Michele has wanted to cycle in Scotland for as long as I have known her. That was the driving force behind us wending our way up the M5/M6 in a Ford KA with two cycles strapped to the back. This less than ideal situation is the motoring equivalent of attaching a parachute to your car to see how it affects performance. Needless to say that we were in no hurry to get there. The little car performed well above expectation although the fuel consumption suffered a fair bit.
A long drive it may be but while sitting at the ferry terminal, awaiting the ship that would deposit us on the Isle of Arran for a week, the smile on Michele’s face made it worth the trip. I’m now seasoned in ferry rides all over the UK but in her face I could see the same emotions that I had felt when I first used this ferry with my friend Paul many years ago in order to take our motorcycles across to this pretty island.
There is something very special about taking a bicycle on a ferry. You get to stand at the front of the queue as it docks and watch its gaping mouth spewing out an endless stream of cars, motorhomes, cyclists, and tourist before being first aboard. It brings an excitement that is hard to explain. A sense of adventure resides in travelling by boat that air travel never elicits. The car had been left in the long-term car park that charges £15 for eight days parking and it might even have cooled down by the time we get back!
During the short (55mins) ferry journey we hoped to see dolphins or porpoises. In reality we saw gannets, lots of them. These incredible birds never cease to amaze me as they dive head-long into the ocean in their search for food. The onboard RSPB warden gave us lots od information and pointers for things to look out for on the island during our stay.
Our bikes were heavily laden, a consequence of knowing we would be in a cottage that lay just one mile from the ferry terminal. As we didn’t have far to carry it we had allowed ourselves some of the luxuries that get left behind when you tour. Our plan, such as it was, was to relax, cycle a bit, and enjoy our week-long stay.
Goat Fell, the highest point on the island was hiding in the clouds on the afternoon that we arrived. It was being shy but I hoped it would reveal itself at some point during our stay. Little Wellingtonia, our cottage for the week, was opposite the golf course and pretty as a picture. Arriving to find the owners gardening and doing maintainance to their property we simply dumped our belongings and headed for the shop.
It felt good to be inside a cosy cottage. The weather here is always unpredictable and you don’t know what it will throw at you. I still felt weary from all the camping I have done in recent years and with the nights beginning to draw in this was an obvious and pleasant solution to make our stay more comfortable.
Brodick, where the ferry lands from Ardrossan, has shops, restaurants, and cafe’s galore. The Co-op have two supermarkets with the one nearest the ferry terminal being the biggest. We filled our panniers with enough goodies for this evening and the next day and set off back to our wee snug to relax.
Arran has a perimeter road and a few other roads that cross from side to side. A complete circumnavigation is only about 57 miles but wasn’t on our agenda for this trip. Michele has had little time to cycle during this summer and we would explore gently in a variety of directions building up length and difficulty over the week.
For our first jaunt we headed up the east coast to Sannox. The road is all but flat and hugs the coast until it turns inland to cross the mountains towards Lochranza. We ambled along marvelling at the sandstone rock formations and the igneous dykes that were formed when strands of extruded magma had flowed into the sea. The red of the sandstone with an overlay of almost luminous green seaweed made for a pretty backdrop. The black dykes than ran through them provided contrast and all along the shore rounded granite boulders sat where they had been ignominiously dumped after the last ice-age.
The north of Arran is almost entirely granite. Spectacular jagged ridges soar skywards. The contrast between north and south couldn’t be more pronounced. They call it the highlands in miniature and it isn’t hard to see why. Mountains, soft, varied coast, forests, palm trees and beaches, Arran has something for everybody.
We hadn’t gone that far when I spotted a seal sitting on a rock. Next to it was a second, much bigger seal. Our silent arrival didn’t disturb them at all. Stopping to watch, Michele was thrilled having not seen one before. We stood quietly looking as the motorised traffic rushed to wherever it was going without a thought for what lay between their starting point and arrival. We were joined by an American couple who were also cycling. They had seen us looking and wouldn’t have seen the seals otherwise. As we talked, we picked and ate blackberries. There seemed to be a bumper crop this summer.
The villages along this road have tiny harbours where boats can shelter from the storms that ravage the coast. All the cottages are immaculately kept and are painted in a variety of pastel colours, adding to their attractiveness. Even the steel mooring bollards along the tiny harbours had been painted to look like sheep, something that makes me smile every time I see them.
If this all sounds idyllic it’s because it is. Arran, like all the islands, is special. It’s scenery, flora and fauna are hugely varied. It has many local businesses like Arran cheese, Arran chocolates and Arran whiskey, all of which it’s difficult to avoid. It feels complete and in control of its own destiny, a small, self-contained, and thriving community.
Our next excursion was quite different from what we expected. There is a cycle route that isn’t a designed for mountain bike trail that runs from Lamlash, a few miles south of Brodick, and linking up with the south coast. Our intention was to ride this to the coast and then follow the shoreline back.
Riding over the hill to Lamlash, a long steady climb to warm up gave us time to savour the views south where the scenery is of a much softer nature. The coast wiggles and bends southwards once past Lamlash and the road follows its indentaions rolling over the hills in between the bays. We soon found ourselves taking a valley out into the hills in order to find the start of the cycle way. The man in the cycle shop at Brodick had been non-committal about the quality of the cycle route saying it was made as a general cycle way but that forestry work had churned it up a little. The sign at the bottom stated that it was fine for hybrids and so we set off up the hill, and further up the hill, and even further uphill.
The surface was chewed up by logging lorries, one of which hurtled down towards us at one point. We got well out-of-the-way. Still climbing we remounted and continued. There was only one junction and no signpost telling you which way to go. I asked a forestry worker and he pointed before continuing his work. A short way along this route a sign lay in the grass confirming this as the correct route. Fly had no problem on the chunky granite gravel with his fat, expedition tyres, but I was concerned for Michele. The track is poorly designed to my mind. The grade of chippings being much to large for a general cycleway, especially for bikes with 700c wheels. The chippings were heaped up in places making riding something akin to cycling through porridge with the wheels skitting about and getting all squirrely. Not for the faint hearted then?
For me it wasn’t a problem as I had spent years mountain biking but Michele’s cycle struggled with its relatively narrow tyres that seemed to skit and jump on the large stones. Never one to give in, Michele was loving the scenery that opened up all around us and got on with it as best she could. It was a soulful place, miles from civilisation, and had we known how lumpy it was I would have suggested hiring a mountain bike first. The backdrop, provided by the mountains of Goat fell and the ridges that joined it to various other peaks towered above us giving a view second to none. It this route was swept to remove the loose surface it would be magnificent. As it is, remember your mountain bike and you’ll be fine. My Santos Travelmaster, Fly, coped easily with this terrain reminding me again why I bought it.
Half way across the mountain route I suggested that we take a side trip down to the sea. This would cut our itinerary short but I reckoned on it being enough by the time we had ridden the hilly coast back to Brodick. What a good decision that proved to be as we found a well surfaced track to ride and a picnic spot from heaven.
Tucked away from the track was a table and benches. They sat on bare rock surrounded by grass and bushes and next to a small babbling burn. Overhanging the table was a Rowen tree that had red berries hanging like grapes from its branches. It was the perfect place to stop and recover a little before heading down to the sea where a cafe overlooked Whiting Bay. We sat here for ages talking and eating. I took lots of photographs and then we headed off again.
We arrived home replete with joy. This tiny island had left us with our souls full-up and wanting more. We spent the next day looking around Brodick Castle which is well worth a visit before heading off up the cycle tracks that circumnavigate its grounds high above the castle. Somewhere up there I lost my sunglasses and despite searching for them they remained unfound.
Our longest and best day came towards the end of our stay. The weather, which had improved day on day was glorious. We set off with the intention of crossing the mountains twice and riding both east and west coasts. Our route over the hills began with a climb called The string. It’s an apt description of this ribbon of smooth tarmac that climbs for around a thousand feet before dropping into a wide-open valley.
There was little wind to aid our cause or prevent progress. It was all down to us to push the pedals accordingly and test ourselves on this long climb. On the initial slopes a red squirrel ran across the road, the first Michele had ever seen. Michele was finding her cycling legs and I was impressed with the determination with which she climbed this long and at times steep hill. It’s a case of knowing what you can do and riding accordingly and this is something that Michele excels at.
We climbed and climbed up this wide U-shaped valley between the mountains and I would occasionally shoot off the front to take pictures as we went. We were surrounded by high moorland with goat fell dominating the scenery once again. From the top you can stand and see both the east and west coast at the same time. On a day like today the mountains appear to continue forever in the distance whichever way you look. The joy of the downhill that followed was the perfect antidote to the effort to get over the col and for miles we rolled along effortlessly enjoying the views as we went. Taking a turning for Machrie, home of the most famous standing stones on Arran, we were soon at the coast.
We sat down to eat by the shore. The sea glistened in the sun, reflecting the clouds and the blue sky on its surface. There was hardly a ripple between us and the shore of Kintyre. People who passed by all waved, something that happened everywhere we went. The light today was special, giving a rare clarity to the vista. The shore was composed of round boulders of white and black, like big billiard balls, giving the impression that they had been placed there by hand.
We sat and talked, relaxed and ate. The next fifteen miles followed the shore whilst remaining almost entirely flat. We rode quietly, captivated by the view whichever way we turned to look. The predicted breeze that began to slowly build would now help us on our way and when it arrived we cruised without a care in the world. A few cars passed by but like all those before them they were polite and gave us a wide berth. We were both entranced by the scenery and the warmth that had surprised us made this a special day to be riding a bike.
On we rode passing occasional villages but mostly just riding silently along as the scenery seemed to roll past us. It was effortless and left me feeling as though I was stationary and the world was moving. Michele was in her element. She had never cycled anywhere that compared to this. On arriving in Lochranza we bought a coffee, walked down to the shore and Michele went to inspect the large jellyfish that had come ashore. They were another first for her and she was astounded at them.
It was the moment of truth. We had another pass to climb over in order to get back to Brodick. Michele looked a little glum at the thought. I initially tried used distraction techniques by pointing out the red deer as we went and the castle on the shore. We rode past the distillery where Arran whiskey is made and that gave us a plan for another day. We had to do a tour of that before we left or we would regret it. We would come on the bus and spend the day here.
Meantime we had reached the hill. It’s a long drag and Michele wasn’t convinced that it wouldn’t be as tough as The String. It wasn’t and after a long steady climb we reached the col. On our right the jagged teeth of granite ridges took the form of a giant man lying down and gazing skywards. All the while the sun warmed us and Michele said it was the best cycle ride she had ever done.
Since my last visit here the road has been re-surfaced and we rolled all the way back the east shore where a flat road led us home. there was still a seal sitting on the rocks where we had seen them several days ago and only the midges that began to gnaw at us when we stopped drove us back to our small abode.
So there’s a small taste of Arran. No wonder it’s such a popular destination for cyclist. We saw hundreds during our stay and at times they almost outnumbered the cars on the island. I should say thank you to Michele for making this a special week, one I shall remember for its beauty, simplicity and joy. Why not go and try it for yourselves?
View the lovely cottage we stayed at here: http://www.littlewellingtonia.com