with tips for cycling & hiking
We had been putting off a road trip to Scotland for years, the scenery undoubtedly would be stunning but every time I glanced at weather forecasts for Scotland, it appeared that another depression was on its way, bringing wind and rain to the west coast. Also living in the south the lure of the continent, its equally stunning scenery and more benign weather meant that for over 40 years it proved unassailable compared with a trip northwards.
In 2018 we, however, bit the bullet and headed north but even at the eleventh hour the lure of Spain nearly won the day but no we said, Scotland had to be done. Little did we know, as the warm weather that we had been experiencing in the south turned to cloud and drizzle, as we headed northwards that the summer of 2018 was going to be outstanding. The plan of action was to go up the west coast, with a stopover in Southport on the way up, and then along the north coast from Cape Wrath to John O' Groats, with a stopover in the Orkneys, subject to weather, before heading down the east coast and then back home but as everyone knows motorhome trips never turn out quite as planned.
What we also were not completely planned for was that due to the popularity of the marketing of the Scottish 500, campsites along the route were often booked, so it was not just a case of turn up as you go, as per touring on the continent. We had pre-empted this to some degree by booking the sites within the vicinity of Glasgow on the premise that these would more likely be popular. This proved a good move as Culzean, Ayr and Loch Lommond were fully booked on our visits in early May. We lost count of how many units were turned away from the Loch Lommond site. On the other sites we booked as we went along and we were not always able to get our first choice. Also what was surprising is that sites were very busy over the Whitsun break, despite it not being a bank holiday in Scotland.
There is no doubt that the successful marketing of this route has caused some tensions in Scotland and the complaints revolve around motorhomers dumping black waste, (unforgivable) grey waste (less contentious but still avoidable) , not being able to drive particularly reversing, speeding and etiquette around parking in lay-bys and with regards to passing places and I have even seen comments regarding not spending in local shops but stocking up in the local Tesco's before the trip.
Black Waste Sadly there is anecdotal evidence that this happens. It is also a problem in New Zealand and with its proliferation of hired motorhomes, it begs the question what responsibility do the hirers have in educating their customers. It also raises the point of what additional investment have the Scottish authorities made in providing waste facilities. There has been a massive expansion of motorhome use in the 13 years that I have been doing it and if you market your country to attract motorhomes then you need to improve the facilities. You only have to look at the continent with its much superior facilities for motorhomers. Having said that there is no justification to dump your waste, so if you wild camp there has to be a time when you make the proper provision to dump your waste, by say visiting a campsite.
Driving I am not sure what you can do about this. The reality is that anyone can drive a motorhome up to 3.5 tonnes and it is different from a car, especially reversing. Again I suspect the culprits are the hired motorhomes. Having said that the hirers have to explain the etiquette around dealing with passing places. With regard to complaints about motorhomes occupying viewing lay-bys I am afraid this is just tough. The same applies when you can not park your car. Overnighting in laybys is a no no as is stopping in passing places.
Shopping Locally With regard to motorhomers just stocking up at Tesco's I think the complainants are being somewhat disingenuous. Do all Scots do their shopping at the local butcher, baker and candle stick maker. On our trip if there are local facilities which are accessible such as at Lochgilpead, which had a thriving shopping centre, within walking distance then we will use them. Or in the case of our trip to Altnaharra we stumbled across an excellent mobile fishmonger parked outside a small local shop but we also used Morrisons.
As for speeding, why on earth would you do it, the scenery is to be enjoyed, so if you should be doing anything then slow down, not forgetting to pull in if you have a car behind you and it does not take a genius to work out if it is a local trying to get to work or a fellow tourist, just soaking up the scenery like yourselves.
Single track roads When a fellow motorhomer advised me that there were a proliferation of single track roads with passing places, one can not help feeling a little apprehensive. The reality is simple, there tends to be a lot of them and you can generally see well in advance and see what else is coming. There is also a golden rule, you can not fit more than one large vehicle in a passing place so do not tailgate another motorhome, otherwise you will cause a jam and be very unpopular. In May and June we did not experience any problems and never had to reverse once and with a bit of foresight you can travel merrily on your way.
My advice, for what it is worth. if possible visit off peak. We visited in May and June and did not experience any issues but realistically some people do have to visit in July & August and the reality is that all across Europe it is busy. Also get out out of your motorhomes, walk,cycle or use public transport. The nature of the country is that parking of motorhomes is sometimes not going to be easy. It goes without saying, respect the environment, leave no waste or rubbish. Personally I do not see a problem with grey water but the perception is that other people do, so as a self respecting motorhomer, I do not just dump my greywater in the road and there are plenty of official places to use.
The other point I would make is to not consider the 500 as a rite of passage and the need to tick a box but use it as a guide to work out a great trip to this country, be flexible, you can always come back and don’t take your motorhome where it is clearly unsuitable to achieve some macho objective, for if it is a hired vehicle you will end up paying a large insurance excess and if it is your own, why run the risk of damaging your pride and joy. Finally listen to the locals.
Prepare for the unexpected this is the A838 near Tongue. This did not, however, prevent a car from overtaking me, and nearly taking out the farmer’s dog.
This was chosen simply because we had never been there before, that it had a reputation as being a very pleasant chic Victorian resort and that it was as far as you would want to tackle on the M6 on the way northwards.
The town does have a certain elegance to it and you can see why this resort thrived in the Victorian era and this continues to this day, though perhaps spoilt by the proliferation of arcades in the modern era. Additionally the amount of traffic that thunders through the high street somewhat detracts from the image of a genteel seaside resort.
Firstly we had a great journey up, no hold ups and we didn’t even have to spend more money on the M6 toll road. We stayed at the Caravan Club site, situated just outside of town and within easy walking distance of the town centre and ideally placed for coastal walks, being within a stone’s throw of the beaches, which have a certain feel of austerity to them, not wide sweeping bays with glistening sand, more wild and windswept, with coastal marsh and sand dunes backing them up.
There is an aire by the amusement park.
There are,however,some great walks and a big plus is a rail route which runs from Southport, initially following the coast, before heading into Liverpool and this allows a great variety of walks, getting on and off from different stations. Another great alternative is to cycle and Merseyrail positively encourages you to take your bike on the train and this appeared a very popular choice. The town publicises a number of short cycle rides around the area and leaflets can be picked up at the tourist centres and it is also the start of the Trans Pennine Cycle Route
We chose to take the train to Hall Road and then a short walk to the beaches at North Crosby and to the Antony Gormley's 'iron men ' sculptures. We then walked along the beach cycle walking route to Marine Lake and had a very acceptable lunch in the Adventure Centre.
On a whim we then decided to get a bus into Liverpool as we had never visited the city before and the plan was to get the bus 47 into the city but arriving at the bus stop, there were a number of buses going into the centre, we took bus 300. The bus stop is on the main road, about 10 minutes from the Adventure Centre and they run regularly and the journey is only about half an hour. Ok you can not do a city the size of Liverpool justice in half a day but nevertheless you can have good fun exploring the main sites.
We returned via train from Central Station, buying single tickets to Hall Road.
Crossing the border at Gretna Green, we took the A75 and stopped at Creetown, on the basis that it looked at attractive stopover and it was far enough to drive in a day, and with the afternoon developing into a very sunny day, it was time to get out and walk. We took cycle route 7 in the direction of Newton Stewart, which follows the road out of town before deviating onto the old railway and a very pleasant walk, overlooking the Cree valley. Cycle route 7 runs from Newton Stewart via Creetown to Gatehouse of Fleet., part of a longer route linking Sunderland to Inverness.
We stayed at Creetown Holiday Park, right in the centre of the town and we could not have received a warmer welcome from Lindsey. This is primarily a static park and the likelihood in the near future is that sadly there will be limited opportunity for tourers, as they site more static units.
There is a song which goes along the lines of ‘you take the low road & I will take the high road', so modifying that, we took the slow road from Creetown to Culzean Castle and followed the Galloway & Ayrshire coast as much as we could by taking the A714 to Monreith, before picking up the A75 and then A77 from Stranrear and the Ayrshire coast into Culzean, coffee & lunch breaks on the way.
Culzean Castle is a Camping and Caravan Club site next to the Scottish National Trust property of the same name. There are extensive grounds which have a whole variety of flora and fauna together with an 18th century castle, imposingly positioned on the coastal cliffs. In all our travels one of the most satisfying observations is when plants and trees are in full bloom, whereas at home they may be dormant. So Scotland had the advantage of being a few weeks behind as far as spring was concerned, so all the spring flowers of tulips, bluebells, wild garlic and wood anemone were in their full glory, whereas back home they were past their best, so to experience two springs was a big plus.
A visit to the castle is a must and we had a very entertaining guide, Gordon, who was not only very informative but also witty. The lunch at the 'Farm' was also good quality.
You could easily spend an afternoon walking the grounds and the coastal walks either side of the castle are awesome. We did the walk to the small port of Maidens, which has now been taken over by the locals and found a small shop where you can get tea and cakes.
There is an hourly bus service, which stops outside of the site so making a one way walk from both Ayr in one direction and Girvan in the other direction possible.
We chose to move just up the road to the Caravan Club site at Craigie Gardens for our continued exploration of the Ayrshire coast. As it was a weekend, this site was fully booked.
Ayr is not a particularly attractive town. It has a number of historical connections with Robert the Bruce, Robbie Burns and it was a fortress town in the English Civil War. The port obviously played a significant part in the town’s economy.
What is attractive is its beaches, it’s main beach from the port to the Heads of Ayr is awesome. You can easily walk from the site to the beach or in our case we cycled, picking up cycle route 7, which we followed past the ruins of Greenan Castle, into the country.
In the other direction, cycle route 7 takes you to Troon and Irvine, passing Prestwick Airport on the way as well as the golf courses of Prestwick, home to the British Open golf tournament and Troon. In this part of the world you will not go very far without coming across a golf course.
The cycle route to Troon takes you through residential areas and the coast, as well as by passing the airport but this is no Heathrow and I do not think we witnessed an aircraft taking off or landing. On all the main roads you are cycling on designated cycle paths and the ride to Troon is not an unpleasant ride and the arrival into the main beach area is well worth the ride.
We continued onto Irvine and this was not the most enjoyable part of the ride. The first part of the ride is quite pleasant as you leave Troon and follow the coast but you are soon diverted into residential areas and then you follow the main road into Irvine, albeit on a separate cycle way, it is noisy. Divert to the beach and you will not be disappointed, Irvine Bay is awesome.. We decided to take the beach back to pick up the cycle route just outside of Troon. We checked the tides and high tide was not due until gone well past midnight. The walk along the beach is about 2 miles and in places the sand was too soft to comfortably ride but it was no hardship to walk this glorious beach.
The total return trip was about 33 miles and I would guess that we had saved about 3 miles by taking the beach.
The cycle route 7 is superbly signposted
Ayr being a large town is a god place to stock up on supplies,it has a good selection of shops in the town and a Morrisons on the outskirts, which also has cheaper diesel.
From Ayr we had the choice of taking the direct route, A737 or the A78 coastal road with an additional side detour on the A770 via Gourock, no contest, coastal route it was.
We stayed on the west side at the Camping and Caravanning site at Luss, as we wanted to cycle the West Long Cycle Route. Luss is approximately midway, 8 miles north to Tarbet and 9 miles south to Balloch so an easy cycle in the morning one way and lunch and then in the other direction in the afternoon.
This site was extremely busy and the warden turned down a countless number of on spec visitors and bear in mind that in Loch Lomond, no free camping is allowed.
There is another C & CC site on the other side of the loch and this is better if you want a chance of seeing the osprey.
The cycle ride north to Tarbet is the more interesting as it hugs the loch though the downside is that it also very affectionate with the A82 so it is difficult to escape the hum of the traffic. There are sections where the path drops below the A82 so at least it is only one not all of your senses that is aware of the road but the views are glorious. Roughly half way part of the ride opens up into a greenway as you follow the old road and there are brief moments when all you will hear is birdsong. At the end of the old road you join the A82 and are effectively cycling along the pavement and this is the least pleasant part but you soon reach a large greenspace overlooking the loch and there is a small cafe (Ben & Bonnie cafe) and toilets. The alternative is to continue to the road junction and turn left onto the Fort William road and there is another cafe immediately opposite but the views from the first one makes this first choice.
Southwards to Balloch is less scenic in our view as you lose sight of the loch for large sections of the cycle. You take the minor road out of Luss and though this is on the road, it is very quiet. For this section you do follow the loch to Aldochlay and then you take a small up and down wooded section before picking up the A82 and there is not much fun about this section. You can, however, divert through the golf club and this is signposted as the 'Loch Lomond Cycleway' and this is a lot more pleasant. You, however, soon pick up the A82 again but as you approach Duck Bay you take a minor road which is a welcome stop before you go on to Balloch. There is a hotel in Duck Bay which provided welcome, if somewhat expensive refreshments and to add insult to injury, they served it in plastic glasses but it is a very pleasant lochside view.
If staying in Luss it is quite a good idea to get an aerial view of the loch for a different perspective. We took the 'Fairy Walk' from the church, which starts with a river walk and then a quarry walk which then leads on to a hill path and after a short climb, you get good views of the loch. We were not sure if the fairy walk was a private walk, there is reference to paying in the shop but we concluded that this was for the booklet, which comes with the walk and the interpretation of fairy statues and regalia, the latter were not too intrusive.
Luss is very geared up to the tourist trade, catering for the coachloads of tourists that call in. There is a small general stall and an unmanned petrol station. There is the Luss Smokehouse shop, where we obtained some excellent smoked trout and a good pub, the Loch Lomond Arms.
The Luss site is a very attractive lochside site with hardstandings and grass pitches but as the site is prone to flooding, the grass pitches can easily be put out of service. It is not too difficult to pick up a pitch with a loch view and it is in easy walking distance to the village of Luss. The cycleway passes right next to the site. There is no motorhome service point and the facilities are somewhat dated but perfectly adequate.
This site was chosen as it provided convenient access to the Crinan Canal as you literally turn out of the campsite, onto the main road and turn right and in five minutes you reach the canal. The canal runs from Ardrishaig, about a mile and a half to the west and Crinan, about 8 miles to the east. There is a cafe at Ardrishaig but it is on the main road.
The canal opened in 1801 and was designed for shipping to avoid the notorious waters of the Mull of Kintyre. The canal was designed by John Rennie and Thomas Telford and James Watt were involved in its construction. In the early days the canal was beset with technical problems and Thomas Telford was brought in to improve its performance. It is certainly a feat of Victorian engineering and a joy to ride. There is a great little cafe at the Crinan end in a delightful setting overlooking the canal basin. Additionally at the hotel there is a superb seafood restaurant.
A short ride will take you to Crinan harbour.
We were lucky enough to see a Clyde Puffer at Crinan, these little coal fired steamer cargo ships were once a common site on the west coast, providing a vital supply link with the mainland and the Hebrides. Today it is possible to take a holiday on one of these remaining ships.
We took a detour to the Beaver reserve at Knapdale, making a 30 mile cycle ride in total. You can cycle around the smaller loch and there is a beaver lodge here and evidence of cut down trees.
We took the Beaver walk and the section around the larger loch is not suitable for cycling and we had to push our bikes around the track and this did involve quite a lot of effort as the track is uneven, with quite a lot of ups and downs but it was well worth it. Though we saw evidence of beavers, tracks and lodges we did not actually see any beavers. As they are basically nocturnal and shy animals, your only hope of spotting any is to be very patient and silent and visit at dusk or dawn.
We stayed at Lochgilphead Caravan Park which is a mixture of statics and tourers and fully serviced pitches are available. We liked this site, we found them friendly and very laid back, pitch up and sort out later, which is a refreshing change from club sites. The facilities at the site are somewhat dated but they were perfectly adequate. There is a motorhome service point.
Lochgilphead is a good base to replenish supplies. There is a good co op as well as a superb fishmonger. You will also find the proverbial butcher and baker and good cafes. This was a great stopover.