08 May 2017

Glasgow Coffee Festival 2017

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After missing last year’s event through negligently failing to apply for tickets in time, I did manage to remember this year’s date and successfully secured my place several weeks ago.  Undeterred by a foot injury, even a perfect spring day, – the hottest so far, this year, in the city – couldn’t keep me away.

The Briggait: Glasgow's wonderful Victorian fish market

The Briggait: Glasgow’s wonderful Victorian fish market

The Victorian splendour of the Briggait Glasgow’s old fish market, provided an appropriate setting for the profusion of gleaming brass and chrome on display across the main hall.

One of the great advantages of living in Scotland’s biggest city these days – up there with better cycling provision and ever-expanding foodie options – is the amazing variety of locally roasted beans now available, as well as the burgeoning range of indie and speciality cafes where they can be sampled.

Highlights were discovering some new kids on the block; Davide for his very informative backstory of Ovenbird (about to try my first flat white with Wegida Blue Natural); McCune Smith for the scrumptious amaretto and Glenfiddich brownie; and the lovely lady from Indycoffeeguides.

Essential packing for trip north in the summer

Essential packing for trip north in the summer

Armed with my new Scotland copy, complete with its essential advice on cycling friendly establishments, I’m well set for my trip north to Skye later in the summer and a detour to Dundee now looks to be in order, en route to the Fife coast  in the autumn.

Thanks to Dear Green for an excellent (on the house) flat white and for hosting the event.  I’m still hopeful you can come up with some letterbox-friendly packaging so your beans  can be delivered straight to my door later in the year!

Roll on 2018.

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11 Feb 2017

A trio of north European cities: Cologne, Copenhagen, Hamburg

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Spring – calendar, if not temperature-wise – a three week window between other commitments and a train journey to north west Europe: so no excuse not to have a city break, or three.

I was on my way to Denmark to visit friends in southern Jutland and had already organised a few days in Copenhagen in the middle of my break.  But, as I was travelling there by train, via Cologne and Hamburg, the opportunity to visit these two cities was too good to miss.

 

First city; Cologne.

Using Eurostar and Deutsch Bahn’s wonderful ICE high-speed trains, you can be in Cologne a little over five hours after leaving London (and this includes connection time in Brussels).  Have a look at By Train to Denmark for full details.

The Rhine from the top of Cologne Cathedral

The Rhine from the top of Cologne Cathedral

Emerging from the station the majestic edifice of Cologne’s thirteenth century cathedral dominated the skyline every bit as much as I remembered from my only previous visit many years before; the massive scale of the building perhaps best demonstrated by the dark shadow its 157m spires threw across the entire Bahnhofvorplatz on what was a very bright spring afternoon.

This Gothic masterpiece was the major reason for my return visit to the city, but that treat was for tomorrow.  For the moment, I headed for my hotel, the CityClass Residence am Dom, an easy ten minute stroll from the station.

Spectacular stained glass inside the cathedral

Spectacular stained glass inside the cathedral

Pleasant, helpful staff, an uncomplicated check-in and great city view from my window, left a positive first impression of the Cologne and its people.  As it was a pleasant late afternoon, and as I had been travelling for several hours, I wasted little time in taking a walk round the city to make the most of the remaining hours of daylight.

Cologne is an impressive retail centre, with many department chains and specialist stores, but I headed for a rather more specialised and bizarre shopping destination; the Scotia Spirit Whisky shop.  Yes, I’m aware of the irony, but buying whisky in Germany, en route from Scotland to Denmark, is not quite so strange once the benefits of not having to carry the bottle as far and, the lower cost and greater choice – particularly compared to the paltry choice and high prices on offer at Eurostar’s terminal – are taken into account.

The awesome interior of Cologne Cathedral

The awesome interior of Cologne Cathedral

I’m not a whisky drinker, but I was seriously impressed with the choice and the staff expertise. My visit to Scotia Spirit was equally memorable for an extended and interesting conversation on the UK’s (then) forthcoming referendum on EU membership.  It also confirmed how much more the average European knows about the UK, than we do about them (or, indeed ourselves) and, in retrospect, how utterly tragic that the general goodwill on the continent towards this country has been so shattered by a decision based on unfounded hysteria and untruths.

Next morning, my only full day in Cologne, there was only one destination. In the late nineteenth century it was the tallest building in the world, it’s still the largest Gothic church in Germany and the tallest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world, so there are more than a few reasons to visit Cologne Cathedral. My first port of call was the ticket office to gain entry to the spire. 532 steps later, the view over the city and Rhine, was, as expected, spectacular, but also confirmed the strategic importance of the cathedral.

One of the massive cathedral bells

One of the massive cathedral bells

On the descent there was time to inspective huge bells that ring out over the city.  These massive castings again give a wonderful insight into the scale of the cathedral while the stained glass windows in the body of the cathedral are simply breathtaking. The grainy photograph of the twin spires, in the midst of a devastated landscape, remains an indelible image of the destruction of World War Two. Visiting churches and cathedrals is my default position on short city breaks, not for any religious reason, but as an ideal way of gaining a historical insight into the area.

I couldn’t leave the city without buying an item almost as firmly associated with Cologne as the cathedral: its eponymous perfume.  Although heavily commercialised, its inimitable scent and characteristic gold and turquoise bottle always remind me of teenage days and my first proper perfume.

The iconic, eponymous eau de Cologne

The iconic, eponymous eau de Cologne

The lure of the cathedral will always draw me back to Cologne, but this attractive, confident city has much else to offer, particularly as an easy-to-reach destination by train, as well as an ideal starting point for further travels in Germany.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next city; Copenhagen.

I travelled there after a week with friends in southern Jutland. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of spring sunshine and I arrived in the city in the midst of a blizzard; inclement conditions that were to last for the duration of my stay.  But, the few windows of intense, freezing sunlight were ideal for some vivid pictures of the lively colours of Nyhavn waterfront.

The colourful waterfront of Nyhavn

The colourful waterfront of Nyhavn

Good advice from my friends led me to the Hotel Bethel a former sailors’ hostel overlooking the canal and the characteristic 17th century merchants’ houses along the harbour. Efficient, helpful, welcoming and reasonably priced by Copenhagen standards, it proved to be an ideal location in the midst of the bars and restaurants of Nyhavn, but only a few minutes walk from the city centre.

Nyhavn itself, proved an immediate and obvious attraction.  The waterfront along the canal, dating from the reign of Christian V in the 1670s, was originally constructed to link the old inner city at Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square) with the sea.  Subsequently, it became better known for sailors, beer and prostitution. Interestingly, its most famous resident was Hans Christian Andersen, who lived in Nyhavn for 18 years.

The 17th century canal and waterfront is now a veteran ship and harbour museum

The 17th century canal and waterfront is now a veteran ship and harbour museum

As canal transport declined, the area fell into disrepair, but has been revitalised over the last 40 years since it was designated as a veteran ship and museum harbour.  The stretch of canal between Nyhavn Bridge and Kong’s Nytorv is lined with old ships and this, along with numerous eating and drinking establishments, now attracts thousands of tourists.

The bars and restaurants tend to be quite commercialised and very crowded, so chose your venue carefully if you want to eat/drink here. Although it was bitterly cold, there were still loads of al fresco diners: the provision of blankets (common across Denmark) no doubt a godsend, but still not enough of an incentive for me to brave the elements.

The Little Mermaid: she's much smaller than you imagine

The Little Mermaid: she’s much smaller than you imagine

Next day a relentless blizzard thwarted my ‘free’ city bus tour – technically the top of the bus may have been covered, but the tarpaulin did nothing to combat the cold and the visibility was zilch. So, where better to take refuge than in a museum?  The National Museum of Denmark, centrally located, warm, with exhibits ranging from Viking artefacts to a hash stall from Christiana, ticked all the boxes.  An additional attraction was undoubtedly the stylish museum shop, although prices of the designer knitwear were a little outwith my budget.

As with any good national museum, the collections are too extensive to be fully appreciated in one visit.  Do your homework first and be selective with what you prioritise as a must-see, particularly if there are any temporary exhibitions on display. Sadly, since my visit, this has become even more advisable as the government has now levied an admission charge, here and at the national gallery. Coming from a city with an extensive array of museums of galleries, almost all of which are free, I find it regrettable when other places charge for national collections.

Always room to squeeze in another bike in Copenhagen

Always room to squeeze in another bike in Copenhagen

Cold, wet days call for three things: excellent coffee, comfortable sofas and dependable WiFi and, happily, the slushy trudge to Risteriet in Copenhagen’s Inner Vesterbro  didn’t disappoint. Until then, I had found the standard of coffee in Denmark, with a couple of  notable exceptions, something of a let down, but this rich, creamy flat white hit the spot, the staff were unobtrusively knowledgable and the reassuringly shabby sofas ideal for a warm, comfortable, quiet half hour.

Although the weather was not conducive to sightseeing on foot, Risteriet is situated on the edge of one of Copenhagen’s coolest destinations, Kodbyen; literally translated as ‘Meat City’. Denmark has never been short of butchers, but as with London’s Smithfield Market and Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, in the last decade the Danish capital has seen the fusion of butchery with hipsters, trendy bars and restaurants, avant-garde galleries and cutting-edge hairdressers. With a fixed 24/7 modus operandi and some reasonably-priced (for Copenhagen) eating and drinking establishments, it’s well worth a stroll – at any time of day or night.

 

Scandi yarn

Scandi yarn

Kodbyen is only a few minutes walk back to the city centre, so what better way to spend the remnants of a dreich afternoon than in a knitting shop; yes, a proper yarn shop, complete with shelves of wool, needles, patterns and helpful, expert staff.  If Scandi-mania has inspired you to get knitting, then make sure Sommerflugen  is on your itinerary

Usually I have a theme for my city visits – this one was to visit iconic churches for their historical insight and then climb their spires for the view –  and, although the weather had been an impediment, I was able to fit in a quick look round Copenhagen’s most visually intriguing church on my last morning.

The remarkable twisted spire of the Church of Our Saviour  in the Christianshavn district, is visible across Copenhagen. Despite dire warnings that it was not for the faint hearted, I was determined to climb the exterior steps to the dome and a window of watery sunshine next morning gave me the opportunity.

The unique corkscrew spire of St Savour's Church

The unique corkscrew spire of  Our Saviour’s

Dating from the 1680s, this rare Baroque Danish church took 16 years to build, particularly as its foundations lie on a filled-in sea bed. The precise design of the interior deserved more time to admire, but it was the magnificent 17th organ, the oldest in Denmark, that took my eye. Miraculously, it survived the many city fires of the 18th century, as well as the British bombardment of 1807 and it is incredible to realise that the pipes that are still used in all services and performances in the church, date from over 300 years ago.

The unique spire was not completed until 1752 and rises to 90 metres above the floor of the church.  Of the 400 steps, the last 150 wind their way around the outside of the spire.  At the top, I touched the golden globe (considered a test of manhood!) and was grateful that, although it can apparently house 12 adults, this morning there were only two of us.  On the descent I spent a few minutes admiring another treasure of Our Saviour’s; the amazing 48-bell carillon. If you happen to be in the city at 4pm on a Saturday, listen out for the weekly rendition of the bells.

Interior of St Savour's

Interior of Our Saviour’s

Ever since I received a childhood postcard of the Little Mermaid, I have wanted to visit Copenhagen. Unfortunately the statue, while not an unexpected disappointment, didn’t exactly blow me away. The weather could have been better but, coming from Scotland, you learn not to let the elements, however inclement, spoil your travels.

Copenhagen Free Walking Tours promised much, but delivered little.  Having tour guide experience myself, I appreciate the demands, but after 90 minutes of best bar recommendations and irritating Aussie Pom-bashing, I was too bored to bother with the second half of the walk.  In retrospect, I suggest choosing your guide carefully.

But those minor irritations in no way detracted from my positive impressions of the city.  As a cycle freak, despite the snow, I stood in awe and envy as the mass hordes of two-wheeled commuters swept through the city at rush hour; as an Ecco shoes fanatic I found myself in footwear Nirvana, with insufficient will power to resist another purchase; and as a admirer of Scandinavian design, food, knitting, hygge, I was in seventh heaven.

 

Final city: Hamburg.

Travelling here from southern Jutland resembled a living history lesson as we crossed the Kiel Canal and passed through names evocative of the Schleswig-Holstein question in the mid 19th century and several of the other momentous events that led to the unification of Germany.

The Speicherstadt, Hamburg

The Speicherstadt, Hamburg

My hotel, the Europaeischer  straight across from the station, could not have been more convenient.  With exceptionally well-informed and helpful staff, a good restaurant, small gym and inclusive free city travel for three days, it proved to be the best stay of the trip. Its central location, although slightly edgy in the evenings, provided great access to the city centre, the interesting St Georg area and a wide range of eating and drinking options.

Hamburg has been on my places-to-visit list for a long time.  Maritime cities have always fascinated me and Hamburg, the historic ‘gateway to the world’, a cornerstone of the Hanseatic League, with its trading links across the globe is, by any standards, up there with the best. Its uncanny ability to survive and prosper, despite repeated destruction by fire, floods and war also adds to its attraction, although long before I had little more than a cursory knowledge of European history, I just wanted to see Hamburg because that’s where the Beatles became famous.

Hamburg's International Maritimes Museum

Hamburg’s International Maritimes Museum

Germany’s second largest city and biggest port certainly throws up the quandary of so much to see, so little time, but given my fascination with Hamburg’s maritime past, there was no debate about my first destination next morning: the fabulous Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg (IMMH)  Housed in the oldest preserved warehouse in the Hafen district, the collection covers 10 floors and includes 40,000 items and over a million photographs, largely based on the private collection of journalist and publisher, Peter Tamm.

But, you don’t need to be a seafaring type to enjoy the museum. The exhibits include  47 original letters written by Horatio Nelson, over 15,000 cruise ship menus and a 3,000 year old dug out from the River Elbe.  There is the requisite cafe and shop (both of rather higher standard than usual heritage offerings) and it does cost – around £10 on my visit, sadly more now given the post-Brexit collapse of the pound. But I spent nearly five hours engrossed in a fascinating, dramatically displayed collection and, if I had a complaint, it would be that even that wasn’t enough time.

The Neo-Renaissance Radhaus

The Neo-Renaissance Rathaus

It was also a brilliantly sunny afternoon and the kind of fresh, spring temperature conducive to a city wander.  And as I stepped out of the museum, the surrounding  Speicherstadt (warehouse district) was the ideal place to start. Constructed at the end of the 19th and now with UNESCO World Heritage status, this “City of Warehouses” is the largest warehouse district in the world. The buildings stand on wooden-pile foundations and, although the area is being redeveloped, unusually, it still has many working warehouses, including those trading goods,  such as coffee, cocoa, tea and spices, around which this free trade zone originally developed.

On the way back to my hotel I passed the lovely churches of St Katharina and St Petri – both very definitely on my radar for a churches, spires and bells day tomorrow.

The spectacular interior of the Rathaus

The spectacular interior of the Rathaus

Retrospective reading can often be interesting and so it proved with the St Georg district of the city.  If I had read, and believed, the lurid warnings about drugs, prostitution, violence and so on, that seem to preface any mention of the area, I doubt I would have ventured out of the hotel at all, let alone at night.  But unaware of the its infamous reputation, I went out and wandered around on a cool and light evening. A tasty snack in an efficient Middle Eastern fast food outlet, a stroll to the waterside past the grandiose Hotel Atlantic and a beer in the company of some well-informed young Americans, combined to bring an excellent day to a very pleasant end.

View of the city from the top of St Petri

View of the city from the top of St Petri

A brilliantly sunny final day provided the ideal conditions to conclude my theme of church visits and spire climbs.  In Hamburg, as with much else, the difficulty was selecting a few from the many. Starting with the nearest, Hauptkirche St Petri (St Peter’s Church) is built on the site of several previous cathedrals.  Its bronze lion-head door handles are the oldest works of art in the city and, last but not least, its 132m tower afforded wonderful views of the city, its river and canals on a crystal clear morning.

Its near neighbour St Katharina’s (St Catherine’s) is another of the five principal Lutheran churches (Hauptkirchen) of the city. I was particularly keen to see the base of its 13th spire as it is the second oldest preserved building in Hamburg. St Catherine’s traditionally served as the church of the seamen of Hamburg and, although the spire was closed for repairs, the highlight of the visit was seeing its marvellous restored organ – the original, which survived until the bombing of WW2, dated from the 15th century and JS Bach was one of the famous musicians who performed on it.

The Rathaus and Hambrg city centre from the top of St Petri

The Rathaus and Hamburg city centre from the top of St Petri

On then to St Michaelis (St Michael’s) via a much-too-brief at the stunning Neo-Renaissance town hall, the Rathaus (definitely on the list for a longer, future visit).  Known colloquially as Michel, St Michael’s is regarded as the most famous church in Hamburg. One of the finest of all Hanseatic Baroque churches, it is unusual as it was purpose built as a Protestant church. A similar height to St Peter’s, its 132m high copper-covered spire has long been a dominant feature of the Hamburg skyline, as well as a landfall mark for ships sailing up the Elbe.  And, apropos nothing, I did climb all the way to the top and walked back down, forgoing the lift.

Located in a secluded corner of the 17th century Neustadt district, St Michael’s is just round the corner from Elbe Park. A now warm and sunny late afternoon and the chance to see the Bismarck Memorial at close quarters put paid to the original plan of visiting what was once, also (albeit very briefly) the tallest building in the world, the tower of St Nikolia (St Nicholas’) Church. But St Peter’s, St Catherine’s and St Michael’s had provided a compelling  insight into the importance of the Lutheran church, as well as the style of Hamburg’s ecclesiastical architecture; and, of course, a useful cardio-vascular workout.

Bismarck Memorial from Elbe park

Bismarck Memorial from Elbe park

Hamburg, as Germany’s second largest city,  is another  first-class shopping centre.  Until now, I had confined myself to some limited window shopping, but I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of outdoor gear shops in the city centre: and not just small specialist retailers, but huge sports department stores with separate floors devoted to running, hiking, aerobics, cycling and just about everything in between.

I’m something of a Germanophile  when it comes to footwear, so the opportunity to buy a pair of leather-lined Meindl multi-activity boots, unavailable in the UK, was too good to miss.  The attractive, helpful, multi-lingual young men who served me were also happy to dispose of my trusty, old, scuffed pair.

I set off from the Hauptbahnhof next morning, determined to return to Hamburg for a future visit: always the ultimate accolade for any destination.

 

Verdict: already a convert to continental rail travel, I needed little excuse to include some city stop-offs on my way to and from Jutland.  As always, the contrast between urban discovery and rural exploration was a highlight of the holiday.  All three cities are sophisticated, confident metropoles, with distinctive character and history, plenty of culture, coffee and cycle friendly: definitely my kind of places.

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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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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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05 Sep 2014

Out on the Edge

No Comments Booting, Tours
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

No Comments Biking, Blog, Tours

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.

general_DSCF1266

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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