“Come on get up”
“Um, What time is it?”
“Six O’clock, come on get up, we have to catch the train!”
Vaguely the memory of a conversation from the night before crept across my sleepy mind, “Lets go cycle round an island, how about Great Cumbrae?” So it was that I found myself cycling up to Haymarket Station at some god forsaken time in the morning, alright it was seven O’clock, but it was seven O’clock on a Saturday morning. On the upside, this meant there was no other traffic about and, even better, all the traffic lights were green!
There is one disadvantage of using Haymarket Station when cycling. Despite the best efforts of Anne Beag (the wheelchair bound MSP for Aberdeen South), the only access to the platforms is by stairs. Fortunately we weren’t in a hurry nor were the bikes heavily loaded, so it wasn’t any real problem. Train to Glasgow Queen Street, then change to Glasgow Central and catch the train to Largs. The great thing about trains is that once you have got the bike on board, you can sit down and go to sleep, especially when you are getting off at the end of the line. From Largs station to the ferry terminal takes just a couple of minutes, and with one of those brilliant pieces of integrated timetabling for which Britain is rightly famous, you arrive just in time to see the ferry leaving the slipway. This gives the passenger a good 20 minutes before boarding the next ferry, to buy their tickets and read the poster describing the delights of Cumbrae on the ticket office wall. Having done so, how you spend the remaining 15 minutes is up to you.
Great Cumbrae is not a large island, unless you are comparing it with Wee (or Little) Cumbrae. Cumbrae, the bigger one that is, has about 20 miles of road if you include all the back wynds in Millport, (the “capital”). Wee Cumbrae has none, but was on the market a year ago for the bargain price of £2.5m, mind you that was the offers over price. Wee Cumbrae was formerly the home of Robert II of Scotland and has its own castle on the imaginatively named Castle Island, but I digress. It is somewhat difficult to get lost on Cumbrae, as there are only really two roads, the B896 which circles the island just above sea level and an inner circular road which goes over the hill passed the Glaid Stone (there is really only one hill on Cumbrae, Barbay Hill, but it has a couple of sub tops which lay claim to being hills) in the middle reaching a height of 127m.
From a cycling point of view this hill is worth doing, tackled from the north it provides a short but satisfying climb (or should that be sprint). If the climb hasn’t taken your breath away (you weren’t sprinting hard enough), the views will (especially on a clear day). To the north east lies Ben Lomond, to the west, Bute and on a clear day you can see across Bute to Kintyre and the Paps of Jura. To the south west is Wee Cumbrae and in the distance Arran. To the east the views include the Ayrshire hills, Hunterston power station and coal terminal on the mainland, but then you can’t have everything.
Carrying on from the summit, working on the principle that which goes up must come down, is an enjoyable downhill ride. The first bit twists and turns, then the road straightens and over about 700m of fairly smooth tarmac looses 40m in altitude, allowing a good speed to be achieved. But be warned, at the end of this straight the road turns 95° to the left, where it swings round the “Breakthrough” farmstead, and the road surface deteriorates. Should you or any of your party come a cropper at this point, at the crossroads 50m further on, take the left turn which leads to the island hospital. The other two roads from the crossroads lead into Millport.
Millport, a “perfectly preserved” Victorian seaside town, is home to most of Cumbrae’s population of 1,300 people (according local council or 800 according to the BBC, I guess there are fair number not paying their TV licences), the narrowest house in Britain, three bike hire shops, a few half decent pubs (if my memory of the second year zoology field course serves me right), and a scattering of small shops and tea rooms (many of which are for sale), and the Crocodile Rock. Millport is also home to the Cathedral of the Isles, the smallest cathedral in Europe One of the ministers was fond of offering up a prayer for “the islands of Great and Little Cumbrae and the adjacent islands of Great Britain and Ireland”. Yes, while only 10 minutes from the mainland, Cumbrae is in a world of its own!
Leaving Millport, there are three ways back to the ferry:
The fastest is via the B899 up Ninian Brae, which would be a pleasant cycle if it were not for the cars rushing to catch the ferry to visit the flesh pots of Largs or what they would call doing the weekly shopping!
The second takes the road up the eastern coast of the island, which takes you past the University Marine Biological Station, with its attendant museum and public aquarium. This obvious tourist honey pot and money spinner is open year round, but closed at weekends (well it is a long way from London). Then there is the Lion Rock, an impressive volcanic dyke which looks vaguely like a crouching lion, or is it a bridge built by the fairies with holes knocked in by the goblins?. Either way it has recently undergone a £10,000 facelift. There is also the National Water Sports Centre, which was of course closed when we passed it.
The third route follows the western coast, this quiet road is popular with cycling families, probably because it is the longest way to get to the ferry and so none of the locals bother driving along it. The views across to the Isle of Bute are far more scenic than those on the east coast, Hunterston power station and the coal terminal. The road runs along a raised beach, which leads one to speculate what climate change and rising sea levels will do to Hunterston power station and the coal terminal. Reaching the north end of the island, you pass another (closed) Outdoor Centre and Stinking Bay, before arriving at Tormont End. Here Håkon IV of Norway landed on the 30 September 1263, the night before the Battle of Largs, the last Viking action in history. The battle was little more than a series of skirmishes, but it ended the last Norwegian invasion of Scotland, if you rule out the summer booze cruises from Bergen to Aberdeen.
From here it is only a few minutes ride back to the ferry slipway. It is notable that, while a ticket is required to get onto the island, none is required to return to the mainland. Once back in Largs there is a least 30 minute wait for the train, which leaves just enough time to get a Nardini´s ice-cream, highly recommended.
Addendum: For those who are interested, Wee Cumbrae was sold in 2009 for around £2m to the Poddar family from Glasgow.
If you are interested in cycling around Bute, see here.