Entries tagged with “Island cycling”.


For a long time Ulli has talked about visiting Bute, “the Jewel of the Clyde”. Also, there have been a number of searches which have visited this blog looking for information about cycling on Bute (visiting posts where I have written about cycling on other islands with a view to Bute). So it was that Bute was the obvious place to go for a long weekend. Despite the annual Jazz Festival happening over the same weekend, we still managed to book a B&B in Rothesay. Rothesay is the capital of the island and the only real town, there is very little accommodation outside Rothesay, unless you want to wild camp. However this isn’t a problem, as Bute, unlike some other islands, doesn’t have a circumnavigatory road, so staying in one place and making out and back trips and loops are the way to see the island, without having to carry all your luggage around all day.

Day 1

Getting to Bute was easy, train to Glasgow Queen Street, then a short walk/cycle to Glasgow Central (as usual I managed to miss the turn off into Gordon Street half way down Buchanan Street), train to Wemyss Bay where the ferry terminal is attached to the station., For cyclists to get onto the ferry, you have to buy the tickets at the foot passenger ticket office inside the terminal and then go around the outside to board via the car deck. I like ferries, feeling the vibrations of the deck plates coming up through my feet always reminds me of my sea time with the Grey Funnel Line. The crossing was smooth, although the sky was grey and there were heavy showers moving along the Firth of Clyde, not the weather we had hoped for, at the beginning of May.

Once alongside the pier in Rothesay, we were piped ashore, busking at the pier seems to be a popular way of supplementing their pocket money among the local teenagers. Then it was just a short ride to the B&B to drop off a pannier. For some reason it seemed to be the lighter one, I spent the whole trip lugging 5 kg of bike tools and a camera around with me. The next task was to find lunch. As the Jazz Festival was on this, was supposedly one of Bute’s busiest weekends of the year, but we soon found a wee tearoom by the Craigmore Old Pier (the Pier is long gone) with space and sea views and didn’t have to resort to buying rolls from the Co-Op.

Lunch over, it was time to get down to the serious business of exploring the Island, first stop the Isle of Bute Discovery Centre which gives a broad overview of the islands past and present. We discover that the island is transected by the Highland Boundary Fault, with the north being more Highland like and the south more lowland, although this is less pronounced than on Arran. We decided to take on the north first. Riding along the shore road through Port Bannatyne we saw a sight which wasn’t mentioned in the Discovery Centre, but one that stops tourists in their tracks and has them reaching for a camera. I refer of course to the “Hanging bike of Port Bannatyne”, no I don’t know why it is there either.

The Hanging bike of Port Bannatyne

Having exited Port Bannatyne, we turned left at Kames Castle onto the road for Ettrick Bay. There is a short hill here, nothing challenging, but it does give a good view point down on to the castle, which is one of your bog standard tower houses so favoured by Scottish lairds, in fact they like them so much at Kames there are two. At the crest of the hill we passed St Colmac with its ruined church, built in 1836 by the second Marquess of Bute, closed in 1980 and now being left to collapse. Just there, the road forks and we took the right fork, alongside which runs the line of an old tramway. Back in the halcyon days of Bute’s tourist past a tram ran from Rothesay to Ettrick Bay, where there was a dance hall and tea rooms. Well the dance hall is long gone, but tea rooms are still there and the ice creams they serve are very good. Beyond Ettrick Bay, the black topped single track road runs along a raised beach as far as Glecknabrae. It is possible to follow the farm track to Kilmichael, but disappointingly the road doesn’t continue to Buttock Point and the Maids of Bute. We decided to turn round and go back the way we came (not that there was much choice).

Having crossed the island back to the eastern side, we turned north once again, up along the east coast, where the raised beaches are far less pronounced. We went as far as the Rhubodach ferry. Just after the slipway there is a short stretch of new tarmac and the road bends. I turned to ask Ulli how much further the road went (she had a map on her handle bars), as I turned to look forward again I saw that 10 m ahead there was a closed gate with a rough track beyond, which kind of answered my question. Time to turn around again. At least this time the wind was at our backs.

Photos from Bute are here. Day two is here and day three is here.

There is a map of our route on day 1 here.

My stats for day 1 were:

  • Distance cycled – 49.43 Km
  • Time spent riding – 02:23:34
  • Max Speed – 56.30 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 20.66 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – ca. 210 m

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Cycling on Arran

Following a good dinner and a good night’s sleep, we were ready to tackle the remaining part of our circumnavigation of Arran (see Part 1 for further details, or scroll down to “Cycle hire in Edinburgh” where the story really begins). Before starting out, we really needed carbo loading, however the B&B we stayed in was English-run and porridge wasn’t on the menu. Unfortunately it was one of those B&Bs where there is no menu, you just get what you are given, in this case a fried breakfast. No matter we thought, we will just pick up something more along the way. It was a bright clear morning, but the wind was in the North East again, so this time the cycling was not going to be as easy as the day before.

Starting out from Blackwaterfoot, things weren’t too bad, sure there is a bit of a climb going up through Torbeg to reach the giddy height of 54 m ASL (Above Sea Level), but then we dropped back down to near sea level at Tormore. Once we had crossed Machrie golf course, the road runs along a raised beach and we were in the lee of a low cliff to the east.

A digression on raised beaches, these are a particular geological feature of the Scottish coast (and can be found elsewhere in the world too). Raised beaches are caused in part by glacio-isostatic rebound and partly by sea level variation due to climate change. Glacio-isostatic rebound occurs where the accumulation of ice sheets has depressed the land, so that when the ice melts the land readjusts with time. Since the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, Scotland has been rising slowly (and southern England sinking slowly). Added to this, there have been changes in mean sea levels. At the warmest point since the last ice age, about 5,000-6,000 years BP, the global temperature was about 4°c warmer than at the present time and sea levels were higher. As the earth cooled, sea levels dropped and the sea receded from these beaches, leaving them dry land. However, with the current global warming (the earth started warming up again in the mid 19th century due to the use of fossil fuels and the emissions of greenhouse gases), sea levels have started to rise again, so one day the sea may yet reclaim at least part of these beaches. But enough of this and back to the story…

Pretty much all the way from Machrie Bay to Imachar Point the road runs along a raised beach at about 5 m ASL, and the cycling was easy. At Imachar there is a short climb up above the cliff, about 40 m ASL, before dropping down again at Whitefarland. From there to Pirnmill was easy riding again, as we were back on a raised beach, sheltered from the wind and enjoying the sunshine. As we passed through Pirnmill, I suggested stopping for an ice cream, as the tea room there does particularly nice ice cream, but it was still early and the other two didn’t want to stop. Beyond Pirnmill the road turns more to the North East and we found ourselves cycling into a headwind. So we started to take it in turns to lead the way, forming a very short echelon, with the other two tucked in behind, sheltering from the wind, a technique which cyclists call drafting. The curious thing about drafting is that it is not only the following cyclist that gains, the lead cyclist also benefits, although not as much as the follower. So two people who are drafting can use less energy than two individuals who are not drafting, to cover the same distance in the same time. This may explain how we managed to maintain a relatively high average speed despite the wind.

The road on this part of the island was even quieter than going round the south the day before, which made for pleasant cycling. I was in the lead as we approached Catacol, and saw up ahead a large area of gorse (Ulex europaeus) in full flower on the flat ground surrounding the mouth of the Abhainn Mòr, and its sweet coconut smell was carried on the wind towards me. I often wonder when I smell it, whether the first Europeans to encounter coconuts commented “hmm… these smell just like furze (the old name for gorse)”. We stopped at Catacol to take a few photos. There is a row of picturesque old fishermen’s cottages known as The Twelve Apostles that date from 1863, which are regularly photographed by passing tourists. There is also a rather dodgy bench which I made the mistake of sitting on, that photo is not going on the web. As there wasn’t a shop and it was still early, we decide to carry on to Lochranza before having lunch.

According to Bernhard, the Dictionary of Things There Aren’t Any Words for Yet – But There Ought to Be defines Lochranza as “The long unaccompanied wail in the middle of a Scottish folk song where the pipers nip round the corner for a couple of drinks.” Yep, I’ve been at ceilidhs like that as well.

Arriving in Lochranza it was time for more photos, this time of the castle, which is a bog standard L shaped tower house design so beloved of the Scottish nobility. It is situated in a commanding position on a spit of shingle sticking into the Loch and is also very photogenic. Or rather it will be, when Historic Scotland finish the work to stabilise the walls. Although most of the scaffolding has now gone from the outer walls, the builders hut and port-a-loo remain, while work continues on the inner walls. Photos taken, it was time to think of finding lunch. My first thought on a place for lunch was to try the Distillery visitor centre, however, a coach load of pensioners beat us to it. So we tried our luck at the Pavilion tea rooms by the golf course, where we procured some home-made soup and well filled baked potatoes which fortified us for the coming ride.

On leaving Lochranza, we headed up Glen Chalmadale and the hill which I had been thinking about all day. I was remembering my first visit to Arran and the speed at which I descended from the bealach, at 199 m, to sea level at Lochranza. The prospect of climbing in the opposite direction into the wind did not entirely appeal to me. Fortunately the glen is sheltered by Fionn Bhealach (444 m) to the north which kept off most of the wind. Even so, I soon gave up any idea of keeping pace with Bernhard on this climb, and I lost contact with Ulli before I reached half way. By now I should know better than to expect to keep up with Tyroleans when going up any form of hill. By two thirds of the way up I ran out of energy and had to stop. I was dammed if I was going to walk, so just stood for a while and took a rest. Way up ahead Ulli noticed I had stopped, so she stopped and waited for me. Having caught my breath, I started off again and joined Ulli. We rode together to the top where Bernhard was now waiting with a camera, and as we approached I punched the air to show victory over the hill. I then decided this wasn’t enough and tried doing so with both hands, attempting to convey the impression that I was riding down the Champs-Elysées with the pack following at a distance. Instead of which, as I was travelling at such a low speed, I had a massive wobble with the bike leaning over at a 45° angle. Desperately trying to unclip before I went over completely, I somehow managed to pull myself upright again, seize the handle bars and stabilise the bike, narrowly avoiding a very embarrassing clipless moment.

Having passed over the bealach, we descended from 199 m back to near sea level at Sannox. Still tired from the climb, I didn’t pedal much on the way down and mostly freewheeled, hitting a top speed of only 54.4 Km/h (33.8 mph). We did briefly consider turning off to visit North Sannox Bay, but decided that we had had enough climbing for one day. We carried on through Sannox to Corrie ,where we stopped for some more photos at the small quayside. South of Corrie at Rubha Salach we stopped and pulled the bikes off the road and went to photograph some seals which were hauled out on rocks at the edge of the water. That is one of the great things about cycle touring, you have plenty of time to look around and if you see something interesting it is easy to pull over and take a look. Passing car drivers slowed down to try and see what we were looking at, but soon found that there was nowhere for them to park.

Finally we found ourselves back in Brodick, where we made a bee line for Wooley’s of Arran, to pick up a pick up a few well deserved snacks before catching the ferry back to the main land.

Here are the stats for anyone who is interested:

  • Distance cycled – 53.6 Km
  • Time spent riding – 2:44:56
  • Max Speed – 54.4 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 19.5 Km/h

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You have a guest from a landlocked country and you want to take them cycle touring on their first visit to Scotland, where to take them? Ulli suggested the perfect solution would be Arran. Which of the three following phrases could best be used to describe Arran: the jewel of the Clyde, Scotland in miniature, or that island with the crap roads? Well possibly all three, but Bute is actually the jewel of the Clyde and most of Scotland’s islands suffer poor road surfacing (or should that be most of Scotland?).

So it was that the three of us, Ulli, her cousin Bernhard and myself, set out to cycle round Arran on a two day tour. Getting to Arran from Edinburgh is fairly easy, go to Waverley Station, take a train to Glasgow Queen Street (about 50 mins), then a short walk to Glasgow Central Station (not forgetting to turn off into Gordon Street half way down Buchanan Street, about 10 mins), then catch the train for Ardrossan Harbour (note Harbour, not Town or Beach, about 53 mins). This leaves you with a two minute walk to the Cal Mac ticket office. Tickets procured, pedal gently to the jetty, where the Cal Mac staff may direct you to jump the queue of waiting cars and go straight onto the ferry. Here you add your treasured bicycle to the stack of others in the cubby hole, just off the car deck, marked “Cycles”, then head up to the upper decks as the car deck is not a healthy place to hang about.

The crossing takes about 55 mins, and in good weather, sitting out on the sun deck watching the Ayrshire coast recede into the distance can be very pleasant. For the cyclist, it also has the benefit of telling you which direction the wind is coming from, in our case it was from the ENE. This is useful to know, as it can help you decide which way to go round the island. One of the great things about going round an island with a circumnavigatory road, such as Arran, is that once you have decided in which direction you are going to make your circumnavigation, it is hard to get lost. It is just a case of keeping the sea on your left if going round clockwise or on your right if going anticlockwise. On Arran if the sea is behind you, a steep hill and the setting sun in front, you are going up the String Road, which is cheating. Our target for the first day was to get to Blackwaterfoot, where we had booked a B&B for the overnight stay.

When planning to stay on an Island, it is often a good idea to book your accommodation in advance. This was something that Ulli and I had discovered on a previous visit to Arran three years ago. We arrived on a Friday night, having only booked that night in advance. Having arrived on the island, we went straight to the Tourist Office to arrange accommodation for the Saturday night, only to find that there were three weddings on the island that weekend, and that all the approved accommodation on the island was fully booked. We were given a list of B&Bs which had previously been listed but were no longer on the list and warned that not all of them would still be in business and those that were might not be of an acceptable quality. It was from this list that we found the wonderful Mrs Bannatyne of Lochside Guesthouse near Blackwaterfoot, an object lesson in the best of Scottish hospitality. The reason for it not being on the approved list was simple, they are almost always fully booked and so don’t need the Tourist Office approval or recommendation. This time they were fully booked all week, so we had to stay elsewhere is Blackwaterfoot, enough said about that.

Having arrived at Brodick Pier, they let the motor vehicles off first so that the cyclists don’t get run over in the rush. This means that you simply filter past a long line of stationary cars to get into Brodick, where the discerning cyclist heads for the local bakers, Wooley’s of Arran to carbo load ahead of the coming tour. Mid-morning snack over and the ferry traffic cleared, we set off south on the first part of our clockwise circumnavigation. As soon as we left Brodick, we started on the first hill of the day. At this point the road doesn’t actually follow the coast but cuts off Clauchland headland, climbing through the forest to 114m before dropping back down to sea level at Lamlash. We took a short diversion out to Margnaheglish to take in the view of the north of Holy Island. Bernhard was intrigued by the idea of a monastery of jam making Buddhist monks who now live there.

From Lamlash it was an easy relaxed pedal round to Whiting Bay, where we stopped for a spot of bike fettling, as Ulli’s derailleur wasn’t changing gear quite as smoothly as it should. Derailleur fettled and running smoothly again, we decided it was too early for lunch and started the gentle climb up to Dippen. Beyond Dippen where the road reaches 130m, we had the choice of either carrying on along the main road which contours round above Kildonan, or dropping down into the village. So of course we took the road which went down to the village, which provided a very satisfying decent. Where the road levelled off briefly, we found a bench with a view out over the Sound of Pladda to the island of Pladda and, in the hazy distance, Ailsa Craig. A lovely spot for lunch.

Lunch over, we continued on through Kildonan to where the road turns abruptly and heads almost straight uphill to meet the main road at about 100m above the village. It was on this section of road that I recorded my slowest speed of the trip, dropping to 4 Km/h at one stage. The main road regained, we found the wind had turned more easterly and discovered the delights of wind assisted climbing. Along the south end of Arran you pass through rich rolling farmland, along some of the best stretches of tarmac on the island. There are good sections of road with smooth clean tarmac on sweeping descents which are a joy to ride on, sadly they are seldom more than a few hundreds meters in length.

At Lagg the road passes through a wooded area that hides a short sharp climb which you don’t see on approach, until you come round a bend and it rises up before you. Then on towards Sliddery and Corriecravie with a few good sweeping descents along the way, somewhere along here I recorded my highest speed of the tour, just over 62 Km/h. Just past Corriecravie there is a field of Heilan’ coos above the road, there are steep steps worn into bank by tourists making their way up to take photos. A word to the wise here, if you see a stock fence with plain wire rather than barbed wire along the top, have a look to see how it is attached to the posts before leaning against it to take photos. If it is carried on wee plastic insulators, the electric shock won’t really hurt you, but may come as a nasty surprise.

The road from Corriecravie to Kilpatrick follows along the top of low cliffs with fine views across the Kilbrannan Sound to Kintyre. If you are lucky you will see gannets (Morus bassanus) diving for fish, a spectacular and memorable sight. Unfortunately the day we passed by, there were only two hungry gannets scouting up and down, and no fish to be had. Beyond Kilpatrick we passed the Lochside Guesthouse where we weren’t staying the night and took the sharp left bend which led us into Blackwaterfoot and a search for ice cream.

The stats for anyone who is interested were:

  • Distance cycled – 47.2 Km
  • Time spent riding – 2:19:31
  • Max Speed – 62.2 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 20.3 Km/h

Continues in Cycle Round Arran (Part 2), also see Machrie Moor Circuit

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“Come on get up”
“Um, What time is it?”
“Six O’clock, come on get up, we have to catch the train!”

Vaguely the memory of a conversation from the night before crept across my sleepy mind, “Lets go cycle round an island, how about Great Cumbrae?” So it was that I found myself cycling up to Haymarket Station at some god forsaken time in the morning, alright it was seven O’clock, but it was seven O’clock on a Saturday morning. On the upside, this meant there was no other traffic about and, even better, all the traffic lights were green!

There is one disadvantage of using Haymarket Station when cycling. Despite the best efforts of Anne Beag (the wheelchair bound MSP for Aberdeen South), the only access to the platforms is by stairs. Fortunately we weren’t in a hurry nor were the bikes heavily loaded, so it wasn’t any real problem. Train to Glasgow Queen Street, then change to Glasgow Central and catch the train to Largs. The great thing about trains is that once you have got the bike on board, you can sit down and go to sleep, especially when you are getting off at the end of the line. From Largs station to the ferry terminal takes just a couple of minutes, and with one of those brilliant pieces of integrated timetabling for which Britain is rightly famous, you arrive just in time to see the ferry leaving the slipway. This gives the passenger a good 20 minutes before boarding the next ferry, to buy their tickets and read the poster describing the delights of Cumbrae on the ticket office wall. Having done so, how you spend the remaining 15 minutes is up to you.

Great Cumbrae is not a large island, unless you are comparing it with Wee (or Little) Cumbrae. Cumbrae, the bigger one that is, has about 20 miles of road if you include all the back wynds in Millport, (the “capital”). Wee Cumbrae has none, but was on the market a year ago for the bargain price of £2.5m, mind you that was the offers over price. Wee Cumbrae was formerly the home of Robert II of Scotland and has its own castle on the imaginatively named Castle Island, but I digress. It is somewhat difficult to get lost on Cumbrae, as there are only really two roads, the B896 which circles the island just above sea level and an inner circular road which goes over the hill passed the Glaid Stone (there is really only one hill on Cumbrae, Barbay Hill, but it has a couple of sub tops which lay claim to being hills) in the middle reaching a height of 127m.

From a cycling point of view this hill is worth doing, tackled from the north it provides a short but satisfying climb (or should that be sprint). If the climb hasn’t taken your breath away (you weren’t sprinting hard enough), the views will (especially on a clear day). To the north east lies Ben Lomond, to the west, Bute and on a clear day you can see across Bute to Kintyre and the Paps of Jura. To the south west is Wee Cumbrae and in the distance Arran. To the east the views include the Ayrshire hills, Hunterston power station and coal terminal on the mainland, but then you can’t have everything.

Carrying on from the summit, working on the principle that which goes up must come down, is an enjoyable downhill ride. The first bit twists and turns, then the road straightens and over about 700m of fairly smooth tarmac looses 40m in altitude, allowing a good speed to be achieved. But be warned, at the end of this straight the road turns 95° to the left, where it swings round the “Breakthrough” farmstead, and the road surface deteriorates. Should you or any of your party come a cropper at this point, at the crossroads 50m further on, take the left turn which leads to the island hospital. The other two roads from the crossroads lead into Millport.

Millport, a “perfectly preserved” Victorian seaside town, is home to most of Cumbrae’s population of 1,300 people (according local council or 800 according to the BBC, I guess there are fair number not paying their TV licences), the narrowest house in Britain, three bike hire shops, a few half decent pubs (if my memory of the second year zoology field course serves me right), and a scattering of small shops and tea rooms (many of which are for sale), and the Crocodile Rock. Millport is also home to the Cathedral of the Isles, the smallest cathedral in Europe One of the ministers was fond of offering up a prayer for “the islands of Great and Little Cumbrae and the adjacent islands of Great Britain and Ireland”. Yes, while only 10 minutes from the mainland, Cumbrae is in a world of its own!

Leaving Millport, there are three ways back to the ferry:

The fastest is via the B899 up Ninian Brae, which would be a pleasant cycle if it were not for the cars rushing to catch the ferry to visit the flesh pots of Largs or what they would call doing the weekly shopping!

The second takes the road up the eastern coast of the island, which takes you past the University Marine Biological Station, with its attendant museum and public aquarium. This obvious tourist honey pot and money spinner is open year round, but closed at weekends (well it is a long way from London). Then there is the Lion Rock, an impressive volcanic dyke which looks vaguely like a crouching lion, or is it a bridge built by the fairies with holes knocked in by the goblins?. Either way it has recently undergone a £10,000 facelift. There is also the National Water Sports Centre, which was of course closed when we passed it.

The third route follows the western coast, this quiet road is popular with cycling families, probably because it is the longest way to get to the ferry and so none of the locals bother driving along it. The views across to the Isle of Bute are far more scenic than those on the east coast, Hunterston power station and the coal terminal. The road runs along a raised beach, which leads one to speculate what climate change and rising sea levels will do to Hunterston power station and the coal terminal. Reaching the north end of the island, you pass another (closed) Outdoor Centre and Stinking Bay, before arriving at Tormont End. Here Håkon IV of Norway landed on the 30 September 1263, the night before the Battle of Largs, the last Viking action in history. The battle was little more than a series of skirmishes, but it ended the last Norwegian invasion of Scotland, if you rule out the summer booze cruises from Bergen to Aberdeen.

From here it is only a few minutes ride back to the ferry slipway. It is notable that, while a ticket is required to get onto the island, none is required to return to the mainland. Once back in Largs there is a least 30 minute wait for the train, which leaves just enough time to get a Nardini´s ice-cream, highly recommended.

Millport: capital of Great Cumbrae

Addendum: For those who are interested, Wee Cumbrae was sold in 2009 for around £2m to the Poddar family from Glasgow.

If you are interested in cycling around Bute, see here.

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