Perth, Saturday 24 June          Day 56          1385 miles

Dear Jamie,

Spending the week resting and sightseeing in Perth after a successful week's cycling round the coast of Fife.

Monday, from Edinburgh to Stirling, was wet and the last of three solid weeks of headwind. Since then tailwinds or light breezes, and hour after hour of wonderful sunshine. The best week since the first week for both weather and mileage. But this time I'm merely tired, not injured.

It's been a week of bridges from the little old bridge at Stirling, now only used for pedestrians, to the mighty road and rail bridges over the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay. And palaces and castles and monuments and statues to all the heroes and villains of Scottish history. The sprawling chemical works at Grangemouth and the picturesque fishing villages of Pittenweem, Anstruther, and Crail. And all the while the rolling green countryside (so much like Oxfordshire rather than the rugged Highlands of Scotland) and the unnaturally calm sea glistening in the sun.

This postcard shows the castle where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned, gave up her claim to the Crown, escaped and fled south to exile in England.

Lots of love,


Next morning the sunshine had disappeared leaving a grey, muggy day. It rained from Granton to Queensferry where I stopped to photograph the mighty arches of the Forth Rail Bridge. An unexpected bonus from the weekend in Fifeshire had been to cross both the road bridge and the rail bridge for the first time. Today I would ignore both and cycle round the Firth of Forth by way of Stirling.

Thunderous clouds swirled over the hills to the north but the rain kept off for the rest of the day. Indeed it was warm enough to lie down for a sleep at lunchtime in the shelter of a hedge in a lay-by just past the The Binns, ancestral home of Labour MP Tam Dalyell. It was not a true lay-by but one of those stretches of the original highway cut-off by a road improvement scheme to ease a bend or improve a junction. There have been so many such schemes that I suspect an entirely duplicate road system lurks secretly behind the hedges of Britain's main roads to tempt future archaeologists.

I had to wear my Goretex jacket all day to protect me from the chill of the wind, but the day was so muggy that I could find no combination of clothes, whether zipped or unzipped which matched the day's conditions. It was simply a matter of preferring to be warm and sweaty rather than cold and dry.

Built behind the facade of a nineteenth century church on the hill leading up to the castle, Stirling youth hostel is more like a cheap hotel than a hostel. I shared a tiny en-suite cell with two German cyclists. I expect that the Youth Hostel Associations have carried out market surveys which show that this is what people now require, but I cannot stand these modern places. Give me a decent-sized communal washroom where there is room to sloosh around and swing a towel, and a large dormitory where travellers can air their sweaty clothes and footwear without choking on their own effluvia.

Many of the English hostels serve meals to those who want them, but Stirling is one of the few Scottish ones that does so. The self-service cafeteria is clean and bright but serves indifferent food in insufficient quantities to satisfy a walker or a cyclist. There is an immutable law in hostels: the bigger and posher the hostel, the worse the food.

After my meal, I took the edge off my hunger with a large can of peaches and sat down to a long postcard writing session. Whilst walking round the town to post the cards, I received a 999 call on my pager from Richard. It turned out there was a problem with my flat and I had a very irate tenant. Whilst showing her round I had assured her this was the quietest London flat I had ever lived in. This was perfectly true, but unfortunately a building site had now opened up across the road and it had become the noisiest flat in London.

Several months previously we had received notification of a planning application to build a couple of flats on the site of what used to be a restaurant but with all my preparations for the journey I had put the notification on one side and forgotten about it. Now my forgetfulness had come home to roost for my tenant. After my return my neighbours confirmed how awful it had been. The building work involved drilling out an existing concrete raft and the noise, dirt, and vibration continued for the rest of the year. It was a depressing intrusion of the outside world into the private world of my journey, made worse by being powerless to do anything about it.

Next morning I was back in cheerful mood. There was sunshine to be enjoyed and the strong westerly wind would now be a following wind as I cycled back to the coast along the north side of the Firth of Forth. I stood on the castle walls looking across to the Wallace monument two miles distant. Between was the old Stirling bridge, now for pedestrians only, to which I was trying to plot a route through the tangle of streets below me. That is where I would cross the River Forth.

You cannot miss the Wallace monument. It stands 220 feet high perched on top of the 360 feet high Abbey Craig. Erected by public subscription in 1869, it overlooks the scene of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace's one great military success in 1297 which established him as the leader of Scottish resistance to the English king, Edward I. It wouldn't be Wallace's bridge I would be crossing, for that was a wooden bridge replaced about 1500 by the present stone bridge.

Once over the bridge it was an easy run, gently undulating with some long, steady inclines followed by sweeping descents but only a solitary steep hill leaving Aberdour. Occasionally bursts of power were needed to surge over short steep promontories on the edge of the river. This was cycling at its best.

My first water stop was outside the Alloa Athletic football ground, and the second at the impossibly-pretty village of Culross where the two Germans I had shared a room with overtook me. They were on their way to Dunfermline, for six centuries the capital of Scotland. But I would not be diverting from my coastal route to pay my respects at the grave of Robert the Bruce or the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie. Though I didn't want to be a slave to my route, there were just too many places to be seen and sticking to the coastal route provided a painless, if arbitrary, way of avoiding decisions about what to visit and what not to visit.

Down-river the Longannet power station jutted out from the bay as if to face down the hideous expanse of the Grangemouth oil refinery across which I had cycled the day before. At Kircaldy I turned north to cycle inland for ten miles to the youth hostel at Falkland. I was very weary and it seemed a very long and slow ten miles. I coaxed my legs the last few miles and on arrival treated them to a mutton pie and a can of Boddingtons to celebrate fifty-five-miles-worth of wonderful cycling.

I opened a miscellaneous assortment of tins and dined on cold macaroni cheese, tuna, fresh tomatoes, followed by cold rice pudding and prunes. And lots of bread and margarine and milk to drink. After dinner I studied the maps and decided I would have a short day cycling around Loch Leven and return for a second night at Falkland. To ease my dinner down I took a pleasant walk around the village, which was Scotland's first conservation area, followed by a pint in The Hunting Lodge. Then I slept and slept and slept.

I slept for eight solid hours, then dozed for two hours more, and got up still feeling heavy and sluggish. After a leisurely breakfast of baked beans on toast, topped with an egg obtained in exchange for beans from another hosteller, I mooched around the village for an hour until Falkland Palace opened for business at eleven o'clock, a daft opening time.

I was glad that YHA membership gave me a discount from £4 to £2 on the entrance price because Falkland is one of those ostensibly beautiful and historic houses which turn out to be a great disappointment. It was started by James IV and completed by James V as a royal hunting lodge. Built as three ranges around an open quadrangle, only the facade of the south range gives a decent impression of what is the earliest Renaissance architecture in Britain. Charles II was the last monarch to visit, in 1650, and the buildings fell into decay.

It's nice that it's been rescued from oblivion, I suppose, but the interior is little more than a reproduction pastiche, there is no true history in its fittings. In the garden is a Real Tennis court, built in 1539. It is an open-air court that never had a roof. Inevitably then, only the walls are original, the court surface, markings, and the pent-houses are reproduction. I suppose it does show what such a court once looked like, but isn't it a little over the top to claim that the four original walls constitute the oldest Real Tennis court still in use?

I cycled slowly against the wind to Kinross where I consumed a sandwich overlooking Loch Leven before taking the boat across to the island and the fourteenth century castle where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned for eleven months. It was here that she abdicated from the Scottish crown, in favour of her son, the infant JamesVI. At her fifth attempt she managed to escape from the island. She attracted an army of six thousand supporters but was defeated by her half-brother Lord James Stuart at Langside, now a suburb of Glasgow. Four days later she crossed the Solway to exile in England. After detention in various country houses she was beheaded at Fotheringay on 18 February 1587.

The sunshine robbed the scene of any residual terror. The castle is not as isolated as it once was. The castle walls once stood at the water's edge, but the lowering of the water level in the nineteenth century gave rise to a pleasant jumble of grassland and trees around the decaying ruins. Most of the fourteenth century tower house survives, and part of the later curtain wall, but of other buildings little survives above ground.