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.

Danny Daycare

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“Have you had a good wee day out?”

This isn’t how I behave when I’m out cycling with one of our little ‘uns in tow. But sometimes, just sometimes, when I see a solid-looking jump… I wish it could be. Honestly: our eldest would be well up for this! (And would probably be quite disappointed to sit around until the end where they reveal that, obviously, they swapped the small child for a doll for many of the shots.)

Lyme Regis To Limekilns: A 500-Mile Lime-E Adventure Across The UK

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It all started out as a joke.

Last year, Robin Varley and his friend Sergio thought it would be an amusing challenge to pedal the 50-odd mile gap between Brixton and Brighton using only London’s colloquially-named Boris Bikes. The trip lasted just over 10 hours, including a brief photo op with Gatwick police, and set the pair back a modest sum of 40 GBP.

This year Robin enlisted the help of fellow adventure-seeker Magnus Mulvany, and while the duo kept the alliterative theme of the campaign they opted for a significantly more daunting circuit.

You heard about it here first, probably, but here’s Lime Bikes’ write-up of Robin and Magnus’s adventure.

Robin Varley is fundraising for Campaign Against Living Miserably

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Remember ‘Conquer The Twatts’?

No!?

Fair enough – well last year Magnus, our good friend Sergio and I hitch-hiked from Brick Lane (London) to Twatt (Orkney, Scotland) 766 miles way. We did it in 32 hours thanks to the generous nature of the people that helped out – including drivers, a pilot and a ferry service (thanks again, you amazing humans!!).

We raised 4 x our intended amount and arrived back in London with time to spare and, frankly, a hankering to do it all over again.

So like Shackleton, Fiennes and Thomas Stevens before us, on the 19th April 2019 Magnus and I – dressed in lime green morph suits – will depart Lyme Regis, Dorset on Lime Bikes (Google them, they’re awesome) For Limekilns, Scotland – 500 miles away (sadly Sergio won’t be joining us for this one)

As with last year, we’re raising for the Campaign Against Living Miserably.

Unlike last year we’re working in association with Lime Bike, who have given us their full support for this trip – so a massive thank you to Conor and the UK team for endorsing us two idiots!

Ruth‘s brother, whom you may recall me writing about during Challenge Robin I and Challenge Robin II (and the impact the weather had on it, and on me), our New Year’s ascent of Ben Nevis, or my ill-fated bet that he couldn’t jump a river, is on his latest adventure. Following in the footsteps of his effort to conquer the Twatts (which I shared previously), and reminiscent of his cycle to Brighton on a Boris Bike, he’s once again raising money for the Campaign Against Living Miserably with an outrageous adventure well-worthy of your support.

This time around, he and his friend Magnus are riding Lime e-bikes from Lyme Regis, which is almost as far South as you can get in mainland UK, to Limekilns, which is on the “other” side of the Firth of Forth (where the wildlings live). Like Challenge Robin II, there was a fuck-up with the trains and I had to drive him from Oxford to Lyme Regis, but at least I got to find a couple of geocaches while I was down there (one, two).

Anyway: you can follow his adventure via Instagram, but what you really ought to do is go donate money to the cause: or if he’s heading broadly your way: offer him a bed for the night so he doesn’t have to kip in a tent while his batteries charge in the nearest friendly pub.

Brixton To Brighton By Boris Bike

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Boris Bike on the road to Brighton

The Boris bike is a magical creature – aptly named after the former mayor of London ‘Boris Johnson’. I say aptly because the bikes are heavy, chunky, provide the absolute bear minimum service and they are expensive to the public.

At £2 per half hour and with 55 miles ahead of us this was ultimately a race against time, with neither Sergio or I having any experience of long distance bike-riding we trundled off up Brixton Hill and into the uncertainty of the day.

Another epic chapter in Robin’s year of “52 Reflect”, bringing us ever closer to the end of his year. I particularly enjoyed the part of this story where the duo are stopped by the cops who assume that the Boris bikes they’re riding so-far-from-London have been stolen! (After all, why would anyone in their right mind ride a Boris bike all this way out of the city?).

Manchester’s bike-share scheme isn’t working because people don’t know how to share

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I really wanted to believe that Mancunians could be trusted with nice things. Just over a fortnight ago, a Chinese company called Mobike brought 1,000 shiny new silver and orange bikes to my city. Unlockable with a smartphone and available to rent for just 50p for half an hour, they could be ridden wherever you liked within Manchester and Salford and, crucially, could be left anywhere public once you were done…

What an RAF pilot can teach us about being safe on the road

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“Sorry mate, I didn’t see you”. Is a catchphrase used by drivers up and down the country. Is this a driver being careless and dangerous or did the driver genuinely not see you?

According to a report by John Sullivan of the RAF, the answer may have important repercussions for the way we train drivers and how as cyclists we stay safe on the roads.

John Sullivan is a Royal Air Force pilot with over 4,000 flight hours in his career, and a keen cyclist. He is a crash investigator and has contributed to multiple reports. Fighter pilots have to cope with speeds of over 1000 mph. Any crashes are closely analysed to extract lessons that can be of use…

Côte de Whatnow? (Or: Yorkshire, I love you.)

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

I’ve just been looking at the map of today’s stage of Le Tour de France Yorkshire (inexplicably starting in England).The map lists the biggest hills on the route, and despite this section of the route being in England, the names are prefaced “Côte de…”There’s three hills worthy of note on the maptoday. The first, Côte…

Wear Your Cycle Helmet

Today, my cycle helmet might have saved my life.

This morning, I was cycling to work along my usual route, National Cycle Network Route 51, on its final leg down Banbury Road to Parks Road. Here, the cycle route shares its path with a bus lane, and – on a warm, bright morning like this one, having a broad, flat lane is a great opportunity for a strong cyclist to make great time in a safe environment.

Bus/cycle lane heading South on Banbury Road.
Oxford’s multitudinous bus/cycle lanes are great for public transport and even better for cyclists: providing a safe, well-signposted space away from the majority of the main flow of traffic.

As I approached the bus stop, a spotted a car in the lane to my right, just ahead, slow down and turn on it’s indicator to turn left: it was heading for one of the driveways. But when the car began its maneuver, a split second later, I realised that the driver had not seen me. Perhaps she’d not checked her mirrors before turning? Or perhaps she’d only glanced (and seen no buses in the bus lane – just me and the second cyclist behind me)? Or perhaps she’d underestimated my speed, or dramatically overestimated her ability to get into the driveway before I reached her? In any case, she turned out to be wrong. I hit my brakes as sharply as I safely could, but it wasn’t enough to stop me from ploughing right into the side of her bonnet.

I’m not entirely sure what happened next. At the time, it felt like everything went into slow motion: a gentle flight through the air followed by a gradual landing on the other side, and that I’d be able to recall every single moment. But, probably as a result of the blow to my head (which as I’ve discovered before can have profound and confusing effects on memory), my memory of everything from a few seconds before the collision onwards is fuzzy and fragmented. But I spoke to the driver (a woman with dark hair), to the cyclist behind me (who was wearing a white t-shirt), and to a man who came out of a nearby building (who spoke with an accent – these details are the only things I can reliably remember about any of them), and based upon their descriptions – any my injuries – I’ve managed to piece together broadly what happened.

A penny farthing: the rider has tipped over the handlebars and ended up thoroughly upside-down.
There never was a graceful bicycle crash. Some, however, are less painful than others.

I hit the side of the car and flipped forward, throwing myself, some of the contents of my pannier bag, and my D-lock into the air. My handlebars knocked a dent into the bonnet of the car, and the lock landed elsewhere on it, but I flew clear over the car and flipped around in the air. I’m not sure how I landed, but it was probably on my back, because I struck the backs of my head, right shoulder, and elbow… but I must have rolled, because I also managed to scrape and graze the front of my legs.

I initially thought that I was fine (though I was clearly in shock), but I discovered about a quarter of an hour (or thereabouts: I’ve only been able to piece together a timeline in hindsight) that I was in more pain than I’d first thought, was feeling intermittently dizzy, and was unable to remember the details of the accident or even what day of the week it was. I asked for a taxi to be called for me and rode to the hospital, where they cleared me of anything seriously wrong (spinal injuries, serious concussion, broken bones, etc.) and sent me home for a day of lying down and mainlining NSAIDs.

A Kryptonite New York lock, like the one I use. It weighs about a ton but it's pretty-much bombproof.
A heavy D-lock like mine makes quite an impact when it’s catapulted into sheet metal.

Now it’s the early evening. I’m still far from entirely “with it”: I feel like my brain’s been rebooted into safe mode – I seem to be incapable of decent multi-tasking (for example: I can have a conversation with you, or can listen for my name being called by the doctor, but not both). I’ve got aching shoulders and arms and a bit of a limp. And I’ve been pretty much exhausted the whole day.

But here’s something: if I’m right about the angle I landed at, based on where I hurt the most, then it’s possible that my cycle helmet saved my life, today.

Wear your cycle helmet, folks.

Oxford Under Water

Parts of Oxford have been flooded for the last few days, and apparently the worst is yet to come. I worked from home yesterday, intimidated by the available choices of traversing flooded roads or else taking the hilly 3+ mile diversion around the problem areas, but today: I decided that it was time to man up and cycle in to the office.

Kennington Road underwater.
Here’s where I forded Kennington Road. Yes, I just used the word “forded” to describe crossing the road.

Conveniently, we’ve somewhere along the way acquired a large pair of Wellington boots (we think they might have been Paul‘s, but as he’s now left Oxford without them, they’ve been sitting in our charity-shop-box). So I booted up and set out. I was yawning all the way:

Police direct traffic away from a waterlogged Abingdon Road.
Police direct traffic away from a waterlogged Abingdon Road.

I had to weave my way back and forth around the cyclepaths nearest my house, and – on a couple of ocassions – get off the bike and wade it through: I’d considered riding through some of the larger puddles – my mean pedal-ground clearance is about as high as the top of my boots, anyway – until I met a soaked cyclist coming the other way: he’d become disbalanced going over a submarine kerbstone and fallen into the freezing water. Seeing that quickly made me choose the safer strategy!

Flood defences erected near Hinksey Lake.
Near Hinksey Lake, serious flood defences have been hastily erected and pumping operations are underway to clear gardens and footpaths.

Alongside the lake was one of the most flood-damaged areas, but heavy barriers had been erected and pumping engines were working at returning the water to the “right” side of them. The lake bridge was completely closed off: it looked like it might be traversable, but if the water gets any higher, it won’t be.

In Hinksey Park, the playing fields and cycle path are completely underwater.
In Hinksey Park, the playing fields and cycle path are completely underwater.

I took the cycle route through Hinksey Park in order to avoid the flooded parts of Abingdon Road, which runs parallel, but I’m not sure that it was much better. In the photo above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re looking at the lake… but in actual fact, the lake is behind me: that’s the playing fields. You can just about make out the line down the middle of the cycle path, through the murky water.

Flooded garden and driveway.
Between Hinksey Lake and the Thames there are flooded driveways and gardens. The sign on the gate reads “No parking. Keep entrance clear at all times.”, in case anybody was thinking of parking in this waist-deep water.

Pressing on, I came to the Thames Path, which my route typically follows for a short distance to the footbridge into the city centre. And that’s when I realised quite how high the river really is.

To the right of the bush - the river. To the left - the footpath. You'd be forgiven if you can't tell the difference.
To the right of the bush – the river. To the left – the footpath. You’d be forgiven if you can’t tell the difference.

By the time I found myself on a footpath with a current, I realised that my route might need a little bit of a rethink. With the bridge I was aiming for just ahead, though, I was able to double-back and cut through an alleyway (between some seriously at-risk houses), duck under a couple of “footpath closed” barriers, and splash out to the bridgehead.

From the bridge, it's clear how much the waters have risen.
From the bridge, it’s clear how much the waters have risen. The path on the left continues to get deeper and deeper underwater: when I’m working in a different office or running training, that’s the route I take to work!

By the time I was on the higher, better-reinforced East bank for the river, things began to improve, and within a few minutes I was right in the city centre. There, you wouldn’t know that, only a short distance away, a significant number of streets were underwater. To sit in the dry, on Broad Street, in the middle of Oxford, it seems strange to think that on the edge of town, people are being evacuated from their homes.

Further reading:

  • Flood warning for Kennington, from the Environment Agency (looks like we’re just on the right side of the road not to be included in the “flood warning area”).
  • “Live” upstream and downstream water level measurements at nearby Iffley Lock (there’s a beautiful moment in the graphs for yesterday morning when they clearly started using the lock itself to “dump” water downstream, occasionally bringing the level to within the typical range.
  • Video of evacuations from Botley
  • Jack FM’s Traffic Reports have an up-to-date list of roads closed as a result of flooding

Toggling

The other morning, I did a strange thing. I got up as normal and had my breakfast. I made myself a packed lunch, just like always. I went outside to begin my cycle to work, but when I got to my bike, in the back garden of New Earth: instead of unlocking it and riding to work, I locked it up.

Then, I had to unlock it again so that I could ride it.

Why did this happen? It happened because my brain has clearly made the association that my daily routine includes “toggling my bike lock” as part of it’s actions, rather than “unlocking my bike lock”. It’s become ingrained that I have to “change the state” of my bike lock (from locked to unlocked, or vice-versa) before I can go to work… so when I forgot to lock my bike up the previous night, it threw off my morning as I began the day by locking it up, rather than unlocking it.

A Kryptonite New York lock, like the one I use. It weighs about a ton but it's pretty-much bombproof.

Back when I had my concussion last May, I did a similar thing, swapping the contents of two cupboards that we’d already swapped. I couldn’t remember why they were being exchanged, just that they were, so I swapped them over.

It’d be nice to think that I only engage in this kind of “toggling” behaviour when I’m sleepy, perhaps, or when I’ve suffered a head injury. But sadly, that turns out not to be the case:

Over the River Thames near Friar’s Wharf, there’s a footbridge that forms a part of the National Cycle Network. It’s part of my usual ride to work. A few months ago, I spent my workday running training sessions in an office on the other side of the river, and so I didn’t need to cross it to get home. But when I was cycling home, along the towpath, and reached the bridge, I started to cross it! I got half-way over before I realised that I was now heading exactly the wrong way and turned back. Again: my brain clearly has a short-circuit there, in that when I come to that bridge during a journey, I feel that I need to cross it. What’s the deal, brain?

This phenomenon seems to be related to muscle memory and the so-called “driving trance”: the same thing that traps you when you plan to run an errand on your way somewhere and somehow reach the other end of your journey having completely forgotten to run the errand. “I walked right past the post box with the letter in my hand! Why would I do that?”

I wonder how others experience “toggling”. Do you “toggle” things when you’re on autopilot?

Back To School

Next week is half-term. Why does that matter? Because I’m back in education.

Since last month, I’ve been a student again. Not full-time (I’m not falling for that one again), of course, but I currently spend my Monday evenings studying towards a Certificate in Counselling Skills at Aylesbury College.

Aylesbury College. It's actually quite an attractive building, except in the rain.

It’s actually a qualification I’ve been looking at for several years, but it’s only recently that I’ve lived somewhere even remotely close to somewhere that it’s taught: while there’s a lot of counselling theory that can be learned by distance learning, there’s naturally a lot of hands-on counselling practice that demands a classroom or clinical setting, and for that… you really do need to be within reach of a suitable school.

Not that Aylesbury‘s exactly on my doorstep. It’s not even in the same county as me (it’s just barely over the border, in fact, into Buckinghamshire). And this can make things a little challenging: whereas many of my classmates walk or cycle in, I have a special little dance that I have to do every Monday, in order to make my study possible.

I arrive at work early, so that I can get out of the door by 4:30pm. I then leap onto my bike and pedal furiously through Oxford’s crowded afternoon streets to the East side of the city. There, I lock my bike up and hop into a borrowed car (more about that in another blog post), pick my way out between the growing pre-rush-hour traffic, sprawling 20mph zones, and deathwish cyclists, and hammer along the A418 in order to get to class for its 6pm start.

This is the M40. I don't get to go on this. But that dual carriageway you see going over the top of it? That's one of the few stretches of decent road on my weekly commute to Buckinghamshire.

Three hours of theory and roleplay later (as well as a break to eat a packet sandwich), I’m back on the road. It annoys me more than a little that now that I’m not in a hurry, the roads are usually clear and empty, but it’s a good excuse to crank up the volume on Jack FM and enjoy the ride back through the villages of East Oxfordshire. Back in Oxford, I pick up my bike and cycle home: I’m usually back before 10:30. It’s quite a long day, really.

So what’s it all for? Well: ultimately, if I stick with it, it leads to a Certificate in Counselling, then to a Diploma in Counselling. If you take that and couple it with a stack of distance learning modules, it adds up to… well, this Foundation Degree in Counselling, perhaps.

But that’s not what you wanted to know: what you wanted to know was, “What are you doing, Dan? What’s wrong with the degree and career you’ve already got?”

Well firstly, of course, learning doesn’t have to be about qualifications. This is a field that I’ve been interested in for longer than I’ve been blogging. Plus: I’m sure that my various pieces of emotional support work, like my work with Oxford Friend, will benefit from the experience and learning that I bring to it.

But also, it’s about the idea I’ve always had that a good mid-life crisis ought to benefit from planning: it’s too important to leave to chance. And I’ve been thinking that a career switch might be a great mid-life crisis. The social sciences are fun, and while counselling might not be exactly what I’m looking for, there’s some doors opened by studying it. With less than a decade before I’m 40, and with part-time study being an ever-so-slow way to get things done, I’d better pull my finger out.

Doubtless, I’ll have more to say about my course as it progresses, but for now, I’m just glad that it’s half-term week, which means I get a week in which I don’t spend my Monday running around like a headless chicken… and I get twice as long to finish my homework.