Waking up and opening a door onto bright sunlight is the most perfect way to start a day. The kitchen of Willow Lodge was glowing from the morning sun streaming through the skylight.
It was going to be a good day to cycle to the sea.
Yesterday’s rain had been relentless and my shoes and socks were still damp from it. Willow Lodge, in common with many buildings in Aberdeenshire, is granite, a material renowned for keeping out the worst of the weather. I noticed it also kept out other things. There was a sign on the wall: “Due to granite walls of the building Wi-Fi cannot be guaranteed.”
I was in no hurry to leave. I had a table where I could sit and write. The table was covered in sunlight and my breakfast- two croissants, two pancakes, yoghurt, muesli, orange juice and tea.
"The Ascot of the North"
After the usual routine of packing and attaching panniers to my bike I chatted to the owner of the bed and breakfast. He said that not many tourists came this way; it was mostly workers at the oil and gas fields who stayed. I wondered if this was a forgotten corner of Scotland because it did not have an abundance of castles, lochs and glens.
I told him that my first stop was going to be Drinnies Observatory. He said that it had been built by a rich landowner in 1845 to watch his horses racing. “Says a lot about people like that when others are living in abject poverty.” He was referring to Admiral George Ferguson who enjoyed decorating his estate with potent symbols of his wealth, including a Greek temple with 36 pillars that had a pool for his pet alligators. His estate was considered one of the best appointed in Britain and became known as "The Ascot of the North."
It was a short cycle down the A950 to a turn-off for Fetterangus. I took a path that led uphill through a field. I reached the top and barely had a chance to look at the view when a black Labrador came bounding up to me with his tail wagging like mad and large bright eyes looking for a friend. Two women clad in wellies and wax jackets were out walking him and I asked if they knew the way to the Observatory. One of them pointed to a forest path and said “Charlie might run with you. My husband goes cycling with him and he is used to running with bikes.”
Charlie decided not follow and I ended up deep within a path system hugged tightly by pine trees. I was not sure where I was going and it looked doubtful that I would find this tower. Out the corner of my eye a snatch of grey stood out from the greenery. There was a granite structure somewhere in these woods.
There it was! It is hexagonal and the top looks like a castle. I ran excitedly to the door so that I could scramble up the stairs for the view. At least I would have if the door hadn’t been locked! I was beginning to agree with the B&B owner that visitors were not common in this part of Scotland. This tower was locked and yesterday I noted the limited opening hours of Maud station museum (once per month in summer) and restricted food service at the Saplinbrae Hotel (Thursday to Saturday only).
The museum at Aden Park, my next stop, was also closed. It did not open until 11am and I sat on a picnic bench trying to decide if I should wait or push on to Fraserburgh. A little boy on a bicycle began cycling around me in a circle. As he pedaled he chatted away, “Are you going to the museum?” He waited until he had done a complete circuit around me before speaking again. “I am going to the museum.” Another circuit around me then he said “it does not open until eleven.” He circled me again and said, “I don’t live here.” I had to wait for another circuit for the next installment, “I am on holidays. We arrived yesterday.” The final circuit ended with “it was very rainy!” and then he cycled off somewhere else.
The ruined mansion house at Aden Country Park
Forest trails in Aden Country Park. Great for a little spin on the bike
took my bike for a spin around the park through trees, to a lake with ducks, and past clumps of wildflowers. Then a surprise! In amongst all this nature is a ruined mansion. The four walls are intact, but there is no roof, no windows and the recently cut lawn continued from outside to inside the house. I walked under the portico supported by four ionic columns and stood where the billiard room would have been. At one time Aden was a wealthy and large estate, but fell on hard times. The mansion went to ruin and all that remains is the semi-circular home farm, where the Aberdeenshire Farming Museum is housed.
“The day started very early for Margaret who was up rekindling the fire to make a breakfast of porridge for Jimmy who had to feed his horses before having his own breakfast at 5.30am.”From a panel in the museum describing the daily routine of a Horseman’s family.
The museum contains the Horseman’s House. He was considered an elite worker on the estate and so his dwelling benefited from refinements like a stone floor and wood paneling. One of the museum staff was getting the fire going and said “we make oatcakes on it.” I wished I had time to taste and smell the fresh baking, but I wanted to see the highlight of Aden Park which is “Hareshowe” a 1950s working farm.
Amazingly this farm was moved stone by stone from a location 9 miles away. It was bought by the museum because it was typical of Aberdeenshire and had many original features. Ian, my guide, tapped one of the stones and said “you can see it’s marked with numbers and letters. That helped them to put the house back together.” Margaret Baron, the last owner of Hareshowe, was invited to open the museum. She was amazed that it had been put together exactly as she remembered and to prove this she had pointed to a misshapen door lintel that was familiar to her and in the place it should be.
The farm is shown at a crucial period in farming history when tractor power was replacing horse power. This was also when electricity arrived. Ian took me inside the cottage to point out the 1950s cooker which only has one hob, but was advanced technology at the time. The bedrooms have linoleum floors patterned to look like carpets- very fashionable at the time. Outside fluffy chickens pecked at the ground and cows mooched in the mud.
Back on the bike, but only for a few minutes until I reached Deer Abbey. The ruins with doorways, archways and walls made of stones of all different shapes and sizes lie close to the railway route and must have given a nice view for passengers taking the train to Fraserburgh. The Abbey is where The Book of Deer was written and is the earliest known example of written Gaelic.
The dilapidated state of the place is largely the result of the same Ferguson who built the observation tower. After the Reformation the abbey fell into the hands of the estate and remained relatively intact until the nineteenth century when Ferguson decided to construct a walled garden and a mausoleum using stone from the abbey. It is quite likely that his horseracing tower also has abbey stone within it.
The joy of the twenty mile ride to Fraserburgh was in the ability to shut down my mind of all concerns and worries. I fell into a hypnotic pedaling rhythm that was only interrupted when I spotted some interesting railwayana. I loved the little sheds that had been used as shelters when nasty weather interrupted the work of the men employed to walk the track and carry out routine maintenance. One of these sheds had a fireplace that still had an iron hearth in place. There was a wooden bench at the side of the fire and it was easy to imagine men sitting here taking off their gloves, rubbing their hands together and placing their palms towards the flames.
The Formartine and Buchan Way ends with a showstopper, a true “wow” moment and possibly the best conclusion to a cycle path that I have ever come across. Fraserburgh beach. This is not just any old beach, but one of the best in Scotland. Three miles of silky golden sand backed by dunes. I parked the bike and scrambled down to the water’s edge where I could indulge my ears in hearing nothing but the swishing waves.
I thought back to my discussion with the bed and breakfast owner about this part of Scotland receiving few tourists. Okay, there is a shortage of the classic Scottish imagery of hills, castles, lochs and such like, but there is plenty more to make up for this. I had learned about the importance of farming to the north-east of Scotland, visited an abbey where Gaelic was first written and came across the frivilious spending legacy of a rich land owner. Best of all is the Formartine and Buchan Way that points straight ahead through the lush countryside. It passes overgrown platforms and huts where railwaymen once sheltered and ends at the sea in dramatic style with the dunes of Fraserburgh.
Getting there The Formartine and Buchan Way begins in Dyce. Part one of the route from Dyce to Mintlawy is described in Platform of life. Dyce is a 10 minute train journey from Aberdeen. Aberdeen can be reached by train from Edinburgh in around 2 hours 20 minutes. From London journey time to Aberdeen is around 7 to 8 hours.
Cycling distances and terrain This map does not show the actual Formartine and Buchan Way, but the route by road. The map function does not yet cover the Formartine and Buchan Way, but it gives you a good idea of where places are in relation to each other.
Mintlaw is 5.5 miles from Maud. From Maud to Fraserburgh is 15 miles. Add on a couple of miles to reach Drinnies Observatory.
This is as easy as cycling gets. Flat, no traffic and impossible to get lost. The surface varies from tarmac to gravel and paths that turn to mud in wet weather. It can be slow going on some of the surfaces, particularly the chunky gravel. Some sections can be very narrow, particularly in the summer months when trees and bushes are overgrown. Cycling to Drinnies Observatory is uphill, about the only hill encountered on this route.
Things to see and do At each former train station there is an information panel describing the history of the railway, wildlife that can be spotted and what there is to see and do nearby.
There is a great book about the history of the line, crammed full of photos, called Story and Tales of the Buchan Line.
Drinnies Observatory is free to visit, but the door could be locked. The forest trails around the Observatory are fun to explore by bike or foot.
Deer Abbey is free to visit and located alongside the Formartine and Buchan Way, but it is across the river so you have to leave the Way and enter it from the A950.
The grounds of Aden Country Park and the Abderdeenshire Farming Museum are free to visit. I would recommend at least two hours to see everything.
Maud station has a museum about the Formartine and Buchan railway. The opening hours are limited as it is run by volunteers. It tends to be open once a month at weekends April to October.
Where to stay and eat
I stayed at Findlay's Hotel, located in the suburbs of Fraserburgh. Although it feels a little strange having a view of domestic homes with neat gardens and driveways from a hotel the place is modern and plessant. The rooms are similar to what you would expext from a Travel Lodge with modern layout and facilities. It cost £75 for a double, including breakfast. The restaurant provides tasty and filling bar food like fish and chips.