Well, I’m back, after 100 odd miles, five ferries, three trains, one coach (do not speak to me of rail replacement services) and a fun four days exploring the delights of cycle touring in Scotland. As I’m sure you don’t want a blow by blow account of our adventures (you can get a feel for them on Twitter if you really do), here’s a few random thoughts instead, starting with the good …
Arran and Bute are lovely and you should totally go.
I have to confess I still have a very vague idea about the differences between all the many Scottish islands and tend to default towards imagining them as being bleak and windswept but the inner islands are much prettier than you might expect, with wooded coves and cottages with roses round the doors, as well as the usual quota of hills and cliffs and castles and moorland roads. Arran, of course, (she says, quoting from a tourist leaflet she found in a B and B) is known as Scotland in miniature, with a little bit of everything while Bute struck me as a bit like a bijoux Isle of Wight, complete with a somewhat faded Victorian seaside resort, secluded coves and sandy beaches, and rolling rural roads away from the main (only) town of Rothesay.
The ferries are completely bike friendly.
Having experienced the joys of taking bikes on trains during our last tour, I can’t say I was looking forward to the ferry part of this experience, despite that being the whole point. But bikes and ferries proved a much happier combination with no sense that we might ever have risked not getting our bikes on (we arrived in Arran on the morning of some big bike event and apparently they had transported over 200 bikes the day before). In some ferries racks were provided for bikes, in others they were just leant up against a bulkhead but in all cases, we were treated like customers who had a precious thing they wanted transported safely, and not like potential terrorists who were bringing at best a nuisance and a trip hazard on board…
The weather can’t (quite) spoil a good cycle tour.
After miraculous weather in France, and 3 out of 4 gloriously fine days this weekend, we did get absolutely drenched on the Sunday. We were lucky it was only one day, and we’d booked accommodation that night with plentiful radiators for draping wet kit on (ah the smell of wet merino in the morning) but it turns out that no item of clothing, however expensive, is waterproof in Scotland when Scotland puts its mind to it (Ortlieb panniers are another matter). I think if we’d had more wet days it would have put a dampener on things, but it wasn’t too cold or windy, we were in good company, and in the end it was fine.
But blue signs do not a cycle route make.
I’m sorry to bang on about cycling infrastructure all the time, but there was one massive omission on the five ferries route which stood out all the more after our French experience (and indeed our ride from Paisley to the coast on NCN7 which was mostly really excellent). Even though much of what we were doing was nominally part of the National Cycle Network, this effectively amounted to a few directional signs. While some rural roads don’t need separate cycle tracks, as traffic and speeds are low, this was not the case for quite a few stretches on our route. The A83 to Tarbert, on the Mull of Kintyre was a particularly bad example. It was a wide, fairly busy A road, with not even a strip of white paint to indicate any space for cycling. It was doable – we’re all grown ups and experienced cyclists – but it was not by any stretch of the imagination fun. Compared with the Velodyssee route, when we barely had to tangle with traffic at all, it’s a bit of an embarrassment.
The islands were better, if only because there were just fewer cars, but there were still far too many roads where we had to ride in single file, pulling in to allow impatient drivers to pass, or taking the lane around blind bends to prevent a close squeeze. At no time did we feel actually frightened on our bikes, but ‘you probably won’t die’ is hardly a recommendation for what is supposed to be a holiday.
The result, sadly, is that routes like the five ferries will continue to be a challenge – one for the hardcore cyclist to take on, rather than something a family could enjoy. And that means that – like so many beautiful places in Scotland – Bute and Arran will continue to be dominated by car-borne tourism, something that will end up eroding the very thing people come to enjoy. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Just imagine if somewhere like Bute seized the opportunity to build cycle tourism and put in the infrastructure it needs: not just bike friendly ferries and the odd piece of cycle parking, but proper space for cycling all round the island, and marketed itself as a cycling island, the way similar-sized places in France do. Even if they never outnumber those who come by car, people on bikes are after all, kind of bonus tourists: easier to fit onto ferries, needing less space to park, not wearing out the roads – and always ready to stop and eat their body weight in cake should the opportunity arise.
I don’t want to end on a negative note because we genuinely did enjoy the trip, even the hills (and maybe even the rain). But it could have been so much better – and Scotland would benefit if it was.