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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 24

The road I’m following is also a national cycle route. With hindsight, I may have been better keeping to this all the way to Dumfries, but, if I had, I would have missed what I saw and I’m not really one to wonder too much about the road not chosen; certainly not with regret.

I’m not sure if the breeze has dropped away to nothing or if my legs are in the best shape of the year. Four days sunshine has done no harm in bronzing them, and there is just a hint of muscle emerging as I shed the first layer of chubbiness. There’s plenty of wobble left in the upper body, but the legs are setting a pretty good example. The road is quiet and good. At first it runs parallel to the A75 but after crossing the delightfully named Kirtle Water the road takes you out into the countryside.

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It’s mixed farming all the way with a farmhouse on top of every rise from Gretna to Eastriggs. The flatlands are most welcome and the perfect sunny afternoon makes me want to go as far as I can. There comes  a point in any endurance activity when the keeping going is the simple and perfect pleasure of it. You’ve passed six degrees of tiredness and suddenly you are not only not tired, but you don’t think you’ll feel tired ever again. The pituitary gland produces endorphins and these  give you a feeling of exhilaration and they  hide pain. They make long distance cycling quite an experience. We also produce endorphins while eating spicy food and engaging in sexual activity. I make do with the cycling ones for now.

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Eastriggs is a pleasant mixture of bungalows, whitewashed cottages, more substantial stone built houses and the grey municipal semis that caught on in Scotland rather more than south of the border in the 1950s and 60s. It’s almost deserted. I suppose everyone has been called in for their tea.

The road remains quiet between here and Annan but you’re never out of sight of residential housing here. The fields stretch out towards the distant (and out of sight) Firth. The succession of whitewashed barns and farm buildings gives the area a completely different feel from rural Cumbria. I haven’t spoken to a soul since crossing the border; I’ve passed little other than ash and sycamore trees and fields and farms; and yet, it is unmistakably Scotland. And I am undeniably happy.

Annan was another place where I’d thought of making a stop. There was no way I could have planned getting this far when I left Dufton. It’s approaching evening. I’ve left my writing pad in a Carlisle post office and I need a fork to eat my second M & S salad. The first shop I stop at sells both. It also sells me a can of cola to wash down the lunch I didn’t finish in Carlisle. I take an immediate liking to the town. I sit down on a bench to eat my tea but all the shine of the place wears off before I’ve completed my coleslaw.

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On the adjacent bench is a young family. Mum and dad can’t be more than 24 (which is about the number of teeth they have between them). They have 5 children under 7 and a single covered torso between them; happily, the mother’s. In refutation of popular myths about the Scottish, there isn’t an ounce of fat on any of the six males. There is very little muscle either. The adult male has a selection of badly drawn and self-applied tattoos. In choosing a tattoo, the art is to choose one that depicts your personality. These are all awful and depict his personality perfectly. Both parents are smoking endless rollies which have a semi-legal smell.

The children are playing rough and tumble games of a sort that are indeed rough. The ability to accept humiliation and to take pain without complaint is not a skill I aspire to myself, but two of the littler fellows are going to become extreme hard cases if they continue to take the punishment their elder siblings are dishing out. The youngest complains to his mother.

“He hit me.” he whimpers, in a manner that still expects some sympathy and even protection.

“Well hit him back.” is all he gets.

“But he told me to f*** off!”

“Well you tell that tw*t to f**k off from me!”

And the elders went back to moaning about the f***ers who had stopped their dole and where the next lot of money was coming from.

I’ve no doubt that there is a family here in need of some urgent attention and help. I wouldn’t rate my own chances in life if I had the upbringing being displayed. I could do nothing. When I’d so much as glanced across I’d been met with looks of menace and hatred. It didn’t show Annan in a favourable light. The two older chaps supporting each other out of the hotel bar across the road did little for my desire to make myself a local tourist statistic. In fact, there was either a fine local celebration or Annan has a strikingly high proportion of serious drunks. This was before six o’clock on a weekday evening and there were at least seven people beyond the acceptable bounds of sobriety.

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I find a quiet road out of town and am contemplating where I might spend the night when I find myself on the A75. The rest of my journey to Stranraer/Cairnryan is one long attempt to avoid this road. It is a thundering brute of a road. All the traffic bound to and from Ulster would make this a busy enough road on its own but this is a major route inside Scotland as well. It beats like a thundering pulsing artery from the border to the sea. If you can avoid it you’ll cycle some of the best cycling and sightseeing roads in Great Britain. If you can’t avoid it, and I am forced to pedal it at this point, you’ll improve your map reading and route planning skills before you venture into Dumfries and Galloway again.

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With ever larger trucks clattering by the last thing I want is a puncture. I’d only cycled one stretch of main road since leaving home and I punctured then. The odds of puncturing on my second stretch must be huge. The flinty roadstones that have been flung into the tiny ribbon of road, to the left of the kerb line, reduce the odds. I hit one. My body and soul deflate with the tyre. There is literally no where to fix the tube. The verge is one thicket of gorse. I prop the bicycle up in it, release the wheel, climb over a fence into some woodland and fix it there. I don’t care where the next road is going… I’m going to take it!