The island of Great Cumbrae is as easy to reach as it is to cycle around.
Having in the past cycled around the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland riding Great Cumbrae was always going to be a breeze. “Scotland’s most accessible island” proclaimed the leaflet I picked up before boarding the ferry from Largs. Indeed. After just an hour’s drive from Glasgow and the 10-minute crossing we were on the island. For me Great Cumbrae was almost not remote enough – although it was perfect for my nine-year-old son, Bertie, with whom I hoped this was the first Scottish island adventure of many. No point in hitting him with the hard stuff quite yet …
We began our circuit in the merry, little Victorian town of Millport, the only settlement on the island, strung out around a large bay in the south. In keeping with the pint-size of Cumbrae the town contains the Cathedral of the Isles, the smallest in Europe, and what is “recorded as” the narrowest house in Britain called The Wedge which squeezes into a two-yard gap next to a bistro on the seafront.
You can’t really go wrong with the route as it follows the B-road that tightly hugs the coast throughout and there is only one junction which you barely register. A map is superfluous unless you add on the inner circuit more of which later. We set off in an anti-clockwise direction by cycling around the back of the island’s best and biggest beach, Kames Bay. We rounded the bulky south-eastern headland and then headed north past Lion Rock. (Couldn’t spot the likeness ourselves). Just across the sea to the south we could see Portencross Castle and Goldenberry Hill and, next to them, Clydeport freight terminal and the Hunterston marine construction yard and power station, further reminders that Cumbrae is anything but a far, flung Scottish island.
There are lots of natural things hereabouts too – including shag, cormorant, eider duck and grey seals. The Clyde sea area, swilling around on a shallow plateau of glacial debris is one of Britain’s classic marine heritage regions as we found out at a small museum and aquarium at the University Marine Biological Station. It’s origins date back to 1884 when the station was a floating laboratory on a boat called The Ark.
To all intents and purposes the coast road is a cycle track and, in parts, as rough as one (not that it matters) with the exception of the stretch between Millport and the ferry slip which is plied by the connecting bus service. Cyclists whizzed around the island like charabancs in the olden days and motorcyclists on the Isle of Man TT but at a somewhat more modest speed. Bicycles – and all sorts of man-powered vehicles – far outnumbered motor vehicles. We passed a large group of roller skaters, a four-some on a covered quadricycle and, most extraordinarily, a team of seven on what’s called a conference bike! You can also hire a Raleigh Chopper to really cut a retro dash.
The route was always going to be busy given that it was a sunny Saturday in August and only a fortnight after the end of the Olympics. Inspire a generation? Several generations, more like – from young children in trailers, to young families on tag-alongs and tandems, right through to retired folk and a middle-aged man bulging in Team GB Lycra. Every hundred yards or so we spotted bikes laid down on the verge and then, just over top, families playing on one of the several, small, shingly beaches. The greatest concentration of cyclists was, inevitably, at the Fintry Bay tearooms. They are very modern now but this was once the site of a lemonade factory where drinks for sale included his very own ginger ale and Cumbrae Grog, the name of which encapsulates the ‘Five go mad’ feel of the island.
A new addition to the circuit is a poignant war memorial a little further around the coast which is dedicated to “the men and women of the British and allied forces who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and have no grave.” Cut-outs of figures representing the army, Royal Navy, RAF and merchant navy direct your gaze to the sea and sky.
Before we knew it we were back on the outskirts of Millport. A row of imposing Victorian villas formed a guard of honour as we rounded the final south-eastern corner. Each has a large front garden and shares a wood to the rear and, on the other side of the road, a large green leading to the sea, a combination that must get local estate agents purring.
We ended the coastal circuit wanting more exercise, a little altitude and fewer cyclists. At least, I did – so we set off on a supplementary circuit of the Cumbrae’s inner loop. We’d been around the walls and it was time to get up on the roof. A cyclist helped us with some directions. He was a lithe chap his twenties, bathed in sweat and riding an expensive-looking bike. Suddenly, this felt like a different sort of ride and gave Bertie a frisson of outer Scottish isles. The road took us up the short, steep Barbary Hill, a mere midget with a summit of just 127 metres, but which provides a panorama and the peacefulness that was well worth the effort. The dramatic, serrated silhouette of Arran beckoned. Bute and Wee Cumbrae are also close by and, on such a clear day, we could also see as far north as Ben Lomond in the Trossachs and south as the distinctive muffin shape of Ailsa Craig, nine miles off the coast of south Ayrshire.
With that we completed a speedy descent into Millport to reward ourselves with a game of crazy golf and ice creams at the Ritz Café. This eaterie is so authentically sixties – complete with booths of red bank seating and menu displayed in letters stuck to a white board – it could be a museum piece. Mods, due in town for a scooter rally the following weekend, must love it here. For some time travel, a quick spin and an enjoyable day out Cumbrae is unbeatable especially for those with young families. After Scotland’s Isle of Wight, next time for us it’s Arran.
Distance: 14 miles.
Time: 2 hours.
Directions: Very simple. Start at Kames Bay just to the east of Millport centre and proceed anti-clockwise all the way around the coast road (B896). For the inner loop, when back in Millport continue past the harbour and Garrison House then turn left signed to the cathedral. Once in open country follow the sign to the left indicating a parking spot and viewpoint a mile away. After the viewpoint follow the road as it bears right at the top of the loop and then back to Kames Bay.
Shop at National Centre for watersports near the slipway. Open Mon-Sat from 12.30-5pm and on Sun from 11.30am to 4pm. 01475 530757.
Fintry Bay tearooms in the middle of the west coast of the island. Open daily from 10am-5pm from April-Oct. 01475 530246.
The Ritz Café near the harbour in Millport. See above. 01475 530459.
The Harbour bistro also near the harbour in Millport. Highly recommended. 01475 531200.
Other options include a hotel (The Royal George), fish and chips, Chinese and Indian takeaways and several low-budget restaurants in Millport.
On your Bike, Stuart St, Millport. 01475 530300. Onyourbikemillport.com. Full day’s hire £5.40. Very helpful.
Bremner’s Stores, Cardiff St, Millport. 01475 530707.
Mapes, Guildford St, Millport. 01475 530444. Mapesmillport.co.uk.