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You're reading everything on Dan's blog - including notes, reposts, checkins, videos and comics.
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DanQ.me Ecosystem

Diagram illustrating the relationships between DanQ.me and the satellite services with which it interacts.

With IndieWebCamp Oxford 2019 scheduled to take place during the Summer of Hacks, I drew a diagram (click to embiggen) of the current ecosystem that powers and propogates the content on DanQ.me. It’s mostly for my own benefit – to be able to get a big-picture view of the ways my website talks to the world and plan for what improvements I might be able to make in the future… but it also works as a vehicle to explain what my personal corner of the IndieWeb does and how it does it. Here’s a summary:

DanQ.me

Since fifteen years ago today, DanQ.me has been powered by a self-hosted WordPress installation. I know that WordPress isn’t “hip” on the IndieWeb this week and that if you’re not on the JAMstack you’re yesterday’s news, but at 15 years and counting my love affair with WordPress has lasted longer than any romantic relationship I’ve ever had with another human being, so I’m sticking with it. What’s cool in Web technologies comes and goes, but what’s important is solid, dependable tools that do what you need them to, and between WordPress, half a dozen off-the-shelf plugins and about a dozen homemade ones I’ve got everything I need right here.

Castle of the Four Winds, launched in 1998, with a then-fashionable black background.
I’d been “blogging” – not that we called it that, yet – since late 1998, but my original collection of content-mangling Perl scripts wasn’t all that. More history…

I write articles (long posts like this) and notes (short, “tweet-like” updates) directly into the site, and just occasionally other kinds of content. But for the most part, different kinds of content come from different parts of the ecosystem, as described below.

RSS reader

DanQ.me sits at the centre of the diagram, but it’s worth remembering that the diagram is deliberately incomplete: it only contains information flows directly relevant to my blog (and it doesn’t even contain all of those!). The last time I tried to draw a diagram like this that described my online life in general, then my RSS reader found its way to the centre. Which figures: my RSS reader is usually the first and often the last place I visit on the Internet, and I’ve worked hard to funnel everything through it.

FreshRSS with 129 unread items
129 unread items is a reasonable-sized queue: I try to process to “RSS zero”, but there are invariably things I want to return to on a second-pass and I’ve not yet reimplemented the “snooze button” I added to my previous RSS reader.

Right now I’m using FreshRSS – plus a handful of plugins, including some homemade ones – as my RSS reader: I switched from Tiny Tiny RSS about a year ago to take advantage of FreshRSS’s excellent responsive themes, among other features. Because some websites don’t have RSS feeds, even where they ought to, I use my own tool RSSey to retroactively “fix” people’s websites for them, dynamically adding feeds for my consumption. It’s also a nice reminder that open source and remixability were cornerstones of the original Web. My RSS reader collates information from a variety of sources and additionally gives me a one-click mechanism to push content I enjoy to my blog as a repost.

QTube

QTube is my video hosting platform; it’s a PeerTube node. If you haven’t seen it, that’s fine: most content on it is consumed indirectly either through my YouTube channel or directly on my blog as posts of the “video” kind. Also, I don’t actually vlog very often. When I do publish videos onto QTube, their republication onto YouTube or DanQ.me is optional: sometimes I plan to use a video inside an article post, for example, and so don’t need to republish it by itself.

QTube homepage showing Dan's videos
I recently changed the blue of my “brand colours” to improve accessibility, but this hasn’t carried over to QTube yet.

I’m gradually exporting or re-uploading my backlog of YouTube videos from my current and previous channels to QTube in an effort to recentralise and regain control over their hosting, but I’m in no real hurry. PeerTube certainly makes it easy, though!

Link Shortener

I operate a private link shortener which I mostly use for the expected purpose: to make links shorter and so easier to read out and memorise or else to make them take up less space in a chat window. But soon after I set it up, many years ago, I realised that it could also act as a mechanism to push content to my RSS reader to “read later”. And by the time I’m using it for that, I figured, I might as well also be using it to repost content to my blog from sources that aren’t things my RSS reader subscribes to. This leads to a process that’s perhaps unnecessarily complex: if I want to share a link with you as a repost, I’ll push it into my link shortener and mark it as going “to me”, then I’ll tell my RSS reader to push it to my blog and there it’ll be published to the world! But it works and it’s fast enough: I’m not in the habit of reposting things that are time-critical anyway.

Checkins

Dan geohashing
You know your sport is fringe when you need to reference another fringe sport to describe it. “Geohashing? It’s… a little like geocaching, but…”

I’ve been involved in brainstorming ways in which the act of finding (or failing to find, etc.) a geocache or reaching (or failing to reach) a geohashpoint could best be represented as a “checkin“, and last year I open-sourced my plugin for pulling logs (with as much automation as is permitted by the terms of service of some of the silos involved) from geocaching websites and posting them to WordPress blogs: effectively PESOS-for-geocaching. I’d prefer to be publishing on my own blog in the first instance, but syndicating my adventures from various silos into my blog is “good enough”.

Syndication

New notes get pushed out to my Twitter account, for the benefit of my Twitter-using friends. Articles get advertised on Facebook, Twitter and LiveJournal (yes, really) in teaser form, for the benefit of friends who prefer to get notifications via those platforms. Facebook have been fucking around with their APIs and terms of service lately and this is now less-automatic than it used to be, which is a bit of an annoyance. My RSS feeds carry copies of content out to people who prefer to subscribe via that medium, and I’ve also been using this to power an experimental MailChimp “daily digest” mailing list of “what Dan’s been up to” to a small number of friends, right in their email inboxes: I’ve not made it available to everybody yet, but if you’re happy to help test it then give me a shout and I’ll hook you up.

DanQ.me email newsletter
Most days don’t see an email sent or see an email with only one item, but some days – like this one – are busier. I still need to update the brand colours here, too!

Finally, a couple of IFTTT recipes push my articles and my reposts to Reddit communities: I don’t really use Reddit myself, any more, but I’ve got friends in a few places there who prefer to keep up-to-date with what I’m up to via that medium. For historical reasons, my reposts to Reddit don’t go directly via my blog’s RSS feeds but “shortcut” directly from my RSS reader: this is suboptimal because I don’t get to tweak post titles for Reddit but it’s not a big deal.

IFTTT recipe pushing articles to Reddit
What IFTTT does isn’t magic, but it’s often indistinguishable from it.

I used to syndicate content to Google+ (before it joined the long list of Things Google Have Killed) and to Ello (but it never got much traction there). I’ve probably historically syndicated to other places too: I’ve certainly manually-republished content to other blogs, from time to time, too.

Backfeed

I use Ryan Barrett‘s excellent Brid.gy to convert Twitter replies and likes back into Webmentions for publication as comments on my blog. This used to work for Facebook, too, but again: Facebook fucked it over. I’ve occasionally manually backfed significant Facebook comments, but it’s not ideal: I might like to look at using similar technologies to RSSey to subvert Facebook’s limitations.

Brid.gy's management of my Twitter backfeed
I’ve never had a need for Brid.gy’s “publishing” (i.e. POSSE) features, but its backfeed features “just work”, and it’s awesome.

Reintegration

I’ve routinely retroactively reintegrated content that I’ve produced elsewhere on the Web. This includes my previous blogs (which is why you can browse my archives, right here on this site, all the way back to some of the cringeworthy angsty-teenager posts I made in the 1990s) but also some Reddit posts, some replies originally posted directly to other people’s blogs, all my old del.icio.us bookmarks, long-form forum posts, posts I made to mailing lists and newsgroups, and more. As a result, there’s a lot of backdated content on this site, nowadays: almost a million words, and significantly more than the 600,000 or so I counted a few years ago, before my biggest push for reintegration!

Cumulative wordcount per day, by content type.
Cumulative wordcount per day, by content type. The lion’s share has always been articles, but reposts are creeping up as I’ve been writing more about the things I reshare, lately. It’d be interesting to graph the differentiation of this chart to see the periods of my life that I was writing the most: I have a hypothesis, and centralising my own content under my control makes it easier

Why do I do this? Because I really, really like owning my identity online! I’ve tried the “big” silo alternatives like Facebook, Twitter, Medium, Instagram etc., and they’ve eventually always lead to disappointment, either because they get shut down or otherwise made-unusable, because of inappropriately-applied “real names” policies, because they give too much power to untrustworthy companies, because they impose arbitrary limitations on my content, because they manipulate output promotion (and exacerbate filter bubbles), or because they make the walls of their walled gardens taller and stop you integrating with them how you used to.

A handful of silos have shown themselves to be more-trustworthy than the average – in particular, eschewing techniques that promote “lock-in” – and I’d love to tell you more about them and what I think you should look for in a silo, another time. But for now: suffice to say that just like I don’t use YouTube like most people do, I elect not to use Facebook or Twitter in the conventional ways either. And it’s awesome, thanks.

There are plenty of reasons that people choose to take control of their own Web presence – and everybody who puts content online ought to consider it – but I imagine that few individuals have such a complicated publishing ecosystem as I do! Now you’ve got a picture of how my digital content production workflow works, and perhaps start owning your online identity, too.

How a video game community filled my nephew’s final days with joy

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Michael Holyland was elated by the empathy, kindness and creativity of the team behind his favourite video game Elite Dangerous. Photograph: Mathew James Westhorpe

My nephew, Michael, died on 22 May 2019. He was 15 years old.

He loved his family, tractors, lorries, tanks, spaceships and video games (mostly about tractors, lorries, tanks and spaceships), and confronted every challenge in his short, difficult life with a resolute will that earned him much love and respect. Online in his favourite game, Elite Dangerous by Frontier Developments, he was known as CMDR Michael Holyland.

In Michael’s last week of life, thanks to the Elite Dangerous player community, a whole network of new friends sprang up in our darkest hour and made things more bearable with a magnificent display of empathy, kindness and creativity. I know it was Michael’s wish to celebrate the generosity he was shown, so I’ve written this account of how Frontier and friends made the intolerable last days of a 15-year-old boy infinitely better.

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

A beautiful article which, despite its tragedy, does an excellent job of showcasing how video gaming communities can transcend barriers of distance, age, and ability and bring joy to the world. I wish that all gaming communities could be this open-minded and caring, and that they could do so more of the time.

Metropoloid: A Metropolis Remix

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Yaz writes, by way of partial explanation:

You could fit almost the entire history of videogames into the time span covered by the silent film era, yet we consider it a mature medium, rather than one just breaking out of its infancy. Like silent movies, classic games are often incomplete, damaged, or technically limited, but have a beauty all their own. In this spirit, indie game developer Joe Blair and I built Metropoloid, a remix of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis which replaces its famously lost score with that of its contemporaries from the early days of games.

I’ve watched Metropolis a number of times over the decades, in a variety of the stages of its recovery, and I love it. I’ve watched it with a pre-recorded but believed-to-be-faithful soundtrack and I’ve watched it with several diolive accompaniment. But this is the first time I’ve watched it to the soundtrack of classic (and contemporary-retro) videogames: the Metroid, CastlevaniaZeldaMega Man and Final Fantasy series, Doom, Kirby, F-Zero and more. If you’ve got a couple of hours to spare and a love of classic film and classic videogames, then you’re in the slim minority that will get the most out of this fabulous labour of love (which, at the time of my writing, has enjoyed only a few hundred views and a mere 26 “thumbs up”: it certainly deserves a wider audience!).

Imogen Heap: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

In the second half of this video (directly linked), Imogen Heap demonstrates how she uses her Mi.Mu gloves as an expressive music manipulation tool, and then goes on to sing the most haunting rendition of Hide and Seek you’ll ever hear. The entire video’s great – in the first half she brings Guy Sigsworth up to sing Guitar Song, finally answering after 17 years the question “What if Frou Frou got back together?” – but if you only listen to the second half of this video then it’ll still improve your life.

@AndyReganCDF: I nudged you about this last week but you were at Glastonbury and I don’t know if you picked it up after you got back, so here’s a renudge.

I Staked Out My Local Dominos to See Just How Accurate Its Pizza Tracker Is

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

It wasn’t that long ago that I stumbled across a piece in The Atlantic about how TurboTax uses bogus progress bars when completing a tax return. Since reading this, I got to thinking about the most important progress bar in my life — the Domino’s Pizza Tracker. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the Domino’s Pizza Tracker is the colorful, light-up progress bar in the Domino’s app that tracks each step of your pizza’s progress, from when it’s first being prepared until it arrives at your home.

Curious about its accuracy, I decided to stake out my local Domino’s. The plan is as follows: I’m going to place an order for delivery while hanging out in the restaurant, then compare each progress mark on the tracker with what’s actually happening with my pizza. Then I’m going to follow the delivery guy in my car until he arrives at my house, where my wife will be ready to receive him. For the record, I’m going into this hoping that the pizza tracker is not in fact a lie, but I’ll be honest, I do have my suspicions, so I plan to get to the bottom of this hunch.

Me, steely-eyed and ready to determine just how accurate the Domino’s Pizza Tracker really is.

I knew it! I totally knew it! I’ve long been highly-sceptical of Dominos’ Pizza Tracker ever since – long ago – Paul got me thinking about how much easier it’d be for them to have it just “tick along” than to actually, you know, track pizza. Still, I’m pleased to see some serious (?) investigative journalism into the matter!

I Put Words on this Webpage so You Have to Listen to Me Now

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Holy cow. I am angry at how people do thing with tool. People do thing with tool so badly. You shouldn’t do thing with tool, you should do other thing, compare this:

I am using tool. I want to do thing. I flopnax the ropjar and then I get the result of doing thing (because it’s convenient to flopnax the ropjar given the existing program structure).

Guess what suckers, there is other thing that I can use that is newer. Who cares that it relies on brand new experimental rilkef that only like 5 people (including me) know? You need to get with the times. I’d tell you how it’s actually done but you wouldn’t understand it.

Look at this graph…

Man, I hate the way that people are using tool as well. I’ve been using tool to do thing for a long time now, so my opinions count more than everybody else’s. Also, even though the way I use tool is still supported and will be indefinitely, I’m absolutely opposed to tool being able to be used in a new and different way that does thing that other people want. Why can’t they just learn to use tool the way that it’s always been used?

Y’all wanna hear a story about the time I accidentally transported a brick of heroin from Los Angeles to Seattle?

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

…We decided to sell our bikes, and buy a 1979 Dodge Ram van. I want to say we paid like $600 each for it — $1200 all in. It needed a little work, but the important part was it was all easy stuff. We named the van Cassandra, and wrote our names on the door.

The plan was easy: We’ll drive up the Pacific Coast highway, and camp all along the way. We took the middle seats out of the van, so we could sleep in it at night in case it was raining. Then we went to REI to get hammocks for hammock camping.

Anniversary Break

We might never have been very good at keeping track of the exact date our relationship began in Edinburgh twelve years ago, but that doesn’t stop Ruth and I from celebrating it, often with a trip away very-approximately in the summer. This year, we marked the occasion with a return to Scotland, cycling our way around and between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Dan and Ruth, windswept and wet, aboard the Glenlee in Glasgow.
We got rained on quite a lot, early in our trip, but that didn’t slow our exploration.

Northwards #

Even sharing a lightweight conventional bike and a powerful e-bike, travelling under your own steam makes you pack lightly. We were able to get everything we needed – including packing for the diversity of weather we’d been told to expect – in a couple of pannier bags and a backpack, and pedalled our way down to Oxford Parkway station to start our journey.

Dan and Ruth drink Desperados on Oxford Parkway Railway Station.
And because we’re oh-so-classy when we go on an anniversary break, I brought a four-pack for us to drink while we waited for the train.

In anticipation of our trip and as a gift to me, Ruth had arranged for tickets on the Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Glasgow and returning from Edinburgh to London to bookend our adventure. A previous sleeper train ticket she’d purchased, for Robin as part of Challenge Robin II, had lead to enormous difficulties when the train got cancelled… but how often can sleeper trains get cancelled, anyway?

Digital display board: "Passengers for the Caledonian Sleeper service tonight departing at 23:30 are being advised that the Glasgow portio [sic] of this service has been cancelled. For further information please see staff on"
Well this can’t be good.
Turns out… more-often than you’d think. We cycled across London and got to Euston Station just in time to order dinner and pour a glass of wine before we received an email to let us know that our train had been cancelled.

Station staff advised us that instead of a nice fast train full of beds they’d arranged for a grotty slow bus full of disappointment. It took quite a bit of standing-around and waiting to speak to the right people before anybody could even confirm that we’d be able to stow our bikes on the bus, without which our plans would have been completely scuppered. Not a great start!

Dan with a bag of snacks and shit from the train crew.
Hey look, a bag full of apologies in the form of snacks.

Eight uncomfortable hours of tedious motorway (and the opportunity to wave at Oxford as we went back past it) and two service stations later, we finally reached Glasgow.

View from the bus to Glasgow.
2-4-6-8, ain’t never too late.

Glasgow #

Despite being tired and in spite of the threatening stormclouds gathering above, we pushed on with our plans to explore Glasgow. We opted to put our trust into random exploration – aided by responses to weirdly-phrased questions to Google Assistant about what we should see or do – to deliver us serendipitous discoveries, and this plan worked well for us. Glasgow’s network of cycle paths and routes seems to be effectively-managed and sprawls across the city, and getting around was incredibly easy (although it’s hilly enough that I found plenty of opportunities to require the lowest gears my bike could offer).

Glasgow Necropolis
Nothing else yet being open in Glasgow, we started our journey where many tens of thousands of Victorian-era Glaswegians finished theirs.

We kicked off by marvelling at the extravagance of the memorials at Glasgow Necropolis, a sprawling 19th-century cemetery covering an entire hill near the city’s cathedral. Especially towards the top of the hill the crypts and monuments give the impression that the dead were competing as to who could leave the most-conspicuous marker behind, but there are gems of subtler and more-attractive Gothic architecture to be seen, too. Finding a convenient nearby geocache completed the experience.

Gravestone of William Miller, author of Wee Willie Winkie
I learned that Wee Willie Winkie wasn’t the anonymously-authored folk rhyme that I’d assumed but was written by a man called William Miller. Who knew?

Pushing on, we headed downriver in search of further adventure… and breakfast. The latter was provided by the delightful Meat Up Deli, who make a spectacularly-good omelette. There, in the shadow of Partick Station, Ruth expressed surprise at the prevalence of railway stations in Glasgow; she, like many folks, hadn’t known that Glasgow is served by an underground train network, But I too would get to learn things I hadn’t known about the subway at our next destination.

Dan and Ruth cycle alongside the Clyde.
The River Clyde is served by an excellent cycle path and runs through the former industrial heart of the city.

We visited the Riverside Museum, whose exhibitions are dedicated to the history of transport and industry, with a strong local focus. It’s a terrifically-engaging museum which does a better-than-usual job of bringing history to life through carefully-constructed experiences. We spent much of the time remarking on how much the kids would love it… but then remembering that the fact that we were able to enjoy stopping and read the interpretative signage and not just have to sprint around after the tiny terrors was mostly thanks to their absence! It’s worth visiting twice, if we find ourselves up here in future with the little tykes.

Dan aboard a restored "Coronation" tram
“Coronation” Tram #1173 was worth a visit, but – as my smile shows – huge tram-fan Ruth had made me board a lot of restored trams by this point. And yes, observant reader: I am still wearing yesterday’s t-shirt, having been so-far unable to find somewhere sensible to change since the motorway journey.

It’s also where I learned something new about the Glasgow Subway: its original implementation – in effect until 1935 – was cable-driven! A steam engine on the South side of the circular network drove a pair of cables – one clockwise, one anticlockwise, each 6½ miles long – around the loop, between the tracks. To start the train, a driver would pull a lever which would cause a clamp to “grab” the continuously-running cable (gently, to prevent jerking forwards!); to stop, he’d release the clamp and apply the brakes. This solution resulted in mechanically-simple subway trains: the system’s similar to that used for some of the surviving parts of San Franciso’s original tram network.

Dan sits aboard a replica of an original Glasgow subway train.
We noticed “no spitting” signs all over all of the replica public transport at the museum. Turns out Glasgow had perhaps the worst tuberculosis outbreak in the UK, so encouraging people to keep their fluids to themselves was a big deal.

Equally impressive as the Riverside Museum is The Tall Ship accompanying it, comprising the barque Glenlee converted into a floating museum about itself and about the maritime history of its age.

Dan at the wheel of the Glenlee
I tried my hand at being helmsman of the Glenlee, but the staff wouldn’t let me unmoor her from the dock so we didn’t get very far. Also, I have no idea how to sail a ship. I can capsize a windsurfer; that’s got to be similar, right?

This, again, was an incredibly well-managed bit of culture, with virtually the entire ship accessible to visitors, right down into the hold and engine room, and with a great amount of effort put into producing an engaging experience supported by a mixture of interactive replicas (Ruth particularly enjoyed loading cargo into a hoist, which I’m pretty sure was designed for children), video, audio, historical sets, contemporary accounts, and all the workings of a real, functional sailing vessel.

Ruth rings the bell on the Glenlee
Plus, you can ring the ship’s bell!

After lunch at the museum’s cafe, we doubled-back along the dockside to a distillery we’d spotted on the way past. The Clydeside Distillery is a relative newcomer to the world of whisky – starting in 2017, their first casks are still several years’ aging away from being ready for consumption, but that’s not stopping them from performing tours covering the history of their building (it’s an old pumphouse that used to operate the swingbridge over the now-filled-in Queen’s Dock) and distillery, cumulating in a whisky tasting session (although not yet including their own single malt, of course).

Copper stills of the Clydeside Distillery.
“Still” working on the finished product.

This was the first time Ruth and I had attended a professionally-organised whisky-tasting together since 2012, when we did so not once but twice in the same week. Fortunately, it turns out that we hadn’t forgotten how to drink whisky; we’d both kept our hand in in the meantime. <hic> Oh, and we got to keep our tasting-glasses as souvenirs, which was a nice touch.

Dan at the whisky tasting.
I’m getting… vanilla… I’m getting honey. I’m getting a light smokiness… I’m getting…. I’m getting drunk.

Forth & Clyde Canal #

Thus far we’d been lucky that the rain had mostly held-off, at least while we’d been outdoors. But as we wrapped up in Glasgow and began our cycle ride down the towpath of the Forth & Clyde Canal, the weather turned quickly through bleak to ugly to downright atrocious. The amber flood warning we’d been given gave way to what forecasters and the media called a “weather bomb”: an hours-long torrential downpour that limited visibility and soaked everything left out in it.

You know: things like us.

Map showing route from Clydeside Distillery to Kincaid House.
Our journey from Glasgow took us along the Forth & Clyde Canal towpath to Milton of Campsie, near Kirkintilloch. Download GPX tracklog.

Our bags held up against the storm, thankfully, but despite an allegedly-waterproof covering Ruth and I both got thoroughly drenched. By the time we reached our destination of Kincaid House Hotel we were both exhausted (not helped by a lack of sleep the previous night during our rail-replacement-bus journey) and soaking wet right through to our skin. My boots squelched with every step as we shuffled uncomfortably like drowned rats into a hotel foyer way too-fancy for bedraggled waifs like us.

Clothes and shoes on a radiator.
I don’t have any photos from this leg of the journey because it was too wet to use a camera. Just imagine a picture of me underwater and you’ll get the idea. Instead, then, here’s a photo of my boots drying on a radiator.

We didn’t even have the energy to make it down to dinner, instead having room service delivered to the room while we took turns at warming up with the help of a piping hot bath. If I can sing the praises of Kincaid House in just one way, though, it’s that the food provided by room service was absolutely on-par with what I’d expect from their restaurant: none of the half-hearted approach I’ve experienced elsewhere to guests who happen to be too knackered (and in my case: lacking appropriate footwear that’s not filled with water) to drag themselves to a meal.

Kircaid House Hotel
When we finally got to see it outside of the pouring rain, it turns out that the hotel was quite pretty. Our room is in the top right (including a nook extending into the turret). If you look closely you’ll see that the third, fifth, and seventh windows on the upper floor are fake: they cover areas that have since their original construction been converted to en suite bathrooms.

Our second day of cycling was to be our longest, covering the 87½ km (54½ mile) stretch of riverside and towpath between Milton of Campsie and our next night’s accommodation on the South side of Edinburgh. We were wonderfully relieved to discover that the previous day’s epic dump of rain had used-up the clouds’ supply in a single day and the forecast was far more agreeable: cycling 55 miles during a downpour did not sound like a fun idea for either of us!

Map showing route from Kincaid House to 94DR.
The longest day’s cycling of our trip had intimidated me right from the planning stage, but a steady pace – and an improvement in the weather – put it well within our grasp. Download GPX tracklog.

Kicking off by following the Strathkelvin Railway Path, Ruth and I were able to enjoy verdant countryside alongside a beautiful brook. The signs of the area’s industrial past are increasingly well-concealed – a rotting fence made of old railway sleepers here; the remains of a long-dead stone bridge there – and nature has reclaimed the land dividing this former-railway-now-cycleway from the farmland surrounding it. Stopping briefly for another geocache we made good progress down to Barleybank where we were able to rejoin the canal towpath.

Ruth on the Strathkelvin Railway Path
Our day’s journey began following Glazert Water towards its confluence with the River Kelvin. It’s really quite pretty around here.

This is where we began to appreciate the real beauty of the Scottish lowlands. I’m a big fan of a mountain, but there’s also a real charm to the rolling wet countryside of the Lanarkshire valleys. The Forth & Clyde towpath is wonderfully maintained – perhaps even better than the canal itself, which is suffering in patches from a bloom of spring reeds – and makes for easy cycling.

Broad Burn and Wood Burn, in the Kelvin Valley.
Downstream from Kilsyth the Kelvin is fed by a crisscrossing network of burns rolling down the hills and through a marsh.

Outside of moorings at the odd village we’d pass, we saw no boats along most of the inland parts of the Forth & Clyde canal. We didn’t see many joggers, or dog-walkers, or indeed anybody for long stretches.

Ruth rides alongside the Forth & Clyde canal.
The sun climbed into the sky and we found ourselves alone on the towpath for miles at a time.

The canal was also teeming with wildlife. We had to circumnavigate a swarm of frogs, spotted varied waterfowl including a heron who’d decided that atop a footbridge was the perfect place to stand and a siskin that made itself scarce as soon as it spotted us, and saw evidence of water voles in the vicinity. The rushes and woodland all around but especially on the non-towpath side of the canal seemed especially popular with the local fauna as a place broadly left alone by humans.

Swans and cygnets
We only had a few seconds to take pictures of this swan family before the parents put themselves between us and the cygnets and started moving more-aggressively towards us.

The canal meanders peacefully, flat and lock-free, around the contours of the Kelvin valley all the way up to the end of the river. There, it drops through Wyndford Lock into the valley of Bonny Water, from which the rivers flow into the Forth. From a hydrogeological perspective, this is the half-way point between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Wyndford Lock
We stopped for a moment to look at Wyndford Lock, where a Scottish Canals worker was using the gates to adjust the water levels following the previous day’s floods.

Seven years ago, I got the chance to visit the Falkirk Wheel, but Ruth had never been so we took the opportunity to visit again. The Wheel is a very unusual design of boat lift: a pair of counterbalanced rotating arms swap places to move entire sections of the canal from the lower to upper level, and vice-versa. It’s significantly faster to navigate than a flight of locks (indeed, there used to be a massive flight of eleven locks a little way to the East, until they were filled in and replaced with parts of the Wester Hailes estate of Falkirk), wastes no water, and – because it’s always in a state of balance – uses next to no energy to operate: the hydraulics which push it oppose only air resistance and friction.

Dan and Ruth at the Falkirk Wheel
A photo can’t really do justice to the size of the Falkirk Wheel: by the time you’re close enough to appreciate what it is, you’re too close to fit it into frame.

So naturally, we took a boat ride up and down the wheel, recharged our batteries (metaphorically; the e-bike’s battery would get a top-up later in the day) at the visitor centre cafe, and enjoyed listening-in to conversations to hear the “oh, I get it” moments of people – mostly from parts of the world without a significant operating canal network, in their defence – learning how a pound lock works for the first time. It’s a “lucky 10,000” thing.

View towards Grangemouth from the top of the Falkirk Wheel
Looking East from the top of the Falkirk Wheel we could make out Grangemouth, the Kelpies, and – in the distance – Edinburgh: our destination!

Pressing on, we cycled up the hill. We felt a bit cheated, given that we’d just been up and down pedal-free on the boat tour, and this back-and-forth manoeuvrer confused my GPSr – which was already having difficulty with our insistence on sticking to the towpath despite all the road-based “shortcuts” it was suggesting – no end!

Rough Castle Tunnel
The first of our afternoon tunnels began right at the top of the Falkirk Wheel. Echo… cho… ho… o…

Union Canal #

From the top of the Wheel we passed through Rough Castle Tunnel and up onto the towpath of the Union Canal. This took us right underneath the remains of the Antonine Wall, the lesser-known sibling of Hadrian’s Wall and the absolute furthest extent, albeit short-lived, of the Roman Empire on this island. (It only took the Romans eight years to realise that holding back the Caledonian Confederacy was a lot harder work than their replacement plan: giving most of what is now Southern Scotland to the Brythonic Celts and making the defence of the Northern border into their problem.)

Dan cycling the Union Canal.
The Union Canal is higher, narrower, and windier than the Forth & Clyde.

A particular joy of this section of waterway was the Falkirk Tunnel, a very long tunnel broad enough that the towpath follows through it, comprised of a mixture of hewn rock and masonry arches and very variable in height (during construction, unstable parts of what would have been the ceiling had to be dug away, making it far roomier than most narrowboat canal tunnels).

Entrance to the Falkirk Tunnel
Don’t be fooled by the green light: this tunnel is unmanaged and the light is alternating between red and green to tell boaters to use their own damn common sense.

Wet, cold, slippery, narrow, and cobblestoned for the benefit of the horses that no-longer pull boats through this passage, we needed to dismount and push our bikes through. This proved especially challenging when we met other cyclists coming in the other direction, especially as our e-bike (as the designated “cargo bike”) was configured in what we came to lovingly call “fat ass” configuration: with pannier bags sticking out widely and awkwardly on both sides.

Water pours in through the ceiling of the Falkirk Tunnel through a combination of man-made (ventilation) and eroded shafts.

This is probably the oldest tunnel in Scotland, known with certainty to predate any of the nation’s railway tunnels. The handrail was added far later (obviously, as it would interfere with the reins of a horse), as were the mounted electric lights. As such, this must have been a genuinely challenging navigation hazard for the horse-drawn narrowboats it was built to accommodate!

Dan and Ruth in the Falkirk Tunnel (edited: redeye removed)
I had a few tries at getting a photo of the pair of us where neither of us looked silly, but failed. So here’s one where only Ruth looks silly (albeit clearly delighted at where she is).

On the other side the canal passes over mighty aqueducts spanning a series of wooded valleys, and also providing us with yet another geocaching opportunity. We were very selective about our geocache stops on this trip; there were so many candidates but we needed to make progress to ensure that we made it to Edinburgh in good time.

We took lunch and shandy at Bridge 49 where we also bought a painting depicting one of the bridges on the Union Canal and negotiated with the proprietor an arrangement to post it to us (as we certainly didn’t have space for it in our bags!), continuing a family tradition of us buying art from and of places we take holidays to. They let us recharge our batteries (literal this time: we plugged the e-bike in to ensure it’d have enough charge to make it the rest of the way without excessive rationing of power). Eventually, our bodies and bikes refuelled, we pressed on into the afternoon.

River Almond viewed from the Union Canal aqueduct that spans it (edited: removed aeroplane)
One aqueduct spanned the River Almond, which Three Ringers might recognise by its Gaelic name, Amain.

For all that we might scoff at the overly-ornate, sometimes gaudy architecture of the Victorian era – like the often-ostentatious monuments of the Necropolis we visited early in our adventure – it’s still awe-inspiring to see their engineering ingenuity. When you stand on a 200-year-old aqueduct that’s still standing, still functional, and still objectively beautiful, it’s easy to draw unflattering comparisons to the things we build today in our short-term-thinking, “throwaway” culture. Even the design of the Falkirk Wheel’s, whose fate is directly linked to these duocentenarian marvels, only called for a 120-year lifespan. How old is your house? How long can your car be kept functioning? Long-term thinking has given way to short-term solutions, and I’m not convinced that it’s for the better.

Dan looks over the edge of the Almond Aqueduct
Like the Falkirk Wheel, it’s hard to convey the scale of these aqueducts in pictures, especially those taken on their span! They’re especially impressive when you remember that they were built over two centuries ago, without the benefits of many modern facilities.

Eventually, and one further (especially sneaky) geocache later, a total of around 66 “canal miles”, one monsoon, and one sleep from the Glasgow station where we dismounted our bus, we reached the end of the Union Canal in Edinburgh.

Dan and Ruth at the Edinburgh basin of the Union Canal
The end of the canal!

Edinburgh #

There we checked in to the highly-recommendable 94DR guest house where our host Paul and his dog Molly demonstrated their ability to instantly-befriend just-about anybody.

Ruth sits in awe of a bowl of gin cocktail.
We figured that a “sharer” cocktail at the Salisbury Arms would be about the right amount for two people, but were pleasantly (?) surprised when what turned up was a punchbowl.

We went out for food and drinks at a local gastropub, and took a brief amble part-way up Arthur’s Seat (but not too far… we had just cycled fifty-something miles), of which our hotel room enjoyed a wonderful view, and went to bed.

Dan at 94DR
For some reason I felt the need to look like I was performing some kind of interpretive dance while presenting our hotel room at 94DR to Ruth.

The following morning we cycled out to Craigmillar Castle: Edinburgh’s other castle, and a fantastic (and surprisingly-intact) example of late medieval castle-building.

Map showing journeys around Edinburgh.
We covered about 20km (12½ miles) while exploring Edinburgh, but at least it was punctuated by lots of activities. Download GPX tracklog.

This place is a sprawling warren of chambers and dungeons with a wonderful and complicated history. I feel almost ashamed to not have even known that it existed before now: I’ve been to Edinburgh enough times that I feel like I ought to have visited, and I’m glad that I’ve finally had the chance to discover and explore it.

Ruth explores Craigmillar Castle
Does this picture give you Knightmare vibes? It gives me Knightmare vibes. “Take three steps forwards… it’s okay, there’s nothing to fall off of.”

Edinburgh’s a remarkable city: it feels like it gives way swiftly, but not abruptly, to the surrounding countryside, and – thanks to the hills and forests – once you’re outside of suburbia you could easily forget how close you are to Scotland’s capital.

Ruth and Dan atop Craigmillar Castle
From atop Craigmillar Castle it was hard to imagine a time at which there’d have been little but moorland and fields spanning the league between there and the capital.

In addition to a wonderful touch with history and a virtual geocache, Craigmillar Castle also provided with a delightful route back to the city centre. “The Innocent Railway” – an 1830s stretch of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway which retained a tradition of horse-drawn carriages long after they’d gone out of fashion elsewhere – once connected Craigmillar to Holyrood Park Road along the edge of what is now Bawsinch and Duddington Nature Reserve, and has long since been converted into a cycleway.

Ruth cycles through the former railway tunnel of The Innocent Railway.
The 520-metre long Innocent Tunnel may have been the first public railway tunnel in Britain. Since 1994, it’s been a cycle path.

Making the most of our time in the city, we hit up a spa (that Ruth had secretly booked as a surprise for me) in the afternoon followed by an escape room – The Tesla Cube – in the evening. The former involved a relaxing soak, a stress-busting massage, and a chill lounge in a rooftop pool. The latter undid all of the good of this by comprising of us running around frantically barking updates at one another and eventually rocking the week’s highscore for the game. Turns out we make a pretty good pair at escape rooms.

Dan and Ruth pretend to be asleep while holding a sign that says that they solved The Tesla Cube escape room in 32 mintues and 22 seconds.
If we look pretty tired at this point, it’s because we are. (Fun fact, my phone insisted that we ought to take this picture again because, as it said “somebody blinked”.)

Southwards #

After a light dinner at the excellent vegan cafe Holy Cow (who somehow sell a banana bread that is vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free: by the time you add no eggs, dairy, flour or sugar, isn’t banana bread just a mashed banana?) and a quick trip to buy some supplies, we rode to Waverley Station to find out if we’d at least be able to get a sleeper train home and hoping for not-another-bus.

Holy Cow Edinburgh
I had their kidney-bean burger. It was delicious.

We got a train this time, at least, but the journey wasn’t without its (unnecessary) stresses. We were allowed past the check-in gates and to queue to load our bikes into their designated storage space but only after waiting for this to become available (for some reason it wasn’t immediately, even though the door was open and crew were standing there) were we told that our tickets needed to be taken back to the check-in gates (which had now developed a queue of their own) and something done to them before they could be accepted. Then they reprogrammed the train’s digital displays incorrectly, so we boarded coach B but then it turned into coach E once we were inside, leading to confused passengers trying to take one another’s rooms… it later turned back into coach B, which apparently reset the digital locks on everybody’s doors so some passengers who’d already put their luggage into a room now found that they weren’t allowed into that room…

Caledonian Sleeper in Edinburgh
We were surprised to discover that our sleeper from Edinburgh to London had the same crew as the one we’d not been able to get to Glasgow earlier in the week. So they got to hear us complain at them for a second time, albeit for different reasons.

…all of which tied-up the crew and prevented them from dealing with deeper issues like the fact that the room we’d been allocated (a room with twin bunks) wasn’t what we’d paid for (a double room). And so once their seemingly-skeleton crew had solved all of their initial technical problems they still needed to go back and rearrange us and several other customers in a sliding-puzzle-game into one another’s rooms in order to give everybody what they’d actually booked in the first place.

In conclusion: a combination of bad signage, technical troubles, and understaffing made our train journey South only slightly less stressful than our bus journey North had been. I’ve sort-of been put off sleeper trains.

Caledonian Sleeper room
The room itself, once we finally got it, was reasonable, although it was reminiscent of time spent in small camper vans where using one piece of furniture first means folding away a different piece of furniture.

After a reasonable night’s sleep – certainly better than a bus! – we arrived in London, ate some breakfast, took a brief cycle around Regent’s Park, and then found our way to Marylebone to catch a train home.

Bikes packed onto the train back to Oxford.
Getting our bikes onto the train back to Oxford from London was, amazingly, easier than getting them onto the sleeper train on which we’d specifically booked a space for them.

All in all it was a spectacular and highly-memorable adventure, illustrative of the joy of leaving planning to good-luck, the perseverance of wet cyclists, the ingenuity of Victorian engineers, the beauty of the Scottish lowlands, the cycle-friendliness of Glasgow, and – sadly – the sheer incompetence of the operators of sleeper trains.

A++, would celebrate our love this way again.

Dan Q found GC7B9AF Edinburgh’s Other Castle

This checkin to GC7B9AF Edinburgh's Other Castle reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

My partner fleeblewidget and I have been cycling around Scotland as part of celebrations of the twelfth anniversary of us becoming a couple (a relationship that started in Edinburgh). On the way, we’ve been cherry-picking some of the most-interesting geocaches to hunt for as we’ve travelled.

After cycling our last leg from Glasgow to Edinburgh yesterday, we spent today visiting parts of the city we’d not seen before, including the hidden gem that is Craigmillar Castle. Fortunately, fleeblewidget has a life membership of English Heritage and as a result of a reciprocal arrangement with Scottish Heritage, and so our entry to this wonderful medieval castle was free of charge. An extended exploration of the grounds found us the relevant spot where we took the pictures attached. Email to the CO with the challenge answers will follow soon.

Thanks for setting up this virtual and helping us discover this corner of Edinburgh. FP awarded, and TFTC!

See more posts about our 2019 anniversary break?

Map of 55.9257,-3.140967

Dan Q found GC3W69Q Philpstoun wander – Who stole the bridge?

This checkin to GC3W69Q Philpstoun wander - Who stole the bridge? reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Found easily with fleeblewidget: we’ve come up from Oxford and we’re cycling from Glasgow to Edinburgh as part of our anniversary celebrations. Lovely spot, and yes, surely it was a bridge, once. TFTC!

See more posts about our 2019 anniversary break?

Map of 55.975,-3.515367