‘Hence, loathèd melancholy’ – an evening ride to Elcho Castle & environs

(for the map of this ride, see here)

I am prone to melancholy, usually accompanied by inertia and lethargy, a strong disinclination to do anything. Yet I know that physical activity – a walk or a cycle run – is a sovereign specific against this ailment. Yet you have to force yourself, for all that, and it helps to remember, almost as an article of faith, that it is always worth the effort.

It had been a beautiful day, yet my mood was bleak, lethargic, at one remove from the world (I sometimes think that my mind is like a rambling house in which I get lost: I have the feeling that the place I want to be is close at hand, yet I cannot find the way there). So I made a resolution: I would go out on my bike, the Dream Roadster. The shakedown run had proved satisfactory: what was stopping me?

Nothing, save my own causeless disinclination.

So I forced myself to make a plan, to have something specific to execute: I would go to Elcho Castle, down on the banks of the Tay, a place I had never been, though it was close at hand. I knew it was on a spur off a manageable circular route round Moncreiffe Hill that would bring me back by Bridge of Earn – Pauline and I had walked it a few years back, in training for her Moonwalk. All I had to do was get myself downstairs – gravity would help me there – fetch out the bike, and be on my way.

How many miles would I go? The Sustrans map (‘The Salmon Run‘) suggested 13, but that was coming from the centre of town:


The climb up the Edinburgh Road offers some fine prospects to the North, looking over Perth to the Grampian hills beyond:

big sky looking North over Perth

big sky looking North over Perth

nw vista from Perth

a little more to the north-west

How big summer evening skies seem in Scotland!

hills n of Perth

what are those blue remembered hills?

(Housman – who wrote about ‘those blue remembered hills‘ in ‘A Shropshire lad’ was a terrible melancholic, but he knew it, and could laugh at himself – he enjoyed this parody of his famous work)

The view to the East is nearer, but also very fine – Kinnoull Hill

with its beetling cliffs, which Lord Grey of Kinfauns, seeing a resemblance to those on the Rhine, thought would be adorned by the addition of a picturesque ruined tower, so he built one there in 1829 – you can see it perched on the farther cliff to the right:


though the classic view is this one (from the geograph project) by Val Vannet:

Kinnoull Hill tower overlooking the Tay (c) Val Vannet

Kinnoull Hill tower overlooking the Tay (c) Val Vannet

and in fact Elcho Castle, my intended destination, is among the clump of trees on the opposite bank in the middle distance, just where the river meanders to the left. To get there, you take the Rhynd Road, which crosses the M90 to Dundee, offering a fine view of Friarton Bridge:

There are no pictures to cover the section between the bridge over the motorway and Elcho Castle, but that doesn’t mean nothing of note occurred – in fact, I learned (or rather was reminded of) two important truths, and prompted to ask myself a question which I had pondered before. The first truth is that you can’t get something for nothing: this applies as much to the realm of cycle gearing as it does anywhere else.

The motorway bridge is followed by an undulating stretch, then a stiffish climb, and it was there that I realised I was no longer ‘young and eoroch‘ as my mother is wont to say – though that was not the second important truth, more something I should know by this time.

My aim in buying the Mountain Drive had been to extend the epicyclic hub’s fixed range, which in my youth had always struck me as its most frustrating limitation – if you wanted to raise your top gear to blast along on the flat, you were forced to raise your lower gear too; conversely, if you wanted a bottom gear that was ‘a power for the hills’ then you lost top-end turning power. The Mountain Drive offers a spectacular 60% reduction (i.e. each ‘mountain’ gear is 40% of its normal counterpart, or 2.5 times smaller) which effectively gives you two bikes in one – you can set the normal drive to give you a high top end – in my case, with the Spectro P5, 50″ – 58″- 74.6″(direct) – 95″ – 118″ – while keeping a much lower range for hills available at the press of a button: 20″- 23″- 30″ – 38″ – 47″.

So instead of forcing the pedals round as if you were stirring cement as the gradient stiffens against you till eventually you have to stand up to turn them at all (then totter ignominiously and fall off into a ditch) you simply gear down till you meet with such minimal resistance a mouse could turn the pedals (if its legs were long enough and it could ride a bike)*

Simple, eh? well, not quite.

The truth of the matter is that resistance is not the whole story, as anyone who attends a spinning class (my wife, for example) could doubtless have told me: turning pedals fast against little resistance for any length of time takes considerable effort, especially when your legs are as hefty as mine – and when your gear is as low as 20″ (picture a very small unicycle) you do have to turn very fast to get anywhere at all, as the following sum will show:

20 x 3.14 = 62.8″ travelled for each turn of the pedals, so 100 turns will take you some 523′ 4″ further up the hill, so it would take more than ten times that to cover a mile (5280′)

… in other words, 10 minutes at 100 rpm (a pretty brisk rate) will take you not quite a mile, a headlong speed of fewer than six miles per hour. It would take a lot less effort, and not a great deal more time, if you got off and walked – which is what I did.

And that is the second great truth I was reminded of, which is particular to bicycling: never forget that you can always get off and walk. It does not take much effort to push a bicycle uphill, even a laden one (and mine was not). This is perhaps the most-overlooked virtue of the bicycle, that it offers not one, but three modes of transport: in normal mode, as a human-powered vehicle, it will work with you, making highly efficient use of the fuel you, the engine, burn to turn the pedals – you can travel three or even four times faster (or further, if you prefer) than you could on foot, with no greater effort; in downhill or freewheel mode, it will work for you, carrying you at great speed over long distances for no expenditure of effort at all on your part; yet in uphill or walking mode it is still more help than hindrance, since even though you have to push it, it will give you support in return, and carry your bags for you more easily than you could yourself; and your pace will not be significantly slower than if you were just walking, especially festooned with bags.

So don’t underuse your bicycle! walk with it from time to time, as the occasion suits.

And the question all this prompted me to ask myself?

‘How many gears does a man need?’ (which I will deal with in another place) Meantime, I made do with ten.

The spur down to Elcho Castle is well-suited to mode 2 (freewheel) cycling, though it has a spectacular bend in the middle, which I believe delighted my brother Mike in his youth, when he rode a tiger-striped bicycle which was as close as you could get to a motorbike without an engine. I took it rather more cautiously, and was surprised to find myself visited by calvinistic notions (not my persuasion at all) that this breezing downhill was all very well, but it would have to be paid for in the end, as I’d just have to come back up – proof that some rags of melancholy still clung to me.

But in no great time I descended to the river and found myself at the ancestral home of the Wemyss family, which they built around 1560 and lived in till 1929, when the 11th Earl of Wemyss gave it into state care.


It was not open at that hour, though there was a man working at something in the garden. It is a fine sight, it must be said, with the saltire flying against the evening sky;  must take a look inside some day.


Once you have climbed back up to Rhynd (yes, more mode 3 pushing) your reward is a fast sweeping descent with a couple of near-right-angle bends, then a long and very straight stretch which includes a measured kilometre and is favoured by the faster members of the cycling fraternity in this airt. But I have to say, for me, straight roads are oppressive, even tedious (unless you are making good speed down a poplar-lined straight in France, at the wheel of a suitable piece of vintage machinery – a Bugatti say, a vintage Bentley, or an Hispano-Suiza; but on a bike they are just a bit too unending for my taste – a kind hill has bends in it; as does an interesting flat road). Fortunately there were other things to see – a glance into the fields had me wondering if I had entered a time-slip and was witnessing the homeward march of an orderly troop of  woolly mammoths:


or perhaps giant hedgehogs?

img class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-184″ alt=”108_2510″ src=”https://jfmward.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/55764-108_2510.jpg” width=”500″ height=”333″ />

giant purple hedgehogs? ‘Light thickens, and the giant purple hedgehog makes pace to the rooky wood; good things of day begin to droop and drowse…’

However, I found these strange humped entities far from sinister – the opposite, in fact; the sight of them lifted my spirits and dispelled the last shred of melancholy. A little further on, you raise the eponymous Bridge of Earn on the left, somewhat dwarfed by an enormous pylon.


The homeward run is a fine long straight (maybe it’s only narrow straights that oppress? – discuss. Breadth certainly adds character to a road) followed by a fair climb (no need for walking, though) up past the cottages at Craigend that give their name to the complex interchange that connects the motorways to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, which you pass under before breasting the rise to a fine view of the Fair City, which I did not pause to photograph, but it looks a bit like this, (courtesy of Visit Dunkeld):

Perth Scotland 010_jpg

And so, by a vicus of recirculation, we come past Elcho Castle and environs back to our own dear home, to find that we have covered a further 11.8 miles, my Dream Roadster and I:


– and my melancholy is banished, for the present. So that initial effort was worth making.

*a limiting proviso, I grant you.

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