After 871 days (that is 2 years, 4 months and 20 days) as warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall, University of St Andrews, I’ve hung up my gown and moved on.
I loved being warden, living and working amongst around 540 students and supporting a team of six assistant wardens. But it wasn’t great for my health, to be honest. It turns out you sometimes need sleep and time for yourself. And for many weeks I got little of either.
So I have moved back down the Fife coast to the East Neuk and am living in a wee two-bedroom mid-terrace house in Crail.
This is my third house move in as many years.
I’m much closer to my children now, and it’s an area that I used to cycle around over the years so I’m looking forward to getting out on my (newly serviced) bike over the next few months and gently improving my fitness.
The boys like my wee house and have been over to stay for a few weeks, and a few overnights during the week too.
I needed to buy a dining table and benches and a couple of chests of drawers (at Ikea, of course) plus a bunch of storage boxes for linen and shoes. But two weeks in and I have fully unpacked now and organised almost everything the way that I’d like it.
Here is to relaxing for a bit, regaining my fitness, losing the 2 inches or more than I put on my waist over the last 871 days, and figuring out where life will take me next. It’s exciting…
Here’s a video I found online from the developers. My house is featured about 17 seconds in.
Nearly three weeks ago we packed up our car, loaded the children into it, attached my bike to the back of it and drove south in search of fame and fortune. Or Hoscote House at least, and a group of 16 cousins of mine from California who had flown over for the Selkirk Common Riding. It was one of the best holidays we’ve ever had.
The reason for the trip was that my third cousin (my great-grandmother Georgina and his great-grandfather Robert ‘Honolulu Bob’ were brother and sister) novelist, screenwriter and philanthropist Robert Mailer Anderson had been elected Colonial Standard Bearer for the 2013 Selkirk Common Riding, exactly 100 years after Honolulu Bob had held the same office.
About 18 months ago I emailed Robert and his wife Nicola, who live in San Francisco, and said that we were planning on coming down to the Scottish Borders to support them.
Do you have any ideas at this point where you guys might be staying? We don’t want to gate crash your party but it might be nice to be near, to meet up.
Robert replied a couple of hours later saying
we are renting a manor [Hoscote House] and you are more than welcome to join the family there. Isn’t that what this is all about?
And so we graciously and gratefully accepted Robert and Nicola’s kind offer and on Friday 7 June we rolled up outside Sycamore Lodge and moved in for the week.
It was a fabulous wee holiday cottage: three bedrooms, one en suite; a generous family bathroom; an open-plan living room and dining room, with a galley kitchen off it. It was comfortable, and as the week wore on we appreciated the space that we had away from the “big hoose”, particularly when getting the boys down to sleep at night.
The “big hoose” was a ten minutes’ walk up the drive. And boy! was it big. The 16 Californians who flew out to this remote backwater in the Borders of Scotland were accommodated there quite comfortably.
When they could find it, that is. And they weren’t driving in a vague vicinity of the place for two hours, crossing every river they could find. Whether it was at a ford or not. I’ve never seen someone so traumatized about a car journey. And don’t rely on the GPS: it directs you to Martins Bridge (which was being rebuilt):
or across another ford!
Built in the 1850s Hoscote House sits in its own 450 acre estate about a 25 minutes’ drive from Selkirk—through umpteen open fields, across many a cattle grid, and after the obligatory stand-off on the road with the local wildlife (I’ve rarely felt as nervous in my car as when I was slowly edging forward towards a young heifer with about twelve cows to my left and a rather concerned-looking bull to my right). But it was a beautiful place to spend ten days (the midges aside), with mostly great weather, and definitely with the most wonderful company.
Our boys met their American cousins for the first time and they all seemed to just click, particularly Reuben (4) with his Californian counterpart Callum (6). It was brilliant, such a joy to witness. They just took themselves off into the trees and bushes on the estate to climb and explore, to build dens and gather sticks. Even the memory of it now brings a tear to my eye. They were in their element, and we were content that they were safe… just as long as they didn’t wander too far into the sheep field on the other side of the drive.
Inside the house was generous and homely: two sitting rooms (one decorated entirely with padded tartan walls); an enormous, and always far-too-hot conservatory; a small office with a seating area outside it which became Internet Corner™ as it was the only place in the house you could get a WiFi signal; a billiards room; a huge kitchen, with a to-die-for farmhouse kitchen table; and a dining room that comfortably sat all 21 of us.
The place was grand but not over-the-top, and not uncomfortably posh. It was certainly quirky with an old rifle and two bugles at the front door (perfect for announcing your arrival), and various stuffed-and-mounted animals around the place. A little odd, but rather in keeping with the place.
Bike – bridge and hill
The decision to bring my bike was a last minute one, having only discovered a couple of days before we left that our bike rack did actually fit our car (it was bought many years ago to fit to a rather smaller Vauxhall Astra hatchback). But I’m so glad I did. Each morning, sometime between 05:00 AM and 07:15 AM (depending on when I woke up) I would get up, change into my cycling gear and pedal out into the countryside.
On our first morning there I tucked the Orndance Survey map into my fluorescent yellow jacket and headed off into the mist to recce the area. I’ll cycle down to Martins Bridge, I thought to myself, just to see how it looks. It looked about two to three miles away on the map.
It wasn’t. It was nearer seven.
I could just turn around and head back, but where’s the fun in that? So out came the map and I discovered a ford (yes, that ford) with a narrow bridge to the left of it, which was only just wide enough for me to shuffle across.
On the other side was a hill. On the other side of that hill was Hoscote House. The contours of the map promised a climb and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Having left the house just after 05:00 AM, having had no breakfast, thinking that I’d just have a quick cycle around and be back in time for the boys waking up at 6:00 AM, I was still climbing the hill as it was approaching 07:15 AM. I remember thinking to myself, “should I be panicking now?” My main concern was that I couldn’t get in touch with Jane to let her know that I was okay. Although I had my mobile phone there was no signal.
As I climbed, and I have to admit that I got off at one point to push the bike up a particularly steep 200 meters or so, I rose above the mist and emerged into the most beautifully rolling countryside beneath a deep blue sky, scratched at here and there with wispy clouds. In the distance I could see the top of the fog that I’d ridden through and into which I would soon descend.
The eight mile climb, including through two get-off-and-open-and-close gates, led to a one mile descent. That was fun! Honking at sheep to get off the road, and racing past with a cheery “Thank you”. I rounded a corner having just passed a sign that read “cattle grid” I wondered to myself, “I wonder how far before I get to the…” BRRRRRRRR! as the cattle grid rumbling beneath my wheels provided the answer.
I rolled into the small car park outside our lodge, I dismounted, propped the bike against the wall and wobbled in through the open door. I’d clocked up about 14 miles, the longest cycle I’d enjoyed since before my various back injuries of the last two years. It was great to be back on my bike. And what a return. Over the week, and since, I’ve discovered that it has given me so much confidence in my ability on the bike. I just have to think back to that mammoth, breakfast-less climb and it assures me that I will reach the top of this hill, that I do have the energy to keep going.
Bike – Craik
Over the next few days I went out a further three times. The next trip was out to Craik, a small village in the middle of the Craik Forest and at the end of a dead-end.
After that I turned right into Craik Forest itself. I thought I’d put my mountain bike to the use that it was intended for and for 45 minutes I cycled steadily up a forest track, surrounded by thick woodland, on another glorious morning. It was hard going, but satisfying: ducking beneath overhanging branches, bunny-hopping over fallen trunks, and simply admiring the view. My plan had been to climb the track to a crossroads that I’d seen on the map then turn right and roll down the hill to approach Hoscote from the opposite direction that I’d set off from.
Conscious of the time, and my energy levels, I made a final push towards a clearing that was a few hundred metres ahead. Success! I’d reached the crossroads. Jubilant I turned the corner and … was stopped in my tracks. The path was littered with coniferous trees. Some had grown right on the edges of the track, so that when I started to cycle down it they whipped my legs and made me feel as though I was trying to cycle through a wardrobe or a car wash. And to add to the problem there were very small saplings growing down the middle of the track, between the ruts. The way ahead was impossible.
I turned round and went back down the path I’d come. It took me 45 minutes to climb up, and less than 10 minutes to descend. Mostly screaming like a little girl. “I DON’T LIKE THIS!” I heard myself shout. “I DON’T HAVE MY SPARE GLASSES WITH ME!” But actually, I really did quite enjoy it.
I’m surprised I didn’t wear my brakepads down to the metal. Even with me pulling hard on them I was still reaching 25 mph, with pot holes and branches to negotiate.
I had hoped to cycle to Selkirk one day but I simply ran out of time. So my final outing, the day before the Common Riding, was simply up an enormously steep hill to Roberton, and back down the gentler brae by the Borthwick Water. By that time I’d put in the uphill miles and so when I reached the top rather unexpectedly I said out loud, “Oh! Is that it?!”
Next time: Meeting American family, and the Selkirk Common Riding.
After a week off from cycling (to get over a tummy bug and to attend the IWMW 2012 conference in Edinburgh) I went back out on my bike again this morning just before 06:00.
I’ve done something to my right shoulder. Probably a combination of sleeping badly on it, and being jumped on by Reuben; I’ve started calling Reuben ‘Cato‘ because he attacks me at the most inconvenient moments!
It was good to get out again. Here’s to a slowly developing discipline of early morning cycles and to getting fit again.
When Jane and the boys returned from church at lunchtime (I’d been to All Saints, St Andrews for the 08:00, then retired to bed) Joshua was still asleep in the car, Reuben was asleep in the living room, and Isaac asleep in his pram in the front garden.
Joshua woke first so I brought him through into the study… where he promptly fell asleep again using his cuddly dog (Copper from Disney’s The Fox and the Hound) as a pillow.
A couple of weeks ago I was re-reading Leo Babauta’s excellent book Focus: A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction in which he encourages people to slow down, reduce the number of things you are doing and focus on just one.
That was something I needed to hear again.
My mind had been spinning for weeks with the number of small projects that I was running at the same time; some web projects, some writing projects. I’d reached a point of stalemate, a mental impasse, where I couldn’t decide which one I should prioritise, which I should work on next. They all excited me. I wanted to do them all. And in the end I was doing none of them.
So I took Leo’s advice to heart and began to simplify and reduce, and in my deliberations I realised the one thing that I really needed to focus on to the exclusion of everything else: get fit. My health had to be my number one priority.
Before Reuben and Joshua were born in November 2008 I spent a lot of time on my bike, and with my dumb bell weights, and I lost a lot of weight. I dropped about 5-6″ off my waist. I wanted to get fit so that I could play with my children. I wanted to get fit so that I have every chance of improving my own quality of life so that I wouldn’t die young of heart disease or kidney failure or whatever.
And then Reuben and Joshua arrived, and a few years later Isaac joined them, and I’ve pretty much not slept for the best part of three and a half years (averaging probably around 3-5 hours of broken sleep a night for most of that time). And my weight gradually crept up again as I ate at odd hours, or ate high calorie foods just to keep myself awake.
Last summer I made the decision to get fit again. We were having issues with who needed the car (we went down to one car after the boys were born) and so I decided to cycle to work. My office in St Andrews is almost exactly 10 miles from our house in Anstruther.
That was going well until…
In September 2011 I was cutting the grass and taking a break I sat on a travelling rug with a ten-month old Isaac… and I couldn’t get back up. My back had gone. I went to bed and fell asleep only to be woken a couple of hours’ later with the most excruciating muscle spasms I’ve ever had.
I was screaming in pain. It took me 30 minutes to crawl the 18 feet or so from my bedside to the toilet. The second time I tried it I could get only as far as the chair beside my bed.
Jane phoned NHS 24 just after tea time, around 6pm.
A doctor from the out-of-hours service arrived seven hours’ later, sometime around 1am. He returned four hours after that to give me a shot of morphine and I finally fell asleep, too doped up to care about the pain. It took another week or so to be given diazepam, which finally helped the muscles to relax, and another four months to see a physiotherapist.
I was off work for about a month, and even when I returned I struggled to walk without pain. It took me until about early May to start feeling better enough to even consider exercising again. I was desperate to get out again.
Back on the bike… twice
Nervously I got back on my bike in early May and rode a short and familiar circuit around a few of the local back roads.
About a week later my back went again. More diazepam, more diclofenac, more 30/500 co-codamol and within a week I was actually feeling better than I had been the previous month. The pains in my legs had gone. I could walk again without feeling that my hips had been replaced with knives.
Last Sunday I went out for a cycle. I made a conscious decision to go easily, to pace myself. Something that I’m not good at, but where has that got me in the past?
I cycled for an hour and covered about 15 miles. It felt good.
Two days later, on Tuesday, I went out again for a slightly shorter run. And I went out again this morning: 14.75 miles in 57 minutes. I was pleased with that.
I’m determined to get fit. I need to lose weight to help bring my blood pressure down, for a start. I’m determined not to overdo it, as I usually do. I’m determined to pace myself. That’s been the big lesson from my back injury: pace myself.
So for the next 4-6 weeks I’m going stretch every day (my physio gave me a bunch of back stretches to do twice a day), and start doing some daily stomach crunches to help strengthen my core, and go out cycling twice a week. I’ll see where I go from there.
But this time I’m hopeful. By this time next year I should have cycled my way out of the fat lane.
A couple of nights ago Jane ordered Reuben and Joshua their first bikes (Branching Out First Bikes by John Crane), one in blue, the other in red. These are push-along, balance bikes with pneumatic tyres, adjustable-height seats and a bell on the handlebars. They arrived today.
Yesterday Jane took the boys into St Andrews to buy them proper bike helmets, which cost almost as much as the bikes themselves.
Reuben and Joshua love bike helmets; they’ve worn Jane and my helmets at home for the last few months. Often fighting over them. They love their own helmets now too. Reuben has a blue one with pirates on it, Joshua has a red one with dinosaurs on it.
I was sitting with Reuben last night, knowing that their new bikes would hopefully arrive the following day. We’d kept it secret from them that we’d ordered them. This was our conversation:
Daddy: Do you like your new bike helmet, Reuben?
Reuben: My like it. My like my new bike helmet.
Daddy: Good. Now you’ve got a bike helmet what do you think you might need next?
Reuben: Mmmm… [obviously thinking]. A drill!
Daddy: A drill?!
Reuben: Yes. My like a drill.
Daddy: Right… okay. Well, I didn’t give away too much information in that conversation then, did I?