Me & My Life

I’m clumsy

Have I ever mentioned that I’m clumsy?

My clumsiness is often harmless, and entertaining to those around me. I’m most commonly clumsy with my food and drink. When I was young, I was notorious for getting mashed potato into my hair at meal times. I’ve left that trait behind, thankfully, although that was possibly helped by becoming bald. To this day, I frequently end meals with food around my mouth, stains on my top, and spills around the table. I don’t know why I ever decide to wear lightly coloured clothing. I can’t even reliably transfer water from a bottle or a glass to my mouth.

I enjoy that my clumsiness with food and drink is entertaining to others. I like making people laugh, even when it is at my expense. And how can you not laugh when someone keeps making the same inconsequential mistakes, over and over and over again?

The problem for me is that my clumsiness is not limited to small and funny mishaps. I smash another wine glass roughly once per month. I drop my phone, and iPad, and Kindle with an embarrassing frequency, although luckily they all still work. I’ve ripped out my laptop’s SATA cable while upgrading the storage, and another time I spilled a pint of apple juice over it. Unsurprisingly, it no longer works. Since then, I’ve spilt many more drinks in close proximity to laptops and other electronics, and only narrowly avoided disaster. My clumsiness can be stressful, and expensive.

Other times, my clumsiness can cause me pain, and make me feel down. As I write this sentence, my left index finger hurts with each key press: I think I gave it an invisible glass splinter while dealing with another episode of clumsiness yesterday.

I was invited to a dinner party that was held yesterday evening, so I decided to go into town beforehand, and from there, at the appropriate time, I would head straight to the dinner party. As a good guest, I would bring a bottle of wine. I chose one and put it in a fabric bag, and then placed the bag at the bottom of my otherwise-empty rucksack. The bottom of my rucksack contains a rain cover, which provides extra padding.

Later on, when I was several miles from home, I sat on a metal bench, waiting for a bus, with my rucksack on the bench beside me. And then the rucksack slipped, and fell 60cm to the ground, landing upright. I wasn’t alarmed, but just to be safe, I felt through the rucksack to test the structural integrity of the wine bottle. Unfortunately, it was compromised. I removed the fabric bag which was now full of shards of glass and was gushing red wine. This was really disappointing. I had brought that wine back with me after a recent trip to France. I had only had my rucksack for two weeks. And the fabric bag was one of my favourites: I bought it during my first week in St Andrews, and it depicts the skyline of the town. I use it to carry food when I travel, but it is now stained a deep purple, and likely contains a multitude of small glass fragments.

At this point, I came to my senses, and placed the fabric bag on the ground, to stop any more wine from damaging my rucksack… and its contents. My iPad. An important letter. And various small items. Thankfully, the contents were recoverable, despite being a bit wet. I poured the broken glass from my fabric bag into a nearby bin, emptied as much wine from my rucksack as possible, and caught the next tram home. There I would be able to clean up properly, wash my rucksack and bag, and then fetch another bottle of wine. But it was so embarrassing sitting on the tram, stinking so strongly and obviously of wine, and with my rucksack producing a small puddle at my feet. And it was so time consuming to travel all the way home, clean my belongings (and sustaining glass splinters, I believe), and then travel back into town, having abandoned my previous errands.

In the end, the dinner party was nice. But, in one final piece of misfortunate for the day, I miscalculated my timings, and left with not quite enough time to walk to the 01:05 tram. Since it was the last tram for an hour, I decided to run… and while crossing a road, I landed awkwardly and twisted my ankle quite horrifically. I’m pleased to say that I did catch the tram with about 30 seconds to spare. But today, my ankle is in agony, and I wished that I had left a little earlier, or taken a little more care, or even missed the tram and waited for another hour.

My clumsiness, my carelessness, and my lack of physical coordination strike again.

And today, it’s getting me down. Will I always have to put up with this? I don’t want to be frequently causing myself injury, and pain, and inconvenience, and embarrassment, and expense, wasting my time and energy. Spilling food on myself is funny. But the rest of it? It really isn’t. I’m sick of it.

Me & My Life, Photography, Science

Northern lights 2016

Northern lights, after they died down.

The red and green northern lights at East Sands in St Andrews, 6th March 2016.

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.

Northern lights, full force.

Aurora in full force at East Sands in St Andrews, 6th March 2016. Looks like a snake/rabbit.

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. ((At this point I think I unintentionally let a starling into my house, but that’s a story for another time.))

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.

Northern lights from my window.

The northern lights from my window in St Andrews, 6th March 2016. (Unfocused, sorry)

Me & My Life, Photography, Science

Northern Lights 2014

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.

Aurora warning from Ed

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:

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.

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.

It was beautiful.

Northern Lights 2

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



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:

Link to video.

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:


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.

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.

Watch a video I took: 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:


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:

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.


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:

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.


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 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:

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.


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.


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

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. 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:

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.

InterRail, Travelling

13th May: Stormy Travel

It’s Thursday 13th May 2010. I’m in Marseille, hanging out by a huge ‘basilica’ called Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Me and Marseille

Notre-Dame de la Coeur

Yesterday I got to Marseille, but it wasn’t easy. It was a bit of a shambles actually – I hope all travelling days aren’t going to be this bad.

I got up early, breakfasted and left for the station. I was really feeling the weight of my bags, so I waited 20 minutes for a bus which was full to the brim. Being you’re laden down is the perfect reason for catching a bus, but it makes you feel uncomfortable getting on a bus with 2 large bags, as a foreigner, squeezing in amongst everyone else and getting in their way. You just have to avoid eye contact, I guess.

La Bastille, Grenoble

I couldn’t wait to get off the bus, which I did at a stop in town and went to hang out on the Place de Victor Hugo – the French really like that guy, don’t they? I used some open Wi-Fi for a bit – mostly to check my emails – and then I went in search of postcards to send home. But for some reason, despite being a really nice place that would look great on a postcard, I couldn’t find any. It was only then that I noticed the time, and I rushed to the railway station with a couple of minutes to spare before my train left. Good job I didn’t find any postcards.

The train to Valence Ville was pleasant. The weather cloudy most of the way and unfortunately I wasn’t next to a window. I was sitting at a table, but there was a boy in the window seat opposite me who crutches, and I wanted to respect his leg room. That said, there was no one next to me so I still had a clear view out of the window.

View from train to Valence

View from train to Valence

What did annoy me, though, was that my ticket was not looked at once on the journey to Valence. An InterRail ticket like mine is provided with 8 little boxes, and you have to fill in the dates that you’re going to be travelling. You’re supposed to validate it before you get on the train, else face a fine. My ticket is valid for travel on 8 separate days, and as required I diligently wrote “12/5” in my next clear box. I’ve used two of them now. But on this journey no one came to check that I had a valid ticket, and I feel like they should have done. Otherwise – it feels like I’ve just ‘wasted’ one day’s travel, if you see what I mean. Yes, I know I was being honest. But fuck that. It makes me feel like an idiot.

I arrived at Valence, left the station and then followed signs to the tourist office – but when I got there it seemed totally commercialised. I want to go to a tourist to find stuff out, not to be sold a load of shit. So I just went to the nearby park to hang out. The air temperature was fairly cool, but the Sun felt hot when it shone. Valence was a nice town, and the park was nice too but I really needed a piss – but the toilets were out of order! Typical. I ate some dried apricots and some brownies whilst I held in my piss and listened to the audiobook version of Starship Troopers. I texted Mum.

Valence Park

Park in Valence

Park in Valence

Park in Valence

Park in Valence

A lizard!

I eventually found some toilets in the park and I relieved myself – much to my relief. Afterwards I found a different part of the park and went and laid down on the grass. There were some guys out cutting the grass, but I chose a patch which was uncut so that I could make a daisy chain. Which I did.

Daisy chain

I had looked up timetables earlier, and knew that there was a train from Valence Ville to Marseille at 12h30. That wouldn’t have given me very long at all in Valence, so I had decided to wait until the train at about 2h30. It turns out: that was a bad idea. Well, it was a good idea, but a decision that unfortunately led to a lot of stress, and through no fault of my own.

I got to the station with plenty of time to spare for the half past two train. Except it didn’t show up… but instead there was a different (unscheduled) train which the boards said was going to Mirimas only, will a little extra bit of information saying something like “correspondance Marseille en car”. That was confusing. It now know that is means “connection to Marseille by coach”, but why would I want to go to Marseille by bus? I have a train ticket, which I spent a lot of money on, and I’ve already validated it for today so I’m going to use it, but hook or by crook.

Why was the regularly scheduled train nowhere to be seen, and why instead was there a train only going to Mirimas which would require a bus to get to Marseille? I went to the information booth at the station and he told me that if I wanted to go to Marseille today, I needed to get to the TGV station. The TGVs use different lines from the slower, normal trains. He said there weren’t any trains to Marseille. That’s not what the timetable said, but okay. Maybe something had changed. I didn’t get round to asking him what the “correspondance Marseille en car” meant, as he didn’t speak English and by this point my French was really being stretched thin. Next I went to the booking office, and asked to reserve a seat on a TGV from Valence TGV to Marseille. Nope! They’re all full! Okay then, fine. Which regional (slower, non-TGV trains, “TER“) could I get? There was one getting in at 7 and one at 11! Much later than I had hoped to arrive at Marseille, but that’ll have to do. I received a printout of these times, and walked back to the park. I bought some postcards on the way and wrote them when I was sitting in the park – one to Grandma, and one to Mike – and then I posted them.

Soon it was time for the first scheduled TER, and a storm was rolling in as I headed for the station. Real big clouds.

Storm clouds growing

The rain held until I reached the station. But the train wasn’t going to Marseille. By this point I wasn’t going to be surprised by anything, but I’d still get annoyed – and worried, because I had nowhere to stay in Valence. I needed to get to Marseille by the end of the day. Instead, the train was only going as far as Avignon! I went to the booking office again, and asked a man why the train scheduled to go to Marseille was terminating at Avignon. He had no idea and was really confused, but eventually found me some connections from Avignon to Marseille. (I also tried to reserve my Bordeaux – La Rochelle leg for later in the month, but it turns out that it wasn’t possible – reservations are not necessary on that route).

At that very point, the lights inside the station went off for a second – the storm had arrived! Lightning! I went to the platform to wait for Avignon train (which the monitors now said was 15 minutes late). A bit later, after hearing the rain pounding the roof and watching the flashes of lightning, there was an announcement on the public address system. I knew it was about Marseille, but what with the business of the station and the raging storm, I didn’t catch most of the message. No one could help me – and train announcements are hard enough to hear, even in English and on a clear day!

Photo of Valence Ville station by Eric lecaroubier:

Gare SNCF Valence Ville by Eric lecaroubier

I somehow found an official SNCF woman and she told me the news: we had to go to Valence TGV then get the TGV to Marseille. I asked if I needed a reservation – usually travelling on a TGV without a reservation gets you a penalty, and I had already found out that there was no reservations available. No, she said. Special circumstances. Screw the reservations (she didn’t say that). She pointed me across the platforms to the right train. I headed over and looked for another member of staff to tell me the deal before boarding the train – you can never be too skeptical, especially in a foreign country like France. You definitely don’t want to end up on the wrong train. That’s worse than not being on any train. I found a man and asked him what was going on. Same story – giving the reason that the Avignon train was too late to make its connection to Marseille.

I got on the train with maybe 30 seconds to spare, and saw 3 French guys who I’d seen earlier in the booking office. They asked what I’d managed to find out, and I told them that the booking office hadn’t been very helpful. We still didn’t know the root problem, but being French, I guess they had understood the announcement. It was fortunate that I made these friends, and that they spoke English, as several times over the next couple of hours I needed to ask for their help with language and knowing what to do.

The rain was ridiculous. At Valence TGV it was absolutely pouring down… and the station was really busy. The noticeboards said that the TGV to was 10 minutes late, but having waited this long already to get back to Marseille, I didn’t care. I like hanging around train station, anyway. As the arrival time drew nearer, we were permitted to walk down to the platforms. At Valence TGV, the station concourse is raised, and there are lifts and escalators down to the platforms below. Have a look at some of these photos that I found online: the whole station, a double train boarding, and again.

Photo of Valence TGV station by franxk:

Photo by franxk

Photo of train arriving at Valence TGV station by reallyboring:

Photo by reallyboring

In about 30 minutes of waiting on the platform, several TGVs passed through the station on the central lines at huge speeds. (When in the station, the passing trains are separated from the platform lines by a fence, probably to reduce noise and terror, so you can only ever see those them when they were just entering or leaving the station, not right up close). Honestly, if you’ve been scared or surprised by a fast train passing you by, close up, you’d be absolutely terrified in France. The trains are loud, and fucking fast. Maximum speeds are almost 200mph, compared to a very maximum of 125mph on normal British lines. And what’s even more impressive is that the trains had very short headways. After one train passed, another one might pass in the same direction in what seem likes barely a minute.

The French guys that I’d met starting smoking something which smelled like weed. It was unusual to me, as people aren’t allowed to smoke on British platforms any longer. Our train arrived as predicted (wow), and it was comprised of two TGV Sud-Est trains. That meant that there were 16 (=2*8) coachess. The French sure like their train travel. And yet… the train was packed to fuck! There were loads of SNCF staff onboard, but thankfully they seemed to know the situation with all of us non-reserved people heading to Marseille. I didn’t have any hassle from them, at least, and so I went a whole day without showing my ticket. What a waste.

A town from the TGV line

A river bed

Avignon TGV Station

I had to stand with my bags until Avignon, at which point we had escaped the storm and it was sunny. There were beautiful views, with the railway line taking on impressively steep gradients, and the sky was filled huge clouds. Unfortunately, with the stress of everything, I didn’t take any photos. I briefly got a seat at Avignon when someone left the train, but I was quickly turfed out as someone go on to claim their reserved seat. Never mind. I feel sorry for all of the long-booked passengers who had their journey spoiled by a flood of scumbags joining the train without a reservation, cramping the whole train and taking your seat. It’s happened to me before. Thankfully, I didn’t have to stand for long. Marseille was a surprisingly short trip away from Avignon, and after going through lots of tunnels, I was delighted to arrive in Marseille.

My TGVs at Marseille

Marseille Saint-Charles Station

Marseille is weird. That’s how I feel about it at the moment.

Vertigo Centre (which is the hostel I’m staying at whilst I’m in Marseille) was very close to the station – handy – and I found it easily. It’s a nice place, but I can’t be bothered writing much about it. It’s quaint – obviously adapted from several old houses to become this hostel. My bedroom is in a sort of outhouse, which sleeps 6 or 8 and has its own bathroom. Whilst sorting through my stuff in my room, I met an Aussie called Jimmy. We chatted for a bit and he gave me a book that he’s finished with, called This Bleeding City by Alex Preston. I only just now realise that maybe he was expecting me to give him one of my finished books in return. Well, I didn’t. I had a shower (not bad) and went to checked out the hostel and use the Wi-Fi – which didn’t work.

Hostel bunk beds

Once I was satisfied with the place, I just my stuff on my bed (I had to be trusting, there was no place else for it) and I went for a little walk around Marseille. I am sick and tired of beggers. Fuck. Off. Most of the people around the hostel were not white French, instead there were a lot of people dressed in Muslim garb and a lot of African-looking people. I bought a 6-pack of Kronenbourgh 1664 and some water from a local shop.

Marseille is a total melting-pot of cultures, but I was disappointed by what was available locally – I couldn’t find authentic food, no food stalls, no quaint or cool restaurants serving local food. Instead it was all just the typical greasy spoon type place, serving kebabs and burgers. There were also about a million “Internet + Taxiphone” shops. The French sure must like surfing the web and riding in taxis.

Marseille Saint-Charles Station

Sunset sky

Notre-Dame de la Coeur

Twilight sky

I headed back to the hostel for the night, where I used the internet, drank some beer whilst reading some articles in Instapaper, and then I went to bed.

Hostel beds

Today, which is Thursday, I woke up at 7:30am. From some reason I’d been dreaming of a girl I used to know at primary school. Why? Weird. At one point I had dreamt that I was going to going to be going to Inverness Uni (really) to study biology. Laughable. I also dreamt that my St Andrews accommodation application (for standard self-catered housing) was granted. LOL.

Did I note that there were loads of beautiful girls on the TGV yesterday? Well, there were a lot.

I spent quite a while playing with my iPod in bed – the internet is now working on it.

Notre-Dame de la Coeur

I got up, checked how much tickets to Nîmes would cost (€19, about what I was expecting) and then I headed to Notre-Dame de la Garde, via Vieux Port (the old port). Finally it was really sunny, but the air was still cold – maybe 16ºC. After listening to an episode of PadPundit with Scott Bourne, I carried on listening to Starship Troopers.

I was amazed by fish market at the old port – there were so many types: big and small, red, pink and white, lobsters and even octopus.

Lobster and fish

The old port


I passed a Lidl store but it wasn’t open – I’m not sure why not, there’s probably some sort of public holiday going on. Instead I went to a different place and stocked up on groceries. I bought some Babybell, plums, chorizo, orange juice, mackerel fillets, yoghurts, and possibly something else. It came to under €10.

I ate some of it in a park where I texted Mum (I texted Dad when I was on the TGV yesterday, moaning of my troubles) and then I carried on to Notre-Dame de la Garde, which has amazing views over the whole city and the sea.

Big cruise ship

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur


I bought and wrote some postcards (to Poppy, Dad, and Mum), then I got to work writing this entry which has taken a while. I’m slightly worried that my arms have become quite sunburnt, despite the copious amounts of sum cream that I’m wearing.

I’m going to continue walking around the city now, I’ll maybe head to the coast before walking back to the hostel in evening. Maybe I’ll eat out tonight – I really want to try authentic local bouillabaisse. And I need to send these postcards, too. I’m hungry.

Bye for now.

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

Asides, Blogging, Me & My Life

My Writing Place

All warm, in bed:

Me & My Life, Personal, Photography

The Last Week of May

On 25th May last year, I woke, ate, dressed, and walked to West Sands to watch the sunrise. At 3:30am. It was during one of the strangest weeks I’ve ever had.

My final exam of first year (Great Ideas 2) was on Monday, the 23rd. It didn’t go very well, but I was so relieved to be finished. That was in the afternoon, and I spent the evening in the common room with Mike, watching films and drinking gin and tonic. I got drunk.

I don’t remember what I did on Tuesday, but by the evening I realised that I wasn’t interested in whatever events were on that night. I got the seed of an idea for an early Wednesday start, and fell asleep at around 10 with my alarm set for 3:30am. I’ve never set my alarm that early before, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.

The view as I left my house in Albany Park at 3:50am:

Sunrise for Wednesday was at 4:40am. By waking up so early, I gave myself plenty of time to walk and see the best of the sunrise. Some of the most vivid colours and lights in a sunrise occur a while before the Sun actually breaks the horizon, which is roughly the quoted sunrise time ((Precisely, sunrise is given as the time when the centre of the Sun moves above the horizon. The fact that the Sun is not a point source of light causes many odd phenomena in our daily lives.)). By midsummer, the sun was rising as early as 04:21am.

It’s really weird walking around that early – before 4am – and being able to see properly, in full colour. I often get to walk around a deserted place at night when it’s dark, but when it’s light – even just twilight – the quietness feels different. Really serene. I love feeling serene.

Why did I want to go to West Sands to watch the sunrise? Because it is one of my favourite places during the world – especially at low tide. And the tide was low. Then, it’s an amazing expanse of almost-level sand by the (usually) gentle sea. Perfect to compliment and reflect the colours of the rising Sun.

And, it’s quiet out there. I get a wonderful feeling of isolation, but not the kind of isolation that makes you feel lonely. It’s the kind of isolation which makes you ultra-thoughtful, and which connects you to the vastness of nature and the Cosmos. Yeah I just said that. I like that feeling too.

I want to talk a little bit about the music I was listening to that morning. Yes, I was listening to ambient. Yes, it was Brian Eno. Yes, it was on repeat. I know, but I love it: and it was this week which cast that love in stone.

Are you familiar with Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks album? I am. Throughout the morning I was listening to it, and it was the perfect accompaniment. 3 of my favourite tracks from it are An Ending (Ascent), Drift and Weightless.

Here are YouTube links to the tracks: An Ending, Drift, Weightless. Play one (or all) of them whilst you read the rest of this post, if you want; you’ll probably recognise them from films or TV, as they have been reused extensively.

With my headphones on, music playing, I stood part-way down West Sands for half and hour, relaxed, and enjoyed the show (don’t worry there’s more story after the photos):

Once I’d had enough and got too cold standing around, I headed back to East Sands where I put the rest of my crazy plan into action. In my bag I had packed a towel, and underneath my clothes I was wearing swimshorts. I got in position, and looked around to see if I was alone. It was 5am, but surprisingly there were other people up and about. On the bench by the coastguard station 3 people were sitting, looking out to sea. Being sober and self conscious, I decided that I would not skinny dip. I stripped down to my shorts, flopped into the water, and swam for about 20 seconds until all feeling had left my extremities. It was the coldest thing I have ever done, and as quickly as I could I threw a towel round me and headed the 2 minute walk back to my house.

On my way back to warmth and safety, I bumped into the people who had been on the bench: they were my friends Nigel, Bella, and a mystery guy who seemed very much into Bella. Bastards, ruining my chance at a skinny dip! I’ll try again sometime, probably with alcohol for courage.

I showered to get rid of the salt and sand and to warm me up, and knowing me I probably ate again. But despite my best efforts, and even though it was still very early in the morning and I was tired, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. This fucked me up badly for the rest of the week.

I can’t remember how I spent the rest of Wednesday. Despite there being a beautiful sunrise, the Sun quickly headed into cloud where it remained all day. I probably spent it in my room, reading and packing up my belongings for the summer.

On Thursday, after lunch, I remembered that the BBC would be in St Andrews filming an episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. Contrary to the belief of many, it’s not always an awful programme. With the vague hope of seeing something interesting, and the more realistic hope of appearing on television, my future housemate (Adam) and I set off to the main University quad, where the show was being filmed.

We arrived at about 4:30pm, and Fiona Bruce was just leaving. She had filmed all of her spots, and most of the visitors had already had their artifacts valued. But the day wasn’t over: after looking at everything, the experts then decide which pieces to film properly, to make it into the final show.

Adam and I stuck around for the filming of the first few of these, hoping to see something interesting and to appear on TV. But as the evening progressed and the weather became duller and colder, most of the visitors left, leaving a very small audience to provide a convincing background. And so, we were roped by the producers into staying until the very end, watching about 8 pieces being filmed until 6 or 7pm.

Let me just say that basically everything you see on Antiques Roadshow is staged – the original valuations most likely weren’t filmed, and even if they were, they are run through several times more before a good enough take has been recorded. TELEVISION IS LIES. Remember that.

The episode at St Andrews finally aired at the end of February, 9 months later. There is another part to it (which will most likely feature me, too) and it will air during the next series. That’ll probably be next year. Here of some of the screenshots.

In this one you can see me at the back, grinning:

A little smirk on my face this time:

And again, a smile:

Afterwards, we headed straight back to Albany Park. The Albany end of year party was being held that evening in the Vic. The theme was the 80s. Lacking sleep and having just spent ages standing in the cold for television, I was not up for it. At all. However, I visited the common room where the Warden and her assistants had put on a ‘drinks and nibbles’ event, and after 30 minutes of wine, chatting with Martyna, I left with the rest of the wine bottle I’d been drinking (and which I promptly finished) and I was definitely in a partying mood.

In my stupidest mistake ever, I decided that there was no time for food. To this day, that was the only occasion on which lunch was ever my final food of the day. Yet even forgoing food, I still managed to arrive at the party late, missing much of the fun. But at least I was drunk, and ready to party.

And it was a really fun party… until about 10pm. Now, looking back, I think about all the ways that could have happened differently, all of the choices that I might have made differently, to stop me from going to that party. But I went, and I met – for the first proper time, at least – a girl called Emily.

We started talking, and from then on neither of us cared about the party. We spent the next couple of hours chatting, drunkenly getting to know each other right there in the middle of the party.

Now she’s my girlfriend, and we’ve been together for nearly 9 months. Once again, I’ve had a year which was completely unlike any of my previous years. I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

May has long been my favourite month. I think it’s going to stay that way.

UPDATE: After 2 years together, Emily and I split up towards the end of 2013. We had a great time together.