A shimmering loch bordered by dark, rounded hills rising steeply from the waterside, ancient woodlands shadowing romantic castles dotted along the loch shore: it sounds like a typical scene from the Scottish Highlands, but this is Loch Katrine, an hour’s drive from Scotland’s largest city and centrepiece of the breathtakingly beautiful Trossachs National Park in central Scotland. As with its English national park cousin, the Peak District, the Trossachs’s convenient location has long been one of its curses. 40 miles out of Glasgow usually equates to almost as many miles of traffic jams along narrow, winding roads. However, with a little research, a bit of physical effort easily rewarded by the spellbinding views and uninhibited access, you can enjoy a spectacular Loch Katrine odyssey, far removed from the cars and the crowds.
Head for Glasgow’s Queen Street station, load your bike (but do remember to reserve a space beforehand www.firstscotrail.co.uk), sit back and, after 20 minutes or so, wonder as the grey high-rises and pockets of red tenements metamorphose into a misty horizon of lochs, mountains and coast.
Past Dumbarton Rock, through the lines of Helensburgh’s solid, perfectly-spaced villas, the train meanders along the edge of Gare Loch, before heading north beside the silver, snake-like outline of Loch Long. Leave the train at Tarbet/Arrochar, where the line reaches the shores of Loch Lomond. As you step out into the tiny, perfectly preserved station, you are just over an hour out of Glasgow, but a world away in terms of scenery and pace of life.
Out of the station, turn left and head for the pier at Tarbet, a few minutes cycle away. Cruise Loch Lomond operate ferries to the Inversnaid Hotel between April and October. Ring 01301 702356 in advance and they will try to fit you into one of their private chartered cruises – otherwise the scheduled ferry leaves at 11.30 which does not leave much time for the return at 16.30. Alternatively the Inversnaid Hotel operates its own ferry for guests to Inveruglas (a 10 minute cycle up the A82 from Arrochar) and is happy to transport passengers and bikes back to Inversnaid: this tends to fit in better with train times, but, again you must ring (01877 386223) in advance to arrange and do take care on the busy road.
From here, unless you are a fit, determined and practised cyclist, you will probably have to push your bike at least some of the way up the hairpin bend to the rear of the hotel. But it’s not too far and the road soon levels out at the top end of the village, an attractive and purposeful community, complete with primary school, pretty cottages and colourful troughs of bright flowers.
If you have opted out of the hill climb, you can get back on your bike now, as, from here to Loch Katrine, there is little in the way of hills. Out of Inversnaid, the sparse beauty of Loch Arklet appears in the distance. To the west of its bigger sister, Katrine, a circular plaque on its dam tells how the level of the loch was raised to cope with the rising demand for clean water from Glasgow’s increasing population in the early twentieth century.
It is around three miles along the loch side and more than worth the effort to get here for a cycling experience that would be difficult to better: a narrow, fairly level and well-surfaced road and, aside from the odd water board vehicle, little, or no, motor traffic. The scenery is awesome, with jagged slopes rising steeply from the shore and the horizon dominated by the chiselled peak of Scotland’s most southerly Munro, Ben Lomond. And you are much more likely to be kept company by a circling bird of prey than a fellow human, before your efforts are suddenly rewarded by a breezy free wheel down to Stronachlachar on the shores of Loch Katrine.
Stop and gaze at the loch before heading left to the cycle path –good tarmac, undulating and generally free of all but infrequent service vehicles – and begin your clockwise tour to Trossachs Pier.
Loch Katrine will stay with you; slimmer, smaller, less famous than Loch Lomond, glinting provocatively inside its circle of protective hills that help shield it from the worst of the cars and crowds, for me it is the diamond of the Trossachs. Early June and the coral kaleidoscope of rhododendrons is in full bloom. Just in time too, thanks to the harsh winter, to catch a few last pockets of fragile bluebells carpeting the tree roots beside the road.
Although Loch Katrine was “discovered” in the nineteenth century, following the success of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake poem, the area is long steeped in history. Rob Roy MacGregor, the legendary red-haired outlaw, was reputedly born at Glengyle, at the head of the loch. Along the cycle path, you will pass the MacGregor family’s home, the Dhu, built in the eighteenth century and the clan’s burial place at Portnellan.
Loch Katrine also supplies Glasgow’s water and the intricate system of aqueducts running 30 miles to the city was regarded as a wonder of Victorian engineering when it was opened by the eponymous queen in 1859. Its pure water rid Glasgow, a city notorious for desperate housing and poor public health, from cholera long before any other major British city.
Paddle steamers first plied the loch in the nineteenth century. Today, when you reach Trossachs Pier, reward yourself by sailing back to Stronachlachar on the re-constructed Sir Walter Scott steamboat Refreshments are available on board and in Katrine Café at Trossachs Pier, where there is also a bike hire shop. The Pier at Stronachlachar serves decent coffee, soup, cakes and sandwiches.
From Stronachlachar retrace your steps back to Inversnaid, but ensure you visit the Inversnaid Bunkhouse en route. This converted church is now a welcoming bunkhouse, boasting a well-regarded, licensed bistro. Drop in for a coffee and cake, or stay the night, and you will be assured of a friendly welcome. An understandable magnet for walkers on the West Highland Way, its comfy sofas, free Wi-Fi and impromptu musical evenings – guitars available in the bar – add to its appeal.
Back at Inversnaid, take the ferry back to Tarbet in time to catch the evening train to Glasgow. If you have a couple of hours to spare, cycle the two miles into Arrochar. There are several pubs and restaurants and it is worth sitting for a few moments at the head of Loch Long, watching the sun sink behind The Cobbler and Beinn Ime before heading back to the delightful village station.
But although it may look like an ideal location to stage The Railway Children, the West Highland Railway provides a vital transport link, opening up this beautiful part of Scotland. Use it, combined with other public transport options, plus your own steam, and you can access one of the most spectacular areas of the UK, escape the crowds and lessen your carbon footprint at the same time.