Notes from the ride journal.
FRIDAY 0737 TEBAY SERVICES
After a torrid evening prepping the bike in the dark, with no less than four self-induced new punctures changing the tyres, the second annual Scotland in September trip is underway.
It was a fitful sleep, as is customary with my early starts, was augmented by a headache that required drug assistance to shift. I check the phone alarm at 0115; 0220; 0330; 0415; 0505 – then of course was fast asleep when the alarm sprung at 0533…
Leaving the dark north west in lashing rain before 0600, I’m now under cloudless but cold skies – I have already seen 4 degrees on the car thermometer which doesn’t bode well for the next two nights comfort.
Now, consuming my haggis breakfast at Tebay, I ponder what essential items I have forgotten in the strop that ensued over those suicidal inner tubes.
1345 THE BEECH TREE AT DRUMGOYNE
Arriving in Glasgow centre before 1000, I locate my booked Q-Car Park berth. With two hours in hand on my self imposed schedule, I have the luxury of procuring wet wipes and tending to ablutions in the St Enoch shopping mall. Grabbing water and a Scotch pie for ride emergencies, I return to the car and patiently assemble the faithful Vagabond.
I’m rolling down the car park slopes from Level 2 at 1100, garnering some curious looks from drivers as I hairpin down to the barrier. Outside, the sun is beating down on the banks of the Clyde as I meander familiar territory through the delicious Kelvingrove Park to the river trail and on to Milngavie and the start of the West Highland/John Muir Way.
From whence we are off road and on dank muddy trails – the Gravel Kings are sub optimum but not a disaster. This part of the route I rode in reverse last year, however it is way more downhilly ridden this way, thankfully. As my physical preparations have been spectacularly lacking, I’m taking it all pretty cautiously to see what, if anything, is in the tank – there may well not be three full days of gas…
Once through Mugdock County Park we have our first real views down to Dumgoyne. The surface is now dry and rocky and I’m sharing the trail with a few walkers. I remember last year I was riding on a Saturday and the walker courtesy stops were legion – thankfully way quitter on a Friday. There are more technical downs than ups, where tyre and rim conservation is preferable to speed. I remember a popular walkers inn en route and put off my first Irn Bru and pie feed for another 45 minutes. The reward is grease-infused Haggis Fritters with a side order of Mac and Fries, all washed down with a Belhaven Best. I’m now 16.2 miles and 2hrs 45m into the trip.
1935 INVERSNAID BUNKHOUSE
Now recovering with a plate of beef stew + a bottle of ‘Fraoch’ heather ale – it’s been 45.4m/6hrs 42m of pedalling today, the last two hours of which have been a struggle even though it became flat, loch-side road work. The lack of condition has announced itself!
Drymen to Gartmore has a long and tedious climb (either way) which did for me. On the rolling Aberfoyle to Inversnaid section I am coaxing my legs to turn and get me to the bunkhouse. The familiar Lock Arklet hoves into view and it feels like the home run. Earlier in the day I imagined I’d be here in an Indian Summer moment, having an idyllic sunset swim in the loch. Wind and grey cloud had already closed in and the temperature had dropped like a stone. Swimming was very much off the agenda.
At a full bunkhouse I quickly made camp as I had only booked a space on the lawn. The midge spurred me to complete Nordisk nesting in record time, then inside to wash garments and use the drying room, before dinner.
SATURDAY 0947 INVERSNAID BUNKHOUSE
After a good feed the night before, especially the apple crumble, I hit the sack. Neither cold nor warm, perhaps a bit damp around the feet due to trying a waterproof socks and quilt combination. The quilt and duvet jacket on top were fine. Properly awake by 0700 I took breakfast at 0800, dressed for the day and decamped with the usual insect encouragements. I rerouted over coffee as my newly found conditioning level heavily suggested that the planned 57 mile route on the final day would be beyond reach.
1325 THE PERCH CAFÉ GARELOCHHEAD
I have just rolled the ten miles from the Tarbet ferry, which dropped me on the west side of Loch Lomond at 1130, aware that energy is reticent this morning. Aboard the ferry were the strange father and son team, with several strained carrier bags of kit, four pillows and a duvet. I recognised them from the bunkhouse the night before – the son was hacking violently during dinner and then was horribly sick in the doorway to the showers in this morning. I tried to stay upwind of the pair as the boat cruised past Rob Roy’s cave then turned back down towards Tarbert. I took on board some shortbread and a whisky-injected coffee, mostly to feel the touristy vibe.
I can’t say I have vigour today and the stats don’t lie – it’s taken two hours to cover eleven miles. I tell myself that this trip is a jolly and not a sporting endeavour, then order a beautifully-prepared ‘Flora Breakfast from the menu. Stornoway white pudding is a big hit!
1802 BUTE FERRY
I’m two thirds of the way on the Firth of Clyde crossing from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, hopefully to find some wild camping nirvana. Earlier it was an easy ride through the Rosneath Peninsula to the marvellous Kilcreggan passenger ferry terminal, with views to my left of the naval/nuclear bollocks at Faslane. A fifteen minute wait for the ferry to scud across, then I’m to Gourock to route down to Wemysss Bay, where I had my eye on visiting the railway station, which has something of an architectural reputation. It is a benign and interesting coastal ride around, with wonderful views south and strange homebrewed huts scattered on the shoreline. I can see the Rothesay ferry working its passage, which hurries me along to buy time to see the station – a marvellous glass thing it is too.
Aboard the car ferry for £6 return, I relax with a Bute red beer and a pastie, dubbed an ‘Electric Bridie’. On deck the mainland recedes and gloomy evening weather replaces the bright and breezy afternoon.
SUNDAY 0852 CAFÉ ZAVARONI ROTHESAY
Last night it was off the ferry and straight into a Cooperative for a baguette and bottle of local beer to augment my planned open air sunset cooking. I cycle up and over a golf course and descend to the other side of the island. It all looked so promising with the sun still around, but there were no obvious wild camp spots to be found. The road routes me south past Mount Stuart then descends towards Kilchattan, it’s lights now twinkling in the gloam.
I turn back on a singletrack road towards a forest with only a few big farms overlooking the sea loch dotted around. It’s getting dark and it’s an effort to stay relaxed about the situation. Finally I find a spot that is remote enough and with the necessary epic views to justify the effort. The map/satellite views don’t reveal how high on an excarpment I will be until I am there, peering over the lethal ledge. Too late to find anywhere else now…
Of course the weather is changing rapidly and any notions of balmy camp food watching a lazy sun set are blown away. Wind whips through the straits below and it spatters with rain. I put the tent up rapidly and get inside with a crushed macaroni pie and the beer, to the dismal accompaniment of rain on polyester.
It’s now pretty dark and an oil rig helicopter flies over my head. Probably less than 200’ above, its searchlight seemingly picking my location and chattels out, it’s hard not to be spooked. I’m high on an escarpment with views towards Saturday night in places like Largs and Millport, maybe six miles over the water – the wind occasionally blows shards of music and shouting over briney.
I try to get into a sleep mind set, adjusting to the myriad noises off. I nod off several times really rather blissfully, as if being sucked willingly down a plughole. Then the wind picks up several notches and the tent shakes like it’s being ridden in a relentless rodeo for the next five hours. It’s calm enough again to sleep around 0500 but my goose is cooked. I wake at 0627 and make good my escape – I’m aware I’m on farmland and Sunday notwithstanding, the farmers and cattle will be on the move.
Sure enough, by the time I push across my damp belongings across the field to the road a quad bike hoves into view and the lane is full of fresh green cow shit. Last night’s hills pay back and assist on the return to Rothesay. I can see the first ferry of the day sliding across from the mainland but I have an hour to kill before boarding. A huge sense of Scottish ‘dour’ pervades the stiff damp breeze. Sunday stillness does little to lift spirits so I turn to food in a warm café.
1200 BEACON ARTS CENTRE GREENOCK
Another unplanned but welcome repeat stop from a year ago, with scones, coffee and an IPA. Earlier I cleaned up and out on the ferry then pedalled softly around the coast again through Gourock, turning south towards Glasgow. A sudden squall, five minutes prior was working it’s magic over Dunoon, is now over me. By the time I’ve even thought about stopping and digging out the waterproofs I am sodden and the sun is back out, laughing at me…
Physically, the posterior isn’t relishing another day on the Cambium and the legs are in ‘get-me-home’ mode – they won’t be rushed. Despite lack of sleep, mentally I’m chipper as there is so much great stuff to see – natural and man-made.
TUESDAY 1815 SAINSBURY’S CAFÉ SALE
Reflecting on the final hours of the ‘Silk Cut Road Trip 2018 Edition’ in the dismal surroundings of the Sale café. Leaving Greenock it was an awkward dice with the A8/M8 feeder road – riding on a carpet of broken glass in the gutter. After all the peace and quiet of the last few days, the screaming traffic came as a real shock. A fear-driven attempt to follow the coastline despite lack of marked trails came to nought. A retrace then a trudge to Erskine, where I thought good views would be afforded from the bridge. Sadly, the intimidating roar of the traffic and the overbearing railings saw to that. It seemed extra cruel that the route over the bridge was uphill, the surface irritatingly rough.
By stark contrast, the moment I was off the bridge, past the Samaritans signs and down to the water level, it was peace again on the Forth and Clyde canal towpath (R7). Swans soothed by, the wind dropped and I could pace myself to a finish, although somewhat dismayed to read I was still eleven miles short of the city centre. I wound up the Ipod shuffle, connected the speaker and mechanised to some driving techno.
Like rail cuttings, canal cyclepaths are much of a muchness to me. Once the first mile is done, the sense that I’m missing out on real environments overcomes and I feel I’m on a dubious treadmill. On this stretch though, there are curious and menacing military-style structures I imagine would be popular on the Irish border, yet on closer inspection, they are home-brewed peace-loving pigeon lofts. In my boredom and tiredness on the cyclemill, I overshoot onto the 754 – it is at least a mile before I realise. As admonishment, I make myself ride back to see where I erred.
Finally, I am off the towpath and by the banks of the Clyde. I have to raid the bottom of my food bag for the hip flask and a packet of Snyders Pretzels to avert a late bonk. After 51 miles and seven hours of pedalling today, I am back at the multi-storey a relieved man. Quickly lobbing the wheels and bags under a blanket in the boot, I head for the very first city centre pub I can see, sit gingerly down and order two beers and a steak and kidney pie and chips. I am so hungry I think osmosis will kick in and absorb the calories before I can even lift a fork to the steaming mass.
It’s been another great solo Scottish trip – the combination of leaving a fairly foreign city for the semi-wilds, throwing in a few ferry trips for good measure, then returning relatively quickly, reminds me of what an accessible resource of adventure our island really is. This year I extended the journey by 24 hours – next year I’m already planning to add another 48…
Words and pictures – Neil Ruddock