An Island Adventure
The Isle of Arran lies in the Firth of Clyde and is the 7th largest island in Scotland after the likes of Harris & Lewis, Shetland, Orkney and Skye. It’s a busy, tourist friendly destination whose economy has thrived in recent times with a population that has remained reasonably steady (4,629 in the census of 2011 apparently). It is comprised of two distinct parts – a rocky and mountainous north and a relatively lush and green south. Goat Fell, the island’s principal peak, is some 2,866 feet and as such is one of 4 Corbetts on the island. Yet despite the fairly dramatic interior, the circumference of the island is only 56 miles. Not only that, but a road helpfully follows the coast pretty much the entire way so a circumnavigation of the island is easily undertaken, just the thing for a summer’s day and a hopefully interesting blog as well. Always good to have a plan!
Actually, my main reason for planning a ride around Arran is to undertake a recce of the forthcoming Arran Sportive in September (further details of which you can find at the end of the blog). But it also turned out to be the perfect “day out” ride and, given the extraordinary weather of the summer of 2018, no better way to see what Arran has to offer.
Access and Transport
The most popular ferry route is from Ardrossan to Brodick by the world famous Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferry service. The ferry takes around 55 minutes and on weekdays (and Saturdays) there are around 8 – 10 sailings a day during the Summer months. On Sunday, there are just 6 services so do check the timetable for CalMac which you can do by clicking on the Link. There is also a ferry from Claonaig (in Kintyre) to Lochranza on the north of the Isle of Arran which takes around 30 minutes. If going by car there is no need to book for the Claonaig to Lochranza service though advanced booking for the Ardrossan to Brodick service is highly recommended.
Ardrossan is easy to get to, though being an hour and 40 minutes drive from Edinburgh (and given that Criterium Cycles had been open all day and incredibly busy as ever!) we opted for an overnight stay in Ardrossan at a lovely little B&B, the Edenmore Guest House. There are, no doubt, plenty of B&Bs in the area but we mention the Edenmore in this blog especially because not only were the proprietors really welcoming, they were also very accommodating by allowing us to leave our vehicle parked outside the B&B whilst we headed over to Arran on just our bikes.
That was a great decision as it saved a fair amount on the travel. The cost of taking our Renault Van would have been something in the order of £42.00 (plus passengers) because of its size whereas a foot passenger (including bike) pays £7.80 return at the time of writing. If you opt not to take a vehicle, one top tip is to take a bike you’re not overly precious about. The guys at CalMac are brilliant and perfectly professional / friendly. But not unreasonably a bike is a bike is bike to them so we opted to take our winter bikes.
Which way round?
There has clearly been some significant investment in the Island’s infrastructure of late so on arrival into Brodick, one is greeted by a very smart, new ferry terminal. Even better, within 100m of leaving the boat, one is already ready for a lap of Arran and faced with a choice – clockwise or anticlockwise?
Either way, it’s the same distance (some 56 miles) and just under 1250m in ascent. I chose anticlockwise for a number of reasons. First, it’s the way round that the Sportive runs so it made sense to replicate that since this was after all a recce for the event. Second, since the Southern part of the island is where around 2/3 of the climbing takes place and the prevailing wind tends to be southerly, I reasoned anticlockwise would be more challenging. That’s because I would be facing a headwind on the western side of the island and most of the climbing in the second half of the ride. Either way you go round though, the scenery and riding is stunning so you’ll be sure to have a great experience whichever way round you choose.
Leaving Brodick, I headed north towards Sannox and Lochranza. The road follows the coast to Corrie and Sannox and then cuts off a little of the north easterly tip of the island to head over to Lochranza, the small northern port and the location of the independently owned Isle of Arran Distillers, opened here in 1995.
The terrain is typical coastal riding; undulating and sinewy, with the occasional technical descent of up to 20% down to go across an inlet or river outflow, followed by an ascent the other side of similar steepness. Incidentally, the road surface on the Island is either really good or really not so good with the ratio between the two being around 50:50. My experience was that the southern half of the island is better with the most challenging section being the westerly section from Lochranza to Blackwaterfoot. One suspects this segment sees a relatively lower volume of tourist traffic.
Heading south from Lochranza, the slightly poorer state of the road was more than compensated for by the quality of the scenery. The ocean is a truly magnificent spectacle the entire way round (and no more so on the day I did the ride with clear blue skies and stunningly warm temperatures!). But do remember to look to the left as well (depending on which way you are riding round of course!) as the views in to the interior of the island are equally dramatic and beautiful.
At Pirnmill, I stopped for an ice cream to both grab a breather as well as take in the magnificent scenery. All round the island there are plenty of places to get water and ice creams, with loads of establishments clearly set up to welcome touristy visitors. The entire experience was very cycle friendly.
The road south from Pirnmill to Blackwaterfoot is a little more challenging and care needs to be taken in places but after Blackwaterfoot, the surface improves and the run round through Kilmory, Kildonan and Whiting Bay is a joy. The views across the Firth of Clyde on the day I visited were spectacular with the lighthouse at Pladda and the view across to Ailsa Craig and the mainland an especially lovely view. The run back from Whiting Bay to Brodick past Holy Isle along the way came all to quickly and I was soon heading back towards the Ferry Terminal having enjoyed a thoroughly lovely day out.
The circumnavigation of Arran took me just over 4 hours. I was working quite hard on the ride on this occasion, notably on the Western side of the island when I found myself tackling the headwinds from Lochranza to Blackwaterfoot. I suspect a clockwise route would have been a little easier.
But it doesn’t really matter – whichever way round you choose to ride, the experience is a wonderful one. Arran is an incredibly welcoming place, the scenery is interesting and beautiful at every point along the way, ocean or mountain, and I can thoroughly recommend it for a challenging but very enjoyable day’s ride. Oh, and the ice cream is especially fine! Can’t wait for the Arran Sportive in September.
The island has an especially good tourist website with details on what to do, where to stay and all sorts of family friendly activities. You can check it out by clicking HERE.
The Arran Sportive is on Saturday 15th September and further details on how to enter can be found HERE