Cycling around Scotland's longest loch: Loch Awe
- Recommended for:
- Activity, Short Break, Mid-range
Enjoy the solitude of Loch Awe's single track road, stand in the spot where Scotland's first king was inaugurated and stay in a gourmet Bed and Breakfast with views of ancient standing stones
The historic stronghold of Clan Campbell, Loch Awe, is 41km long and is ringed by a quiet road that is perfect for cycling. Birdsong, forests and gazing out on the blue expanse of the loch are the delights of this journey. The halfway point, Kilmartin, has Scotland's highest concentration of ancient monuments, some 350. The road along the eastern shore is best described as undulating and gentle. The west shore road has several tough climbs that will require a reasonable level of fitness.
Day one: Dalmally to Kilmartin, 61km
At Dalmally station I was the only person to get off the train. I love that moment when the train pulls away leaving me all alone with the first silence since leaving the city. This station is a wonderful relic from the golden age of steam with a red sandstone building, glass canopy and granite heron. It once housed the "Duke's Room" for the exclusive use of the Duke of Argyll to wait for his train. Nowadays, it is all boarded up with a station clock frozen at five past four and no sign of life.
I took off on my bicycle and arrived at Kilchurn Castle (free, 4km west of Dalmally off the A85, www.kilchurncastle.com), renowned for being one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. Mist and rain suits castles, don't you think? When the rain cleared I got the best treat ever - the greatest rainbow I have seen in a long time.
As soon as I hit the B840 road that flirts with Loch Awe's eastern shore it was all nature and peace. I passed a red phone box in splendid isolation right by the shore; surely one of the most scenic places to call mum from. I spotted several frogs crossing the road and halted to get a closer look at their distinctive markings.
A lone sheep suddenly appeared in front and galloped ahead of me for several yards before getting spooked and finding a gap in the fence.
I loved the simple pleasure of stopping by waterfalls to sit for a few minutes to be mesmerised by the sound and entranced by the way the water cascades over the rocks.
There is very little in the way of human settlement here and the very last place where you can get a cup of tea is the Portsonachan Hotel (15km from Dalmally). I was the only customer and had the conservatory with loch views all to myself. The solitary member of staff recognised my need for calories and surprised me with a piece of homemade shortbread.
I asked her about the unique tables in the lounge, featuring bronze sculptures of animals. I really liked the hippo dining table with the face of the animal resting on the glass top and the rest of the body underneath. These are designed by Mark Stoddart, a Scotsman with international appeal. If you ask nicely the hotel will give you a free calendar of his work.
On the outskirts of Kilmartin I climbed the spiral staircase for the tower views from Carnasserie Castle (free, off the A816, www.rampantscotland.com/visit/blvisitcarn.htm). This was the 16th century home of John Carswell who published the first book in Scottish Gaelic. This is how all good ruined castles should be; plenty of passages, doorways and staircases to explore.
My home for the night was Dunchraigaig House Bed and Breakfast (from £37 for a double). I also booked an evening meal (£19.50, not available in peak summer season) and what appeared before me was fine dining quality with presentation and taste of the highest order. There was freshly baked rosemary focaccia to chew on whilst I waited for the starter of Stilton and walnut pate. The salmon en croute was of very generous proportions and the pastry satisfyingly flaky. I took the selection of Scottish cheeses for dessert. Coffee and tablet was served in the lounge.
With only one other couple in the dining room this could have had the potential to be awkward, but between delivering courses Cameron encouraged conversation and soon we were all excitedly talking about the beauty of the area and what we had seen and done.
A pine marten visits most nights and a feeding table has been set up outside a corner window for the benefit of guests. I had never seen one before so it was a real treat that I actually caught a glance of him walking along a wall. It surprised me how large he was and to see his big bushy tail. Cameron said the real treat is to see the cubs in the spring, a good excuse for a return visit.
The bedroom was impeccable with a dreamy mattress and a menagerie of pillows which could simply not fail to induce me into a restful post-cycling slumber.
Day two: Kilmartin to Taynuilt, 61km
Breakfast began with fresh fruit, then porridge that had been slow-cooked overnight on the Aga, followed by a decadent smoked salmon and scrambled eggs from hens in the garden. I even managed a homemade cranberry and orange muffin (the uneaten ones go to the pine marten).
Directly opposite Dunchraigaig House are the Ballymeanoch Standing Stones. Two of the six stones at this site are decorated with cup and ring marks, their purpose unknown. Suggestions include maps of the world, maps of the stars and records of ownership.
Nearby is the site of the hill fort, Dunadd, where Kenneth MacAlpine was crowned the first king of Scotland. A footprint carved into the stone on top of the fort is believed to be where kings stood to be inaugurated.
Kilmartin House Museum (www.kilmartin.org) is essential for an inspirational overview of the history of the area. I enjoyed listening to the recordings of ancient instruments; amazed that the bronze Irish Horn cannot be recreated by today's best metalworkers, such was the skill of people at that time.
I can personally vouch for the cakes at the museum café. The woman who baked them told me I could come back again when I tried the first slice of her latest creation, hazelnut and lemon, and told her it was delicious. The downstairs conservatory gets the sun (if there is any) and there is a nice mixture of locals and international visitors.
The west shore, although tougher to cycle, was my favourite because it really showed off the best of the loch and its surroundings. This is when cycling up hill is actually worth it: views that had me continuously stopping to look back over my shoulder and take photos.
At Kilmaha, a short forest walk on a carpet of spongy moss took me to the best viewpoint of all. A picnic bench was perfectly situated there. Could there be anywhere better to have lunch?
I had some time to spare before the train so went to the Taynuilt Hotel for refreshment. I got chatting to a local man who had recently returned to the village after a stint in the city. He had grown to appreciate the Scottish countryside and desired to move back with his soon to be wife. There was a change in the attitude of Scots; in the past he mostly met tourists up the hills, but now there are plenty of locals. The beauty of the area was obvious to them and I couldn't agree more.