Being laid up for several months gives time to think and to plan and I guess like most people, I have my list of things that I’d like to do. With a love of steam engines and old machinery in general and loving to see these great machines of the past at work, I felt I would like to sail on the P.S. Waverley. The Glasgow based paddle steamer is the last ocean going paddle steamer in the world, the final survivor of a large number of similar vessels which once plied their trade on the Firth of Clyde and other coastal areas, transporting tourists and holiday makers on pleasure cruises to scenic and hard to reach areas before private cars and foreign holidays became more affordable. A lot of hard work and fundraising has been done over the years to save the Waverley from the same fate as her sister ships which were de-commisioned and scrapped as they became expensive to repair and run in the early 1960s as falling numbers of passengers meant pleasure cruises on the Clyde were no longer profitable. The Waverley soldiered on until the early ‘70s before being sold to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society for the price of £1 and there began a long process of finding the funds required to keep this iconic ship and piece of social history alive and carry out much needed restoration work.
I made the decision that I’d like to go Scotland to sail on the Waverley, when I began planning I needed two crutches to walk. I planned to go in June as I was working on the assumption that I would be able to walk better by then and I would be able to drive. My plan was to take the car on the ferry. I booked the ticket to sail on the Waverley for June 19th from Largs as I thought it was easier than actually going into Glasgow. I’m not really a city person.
It has been a pleasant surprise that my recovery from injury has been such that when the time come, I am able to cycle perfectly well, perhaps not with any great speed but I can do decent distances and cycling doesn’t cause my ankle any pain whereas it does get sore if I walk around on it all day. I felt confident enough to cycle rather than take the car. This was good. It is more enjoyable to cycle than to drive (for me at least) and it also works out considerably cheaper which is an added bonus. Also because I was going to Largs and the Ayrshire coast, I knew there is a decent rail service linking the main coastal towns in the south-west of Scotland. If I really did struggle, putting the bike on the train would be an alternative.
A potential problem cropped up with the threat of rail stikes and very limited services on Britain’s rail network. The plan I had put in place required a train from Stanraer to Ayr on the first day. Looking at the timetables online showed a greatly reduced service with two early trains and one quite late. The best laid plans of mice and men… I made a last minute decision to take my Brompton as I can fold that up and put it on a bus. Thankfully, Ayrshire also has an excellent bus service. The internet makes it easy to plan rail or bus journeys in another country.
Day 1 Travelling to Ayr
The first day was pretty uneventful and even a bit tedious. I loaded the Brompton up with luggage, using the front mounted T-bag and also a saddle mounted Carradice saddle bag. The front bag probably would have held everything but I prefer to split the load a bit more evenly as I am concerned about over-loading the front luggage block of the Brompton. I’ve toured with this setup on the Brompton before and it works very well I think. The front bag removes easily and is easy to carry off the bike. It is straightforward if a bit of a fiddle to undo the leather buckles on the Carradice bag and I fit a shoulder strap to put it on my shoulder. The bike can then be folded and fitted into it’s own bag for carriage on a bus (I know Bus Eireann insist on covering folding bikes, not sure if Stagecoach in Scotland would require this but I took the bag and used it as a precaution).
I caught an early morning train in Derry which took me to Larne Harbour with a change at Yorkgate and was in good time for my midday sailing to Cairnryan.Two hours later I was in Cairnryan. I rode the short distance to the bus stop in Cairnryan (I found out later that the buses actually go into the ferry terminal so I didn’t need to do this) and waited on my bus. It was grey, misty and drizzling rain (from the ferry it had been difficult to see the coastline due to the mist) but the forecast was for the weather to get better. Weather of course is always the potential problem but I was equipped for all weather conditions. You don’t come to Scotland (or Ireland) for it’s excellent weather. It happens, but not very often.
Stagecoach service 360 took me to Ayr. The approximately fifty mile journey seems to take just a little over two hours and includes trips into many housing estates in Girvan. There is no doubt a train would have been faster and more comfortable but at £8 for the ticket, I feel it is excellent value for money and there is the added bonus that the bus goes up the A77 coast road and continues on the coast through Turnberry and on to Ayr so you get to see the Ayrshire coast and the iconic and beautiful Ailsa Craig in all it’s splendor. Not even the overcast weather could hide the natural beauty. I’ve seen it several times over the years but still am struck with awe on the approach to Girvan as Ailsa Craig comes into view. I was tempted to get off the bus for a walk along Girvan sea front and wait for a latter bus for the rest of the journey but I resisted. I really would love to cycle the A77 some day but I fear it is just too dangerous as it carries quite a lot of traffic and has many corners and hills with poor sightlines and many drivers drive faster and with less attention than they really should.
I arrived in Ayr at around a half past five. After re-assembling my bike and luggage I rode the short distance from the bus depot to the accommodation that I had pre-booked for the night. I had been to Ayr before on previous occasions and had a reasonable idea where I was going so didn’t bother looking it up on GPS. I was amazed at the respect for cyclists shown by Ayr motorists as I rode in rush hour traffic. After checking in, I had a shower and change of clothes before taking a walk along the Ayr’s famous seafront with it’s miles of golden beaches before getting something to eat and then relaxing. The drizzle and greyness had cleared and it was a nice bright evening. I was even treated to some interesting colours as the sun set.
Day 2 – The Ayrshire Coastal Path – Ayr to Largs.
The weather forecast was right. Saturday dawned bright and sunny with the potential of being a real hot, summer’s day. After a walk along the seafront before breakfast, I packed up and prepared my bike for the road. I had planned to cycle up the coast to the seaside resort of Largs. I was planning to do it off-road if possible. Online research suggested that the northern part of the Ayrshire Coastal Path was passable by bicycle although there didn’t seem to be any offical guide lines on this. I would give it a good try anyway! The distance would be about forty miles but I had all day to do it. My first rule of cycle touring is to always try not to put yourself under pressure for time! The Ayrshire Coastal Path runs longside and sometimes joins with Sustrans National Cycle Route 7 for a large part of this journey anyway so I wasn’t expecting any problems initially but they might come later. I was really looking forward to this ride.
Both NCN 7 and the Ayrshire Coastal Path are parts of much longer routes. I joined them on the seafront in Ayr as it was near where I had spent the night. Following the NCN 7 route signs from the seafront you initially have to go through the town (as you need to cross the bridge over the River Ayr) before heading north towards Newtown-on-Ayr and Prestwick before going inland for a bit and then going back to the coast at Saltcoats and on to Ardrossan.
I have driven through all these places in the past and didn’t consider them particularly interesting but it is very different when you cycle. You see it differently, you have the time to see what you miss when you drive. It’s why I love cycle touring so much. In a car you are going too fast, you can’t stop on a whim as it’s not always possible to park safely, you can’t interact with the people you meet along the way. The sense of sheer ecstacy I felt as the day unfolded and I surveyed the many beautiful beaches along this route can be barely be described. I was so worried a few months ago that I might never be able to do this again. I felt such a relief to feel I was touring again.
Also the realisation that it is sometimes best kept simple. It’s true the Ayrshire coast is mostly reasonably flat but today at least, it was pretty windy so slow going in places. I found the three-speed Brompton perfectly adequate. I love these bikes; the ease with which they can be folded up for transportation and storage and yet they are pretty decent to ride. In truely hilly terrain it would be different with a limited gear range but in normal terrain, I don’t find it any more difficult or tiring than a normal three-speed sports roadster with twenty-six inch wheels. They also carry luggage so well, a huge advantage that all small wheeled bicycles have. I was carrying a reasonably heavy load but it doesn’t seem to affect the handling of the bike at all. If I put this weight on the type of typical steel road frame I often ride, I’d be aware of it making the bike feel cumbersome and top heavy. With small wheels the weight is carried lower down so it doesn’t do that.
Riding a Brompton wins you friends too as people often want to know what it is. Despite being a bit windy, it was a warm sunny day and many people were out walking and cycling and if you are clearly a cycle tourist, people like to know where you’ve come from and where you’re going. Also, after two years of Covid restrictions, it is also nice to see people getting out and about and exploring again and enjoying the good weather.
At Irvine, you pass the Scottish Maritime Museum. I did stop for a look around although I didn’t actually go in. I just had a look at all the outdoor exhibits. Scotland, of course has a great maritime past and some of the world’s greatest ships were built on the Clyde, an area once renowned for ship building and other heavy industry including many railway locomotives and the beautiful cantilevered Forth Bridge. Steam hammers, rivetters and other tools from the shipywards are on display around the grounds and it’s fascinating to look at the sheer size of them. The Waverley would have been built using tools like these. Shipyards were dirty, noisy and dangerous places to work.
With my leisurely riding, sometimes unsurfaced paths and endless photo stops I was actually running later than I had planned but I was enjoying myself immensely. This was proving to be one of the most enjoyable routes I had ever done on a tour. It was mostly off-road and traffic free apart from through the towns along the coast (and the respect shown to cyclists from drivers is so different compared to the north of Ireland). I had already made my mind up to do it in the opposite direction on the return and this time to make time to visit the museum in Irvine. It wasn’t to be but I’ll come to that later.
From West Kilbride, you leave the NCN and join another part of the Ayrshire Coastal Path which partly runs along the coast from Portencross on either very quiet roads or gravel paths before eventually following a cycle path which runs mostly along side the A78 trunk road. It is a pretty decent facility and keeps you away from the stresses and dangers of the high speed traffic on the A78, (although it didn’t seem particularly busy on this evening at least). Eventually I arrived in Largs, located the B&B I had booked before going for a walk and getting dinner in a pub. With some small diversions off my signposted route and a slight navigational error, I had covered just over fifty miles for the day so a decent day’s mileage for touring. There were no big climbs but there was a noticeable headwind for a lot of it.
Largs is a well-known seaside resort. It’s located on the Firth of Clyde and is just over thirty miles from Glasgow so has always been a popular resort for the people of Glasgow. (The growth of places like Largs and other seaside resorts as well as the popularity of cruises on boats like the Waverley started in the late Victorian period when factory workers were allowed to have a weeks holidays for the first time so in places like Glasgow where there was a huge working population, there was the demand for railways and cruise ships for recreation as people could have a holiday for the first time. We take so much for granted today.) The name Largs comes from An Leargaidh in Scots Gaelic which translates as “The Slopes.” Settlements in this area go back a long time to the Neolithic period and the town has links with the Vikings. In 1263, a battle took place between at Largs between the Vikings and the Scottish army. The battle is commemorated by the “Pencil Monument” about a mile south of the town and is built in the form of a round tower. Largs played an important part in WWII.
I found the modern Largs a pleasant town with many interesting buildings, a nice beach and the pier from which a ferry service operates to Great Cumbrae. The pier is also a regular berth for the Waverley (paddle steamers are difficult to dock and not every pier is suitable) which of course was the reason I came here.
I had really enjoyed this ride, I was starting to feel like a cyclist again and it’s great to be on the bike in beautiful surroundings on a clear sunny day. Nothing else gives the same feeling of freedom as cycling. After everything that has happened in the past few years with the Covid travel restrictions and then being injured it is such a great feeling to be touring again.
Day 3 – At sea – Largs to Ardrishaig
The day dawned bright, sunny but windy. It wasn’t particularly hot for the time of year but it was clear blue skies, good visibility and beautiful torquise coloured sea. I wouldn’t be boarding the Waverley until about midday so I had went for a walk after breakfast and it was lovely to see such bright weather. I had wrapped up warm though as despite appearances it hadn’t warmed up much and I was expecting it to be colder at sea.
As the time came close, I made my way to the pier. There didn’t seem to be that many people at first but suddenly there was quite a crowd and the Waverley came into view. I was surpised by how much speed it carrying, certainly much more than I expected. The docking procedure is something worth of watching. One of the downsides of paddle ships is that they can’t move themselves sideways and have poor manourverability in general so ropes need to be thrown ashore and then tied before using the winch to pull Waverley into the pier to allow boarding.
The Waverley was untied from the pier and we were now at sea. Many people quickly disappeared below deck as it was quite cold and windy but those of us of a more weatherproof nature remained on deck. Despite the strong breeze, the sea was quite calm which was good. Waverley travels very smoothly and is much faster than I was expecting. You can hear the noise of the huge 216 inch diameter paddle wheels in the water but it is soothing and rhythmic rather than annoying.
The 693 ton Waverley was built by Shipbuilder A. & J. Inglis of Glasgow (part of the Belfast’s Harland and Wolff group) and named after Sir Walter Scott’s first novel. She took her maiden voyage from Craigendoran Pier to Loch Long on June 16th 1947 and was originally operated by London and North Eastern Railway company and later the Caledonian Steam Packet Company alongside other paddle steamers called the Lucy Ashton, Jeanie Deans and Talisman which I think are all named after characters in Scott’s novels. Waverley was actually the second ship to carry the name Waverley as it was built as a replacement for the original 1899 Waverley which was sank by enemy action in 1940 during the Dunkirk evacuations with a loss of almost four hundred lives. Paddle steamers actually played and important role in both world wars as they were useful for clearing mines as they don’t sit as deep in the water as most other ships. The original Waverley and her sister ships performed this role in both World Wars as well as being used during the Dunkirk evacuations and other troop carrying duties. Today, a little brass plaque visible on the outer deck remembers the tragic fate of the original Waverley.
Below deck you can see the beating heart of Waverley, the large triple expansion steam engine built by Rankin & Blackmore of Greenock. It is fired by oil and not coal as might be expected and runs at about 180 PSI of steam pressure. The bore of the smallest cylinder is 24“ and the engine has a stroke of 66“ It is rated at 2,100 horsepower and achieved speed trials of 18.34 Knots (approximately 21 MPH) at 57.8 RPM. Steam engines produce their maximum torque at much lower revs than internal combustion engines. It is fascinating to stand and watch the engine working and how it all operates; something you can’t see with any modern engine. You hear the clangs as instructions are telegraphed through from the bridge. The crankshaft drives both paddle wheels directly with no gearing and no differential which is the reason for the poor manouverability as the paddle wheels can’t turn independently of each other. It isn’t ideal I suppose but it works. Tthe reason these type of ships were used for coastal excursions was because they could sail in shallower water.
Back up on deck it is nice to just sit or stand and watch the scenery pass by. My Scottish geography is nowhere near good enough to name all the places we passed. I regret forgetting my binnoculars. I noted that a few other passengers were following the progress on OS Maps which would probably have been a good idea if you were interested in knowing the exact route but personally I wasn’t too bothered. Sometimes it’s nice to know exactly where you are, other times it’s nice just to admire the view without ove-rthinking it. Boat trips are a great way to see the coastline and I personally have always found being on board a boat very relaxing. I think it’s just about being able to take the time to relax, sit back and enjoy it. Like cycling, the speed on a boat is slow enough to take the time to enjoy it. On the Waverley, the large steam engine runs at very low revs and is very smooth and quiet and the noise of the paddle wheels in the water provide a relaxing rhythm in the background. It is definitely a nice experience to travel by paddle steamer and different from a modern diesel powered ship.
It took about three hours to reach the small port of Adrishaig where we would be going ashore for about ninety minutes. The wind caused problems with trying to tie the Waverley up as the wind blew the ropes back to the boat and the people on the shore couldn’t catch them. The wind was also causing the boat to drift away from the pier so we had to go back and re-enter the harbour a few times but we got there eventually with perserverance.
Ardrishaig is a nice little harbour town and it was nice to have time ashore to explore a little. I’ve been there once before when I cycled the length of the Crinan Canal as a little aside from cycling NCN 78. The name Ardrishaig is derived from the Scots Gaelic Rubha Àird Driseig which means the height of the “promontory of the small bramble.” The pier and harbour were built in 1873. There was some sort of event or market taking place in the town on our visit with stalls selling arts, crafts and some very nice food. There were pipers on the pier to meet us when we arrived and whilst we were ashore, a group of school children were taken on a trip up Loch Fyne on board the Waverley.
There was the same problems with the wind when trying to tie the ship up at the pier when they came back for us but again perserverance won the day. The return journey was made on a different route taking us past the Isle of Arran and the Kyles of Bute. The wind dropped and suddenly it was a glorious warm summer evening with many more people spending time out in the open. Below deck there is a bar and restaurant and the Sunday roast dinner I had bought earlier was very nice and very generous in terms of portions.
The Isle of Arran looks very beautiful and I was starting to form a plan to cycle around it. I believe the distance around the coast road is about fifty or sixty miles so it’s possible as a day ride. The return journey was more peaceful without the wind and it was now possible to hear the guide over the tannoy system point out places of interest as we passed. On the way out, his voice got lost in the wind. I had had a very nice day and it was with genuine sadness that I walked ashore in Largs again and watched the Waverley steam off into the horizon.
We can reflect that on the year of it’s 75th birthday, it is a truely beautiful ship and it’s brilliant that it has survived against all the odds to hopefully give enjoyment to many more for many years to come. Perhaps rising fuel costs and climate change concerns may make flying abroad less attractive in the future and cruisers may yet again return to coastal areas. New ships will be more efficient and easier to maintain but I doubt they will have the elegance and beauty of the Waverley which dates from a time when things weren’t just functional but were designed to be beautiful to look at as well.
My final night in Largs was a peaceful affair with a walk along the beach and putting my plans in place for the next few days. I had booked two nights in Ayr where I had hoped to visit things connected with Robert Burns but hadn’t thought much further ahead than that. I had no decided that I would cycle south along the Ayshire Coastal Path since I had enjoyed it so much on Saturday but would make time to visit the Irvine Maritime Museum for a proper look around this and I would get an early morning bus to Ardrossan with the Brompton for a trip to Arran the following day and then go in search of Burns on the Wednesday. It didn’t quite work out like that though….
Part II to follow soon…..