In a dream like state, I was gently awakened by the sun beginning to heat up my little tent. I sleepily peered out and saw deer calmly nibbling the grass nearby. Brightly coloured kingfishers flashed in the background of an ever brightening deep blue sky - it was going to be a nice day. YOU WISH......! NO, IT WASN’T – IT WAS BLOODY RAINING.
It was a depressing start to the journey proper - this wasn’t supposed to happen - Scotland in August is meant to be dry. Where were the raging heather fires, the global warming evidence, the “WHAT A SCORCHER” headlines in the Oban Courier? I called to Chris in his Wendy House and we agreed to have an extra half hour in bed. This was in the full expectation that the Scottish weather would see sense and eventually oblige us with a proper, sensible, dry cycling day. Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of weather in Scotland and like Chris it is slightly deaf.
A quick trip to the toilet confirmed that the amplification of the rain on the tent was not exaggerated. You know that soft, persistent type drizzle that has an extraordinary soaking effect, well that was it. Eskimos have thirty words for snow. Scotland has thirty words for rain a few examples are - drizzle, bloody drizzle, pissing, bloody pissing etc, etc. I should explain the Scottish climate to those poor people among you who are not fortunate enough to know this place we call Scotland. The Scottish climate consists basically of two main things. The first of these is water. It is very important to have a good grasp of all things watery if you want to understand Scotland. Take for example the lengthy constant debate in all Scottish pubs – water in your whisky? Sacrilege or not?
The second important thing is wind. Usually in Scotland these two things - wind and water - are found together in combination but they can also happen independently. As I have previously said rain comes in a number of forms mist, fog, drizzle, shit rain (not to mistaken for sheet rain). Wind also is the Scottish cyclist main hate, no matter to which compass point you are pedalling – you will be biking into a headwind. Needless to say it is always cold and strong. Watery wind is a cyclist nightmare. This makes it impossible to have the correct weather gear on. You firstly are in denial that it is rain – sea spray, perhaps, anything but rain. The darkening road, your glasses misting over, eventually you concede its rain but by the time you have stopped, searched for the waterproofs put them on – guess what? The next few miles have you wetter on the inside with sweat as by now of course, it’s perfectly dry. So you stop … and the ‘cycle’ continues.
I want to say a little more about sunshine, it is never accompanied by the conditions warm and dry. When the sun is to be seen it is often in mid-winter in dry but freezing conditions, shortly before blizzards. This is known technically to Scottish weather forecasters as “a nice day for a bike ride.”
We did eventually get away and after a thorough soaking we ended up back in the bright lights of Brodick. We had some shopping to do and sat in a café sipping several cups of coffee for several hours before the rain went from ‘bloody torrential’ (No. 30 in the rain dictionary) to ‘precipitation in sight’ (No.10). Just a quick word about the shopping, this was for batteries. My torch failed to work last night probably because it got turned on inside my panniers. Also, since my very first pedal stroke back in Edinburgh my cycle computer had gone ‘tits up’ (this is an IT technical term). My rear light was also full of water and the battery in that had gone as well. I had a small radio with me and this fortunately this was still working. Statistically though 75% of all the electrical items I had with me failed in one 24-hour period. Luckily, not all the shops in Brodick were selling Scottish tat. However, on replacing the battery in the cycle computer the sodding thing still did not work. If it had, I could have enlivened this travelogue with statistics like the fastest MPH reached during the day, hourly average speeds etc, as it is you will have read on without these, no doubt, fascinating statistics – what a shame – eh!
It was in the coffee shop that Chris, on speaking to his wife, was informed that the ‘stolen camera’ was miraculously found under the driver’s seat of his car. It had clearly fallen out of his bag and the 'fatwa' on the members of Northampton Sailing Club was now, like Chris, withdrawn. In the end we conceded that continuing around Arran the long way was pointless especially now we had stayed still for the last three hours. So it was the shorter anti-clockwise route to Lochranza, a ferry to Claonaig followed by a short hop over the hill to a pre-booked B & B at Kennacraig on the Mull of Kintyre. What I didn’t tell Chris that there was a whopper of a mountain in the way, the highest in Arran, in fact (874 m). It was going to be a long day, with poor Chris, probably walking most of it. One good thing was this was an island free of traffic islands.
The road out of Brodick was actually quite good as it followed the coast and at times only a matter of feet from the shore. The A841 circles the whole island and luckily for us the traffic was quiet. The road passes through some scenic villages, one of which was Corrie with its row of white houses facing the sea. We had a short stop here to take photos of the Viking long boat in the harbour. Why that was there, I don’t know. How it got there was easy to answer because there was a Mercury outboard engine on the stern (these cunning Vikings)! The children’s swings on the grass was just a feet away from the unfenced main road giving a good indication as to the speed of island life.
The day progressively brightened up and the sky slowly went from dark lead to Dulux shade, misty grey. The villages were also beginning to be left behind as we rose up into the Arran Mountains, a long, a very long climb ensued. If I had spent a little more time looking at the map I would have noted that while the road was reasonably straight, it was also decorated not with a single, nor a double, but a knee quivering, lung bursting, three-stripe gradient chevron. The climb was memorable in one respect when we stood and watched a young sea eagle having a bit of an easy day moving around like a hooded adolescent looking for trouble. Watching this bird brought across the benefits of cycle touring in that you could stop where you liked. The ‘S’ bend incline made stopping difficult for cars……what a shame! You realise what you miss when in a car – the scent of heather, the bleating of sheep and the twitterings of skylarks, all just noticeable above the rasping sound of your own breathing.
However, every uphill has a corresponding downhill and this downhill into Lochranza was a wee cracker. If my cycle computer had been working I would have had the proof of maximum MPH as it was you will have to believe me in that I sure I broke the sound barrier! If the supersonic boom wasn’t me then it must have been Chris’s bowels as he faced this downhill reminiscent of the Cresta run.
Actually, a better name for it would have been whisky run, for at the bottom the first building you come to in Lochranza is the Arran Distillery, I was straight in, still at great speed, across the car park and only stopping inches from the front door in a cloud of steam and squealing brakes - why all this wreckless urgency? Because the brakes were wet and not binding! The first Single Malt of the tour was soon down the throat, if only to calm my nerves, having very closely avoided entering the reception area on a bike! I considered it fortunate that at least it was a sliding one! So it’s warm glow not dampening the adrenaline rush still pumping through my veins.
I waited for Chris to arrive and ordered a bowl of Scots Broth. This of course being the most popular meal for everyone else in the restaurant – hot warming soup in AUGUST! The rain had returned with a vengeance, it poured down the glass roof of the distillery at the same speed whisky was going down my throat. Eventually a soaking wet Chris wandered in and, this being a team effort, took the same choices as me (including the whisky).
My bike kit (and Chris’s) was complemented by a neat little bar-bag that clipped to the handlebars and would eventually become our best friends. We both brought in our ‘bar bags’ to the restaurant. What was interesting was the difference in what I thought was valuable and what Chris’s thoughts were. My bag consisted of – wallet, camera, mobile phone etc. Out of his bag tumbled – firstly, a large mug of cold porridge, a plastic bag full of pills and potions and right at the bottom much to his delight the missing cutlery pack. Of course, this being a posh sort of place it did supply cutlery, so Chris for the first time was in possession of the correct eating tools but actually did not need them. Anyway, after a bit more whisky sampling and a quick tour of ‘Ye Olde Whisky Shoppe’, balking at prices of around £500 a bottle, we were soon out into the bright lights of Lochranza.
There was a short wait for the 3pm ferry so we have a quick scoot passed the ferry terminal. A short distance out of Lochranza is a roadside grave. Clearly by the state of the stone work was very old and weather beaten but still carefully tended. The story is that in 1854 a ship anchored in the bay off Lochranza, a man by the name of John McLean had died on board. The crew wanted to bury him in Lochranza. However, the people of Lochranza were afraid that the body of this sailor might bring the plague to the village and so they refused to allow him to be buried in the churchyard. The ship’s crew had no better luck along the coast at Catacol, where the people also refused to allow the sailor to be buried within the village. A compromise was reached whereby the sailor was buried, by the roadside, between the two villages. It became a custom for people to leave a pebble from the beach upon the sailor’s grave as they passed by - as a token of respect, and perhaps an apology. An alternative, and more believable version I believe is that John McLean was a gentleman on a grand tour of Scotland with a strange friend - you can guess the rest!
We sat and had our left-over food watching the flat-bed ferry plough its way back across the Sound of Kintyre, no one else was about so the journey was just for us. We were to return on this ferry in two weeks time and it was to be a particularly significant event, but that’s another story. The ferry terminal on the other side took us back onto the mainland. It consisted of no more than a concrete ramp and a larger than normal bus shelter. The rain had officially stopped by the time we got there but it became very obvious, very quickly, that the midges that had been hiding all day from the rain were coming out in big style. It would be no exaggeration to say that two grown adult males were chased out of Claonaig. The passing tourist may have thought to have spotted two maniacs not only cycling recklessly but also flailing arm and legs in an impression similar to ‘Tam O’Shanter’ on drugs.
The mainland peninsula we are on, is the narrowest point of the Mull of Kintyre. There is, as I have already stated, a climb over yet another mountain range (you know by now that I am not prone to exaggeration – there really was one). I have got to say the climb out off Claonaig was not a pleasantly remembered one - firstly, we were chased out of town by midges, secondly, it was starting to rain again, thirdly, it was a single track road and it was surprisingly busy, fourthly, I could not get the tune of ‘Mull of Kintyre’ out of my head. I had come all this way and Paul McCartney could not be seen anywhere. It was quite a struggle up this hill and at the end of a long day as well. It was a matter of just getting your head down and going for it. So both the head and the gears got lower. I was struggling, and when I next looked up expecting to see the summit and heather covered mountains I found that not only had I not even passed the tree line, I hadn’t even made it past the bloody cow line! We had pre-booked a Bed and Breakfast along the shores of West Loch, not very far from the next day’s ferry to Islay. The downhill section was over very fast (for me anyway) and I had my usual wait at the bottom while Mr. Weston took his bike for a walk! The B & B was a very welcome sight and was absolutely perfect for our needs. It was a large Victorian house set in well-maintained gardens that even through the Scots mist and the rain looked very nice. The only drawback was that it did not do an evening meal. We both however quickly concluded that we were just too knackered to go to the nearest food place. So out came the emergency chilli-con-carne food supplies and it was bliss. I soon found the hidden switch for the heated towel rail (these thrifty, crafty Scottish Landladies) so the washing got done and was now steaming away nicely. The room was beginning to look as if a bomb hit it. Especially, since Chris decided to repack and laid everything out in a vain attempt also to find his cutlery pack. This was last seen on the restaurant table at the Arran Distillery…did he put it back into his bar-bag? …ooops!
After our tea it was an evening watching the Olympics. And the British Cycle team winning another gold medal seemed to be an added bonus. In any strange house however, there is always the dreaded SHOWER! Why can’t it be a standard fitting? Cars all have the pedals in the same order no matter the model. Why can’t showers?
Our shower’s temperature control was one of those safe cracker jobs: tiny clockwise adjustments "-ow-bloodybollocks-wowow- I’m-on-fire" OR "spine stiffening, needle sharp ice fragments".
Anyway it was two tired but contented cyclist who went to bed. One of them (me) was looking and feeling as if he had just been rubbed down with a Brillo pad.
Up and out early at the B&B to catch the 8am ferry and there was an eerie stillness over the Loch.