As I lay I listened to the sounds of two fisherman exchanging anecodates and laughter in the warm, summer air while they packed up their gear. They’d spent another Saturday evening in relaxed company fishing the Tweed at an altogether slower pace of life. Then as the two car doors slammed shut and the roar of the car gradually faded away, these noises were replaced by the sounds of distant livestock and the breeze softly tickling the trees. I soon drifted off to sleep.
As I woke the next morning beside the river it struck me that cycling Scotland’s coast to coast (C2C) is really a misnomer. Each coast is really just a fleeting moment, part of a much longer journey. The time I actually spent along the coastline was relatively limited. No, the journey is actually defined by the water in between, by the rivers Annan, Tweed and Esk that connect the landscape to the sea. Waking up beside the River Tweed, it was comforting to think that I was getting washed in the same river I’d picnicked beside the previous afternoon, and the same river whose source I’d cycled past that morning. What travelled quicker, I wondered, the individual molecules of water travelling downhill from the river’s source or me on my bike?
The Scottish C2C is a 125 mile (201km) journey from the Solway Firth in the very south of Scotland to the Forth Rail Bridge near Edinburgh. It always takes a moment to explain to folk that unlike the much better known English C2C which goes east-west across the North of England, Scotland’s C2C dissects the country north-south.
Launched in 2014, it’s only now becoming a little more popular. But it’s well signposted and has its own guidebook*, and offers most people a two- or three-day journey through some very quiet and scenic parts of Scotland. If you like quiet country lanes and cycle paths following disused railway lines then this is the route for you.
From Glasgow I’d taken a slow train down to Annan accompanied by Friday afternoon shoppers and commuters. The train gradually emptied out by the time we passed Dumfries and I soon found myself outside the station trying to get my bearings. While Annan’s not a big town it did take me three attempts to find the right road to Seafield Farm on the Solway Firth. Here you can see the line of the old fords which connected Annan to Bowness on Solway, with danger signs warning that the river levels can rise by 7 metres at high tide.
A convenient meal of fish and chips at the Cafe Royal saw me cycling about 10 miles northwards along undulating country lanes. This is dairy country with fields of Galloway cattle everywhere you look. There was very little traffic to speak of, just the sights and sounds of rural Scotland. The C2C route traces the line of the River Annan and just west of St Mungo’s church, near Ecclefechan, I pitched up for the night as the evening light faded. I camped a short distance away from the river’s gurgling and was soon fast asleep.
Day 2 would take me 53 miles past Lockerbie all the way to Peebles. The peaceful start to my ride continued with very little traffic on the back roads. At Millhousebridge I stopped to admire the old signpost, a relic of times gone by but still very much in use. At Johnstonebridge, with the constant hum of vehicles whizzing along the M74 in the background, I saw another relic of former days. But this time the old telephone box had been brought bang up to date. The telephone box had been painted gold in 2017 to celebrate the para-athlete Shelby Watson winning no less than five gold medals in T33 wheelchair racing. What an amazing achievement!
By the time I reached Moffat I was beginning to flag. Coffee and a bacon roll in a cafe thronged with tourists hit the spot. Renewed, I started the long climb on the A701 up to the Devil’s Beeftub. This is the big climb on the Scottish C2C and I took it slow and steady, stopping half way up for a breather. I was overtaken at speed by a young guy on a road bike carrying nothing and who said nothing. It did seem just a tad rude; we are all cyclists after all.
From the top of the hill at the Devil’s Beeftub I relished the 10 mile continuous downhill all the way to Tweedsmuir. I passed the source of the River Tweed and then followed its meandering as it became broader and slower all the way to Peebles and then beyond (the next morning) to Innerleithen. Like a young child the river begins life bubbly and playfully, gains character by the time it reaches Tweedsmuir then enters middle age by the Central Borders as its waistline expands and its movements slow.
I camped at Manor Bridge, just outside Peebles, a place where I’ve often fished myself when I lived nearby. Several families were camped beside a tributary, chattering beside campfires – I’ve never seen the place so busy – and so I found a quiet spot a stone’s throw from the river.
After a great catch up with friends in Peebles over breakfast, day 3 saw me cycle 63 miles from the town all the way to the Forth Estuary, within sight of the C2C’s end point. The sun shone as I rode along the almost deserted former railway line to Innerleithen. Quiet, traffic free and very scenic, this was one of the most enjoyable sections of the whole journey.
Leaving the Tweed, a long, steady climb from the small town of Innerleithen saw me cycle over the Moorfoot hills. Although the B709 is well off the beaten track, this Sunday morning it was almost like the Tour de France and the Isle of Man TT rolled into one. Almost 50 old-style motorbikes passed me going south – clearly a club outing – and I’m pleased to say that almost all of the road cyclists exchanged greetings with me.
Looking north from the Moorfoots gives a great vista over the Forth. The Pentland Hills, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle and the Fife coast all pointed to my route for the rest of my journey.
Following a fast downhill to Middleton and lunch in the tiny village of Carrington I met urban Scotland on the outskirts of Edinburgh at Bonnyrig and Dalkeith. I lost the C2C signs here and instead followed the National Cycle Network (NCN1) signs past industrial estates and urban parks. The constant start-stop to check navigation meant I lost my cycling rhythm for a while. However, on finding the pleasant River Esk Path between Whitecraigs and Musselburgh my mood improved. The sound of seagulls meant that the coast was getting nearer.
Being Sunday afternoon meant that … well … there was a definite ‘Sunday afternoon’ feel to this part of the ride. Families with pushchairs and dogwalkers shared the promenade from Musselburgh, past Joppa and on to Portobello. Cafes spilled out on the the prom. Kids splashed in the sea and their dads constructed elaborate castles. My incentive for getting this far was to get an ice cream on Porty’s prom. I needed (lots of) cold, cold drinks and food to quench my thirst, and an ice cream sundae and iced coffee were just what the doctor ordered.
Suitably reinvigorated I cycled along the seafront to Leith. I retraced the route where I’d previously run the Edinburgh Half Marathon, past the swimming pool where I’d tried (unsuccessfully) to learn to roll a kayak a few decades earlier, and passed the drab Scottish Government office at Victoria Quay where I’ve often sat in work meetings. Leith’s harbour front was buzzing with tourists at festival time and the cricketers were absorbed in their game on Leith Links.
From these familiar sights I turned left on to the Warrington Path in Leith to discover the delights of Edinburgh’s cycle network. I didn’t own a bike when I lived in Edinburgh and so I’ve never really experienced these traffic-free routes along disused railway lines. What a delight. Along the Warrington and Chancelot Paths and through the Trinity Tunnel I avoided the busy streets and soon found myself coming out beside Granton’s gas tower.
Camping at the Edinburgh Camping and Caravan Club site at Silverknowes probably wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve ever made. There’s nothing wrong with the site itself (unless you like regimented rules and aren’t dismayed at the exhorbitant £22 cost for a bike and one-man tent of course). However, the site’s location means that it’s directly underneath the flight path to Edinburgh Airport and I soon discovered that planes were screeching just 500 metres overhead every 5 to 10 minutes until 11pm at night. Whether any planes did arrive after that time I don’t know but I think I was so tired that I was dead to the world.
All that was left of the C2C route was to cycle the remaining stretch of the seafront to the pretty village of Cramond before following the quieter lanes through Dalmeny Estate to the Forth Road Bridge. I was a little surprised that there’s no sign or plaque to say that this is the end of the C2C, or at least if there is I missed it.
I rewarded myself with a mid-morning snack in a South Queensferry cafe before stealing myself for the last leg home. Having cycled 125 miles to get this far it didn’t seem too much of a stretch to tack on another 40-odd miles to get home to near Stirling. I enjoyed riding over the Forth Road Bridge, still open to bikes, buses and tractors now that the new Queensferry Crossing has opened. While most folk seemed desperate to take a trip over the new bridge when it first opened I was more concerned about not having a last chance to go over the old, familiar bridge. But here I was once again. The real highlight though was hearing a maintenance van pass me, making that very familiar “da-duh” sound as it crossed the big concrete slabs over the roadway. Ah, memories …
There are several cycle routes round the Forth and my goal was to navigate past Rosyth, up to Dunfermline then join the old railway line (now the NCN76 cycle path) to go west. This proved to be a really great route and I whizzed the 12 miles or so from Dunfermline to Clackmannan meeting almost no one. In fact, once past Alloa’s housing estates the traffic-free route continued past Cambus until I was well within sight of the Wallace Monument.
A refreshing milkshake at Corrieri’s famous cafe in Bridge of Allan spurred me on for those last few miles. At this point the heavens opened and I arrived home wet, tired, cooled-off but very satisfied. I thoroughly enjoyed the Scottish C2C. It may be billed a coast-to-coast route but from river to river and railway to railway, what matters most is the journey and not the destination.
* I recommend buying the Ultimate Scottish C2C Guide by Richard Peace, available from excellentbooks.co.uk