Me & My Life, Photography, Science

Northern Lights

I’ve been waiting a long time. I’ve seen time-lapses from Iceland. I’ve seen videos from space of the colours around the Arctic. I’ve even seen photos of the Aurora Borealis from St Andrews, where I live. I always knew I was going to see them.

So when I checked my Facebook account and saw this post from Ed, you might think I was overwhelmed by excitement. But I wasn’t.

Aurora warning from Ed

My first reaction, I’m ashamed to admit, was dismissal. I didn’t know Ed as someone familiar with astronomy, and I’m well aware of how a little wishful thinking can turn aeroplanes or planets into UFOs, and light pollution or high clouds into astronomical events.

I felt this way because it was late, and it was the end of a very tiring day. I was about to go to bed. The harbour is a 15 minute walk from where I live, and even if I could’ve mustered the energy for the walk, I would surely have arrived too late.

But I didn’t dismiss the idea outright. The next time I went to the kitchen, I took a peek outside the back door. Immediately I was struck by the scene in the sky. What I saw was weird. Weird, confusing, and amazing:

Northern Lights 1

Despite being in the centre of a residential area, full of light, with the sky partially obscured by buildings, what I saw when I looked to the north was something that is hard for me to write down precisely. It certainly didn’t appear as it does in the photos above and below – those are several-second exposures from my camera, with the saturation and contrast increased dramatically afterwards. At higher latitudes, perhaps the intensity is enough to make the eye see as the camera. But on this night in St Andrews, it didn’t.

It was still very impressive. To my eyes, the green patches were not as vivid as in the photos, or as extensive, but they definitely had a vague green hue to them, and they had a luminosity unlike the rest of the sky. Something was there, and that something was moving. Not moving like a cloud through the sky. I would look at one patch of light, try to focus my eyes on it, and then turn my gaze elsewhere. But when I looked back at the previous section, the patch would be different, or gone. The lights went through constant but subtle motion.

Within several minutes the intensity had decreased to the point where the colours were only visible on my camera. Yet I stood outside for as long as I could, about half an hour, taking photos and gazing at the sky, completely absorbed in my first experience of this display. I was a display I’d always wanted to see.

It was beautiful.

Northern Lights 2

I was not disappointed.

Me & My Life, Pictures

A Longest Bike Ride

To start the year 2014, I’m going to tell you about a bike ride from 2nd September 2012.

Me and the Tay

I’m disappointed to say that I’ve forgotten many of the details of that day. However, I created this post shortly after the ride, and put in place all of the photographs, maps and videos. Assembling the visual media is, after all, the time-consuming part of writing of post for this website, and I would feel bad letting that work sit in my drafts folder for eternity. All I need to do is fill in the text. Simple.

After having much fun riding west into the Earn valley, and then a longer ride east out to Invergowrie, I decided next to cycle northwards to Dunkeld. Here are some photos I took at the start of the ride, cycling through the North Inch:

North Inch 1

North Inch 2

A beautiful day. I have some experience with riding north from Perth. I have cycled to the end of the North Inch many times:

End of North inch

And I’ve often gone further along the River Almond – occasionally as far as Pitcairngreen (funny name):

Falling Tree by River Almond

Pitcairngreen Green

And I’ve made it all the way up to Dunkeld before, stopping to eat peas and raspberries and a melted Mars bar along the way:

Dunkeld and Birnam railway station

Class 66 at Dunkeld

Peas in Pods

Peas

Raspberries

Melted Mars Bar

I really enjoyed my bike ride up to Dunkeld, and I’ve actually done the ride a few times, but I’d decided that the next time, I’d be a bit more adventurous. The ride from Perth to Dunkeld is part of National Cycle Network Route 77, which links Dundee with Pitlochry. Here is a National Cycle Network marker post at Dunkeld station:

NCN Pole

I had used Route 77 to reach Invergowrie on my previous ride, and I was using it again to get up to Dunkeld. I haven’t cycled it beyond Dunkeld, but one day I intend to so, and reach Pitlochry.

Once you’re off the River Almond, Route 77 is then almost entirely on-road to Dunkeld. It’s not my prefered kind of cycle route, but most of the chosen roads are quiet lanes and I felt safe. However, if you want to go from Perth to Dunkeld and back on cycle routes, then you have to retrace your steps. Sometimes retracing your steps can be fine: climbs become drops, drops become climbs, corners swap, and you get a completely different view of your surroundings. But this is what I’ve done every time I’ve cycled to Dunkeld, so this time, I decided to take a different route back.

I enjoyed the ride up along route 77:

My Pea Field Spot

Loch with Island Tree

Eventually, I reached Dunkeld and Birnam railway station, which is maybe about half a mile from Dunkeld. Dunkeld is the first station north of Perth on the Highland Main Line, which joins Perth and Inverness. A lot of the line is single-track, which is one of the reasons that trains aren’t very frequent, but I still usually see something (even freight trains sometimes).

I sat listening to the Clash of Kings audiobook, ate my lunch, and watched a train or two go by:

Class 170 Turbostar 1

Class 170 Turbostar 2

I then headed into Dunkeld itself, taking a seat in the grounds of the cathedral. This was the first time I’d cycled into Dunkeld before, since previously I would always head back after reaching the station. There isn’t much to see in Dunkeld, but it’s pleasant and I had a nice time cooling off by the River Tay:

Dunkeld Cathedral Grounds

Tay at Dunkeld 1

Tay at Dunkeld 2

Here’s a video which includes clips I shot at various places on the ride up:

After a short while, I decided to head home.

But I wasn’t going back the way I came. After reading my post about cycling in the Earn valley, Murray left me a comment with a suggestion:

Have you done much cycling north of Perth? That tends to be the direction I went. The NCN route up to Dunkeld is actually rather nice, with a lovely big hill down to Dunkeld railway station. I like to take a little side trip, though, out to Little Glenshee, where there’s a lovely ford that makes a nice place to stop for lunch, then the road takes you back in to Bankfoot.

Nice. Thank you Murray. And that’s exactly what I did.

I cycled down to Bankfoot, and then instead of continuing south on Route 77, I diverted off to the west towards Little Glenshee. I wasn’t exactly sure of the route, seeing as I’d never been there before, so now and then I got my iPhone out of my pocket, and loaded up Maps to see my location. I would have been fine without this assistance, but it was my first time cycling somewhere unknown whilst having a GPS-enabled device. It was pretty cool.

A couple of miles west of Bankfoot:

North

But something was strange. My bike was going really slowly. Unusually slow – apart from when I’m going down a big hill, I usually maintain a leisurely speed. This road seemed pretty level, and it wasn’t because I was out of energy either: although I was probably approaching my 30th mile, the ride hadn’t been particularly taxing. Perhaps I have a slow puncture, I thought, or perhaps something else is wrong with my bike mechanically, or maybe the wind is just stronger than I felt. I had to fight for every turn of the pedals, and yet my speed was a paltry 8mph. I was starting to get pissed off, because I was still about 10 miles from home, and if my bike was about to fail, I would have to walk the rest.

Until, that is, I got off my bike for a rest, and took out my camera to take some photographs. When I turned around to take the photograph you see below, I was shocked. I was looking downhill! It clearly looks like the road is going down here, which it was. I was ascending! That explains why it’d been such hard work for the past few miles.

Downhill

But when I turned around to look again in the direction of travel, the road again looked level. It was really disconcerting, but I believe I came up with the explanation. Just a couple of days before, I had picked up my new glasses, which had a new prescription in them, quite different from my old ones. I reckon that I simply hadn’t got used to wearing them yet, and things looked a little weird.

Bails, Wrapped

I continued my climb, now feeling good about all the height which I had gained, and which I would eventually get to reclaim as a part of a fun downhill section. I reckon I must have climbed at least 100m without realising it.

After a bit more climbing, I reached the ford at Little Glenshee. By this point I had no phone reception, so although I knew my co-ordinates, the map below those co-ordinates would not load. I was unsure if I would realise when I was there. But, well, I couldn’t miss it:

Ford 1

Murray was right. It was a delightful little ford. I cycled across the water, and sat on the grass verge in the centre-left of this photo:

Ford 2

The view from my perch:

Ford 3

I sat there and drank a can of Dr Pepper, listening to more of “A Clash of Kings” (a Davos chapter, I think) but I fairly quickly got cold, and decided to head home. The route first involves yet more climbing – the ford is hidden somewhere at the bottom of the land you can see in the photo below:

Little Glenshee

Once I’d done that little bit, though, the route was incredibly fun. For what must be 3 or 4 miles, the road is downhill all of the way. I reckon you could do that whole distance without pedalling once. It was really exhilarating.

At the start of the run down, before it really got going, I took my iPhone out of my pocket and filmed a section of my ride. I had to mute the sound since it was just the roaring of the wind, but I was picking up speed really quite fast – a huge change from the journey uphill. As you’ll see in the video below, even at the point where I’m going uphill I’m still going about 15mph, and the speed with which I ascend shows the momentum I had from the descent.

It was a lot of fun.

Cycling near Little Glenshee from Wilf Wilson on Vimeo.

I stopped once on the descent to pick some wild raspberries by the side of the road, and I took this photo whilst still cycling, of these cows:

Cows

Eventually I re-joined Route 77, and continued my journey home, back the way I came. I arrived home to a meal of spaghetti bolognese cooked by my Mum, and shared with some extended family members.

It was a good ride, and I would love to get up to Little Glenshee again. The ride back down was particularly fantastic.

If you’re interested, here is what my speedometer recorded on the ride:

Total Mileage  Total Calories  Maximum Speed

46.7 miles! Nice.

Finally, here is a link to Google Maps of the route and took: http://goo.gl/maps/3w1IO.

And here I’ve embedded an image of the route (click to see a much larger image):

Map of Bike Ride to Dunkeld

Books, Me & My Life, Photography, Pictures

A Longer Bike Ride

To recap: after doing maths in St Andrews for half of June and all of July, I spent a couple of weeks in Nottingham with some of my family. We got out on our bikes a bit, and tried to make the most of whatever small piece of summer we could salvage from 2012. I returned home to Perth half way through August, and shortly afterwards, I took the opportunity of visiting Emily to bring my bike home from St Andrews. I wanted to go on some bikes rides.

River Tay at Port Allen 1

The River Tay at Port Allen

My first bike ride, a week or so later, was a route of about 20 miles that I’ve done several times before, taking me first south, to get out of Perth, and then west along one side of the Earn valley before returning home on the other side of the valley.

I would’ve been out on my bike sooner than that, but as was typical for 2012, the weather hadn’t been great. It was cold and, as you can see from some of the photos from my last post, there was a lot of rain about. Indeed, on that bike ride I ended up spending about half an hour under my umbrella, sheltering from torrential rain. Packing a waterproof jacket and umbrella would become standard operating procedure for the rest of my rides.

Tree

Approaching a level crossing in the Carse of Gowrie.

Just 3 days after that, on the 27th August, I decided that the weather was good enough for my next outing.

There aren’t many official cycle routes around Perth, but the main one which passes through is Sustrans National Route 77 of the National Cycle Network. It runs from Pitlochry, which is roughly 30 miles to the north of Perth, through Perth, and then all the way to Dundee, which is 20 miles to the east. I had ridden the route northwards once or twice before, but only as far as Dunkeld. The section of the route towards Dundee had always been something that I’d do “one day”. It’s a least 20 miles each way, and the roads are exposed to the full force of the weather. To tackle them, you ideally want a long, warm and dry day with little wind. That is, a nice summer’s day, something which we’ve been lacking recently.

I could be waiting years for such a summer’s day when I’m in Perth with my bike with enough free time. I was only lacking lovely weather, and you can’t always have everything. The 27th wasn’t forecast to be particularly sunny or warm (a maximum temperature of around 15ºC), but it was meant to be dry and calm, so I took the opportunity to get out.

My plan: head towards Dundee.

Firth of Tay 2

The Tay at Invergowrie.

Initially my intention was not to cycle to Dundee, only to cycle along Route 77 towards Dundee and then turn back and head home whenever I felt like it. Indeed, I didn’t end up reaching Dundee, as you’ll see, but I almost did. I got as far as Invergowrie before deciding to head home for the day. I had a good time – I always find it exciting to cycle along a new route. It’s an adventure, a discovery.

As it turned out, I mostly stuck to the official roads of Route 77, although I decided to throw in a little detour for lunch. Here’s the route that I ended up taking (click to see a better version, or an even better, not scaled down version: left hand side, right hand side):

Map of Bike Ride to Invergowrie

The map of my bike ride to Invergowrie, and back.

And here is a link to that route on Google Maps: http://goo.gl/maps/dS738.

My total mileage was about 42 miles (about 20 miles each way and 2 miles for my detour) and you can see that I was generally heading in a sort of east-north-east-erly-ish direction. What the map doesn’t show you is that the stretch of the route from Glencarse to Invergowrie is pretty much level – which for a long bike ride is perfect. At least: perfect in my opinion. There are no large hills to speak of, just the occasional rise and fall, so no cause to get sweaty or out of breath, or need to dismount and walk.

There is one exception to this topological constancy. Kinnoull Hill, directly to the east of Perth:

Kinnoull Hill: 2009/04/19 at 19:20

The view from my old bedroom.

That’s the view of Kinnoull Hill from my old bedroom. Kinnoull Hill is the plug of an old volcano, one which has been extinct and hence has been eroded away for millions of years. Despite that, it still stands over 200 metres tall, and blocks the way between Perth and Dundee. You can’t cycle to Dundee without surmounting it: to the north are more hills, and to the south (the right-hand edge in the above photograph) lies the motorway and then immediately there is the Tay. Both of these are significant obstacles to bikes, and I’d recommend that any cyclist avoid rivers and motorways.

I started my bike ride in the early afternoon, at about sea level. At one point the route takes you on a small bridge over the River Tay, and as the Tay at Perth is still tidal, you can pretty much take it to be at sea level.

Perth Bridge from East Side

Perth Bridge seen from the eastern side of the Tay.

After leaving that bridge, the route climbs sharply up the side of Kinnoull Hill (although thankfully you don’t have to reach the summit). I reckon, after quickly consulting an Ordnance Survey map on bing maps, that the road crests at about 140 metres – although I could be wrong. Here’s a photo which I took shortly before I reached that point:

Climbing Kinnoull Hill

The climb up Kinnoull Hill is long, and full of terrors.

I had walked almost the whole way up, getting off my bike when the gradient of the hill was too steep, and finding the leisurely walk pushing my bike up the side of the road far more pleasant than forcing my leg muscles to keep me moving uphill on two wheels.

Again, I was doing the naughty thing and listening to an audiobook for the whole duration of the ride. I did wear my helmet again, and I turned the book off and removed the earbuds when I was cycling quickly, in traffic, or attempting something dangerous. After finishing Consider the Lobster on my previous ride, and after having finished the first book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire series” (A Game of Thrones), for this bike ride I chose to listen to A Clash of Kings. For the first part of the day, and during the walk uphill in particular, I was listening to the first chapter, which was the prologue. Naturally.

Shortly after reaching the apex of the road, and only after descending very slightly, the road becomes very alpine-feeling: hugging the contour lines on the side of a hill, on a road carved horizontally into the slope. I love it, and what’s more, the route provides some great views. I stopped my descent, got off my bike, and had a look around:

A90 From Kinnoull Hill 2

Looking back to Perth, seeing Craigie Hill, the A90, the Tay, and cows grazing in front of Kinnoull Hill.

I took all of the photos on this bike ride with my iPhone, and as my phone includes GPS technology, every photo is saved with location information in the Exif data. According to that data, these two photos were taken at an altitude of 138m – quite a climb from ‘sea’ level!

A90 from Kinnoull Hill

A weird iPhone HDR photo of the Tay from high up the sides of the valley.

Just visible in the higher-resolution version of the above photo is a freight train meandering along the railway line to Dundee. That was a nice spot to see from up on the hill: a Class 66 operated by government-owned company Direct Rail Services (DRS) and in their colours, hauling what I call “the Asda train”, an assortment of containers bound for Aberdeen, mostly branded as Asda or W. H. Malcolm. It sounded quite loud too, and was cracking along at a fair pace. Cool.

After getting my fill of the scenery, I replaced my helmet and iPhone, turned off my audiobook, and headed down into the valley. As I pulled away, my bike was making a worrying rattling sound, but I couldn’t locate the source of the malfunction. I held my brake cables tight, but that didn’t stop the noise. I held my bell, but that didn’t change anything either. My brake blocks were aligned correctly and my spokes were fine. What could it be?

I headed down a bit of steep hill, and took a tight corner at too ambitious of a speed. I slammed on the brakes as hard as I dared, but I still veered wide onto the verge at the edge of the road. The bike shook violently, but unbelievably to me, I didn’t panic and I remained upright. I cycled off with a deep belly laugh at my brush with disaster.

Soon I was off my bike again, as the road was heading up too steeply. The noise from my bike had only gotten worse whilst I was cycling it, and after fiddling around for a while, I finally figured out what was wrong: one of the two nuts keeping my front wheel in place was loose and had almost fallen off. My wheel was almost loose. Craziness. I quickly tightened it with my fingers (it held), climbed the rest of the way uphill, and then got in my seat to ride the rest – and bulk – of the way downhill.

And some hill it was. I soon passed a sign that said this:

20% Incline

A 20 per fucking cent slope. Wow.

20%: for every 5 metres travelled horizontally, you travel 1 metre vertically. That’s a lot. The rest of my journey down into the valley would be a steep one, and – a couple of metres beyond the sign – one that I’d never done before. That’s a dangerous combination.

My audiobook was still switched off, but after all of the effort I put in to get up the side of Kinnoull Hill, there was no chance that I was going to squander my gravitational potential energy and trundle downhill at a slow speed. I released my brakes, pedalled as far as I could, and then sat back in the saddle for stability. The descent started out well, but I quickly got into trouble as I traversed what must’ve been the steepest part of the hill: my brakes weren’t sharp enough to stop me from veering onto the wrong (right-hand) side of the road on a left turn. Fortunately there was no on-coming traffic, but had there been, I might have had a near miss. Despite applying my breaks, my speed was still increasing, to around 35 mph, and my cornering was becoming wider and wider. I pulled on my breaks as hard as I could, and eventually I started slow: but not before cycling over a very rough and cracked patch of road which I was going too fast to avoid. It was one of the scariest moments of my cycling life when I was going over them. I was so unsteady and out of control and going so fast that I was sure that I was about to be thrown off my bike and down the middle of the road. I let out a loud “FUCK!”, but I was okay. I was okay.

I drifted on, there was one more turn, and then the rest of the road was straight: I let my brakes go, pedalled to regain a bit of speed, and at a leisurely 31 mph, I cruised down towards a crossroads at the bottom of the valley:

Road Off Kinnoull Hill

The final bit of descent from Kinnoull Hill.

Next time, I’ll take that hill more slowly.

Bailer

A bailer working in the Sun.

I caught my breath, turned A Clash of Kings back on to hear more about the maester up to some tricks in the Prologue, and I continued my journey, now in the flat stage.

There is not much more to tell: the Sun soon started shining through the clouds, and I enjoyed a leisurely ride. I particularly enjoyed the first valley at the bottom of the hill, towards the left in the crossroads shown above, and before reaching Glencarse. There was something secluded and private and wonderful about it all, yet majestic. I was truly into new cycling territory.

The miles piled up, and so rolled by the hours. So it was that I found myself feeling remarkably hungry, and looking for a place to stop and eat.

Road to Port Allen

An enticing roadway down towards the River Tay.

One of my very favourite aspects of life is eating, and I am almost always looking forward to my next meal. Before departing, I had taken great pleasure and care in putting together my food and drink for the journey. Fluid-wise, I had packed both a 1½ litre and a 750ml Highland Spring bottle filled with water, along with a can of Dr Pepper and a can of Orangina. Food-wise, I’d make a prawn mayonnaise sandwich, a jam sandwich, and brought a banana or two.

I pulled in by the road just before Errol, took the picture above, and then consulted the map: that little road would take me down to the river, and by the river I might find a nice place to eat. I waited for the traffic to clear, which included 2 cyclists. The instant I saw them, one or two hundred metres away, I just knew that they’d be taking the same road as me. Even though the cycle route continues onwards, even though there was nothing down that road, I knew that they’d go there, and that I’d then look like I was following them, and then I would have to make awkward conversation with them, and not be able to eat my lunch in peace.

That’s exactly what happened: they turned down onto the road to the Tay, and I followed. They were serious cyclists and much faster than me, but I caught up with them at the river. We exchanged greetings, but thankfully they left shortly afterwards. Maybe they’d seen that I was going to go down the road, and had just wondered what all the fuss was about. Copying me, basically.

I was left with a nice spot by the river to eat and drink and prepare myself for the rest of the journey:

River Tay at Port Allen 2

Some reeds and water in the foreground, in front of the River Tay.

It was nice, and in the audiobook I got to listen to the chapter which included the tourney for Joffrey’s 13th name day. I got back on my bike, turned around, and headed the ¾ miles or so back to the main road, and turned right, onwards to Dundee.

By this point I had gone around 13 miles, but I was still full of energy. I passed through Errol – a first for me – and continued to follow the cycle route. Soon I noticed that the road was getting closer to the railway line (which also heads to Dundee), and eventually I came to a level crossing.

Level Crossing

A level crossing over the railway line between Perth and Dundee.

I like level crossings. At a level crossing, you might see a train. I crossed the line slowly and dismounted on the other side.

Speedometer

My speed and distance at that point. Note the front wheel, still attached. Cool watch.

I consulted the National Rail Enquiries app on my phone, and found that there would soon be a train departing Dundee, which would then pass my location on its way to Perth and eventually Glasgow. I waited, and was rewarded with a pair of Turbostars passing through:

Class 170 Turbostars

ScotRail always runs their Glasgow to Aberdeen trains in this fashion on a Sunday. Trains are half as frequent, but twice as long: not a great compromise, in my opinion.

After another drink, I cracked on, determined to go further and discover some new places. The roads from this point on were very flat, and there were large and flat fields to either side of the road for many miles. It was uneventful, and I enjoyed the views and the audiobook, until I approached a built up area, which I concluded must be the first outskirts of Dundee:

Approaching Invergowrie

Approaching Invergowrie, photographed whilst cycling.

By this point the Tay was very wide, well into its estuary, and the Tay bridges seemed very close. I pressed on, cycled through some small village or suburb of Dundee, and soon I came to Invergowrie. I headed for the railway station, where I knew I would find a bench where I could sit comfortably and finish the rest of my food and drink.

Estuary at Invergowrie Station

The river by the railway station, weather when I arrived.

Sunny Invergowrie

The river by the railway station, 15 minutes after arriving. Much nicer.

As it was a Sunday, there were no trains stopping at the station for the whole day, so I didn’t have to worry about getting in the way of passengers. A couple of local kids walked by and gave me funny looks, but it was mostly a quiet and restful break. No trains even passed through – although there is an average of one train per hour on a Sunday, in reality there are two trains every two hours, and they both come quite close to each other. So the gaps between trains is more like two hours than one.

By this point I had cycled about 22 miles, and I was starting to tire. If I was to get home – which I very much wanted to happen by the end of the day – I would have to get there under my own steam. I had come ~20 miles, but I still had another 20 to go.

I posed for a photo of myself when the Sun came out:

Me at Invergowrie

Me, Wilf, in cycling gear.

In the above image, over my right shoulder, you can see a bridge. That bridge is on Perth Road, and is part of Dundee. So whilst I had not literally cycled to Dundee, I almost had. It was within reaching distance, almost. However, although the Sun had come out, it was getting late in the day, and I had no time to explore further. I would need to return home before the temperature dropped, the light got dim, and I got too hungry to continue (a boy needs his dinner!).

After about 45 minutes at Invergowrie, I got back on my bike, and had an uneventful 20 mile cycle back to home, in Perth.

I passed the river again, and the clouds started coming back in:

Firth of Tay

Looking upstream the Tay, near to Invergowrie.

And eventually I had to climb out of the Carse of Gowrie, and make the gruelling journey back up over Kinnoull Hill:

Carse of Gowrie in Distance

The valley from which I had just climb out of, with the resplendent Tay prominently on show.

And when I was back to ‘sea’ level, I had done 40 miles:

40 Mile Distance!

My speedometer clocks over to 40 miles as I wait at the traffic lights to cross the Perth Bridge.

I got home at around 6:45pm, having spent close to 6 hours out, cycling and walking and sitting and eating; all whilst listening to a substantial part of A Clash of Kings. I was tired, exhausted, but in a good way. I’d earned it – and being covered in sweat was the proof. I jumped in the shower, then got out in time for dinner, and then went to relax in bed with a cup of Earl Grey and my Kindle. A good day.

Here are the final statistics:

Total Distance Maximum Speed Calories Burned

I had a really fun bike ride. I hope you enjoyed reading all about it.

Planes

The 2012 Typhoon Display

I’m going to miss the RAF when I leave St Andrews, or when the RAF itself leaves Leuchars. Yesterday was a perfect example of why.

For the 2012 airshow display season, the RAF’s Typhoon Display Team was based at Leuchars, and was operated by members of 6 Squadron. I loved the Tornado F3 in many ways and I still miss it, but I can’t deny that the Typhoon (which replaced the F3 at Leuchars last year) is an incredible aeroplane.

Tornado F3

A Tornado F3 of 111 Squadron circling to land at Leuchars.

2 Typhoons taking off at RAF Leuchars

2 Typhoons taking off at RAF Leuchars

The Display Team website is full of information, and I recommend that you give it a browse. This was the most impressive statistic that I could find:

When fully loaded the aircraft can climb to 35,000 ft from releasing the brakes in 90 seconds.

Almost 7 miles directly upwards, from a standing start, whilst being heavily laden down. Wow.

During the run-up to this summer’s airshow circuit, the pilot Scott Loughran was practising his routine in the skies over RAF Leuchars in up to 3 timeslots per day. There was sometimes a practice at 8am, at 12:30pm, and again at about 4pm, with the frequency of practices peaking in late April or early May.

Sometimes I missed the displays because I was in the shower or in bed or in a lecture, but quite often I did get to watch them – or at least see some of them. Due my lecture schedule, I rarely got the chance to walk somewhere to see the display close up (only once was I actually at the end of West Sands, directly under part of the display) but, when I heard the distinctive noise, I would often be able to step out of my house and find a vantage point, or settle down on a bench to eat my lunch. I would mostly admire the routine from the comfort of St Andrews.

Performance takeoff

Typhoon doing a ‘performance takeoff’, using afterburners to climb at an incredible rate and angle.

Yesterday was such an occasion. The airshow season has finished – the Typhoon performed its last public display at the Leuchars airshow on 15th September (which I watched). Yet last Thursday, RAF Leuchars posted an exciting message to their Facebook page, which read in part:

Over the next 24 hours, it is planned that Squadron Leader Scott Loughran will fly up to 3 routines over RAF Leuchars in order that he can complete his responsibilities for 2012 and successfully handover the role to Flight Lieutenant Jamie Norris who will be the Royal Air Force Typhoon Display pilot for the 2013 airshow season.

Yes! What a treat.

And so it was that I heard a takeoff at 8:30am on Friday. That was suspiciously early, I thought… until I remembered the Facebook message which I’d read the previous day! I put on my coat, grabbed my bag, and headed for a door, and took an earlier-than-intended, but amazing, walk to Maths.

It was a couple of days before BST ended, so the mornings were still very dark last week. When I stepped onto the coastal path, the sun had only just started to clear the cliffs to the east, presenting me with an amazing sunrise.

Sunrise over Cliffs

The Sun had just risen over the cliffs by East Sands.

The Typhoon hadn’t started practising yet – but I set eyes on it the moment I left my house. It was a couple of miles out to sea, at a reasonable altitude, doing dives and twists and loops and other strange manoeuvres. I took a few photos of the morning light, and as I started my walk to class, the Typhoon headed toward Leuchars, and started its display.

Being his first display in a while, Scott performed the display at a higher altitude than normal for safety. This would be disappointing if you were close up, but for me, it was perfect. I would have only been able to hear a low-down display, but higher up, I could see him, even from down near the beach at East Sands.

Typhoon behind St Andrews Cathedral

In the large version (click the image), you might just be able to make out the Typhoon, orange in the morning light.

The warm morning light lit up the aircraft beautifully, and when the glint of the sun was matched with the glow of the afterburners, the sight was incredible. The roar of the plane and engines cut through the cold morning air, to produce a deafening sound. The display included many high speed passes, inversions, stalls and an impressive near-vertical dive, finishing with a vertical climb. At one point, due to my slightly raised perspective in St Andrews, the Typhoon dived below the roof-line of a faraway building, giving the illusion of being about to slam into the ground and explode. Thankfully it didn’t, and a few seconds later I heard a boom of reheat as the Typhoon forced itself upwards.

10 minutes after starting, the display finished, and I continued my walk to class in peace.

St Andrews Castle at Sunrise

This is where I watched the end of the display.

Scott performed another display at 11:45am, but frustratingly I had a lecture until 11:55am, at which point he’d finished. I headed to the end of West Sands, hoping that he’d perform a third and final display in the afternoon slot – around about 4pm – but he didn’t, and walked to my tutorial slightly disappointed.

Typhoon During Practice Display

Typhoon banking and using reheat during an earlier practice display.

Until yesterday. It was around 12:40, and I was sitting in the library, trying to ‘qualitatively’ solve some systems of differential equations, when I heard a suspiciously loud Typhoon takeoff. I listened for a few moments to see if the sound would trail off – characteristic of a departing plane – but the sound remained, and it was clear that something was afoot. Something loud.

I stood up from my desk, and walked out of the building and sat on my nearby favourite bench, where I often eat lunch. The sky to the north was dark and full of rain, but over Leuchars it was calm, except for Scott Loughran throwing his Typhoon around. It was just like all of his other displays – only better. Maybe because it was his last. The contrast of the copious reheat with the dark clouds behind the jet was breathtaking, as were the speed and tight cornering. He was having fun out there, and I was having fun watching him.

If you ever get the chance to watch a fast jet display: do it. It is absolutely thrilling. It has been a privilege and a joy to be able to be follow the development of a display, and watch its iterations throughout the year. I’m sad that 29 Squadron at RAF Coningsby is taking over the role next year, but I definitely made the most of the opportunity this year. Make hay while the Sun shines.

It certainly brightened up my days. Thanks Scott, and thanks RAF.

Typhoon High Speed Pass (Reheat)

A Typhoon using afterburners during a high-speed low pass.

Typhoon Landing at Leuchars Airshow 2012

A Typhoon landing after the Leuchars airshow in 2012.

Blogging, Me & My Life, Pictures

A Little Bike Ride

I’ve hardly written anything recently. I’ve not written on my blog for about 4 months, during which time…

  • I had exams
  • I moved house
  • I visited London
  • I went to an airshow
  • I worked in the School of Maths at St Andrews (whilst living with Emily) for 6 weeks

All perfect topics to write about, yet not once did I bother. If I’m ever going to get back into the rhythm of this (which I probably won’t), I’ll have to start small. How small? This small:

Yesterday I went on a bike ride.

I brought my bike back from St Andrews a week or two ago, on my way home from visiting Emily. I keep it in the shed at Albany Park during term time, and as I was staying in St Andrews for a large part of the summer, I left it there when I moved out. The weather has been so wet this summer that I didn’t use my bike at all in St Andrews, and I brought it home in the hope that the weather would finally improve and I’d be able to go on at least some rides.

The weather hasn’t improved, but my courage has. Anticipating this, I spent an afternoon a few days ago cleaning and maintaining my bike in the garden. I still need new brake blocks and (probably professional) repairs to my front gear mechanism, but otherwise I’ve got it running nicely. I’ve even got a new helmet, which Jonathan left me when he moved out of Albany Park. It’s good, much better than my old one, and it fits snugly and comfortably. AND SAFELY.

The weather seemed fairly bright and dry after breakfast yesterday. I put on some suitably scruffy cyclewear (including waterproof jacket and cycling gloves) and then made a prawn mayonnaise sandwich for my lunch, which I threw into my backpack along with a water bottle, a can of Orangina, my Kindle, and – yup – an umbrella.

I haven’t cycled much around Perth, but I’ve done enough to have a couple of favourite routes. I enjoy cycling into the Earn valley, which is where I went yesterday. The Earn valley lies just to the south of Perth, and stretches to the west in the direction of Auchterarder. To get there, you follow the old Edinburgh Road out of Perth and into Bridge of Earn, and from there you go wherever you fancy. I usually head west about as far as Forteviot before crossing to the other side of the valley and heading back to Perth, and that’s pretty much what I did.

Here’s the route that I took (click to see a better version):

Bike Ride Route

And here is a link to that route on Google Maps: http://goo.gl/maps/Anw1j

I’m just going to mention: on this bike ride I was naughty, and I was listening to an audiobook almost the whole way. I’ve been meaning to re-listen to the audiobook of “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace for ages. I’ve listened to it before, but it’s abridged, and I recently got a copy of the unabridged text. I read the essays which are missing from the audiobook (very skilfully read by the author himself) which made me really want to listen to it again to complete the experience. Yes, I know it’s dangerous to listen to stuff whilst cycling, especially on roads. I don’t normally do it – though that’s probably because I don’t normally cycle alone. But yesterday it was quiet on the roads and my earphones let in enough background noise, so that I was always aware of any approaching traffic with plenty of time.

It’s a really good book by the way, I recommend it.

Shortly after Forgandenny, it started spitting, and soon it turned into a downpour. I sheltered at the entrance to a farmer’s field, where I stood around and ate my lunch. My Mum had bought some sort of oatmal loaf, and it was pathetic, it had the structural integrity of candy floss. The sandwich fell apart in my hands. Never mind. I was listening to the essay from the book called “The View from Mrs Thompson’s” at this point, by the way. It rained for about half an hour, after which I carried on to Forteviot, where I stopped on a bridge over the railway line to Stirling to drink my Orangina and watch some trains.

Turbostar near Forteviot

I continued in the direction of Auchterarder for a couple of miles (the red line on the map above), before deciding to turn back and go home.

Which I did… for a little while. And then I crossed the Earn and, to my left, saw one of the steepest and tallest roads I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s the yellow road on the map above. It isn’t on the route to Perth, but if there’s one thing I love about cycling, it’s going fast. Especially down hills, and especially going very fast. This seemed like a Very Fast Hill. There was no question: I was going to do it. I tried to cycle up, but it was too steep to bother, and walked. I was too impatient to get all the way to the top (the A9 is at the top anyway, I didn’t want to go there) and I stopped, briefly considered sending a text to my Mum letting her know where I was in case I crashed (I didn’t) (send the text, that is), turned my bike around, took out my headphones, got on, and started to pedal.

I pedalled really hard. To get to 10mph, it’s easy. 20mph requires a considerable effort, but going downhill, you can easily reach that speed just by drifting. But at somewhere between 20 and 25mph, I stopped pedalling for a moment, and my speed remained constant: the friction of my tyres on the road and the air resistance of my body almost balanced gravity. From this point onwards, only serious legwork was going to get me to go any faster.

My goal was 40mph. If I was already going 25mph, that’s only an extra 15mph – that’s easy isn’t it, that’s just like the equivalent of increasing your speed from 0mph to 15mph? Right? Wrong.

If you studied physics at school, you will know that kinetic energy increases linearly with mass, but with the square of the speed. That is: Ek = ½mv2. This means it takes twice as much energy to cycle at 10mph if you double your mass, but to carry the original mass at twice the speed, 20mph, it takes four times as much energy.

40mph is 1.6 times as fast as 25mph. 1.62 is about 2.6, which meant I needed to give my bike 1.6 (= 2.6 – 1) times as much energy as it had, in addition to what it already had. I would have to do this using only my legs. What speed has 1.6 times as much energy as 25mph? sqrt(252 * 1.6) = 32mph. This means that to go from 25mph to 40mph, I would have to do the equivalent work of cycling (on level ground) from 0 all the way to 32mph which, FYI, is a really hard thing to do. (By the way, these calculations all ignore air resistance which would horribly complicate things).

But as I trundled down the steep hill gaining speed, there were a few further complications. There road was bumpy. There was a bend in the road – it’s not wise to be pedalling at full power when you turn, so I would have to ease off slightly at the bend to avoid losing control. Oncoming cars could appear in my way at any moment. And: I didn’t have much time. The road was fairly long, but at 30, 35mph, you are travelling so quickly that your bike eats up the road and it quickly runs out. I might not have enough space, and still be accelerating when I’m forced to break for the junction at the bottom (with my break blocks which definitely need replacing).

As I turned the bend half way up the hill, I was already doing 32mph – I was covering about 14 metres every second, which is quite a lot if you think about it for a human being. To my delight, the road ahead was completely clear, and I pedalled my legs as fast as I’d ever done before. It felt amazing, and I let out a whoop of joy and excitement – quite like Bear Grylls does when he jumps out of helicopters. My eyes were watering so much that I couldn’t look down at my speedometer, but after my legs burned from the lactic acid generated by my pedalling, I rested and slammed on the brakes. Too early in retrospect – I stopped far short of the bottom, but I had reached my maximum. I had no extra effort left to increase my speed, but I would have enjoyed drifting at speed for an extra second or so.

The fasted I have ever cycled was 40.0mph, down Glenlochay Road in Perth, an incredibly steep road near where I live. I’m not sure how I got to that speed, but I did, and I really wanted to beat it. Crazy.

When I was stopped at the bottom of the hill, I clicked through my speedometer until I reached the maximum speed section. This is what I saw:

My Maximum Speed

39.1mph! Argh!

The rain clouds were gathering, it was already raining on the other side of the valley, but I knew I could do better. I knew it. If only I’d hit the brakes later, if only I’d pedalled just a bit harder and longer. So, I turned round and scurried up the hill again to the same spot.

When I got to the top again, the rain was almost upon me:

Stormy Earn Valley

More Earn Valley

I had to be quick, because a wet road is seriously dangerous at high speeds on a bike. I got on my bike again, but things didn’t go as well: I was still worn out from walking quickly up the hill, the were a lot of cars on the road, and I think I was just a bit tireder. I only managed about 38mph.

I truly had just made it in time, because seconds after I reached the bottom, it started to rain. It kept raining, and got heavier. So heavy, that I could not see through my glasses. They were full of water droplets. I need wipers for my glasses, like a car.

I got off and stood by the road, parked my bike on its kick stand, put up my umbrella (good job), and got out my iPhone. It was time to see how long this rain would last:

The rain

Fuck. There was a lot of rain in the Perth area for the whole evening, it might not stop at all.

The heavy rain persisted for half an hour, during which time I continued to listen to the audiobook, until it slowed and eventually stopped, and I could cycle the 6 or so miles home.

I stopped by some brambles to pick some tasty ripe blackberries, and then got back on my bike, refreshed.

I passed the entrance to a country estate:

Dunning Estate

And at Milltown of Aberdalgie, as I was was dismounting – to climb another hill on foot – I got a phone call, from Emily. It was a lovely surprise and exactly what I needed to revive me after hanging around in a downpour, exhausted, for half an hour. We talked as I climbed the hill (which was the back of Craigie Hill), and when it ended, I was just about 3 miles to my house, mostly downhill.

It took me about 10-12 minutes to get home and end my ride, safely. I had fun.

My total, modest, trip distance:

The trip distance

If the weather’s nice, I’m going on a ride tomorrow, too.