Glasgow to Bladnoch, to Barrhill, 54 miles
Few mornings on tour combined stress, trauma and surrealism in quite such a befuddling cocktail as this, my final one. A tough task master to the end, I woke myself up at 5AM for my 7AM train to Ayr. Immediately post-dawn Glasgow in early summer is not the most awful place to be. As I descended through the parks and smart Georgian terraces to Sauchiehall Street, I experienced that thrill you get when you are awake and doing while everyone else wastes the peace and calm in bed. Once on Sauchiehall Street, however, I began to spot clusters of folk who plainly were only just on their way to bed.
The roads were largely empty, which was just as well because I’m not sure all of my city centre riding was within the Highway Code. I had street maps, obviously, and I knew the general location of Glasgow Central Station and the rough direction in which it lay. I was not helped by road signs, however, and all of a sudden I was quite undesirably on a bridge over the Clyde. I barrelled back across on the pavement, cut into a left lane and only after I had ducked under the railway bridge itself which sprouts out of the concourse did I spot a sign. I still had to come back the way I had come, further east, but I found the entrance. Finding the main platform was harder, and whether it was the poor night’s sleep or insufficient rest compounded over six weeks, tasking my reserves of logic to find it from the ground floor entrance did not work. I ended up hauling the bike along a deserted access corridor, down into the underground station and eventually found a lift which took me up to the concourse. The relief I felt was uniquely potent.
I caught my first train, which was devoid of any facilities to stow my bike. After running the length of the short train to try and find a little bike symbol at one of the doors, I wheeled it on and kept it in the space by the doors. I was positioned in a seat nearest to this area so that I might keep a hold of it. I guzzled most of a bottle of water and texted mum. Stage One complete. ‘What would you like for pudding?’ was the reply.
As the train sped south out of Glasgow, mist cloaked the fields and industrial estates. By Ayr it had cleared up, precisely when things became most shrouded and arcane for me.
I have decided to include the oddest and most traumatic encounter of my entire tour because it is in fact rather appropriate as a dramatisation of impressions and conflicts which had been developing within me over the six weeks. Meeting my first stark raving God-fearing lunatic was important, although its significance is most likely solely attributable to the coincidental occasion which witnessed it. For some weeks, I had keenly missed company, cameraderie and the ability to share with others that which I was experiencing. This had taken me by surprise at first, for I had always considered myself very independent, indeed perfectly happy in my own company. I had expected to lap up every moment of blissful solitude. As it turns out, I need people. This is a good thing, though, because if I ever decide I don’t, I might just turn into the paranoid, doom-propheting hermit who, several times over the forty-five minutes he enforced his presence upon me, insisted that he just wanted to be left alone. I wished, without hope, that the hypocrisy of his actions and desire would occur to him. Once he had expounded his theories on the non-existence of time, the government keeping tabs on him due to his fearless and pure lifetsyle, he got on to preaching. It was very clear that he thought I was one of the many people destined to burn in Hell. All the while, I’m trying to savour the frankly gorgeous hills, forests and coast of South Ayrshire, proffering the bare minimum response which was in any case often all I was capable of, so regularly would he start off on a new tack with something I couldn’t quite believe anyone would say to a complete stranger. So draining and bizarre was his constant onslaught of drivel that when the time by which we should have arrived at Barrhill station approached and I got his name wrong as we parted, it had a pre-determined feel about it. He got rather nasty, in fact, and gave a fairly bleak diagnosis as to the state of my soul. My complete absence of inner strength, as he would have it, seemed a trifle at odds with the three quarters of an hour I had endured with him out of politeness, however. In fact, I rather fancy it was my openness at Ayr, waving him and his many bags onto the train ahead of me, that marked me out from the herd. Had I stuffed earphones in, swore, spat and scowled a bit, he might not have been so keen to latch on to me. Still, as a writer I can see the positives of unusual interactions such as this one.
I got off the train physically shaken. After such an early start, on my very last day, this was not exactly what I had needed.
Beautiful Barrhill: it looked just as gorgeous (and welcome) when I passed through six hours earlier.
I had just under two hours, after changing in the lane up to the station, to get to Bladnoch. Dumfries and Galloway pacified me, cleansed me of my morning struggles and was the perfect epilogue to my travels in Scotland. I have never been to this part of the country before, but I will return. The sun was warm, the air fresh, fields green and full of lambs. Hills were low and rounded, forests plentiful and pine-fresh. I reflected that if my bike conked out, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I followed a single track forestry road, almost completely empty of traffic save for one huge tree truck which demanded an unsteady emergency stop in the grass verge. Besides that, I couldn’t belive how beautiful it all was.
I began to head further south, having bypassed Newton Stewart. Trees nearly swept the road with their new, ethereal leaves. The landscapes which opened out before me on such stunning frequency were soft, busy and idyllic. Everywhere hummed, in the cheeriest possible sense, with the aroma of cow.
11AM, my tour time at Bladnoch, was approaching fast, and I wasn’t seeing any signs to Wigtown. Soon, I rejoined the main road and phoned the distillery. Martin answered the phone. “I’m at the Torhouse stones,” I said. “Oh, you’re just a mile and a half away. It’s all down hill from there.” I began to wonder if this was some cruel joke of his, or maybe we were thinking about different Torhouse stones. I was faced with a sequence of rolling hills, and then I went straight on over the road that could have taken me cheekily right and straight to Bladnoch. As it was, I passed through Wigtown which at least gave me the opportunity to scout out a Co-op for lunch. I made it into Bladnoch at 11.15AM, only for Martin to tell me that I had taken the long way from Barrhill. I was told that, for my return leg, heading through Newton Stewart would be much quicker.
Simply, cycling heaven.
In the sweltering and still building heat, I was given a superb tour of what is a unique distillery. Martin knew everything there was to know about its history and place within the local community to this day. It was with the help of the villagers that the Armstrongs succeeded in reversing the ruling by previous owners Diageo that Bladnoch could be bought but must never distil again.
You need more than an hour in Bladnoch.
I made it a bit of a frenzied tour, I must admit. I had asked for the tour to last an hour, but so enchanted was I by all the doors Martin was opening (he says that the hardest job is locking everything up again after his father has conductd a tour) that I rather lost track of time. After taking a photo in the beautiful grounds, I checked my display and read 12.36. I needed to be going. Martin reminded me of the route I should take then broke off. “I could give you a lift to Newton Stewart.”
The first part of my final leg of cycling on tour, therefore, was spent in the Bladnoch Transit van. This is how they transport casks from Glasgow to the distillery and back. Other companies use swish trucks, the Armstrongs use a builder’s vehicle. The bike was stashed in the back amongst cardboard boxes, bags thrown in any old how. As Martin hurtled along Dumfries-shire roads, these a tad busier than those I had taken earlier in the day, he gave me a potted history of the local area, which had played a significant part in the Second World War, an RAF base stationed to the west of Newton Stewart. Regrettably, quite a few Spitfire pilots misjudged the altitude of the Cairnsmore of Fleet, and flew into it.
He deposited me on the main street and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart. Once I had bought lunch and escaped the throngs of the town, I began to appreciate just what a timely favour he had done for me. Shade was essential to pack in my last meal, and I found a sturdy tree on someone’s driveway to eat sandwiches and shortbread. Across the road, sheep panted and tried to take advantage of the cover granted by the same tree. I mixed the last of my electrolyte tablets with the water I had taken from the tap in the Bladnoch courtyard and set off for my final time trial. It was 1.30PM, I had less than two hours.
Again I must stress the beucolic beauty of the area, but I could not appreciate the gentle meanders, rises and falls of the roads, the bluebelled woods rising from the carriageway, the verdant fields, the glorious sunshine because I had a train to catch. And if I failed to it would be dicey as to whether the next trains could fit me and my machine on.
Moist and exhausted, but so very chuffed.
The ferocity of the sun became a genuine concern, as opposed to a luxury. So open and bare are some of the landscapes in South Ayrshire where forestry has been cleared, and so windless is it, that it feels as though you are pushing the pedals with a burning bouncy castle strapped to your back. I saw a sign saying 15 miles to Barrhill but the next one, which seemed to come many hours later, said only 11. Four miles had taken me what felt like an age. I began to doubt the accuracy of my bike computer, I began to doubt my ability to push on as the food I scoffed provided negligible sustenance. The road began to climb, not seriously, but markedly upward. I was pushing on the pedals with all my might but feeling a little lost and doubtful for the first time since I had been condemned to eternal damnation earlier in the morning. So wonderful, surprising and beautiful had my time since that surreal encounter been that I began to wonder if I had in fact dreamed it. As the road began to descend, I could pick up some serious speed and cool off, I genuinely doubted that it had taken place at all. Barrrhill appeared, and not before time. 2PM was developing nicely, and was indeed already too late for the village shop, where I would have bought some Lucozade and some chocolate bars. I was absorbed in food matters, and couldn’t quite remember how far along the village the turning up the hill to the station was. After maybe half a mile further into Ayrshire countryside, I realised that I had passed it. A frantic U-turn, and needlessly savage climb up to the station later, I had made it. 2.45PM, time enough to change out of my dripping cycling gear, put some water back in, and reflect on all I had achieved. I passed a pleasant few minutes on the platform with a lot of swallows and the scorching sun, which still wasn’t backing off.
The bike at rest: its job was done. Check out the swallow in the top right - I'm quite pleased with this picture!
The train back up to Ayr was not especially full, and I secured for myself a double seat. All of the windows were open and most of my fellow passengers seemed to have been hypnotised, those that weren’t already asleep on their bags or tables. I joined them in slack-jawed, blithely smiling abstraction. I was deliriously happy, and profoundly dehydrated, of course. I could enjoy the anonymity that public transport provides, whilst sharing a smile with the rest of the carriage when we past through a tunnel and all the windows slammed shut.
The change at Ayr was a swift one, and whilst there were plenty of bodies already on the train, I succeeded in blagging another seat by the doors so I could look after the bike. It turned out I didn’t need to be anywhere near it. Masses of exposed, burnt Scottish flesh boarded the train, couldn’t find seats and so squashed into the seatless spaces. One man found my pannier rack a useful cup holder as he fielded and received calls for the duration of the journey about what he and his friends were likely to be up to that night.
Once in Glasgow the stress returned. I had misread my timetable, and plain forgotten which train I was to catch. I thought it was something like a 5.30PM train, and when I got off my train from Ayr at 5.10PM and couldn’t find it on the departure boards, I panicked a little. I also panicked about locking the bike in the bike park in such a way as to make theft impossible, but also appeasing the urgent signals from my bladder. In the end I only secured the front wheel to the rack, which would have made it very easy for anyone to steal the rest of the bike by flicking the quick-release level to detach front wheel from bike. Anyway, I used the toilet, bought sandwiches, crisps and a large bottle of water from a standing-room-only M&S and returned to find the bike where I left it. Sweating copiously, I wheeled machine and my baggage of six weeks to the departure screens. My train was actually the 5.50PM. Seeing ‘Alnmouth’ scroll along as one of the stops was not an overly momentous sight at the time. However, when I had found the right platform, belatedly the right carriage for the bike (the guard’s van right at the front of the train, my carriage being towards the back), remembered just before we moved off that I’d left my M&S purchases in said guard’s van, had my provisions returned to me and taken my seat; then did I realise that my travels were over, and I had done it. Out of Glasgow, through Motherwell, I couldn’t stop smiling. The evening was as beautiful as the day had been. I ate, sipped and thought. My mind pedalled its way back to Glen Garioch, Tomintoul, Skye, The North, and all of my testing moments in the Central Belt. My thoughts then sprinted off ahead of me into the future. “Stephen,” I said, when he phoned me up, “do you want to come on the next one?”
A sight of the Forth Bridges, through Edinburgh and down the East Coast: all of these familiar sights seen with new eyes. The train raced into Northumberland and I recognised landmarks from my many training miles. That hit me rather hard. When the train stopped in Alnmouth, I hit the side of the guard’s van rather hard, too. I had notified the steward of my exit stop, and that I had precious cargo stowed away. I had made my way to the first class carriages in readiness to alight on the platform and be ready for a speedy handover. But I couldn’t get into the carriage. I hammered on the door but no reply. I had vivid, livid visions of my bike making it as far as Birmingham when I detected in the far distance a man in a hat jogging laboriously towards me. “It’s chocker in there,” he gasped, opened the door for me and in a flash I was on the platform, the train pulling away. I was home.
Out of the station and into the surrounding estates. The smell was different somehow. Down into the village everything had exploded into life, including the local pub where I work, very busy at 8.45PM on a Saturday night. Back at the house, I unhooked the panniers as I had done a hundred times before in foreign parts, wheeled the bike into the garage and without realising or necessarily agreeing to it, became abosrbed once again into the real world.