14 Aug 2015

City or Countryside? A Cycling Comparison

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River frontage and a cycle path, and only three miles from the city centre!

River frontage and a cycle path, and only three miles from the city centre!

Having spent the last couple of decades or so pedalling the winding lanes and country roads of Middle England, relocation to urban Glasgow was always going to be a radical change.  So, four months along the line, how does cycling in rural Staffordshire compare with negotiating the potholes and road diversions in the UK’s fourth largest city?

In many respects things, particularly hazards, obstacles and attitudes are remarkably, and depressingly, very similar.  While the former Second City of the Empire now lags behind Leeds as the UK’s fourth largest city, it certainly must be in contention as the world’s Capital of Potholes. However, although dangerous holes in the road may be more numerous in Glasgow, they also lie in wait for the unsuspecting cyclist in the countryside – often for years as no one reports them, no one repairs them, or because they are located in places that don’t exist, according to satnavs – widened and deepened by the constant trundling of farm vehicles until the roads resemble open cast coal mines.

While the city’s ‘cycle only boxes’ are routinely exploited by many motorists, even on the showcase A728 on its way past Celtic Park, the Emirates Arena and Police Scotland HQ, priority boxes would immediately become objects of wonder, and derision, should they ever appear in a county town and cycle lanes, in the few places they do exist, are habitually regarded as extra parking spaces.

NCN 75 near Uddingston

NCN 75 near Uddingston

Indeed, the highlight of my final week living in Lichfield was a confrontation with a very large and aggressive Ukip supporter (it was during the final week of the election campaign) who laughed as I tried to pass round his car without getting wiped out by a steady stream of fast traffic, threatened me when I photographed his offending vehicle and warned me about cycling in the future as he ‘wouldn’t want something horrible to happen to me’.  Apparently, he also failed to ingratiate himself with the police officer who cautioned him after I reported the incident.

Dalmarnock Railway Bridge in all its bucolic splendour

Dalmarnock Railway Bridge in all its bucolic splendour

Above all, although Jeremy Clarkson and pals are generally regarded as poster boys for that persecuted and threatened species, middle-aged, middle-class, Middle England man, their misplaced sense of entitlement about the right to park where they want, to drive how and at what speed they want, sadly seems as prevalent among some road users, irrespective of age, class and gender, in urban central Scotland as it does among the Chipping Norton set.

But, overall, my decision to swap the leafy lanes of the Trent Valley for the edgier banks of the Clyde has, overwhelmingly, been to positive effect, especially as far as cycling is concerned.  Whereas trying to travel by bike in and around a car centric, rural village, involved the meticulous planning of a couple of 20-30 mile rides each week, timed to perfection around farming activity, the bus timetable and avoiding, at all costs, the school run, here I cycle every day; in and out of town, to and from the shops, along the tree-lined, cycle-friendly London Road to the excellent libraries in Bridgeton, into Lanarkshire, along to Balloch: and that’s only on NCN 75; so far I haven’t had enough time to venture further afield.

Looking west along the Clyde from NCN 75 at Shawfield

Looking west along the Clyde from NCN 75 at Shawfield

Selecting a new home that fronts on to a cycle path has, so far, resulted in a diverse range of benefits, including losing half a stone, finding resourceful ways of transporting everything from two full sized duvets, to a collection of house plants by bike, and seeing more wildlife – that’s foxes, herons, deer, not just the human residents – than I did in years in the countryside.

What I miss: days when I could go out for a ride without having to pack rain gear.

What I don’t miss: women (apologies to my fellow females), coffee in one hand, phone in the other, spearing their 4x4s through the school run, oblivious to the existence of all other road users. I’m sure they must exist in the city but, so far, I haven’t come across any in Dalmarnock

The river and path at twilight

The river and path at twilight

 

 

 

 

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14 Jul 2015

Yes We’re Back: Boot and Bike Arrives in Glasgow!

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View from my sitting room

View from my sitting room

So, half a year has passed since Boot and Bike last blogged. This morning I cycled in a pleasant 20 degrees, under a soft blue sky, peppered by puffy white clouds and, whilst January’s post appropriately eulogised about the snow, seasonal meteorological milestones are far from the only changes in a rather eventful  six months.

Winter to summer; south to north; rural to urban; Trent to Clyde; level to hilly:  a list of almost polar opposites. Throw in some other seismic events, such as a landmark (for ominous reasons) general election and it’s been quite a turnaround.

So having swapped the safe and leafy lanes of the Trent Valley for the edgier banks of the lower Clyde (inadvertently, I’ve always found myself within striking distance of some of our great rivers, now I’m literally in touching distance) and with a couple of months of housesitting, a further two confined to a camp bed until the furniture arrived, plus six week’s of marking thrown in for good measure, what’s the verdict so far?

Wonderful!  Although deliveries, deadlines and essential domestic installations have restricted possible outings, having a cycle path outside the front window was always a large part of the deal and, so far, it certainly hasn’t disappointed.

Look, a cycle path at the end of my garden!

Look, a cycle path at the end of my garden!

15 minutes into town one way, 10 minutes into the countryside the other, all level, traffic-free, bordered by the vibrant shades of midsummer wild flowers, with rabbits, foxes, herons and even the odd deer for company; absolute bliss.

The Dear Green Place doesn’t usually feature on the lists of the most cycle-friendly cities and there is still a long way to go, but armed with a cycle-specific satnav and a good waterproof jacket (my priority clothing purchase), it is perfectly possible to get from A to B using traffic-free, or less busy roads, enjoying a different perspective on the city into the bargain.

Being appointed a paper girl by the Glasgow Women’s Library has not only been my most creditable achievement so far – narrowly beating my growing expertise at flat-pack assembly – but has also provided the ideal excuse to navigate my way around the streets delivering their publications and sampling some decent coffee en route: indeed, I can feel a “Best Coffee and Cake’ post coming on.

The prized insignia of a GWL paper girl - not everyone gets to wear this!

The prized insignia of a GWL paper girl – not everyone gets to wear this!

This morning’s jaunt round the cosmopolitan bars and delis of Shawlands was complemented by a sunny lunch in the exquisite Hidden Garden at the Tramway – spoilt only by a massive gull stealing the last quarter of my toast, before having the audacity to return to clear the plate it had knocked off the table!

 

Welcome to Glasgow, where even the gulls are gallus.

 

 

 

 

A perfect day to enjoy the wonderful Hidden Garden - just watch out for the gulls

A perfect day to enjoy the wonderful Hidden Garden – just watch out for the gulls

 

 

 

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31 Dec 2014

So Long 2014; You’ve Been an Interesting Year

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With plenty of striking pictures of the unexpected, but appropriately seasonal, weather of the last few days, it seems much more fitting to say goodbye to 2014 through images rather than too many words.

Unexpected festive weather in the shires

Unexpected festive weather in the shires

It’s certainly been an eventful year, with many unexpected twists and turns, not least as far as that perennial favourite topic of British conversation, the weather, was concerned.

A snowy Hogmanay sunrise

A snowy Hogmanay sunrise

 

The Weather: after the relentless rain (and the risible response of DEFRA and its erstwhile, hapless head, Owen Patterson) of the early months, spring arrived at least a month earlier than in 2013 and heralded a consecutive spell of warm, sunny days that stretched from midsummer right throughout to the end of October.

An English country garden

An English country garden

High summer in Middle England was a revelation, with overflowing hedgerows and bountiful butterflies (including a welcome return for the recently-rare small tortoiseshell) enjoying the Buddleia.   And, even it was rather incongruous still to be enjoying tee shirt temperatures at Halloween, it certainly beat the usual wet and windy autumn storms.

The exquisite peacock butterfly

The exquisite peacock butterfly

 

Flora and Fauna: a settled period of sun didn’t just benefit the Lepidoptera and their habitat.  After last year’s dismal showing, the bedding plants in their tubs and baskets were back to their radiant best.  But the undoubted natural highlight of the year was the arrival of a young, fledgling robin, who took refuge in the garden, stayed for a few weeks, ate his way through several packets of oatcakes, learned to fly and came back each day to sing (for his breakfast, lunch and dinner). By the time he left for good his chest was beginning to redden and memories of those delightful days of late summer have been rekindled with each delivery of a traditional robin Christmas card.

My brave little fledgling singing for his supper

My brave little fledgling singing for his supper

 

Scotland: a momentous year for Scotland was also enhanced by a Mediterranean-like summer.  The Commonwealth Games enjoyed early days of tropical heat that had visitors swapping their fleeces and umbrellas for sun cream and shorts.  Glasgow Green resembled a giant beach and the heat lasted right up till the day before September’s referendum.

A sunny afternoon on Glasgow Green: Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson is in foreground

A sunny afternoon on Glasgow Green, with  Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson (white shirt)  in foreground

Strangely, the most momentous constitutional event of the last three centuries didn’t seem to be taken seriously until the eve of the vote by many in the rest of the kingdom.  Although its outcome, despite the result, is far from clear, one lasting legacy will definitely be the images of 16 and 17 year olds in their school uniforms, queuing to vote in their thousands, after making an important, informed and mature contribution throughout the debate.

The Scottish referendum: the most momentous constitutional event of the last 300 years

The Scottish referendum: the most momentous constitutional decision of the last 300 years

In a year of developments, some positive, some negative (the rise of the Greens has balanced to some extent the repugnance of Ukip) that have rumbled the political establishment, the positive engagement of young people in Scotland now seems, happily, to be spreading to other parts of the UK, with first time voters becoming much more involved in political debate.

 

St Pancras: gateway to another European tain journey

St Pancras: gateway to another European tain journey

Holidays: January was brightened up with another train journey to Italy, for what has become my annual trip to the wonderful Kokopelli Camping   bookended by two overnight stays at the welcoming Windsor Hotel in Milan

Pristine pistes and sky to match

Pristine pistes and sky to match: Abruzzo in winter

For the first time, I was able to experience the dramatic mountains of the Abruzzo in winter and, although temperatures were more akin to mid April, there was plenty of snow on the tops and a day’s snowshoeing was one of the highlights of the holiday.

Milan: always a favourite destination

Milan: whatever the season, always a favourite destination

On the way back, I was also able to achieve another long-held ambition; seeing Leonardo’s Last Supper, in Milan.  It didn’t disappoint. Usually it’s necessary to book online, well in advance, but if you are in the city out of season and are not part of a large group, try turning up at the booking office in person and be prepared to be flexible about fitting in individually when they have available space.

Peaceful, pastoral New Galloway

Peaceful, pastoral New Galloway

Post Commonwealth Games, the crowded vibrancy of city-centre Glasgow was followed by a few days camping in peaceful, pastoral New Galloway    This idyllic region of south west Scotland is routinely overlooked or ignored even by other Scots.  As a result, its alluring landscapes, dark skies and important history are complemented by quiet roads and uncrowded beaches. Throw in some thriving culture; an established artists’ town (Kirkudbright)  foodie haven (Castle Douglas), Scotland’s book town (Wigtown) and you have the kind of place that I like to visit.

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, along the quiet lanes of Galloway

A few weeks later I ventured another 50 miles or so west to explore, for the first time the most southerly point of Scotland, the Mull of Galloway

Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Surrounded on three sides by the sea, with its traditional links with Ireland and its own mythical history, this is a magical place with a coastscape second to none.  Yes, the wind does blow here, but the views are breathtaking and its wild and marine life abundant – on a short morning’s cliff walk, the paths were shared with a fox, two hares and an inquisitive deer.

Galloway coastscape

Galloway coastscape

Finally, with the weather still too good to miss, in September I embarked on a Spaceships Campervan journey between Edinburgh and London; an interesting experience to say the least

Highside Farm: my kind of campsite

Highside Farm: my kind of campsite

The most memorable aspects of the trip were discovering some excellent campsites; notably the alluring  Highside Farm  in beautiful Teesdale and the remarkably rural (given its proximity to London) and conveniently sited Town Farm near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire.

2014's suitably snowy final sunset

2014’s suitably snowy final sunset

 Culture: and, last but certainly not least, a mention of the books, films, art and music that enlivened the year.

Books – The Goldfinch (Donna doesn’t disappoint), Stoner (absolutely lived up to its rave reviews) and the joys of re-aquaintance with the wonderful Joan Wyndham wartime diaries

Films – Ida, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Imitation Game and Under the Skin (in approximate order)

Art – vying for first place and marking 300 years since the Georgian accession were the British Library’s Georgians Revealed and Let Glasgow Flourish at Kelvingrove, then another Kelvingrove gem celebrating the life of Alasdair Gray, plus an interesting Stanley Spencer exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery

Music – after a year of neglect, some progress was made in improving guitar grades, but must resolve to try harder in 2015

 

Epilogue: so 2014, an interesting and eventful year, rounded off in personal terms by finally putting the house on the market, in anticipation of moving back to Scotland. Who knows what 2015 will bring; I’ll keep you posted.

 

Happy New Year.

 

 

 

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04 Nov 2014

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

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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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30 Oct 2014

Why I Hate Autumn

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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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05 Sep 2014

Out on the Edge

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Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Having previously visited the most southerly and south westerly points of three of the four countries that make up the geographical feature that is the British Isles (better make sure I get this correct as there may well be some seismic changes to what is meant by Britain and the UK in constitutional terms over the next few weeks) it seemed sensible to exploit a promised window of fine weather before autumn encroached and venture to the furthest point of my one remaining unvisited peninsular; the Mull of Galloway.

Enticed back by the tranquility, contrasting landscapes and dark skies I discovered earlier in the summer and now bolstered by a bigger tent, more efficient cooking gear and a more ordered storage system, I left the heavy rain and leadens skies of a Midlands’ bank holiday morning to a-getting-better-the-further-north midday.

Portobello Beach, looking directly over to Ireland

Portobello Beach, looking directly over to Ireland

Usually a long, tedious, and sometimes dangerous journey from Dumfries west along the A75, the imminent end of the late summer bank holiday ensured the heavy traffic was in the opposite direction and Stranraer was reached in an unhurried and impressive two and a half hours.

80 miles from Dumfries and a similar distance from Glasgow, Stranraer can seem like a lonely last staging post on the edge of the choppy waters of the North Channel (even the local accents sound more Ulster than Scottish), but  closer study of the buildings back from the harbour and the names of the streets, evince something of how the town grew in importance as a seaport to Ireland from the early years of the 19th century, after the 1801 Act of Union. But, its location in a rich pastoral agricultural area has been equally important and the town’s connections both with the sea and the dairying industry are well illustrated in the interesting local museum: a useful and informative diversion, should the weather turn inclement.

North Rhinns Camping lies around five miles north, in the midst of its eponymous peninsular, surrounded by undulating pastureland and, essentially, it provides everything I look for when I camp. Pitches are secluded, well away from neighbours, contain a picnic bench and campfire standing and are located sensitively around a patch of lovely, native woodland that also acts as a natural windbreak during the frequent squalls that descend on this exposed piece of land. Crucially, facilities are scrupulously clean and very well equipped. The site welcomes tents, with room for a couple of small campervans – as a result, another bonus is that it tends to attract some original and effective conversions of standard small vans.

North Rhinns sunset

North Rhinns sunset

While, in theory,  the quiet local lanes should provide perfect cycling routes, few of the locals seem to cycle and neighbourhood drivers tend to hurl their trucks, tractors and 4x4s around with little thought for any other road users. Winds are often fierce and gradients will test the best maintained gears and brakes. That said, local businesses offer a warm welcome to cyclists, with plenty of helpful advice and tourist information offices are awash with leaflets and maps showing a selection of cycling routes.

Breezy, sunny days are, in any case, perfect for coastal walking and here the Rhinns of Galloway comes into its own. Portpatrick lies a few miles south of the campsite and its pretty harbour marks the western end of the Southern Upland Way (SUW). The 200 plus miles of this coast-to-coast trail take in dramatic coastlines, bleak moorland and challenging hills on the route across the southern Scotland and the first three miles or so, up to Portavaddie Lighthouse, is a great introduction, both to coastal walking, as well as the diversity of scenery on this toughest of long-distance walks.

Views take in the Antrim coast and further to the north, the jagged peaks of Arran, as well as the hump-like Ailsa Craig. However, after the SUW leaves the coast to head eastward, and although the route round the the west side of the coast is designated by the council as a core path, the going is often difficult over rocks and bracken, with no clearly defined trail.

Heading north on the first section of the SUW

Heading north on the first section of the SUW

Fortunately, the local rotary club has already taken matters into hand and, on the east side of the Rhinns, marked out a path along the side of Loch Ryan, linking Stranraer with the start of the Ayrshire Coastal Path at Glenapp. This, in turn, now joins up with another marked route, The Mull of Galloway Trail between Stranraer and the southerly tip of the Rhinns (and indeed of Scotland itself) at the Mull of Galloway.

The Mull, lonely and exposed, with its historic lighthouse and foghorn perched bravely above the treacherous rocks, is a fascinating place to take stock, look around and plot location – the outlines of the Isle of Man, Cumbrian and Ulster coasts are visible on clear days. But it is the sensation of being at the tip, surrounded by the dominant elements of sea and wind, that remains uppermost as you imagine the singular lifestyle of lighthouse staff as they performed their vital work before the days of high-tech communications.

Although not yet logged on OS maps, the route is clearly marked and, as it heads northwards, towards Drummore and Sandhead, passes along and above dramatic coves and inlets that are the equal of any found elsewhere along the western coasts of our isles. Along the way you are more likely to meet a few sheep or cattle than a fellow human: but remember, solitude does come with inherent dangers and this coastline can be bleak and exposed, with steep gradients and slippery rocks.

The foghorn at Carrickcarlin Point, Mull of Galloway

The foghorn at Carrickcarlin Point, Mull of Galloway

Inland, the shorn fields of pale yellow, with their stacks of harvested hay reflect the last days of August and the ripening hedgerows promise a bumper harvest of brambles and rosehips. Despite the bright sunny days and even at this far western outpost, evenings now darken and cool well before nine pm: another  accurate barometer of the dying embers of summer.

 

So, Galloway 2014, the verdict:

Still characterised by its 1950s-style roads and telegraph poles, luxuriant rhododendrons and unspoilt coves and inlets that could recreate the setting for a Famous Five adventure.
Yes, it is being discovered, but slowly and, so far, in a largely positive way: the lonely moors, expansive forests and often deserted coasts now sit alongside something for the foodies (Castle Douglas), an annual literary extravaganza (Wigtown), as well as the legendary artist communities of Kirkcudbright and surrounding harbour towns.
Galloway has always offered fresh air, breathtaking scenery and dark skies; keep away from the caravan parks of the Southerness tip and you will still scarcely see a crowd, but you can find a good coffee, gourmet food and challenging culture, without too much effort.

The lighthouse still keeps a look out on the Mull

The lighthouse still keeps a look out on the Mull

 

What if?

Call it misplaced nostalgia, or cheesy emotion, but just wish, for a moment, that Beeching hadn’t axed the Dumfries to Stranraer railway  line and the boat train (possibly with a steam special in the holidays) still wound its way westwards, along the coast, through the forests, over the Loch Ken and Stroan Viaducts……..   Just a thought, although a sad one, nevertheless.

 

Recommendations:

Campsites; Ken Bridge Hotel, nr New Galloway, North Rhinns, nr Stranraer
Cafe/Restaurant; the Schoolhouse, Ringland, nr Kirkcudbright ( and D’Nisi’s cafe in Stranraer does a decent flat white)
Interesting shops; Designs Gallery, King Street, Castle Douglas, In House Chocolates also in King Street, Castle Douglas
Museums/galleries; Stranraer Museum,  George Street, Stranraer, art galleries in and around Kirkcudbright 
Information point; Tourist Information, Harbour Street, Stranraer

St Medan's Cave

St Medan’s Cave

East Tarbet Bay

East Tarbet Bay

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12 Aug 2014

Galloway: the Best of the South West

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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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16 Jul 2014

An English High Summer

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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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17 Jan 2014

New Year, Website Re-vamp

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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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03 Dec 2013

Don’t Forget: Cycling Isn’t Just Confined to the Capital

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First the deaths and casualties, then the recriminations, followed equally swiftly by the counter accusations and then the die-in at TFL HQ.  No one can now dispute that cycling in London has become a high-profile issue dominating the front pages as well as the specialist publications and bike blogs.

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As a cyclist, although no longer pedalling the streets of the capital, I’m grateful to London’s cyclists for keeping the issues of safety and lack of infrastructure in the public eye, but often frustrated that the experiences of cyclists around the country are routinely overlooked.

It is difficult, and essentially pointless, to try to prove that it is any more or less dangerous to cycle in London, compared to everywhere else: although according to national cycling charity CTC, it is twenty times more dangerous to cycle along rural A roads than it is on suburban and urban streets. Statistics show the greater the density of population, the higher the level of casualties, but it is difficult to relate this to the number of people cycling in  particular areas as there is no consistent monitoring of   numbers of cyclists on the roads and trends in cycling uptake tend to be based on estimates.

What cannot be contested is that cyclists across the country experience widely differing conditions, depending on the type of roads they use, terrain and exposure to weather conditions. And the exhilaration of commuting along a coast road or a quiet country byway has to be set aside the difficulties of maintaining road position on narrow lanes, the threat of speeding cars on backroads with little surveillance, or the greater danger of isolation in the event of breakdown, injury or illness.

Some dangers – lack of road space, the chaos of the school run, absence of any cycling infrastructure and failure to enforce regulations where bike lanes do exist, threats from large vehicles (add to buses and lorries a variety of large, unstable and frightening agricultural vehicles)  – are depressingly similar.  And we also have our fair share of SMIDSY, as well as plenty of representatives from the ‘I pay road tax’ tribe.

I miss my old routes from Euston down to Waterloo and from Fulham along the Embankment to the Strand and think of them fondly as I struggle the seven miles along unlit, pot-holed country lanes to and from my local station.  But above all, I miss being part of a growing, diverse, but inclusive and supportive community of cyclists.

Around here in the lanes of Middle England, those of us who cycle as our primary method of transport are commonly regarded as odd (particularly if female), pitied as too poor to own a car and  cursed as irritants who threaten the entitlement of drivers to ‘their’ roads – the peletons of lycra-clad roadies who race through at the weekend are, if anything, more intensely disliked, but are generally not subjected to direct abuse as they tend to hunt in (largely male) packs.

If there are to be any positive outcomes from the recent tragic events in London, then they must lie in the introduction of HGV safety measures and establishment of better cycling infrastructure: initiatives that will also benefit all road users across the country and lead to the establishment of a genuine bicycle culture in the UK. London’s cycling lobby is sufficiently powerful, organised and high profile to successfully campaign for this, with the support of fellow cyclists around the country.

But please don’t forget, cycling is not confined to the capital and each day millions of cyclists throughout the country enjoy the pleasures of their chosen form of transport and the benefits derived from it, which continue to far outweigh, but not eliminate, the dangers. Some conditions we face are specific to our locality, but we all have to contend with unacceptable risks, more prevalent in the UK than elsewhere in western Europe, that can only be solved by a more holistic and inclusive approach to road use.

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