Carlisle to John o' Groats
... the wet, wild and wiggly way
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Day 1 - Carlisle to Auchinleck
83 miles, 4252 ft - map
Belinda Heaven famously sang Carlisle is a Place on Earth, but it's not one you want to hang around in when you get off a train, it's raining, and you've got 80 miles to ride into a headwind.
This was the uninspiring start of the third stage of my end to end, having ridden back to Hertford from Land's End in 2013, and from Hertford to Carlisle last year. And I was going the wiggly way, via Arran, Mull, Skye and the North West coast, 635 hilly miles over 8 days. I have Nigel Cameron and Campbell Rae to thank for much good advice on routes and equipment, although I ignored Nigel's advice to ride an anvil and pack cleft sticks and a collapsible canoe. With an Everest-and-a-half of climbing to come, I was travelling as light as possible, on a carbon road bike, with lightweight wheels and tyres, and a seatpack and framebag instead of rack and panniers.
After crossing the Solway Firth on the minor road beside the M6, and taking the obligatory photo beside the Welcome to Scotland sign, I turned left at Gretna. A cyclist joined the road in front of me, wearing just a t-shirt and cotton shorts, and we rode along in tandem. Soon the rain had soaked his shorts and the elastic began to loosen, and I was forced to slow down to let his pink buttocks disappear over the horizon.
As soon as the moon had set in the West, the rain eased up and the sun came out, and I watched a Yellowhammer sunning itself on a hedge. But it was temporary respite. I got drenched in a sudden and prolonged downpour, and as I moved North on the minor roads through the Nith valley, the wind strengthened. On the higher ground past Sanquhar, at times I could barely make progress and though it was still raining, I took off my jacket and waterproof shorts to reduce wind resistance.
Cold and wet, as I reached Auchinleck I was caught up in an election-eve SNP cavalcade. Fortunately, my North Road kit and yellow helmet matched their colour scheme and they kindly pulled in their flagpoles to avoid clobbering the sassenach as they passed.
In the morning, the headwinds continued but the weather gradually improved. On the ferry to Arran, I met a Lejogger on a Brompton, who was wild camping with just a bivi-bag and nylon tarp. His plan was to reach John o' Groats in 4 days time and spend 3 days on Orkney. 90 miles a day on a loaded Brompton. Much respect.
Rather than go round the North-East coast, I crossed Arran on The String road to Machrie, and then up the West coast, which is mostly shingle beach inhabited by tame Oystercatchers, with views of the Kintyre peninsular.
Lochranza was stupidly beautiful in the evening sunshine, and having just missed a ferry, I had time to wander round the castle and take some photos. On the ferry to Craignure, I met another cyclist, on a five day tour. He'd just used his one spare tube and I was happy to donate one of mine as I had another waiting at the B&B in the red cross parcel I'd posted.
In the pub at Tarbert, I almost enjoyed burger topped with haggis, and trod very carefully discussing the election with the locals.
The road to Lochgilphead along Loch Fyne was a series of glorious vistas of picturesque serenity, interrupted only every thirty seconds by some juggernaut thundering along at crazy speeds. I detoured along the Crinan Canal, then across the flat bogland of the Moine Mhor to Kilmartin. I had a wander round the neolithic Nether Largie burial cairns, and a coffee and cake at the museum cafe.
From there I turned inland and took the forestry road alongside Loch Awe. It was hard going and mostly the views were hidden by trees, but I saw a pair of eagles. I checked later with a couple of birdwatchers on the ferry to Mull and they said they might just possibly have been eagles, so for me, that's a definite sighting.
From Taynuilt there's a pleasant back route to Oban, where I passed a succession of walkers, mostly well beyond retiring age. I was expecting to see further along the road a broken-down Saga coach, or a care home with the gates open, but it was the annual The Great Outdoors magazine coast to coast challenge. One particularly decrepit American couple asked me how far to Taynuilt, I said three miles and their faces fell and they walked off. I doubt if they made it to Taynuilt, let alone the finish at Montrose.
On Mull I'd intended to take the inland route via Dervaig but my Garmin directed me past the turning and down a forest track, so I continued along the coast road, relieved to be taking a short cut. It had been a long day with another biggie tomorrow so on reaching Tobermory, I headed straight for the famous fish and chip van and had my scallops and chips on the pier in the last of the evening sunshine. That night, in the MacDonald Arms with the local 15-year-old (whisky that is), I checked the forecast and realised I only had one more fine day, with bad weather setting in for the rest of the trip. This was a big downer, and I briefly considered other options, such as breaking the trip at Mallaig and coming back another time, but I decided reality might be better than the forecast and too much planning would have gone to waste.
I caught the first ferry in the morning to Kilchoan on Ardnamurchan, the most westerly part of the UK mainland. From there to Lochailort was a succession of breathtaking views and monster hill climbs. I stopped at Glenuig after a very steep descent, still panting from the long uphill, where the inn supplied a well-kept half-pint of high-carb energy drink, a coffee and a chat with some sea kayakers who were about to set off on a 7-day expedition.
There were more long climbs on the A85 to Mallaig and it was a close call to catch the 4pm ferry to Skye. My first mechanical of the trip, a lost bar end, was replaced by ramming in and snapping off a dead stick.
I headed for the Skye Bridge at a pace, wondering why every little stream, one every 50 meters or so, needed a name sign. Does anyone care? The views were stunning from the bridge and Plockton, where Nigel will tell you some scenes in the Wicker Man were filmed, very picturesque. Eventually, I found something on the menu at the Plockton Inn that wasn't fish.
Day 5 - Plockton to Gairloch
71.3 miles, 7946 ft - map
The rain began on the hilly road to Stromeferry. This was supposed to be the rest day, just 70 miles and no ferries, but by the time I got to Lochcarron I was soaked and grateful for the shelter of the golf club cafe. A couple came in who happened to know my father-in-law.
The wind got up at Sheildaig, south of the Applecross peninsula, and I was nearly blown sideways off the bike by a ferocious gust. The seemingly sheltered bay there has a name in gaelic that means 'deceitful bay', owing to erratic local weather of the kind I'd just experienced.
I passed (geddit?) the turnoff to the Bealach na Ba, as I had neither the time nor the energy to give it a go, it was in cloud and the conditions up there would have been scary. Nevertheless there were people who'd either been up and round or who were thinking of it. I carried on up a long climb followed by an exhilarating descent, with the wind behind, down a winding valley.
The Torridon hills were shrouded in mist and rain but still imperious. The wind helped in the gradual climb to Kinlochewe, where the service station cafe provided refuge and sustenance. I left a small tip and a big puddle.
Years ago I saw Loch Maree in morning sunshine from the top of Slioch and it was possibly the finest view I've ever experienced. From ground level in the pouring rain with the wind in your face, not so much. At the top of a big climb at the seaward end of the loch, I tried to take a picture of a bird tightrope-walking on a wire across a lochan, but I dropped my phone, my emergency tenner fell out of the case, it blew away and I legged it along the road in full waterproofs trying to catch it. If there'd been anyone else around, it would be on YouTube by now.
The Myrtle Bank hotel in Gairloch tumble-dried everything I had. It's in a beautiful setting, right on the shore looking out to sea, and owned by an ex amateur racing cyclist from Hounslow.
Day 6 - Gairloch to Lochinver
87.3 miles, 7398 ft - map
On a hill north of Gairloch I was joined by another rider on a circular tour from Inverness, and we rode along for a while until my need to take photos slowed him down too much, and we agreed to meet up again at the first coffee stop. Cresting the rise over to Loch Broom, I was caught in a fierce hailstorm and I struggled to keep the bike straight on the downhill. I reached Maggies cafe by the loch frozen and barely able to speak, and was cheerfully greeted by Robert halfway through his bowl of soup, having missed the storm altogether. We continued up the long haul to Corrieshalloch and visited the gorge, spectacular with the falls in spate. He stopped at Ullapool but I still had the 28 miles to Lochinver to go. And on the hill outside Ullapool, my second mechanical occurred, I found I'd lost a cleat bolt and couldn't clip in. Hasty calls home and texts to Nigel for advice resulted in some numbers to call, but no-one answered and I had to carry on.
The wind and rain didn't ease up and I turned into the wind on the Tortuous Mad Road of Sutherland, as an old map I have puts it, with some trepidation. The first mile or so was particularly tough but then it turned away from the wind and the views of lochs and mountains began to open up. Every turn on the winding road provided another bit of magic. The stormy conditions just added to the drama and I loved every minute.
The landscape changes after you turn right towards Lochinver but it's no less beautiful, with wooded valleys, picturesque lochans and fast flowing streams.
Day 7 - Lochinver to Tongue
90.9 miles, 7720 ft - map
In the village next morning I tried the chandlers by the harbour but they didn't have an acceptable substitute for a cleat bolt, nor a 3.5mm allen key needed to tighten the others. I'd checked I had the tool for every part of the bike, but hadn't thought to check the shoes. They kindly give me a bolt that fitted the thread, but the head was too big to allow clipping in and it was about an inch long so it stuck into my foot. It did stop my foot from slipping off the pedal though so I was very grateful to them and the frankenstein bolt got me to the end.
From Lochinver I took the coast road north, also exceedingly pretty, and stopped for a coffee in the fishing hotel in Scourie. The weather was comparatively good, with light showers and strong tailwinds. Then, grinding up the hill past Laxford Bridge, I was caught again by Robert. As we were blown at speed up and over to Durness the winds strengthened, the temperature dropped and we got caught in a hailstorm or two. Not for the first time I was grateful to Jeff Tipper for the loan of his Goretex balaclava.
Robert stopped at Durness for the night, I had a quick cup of tea while the sun shone briefly, and the winds got worse. My bike was blown over as I took photos.
From Durness to Tongue is about a minute as the crow flies in a force 8 gale, but the road takes a long detour around Loch Eriboll. I rounded the corner from Durness in sunshine and headed straight into heavy rain driven right into my face at hurricane force. The next eight miles, almost all downhill, took nearly an hour without a stop. It was not fun.
Rounding the head of the loch, the clouds cleared and the wind was again in my favour. Back across the loch though, the rain continued to sweep across the hillside. These highly localised conditions are apparently not unusual.
It was getting late and I tried to ring the B&B to tell them I was on my way, but my supposedly water resistant phone wouldn't respond. Luckily they rang me, and as I was struggling up what seemed like endless hills with 8 miles to go, I said I could be an hour. But then the ups ran out and were replaced by a joyous 5 miles of straight descent that I covered at 40mph. I was still too late for a meal at the hotel but my hosts kindly rustled up a feast of corned beef, egg and chips.
Day 8 - Tongue to John o' Groats
63.5 miles, 4094 ft - map
The last day started overcast, but the sun was out as I stopped for a coffee at Bettyhill. I was counting down the hills before I reached the flat country of Caithness. On the last but one I met Maggie Scorer, who's riding round the coast of Britain, slowly, towing a trailer with a large dog in it. He has to get out and walk up the hills, and I kindly told him he'd have a lot of walking to do in the next few days (or weeks).
Late in the afternoon I coasted down the hill into John o' Groats, turned the corner by the harbour and heard a bang. My rear tyre had split, committing hari-kiri as soon as it saw the famous sign, as if to say, that's me done mate, you can get the bus from here. Which is what I did.
As I was waiting, Brompton guy came off the ferry, exchanged brief greetings, and headed for Wick. I waved as the bus cut him up at 50mph as he pedalled furiously along the A99.
Day 9 - Wick and home
Next morning I put on the spare tyre and left the bike to be collected, packed, and couriered home. A quick tour of the excellent local museum and I walked the mile from the town to its diddy airport from where I flew to Edinburgh and from there to London City. There was a queue at the whisky tasting counter at Edinburgh Airport Duty Free but I elbowed my way to the front and drank a toast in true Scottish style, with a free dram or two.
It had been a brilliant trip despite, or maybe because of, the weather. The lightweight strategy had worked well until the very end, or to look at it another way, I'd got away with it. I'd met loads of friendly people and seen the best scenery Britain can offer. Highlights were Arran, Ardnamurchan, Moidart, and the Mad Road to Lochinver. There's only one way to properly see these places, on a bike!
Chris Dixon, May 2015