The trouble with having maps only on a mobile phone – as excellent as that may be – is that you really can’t get an end to end view of a whole coast to coast trip like this one in the detail needed to plan it well. This is particularly a problem when you are trying to cross a pretty barren, upland part of the country with limited road options, few of which go where you need them to go, or stay nicely within the 40km stripe of OS maps to which I am numerically and sequentially confined. For that, you need paper maps and a big space in which to spread them out. And I don’t have that luxury. This was posing a problem with which I decided I would need some help.
Help arrived in the form of my wife, Jenni, who not only has access to the relevant resources; but understands how to plan a decent route and is able to see the world through a cyclist’s eyes. She came to my rescue with a route that, so far, has been brilliant to cycle. It runs across a part of the country that I have little knowledge about and – for the most part – I am discovering for the first time. And I have to say that today has been something of a revelation.
There cannot be many times when you cycle in a roughly straight line along mostly A and B roads, for more than 80 miles, and at no point find yourself having to deal with traffic, or accept second rate scenery. Today has shown me some of the very best of cycling in this country, as well as demonstrating that, even south of Glasgow and Edinburgh, there is a lot of empty space.
So it was a good day. It was made significantly better, for me, by the weather, which was mostly dry and quite often sunny, with a helpful following breeze. Perfect. Even more so because for much of the day I was arriving in places soon after they had received a deluge. I began my day in warm sunshine thanks to an extended checkout time this morning at Robert Burns’ mum’s place. At 10am it was raining hard. By 11am it was beautiful. And so my good luck continued. For the last 30 miles today I was cycling along wet roads covered in large puddles, all the while casting my bicycle shaped shadow as the sun shone brightly. I caught (and sheltered from) a single 10 minute shower around 3pm. That was it. I was very fortunate.
I started out by cycling downhill a few miles to what I had decided would be my official starting point for this crossing of the country: Turnberry. Or to give it its proper title these days, Trump Turnberry. Despite The Donald having his fingers all over this beautiful piece of Ayrshire coast, it was an undeniably impressive place. There are 3 golf courses here all overlooking the sea, Arran, and Ailsa Craig, and it has hosted the Open regularly in the past. There is also a quite stunning, huge 5 star hotel that cannot fail to be noticed, resplendent in its cream paint and surrounded by manicured grass. Over the road on the links, close to the customary starting point lighthouse, is the largest Scottish flag I have ever seen. It is positively American in proportions. Not, I suspect, a coincidence.
I took to quiet country lanes with views back towards Ailsa Craig turning my head until the sea was no longer visible. Then I found myself in a long, green valley heading inland along a smooth B road between Dailley, a large unmemorable village, and the more attractive village of Straiton, where the hills were larger, the houses prettier, and there was a tea room. Applying the usual rules, I stopped and found that this was very much a loose leaf tea and home baked scones establishment. When in Rome. I had possibly my first ever bramble scone, which I recommend.
The owner shared with me a cycling publication describing routes around the “Ayrshire Alps”. There is some artistic licence in that name; but the area was growing on me. The roads were very quiet indeed and in good condition. One of the other customers told me the area was a secret. So please don’t tell anyone how nice it is there. I might just come back for more scones though. And some rambling. It felt like it deserved more of my time.
The next road took me quite high up and then down again to the next small place, Dalmellington, which was not quite so pretty. It is a former mining community, and it had that look about it. Not a bad place; but like the land around it, a little scarred. The village signboards announced it with the catchy slogan ”The village under the stars”, which I guess could be anywhere really. But it refers to the Galloway International Dark Sky Park, which is all around this area. It was the fourth such park in the world and the first in the UK and it claims to have exceptionally dark night skies over its 300 square miles. Very few people live here, so light pollution is minimal. They say you can see over 7,000 stars and planets with the naked eye.
From here it was up and over again through lonely and surprisingly mountainous country to the small village of Carsphairn, which offered little to detain me. Its one shop/post-office/cafe was closed. It was a blink and you miss it sort of place. However, this section of the ride was one I had ridden once before, albeit the opposite way. On our end to end in 2008, we were surprised at how empty and lovely the roads around here were. They still are. The next section was especially attractive – and quiet – all the way to the village of Moniaive, 18 miles away. From the highest point it was a long, empty descent down a green valley for miles until the bunting, the clock tower and the terraces of low cottages arrived.
It had been raining here. A lot. I was as surprised as I was delighted to find that Moniaive, despite being as quiet as a church mouse, had an open cafe at 4.20pm. By now I was pretty hungry. A bramble scone only gets you so far. So, naturally, I had a cooked breakfast. I chatted to the owners, who were renovating the adjoining pub. A week ago, they said, a large number of soldiers had descended on the cafe all at once. They were using the area for military exercises, with some soldiers from such places as Poland. Apparently the lack of people and the plentiful open space is ideal for whatever they need to do. I thought that for me it might almost be too quiet here, and that is saying something. Dumfries, a large town, is 17 miles away. There isn’t much else any closer. But Moniaive has a shop, 2 pubs, a garage, a cafe and an Italian restaurant, so you could survive here. I can think of worse fates.
From here to the next village, Thornhill, along the A702, was deserted again. Thornhill, on the much busier A76, has a long broad main street lined with trees, with a good range of businesses. It was quite a handsome place. But soon after that I was back on a tiny road up and over the hills and through forest, for several more miles, to the snappily titled village of Ae, now a popular mountain bike centre. It was all recently washed by the rain and quite lovely in the early evening sun.
On my way into Lochmaben, my final destination, I passed many fields of cows. Ahead the skies were still dark with rain. Behind me the sun shone a brilliant evening light across the fields and low hills, lighting up the cows and the green grass in stark a contrast to the sky. There was a part of a rainbow reaching up from the ground. It was quite atmospheric. The cows were pretty much all standing up, which I believe means that the rain was over. I’m not sure if I shared their confidence; but I would say they got it right. And I would say the same for myself in my choice of airbnb (there was no choice), where I am enjoying my own very well appointed space and a couple of beers. For the second night running I am most impressed by the efforts my host has gone to. It is a real home from home.
Tomorrow will be another 90 miles that takes me almost as far as the east coast. If it comes anywhere near today’s ride for overall enjoyment on a bike, I will be a happy man.