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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

 

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
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
Biking about Bute – Day 3

Biking about Bute – Day 3

Continued from Biking about Bute – day 2

For our final day, we wanted to see a few of the things we had missed on the previous days. First on the list was the Ascog Fernery, which is an extraordinary sunken Victorian greenhouse with only one fern of the original collection surviving. This a specimen from New Zealand which is reputed to be over 1,000 years old. We were surprised that there was no collection box for donations, it was only once we got home, that we found that it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Next, as the weather was the clearest it had been during our stay, we decided to ride up Canada Hill which is noted for its views, cue taking more photos. Having reached the top of the hill, you have to go down again, and the fun way down from Canada Hill is the Serpentine Road.


View Larger Map

As its name suggests, the Serpentine Road snakes its way down the hill into Rothesay. It is steepest at the top where it passes between houses on high banks, then it opens out and the turns get closer together, this is the most fun part. I stopped at the top of the open part, as I knew Ulli would want to take photos, once she was ready I set off. Going down was enormous fun, it is not as fast as you might expect, as you have keep the brakes covered because of the hairpin bends. Having gotten to the bottom, I waited for Ulli to come down and prepared for what I expected to come next. Sure enough, once Ulli arrived, she asked if I would go back up, so that she could get more pictures from the bottom. So off I went back up the hill again, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as hard as it looks. Coming down a second time I now knew where the best line through the bends was, so I was faster, this was a mistake. As I reached Ulli, she told me I had been too fast, and to go back up and do it again. Much to the bemusement of two walkers coming down the steps to the side, I set off up the hill yet again, feeling like one of the grand old Duke of York’s 10,000 men:
when I was up, I was up,
when I was down, I was down,
and when I was only halfway up,
I was neither up nor down.
After the third decent, I declared that I wasn’t going to do it again.

After a short debate we decided to do one last loop to cover one of the roads which we had yet to ride. We headed north through Port Bannatyne then left at Kames Castle, towards St Colmac only this time took the left fork to the south end of Ettrick Bay. Having got there we noted that there is a path which could have used on day one. We carried on to Straad and then walked out St Ninian’s Point, to the remains of St Ninian’s chapel, passing a couple of standing stones on the way. Then returned to Rothesay, via the Greenan Loch, in time for a late lunch and the ferry back to the mainland.

Photos from Bute are here.

There is a map of our route on day 3 here.

My stats for day 3 were:

  • Distance cycled – 34.2 Km
  • Time spent riding – 01:52:06
  • Max Speed – 65.1 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 18.3 Km/h
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
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

Lets cycle around an island

Lets cycle around an island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millport: capital of Great Cumbrae

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

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

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