For a winter warm up cycle route in the Edinburgh area the Union Canal is perfect. A cycling and walking path runs alongside the canal. It is flat and traffic-free, so ideal if you are looking for something uncomplicated to get the legs moving.
The Union Canal, completed in 1822, is 31.5 miles long so there is the option to go very far. In fact, it links up with the Forth and Clyde Canal at Falkirk, so that you can cycle all the way from Edinburgh to Glasgow. If you live locally to the canal, as I do, you can take shorter journeys and then head back the way you came.
Even a short excursion along the canal will provide plenty of things to see. Some parts of the route are quite urban in appearance as it passes through several housing estates:
The community garden at Wester Hailes is a nice spot for a picnic, perhaps on a warmer day. Notice the old canoe being used as a flower planter:
Some parts of the canal had bits of ice, not yet melted from last night's freezing temperatures. Being so close to Christmas I saw some children enjoying their new presents. One family were setting up a remote control helicopter at a playground and on a football field a boy was riding around on a mini motorcycle.
There are many bridges crossing the canal that you must pass beneath. Some of them are recent additions and others are old stone bridges:
Sometimes the canal crosses over roads or water on a viaduct. This is the Scott Russell Aqueduct which passes over the Edinburgh City Bypass:
The path is popular with other cyclists, dog walkers, runners, fishermen and families out for a stroll, but the further away you get from the city centre the quieter it becomes.
For much of my route the predominant sound was the Edinburgh City Bypass traffic, but there are little pockets of wooded areas where there is birdsong and ducks pocking their heads under the surface of the canal.
So, if you live along the Union Canal it is great for an easy cycle run, particularly at this time of year when it is cold and the days are shorter meaning it is more of a challenge to go further afield.
Much of Scotland's traffic-free cycle network is composed of former railways lines. They are a delight for cyclists as they often traverse stunning countryside and provide the means to avoid busy roads. Not only that, the remains of the railway in the form of bridges,stations and tunnels area point of interest along the route. Julian Holland's "The Lost Lines of Britain" provides inspiration for those who enjoy both the cycling and the railway history of these routes.
Many of these lines were closed as part of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. Dr Richard Beeching proposed wholesale closure of unprofitable routes and stations in order to tackle the significant losses that the railways were making, largely due to increasing competition from road traffic. Some might say that the cycle network was the only beneficiary of the Beeching cuts.
Holland's book is hardback and full of photographs of the railways as they were and how they are today. It is too large to take with you on a cycling journey and is more suitable as an armchair source of dreaming and planning future adventures.
The book is about Britain and most of the railways are, naturally, in England. The chapter on Scotland has seven railways, including the Formartine and Buchan Way, which I have cycled and written about. Most of the other railways are ones that I did not know much about and did not know that there were cycle routes on them, so the book has given me some new ideas.
If you enjoy cycling along old railway lines in Britain and are interested in the history of those lines then this book is a must. The size of the book makes it impractical to take with you on those cycle trips, but it can be used to begin the planning process and get you excited about what you are likely to see along the route.
You can click on the image of the book to purchase it from Amazon.
"For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go; I travel for travel's sake. And to write about it afterwards, if only the public will be so condescending as to read. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of life a little more nearly, to get down off this feather bed of civilisation, and to find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints." (Cevennes Journal, Robert Louis Stevenson)
I came across this wonderful quote by Robert Louis Stevenson. Born in Edinburgh in 1850 he is better known for his works of fiction- Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde- but he loved to explore and wrote several travel books. His first travel novel was about a canoe trip in Belgium and France.
I love his take on travel, the idea that you travel for the sake of it and not to reach a particular destination. Then you write about it. Travel takes you out of your comfort zone and may involve roughing it a little. He captures this philosophy with a beautiful choice of words. I hope that you enjoy the quote as much as I do.
The Atholl Palace in Pitlochry made it to number 22 on a list of hotels rated by TravelGround, a South African travel blog. I recently stayed at the hotel and here is my verdict on TravelGround's endorsment.
Pitlochry is 70 miles north of Edinburgh, 85 miles south of Inverness, and located in the heart of highland Perthshire. Lochs, forests and mountains are what this area is all about. Pitlochry is one of the best places in Scotland to embark on cycling trips as there are so many routes starting and ending in the town. This is where I first got the bug for cycle touring and I have a soft spot for the town.
Ever since discovering The Atholl Palace I have been intrigued by its romantic architecture and fascinating history as a Victorian hydropathic where the wealthy once came to be cured of their ailments. I have wandered its public rooms and explored the museum in the basement, but I had always been put off booking a room because the hotel has mixed reviews. It is currently (December 2014) ranked 18th out of 22 Pitlochry hotels on Tripadvisor. Based on this it may be surprising to see it feature as a jaw dropping hotel, particularly as no other UK hotels feature on the list.
Regardless of the mixed reviews I have found myself drawn to this place- the grand Victorian architecture, the mountain scenery, the promise of a unique experience. I was determined to try it for myself and make up my own mind.
The type of room that you choose in the hotel is fundamental to the experience. The TravelGround blog begins "Stay in Turret Suites" and this is key to having a "jaw dropping" experience. These rooms are spectacular, but there are only two of them in the hotel. The hotel also has some rooms with four-poster beds and many have impressive views. From what I have read on Tripadvisor there are many rooms that are fairly standard, so it is worth upgrading to something special to get the experience that TravelGround promises.
This photo shows one of the two turret rooms, located on the top two floors of the tower, with the 360 degree windows:
The turret room is on two levels. A bedroom downstairs and a separate living room upstairs. It is the living room that has these panoramic views:
There is a spiral staircase that leads up from the bedroom to the living area:
This is one of the best hotel rooms I have ever stayed in. It feels like you are in a Scottish castle, staying in the top of the castle tower, above the clouds, part of a fairytale. There are few places in the country where you can have such a unique experience.
This is the view of the sunrise:
Some aspects of the furniture and furnishings are a little old fashioned, like the sofas in the sitting room. Some furnishings are modern and typical of a standard 4-star hotel and not particularly unique. However, this becomes forgotten about because of the uniqueness of the room and the remarkable view.
I was quite happy spending hours in that sitting room staring out at the view and curled up with a book. The verdict so far is that, yes, this hotel deserves its place on that list.
The TravelGround blog states "the formal gardens are an unexpected delight". Exploring the extensive landscaped gardens is an essential part of The Atholl Palace experience. The hotel owners are proud of the gardens and devote an entire section of their website to them. If you are walking to the hotel then you will have the wonderful experience of strolling the long driveway passing ponds, waterfalls, trees, plants and birdsong. Suddenly you round the bend and the magnificence of the hotel, sitting high above everything else, is before you.
The public rooms and lounges
Real log fires, the smell of their smoke and the feeling of cosiness that they create, is my enduring memory of the Atholl Palace's lounges. It is great that they have kept up the tradition of lighting the fires, instead of the fireplaces being blocked off and becoming a mere decorative memory of what once was- a practice common in many properties of this era. These are huge spaces, in the Victorian tradition, where sitting for hours in sofas and armchairs was de rigueur.
The recently refurbished Stag's Head Bar is particularly impressive with its leather sofas and antler light fittings.
My meal in the Verandah Restaurant featured crisp table linen and formal, but friendly service. The love songs of the '80s CD playing in the background seemed at odds with the elegant ambiance. My starter of langoustine and prawn soup was stunning. It was thick, hearty and with small chunks of fish meat. I could easily have had a second bowl, it was so good.
The main course of fish and chips was nothing special, although nicely presented with the chips in their own little pot. I have tasted better fish and chips and I have tasted worse- this was average and enjoyable. My girlfriend's sweet chilli chicken breast was disappointing as it lacked flavour.
Cranachan, a Scottish dessert of toasted oatmeal, whipped cream, whisky, honey and raspberries, was our choice for the final course. It was good, but I would not describe it as jaw dropping.
Dinner was the least impressive aspect of our stay at the Atholl Palace. The TravelGround blog mentions nothing about the food.
Pool and spa
In the basement there is a swimming pool and spa offering a wide range of treatments. To my delight I discovered that some of the original architectural features of the original Turkish baths from the Victorian era have been retained. These take the form of Moorish archways leading to interconnected rooms where you will find today's steam room, sauna and relaxation lounge. It is the original features of the building that I love most about this hotel and this is what makes it a jaw dropping hotel for me.
History and architecture
The hotel has its own museum located in the basement. For a hotel to invest in a museum and use up potential space for rooms shows how important the heritage of the place is to enhancing the guest experience.
The hotel was opened in 1878, originally as a hydropathic which was a very popular branch of medicine in the Victorian era. Hydrotherapy involves the use of water for therapeutic purposes. The museum explores this period of the hotel's history and brings the story up to the present day. I discovered that the turret rooms were not originally bedrooms, but one was an exclusive male-only smoking room and the other a view-room for women only. Back in my room I picture groups of men, clouds of pipe smoke swirling around, discussing the affairs of the day. Imagining the hotel as it was makes it special to stay at the Atholl Palace.
So, should the Atholl Palace be on this list of 28 jaw dropping hotels?
Lists of "things to do and see before you die" are so omnipresent that they have to be taken with a good many pinches of salt. They are often based on the personal opinions and experiences of the writer and so it pays to do your own research.
The Atholl Palace is a special place, but it is not perfect. The turret rooms are certainly jaw dropping, but the restaurant food could not be described as such. I enjoyed it and I would go back, but next time I might eat out in one of the many good restaurants in the town.
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My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.