Monday, March 10, 2014

Scotland 2013: Islay to London

After almost two weeks in Scotland, I was simultaneously becoming burned out on distillery tours (you can only see so many mash tuns before they start blurring together) and lack of familiar faces. My original plan had been to ride from Islay to Oban, then up to Mull, before heading back to Glasgow. However, a number of my friends had recently moved to London, which gave me a great excuse to change those plans.

The most amazing part of this was my ability to turn on a dime - I was able to cancel both of my B&B reservations by email (which thankfully didn't incur any charges) and book tickets from Glasgow to London via Scotrail, all while poking at my iPhone in my room in Ballygrant.

I was a little bit scared by my new plan - it required linking together three stretches of biking, three ferries, and two trains with a fairly small amount of time in between each.

The very nice dog who kept my bike company at the Ballygrant Inn
Thankfully I was able to settle my bill the night before and arrange to have a few sandwiches made up for me, which were left at the front desk with my bike for me to pick up in the morning. The ferry left Port Askaig, about four miles away, at 7 AM sharp, so I was up and out the door by 6:30. Thankfully it wasn't doing much more than sprinkling while I pushed down the road in the pre-dawn darkness, carefully easing down the steep descent to the ferry terminal. Thankfully I made it with a bit of time to spare and purchased tickets for the three legs of my journey that would be provided by CalMac.

After securing my bike on the car deck, I trooped upstairs for a hot Scottish breakfast. I had a couple of hours to relax and let the calories work their way into my body as I prepared for the next part of my trip. The sun was up but the rain had set in by the time I rolled off the ferry at Kennacraig. It was a fairly short hop to my next destination of Claonaig, but it required going over the hilly spine of the Kintyre Peninsula. I was fairly energized from breakfast, but the hills presented something of a grind, especially since I was quickly soaked by the rain. The descents were also a bit worrying, since I was never quite sure how well my brakes would work, but I eventually found myself at the tiny landing at Claonaig and was able to sit down and rest in a shelter for half an hour or so. The ferry eventually emerged from the mist and pulled in to shore, so I was once again able to lash my bike to the deck and hunker down inside.

This was the reverse of the trip I had taken a little over a week before and the passage was thankfully just as swift. We soon docked at Lochranza, where I threw on some extra rain gear and prepared myself for the longest ride of the day. I was sad to have to pass by the Arran Distillery as I would have loved to stop by for a dram, but I was more than a little worried about making the next ferry as I knew how much work it had been going the other direction.

Something tells me they don't understand the full meaning of that flag
It didn't take long after hitting the first big hill above Lochranza to start feeling how much I had lost over the last few days of being sick and not eating enough. My legs just didn't have the oomph that I had started the trip with, which made the going even harder. Near the crest, I ended up slowing down to chat with a Frenchman who was walking the same route that I was taking. We had a good talk, but eventually I had to press on. It was an absolute relief to start descending into North Sannox Burn as I knew the going would be much easier from then on. The road was almost entirely flat as I hit the coast again, which was made all the better by the rain letting up. I stopped to shed my rain gear and continue on. As I got closer to Brodick, it became a race as I could see one ferry leaving the dock and the one I wanted to catch coming in. I reached the dock with a huge sense of relief as the ferry was pulling in just as I rolled into the town.

The downside was that it was also running a bit late. I knew I had to arrive at Ardrossan on time to catch the train I wanted back to Glasgow, so I grew increasingly anxious as the minutes drew on. I was also fairly wiped out from pushing so hard across Islay, so I was very thankfully to get a bowl of mac & cheese on the ferry to refuel. After that I unceremoniously flopped on a comfy bench to wait out the rest of the trip.

I was itching to get off the ferry as soon as we touched the dock, as there were only a few minutes left by my reckoning to catch the next train. I dashed to the station, but no luck. I was somewhat crestfallen, as the subsequent train would not arrive for nearly an hour. However, this made me extremely thankful that I had been unable to reserve a spot in the baggage car for my bike on an earlier London-bound train from Glasgow, which gave me an extra hour of wiggle room. Eventually the Glasgow-bound train did arrive and I was able to get on my way. I was once again somewhat anxious, as I knew this would not give me a lot of time to get off the train, get my ticket, and get on the train to London when I arrived at Glasgow Central. It was also slowed down by the fact that ticketing had been impossible on the train to Glasgow, so I was slowed by having to pay at the station behind everyone else who was also trying to get on their way. Thankfully I was able to get my ticket printed and find my Virgin Train with a few minutes to spare.

It was finally possible for me to relax a bit. I had done the nearly impossible and it was just a matter of waiting. I ponied up for internet access on the train, which let me get in touch with my friends in London to let them know that I was on my way and to pass the time while the Scottish and English countryside slipped by.

I finally got into London a bit after sunset, then set out to navigate the London streets to find my friend's apartment. It was a little disconcerting to be surrounded by so many cars and people after more than a week in the Scottish islands, but I successfully found where I needed to go. After a bit of texting and a much-needed shower, the motley collection of folks all trooped off for late night Japanese food. I had a full day of London ahead of me, so sleep was not too long in coming after dinner.

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