Paths and Passing Places: A Tale of Three Islands

August 31, 2021
Bow of ferry with the saltire flying

It struck me, as I followed a knight in shining armour (well, he was in fact in lycra, but on a quite shiny road bike) through Irvine late on Saturday afternoon, that this was quite the contrast from the way my day had started. I had risen before dawn to pedal 10 miles down a single-track road on Islay to catch the first of three ferries that would take me home from our island trip and now I was pulling into the right hand lane of a multi-lane junction, dodging buses, lorries and cars, in a last-ditch attempt to catch my train. Having missed a crucial sign on the NCN 73, which allows you to avoid all the multi-lane junction nonsense, but at a cost of extra miles, I had used up all my contingency time trying to find my way back to the path and was beginning to despair when a passing cyclist came to my rescue and led me expertly through some scary roads to deliver me back on the path past all the wiggles and a straight run to the station in Kilmarnock.

Narrow road on Islay

For all the contrast in our surroundings this act of kindness from a stranger seemed a fitting end to a few days on Islay, where the drivers are famously courteous – and, indeed, they need to be. There are many narrow single track roads on Islay, and (at least when we were there, just to the end of the high tourist season) just slightly too many vehicles on them for real comfort. The roads tend to be long and straight, and give you plenty of time to overthink your passing-place strategy as you contemplate yet another approaching vehicle (fore or aft), meaning either periods of interval training as you race to the next passing place to allow everyone to keep moving, or time spent cooling your heels as you wait for a truck, and its attendant procession of following cars, to pass you. On the two-lane roads almost all the passes by drivers were pretty impeccable – fully changing lanes, and waiting for a clear view and a gap in the traffic, but that did mean the occasional build up of queues of vehicles or us needing to pull in occasionally at a field gate or similar if we were conscious of a lorry grinding its gears patiently behind us.

Lorry on narrow road

There’s a persistent undercurrent of opinion among some cycle campaigners that if only drivers would learn to behave around cyclists, then all would be well and everyone could cycle in perfect harmony and we wouldn’t really need any of those pesky cycle paths that are such hard work to campaign for and are never going to go everywhere anyway. From my (admittedly limited) experience, Islay already is that mythical land and … it’s not enough. Cycling felt largely safe and I’m not going to diss the idea of people being polite to each other, because it’s so much better than the alternative, but these are not the conditions to tempt most people out of their cars.

Cyclists on three distilleries path

It’s telling that we saw more bikes on cars on Islay than we saw bums on bikes, except at Port Ellen where the Three Distilleries path starts, and that was also the only place where we saw what I would call ‘civillian’ cyclists, in normal clothes and on ordinary bikes who looked like they were heading for the shops rather than the Tour de France. The Three Distilleries path was also the reason why I’d suggested visiting Islay, because it seems like a model for rural cycle tourism: a no-compromises path set aside from what would otherwise be a very scary coastal road, joining up a local town with three fine opportunities to part tourists from their money in the form of three famous distilleries (in contrast, you can ride 18 miles along the NCN 73 from Kilmarnock to Ardrossan before you come across a single opportunity to spend any of your cash on anything, which is no good for either the local economy or the hungry cyclist).

Ardbeg Distillery

They’d even cut through rocks, incredibly, to make the path work, rather than just dumping the cyclists out onto the road and suggesting they get on with it, or wiggling so much under and over and round that a moderately stressed cyclist with a train to catch can easily lose her way (looking at you again, NCN 73).

Port Charlotte path bollards (with one removed)

This seems to have been so successful that they’ve just built another one, from Port Charlotte to Bruichladdich distillery, which was similarly wide and direct (although with some signs that, brand new as it was, there had already been some adjustment of the bollards to ensure accessibility). With enough distilleries, and enough time (and fortunately the distilleries are fairly evenly scattered across the island) Islay may soon end up with a cycling network, and all those bikes can be taken off the tops of all the cars and ridden around instead, which they’d much prefer.

cyclists leaving path waiting for a car with bikes on the top

Interestingly, the other two islands we visited on our trip had many more cyclists, but very little infrastructure. On Jura, there’s just the one road , and effectively only as much traffic as one busy little ferry can deliver across the strait from Port Askaig, which was not enough to be properly annoying. On the other hand, that road does go up and down and up and down, which has the benefit of delivering any cyclists to Craighouse, where all the money spending opportunities are, properly hungry.

In the few hours that we spent in the village I’m not ashamed to say that we went to the cafe twice and the pub once and even then we needed to stop at another pub after we’d got off the ferry back in Islay for a restorative cup of tea before tackling the climb out of Port Askaig. Seriously, if you want high spending visitors to keep your cafes, shops and pubs open, welcome in the cyclists.

Sitting at a pub beer garden table

Arran was another kettle of fish altogether. Objectively, it’s the least pleasant of the islands to cycle on, with no infrastructure, massive hills, plenty of traffic, and the sort of narrow two-lane roads that I go out of my way to avoid on the bike normally. It is also absolutely hoaching with cyclists, especially on a sunny Saturday in August (apparently there had been around 100 come in on a single ferry that morning). These were almost all, to a man (and they were about 90 percent male), whippet-like creatures in lycra on equally whippet-like bikes – I had time to observe them as they passed me one by one on the climb out of Lochranza, usually with an encouraging word to me as they zipped by. They too are undoubtedly keeping the local cake-based economy topped up nicely, and must be pure jam to the ferry company (or at least its catering division from the way they made a beeline for the cafe as soon as they got on board).

Arran road

I joke, but it was just such a whippety cyclist who rescued me in Irvine, for which I will be eternally grateful. His kindness meant I got home in good time so I could be up early for yet another bike ride – this time helping to lead a mass ride organised by a local community trust who can not only organise a day of celebration but have also done 80% of the fund raising they need to build a cycle path joining two villages, having decided this would be easier than prodding the coonsil into action to do it for them. In the last couple of years there have been moves locally to promote our own area as a driving destination, hoping to replicate the success of the North Coast 500 (and by ‘success’ they apparently mean ‘having visitors pooing in their laybys‘). How much more amazing would it be to replicate some of those Islay paths along our own twisty and, sadly, lethal coastal roads? We may not have sufficient whisky distilleries to make the basis of a full rural tourism network, but we do have communities who understand that they would benefit from becoming part of the cake-powered economy … it’s just a question of making it happen.

sheep bollard

Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?

Could it Be that the Best Laid Plans of Town Mice and Men …

August 23, 2021

….Might actually sometimes NOT go agley?

It’s hard to believe it because the last 18 months have been nothing but cancellations and disappointments, but a plan first mooted in March 2020, that we actually dared to start organising in June this year, looks as if it might come off . I’ve put off posting about this for fear of jinxing my first Actual Holiday for almost two years (and more importantly a chance to spend time in person with some good pals) but – last minute ferry cancellations and ill-timed pings permitting – it looks as if tomorrow will see me setting off for a few days cycling and ferry-going as the ‘five go mad’ team take our hashtag to explore the delights (and very patchy cycling infrastructure) of Islay (via Ardrossan, Arran and Kennacraig because apparently it’s too much to ask that the last train from Oban might not leave three minutes before the only ferry from Islay so we have to do some serious cycling and ferry hopping just to get there without using a car).

Ordnance Survey maps of Islay and Ayr

There are cough serious reasons for choosing this particular destination to do with the promotion of sustainable rural tourism and yadda yadda yadda. But mainly it’s just a chance to take a break somewhere that isn’t our respective homes, sample some of the whiskies, and pump some serious money into the local economy as we eat our way around the island.

If you’re of the tweeting persuasion you can follow us via #5GoMadOnWhisky* Otherwise, watch this space for a full debrief on my return.

* Yes, we’re aware there are only four of us, please don’t write in. We also, as one of us has pointed out, don’t go particularly mad. And one of us doesn’t even like whisky.

By Air, Land and Sea

August 20, 2021

It’s a sad side effect of being heavily involved in various cycle campaigns, that I have to spend more time than is healthy on social media, and particularly Facebook.*

This does at least keep me tuned into the local zeitgeist which is probably helpful in keeping me real and breaking my cycling-green-generally wishy washy liberal bubble. In particular it has alerted me to the fact that Bigtown is under siege by a force more deadly than any mere pandemic:


It seems that nobody can so much as eat a chip in the town centre without being swooped on and the food snatched out of their mouths (really?). Children scream and flee in terror, people are trapped in their houses, and the gulls have now actually taken control of the town centre, without a shot fired by the fleeing forces of the cowardly Coonsil (well, what are you going to do without any air power?)

I read this with particular interest having sat in the town centre for two hours last Saturday, contentedly eating my lunch and watching the gulls as they mostly politely waited for people to feed them, which they quite frequently did. Clearly the terrorised populace have been reduced to paying tribute to our squawking overlords. So cowed are they, that they even do it with a smile. A proud populace, brought to heel.

Fortunately the fightback has begun: Someone’s started a petition.

Meanwhile, during the same two hours, about a dozen cars and vans drove onto the pedestrianised High Street which has become an unofficial short cut and short stay car park – even when there was a market festival filling most of the street.

Call me daft, but I don’t think it’s the gulls that are the real menace here.

Local news post with amended headline - The Gulls are actually controlling the town centre' (with gulls crossed out and cars written in)

* Special love here to all my fellow campaigners who loftily eschew the site, which is great for them but given (at least as far as Bigtown is concerned) Facebook IS the internet, simply means that others have to sully their hands with it…

When the Going Gets Tough … the Tough

August 18, 2021

Go cycling?

cyclist riding under a bridge

I’m still processing the publication of the IPCC report on climate change which was very bad news indeed for those who quite like the planet the way it is (or perhaps the way it was a few decades ago before all the bits of it that weren’t on fire were flooding). None of this would have been any surprise to anyone who has been paying attention (although as the news has got worse in recent months, I’ve not been so much reading the latest climate science reports as peeking at them through my fingers from behind the sofa) but it is depressing to see it there in black and white.

I try and keep things light on here but the truth is, I feel a real grief about the state of the planet right now, and the brink of despair about our chances as a species of grasping at the absolute last straw this report offers. When I consider what needs to be done (everything, now, or as soon as humanly possible) and compare it to the timid steps (and backtracking even on those) of not just the Westminster government but even the supposedly more sensible Scottish one (let alone any of the individual local authorities), the resulting mental whiplash is dizzying.

As long term readers will know, my response to this is to throw myself into cycle campaigning – not necessarily because I think it is the answer (certainly not on its own), but because action feels like the best antidote to despair. In the longer term, this means blowing the starting whistle on our plans to Pedal on COP in November, as part of a wider mobilisation effort to encourage the world’s policy makers to make some actual policies.

And in the short term it means an evening ride out with a pal to recce a route in support of a local group who got sick of waiting for policy makers, in particular the coonsil, and have got a short cycle route joining two communities nearly off the ground by their own efforts.

Evening light catching a field of grass

There are worse ways to manage your climate angst. Although I could have done without the slow puncture that has heralded the start of the Puncture Season now that hedgecutting has resumed.

Coming up next: knitting your way out of a climate catastrophe.

knitting in progress

We Interrupt this Everyday Tale of Rural Folk…

August 12, 2021

… to announce that I got something very exciting in the post today

Cover of Hare House, by me

This is not the final finished product yet; the book comes out officially in hardback on January 6, 2022. But it is still exciting nonetheless (and I may be biased, but I think it’s a gorgeous cover design).

Back cover and blurb

Mark your calendars …

And now, back to cycling, gardening, and existential climate angst.

There and Back Again

August 8, 2021

It seems to be an ironclad law* that the one thing you worry about most, is the thing that doesn’t happen, while you’re then blindsided by the thing (or things) you never even thought about. So when I set off yesterday on my epic(ish) journey south, my main concern, apart from actually catching Covid, was the fear of other people’s behaviour – as if the last 18 months had somehow managed to turn the UK into a live version of Twitter where people would feel the need to harangue other people in public about their life choices, instead of simply pretending they weren’t there or – in extremis – perhaps tutting, even possibly audibly.

If you weren’t following along on Twitter at the time, here’s the blow-by-blow version, or at least the edited highlights.

Or if Twitter’s not your thing, suffice it to say, that the least of my worries was being accosted by strangers in any way, even on the evening train heading to Blackpool North. Instead what happened was I got completely drenched on the bike ride down to the station and spent the rest of the day squelching round in wet socks, and I ended up booked onto a train that didn’t exist, that would anyway have connected to a cancelled train and hence very nearly ended up spending the night on a bench in Preston. Fortunately, I was rescued from this fate by the man in the ticket office who managed to find me a route that got me on the very last train home, and very grateful I am too.

It’s clear that over the last 18 months, I’ve completely lost my train travelling skills, because despite facing a complicated 3-train journey home, with very little wiggle room, I never even thought to check on line that the trains I was booked onto were running, or whether there was an alternative route should things go wrong. After 18 months of barely having to cycle anywhere except at a time of my choosing (not to mention three weeks of unprecedented sunshine) I would have said that I’ve lost my ability to deal with the Scottish weather but the truth is, I never did master the ability to cycle in the rain and not arrive at the other end looking like a drowned rat, however much wet-weather gear I accumulate. And nor do I ever manage to spend the few dry days of summer resourcefully re-proofing the kit I have.

As to my Covid fears, I can report that, once over the border into England, the number of people wearing any form of face covering was pretty low – about 30% at best, despite many signs and announcements encouraging people to do so (in Scotland it was more like 70%). I even overheard a mother telling her kids ‘you can take your mask off now, we’re in England’ as I boarded the train in Carlisle (although I was slightly cheered to note that at least two of the children in question were still wearing them as they got off the train a few stops later). I suppose I could have guessed that leaving things up to people’s common sense was never going to work in a country where a goodly proportion of the population pick up their dogs’ poo and then leave it dangling in a plastic bag from the nearest tree. Hopefully, I won’t have caught anything but having taken all manner of risks in one day that I’ve been avoiding for the last year and a half, my plan is to limit my interactions with other people as much as possible for the next few days (and take a couple of lateral flow tests just in case).

On the positive side, yesterday’s adventure has jolted me out of my cosy little retreat, and that’s probably a good thing. If I’d stayed home much longer, there’s a risk I’d never leave southern Scotland again. As it is, after my seven trains epic, not to mention my brush with trench foot, my next couple of outings should be a complete doddle.

I’m a great believer in diving into something scary headfirst to get it over with. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out that the pool had been drained…

* At least I hope so, because in that way I’ll manage to solve global warming through the power of fretting alone.

If Not Now, When?

August 4, 2021

I do love a train journey, and I haven’t been on one for almost 18 months so this ought to be exciting …

Train tickets

… but if I’m honest, I’m finding the prospect rather daunting. Saturday will see me on not just one train, but seven, as I make my first proper trip out of Southern Scotland since this pandemic began (walking over the Chain Bridge briefly into England doesn’t really count). I wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t something I felt I had to do – a memorial bash in celebration of a man who was one of those people who tirelessly worked away in the background turning someone’s vision into reality, and who was still working away even into the last weeks of his life. Lockdown robbed his family and friends of a chance to say goodbye, and I couldn’t let my own misgivings prevent me from joining them now that they can gather again to do it properly.

Even so, and even though I tell myself that I’m double jabbed and that cases are (at least for now) declining, I can’t help feeling The Fear at the prospect. Partly I’m worried about COVID itself, having got this far without catching it, and partly about people taking it upon themselves to object to my wearing a face covering on the trains, even though I’ve no idea whether they will or not. I think I’ve spent too long seeing the world filtered through social media to know what actually happens out there beyond my quiet little rural corner of Scotland. While it’s possible that every train will be crowded with coughing strangers who want to explain to me at close quarters why Coronavirus is a hoax and they’ve not had Bill Gates’s jab, it is surely much more likely that everyone will be carefully spacing themselves out to the maximum extent possible and avoiding all eye contact like normal British people, because that’s what we do best, after queueing.

Either way, it’s time for me to put on my Big Girl Pants (and my Big Girl Triple-Layer Mask, let’s not go mad here) and get out there and find out for myself. And once I’ve braved that, I have other more purely pleasurable trips in the offing to look forward to.

If, as Huttonian used to say, I am spared.