West coast wonders

When you look at a map of the west coast of Scotland, it quickly becomes apparent that the shortest road distance to Glasgow can be achieved by the canny use of a few ferries. It’s a good reminder that boats used to be the most effective means of travel between communities in these western, fjord-like, rugged landscapes. However, we arrived on the Isle of Skye not by boat but by the bridge that usurped the car ferry in 1995.

Its construction has been a mixed blessing for the islanders. First there were unpopular tolls to pay to the private venture company that had built the bridge. Many locals refused to pay and ended up in court before the Scottish parliament decided to purchase the bridge for a reported £27 million. One non-payer, Clodagh MacKenzie, an elderly woman whose land had been compulsorily purchased from her for the bridge construction site, found all the non-payment charges against her mysteriously dropped. The bridge brought a rapid increase in visitors to the island creating more tourism opportunities and increasing revenue for those that could capitalise on this. Those that came also started buying property and house prices skyrocketed leaving many locals unable to buy their own home. Now the Airbnb craze is reducing the stock of long term rental homes leaving hotels and restaurants short of staff.
We cycled over the bridge on another hot, sunny day – our tenth in a row – and headed first towards Broadford before taking a quieter road southwards down the islands east coast. Both Jerry and I have been professional sailors in the past and have been grateful, in a gale, of the shelter afforded by the Isle Ornsay, a small island almost linked to Skye at low tide. For old times sake, we headed there to camp and reminisce about windy nights swinging around in the anchorage and praying that the anchor would hold until day break. It always had. We actually found a wild campsite, a little further down the coast out on a flat, grassy headland looking across the Sound of Sleat to the ‘rough bounds’ of Knoydart, the most remote tract of land in Britain. It was a beautiful spot, but the moment the breeze dropped, the midges appeared. We had been remarkably lucky with the lack of midges on our trip. A long winter and late spring had kept them at bay for an additional three weeks. Now they were back with a vengence and we dug out our midge head nets from the depths of our panniers and kept the tent mesh doors firmly closed. Jerry is a hero when it comes to any biting fly and bravely goes out of the tent to cook supper and breakfast while I’ll happily cower away in the tent.

Jerry cooking in the midge zone

In the morning, when we strike camp, we keep covered up from head to toe except for our hands until everything is packed and loaded and we have walked back to the roadside and a bit of breeze. Only then do we risk returning to shorts and t-shirt. During the day, it was easy to forget the midges existed, especially as it was so sunny and breezy, but in the still evenings they were back clouding around our tent.

Having arrived via the bridge, we left by the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig. We were on familiar territory now, having lived around this part of the world for several years back in the eighties and nineties. Mallaig has changed from a fishing port with a few tourists to a tourist port with a few fishing boats. Many Harry Potter fans find their way here on the railway track from Fort William that crosses the magnificent concrete Glenfinnan viaduct that features in the movies. Still sticky and hot, we treated ourselves to another tub of ice cream. I do like cycle touring as I don’t have to worry about how much food I am consuming – well, only if it is not enough!
Until this trip, we thought the most westerly point on mainland Britain was Ardnamurchan lighthouse. We weren’t so far wrong, it lies on the same peninsula but a mile further south in a headland called Corrachadhmór. We followed the rolling road westwards along the wooded north shore of Loch Sunart and were overtaken on an uphill section by a couple on electric bikes. They were cruising and looking cool. We were lathered in a potent mix of sweat and sun screen. They suggested we were on the wrong bikes, to which Jerry responded that their bikes were too heavy for us. As I plodded on, I was thinking that our fully loaded tourers would definitely win the weight challenge. This proved to be the case, when a few miles later, on a long, steep downhill, our extra kilogrammes took us speeding past them. I thought we would probably keep leap frogging each other, but we didn’t meet again.
A thick seafog rolled in up the loch from the cool seas out west obliterating views to the south and providing dramatic views out west. When we later arrived at Ardnamurchan light, it was shrouded in mist and we only knew the sea was close by the sounds of waves lapping somewhere nearby.

Sea mist surrounds Ardnamurchan light

Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, is one of my favourite ports. Not only is it picturesque, with its brightly painted buildings nestling around the harbour, it is a sheltered anchorage, has good shops and a famous pub, at least amongst yachties, called the Mishnish. In more recent years, harbour facilities have been constructed for boat-based visitors and we headed to these for our first shower and clothes wash for a week. Delicious. A week is about our limit, after that we start to feel really skanky. Once, during the winter in Sardinia, we went for twelve days. Every time I went into the warmth of an Italian supermarket I could smell my odour increasing as I warmed up. I hoped I wouldn’t be stood in the checkout queue for very long.
We strung a washing line up between two posts of the covered harbourside picnic benches and chatted to coach tour visitors while our clothes dried. Oh, and ate another tub of ice cream – after all the heatwave was still in full force.

Drying our washing in Tobermory

That evening we found a flower filled meadow overlooking the harbour in which to camp.
The next day we cycled down the east coast to Craignure and took the ferry to Oban, a fishing port on the Scottish mainland. There we visited our favourite seafood shack right on the harbour front and treated ourselves to a meal en plein air.
Our fitness and stamina had grown massively since leaving home. Hill climbs, except in the heat, were becoming easier and we were able to keep on cycling for four or five days in a row rather than being desperate for a break after just three. With all the sunshine, we were back to a southern Europe tan colour, and we had lost some of our ‘rest year’ lardiness. We were starting to feel like we might be ready to take on Iceland in the summer.
Argyll and Bute was all that lay between us and Glasgow from where we had booked our flights. We know it better from the sea and have rarely ventured into by land. South of Oban, we stopped off at Kilmartin Glen. An area that has been inhabited by human beings for 5000 years and where Christianity was first brought to the Scottish mainland by Irish monks. Not surprisingly then, it has one of the richest concentrations of pehistoric monuments and historical sites in Scotland. We opted to do a self-guided walking tour that started at the village church. Here there is an extensive collection of early Christian and medieval carved stones. Many of them once graced the graves of local landowners or noblemen but none are named. The skilful celtic stone carving shows intricate knot work and human figures.

Stone carvings at Kilmartin

Nearby we discovered prehistoric stone circles where ancient people carried out their rites in pre-christian times. The place felt very spiritual and tranquil.
Negotiating our way through a field of cows and calves with a bull, we arrived at the small estate church of Poltalloch. Very little stood out about the church itself, it was much like any built in the nineteenth century, but on its rear wall was a list of all those from the estate who served in the first and second world wars. Not only did this strike me as unusual as mostly it is just the dead who are named, but this list also named the women too, something I had never seen previously. How enlightened.
We ferry hopped our way eastwards across the long fingers of sea that stretch northwards in the Clyde. We called into Tighnabruaich, a coastal village, and sat in the sunshine remembering the son of a friend who died recently and who had enjoyed many happy holidays here in his youth.
Yes, the sun was still shining! We enjoyed almost three weeks of gorgeous weather with not a drop of rain all the way from Durness to the outskirts of Glasgow. What a privilege and a joy to tour the west coast in such amazing conditions.
On our way into Glasgow we stopped off at two very different places: Faslane Peace Camp and the Rennie Mackintosh designed Hillhouse in Helensburgh. The former is a ramshackle collection of caravans and coaches that lies to the south of the nuclear submarine base on the Clyde. It has been occupied continuously since 1982 in opposition to the deployment of nuclear weapons. Occasional protests occur and a silent vigil is held outside the north gate of the naval base every Wednesday. The camp met a lot of our stereotypical expectations of such a site. It was dirty, there were quite a few dogs, some people using weed and alcohol and the caravans were painted in bright colours. However, we spent a very pleasant evening around their campfire chatting to some of the current residents and finding out about their lives.

Faslane Peace Camp

The Hillhouse lies high on the hill above Helensburgh with views down the Clyde. Walter Blackie, the Scottish publisher, commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design a home for him and his family at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is full of Mackintosh style and design. The building is suffering badly from water ingress as the supposedly watertight concrete render let’s water in but does not breathe it out again. Over the years, there have been several outbreaks of dry rot and now the current custodians, the National Trust for Scotland, have decided to cover the whole building in a transparent shelter. We were lucky enough to see the building in the last days before construction on the shelter begins.

Classic Mackintosh in Hill House living room

After a quick dash down a busy main road to Dumbarton, we followed the more peaceful, and traffic free Forth and Clyde canal to Bishopbriggs. This canal connects the west and east coasts from Glasgow across to Edinburgh. Nowadays it is most famous for the Kelpies statue and the Falkirk wheel at its eastern end, but it’s western end is a green wildlife corridor that is used for walks, cycles and picnics by locals. The yellow waterlilies were just coming into flower along its fringes and one hundred metres long section was full with a ride of wiggling tadpoles.
Our friends, Oge and Walter, at Bishopbriggs welcomed us with open arms and a giant colourful cake. We spent the weekend playing with their children, eating lots of delicious food and opening a toy repair workshop in the kitchen.

The Toy Repair Workshop

Three days before arriving in Glasgow one of Jerry’s molar tooth filings had fallen out. He headed off to Perth for an emergency dental appointment whilst I set about ordering a new sleeping bag as my twenty four year old was no longer keeping me warm on cooler nights. We moved nearer to the airport and stayed with more friends, Dianne and Billy. They had sourced some cardboard bike boxes for us and we spent a whole morning dismantling and wrapping our bikes up ready for our flight to Iceland. A new adventure was about to begin.

All wrapped up with somewhere to go

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Iceland adventure begins

A quick update…..

We arrived in Glasgow a week ago after a spectacularly sunny ride down the equally spectacular west coast of Scotland. The midges started (three weeks later than usual due to the late spring) as we crossed Skye and Jerry got used to cooking in a midge head net.

Jerry cooking breakfast at Camus crois on Skye

In Glasgow we packed up our bags and bikes, mended toys for Matthieu and Arianna, and Jerry nipped back to Perth to have a filling replaced.

Yesterday, we and our equipment flew to Iceland and visited the specially provided ‘Bike Pit’ outside the airport to reconstruct our bikes before cycling to a pre-booked guesthouse.

At the guesthouse near Keflavik, Iceland

Today our Iceland adventure begins…

Northwest adventures

We thought we might still go to Orkney after our delayed departure but after much debate at the Crask Inn and lots of looking at mileages we decided what we needed to do was get some fitness back doing some longer days cycling before heading to Iceland in mid-June. So those of you checking out our Facebook page @twobikesandatent will have noticed that we have been heading across the north coast of Scotland over the last week.

(By the way, this is a public Facebook page so anyone can view it without being signed up to the behemoth.)
Back in January 1997, the coldest winter for a long time, Jerry and I camped at Dunnet Head whilst on a car road trip around the north of Scotland. It is the most northerly point in mainland Scotland, being over two miles further north than nearby John O’Groats. This time the sun shone and when we got out of the cold wind beside the old lighthouse keepers’ walled garden it was positively balmy. The entrance to the walled garden was blocked by a pile of old tyres, perhaps to prevent toilet use, but peering in we could see the rhubarb was growing strong. Risking stings from the copious nettles, I climbed over the tyres and picked my way gingerly over to the rhubarb patch and selected four tender stems to twist from the plant base. Chopped up and stewed gently on our petrol stove, they went down very well with our strawberry Greek yoghurt, so well in fact, we took some more stems with us the next day.

Lighthouse keepers’ rhubarb

Earlier in the day we had called in at Duncansby Head, the most northeasterly point, and hatched a new scheme to cycle across the north coast all the way to Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point. Cape Wrath is a 100 square mile tract of moorland that is often closed to public access as the MOD like using it for target practice, particularly from frigates bobbing around off the coast. Luckily for us it reopened for public access in the second week of May, and the summer passenger ferry to cross the Kyles of Durness had started running. We set off from Dunnet head in high spirits to begin the roller coaster cycle along the northern A roads. Not far out of Thurso we ran into David Jones, a baritone on a JoGLE (John O’Groats to Lands End) with a difference. Besides cycling the whole way on a folding Brompton cycle, he is performing eighteen concerts en route to raise funds for Live Music Now, a charity bringing live music to care homes and youngsters with disabilities. On of them is in our home city of Perth on Friday 25th May 2018 at 11am in the Concert Hall. He is calling his trip Song Cycle. You can find out more on his website www.song-cycle.com . (Update – David is currently heading down northwest England)
A day off in Bettyhill provided a good opportunity to wash ourselves, our clothes, the bikes and carry out some essential repairs to our tent and my silk sheet sleeping bag that has been slowly ripping down the seam.

Washing day at Bettyhill

We were keen to climb the most northerly munro (Scottish mountain over 3000ft -914m) called Ben Hope as a small side trip, however we were in a mobile data blackhole and unable to get a weather forecast. Maybe it would be better at Tongue the next day. I tried on the Moors heading over, but to no avail. Tongue proved to be a complete mobile signal blackhole so we headed out across the causeway that cuts across the Kyles of Tongue and saves drivers a ten mile detour inland. At the other end, I had signal but no data. So while Jerry phoned his mum to wish her a Happy Birthday, I texted my sister to get a forecast. Her reply was rain all day and poor visibility. Mmm… that didn’t seem quite right, I could see the top of Ben Hope from sea level spot and it wasn’t raining. After further investigation, it turned out my sister was talking about the next day. We had better get a move on, cycle to the bottom of the hill and get up and down it that afternoon.

On the summit of Ben Hope

We awoke the next day to a noisy tent. Rain drops pattering on the outer, and outside misty murk up and down Glen Hope. A miscommunication between us, where we both thought the other wanted to pack up and ride, meant two hours later we were peddling our way west along the north coast in pouring rain, soaking wet and trying to avoid being hit by traffic on the single track roads. After several close shaves with cars squeezing past between passing places we adopted a strategy of riding in the middle of the road and offering vehicle drivers the option of hitting us directly or stopping and waiting. Luckily for us, they all chose the latter option. I think we annoyed a few drivers but at least we are alive to tell the tale.
After 30 miles of wet riding we were ready to stop and chose to stay on the Durness campsite next to a warm, dry pub with some very generous Dutch travellers who plied us with beer. (That’s my excuse for this blog being late.)
So to catch up to date, here are some photos and comments of what we’ve been up to for the last week. We’re now camped at Plockton on the Scottish west coast.

The cinema’s in town

An evening out at the cinema to watch a local film courtesy of the Screen Machine, a touring cinema that brings the movies to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Cape Wrath lighthouse – the most NW point

We achieved a long held ambition to catch the foot ferry and cycle the 11 miles of rough track out to the most northwesterly point in mainland Britain, Cape Wrath. Day 1 of heatwave.

Waiting for the ferry

A birdwatching trip to Handa to see the huge colonies of nesting guillemots and Razorbills. We caught sight of a few puffins, lots of Bonxies (Great skuas), terns, arctic skuas and a pair of black throated divers.

Suilven standing proud

The hilly roads of Assynt with their plethora of arrows (steeper than 12%) kept us sweating on days three and four of the heatwave and also rewarded us with white sandy beaches, golden eagles and stunning mountain views. We ate a whole litre tub of Mackie’s honeycomb ice cream in a vain attempt to cool down.

Friends, sun and cake in Aultbea

Continuing our journey south past Ullapool we reconnected with Alan and Karen who we first met at the Crask Inn. They were renting a holiday apartment at Aultbea and we joined them for a couple of nights and lovely day out touring the area and visiting Inverewe gardens. Karen cooked amazing meals, we took them to a small café with delicious cake and Alan treated us to a meal at the local inn. So we are restocked for our continuing journey. We chatted loads and loved hearing all their tales of adventures and escapades on travels around the globe.

Wild camping in the Torridon hills

Day seven of the heatwave, and we were into prime midge country around Torridon. We camped on a very windy knoll to chase them away and enjoyed clear views of lochs and mountains. Next morning two Slavonian Grebes fished in the bay in front of the tent. We’re reminded of Portuguese heat and are now seeking the shade for our breaks.

Seeking shade at Attadale gardens

Pottering southwards, we enjoyed a smooth ride down Torridon to the sea at Shieldaig and a resupply at the village shop – Ardennes paté, juicy oranges and biscuits. That afternoon, seeking more shade, we called in to Attadale gardens and enjoyed their collection of Meconopsis (Himalayan Poppies) as well as a water garden, vegetable plot and a rhododendron glade. We left around 5pm to find a camping spot. We’d cycled another 14 hilly miles to Plockton before we found somewhere flat enough to pitch. Luckily, it also had hazy views of the Cuillins on Skye.

Munros and Pinnies

It’s another beautiful morning in the sunny Sutherland floes and we’re starting to load our panniers onto our bikes outside the Crask Inn.

Breakfast in the Crask Inn garden

In my stomach I notice an uneasy feeling. Leaving now doesn’t feel right. Two other travellers arrived at the Crask Inn last night talking about walking up Ben Klibreck today. I want to go too. We’d bought the map in Inverness but then bottled out the previous day as our legs were tired from three days riding. Today the weather is perfect and I’d regret not doing the Munro while I had the opportunity. I raise the topic with Jerry to find out what he thinks. People often ask how we decide what to do, which way to travel on our cycle journeys. There are so many options out there. These are already narrowed down by our interests. I love the outdoors, walking, cycling, wildlife, history and architecture, particularly the vernacular. Jerry likes seascapes, wild places, nature (other than bears that might want to eat him, or other animals out to kill him by biting or stinging), travelling under his own steam, and people’s relationship with the land, past, present and future. We ask people we meet on our travels for their recommendations, read noticeboards and leaflets, and investigate online websites. The former most often produces our most enjoyable activities. From then we ‘just’ have to make a decision….

For me it is gut instinct, what feels ‘right’ in my tummy. If we make a decision and when I sit with it, I don’t feel right, then I know I need to do something different. Some things I feel strongly about, others not so much and I’ll go with the flow. There is little logic in my decision making, but I have learnt to translate my decision into something logical so that it makes sense to others who use their heads to make decisions. Jerry tends to weigh up options, looking at costs and benefits, their impact on others and whether he thinks he will regret not doing something. He says more easily what he doesn’t want to do and it is sometimes a challenge for me (and for him) to find out what he does want to do. Luckily, on this particular morning, Jerry is clear that he fancies a romp up the Munro.
And, fortunately, Alan and Karen, the other travellers, were happy to have our company on their hill climb. The day was spectacular. Ben Klibreck is an isolated hill and we enjoyed 360° views for much of the day. The water in the many lochans spread across the floe landscape glistened in the bright sunshine. Away to the west was the craggy flank of Ben More Assynt, speckled with snow patches holding on in shady gulleys. To the north, the rounded hump of the most northerly munro in Scotland, Ben Hope was silhouetted against the blue skyline. Alan and Karen reminisced about their ascent of its steep side and long ridge. They’d arrived after lunch and met a family with three younger children who skipped up the steep slopes with comparative ease and enthusiasm. Each year, retired couple, Alan and Karen come up to Scotland for a month’s holiday and spend time walking, bird watching and exploring the local area. Alan has a long list of munros to climb to add to the seventy he has already ‘bagged’.
Suddenly, Jerry, out in front as usual, stopped on the narrow path on the side slope of our ridge. Up ahead he had spotted a male ptarmigan in full breeding plumage. Whilst pointing this out to us, up popped the brownish-yellow hen bird beside him.

Male ptarmigan in breeding plumage (photo: Karen)

We stood for sometime watching them watching us before they casually started walking straight up the steep hillside. We met them again on our return from the windy summit and Karen was able to get close enough to get a shot with her mobile phone camera.

Back at the Crask Inn, we just had time for a celebratory beer, before Jerry and I donned pinnies and got to work in the kitchen helping Manager, Denise, prepare the evening meal. She had that morning, after learning we were staying another night, offered us a dinner in exchange for helping out. She had twelve guests booked and was on her own as her husband, Douglas, was having a very rare weekend off on a golfing trip with mates.

Johanna and Manager, Denise, in Crask Pinnies

We gladly accepted and had an enjoyable and busy evening serving and washing up for Alan and Karen, two campervanners, a single guy touring around by car and six pony trekkers taking a week to ride across Scotland from Brora in the east to Furness in the northwest. The latter were exhausted after a long day in the saddle plodding across boggy moorland and one lass had a very sore arm from falling whilst leading her pony. Dinner was delicious, vegetable soup, lasagne and tomato and mozzarella bread pudding, followed by homemade cookies and ice cream with toffee sauce. We finished clearing up by about 11pm and after a soothing herbal tea crashed out in our tent surrounded by drumming snipe and the intermittent coughing from a fellow camper.

The next morning we packed up our panniers and set off towards Altnaharra. Alan and Karen came to wave us off before revelling in a well deserved day off to let their weary legs recover from two long days in the hills.

Heading off on our travels again (Photo: Karen)

Birches, bridges and beer

I’m lying on the side of the road, my feet still attached to the pedals as if I am pedalling horizontally. Jerry is looking anxiously back down the hill, rapidly turning his bike around to head back in my direction. A car, descending the hill, pulls over and the driver lowers the window to ask if I am okay. A moment ago, I was cycling up the steep hill out of Dingwall thinking it was about time to get off and push. I had twisted my left ankle outwards to disengage the cleat on the base of my shoe from the pedal, but to no avail, the two were firmly locked together. My forward motion ceased and I knew my destiny was a slow fall sideways on the pavement. Elbows in, down I go, THUD!

Reassuring both the car driver and Jerry that I am unhurt, I start to extracate myself from my horizontal position. Twisting first my right foot out of its cleat and then managing to finally remove my left foot. Other than a slightly twisted brake lever my bike is also uninjured. I’ve new shoes and pedals and the cleats, even at their loosest setting are much tighter then my very worn ones from our previous tour. I’ve now made a mental note to self: stop earlier, on slightly flatter ground, if you don’t think you can get up the hill!
From Newtonmore, we cycled north to Aviemore, picking up a new lightweight tin opener at one of the outdoor stores as we had forgotten to pack one, and then headed through the Abernethy Forest on a beautiful, purpose built cycle path. The birches were just coming into leaf and their bright green leaves glistened against the blue sky. All around was birdsong, and the bustle of animals cheering on a long overdue Spring.

Abernethy birches

In Carrbridge, we came across the remains of the eighteenth century stone packbridge built here to provide travellers with a dryshod route across the River Dulnain. This was particularly important when the river was in spate as it could then be impossible to cross for days on end. The bridge was just wide enough for one mule with panniers or a set of pall bearers and a coffin to fit across. The latter was important as the local cemetery lay on the south side of the river and those dying on the north side needed to be buried in a timely manner.

Picturesque Carr Bridge

Unfortunately, it was a spate 122 years after the bridge was built that caused its demise. The very high waters of 1839 washed away both parapets and the walls of the bridge collapsed. Today, the bridge provides a picturesque view from the much more modern steel girder bridge.

From Carrbridge, it is all uphill to the Slochd 405m above sea level. The cycle route follows the old A9 twisting and turning its way up the hill passing under the new dual carriageway that makes a beeline to the summit, and is by far the more scenic route. On the way down the other side and whilst looking for a place to camp, we came across the last remaining timber railway bridge on the Scottish mainlines. The Moy viaduct, a five span trestle bridge, was built by the Highland Railway in 1887, obviously from quality timber as it survived more than a century in good order. However, by 2000 it was suffering from fungal decay and needed repair with the addition of a few more support beams. Besides being a Grade A listed building, it has been retained due to the difficulty of securing foundations in the surrounding wet ground for a stone or steel bridge.

Moy Viaduct – still standing after 130 years

We are slowly getting back into the rhythm of daily cycling and camping and yesterday completed our first 50 mile (80km) day cycling from Dingwall up to what may be the remotest pub in mainland Britain accessible by road, the Crask Inn. It’s in the middle of the Sutherland floes and is an old coaching inn that dates back to 1815 and is now also the local Scottish Episcopalian Church, having been gifted to the church by its previous owners. A friend of ours had tipped us off that we could camp in their garden and, sure enough, that proved to be true and so we have been enjoying a peat fire and Black Isle real ale on our next day off.

The perfect camp spot?

Footnote: (Hernia note?). Jerry says he is cautiously optimistic. He is generally pleased how he has been going, some soreness but no lumps or sharp pain.