Not just a box-ticking exercise

It was time, I thought, to put together what has become my almost annual blog post. Now that semi-retirement is upon me, I am hoping to become a more regular blogger (note to self – eat more dates)  but part of the problem is I get bees in my bunnet and as a result end up getting side-tracked into doing loads of other stuff.   Most people would see this as a way of procrastinating (if they are being kind: mostly they probably just think I am a complete anorak), and I suppose it is to an extent. But it goes further than that and I never cease to amaze myself with the items that I suddenly need to research as failure to do so will render me bereft of vital knowledge and therefore a flawed human being. I have long since been of the opinion that I was greatly disadvantaged during my early existence as clearly I was born to google. Oh to have been young in an age where knowledge was literally at one’s finger tips!  As it was, the Fort Matilda to Greenock Central line and a Class 311 had to take my quest for knowledge to the local library where I was served up vastly out of date snippets from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Incidentally, Class 311s came in in around 1967. Nowadays most stock on the lines around Glasgow is Class 380s but the Greenock line is still using 314s going back to the late 1970s.   But I digress – pause to remove one anorak and don another.

And so, in the past few weeks  I have developed a new fascination:  the good old British red telephone box – the K6.

Now if we want someone to blame, then this is all most definitely the fault of my sister and her village choir (Felton’s The Bridge Singers in case anyone want to know. And if you did want to know, I should point out that for a village choir they punch well above their weight in terms of both ability and sheer range of material)  In mid-June I attended their Magical Glass concert during which the link between glass and the windows of phone boxes allowed them to perform one of their key (pun intentional) songs  – Alison’s K6 Telephone Box.  Composed by Cheryl Camm, the choir’s director, this song, along with the actual K6 itself, was the inspiration for the subsequent infatuation.  A link to the song itself  can be found by clicking HERE

Fast forward to July and our annual summer visit to the magical island of Islay. I had been very aware of the existence of K6s on Islay, having cycled past several over the years and on one occasion having taken shelter in one from some good old Scottish summer rain. You know the sort – it comes at you horizontally usually accompanied by a 360° “headwind”,  thereby ensuring that nary a crook or nanny is left unsoaked.  Anyway, it got me thinking that it was time someone donned their lycra and took to their two wheels and went and scouted out just exactly how many of these iconic elusive things we yearn for there are on Islay.   My theory was that, while the song correctly claims that these days the K6s are such a rarity , on Islay they remain quintessentially ubiquitous.  And indeed on this island of some 240 square miles,  there are eleven of them.*  Unfortunately many of them, instead of being beside bus stop, village green or post office, seem to be located beside bins.  On the plus side however, most of them still work.

It is my intention to turn this whole thing into a bicycle or jogging orienteering route (with prizes) and as part of that, participants have to mark that they’ve been to the box by making a call from it. That way, who knows, we might even be able to stave off  Tritish Bellycom’s ongoing plans to scrap the boxes on the basis that they are never used because use them we will.  In the meantime here is my little homage to Cheryl’s song and to one of the last bastions of Britishness that is the K6 Telephone Box.

And so, in alphabetical rather than geographical order (and with apologies for where I haven’t been able to crop out the bins):

* Footnote: At the time of writing I still am not sure I have captured all of the boxes, and BT is being very secretive about locations of payphones, which does give rise to visions about them being hidden launch sites for our nuclear arsenal or somesuch other flight of fancy.  Or it could just be that perhaps BT doesn’t actually know where they all are.  I intend to ask one of the local BT engineers when I am next over as I am sure they won’t be so uncommunicative about the location of their communication boxes.

Ardbeg

Ardbeg

Bridgend

Bridgend

Bruichladdich

Bruichladdich pier

Bruichladdich Loc

location plate

Caol Ila

Caol Ila distillery. Door-less but functioning.

Glenmachrie

High Road between Bridgend and Bowmore. This one didn’t work.

Glenmachrie Loc

High Road location panel

Keils

less than picturesquely sited between two bins at Keils village

Oa

Officially the arse end of beyond on the long and winding road to the Oa

Oa Loc

location panel for AEOB

Port Ellen

Port Ellen

Port Ellen Loc

location panel

Port Wemyss

the highly picturesque Port Wemyss box with the Orsay lighthouse behind it

Port Wemyss Loc

location panel

Portnahaven

Portnahaven

Portnahaven Loc

now you have to admit this is quite an address for a phone box

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And keeping the prettiest to last – the Sanaigmore box, sandwiched nicely between my all-time two favourite beaches in the world – Machir and Saligo.

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The Keto experiment Part One: breaking the duck

Towards the end of May of this year I attended a charity Exercise Marathon run  by my friend and all-round jolly good person Paula Lamb.  Essentially,  a number of us  – mostly, but not all ladies and including several ladies of a certain age – signed up to do 12 hours of continuous exercise spread over several different classes throughout the day.   And so off to Crosby I went, partly because I wanted to support the charity, and partly because yet again I experienced that all-too common scenario that bedevils me in which my brain screams “Nooooooo!”  but the word that comes out my mouth is “Yes”.

Now I pride myself on being reasonably fit for my too quickly advancing years, and I felt that I would cope fairly well with the exercise sessions.  And in fairness, that is what happened, and I came away from the event quite pleased with myself. It wasn’t an Olympic performance but neither had I let myself down.  But a few days later something happened to change my opinion: someone posted a handful of videos of the event.

And there it was – right in the middle of the screen in one shot during the Burlesque session:

A very large lycra-clad waddling duck. 

It is only when you see yourself like this that you realise “Oh shit! THAT is what I look like!”   For some there may well be a “well tough, this is what I am” attitude. And to a great extent I have always been of the opinion that the outward appearance isn’t as important because I am quite fit. After all, I had cycled nearly 80 miles to get to the event.  But seeing myself like that made me actually question if my approach had been correct.   Yes, I do alright, but how much better could I be – performance and appearance –  if I shifted some weight?

Immediately after the video posting,  I started to think more about  this and even started to act on it. June and early July brought with them several long-distance cycle rides, and while I coped fine,  there was still a feeling of not being quite right. This was all against a backdrop of having had a fairly rotten winter and spring in which I had undertaken a few tests for a possible gall bladder problem, including the very unpleasant experience of a gastroscopy.  Never again!

And then came the shocker.

Mid-July, I had my annual diabetic review.  Since being diagnosed as Type 2 Diabetes some six years ago, I have successfully managed the condition with diet, to the extent that I was as near “normal” as I could be.  It came, therefore, as a huge shock to me to discover that the HBa1C result was showing as high.  Not just high, but ridiculously high.  Out went all notion of my having conquered the problem.  The stern finger of my diabetic nurse was waggling a totally different scenario.

“You have three months to do something about this.” She pronounced somewhat apocalyptically.  “Get it sorted.”

One of her suggestions,  lest you think diabetic practitioners in the Elderslie area are all Nurse Ratchett types, was to look at ways of reducing input in general but sugary ones in particular.  As one who has always professed that  I don’t overeat, one of the first things I did was to sit down and analyse if that was the case. While I do eat healthily at meals, I had to accept that the additional biscuits and bars of chocolate were being consumed far more regularly that I’d previously been prepared to admit to.  The combination of bad carbs from this and the silly carbs from sports drinks was the likely culprit in the current high blood sugar reading.

Then began the search for an appropriate eating regime. I dislike the word “diet” as it implies something both temporary and faddy. I needed something that would be a lifestyle change rather than a quick fix then back to old (and bad) habits.  A friend recommended the Keto system, and after having reassured myself that it could be done safely by T2D sufferers, I decided to give it a go. Essentially it means a severe restriction on carb intake, and since I am an all or nothing type of personality, I went for it.

My friend who recommended  had himself been on it for weight loss reasons.  My main reason was different: I needed to get the blood sugar level under control quickly and effectively. The timescale set by Nurse Ratchett was three months; the time period recommended for Keto was three months.  So it all fitted, especially with my all-or-nothing personality.

 

The Results so far

The new regime started on August 1st of this year, and I split it into two time phases of six weeks each.  I set myself a target of getting the blood sugar level down to within the acceptable parameters within the first phase.  The second phase would be to ensure that I maintained it at that level.  I had hoped to lose some weight along the way but it wasn’t the main reason for the eating regime.

So as we approach the end of phase one, how has it worked out?   Here are the results so far:

Results Phase 1

There are other results that I haven’t tabulated here, including body fat and visceral fat percentages. I am using a Boditrax system to monitor the weight and body issue results and a Glucomen GM Sensor machine issued by my diabetic nurse to monitor the blood glucose levels.

The results so far have made it all worthwhile. I am surprised at how quickly the positives started coming through, but am also aware that what needs to happen now is to maintain this level of success.

I will be stopping the strict carb regime after week 12 and moving on to a Go Lean plan devised by Paula.  I will reintroduce carbs gradually and monitor their effects.  I am especially interested in the effects of pasta and rice as prior to going Keto, I had had a sneaky feeling that these two substances, along with bread, were at the heart of my sluggishness and fatigue problem.

Anyway, Phase 2 begins next Monday.  It will be a minor increase in carbs but will remain within the Keto range.

Fingers crossed for a continuation of breaking that damn waddling duck once and for all.

 

 

Slacktivism, Clicktivism and why I am hesitant to get cold and wet for charity this month

I am almost invariably irritated by those Facebook statuses that ask you to repost a statement – usually in the form of a bit of text posted in photograph format – on your own wall regarding what are if not out and out good causes, then at least good intentions. Ignoring the additional factor of poor spelling and grammar in several of them, my irritation is four-fold: first on many occasions these items filter down through people who haven’t actually checked their authenticity and as a result I am regularly asked to repost about it being such and such awareness week when in fact it isn’t.  Second, I dislike the almost bullying nature of the way they are written, especially the ones that bleat such statements as: “I bet only 3% of my friends will dare to repost this. I know who you are”.  Third, I resent the implication in many of them that I don’t otherwise care, know about or do anything for charities when in fact I do – regularly and extensively. And the fourth factor is simply that I seriously question what good they actually do. 

 For me, postings such as this fall into the category of those fairly new phenomena known as Slacktivism and Clicktivism – whereby all the respondent has to do is repost something or click Like rather than take any positive action (the “activism” which is the opposite of “slacktivism”. Thus the respondent gets to feel good about themselves from the comfort of their armchairs without actually having to do or contribute anything.  It would be wrong to assume that they achieve absolutely nothing at all – at the very least they may make a few people think, albeit fleetingly, about an issue that might otherwise go unheeded.  Some of them are also a bit more advanced and at least give some useful web addresses where readers might go for further information and/or to make a more positive contribution.  But in my mind, the action of reposting a status in itself will not make much of a difference – especially if those original posts are inaccurate or bullying in which case they are in serious danger of undoing any good they might otherwise achieve.  A post which incorrectly claims it to be a awareness week when it is not, will almost inevitably lead to many people discounting the posting when it actually is the correct week.   And similarly, for me clicking Like on something on Facebook will not actually help to cure cancer. Or Parkinson’s.  Or in this case Motor Neurone Disease (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in America.)

 Having now received three nominations to participate in the current ice bucket challenge, I have found myself giving the whole situation a fair bit of thought.  The upshot of all that brain activity is, at the risk of being branded a killjoy or a coward, I am still hesitant to do it.  Before I make some observations, please let me stress this is not a criticism of anyone who has already drenched themselves in ice and water. Not always at any rate.

 The ALS/Motor Neurone Disease Ice Bucket Challenge has become a global phenomenon almost overnight, and by now pretty much everyone has seen videos of dripping wet people throwing iced water over themselves. This trend was designed to raise awareness about a terrible illness and at the same time it was supposed to encourage participants to make donations to the associated charities by “paying for the pleasure” of getting soaked. 

 That there has been a lot of good come from it is not in question.  At the point of writing this, some £170,000 has been raised through Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Scotland’s campaign, and its sister organisation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (the MNDAssociation) has now raised £1,000,000.   In the USA the total has reached a staggering $88.5million. In addition to being money beyond belief, it is also  money the organisations concerned may never have received. In Scotland for example it is by far the most successful online fundraising campaign MND has ever run both through the direct efforts of the ice bucketers and also the money which has come in through voluntary donations from those previously unaware of the disease but who did not want to be involved in the challenge. The situation is even more impressive in the USA where  the ALS Association has in the space of the few weeks of the campaign raised over $24million dollars more than it did in the whole of 2013.  As a spokesman for ALS has said, this is game-changing money and for that overwhelming amount of good that the challenge has done I am most certainly truly glad.

 That people have had a lot of fun contributing is also not in question, although the cynic in me is always wary of celebrities getting involved in these events as I do question whether their motive for doing so is purely from concern or mostly from the “look at me” potential for self-aggrandisement.  I am quite happy to agree that fundraising should be fun – failure to make it so often leaves the fundraising organisation open to lack of success.

 So in light of its evident success, why should I remain hesitant to participate? I have two gripes, and the first is regarding the system of nominations. To an extent I see it as an extension of the bullying nature of those Facebook statuses I have already mentioned. I do not like this aspect of being pressurised into contributing to a cause as it allows me no scope for establishing how worthy that cause actually is. In the case of MND Scotland I have no concerns, but having worked some years ago for a charity only to discover that two thirds of its charitable donations went on administrative costs, I have always been wary of donating to any cause without first ascertaining that my contribution is actually going to be used on the cause in hand.

 Incidentally, there is another side to the pressurisation story– one which was put to me today by a group of students to whom I had set the task of discussing the campaign and its positives and negatives.  The situation was simply this:  among their numbers was a young lone parent of two children for whom trying to find the £3 to donate after doing the challenge was a real struggle.  She felt alienated from the campaign in its designed form and the only way she could contribute at all was to do the challenge but instead of paying, smother her Facebook profile in logos and web addresses for the MND organisations.  She has of course now received several comments accusing her of being stingy or mean or some other phrases that were a lot worse than that.  To heap such condemnation on someone who in my book had actually done it right within the context of her personal circumstances is pitiful and just plain wrong.

But my major grumble regarding the ice bucket challenge is that as it is, many of the videos going viral do not even explain what the purpose is or how to donate. Consequently, the craze now seems to have become more focused on people getting soaked and the next nominations rather than increasing awareness of the disease or raising funds.   Sadly, there is a real risk that in but a short time the majority of people thinking about MND will be those who have the illness and their affected families and friends.  Pretty much just as it was before the campaign in fact. 

 I have absolutely no problem at all with people throwing buckets of freezing water over themselves (though I do wonder why my Scottish friends don’t just wait a couple of weeks until the rain gets that cold anyway) as long as that action is accompanied by making reference to what it is all about and how to donate, and more importantly making the required donation itself.  If people do not do that, then it becomes about them rather than the cause, and ultimately it becomes little other than a global wet teeshirt competition.  

 There are other annoying factors about the situation and one of those is the launching of a contemporaneous campaign by Macmillan Cancer Support. There is of course an online slanging match going on as to whose ball it is and who started the idea. Frankly the origin of the idea is of little relevance – ALS were the ones who ran it as an official fund-raising campaign which was then adopted in the UK. Although I am a great supporter of Macmillans in general, I do feel they have somewhat hijacked the Ice Bucket Challenge for their own ends.  Quite apart from being one of a number of high-profile cancer charities which, let’s face it, tend to attract a high proportion of the charitable giving, earlier this year they raised over £8 million with the “no make up selfie” campaign. It is fair enough if people elect to send money to Macmillan as a result of drenching themselves,  but making it an official campaign is not right. And the fact that they appear to have paid to sponsor ads on google about their campaign is in my opinion just plain wrong. Comparison in the UK between the income of Macmillan for 2013 and MNDA for example shows Macmillan raising nearly 14 times what MNDA did. Jumping on this bandwagon has directed funds away from MND/ALS charities which are not so much in the public’s eye. MND in Scotland may have raised more than any of their previous campaigns but I wonder how much their total would have exceeded the £170,000 raised so far had other charities not jumped on board.    

 I also believe that online fundraising campaigns such as Ice Bucket Challenge are by their very nature transient. Today’s cause will be tomorrow’s old hat as the participants move on to the next craze to hit the ether. I can see some truth in the argument that this at least serves to spread the money-generating potential around more evenly so that it doesn’t always go to the best known ones.  But I rather suspect (and I’d dearly love to be proved wrong) that the vast majority of those who are embracing Motor Neurone this month will have forgotten it by next year, and MND Scotland will be faced with an uphill struggle in trying to persuade the public to part with money during their routine fundraising.  I hear the counter-argument coming in that it is up to charities to keep the fresh ideas coming. Coffee mornings and jumble sales are not the way forward, of that we are sure.  But with an ever-increasing number of charities chasing the same people for money, there will undoubtedly be casualties.

 And this brings me to another aspect – one that has bothered me for some time now. Simply put, the longer we raise sums through charities (and the higher those sums become), the less inclined our various governments will be to fund the vital research or work directly.  In a civilised society I believe firmly that it should be a government responsibility to provide the bulk of funding for vital services. I do hear the argument about “big society” and how people like to contribute etc. and I most certainly do not want to take anything away from those who have worked tirelessly to make things better for so many through their charity work. But in my lifetime I believe charitable giving has moved from funding what might have been seen as luxuries, nice add-ons to existing provision, to funding the actual provision itself.  This is of course only my perception but I rather suspect that the truth is not that far removed from it.  

 
So, will I be taking up the challenge given that my main objections are to do with the hijacking of the event for personal benefit rather than the event itself?   I have no real desire to get cold and wet so taking the easier option of making a simple donation, or contributing to the pages of those using the justgiving facility is definitely attractive to me.

 But I probably will do something that involves ice and water – no, not having a wee dram as you should never put ice anywhere near a good single malt. And here’s the reason:  most of those who know me well are aware that I have a mascot who accompanies me on my various fundraising activities and who has ridden the 1000 miles or so of charity cycle rides with me, albeit in my back pocket.  His name is Wee Jinky, named after Celtic and Scotland footballing legend Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone who is one of only a few sporting heroes I have.

Jimmy Johnstone died of motor neurone disease in March 2006.

 Therefore if I do decide to empty a bucket of very cold water over myself (and I am not fully committed yet) it will be on the basis that the best way to make my point is to actually do the darned challenge according to what I consider to be “right”.  This means that it will have three conditions attached:  first, my video will contain only a few seconds footage of me in my chittering wetness; second, the significant bulk of it will focus on MND and will be logo-ed and branded to the hilt; and third, my mascot will be at my side when we, resplendent in hoops and shorts bearing the number 7, get our drookit dooking, no doubt to a backing track of Dirty Old Town.

 

I also would like to think that come next June when MND Scotland actually do have an MND Awareness week, I will not have forgotten them.

 

To return the focus to where it should be, please visit the websites

www.mndscotland.org.uk (Scotland)
www.mndassociation.org (England, Ireland & Wales)

Hebridean Adventure: Day Four and Five

Roll out the Barra
Thursday night’s accommodation had been certainly interesting, what with the rather eccentric decoration style which was stuck in an early 70s early B&Q time-warp and the presence of a loquacious Scally called Colin. Our hostess did however produce a marvellous three course dinner that we weren’t expecting and we had the company of a nice Belgian couple. (Quote Scally Colin: “I’ve heard of Belgium. Where actually is it?”) and that set us up for our Day Four trek. The day’s route was through South Uist, over to scenic Eriskay and onwards on the wee ferry to Barra where we would catch the 7pm BIG ferry back to the mainland. The wind had dropped considerably when we set off but there was a slight drizzle. Thankfully this cleared quickly and by the time we got to the southernmost tip of South Uist the sun was back out and it was actually quite pleasantly warm as we paused to look over the causeway to Eriskay and to Barra beyond it.

Looking towards Eriskay from Sth Uist

Looking towards Eriskay from Sth Uist

Looking towards Lungay, Fuday and Barra beyond them

Looking towards Lungay, Fuday and Barra beyond them

Now the map showed the ferry terminal on Eriskay to be just round in the next bay, so what we hadn’t expected was that to get to it we had to endure, no, not a nice shoreside road, but a massive 15% climb to the Barra ferry. Ah well. At least there was a toilet at the terminal. We arrived on Barra just in time to make it round the bay to see the famous aircraft beach landing which is so quirky that we found ourselves two of several dozen spectators, some of whom had come to the island specifically to see the plane come in.

Barra airport runway

Barra airport runway

arrival, in case you didn't believe me about the runway

arrival

passengers alight

passengers alight

Off again

Off again

Although it was still a bit blowy, the sun was now quite warm as we made our way happily round the very picturesque island. Or at least we were happy right up to the point where we encountered the hill from hell. With both of us already tired from the week’s activity, this was something of a nightmare climb. The younger and fitter legs of Laura made it to the top but I decided to err on the side of caution and opted to push up the worst of the 18% incline, which was a major task in itself. The rush down the other side into Castlebay was good though and we made the ferry to Oban with plenty of time to spare – certainly enough to buy an ice cream from the ice cream van that was a converted post office van. It was good to hear the cheery chimes as they belted out “I do like to be beside the seaside” but a large part of me was disappointed that it hadn’t been the more appropriate “Postman Pat”.

The ferry crossing back to Oban took four hours (four hours of hell for poor Laura) but it passed soon enough and we finally found our way to our rooms at the Royal Hotel at 12.30am.

The bay in Castlebay

Castlebay

the castle in Castlebay

the castle in Castlebay

We had planned on a gentle recovery ride on Day Five and had decided to cycle on the flat main road up to Taynuilt and then return to Oban on a back road. Unfortunately, it became clear that the chap who told us about the back road hadn’t actually used it; first it was about 8 miles longer than billed, second it was far from “flattish” as he’d described it, and third, it was hardly a smooth surface. We ended up doing a 27 mile marathon of which a good 12 miles were ridden on a surface more suited to mountain bikes than to road bikes. I fared better on the Surly but poor Laura felt every stone and rut the whole 12 miles. However, we finally got ourselves to Oban where we enjoyed a coffee and cake (not to mention a spot of unexpected “mountaineering” – see pic for details) before getting the train back to Glasgow.

Oban post "trek" coffee stop

Oban post “trek” coffee stop

the world's stupidest cash machine which was too high to reach

the world’s stupidest cash machine which was too high to reach

And so we completed our two hundred miles weary of limb but pleased with our efforts during the week. The ride was made memorable by some stunning scenery. I am not sure that I’d ever want to live in the Outer Hebrides as they contain some pretty bleak places as well as the stunning ones. I also felt that there was just too little to keep one occupied other than walking or cycling, and the lack of any sort of shops made Islay look like a heaving metropolis. Would I do it again? Maybe. I’m not sure about touring with luggage as it did require a lot more effort and at times, in particular on those much larger inclines, I was defeated. I hope it will make a difference to my overall cycling ability though. As the saying goes: it didn’t kill me so it must have made me stronger.

Here’s hoping.

Hebridean Adventure: Day Three

Islands on the edge
Day Three involved riding down through North Uist and Benbecula, and this should have been the easiest part of the trip as it is not a particularly hilly route apart form a lump at the start of North Uist. We thought that we’d make use of the hour and a bit we had before the ferry to take a run down to a picturesque church at Roghdal which had been recommended to us by a club mate. The trip was in fact essential as we’d been told that it contained a rather risqué artwork. At this point there was a strongish breeze but enough sunshine and warmth to let us overlook this. The ride to the church was only 3 miles but it contained an enormous hill (15%). Because I had just breakfasted well, this section was about the slowest 1mile I have ever ridden. But the church was worth the effort although the naughty artwork took a bit of finding. We rode back at speed because a stiffer breeze had got up behind us, which meant that we got to the ferry terminal a lot earlier than we needed. I say “terminal” – it was really just a slipway with little facilities other than a waiting room which, mercifully, had a toilet. You’re picking up the idea that toilet stops were as frequent as coffee stops on this trip are you? And they weren’t always for my aging bladder either it has to be said.

The ferry duly arrived and set off again across to Berneray. This journey involved us sailing towards large rocks only to turn away at the last moment just after we’d assumed we were going to perish in a heap of mangled metal and lycra. It was at this moment, however, that my travel companion told me that she doesn’t like boats. My open-mouthed stare of incredulity brought forth a further confession from her that she’d been seasick on the Colintraive ferry – a crossing of a mere five minutes. Now this is like owning up to being seasick on a pedalo at Largs boating pond and it did rather make one wonder why someone with such a pathological abhorrence of the briny would want to go on a tour of the Hebrides. When I asked the question, I got back the response that “Well, it takes my mind off the sheep.” So on we went, my ovine-abhorring Thalassophobic friend and I, and landed on the island of Berneray.

At this point the weather turned against us and our journey was severely hindered by a brutal headwind. So fierce was it that we must have had our heads down to the extent that we didn’t see a sign and took a wrong turning. This meant that we ended up in Lochmaddy although we didn’t know that’s where we were until we found a community café to stop in for a breather and a bite of lunch. I must pause to point out that this lack of knowledge was brought about mostly by the Islands’ curious policy of only putting name signs at one end of their villages, and with our unfailing ability to arrive, of course, at the end without the sign. After lunch, the brutal wind was complemented by constant rain – both of them coming at us horizontally. There is no photo-record of this section of the trip for obvious reasons. Suffice it to say that we battled on and eventually made it, somewhat drookit, to the overnight accommodation at the Anglers’ Retreat just into South Uist – although admittedly the last ten miles of the scheduled 50 for the day were courtesy of a very kindly Uistean bus driver called Duncan who took pity on us. Well on me really, as I stood by the roadside while Laura had yet again…erm.. gone to “investigate the hedges”.

St Clement Church

St Clement Church

Interior

Interior

you've been framed

you’ve been framed

Dodgy artwork

Dodgy artwork

Litter prevention Harris style

Litter prevention Harris style

heading for the rocks under a lowering sky

heading for the rocks under a lowering sky

Welcome lunch at Lochmaddy

Welcome lunch at Lochmaddy

Cheating and getting the bus the last ten miles

Cheating and getting the bus the last ten miles

Hebridean Adventure: Day Two

Standing start

Day Two was scheduled as a bus trip up to Stornoway (with the bikes in the boot of course) and a cycle right up to the top of the island and a return via the Standing Stones of Calanais. The total mileage for the day would have been in the region of 110. I say “would have been” as the whole plan hinged on that crucial bus link. Unfortunately Hebrides Transport saw otherwise and had put a minivan on the route instead of the coach and the driver sailed somewhat arrogantly past us. We decided to start cycling with a view to catching the next bus at whatever point it passed us. And yes, “passed us” it indeed did, although I managed to get it to stop a few yards on. The driver was less than helpful and omitted to tell us that if we got as far as Tarbert, the coach would take us up to Stornoway – a fact we only discovered over a coffee in the splendid and extremely well cake-endowed First Fruits café at the pier in Tarbert. Faced with a wait of an hour, we revised our plans and decided that Calanais was a must see and we’d just have to cut short the day’s ride. This turned out to be a good choice as we were able to spend slightly longer at the stones than we might have otherwise, and it cut out the Cleisham hill. It also allowed us to spend quarter of an hour oohing and ahhhing at some cute little piglets which were about the only type of wildlife on the islands that didn’t attack Laura. More of that later.

We returned to Tarbert at about 6pm and for a bit of variety we decided to return to Leverburgh via the east coast route on Harris which we had been warned was fairly hilly. Sadly on this occasion the person who had related that fact to us had not been lying and the route did indeed involve a fair amount of roller-coastering, including one whopping 18% gradient. It also included a black house that had been restored tastefully if somewhat historically inaccurately as a campsite toilet and we were able to make use of the facility while pretending to indulge in some investigation into the islands’ past.

We eventually came to a junction with a choice of two seemingly ridiculously gradiented slopes to follow. A passing car informed us that the way they had just come down was “bloody steep” while the other was merely “a bit steep”. That technical information, combined with the mass re-emergence of the vampire midges from the previous evening, saw us head up the merely a bit steep option. This involved riding right into the sun, and at this point I was mightily glad that I have taken to wearing a cap under my cycling helmet as I don’t think I would have been able to see properly otherwise. As owner of the sun bonnet, it fell to me to inform Laura of the whereabouts of the kamikaze sheep that seemed to be taking a perverse delight in sauntering out in front of us at every opportunity. In fact we are sure that these were the same sheep as kept appearing all across our trip. If not, then Hebridean sheep are a breed with a distinct attitude. The road levelled off after a while from merely steep to merely undulating and our ride back became less arduous. This was probably just as well as tiredness was setting in a bit and the road surface was not the best. In fairness, I will point out here that in general the roads of the Hebrides are in far better nick than those of Ayrshire and this section was unusual in being a bit lumpy.

We got back to Leverburgh before sunset having managed a creditable 55 miles. And, rather splendidly, another batch of shortbread was waiting for us which made a good evening snack. All in all a good day despite the early frustration and I’m glad we prioritised Calanais. The trip was not just about cycling – it was about seeing a new area, and one which possibly neither of us will go back to.

And all in sunshine too.

The same bay as yesterday taken at 9.30am instead of pm

The same bay as yesterday taken at 9.30am instead of pm

Ooooh   and  Ahhhhhh

Ooooh and Ahhhhhh

Calanais

Calanais

Calanais again

Calanais again

Go on, guess where

Go on, guess where

arty farty shot of a standing stone at Calanais for variety

arty farty shot of a standing stone at Calanais for variety

Hebridean Adventure: Part One

The Prologue
I have done several cycle tours over the past four years, most notably to Amsterdam and back where I made several friends with whom I have kept up thanks to that modern-day pen-pal system – Facebook.  When my Walkers club-mate Laura suggested a tour riding the length of the Outer Hebrides I was instantly interested – not just because I had been watching a documentary about them but also because I thought “200 miles?  Pfffft. Piece of cake after Amsterdam.”   I will admit to being a little daunted by the fact that my travel companion to be was half my age (literally), twice as fit (literally) and half my body weight (don’t go there).   However, with that customary difficulty I find myself having regularly, the word “No” somehow became Yes” by the time the air had travelled from lung to vocal chords and there I was committed. Or I should have been.  One set of borrowed panniers plus rack and a lot of trying to stuff in clothes and other necessities later, I was ready to go.  Now it was up to my legs to do the rest.
 
Day One: Over the sea to Skye. And Harris.
We set off from Glasgow Queen Street at an unearthly 7am on Tuesday August 6th heading for Kyle of Lochalsh. The weather was fine and sunny up as far as Aviemore when it started to get “atmospheric”, and by the time we reached the start point at the Skye Bridge, a slight drizzle had set in. Undaunted we pedalled off in the direction of Uig to catch the ferry over to Harris.  Now given that this was the first time I’d ever ridden with baggage attached (other than my usual bad temper and the psychological damage of five decades) my progress was remarkable swift over the piece. This was despite encountering the mountain that is the Skye Bridge within half a mile of setting off.  It was at this point that I finally understood the universal truth that weebles do in fact wobble but never fall down. With a deadline looming to get to the ferry on the other side of the island, I had to master the art of pedalling while counterbalancing the weight of the panniers very quickly. This brought about the realisation that the bike had transformed itself from a Surly into the Hercules Jeep of my youth: unstartable without a good hearty shove and/or a downhill slope, and virtually unstoppable once moving.  In an instant I remembered how it went and I was up and moving.  Now I do have to fess up to the first of our cheats here. Because of the very tight timescale to get over to Uig, we had pre-arranged a lift part-way between Broadford and Portree. Our cheat section was conducted by a large people carrier driven by a large person called Alistair (athough, as he was a Gaelic speaker, no doubt that would have been spelt Ealaisdearghagh) who regaled us with unsolicited information about his recent spell in hospital after being bitten by a pesky cleg.  We reached the outskirts of Portree about an hour and a half before our ferry was due to leave and Alistair bade us a fond farewell, but not before insisting on showing us his cleg wound which fortunately was in a non-embarrassing place.  The 16 miles or so to Uig were remarkable only because this was where I discovered Laura has a weaker bladder than even I have. The road was undulating rather than hilly, but the ferry terminal and the subsequent crossing were very welcome to let us recharge our batteries for the trip round Harris.
 
Our arrival at Tarbert, Harris coincided with a fly-past of every midge in the known universe, most of which seemed to be attracted more to Laura than me. I put this down entirely to an experiment I was conducting into the midge-repelling properties of the half tube of Garnier sunscreen I had slaggered on with encouragingly good results.  We also quickly discovered that midges are quite clearly deaf as not a single one of them seemed to hear Laura telling them where to go.  As we were facing a journey of some 22 miles to our lodging in Leverburgh and were armed with the knowledge that the first section was somewhat undulating, we had realized that we needed to crack on to do the journey before it got dark. We decided that we wouldn’t stop to take photos unless it was something absolutely amazing.  Hah!  Every corner we turned yielded up a view more beautiful than the one before, so much so that we just had to stop a couple of times.  We reached the guest house just as the light went, in time for a nice batch of home-made shortbread to come our way alongside a cup of tea.
 

6.20am!!!!  Good grief! that actually exists!

6.20am!!!! Good grief! that actually exists!

At Broadford on Skye awaiting the cleg-bitten Alistair

At Broadford on Skye awaiting the cleg-bitten Alistair

The calm trip over to Harris.

The calm trip over to Harris.

wonderful blue and green sea and white sand - even at 9pm.

wonderful blue and green sea and white sand – even at 9pm.

Electric blue sky at 9.30pm just before Leverburgh.

Electric blue sky at 9.30pm just before Leverburgh.