May 28, 2017

Stranded in Scotland

What century is this? Oh yeah, the 21st century.

British Airways had a “power outage” yesterday, which somehow triggered an epic technology meltdown. All flights through London (both airports) were cancelled. The news reports showed tired, angry travelers packed like sardines—just trying to exit the terminal. Mountains of luggage. My itinerary, a day earlier, would have landed me in that morass. [I'm feeling lucky.]

This morning I woke to the expected news: my flight from Edinburgh to London had been cancelled. Contact the airline to re-book.

Called, and got a recorded message that said they weren't taking calls.

Their website was reduced to a plain-text message that said they're working on the problem.

This will be one heck of an expensive power outage. Upgrading their systems, or running hot spares, would have been less costly. (Just a hunch.)

I found myself a flight home (through Dublin), booked another night in the motel, and strolled into town.

Person abseiling from the Forth Bridge, South Queensferry, Scotland
There were people rappelling down from the Forth Bridge! I learned a new word: abseil.

Person abseiling from the Forth Bridge, South Queensferry, Scotland
Teams wore colorful t-shirts for the charitable cause they were supporting: Alzheimer's, hospice, cancer. This was a fund-raising event.

Maid of the Forth boat docked at Inchcolm, Scotland
No dangling from a bridge for me. I boarded the Maid of the Forth, with a ticket to visit Inchcolm.

Incholm Abbey, Inchcolm, Scotland
In addition to the remains of an abbey that dates back to the 12th century, there are military remnants from the island's role in defending the Forth during World Wars I and II.

Gun turret atop rock outcropping, Inchcolm, Scotland
It was possible to wander freely through the site, including climbing to the top of the tower. Which (of course) I had to do. Not just for the view, but because the treacherous route to the roof would never be permitted back home. [Never. “Someone could get hurt!”]

Warning sign  "Please descend stairs slowly" above steep wooden stairs through a stone opening in the tower at Inchcolm Abbey, Inchcolm, Scotland
Before you reach the steep stairs, you must first squeeze up a tight, spiraling passage of shallow stone steps. No handrails. No margin for error. It actually was frightening—and thrilling. Keep in mind: what goes up, must come down ...

But oh, the views all around! The city of Edinburgh, the three bridges, open water leading to the North Sea. Not to mention a dizzying perspective on the cloister, below.

View of the cloisters from the top of the tower at Inchcolm Abbey, Inchcolm, Scotland
Back in the 13th century, of course, it would have been impossible for me to enter these chambers. Eight hundred years later, the plaster is gone but the walls and architectural details endure.

View through a series of arched doorways in the Chapter House, Inchcolm Abbey, Inchcolm, Scotland
There is a large population of seagulls on the island, and they defend their ground-level nests fiercely. They nest also amidst the garden ornaments on “Inch Gnome,” a nearby bit of rock. One of the gnomes holds a fishing rod, its line dipping into the water.

Inch Gnome, rocky island of garden gnomes and nesting sea gulls, near Inchcolm, Scotland
Before returning to our berth, we navigated under the three bridges. A fellow traveler explained that the Forth Road Bridge is outfitted with sensors monitoring for the sound of those snapping strands of cable (12,000 strands, in all).

View of the Forth Road Bridge from the Firth of Forth, South Queensferry, Scotland
When it opens, the Queensferry Crossing will offload heavy traffic from the older bridge.

View of the Queensferry Crossing from the Firth of Forth, South Queensferry, Scotland
The bridges are high enough, and the channel deep enough, for a floating hotel (er, cruise ship) to sail through, to the sea.

Cruise ship passing under the Forth Bridge, Firth of Forth, South Queensferry, Scotland
The Forth Bridge is not just for abseiling ... it's a very busy rail link.

Train traversing the Forth Bridge, South Queensferry, Scotland
A “me first” attitude did not serve this driver well. A little courtesy, instead, would have served everyone well on the narrow main street in South Queensferry.

Traffic jam on narrow main street, South Queensferry, Scotland
No problem for me, on foot, as I wrapped up my bonus day in the U.K.

May 27, 2017

The Firth of Forth

Accommodations in Edinburgh were scarce—and expensive—when I made plans for this trip. Turns out it's a “bank holiday” weekend, and on top of that there's a marathon in the city tomorrow.

Wet rooftops glisten in the sunlight along Farquhar Terrace, with the Queensferry Crossing bridge in the background, South Queensferry, Scotland
I opted to stay in nearby South Queensferry, along the Firth of Forth.

I'd captured some photos of the famous bridges on Friday evening; now that I had my bearings, I decided to get a different perspective—from the deck of the Forth Road Bridge.

Mid-span view of a tower and cables of the Forth Road Bridge from the west side walkway, looking south; Queensferry, Scotland
After the rain, the air was cool; I regretted not bringing a jacket. If it weren't so chilly, I would walk all the way across the span (to North Queensferry). If only I had a bicycle ...

Ah, well ... walk faster, stay warm.

Sign readnig Welcome to the Kingdom of Fife, north side of the Forth Road Bridge, North Queensferry, Scotland
I crossed to Fife on the west side of the bridge, with an unobstructed view of the Queensferry Crossing (under construction).

View of the Queensferry Crossing bridge from North Queensferry, Scotland
I thought I would walk back on the east side, with unobstructed views of the historic Forth Bridge, but the walkway on that side was closed. When it was constructed in the late 19th century, it was the longest cantilever bridge in the world. Still in full service, it also has the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View of the Forth Bridge, lit by the setting sun, from beneath the Forth Road Bridge, North Queensferry, Scotland
The younger Forth Road Bridge, a suspension design, has not fared so well. The deck of the bridge hangs from what look like a pair of giant cables. They're really housings that encase the bundle of actual cables, some of which are snapping inside—weakened by corrosion over the past 50-odd years.

The solution is to build yet a third bridge, the cable-stayed Queensferry Crossing, which is due to open later this year. In the eyes of modern beholders, it's a graceful design. Yet, I imagine the same was said of the other two bridges, when they first spanned the Forth.

Sun reflecting on the waters of the Firth of Forth, framed by two pillars of the Queensferry Crossing, as seen from the Forth Road Bridge, Queensferry, Scotland
The time approaches for me to take my leave of Scotland, to return home to the world of work.

Edinburgh Castle

Entrance to Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
My plan for today was to explore Edinburgh Castle. There is a long history to this bit of rock, with fortresses dating back to the 12th century (and evidence of early human habitation more than a millennium before that).

View of Edinburgh Castle from below, Edinburgh, Scotland
High atop this rock, the city was spread out below; it was clear enough to see the Forth bridges in the distance. The cables of the new road bridge towered over a hillside like three sets of sails.

View of the city from Edinburgh Castle, clear to the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh, Scotland
Being a child of the New World, my image of a castle trends more toward fairy-tale palace than fortress. This was a fortress, with only a few of its earliest structures remaining (having been bombarded so many times over the centuries).

Cannon's view of the city through a wall at Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
We passed through rooms in the Royal Palace where Mary Queen of Scots once lived, and toured vaults that housed prisoners as recently as World War II. We saw the crown jewels, displayed alongside the historic coronation stone on which the next King of England will be crowned.

Clock tower of the Royal Palace, Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
The wooden beams supporting the roof of the Great Hall were magnificent, and all the more amazing that they date back to the early 16th century (not having been destroyed by fire or bombardment).

Bowed wooden beams forming the roof of the Great Hall, Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
The one o'clock hour is marked by a single blast from a howitzer. Why not noon? Or three o'clock? One o'clock was the frugal choice, explained the district gunner: consuming just one shell.

The Mons Meg, a fearsome medieval weapon and one of the largest cannons in the world, is here. Imagine the destructive power of a 20-inch, 400-pound cannonball.

Mons Meg cannon, Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
Just as I sought a place to sit in the café, one of the staff was removing “reserved” signs from a few tables. He motioned to me—best seat in the house, he explained. And so it was, looking out over the city from high atop the castle's cliff.

View of castle wall and tower from the café, Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
I strolled down the Royal Mile, admiring only the exterior of St. Giles' Cathedral. There appeared to be a service in progress; a gentleman came outside to encourage a bagpiper to relocate a few blocks away. The area was teeming with tourists; the expected street performers were drawing the expected crowds. I didn't linger.

St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland
I wandered instead through the Grassmarket, bustling with market stalls, and found my way to Victoria Street. I'd been hoping to find somewhere to enjoy a cup of tea and a pastry, and got lucky when I found La Barantine (and managed to score a table).

Curved stone buildings, Victoria Street, Edinburgh, Scotland
I wasn't confident about the bus schedule, so I opted to return to South Queensferry in the early evening. Mass transit is evidently the way to get around, even in full formal attire.

Two couples in formal wear waiting at a bus stop, Edinburgh, Scotland
The rain held off—mostly—during the day. It poured during dinner (lucky timing!), and then stopped. With hours of daylight remaining, an after-dinner stroll was in order ...

May 26, 2017

Royal Botanic Garden

Our tour over, we said our goodbyes as people were deposited at the airport and train station in Edinburgh.

Blooming rhododendrons near glasshouses, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland
My plan was to extend my stay, and with the afternoon ahead I decided to explore Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden.

Dining alone is rarely boring. The flow in the Garden's café was unclear, so it wasn't surprising when a small group made their way to the terrace and seated themselves. When the hostess arrived and explained the protocol (i.e., wait your turn), they grew more and more indignant, till they stormed out. Another diner voiced his opinion: “Stupid English.” Long history here ...

Shady grove with blooming rhododendrons, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland
The cool shade of the garden was most welcome. After so much rain and cool weather, today's temperature reached 84F. [Go figure.]

Yellow rhodondendron flowers, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland
So many varieties, and colors, of azaleas and rhododendrons!

Tree-size rhododendron in bloom, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland
Towering, tree-sized rhododendrons.

Giant sequoias, John Muir Grove, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland
With plants gathered from around the world, I wondered if there were any redwoods. [Yes, and healthy specimens, far from their native land.] Giant sequoias—a tribute to John Muir, of course.

Arched window of the stone pavilion, interior decorated with shells, pebbles, and tiles, Queen Mother's Memorial Garden, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland
I found the Queen Mother's Memorial Garden, which included a beautiful little building. The interior was studded with native seashells, pebbles, and pine cones collected by Scottish schoolchildren.

Close-up of seashells and tiles, interior of stone pavilion, Queen Mother's Memorial Garden, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland
It took some circling before I found the “city view” area—an open expanse of lawn popular with families. Bonus on this hot day: an ice-cream stand.

View of Edinburgh Castle from Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland
As closing time approached, I wondered how they would flush all the visitors off the grounds. As I made my way toward an exit, a sonorous (but booming) voice began announcing “Clo-sing time!” No loudspeaker, no bullhorn; just a man with ample ability to project his voice.

View of the city across the boating pond at Inverleith Park, Edinburgh, Scotland
I strolled through Inverleith Park on my way to the bus that would return me to South Queensferry (and my hotel).

Road bridges across the Firth of Forth at sunset, South Queensferry, Scotland
There, the sun set on a lovely day, over the Firth of Forth.

Rail bridge across the Firth of Forth, South Queensferry, Scotland

May 25, 2017

Drumlanrig Castle

The last day of our tour dawned with fog overhead. (A familiar sight, back home.)

National Cycle Route sign detached from its post on a foggy morning, near Mabie Forest, Scotland
A propped-up sign heralded our turn onto a National Cycle Route.

Cycling along a rural road outside Dumfries, Scotland
After three long-ish days, today's route would be shorter—but eventful.

Sunlight breaking through the clouds, lighting up a field, outside Dumfries, Scotland
The fog began to burn off, striping the fields with sunlight.

Lamb stretching its neck through the fence toward a head of dandelion seeds, outside Dumfries, Scotland
A curious lamb bounded over to check us out when we regrouped. (Or maybe it just wanted that fuzzy head of dandelion seeds.)

River upstream of the Glenkiln Reservoir, Scotland
We kicked back with our morning tea break next to the river that feeds the Glenkiln Reservoir, near the (former) Glenkiln Sculpture Park. (After one piece was stolen, they were removed from public display. This is why we can't have nice things.)

On the outskirts of Dunscore, we voted in favor of detouring into the town, hoping to find a restroom. The pub was closed. Our guide spotted a man in his front yard: “Hello, is there a public restroom in town?” “No,” he replied; “but you can use ours!” We pointed out that there were eight of us ... He opened the front door and called out to his wife “Company's coming!”

Carved and polished walking sticks by Martin, Dunscore, Scotland
Apparently he time-trialed bicycles in his youth; in his retirement now, he carves walking sticks. Extraordinary works of art. See the glistening trout atop one in the photo? In his workshop, one piece in progress featured the head of a black Labrador retriever with a limp pheasant in its mouth.

Cattle atop a hillock surrounded by pasture, near Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
Among the stranger sights of the day were these cows atop the only hillock among acres and acres of flat pasture. Could it be, flat is boring?

Our final ride would end in style, at Drumlanrig Castle. We spread out in a line across the width of the long drive leading up to the castle, attempting to finish in close formation. We were a rag-tag line to begin with (some riders more comfortable with riding elbow-to-elbow than others) when ... the roaring sound of an approaching fighter jet got louder ... and LOUDER ... It passed between us and the castle, just above the treetops . And I do mean just ... above ... the treetops. It couldn't have been in view for more than a second or two, but that was long enough to discern the detailed contours of its underside. It was so loud and so fast, there wasn't time to be startled.

Group photo in our Wilderness Scotland bike jerseys in front of Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
Forget the red carpet, give me a fighter jet flyby any day.

Picnic spread of bread, cheese, quiche, salad, and more, at Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
Our picnic spread was a special treat today, sourced during yesterday's visit to the Loch Arthur Creamery and Farm Shop—topped off with strawberries and cream!

View of pink sandstone Drumlanrig Castle, at an angle from the gardens, Scotland
While we were there, the Duke's flag went up—meaning, he was there.

Formal garden, Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
We had hoped to tour the castle, but it was closed for a private event. The gardens were open; the women went exploring. The men napped.

Path through flowering rhododendrons and trees, Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
There were formal gardens, as well as woodlands, and glorious rhododendrons in full bloom.

Three women on the group swing, Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
There was a playground area, where we got into some mischief.

Blooming thistle, Drumlanrig Castle garden, Scotland
And of course, thistle. What trip to Scotland could be complete without a nod to the thistle?

The long drive leading up to the castle is flanked by trees along its entire length.

View of circular lawn and the entrance drive to Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
Wait a minute ... the castle was closed, how could I capture this view?

It turned out the Duke had noticed us frolicking about the grounds and was curious. Staff members ushered us through the gate to pose on the grand staircase. We were interviewed, and might even be featured in one of his newsletters.

Seven smiling cyclists and two guides on the front steps of Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
Before reaching the castle, we had visited another historic site today—the blacksmith shop once owned by the family of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who may (or may not have) created the first pedal-driven bicycle around 1839. Apart from a plaque and an explanatory poster, there was little to see there; the building is privately owned.

Replica of Kirkpatrick Macmillan's bicycle design, Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
Our good fortune continued when the Duke's staff generously unlocked the visitor center so we could see their replica of the machine. The pedals are connected to rods that, when pushed, cause the rear wheel to turn.

Horse's head carving at the front of the frame, replica of Kirkpatrick Macmillan's bicycle, Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
I was charmed by the horse's head at the front; earlier machines were apparently known as “hobby horses” (though they bear little resemblance to the toys that more commonly share that name).

On the last ride of our Five Countries Tour, we covered some 34 miles and climbed 1,745 feet. Our guide warned us to expect a hillclimb; when we reached the top, another rider blurted out “You call that a hill?!” (just as I was about to utter the same words). After humoring us through so many trepidatious days, our guides laughed at our disdain.

Trailer loaded with all the bikes, Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
The picnic gear was stowed, the bikes loaded up for the last time.

At dinner, our guides surprised us with a slide show featuring memorable moments shared over the past 11 days. The following story was told: “Every evening I'd clean the bikes, scouring brake pad residue from the rims. Except ... Pat's bike. Her rims always looked like I'd already cleaned them, and her brake pads were hardly worn.” (Ah, well ...)

Despite my wretched condition, I managed to bike more than 387 miles, over hills and dales, climbing more than 23,000 feet.

Overview map with all cycling segments plotted, Wilderness Scotland Five Countries Tour, May 2017
Pedal on
Pedal on, pedal on, pedal on for miles
Pedal on