Peddling two-wheeled dreams, Tim Dawson (1997)

Original article that first appeared in The Sunday Times 22 June 1997

Those parts of Scotland that lie between Edinburgh and Glasgow do not receive a good press. It is hard, travelling from one city to the other, to form a favourable impression of that which separates west from east. The journey by road is by repute the most boring stretch of motorway in Britain.

The train is not much better. Like the car trip, it is difficult not to resent the time it takes. Somehow, the motley assortment of shale-oil bings, derelict mine workings and a disintegrating old hospital obscure whatever views there are. The more jaded with the journey you are, however, the more of a revelation the Edinburgh to Glasgow cycle route will be. Between Scotland’s largest cities lies a huge expanse of stunning countryside. And you can ride through its heart on a tiny rolling ribbon of road from which faster forms of transport are invisible. It takes you across moorland, beside dense forest, over fields and past a mighty reservoir. The melancholy remnants of long-dead industries punctuate the landscape and sculpture is sprinkled along the route.

First the bad news. The Edinburgh-Glasgow railway path joins the towns of Airdrie and Bathgate, not the rival cities. Sustrans, the lottery-funded charity that developed the route, plans to complete the track by the millennium or thereabouts. Until then, you have to get to the start by more conventional means. It is quite possible to cycle from the centre of both cities by braving big fast roads. It is a short drive, however, from either city or you can take your bike on the train to Airdrie or Bathgate. The route’s other great drawback is awful signposting.

Access points to the path are hardly marked at all, and the information boards along the route are too complicated. In Bathgate, at the centre of the town, turn down Whitburn Road. Go past the John Menzies Jubilee Social Club and pick up the path that starts beside the Ani Bradken steel works. In Airdrie it is slightly easier – head out of town on the A89 and look for the sign for Drumgelloch station – the route starts where the platform ends. Once you are on the track, stick with it, and do not take turnings to the north or south.

Perhaps because it is hidden, to join the path is to enter a different world. On the line of an old railway, some of the route lies in a cutting whose steep sides are thick with indecently vigorous greenery. Wild orchids grow on the banks, swifts and kestrels swoop overhead. Only the bits of old platform that rise from the grassy bank give away its original use. Although it celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, the route is little known. England’s flagship cycle path, from Bristol to Bath, has become the velocipede’s equivalent of the M25, such is the two-wheeled congestion.

By contrast, you can sometimes pedal through West Lothian and North Lanarkshire without seeing another human being. Riding among the sheep and cows on the first part of the route out of Bathgate has an almost eerie feel. The path is a fabulously smooth strip, barely 6ft wide. Away from traffic noise and any real signs of development, only the wind in your ears fills the quiet.

The sculpture along the way celebrates the area’s industries, present and past. At Bathgate stands a massive pouring crucible. There is a series of collapsing metal boxes at one turn and a pair of fishermen fashioned from scrap canisters further on. Best of all is the gateway at Aramadale. To enter or leave the countryside proper, you must pass through a massive, rusting steel keyhole. The real quality of the sculpture is that it blurs the distinction between that which has been specifically placed beside the path and the bits and pieces left over from another age. A curious concrete telephone box in the middle of a field, for example, has all the sculptural quality of some of the carefully designed pieces, but is untouched by artists’ hands.

As the path reaches the Hillend reservoir it swoops down along the shore. Across the water lies a dense green forest, at the far end the out line of Caldercruix peeps over the trees. There are boats for hire and a pub, the only refreshment stop for those without a well-stocked saddlebag. Tony Grant, regional manager of Sustrans in Scotland, accepts cycling is not yet a part of the culture here. But he believes as more routes open, a new generation of cyclists will be attracted to them. “Our real objective is to get people who don’t use their bikes at all on to the paths,” he says. “Our routes may never be as busy as some in England because they don’t run through such dense centres of population. But you can be sure of an uncongested, safe ride, whatever your previous experience on a bike.”

Airdrie-Bathgate is just one of several cycle routes now open in Scotland. The oldest and most popular links Glasgow with Loch Lomond. Pick up the path on the river side of the SECC, from where it goes down the Clyde and, at Dumbarton, up beside the banks of the Leven. Dundee has just opened a 26-mile route around the city that takes in railway paths, minor roads and specially constructed tracks – it is fairly well signposted from the city centre. And in Fife, plans for a massive network of cycle paths are well under way. A series of routes in the Howe of Fife open this summer – the Alloa to Dunfermline route should follow closely behind.

For the really ambitious, Sustrans now produces comprehensive maps of its routes from Carlisle to Glasgow and Glasgow to Inverness. Both routes take in minor roads as well as converted railway paths. Their combined length is more than 400 miles, so plan for plenty of practice runs before you set out to cross the country.

Tim Dawson June 97

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