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Tuscany calling, an MTB tour (day one)

Tuscany calling, an MTB tour (day one)

When arriving in a new place, there is often a moment of disconnection when you see something you think is familiar and then find it is not. For me, one such moment came as we circled waiting to land at Pisa, looking out of the window at a forest canopy below, there were bulbous, lollipop shaped tree tops sitting above the canopy, looking like broadleaf but with the colour of pines. These were maritime pines (Pinus pinaster), native of the western Mediterranean, and a reminder that it had been a long time since I last visited the Mediterranean.

When you mention Pisa, most people’s first thoughts are of social media images of tourists pretending to prop up/push over a medieval stone tower, thereby (mostly) subconsciously celebrating one of the great inventions of the Italian Renaissance, the use of perspective in art.

In some way this can be seen as part of the modern pattern of fast tourism, rather like fast food: turn up, Instagram the experience and hop back on the bus to the next iconic site without appreciation of the space in-between or time for refection. However, we weren’t here for quick-snap tourism, but as guests of Italia Slow Tour to explore the Valdinievole area, in the heart of Tuscany, by mountain bike. There were seven of us, Dries and Nele from Belgium, Bastian and Natalie from Germany, Mara from Milan, plus Ulli and me, with our local bike guides Massimo and Graziano of Bike Experience Tuscany (Oh and we were also followed round by small film crew).

Our first day out started with a short ride from the hotel to the station, learning to ride The Italian Way. Apparently in Italy it is perfectly acceptable to cycle the opposite way up a one way street, certainly we got no hassle from motorists coming the other way, as we all agreed would have happened at home. Similarly to my Slow Tour trip to Milan last year I was surprised how tolerant Italian drivers are of cyclists generally. All 9 of us took a train to the nearby town of Pescia. Here again it was interesting to contrast with the situation at home in the UK, where the rail companies are trying to keep bikes off trains, here (as with other parts of mainland Europe) getting the whole group with all nine bikes onto a train is not an issue, which makes cycle tourism much easier.

The town of Pescia was once famous for silk production, but now more so for its flower market. However, in September the carnations are out of season, and as we cycled out of the town along high river banks, we looked down on rows of empty polytunnels, and nurseries with rows of trees in pots destined to be planted out in parks and gardens across Europe. The riding was easy under a bright blue sky, those of us from the more northern latitudes, the Belgians and the Scots enjoying the unaccustomed warmth. However, those from southern Germany and Italy, like the polytunnels, were preparing for winter.

After waving to the film crew on the far bank and crossing a bridge, we headed away from the river towards Montecarlo. No, not THAT Monte Carlo, this one is a Medieval Borgo, the term Borgo has the same roots as borough in English or Burg in German, meaning that it was a self governing settlement. The name Montecarlo actually just means Charles’ Mountain. The Charles in this case was the elected King of Bohemia (1347) who also owned a wee place called Luxembourg and went on to become King of the Romans (1349), King of Italy (1349) and King of Burgundy in 1365, which made him the the ruler of all the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire. Yes, he was also the Holy Roman Emperor… Keep up at the back there!

Now as the name suggests, Montecarlo is on top of a hill, so there was a bit of a climb to get there, but it is worth it. Along the way you pass though olive groves and vineyards, Montecarlo is famous for its wines and has an annual festival to celebrate them (which sadly was the week before we got there). The borgo was one of our refreshment stops where we were treated to generous serving of antipasto accompanied by several bottles of wine (this was just elevenses, you understand).

Suitably refreshed, we had a wee stroll about the town and were taken to see the Teatro dei Rassicurati which from the outside looks much like the other buildings around it, but inside is an amazing pocket theatre. It is the second smallest theatre in Europe, with the smallest being in Budapest. Sheds used as venues in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival don’t count apparently. Built in 1795, it was was extensively restored in 1894. In the inter-war period, it fell into disuse and by 1966 it was at risk of demolition, however, it was rescued and restored again in 1973 and is now in regular use. The oval auditorium seats 140 and is surrounded by 22 tiny boxes spread over two levels above, and an impressive painted ceiling. One of the theatre goers in the late nineteenth century was young Giacomo Puccini, who went on to become one of the greatest composer of Italian opera. One wonders how much this experience influenced his later work.

We set off once again, riding though the Tuscan countryside, occasionally stopping for photos and to watch the olive trees being pruned, well I stopped to take a photo, the others just went on…

Pruning the olives

Our next scheduled stop was the Quercia delle Streghe or the Witches Oak. An amazing oak tree (Quercus pubescens), estimated to be up to 600 years old with a girth of ~4.5m and a canopy circumference of ~40m. Legend has it that a group of witches held their sabbatical rites right on the branches of the tree, creating the broad lateral grow we see today. Personally, I think it much more likely that the tree was pollarded and the branches trained out laterally, probably originally to increase acorn masting for pigs.

Quercia delle Streghe or the Witches Oak

There is also another story this tree is famous for, it is where Pinocchio was hanged by the assassins who wanted to steal his four gold coins. In Carlo Collodi’s original story (first published in 1881) the tale ended at this tree, with Pinocchio dying at the end of chapter 15. However, Collodi’s publisher didn’t like this ending, as the story was serialized and proving very popular, so he persuaded Collodi to allow Pinocchio be rescued by the the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (or “Blue Fairy” in the Disney version), and then to write another 21 chapters. The full story was published in 1883 as the The Adventures of Pinocchio, and later became an international best seller and was turned into a sanitised Disney film.

Photo and cultural/nature stop over, there was a glorious dirt road descent, ideal for testing the bike’s front suspension and tyre traction. The next stop was San Gennaro, and of course, this being Tuscany, the hamlet is on top of a hill. To get there, we rode single track Strade Bianche through the woods, olive groves and vineyards, arriving back on tarmac just below the village.

Strade Bianche

We stopped by a traditional drinking fountain with a stone trough to fill our water bottles, the day was getting very warm (from a Scottish perspective). Although it was nearing lunchtime, culture comes before food, with a visit to “the old Roman Pieve”. Yeah, I had to look up Pieve too, according to Wikipedia it is a rural church. Being one of the oldest buildings in the village (dating from 980 AD) it was near the top of the hill. To get there, there was a winding cobbled street, with a final ramp of 18%!

San Gennaro

Was it worth it? Yes. The sign board outside said that it retained “its original Romanesque characteristics”, while also noting that the capitals at the tops of the columns were decorated in “Pre-Romanesque style”, basically recycled from earlier buildings. The sign also says “Of particular interest inside the ambo [Catholic term for pulpit] dating back to 1162 … ”. However, oddly, the sign board neglects to mention this wee church’s greatest treasure, a polychrome painted angel statue, is the only known statue made by Leonardo Da Vinci himself (confirmed by Carlo Pedretti).

Da Vinci's angel

The thing about visiting all this cultural stuff is that it does make you rather peckish, fortunately it was just a short distance down the hill to lunch at Ristoro Il Corno, just a simple four course affair, you understand. I can highly recommend the Pecorino Toscano with honey.

pecorino with honey

With a few calories to burn off, we set out for Collodi, a name you might recognise from above. Carlo Collodi is actually the pseudonym of Carlo Lorenzini, who took the name Collodi from the village where his mother came from, and it was that village we where aiming for. On seeing it for the first time, I was struck by the way it appears to tumble down the hillside and is then terminated by the seemingly overblown Villa Garzoni at the bottom. What I couldn’t see from that angle was the water gardens attached to the villa, nor for that matter could I see the Parco di Pinocchio (a theme park dedicated to a wooden puppet). For the record, the Villa Garzoni was on sale for a mere €19,000,000 a couple of years ago, just in case you happen to find a winning Euro Millions lottery ticket down the back of the sofa.

A view of Collodi, Tuscany, Italy

We visited the lower part of Villa Garzoni’s water gardens and the Butterfly House. Collodi is on the list of places I would like to visit again, I would like to have the time to explore the village itself and also see more of the water gardens. Not sure I would go to Parco di Pinocchio, although we were told that it isn’t just for kids, there is stuff for adults there too, with the original tale far darker than the Disney version many of us are familiar with.

Villa Garzoni’s water gardens

Via delle Fiabe (the path of the fairy tales)

Leaving Collodi, we followed the Via delle Fiabe (the path of the fairy tales) back to Pescia, which partly follows an ancient mule track paved with flag stones. While this may sound like straight forward riding, it was highly technical in parts, in particular the 15% descent with stone cross drains on the path followed by a narrow bridge and a hairpin turn. Walking this section is highly recommended (which we all did). The path is great fun and takes you through some lovely scenery before eventually bringing you out onto black top on a ridge overlooking Pescia, with the final part of the route all downhill, which was also a lot of fun. Then it was train back to Montecatini Terme where we were staying (at the bike Hotel Arnolfo), a spa treatment, and an amazing five course dinner of Tuscan specialities at the restaurant Arnolfo.

If you’d like a different view of the same trip, you can read Dries’ travel diary here and Nele’s travel diary here. Oh and that film crew that was following us, here’s the film they made, hope you enjoy it 🙂

If you’d like to follow the route it is here:

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Down Dumfriesshire way (Part 2)

Down Dumfriesshire way (Part 2)

If you haven’t read part one (Saturday to Tuesday), it is here.
Which brings us to Wednesday: it rained, so we watched the Olympics on TV and made just one brief foray out to the Lockerbie Truck Stop, to get a paper.

On Thursday, we had two objectives: one, to visit a Historic Scotland property so that we could use our membership card and two, to meet up with a fellow blogger. Given these requirements, the obvious places to go to were Caerlaverock and Dumfries. The ride down to Caerlaverock was fairly straightforward, riding along the pretty, quiet roads of Annandale, although it was somewhat into the wind. At Dalton we had the novelty of finding a village with a pub (which hosts a Thai restaurant), but it was too early for lunch so we carried on south. Apparently, Dalton also has a Pottery Art Café, which is the sort of business which I had hoped to see more of, but we didn’t, because we took an even quieter road (and there were no signs for it in the centre of the village).

Further along the road, before reaching Ruthwell, we missed the opportunity to see the Ruthwell Cross, one of the finest Anglo-Saxon crosses in the UK. I think there was a sign for this, but it wasn’t until I did the research for this post that I realised it was worth a detour. Oh well, next time. We also missed the Savings Banks Museum, this one was clearly signed posted in Ruthwell, another thing to visit next time round. It was at Ruthwell that we picked up the NCN 7 Lochs & Glens (South) cycle route. For few miles we were side on to the wind for a change rather than a head wind, but it wasn’t to last. At Bankend we turned straight into the wind once again, I took the front forging forward allowing Ulli to shelter behind me. It was hard work but didn’t mind, well until the road started to rise up I started to flag, at which point Ulli promptly nipped out and dropped me. That girl watches too much pro cycle racing on TV… *Sigh*. (She tells me she was doing a Froome, to my Wiggins being left behind, without the race radio calling her back.)

Arriving at Caerlaverock Castle, I was relieved to find that Historic Scotland has a lovely little café with friendly staff and good food. The castle was the seat of the Maxwell family, and in times past would not have been a comfortable place for a member of the Johnston clan, but those days are gone. In the August sun I rather enjoyed wandering about taking photos of this relic of the past in complete freedom.

Caerlaverock Castle

Caerlaverock Castle

It was also interesting to take the short walk through an area of wet woodland to the site of an earlier castle, it was fascinating. There is very little of this type of woodland left in Scotland today, but at one time it would have covered large areas of southern Scotland. So much so that the Romans thought that Northern Scotland was an island cut off from the south by a sea of bog and swamp.

The other good thing about visiting Caerlaverock Castle is that it has a café (have I mentioned the café already?), which is probably why the cycle parking was also full. As it was now late lunchtime, we took full advantage of the café facilities, before setting off for the place a blogging friend of mine calls Big Town, yes, the mighty metropolis that is Dumfries. To get there was simply a case of following the NCN 7, but some of the signage is rather interesting in its suggested routing.

The NCN 7 cycle route goes where?

Once you have found your way across the Nith, it is a straight forward ride into Dumfries.

Riding the NCN 7 beside the Nith

Riding the NCN 7 beside the Nith

Once in the great metropolis, we looked for the café where we had agreed to meet the lovely Sally Hinchcliffe AKA Town Mouse, who is not nearly as disgruntled as she likes to make out (unless you leave a cheeky comment on her blog). The café in Dock Park would make an idea cycling café, if they went to the effort of adding some cycle parking.

It is one of the ironies of Dumfries and Dumfriesshire that with a little effort it could be a cycling paradise, if they invested in decent infrastructure and made it more welcoming. This is an economically fragile area which has great tourism potential but, they really are missing a trick. A recent European study found that cycle tourism is worth over €44 billion per annum. That is a very big cake, and it is growing. It is also one which Scotland should be trying to take a large slice of, an argument I am sure Cycling Dumfries is making to the powers that be on a regular basis.

After a wee infrastructure safari around Dumfries, looking at the bike hire scheme, some of the pedestrianised centre and some badly congested roads which could easily be sorted out by a Dutch traffic engineer, we could easily see what great potential Dumfries has. If only the town council could see it, Dumfries could be a true cycling town and a very much more pleasant place to live and visit. Interestingly, there are quite a few bike shops in Dumfries, which suggests that bicycle ownership is fairly high. As I was having a wee bit of bother with getting smooth changes on my rear gears, we were taken to probably Dumfries’s best bike shop: Kirkpatrick Cycles. New gear cable fitted, we wended our way home.

Friday: as this was our last full day for touring, we chose to have a relatively flat day, taking in Ae and Lochmaben. The day was punctuated with threats of rain, this never really came to anything (if you discount one short shower where we took cover beneath some trees for ten minutes). This however did offer the opportunity to take a dramatic landscape photo.

Storm clouds over Ae Forest

The Forest of Ae is a part of the 7stanes (a network of eight mountain biking centres in southern Scotland), and as such I had expected to find a café and shop. But no, the 7stanes website tells me that “Ae, Scotland’s shortest village name is only 20 minutes from the M74 motorway” and “No catering or bike hire available onsite until further notice. Nearby Dumfries has plenty of food and drink options” which says a lot about how this area is failing to capitalise on it cycle tourism potential, they don’t actually expect people to cycle there. Riding up to the village of Ae, there is a pub, but it is only open in the evenings, great.

So onwards, next stop the Barony Country Foods farm shop, or at least that was Ulli’s choice of next stop. However as the Carse of Ae is on a rather good downhill run, I shot straight past and didn’t stop until the road flattened out. Ulli wasn’t best pleased as we pedalled back up the hill. Shopping completed, we carried on to Lochmaben in search of a café for lunch. Fortunately there is a baker’s and café in the middle of the High Strett which served the purpose, sadly no cycle parking outside.

Lunch over, we headed off to see Lochmaben Castle which is now much ruined. It has had a long and turbulent history until the mid 17th century, by which time it had seen its last siege and was gradually abandoned. Originally build by the orders of Edward I of England in 1298, it should not to be confused with an earlier castle built by the Bruce family a short distance away, which is now one of the greens of a nearby golf course. This Lochmaben Castle consists of a few substantial ivy covered walls which could pass for a lost temple in a rain forest. To make sense of it, you really need to read the interpretation boards.

Lochmaben Castle

Lochmaben Castle

It changed hands throughout the wars of independence. At one time it was under the control of Archie the Grim, 3rd Earl of Douglas. Sometime later during a lull in the wars between England and Scotland, James IV stopped by for an evening of cards with Lord Dacre, Warden of the English March. According to the Lord Treasurer of Scotland, James lost 46s 8d that night. Another royal visitor was Mary Queen of Scots who slept there, well she did get around a lot. A relative of Mary’s, the Earl of Bothwell, captured the castle in 1592, after he entered disguised as a woman and left a door open for his followers. It also played a role in the bitter feud between the Johnstons and the Maxwells, as did most of Dumfriesshire. At some time after 1628 Lochmaben Castle fell into disrepair and stone was robbed out to build Annandale House on the High Street in Lochmaben.

Saturday: We had to be out of the cottage a couple hours before we were due to catch the train we had a reservation for, so we took the long way to the station. Due to a slight disagreement over route, it ended up shorter than intended, however this did mean that we had to fill in time by going to a bakery in Locherbie and putting more money into the Dumfriesshire economy.

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The way back from Broughton

The way back from Broughton

We had cycled down to Broughton from Edinburgh the day before, and now the day dawned bright (well dawn had actually been some hours before). It had been a peaceful night, apart from the odd bark from the farm dogs down the road, and the strange noises from across the road. Setting out we noticed that the horse which had been in a temporary paddock across the road, had disappeared, but this is the Scottish Borders which has a long tradition of lifting livestock, so a spot of horse rustling was only to be expected. Then again, maybe it was just that the other guests at the B&B (who had left early) were part of the big riding group touring the Borders. As we had entered Broughton the day before we had noticed a large collection of temporary paddocks, each with a single horse, in a field just outwith the village. Either way, it was a glorious day to be touring (in our case by bicycle) in the Scottish Borders.

Broughton Heights

Riding into the village, we briefly considered stopping at the Buchan museum, but only briefly. The museum is dedicated to John Buchan, son of a Free Church minister, the some time author, lawyer, and politician, who used to holiday in the village as a child, with his grandparents. After writing a few books, making some money and doing a wee bit of travel, he had a holiday home built in the style of a 17th-century tower house, in 1938, to reflect his newly acquired title of 1st Baron Tweedsmuir. Not that he had much time to enjoy it, as he was packed off to Canada as Governor General and died there of a stroke in 1940. One day we will get around to visiting the museum, just not on this day. Another thing I would like to have done in Broughton was to visit Broughton Ales, having enjoyed their Clipper IPA the night before, but on this occasion it was a wee bit early in the morning for visiting a brewery.

We turned away from the main road to follow the River Tweed eastward, passing Drumelzier with its ancient hill forts and the remains of Tinnis castle. According to Arthurian legend, the wizard Merlin was imprisoned in a thorn tree, by Morgan la Fay, somewhere in this glen.

Another local story talks of a character called Merlin Sylvestris, court bard to Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio, who ruled a kingdom around the Solway Firth in the middle of the 6th century. This was a rather fractious period in British history, the Romans had just left, the Saxons had started moving in and the native Brythonic warlords were carving out kingdoms for themselves. So it was that Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio picked a fight with Riderch Hael, King of Strathclyde, they met in a bloody skirmish (which became known as the Battle of Arderyth) in 573 somewhere near Peebles. The battle saw the annihilation of Gwenddoleu’s army, however Merlin survived and fled into the forest, suffering a bad case of PTSD.

While he was wandering about the woods, he bumped into a monk called Kentigern (A.K.A. St. Mungo, who went on to found an obscure town on the banks of Clyde), who spent a long time talking to him. He eventually converted Merlin to Christianity, which in the dark ages was the standard treatment for PTSD, if the chroniclers are to be believed. Merlin’s conversion took place at Altarstone which is a wee bit further down the glen on the far side of the Tweed (the actual stone now forms part of the baptismal font in Stobo Kirk). At his baptism, Merlin foresaw his own death, forecasting that he would suffer three deaths, being cudgelled, drowned and stabbed.

Later the same day he had a run in with a group of Riderch Hael’s followers, who bludgeoned him with cudgel, knocking him into river. He was carried down stream and impaled on a stake. Merlin was buried between the Pausayl Burn and the river Tweed, marked with a thorn tree. This is not quite the end of the story, though, move forward to the 13th Century and Thomas Learmonth, A.K.A. Thomas the Rhymer (who had apparently spent seven years away with the fairies after falling asleep under a tree on the Eildon Hills, although he claimed that it was only three days). He penned some lines saying that “When Tweed and Powsail meet at Merlin’s grave, Scotland and England shall one monarch have.”

Zooming forward along the timeline again, to 25th July 1603, a flood caused the Tweed to burst its banks and meet with the Pausayl Burn, something which apparently hadn’t happened before or since. The same day in London, James the VI of Scotland was crowned James the I, King of Scotland, England, France and Ireland (the France bit was a wee bit presumptious, as the Tudors had already lost all the French possessions).

Now, had I researched all this before we set out for the weekend, we would have gone looking for Merlin’s grave, which is apparently marked by a small plaque at the base of a thorn tree. However, I didn’t, so we didn’t and now it is time to get back to writing about what we actually did.

As we approached Dawyck Botanic Gardens, Ulli asked if we should go in. I pointed out that we would have to pay, as I hadn’t brought my old RBGE ID badge with me. Doing things on the spur of the moment is great fun, but there are times when a wee bit of prior planning doesn’t go astray.

Beyond Stobo, to avoid the main road (A72), we turned off onto a footpath and crossed back over the Tweed. It was the sort of mad off-road route which I normally associate with the NCN cycle routes, but this time it was our choice to avoid the main road. At the end of the footpath there was a junction, with a “public” road to the right and an estate road straight ahead. At the start of the estate road there was a big notice stating that it was a “PRIVATE ROAD” and “No Entrance to unauthorised vehicles or bicycles unless on Estate business”. Evidently the owners, Elizabeth and David Benson, are unfamiliar with the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which established “statutory public rights of access to land for recreational and other purposes”. This includes the right to walk, ride a bicycle or a horse along any estate road. It is also interesting to note that in 2004 Barns Estate was described as the site of “Britain’s worst wildlife crime”, after the gamekeeper was convicted of poisoning 20 raptors. So we are not talking about enlightened land owners here.

We turned right onto the public road, a short way up we came across a dead mole (Talpa caeca) in the middle of the road. There was no obvious cause of death, but it was a sunny day, so maybe it had wandered onto the road over night then gotten lost and not been able to dig for shelter. Seeing a mole like that is very rare, so I was really surprised when a few hundred meters up the road and round the corner we came across another one. Other wildlife highlights of the day included four stoats (Mustela erminea) (three alive and dispersing into the hedgerows, one flattened on the road) and a buzzard (Buteo buteo) in a spruce tree (Picea sitchensis).

As we came down to The Glack, there was another junction, I saw a cycle route sign pointing straight ahead so headed off. I was about half way up the hill when I noticed that Ulli was no longer following me. I backtracked to the junction, to find her pointing to the cycle route sign pointing the other way, apparently that was the one we wanted. It was only after a check of the map that I noticed the route I had taken was a dead end. Oops.

Crossing the Manor Water, slightly to my disappointment, we took the southern route round Cademuir Hill. This meant that we missed out the viewpoint at Manor Sware, oh and a steep climb, but sometimes you just have to miss out on these things. Then again, the views we did get weren’t at all bad.

Scottish Borders landscape

Scottish Borders landscape

Cycle touring in the Scottish Borders

Onwards to Peebles then? No, stay south of the river and skirt through the King’s Muir, just as well that I wasn’t doing the navigating. Ulli was rather keen to visit the Osprey Centre at Kailzie, until she found that it was a shed by a pond with a video feed from the nest. Apparently the ospreys do occasionally fish from the pond, but this isn’t guaranteed, they are wild birds after all. Still, it did give us the opportunity to nip into the gift shop at the Gardens to get a wee present for the friends who were giving us lunch in Innerleithen.

Lunch over, we set out up the Leithen Water along the NCN 1, something we had done before, so rather than try to describe the ride up through the Moorfoot Hills (which you can read about in the above link), I thought I would put in some photos instead.

Looking up Glentress

Heading up Glentress, the Moorfoot Hills

Bikes and turbines

Topping out of the final climb on the shoulder of Broad Law, this time we were greeted with fine views to the Pentland Hills and north the Firth of Forth, Fife and beyond.

The Pentland Hills and the Forth from Broad Law, Moorfoot Hills

Coming down from Broad Law, as before, we were met with something of a headwind, which I decided not to fight and coasted rather than sprinting for speed. I was saving my energy for the road beyond Middleton, which, the last time we had been that way, had been appalling. This time we found that the worst sections had been resurfaced and it was considerably better than it had been, but there were still rough sections. Just past Middleton we stopped to look at Arthur’s Seat, home seemed so close, but we still had miles to go, and the small matter of crossing the river Esk. The Esk may only be a small river, but it runs in a steep sided glen, which makes it difficult to cross (unless you use one of the big busy roads which also involves negotiating some pretty gnarly roundabouts), whereas the NCN1 swings wide to the east on a large dogleg, to cross lower down the Esk, and then takes you on a winding route into Edinburgh. We prefer to leave the NCN1 at Carrington, cross the Esk above Dalkeith and take a more direct route into the city.

We decided to cross at Roslin Glen, this is not an ideal route for everyone, most sane people wouldn’t welcome a 16% climb after 80Km of riding on a bike with panniers, but we knew from experience that we could do it, if we took it slow and steady. I was surprised to find that I didn’t have to drop to the lowest gear available, and that when I reached the top on the Roslin side, I still had a couple of cogs to spare, so I am starting to wonder if it really is 16%?

Another thing which may seem odd about our choice of route was the decision to go to Gowkley Moss (rather than through the village to Bilston). For those who don’t know the area, the roundabout at Gowkley Moss is big and scary (and that is not just for cyclists), so why were we choosing to go that way? Well there is a secret way around for cyclists wanting to bypass the roundabout. Just before you get there, turn right unto the old road, which comes to a dead end after 50 m, then follow the path past the roundabout and you will come out just by the pedestrian crossing lights on the north side. From there it is a straight run into Edinburgh.

There is a map of our route here.

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 93.9 Km
  • Time spent riding – 04:38:42
  • Max Speed – 50.8 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 20.2 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – 750 ca. m

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Dog leg to Broughton

Dog leg to Broughton

The borderlands of southern Scotland must be one of Scotland’s best kept secrets. Few of Scotland’s visitors ever stop there, preferring instead to just head straight through on the big roads towards the far more famous Highlands. This provides those of us who enjoy touring by bicycle with an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity: to ride and explore an area of dramatic and contrasting landscapes, which is relatively free of motor traffic. The challenge: to get there from Edinburgh while avoiding the big roads with fast motor traffic. At this point I should make it clear that when I talk about the Scottish Borders, I am referring to them in their historical context, rather than the modern administrative area of the Scottish Borders Council

After a late spring and a poor early summer, we were both keen to get out touring but were less fit than in previous years (well I was at least, less fit that is). So the first question was, where to go? Having explored some of the eastern side of the Borders previously, we felt it was time to have a look at some areas further to the west. I had long wondered about going down the west side of the Pentland Hills as an access route to the Borders. However, Ulli is not so keen on the idea of riding on the A70. After a (long) period of staring at the map we realised that there was a network of wee roads just to the west of the A70 and these could give us the quiet access route we where looking for. Having found a way in, we had to decide where to go next. We thought it would be a good idea to swing east, and stop overnight in Broughton. Then the next day we could head over to Innerleithen to see some friends, before heading back to Edinburgh along the NCN1.

Well that was the plan, and plans are there to be changed. The first change came when we decided to miss out the tedious bit out to Livingstone and use the train instead. The purists may object to this approach, but I prefer to take a pragmatic approach and enjoy the bits I choose to ride. Besides which, bikes travel free on trains in Scotland and the fares for the two of us weren’t going to break the bank.

Having left the train at Livingston (South) station, we set off to find the next place to deviate from the plan. This didn’t take long as we sailed past the left turn we should have taken and ended up on the A71 instead. Now this road does have a cycle lane painted on it, but several motorists seemed unaware of its purpose and insisted on trying to drive down it. Fortunately we managed to find an industrial estate to cut through and get back to the planned route.

With the urban sprawl that is Livingston behind us, we were out into open countryside, a mixture of buggered heathland, buggered acid grassland, and plantation forestry. We also had a fine view of some of the West Lothian bings, a legacy of one Scotland’s previous energy booms (whether it be oil shale or coal). Ahead of us, looming up out of a forest plantation, was a symbol of the next Scottish energy boom, a couple of the turbines of the Pates Hill Wind Farm, towering above the trees.

West of Hartwood

Headed towards Pates Hill wind farm

Personally I find these structures majestic, I know they are not to everyone’s taste, but they are a lot more benign than Scotland’s previous energy booms. Up close, I was surprised by how quiet they were. The sound of the 107 m blades turning was drowned out by the noise of a bunch of model aeroplanes being flown by the West Calder & District Model Flying Club. Whether this would be different in higher winds, I know not.

We crossed out of West Lothian into South Lanarkshire, and passed by a row of former miners’ cottages at Woolfords, another legacy of the oil shale industry, no other obvious sign of the open cast mining could be seen. This was the first time we had cycle toured in South Lanarkshire and we weren’t sure what to expect. The area has a grim post industrial reputation, but we saw little sign of this, for the most part it was just rough grazing. Dotted about the place there were new built houses which did look totally out of place. They were mostly of brick construction and no architectural merit, they wouldn’t have looked out of place in Essex, but were totally wrong for southern Scotland, there was nothing of the vernacular about them. The people we passed (or were passed by) were all friendly, no hassle from the few drivers we saw on these quiet back roads, there were nods and smiles from two guys standing outside a pub.

Reaching Carstairs, we decided it was time for lunch. However, there was no café or tea rooms. There had been two pubs, the Village Inn (now boarded up) and the Carstairs Arms Hotel (now converted into a B&B), so we just went to the Co-op (the only shop). The village has seen better days in its long history, originally Caisteal Tarrais (Castle/Fort Land) the castle is said to have been demolished and converted to a church by the Bishop of Glasgow under orders from the Bishop of Rome in the 12th century. Another theory is that it was named after the Roman fort about a miles SSW of the village. It was made a Royal Burgh in 1128 by David I, 14 years before Lanark. Now it is better known for the nearby Hospital and the nearby railway station at Carstairs Junction, where the west coast mainline divides, sending trains to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

It was outside the Co-op that I found myself part of a strange conversation with a young lad in a large (on-road) four wheel drive-

Him: Excuse me, do you mind if I ask how far you ride that bike?
Me: Do you mean a day? [bemused]
Him: Yes
Me: Um, about 50 to 60 miles [80km – 100km is our normal daily distance for touring]
Him: 60 miles a day!?! [as if I had told him I rode the Tour de France, although I could use a wee bit of EPO, anyone know the combination for Contador’s fridge?]
Me: Yes [even more bemused]
Him: Do you not find that you burn out?
Me: Um, no [100km is a normal daily distance for touring, why would I burn out?]
Him: Well you are looking very well on it, very fit and healthy… [actually I am 5Kg over my idea weight, which I was at last year]
Me: Thank you.
Him: Thanks, Cheers..
With that I retreated to a picnic table on the green to eat lunch.

Lunch over, we set out again, heading south through Carstairs Junction (which seems bigger than the original village), shadowing the railway line and crisscrossing the River Clyde. At Covington, I tried and failed to get a satisfactory photo of the ruined tower house and the Doocot. At Thankerton, Ulli insisted on stopping to take photos of some Clydesdale horses. Ah, the joys of cycle touring, no rush, just stop and take photos where ever you think you can get a good picture.

Clydesdale horses in Clydesdale

Clydesdale photo taken, we crossed the Clyde for the last time and headed for Biggar, a busy wee market town on the banks of the Biggar Burn. There has probably been a settlement on the Biggar Burn since Mesolithic times as it is a natural cross roads, sitting as it does on the watershed between the rivers Clyde and Tweed. It also sits astride one of the main routes from SW Scotland to Edinburgh (A702) and the modern road follows the course of the earlier Roman road. These days, one of the most notable features of Biggar is that it is aiming to be the first Carbon Neutral town in Scotland. One thing is certain, it is most definitely not a clone town, it is full of independent shops which make it a great place to stop and browse. So naturally we had to find a café where we could sit outside with tea and cake.

Beyond Biggar, we had a choice of routes for passing the Hartree Hills, either stay on the north side or take the slightly shorter route around the south side. This might seem like an easy choice, but the difference in distance is only about 30m and there is the small matter of the two chevrons shown on the map for the southern route. After a short discussion we decided to part and meet up again at Kilbucho Place, needless to say that I was to take the high road. The climb between Knowehead and Crosscryne was interesting, a gain in elevation of 70m in the space of 500m and that was just to the junction. Having turned left around the end of the wood, I was disappointed to find there was another 20m of climbing before I could start the downhill. Yippie, but, it wasn’t a rapid descent as I couldn’t be bothered to push it, and I hadn’t even got half way to Kilbucho Place when the hill ran out. The onward road was undulating, fortunately this wasn’t a race because Ulli was there first by about a minute.

On the corner opposite Kilbucho Place we were introduced to Angus…
The name's Angus
… the sign post across the road didn’t show the way to Biggar and the owner of the cottage got a wee bit tired of being asked which way to Biggar, so he set up Angus to let people know. We didn’t need to ask direction to Broughton, as we could now see it nestling among the trees below its Heights.

Broughton and its Heights

Having arrived in Broughton we headed for the B&B, unloaded the bikes, went out to explore Glenholm glen, before heading into Broughton for supper at the Laurel Bank Tearoom Bar & Bistro. After all we had to make sure that we had done our 80 Km for the day.

There is a map of our route here.

My stats were (Station to B&B):

  • Distance cycled – 66.2 Km
  • Time spent riding – 03:22:01
  • Max Speed – 58.2 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 19.6 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – 530 ca. m

Details of the return ride are here.

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Tay to the Clyde – Part 3: Aberfoyle to Glasgow

Tay to the Clyde – Part 3: Aberfoyle to Glasgow

After a restful night at Corrie Glen B&B, we set off once more, this time on the final day of our ride from the Tay to the Clyde (a mixture of cycle routes NCN 77 and NCN 7). The previous evening we hadn’t taken much notice of the wee river which flows below the humpbacked bridge, but now we took time to have a look. While examining the map the night before, we had realised that this was the River Forth, which meets the sea just north (and west) of Edinburgh. Another feature of interest which we passed several times, but didn’t take the time to investigate was the Old Kirk and the story of the fairies of Doon Hill. (If you are wondering why it has taken so long for this post to appear, it is because I have been away with the fairies too much as it is). Oh well, that is something to check out the next time we are passing.

Despite missing the opportunity to do a spot of fairy hunting, we weren’t in a great hurry. As we left the B&B, one of the owners, Steve, told us that it was all downhill from now on, but there was a twinkle in his eye. Besides we had looked at the map, so we did know what was coming. The route out of Aberfoyle took us first through a car park and then onto another old railway line. I was looking forward to spending more time on tarmac today after yesterday’s experiences, fortunately this path was tarred and wasn’t too bad. When we reached a minor road, we went straight across to continue along the railway line without thinking about it. We had gone about 500-600m when we found a temporary barrier across the path (there was a farmer moving live stock). This caused us to get the map out and check where we were going, it was at this point that we realised we should have turned right at the road. The farmer came up and asked if we were going to Buchlyvie, we replied that we were headed for Drymen. He pointed us back to the road, suggested that we look for an off road path on the left “just after the pink cottage“, as this would take us around by Gartmore House and give us great views across the Carse of Stirling to the Wallace monument.

So it was we found our selves riding along the “Butler’s walk” towards Gartmore House which was worth the diversion (see below), although the view over the Carse was too hazy for photos. As we exited the house grounds there was an extraordinary gateway next to which was an information board about Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, an other extraordinary character: a politician, writer, journalist and adventurer. He was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP); the first-ever socialist member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom; a founder of the Scottish Labour Party (1888-1893); a founder of the National Party of Scotland; and the first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934, also one time owner of Gartmore House. From here we rode down through the pretty wee village of Gartmore, joining the NCN 7 Lochs and Glens cycle route once again.

Gartmore House

I tried again to get a photo of the Wallace Monument through the haze, while standing in a field gateway, and was almost being run over by a humungous tractor trying to get into said field to do some work. We set off on a long swooping descent to cross the Kelty Water at Chapelarroch, and then we started on the big climb of the day. Whilst this climb wasn’t as high or as steep as the ones we had done on the two previous days, it was long and sustained. We were now entering the southern arm of the Loch Ard Forest (part of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park), on the map it is shown as a large area of conifer plantation, however at some time in the last couple of years there has been a large clear felling on the east side of the road. I suspect that, before the trees were taken down, this section might have been rather midgie at certain times of year (not that we would have been affected this early in the year), but now with the opening up it should be less so for a few years.

The road going up through the forest is only a single track and in fairly poor condition. At one point we decided to give way to a group of cycle tourers descending at speed, not that I was bothered by this, as I welcomed the rest. As you reach the top of the climb, the trees give way to open moorland and while this isn’t especially high (the highest point, Bàt a’ Charchet, is only 230m), I can see that in windy conditions it could be quite exposed. Up here you do get some good views, and cycling past Muir Park Reservoir is pleasant. Just after passing the reservoir, we came across a group of walkers standing in the middle of the road looking at a map. I got the feeling they had accidentally started to follow the green dots of the NCN 7 instead of the red diamonds marking the West Highland Way, and were just discovering their mistake.

The descent down into Drymen was satisfyingly rapid, having arrived, we were pleased to see they had put out the bunting for us, or maybe that had something to do with a wedding in London. But then again, most Scots were studiously ignoring the marriage of the Earl and Countess of Strathearn, feeling that it had nothing much to do with them. So maybe it was just a local gala day in Drymen (the nature of these gala is that they last all week). Bunting aside, the one disappointment in Drymen was the signage in the centre which was poor. This was the first time we had really had a problem with finding our way by following the signs on either the NCN 77 or the NCN 7.

Having found our way to the edge of Drymen, we found the other form of signage which was not welcome, the “Cyclist Dismount” sign followed by steps, always a sign of lazy thinking. For some reason cyclists are expected to walk across the Drymen bypass (A 811), rather than treating the crossing like a cross roads. Do the people who think up these signs actually ride bicycles? At this point we were riding eastwards and into the wind for the first time on this tour, not something I entirely welcomed. Fortunately, we so turned southerly again and were sheltered by a hedge, not that the wind was that strong.

The next section of road was also part of the West Highland Way, and we met a number of walkers coming the other way, toiling under their heavy loads, not really enjoying the view to the north. I, on the other hand was rather enjoying being on the road. However, this was not to last, as the route soon took us onto yet another de-commissioned railway line. Unfortunately, where this one crosses the Endrick Water the old bridge has been removed, now there is a large pipe laying across the piers where the railway bridge once was. There is a narrow walkway on top of the pipe.

Looking north to the Trossachs, near Drymen
Looking north to the Trossachs, near Drymen.

The Pipe Bridge across the Endrick Water
The Pipe Bridge across the Endrick Water.

This walkway is so narrow I only had 5 cm clearance either side of my panniers, this made for a very uncomfortable crossing. I found riding at low speed there was a constant risk of catching one of the fencing, it was too narrow to walk with the bike. So it was I found my self having to walk the bike froward while off the saddle and astride the frame.

I was glad to leave the railway line once we had passed Croftamie, and join a minor road once more. This was easy riding through pleasant countryside with views to Ben Lomond. From here, it was odd to think that we were in West Dunbartonshire, the county which has the unenviable reputation for having the lowest quality of life in Scotland (not to be confused with East Dunbartonshire, a county which is listed as being among the areas with highest quality of life in UK). Before long we found ourselves being directed into the grounds of Balloch Country Park, which was all well and good, until the signs disappeared again. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the map we had wasn’t so old and the route not marked on it. After a wee bit of bimbling about looking lost, we found our way out into a car park, and thence to Balloch itself.

It now being lunchtime, we set about finding somewhere suitable to eat, after unsuccessfully trying a couple of pubs, we found ourselves in the hell that is Loch Lomond Shores, Balloch. I have never understood why a shopping development was allowed to by built in a National Park, it certainly wasn’t what John Muir had in mind when invented the concept of National Parks, but then it is in West Dunbartonshire. Nevertheless we did find an outside table and some food.

Lunch over, we worked our way back to the NCN 7 cycle route and followed it downstream alongside the River Leven. We were on an off road path again, but at least this one was metalled for the most part. I was surprised to see the number of anglers along the river, apparently it is a “premier Salmon and Sea Trout fishery“, we did also see the police arresting one of the anglers, probably for not having a permit.

At Denystown we were directed off the path and onto the road (well actually the signs told us to get off and walk, but we ignored them) to cross the river. From here on we were following the Clyde up river. Through Dumbarton we were sent along a mixture of minor roads and off road paths, regularly interspersed with “Cyclist Dismount” signs which we ignored. There was one point where a roadway crossed the cycle path and there was a sign saying “Caution, vehicles crossing”, which is a far more adult approach.

Dear reader, I have a confession to make, the title of this post is a bit misleading, we didn’t actually go all the way into Glasgow. After two and a half days of riding through the glorious countryside of the Southern Highlands, this urban riding was rather tedious, and by the time the Erskine Bridge came into view, I was getting rather tired of it. So we got to Bowling, I got bored, and we got the train home.

There is a map of our route here, and there is a slide show here (NB. this is for the whole trip and not in order).

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 57.84 Km
  • Time spent riding – 03:21:19
  • Max Speed – 58.68 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 17.26 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – ca. 360 m

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