Aim for the Impossible - Part Two
Saturday March 26, 2022
Saturday night, or to be more precise, 2 am Sunday morning, sees the start of British Summer time as we put the clocks forward an hour. Of course, I’m sure, like myself, everyone will be putting their clocks forward before going to bed tonight. Have you ever been confused as to whether we put the clocks forwards or backwards? I always remember by thinking that you “spring forwards” and “fall backwards.”
We certainly are having an early start to the summer up here in Scotland and have already just had a couple of days that could even be described as hot. Taking advantage of the fine weather forecast, on Sunday we have planned to take Evie the Campervan out to the lovely Trossachs Holiday Park just outside Aberfoyle for our first trip of the year, so Saturday had to be my cycling day this week.
Remember in the first part of my Aim for the Impossible blog I spoke about my love of maps? Well, this week I’ve been studying my maps, in conjunction with the AA route finder online, to double check the mileage. I know there will be easier ways to plot a route, but this is how I like to do it. I also have four or five great little cycling books that suggest routes which follow quiet roads and the fabulous Sustrans’ books that follow their cycle routes. These are a perfect size to pop into your back pocket on your trips in case you need a little reminder of the route on your way.
Sustrans is a UK charity for sustainable transport with their aim to create projects that enable people to choose to travel in ways to benefit both health and the environment. This includes creating the National Cycle Network, involving cycle routes I’ve had the pleasure of using on various occasions on my cycles across Scotland. The routes try to follow dedicated cycle paths, quiet and minor roads and are very clearly signposted by the distinctive blue signs indicating the route number and direction.
There is an epic Route 7 that takes you all the way from Carlisle right up to Inverness, with the majority of the route following a dedicated cycle way or very minor roads. This Route 7 passes not a million miles from us at Kirkintilloch on its journey from Glasgow to Aberfoyle, talking in Balloch and Drymen. I wondered if I could do a bit of a trip around the Campsie fells, out to Drymen where I could the pickup the Route 7 to then head back the way to Balloch, before taking the relaxing, trundling train to Glasgow. With my maps and computer, I set myself a route that would be very similar in miles to last week’s route along Loch Lomond, but with a couple of big hills to test my legs.
Saturday morning arrived, but not so early as last week as I didn’t need to catch an early train, only needing the assistance of train travel for my journey home. Mr M, as always, made my porridge and added a piece of toast with homemade raspberry jam to my breakfast today because, in his words, I deserve it. Spoiled, spoiled, spoiled, I know! Butties, flask of tea and extra provisions packed, I was ready.
Today was a day of firsts as it was my first trip out this year without my trusty thermal long-johns. Would it be a mistake or would, as I hoped, the sun break through the clouds to give another hot, sunny day. Another first was that there was no spare jacket but I always have my waterproof jacket as a standby should I get cold. I had my hands cuddled into my woolly gloves though as there was a definite nip to the air and it can be cold going over the hills first thing in the morning.
Just after 9 am I left home and headed out of Kirkintilloch, passing over the canal bridge, then taking the road out towards Milton of Campsie. Already the sun had started to wake up and I wondered how long I’d be able to stand my gloves. This road out to Milton of Campsie and then Lennoxtown gives a gentle start to the cycle, with just a couple of rises to get your legs warmed up with a bit of out of saddle riding. The gloves of course, came off as I cycled along this road in the sunshine.
When I’m out cycling, hilly routes are more pleasurable than flat, canal paths. On a flat route you barely need to get out of the saddle which on a long ride can easily result in some severe saddle sores. Trust me, this is not pleasant. Even with well-padded shorts, it’s taken a little while for me to re-shape my bottom to fit my saddle again. With hilly rides you can get up out of the saddle giving your bits and pieces a rest. So now you know, if you pass a cyclist who looks to be wiggling their bum at you, they’re probably just getting a bit of relief from their saddle.
Once through Lennoxtown, you take a right, following the sign for Campsie Fells. This is a bit of a challenge with a steep S-bend as you pass the Campsie golf club. It’s certainly bottom gear and out of the saddle for this section. I was hoping there’d be no cars behind me at this point because the road is too wiggly for them to safely pass you so you feel you have to try that bit harder to get around the S-bend a little faster. Going around the S-bend a little faster is not really within my capabilities at the moment!
Thankfully, there were no cars, but several other cyclists who were obviously far fitter than myself and not carrying all the extra weight I am. There was a moment when I felt very disheartened remembering the times it would have been me passing slow moving cyclists. But I gave myself a talking to, reminding myself that I’m now in a different phase of my life and would never really be the fit svelte-like cyclist I used to be but I will soon be fit enough once more to enjoy my cycling rather than struggling along a ride.
After the S-bend, the gradient eases and it’s a steady climb as you work your way up the Crow Road to the Carpark in the Sky at Campsie Glen above Clachan of Campsie. The views start to open up now as you look down on Lennoxtown and Clachan of Campsie on your left with the Campsie Fells building on your right.
It was certainly a good move taking the woolly gloves off earlier as already the sun was shining down on me and my bare hands were getting sweaty on the handlebars, to say nothing of the sweat now starting to roll down the back of my neck! All the way up I enjoyed the sound of the birds signing and the sheep with their new lambs enjoying the morning sunshine.
It’s one of those things about the hills you cycle, no matter how often you cycle them, they never seem to get any easier, you just get quicker climbing them. Today was a sign that my fitness is slowly but surely starting to make a re-appearance because I found the climb to my first stop at the car park very tough but realised I’d cycled up the hill much quicker than a couple of weeks ago. A sign that my road to fitness still has a long way to go is that I did find myself needing a well-earned rest to sit on the wall at the carpark. My next aim will be to get up that section without a rest at the carpark.
This is the carpark where the hike up over the Campsie fells begins. As I sat there eating a banana and having a drink of my juice, I smiled to myself looking up the hill remembering all my many different hikes up there in many equally different weather conditions. Relaxing in the sunshine and the calmness today, it was difficult to imagine the times up there when I found myself thigh-high in snow.
Setting off again I think this next mile or so is as hard as the S-bend at the bottom of the hill. In a car, it doesn’t look much of gradients at all, but believe me, it’s tough going until you reach the top of this section when road levels out and you’re able to do your first bit of freewheeling. To your right you get the splendid view of the path leading down from the hills that you’d follow doing a circular walk over the Campsie Fells. Many times, I’ve sat at the top of that hill looking down at the road wishing I had a bike at the bottom to get myself back to the carpark rather than the long mile or so walk down that same road I’d just struggled up on my bike today.
Now the ride takes on a different feel. The views are impressive, looking out towards the hill of Meikle Bin and towards the Carron Valley. Passing a sign indicating you’re leaving East Dunbartonshire and entering Stirlingshire, you get a feeling that civilisation is being left behind, despite only having cycled a few miles from home.
Before you know it, you’re fastening up your jacket ready for the long descent to Fintry. Of course, years ago before all this fancy Gortex cycling gear we have now, we used to carry old newspapers in our back pockets to put down the front of our jerseys on a long descent and put plastic bags over our socks in our shoes because overshoes had not yet been invented.
It’s a long descent with long straight sections mixed with a few wiggly windy bits, all equally hair-raising as you try to avoid hitting the biggest of the potholes at speed, whilst trying to see out of eyes that are now watering with the chilly wind blowing at you. No matter what the weather, there always seems to be a wind blowing as you descend into the valley below on this road.
My favourite part of the descent has to be as you round one of the bends and there in front of you, weather permitting, is the amazing view of the Trossachs spreading out before you, Ben Lomond taking centre stage. Today only the very tips of the mountains were snow covered. Who needs to travel abroad when you have views like this upon your doorstep?
The road now levels for a while, give or take a couple of short rises, taking you through the pretty village of Fintry. Mr M and I have often stopped here and rested awhile on a bench next to the red post box, admiring the potted flowers dotted around as we refuel with a cuppa and a buttie. How amazing it was when on a cycle tour away up the North of Scotland Mr M and I were chatting to lady who said she though we looked familiar. For one reason or another, we were telling her about our trips around Fintry and how we were so impressed with the tidy bench and flowers. Low and behold, was this not the lady who tended that bench and those flowers. Small world indeed.
A couple of weeks ago on one of my cycle rides I was a little worried when I saw the road out of Fintry was closed and a detour in place taking you around through Balfron. Today I had actually planned to take this little road as my chosen route. It’s a great little detour with very little traffic and with a little rise at the start, gives you some lovely views of the valley below. Today I stopped to look at the sheep tending their young lambs who were already jumping about telling us that spring really is here.
Once I’d reached Balfron, I had a chat with a friendly couple packing their car for their holidays. I knew I could take a further detour up to Balfron Station before joining the main A81 towards Aberfoyle but just needed pointing in the right direction.
Sadly, Balfron Station is no longer a train station. At one time the railway line ran through Balfron Station coming from Balloch and then towards Stirling but closed in the 1950s. It must have been a wonderful sight to see in times gone by when, being about two miles from the actual village of Balfron, passengers and goods had to be transported by horse and cart to and from the station to the village. Balfron Station is now a hamlet on the site of the former station. How sad it is that all these wonderful railway lines are no more. Beeching still has a great deal to answer for in my eyes!
But with the expert directions of the lovely couple, I was soon whizzing my way through Balfron Station. They had warned me that it was a tricky T-junction with a right-hand turn to join the main A81, calling, “Watch out for the speeding cars”, as I cycled away from them. Fortunately, I was able to jump across the junction without too much trouble, thanks to the friendly car driver who saw me at the junction and slowed to let me out. It reminded me that, yes there are terrible drivers, just like there are irresponsible cyclists, but there are far more courteous drivers around.
Very soon I was able to leave the main A81 with a left-hand junction onto the A811 towards Drymen. Although this is not such a main road, it was busier than the A81 I’d just left, with some blind summits and yes, I was overtaken by cars a number of times on these blind summits. My heart was in my mouth on a couple of occasions!
I was feeling so fit today that I was already planning to sweet-talk the lovely Mr M to letting me cycle to the Trossachs Holiday park tomorrow with him driving Evie the Campervan and Beatrix the collie, and then allowing me to cycle home again on the Tuesday. That way, I’d be keeping my legs moving on the bike and getting extra miles in.
Arriving at the sleepy village of Drymen, I was pleased to see that the village green had an array of benches, all sitting in the sunshine waiting to be used by weary travellers. The village of Drymen sits right on the cycle Route 7 but is also one of the first stops for those walking the West Highland Way.
The West Highland Way is a 96-mile long-distance walking route from Milngavie to Fort William. The trail was opened in 1980 and was Scotland’s first official long-distance route and is, quite rightly, designated as one of Scotland’s Great Trails. When I think about the West Highland Way (that I have still to tackle one day) I’m always reminded of the lovely Gus, one of customers from the tearoom who was one of the first people to undertake this route and has himself been drafting a short book on his adventures on this trial. I’m looking forward to him publishing this and then perhaps I’ll tackle the trail with the knowledge I have Gus’s guidance with me on my walk.
Watching a couple of already weary-looking walkers plonk themselves on one of the benches, almost throwing their ridiculously large rucksacks on the ground my feet were hurting for them. Perhaps they were just getting into their walk and had yet to find their stride. By the time they’ve had a couple more days walking they’ll have tougher feet and may have ditched some unnecessary weight in their rucksack, a bit like Cheryl Strayed in the book and film, Wild.
I found myself my own bench, lay out my picnic blanket and pulled out my flask of tea, butties and treats. The route to Balloch from here is a mere nine miles so I was going to allow myself an hour for lunch, sitting in the sunshine and watching the world go by, as well as enjoying a piece of Ellie’s Apricot and Ginger Cake.
As I relaxed, I watched children and their parents flocking around a group of donkeys who’d been brought to the village green to enjoy the green grass for their lunch (the donkeys not the children!). It really was a pleasant sight reminiscent of a 1950’s summertime with village greens full of people, chatter and laughter. It was only spoiled a little when a lady shouted, “Enjoy it while it lasts. Snow is on its way next week.”
It was a reminder that it was still only March. I recall well my Scottish Grandma regularly saying, “Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May be out,” which could be simply translated as “don’t take off your winter clothing until the end of May.” Never a wiser word said!
It was great to see a village embracing the different people passing through for assorted reasons and providing free access to what could be a vital service for somebody in need. There was a water station for you to replenish your drink bottle and a station where you could pump up your tyres on your bike/pram/wheelchair. There was also a set of spanners and tools hanging there to be used, along with a place for you to re-charge your mobile phones.
Refuelled and rested, I cross the quiet road to pick up the Route 7 to head out to Balloch, with sign indicating it was a mere nine miles of a cycle. Just short of two miles out of Drymen, the cycle route leaves the road at a Sustrans statue and begins a wonderful stretch on a cycle way. I was a little surprised to see the sign showed it was still nine miles to Balloch!
Before too long I was alarmed when I saw in front of me a narrow looking bridge I needed to cross, with a sign warning cyclists to dismount. Can I just say here that there was no way I was even going to attempt to cycle across this scary looking bridge. I was pleasantly surprised and reassured once on the bridge that it was very solid and with high sides, there were no fear of me falling into the Endrick Water below me.
I stopped halfway across to watch the river rolling gently below me. I noticed how clear the water looked and was quite excited to see a giant fish swimming around. Whether it was a trout or salmon I’m not too sure, but I thought it would be nice to take a photo to show Mr M so he could feel part of my journey today and I also knew he’d be pleased to see that the fishing seasons was here and waiting for him. Fumbling about in my jacket to get my phone out, I could only watch in amazement as a large bird swept down and plucked the said fish from the water and disappeared into the distance with the fish in its beak. I’ve heard of anglers saying, “It was that big,” about the fish that got away, but never thought I’d see the day when I had to say this about the fish I never got chance to get a photo of.
Actually, I have on numerous occasions been heard to say, “It was that big,” when describing the giant spiders that have trapped me in different rooms when there has been nobody to rescue me. Arachnophobia is no laughing matter I can tell you.
Very soon, the route re-joins the road but it’s a very minor, almost single-track. This section really is sublime. Virtually free of traffic, it rolls up and down the countryside testing your thighs in places but never really causing any considerable effort. You can tell you’re nearing the end of your journey when the road starts to descend seriously, with the comforting knowledge Balloch is now within touching distance.
Finally, the route takes you into the top of Balloch Country Park for a short ride down to Balloch and the train station, giving you a brief glimpse of Loch Lomond, but you need to take a little detour further into the country park to see more of the Loch.
That had to be the longest nine miles of the day, but very enjoyable and invigorating. My legs were telling me they’d worked hard today and I was looking forward to the relaxing train journey back to Glasgow, then Croy, finishing with the five-mile cycle from the station to home.
Now usually I’m singing the praises of train travel but today was not a good train day!
It all started at Balloch Station. A train had already been cancelled due to trespassers on the line, so by the time I arrived at the small station it was already full of people awaiting the next train, including around six or seven other cyclists and their bikes. This was going to be fun!
We cyclists had a bit of a ‘discussion’ with somebody who had decided she wanted to sit in the space dedicated for cycle storage, but finally we persuaded her that she could sit in a seat nearby and free the bike space for, well, bikes!
In addition to being full of cyclists and their bikes, the train was full of very young teenagers openly drinking out of bottles of lurid looking blue, red and green alcoholic drinks, who were now obviously feeling the effects of the alcohol.
Behind me another person was playing his music at high volume, including hits such as American Pie and he clearly felt it was his duty to sing along to this at the top of his voice – which did not at all blend in with Don McLean’s dulcet tones.
Once everyone was settled however, the train trundled, stopped and trundled before finally halting at Dalmuir Station. We were all advised this train would be going no further and we should all disembark and catch the next train at the station to wherever we wished to go. Except the doors of the carriages were locked, so now the drunken teenagers, singing man and a bunch of cyclists could do nothing but await a frazzled-looking guard to eventually arrive and manually open the doors for us.
Hurray, I thought, just a hop over the platform (via the lift of course) to catch the train sitting there waiting to leave for Glasgow and then the Balloch train could be cast into the back of my memory for ever.
But worse was to come. As I pressed the luminated button to open the doors of the next train I was hit by a haze of what I can only describe as drug-filled warm air pouring out of the carriage. Thankfully, perhaps due to the drugs I was now inhaling, the journey passed fairly quickly and I was soon in Glasgow Queen Street Station awaiting the train to Croy.
No calamities on this train and I was soon cycling the last five miles home.
All thoughts of cycling to Aberfoyle the following day were firmly cast aside as I locked my bike away, did a strip down putting everything I could in the washing machine before jumping into the shower to scrub myself clean.
Peace and normality were restored when Mr M served up sausage and mash followed by a ridiculously generous portion of Freda’s Apple Crumble and Ice Cream.
A good day though, with more miles cycled, probably around the forty mark, and no apparent lasting damage from the train journey and drugs I’d inhaled, but my next cycling day’s planning can wait a few days as I enjoy a couple of days away with Mr M, Beatrix and Evie the Campervan.
I hope you enjoyed this next episode of my impossible aim. Please leave me a comment and sign up to our newsletter so you never miss any of our blogs and news.