Sything shapes of Swallow and House Martin cut up and down the main street through our village and they sound permanently slightly angry. The curve of the season has reached its apogee and now just a few days after midsummer the sunset is a little earlier. Not a bad thing, the amount of light this far north can wear you out.
We are trying to speed-learn our new home area. Build a catalogue of routes that tick every box, cover every wish list. It has been great fun and the area is stunning. Every day we try to find a new gem or a way of linking things together in the most perfect way.
Scrolling through Facebook yesterday I came across an old interview with Steve Jobs, always worth a few seconds, so I let it run. ” Whenever you start a company you must never be scared of failure “. I played that bit again. It was back when Steve looked less groomed, less slick more geek.
I thought about what Steve said as we rode out this morning. We try to ride early every morning or at least take a long walk just to remind ourselves why we live here. Like every day the ride confirmed what we know, this area is just perfect. Rush hour and the first 40 minutes we had just 2 cars.
I don’t think Steve ever took on a bike holiday company. I think he knew he was destined to win even if his first logos were rubbish and the computers looked agricultural. On this mornings ride we just kept on shouting ” WOW! ” which is a good thing I think Steve would agree. We know we are in the perfect place.
We are putting together a wonderful new website for Galloway Cycling Holidays. Every ride I carry a camera and try to get the peach of an image for the company. But that is not enough. We have a Facebook company account and it is VERY PUSHY. The world wants a moving image, films and they had better be good. So now Zuckerberg is having a go at us.
I am not sure Steve had to put up with this sort of pressure, but we have done it anyway. Two films, both 1 min 20 in length that try to put across what we are about. Trying to condense all the joy we have ever got from pedalling a bike and all the sheer WOW of this area.
So, here they are. They may not quite be Citizen Kane, but we are more than happy. What do you think?
Then we went for the big production. Drone, stormy sky and a remote location.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.