The carriage doors open to reveal a scrum of unsympathetic passengers glowering at my wheels. Through the sardine crowd I see the pokey bike space already nabbed. Sound familiar? Mercifully, the nightmares of train travel with a bike are in the past on the Glasgow-Oban line, thanks to the green shoots of Britain’s first dedicated cycle carriages; a new sustainable artery into Argyll’s mountain and ocean-sparkled network of cycling trails.
Often cyclists are, at best, a begrudged afterthought. Not here. Real thought – and design (the striking exterior is the work of Scottish artist Peter McDermott) – has gone into the “Highland Explorer” carriages, with a wide passageway either side of racks holding up to 20 cycles. There are 24 seats too – for a small supplement you get a trail map table, snack box and hot drink, though you avoid the supplement sitting elsewhere.
The timing of the initiative is ideal, with Glasgow on the cusp of holding Cop26 in November. Carron Tobin of Argyll & The Isles Tourism Cooperative explains the thinking: “We have always had an interest in promoting a more sustainable and responsible approach to tourism across Argyll and the Isles, respecting our outstanding environment and supporting our local communities, and believe this new carriage could be transformational if we and our businesses grasp the opportunity.”
One of the beauties of the Highland Explorer is that you can hop off at any intermediate station. Tobin’s organisation and sustainable transport body Sustrans Scotland have conjured up a Rail and Trail map that highlights some of the attractions en route: how about Ardlui for Loch Lomond, or Taynuilt to link into the Loch Etive Loop cycle, or the gravel Fearnoch Loop MTB test?
My target was Oban to tackle a section of the sweeping 234-mile Caledonia Way, which soars up from Campbeltown, through Oban and across the Great Glen to Inverness. Seeking fuel, I dipped into the new Taste of Place Trails and discovered businesses grabbing the opportunity Tobin hailed. I joined a sprinkling of cyclists in the vegan and vegetarian Little Potting Shed Cafe, where I tucked into “no chicken tikka masala” and an Argyll-roasted, sustainably-sourced proper coffee at newcomer Hinba, an instant cyclists’ favourite.
I met Mark of Oban Cycles at Hinba, a font of knowledge on the dizzying network of Argyll cycling options – they can sort you out a bike too. Mark is a huge fan of the Caledonia Way, but advised I divert slightly, wise advice that soon had me immersed in greenery, with hulking hills beckoning. Dropping down over the Connell Bridge the landscape opened up – those gnarly mountains vying for attention with the salmon-rich Loch Etive, the Atlantic and Argyll’s isles shimmering to the west. Scotland the postcard, one I was easing through on two wheels.
The Caledonia Way veered away from the road to Fort William straight after the bridge, gaining pace on the old railway. Zooming through old tunnels, catching sight of a buzzard and slowing for a deer, I only stopped to study the information boards highlighting the railway history, and bountiful local flora and fauna.
More temptation awaited at Highland Fold, another of the local produce-driven new businesses opening up to cater to cyclists – fresh meadowsweet ice cream, anyone? Barrelling on, I crossed another bridge spanning Loch Creran, before leaving the Caledonia Way behind to join the Port Appin Loop. I hugged the coast, finding a spot just to stop. An otter furrowed along the heavily indented rock-strewn coast and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a flighty porpoise.
Port Appin is the end of the road, but not the end of adventure, as a wee children’s TV-esque ferry bundles over the narrows. As I waited I tucked into boat-fresh sustainable Argyll seafood at the bike-friendly Pierhouse Hotel, scanning the waters for marine mammals, and chatted to cyclists from Yorkshire who’d taken the Highland Explorer, but whose adventures had been waylaid – they’d popped in for coffee, but were tucking into a heaving seafood platter.
I’d expected the boatman to be grumpy heaving my bike on, but he couldn’t have been cheerier and lifted another trio on, with more cyclists than Lismore island residents among the half dozen passengers. The “Great Garden” is appositely named, a verdant velvet blanket strung out over rocks millions of years old, bringing life to the often inhospitable Hebrides. Easing south I encountered more sheep than people and not a single car – bliss. And the views. Pound for Scottish pound Lismore perhaps offers some of the best panoramas in the Inner Hebrides: as Lismore is low-lying you gaze to the ridges of Glencoe, lofty Ben Nevis and to ever-mysterious Morvern. They were all bathed in sunshine; Mull skulking in the mist to the south, more Hollywood Scotland.
The cinematic scenery continued as I puttered back to Oban on a larger ferry I rolled my own bike on to, the 50-minute crossing enough to catch sight of dolphins and search for sea eagles. And to meet Hendrik and Ana: this Dutch couple insisted I “had to go across to Kerrera too, it’s so beautiful, our favourite cycling island”.
So I did. Picking up my teenage daughter the next morning, we grabbed a 100 per cent Argyll picnic from Food from Argyll on Oban’s pier and pedalled a couple of miles south to tinkle over to Kerrera on another dinky ferry. There was space for one car, a moot point when you’re not allowed to bring a vehicle over; in Argyll, the car is refreshingly often not king.
I had no expectations of Kerrera, but it delivered anyway. To a ridiculous degree. We sauntered south as school stress and work hassles drifted off across the glass-calm waters. We passed a boat wrecked before by daughter was born, watched a heron fishing for lunch, and were ambushed by Castle Gylen. Edging around a grassy corner, one of the most strikingly located castles in Scotland seared into my senses, vaulting atop a rocky outcrop. There is no road to a castle Disney can only dream of.
We sat alone in the stoic ruins of this old MacDougall stronghold playing name the island and losing count of the passing seabirds – an experience you’d never get to savour if you couldn’t even force your bike on to a sardine-packed train. We toasted the Highland Explorer with locally smoked salmon sandwiches and unfeasibly large home-baked gluten-free cakes. Very Argyll.
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