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Auchentoshan Presents: The Taste Experiments

The contrast between the Balvenie Fete and Auchentoshan’s Taste Experiments could not have been more glaring. Where one had been relaxed, timeless and traditional, the Glasgow leg of the triple-distilled Scotch whisky brand’s Presents series upped the ante on the cutting edge front. The word ‘molecular’ may even have been used…

Billed as part cocktail masterclass, part food matching, part taste bud examination with a bit of whisky thrown in, I didn’t begrudge the two and a half hour bus ride to Glasgow required to attend the event. As far as I could make out, Auchentoshan wanted to step away from the tried-and-tested modes of introducing people to whisky and incorporate a bit more science, a bit more mystery, a bit more variety. It was a whisky tasting for those who don’t do whisky tastings.

Mr Lyan kicks off the Auchentoshan Taste Experiments.

The London event in July called upon the considerable talents of Rachel Barrie, master blender for Auchentoshan, cocktail consultant extraordinaire Ryan Chetiyawardana (AKA Mr Lyan), coffee experts DunneFrankowski and Rebel Dining Society. Read Miss Whisky’s review of the first jamboree here.

The personnel were stripped down for the Glasgow event, held at the sumptuously Classical Corinthian Club on Ingram Street. Food pairings were out, and Rachel Barrie was also sadly absent, but Mr Lyan’s cocktails – a masterclass if ever there was one in creative simplicity – still featured on the menu. In the ground floor bar, we sipped our Auchentoshan Classic julep (enlivened with chocolate bitters and grapefruit peel) and chowed down on the mighty haggis balls in preparation for kick off. Attendees numbered at least 30 – Tiger and Turbo from Edinburgh Whisky Blog amongst them – and Ryan’s crushed ice must have been on its last legs, the bar spoon worn to a stub with all the frantic stirring.

The Auchentoshan Classic julep.

With the final table cocktailed, Ryan could step out from behind the bar wearing a natty Auchentoshan apron. We were promised that he and the DunneFrankowski boys would be playing ‘a few experiments on you’ but I sensed that none in the room was deterred.

Even a hike up the stairs to a more out-of-the-way chamber did not alarm anyone. Before us were Glencairn glasses filled with what looked very much like whisky. So far so familiar. The little plastic vials had not made it to any previous tasting of mine, however, nor had the glass pots filled with cotton wool. Balloons were completely out of my comfort zone.

The DunneFrankowski 'lab'.

Victor Frankowski stepped forward to outline the evening’s itinerary which began with puncturing that balloon. The smell of Bourbon oak descended softly to focus the mind. Next, we nosed those seven different cotton wool swabs, steeped in chemical compounds supposedly found in whisky. Rob Dunne urged us to focus on first impressions and lock in to our visual memory. I’m hopeless at these exercises, and with the exception of Pot 5 was way wide of the chemically-determined mark. Throughout I found everything from honey to carpet; we were promised that these compounds did occur in single malt whisky, although in varying concentrations and were all desirable when combined intelligently. I confess – sitting a good way down one of the tables as I was, with a talkative chap on my right – I could not catch every essence by its official title. As it turned out, this wasn’t the point. Our sense of smell is highly individuated, and each of us will have a separate interpretation for the chemical stimulus: the sweet will give rise to different impressions, as will the heavier or sharper compounds. That there was broad consensus, but not outright agreement, fitted the pattern.

Rob’s personal mission was to ensure we differentiated between taste and flavour: the one objective, the latter subjective. Taste, he said, could only be one of five properties according to Western standards. There then ensued ten minutes of guests passing round little droppers, holding noses with one hand while squeezing liquids onto tongues with the other and registering the geography of their impact. So far, so silly, but it did underline the advantages to pushing whisky around the mouth.

My highlight was the PTC test: the plastic vials on our tasting mats were at last employed yet they contained no cotton wool, or liquids – not even another smaller balloon - but rather paper. The PTC strip divided the room. Some, incredibly, could not taste the rubberised, acrid bitterness of the middle vial but it would seem this is genetics in action. 20% of the population cannot detect this compound, which means that Campari shouldn’t phase them. Others were aware of the taste but could tolerate it. I thought I might be one, but the horror worsened.

With this insight into our palates, we turned to the whiskies with Mr Lyan as our compere: Auchentoshan Classic, Valinch and Threewood. I have discussed these whiskies before so shall move on to the cocktails, also courtesy of Mr L: a delicious Classic Hi-Ball made with the Auchentoshan, Creme de Poires, lemon juice, syrup and ginger ale. Three further bottles accompanied them, however: labelled Sweet, Sour and Bitter, these concentrates could be added by ourselves to adjust the cocktail according to our preferences.

'Salt and pepper' for my hi-ball.

I had to run out on the Threewood Old-Fashioned as I my parole from the Central Belt bus network had expired. The Taste Experiments proved enlightening, surprising and entertaining, however. The interdisciplinary approach worked very well as the coffee and cocktail meisters came at the topic unencumbered by tradition or marketing. That being said, Rachel Barrie’s chemical background and experience in the industry would have been greatly appreciated. The future of whisky tastings? Taking people to another sensory dimension alongside whisky definitely has merit as a technique for illuminating the rewarding complexity of the spirit. I’m just not sure where I would store all that ice, or whether Holland & Barrett stock PTC…

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Summer of Distilleries 2012: LOWLANDS

The Lowlands of Scotland were where my Scotch Odyssey of 2010 began and, as a cyclist, it’s pre-eminence in my affections was guaranteed by the extraordinarily lovely weather I enjoyed. At the time, it was a somewhat overlooked region; accessible but somewhat ‘vanilla’. However, with a resurgence from Auchentoshan and the enduring individuality of Bladnoch, in addition to Ailsa Bay, Daftmill and building projects such as Annandale in the west and Kingsbarns in the east, the Lowlands is at the forefront of avant-guard distilling with a vast variety of flavours on offer.

Auchentoshan, Morrison Bowmore, 01389 878561 www.auchentoshan.com Open 7 days a week, 10am to 5pm. 

  • From Glasgow: 10 miles (20 minutes) from the city centre; from Edinburgh: 55 miles (1 hour 30 minutes) from the city centre
  • Tours: Ranging from the £6 ‘Classic Tour’ lasting an hour to the £45 ‘Ultimate Auchentoshan Experience’. At 135 minutes this is a tour of serious depth, with a nosing and tasting straight from the cask.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: bottle-your-own single cask in the warehouse. Choice of two. At present it is a 1999 first-fill Bourbon cask, 59.9% abv. £100.

 

 

Bladnoch, Co-ordinated Development Services, 01988 402605 www.bladnoch.co.uk Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

  • From Glasgow: 100 miles (two hours thirty minutes); from Edinburgh: 115 miles (three hours)
  • Tours: one standard tour. Expect to pay between £3 and £5.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: not at the moment.

 

 

Glenkinchie, Diageo, 01875 342004 http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/glenkinchie/ Open 7 days a week, 10am to 4pm (5pm in August)

  • From Edinburgh: 16 miles (30 minutes); from Glasgow: 60 miles (one hour fifteen minutes)
  • Tours: Ranging from the £6 ‘Glenkinchie Tour’ to the £10 ‘Flavour of Scotland’ tour.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: ‘Double-treated’ with Amontillado American oak cask, 59.3%. Around £65.
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The (Really) Good Spirits Co., Glasgow

When plans were first afoot to drop by a few more of Scotland’s excellent whisky shops, I could have had no idea that by the time it came to write about them on the Scotch Odyssey Blog the mood of optimistic malty materialism would have soured to one of grudging destitution.

Whisk(e)y – and this is the honest truth - constitutes my only financial weakness. I don’t own a games console, I don’t buy clothes, I don’t go to concerts more than twice a year or sporting events at all. Yet here I sit, gently shivering in my student flat, more acutely aware than ever before of the dwindling loan money, incredulous at what it costs to be in a position to pour yourself a dram once in a while. Electricity, rent, internet, food, phone: all must take precedence.

Inside the Good Spirits Co.

It was under a cloud of such dark thoughts, on an otherwise spotless Glasgow day, that I ducked into the Good Spirits Co. in the city centre. A few weeks previously I had sent an excited message to Mark Connelly, co-founder of the independent spirits shop, asking for Bourbon or Rye recommendations. His pick was a Noah’s Mill, a brand I had never heard of but which receives rave reviews from what I could glean from a quick traipse across the internet. The batch Mark was so keen on was bottled at 57.15% and would come in at £49. My eyes struggled to ignore the handsome black wax-sealed bottle, but I would have to scan other shelves.

On a single level, just beneath the street, a flight of stone stairs conveys you from the battle royal of Glasgow buses pulling up and roaring off again into the soothing company of fine spirits. I was impressed with its size, a large and long cuboid extending from the door to the far wall, where the only Spanish cedar wood, walk-in humidor in Scotland lurks fragrantly. In whisky shops now, my gaze flicks to particular areas, expecting to see the same brands. Not here. There are some of the usual suspects, but the packaging of independent bottlers enlivens the displays with A. D. Rattray, Hart Brothers and Duncan Taylor well-represented. However, I get the feeling that were I to go back in next month Adelphi, Douglas Laing and Signatory may well have taken their places. Mark told me that his customers are increasingly interested in ‘good spirits’, not ‘the same stuff I have always drank’. This, he says, is especially true with his gins and allowed him to stock different brands of rare or small batch products which would always sell. Gin nudges Scotch for the top seller in the shop.

The impressive selection of world whiskeys section.

The world whisky section is particular impressive also, with two separate offerings from South Africa in the shapes of Bains and Three Ships. From different parts, there is Lark, Mackmyra and a healthy showing from Ireland: Cooley in particular.

As I mentioned before Christmas, my promise to myself and my palate was that no more Scotch would be bought until I had explored one other region first. The Noah’s Mill may have been off-limits, but I was delighted to see a solitary bottle of Four Roses and a legion of Buffalo Trace, both for £26. It would have to be between these two, and Mark made the decision still harder but informing me that the Buffalo Trace was now bottled at 40% abv, but what he had was a consignment of some of the last 45% ers.

It was the Four Roses I ultimately handed over the exquisite counter: a design based around the staves of three Sherry butts with more straightened staves for the counter top. ‘We looked at getting it for the whole floor,’ Mark mused, but then quoted me a three-figure price per square metre and the decision to go with standard wooden flooring looked a sound one.

The Good Spirits Co.'s Living Cask. What Dr Frankenstein was really after, I think.

I was not allowed to leave before having tried their ‘living cask’, a tiny Sherry wood cask which originally held Highland Park and Bunnahabhain but always receives a top-up of something else when the level in the barrel reaches the tap. Batch 4 dribbled into my Glencairn glass and it was rather excellent: coastal with plenty of Sherry fruit and spice on the nose, there were also notes of rich honey and earth – possibly the Ardmore and the Aberfeldy fighting for supremacy. The palate was sublime with red fruits and pale creamy oak leading into plenty of toffee. A second sip revealed an aggressive saltiness and a fizzing sweet cereal quality. £15 will buy you a 20cl bottle and it is certainly worth a look.

With directions to the Chinaski’s Bourbon bar and the Bon Accord lodged in our brains, my friends and I reascended to street level in very good spirits.

 

The Good Spirits Co., 23 Bath Street, Glasgow

0141 258 8427

http://thegoodspiritsco.com

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Go to Glengoyne – everyone else is doing it

Flocking to the Trossachs National Park, out of Glasgow’s northern back door,  is nothing new. People have been tramping up the hills and cooing at the lochs for a couple of hundred years now since the Victorian fetish for the Highland tableau established the area as a prime tourist spot. It would appear, however, that Glengoyne Distillery has succeeded in luring vast quantities of these souls out of the great outdoors and into its visitor’s book. Maybe the hill of Dumgoyne is the demographically-astute decoy.

The bottle-your-own facility and re-orientated shop.

Ian Macleod Distillers have invested £300,000 in upgrades to the visitor centre and shop to more appropriately welcome the 48,500 people who have traipsed Highland mud and gravel onto their carpets so far this year. More modifications are planned for 2012. These efforts, they say, maintain there position at the forefront of whisky tourism. Between their snug shop, tucked away behind the production buildings, and the sumptuous Manager’s House squatting further up the steep glen, Glengoyne has the facilities to accommodate all levels of interest and knowledge.

In the words of Stuart Hendry, Glengoyne Brand Heritage Manager: ‘The old shop area was very dark and didn’t make good use of space. Our brief to retail design agency Contagious was to create a brighter, more organised shopping area which showed off our award-winning range but without losing the distinct Glengoyne character.

‘I think we have hit the nail on the head and we are extremely happy with the outcome. Feedback from customers has been great and we have seen an increase in sales as a result.’

The alterations are not just in the aesthetic of the facilities, however, Glengoyne have also joined the bottle-your-won battalion. I would argue that there are quite enough single cask Glengoynes sitting, pre-packaged, in the shop already to agonise over, but it is jolly good fun all the same. At the moment spirit is from a first-fill American hogshead, distilled in 2000, and promioses heavy ’tropical fruit flavours’. At £75 it is towards the ‘premium’ end of the pricing structure.

Ian Macleod are fans of inovative whisky marketing and flavour possibilities (Smokehead anyone?) and have not rested on their laurels with their single malt distillery. They have added a raft of new multi-media in addition to their VC spruce-up with a series of films following custodians of Glengoyne’s flavour about their work. Duncan McNicoll is one such individual who can be spotted on screen before the tour and tending the stills during it. Stuart Hendry again: ‘The feedback from viewers is hugely positive. They enjoy getting behind the scenes and meeting the people. Visitors take particular pleasure in speaking to the stars as they meet them around the distillery yard.’

Well done, Glengoyne. With these alterations they can only have improved a whisky tourism experience which was already high up in the Premier League. I welcome any effort to reward fans of the dram who bother to make the journey in search of it with an experience that is just a little bit different. Whisky generally is in a confident place right now. I believe that by re-evaluating the role and character of a visitor centre that confidence can be better translated to the particular brand and those with an interest in it.

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Glasgow to Home

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 horus earlier.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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Glengoyne

The picture doesn't show it, but I was battling a coach-load of new arrivals and the relentless traffic to gain a clear shot. The distillery sits on a very busy road indeed.

The picture doesn't show it, but I was battling a coach-load of new arrivals and the relentless traffic to gain a clear shot. The distillery sits on a very busy road indeed.

 Dumgoyne, Strathblane, Glasgow, G63 9LB, 01360 550254. Ian Macleod Distillers. www.glengoyne.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      The area around the distillery could be described as semi-Highland. It has grandeur, space and elevation, gradations of colour and mountains, but manageable. It is quite an adorable little place on the edge of the Trossachs national park and very well-serviced by roads. The distillery is on one side of the busy road, the warehouses on the other, technically in the Lowlands. A large, bulbous hill rises behind the distillery, and there is a waterfall walk to take advantage of the beautiful wooded glen that extends towards the hill.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘A Wee Tasting Tour’: £8.50. The standard tour plus a tasting of the award-winning 17YO. One hour.

‘Tasting Tour’: £15. A tour of the distillery and an in-depth tutored tasting in the Club Room of the 12, 17 and 21YOs. One and a half hours.

‘Master Blender Session’: £30. After a dram of the 10YO and a toour of the distillery, guests are taken to the Sample Room where thyey contruct their own blended whisky. A taste of the Langs Select blend and the Glengoyne 17YO get you in the mood. Your blend is bottled in a 100ml sample bottle and you are given a certificate. One and a half hours.

‘Cask Idol’: £70. The tasting notes and evaluations provided by you over the course of this tour will help to decide the next Glengoyne single cask release. An in-depth tour of the distillery leads on to a visit to Warehouse No. 8 you are taken back to the distillery and tutored through the last three Glengoyne Single Casks, and asked to give your opinion on three samples drawn straight from maturing casks. Whichever one you choose as the best could be bottled with your name and tasting notes on the label. Two hours fifteen minutes.

‘The Masterclass’: £100. “The most in-depth and comprehensive distillery tour in Scotland,” says the website. At this price, and with a duration of 5 hours, it had better be. Following a tour of the distilleries, you are taken into the warehouses, return to the distillery, taste the 12 and 17YOs, three single casks, and six samples of sherry. A light lunch is laid on, which I think is a good move, for you then construct your own blend, 200ml of which will be bottled for you and handed over together with a Masterclass certificate and Glengoyne commemorative book.

‘A Century of Whisky’: £150. An in-depth tour is followed by a dram of the 10YO, the 40YO and the Isle of Skye 50YO, served in crystal copita glasses which you take home. Two hours. 

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The Glengoyne Christmas Cask (see here), and numerous other single cask releases. There is a whole series of single casks to be found; ranging from 15 to 21-years-of-age. The dearest is an 18YO “Robbie’s Choice”, from 1989. This is a Port Hogshead and commands a price tag of £220. There are also the Lost Drams, more single casks for £200 each. By way of a more economical distillery exclusive, though, there is the 14YO Heritage Gold, a 1 litre bottle for £45. There is also the option to buy a whole cask.

My Tour – 21/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      I wouldn’t normally include the detail that the mash tun and stills are in the same room, but on the day I visited it was more like the Seychelles than Scotland and the distillery a sauna. At 2PM, with the sun directly overhead, this was no time to be inspecting heated metal vessels. As Henrik, our excellent Swedish guide told us, it isn’t exactly ideal conditions for making the stuff either. The distillery was besieged by tourists, to compound the truncated, slow pace of the afternoon, and we had to wait around in the baking courtyard, then the mash house, then the tun room, for the preceding group to move off so that we might take their place. The distillery itself is neatness personified, as well as being full of light and charm. The washbacks are all wooden and what better time, with an Indian Summer gripping us and plenty of time at each piece of equipment, to go into some detail about how fermentation in such circumstances must be controlled. On hot days, it is not only difficult to condense the distillate, but if the worts are too hot, the yeast will expire soon after pitching and fermentation will not have occurred optimally. They then add the yeast when the worts have been cooled to 12 degrees Centigrade. This makes for a slower, but more complete and efficient, fermentation. The smell of apples at the spirit safe is extremely pronounced, and Henrik claimed that even if the stillman couldn’t take samples or see into the spirit safe, he would know by the intensity of the Cox’s Orange Pippin aroma that the heart of the run was then in progress. Perhaps for reasons of health and safety, we did not cross the roads to visit the warehouse, which would have been a most welcome relief from the heat. The shop, however, was cool enough. The explanation of the maturation given instead of the opportunity to see it ‘live’ is first-rate, however.

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

An Aladdin's Cave of single cask wonders.

An Aladdin's Cave of single cask wonders.

COMMENT:      After all of the traumas endured earlier in the day, I wasn’t about to miss this distillery, the cover star for Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit. Famous for its tours, I wanted to see for myself. When I arrived, I was stressed, hungry, thirsty and very very hot. The waterfall walk looked tempting, if only so that I might have doused myself under it. There is the distillery, the shop, and the visitor centre at various points on the path up the hill, and of some disgruntlement was the distance between where I had to tie up my bike and whichever building I was required in. I made it for the 2PM tour, and everyone seemed pretty dozy and laid back. The dark and cool of the shop was profoundly welcome, the secluded video room even more so. Trying to stay awake, however, as we shuffled around the site in the clinging heat was not easy, but Henrik chased away any sleep impulses. He is Swedish, but has been in Glasgow for a few months, long enough to become fluent and even cultivate something of an accent. Some words had a Scandinavian inflection, but most were unmistakably Scottish. Bless him, he knew his stuff, and he was exceptionally friendly and thorough, but he suffered. Once inside the distillery, the Glengoyne blazer came off, and with each new piece of equipment, the swallow-and-deep-breath routine before he launched into the next explanation showed just how much effort he was putting in to fighting the noise of operating machinery and the heat. Evidentally passionate, he elevated what was a fairly bog-standard tour. The sheer volume of punters I’m sure didn’t help. At one stage there seemed to be four tours taking place simultaneously, with nearly as many guides floating around as tourists. Everyone was so very friendly, and when I was presented with my personalised 17YO, a service they do for both the 10 and 17YO expressions which comes in a black cannister with your name and date of visit on the label of both bottle and tube, I was rather overcome. I had been chatting with Henrik after the tour, all about my travels and experiences of Glasgow in particular. He seemed to enjoy relating what would almost certainly happen to me if I got very drunk and wondered into a shady area alone. I’d said my goodbyes to him, and was refilling my bottles for the parched journey back to the city centre, when another guide took me back into the shop and asked if Mr Saxon’s bottle was ready. Obviously I had no room for it at the time, but it was a lovely gesture.

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Lochranza to Glasgow

Lochranza to Glasgow, 58 miles

I hadn’t much of an appetite for my toasted Hovis rolls this morning. It had been a struggle leaving the shadowed, undemanding nowhere-land that was my hostel bed. The world must be faced, however, and if I didn’t catch the 1.30PM ferry, I would be cycling into Glasgow at midnight. Not desirable.

A chat with a Frenchman who bore a resemblance to the tennis player Gilles Simon distracted me nicely, but he and his girlfriend left, I handed over my unused and unwanted washing powder and hunted out the distillery. As I waited in the grounds for signs that the tartan-skirted folk inside wanted to take my money, listening to the aggrieved cries of the real-life Arran peacock, lured away by an unscrupulous neighbour with more interesting tidbits, I doubted I would stay dry today. The idea of spinning effortfully through the Central Belt, soaked and harried, did not appeal.

I was as wet as I was going to get, as it turned out, racing two very fit young ladies on unencumbered road bikes who flashed past the distillery entrance just as I was tip-toeing across the cattle grid and afterwards wishing violent, ignominous death in an oblivious motor-home driver. I passed them with some ease on the hill out of Lochranza towards the east coast. It had much in the way of authentic Highland scenery about it, though, and I guess you could call it a proper mountain. It was appallingly hot and airless, however, ribbons of cloud flapping gently in wooded glens away to our right. Having so carelessly overtaken, I didn’t now want to stop and take off my pointless baselayer. The descent was a mixture of the sublime with the ridiculous: perfectly smooth, sensible tarmac giving way to roads that would not look out of place in Basra. It was as I was negotiating one of these sections that one of the girls flew past me, seemingly with no thought to her wheels. I was deeply concerned about these, and certain soft pieces of my anatomy which I did not share with my fellow competitors. Just before the hill bottomed out, the second lass put me behind her and sped away up the next incline. I was tired of racing, and these girls were plainly mildly insane, so I watched them disappear into the mist and small villages.

The mist was an enemy of my mental equilibrium. In much the same manner as it had goaded and tormented me the previous day, I felt trapped and constricted. Nothing beyond the rocks on the shore were visible: the rest, sea and air, was a featureless unity. I suffered more disappointment with Arran roads before Brodick appeared, tree-lined routes especially pitted. There were craft villages, cheese shops, the brewery and ornamental gardens in country houses. Had I not got a ferry to catch to my certain doom, I would have liked to have stopped and explored.

I clicked into Brodick just as the mist began to coalesce and fall as rain. I bought my lunch and dinner for tonight, reasoning that I hadn’t a clue when I would arrive at the hostel in the centre of Glasgow and, after the mini breakdown in response to what I had endured, would not know if there would be anything still open to feed me, it would be a good move to have food with me. I should explain that I fully expected to be mugged, stabbed, run over, assaulted, jeered, kidnapped and any number of other unspeakable things when I got to the big city. This was partly my dad’s fault: he had even offered to drive me to the Glasgow distilleries, and partly the inconceivable contrast from four weeks in the most isolated pockets of Scotland to the noise and bustle and human threat of a built-up area. This is why there are no pictures of my journey to Glasgow: I’m ashamed to say that after the distillery I put my camera’s memory card in my glasses case and that at the bottom of my panniers. I now know that it was a gross over-reaction, and the act of facing my fears and just doing it made for a far more enjoyable ride than I had expected, and I would have liked to have had pictorial evidence of it. At the time, however, I was atrociously anxious and wary, and could not have been too careful.

I checked in at the ferry terminal, and sat on the wall beside the area reserved for ferry-bound cars: a concreted expanse the size of a football pitch all covered in vehicles. I wondered how on earth they were all supposed to fit, as traffic snaked off the ferry from the mainland which had since docked. I didn’t even have time to finish my lunch before myself and two other more senior cyclists were being waved on.

The Ardrossan ferry, the last I would board on this tour, had a completely different feel again to the others I had taken. There was an impression that this was less for tourists and holiday-makers, more for commuters. There were builders and businessmen, and me sat in the soft grey gloom, trying to read the paper, knowing that forty-five minutes from now I would be facing my greatest test of the whole tour: the real world in all its unpredictable, flawed glory.

Land ahoy. Down to the bike. The cars bounce out and screech away. Me and the other cyclists follow into Ardossan. They are off to Troon and we wave as they take the first right. I continue over another roundabout and follow the little blue signs which will be encouragement and cause for concern in equal measure over the next four hours.

I change by the sea front, still swaddled in this timeless, soporiphic mist. The cycle route leads me on what feels a little like a wild goose chase for the first few miles: along the coast, through a park, over some dunes, along the side of the railway line with its trenches and broken glass. Oh there was lots of broken glass. The nightmare scenario of actually puncturing in this grim place was almost paralysing. A couple of times I would hear crunches beneath my rear wheel, only to find that the tyre bulge was just as healthy as it had always been.

I soon left Ardrossan and Saltcoats behind, and it began to look rather pastoral and pleasant. Until I got to Kilwininning. Work on the main street meant that I abandoned the cycle route temporarily, and this was of course enough to very nearly get very lost. If I hadn’t seen another blue sign in a residential street across the road, I could have been lapping Kilwinning for some time after. Everywhere, even the estates, was deserted. The cycle paths leaving any built-up area, however, were clearly the coliseums of the local bored youth: graffiti’ed, broken glass everywhere and scorched by aerosol cans or other inflammables. It was rather intimidating, and indeed on this section I decided to push the bike until the terrain became less prickly.

I did begin to enjoy myself a bit more after that. The cycle route was incredibly well signposted and avoided all of the seriously busy roads, for all I was granted good views of them intermittently. It was now after 4PM, and Glasgow had started to appear on my signs, but was still 30 miles away. It felt rather like a treasure hunt with all the blue signs and little tarmacked cuttings I had to dive up with little warning. Now that Iwas there, in the beating heart of Scotland, it was less menacing. As I swept down into Highlfield, I experienced a thrill: there was beauty here, and the evidence of other people prepared to get out and appreciate it.

The Kilbirnie Tesco takes some of my money and I then get a little lost. When I catch up to a female mountain biker and ask about the cycle route she says I have come quite a way away. After shopping, I should have headed back the way I came. I thank her and do as she says. I learn from this experience that unless there is the little route number in red on the sign, if isn’t the official route, just a branch line off it.

By Lochnwinnoch I encounter fresh water, which means insects. By this point I am on a wonderfully flat and straight piece of path which is quiet but peopled with enough joggers and cyclists to keep one’s spirits up. After Kilbarchan, I have no shortage of company. Johnstone is next and that basically means Glasgow. I’m eating every ten miles for energy, and I have no problem finding bushes when nature calls, allaying one of my biggest irrational fears that I would get caught short as the buildings sprang up and that finding public conveniences with somewhere to lock up the bike in time would become more difficult and stressful.

At Johnstone I cross another major artery in the Central Belt road network. It is bright, but not too hot, and everything is going to plan. Reflecting on it now, it was a very exciting ride with so many new challenges. One such new challenge began after I pushed off following a sausage roll and shortbread stop. A faint crunching and grinding whenever I put power down to get myself moving again. I follow the disused railway line over the motorway and into Johnstone proper. Here I get a little lost again but quickly return to the cycle route. However, stopped on the main street, with an unknown equipment problem, I feel very alone and conspicuous.

Paisley is rather terrifying. The advantage of cycle routes in general is that they take you away from the busyness. In disadvantaged areas of urbanity, however, the busyness can be a protection. The underpasses, litter, high-rises and quiet folk sitting by the canals smoking is not an environment I wish to return to soon.

The route seems to be flinging me all over the place. After the run-down suburbs I’m back in a park, and here I largely stay, give or take a few more estates and main roads, until I hit the centre of Glasgow. All the while I have been slowly counting down those little blue signs: City Centre 9 miles; City Centre 6 miles. There is no getting away from the fact that I am already deep into built up Glasgow however, with all the traffic lights ramping up the fear as all that grinding and squeaking erupts when I move off from stationary.

Another underpass, another climb back up to rejoin the main road, then it is back into another park. Once again I’m in the newish suburbs with people, threatening to me by their very presence, going about their Thursday evenings in a manner so very alien to mine. I regain grass and trees. I come across lots of people running – for leisure, not due to criminals.

I cross a busy road, head up a big hill and there is Glasgow. It is oddly stirring to see it, knowing I have made it so far already. I cycle in parallel with the motorway for a stretch, then meet the beginnings of one of Glasgow’s central business districts: pizza restaurants and underground stations. The blue signs don’t let me down, and I follow those for the SECC. Another cyclist is the benefit of an earlier green light to my left and he scythes expertly through the traffic about to cross the arched bridge over the Clyde. I join the queue. There is the SECC, here are lots more traffic lights (there is so much traffic and I’m in such a state of nervous tension that I don’t hear the complaining drivetrain), there are lots of girls crossing the road with little concern for their own safety, here is ‘Govan’ written on the tarmac, there are signs for the city centre, here is the M8. I stop myself in time, I’m pleased to say, but it required a couple of cars overtaking me at about 50mph before I realised that I was on a slip road. I get out the A-Z and frantically search. The hostel seems to be to the north of Kelvingrove Park. After a spell on the pavement, then on the wrong side of the road, I finally join onto Finiestown Street legally and reach the set of traffic lights I would have encountered last October when my mum and I walked from Sauchiehall Street to the SECC for Fleetwood Mac. I get distracted by an Audi R8 and a pedestrian alerts me to the green light for my lane. I follow signs right off Argyle Street north to Kelvingrove galleries. The one way system baffles my planned sequence of streets. But wait: there is Kelvingrove Park, I must be able to go through there. My companions now are students: students sauntering, students sitting, students playing lacrosse. I reach the top of the park and is that Park Terrace? I abandon any adherence to the one-way system now, and very quickly the hostel sign appears. I sag with relief and pride. I’m here in this leafy, neo-Georgian terrace having fought through seemingly everything. My bike is probably knackered but it has got me here in one piece. In my room I chat to two walkers, then make myself some pasta at 9.30PM. I read a bit of Raw Spirit in the lounge, fabulously relaxed. Just like the day to Glen Garioch and back to Huntly, I had done something I neither wanted to nor thought I could do, and my reward was quiet, peaceful exhaustion.

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Epilogue: the Bottom of the Glass

Firstly, dear reader, I am still here. My tour has not ended in ignominy and I am licking my wounds privately in Northumberland (there is still time, though). I’m typing from the spacious, if sweltering, lounge of the Glasgow Youth Hostel.

The reasons I have for not posting since almost a fortnight ago are numerous, and shan’t all be explored now. Suffice it to say that I hadn’t access to a computer until Wednesday night in Lochranza but by that stage I was in such a state of anxiety concerning the following day’s stage from Arran to the centre of Glasgow that any composition on my part would not have yielded anything even slightly coherent. Indeed, the logisitcs and itinerary of this last week leave little space for anything besides fretting. Plus, the sensations arising from this unique tour, whose experiences have represented unprecendented challenges and opportunities for me, have been ones I have wished to ruminate over before sharing with you. In short, my head is at many obscure places and journalism is quite impossible. I’m still around, though, and the culture shock after five weeks in Scottish wilderness to one of the busiest cities in the UK (or anything else for that matter) has not done me in.

Tomorrow I go to Dumfries and Galloway courtesy of a hideously early train out of Glasgow Central. Tomorrow night I ought to be back home where internet access is largely unlimited (siter proving accommodating, of course). It is to this end that I haven’t been updating towards the end of this week, despite the internet rate I’m enjoying right now of £1 per hour. Grrrrr… As of Sunday, I hope to revise my posts with all those lovely photos and update the shop contents as far as I can remember them. I may phone up and ask, just for you all.

Regrettably, I must finish on a negative. I could not restrict the casualties to the seven I listed below during my Half-Term Report. Auchentoshan could not be fitted in today. I have rather a good reason for that, however, my truist Mark Beaumont moment so far. By the time I left for Glengoyne I was three hours and £120 out of pocket. Both of the above were needed for my bike to carry on working. I shall go into it in greater detail later on when I come to type up this leg of the journey but all I will say was that had I not forked out for a new crank, I know not where I would be right now. I certainly wouldn’t be in a position to cycle to Wigtown tomorrow.

Apologies again that this tour has fallen short of my (and possibly your) expectations. Let’s hope for a glorious denouement tomorrow then, eh?

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Fit For The Glens? By Strathmill, I hope so…

From the moment I stepped out of the car to begin my walk this morning I’ve been making the serial supposition that begins: “This time tomorrow I’ll be…” It focuses the mind quite impressively.

How I will miss you, deepest, darkest, Northumberland.

How I will miss you, deepest, darkest, Northumberland.

It is safe (and a fairly enormous understatement) to say that this has been one of the oddest weeks of my life. Impromptu shifts, two leaving meals, an appearance in the local paper, and my last ride in Northumberland before departure have all contributed to a palette of emotions I can’t begin to describe. Oh, and a near nervous breakdown, which I can portray. As I told Marc in response to his comment on the last post, my mind has not been as strong as my legs. The cold did not improve on Tuesday and with my deadline approaching with the tangible expiration of minutes as opposed to weeks, being incapable of venturing out and so failing to earn the only qualification I have at the moment to feel in any way positive and at ease rather caused everything to unravel. As I sought to express myself in writing to two of my very best friends who have been with me and supported me throughout the year merely served to blow the topsoil from the corpse of my insecurities and doubts. With a to-do list stretching most of the way to Kirkwall and my imbalanced psyche shrieking ‘Doomed!’ at the top of its voice unremittingly, I couldn’t prioritise anything or appreciate that incrementally I could complete the remaining formalities. When the osteopath, whom I have known for a very long time, asked how I was, I had slid half-way down a fatalistic downward spiral before I became entirely incoherent and abandoned my explanation. My inability to communicate my feelings was almost the final straw for someone who defines himself in his effective use of language. It took a little while to understand that the ant colony of emotions I’m embroiled in right now is unique, unprecedented and I should simply accept and not worry about the temporary scenario which dictates that I cannot explain or articulate it. It defies explanation and articulation.

The “little while” needed was about three hours. I cycled 43 miles and how glorious it was. I returned unable to so much as recall the shape of the thoughts which had tormented me. I was back on track, cloistered in peace. Everything makes sense on a bike.

The following day I racked up another twenty miles taking the bike for a final once-over at the shop to cure a strange clunking noise from the headset which I’d noticed whenever I pulled on the bars while out of the saddle. Various tools were extracted and a few quick, practised twists later silence returned to my cycling. A huge vote of thanks must be made to the guys at Breeze Bikes, Amble. Without their technical support and practical advice borne out of having done a lot of what I’m about to do themselves, I would be hopelessly under-equiped and embarrassingly ignorant of basic repair procedures. Take inner tube replacement as a case-in-point. This time last week it was some arcane science, now I’m confident with repairing punctures following Mark’s speedy demo. Unfortunately, it was a touch too speedy at first, and after my hours of red-faced wrestling with a trucculent tyre in the garage, I went back, confidence profoundly shaken, and I was taught “the knack”. As it turns out it is as simple as ensuring that all of one side of the tyre wall  is already fitted into the rim. Then you merely push the other side in without the tyre coming away again. Theoretically, it’s very straightforward. Let’s see if I manage in the pouring rain on top of some bleak moor.

Unspeakably awful, but there is a very pretty view from the top.

Unspeakably awful, but there is a very pretty view from the top.

On Friday, I went for broke. Having said that I wasn’t bothered about eking out a 50-mile day prior to leaving, I reasoned that as I had the opportunity, I really ought to see how my body responded over hilly terrain for four hours. I chose, perhaps in a rude gesture to Fate, to do two loops of the same circuit that had incited the knee injury almost a month ago. The first lap took me almost exactly two hours as I stopped regularly, mimicking with my food and photo halts my behaviour as of tomorrow. The ascent of Corby’s Crags was easier on this occasion, my breathing not so ragged as to draw the attention of the scrum of tourists in the laybys away from the view. It was actually very warm and my jacket felt very unwelcome. Taking it off was not a safe option, however, for the reservoirs of sweat created by its presence were chilled whenever the road went downhill, which after that climb it did a lot.

Circuit #2 was hard. Clayport Bank in Alnwick was almost as bad as Corby’s Crags had been and then the traffic over the moor – dense and fast-moving – raised the blood pressure still further. I did, however, come across an intriguing smell. During my morning ride I’d noticed that they were burning heather but only now could I get a whiff of it. It took me back to my early childhood, although I could place it no more precisely. It was a spicy, soft aroma which tickled the nose; sweet but with an unusual earthiness. Later in the ride, when I smelt it again, I realised it reminded me of standing down-wind from the kiln at Edradour. As I approached the Crags from the opposite direction, I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the speed the reversed incline would provide. I would actually say that however unpleasant uphill climbing is, descending is even worse. On these steeper and less well-maintained roads with pot holes and loose gravel real dangers, and factoring in the weight and resulting momentum of my bike, going downhill is a terrifying ordeal. I have to control the speed for if I hit a pot hole incorrectly my rear wheel is going to look like so much half-cooked spaghetti and I could even crash. So, stiff as a board and white as a sheet I tried to get to the bottom in one piece whilst simultaneously preventing the brakes from overheating. Tense.

The rest of the ride, barring the donning of rain gear in response to an isolated and brief shower, passed without incident. I did, however, witness the potential for the innocuous, unscripted human encounter. I’d stopped half-way up the stupidly steep hill Edlingham is built on after a particularly fraught descent from the main road. A man was just getting out of his car in the opposite driveway and a twenty-minute conversation ensued. A keen cyclist in his younger days, he seemed impressed with my project, gave me some advice as to how best to capitalise on my undertaking from a commercial side by hob-nobbing with as many of the managers as I could gain access to and wished me luck. I wasn’t even in Scotland but I had already enjoyed an encounter with a complete stranger.

I woke up yesterday expecting physical reprisals for the efforts of Friday but when nothing complained on my getting out of bed I felt infinitely more positive about my itinerary, on which only four days are longer than my exploits of the day before. I set up my Flickr account (I’ll point you towards it when I start snapping away) and saw about my postage requirements for my bundles of maps. £14.40 may sound a lot for four uses of the postal system but with each bundle an average of roughly nine maps, it is a necessary and justifiable expense for I cannot carry them all. 

On the subject of maps I have printed off directions for my inner city Glasgow legs. These are causing me the greatest number of midnight panic attacks but, by the time I cross that metaphorical bridge over the Clyde from Ardrossan I ought to be more experienced, philosophical and comfortable with urban survival. It cannot be avoided.

My trains out of Glasgow and back home are organised, although I’m a little concerned about the A4 print-outs the man at the station gave me by way of cycle reservation certification, because for every other rail transfer situation I have a little orange ticket to secure to my machine. I pointed this out to him but he countermanded my arguments, even if he didn’t allay my fears.

Traffic, getting lost, high seas, the weather, mountains and many other factors I may not have anticipated I must now meet head-on, face down and overcome. My defence is not giving them a second thought during this period of inertia and consequently impotence. As of 09.56 tomorrow (and possibly before) things will unaccountably start happening and whilst I hope they are positive and constructive, I wonder how I will react in the not-so-good times, when I’ve already endured 40 tough miles, I’ve still got another 6 miles to get to my distillery and only half an hour to cover them, I’m wet and shivering and the haggises choose that moment to spring their ambush.

Reassurance of sorts was gained by watching the last episode in the incredible three-parter following Mark Beaumont across the Americas. I had to comment on his blog there and then, 10 past midnight. It was just astonishing the physical and mental achievement he can call his own. I was pleased, however, whilst witnessing him climb Mount Aconcagua, that at no point did I lean forward in rapture and whisper: “Yes! Sign me up for that!” I’ve climbed a Munro, and that was a deeply spiritual undertaking, but that is about the limits of my interest in mountaineering. I don’t like the sound of 20,000 ft plus, avalanches, altitude sickness. It just doesn’t appeal.  I’m quite happy being comfortable. I’m not ashamed of that. Leave those nine-month expeditions with their foreign languages, kidnap risks and deserts to these crazy folk. The interesting thing is to consider how fatuous and non-sensical I may think that statement once I return from this trip, a minnow of a challenge in the Beaumont league but very important to me, nonetheless. Guys like Mark, after all, who are seemingly compelled to attempt what they do; who possess a yearning, a deep nameless need which must be sated no matter what the cost, must have started their adventuring somewhere. Maybe the Mount Aconcaguas of this world will appeal one day, and this journey may have conceived that same inexplicable drive. I know that there are times when I will be far from comfortable and I suspect that actually I’ll be rather drawn to the mentality provoked. Afterwards, I may wish to return to those circumstances which brought about those new and unfamiliar sensations. I have no way of knowing how I will be affected – that would rather defeat the object, wouldn’t it – but I hope that I’m made less inclined to adhere to my comfort zones. There is a lot more out there, I believe. So am I saying that I in fact want to undertake the impossible, the exceedingly dangerous? I’m not interested in breaking records (part of the territory for “professional” adventurers like Mr Beaumont) but I have tried to nurture the existence of the “unknown quantity” in this tour, if such a thing is possible, and leave room as much as possible for those encounters with life that I crave and if unlikely and risky means are implicated in the pursuit of these then bring it on! Within reason! I hope, for it cannot be planned and expected, that this trip will surprise me, that I will surprise me. Six weeks on the road with whisky on the periphery can surely offer up nothing else.

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