Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Ultimate Scottish Cycling Book, Paul Lamarra (2003)

Mainstream 1 84018 617 8 207pp £14.99

An area-by-area guide to cycle touring in Scotland, based on a tour made in 2002, including extensive ‘how to’ information.

So many guides to cycle touring in the UK have been written that the job of squeezing some new juice from the format is a challenge. Of course, roads change and attractions come and go. (Only 20 years ago, I cycled the length of the A74 and the A9, something that would be neither fun, legal nor necessary today). Nonetheless, finding something new to say, or a new way to say requires considerable initiative.

And that is just what Lamarra has brought to this book. There may be precedents for the format he has adopted, but I am not aware of them.

Nine chapters each concentrate on different areas of Scotland. It is a pretty good spread – from the Western Isles to Galloway and the Borders. Inevitably, he does not cover everything. But he does go where many guides have avoided – rural Aberdeenshire, for example, which provides some of the best cycling country in the UK.

Each section recounts a carefully planned tour or several days made, I am guessing, in 2002. Lamarra is particularly good on capturing the flavour of places – he has the excitement of Oban to a tee, likewise the transition of wild Perthshire into the tourist attractions of Pitlochry. There are also some great route tips – anyone could miss the private, but easily accessible, roads built for hydro-scheme workers that allow one to get into the head of Glen Lyon, without cycling its length, for example.

His accounts are peppered with his own wry observations. He recounts the experience of the weather on the day that he made the rides and the difficulty or otherwise he had in finding accommodation, as well as entertaining historical asides. Each chapter then ends with a diagrammatic route map, map references, directions, accommodation and food stop suggestions and other important transport information such as ferry timetables. This information is particularly strong and he has clearly gone to some lengths to put himself in the position of a travelling on wholly unfamiliar territory.

As Lamarra suggests in his introduction, this is not a volume for the saddle bag. Rather, it is a primer to be enjoyed over the winter, while planning one’s own tours in Scotland. There is much of this routes that you may wish to copy turn by turn. But the real value of his book is in firing the imagination, and giving you the wherewithal to plan. Despite having read dozens of cycling books about Scotland and ridden quite extensively in many of the areas he covers, by the end of the book, I was back with my maps, dreaming of a fresh Caledonian campaign.

If I have a beef, it would be with the title. Such a grand promise is never going to be deliverable. However, books are published to be sold, and doubtless Mainstream were keen on something that they hoped would jump off the self. “An account of nine cycle tours in North Britain, with accompanying notes for wheelmen hoping to emulate the author’s progress”, might well have been the title had it been published in the 1880s. More accurate it might have been – but it would hardly be the stuff to tempt the armchair cyclists of today.

PS November 2008

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