North Road Tour of the Western Isles May 2011
Photos added to Gallery
A little tour of the Western Isles was the pitch presented to me and Andrew Bywater by Nigel Cameron, who had a thorough knowledge of the Dark Isles having worked, cycled and canoed round them. Nigel’s pitch continued, by going in May we avoid the worst of the much feared Highland Midge, and catch some half-decent weather with the country in the grip of the warmest spring since the molten core of the planet solidified.
So it was sold and the three of us set out early on a Wednesday morning to catch the train to Stevenage, then along the East Coast Line to Glasgow, and then the local puffer to Ardrossan Harbour to catch the ferry across to Arran. It all went stunningly to plan and we boarded the first of our ferries for the short hop to Brodick on Arran. A LEJOG rider called Paul, bearing a startling likeness to The Bish, kept us company as he took a more scenic option than is usual in finishing off his ride. Only 23km cycling was required on the first day, oh.... and 250 metres of climbing into a Force 5 gale, along an exposed road with heavy sheets of rain. No wonder there were no midges, they where tucked up in bed sipping cocoa. The descent was nice though, straight into Lochranza, surely one of the most beautiful spots on God’s Earth, and a night in the Youth Hostel.
The next day dawned, well I think it did, it was hard to tell through the amount of wet stuff being unloaded from the heavens. A half mile ride was required down to the ferry, but it left us all fairly wet, and dampened spirits a little at the thought of riding all day in such conditions. The hardened ferry crew displayed little sympathy for our soggy state other than to offer - ‘its the Western Isles, seven months of winter and four months of bad weather.’ Unsurprisingly, I hadn’t seen that little pearl on any of the tourist literature. A short ferry to Claonaige, an easy 40min spin across the Mull, and then the two hour ferry trip to Port Askaig on Islay. On Islay the weather picked up a little, but a tormenting head wind required continual battling as we headed inland.
We stopped for coffee at the main bird reserve on the island, home to many species including the elusive Corncrake, possibly one of the most endangered of UK birds. Nigel talked to the young and earnest bird warden asking searching and intelligent questions. I decided to keep quiet as all I could think of asking was ‘so, what do they taste like then?’ None of the islanders we talked to on the trip had ever seen one, just fleeting sightings, a feathered Haggis then. We set off again to Port Charlotte Youth Hostel where Nigel had established cordial relations with the couple running the place. A total of 61km in 4 hours of cycling was the totals for the day.
With panniers left at the YH it was with a lightened load that we set out on Friday for a round trip down to the Mull of Oa for what Nigel promised would be spectacular scenery. A quick stop at the Laphroaig whisky distillery was worth the effort where a very pretty Scottish lass plied Andrew and me with 18 year old malt - and mighty fine it was. The weather was being considerably kinder to us, with blue skies and lighter winds, so the trip out to the Oa was well worth the effort. With a lighthouse shaped war memorial to two troopships sunk during the First World War with heavy loss of life at the edge of the cliff, you stand and look across to Northern Ireland and the Republic. The cliffs are wild and remote, occupied by horned, shaggy Higland Coos and with a Sea Eagle spotted soaring around on the hunt.
On the way back we stopped at a local Co-Op to pick up some supplies; just as we set off a small group of three MTB'ers came up on our tail. We had met this lot earlier, posh boy ‘all-the-gear-no-idea’ types, who had been rather dismissive of my best cockney bike-boy banter earlier in the day. Nigel had been irked by this and had dismissed them as not proper cyclists with the ultimate insult of ‘they where all fat legged‘. Revenge in cycling terms is a dish best served on a slight incline, and with remarkably little effort the three MTB'ers were reduced to tiny dots on the horizon. A total of 95km in 4and a half hours where our totals for the day.
The Saturday was reserved for the big ride of the tour. Back to the port and pick up the landing craft type local ferry across to the Island of Jura. Jura is dominated by three mountains on its left hand side, and has one road running along its right hand side. We where greeted at the start of the ride by the sight of raw red legged fell-runners competing in some truly bonkers event that required mixing extreme fell-running with extreme sailing across several days in some sort of multi-day adventure torture. The ride itself was pleasant, with several beautiful and remote coves to admire. The top of the ride was ‘Tea on the Beach’ at Inverlussa where an enterprising local had set a table, with walkie talkie, and you could order tea and cakes and sit down and admire the view - and boy what a view!
The ride back was into the wind, and I was starting to feel distinctly unwell, this was a minor problem whilst pedaling and on the bike but as soon as I stopped to wait for the others at the port on Jura things got a lot worse with shivering and general nausea. We just made the ferry back to Islay and with a difficult and substantial ride ahead in cold conditions I decided to get a taxi home as a warm shower and bed was urgently required. The cab driver was nice, although he had not picked up anyone famous recently and he thought it was a dying game. Nigel and Andrew took a couple of hours to battle back to the YH, whilst a warm shower, two hours in bed and plenty of fluid with a decent meal that evening slowly brought the colour back to my cheeks. The totals for the day were 110km in 5 and a half hours with the other guys probably doing 30K more.
The next two days were a repeat of the first two days as we worked our way back across the islands with the weather doing its usual wet-dry-wet-dry routine. We cut the ferry fine on the first day and some energetic time trialling was required to arrive in plenty of time we thought, only for us to get on board just get comfortable and for the ferry to leave ten minutes early! So an extra 55km on the Sunday had bought us back to Lochranza. A ride back over Arran required some early morning climbing legs and added an additional 23km to our cycling totals. The train trip back to Glasgow did not reveal the city in its finest light, as various ‘characters’ straight out of Trainspotting got on and off the train with some fairly relaxed attitudes to basic social norms. The train back went smoothly and I was back in Hertford by 10.00 pm.
I have said in a previous report that the Garmin doesn’t lie. It does when you cycle the Western Isles as it does not measure the force of the wind that you have to overcome. So if you go there be prepared for that. Any other tips for fellow tourists to the Isles - pack plenty of dry socks and re-waterproof everything!
Thanks to Nigel for the Napoleonic level of planning of the tour and his attempts to educate a cynical city boy (me) into the ways of the wild, and too Andrew for his efforts on some hard days (plus some wonderful photos as seen on the club gallery).