Archive for Biking

09 Oct 2017

Prague – Dresden by bike; with plenty of food, beer, entertainment and culture along the way

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Prague: 'city of 100 spires' and one TV tower

Prague: ‘city of 100 spires’ and one TV tower

It had been a while, and the combination of time, slight loss of confidence, some level of fitness, a major house move and a myriad of other everyday impediments had all conspired, in varying degrees, against the organisation, determination and initiative required to put together a bike tour holiday.

The days of plotting routes, throwing a change of clothes, some waterproofs and a couple of spare tubes into my Orliebs, locking the front door and cycling off somewhere scenic seemed a long way in the past.  But still, the longing for that freedom, the opportunity to travel much further than possible on foot but still experience the immediacy of  scenery, flora and fauna and culture in a close and flexible way still lingered.

And so, after a hectic weekend of coordinating  onward and return travel, I signed up for the last place on Europe-Bike-Tours’ (EBT) final trip of the season from Prague to Dresden. Although very much a last minute decision and, even without too much scrutiny of the itinerary, this tour ticked all my boxes.

The wine town of Melnik on the confluence of the rivers Vltava and Labe

Prague and Dresden were two cities I had always wanted to visit; their Baroque splendour and influence throughout Central European history particular fascinations.  In addition, they could easily be incorporated into my favourite type of European long-distance rail trip, providing the opportunity to stop off in Amsterdam and Berlin en route.  And, with the clock rapidly ticking down to the removal of my treasured EU passport in 2019, it made sense to visit now, before the UK retreats into its self-imposed exile and travel restrictions are tightened.

Ready for the road? Vitek explains all!

Ready for the road? Vitek explains all…..

Perhaps, most importantly, this was a guided tour; so, I wouldn’t get lost, I wouldn’t need to carry all my stuff, I wouldn’t have to struggle with oily fingers and five tyre levers if I got a puncture and I wouldn’t need to worry about where I could eat, or stay. What not to like?

Having booked through a specialist outdoor tour company in the UK, I had never heard of EBT and had no idea what to expect. I needn’t have worried – although I do have to admit to a first night of slight anxiety, having received the details for the self-guided tour and no indication when I would be collected in the morning, but it was resolved quickly next day, without mishap, other than a missed breakfast! – the hire bike fitted perfectly, the luggage transfers operated like clockwork, with the back-up van always in proximity, not just in case of mechanical breakdowns, but also as a very welcome provider of fruit, water and chocolate throughout the day.

Cycling paradise: kilometres of flat, smooth, traffic-free paths. What not to like?

Cycling paradise: kilometres of flat, smooth, traffic-free paths. What not to like?

But our guides, Lukas and Vitek, were undoubtedly the piece de resistance: multi-lingual experienced cyclists, well-informed, charming, endlessly patient and positive, both possessed a diverse and impressive skill-set that ensured the tour ran efficiently, safely and provided constant points of interest.  But, equally importantly, their good humour, wide range of interests and engaging personalities enabled a diverse range of ages, nationalities and backgrounds to enjoy a very agreeable week off, as well as on, the bikes.

The mist rises on the Labe

The mist rises on the Labe

 

This tour linked two fascinating, vibrant cities with a route meandering along the Labe/Elbe, one of the great waterways of Europe, through some diverse and, at times spectacular, scenery.

But, although Prague, Dresden and the attractive border area of Czech/Saxon Switzerland, are established tourist areas, the start of the tour, to the north of Prague, passed through a region rarely visited by foreign tourists. One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was to wander around the small towns of  Melnik, Litomerice and Decin, noting their impressive architecture and the changes that had taken place in recent years.

Waiting for the ferry across to Hrensko and the spectacular Pravcicka Gate

Waiting for the ferry across to Hrensko and the spectacular Pravcicka Gate

The Labe/Elbe has throughout history witnessed the constant migration of people and goods.  Its strategic importance has also inevitably meant this region has suffered more from most in the turbulent history of Central Europe.  The detour to Terezin, originally a Hapsburg fortress that became a Nazi holding camp for Jews en route to concentration camps during World War Two, provided perspective and a tragic and recent reminder; the many castles  perched on the rocky outcrops high above the valley another legacy of the region’s tempestuous past.

The 75m long Bastei Bridge

The 75m long Bastei Bridge

 

The cycle route itself was to die for.  Used to everyday cycling in one of Britain’s biggest cities, where dedicated bike lanes are few and  often misused, where the holes in the road are as dangerous as the traffic and where you often feel every other road user is out to kill you, the long, flat, smooth, traffic-free stretches of tarmac path were heaven indeed.

As was the peace and serenity and the chance to glimpse a bird or squirrel and enjoy the subtle colours of early autumn. Berries and fruits were in abundance in the hedgerows, ripe and ready for jam/wine makers and birds alike.

Charismatic guides and mouth good food were two definite highlights of the tour

Charismatic guides and good food were two definite highlights of the tour!

Cyclists, like armies, depend on their stomachs and, on this tour, we were exceptionally well catered for. Both the lunch cafes and evening restaurants provided a range of local cuisine, and with meals in a chateau, brewery and the ride through two of the most renowned beer countries in the world, any thirst generated during the day was more than satisfied.

A few other personal highlights included: my room in the chateau, the ‘green’ ferry across the river, the walk up to Pravcicka Gate on the way to Bad Schandau, the market square in Pirna, beloved by Canaletto, and gaining my first glimpse of Dresden. the “Florence of the Elbe’, cycling along the banks and meadows of the river that has defined the city.

Interesting plant display in Bad Schandau

Interesting plant display in Bad Schandau

But above all, the trip  reminded me why I love cycle touring,  particularly this type of cycle touring, where everything else is taken care of and all I have to do is get on my bike and ride along excellent – preferably flat! – cycle paths to the next absorbing destination.

Many thanks to: Andy at Freedom Treks in Brighton who organised things in the UK; Vitek and Lukas for being such wonderful hosts and, finally, to all the other members of the group from various continents for being kind, supportive, interesting, great company and such fun.

 

The Baroque splendour of the Zwinger, Dresden

The Baroque splendour of the Zwinger, Dresden

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12 Aug 2014

Galloway: the Best of the South West

No Comments Biking, Blog, Tours

Just back from a (too) short visit back to Galloway; one of the British Isles’ south west peninsulas, arguably its finest, and certainly its most undervalued. The south westerly coastlines of each of the four countries of the British Isles (here I am regarding Ireland in the geographical, not political sense) have always fascinated me, but until recent years, I was shockingly complacent about the charms of the area nearest to my birthplace.

Growing up in adjacent Dumfriesshire I surmised that Cornwall and the south west (of England) must have possessed exclusive elements of magical beauty, beside which the rocky inlets, ancient forests and deep lochs on my doorstep paled in comparison, given the millions of visitors the former attracted each year and its correspondingly top position in the bucket-list of the nation’s scenic attractions.

Renowned for its dark skies, Galloway also boasts some pretty impressive sunsets

Renowned for its dark skies, Galloway also boasts some pretty impressive sunsets

Indeed, by the time I left south west Scotland,  I had become almost blasé about dark skies, cascading rivers, rounded hills and the lush, vibrant green foliage and densely coloured rhododendrons, characteristic of this temperate region.

Escaping south, I sought out the gentler pastoral vistas of pretty pubs, pastel coloured cottages, hanging baskets and historic churches and embarked on my long-held ambition to visit the landscapes of the literary heroes of my youth – Hardy’s Dorset and Tarka’s Devon were all, and more, than I had hoped for and in the well-preserved centre of my local town, Lichfield, it was easy to imagine its 18th century heyday as a coaching town and intellectual centre of the Lunar Men.

The Ken Bridge Hotel: a historic coaching inn situated between New Galloway and St John's Town of Dalry

The Ken Bridge Hotel: a historic coaching inn situated between New Galloway and St John’s town of Dalry

But Cornwall was my magnet. From Du Maurier, through Blyton to Mary Wesley and the art deco railway posters of the GWR, I had always been mesmerised by the images of bohemian artists, smugglers and pretty fishing villages, against a backdrop of sandy beaches, a dramatic coastline and sunny weather.

Even on my first journey, the road signs counting down the miles to “The West” stirred my excitement, my spirits on arrival undimmed even by a wet squall: this was the west side of our Atlantic facing island, after all. But waking up next morning (albeit to a beautiful blue sky), one by one, my visions began to shatter. There were people on the beaches! And not just a handful, but what looked like millions of them, crowding the sand and drowning out the birdsong.

I was used to beaches, along Galloway’s inlets and the Ayrshire coast, where you were (un)lucky if you saw another soul all day, unless of course you wanted company. Here, in England’s holiday haven, even fish ‘n chips was priced as a delicacy and the charm of Mousehole and Sennen completely obliterated by the unending horror of ceaseless traffic jamming up the tiny streets.

I have returned to Cornwall several times since and spent many amazing days walking the sumptuous South West Coastal Path (probably my second favourite long distance path), visiting independent galleries and Seasalt shops, as well as admiring the county’s interesting. and largely overlooked, industrial history.

Twilight on the River Ken: one of Galloway's great fishing rivers

Twilight on the River Ken: one of Galloway’s great fishing rivers

But, although it has many qualities, I have never quite understood why, in comparison to the other south west peninsulas of the British Isles, Cornwall is so much more popular than the rest – warmer, maybe, but certainly no  drier and much more crowded, commercialised and expensive.

Over the last decade, I have been lucky enough to visit all four of our dramatic south west peninsulas and, for what it is worth, ascribe them the following attributes:

  • most jaw-droppingly beautiful – without a doubt, Co Kerry
  • best old world charm – Pembrokeshire

And that brings us back to Galloway. Finally, I can now appreciate  its charms and can recommend it as the biggest in area of the four peninsulas and the one with the most variety of scenery: from moorland to mountains, lochs and pastoral farmland, to say nothing of the aforementioned delightful (and uncrowded) coastline, you’ll find it all here.

Cycling doesn't get any better than this: NCN 73, between Newton Stewart and Wigtown

Cycling doesn’t get any better than this: NCN 73, between Newton Stewart and Wigtown

It’s arguably the best place in the country for cycling, with miles of quiet, scenic roads, plus the world-rated 7 Stanes MTB courses, is a magnet for fishermen, walkers and advocates of all types of water sports, foodies, ornithologists and astronomers.

Lovers of literature will also know that Galloway boasts Scotland’s National Book Town, Wigtown, with its annual September book festival, the region’s history can be traced back to pre-historic times and it was an important early centre of Christianity. Many of its coastal towns and villages, notably Kirkcudbright, have attracted world-famous artists for over a century.

In other words, Galloway offers something for everyone. So, next time you’re heading to the Lake District,  further north into the Highland (or even south to Cornwall) a detour to Galloway might just surprise you with how much it offers, and how little it demands.

Dark skies, red kites, book festivals, some of the best independent art galleries in the country and some great places to camp: you'll find them all in Galloway

Dark skies, red kites, book festivals, some of the best independent art galleries in the country and some great places to camp: you’ll find them all in Galloway

But don’t tell everyone, we don’t want it ending up like Cornwall.

 

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10 May 2013

By Train to Kokopelli

No Comments Biking, Blog, Booting, Cities, Tours

So, just back from another wonderful week at Kokopelli combined with a few days either side in some of Italy’s most iconic cities.

For me, the best way to get to Kokopelli (or virtually anywhere else in Europe) is by train. There are several reasons for this but, essentially, by taking the train you can make the journey a positive part of your your holiday . So, instead of enduring the abusive security process, punitive  baggage restrictions and the in-your-face travel experience that is flying, you can look forward to a comfortable, relaxed journey aboard some of Europe’s fastest and most technically advanced trains, with spectacular scenery flashing by your window.

Kokopelli at sunrise

Kokopelli at sunrise

Kokopelli is an eco-friendly campsite, run on the principles of self sufficiency and low environmental imprint.Therefore, if you are  environmentally conscious and concerned about your carbon footprint, it makes little sense to fly there. According to Travelfootprint London to Rome by air creates 240-350 grams of co2 per passenger km travelled, compared to 50-75 grams by rail.

Taking the train means you can take your bike

Taking the train means you can take your bike

As most Kokopellites love the outdoors, they will often have equipment like skis, snowshoes, cycles, tents, walking and climbing gear. Unlike aircraft, trains have  no baggage restrictions. Eurostar has recently altered its conditions for cycle carriage and now transports bikes, without bike bags, if booked in advance. This is well worth the £30 cost to avoid faffing around adjusting handlebars and pedals, particularly if you are touring with panniers. If you live near St Pancras you can also send your bike on to Paris/Brussels in advance which costs less. Have a look at Eurostar’s bicycle carriage and information about taking bikes on trains throughout Europe.

Enjoy some retail therapy among Milan's designer labels either side of your stay

Enjoy some retail therapy among Milan’s designer labels either side of your stay

Kokopelli is situated roughly in the middle of Italy, so going by train means you can combine your trip with some city visits: Turin, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Florence, Naples; the choice is yours.

The train can also be much cheaper, particularly if journeying overnight: if travelling as a family or in a group, prices in couchettes can be as low as around £30 per person. And remember, an overnight fare includes your accommodation. You also waste less time as you are travelling  when you are normally asleep and kids invariably love sleeping on a train!

But the best reason for travelling by train is simply that it is better. Instead of detracting from your holiday experience, it adds to it. Rather than wasting time in soulless, indistinguishable airport terminals, you get to experience life in other countries as well as the chance to engage with people.

May 1st, Kokopelli style!

May 1st, Kokopelli style!.

On one journey the Italian family at the same table “forbade” me to go to the buffet and insisted I share their lunch of bread, mozzarella, tomatoes, prosciutto and local wine: something of a contrast with your typical Ryanair experience.

So, how do I organise train travel  to Kokopelli? Well, the good news is that it is actually ridiculously easy;  you do not need to move from your computer screen, there are no concealed extra charges and planning the journey can be an exciting way to involve all members of the family/group.

1. Make sure you consult  Mark Smith’s indispensable SEAT61  as this gives every possible source of advice on routes, destinations, booking tickets and just about everything else.

2. The nearest major station to Kokpelli is Pescara – liaise with Jacqui and Kevin about transfers etc – so look at the information on how to travel there.  But you may want to combine your trip with visits to other places in Italy, so look at all the options here.

3. Decide if you want to travel during the day or overnight: if I’m travelling on my own I tend to go during the day as individual sleeping accommodation is only available in first class and because I  enjoy the trip though the Alps. But, if travelling as a family/group and if time is at a premium, overnight can be the better option.

 

Milan-Turin-Paris TGV

Milan-Turin-Paris TGV

4. I book tickets in three stages: direct with EUROSTAR for London to Paris, with RAIL EUROPE for Paris to Turin/Milan and ITALIA RAIL or TRENITALIA for any other journeys within Italy. Booking just under two months in advance I paid £69 return on Eurostar; £116 first class Paris-Turin return and the most expensive of my five first class tickets across Italy cost €29 for a three hour journey from Pescara to Bologna. Often the best deal was the first class offer.

5.If you have a currency card, such as CAXTON FX use it to pay for the tickets billed in euros and you won’t attract any conversion charges.

6. You will have to change stations in Paris from Gare du  Nord to Gare de Lyon. The easiest way to do this is by metro, using the green D RER line. Tickets cost €1.70 at the time of writing, so make sure you have some loose euros and cents, although the machines do give change. Eurostar information desks sell books of metro tickets and provide maps of Paris. The metro is easy to use; just follow the signs and use the destination information to check  you’re going in the right direction. There is only one stop, Chatelet les Halles, between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon.

Finally, on French and Italian long distance trains the standard of on board accommodation is generally excellent. However, despite commodious luggage racks at the end of each carriage (Virgin take note) Italian and French travellers seem to prefer to lug their cases to their seats! Do make sure your luggage is clearly labelled as French police boarded the train at the border to check this on my return journey.

Bon voyage; buon viaggio!; enjoy the journey, it’s part of your holiday.

The Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon

The Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon

 

Postscript: arrived back safely last night, having left Milan at 6am. Journey went like clockwork – TGV was actually held up at one point on the Italian border, but made up so much time it arrived at Gare de Lyon seven minutes early – only downside was last lap home from Euston to Lichfield Trent Valley. The concourse was packed, as was the train, with many passengers without seats and only their good humour and the diplomacy and  good sense of the train manager avoided any serious incident. Arriving at my destination, a busy stop on West Coast Main Line, is like stepping out into the third world: there is no lift over the line, the station was closed (London Midland deem it unnecessary to man the premises after 7pm) and those of us having to wait for lifts/taxis got soaked as there is no shelter.

The joys of UK’s privatised rail network; and to think these train operating companies take millions of our tax money every year, but that’s another story….

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16 Jul 2012

Cycle the Trossachs National Park

No Comments Biking, Tours

Greener and leaner – think pedal power, and no petrol costs – doesn’t have to be meaner. Cycling may be the car-free, guilt-free way of exploring the spectacular Trossachs National Park, one of Scotland’s most beautiful regions – but it also gives you the chance to sample, en route, the best cakes and coffee to balance the calories expended.

Riverside Museum, Glasgow

Book well in advance, reserve a bike space at the same time with ScotRail  and a single from the Midlands or South-east England to Glasgow can cost as little as £11.50. The process is user-friendly, far more transparent than the average budget airline – and it disproves some negative preconceptions about public transport and bikes in Britain.

Glasgow, known for its museums, shopping, architecture and café culture, is also a surprisingly cycle-friendly start to the route. Check out Glasgow Cycle Map  and use it to tap into the city’s dual legacy of disused railways and canal paths. These comprise a traffic-free route that takes you to Loch Lomond in barely 90 minutes from the Squinty Bridge.

Loch Katrine

Heading west, away from the loch and its coach parties, the gradients steepen through Drymen, towards Aberfoyle, and the beauty of the Lochs and Glens (Sustrans Route 7) becomes obvious as you enter the magical, wooded Trossachs. Cyclists keen to enjoy the braes without the weight of heavily-laden panniers can take advantage of luggage-transporting services.

Cycle touring equals flexibility, allowing a detour to the captivating Loch Katrine. The birthplace of Rob Roy, it also supplies Glasgow’s water – and the system of aqueducts running 34 miles to the city is understandably regarded as a wonder of Victorian engineering. Interestingly, it also freed Glasgow, long notorious for bad housing and poor health, from the scourge of cholera long before any other major British city. In summer, it is possible to combine an 18km circuit of the loch with a steamship tour on the Clyde-built steamship, SS Sir Walter Scott.

Glen Ogle Viaduct

The route then shadows the southern shore of the Highland-esque Loch Venachar to Callander, before heading north to Strathyre. There, the Inn at Strathyre provides a warm welcome, hearty food and regular, impromptu entertainment in the bar – which, for those who want to keep in touch with the wider world, has Wi-fi access. The cosy B&B has a range of double, twin and family rooms and will happily provide packed lunches.

From here the trail follows the old Callander to Oban railway, where your steady ascent may well be monitored by an unimpressed red squirrel. About 10 miles on, the path crosses along another 19th-century engineering marvel, the 60m-high Glen Ogle viaduct, now the exclusive preserve of walkers and cyclists.

From Killin, eastwards along Loch Tay, it’s only a short stretch to Aberfeldy where The Watermill  easily wins the prize for best re-fuelling stop en route. Voted Scottish Independent Bookshop of the Year 2006, it has a café that takes its coffee very seriously. Here, you can relax in peace with a book, a newspaper and a tempting selection of cakes.

Falls of Dochart, Killin

It’s an easy ride along the pretty Tay Valley to Pitlochry, home of the Festival Theatre and just a 90-minute train journey from Glasgow, where you began. The comfortable and friendly Glasgow Guest House is ideally located between the Burrell Collection and Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover in the city’s Southside. Cycle to both and enjoy a few hours, or more, among some of Glasgow’s best cafes and bars. Alternatively, try out the off-road routes at nearby Pollok Park, or leave your bike at the guest house, take the train into town and take in the art, architecture, culture and wit (not forgetting the shops) of the Second City of the Empire.

Four days, 150 miles, roughly equal expenditure and consumption of calories for £350: it is possible to cut your carbon, stay relatively solvent but still indulge.

Destination Pitlochry

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30 Apr 2012

Leave the car and visit the Knoydart peninsula: by boat, boot or bike

No Comments Biking, Booting, Tours

Forget stressful airport transfers and illogical sat nav instructions: be cool and arrive at your destination by boat. Visit the Knoydart peninsula in North West Scotland: inaccessible by road, so boat, boot or bike are your default modes. It’s remote, stunning, has four Munros and is a haven for walking, diving and photography, but it also offers top class cuisine and is famed for its hospitality, culture and community spirit.

Sunset over Skye

Across the Sound of Sleat from Skye, Knoydart is actually part of the mainland. However, unless you walk, or mountain bike from Kinloch Hourn you need to arrive by sea. Known as the Rough Bounds, it is one of the last real wildernesses in Western Europe. In 1999, the Knoydart Foundation , a partnership composed of local residents, the Highland Council and the John Muir Trust, was set up to “preserve, enhance and develop Knoydart for the well-being of the environment and its people”. Today, it is a thriving community, home to about 100 residents who welcome visitors to share its rugged beauty and enjoy its relaxed, genuine way of life.

As you can’t drive into Knoydart, why take the car? It is perfectly possible to reach Knoydart by public transport, the most civilised option being the overnight Caledonian sleeper:  board at Euston, or stations through the Midlands, wake up in the southern Highlands, then breakfast in Fort William before catching the West Highland Line to Mallaig.

West Highland Railway

Frequently voted one of the top railway journeys in the world, this 42 mile ride takes you past Britain’s highest mountaindeepest loch and shortest river, before reaching its most westerly station. Travel between April and October and the steam engine, Jacobite  will power you across the 21 arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, immortalised in the Harry Potter books, past the monument to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and alongside the iconic silver sands of Morar, the setting for the films Highlander and Local Hero.

If you have a few minutes to spare, drop into the Mallaig Heritage Centre  beside the station, where the imaginatively presented exhibitions tell the history of the Rough Bounds and show the rapid transformation of Mallaig into a busy fishing port after the railway was completed in 1901.

Head towards the harbour and, keeping to the left, you will arrive at the public steps on the small boat pier. Here, a small boat will take you on the last leg of the journey, across Loch Nevis to Knoydart. Doune is on a rocky headland on the western edge of the peninsular and the accommodation is run by two couples, Martin and Jane Davies and Liz and Andy Tibbetts and their families. Doune Stone Lodges offer fully catered, comfortable double or twin rooms, en suite toilet, shower and porch, while the Doune Bay Lodge is designed for larger families, clubs, corporate events, and consists of eight rooms, open-plan living area and kitchen.

The setting is idyllic, with unforgettable sunsets behind the Skye Cuillins to the west, and the absence of mobile reception and power-thirsty hairdryers and trouser presses adds positively to its unique ambience. The lodges are effectively and sensitively equipped: warm duvets and invigorating showers – particularly welcome after a bracing day in the hills.

Doune Dining Room  is one of only seven institutions currently holding the Destination Dining Award for providing the best of food in the finest of settings. Everything is home-made, seafood is caught locally and Jane and Liz’s organic gardens provide most of the vegetables and soft fruit. While meat eaters can tuck into locally-produced lamb and venison, my vegetarianism was expertly satisfied, with a sumptuous nut pate and mouth-watering desserts particular highlights, and fully catered means exactly that, with breakfasts, packed lunches and evening meals all included.

Ladhar Bheinn

Three Corbetts, added to its four Munros make this hill-walking heaven, particularly for those who seek peacefulness and solitude.Ladhar Bheinn, at 1020m (3,346ft) is the highest and most dramatic mountain, although like many peaks on Knoydart, it is difficult to access. Martin and his team are generous with their local knowledge and, by using their boat Mary Doune, it is possible to sail to many mountain approaches.

That said, it is not necessary to go stratospheric to enjoy the beauty of Knoydart. Sailing from Doune, we headed north along the Sound of Sleat with Sandaig Islands clearly visible in the distance. Turning east into Loch Hourn, our progress was observed by some bored looking seals basking in the April sunshine, while Alastair, our knowledgeable skipper, identified Beinn Sgritheall as the snow-clad peak dominating the northern shore.

Barrisdale Bay

Scrambling ashore on Barrisdale Bay, it was impossible not to be moved by the still beauty of this sandy inlet. From here to Inverie, the “capital” of Knoydart is a trek of about eight miles through a spectacular mountain landscape. Passing the Barisdale bothy and campsite, the route climbs steadily along the pony path through Mam Barrisdale, until, at the top of the path, the cylindrical outline of Loch an Dubh-Lochain appears on the horizon. From here it is a relaxing stroll along the Inverie river to the Old Forge pub  in the centre of the village.

Loch an Dubh-Lochain

The Old Forge, the most remote pub in mainland Britain, is much more than just a pub. It has won many accolades for its beers, wines and locally-sourced food and also provides a rewarding coffee and slab of cake, as you relive your walk, climb or dive. But it is also the undoubted hub of the community; the stock of musical instruments in the bar testament to its famed reputation for impromptu entertainment. Its website  is a treasure trove of local information, advertising local jobs, advising on hill-walking routes and listing local accommodation.

Staying on Knoydart can be as lavish or basic as you want to make it. It is possible to wild camp on the beach, backpack in a bothy or indulge in a luxurious b&b. Match your requirements to the surprisingly wide variety available  – check out the Knoydart Foundation and Barrisdale and forget any excuses for not experiencing this magnificent corner of Britain.

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27 Mar 2012

Mid Argyll; make sure you don’t overlook this West of Scotland jewel

No Comments Biking, Booting, Tours

Mid Argyll  could well be tagged as “Overlooked Scotland”; a little out of the way, no big towns or cities, not the easiest place to get to (certainly without a car), but, with its history, scenery, serenity, wildlife, culture and opportunities for walking and cycling, well worth the effort if you do go.

Dunadd Hill

OK, so you can’t get to Kintyre by train, but you can take the bus and, if you have a word with Citylink beforehand, you might even find they’ll transport your bike. Coach 926 leaves Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station four times a day for Ardrishaig and for as little as £6 single, the 2 hours 45 minutes journey won’t seem long enough to take in the view of all the passing lochs and mountains from the window

Indeed, if getting to your destination is as important as the holiday itself, why not make your journey into an epic?  Take the train from Glasgow to Gourock, then ferry to Dunoon, bus to Portavadie, another ferry to Tarbert and a final bus to Ardrishaig. It takes just over four hours, but where else on mainland UK ( and, yes, you are still on the mainland) could you combine rail, road and sea with scenery to die for? Use Traveline Scotland  to organise your journey.

This jewel in the west of Scotland has the lot: as well as its unique history, relaxed pace of life and jaw-dropping scenery, it also has hotel/restaurant/cafe owners who actually seem to like and welcome visitors! What’s not to like?

Standing Stones in Kilmartin Glen

Confined to a weekend visit, my major problem was so much to see, with so little time to do it. So, taking my theme as the area’s rich vein of history, ancient and modern, I headed for Kilmartin Glen to find out more about its standing stones, burial cairns, rock art, forts and carved stones that originated in the Neolithic period (6,000-4,000BC). Mid Argyll has the densest concentration of cup and ring marked rocks in the British Isles and the Glen contains Europe’s largest cup and ring marked site at Achnabreck.

The Glen is also home to one of Scotland’s most important historic sites of any period; Dunadd Fort, thought to have been built and occupied by the Dal Riata people from about 500AD. This area is now believed to have been a cultural and social centre where people, ideas and power were exchanged between lands connected by the sea.

Burial Pits in Klimartin Glen

Check out the artefacts and interpretations at the award-winning Kilmartin House Museum  browse the rock art silver jewellery in the shop and sample the yummy home baking in the adjoining cafe.

But don’t be misled into believing the area declined in importance as time moved on: the first book to be printed in Scots Gaelic, John Knox’s liturgy, was translated by John Carswell, a 16th century Protestant reformer, in 1567 at nearby Carnassie Castle  an attractive two mile stroll out of Kilmartin.

The Crinan Canal through Ardrishaig

Head back to Ardrishaig to enjoy a later, but no less important, artefact; the delightful nine mile Crinan Canal  Known as “Britain’s most beautiful shortcut”, it was built in the late eighteenth century between Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne and Crinan on the Sound of Jura.

Crinan Bridge

The canal provided a lifeline between the islands of the west coast and the Clyde Estuary and enabled the puffer ships that transported coal, food and other essentials throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to avoid the long, arduous voyage round the south end of the Kintyre Peninsular.

Today, around two thousand mainly pleasure vessels, still pass through the canal and the waterway can also be appreciated, on foot or by bike, as an engineering marvel and an idyllic route through some stunning scenery.

When you reach Crinan, check out the top-floor gallery at the Crinan Hotel and, at certain times of the year, you might be lucky enough to see round one of the old puffer boats under renovation in the harbour.

 

Puffer under renovation

Walking opportunities in the area are virtually endless, from gently coastal and woodland strolls to a lesser-visited Munro not too far away,  while the Sustrans National Cycle Route 78   (Oban to Campbeltown) directly links Kilmartin, Crinan, Lochgilphead and Ardrishaig.

 

Loch Crinan with Paps of Jura in the background

 

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17 Oct 2011

Autumn in the Country and in the City

No Comments Biking, Booting, Cities, Tours

Autumn, in particular October, is  ideal  for a short break. But perhaps time and money are a bit short and you can’t spare more than a few days away; not enough to enjoy some sunnier climes?

Last Rays of Afternoon Sun

No problem, stay in Britain, make the most of the daylight before the clocks change, enjoy the changing autumn colours and, if the weather turns inclement, you can easily spend a day in a nearby city, or local attraction.  Britain in autumn is perfect for a few days away where you can combine some cycling, walking, climbing, photography in the countryside, with a cultural, foodie, or chilled-out few days in the city.

One great advantage of our crowded island is that many of our major urban areas are cheek by jowl with national parks and areas of national beauty: think Sheffield/Manchester and the Peak District; Bristol and Exmoor; Glasgow and the Trossachs;  Edinburgh and the Pentlands. 

Autumn Colours

Even the sprawling West Midlands conurbation has the Malverns and the Cotswolds on its doorstep and woodland Surrey, the Chilterns and the south coast can be easily reached from Greater London.

But what to pack; particularly for us eco-conscious, self-sufficient travellers, who have to carry our needs for all eventualities on our backs, or bikes and on public transport? You need the footwear and outwear for protection in the great outdoors, but you don’t want to look like an outdoor gear geek as you sip your flat white in Convent Garden.

It’s a hard call,  but essentially the same rules apply as outlined in KIT,
http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/sample-kit-lists/   http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/kit/what-to-take/
but, on a smaller scale.

Sunset through the Trees

The key is, like with all packing, to try to take multi-purpose garments and, to be fair, the look, quality and weight of outdoor gear has improved immeasurably over the last few years. Merino wool tops, such as Icebreaker, look good enough to wear out or indoors, and merino also has the priceless asset of lasting several days without offensive odours.  Similarly, ultra-lightweight down (and some man-made alternatives), like those by Rab, now are stylish enough, and in sufficiently pleasing shades, not to look out of place in city streets.  And if it’s wet, wear your wet gear: if it throws it down, nobody cares much what you look like; hillside or city street.

Jurassic Coast in Autumn

This first “rule’ is generally to wear your “active” gear and footwear  (usually because it’s the bulkiest) when you travel to your destination.  This can result in some amusing scenarios: once, having secured a reasonably-priced first class ticket and resplendent in lycra and cycling helmet, I was initially blocked from entering the posh end of the train by an attendant who told me: “This is a first class coach madam.” When I replied that I had a first class reservation and offered to show him my ticket, he apologised and said: “I thought you were off on your bike, not travelling first class!”

Above Dunoon, Cowal Peninsular

So, other than specialised activity kit, what else to take?
Essentials: sleepwear, something to lounge about in, underwear and toiletries – if you’re staying in a hotel, b&b etc, it’s a good idea to check in advance what toiletries they provide as it can save considerable weight and bulk.

For trips of up to a week, I now organise my gear into: jeans/leggings, couple of tee shirts, tunic, sweater, comfortable lightweight shoes – obviously amend as appropriate.

Up to the Long Mynd

These I can pack into a small, lightweight wheeled bag, with waterproofs, hat, gloves, water bottles and the like in a 20 litre backpack. Thus, I can carry my luggage easily and have enough adaptable gear to keep me dry and warm on the hills, but stylish enough to look reasonably cool in a cafe, or shop, museum or cinema.

Go ahead, take advantage of the autumn kaleidoscope in the woodlands, enjoy the hills and mountains before winter sets in.

Autumn Sunset

But check out the exhibitions, movies and best eats in nearby cities as well to ensure you  make the best of Britain this autumn.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/interactive/2011/jan/07/britain-best-budget-eats-restaurants-cafes has a really useful list of budget eats in towns and cities across the country: I haven’t tried them all, but those I have in Glasgow, Birmingham and Central London haven’t disappointed.

 

Some Boot and Bike recommendations for this autumn:

Edinburgh and the Fife coast:  check out some of the classic books set in Auld Reekie 
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/oct/12/top-10-books-literary-edinburgh?INTCMP=SRCH  and the Guardian’s interactive guide to the city
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/series/edinburgh-city-guide

Head out by train over the Forth Bridge (or cycle out over path beside the road bridge)
http://www.sustrans.org.uk/sustrans-near-you/scotland/easy-rides-in-scotland/edinburgh-to-the-forth-road-bridge
towards Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy. Cycle, walk along the coastal path   http://www.fifecoastalpath.co.uk/
to  Anstruther – visit the award-winning fish restaurant 
http://anstrutherfishbar.co.uk/index.html  –  then on to St Andrews and its university and world-famous golf course   
http://www.saint-andrews.co.uk/staindex.html

Birmingham and Shropshire: you’ve still got time to sample some food and drink at the city’s 10 day Food Fest  http://whatson.visitbirmingham.com/food-fest-137426262
From the end of the month, try to catch the Lost in Lace exhibition 
http://whatson.visitbirmingham.com/lost-in-lace-588181948
Trains from the city’s New Street station take about an hour to Shrewsbury
http://tickets.londonmidland.com/lm/en/JourneyPlanning/MixingDeck  Arriva Trains Wales  http://www.buytickets.arrivatrainswales.co.uk/advancedsearch.aspx also travel to Shrewsbury and thence Church Stretton, Craven Arms and Ludlow. Marvel at the expansive views from the top of the Long Mynd, then restore your calories with a trip to the foodie heaven of Ludlow   
http://www.ludlow.org.uk/fooddrink.html

Glasgow and the Cowal Peninsular: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is currently rocking to the AC/DC exhibition.http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/our-museums/kelvingrove/whats-on/exhibitions/AC-DC-exhibition/Pages/default.aspx
Or check out how eminent writer/artist  Alasdair Gray, depicted life in the city in the 1970s in a major exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art http://whatson.seeglasgow.com/Event41951
From the city take the train to Gourock, then ferry to Dunoon 
http://www.western-ferries.co.uk/  Bike  through the beguiling Benmore Botanic Gardens   http://www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/benmore   and on to enjoy the autumn colours in Glenbranter Forest, where there is also the opportunity for some off-road biking http://www.forestry.gov.uk/website/recreation.nsf/LUWebDocsByKey/ScotlandArgyllandButeArgyllForestParkGlenbranterForest

Newcastle and the Northumberland coast: you’ll never short of somewhere to go, or see, in Newcastle.  This autumn, the city hosts an international print making exhibition, before the Baltic hosts the 2011 Turner Prize  http://www.newcastlegateshead.com/whats-on/baltic-presents-turner-prize-2011-p520731#productlist=/whats-on/baltic-presents-turner-prize-2011-p520731&proxprodtype=
The 100mile Northumberland Coast is a designated Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)  http://www.northumberland-coast.co.uk/ with award-winning beaches, castles and wildlife. Walk the 64 mile coastal path and use     http://www.northumberland.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=6898 to help you get about without using a car.

Exeter and the Jurassic coast: the city’s beautiful St Peter’s Cathedral is well worth a visit http://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/ and the Bike Shed Theatre    http://www.exeterviews.co.uk/whats-on/event/74/henry-v.html   presents a critically-acclaimed production of Henry V on October 21st-22nd.
The city sits at the west end of the Jurassic coast: the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site is England’s first natural World Heritage Site – it covers 95 miles of truly stunning coastline from East Devon to Dorset, with rocks recording 185 million years of the Earth’s history  http://www.jurassiccoastline.com/
Walk sections of the coastal path, visit the Swannery at Abbotsbury, marvel at Durdle Door rock arch, hunt for fossils on Charmouth beach, or take short detours to Bridport and Thomas Hardy’s Dorchester.   And, you don’t need a car; instead use the excellent X53 bus that links Exeter with Poole at the easterly end of the coast   
http://lulworthcovebedandbreakfast.com/lulworth-cove/buses-jurassic-coast.htm

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14 Jul 2011

Discover Dumfriesshire: Walk/Cycle

No Comments Biking, Booting, Tours
 

View from Kirkland Hill, Kirkconnel

Where? Kirkconnel/Sanquhar, north Dumfriesshire

 

How? train from Glasgow Central (or Carlisle if travelling north) to Kirkconnel/Sanquhar, return buses from Wanlockhead/Thornhill/Carronbridge, if needed, run to Kirkconnel and Sanquhar

Why? one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets; the beautiful, unspoilt Nith valley, undiscovered by tourists, ideal walking/cycling country, direct access to Southern Upland Way http://www.southernuplandway.gov.uk/cms/  on National Byway cycle route  http://www.thenationalbyway.org/welcome.asp  birthplace of the bicycle  http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle/drumlanrig-castle/cycle-museum   yet, within easy access of Glasgow and Carlisle.

But: very isolated outside of the villages, can be bleak with high rainfall and infrequent transport, so vital to check timetables and plan in advance; proper equipment, sufficient supplies and spares are vital

Info: routes shown on maps; OS Explorers 320, 321, 328, 329

Terrain: steep gradients away from valley floor, often wet and muddy

Refreshments: hotel, pubs, cafes in Sanquhar and Thornhill, tearoom at Drumlanrig Castle http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle   . Blackaddie Country House Hotel in Sanquhar http://www.blackaddiehotel.co.uk/  is located in beautiful surroundings and has gained a very good reputation for its food

Baker's Burn, Kirkconnel

Separated by the bleak and brooding Lowther Hills from its more famous neighbour, the Clyde, the River Nith follows a southerly course from its source in East Ayrshire to the Solway Firth. Best known for its excellent trout and salmon fishing and associations with Robert Burns, the majority of its valley lies in Dumfriesshire; from the bleak, open vistas of Upper Nithsdale, through a dramatic, gorge-like stretch between Mennock and Carronbridge – Highlandesque, in terms of its spectacular  beauty – to the wide flood plain of Dumfries and thence into the Solway.

This is undiscovered Scotland; usually hastily bypassed on the M74 and West Coast Main Line 15 miles or so to the east.  Undiscovered, of course, also means unspoilt and non-commercialised.  But, linked by rail to Carlisle and Glasgow, with direct access to the Southern Upland Way and with world-class on and off-road cycling opportunities, it’s an excellent area for booters and bikers, with plenty of history, culture and even some foodie options thrown in.

Sunset over the Nith Valley

 It’s also a remarkably easy area to get to: change at Carlisle – about four-five  hours from London and around three from the Midlands on the West Coast Main Line – take the service to Glasgow via Dumfries and you arrive in Sanquhar/Kirkconnel (both villages have stations) in just over an hour. Similarly, the same service in reverse from Glasgow takes about 90 minutes.

Increasingly popular with off-road bikers as it’s right in the heart of the Seven Stanes series of world-class MTB courses, www.sevenstanes.org.uk  this corner of SW Scotland is also ideal for road cycling and touring and every type of walking, from the most testing long distance footpath in Britain to riverside rambles http://www.uppernithsdale-events.org/walking   A 15 mile trail focusing on the coal and lead mining heritage of the area has recently been opened linking Kirkconnel to Wanlockhead. It crosses rough moorland, with some spectacular views, but is strenuous, so proper equipment and hill-walking experience are necessary  http://www.geolocation.ws/nearby/en?loc=55.420516,-3.823472

Although not renowned for copious amounts of sunshine  –  it can be bleak and cool even in the middle of summer – it is usually mild and the area’s plentiful rainfall results in a lush, emerald vista of deciduous woodlands and fast flowing streams (as well, regrettably the ubiquitous midges).  It’s refreshingly untouristy and the evening light lingers long, from April right through to August.

Sanquhar boasts the oldest post office in the world http://www.networkun.co.uk/business/sanquharPO.html   and the town holds a historic Riding the Marches every year http://www.sanquharridingofthemarches.com/

The area, generally, is noted for its salmon fishing and, for admirers of Scotland’s national bard, it is smack in between  Robert Burns’ birthplace  near Ayr, and his grave and mausoleum in Dumfries.

St Conal's Cross

Definitely worth a look is the beautiful and historic church in Kirkconnel that dates from the early 18th century. However, the first church in the village is thought to have been established by St Conal in the eighth century.  Closed down during the period of Covenanter unrest in the 1680s, a Celtic cross now marks the site, about two miles out of the village, and a  recent renovation project has restored the site of the original kirkyard. http://www.kirkconnel.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=81&Itemid=211

 Both Kirkconnel and Sanquhar have strong historic links with the Covenanters – people in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638 opposing any interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Scottish Presbyterian church. In 1680 the preacher Richard Cameron, issued the famous Sanquhar Declaration, renouncing allegiance to Charles II. This, and a second declaration in the town, by James Renwick five years later, set out the basis of future religious freedom in Scotland.

http://www.covenanter.org/CivilGovt/cameronandsanquhar.htm

 

Boot and Bike Options: 

i) walk along the Southern Upland Way out of Sanquhar east towards Wanlockhead – about 8 miles

From Sanquhar station follow the signs for the Southern Upland Way east.  http://www.southernuplandway.gov.uk/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=119&Itemid=322  Make sure you visit the award-winning Museum of Lead Mining  http://www.leadminingmuseum.co.uk/home.shtml  and return by bus to Sanquhar railway station. http://www.travelinescotland.com 

Sanquhar to Wanlockhead

ii) walk/cycle from Sanquhar along minor roads and forest tracks to Kirkconnel and back – about 11 miles, off-road bike needed

From Sanquhar station go down Station Road, cross the A76, then straight head along Blackaddie Road. Cross the bridge and keep straight ahead. The road then follows Euchan Water past a lovely waterfall. The scenery is superb and after about two miles you will reach a coniferous plantation.  Cross a ford (you may need to lift your bike over a gate here), keep on the track through the rest of the trees, descend to cross a burn and follow the track through the next plantation. Keep on the track until a cattle grid, turn right, cross another grid and then continue along the side of Corserig Hill.  Keep going until the track splits, bear left on the well-defined path and follow this through Librymoor Plantation until you see Kirkconnel Cemetery in front of you. Turn right on to the minor road that runs behind Kirkconnel and continue on this for approximately three miles. At Blackaddie Bridge, turn left and follow  the road back into Sanquhar.

Sanquhar - Kirkconnel - Sanquhar Off-Road

 ii) cycle from Sanquhar to Drumlanrig Estate near Carronbridge – 17-20 miles, depending on route, off-road bike needed if riding the forest trails at Drumlanrig

Follow above directions from Sanquhar station to Blackaddie Bridge, then turn left and follow the minor road with the River Nith on your left; past Menock and Eliock Wood the valley is spectacular. At Burnmouth the road heads south, away from the river. Continue for about half a mile to Burnsands where you can either turn left and follow the road direct to Drumlanrig Castle (about 2-3 miles) or go straight on for about five miles, where the road then loops round back to Drumlanrig. http://www.drumlanrig.com/drumlanrig-outdoor-activities/cycling 

Visit Drumlanrig Castle  http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle sample the  mountain bike trails (variety of routes available, off-road bike needed), pop into the Scottish Cycle Museum (Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Drumlanrig blacksmith, rode a  bicycle he invented the 60miles to Glasgow in 1839, heralding the age of the bicycle),  http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle/drumlanrig-castle/cycle-museum or enjoy the many walking routes through Drumlanrig forest.

Sanquhar to Drumlanrig

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01 Oct 2010

Arran, Islay And Jura: An Island Circuit, By Bike

No Comments Biking

Visit three of Scotland’s most iconic islands in this classic circuit, extend or reduce each section as you please.

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01 Oct 2010

A Loch Katrine Odyssey

No Comments Biking, Tours

First view of Loch Katrine

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. Read more

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