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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.

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht – Hoge Veluwe – Arnhem

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht – Hoge Veluwe – Arnhem

We were in Utrecht on the day that the world’s biggest multi-storey bike park was opened. Not that we saw it, we left the city three hours before it was officially opened to the public. We only found out about it from a tweet Ulli saw at breakfast, by which time it was too late to change our plans, such is the nature of travel sometimes.

If I might digress for just a moment to describe the thing we did not see, Utrecht’s new cycle parking facility. The bike park is underneath the railway station, with 12,500 bike parking spaces covering 17,000m², including 480 spaces for larger or oddly shaped cycles like cargo bikes and tandems. To put that in context, Apple HQ, which opened in 2017, has 11,000 car parking spaces covering 325,000m². This shows just how space-efficient the bicycle can be as a means of transport. Oh, and the previous record for a cycle parking facility was in Tokyo with 9,400 parking spaces. It should be noted that Utrecht is promoting cycling as part of a “healthy urban living” policy. The concept of “healthy urban living” is something we can only dream of in Scotland, a country with one of the worst health records in Europe, and yet so much potential.

Leaving Utrecht was as easy as entering had been the day before; at one point, we went through an underpass. However, it is only now looking at the satellite view on Google maps that I realise the size of the roundabout we were passing under; indeed the most memorable thing about the underpass was the tiles on the walls.

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht - Hoge Veluwe - Arnhem: tiles in an underpass

Beyond Utrecht, we skirted north of Zeist following the N237, the Dutch equivalent of an A road in the UK, on a fully separated cycleway. Then turning south to follow the N224, but just following along the main roads would be rather dull, so we turned off to follow a fietspad through the woods. The woods in question turned out to be in the district of Austerlitz.

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht - Hoge Veluwe - Arnhem: a fietspad through the woods

Now Austerlitz is one of those names which I felt vaguely aware of, something to do with a battle in the Napoleonic Wars, but this heavily wooded area seemed an unlikely place for such a significant battle? It turned out that things were stranger than that. The actual Battle of Austerlitz (also known as Battle of the Three Emperors) was fought in what is now the Czech Republic and resulted in the Tyrol being ceded to Bavaria. However, the burgers of Tyrol rebelled against this, and an irregular army led by the innkeeper Andreas Hofer waged a mainly guerrilla war against Napoleon’s armies. The rebellion ultimately failed; however, after the fall of Napoleon the Tyrol was returned to Austria.

But I digress, this Austerlitz was home to a French army camp in early 1800’s and was given its name by King Louis Napoleon of Holland in honour of the victory of his brother, Emperor Napoleon at the battle mentioned above. The notable feature of this area is the Pyramid of Austerlitz. It was the brainchild of a French General, Auguste de Marmont, who needed a way to stop his soldiers from getting bored. So he came up with the idea of building a turf pyramid, based on the Great Pyramid of Giza (which Marmont had visited when he was a part of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign), and topping it off with a wooden obelisk, as you do. This earthwork, completed in 1804 was initially known as “Mont Marmont” or “Marmontberg”. However, in the summer of 1805, Marmont and his soldiers marched off to southern Germany where they took part in the Battle of the Three Emperors. In 1806, Louis Bonaparte, the new king of Holland, renamed the hill the Pyramid of Austerlitz, despite objections from General Marmont who prefered it being called by its former name. Later the wooden obelisk was demolished and replaced by the stone obelisk which is there today. Over time much of the monument began to collapse, and the whole thing was restored between 2001 and 2004, to mark its 200th anniversary in 2004. For the princely sum of €3 each, you can climb the pyramid and obelisk to see just how flat the Netherlands actually are. However, as it was starting to rain, we decided to cycle on to find somewhere to buy lunch.

We headed into the nearby town of Woudenberg in the hope of finding a cafe. However, it would appear the Netherlands close on Mondays, and the only place we could find that was open was an Albert Heijn supermarket. We bought the makings of a small picnic and set off again to look for somewhere to eat it, in between the rain showers. Riding through the Dutch countryside, we were surprised at the relative lack of benches, to the point where we were beginning to eye up bus shelters. Finally, we found a suitable bench, which was just as well I was getting rather hangry. I should know by now that little and often is a good idea, and that having snacks within easy reach makes for better riding.

Once again we were finding that people living on narrow country roads all seem to have very large four-wheel drives, why? These were not working vehicles; they were far too shiny for that, just vanity.

At the village of Otterlo, we finally found an open cafe and stopped for food, 55Km from breakfast. Along the way, Komoot had sent us off on some weird diversions; it would send you a kilometre or so up a road, then tell you to turn around and go back. But now it pulled a new trick by stopping altogether, and wouldn’t resume. I had to reinstall the app and download the route again.

The next section of our tour was to take in the Hoge Veluwe National Park. On arriving at the entrance to the Park, we discovered that a large fence surrounds it, and you also have to pay to enter. All of this was a bit of a shock, but then we didn’t know the history of the Park. It was initially a private estate with animals brought in for hunting, and a large hunting lodge at the centre. When the family that owned it ran into financial difficulties in the 1930s the lodge (and its art collection) were gifted to the Dutch Government and the Park was handed over to a foundation, which received a loan from the State. The Park is one of only two private-owned national parks in the Netherlands. It is also the only one that asks an entrance fee — as an aside, coming from Scotland; it also gives an indication of what could happen with some of the “rewilding” projects proposed by wealthy landowners in the Highlands. It is not a prospect that I would welcome.

We reviewed our options after coming across this unpleasant surprise, either we paid to enter, or we took a long diversion to go around the Park and miss out on the chance to see the landscapes within. Therefore we reluctantly paid €9.95 each to get in. Once through the gate, the first thing we came across was a bike park full of white bikes. Driving is discouraged inwith the National Park; there is a charge of €7.05 to take a car or motorbike into the Park (or €3.55 to park outside), and motor vehicles are only allowed to use a few roads (taking the direct routes to the visitor centre from the three entrances). To compensate for this, there are 1,800 White Bikes available to people, to use for free in the Park. Apparently, at peak times they run out of white bikes, and people have to hire Blue Bikes. The Blue Bike rentals also offer a wide range of special bikes and trikes.

Inside the Park, which forms one of the largest continuous nature reserves in the Netherlands, the landscape is one of alternating areas of sand dunes, heath, grassland and woods. Navigation through the Park was somewhat hampered by Komoot which insisted on routing us off the hardtop and down rough tracks for no apparent reason. I started to get the feeling that the base mapping underlying Komoot is not very good as it seems unable to distinguish between surfaced roads and land rover tracks.

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht - Hoge Veluwe - Arnhem: Landscape of Hoge Veluwe National Park

After leaving the Park, we headed south towards Arnhem, where we encountered a landscape feature that had been rare on the ride so far. A hill! The road climbed nearly 40 metres over two km in a straight line, with woods to the left and posh houses to the right. And, as I write this piece I find, the Mountainbike Museumo, not that we could have gone in as it is only open Friday to Sunday. Just round the corner, we reached our final destination, Restaurant/Hotel Trix, which was a lovely place to stay the night.

The Stats:

  • Distance travelled: 76?km
  • Time taken: 5hr 36mins
  • Average moving Speed: 17.33 km/h

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 1) Ijmuiden – Amsterdam – Utrecht

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 1) Ijmuiden – Amsterdam – Utrecht

The plan was simple, get on a bike, ride to EuroBike see the show, and then ride back. That was my plan. When I told Ulli, her initial reaction was “it’s too far, it would take too long.” Well, the direct route from the ferry terminal at Ijmuiden to Friedrichshafen is about 780 Km, which could be ridden in eight days, or ten allowing for sightseeing. Each-way. So maybe she had a point. I parked the idea.

One evening about a month later Ulli commented “do you know that there are one day train passes in Germany (Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket), unlimited travel on regional express trains and you can take bikes? We could cross Germany from the Dutch border to the Austrian border in about 10 hours.” For €44, and you can take up to four additional people for €8 each, so for the two of us, it would cost €52 to take us all the way across Germany (+€5.50 per bike)! This was a game-changer for Ulli. Instead of just going to EuroBike and then coming back again, we could have an interesting few days cycle touring, catch a train to get across a large part of Germany and have time to go see her family in Austria. The trip was on.

So it was that we found ourselves on a train to Newcastle on a bright sunny day in mid-August. My plan had always been to take the train to Newcastle, having ridden NCN1 in the past, I was in no hurry to repeat the exercise this time around. Getting the bike into the hanging cubby hole was a bit of a faff and made me wonder what we might come across in Germany.

Having arrived at Newcastle Station, the first challenge was to find a way to get to the Ferry terminal at North Shields. The obvious route was to follow the river Tyne downstream. The first attempt to find a way to get to the river ended at the top of a flight of steps, but undeterred, we finally found a way. Once at the riverside, wayfinding was much more comfortable, and we picked up signs for the Hadrian’s Cycleway, as used by the habebat vehentem phalanx of the II Adiutrix. On the way, we passed the air control tower of the Segedunum Roman Fort as used by the aerium Cohort of the XIV Gemini.

On arrival at the Port of Tyne International Passenger Terminal, cyclists are directed to line up in the car lane to check in, which looks more like a motorway toll booth. Having arrived at check-in, passports are needed to go any further. I knew I had my passport with me as I could remember that I had packed it in a safe place. The problem was it was such a safe place I couldn’t remember where it was. Cue five minutes of frantically searching panniers and rucksack, much to the amusement of the large group of cyclists behind us. Passport found, checked in, and meals paid for (it is one third cheaper if you do it at check-in), we then had to line up with the motorbikes for boarding.

Boarding a large RoRo ferry with a bicycle is an odd experience. It is clear that the vehicle decks are not places for people, they are all about large machines. That said, the crew are welcoming and helpful, showing us the correct place to stow the bike and how to get to the upper decks. The ferry crossing was uneventful, the North Sea was like a millpond, so it was a restful cruise.

Arriving in Ijmuiden, the Netherlands. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 1)

The following morning, after a good breakfast, we arrived in a dull and overcast Holland, the port of Ijmuiden looking grim. Even so, we were looking forward to the adventure ahead, crossing the fabled cycle-friendly Netherlands. Off the ferry and through immigration, we looked around for signs and cycle infrastructure to take us towards Amsterdam. There was none. Fortunately, we had pre-programmed a route into Komoot using Komoot’s auto-routing. This is where the problems really started.

This was the first time we had used Komoot for routing and weren’t prepared for some of its idiosyncrasies. As it was raining, I had my phone in the pocket of my jacket rather than mounted on the bars of my bike. Therefore, I was reliant on the voice directions, which sometimes make little sense. Such as being told to turn where there was no apparent turn or telling me to go straight ahead at a T junction. Despite this, we managed to find our way off the main road (which leads to a motorway) and onto quiet side streets, so far no dedicated cycle infrastructure or even signage.

After some time going around the houses, we came onto a larger road with separated cycle lanes on either side. This leads up a slight rise to a bridge over the main road coming out of the port and our first roundabout. Now ordinarily a roundabout is nothing to get excited about, indeed in the UK, it is something which many cyclists would prefer to avoid. But this was a Dutch roundabout which has an outer cycle lane which motor vehicles are required to give way to when entering and exiting the roundabout. This means that accessing the roundabout by bicycle is easy and stress-free. To test this out, I decided to go all the way around. As a result, I became disoriented and couldn’t remember which exit to leave by.

Having worked out how to exit the roundabout, it was time to head for Amsterdam. We thought we had chosen a route which would take in as much green space as possible (and a short detour planned detour into the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park). It was a pleasant enough route passing through forgettable villages and polders. Ulli took to stork spotting. Also finding out that mobile phone cameras don’t have the sort of long lens needed to photograph a stork halfway across a field (not that that stopped her trying).

At some point on the outskirts of Amsterdam Komoot decided to randomly direct us off a perfectly functional cycle path on to a section of singletrack. Why this was, I don’t understand. However, this seems to be a bit of a habit with the Komoot algorithm, and one that we would come up against a number of times during our trip. But there was one unexpected detour which wasn’t Komoot’s fault. While playing around with the potential routing before we left home, I had looked to see where the Urban Arrow factory was. I had found that it was only a few hundred meters to the north of our intended route. Knowing that we were going to be there on a Sunday, and the factory closed, I thought I had removed this, but Komoot had other ideas. So it was that we found our selves outside the home of one of the largest cargo bike manufactures in Europe. On a Sunday, when they were closed and no chance of taking a look around. Durr

Sent off down single track, thanks Komoot! To EuroBike and Back: a continental journeyThe home of Urban Arrow. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey.

Next up was the old town of Amsterdam, with its quaint canals and massed road works, which made navigation rather more complicated. Fortunately, Amsterdamers are a friendly bunch and welcome the lost cycle tourer with cheerful greetings of Godverdomme and Laat ze opzoute!

It also gave us an opportunity to have lunch and pick up some bakery items for later.

As we left Amsterdam, we encountered the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal (or Rhine canal) for the first time. This canal runs for 72Km from the Port of Amsterdam to the Waal River (a distributary branch of the river Rhine) near Tiel. At 100m wide and 5.5m deep it is an impressive feat of engineering. As are some of the cycle bridges crossing it, but it wasn’t all big engineering. There were tree-lined sections where it feels like you are cycling into an infinity tunnel.

Like cycling into an infinity tunnel. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey.

At Nigtevecht, we turned away from the Rhine Canal to follow the river Vecht, mainly because Ulli wanted to see some windmills. It was a narrow rural road with little traffic, which was just as well because what traffic there was, was mostly large SUVs. The drivers of these vehicles struggled to pass a bicycle with panniers as the road was so narrow, what do they do when they meet another large SUV coming in the other direction?

Only a kilometre or so out of Nigtevecht, we saw a bridge over the Rhine Canal which begged us to divert and have a closer look. The new Nigtevecht bicycle bridge‘s sinuous curves were calling us to ride the double hairpin ramp. It was great fun and made me wish that I had a drone to film it with (and this wasn’t to be the last time on this trip I wished I had a drone).

The new Nigtevecht bicycle bridge‘s sinuous curves. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey

Not long after this, we had another Komoot moment. This time we were following the road around the outside of the village of Vreeland when Komoot decided to divert us into the village among the houses and then out again. There was nothing to be gained from this, it was longer, no point of interest, not even a shop. There was no apparent reason why the routing software was sending us that way. Such is the way of Komoot.

Further up the Vecht, riding alongside the river, we could see most of the houses on the other side of the river, each with their own private mooring. And one development of executive flats even had its own little harbour. There were also examples of Buitenplaats which were once the summer residences of wealthy townspeople, back in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century when the Netherlands had a mighty Empire and a navy which defeated the British. This is a side of the Netherlands that you don’t see on the tourist websites and one of the joys of travelling by bicycle is the opportunity it affords you to come across these things.

We left the river to make our way to the centre of Utrecht, this being the Netherlands it was incredibly simple. Just follow the main road directly into the centre of the city. None of the convoluted routes sending you down “quiet ways” round the back of the houses, stuff get in the UK. From the outskirts to the city centre was a dead straight route of about 7Km on a dedicated cycle path with priority crossing minor roads and separated traffic lights at major junctions. t couldn’t be more natural to cycle into town. The only downside was having to share the path with bromfiets (mopeds) or stinkfiets as I took to calling them, which plague the otherwise wonderful Dutch cycle infrastructure. If you are wondering why stinkfiets, the older ones (and there are lots of them) use two-stroke engines which really do stink.

Utrecht itself is the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands and home to the biggest university in the country. It is a city with a cool urban vibe and bikes are everywhere. Cycle model share (the percentage of all journeys inwith the city) is 33%, making the bicycle the most popular way to get around the place. However, it is not the most cycle-friendly town in the Netherlands, that is Houten, a satellite town a few kilometres to the south-east.

One of the more striking sights in central Utrecht is an artwork called Skyscraper, it is a whale made out of five tons of plastic salvaged from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which appears to be leaping out of the Catharijnesingel. It is intended as a statement about the massive amount of plastic waste that pollutes rivers, seas and oceans around the world. Although as I write, it may no longer be there. It was originally created for the Triennial Bruges art and architecture festival, and was only a summer visitor in Utrecht.

An artwork called Skyscraper, a whale made of discared plastic leaping out of the Catharijnesingel

The thing that will still be in Utrecht, but which we didn’t get to see is the world’s largest cycle parking facility. The reason we didn’t get to see it was because it was first opened to the public about four hours after we have left the city on the next stage of our journey. And that is a story for another post, watch this space.

The Stats (for Ijmuiden to Utrecht):

  • Distance travelled: 86.9 km
  • Time taken: 05hr 15mins
  • Average moving Speed: 16.6 km/h

More route info here:

Part two: Utrecht – Hoge Veluwe – Arnhem

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.

Down Dumfriesshire way (Part 1)

Down Dumfriesshire way (Part 1)

The decision to take a cottage in Dumfriesshire had been very much last minute, so route planning to get from the station in Lockerbie to the cottage at Yett by Johnstonebridge was sketchy. While we waited for the rain to pass, we stood in the shelter of the station roof looking at the map. To me the obvious route was to follow the National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 74 to Johnstonebridge and then backtrack a couple of Km south. This was slightly longer than winding through the minor roads, but had the advantage of being straightforward, without the need to stop at every junction to check the way, what could possibly go wrong? Well the NCN 74, called the “Moss, Motte and Motorway Cycle Route”, follows the B7076, formerly the A74 which has been replaced by the A74(M).
NCN 74 - Moss, Motte and Motorway Cycle Route

Got all that? Good, I shall continue, the road was straight and fast, so not so pleasant to cycle on, it was also right next to the Motorway. We quickly decided the best thing to do was to look for a turn off onto the first minor road and find our way along the roads less travelled, so it was we found a more relaxed route to the cottage…

The road even less travelled...

Arriving at the cottage we were meet by the owner, who had offered to get us a few groceries, when we told her we were arriving by train and bike. This was the first time we had attempted a cottage based holiday by bicycle, we had our things in our panniers but not much in the way of food. Therefore, having unpacked and found our way around our home for the week, the next priority was to find out where the local shops were and get some food in. This is where advance planning is helpful, but we hadn’t actually done much. The nearest village is Johnstonebridge, about 2 Km away, had (like so many villages in this area) lost it shop. There is however a motorway service station by Johnstonebridge, accessed via the NCN 74, which offers limited shopping (mostly in the petrol station). We had also been told the Lockerbie Truck Stop has a small shop. This is 3 Km south of the service station along the NCN 74, and explains why there is so much heavy traffic on a B road (we later found there is a back road which can be used for access without the heavy traffic). As we set off to cycle there, the rain started. We arrived only to find that the shop closes early on Saturdays. The ride back to the cottage was wet, so we were glad that it was equipped with a washing machine, in which we could spin dry clothes, and central heating. Fortunately, we had enough food to cover our evening meal and breakfast.

Sunday morning, the rain had passed over night and so we ready to start exploring the local countryside and visit Lockerbie for some shopping. To the west of the motorway there are lots of quiet roads and odd wee places to explore, the likes of Applegarth.

Applegarth church

Arriving in Lockerbie one finds there is little of interest you hold you there, so we just nipped into Tesco, picked up the shopping we needed and headed home. One of the good things about a cycling holiday like this is that going out for the shopping is enjoyable, even if all you do is go to a very dull supermarket. It is the journey either side which makes it fun (and the sunshine helps as well).

The following day we decided to try going in the opposite direction and head for Moffat, again trying to use the wee roads where possible…

a quite road

and were rewarded with great views of the Annandale landscape. At one stage we had to pull of the road to let a herd of cows, which were being moved between fields, pass. On another part of the road we had to take it slowly as there was a loose heifer and we had to let her find her own way back into the field she had come from.

Moffat itself is a pleasant wee town, which would have great charm if its central area wasn’t used as a car park (there must be some hidden corner where they could be dumped to keep them out of sight, although the obese owners of these obese vehicles might object to having to waddle that far). The town is fortunate enough to have a fine range of local shops, probably due to the absence of a major supermarket (unless you count the Co-Op in Station Yard). Oddly Moffat markets itself as a “Walkers are Welcome town“, and yet there isn’t a single walking or outdoor equipment shop. Nor for that matter was there a bike shop, although there were a fair number of local utility cyclists. It is a shame that it has yet to market itself as a “Cyclists are Welcome town” as it has great potential.

After lunch at a Moffat café we headed north to visit the Devil’s Beef Tub. Most visitors go to see the Devil’s Beef Tub from above via the A701, but following our theme of taking the road less travelled, we rode to the bottom of the Beef Tub, where the Border Reivers once hid their (usually stolen) cattle. Riding up the glen towards Corehead, which the Beef Tub is a part of, it was easy to see why it was a good place for hiding cattle.

Riding up to the Devil's Beef Tub

The hills rise up and enfold the head of the glen, an easily defensible area:

Riding up to the Devil's Beef Tub

Time for a digression: Corehead and the Devil’s Beef Tub have great cultural and historical significance in the Borders. In the 13th century the laird of Corehead Tower, Sir Thomas Halliday, was married to the sister of one William le Waleys (or wee Wullie Wallace, as he is sometimes known). Just for the sake of historical accuracy, it should be pointed out that he didn’t paint his face blue, and it is very unlikely that he spoke with an Australian accent. What is more certain is that he raised the Border clans at Corehead for his first attack against the English in 1297. The rest is a Hollywood movie, which the SNP now find slightly embarrassing. Sometime after, this area passed into the ownership of the Moffat clan, who held the land until they lost a feud with the Johnstons of Annandale. The Johnstons were one of the most powerful of the Border clans, and noted for their feuding (usually with the Maxwells, with whom they managed to have a continued feud lasting around 400 years, the longest in Border history). The Moffats suffered their greatest calamity in 1557 when the Johnstons set fire to a local church while most senior members of the Moffat clan happened to be inside. Seventy years later all the Moffat lands had passed to the Johnstons on account of the Moffats accruing massive debts. One final note on the Johnstons, following the Union of the Crowns in 1603: when King James VI rode south to become King James I of England, he needed to pacify the Borders. To achieve this, he deported or executed the worst of the troublemakers. This included a good many Johnstons who were bundled off to Ireland, where they became known as the ‘Gentle’ Johnstons. It is from this group that my mother’s family descends.

OK, back to the story of our cycling holiday. On the ride back from Moffat we spotted a pair of Red Kites (Milvus milvus) and a spitfire, one of the great things about riding a bike is that you have the opportunity to look around for these sort of things as well as the freedom to stop and stare. We also passed a place called Wamphray, which looked like it might be worth another look.

Tuesday: we decided to strike out towards Eskdalemuir, via Wamphray and Boreland, then returning via Castle O’er and Lockerbie. The first part of this ride took us back for that second look at Wamphray, this time up past the mill and the church. As we passed the mill I thought I must take a photo of that on the way back, but we didn’t come back that way, so you will have to make do with this property schedule [the owners did like the property schedule they had made public remaining public, so it has been removed]. However, we when we got to the Church, I did stop and get the camera out.

Stone in Wamphray church yard

After leaving the church, we stopped again further up the hill to take some photos, oh hang on, I think I might have the got the roof of the Mill in this one…

View over Wamphray, to Annandale

Dumfriesshire is a great place for cycle touring, but there is just one thing with touring though this sort of landscape, you just have to keep stopping to take more photos.

Dumfriesshire landscape

Arriving at Boreland we were disappointed to find there was no tea room or even a shop, so we pressed on towards Eskdalemuir. On the map the road is shown as passing through wall to wall trees, but as we came by, it was bounded by large areas of clear fell, which are slowly being replanted. The road itself was mostly quiet with the exception of the odd timber lorry, fortunately they gave us plenty of space.

Watch out for timber lorries

Arriving in the village of Eskdalemuir, we were again disappointed to find that there was no shop of café, however we weren’t to downhearted, as we knew that there was one just up the road, at the local Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

Eskdalemuir Tibetan Buddhist Centre
some more pictures here.

Personally I wasn’t overly impressed by the café, but Ulli liked it. This was also the first place that we saw cyclists in any numbers, probably because it was the only cake stop for miles around. This is one of the differences between the Borders and the Highlands, in the Highlands just about every small community has a bookshop/art gallery/café/ ceilidh place and a pub. Whereas the Borders lack these amenities, which is a wee bit of a nuisance. However, there is a solution to this, promote cycling in the Borders! There are lots of interesting wee roads and the place is ideal for cycle tourism. This will lead to increased demand for cake stops, B&Bs, small shops and other economic activity, after all on the mainland of Europe cycle tourism is worth over £20Bn a year.

Cake consumed, we set out for Castle O’er, following the White Esk upstream on the west bank. We noticed two sets of signs along this road, first there rather faded ones saying National Byway cycle route and the second set of signs were for the Eskdale Prehistoric Trail. This second set was supplemented with a number of display boards along the way, explaining the lumps and bumps in the landscape, showing the long history (and prehistory) of human settlement. It was an interesting ride. One such site was the Deil’s Jingle near the confluence of the White and Black Esk, which was a late iron age or early medieval boundary. There are also a number of bronze age and iron age settlements and hill forts. So it was that we wound our way to Lockerbie and from there we took our now familiar way home.

Just noticed that this post is getting a wee bit long, so I am splitting it in two, in the second part we visit, Caerlaverock, the Forest of Ae, Lochmaben, and meet another Blogger (who is lovely). Part two will be along shortly…

part two will be along shortly…

Changing times for the Cycling Tourism

Changing times for the Cycling Tourism

Five years ago I wrote a post about cycle touring is now fashionable and since that time I have undertake a fair bit of cycling tourism my self (as you will realise from reading this blog). So I was pleased to see today a report from the European Cyclists Federation (ECF) on Changing times for the Cycling Tourism showing that it’s a real bread winner for local economies across the EU. Here in the UK we are increasingly seeing workshops run for those in the tourism sector on the benefits of cycle tourism and highlight potential of mountain biking tourism.

Even previously staid Tourist Boards jumping on the bandwagon all being under the label of “Adventure and Outdoor Sports Holidays“, which just shows they haven’t really done their market research very thoroughly, as according to some market analysis, the average age of cycle tourers is between 45-55 years. Also in resent year there has also be an increase in the number of family groups showing an interest in cycle touring holidays.

There is some evidence that policy makers have taken this on board and while initiatives such as the Scottish Borders Recreational Cycling Group securing £175,000 in funding are to be welcomed, there is a very real need for a more broad based approach. We need a long term cultural change which sees the bicycle as a legitimate form of transport, not just a sporting toy. There is much to be gained and nothing to lose, so what is holding us back, we have the Cycling Action Plan for Scotland all we have to do is implement it!

Addendum:

The ECF have issued another new report which estimates the value to local economies across Europe of cycle tourism on the Trans-European Cycling Network (which includes route in Britain and Ireland) to be €5 billion annually, and that doesn’t include the smaller local cycle routes (or Lands End-John O’ Groats).

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.

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