A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 28
It is with regret that I leave Kirkcudbright. I’ve only had the chance to scratch the surface of this fascinating little town and will be coming back to spend more time here. It has a deserved and long standing reputation as a centre of painting and the visual arts. It is a town of character and beauty and I would like to explore its history and geography and maybe to do a water-colour or two myself.
Any regret is short-lived though. You cross the bridge and are immediately on the coast road. Within a hundred yards I am cycling next to a perfect estuary. The tide is out and the exposed sands have attracted lapwings and redshank. I don’t have binoculars with me but I can see oyster catchers and sandpipers and hear the occasional haunting call of the curlew. Even on a brightening afternoon it is a sound to cheer and thrill. At dawn or dusk it is worth a four hundred mile round trip. I’m told there is even a chance of glimpsing an osprey.
This is why we cycle. We go fast enough to be always passing through different landscapes and slow enough to enjoy them. This road would convert many a sceptic. I continue to be lucky with traffic; there is hardly any; and as I pass into Fish House Wood the road is practically on the shoreline. Stopping to picnic on oatcake biscuits, cheddar cheese and apple and wishing I’d bought that cheap tent in Carlisle. To wake up near these shores with their sounds and sights is one of the pleasures to be treasured from a 1987 cycle up the west coast. I’d love to repeat the experience. The pull of moving on has to be strong to overpower the pull to stay. The road moves away from the coast but remains stunning. You could live here and be happy.
At a place called Borgue there is a small hotel. It has everything you could wish for. The woman who runs it is kindness itself; she even says that, though the room comes with a shower, I would be welcome to use the family bath. The price seems reasonable, location, far from indifferent. But she didn’t take plastic and I only had a few pound coins. She tells me there is a bank machine in Gatehouse of Fleet. It is with the full intention of returning that I cycle off in that direction.
Unfortunately for Borgue, Gatehouse of Fleet is a delight. And I’ve got far too many miles to go forwards on this trip to be able to take too many in the wrong direction. Up here there isn’t a wrong direction (providing you keep off the main road) there’s simply a lack of time.
Of all the wonderfully named towns you pass through in South West Scotland, Gatehouse of Fleet has the best name. It was at one time a toll booth on the staging route from Dumfries to Stranraer and as it stands on a river delightfully named The Water of Fleet, the derivation becomes clear. I’ve ridden the six miles from Borgue almost bolt upright. The views from the road are exceptional and I don’t want to miss a thing. You just know that the views from half way up the surrounding fields will be beyond belief. In the near distance are hills of substance. Beyond them are craggy tops and the promise of the sort of isolation and grandeur that England, crowded as it is, struggles to deliver. Buildings start to appear. Some even have those little round towers that add to the visual but cannot add much to the practical. They are very Scottish though Walt Disney was keen to borrow the design.
My map tells me I either stop here or keep going for at least three more hours. I could manage an hour and a half but that would leave me right among those craggy tops. A wonderful place to feed the spirit in the daytime; a forbidding place to pass the night without a tent.
The girl on reception at The Murray Arms is a very good reason for staying there. She is smart, helpful and bonnie. She even promises me a room with a bath but she can only offer me a room at full double rates and £70 is a little more than I want to pay. I pedal into the main street complete with bunting for a summer fête. There’s a poster advertising the carnival (all the towns in Dumfries and Galloway are having one) with a picture of Anne Robinson on. What have they got her for? I ask myself before realising that it is Isla St Clair looking older than I remember her.
There’s a choice of accommodation. And it all looks good. I’m taken by the small hotel that is keen to point out that it is where Dorothy L Sayers wrote Five Red Herrings. I wonder if the proprietor has read the book. It isn’t altogether kind about the sort of people you may find in these parts. I’m taken by some of the guest houses though I don’t often stay in places where people take too close an interest. In the end I plump for The Bank of Fleet Hotel. It feels like a coaching inn and the landlady is the first person I’ve met in Scotland who actually says “och”. “Och, it’s a double room, but we’ll do you for a single. Oh aye, you’re away over to Ireland are ye? Well we’re exactly 42 miles from Stranraer here, and if you’d have arrived earlier you could have had a room with a bath. You’ll just have to shape yoursel. And onnyway, ma husband’s away to Stranraer the morrow in his truck. Perhaps he could gi ye a lift and put that old bike of yers on the back.”
The room I get is rather good. A big, comfortable double bed and, in the absence of the bath tub I’d hoped for, there is a power shower that would take the grease off a ten year old crankshaft. There are wooden shutters as well as curtains. The only thing that goes against it is that it is directly above the front door. Happily the bar has a little beer garden awning for smokers, so even this location isn’t a problem.
I’ve stopped a little earlier than I’d intended but this allows time for a leisurely circuit of the town before settling down on a bench for an hour or two of Arnold Bennett. I think old Arnold would have enjoyed Gatehouse of Fleet.