‘ Dice Man ‘ tour of Fife, part 2.

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Good morning world

It is almost impossible to leave anything behind when you pack up after a night of camping. We managed to leave behind a washing line strung between two trees. Not bad in about 1,000 nights of camping. When you pack up after a night inside, well it is a whole nother ball game. Things can get tucked into blankets, under beds and my personal favorite which is to leave something in the tumble dryer.

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The Tay railbridge and stumps of the old one.
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Near Wormit

We had set up camp in a hiker-biker campground at the start of the Road to the Sun in Glacier National Park. Our host from the previous day drove 70 miles with my underwear and an apple pie. Obviously I had not left an apple pie, that was a gift and yet another expression of the fundamental kindness of strangers. And a bit of a wakeup call to check more carefully next time.

Up early enough to feel smug, and we start to cook our premixed porridge happy to see well over 1Kg disappear from the pannier. Outside, it is the most perfect of early autumn mornings and the sort of gift that September has thrown up in the last two years.

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Bike lane across the river to Dundee.

Off we go, our fingers nipped by the cool air. There is not a breath of wind as we drop down to the River Tay at Wormit. It is all going well. Well enough for us to stop after less than half a dozen miles for the first coffee of the day. There is quite a thrill to be had in being so unfocused.

The new rail bridge sits just beside a row of broken stone plinths. Now standing like broken teeth, these are the remains of tragic first bridge. It was swept away in a storm on a winters night in 1879 with great loss of life. In a sort of, you could not make this up, the tragedy is most often remembered in the poem by the Dundee poet William McGonagall. If you look up  – worst poet in the world, McGonagall is top in the Guinness Book of Records. We join a small peloton of riders making their way across the river at the Tay bridge. The fine weather has made most rather chatty, ” Lovely day”, which it most certainly was.

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Bridge shadows
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Dundee old dock area.
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East along the coast, Carnoustie.

We pick up a cycle path that takes us through the docks and out of Dundee along the coast towards the east. Seaside villages, B&B’s and then golf courses and the sea on our right. Dunes that the bike path picks a course around. A sign ‘ Marching Troops have Priority! ‘, like Lex Luther in the first Superman movies, the military does rather like beach front real estate. The coast is doing a strange sort of mix of vibrant colours and prosperous regeneration right next to decay and neglect.

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Arbroath harbour.
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A smokie seller.
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Smokies

Cafe Barrista in Arbroath and the cakes are cyclist quality, possessing a heft and satisfyingly large calorific value. If anything their leather sofas are a little too comfortable. We wonder around the town and down to the harbour. Arbroath is famed for one thing above all else, Arbroath Smokies. The history of the smoked Haddock of which the town is famed, is not all that old. But goodness are they proud of it. The UK has just 65 protected food products under European law. The Arbroath Smokie is one of them and up there with Cornish Pastie and Jersey Royal Potatoes. Champagne is perhaps the most famous one, so the smokie is in elevated company.

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Rural signpost.
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Touring bike and harvest.

Without the bike route to follow, we are back on gps with the intention of turning inland to arc back to Dundee. I have downgraded the setting from touring to road cycling to try and reduce its enthusiasm for remote tracks. I have over eaten cake, forgetting that it is not a food group, nor an alternative to a proper meal. Little tugs of gravity against the bike as the road undulates are greeted with caramel burps and a slightly nauseous feeling when any effort is required.

We ride through a wonderful open landscape of farmland and small woodland copse. The last of the harvest is being bought in and we are often pulling over to let tractors with grain trailers pass. Already next years seeds are in, direct drilled into the stubble and top dressed in one pass. There is not much room left for nature any longer.

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Dundee centre.

The gps and the road bike setting are sending us around Dundee on a 50 mile detour. There is a perfectly good bike path across the bridge and luckily we know this from a few hours earlier. The Garmin algorithms have found every hill and kept us up high overlooking the coast, until we notice things are going wrong and dive down into the city. We link together every rough looking dodgy backstreet bar and fast food outlet. Not the nicest route to the crossing.

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Bike lift up to the bridge deck.
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Across the Tay, going south.

Back in the Kingdom of Fife. the idea is to cycle down the coast to a promising looking forest and dune system for a sneaky bivvy pitch. It is not even late, still the sky has a hint of Californian blue, washed out at the edges by Scotland. It is only 5 in the afternoon, but we come across the perfect picnic bench. So, we call it early evening and stop. We are at the start of Tentsmuir Forest, which is a National Nature Reserve on the banks of the Tay as it meets the sea. Across the river, which is wide and tidal here we can see and even hear Dundee.

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Tank defences Tentsmuir.
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Evening meal in the sun.

There are Curlew chasing up and down the sandbanks. They have returned from the high moor of summer to their winter home. Their cry is almost as good of that of the Loon. Oyster catchers, the sun dips to the horizon and migratory geese skein low across the sky. Time to find a bivvy pitch for the night. It is almost dark enough for a head-torch as we ride along the fire roads into the pine trees.

We try one turn-off, not good and retrace and move along. The second option is close to being too late and too little light to be fussy. We argue about very little, but tent or bivvy pitching is one of them. I think it is perfect, but Esther wants to be under the trees more. There is no wind at all and I want to catch every bit that is going to help with keeping the bivvy bag membrane working. I win.

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Early morning.
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View to Dundee.

We are right out on a raised patch of scrubby sand and grass. Three sides have tide marks but it looks safe enough so we set up camp. The lights of Dundee sit low, just above the water. Latter, we hear cars screaming along the main road, their harsh sound carried on the still night over the mirrored water. A harvest moon arcs behind us. Full and bright enough to read the small print in a contract.

3am and water sounds mingle with sleep. The sea is alarmingly close to us on three sides. It would be calming under every circumstance but these. I choose to ignore it for the moment it is probably that trick of things sounding closer in the dark. Half an hour later I am up and moving panniers higher. I guess the  huge moon means that it is close and pulling the water high up the beach on an exceptional tide. I get back into my bag, cold with night chill. It is warm, snug  but with a hint of moist. I am happy to be using a synthetic bag for the night.

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Dave Yates touring bikes.
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The sea came to here!

Dawn and neither of us wants to get out of the warmth of top end technical kit. It has clouded over into a cool and misty damp first light. We will do a few miles of track biking to warm up before we make breakfast. Things into bags and bags into bags and away with just a glance at the mark of last nights high tide just 1 meter from us.

Tentsmuir Forest a vivid history of Picts, Romans and Vikings and now us cooking porridge and making morning tea. We ride on to St Andrews and the home of golf. Except of course it is not as that is Musselburgh, where we live. Not that St Andrews appears to be bothered about documentary evidence. It is doing a roaring trade. We look for a cheaper cafe further along. One that does not feature the words links, caddy, golf or tee.

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Morning ride through Tentsmuir.
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Breakfast.
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On through the Beech trees

We are going to cut the nose off of Fife. Unacceptable in polite company where cheese is concerned, but we are good with the idea today. We have a series of nasty little hills to climb to gain height. The final one and then a view of the Forth, home and familiar landscapes. Bass Rock and the coast of East Lothian and our cycling kingdom.

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The 18th at the home of golf.

Anstruther, difficult to pronounce but picture perfect and crowded on this Sunday afternoon. The coast road is busy, too busy. We turn inland and gain height, then even more height. Garmin you stupid idiot bit of useless electronic kit. The sea is far off and we take an estimated guess at when to drop down to the coast road. It is far from fun when we get there.

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The lost art of signposts.

My mother taught me a number of good things. One of which goes along the lines of – if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all. I have half a sentence of scribbled notes about the ride back into Kirkcaldy, but let’s leave it there.

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Sketch of harbour in Anstruther.
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Esther’s sketch of Anstruther.

We are happy to see the car and more than happy to see we have not incurred the wrath of the parking people with clamping or fines. The bikes go into the back of the car and we are away. In a bit of a half obituary come foot-note it was the Garmin Touring’s last trip with us. This was the fourth one that had graced the handlebars of my bike fleet. But in conclusion, it is an utter piece of garbage. It went wrong and cut out on me once more. It was just before a junction that I was unfamiliar with and left me standing by the roadside. It is a sign the maturity that the passing of years has given me. A younger me would have smashed it under my Sidi and kicked the debris into the long grass.

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House Anstruther.
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Mile marker in Fife.

Fife, the ‘Dice Man Tour’ part 1.

 

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The railway station Kirkcaldy.

Swallows, wings almost touching, are closely lined out along telephone and power cables. The swifts have vanished from the sky around our home. Only Robins need to display to hold a year round territory. There is quiet now, calm even. Is it Autumn? There are several definitions of when the season begins, to which I will add what may be the most accurate. I have worn long fingered gloves on the bike and it is now autumn.

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Path in Kirkcaldy.

 

We have had months of casual visits to online weather platforms. Now if we want to plan a ride, it is multiple anxious visits and a great deal of will we? and won’t we? But then there was a spectacular run of weather that included the hottest day of the year. We flung open the windows, chased angry wasps every few minutes, and sat down with maps to plan a route. What about Fife?

The weather forecast was that good, that in a moment of  madness we took out the tent and replaced it with bivvy bags. A harvest moon in a clear sky, we were good to go. Over the Forth by car to the free car park at Kircaldy railway station, giving us a bale-out plan to return by train if things go wrong.

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NCR route 766 Kirkcaldy outskirts.

I have purposely underplanned this tour, which is not to say that I do not have a plan. I am going to let my Garmin Edge Touring make the route decisions in what I am going to call, Dice Man Touring.  Decision making, randomized and left at the whim of the Garmin navigation algorithms. The original book, written in 1971 by George Cockcroft tells of his experiments in making decisions based on the outcome of dice throws. Brian Eno has a similar method using a series of cards which he calls oblique strategies. He used these to overcome creative blocks when working with Bowie and U2. I was in lofty and possibly slightly pretentious company.

I had written down the key villages that I want to pass through. These would be entered into the Garmin one at a time and then the RIDE button pressed. What could go wrong? Well one place is the spelling, so I put in one of those pen things with a rubber end for dextrous screen touching and my good reading glasses. What you need to understand is that the Garmin has 3 levels of freedom that will influence its route choice, Road Bike, Touring Bike and Mountain Bike. Common sense said stick it on touring mode, which we did. What you have to understand is, I had never tested this function, not once, never. This is also my fourth unit, the previous three having been returned as faulty.

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Tea in Thornton, Kingdom of Fife.

T-H-O-R-N-T-O-N, RIDE. We were off, and within the first mile despite possessing between us, a generally keen sense of direction were mentally lost. We had a backup map, but it featured cities as far apart as Aberdeen, Newcastle and Carlisle. The Garmin was finding obscure paths that only people who had been born and raised in Kirkcaldy would know. But only then if you had got a dog that needed to be walked or a drug habit. We went along back streets, minor overgrown streams, the side of football pitches before we reached the light engineering and car sales zone. Then the Garmin treated us to a tour of the fly tipping spots on the towns outskirts and a bridge where we had to pick up the bikes and walk. But then we were into countryside and onto something that had a bike path sign. We were on National Cycle route 766, and after just 6 miles came into Thornton and stopped for a tea.

Could I have walked here quicker? well possibly, but we were in countryside now and the sun was out. Cafes are booming, and this was one of them. Picking up the slack from the rush to close all the village pubs this one was one of many offering tea, competitively priced scones and drop-in facilities for mother and toddler groups.

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Far off view of Loch Leven.

Off we pedaled, along a series of lanes with open views. Junctions often featured huge mature Oak trees, quietly testifying to the age of the routes in the Kingdom of Fife. A series of stiff ups and downs and on one of the ups, we catch sight of our next objective. Loch Leven, a highland loch slipped down south a little. We headed for a village at its eastern edge. But then we got enticed by a farm shop and cafe with less than a dozen miles done.

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Second Tea.

The cafe is full of silver haired couples, mother and baby groups and now us touring cyclists. There is one wasp, going from table to table looking to steal from the pots of jam. The elderly couples are swatting and slapping and it is all more panic than you would expect from a generation that has been through a war and lived through Thatcher’s Britain. Calm down! and now there is a baby screaming.

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Bridleway  towards Lomond Hills.
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Lomond Hills back on tarmac.

We pick up Route 1 NCR and head away from the lock, into the hills. Beyond Wester Balgedie, the Garmin has a plan for us and takes us off the road and right along a bridal way into the Lomond Hills. We have the village of Auchtermuchty dialled in ( a bit of a sod to enter! ) as we ride along paths fringed with nettles and overhung with elegant old Beech trees. For a while we are back on tarmac, but not for long. We are climbing up to a ridge line on a farm track an old lady walking a dog stops to chat. ” This was the way to school for my grandfather “. She is surprised to see us and likes to blether.

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The joy of tarmac.
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Farm tracks.
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Pushing the bike.

The route is diverted away from the farm buildings, and our mood dips as we are forced to push the bikes along a series of narrow and overgrown tracks. We are seeing the countryside that is certain. Into the forest now on forestry roads and fire tracks. Despite the sun it is damp under the thick canopy and a fungi foray hotspot. John Nox’s pulpit and the Devil’s Burdens are nearby. We are in Pitmedden Forest and have picked up a stretch of tarmac. It lasts less than a mile. I wish I had known about the advert for Auchtermuchty and Miller beer, it is fantastic.

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Pitmedden forest.
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A wrong turn.
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Towards Auchtermuchty!

It is slow progress and gets slower still when we try to out think the Garmin and are left pushing the bikes back up a gravel path. I am trying to be positive. The bikes are light and we have a whole summer of fitness in our tanned legs plus we are not on the west coast being eaten by midges. There is no possibility of our ever finding this route again, zero. We drop down to tarmac and are overjoyed to see it.  Down towards the village of Newburgh on the banks of the river Tay.

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Newburgh and the banks of the Tay.

The descent tests our brakes and nerve even in the dry and would be the pig of all pigs to climb up. The village is rather wonderful with cottages and boutique sort of places. It is time for a sandwich and a sit down on a brightly painted bench. I must say that despite the adventures of off-road cycling, the day has been fun. We head off North East along a narrow lane that traces the route of the Tay towards Dundee.

The sun is low now, casting gold fringed shadows. The harvest is almost in and the still air full of the smell of tractor fuel, corn and days of summer heat. Like all coastal riding the world over, this is far from flat. Big houses stand proudly over big farms. There are the signs of wealth, big gates and walls. The Garmin has settled down for a bit now and appears to be happy. We have both agreed that it will be switched to Road Bike in the morning.

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Long shadows and cows.

We start to look for a place to bivvy. There are likely looking woodlands and field margins, but we need some water. The route is down towards the city, so we need to camp soon or get involved in crossing the city first. A white cottage, we go to knock at the door around the back. Dogs are barking and a lady is out welcoming us, ” come in “. Before we even know each others names, we are invited to stay. Once more the bicycle has made the introductions for us. I have very little idea of where we are, but now that does not matter and we are guests for the night.

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You will stay.
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A sketch by Esther of where we stayed

 

A long weekend on the island of Islay. Part 1

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Corrie Bay island of Arran.

I do not travel well. Not in the same way that a ripe mango does not travel well, I’m just too easily  bored with the process. I find driving tiresome in the extreme, and can start looking for a cafe stop less than an hour after setting off. I also get dreadfully seasick on boats and planes. I was told of a cure that works well, sit under a tree.

We have found ourselves at Ardrossan ferry terminal rather a lot of late. It’s a perfect start point being a tolerable 2 hours drive away from us here on the East coast of Scotland. You then have the wonderful combination of bicycle, and cheap ferry rides that open up most of the West coast of Scotland. Perfect, except for the seasickness bit. So I check the weather forecast days in advance of our trip.

We have a long weekend adventure planned and early Monday I have the BBC weather site open. I can not believe my eyes. Later, I have it open again to show Esther the good news. Wall to wall sunshine symbols and hardly a breath of wind block out Friday to Monday. This is rarer than a rare thing in Scotland. I may take a screen-shot to cheer myself up on a winter’s day.

We are going to ride and ferry hop our way to the wonderful island of Islay, for a few days of wild camping and biking slowly up dead-end tracks. There are 3 ferry trips out and 3 back to co-ordinate. This turns out to be a devil of thing to do. Luckily, I know to take care on Islay as there are 2 ferry terminals, and they are at opposite ends of the island. We have of course found ourselves sitting at the wrong one some years ago, which did rather spoil the day.

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climbing beyond Sannox Bay.
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Football pitch Arran.

Thursday, and I am buying a small tube of factor 50 sun screen. Rain is sheeting off the shop window. The BBC forecast is still for unbroken sunshine, but it is hard to keep the faith. Friday morning and we pack the car with bikes and touring stuff under a grey sky. I do hope I put Port Ellen Scotland into the weather search and not some Port Ellen in the South Pacific. We are on the road and heading West.

One ferry trip later and we are on the island of Arran. Brodick to Lochranza is 15 miles and has a number of tough climbs. You could make a strong case for either direction being worse. There is usually just 1 hour for the ride if you want to catch the first ferry, so it is usually a horrid time-trial on heavy touring bikes. Today, we can take it easy, the next ferry will do.

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Kennacraig, the ferry to Islay.
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The new ferry, Kennacraig.

The first climb begins out of Sannox bay. Off to the left as the landscape opens to moorland, the first Cuckoo of the trip calls. Fifteen minutes to spare at the Lochranza terminal. Over we go onto the peninsula and the climb over the spine and down to the coast to pick up the A83 to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig. The new ferry to Islay is huge and excitingly, it has a special area for bicycles. Still new enough to smell of paint, which mingles with car fumes, livestock, fish and the warm oily smell of industrial machinery.

The ferry route is tight into the land on both sides at first. We watch the early summer beauty of Scotland’s West coast go by through panoramic windows. It is a flat calm Whale watching sea under a light grey, thin cloud afternoon. Just perfect. Two hours, or thereabouts and we are pushing the bikes off the boat and about to ride into Port Ellen.

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Arriving at Port Ellen , island of Islay.

I did a bit of map gazing in the days before we left. There is a wonderful road that goes by the distilleries and then out along the coast to the North East. It looks perfect for an amble along, with the promise of wild camp spots towards the end. Through the village and on towards the first of the distilleries, Laphroaig.

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Flag field, the friends of Laphroaig.

If you open the tube that a bottle of Laphroaig comes in, you get a leaflet inviting you to become a ‘ Friend ‘. As we pass the ‘ beautiful hollow by the broad bay ‘, which is what Laphroaig means in Gaelic, there is a large field pin-pricked with small national flags. You get a square foot as a friend and the right to plant a flag. A quick look around the field shows the power of marketing. A few years ago this was the only distillery that was not mothballed or shut. It kept going, but only just. Now, it and the next two we pass, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, just up the road, are booming.

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The Whisky coast of Islay.
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Ardbeg distillery.
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Mile marker dead-end road.

The air tastes of peat smoke and treacle. I have biked through some questionable and occasionally offensive and stomach churning smells in my time. Here on Islay, on a still evening it has to be one of the best. On we go, through a tunnel of verdant green with accents of bluebell. Bays open to our right, fringed by lichen shrouded trees. The world is soft edged and quiet.

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Ardilistry Bay, Islay.
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Mile marker.

A sign points out Kildalton High Cross, and out of nothing more than curiosity, we follow it. I am so glad that we did. Kildalton Cross is one of the finest early Christian crosses in Scotland, the High Cross of Kildalton, is closely related to three major crosses in Iona, St John’s, St Martin’s and St Oran’s and dates from the second half of the 8th century. I doubt the place ever gets very busy, and this evening we have it to ourselves. There is an inviting swath of short flat grass just above. It is raised, giving a view to the sea and hills and catches enough of a breeze to keep midges moving. We have found a near perfect wild camp spot.

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Wild camp at Kildalton.
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View from Kildalton.

The tent is up, the Primus lit and the first tea just minutes away. To the North West the hills are draped with cloud that wraps around the contours in a tight caress. Little has probably changed in more than 1,00 years since the cross was carved. Fewer people now, more sheep, but fundamentally the same. It is a splendid evening to stand with a cup of tea and oatcake in hand. The Cuckoo calls, it is gone 9.00 and will be light for well over an hour more.

In the tent I lie back, eyes closed and try to count the number of birds that are calling. Half a dozen skylark call to claim territory from all points of the compass. A near perfect evening followed by the sort of deep sleep I only get in a wild camp tent.

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Porridge for breakfast.
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The medieval cross Kildalton.

In the morning I find a much better source for water. I filter four bottles and set about making tea and porridge, the finest way known to man to start any day. The tent is shaken of dew and packed and we retrace our route, now back towards Port Ellen. We soon find out that although it is early, this is Whisky Festival time. We are at ground zero.

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Kildalton Chapel and Cross
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The Kildalton Cross.

The A846 towards Bowmore is arrow straight. We have had our share of battles with headwinds and rain along here. Today we have a tail wind and clearing sky. Cars are passing with drivers waving. You will have to pass on our apologies, the first few caught us out. This happens on all the West coast islands from here out into the Atlantic and I guess it was universal 60 years ago. We join in, waving at everyone and everything.

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Return to Port Ellen.
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Distillery of Laphroaig.
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Road to Bowmore, Islay.

Saturday things are being done in Bowmore. Its relative size making it a bit of a hub for weekend things. Saturday things are different to Sunday things here and you can expect to see kids swings chained up on Sunday still on some islands. We ride through, we have an appointment that by good luck we may manage to keep.

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Debbie’s, the Mini Mart.

Bruichladdich mini mart, known as Debbie’s to visiting cyclists and locals alike. It will always be Debbie’s even though it has been years since she ran it. It is the heart of all things cycling and we have arranged to meet Brian of Thewashingmachinpost for coffee and cake. The ride along the bay beyond Bridgend could not be finer, and now the clouds are pulling away to release an azure sky and deep blue sea. Like many of the islands it is fringed with the most perfectly golden sand that only remoteness keeps from being mobbed.

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Bruichladdich gates.
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Sea view house.
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Nerabus, island of Islay.

You can not live on cake alone, but we give it a very good try. We are back on the road and heading to the lumpy bits of this coast. Stone walls with birds keeping pace with the bikes as they dart along clicking. These are Stonechats, the clicking contact call like two stones being hit together. Portnahaven, a final short climb brings us to another coffee shop and a bench to sit and look down onto the bay. Crabbing boats are moored in the harbour, children and dogs running in and out of the sea in the bay. It is now warm, which for here is hot. Esther makes sketches, we have no deadlines. It feels wonderful. Today would be the worst day to be looking at property here.

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Portnahaven bay, island of Islay.
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Portnahaven signpost.
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Church in Portnahaven.

We climb out of the village to an unfamiliar sound in Scotland. Our tyres are bursting bubbles of tar that is melting under the heat of the sun. Up onto the moorland we climb out amongst the lonely crofts and farmsteads and world of isolation. Sweeping curves and stiff climbs running with the sea under cliffs to our left.

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Out onto the moorland above Portnahaven.
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The coast road.

A large bay opens up to our left as we round a corner. The land comes down to the sandy beach at a gentle slope that is grass covered with a few sheep grazing, mums and lambs. It looks like the perfect wild camping spot. Through the gate we push our bikes close to Kilchiaran Chapel. On a hillside terrace overlooking Kilchiaran Bay stands the roofless ruin of a 13th century chapel dedicated to the Irish monk St Ciaron, or Kiaran. Just off to the side is a flat stone, marked with cup and ring carving. It predates the chapel by as much as 4,000 years.

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The coast road.
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Kilchiaran Chapel.
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Cup and ring stone Kilchiaran.

It is not easy to push the bikes across the small stream that runs to the sea down the valley. Why bother, we opt for a camping pitch just under the cliff that reaches up to the road. It is flat with sheep cropped grass, perfect for a tent. Water falls in a perfect cascade down the cliff, we have water for cooking. It could not be more perfect. A tea, followed by another tea, and then a bit of exploring.

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Kilchiaran Bay, island of Islay.
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On the beach, Kilchiaran.
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Kilchiaran Bay.

The sun dropped bringing out the contrast in the land, showing it’s curves. Across the other side of the bay a series of parallel field marks show where people worked the land in lazy beds. Fertilized by seaweed dragged up from the shoreline for Oats and potato crops. Somewhere in amongst this a bird calls. It is a metallic sound of rasping of sticks. This is one of the rare birds that have been lost to the rest of the UK, a Corncrake. It is hard to pin down where the sound comes from. It migrates from Africa and still breeds in these remote areas.

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Kilchiaran Bay at dusk.

We get into the tent well after 10. Still the Corncrake calls. The sound of the sea is much louder as you lie down. I can feel it ride up onto the shoreline. Not a bad place to end the day. A clear sky allows the temperature to drop, so it is down deeper into the sleeping bag for another perfect night.

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Marks in the sand, Kilchiaran Bay.
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Morning at Kilchiaran Bay.
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Leaving Kilchiaran Bay.