Feeble in February

The blame for February’s feeble microadventure lies firmly at the hotel door of Sally Hinchcliffe, who resolutely refuses to sleep in hedges, bothies, bivvy bags or even a tent with me. I’m not taking it personally (that much); as an ambassador’s daughter brought up in a warmer climate I suspect there are few people who could tempt her out of our hotel room in Aberdeen this weekend into a sleeping bag after the ravages of #StormDoris in northern Scotland.

This reluctance to engage in the great (wet, cold) outdoors left me with only a couple of weekend options to get my February microadventure in, which is why I ended up in a wooden cabin on a retail park last weekend with the mini-cyclist as part of our half-term road trip to Englandshire.

After an emergency bike shop visit we spent some of the day freaking my south London living sister out by cycling around the paths of Lee Valley, which turned out to be in North London. Thankfully we came to no harm and enjoyed pottering along the canal side until it started to turn dark and rainy.

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Going wild in North London

My sister then fled, my child cried for about 30 mins for his ‘Aunty Smmmeeeeegggg’ and we packed ourselves back into the car to find our home for the night. Surprisingly warm and cosy, the cabins are in the camping and caravan site in Edmonton, just behind a multiplex cinema on a small retail park. We also passed two llamas on the way, although as I write this I wonder if I was hallucinating from the traffic fumes.

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Between a field and a retail park..

After securing our mountain of belongings, we headed out to a local Harvester (who knew they survived the 1980’s?) for an underwhelming dinner and an argument about how much tomato ketchup and lemonade should be consumed in any one week.

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If a boy that loves bread doesn’t eat your bread you have serious catering issues..

We’re chalking February up as *interesting* rather than epic, but with another 10 months to go there is plenty of time to seek out more ambitious nights away than a wooden hut on the outskirts of Enfield.  I’m working every weekend in March, including a trip to Inverness with Sally, so there is still an opportunity to entice her away from her life of luxury into my microadventure year..

Epic in East Lothian

“Mummy, I’d rather be at home” was not what I wanted to hear just a couple of hours into our first microadventure of the year.

I thought I’d planned a low-key challenge for our first microadventure, our destination a cycling bothy just 10 miles from where we live in East Lothian. However, being a parent is the ultimate in ‘learning opportunities’ (that’s ‘opportunity to fail’ in English) and my usually weather proof, risk loving offspring was not happy. It was raining, freezing cold and he’d had a tumble from his bike, all challenges he usually shrugs off with ‘I’m not bothered by the {insert challenging condition here}’. But not today.

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On the road to (mis)adventure

Being just a few miles from home, we were able to call the emergency services (my husband) and get a rescue mission in place quickly after we’d established that sweets, hugs and relentless enthusiasm were not working. My ace pal Claire was with us, which meant I didn’t have a crying-child-induced-meltdown and still got to have an adventure after the littlest cyclist left.

With the small one safely on his way back to the warm, we got out the stove at Hailes Castle, had a cheeky hot chocolate in the ruins and ate our Co-op sandwiches. All of which tasted delicious in that ‘everything tastes better outdoors, particularly when you are freezing’ way.

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Waterproofed to the hilt..

Cycling progress was quick after that, which proved to be fortuitous as it started to sleet as we entered Haddington in search of provisions for dinner and a cup of tea. The acquisition of Aldi skiing gloves, along with burgers and a bottle of wine, improved everything and we raced towards the bothy in the fading light, feeling epic as the sleet fell around us.

Meanwhile, the smallest adventurer decided he wanted to rejoin the party and was deposited at the bothy soon after we’d got the stove going. Wooden toy railways were built, dinner was eaten and Claire got more chat about poo than she probably felt was necessary..

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Home sweet bothy

It was cold and clear the following day, but my munchkin still wasn’t keen to find his cycling legs so the Daddy Taxi turned up again as Claire and I turned out wheels slowly towards home, loving the still air, blue sky and crunchy puddles.

So, what did I learn from our first 26 hour microadventure?

You might need a Plan B – I had that covered this time, being just 10 miles from home with a emergency ready husband on call, but when we venture further from home I may need a more cunning plan.

Be prepared for the unexpected – My son has cycled further in colder conditions than we tried last weekend and usually tries to wriggle away from every coat, hat and set of gloves that go near him. However, last weekend he was cold and once all the gloves were wet he was an unhappy chap. So, waterproof gloves are on the next adventure shopping list.

Anywhere can be epic – cycling in the local sleet felt great, reminding me that you don’t need to go far to get that tough adventure feeling.

Now, February, where next?

 

 

 

 

This is adventure calling

I’m no stranger to resolutions, a jolly good list and a heavy dose of planning; without these basic tools I’d still be a tired community worker in London, wondering how to get a job in Scotland, instead of living in Dunbar, doing this at work and this in my spare time.

As I’ve gotten older my lists have become more detailed as my brain cells have died off. I can sometimes barely remember conversations unless it was accompanied by a particularly memorable piece of cake. My daily lists have become swollen with email reminders, budgets to re-forecast, funding to chase and reports to write. Necessary, practical and focused on *channelling Bob the Builder* getting the job done. Ditto on the home front with childcare arrangements, holidays and household finances.

My lists haven’t always been so utilitarian. As a carefree singleton in 2005, with two of my oldest friends, I started a yearly ‘self-development’ list containing 10 ambitions each for the year ahead. Or something less pompous. In October each year we’d gather together for the weekend and report progress, or lack thereof. Over the seven years we documented I managed to move to Scotland, go to Italian classes, do a sea kayaking course, learn to like (some) fish and finish a Salman Rushdie novel – but I failed to learn anything about Scottish history, run, make an item of clothing or get arrested. Our annual celebration of resolution through the combined challenges of home-schooling (conducted by one friend), and the continual reorganisation of the probabtion service (affilicting the other friend), faultered in 2011 when my son arrived earlier than expected, putting everything but action necessary to sustain life on hold for around a year. My ambitions in 2012 and 2013 were to drink hot tea, go to the bathroom on my own and sleep for more than an hour at a time.

So now 2017 is looking right at me, and I’m sleeping for around four undisturbed hours at a time, I’m feeling a new list coming on. In pre-pregnancy years I cycled in Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and India, took a road trip from Vancouver to San Francisco and got to Arran, Cape Wrath, Orkney, Skye and Applecross. Not adventures by some people’s standards but not bad when you’re trying to hold down a full-time job, finish an MA and not get married to various people.

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Now gainful employment, a school age child and a husband who is terribly fond of gardening are preventing exotic or prolonged adventures for a while yet, so I’m going to jump on a crowded bandwagon – the microadventure.

I’m more than fashionably late to the whole microadventure business, or the cycle-specific version Bike Overnights, but like any late adopter I’m going to make up for timing with enthusiasm.  I’m planning 12 overnight adventures in 12 months as suggested by the king of adventure Alastair Humphreys and the first one has been booked for the end of this month just 10 miles from home. Judging by the excitement of camping in our friend’s garden last year, I’m expecting more smiles than miles cycled.

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It takes two to tandem

2016 has been described as ‘an arse wipe of a year’ by one of my particularly insightful friends and I can’t muster the vocabulary to top that assessment. I’m not going to dwell on the heinous politics that has afflicted us this year – suffice to say it took a lot of effort to obtain my husband and I’m not pleased that some bureaucrat might try to deport him – but instead get on with a simple story about something that helped make 2016 slightly better.

This year our stock of cycling accessories has grown to include some serious Swiss engineering, a Follow Me Tandem, in an effort to combat the awkward ‘too big for trailer but can’t cycle more than 10 miles reliably’ issue that I knew we would face this summer. It enables me to connect my sturdy touring bike to my son’s Frog bike and haul him along, with or without any effort from him. It’s not a cheap piece of kit but, as the advert doesn’t go, not having a screaming child refusing to pedal one more metre in the pouring rain whilst everyone in the vicinity judges you – priceless.

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I can’t comment on the technical aspects or issues with fitting it as I’m afraid I handed the box of bits, the bikes and £20 to a local mechanic on my way to work and came home to the whole lot working perfectly. The mechanic had experience of my botched repair efforts so he also sent me a stern email reminding me that the fixings must be checked and tightened with every use, which turned out to be a useful piece of advice that I should have adhered to more often.

The first tandem test was a mini cycling holiday down in Englandshire. After a couple of days of exhausting grandparents in Surrey we headed further south to the New Forest with my sister for a few nights so we could try out the fabled cyclists’ paradise.

The trails were lovely, although the gravel was tough for tiny legs at times, but getting between them was challenging at best and terrifying at worst. It was a shame to feel that cycling was relegated to a theme park activity that you should drive to, whilst the real roads remained the preserve of real transport – the cars. The Follow Me kept my son anchored securely and closely, but it was no match for one of the busy roads that we found ourselves on and I flagged down a passing cyclist (thankfully this turned out to be my sister returning from her much longer training ride) to cycle behind him until we could get off it safely.

On the trails, the Follow Me did the job I needed it to when the happy smiling child turned into an exhausted heap of moaning child and even the application of Skittles wouldn’t help turn the pedals. The hitch/unhitch process takes just a minute and can be done without the aid of a wall or helpful child, although it is easier if you have both, particularly when you have full panniers and a dodgy kickstand. When not in use, the mechanism hooks up (almost) out-of-the-way, although it does make your bike longer and I was prone to forgetting it was there and smacking commuters, tourists and lift doors with it. It does add to the weight, but it’s negligable when compared to a trailer and doesn’t attract the wrath of train guards on the lookout for prohibited trailers.

We headed back to London to enjoy our first Free Cycle, a glorious celebration of what cities could be like if you took them back from the cars. The only risk on the car-free roads of London that day was losing my speed demon in the throngs of other cyclists; he was cheered on by lycra-clad men who seemed delighted to see a small child speeding recklessly away from his fraught mother. The Follow Me was used to great effect as a tethering device once I’d caught him..

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Back home in Scotland we had one last longer day outing with my child-friendly chum Claire, who wrote up our lovely day in Clackmannanshire. Here the Follow Me was used mainly on the final, perhaps unwisely challenging, West Fife Way to get us both back to Dunfermline station as tired little legs had already done around 8 miles under their own steam and weren’t going much further. Tiny little Clackmananshire has a circular route with some fantastic segregated sections that, like most of 2016, made me even more proud to call Scotland our home.

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Embracing the U

Last weekend I found myself clutching someone I’ve recently met in a tight embrace, whilst pretending to have a conversation with the Transport Minister, in an effort to become a more effective cycle campaigner.

Yes, dear readers, I’ve gone through ULab…

I’ve spent Thursday nights for the last two months cloistered in a small room in Dunbar with seven others, participating in ULab: leading from the emerging future, a massive online open course (MOOC) devised by Otto Scharmer and colleagues at MIT. This involved watching the slowly spoken Otto take our ‘Dunbar Hub’, and thousands like us around the world, through the tools and techniques of Theory U slightly faster than he expected his recorded online learning materials to be played. Alongside the proscribed materials on listening, presencing, crystallising and prototyping, we’ve held weekly case clinics, gone on empathy walks, conducted dialogue interviews and monitored our empathic listening.

Sounds like a lot of hippy twaddle wrapped in management speak, doesn’t it? For the first two weeks I was convinced I’d stumbled across the Emperor’s new clothes but as the weeks went on and we became more comfortable with each other, and the material, my ‘voice of judgement’ shut up and I could feel the emerging future tantalisingly close at hand. If you’re completely lost at this point, there is a glossary available..

ULab has taken us through a journey of self-reflection and realisation about how we connect to those around us, not just our colleagues and organisations but our friends, family and communities too. As a Hub we’ve wrestled with global issues, local challenges, the nature of society, economic realities and ourselves. At the heart of the journey is how we approach the world at every level we encounter, and it feels like this is particularly crucial at the moment in our tumultuous times. As Otto says in one of the short introductory videos, we are living in an age of profound disruption, where something is ending and dying and something else is waiting to be born.

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I went along initially hoping to find out if there was some magic that I could learn to convince the Scottish Government to hand over 10% of the transport budget to active travel infrastructure. What I’ve learnt instead is that I need to connect with the people that don’t see the world as I do, and work on understanding why they don’t; to stop ‘downloading’ – trying to get my view across in any situation – and concentrate on listening and questioning opposing views that contain different information so I can find out why those views are so different to mine and where they come from*

It feels to me like we’re at a significant point in cycle campaigning, where traditional methods of engagement have got us grudging acknowledgement but nowhere near enthusiastic embracement; we need to understand how we can hold the space so that our emerging future can be born. An emerging future that talks about equity, inclusion, liveable cities that provide high quality environments for families, and rural communities that don’t trap people at at home if they don’t have access to a car. We need more conversations with our neighbours about place making and people-centred development and less conversations starting with demands for cycling and cyclists.

The Invisible Visible Man nailed it last month in a blog post that referenced conversations with people who just saw cycling as crazy and cyclists as a nuisance to ordinary people. This point was made clearly over and over again to me as my ULab colleagues, though absolutely supportive of me, gave weekly examples of why people see cyclists as rude, selfish and smug – the red light jumper, pavement terroriser, peloton road hoggers and hair-shirt cyclists. Each time I tried to defend ‘us’, whilst maintaining the position that there is no ‘us’, and preparing my answers without examining these different views of the world. It’s finally occurred to me that unless I’m prepared to unpack the problem and understand why riding a bicycle for transport seems to make usually rational people furious, I’m never going to help deliver that 10% of investment to the transport system that makes so much sense to me.

The ULab experience has been uniquely challenging and rewarding because of the people that went through it with me. It’s particularly been a privilege to meet several inspirational people working with those that are struggling at the margins and have dedicated their working lives to supporting and speaking out for people with no voices.

ULab hasn’t changed my world, but it has changed the way I see it. If anyone would like to explore the ULab materials in a cycling context please let me know as ULab will undoubtedly be back for 2017 and I need alot more empathic listening practice…

*A challenge indeed when women are habitually silenced in meetings and some mansplainers leave me wanting to staple heads to desks; my empathic listening is a work in progress..

 

Rome(ing)

“No, there are no rules.. perhaps stay on the right side of the roads?” was the sum total of advice and guidance provided by the bicycle hire shop as I rode out into the cobbled streets of Rome last week..

Thankfully, under the guise of family holiday photography, I’d been observing Roman cycling conditions all week and had put together some of my own guidelines, which I’m now going to share:

1. Don’t look like ‘a cyclist’ and act like cycling is normal

I’d been alerted to the possibility of Italian people on bikes looking ‘normal’ by a blog post from my former Chief Executive at (the then) CTC, Kevin Mayne, as he wrote about a recent trip to Verona and the delicious lack of the lycra clad there.

The cobbled, crowded centre of Rome was awash with people on bikes – shopping, delivering, sightseeing and generally getting around on two wheels. They jostled for space with pedestrians and the ever-present motor vehicles, moving together in an admirable mobility ballet. They even did it in the rain..

The Tiber cyclepath was heaving with leisure cyclists on Saturday morning; from families enjoying the sunshine to tourists out on hire bikes, some rather serious sporty types and the older generations of dapper dressers.

2. If you have a car: drive it everywhere and park where you like, particularly in front of ancient monuments.

Like many European cities, Rome has issues with air pollution levels  and it’s not hard to see why when you have to squeeze between cars just to cross the road by bike or as a pedestrian. I’m not sure what attracts the Romans to drive, but the €1.20/hour parking charges I saw probably don’t deter them.

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Parking in Piazza Farnese

On my little potter around the city I stood for a while in this, wondering if this was normal Friday gridlock or if something more tragic had happened. It transpired that some awesome parking had blocked the junction ahead – so awesome that I had to stop and take a photo to show my husband (who I thought might be sick of photos of bikes by this stage in our trip).

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Cars, cars, cars

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Parking without restraint – both the white car and van are parked, blocking this busy junction, which may have been the reason for the picture above it!

3. Look out for signs, symbols or spirit guides to help decifer the rules

I displayed my desperate desire for rules, regulations and British queue forming by standing at this crossing at the end of a segregated cycle path waiting for *something* to happen that would signal my turn for a safe passage across. This didn’t happen so I watched people on bikes go round me, then weave around the cars and just got on with going where they were going. Eventually I caught on and cycled across..

 

 

 

I did find other signs, but unfortunately whoever owns the red pen in Rome was allowed out on their own a little too much for my liking.

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A sign that makes me sad..

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Smells like priority for bikes over the side road?

If you are wondering where I went, this is an approximation of it – I’m not in complete control of my shiny new Garmin so I think some legs of the route were chopped off. Or I was even more lost that I thought.

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Rome is glorious, there is no doubt. This was my third trip to the city and it was as awe inspiringly lovely as ever. I felt safe on my bike on the crowded streets and it was a great way to experience the city. However, my own bottom line for a cycling assessment of anywhere is whether I would cycle with my child there. And on that score Rome fails for me at the moment. It looks like there is significant work ongoing in installing separated paths so I hope one day more people in Rome will choose to cycle and make all Romans healthier, happier and wealthier – something we want for Scotland too

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Five go mad in Amsterdam

I’m in a hotel room on the outskirts of Amsterdam with one of the UKs most prolific cycle campaigners, a social media guru that is setting the Internet alight with videos of cycling infrastructure and a woman that has prevented the rest of us from spending the entire weekend lost and cycling around the port at Ijmuiden. For my part, I have taught the Italian barman downstairs to make a decent cup of tea. 

We started out in Newcastle as we meant to go on – with cake – at the very lovely Cycle Hub before setting off to the ferry at Tynemouth where we became friends with a group of elderly Dutch male cyclists. 

We survived a night of being blasted by Euro- pop on the Newcastle to Ijmuiden ferry and then cycled out into Ijmuiden in great excitement, if mainly in the wrong direction.


  

Lizzie took the navigation in hand so we were soon back on track and making new friends in Haarlem

We pedalled into Amsterdam high on roundabouts and their associated infrastructure

We’ve all been here before but the thrill of being able to cycle safely is so overwhelming you can’t tire of it. In fact, all your holiday photos end us looking like this


Here is Sally and Lizzie discussing all the ways back to our hotel that won’t involve being run over by a truck

We love Haarlem and will be returning there today to assess the possibilities of setting up a tea shop as we’ve been pretty horrified by the state of the liquid refreshments and feel it’s an area where we can make a genuine contribution towards Dutch culture. Here is  Claire being appalled by this particular cup of ‘tea’. It just goes to show that the Netherlands isn’t perfect.