Tuesday, 24 September 2013

And a partridge in a pear tree

Gradually the landscape colours are changing as autumn approaches, and my own small garden is no exception.

Already the leaves of the small spindly Apple tree that is planted in a large pot, have turned a fabulous bright orange. Just a few feet away is my favourite foliage in the garden during autumn, the Hawthorn. The leaves go through a rainbow of colours until they reach a bright fiery red.

Across from the Hawthorn is a Rowan, covered in red berries, its leaves only just starting to turn. The largest object in the garden is the Silver Birch, now a staggering 30 feet tall. Only a few of its leaves have started to show the signs of change, turning a pale yellow. Eventually it will look like a blazing beacon from afar once its tiny leaves have taken on a wild mix of yellow, orange and red.

But the most noticeable sign of autumn on the way is the arrival of a seasonal visitor. Recognisable by it's distinctive song, and loud for its small size, the Robin arrived last Friday (photo courtesy of Pauline). Perched among the dense foliage of the birch it announced its arrival all afternoon. The Robin seems to be far more tame than the rest of the birds that visit, unphased by my presence.

The all year round visitor to the garden, the Sparrow, have recently grown in number to more than 20. Their song becomes a natural alarm call as they collectively chirp away at first light, eating their way through a whole feeder of seed and three small bags of peanuts a day.

The Rowan provides natural food for many of the birds too, and last week I laughed out loud as 11 starlings all noisily pecked away at the berries as they tried to balance on the top most branches with varying degrees of success in the wind.

Over the years I've regularly seen two Collared Doves feeding on the floor of the garden, but to my surprise two weeks ago I saw six, four of which looked smaller and scruffy, so I can only assume the original two have successfully bred nearby.

With the Sparrows providing the loudest dawn chorus, to the bird that provides my favourite, cheerful song at the end of the day and continues to use my garden as a safe refuge. The Blackbird.

Over the past few years I've seen a huge variety of birds, and on one winters day a couple of years ago I counted 18 different species of bird in one day.

No Partridge though. I don't have  a Pear Tree in the garden.

Monday, 16 September 2013

State of the Union

Back in early June 2010, Pauline and I took our mountain bikes by train to Bowling, on the west side of Glasgow, and the start of the Forth & Clyde Canal.  On that occasion we stopped 30 miles short of Edinburgh at the beautifully designed canal boat lift, the Falkirk Wheel, where the Forth & Clyde Canal ends, and caught the train home.

On the weekend just past we decided to return to cycle the final leg on the Union Canal, from the Falkirk Wheel to Edinburgh. The only difference this time was instead of mountain bikes we took Brompton folding bikes.

The canal was built in 1832 but inevitably fell into disuse and ceased to be a working canal in the 1930s. In 2000 though, it was brought back into use thanks to a project called The Millennium Link. This would see the Forth & Clyde Canal being connected up again with the Union Canal through a series of locks, the most ingenious being the Falkirk Wheel. In addition a new section that had been lost over the years on the outskirts of Edinburgh at Wester Hailes was reinstated, and now you can travel by boat from the centre of Edinburgh to the west coast.

The Union Canal does not follow a straight line to Edinburgh from Falkirk. The designers at the time wanted to avoid the use of expensive and time wasting locks, to speed the transfer of minerals from the Lanarkshire region to Edinburgh, so the canal twists and turns as it follows the 240foot contour all the way. In 1832 that must have been quite a challenge.

On a sunny and blue sky day we set out from Falkirk train station to the Falkirk Wheel. This was about a four mile addition to our route, as once there we would have to turn around and retrace our route. It was all about completing the length of both canals, otherwise we would have had a four mile gap in our quest. So our 31mile journey on the Bromptons officially started at the top of the Falkirk Wheel boat lift.

The towpath is, for the most part, fairly smooth and varies in width from a couple of feet to, at times, six feet, the only interruption being the occasional staggered gates at regular points, put in to deter motorised users. There were very few people on the path, which I found surprising given that, though a little chilly, it was a beautiful day.

Not long after the start we encountered a very long, dark and damp tunnel. It must have been easily half a kilometre long, if not more. I could hardly see a thing inside but I was just a few feet behind a jogger in the tunnel, so I kept up with him to stay orientated. It would have been wiser and safer to walk through, as did Pauline, and on a couple of occasions the tyres did lose their grip.  The walls of the tunnel were coated in limescale, giving the illusion of being inside some manmade Disney ride or a set from Star Trek.

Along it's length there are four navigable aqueducts, one being 80feet above the ground. Uneven and narrow, these are definite moments when you get off and push. Inevitably you meet others coming the other way and it can be an interesting moment as you try to squeeze past each other without falling in to the five foot deep murky water.

Autumn was definitely knocking at the door with many trees starting to show their fiery colours in their leaves and the berries of the Rowan trees were flaming red. Blackberries were out in abundance at various stages of ripening and we enjoyed the occasional stop for a mini feast of the dark sweet fruits. The whole setting was very pretty; a bloom of vegetation creating a patchwork of green across the surface of the canal; little stone bridges crossing over; swans resting on the edge with their adolescent signets as narrow canal boats chugged past; shafts of sunlight dancing through the branches of mature trees creating a hidden world feel to long stretches of the route.

About halfway along we decided to pay a visit to the birthplace of one of Pauline's distant relatives. Pulling off the canal at Linlithgow we stopped for coffee and cake, and whilst sitting outside in the autumn sunshine we were entertained by a local brass band, resplendent in their bright red tunics.

Coffee over it was time to make that visit and we wandered up a narrow cobbled road to the Palace of Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. That's right, you read that correctly - I was  cycling with royalty, as Pauline is a distant relative of Mary Queen of Scots. Just as well their powers are diminished these days or she might have had me beheaded for my bad behaviour in the past!

But idyllic little journeys like this wouldn't be complete without me managing to create a problem at some point. As Pauline often says, there's always something with me.  With 12 miles to go, and far from any connecting train station, my Brompton developed a puncture in the front wheel. Unfortunately , although we had a repair kit with us we had forgotten the spanner for the front wheel nuts! We continued on, stopping every half mile so I could pump up the tyre, then pedalling like Chris Froom in the Tour de France (I was wearing the Team Sky jersey afterall) to get as far as I could on one pump. Then a miracle happened. The Madonna del Ghisallo, patron saint of cycling, must have shone down upon me. The puncture suddenly repaired itself! Amazed but delighted, we continued on uninterrupted to finish our journey at Lochrin Basin in Tollcross.

If you'd like to read about the original adventure on the Forth & Clyde Canal, please follow this link.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The final curtain

And so what seems to have been a lot longer than it actually was, the adventure talk that Pauline and I organised and toured around Scotland, Sleepless 'til Seattle, has come to an end.  Our final show, in Helensburgh, was a sell out judging by the fact the venue started putting extra chairs out near the start.

Back in 2010 when Pauline was planning her two year cycle adventure round the world, she had a plan to cross the USA, but at that time it was just one part of the itinerary and no details were thought out. Six weeks after Pauline cycled off I met her in Spain to cycle the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. A fantastic experience of 500 miles.

Just weeks after I returned home a plan was hatched, and Pauline very kindly invited me to meet her again in Boston, and cycle across the US together.

Back then I thought it would be a good idea to film the adventure for posterity. I had no idea at that point that I would come back with 117 hours of footage and create a feature film. Despite the additional challenges of making the film it was truly a once in a lifetime adventure. It was only one part of Pauline's bigger adventure, but I felt privileged to have been able to be there for two of the sections.

Like most things of this nature you're so busy doing it at the time you forget to take a step back and look at it from afar and see just how special and unique an experience it is. You don't realise that you'll never do it again. That this is it. Right then. After the physical fitness challenge was overcome and I settled in to the job in hand, looking back I think I lost sight of just how amazing and unique a time it was. So many amazing things happened along the way. At one point Pauline took a photograph on the spur of the moment somewhere in Montana, that little did we know would go on to be the iconic photograph of the entire adventure.

On another occasion we met a fellow cyclist Chet, a musician from Port Townsend. This brief encounter would go on to see us work together on producing the fantastic music for the film. We made so many friends, people we are still in touch with years on. There were stresses and strains along the way of course, and spending five months with just one other person 24-7 would be difficult for anyone. I also produced video diaries every few weeks which I posted online. on reflection this was a mistake as it robbed me of any down time and created a lot of stress and hassle. But despite all the challenges we did it. We reached the west coast after pedalling for over 4,000 miles and had memories that would stay with us forever.

I returned to the UK while Pauline continued on for many more thousands of miles, creating yet more special memories as she pedalled on.  It would take another nine months for me to edit all the footage into a watchable film, which we named Sleepless 'til Seattle due to our irrational fear of sleeping in tents in bear country. I was determined to have the film completed by the time Pauline returned to the UK.

At the end of July 2012, Pauline cycled the last of her 17,000 miles into Edinburgh, approaching from the east having set off west more than two years previously. She was just in time to help with the finishing touches of the film, recording narration and filming a new opening. The finished DVD of the film was then entered many times into film festivals. Though it never made it's way in to any of them, it did go on to sell hundreds of copies worldwide.

Then, one day in December 2012, an idea was hatched to create a lecture, where we could share our adventure with others, to a live audience. There was one over riding lesson from the whole experience, summed up by Nelson, a colourful character we had met on the Erie Canal: "there's something you want to do in life, but sometimes that day comes and goes and you can't do it. If you want to do something, do it". This is what we wanted to share with everyone, and to show that you don't have to be a super-athlete. That ordinary people can do extra ordinary things.

And so the show was born. Though we were both stepping out of our comfort zone and taking on yet another challenge together, it was a great success, with enthusiastic audiences at 11 theatres round Scotland. We had our own private after-show party with a huge pizza then watching the fireworks from the Castle, marking the end of the Edinburgh Festival. Though our own tour is over, it will continue to some extent as the Royal Geographic Society have invited us to give the talk on two dates in November.

But for now, from an adventure that really started over three years ago, from planning, to cycling 4,000 miles with my best friend, to producing a feature film and performing the talk, the final curtain has come down on Sleepless 'til Seattle.

All good things come to an end I guess. Like most of the adventures in my life, none of it would have happened without one very special person.  Thank you Pauline.