Hunting grounds

Arbroath and Montrose. I must have heard the names hundreds of times in that Saturday tea-time litany of the football results. But what are these towns like? When I spotted that they were linked by the National Cycle Network I had the perfect means of finding out.

Lunan Bay

Lunan Bay

I began – where else? – but at Gayfield, home of Arbroath FC. There is no football ground in the UK that’s closer to the sea and it bracingly set the scene for my ride north up the coast of Angus. Just round the corner I came across a museum in the old signal tower. It includes a reconstruction of old school classroom and tells the remarkable story of the construction of the Bell Rock lighthouse on a sandstone reef 11 miles out to sea nearly 200 years ago.

Red Castle, Lunan Bay

Red Castle, Lunan Bay

Eager to make progress I resisted the temptation of an Arbroath smokie and set off for Auchmithie, the village that – I found out in the museum – is the real home of the Scotland’s famous smoked haddock. In the early 18th century Auchmithie fishermen that created the smokie were attracted to Arbroath as it had a reasonably good harbour. They transferred – but only after repeal of an act instigated by the Earl of North Esk which forbade ‘his’ fishermen from leaving. Seagulls now stand sentry on the remains of the quay. The beach also has a large stack and natural arch.
Once or twice on my way north I was engulfed in sea fret and this, combined with waves I could hear but not see, made from a suitably spooky approach to the ruins of the 12th century Red Castle at Lunan Bay. I first saw it at the end of the road, seemingly two-dimensional and looking like a piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle stuck upright into the ground. No-one else was around when I arrived; I was the king of the castle – at least for as long as it took me to eat my sandwiches. Way down below a horse picked its way carefully through the marum grass to the grand sweep of sand and then, with a splash and a gallop it was gone.

Arbroath

Arbroath

In Lunan village a suburban-style close rather incongruously surrounds an obelisk in commemoration of a Lt Col James Blair of the Bengal Army who died at sea in 1847. A far less conspicuous but equally intriguing memorial lies within a little cemetery in a dramatic and lonely setting right on the cliffs overlooking a stack and churning sea. A gravestone records that a George James Ramsay was born in 1859 and died … in 1840. Well, he certainly died before he got old.

A second minor diversion from the cycle route to Mains of Usan provided a tableau of cattle, waves and ruins and therein clues to the regions past. Ruins include a vaulted ice house which was filled with ice from a pond you pass on the way to the shore. Built in the 1770s, Usan and other salmon netting stations in the area opened up a new market from salmon enabling fish to be sent fresh, packed in ice, by fast sailing packets to Billingsgate in London. (‘Mains’, by the way, is Scottish for farmstead. You will pass several).

The spire of Montrose Old Church came into view heralding journey’s end. First, though, I nipped out to Scurdie Ness lighthouse having seen it but not been able to access it earlier from Usan. On the way I passed two disused lighthouses, one a tapered pillar that looked like something from a Greek temple.

Montrose links

Montrose links

Surrounded by water on three sides, Montrose was once the winter resort for the rural aristocracy of Angus. Here the local lairds had the townhouses where they organised a social round to pass away the winter months. What a life. Today the crenellated house of the Earls of Montrose is the Job Centre. Another point of architectural note is that the gable end of many houses faces the High Street giving residents the nickname of The Gable Endies.

My ride ended on the dune-backed links north of the town – and within floodlight-sighting distance of Links Park, home of the town’s football club. As I looked across the waves to the lighthouse a pair of oystercatchers paddled in front of me. The following morning I found out more about them and other local birdlife at the Montrose Basin Wildlife Centre. Lovingly managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Centre interprets wildlife in the 750-hectare Basin which alternates between lagoon and mudflats depending on tides. Through a host of high-powered telescopes in the Centre and three hides elsewhere you can search for herons, pink-footed geese, redshanks and otters among other species. “I can see a seal!” called out a boy next to me with the excitement of a big-game hunter spotting a tiger. Montrose had provided a good away result for both of us.

Montrose

Montrose

Fact file

Distance:16 miles plus 7 miles total for diversions.

Time: Allow all day.

Directions:

Right out of Arbroath station and left down Cowan St which leads into Queen St and Victoria St. Right at a t-junction down Alexandra Place then left down Rosemount Rd. Right at mini-roundabout to join the A92. After 200m left and under the railway below ‘Amusements’ sign. Forward then left between pillars and up path onto cycle route on seafront. Just after Signal Tower look out for first sign for Route 1 of the National Cycle Network. The route is signed at every junction from here. You only need stray from it for the diversions:

For Auchmithie: Signed from cycle route.
For Red Castle: Just south of Lunan and after sign for parking and the beach walk up a short footpath on the right.
For the cemetery: After Dunninald Castle turn right through white metal gate and pass under the railway.
For Usan: Signed from cycle route.
For lighthouse: At t-junction in Ferryden turn right away from Montrose. At Ferryden Stores fork right along Rossie Square and keep going.
For Montrose Basin Visitor Centre: The Centre is just south-west of Montrose on the A92 to Arbroath.

Map: Available from http://www.sustrans.org.uk. Look for Route 1.

Conditions: Flat, on-road and well signposted.

Visitor information: Arbroath Tourist Information Centre, Market Place (tel 01241 872609). Signal Tower Museum (tel 01241 875598) open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Montrose Tourist Information Centre, Bridge St. (tel 01674 672000). Montrose Basin Visitor Centre (01674 676336) open daily 10.30am-5pm.

Montrose basin

Montrose basin

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Station to station

Here’s the concluding part of a two-day bike ride around Perthshire from the wilds of Rannoch Moor all the way back to Pitlochry.

Rannoch station

Rannoch station

It was nine o’clock on a Sunday night and I couldn’t work out why my fellow guests were checking out of our remote hotel. Like them, I’d just had dinner and my thoughts were turning to bed. That, as it happens, was where they were bound too – on the sleeper train that remarkably connects Rannoch Station – a hamlet of just the hotel and a cottage – with London.

I watched the group cross the footbridge to the platform through the windows of a raindrop flecked telephone box while I phoned home. The train in the station was like a dragon in its lair, burring in the gloom. A party of Dutch motorcyclists who had also been dining in the hotel roared away into the night leaving me suddenly alone. By the time I was eating breakfast the following morning, contemplating my bike ride back to Pitlochry, the sleeper passengers were arriving at Euston, ready for a day’s work.

Loch Ossian

Loch Ossian

The previous day I had also used the railway line – to hop just one stop north and alight at Corrour, one of the most isolated stations in Britain. Literally all that’s there amidst the moors is the old station master’s house, a turbine and two platforms. The novelty of the halt, a walk around Loch Ossian and a scenic trip further north by rail to Fort William had made for an enjoyable day out.

Even if you’re not intending to travel, Rannoch Station is well worth a visit. According to one story the West Highland line was instigated by a wealthy laird further north who wanted to get his post and papers earlier. Although much was made of benefits the line would bring to rural communities, the majority of early traffic after the line opened in 1894 was made up of general freight (especially that linked to the distillery businesses), sightseers and people involved in the sporting shoots on the region’s great sporting estates. Given the railway’s insubstantial purpose and the inhospitable environment, it still seems incredible that it was built at all and heartening that it survives to this day.

Frog rock (near Loch Eigheach)

Frog rock (near Loch Eigheach)

Trains are far from regular, though. If you miss the 1105 to Corrour you have to wait four hours for the next service and, coming back, if you miss the 1828 then you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere for the night. When I visited neither of the station’s clocks were working either!

The first five miles of my pedal-powered journey back across Rannoch Moor made me realise why I’d so struggled on the same road on the outward journey. What had been a bit of a slog was now a glorious, undulating freewheel. The miles melted away and the whistling of the wind that had buffeted me on the outward journey had been replaced by birdsong and the whir of tyres on rubber. Cycling in the Highlands doesn’t come gentler that this.

Loch Rannoch beach

Loch Rannoch beach

I soon began following the northern shores of Lochs Rannoch and Tummel having previously travelled along their southern edges. The shore of Rannoch is scalloped by miniature sandy beaches with a backdrop of silver birch trees. From them you can see a little folly tower in the middle of the loch. It was built by a local baron simply to enhance the view. There are legends of prisoners being held on the island but since the loch is so shallow there any enterprising captive could surely escape. The island is more accurately what Scots call a “crannog”, an artificially built up land mass created for defensive purposes in prehistoric days. The map names it as Eilean nan Faoileag which, appropriately enough is Gaelic for ‘the island of seagulls’.

Kinloch Rannoch, the name of the first village on the trail, means “head of the loch” but, curiously, it is situated at the start of Loch Rannoch. Two great Scottish leaders, William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace and Robert the Bruce both spent time here recruiting clansmen for battle. Just outside the village I’d come across the Gibbet Tree which forms part of The Clan Trail telling the stories of the various clans that lived around the loch. The last man to be hanged on the oak tree was one Donald Ban in 1754. Government troops were punishing him for cattle thieving as part of a drive to finally quell the lawless clans.

I had soon swapped Loch Rannoch for Loch Tummel and begun a slight ascent. Flatness is, of course, a welcome feature of a bike ride but it made for a nice change to get up high and look down through the pines rather than forever across the water.

Queens View near Pitlochry

Queens View, nr Pitlochry

The climb ends at Queens View, one of the most photographed beauty spots in Scotland. Extending the length of Tummel, the View is associated with Queen Victoria who visited here in 1866 but it’s thought that it was actually named after either Queen Isabella, wife of Robert the Bruce, or possibly Mary Queen of Scots. The vista would’ve looked somewhat different in her time. In 1951 Loch Tummel was controversially dammed as part of the region’s hydro-electric power developments which resulted in water levels rising five metres and flooding of large areas.

Victoria’s diary records her discontent at John Brown, her aide on Scottish travels, being unable to boil a kettle for tea when she visited. There’s no such problem these days as the View comes complete with a visitors centre and café. As I had a look around, the stirring air Highland Cathedral played on the shop’s CD player just as it had done in the tourist information centre at Pitlochry at the start of my trip. I wasn’t quite being piped home – but the tune stuck in my head and heightened my sense of achievement as I polished off the final few miles back to the town’s station.

The gibbet tree, Loch Rannoch

The gibbet tree, Loch Rannoch

Fact file

Distance: 38 miles.

Time: 3½ hours excluding stops.

Rannoch station

Rannoch station

Directions: Very simple. From Rannoch Station cycle along the only road (B846) to Kinloch Rannoch and then Tummel Bridge. Continue in same direction on B8019 and after 10 miles turn right onto B8079, all the way signed to Pitlochry.

Eating: Until Pitlochry there is only one village with any services, Kinloch Rannoch. Highly recommended is the Poste Haste café (next to the post office) and there is also a supermarket and hotels. Teas and lunches are available at Talladh-a-Bheith Lodge Country Guest House at Killichonan towards the western end of Loch Rannoch.
Sleeping: Moor of Rannoch Hotel (www.moorofrannoch.co.uk).

Bike hire: Available in Pitlochry. See http://www.escape-route.biz.

Tummel Bridge

Tummel Bridge

Take the low road

If you fancy a first Scottish cycle tour you can’t do much better than this two-part, two-day lochside ride in Perthshire. The first part takes you from Pitlochry to Rannoch Moor and the second part (which follows this post) brings you home.

Loch Rannoch beach (near Kinloch Rannoch)

Loch Rannoch beach (near Kinloch Rannoch)

As Kathmandu is to Nepal so Pitlochry is to Perthshire. For yak hair read tweed. Both towns are multi-national base camps for expeditions and mine was to take me 40 miles due west by bike to the fringe of Rannoch Moor, one of Britain’s last great wildernesses.

The route followed the southern shores of Lochs Faskally, Tummel and Rannoch on the outward leg and the northern shores on the return. Being largely loch-side there are only a few hills – a rarity in Scotland – and, with essentially just one road out and one back, navigation isn’t an issue either. Getting to the start point, Pitlochry, is also easy as the town has a direct rail link with Edinburgh, eastern England and London.

Suspension Bridge, Pitlochry

Suspension Bridge, Pitlochry

Day one began gently by traversing a funny little suspended footbridge over the river and past Pitlochry’s Festival Theatre. A couple of turns later and I put away the map and headed down to the pines and the water, features that would become very familiar. A sign read ‘Road unsuitable for coaches and HGVs’. Ah, great, I thought: just perfect for cyclists, then.

Loch Tummel is so close, narrow and choppy I could have been travelling up an estuary by speed boat. Where the road left the lochside the snow-capped peak of Schiehallion – the county’s Everest – loomed ahead. Its name translates from Gaelic as “Fairy Mountain of the Caledonians”. Hardly appropriate for such a macho mountain.

Beef shorthorn cow admires Schiehallion

Beef shorthorn cow admires Schiehallion

Schiehallion would be a companion for most of the ride but I had no plans to scale it; a two-mile push up its foothills was more than enough for me. I’ve never been so glad to see a limekiln which I knew marked the top of what was the only significant climb of the whole trip.

The limekiln was built around 1865 to produce a fertiliser which neutralised local land, helping increase crop yields and extend pastures. Much of the soil was acidic having been reclaimed from bog and moor by drainage. The kiln fell out of use in the early 1900s.

From the top of it I watched a shower blow in from the west and, when it arrived, I discovered a design feature of a limekiln that is useful to this day. The draw arch at the bottom from where processed lime was removed is just the right size to provide shelter for one man and his bike while he has lunch.

The conical shape of Schiehallion lures hikers today as it lured astronomer royal, Revd Neil MasKelyne in 1774. The relative symmetry of the 1,083-metre high peak made it well suited to experiments which measured the extent to which plumblines around its base were pulled out of the vertical and towards the mountain due to its gravitational force. Through various calculations MasKelyne was then able to determine the mass of the mountain and subsequently the weight of the world, so to speak. Another outcome of his work at Schiehallion was the invention of the contour line by Charles Hutton.

Motorists out for a spin around Loch Tummel

Motorists out for a spin around Loch Tummel

The contours gradually spaced out and traced a downward trend as I pedalled my way to the half-way house of Kinloch Rannoch, a village between two lochs and the only staging post on the ride. The wind whipped up waves on a little beach at the eastern end of Loch Rannoch and, as I continued eastwards, I was glad of shelter from the forest that comes right up to the water’s edge and extends almost the length of the loch.

A lonely man in a camper van boiled billy cans on the beach. Some 250 years ago the area was relatively well populated, several clans laying claim to sites around the loch. You can visit them on The Clan Trail which is described in a leaflet available locally. The most poignant site is the Cameron graveyard which is all that remains of a settlement of about 20-30 houses that existed here before the notorious Highland Clearances of the 18th century. To say that some of the clansmen were barbaric is an understatement. To the left of the graveyard gate is a stone upon which the children of a Cameron chief were brained by the chief of the rival Mackintoshes following a lover’s quarrel. You wouldn’t want to argue with him.

Stone of the Heads, Cameron graveyard

Stone of the Heads, Cameron graveyard

On the opposite loch side shortly after the graveyard you can see what looks like a set of giant tubes in a water fun park. The structure is, in fact, Rannoch hydro-electric power station, one of six on or around Lochs Rannoch, Tummel and Faskally which were built in the 1930s and 40s. Between them they generate over 200 megawatts which is the same amount of electricity needed to power Glasgow and Edinburgh with some left over.

At the start of the ride at Clunie I’d passed an arch formed from a section of tunnel which was built partly as a memorial to men killed during the construction of the hydro-electric scheme. They became known as the Tunnel Tigers because of their cavalier approach to safety in their quest to earn the huge bonuses that were available.

The final five miles cover terrain a world away from the sanctuary of the trees. Towards Rannoch Moor everything is brown and the grass is all tussocks. Rivers don’t gurgle here, they churn. After every crest I expected to see journey’s end only to dip down again and then up again. At long last, and heaving a sigh of relief as I dismounted, I reached the hotel at the end of the line. Which is the middle of the line if you’re travelling on the West Highland railway from Glasgow to Fort William. A journey on that form of transport would form part of tomorrow’s adventure.

River Gaur

River Gaur

Fact file

Distance: 41 miles or 28 miles (see below).

Time: 4½ hours excluding stops.

Bike hire: Available in Pitlochry. See http://www.escape-route.biz.

Steel figure at Pitlochry station_6_1

Steel figure at Pitlochry station

Directions: Starting at Tourist Information Centre in Pitlochry turn right then first left onto Route 7 and under the railway bridge. Push bike over foot suspension bridge. Turn right onto A9 and after ½ mile right signed to Clunie and Foss. After 10 miles, at t-junction with B846 turn left towards Aberfeldy then first right signed ‘Schiehallion Road’. After 7 miles fork left (just before Kinloch Rannoch) and follow minor road along southern shore of Loch Rannoch. After 11 miles at Bridge of Gaur turn left onto B846 to end of road at Rannoch Station.

Alternative shorter route: At t-junction with B846 turn right to Tummel Bridge and return to Pitlochry via B8019. The route from Tummel Bridge is described in the second part of this feature. Total distance: 28 miles.

Eating: After Pitlochry there is only one village with any services, Kinloch Rannoch. Highly recommended is the Poste Haste café (next to the post office) and there is also a supermarket and hotels.

Sleeping: Moor of Rannoch Hotel (www.moorofrannoch.co.uk).

Moor of Rannoch Hotel

Moor of Rannoch Hotel

Capital ride

Everyone knows the appeal of central Edinburgh but what about the suburbs? Running through them to the southwest and out into the countryside is a cycle route along a canal, river and railway track-bed which provides an ideal introduction to another side of the city.

Currie

Currie

A few turns after setting off from Waverley station and with some careful sign-following I reached the start of the Union Canal. Here the arch of Leamington lift bridge – officially re-opened after restoration last year – provides a sort of starting gate for the long, traffic-free majority of the route. A short way further along is another fine piece of civil engineering: the aqueduct over the Water of Leith. Signs instructed me to dismount but I didn’t need much persuading once I’d seen the narrow, one-metre width of the walkway beside the water. I didn’t know how deep the canal was at this point and didn’t want to find out. Moorhens and magpies were my only company excluding the pair of miners carved from a tree trunk and half-hidden in the bushes beside the path. Their alert expressions and uprightness made the figures all the more startling.

Wooden figure on canal, Route 75

Wooden figure on canal, Route 75

I swapped one former highway for another to continue my journey along a disused railway line. It’s a real Thomas the Tank Engine affair complete with a curving, horse-shoe shaped tunnel through a hillside which is long enough to need to be lit by a line of roof lights. A return to the waterside wasn’t far away – in the form of the Water of Leith. The river is a real show-off compared to its languid, unnatural neighbour, the water racing playfully over the rocks, round bends and under bridges. The railway path terminates at Balerno where today the High School occupies the site of the village’s station. Built in 1874 to service mills in the village and along the Water of Leith, the railway line closed in 1967. I bought my sandwiches from the supermarket and ate them among the roses and yew trees of the walled Malleny Garden.

Refreshed and rested, I headed upwards and away from Balerno on the only climb of the day. The watery theme of the ride continued in the form of four reservoirs at the foot of the Pentland Hills. Threipmuir is open and windswept while Harlaw is lined with Scots pines and has a wildlife garden which is a handy resting point especially if you’re with children. After Clubbiedean Reservoir – and tucked into what the Scots call a cleugh (ravine) – Torduff is relatively dramatic with its rocky sides plunging directly into the water. Bonaly Tower, sticking up above the trees, gives another hint of the Highlands. There are great views as well – to Arthur’s Seat and the new air traffic control tower at Edinburgh airport.

Main St, Balerno

Main St, Balerno

Crossing over the bypass brought me back to reality – and back to the city. I completed my return by repeating part of the disused railway line and along a fresh stretch of the Water of Leith. The rugby players training in the park didn’t need to look far for inspiration: Murrayfield loomed above them. Soon I was cycling around the back of the stadium.

As the river becomes more central so it becomes more sinuous. Just when I thought there were no more signs for the Water of Leith Walkway I spotted another one and kept going as far as Dean Village. If I’m ever rich and in Edinburgh I’ll live here. Lovely little mews houses line the now wooded river which rushes along the bottom of a steep valley.

Viaduct in Spylaw Park over Water of Leith

Viaduct in Spylaw Park over Water of Leith

As I reluctantly left the Walkway, only the bricks forming the road surface reminded me where I was. A couple of turns later I spotted the Scott Monument at the end of a street, heralding journey’s end. It seemed strange to have emerged so suddenly back in the city centre throng. I felt like I’d popped up from a secret tunnel. It was stranger still to think that only a couple of hours previously I’d been surveying snow-topped hills with not a soul to be seen. I pushed my bike carefully between the shoppers on Princes Street feeling conspicuous with my muddy trousers and flushed cheeks. They can stick to their shopping bags and I’ll stick to my panniers.

Heading to the Pentland Hills - from Balerno

Heading to the Pentland Hills – from Balerno

Fact file

Harlaw Reservoir

Harlaw Reservoir

Start: Edinburgh Waverley Station.

Distance: 24 miles.

Maphere

Cycle hire: Biketrax, 0131-228 6333.

Refreshments: Two pubs and two restaurants in Balerno.