***kin’ tired on Kintyre

Long missing from our Argyll & Bute cycling CV, has been a trip down the ‘long and winding road’ between Tarbet and Campbeltown and beyond on the Kintyre peninsula. If you’re unsure where this is on a map, then look out for the penis dangling off the west coast of Scotland, with Arran as its’ scrotum. That is where we were headed.

Tarbert is a quaint harbour town with bright coloured shop façades and streetlights that reflect spookily in the still water’s surface. Mostly still that is, save for the ripples of a community of herring gulls that splash and preen and fish in the shallows amongst rifts of seaweed and the shadows of small boats and a couple of elegant mute swans that wait for the whisky shop retailer to come out and feed them. It’s the bright buildings that catch the eye when the sun shines brightly over Loch Fyne but when the storm clouds pull darkness across the sky, then the spruces, ferns and heathers of the headlands light up and frame the town with fierce nature.

Our ride started a few miles west of the town, with a turn onto the road which runs down the east side of the Kintyre peninsula. Made famous by the Paul McCartney song (I have not supplied a link because I don’t want you to listen, it’s awful), it’s a road not to be trifled with! The total distance to Campbeltown from here is a mere 33 miles but the elevation profile throws up seven distinct hill climbs which take in a total of nine single, and two double chevrons* in the uphill direction. The grisliest of them aren’t encountered until you’re enough miles in to be committed, and there’s no exit strategy other than to take refuge at the Kintyre distillery 26 miles in, and hope to deaden your aching quads with a slug of gin.

*What the chevrons mean
Single chevronGradient of 14-20%
Double chevronGradient of >20%
If you’re going with the flow of the arrow, then you’re going downhill. But travel against the grain and you’d better get your head down and prepare for some grind…

I don’t mean to put you off though; where man fears to tread, nature flourishes. Pheasants protest noisily as they are disturbed from inadequate roadside hidey-holes by passers-by. Off they take, steep and phoenix-like and then, their quantum of energy combusted, glide absurdly into the near-distance.

A short detour to Skipness took us right to the edge of the shore then through a sea-facing village to a derelict castle haunted by a flotilla of gulls. After this the hills came thick and fast, characteristically starting steep, staying steep, chewing you up with a hairpin bend or two before levelling out to 12% or so then spitting you out into a panorama of coast-facing houses, pastel-painted wooden benches and palm trees – yes, palm trees! – swaying on the breeze. Small thickets of spruce or pine with more pheasants hidden unconvincingly amongst leaves and wild mushrooms and beyond them, the sea and the body of Arran in the distance, the peak of Goat Fell not managing to remove its cap of dense cloud all day. Every village we hit was beautiful – white cottages set into hillsides with vibrant gardens, pinkish beaches of shale and quartzite a haven for oystercatchers, herons and redshank waders – and yet each was prefixed by a winding, sometimes sketchy descent and concluded with a chevron or two of painstaking and persistent toil. We cowered at the ascent from Cour. Wished we had some Dutch courage for the climb out of Grogport, dipped into Dippen but our departure was far from nippy. A final enduring upheaval out of the saddle from Saddel brought an end to the extreme climbs and into… an extreme wind.

After Saddel the scenery opened up to reveal sun-drenched fields of grazing sheep kept within low stone walls, evocative of cycling through the Peak District but with views of the sea and absence of unhinged motorists. We battled through the wind, making snail’s-pace progress to Campbeltown, a harbour town which once held a self-styled reputation as the whisky capital of the world. These days it’s not the bustling commercial and tourist hotspot that it used to be, but there’s still a fair bit more going on than the nearby port towns of Dunoon, Brodick and Rothesay.

We weren’t quite finished yet, however. The last five miles of the journey took us out of a head-by-side-by-headwind into a headwind proper, a crawl towards Macrihanish where lunch awaited. We laboured past farmhouses few and far between, crawled alongside fields of cattle and pink-footed wintering geese to a golf course by a golden beach which was completely obscured by swirling, frothing, collapsing waters of Goliath proportions.

A warm welcome awaited us at the Old Clubhouse bar by the links course, with a round of applause on arrival and a beginner’s guide to the remaining whiskies produced in Campbeltown. Although down to three working distilleries from a golden epoch of thirty, there are rumours that a couple more are planning to start up in the future. The wind burn made our faces prickly and hot even before the measure of Glen Scotia had passed our lips. We refuelled on beetroot and quinoa burgers and a generous portion of chips but had we subsisted on lettuce leaves alone the wind-assisted journey eastward back to our pick-up point would have been no less effortful.

Can’t make it all the way to Kintyre? Here’s a list of other beauty spots that might give you a similar flavour…

  • For similar scenery but less aggressive hills, try the roads on the isle of Mull. For a mid-ride cockle-warmer, I have very fond memories of receiving a generous measure of the sophisticated rocket fuel that is Ledaig 19y.o. Marsala Finish from the convivial Bellachroy pub in Dervaig before tackling a frostbitten tour of the island. You’ll need it most if heading clockwise to Tobermory from there…
  • If you like the idea of a rugged, demanding, wild west-coast rollercoaster with a more tranquil return east-coast leg, you’ll find it cycling from Otter Ferry to Kames via Ormidale and along the magnificent Kyles of Bute, returning via Kilfinan. If you want to reward yourself with the back of your ride comfortably broken, refuel at Botanica café in Millhouse then rest your weary limbs in the outdoor heated infinity pool at Portavadie Spa, looking out onto Loch Fyne. And if you really want to up the altitude ante then start your day from Dunoon and accomplish the monster climb from Craigendive (there’s a steady warm-up hill to Loch Tarsan on the way) before you even hit the hills to Tighnabruich.
  • Want some steep hill practice, but with the option of a get-out clause? The isle of Jura was designed with a neat training feature which means the further away from the ferry terminal you get, the steeper the climbs become (There’s only one road, running west to east). The hill profiles are quite similar to those on Kintyre, but they’re generally shorter. If you’ve had enough, just turn back!
  • If a cute harbour town with a sorta-old-glory vibe is where you want to end your ride, you could do worse than a loop of Bute, starting and finishing in Rothesay. Ride the silly Serpentine Road as your finale before checking out the gents’ public toilet at the ferry terminus before you depart. (I’m not joking! While the ladies is a nightmare in 1980’s prefab pink, the men’s water closet is a beautiful Victorian restoration).

21 November, 2020

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