In my opinion, these problems are related, but I think that neither implies the other.
I don’t want sympathy – I want to improve. I’ve been thinking about my failings as a writer, and I reckon they have two primary causes: a lack of practise, and a lack of confidence. It’s clear how to address the former, but I feel that tackling confidence will be much harder.
I worry about the simple things, like choosing the right word, the right word order, the right structure. I worry about sounding pathetic. I worry about the number of times I use the words “I”, “me”, “my”, and “mine”, and whether it presents me as narcissistic. I worry that I’m boring. I worry about repeating clichés. I worry about whether I actually believe what I’m saying. I worry about everything.
To tell the truth, I’ve been working on this post for nearly three hours, despite it being only a few hundred words long. I’ve written many times this number, but I’ve deleted most in disgust. I need to accept that I’m going to write shit, and that for a long time – perhaps always – I’m going to be a better critic than creator.
I don’t write because I’m no good at writing. But I want to write. I’ve been quiet for too long.
Both my character and my circumstances have changed massively since I wrote regularly, and I think there is plenty more change to come. I’m sure that both my present and future selves would find it helpful if I could capture some of that change in writing.
What’s more, I’m a PhD student who will soon be writing a dissertation. I need all the help I can get.
Since my last post, I’ve been lucky enough to twice see the northern lights. Both times have been in 2016: once in the first hour of the year, and then again in early March.
The northern lights at New Year were faint, yet still impressive. As I do every year, I spent Christmas with my family, but afterwards I returned north to celebrate my first New Year in St Andrews. On New Year’s Eve I made gnocchi (thanks for teaching me, Betta!) then headed to East Sands for a bonfire. My fuel was damp, but after an hour of producing thick smoke, the wood had dried, and it burned bright and warmly for the rest of the evening. The night sky was clear, and the air crisp.
It was too dark to read my watch, and my phone had died at around 10, yet the stroke of midnight was nevertheless unmissable. In an instant, the Angus coastline erupted with firework displays, 20 or 25 of them, sparkling along my northern horizon to the sound of rockets and mortars exploding behind me in St Andrews. It was truly a delightful ten minutes for me: although entirely predictable with a moment’s thought, it was not something which I expected, and I was thrilled.
As the fireworks died down, and my bonfire began to wane, my eyes wandered to the stars, and I spotted the unmistakable glow of the Aurora. Green, faint, indistinct, and slowly moving – but still magical. With no way of capturing a photo, I simply watched the show by my fire, as many have done before me.
I didn’t see the Aurora again – knowingly, at least – until 6th March. At around 8pm on that Sunday evening, my housemate Dan was walking along the Fife coastal path into town. He texted me: were the northern lights out? Although I had seen no aurora warning email, and I could see nothing posted to social media, I quickly wrapped up warm and headed to a bench on the coastal path, just outside my house. I quickly confirmed: yes, they were out.
Again they were faint, but nevertheless I quickly spread the word: first to my friend Tanvi, who I knew was nearby, and then to others, including via my Facebook status. Soon I was joined on the bench by a few of my friends. They were pleased to be able to see the northern lights, but it didn’t seem like something to stick around for. Yet within minutes, the display had massively intensified, and we were amazed. No one was heading off. What had before been only a vague green blob was now a dynamic and bright and detailed display encompassing the entire northern sky. Just as in those photos and time-lapse videos which I’ve seen and always slightly doubted, there were bands of light, moving visibly to the eye, with distinct sharp edges and zones of different intensity. There were different colours, red and greens, along with occasional streaks of light shooting towards to zenith, and blobs of intensity descending toward the horizon. We watched intently – freezing, but awestruck.
The intensity died down after 10 or 15 minutes and returned to its original state, only to recur an hour later when I was back inside cooking some salmon (I could no longer ignore my hunger!) but which I managed to see from my bedroom window.1
What was especially remarkable, to my mind, was the number of people who came out to see the show. When I first went outside I was the only one around, yet within 15 minutes word had spread widely, and the beach and coastal were busy with people. I was undoubtedly one of only many to share the news online, but it was a real demonstration of the power of our inter-connectedness. Within minutes, word had been received by hundreds of people. Ten years ago, the message would have reached far fewer, and reached them far slower.
Computing technology surely has some negative societal effects, but this is not one of them.
At this point I think I unintentionally let a starling into my house, but that’s a story for another 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’ve really wanted to see them myself.
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.
My first reaction, honestly, 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:
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.
But 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 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.
To start the year 2014, I’m going to tell you about a bike ride from 2nd September 2012.
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.
A beautiful day. I have some experience with riding north from Perth. I have cycled to the end of the North Inch many times:
And I’ve often gone further along the River Almond – occasionally as far as Pitcairngreen (funny name):
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Here’s a video which includes clips I shot at various places on the ride up:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
The view from my perch:
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:
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.
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.
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 ofthe 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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!
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%: 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:
Next time, I’ll take that hill more slowly.
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.
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 made 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:
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.
I like level crossings. At a level crossing, you might see a train. I crossed the line slowly and dismounted on the other side.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
And eventually I had to climb out of the Carse of Gowrie, and make the gruelling journey back up over Kinnoull Hill:
And when I was back to ‘sea’ level, I had done 40 miles:
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:
I had a really fun bike ride. I hope you enjoyed reading all about it.