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To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 3) Arnhem to Austria

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 3) Arnhem to Austria

On our third day of cycling across the Netherlands, we started the day riding downhill from the outskirts of Arnhem to the centre. A descent of all of 70m, but hey, this was in the Netherlands.

Arnhem is best known for the John Frost Bridge (John Frostbrug in Dutch) across the Rhine, and the battle fought over the bridge during the second world war. As a consequence of this battle, there is little of interest in the town centre as most of it was flattened during the fight. The bridge was rebuilt after the war and renamed after Major-General John Dutton Frost, who commanded the British forces during the battle. It is now a tourist attraction, as well as a transport route.

However, it is no longer the only bridge over the Lower Rhine. There are now two others, the Nelson Mandela Bridge (about 900 m downstream) and the Andrei Sakharov Bridge (about 3 km upstream). I know this because a young guy, who looked like a student, came up and started to tell me about them as I was trying to take a photograph. He also told me that this wasn’t the bridge shown in the film “A Bridge Too Far”, as there were too many new buildings in the background. So, for the film, a similar-looking bridge over the IJssel at Deventer was used instead. When I asked about how we could get the bikes up onto the bridge, he pointed to steps leading up to the deck of the bridge (this was also the route which Komoot was suggesting) and said that there was a channel to guide the wheels of the bikes up. The deck of the bridge was some 10 m above the viewpoint by the river where I had stopped to (try) take photos. This wasn’t an appealing prospect with loaded touring bikes, so Ulli and I decided to look for an alternative route.

The John Frost Bridge we crossed during To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 3) Arnhem to Austria

We were sure that there had to be a cycle path parallel to the road on the bridge, it was just a question of finding a way onto it. Looking at the map on my phone, we could see that there was a roundabout a few hundred metres back from the river, which could give access to the bridge. As with all Dutch roundabouts, there was a separate but parallel cycle route. In this case, rather than crossing the roads entering the roundabout with priority for the cycles, the cycleways passed underneath the roads and had their own entirely separate roundabout. So easy to use and with no stress at all, why can’t we have this sort of thing?

Finally, we were up and over the bridge John Frost Bridge and heading upstream towards the Andrei Sakharov bridge. Without giving a thought to disarmament, peace or human rights we headed on upstream, following the cycle path. Maybe we should have stopped and given thought to the man the bridge was named after, but it was a dull concrete thing and not at all inspiring, besides we were more interested in riding atop of the winter dykes.

Having dropped down from the giddy height of 123m above sea level at the start of the day, we were now at only 50m above sea level (and that was on top of the winter dyke). Before the building of the dykes, the rivers of the Rhine delta would have braided their way through swamp, meadow and alder carr. Although the earliest earthworks used to divert river flow in the Netherlands date to around 12 BC, the serious business of controlling floodwaters from the river didn’t start in earnest until the 11th Century AD. After which things got really messy, with flood protection in one area exacerbating flooding in another. This, in turn, led to a system of summer and winter dykes, the summer dykes lower and the land behind them is allowed to flood in winter, whereas the winter dykes are higher and intended to prevent flooding of the land behind them year-round. Hope that is clear.

Anyway, being up on top of a winter dyke gives you a commanding view of the landscape around you, and puts you in the unusual position of being able to look down on the roofs of two-storey houses built on the land protected from flooding. It also means that you are fully exposed to the wind, fortunately, this wasn’t a particularly windy day. Or at least so I thought so. When Ulli decided to stop to take a photo of a thatched farmhouse or a stork or something, I thought I would just slowly glide to a halt and wait for her to finish. But that wasn’t what happened, instead, I found myself drifting along at about 10 Km/h with no sign of stopping and I was almost a kilometre along the road before Ulli caught me up.

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 3) Arnhem to Austria. just being blown along

We diverted down off the dyke to take a look at Castle Doornenburg, one of the biggest and most well-preserved castles in the Netherlands, not that we got much beyond the entrance gate. It was originally a fortified manor built in the 9th century, then expanded to a full-blown castle around the 13th century. By the 15th century it contained sleeping quarters, a chapel and a farm, and was occupied for a further 400 years before falling into a state of disrepair. In the 20th century, it was restored between 1937 and 1941, only to be reduced to a pile of smoking rubble by a British bombardment in March 1945. Following the war, the castle was completely rebuilt between 1947 and 1968.

Castle Doornenburg
Inside Castle Doornenburg

Then it was back up to the dyke for a while, but we couldn’t stay up there, at some stage we would need to cross the water again. To cross by bridge would mean a long detour via Nijmegen, so instead, we first took a ferry across the Pannerden Canal and then later a second ferry across the Waal/Rhine/Bijlands Canal. The river has a bit of an identity crisis at this point in its journey from the Alps to the sea. The first ferry was notable as it is a reaction ferry, that is a ferry that uses the reaction of the current of a river against a fixed tether to propel the vessel across the water. The second was a pedestrian and bicycle-only ferry, crossing a much busier waterway.

Riding down to the Doornenburg/Pannerden reaction ferry

Following this second Rhine crossing of the day, we were soon back atop a dyke wall again, with open farmland to one side and a wooded nature reserve on the other. Being so high up, we could also see the weather coming towards us with towering clouds building up and the threat of rain later. Just past the village of Leuth the road we were on joined a busier one and cycles are directed down off the top dyke on to a path below it, so that we no longer had sight of the looming clouds for a time.

The next waypoint on Ulli’s list was a windmill, which was now on the far side of the dyke, which required us to continue until we found a minor road crossing the main road (on the dyke) and then turned back a short way on the far side. Now, windmills aren’t my thing, when you’ve seen one there ain’t that much new with the next. So I was pleased to find that this one had a cafe attached and so insisted on stopping for cake, as all good touring cyclists should. It was sunny and all the tables in the sunshine were taken, but we were happy to sit in the shade of a large awning. No sooner had our apple cake arrived, when a sudden shower hit. we had seen it hanging off the clouds looming earlier. And all the smug people who had been sitting in the sun were now rushing for cover, giving us a delightful sense of schadenfreude.

Did someone day cake?

Cake eaten and rain finished, it was back on the road again, this time on the south side of the dyke. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Komoot (the phone app I was using for navigation) announced hat the name of the road we were on had changed, notably from Dutch to German, yet there was no sign to say that we had just crossed the border. Looking at the map now, I am at a loss to understand why the border runs where it does. But the main thing for us was the roads were quiet and the cycling easy. We didn’t meet any of the natives, so we didn’t find out if they were friendly to touring cyclists or not.

Difficult to know if the natives are cycle friendly

Riding through Kleve gave us our first taste of urban cycling infrastructure in North Rhine-Westphalia. Every German state is different, and this was sub-Dutch but better than British (not difficult). Exiting the town we found that there was a fully separated cycleway alongside the main road to the Emmerich Rhine Bridge (German: ‘Rheinbrücke Emmerich’), our final crossing of the Rhine for the day. The Emmerich Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in Germany and fancies itself as looking like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which it doesn’t.

Safely across the Rhine once more, we wound our way through Emmerich to the quirky B&B we had booked for the night. There were only two other guests that night, a German couple who were e-bike trekking. At breakfast, they proudly told us that, with their e-bikes, they could go 100Km a day. They were a bit surprised when we told them that we could cover 120Km a day on our ordinary bikes.

Breakfast over, we set off for the station. As I said back in part one, Ulli felt that it would take too long to cycle across Germany, but by train, we could make it to the Austrian border in about 10 hours. The idea was to use a one-day train pass (Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket) which gives unlimited travel on regional express trains and we could take the bikes, all for €63. This way would also allow us time in Austria visiting Ulli’s family, before going on to the EuroBike Show. Arriving at the station we picked up the tickets at the ticket office, which was very straight forward and then though just a case of wait for the train and get the bikes on.

Waiting fr a train in Germany

Bikes on German train

It turned out not to be quite as simple as this, the reputation of German railways might be one of great efficiency but not on this day. As we had planned a route using the regional express trains rather than the more expensive (but more direct) national express trains (ICE), this involved several changes along the way. Every train we travelled on that day had a problem, mostly just delays but in one case the service was cancelled partway through the journey and we had to re-route.

So maybe we should have paid the extra and taken an ICE train? Well no, on the first train we met a Dutch couple who were using the regional express to get to Cologne where they were going get the ICE to Munich, except they missed their connection as the first train was delayed, and we saw them several times later in the day as they tried to find other connections.

Fortunately, we had decided in advance that the 10-hour crossing of Germany was probably a bit ambitious and just in case anything should go wrong (which it duly did) we should stop for the night in Ulm. This was fortunate as we arrived over four hours later than planned. The following day we caught a train to Munich, which was late, but fortunately, we didn’t miss the connection to Rosenheim.

Once over the border into Austria, it was just a case of buying another ticket for an ÖBB regional train, sitting back and watching the view of the mountains of Tirol glide past. We did talk about getting off a few stops early, but in the end stayed on the train until the nearest station to our destination. The ride from the station was a mere 3 Km, with 250 m of ascent at an average gradient of 8%, something that riding across the Netherlands hadn’t quite prepared us for.

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:

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.

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
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.

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
Tay to the Clyde – Part 2: Killin to Aberfoyle

Tay to the Clyde – Part 2: Killin to Aberfoyle

The plan for the second day was simple, ride from Killin to Balloch along the NCN 7 and then catch a train home. However, before the end of breakfast the plan had started to change. Having looked at the maps the night before we were aware the next section of the NCN 7 is routed along a lot of off-road cycle tracks. From experience, we knew that these Sustrans off road tracks are often poorly surfaced and slow going, so we decided to ride as far as Callander, then decide whether book accommodation in Aberfoyle or Drymen, depending how we were doing. Also, as we were spending another night on the road, we would extend the ride beyond Balloch as the end point. So therefore, the ride became Tay to the Clyde and we were going to end at Glasgow Queen’s Street.

Breakfast over and photos taken, we set out on the road once more. Over the Falls of Dochart, briefly stopping for photos this time, then turning off-road and following an old railway line. If there is one thing that riding on Sustrans cycle route network shows you, it is the extent of the Scottish railway network pre the 1960’s. That was when Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government decided that the British people didn’t need public transport any more, not surprising as he had a ministerial car and the transport minister, Ernest Marples, was the director of a road-construction company. To justify the wholesale destruction of the rail network, they commissioned Dr Richard Beeching (a physicist) to write a report, which he did in the space of a week. He was richly rewarded for this with a salary £14,000 greater than the Prime Minister’s (that is £214,000 in today’s money), and a life peerage as Baron Beeching of East Grinstead. This had a devastating effect on transport in rural Scotland which is still being felt today. But I digress. We rode along the old railway line through dappled sunlight, with moss covered concrete sleepers stacked neatly at the side, looking as if they were just waiting to be re-laid.

The route then turned off the railway line and headed uphill, thankfully, after a short time the path went from rough to tarmac. This wound its way up through the woods, before arriving at a gate with a car park beyond. There was a sign telling cyclists to dismount and walk across the road (A85). These signs always strike me as being utterly pointless, so we just treated the crossing as a crossroads and rode across. On the far side there was a gate and a sort of miniature cattle grid, it was just wide enough to ride across in comfort. Then we were onto another old railway line, shortly after Lochan Lairig Cheile we crossed the watershed into Glen Ogle.

Riding along the old railway, Glen Ogle

Glen Ogle

Further down the glen we came across ongoing path maintenance:

Resurfacing the Glen Ogle cycle path

As you reach the end of Glen Ogle, views of Loch Earn start to open up. So that you can make the most of these views, the route directs you off the old railway and down a steep set of hairpin bends (to another old railway line). At least I assume that is why Sustrans directs you off the higher railway line to one 70m lower, looking at the map the two lines meet up just above the old Balquhidder station. Why the route doesn’t stay on the higher line, with the option of a spur going off to Lochearnhead for those wanting to visit the village, I don’t know, but it would be a better option than the steep set of hairpin bends. At least this section of the route is metalled, which is more than can be said for much of what came next.

We followed the lower old railway over a bridge crossing the Kendrum Burn on which there was a memorial to a cyclist who was killed on the A9. The old railway crossed the main road (A84), but the cycle route stays on the north side and continues off road through the woods past old Balquhidder station, then picks up the Kingshouse to Balquhidder road.

You are now in the heartlands of an infamous character known, in his own time, as Robby the sheep (although not to his face). Red Robert (or Raibeart Ruadh, if you prefer the Gaelic) was variously a sheep trader and respected cattleman, a solder and a rent collector (after a fashion). This was back in the days when cattle-reiving (stealing) was a national sport. He initially made his name while still a teenager, in 1690 he recovered 15 beasts which belonged to the Earl of Breadalbane and had been stolen by the MacRaes of Kintail. This gained him respect and the patronage of other landowners who wanted their cattle protected. Unfortunately, not all landowners agreed with paying for protection of their cattle, and when young Robert picked up 200 cattle belonging to Earls of Callander and Linlithgow in 1691 it caused a scandal, reminding the Scottish Government that it did not control the Highlands.

As a recognition of his evident talents, Archibald Kilmanan (his clan chief) granted him some land around Inversnaid by Loch Lomond. Robert, raising money through his (legitimate) sheep dealing activities, was able to buy large areas of land on the east side of the loch. Just when he thought things were going well, he had a wee falling out with his neighbour James Graham, the fourth Marquess and first Duke of Montrose. This led to his lands being seized and him being declared an outlaw. However, he was able to call in a favour from Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane, who gave him a cottage in Campbell territory, out of the reach of Montrose. Robert then took to collecting rent from Montrose’s tenants, and even on one occasion paying the rent of a widowed tenant (then relieving the factor of the money later).

In 1715 Robert recruited supporters for the Jacobite rising in that year, but seems to have had second thoughts about it, as he and his men stood by and watched the battle of Sheriffmuir, refusing to take part. After the rising failed, Robert was accused of treason, but was given protection by the Duke of Argyll. Then in 1717 he was caught by Montrose at Balquhidder, and was being taken to Stirling for trial when he escaped while fording a river, distracting his pursuers by throwing his plaid into the river. After this incident, Montrose abandoned his attempts to persecute Robert, but others did not. He was taken prisoner, after being tricked by the first Duke of Atholl, who needed to demonstrate his loyalty to the Crown. Robert was imprisoned in Logierait Castle, but once again escaped.

There was a further Jacobite rising in 1719, this time Robert took part and was injured in the battle of Battle of Glen Shiel. Following the failure of this uprising, he went into hiding in Glen Shira, then later returned to Balquhidder. He was persuaded to petition General Wade (who was busy using the army to build roads all over Scotland to try and keep order) for a King’s pardon. A pardon was granted in 1725. Robert then carried on his cattle business for the rest of his life. He died in 1734, peacefully in his bed, at the age of 63 and is buried in the churchyard in Balquhidder. Should you wish to visit his grave as you pass, it is easy to find, just look for the grave of Rob Roy McGregor.

Anyway, back to the ride, having managed to get passed Balquhidder church, I was persuaded to stop to take photos of Loch Voil, just as I was about to take a run at the humpback that is Stronvar Bridge. Photos taken, over the bridge and we were headed back the glen we had just come along, only on the other side. As we turned the corner into Strathyre at Stroneslaney, there was a local man standing outside his house who waved and said hello. Evidently he regarded the appearance of cycle tourists rather like the arrival of swallows, a sign of approaching summer. It was a pleasant, quiet road, almost traffic free. Most people use the main road on the other side of the glen and don’t even know that this road exists. Sadly, just after Sidheag the hard top ran out and we were back onto the rough stuff again. Still, we did have a view of the next loch, it is not for nothing that the NCN 7 is called Lochs and Glens Cycle Route. This time it was Loch Lubnaig. As the track started to descend, we met a touring tandem coming the other way, they told us there was a steep descent ahead, and sure enough there was. A few hundred metres further on, the route turned sharply downhill through a series of hairpin bends, but this time it was on a loose surface. This gives the adventurous cycle tourist the opportunity to test their power sliding technique (irrespective of whether they really want to). Going up on a fully loaded touring bike can’t be much fun, as coming down was certainly interesting.

Along this lower track we started to meet a lot of leisure cyclists out for the day, indeed many were having picnics at the side of the track. There were also a few Heilan coos in the neighbouring fields, cue more photos. Towards the end of Loch Lubnaig we passed a collection holiday chalets and we were back on to the hard top, for a while at least. Once past the end of the loch, you find a car park for the Falls of Leny, beyond this we were back on a loose surface again. It continued this way, with exception of a road crossing, until we got to Callander.

Callander: time for lunch, but also decision time. Given the slow progress we were making, we decided to book accommodation in Aberfoyle and take another day. Well that bit was easy. Leaving Callander we decided to continue following the NCN 7 along the south side of Loch Venachar. We had ridden this part of the route before and knew what to expect until we got to the end of the loch, where the route turns south. At this point you turn on to the “forest drive“, a word of warning about this: although the route is off road, it is open to motor vehicles, and some drivers treat it as an opportunity to play at rally driving without regard for others.

The NCN 7 meanders it way through Achray Forest, it is very scenic and peaceful (for the most part, when there are no motor vehicles about), but it is not a easy option, compared to the Duke’s Pass. Now the Duke’s Pass does have a reputation for been a long hard climb, but the reason the road follows this route is because it is the path of least resistance. If you wanted to do the Duke’s Pass, you could follow the NCN 7 to where it turns south and away from the loch, but then continue westwards until you reach the road, then turn left. Or you could just follow the A821 out of Callander. We, having followed the NCN 7, passed Loch Drunkie (or Loch Drongaidh in Gaelic, meaning the loch between the ridges), then up and over the watershed. As we were coming down the south side, we turned a corner and saw a strange sight: there were platforms up in the trees and wires between them. This turned out to be the “Go Ape tree-top adventure”, which includes Britain’s longest zip wire at 426m.

Zip wire in Achray Forest

Sorry, but I am about to digress again, this zip wire is significantly longer than the piddling 230m one in Cornwall, which makes the spurious claim that it is the “longest zip wire in Europe”. However, the Aberfoyle one is also far from being the “longest zip wire in Europe”, as there is one in the Italian Dolomites which is 3 km long!! Now, back to the ride. As we exited the forest, there were a pair of half gates leading onto the road which had been specially commissioned for the NCN7.

Cycle gates

From the cycle gates it was a short downhill run into Aberfoyle, then over the humpbacked bridge to our B&B at Corrie Glen, where we were welcomed with tea and home baking, very nice it was too.

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 – 64.75 Km
  • Time spent riding – 03:56:12
  • Max Speed – 40.89 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 16.44 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – ca. 640 m
Tay to the Clyde – Part 1: Perth to Killin

Tay to the Clyde – Part 1: Perth to Killin

“Are sure this is an Easterly?” The question was key to the route we were taking, some days before noticing that there was a high over Scandinavia leading to an Easterly air flow across the country. So a plan had been hatched to cycle from the Tay to the Clyde, taking advantage of the tail wind. However, now as we cycled through Perth, the wind was cool and felt like it was coming out of the north. Not that it was hindering us, just that we had to stop and don jackets, that done, the sun was shining and the riding easy.

Donning jacket in Almondale Park, Perth

This first part of the ride we were following National Cycle Route 77 A.K.A. the Salmon Run. This route was originally devised to safely channel cyclists away from the A9, after a number of cyclists were killed on the A9. This is a typically short sighted attitude, as it ignores the real problem of the A9, which is people driving stupidly fast, often exceeding the speed limits. The only serious way to reduce the death rate on the A9 (most of those killed are travelling in cars) is to enforce the speed limits. Most cyclists using the A9 are those doing the LE-JoG (Land’s End to John o’ Groats) and they are not going to use this route.

To get back to the story, from the middle of Perth, the NCN 77 at first follows the Tay on a mixed use off road path, popular with dog walkers and runners, indeed, one runner stopped abruptly in front of us for a fag break, then passed us again as we were donning jackets. At the meeting of the River Almond and the Tay, the route turns to follow the Almond upstream and under the A9. We were soon away from the town and in out into the countryside. At one bend of the river, there was a cliff on the far side with a beech tree perched atop, with half its root plate undermined. On seeing it, one is left wondering how long it can last.

Just hanging on

Not much further upstream the nearside bank had been undermined and is currently being repaired. There were no diversion signs, so we had to dismount and carry the bikes across, squeezing past a wee bit of temporary fencing at the far end. Not long after this we regained the road, which was a relief, it says a lot about the Council’s attitude to the NCN 77 cycle route, that no diversion has been put in place. Strangers are just left to find their own away around the obstruction, maybe this technique could be used with road closures to discourage motor traffic.

Beyond West Huntingtower, the route took us though Pitcairngreen, a pretty wee village with a rather nice pub which had stopped at on a previous ride. We were following quiet back roads and past Moneydie came the first real climb of the day. It was the sort of climb where last year I would have glided up in the middle ring, but this was first big ride of the year and I had been carbo loading all winter for just such an occasion. So I girded my loins, dug deep, and changed down to the granny ring, well I had been carbo loading all winter.

Next stop, Bankfoot to pickup a few supplies to keep us going. Beyond Bankfoot the route follows the old road parallel to the A9, which is pleasantly quiet. That is until just short of Birnam where you are dumped onto a rather grotty off-road path, which seems almost designed to push cyclists onto the A9. At Birnam Station there is a “Cyclists Dismount” sign followed by a short run of steps, which could be made ride-able with a little bit of effort, to a minor road which passes under the A9 into Birnam itself. The village originated from the coming of the railway in 1856 and is somewhat overshadowed by its neighbour across the river, Dunkeld, which dates back to the Iron Age.

When crossing the bridge to Dunkeld, you can take advantage of one of the joys of touring by bicycle, namely you can stop pretty much where you like, and the view from the middle of the of the bridge is worth stopping for…

The Tay above Dunkeld

Bridge over the Tay at Dunkeld

The Tay below Dunkeld

Once into Dunkeld, Ulli went in search of things for lunch while I watched over the bikes. I was approached by an American tourist who wanted to know more about cycle touring in Scotland and we had a nice wee chat. For those who have not visited Dunkeld before, it is worth exploring with such curiosities as its Cathedral. This has been holy ground since at least 730 AD, and the relics of St. Columba were move here in 850 AD, to keep them safely out of range of Viking raids. It also houses the tomb of the “Wolf of Badenoch” (or Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, if you prefer), possibly the most unpleasant character in Scottish history (and there are plenty of other candidates). According to popular legend, Alexander died on the night of 24th July 1394, after loosing a game of chess with the Devil. The Cathedral suffered much during the Reformation, when anything considered to be “Popish” was destroyed. Later it was burned down as part of the battle of Dunkeld during the first Jacobite uprising in 1689, along with most of the town (only three houses were standing at the end of the battle). Dunkeld is also home to Scotland’s first brick built house, and the “Ell” (on Ell house), an iron bar used as a standardised unit of measurement, 39 inches long.

The NCN 77 leaves Dunkeld via the grounds of Dunkeld House Hotel, along an off road track, those wanting to stay on the road can follow the old military road (although this lands you with having to follow a pavement for a short section of the A9). Normally I am not keen on Sustrans’ use of offroad tracks, but on this occasion it is worth it. When you first turn off Atholl Street, you follow the driveway down to the hotel, then as you reach the hotel you are diverted down a track which follows the river. This is thoroughly delightful. However, this doesn’t last, after a couple of Km or so you pass under a bridge carrying the A9 over the Tay. Another 500m later you are popped out onto the A9 and have to follow the footpath back alongside the road over the bridge, then turn off onto the B898, which follows the river north, but on the far side from the A9 and so is very quiet, with only local traffic on it.

We stopped off at the Tay Viaduct by Logierait to have lunch by the river. The air was full of bird song, with sky larks, lapwings, the piping Oystercatchers, the churring of swallows, and a yellow hammer. It was idyllic, well it was until the two ghillies working by the river decided to add the humm of their chainsaws to this jamming session.

It should be noted that the NCN 77 carries on over the Tay Viaduct, and that we changed to the NCN 7 “Loch and Glens” cycle route and continued along the B898. Lunch over, we continued along the south side of the Tay, to the bridge where the main road to Aberfeldy joins in, here we swapped over to the north side of the river to use the quieter road.

Along Strath Tay we started to meet other cyclists in numbers for the first time. They we mostly “roadies” and I suspect that most of them were scoping out the route of the Etape Caledonia, which is the only closed road sportive in Britain. We also passed a couple of pairs of tourers, heading the other way along the NCN 7.

At Weem, we joined the B846 coming out of Aberfeldy and the motor traffic picked up again, not that there was much. We passed by Castle Menzies and considered taking a short detour to the village of Dull, but decided against it.

We turned off across the River Lyon and headed for Kenmore, oddly we stopped passing “roadies”. We had intended to stop over night in Kenmore, but had been unable to book any accommodation, so we just stopped for tea. Our destination for the day was Killin at the far end of Loch Tay. So we rode along the quiet road on the south side of the loch, past the Crannog Centre. As it was late in the day, we decided not to stop to go into the Crannog, which was just as well, as there were plenty of photo stops further along the loch.

Looking across Loch Tay

Cycle touring along the south side of Loch Tay

Looking west along Loch Tay

There were a couple of stiff climbs on the first half ride down the loch, but we took these in our stride, albeit slowly. The sun was shining, as it had been all day, but now it finally felt warm, there was plenty to see and we heard our first cuckoo of the year, we felt good. By the time we reached the Perth and Kinross/Stirlingshire boundary, my cycle computer was showing 90 Km (56 miles) and I was surprised how fresh I felt. It wasn’t to last, this was our first big ride of the year. The climb out of Ardeonaig really took its toll on us both, and the next climb felt even harder, but neither of us walked.

Finally we crossed the Falls of Dochart and made our way down the Main Street in Killin to find the Fairview B&B.

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 – 103.45 Km
  • Time spent riding – 05:31:41
  • Max Speed – 52.47 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 18.71 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – ca. 830 m
Blasted back from Duns

Blasted back from Duns

Having struggled against a head wind all the way down the day before, we were sort of looking forward to having a tail wind helping us all the way home from Ravelaw (near Duns). Coming out of the B&B after a fine breakfast, we soon noticed the wind was still in the East South East and just as strong, if not stronger, than the day before. A later check of records from Charterhall showed the average wind speed to be 23 mph (37 Km/h), gusting to 37 mph (59.6 Km/h), which is not unsubstantial. Indeed, as Bernhard and I posed for photos outside Ravelaw House, the trees were bending in the wind.

Leaving Ravelaw on a windy day

Having set off, we first went south and east, which was odd, because our destination was to the north and west, but then that is what comes of putting a geographer in charge of the navigation, I suppose. The first place we passed through was the village of Whitsome, which has very little to detain the passing cyclist, so we didn’t bother stopping. There was some vague discussion of picking up supplies for the road, bananas, snackie bars, that sort of thing, so we headed for Chirnside with the aim of finding some shops. Having reached the outskirts, a further discussion on buying supplies ensued and it was decided that we didn’t need any. So we followed the A road around the village and didn’t go in, missing out on the delights of the 12th century church and an extra climb. On the subject of climbing, Bernhard, having shown the day before that he was the master climber, was rubbing in emphasising the point by wearing his Ötztaler Radmarathon finishers jersey.

Just short of Chirnsidebridge we turned off the A road and carried on along quiet little roads, seeing no other traffic. This is one of the things I like about cycling in the Scottish Borders, the number of quiet wee roads there are, but the B6355 seemed unusually quiet. We had passed traffic cones and a couple of blown over signs, but we hadn’t taken much notice, until we got to Nel Logan’s Bridge over the Preston Burn, just outside Preston. The bridge was closed for maintenance, which explained the total absence of traffic, but the workmen allowed us to cross over the bridge. However, we didn’t stop to look at the bridge itself, which is a shame, as it has a rather curious history. The bridge (which is now a Category B Listed Building) was build in 1793 with a single segmental-arch, this was later enclosed to form a gaol cell. According to local tradition, Napoleonic prisoners of war were held here while in transit to larger sites. The bridge is named after Nel Logan, she is said to have been the last person to have been imprisoned there, for the crime of sheep stealing. Apparently inside there are still metal rings in the wall to which, it is rumoured, the prisoners were chained. In the middle of the floor, directly above the burn, is a hole which is said to have been the toilet. There used to be a heavy wooden arch-shaped door, but this apparently fell apart some forty years ago. There are some pictures of the bridge on Flickr, really must stop to take a look next time.

We carried on through Preston, to cross the Whiteadder Water at Cockburn Mill Ford, which is now culverted and only a ford when the water is high. Then we followed the Mill Burn upstream to its watershed. Crossing over the watershed, we came down the dead pheasant highway, which was as heavily littered with road kill as the day before. We tore down the hill with the wind at our backs, fortunately there were no pheasants with suicidal intent throwing themselves before our wheels.

Reaching Ellemford Bridge, we crossed over the Whiteadder Water again, which was to become something of a habit as we crossed it a further four times.

Ellemford Bridge over Whiteadder Water

It was easy riding as we wended our way up past Cranshaws, following the Whiteadder Water up stream. I was starting to look forward to the prospect of wind assisted climbing on the Hungry Snout, but before this steep climb there is an easy slope by “The Bell”, which I sailed up this with ease. So when I came to the Hungry Snout itself I was feeling very confident. Having ridden this road before, I should have known better. The sign at the bottom says 14%, and although it looks easy on approach, it should not be underestimated, as there is a sting in the tail when you round the bend, hidden by the trees. However, confidence boosted, I decided to sprint up it. Bad idea. By the time I reached the steepest section, I was already breathing as hard as I could. I somehow managed to get past it, but as the road started to flatten off, my lungs were no longer able to supply my leg muscles with enough oxygen to keep going, and I had to stop and catch my breath. Utter madness, had I taken it slow and steady, it would had been easy. Ho Hum, but it was glorious.

Descending the north side of the Hungry Snout was fun, then we zipped alongside the Reservoir and up to the cattle grid, where we stopped for a snack and some water. Then, instead of going back the way we had come the day before, we turned off to follow the Whiteadder Water to its watershed. This is a great wee road, although the surface can be rough in places, but don’t let that put you off. Over the watershed, we decided to stop at the White Castle hill fort and take some photos, which isn’t so easy when the wind is trying to push you over.

Blown away at White Castle

The ride from White Castle to Garvald was an absolute blast! I achieved a new record top speed, 80.63 Km/h (50.1 mph), I hardly slowed on the climb up to Nunraw, it was a real blast. After Garvald, as we rode on to Gifford, we were no longer travelling with the wind, but rather across it, which was less comfortable. As we reached Townhead farm, we met a massive combine harvester, so wide it took up the whole road. Once it had passed, we rolled down into Gifford, for lunch at the café “Love Coffee… …and Food?”. It seemed far longer that the 24 hours since we had last been there, but the welcome was just as warm.

Over lunch we discussed taking the scenic route via Humbie, but decided that, given the wind conditions, we would go back the way we had come out the day before. Back on the road, we were confronted with road works just outside Gifford, with the west bound carriageway still being resurfaced. This prompted another change of plan which involved a dogleg along a minor road we hadn’t used before and then heading into East Saltoun from the south. As we rode along, I started to make a check list of things look for to determine if you were riding in a high wind or not, so…

Crows flying backward? check.
Large round straw bales blowing across a field? Check.
Corrugated iron sheets being torn off a barn roof? Check!
Large sections of tree laying in the road? Check!!

That last one also gives you the opportunity to check your brakes…

After passing through the Saltouns we headed for the old Pencaitland railway path and the shelter from the wind it offered. Then on to Whitecraig, where we picked up the NCN 1 back into town. We gave Bernhard the full tour, over the (not exactly cycle friendly) Brunstane Station bridge and the Innocent railway path, including the tunnel.

here is a map of our route here.

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 88.74 Km
  • Time spent riding – 04:08:20
  • Max Speed – 80.63 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 21.53 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – ca. 750 m
Spinning down to Duns

Spinning down to Duns

The three of us, Ulli, her cousin Bernhard (visiting on holiday) and myself, were looking for a cycle tour. I had originally intended to use my new bike but we haven’t gotten around to building it yet, something for a rainy day, after we got back.

We had thought of doing something in the west, maybe a few of the islands over several days, but then the weather intervened. So we decided that a trip into the Borders might be a better option, and to keep it to just two days. Knowing that Bernhard liked hills, Ulli and I had a particular hill in mind, which suggested a route over the Lammermuir Hills. We talked about staying overnight at a place in Coldstream where Ulli and I had been before, but decided we wanted to try something new instead. Duns was chosen as a target area, a quick internet search turned up a suitable looking B&B at a place called Ravelaw, which was swiftly booked. Accommodation sorted, all that was left was to plan a route and ride there.

The early parts of the route were relatively straightforward as we were on home ground. For the first part, instead of just picking up the NCN1, Ulli decided which should use the Joppa variation. The Joppa variation has the advantage of avoiding the not so cycle friendly bridge at Brunstane Station. However, it has the disadvantage of a lot of streets with setts. It should be noted at this point that Ulli has the bike with the widest tyres, but it gave us the chance to joke about training for the Paris–Roubaix, once our teeth had stopped rattling.

Past Brunstane Station we joined the NCN1 and followed it out to Whitecraig, just before Whitecraig there is a short steep slope. As we approached I saw two cyclists up ahead at the start of the slope, and decided to take the first few points towards the polka dot jersey, knowing full well these were likely to be the only points I would get on the whole trip. The two cyclists were a wee bit surprised to be overtaken, at speed, by a hybrid bike with loaded panniers on the back, probably because they didn’t know that this was a cat four climb and there were points at stake (OK, I am getting sad in my old age).

As usual we parted company with the NCN1 at Whitecraig, choosing to turn west to Smeaton and on up past the bing on Smeaton Shaw, which is currently being rearranged to make way for a recycling centre. Currently this area is something of a mess. Before the landscaping began, the bing was partly hidden by trees, and in about 20 years time it will be again. We were fortunate that there were no heavy lorries about as we cycled on to Chalkieside to join the old railway which once served the coal pit which produced the bing. Once on the old railway, which is part of Regional Cycle Route 73, we were relatively sheltered from the wind as we rode to Pencaitland.

I haven’t mentioned the wind so far, and this is a good point in the story to bring it in. The weather was bright and sunny, but rather inconveniently the wind was blowing from the South East, straight into our faces. As the day went on, the wind seemed to get stronger, records from Charterhall showed the average wind speed to be 18 mph (28.9 Km/h), gusting to 30 mph (48.3 Km/h). Not the easiest cycling conditions, but I have ridden in worse.

At Pencaitland we rejoined the road and headed on through the Saltoun’s towards Gifford, past East Saltoun we found that the road was being resurfaced. Fortunately for us, the east bound carriageway had been done first and was now beautifully smooth, which made progress a lot easier, in spite of the wind. This was a good thing, as lunch was now calling, and I sprinted into Gifford, only to find that the café (Love Coffee… …and Food?) was already full of cyclists. At first I thought it was some sort of club run, but it turned out they were just couples and small groups who had all turned up around lunch time. No wonder the owners, Pam and Craig, are so keen on cyclists, they have in the past said that these are their favourite customers, now they are talking about selling “Love Coffee… …and Food?” cycle jerseys. Anyway, we managed to find a wee bit of space and had some lunch, and a bit of chat and banter with some of the other cyclists.

Lunch over, we set out again, taking the scenic route which take you around Yester House (said to be Scotland’s most expensive house, although it didn’t fetch the asking price of £15m or probably even the reduced price £12m. In fact, it would appear to be still for sale), but you never actually get you a view of it from the road. You do however get some good views of the Lammermuir Hills and the road up Newlands Hill to Redstone Rig. Turning on to the B6355, I became aware that we were not going to be alone going up to the Rig, there was a Dutch car rally going the same way. This was unfortunate, as the Dutch are some of the worst drivers in Europe, the concept of sharing the roads with cyclists is somewhat alien to them, which was probably why Dutch cyclists need separate cycle lanes. Local drivers were giving me plenty of room, but not the Dutch. All I wish to say to the driver who came within 60cm of me is “Krijg kanker en ga dood, Hoerenjong!” OK, that has got that off my chest, back to the story.

As you reach the foot of the climb, there is a combination of road sign and road marking which suggests that someone in the ELC transport department might have a sense of humour, or maybe not.

Prediction or advice?
© B. Dragosits 2010.

I mean, who else would tell you to slow as you hit a 17% uphill gradient? Given that we were going straight into a strong and gusty South Easterly wind, I took the instruction literally. For me this is a nemesis hill, I have yet to get up it without getting off the bike. Then again trying it without panniers weighing 10 Kg or so would probably be a good idea. Bernhard, on the other hand, just sailed up the hill (a pretty impressive feat directly into the wind), but then he is a veteran of the Ötztaler Radmarathon. So there was never any doubt of who was going to win the polka dot jersey.

Having reached the top, we were presented with the choice of continuing in a SE direction over the tops towards Longformacus or turning east and taking the low road via Cranshaws. This wasn’t a difficult decision, we took the low road, but it still wasn’t an easy ride. On a previous occasion, riding down the road past Mayshiel I hit a top speed of 69.4 Km/h, this time I was struggling to get up to 50 Km/h (I can get up to that speed on the flat). Further down the road, the Whiteadder Reservoir had white horses on it, with dinghies scudding back and forth on a beam reach. Fortunately when we came to the climb on the Hungry Snout, it was sheltered from the wind.

Passing Cranshaws, I saw the oddest tricycle I have ever seen, it was made from an ordinary child’s bike, but with two wheels mounted outboard of the front forks. Beyond Cranshaws, we crossed the Whiteadder at Ellemford Bridge for the last time and started up the dead pheasant highway. I have never known such a road for road kill, it was littered with dead pheasants and the odd rabbit thrown in for good measure, for about 2 Km.

We carried on to the end of the road where it met the main road between Duns and Preston (A6112). Here we were turning left, Bernhard was in the lead and abruptly switched over onto the right hand side of the road, closely followed by Ulli, I found myself loudly clearing my throat and saying in a loud voice “Links, links!”, fortunately there was nothing coming the other way.

Shortly afterwards, we turned right off the main road and wended our way through a maze of wee roads, crossed over the Blackadder and finally found Ravelaw Farm. By now we were getting tired and were confused at not seeing a B&B sign. We carried on another 200 m along the road and up a slight rise before seeing it. Having arrived, we were given a warm welcome and enjoyed a pleasant and comfortable stay.

There is a map of our route here.

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 83.2 Km
  • Time spent riding – 04:29:26
  • Max Speed – 56.2 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 19.3 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – ca. 620 m
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
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