Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Cycle trip 4: Aberdeen to Kintore

Date: 21st April 2012
Length of route: 33.5 miles/53.9km
Route: Old Aberdeen-Bucksburn-Dyce-Blackburn-Kintore
Difficulty level: Medium

As I was doing some volunteering in Kintore this weekend, but had planned to do another cycle ride for some time, I decided to make the journey to Kintore by bicycle, as there are plenty of back country lanes along the way begging to be ridden on the bike. I started out as usual by leaving Old Aberdeen and taking the National Cycle Route 1 towards Dyce, which avoids most of the busy traffic, but involves a few slightly rough roads - although the off-road sections nearer to the airport are pleasant and smooth, and avoid the unpleasantries of the roundabout in the vicinity.

After going down by Dyce train station (for the airport), I turn onto the Fomartine and Buchan Way former railway for a short way before turning off onto the Pitmedden Road. Initially, this is a rough unpleasant road passing through an industrial estate, but as you come to the junction and cross over to continue on the same road, things quieten down and the vistas of the countryside start to open up, although there is a reasonable bit of climbing initially - although that simply means a great downhill on the way back. I passed a few fellow cyclists, but very few cars, on the way, all of whom nodded or acknowledged me - one of the pleasanter aspects of cycling, a bit like the greeters you meet traditionally on hiking trails.

As I was going along the back trails, I was intrigued to see an old railway carriage turned into a shed at one of the farms - it looked very old, and as the owner of the farm saw me photographing it, she informed me that it was very old, probably 1950's and that it was probably 'held together by paint'! An intriguing thing to be sure, and something you most likely wouldn't see as you go by in the car, although not many cars pass this way due to the narrowness of the path, making it perfect for cyclists.

Kintore itself is a very pleasant little town/village, with all the local produce and amenities you would expect in such an area - I had lunch in one of the local cafe's, a nice but rather salty chicken and leek soup. At the end of the day, I had the cycle back the same way I had come to look forward to, which actually involves an even nastier climb back up, thanks to the thrilling downhill I had taken on the way out. It was this that made me rank the ride overall as of medium difficulty, as the hill was not welcome at the end of the day, although I'm still thankful I was doing it on the new lighter bike rather than the heavier yellow bike - even if it did get rather wet! As I am wont to do, I made a couple of diversions on the way back, to see the runway lights of the airport, and also to see the old Dyce churchyard and some ancient monumental stones (which I didn't find, but were supposedly signposted that way). Nevertheless, this resulted in an overall milage of 33.5 miles - not bad for a day of cycling AND volunteering, but one that I slightly regretted the next day with the tiredness I felt... All in all though, apart from the rain on the way out, a pleasant and successful cycle ride, and easily the most ambitious I have yet undertaken in this area.

For full route information: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/fullscreen/85591411/

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

New brakes

Despite being only six months old, I was having problems with the front brake on my yellow bike, as it seemed to be stiff and wasn't braking effectively at all, despite having just fitted brand new brake pads and riding in dry weather. As such, I took it in to the bike shop to have it seen to, with the conclusion that the brakes were quite cheap and needed replacing. Since I mainly used the front brake, and to have both replaced would have been quite costly, I decided to have the front brake replaced and fitted, with the option of having the rear brake done at some future time. As you can see, the new brake looks considerably better quality than the old:


The new brake looks so good in fact, that it makes the brakes on my more expensive road bike look cheap. Nevertheless, the brakes on my new bike are more effective, as they have a very short drop, where-as the yellow bike requires brakes with a long drop, which inevitably compromises a little braking power. Still, it makes one wonder how my new bike would perform if I chose branded brakes for that at some future time. The world of bike customisation appears almost endless...

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Scottish Highlands trip: Day three - Corpach-Fort William-Inverness

Today was our last day, and we had a bit of time to spare in-between checking out of the hostel and our bus back to Inverness, we decided to use the time to do a bit of walking. Corpach, the village where we were staying, forms part of the Great Glen Way, the hiking trail from Fort William to Inverness. Since the part of the trail from Corpach leads all the way to the bus station in the centre of town, we decided to do that instead of taking the bus.

The beginning of the trail leads you past the tiny railway station in Corpach and out on to the water front, which on a clear day, affords an excellent view of Ben Nevis in the distance, with its snow caps gleaming. Luckily for us, the sun decided to come out as we started walking. After a short while, the track leads through a small foresty section onto what feels like a seafront, reminding you how close to the sea you actually are in Fort William, even though you can't see it.

Eventually, the route joins up with the road again for a short way, before bypassing a small island and then crossing over a railway bridge to lead you back towards town. As you go along the field, remains of an old castle can be seen on the left, reminding you that this was once Fort country held by the Romans many years ago. Although Fort William is obviously more residential now than anything else, it's tranquil location allows your imagination to wander back to those times with ease, and it is easy to get the impression that very little has changed in these parts for hundreds of years.

All in all, I can say that Fort William is my favourite part of Scotland that I have seen so far, hands down. The peace and tranquillity of the location, combined with the almost complete lack of modernity makes Fort William a very appealing spot for getting away from it all, and I most definitely intend to return before my time in Scotland is done.

Scottish Highlands trip: Day two - Inverness to Fort William

We had to be up early for the journey to Fort William for our bus at 8:45am - as we were all still tired, we struggled to stay awake on the bus, but it was worth it for the scenic journal and picturesque views. The road from Inverness to Fort William follows the Great Glen Way, a walking and cycling trail taking in Fort Augustus and going alongside the famous Caledonian Canal, designed by Thomas Telford, for a considerable way.

Although Fort William itself is not a beautifully picturesque town, it is a pleasant and charming place on the solitary High Street. Clearly though, it's majesty lies in its location. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by unspoiled countryside and soaring mountains, not least of which is Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK at 1344m. It is truly a delight to be here, away from the mass populated and urban settlements of much of the rest of the UK. After arrival, we went to check in to our hostel, but as the check-in was not until 4:30pm (rather late, we thought), we left some of our things and went back into town.

Whilst in town, we ate dinner, then decided to go for a walk. At the back of the leisure centre in Fort William is the start of the hiking trail that leads up to Glen Nevis, Ben Nevis's little brother. Climbing swiftly, it is a wonderful little trail that affords some stunning views, in particular from a large painted Scottish flag on the ground. We spent some time here taking photos until the rain began to come down (again) and we headed downhill and took the bus back to our resting place for the night.

As we couldn't find anywhere reasonably priced to stay in the centre of town, we had booked a room in a cosy little cottage called Farr Cottage in a small village outside Fort William known as Corpach. As it turned out, this was an ideal place to stay whilst in the countryside, with it's own conservatory, bar and games to play and situated nicely on the edge of the river, it was extremely comfortable and welcoming. Particularly at night, when we were all playing games together in the back without a sound to be heard outside, you could almost convince yourself that you were in a ranch out in the American countryside. Such escapism from life as this is hard to find and I genuinely hope this little place retains its character in the future. I for one will definitely be returning, as I still intend to do the train journey from Fort William to Mallaig - now famous as the railway featured in the Harry Potter movies, but known long before this as one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world.

Scottish Highlands trip: Day one - Aberdeen to Inverness

It was decided before the Easter holidays that I, along with some of my classmates, would go on a trip together around the Scottish Highlands, taking in Inverness and Fort William, before the start of the new term. For the first day, we travelled to Inverness from Aberdeen using the Megabus coach service - costing just £1 each way, making travel very cheap and comfortable, although quite long - 4 hours in all to travel the 105 miles of the route.

Inverness is, essentially, the cultural capital of the Highlands, where most of the residents of the region to come down and do their shopping when looking for something a little more than food essentials and when wanting to experience some level of city life and human connections. Although not a large city, Inverness is the largest city of note in the north of Scotland, and is where the cultural life and commercial bustle meet.

Having said that, it certainly isn't overwhelming, and provides a nice, gentle introduction in the ways of Highland life, set as it is on the scenic Loch Ness with snow-capped mountains in the distance. As a starting point for our exploration of the city, we took a walk to the Ness islands, roughly a half walk from the city centre. These islands are really beautiful, full of green trees and swirling brooks, each very small and connected by a series of quaint Victorian bridges. I imagine it would be wonderful to walk there at night when it is lit up, although I'm not sure I'd be so confident to try it!

After our walk, we headed back to our hostel for dinner, which was located just up from the castle on the hilltop. This made for a very nice location, as our room was at the top and looked out over the lake and the surrounding countryside - very peaceful. After dinner, we were planning to go to Hootenanny's, the popular live music bar in these parts, but as everyone was tired we just decided to stay in the cosy living room of the hostel and chat over a few drinks - after which we retired to bed, looking forward to the journey to Fort William tomorrow! I'm not sure about the rest of the group, but it would be my first time there, and I was really looking forward to it.