Thursday, 28 April 2016


Back in mid February I wrote a blog about inspirational women (you can recap that blog here: Inspirational women). One of those was Nellie Bly. She had been given the assignment of beating the fictional Phileas Fogg's feat of Around the World in 80 Days.

She of course did just that, and in a little over 72 days, on 25 January 1890, she stepped off the Atlantic Express train of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in Jersey City. Three time keepers from athletic clubs clicked stop on their watches, and the official time was recorded.

The majority of her journey had been by sea, as was that of her rival, Elizabeth Bisland, who was to come in four days later. She had been sent out by The Cosmopolitan in the opposite direction. This had been her undoing. It was January, and the storms in the North Atlantic were notorious. Her ship took almost double the amount of time to reach New York harbour than was usual.

Nellie Bly had finished the last leg of her journey across the United States by train, and despite enormous falls of snow blocking the passes in the Sierra's, causing her route to been diverted, she made it in plenty of time. Every station her train pulled into, enormous crowds had gathered to cheer her, hoping to grab a glimpse of this young American woman. They were star struck, in a time when "celebrity" was still to become a common phrase. Even the author Jules Verne, who she had met in France near the beginning of her adventure, had sent a telegram of congratulations.

She had tried to keep The World newspaper up to date by sending wire telegraphs as she went, but at times there would be weeks between her communications. How things would change.

As soon as she had set foot on the platform, an operator in Western Union telegraph office flicked a switch, which sent a signal across the water to Battery Park, and the sky was filled with fireworks. On that signal the roar of 10 cannons filled the air, and several more followed in other areas. This call was then taken up by boats, tugs and barges sounding their horns.

Everyone went mad for Nellie Bly.

Her route had taken her across the Atlantic, through Europe and across the Mediterranean from the southern tip of Italy. Then south east across Africa, to sail from Aden to the southern tip of India, and on to Singapore, Hong Kong and then Japan. In Japan her "taxi" around the city was in a chair carried aloft on two poles suspended between two barefoot Japanese men, called Jinrikishas. From Japan it had then been seven days out of Yokohama to San Francisco across the Pacific Ocean.

All at just 26 years old, in a time long before air travel.

But all this fame had a price. Exactly one year later, during which she had conducted a lecture tour that did not endure its full run of dates, and published a book of her exploits that sold below its expectated sales numbers, Nellie Bly was in a dark place. She had quit her job from The World in a dispute over money, been involved in a libel suit, fallen out with her lecture tour manager, endured increasing slights on her character by rival newspapers, moved out of New York, become bedridden and was struggling to write much of anything. To a friend she wrote:
"I am a victim of the most frightful depression that ever beset a mortal". She concluded that at times it was not clear who had really won between herself and Bisland.

However, five years later she would marry and retire from journalism entirely, going on to become president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. They created the steel 55 gallon oil drum, which is still in use today.

Despite all her travels, and challenges of that journey through all weathers and climates, she was to die of pneumonia in 1922 aged 57.

Nellie Bly's story kept me riveted from cover to cover. It made me smile to read about the little nuances of solo lightweight travel more than 100 years ago, as little has changed in all that time, apart from the choices of mode in which we can circumnavigate, and of course in how we can communicate instantly.

Following Bly's triumph, companies came up with the idea that if they could get Nellie Bly to use their products, then her success might rub off on their products, as they could imply to their customers that the success and vigour of Bly would rub off on those that bought the products.

Celebrity endorsement had been born.

Children used the Nellie Bly notebook, that had the picture of the globe on the front, and they carried that inside their Nellie Bly school bag, perhaps also with their Nellie Bly doll. Somehow even animal feed manufacturers got in on the game, with Ingerson's of Syracuse marketing Nellie Bly Horse Food.

Could she ever have imagined something such as the internet. Perhaps there would then have been a Nellie Bly tablet.

Friday, 22 April 2016


A very good friend of mine, Alan Dawson, is some what of an art buff. In my humble opinion he has terrific taste and an eye for the artistic merits of all that is, well, art. Which is probably why he owns and runs an art gallery.

I took advantage of the recent fabulous sunny weather to visit Alan, on the opposite side of the Forth from my house, in a little Fife coastal village called Aberdour, where he lives and his art gallery also calls home. From the beach I could look across on the clear day to the impressive skyline of Edinburgh.

Aberdour started life as a harbour, a mini port, which is situated at the point where the River Dour enters the Forth. Aber is a Pictish word meaning confluence,  and so evolved the name Aberdour.

The village also boats its own castle, now mostly a ruin and in the hands of Historic Scotland, but it is one of the earliest surviving castles on mainland Scotland, dating from around the 13th century.

Aberdour was beginning to feel like a medieval hot spot, as what felt like quite literally a stones throw from the beach, is the island of Inchcolm. In the centre of island is an Abbey, founded by the Bishop of Dunkeld in the 12th century, and at one time linked to St Columba.

Alan likes a project, and a couple of years ago he bought over the old butchers shop, with it's curved facade taking up a prominent corner site. It was just begging to be an art gallery in my opinion. Such is his eye for detail, he made sure that the renovation kept a hold of a lot of the original features of the old butchers shop. Don't worry, I'm not talking about pigs hanging from hooks, but certainly the hooks themselves are still there, now with pictures hanging from them.

But none of pigs sadly.

I am always impressed at the content of his gallery, as it is not your typical art house. The layout is reminiscent of someone's living room, and you feel comfortable as you wander around admiring pieces of original sculpture, jewelry, furniture, and of course, paintings.

When he first started negotiations for the shop, to his great surprise and delight, hidden away overlooking a small cobbled courtyard to the rear, was a small stone-built house adjoining the back of the property. He rolled his sleeves up and took on the challenge to bring it back to its former glory and the end result is impressive. He re-purposed old outbuildings, and with cleverly designed glass atriums and cunningly hidden connecting doors, brought these outbuildings into use of the main house.

Though this gallery is not even two years old yet, he has had a gallery in Aberdour for many years. That started life down at the harbour, which is where it got its current name, The Quay. Though he has moved location up onto the main street, he has remained on the original side of the Dour burn, so historically he remains in Wester Aberdour, for back in its early life, this now small town was actually two villages, separated by the Dour burn.

That changed in the late 19th century, when the railway reached the villages, with the building east of the line from the newly opened Forth Rail Bridge, and the ferry service to the harbour came to an end. It was now far quicker and safer to take the train across the Forth.

The ticket inspectors aboard the train crossing the bridge were known to sing, "half an hour, half an hour, half an hour to Aberdour, tickets please".

Friday, 15 April 2016


"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard"

On September 12 1962, during a speech at Rice University, Houston, Texas, the President of the time, John F Kennedy, delivered a speech that set a challenge to NASA to put a man on the moon before the end of the 60s.

The Cold War was in full swing, and the main enemy of America at the time was Russia. On the 12 April the year before this speech (today almost exactly 55 years ago), Russia had just struck fear in the American hearts and put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin.

In all the time man has been around, it is only 55 years ago that we first left the planet's surface and looked down upon the earth.

So NASA, a fledgling space agency, having been founded in 1958, took up the challenge. America had to be first to the moon.

Many obstacles had to be jumped over and solved, and the only way to do this was to get up there and out into space, which meant sending people out into orbit atop volatile rockets.

The mission program that would go to the moon was to be called Apollo, but the preceding program was called Gemini. It was aboard these early research flights of Gemini 9, the 7th such launch in June 1966, that a 32 year old young man called Gene Cernan had his first opportunity. He would perform a spacewalk (again Russia had beaten the Americans to this a year earlier) and later be selected to be part of the Apollo missions.

And so the perilous journey to land on the moon began in earnest.

It was fraught with difficulties, and astronauts died in the process in horrific accidents, but finally a date had been set: July 20 1969. That crew, aboard Apollo 11, would consist of Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins.

But before they could do that NASA had to have a fly by, to check for possible surface problems for landing. We didn't have powerful HD cameras in those days to look at the moon, and certainly no satellites, so we had to go there, and Apollo 10 made the journey, over  a week in May of 1969, doing everything but actually land on the surface. Gene Cernan commanded that flight. It must have been so frustrating being that close and not actually landing.

But, at age 38, he would finally get his chance in December 1972, aboard Apollo 17, and was home in time for Christmas.

Here's a startling fact; that smart phone in your pocket? The processor for the clock alone is 32,000 times faster than the computer that was aboard the spacecraft that went to the moon, and can perform calculations 120 million times faster!

To put it in simpler terms, your kitchen toaster is more clever!

But go, land, walk about and come back they did.

And that was that. As it turned out, after Apollo 17 the budget was cancelled. We have never been back since.

I am hugely excited and interested about the Apollo missions. I can still recall as a 6 year old boy, Armstrong stepping onto the surface. It was such a milestone in mans evolution. Yes, things at home in Scotland, the mountains and bike routes I so regularly visit, are certainly my first love, but there is no ignoring this incredible feat.

So you can imagine how very excited I was last Tuesday at my local cinema, to go and see a screening of a new film, The Last Man On The Moon. Just to make it more exciting, there was a live Q&A at the end with Gene Cernan himself, by satellite, which seemed appropriate. He seemed very emotional, as were a lot of people in the audience. He told us he had been offered the Space Shuttle program after the Apollo missions, but had turned it down.

He now lives out his days on his ranch.

He was the very last person to have his feet on the lunar surface, but there was one final story that he told us that I didn't know. Just before he stepped off onto the LEM ladder to come home, he wrote his daughters initials, TDC, in the surface. They will be there for millions of years to come.

Maybe one day we'll go back and find those initials. I hope so, for despite all the amazing advancements in technology and space capability, only 12 humans have ever stepped on the surface of the moon.

Friday, 8 April 2016


A significant date for me. It was 10 years ago last Saturday, on 2nd April, that I walked away from my deli and coffee shop in Portobello, Edinburgh. It just so happened to also be 25 years to the date that I had opened it, back in 1991.

The past few months have been a recovery period for me since the bicycle crash in Wyoming last July, and so I thought I'd mark the deli anniversaries with my first bicycle road trip in nine months.

As Pauline was a big support in the deli years, and during my stay in hospital in Lander, Wyoming, it seemed only right that both of us went out on the bikes for this mini adventure. The weather had different ideas however, and the planned trip mentioned in last weeks blog to Callander didn't come off. Instead we took the train out of Edinburgh to Dundee.

It was a late start under steel grey skies, and after meeting Pauline's mum and partner for coffee and cake after cycling across the Dundee road bridge (just 2 miles into the cycle!), we continued down the east coast to Tenstmuir Forest, and camped near the beach for the night.

Tents in Tentsmuir!

The forest is a National Nature Reserve covering some 50 square miles, but originally the area was all sand dunes, until the Forestry Commission acquired it in the 1920s. Sadly they now seem to be cutting down large amounts for car parking!

The forest area once saw a 21ft high tsunami hit 7,000 years ago, and even served as a target practice area for Spitfire pilots during WWII.

Supper was a special treat. Whilst cycling across America in 2011, we crossed the narrow panhandle of Idaho, and picked up packets of instant "Idahoan Buttery Homestyle Potatoes". Idaho is the home of potatoes in America, so at the time it seemed appropriate that we indulge. Well, last year before returning home, I bought a couple of packets. OK, so Tentsmuir Forest in drizzly rain is not exactly a twin for Idaho, but nonetheless, it was fun to have that little reminder at supper of the Trans America bicycle trip.

Drizzly rain fell most of the night and well into the morning, making for a late start again. As we made our way along the forest trails we came upon the Ice House. A stone built structure, that when built, in 1852, was on the edge of the sea. Now it lies far from high tide. Locally caught salmon was stored here at one time, and large blocks of ice were dragged in from local ponds to keep the salmon fresh in a primitive deep freeze. Now only Natterer bats use it's dark spaces.

Out of Tentsmuir Forest and past RAF Leuchars, we made good time on the 15 miles to St Andrews for, you guessed it, coffee and cake.

The skies cleared and the sun came out, as we set off on the final stretch of 21 miles across country, from St Andrews to Glenrothes, for the train home.

It was great to be back on the bike, albeit a little apprehensively. On every downhill I found myself reaching for the brakes. Normally I would barrel past Pauline, using my weight advantage to pick up speed, but the thought of that made my stomach churn. I guess it will be a while, if ever, before I pluck up that courage, or foolishness, again.

Originally, this first mini tour was to have been over three days. My backside and quads were very pleased that it was just the two this time round!

It crossed my mind at points that it seems such a very long time ago that I cycled the big tour, right across America, and back home, in the evening, I had a pleasant surprise. A TV programme came on, hosted by Billy Connolly, taking a train journey from Chicago to Seattle. It stopped at many of the place names I remember along the way across "the high line" of the northern states, such as Williston in North Dakota, and Glasgow and Shelby in Montana.

Thus ended the weekend of marking the deli years, and my return to cycle touring, nicely rounded off with that tip-of-the-hat to the greatest cycle tour I've ever done, and all shared with my best friend throughout.


Friday, 1 April 2016


I am about to head out on  a two day cycle adventure, the first since the crash in Wyoming. The starting point is Dunblane, which I'll reach by train, and then toward Callander. In times gone by the train could have taken me all the way to Callander, but no more. Now I'll follow where once there were railroad tracks, which has left a legacy of wide, safe cycle paths.

In the US there has been a long programme of turning their redundant tracks into cycle trails, something they call "rails to trails". I loved the actual trains in the States, and marveled at the time, not that long ago, when they linked the two sides of the country by two parallel steel tracks, designed by English expatriates. It was because of them that the distance between the two rails is exactly 4 feet 8.5 inches, simply because that was the width of English rails.

But why 4 feet 8.5 inches?

Well, before the railways we had tramways, and that was the distance of those rails, which utilised current tools and technology of the time that had been used to make wagons, and that dictated the wheel spacing, otherwise they would have had to retool completely.

Those old wagons had to navigate long used pathways, what you might loosely call roads, severely rutted, and it was easier, and cost effective, to design a wagon with a wheel spacing that could straddle these ruts and so not destroy your expensive mode of transport, rather than redo all the roads. Because these rutted roads where everywhere, all across Europe, and had been made a long time ago.

A very long time ago.

By Roman chariots. And the standard wheel spacing of a Roman chariot?

4 feet, 8.5 inches! 
But why?

Well, they were made to accommodate the rears of two horses pulling the chariot.

So, isn't that amazing?! The railroad tracks in the USA are set at the width according to the design of a Roman chariot.

This weekend I'll be on one single wheel width of course, but after a long gap since riding a bike, I hope my backside doesn't look like the width of two horses from behind.