For weeks I’ve been dying to get off the mainland but had struggled to find a good spot that was within commuting distance. Typically it was looking through photos from my Quad Rocks trip that made me realise Cumbrae might just fit the bill.
Cumbrae is around a mile off the Ayrshire coast in the Firth of Clyde and is connected to the mainland by a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry service from Largs. I jumped on the train at Paisley Gilmour Street straight after work and headed for the coast with lots of bored looking commuters. I’ve no idea what everyone else on that train had planned for the night but I looked to be the only person who was excited by the trip that lay ahead.
Arriving in Largs I was greeted with a light sea breeze (no midges!) and bright sunshine. I couldn’t quite figure out what the queueing arrangement was for the ferry, but didn’t work out why until I got onboard: I was the only foot passenger! It’s hard to comprehend how such a short crossing can change your surroundings so much. You are transported from the hustle and bustle of Largs’ busy promenade with hordes of holidaymakers sampling the the town’s famous ice cream to the deserted rocky shores around Cumbrae Slip in ten short minutes.
Rather than taking the direct route to my planned sleeping spot I jumped on the bus to Millport, the only settlement on Cumbrae, in search of a more peaceful dinner. I jumped on the bus to save some time and was the only passenger on it until we got to Keppel Pier, where the Waverly, the “last sea-going paddle steamer in the world” had just departed on one of it’s traditional summer cruises.
Seagulls seem to be getting more devious on the Clyde islands and you have to be on your guard if you’re eating fish and chips outdoors. Thankfully I only had two lethargic gulls for company as I watched some small yachts sail by on a flat calm sea and I erased all thoughts of work from my mind. Sitting amongst palm trees in warm summer sun certainly helps with that! I’ve never seen Millport so quiet and was all the more grateful for it.
Then it was time to head into the hills. There are two ‘main’ roads on Cumbrae, one around the coast and one linking the farms in the middle. The Inner Circle Road takes you gently uphill past the Cathedral of the Isles, one of Europe’s smallest cathedrals, and you quickly arrive in quiet farmland. There were pheasants running around and swallows and swifts performed aerobatics while catching their dinner. I could hear a young buzzard calling from somewhere out of sight.
Behind me views of the lower Firth opened up with the rocky prominence of Little Cumbrae taking centre stage. As the road winds it’s way towards the summit you’ll catch glimpses of the Ayrshire coast and eventually of the majestic mountains of Arran. The views are quickly hidden again and while I was taking photos a farmer drove past in his pickup. I assume he was going to feed the cows because as soon as he passed the cows on both sides of the road all started running towards me! Slightly unnerved I picked up the pace.
The highest point on Cumbrae is marked by the Glaid Stone, a large sandstone boulder that has been etched with the names for visitors for decades, if not centuries. There’s a small parking area with a picnic bench and half a dozen benches positioned to take advantage of the spectacular views. I’d been a little worried about it being too busy to bivvy but was relieved when I turned the final bend to find it deserted.
To the north there you can see the Arrochar Alps and Ben Lomond beyond the Cowal hills. It feels like you could reach out and touch Bute, with wide and sweeping Kilchattan Bay almost directly opposite you. Beyond Bute is Knapdale and Kintyre between them the mountains of north Arran, where I spent every childhood family holiday.
Looking back across the Fairlie Roads the late evening sunlight was catching on the Quad Rocks and the whitewashed houses of Largs had an pink-orange glow. The swifts came closer than I’ve ever experienced, to the point where I could feel the air from their flapping wings as they picked off the flies and midges around me as the wind dropped.
Not a single person joined me to take in these views in the final two hours of daylight, so I sat on the Glaid Stone and read 1984 on my Kindle. It felt a wee bit rebellious to sit on a rock when there were benches all around! The seas are always busy here, so I took a little break to watch a container ship slip by almost silently on route to Belfast and wondered what it was carrying.
After a lot of faffing I decided to bivvy in the lee of a little radio communications hut just west of the summit in case the wind got up again during the night. It also meant I’d drift off to sleep with a view of the Arran mountains. Bliss.
I think I can finally say I’m used to bivvying. I slept like a baby! I’d set an alarm for 4:30 so I could watch the sun rise, but hadn’t taken into consideration the Renfrew Hills, so I had half an hour to get my new solar phone charger set up on the trig point before the sun split the sky.
I hadn’t brought any breakfast food with me (big mistake!) as I’d planned to grab something in Largs on the way to work but hadn’t really considered just how long that would take so I nipped back into my bivvy bag and got another hour’s sleep!
After my second snooze I woke up to some company. A cat! There was a buzzard overhead again and the swifts were out in force to gather some breakfast. Mist was rising from the two lochans nearby as the cool night air was warming up and there was that overwhelming feeling of a new day beginning all around me.
Following the calls of the buzzard I headed north, down the hill towards the ferry. The cat took off across the fields and was replaced by dozens of rabbits. Mount Stuart House on Bute was lit up by the low sun and looked magnificent standing out from the forests.
By the road there’s an old well which has obviously been pretty important in the past judging by it’s size and intricate design. As the road looped around the central hills I was joined again by the cat, which it turns out belongs to one of the farms. Passing the national watersport centre there were no signs of life and the only sound was a light clinking of ropes against metal masts on yachts moored at the end of the jetty.
At the ferry slipway I was joined by a totally different commuter crowd, including a fireman, nurse, vet and a group of office workers. I think I’d be happy with this kind of commute! Making it in time for the first ferry of the day meant I actually had time to go home and hand up my kit to air off before heading to work, an unexpected pleasure!
Until reading Alastair Humphreys’ blog I’d never have considered trying to do this kind of thing on a work night, but my 9:30 – 5:30 day still leaves lots of time for adventure, just to live a little.
I left work on time, got a train and a ferry to an island, had dinner by the sea, climbed a hill and camped on it. I came off a hill, took a ferry and a train and still made it to work 20mins early. So don’t live to work. Work to live and get some adventure in your life. I’ll never look back!