I left the crowds of Pitlochry behind and took the very quiet A924 uphill past Edradour Distillery, and northeast, and then east, and then southeast in an arc leading away from one world and into another – or so it felt. In my family we often play a game called “It’s a bit like”, especially when you go somewhere new. If Pitlochry was a bit like more touristy parts of the English Lake District, then I suddenly found myself transported to the Dark Peak close to my home in north Derbyshire (or somewhere a bit like it, anyway), all rolling green moorland and very sparsely populated. The empty road stretched away far into the distance and I began a long and very enjoyable downhill ride into a valley with a small river that was (honestly) a bit like the Forest of Bowland. It was all very pleasing and made for great cycling in the afternoon sunshine.
Kirkmichael was the first and only village I encountered in the 24 miles after Pitlochry. It was small; but it had a shop-cum-cafe and a hotel, so it counts. The cafe was still open, so guess what, I stopped. I sat outside and enjoyed tea and cake in the sun and watched not much happening in the very quiet village. Someone came in the shop to try (unsuccessfully) to buy a bottle of Pimms, so summery was the weather! But that was about it.
I now had around 10 miles left to bump along the bottom of map 43 to my destination for the night – and this leg of the trip – in Kirkton of Glenisla. I was heading into unchartered territory; but it was all very pleasing in an unspectacular way. My final road was a very small, very rural one with long, grassy verges. It followed a river for a mile or so and then turned away past an old red phone box, repurposed for some other use as they generally now are. It stood where a couple of minor tracks turned off the lane. I was taking it all pretty slowly, enjoying the peace and quiet and the warm sun on my back. I had maybe 5 miles left to go and a table booked for dinner when I arrived. Everything was good.
Suddenly, from nowhere, there was a loud BANG like a gun being fired. I knew straight away that it was my back tyre. The inner tube had exploded! Not good news, of course; but in the grand scheme of things, not a bad place or time to get my first puncture of the entire trip. I could sort this.
This situation would have seemed worse only a few hours before, because I would have had no tyre levers. This was due to a simple error on my part. When I was last at home, I transferred my small pack that sits under my saddle to another bike, to go for a local ride with a friend. I obviously never moved it back again. It contained tyre levers, an inner tube, Allen keys – the basics for keeping my bike on the road. I happened to have another inner tube and a pump in my panniers. Even a few patches. But no tyre levers. It was sheer good fortune that I had got away with it, without even realizing my oversight, until just a couple of days ago. Hence my timely purchase in Pitlochry. So that was OK.
Except, when I came to remove my back wheel, I found that I couldn’t. I’d never before owned a bike that required a 10mm Allen key to remove the wheel. I never even thought to look. But this wheel wasn’t coming off any other way and I had NOT bought myself a new set of Allen keys in Pitlochry! Now what?
I could see two dwellings from where I was. Maybe one of these would have a set of Allen keys I could borrow. At the first cottage, right beside the phone box, the door was answered by quite an elderly lady with very few teeth. She reeked of cigarettes. Before I even asked, I knew my chances of success here were scant. The lady was apologetic and suggested with a wave of her arm that I try asking Tony at the other house down the lane opposite. Tony, it turned out, was not there. The door was answered by a lady with a dog so keen to get out and greet me that it took all of her strength to stop it. When the dog was safely contained within, I explained my predicament. She said she didn’t live here and would need to call Tony. It transpired that Tony was 2 minutes from home and very soon came screeching to a halt outside the house. He went off into his shed and produced a toolbox full of all kinds of things. I took it back to my wounded bike and after a few failed attempts found the right tool to complete the operation. The new tyre levers worked a treat and I removed an inner tube with a gash six inches long! There was no sign on the tyre, inside or out, of what had caused the blowout, nor on the road. I still don’t know why it happened. But I was able to get back into action and return Tony’s toolbox. The dog was now outside and it was leaping backwards and forwards over fences that should have been able to contain it. If you are going to have a dog with that level of energy, this middle of nowhere location was certainly the place to live!
Relieved and restored to action, I cycled gingerly on through the quiet countryside and arrived not long afterwards in Kirkton of Glenisla, which in reality is little more than a pub with rooms, a chapel and a couple of cottages. But it was a popular spot that evening with locals and visitors alike, and once again I was glad to have booked ahead. There was just time for a shower before dinner, which I needed very badly. Then I went down and, in the event, ate in the small bar where I was befriended by a man with long, wild white hair and matching beard. I suspect he was a very regular customer and had his own regular seat at the bar.
I will be honest, my initial reaction was to keep our acquaintance to a minimum; but it was a lesson in not being too quick to judge. Our conversation lasted 3 hours and I got to know a 78 year old man born in Glasgow and sent by his father, aged 15, into an engineering apprenticeship that he didn’t enjoy; but felt he had no choice over. As time went by, he progressed into teaching engineering, and from there into his true passion, English Literature, as a school teacher. This passion still burned strongly, along with a love for music in all its forms (but notably Bob Dylan) and I found we had a surprising amount in common. Four pints later, when I excused myself, I felt a tinge of guilt as if I was abandoning an old – if rather eccentric – friend. He gripped my hand as if to hold me back; but then let me go. I believe I may have brought a ray of sunshine back to a life that has become rather a shadow of its former self. He talked about a lost friend in Aberdeen. Maybe he’ll give him a call now, like I suggested. I hope so. He deserves to be listened to.
The next morning I got up and out early to cycle the 26 miles into Dundee for my train home, for a week of prior commitments. This was non-map unofficial mileage; but enjoyable and interesting nonetheless. Since I may take a different route through these parts later, I will comment briefly on what I saw.
It was a glorious morning. The first 12 miles or so were empty roads along green valleys as far as the small town of Alyth, which turned out to be lovely. Then I found myself passing more frequently through populated places, with some traffic for company, until, all at once, I crossed a dual carriageway and was confronted with tall blocks of flats. I was in Dundee. Just like that. The next 15 minutes or so were a bit of a depressing reminder of run down city life. What a contrast. And then I reached the city centre, which surprised me with its pleasant, pedestrianized open spaces and an impressive collection of civic buildings and fine churches. I hadn’t expected much. It’s always nice when somewhere turns out to be better than you thought. Right in the centre is a big statue of Desperate Dan, the famous cartoon character from The Dandy children’s comic, which – along with its sister publication The Beano – was a product of this city since 1937. It was the 3rd longest running comic in the world, reaching weekly sales of 2 million in the 1950s. When it came to an end in 2012, that was down to just 8,000 a week. They still produce a Summer Special and a yearly Dandy Annual, so it lives on.
But the best part of Dundee I saw was the new waterfront, just a short stroll from the main shopping area, where a 30 year, £1 billion project is taking place to reunite Dundee with its greatest natural asset. This morning the broad, sparkling River Tay looked splendid with its road and rail bridges heading out across to Fife, either side of the new flagship development, V&A Dundee, “Scotland’s Design Museum”. This new landmark, designed by the same Japanese architect as the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium, is built to resemble a ship. It sits alongside the RRS (Royal Research Ship) Discovery, built in Dundee in 1900 for Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s first Antarctic expedition. Together they form the centre piece for the new waterfront, the people-friendly area around it complete with dancing fountains, sculptures, benches, cafes and a huge sandpit! All of this, and more, is “propelling the city to international acclaim”, according to its website. Possibly. There is more work to do; but so far, so good.