Another April Lockdown diary entry…

P1310211I am doing a thing where I open a weather app on my phone and scroll through the days ahead. Five days, seven days, 10 days of sun symbols line up from left to right across the screen. I try the BBC app and get the same, but worth comparing. This has never happened ever in April since I had a phone that did Apps and may never happen again not in April or any month ever.

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April promises so much and then lets you down by snowing or blowing a gale to rip blossom from the trees or both. Even this year we have put veg plants out that have been frost nipped with -3’c despite huddling under a blanket overnight. I can not remember when it rained last. We come back from rides with bikes covered in a thin film of dust rather than the thick coating of mud that is normal. I am trying not to get used to this, but fail.

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These perfect days are even long enough now with enough hours of darkness to enjoy sitting and reading with a fire lit for an hour or so. Full on summer light can wear you out this far north just as much as a winter wind that goes on for a week or more. Lockdown and we have the best April weather anyone can remember and at the moment which is a very good thing.

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The garden is now the focus of our lives without the bike holiday business to work on. Potatoes are popping up the first shoots along the rows and the greenhouse smells of warmth and growth and plants. Shut your eyes and it is like the best ambient music. Then there is news of Swallows near by. These may not be ‘ our swallows ‘, but just passing through on their way back from South Africa. Nothing in the village for a week and they are all around us popping up on social media. Then one morning a flash of cobalt as I open the bedroom curtains, a Rhonehouse Swallow. Two more that day, April 17th, remember that for next year.

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I got almost every stove that I own out from the loft and cupboards and I set myself the project of making a coffee in the garden with every one of them. I even get out a Primus paraffin stove that we last used about 20 years ago when we rode the Great Glen cycleway. It is a thing of beauty a thing of precision and perfection of form and function that you would expect with Scandinavian design. I polish it and sit and admire it and then light it using muscle memory rather than looking it up. It lights first time.

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Other stoves remind me of why they got put away, but the whole project is a wonderful trip down memory lane. Even when I burn a hole right through our picnic table with one of the stick stoves that I thought had been put out. This would usually make me quite cross but this is such a freak that I think I could not have known that a small stick stove with almost no fuel could burn through  3cm of protective wood and then 2cm of picnic table. Coffee outside always smells and tastes better than its indoor twin.

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We see almost no one on our Boris Rides and the more off road the less people we see. We are not going near anything that is beyond or even close to the margins of our not so fantastic bike handling skills, just exploring the maze of tracks that fan out from home. Drove roads, military roads, logging roads and coffin roads that lead to remote churches. Tracks down to beaches and tracks that end in cliff top picnics and flask coffee.

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There is one long gravel route we needed to check that will be for a local outdoor event – The Autumn of Endurance. It is penciled in for this autumn and I said I would work out a gravel route that can be done by a range of abilities. It may need to be finalised and publicity done before lockdown ends, so it is lucky that we can check it from home.

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Up to the Raiders Road and then along Stroan Loch to cross the Black Water of Dee. I need to make sure that the route uses the right crossing point, so we ride up with the GPX file loaded. We see no one and the deer are tame and closer to the road than normal, we have the perfect day. The route is world class, demanding but with few or no risks and stunning views and variety. Galloway is gravel heaven. We stop for flask coffee and flapjacks at the Otter Pool, there is no noise the world has stopped, reset pressed.

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I check the nest boxes in our garden since I cleaned them out and made them ready for new guests. I was worried that being in the garden more than normal would be too much disturbance, but this morning there are signs that one has been visited. This makes me more happy than it should with all the worlds problems at the moment. It won’t be anything exotic but it will be very welcome.

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We get an email about a project that we proposed. Every so often you apply for some funding for an idea only to wish you had not bothered when you are on the third or fourth day of filling in the funding application. I almost did not bother, but we got it. A grant from Spot-Lit Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme to enhance tourism through literature. All of a sudden I am doing press briefings from my garden about our proposal to create a bike route and information experience for our unsung local hero, Kirkpatrick Macmillan the inventor of the bicycle.

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We take our guests to visit the grave and most are surprised that it is almost unsigned and such a man is unknown and not even on our bank notes. We plan to make him a little better known. So we have a project to be getting on with, which is wonderful. So thank you European funding, we will miss you.

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The best of days…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.