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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mid March; the best time of the year for walking, according to many experts and so, happily, it proved for me. As much of the country shivered in the face of vicious easterly winds and and a blanket of snow covered the south coast, this Glasgow morning dawned clear and bright, with a sharp frost soon levelling into a perfect, early spring day.
I was on my way to Balloch to try out the first stage of a relatively new trail, the Three Lochs Way, linking Lochs Lomond and Long, the Gare Loch, with a stretch of the Firth of Clyde thrown in for good measure. The route begins in Balloch, travels west to Helensburgh, then north to Garelochhead, continues up to Arrochar, before finally winding its way to Inveruglas at the north end of Loch Lomond.
It’s a low level trail, with few steep gradients and, as it generally follows the course of the West Highland Railway, it’s possible to walk all sections as linear routes and use the train to get to and from the start/finish points. The first section is ideal for this, as both Balloch and Helensburgh are termini on Glasgow’s suburban rail network. It’s perfectly possible to walk the route in either direction: just buy a return to either station, then a single from the other to Dalreoch and the rest of your return ticket will take you back to the city.
My preference is to start in Balloch and walk towards Helensburgh. This way, you enjoy the unmatched experience of leaving the loch and views of Ben Lomond behind you, just as the coastal vistas over Kintyre come into sight: a unique joy, whatever the time of year.
My other reason is equally hedonistic, but for gastronomic reasons. Finishing in Helensburgh provides the ideal reason to visit my favourite cafe in the area; the Riverhill Deli and Cafe in Sinclair Street. The coffee bears comparison with anything north of Turin and their delectable cakes and pastries, including the incomparable millionaire’s shortbread, are the perfect way to cap a marvellous day in the outdoors.
Head out from Balloch station and turn left at the information centre. Walk along the street until you reach the roundabout and take the the third turning into a quiet, residential street. You will soon see a footpath sign pointing left, take this and walk along the track crossing the footbridge over the A82.
This is known locally as the Stoneymollan Road, an ancient drove and coffin route and it leads uphill to a plantation gate. Walk through the plantation and turn right after about 800 metres at the T junction, before heading north round the edge of the plantation.
Until this point, the route follows well marked paths, but the next part is not on a defined track and it is strongly advisable to have a map and navigational aids. The route now veers off to the west though the trees. You must follow the red and white tape on the trees which marks the route over the burn and up the slopes of the Killoeter Escarpment.
Volunteers regularly check that the tape markers are in place, but if any are missing, or if you wander off route, you will need to be able to navigate yourself through this section using a map or compass.
Finally, after about 300 metres of climbing uphill when the end of a forestry road comes into view (from this point onwards the trail follows obvious, well-marked paths), follow it to the T junction. Turn left to continue to Helensburgh, but a short detour to the right takes you to the highlight of this section, the views from the top of Goukhill Muir. It’s only a short climb to 281metres, but the panorama compares with vistas normally only enjoyed from far higher summits.
A few clouds had invaded the previous unbroken blue of the sky, but Loch Lomond glinted tantalisingly in the sun, protected by the solid mass of Ben Lomond, its peak wrapped in a thick layer of snow. The line of islands below looked like giant stepping stones en route towards Balmaha and the blue of the loch was almost tropical in its intensity.
To the north, the snow-covered peaks of the Arrochar Alps jutted dramatically into the midday sky and, turning westwards, the Gareloch shimmered like a dark ribbon below the Rosneath Peninsula. Few viewpoints serve up such sumptuous rewards and reaching them usually requires much more strenuous effort.
The heather was dry and, and a sheltered spot just off the path was a perfect place to stop for some lunch, before beginning the descent to Helensburgh. The majority of the route now follows a newly-constructed path and provides more fine views as the town and the Firth of Clyde come into sight, spoiled only by the mess of what appears to a scrapyard surrounding a cottage on the outskirts of Craigendoran.
Emerging at Hermitage Academy, you are a couple of miles out of Helensburgh and another advantage of completing the trail in this direction is that, should the weather turn inclement, or time be at a premium, you are only metres away from Craigendoran Station and half-hourly trains back to Glasgow.
Otherwise, turn right and follow the main road into Helensburgh. At one time regarded as the ‘Brighton of Glasgow’, the resort is renowned for its substantial Victorian villas and tree-lined streets.
I was too early in the year to enjoy the blossom that infuses the town later in the spring, or to re-visit the Hill House, one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s most iconic designs. But I was happy to sip my excellent flat white and sample the said shortbread in Riverhill’s convivial atmosphere before heading the few metres back to Helensburgh Central for my return to the city.
Trains to and from Balloch, Helensburgh and Craigendoran:
Map: OS Explorer 347, Loch Lomond South
Please remember: although gradients are fairly gently and tracks are good, one section of this route is currently pathless. It is strongly advisable to have a map and navigational aids and be confident in your ability to use them. If you are unsure and/or you cannot follow the marked tape, always re-trace your steps.
A bicycle cafe! Sounds like my Elysium: a vision of freshly-brewed coffee, artisan baking, all kinds of bicycles and bike memorabilia in an accessible urban space – where you can even park your own bike right next to your table. Probably a delusion though, I mean no one place could actually provide all my favourite things; could it?
Well yes. As soon as I entered Siempre Bicycle Cafe last week, all my habitual cautious pessimism evaporated as I sensed the heady aroma of roasted coffee, noticed the cool retro cycling prints and was warmly welcomed by the friendly staff. Invited to look around, things just got better: in addition to the combination of my favourite object and drink of choice, the cafe also offers bike maintenance, aims to attract and encourage women cyclists and stocks singular gear that is perfect for cycling but doesn’t look like cycling kit.
Located in Glasgow’s West End, right next door to Kelvinhall Subway Station, the cafe defines itself on its locally-sourced and organic produce, such as Tapas breads and Dear Green coffee. It’s open from 6.30am, providing healthy breakfast options to hungry commuters and the cafe space can be hired for special occasions and celebrations.
And outside, once current construction work is complete, will be transformed into an inclusive space where commuters can leave their bikes, diners can relax in the sun and kids can learn to cycle.
Siempre is not just for cyclists though. The spacious interior is equally pram and luggage friendly and the free, fast in-house WiFI, makes the cafe ideal for impromptu meetings, as well as social and work related net surfing.
Combining my love of coffee, cake and bikes in some form has always been one of my life ambitions. While my aspirations remain firmly in the dream category for the moment, I’m more than happy to enjoy Siempre’s excellent realisation of three of my favourite things.
On your bike, on foot, en route to and from the subway, to Kelvingrove or the Riverside, pop into Siempre and see how a derelict and unused city building can be transformed into a vibrant and co-operative urban space.
Any initiative that encourages and facilitates more people to cycle has to be positive and, when it also includes creamy flat whites, melt-in-the-mouth fudge and freshly baked bread, what’s not to like?
Well done Siempre, I’m already looking forward to my next visit.
As regular readers will know all too well, I always take the opportunity to plug Glasgow as the ideal location to combine some top notch culture, food and shopping with the chance to enjoy some spectacular local outdoor jaunts as well.
Maybe because my trips to the city as a child were many and varied and ranged from pantomime visits, to shopping expeditions and later on, all kinds of things connected with education, that I have always considered Glasgow to be such an eclectic place.
Among these primal associations, it was in the city that I first began my love affair with good coffee; indeed, I can still remember the excitement of discovering what I termed ‘frothy coffee’, drinking it from a glass cup in one of the Italian cafes I was taken to by my grandmother. And, from then on, sourcing and consuming the best coffee I can find has become something of an obsession – as well as providing the excuse to sample some of the finest cafes that Vienna, Budapest, Rome and Turin have to offer.
So, it was with a sense of excitement that I headed across Gordon Street last Monday to try out the new Riverhill Cafe. Its first few weeks had certainly been a hit on social media, and if its coffee was half as good as its location – within luggage wheeling distance of Central Station and in an otherwise desert of good independent refreshment outlets – it would be worth the wait.
It was. My flat white was rich and creamy and a crusty sandwich of Italian sausage with salad and dressing was freshly made and nicely on the plus side of substantial. But, it was the staff who provided the real highlight; pleasant, informative and happy to accommodate any requests for slight variations of the items on offer. My only disappointment was that, after my sandwich, even I couldn’t find room for a piece of their appropriately-named billionaire’s shortbread.
However, apart from its excellent menu and ideal location, Riverhill has yet another asset; its sister, the Riverhill Cafe and Deli, in Helensburgh. And as Helensburgh just so happened to be where I started and finished a couple of stages on the Three Lochs Way later in the week, then I really had no excuse not to taste another excellent flat white and replace some of the calories expended tramping through the forest with a slice of their slightly different take on that luxury shortbread. Apparently the chef here also regularly forages for edible herbs and plants to use in the daily menu, so no excuse then not to factor in another trip around Helensburgh on my next visit.
Well done Riverhill: you’ll be my first and last stop next time I’m back in Glasgow and, with the Hill House, other handsome buildings and enviable setting beneath the mountains and beside the Firth, yet another reason to boot and bike to Helensburgh.
I promised some positive suggestions to encourage more people to get on their bikes last time, so what can be more agreeable than talking about food, and its many connections with cycling?
Cycling has a long association with food and nice places to consume it. The earliest organised cycling groups, such as the Clarion Club, routinely structured their rides round the availability of refreshment stops en route and the pattern continues today: the excellent independent cafe in my village recently extended to seven day opening largely because of the demand from the Sunday morning pelotons.
Having just returned from a breezy hour and half ride this afternoon, what kept me going through a sharp shower and some tricky road conditions was the prospect of a hot cup of tea and some delicious black jack millionaire’s shortbread (my baking, Dan Lepard’s recipe) on my return to a warm kitchen, with the aroma of slow-cooking chicken wafting from the Rayburn.
Yes, I know obesity is one of the most pressing problems facing us as a society but, let’s face it, obesity is not generally the result of treating ourselves to a few pieces of cake every now and again, particularly if it is home-baked from fresh, natural ingredients. The appalling level of obesity in the UK today is more the result of an imbalanced diet largely composed of processed food, combined with an inadequate level of activity.
Cycling is one of the best ways to combat obesity as it can be enjoyed by virtually all age groups, it gets people out in the fresh air and is best appreciated in a social setting, so also encourages inclusivity. In addition, as a sustainable form of transport with no associated fuel costs it ticks the environmental and economic boxes as well.
But fighting obesity is not just about eating less; it’s about eating the right amount of good food and balancing that with burning an appropriate amount of calories. Trying to lose weight is a long, hard process and, despite what the ‘wonder diets’ say, there are no quick fixes, or miracle cures.
There always needs to be a light at the end of the tunnel, a treat at the end of a long, hard slog. Cycling burns calories, not carbon, and we should continue to celebrate its close connection with coffee shops and tea rooms: a calorific treat, in agreeable company at the end of an active day, can be an ideal way to encourage more people to take to two wheels.
This Friday it’s my turn to host the local Sustran’s volunteer group and, after a 20 odd mile circuit checking signage and considering improved re-routes, it’s back here for copious amounts of tea and coffee, fresh ginger and coffee, cake, freshly baked biscuits and what’s left of the mince pies – a true Boot and Bike Bake Off.
Just off to collect some eggs from my neighbour’s ultra free range hens who appear to have colonised my garden as well.
Autumn is my least favourite season; this year, every year. Yes, I know most people rave about the colours, but as I aways associate them with dying leaves and foliage, I find it impossible to look beyond my default setting that autumn equals the dying season. A day like today doesn’t help, of course: pouring, barely light all day and not much to look at except a fat pigeon trying to source some scraps of food among the sodden leaves littered round the garden.
In many ways I actually prefer the winter, because at least once you reach the New Year, however cold it is, the nights do begin to lighten and there’s always spring to look forward to in the not too distant future.
But, before you start ringing the Samaritans on my behalf, there is one aspect of autumn that I have always looked forward to and that is spending some part of the season in the city.Everybody tries to escape the city in summer, with good cause, but autumn is different. Even early autumn, with its characteristic, sharp, bright days, is best enjoyed in the city. And as the days shorten and the light becomes more hazy, urban landscapes take on their own unique, murky beauty.
On a recent stay in London, I was struck by the ghostly allure of St Pancras Station looming out of the cold, raw air. On the same trip, I made sure I spent Sunday browsing the East End’s many markets; the damp day providing an ideal excuse to warm up with some delicious street food and too many cups of intense expresso. There is something about markets in cold weather that makes street shopping more rewarding than in the middle of summer. Maybe I’ve just read too many Victorian novels, but I still thrill to the Dickensian stalls of roasted chestnuts in the narrow, cobbled lanes.
I will even go so far to contend that cities can provide a better outdoor experience in the autumn than can the countryside. I appreciate that may sound totally incongruous, but the diminishing daylight can make it difficult for a full day out in the wilds and mud and killer leaves in rural roads often endanger autumn bike rides. Most of our cities boast attractive parks and it is perfectly possible to devise extensive walks and rides for all ages and levels of ability. You don’t have to look very far to see the amazing variety of wildlife that manages to survive in our urban areas and, of course, you’re never too far away from a welcoming cafe.
So, although I’ll never love the autumn, over the years I’ve learned to live with it and, sometimes, I can just about recognise something of its distinctive beauty: although for me that lies in the eerie outlines of urban spires and rooftops, rather than the dying foliage of hills and vales.
Now it looks as though summer might finally have arrived, what better excuse to get out in the saddle and enjoy the long, sunny days. And, of course, that little bit of extra effort can fully justify a well-deserved stop en route for a refreshing drink and tempting slice of cake. The 15 mile stretch of Route 54 between Burton on Trent and Lichfield is an ideal ride at any time of year and the route is well endowed with welcoming cafes, tearooms and pubs. Here are some of our favourites, riding north to south.
Great little cafe right on the route and almost at the half way point between Burton and Lichfield. Quirky and friendly, with delicious sausage sandwiches and cakes, classy coffee and always interesting soundtracks from the musical owners. Very bike friendly with secure racks round the back. Popular with cyclists, particularly on Sunday mornings. Open every day 9-5 (Sunday 10-4).
There are also two attractive pubs in the village main street; the Middle Bellhttp://www.themiddlebell.co.uk and the Three Horseshoeshttp://www.3horseshoesbarton.co.uk Both serve excellent meals, welcome cyclists and have space in their gardens for bike storage. The Royal Oak, at the junction of The Green and Dogshead Lane is renowned for its beer.
An interesting stop, especially if you have the time to hand paint a piece of pottery from their large range of ceramics! Although it can get busy during school holidays, cyclists and non-artists are made very welcome. Tea cakes are particularly tasty. Some space against front wall where bikes can be left relatively safely. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10-5, plus Mondays during February and October half terms.
A welcome new addition to the village is this original shop, selling design-led gifts, jewellery and fair trade products. It also contains a small tea room. Untested, as yet, by the local Volunteer Rangers, it’s on our ‘to-do’ list for the summer. Open Monday-Saturday 9.45-5.30 and 10-4 on Sundays.
This historic building boasts one of the rare CTC Winged Wheel Plaques just above the front door. Landlord Graham welcomes all cyclists and you will be served with a good coffee any day from 11am, as well as the usual range of food and drink.
A short detour from the route will bring you to the picturesque Fradley Junction, where the Trent and Mersey and Coventry Canals merge. The Kingfisher Cafe is just past the pub and actively welcomes cyclists, with racks outside the front. Tea cakes are also good here too; there’s WiFi and the cafe encompasses a small shop selling basics. Open 10-5 weekends between November to February (same times everyday March to October).
You’re certainly spoilt for choice at Fradley Junction, with another cafe just across the canal. Again, there is plenty of space for cycles around the cafe. Full English breakfasts are rated highly here. Opening hours are 10-3.30 daily.
And with Route 54 passing right by Lichfield Cathedral, where better to admire this magnificent 12th century Gothic edifice than from the unique 13th century walled garden of the Chapters Restaurant in the Cathedral Close? There’s plenty of room inside too when the weather is inclement and Chapters always extends a warm welcome to cyclists, including Sustran’s local Volunteer Rangers for their monthly meetings. Open 9-4 (winter) 9-5 (summer) Monday to Saturday and 10-4 Sundays.
Last week’s media was awash with debate about rural vs urban, with Mavis Cheek fronting a campaign to warn older people about the hazards of retiring to the country, accompanied throughout the week by more angst about the rising cost of fuel. At the weekend cyclist Rob Penn countered for the countryside with a piece for the Observer extolling the delights of rural life in the Black Mountains.
As a resident of what is nominally regarded as a village, but who is seriously considering, for environmental among other reasons, a move back to the city, the debate had special resonance. Looking out at this morning’s sun-bathed, south-facing garden, embroidered by lilac crocuses, lemon daffodils, and plump furry magnolia buds almost ready to reveal the delicate white blossom protected within, the obvious solution would be to stay put. But nothing, as they say, is ever quite what it seems and the rural idyll outside the back door isn’t quite so appealing, ironically enough, when you try to live sustainably.
Perhaps we ought to start by establishing what we mean by living in the countryside. Most of my fellow residents would regard their location as a village; thatched cottages, handsome church, hanging baskets and a few attractive looking pubs. But its location next to a fast dual carriageway, linking several large cities, has turned it into effectively a commuter settlement, with the population of a small town, but facilities of a small village.
The migration of commuters and second homers to rural areas has, I suspect, made this the case for many residents of what used to be regarded as the countryside and with damaging consequences for their quality of life, to the extent that many of the traditional pleasures of living a rural existence are rapidly disappearing, if they haven’t already gone.
Listening to the birds, for example, one of Mr Penn’s favourite activities, is becoming much more of a rarity here as the hedgerows are destroyed, or manicured like privet hedges for the benefit of the day trippers to the National Forest walking tracks that criss cross the village.
Cycling for me, like Mr Penn, is an obsession, but unlike Mr Penn’s bucolic idyll in the Black Mountains, riding a bike around here, taking your chances with the 4x4s and agricultural vehicles, is arguably more dangerous than negotiating Highbury Corner alongside Boris’s new buses. And, if you use your bike as a form of transport, rather than just recreation, then you need the skills of a military logistician to work out how to transport heavy goods, how to reach the shops, or how to arrange supermarket deliveries, always assuming you have and can use the internet.
And as for village community: try walking or cycling in the main road any morning from before 7am and observe the hundreds of cars leaving the village, packed with commuters driving to work with their children en route to the nearest nursery for the next 12 hours. There is little community during the day and not much more in the evening, hence the closure of some of the pubs, and the transformation of most of the others into eateries.
Of course it’s not all bad: it’s safe, most people are friendly and helpful and, as long as you don’t mind being regarded as an odd single female, or potentially subversive because you don’t believe what you read in the Daily Mail, and horror of horrors, take the Guardian instead, then life is generally quite tolerable (we even have a lovely cafe selling decent coffee and Fentiman’s ginger beer now).
Unless, that is, you do not drive a car. This week an appointment at the eye clinic will involve two buses and a journey time of about two hours to travel 20 miles, while next week an early morning taxi will cost about £20 to reach the nearest railway station. And, while I am lucky in the sense that I possess a car and am able to drive, financially, and in terms of sustainability, a car is by far the biggest drain on my resources. But try living in the countryside without one and your rural dream will dissolve as quickly as your wallet empties.
It was then, encouraging, that another couple of articles published last week highlighted the real problem facing many people, of all ages, predominately but not exclusively in the countryside; that of transport poverty. Last Monday, Sustrans, the sustainable travel charity, reported that half of Wales faces debt from transport costs. The report, also backed by Age UK, Citizens Advice and Save the Children in Wales, illustrated the real problem facing an increasing number of people is not the increasing price of fuel, but that they cannot afford to a car in the first place, nor pay the costs of public transport.
Later in the week, Left Foot Forward focused on the same issue to campaign for a change in government priorities; away from the focus on car owning towards investing in public transport and improving facilities for walking and cycling.
Although the subject matter of both reports was depressing, it is at least positive that the real issue of transport poverty is being addressed. Being unable to travel, whether because of high costs, or lack of suitable options, is a real problem with potentially serious consequences for all of society, urban as well as rural.
And to return to the original debate, I suspect that before too long I will be prepared to swap my vegetable plot, garage and hanging baskets, for some regular buses and a station at the end of the road – preferably with a local farmers’ market, some good cafes and a bike shop nearby.
So, on this Hogmanay as 2011 ends and 2012 fast approaches, how was 2011 – a year when austerity, natural disasters, revolutions and mass movements of all kinds dominated the headlines – for you? Who were the heroes, and who were the baddies in 2011?
HEROES and good things:
John Prescott, for his commitment to dealing with climate change and keeping Britain at the centre of discussions on this vital issue (unlike some other politicians on other vital issues) and for being one of the few genuinely entertaining “celebrities” on Twitter
Caroline Lucas, our solitary Green MP, for continuing to fight the Green case in Parliament
Grass routes campaigning groups, such as 38 Degreeswww.38degrees.org.uk and UK Uncutwww.ukuncut.org.uk who taught us all how to effectively channel public anger in novel, entertaining and persuasive ways against outrageous governmental decisions – like the proposed sell-off of public forests and tax exemptions for multi-national corporations
An unexpected four-day window of lovely weather at the end of July that enabled me to climb two Munros in three days and enjoy stupendous views over the Trossachs and Southern Highlands http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/2011/08/two-munros-in-three-days/
Damian Carrington and his excellent team at Guardian Environment www.guardian.co.uk/environment including the fabulous Bike Blog and the brilliant new Environment App.
Dan Lepard and his mouth-watering recipes – by far my favourite baker
Ian Jack for simply being the best newspaper columnist around and for continually illustrating to all would-be scribblers just how to write
Finally, at long last, being able to give up the day job!
VILLAINS and bad things:
This supposedly “greenest-ever government: it actually would be very funny, if it wasn’t so sad and potentially disastrous
And, in a very close competition for the most outrageous example of its hypocritical approach to the environment – Spelman? Hammond? Paice? – no, by a few stomachs it just has to be that arch-priest of over-consumption, Eric Pickles; the Secretary for Communities who believes the best way to improve our communities is to encourage everyone to eat more take aways and then throw the remnants and packaging into the landfill
This misguided acceptance by Caroline Spelman and Defra that bovine TB can be combated by a barbarous cull of badgers
The murmurings among the country set and Agriculture Minister James Paice, urging the Government to bring back hunting, despite poll after poll showing that at least 75 per cent of the population back the ban
The steady withdrawal of subsidies from public transport in rural areas
The constant publicity afforded to the bile spouted by some gross examples of white, middle-aged, middle-class males; eg, Clarkson, Littlejohn, Letts et al who believe they are entitled to ridicule anything they fear, or don’t understand, like women, safety and environmental legislation, the disabled, the disadvantaged and certain ethnic minorities
Sadly, this list could go on and on but, let’s end 2012 on a high note with more good things than bad. Happy New Year to everyone and here’s to a happy, healthy and green 2012.