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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Carefree car-free circular

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Today being a beautiful clear frosty November day I decided that a bike run was called for. In view of my recent unsatisfactory run on the Dream Roadster, I thought a change of bike was in order, so I decanted several from their hiding-place under the stairs (it’s remarkable just how many bicycles you can fit into a confined space – there are another half-dozen in there besides these, and a few frames to boot)

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I decided to take the 1934 Royal Sunbeam, but first I wanted to change the saddle.

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Its current saddle is a hybrid, using an old B66 cover (with my favourite keyhole slots and oval Brooks side-stamp) perched on a set of triple-wrought springs I’ve had for ages. Unfortunately, the cover (an eBay purchase) had suffered a makeshift repair, leaving it with a loose and awkward rivet at the rear (nearest the camera); it has also nearly reached the limits of its tension and begun to sag, so for all its handsome appearance, it is not the most comfortable ride.

Removing the old saddle revealed an interesting feature of the Sunbeam,  a closed-end seatpost. When were these introduced, I wonder? Presumably there is some notion of protecting the inside of the seat-tube.

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I decided to fit the mystery saddle, which has now been identified with some degree of certainty as a Lepper – originally a German firm, as I now know, so that finding a similar saddle on a pre-War Goricke bicycle (also a German make) was not so remarkable. Many thanks to Rona Dijkhuis of the Slow Bicycle Movement and Maarten Bokslag, Chairman of De Oude Fiets (whom I contacted at Rona’s suggestion) for their help in my quest to identify it, detailed here.

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I opted for a rather forward position for the new saddle, purely as an experiment – my older Sunbeam, a very comfortable bike to ride, has a ‘gallows’ type seat post which brings the seat a little further forward and more over the pedals, so I thought I might replicate that. In view of the new saddle and the experimental seat position, I reckoned a leisurely run was called for, with nothing too strenuous, so I decided to head into town and pick up the lade-side path. It was only when I paused for my first picture that I realised I had left my camera sitting on the garden seat at home (I had been distracted by fettling a loose rear mudguard).

I had ridden some way before I remembered that I had a camera anyway, in my phone. I was glad of it when I came to the point where the ladeside path has to cross the railway, because I was able to record this simple but effective aid to cyclists, an iron rail running up the side of the steps:

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it mounts up one side

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and down the other

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and does the job it was intended for admirably (though you need a firm restraining hand or even a touch of brake on the descent). I missed this turning the last time I was out this way, so it was a pleasure to find a lengthy new stretch of the ladeside path. Though it is generally well-maintained with a tarmac surface, there is a pleasingly rougher section a bit further on:

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However, after following this part, I lost my way again – I had hoped to pick up the N77 national cycle route at Almondbank, though this involves an unsatisfactory crossing of a motorway bypass; but the route I followed petered out among houses and an industrial estate (if you consult the map, you can see where I went wrong, round about Edradour Terrace) and I ended up going back towards town and joining the N77 route via North Muirton. Heading along the banks of the Tay, my eye was caught by a large dark bird perched out in mid-stream. From its distinctive beak and greenish-black sheen, I took it to be a cormorant, possibly one I had seen before on the South Inch pond some time ago and recorded in this rather poor picture:

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Unfortunately, the camera phone is not very good for this kind of thing – the bird can be seen here in the left middle ground, looking a bit like the celebrated ‘surgeon’s picture’ of the Loch Ness Monster:

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while here it makes rather a nice impressionist blur:

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This stretch of the Tay looks well at this time of year:

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Some way further on I posed the bike with some street furniture with the bridge in the background

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then headed off along the broad Tay St pavement and on to the South Inch, crossing by the fine diagonal avenue:

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and so home, after a largely car-free  seven-and-a-half mile circuit of Perth (see route here). All in all, a much more satisfactory and uplifting trip than the previous one, detailed here. How much was that due to me, how much to the choice of bike and route, how much to the absence of wind? it is hard to say; anyway, it was much better.

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And the new saddle? Already a firm favourite.

‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind!’

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‘Walking for exercise? Pah!’

My father had a way saying ‘Pah!’ that was peculiarly dismissive. He liked a good walk, so it seemed an odd thing for him to say,  but I think it was his very love of walking that made him say it. To walk ‘for exercise’ carries an overtone of duress, as if the person would sooner not be walking at all, but feels obliged to;  it is as if all possibility of enjoyment has been removed beforehand – ‘I only do this for the exercise, you know.’ It was the grudging attitude that my father contemned.

A recent excursion on the Dream Roadster  prompted that memory of my father:  it was a ride I did not enjoy, I think in part because it was undertaken grudgingly, out of a sense of duty. In an endeavour to bring some order to my chaotic existence I had resolved to adopt some regular habits, chiefly in relation to my writing. Among them was the resolution that I would make at least one cycle excursion per week and write it up here. By Thursday I still had not done it, and since the day seemed fair enough for the time of year, I forced myself out.

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Cycling is often, for me, a deliberate antidote to the melancholic lethargy to which I am prone, so it is not unusual to have to chide myself into it: ‘you’ll feel better for having done it; you know you’ll enjoy it once you’re out there.’  It generally works, but not always (and I was interested to find Lovely Bicycle blogging on much the same point, here – could it be the time of year?). The day was bright enough, with flaring Autumn colours

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and I went by the usual secret paths

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I rode up over the hill and down into Strathearn, pausing to admire the Earn on either side of the eponymous bridge:  SAM_0008 SAM_0011

but for all the beauty of the scenery the calmness of soul I was seeking (perhaps too determinedly) refused to manifest itself. Instead, I found myself annoyed with my bicycle: the saddle was not high enough, the handlebars were too low; it just didn’t seem right. Then there was the road: it was altogether too straight

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in both directions

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yet it was not easy cycling: for all the seemingly straight and level ground, I found I could not deploy my lordly hundred-and-fifty inch top gear and toiled along in the middle ranges.  Only gradually did it dawn on me that I was battling an invisible adversary: there was a steady headwind.

I am not a much of a man for getting wet – though there is a certain pleasure in defying the elements if you are dressed for it – but given the choice between wind and rain I think I would choose the latter. Rain is honest; wind is insidious. You know it more by its effects, as in this case, where a level ride seemed like toiling up a steady gradient. It is dispiriting; you are conscious of making less headway than you should, yet the cause is not apparent – it is not the wind you feel, so much as a resistance.

And having set out in what was not the best frame of mind, this soured my mood still further. Why was I doing this? Where was I going?

The answer to the second question was ‘nowhere in particular’ : I had resolved to investigate the road in the direction of Longforgan and Forteviot, partly as a scouting mission for some future attempt on the Ochil glens, though I did not think I would attempt the first opportunity for that, over the Path of Condie, which is steep and twisting.

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(While I was taking the picture (badly – I know) the white pick-up truck came past, stopped, then reversed to where I was. The driver peered out and laughed, saying he had mistaken me for someone else – ‘I thought I knew the only cyclist who would stop to take the picture of a road sign’. I assured him that every cyclist has the urge to take pictures of roadsigns. I wonder if that is true? I remember when we were young my brother and I mocked our father’s penchant for taking pictures of roadsigns on our Irish holidays; yet now it seems perfectly sensible: few views are so distinctive in themselves as to be instantly recognisable; there is nothing quite so local and particular as a roadsign)

I toyed with the notion of making a circuit by turning North across the railway line and joining the Aberdalgie-Craigend road that featured in my earlier excursions here  and here, but eventually I resolved that enough was enough: I would simply turn back. When the road swung round at the junction with the Invermay road,

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I decided that the splendid view of the distant hills that opened up was reward enough for any outing.

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Heading back with the wind behind me I was able at last to use my mighty top gear, and went bowling along at a swift pace while pedalling in a leisurely manner. An ample pavement allows traffic-free cycling from Bridge of Earn to the Craigton interchange, with magnificent Autumn colours

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And the Tay from the top of the Edinburgh road is one of the pleasantest approaches to Perth

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though in this case I was not quick enough to catch what had caught my eye, the unusual sight of a boat in mid-river – by the look of it, probably a semi-inflatable of the kind the fire service use.

So home at last, after a trip that seems pleasanter in remembrance than it was in reality, though that perhaps is because it is overlaid with the memory of one I have done since – just before writing this, in fact – which was altogether more satisfactory and uplifting.

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And later in the evening there was a splendid moonrise, pictured at the top.

The route for this journey is here.

The Dark Secret of Pottiehill

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All right, I can see you’re not convinced: how can a place called Pottiehill have a dark secret? Yet it does; I have seen it. I have pictures (though some of them are a little odd – an unfamiliar camera).

But first, the curious case of Benjamin Button. (you see what I am doing here? Suspense! The craft of fiction)

Some time ago I pondered the need for an improved gear set-up on my Dream Roadster. In a flurry of energy I actually obtained the necessary 14T cog,
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– which is a good deal smaller than the 18T it replaces –
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I fitted it (with the usual pantomime of levering off spring clips with screwdrivers and wondering where they will fly to – but at least I had the good sense to wear eye protection)

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and set out, only to find, to my chagrin, that somewhere in the few hundred yards I had travelled from the house I had lost the changer button on one side of my Schlumpf Mountain Drive.

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I retraced my steps several times, back and forth, but to no avail; so there was nothing for it but to ring Ben Cooper at Kinetics – a splendid shop in Glasgow where I got the Mountain Drive originally, many years ago now – to see if he could supply a replacement. He could, but of course that meant a further delay.

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The button comes with its own delicate Allen key, used to secure the tiny grub screw in the centre against the end of the changing rod, where it acts (as far as I can see) rather like a lock-nut.

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Though I tightened it vigorously as advised, I am still nervous of losing it again – I wonder if a set of natty leather gaiters (perhaps in matching red) designed to fit the top end of the crank would bring peace of mind? Something to ponder, perhaps even make, in the long winter nights.

In the meantime I obtained another replacement, for my Lucas Mileometer (or Odometer, if you will) which disappeared in the course of my last major excursion – the same one that convinced me my gear set-up needed changing.
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But to our tale: it being a fine class of Autumn day for the first of November – All Saints’ Day – I resolved to make an excursion. Not only did I rig the mileometer, I also transferred my ferociusly powerful Smart BL201 headlights (powered by a rechargeable lead-acid battery) from the 1923 Royal Sunbeam. Here we see them blazing futilely against the light of day, ‘crying like a fire in the sun’ as Bob Dylan might say:

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Why the lights? Well, if you are off delving into dark secrets, it is wise to have some; I also took a torch, being unsure that I would be able to take my bicycle where I was going. You may notice that I have repositioned my trusty Lidl handlebar bag behind the bars to accommodate the lights, but this proved impractical, as my knees hit against it, so after a short distance on the road I transferred it to the saddlebag position.

I set off over the hill by the Edinburgh Road and down into Strathearn. There had been a heavy shower of rain while I was working on the bike, but the weather was clearing steadily, with sunlight on the distant hills.

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In Bridge of Earn I paused to take some pictures, first of a signpost, then of a curious agricultural implement on display near by.

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Then off I went along the Wicks o’ Baiglie Road, which once upon a time was the smart route to take if you were driving to Edinburgh and there was a lot of slow-moving traffic ahead:  you knew you would never pass it in the tortuous passage of Glenfarg, but if you belted over the Wicks o’ Baiglie you might well beat it to the other side. These days are gone now, since the M90 motorway now bypasses Glenfarg altogether. But how was my new gear set-up, I hear you cry, plaintively. Very good, I am happy to say, though I did lose my chain very early on ascending the Edinburgh Road; the Mountain Drive in low gear under stress seems susceptible to any variation in chainline. Happily there was no repetition, and I found that I was glad of even my lowest gear ascending the Wicks o’ Baiglie Road, seen here looking back – a long steady mercilessly straight climb:

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Earlier, on the flat, I had tried out my Lord-of-Creation one-hundred-and-fifty-inch top gear and found it every bit as delightful as I hoped:  you bowl along at tremendous speed, yet pedalling in a slow and stately manner.  However, I was a little wary of the quantities of wet leaves – a notoriously tricky surface.  At another point there was a constant crepitation as I cycled through beech-mast:  the sounds of Autumn.

The first sign of my destination was the remains of what had been a railway over-bridge looming ahead:

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On the other side of it I found a gate which was locked, so I lifted the bike over but was content to duck myself through a large gap in the wire fence, as befitted my years and diminished athleticism.

And there I was, on what was once the North British Railway line from Mawcarse Junction to Bridge of Earn via Glenfarg.  A distant tree caught the sun and blazed out bright gold, which I took to be a happy augury;  there was also a rainbow, and a splendid buzzard which flew up from right to left, which the Romans would doubtless have deemed auspicious.

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The line was closed in January 1970, having evaded the Beeching axe, probably because of the proposed route of the M90, mentioned above. It must have been a pleasant one to travel, fairly high up one side of a broad valley at this point, with fine views across to the confluence of Strathearn and Strathtay.

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I cycled on through pleasant Autumn woodland, past a great stack of felled timber

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And then up ahead, there it was, the dark secret of Pottiehill:

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This is the northernmost of two tunnels, each about 500 metres in length, which took the line from Glen Farg across into Strathearn.
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I like tunnels. My first serious experience of them was not on the railway (though I have been through many, I am sure, but in a train it is just a darkness) but on the more ancient transport route of the English canals, where there are some splendid and very lengthy tunnels. Transiting a tunnel in a narrowboat is an eerie experience: you are surrounded by dark, with only a narrow horsehoe of light some sixty feet ahead, thrown out by the small bow light, which is not so much for illumination as to let others know you are coming.  The first few times I did it I suffered the consistent hallucination that I was actually in a much vaster space, and not the narrow confines of a tunnel just wide enough to let two boats pass one another and just high enough to give them clear passage.  (My canal tunnel experiences found their way into my writing – in my third published book, City of Desolation, my young hero Jake finds himself on a Dantesque journey through Hell, which has evolved somewhat since Dante’s day, having acquired (among other things) an underground canal system – see here)

The Pottiehill tunnel is a fine feat of engineering and the interior for the most part is dry and entirely sound; the ground is a little uneven, but is not difficult to cycle, though I was glad of my powerful lights, as the tunnel has a considerable bend so that you cannot see the far end and the near one at the same time.

I had heard tales that these tunnels had been used to store old steam locomotives as a precaution against nuclear war (the reasoning being that a steam engine would be easier to fuel than a diesel in the disruption that followed) but I think that is just wishful thinking on the part of old steam men and romantic civil servants.  In this case it would not be terribly practical, since the line has been taken up, and as far as I know, the tunnels (unlike some others) have never actually been closed off.

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I emerged from the North tunnel onto a pleasant stretch of overgrown trackbed running between autumn woods, but it was very muddy underwheel and for some distance was in fact the bed of a stream;  but this is the kind of thing that imperial roadsters take in their stride.  I would not attempt it on a narrow-tyred mount.  After some distance I came on a conundrum: the main path rose steeply to the right, with a more overgrown fork descending to the left.
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I dismounted and tried the upward path, but had not gone far before reason told me it was much too steep for any railway line. So I turned back, left the bike, and made my way ahead on foot.

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The path was not cyclable: it was criss-crossed with fallen trees, and in places was very boggy.

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But I persevered and was rewarded with a sight of the North portal of the South tunnel, though it did not look exactly like this:

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I went through with the aid of my torch, and again found the surface dry and sound.

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There is the rusted shell of a car at the Southern end; I was expecting it, as it is mentioned on various websites; but I still wondered how it got there.

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A little way beyond the tunnel, a fine viaduct crosses Glenfarg, and down the side you can glimpse (a good way below) the river Farg and the road running beside it.

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I crossed the viaduct and went as far as the gate that bars it; the line runs on invitingly,

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while looking back you have a fine view of the South Portal across the viaduct

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but for me it was time to turn back. At the South Portal, I came on a strange fellow hanging around:

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The South tunnel is straight enough to see both ends from the middle, though you need to stand to one side, so it clearly has a bend in it. I went back through without using the torch, just for the fun of it. It is surprising, once your eyes get used to the dark, just how much you can see, and one thing you notice is how any surface that faces the tunnel mouth behind you catches the light. In honour of my brother Brendan, who instituted a tradition of tunnel-singing on the canals, I tested the acoustic with a verse of the Tantum Ergo. Fortunately there was no-one else to hear.

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Emerged on the other side and reunited with my bike (I had chained it to a tree – doubtless an unnecessary precaution, but peace of mind is a great thing)

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I made my way back through mud, stream and tunnel,

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pausing to snap a harrow sheltering in the North portal, like the remains of some giant insect or alien creature

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I think that my attempts to take pictures in the tunnel must have confused the automatic settings, because the shots I took after I emerged had an odd sort of old-fashioned-postcard quality to them,  like this  vista of Strathearn meeting Strathtay.

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I saw that there was an alternative route off to the left and hoping to avoid the gate I took it, only to find I had miscalculated somewhat – to my surprise, instead of rejoining the road a little further up the hill than I left it, I found myself swinging right and passing under a substantial bridge that I had not realised was there;  yet I must in fact have crossed it. The reason for it was clearly the stream that I was now cycling alongside, with the road I wanted  on the farther side. However, I was not too perturbed, reasoning that a well-made track must lead somewhere, and it was heading in the right general direction.  A little way on I came on some substantial but derelict farm buildings, which had the haunting quality all such buildings have, enhanced in the picture by the weird colour setting, which nonetheless captures the atmosphere surprisingly well

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Carrying on for some way I emerged at last onto a side road; a sign at the point where the track debouched informed me that it was a private road with no vehicular access, so had I come on it at that end, I probably would not have gone up.  As a matter of fact, the way I went is more direct and easier, apart from negotiating the gate, but this was a very pleasant return route.

The light was failing rapidly, not so much from the onset of night as the weather, but as I had neglected to rig a rear light with my headlights, not thinking I would be out so late, I made one more stop for pictures then headed home.
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All in all, a most satisfactory excursion and a sovereign specific for driving away melancholy. The route can be seen here.