5 Ferry Loop, 5 Ferry Route, Ardrossan, Argyll, cycle touring Scotland, Isle of Arran, Isle of Bute, Kintyre, Loch Fine, Mull of Kintyre, North Ayrshire, Otter Ferry, Rothesay, Tarbert, Ultra Light Bike Touring
Early Thursday morning, I am on the communal balcony outside our flat. Already the sun is up, but everything still has the slow pace of night. Four Jackdaws are tearing apart a neighbours hanging basket for nesting material. They have pulled out great clumps and it sticks out from their beaks like the moustache of Conquistadors.Corvids do not know guilt. It is going to be a fine day, and the forecast for the weekend away keeps on getting upgraded every time I look at the BBC on the WWW. Two back to back days of sunshine symbols are now promised.
Friday, late afternoon and we have two bikes and a choice selection of ultralight kit in the back of the car. We are getting a head start on the weekend by spending a night close to the ferry terminal with an outdoors friend. A run of fine weather and the first Bluebells have come up. The schools are out, and on this Saturday morning everyone with a bicycle is getting squeezed onto the Ardrossan ferry for the sailing to the island of Arran. We have done variations of this route many times and have never seen anything like it. There is carbon bike porn everywhere, skinny tyres and portly riders in a long snake pushing onto the vehicle deck.
Brodick would be a fine name for a dog. It is the village name of the harbour gateway to the island of Arran. It is bustling and looking prosperous, more Med than West Coast Scotland. We wait for the cars to get on their way, pick up some nibbles at the store and begin to pedal along the seafront. We have an ultralight rack and two bags on the back of our winter bikes. It is a lightweight and rather sporty combination. With time to spare we can turn in left and take the string road into the heart of the island.
I have only once done over 50 mph on a bicycle. It scared me witless, and it was coming the other way descending this hill, so I know we are in for a grim start to the day. There are groups of cyclists from the ferry already spread out on the climb. A better man would not accelerate and take them on riding a bike with luggage. Lets call it a very minor flaw in character.
The village of Blackwaterfoot, we have reached the far coast and what today is a mirrored azure sea. We may by sheer flook have picked the best mid April weekend in living memory. We have a stiff wind to ride into. It is coming almost straight from the freezing quarters of the northern compass, and has a nip to it on bare skin. It is going to be a day of wind burn and suntans.
This side of the island is sparsely populated with remotely scattered whitewashed communities. There are birds, sheep and standing stones, and a golf course where you can blame the wind for your bad game on all but a few days of the year. We ride next to the sea. There are small flocks of Oystercatchers working the beach, probing with impossibly long vibrant orange beaks. Reptile small orange eyes watch us pass. Eider Ducks in pairs and small flocks float a little way out. The road throws in a couple of short and rather stiff climbs before we get to Lochranza to wait for ferry number two.
There was a memorable crossing when I thought the ferry, us and our campervan were going down. Waves crashed over the vessel as it fought the storm. It took twice as long as it should and need a great wide arc to the left as it headed for the Kintyre coast. We made it of course, but I do not want a wind even 1 mph harder ever nore seas an inch higher, ever.
We climb and then drop down to work our way up the coast road to Tarbert. It has a busy harbour fringed by tourist shops, cafes and bars. When goods and supplies were moved up and down the West coast by steamers called ‘Puffers ‘, this was a busy hub of trade. Today, plastic pleasure craft and the last of the fishing fleet fill the harbour. It is a colourful place even on a grey sky day. We pick a cafe and sit and wait for ferry number three. The handlebar computer reads 70’f for the first time this year. You could do this mid June with horizontal rain and a gale.
The ferry takes us across Loch Fyne to Portavadie and an appointment with another climb. We take a left onto the B8000, turning from our traditional 5 ferry route for a bit of off piste exploring. We are heading towards Otter Ferry through tight a tight lane of high banks and forests of stunted Oaks. Shadows are lengthening, shadows thrown far ahead onto the road. This is remote country, with long hard winters. The land still looks bleached from the winter.
A series of hills take us up in nasty steep steps to over 500ft. A first glimpse of the sea and then we dive down again. We want a breeze for the evening camp to keep the first of the year midges off. There is nothing here and we need to push a few hard miles on to pick up the coast. Otter Ferry, like most of the land around here it is mostly the land of a vast estate. A private road runs along the shoreline and we decide to follow it. It could not be better. There is just one van and a tent and we go up and ask about the camping. ” Can you camp here? ” we ask, the guys have the perfect solution, ” We pitch the tent and drink beer, if anyone asks, we are too drunk to drive “. We go a little further and get things set up to make food.
Up above the track, we get the bivvy set as the light falls. It is a low Spring tide that has rolled the water back like a carpet ready for mopping the floor. The temperature is already dropping even before the sun goes down. By 8.30 it clips the far hills and then it is gone. This is a glorious spot, one of the best ever pitches. There is a final excitement from the birds and then a calm filled with smells of kelp, mud and salt.
We can lie in our bags and look up at the sky as it turns deep blue and finally the infinite black of void. There are so many satellites chasing across the sky, it is almost busy with them. Things are now quiet. ‘ To stand under an immense starred night is to be a citizen of the universe ‘ – John Lewis-Stemple. The night is quiet, there is the occasional sound of deer pushing through the fence and geese flying over and out to graze. Morning is the sound of Oystercatcher and cockerels. A slow breakfast taking in the moment, followed by a slower packing of bags. We do not want to leave our little sun trap beneath the old Beech trees.
We go over to say goodby to our wildcamp budies from the previouse evening. They were up early, gathering clams and muscles. ” Clappy Doo’s ” we are told ” Clappy Doo’s “, but what are they really called, we ask. No idea, it is always ” Clappy Doo’s “. We head on along the coast, with the sea on our left.
There are stiff little grunting climbs, but the views are wonderful. This must be one of the bike riding gems of Scotland and we have another perfect day. By the side of the loch is a castle and a little further on, the ancient burial ground of the clan Lachlan. It is an abrupt assault to the senses, we round the base of the horseshoe and turn back on ourselves. We are on the A886 now and it starts with two hard climbs back to back to get you over the shoulder of the hills and on towards another ferry. It gives spectacular views, but you have to pay with hard work. There is a minor road that runs along the shore just before the terminal at Colintrave. We take it, and sit and eat a fist full of oat bar snacks.
Again there are a small group of Eiders floating just off the beach watching us. They are calling and I realise that I have been hearing them for most of the ride. It is a calming but indistinct noise like the sort an Owl might make if it was in a library and had to keep it’s voice down. A sort of loud murmur. Back on the main road it is a couple of miles to the ferry.
Over on ferry number four to the small island of Bute for quite an easy section of riding. This is a good thing as my legs are shot. All energy has evaporated, I need a cafe. The famous Zavaroni fish & chip shop and then we are into the heart of Rothesay and lining up for our final ferry. A surprisingly large boat which I have on a number of occasions shared with boisterous parties of women on Hen-Nights. It is intimidating to be Lycra Clad and a guy at such moments.
The final part of the route is a dirge of a ride along the A78 in the direction of Irvine. It is a bore and the fly in the ointment of the 5 ferry route. Best just to get your head down and time trial the 16 or so miles back to Ardrossan. 115 miles and a nat’s under 6,000ft of climbing, it has been the most perfect two days. It can be done in a day if you do the traditional route without going to Otter Ferry and if you live on the East coast, well worth the horror of 2 hours either way on the M8. To be recommended.