Ways to get More of Us Cycling, Part Four: Go on Yourself

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Another beautiful late winter’s day; snowdrops flirting in the sunlight, the green shoots of spring’s bluebells peeking out from the forest floor, blackbirds suddenly re-occupying the garden, tunefully demanding yet more crumbs and, with the temperature reading an agreeable 11 degrees, time to dispense with at least a couple of winter layers.

Today was our fourth consecutive springlike day and, given the inclement conditions that preceded (and will doubtless follow), far too enticing not to take advantage of. You don’t have to be a fair weather cyclist to appreciate sudden, unseasonal even, good weather and a lovely still morning combined with clear blue skies and great visibility are as good an encouragement as any to coax would-be bikers out of hibernation.

But one of the other great assets of cycling is that you can gan oan yersel, as they would say in the West of Scotland. Roughly translated this means, go on and do it yourself. Now while cycling is a perfect activity for socialising in a healthy way with likeminded friends, it is also one of the few activities that is equally suited to doing on your own. I passed probably a dozen fellow cyclists on my circuit today and all, bar an elderly couple happily eating lunch at the side of the road, were on their own. On a weekend, there will be routinely more pelotons, but solo riders will still form the majority.

IMG_1857 I suppose many riders go out on their own because they want to cycle a certain route, or distance. In my case this weekend, there was no one else around – half term probably responsible for that – and I was determined to make the most of the weather. But it is certainly an interesting comparison to consider the number of solo cyclists and runners, compared to the few people who choose to walk on their own, particularly in rural areas.

Take away dog walkers and you see very few solo walkers. I’m not sure if this is because of social reasons – some years ago a neighbour told me one of the worst effects of losing his dog was that other people regarded him very suspiciously when he walked alone over the same fields – or safety considerations, or whether walking is simply regarded as an essentially convivial activity.

Whatever, the same preconceptions, happily, don’t seem to apply to cycling and this is another real advantage when it comes to attracting more women into the saddle. Without getting sucked in to too many generalisations, it is the case that most women have to juggle time very effectively and, as a result, it is not always possible for them to fit it with friends, or join an organised event at and for a specific time. Cycling frees you from these restraints and gives you the independence to come and go when it suits you, without any social stigma attached to being on your own.

It’s often overlooked, or not appreciated, that the bicycle was one of the most liberating factors for women in the late 19th and early 20th, allowing them far greater autonomy, liberty and mobility, as well as playing an important part in the Suffragette movement. It’s not too fanciful to suggest that the humble bicycle could provide a similar measure of independence, as well as major health and economic benefits, to women in the 21st century.

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Ways to get More of Us Cycling, Part Three: Silk Scarves and Woolly Gloves

Depending on your take on the subject, it’s either crazy, astonishing, predictable or just sad, that one of the reasons most regularly given by women as to why they don’t cycle is their worry about how it will affect their appearance.

From paranoia about helmet hair to distaste about having to gear up like a lycra warrior, there is little doubt that a negative image about how you will look if you cycle is a deterrent for many people who currently do not get on their bikes.

And, given that this image is a particular obstacle predominately (if not exclusively) for women, it is another, important barrier to higher female participation in cycling.

Here, yet again, we compare very unfavourably with our European neighbours in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where the percentage of female cyclists is much higher. But, although dedicated cycle lanes and more protection from the law undeniably contribute to this, take a look at the people on their bikes in these countries and they will invariably be wearing ‘normal’ clothes. All part of a very different cycling culture of course, but an important facet of it, nevertheless.

Clearly the nature of your cycling and the type of bike you use will determine how you dress: a tweed coat would look as out of place on a carbon fibre racer as lycra would beside the wicker basket on a Pashley. There are, of course, certain safety precautions, such as not having anything flapping loosely around your pedals, or wearing long flowing clothes on a bike with a crossbar, that should be sensibly observed when cycling, but it is nonsense to contend that you can’t cycle in ordinary clothes.

And, given that this is particularly the case for short journeys to work, or school, or to the local shops – the very type of travel we should be encouraging by bike and not car – then persuading more people that you don’t have to dress up like a spaceman to cycle takes on even more importance.

Happily, there has been more focus on this in recent years and a number of retaillers selling adaptable cycle gear – “as at home in the office, as in the saddle” or such like – have sprung up, to the extent we now have the Lauren Lavernes of the world recommending their cycling gear of choice. All very well, and if it encourages more people on to their bikes, even better, but essentially this is still specialist gear and it continues to  conform to the belief that is necessary to wear particular clothes, whether specialist, adaptable or fashionable, before you can feel comfortable about cycling.

That this gear will be, by definition, expensive, compounds the problem and also fits into the growing fashion industry that is now outdoor gear. Indeed  the great outdoors is fast becoming  the new fashion catwalk. Open any magazine devoted to outdoor activity these days and at least half the pages will be devoted to advertising and ‘testing” gear. Of course exposure in the outdoors requires certain warm, waterproof and some specialised kit, and expert advice is  helpful. But the line between advice and the impression that expensive kit is a necessity, is a fine one, and one whose emphasis will, inevitably, conspire against those who cannot afford it.

After years of spending money on all kinds of ugly, smelling, uncomfortable ‘technical gear’, I now unreservedly admit that my mother (who knew nothing about outdoor gear and whose idea of an outdoor expedition was to navigate her way between Harrods and Harvey Nics, but did know her fashion and fabrics) was right all along in her advocacy of natural fabrics. Wool and silk will keep you warmer, or cooler, than any man made fibre and warm when wet.

So, a wool scarf, tied appropriately, will not only look better, but keep you warmer than a polyester buff and wool gloves will, unlike any of their technical equivalents, keep your hands warm even in soaking rain – see my experiences in Arran.

Silk scarves and woolly gloves

As for hair, I don’t intend to become embroiled into a debate about helmets, but if you do see the benefit of wearing a helmet, there is a simple solution to the dreaded ‘helmet hair’. Tie a silk scarf, as a turban, or bandeau, under your helmet and, even if you have thick, voluminous hair like me, it will not flatten. I promise! And before you shriek about the cost of silk scarves, in my experience, old ones that I’ve had for years but no longer wear, have tended to be the best, perhaps because they may have a higher proportion of silk. But have a trawl round your local market, charity and ethnic shops, as well as the internet, where you can pick up lovely, cheap and colourful silk scarves very reasonably – you never know, you may even be able to coordinate the colours with your cycling clothes!

So you can keep warm, or cool, or both and look good on a bike, without spending hundreds of pounds – and it  can be the excuse you needed to sort out all those accessories at the back of your wardrobe.

 

 

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Ways to get More of Us Cycling, Part Two: Burn Calories, not Carbon

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?

Squares of coconut ice, yum! And small enough to fit into your saddlebag

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.

Homemade chocolate truffles

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.

 

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Bye Bye 2012, Hello 2013

Well the sharp, sunny days of early December didn’t last long and, since I penned my last blog post, I doubt there has been a day free of rain in this part of the world.

Shiny new bike about to get soaked!

At least 2012  has been consistent, certainly as far as the weather was concerned, and the first month of winter has followed the same dreary pattern set out in the summer and autumn. So, little chance to get used to the new bike and the few recent rides I have attempted have characteristically ended in soaking rain and/or complete darkness.

So, without dwelling too long on the 2012 negatives – take your pick from, amongst others: fracking and the undermining of the green economy, more cycle deaths and serious injuries, increasing polarisation of the haves and have nots – number one hope for 2013 is for a drier, sunny year. Although one positive, if  idiosyncratic, effect of the extreme weather, is that more people might just begin to accept the reality of climate change.

Celebrating some of our Olympic heroes

But 2012 hasn’t all been doom and despondency: indeed, the past 12 months  have produced some amazing experiences that lifted the spirits and defined the year in a really positive way. Danny Boyle’s sublime Opening Ceremony that perfectly and spectacularly epitomised, to a global audience, the true achievements of British history, kicked off an unbelievable Olympics. And, while in no way diminishing the fantastic performances of the competitors, for me the greatest achievement of the Olympics was its inclusiveness; that it was about all of us, not just the traditional, ceremonial Britain of Tudor monarchs, Winston Churchill and the Red Arrows.

One of our greatest cyclists - and a superb role model for cycling

My particular sporting highlights? Celebrating the continuing supremacy of Britain’s fantastic cyclists, particularly Bradley’s wondrous Tour victory, was certainly near the top.  Andy Murray’s deserved gold medal and first grand slam were more than worth the wait and the perfect response to the ‘once a year tennis “fans”’ who rate media friendly drones over true talent and authenticity. And, for a dyed-in-the-wool Hoops fan, seeing Celtic beating the best club side in the world was as incredible as it was wonderful.

Away from my grand stand seat in front of the telly, 2012 will always be a landmark year for me, as it marked my long-awaited release from having to work for someone else. And I sure took advantage!

The idyllic Crinan Canal

Freed from the constraints of crowded, expensive school holidays, I travelled to Argyll in early March and enjoyed the best weather of the year, visiting some of the UK’s most important pre-historic sites in Kilmartin, before walking the length of the delightful Crinan Canal.

A belated return to Florence, four decades after its treasures first blew me away as an impressionable schoolgirl, followed in May. It did not disappoint and nor did the train journey there and back, a weekend in Rome, a week’s eco-camping at the delightful Kokopelli Camping in the breathtaking Majella National Park, followed by taster trips to Bologna and Turin.

Rooftops in Florence

Italy in the spring, courtesy of western Europe’s superb high speed rail network, would be difficult to beat and it took another landmark trip to compete. Walking the West Highland Way in early September realised a lifetime’s ambition and it too did not disappoint. Loch Lomond, Rannoch, Glen Coe and Ben Nevis all lived up to their legendary status, but for me, the highlight of the trip was to walk from Scotland’s biggest city along the drovers’ paths and military roads, beside the shimmering lochs and magnificent mountains that encapsulate the history of my native country.

Another day, another view on the West Highland Way

So, as we say goodbye to 2012, what hopes are there for 2013? On a personal level, loads more travel, finances permitting. A return trip to Knoydart (preferably in winter) is top of the list, followed by another mountain trek: the East Highland Way looks interesting. Scandinavia and Poland are possibles for 2013’s European Rail Odyssey and hopefully the immediate winter days will be lightened by a forthcoming trip to God’s Own City either to enjoy Celtic Connections or February’s Film Festival.

Let’s hope the new year sees far more joined up thinking about the priorities of all our road users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians and a halt to the decline in public transport services, particularly in rural areas. Transport poverty is a real, but under-publicised, issue and one whose solution could also provide answers to the equally-important problems of inactivity and obesity. And encouraging as many of us as possible to swap our cars for our bikes and walking shoes  could well be the the most effective and longest-lasting legacy of 2012.

Happy New Year, hope it’s drier!

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Love this Winter Cycling

If a week is a long time in politics, then just a few days can witness a sea change in climate, landscape and mood. Gone – at least for the moment – are the dank, dog days of late autumn, suddenly replaced by the sharp brightness of early winter.

Sure, it’s cold, but  isn’t December supposed to be a month of short days and long cold nights? And the unbroken ice blue skies of the last few days have more than made up for any accompanying Arctic blasts of the wind.

One of the big advantages of flexi working time during winter weekdays is the opportunity to take advantage of the short window of ideal cycling time; after any ice has melted, but before the sun sinks too low and the 4×4 wags plough their way back to the school gates. Pick your roads carefully and on weekdays, you can also avoid the leisure traffic and the embarrassment of being overtaken by a peleton of Sunday morning mamils.

True, I will admit, this morning was just that bit too icy to risk riding before lunchtime and the biting wind was the Siberian side of north, but over the last week I have persuaded myself on to the saddle to take advantage of the cold, serenity and enjoy some of my best cycling days this year. Unlike in the so-called summer months it has been dry and still and the cloudless skies have revealed the full allure of austere, frosty-edged landscapes.

“Isn’t far too cold to be out on a bike on a day like this?” is the usual reaction of friends and neighbours when they see me taking to two wheels. Well, I admit it takes me an age to get geared up and ready to ride, but once I get started, I’m always pleasantly surprised how quickly I warm up and and the fear of sudden chill is the best spur to sustaining a sufficient level of effort.

And, in response to the second most common question I’m asked, no I don’t tend to wear THAT many layers. Trial and error have convinced me that if I wear more than three layers, I get too hot and they feel far too heavy. So, I’ve settled on merino base and mid layers, topped off by a micro down jacket, if very cold, or a winter cycling jacket in all but the most extreme days. Usually my winter-weight cycling tights are fine; if it is really cold, I wear some normal tights underneath. Add a neck buff extended over the ears and a pair of insulated gloves and, crucially, some fleece-lined bootees to keep my feet warm and I’m ready for the coldest of dry days.

My new bike has also come into its own over the last couple of weeks. Lighter and with a more comfortable riding position than my old Marin (and apart from  a slight reservation about the brakes), I feel more confident on the Scott.

So, after the wettest summer I can remember, I’m more than happy that the weather has turned colder, and drier. I might have to dig out my mountain bike if it snows but, until then, I’ll wrap up warm and make the most of the shortest days of the year. Who would have thought I’d need my sunglasses more in December that in June and July? It really has been a strange year.

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Illusory Urban Autumns

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.

The ghostly spires of a city autumn

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.

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Old Bike, New Bike

 

 

My trusty old Marin

A dank, wet November afternoon, virtually dark and it’s not yet three pm: not the ideal time of year for cycling. Today, though, it’s not just the weather that’s keeping me indoors, it’s also the lack of a suitable bike. Although, I’m back on board my Cannondale, its race tyres and lack of lights, make it better suited to a dry, bright autumn day and, sadly, my trusty, faithful Marin hybrid looks as though its days on the road might finally have come to the end of the line.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had its squeaks and clicks and groans dealt with as quickly and effectively as possible, but now, with replacement and repair values estimated considerably above the cost of a new bike, regrettably, it looks like the time has come to give my Marin a permanent, fully deserved rest.

My faithful workhorse that has carried me and just about everything from vegetables and paint to flower pots and tennis rackets; that has transported me thousands of miles to work, to the shops and along some of the most isolated roads in the country and has never complained, even when it has ended up scraped and spreadeagled at the bottom of a brook because of my lack of concentration, doesn’t owe me anything and has repaid its initial price and servicing costs many times over. Now, it can look forward to a well-earned retirement in its dry garage, with only a few short, undemanding runs round the village to keep it feeling loved and remembered.

But alongside my sadness at saying goodbye to an old and trusty friend, I’m also equally excited about selecting the best choice as its replacement. Although I am as far removed from a techie fiend as can be imagined – changing a tube is a mechanical achievement for me – I always approach the purchase of a new bike with a mixture of naive enthusiasm, obsession and ineptness that drives my friends and cycling buddies to amused distraction.

So, having begun the week diligently completing all forthcoming work to free up a day at the bike shop, all possible down time is being utilised to source and compare suitable replacements.

Should I go for the prosaic option and stay with a hybrid – comfort, cost and versatility – or follow my heart and finally buy the tourer – classic, stylish and romantic – that I’ve long craved?

The jury’s out, the websites are being trawled and it’s just as well Downton, the tennis and Inspector Montalbano have finished as there won’t be much time for telly gazing over the next few days.

All advice and suggestions – particularly from those better versed in the technicalities of bicycles – gratefully received.

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The Dolomites: a different winter wonderland

You don’t have to ski to enjoy the snow. Forget the flight, pass over the pistes, cut your carbon footprint and take the train to the Dolomites this winter.

Sunrise over Pedraces
Winter activity holidays don’t have to mean downhill skiing. Later this winter I will return to my particular winter wonderland, the Dolomites, to enjoy the snow, but without the queues and unsightly lifts. And, with the added bonus of a relaxed rail journey there through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, free from airport hell and flight guilt.

Like most other visitors, I was immediately captivated by their vibrant colours and spectacular shapes when I first experienced these dramatic mountains. Tucked away in the northern corner of Italy, the area (known as Trentino/South Tyrol) benefits from a unique combination of Germanic/Latin culture, history and cuisine and five years ago the Dolomites were, deservedly awarded UNESCO world heritage status.

Santa Croce Church and Refugio

But the natural and unaffected character of the area is another, equally persuasive, magnet that draws me back to these mountains every winter. Although the region boasts over 1,000km of piste, the Dolomites are not the exclusive preserve of downhillers. The people are welcoming and genuine and the hamlets of South Tyrol are as far removed from the archetypal, commercialised ski resort as is possible to imagine.

The unspoilt villages of Arabba, Pedraces and Corvara in the dramatic Alta Badia region lie in a stunning mountain setting and provide a perfect base for snowshoeing, cross country skiing and winter walking: three excellent cardio-vascular activities that take you in close and personal to this winter wonderland, but with a negligible impact on the environment.

Winter Wonderland

Snowshoeing is much easier than it looks and within minutes of leaving the villages, you will be tracking along rivers, through woodland and across winter pastures. Higher up, waymarked trails give access to remote, snowbound landscapes normally only reached by mountaineers. Make sure you visit the tiny Santa Croce church, 2045m asl, high above Pedraces. Next door, the original Santa Croce Hospice, built over 500 years ago to accommodate pilgrims visiting the church, is now a mountain refugio (tel:+390471839632). Take a well-earned lunch break, enjoy the wholesome food and wonder at the fabulous mountain vistas.

Cross country skiing takes a little longer to master, but Corvara alone has 17kms of woodland and riverside routes below the magnificent Sella Massif. Winter walking (bring good hillwalking boots, or “four season” if you intend to use crampons) will soon take you far away from the pistes into a remote winter panorama with only its equally magnificent fauna for company: the brilliant blue skies and pristine white landscapes cleverly camouflage the arctic hares and silver foxes, but it is not unusual to spot golden eagles and chamois.

Sunset on Santa Croce Rock

Another bonus is that no expensive, specialised equipment is needed. Other than boots, pack waterproof outers, warm jacket, hat, gloves, layers and sunglasses. Snowshoes (around five euros per day) and cross country skis can be hired from sports shops in the villages, such as Sport Kostner in Corvara (Col Alt 34, 39033 Corvara, tel:+390471836112).

How to get there:
One of the key highlights of a holiday in the Dolomites, for me, is the journey itself: boarding the overnight train in Paris, travelling through the Alps, then lifting the blinds up next morning to the delightful medieval roofscapes of Verona and Padua. And a more prosaic advantage is that you can take as much footwear, bulky outer gear and extra layers as you can carry.

Sun, snow and rock: Pedraces

Eurostar’s www.eurostar.com carbon neutral trains whisk you to Paris Nord in just over two hours and return journeys start around £60. One useful, but little-known, hint for those outside the capital: discounted fares to London can be obtained through www.raileasy.com or the “Eurostar” section in www.seat61.com Remember to enter your destination as London International and not the terminus you arrive at.

Leaving the wonderful new St Pancras station www.stpancras.com mid-afternoon, it is possible to reach the Dolomites around lunchtime the next day on the overnight “Stendhal” service, departing Paris Gare de Bercy at 20.33, arriving Venice at 9.34 next morning. The return train leaves Venice at 19.57, arriving Gare de Bercy 8.19 next morning.

Use Mark Smith’s indispensable www.seat61.com (it’s worth a look even if you don’t travel by train) for inexhaustible details of routes, fares, booking instructions, connections, maps and even advice on the best way to travel between different termini in Paris.

As well as providing a superior journey experience, travelling by train can be cheaper, depending on type of accommodation and number of travellers. While it can be expensive for one or two people in a first class sleeper, six people sharing a couchette can travel for as little as £33 each, one way, booking well in advance and taking advantage of discounted fares. Remember, the price also effectively includes overnight accommodation as well as journey cost.

Venice has two stations: Mestre, on the mainland and Santa Lucia in the city centre. Tickets are valid to and from either station. Many of the hotels in the Dolomites offer transfers from Venice (Marco Polo) airport: get off at Mestre and take one of the frequent buses from outside the station. Journey time is about 15 minutes and details are available from the airport’s website:http://www.veniceairport.it/page/servizi/trasporti/treno?m=01020201#The site also contains a wealth of details about Venice and surrounding area, including how to reach the mountains by public transport http://www.veniceairport.it/page/turismo?m=1500002

Where to Stay: Collett’s Mountain Holidays www.colletts.co.uk offer a range of accommodation in hotels, hosted chalets and self-catering properties in Arraba, Pedraces and Corvara. Collett’s are renowned for their love and knowledge of the Dolomites and their flexibility, offering snowshoeing, winter walking and cross country skiing. They are a particularly good choice for anyone holidaying on their own as they attract an eclectic mix of ages, families, groups, couples and individuals, offer a sociable “office hour” each evening and serve meals in a communal atmosphere.

For independent travellers, the Hotel Melodia del Bosco Runccac, Runcac
8, 39036 Badia/Pedraces www.melodiadelbosco.it offers warm hospitality, wonderful Mediterranean and Tyrolean food and helpful, multi-lingual staff. Run by the Irsara family and extensively renovated two years ago, it occupies a stunning position, has stylish en suite rooms, a whirlpool and provides guests with extensive local knowledge.

 

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Make the most of Sustrans Cycle Routes this Autumn

We all know that Sustrans routes are great for getting from A to B safely, healthily and scenically, helping you to keep fit and do your bit for for the environment at the same time. But, they also have other attractions, particularly at this time of year.

This hasn’t been the best of summers, but one of the few benefits of the rain and lack of sun in June and July is that the hedgerows are still heavy with fruit: brambles, rose hips and even elderberries that usually ripen six to eight weeks ago, are still there.

Red Rowan berries in fruit

And as many Sustrans routes run along old railways and canal towpaths – ideal hunting grounds for hedgerow fruit – you’ll be spoilt for choice.  Even when the route runs along a country lane, you’re still in the driving seat, so to speak, as you can cycle further away from the half a mile radius out of the villages and car parks, which is as far as most of the pedestrian and car driving fruit pickers get to.

Normally I find mid to late August as the best time for the blackberry harvest, but walking the West Highland Way (which shares Sustrans Route 7 for parts of the route) in early September I was amazed at how many wild brambles  were still to ripen.

Nearer home, Route 54 between Burton and Lichfield, is (or was until I gathered the elderberries)  ideal hedgerow territory, running parallel to the Trent and Mersey Canal for a few miles and then along some high-hedged lanes.

So, pack some plastic bags in your panniers and see what you can find in the hedgerows, – but hurry because as the sun weakens, any fruit that is left will rot quickly. Blackberries will be past their best, but slows are just beginning to ripen – add sugar and a bottle of vodka/gin, leave in a dark place for as long as you can – and they make a deliciously rich (and potent!) liqueur.

Elderberries make a full-bodied (and equally potent) wine, or can be boiled up with crab apples and rose hips to make a delicious jelly.  (Recipes to follow in next post.) You can even use rowan berries, as well, but do take care and if you’re not too sure of your berries, err on the safe side with those you are familiar with.

So, in a few months time you can indulge in some mouthwatering jellies and agreeable drinks, without guilt, knowing you have picked, delivered and cooked them, all by your own efforts. Bon appetite!

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Wet, Wet, Wet…….

Craighouse, Jura

Until last Friday (the 13th as it happened) the wettest cycle I had ever completed was an eight mile ordeal from Jura’s Feolin ferry to Craighouse, the island’s only settlement. I had been promised that the undulating route enjoyed stupendous views and the steep climbs might be rewarded with a sight of some of Jura’s many red deer. In the event,  the only view I had was of water cascading down my glasses and the visibility was so bad it was only the smell from the eponymous distillery that alerted me to my eventual arrival at the island’s hotel next door.

But Friday 13th July 2012 easily surpassed the worst that Jura had thrown at me. And this time, I wasn’t cycling in the West of Scotland, Wales, the Lake District or any of Britain’s other notable wet spots. My 20 miles return ride was from Barton under Needwood to Lichfield, in the Midlands: until this jet stream summer, generally regarded as one of the drier areas of the country.

Determined to attend a local Sustran’s Volunteer Rangers’ meeting and equally intent on cycling there, I set out, complete with spare gloves and socks wrapped carefully in my panniers. The outward journey wasn’t too bad: although soaked by deceptively soft rain – “wet drizzle” as my granny used to call it – I was pleasantly surprised by the water repellence of my cheapskate Lidl jacket and after a coffee, tea cake and pleasant hour  in the Chapter’s Coffee Shop, set off with renewed vigour, for the return journey.

Now, the wet drizzle had developed into stair rods – another West of Scotland expression used to describe prevailing weather conditions – and by the time  I had crossed Trent Valley railway bridge, Netherstowe Lane had acquired enough water to attract some opportunist ducks, who were amusing themselves watching the trains flash by on the adjacent West Coast Main Line.

Around 75 minutes later – the usual journey time doubled by frequent stops to empty my shoes – I stood dripping for a few moments in the garage before removing my sodden layers. The LEDs were illuminating the dark interior and, although the calendar said lunchtime in mid July, in reality it seemed like late afternoon in November.

But, with that peculiar lack of logic that affects cyclists, I felt happy and pleased with life: happy that I had made it without mishap and I could now justify soaking in a hot bath in the early afternoon, before indulging in some well-earned comfort cakes and coffee. And, while I regularly return from a cycle seething about the idiocy of many drivers, today my faith had been restored in human decency, thanks to the two road workers on the A38 who offered me a cup of tea and the British Gas van driver who tailed me patiently along Dogshead Lane to avoid engulfing me with a tsunami of dirty surface water.

And after all, if this wet summer is a portent of our climate-changed summers of the future, then we may as well get used to it.

What I’ve learned about cycling in a deluged summer:

There is no such thing as a truly waterproof jacket and my expensive Gore-Tex jacket performed worse than my cheapy model (see above), despite assiduous proofing

The fewer layers you can wear, the better, particularly on your legs as your skin always dries out quicker

I do need to invest in some overshoes after having to dry out my shoes for the last 72 hours (and trainers are the worst possible option in the wet)

Spending on expensive Ortlieb panniers has paid off as they have easily resisted all this jet-stream summer has thrown at them

Wet gloves are worse than none at all: the only exception being my woolly fingerless ones bought en route in Arran during my Scottish Island Circuit

You do get wetter in a wet summer, than in the winter: just like walkers get wetter from longer grass in the summer, if you’re riding in country lanes and the hedgerows are of rainforest proportions, then your left arm will get much wetter than your right!

 

Postscipt: my ride through Jura was part of a Scottish Island Circuit that also included Arran and Islay.  Although it rained on most days, it was a great way to see these three breathtaking islands, and when the clouds cleared, there were views like this:

 

 

 

 

Lamlash Bay, Arran

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Knockangle Point, Islay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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