And so, to the north, or more specifically the north-west bit of Scotland just above Glasgow, where cycling for a few days in July had seemed like a great idea in the planning a few months ago. Frankly, any opportunity to get away from mobile phones, spend a bit of time with Mrs E and get on a bicycle was always going to be appealing, and the offer from #1 and #2 to look after their brothers, the dog and the house had sealed the day. Although #2 has parenting skills honed from watching the early film career of Ray Winston, and #1 has discovered a social life of must-have engagements that have threatened any attendance in the house beyond mealtimes, but hey, it’ll all be part of their growing up experiences, right?
Anyhow, I met the lovely and frankly rather excitable Mrs E at Newcastle, where I’d been working, and she’d been travelling to on the train, on Friday, and we headed north to Edinburgh, then Glasgow, then Ardrossan. There’s something quite romantic about meeting someone on a train, although by the time we’d annoyed everyone in her carriage by waving furiously at each other through the window, then I’d managed to hold up the train by not getting my bike properly onto the guards van, then fallen over a couple of times by running in cycling shoes to her waiting arms…well, it wasn’t really ‘Strangers on a Train’ territory, but it was as good a feeling as I’d had all week.
And it got better. Onto the ferry at Ardrossan, and over to Arran, which the local tourist guides describe as ‘Scotland in miniature’, because the bottom bit is lowland, and the top bit is pretty mountainous. I think they’ve missed a real trick here – there’s not much population in Arran, and most of the villages that you go through only have a few houses (and, bizarrely, always a co-operative food store), but if they could theme them along the lines of ‘Scotland in miniature’ a bit more enthusiastically then they could clean up. So they could have a whole load of people with posh English accents living in the bottom right village, level with that on the west a fierce sectarian rivalry and a thriving underground arts culture, and up in the northwest, a thriving set of engineers, enjoying two weeks of sober offshore precision mechanics followed by two weeks enthusiastic drinking onshore.
Anyway, we stayed in Brodick, which is the sort of town that Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny might have nipped across to when they ran out of ginger pop on Kirrin Island. We’d booked a room in what turned out to be a really lovely house, run by a lovely woman who, by her own admission, was going through something of a Fawlty Towers phase. The card machine was broken, and the prospect of hot food was limited in that the kitchen ceiling had just fallen down. And could we please not run any hot water after 10pm, as the pump was very noisy and it might wake up the residents of room number 5. So we didn’t. In fact we returned from a splendid meal by 9pm, at which point Mrs E, without any apparent irony, announced her intentions to our hostess that she was planning to ‘draw a bath’. It was that sort of place.
Fuelled by the sort of breakfast that really needed to be ridden off, we set off to discover the delights of ‘Scotland in miniature’, which consisted of taking the only road out of Brodick, and keeping the sea on our left until we got to the top of the island. This looked like about 40 miles on the map, so I’d optimistically thought it would take us a relaxing 3 or so hours, with a few stops for coffee and beer. In reality, it took us most of the day; part of this was because we stopped to look at the view so much, but mainly it was because it was just ridiculously hard work. It wasn’t helped by the weather, that just hammered rain down at a moments notice, but the main problem was that it was proper tough cycling, with some really, really testing climbs. I imagine that when they started marketing ‘Nepal in miniature’ it will feel a bit like the southwest of Arran, but with more people wearing Gortex. And all completely, and utterly work it, probably the best cycling we’ve ever enjoyed, despite all of the above – good roads, fantastic views, no punctures, and hardly any traffic. We got buzzed a few times by the same three Honda Goldwing three-wheelers, who I suspect we’re ridden by Billy Connolly enthusiasts who thought it was a great way to explore, but Arran is such a small island that they ended up going round the same road three or four times before they found an exit. Here’s something I didn’t understand – if you’re going to shell out lots of money on a piece of kit like a Goldwing, and for all I know it might be for a very good reason, like you’ve never learnt to ride a proper bike, or you’ve got a thing about wearing a helmet, why on earth do you have the stereo on when you’re riding? The engines on those things are specifically designed to make loads of noise, so all you’re doing with your recording of ‘Bat out of Hell’ is annoying those of us further away from the engine. On reflection, annoying other people is about all you should ever do with a Meatloaf album, but you get my drift.
Anyway, around we go, to the top of the island, and get on a ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig, and hike up the mainland to Tarbert, which was handily situated just inside its own raincloud. Tarbert is a proper harbour town, although these days there are more yachts than fishing boats, which means that it boasts a few more art galleries than are strictly necessary, but again, we ate well, and perhaps more importantly, kept our heads down when Tarbert cranked up the Saturday night mayhem settings. The main pub in the town was managing to host, in one room, a fairly raucous 50th birthday party, the 3rd/4th place playoffs in the World Cup, and a covers band, cheerfully murdering ‘Eight Days A Week’.
“Shall we go in for a drink?”, I asked Mrs E, and, quite rightly, she pointed out that I was something of a tool for even suggesting such a thing.
Tarbert woke up with a bit of a sore head on the Sunday, but us heathen sassenachs leapt out of bed ready to take on the haul up to Oban, which we tried to do by using the Sustrans route. Sustrans is a great charity, and has done a lot to try to carve out cycle-able stretches of the British countryside, but I do wonder sometimes what the volunteers have been smoking. In the past we’ve navigated our way in the dark, across fields of sheep, reading by torchlight a map instruction that says ‘slightly off road’. The ‘pretty route’ across to Oban is described as a ‘roller coaster ride’ with ‘some challenging climbs’, which perhaps paints a rather too jolly picture of it. In reality, it’s bloody awful 15% climbs, followed by descents that had me grinding my teeth well into the next evening. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, there were highland cattle, mountain streams, stupidly incompetent sheep, heather and mountains, and just us to enjoy it. Although, probably worth specifying ‘enjoy’ a little here for the record…
Mrs E had announced her intentions to cycle around Scotland on a weekend break to her friends, to be met largely by confusion and disbelief. I think the general consensus was that she’d get wet, break down, get knackered and possibly get divorced by hauling a heavy bike up ridiculous hills in astonishingly bad weather. And if the weather held off, she’d get bitten. And all the time, she could have spent her time on a beach, or in a nice place with easy access to the indoors. But Mrs E is made of sterner stuff than that, and despite the fact that most of her friends’ predictions did come true, and despite making the trip on a bike that I’d rather optimistically built for her myself, largely out of spare parts, and which (sorry dear), only appeared to have four working gears by the end of the trip, and despite a number of injuries largely caused by said bike, she almost enjoyed herself. As The good book says…,’Greater love hath no man, than that which sees his loved one haul a thirty year old bike up a mountain in the pouring rain, weighted down by two stone of luggage, vigorously swearing about her sore bottom’.
Anyway, just as we ran out of puff we landed in Oban, which is home to all manner of coach tours and guest houses, in a fairly genteel style, and checked in to a hotel with the biggest windows imaginable, and what we assumed was a complimentary decanter of sherry, which was downed a bit less genteelly, although we did at least use glasses. Another beer, another cider, another seafood meal, another sleep and another breakfast later, and we were ready for day three, which was to take us from Oban to the side of Loch Lomond. This was down as about 65 miles, which wouldn’t normally be a challenge on normal terrain and in fine weather but unfortunately we weren’t going to get either of those. It absolutely tipped down from the moment we cycled out of Oban to 10 minutes after arriving at Loch Lomond, about 7 hours later. It was truly, truly horrible weather, and not helped by needing to spend most of our time on the A85, which was stupidly busy with lorries driving too fast and seeing us too late. We almost cashed our chips in on a hill out of Inveraray, when two lorries hauling the towers for wind turbines misjudged the hill and drove us into the ditch. When I die, I would quite like it to be in a bizarre green-energy related incident, and ideally on a bicycle, but fortunately it wasn’t my time. Just as well, as Latitude is next weekend. Anyway, less said about that journey, the better. Through the clouds you could see some landscapes that we’re probably splendid on a clear day, but given that most of our focus was on keeping in one piece through the rain, there wasn’t much opportunity to do any wistful gazing.
Loch Lomond was pretty good though, and we managed to salvage some dryish clothing and found a bar to anaesthetise the day away. All of which was pretty successful, as even Mrs E greeted her saddle the next morning with a cheery pat, knowing that we had less than 20 miles to knock off before Dumbarton, Edinburgh, Peterborough and home. When we retire from cycling (which I briefly thought might have been at around 1500 on Monday on a hill out of Inveraray), I’m going to have Mrs E’s saddle made into a barstool so that she can relive the memories, one of which I hope will include rubbing tiger balm onto the back of her neck by the side of the A85 in a monsoon.
“She’s a cruel mistress, that saddle”, said Mrs E
Ahh, but mistresses are supposed to give you the most fun.