Austerity January: How was it for you?

A Winter Dawn

January is never many people’s favourite month and this year, at the onset of  of Austerity 2012, it was forecasted to be even worse than normal for most people.  Indeed, each year we are reminded that the middle Monday in January (this year the experts couldn’t quite agree if Blue Monday would be the 16th or 23rd) is the most depressing day of the year.  So,on this, the last Monday of January, how was the most miserable month for you?

When wishing the days of this, or any other month, away as quickly as possible, I am always reminded of my grandmother’s repeated maxim: “Life isn’t a rehearsal girl; make the most of every day you can because you’re a long time dead.” But, for as long as I can remember, the short, bleak days after New Year, when the decorations come down and the weather usually worsens, have always been a time to endure, not enjoy.

However, this year, having given up the day job and now in a position to determine my own days, I was actually relieved to leave the artificiality of the festive period behind and looked forward to the new year as a new beginning. And I have not been disappointed.

Dawn and Dusk: having foregone the daily commute, I have been able to appreciate the two best periods of a winter day; sunrise and sunset. Most of us miss sunrise in the spring and summer because we are not up and about early enough, but in January, the sun rises around 8am and maybe it’s because of the sun’s low trajectory in the sky, or the lingering morning mists, but there is always a mystical wonder to a winter sunrise. And at the end of the afternoon, the pink pastiche in the south western sky can transform even a Midlands gravel pit into a Turneresque landscape.

Sunset's Pink Pastiche

The Weather: for the traditionally worst month of the year, it actually hasn’t been that bad. Although the mild temperatures have tricked some wildlife into believing it’s spring and the rain has turned fields into quagmires, at least heating bills should benefit.  And the short cold snap towards the middle of the month provided some ideal walking conditions, along with stunning frosty vistas.

January at the Movies: cold, short days provide a great excuse to escape to the cinema and the last three weeks have seen the release of some estimable movies. Warhorse defied the hype, a pocketful of hankies and my misgivings about surviving a sad animal film to at least remind us of the heroic sacrifices of animals in warfare and the enduring relationship between man and beast. The Artist is a gem that only the most miserable curmudgeon could dislike (Uggie the dog for the oscar) and, much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed The Descendants, where George Clooney gives his best performance yet – and despite the greying hair, Hawaiian shirts and flip flops, he’s still worth looking at.

Living on a Budget: yes, even that has had upsides! Having to think about, and justify, what I spend for the first time in over a decade has certainly made me much more financially disciplined. But, it has also encouraged me to be much more inventive. And January is the ideal month to experiment with new recipes for comfort food and more efficient ways to cook them. Waitrose, for example, has introduced a range of ‘forgotten cuts’ of meat like brisket and silverside that can be cooked slowly and more economically, as in this delicious pot roast recipe from Delia: And, as a strange Scot who doesn’t like traditional haggis (or whisky either!) this tasty (and cheap) recipe for vegetarian haggis resulted in a memorable Burns’ Night.

Misty Shadows on a Frosty Dawn

Ditching the Car: no more commuting and not as much money = thinking very carefully about when and if I need to drive. During January my total car mileage was 90 miles and that included one trip to a medical appointment at a location far off a bus route and one journey to transport friends to the cinema. Now the wrist has mended and I’m back on the bike, I can cycle to the market and do the bulk of my food shopping online.

One important task for the next few months is to assess whether I can get rid of the car altogether – not easy living seven miles from a station and without a decent bus service. Maintaining a car is going to be the biggest drain on my resources, and that’s not just because of petrol costs. Pedestrians’ charity Living Streets has highlighted research from the Department of Transport  showing the fixed costs of car ownership are now around £40 per week – about £10 per trip if you only use the car two or three times a week.

Assignments for February and beyond then, now include helping Sustrans maintain and improve the local cycle routes and lobbying for car clubs and neighbourhood car rental schemes in my locality

So, at the end of January, the cold, rosy-fingered dawn of 2012 has opened up some new, exciting possibilities. How has it been for you?

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Boot and Bike Literature

Winter Reading List

The shortest day is almost upon us and this, the  darkest time of the year, usually with the  worst weather and the most chance of colds and ‘flu, is also the time of least opportunity for most of us to get out and about.

But equally, it’s the ideal time of the year to plan for the spring/summer; next year’s holiday; a wish, or intention, of Munros to bag, coast to coasts to conquer, long distance trails to attack.  Therefore, to keep us going over the winter, to recreate our experiences in sunnier climes and times, to find out more about places we want to visit, or re-visit, many of us spend more time reading about the great outdoors during the gloomy months.

But  what do we read to keep our umbilical cord connected to the mountains, coasts and wildlife beyond our artificially warm and bright winter quarters?

Obviously, guidebooks, Rough, Blue and of other hues, for specific areas,  plus cycling, walking and climbing handbooks, as well as  factual information on wildlife, history, food, culture and topography will be obvious starting points. But, it was a childhood consumption of classics like, Ring of Bright Water and Tarka the Otter,that sparked my love of wildlife and determination to visit Skye/Knoydart and Devon respectively. Equally, the Iliad and Odyssey triggered a grander plan to explore Greece and her islands.

A Coffee, A Cake and a Book

Well written (auto)biographies, particularly when they are first hand accounts of pioneers in fields like climbing, walking and cycling, are often worth reading.  Jock Nimlin’s May the Fire Always be Lit tells  how, in the 1930s, young workers from the Glasgow area escaped unemployment and harsh living conditions through walking, cycling and climbing, in the Trossachs and beyond, often equipped only with working boots and washing lines. Gwen Moffat, another climber, but from a completely different background, recounts her experiences as one of the few women on the summits in the 1940s and 1950s in Space Below my Feet. For present day cyclists (and anyone else interested in a good book), Rob Penn’s It’s All About the Bike has to be a required read.

But, for me, a good novel has always been the best introduction to the area in which it is set. A superficial selection could include:
North East Scotland in Sunset Song; the Cotswolds in Cider with Rosie; Yorkshire Moors in Wuthering Heights; the Trossachs in Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels; the Cornish coastline in Rebecca; Exmoor in Lorna Doone, Dorset in Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles et al;  and Sweden Norway and Denmark in just about any Scandinavian crime novel!
And, of course, we can add Wordsworth’s poetry for the Lake District, Burns for South West Scotland and Owen Sheers for Wales.

That said, you don’t need to spend all of the winter months wrapped in a book. When you do have a few hours spare over a weekend, or in the Christmas holidays, why not plan a literary-themed series of urban walks and cycles?


Winter in the City

Charles Dickens’ London; Ian Rankin’s (Rebus’s) Edinburgh;  Colin Dexter’s (Morse’s) Oxford; James Joyce’s  (or Wilde’s, or Synge’s, or Yeats’) Dublin; Alasdair Gray’s Glasgow come immediately to mind.

Recently, the Ramblers organised a series of walks based on films set in London, including  an Ealing comedy circuit, and East End gangland route. Well on that theme, how about a Shane Meadows’ inspired mystery tour of the East Midlands?

However,  if you like your  pre-Christmas jaunt to be somewhere a little more magical than Uttoxeter, then what about a visit to the canals and medieval markets In Bruges, or make a Killing on some of those suddenly-trendy woolly jumpers in Copenhagen?

Add in a few favourite TV series – a Foyle’s War reconnaissance of the Sussex coast, or a Wycliffian trip around Cornwall perhaps – and the possibilities are endless.

More darkness means less time in the great outdoors over the next few months, but more time for reading and catching up with the latest movies and those you’ve missed. And remember, as with your trips to the great outdoors, your literary themed walks and cycles should always be planned around an appetising, calorie-fuelled pub/cafe stop. 

What’s not to like?

Share your suggestions here for more Boot and Bike literature, or literary-themed trips.

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Discover Dumfriesshire: Walk/Cycle

View from Kirkland Hill, Kirkconnel

Where? Kirkconnel/Sanquhar, north Dumfriesshire


How? train from Glasgow Central (or Carlisle if travelling north) to Kirkconnel/Sanquhar, return buses from Wanlockhead/Thornhill/Carronbridge, if needed, run to Kirkconnel and Sanquhar

Why? one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets; the beautiful, unspoilt Nith valley, undiscovered by tourists, ideal walking/cycling country, direct access to Southern Upland Way  on National Byway cycle route  birthplace of the bicycle   yet, within easy access of Glasgow and Carlisle.

But: very isolated outside of the villages, can be bleak with high rainfall and infrequent transport, so vital to check timetables and plan in advance; proper equipment, sufficient supplies and spares are vital

Info: routes shown on maps; OS Explorers 320, 321, 328, 329

Terrain: steep gradients away from valley floor, often wet and muddy

Refreshments: hotel, pubs, cafes in Sanquhar and Thornhill, tearoom at Drumlanrig Castle   . Blackaddie Country House Hotel in Sanquhar  is located in beautiful surroundings and has gained a very good reputation for its food

Baker's Burn, Kirkconnel

Separated by the bleak and brooding Lowther Hills from its more famous neighbour, the Clyde, the River Nith follows a southerly course from its source in East Ayrshire to the Solway Firth. Best known for its excellent trout and salmon fishing and associations with Robert Burns, the majority of its valley lies in Dumfriesshire; from the bleak, open vistas of Upper Nithsdale, through a dramatic, gorge-like stretch between Mennock and Carronbridge – Highlandesque, in terms of its spectacular  beauty – to the wide flood plain of Dumfries and thence into the Solway.

This is undiscovered Scotland; usually hastily bypassed on the M74 and West Coast Main Line 15 miles or so to the east.  Undiscovered, of course, also means unspoilt and non-commercialised.  But, linked by rail to Carlisle and Glasgow, with direct access to the Southern Upland Way and with world-class on and off-road cycling opportunities, it’s an excellent area for booters and bikers, with plenty of history, culture and even some foodie options thrown in.

Sunset over the Nith Valley

 It’s also a remarkably easy area to get to: change at Carlisle – about four-five  hours from London and around three from the Midlands on the West Coast Main Line – take the service to Glasgow via Dumfries and you arrive in Sanquhar/Kirkconnel (both villages have stations) in just over an hour. Similarly, the same service in reverse from Glasgow takes about 90 minutes.

Increasingly popular with off-road bikers as it’s right in the heart of the Seven Stanes series of world-class MTB courses,  this corner of SW Scotland is also ideal for road cycling and touring and every type of walking, from the most testing long distance footpath in Britain to riverside rambles   A 15 mile trail focusing on the coal and lead mining heritage of the area has recently been opened linking Kirkconnel to Wanlockhead. It crosses rough moorland, with some spectacular views, but is strenuous, so proper equipment and hill-walking experience are necessary,-3.823472

Although not renowned for copious amounts of sunshine  –  it can be bleak and cool even in the middle of summer – it is usually mild and the area’s plentiful rainfall results in a lush, emerald vista of deciduous woodlands and fast flowing streams (as well, regrettably the ubiquitous midges).  It’s refreshingly untouristy and the evening light lingers long, from April right through to August.

Sanquhar boasts the oldest post office in the world   and the town holds a historic Riding the Marches every year

The area, generally, is noted for its salmon fishing and, for admirers of Scotland’s national bard, it is smack in between  Robert Burns’ birthplace  near Ayr, and his grave and mausoleum in Dumfries.

St Conal's Cross

Definitely worth a look is the beautiful and historic church in Kirkconnel that dates from the early 18th century. However, the first church in the village is thought to have been established by St Conal in the eighth century.  Closed down during the period of Covenanter unrest in the 1680s, a Celtic cross now marks the site, about two miles out of the village, and a  recent renovation project has restored the site of the original kirkyard.

 Both Kirkconnel and Sanquhar have strong historic links with the Covenanters – people in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638 opposing any interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Scottish Presbyterian church. In 1680 the preacher Richard Cameron, issued the famous Sanquhar Declaration, renouncing allegiance to Charles II. This, and a second declaration in the town, by James Renwick five years later, set out the basis of future religious freedom in Scotland.


Boot and Bike Options: 

i) walk along the Southern Upland Way out of Sanquhar east towards Wanlockhead – about 8 miles

From Sanquhar station follow the signs for the Southern Upland Way east.  Make sure you visit the award-winning Museum of Lead Mining  and return by bus to Sanquhar railway station. 

Sanquhar to Wanlockhead

ii) walk/cycle from Sanquhar along minor roads and forest tracks to Kirkconnel and back – about 11 miles, off-road bike needed

From Sanquhar station go down Station Road, cross the A76, then straight head along Blackaddie Road. Cross the bridge and keep straight ahead. The road then follows Euchan Water past a lovely waterfall. The scenery is superb and after about two miles you will reach a coniferous plantation.  Cross a ford (you may need to lift your bike over a gate here), keep on the track through the rest of the trees, descend to cross a burn and follow the track through the next plantation. Keep on the track until a cattle grid, turn right, cross another grid and then continue along the side of Corserig Hill.  Keep going until the track splits, bear left on the well-defined path and follow this through Librymoor Plantation until you see Kirkconnel Cemetery in front of you. Turn right on to the minor road that runs behind Kirkconnel and continue on this for approximately three miles. At Blackaddie Bridge, turn left and follow  the road back into Sanquhar.

Sanquhar - Kirkconnel - Sanquhar Off-Road

 ii) cycle from Sanquhar to Drumlanrig Estate near Carronbridge – 17-20 miles, depending on route, off-road bike needed if riding the forest trails at Drumlanrig

Follow above directions from Sanquhar station to Blackaddie Bridge, then turn left and follow the minor road with the River Nith on your left; past Menock and Eliock Wood the valley is spectacular. At Burnmouth the road heads south, away from the river. Continue for about half a mile to Burnsands where you can either turn left and follow the road direct to Drumlanrig Castle (about 2-3 miles) or go straight on for about five miles, where the road then loops round back to Drumlanrig. 

Visit Drumlanrig Castle sample the  mountain bike trails (variety of routes available, off-road bike needed), pop into the Scottish Cycle Museum (Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Drumlanrig blacksmith, rode a  bicycle he invented the 60miles to Glasgow in 1839, heralding the age of the bicycle), or enjoy the many walking routes through Drumlanrig forest.

Sanquhar to Drumlanrig
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