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Thoughts on the A9

Thoughts on the A9

A resent blog post by Lesley Riddoch set me thinking about the A9.

The one thing that really makes the A9 a dangerous road is the almost total absence of enforcement the rules of the road. There are only two fixed speed cameras (between Perth and Inverness), police patrols are rare, and there are no average speed cameras. If the Scottish government is really serious about improving safety, average speed cameras along the entire length would be the first step. It is not the foreign tourist that are causing the vast majority crashes and near misses on the A9, it is vehicles with UK plates are being driving aggressively. Calls for the duelling of the A9 are not about safety, they are about allowing people to drive faster and cut journey times by as much as 12 minutes (if the drivers stay within the speed limits).

As for railways before the 1960’s there was an extensive network of railways across the highland. The lost of these railways was a major setback to the economic development of the highlands. This combined with a steady lost of bus services is driving ever increasing levels of car dependency in an economically fragile area. This coupled with an ageing population is just storing up greater problems for the future.

Since the start of the first hydro schemes, Scotland has prided its self on the generation of renewable electricity. Trains and trams can be very effectively run on electricity. The electric car on the other hand, despite having been around for over a century has never taken off, and probably never will do. Building big shiny new roads is not the best solution for the Highlands, putting back the railways would be far more sensible. Sadly, instead of the sensible option, we are seeing cuts in rail investment and a massive amount of funding for the duelling of the A9 being brought forward.

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Coasts and Castles, a ride along the NCN1/76 (Part 3): Dunbar to Edinburgh

Coasts and Castles, a ride along the NCN1/76 (Part 3): Dunbar to Edinburgh

As a Scot, the concept of a healthy cooked breakfast is a novel concept, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed at the B&B in Dunbar. We had arrived in Dunbar the evening before after two days of riding along the Coasts and Castles cycle route (NCN 1 and NCN 76) from Alnmouth, via Fenwick and today we were planning to continue cycling back to Edinburgh.

From past experience we knew that the NCN 76 shadowed the A1 to Haddington, taking it away from the coast and completely bypassing the charming towns of North Berwick and Gullane, as well as the impressive ruins of Tantallon Castle. This seems an odd route choice for a National Cycle Network route called Coasts and Castles. After Haddington the NCN 76 does take you back to the coast at Longniddry, so that you can follow a rough off-road (traffic free) cycle track and enjoy the delights of Cockenzie power station and it intendant ash lagoons. What are Sustrans thinking of??

If I had been planning the route, I would have followed the current route to East Linton, but then used the network of minor roads to get out to Tantallon Castle. Then follow the A198 into North Berwick, which has: a regular rail service on which all trains carry bicycles without a booking, an award winning Seabird Centre, tea rooms, ice cream parlours and view to Bass Rock.
Bass Rock

Next, either follow the A198 or take minor roads to the village of Dirleton, to pick up another castle, followed by a visit to the pretty village of Gullane, with its splendid teashops, after all cyclists need a good cake stop. Then follow back roads to the B1377 near Aberlady, and on to Longniddry which is on the current route. However, from Longniddry I would head inland, after all, how many people really want to cycle around a coal fired power station? Instead follow quiet minor roads to Pencaitland, with a diversion to the Glenkinchie Distillery, if desired. At Pencaitland, Regional Cycle Route 73 can be picked up to provide an off-road (traffic free) section (which seems to be obligatory) and follow it to join the NCN 1 for the final run into Edinburgh. But, I digress, as we didn’t actually ride the route suggested above, that is just my suggestion for a more interesting and pleasant Coasts and Castles cycle route through East Lothian.

Setting out from Dunbar, we took a minor road round the back of the cottage hospital, used a farm track which ducks under the A1, then turned uphill to Pitcox. From Pitcox, we headed towards Stenton, but then turned off towards Bielmill. This was a good downhill straight, so I got the opportunity to get a speed buzz. I got as far as Bielmill before remembering that we were going to turn left half way down, to avoid the short sharp climb on the far side of the Biel Water, so I had to turn round and trundle back to where Ulli was waiting for me. We jinked our way round to the road passing south of Traprain Law, and we were pleased to see along the way that there several sections of newly surfaced road. At the end of this road we reached a cross roads, where we had planned to go straight ahead, but the road was closed.

We pulled just passed the traffic cones and were just debating whether to go on and walk past the works, or take a detour, when a car came past. The driver stopped 50 m down the road, then reversed back to talk to us. She told us that the road ahead was very bad and suggested that we try going around towards Garvald. When I objected that way would be a wee bit more hilly, she gave me a cheeky grin and said it wasn’t that bad and that she cycled that way every day. After she had gone I remembered where I had seen her before, the last time we had gone down that road, she had passed us in the car, then I had seen the car parked outside a cottage, and shortly after that she had shot past us on a Tri bike. Aye, I thought, she may well go round by Garvald on her training route, but I bet she didn’t carry 10+ Kg of luggage on her Tri bike.

After a short further debate, we decided to follow the suggested detour via Garvald, sure enough it was a wee bit more hilly, but then that is what the granny ring is for. Just before Garvald, we picked up the B6370 which we followed to Gifford. Coming down a hill just outside of Gifford, there was a Speed Indicator Device which showed my speed to be 33 mph (53.1 Km/h), so I stopped pedalling and coasted into the village. There was a threat of showers in the air, and Ulli wanted to press on, so we didn’t stop at the café, as we normally would.

We hadn’t got far when we were overtaken by a rain shower and took shelter in a bus shelter. Once the shower had passed, we pressed on to Pencaitland where we planned to join Regional Cycle Route 73 which runs along an old railway line. Just as we got to the railway line, Ulli’s bike decided it had had enough of this off road stuff and broke a spoke on the back wheel. As we didn’t have a spoke key with us and the wheel had already started to go out of true, we decided the safest thing to do was to go back to the road, gently ride to Longniddry and catch a train to Edinburgh from there…

There is a map of our route here.

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 52.1 Km
  • Time spent riding – 02:41:47
  • Max Speed – 53.5 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 19.3 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – 380 m


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Coasts and Castles, a ride along the NCN1 (Part 1): Alnmouth to Fenwick

Coasts and Castles, a ride along the NCN1 (Part 1): Alnmouth to Fenwick

So there I was standing, bleary eyed, on Platform 19 of Waverley Station, waiting for the 08:05 to Alnmouth. Fortunately it wasn’t long to wait and, once aboard the train, I was free to get back to sleep, it was a Saturday morning after all.

Waiting for the train

An hour later, suitably refreshed, we were clambering off the train with our bikes, ready to embark on a short cycle tour. The plan was to cycle all the way back to Edinburgh over two days. We had thought of starting further south, the official start point of Sustrans “Coast and Castles” cycle route is Newcastle upon Tyne,. It goes all the way to Aberdeen, and is in effect a sub section of the North Sea Cycle Route. However, as I have only just recovered from a heavy bout of flu, we decided to cut the route short. OK, so this meant missing out Hadrian’s Wall, but I somehow suspect that we do the whole of Hadrian’s Wall someday anyway.

Exiting from Alnmouth Station, we picked up signs for the cycle route straight away and followed them to the village of Alnmouth, which, to me, is nothing much to write home about, but did enable us to pick up some supplies (I had forgotten to pack a water bottle). Then onward, northwards, well you’d think it would all be northwards, but a quick look at a map showed it was also westwards, this would prove to be significant later in the trip.

Leaving Alnmouth behind, the route took us along quite minor roads, criss-crossing the east coast main line, which was to become a bit of a habit for the day. The other thing we encountered on leaving Alnmouth was a couple on a tandem with panniers heading in the opposite direction. I usually think of tandems as a rare sight, but on this day we saw another two and I started to wonder if there some sort of tandem event going on.

On reaching the wee village of Craster, to discovered there was a lifeboat fête going on. Despite the tempting looking home baking, we decided to carry on to Dunstanburgh Castle. This is not actually on the “Coast and Castles” route, but a couple of friends of ours had recommended visiting it. They had cycled across from Sweden, via the ferry to Newcastle, to see us in Edinburgh. They said that they preferred Dunstanburgh Castle to Bamburgh Castle and I agree, it is an impressive ruin. On the way out there was a sign saying “cyclists please dismount” but, as there was a van coming the other way, this seemed totally pointless, so I ignored it.

Dunstanburgh Castle

Having seen the castle, we decided that, rather than going back the way had come, we would follow the coastal footpath. At first this path was easy to cycle along, then we passed through a gate and path was routed between sand dunes and a golf course, it was far from ideal for road bikes, but it was fun practising some mountain bike skills. If I were doing it again, I would go part way back towards Craster, then turn on the path to Dunstan Square to rejoin the cycle route. Instead, we regained the NCN 1 at Dunstan Steads, where were once again routed along minor roads, winding our way northwards.

After crossing the railway a couple more times, we came to the large village of Seahouses, which was incredibly busy and choked with motor traffic. It is also home to the slowest cash machine in the country, or so I was told by one of the locals. Cash obtained, the next thing was lunch, so across the road to the bakers where, among other things, I bought two “Danish pastries”. Now, a Danish pastry is something normally made of puff, but these where so heavy they seem to have been made of some sort of oil dough. No matter, to hungry cyclists in need of carbs, they set us up for the day. We took them down to the sea front to eat, while sitting on a bench looking out to the Farne Islands, some bits white with guano, and the tourist boats going out to watch the birds.

Lunch over, we set off to look for the next castle on the list, Bamburgh. Having seen it, I tend to agree with our friends from Sweden that Dunstanburgh Castle is better. While looking for a view point to take some photos, we found ourselves atop some sand dunes north of the village. Just off shore there were some surfers trying to ride the slight swell, none of them were very good, but they provided some entertainment for a short while.

By now it was getting on for mid afternoon, and the thought of stopping in a tea shop had crossed my mind. We decided that Bamburgh was too touristy and too crowed for this and we would look for somewhere further along. Cycling out from Bamburgh we found ourselves heading into the wind, up ahead I saw a couple of touring cyclists and decided to overtake to take my mind of the headwind. When I caught up with them, I saw that they were both riding mountain bikes with wide knobbly tyres, which is an odd choice for touring, slick tyres are a better option for road use. Having said hello and passed them, I reached a turn off and realising that I have left Ulli behind, I stopped to wait. The other two tourers then passed me, turning right to follow the NCN1, no matter, there was a gentle up hill gradient and we soon passed them again.

A wee bit further on we came across an odd looking stone tower, about 20 m (65 ft) high. I suggested that it might have been Rapunzel’s tower and we stopped to take photos. It turned out to be The Ducket, a holiday cottage for two. It looks like a fun place to stay, if you can get a booking. While we were taking photos, the two tourers overtook us again, but not long after we passed them again for the last time.

Having run out of water, we decided to make a detour into Belford, but before we could get there, there was a wee bit of a surprise in store. The road had been fairly flat with the odd bit of undulation, but nothing to really raise the heart rate. We crossed yet another level crossing on the east coast mainline railway, then the A1, arterial transport routes tend to take the course of least resistance. We were just passing a quarry, I was reading the notice about blasting and would have missed a more pertinent road sign had Ulli not pointed it out to me, 17% uphill! Just in time I changed to the granny ring, before crawling up the hill. Having reached the top, we turned off the NCN 1 and swooped down into Belford to look for a tea shop.

Said tea shop found, we put away a litre of ice water each, followed by a large pot of tea, but following the heavy buns from lunch time we was nae hungry! Then it was back up the hill to rejoin the NCN 1, following minor roads, parallel and inland of the A1. At one point the road became an alley of cherry trees, which prompted a short stop for foraging. Shortly after there was a paddock with a couple of lamas in it, so we stopped to say hello. A wee bit beyond there was a hollow tree in which there was a wild bees ‘ nest. Then, as we passed Fenwick wood, we spotted a group of Monkey puzzle trees, some had large female cones (I didn’t see any male cones). You don’t get that sort of thing driving up the A1!

Cone on a  Monkey puzzle tree.

Not long after, we reached the wee village of Fenwick and the Manor House B&B, where we were to stay the night. We checked in so we could drop off a couple of panniers and have a bit of a rest before setting out for Lindisfarne. We knew there was no rush, as we had checked the tide times and found that the causeway wouldn’t be passable until 17:45.

Crossing to Lindisfarne.

We crossed the causeway amid a rush of cars on and off the island, however once on to the island proper, we came across a large car park where all visitors were required to leave their cars (only residents are allowed to drive further). This gave the rest of the island, in particular the village, a very tranquil feeling. There are many tourist places on the mainland that could learn from this model (which is not so uncommon in the rest of Europe), but then the village of Lindisfarne has been doing tourism for over a 1,000 years. St Mary’s church remains a place of pilgrimage (pilgrims being an early form of tourist), it is a quiet place, with swallows nesting in porch. Step outside and there is a strange howling noise that seemed to come from a small island, is it caused by the wind or birds, or the prayers of saints? Probably just the wind. [update] Having watched a wildlife programme on TV, I now realise it was grey seals (Halichoerus grypus)!

On the far side of the village, there is a fairytale castle sitting on a rocky outcrop, and upturned boats used as storage are among the other things to see.

Lindisfarne Castle

Having done some of the sights, we were ready for dinner and, having looked at a few menus, we settled on the Anchor & Crown, only to find that it was full. But we were fortunate, in that a Dutch couple (also on bikes) made room for us at their table in the bar. Chatting with the barman, I found that it was always busy, the island has 140 inhabitants, and ¾ of a million visitors a year. The food, when it came, was excellent. So my advice would be, as soon as you get to the village, book a table, then see the sights.

Dinner over, we cycled back to the mainland before it got too dark, the traffic was much quieter this time.

There is a map of our route here.

Part 2: Fenwick to Dunbar is here
Part 3: Dunbar to Edinburgh is here.

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 92.2 Km
  • Time spent riding – 04:35:20
  • Max Speed – 62.3 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 19.7 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – 360m

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Bimbling through the Borders (Pt 1) – Berwick to Galashiels

Bimbling through the Borders (Pt 1) – Berwick to Galashiels

After some effort, we managed to secure reservations for two bicycles on the train from Edinburgh Waverley to Berwick-upon-Tweed, that was the good news. The bad news was that it was on the 08:11 departure, and this was a Friday. We had decided to set out on Friday for two reasons, one because the weather forecast for Sunday was increasingly poor and we wanted to be back before the weather broke. The second reason had something to do with the date, which I always forget.

As we set out, the weather was glorious, blue sky, sun shine, light wind, what more could you ask for? The train journey south was uneventful, I dozed through most of it. Getting off the train in Berwick-upon-Tweed, it was grey and dull, no real surprise, well we were in England after-all, or maybe it was the haar caused by the onshore breeze? On our way out of the station, we found signs for the NCN 1 telling use that Edinburgh was 100 miles (160.9 Km) away, doable in a day for those who are into that sort of thing, or a good distance for a two day jaunt.

100 Mile to Edinburgh

Photos taken, we set off. The route is refreshingly well sign posted and quickly takes you out of town on quiet roads. However it wasn’t all good news, little more than 2 Km from the station you get a typical Sustrans experience. The route turns off a quiet farm road (which has a bridge over the A1) and down a narrow overgrown path with hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) on both sides, and then it pops you out on the A1 to cross a dual carriageway without a marked crossing. Safely across, we were soon back on a quiet country road, pedalling along through open farmland under a dull grey sky. Then, as we crossed over the Whiteadder Water and approached Gainslaw Hill, the sky started to clear and the sun come out, the explanation for this was clear, just ahead there was a large sign “Scotland Welcomes you”.

This was one of the three border crossings on the route, each time the pattern was the same, on the Scottish side there would a sign saying “Scotland Welcomes you”, but on the other side there would be a sign saying “England”. This speaks volumes about the different cultural attitudes towards strangers of the two nations ;-). Not that we were in Scotland for long, as only 5 Km further on, the route took us back across the Border. This time crossing the River Tweed on the Union Chain Bridge, one of the interesting things about this bridge is that there was a toll booth on the English end of the bridge. So you had to pay to get into England, but on the west side of the river, “Scotland Welcomes you”.

Just up the road from the road from the Union Chain Bridge is the next point of interest, the Chain Bridge Honey Farm. It is well worth the visit, but a warning to the touring cyclist, when you pick up a jar of honey, the weight marked on the label is the weight of the content not the whole weight you will end up carrying. That said, it is worth it, as is getting some of the Beer and Honey Cake for later consumption, taking in calories is important if you are cycling distance.

Next stop of interest is Norham Castle, first built by the Bishop of Durham in 1121 and encapsulating 900 years of turbulent borders history in one building. Ulli was keen to stop and take photos, but I, to be honest, was more interested in the road down to Norham village, wide swooping bends dropping by about 30m in about 200m, great fun. Beyond Norham we crossed the river Tweed and the border once again and were welcomed back into Scotland. The riding was easy along quiet back roads, sometimes lined with trees, through rich rolling farmland.

Another quiet road in the Borders

Mostly, along this section, the routes seems to avoid settlements, which is probably why there was so little traffic. The route is well signposted, so there is little chance of getting lost, but it is worth carrying a map if you want to branch out to explore or look for supplies. It does pass through the occasional villages such as Eccles and Ednam, but these are just wee places. It also bypasses Kelso with its ruined abbey, which is worth a diversion. We stopped for a long lazy lunch in a small café (the Hoot ‘n’ Cat) not far from the abbey, which was very welcome. There is little left of Kelso Abbey now, much of it destroyed in the wars of the three kingdoms, but in its heyday it must have been massive.

Leaving Kelso, we had to negotiate a short section of A road (the A6089), which is also part of the NCN1. It was odd to realise this was the busiest road we had encountered since crossing the A1. The other thing of note on leaving Kelso is the large gilded gateway to Floors Castle, a clear statement of wealth and power. Our route took us round the back, past the tradesmen’s entrance, and once again we were on quiet roads with great views across the Borders countryside.

Looking to Hume Castle in the distance:
Borders landscape, looking to Hume Castle in the distance

Or looking to the Eildon Hills:
Looking to the Eildon Hills across the Borders landscape

While were stopped for photos, we were passed by a speed walking lady who was in training for the MoonWalk. We then moved on, only to stop again just round the corner to take more photos (from a better angle or without power lines in the way), and a couple of minutes later we would be overtaken by the speed walking lady. It felt like being in one of Aesop’s fables.

Next off was Dryburgh and its Abbey, but first there was the little matter of Clinthill. Given the rising temperature, we were fortunate to be going down the hill, unlike the couple on the tandem who were working hard on the way up, well the guy on the front was, the lassie on the back was taking easier. We didn’t actually go into the Abbey and visit Sir Walter Scott’s grave, we got as far as the shop at the entrance where we bought ice cream, then sat in the shade to eat it.

Ice cream eaten, we were off to cross the Tweed once again, this time by a beautiful traffic free bridge. Of course, having crossed the river, we then had to climb up the other side, but at least it was shady and cool. Then on across the A68 and along the old road. Just beyond Newton St Boswells the old road is closed to motorised traffic, which makes for pleasant cycling. We passed round below the Eildon Hills, which we had earlier seen the distance, but now we were so close we didn’t see them above us. Then we dropped down into Melrose, skirted past the Abbey and decided to visit it another day. We picked up an off road cycle path along an old railway through Tweedbank. It is not yet clear where the NCN 1 will go when the railway line is reinstated in a couple of years time.

It was then on to find our B&B for the night in Galashiels. There was still on surprise to come, between Newton St. Boswells and Tweedbank we had passed a number of touring cyclists, eight of whom proceeded to turn up at our B&B a short while after we did. It turned out that 90% of the guests at the B&B that night were cycling the NCN 1.

There is a map of our route here.

My stats were (mostly lost):

  • Distance cycled – 86.51 Km
  • Vertical climb – ca. 510 m

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Biking about Bute – Day 1

Biking about Bute – Day 1

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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