Balcary Bay, a circular walk along the cliffs.

P1280388_openWithThe first significant frost this morning. Venus, satellite bright in the morning sky the time has come to find winter gloves stored at the first signs of spring and the last use of the woodburner. I am trying to go a long walk every day. Up just after 6 and out as quickly as possible.

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Geese in their thousands are here and more local Starlings than usual. There are two well known places for murmurations, but there is now a third and very close to us and I can catch it most days. If you ever have the chance to see one, go even if you have to travel.

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It is winter that reminds you of the emptiness of this part of Scotland. All summer I have been saying ‘ we have 6 people for every square kilometer, that’s 10 less than the highlands ‘. It feels even less now. One of my birthday presents was a 1924 copy of a guide to Galloway by G.H. Dick ‘ Galloway and Carrick, a district which has remained unknown to the world longer than any part of Scotland with the possible exception of the island of Rockall ‘, Is how the book begins.

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We have just created an advert for Adventure Cycling in the USA. The strap line we came up with is ‘ The Unicorn is Scotland’s national animal – the next car that passes you may be just as rare ‘. It is quite possible if you can be bothered to count to ride 70 miles or so and see just 6 cars. We love it.

The walk on Saturday was a significant step in recovery. A circular walk to the high cliffs and spectacular views around Balcary Bay. We picked a peach of a day. I could not have done this a week ago, it is great to be out and pulling in great lungfuls of winter air. Get the blood pumping and deep into the areas that still need to heal.

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I have worked out a route. Inland at first, picking off the site of a huge fort before we pick up the coast path. Half way and we turn towards the coast – PRIVATE, a sign we tend to ignore here in Scotland as we have a right to roam and I can see a clear route. ” Are you lost? “. I know we have every right to go through, but I can speak farmer talk if needed. I used to have a farm and 1,000 sheep, did all the collie dog stuff and even entered a sheep dog trial. The farmer does not know this of course.

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” I have a bull down there! ” What type? I like bulls. ” All the gates are padlocked down that way “. I will have to throw out a bit of bait and I see he has a shepherd’s dog whistle around his neck, so I tell him I never got on with those not even the metal ones. He now knows this and that I live here. I tell him that we have a cycling company and that we show mostly American guests this fantastic area. ” Most of them want to spend as long as possible out of the USA while Trump is in “.

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This gets an unexpected response ” He stands up for what he believes and is getting things done “. I have met my first Trump supporter and it comes as quite a shock. I move off the subject and noticing he has a Peacock I think I will tease him – ” My worst nightmare would be having someone move in next door with a Peacock, horrid noise, beautiful bird, but horrid noise”.

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The Peacock is too scared to come out ” Too many birds of prey here, I told that Bill Oddie when he was here “. Just on cue 2 Kestrels and a Sparrow Hawk shoot by. ” My pigeons never come out, they need controlling “.

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Then the clincher ” We had a coachload of Muslims down by the hotel last week, what are they doing here? ” I changed the subject .” You have a million dollar view you know “. He thought for a moment, he had bought the place for the view and we had agreed with him that it was the best view in the south of Scotland. ” You can have it for half a million “.

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Off we went to think about his offer, across his land without once seeing a bull or any padlocked gates. It is useful to speak farmer. In most of the country you just need to know what is wheat barley or oats and you say things like ” fine-looking crop of barley there”. Sheep look all the same but you need to know only 6 breeds to get by, cows just 4. Tractors are just blue, green or red and you will need to allocate Ford, John Deere and Massey Ferguson to the right one. Anything without a cab is a great tractor and you ask how long they have had it.

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As usual, the whole point of the walk was to brew a coffee at the most perfect location. Life can be made simple and a simple life is usually full of joy. The bike is my simple pleasure, but it may be another week or so for that. A great coffee, a wooden cup and the finest access legislation in the world make me so full of joy to live here in this gem of Scotland.

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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.