Cycling on Colonsay

It already seems ages ago, but earlier this month we spent a wonderful week on the wee Scottish isle of Colonsay. It was a bit of a Lancaster invasion to be honest, with somewhere between 60 and 70 of us travelling up, and scattering ourselves across various holiday cottages on the island, which felt to me like Scotland in miniature – a bit of everything, including simply superb beaches, all within a very tight – and remarkably cycle-friendly – space.

You never really know quite what to expect – in terms of cycling – when you’re going to a place for the first time, do you? We were hoping the island would be cycle-friendly, but we didn’t know for sure that it would be. So was it? Mainly ‘yes’, with a little bit of ‘no’.

‘Yes’ in that there’s basically only one single-track road which forms a circular route of perhaps eight miles, and which has a couple of short spurs – to north and south – off it. These roads are very narrow, and drivers of motorised vehicles almost invariably go relatively slowly (rarely exceeding 20 or perhaps 25 mph), and take considerable care. And there aren’t that many motorised vehicles anyway (although probably a lot fewer than normal the week that us lot were there – one of the ferry workers commented that he’d never seen so many cyclists boarding the ferry .. it was great, I think we really did resemble a carnival procession!).

And the little bit ‘no’? Only, really, that – via an otherwise sensible and glossy leaflet explaining how to conduct oneself properly whilst moving around the island – someone (and how representative or not they are of a wider mood I cannot say) is spreading the suggestion that people on bikes should dismount whenever a car approaches. Thankfully most people sensibly ignore this piece of nonsense, but I suspect there’s a small minority of ‘locals’ who want to institute a hierarchy of road users on the island with cars placed uncritically at the top, and that these people therefore feel that they have some kind of right – even duty – to push past and very mildly intimidate the beautiful people riding bikes. But I must stress, this seemed – in our experiences there – to be only a very minor tendency, and almost always when we encountered people in cars, they reduced their speed or stopped completely, pulled over and gave us space, smiled and waved cheerily, and seemed perfectly happy that we chose to stay on our bikes and continue to cycle in their presence! (Although of course, we did also ourselves pull over to let cars past when it was polite and/or sensible to do so …)

With the hope that conditions would be good for children’s cycling, we decided that Bobby and Flo should have their own bikes there, so that they could really experience and enjoy riding independently on the roads. To reduce our usual mild anxieties about getting our bikes on the trains (Lancaster to Glasgow Central, then a walk to Glasgow Queen Street and another train to Oban), and so that we only needed to book two bike places, Sue and I decided to take folding bikes (Bromptons, borrowed for the week from work).

(For non-British readers, there are lots of issues around booking bikes and taking bikes on trains in Britain, which I’ll maybe talk more about at some point – though, for the record, we always take our bikes on trains in the UK and have never had a major problem in doing so, although that doesn’t stop us worrying – and indeed worrying – and taking appropriate action – could be one of the reasons we’ve never had a major problem …  That said however, our friends Anne, Martin and William took their bikes on the train following the one we took from Lancaster to Glasgow – somehow or other there were five bikes booked onto this train, one more than is officially permissable; rather unbelievably, this ‘problem’ resulted in the whole train being delayed for 40 minutes, lots of heated discussions between the train’s manager and driver, and finally, a stressed-out Anne, Martin and William being upgraded to first class and receiving complimentary breakfasts.)

So, cycling proved a great way to move around Colonsay. And how wonderful to see all our mates doing likewise. Unless someone out there knows better, I’d say that it’s perhaps as close as we get in the UK to somewhere like the glorious, almost utopian Dutch island of Vlieland, which we went to a few year’s back, on which bikes absolutely rule.

It was of course particularly wonderful to see all the kids experiencing such freedom by bike. Watching them cycling around so happily really forced the unhappy realisation of how constrained are their independent mobilities back home in and around Lancaster.

One of our Lancaster mates, Jon Mills, had arranged a football match earlier in the week. On Easter Monday perhaps 50 of us took to the island’s golf course, next to the little air field, split into two teams, and frantically kicked a ball around in storm force winds for an hour or so, with a final score of 3-2, golden boy Steve Archer scoring the winner (I hope to hear about that for years to come, over countless pints in countless places, Steve!). It was an absolute hoot! So, taking Jon’s lead and nicking the kids’ felt-tip pens, I created and put up a colourful poster on the noticeboard of the island’s store. It announced the ‘Tour de Colonsay’, one lap of the island’s road circuit, with a prize for all children who managed to complete it. After all, for little legs on little bikes with little wheels, eight miles is quite a long way, and the circuit involves quite a few rises and one pretty tough climb.

I had no idea whether anyone would show up, but it felt like doing my little bit for cycling promotion on the island. Fortunately, at 2 o’clock on Thursday afternoon the weather was fine. A few Lancaster friends came out, perhaps in solidarity more than anything, but it was also lovely to see many other people come along to take part, and we had a very enjoyable, convivial and relaxed ride.

So all up, Colonsay is a great place for cycling. Probably not if you’re a roadie, keen on getting in the miles; the opportunities for cycling on this little island are definitely limited, on the road anyway (there’s considerably more potential for MTBing). But for kids it’s really, really great. Meanwhile one of the tasks for those of us keen to boost cycling is to go to such places and not only to enjoy them as a break from the norm, but to use them as opportunities for reflecting on – and then working towards – making them the norm.

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