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Cycle Round Arran (Part 2)

Cycle Round Arran (Part 2)

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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Machrie Moor Circuit

Machrie Moor Circuit

Having arrived early in Blackwaterfoot on the first day of our circumnavigatory tour of the Isle of Arran, we dispatched three ice creams (one each, I hasten to add). Then we (Ulli, Bernhard and myself) took the opportunity to leave out panniers at the B&B and head out to explore the famous standing stones at Machrie Moor. Given that it was only mid afternoon, the sun was still high, and we wanted to take photos when we got there, we took the longer way round. Instead of heading directly out to Machrie itself, we took a loop round it, so that we would be arriving when the light would be at its best.

So from Blackwaterfoot we headed up the String Road through Shiskine. The String Road cuts across the island and provides the access from the south west of the island to Brodick and the ferry, consequently is much used by tourists rushing to catch the ferry, which probably explains why it was on this road we had more problems with bad driving (and there were only few) than anywhere else on the island. For the most part the drivers were very good, the islanders themselves are very patient with cyclists and can follow you for a mile or more without trying to overtake. Indeed some won’t overtake until you wave them past, a novel experience for an urban cycle commuter.

Having passed through Shiskine, a quiet linear village, we found ourselves cycling past small farms on improved ground to the left and rising hill ground to the right, the road only rising gently. This would have been easy going if it had not been for a strengthening wind which took its toll on our tired legs, but was fun nonetheless. About 2.5 miles (4 Km) out of Shiskine we turned left onto the road leading to Machrie and crossed Machrie Water. With the wind finally behind us and just when the road was looking good, there was a sign saying ramp and a metre wide chunk cut neatly out of the tarmac, evidently some form of road repair is in progress. The first one took me by surprise, I managed to jump the bike up to avoid the worst of the impact, but judging by the noises from behind me the others were not so lucky. The next bit of fun came in the form of a cattle grid, now the trick with cattle grids is to keep the speed up and cross at right angles to the bars, which takes a wee bit of confidence, but isn’t too difficult. Faster is more comfortable but requires more confidence, and whatever you do, don’t brake or even think of turning the handle bars…

There was another cattle grid just before the golf course. Having safely crossed it, the sight of the sea told us that we were nearing the end of the road. We turned left again and headed back in the direction of Blackwaterfoot. Having re-crossed the Machrie Water, we started to look for the gateway on the left which gives access to the Stones. Cars are made to park on the far side of the road a little way back, but there is space to leave bikes at the entrance. There is a sign saying “no bikes”, no matter it is a pleasant enough walk. On the way in we heard our first Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) of the year, yes spring is definitely here.

If you have not been, it is best to arrive with no expectations, that way it is all the more surprising and enchanting when you do go there. So if you have not been there yet and are planning to go soon, stop reading now.

As you follow down the track towards Moss Farm, now a ruin, the first sign of ancient activity you come across is a Neolithic chambered cairn surrounded by a ring of stumpy Bronze Age stones, interesting but, to be honest, not hugely exciting. If this is your first visit, you start to wonder if it was really worth walking a mile for. But if you walk on round a corner, you see the ruins of Moss Farm and just beyond a few big beech trees the first large standing stones. As you walk further in, more and more stones seem to pop up out of the landscape and you notice that there are standing stones and stone circles all around. The landscape has a magical quality to it, these stones where set up during the Bronze Age, somewhere between 1800 to 1600 BC, before the surrounding blanket bogs had even started to form. The chambered cairn which you have already passed is even older, and you start to wonder how much more there is buried under the peat.

Photos taken and the site explored, the cooling breeze persuaded us that it was time to head back to the bikes, well that and the thought of dinner. The two and a bit mile ride back to Blackwaterfoot was fairly straightforward, apart from nearly being taken out by a bunch of local teenagers in a beat-up old car but ho-hum that sort of thing can happen anywhere.

Machrie Moor Staines 1 A view of one of the stones and some sheep. According to legend, the giant Fingal (Finn MacCumhail) tethered his dog Bran to this stone while he had dinner here one evening. If you look really carefully you will see there are more stones…

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Cycle Round Arran (Part 1)

Cycle Round Arran (Part 1)

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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