I thought that if the last weekend of the Tour de France and the continuing fantastic weather couldn't make me go out on a bike for the first time this year, then nothing would. I therefore decided to head down to the North Ayrshire/Renfrewshire border to take a cycle on some of the quiet back roads and cycle paths around the Lochwinnoch & Castle Semple Loch area.
View Lochwinnoch in a larger map
Outward travel was as follows:-
Train: Glasgow Central to Lochwinnoch (04, 34 on the hour)
It's a good 10-15 minutes walk from the train station at Lochwinnoch to the town itself and the Castle Semple Visitor Centre (part of the sprawling Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park). Even fairy early in the morning the car park was quite full, there were windsurfers & kayakers out on the Loch, and there was a mass of air & water-based wildlife waiting to pounce on anyone who came close to the lochside with a sandwich, burger, ice cream or really any sort of food at all.
RT Cycles from Glengarnock (07687 790889) operate the bike hire here in the summer; unless there's a lot of people it's really walk up and get a bike on the day. I have all the cycling kit (helmet, gel saddle, tyre pump, repair kit etc...) but what I don't have is the bike, pretty important though that may be! Instead for the 2 or 3 times that I go out for a cycle each year I'm happy to pay the hire charge, in this case £10 for the rest of the morning & all afternoon (4 hours+ today).
I got my hybrid bike, kitted up and headed off down National Cycle Route 7, which follows a disused train line from Johnstone all the way to Glengarnock. It's always surprising how you get back into the rhythmic 'zen' of these things; before long I had overshot my planned exit from the cycle path and needed to double back to the narrow road which took me over the railway line to Beith. The road into the centre of Beith was fairly steep and I was quite happy to stop and find my way into the somewhat hidden (and narrow) Main Street, location of the Masonic Arms.
For first thing in the afternoon the place was very busy, there wasn't really a space to be had at all at the long wooden bar on the left side of the single room (and there wasn't a chance of a bar photo without (accidentally) setting off the fire alarm). Instead I took a pint of Houston Killellan (the other hand-pull had nothing on it) and went to stand at one of the stand-up tables at the front. Both here and at the back of the pub were some great large Guinness prints and also lots of smaller pictures of old Beith and the surrounding area; I really quite liked all the interior decor, this was a good old fashioned locals pub.
There wasn't any food available in the pub, but there was a steady stream of people popping out to get pies or sausage rolls from the next door bakery; there was even a delivery service if you could stand the good natured ribbing from the owner of the shop for not providing a tip for this service. This was all making me somewhat hungry so I got back on the bike, crossed the busy A737 bypass to the east of Beith and headed on to the small village of Gateside, less than a mile outside Beith. Quite a bit before I got to my destination, The Gateside Inn, I could hear the sound of bagpipes and this was fairly worrying. As I feared the place had been booked for a wedding reception later in the day and so it was closed to the general public (and especially sweaty cyclists).
So Plan B it was. This meant a cycle through some fantastic (and narrow, and undulating) back roads to the east of Gateside until I reached the B776 road which connects Howwood to Uplawmoor across the hills. I went past the Greenacres Ice Rink which is used by many Scottish curlers including Rhona Martin, who played that gold medal stone at Salt Lake City in 2002. It wasn't open today (seasonal only, I guess); it would probably have needed half the National Grid to keep the ice solid.
Past the ice rink is a lovely expanse of water, the Barcraigs Reservoir, complete with lily fields, birdlife and a number of islands. Fishing is also permitted but it is 'By Permit Only'.
Not that much further along is the Bowfield Hotel & Country Club, a large white-washed collection of buildings set down a long driveway.
I checked with the helpful receptionist that they were still serving lunch and then went away to change my sodden shirt in the Gents. I did think about going to sit in the beer garden but it was in direct sunlight and way too warm (and there kids playing on various slides & toys), so I stayed in the fairly cavernous, high ceilinged & wooden-beamed almost lodge-like bar/lounge area. This had a number of larger bench seats at the back but the majority were tables of 4 arranged in the main area at the front. The small bar had Tennents & Guinness on draught, and there also bottles of Peroni, Sol or Budweiser in the fridge, not exactly exciting (to say the least), but the staff were friendly & chatty and more than helpful.
I took a Peroni and a glass of tap water and it wasn't long before lunch arrived - penne pasta with chorizo in tomato sauce, which I needed to re-stock on the carbohydrates.
The hotel is very much set-up for weddings & parties (there was an 18th on today) and people looking for a bit of tranquillity out in the countryside, but still within a short drive of the big cities. I was also intrigued by some of the posters I'd seen around Paisley-way for the newly re-furbished gym & leisure centre and so managed to cage a brief tour from one of the leisure staff. The whole set-up is seriously impressive - air-conditioned, totally hi-tech cardio & resistance machines with a swimming pool, steam room and squash courts, but it's probably a bit too far out of Glasgow for me.
After the Bowfield there was a nice downhill stretch to the village of Howwood (although there was one nasty hair-pin bend just before the main road), and just off the junction of the main road towards Johnstone I came to the Howwood Inn.
It's certainly been extensively refurbished from the somewhat shabby place that I remember quite a few years back. The bar area on the right is brightly lit & modern with a couple of bar stools, and it's all nicely tiled with the exposed wooden flooring having come up really well. Without thinking too much I took a 1/2 of Heverlee on draught; I've seen this a fair few times now and never tried it so this was as good a time as any. It's been almost 'stealth launched' and marketed by the C&C Group who own Magners & Tennents, but it's supposedly based on a recipe from the Norbertine monks at Park Abbey in Leuven. The interesting thing to know would be where it is actually brewed, but it's not easy to find out. This suggests it is actually brewed in Belgium, but since Heverlee is a district of Leuven, HQ of the mighty AB InBev (from whom C&C acquired Tennents and the Wellpark Brewery), it might be brewed under contract there, but it might just as easily be brewed at Wellpark. The Heverlee wasn't actually too bad, quite a decent smooth, almost creamy mouthfeel, with some bitterness, but I also noticed Brooklyn Lager, Blue Moon and a couple of different Timmermans fruit beers in the fridge - not too bad a selection.
They were serving food outside on the tables by the road, in the lounge and in the large dining area out the back and it seemed the staff were more than capable of handling this dispersed seating. The lounge has lots of comfy sofas, old pictures of Howwood and there's this large clock hanging almost over the front door (which doesn't seem to tell the correct time, argh...).
I left the Howwood Inn and headed back over the A737 and onto Cycle Route 7 again. From all around here there are views of the Folly/Temple/Gazebo on the top of Kenmure Hill; I'd seen it when I'd first travelled to Ayrshire for a job interview close on 20 years ago and I'd always wanted to take an up close look at it. It was built in ~1760, is octagonal in construction (as per a Knights Templar or Masonic cross), but its original use or purpose has been lost in the mists of time, with local folklore suggesting that it could have been a house for a sickly child, a watch tower, or a vantage point for the gentry to take their refreshments on a sunny day.
I chained the bike to a small tree and then clambered up the grassy hill. There wasn't any real paths that I could see, and although I had to take care to miss both the wild thistles & nettles (socks up as high as possible) and the fresh cow pats, it was fairly straightforward going. The Folly was somewhat smaller, but higher than I'd imagined it would be, probably originally on 2 levels, but there were no sign of steps or ramps left for today's visitors. The views south down the Black Cart Water and then to out to Castle Semple Loch were certainly impressive enough to warrant the climb today (and I'm assuming in earlier times).
I managed to retrieve my bike without too much of a problem and headed through the Castle Semple Estate back to Cycle Route 7. A little further on I took the more scenic diversion along the bank of Castle Semple Loch which was now busy with both fellow cyclists and pedestrians out enjoying the sun, but it wasn't that long before I was back at the Visitor Centre. I handed the bike back in pretty well one piece (and retrieved my Driving License (which I'd totally forgotten about), thanks for that) and set out to the far end of Lochwinnoch High Street to find one of the best pubs around, the Brown Bull, complete with distinctive signs of the male bovine hanging outside.
It's a lovely traditional pub, all wood and low beams, a smallish bar on the right side with a number of barstools, and then tables, chairs and longer benches at the front and also tucked away in various nooks & crannies on the left and at the back. There's also a more than decent beer choice - today Fyne Ales Rune & Maverick, Tryst Sherpa Porter and Caley Deuchars IPA, with sightings of Cromarty & Scottish Borders beers in recent times.
I changed my shirt (again) and then took a pint of the lovely bitter Rune (for re-hydration purposes) and walked out to the beer garden at the very back of the pub (as recommended by the Real Ale Radler, Mr @GuestBeerGuide). This is really quite stunning - first of all a canopy area with a number of opposing bench seats, some hanging baskets, a few old signs, an (almost) discarded hand-pull and some other bric-a-brac, which then leads to a riot of colourful flowers, pot-plants, rock-gardens and trees in the beer garden itself - it's almost sub-tropical and quite unexpected.
I went to sit at one of the outside tables beside the empty casks and the wood store, but the place is such a sun-trap that it was way too hot without some shade, so I moved to just the edge of the canopy area.
I decided I didn't have time to make the next train so that just meant another pint of Rune was required (really lovely stuff). To be honest it was difficult to move from the beer garden of the Brown Bull, but when I did manage it I initially forgot my sunglasses (one of the staff reminded me, many thanks), but I did at least catch the next train after the 15 minute walk back to the station.
Train: Lochwinnoch to Glasgow Central(10, 40 on the hour)