A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of a standard road atlas and was flicking through the pages with a vague notion to find a route I could cycle in order to breake in new bike… if it offered the opportunity to camp for a night or two then all the better. It was then that I spotted a little island off the west coast of Scotland and knew I had found the perfect location.
The Isle of Arran, one of Scotland’s most southerly islands sits in the Firth of Clyde between Ayrshire and Kintyre. It is 19 miles long by 10 miles wide and, with a remarkably diverse landscape, it is often described as ‘Scotland in minature’!
I had chosen Arran because the main island road basically runs around the entire island and, as I later discovered, is a popular route for cyclists and known as the Round the Island route… a 56 mile tough combination of a stunning route around Arran’s high mountains, large hills and undulating coast road.
So it was, with bike packed with 4 panniers holding camping gear, I set out for Paisley train station to catch the early train to Ardrossan harbour. Forty minutes later I cycled from the train to the Ferry terminal and purchased my ticket. It was then a quick ride to the ferry itself and down the ramp onto the lower car deck where, I found the small storage area for bikes was completely packed and realised I wasn’t the only one with the intention of heading over to the island for a bit of cycling this weekend!
The ferry crossing to Brodick, the largest of the islands settlements, took about 50 minutes. Once the cars had disembarked the cyclists were allowed to follow. There must have been in the region of 50 to 60 cyclists all heading up the slipway simultaneously. It was clear that a number were simply out to ride around the island in their fastest time, whilst others were intending on doing a bit of island hopping before returning back to the mainland and cycling back to Glasgow. A few carrying heavy rucksacks on their backs were evidently, like me, staying a night or more. One thing they all appeared to have in common with each other was that they all decided to turn right on leaving the ferry terminal… on the other hand I was going to take a clockwise route around the island and turned left; immediately hitting my first hill of the weekend!
Tip 1: When leaving the ferry and Brodick Pier ensure that you are in a low gear. That first hill is immediately around the corner when you turn left and if you are in two high a gear you are going to come unstuck!
Fortunately I was in a low gear as I started my 2 mile climb and although I stopped once or twice on the way up – of course it was only to admire the view – I did eventually make it to the top.
For the unenlightened the road from Brodick, down along the east coast and across the south coast of Arran is one long roller coaster ride with the dips at sea level and the highs reaching up to 130 metres (427 ft). With a fully laden bike carrying camping gear etc it can be slow going.
Near the village of Kildonan, on the south coast, I spotted a sign for the East Mor Waterfall and decided to investigate.
Tip 2: If intent on visiting many of the attractions on the island that are off the road and long a beaten track secure your bicycle in a safe location and on no accounts try taking it with… unless of course it is an off road bike designed for that purpose and not ladened with luggage!
Okay… this time I was to learn from my mistake. Thinking that (a) the waterfall wasn’t too far from the road and (b) the track was probably flat… I quickly realised that I was wrong on both accounts. The waterfall was probably about a mile or more up a very steep path. A path certainly too steep and muddy to cycle up! Admittedly once you reach the top the views of the surrounding area were spectacular.
Tip 3: you can guarantee the next hill will be just around the corner!
I think it was after my detour up Eas Mor, whilst riding down another steep incline that I failed to remember Tip 1… yep I was in a high gear as I rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill and before I knew it was already ascending the next. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to change into a lower gear in time and I came to a complete standstill. Thinking about it now as I sit behind a desk writing the account of the trip the simplest solution would have been to turn the bike around, cycle back down and change into a lower gear that way. I didn’t! I got of the bike and pushed it up the hill… its the only time that I did on the entire trip and I’m not proud but at least it was one of the smallest of the hills and didn’t take too long!
When I had planned the trip my thought was to cycle about halfway around the island then camp over night and cycle the remaining half the following day. I had read about a campsite at Shiskine which was a couple of miles from Blackwater Foot and located on the String Road. My thought was that if the hills had been a little too much on the first day I could always take a shorter route back to Brodick in the morning via the String Road which cuts across the middle of the island rather than continuing up the western coast and across the north of the island.
As I reached the junction for Blackwater Foot and the String Road I decided it was too early in the day to pitch the tent. The sign for Lochranza indicated the village was 17 miles away which I decided could feasibly be done in less than two hours so I continued on my way.
After another ninety minutes or so of cycling I was almost upon Catacol and realised that despite my best intentions to reach Lochranza it was starting to get chilly and would be dark within an hour. I thought it better to setup camp whilst I still had light rather than cycle any further. I spotted an area of the beach which was pretty much hidden from the road by large bushes and decided that it would make an ideal location to pitch the tent.
I waited until the island bus drove past (I’m presuming there is only one which just goes round the island in a circle though perhaps there may be two… one each way) and then pushed the bike off the road and along the pebble beach to the spot I had seen.
It didn’t take long to setup the tent and get the kettle on boil. very soon I was sat in the entrance of my home for the night cupping a lovely hot mug of tea whilst looking out towards the water and watching a group of puffins on one of the larger rocks whilst my dinner – pasta – simmered on the stove.
Although it was still only September the temperature quickly plummeted towards 0°C and by 9pm I was ready for bed. Within half an hour I was pretty much in the land of nod and remained there for the next four hours.
Tip 4: When wild camping on Arran choose a secluded peaceful spot to ensure a good nights sleep!
Okay… how was I to know that at 1.30 am… yes AM as in the early hours of the morning…. I was to be woken by the beat beat beat of dance music! As to who was responsible I hadn’t got a clue. At first I presumed that it was kicking out time at the local club and the door had been propped open… but once you’ve been on Arran you soon realise that this is highly unlikely particularly the further you travel away from Brodick! Plus I was pretty certain that where I had camped was a fairy remote spot. Another thought was that some locals had decided to head down to the beach for a their own little party. Though again this seemed unlikely as it would have required travel by car and it wasn’t as if there was a place to park nearby either. So for the remainder of the night I barely slept as the beat beat beat of the music continued to keep me awake.
It was around 7.30 am Sunday morning that I emerged from my tent to see what had been the cause of my discomfort throughout the night. It wasn’t what I was expecting! With the entire coastline of Arran to choose from a yacht had decided to drop anchor just off the coast opposite my pitch for the night. The music was still playing as I stood on the pebbled shore and stared across the water in disbelief.
After a welcoming cup of hot tea and some muesli for breakfast I packed up my gear and returned to the road. Surprisingy I was free of any aches and pains as a result of the previous days ride and it wasn’t long before I was cycling through Lochranza.
I stopped at Lochranza castle to take in the view and watched as a pickup truck drove along the shoreline, stopping every few minutes as a young boy and his father picked up driftwood and loaded it into the back. Not too far from them I spotted a woman gathering up smaller pieces in her arms before the pickup caught up with her and she loaded the wood on the back with the rest.
Leaving the castle I cycled on and passed three red deer grazing at the side of the road, unfortunately the battery was going at this point in my phone and I missed the opportunity to get a picture.
A little further on I found the campsite I had been aiming for the previous day… if I had made it then it was likely I would have secured an undisturbed sleep!
Leaving Lochranza behind me I passed the Arran Distillery and started my first ascent of the day… little did I know at that moment that it was pretty much my only ascent of the day. As I rounded the corner I realised my mistake, it was the big one!
I stopped the bike and spent five minutes looking at the route ahead praying that at any moment the mirage would vanish and the road would be flat. Alas it wasn’t to be, it rose steadily for a distance of about four miles to a height of 200 metres (656 ft). I took a long drink of water, had a last look behind me and started the slow journey up.
Sure I stopped a few times on the way but I was in a low enough gear which meant I didn’t have any problems setting back off again. When I eventually reached the top it was with a sense of achievement. As for the ride down the other side, it was a lot quicker than going up and absolutely brilliant!
Between Sanox and Brodick the road was flat and ran along the coast again. Cycling into Brodick I realised my journey had come to an end. As a reward I treated myself to a well deserved lunch and a bottle of Budweiser and relaxed for an hour before cycling back to the ferry terminal to catch the 13:50 pm ferry back to Ardrossan and the mainland.
Will I do it again? I certainly will although I will probably take the anticlockwise route next time as you have a 7 or 8 mile ride before you start to hit the hills that way. As for anyone else who is thinking of cycling around Arran I hope I haven’t put you off because if I can do it then anyone can do it. There is certainly a great feeling of accomplishment at the end!