This is an exciting account of James McLaren's attempt to beat the world record for the fastest cycle across Europe. The journey begins in Ufa, Russia and proceeds through 9 countries to reach the coast in Portugal. The focus of the book is the incredible human effort required to undertake this feat. It is a race against time so there is little insight into the culture and people of the countries, but you feel like you are right there with James. His fast paced and personable writing style draws you into this world of emotion, physical pain and sheer joy.
The book begins with a great opening that perfectly captures the nerves at the start of such a journey:
"What am I doing? I thought to myself, as I sat in a room on the ninth floor in a nice hotel in Ufa, Russia, staring at my bike all boxed-up in cardboard."
From that moment I was hooked on this book, wanting to find out how this journey will progress, what will happen along the way and if James will beat the record.
Chapter two is where we learn of James' background, his life in Devon, his interest in cycling and why he wanted to attempt the record. There is nothing particularly unusual here and I was desperate to get stuck into the record attempt. Likewise, I was keen to get past chapter three which is about James' training regime, although it does give you a good idea of the amount of effort that is required to embark upon such a project.
What made me really warm to James and to care about his journey was his honesty about the highs and lows. There is no ego here and you just get the impression of a normal guy wanting to do something amazing with his life. He knows that a month long cycle trip is insignificant compared to what many sports people have done, but he choose it as something that he thought was personally achievable. He had read about the previous record and the daily mileage was something that he felt he was capable of exceeding.
The relentless pace of 8 or 9 hours cycling each day, broken only with short rest stops to eat and then sleep at night, made it difficult to put the book down. I found myself routing for James and wanting him to reach his daily target of 120 miles. At the end of each day's cycling the book displays a statistics summary showing the mileage and average speed. I was cheering inside when the daily target was exceeded on particularly challenging days and James has quite a few of these. In particular, his journey across Poland was marred with horrendous knee pain.
I found it fascinating to read about the logistics of a trip like this. For example, although James travels with a tent it is sometimes a dilemma for him to choose the tent or a hotel for a night. The advantage of hotels is that it saves time in the morning as there is no need to pack up the tent and gear and allows an opportunity to dry out soaking wet clothes using a hairdryer. However, the disadvantage is that hotels can restrict the route and mean that James might have to stop short of his mileage target. The record attempt requires meticulous record keeping, such as photos, stats from a cycle computer, a log book and witness signatures. Despite being exhausted in the evening James must spend time on this paperwork. Food is simply fuel on this journey, so you will learn nothing of the wonderful foods of Europe. Fast food, kebabs and whatever can be found in petrol stations end up being a mainstay of James' diet, although he does describe the joy of French patisserie.
I liked the inclusion of James' photographs of the journey, appearing every few pages- camping spots, hotel rooms, the open road. They add to the pace of the book, brief impressions of places, just passing through, life on the road.
With a record attempt it inevitably means that there is simply no time to enjoy the sites of the countries that James powers through. There are very few encounters with local people; this is very much a solo affair. There are some short interactions with other cyclists. There are some descriptions of pretty towns and scenery, but nothing too detailed. If you are looking for more of a cycle travelogue you will not find it here, but that's not what this book is about. If you have ever wondered about taking on a long distance cycling record then this book will give you a very honest account of what it involves and it is no vacation, that's for sure! The final few pages of the book are an amazing adrenaline rush as James reaches the end of the journey, it's great writing.
I really enjoyed this book and if you would like to buy it on Amazon just click on the image below:
These days it is easier than ever before to pack up your life, pack in your job and take to the road long-term. With so many ways to make a living on the road, and so many adventures out there calling, you might be thinking about making the leap. If you’re wondering where to start with your planning for a long-term travel lifestyle, let’s have a look at the basics:
Keep accommodation costs low
Accommodation is likely to be your greatest expense as a long-term traveller. Unless you plan on camping every night - which can be great fun at first but, believe me, can get tiring quite quickly - you will need to think about cost-effective ways to find a bed for the night. Youth hostels and backpacker hostels provide good budget options, and in Scotland you can always aim for an uninhabited bothy in the wilds, but these traditional travellers choices are far from your only options. Peer-to-peer accommodation platforms such as Airbnb or Couchsurfing offer very affordable alternatives, and can lead you to find new friendships and local insider knowledge for your destination
Pack smart and travel light
When on the road for extended periods, particularly if you are cycling, carrying your gear can quickly become the bane of your life. Those extra items, that seemed indispensable when you first packed your bags, will soon become nothing but dead weight. You might like the idea of having three books to choose from when you come to wind down at the end of the day, but why not pack smart and carry a Kindle instead to save your back? A wooly jumper might seem a good idea for the great outdoors, but when its wet and weighs a ton you will wish you’d invested in one of those lightweight jerseys and a waterproof jacket. The moral of the story is: think in grams. Small differences in weight will make a big difference to your enjoyment of the journey so be bold and carry only what you can’t live without.
Stay safe and get protected
If you are planning to be on the road long-term, your gear and your body are your greatest assets. Make sure that both are protected by investing in specialist safety gear for your chosen activities and ensuring you have decent, comprehensive insurance cover. Protective equipment might range from a simple head net to keep the midges off all the way to the top of the range cycle helmet and hiking boots. When it comes to choosing insurance, look carefully at the small print so you know which activities and equipment are covered. If the worst does happen, experts advise that you have the emergency numbers on speed dial to report any damage or theft as quickly as possible. This will give you the best possible chance to claim cover for your lost or damaged items.
It's hard to believe that this peaceful loch and mountain setting was once a place where cannonballs were made to fight Napolean's armies. The Bonawe Iron Furnace operated from 1753 to 1876 in scenic Argyll. You can explore the remains of the site as well as spending a bit of time in Taynuilt, including the marvelous Robin's Nest tearoom.
How to Get to Taynuilt
Take a train to Taynuilt on the Glasgow to Oban line. It's two stops before Oban, about 2 hours 40 minutes from Glasgow.
Taynuilt station has a backdrop of mountains and a vintage signal box on the platform. Flower boxes fixed to the fence posts are an explosion of colour.
Once my train pulled away there was silence, not even birdsong. Only when I bent down to sort something on my bike did I hear a trickle from a stream. It took me by surprise after the constant noise of the train's diesel engine for over 2 hours to be suddenly deposited into this tranquility. It took my city-exposed senses a while to adjust to this.
After a long train journey I was in need of a cafe stop and Taynuilt has the wonderful Robin's Nest tearoom. The blackboard proudly states 'all the baking done in the tearoom kitchen.'
Robin's Nest Tearoom
Inside there are not that many tables and several had reserved signs on them. I heard a local say "the church hasn't come in yet", and I wondered if, being a Sunday, this is where the congregation came for post-worship coffee. The interior is traditional with pine furniture and local artwork on display. I overhead a conversation about a giant salmon that someone had caught in a nearby river. A poster on the wall stated that there was a £1950 jackpot in the Village Hall lotto.
I ordered the butternut squash soup which tasted sweet and delicious. No wonder this place is so popular when the food is this good- I was told I might have to share my table and all the customers were being given a time when they needed to vacate their table by. My coffee cake, decorated with coffee beans, was also superb.
A Walk Around Taynuilt
Although a small village Taynuilt has a good selection of shops, including a Post Office, butcher, grocer and hairdresser. It doesn't take long to see everything, but it is very pleasant to stroll and there is a photogenic garden next to the red phone box.
How to Get to Bonawe Iron Furnace
It is just under one mile from Taynuilt station to Bonawe Iron Furnace, about 7 minutes on a bicycle or a 20 minute walk. The route is mainly on a very quiet B-road where you are unlikely to be troubled by vehicles.
Exploring Bonawe Iron Furnace
What surprised me about the site is how extensive it is. I had imagined just one building with the remnants of a furnace inside, but there are multiple buildings that are spread over an area that requires a decent amount of walking to cover. Two of the largest buildings were used to store charcoal. They are enormous inside, giving a good impression of the massive quantity of charcoal that was required to make iron.
The supply of charcoal is the reason why there is an iron furnace in this remote location. The operation had been set up by an English company based in Cumbria. The wood supplies had been exhausted in that region and the company knew that the forests of Argyll would provide what they needed. It made business sense to transport the raw ore by boat to Argyll where there was plenty of oak and birch trees to make it into iron.
Another resource that was required in large quantity at Bonawe was water. A waterwheel powered the bellows that were used in the smelting process. The water came from the River Awe.
The site is so tranquil and tidy, with neat grass lawns, and this makes it difficult to imagine what it was like when over 600 people once worked here. A small number of the workers were from Cumbria, but most were recruited locally and were Gaelic speakers. Most of the staff were employed seasonally, in the summer, to cut down trees and fire the wood to make charcoal.
The wages were poor and some of it paid in oatmeal, ale or whisky. The furnacemen worked 12-hour shifts, so it was no surprise that excessive drinking took place.
It was technological advances that made Bonawe redundant. Iron could be made cheaper elsewhere and the place shut down. in 1876. What you see today is a collection of stone, industrial buildings set within gorgeous scenery. It has been tamed by the beauty of the landscape, the noise and grim working conditions no more.
After my visit to Bonawe I made the short cycle to the old pier where the the iron ore was landed after its journey from Cumbria. The pier is overgrown with a thick layer of grass. I walked its length and could smell salt in the air. Loch Etive was calm with some kayakers enjoying a paddle. The surrounding hills were lush with trees. The sun was out and the whole place was ideal for sitting and relaxing.
Traditional cyclists may opt out of using too much technology, yet there’s no denying that it’s useful for both safety and performance. Cycling gadgets can help you to understand your own vitals, optimize your bike and your output and motivate you to ride to the best of your ability. Even if you are trying to keep the weight down on your lovely carbon fibre bike, the odd bit of extra gear is barely noticeable, especially given that a lot of the gear is designed to be exceptionally lightweight. Let’s take a look at a few recommendations.
There’s an app for everything these days and cycling is no different. There’s plenty of choice here. Strava is easily the most popular, with around 11 million workouts uploaded per week and 8.5 billion kilometres clocked in 2018. It’s free to download the basic version. It measures stuff like speed, distance, heart rate, power and cadence.
Strava also records your routes (if you want it to), so that you can share them with the growing community. You can find nearby routes and races and try to beat other user’s times, or your own personal bests. The premium version has additional features, such as fitness and training plans and live beacon.
It doesn’t have to be Strava, there are plenty of others that could work for you. For many casual riders, a cycling app will be pretty much all you need for basic metrics.
Cycling computers are the technological bread and butter for competitive cyclists, whilst hobbyists and casual riders will also see the benefits of getting a less expensive model. A decent cycling computer will be your faithful companion and trusty interface, be it a on day trip with friends, or a serious Scottish cycling sportif.
Top and bottom of it is, you will get much more out of a dedicated cycling computer than you will an app, with full tracking, metrics and insights available for all of your rides. With a top-end model like the Garmin Edge 1030, you can send pre-written messages to other riders in your group, connect to your smartphone to see notifications and get directions via GPS. The 20 hour battery life lasts long enough that it's unlikely you will be caught out and left lost or confused. A decent cycling computer can keep you out of trouble on a long distance route.
Metrics and Measurements
Serious competitors and sports coaches also take measurements and metrics seriously. The big change recently is that technology has made it much easier and more accurate to take vital measurements and performance data, as well as helping to make sense of it using meaningful analysis.
Sports coach and poker player, Wen Sime uses a heartrate monitor to ensure optimal decision-making. Cyclists also use a heartrate monitor to check on their own safety and to record intervals. There are also performance metrics that can be measured using hardware such as power meters to measure torque and effectiveness, and cadence meters to measure speed and efficiency.
To make the most out of a pro-level cycling computer, you can link it up with your metrics and measurements hardware. In any case, competitive cyclists or those looking to best themselves can use the data gathered to make changes to their own training and performance, and also to tweak their bike for optimal performance.
Smarter Helmets and Lights
Helmets and lights are essential pieces of safety technology in their own right. Every cyclist should own a decent helmet for protection; and equip their bikes with plenty of lights and indicators to negate risks of incompetency from drivers on the road.
Smart helmets can now offer even more safety, with extra LED lights and indicators. Some even have the ability to detect when an accident has happened and can send GPS co-ordinates to loved ones or the emergency services. The Livall BH60SE helmet is packed full of additional features, such as hands-free calls and music.
LED lights can perform similar functions, shining more brightly at junctions, detecting accidents and sending messages to contacts. The most advanced lights send a visual warning to your cycling computer alerting you to when traffic is coming up the rear.
It’s up to you how much cycling technology you use in your own life. Some will love it, but others may enjoy getting away from all of that when they go on a cycle through the quiet Scottish countryside. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that it can be useful for both casual and competitive riders alike.
This thirteenth century mass of formidable stone once guarded the sea approach to the heart of Scotland. One of Scotland's most famous historical figures, Flora McDonald, was imprisoned here. It was captured by Robert the Bruce in 1308. Dunstaffnage Castle is around 5 miles north of Oban. A cycle route, mostly on dedicated bike paths, makes it easy to visit.
How to Get Here
Glasgow to Oban takes around 3 hours by train.
Leaving the station you head north along the Corran Esplanade with the bay on your left side. This road can be very busy, but once you reach the roundabout it gets quieter. This roundabout is only 0.5 mile (3 minute cycle) from the station, so you could just walk and push the bike if you prefer.
After the roundabout continue to follow the bay. You will pass a line of grand Victorian villas, many of which are hotels and guest houses. There might be the occasional car, but it is otherwise quiet.
The view of the coastline is magnificent. You can see the islands of Lismore, Mull and Morven. This is also a great place from where to watch the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries departing and arriving.
On a curve of the bay you will see the ruins of Dunollie Castle peeking up from a hillside surrounded by thick woods. If you have taken a ferry to Oban this castle is one of the most notable landmarks to be seen as you glide towards the harbour.
The castle is the ancestral home of the Clan MacDougall and it can be visited, along with a museum and cafe. If you like the bagpipes then coincide your visit with the times that they have piper playing. I stopped here for lunch on the way back- a smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich, sitting outside in the sun.
Alongside the road there is an incredible piece of rock called the Dog Stone. It looks like it should be in the sea, instead of stranded on a piece of grass with trees growing out the top of it. 12,000 years ago this had been surrounded by sea and its weathered shape is the result of centuries of wave action. In the Ice Age the area around the rock was forced upwards by tectonic forces and became part of the land.
That's the scientific explanation of this stone, but there is a much more interesting legend. The rock was where the Celtic warrior, Fingal, tied up his dog. The dog, Bran, was tied with a massive chain that wore away the base of the stone as he paced about and struggled to get free. Apparently you can still hear a dog howling in this location!
The road leads to Ganavan Sands, which is Oban's beach and about 2.4 miles from the train station.
It is at the beach that you will find a dedicated tarmac cycle path. This takes you north to Dunbeg. It starts with a steep hill.
The path is only about 1 and a quarter miles long, but it is superb for avoiding the busy A85. Taking this A-road to reach the castle would be a horrible nightmare and if it wasn't for this cycle path I don't think I would have tried it.
Although a short distance the path winds its way through a variety of woodland and moorland that is rich in wildlife. Here, among oak, birch and hazel trees red squirrels, tawny owls and roe deer live.
There is a bench called the "Heartbeat Seat" alongside the cycle path. This is a great spot to take a rest and take in the view.
The cycle path ends in a housing estate of Dunbeg village. You make your way through the estate to reach Kirk Road which takes you to the castle.
Dunstaffnage is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland. The mass of stone wall is incredible, deliberately constructed to be impregnable to protect this strategic location.
The castle has a base of natural rock that looks almost unreal because it is surrounded by flat ground. I love the way that the building has been moulded to fit onto this rock. By the way, this rock is 400 million years old, so the thirteenth century castle is a mere youngster in comparison.
The brief history of this place is that it was built by Duncan MacDougall, Lord of Lorn. In 1308 the castle was beseiged by Robert the Bruce. It was later granted to the Campbells by James III in the 1460s. The most famous person to be associated with the castle is Flora MacDonald. She helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. She dressed him up as a woman and took him in a boat to the Island of Skye. Flora was later arrested and brought to Dunstaffnage for a few days prior to being sent to the Tower of London.
Entry to the castle is by means of a steep staircase. Inside is mainly a ruin with The Gatehouse being the only intact building. There is not much to see apart from fireplaces and a well. This is a place to let your imagination have a bit of a workout. Think of a Great Hall where the Lord and Lady of Lorn feasted on the finest food and wine, attended to by servants, with a roaring fire and tapestries hung on the walls. The Great Hall was also a court where justice for the local area was dispensed.
The best thing about the castle interior is that you can walk along the walls where the views over the bay are stunning. There are several boats moored here and I could hear their rigging gently blowing in the wind.
Even better, once you leave the castle you will find paths through the woods behind the castle that take you to pebble beaches and gorgeous views of the coast and islands.
Also in the grounds you will find the ruins of Dunstaffnage Chapel, built in the early 1200s.
Dunstaffnage might not be the largest and most interesting of Scottish castles, but there are few castles that have such an incredible mass of defensive wall. The coastal location is stunning. The cycle path makes it easy to visit and the short distance makes it ideal as something to do if you are waiting for a train or ferry in Oban. There is an entry fee and you can find current prices and opening hours on the Historic Environment Scotland website.
Why not combine your castle visit with a coffee and sweet treat at the Oban Chocolate Company? Read my blog about this amazing cafe.
If you’re planning a multi-day tour around Scotland, you’ll need to think ahead and get prepared. Scotland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world to cycle around, but the terrain can be tricky, and the weather unpredictable.
With that in mind, here’s a list of absolute essentials you need to take.
Things to take on a Scottish cycle tour
Ceilings that will take your breath away. A room slept in by Bonnie Prince Charlie. One of the largest collections of family portraits in Scotland. A vintage toy collection. Home baking in a traditional tea room. This is the Thirlestane Castle experience. It is located on the outskirts of Lauder in the Scottish Borders. A 6 mile cycle from Stow station on the Borders Railway is the best way to reach the castle.
How to get there
Take the Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Stow (45 minutes). The approach into Stow is one of the prettiest sections of this railway line with views of the Gala Water and the church, Saint Mary of Wedale, dominating the village. When I arrived nobody got off or on the train. This feels like a very rural place and yet it is only a short distance from the bustle of Edinburgh.
Stow's original 1848 station building survives. It is not currently in use, but I read of exciting plans to turn it into a bistro and cycle hire business.
Leaving the station you should cross the bridge that goes over the Gala Water.
As you make your way through the village it is impossible not to be charmed by it. Idyllic, tranquil, pretty- these are the sort of words that spring to mind. There is not much to see in the village. There is a Post Office and a cafe and that's about it.
To get to Thirlestane Castle you take the B6362. Beware! It begins with a 15% ascent as soon as you leave the village. The road curves upwards and enters woodland. It is a lot of work to reach the top, but you are rewarded with great views over Stow.
When the road levels off you are in a world of lush countryside. There are fields, copses of trees, undulating hills, livestock, birdsong and even Heather moor. This road is only about 5 miles, but has an incredible variety of scenery. It was also very quiet during my cycle with hardly any other road users. This turned out to be a perfect place to find solitude within a short train ride of Edinburgh.
I came across sheep walking on the road at one point:
The descent into Lauder was magnificent. I hardly used the pedals and just sat there and rolled along with the horizon of hills unfolding before me.
When you arrive into Lauder take a right turn along the high street which is also the A68. The castle is only 1 mile away, so although this is a main road you are not on it for very long and there is a pavement if you feel the road is too busy. During my visit the traffic was fairly light.
The gates into the castle grounds are guarded by a pair of proud stone eagles. The panorama of the castle is imposing. It makes you wonder what riches await inside.
The doorway into the castle appears more Georgian country house than medieval castle with its Doric pilasters and sash and cash windows. This reflects the many alterations and additions that the building has undergone.
Thirlestane can be dated back to the late sixteenth century when it was a fortified keep. In 1670 the 2nd Earl of Lauderdale's vision was for the castle to be turned into a palace- he employed the architect William Bruce to make this a reality. This explains the different architectural styles that you can see today.
After the hill climb to get here my first priority was to restore my energy levels. I ordered a Colombian filter coffee and raspberry and chocolate tray bake in the tea room. There was a gently ticking clock and show tunes on a radio. The wooden dresser had cakes stands with the names of the cakes handwritten on card. The windows looked out to the grounds where sheep strolled and ate grass.
The woman working in the tearoom was impressed that I had cycled the hilly road. "Hat's off to you," she said and made the gesture of removing a hat. She had not thought of the Borders Railway opening up access to Lauder and Thirlestane Castle and said it was "clever" using train and bike to come here.
Explore the Castle
You tour the castle on your own, but there are guides in the rooms who have incredible knowledge about the place.
Look out for the windows cut into the original keep walls. The thickness of these 13 foot walls is easily seen and it must have taken a lot of work to make these window holes.
Chiming clocks was about the only sound inside the house. I loved the Billiards Room with its enormous windows to let the light flood in. There are lovely brass oil lamps that had been converted to electricity. The room has an unusual screen decorated with salmon flies that were probably used to catch fish on the River Tweed.
On the theme of fish I read about a path across the Lammermuir Hills to Dunbar called Herring Road. It got its name because of an occasion where the Duke of Lauderdale ordered a messenger to collect herring for dinner. It was 50 miles by foot to Dunbar and the messenger made it back in time for dinner!
I passed through the library that had books on law, politics and religion. There was a massive family bible on a gilded stand, dated 1772.
I made my way up the spiral staircase that has more of those lovely gas lanterns that I spotted earlier in the Billiards Room.
Thirlestane is the family home of the Maitlands who still occupy the castle today. John Maitland, 2nd Earl of Lauderdale was made a Duke by Charles II. There is a charter conferring this on the wall of the Duke's Room. He was the Secretary of State of Scotland, so the most influential man in Scotland at this time.
This power is clearly in evidence when the Duke diverted labour from Holyrood Palace to work on his plaster ceilings. They took around 4 years to complete and date from around 1670. It is these ceilings in the upstairs rooms that are the standout feature of Thirlestane. In a room that had been used by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 the ceiling features three dimensional foliage and lions that appear to gallop out of the roof.
My favourite room was the drawing room. The plaster work features musical instruments and 4 eagles. The guide in this room informed me that one of the eagles had previously fallen off, but was restored. He also showed me a wall panel that concealed a secret staircase.
In the Grand Bed Chamber there is 1870s wallpaper in perfect condition. The guide pointed out that it has traces of arsenic in it, a normal component of wallpaper from this era. "Don't rub your finger on it and lick it!"
The dinning room has one of the largest family portrait collections in Scotland. There was a curious object in this room- a Butler's Chair. This was used when someone was eating on their own and it did not make sense to use the huge dinning table. They could sit here and be served with a tray that slots into the chair. This room also has a ram's head snuff mill with a Cairngorm gemstone found only in Scotland.
The children's nursery rooms have wonderful toys from the Edwardian and Victorian era, including a Noah's Ark with individually carved wooden animals. Toys from this time were not mass produced and passed from generation to generation.
Gardens and Grounds
I was surprised at how small the grounds and gardens are compared to other grand houses. They are very pretty. There is a short woodland walk with wildflowers and birdsong.
A Stroll Around Lauder
Lauder is an attractive town with a long street lined with characterful cottages of different sizes and ages.
Soup and Art
I stopped in the Fat Cat Gallery thjat showcases the work of Scottish Borders artists. It's a great place to browse and there is also a cafe where I took the window seat that had a beautiful natural wood table. I ordered the carrot and courgette soup. It came with salad and crusty bread. I couldn't resist trying the chocolate and oranage jaffa cake. The food was delicious and the friendly ambiance made me want to linger.
I leafed through some magazines and an interesting book about local history, Through Time and Place. It told an interesting WWII story when there was a call for people to lend their dogs to the army to use them as guard dogs at military prisons. The author had loaned his dog, Tweed, who was given a military serial number and he received regular written reports of how well Tweed was doing.
I went into the bakery and asked about one of the cakes. The baker said, "It's pure sugar! Are you in need?" Admittedly I wasn't, based on what I had already consumed in the course of this blog, but I would put it aside for tomorrow. "Macaroon, melt in the mouth." I can confirm that this was a very accurate description.
The return cycle to Stow meant the tough ascent, but once it leveled out the tranquil countryside was the most perfect place to ride a bike. The castle, the bike ride and the pretty town make for a brilliant day trip from Edinburgh.
There is an entry fee to Thirlestane Castle. Current charges and opening hours can be found on the castle website
For more ideas of places to visit in the Scottish Borders visit my Borders page.
The four abbeys in the Scottish Borders are one of Scotland's greatest collections of historical ruins. These are evocative places, full of history and architectural wonder. It is difficult to choose a favourite, but go and see them all and enjoy! They are linked by a walking route and a cycling route, so it is easy to plan an adventure to visit them.
1. Melrose Abbey
In terms of scale and architectural wonder Melrose is my favourite of the 4 abbeys. Famously, the abbey is the home of Robert the Bruce's buried heart. The abbey church, dating from the late 1300s, is a magnificent piece of architecture where the height of the ceiling is immense and difficult to stop looking up at. The quality of the stone sculpture is mesmerising and there is even a carving of a pig playing bagpipes.
Melrose is one of the easiest abbeys to get to. The Borders Railway, Scotland's newest railway line stops at Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh). From there it is about 1.75 miles from Melrose. There is a cycle path to Melrose directly opposite the station. It is such a short cycle ride that you might prefer just to walk there. Melrose itself is one of my favourite towns in Scotland and you can read my guide to what there is to see and do.
2. Dryburgh Abbey
If you like your abbeys to have tranquil, woodland settings then Dryburgh should be top of your list. The abbey is situated in a gorgeous little enclave with the River Tweed flowing by and a great selection of nearby attractions, including a suspension bridge and a giant William Wallace statue. This peaceful location makes it easy to imagine a canon's life of devotion and nothing to interupt this.
The abbey is renowned as the burial place of Walter Scott, one of Scotland's most famous novelists. Earl Haig, the commander of British forces for part of the First World War, is also buried here.
Although the abbey is a ruin there is a lot that has survived. The immense size of the windows and doorways is awe-inspiring and the quality of the stone carving incredible.
It will take around 30 minutes to cycle to Dryburgh Abbey from Melrose Abbey using National Cycle Network Route One. My blog has the details of this route.
3. Kelso Abbey
On first impressions this is the least impressive of the abbeys because a lot less has survived- it suffered a devastating attack from English invaders in 1545. It does not have the scale of Melrose or Jedburgh, but in its day this was the richest and the oldest of the 4 abbeys with spectacular Romanesque architecture. The remains of the great doorway are finely carved. It is also in the centre of Kelso, which makes for an impressive centrepiece in the town.
You can use National Cycle Network Route One to reach Kelso. It is 11.5 miles from Dryburgh Abbey.
4. Jedburgh Abbey
Built by King David I in the 12th century Jedburgh is perhaps the most photogenic of the abbeys. The scale and lavishness of the architecture is much more obvious than the other abbeys because it is really just the roof that is missing. A spiral staircase leading to a balcony viewpoint provides a marvelous vista of the nave and the fine stone construction. The abbey sits on high ground over a river and the view of it from the other side of the river is particularly impressive. If you can arrive into Jedburgh this way it means that the abbey suddenly comes into your view and you are going to think, if not say, 'wow'.
Jedburgh Abbey is the furthest to reach by bicycle. The 4 Abbeys cycle route links Jedburgh to Melrose and this route is about 20 miles. It is not a direct route as it avoids busy roads. If you are planning to visit all of the abbeys then the 4 Abbeys cycle route is 55 miles and quite challenging, but can be done in one day. However, I recommend taking longer as this allows for much more time to spend enjoying the abbeys.
Kelso Abbey is free to visit and there is an entry fee to visit the other three. All of the Abbeys are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and their website has current entry fees and opening hours.
For ideas of more places to visit in the Scottish Borders visit my Scottish Borders page
For a special treat Fonab Castle is one of Scotland's finest luxury hotels. It is located on the banks of Loch Faskally in Pitlochry, Perthshire. The lochside views are hard to beat, especially if you select a room with a loch view balcony. Enjoy innovative cuisine using many Scottish ingredients and select a gin or whisky from the extensive bar menu.
The hotel has a choice of 9 different room types. There are rooms inside the castle, in the modern extension attached to the castle and in the lodge buildings which are a short walk from the castle. If you are looking for a loch view room then most of these are in the modern extension and the lodge buildings, rather than in the castle itself. I found it difficult to decide if I wanted a room with castle features or a room with loch views.
Room with a View
As my stay was a special occasion I booked a loch view hotel room, located in the modern extension attached to the castle. This has a balcony overlooking Loch Faskally and Ben Vrackie. The balcony was my favourite place during my stay. We were blessed with good weather so I was able to sit out here for many hours.
Not much happens here and that is the delight of this hotel's location. There might be the occasional fisherman on a boat. Pheasants sometimes appear on the lawn. You can watch the mist slowly covering Ben Vrackie's snowy cap. The loch sometimes has ripples and sometimes it is completely still and reflects the surrounding hills and trees on its surface.
The style of the rooms is modern and elegant. A Scottish touch in the design comes in the form of the Tweed sofa and the Tweed cushions. Everything in the room is immaculate and high quality.
A card on the bed lists the choice of pillows that you can request- duck, goose, memory foam, head & neck support and back support. The bed was luxurious and provided the most perfect deep sleep. Inside the closet there are slippers and dressing gowns that have the Fonab Castle logo.
The room has a Nespresso coffee machine and one of my favourite things to do was to sit out on the balcony with a morning coffee. Another Scottish touch is the Tunnock's tea cakes supplied with the coffee facility. These are one of Scotland's most famous sweet treats- a chocolate, marshmallow and biscuit concoction that is truly addictive.
The room is also supplied with a copy of Scottish Field and a wine magazine, Decanter.
There is a shower, but no bath, in this room. Toiletries are from Thierry Mugler. The shower cabinet is massive and the water pressure perfect for a long, luxury soak.
I loved the antler coat hooks on the back of the bathroom door:
Fonab is very much a mixture of the old and the new. This is clearly seen in this photo where the glass and wood modern wing is seen to the right of the castle.
The stairwell is where you can find the most interesting fusion of these two architectural eras. The stone walls of the castle turrets can be found alongside modern chandeliers and polished wood floors.
The castle is made of red sandstone from Dumfrieshire. It was built in 1892 by Lieutenant Colonel George Sandeman. His family had made their money from cotton manufacturing and importing wine, sherry and Port from Spain and Portugal. The Sandeman name lives on in the present hotel- it is the name of the fine dining restaurant. This is located within the castle in a room full of original features, like fire places and wood paneling. Sandeman port also features in the well stocked bar.
During the First World War Fonab Castle served as a Red Cross hospital for wounded soldiers and there is a plaque marking this occasion.
The Lounge Bar is the venue for this delightful experience. This room has loch views through floor to ceiling windows. Choose a chesterfield sofa with tweed coverings or a leather chair. There is a tartan carpet, but this room is definitely more modern than traditional with the chrome tables and a wine cellar behind a viewing window at one end of the room.
The afternoon tea can be upgraded with gin or champagne. The fizz is from Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house.
On this special occassion it was the champagne afternoon tea that I had booked. The choice of teas is excellent and I can thoroughly recommend the Fonab Blend. It has a wonderful vanilla and coconut taste. I was going to have a go at describing it, but the menu description does it so much better:
Afternoon tea at Fonab is not your usual cucumber sandwiches and scones on a teird stand. They have their own unique take on the tradition. It begins with an oyster with champagne foam. The oyster was coated in batter and the foam is one of those things you could quite easily eat a lot more of. The oyster shell was resting on a sprinkling of salt.
Next up was the beetroot macaroon and truffle croquet. The beetroot dish was particularly amazing as the sweet vegetable flavour worked really well in the format of melt-in-mouth macaroon. I loved that the croquet was served on a small log to give it that connection to the countryside outside the window.
After we were finished with these delights our server arrived with a trio of small dishes. There were smoked celeriac and onion, crab beignet and chicken and foie gras, although we asked not to have the foie gras. All three were delicious.
The smoked salmon sandwich arrived on one of those beautiful tree trunks. This was a triumph of a sandwich with delicate slices of cucumber, a thick slice of salmon topped with globes of lemon mayonnaise and some herring roe. The Salmon is smoked on-site, using beech briquettes and hickory smoking chips and this gives it a lovely flavour.
Finally comes the cake stand with the warm fluffy scones and the jam and cream to spread all over them. The scones were on the bottom layer of a modern and elegant stand and on the top there was a delightful selection of cakes, including a macaroon and a lemon meringue tart.
vMy favourite of the cakes was the coffee layer cake. It was so moist and creamy. There was also a dark chocolate window box filled with mousse and cherry pieces- sensational.
Walks in the grounds
Fonab Castle is right next to the paths alongside Loch Faskally, so there is easy access to the great outdoors. From the Lounge Bar you can see the staircase leading down to the loch. At the bottom of this stair you can turn right to head into Pitlochry via the Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre, or turn left for a pleasant walk along the shore of the loch.
The walk is through woods with sections where you are right next to the water. Despite the close proximity to the busy A9 this is still a peaceful place of moss covered tree trunks, birdsong and the scent of pine.
Spa and Swimming Pool
Fonab boasts a 15 metre pool and a jacuzzi, located in a separate building a few steps from the castle. This is not a place for serious exercise as the pool is not deep and is kept at a warm temperature. Gentle, relaxing swimming is the order of the day.
There are also steam rooms and a sauna. Spa treatments include facials, manicures and massages.
There is a choice of two restaurants at Fonab. There is Sandemans Fine Dining, a 3 AA Rosette award-wining restaurant located in the castle part of the hotel. There is also the Fonab Brasserie in the newer part of the hotel with the loch views. This is where I ate. The starter of West Coast crab lasagna was delicious with the moist crab meat working so well with the fresh pasta and the broth.
For the main course the sea bass with fennel, sea herbs and smoked herring roe looked beautiful and tasted superb. My partner had the fillet steak. The beef is aged for 28 days and this enhanced the flavour.
For dessert I had the Scottish snowball. It was intriguing to find this on the menu as a snowball is something you would normally find in a high street bakery, not in the restaurant of a 5-star hotel. It was a refined version of this Scottish classic cake. Raspberry jam, coconut and crumbly biscuit are the main components and it was absolutely divine.
To accompany dinner there is an impressive selection of wines. If wine is your thing you will be in heaven at Fonab. The benefit of having a sommelier working in a hotel is clear to see- the wine menu reads like poetry and everything sounds amazing. Even the wines with the lower price point tasted like the best I have ever had.
Whisky and Gin Bar
Fonab is rightly proud of its huge selection of gins and whisky. The bottles are displayed in enormous cabinets, so you can have a good look at what is on offer. The gin cabinet is on the central staircase so you must pass it every time that you come this way. If you are bewildered by the choice the bar staff are on hand to help. If you are selecting a gin they will listen to what you like, what flavours you enjoy and then make a recommendation.
All of the staff at Fonab were friendly and pleasant. They made you feel relaxed and cared for.
A choice of juices, smoothie or a Bloody Mary kicks off breakfast. You can then choose from a selection of three continental options. These are beautifully presented on a tiered stand that brings a touch of elegance to breakfast. A bit like an afternoon tea, served in the morning. It is a really lovely touch to present breakfast in this way. Our selection was the granola with yoghurt and lemon curd, the pastries and a selection of Scottish cheeses. All of it was superb, particularly the tart lemon curd.
For my cooked breakfast I selected the French toast with maple syrup and bacon. Delicious and perfectly cooked.
How to Get Here
Fonab Castle is located about 1.2 miles from Pitlcohry train station. If you are cycling from the station the route on my map avoids busy roads.
The hotel offers a free pick-up from the station. During my visit I used this service as the bicycle was at home and we had a lot of luggage. They sent a BMW with leather interior; a nice bit of luxury for our arrival. It is at odds with my sustainable transport beliefs, but I think it is okay as a one-off when I am using train and bicycle on all of my other journeys.
It is not cheap to stay at Fonab Castle, but if you are looking to splash out on luxury in the Scottish countryside this is the place to be. The lochside location is the standout attraction and when you combine this with excellent service, a spa, fine dining and an impressively stocked bar it makes Fonab a prime candidate for a luxury Scotland experience. It is advisable to book direct with Fonab Castle for the best deals. They often have seasonal packages and if you can avoid peak summer times and weekends you can find a good deal.
Other Castle Hotels
Further north in Dornoch you will find Dornoch Castle Hotel. Read my review.
A cyclosportive is a short to long distance event that usually runs for between 50 – 100 miles. These organised events attract hundreds of participants, making them exciting for riders of all abilities. A sportive is different to a race. It’s more of a personal challenge. Some still like to aim for the win, but ultimately the only race is against the clock and your own personal best. As long as you can keep a minimum time then you can come along and enjoy the festival atmosphere.
Countries like Denmark and France are still the most well known for cycling. In France you can: take the Paris-Nice challenge, ride La Grand Corniche in Monaco (a city usually known as a gaming destination to rival Las Vegas), or take on one of the famous sportives like Etape du Tour or La Marmotte.
Scotland may not have the Tour du Mont Blanc, but it is still one of the greatest places in the world for cycling (I may be biased, but still!), as well as having some of the most scenic sportives that the planet has to offer.
The Bealach Mor sportive has been running since 2006 and has to be one of the most challenging rides that Scotland has to offer. In this event you take on the UK’s biggest road climb, a gruelling 626m hairpin ascent from sea level in just 10km. This is truly tiring stuff, but the views over the Isle of Skye from the top are (arguably!) worth it.
The route is a total of 90 miles and offers stunning views of the cliffs and seas of the Applecross Peninsula. Total elevation is over 2000m, so this sportive should really be taken seriously. Due to popular demand, there’s now a shorter 43 mile route, which still takes you over the Bealach na Ba ascent.
The next Bealach Mor is on Saturday 31st August. The starting point is at the village of Kinlochewe.
Etape Loch Ness
This is a classic cyclosportive in the North East of Scotland. The route starts and finishes in Inverness, making it one of the most accessible options. You can take your bike on the train from most Scottish cities. General entry for the 2019 event has now sold out, but you can still take part with Team Macmillan while places last. The event is on 28th April.
The route is simple enough but, like any sportive, you should make sure you’re up to the task before taking part. You will ride South East along the northern banks of Loch Ness, ride all the way to the bottom and back again. Along the way, you’ll face 900m of elevation, most of it in the middle section where the road pulls away from the loch.
Isle of Mull Sportive
If you really want to see the wilderness of Scotland, the Isle of Mull is the place to be. It’s not the easiest event to get to, but this sportive is unique and mind-blowing. Well worth the effort for the rugged coastal scenery and homegrown feel.
The race takes place on single track roads and although they are not closed they don’t really need to be – you’re unlikely to see any cars on the roads anyway. Run entirely by volunteers, this one has a personal touch and intimate atmosphere that adds to the sensation that you are taking part in something special.
With over 2,500m of elevation over 87 miles, the Isle of Mull, like most sportives in Scotland, is not for the feint-hearted. A shorter course is available at 43 miles.
Tour O The Borders
The final pick on the list is another highly organised and sponsored event in the Tweed Valley, Peebles. Though you will be hit hard by the ascents at Talla Wall early on, most of the Tour O The Borders route is actually quite manageable, with elevations of 1,430m over 74 miles and a shorter course available.
This is a sharp contrast to the Isle of Mull sportive. It’s big and bold. There’s plenty of other riders and plenty of hot dog stalls. But you also get to take in breathtaking scenery along the border of Scotland and England - and you can actually breathe for most of it.
The next Tour O The Borders event is on 1st September.
A rustic stone exterior with windows overlooking fields of green, a Scottish flag on the tower fluttering in the light wind and a sprinkling of birdsong. This will be your first impression of Huntingtower Castle, just 3 miles from the centre of Perth. It dates from the 1400s and is one of the many Scottish castles to be associated with Mary Queen of Scots. The mostly traffic-free cycle route to the castle is alongside the River Tay and River Almond.
How to get there
The North Inch is a huge park with a golf course and playing fields. The cycle path runs through it, alongside the River Tay. This is not spectacular cycling, but certainly easy and relaxed.
The path turns away from the River Tay and then proceeds alongside the River Almond. This path is lined with wild grasses and pretty wild flowers. I spotted several butterflies.
You will come across a sign for Huntingtower Castle that directs you away from the cycle path. This takes you onto quiet country roads.
The first sight of the castle transforms some rather ordinary fields and countryside into a special moment. On a bright sunny day it is quite a striking vision of towers and rustic stone.
From the outside you are given the impression that this castle must be relatively intact- just look at all the windows which are still glazed. However, on entering the building you will soon find that it is largely ruined with empty rooms and bare walls.
This emptiness does not prepare you for Huntingtower's greatest surprise. It has magnificent painted ceilings that are full of life and colour. See if you can spot the angel, rabbit, lion, dragon and deer in these ceilings. Speaking of deer- they still visit the castle's grounds, but I didn't see any this time.
The ceilings are not the only evidence of the former wealth of this castle. look out for the secret compartment within the thick walls, once a place to hide valuables.
The wealthy family that built this castle, in 1488, was the Ruthvens. They had a significant part to play in Scotland's history with the 3rd Lord of Ruthven hosting Mary Queen of Scots during her honeymoon.
Then there was the astonishing Gowrie conspiracy. In 1582 King James VI was kidnapped at the castle by William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie. The King was let go, but the following year the Earl of Gowrie was beheaded. In 1600 James went to visit the 3rd Earl of Gowrie and claimed to have found an assasin lying in wait. Some sort of altercation occured and Gowrie and his son ended up stabbed to death. Their bodies were then tried for treason and then hung, drawn and quartered. The Ruthven name was then abolished by Parliament.
Huntingtower Castle has roof access. It is always exciting to stand atop a castle tower and survey the surrounding landscape. This is not a breathtaking view with sweeping vistas, but it is pleasant enough with an outlook of fields and woods. Bear in mind that this area of Perth is built-up with major roads a stones through away and you will have noticed the industrial estate alongside the cycle path.
The roof is the best place to let your imagination take you to another of Huntingtower's fascinating moments. When the castle was first constructed it consisted of two seperate towers with just a 3 meter gap between. The daughter of the 1st Earl of Ruthven had occassion to leap between these two towers!
The name of the daughter was Dorothea and one night she visited her lover who was staying as a guest in one of the towers. Her mother heard a rumour about this afair and went to investigate. When Dorothea heard her mum's footsteps approaching she had no choice but to take a leap over to the other tower and her own bed. Her mum later apologised to Dorothea for being suspicious, but the next night Dorothea married her lover.
In later years the Murray's took ownership of the castle and they filled the gap between the two towers. Another interesting historical connection is that Lord George Murray was Prince Charles Stewart's military comander at the 1745 Jacobite uprising.
It will not take long to explore this castle. Thirty minutes will suffice, but a bit longer is needed if you want to read all of the information panels. You could combine a visit to the castle with a trip to Branklyn Garden and Kinnoul Hill. Head to my blog page to find out more.
Coffee and Cake
There is no cafe at the castle, but being so close to Perth city centre means that there is plenty of choice. My recommendation is Effies on the High Street.
This vintage tea room has the atmosphere of a Victorian parlour. The walls are adorned with mirrors and old portraits and chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Tea is served in large silver tea points and there are silver tongs in the sugar cube bowls. Cake is served on china with flower decorations. Tables are decorated with old postcards under a glass top. This is a place to take your time and enjoy the refined traditions of tea drinking.
I tried the coffee cake and I found it to be very light and fluffy, the lightest cake that I can remember having.
At the next table there was a woman with immaculate bouffant hair. She was talking to her friend. "We had a brilliant weekend!" We had another baby, well my nephew's wife did. It's her fourth. Only 6 pounds."
Effies is a special experience and I will be back the next time I am in Perth. If you are looking for something more substantial than cake they also do main meals like macaroni, scampi, baked potatoes, salads and sandwiches.
Head to my Perthshire page for more ideas of things to do in this region.
Kinnoull Hill provides one of Scotland's most spectacular views. The fact that it is in the city of Perth means it is easy to get to. Branklyn Garden, renowned for its collection of blue poppies, is on the way to Kinnoull Hill. And it has one of the cutest tea rooms I have ever seen.
How to get there
The walkway on this bridge is very narrow, so there is no way that you can cycle it. I pushed my bike across it and really had to lean in for people passing in the opposite direction.
This bridge provides fantastic views of the River Tay and the city. It crosses over Moncrieff Island where there is a golf course.
Once you are across the river you join a path that heads up to the A85 road. There are steps involved, so not great with a bicycle. Turn right to reach the entrance to the gardens- it is only a few steps away, so if you did bring a bike just push it along the pavement. The A85 is a busy road, so there is really no point in trying to pedal this short distance.
You will be able to pick up a garden guide and map at the ticket kiosk. The site is quite small, so it will not take you long to walk around.
A 1920s Garden
The garden is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. It was created, in 1922, by Dorothy and John Renton. They were gardening enthusiasts with social connections to some of the most prominent plant collectors of the era. This meant that they were able to obtain seeds from around the world and they were particularly talented at recreating the ideal growing conditions for the plants you see today.
They also built a very fine Arts and Crafts style house which you can see from the outside, but it is not open to the public.
The Blue Poppy
One of the most noteworthy plants in the collection is the Himalayan Blue Poppy, from Tibet. When the Rentons began cultivating it the new colour of poppy was a sensation and people travelled from all over Europe to see it. It has won numerous horticultural awards and you can buy it from the plant shop.
It is a delight to walk around this place. You don't need to be into gardens to enjoy the colours, scents and landscaping. The birdsong and trickling water from the rock garden add to the peaceful atmostphere.
The rock garden is an impressive feature, especially when you consider the immense effort that went into creating it. The Rentons had to get rid of their tennis court to make space for it. Boulders were quarried from nearby Kinnoull Hill and gravel was dredged from the River Tay. It was worth the effort as many difficult to grow species flourished in this rock garden.
Time for Tea
The highlight of my visit was the very cute tea room at the gardens. You can either sit inside a pavilion, decked out in dark wood, or take a table outside. With the weather being so nice I took the outdoor option, facing the immaculate lawn. It is a basic operation with a menu limited to tea, coffee and scones, but that's all you need to enjoy this special place. It was bliss with the sun in my face, birds tweeting and gorgeous gardens for a view. This has to go down as one of my favourite tea rooms in Scotland.
Up the Hill
The footpath up Kinnoull Hill is adjacent to the entrance of Branklyn Garden. You can leave your bike locked up outside the entrance to the gardens and then take to the path. You can spend hours exploring the paths on the hill, but if you just want to reach the view shown in my photo it takes about an hour, but less if you go at a fast pace.
The hill is thick with trees and the path is steep in places. It is quite easy to get a bit lost as there are numerous paths with junctions, so I just tried to stick as much as possible to what I thought was the edge of the hill and looked for gaps in the trees so that I could check for a view.
The outlook from the top of the hill is breathtaking. The River Tay meanders towards the horizon where there is a line of hills. There are fields in different shades of green and brown. In the foreground there is a tower atop a steep rocky outcrop. This is a folly designed to replicate the castles of the Rhine Valley in Germany. The Earl of Kinnoull built it because it reminded him of his visits to the continent.
When I walked back down the hill I ended up somewhere different to where I had parked my bike. It is easy to get lost, so you should factor this into your timings. It meant a long, but pleasant, walk through the Perth suburbs to get back to Branklyn Garden.
If you did bring a bicycle and want to get some use out of it there is a lovely path alongside the river. Instead of going back across the railway bridge you can head north on the path by the River Tay. This will take you through some magnificent gardens the provide very pleasing views of the city skyline across the river.
The path ends at Perth Bridge. If you cross over to the opposite shore and take a left onto Tay Street you will be able to return to the railway bridge that you crossed at the start of the route and from there you can return to the train station. Perth Bridge is normally very busy with traffic, so I recommend just pushing the bike along the pavement. That way you can also enjoy the river views!
If you want to do even more cycling then cycle route 77 can also be joined on the other side of Perth Bridge, heading towards Pitlochry. You can take this route to Huntingtower Castle, just 5.5 miles away. Head to my blog to find out more about this castle and how to get there.
I was given a RearViz cycling mirror to review. This mirror is attached to your wrist, rather than to the bicycle. I think it looks pretty cool and if you would like to find out how I got on with it then read on...
The RearViz mirror is produced by RVI Active, an Australian company that specialises in innovative safety products for the sport and fitness market. The RearViz was their first product.
I have never used a bicycle mirror before, so this was a new experience for me. I had never felt the need to use a mirror having been content to look over my shoulder to see behind. I have seen other cyclists using mirrors and always wondered if they were helpful, so this was my chance to find out.
The product is presented in a plastic bubble packet. The rear of the packet has an explanation of the mirror with the key features clearly highlighted. An instruction leaflet is enclosed. This is simple to follow with a combination of diagrams and text.
I think the RearViz looks very cool. In the closed position it reminds me of something like a chunky divers watch. The front opens up to reveal the mirror, a similar mechanism to a compact makeup mirror.
The fact that the RearViz looks good and does not look obviously like a mirror is a major plus point. I did quite a bit of online research into cycling mirrors and found that they suffer from an image problem- they are seen to be a bit 'geeky' and can give the impression that the rider is a novice. Despite the obvious safety benefit of mirrors this can put off many cyclists from using them. RearViz have possibly overcome the image problem of cycling mirrors by making something that is a lot cooler than a handlebar mounted mirror.
It is pretty easy to set it up with the Velcro armband, so that you can attach it to your arm. Deciding on the best place to position it on your arm was the most time consuming element of the set up. The instructions advise that most riders prefer above or below the elbow, but I found my wrist to be the best place.
You simply have to sit on your bike and experiment until you get the right position for you. When you open up the mirror you will find that it swivels and you must also get this into the perfect position to be able to see effectively in the mirror. The first time I did this it took me a while, but the more I used the mirror the quicker I got at this. Due to the fact that you are going to close the mirror over at the end of your ride it means that you have to perform this set up at the start of each ride, which you wouldn't need to do with a handlebar mounted mirror.
Take it With you
A handlebar mounted mirror is something that a thief could take from your bike, or someone could damage it accidentally or deliberately. Parking your bike in a city location brings a certain amount of risk to the accessories attached to the bike- that's why you will probably take your helmet, lights, computer and other items with you. The fact that the RearViz is worn on the arm means you don't have to worry about this.
Most cyclists do not use a mirror. Why? I think this is a combination of the fact that it is not a legal requirement and that it is seen as somewhat nerdy to use a mirror. My opinion is that I was always comfortable with looking over my shoulder, but when I really thought about all the turns on my cycle commute I soon realised that I was not always that comfortable. Some of the turns, such as on steep downhills or on cobbles, felt like I would lose balance if I tried to look over my shoulder. However, with the mirror I didn't have to go through this feeling of risking a fall for the sake of looking behind me.
There were other situations where I felt that I needed to focus on what was going on in front of me and that trying to look over my shoulder could be too risky. For example, a narrow road with lots of traffic that I had to wait for a gap in. In these situations the mirror came into its own.
Attracting New Cyclists
Any cycling invention that helps to get more people using bikes is great. We already know that perceived risk of accidents prevents many from taking up cycling. They will be nervous about having to look over their shoulder and losing their balance, but the RearViz can help to overcome this fear.
Get Over the Novelty
For the first few days of using the mirror I couldn't take my eyes off it. I loved the novelty of being able to see who was behind me, without turning around. Sometimes I felt that it was taking my attention away from from what was in front of me. It took some discipline to stop myself peering into the mirror too often and only to use it when necessary. This novelty soon passed and the mirror simply became like any other accessory on my bike- useful.
Cycling with Children
This is an added benefit of a cycling mirror and one that the manufacturers should promote more. If you have a rear child seat on your bicycle it is impossible to see what your child is up to. You simply cannot turn your head far enough to see unless you come to a complete stop. My child is very quiet when we go out cycling, so I cannot tell if he is enjoying the ride. With the RearViz I was able to observe him looking around at the world passing by and, more importantly, I could see his smiles that I would otherwise have missed. The mirror made a bicycle ride with my child even more enjoyable because I could watch how he was reacting.
I really enjoyed using the RearViz. It is a great looking product with an obvious safety benefit. For city commuting on busy roads I will continue to use the mirror, but on quiet country roads and cycle paths I don't feel the need. The one exception is when I am out cycling with my child as I can use the mirror to enjoy watching how he reacts to the ride.
Safety benefits of a cycling mirror in city conditions
Can keep an eye on children when using a rear mounted seat
Easy to take with you
Available in different colours- black, blue, green, orange, purple
Adjusting the mirror each time that you ride.
Competition! I have one RearViz to give away. All you have to do is tell me why you would love to have this product in the comments below. The best comment wins the mirror. Due to postage costs I can only accept entrants from the UK. Closing date 31st March 2019.
I received a free RearViz mirror to review. The opinions are my own.
If you would like to purchase the RearViz you can click on the image below to take you to Amazon:
The highlight of this museum is a guided tour by a former miner. These men are full of stories and provide a fascinating insight into their working life. The museum is easy to reach from Edinburgh using the Borders Railway. It is walking distance from Newtongrange Station.
How to Get There
The museum is 8 miles from Edinburgh. It is located alongside Newtongrange train station on the Borders Railway, so you don't really need to use a bicycle to reach it. There are plenty of cycling routes in the Scottish Borders, so you could do a stop-off at the museum then get back on the train to head further south. The train takes about 20 minutes from Edinburgh.
A path links the station to the museum. It is uphill and really unsuitable for cycling so if you did bring the bike you will be pushing it or locking it up at the station. A nice feature of this path is that it has information panels that tell the story of the mine.
At one time coal mining was a hugely significant part of Scottish life with 148,000 miners employed in Scotland at the industry's peak.
The path takes you past a scene of industrial decay with mine buildings looking like they are being reclaimed by nature. The museum is contained within the site of the Lady Victoria Colliery. It opened in 1895 and was named after the wife of the Marquess of Lothian who owned the land. The mine closed in 1981 and became the museum.
As you approach the entrance to the museum there is a small garden area that has gorgeous flowers and plants. A wheel from a winding engine has been put to use as a water feature and there are cute little paths winding through the trees and bushes.
The Victorian-era industrial architecture is beautiful with huge windows, impressive brickwork and glazed tiles inside.
Contrast this to the functional concrete bridge that is attached to the building and crosses the A7. This was built in the 1950s to link the building to a bath house.
Before the bath house was built the miners had to go home dirty. Their houses had a tin bath that was filled up with a kettle. If there was more than one miner in the family the most senior man got first shot at the bath. My tour guide, John, said of the youngest son, "By the time you got to the bath it was not very warm and not very clean."
Signing-up to one of the guided tours is the best way to experience the mine. My guide, John, had started working as a miner at the age of 15. He wore orange overalls and a helmet with a lamp.
John talked through the various stages of going to work in the mine. First he picked up his lamp and then walked down the gangway. "This was the last opportunity for men to have a cigarette so this gangway was always thick with smoke. "
The next stage of John's journey to work was the lift down to the mines. It was a double deck lift that could take 30 men on each deck and took 1 minute and 20 seconds to reach the pit. "Made my stomach go," John told us.
The lift had two speeds and when it was used to carry coal back up to the surface it took just 40 seconds. "The lift operator was a trusted man who could never leave his post and had to make sure that he got the right speed when carrying men in the lift. Can you imagine if he used the coal speed when the men were in the lift?"
The tour includes a visit to the engine room where the giant winding machine that carried the lift up and down to the mine is turned on for visitors. The room smells of engine oil and it is quite a thrill to see this huge wheel being turned by massive pistons. This was the most powerful winding engine in Scotland.
The largest part of the mine site is an area where coal was sorted and carried around in railway wagons. There are tracks, gangways and control booths spread over a giant area.
There is lots of interesting equipment to spot on the way around the tour route, including a National Coal Board train engine and coal wagons.
Our tour visited a reconstruction of an underground mine tunnel. It felt very realistic and John provided an excellent insight to life below ground. "No toilets in the pit" he told us. "You found a corner and then put a stone over it and put an x on the stone with chalk, so other men would know not to touch it!
John pointed out the first aid station. This included a morphine container encased in concrete as the men used to break it open and steal it.
"120 pit ponies lived underground and never saw daylight," John said. They had been used to haul coal wagons "Once they tried to take the ponies up to the surface in the lift, but they kicked and made such a fuss. When they were retired and went to the surface they were found to be blind."
Later, in the museum, I found an eye guard for pit ponies. The 1911 Coal Mines Act made it mandatory for the ponies to have eye protection from the uneven sharp walls of the pit. It is upsetting to think that prior to this date the animals would be easily injured when walking through the tunnels.
Pit ponies learned how to open the miners' sandwich tins. These metal tins had been invented to stop rats from getting at the men's food, but the ponies could figure them out and steal a cheese and jam sandwich if a miner was not careful!
A stark illustration of how challenging mining life could be was provided by John: "In the days when private companies ran the mines and a miner died they lost their house; the family had to leave."
The cottages that you see around Newtongrange village had been built for the miners.
One mine manager was particularly strict and used to walk around the village to see if any of the gardens were untidy. If they were the miner who lived in that house was called into the manager's office and given a row and his wages docked to pay for some other men to tidy up the garden.
Look out for the canaries- the museum keeps a few in cages. You will probably hear them chirping before you see them. Mines used to breed their own canaries as they were the best way to detect carbon monoxide. The birds would be overcome by the poisonous gas before the miners and this gave the men an opportunity to escape.
The museum site is massive as you can see from the map above. It includes an impressive collection of artifacts that have been put together to tell the story of the coal industry. It begins in the 12th century when monks were the first to mine coal. I was surprised to learn that coal is used in the manufacture of many products, including paint, batteries, lipsticks and soaps.
I read about a job that young boys had been employed to do- Trappers- which involved opening and closing ventilation doors for passing coal wagons. These boys sat on wet ground, sometimes up to their knees, for 12 hours per day performing this repetitive task. It was common for these poor lads to subsist on a single oatcake during their shift, so I felt lucky to be able to enjoy a very fine Empire Biscuit with my coffee in the museum's cafe.
If you fancy something more substantial the cafe has a good selection of sandwiches, burgers and baked potatoes.
I really enjoyed my visit to the museum. Even if you do not have a strong interest in coal mining you will find it fascinating, particularly if you take the tour from one of the ex-miners with their unique insight into this world. The museum is open 7 days per week and there is an admission charge. Visit the website for details.
The Mining Museum is in Midlothian. Visit my Midlothian page for ideas of more places to visit in the region.
I used the Borders Railway to travel to the museum. Read my blog post 8 Reasons to Love the Borders Railway to find out more about this line.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle. Follow my blog on Facebook: