Category Archives: Scotland

My kingdom for a bus shelter!

There is no doubt that cyclo-touring on warm, sunny days is the ultimate way to see a country and to enjoy the sights on offer. But what happens on those days when the weather is less kind, when cold and wet are the order of the day?

English: Bus stop shelter in Wagga Wagga, New ...

English: Bus stop shelter in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The solution, you would imagine, is easy. You still have to ride to reach your destination, but when you stop for rests along the way, you simply find somewhere out of the weather to have a break.

In Australia, awnings or coverings along walkways near shops are commonplace. So common that we take them for granted. Parks have rotundas and shelters over benches, and bus stops frequently have at least a one wall and a roof of some description.

I am not sure why this is. Perhaps it is simply that the country gets quite hot in most places during the summer and people seek out the shade? Whatever the reason, it is generally possible to find shelter somewhere nearby when the weather is inclement or there is a sudden shower of rain.

Not an awning in sight

Not an awning in sight

When riding locally at home, the sensible thing is to simply avoid riding in potentially wet weather (if at all possible). Having said that, I know of people who relish the challenge of riding every day irrespective of the weather and sometimes get very wet when caught in a sudden downpour! They are a tougher breed than me!


However, if you are cyclo-touring and have accommodation booked or are working to a tight schedule for some other reason, you may find yourself having to pull on the wet weather gear and bravely tackle the drizzle or worse – the persistent rain.

Oxford

Oxford – a popular cycling spot, but few covered areas for shelter

Riding in the wet is not all that bad once the body has warmed up and settled into a routine. It can even be fun as it was when we were riding in serious rain for 2 hours near a loch in Scotland. The creeks filled up and small waterfalls abounded all along the roadway – it was an unforgettable experience; something that would have been totally missed in a motor vehicle or when cycling in the dry.

There comes a time, though, when it is necessary to stop for a break. Sensible souls then look around for a shelter of some sort. Sitting in the rain drinking cup of coffee is not a good idea – it gets cold too quickly 😦

If you are cyclo-touring in the UK or France, this is where the fun starts! One could stop under a bridge if there is one available. We did this many times on both of our tours. If it is only light rain, then a tree with a dense canopy will keep you dry for a while – long enough for a cuppa perhaps.

A park bench for a fine day, where to go in the wet?

A park bench for a fine day, but where to go in the wet?

A phone booth will shelter one person, or two if coziness is not a problem! A bus shelter with a roof is a rare find out in the countryside, and they become prized spots for wet fellow cyclists, so one needs to take quick possession when the rain starts! With a bit of strategic organisation, we have found it possible to fit two bikes and two riders into a Scottish bus shelter!

English: Bus shelter At bus stop by junction o...

English: Bus shelter (Photo credit: Wikipedia) [Similar to the one we fitted two loaded bikes and ourselves into in Scotland!]

But sometimes there is just nowhere to stop! Few of the buildings have awnings or verandahs which we found quite perplexing, given that it rains so much in the UK and France. In these situations, the best idea is to just keep riding to stay warm and to resort to the water bottle for refreshment. Stopping means getting soaked and cold. Not good.

Three Swans hotel has a rare shelter facing the street

The lovely Three Swans Hotel has a rare shelter facing the street

Has anyone else experienced this lack of shelters in the UK and France? I wonder if the rest of Europe and/or Ireland have similar issues for cyclists looking for a dry place to stop for a break?

Planning the UK trip (Part 2: Overnight stops)

This is part 2 of a of Planning the UK trip. Read part 1

HOW FAR TO RIDE?

Working out where to stop each day was limited by our desire to ride an average of about 60km (37 miles) a day. Any more than this, and there was not enough time to stop and appreciate the scenery and interesting things along the way. We averaged 59km/cycling day, so this was quite close to our desired target.

It is possible to work out ideal overnight destinations using a map and a bit of string which is what I did with the French tour. However, with the UK trip, I got a bit more technical and used the RoutePad app I have described on the Using Technology post. This gave me a good idea of the degree of difficulty we could expect in each day’s travel as well as the distance.

No planning can factor in/out 'interesting' weather

No amount of planning can factor in/out ‘interesting’ weather (Scottish Highland sunshowers)

BREAKING THE CYCLING WITH RAIL TRIPS

We had learnt from our French cyclo-tour that we needed breaks from riding every few days. These breaks allowed for some relief from the weather (particularly when it was cold and wet every day) and gave us time to catch up on correspondence, journals etc. It was also good to just relax for a day every now and again!

We planned to take the train on these ‘rest’ days. This would give us greater coverage of the country and open up new areas for exploration. But taking the train is not so easy when you are taking a bike along as well, so we had to choose our routes accordingly.

We purchased a BritRail Pass which gave us 8 days of (non urban) rail travel over a 2 month period. This was excellent value and was ideal to cover each section of the country travel we required. All we had to do each time we wanted to catch a train was to check that there were seats for us and then book the bikes on as well. This was easily done, and usually just required a visit to the embarkation station within a day or so of our intended travel. (BritRail passes need to be purchased before travelling to the UK).

The bikes usually travel in the guard’s compartment or at the end of the train. You will need to know exactly where they need to go and be waiting at the appropriate section of the platform 🙂 (Sometimes you will also need to check out how to get your bike across to the correct platform – this can be a challenge at some country stations!)

We found the railway booking staff to be very helpful when it came to finding out all this information. We had no problems getting the bikes boarded as well as ourselves and our gear at any of the stations we used.

Carbisdale Castle - an amazing Youth Hostel in Scotland

Carbisdale Castle – an amazing Youth Hostel in Scotland

Accommodation

England and Scotland have very many wonderful Youth Hostels, most of which accommodate bike riders with no problems. We stayed at these hostels wherever possible. Booking was simple, we just joined the local Australian Youth Hostel Association and then booked our overseas destinations (with ease) on the internet. Some hostels are very popular and need to be booked early. Others close for the winter, so also check availability.

In most places, we were able to get a private room, but some hostels only had shared male or female dormitories. But the rates were very reasonable and most of the hostels have kitchens, laundries and a sitting room where you can relax if you so desire. Some of the bigger ones also have a restaurant, although the quality of the food/service varies considerably.

Three Swans Hotel - with bicycle accommodation!

Three Swans Hotel – with bicycle accommodation! We really enjoyed our stay here – we were on the ground floor (no steep, narrow staircases!)

Where there were no hostels, we used the internet to search for a B&B or a local hotel. It was necessary to check with every place to ensure that there was somewhere secure to park the bikes overnight. But we had little trouble finding somewhere suitable at each of our proposed destinations. B&Bs and hotels can be booked easily using the internet.

NIGHT MEALS

One thing to watch when you are reliant on a bicycle for transport is to make sure you have sufficient food with you (if you are staying at a hostel where you intend to cater for yourself). If you intend to eat at a pub or restaurant, then make sure that your accommodation is sufficiently close to the latter to enable you to get there! While it may seem logical to just hop on the bike and ride to the nearest food outlet, at the end of a day when you have been on the bike for a number of hours/all day, this ride may not be a fun outing!

Watching a passing train while watching the bikes

Grocery stop – watching a passing train while looking after the bikes

It is also not a bad idea to keep a supply of non perishable, nutritious food in case you get stuck and have to rely on this for an unexpected meal! We were caught in persistent heavy rain one afternoon and having made it to the B&B and finally got ourselves dry, there was no way were going out again into the pouring rain to get dinner!

The muesli bars in our ‘just in case’ food stash were very welcome that night!

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route)

Planning the UK trip (Part 1: Choosing the route)

Some people really enjoy planning their cycling trips. I am not in this category yet, as I find them plain hard work! But the more I do, the quicker I get and so one day I might enjoy the process! While it is possible to cycle with a tour company, and they will do the planning for you (for a fee), this is not our preferred way of touring – we like the freedom to go where we please and change our plans at will. The UK trip was our second major tour and we had learnt a lot from the first one (in France).

Mountain bikes travel by train

Mountain bikes travel by train, hung up by the front wheel

One thing is for sure – the more effort that goes into the planning, the better the outcome will be, and the less worry you will have while on tour.

WHERE TO GO?

One of the most difficult things to do when planning a trip is deciding where to go. While traditional tours whisk the tourist around a number of destinations in quick succession, this will not be possible when you are relying on pedal power! Even something as simple as being able to get to a grocery store or restaurant for dinner may become quite a challenge!

So the routes must be chosen with care, so that there is plenty to see, do and experience even though the actual territory covered may be quite small. The trick to this, we discovered, is to use cycle friendly public transport to move to different places, then to cycle for a while in the new location before moving on again.

Pretending to be in France - fun on a deserted lane

Pretending to be in France – fun on a deserted lane

When planning our tour to the UK, we had some destinations that we really wanted to visit, but mostly we were happy to go pretty well anywhere. The ‘must see’ places were Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Culloden, the west coast of Scotland, and Canterbury. I had also previously been to the Cotswolds area and liked it a lot, so we decided to include that area as well. The canal towpaths had been most enjoyable in France, so if there were any that fitted with our route, we wanted to ride along those too.

It worked out that if we started in London and went north, then explored Scotland, we could then return to the southern areas and work our way across from west to east. So this was our rough plan – we would see quite a bit of the UK and fit in a lot of cycling.

FINE TUNING THE ROUTE

I purchased the only book I could find on cycling in the UK. It was a Lonely Planet guide and was excellent. I spent a good while reading and researching the various rides that had been suggested by the authors. Some were easy to include (plenty of accommodation at the end of each day’s riding), while others were perplexing since there was nowhere suitable to overnight – perhaps they were intended for locals who could go home at the end of the day. Some were just too short.

An encouraging sign for cyclists

An encouraging sign for cyclists (“Allez, allez, well done!”). The sign was at the top of the steep Cleeve Hill climb!

There were a few that really sounded good, fitted with our rough plan and just needed minor tweaking to be included.

I used the internet to search for information on interesting routes that were being promoted by local councils. Some had excellent material and I downloaded and used their maps and fliers both while planning and also when riding through these areas.

Google maps was invaluable for finding addresses of places to stay (it matters a lot when a B&B is 20km the away from your desired destination – that is a long way extra to ride at the end of the day!)  It was also good to be able to have a look at the photo of the hotel or B&B and see whether they were likely to have secure overnight accommodation for the bikes.

We knew we would have access to Google maps on our iPad, which made the map management of the trip a totally different situation to what we had had in France. During our French tour, we had to rely on paper maps instead. The latter were excellent in the countryside, but hopeless in the cities. I would not tour without an iPad now – they are happy in the city or the country and their zooming power makes navigation simple.

This is part 1 of a of Planning the UK trip. Part 2 can be found here!

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route).

Scottish Highlands tour (Part 4 of 4): Blair Atholl

This is the final post in a series of 4 which cover our Highland cycling tour in Scotland. This stretch takes us from Kinloch Rannoch back to Pitlochry, with a detour to Blair Atholl. You can read the first, second and third installment of this series if you have not already done so.

Following along the river – glimpses of the water through the trees

After our epic ride the day before, we had stayed overnight at a delightful B&B near Kinloch Rannoch. The final day of our tour started again in the rain. Then the clouds started to clear and by mid afternoon, the threatening skies were gone and the day was sunny and quite warm.

We spent a large part of the morning riding along the northern shores of Dunalastair Reservoir and Loch Tummel. The riding was fairly easy as we were tracking along edge of the water, and the road was relatively flat.

Loch Tummel in the sunshine

The old Tummel bridge (a new bridge now crosses the river parallel to the old one)

The views of the water were lovely, especially when the weather cleared up and the light was better. At the town of Dunalastair, the Reservoir narrows to a weir, then flows as a river for a while before widening again into Loch Tummel to the east.

A lovely old bridge spans the river near this point. It is no longer in use as it has been replaced, but made a good spot to get some photos.

The very old Tummel bridge frames a lovely view of the river before it widens into Loch Tummel

We got back to the main turnoff to Pitlochry about lunch time, but instead of turning south, we decided to go the other way, through Killiecrankie and on to to Blair Atholl. The plan was to visit Blair Castle and the beautiful walled garden in the castle grounds.

Blair Castle

Our ride out to the Castle was into a head wind, but since it was a nice afternoon, this was a plus rather than a minus. The breeze was lovely and was also good in that it thoroughly dried us, the bikes and all our gear as we rode along. The other good thing was that having a headwind as we went north, we got a lovely tail wind all the way back to Pitlochry!

Blair Castle and surrounds provided a lot of wonderful photo opportunities, but we decided to focus our attention specifically on the incredible Hercules Garden. This is a 9 acre (~4 hectare) walled garden in the Blair Castle estate. There is a large statue of Hercules overlooking the garden – hence the name. The garden has been restored to it’s former glory and is now quite magnificent, especially in summer and it is immaculately maintained.

The walled garden at the Castle

There are a number of special features in the garden. The most obvious of these is the 100 (or so) fruit trees on either side of the lake. A Chinese bridge is located at one end of the lakes/ponds. Other features include a folly and some thatched duck huts. A number of statues are placed around the garden as well. There is an air of peace and tranquility which invites the visitor to pause, reflect and relax.

The other end of the lake in the walled garden

We returned to Pitlochry to find we were a mere 2km short of 10 000km tally on our cycle tacho. This count included all the kilometres we had ridden since starting to ride some 18 months before! We could not just ignore this milestone, but also could not celebrate it until we reached the magic number! So we rode up and down the main street of Pitlochry until 10 000 registered on the clock 🙂

Ten thousand kilometres… well nearly!

We celebrated our achievement by going to a “Scottish night” put on by the locals for charity. It was an enormous amount of fun and a great way to conclude our Highland tour.

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route).

Scottish Highlands tour (Part 3 of 4): Across the ranges

This is the third of four posts describing our Highland cycling tour in Scotland a few years ago. If you have not already done so, you can read the first and second posts before continuing with this section.

Day 2 of our Highland ride promised to be quite a challenge as we had to climb over a range of quite steep hills to get into the valley to our north. Unbeknown to me, it would also go down as one of my most memorable and most enjoyable cycling days of the whole UK tour. The rainy weather which we had encountered the previous day seemed to have cleared a bit, but unfortunately, more was predicted.

Start of the ride – an easy run along the north shore of the Loch (with a tailwind and reasonable weather)

Loch Tay

KJ has issues with his brakes. Took us a few days to find the problem (Note the blue skies!)

The first part of trip was easy, as we were going with the wind and the weather was quite unexpectedly pleasant. We were riding along the northern shore of Loch Tay going back the way we had travelled the day before – but on the opposite shore.

We had to make a few stops to check out KJ’s brakes which were misbehaving and making the most annoying noises (it took us a few days to work out what was actually wrong with them and get it repaired).

At the most easterly end of Loch Tay, we had to make a decision (based on how the weather looked) about whether to go directly back to Pitlochry or to tackle the climb over to Kinloch Rannoch. Finally, we decided to bite the bullet and take on the weather; turning the bikes to the south – up and over the range.

The weather starts to close in

going south

The weather seemed to sulk at our decision, it got gradually worse as the day went on, then as we climbed higher, seemed threw everything at us! It poured rain and then blew hard. Then it did both together and even sent down a shower of hail (which was fortunately only small hailstones!). The slopes were quite steep in places, with the longest, steepest section taking us up 300m to the top of the range. At the summit of the climb, the sun came out and the wind stopped blowing for a short while. We were in the heathland at this stage and it was rather surreal – like being on top of the world!

A sudden sunny break between the showers of rain and strong wind

There were sheep grazing everywhere, quite unperturbed by us or the weather! Stone walls once separated the large grazing areas, but there are now no fences along the roads and gaps in the stone fences everywhere, so they obviously have fallen into disuse. But the most incredible thing was that the stone fences went right to the tops of very steep hills, some must have been built on almost vertical slopes. The people who built those fences must have been very tough!

Unfortunately, there were few opportunities to get photos, it was just not good weather for cameras.

This downhill section required hard pedalling against the wind

Many times it was necessary to pedal hard going downhill, because the wind was so strong coming the other way! Every now and again, we got out of the wind and rain, and the sun came out as if to encourage us along! But the effort was worth it – the ride was curiously exhilarating rather than exhausting (probably because there were so many extreme changes in the weather that we did not get worn down by any one feature on its own!).

There was not much traffic on the narrow road – we came across a few hardy hikers setting out from their cars at one stage – they must have wondered at our sanity! But the lack of traffic added to the atmosphere – we felt as if we had the whole place to ourselves.

I did not get as wet as the day before when I had been wearing relatively light rain gear. This time I dug out my serious raincoat, and this kept me quite dry. My feet eventually got wet, but it took a long time, and I did not have to deal with the squelchy wet feet like the day before. I think this is why I got a lot more out of the ride. We also had shower caps over our helmets, which kept the cold out, and kept our heads dry.

I really enjoyed the day, and it will go down as a high achievement for me, because I was not sure how I was going to find the steep climbs. But I surprised myself by how easily it went, despite the elements!

The next stage of the Highlands Tour saw us return to Pitlochry via Blair Atholl Castle.

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route).

Scottish Highlands tour (Part 2 of 4): Crannogs

This is the second in a series of 4 posts which describe a short cycling tour of the Scottish Highlands. The first can be found here.

We had ridden a fair way along the edge of Loch Tay by lunch time and the sky was starting to look ominously dark. We came across a place advertising hot food and tours of a ‘Crannog’. I had no idea what a Crannog was, never having heard the term before. But it looked like a promising place for a hot cup of coffee, so we stopped.

And how lucky that we did! We were in for an unexpectedly long lunch break with a history lesson built in for good measure.

Imagine a round, wooden dwelling built out over the water, connected with the shore by a long bridge made of poles. This is precisely what we found! An historical society had built this Crannog to show people what they were like, as none of the original dwellings exist anywhere today (they were constructed and used during the Iron Age).

Crannog’s were quite large structures

Inside the Crannog, there are defined spaces for livestock and people

We spent an hour exploring the interior of the building which is the only one in existence. This one had been constructed using techniques researched from archeological evidence and discoveries from a real Crannog which existed on the other side of the loch. There is plenty of evidence showing where these houses used to be and divers have done a lot of work on these sites (they are now mostly under water). We were even shown an ancient butter dish which had been found in the excavations, complete with rancid butter in the bottom!

All the construction of the replica had been done by hand (as it would have been so long ago) – long poles were driven into the lake bed in a circle, using a rotating, drilling technique. Cross poles were then lashed between the poles and this formed the base of a house floor, well above the level of the lake.

The balcony which surrounds the Crannog (extra living space?). All of this structure was about 2 metres above the Loch surface.

Upright poles formed frames for the walls and support for roofing poles. The roof was made of thatch and the walls built using flexible woven branches which could bend with the round shape of the walls. I was amazed at how warm and insulated the house was (it has a thick cover of thatch on the roof, this helps I am sure!). The floor is made of lashed poles with lots of bracken leaf on top – very cosy).

The central hearth

Roof construction (4 tonnes of thatch was used to build the roof)

The dwelling is connected to the land by the aforementioned wooden bridge. The distance from the shore is thought to have provided security as well as relief from midges (they do not fly over water).

Crannogs were the homes of the affluent, and were often habited by large extended families. If you are interested in finding out more, please check out this website for excellent information on both the tourist site and Crannogs in general.

After our fascinating foray into Iron Age domestic life, we turned our attention back to the weather. Looking up the lake, we could see the rain – just about on us….

Here comes the rain! Our destination was at the far end of this Loch – we were going to get wet!

We quickly donned our wet weather gear, and started our afternoon ride into the advancing wet. We rode in steady rain for about an hour and a half. The scenery was magnificent and was made more stunning by the plentiful water which was rushing down the slopes on our left, over little waterfalls and then disappearing under the road and into the Loch.

One of many small rushing creeks and waterfalls caused by the heavy rain

We stopped quite a few times to take photos and to capture video footage of creeks and the water cascades which were quite noisy. There was almost no traffic which made the whole experience even more wonderful!

However, about 20 minutes from Killin, I had had enough of being wet! My feet had finally got thoroughly soaked, and I don’t cycle very happily with my feet going squelch squelch as I work the pedals! But at least it wasn’t cold!

We arrived at Killin and were treated to another (unexpected but no less amazing) sight. The heavy rain had swollen the River Dochart, and the view from the bridge as we crossed the river was awesome. The Falls of Dochart are in full view from the bridge and they were quite spectacular and deafening!

Falls of Dochart in full spate (Killin)

The River Dochart (Killin)

We arrived at our destination looking and feeling like drowned rats. Our host, however, did not bat an eyelid as we dripped all over the doorstep to his hotel.

While staying at Pitlochry, we had learnt a technique to dry our shoes from someone who did a lot of mountain climbing in wet areas. This skill was learnt just in time, and we expressed much appreciation to the lady in question as we stuffed each soggy shoe with dry newspaper! This technique worked beautifully, and the shoes were considerably drier and quite wearable the following morning. Luckily, we were also able to get our clothes dry as well.

A change of clothing, a relaxing beer and a hearty pub meal later, we felt human again. It had certainly been a day with a lot of challenges, but we had seen so much and learnt a lot. We had also been thorougly soaked for the first time ever, while on a cycle tour!

The next part of this tour took us back along Loch Tay and then south over the range and into the next valley.

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route).

Scottish Highlands tour (Part 1 of 4): Stone circles

The year was 2010, the month was September and we were touring selected parts of the UK by bicycle. We were planning to do a 3 day Scottish Highland ride; west from Pitlochry for a day (to get us to the far end of Loch Tay), then turning northwards to Loch Rannoch, and finally heading east, back to where we had started. This post is the first of a series of four which cover this short tour.

We had arrived in Pitlochry by train (from Edinburgh) and had spent some time enjoying the Highland shops, stocking up on groceries and generally getting ready for the next stage of our tour.

The weatherman was promising a few days of relentless rain for the days we were planning to be on the road. This wasn’t great news because one thing we knew about the Scottish Highlands was that ‘rain’ was likely to be seriously wet stuff (unlike where we live, where it usually just means ‘intermittent occasional drizzle’!). To make matters worse, we were going headlong into the weather, not moving away from it. But we had stayed at our hostel for long enough and it was time to get back on the bikes to see some more of Scotland.

There was one thing in particular that we wanted to see. While riding in France (the year before) we had searched unsuccessfully for ancient stone circles and ruins. We were not planning to go to Stonehenge as we had been told about large crowds and advised that viewing of the stones was only permitted from a distance. But, according to our map, there was a much smaller stone circle feature along our planned route (Croft Moraig) and we were keen to have a look at it.

Quiet backroads as we leave Pitlochry

We headed south first, then west to Aberfeldy and across to Loch Tay. The ride took us through beautiful landscapes and we happily cruised along, engrossed with our thoughts and soaking up the captivating scenery.

So engrossed were we, that very nearly missed what we wanted so much to see! The only indicator was a sign with the name of the farm on it, but this was facing away from us as we rode along. We actually went past the entrance, then spotted the stones and then had to backtrack to the farm entrance.

The stone circles from a distance

The stones were in long grass in the field next to the road. There were no indicator signs and to our amazement, no other vehicles or people – just the farmhouse and a few disinterested cows!

The Anthem parked against the only sign which indicated we had found what we were looking for!

We propped the bikes against the farm sign and walked through a convenient gate to get to the site. We were delighted to have the place to ourselves and spent a good half hour wandering around in the wet grass trying to imagine what had gone on at this site so long ago.  We eventually did find a sign which described the stones and gave a few extra details about the site. However, very little is actually known about the age, function or purpose of these stone features.

Diagram at Croft Moraig telling what is known about the site

Some of the stones were surprisingly large

Before we left Croft Moraig, I just had to get some photos of the most beautiful stone wall I have ever seen. It went for a number of kilometres along the road opposite where we found the stone circles. Someone had spent a lot of time and care making such a beautiful wall, and judging by the moss and lichen, it was also very old.

A very old, beautiful stone wall

The weather was still holding, which was good, we had to get as far as the other end of Loch Tay (to Killin) and we optimistically hoped we would make it before the heavens opened. But the second part of this day had a surprise in store for us and  forms the next in series of 4 posts on this ride.

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route).