Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Arran and Kintyre - Waterways part 1

Cycle touring on Scotland's west coast may not guarantee sunshine but it will guarantee one thing- water. Hopefully that won't be in the form of rain but rather the form of sea crossings, coast-hugging roads and old canals that make up a network of watery ways. l headed to the west coast for my September holiday week and spent the first few days pedalling the watery ways around the Isle of Arran and the Kintyre peninsula.

As my ferry pulled into Brodick harbour on Arran there was an explosion of cyclists from the boat. There had been about 30 to 40 bikes onboard as the quiet and scenic single track roads of Arran make it a good day trip from Glasgow. Undulating roads and a forest trail took me on a southerly circuit via Lamlash, Arran's main settlement, and back over to Brodick on a high road called The String where I made a wild camp in the woods above the village.

Next day I pedalled north along a narrow coastal road that passed little hamlets and harbours with boats pulled up. The route was dominated by the jagged ridges of Goat Fell, Arran's mountain, that towered above. The road pulled into Lochranza whose 16th century castle sits on a prominent spit looking out to sea and guarding access to the land. It's a reminder of how important our waterways once were as the major routes for transportation and invasion. These days you can still be transported by water here by taking the slow ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig at the top of the Kintyre peninsula. On a grey morning my boat chugged across calm waters as a few solitary gannets wheeled overhead.

At the other side I set out along the single track road that runs down the east side of Kintyre. In my books at least, it's one of the most difficult in Scotland being a rollercoaster of a dozen or so stiff climbs and descents, some as steep as 16%. But it's worth the effort to enjoy a landscape of rugged, forested headlands and rocky shores. Every now and then the road dipped to the sea at an idyllic bay with a sandy beach and a cluster of cottages looking across the blue waters of the Kilbrannan Sound to Arran.

I stopped halfway down Kintyre at the pretty spot of Carradale set on a crescent - shaped sandy bay washed by wild surf. The village is quiet now but was once a holiday destination when the old Clyde steamers brought tourists here across the sea from Glasgow. What a contrast it must have been to the city then. It still is.

After a wet night when rain hammered on the tent,  I continued pedalling south to the romantic-sounding Machrihanish Bay near the foot of the peninsula. The pristine sandy beach stretched as far as the eye could see as Atlantic rollers washed in and threatening clouds the colour of bruises gathered on the hills. The last few miles were completely flat and graced by a stiff tailwind on the way back.

After Machrihanish Bay I repeated the rollercoaster ride back up to Claonaig and turned west to cycle into a very quiet little corner of Scotland called Knapdale. Over the next few days, I would be pedalling around more waterways, one of them man-made and the other mammal-made by a very intriguing little animal!

All the photos on Flickr. Click here.

Fact File
Start: Brodick, Isle of Arran by ferry from Ardrossan. Regular trains from Glasgow Queen Street to Ardrossan Harbour connect with ferries.
Map: OS Western Scotland 1:250,000
Route: I cycled south out of Brodick on the A841 which was quiet to Lamlash then took the minor road inland shortly picking up a signed cycle route on a forest trail through to the south coast. I followed the coast road round to Blackwaterfoot - it was pretty hilly - then climbed The String road to return to Brodick. I rejoined the A841 north to Lochranza. Took the Lochranza to Claonaig ferry which runs regularly through the day then cycled south down the B842 on the east side of Kintyre. It's gorgeous but genuinely pretty tough especially with a loaded bike. I camped at Carradale which has a lovely campsite overlooking the beach and lots of great little walks in the immediate area for an evening stroll. There's also a cafe with bike hire, repairs and wifi. They gave me free cake. Small shop in the village. Continued south to Campbeltown and took the B843 to Machrihanish - the only flat road on Kintyre I think. Campbeltown has a big Co-op supermarket. Cycled back to Claonaig the same way.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Gear review - Viking Monocular

This is a very small review about a very small thing ... a monocular. If you're into lightweight backpacking and cycle touring, then a monoular is a great alternative to heavier and bulkier binoculars. Of course, there's a compromise in performance but the monocular is a lot better than nothing, often making the difference between seeing a bird or not seeing it. 

I always buy my opticals from the Viking Optical shop on Rose Street in Edinburgh where the chap is incredibly helpful and friendly. You can also order online from them. The magnification is 6x16, it measures   3cm by 7.5cm and weighs 75g. It comes with a neck cord, wee pouch and one of those ubiquitous fuzzy felt cleaning cloths. Given its tiny size it fits easily into one of the hipbelt pockets on my rucsack and is great for sticking in the bar bag when cycling. As well as for watching wildlife, it's great for scanning the trail ahead and spotting an evening camp spot from the top of the day's hill.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Drumochter - The boat house

It was a lovely wee camp spot. A promontory of dry, green grass poked out into the waters of the loch. The sinking sun touched the clouds with pink and providing some shelter from the wind was a little boat house. 

I got there early evening after a full day in the hills. A stiff climb up from Dalwhinnie had put me on a long, broad plateau which had a Munro at each end. They hardly seemed to be separate mountains, more upswellings of the plateau itself. To the east the plateau was dramatically dissected by the huge cleft of the Gaick Pass and its associated gullies, unnervingly deep and dark. Beyond the Gaick were the hazy outlines of the Cairngorms. To the west were the peaks around Ben Alder, its huge massif still clinging onto patches of snow. They say we might have some permanent snow patches this year due to the cool summer.

It was a long plod to pick off the two Munros and every time the plateau dipped there was water and bog and peat hag to negotiate. As I reached the second Munro late in the afternoon, the cloud lowered and the rain came on. I made steep descent down purple heather slopes and found the camp spot beside the boat house. The wind rattled the corrugated iron roof and made a constant bang from a whisky miniature that had been hung from the door by fishing line. It was picking up now and the loch was choppy and frothy. A pair of red throated divers called to each other offshore and an osprey hung in the air above the water. I pitched the tent on the leeward side of the boat house, looking out over the loch.  I slept well despite the howl of the wind and the drumming of overnight rain.

Next morning the wind had ramped up even more and sent out white horses across the loch. I climbed up Meall na Chuaich, the shapely northerly outlier of the plateau. It was difficult to say the least. I could barely stand up or walk in a straight line as I staggered to the top. This was the effect of the wind, you understand. It wasn't me that had drunk the whisky miniature that hung on the boat house door below.

Fact File
Start/finish: Dalwhinnie, served by Glasgow/ Edinburgh to Inverness trains or Citylink buses. The bus stop is a little closer to the start of the walk.
Map: OS Landranger 42
Route: From the train station walk down Station Road and turn right on the main road through Dalwhinnie. Follow this road south out of the village and just before it junctions with the A9 take the cycle path to the right signed for Pitlochry. Follow the cycle path for about 700m and where it changes from old road into new, narrower cycle path, climb up the bank and cross the A9. Take the double track on the other side that crosses under the pylons and follow it as it climbs  southeast up the hillside. It reaches the edge of the plateau at on old quarry site. Follow the track right and when it starts to turn west and downhill again, leave it at a boggy bealach and head south over rough ground to A'Bhuidheanach Bheag, the prominent top ahead. Then retrace your steps to the quarry and continue northwest on the track until the final rise to Carn na Caim where a faint path leaves the track on a more direct line to the top. I continued along the edge of the plateau for 1km or so until I reached shallower slopes down to the Allt a Choire Chaim which I followed to a firm landrover track. I followed this all the way to the main track alongside the Allt Cuaich. I turned right and walked to Loch Chuaich to camp. To climb Meall na Chuaich, I followed the track heading east from the loch alongside the Allt Coire Chuaich. Just after the bridge over the river, a path leaves on the left and heads all the way to the top. To return to Dalwhinnie I followed the track beside the aqueduct down to the A9 which it passes under, and over a bridge that put me back at the south side of Dalwhinnie.
Tip: Some great old railway photos on display in the waiting room at Dalwhinnie.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Edinburgh - The city secret of seal city beach

There's a secret place where I like to go that's just a few minutes from home by bicycle. It's right on the city edge. The deserted track to go there leaves from the quiet end of the beach. But you have to know it's there because you can't see it from the road or the beach itself. Just now it's bounded by verges of rampant wildflowers where insects buzz and birds flit back and forth. It passes behind the sewage works then skirts the ugly, dirty, litter - strewn mess of an industrial zone and fly tipping hotspot to arrive at the beach. The sandy shores are hidden from the city by the backdrop of warehouses and waste ground. It's not a place anybody would think to go, even if they knew it existed.

Once you pick your way through the additional rubbish that's been washed ashore, there's as many as fifteen seals to see basking on the nearby offshore rocks. Their colour varies from white through mottled greys and browns to black. Maybe not a seal city but a treat nonetheless for a city dweller. As well as the seals, wading birds pick their way along the tide line and cormorants and eider ducks preen on the outflow pipe. The place is strewn with old tires but grasses and wildflowers have grown up through the middles. I think it's this juxtaposition that makes me like the place. Beautiful, wild nature alongside man's dirty industry.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Drumochter - Wummer

Has anyone seen summer? It seems to have vanished this year and been replaced by a new season. The new season has some aspects of summer - the nights are light, the landscape is green - but also some aspects of winter like storm force winds, cold and an absence of sunshine. I call it "wummer".

It was certainly wummer at the weekend in the Drumochter hills. The forecast had said the winds would ease in the afternoon. They didn't.  I climbed Geal Charn in blasts that I could barely stand up in and that blew me off route several times. The windchill was pretty severe and I was wrapped up in a wool layer, two fleeces, hat, gloves and my waterproof. In July! I didn't linger over the beautiful view down a shimmering Loch Ericht but dropped down off the top to pitch the tent. Much like me, it was at its limit for staying upright.

The forecast had said Sunday would be dry and bright. It wasn't.  Thick drizzle shrouded A'Mharconaich. Mountain hares were shadowy figures in the gloom and the mist coalesced into water droplets on my eyelashes. It wasn't unpleasant. But it wasn't summer. I guess we'll just have to keep searching for summer.

Meantime, it's worth bearing in mind that wummer has a couple of advantages over summer - there are less midges in the cold and the wind, and the hills are a wee bit quieter. Not a lot of folk like being out in the wummer weather.

Fact File
Start/finish: Dalwhinnie. Glasgow/Edinburgh to Inverness trains stop here and the Inverness Citylink bus.
Map: OS Landranger  42
Route: I cycled south from Dalwhinnie on the cycle route which starts close to the Dalwhinnie junction on the A9. Follow it to Balsporran Cottages,  take the track down to the railway line and cross the level crossing.  I chained up the Brompton here. Continue along the track. Ignore the first track to the right but take the second. Follow it up the northeast ridge of Geal Charn. It eventually becomes a more enjoyable path. From Geal Charn follow the path that continues south to the bealach between it and A'Mharconaich and join a track. Where it drops to the bealach a path leaves to the left. It's boggy at first but quickly improves. It gently climbs onto the ridge of A'Mharconaich and junctions with another path at a small cairn. Turn left and enjoy a level stroll to the top. I returned to the bealach and  followed the track back down to Balsporran Cottages.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Breadalbane - Biking the byways

Summer is my least favourite time of year. It's much too bright and busy for me. I prefer shuffling around in the shadows of the darker months.  So with a three-day weekend and a loaded bicycle, I sought solitude in Breadalbane on its quiet routes, old hill roads, disused railways and hidden bike paths. Well, not exactly solitude. I was joined by bike buddy Graham,  in training for a big ride abroad. The short, sharp hills would do him good.

The long cycle up Glen Lyon provided a warm up. It's widely considered to be one of Scotland's most beautiful glens. I won't argue. It was strange to be here again, two blogs in a row, after not having visited the glen for over 20 years. I climbed my first two solo Munros up here in my early twenties and I still had the same map now. I could see my pencil scribblings at the edges all those years ago, noting the hills I could see from the top. The hills haven't changed in that time. I have, of course. The wrinkles look like the contour lines on the map. We stopped to visit the old yew tree. Sitting quietly and minding its own business in the churchyard at Fortingall,  it's one of the oldest living things in the country. Estimates vary but it's certainly several thousand years old.

After Fortingall, a right turn put us into Glen Lyon. It starts as a tight pass filled with trees where the water broils below and the road is cut into the hillside. Beyond here it opens out into a green, broad valley. Farms pepper the fields and wildflowers abound in the verges.  In the upper reaches of the glen there are pockets of wilder woods and Scots pines before open, barren hills take over. Glen Lyon's finale is the  tiny, rough hill road that climbs steeply over to Glen Lochay. We cycled up it and stopped for the night on top. The tents were pitched right at the side of the road -  there was no traffic.

Next morning the road dropped steeply to Glen Lochay in a series of s-bends. The sun's rays broke through a passing shower and illuminated the green pastures below. Glen Lochay is a hidden gem, a green meandering valley far away from the busy world below. We followed its river down into Killin, joined the busier world of bikes and buses, and cycled over the arches of the old bridge that straddles the Falls of Dochart and the ancient burial place of the McNab Clan.

Beyond Killin our route climbed up into Glen Ogle on a quiet bike trail tucked away in the trees. It was lovely to be in the forest, at one moment dappled by sunshine and in the next moment kissed by a light shower that left everything smelling fresh and woody. The trail climbed higher through a clearing. The sun beat down. It crossed the road at the top then disappeared again into the trees on the old railway line that once linked Callander with Oban. We flew down the other side, pedalling flat out. The rain poured down.

Our route turned east now, using the tiny road along the south shore of Loch Earn. It swapped woods for rocky beach and then back again. At the far end we found another bit of bumpy, old railway line that cut across the fields beyond St. Fillans. At Comrie, a steep pedal in hot sunshine put us in the broad-leaved shade of Twenty Shilling Wood. The tents were pitched under a sprawling oak by the river. We cooked supper on a sunny bank and drank evening coffee on the pebble beach. 

Next morning Crieff Golf Course provided our onward route. We must have looked odd. Two scruffy cyclists that had just spent the night sleeping rough in the woods pedalling passed Pringle-sweatered golfers. We weren't churning up the greens of course but following a public track that put us in the direction of the Sma' Glen. The road twisted and turned through the tight confines of the glen before taking us over the hill to Amulree. Our final pull was up to the top of the impossibly steep single-track summer road to Loch Tay. The view stretched to the dark cone of Schiehallion as we began the hair-raising, hairpinned descent. We finished at the start and let ourselves in the quiet back door of Kenmore.

Fact File
Start/finish: Kenmore
Route: Leave Kenmore on the unclassified road northeast below Drummond Hill. At the B846 turn left and turn left again at Coshieville. A few hundred metres after Fortingall turn right up Glen Lyon. There's a great wee tearoom at Bridge of Balgie very popular with cyclists doing the Ben Lawers circuit. Continue to the end of Glen Lyon at Pubil and cross the bridge to climb the steep road south over to Glen Lochay. Online reports suggest this road is closed to public traffic as the surface is badly broken down. The surface was fine for cycling.  There were some rough sections but there was always a decent strip of tarmac to cycle on. We camped at the top at the loch beside the edge of the road - there was no traffic. Make the steep descent into Glen Lochay and continue to Killin on this very quiet road. Cycle south through Killin on the A827. After the bridge ignore the first bike sign to the left but take the second, signed for Callander.  The traffic free bike path initially follows the old railway through the woods and then climbs up to Glen Ogle on good quality forest tracks. From the top it's a super descent on the well-surfaced bike path that uses the old railway line. Leave the route where a spur to the left is signed for Lochearnhead and when you reach the A84, turn right (use the footpath as the road is busy). After a few hundred metres turn left onto the south Loch Earn road which has a cycle friendly reduced speed limit of 40mph. It joins the A85 at St. Fillans. Cycle east on the A85 for just under 2km to cottages at Dundurn. This was the only busy section of the trip. Cycle into what looks like private driveway between the pillars and hang left. Go over an old railway bridge and keep straight on the track across the fields. After another old railway bridge the track emerges at Dalchonzie. Turn right on the unclassified quiet road and follow it to Comrie. We took the Glen Lednock road north of Comrie to find a campspot.  From Comrie cycle south on the B827 through Dalginross and turn left on South Crieff Road. Follow this quiet road to Crieff. When you reach the A822 turn left then turn right on the A85. Opposite the wee square on the main street turn left up Hill Street and continue to the road end. Follow the track straight ahead across the golf course to Gilmerton and turn left up the A822 which is relatively quiet. Follow it through the Sma Glen and onto Amulree. At Amulree turn left passed the phone box on the single track road to Kenmore. It's incredibly steep in places with only one S-bend to assist. The views are great on top and the descent is exhilarating. 

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Glen Lyon - Happiness is ...

Some weekend trips into the outdoors are filled with the wild excitement of remote peaks, narrow ridges or extreme weather. Not this one! The biggest challenge was just getting to the start! 

The Glen Lyon Horseshoe is a circuit of four rounded Munros above the hamlet of Invervar. It's a fair way up the single track road that meanders through the beautiful Glen Lyon. My journey there from Portobello started with an early morning cycle on my folding Brompton to Waverley Station while the rest of the city was still asleep. I took the first train north, jumped off at Dunkeld, folded up the bike then grabbed the next bus to Aberfeldy. Once there, I unfolded the bike and cycled the 12 or so miles to Invervar. Phew!

With the bike stashed in the woods, I made the lung-busting pull up the steep, grassy slopes of the first Munro, Carn Gorm. On its north side lingered big banks of snow and midsummer cornices several metres thick. From Carn Gorm the walk stretched out ahead, a pleasant stroll on slopes of springy grass.

There were no dramatic landscapes and no wild excitement but wandering around up here gave me a deep sense of happiness. Perhaps it was something to do with the airiness of the place or, with no other mountains crowding in, the incredible sense of space. And it was so peaceful, just the gentle whisper of the wind and the occasional thin call of golden plover. 

Later in the day, the rocky prow and bouldery tors of the third Munro, Carn Mairg, came into view and were a welcome deviation from grass slopes. A steep descent from its top put me on a high bealach and I pitched the tent here facing east, putting my back to the chill wind. The hills hadn't been busy but I still loved that feeling  at the end of the day when everyone else had gone and I was left alone to sleep on the mountain. Before bed I made the short walk from the tent to the top of the final Munro. 

Next morning the airiness and space were clogged with cloud and driving drizzle. I walked back down into the glen and cycled back to Aberfeldy where latte and gluten free orange cake gave me a deep sense of happiness.

Fact File
Start/finish: Invervar, Glen Lyon
Public transport: I took the Inverness train to Dunkeld & Birnam. Follow the cycle/pedestrian signs into Birnam, turn right on the main road and the bus stop is just there. Stagecoach number 23 goes to Aberfeldy. I put the Brompton on the bus folded up in its bag. From Aberfeldy cycle back down the road from the main bus stop, turn left at the first junction, right at the next and cycle over the bridge. Continue to the B846 and turn left on this fairly quiet B road. At Coshieville turn left for Fortingall. A few hundred metres after Fortingall turn right up Glen Lyon and continue on this lovely single track to Invervar. I hid my bike in the trees beside the small parking area. For the return on a Sunday take the Stagecoach Pitlochry bus from the main stop in Aberfeldy outside the cinema and pick up a train there.
Route: About 20 metres further along the road from the parking place a green post with an orange top marks the start of the path through a gate. Follow the path up through the woods until it emerges onto a hideous track bulldozed for a new hydro scheme. Follow the track uphill, going left at a split and where it ends a bridge crosses the Invervar Burn. A clear path meanders up the southeast ridge of Carn Gorm, the first Munro. The path continues north then swings northeast to Meall Garbh before undulating eastwards to Carn Mairg. Pass north of the tors to find a steep path down and continue to a bealach (where I camped) then up to Meall na Aighean, the fourth Munro. Retrace your steps about 200m then the excellent path continues down the southwest ridge to pick up the outward route to Invervar. 
Tip: Fantastic coffee at Habitat Cafe in Aberfeldy opposite the bus stop.