A Journey into Scotland … Part 17
It is a wonderful and varied ride from Dalry to Ayr. You’ve got two choices and it’s like choosing between cake and ice cream. You can’t lose. The main road is a designated tourist route. I’ve just followed it on Google Maps (an option not available in 1987… oh how the world has changed in oh so many ways!) and it is glorious. It is also a main road and, though not the busiest in the kingdom, is still used by lorries and to that end isn’t ideal for a cyclist. The B7000 is cycle friendly. In fact it is one of the best cycle roads I’ve had the pleasure to pedal along. I’m hoping for a ride in the countryside and find myself riding through heaven. I’d just cycled through the English Lake District. I hadn’t exactly been starved of beauty. I hadn’t seen beauty like this in England.
It was just me and a glorious valley and the gathering colours of autumn all set off with a line of peaks that castellated the sky. There were no cars. There was nobody. Me and a road that beckoned me on.
It was upland and upland vegetation. Not quite moorland but not the smoothest pasture. Bracken and silver birch trees and below stretches of water that are unknown outside Galloway but which would be celebrated with poetry and water-colours and visitor centres if they lay below the national boundary. Thank God for Scotland. It has far more beauty than a tourist could absorb. It has plenty to go round and an awful lot more that it can afford to keep secret.
The road isn’t even particularly hilly, though the landscape is. Just one long quiet county road with low walls and a view all the way to forever. Sheep, shaggy patches of reeds in fields, occasional streams tumbling beneath. The sun was shining. I’d made an early start and had breakfasted well. This wasn’t a road to sprint along (I’ve never been much of a one for speed). Here you sit up and look around and breathe in Scotland. If I didn’t go further into the country I would have seen enough. Except that the appetite to see more grows on what it feeds. I was in the process of discovering a strange truth about Scotland. That if you travel up the western side you will experience new heights of beauty on each and every day. Each day you will say that “This is the best yet” and it will be. But tomorrow will surpass it.
Above all there is a glorious sense of space. I’m cycling three pints of Scottish beer out of my system and replacing it with lungfuls of reviving warm October air, sweet with the smell of broom and meadow grasses and the changing of the seasons.
Weather comes across northern Britain with greater variety. I’m sure there must be long sunny days up here but my experience was of constant changing. Even in the sunshine, clouds scooted across the sky and the shadows floated on the fields. It was a degree or two colder when they blocked out the sun. And then rich woodland and then an ancient bridge over a fast moving stream. Fir trees on the ridge and, through a shield of trees, Kendoon Loch. Every bit as lovely as Thirlmere and like that lake has been dammed and extended. This time to provide hydro electricity rather than drinking water. So much water is harnessed for hydro electric schemes in Scotland. Few things say more about the difference between the two countries. Here is far more rugged. Water flows more quickly and there is so much more of it. This landscape has more in common with Norway than Norfolk.
Any disappointment at having to rejoin the main road at Carsphairn is soon forgotten. The village itself is delightful. Almost all of the buildings are entirely of partially whitewashed and it suits the town well. It’s now all about farming though for much of the nineteenth century and up to the First World War, it had a thriving lead mining industry. Plenty of evidence can be found in the surrounding hills. I delight in the shop. I’m becoming addicted to the scotch pies and Mars bars. The pies are not what I’d describe as gourmet but they provide plenty of calories for burning. As I’m in Scotland I wash it all down with a tin of Irn Bru. The diet is not a healthy one. The country isn’t renowned for its gastronomy. Scotland has produced a number of world class cyclists. None of them followed a Scottish diet. Robert Millar, the most successful of them all, was an extreme and very picky vegetarian. Graeme Obree had a fondness for the effects of rather a lot of beer. David Millar was found to be ingesting altogether the wrong diet and, according to the adverts, Chris Hoy builds his muscles with a daily bowl of Bran Flakes.
The Glenkens and the Rhinns of Kells are not the highest hills and deepest glens but they have a welcoming beauty. There is very little exposed rock, hardly any crags yet they are substantial and the whole area has that delightful way of the best countryside of making us feel very, very small.
So, there I am riding happily through Elysium when quite suddenly I’m transported back to earth with a jolt. In fact it happens twice in the next hour. Dalmellington has an awful lot going for it. It just seems unfortunate that it saves its ugliest buildings for the main thoroughfare. They are standard design post war council houses. You get them all over Britain and they are something we ought to be eternally grateful to the Attlee labour government for. Good quality affordable housing for working people was desperately needed, after the second war, and these houses supplied that need; giving families space to live, a bit of garden and often their first bathroom. In England they are built out of red brick and have aged reasonably well. In Scotland, all too often, they have been thrown up using a variety of materials just so long as they are off cream or soviet grey. They look universally awful. Scotland has a problem with the architecture of its houses and homes for the less well off. Almost every rural house is lovely. Just about every house belonging to an affluent person is desirable. The country hasn’t been so kind when it has come to housing the working classes.
A huge amount of finest Ayrshire coal has been dug out of the ground hereabouts. North of the town a lot of it was opencast and the scars still show as I pedal along. And then I’m back in beautiful countryside. It was hard to believe I’d just pedalled through a pit village and then I’m right in the heart of another. Patna too owes it’s existence to the coal that once was dug out of several collieries. The whale backed spoil heaps are now fully grassed over but when I rode through they were a savage monument to a tough way of life. I can’t remember if the collieries were still open in Dalmellington and Patna. What I do know is that the towns themselves (in 1987) showed very few benefits from the industry. I’ve spent nearly half my life living in coalfields and ex-pit villages. Huge fortunes were made from the pits before nationalisation and the country grew rich on the black diamonds dug from the earth. There are very few ex-mining communities that have been able to take a fair share of those riches, and these two Ayrshire towns were suffering badly.
Apart for subsidence there is often very little to show once the collieries have gone. The world goes back to as it was with the addition of some curvy new hills. With a bit of imaginative landscaping, an old spoil heap can become a thing of beauty.
From Dalmellington I’ve been running side by side one of Britain’s windiest rivers. If you straightened out the River Doon you might find a rival to the Severn as our longest river. There’s barely a straight section as it makes its burbling way to the sea. I’ll meet it again later in the day at a point where it is crossed by one of the most famous bridges in Scotland. The bridge where Tam O’Shanter fled from Cutty Sark the witch in the poem by Robbie Burns. The auld Brig o’ Doon.