Just a 25 minute train journey from Edinburgh and you are deposited onto quiet country roads that feel much further from the city than they are. A four mile cycle and a short hike brings you to a wonderful castle in an isolated location.
Highlights of this Cycling Route:
Take a Train to Gorebridge
Gorebridge is a stop on the Borders Railway. It takes about 25 minutes from Edinburgh Waverley.
When I got off the train I found a small station garden with spring flowers. Nearby is the 'Station Garage' that has a vintage-style sign. It made me imagine that it was the 1930s and there were cars, like Austins and Morris', inside being attended to by mechanics wearing peak caps. Another mark of Gorebridge's past was the house, in the village centre, with the faded 'dairy' sign on it.
Gorebridge has all the hallmarks of a commuter town. It was very quiet because everyone was at work in the city. I cycled passed housing estates, several under construction, presumably to take advantage of the new rail link.
Into the Countryside
It was not long until I found myself on single-track roads, surrounded by fields and views of the Pentland Hills. There were daffodils brightening the verges and sheep in the fields. I sat on the side of the road and ate a croissant. It was utter peace; not one car passed me. I loved it here. Such a short distance from the capital and it was possible to be alone like this. Who would have thought it?
This area has a little network of farm roads that you can explore, so this is great for a quick fix of biking escapism.
A word of warning- there are a lot of hills, but these are compensated for by fun descents.
Speeding to the Castle
One of those descents happens when you get first sight of the castle. You reach the top of a hill then drop down and all of a sudden the majestic castle comes into view, on the right-hand side (check out my video that features this fast descent). It sits in a valley, surrounded by a barren, grassy landscape. The downhill is incredibly fast and you will zoom past this castle view unless you pull the brake levers and slow it down.
The road ended at a field of yellow rapeseed where I turned right to reach the castle. The bike must be left behind as the final approach to the castle is by foot, about 600 meters.
This castle looks mightily impressive and I couldn't stop staring at its imposing walls, turrets and windows. I suppose all Scottish castles look pretty amazing, but there was something about this one that really struck me. It had presence. When you dream of a ruined Scottish Castle it probably looks something like this and you presume it to be somewhere deep within the highlands, not this close to the capital city. This isolated location, so close to Edinburgh, makes this a special experience.
I walked up to the walls and put my hands on them. They felt sturdy, but soft. This is sandstone and is easier for stonemasons to carve. The stone carving is one of the standout features of this castle.
In the courtyard the columns supporting the archways are stunning and look like something you would find in an abbey cloister. The most distinctive feature is the diamond-carved wall that looks like something you would see in a 1970s shopping centre, but was actually very stylish in the late sixteenth century. It was installed by the Earl of Bothwell who had seen an Italian palace with a similar design.
The castle has a very special staircase. It is straight. 'Big deal!', I hear you say. Well, look at the stairs in any Scottish castle and the chances are that it is spiral. Crichton was the first castle in Scotland to have a straight staircase.
When it comes to Scottish castles there is one question that always comes up. Does it have a connection with Mary Queen of Scots? And, yes, Crichton does! She attended a wedding here.
The castle was first built by the Crichtons in the 14th century. They were an influential family- William Crichton was Chancellor of Scotland. When ownership of the castle passed to the Earl of Bothwell this is when the extravagances like the diamond wall were added. He was also responsible for the building that is adjacent to the castle.
I thought that this other building was a chapel, but I was surprised to discover that it is a stable. It is so elegant that it is hard to believe this was a mere home for horses. Look up at the horseshoe shaped doorway. Have you ever seen such elaborate decoration on a stable? The Earl of Bothwell wanted the world to know that he was wealthy enough to lavish attention on his stables.
Crichton Collegiate Church
At the start of the walking path that leads to the castle there is a gorgeous church, also built by the Crichtons. Collegiate churches were commonly established by devoted wealthy families in order to have a team of priests praying for their souls. There were about 40 such churches in Scotland. In 1449 the Crichton family built this church and paid for a provost, eight priests, two choirboys and a sexton to work in it.
There was beautiful cherry blossom in the churchyard and the door to the church had ironmongery in the shape of a thistle. It was locked, but a man appeared and invited me in. "The choir are about to start rehearsing, but come in."
I was immediately impressed by the windows, "Yes," said my host. "It's very well endowed with stained glass for a church in the middle of nowhere."
The height of the ceiling is incredible because I did not expect this from how small the church looks from the outside. It gives it the stature of a cathedral.
The kind man gave me a newsletter to take away, "this is what we're about." I read about the services and concerts, including one that was part of the Edinburgh International Festival. There was also a visit from one of Britain's leading lichenologists who had discovered 160 different species of lichen on the church and the gravestones!
Coffee at Vogrie Country Park
There is no cafe at Crichton Castle, but there is a place nearby. Vogrie Country Park is just 2.8 miles away. I took the road back the way I came, so this meant a steep uphill then a howling downhill. I used the single-track roads as far as I could to avoid using the the B6372. This meant more uphills, but the views of the Pentland Hills were simply stunning. I saw a rabbit scamper across the road and a deer hiding in the trees.
The cafe is inside Vogrie House. This is a magnificent Baronial building and there are some original architectural features to lookout for whilst you have your coffee, such as the carved faces on the roof beams.
The park and the cafe are very much child friendly, so be prepared for lots of noise! There is a children's soft pay area in the cafe. There is a good menu and I have to say that the Malteser slice was the best I ever tasted- it had a layer of caramel goo that was spectacular.
I had a walk around the park. There are ponds, woods and lots of bright flowers. There is even a miniature railway (open only on Sundays).
There was a short, heavy rainfall, but afterwards it felt so fresh and the sun came out. I love that after rain feeling, like the place has just had a good clean. I think it is a similar feeling to crawling into a bed with brand new clean sheets.
Leaving the park I cycled 3/4 mile down a forest trail to Newlandrig. The trees and plants sparkled like silver after the rain. It was magical. This path meant that I could avoid the B6372 road for a bit, but once on this road it was fine. The traffic volume was average, but newer cyclists may not be comfortable with this road. It is about 2 miles to get back to Gorebridge Station from the park.
For more cycle journeys in Midlothian head to my Edinburgh and Midlothian page.
For many cyclists, Glasgow is considered to be one of the most cycle-friendly cities in the world. Using bike routes like the Red Tunnel, more people are navigating the city on two wheels and getting healthier at the same time. If only its infrastructure could finally catch up with the growing number of regular cyclists in the city, then we would see a huge shift in how people travel. But although Glasgow still needs to build more bike paths, there are already large swathes of the city that can be comfortably traversed on a bike.
For instance, the Strathclyde Business Park cycling route to Hampden Park takes you through scenic and safe roads that run through the heart of Glasgow. As with many bike routes, it’s best to start in the morning, especially since that means there are less cars at the route’s starting point. From here, it’s a moderately difficult ride to Hampden Park, a 10.25-mile journey that takes around an hour.
From Strathclyde Business Park, head southeast through Phoenix Crescent and turn right just before the exit to the Bellshill Bypass – a busy road that you definitely do not want to bike on. Instead, take the wide path to the right, just before the bypass. This part of the route offers great views of Glasgow’s green suburban city centre. Head south until you hit the roundabout, from there keep heading south via James Street and Melford Road, past the industrial estate until you reach New Edinburgh Road.
Once on New Edinburgh Road, follow it for several miles to the west. To the left you will see some wonderful views of Glasgow, while on the right the small hills of the beautiful Viewpark Gardens. Another advantage of the westbound bike ride in the morning is that for most of the ride you will face the same direction as the sun. This area is where you’ll bike across many of Glasgow’s hidden gems. Head west until the A721 becomes the A74 through Glasgow’s residential neighbourhoods, and then turn left onto the A763.
From there go south under the M74 and through Buckingham Park, after which take the Clydesmill Road to the west, past views of the River Clyde, and under a railway bridge until you hit Main Street. Keep following this road west until it becomes Prospecthill Road, and from there you will be able to see Hampden Park to the left, the historic 50,000-seat venue is also the Scottish national football stadium. Hampden Park has a rich history that makes it one of Europe’s major sporting stadiums, and it’s surrounded by bike-friendly paths, local restaurants, and lots of views of Glasgow’s best architecture. It’s without doubt the perfect place to end a cycle ride.
Glasgow has a public hire scheme that provides bikes at 53 locations across the city. For anyone who wants to see Glasgow at its finest, on a bike is the best way to go.
Book Review: Only In Edinburgh. A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects by Duncan J.D. Smith
When exploring Edinburgh by bicycle, foot, bus or any other means then this book is the ideal companion. It reveals many of Edinburgh's secrets and hidden gems, so is much more interesting than a standard guide. There is a lifetime of exploring contained within these pages. The text is highly engaging and full of fascinating facts.
My initial impression of this book was that it was quite text heavy compared to the usual guide book format of recommendations, listings and maps. However, the text is highly readable and full of riveting information about Edinburgh. It keeps you turning the pages and wanting to know more. What comes across is that there is so much more to Edinburgh than the castle, Princess Street Gardens and the art galleries. Even if you have lived in Edinburgh for many years there are things in this book that will be new to you.
The book has 103 experiences. It does cover some well-known attractions, like the castle, but it explores the lesser-known items, the hidden gems within these attractions. But the main focus of the book is on places and experiences that are more unusual and will take you off the beaten path. Some of my favourite experiences are the entry on Victorian swimming pools, the historic pub crawl, the tour of Edinburgh's independent bookshops, the story of Edinburgh' Jews and a visit to the home of the world's first millionaire (Lauriston Castle).
There is an almost endless number of adventures that this book will take you on, including a search for the replica of an American Wild West Street, seeking out a Cold War-era bunker on Corstorphine Hill or admiring 'Edinburgh's Sistine Chapel'. You could plan your weekends around discovering something different in the city and easily plot a cycle route to get there.
Each entry in the book will have you admiring the level of research that must have been involved and you will love sharing your newfound knowledge with friends and family.
Although this book is largely about places to see, I loved the fact that it also provides suggestions of places to enjoy food and drink. And these are not the standardised listings that you get in run-of-the-mill guidebooks, but, again, unusual and unique. For example, entry 14 is titled 'Sustenance in Strange Places' and informs the reader about a number of restaurants located in buildings with notable histories and/or interiors. Another entry gives the lowdown on the cafes that J.K. Rowling visited when writing Harry Potter. There is even a page about the former police boxes that have been turned into takeaway coffee outlets. Or how about going for a deep-fried haggis supper from Ian Rankin's favourite takeaway?
'Only in Edinburgh' is a great example of turning the guide book format on its head and making it into something much more readable and inspiring. The author (Duncan J.D.Smith) is The Urban Explorer and has given a similar treatment to books about many other cities, including Berlin, Paris and Prague.
For those who are exploring Edinburgh by bicycle the book brings a new twist to your journeys. You could pick a selection of the experiences and then use Google maps to plot your cycle route and don't forget to include one of the eating or drinking places so that you have somewhere for refreshments.
Some of the entries in this book feature in my blog: 10 Hidden Gems in Edinburgh
You can buy this book from Amazon by clicking on this image:
I think that this is the most beautiful station in Scotland, perhaps it could even be the most beautiful railway station in the world. There are some buildings that stop you in your tracks. Wemyss Bay is one of them. It is not a station to rush through. Allow plenty of time to slowly take it all in.
Wemyss Bay is on the Firth of Clyde, in West Scotland. It is about 50 minutes by train from Glasgow and if you are heading to the Isle of Bute this is where you come to catch the ferry.
The station was built in 1903. The architect was James Miller who had designed about 70 Scottish stations, including Glasgow Central. There was a fascinating array of materials used in its construction, including local sandstone, white pine from the Baltic and Quebec red pine, chosen for its robustness in situations where rot was likely.
The outside of the building has gables and timber framing and looks more Tudor England than West Coast Scotland. It also features a sixty-foot clock tower that is a landmark for the area and can be spotted from miles away. The outside does not prepare you for what it is like inside.
Inside it feels more like a Victorian botanical garden palm house than a station. This is because the roof is a massive glass canopy and the concourse is decked out with colourful flower displays. On a summer's day the light floods through the canopy and it gets you in the mood for your holidays.
The roof is sweeping and curving. The round ticket office is like the base of a fountain with glass and iron erupting from its roof and shooting out in all directions.
Another striking feature of the building is the curving wooden decked promenade to the ferry. It is a regal walkway that makes you feel like you are a king or queen. And yet, Wemyss Bay station was never meant for royalty or aristocracy. It was built to service Glasgow's working class when they took their annual holiday "Doon the Watter". They would crowd into the station to board the ferries across to the Isle of Bute and the seaside town of Rothesay.
The era of flights and cheap package holidays abroad resulted in a downturn in the station's usage, although in recent years it has undergone major refurbishments to keep it looking fabulous. This ensures that it is still a magical experience to arrive here by train to start your island adventure.
Wemyss Bay station has always been famous for the wonderful flower displays on its concourse. Railway companies used to look after station gardens, but this is no longer a responsibility, so for several years the station was flowerless. Thanks to a group called 'The Friends of Wemyss Bay Station' the flowers were brought back and are here to stay.
The railway company, Scotrail, has an 'Adopt a Station' programme where funding is provided to local community groups who are interested in looking after the appearance of the station.
'The Friends' also operate a second hand bookshop in the former First Class Waiting Rooms. This shop also has a gallery of photos of the station in the old days.
There is a bar and a cafe inside the station. I have not been to the bar, but the cafe has tables on the concourse, so the ideal place to enjoy the architecture with a coffee. I really recommend doing this, rather than rushing straight for your ferry or train. Why not arrive early so that you can take your time exploring this wonderful station? It is one of Scotland's finest buildings.
I used Wemyss Bay station on my cycling trip to the Isle of Bute. Read my travel feature about this cycling trip
I also used the station when cycling to the Isle of Islay. Read my travel feature about this cycling trip
Wemyss Bay is number one on my list of Top 10 Favourite Train Stations in Scotland.
Wemyss Bay station is on the front cover of Simon Jenkins' beautiful book Britain's 100 Best Railway Stations. The author has written a glowing entry about this station and the book features several of Scotland's finest stations. You can buy the book from Amazon by clicking on this image:
Are you looking for that perfect Scottish castle ruin? A place that you can have all to yourself? A place that has magnificent scenery? Morton Castle could be just what you are looking for. And you don't have to travel for miles and miles to get there-it is just a few hours from Glasgow.
Morton Castle is so remote and challenging to find that you will easily feel that you are deep in the Scottish Highlands, but you may be surprised to learn that it is in the south of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway.
To get there take a train from Glasgow to Sanquhar. In just 1 hour and 20 minutes you are deposited in this tranquil town surrounded by fine countryside.
Find out more about Sanquhar in my travel feature on the area.
You can use this map to get to Morton Castle from Sanquhar.
This map also includes directions to Drumlanrig Castle which is on the way and worth visiting. From Sanquhar it is 14.5 miles to Morton castle, a bit less if you choose not to visit Drumlanrig. The route is on single-track lanes that are little troubled by vehicular traffic. It is glorious cycling with forest, fields and impressive panoramas of lush, green hills. There is a great variety of scenery within a relatively short distance, making this one of the best short cycle routes that I have found in Scotland.
The final few miles requires the crossing of two A-roads, but at the time of my visit there was no traffic and it was easy to cycle across to the other side.
There is a distinct lack of signage to the castle, so you may feel that you are lost or you have travelled too far. But just keep going and you will find it.
The last stretch of the road is lined with trees, so there is no clue to the magnificence of the landscape that the castle sits in. This means that it takes you by surprise. One minute you are on a straight road, quiet and unmemorable. The next minute you find yourself deposited somewhere with a loch and hills. Is it the Scottish Highlands?
That's the funny thing. The Scotland of the imagination is a place where travel north, to the Highlands, seems the only way to discover glorious scenery and fairy tale castles. The south of the country is somewhat undiscovered, but Morton Castle goes to show that you can find the Scotland of your dreams in this area.
This castle has no visitor centre, cafe or shop. In fact, there is very little to see, but that keeps it free of crowds and probably means you will have it all to yourself.
You can go inside the ruin and have a wander, but it is just a shell with no interior walls or roof.
Little is know about the castle's history. It was probably built around 1300, but nobody knows for sure. There is also no certainty about who built the castle, but it came into the hands of the Douglas family until it fell into ruin in the eighteenth century.
The castle sits on a triangle of land, jutting over Loch Morton with the sweep of the Lowther Hills on the horizon. This setting is breathtaking and the reason that this castle is so special and worth seeking out.
This is the kind of place to bring a picnic and spend a day enjoying the peace and quiet. It is so easy to get here from central Scotland that you could easily do this as a day trip and that makes it a perfect escape from city life.
Spend longer in the area and visit Drumlanrig Castle or cycle to Scotland's highest village at Wanlockhead.
Liverpool is one of the most famous cities in England for a number of reasons. Gothic cathedrals and the old docks speak to the city’s expansive history, and of course it’s also known as the birthplace of The Beatles (as well as a few modern attractions that have to do with the band). Additionally, Liverpool FC has long been among the most successful and renowned professional British football clubs – and, at the time of this writing, happens to be vying for a Champions League title!
But as is the case with a lot of the biggest and most famous European cities (including Edinburgh, which we’ve covered before), there’s more to Liverpool than the front pages of a guide book might tell you. These are some of the city’s hidden gems you might want to check out if you have time.
1. Red Rocks
Near Hoylake shore on the outskirts of the city, Red Rocks is a gorgeous seaside area. Its name comes from the ground, which is literally made up of red-hued rocks and sand dunes. It’s not a place for laying out or swimming, but it’s striking to behold and it’s known for being an excellent place to watch the sunset.
2. Williamson Tunnels
The Williamson Tunnels are actually fairly commonly recommended as off the beaten path spots in Liverpool, so perhaps the secret’s out! Either way, these 19th century tunnels built by local businessman Joseph Williamson are mysterious and fascinating. We don’t actually know their purpose, though rumor has it Williamson had them built simply to employ the workers during a recession.
3. Kazimier Gardens
One step into the garden, said one publication, and it feels as if you’ve stumbled on some sort of secret paradise. That’s certainly a nice way to describe this venue, which combines food and drink, live music, and a beautiful, off-beat setting to make for one of the coolest places to hang out in the city.
4. Thurstaston Beach
Located just by Wirral Country Park, Thurstaston Beach is another unexpected, pretty outdoor area where you can just relax or take a walk. The beach is made of of a mix of sand and shingle, so it’s not the most comfortable spot to lie down, but it’s wonderful for a stroll (or bike ride) on a nice day.
5. The Bombed Out Church
The Bombed Out Church – properly called St. Luke’s Church – is not exactly hidden. But it is certainly an unusual attraction. Bombed in 1941 during World War II, the church essentially has a single tower and its exterior walls still standing, with the middle having been hollowed out. Now it’s something of a natural garden climbing about stone ruins – almost like something out of a fantasy novel.
6. Goodness Gracious
This is simply a rooftop garden that serves drinks. We can pretty much leave it at that, and add only that it has some truly gorgeous views of the surrounding city.
7. Rossett Park
Liverpool FC is all the rage in town, and with good reason. It’s an historically great club, and one that’s in the mix for the biggest prize in Europe. As a recent match preview put it, Liverpool wouldn’t have assumed it would get as far as it has, but now looks to be among the true European powers once more. Seeing the team at home is special, but you can also head to Rossett Park for a more intimate experience with the semi-pro club AFC Liverpool. It’s a lovely little park and a chance to see quality football up close.
8. Tomb Of William MacKenzie
William MacKenzie was a civil engineer who left instructions to be put into one of the more unique graves you’ll find anywhere. Basically, in place of a tombstone there is a 15-foot pyramid above the grave. There are legends suggesting MacKenzie was entombed sitting upright inside, though one need only read the inscription to learn that he is actually buried, and the pyramid was erected afterward by his brother.
9. Bidston Hill
A short distance outside of town, Bidston Hill makes for a nice place to hike. Basically, it’s 100 acres of woods, land, and old buildings and ancient rock carvings. Its lighthouse is a particularly striking monument, especially since the hill marks one of the highest points on the Wirral Peninsula.
10. Berry & Rye
This is a bar so thoroughly off the beaten path it’s literally difficult to find. But it’s certainly worth looking for. Despite its reputation as being hidden, not to mention somewhat dark and nondescript, it’s been written up as one of the world’s best bars, which ought to intrigue plenty of travelers.
This is a guest post
Looking for a pair of cycling sunglasses? I have been trying out these great value sunglasses from Sunglasses Restorer. They look cool and the lenses provide 100% UV protection and no glare from strong sunlight.
The best feature about these glasses is that they have 100% UV protection, vital for good eye health when you are out on the bike. In this video the lenses are tested for their UV protection and you can see how well they perform:
The lenses are polarized, which cuts glare and reduces eye strain. There were some very bright sunny days in the last couple of weeks, so I was able to test this out for myself. I was riding directly into the sun on several occasions and I am pleased to report that I did not experience any glare. I also felt that the clarity of my vision was excellent in strong sunlight. I was very impressed by the performance of these lenses.
This image explains the advantage of polarized lenses:
The Ordesa frame is made of acetate and incredibly light at only 24 grams. This made them very comfortable to wear. The fit was very good and did not feel too tight or too loose- it was a perfect fit. They also look really smart and stylish.
I have been using these glasses for about 2 weeks now and I have really enjoyed them. They are very comfortable and provide the necessary protection for my eyes and great clarity of vision.
The Ordesa glasses are available on the Sunglasses Restorer website for £22, which is excellent value for the quality of this product. Plus they come with free replacement lenses!
And if you need replacement lenses for your Oakley or Arnette frames then Sunglasses Restorer provides this service. The lenses are precision cut to fit the frames.
This is a sponsored post.
The Cairn o'Mount is one of Scotland's legendary roads for cycling. Legendary for the steep gradient and challenge of climbing it. I used this road when returning from a cycling trip in Royal Deeside. Read on to see how I got on.
Highlights of this Cycling Route
After cycling the Deeside Way from Aberdeen to Ballater you have to consider how you return. Do you go back the way you came? Or do you go back a different way? I decided to take a different route to Laurencekirk train station for the journey home. This is a 36 mile journey, via the famous Cairn o'Mount road.
I left Ballater on a cold and misty morning on the B976. The road was very quiet with hardly any traffic. I faced a steep climb, but it was worth it for the views over forest covered hills.
I passed the Deeside Mineral Water factory, an important place in the history of Ballater. Ballater had developed as a spa town because of the large number of visitors who came to drink the mineral water that was renowned for improving health. The water comes from ancient springs in this location and is bottled by Deeside Water. I had a bottle of the stuff with me and it was proving essential on these tough uphills.
When I reached Bridge of Ess I was taken aback by the charming scene before me. There is a fairy-tale tower and a curving bridge with black painted iron railings. It looked such a romantic place to live with the sound of the river, great views and a little garden.
Another pretty scene was the Butterworth Gallery at Ballogie. Here you can buy works from local Scottish landscape painters. It was closed at the time of my visit, but the outside was a scene of nostalgic village life with an old petrol pump, red phone box and red post box.
Before tackling the Cairn o'Mount road I stopped at Finzean Farm and tea shop. Produce on the menu was named after the person who supplied it- 'Sandy Ingram's bacon' and 'Mrs Hesketh's jam'. It had to be cake and there was a huge choice. I decided to tackle the triple layer coffee cake. There were prints on the walls by local artists, at least 3 featuring Highland cows. Two immaculately dressed elderly ladies were chatting to the staff about the daffodils displayed on the counter. "They're from the garden. Lovely faces on them."
There was an information card on the table about the setting up of the business. It was interesting to read that the owners went against the advice of the feasibility study, which stated that this business was too rural to survive. They had clearly proved them wrong because this place was thriving and I noticed many tables with reserved signs on them.
About 5 miles from Finzean old fashioned AA (Automobile Association) phone box marks the beginning of the Cairn o'Mount Road. It is smartly painted in yellow and black, with AA crests in the gables. At one time there were almost 1000 of these boxes across the UK. They were first introduced in 1919 as manned booths where an AA sentry-man provided mechanical help, directions and even medical assistance.
By the 1920s the boxes were turned into "call boxes." AA members were given keys to them and inside there was a telephone for getting help- all they had to do was give the number of the call box and someone would be on their way. The boxes also contained useful items like maps, oil lamps and fire extinguishers.
Another famous feature of the Cairn o'Mount road is that it has snow gates. In bad weather these gates are used to close the road. This can happen frequently in the winter.
The uphill climb begins immediately that you start the road. A warning sign displays a 14% gradient. There is no gentle introduction to the hills; you have to dive right in.
I will not lie to you; this is tough cycling, even with a good level of fitness. At one point I was overtaken by a road cyclist. "This is supposed to be fun.!" He called out.
I laughed, but thought 'it's okay for you. I am loaded down with panniers.' Yes, if you are doing cycle touring on this route you really feel the weight of your baggage on these hills.
The road began with forest, but later the landscape opens up with a more barren appearance. At this stage I thought the hills were over, but no! There were more. I could see the road continuing far off into the distance and it was going up, up, up. It was not good for morale to see the road going up with no sign of leveling off.
The name 'Cairn o'Mount' comes from the cairn that can be seen on top of the Hill. From a distance it looks very impressive, like a craggy mound on a mountain top.
This cairn has been here for about 4,000 years, added to over the years by passing hikers. It is currently about 3.5m high and 15.5m wide.
I was almost out of my Deeside water, dehydrated and feeling sick. I thought that I would collapse if I stopped and would not be able to get back up again, so I kept going.
Finally the downhills began. They were fast and twisty. I arrived at a viewpoint with a car park. I stopped to take photos of the incredible vista. The road, snaking its way across the landscape, was in the middle of a panorama of rolling hills.
Then I let myself sit back and let the bike do the work. I did not have to pedal, just use the brakes a lot. The constant tight turns made this a lot of fun to ride.
The Cairn o'Mount road ends at Fettercairn (or starts there, if you are doing this in the other direction). From there it is a mostly flat run to Laurencekirk train station which provides convenient connections to Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Laurencekirk station is a fine survivor of Scotland's Victorian railway architecture. It was closed in 1967 and in a sorry state until it was reopened in 2009. The restoration has resulted in bringing back many original features like the canopy and waiting room with wood panelling and fire place. I love that the station name signage on the windows is in the colour scheme and typeface that would have been in place in the 60s when the building was last used.
If you fancy tackling the Cairn o'Mount road then Laurencekirk station is the best placed for access. From here it is only about 4 miles to the start of the road. This is also a good way to return from a trip on the Deeside Way to avoid having to go back the way you came.
Train times for Laurencekirk- about 30/34 minutes to Aberdeen, about 2 hours to Glasgow (direct trains), and just under 2 hours to Edinburgh.
Read my Deeside Way travel feature
Edinburgh is full of world-famous attractions. The Castle. Royal Yacht Britannia. The Royal Mile. But what about the lesser known sights? The things that only a local knows about, but well worth seeking out. Here are my favourite hidden gems.
1. Circus Lane, Stockbridge
Away from the crowds of The Royal Mile you can find a tranquil street with cobbles, gorgeous flowers and a view of a church steeple. The cute houses will inspire you to watch for one coming on the market and relocate. Get there for the clock chimes and it will feel even more lovely. Circus Lane is located in Stockbridge, a 15 minute walk or 5 minute cycle from the city centre.
2. Craigmillar Castle
Commonly referred to as "Edinburgh's other castle", Craigmillar is actually one of the most exciting castles in Scotland. It is awash with staircases, passages and turrets that provide endless exploring. It is also set in extensive parkland that feels like the middle of the countryside, but is only 3 miles from the city centre. Despite this the castle never gets crowded and many of those jostling around Edinburgh Castle will be blissfully unaware that Craigmillar exists.
Read my blog about Craigmillar Castle and how to cycle there
3. Swanston Cottages
Thatched cottages in a capital city? Who would have thought it? The ten white cottages at Swanston date back to the 1700s and they are clustered in a tranquil wooded setting on the slopes of the Pentland Hills. Do not miss the free range hens whose eggs are used in the nearby Swanston Brasserie. From the cottages there are marked hiking trails into the hills. Swanston is about 6 miles south of the city centre.
4. The Doors of Warrander Park Terrace
When you are on a city break you usually come across apartments that seem to be the dream place to live if you moved to that city. In Edinburgh, Warrander Park Terrace is that place. These are noticeably grander than the typical Edinburgh tenement with elegant doorways, some with a distinctive stone rope archway. They also boast magnificent views across the Meadows to Edinburgh Castle. Take a walk along Warrander Park Terrace and you will dream about living here.
5. Highland Cows at Mortonhall Estate
You don't have to travel all the way to the Highlands to see a Highland Cow. You can find them right here in Edinburgh. The Mortonhall Estate is only 5 miles from Edinburgh city centre, but is home to this iconic Scottish beast. The Estate is also a wonderful place for walking where there is a chance of seeing a variety of wildlife, including hedgehog, roe deer and fox.
6. Debenhams Staircase
The gallery of Jenner's Department Store, particularly at Christmas, is probably the most famous Princess Street interior. However, head inside Debenhams and walk right to the back of the ground floor cosmetics department and you will find a magnificent staircase. This dates back to the building's former life as the Conservative Club. It has a stained glass window featuring Benjamin Disraeli, a 19th century Prime Minister. My favourite feature of the staircase is the brass lions that appear to be spitting out the banisters. There is a cafe on the landing of the staircase so that you can enjoy it with coffee and cake. Also seek out the Library Room, which was a part of the Liberal Club, and features mahogany bookcases.
7. The Lodge Coffee House
It always surprises me that this gorgeous little cafe does not appear on blogs listing the best places for coffee in Edinburgh. It is located inside the former lodge house of Old Hermitage House. There are lovely original features like the fireplace, wooden doors and window shutters. The coffee is great and you can order sweet or savoury crepes. For sunny days there is a large outdoor seating area. The Lodge is the place to come after a Sunday walk in the Hermitage of Braid, a stunning area of forest trails. You will find it in Morningside, around 3 miles from the city centre.
8. The Secret Chocolate Shop
Edward & Irwyn is a chocolate shop that opens just once per week, on a Saturday. It is a magical experience venturing inside the small space, which is basically a kitchen for making the chocolates, where there is a cute display of sweet delights. You can also get a free sample! The flavours are unusual and you will find nothing like this in a standard chocolate shop- scots pine, juniper and smoked salt. Try the honeycomb chocolate, made from Scottish honey or the dark chocolate with Icelandic black lava salt. The shop is located on Morningside Drive, so you could combine this with a visit to the Lodge Coffee House.
8. Colinton Dell
The village of Colinton is around 5 miles from the city centre. It is a beautiful place to go for a weekend walk because of the extensive woodland paths running alongside the Water of Leith. If ever there was a place to shake off the noise and grime of city life this is it. Look out for the former mill buildings and cottages, which are unbelievably photogenic and will have you pondering how you can make this your home. Also look out for the old railway tunnel which is fun to walk through. Colinton Dell is easily reached using the traffic-free cycling route along the Union Canal and Water of Leith.
10. Dr Neil's Secret Garden
For years I had heard locals talking about Dr Neil's Garden and read about it in books, but I didn't think it sounded special enough to visit until recently. Wow! I wish I had come here sooner. It is utterly gorgeous and I instantly fell in love with it. The gardens are laid out on terraces that face Duddingston Loch. There are water features, bridges and lots of little pathways. You can easily spend several hours here, just relaxing, exploring and enjoying the great variety of flowers. If you only manage to do one thing on this list make it this one. The gardens are just a 20 minute cycle from the city centre.
Some of these hidden gems are included in this brilliant book. It is crammed full of unusual things to visit in Edinburgh, so if you have done the castle, the museum and Princess Street then turn to this book for plenty of inspiration of new things to see a do.
Click on this image to buy it from Amazon:
Is it possible to get excited by a cycling helmet? When that helmet is the Livall BH60SE Smart Helmet the answer is yes. I had the opportunity to test out this helmet which has a range of intriguing features like indicator lights, speakers to listen to your tunes and an app that alerts your contacts if you have an accident.
The purchase of this helmet is made thrilling by packaging emblazoned with the words “Ride Different” and a neat list of the features that make it stand out from other helmets on the market:
After 2 weeks of riding with the helmet these are my thoughts on its performance and features:
A Talking Point
Colleagues and friends have been intrigued by the Livall Helmet and it caused a bit of a buzz when I brought it into the office. Everyone wanted to see the lights and indicators working and they were fascinated by the SOS function. This is no ordinary cycling helmet and it will get you a lot of attention. It also looks good with a sleek design and black finish.
Excellent Comfort and Fit
I found this to be the most comfortable cycling helmet that I have ever worn. There is soft padding on the inside that makes it feel nice and snug and it includes a padded chin strap which eliminates the minor discomfort you can get from helmet straps. The helmet is light and a lot of the time I didn’t feel like I was wearing a helmet at all. It comes in just one size, but is designed to fit head sizes of 55-61cm.
Easy to Operate
It is very simple to get the Livall Smart Helmet up and running. Holding down a button on the inside of the helmet turns it on. A robotic voice announces “power on”, which makes it feel quite sci-fi, like you are a space pilot donning your gear and preparing for battle. The safety lights kick into action, their travelling dots reminding me of ‘KITT’, the talking car in Knight Rider.
There are no batteries and you simply connect the supplied USB cable to the helmet and then to your computer to charge it. Charge time is 3 hours and you get about 10 hours of using the lights on their own, or 3-6 hours with lights and music. The Smart Helmet's robotic voice will warn you when the power is low and it needs to be charged.
The wireless controller easily straps onto the handlebars. The right and left cursors activate the indicator lights. The middle button is used to answer calls and play music.
You install the Livall Riding app on your phone and there are some simple setup steps to pair the helmet with your phone. During this process you get to hear the futuristic robotic voice telling you “pairing.” and “pairing successful.” Very cool!
Effectiveness of the Safety Lights
The flashing lights on the back of the helmet are very distinctive and make you standout from the usual bicycle rear lights. The app allows you to change the pattern of the lights to ‘default’(lights travel across the helmet continually), ‘slow flick’ (fades in and out) or ‘flash.
At first I felt a bit self-conscious wearing something that was so blingy and drawing too much attention to myself, but I soon got used to it and realised that it was a good thing to stand out from the crowd. The knowledge that your helmet is going to attract the attention of car drivers more than any other bicycle light and potentially reduce the risk of an accident was a comforting thought.
Using the Indicators
Indicators on a cycle helmet is a brilliant innovation, operated with a handlebar controller, but it raises some questions. Cyclists have been using hand signals forever and The Highway Code currently has no mention of the possibility of pedal cyclists using flashing indicator lights. Therefore, most people will be unfamiliar with indicator lights on a bicycle. They will not know to look out for them and may not understand what they mean. Until all cycle helmets have this feature and it becomes a common sight on our roads I would personally prefer to continue using hand signals.
However, in certain situations I found that reaching for the indicator controls was a safer option than the hand signal. For example, cycling over Edinburgh’s many cobbled streets makes me feel too unsteady to let go of the handlebars to make a hand signal, but it was easier to reach for the indicator button. Likewise, making a turn on a steep downhill where I feared losing control if I took my hands off the handlebar was another situation that benefited from the indicator lights. So, the indicators proved a perfect solution when I felt it was unsafe to let go of the handlebars, allowing me to make a signal that I would otherwise not be able to do by hand.
I also received some very positive feedback from a car driver. A colleague who knew that I was testing the Livall Helmet told me that she had spotted another cyclist wearing one and that she thought the indicators were brilliant and worked really well.
Listening to Your Tunes
I absolutely loved listening to my favourite music through the helmet. Before I started using the BH60SE I never listened to music when riding because I felt that using headphones is unsafe because it blocks out traffic sounds. The BH60SE has speakers, so it meant that I could still hear traffic and enjoy my music.
Using your music player on your mobile will result in the tunes coming through the speakers on the helmet. Okay, it isn't the best speaker system in the world, but I was impressed by the quality of the sound for such tiny speakers. The handlebar remote control can be used to control volume and move back and forward through tracks.
If someone calls you the BH60SEs robotic voice announces “incoming call” and you can answer it by pressing the middle button on the handlebar controller. Sound quality is good and a conversation could be had with no difficulty. If you want to make a call then you need to select the contact from your phone and that will mean stopping to use your phone. However, you will notice that the controller has an orange mic button and this can be used with a voice activated service so that you can speak the name of your contact and not need to stop cycling to access your phone.
I was not able to test this feature as it requires at least one other Livall Smart Helmet owner. The idea is that you can use the app to set up a group of Livall helmet users and you can all communicate with each other using the handlebar controller. This is something that I would love to use when doing cycle touring trips with friends. It would allow us to easily talk to each other and comment on the landscapes and the route, particularly because we cycle at different paces and are not always alongside each other.
I think this is just a brilliant idea. If you have an accident that creates enough of a bang on the helmet the BH60SE will send a text message to your contacts stating that you have fallen off your bike. It will have a link that takes them to a map showing the location of the accident. The phone app allows you to setup who you want your emergency contacts to be.
This feature gives peace of mind for worried loved ones and also for cyclists who are concerned about getting help in an accident. Many of my cycling trips are in very rural areas and I rarely know exactly where I am going to be, so this function could prove to be vital if I found myself totally alone in a remote location.
Camera button and Tracking Feature on the App
On the remote control there is a camera button. Pressing this will activate the camera on your phone and pressing it again will take a photo. For this to be useful it means you need to have the camera mounted on the bike in some way. I don't have a mount for my camera so did not test this out, but it could be useful if you want to take shots on the go without stopping the bike. I usually stop to take photos as I like to spend a few minutes appreciating my surroundings, but there are situations when I am pushed for time and know that stopping frequently to take photos will add to my journey time, so I can see myself using this in these circumstances.
The app has a neat feature to track your rides, similar to something like Strava. It plots your route on a map and provides you with stats like speed, distance and journey time. I don't currently track my rides or use Strava- I am more interested in what there is to see and do on my cycling routes than the stats of my ride. However, having this feature included with the helmet makes me more likely to try it out and possibly use it to improve my performance on my daily commute.
I had a lot of fun with the Livall BH60SE. It is crammed full of exciting features, which are examples of great design. Livall's innovation has been recognised with a prestigious award for their BH51M helmet, the ‘Product of the Year’ in the Urban category at ISPO Munich 2018.
Livall has greatly enhanced the basic safety functionality of a cycling helmet. The lights standout more than a usual rear light and the indicators, although not yet a replacement for hand signals, provide an additional message to drivers that you are making a turn. The SOS function that alerts your contacts if you have an accident is a superb idea that provides peace of mind. The speakers make your rides music filled, but you can still hear traffic sounds and being able to answer calls on the move is a convenient feature.
This is a sponsored post.
You can purchase the Livall BH60SE Smart Helmet by clicking on the image banner below:
The Deeside Way is a 41 mile cycle path, mostly traffic-free, from Aberdeen to Ballater. It follows the line of the Deeside Railway, once famously used by The Royal Family to travel to Balmoral Castle. Here are 10 things you can see and do along the way:
1. Old Station Buildings
Most of the Deeside Line's stations survive today. Information boards tell the story of each building. This is a photo of Murtle Station which has a canopy held up with decorative iron struts. Passengers once got off here to visit the Deeside Hydropathic which offered a variety of treatments, including Turkish and Russian baths.
2. Allan Park
A secret garden just waiting to be discovered, Allan Park, is a short distance from Cults Station. It is hidden away in a valley with a set of steep stairs taking you down to a world of ponds, trees and birdsong. This is the perfect place to relax with a picnic lunch.
3. Drum Castle
Drum Castle was occupied for 653 years by a single family, the Irvines, until the death of the 24th Laird in 1976. Inside there are the expected castle essentials, such as a library full of beautifully bound books, a Gallery hung with family portraits and four poster bed. There is even a cabinet containing the 11th century hair of Malcolm, King of Scots. The extensive grounds offer woodland walks and rose gardens.
4. Deeside Railway
The Deeside Railway has restored a mile of track at Milton of Crathes and created an authentic experience of what rail travel was like back in the day. Travel in the 1950s Battery Multiple Unit where the front seats look into the driver's cab and give a view of the tracks. Grab a coffee in the buffet carriages and admire the restored timber station with its fireplace and ticking clock.
5. Milton Art Gallery
The work of local artists is displayed inside restored farm buildings. Take home a painting, sculpture or jewelry inspired by the Aberdeenshire landscapes and nature. The Art Gallery is adjacent to the Deeside Railway. and Crathes Castle is a short walk from here.
6. Crathes Castle
The sculpted yew trees are the most incredible feature of the gardens of Crathes Castle. They date back to the early 1700s and have been continuously trimmed by generations of gardens to keep them in the egg and cup shape that you see today. The painted ceilings inside the castle are jaw dropping. The room of the Nine Nobles features bearded military heroes, like Alexander the Great, Hector of Troy and Julius Caesar.
7. Grave Robber Watchtower, Banchory
Cycling into Banchory you will spot a curious round tower; it was a watchtower installed to deter grave robbers in the nineteenth century. It has a bell and the sight of this sent a shiver down my spine as I imagined it being rung by a panicking watchman on spotting body snatchers. The sound would awaken the foggy town and the people would be in no doubt about what was going on.
8. Cambus O'May Suspension Bridge
This charming footbridge, built in 1905, crosses the River Dee. It has lattice girders, a cute turnstile entrance and is painted gleaming white. On the other side there are woodland walks to enjoy. The bridge is 3 miles east of Ballater.
Note that the Cambus O'May suspension bridge is currently not accessible after storm damage (March 2018).
9. River Dee
The 5th longest river in Scotland and famous for its salmon fishing the Dee is a constant companion for cyclists on the Deeside Way. For large sections you are riding alongside it, so make a stop and take a seat by its banks for a bit of relaxation.
10. Royal Station, Ballater
Board a replica of a Royal Train carriage and take a peek at the Royal toilet in the waiting room- it has a blue and white porcelain bowl painted with fruits and flowers. There is a tea room that perfectly captures the nostalgia of nineteenth century railway refreshment rooms.
Read about my cycling trip on the Deeside Way:
Part One: Aberdeen to Banchory
Part Two: Banchory to Ballater
Spacious carriages with comfy seats. Windows that open. Taking a stroll to the buffet car and sitting down with a coffee. Countryside views. If this is your idea of a relaxing train trip then come aboard the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway. It is a few miles north of Linlithgow and you can ride in vintage carriages pulled by steam engines.
Highlights of this cycle route:
Take a train to Linlithgow Then Cycle 4.5 miles to Bo'ness
Linlithgow is only 20 minutes from Edinburgh, 30 minutes from Glasgow. Leave the station by means of the lane that takes you down to the High Street. Turn right here, through a roundabout, to head along Blackness Road, passing the Regent shopping centre. It can be a busy road, but you are only on it for a short distance.
Turn-off Blackness Road onto the path that goes around Linlithgow Loch. From here there are good views of Linlithgow Palace.
You soon turn off the loch path, via a gate, and onto a minor road. This immediately feels rural and there is a strong sense of leaving behind the bustle of the town.
This is country cycling at its best with bird song, tranquility and hedge-lined roads. I passed a field of cabbages with a scarecrow standing guard. There are fantastic views of the Pentland Hills and down to the Forth.
The route ends with a long descent into Bo'ness, so bear this in mind when making the uphill return. This is an A-road, but I did not find it to be busy and at the bottom of the descent it becomes suitably wide for cyclists and vehicles to share it comfortably.
Leave Modern Life Behind
What I love the most about heritage railways is that they transport you to a different era. They are a fantasy of a perfect past, sometime in the 1950s, when Britain’s railways were supposedly at their best. It is like a theme park. You can forget about what is on your mind that particular day and totally immerse yourself in the experience.
I walked into the station and bought a ticket from a clerk behind a tiny window that I had to bend down to. The ticket was made of rigid card; this was later punched by a guard in immaculate uniform with a peak cap. This ticket allows you to travel on the trains all day long if you want, stopping off and getting back on.
It is exciting to walk down the line of shiny carriages and choose which door to go through. Then head through the coaches to check out the different seating. The seats are comfy, the tables are wide. There is a feeling of space that you don’t necessarily get on modern trains.
There are first class compartments with elegant lamps, arm and headrests and curtains. Their sliding doors allow you to create your own little private haven.
The doors are slammed closed, the guard blows his whistle and we get underway. On the platform I noticed the station dogs being taken for a walk. A station dog was once a common feature of British train stations, but no longer.
Something also missing from modern railways in Britain is the ability to walk to a buffet car, buy a coffee and actually sit at a table in the buffet car. Sit-down buffet cars, sadly, no longer exist, so this is something that I wanted to experience.
Behind the buffet counter there were little wooden shelves with the crisps and confectionery stored neatly in them. I bought a coffee and a chocolate bar and did not have to walk all the way back to my seat. I could sit right here in the buffet car as it had seats and tables. I loved this! You know, you don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy this. You could simply do this for a unique place to have a coffee; enjoy the scenery, read a book.
This train has a rhythm of gentle swaying and lots of sounds like clanking metal and puffing steam. The windows open so that you can hear and smell all of this. It is a far cry from modern railways where the carriage is sealed and you can hear almost nothing of the machine.
The line feels surprisingly rural despite being near areas of present and former industry. There are long tracts of lush forest, fields, but also views of the massive Grangemouth Oil Refinery. I could see an enormous yellow flame sprouting from one of the towers. Crossing the River Avon on an aqueduct is the scenic highlight.
I recommend getting off the train at this beautifully restored station, about 17 minutes into the journey. You can always pick up the next train after a good look around and a forest walk to the remains of a nearby clay mine.
The location feels incredibly remote, despite the closeness to Bo'ness and you would be forgiven for thinking you had arrived somewhere in the Highlands.
The station has a waiting room with a fireplace, a bicycle in the corner, perhaps left by the Station Master, and stacks of parcels. There is coloured glass, window shutters and decorative ironwork on the canopy. It feels very authentic and reinforces the illusion that you have travelled into the past.
I was the only person to get off the train here and I had this peaceful spot all to myself. I loved the profusion of colourful wildflowers in the woods adjacent to the station.
End of the Line
Manuel is the final stop. There is no station building here, but you can get out and watch the steam engine being turned around in order to pull the train back to Bo'ness.
Manuel is also right alongside the Edinburgh to Glasgow mainline so there is the curious experience of watching modern express trains zooming past. The old and the new together. Which train do you prefer? I think you can tell which is my favourite.
Museum of Scottish Railways
Back at Bo'ness station you can walk across the footbridge to take a look at this fabulous museum that tells the story of Scotland's railways. Train lovers will be in their element with the collection of carriages, wagons and locomotives, but there is plenty to keep everyone interested.
Some of the more interesting exhibits include the luxurious carriage that once belonged to the Duke of Sutherland and a travelling Post Office carriage.
There are also many artifacts, like signage, uniforms and timetables that provide a fascinating record of the railways.
One thing that I did not know before I came here is that when the line from Edinburgh to England first opened in 1846 there was a customs post at Berwick-on-Tweed. Trains were searched and items like whisky were confiscated.
For something really special and unique I thoroughly recommend afternoon tea on the train. Take someone special and you will have a memorable experience. Enjoy the gentle swaying of the train and watching the countryside as you sip tea and indulge in sandwiches, scones and cakes.
You need to book the afternoon tea in advance as it is very popular and only available on certain days. You can check the Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway website for details.
The Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway is located in the Falkirk area of Scotland. Find out more about what there is to see and do on the Visit Falkirk website.
Christmas Tastes by Scottish Producers. Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh Dark Chocolate and Clootie Dumpling Ale
Many of Scotland's food and drink producers release special products at Christmas time. It is fun to try them out and see if they evoke the flavours of the season and make you feel all festive. I decided to give two a try. One is a chocolate bar by Edinburgh-based Coco Chocolatier and the other is a beer by The Orkney Brewery.
Gold, Frankincense and Myrr Dark Chocolate
Coco Chocolatier in Edinburgh produces luxury chocolate bars with unique flavours. You can read more about them on my previous blog. This particular bar intrigued me as I wondered if you could successfully create these flavours in a chocolate bar. Reading the ingredients there is a tiny amount of Frankincense and Myrr oil (less than 1%) in the bar. Gold food dust has been sprinkled onto the bar to create a glittery surface, which you can see in this photo:
When I broke a bit of the chocolate off and put it to my nose I liked the scent, but couldn't put my finger on it, it was earthy and perhaps faintly festive, but I thought it was difficult to detect. I found the taste to be too subtle to say with any certainty that I could taste myrr or frankincense. Nevertheless it is delicious chocolate and you can easily tell that it is high quality. Although I didn't think that the flavour worked, the gold glitter certainly made the bar look Christmassy and it has beautiful wrapping, so this would make a lovely gift.
Clootie Dumpling Seasonal Ale
The Orkney Brewery produces a very fine selection of beers that are worth trying. One of my favourite Scottish beers is their Dark Island and you can read a review of this on a previous blog. The Clootie Dumpling is a seasonal edition and if you are not familiar with this Scottish pudding have a look at the rear label for an explanation:
The smell of this drink successfully captures that winter fruit pudding scent. It conjures up a boozy cake with delightful flavours like rum, cloves, cinnamon and ginger.
On the first few sips I thought that there is a subtle hint of festive tastes, but not noticeable enough that this could be picked up in a blind taste test. The taste that really comes through is bitterness, but pleasant and not overwhelming, and caramel. I found that the more I drank of it the more I was left with an aftertaste of those winter spices and it made me feel warm and nice and that's what you want from a Christmas drink. I do think the smell works better than the taste in capturing the essence of a seasonal pudding, but it is still a really delicious beer.
Have you tried any Christmas inspired Scottish products? Let me know in the comments below:
As you make your way around Blackness Castle you will notice indestructible iron gates. locks, slots for guns, and thick walls. Henry VIIIs ambassador described the castle as 'impregnable' and this is certainly the impression you get from a visit. It sits on a promontory of the River Forth with the walls forming a 'V' shape into the water that mean the castle is often called the 'ship that never sailed'. It is a fun castle to explore with plenty to keep you occupied in the form of walkways with breathtaking views over the water, towers, spiral stairs and vaulted rooms with fireplaces.
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. The canal is just one minute from the station. Once on the canal you turn left and cycle for 3 miles.
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. This road can have steady traffic, so you need to be reasonably confident to ride it, but you are only on it for about 200 meters as you take the first left onto a minor road called Mannerston Holdings.
This road is next to a wall that has the grounds of House of the Binns on the other side. This house is very much worth a visit and you can read more about it in my previous blog.
The final stretch of road into Blackness is downhill where you will pass an unusually shaped church on the left, the Blackness Mission Church. Turn right at the bottom of this road to proceed along the shore towards the castle entrance.
This castle is a lot of fun to explore because of the many staircases, passages and rooms to walk around. This is what makes Blackness stand out when compared to some other castles which may not have as much to explore. There is enough here to keep you occupied for a good while and fire up your imagination about what it must have been like to live and work at Blackness.
The architecture of Blackness is all about defense. One of the key features in its arsenal is the caponier which is a passageway between the inner and outer walls. Soldiers could descend through a trapdoor into this corridor to fire through slits at any enemy that managed to breach the outer wall. You can imagine that it must have been total carnage for any opposing force caught in this area.
The castle was also well designed to resist attack from the sea with immense walls that had canons pointing out of them. It was only when technological advancements in artillery made it possible to batter the walls substantially that the castle surrendered to an enemy. This happened in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell attacked simultaneously from land and sea.
The building is well endowed with iron gates, bolts and padlocks:
As you explore you can hear the sea lapping against the walls and there is a wooden jetty at the castle's seaward door which takes you a good distance over the water to a crane. This was added in the 1870s when the castle was being used a munitions store when Britain feared a French invasion; boats docked to collect supplies for gun batteries along the Forth.
I found the most fascinating part of the castle to be the natural rocky surface on the floor of the courtyard, a part of the original landscape that had been here long before this building ever was. This is the perfect illustration of that combination of the natural and man made that composes the structure of many of Scotland's castles.
It was tricky to scramble over these rocks and it was likely to have be covered with some sort of platform to make life easier for the castle inhabitants.
Among this craggy surface there is a tower. It feels like it has been plonked in there, not being attached to the rest of the structure. Or, a castle that found itself surrounded by another castle. This tower was used as a prison and you can go inside for a good look around.
You will notice that this prison tower is surprisingly well appointed with fireplaces, toilets and even storage areas for belongings. This is because it was for wealthy prisoners, people of high standing who had fallen out of favour with the King. These people were allowed to go for daytime walks up to 3 miles away from the prison and were allowed their own servants to tend to their needs. They could also bring their own books, furniture and tapestries into the tower.
There was also a pit prison in the castle which could not be further from the luxury of the tower. Here, lower ranking prisoners lived in misery with no fires, rats for company and waiting for the daily high tide to wash away their toilet waste. In 1924 a manacle was found in the pit, still with the wrist bone of some unfortunate attached to it.
The keeper of the castle was well paid for looking after the prison. His apartments were luxurious and you will find a grand hall with a high ceiling and fireplaces.
The castle's battlements provide superb views of the River Forth and you can spot the famous rail and road bridges:
Once you have finished exploring the castle it is worth taking a walk down to the grassy area on the shoreline. It is a pretty spot for a stroll and a good area to view the castle jutting out into the river.
There is no cafe at Blackness Castle, but there is a good place nearby. Mannerstonsfarm 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.
Blackness is located in the West Lothian region of Scotland. Find out more about what there is to see and do on the Visit West Lothian website.
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:
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle. Follow my blog on Facebook: