Let it be known that I’m at peace – joyful, even. Unfortunately, in order for you to understand why these more positive moods are in residence less than two weeks before the most difficult undertaking of my life so far I must relate some bad news before embarking on an account of Monday’s epic mission through the Scottish capital.
I didn’t mention it in my last post because I had thought that it was only a temporary niggle. However, getting back on the bike in the afternoon to consolidate my intense workout the day before, my knee pain reduced a proposed 25 mile ride by two thirds. Pedalling was agony and unlike with my previous knee grievance, rising from the saddle didn’t help. This wasn’t desirable. I then did what you should never do: I diagnosed myself using the internet. Having read procycling for seven years, I know that cyclists are prone to tendonitis and look: there are all my symptoms. The advice was to rest until all discomfort had vanished. There being rather a lot of discomfort, suddenly my 18 remaining days appeared to be a hopelessly inadequate time frame to get rid of it all and still return to the required fitness level. So severe was the pain and so limited was my information about it I went mentally down hill an awful lot faster than I had toiled up Corby’s Crags a couple of days earlier. “I don’t have time for this to heal… Every time I push the pedals the pain is going to return… How much damage will I do to myself by attempting to live with this injury for 1330 miles?“ Nine months and £2000 looked to be trickling down the drain like wort from the mash tun. I had been doomed before I’d so much as started; my grand claims, my bonded spirit of hopes, were just so much of the Angel’s Share. I simply had not foreseen the chance of an injury, and after more than 300 miles of training I had believed the likelihood of any muscular problems had been progressively pacified.
But contemplating the dissolution of my trip, my whole reason for taking a gap year in the first place, made me realise just how badly I want to do this. I want to cycle that passage from Inverness to Wick past some of the most iconic distilleries; I want to be on that ferry to Orkney; I want to see the Cuillins; I want to spin with unaccustomed ease between the eight densely-packed and legendary distilleries of Islay; I want to board my train home from Barrhill on May 22nd knowing I’ve done something unique; I want to see Scotland. A trip to the osteopath brought wonderful news: “if you had tendonitis, you wouldn’t have been able to do any of the exercises we have just done.” He emphasised taking things more slowly, something that could only benefit and enrich my travels as much as my body. He is right, of course. I still need to enforce the “pootle-along” mode. There are only a couple of critical deadlines on this trip; for the majority of it I should have my head up absorbing the natural splendour that shall surround me. If all I’m concerned with are the figures on my bike computer then it won’t be a very enlightening tour.
I don’t have tendonitis, just a “capsule strain” caused by one over-developed quadricep pulling the knee cap out of alignment. This is easily recovered from and so long as I avoid big gears for long periods of time, I’ll be right as rain.
So it was a positive diagnosis and I was proscribed a set of strengthening exercises. I managed 15 miles on the Friday and had been promised that my reconnaissance plans on the Monday would not exacerbate anything. Provided I didn’t overdo things.
To Edinburgh, then, and with equal amounts of anxiety demanded by this new health-realted threat in addition to the concerns of cycling in a very busy city with expensive, inflexible public transport links on the itinerary, there was even more riding on my experiences yesterday (pardon the pun). Could I do it?
The weather forecast wasn’t good. Monday dawned, right enough, pretty shabbily. I was a whirling dervish of activity as I filled things, stuffed things into other things, dug things out and prepared for this most different of rides. I had every cycling-specific article of clothing with me including leg warmers, overtrousers and hood, and over the course of my day on the banks of the Forth I employed them all. I also brought along the OS map, Multimap directions and camera. Most of these were extracted, sprawled out and shuffled around as I changed into my “real world” disguise of combat trousers and hoodie at the station. Everything was then put back in and I was prepared in all respects besides my actual tickets. The ticket man obliged, but further scrambled my plans when he revealed that there had been an accident on the line between Newcastle and Morpeth and that there would be a delay of at least half an hour.
A little reminder that things don't always go to plan. Indeed, that they don't frequently.
I sat on the platform, inwardly bemoaning how the vagaries of the weather and public transport could conspire to complicate things, and doing a lot of mental arithmetic to work out what time was left me. The bottom line was that it was less than anticipated.
After lugging my equipment up and down my first sets of stairs of the day to reach the other platform, grateful that I have also invested time in preparing my upper body, the rain became heavier. I observed the droplets on my saddle and panniers and thought about still greater concentrations soaking me to the marrow.
Only twenty minutes late, the train arrived, and having been told that Coach D was what I needed for cycle storage, I headed in that direction. Manoeuvring bike into cubby hole was no harder than getting an angry sow into a toaster and a few ominous creaks from mudguards and pannier rack later, there she was ensconced. A fruitless tour of the two adjacent carriages meant I sat in the luggage area for the duration of the journey which at least was quiet and allowed me to scrutinise any would-be bicycle thieves as they passed through in search of the toilets.
I'll know how to store her next time round...
I ate a flapjack and changed back into my cycling gear just as we pulled into Waverley. I waved the hoards of fellow passengers off ahead of me and finally wrestled bike and bags on to the deserted Scottish platform. Another flight of stairs had to be mounted, and yet another gingerly descended before I was in the concourse, the road to Waverley Bridge beside me and a never-ending flood of taxis trundling over it. Cleats on and plastic-walleted instructions in my jacket pocket, I set off.
Immediately I encountered my first hazard with city cycling: pedestrians. Why don’t they look before crossing the road? It can’t hurt. Certainly it can’t hurt more than having a narrow bicycle tyre wedged in their groin.
My next obstacle was one Multimap hadn’t warned me about and came completely by surprise. I continued onto East Market Street from Market Street and was confronted by Roubaix-style cobblestones! Covered in drizzle and oil! Having seen enough Spring Classics crashes, I knew to go slowly.
Road works on Canongate allowed me to revise my route for the first of maybe a dozen times on the way to Pencaitland. “Take the first exit at the roundabout onto Abbeyhill.” The green light winked, I tanked off, made the turn, and was suddenly lost. “Abbeymount?! I want Abbeyhill!” I asked a passing cyclist how I was to get to Abbeyhill. He said I was on it. Not having received any instruction to make the right turn which had brought me into contact with my directional saviour, but confident I was at least in the right area, I retraced my tyre tracks, rejoined what must be the correct road, and came face-to-face with the A1. It was big. Lots of traffic lights for lots of traffic and lots of stress awaited me. I wanted to turn right to head east, but what with all the big buses and bellowing trucks preventing my progress in that direction and yellow paint on the road telling me I couldn’t stop, I carried on, onto the wrong road, swerved into a car park, did a U-turn and came at this paragon of a cyclist-hostile environment from another angle.
At last I was on London Road and despite the traffic lights and buses which I ran a type of relay with for about three miles, it was actually quite straightforward and not as claustrophobic as I’d feared. Did I mention the rain? I don’t think I did. By this stage it was really coming down, I had my hood on and quailed at each pedestrian crossing. The reason for my trepidation were the metal studs used to mark out the limits of the crossing which were all, of course, moist and ready to throw me to the tarmac for the Number 51 to run straight over me.
I also began to appreciate the ineptitude and baffling logic of cycle lane designation and allotment. All of the bus lanes were cycle lanes too, and that was marvellous as long as there were no buses in them. The most exhausting kind of leap-frog ensued when I did have to contend with a truculent double-decker. It would overtake me and pull up at the next stop. I would be forced back into the roaring traffic to get past, only for it to overtake me again 200 metres further on.
Buses stopped baiting me, however, when I reached Musselburgh. This, though, was also when I deviated from the advice of Multimap. I’d just bounced over the River Esk and seen no mention of my hitherto faithful companion, the A199. Instinct said left so I bore left. 500 metres later, though, and just when the cold and wind began to breach my fortifications of adrenaline and I started to feel rather tired, I stopped to double-check. Only the OS map was any use now. Fortunately, it reassured me that I was on the right track, still heading towards Tranent from where I would then dive south to the distillery. By now I was following the banks of the Firth of Forth closely, which was a spectacular blue/grey with a powerstation of sorts a little way off.
I appreciated this view. At last I'd broken free of the city.
I sped over a massive roundabout, enjoyed a generous helping of cycle lane, even if it was pot-holed and sprinkled with broken glass, and suddenly I was in East Lothian and countryside. Once over the A1 I began to dream of days in the saddle with just the fields, forests and mountains for company. The idyll was spoilt slightly by the incessant passing of cars desperate to get to Tranent. Once I arrived myself I wasn’t sure how they could all fit for it wasn’t the biggest of places. I didn’t have long to ponder because frankly I didn’t have long. My stops and starts and wrong turns in the city had cost me and it was getting on for 12:45. The kids were out of school for lunch, something I knew I’d only allow myself once I got to Glenkinchie.
Overshooting a turn-off in Ormiston was the final error. After that the way was highly familiar as I followed the same road we had taken when I visited with my family in September. Rounding a hill beyond Pencaitland, up popped the red-brick smokestack like a beckoning finger and I had at last made it.
Freewheeling into the hollow that hides the distillery, I got my first proof, a validation, of the advantages of travelling whilst open and immersed in the atmosphere. Unlike in September, I smelt straight away the sweet, heady scent of tortured barley and yeast. That made my 18 miles of manic panic worthwhile.
The car park was packed, even on that grey and miserable Monday afternoon. As I dismounted and commenced changing into normal clothes with a frenzy accountable to my bladder breaking to me all at once details of the water it had been retaining, forcing me to contemplate how severe the punishment would be for weeing in the Kinchie Burn, some visitors were returning to their warm, comfortable cars. They weren’t Scottish, either. In fact, I’m not at all sure where they were from but I discerned what must have been “cyclist” and judging by the enthusiasm and earnestness with which they pointed me out to each other, I’m guessing they had enjoyed their Scotch hospitality.
I cycled into the grounds, propped the bike up by the entrance and fled into the toilets. I returned to find it
I would have loved to have tried the tour instead of having time only to snaffle my packed lunch in the chilling drafts outside. I'll be back, though.
fortunately still there. It was then that the fatigue hit me. It was 1:30, I hadn’t had my lunch, I couldn’t do the tour but I had to get back for my 4:08 train. I couldn’t bask in the achievement and significance of having escaped the bustle and anonymous menace of the city and made it to this, the first distillery on my tour and my first re-invocation of that glorious double act of Scotch and Scotland which has inspired this journey in the first place, a distillery that I had been to before but had required other means of transport to reach, and not my own steam. I shovelled in my sandwiches and cake, asked a few practical questions of the receptionist regarding what I was to do with bike and panniers when I returned in a fortnight’s time, took the picture you can see on the right and went back to Edinburgh.
I’m not sure why I fretted over the possibility of a blow-out on the return leg. I flew back at an average speed of 15 mph which gave me enough time to change again, buy a fizzy drink and a chocolate bar and collapse on to the train.
A word on that clothing transition period, though. I would not recommend it as a method of meeting women. Propped up against one of Waverley’s mighty green pillars, just beside WH Smith’s, I set about taking things off and putting other things on and trying to remember the sequence for both. With clothing spilling out of rucksack and panniers, I looked like a brightly-coloured, sweaty refugee who, despite probably having lost his village and most of his family to natural disaster or war, had kept in mind the dress code for the more stereotypical gay bars if all the Lycra was anything to go by. The future Mrs Saxon, perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t make herself known.
I had a seat on this train, but while we were stationary I didn’t use it properly. I’d stored my bike correctly this time (suspended by the front wheel from a hook on the ceiling) but due to the open door which streams of folk were using to alight on to the train, it was on full view of the platform. Slurping Lucozade, I suspected every commuter of kleptomania. My eyeballs didn’t return to their normal orientation until the doors had been locked and I was speeding back to south of the border, reflecting how two weeks’ later I’d be on a train taking me further north to Stirling and what I feel is the more authentic beginning of my Scotch odyssey.
I cannot express how contented my day made me feel, so as this post is long enough already I shall simply say that it was the very best thing I could have done. I know my route; I know how long it will take me; I know the practicalities of train and bike travel, and I know that rain is no dampner.
I also know that for the next two weeks I need to carefully control the intensity of my training. My efforts of Monday did incite a flare-up of pain and swelling, although not on the level of last week. Another treatment at the osteopath has assured me that it is preventable and manageable and this whisky journey need not be jeopardised. This is simply terrific, because I’m quickly coming to grasp what potential it has.
Ardbeg 10-year-old 46% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)
Colour: Pale and faintly luminous sandy gold.
Nose: (FS) Intense lemon marmalade sweetness sits between tarry rope and seaweed. Light creamy malt on a very strong, dry and thick peat floor. Smooth and gentle, though self-evident, maritime character. Carbolic soap. Floral, honeyed, with a diesel note. (WW) Sweet heathery smoke but still the seaweed and wamr, clear sea water remind you this is Islay. Shellfish. Pencil sharpenings. So open and expansive. A brewing summer storm on the beach.
Palate: Spicy, malty and fruity with very dry, rich and spiky peat. Fabulous exchange between oily tar, peat and smoke and biscuity malt and fruit. So complex.
Finish: Lemon bon-bons eaten by the fire. Hevay – huge! Beach bonfire ash. maram grass. Delicate smoke and engine oil float about. Heathery. Charred cask with spoonfuls of syrupy vanilla. Stupendous.
Glenmorangie Lasanta 46%
Colour: Full, glowing amber orange with bright copper highlights.
Nose: (FS) Intensely soft and smooth Sherry. Drying firmness hehind this of dark, “green” peatiness. Very fresh and spicy wit a creamy nuttiness. Rather oppulent and sumptuous. Complex. (WW) Lighter with more sustained barley sugar sweetness. Marzipan-style oakiness: thick and sweet. Lots of creamy caramel toffee.
Palate: Firm, dark and spicy with lots of dark chocolate, delicate though extremely rich peat and slivers of oak. Nutty. Soft, chewy malt with sticky and sweet dried fruits and toffee.
Finish: Warmth and with very rich, sweet depths. Spongy rubberiness obstructs some of the finer wood notes. Dark heather honey, earthy and with sticky malt. Creamily nutty again.
Arran 10-year-old 46%
Colour: Very clean, pale and soft gold. Champagne.
Nose: (FS) Dry, authoritative oakiness and rich, honeyed, biscuity malt. Heathery with rounded fruit notes. Humid and pungent cereals, underneath which is an appetizing, dry and rich earthiness. Spicy. Chunky and powerful. (WW) Lighter, smoother and a touch sweeter. Jam-filled sponges and pastries. A more inviting firmness and excellent subtle spice. Dark, peaty notes meld well with older oak flavours.The whole thing has real energy and clout.
Palate: Very spicy and firm yet retains a teasing softness. Fruity at first then rich caramel and chocolatey barley. Full and rounded with heathery peat notes.
Finish: Stewed fruit and plain chocolate. Firm, medium-dry oak a principal flavour. Heather honey. Some extra citrus and spice. Smooth with lovely barley grain richness and depth.