Wednesday, 29 June 2011

"Bicycles matter because they are a catalyst of understanding..."

Deep stuff here on the Sustainable Cities blog.

It reminds me of the excellent diaries by ex-Talking Head David Byrne. He travels the globe taking a wee bike with him. He explains how you experience places differently - often better - on two wheels.

Certainly when I compare my current walk-train-bike commute with a previous all-car journey the differences are startling. You do feel more connected to what's around you, you'll see things you didn't notice before, bump into people you haven't met for ages and arrive at your destination healthier and happier.

An Hour And Twenty-Three Minutes

I occasionally dip into Jon Snow's blog.

The Channel 4 News legend is a great advocate of cycling.

Here's a recent post from him about a trip to Brighton (now with a Green-controlled local authority as well as a Green MP - jeepers) as well as a riff on carbon figures and "the sky falling in" before we take it seriously.

You can tell he's a nerdy biker. He gets excited at the fact his journey only took "an hour and twenty-three minutes".

You Wait Ages For An Active Travel Plan Then Four Come Along At Once

Here's an interesting development.

Well, when I say interesting...

And it's not really a development but more stating of the obvious.

Still, it's worth a look if like me you feel strongly about making it easier to get about by means other than a car. Highland Council and Hitrans (the strategic transport partnership for the region - basically a forum, a talking shop) have engaged consultants to look at issues in some communities relating to walking, cycling and public transport.

Dingwall, Inverness, Tain and Nairn are first up.

The Nairn report points out obvious things like the railway and the A96 are barriers to getting about the place. In fact it recommends some crossing points on the A96. I wonder what the gurners against the new traffic lights make of that!

Sadly the report suggests Nairn train station is fine. This fails to address the poor access at Platform Two.

Thankfully it does recognise what a dump the bus "station" is. It's not really a station of course. It's a car park that happens to have a bus shelter in it. A station would have a few shelters or a waiting room, bike racks/lockers, toilets, a town map, timetables for trains as well as buses and some decent lighting. At the moment if you're waiting for a late bus from Nairn you have to read the sole scuffed timetable using the glow from the heat lamps in the nearby chippie.

I'm not entirely sure what moves these travel plans along and gets results. But you can be sure I'll be badgering a few folk and punching their tickets if we don't see some action.  

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Friendly Fish And Free Ice Cream

So, Father’s Day. Heartfelt celebration of underappreciated dads or cynical marketing ploy to shift golf memorabilia and beer?

Sunday past was my third Father’s Day. Toddler Who Must Be Obeyed was able to hand me my card and presents this time. One of my gifts (and I have sneaking suspicion it was chosen and paid for by Wife-features) was a smash hit with TWMBO.

A light switch and a handy leaflet called ‘Your guide to installing a light switch”.

Toddler wrestled it from my grip and was glued to it for hours, clicking, clicking, clicking. Switch goes on, switch goes off, switch goes on, etc, etc.

As you may have guessed there is a light switch in our house that needs replacing. It is possible it’s been that way since we bought the place five years ago. I am not known for my DIY skills. Ask me explain the superiority of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night over Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, or challenge me to say whether a whisky is Islay or Speyside, but expect me to do something technical with my hands? Ha!

I am being a typical modest Scots dad though. I can weed an allotment, bang in fence posts and fix a bicycle puncture. So I’m not without practical skills.

Anyway, the switch will be attended to in due course. My other gifts were a jar of Huntly Herbs chutney made using Black Isle beer. Magnificent with a hunk of Connage cheese on a buttered oatcake. I am a man of simple pleasures!

And a handsome enamel mug featuring the Flying Scotsman. I do like an efficient mode of public transport.

But the fun didn’t stop there. We trekked along the coast to visit the Macduff Marine Aquarium. Oh yes. It’s basically a big fish tank. And it’s in Macduff, Banff’s rougher looking twin town. I’m a huge fan of the aquarium. It seems to host so many school visits so it’s fantastic from an education point of view and it’s an in-your-face reminder of the variety, weirdness and beauty out there under the waves.

Wife-features admitted she could have sat and watched the tank of jellyfish all day. Like lava lamps but with stings.

TWMBO was almost hyper at all the sights and sounds. Some of the creatures of the deep aren’t exactly oil paintings but that’s part of the attraction of getting up close.

After eyeballing the wolfish and the rays (who eyeballed us back - the rays literally poking their noses out of the water and making eye contact with us) we wiggled our tails upstream and had a picnic lunch in the grounds of Duff House where there’s an excellent play park.

We paused on the journey home for ice cream at Portsoy and boy was that a good call. I’ve stopped there before because the shop in the high street does amazing ice cream. (There’s also a first class pottery down at the harbour.) But hang on, what’s this? Free ice cream for dads because it’s Father’s Day? Never mind a single scoop vanilla for me - I’ll have a two scoop waffle cone with rum and raisin. Mmm. Mmm.

We sauntered round to the Portsoy park slurping and smiling. Wife-features wasn’t able to finish her chocolate marzipan cone so I helped.

Eating leftover ice cream. Surely a handier trait than being able to fix a light switch?

I Confess: I Helped A Young Couple Pop Their Cork On The Train

I’ve blogged before about the risk you run of having to share a space with loud drunk people if you catch a train on the Inverness-Aberdeen line.

I rather fear I’ve shot myself in the foot by assisting with some imbibing. Let me set out my defence.
It was Saturday morning; normally the train into Inverness is packed and routinely there are a couple of hen/stag parties in full swing. On this occasion the train was full but my carriage was well behaved. Then I noticed the four folk at the table opposite were discussing whether to open the bottle of bubbly in front of them.

It appeared two of the party were marking an anniversary or something and I think it was his or her mum who decided to have a go and open the bottle they’d carried all the way from deepest Aberdeenshire. They weren’t rowdy and as Inverness was coming into view I decided not to scowl.

This is where my chivalry got the better of me. The woman had unwrapped the cork and started to undo the wire casing but was afraid to pop it. She started to ask around in the carriage if anyone could help. No takers. But then she started to jab and pull at the cork, asking for trouble!

Do you have any glasses, I asked.


When it pops it might make a mess so you’re best to have some glasses ready, I explained.

Oh! (Tumblers were produced.)

Would you like me to open it? The secret to opening bubbly is to hold the cork steady and use your other hand to twist the base of the bottle, I expertly enthused.


No foaming booze across the carriage windows but instead a controlled flow of fizzy wine into a waiting tumbler. I put the bottle down and went back to my newspaper.

So, I’m now in a quandary. Am I really concerned about the effect of booze on public transport or am I just a snob? Rig workers plastered on Tennents make me depressed but by jove I'm happy to help show the correct way to open a bottle of Bolly. Pip pip!

In truth the fizz was pink generic stuff but I guess the combination of pleasant passengers, no-one else minding and close proximity of journey termination meant there was no harm in me helping.

I rest my case.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Green campaigners "conservative and unimaginative"?

An interesting outburst here by the former head of Friends of the Earth, basically accusing environmental activists of being out of touch.

There's plenty of food for thought but my overwhelming reaction is to suggest he's out of touch suggesting green campaigners are out of touch.

Just look at the SNP landslide. People (in Scotland anyway) obviously like what King Alec and Co are doing and there will be green-minded folk who approve of the constant repeating of renewable energy goals. But of course Salmond is also wedded to loads more roadbuilding such as a 2nd Forth Bridge, encouraging more oil and gas discoveries and giving planning permission to massive golf courses and out of town supermarkets. How does this square with the green agenda? It doesn't.

So, environmental campaigners aren't out of touch, but rather they're telling truths people don't want to hear. The charisma of our top politicians convinces us we can say green things but still have the un-green comforts of an oil-addicted society.

It'll take something serious before opinion shifts, I reckon. Another banking collapse? Another fuel shortage? Meanwhile Greenpeace will keep heaving protestors at oil rigs in vain.

We're human. We like an easy life here and now. The future? Pah. The kids'll figure it out...

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Bike Week To Highlight Weak Links

National Bike Week is coming up soon. It starts next Saturday.

There are a few events taking place in the Highlands.

Anything that encourages people to get on their bikes is a good thing but of course in return it would be good if the powers that be did a bit more to make it easier for those not already in the saddle to choose what is a healthy, cheap and environmentally friendly way of getting about.

I've blogged before about cycling between Nairn and Inverness. Fifteen miles in a pretty straight line for motorists yet there's no easy option for cyclists. There is however a way to plug a couple of gaps and make it happen.

Last week on a rare day off (hard earned from work and generously granted by Wife-features and Toddler Who Must Be Obeyed as a day all to myself) I took the train into Dolphinsludge and cycled home to the Sunniest Town in Scotland.

Rather than climbing uphill to Culloden Moor and taking the back road to Nairn (it may be quieter than the A96 but blimey motorists still put their foot to the floor) or my recent wiggly route through Balloch Woods, Tornagrain Forest and round Loch Flemington, I opted for the direct way.

You can take the coastal road to Ardersier and then keep going past Whiteness and eventually to Delnies on the outskirts of Nairn. On a map it's almost a straight line, much like the A96. But there are a couple of snags.

At both ends there are sections where you have no choice but to cycle on the A96. Eek.

From Inverness you can go through Culloden and Balloch on wide 30mph roads or cycle paths but then there's a short section to the Castle Stuart turn off where it's 60mph with only a nettled verge to leap into if something goes wrong. The section only takes about 2 minutes if you pedal hard and my technique involved staying well away from the edge and continually looking behind me so motorists wouldn't be tempted to try slipping past me while dodging oncoming traffic.

The same horror must be gone through at Delnies. The path alongside the A96 out of Nairn only extends as far as the old Delnies school. Just a couple of hundred yards more and it would finish opposite the Ardersier turn off. Dandy. I remember when the trunk roads people were renewing that stretch of road and the path and I asked if they could extend it a wee bit. They didn't even reply. I asked a couple of the local councillors; one got back to me saying they'd asked and had been told no so that was that. Feeble.

As part of Bike Week I'm encouraging folk I know who work in Inverness to cycle in if they live outside the city in the hope it shows (a) how wonderful a morning bike ride can be and (b) how easy it would be to plug a few gaps in the road and path network to make it easier to enjoy. Maybe then every week would be bike week.

We Climbed The Giant Inflatable Slide And It All Went Downhill From There

Open Farm Sunday seems to have been a roaring success.

I base this opinion on our experience today in Ardersier and what I heard on the Archers, which involved fictional characters queuing in imaginary droves to eat delicious pretend burgers on a make-believe farm.

In the real world, Ardersier was a hoot.

Or to be precise: 900 clucks, a couple of baas and several 'weeeeeeeee' noises.

We got to sit on an enormous tractor and watch a man operate a JCB. Oooooh.

Donnie Macleod introduced us to his massive flock of hens (I want to say battery but as it's an organic farm they have a huge field to wander about in). Our Toddler was most intrigued. I was too. A number of the birds' shelters have curved sides and sloping roofs. Clearly the chooks lead a double life as Sk8rs. Heaven is a half pipe and a bit of a worm.

Toddler was less taken with the close encounter with the sheep. I suppose that's understandable. From a distance they look like fluffy clouds but when you're standing next to one you realise it's twice the size of a wee kid, has the cold dead eyes of a killer and bleats very loudly indeed.

The star of the show was the giant inflatable slide. Twenty feet high with a slope of about sixty degrees, I have no idea what it had to do with farming.

But after the first terrifying drop Toddler was addicted and buzzing. She was removed at the end of our visit literally in tears.

You often hear stories of kids not knowing where food comes from. They believe fish have fingers and bacon is baked, etc, etc. At least our wee one will be full of the facts.

Teacher: Now then class, who can tell me what grows on a farm?
TWMBO: Miss! I know, I know. Giant inflatable slides.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Council Plans For A96 Corridor Greenwash?

Highland Council has a grand plan to develop what it calls the A96 Corridor between Inverness and Nairn.

A lot of that development seems to be taking its time due to the economic climate but it's good to know the authority is trying to figure things out before they happen.

The latest update I've been made aware of is this. It's a set of priorities for what the council is calling a "green network" across the Highlands, with the Inverness-Nairn area first up.

In short it looks like greenwash to me but I suppose it's better than nothing. It throws up all sorts of questions. Such as:

An Inverness-Nairn Coastal Trail: Is this for motorists or will it mean a direct cycle and walking route at long last?

Connections for habitats: Surely tunnels under roads for badgers and rope bridges for squirrels are pretty bog standard?

Positive uses for undeveloped wedges of land: Sandown springs to mind! Give power back to the people I say.

Contributions from greenspace: This is jibberish and when you look closely what the council proposes it wants to ensure new houses with nice views and easy access to woodland and other green spaces fetch a high price. It sounds to me like this 'green' Corridor will be paved with a red carpet to welcome the well off.

I'd like to see an effort made by officials and elected representatives to enagage the public on this stuff rather than hoping the jargon puts everyone off.

Crude Stuff

An interesting update here on the collapse of talks between the oil producing countries' cartel.

It means the price of petrol is certain to rise again very soon.

However, the article quotes an analyst right at the end pointing out that demand is dropping so the price of crude should start to fall towards the end of the year. But of course we know what happens then. The price on the forecourts always goes up the moment oil goes up but rarely seems to come down if oil comes down.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the sooner we learn to rely less on petrol the better! We've burnt the cheap stuff and it isn't going to get any easier. Thank goodness we don't live in communities where the public transport's rubbish and shopping is done at out-of-town retail parks. Oh, hang on...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

OPD: Obsessive Pallet Disorder

Since taking on an allotment I’ve changed in the following surprising ways:

1. Previously I had pallet blindness. I knew they existed but wasn’t aware of their multiple applications and ubiquity. These days I see them all the time, in the way that kid in that film sees dead people all the time. Look! There’s one over there right now.

2. I am convinced tomatoes are the true Triffids. Everybody seems to have millions of them in their homes and we’re all desperate to pass them on. I tell you, it’s the plants that are in control, not us.

3. I pay attention to the day’s weather. Previously if you’d quizzed me at the end of the day I’d only have vaguely been aware whether it was sunny or had rained. These days I can usually recall the duration and intensity of any precipitation and whether the lack of this means the tatties need watering before bed.

4. I now understand the futility of hoovering a car boot clean. What’s the point? It’ll only get clarted the next time a sack of mulch goes in.

5. I have compost envy. During a visit to a friend we got into conversation about The Allotment and he beckoned me towards his modest vegetable patch. The highlight was his three box compost system (made from pallets!) containing the most amazing black crumbly soil improver I’ve ever seen. Grass clippings and hen poo, apparently. It looked like used coffee grounds. I’ve already rigged up a pair of Great Escape style trousers in preparation for my next visit. I’ll simply
fill a couple of bags with compost when he‘s not looking. Then, wearing them inside my trousers, I’ll wander back to my allotment and pull the strings in my pockets. Out come the pins. All I have to do is kick it in. The ferrets won't see a thing.

Preserve Me From Preservatives

One of the guilty pleasures I’m happy to confess to is our dishwasher. Green Gran pointed out it wasn’t till the arrival of her fourth bairn that a dishwasher was deemed appropriate, so I‘m clearly just a lazy sod.

We’re only at number one but the time it saves of an evening is wonderful and in many cases a dishwasher will use less water than the numerous sinks required to clean our daily pile.

Which brings me to the stuff that actually does the cleaning.

I’ve long been an advocate of being aware of what you put down drains, loos and plugholes. Out of sight, out of mind to most folk but if we don’t think about this stuff it will come back to bite us. Tipping grease and oil from the grill pan or frying pan down the sink will probably end up blocking your plumbing, never mind jamming the sewer pipes out in the street or down by the river or beach. And as for the chemicals we consume in our kitchens and bathrooms…

There has been a rise in the number of “eco” products on the market but sometimes if you look closely they still contain perfumes and other nasties that don’t break down and will linger out there in the water environment. The Moray Firth dolphins must be pretty fragrant by now! Wife-features also reckons some of the “eco” stuff creates a gunky build up in the appliances and plumbing.

Because there isn’t an immediate impact obvious for us to see we tend to use chemicals, wash them down the drain and not think about them. It’s interesting to see further research taking place on this subject in the Highlands.

I went through a brief period of being addicted to Kim and Aggie’s How Clean Is Your House - they were forever using vinegar and baking soda to scrub all sorts of things. While some chemicals clearly give protection for health you do wonder whether we need so many and so much in our lives.

One of the (many) reasons I try to avoid supermarket shopping is the chemical preservatives used in food that’s travelled a long way. I’m the sort of nerd who hunts out “natural” apricots - not the bright orange kind but the dark brown and slimy variety that don’t contain sulphur dioxide or whatever it is.

On Saturday we trooped into Inverness (by train, of course) and scooped up lots of local produce with zero chemical preservative nonsense. Veg from Macleod Organics, pork sausages from Brackla Farm, croissants from the French folk, amazing soda bread from Ullapool and salmon from Aultbea.

We’ve dirtied plenty of plates these past few days, which leads me back to the dishwasher. The “eco” variety of washing tablet you get is elusive in Nairn and the Co-op’s own brand isn’t great. However I recently purchased an amazing bucket of tablets that claim to be 100 per cent biodegradable. Upon closer inspection just now I burst out laughing.

It’s described as an “Active 6 in 1 premium washing system”. 6 in 1 you say? I detect a whiff of marketing BS but let’s play along for a moment.

1. Detergent to penetrate and break down the toughest baked on, etc etc
2. Rinse aid function for a spotless yadayada
3. Protector action (!) to prevent corrosion
4. Microblended formula (it means the tablets dissolve fast)
5. Water softening agent (handy in case I take the tablets to the south of England)
6. Sanitising agent to clean your machine
7. There isn’t a seven but they should add the fact the manufacturer’s address is “Mildred Sylvester Way”. It sounds like a film noir starring Fred McMurray. It’s almost as cool an address as the Weetabix factory in Burton Latimer, which sounds like an Agatha Christie sleuth.

Anyway, wow. That’s an impressive 6 point system. And the name of this eco-friendly micro-blended super-sanitising protector agent?

“Simply Dishwash”.

Bouncy Castles And Knobbly Carrots

Fans of the Archers (this includes Toddler Who Must Be Obeyed - the jaunty theme music is always a highlight of bath time) will be well aware this coming Sunday, 12 June, is Open Farm Sunday across the UK. What is Brian Aldridge playing at?

In the real world Donnie Macleod and Co are doing their bit between 10am and 4pm at Kylerona Farm by Ardersier, inviting you to meet the animals, take a farm tour, leap on the bouncy castle (shoes off first please) and sample some mighty fine organic food.

More info here.

Our Toddler has a thing for tractors, has revived her insatiable appetite for "broccoli trees" and has yet to experience the hilarity of a bouncy castle. How can we resist?

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Fracking Nonsense

"Unconventional gas offers huge potential..."

An interesting response from the Scottish Government to this news that a company has been granted three petroleum exploration development licences in the central belt with a view to "fracking" and tapping into shale gas.

Shale gas is worse for the environment than coal. Why the heck are we doing this in a country full of water, wind and waves?

Find out more about the dangers of fracking by checking out the Gaslands film.