Summer rides of joy.

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Sculpture at Vogrie CP.

It is now almost 2 years since we forced open the door here against the wedge of junk mail. Back home from 4 years on the road, we were both at the ragged end of enthusiasm and energy. In the first year back we renewed our love affair with our home roads. Like dogs, high on freedom and off the leash we biked in a frenzy of marking. But we did not get anything like enough done.

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Old bike near home.

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Esther with new bike clothing – looking great!

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Above Jedburgh, Scottish Borders.

This year and with the focus on the summer months, we said we would do more. There is a lot to do, Scotland has a vast network of back-roads that we like to think as our domain. Most weekends begin with a ride from home, or loading the bikes into the back of our van. There is usually a route dialled into the Garmin and it is often complex.

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Rural road near English border.

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High in the Cheviot hills.

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Above Gifford in East Lothian.

Yesterday we needed the lights in the house by 7 in the evening. The North Sea Haar, a wonderful local word for the cloud and fog that rolls off the sea like Mercury. As we rode yesterday we had the first of the soft light days of Autumn and the sound of power cables sizzling. The Swallows may be still with us, but only just.

We have crammed in as much riding as possible. There have been new routes so complex that I have needed the gps and favoured old routes repeated for the first time in half a dozen years or more.

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Biking the island of Rugen in Germany.

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At Granny’s Rugen.

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Friends garden on Rugen.

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Beech woods of Rugen, Germany.

It is said that when an experienced glider pilot looks at a landscape, they see the clouds first. In the minds eye they read the lift offered by each cloud. A flight visualized and a line planned. Cyclists can do the same I think. On a ride in the Cheviot hills a few weeks ago we were on an unfamiliar road. The view back towards home opened up to a vista we had never had before and had not expected. Our cycling kingdom all hundreds of square miles was before us. We know each rise and fall. New routes day dreamed, visualized. We stood and looked for ten minutes or more.

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Berlin bike.

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The hills above Dunbar in East Lothian.

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Ancrum in the Scottish Borders.

When you know an area well, and I would say that you can only know it by walking or cycling and having the connection to that space through passing slowly and through effort there is a feeling of stewardship. A deep knowledge a slow won knowledge. You would think that farming the land would give you an ultimate connection, but you could be wrong. A couple of weeks ago we pedaled by a farm that I once owned. You would not believe the burden of ownership. Everything looks different when you are responsible for it. There is never the carefree gaze of the walker or cyclist.

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Rural road in the Cheviot hills, Scottish Borders.

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Valley near Yetholm, Scottish Borders.

Do I dream of cycling? Possibly. But then there are things that I am not sure I have ever dreamed, like sneezing. Can you have a dream where you sneeze, can you ride a bike in your dreams?

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View of our Kingdom. Looking north towards home.

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Remote church in the Cheviot Hills.

We are away on a short tour up the east coast and I need to pack. We must ride before the Dreich days of the months ahead and the earth tilts to rob us of light once more. ( Dreich – a word that recently topped a poll of favorite Scots words – A combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather. At least 4 of the above adjectives must apply before the weather is truly dreich. )

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evening storm from Big Sands, Gairloch.

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Near Gairloch, Wester Ross in the NW Highlands

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Remote ride to Redpoint, near Gairloch.

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Walking the Pug, Gairloch.

 

 

Islay part 2.

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Ride into Port Charlotte, Islay.

The red-billed chough was formerly reputed to be a habitual thief of small objects from houses, including burning wood or lighted candles, which it would use to set fire to haystacks or thatched roofs. You do find yourself wondering how anyone ever believed this stuff? What is not in dispute, is that one is flying over our camp. I am thrilled, having only seen them on BBC nature programs.

The chough, which is pronounced ‘ chuff ‘, goes by again. It looks like a crow but has a call like a startled octogenarian auntie, who has not noticed you entering the room. These are rare, very rare. Of course, within half a day you will meet someone who has one that for the last 20 years habitually nests by their kitchen window. Islay, and it is this bit of Islay, is the only place you will see them.

Another morning of perfect weather. You have to seize these opportune weather windows, particularly in West coast Scotland and just hope that the BBC weather app has got it vaguely right. ‘ He who dares Rodney, he who dares ‘, as a wise man once misquoted. We are in no hurry to pack up. Another tea brewed under what is becoming a Mediterranean sky and today, a crisp horizon.

We push the bikes back up to the road. The first few miles have some nasty steep, punchy little climbs. Touring on even lightly laden bikes is a subsection of cycling. They have a heft to them, an inertia that makes starting, stopping, turning and going up or down hill utterly different. It just shrugs off that flick of the hips that would send your road bike into a graceful curve. You have to steer a touring bike, there are no gifts, no using your speed to roll half up a hill.

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Back at Debbie’s

We drop back down to the coast at Port Charlotte, which is having a bit of a lie in. A few people are having a late breakfast out on the street, sitting on steps and dinning chairs. This is so rare, so unHebridean they look self conscious.  Another visit to Debbie’s for Cappuccino. There is a warmth to the air, it is all feeling rather luxuriant and more than a little bit Italian.

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Near Loch Gorm, Islay.

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Flock pen, with view to the Paps.

Clockwise around the bay this time up towards Bridgend. Three days ago it felt foolish and insanely optimistic to be buying a tube of factor 50. Anyhow, here we are lathering on a thick mask of the stuff on face and tips of ear lobes. Islay has very few lumpy bits. If you can see a hill, then it is probably the ‘Paps ‘ of Jura a short way off on the neighbouring island. The heat of the day is starting to smudge the horizon. We take the left to Kilchonan, towards yet another distillery. We are in a mood to ride some minor roads.

A big loop around brings us down to the main road at Bridgend and then we plan to take the high road ( which I think is called the low road for some reason ) beyond Bowmore. A mile to go and we are flagged down by a cyclist coming the other way. He is animated, and after repeating himself 3 times before we understand, ” there’s free food at the distillery! “.  We get the message now, his is the sort of thing you need to know as a cyclist. ” I had beans on toast at a poxy cafe before I found out! “. He is anxious we do not make the same mistake. He cycles off, a picture of pure happiness in faded lycra.

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Bowmore distillery.

Not 10 minutes later we are tucking into  finest buffet courtesy of Bowmore. There are scallops and chocolate cake, possibly a free dram if I had the nerve to ask. Not a cloud in the sky, the sea azure through panoramic windows. We try not to attract attention.  I am far from sure we have enough money on us if it turns out to be some ghastly mistake. Head spinning with sugar intoxication, we are back on the road and heading South towards Port Ellen.

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Sign, Port Ellen.

We plan to ride down another dead-end track. The Oa peninsula is almost an island in its own right being cut through by several streams flowing both ways from Kintra. Before the clearances, the peak population of the Oa was around 800, which today would be a huge population. There are many abandoned crofts and cottages in what is now a remote landscape. We ride out towards Risabus, and beyond the road ends at a track. We have not got the enthusiasm for off-road gnarly touring and possibly nowhere near enough bike handling skills. We turn around.

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Climbing towards Inerval.

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Cragabus Chambered Cairn, Islay.

After two perfect wild camps our  expectations are high. A field on our right looks promising. Flat enough, with a stream but nothing too much you could call a view. We will need to lower our expectations. We pitch the tent and I go for a walk back along the road. Cragbus Chambered Cairn is small, possibly just a shadow of what has been lost over the millenia. It is still nice to have it all to myself. I sit at the end of the chamber and watch the sun drop a little further, shadows lengthen a little. A northern twilight last an age in summer. There is a strong breeze that you could call a warm wind, we have the extra guying points pegged on the tent.

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A wee dram.

Overnight there is the first Owl call of the trip. It hunts before it is even dark on these Hebridean white nights. The sun eventually drops and then the wind is lost. The tent is warm, unmoving, still. It will be a midge night.

Mist thick enough to call fog rolls in from the sea. A fog horn blast from Port Ellen. There will be little more sleep. A cloud of midges wait in the doorway. Thick black, a horrid cloud. I squirm into sticky cycling kit and trousers. It is too hot, but necessary. I do not do well with midges, Esther a little better. A Cuckoo calls.

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The midge dance.

Luckily I find a headnet quickly. I would pay a fortune for one right now. I try to walk in large circles, never once below midge speed. Esther is on her own, taking down the tent. I am useless. I hate them, hate them, hate them. You could tie me down and have my pin number, mother’s maiden name and possibly my first born’s hand in marriage in a thrice. I hate them.

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Port Ellen on a holiday Monday.

I am half in cycling kit and half civilian wear as we pedal away. The breeze of movement is pure joy. My arms are itching, my legs itching everything screams itch. Down we go towards Port Ellen to set up for breakfast.

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Above Laphroaig, a dead-end road.

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Standing Stone and Esther flying.

We have one last dead-end road to ride. Back out onto the whisky road and take a left. The map shows a string of burial mounds and circles, worth checking out, and so we do. There are circles of rock laid out in a sort of platform. The hill has eight or more of them above the standing stone that we have come to see. I walk down for a chat with the farmer. ” They used to use those to build platforms to dry the oats on “. I have never come across these, so every day is a school day.

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Standing Stone.

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Drying platforms.

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Working dog.

Back down to the ferry terminal to begin the journey home. You have two long ferry crossings, a short one and some demanding cycling to be done. It all has to fall into place. The final leg to Broddick is the usual 15 mile TT. The ferry to Lochranza is late, so now it needs to be done in under 57 minutes. We turn up on time, but only just. ” The ferry is full “. I am a quivering wreck of sunburn, midge streaked and ugly, with a bad case of lactic burn. I am also potty mouthed with frustration. The Calmac guy walks away and we watch the ferry out. It will be a late night home and there is one more ferry.

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Riding to the Arran ferry.

Ardrossan is a short drive from most of the populated bits of Scotland. Get yourself on a ferry, take a bike and a tent and make sure you pack a midge net. There is a whole world of remote beauty, just a little bit of effort away.

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No room on the ferry!