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“Are you crazy?”

The song of the blackbird is a complex and beautiful thing, but not necessarily at 3.25am when it is just outside your open window. On this occasion, I was prepared to forgive him because this was the day of one of our annual dawn adventures and he was only five minutes ahead of the alarm I had set on my phone. I used the extra five minutes to listen to the seemingly infinite variety of beautiful calls that a blackbird can make and even smiled to myself as he seemed to try one or two that didn’t quite come off. If you have never listened to a blackbird then you should. It’s a sound that lifts the heart and is guaranteed to banish the saddest of feelings. I have read that the males sing like this to reinforce their territorial claims which seems a bit odd to me. Most animals spray urine or defecate to mark boundaries and many will openly fight. The blackbird sits on a post or rooftop and declares; “Just one step closer and I am warning you I will sing something even more beautiful than the last bit.” Rambo of the bird world he certainly is not. But this isn’t a blog about blackbirds; it’s a blog about going on a mini-adventure.

Ready for off

Ready for off

“You must be mad”, “Are you crazy?” or “Rather you than me” are the usual responses when I tell anybody that we plan to rise before the sun and head off for a walk or a bike ride, but these are knee-jerk reactions with no thought for what such an experience is really like. I’ll save you the bother of thinking it through for yourself and tell you what it’s like.

For me, at least, a good walk or bike ride in beautiful surroundings is a bit like a lovely tasty meal. That is to say that these things are satisfying in their own right but when you add a sprinkle of salt and vinegar to fish and chips or a generous handful of parmesan cheese Bolognese they really come to life. They are lifted to another level of sensation and choosing to set off on a walk or a bike ride before sunrise has the same effect. It adds spice. It turns just another outdoor experience into a mini-adventure. There is an enchanted short period before the sun rises when all the pleasures of being outdoors are intensified. The light is magical; the sounds are amplified and the smells are more distinct. There is a feeling of being part of a secret escapade simply because the majority of people wouldn’t contemplate doing such a thing. It’s as if the world is briefly yours and yours alone to explore and to indulge in. So that is why we crawled out of bed at 3.30am and put on our cycling kit.

Empty road, promising sky

Empty road, promising sky

The dual carriageway to Preston is normally a road we dread but at this hour it was a joy as we cycled side by side soaking up the passing sounds of the birds as they announced another day. After ten minutes we stopped in a layby for a quick breather and gasped at the beauty of the rapidly brightening eastern sky silhouetting the distant hills and the two hares that frolicked around in the field besides us. It was hard to imagine that just a few hours from now this road would be packed with speeding cars and lorries, their occupants totally unaware of our other world that had recently existed in another time.

Sunrise, Preston Marina

Sunrise, Preston Marina

Our destination was Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve about twenty miles from home and in the time it took us to get there our two worlds of calm and chaos had been bridged. As we arrived in the village of Rufford at 6am the traffic was already starting to build and it was a relief to escape into the peaceful sanctuary of the woods and be enveloped by the sounds and smells of nature once more. We crept into one of the many lakeside hides and tucked into a well-earned breakfast sandwich before taking in the scene before us. The early morning light was as sharp and clear as the mist on the lake was ghostly, and the sound of an owl reminded us that the brand new day was only just beginning. A heron flew towards us from the far shore and landed just twenty yards away to patiently await its own morning snack while a small duck (Pochard we thought) with two youngsters in tow glided back and forth just in front of our viewpoint.

View from the first hide

View from the hide

Now it was time to be still. To look, to listen and to breathe in the complex cocktail of aromas that surrounded us. The deep damp woody smell of the hide itself enhanced by the subtle fragrances from flowers and woodland plants all around us. The periods of complete silence broken by a tiny splash as a fish took a fly from the surface of the lake or the sudden surprisingly loud call of a moorhen amongst the reeds just below our viewpoint. Gradually our senses tuned in like eyes getting used to the dark as more and more of this magical scene was revealed. The incredibly subtle movement of the heron as it watches with infinite patience for a fish or frog in the shallows by the side of the lake. A huge bug clinging to a reed just inches in front of our eyes that we didn’t see until it moved and made us jump. It was like a secret magical world that would only be revealed if you were prepared to wait and let it come to you. This time of the day is something that is precious and deserves to be savoured and given space, it’s not a time for rushing around to see what can be seen. Let it come to you and the rewards are enchanting and will stay with you forever.

Inevitably the transient early morning had to come to an end and we prepared for a very different experience as we knew all along that this would be a trip of two halves. With some reluctance we pushed our bikes back out of the woods and taking the memories with us we took to the roads once more for the journey home.

We took a more circuitous route to get away from some of the heavier traffic and there was a little added spice as we progressed further and further along a road that we had been told more than once was “closed ahead”. Turning back at the first warning sign would have been like eating the fish and chips without the vinegar. This was a perfect opportunity to add that little extra zing as we gambled that we would be able to get through. I’m pleased to say that on this occasion the wager paid off.

We rode along quieter roads with names like Long Meanygate and Wholesome Lane and all the time the power of the sun grew steadily stronger reminding us of yet another reason for our crazy early start.  Sadly, in the crossing of a roundabout these quiet roads were but a memory as we plunged back into Preston and all our attention was immediately focused on the fast and heavy traffic around us. We weren’t quite finished with nature though as on the city marina there are dozens of pontoons supporting nest boxes for visitors from Namibia in the form of common terns. We made a small detour to see how these noisy but spectacular birds were getting on.

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City life

The population had boomed since our last visit and hundreds of birds are now sitting on one, two or sometimes three speckled brown eggs while their partners dive for fish to keep them sustained. In contrast to the peace and tranquillity of the woodlands this was a scene of noise, aggression and fast, furious movement. All the birds seem to be continuously at war with each other, squabbling over space and stealing food from the very beaks of other birds in random acts of ambush.

Just another argument

Just another argument

They screamed at each other and pecked furiously at their neighbours, keen to maintain their small precious share of the available space. It occurred to me that life in the city is pretty much the same whatever the species.

We arrived home in the middle of another hot day. The blackbird was still singing away from his high perch but now I looked at him a little differently. Now we shared a secret, this blackbird and me; we both knew what it feels like to experience a new day from the very, very beginning. That blackbird isn’t crazy, and neither are we.

Eva’s 100 miles for Mommy

Some things are very difficult to understand. I’m OK with basic chemistry, atoms and electrons but I start to lose it when it comes to black holes, quarks and as for Higgs boson, well I don’t like to think about it because it makes my head hurt. But all of these things pale in their complexity when compared to trying to understand happiness.

I’ve been pondering the whole subject of happy over the last couple of days prompted by an incredible event that I was lucky enough to be a small part of. It was an event that spurned huge amounts of happiness but also a fair amount of sadness too and it put them together in a blender and produced something that was very difficult to pin down and explain but I’m going to try anyway.

A whole lot of happiness

A whole lot of happiness

The event that I am referring to was a multi-day sponsored bike ride around the Fylde which in itself is nothing remarkable until you consider that the leader of the ride was just seven years old and the distance covered over the five days was a shade over one hundred miles! As is so often in these cases the background to this amazing achievement is a tragic one which is where all the sadness I referred to came from. Eva, our ride leader, lost her Mommy to cancer last year and she told her Dad that she wanted to do something really special in memory of her. Her Dad Gareth and his daughter are both keen cyclists so a bike ride of some kind was probably inevitable but nobody expected Eva to opt for such an ambitious challenge. After five days of riding the journey ended in a celebration at the local cricket club but it was a celebration tinged with pain and sadness for many. Eva seemed to take the whole thing in her stride and while many of the adult riders bemoaned their aching muscles and tender backsides at the end of the final day Eva celebrated with a game of football with her chums.

Pround Dad

Proud Dad

I met Gareth, Eva’s Dad, through our shared interests of cycling and writing and as I said goodbye to him yesterday he mentioned that he would like his next blog to be a happier one than some of those in the past and that is what got me really thinking about how we get happy and stay happy. Gareth lost his wife in the most awful circumstances to an extremely aggressive form of cancer and he appears to be doing a truly amazing job of bringing up his two small daughters, Eva and Isla, in what must, at times, feel like a whole sea of despair. You have to wonder what chance happiness has of surviving in such a situation but survive it surely does.

For me, happiness is something that comes in moments rather than continuously or permanently because it is something that requires a whole host of elements to be present at the same time. Contentment, security, friends, love, humour, comfort and many more components all have to be present to make us feel truly happy and when you take any one of them away the danger is that the happy bubble bursts. Take one away and replace it with grief and happiness is always going to struggle. Well that is what I thought until my experience over the last two days watching Eva’s ever smiling face as she pedalled furiously up the steepest of hills and never once complained. There was so much fun and laughter and pure joy during those rides it was as if somebody was building the most magnificent cathedral on what had been a derelict bomb site.

Happiness really is such a slippery thing to get to grips with. I sometimes think that it is something that we can share. Being with happy people is infectious like laughter or smiling so that presumes that only really happy people can share it out. Maybe we have to share it out to enjoy it. It’s all very well having a whole birthday cake to yourself but at some point it will make you sick if you don’t share it with others. So here is the real dilemma for me; Gareth and his lovely little girls have every reason to be a bit low on the happiness stakes and yet they seem to have been able to share enormous quantities of it and make dozens, if not hundreds of people very happy. Of course their terrible loss forces us look at ourselves and realise how fortunate we are to have the friends and loved ones that we do but it also gives us hope. It shows us that even the most desperate, desolate bomb site can one day become the foundation for a new and beautiful garden of flowers.

The inspirational Eva

The inspirational Eva

There has been a deluge of heart felt messages on social media today congratulating Gareth and Eva for what they have achieved. Most of them refer to the huge amount of money that has been raised, and the incredible achievement of a seven year old riding a hundred miles in five days. I will second all of those thoughts but I also want to add a great big thank you to Gareth and Eva for the sheer volume of happiness that they have managed to create in the world. That happiness will spread outwards just like ripples in a pond and those ripples will eventually bounce back to them. That’s when I hope Gareth will be able to write his happy blog and I for one will look forward to reading it.

You can read more about Eva’s ride on Facebook by clicking this link. Or, just go here to donate.

Wildlife on wheels

Bit of a dearth of blogging lately I know, my only excuse is starting work and spending all my spare time trying to stop the big fat pigeon from eating all the food we put out in about thirty seconds. There will be more on that and my new job in another post soon.

In the mean time I have been guest blogging for the Wildlife Trust junior web pages on the joys of combining cycle touring with watching wildlife. The result is over here: http://wildlifewatch.org.uk/wildlife-cycling I hope you like it.

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Desperately seeking justification

newspaper

I know, I know. Having nailed my colours firmly to the mast and banged on about living a simpler life in the last post, I had better deal with the very obvious elephant in the room, namely a brand new car that we will be picking up next week. With all this talk about the freedom of owning less stuff it might strike you as slightly at odds to be burdening ourselves with a car on a finance deal. I confess that I am not entirely comfortable with the decision but it’s made now so I suppose I ought to at least try and justify it.

Sometime last year I watched a TV program about people living in basic shelters in the woods. (Before you start, we have discussed getting rid of the TV on many occasions but for now, at least, it’s staying. Get over it.) They were off grid, living partially self-sufficiently and completely shunning the modern, materialistic way of life. No car, no TV, no electricity etc. etc. I admired them. What they were doing was extreme and frankly, not for me, but it doesn’t mean that they weren’t pioneers; challenging the status quo and giving us all something to think about. I see them a bit like the fashion designers that flaunt their latest creations on the catwalks of Milan and Paris. Nobody actually expects the average man or woman to be walking the streets of Nottingham in a space suit with a tambourine on their head next year, but some faint echo of the designs will filter through to everyday fashion for sure. It’s the same with people that take ways of living to the absolute extreme; we don’t have to copy them but we can take ideas from them and adapt them to our own lives. Gill and I are not ready to abandon our limited possessions and build a tree house just yet, and neither are we prepared to live without a car; but it’s not so much the car, as the brand new car, that I am having trouble adjusting to. This is how it came about.

Our previous car was fourteen years old and, a bit like me, it was suffering from fatigue. It was probably more of a perception issue than anything but we seemed to be getting overly familiar with the staff at our local garage. There was no doubt that what the car really needed was a new owner. Preferably a mechanic. Having put it up for sale on the Autocar website I began typing in the parameters of the kind of car we were looking for at a price we could afford. Well if websites could laugh this one would have been doubled up in stitches, rolling about on the floor and wiping its eyes; probably with an oily rag. I don’t know what possessed me but in a moment of madness I looked to see if we could get a 0% finance deal on a new car instead. I won’t bore you with the details of the sums involved* but they went a bit like this:

The cost of owning the old car over three years, taking into consideration purchase and sale prices, and adding in tax, insurance, repairs and servicing came to about £96 per month.

The new smaller car on 0% finance, including servicing and being exempt from vehicle tax, would cost £94 per month.

Factor in the £2500 deposit we have to pay (which effectively stays in the residual value of the car) and which might have generated about £110 in interest at current rates in an ISA, and you can see that the new car is no more expensive than the old one and hopefully it won’t want to spend half its life in the garage. It’s also a bit greener. (In a bright red kind of way.) Despite everything we were trying to do to be less materialistic we just couldn’t deny the maths and whilst desperately trying to convince the salesman that we weren’t really new car kind of people we signed on the dotted line and slunk out of the showroom trying ever so hard not to grin like a pair of Cheshire cats.

And here is my feeble attempt at seeking justification for our decision:

Whilst we don’t feel ready to give up on owning a car completely we do want to do less driving and make more use of the bikes, public transport and walking. The deal on the new car plays right into our hands because there is a limited mileage clause in the finance package which restricts us to an average 27.4 miles per day. Extra miles will result in a financial penalty at the end of the agreement. Enter stage right……… a spreadsheet! Yes I intend to monitor our mileage and use the mileage cap as an incentive to do more utility cycling and less driving. That way we get fitter and we save the planet into the bargain. Win, win.

I still feel uncomfortable though. Even more so because while I am sat at home writing this and listening to the rain hammering at the windows, Gill is at work. She went on her bike!

Hardy cyclist leaves for work

Hardy cyclist leaves for work

*If you really want to see it send me your e-mail address and I’ll mail it to you. (I promise I won’t tell anybody else that you asked for it.)

What is it like living without a car?

It’s been two weeks now since we sold our old car and we are still waiting for the new one.

CarlessFB

That little exchange on Facebook made me smile. I have been trying to write something about the complications of living without a car but the words just wouldn’t come. I had almost given up on the subject until I read those comments above and I finally understood what is at the core of car ownership for me.

So here is the answer to the question:  What is it like living without a car?

Well it’s not such a big deal as it turns out. This probably explains why I have been struggling to write about it. I imagined that we would have all sorts of tales to tell about missed buses, taxis that arrived late or not at all or the terrible toll the experience has had on our shoes. In practice however, we have gone about our business without drama, and the only difference is that we are probably marginally fitter than we might have been had we had a car.

Friends and family have been very kind with offers of help and we have taken advantage on a number of occasions so I suppose in that sense it hasn’t been a genuine test of living without a car. If we did actually choose to abandon ownership for good I suspect the novelty would soon wear off and we would be on our own. That isn’t a dig at friends and family I should point out, it’s just inevitable that once people got used to the idea the offers of help would largely dry up except maybe in exceptional circumstances.

We have been really lucky with weather even though it has been pretty cold*. We have had hardly any rain and the winds have been mostly light. These things make a massive difference to getting about on a bike or by public transport which brings me to what we have learned and particularly that last comment about appreciating the car when we get it.

I must say that I’m not a big fan of cars in general and I struggle with the cost of them, the pollution they cause and the terrible toll in terms of death and injury that they are responsible for. The vast majority of journeys seem to take place with only the driver in the car which is a shockingly inefficient way of travelling and they isolate people from each other, stifling social interaction and turning normally level headed individuals into demonic monsters at the slightest transgression by another driver. But the one thing that I have really missed during the last two weeks has been the undeniable convenience of the ubiquitous four wheeled metal box.

As well as the convenience of the car I have also learned that a lot of us cyclists have been duped into turning the relatively simple act of cycling to the shops into some kind of cross between a sports event and a major expedition. Just look at the difference between taking the car or the bicycle to the supermarket to do a bit of shopping:

Car

  1. Put on a coat and perhaps a hat and gloves if it’s really cold
  2. Drive the three point five miles to the supermarket in about seven minutes
  3. Do the shopping
  4. Load the shopping into the boot
  5. Drive home and unpack the shopping

Bicycle

  1. Remove all clothing
  2. Realise you haven’t got your cycling kit to hand so put clothing back on
  3. Assemble special cycling clothing and repeat step one
  4. Put on; padded shorts, two pairs of track pants, thick socks, merino wool long sleeved vest, cycling shirt, fleece jacket, special cycling shoes with clips to attach to pedals, overshoes to keep out nasty north east wind, waterproof jacket (just in case), buff to keep neck warm, woolly hat, helmet and winter gloves.
  5. Leave house feeling like spaceman on a moon walk and retrieve bikes from shed
  6. Attach panniers and front bag to bike
  7. Assemble locks, lights, spare inner tube, pump and tools and add to bag
  8. Cycle three point five miles to supermarket in about twenty minutes (two minutes less than it took to get ready)
  9. Lock up bikes
  10. Do the shopping whilst looking faintly ridiculous in Tour de France special winter edition outfit
  11. Reluctantly forgo best value toilet rolls which are in sixteen packs the size of a small family car
  12. Load shopping into panniers
  13. Unlock bikes, ride home against cruel headwind that has mysteriously been against you in both directions
  14. Unload shopping
  15. Put bikes away
  16. Reverse entire costume pantomime
  17. Feel smug and enjoy best cup of tea ever
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Just popping to the shops

We haven’t actually got the new car yet and the forecast for the next few days is horrendous with heavy rain and strong winds so there may well be another chapter to this post in which I will declare the car to be my all-time favourite invention and offer a used Dave Yates touring bicycle for sale at a bargain price.

*Got soaked today riding to the benefit office and back!

Oh dear, have we made a terrible and expensive mistake?

For the first time in about twenty eight years I don’t own a car. As far as I can recall I haven’t been in this status since a couple of days after I passed my driving test and bought by my first motor, a clapped out Hillman Avenger.

Boy racer days

Back in my boy racer days

That was the car that I actually learned to drive in, not the one the driving instructor picked me up in twice a week. I spent about six months throwing it all over the road, sliding around corners and trying my best to roll it until I eventually got overconfident and had to be towed out of a farmer’s field by a tractor. That was embarrassing. Since then I have been a mostly sensible/boring driver and have only really been interested in cars as a convenient means of getting from A to B. I’ve always been happy to use buses and trains or ride a bike when it was practical and never really considered myself to be a keen motorist. So I was a bit surprised by how it felt to be sans car.

Sorry to disappoint anybody but I haven’t suddenly become evangelically green by giving up driving by the way, it’s just that we are getting a new car which won’t be available for two to three weeks and today I sold the old one. I optimistically put it up for sale as soon as we decided on the change and in just the same way that buses turn up in threes when you aren’t actually waiting for one, it sold almost immediately.

So we have no car. More than three quarters of households in the UK own a car and for a brief spell we won’t be one of them. We could hire one of course but where would be the fun in  that? No, for now, at least, we will experiment with being a bit weird.

I am writing this just a few hours after letting the old car go and I am already overwhelmed by the evidence of how ingrained the automobile has become for the majority of people, us included. (I know there are exceptions out there, some of who may well be reading this. I apologise, you are exonerated.) As soon as we explain our situation to people their reaction gives the game away. You see we have been inundated with offers of lifts from friends, neighbours and work colleagues. It’s very nice of people to be so kind but what shocks me is the way in which people automatically assume that if you don’t have a car of your own then obviously you will need to fall back on the cars of other people. So far, on revealing that we won’t have a car for a few weeks not one person has responded with; “well that isn’t really a problem is it? After all you have legs and bikes and you live on a really good regular bus route”. That just isn’t what we hear. No it is just assumed that you simply MUST have the use of a car one way or another. I’m looking forward to finding out first hand if they are correct or not.

Yesterday was our first full day of being carless and ironically we needed to go to the car dealership to sign the paperwork for the new car. We also had some shopping to do so we turned the house upside down locating our touring panniers, lights, inner tubes and bike locks and spent about half an hour re-familiarising ourselves with what a lot of fuss it can be to prepare for riding bikes in the winter; which is where the car comes in I suppose. It’s just so easy by comparison to jump in the car and travel in complete ignorance of temperature, precipitation, gradient or security. It doesn’t even require any special clothing and the lights and locks are all conveniently built in rather than being lost at the back of a drawer in the shed. It’s warm, comfortable and relatively safe and you don’t need padded shorts to drive it.

But! And it’s a big but; when we got back from our bicycle based utility trip we felt great. In fact we were buzzing. We achieved exactly what we would have done in the car but we also got a bit of exercise and a natural endorphin based high thrown in for free. We also saved money in the obvious way of not using any diesel but also less obviously by opting not to put a fourth bottle of wine in the trolley by looking on it as dead weight rather than unbeatable value.

Day two:

We often go for two or three mile walks around our village just for the sake of a bit of exercise. This morning however, with the rain falling steadily and the weather station telling us it was five degrees outside, the prospect of another round of tea and toast was much more appealing. Under normal circumstances we probably would have forgone the walk altogether and driven down to the village to the butchers. But these are no longer normal circumstances and so we donned waterproofs and walked to the shops in the rain. As it turned out the rain wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t really cold once you got moving and guess what? When we got back we felt great. Anybody else see a pattern emerging here?

Choices, choices

Choices, choices

Maybe the novelty will wear off. Maybe it won’t. It’s early days but it’s going to be an interesting experiment and won’t it be ironic if, after three weeks, we decide that actually, we can manage without our new car after all. Oh dear, have we made a terrible and expensive mistake?

 

Urgh, what’s that between my legs?

Stop it! It’s a bicycle of course but after a nine month layoff it did feel a bit strange to be astride my two wheeled friend once more. After spending yesterday afternoon wallowing in self-pity while Gill was out at work and failing miserably to do anything useful with my day I gave myself a really good talking to when I woke up this morning. There was no doubt about it, it was time to get on my arse and go for a bike ride. I must have been really stern with myself because after spending an age locating various bits of cycling paraphernalia and topping up the pressure in the tyres I was out on the road before it was fully light.

I half expected to have to learn to ride again but as in the old adage ‘an elephant never forgets’, it was like falling off a bicycle …….. no hang on I think I might be getting mixed up there. Anyway steering around corners, balancing on two wheels and alternate pedal revolutions all proved to be firmly wired into my brain still but I confess I had forgotten what a miniscule amount of headwind it takes to sap your energy. I was a bit nervous if I’m honest; not of the road or the traffic, indeed there wasn’t any traffic at such an early hour on a Sunday morning, but of my body and its ability or inability to propel me further than the end of the drive. I saw this first ride as a kind of tentative prodding of muscles to see what state they were in. It reminded me of selecting an avocado in the supermarket, you know when you press your finger into it to see if it’s ripe and then having found that it is you look around furtively and then change it for another one because you’ve just bruised the first one? I pushed a bit harder on the pedals to maintain speed on a very gentle rise and, like most of the avocados you pick up I found that this one wasn’t really ready yet.

Fair enough really, what did I expect after such a long break. It’s a credit to the efficiency of the machine (the bike, not my body) that I was able to ride fifteen miles at a modest pace and only be a little bit knackered at the end of it. It isn’t a great distance I know, and I didn’t overtake any other cyclists but it’s a start and as soon as I can sit on a saddle again without crying I intend to repeat the operation.

Look, proof that I went cycling

Look, proof that I went cycling

How much proof do you need?

How much proof do you need?

I have to say it was lovely to be back cycling again and remembering why I love it. I was reminded at intervals of how much more you see and hear from the saddle of a bike as opposed to the inside of a car. For example, I love the sight of geese flying in formation so when I heard their plaintive honking overhead I looked skywards hoping to see a spectacular and classic V like the avian equivalent of the Red Arrows. I was so disappointed. There must have been about fifty of them but they looked for all the world like they were on their way home from a very drunken party. Never have I seen such a shockingly bad flying pattern or such ill-disciplined behaviour. They weren’t alone either. The young man walking slightly unsteadily between Lytham and Freckleton and looking as if he really hadn’t planned to spend the night away from home left me speculating on what he might have been doing in the previous eight hours. I found myself reminiscing about the good old days. The days when I could manage an all-night party and then walk home through the dawn in my trendy short sleeved shirt; looking cool but without feeling the cold.  And the days when I could get back on a bike after nine months of not cycling and ride fifteen miles and still be able to move my legs when I got home. I wish we had a bath in our new home.

It was still the middle of the night!

The sun wasn’t even out of bed properly!