Oh north west wind when wilt thou blow
So the small rain down can rain?
I was reciting those lines to myself last Friday while I was cycling north-west, right into the rain, not small but quite heavy and driven by a cold wind across the island of Arran. After two hours and two trains through the central belt then another hour on the ferry it is grand to arrive on Arran and start cycling along the sheltered east coast that looks so fertile and prosperous, with beech hedges and fading rhododendrons and white houses, all washed clean by the frequent rain. The air smells of wild roses and the sea. Arran always fills me with a sense of well-being.
I was on my way to Lochranza to catch the ferry to Kintyre but instead of going the fourteen miles straight up the coast from Brodick I turned west and cycled up the B880 that crosses the island. I was climbing up into the cloud, the rain grew heavier, and cars approaching me had their lights on. It was a slog but I got over the pass and dropped down to come across the finest post box I’ve ever seen.
I diverted to see the standing stones at Machrie, then cycled along the wild west coast. I was now heading north-east so it was slightly easier going and it was a splendid ride along the barren side of the island, with far fewer houses for retirees and in front of one house hens and peacocks were walking on the road.
I caught the ferry at Lochranza to Claonaig, so was now on the Kintyre Peninsula and had the steep climb up the B8001, which I found a struggle as the rain was right in my face. I had only cycled about 25 miles or so and I was not carrying much gear but the wind and the rain made each mile seem doubled. I finally dropped to the main A83, a fairly quiet A road and after a few miles came to the West Loch Hotel, about a mile short of Tarbert. It’s an old coaching inn, family run and pleasant and cost only £28 per night. I had a room with a dormer window through which was a view of the loch. The food was ample and well-cooked and the bathroom had a bath, where I could lie and drink a glass of Springburn whisky from the nearby Campbeltown distillery.
The next day the wind had dropped and I cycled eighteen or so miles south to Taiyburn to pick up the ferry to the island of Gigha, famed because after changing ownership many times it now belongs to the people who live there. Like all the islands in the sounds and sea lochs on the west coast of Scotland it has its own micro-climate, which is mild. It also has a wind farm, some wooden houses and what look like large cabbage trees that do so well on the west.
I stopped off at Auchamore Gardens. They are fairly extensive and you are guided up woodland slopes and round pretty flower gardens by red arrows that point you this way and that in an agreeable maze. By the walled garden finches and tits clustered on a bird feeder and the place seemed like Paradise, as the sun had come out. The gardens are famed for azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. These had finished blooming but there were plenty of other flowers like roses, passion flowers and asters. Occasionally in a weedy herbaceous border would be a sign:- This border is being replanted. Thank you for your concern, or by a pond which just contained a rubber sheet:- This pond is being redeveloped and will be completed in 2010. Thank you for your concern (not the exact words which I didn’t write down but to that effect). I could imagine the state of polite exasperation that whoever looks after the garden must have got into when visitors said, By the way, those herbaceous borders are a bit overgrown, or Is something wrong with the pond?
After leaving the gardens I cycled to the northern tip of the island and saw an eagle which wheeled in the sky, calling out Kark! and disappeared behind a crag. Then I got the ferry back again and did the eighteen miles to the hotel on the A road, with a few hard hills and fine views of the Inner Hebrides.
Sunday was the solistice when I think I should rise at dawn and greet the sun but the cloud lay low and it drizzled all day so I stayed indoors reading and watching the telly. Monday I cycled back to the ferry up the B8001 which I’d climbed on a hot day a couple of years before, on a trip to Islay and remembered as horribly steep and exhausting, but on a cool damp day it was not bad going. The flags and foxgloves were out and the fence posts were sprouting beards of lichen.
Several other cyclists were waiting for the ferry, fit lads from Motherwell who boasted to me of the superiority of cycling near Glasgow rather than Edinburgh. We arrived at Arran, and starting on the east coast route I saw a deer hanging around a recycling bin. I began the stiff climb towards the typical Highland upland of bog and heather and rock. The sun came out and the crags of Goat Fell appeared through thinning white clouds. From there I could look down to a great sweep of green fertility and make a swathe to the coast, belting along the road, with the sea on one side and houses with pretty gardens or a woodland of vigorous trees on the other. I stopped to look at a seal that was lying on a rock about the same size as itself and scratching its stomach with its flippers then went for a swish lunch of mussels and Arran Blonde beer before I caught the ferry.
In the ferry shop I was in a queue to buy a newspaper and the person next to me pointed out Andy Murray’s face on front of the paper. “My optician is his aunt,” said the shop assistant, then laughed at his own name-dropping. “How sad is that.” I met some chums in a pub yesterday and they gave me a brief greeting before turning their faces to the screen to see Murray get through the first round at Wimbledon. In a small country he looms large.