Writing

Cycling Through Memories

I wrote this piece after a bike ride in early spring which provoked a lot of memories for me on growing up and where my family have come from (i.e. not very far from where we are now). I don’t write a lot of memoir type pieces but I wanted to try something different. I’d started writing this out as a poem but then realised there was a lot more I wanted to say in it and that a prose piece might be more appropriate.

After spending months buried under the accumulated detritus of small home improvements, we finally spent a day clearing out the garage and uncovered my bike from its extended hibernation. As if on cue the sun also re-appeared and although it didn’t bring much in the way of spring warmth, I gave in to the illusion of summer, pumped up my tires, lubed the chain and clipped into my pedals for the first time since August.

Heading out of town I passed my parent’s house where we moved when I was eighteen and the front door I failed to close quietly all those times I snuck home in the early hours of the morning. Next to it is the overgrown burn, which I discovered was full of nettles when I returned from the pub late one night and drunkenly rescued a blind spaniel which had lost it’s owner and wandered hopelessly into the middle of the water. My stung hands gratefully accepted a box of chocolates from the relieved dog owner a few days later.

I see the vet’s surgery where so many family pets have been treated, comforted and too often left forever, before I turn off and pedal up towards the cemetery. Here I keep pedalling but my thoughts linger. It’s three years since I last passed through the gates when we lowered my Gran into the earth to rejoin her husband, who’d been there alone for twenty years. I wonder if I should feel guilty that I’ve never returned to the grave or set eyes on the stone which marks it? Then as I feel the hill steepen under the slim wheels of my road bike, I remember that everyday I pass their house and it’s those times that I think of her. The warm welcome she always gave her grandchildren and the many years of joy we had in her company.

It’s those memories I decide are important. Not of the elaborate box lowered on velvet ropes. I don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife so a cemetery is simply a place for those left behind to remember those close to us and I would rather do that as I pass the places they were happiest. I think she’d prefer it that way.

The handlebars turn towards Auchenblae and I remember all the miles I put on the tyres cycling this route last year, preparing for a two day charity ride from Inverness back to Stonehaven. I never thought the bike would sit untouched for months once that special journey was over.

There’s a slow, steady climb then a long, happy, freewheel down towards Tewel. With head and elbows tucked I race at breakneck speed passed the row of houses where many years earlier I’d pulled over in a dull red Rover 214 with two flat tyres. My mum’s car a casualty of my overconfidence and poor judgement while overtaking a tractor on the small country road.

At bottom of the hill there’s a sharp turn past a farm, down towards a ford over the Carron river. As a small child I was amazed by the road going through a large, flowing river. It seems much less impressive now. I cross the river, take the hairpin turn and stare up a tarmac wall pretending to be a road. Sometime later I reach the top of the climb, much more tired and sore in the legs than I was at the bottom.

I’m on the loop back towards town now. After another fast downhill I change road again, passing a stables and heading towards Toucks. At this stage of the route the image of a large black and white photograph hanging at the top of the stairs in my parent’s house pops into my head. My great-grandparents farmed land at Toucks and though I never met them I’ve seen their faces in that picture countless times.

A terrifying descent into Kirktown of Fetteresso joins the loop back to my outward journey beside a house which once housed a close friend. Site of drunken parties, singing sinatra into broom handles at 6am and one memorable occasion when their family St Bernard sat on his mum before it got too excited and pissed on her leg.

I take it easy now as I head back through the industrial estate where both my parents worked at various times. The smell of freshly cut wood in the joinery, recently changed hands, will always be with me as will the site of black smoke pouring over the roof as the site next door went up in flames while we were visiting.

My feet are unclipped from the pedals as I thread the bike through Edinview, past my old home again and the street where my gran lived for many years. I turn onto the Slug Road at the school. Site of so many endless lunchtime corridor laps, childhood scraps and awful burgers in oversized baps.

The ride ends passing the entrance to Mineralwell park, where I was terrible at primary school sports days and as a teenager we drank cheap booze on a Friday night. I bring the bike to a stop outside my own house now, which is steadily filling up with new memories of family, friends and children.

A bike ride in the summer sun which only lasted a half hour or so and which I’ll feel in my legs and bum for a few days after, has taken me far beyond the seven mile loop, back through a lifetime.

Health and fitness

Ride The North 2015

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I’ve done a few stupid things over the years. Thinking I was ready to try a Scottish Hill Running Championship race on a snowy Clachnaben a few years ago was memorably painful. But when I saw the announced route for Ride The North 2015 was going to finish in Stonehaven, the town I’d recently moved back to, I made possibly my most stupid decision for a long time.

Thankfully I managed to rope in an equally stupid friend and we were able to cajole each other through our (sporadic) training until we dropped our bikes off at Pittodrie (where they were being transferred from) on a cool Thursday before taking our seats on the bus to Inverness for the event start. What followed was one of the hardest but most rewarding two days I’ve had for years.

The event, in it’s fifth year, wound it’s way from Inverness to Elgin on day 1 (via the very scenic route) before leaving Elgin on day 2 and taking a more direct route towards the finish line at Stonehaven. A total distance of some 175 miles. Our last big training ride was just 65 miles, mostly in the pissing rain. For the two weeks after that ride I was gripped by fear that the whole event would be a soggy hell, which eight hundred miserable cyclists would endure solely because they’d forked out over £100 for the privilege and they didn’t want to see it go to waste.

Despite some grey clouds lingering with intent on the first day, there was little sign of rain for the duration and in fact the worst thing we had to deal with was a bit of blustery wind on some of the more exposed sections of the route. Hardly worth complaining about really. With the weather doing it’s bit it was up to those of us clipped into the pedals to get on with things, so we set off from Inverness raring to go only to immediately get off our bikes 100 yards from the start to walk over a pedestrian bridge.  But then we were off! At least until we hit some temporary traffic lights on the road out to Dores. And then another set of lights. And another.

Such is life. Eventually we left the main road and it’s roadworks and hit the first climb of the day. The large group of cyclists which had formed at the succession of traffic lights soon spread out as we climbed high above Loch Ness and spent the morning pedalling towards Slochd.  Climbing was a constant feature of the first morning and although it was slow and painful going we were rewarded with some absolutely stunning views from the mostly unclassified roads and tracks which we were following.

After lunch we had a steady climb from Carrbridge before an afternoon of ecstatic downhill as we hurtled towards Forres and Elgin. By the time we were picking our way through the streets of Forres I was starting to feel very uncomfortable on the bike, having surpassed my one day mileage record set in the rain a few weeks earlier. My hands were throwing flashes of pins and needles up my arms and every time I went over a bump my feet exploded in pain where the cleats were pushing against the balls of my feet. The relief a short while later when we swung into the Glen Moray distillery in Elgin was immense. Shortly followed by worry as the pain in my feet grew worse, then despair as we found there was no whisky left! Thankfully both problems eased after ten minutes.

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A bus ride to Lossiemouth and a night’s fitful rest saw everyone gather the next morning back at the distillery to breathe in the wonderful fumes and hope it might have a medicinal effect on our weary bums and my aching feet. Sadly it seems fermenting yeast fumes aren’t analgesic.  The first twenty miles were uncomfortable for many. I found it impossible to get a relaxed position on the bike and spent most of the first hour dancing around my seat instead of sitting on it, while my hands and feet continued their protests from the night before.

Pulling into the first break stop of the day I decided to do something about my situation rather than complain all day, so paid my first visit to the mechanic station. A five minute check of my bike followed by a relaxed seat on the grass while I moved the cleats in my shoes saw me pull smoothly away from the feed station with pain free feet, newly inflated tired and silent gears. Brilliant. I was ready to face the climbs over the Cabrach.

Day two had promised more miles, more hills and more pain than day one. It duly delivered. At times the hills seemed relentlesss and unforgiving. Every time I thought I’d escaped their clutches we turned a corner to find yet another incline facing us with the sounds of chains clunking down the gears and swearing riders following quickly on. Despite this everyone was proceeding in relatively high spirits. Tired, uncomfortable but enjoying the challenge.

Unlike the first day we knew that the afternoon wasn’t going to reward us with an easy freewheel through Deeside and instead, as we continued to hit hill after hill (including a truly despicable 17% incline immediately after the best bit of downhill all day), we took heart from each little sign of our progress. I cheered the big blue Welcome to Aberdeenshire sign, screamed as I spotted Durris mast in the distance and grinned like  a mad fool before setting a new personal best for a Strava segment after cresting Cheyne Hill and seeing Stonehaven laid before me.

Before that I almost crumbled, broken at the final (advertised) feed station in Torphins when the two days of riding finally caught up with me and I hit the wall hard. Feeling light headed, as a brass band played 500 Miles (hah!), I was forced to sit down and gulp energy gels and water until I felt I could carry on. Later my friends told me I was speaking gibberish as I told them I wanted to press on while I still felt able and would see them at the finish.

Shortly after that I felt a lot better as the sugar from the gel and the energy drink I was downing on the bike started to take effect. A final surprise cake stop at the top of the hill over Knockburn Loch gave me enough energy for the final blast over Durris before we were greeted by what seemed like thousands of people lining the beach promenade at Stonehaven to welcome the cyclists home.

I quickly found my wife, baby and my mum who’d came down to support me before joining my small group of friends who I’d spent the two days cycling with as we supported each other, spurred each other up the hills and gleefully raced down the other sides.  It was painful, mad at times, seemingly impossible some other times and it was now over. I couldn’t have been more proud of myself and the rest of us for finishing. It was brilliant.

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All through the two days we were spurred on by people at the side of the street, outside their houses, in their cars and most of all at the feed stations and lunch stops along the route. Huge thanks to those who organised and helped with what is without a doubt one of the best organised mass events I’ve ever taken part in. Without those people I doubt half of us would have had the will to keep going to the finish.

Also special mention to all the other riders. The sense of camaraderie and shared achievement was palpable throughout the ride, with everyone sharing encouragement and being respectful to the rest of the riders. Was great to see all the red Stonehaven CC jerseys too. Will need to try and get a hold of one of them!

Some people are already talking about next year. I don’t think I can see myself at the start again so soon. For me 2016 will probably be a return to running and the goal of a sub-2 hour half marathon but Ride The North has definitely given me the cycling bug. I’ll be looking for some good one day sportives or similar to try dragging my trusty steed around. Though I can’t imagine anything will come close to the feeling I got at the finish line in Stonehaven last weekend.

At the time of writing I’ve raised £355 for Home Start UK for doing Ride The North, which is superb. My sincere thanks to everyone who’s sponsored me!

Writing

Creative Writing

I recently flirted with the idea of doing a distance learning or part-time English degree but eventually decided it would be too time consuming and too expensive (especially with a new baby in the house). However I still wanted to explore a bit more creative writing and eventually decided that instead of putting it off I should just give it a try.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been putting together story ideas and writing some wee pieces of flash fiction and short stories. I’ll try and put some of it up on here in the future. It’s been great as a hobby that I can devote time to while still taking a shift looking after the baby. I type away at the table while she sleeps in her bouncy chair or gurgles away on the playmat. Other times I can read some of the community work at Scribophile.com and practice my critical eye by offering critiques for others (the worth of this kind of online community is hard to overstate, it’s brilliant!).

Last week I went along to the local community centre for a meeting of Stonehaven’s creative writing group. Before I turned up I had all kinds of mental images in my head of what the class would be like. To be honest most of them were pretty close to the reality but aside from that the class was also friendly, welcoming, supportive, non-judgemental and full of interesting discussion about literature and various other things.

We spent some time discussing a long poetry piece one of the group members have written. I found the standard was very high and everyone raised good points, both on the technical and emotional components of the work. Then we went through some short exercises to try and generate discussion and possible writing topics. These included a few poems on St George (as it was his day) and a task to list things we hate touching and list reasons why. Finally we finished with a review and discussion of a story written by the group leader based on a bit of his family history from Peterhead where it’s rumoured his ancestors came across a large chest of money washed up from the sea. He’d used this to write an entertaining and humorous piece with dialogue in broad doric telling the tale of the chest and the inevitable double-cross within the group that found it.

The conversation around this piece darted off in various directions in great detail. It was really refreshing just to be able to sit and discuss a piece of writing like this and go into the technical details as well as the broad themes and history which inspired it. I thought it was a great way to spend a couple of hours so think I’ll definitely be going back again.

Health and fitness

Auchenblae and Drumlithie Loop

I really miss the scenery around Banchory but days like today remind me that it’s not so bad being back in the Mearns. Taking full advantage of a flex day from work I was up nice and early and left Stonehaven heading out towards Auchenblae.  I had vague the vague intention of going all the way through to Auchenblae but really I wasn’t sure I’d be bothered and my main focus was getting a good ride in and hopefully stumbling across a tearoom or some kind of cake along the way.

I’d been out this way at the weekend for a 17 miler just to get used to being on the bike again and like then I swung off the Auchenblae road at Carmont Station to head towards Drumlithie. The road from Carmont Station features a nice wee hill that’s probably the steepest part of the ride but is over before you know it, so nothing to worry about.  The reward is some stunning views over the Mearns, which today features a large number of wind turbines. I stopped to take a couple of snaps then pressed on to Drumlithie in the gorgeous spring sunshine.

When we were looking at houses last year we almost put an offer on a place in Drumlithie and part of me still wishes we had. The wee village was looking its best today, but I’m happy to be home in Stonehaven. After a quick pitstop at the village shop I pressed on through the hills of Glenbervie, intending now just to meet back up with the Auchenblae road and head for home.  However I hadn’t been checking my location or where the turnoff might have been and a short while later I came over a small hill to see Auchenblae golf course ahead of me with the village itself nestling behind it.

Coasting through the village I came to the Old Post Office tearoom – score! This proved to be a popular cake stop with a plethora of road bikes parked round the back of the restaurant. It seems there was a club ride had popped in past to refuel after tackling the Cairn O’Mount, rather them than me.  After chatting to them for a minute I sat down and tucked into a massive piece of pecan pie. That’s what my whole morning had built up to.  Wonderful.

I didn’t hang around too long though. Wanting to be home for lunch and then make the most of the fine weather with a walk to the harbour in the afternoon, so I left on my bike just as another bunch wheeled into the car park.  I almost made it to Stonehaven when I stopped at Tewel to take another photo and the Cairn O’Mount crew puffed past me with cries of “No Mercy!” and a friendly wave. Damn them. I’d been keeping an eye behind me for any sign of them and thought I’d made it without being caught after I had a small headstart.  Not that I’m competitive in any way…

Just under 27 miles in total as I unclipped back at home. Not a bad morning’s work. That’s a third of the daily total I’ll be doing in August at Ride The North so I’m quite happy that I can build up to that distance over the next few months. Now for a pint.

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Health and fitness

Back in the swing of things

Since my daughter was born I’ve not done much running, cycling or anything really. For the most part I’ve just been too tired to care about exercise or when I get home from work I’d rather help with Chloe than go out for an hour, missing what little time I have with her.

However I can see my waistline slowly getting squidgy and my jeans are getting tighter again so needs must. Besides that I’m also committed to doing Ride The North – a 170 mile bike ride from Inverness to Stonehaven over two days in August so I have to get fit again!

Today I made the most of the fine spring weather and went for a wee run up to Dunnottar Castle. I’ve run up to the war memorial a couple of times but not gone the full distance to the castle yet. Well I couldn’t have picked a better night for it. The weather was stunning and the castle, the bay and Stonehaven all looked beautiful in the setting sun (see the photo at the top of this page for proof).

It was pretty tiring though. I can tell I’ve not done much running since last year! The path from the memorial to the castle was a lot hillier than it looks but that’s a good thing, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. I think I’ll be using this route a lot over the summer.

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Food and drink, Uncategorized

Tolbooth Restaurant, Stonehaven

We were given a voucher for Stonehaven’s Tolbooth restaurant at Christmas and have waited for a sunny weekend all summer to use it. Our thinking is that it would be a shame to waste the trip to Stoney without being able to sit outside afterwords having a few speciality beers from The Marine. Well, summer came and went with barely a glimmer of sunshine on a free Saturday to get us over the hill so we decided to just book a table and hope for the best.

The restaurant lives right on the harbour in the upstairs of the old tolbooth jailhouse. Every seaside town needs to have a good seafood restaurant sitting right on the pier. Certainly every town with a fishing heritage like Stonehaven’s deserves one. Continue reading “Tolbooth Restaurant, Stonehaven”

Snapshots

Aunty Betty’s ice cream shop

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I finally accepted that winter is unlikely to return suddenly so I drove down to Stonehaven to get my winter tyres taken off. Seeing as I had an hour to kill and the sun was out I wandered across to the beach to get an ice cream from Aunty Betty’s. Their idea of a single scoop cone is pretty ridiculous!