CTC Swallows and Amazons Five Ferries Expedition
Ardrossan – Tarbert – Ardrossan, 27 & 28 June 2018
All winter Captain Peter ‘Bluetooth’ Valente had been dreaming of leading an expedition of CTC Swallows and Amazons on a Five Ferries Expedition. His plan was to explore the unknown islands of Arran and Bute and the mini-fjords of Kintyre. Night after night he had sat in his first-floor eyrie, scouring the maps, wondering whether to go north from Brodick, under the towering heights of Goat’s Fell, or south around the gentler coasts and dally on the way to Lochranza.
Mother, aka Dame Iron Sides, had given permission for the expedition in a telegram. “Better crashed than old buffers, if not old buffers won’t crash.”
The large crew recruited to fill the ferries all assembled as arranged at Ardrossan Harbour, some by car, some by rail. But where were the two Amazons, Bosun Fairydust and Ship’s Navigator, Heather ‘Pooch’ Porteous? Frantic phone calls to Able Sea Person Sue ‘Skylark’ established they were doing an unscheduled tour of North Lanarkshire and even Ms Google had stopped talking to them. Luckily they resumed their journey to North Ayrshire and arrived just in time to catch the ferry.
The Ship’s Cat, Liz ‘Hipster’ Sutherland was purring a welcome to everyone when we discovered to our delight we had a stowaway. Yvonne had smuggled herself aboard and was trying to pass as the young Cabin Boy. Bosun Fairydust announced sadly that Ship’s Artist-in-Residence, Jude ‘the Guid’ was indisposed and would not be joining us. Ship’s Purser, Joan, quickly altered the registrations of these members of the expedition.
The anchor was raised, the painter untied from the dock and the good ship MV Isle of Arran sailed smoothly from Ardrossan setting her course for Brodick. The sea was like glass and the sky blue, with only the faintest breeze from the north, as we made good time of the crossing. Cap’n Bluetooth gave us his orders; “Slather yourselves with sun-tan lotion as we don’t want to call on the Ship’s Sawbones, ‘Smiley’ Riley, to relieve any sunburn. And set your electronic navigation devices beforehand as we want to leave promptly as soon as the ship docks.” “Aye, aye cap’n” we all chorused.
1st Mate Davie-boy ‘Red Card’ Lambie took charge of the disembarkation of the expedition’s equipment of bicycles, stores, luggage and stuffed bumbags, as sported by Bosun. This was quickly distributed among the expedition members and we set off south to Lamlash. It was soon apparent that ‘Hills’ Hilary should be appointed as Ship’s Lookout, as the call went up “look out, Hills coming past” on every descent, closely followed by her side-kick Able Sea Person Mo and pursued by 2nd Mate, Colin ‘Shakin’ Stevenson.
The expedition continued smoothly through the sea-side towns of Lamlash, with its fine views of the mysterious Holy Island, and Whiting Bay, round the south of the island to Laggs Hotel. Here the Cooks’ Collective of Bosun Fairydust, and Able Sea Persons Jan ‘Wee Midge’ Ure and Skylark organised great slabs of Italian ciabatta filled rolls, piping bowls of hot soup, followed by slabs of lemon drizzle cake and all washed down with lashings of lemon San Pellegrino fizz and cappuccino coffee. The expedition took an ethnographic interest in a native priest and his ritual use of alcohol with his parishioners. It mostly seemed to involve a chant of “your round, Jimmy”.
After luncheon, Ship’s Blogger ‘Nosewipe’ volunteered to be back-marker. The peloton had crested the first steep hill when Ship’s Engineer, Ian ‘Beanie’ Robertson was called upon to earn his keep; by fixing his own puncture. This was tricky to do and so the two lost touch with the main expedition. While working hard to catch up they kept being overtaken and then slowed down by an annoying ‘Dog-Trotters’ red camper van. Rushing through Blackwaterfoot, without so much as getting their feet wet, they managed to regain touch with the Ship’s Cat and the expedition’s Chief Botanist, Phyto-Phil Rankin.
The laggards wearily drew into Lochranza to discover an advance party, led by 1st Mate Red Card, had taken an earlier ferry to Claonaig to prepare the expedition’s camping grounds and feeding arrangements at Tarbert. The remoaners sat participating in the native ritual of imbibing cool and fortifying glasses of Arran Blonde, Purser Joan flexed her quads, and the Ship’s Cat, who unusually loves water, and Able Sea Person Skylark enjoyed a wee douk, before all embarked on the next ferry.
As they disembarked at Claonaig and wound up the hill along the narrow single track road, the ‘Dog Trotter’ camper van pushed rudely past them. There was much muttering about the dangers of such driving and the antagonism shown towards cyclists. Nevertheless good time was made over the hill and down the main road to food and lodgings.
“Be washed and scrubbed and ready to eat by 7.30” called Cap’n Bluetooth. The Cooks’ Collective had laid a groaning table of haddock, chips and peas, lamb shank and steak pie, with foaming pints of ale to wash it down. “Be at the ferry terminal at 9.00 tomorrow” were the last orders from the 1st Mate. After a short turn along the harbour, we crawled tired and happy into our own beds and fell fast asleep.
Next morning there was porridge, kippers and a full Scottish breakfast with thick slices of toast and marmalade washed down with pots of tea and coffee. It was another day of bright, strong sunshine and we all assembled cheerily to catch our third ferry to Portavadie on the Cowal Peninsula. As we made the crossing the friendly native boatman pointed out a dolphin jumping in the bay.
We climbed steadily out of Portavadie into the wooded hills until we came to a crossroads. “Decision time” said Cap’n Peter, “either over the hill to Tighnabruaich or the longer and flatter road round the peninsula. I can’t promise you any wildebeest on these empty plains, but some fine South Devons and dolphins in the bay.” Only the Cabin Boy wanted to go over the hill and promptly stowed away somewhere else, never to be seen again on this expedition. The rest of us grumbled round the peninsula, “we thought you said this was flat” but were rewarded with stunning views of Arran floating over the water in the haze.
Cooks’ Collective managed to rustle us up some coffee and scones in a small, expedition-friendly cafe in Tighnabruaich. “You’ll need to take on board some provisions now” they warned, “Navigator says there’s a long hill to climb and no more food for 17 miles.”
The hill lay lang and steep and all in the village, it seemed, decided to drive it as we puffed up the narrow track. We were soon spread out and although the road widened, we still had a long way to the viewpoint at the top. Able Sea Person Skylark had a mechanical and she and Navigator Pooch had to stop.
The rest reached the viewpoint and crossed the road into the lay-by. We admired the view down the Kyles of Bute and waited for the back-markers. As they appeared over the brow of the hill, there was suddenly a stream of on-coming traffic and they had to wait in the road before crossing safely. To our horror, coming over the brow, we saw the dreaded ‘Dog Trotter’ camper van. “Jump in the ditch” yelled the Ship’s Sculptor Dougie as the van roared past, with the driver’s face in the windscreen contorted in an evil grin. “OMG he was about to mow you down” said Nosewipe, “we came very close to having a horrible end to our expedition”. (Dramatic license has been taken here.)
Nothing daunted, we caught our breath, layered on more sun-tan lotion and insect repellent and scooted down the hill, with the tarmac melting beneath our tyres. Not even another long climb to our next hostelry and ferry at Colintraive was going to spoil our day. We shared this most hospitable stop with a band of natives on e-bikes, and felt envious and uppity in equal measure.
At this point Cap’n Bluetooth decided to split the expedition. Those who were cycling from Wemyss Bay back to Ardrossan would press ahead. Along the way Cooks’ Collective seem to have whipped up frothings of ice-cream in Rothesay and fish and chips when they safely arrived tired and hungry in Ardrossan.
Those who were catching a train home from Wemyss Bay – Ship’s Cat, Botanist, Engineer and Blogger – dawdled along through Bute to Rothesay. Even Lookout and Able Sea Person Mo were taking it easy. The Cat and Blogger went for another douk, while the Botanist was stung by rare marine plants swirling round his ankles. They arrived in Rothesay and were straight onto the ferry – no time even to enjoy an ice-cream – then the train, to swelter through a long, hot journey home to Edinburgh with the rail-tracks melting beneath their wheels.
It was a tiring end to what we all agreed had been a most excellent adventure (although there was nobody called Bob or Ted on it). Nobody there could now say the islands of Arran or Bute or the mini-fjords of Kintyre were unexplored. In some it re-kindled their love of islands; for others their love of continental cycling on melting tarmac in the heat. And for all it was the joy of cycling in sharing, considerate and happy company. While we’re sure those who were with him at the end heartily thanked Cap’n Bluetooth for all his efforts, we all echo, “Swallows and Amazons, Five Ferries, Three Cheers for Peter”.
From an idea by Fairydust