Who takes a gun on a cycling trip? Dervla Murphy lists a .25 automatic pistol as part of her kit list for travelling by bicycle to India. And she ends up having to use it! This was the 1960s and she was making her way through countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This book is a beautifully written and gripping account of a cycling adventure that paints a gorgeous portrait of the landscapes and peoples of these regions.
I have read many books about cycling adventures and I find that many tend to focus on the cycling more than the experience of travelling because the author is more a cyclist than a travel writer. Dervla Murphy is clearly a travel writer with beautiful descriptions of the places and people she encounters. For her the bike is simply the mode of transport, although she has a lot of affection for her bicycle and gives it the name of 'Roz.'
Throughout this book you get an overwhelming sense of the author's total love of travel and experiencing everything and recording it in exquisite detail. Murphy has a great sense of humour that comes across in the writing:
"This is the part of Afghanistan I was most eager to see, but in my wildest imaginings I never thought any landscape could be so magnificent. If I am murdered en route it will have been well worth while!"
There are many dramatic situations during the author's adventure, including using her gun to fire a warning shot when she awoke to find an almost-naked Kurdish man standing over her bed. In Iran she had to fire another warning shot when a group tried to steal her bicycle. I was shocked to read this and wondered if the world was a more dangerous place back then than it is now. Then again, when you read about the hospitality and the stunning landscapes that Murphy experienced in Afghanistan you cannot help feeling sad that this country is now a place that most travellers would avoid.
I should mention that some of the descriptions of people use racial words. This is probably because these terms were acceptable back in the 60s and it is very clear that there is no racist intent and that Murphy has a very deep respect and admiration for the people of these lands and their religion. She writes positively and glowingly about the cultures she comes across and she develops a love for the people of Afghanistan.
Although bus travel, truck travel and horse riding (including a horse that the author christens 'Rob') sometimes are more prominent than cycle travel there is plenty of fun and hardship that the author has with her bicycle. This includes cycling uphill in Pakistan in 102 degrees Fahrenheit and drinking 24 pints of water. Murphy survives another day with nothing other than a tiny bowl of stewed clover to sustain her.
This is classic travel writing at its best. It is thoughtful, detailed and fascinating.
You can buy this book by clicking on the Amazon image below:
Enjoy a fascinating guided tour of this still lived-in National Trust Property followed by a walk in the grounds to the tower and views across the River Forth. At less than a 5 mile cycle from Linlithgow, mainly along the scenic Union Canal, this is an easy day out from central Scotland.
Highlights of this Cycle Route
Take a train to Linlithgow and start cycling along the canal
Linlithgow is only 20 minutes from Edinburgh, 30 minutes from Glasgow. At the station take a moment to notice the top of the columns holding up the station's canopy. There is impressive decorative ironwork with three dimensional flowers.
The canal is just one minute from the station.
There is a good chance of seeing lots of canal boats, particularly if you take a closer look at the Linlithgow Canal Centre which offers boat trips, a museum and a tearoom.
Once on the canal you turn left and cycle for 3 miles. This path is not the smoothest you will cycle on as it is composed of gravel with quite large stones. It is also very narrow and in the summer the vegetation is very lush and overgrown, so you will need to slow down whenever another cyclists or pedestrian is passing in the other direction. Saying that, it is also very pleasant and enjoyable to potter along here.
You are looking for a path that branches away from the canal at Philipstoun and takes you through a small housing estate. You emerge onto a minor country road with minimal traffic that leads you under the railway and then over the M8 motorway.
This country road deposits you on the A904 where you turn right to reach the entrance to the House of the Binns. This road can have steady traffic, so you need to be reasonably confident to ride it, but you are only on it for about 300 meters. If you don't feel up to it you could push your bike along the verge.
The Pink House
The house is really unusual with its pink colour and castle turrets. I thought that it looked like a modern replica of a castle, like something you might find in a theme park, so I was surprised to discover that it was built in the seventeenth century.
When I pulled up in front of the house I was greeted by none other than Tam Dalyell, former Member of Parliament and one of Scotland's longest serving MPs. Sadly he passed away in January 2017 and House of the Binns was his home. There is a unique arrangement with the National Trust that the building passed to their care on condition that the family was still able to live there.
Tam was wearing a white cable-knit jumper and pushed around a walker with a copy of The Times on it. He asked where I was from and how I travelled to the house, "Yes, my son used to cycle to Linlithgow everyday," he told me.
He greeted some more visitors and on discovering they were from China told them about his time in the country during the Cultural Revolution.
The views from the front of the house are magnificent with green fields descending towards the expansive blue of the Forth.
Books and Beards
Visits to the house are by guided tour and photography is not permitted. My guide was passionate about the house and was excellent at painting an idylic picture of life in this house. In the Blue Room she said, "you can imagine this being very cosy with the fire on and reading a book."
There are books everywhere in this house. Not just old books, but modern titles that add to lived-in feeling of the house. There is even a 'book balcony', a narrow corridor lined with cases of beautifully bound tomes.
We were shown a bedroom that was especially made for Charles I, who never actually visited. It has a spectacular plaster ceiling with thistles, vines and fruits. The guide asked the tour group, "wouldn't you just love to spend a night here and be brought breakfast on a trolley, sit on the window seat and look out at the view... I think you can tell I have dillusions of gradeur!"
The most colourful character in the story of the house is General Tam Dalyell (1615 to 1685). There is a portrait of him with an enormous beard and long hair. He vowed never to cut his beard until a Stuart monarch was restored to a throne. "You can imagine it must have been trailing to the floor," Our guide smiled.
In the dining room there is a display case with the biggest comb you have ever seen. This was for Tam's long beard! There is also a sword given to Tam by the Tsar of Russia as he served in the Russian army with distinction. I noticed many Russian things in the house, such as painted eggs, boxes of chocolates and vodka.
General Tam noticed that Russian soldiers had white uniforms to camouflage them in the snow. The concept of camouflage had not yet been developed by the British Army so when Tam founded his regiment, the Royal Scots Greys, he designed a grey uniform so that the soldiers would disappear into the mist of the Pentland Hills.
In the grounds there is a stone structure where General Tam used to go for a quiet smoke, to be alone and think things over. Perhaps this is where he came up with the uniform design for the Scots Greys.
The Mouse Hunter
As our tour group made its way around the house I was surprised by how small the rooms are. You expect huge, grand rooms in stately homes, but House of the Binns is the exception and it gives the place a homely feel. I noticed chessboards all over the house and the guide informed us that the family loved to play and you could easily imagine them sitting on the sofas to start a game because the house feels like a home and not a museum.
One of the best things about visiting National Trust properties is learning surprising things about the way people used to live. In the bake house the guide pointed out a small window, little more than a slit. She said this was for owls to fly in and eat any "nasties." It was an ingenious form of natural pest control. I loved that!
The grounds of the house are fun to explore. A walk through the woods emerges to a hillside overlooking fields of sheep and cattle. Down below Blackness Castle is on a promontory with the expanse of the deep blue Forth stretching across to Fife. The world famous Forth rail and road bridges can be seen.
The M8 motorway can be seen and heard up here; a reminder how busy this part of Scotland can be. However, this spot is proof that there are places in the central belt that feel remote and peaceful. I wonder how many of those drivers rushing to Glasgow or Edinburgh know that this is here. They will notice the tower on top of the hill because it can be seen for miles. I always wondered what it was when I was on the motorway or the railway and now I know.
The tower is simply a folly, the kind of thing that owners of grand houses built as amusing landmarks in their grounds.
There is no cafe at House of the Binns, but there is a good place nearby. Mannerstons farm shop and cafe is a couple of minutes cycling on the A904.
This is a popular place where you can buy vegetables, fruit, cheese, meats eggs, jams and other farm produce. They also do a fine selection of homemade ice cream. The cafe provides tastyhome baking and I can recommend the Victoria sponge cake. There is outdoor seating to make use of on sunny days.
Make sure you don't miss their delivery bicycle parked in the entrance way.
House of the Binns is located in the West Lothian council region of Scotland. The area is easy to reach from both Glasgow and Edinburgh. You can find out more on the Visit West Lothian website.
This is a lovely, charming book all about the experience of using bothies and also a practical guide about where they, how to get there and what facilities are available. What makes this book a joy to read is that the author has included a diary entry with each bothy describing her experience of staying there. These entries spark your imagination and make you want to make the journey to the bothy.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of a bothy it is a building in a remote location that is free to stay in. They are maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association:
"The easiest way to describe bothies is simply as stone tents. They may look like country cottages from the outside- pretty enough, with a ramshakle type of charm to earn them a spot on chocolate boxes- but inside it's a different story. With no gas, no electric, no running water, no bathroom, no beds and certainly no TV, these are as basic a shelter as they come."
Bothies can be found all over Britain, but the vast majority are in Scotland, so most of the entries in this book are north of the border. Bothies tend to be used mostly by walkers and climbers as they are in rural areas, usually far from roads. They are not as convenient for cycle tourists unless you are using a mountain bike.
You have to enjoy roughing it a bit to get the best out of a stay in a bothy. You might have mice for company, you might arrive to find it full with other walkers and have to stay outside and you might even have to carry your own fire wood or coal. But this book convinces you that there are more pros than cons to using bothies.
It is a beautifully presented book with plenty of idyllic photos and crammed full of the author's personal experiences of staying in the featured bothies. These stories are wonderfully written and really capture the magic of the bothy experience. There are also maps, GPS coordinates, information about fuel and water sources, suggested walking routes to get to the bothy and the wildlife that can be spotted. There is a detailed description of how many rooms and exactly what is inside the bothy, which in most cases, is not very much.
This is a lovely book for anybody curious about bothies and for walkers and climbers looking for a serious guide.
You can buy the book by clicking on the Amazon image below:
This book celebrates the bicycle from its invention to Victorian trick cyclists and from BMX bandits to Le Tour de France. It is presented in an easily digestible format with plenty of photos and a well-written, chirpy text. Absolutely everything to do with bicycles is in here and it is a joy to leaf through the pages.
Just have a look at the contents of this book and you will see that nothing has been missed in the story of the bicycle. This includes the bike in art, film and books, the birth of the mountain bike, cycle racing and record attempts. There are also features on iconic bikes like The Chopper and the Dawes Galaxy. It is a chunky book, but presented beautifully with loads of interesting pictures and illustrations. There is even a guide to fixing punctures. If you love bicycles and want to know lots of interesting things about them then you will love this book.
You can buy the book from Amazon by clicking on the image below:
The location of the Bettyhill Hotel is breathtaking. It overlooks Torrisdale Bay on the far north coast of Scotland, around 100 miles north of Inverness. It is on the route of the North Coast 500, Scotland's version of Route 66, so ideally placed for visiting this beautiful area. The rooms are modern and comfortable and the food is excellent.
If you manage to bag one of the rooms with a sea view you will be mesmerised by the stunning blue bay and its golden sands. On a sunny day you would be forgiven for thinking you were elsewhere, perhaps Australia. The view is just as good from the restaurant. The hills across the water are green and golden; golden because they are peppered with sand all the way to the top, the cause of powerful storms spraying the hill with the grains.
Traditional meals like haddock and chips are cooked perfectly. Desserts like chocolate torte are gorgeous and indulgent. The breakfast is solid with the usual choices and my scrambled egg on crostini was perfection.
The hotel building is traditional 19th century architecture and painted immaculate white. It sits right on the main road, but don't worry as this is a very quiet place at night. There are 20 bedrooms, some with shared bathroom facilities, so if you want en suite make sure to check before you book.
The hotel has an interesting history. It had originally been affiliated with a petrol station - look out for the gate posts with the stone shell emblem, representing a certain oil company. The hotel would have had a petrol pump and appealed to wealthy fishing clients who expected high standards of service that included shoe shinning and an onsite hairdresser. These affiliated hotels were once common across the Highlands, so it is nice to know that you are staying in a place with heritage.
The owner had told me about the building's past- the friendliness of the staff is another plus point of the hotel.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the Bettyhill Hotel is one of the most outstanding locations in this part of Scotland. That view of the bay is to die for.
I stayed in the Bettyhill Hotel during my cycle ride from Kildonan to Cape Wrath.
This incredible sculpture stands on a remote hilltop in Sutherland, 100 miles north of Inverness. The journey to get here is well worth the experience of standing next to this 8 foot giant.
Near the village of Bettyhill you will find Borgie Forest. Here there is an uphill path to the sculpture. It takes your breath away because it is such an unlikely sight in a remote forest. The long legs, the sturdy rib cage and the big feet will enthrall you. You will want to stand next to it and walk around it.
Take a look at the head and what the giant is looking at. Is it just checking out the view or perhaps looking towards its home, the place it once lived?
The Unknown is representative of the outcast figure that features so prominently in Scotland's history, people like William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the families of the Highland Clearances.
The sculptor is Kenny Hunter who is renowned for many well-known works across Scotland and elsewhere. The firefighter figure outside Glasgow Central Station is one of his, as is the goat standing atop packing crates in Spitalfields, London. The Unknown is undoubtedly the most remote of his works, appropriate for these outcast figures who were typically banished to distant lands.
You can read more about my experience of visiting this sculpture, including a map and details about cycling there in my travel feature about the area.
Top Out is an Edinburgh craft beer brewery. Schmankerl is their Bavarian-style wheat beer. So, how does their beer compare to the German versions? Pretty good actually. It is made with Bavarian yeast and has a fruity aspect that makes it a delightful drink.
Top Out was established in 2013. The head brewer loves climbing, so all of the bottle labels show Ordnance Survey maps of famous, mainly Scottish, moutains. That's a really cool concept for a bottle cover and it works brilliantly as the product stands out on the shelves next to other bottles.
The word Schmankerl means 'treat' or 'delicacy' in the Bavarian dialect. They have used a Bavarian strain of yeast to make this beer, so there is clearly a passion to make this as authentic as possible. Now, I love German wheat beers and I found Top Out's version a very good effort, although I thought that the wheat taste is not as prominent as it is in many German beers. However, that is no bad thing as many people prefer a lighter wheat taste. There is also a fruity taste, which brings an additional flavour element that you do not get with the German wheat beers. The label says that it is banana and this is exactly the aftertaste I get.
What you have here is a combination of Scottish and German brewing techniques that works really well. Personally I still prefer the German wheat beers, but I enjoyed this very much and would not hesitate to have it again.
The Union Canal is a great place to go for a bike ride. The path alongside the canal is traffic-free, starts in the city centre and takes you into the countryside. When its time for coffee why not stop at The Counter where your cappuccino is steamed and foamed onboard a canal boat?
The Counter is located near the start of the canal at Fountainbridge in Edinburgh city centre. The converted pale blue canal boat really stands out and is a welcome addition to an area of the city that is looking more and more exciting and attractive.
The windows of the canal boat have been converted into serving hatches. I like how the drinks menu is printed onto the hatch so that it is right in front of you when you make your order. The coffee is high quality, sourced from local roasters, Mr Eion of Stockbridge. There is also hot chocolate, tea and some bottled juices. Drinks are served in biodegradable cups. Homemade cookies and brownies keep the sweet toothed happy.
There are no seats inside the boat, but tables outside provide a nice spot when the weather is good. In fact, it is delightful to sit here in the sun for a while. You are right next to the historic Leamington Lift Bridge. This is an impressive piece of engineering that can be raised up to allow boats to pass beneath. You might just be lucky enough to see it in action during your coffee break.
What could be more delightful than watching canal boats glide by as you drink great coffee in the sunshine?
For doughnut lovers it is hard to beat Krispy Kreme, so why not take a bicycle trip to doughnut heaven? The Edinburgh stores are located in retail parks that are predominately designed for car users, but the good news is that you can easily cycle to the Edinburgh store at Hermiston Gait.
Yes, Krispy Kreme is an American, not a Scottish product. But they taste great, regardless of where their HQ is. And, yes, doughnuts are not exactly healthy, but what is the harm in the odd treat? And if you are cycling there you are burning some calories. You might be thinking 'why is he not writing about cycling to some beautiful scenic part of Scotland instead of a doughnut shop in a retail park?', but the point is to demonstrate that it is possible to reach everyday destinations using a bicycle.
If we are to truly encourage more people to switch from car to bicycle I think it is important to show that it is possible to safely reach city locations using a bike. Google Maps revealed that it would take 30 minutes by bus, but 25 minutes to cycle to Krispy Kreme. Car journey time was about 15 minutes, but this depends on traffic, which is notoriously horrendous in Edinburgh. I was very surprised because I had assumed that it would be a no-go area for bicycles because of busy roads, but it turns out that the cycle route is mostly traffic-free. Well, I never!
It's all about the Union Canal
The key to the success of this route is the Union Canal path, which is totally traffic-free. It takes you almost all of the way to Krispy Kreme with the exception of some short on-road sections.
The other great thing about using the Union Canal is that it is beautiful and way more scenic than the bus route or driving the main roads.
How to get onto the Union Canal
My map shows two ways to get to the canal:
1. From the city centre. From the Meadows you can follow the traffic-free cycle paths through this majestic green space to Bruntsfield where the cycle path ends opposite Leamington Terrace, a low-traffic road, that leads directly downhill to the Union Canal.
2. From Morningisde. Take any of the roads that lead you onto Colinton Road. Now, you cannot get away from the fact that Colinton Road is steady with traffic, but not scarily so. If you have a bit of experience on roads you shouldn't find this too bad. You will arrive at a junction where 5 roads converge. You turn right here onto Gray's Loan, which takes you to the canal.
If you arrive onto the canal via Leamington Terrace or Fountainbridge you will notice a cute canal boat cafe called The Counter. This is a great place to enjoy canal life with a quality coffee. You can read more about it in a previous blog post.
The canal is a fascinating ribbon of greenery that can feel very remote in places, but is actually just meters from built-up urban areas.
It is the kind of place where it is normal to have a number 3 bus, heading towards the city centre, pass you on one side at the same time as a canal boat chugs by on the other side.
I stopped to watch some ducks paddling in the water. Later a magpie crouched down on the path, a short distance ahead, ready to spring up into flight. He left it to the very last few seconds before I reached him. I caught a glance of a rat scurrying into the undergrowth.
London-bound express trains sped by on adjacent tracks and even cross over the canal on a bridge. I wonder if their passengers even notice the canal.
Apartments and Aqueducts
There is an interesting mix of properties alongside the canal. There are high-rise flats dating from a time when the canal was not considered such an attractive asset. And more recent apartment complexes with balconies, aimed at attracting first-time buyers to canal-side living. You very quickly move from patches of this high density housing into areas thick with trees that shield you from any sign of the city and trick you into feeling you have hit the countryside.
There is one part of the canal path where it is essential to get off the bike and walk. This is the Slateford Aqueduct, which carries the canal over the Water of Leith. It is simply too narrow and the surface too bumpy to even contemplate cycling over it. This forces people to make way for each other. This can result in pleasant exchanges, eye contact and smiles with some people as it is necessary to squeeze past anybody coming the opposite way.
It Takes Every Kind Of People
You come across all sorts of people making use of the Union Canal. In terms of cyclists it was mostly the leisure cyclist that I spotted- people wearing casual clothing, most without helmets. The canal is seen as a safe place to ride a bike. There were plenty of dog walkers, joggers and people using the canal to simply get about.
At one point I came across a group of people relaxing after a kyak trip. They were having a barbecue at picnic benches and just yards away from them a group of alcoholics were quietly sipping cans of super strength lager.
As I overtook pedestrians I caught snippets of conversation. This from a woman to her male companion: "Well I didn't know I was going to need to bring a clean set of underwear with me."
Then a group of young lads discussing a mutual acquaintance: "Aye, but he's a good c**t"
Time to come off the canal and get some doughnut
It is time to leave the canal when you spot this blue sign pointing to 'Sighthill Ind. Est.'
You turn left onto Cultins Road, a dull location of car showrooms and industrial units. It is not busy with traffic, so is fine to cycle and it is downhill so fun to freewheel. It looks like at least some of the pavement on this road is marked as shared cycle and pedestrian use, so you could avoid the road.
At the bottom of the road you turn left and pass Edinburgh Park train and tram station. There are cycle lanes marked on the pavements and I advise getting onto these in preperation for the roundabout that you must cross to reach the doughnuts. Using the cycle lanes on the pavement means you can avoid negotiating the roundabout.
Cycling into the car park that surrounds Krispy Kreme is tricky to say the least. It is designed to function as a 'drive-thru' for cars coming, so all of the road markings fulfill this and there isn't an easy route for cyclists or pedestrians. I ended up dismounting on the pavement and pushing the bike across. There is no shame in doing this. If it looks too dodgy to tackle a bit of road on the bike I always just get off and walk it.
Guess what? Krispy Kreme have cycle racks. Amazing. I think it is brilliant that they thought to put these in.
Inside the shop there is a huge window, with the words 'doughnut theater' above it, where you can observe the doughnut production line. The atmosphere is fun with pop music, smiling staff and during my visit there were lots of families sitting-in. It is the combination of fluffy dough and inspiring flavours that makes these doughnuts so special. Just read this description of their lotus white chocolate and raspberry flavour to see what I mean: 'A raspberry jam & kreme filling infused with Lotus Biscoff, dipped in white chocolate & topped with Biscoff crumb, white chocolate & raspberry pieces.'
I felt great at having successfully arrived here by bicycle. I don't think I would get the same feeling of excitement and satisfaction if I had driven or taken the bus. I had enjoyed fresh air, exercise and scenery. I felt that I deserved my doughnuts and coffee.
Lonely Planet have produced this utterly superb and inspiring collection of cycling routes around the world. For anybody who loves cycling, travel and dreaming of future adventures this book is essential reading. I devoured every single page and could not help my imagination racing with the possibilities of bike trips in numerous parts of our planet.
First off, the book is stunningly presented with breathtaking photography and a layout that makes you want to dive in. It is organised by continent with a travel writer describing their experiences on a particular cycling journey and then presenting a summary of similar journeys. The quality of the writing is exceptional. It is just the right length, not too long or too short, to grab your intention and spark your imagination. I found it impossible not to dream of going to these places.
Planning information extends to a map, distances, where to stay, how to get there and other essential tips. It may not be enough to seriously plot out your own route, but it points you in the right direction and this book is about inspiring you to do these rides, not to provide every single detail of the route.
About 30 countries and 200 route suggestions are contained within this book and I wanted to do all of them. There is something for everyone here. City cycling, mountain biking, family-friendly cycling, coast-to-coast cycling, cycling to breweries, cycling around lakes. You name it, all cycling tastes are covered.
Scotland is included in this book. There is one main feature on cycling the Outer Hebrides. It made me quite proud to see this alongside all of these other countries and that people will be inspired to come here as a result of seeing this book. There are also suggestions of some other cycle routes in Scotland, including Strathpuffer, a mountain bike endurance event.
I love this book and dipping into it whenever I want to dream of future adventures.
You can buy it from Amazon by clicking on this image:
One of the best things about cycling is doing it with a friend. My cycling buddy is Paul and we have been on numerous adventures together all across Scotland. We met at university and discovered a mutual interest in riding a bike. Soon we had bought bicycles and were meeting up at weekends and spending a few hours pedalling along the Union Canal path. This evolved into a desire to try out cycle touring with overnight trips and longer distances. Our first multi-day cycle tour took as to the Orkney Islands and we had such a great time that we wanted more and took a cycling holiday every year.
Cycling together has been so rewarding because:
It can be difficult to find someone to go cycling with, particularly if you have moved to a new area. SportPartner is a site where you can find a cycling buddy. Whether you are looking for more motivation or just enjoy meeting new people while cycling then SportPartner is the place to try. Basic Membership is free.
Post written in collaboration with SportPartner
Highlights of this cycle route:
Distance: Around 9 miles one-way, 18 miles return.
Terrain: Mostly tarmac cycle paths, some A and B roads that have low traffic volume. Mostly flat.
Getting there: Train to Tweedbank, around one hour from Edinburgh. Bicycle reservations not required.
First off, take a trip on the Borders Railway
The Borders Railway is the newest railway and the longest railway to be built in the UK in 100 years. It is a superb tourism asset as it makes it much easier to access the scenery and visitor attractions of the Scottish Borders.
Read my blog: 8 Reasons to Love the Borders Railway
You can also take a look at my video that shows how easy it is to use the Borders Railway for exploring the area by bike:
Journey time to Tweedbank is under one hour from Edinburgh. Once the train passes Gorebridge the view starts to become special with rivers, hills and sheep farms. There are tunnels and viaducts and the track twists and turns frequently, giving the line a unique character that makes it endearing.
Right next to Tweedbank station you will notice signage for cycle routes, so exploring this area by bike is very simple. Just follow the signs.
You want to take the path alongside the train track, heading back towards Galashiels. Follow the signs for Innerleithen.
Soon the path takes you alongside the River Tweed. I loved this ribbon of tarmac through meadows of little white wildflowers. It was a joy to ride.
This path smells sweet, fresh and woody. It is worth taking your time to spot the variety of wildflowers along the way.
There are also glimpses of Abbotsford, the home of Walter Scott, through the trees, on the other side of the river. This house, once home to one of Scotland's most famous literary figures, can be visited by bicycle, but I saved this for a future trip.
Further on, the road passes a trio of impressive timber-framed houses. They have gorgeous gardens and large bay windows looking onto the river. It looks like a scene from a country living magazine where everything is photogenic and perfect.
After about 3 miles on this road you take a left, crossing a stone bridge over the River Tweed. This will take you towards Selkirk.
The approach towards Selkirk is via a cycle path that runs alongside the busy A7. This is the least interesting part of the journey because you are just looking at a main road, but it does not last for long and it is superb that a segregated cycle path has been provided on this road.
The route does not take you into the centre of Selkirk, but passes the outskirts where there are impressive mill buildings, some ruined, some beautifully restored.
You get a great impression of how significant the textile industry had been in this town from the scale of these buildings. At one point it provided jobs for over 1000 people. It is sad to witness this visual display of the decline of an industry, but there are also positives to be found. Still in operation in this area is Lochcarron which weaves the largest range of wool tartans in the world. There is a visitor centre, shop and cafe.
From here it is only 3.5 miles to reach Bowhill House. This is by means of the A708, but don't worry because this is one of those quieter A-roads.
Whose side are you on?
The road passes fields where a great battle took place in 1645, the Battle of Philiphaugh. Imagine over 5000 men exchanging musket fire. You cannot tell who is on the side of the Covanters and who is on the side of the Royalists because there are no uniforms. Only a piece of paper or grass pinned to their hat symbolises which side they fight for. I wonder how many of the deaths resulted from mistaken identity? There is a battlefield walk with Interpretive panels at the fields.
The Waterwheel Cafe is also located here. It is a chalet-style building, made from Scots Pine, which gives it a striking interior.
For the remainder of the A708 you will have glimpses of the Yarrow Water through the woodlands that flank the road. You cross this river on a stone bridge to enter the Bowhill estate.
In comparison with other stately homes Bowhill can appear plain on the outside. It lacks in decorative architectural features like stone carvings and columns, but I think there is an elegance to its proportions, particularly when seen across the landscaped gardens.
One frequent visitor had been Walter Scott, one of Scotland's most renowned literary figures, and he was impressed, describing the house as 'sweet Bowhill.' It is the inside of the house where the magic begins with beautiful art, furniture and antiques, so let us step inside.
Visits to the house are by guided tour. My guide's name was Walter and he loved everything about Bowhill. His catchphrase was 'unbelievable', applying this to all of the things he found incredible about the house. "This clock dates from 1640 and is still ticking. Unbelievable."
Later he remarked on the tapestries, "the colours are just the same as the day they were made. Unbelievable."
There are many fascinating objects to be seen in the house. If art is your thing there are works by Canaletto, Raeburn and Gainsborough. I was intrigued by a curious long sofa with two separate seats at each end. I learned that these seats were for the chaperons to keep an eye on the courting couple who would be seated in the middle.
I adored the pair of French cabinets that had birds nests painted on them. One cabinet had a nest with two eggs and the cabinet on the other side of the room had a nest with chicks inside. "But look!" exclaimed Walter, "there are three chicks, so one of those eggs must have been a double yoker." If there are children on the tour Walter pretends to do a magic trick asking the kids to look at the cabinet with the eggs and then turns to the other cabinet and says "Ta da! And now there are chicks!"
Our tour visited a room that housed a collection of miniature portraits. These are incredibly detailed for their tiny size and I was surprised to learn that hairs from squirrel tails were used to paint them.
Despite all of these riches Bowhill has a lived-in feel. It is still used by the Duke and his family and I liked seeing the trappings of modern life dotted around, such as plasma televisions and modern paperbacks lying alongside the antique volumes. In one room there was a lingering scent of last night's crackling fire, a basket half-full of logs and a novel resting with a bookmark, so it really felt like people had been making used of this room.
Photography is not permitted inside the house, apart from in the kitchen, so here are some shots for you to enjoy.
The most striking thing about the kitchen is its double height, essential because of the heat that would have been generated in this room.
All this display of pots, pans and jugs was making me hungry so I headed to the tearoom. The sweet potato and coconut soup hit the spot and gave me the energy to explore Bowhill's extensive grounds.
I must tell you about the giant chess set that I found at the rear of the house. It has to be the most scenic location for a game of giant chess with a backdrop of rolling hills and forest.
My favourite thing about the grounds was the Upper Loch, artificially created for the sheer pleasure of having a loch in your garden. It was dug out in 1816 and that must have been some job without the aid of mechanical diggers. The loch is surrounded by woodland, which means a delightful walk through the trees when you do a circuit of the water. During my visit, pretty clumps of daffodils were in full bloom.
I was short on time so I used the tarmac roads to cycle some of the grounds, including the route up to the ruins of the 15th century Newark Tower. I passed a pair of lambs cuddled up together and sleeping. It was the cutest thing I had seen in ages.
The tower had been a royal hunting lodge and it provides an exciting 'wow' moment as it suddenly appears after a bend in the road.
Although you cannot go inside the tower it is interesting to walk around the outside, peer up at the crumbling remains of windows and put your hands on the hefty stone construction.
Reluctantly I had to leave Bowhill to catch the train home. This had been a perfect day trip using train and bicycle. Bowhill is just the right distance from Tweedbank station to provide a decent amount of cycling and plenty of time to visit the house and the grounds.
The Bowhill website promotes cycling, not just driving and public transport, as a means to reach the house. I was really impressed by this as it is quite rare to find cycling mentioned in the 'how to get here' sections of visitor attractions.
Tom Allen cycled around the world with his two friends and wrote a fantastic and highly readable book about his experiences. This is an epic work of quality writing. Allen has a great eye for detail and magnificently describes the countries that he travels through. The book is also about relationships, with the friends he travels with, with the people he meets along the way and the woman that he falls in love with.
There are many books about people who do around the world bicycle journeys. They tend to cover similar themes and it can be difficult to pick out what is unique about each particular story. Janapar is unique for several reasons. First off, the quality of the writing is exceptional. Just a few pages into the book I came across this superb description of a road through the Sahara:
"I drag my bike and trailer back up the slope to where the new road still glistens absurdly, like a liquorice lace flopped across an orange tablecloth."
Allen's prose really captured my imagination and made it easy for me to imagine the places that his bicycle took him.
The book does not follow chronological order and goes forward and back in time at many points through the chapters. This might initially come across as muddled and confusing, but I found that it worked really well and it made the story more dramatic.
Janapar is not only about cycling it is also about people. It is an honest account of what happens to friendships on extreme journeys. The twist in this mission to cycle around the world is that Allen meets a woman that he falls in love with. This results in a complete change of plans including a period of time spent living with her in Armenia. Therefore, it is a book not just for cyclists and travellers, but for anybody interested in human drama and relationships. You get to know Tom Allen at a much deeper level than you might get from similar around the world cycling books.
I have reviewed a lot of around the world cycling books on my blog and this one has been my favourite so far. It is beautifully structured and written, dramatic and emotional.
You can buy Janapar by clicking on the Amazon link below:
The history, heritage and archaeology of Scotland's 'small isles'- Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck- is beautifully presented in this coffee table book. It is packed full of spectacular photography, particularly the aerial views of the islands, that provide the reader with hours of fascination. This is accompanied by a very detailed text that explains everything about the historic landscape of the islands. This book will certainly inspire you to visit these beautiful places.
Each island has its own chapter. This opens with a map of the island that pinpoints the locations of the points of interest that are covered in the chapter. This means that you could use this book to plan visits to the islands and seek out particular buildings or archaeological sites.
The text is very detailed and has clearly taken a lot of time to put together. In that sense it is not a traditional travel guide, but aimed at telling every aspect of the island's past through its human structures. I did not read every single page and tended to browse to the parts that interested me the most. It is the photography that makes this book such a pleasure to flick through. I loved the aerial photos that show how beautiful, lush and green the islands are.
This is a gorgeous book to have on your coffee table and inspire visits to these special islands.
You can buy a copy from Amazon by clicking on the image below:
Kildonan Station, Scotland. Come here for peace, beauty and fantastic cycling or just sit for a while
If you need an escape from the Edinburgh Festival crowds or any crowds there is a place that is just the ticket. Kildonan is the 11th least used station in the UK and the least used station north of Inverness. This means that you are highly likely to be the only person to get off the train and there is nothing quite like the feeling of having a remote station all to yourself. Give it a try and you will experience a sense of calm mixed with adventure.
A long way from Edinburgh
It takes around 7 to 8 hours to travel from Edinburgh to Kildonan, but you will be on some of the most scenic rail lines in the country. Going north for a large amount of time will make you feel like an explorer and just think how many of your fellow passengers will be making as exciting a journey as you?
You have to ask for the train to stop at Kildonan
Kildonan is a request stop meaning that the train will only stop if a passenger tells the conductor that they wish to get off. Request stops are marked on timetables with an 'x' next to the departure time.
When the conductor comes around to check tickets they will look out for passengers travelling to request stops and take a note to stop the train.
A staggeringly beautiful arrival
The train follows the North Sea coast where there is a good chance of spotting seals on the beach. After Helmsdale the track heads inland and the final approach to Kildonan curves alongside the River Helmsdale with a backdrop of hills and forest.
Let me take you on a tour of the station. It will not take long because there is very little here. And this is precisely what the attraction is. There are no shops, cafes, and loudspeaker announcements. The only sounds are birdsong and the River Helmsdale passing beneath the nearby stone bridge.
The station opened in 1874 and you get the feeling that very little has changed between then and now. The river makes the same sound, it passes the same rocks and the same types of birds are tweeting. I have been to this station twice with a three year gap between visits, but the second time felt like I had just been there yesterday, not years ago. It is the first time in my life that I have used the word 'timeless' to describe a place.
There is no station building at this location. There is a modern glass shelter, somewhat like a bus shelter. There is a litter bin, timetables and cycle racks.
The disused platform has a wooden shelter on it and this has been left to ruin, which is a shame as it is the only piece of distinctive heritage architecture at Kildonan. The last time I peaked through the window of this shelter I was delighted to find a wood burning stove that looked in good condition.
Why come here?
Kildonan station provides access to miles of single-track roads that are superb for cycling. You can read my travel feature about cycling in this area to find out more.
You don't have to bring your bike here. You can simply take a seat and enjoy a few hours of peace and quiet until the next train comes. Whatever you do at Kildonan you will not regret your decision to come here.
Read more about Scotland's train stations
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle. Follow my blog on Facebook: