Thursday, 24 July 2014

CYCLES, CASTLES & CAIRO

My friend Pauline has just returned from cycle touring in Iceland where she had some appalling weather. It's not often that Scotland has great weather either, but the past few months have been spectacular. In fact, I read a news report that on Tuesday it was as hot as Cairo!

Making the most of it, and escaping the crowds of sun worshippers on the beach near my home, Pauline and I set off for a cycle run into East Lothian. It wasn't long before we could leave the traffic behind and be on cycle paths, as the John Muir Way, which you'll know I completed a couple of weeks ago, is very close to my apartment. The path then turned inland, following the River Esk out to open countryside past fields of golden wheat ripening in the sun.


The tennis elbow that had been bothering me was making pulling on the handlebars painful, so our first climb up onto a ridge that overlooks the Firth of Forth, I had to complete with just one hand on the slow ascent. It was well worth it though, as the view from the top is stunning, especially on such a clear, sunny day.

Our first focal point was the 14th century Faside Castle, with it's perfect location on the highest point of the ridge. Interestingly this was the site of the last battle between Scotland and England as separate nations back in 1547. It was uninhabited in the 1700s but today is home to a young family and operates as a B&B.

From here we enjoyed a fantastic ridge run, though all too short, down to the next village of Tranent and then south east further into the countryside, heading for Haddington, a burgh dating back to the 1100s, and seat of the East Lothian administration. It was on the edge of the village that we picked up a "rail to trails" route called the Haddington to Longniddry Railway Walk. The name tells you our next destination, which was just four miles away.


The trail was really nice and all the way along at various intervals small signposts, in the style of old railway signals, had been placed. Each one had information about the flora and fauna of the spot they stood in. I was impressed with the effort that had been made for this small, local trail.

From the tiny village of Longniddry it was a short run down to the coast, past the estate of 18th century Gosford House. On the edge of a rocky shoreline, overlooking the Forth estuary, under a baking hot sun, we tucked in to our packed lunch, before picking our way back to Edinburgh along the coast, following the John Muir Way again, past the little harbours of Prestonpans, Cockenzie, and Musselburgh.


It may have been as hot as Cairo but this had been a cool little cycle adventure.




Thursday, 17 July 2014

BREATHE EASY? REALLY?


Two months ago I decided that the time had come for a change. It has been 25 years since I bought the apartment I live in, and parts of it have not seen any decoration or repairs in all that time!

A few years go I remodelled the bathroom, and just two years the kitchen and living room had a makeover. Now it was the turn of the hall, utility room and bedroom. Surprisingly, the smallest space, the hall, took the longest, possibly because it sees the most traffic, and was the one area I had done nothing to except a lick of paint in 25 years. Two weeks later and it had a fresh matt white finish with new modern lighting. The utility room needed just a tidy and reorganising and a fresh lick of paint, which took just a couple of days.

So far so good.

I then turned my attention to the bedroom. The first job was to gut the place, and somehow I managed to fill the equivalent of five wheelie bins over a whole week! I laughed at times at the things I had kept for over 10 years, like receipts from a coffee shop I used in New Zealand on my travels in 1999. Go figure. Obviously important at the time. But now the rule was, if I hadn't used it or looked at it in the past five years out it went.

Then the decoration stage. The dark wooden doors of the bedroom cupboards were painted a pale blue, seaside-feel wash, and the walls went from a deep yellow to a pastel yellow. This all took around three weeks, as I was busy with my own business that had recently brought in a lot of work. I reached the final stage of painting, and one evening, tired from work, I spent two hours painting the walls with Crown Sunrise yellow. The manufacturer Crown pride themselves in a product they call "Breatheasy", as it has literally no smell, though it does have some odour as you paint.

Late at night, proud of my work, I closed the door and slept on the sofa in the living room so as not to breathe whatever odour the paint would give off.

At around 5am I awoke suddenly. I could smell something not of this world. It was as if a tramp had taken his vest, not washed in the last decade, and stuffed it up my nostrils! I leapt from bed and went to investigate. As I got closer to the bedroom door it grew stronger. I cautiously opened the door, expecting to see a pile of rotting corpses. The smell was overpowering. I held my breath and flung the window open, then left and closed the door firmly behind me. I vented the rest of the house and left for work.

When I returned in the evening the apartment didn't seem to smell. That is, until I opened the bedroom door. I think in text speak my exclamation would be something like, OMG!

It was the paint. Don't ask me how, but it was the paint on the walls giving off this indescribable smell. So I decided to brave it, and give the walls another coat, only to result in exactly the same scenario repeating itself! I contacted Crown by email straight way, furious that their product had rendered an entire room of my home unusable, and once more slept on the sofa with all the doors firmly closed.

The following morning, less than 12 hours after emailing them, they phoned me, offering me a product to seal the walls with, and a trade equivalent of the colour I wanted. All free of charge. Then they offered to send a team to do the work! Hmmmm, was this a worried company I wondered? As it turned out I couldn't wait the week they had suggested for their team to get to me, and I ended up doing the work myself. The sealing agent was very unpleasant to work with, very smelly and like painting with thick glue. But it did the job and the story has a happy ending. I was impressed with Crown's customer service, but my confidence in their products I feel is now sadly lacking.

Maybe in another 25 years I'll be so old I'll have lost my sense of smell and it wont matter what I paint the walls with.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

A PAIN

This has been an exhausting week, with some, err, challenges, more of a pain than others.

On the first Saturday of every month I am in charge of a local community farmers market, and of course, last Saturday was such a day. The evening before I was getting organised, and had just started my supper. As I bit into an apple I felt something give in my mouth, and proceeded to spit out half a tooth! There was no pain accompanying this event, but for sure it was going to be a challenge getting it fixed with a very busy week ahead. It would have to wait anyway. It was the weekend and and all dentists were closed. Finally, just before bed, I checked the forecast for the market day, and it seemed like it was going to be, as I like to call it, a shopping day: overcast with the odd spell of sunshine.

However, when I awoke early the next morning the skies were not the only thing overcast; during the night I had developed the monster of all colds! I was floored, and the day had not even started. Somehow, aided most likely by the several ibuprofen, washed down with several cups of strong coffee and topped up with Lemsip, I made it through the market, only to collapse onto my sofa the minute I got home.

I awoke around 8pm, and I must have been lying funny on my arm, because I now had the most incredible pain in my forearm. I was unable to even lift a cup, which was a double pain as it had my lifesaving Lemsip in it.

I'll be fine in the morning, I thought.

Not a chance. On Sunday I was meant to be repairing someone's decking, but the pain in my arm was worse. It felt as if I had maybe trapped a nerve in the elbow joint. Luckily the family I was due to fix the deck for are away in the States just now, so I knew I could confidently delay it a week. I hardly rose from my bed until the afternoon, by which point, nursing a painful arm and an energy-sapping cold, I had to spend three hours in front of the computer preparing for a 6-day film school that was starting at 10am on Monday!

Monday dawned, and the cold was subsiding, albeit with a remnant nasty cough. As I travelled to the venue to meet the teenagers for the week, I was relaxed and happy to know I was back doing what I think I do best; teaching teenage students how to make movies.

Only these weren't teenage students, as I had been led to believe.

I stood at the door of the venue for a moment, staring in at the chaos of fifteen, 10 year-old children, let loose from their parents, running around frantically and screaming at each other, toppling over chairs as they went. This was my six day film class, for six hours every day. It was all I could do not to turn around and head straight back to bed. It was glorious weather outside as well, and right beside the venue was the Union Canal, where only a week ago I had trundled past on the John Muir Way, not knowing what hell was about to be unleashed one week later in this building.

I had to somehow adapt the film course for 18 year-olds to these children. It was going to be a challenge. As I thought it through I went to pick up the camera kit that I would be using all week, started to lift the heaviest tripod, when my sore arm lost all it's power. As the tripod started to fall I tried to catch it with my other hand, twisting awkwardly as I did . . . and hurt my back, resulting in a shooting pain in my hip all day.

Fantastic.

I'm two thirds of the way through the film school with the kids, and to give them credit they have worked very hard, and above all have made me laugh.

Well that eases the pain somewhat.


Thursday, 3 July 2014

THE JOHN MUIR WAY COAST TO COAST - PART 2

Last weeks blog covered the first day of three that I was cycling the new John Muir Way Coast to Coast route.

First night was in a comfy bed courtesy of my own apartment, as the Way passes close by. On the Friday morning, now loaded up with a full kit including tent, stove, sleeping bag and so on, I rejoined the route where I had left it the day before.

I live in Edinburgh, so understanding the route across the city was fairly easy, but for others, using the map you can purchase of the route, it would be virtually impossible. The detail is so small and contains no street names or landmarks of any kind. However, the Way is marked well with it's own symbol, so it was fairly easy anyway.

From my home I took an almost straight route west into the centre of the city and the start of the Union Canal. At first I couldn't figure out why it then left the canal on a route that added ten miles, as the canal would be a quicker way to Linlithgow 24 miles away. However, after Linlithgow you also stay on the canal, so I guess it would be quite boring.

I was just about to head off north toward South Queensferry, when I thought I'd take a self-timer photograph. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered the camera was broken! It had taken a tumble earlier in the day and was now not operating properly. I detoured to one of only three camera shops remaining in Scotland, and the only one that does repairs, called Camera Base in Morningside, not far from the canal. The good news was it could be fixed. The bad news was, not today, and it would cost £100. I was just about to leave to purchase disposable cameras, when another shop assistant asked me the make and model of my camera. I was puzzled at first but he then pulled out an identical one from under a magazine he had been reading. Exactly the same, like some sort of Harry Potter magic trick! He took mine for spares and we did a deal on £65. The replacement was in better condition than my own one! It also had a wee story of it's own: it had previously been found in the mountains of the Highlands and had been handed in to the Police. Six months on and no one had claimed it, so here it was, and now in a new home.

With the delay, and a strangled route across Edinburgh, past Dalmeny House, through the woods, and onto the picturesque village of South Queensferry and the iconic Forth Rail Bridge, it was pushing lunchtime and not many miles travelled. The day was far cloudier than the first day, and at times chilly on the coast. I'd left the house almost five hours ago and here I was, still on the east coast. Finally, not long after Boness, it turned south and along small paths between farmers fields, lined in large daisy flowers, which took me the three miles to Linlithgow and coffee and cake, naturally, followed by a quick photo outside the palace gates.


I was now travelling west and just eight miles later, having negotiated a narrow viaduct, I reached the Falkirk Wheel, an impressive piece of modern engineering in the form of a boat lift that connects the Union Canal with the Forth & Clyde Canal. Together with Pauline, I have cycled these canals before and visited the Falkirk Wheel, but it never fails to impress.


Just a mile further on I picked a quiet spot to camp for the night, very close to the 2000 year old Roman Antonine Wall. Well, if it was good enough for the Romans for the night . . .

The following day was glorious, and, as on the previous two, the wind was still at my back. Roughly 12 miles on, having enjoyed very easy cycling along the canal towpath, and an "awwww" moment when I watched a family of swans and signets near one of the locks, I left the canal at Kirkintilloch. Not very well signposted, but I was about to encounter and even more annoying signage problem. Just a few kilometres up a well made cycle path I reached the small village of Lennoxtown. I had been religiously following the signs all the way so far, and when I spotted the next way-marker pointing left away from the cycle path, I continued to do so. An hour later I was back at the same spot. Someone had purposely changed the sign to point in the wrong direction.

The great cycle path continued for many more miles, all the way to the small village of Strathblane, where the John Muir Way joins the West Highland Way, a popular route that takes you from just outside Glasgow, over 100 miles to Fort William. But the path is narrow for the most part here, and busy with people, and quite rightly walkers were irritated by this cyclist, with his wide set of panniers, on the same path. To avoid cycling the A81, which is a very busy road, the route sticks with the West Highland Way, but unfortunately it takes you over a hill and through a wood on a very rocky and boulder strewn path, only really suitable for a strong mountain bike with cross country tyres.


I wasn't far from journeys end now, and a few miles after this hill I turned west and left the West Highland Way and headed for Balloch, at the south end of Loch Lomond. From here it was a short eight miles to Helensburgh, where John Muir and his family set sail for America in 1849 when he was aged just 11.

It had been a tougher route in sections than I had anticipated, but after a two-hour train journey home I once again curled up in a comfy bed and drifted off reminiscing about my three-day mini adventure along The John Muir Way.

Photos on FLICKR





Thursday, 26 June 2014

THE JOHN MUIR WAY COAST TO COAST - PART 1

The great naturalist John Muir died 100 years ago this December. He was born in Dunbar on Scotland's east coast, but, aged 11, he moved with his family to the United States. He spent his later life campaigning to protect the wilderness, and was responsible for the establishment of America's National Parks.

For as long as I can remember there has been a "John Muir Way" from Dunbar to Musselburgh, just outside Edinburgh, a distance of roughly 33 miles. In April of this year, in celebration of John Muir, that route was extended to cross the width of Scotland, and now ends after 135 miles in the west coast town of Helensburgh, where Muir and his family set sail to the New World.

This morning, under a cloudless blue sky, I set out to cycle the coast to coast route over three days. I intended to use a Warm Showers network contact for the first night, and camp wild the second night. The map that has been produced is sadly inadequate, in fact, just short of useless, so the day before I painstakingly created my own set of maps using Google.


The John Muir Way Coast to Coast (JMWCC) website would suggest that you start in Helensburgh and finish in Dunbar, presumably to have the prevailing wind behind you. For me though, there was something more appropriate about starting at the place of his birth and finishing where he left his homeland. And so it was, I set out for Dunbar on the train.

I really enjoy setting off on an adventure by train. It adds a certain something. It was my friend Pauline who woke me up to the delights and advantages of doing so. There's a real sense of starting something when you step off the train and it pulls out leaving you and a few others on the now quiet platform.

As luck would have it the weather had changed over the past few days. The forecast for my journey now had the wind, unusually, blowing directly from the east. The temperature was a very pleasant 15C (60F) and the breeze was around 12mph, so, with the wind at my back, literally, I sailed along almost effortlessly.

Immediately I had a grin on my face. Though I was on my own I kept exclaiming out loud how utterly fantastic the route was. You leave the little fishing village of Dunbar, along the coast, looking out across the Firth of Forth to the Bass Rock, the worlds largest Gannet colony, along little back roads lined with wild flowers, the sun shining and the wind at my back.


I was thinking that maybe I should do more this first day, and complete the journey in just two days, especially as I kept being overtaken by serious road cyclists in lycra, determined to clock up their 100 miles. But sometimes it's the journey, not the distance travelled, and I'm not really into the fast paced cycling thing. No, this was about noticing the little things along the way, taking time to stop, as often as I wanted, to take as many photographs as I cared to. Besides that, it's been a while since I've cycle-toured, so I was breaking in gently.

From the map I could see that there was a section of busy road approaching. Just as I had psyched myself up for lots of traffic, the route surprised me by presenting a shared footpath, as it would again at various points. It wasn't long before I turned sharp right and headed north for a number of miles toward the town of North Berwick, in the shadow of a small conical hill called Berwick Law, an ancient volcanic plug that was blasted across the sky from some 30 miles away, millions of years ago. On this section the route changed repeatedly: one minute I was on narrow little paved country roads, next I was crossing between two fields of barley on a dirt path with fantastic views.


In North Berwick I watched the world go by on the edge of the beach as I ate my lunch, with little boats pootling out across the waves with wildlife watchers from the Seabird Centre on board, before I set off once again toward Edinburgh.



The second of three busy road sections now presented itself, and after the joy of the cross country trails this was fairly unpleasant, with no shared pavement choice unfortunately.

There are two routes for the JMWCC, one for walking, and one for cycling. I knew from previous experience there were sections of the walking route that I could have cycled, keeping me off the road, but I wanted to follow the cycling route religiously, to see what it was like. To give the designers of the route their due credit, they've tried their best, and after a short couple of miles I was off the main road back on country roads and tracks, through lush overgrown woods.

The miles seemed to slip by, and before I knew it I was approaching the planned end of this section of the JMWCC by early afternoon. Through the little village of Port Seaton, past the decommissioned coal-fired power station at Cockenzie, and on into Musselburgh, following the man-made lagoons, created using the ash from the power station.


On the outskirts of the City of Edinburgh, just 35 miles after starting, I called it a day and headed for my accommodation for the night. I was very confident of not just a warm shower, but a comfy bed and maybe even a pizza for supper. Why? Well, you see, that Warm Showers contact is in fact . . . me! The JMWCC passes very close to my home near the beach, and so I was able to leave the majority of my kit behind for day one.

Tomorrow I'll have a heavier bike and will be camping out. The forecast is still for easterlies, so once again I'll have the wind at my back.

To see more photos from the trip follow this link to FLICKR (photos are in reverse order). You can catch up on how I get on over the next two days in next week's blog.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

BOATS, BATONS & BEACH RUNS

This past weekend has seen a flurry of activity on the beach at Portobello, just yards from my front door, with a whole manner of beachy-type things going on with rowing boats, baton relays and fun runs.

On Saturday morning a large gathering of people from all over Scotland started to grow near the local coffee shop, The Beach House. Traditional skiffs from as far away as Wick, Stornoway and Ullapool, to Eyemouth, North Berwick and Dunbar, descended upon Portobello Beach to compete with Row Porty's very own skiffs, in the Scottish Coastal Rowing Regatta for 2014. Out of nine teams Portobello came joint 1st with North Berwick.


It was a glorious sunny day with light winds and a wonderful atmosphere among the crowds enjoying the rowing and the beach itself, from ten in the morning until five in the evening.

Shortly before the rowers packed up for the day though, a historic one-off event took place around 4.30pm. In the lead up to the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, starting on the 23rd July, the Queen's Baton Relay took place along the length of the promenade. Each runner only had the baton for 200 yards, but the support and atmosphere of the excited crowds was not in short supply. One of my friends from a local youth group was a proud father as his son Michael took the baton from the local swimming pool to just outside my house. If you want to see a short, minute-long, film of the event click on the picture.

And so to Sunday, and on another great day the local Portobello Running Club had organised a four-mile beach race in aid of a local charity, and once again the crowds turned out in both participation and support.


I already love the place where I live, but to see such great use of the mile-long beach front just enforces how lucky I am. It doesn't matter if it's meandering walks slurping melting ice-cream, or energetic rowing out on the Firth of Forth, I love all the beachy things that happen, year round, right on my doorstep.


Friday, 13 June 2014

BROUGHTY FERRY, BURGERS AND BROMPTONS

Since October last year I have been working relentlessly on a renovation of an old property for the sister, Karen, of my friend Pauline, in Broughty Ferry, a two hour drive north from Edinburgh.

Located on the Firth of Tay, Broughty Ferry was annexed in 1913 by the nearby City of Dundee to the west. Prior to that it was independent. There is evidence to suggest prehistoric settlement here, and to be honest, the state of the house I've been working on would suggest it was that settlement!

On the first day this week, of yet another marathon stint, I had a nice surprise toward the end of the day. Karen's mum and partner, Sheila and Dougie, came along to have a look, and I think took one look at my beaten and dusty body and felt sorry for me. Instead of some limp end-of-day sandwich from a local store for supper, that night they treated me to a homemade burger with all the trimmings at a local bar called The Ship.

In 1878 a rail bridge was built across the Tay, leaping to fame in 1879 when a catastrophic failure plunged a passenger train into the firth with the tragic loss of all 75 lives on board. It was rebuilt and still stands today without any further such events I'm happy to say.

But prior to that Broughty ferry played an important role in train travel: a roll-on roll-off ferry provided the link between Tayport on the southern shore to Broughty Ferry, on the Edinburgh to Aberdeen main line.

I have been very lucky in my visits to Broughty Ferry, in that almost every day has been glorious sunny weather. Not so great when you're stuck indoors of course, but in the evenings I can stroll along the beach and sit for a while looking out over the Tay beside the castle that sits on the harbour.


Built in 1495 it played a part in the Anglo-Scottish wars, and though they ended in 1603 the castle remained a defensive structure until 1932. It certainly has that air of history about it and is a prominent focal point that can be seen from a far distance in all it's moods. On Wednesday of this week there was a full moon, and at close to midnight I wandered down to take some photographs.


The one drawback of working in the property is it is quite far from the nearest store for lunch. There is also no working toilet yet, and the public toilets are at a distant that you don't want to leave it too late before deciding to go, as the walk could prove disastrous! This was not a problem this week however, as my friend Pauline had left me her folding Brompton bicycle. It must have looked quite comical to see this tall man, covered in plaster dust and other such detritus, pedalling frantically on this rather swish, and most definitely fun, mode of transport. On one such jaunt I passed a BBC film crew shooting something with actor Brian Cox. I bet they were jealous when they saw my bike.

I'm taking a welcome break from the project for a few weeks now, but for sure when I'm next back in Broughty Ferry I'll be taking the Brompton and maybe cycle into the village for a well earned burger.