The Lollipop Lady, distracted

It’s a dark and cold morning, one month until the Winter Solstice. From here it only gets darker.

Central Belt Shuffler walks down the steps, part stone, part waterfall, only looking up to register the continuing gloom in the vista towards Park Circus.

As I lower my eyes again, I capture a high-visibility flash: the lollipop lady at the end of the street. She sees me coming and steps into the street, her smile broad as she turns to meet me. Anticipating her good spirits, mine lift too, and I grin and reply to her good morning.

Her attention switches suddenly, and two-thirds of the way across I turn to see what has distracted her. She returns to her pavement, and a small brown and white spaniel lifts her front paws to greet the lollipop lady, who reaches into her pocket for a treat.

‘Good morning, pet,’ she cries. The spaniel jumps up, wagging her tail in joy.

I turn my head back down towards my path, but my spirits are lighter. As I write this story up, tapping on my phone in the subway carriage, the luminescence of the lollipop lady’s coat, the dog’s happiness as she rises to greet her, and the brief encounter in the late Autumn morning take me elsewhere, until the lights of Buchanan Street station kick me out into the next part of my journey.

Digger, Sergei, Fly, and Big Al

This was a weekend of epic car journeys, taking Central Belt Shuffler far, far beyond the habitual terrain. The journeys – and the regular stops for photo opportunities, snacks, leg stretching, and parking practice – travelled through what must be some of the most awesome scenery in the world – the road north-west of Glasgow by Loch Lomond, through Rannoch Moor and Glencoe, beyond Fort William to the Great Glen and Loch Ness before heading over the Black Isle beyond Inverness, and onwards to Ullapool. (The return journey went via the A9 and a night-time trip to Stirling cemetery.)

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Photo credit: Beth Driscoll

The car journeys were punctuated by a book festival, several fish suppers and ice creams, and an enormous amount of very interesting conversation. They were also bookended by dogs on public transport.

Here’s Digger (otherwise known as Trip Hazard), who travels on his owner’s boat shipping tourists over to the Summer Isles. He skitters surefootedly around the deck as the boat travels over the waves, staring out to the rocks and the seals, keeping an eye out for puffins. He first foots Tanera Mor, before we tourists head off for warming coffee and brownies, to write a quick postcard using the private island postal service, and then to have a quick walk above the scattered houses before we head back to the mainland. (The island is still for sale, incidentally… Crowd-funder, anyone?)photo

Then, back in the big city, waving sadly goodbye in Glasgow Central to road trip companion Dr D, three dogs and their rucksacked owner board the train south. Rescue dogs all, they are called Sergei, Fly, and Big Al. Big Al is very big indeed.

The journeys continue. And so do the stories…

Taxis here, taxis there

IMG_0713It’s time to head home from Mexico. Central Belt Shuffler’s taxi arrives promptly, and the driver helps my heavy rucksack into the boot. Celeste the dog, my new best friend, lies down by the passenger door to say goodbye.

On the route to the airport, we discuss (in broken Spanish) girls who share their names with car brands, Scottish independence (rather confused by the driver asking how far Scotland is from England. One centimetre? Several hundred kilometres?), retirement ages and pensions, benefits and medical provision, private and free beaches on the Oaxaca coast line. He asks me whether I like Mexican music, what music I listen to at home.

The car is slowed by numerous topes (sleeping policemen) and a truck belching fumes.

As we turn a bend, an iguana sits in the road in front of us. It lopes off to the scrub on the side before we reach it.

Several hours, thousands of kilometres, and a huge drop in temperature later, the taxi line attendant lifts my bag into the car. ‘New car?’ he asks the driver. ‘Aye. First fare,’ the driver replies.

He drives very slowly over the speed bumps. ‘I need to go slowly over these. It’s catching on the bottom.’ The car scrapes.

‘Did I hear that right? I’m your first fare in this cab? There were speed bumps everywhere in Mexico,’ I contribute.

‘Aye. You don’t want to know what happened to the last one.’

‘You can’t say that. Now I do!’

‘Well, as you were in Mexico you probably won’t have seen this on the news. My last one caught on fire, right outside the airport. On 14 February.’

‘That’s quite a Valentine’s Day gift.’ We talk about the fire, insurance, the new cab, working into your 70s as a taxi driver, long-haul flights and holiday destinations. The motorway is running slowly, coming to a halt. We leave the motorway, and drive through parts of Renfrew. The sky is grey, the houses, hugging the side of the motorway, look poor. The car keeps scraping on high speed bumps. He needs to get the casing fixed.

He thinks he’s made the wrong decision to leave the motorway. We’re slowed by a cyclist, and overtake giving him wide space. The traffic comes to a halt. The cyclist catches up with us.

As we wait at the junction to go onto the Byres Road, he tells me that he was record-shopping there recently. He’s bought a new turntable, and is building up his collection again after selling his old vinyl, and player, four years ago. His collection would have doubled now in price. Original Neil Young vinyl is particularly pricey.

We arrive home, and he lifts my bag out. I go inside, pleased to be home, but wishing my cat (who is still with her Lake District minders) were there to greet me.

 

Causeways

It didn’t seem like a day for setting out on foot, but Central Belt Shuffler’s journey today is a triangular one, out to the office and on to Edinburgh before setting back home again. Despite my umbrella, I’m already soaked by the morning rain as I reach the subway station; glad, at least, that I’m not on my bike. I see someone cycling along the path on the other side of the river, and think they must be much more determined than me. The rain has the quality of that in a Hollywood movie, but none of the joyous grace of Gene Kelly tap dancing along the pavement edge, flirting with the lamp posts.

At the other end, the wait at the bus stop is lengthy, the number of people growing by the minute. Some huddle inside Greggs, but the staff inside make them leave, explaining that it’s a fire exit. There’d be plenty enough rain to put any fire out. Eventually several buses arrive at once, and the scrum to get on fills each with the smell of wet coats, condensation, and students checking the time on their phones, already 20 minutes delayed for lectures.

The delay gets worse as we head to campus. Roadworks mean the traffic crawls along Causewayhead Road at slower than walking pace. We are, at least, out of the rain.

I arrive late. Everyone who comes in is dripping, and breathless from the conditions. Umbrellas are doing little good, and a walk across campus is inadvisable in this weather.

In the afternoon I get a text from my parents, checking I was not affected by flooding on the way to work. I look online; the motorway was flooded, and the southbound carriageway closed. Some days, despite a wet start as a pedestrian, it’s definitely better not to drive.

Mid-afternoon, I set off to catch the train to my next destination. The river races fiercely under the bridge, sweeping around the tree trunks, churning brown. The sun comes out, briefly. The view across the valley is spectacular as the storm clouds are chased by the sun, a kiss-chase of the weather. The elevated train tracks become a temporary causeway, running above lower-lying land. Water surrounds us on both sides.

Looking out of the window, I think of causeways around the country. The roads that link the islands of the Outer Hebrides, that one day I plan to cycle. The causeway to Lindisfarne in Northumberland, which requires visitors to plan their journeys carefully to avoid staying longer on the island than they had intended.  Burgh Island in Devon, to which you can walk over the sands to the Art Deco hotel.  Even the cheapest rooms (Shrimp, and Dorothy Button) are prohibitively expensive, and I’m not quite sure I could manage the glamour of the black tie/ball gown dining requirements, though I suppose I could give it a go. I remember The Bay of Fundy in Canada, which has the highest tide differentials in the world. One summer I ran a watery (and muddy) 10K across its ocean floor, on the appropriately named Not Since Moses run. I think of Kirsty Logan’s recent novel The Gracekeepers, which draws a vivid picture of our dry world overtaken by the waters of the floods, an imaginative rendering of the future of climate change.

The wind turbines are spinning fast on the broad plain of the Forth Valley. The fields below are sodden, covered with the water of today’s rain, not dried out from their previous soakings. The floods of the past couple of months continue to be visited upon us, making journeys unpredictable, homes ruined, the skies dramatic. The main train route south from Glasgow to London has been cut off since New Year’s Eve, and looks to be so through February and possibly March. A viaduct has been badly damaged by the rising waters of the Clyde.

It is raining again. At each station, people are huddled together under cover, standing closer than they might normally. When they step on the train, water falls off their coats, their hair lashed slickly to their faces.

The contact I’m meeting in Edinburgh apologises for being late. A chimney stack has fallen from the rooftop onto a bus, causing road closures and detours.

I still have another journey leg to go.

Kugelhopf Train Christmas

 

IMG_3455Here’s a merry Christmas Kugelhopf cake!

If you look closely, there’s an engine pulling its carriages through the snowy forest around the bottom of the cake.

A very fine piece of engineering. Delicious, too. (Thanks Becky.)

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A Better Class

This week, Central Belt Shuffler has headed down the West Coast mainline to shuffle to and fro in the Lake District.

The short walk to the station reveals the aftermath of the recent flooding. Furniture and bin bags are piled high outside the rows of small terraced houses. The remains of kitchen units are piled against the walls. Many of the doors are open, showing men busily working within. The floorboards are lifted up in some of the houses: as well as pouring through the doors, the water rose up from below.

We change onto the mainline, jumping into the first class carriage as the connecting train is about to depart south. We make our way through the carriage to ours, dodging the complimentary drinks trolley. My companion spots the local MP (and leader of the Liberal Democrats) Tim Farron, seated at the very first table in standard class.

On his table, he has a big pile of Christmas cards. The Penguin design was chosen from pictures drawn by local schoolchildren. He’s industriously working through them, signing each one. If he gets them all done before Saturday, he’ll be able to get them in the second class post. Just like the rest of us.

Later in the day, on the way home, there are many more bags outside the terraced houses. They’re filled to the top with rubble. The newsagents is open again, and shining clean. I go in to buy some stamps. They warn me it’s cash only; their card machine isn’t working again yet. I try to buy the local paper, but it’s last week’s copy. They’ll be stocking the papers again tomorrow, they tell me, smiling.

As I continue home, the lights of Christmas trees fill the front windows of the battered houses.

Seasonal Scaffolders

Inside the train station, high-vis clad scaffolders are labouring. It’s nearly 10pm, but despite the hour they’re merry, joking with each other as work on the scaffolding above the late evening travellers. They’re from Yorkshire, and – as I head home – their accents jolt me from the Central Belt norm.

Then, above my head, two of them begin to sing. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

It still sounds as I cross to the other platform, and I rename them, in my head. Dasher and Dancer; Prancer and Vixen; Comet and Cupid; Donner and Blitzen.

 

Yes, or no?

A stormy winter’s morning.

The walk to the subway, past the school. At the bottom of the road, the lollipop lady, new on the block. Her high-vis stands out in the morning gloom.

‘Yes or no?’, she says.

There is no one else around. Realising she’s asking me if would like her to help me across, I reply.

‘Yes,’ I say, already halfway across the narrow road. ‘Thank you.’

We smile.

‘Oh, I just love it.’

‘Even in this weather?’

She nods.

Going Abroad

photoCentral Belt Shuffler has been away for the weekend, celebrating that very non-Central Belt Shuffling American tradition of Thanksgiving. The weekend was spent in Yorkshire, and as well as liberal doses of turkey, potatoes both roast and mashed, parsnips, carrots, stuffing, succotash, Yorkshire puddings (for a local twist), mashed sweet potato topped with marshmallow, pumpkin pie, wine, whisky, rum and coke, there was a lot of weather. Wind, rain. Rain, and rain. And then some more rain.

Undaunted, we headed out into the countryside for a big walk before tucking into our dinner, and then (for this group of celebrants) the obligatory game of ‘Who’s in the Bag?’ (aka The Name Game). (As a travelling aside, Philip Pullman was explained as a kind of railway carriage, rather than a children’s writer.)

The following day, Central Belt Shuffler boarded the train back from Gargrave to Glasgow. The route was not that taken on the way down (the Carlisle to Settle route), but on a local train through to Morecambe. As Central Belt Shuffler prepared to step out of the train, gazing apprehensively at the horizontal rain heading down the Lancaster platform, the following interchange took place:

Yorkshire train guard, to Central Belt Shuffler and another woman who is getting off: It doesn’t look very nice out there.

Central Belt Shuffler: No, it doesn’t.

Yorkshire train guard: That’s what happens, if you go abroad.

A warning indeed to travellers daring to go outside of God’s Own Country, Yorkshire.

The train guard’s warnings proved prophetic. At Lancaster, all the trains north were cancelled due to fallen trees on the track beyond Oxenholme. The likelihood of getting back to the Central Belt looked slim (confirmed by a later message on the National Rail website, to the effect that, ‘Buses have been requested to run between Preston and Carlisle however Virgin Trains are currently unable to source any.’). Using a bit of local Lake District knowledge I headed for the local bus service over to Kendal, where I bedded down for the night (and got my underwear speed-washed by my mother). The following conversation took place:

French mother: What I don’t understand is why they have trees so close to the train line anyway. You think they’d cut them down.

English daughter: This isn’t France, mum.

French mother: They do that when they built the TGV lines.

English daughter: As I said, this isn’t France, mum.

The next morning, I set off from Kendal to Edinburgh, for a morning meeting. Two middle-aged female passengers who boarded at Carlisle discussed the pressing matter of chips.

Cumbrian lady 1: I don’t mind oven chips.

Cumbrian lady 2: I really prefer them in fat.

Cumbrian lady 1: Yes. In lard.

As the train pulled through the snow-topped hills to Edinburgh, I reflected that travelling the North of England – be it Yorkshire, Lancashire, or Cumbria – is every bit as rewarding as Central Belt Shuffling.