DAY 4 - PORT ELLEN / BOWMORE / PORT ASKAIG

The Weather has issued a recall notice for summer 2008, citing “manufacturing defects” that have resulted in inadequate sunlight and a severe excess of precipitation.

“Basically, summer’s broken, but we can’t do much about it at this late stage. So we’re planning to pull it and roll autumn on to the market earlier than usual to fill the gap. We expect that most customers won’t even notice the changeover, especially those doing a cycle tour of Scotland”. Radio Scotland, weather report.

It was a leisurely run to the ferry port on a calm and so far, dry, morning. The ferry appeared away in the distance breaking the mirror images of the hills reflecting on the surprisingly narrow, loch sides. Soon, we had boarded and for the first time, and only time, refused a full Cal Mac Scottish breakfast. The run to the whisky island of Islay was over too quickly, there was a lot to see. Our arrival at Port Ellen was met with sunshine! We did though to have landed not on some idyllic picturesque Scottish Island but in the middle of an industrial estate. Steam was shooting out of the top of a hideous factory building. This is the maltings and it’s where the majority of the barley required by the island’s distilleries is processed. It is then lorried out to the distilleries who pretend that they do all by traditional methods in their own malt barns - bummer -there goes another whisky myth. This deception did not stop us from shooting off to visit the Ardberg and Laphroaig Distilleries about five miles away.

Picture of Port Ellen as seen we approaching the harbour

In the shop there I spent £38 on a very special cycle jersey which was my contribution to the economy on Islay and the rather secretive owners of Ardberg Distillery. They hide behind Glenmorangie Plc. – owners of the distilleries Glenmorangie and Glen Moray, as well. But the real owners are Moët Hennessy, which in turn is owned by the LVMH Group (which stands for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) and Diageo (owner over more than two dozen distilleries), so now you know! Next time you see a single malt advert spouting its history and traditional within a long-standing family hertitage, think again.

There is something special about the Ardberg cycle jersey in that they sponsor the local cycle club. Design-wise it’s the dog’s bollocks. The cycle club web page invites wearers to submit photographs of jersey purchasers. The result is pictures of thin, muscular, LMBM’s, posing in exotic locations all over the world. I never did send my picture - my exotic location being just 10 yards from the shop.

Out in the Ardberg car park I stripped off the old T-shirt: by morning he is an old git on a bike but in the afternoon he becomes …super-touring-bike-man. I now had my full tour outfit: jersey, wrap-around sunglasses, gloves and cleats. Not shorts though, I was wearing the kind of comedy shorts last seen on Eric Morecombe in a 1970’ Christmas Special. It did not take me long, however, to establish that at least the top half of my body was in fact too convincing. If you are going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk. I felt a fraud. How could anyone wearing this gear ever contemplate getting off their bike and walking? The Ardberg jersey was definitely more suited to the LMBM cyclist (Lean Mean Bike Machine) which is clearly the default setting of every other cyclist we had met so far. You see, Chris and I have three speeds: Sloth, Tortoise and Ageing Elephant. We barely register an acknowledging nod from the LMBM as they whizz towards or past us. Now let me give these LMBM’s some advice – you are in too much of a hurry, ease off, stop now and again and admire the view, enjoy a few Islay malts and put away the occasional cream tea, take a few photographs and send a postcard to your Granny.

We went all the way back to Port Ellen. For the first time we sat on the beach and had our Co-op sandwiches and watched the ferry leave for its return journey. We eventually left Port Ellen behind with its white buildings brilliant in the summer sun, we headed north and took the higher road to Bowmore. The route gave wonderful views of Islay and was thankfully relatively traffic free. Joy of joy’s, was the weather – the sun shone. Yea ha!

The locals call this the ‘high road’ and looks down on the main Port Ellen to Bowmore road (known as… ‘The low road’, which is notorious for the mulch-lorries thundering between ferries and distilleries (you thought these islands were tranquil)? EU laws had since long banned the disposal of this waste in the sea of Islay, much to chagrin of the local lobster population apparently. The road had a bird’s eye view of Islay International Airport but it must have been half day closing as nothing appeared to be happening. This road is single tracked with 'passing places' and as soon as I was out of town I stopped at one and voided urine behind a wall, as I was standing there admiring the view I commented to Chris that the sign should read pissing place and not passing place…well, I thought it was funny.

Travelling around Islay is a darned sight more practical on two wheels than it will ever be on four. At least, if you want to stop from time to time and see something of the surroundings. This was what we were able to do having heard the distinct sound of a flock of Corncrakes. This bird is the cause of great political controversy in that the RSPB describes it as Britain’s most endangered bird. On the back of this rarity they raised an enormous amount to buy up the specialist land that it requires on Islay and its sister island, Colonsay. That of course, does not go down well with the inhabitants (human that is, not the birds). The facts are that the RSPB may be right in that there is a declining corncrake population; unfortunately they are being economical with the truth in that in other places the population of Corncrakes is increasing. It is only on Islay where this is happening. One other very embarrassing thing for the RSPB – a recent survey revealed no corncrakes actually nested on RSPB meadows – they appear to enjoy the cultivated land next door!

It was a good ride to Bowmore, the capital of Islay. The town is on a steep hill down to the sea and has two main features – a circular church at the top – and distillery at the bottom. The hill was so steep Chris walked down it. After a quick meal, we were off again to the main cross roads on the Island at a place called Bridgend. Bridgend consists of a hotel, public toilet and a well stocked shop – what more could you ask for. Chris decided that we could make a run to the Bunnahabhain Distillery, as a friend of his (no doubt a very rich friend) would appear to have a cask of whisky sitting there for a rainy day. What do you do with a cask of whisky? Don’t be a smart arse and say “drink it”. There are 33 gallons of the stuff! It was a lovely run, the flat road running alongside the water’s edge through gorse covered dunes. It was made easier when we dumped most of our baggage behind a gorse bush as we (hopefully) were coming back that way. It was a getting a bit tight time wise as it was coming up for 6pm.

Never seen a 'C' class road sign before!   Ask for this one when you are drunk.

If it wasn’t already closed it was sure not far from chucking out time. Our arrival was with minutes to spare. In the distillery shop we both succeeded in causing as much chaos as possible. I started it by asking to purchase a whisky – what I meant was a wee dram - what the woman behind the counter thought I meant was a bottle. I heard her say that will be £56 pounds please. I couldn’t say anything; the words would not come out. My brain was screaming ‘£56!’ for wee dram, has the world gone mad? What could it possibly be made of that it costs this much? Meanwhile Chris has added to the confusion by muttering on about wanting to see his friend’s barrel of whisky. All I could think of is that if a dram is £56 what is a barrel of the stuff worth? I did manage to point to the bottle and the look on my face must have done the rest. I very quickly established with the serving lady that was not what I was after.

Eventually a small whisky appeared and it was then that the look of frozen horror went from my face and was replaced with a wee smile as it was establish that, in fact, these wee tasters (unlike at Ardberg) were FREE! Talk about one extreme to another! Out in the car park I nearly had another fainting fit when I spotted a large tanker with neat whisky pouring out the back. At least, I think it was whisky?

By now it was 7pm and all that was left was a 10 mile run to Port Askaig. Our intention was to purchase some supplies and find a spot for some wild camping. It was actually not a bad run to Port Askaig, not too hilly and a very quiet road. Finding an overnight spot is still quite unsettling in that how do you know you have got the best spot? Is there another and better place around the corner? After stopping several times, we in fact ended up actually in Port Askaig. Be warned, there is an S-bend drop into Port Askaig that is just astoundingly scary.

Carved out of the rock face, it is truly steep. Needless to say, I nearly ended up in the sea, as brakes nearly at melting point, skidded closer and closer to the piers’ edge before finally coming to a stop in a cloud of brake smoke. There had been clearly a lot of EU money being spent on the harbour. Note, that I said harbour and not village. It had a couple of houses but it is basically a large pier with a pub attached (a bit more of that later). Eventually, Chris joined me at the bottom of the hill and no sooner had he got there that we turned round and walked back up the hill. All there was there was a large car park with a few overnight lorries.

So it was back up the hill and fairly soon we found a flat piece of ground. Under normal circumstances this would have been a decent spot, it had nice views, very quiet, and the nearest houses were 2-3 miles away. What was not decent was the weather and during the evening the wind and the rain came. Luckily, we witnessed this from the pub and I have got to say, it was a little gem of a place. Firstly, it was genuinely ramshackled; corporate brewing companies pay their designers a fortune to come up with place like this.

The front bar had two or three customers – clearly the entire male population of Port Askaig. We stuck ourselves in a little back room and ordered a huge meal. Despite it being nine in the evening this presented no problem. The food was excellent and went down a treat. Soon we were chatting to the locals about touring Scotland and found a couple of lads who were keen mountain bikers. The pub itself only had lager on tap; other beers were in cans or bottles in a fridge.
Still this pub comes highly recommended. We had done 42 miles today, which was not bad. We had a good discussion on our general condition and were pleased with our conclusions. Anyway, after another long trek back up that hill – and in the dark this time, I was soon asleep. The tents were on a bed of heather and spongy grass so it was very comfortable if not a bit squishy underfoot. In the morning it was surprise, surprise…raining, there was no point in packing up too early to just stand at the pier-head in the rain. There was no breakfast to make either as we decided to have one of the excellent CalMac breakfasts. So all there was to do was lie in bed and listen to the rain and wind hammering against the tent. This is when a radio becomes your best friend. For a strange perverted reason I particularly enjoyed the traffic around my normal route to work in Leicester, what a shame!