Thursday, 30 October 2014

SINGLE HANDED

About three months ago I sustained an injury to my right arm. For some reason this progressed into tennis elbow. It's not something you plan for, and the main course of treatment is complete rest, so stopping using the arm at all was a huge challenge, one I wasn't really able to do. As the weeks turned to months, and the pain in the tendons of my lower arm gradually became worse, I realised I had to take drastic action. I cancelled all work projects, both at home and for clients, and didn't lift even a cup of tea. Not only this but I was suffering from a bout of sciatica down my left leg and the arthritic toe joint of my right foot had decided to join in. If I had been a horse I would no doubt be on my way to the glue factory.

The downside of this was it also included abstaining from all the fun things as well, such as cycling. Apparently gripping the handlebars of a bicycle puts a lot of strain on your arms.

But an opportunity had arisen, with the recent break in the wet weather, to cycle from Bridge of Allan to Glenogle to a favourite camp spot, a route which I had cycled with my friend Vince almost exactly one year ago. This time it was with Pauline.

But how to do it with this very painful arm? I wasn't sure if it would be even possible, but I decided to try and cycle all 25 miles, there and back, without using my right arm at all! And with a fully loaded bike!

We set out late from Bridge of Allan, just outside Stirling, once the mornings heavy rain had abated. The first section was fairly flat, allowing me test out my plan. It seemed to be OK. We then negotiated several small hills, which were more of a challenge, but apart from using my hand to change gear on the rear set, I seemed to be OK in not using the right arm. I certainly must have looked like a very casual cyclist to those I passed, my arm dangling at my side.

In less than two hours, taking it easy, we were in the small village of Callander and time for a break for lunch in the local park. The entire car park for the public park was flooded due to the recent heavy rains. Fishermen wandered across the flooded tarmac in their chest-high waders, and I watched in anticipation of when they would suddenly find the river embankment. They obviously knew the terrain well, expertly navigating, and my hope of some light entertainment was dashed.

As we sat there I spotted what looked like some sort of creature swimming across the flood. It crawled out onto the grass and lay very still. A gull spotted the movement and went for it, tossing it in the air. I scared the gull off and on closer inspection discovered it was in actual fact a small water vole, an endangered species in the UK. They have seen their numbers plummet by over 90% in recent times. We reckoned it had been flooded out of its home due to the sudden rise in water levels, and had swam across to seek drier ground. It was obvious by the large numbers of gulls and crows that this water vole's fate was going to add to the statistics, so Pauline and I decided to intervene in the natural selection process. Pauline retrieved her small cooking pot, and with as little distress as possible to the water vole, we caught it and relocated it to a safer spot. Hopefully we've helped to preserve this little riverbank chap.


From Callander To Strathyre was easy going, following the swollen River Teith and then along the eastern forested shore of Loch Lubnaig and then the River Voil. Single-handed cycling it seemed was not that hard, and the reward all around was well worth the inconvenience. The fall was late this year, and though in a couple of days it would be November, the tracks were bursting with colour and the autumn colours were mostly at their height.


From the brightly lit yellows of the birch together with every shade of green from dark jungle green, through apple reds to a very light pale green and everything in-between,  the hillsides were a joy to behold. They were awash with the pale yellowy-orange colour of the Larch, and occasionally we would come across a crimson Maple. The forest tracks were covered in this natural canopy and our tyres rolled along a carpet of colour reminiscent of a 1960s Axminster weave.

To our right the rivers and loch had burst their banks, and though problematic for surrounding farmers and houses it did create a picturesque landscape. However, by the time we reached Strathyre the flooding started to hamper our progress. A local elderly cyclist stopped us and advised that the route ahead to Balquhidder was impassable. But this brought an added bonus. Over the past year a new section of cycle path had been constructed alongside the A84 road, and now connected Strathyre to Kings House at the end of the Balquhidder road, a saving of around four to five miles. Considering my challenge of single-handed cycling this was welcome news. A small part of the new path was flooded but we were able to detour briefly onto the road.

It wasn't long before we had passed high above the village of Lochearnhead on one of my favourite cycle paths, twisting and turning its way through indigenous woods, though cycling a lot slower than normal with just one hand and thus one brake! The path follows an old rail line and just before our hidden camp spot for the night we crossed the old viaduct that curves its way up the glen.


Almost exactly a year ago when camping in this very spot with my friend Vince, we found a young stag that had literally just died, possible just hours before out arrival. It had taken it's last stumbling steps into a pool of water at the base of a fallen tree, its throat cut open from a fight, it being the rutting season (you can read that story again here). I was keen to see what had happened in that year, imagining there would be a perfect skeleton in the same spot. To my amazement the pool of water was entirely empty.


Very close by were half a dozen bones, picked perfectly clean, and lying scattered around in this dark, damp wood. Something very strong had managed to haul large parts of the carcass out of the pool, and most had been carried off. Maybe the small antlers had been found by other walkers or cyclists and taken home. 

The great circle of life.

The following morning was cold, and condensation soaked our tents. Ahead was another 25 miles single-handed cycling, this time mostly downhill. After a brief stop in Callendar for lunch and the ubiquitous coffee and cake, we were back in Bridge of Allan in record time.

Though not a single-handed, round-the-world adventure in the realms of yachts-woman Ellen McArthur, it had been a physical challenge and one that I had pulled off successfully with no detrimental effects, postponing the trip glue factory once more.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

THAT TRAVEL BUG

Recent changes in my work commitments have meant big compromises have had to be made in terms of my first passion, travel.

There's a few of my friends who ask what the draw is, (travel that is, not work) to give up well paid work, the comfort of a comfortable apartment, convenient shops and entertainment on my doorstep and all that is familiar in my neighbourhood. When I am travelling and discovering new cultures, I know I embrace all the cliches such as freedom, the open road etc, and I find it certainly facilitates letting go of the past and look to the future. But it's a tricky one to explain, as is any choice we make in things that affect our lives.

As a film maker I like to observe people and quietly ask myself questions about them, the answers influenced by what I observe.

For example, I am continually fascinated by the fashions people wear. The businesswoman who wears a hybrid of clothes that are neither masculine nor feminine, the fear possibly being that if she expresses either preference it could be detrimental to her progression.

The man who wears an Hawaiian shirt as if to say, "hey I'm colourful and outgoing, not at all boring", and goes home to feed his cat in an empty apartment. Contrast this with the man dressed head to foot in beige. Maybe he's saying, "I have everything I want, I'm happy with who I am, and I care not for fashion statements".

Or the man who wears a hoody, trousers that stop half way down the calf, ankle socks and trendy trainers. Not out of place on an early twenty something, but on a 50 year old? But then who says there are rules? Maybe he doesn't want to accept his advancing years, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Then there's the cyclist is his skin-tight Team Sky lycra top, hoping that those glances from people he whizzes by, are thinking, "hey, there's one of those super-athletes from the Tour de France", but his grey hair, wheezing and sore joints betray him.

But it's not just fashion. We make choices in many things that we decide to "wear," from friends, to where we live, to the type of job we have. They are  choices influenced by many factors, and it takes more than my casual, one-sided observations to know what they are.

And so it is with my "travel bug". It's hard to explain, but in one way nicely summed up in this short verse by Kahill Gibran, a Lebanese artist, poet and writer in the late 1800s:

My house says to me, “Do not leave me,
for here dwells your past.”
And the road says to me, “Come and follow me,
for I am your future.”
And I say to both my house and the road, 
“I have no past, nor have I a future".
If I stay here, there is a going in my staying;
and if I go there is a staying in my going.

I would add that if the desire to take that road grabs you, do not ignore it. There will always be reasons why not to, and life is not a rehearsal, as they say.

I may not be in a position to travel again yet, but I will, and when I do I will follow that road again into the future.


Friday, 17 October 2014

WHEN IS A SHED NOT A SHED?

In 2010, just after returning from cycling the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, I set about creating a home office in my garden. For years there had been a shed there, but it had to become much more than just a shed.

Since I sold my retail business in 2006 I've always had an office "space" in my house, which occupied a corner of my living room. It was fine as an office space went, but I never "went to work". It was just 4 steps from my sofa, but I hardly ever made the commute, choosing mostly to watch trash telly instead.

I realised I needed a place to go to work, and though it was still on the footprint of my property, the garden seemed an obvious choice.

Over six weeks I remodelled the existing 8' x 6' shed, raising it up on bricks by two feet, insulating the inside walls and installing an electric supply.

Four years on and it's as good as the day I built it.

Two months ago a need arose for increased storage. There were so many bicycles, inflatable canoes  and other large outdoor gear, that the apartment was surely going to burst at the seems. Though the garden is small it once again seemed the obvious choice. First stage was to remove the old overgrown plants in the area and set concrete pillars in place, effectively raising the build off the damp ground. I could have laid a large concrete slab, but that's not very eco-friendly, and it's also very difficult to remove in the future should the need arise. So the solution was to dig one-foot deep holes, fill them with rubble, then sit concrete piers on top with a rubber membrane between the concrete and the timber supports.

Once the floor was built, a strong sandwich of 25mm marine ply and 70mm of insulation, the walls could go up, and finally the roof. For the technically minded this comprised a vapour barrier on the inside (which was later covered in plasterboard), insulation between the wooden frame, a breathable membrane and then an air gap between the membrane and the outer cladding. The roof is a special one piece rubber called EPDM, guaranteed for 25 years. Job done.
The only remaining thing to do, next year, is to place a living roof of sedum down, as just now the view from the windows of my apartment is of a vast expanse of black rubber. It's a tiny bit bigger than the office shed too. Actually, it's twice the size! Surprisingly it sits comfortably in the garden, and has created a really nice enclosed secret garden, which itself has had a bit of a makeover.


Overall it was an entirely different build to the first shed. Over the past four years I have learned so much about construction, and it is with confidence I can say this "shed" is built to a timber frame house standard. It now stands snuggly next to the original office shed.


A shed? Hardly.



Thursday, 9 October 2014

THREE YEARS

Three years ago this week, the 8th October to be precise, I returned from a momentous cycle adventure across the USA. I've been looking back at the three years since, at what has happened as each year rolled round.

In the same week of 2012 I was in the midst of sending out the film of the journey, Sleepless 'til Seattle, to various film festivals and had started cutting a trailer. I entered quite a number, from small town festivals in the likes of Fargo, North Dakota, to the major players such as Sundance. The latter attracted over 12,000 entires, each paying as much as $100US per film. That's quite a business for them. Very quickly I realised that I was up against much higher budget films and the category I had entered, feature documentary, had few slots available. Suffice to say I was unsuccessful in getting in to any festival. Following that disappointment I went on to produce my own DVDs and sold over 200 copies online in the USA and at home in the UK.

Moving forward to the same week of 2013 and I was working once again in film, this time at a local school, Liberton High, teaching the students film making in a three hour workshop each week. Two of those students have gone on to study film at university when they left school the following year.

The USA adventure continued to be a part of my life as Pauline and I had just completed out last show, an illustrated talk of the adventure, a tour of eleven theatres in Scotland starting in April.

That week also saw me on a short cycle adventure with my friend Vince to Glen Ogle. As we camped in a small clearing of a forest that night we came across a red deer, a young male stag, that had died just hours before we arrived, probably as the result of a fight with another stag, as it was the middle of the annual deer rut.


I had just started renovating a large apartment outside if Dundee for a friend, a project that I thought I would finish within six months.

And so to this week, 2014. Once again I am teaching film to a bunch of students, this time to a much wider age group of six to eighteen. 

That property renovation is still ongoing, and though I'd like to say that I will definitely be finished by Christmas, I don't want to tempt fate again.

By coincidence there's every chance that at the end of this week I will return to Glen Ogle, just as last year, this time with Pauline.

And finally, that USA trip continues to raise its head: this month I will be putting the DVD of the adventure up on Amazon to see how if it can attract more sales.

It seems surprising when I think about these events, and I feel that they have all actually been within just the past year. The USA adventure continues to be a very special memory for me, even though I've done many things since.

How I long for that long open road on my bicycle.



Friday, 3 October 2014

ANNUAL AUTUMN AMBLE

Those of you who follow my blog regularly will know just how much I love Autumn.I always make an effort to escape the city and head into the Highlands of Scotland to be amongst the colours.

It's been a busy time for me over the past couple of months, without a single day off, so though I only managed two days away it was a break I had long looked forward to.

Just under two hours north of Edinburgh, Pauline and I unloaded our bicycles, attached our kit and cycled west on a bright and crisp Autumn morning. Just minutes out of Pitlochry we were on the small back road to Foss, heading out to Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch.

The Autumn palette was not at its fullest yet, but there was a bonus to this as there was a greater variety of colours, with lime greens, yellows, orange and red. Many trees still had their full dark green foliage as well, so the contrasts were fabulous.

Along tunnels of tree lined roads we followed the edge of the 11km long Loch Tummel. it is only 1km wide, and on the opposite bank we could see little Highland country castles nestled among the colour forests and red squirrels darted across the road from side to side.


Normally we only see one or two of these most cute Highland creatures, but this area is somewhat of a stronghold for them and throughout the two days several would cross our path, hunting for acorns to top up their winter stores. In the hedgerows blackberries were still fruiting and like the squirrel with his acorns I stuffed my pouches with ripe berries.

It wasn't long before we reached the next body of water in this chain, Loch Rannoch, somewhat bigger at 14km long, and the small village at it's eastern edge, Kinloch Rannoch. There was no resisting the inviting small coffee shop for late morning coffee and cake, followed by our packed lunch in the village square.

The road around Loch Rannoch goes nowhere except to the remote railway station at it's westerly edge, a stepping off place for those walking the Road to the Isles. We followed the northern shore of the loch on the way out, past small white sandy beaches, arriving at it's western point by early afternoon. Out in the middle of the loch at this point was a small Crannog, a tiny island with a medieval folly built in the middle.


Turning east along the southern shore we started our search for an overnight wild camp. On our right was dense forest broken at times with open fields of wildstock. To our left was the loch and nowhere could we find a place to pitch for the night at first. About halfway along the loch we came across a wider spit of land pushing out into the loch and found room for our two tents on the edge of the forest near the waters edge. With a resident Robin clicking away nearby we settled in for the night.

Early morning the rain was falling, a sound I really enjoy as it strikes the outside of the tent with me tucked up in my sleeping bag. It was a lazy start and by the time we set out for the day the skies were brightening up.

We could have merely retraced out route back to Pitlochry, but with time on our side we took a small detour on a hill road that took us past the base of the nearby pointed top mountain of Schiehallion. It is a recognisable peak for far and wide and stands isolated amongst the surrounding lower hills. It's isolation led to it being part of a ground breaking experiment in 1774 when Charles Mason used it to calculate the mean density of the earth. He was assisted by mathematician Charles Hutton who would go on to devise a graphical system to present the heights of large volumes of landmass called contours, a system every hillwalker in the world would be lost without.


A speedy downhill brought us back to Pitlochry on a warm and sunny afternoon in time for coffee and cake at Hetties Place. However, not before one last small detour to a nearby Pictish stone called the Dunfallandy Stone.
I had been to Pitlochry many times in the past but had never known the stone was here. Dating from the 9th century it is decorated in intricate carvings from the period. Speculation over its origins and the meaning of its carvings have had many interpretations over the centuries. Now protected by a stone and glass surround to protect it for future generations. The glass made it impossible to photograph its carvings to show you here, so you'll just have to make the visit to see it yourself.

In my opinion well worth the short amble, especially on a warm sunny Autumn day.

More photos on Flickr.


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

BUSY BOY

I was distracted last week from the tension and excitement of the referendum on Scottish independence due partly to preparing for my new role as tutor of film and television for the new Pauline Quirk Academy of Performing Arts, PQA for short, the first of its kind in Scotland.

It's hard to believe now that just one week ago the eyes of the world were upon Scotland as it decided its future. There is still a lot of passion on both sides, especially from the Yes campaign, but I hope that the passion turns away from negativity to one of positivity some time soon. 

An enthusiastic team from the PQA head office south of the border led the launch day of the academy last Saturday, to a large number of eager and interested young people.

I started the day off with a Green group, ages 6 to 8, followed by Blue, ages 9 to 12 and then Red, 13 to 18. Each session was down to 40 minutes as a taster of what we have on offer, but it was quite high pressure, as all the tutors were embarking on something very new.  Having delivered the taster sessions at one school on the west side of Edinburgh, we shifted camp to the north side and did it all again.

After a 10-hour day I collapsed into my bed early, exhausted.

This week I've been working on the lesson plans proper, as this Saturday is the first of our actual academies.

Mixed in with all that has been several other tasks, all equally demanding. I'm coming to the end of a month long build in my garden of a new, large shed. I say shed, but it has been built to a house spec to make it as damp proof as possible. Then I have my ongoing large renovation project 50 miles north, just outside Dundee. And then there was a meeting with our local council to finalise plans to bring electric provision to a monthly farmers market that I run, a two year project.

But on Tuesday I will escape the chaos for a couple of days into the Highlands of Scotland, and you can read all about that next week.

Did someone say busy?


Thursday, 18 September 2014

SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE, YES OR NO?

Today the people of Scotland decide whether or not to split from the rest of the United Kingdom and go it alone.

I've listened to the debate on both sides. Well, to the extent where I began to lose the will to live! It has gone on forever and a day. But quite rightly so, as this is a major decision. Despite all this debate I feel it is too soon to vote. Not enough time has been spent figuring everything out. There are too many unanswered questions.

The one great thing about this entire process is people are talking about Scotland all around the world. But here at home it has divided the nation. Even as I write this the polls cannot call it. It is virtually split down the middle.

Which is a problem.

On something so decisive and so historical it should not have been a simple case of one vote could swing it. It's too important. We need to know the vast majority want independence or not. Even a golf club that wishes to amend its constitution has to get a 66% majority. This is a nations future we're debating and yet one vote either way will decide it?!

People talk about the referendum in 1979 and 20 years later we had out own parliament. They go on to say how much longer do we need this time as we've had three years to deliberate. To me that's just not long enough and everything feels rushed. I love Scotland and we owe it the respect to consider it's future more carefully than tit for tat argumentative political debates.

There's also far too much emotion and this has created aggression among some friends in opposing camps. It's reasonable to say that emotion plays a part, and even a touch of the romantic notion, but we should be deciding on hard facts, and we don't have enough at the moment to decide either way.

From the romantic notion of "being that nation again", let's not forget that when the Act of Union took place in 1707 to create the United Kingdom, Scotland was all but bankrupt. We have less than five million people in Scotland, not all of which are tax payers. We give everyone a free education in university and free medical prescriptions. Let alone the cost of converting to independence and small things such as our own armed forces, how do we afford all this?

I'm very tired of the nationalistic point of view and the anti-English attitude. That is so archaic and ignores the fact the world is a smaller place these days and we're far more connected than ever before. Though I am from Scotland I consider myself European. Will I lose that status along with my passport? Already I see fierce antagonism and insults thrown between the yes and no supporters, and it worries me that maybe that aggression will escalate on Friday by the losing side. Whatever the outcome, it has sadly led to a divided nation, so even if we do decide to go it alone, there are deep wounds.

This all said I too am attracted by the prospect of independence, but only if we can be far more organised and knowledgeable about how we go forward, which we aren't at the moment.

So what to do.

In my view the best way forward for the chance of Scotland going independent is to vote no.

That sounds illogical doesn't it? But think about it. If we have a yes decision then that's it. There's no going back. However, if we have a no decision we buy more time to get better organised and gather the knowledge we need before we decide to walk away from a United Kingdom.

Or not.