The best of days…


The geese are here, filling the morning sky. They make waiting until 8.15 for daybreak almost worth the wait and short days. The final tour of the year took us and 6 guests to the island of Rugen in the Baltic Sea and a place where Esther spent most of her summers as she grew up. Granny island as we call it, was part of East Germany – the last bit before Poland. We have been biking there for 20 years or so and have seen it change so much since the wall came down. One thing has never changed, and that is the migration of the Cranes. Our big hope for the tour was to catch the arrival of these amazing birds from their breeding grounds in Scandinavia. We got lucky and hit peak Crane! – thousands upon thousands.


We returned home just in time to catch the final burst of Autumn colours. The trees had been stripped and felled in huge numbers by near 100 mph winds of Storm Ali whilst we were away. Our first rides were melancholy affairs as we came to realize the extent of the devastation.  The landscape of every ride we took had been changed.


We dug up the last of the potatoes and went hunting for the last of the ripe sloes to be mixed with gin and sugar for winter treats. Autumn is always hard to point at on the calendar with any certainty, it throws weeks of summer at you right next to a winter freeze. The final ride with fingerless gloves came and went.


Then Friday morning 3 weeks ago, things came to an abrupt end. Into hospital for emergency surgery and immersion in a world of pain. I have a long cut down my stomach needed to open me up and unblock my small intestine. I am so thankful that it was caught quickly and that I am bike fit and thin and offer a prime specimen for the surgeon. If you are ever after motivation to get on a bike and keep in shape, this is it.


I went in with a 34″ waist and have returned home at 37″. None of my clothes fit and I am going through half a packet of painkillers every day. I have a moment of cold sweat panic when I realise that this was waiting to go wrong, and could have chosen a remote campground or hotel in China or just after takeoff in a transAtlantic flight. If you have to pick a moment to be bent double in agony in the passenger seat of a friends car on your way to hospital then I nailed it. Having that friend being a retired doctor is also great planning.


I have tried very hard to start moving again. Walks, some slightly too long perhaps, but I need to keep my sanity. I wish I could be out on the bike catching the final part of the year. Now only the Oaks are hanging onto their leaves. I pass the time going through photos from our year. We had some perfect days.

12 months ago we bought our Gravel Bikes and they have changed how we experience our home landscape. We love to link dead end roads together and go exploring. We have loved them and put quite some miles on the clock. If you are thinking about pushing the N+1 button on one, then do it. A series of photos stands out from the year. A gravel ride of 42 miles that we did with our friend Mike.


For 10 years I have been writing this blog and some of the people that first inspired me to start posting are still there. Mike Hayes was the very first, and we have been WWW pals from the very start. His attention to details, unwillingness to follow trends and the fact that he has a fleet of the most beautiful bikes imaginable have always impressed. His photography is breathtaking. We have biked all over the world except the truly hard bits, which Mike has done.


One of the years most perfect days, we rode together. The first time we have met in the flesh as we live at almost the mathematical maximum distance apart in the UK. You should never meet your heroes perhaps, but who takes that advice.


The photos in this post are that perfect gravel day, Mike, Esther and myself doing one of the many remote track rides that we have here. Making a cup of coffee or gathering mushrooms or sloes makes you slow down. Taking great photos makes you stop and become part of the landscape and wait for the defining moment. It makes you listen and judge the moment.


Get out and do stuff. Today at this very moment I turn 58 and at this very moment can not ride a bike. I will be back when my body has repaired and that will be so much quicker because I am fit and motivated. Stay healthy people and keep riding your bike.



Reasons to be cheerful.

P1340541I have just a passing fancy for Gin. In any list of things that I may be addicted to it will be way down the list, with McVities digestive at the top. I did once find myself checking the WWW. to see if it was possible to become addicted to digestives. Google claims it is not, but that did not fully put me at ease. Sloes are easier to say no to, being bitter and hard. The WWW. calls them tart acid and astringent, which is enough to stop any thought of including any in my 5 a day. One of those bog bodies that turn up after thousands of years had his stomach full of sloes, which is a curious thing.P1340562

Just like you would have neither sodium or chloride in your kitchen, something magical happens when you combine sloes with gin and add a whole load of sugar. You put the mix in an air tight container and place in a cool dark cupboard. Two or three months later you have something close to nectar of the gods. Well it is for me.


Which brings me to two reasons to ride a bike at this time of year. One of which is to harvest sloes which you have been watching ripen to maturity over the summer and noted where the best bushes are. The second reason is a little more contrived. I have mentioned the Coffee Outside movement before, but you can think of it as a picnic designed by hipsters. It makes the perfect excuse to ride a bike and eat cake.


We met up with our pal Nipper Varney in the harbour car park in Kirkcudbright a week or so ago. He describes himself as a keen but overweight and over-the-hill cyclist whose enthusiasm far outweighs his talent. His focus this year was to create a 300 mile in 24 hour charity ride around our bit of Scotland. He owns something that looks like a gravel bike and he likes both coffee and cake, so he was more than qualified to ride along the coast with us.


We rode out along National Cycle Route 7 towards Gatehouse, but at Knockbrex took a left to the coast. You can do this section on a road bike, but something with a little more rubber makes it fun. You could pick any of the wonderful bays to stop in, but we stopped at the very first, Carrick Bay. In the height of summer you would not often get it to yourself. But 9.15 on a grey Sunday threatening heavy rain and you have one of the finest places in South West Scotland to have a picnic all to yourself.


Part of the concept of Coffee Outside is to make the brew fresh and as close to barista standards as possible. We use a Titanium stove made in Japan by Evernew, warm milk and wooden cups made by hand in Finland. To complete our hipster credentials we use bioethanol in our stove.


Ardwall Isle and it’s ruined chapel make a splendid middle distance thing to sit and contemplate with Cairnsmore of Fleet making the occasional appearance  as low cloud moves across Wigtown Bay. Too cool to sit for long, we pack the bikes and ride to Sandgreen and link tracks together to Cally Woods and into Gatehouse of Fleet.


I wanted to show Nipper one of our significant trees. I had read somewhere about a tree close to Gatehouse that locals call ‘ the meeting tree ‘. I can not find any clear reference to which tree this is, but the one we want to ride to would be a candidate. History says that local people met at a tree to consider things of importance and to reach a collective answer to the troubles of the day. I think this tree would work.


Every time we visit it, just off the road beyond Castramon Wood the light is perfect. It has the supermodel ability to look good for a camera. The light no matter what the day, is always perfect never less than flattering.

Back on the bikes we go exploring dead-end tracks which is probably when I lost a pair of stupidly expensive Oakley’s out of my back pocket. Which is why many hours later I am back here on my own in failing light retracing our wheel marks and scanning the ground. The glasses remain lost.


Back to Kirkcudbright by the coast road to close the loop and end the Coffee Outside experience. I recommend the concept to you. The ride can be short or long the location of your choice, but the coffee has to be good.


Get out and do stuff

P1340432We found time to go to the man made Sand Martin home near Tongland. It had been busy just a few weeks ago with birds flying in and out. Now there are none, which came as a surprise. They are often the first of the Hirundinidae to get here and though we pay less attention to it, the first to leave. So, I guess that I lit the fire last night and passing thought about turning on the heating means that summer is fading.


But there are good things and wonderful things about this time of the year. Berries and mushrooms for two. Walking the quiet lanes of Galloway would be great, but takes too much time, which is where the bike wins. Slow enough to glimpse the field full of mushrooms near Palnackie and fast enough not to take all day over it.


We have biked to a particular wood 4 times now to gather Chanterelle, which are early this year. Not once have we found them, but you still get a nice bike ride. So you have to be open to failure. I asked a hunter we met in the USA about coming home empty handed and he had a great response, ” If you knew you were going to get something it would be called shopping “.


Many of the bike rides at the moment are slower affairs often with the intention of noting where the good patches of Sloes are for a few weeks time, or picking Brambles. They are both destined to turn a poor gin into something magical. So, I guess I am not talking about a route to bike or a destination but more about just getting out.

A few days ago we knew we needed to get out early as we had things to do. Just 7’c and the first ride with long fingered gloves as we set off on the bikes at just gone 7.00am to go ‘ shroomin ‘. Low sun casting the first long shadows since spring and the world still in bed on this Saturday morning.


The great thing about now is that to get that first person out of bed feeling you do not need to be up stupidly early. It is a feeling that can set you up for the day with enough of a feeling of smugness to put a spring in your step well into the afternoon.

Over the bridge at Bridge of Dee, with the river high once more and moving with some purpose to Kirkcudbright. Threave Castle is catching the first sun. This is the best side to view the castle and early morning the best time of day. Not a breath of wind. We turn right then left at Glenlochar, by the bridge where you first see the Sand Martins in Spring.


The River Dee here is perfection, the landscape in a quiet way, as beautiful as any in Scotland. We have the sun behind us and are chasing our shadows along the quiet lane. We ride into Ken-Dee Marshes reserve and can hear ducks on the loch to our right. This is a special place and little visited. We heard the years first Cuckoo here which feels like yesterday and years ago.


The track is bumpy. I have been here on a road bike on knife like tyres but this is easy on the wide rubber of the gravel bikes. Some of the best trees in Galloway line the track further on and the river as it becomes The Black Water of Dee does a good imitation of a Highland stream as it flows over rocks. It is wonderfully Guinness Black, which I guess is where it got the name Black.


The wood we are here to visit is on the left. We park the bikes and send up a dozen Corvids. The Ravens are not happy that we have stopped. Now it is time to search under the Beech trees. There are many mushrooms all but one beyond our limited knowledge. Not a sign of Chanterelle. But just before we give in, there is the most perfect Boletus.

We wrap it in a coat and it goes in the big bag under the saddle. That will do for the morning. We are back home before 9.00 having had a small adventure and seen Galloway at its best, with dew on the grass and golden and warming to a new day.