Category: Cycling

Reconstruction begins

Yet another minor excitement in our property improvement lives…. our new shed has been delivered, in pieces and complete with a rich smell of preservative. Originally our plan was to throw out the pre-existing one, a misshapen and rotting thing that stands (just) in our back yard, home though it is to every wood-loving creepy-crawly for miles around and safe haven though it is for spiders so large, it is a wonder we don’t hear them stomping around at night. But then we discovered that we could actually move the structure sideways a little way without too much of it falling off or disintegrating to dust and having done this, a brand new one will fit nicely on the old concrete platform. Well, you can never have too many sheds, can you? One of them will soon act as a garage for our cycle trailer, soon coming home to us after living with friends Rich & Gerry for a few years.

The shed is the first part of our order placed a few days ago which started as a long shopping list of kitchen-related parts but which we added to once we realised that the discount we were being offered would be applied to anything we bought at the store that day. We very quickly thought up some more goodies, throwing in some rather nice flooring which we have used to cover up the bare and rather unattractive chipboard in one of our bedrooms. We do a lot of our shopping for materials at B&Q, largely because every Wednesday is their ‘Over 60’s’ day when they offer discount to all who have reached this age. As you might expect, on these days the place is full of grey-haired old men and the clatter of Zimmer frames can be deafening but fortunately they also employ people of a certain age at the checkout. It was here we met Reg who was in no doubt that his role was mainly to ‘translate’ for those who need it – things like metric measurements for those who grew up with imperial or the wonders of the economy light bulb.

We really feel we are turning a new leaf and getting into reconstruction mode now, using different skills and different muscles too, many of which are complaining, but then that’s nothing new. There are still little distractions, of course, like when the house catches us out with one of its bits of botched DIY. One evening we spotted water emerging from beneath the refrigerator, just a small pool, but it was coming from somewhere hidden away at the back. Investigation revealed a tiny hole in an innocent looking water pipe which had been dribbling happily away for days, even weeks. Replacing this pipe with a new section disturbed another joint nearby which started squirting water down the wall and once again this needed to be ripped apart and replaced. These are examples of poor quality plumbing work that is dotted about the house, little of which is fatal but it is annoying when the water won’t stay inside the pipes.

While I am still grovelling under the sink, Kate is watching TV, absorbed as I have never seen her before. She is not normally much of a sports fan but the Commonwealth Games in Delhi has been the focus of her attention for some days now as she waits for the hammer-throwers to begin. Why? Simon Wardhaugh at the 2010 Commonwealth Games Because she has a nephew competing, not for this country but for Australia, in this little-understood event. We both still remember him as a small boy when he visited the the UK and came out for a walk with us. His concern over dangerous snakes in our countryside was a rather touching sign of his Aussie-ness. Both Simon and his brother Jamie giggled and imitated the word “woods” in a terribly English accent, then corrected the name. “It’s not woods, it’s the bush, Auntie Kate”. Simon Wardhaugh is now a giant of man but still very young for his chosen sport and the 5th place he gained at the Games does him great credit, competing against some of the best in the world. Well done mate!

We are spending much time out of doors here this week as it has been unseasonably warm and dry for some days. Time therefore to crack on with jobs that will soon become impossible when the rain arrives and the cold winds recommence, Goldfinches on the wirelike repainting the fence and wall around our back yard. Kate calls my attention to the telephone wires above us where no less than twenty-eight goldfinches are sitting watching us and laughing, no doubt, at our attempts to entice them to our seed feeder. We know there are thistles in full seed in the country park just a short flight away, far more tasty than what we have on offer. These birds will soon be packing for their flight over to Spain where most of them will spend the winter. Let’s hope they make it!

Adjusting to life on land

Our Round Britain is complete and suddenly we are rocketed into a new world, one that is not continuously moving. We are so used to the movement – tiny shifts in stability in response to small, wind-blown ripples across the sea or occasionally significant lurches to one side then the other as Cirrus is lifted, first one hull then the other – that even after several days on dry land our legs are still responding to phantoms, muscle-memories of movements. We stagger about the streets. For those experiencing this the effect is quite bizarre but when it happens it is important to appreciate that those close by will not be experiencing the same phenomenon. To them, the floor is not bobbing up and down, randomly, and it is no use discussing the experience with them; sympathy will be lacking.

With Cirrus on her mooring we set off on heavily loaded bikes to catch the Cremyll ferry across the River Tamar to Plymouth and turn our heads to look back at her, our proud home since April this year, as she floats serenely in Millbrook Lake, an area of shallow water perfectly suited to catamarans and similar craft. As the tide ebbs away it will lower her hulls gently onto soft mud where she will sit upright waiting for our return. We have a complex journey to undertake now, one involving trains, bicycles and a boat which ends at the door of our new home in Yeovil. We are conscious that what we have achieved sailing-wise during 2009 and 2010 is something most people would not understand, let alone attempt. To sail our own boat around Britain’s shoreline, unaided and for most of the time alone, is something we are now realising we can feel proud of. It is something we might never do again ourselves but nevertheless we know we could, if we so desired. We surmounted the challenges and lived through them. Timely it is, therefore, to thank all those who have encouraged and supported us on our travels by reading this blog and sailing with us in spirit.

It is dusk when we open the front door to our new home and roll the bikes inside. We can expect that these machines will be worked hard in the weeks ahead as we get to know our way around, popping into shops or just visiting our sons who live on the opposite side of town, for bikes are our sole means of private transport at the moment (discounting our legs, of course). We are soon to discover that Yeovil has a surprising secret. The route by road into the town centre or across town to our son Mike’s apartment is heavily trafficked and an unpleasant ride on a bicycle. There are hills and potholes to negotiate and unforgiving drivers who care not for the lone cyclist. Our discovery of a traffic-free route, specifically constructed for pedestrians and cyclists who can use it to navigate along the River Yeo thus avoiding hills, cars and lorries alike has brought a whole new dimension to our lives. The route is only lightly used by cyclists, I suspect largely because it does not appear on any town or street maps. Yet it provides us with a pleasant ride which gives us access to the central shopping area as well as the larger out of town stores. More importantly to us at the moment, the route passes close by Yeovil’s B&Q hardware store which is a Mecca for collecting ideas and getting many of the essential bits for our home refurbishment project.

Simple, clean designs like this attract us so we stop and squint… yes, this might be fine for our proposed combined kitchen/living room, the room, I might add, that we have yet to create by demolishing an internal dividing wall. Having now started the ‘destruction’ phase of the renovation plan – stripping wallpaper, ripping apart cupboards and panelling – next comes the knocking down walls phase for which we shall need professional help. We expect that there is a long period of living with the untidiness, the dust and the dirt yet to come before the re-construction phase starts, the new flooring, the painting and decorating. Until then we find ourselves living in less comfort than that which we are used to from being on board Cirrus. The fridge and washing machine arrived yesterday yet we still have only a few basic pieces of furniture. What we do have is lots of plans to change almost everything we see around us, we are warm and dry, enjoying another challenge and getting to know the place which is to be our home for the foreseeable future.

Whilst living in Italy during last winter we did most of our shopping at a Ventimiglia supermarket which goes under the name of Lidl, this being conveniently close, the cheapest option around and it was also the shop which stocked items which were least ‘foreign’ to our tastes. Now it has to be admitted that Lidl is not everybody’s cup of tea but over the months we gradually became ‘Lidl-ised’ and used to some of their more strange offerings, not least because reasonable Italian wine could be purchased at 90 cents a bottle, something around 80 British pence at the time. Finding a Lidl store within walking distance of our new home, therefore, was a strangely exotic experience. Of course once we had explored the place and familiarised ourselves with the loaves of German black bread, the side-sleeper pillow and the jars of preserved cherries it began to feel quite homely to us. As a source of fresh produce it just cannot be beaten locally although sadly the duty imposed on wine in this country means that we cannot return to the drinking habits we acquired in Italy without bankrupting ourselves.

Barra for the day

For readers in doubt, Barra is the southernmost inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides, that windswept place that is always hidden behind the TV weather forecaster’s head while he or she waves his/her hands across the rest of the country. There are only about 1600 inhabitants to get upset over this and most of those know that their weather is sufficiently unique so no general forecast is going to be of much use to them. Certainly in the course of the 60 mile passage between Oban and Barra it did seem to us that our ferry had moved us into another weather system, notably different and as luck would have it, better than what we had left behind.

We arrived to find a place where the air is so free from pollution that the light has a shiny, dream-like quality imparting subtle changes to every shade and colour. Kate’s delight knew no bounds as our arrival immediately triggered memories of childhood holidays spent here with her family. True, the place has changed from what she knew. Today this is a thriving community with lots going on all year round. Tourism is a big thing but even so early in the season the place has a vibrant feel to it. You don’t come to live on a place like Barra expecting to find someone to employ you in a regular nine to five job though. If you do you’ll be disappointed. But this is a place where individuality counts and your expertise can be used to the full.

Take our Bed&Breakfast, for instance, where we seized upon the opportunity to jump on a couple of bikes they had purchased for visitors’ use. Keeping hire bikes in good repair locally falls to a retired ex-policeman who has the special skills needed for this, not a living in itself but part of the network of local skills that a remote community draws on when it needs them. Unfortunately for us our bikes still awaited his attention this year so it was with gears crashing and brakes rubbing that we set off clockwise around the island along the A888, Barra’s main road.

Thankfully the cool wind was light so with the sun popping in and out all day we only had to find a sheltered spot to be able to rest our weary legs when we needed to, which was quite often. The road is, naturally, narrow and even on Barra not all car drivers are ‘cycle-aware’, but what they are is friendly. At first you begin to wonder why someone has smiled and raised a hand to wave at you. Then someone else does it and soon you begin to realise that it is simply what they do – being nice to other people is what comes naturally here and stopping for a chat is expected behaviour too.

Our first lunch-stop was beside a small lochan whose surface the wind rippled gently for us. The next was at Eoligarry, Barra’s airport, and yet another fine sandy beach but this time naturally crusted with broken shells giving firm footing for the planes which land there. The third was beside a natural inlet on Barra’s east side where a pair of sandpipers joined us to poke about in the weed looking for their lunch and then finally after we had crawled up the steep hill behind Castlebay we stopped again so the legs could recover before we swooped down to the township beneath us. Across the Minch the Cuillin mountains on Skye winked at us in the sun, puffy cumulus clouds hovering over them and in the bay the castle, restored at some expense by one of our American cousins, part of the extended MacNeil family, stood out proudly on its own island.

We came to Barra for different reasons, Kate to recall her childhood past and me to savour a first encounter with the Outer Hebrides but we both found a place full of surprises. Least expected of all was the ‘Cafe Kisimul’ on Castlebay’s Main Street a place offering spicy Indian food to rival anything a large city can offer and a terrific menu choice for us vegetarians. In only 36 hours on the island we found ourselves eating their superb food twice, neither time being disappointed. Then, whilst idling away a few moments on the harbour wall waiting for our ferry home we had a close encounter with one of Barra’s wilder inhabitants. Just yards away below us a big dog otter was hunting and feeding on crabs and fish in the bay. Normally so shy these creatures are rarely seen close up. To come this close to the port where ferries dock, people embark in dinghies, and with the bus stop guaranteeing an almost constant human presence, this chap must have felt confident he was not going to be disturbed as he rummaged about. Just like the other 1599 inhabitants of the island, this was his home.

We asked Pauline, in the Kisimul, whether she might conjure up some dolphins for us on the journey back to the mainland and as it turned out she was a good as her promise for there they were, diving in and out of the ship’s bow wave in a display of sheer joy. Thanks again, Pauline, for the food and for the special treats.

Isle of Kerrera

The island on which we now reside is about 9 miles long and 4 across, just about the right size for an energetic day’s walk on decent footpaths but sadly with a hernia nagging at me this sort of walking is well out of bounds. Curiously, however, sitting astride a bicycle and pushing the pedals deploys muscles that are not affected by my condition and I am able to ride comfortably for many miles in complete comfort. So it was with this in mind that Kate and I set off on our foldies to try to reach the southern end of the island where Gylen Castle hangs precipitously over the bay to which it gives its name.
Kerrera is a fertile place but the steep hillsides speak of a violent volcanic past and a land sculpted by glaciers which retreated to leave ancient beaches raised many metres above the current sea level. Ancient sea cliffs jut out from the landscape and goats roam wild sharing the rough grazing with sheep, cattle, grouse, even a flock of pink-footed geese. The forty or so human residents are widely scattered around the island and in the past would have used boats to move about. Today there are connecting roads, if this word can be used, which twist their way across the landscape, but motorised vehicles are few; the rocks and potholes they encounter probably ensure that cars have a short lifespan here and quad bikes seem to be the most popular things to get around on. The absence of proper roads means that Kerrera is one of the few places in the UK where vehicles can still be driven unlicensed and untaxed, always assuming you can get past the local regulations which prevent you bringing your vehicle here in the first place.

It was the current warm, dry spell, our long-awaited Indian Summer, that had tempted us out on our folding bicycles, Grace and Jet. Striking out along the rough track leading south from the marina we soon found this deteriorating from hard packed stone to, well whatever the highland cattle decided it ought to be. We found ourselves weaving from side to side dodging wheel-wrecking obstacles as well as the living obstructions who wandered casually out of our way as we came close. Despite their fierce looking horns these creatures have brains that seem to react slower than a retreating glacier giving the impression, at least, of a docile nature. They are, of course, very beautiful animals with shaggy coats the colour of sunlit teak and always the fringe which completely hides their large eyes.
Our route dips across to the west side of the island following the shore so as to circumvent the impassable heights of several steep-sided peaks and the track’s condition deteriorates sharply. We find ourselves fording streams flowing freely across the road as our wheels skid and jump over loose boulders. We have to divert on foot across soft ground on being confronted by a brown lake of uncertain depth into which the track dives innocently but soon we are moving inland steeply rising through fields full of sheep who stare and chew thoughtfully as we pass. Many years ago my first encounter with sheep whilst cycling (me that is, not the sheep) led me to the conclusion that a sheep may not be able to recognise the human form so long as it is astride a bike but the moment the rider steps to the ground, it becomes recognisable and they will run away. I was interested to test this hypothesis here in Scotland and can now reveal that on Kerrera at least, the sheep are of a much higher order of intelligence. They moved graciously to the side even whilst I was mounted on the bike, seemed to give a little nod and a wink then calmly went back to their lunch.

Of course by this time my leg muscles were burning from pumping the pedals up the steep slope so I may have imagined all this. The track improved as we crested a summit on the spine of the island and we began our descent towards the public ferry on the east side. Here the green clad hills rolled away from us as we picked up speed to bump and bounce our way towards the better roads that encircle the southern end of the island. There is a farm at Lower Gylen converted to a small café which sells soup with homemade bread and tempting carrot cake with a pot of tea of your choice, a refreshment treasure trove after our efforts and one of the few commercial enterprises on the entire island.

All day the sun shone powerfully giving us a memorable day out. Our legs and the foldie-bikes had held up well although now having sampled the roads here we are unlikely to repeat the adventure. This place is really a walker’s paradise with a landscape rich in history and natural beauty, views to die for on a clear day and a real sense of isolation despite its proximity to the mainland.

Risk junkies?

Having been sailing for the best part of our married lives we know that the sea is a risky environment and that it will always have something unexpected up its sleeve, so to speak. There are few constants at sea. Just when you think the wind has settled blowing in one direction at a strength your boat needs to move along nicely something will change, either the wind or the sea itself, and sailing can be largely about managing the risks associated with this.

So given that we enjoy being at sea, how then do we cope with being on land for any length of time. We always fully expected to find ourselves spending time in one port or another, not necessarily one we might choose to be in, waiting for weather to arrive that we were prepared to put to sea in. We have time on our side and can do this and we are prepared to amuse ourselves until the weather we want arrives. But life on shore could become mundane and boring in some hitherto unknown port if we did nothing but watch the clouds skim across the sky while huddled up under our sprayhood sheltering from the rain.

In some way the strategy we have for coping with this situation explains why Cirrus is not sailing very quickly these days – she is just a little overloaded. She is weighed down with what can best be described as our ‘toys’, things we are carrying along with us so that we can cope with life away from the sea as well as we cope with life at sea. Perhaps the biggest single items in the toy cupboard are our bikes, Grace and Jet, neatly folded up in the starboard hull. Then we have books to read which we swap regularly at places along the way (many marinas have a book-swap shelf), our walking boots and rucksacks to take us wherever our legs will carry us and of course the mandatory scrabble and domino sets. But scrabble is hardly likely to give us the risk element we get from sailing so how do we get our fix when on land?

The answer to this lies not so much in what we do but more in where we do it. Take a recent Sunday cycling adventure, for example, where we found ourselves first of all traversing a busy golf course when members were queuing at each hole for the chance to score a direct hit on a cyclist then, having survived this, we crossed a main railway line and found ourselves on a cycle route past a military firing range with red flags flying and signs warning graphically “Anything you pick up may explode and kill you”.

Or again, take a recent walk along the Seaton cliffs just outside Arbroath where the sea has shaped the Devonian sandstone into formations with names like the “Deil’s Heid” or this one, the “Needle E’e”. Warning signs here show just what happened to this foolish Johnny who strayed from the path and had to be rescued.

Clearly this is also a risky place to be and once again we have found the excitement we need to survive.

No such additional buzz was needed when we sailed around Rattray Head earlier today. This will be our most northerly headland on this trip and it has a fearsome reputation, more than anywhere we have previously sailed. The coastline is low-lying here and only a small stunted lighthouse guards what is one of the major corners of Britain. The tidal currents rushing past flow over off-lying shoals and can combine with strong winds to produce nightmares of turbulence that can swallow ships whole.

But pick the right weather and get up at 4.30am as we did to catch the tide at the moment it goes slack and you can sail benignly past and into the Moray Firth.

Our cockpit GPS chartplotter and log now show we have turned this corner, at 5.5 knots, and are now at last on course towards the Great Glen, the passage to the west coast of Britain.