Saturday, 14 May 2016

Scotland and the Solar System

In early April I met Greg and Alex up on the Mendips for a long overdue catch up and some enjoyable walks which included traditional food and beer courtesy of the ever familiar Hunter's Inn at Priddy.  Later a  group of us met near Bridgwater to cycle the canal down to Taunton that  was originally intended to cut across the south west peninsula to allow shipping cargo more direct access from the Channel to the West coast of Britain. However the arrival of the railways rendered the link obsolete and the final section was never completed, thus today the route stands isolated from the rest of the canal network but offers enjoyable riding in an oft overlooked corner of the West country. 
We started from the visitor centre and car parking at Maunsel lock heading north first to Bridgwater where the canal wharf and marina has seem some sympathetic development but lacked a cafe. Returning south we stopped for lunch at a canal side pub before continuing down to Taunton encountering en route the various plinths and installations that constitute a scale representation of our solar system with the planets marked at intervals from an enormous replica sun - the size of the planets was also to scale with Earth amounting to a tennis ball compared to the head height sun. 

Riding in to Taunton we passed some very attractive housing and the Somerset County Cricket Ground before finding a cafe in a sunny square for coffee and cakes. On our return a puncture caused a short delay before we picked up quiet lanes to complete a circuit after which I headed north to Sheffield - a straightforward run of under four hours.
Monday saw a good walk in the north of the Peak District and other walks and rides later in the week. I had left my old mountain bike for repair and collected it only to find four miles in to a trip to meet Mandy from work that the cassette body had failed leaving me to walk back across town and get the shop to rectify the problem.

On the Friday I left for Scotland avoiding Leeds by using the motorways and then turning off in to Northumberland and passing through Barnard Castle and Middle Teesdale. After Alston I did a walk on an old railway line with an impressive viaduct before tucking away in the Scottish Borders in Reiver country. It was lovely to be back in the van once more with nothing but birdsong and a sunset to add to a fine evening.
Saturday saw a smooth trip through to Killin on Loch Tay where I met the rest of the gang for a week in a well appointed holiday cottage that had red squirrels in the garden and access to some good walks and bike rides. Munroes and Corbetts were bagged on some days whilst I cycled the Killin to Callander Sustrans route that took in a lofty viaduct on one day and completed a hard circuit of Glen Lyon returning via an old estate track the next.
Glen Ample provided a good off road route and exhilerating downhill to pick up the Callander Sustrans route again where the Forest Holidays cafe provided refreshments and a roaring wood stove.

An excellent meal at the Courie Inn in Killin rounded off a good week and as the gang headed south I tackled Ben Lawers on a sunny day with a good covering of snow on the upper reaches. Quite a blizzard blew up on the final ridge but once on the summit the skies cleared revealing extensive views and an ice encrusted trig point. I descended via another path to collect another summit before returning to the car park for a peaceful night after a very satisfying day.

Sunday saw an early start for Sauchie where I met Mandy at her brother's house and after walking the dogs we decided to head for the ferry to Arran that evening as it would give us an extra day in the fine weather. En route we passed the Kelpies we had cycled to in January and stopped at the Falkirk Wheel - an ingenious method of linking two canals whereby two boats sit in sections of canal that can be isolated and then simultaneously be lowered and raised largely by gravity. The kids Zorbing on the ponds looked to be having a great time as well but we were soon off to Ardrossan for the ferry over to Brodick - an enjoyable hour as the sun set. 

The Certificated Site at Shiskine provided a quiet pitch with hook up and our base for 3 nights with day one comprising a sweep round the south of the island and including an off road link through forestry followed by a long climb across the centre of the island. Day two started with another climb across to Brodick passing en route a rather unhappy van driver who had dropped the nearside of his van in to a substantial ditch. After a quick look round Brodick and Arran Aromatics we headed north to Lochranza stopping at the delightful hamlets of Corrie and Sannox before another stiff climb and a swift descent to the Arran Distillery for coffeee and cake.
In Lochranza itself we turned on to a side road to head round the coast a little towards Newton to enjoy warm sunshine and good views before returning to the castle where deer grazed the surrounding grassland and a rather fine private yacht moored up. The castle was in an impressive setting but before long we were heading north and then west pasing a row of fishermen's cottages known as the Twelve Apostles. A superb road took us south under a hot sun and on stopping at Pirnmill we decided to dine out on their terrace looking over to the Kintyre Peninsula on a calm and idyllic evening.
The final hour home soon passed and we enjoyed hot showers at the small site which is planning to double in size (still to only 20 pitches) as the recent 50% reduction in Calmac Ferry fares has increased visitor numbers substantially.
We drove across to Lochranza for a mid morning crossing to Claonaig passing the yacht we had seen moored the previous day. We were almost only the car on board and it was a shortish crossing followed by an even shorter drive across to Kennacraig for the ferry to Islay. Not having booked we were lucky to get on the next sailing an hour later and enjoyed the two hour journey on a flat sea with extensive views including a very attractive new build right on the fore shore.
Entering the Sound of Islay we spotted Mcarthurs Head lighthouse and the nearby MBA bothy before docking at Port Askaig.  A quick crossing of the island with a brief foray to the local shop at Bruichcladdich saw us parking up near Machir Bay for 3 nights of wild camping - the stream provided additional cooking and washing up water and the hot sun topped up the battery via the solar panels.
We walked along the deserted beach to enjoy a couple of hours sitting on the sun warmed rocks before heading back for a peaceful evening and an impressive sunset.
A rewarding day exploring the local lanes and coast took us to some stunning coves and beaches such as Saligo Bay and Sanaig Mor with its memorial to those lost from an Irish migrant vessel 200 years ago before we arrived at the Loch Gruinart RSPB centre. This was very informative and provided a welcome respite from the strong northerly winds -  the coffee machine was very much appreciated and once revived we pedalled up the west coast of the loch to enjoy the extensive dunes and views at Ardnave. Returning mid evening to the van after an enjoyable day we walked on the beach under a full moon around 11pm before sleeping soundly.

The next day we visited the ruined church and military cemetery at Kilchoman before a quiet road took us back to Bruichcladdich for a bacon sandwich enjoyed in the sunshine outside the excellent cafe and shop. Heading south we passed the distillery and then through Port Charlotte with a small harbour and some very attractive waterside properties. The village also has a community run campsite utilising the sports field and facilities with good views across to Bowmore.
The almost deserted road led us down to Port Wemyss and Portnahaven both unexpected delights with seals basking in the clear waters and a sturdy lighthouse on an offshore island.
Turning north we stopped at  the stunning beach near Lossit before taking an off road back to Machir Bay.
Moving on  after a relaxing morning we decided to stay at the Port Charlotte campsite which gave us a chance to have hot showers, fill up with water and top up the battery from hook up as well as taking a moderate ride across to the West coast and back spotting deer in the woodland as we followed an off road track. The historic cemetery at Nerabus had some remarkable carved headstones and the campsite provided a cosy base with even a TV signal available from across the waters.
We then headed back to Port Askaig via Finlaggan - the ancient seat of power for the Lords of the Isles - and the Bunnahabhain distillery which seemed deserted but did have a shop and tasting area tucked away. We were surprised that the old workers cottages were largely unoccupied as we had been told that the islands have plenty of job opportunities but affordable housing is in short supply. We were due to catch the short ferry over to Jura before lunch but low tides meant that the next sailing was delayed giving us a chance to chat to the local lobster fishermen and enjoy a pint in the pub as the Calmac ferry from the mainland arrived. The five minute crossing to Jura put us on the island's only road which we followed to Craighouse and then took a track down to the beach at Kells for a memorable pitch just yards from the sea. We cycled up to the nearest high point past Knockrome before taking a track right round Ardmenish bay to reach the two Light Houses that sit at the far end of the peninsula alongside a stone jetty. On our return we decided we had time to grab a pint at Jura's only pub back in Craighouse before sleeping soundly back at Kells where offshore a Norwegian motor launch had dropped anchor.
A short drive to Tarbert saw us parking up to spend the day walking round the coast to the newly renovated MBA bothy Cruib Lodge which was a credit to all those involved. It is a demanding route and forms part of a tough multi day walk up Jura's wild west coast - see later.
Our final day was spent cycling to the very northern tip of the island passing Barnhill where George Orwell wrote 1984 and remote Kinuachdrachd before walking the couple of miles to the waters between Jura and Scarba that house the Corryvreckan whirlpool. Wild goats grazed the craggy headland but sadly there was no sign of the sea eagle nest I had seen on a previous visit four years ago. Our return south was assisted by a strong tailwind but this also brought in the first rain of the trip making it a rather strenuous day so we decided to treat ourselves to a night in the Jura hotel and were soon enjoying hot showers and good food with a view across the bay where a small French yacht had moored up. The comfy room came with a heart breakfast and we departed for Islay amused to see that the bin lorry timed its arrival to the minute for its return crossing.

The SNP were canvassing in Bowmore and secured my vote with free scones and jam before we headed south to walk on the Oa peninsula passing the poignant if intrusive American Memorial to fallen naval crews that stood atop impressive cliffs.
Round at Port Ellen we  walked out to the Whistling Beach and back via the oddly square shaped lighthouse that guards the port entrance and checked out the ferry terminal before passing the Laphroaig distillery and calling in at Lagavullin which is celebrating its 200th anniversary. We bought a bottle as a present for Mandy's brother and discovered that the once free Portuguese and Spanish sherry barrels now cost around £2000 as the collapse in the consumption of sherry means that much is poured away leaving only the barrels to be sold as a source of income. A good view across to the distillery was enjoyed from the ruined castle further round the bay.
Round at Ardtalla we found another superb wild pitch adjacent to a pebble beach with deer appearing at dusk and two swans paddling just offshore. Whilst it was still dry it had turned much colder and as we were alone decided to fire up the genny giving us a cosy evening.
Overnight quite a bit of snow had fallen on the local tops and across on the mainland peaks but at sea level all was well allowing us to walk north to the estate bothy half way along the route to MacArthurs Head lighthouse. We descended the steep steps to the small stone wharf as a fierce wind blew from the north and after watching the ferry pass headed back to the van for another cosy night in with the genny purring away almost inaudibly.


Early on the Friday morning we were off for the first ferry of the day back to Kennacraig - it arrived disgorging mostly commercial and freight vehicles and we were soon loaded up and tucking in to a breakfast during the two hour crossing. Three hours down to Stirling rounded off a superb trip in the form of a good evening meal out with family before the haul south to Yorkshire.
I then headed to Shropshire and mid Wales to attend to family paperwork, play some badminton in Brecon and catch up with Ian near Neath.
Across in  Bristol  I gave Bill a hand to rehang his van door following some minor bodywork (a T4 door is a surprisingly heavy thing) after which we explored some off road tracks and lanes in and around Berkeley having first cycled along the Severn from his sailing club near Oldbury Nuclear power station - currently being decommissioned. After a good meal in the Anchor's garden I returned to my place by the inlet but decided to move as a family were having a rather smoky barbecue nearby.
After sleeping soundly I woke to the alarming site of my initial pitch being under two feet of water courtesy of one of the higher tides of the year - that would have almost certainly been the end of the trusty old van which later that day clocked up 322,000 miles.
A good walk in the Peak District saw us sweltering in hot sunshine before on the Monday three of us with four bikes headed down to the Swansea Valley for another visit to the Ancient Briton at Penycae.
Jean eventually turned up after a torrential downpour to join Penny in a comfortable room while we pitched up on the peaceful campsite. There was time for a walk to the Craig Y Nos country park before dinner although the rain had arrived and stayed during Tuesday. However we togged up and enjoyed a walk in Waterfall Country above Pontneddfechan before a good lunch at The Angel and another walk visiting the cave entrances at Porth Yr Ogof and walking down to the Clyngwyn falls.
That evening the four of us were joined by local friends for an enjoyable evening and on the Wednesday despite leaden skies we loaded the bikes up to drive down to Gorseinnon and the start of the Millenium Coastal Route heading to Pembrey. During coffee at Llanelli the skies cleared giving us a good day following the trail, watching two 360 excavators dredging Burry Port Inlet and returning after a total of 30 odd miles in the saddle.
That evening saw a good curry in Ystradgynlais before we returned to Sheffield on the Thursday.
So I am currently back in Scotland as the wild west coast of Jura has tempted me in to a four or five day walk from Tarbert across to Cruib Lodge and back via Barnhill. The logistics involve a sailing to Islay at 09.45 tomorrow, followed by the Jura ferry, a drive to the end of the tarmac, a ride halfway along the track to dump the bike, a walk back to the van which will then be left at Tarbert whislt I walk in to Cruib Lodge. Some days later I should return to the bike and then pedal back to the van with the option of a similar circuit covering the southern half of the island if the weather holds.
I collected a young French couple hitching north of Glasgow who are also heading to Islay and was pleased that my French was less rusty than expected. With up to two weeks here I may try and RV with Pete and Jan before heading south to farm sit near Brecon and then enjoy the Horizons Unlimited event at Clyro in mid June - well worth attending if you have the travel bug : check it out at

My photos sit at THIS LINK

and my forthcoming locations can be checked HERE