Ardrossan, Argyll, Arran, cycle touring Scotland, ferry to Campbeltown, Kilberry, Kintyre, Kintyre peninsular, Macrihanish, Macrihanish holiday park, Mull of Kintyre, National Cycle Route 78, NCR 78, Port Ban campground, Tarbert
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.