A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 27
When an old lady, well wrapped up against July weather in Southern Scotland calls out that “You’re going tae get virra wet”. I’m not sure if she’s being concerned about my welfare or making a biblical incantation against the sins of my younger days “Repent ye, oh sinners, for a great flood will overwhelm you.”
In other months it’s best to have waterproofs when cycling, but in July and August and spuddling along at my pace, the rain is a pleasant feeling. The warm drops spatter. If it’s a light shower, you don’t even get wet. If the rain is prolonged; and today the rain has been pretty steady since breakfast; then you get wet. Once you’re wet you can’t get any wetter and the rain becomes your friend.
There are no flat roads anymore but no hills that can’t be ridden at a steady rhythm. I see a fellow over-laden touring cyclist. We hail each other and as we pass we both think how stupid the other looks. I determine to shed as much load as I can at the next convenient place. I pedal along contemplating the simple oneness with the world. You feel every drop of rain, every buffet of breeze on a bicycle and it makes being alive feel rather good.
The majority of the route from Dumfries to Castle Douglas is along an old military road. I don’t know the history but military roads usually mean supply lines and supply lines either mean a battle or a castle. I’m heading to a place called Castle Douglas. I do some simple figuring. Being an old military road means it’s pretty straight and straight roads usually mean plenty of up and down. But it’s undulation rather than climbing. The fields are green, there’s little traffic and farms protected by a brake of trees are interspersed by occasional whitewashed single storey cottages.
At the interestingly named Haugh of Urr (no idea how the locals pronounce it) a woman in a four wheeled drive car gave proof that wealthier people have a tendency to not think too much about lesser people by stopping suddenly and then, as I’m making rapid manoeuvres to avoid clattering into the back of her, opens the driver’s door without checking and gives me the choice of hitting it or playing chicken with an approaching post bus. The driver of the bus sees what is happening and courteously brakes. Thus, in an instant content turned to panic and then through the bright alertness of a professional driver, the thoughtlessness of a poor driver is put right. If I was still a drinking man, I’d stop for a pint to unwobble myself. The woman seems blissfully unaware that she had nearly killed somebody…twice.
I’m ready to stop by the time I get to Castle Douglas and I’m in for a treat. I pass a sign saying “Welcome to Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway’s Food Town.” I like food. It was a complete surprise and a most welcome one.
The main street is a thoroughfare of good places to eat and good places to buy food. I’m in a dilemma. There is only so much you can stuff down your throat when you started the day with a full fry. I can’t load too much onto my overloaded ark. Do I look for somewhere to stay and enjoy at least three meals here? I’ve only been on the road for three hours and Ireland is beginning to exert a pull on me. I decide that one good meal will have to do and to make sure I find an excuse to return.
Most of the restaurants are closed at lunch time so I opt for a sandwich shop that offers more than I could get at home. I have ham with Swiss cheese, pickle and grain mustard. It goes down nicely with a decent takeaway mug of coffee. As is always the case once I’ve chosen, I immediately see at least seven places that seem to offer better options. There are excellent butchers, delis, bakeries and cafés. The town has an impressive history going back to Roman times, was the seat of the Earls of Douglas and was built as a new town to plan by one of the later members of the family. Tracing its ancient history is relatively easy. What I cannot discover, and I ask quite a few, is how long it has been a food town. I suspect about as long as Ludlow. Though I cannot trace the cause. Until recently a Scottish food town would either be seen as an oxymoron or would be the perfect place to top up of fish suppers and deep fried Mars bars.
I continue to follow route 7 of the cycling network. It adds miles and miles onto my journey but it shows me places that are worth the detour. The weather is now half way between rain and shine. Cycling under a long tunnel of tall trees hung with moss sparkling with raindrops in the glinting sun is worth the effort alone. I’m ready to pedal harder. The hills are a bit steeper and a bit longer, the woods a bit deeper and a bit greener. On some of the tops are little areas of moorland where crows and finches call out and the breeze smells of bracken and heather.
And just as I’m settling in for a long ride I drop down a long hill and enter Kirkcudbright which, not to be outdone by is gastronomic neighbour, announces itself as “The Artist’s Town”.
The town gets its name from being the place where St Cuthbert’s bones were buried after being removed from Lindisfarne. Cuthbert only stayed in the town for seven years but the town still bears his name though the spellings have changed more than the pronunciation. The town is pronounced Kirkoubrie and has been a destination for artists for over a hundred years. In the local Tesco I’m told that The Glasgow Boys are in town. The Glasgow Boys were an art movement in the 1890s but news moves quite slowly in these parts; some of them may have hung around.
I pass a yard where men were carving rather fine blocks of sandstone into cartoon mice and another place where huge logs are being equally Disneyfied. I’m sure there is art of a more dignified nature. I like the place; it’s a genuine inland port and I try to book into a local hotel. I simply cannot get anyone to answer my ringing of the reception bell. It is the town where they filmed much of The Wicker Man; they do things differently here. After five minutes I feel rested enough to continue on my way, and I’m thrilled that I did. The next section is even more beautiful than the last. I’ve enjoyed the hill farms, the dairy meadows, the woodlands and some stretches of moor. The haunting cry of wading birds tells me that I’m now approaching my absolute favourite physical environment; the estuary. Up here on the south west coast of Scotland they have some of the most breath-takingly beautiful estuaries in the world and the Dee Estuary is one of the finest. I ride on into heaven.