Dawn did eventually filter through a dull, rainy day – the first of many dull, rainy days. I don’t know who woke first but my whispering, “Chris, are you awake?” was immediately replied to by him just a little too quickly. Like me, he had been keen to get up and away early. I asked him to gather his stuff together and to get out with the minimum of fuss and this was met with his full approval. I was up and dressed in the next few seconds, through the gloom Chris, appeared to be trying to walk on the floor using his hands.
“What are you doing?”
"I’ve lost my glasses.”
“Don’t move! Stay where you are.”
I knew, I just knew, that in the next few seconds there was going to be the sound of breaking spectacles on bare feet. I had no choice but to switch the light on. This was no namby-pamby gentle awakening light; this was, of course, a full blown 200 watt fluorescent twin-tube job that would be sufficient to light up the Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle. So on it went, shortly followed by the two of us on all fours padding up and down the floor until we found the offending glasses. There then followed the deafening rustling of bin liners, some carrying just one item, others full to the brim and a large bulging one containing pills and lotions. I quickly scampered downstairs leaving Chris in a paranoid state searching the room for items he may have left behind. I felt sorry for the largest of the Dutchmen as he appeared to have contracted my nervous tic as I glimpsed an 'eye to heaven' movement as the bottom of his mattress was lifted up (it was gently done, I might add) by Chris in a fruitless search for his cutlery pack.
Downstairs, in the kitchen area another small disaster was in the making as I, in an attempt to cure the hunger pangs, had made an extraordinary large amount of porridge. We could have eaten it all – it wasn’t that much (about a gallon), however Chris in an inquisitive mood searching through the fridge found a selection of items that had been left by previous visitors – if only we had come across this little treasure chest last night! Amongst this was - luxury of all luxuries – a two litre bottle of milk, unopened (it was close to its sell-by date mind you). So in went the milk – all of it. We now had enough porridge to feed, again, the whole of New Lanark.
Bearing in mind we were the first up in the hostel intending to get an early start this plan clearly went to the wall as we ate plate after plate of porridge. Chris intensely dislikes food waste, so some of the remaining porridge went into his mug (it did have a lid) and this was for later. By later, I mean a lot later as you will see. This saving and squirrelling away food by him was to become a god-send later in the tour. As I have said previously - the intention was to get an early start and also as I have hinted this was clearly not going to happen. By the time we washed the largest pot in the hostel rack and cleared half a ton of porridge out of the U-bends, we ended up a leaving a little bit later than intended.
Now for that bloody big hill, at the bottom looking up this was going to be a daunting prospect. The highest parts were covered in low cloud and small gravel rivers ran across the road on the hair-pin bends. So, no futher dithering, our heads went down, the gears went down, and slowly, we went up the steepest hill you ever did see. We soon realised the warning of a ‘steep ascent’ doesn’t just mean a little less talking but a touch more standing up and pushing. Its 30 grinding minutes in the lowest gear and a lot of highly audible panting; our morale is considerably decreased when we are overtaken by a wee elderly lady, walking her wee Highland Terrier in its wee tartan coat! She did gives us a wee Scottish 'good morning' but all she got back was a wheezing noises. In the end we both got up the hill - fully loaded and without stopping. If anything, it was a great boost to our sagging ego's as this was surely, the steepest hill we were to face on this journey!!!
Just out of Lanark itself (having done all of two miles) we did run into a little problem. A ‘little’ probably was a slight exaggeration actually, the road was CLOSED, SHUT, NOT OPEN! It appeared that somewhere on this distant Scottish backroad that resurfacing was taking place. Who are they trying to kid, this is 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning! It did say there was 'access allowed', but it was not at all clear whether we could get through to the A71 to Kilmarnock.
I stopped at the junction and tried to make sense from the map of where the diversion was going to send us. The road we wanted and apparently 'closed' was clearly still open as there was a steady stream of cars in both directions.
Chris rode up to me and after about a minute quickly grasped the essence of the problem. Was the road open or not? Was the road passable? His solution was simple and that was to ask someone. I sarcastically looked around - Lanark on a wet Sunday morning it was hardly a bustling cosmopolitan town. In fact 100% of its residents were quite clearly still and sensibly in bed. Chris’s solution to this problem was to his credit brilliantly simple. He, right in front of my eyes, simply walked into the middle of the road and stood in front of the next car coming down the supposedly closed road. The car, much to my amazement stopped and to my absolute horror I saw, and this is the truth, was packed with Rangers supporters. No doubt the ‘Gers' were inflicting themselves on some small Scottish town miles away from Glasgow which entailed this very early start and was the cause of all this traffic heading east. Chris was now talking to the driver. Now, the mind makes some assumptions in moments like this; it looked to me like a big hairy fist was coming out the driver’s window. I could clearly see ‘H A T E’ tattooed on the back of his fingers. The fist contorted and transformed itself into a stubby digit and it pointed down the supposedly closed road. That hand signal was enough for me – that was the way to go, road was open!
Looking back on it now, the journey to Auchenheath, was awful. In my inexperience of this type of cycling I set a course that avoided the main roads – that was a big mistake, firstly, ‘B’ roads are not straight lines like ‘A’ roads, for a start, and secondly these particular ‘B’ roads plunged steeply into dark deep river gorges and Grand Canyon like elevations back up the other side.
As the crow flies the distance to the next junction was about ten miles, as bike distance, it was more like 20. What made it a lot worse was the road surfaces, which often in places would have put a third-world country to shame. We should have saved some of the porridge to put into the potholes. It would also have been nice to have made comments about the area but it was totally devoid of anything nice. Just like the skies, the villages were grey. The houses were concrete grey boxes in a featureless landscape. As for the town of Auchenheath, it would not have surprised at all to find it had been rejected as a twin-town with Beirut, with its permanent steel-grid shutters even over the few shops that were open.
We eventually reached the A71 and were pleasantly surprised by its quietness and lack of heavy lorries. Had we known this at Lanark we would have stayed on it. However, time wise, we were now half-way. We recognised that unless we got a push on we would not be getting the 3pm ferry from Ardrossan.
At yet another small town whose name has now melted and disappeared into the mind along with a host of similar looking places, we spotted an old-fashioned tea-shop and even better - it was open. On entering the said establishment it soon became apparent that this was a little gem of a place in that it did Scotch pies and beans and, much to Chris’s glee, all for £1.70. We followed this up with tea and big fruit scones that had been baked on the premises that morning. The pleasure of eating overcame the sense of urgency for the ferry, especially when I asked Chris if he was ready to go and he replied that he needed five minutes to let his tea settle. I couldn’t believe his lack of urgency. We had at least 10 miles to do in two hours, it was perfectly possible but not if we were sitting in a café. Eventually, I dragged him outside but only after he wrapped up his fresh scone and jam ‘for later’. I should point out that there was a slight delay in starting: Chris wanted to take a picture of our bikes outside this 'time-warped' café. It wasn’t until I looked through the photographs later (now our shared camera), I saw that he had taken a picture of a Ford Mondeo which just happened to pass in front the café as the shutter was pressed – another 1/2000 of a second wasted when we should be going for the ferry.
We pedalled our weary way towards Kilmarnock. Now a word about Kilmarnock – the best bit of this town is the bypass. The planners appeared to have given the town up as a hopeless cause. It was my intention to go into the centre of Kilmarnock and ride on a national cycle route that had been made out of a disused railway line (there were lots of disused things in Kilmarnock). In the end I decided to stay on the dual carriageway bypass, in the hope that it was a more direct route to the ferry terminal.
We had by now picked up the ferry signs so there was also the lesser possibility of getting lost. At the first big roundabout I went straight across. Fair enough it was busy but it was a Sunday, nobody was rushing, you only had to pass one road to the left and carry straight on. There was even an extra-wide hard shoulder. I got across and waited for Chris, as I had assured him I would wait at every junction to make sure he was following me. I stopped about 100 metres up the road from the roundabout and waited and waited - no sign of Chris anywhere. I could not see the road we had just been on because of the hump and foliage in the in the middle of the island – where on earth was he? I then heard some rustling in the bushes coming from the field behind me and there was Chris in the field looking for a way through the hedge back to the road.
“What are you doing in there”?
“I don’t like roundabouts,” said he. “I went into the field to cut the roundabout off.”
My nervous tic was getting worse; it was now accompanied by an involuntary slap to my forehead. If that junction was a disaster the next one was even worse. At the give way lines Chris got off and walked round – which was fine. However, the road leading off was conned down the middle of the carriageway and there was a big sign stating that the outside lane was closed for centre island grass-cutting. This, as far as I was concerned, was brilliant. I was straight into the fast lane, now totally free of traffic. The road cones disappeared into the distance, I was now convinced we were, after all, going to get the ferry. Well, I thought this for about a fraction of a second as my hopes were shattered by the squealing of tyres and lots of car horns blaring furiously. Looking back, I saw that Chris, having failed to follow me on to the fast and conned-off lane, was riding with the traffic in the single lane. Well actually the traffic was more likely riding with him. There was an enormous tailback behind him as the lane was now too narrow for cars to overtake. Chris was peddling away furiously, quickly becoming aware of the increasing chaos that was going on behind him. I could not believe my eyes at what was happening. He ended up having to stop and physically lift the bike off the road on to the left-side grass verge. It was a good 10 minutes before the traffic cleared sufficiently for him to cross the road to me. “I don’t like traffic” was all I heard.
I now contemplated the fact that I was on a bike tour for two weeks with a grown adult, on a bike who did not like cycling roundabouts, cycling downhill and cycling in traffic. This left me mumbling to myself all the way to the next roundabout which resembled something akin to a set of genetically modified bagpipes. There was no hope now of meeting the ferry. The relief felt was instant. There was now no pressure, it had been immediately lifted. It was no great shakes anyway as the next ferry was at 6pm – it just meant that after all that rushing we now had a three hour wait and a 10 mile bike ride to our camp site on Arran (unfortunately, now probably in the dark). The remaining part of journey was quite pleasant, as it just happened that the cycleway that we were supposed to be on, also crossed this section. It took a little while to find it but some young hoodies on bikes soon put us right and the Ardrossan cycle route signs soon became a regular sight. I even did contemplate that if we pushed a little harder....there was just the faintest hope that we might just....but no, my hopeful thoughts were rudely dashed when, just after going over a level crossing I heard the unmistakable sound of the siren and the gates closing and did not even have to look round. No way was he going to get across in time before the barriers came down.
Ardrossan, the town is small but the harbour is big, there are multi-lane roads along the sea front with numerous gantry type, traffic lights (a Scottish equivalent to the Blackpool Illuminations, perhaps), directing cargo, buses, cars every manner of transport except bikes to the ferry terminal.
We were soon however, in Ardrossan and in sight of the sea which was quickly followed by a view of the 3 o’clock ferry leaving the harbour at the end of the promenade.
I’d like to say we spent the remaining hours visiting the cultural sights and sounds of Ardrossan but we didn’t. Well it was actually the sight and sounds of a local ASDA store which supplied a good cheap curry for two and a leisurely tea. Even for Chris, three hours in the store was enough, so the last hours were whittled away in the terminal building giving Chris the opportunity to empty his panniers and repack his stuff in a fruitless search for his cutlery pack.
The conclusion was that it had been left at the Youth Hostel.
Eventually though there was the excitement of our first ferry crossing and the opportunity to flash our reasonably priced Rover ticket to the fluorescent-clad wee man in charge. When he told us to go straight to the front of the queue it brought home the significance of the next stage. No turning back now. We were the seasoned bikers - two whole days on the road and now off to the islands of bonnie Scotland.
On the ferry the distant mass of Arran started to reveal its secrets, with dark clouds oozing over Goatfell and other peaks. We still had 10 miles to do in Arran of course, but that was going to be easy-peasy! To the south was the sweep of Culzean Bay and westwards across the open sea, the cone of Ailsa Craig and the distant outlines of the Mull of Kintyre and Ireland. The clouds were however, massing out at sea and a storm was making its way up the Firth of Clyde towards us and the Isle of Arran. Halfway across and it looked as if Arran had been towed away into the clouds. Oh, dear, not looking good!
Over the water we went - like lambs to the slaughter, our arrival in Brodick was met with a horrendous downpour. You could tell this one was not going to stop. There was a slight hill out of Brodick…well…it wasn’t exactly a hill more like a mountain with a summit that disappeared into the perpetual mist. We did have a particular camp-site that we were aiming for but the road just seemed to go on forever, after five miles into the village of Lamlash we were still going uphill, I was nearly done in. As for Chris I couldn’t tell, but the fact he was a lot further behind than usual gave me a subtle clue as to his energy levels. By pure coincidence I stopped just outside an entrance to a camp site and on seeing two large Italian camper vans firstly going in then immediately coming back out having obviously been rejected, I thought that’s the sort of place we want - so in we went.
The Elder Review - "Its the worse camp-site in Scotland!"
The question of why were the camper vans turn-round, was immediately obvious in that the site was waterlogged. On enquiry however, we established that there were sufficient dry spots for two small tents. The site charged £7 for the privilege and was by far the worst site we were to stay in and - needless to say – the most expensive. Waterlogged ground cannot be helped but one dirty cold shower in an ancient toilet block was a rip-off. We were too tired to care. No tea to cook meant just putting the tents up and going to bed ah, yes the tents. I am no snob when it comes to this. Mine, which I might add, was a proper Tiso’s hike tent, (the latest model and in 2008 colours) was up in minutes. What appeared from Mr Weston’s kit was a blue nylon toy-town tent with bright yellow trim and bright orange guy ropes. What is more, according to Chris who was mumbling away to himself, this had been packed incomplete and with the wrong poles. It wasn’t going well. I was too tired to offer assistance and cowardly left him to it when the midges descended.