John Campbell and companions took on Scotland’s first Road Cycling Park
Maidens of Armageddon
The nice man on the weather showed no remorse as he confidentially promised a weather Armageddon to co-inside with our latest venture – a two-dayer with a self imposed promise of our own to do a leisurely century cycle, if such a thing exists, on the Saturday followed by a gentle, which did not turn out very gentle, wandering loop of limited miles on the Sunday.
Made of hardy stuff we, being Pat, Isaac and I, ignored the forecast and made our way south by car to Maidens, a small village nestling on the Ayrshire Coast between Turnberry and Maybole, where we had the use of a caravan overnight.
THE AYRSHIRE ALPS
Saturday: one hundred and …
With minimum fuss, but plenty of moaning, we kitted ourselves out for the journey ahead, as all the while the fluffy clouds turned from jet black – I could just picture the smug look on that weather presenters face as we rolled out of the caravan site into a tasty headwind and a hill towards Kirkoswald.
In this neck of the woods you are never far from the influence of Rabbie Burns. Probably his most famous work Tam O’Shanter was based on an old legend about two Ayrshire farmers who had indulged in the drink and on their way home saw witches dancing with the devil. The two characters in the poem Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnnie were both readily identified by residents of Kirkoswald as neighbours Douglas Graham and John Davidson.
What is now known as Souter Johnnie’s Cottage was where John Davidson lived. It still has a thatched roof but is now run by the National Trust for Scotland. We cycled past, heading towards the impressive ruins of Crossraguel Abbey.
The Abbey is the only one of two in Scotland built by the Clunaics, so named after an abbey in Cluny, France. By a quirk of history, the other Scottish Clunaic Abbey is in Paisley, where all three of us work and if I turn my head from my desk to look out the window the Abbey dominates the view.
Where were we?
Another ruin, Baltersan Castle, appears shortly before we reach Maybole and turn off the A77 onto a road designated as part of the NCR7. We were now out into open countryside; this was more like it, the quiet rolling road much to our liking.
By now we were on a ‘new to us’ road and as can happen, and did (more than once) my dodgy map reading skills, and lack of the wee blue signs with the white bike we all know so well, meant we blissfully pedalled along, missing our turn, passed Dalduff and Crosshill, adding a few miles to our adventure. We also passed Kirk Hill, where the two people up top were shouting down to us – probably asking where are you three dafties going?
After pedalling through Dailly we got our self back on our planned route, heading onto the single tracked Newton Stewart road and the Glenalla Climb, a prominent member of the Ayrshire Alps. Let me explain.
The hill roads of South Carrick are apparently know as the Ayrshire Alps and form part of Scotland’s first Road Cycling Park, with a dedicated website where among the deluge of information is a list of sixteen climbs graded Green; Blue; Red and Black based on the difficulty of the climbs, black being most difficult. Three of the four black climbs listed were lying in wait for us today.
The climb with an average gradient of 6.5% was going well enough, if sauntering up the hill like a drunken weekend reveller is classed as well enough, when dropping temporarily over a bridge and a cattle grid Pat’s back wheel punctured – just as the rain was at its heaviest of course. The midgies descended, like a bag of cement going down a hillside, and they hadn’t eaten for weeks.
It was good to be moving again, even if it was uphill.
Nick of Balloch
Finally, we plummeted into the next glen, discussing, praying perhaps a more appropriate term, that we were not leaving the valley by means of a right turn as it looked a bit steep. We were and it was.
The Nick of Balloch climb, according to the afore mentioned website covers a distance of 3.5km, has an average gradient of 7.6%, a maximum of 20.4% and that it holds a fearsome reputation among Scottish cycle racers.
Never mind racers – what about us cycle tourists? Of course, we got to the top eventually, and, as with most climbs, the suffering was rewarded with the view as we refuelled, regrouped and tucked our hearts back under our ribcage.
We soon experienced another infestation – this time it was MG cars, the cream version particularly popular. They just kept coming in the opposite direction to us, and bless them, some of them had lovely matching luggage strapped to the back, as we enjoyed the extended benefit of gravity, leaving Ayrshire, entering Dumfries and Galloway and the remoteness of Glentrool Forest. Biking bliss.
Seventy MG’s later we made the junction with the A714, the volume of traffic a shock to the system. With the River Cree supplying the scenery and the promise of hot food motivating us, we made good time, arriving in Newton Stewart just when we all needed it most. As an added bonus, Armageddon decided to postpone its visit;the worst of the weather beyond us. Still didn’t disguise the fact we were only half way. We pretended not to care.
Pie in mind
We retraced our way back out of Newton Stewart for a few miles, before starting a different loop homewards, turning left at Challoch onto the B7027- a great wee road weaving through mixed woodland with an initial climb, and lochs with great names (Garawachie Lochs) and spectacular scenery (Loch Mabery). Sixty miles in and we met our first cyclists going in the opposite direction, seemingly intent on getting that last steak and kidney pie from the butchers back in town, such was their haste.
Soon afterwards it was bikes of a different kind. A cavalcade of Dutch motor bikers (they had Dutch number plates) passed us in a civilised manner, giving us a wave as they passed. I was impressed they had taken the trouble to find this backwater road and clearly were doing much like we were, simply enjoying their surroundings, speed nor haste a motivating factor.
Isaac … a burnt offering upon the mountains
Having made it to Barrhill then traversed another short section of the A714, we made it on to the B734 and over the River Stinchar via a charming old bridge, and were commenting about the house in front of us looking like a care home when without warning a gradient sign slapped us about the head – 20%!
Pat and I howled with laughter at Isaac’s response – let’s hope it wasn’t a care home, as the boy’s industrial language was unbecoming of our dignity and most certainly not for delicate ears.
Turned out it was the strangest climb ever. A single hairpin, a 50 yard burst and we were at the top, none the worse for our experience, almost.
Survivors of the twelfth
They were everywhere. About our wheels, under the gates, over the gates, beside the fences, peeking out the bushes, the fields littered with them all running and flapping about celebrating being alive. Pheasants really must be one of the daftest creatures to walk the earth, but great fun and they kept us entertained as we made our way to the seemingly deserted village of Barr.
On the village green, alongside the more traditional Great War monuments, is a rather unusual looking memorial, paid for by the residents at the time, to a former resident, John McTaggart who died at Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1901. It gave us reason for a temporary breather before turning left into Glengennet Road, the third and last of our black graded friends.
Glengennet, as the website tells you, is the shortest of the bad boys – a ‘mere’ 2.8km with an average gradient of 6.9%, and early on a maximum of 13.2%. We gradually rose out of the valley floor onto open hillside, the skyline eventually dominated, by both the sight of the enormous wind turbines and the whooshing of their blades. There seemed something sinister about the turbines we could see peeking out from behind the forested to the left of our little single track road – it was as though they were regrouping before marching on, or more likely we needed some more refuelling to quell the hallucinations after our exertions.
The final countdown
Back through Dailly, for the second time today, we were into our last hour.
The “Royal We” got us lost again in an attempt to get back to Maidens via quiet back roads; turned out they were quiet for four wheeled beasts for sure but the rush hour route for the four legged variety.
Pat accurately described the sheep as an obvious cross between a buffalo and a sheep – they were huge, but at least they were enclosed behind the road side fences. Our next pals were a different proposition. A bull and a hairy highland cow blocked our way, standing mid-road like a couple of gangsters. Finally, they trotted away, veering off up a farm road.
By default we arrived at the outskirts of Girvan; way off track. Nothing else for it but to head along the A77, a road any sane cyclist avoids at all costs. A life time of speeding cars, and six miles, later we make our escape, trundling past Trump’s Turnberry Golf Course and Grand Hotel on the A714 (the course sporting the largest Saltire flag you ever did see).
We speculated on what chance of getting served a beer in the hotel kitted out in our cycling gear – NO CHANCE we agreed in unison as we moved on. We didn’t care as we were happy in the knowledge that we had nothing more to do than cycle into Maidens, past the picturesque harbour, listening to me counting down our progress from 99.9 miles to the cycling Nirvana of 100 miles, a milestone for us all, especially Isaac as it was his first on a bike.
Back in our temporary home, the three of us resembling a burst couch as we sat enjoying the stunning sunset and a celebratory beer, or two.
Sunday: the wandering loop
What has an upside down Brae, an American ex-president and curling stones go to do with cycling? Not much, but it did form the early part of today’s cycle which began in earnest when we turned onto the scenic and coastal A719, where a very strange phenomenon lay in wait.
Known locally as Croy Brae, but more widely known and signposted as Electric Brae, this is a hill about 250 yards long. The inland end of the road is actually 17 feet higher than the coastal end, yet because of the way the surrounding landscape slopes, the road appears to incline the opposite way.
As we went ‘uphill’ and reassured ourselves by both glancing at the roadside verge and back ‘down’ the slope that we were definitely going up, our bikes said otherwise as we continued to free wheel along, our pedal strokes replaced by giggles.
At the end of the Brae our hard work was rewarded with a commanding view over Culzean Bay to Culzean Castle and, in the distance, the long extinct volcanic island of Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde.
Culzean Castle originally belonged to the Kennedys, a Scots family descended from Robert the Bruce. Today, this rather grand Castle and Country Park is owned by the National Trust for Scotland.
In 1945 the NTS, converted the top floor into a flat for use by General, later President, Eisenhower as a thank-you for America’s support during WWII. He stayed on four occasions.
I reckon it is fair to assume from the window of his flat he would have been able to see Ailsa Craig, lucky man. I wonder if he got the time to learn that the lump of granite out in the firth is responsible for individuals brushing like maniacs, while shouting at circular discs of granite to speed up, slow down, will you marry me or whatever else curlers shout at their stones?
Ailsa granite is, I believe, the main (if not the only) source used to manufacture curling stones within the U.K., the Kays’ family having had the rights since 1851. Apparently, in 2001, they were permitted to harvest 1,500 tons of granite from the island so curling stones which start their life in Ayrshire will be available for some time to come.
Heads you lose?
Unfortunately this morning the road is a temporary diversion from the A77 near Maybole. Despite the heavier traffic, the banter and the scenery continued unabated – directly below us the ruins of Dunure, across the Firth the Island of Arran, and on the horizon the Irish Coast, all enjoyed while Isaac mentioned something about cycling with two old age pensioners – not sure about the detail he was too far behind for us to hear him properly.
By the time we got to the Heads of Ayr our pre-determined route dictated heading inland onto a single track road, once more designated as part of the NCR7 cycle route.
Best of luck if you come along here with a fully loaded touring bike as a wall disguised as a road awaits you. We began to climb up Brown Carrick Hill, reminding me that I still had heavy legs from yesterday. Past the radio transmitters, the top finally came, the Heads of Ayr, Ayr Bay and the town itself set out below us.
Views such as these, and the sense of achievement at not being sick when you get to the top, surely the best reason for seeking out hills in the first place.
Glenalmond manure park
Pack a picnic, bring the kids. Ayrshire best kept secret can now be revealed. We had never visited a manure adventure park until today.
Having enjoyed a long descent and commenced meandering along the country lanes (still NCR7), we turned the corner, near a farm called Glenalmond, and instantly started skidding about, our wheels ploughing through several inches of the dung which completely covered the road.
Picture the scene. Three cyclists with three sticks get to work picking mountainous quantities of cow shit from their brakes and orifices of our bikes we hitherto did not know existed. Perhaps not the best time for a food stop but Farmer Brown and his beasts should be commended on their efforts at adding further adventure to our day.
Luckily, our plans at taking the manure on a U.K. tour failed to materialise as our mobile mini peloton slowly shed most of the bits we missed before we rejoined the road back to Maidens; our ‘gentle’ cycle of 23 miles, and 4 tons of manure, in the bag so to speak.
www.ayrshirealps.org Wealth of information on cycling, accommodation, attractions (no mention of Glenalmond though)
www.sustrans.org.uk We used the Sustrans map NN7B Lochs and Glens South which covers the NCR7from Carlisle-Glasgow
www.scotrail.co.uk Train stations at Ayr, Maybole and Girvan – all within easy reach of the route we cycled. No requirement to book your bike on the train. If over 50 check out the new club 50 card on the website – up to 20% discount on off peak and advance tickets available. The card is currently FREE.
Roads and elevation
With a few exceptions, such as the descent off Brown Carrick Hill and the area around Glenalmond the roads are in decent condition. The Newton Stewart road’s excellent condition was a pleasant surprise. With over 7,000ft of climbing on Saturday and 2,000ft on Sunday expect a good challenge, especially if you are on a fully loaded bike.
Bank and shops
You’ll get both in Maybole, Newton Stewart and Girvan.
PUBLISHED MAY 2016