The Ardrossan ferry to Campbeltown, for a weekend tour.

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At Ardrossan Terminal.

At Ardrossan Terminal.

Gin and Tonic, Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry and of course a CalMac ferry and touring bicycles. They go together, work perfectly, so don’t over think it. You go as a foot passenger, with the bike going free. You are getting subsidised by the cars and the Scottish government, which is nice.

Booking office.

Booking office.

Always great excitement - the start of a ride.

Always great excitement – the start of a ride.

Porridge in the morning.

Porridge in the morning.

This is why you will find us so often at Ardrossan, on Scotland’s West coast. It is just a short drive across the country from our home here on the East coast, so it could not be simpler. Caledonian Macbrayne’s timetable comes in online form, but the real excitement is the A5 pocket version. In just the same way that paper maps offer a sort of foreplay for the adventure, equal anticipation and joy is to be had with the ferry timetables for Scotland’s West coast.

At the tent.

At the tent.

Heading back to Campbeltown.

Heading back to Campbeltown.

There are just three sailings a week from Ardrossan to Campbeltown, and we were there for the Friday evening one. Summer had arrived with a cloud of Martins over the garden two weeks ago, and Swallows in ones and twos gripping the telephone lines a few days later. It was never going to be a weekend of wall to wall blue sky, but there was room for optimism.

At a little under £8 for a 3 hour journey, it has to be the best value mini-cruise you are ever going to get. You can watch the coastline of Ayr disappear and that of Arran pass by on your way to the Kintyre Peninsula and the harbour at Campbeltown. The one fly in ointment bit is that you arrive at 9.30. Not too much of a problem in the height of the summer, but a bit of an issue now. It is a 4 mile ride with a tail wind to Macrihanish holiday park and we arrive to a setting sun.

Flat land of Machrihanish.

Flat land of Machrihanish.

Roadside farmhouse.

Roadside farmhouse.

Just light enough to pitch the tent in a sheltered spot and sit back to listen to the sound of the waves. Machrihanish is flat, flat enough to have the longest runway in Europe at the now mothballed airbase. Until some future time when this becomes the UK spaceport, dairy farming and wind turbines are the main industry in the area. Oyster Catchers have an unmistakable appearance, and their calls as the fly to night roosts is the last thing we hear. At 2 in the morning a group of drunk men having a loud discussion about which group of stars is the Big Dipper is less welcome.

Morning with dull light and the wind has got up. Anything weighing less than a half bag of sugar needs to be held onto as I make breakfast. Rain is falling, but light enough to dry as fast as it falls. Once more we manage the miracle of getting our stuff back into the panniers and are on the road back to Campbeltown. Around the harbour and out along the East Coast to ride up the Kintyre Peninsula. Many of the houses are large, very grand, possibly quite cheap but shockingly expensive to maintain. Palm trees stand in gardens an obvious sign of the warmth of winters bathed in tropical waters. We are on National Cycle Route 78 or the B842 as is it is also known.

Yes it is that one.

Yes it is that one.

Climbing beyond Campbeltown.

Climbing beyond Campbeltown.

The Abbey ruins.

The Abbey ruins.

Bluebells are nodding their heavy heads in the wind. There are lesser Stitchwort and Celandine adding a dash of colour to the verges, and huge clumps of Primrose. With the sea to our right, it is all rather wonderful from this high vantage point. It is always worth the horrid hassle of packing to get away. The road moves away from the shore as we come towards Saddell. Is it a village? perhaps too small. A hamlet, is that still a word? well anyway, it is rather beautiful and has the ruins of a Cistercian  Abbey. Back to run by the sea. Esther does a sketch of Grogport and we close the loop with our 5 ferry route.

Grogport, Kintyre Peninsular

Grogport, Kintyre Peninsular

Mile marker.

Mile marker.

Beyond Saddel.

Beyond Saddel.

Overlooking Arran.

Overlooking Arran.

Goat Fell in background.

Goat Fell in background.

A Cuckoo flies across the road. Careful. You can get this wrong as they look so much like a Hawk. A few minutes later and the first call of the year, it is a Cuckoo. There is the climb over the peninsula and up the A83 for baked potato, beans and cheese in Tarbert. We head back and take a right onto the B8024 for what we know will be a highlight of the trip. We have done this bit before as part of a Lands End to John O’Groat route that we did years ago. We failed to get to either of those places and possibly enjoyed the trip far more because of that.

Road to Kilberry.

Road to Kilberry.

Mile marker.

Mile marker.

We are on the way to Kilberry, on what may be a top 5 cycling road in Scotland. After the rollercoaster of the Kintyre coast it feels almost flat. Beech Trees with almost fluro new leaves line the road forming damp lichen and moss copse. This is perfect cycle touring. A few short and quite steep hills, just to remind us that Scotland is never easy biking, and we are at the coast again.

It is now greying over, trying to rain just to spoil the last few miles and hide what should be spectacular views out to Islay and the Paps of Jura out to the West. Kilberry is small, but perfect, with a friendly restaurant. We need to keep going. A climb out and then a turn to the left and down to the sea at Port Ban campground. It has just been voted the best in Scotland and it probably deserves it. The welcome is as friendly as we remember from our last trip and we ride along the beach to pick a sheltered spot to pitch.

Near Kilbery.

Near Kilberry.

We need to hide out of the wind and tuck the nose of the tent into the folds behind rocks. It is showing every signs of being a stormy night. I would not want to be putting up a rubbish tent bought online yesterday. Which is just what we are watching two groups of campers do. It is now raining heavily. The forecast said nothing of this. We have to work out a way of using the microwave to cook the food and seek shelter in the kitchen area. Rain hits the windows, a grey horizon unsure of boundaries of sky or water.

We dive into the tent for a night of wind rain and more wind. The tent is thrown around and we are glad we chose our most Scottish climate specific tent. Few things are more wonderful than being in a good sleeping bag and dry and toasty warm on a wretched night.

Morning porridge.

Morning porridge.

a Walk along the beach at Kilbery.

a Walk along the beach at Kilbery.

Morning is brighter. The lighthouse on Jura just about visible as a thin pencil of white against grey. Gannets are arrowing into the sea, fishing just off land. I make porridge and we drink tea and walk along the beach, happy there is little rush for todays ride. Yesterday was hard and legs are tight after the long tent night. I pack and then walk up most of the hill back to the road. The climb helps to stretch out the legs, ready for the day.

Campground sign.

Campground sign.

Dropping towards the sea.

Dropping towards the sea.

We meet the sea at Ormsary. There are Seals balanced astride rocks. They watch us ride by unhappy to be disturbed having put the effort in to scramble up the rocks. This is perfect, a unmissable road, a gem of Scotland and we are just ahead of the midge season which helps. The bikes are going well and we have got used to the weight. It is a shock after the gossamer joy of road bikes. There is no flick of the hip to steer, the darn things have too much mass, just too much heft. You need to point them properly.

The most perfect ride.

The most perfect ride.

The A83 towards Tarbert.

The A83 towards Tarbert.

The road ends at the A83 junction and we turn back towards Tarbert. This is busy, even on a Sunday morning. Perhaps it is the shock after the tranquility of back roads. The Lite Bites cafe, for the second time this trip. It is one of our favorite little towns on this coast and feels very cosy, catching some early sun now before the season begins. A full Scottish Breakfast, well what harm could it do. Ahead I have thoughts of the climb over to the ferry at Claonaig. I think about the speeds that we usually descend, and am not looking forward to the climb.

Low on fuel.

Low on fuel.

Tarbert harbour.

Tarbert harbour.

Full Scottish Breakfast.

Full Scottish Breakfast.

Like every steep climb on a touring bike, it is a question of gears. Pick a small one and winch yourself up the slope. Quads are burning and I am down to summer jersey and fingerless gloves for the first time this year. It turns out not to be quite as unpleasant as feared. We drop down the other side to wait for the ferry. The sun and clouds are joined to dance shafts of strong clear light over the folds of Arran’s hills. Goat Fell, the dark shape of a face, a sharp nose, chisel chin and stretched out sleeping, a warrior.

Claonaig on Arran.

Lochranza on Arran.

Again, we are not often riding in this direction. We come ashore and then cycle around and by Lochranza Castle. Gorse is in flower, it is always in flower. When Gorse is in flower, hunting is in season, goes the saying. We start the climb. Again, not as bad as I thought it may be. Over and down to Sannox Bay. We catch sight of the ferry off at sea, but approaching Brodick. I had vowed not to race to catch it, but the chance is too good to miss. We do the final 8 miles at idiot speed, sweat dripping and legs pumping down on pedals. I think I see people on the ramp, but it is not clear till the final few meters that we will make it. Horrid, sweaty and short tempered when we can not find the ticket. It is of course, in the last place I look.

Climbing over Arran.

Climbing over Arran.

A fantastic weekend of half a dozen Grey Seals and about the same number of Cuckoos. Getting away like this always makes the weekend feel longer and more special. My legs are shocked by the demands of propelling a heavy touring bike. We rode 58 miles on the Saturday, climbing 4038ft in total. On Sunday the ride was 54 miles and a climbing total of 4327ft. Which is why my legs are still complaining on Tuesday.

Corrie bay on Arran.

Corrie bay on Arran.

 

 

The first of the long rides.

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Road above Lauder, Scottish Borders.

The very first signs of new life are obvious. This northern part of the world tilts itself up to face the sun, and the light and warmth bring out the spring flowers. The UK is long, with it’s feet by the fire in the warmth, and us up here in Scotland in a Nordic climate. The first lambs are a good sign of the new bike season. I swing around on my rides down the coast to pass a farm that usually has the first.

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Preston Pans harbour on a cold day.

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Preston Pans, low tide.

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River Tyne, the cycle path.

This year I have tried to pay more attention to the next phase of the season. I sleep with the window open and catch the dawn chorus for almost a month now. It starts with a dark sky and a moon still bright. Some unknown cue. It is territory and breeding rights being claimed, and it sounds like hard work.

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Along the coastal path near Dunbar.

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Up into the hills of the Lammermuirs and snow.

Many of my local rides start at sea level here at home, and can quickly get into the hill roads at over 1,000ft. You have to dress for 2 or 3 degrees lower temperatures and the possibility of riding up onto iced roads. Curlew and Lapwing are up there now, a sure sign that summer is close. Snow is tucked into the folds of the hill as new lambs are born to these tough hill sheep.

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The Witches Stone near the village of Spott.

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Home after a long ride.

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Cousland on a cold spring morning.

It has been 3 weeks since I swallowed my first insect and the second one was the weekend just gone. I always try to leave a dreg in the bottom of my final water bottle just incase this happens late on a ride. Two rides have been warm, both long in a search for early season fitness. You feel that have cheated the stats, won a lottery, possibly just a small raffle to get these early miles. The sun has even been strong enough for us to return with red noses from rides.

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Crossing Lauder Water.

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Returning over the moor above Lauder.

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End of the ride.

The first Bumblebee of the year tried to get into the house a couple of weeks ago. I chased her out for her own good. It is almost certainly a her, likley to be a Buff Tailed bee, and was certainly huge. I guess anything smaller would struggle with the low night temperatures. It hung around our pots of Daffs and other spring bulbs and then went on her way.

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Making pancakes in Humbie Wood.

The next thing to look out for are Bluebells. A cousin of the Hyacinths in the pot by our door. Down south these are a spring fellow, but not here. The big online bike retailers have had their sales of winter clothing over a month ago. This works out just fine for us as we get another two months of use out of them. I know where the first Bluebells will show, and will make a point of passing soon.

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Approaching Loch Katrine.

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The bike path around Loch Katrine.

There have been times when the risk of ice was too great to venture much beyond the roads that fringe the coast. These are the roads that the chain gangs of roadies use, and I try not to be on them much. We zig and we zag and never stray far from the warming sea as we pick up the quiet lanes and beautiful fishing harbours. These rides are the meat and two veg of bicycling through the winter here.

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Riding towards Aberfoyle.

As the clocks went forward, we could start to pick up longer rides and more saddle time. We take the bikes down to Lauder and ride a loop into the countryside of the borders. There is no possibility of keeping the bikes clean. Filthy, with unhappy noises from every part of the transmission after just a couple of miles. The area has had a record wet winter. Bridges have been swept away, and even now after half a dozen dry days, fields have standing water and streams run brown and fast. More than 2 hours of bike cleaning follows the next day.

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The Moorfoot Hills in fingerless gloves!

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Main road to Peebles.

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Back road from Eddleston, near Peebles.

We go exploring the high roads that fringe the Lammermuir Hills. There is still snow, but the morning has been warm enough to lift the frost from even these high roads. You can see Edinburgh, the capital off around the coast. So close, but a million miles away. There are standing stones and signs of history. The cottages feel remote even now. I would live in any one of the pantile steadings in a heartbeat.

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The summer bike, anticipation.

Two weekends running, we host a coffee in the woods at Humbie Wood. Out with the Kelly Kettle and stove for tea, coffee and pancakes under the Beech trees. It is great to get people out.

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Remote lands of the Moffat Toffee 200K Audax.

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Climbing towards Grey Mares Tail.

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130 miles done and well done Chris.

We had to raise the distances. We have a early 200K Audax booked and that sort of distance requires respect. Rides became training and confidence boosts and equipment tests. The high roads to Peebles and back home over equally high roads. It coincided with the first true day of warmth and fingerless gloves. The countryside looked as good as anywhere in the world. A knapp of green on fields rolled for summer growth and a near constant Skylark accompaniment. A great ride.

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Island of Arran on the 5 Ferry route.

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Castle at Lochranza, the island of Arran.

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Lochranza ferry, with Gordon.

The Moffat Toffee was hard. A muddy, rolling, wet total of 130 miles of remote border roads. It was the first Audax for our friend Chris. He could not have picked a harder baptism. It was great to see him get through the highs and lows of the emotions and energy slumps of such a long ride. He went very quiet after 100 miles and I tried to raise his spirits by telling him he would probably be the first ‘ginger ‘ home. Another great ride.

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Tarbert harbour, on the 5 ferry route.

So, now I am waiting for the first Swifts or Martins in the sky around our home. I always wondered which would be first. Swifts first, Swallows follow, goes the memory aid. They should be soon. There have been false alarms, with tight turning or fast moving birds. All false, so far. We need to get out camping. OI have a plan for a bivvy on a special hill. I want to wake to a view of my cycling kingdom. My home range, from sea to hill to close to halfway across the narrow waist of Scotland. It will be soon.

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Esther’s hare print – The Bass Rock.

Almost Spring, and a new season of doing stuff.

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near Gifford riding to Castle Park.

Winter light this far north is a mean light that shows little of itself. I asked my friend in Alaska if she had seen the Northern Lights on New Year’s Eve. They were a dazzling show of pulsating coloured light where we were. We compared latitude. Which was the first time I realised that bits of Scotland are further north than Alaska.

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Snowdrops – our first flowers in bloom.

But now there is progress in the season, and the birds noticed first. They had been quiet all through the depths of winter darkness. Then, three weeks ago they began to sing a predawn morning call a first claim of territory. It’s not quite a dawn chorus, and I know in a few weeks time I will have to close my bedroom window at 4.30 if I want to sleep through the noise.

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Hills in snow near Humbie.

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Hills in snow , with sheep tracks.

Often, days are begun with a walk along the River Esk just a short way from where we live. I like to move off the main path and follow the bank of the river. For months now the trees and undergrowth have been a uniform grey or light brown. All colour bleached away, kiln dried by winter wind and cold. Getting out on the bike has been a struggle. Some days there has been winds close to 100 mph, and weeks where it was just too dangerous or plain horrid to venture out.

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A walk in wellie boots at Musselburgh Harbour.

Recently there has been a string of days without rain. This is unusual for one of the wettest winters on record. The wind has dropped, leaving the roof tiles in peace and the local slatters and roofing companies to get on with making their fortunes. The stillness has bought temperatures this week that have been the lowest of the winter, and now ice is the problem. I have the coast road. Everyone who owns a bike was on it last weekend, biking down to North Berwick and back.

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first long ride of 2016, near Heriot.

The Met Office have decided to name every significant storm. Girls names are followed by boys name, starting with Abigail. It looked as if we were going to race through the whole alphabet in one winter. Three weeks ago there was a gap in the procession of storms crashing in from the Atlantic. I got out on my bike. There have been the Snowdrops and the first hope of growth and colour. I was near the small village of Bolton, an area of wide and open fields already sown weeks ago for wheat or barley. I heard it but did not register, then something connected. Skylark.

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Road to Heriot.

This is their area, the place I take people if I want them to hear Skylarks. Now they feature on almost every ride. Last weekend there were a large flock of Lapwings as we rode near Fala Village. They never look capable of anything as demanding of flying ability as a migration. Wiki calls it a slow irregular wingbeat, but you could visualise a paper bag caught in a stiff breeze. They are heading back to the uplands. In the week just gone, there is a smell of Garlic in the woods as the first Ransoms push up. They are almost hidden, but already their fragrance is there.

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My new winter bike setup. H PLUS SON rims laced to Campag Chorus hubs. Almost too good.

There are plans being made for tours of Scotland’s west coast and possibly the islands. It is not quite at the stage of getting out the maps and looking up where you can link together with ferry trips. Esther has a new job. A 4 day week that leaves Friday free for bike adventures over long weekends. The new job comes with one of the best commute rides in the country. It is about 13 miles and climbs 1,200ft from here to HQ in the small village of Humbie.

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At the blue shed – the start of the commute.

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Ice on the road. Into the hills for the commute ride.

Monday was the first time it was light enough to try the commute ride. Ice meant that only main roads could be used. The ride began in the blue light of dawn and temperatures of 3’c down here on the coast. By Humbie it was freezing and a beautiful crisp low early spring light. The sun has got some strength now. There can still be snow, but chances are that it will not last now. We have the first long rides and Audax 200k’s penciled in to test the legs and make us get out to train. The new season is here.

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Esther’s new work – Cows

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Esther on her commute to work.

 

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