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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Distance:16 miles plus 7 miles total for diversions.
Time: Allow all day.
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.