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Dr James Bonner
Post doctoral researcher and freelance writer
Off-peak peaking: hill cycling and coffees around Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh
There is a brilliant road around Edinburgh's famous Arthur's Seat hill (and deid volcano), known as the 'High Road' (also called Queen's Drive), going through the city's Holyrood Park. It climbs (and descends) about 100m in a 5km loop, and from it you get amazing views of the city, the sea, and access to walking routes up to Arthur's Seat itself. Since 2021 a large section (but not all) of the road has been closed to vehicles for periods throughout the week to allow for traffic free pedestrian and cyclist use- check here for specific times.
This closure, which includes throughout the weekend, also takes place during the day on Fridays and Mondays- and I had an idea. How many times could I cycle round the loop in a day visit from Glasgow, whereby I took the first 'off-peak' train in the morning, and the first one back in the evening? (This says something about trains in Scotland, and the UK. Whereby ticket prices can be hugely different if you travel at certain times of the day. This means travel is cheaper after 9 or so in the morning, but with return journeys restricted around evening hours around the 'rush hour'. This is something to know about when travelling by train, check Scotrail's information here.)
Anyway, boring stuff aside, here's a wee story of my attempt at this (with a couple of vlogs I took during the day, a map of my route, and a collage of some images I took), where I attempted the Off-peak peaking challenge... Oh, yeah this story does include some more practical stuff about how to 'bike and train' in Scotland. Knowing these can really help make this easier and less of a hassle. It is worth noting that the Glasgow to Edinburgh train doesn't take bike bookings- just turn up- which is not the case for other routes where bike booking is a necessity (and often quite limited). But that's for another story...
I'd spied a nice February morning coming (amidst several days of dreich- you need to take your chance when it comes in Scottish weather), and thought it'd be a good day to try this wee challenge. So after a couple of eggs for breakfast, I set off to get the first off-peak train to Edinburgh Waverly from Glasgow Queen Street station at 9.15. If you get to the station while peak trains are still running then often the ticket machines still automatically display peak time ticket options- rather I went to the 'actual person' ticket desk to get my off-peak return- the difference can be a jump from £14 to £27! The Glasgow to Edinburgh train is expensive! (It really doesn't do much for encouraging a shift away from car use... could the hundreds of millions £ spent on 'upgrading' the motorway between the cities have been better spent on making the train more affordable? Making the motorway quicker just encourages that as the way to travel!...)
Anyway, I said I'd put boring stuff aside... I get through the wider electronic ticket barriers- using these means you'll avoid an ungraceful bike-jamming-in-the-narrow-barriers-moment (yeah I've done this...)- and aim or the the carriage with the big bike picture at the door, which has spaces to secure your bike (use the straps provided). We get into Waverly just after 10, which is good timing for the National Gallery opening just along Princes Street. Because here, at the lower level entrance on Princes Street Gardens, it has a whole load of lockers which I like to use to store some stuff during the day (bring a pound coin to use them). This is good if you are wearing cycling gear, especially cycling shoes, and want to have a change to do some other stuff while in the city- say visit the gallery, or meet people afterwards for a pub quiz... These are stuff I'd normally tie in with a trip to Edinburgh, but today is simply about pedalling up hills (or *a hill*).
I head down the Royal Mile to towards the Parliament building (be careful on the city's cobbles if on a road bike!) from where you can start on clockwise loops around the iconic Arthur's Seat. The lower road is open to vehicles, and is often pretty busy both with visitors driving in an out the car park here, and also as a through route from normal traffic. After a wee bit I turn right past St Margret's Loch (with all the swans) and pass through a barriered section at the start of the hill. It's a steady, and sometimes a little steep climb, but is so nice (and quiet) without any pressure from car traffic. There is a walkway to the side, but pedestrians (and dogs) will also (as they are allowed to) use the road section- so it's just a matter of being considerate and letting people know you are approaching. It's about 100m climb over a couple of kilometres around the hill, and with some brilliant views to the North Sea to the east, and the hills to the south. After a nice winding flat section the along the side of the hill, before the road opens up to descend back to the the start of the loop. The views here of Edinburgh, including the castle, are some of the best in the city. My wee vlogs hopefully give some better idea of this!
It's a fast descent back to the lower road, and after the first roundabout you come to on the way down, there is vehicle traffic to again to be aware of. I do the loop a few times (six I think...), and after 25-30 km pedalling I am pretty always up for a coffee. So I head back to the city to meet a friend for a coffee and pastry (you'll note this is pretty much a hallmark of all my cycling...)- and my first time at Modern Standard in Bruntsfield- which has bike stands right outside (always a cafe attraction...). I get a sandwich and some other food from a supermarket too- I'm really not that good at making sure I eat enough when cycling, and it's something I'm trying to get better at. You do plough though calories pedalling, especially if it involves hills. So eat even if you are not that hungry! Back to Arthur's seat and I do another eight loops... and the sun is starting to fade. But I'm really quite happy pedalling away up hills, especially in the quiet like this. The good thing about loops like this is that you can just keep going according to how you feel, the conditions and your abilities. But by 14 loops for the day I need to head back to get my stuff from the gallery lockers that shut at 5. Of course I'm, by now, up for another coffee- and I take the chance to head to one of city's Soderberg cafes near 'The Meadows' for coffee and a nice fruity cinnamon bun. Swedish coffee at Swedish prices (not their official title...)- but, to be fair, are really nice so I'm ok with that (I'm thinking about a 2-day version of this trip, where I visit the several Soderberg's in the city... See, it's mostly about the cafes for me!)
I spend some time in The Meadows, the late sun makes for some brilliant light. There's loads of people out enjoying it- just looking about here you can see the value of a nice greenspace in the centre of a city! It's getting dark now, and the first off peak train is in about an hour's time. So, what for it... and I head back to Arthur's Seat to do one final loop. I have a new front light, and it is good to test it on the hill in the dark- there are no road lights around the High Road. From the top I manage to catch the fading sunlight looking back to the west, which is really nice, as well as the city's lights below. You can't deny this is quite a city... I make a last descent down the hill, before heading back through the (pretty manically) congested centre to the train station. I've managed to make the 6.45 train, which is one of the first off-peak trains back to Glasgow.
As it turns out I've cycled 100km, and almost exactly equivalent to a kilometre vertically into the sky. And had two good cafe visits. So, all in all, that's a pretty good day for me. I'm sure there will be more off-peak peaking attempts into the spring and summer where there will be more light to cycling into the evening... Give the loop, or two, a go if you have your bike in Edinburgh!
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