the lack of appropriate infrastructure.

 

 

 

 

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Why I Hate Autumn

So, the forecasters project we are in line for the warmest October on record and the pictures show sun worshippers and their deck chairs in central London.  But, while most of the population eulogise about the mild weather and delightful russet hues, I’ve retreated into my annual hibernation, curled up against diminishing light and shortening days.

A glorious autumn sunset: but catch it quick before the light goes
A glorious autumn sunset: but catch it quick before the light goes

I hate autumn; an enmity first developed during the dreich Scottish autumns of childhood, festered further when required to work inflexible hours that conspired against any possible glimpses of daylight and remains today, albeit lessened recently by the privilege of a freelance life .

Normally, a walk, bike ride, a brief breath of air and the chance to enjoy a sight of some flora and fauna will raise my mood, even on the wettest, or bitterest days. So, why this antipathy to autumn, many people’s favourite season of the entire year?

Essentially, autumn is the dying season, the sanguine detritus of leaves and foliage represents the expiring of the natural year; clearly necessary for the reborn vibrant green of next spring, but for me, a time of sadness, not celebration.

Ultra-warm temperatures in late October are also, not only incongruous but a waste of a nice day: I mean, what’s the point of 20 degrees at four pm when it’s dark outside? This kind of warmth (particularly after the clock change) makes it morally impossible to light the fire at a time when there’s not enough daylight to enjoy a couple of hours in the garden.

Mid autumn is also the time for the two most abused and pointless ‘festivals’ of the calendar year: Halloween, now a gross, Americanisation of an important connection with both Christian and Pagan traditions, closely followed by the bizarre excuse to celebrate the torture and murder of a hapless plotter.  Is it just me, or doesn’t Burn a Catholic Night seem increasing incongruous in today’s troubled world?

But – and, of course, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel – looking on the bright side, dismal, depressing autumn will soon be over, replaced by the bright, sharp days (well, at least when it’s not raining) of winter.  The shortest days, with their cold, clear light are often the best time of the year for cycling and walking.  They also provide the ideal excuse for layering up, slow cooking comfort food and recovering in front of a re-assuring open fire.

And, by the time we get Christmas over with, the days, gradually but inexorably, will begin to lengthen.

Over to You Percy:

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

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Spaceships Campervan Rentals UK

I hired the campervan for my recent travels  from the above company. Here is my review.

 

The good: vehicle was clean; bed easy to (dis)assemble; bedding warm and comfortable; fridge efficient; fuel consumption reasonably frugal.

 

The bad: no remote key fob; idiosyncratic central locking (not explained at start or in handbook); could not open nearside sliding door (opened immediately by member of staff at Hayes who admitted it required a ‘knack’); cooker didn’t work, advised by company to purchase another, later in week investigated it further and found jets clogged by grease, so now have camping stove bought unnecessarily; paintwork, bumpers etc in dreadful state (if all existing damage had been logged it would have taken all afternoon).

This was a tired old vehicle, probably in the region of 13 years old. Surely doors should open (un)lock without requiring a combination of brute strength and insider knowledge?

 

The unacceptable: according to a helpful and non-judgemental retired traffic officer I met, the condition of the front nearside tyre

Nearside front tyre, 'Trinity' campervan
Nearside front tyre, ‘Trinity’ campervan

was disgraceful. “Barely legal is totally unacceptable. No reputable company should hire out a vehicle in this state.” (His words.)  My thanks to him for advice on the legal situation if a hire vehicle is defective and I urge all prospective customers to be aware of the legalities and their rights before they drive off.

I await Spaceships’ response with interest.

 

The hilarious: just as I supposed Spaceships sourced their livery from Easyjet, in the interests of equality, I presumed they had adopted Ryanair’s grasp of geography.

Cowdenbeath is not Edinburgh, guys; it is 15 miles across the Firth of Forth in FIFE.  Yes, this is explained in the website, but lumping their town in with Edinburgh doesn’t endear you to the locals; a point to consider in the aftermath of the referendum.

If you’re from the UK you’ll find the webpage on Northern England Travel Info hilarious. If you’re from overseas, please do invest in a map or sat nav. A tour of northern England that heads south to Canterbury is so bizarre, it’s funny.

And, if you head west from Stirling, as advised in the Scotland travel advice page, you might reach Loch Lomond, but you certainly won’t end up on the golf courses of St Andrews: St Andrews is north east of Stirling.

At least these made me laugh.

 

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Travels in a Campervan

Yes, I admit it’s difficult to justify driving hundreds of miles in a rather ancient, high emission vehicle on a site dedicated to walking, cycling and sustainable travel, so I’ll get my apologies (if not justification) in first.

Livery by Easyjet, geography by Ryanair
Livery by Easyjet, geography by Ryanair

Driving, indeed, is something I avoid wherever possible, especially in vehicles where some kind of technical nous is required to work out how to operate the locks, or open the doors.  Nonetheless, after spending a few enjoyable stays in a (static) VW camper, I decided that it might be time to swap the rigours of nights under canvas for the greater comforts of a bed – as well as  cooker/fridge – in a metal box.

 

Given that everyone else I know seems to be back at work, the small vans and people carriers of Spaceship Campervan Rentals  seemed to fit the bill. Painted in what appears to be the same livery as used by Easyjet, they don’t exactly have the charm or appeal of a VW, but their size was ideal for me and, although the top line relocation deal of £1 per day from Edinburgh to London was somewhat disingenuous (considering the scratches, dents and scrapes adorning the paintwork, taking out the excess reduction bond at an additional £15 per day turned out to be an essential option) and fuel economy was not nearly as frugal as claimed, I managed to secure train travel to and from both locations at reasonable cost and the full package still worked out at reasonable cost.

The St George's Cross on one side of the A1
The St George’s Cross on one side of the A1

 

Fortunately, I had read through Spaceship’s website and was aware of its rather bizarre geographical understanding – ‘Edinburgh’ actually turns out to be Cowdenbeath, over the Forth Bridge in the Kingdom of Fife: an aberration dismissed with weary acceptance by my ‘Yes’ supporting taxi driver as all you could expect “fae them in London that doesnae ken or care anything about Scotland.”

 

(For another example from the Spaceships’ school of eccentric geography, take a look at their advice on planning a trip to the north of England, when they begin by suggesting you head to the south coast at Canterbury! History and understanding of the difference between England and Britain are not too hot either: terming the monarchy as English, on the same page, might prove rather incendiary to both sides in the referendum debate.)

The saltire on the other
The saltire on the other

I digress and, as it happens, the staff at Cowdenbeath were friendly and helpful and the view of the iconic railway bridge as I drove over the Firth of Forth, almost worth the 40 minute train ride out of Edinburgh.

 

My original intention had been to theme the journey round the topic of the referendum,travelling between the two ancient capitals, united for 300 years and looking at what links and divides them, by way of some of England’s historic cities including Durham, York, Lincoln and Norwich.  In the event, practicalities like Friday afternoon traffic, an under performing engine and total fatigue from ‘a different day, another location’ rationalised the itinerary somewhat.

 

Durham, York, as well as Oxford were duly visited and the depressing assessment  is that so much is similar in these ‘heritage’ centres, the difficult task is to find any real difference, certainly in their shops and tourist offerings. Each one of them deserves much more than the single afternoon I was able to spare: allocate at least a day, forget the shops and concentrate on what is actually unique in each city, whether  that be the cathedral, castle, colleges or theatre.

Durham's historic marketplace
Durham’s historic marketplace

 

Instead, I found the real highlight to be the diverse topography of country and coast.  England has some lovely landscapes – routinely ignored by its own nationals in their rush to reach the tourist traps of the Lakes and Cornwall – from the stone-clad cottages dotted across the moors of north Yorkshire – idyllic in the sun, unforgiving in winter – to the water colour beaches of the Norfolk coast. And don’t forget the south east. It’s not all London and commuterville: you might only be 40 minutes from the centre of the capital, but the rolling hills of the Chilterns and Downs and extensive woodlands of Surrey are attractively  bucolic and provide some of the most quintessential English vistas found anywhere in the country.

 

An undoubted plus was the discovery of more excellent and individual campsites. Three in particular stand out:

The iconic Minster looks down on the city's medieval streets
The iconic Minster looks down on the city’s medieval streets

Mortonhall in Edinburgh; not normally my kind of place as it is large and contains caravans, but it is well run, staff are attentive and informative and the site combines easy proximity to the city with a beautiful parkland location.

Highside Farm in Middleton-in-Teesdale; small, immaculate, surrounded by exquisite countryside and situated on a working farm, complete with inquisitive hens and affectionate springer spaniels.

Town Farm near Ivinghoe; only 40 minutes from London, but surrounded by the sumptuous landscape of the Chilterns and the Ridgeway.

 

For someone not generally enamoured with driving, I completed the week with considerably more empathy and understanding for those who have to live their lives up and down Britain’s roads: sure there are plenty of idiots, but there are many more sensible and considerate drivers. I also developed a much greater appreciation of out-of-town supermarkets, park-and-ride facilities and coffee outlets (yes, you read correctly; coffee chains!) After spending hours trundling along boring roads in unending traffic, it really did surprise me how relieved I was to find a reasonably clean toilet, petrol, drinkable coffee, WiFi and unfailingly  pleasant staff, all in one location.

 

Highside Farm in idyllic Upper Teesdale
Highside Farm in idyllic Upper Teesdale

As ever, the positive experiences outweigh any negative ones, so thank you, in no particular order, to the non-judgemental ex-traffic policeman who gave me important advice about my front tyre, the manager and staff at Costa in King’s Lynn for their local advice and rather good coffee, Pedro at Euston for his excellent cortado and Richard and Stephanie at Highside for looking after their visitor so well.

 

Final verdict: interesting, lucky with the weather and glad I finally did it, but in future, I reckon I’ll stick to my boots, bikes and tents.

 

Read my review of Spaceships’ Campervan Rentals UK

The characteristic honey-coloured Cotswold stone of Oxford
The characteristic honey-coloured Cotswold stone of Oxford
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Galloway: the Best of the South West

Just back from a (too) short visit back to Galloway; one of the British Isles’ south west peninsulas, arguably its finest, and certainly its most undervalued. The south westerly coastlines of each of the four countries of the British Isles (here I am regarding Ireland in the geographical, not political sense) have always fascinated me, but until recent years, I was shockingly complacent about the charms of the area nearest to my birthplace.

Growing up in adjacent Dumfriesshire I surmised that Cornwall and the south west (of England) must have possessed exclusive elements of magical beauty, beside which the rocky inlets, ancient forests and deep lochs on my doorstep paled in comparison, given the millions of visitors the former attracted each year and its correspondingly top position in the bucket-list of the nation’s scenic attractions.

Renowned for its dark skies, Galloway also boasts some pretty impressive sunsets
Renowned for its dark skies, Galloway also boasts some pretty impressive sunsets

Indeed, by the time I left south west Scotland,  I had become almost blasé about dark skies, cascading rivers, rounded hills and the lush, vibrant green foliage and densely coloured rhododendrons, characteristic of this temperate region.

Escaping south, I sought out the gentler pastoral vistas of pretty pubs, pastel coloured cottages, hanging baskets and historic churches and embarked on my long-held ambition to visit the landscapes of the literary heroes of my youth – Hardy’s Dorset and Tarka’s Devon were all, and more, than I had hoped for and in the well-preserved centre of my local town, Lichfield, it was easy to imagine its 18th century heyday as a coaching town and intellectual centre of the Lunar Men.

The Ken Bridge Hotel: a historic coaching inn situated between New Galloway and St John's Town of Dalry
The Ken Bridge Hotel: a historic coaching inn situated between New Galloway and St John’s town of Dalry

But Cornwall was my magnet. From Du Maurier, through Blyton to Mary Wesley and the art deco railway posters of the GWR, I had always been mesmerised by the images of bohemian artists, smugglers and pretty fishing villages, against a backdrop of sandy beaches, a dramatic coastline and sunny weather.

Even on my first journey, the road signs counting down the miles to “The West” stirred my excitement, my spirits on arrival undimmed even by a wet squall: this was the west side of our Atlantic facing island, after all. But waking up next morning (albeit to a beautiful blue sky), one by one, my visions began to shatter. There were people on the beaches! And not just a handful, but what looked like millions of them, crowding the sand and drowning out the birdsong.

I was used to beaches, along Galloway’s inlets and the Ayrshire coast, where you were (un)lucky if you saw another soul all day, unless of course you wanted company. Here, in England’s holiday haven, even fish ‘n chips was priced as a delicacy and the charm of Mousehole and Sennen completely obliterated by the unending horror of ceaseless traffic jamming up the tiny streets.

I have returned to Cornwall several times since and spent many amazing days walking the sumptuous South West Coastal Path (probably my second favourite long distance path), visiting independent galleries and Seasalt shops, as well as admiring the county’s interesting. and largely overlooked, industrial history.

Twilight on the River Ken: one of Galloway's great fishing rivers
Twilight on the River Ken: one of Galloway’s great fishing rivers

But, although it has many qualities, I have never quite understood why, in comparison to the other south west peninsulas of the British Isles, Cornwall is so much more popular than the rest – warmer, maybe, but certainly no  drier and much more crowded, commercialised and expensive.

Over the last decade, I have been lucky enough to visit all four of our dramatic south west peninsulas and, for what it is worth, ascribe them the following attributes:

  • most jaw-droppingly beautiful – without a doubt, Co Kerry
  • best old world charm – Pembrokeshire

And that brings us back to Galloway. Finally, I can now appreciate  its charms and can recommend it as the biggest in area of the four peninsulas and the one with the most variety of scenery: from moorland to mountains, lochs and pastoral farmland, to say nothing of the aforementioned delightful (and uncrowded) coastline, you’ll find it all here.

Cycling doesn't get any better than this: NCN 73, between Newton Stewart and Wigtown
Cycling doesn’t get any better than this: NCN 73, between Newton Stewart and Wigtown

It’s arguably the best place in the country for cycling, with miles of quiet, scenic roads, plus the world-rated 7 Stanes MTB courses, is a magnet for fishermen, walkers and advocates of all types of water sports, foodies, ornithologists and astronomers.

Lovers of literature will also know that Galloway boasts Scotland’s National Book Town, Wigtown, with its annual September book festival, the region’s history can be traced back to pre-historic times and it was an important early centre of Christianity. Many of its coastal towns and villages, notably Kirkcudbright, have attracted world-famous artists for over a century.

In other words, Galloway offers something for everyone. So, next time you’re heading to the Lake District,  further north into the Highland (or even south to Cornwall) a detour to Galloway might just surprise you with how much it offers, and how little it demands.

Dark skies, red kites, book festivals, some of the best independent art galleries in the country and some great places to camp: you'll find them all in Galloway
Dark skies, red kites, book festivals, some of the best independent art galleries in the country and some great places to camp: you’ll find them all in Galloway

But don’t tell everyone, we don’t want it ending up like Cornwall.

 

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An English High Summer

The quintessential hanging basket
The quintessential hanging basket

Summertime and, even if the living is not universally easy, at least so far this year we have been blessed with some sunnier and warmer than usual summer months. Warm sun, interspersed with frequent heavy showers, have combined to produce some amazing floral blooms: ideal growing conditions, certainly compared to last year’s bitter spring and parched summer.

High summer, that brief but ethereal few weeks between the summer solstice and mid July – traditionally, in my calendar, beginning with Wimbledon and ending with the advent of the school holidays – sees England at its finest. Daylight is long, the sun high enough to reach parts it can only muse about for the other 11 months and the trees and hedgerows groan under the luxuriant foliage that still retains its fresh, primordial, vivid green.

Buddleia:  butterfly heaven
Buddleia: butterfly heaven

In our haste to seek exotic lands, or the more dramatic uplands of our island, we routinely overlook the diffident, understated glory of the English countryside in high summer: flamboyant geraniums overflowing from tubs and hanging baskets that adorn the walls and doorways;  contrasting purple and white speared buddleia, surviving against the odds beside the busiest railways and across the most desolate of urban wastelands; delicately water-coloured sweet peas, flaunting their aroma as they toy with any convenient ledge, or hook on their charmingly haphazard climbs.

Cycle along a country lane and relish the heady scent of the honeysuckle and dog roses that smother the hedgerows, then look for the stately silhouette of a majestic oak to provide a shady green canopy from the sharp midday sun.

The Pashley in its spiritual home: the English country garden
The Pashley in its spiritual home: the English country garden

But savour it now. Summer days may seem endless, but soon the misty haze of August mornings will herald the steady drift towards shorter days and less intense sunlight and the vibrant green of high summer will gradually lose its intensity as the wilting blackberry flowers transform into the sticky dark fruits of autumn.

It has always seemed a strange anomaly that the start of the English holiday season – even before the kids throw off their uniforms for six weeks of freedom, the back-to-school kit has already appeared in the shops – coincides with the first unmistakeable signs of dwindling daylight: a full hour less now than in the halcyon days of midsummer, four weeks ago.

Maybe we should adopt a more Scandinavian approach to celebrate our summer at its optimum point, as opposed to during the dog days of August. Whatever, just make sure you don’t miss the glories of this English high summer while it lasts.  As ever, it will be over much too soon.

The glorious hedgerows of high summer
The glorious hedgerows of high summer
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New Year, Website Re-vamp

Welcome to 2014 and a revamped Boot and Bike.

New year, new day
New year, new day

A spring clean of the site should now, hopefully, make it easier to see what I do – sometimes it does take a neutral observer to identify a major problem and suggest an effective remedy, so many thanks to Susan Grossman @wordsallowed for her expert advice.

Much as I still harbour hopes to operate a sustainable travel service, complete with accommodation, I will always be, first and foremost, a journalist and writer and Boot and Bike  is where I share my travel tales and thoughts on all things walking, cycling and environmental.

However, as is always the way, just as I was putting the final touches in place, my inbox was inundated with offers for cut-price banner advertising in the national media. Usually these kind of emails are consigned to the Junk folder – unless the offer is for the Daily Mail, in which case I have a ready reply  – but as these latest messages were suggesting  an appropriate slot in the Observer Magazine, I was at least slightly heartened that my SEO must now be working. Hopefully with the revamp, it will now do so more efficiently.

So, 2014 arrives with the alluring prospect of a winter trip to Abruzzo (in my opinion anyway) the most beautiful and unspoilt area of Italy,  sandwiched between a couple of dramatic train journeys through the snow-covered Alps.

Hoping for a good covering of snow in the foothills of the Appenines, I’ll update you with my snowshoeing progress, as well as my thoughts on sampling the best of Milan’s coffee, culture and cuisine in inverno; and, as winter is the ideal time for some museum visiting, a viewing of The Last Supper is on the cards too.

When I return, it’ll be back to the keyboard, but not as a chore, because just as visiting beautiful places, sustainably, is a pleasure, writing about them is a privilege.

In the meantime wish me  Viaggio Sicuro!

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