Monday, 29 May 2017

The Highlanders

DAY 1 
Doncaster to Glasgow

The day finally dawned when we loaded the bikes onto the car and drove to Doncaster Station with the panniers on for the first time. I was shocked at how heavy the bike was fully laden and preferred not to think about some of the hills that were awaiting us.

I must admit that I was feeling trepidation and concern about;
  • The ride
  • The hills
  • The trains
  • The ferries
So we arrived on the station to be guided by a pleasant young man to the back of the train where the bikes were to be stored until we arrived in Edinburgh. 

I found that my wife H had left a little label on the handlebars of my steed Che. We had a struggle to find space as the bike racks were already full and then we had a hike through 11 carriages before we found our seats, not the easiest walk with our panniers.

We had a pleasant ride through to Edinburgh before changing for Glasgow Queen Street. Arriving in Glasgow we walked our bikes through the city to the Youth Hostel. This left me with a sizeable blister on my heel as the only footwear I had were my touring cycle shoes.

The Youth Hostel was about a mile and a half away but was in what looked to be a salubrious part of the city, a soft top Rolls Royce, parked 10 yards up from the Hostel. We parked the bikes in the garage around the back and we had an hour to kills so we...

The building itself was stunning with hand carved balustrades and big high ceilings. Having unpacked our panniers I made my way down to the self-catering kitchen to make our tea only to be confronted by 10 women made up of about 4 groups, all frantically preparing food. There were also about half a dozen women eating their tea in the dining area. Not one of them acknowledged my hello...or even looked up. And to be fair, they didn't acknowledge each others presence either so I don't think they were being selective. I went back to the room and took a few beers.

Eventually we went down to the kitchen and prepared frozen chip butties. By this time we had consumed possibly 4 or 5 beers each and were feeling a little worse for wear. This might explain why the chips were still partly frozen, and why we still ate them. By this time we had been joined by two young French lads who were on holiday following Iron Maiden around Britain. I was dying to ask them if they were teenage dirtbags baby but we ended up talking about Brexit and the evils of the tory party. A good end to a good day. A bad preparation for our cycling start tomorrow.

Dunoon to Inverary

We awoke to thick heads and trepidation in our hearts, but the weather looked good and we were off. Well, in the sense that we had to cycle to Glasgow Central and take the train to Gourock on the coast, West of Glasgow. We then took the ferry to Dunoon.

A wonderful 15 minutes were spent watching a pod of Harbour Porpoise swimming in the channel and we eventually worked the on-board coffee machine to get a much needed caffeine kick.

Arriving at Dunoon at midday I changed into my cycling gear in the public toilets whilst outside two fire engines with flashing lights pulled up outside the toilet. We looked for the nearest chip-shop and loaded up. Coupled with the beer last night our fuelling strategy wasn't all it could have been. We eventually set off from Dunoon and were heading along the A885 as it wound it's way through a sun-filled valley, the pine from the proliferation on both sides of the road, of ancient trees. We stopped after an hour for a rest and in honesty just to take in this beauty.

There were a number of unscheduled stops also...

We continued along the forest road marvelling at the sights and sounds and stopped intermittently for photographs. We took the opportunity to have a short break when we happened upon a chainsaw sculptures workshop and marvelled at the huge pieces of carved woodworking outside.

Andy, once again, took advantage of the situation...

We passed Loch Eck (which sounded like it should be in Yorkshire) and wend our way up the A815 until we eventually reached Loch Fyne where we had our lunch at a lovely pub, Creggans Inn. 

From Creggans Inn we could see the white houses of Inverary which was our destination for the night. Although it only looked about half a mile away over the water, we were only half way to our destination and had another 20 miles to cycle before we could rest.

We continued along the old military road and the head of the Loch would never come. When it did it had a kick in it's tail with a sharp incline to negotiate before turning back towards Inverary.

The last few miles were a bit of a slog but it did seem easier once we had passed the head of the Loch. Eventually, a series of very old and beautiful bridges culminated in a double bridge that once negotiated, took us into the town of Inverary. We had a bit of an amble around the town before booking into the hostel and booking our bikes into the bike shed. 

A lovely and a horrible surprise awaited us at the hostel, I had forgotten that I'd booked us a breakfast months ago when I'd started firming up plans. The horrible thing was the road that was the start of tomorrow. It appeared to rise vertically into the distance. This would be our start tomorrow.

The first port of call was the little supermarket to purchase items for our tea. For anyone interested it was garlic bread (GARLIC BREAD???), pasta and Lloyd Grossman pasta sauce. We wolfed this down and made acquaintance with our room buddy for the evening. We never knew his name but for the purposes of this blog he shall be known as Noel Coward. On account of his leather, open backed slippers and smoking jacket which adorned our bedroom.

Noel was one of those people that seem ill at ease wherever the surroundings and whatever the situation. He must have been very comfortable with two snoring Yorkshiremen sharing his bedroom for the night.

Vital statistics


Inverary to Glencoe

We set off, full of belly and full of water bottle but devoid of my recovery powder which had previously made a big difference to how I'd felt after a long ride and which I'd left int he hostel. Not the first thing I would lose. A dank, drizzly start dominated by what looked like a road into the sky. Heads down we just peddled. And peddled. We awaited the inevitable need to get into the 'granny ring' gear (so called as it is only Granny that needs the easiest gear). We waited for the burn in our thighs and calf's that told us we were climbing. It never came.

The profile for today was a very tough start followed by undulating landscape. In reality it was a steady, manageable climb through beautiful if damp woodland and stunning scenery. It was today that we saw the ubiquitous Red Deer on a mountain side scampering away from our silent approach.

A damp day, this was my view for 4 days in the saddle

We eventually reached Loch Awe and what a beautiful view. Kilchurn Castle sat brooding beneath a tempestuous sky, the rain adding to its no doubt tempestuous past.

There was a period during the rounding of the head of the Loch when the rain had a rest and we were treated to some beautiful views of the mountains and the Loch. Andy spotted a Pine Marten scampering over the road and away from us. I have only ever seen one before and never in this country so it was a good spot. We also saw Red Squirrel today.

The Falls of Lora in South Connel was our destination for lunch where we were able to at least fill our bellies. I was soaked through so divested myself of my jacket and helmet and went to the toilet to execute a little trick I have of warming myself up. I either put my hands into a sink full of life giving hot water or I warm them under the hand dryer.

As beautiful as the food was, and it was, I couldn't forgive the lack of hot water or the tepid, flimsy, mediocre, luke-warm hand dryer. I was still cold, not a great sign as we still had 30 miles to reach Glencoe. The good news was that the night before I had seen that there was a cycle path for some of the way so at least we'd avoid traffic. 

Connel bridge had been the thing that I had seen a photograph of months before, sat in front of my laptop screen, and thought to myself that I would love to ride my bike over it. In my months of research and scanning Google maps this what determined the route that we took. That and trying to avoid the perilous A82. 

We weren't disappointed with the view but the traffic lights meant that we had to peddle as hard as we could whilst the traffic backed up behind us.

We joined the cycle path at North Connel and immediately passed the ambitiously named Oban Airport. The cycle path turned out to be one of the wonders of the trip, actually taking us all the way into Glencoe. We had once again reached the coast and we were treated to a view of Castle Stalker...

The rain slowed and eventually stopped and we happened upon a field of 'heelan coos' beside a tranquil Loch. I took a photograph for my wife, who loves them, I have no idea why. But mine is not to reason why. They briefly looked up at me and continued doing what they were doing, which was mainly eating grass.

We found ourselves stopping intermittently, getting off the bike, having a stretch, maybe a gel or a protein bar and we found that this had a very beneficial impact on our bodies and mental state. just a break from the constant turning of the pedals, the changing of gears at every incline and constantly looking ahead to see what delights the road had in store for us. 

Just before reaching Ballachulish we found ourselves climbing steadily. The rain had tired itself out by now and the skies were clearing. We turned a bend and were greeted by a beautiful sight...

This was a magical moment

We arrived in Ballachulish tired but still enjoying the trip and we had a feeling that we were doing really well despite the rain and the intermittent hills and that we only had tomorrow to complete. we called at the local coop for supplies. We opted for pasta and garlic bread again and in the event of what seemed a dearth of beer, we opted for 4 cans of sweetheart stout.

Without doubt the worst can of anything I've ever drunk. 2% so in essence you were more under the influence BEFORE you had a drink. It not only had no effect, it tasted like dandelion and burdock. 

We travelled the short distance to the Youth Hostel at Glencoe and it was two weary travellers that locked our bikes in the big shed and made our way to our room for 6. I quickly 'bagsed' the bottom bunk next to the window. Fist stop for me was the shower to get clean, warm and dry. A better shower, more invigorating, more lovely, more warm, I can't remember.

I stowed much of my gear in the drying room including my boots, snood, jacket, socks, shorts and gloves. That snood saved my mood on a number of occasions. it's amazing how something around your head and ears can keep all of your body warm.

Andy made tea and we enjoyed drank our sweetheart stout and made acquaintance with three blokes who all used to be members of Southampton Climbing Club but who were now living all over the country. We explained to them where we were going and it was nice to speak to people who knew where Knoydart was.

After what can be best, and ridiculously described as a a waterproof coat dance by one of our rooms residents, we settled down to a decent night's sleep. He seemed obsessed by going through each of his pockets again and again and eventually slept under it. It is this very kind of eccentricity that makes travel and hostelling all worthwhile.

Vital statistics

Glencoe to Mallaig

Stiff legs. Stiff back. Stiff arms. These soon loosened off as we left the Youth Hostel. I had filled my water bottles and said to myself that the last thing I should do is leave the bottles in the hostel. So sure enough, the last thing that I did was leave them in the hostel. On leaving the hostel we realised how the road to the hostel was significantly uphill. My bottles are just through that brown door...I maybe need to let it go.

This lovely river was at the bottom of a long hill from the hostel

I was a little concerned that we now had about 10 miles on the perilous (my favourite adjective to describe this road) A82. In the event, I needn't have worried as there was a cycle path all the way to the Corran Ferry.
I always love to see the iron bridge at Ballachulish 

Not a bad view from the bridge

The Corran ferry is free to foot passengers and led us to going on the west of Loch Linnhe as opposed to using the perilous road. This turned out to be a great decision as we saw about 20 cars in three hours. The ferry also reminds me of a lovely family holiday on the Ardnamurchan peninsula  a couple of years ago.

The good decision aside, we were hungry and there were no tea shops or shops of any kind on that side of the Loch. I knew that Glenfinnan was probably about 15 miles (two hours) away so we soldiered on. It began to rain.

 We amused ourselves in the rain by trying to pronounce the local places, all of which now were only written in Gaelic.

It was taking forever to reach the head of the Loch where we would turn west towards Glenfinnan but we were afforded great views of Fort William with Ben Nevis standing guard for the town, shrouded in cloud, and probably rain. It was at this point when I promised myself a new waterproof jacket, one day.

By the time we reached Glenfinnan, home of the famous viaduct in the Harry Potter films, I wanted wizarding home. I was thoroughly fed up, soaked to the skin and very cold. We were also met with a very steep incline which took all our efforts just to get up it. Not a great feeling when you are cold, hungry and tired. My wife calls it the triangle of doom.

 It is in no way an exaggeration to say that this soup saved my life

The soup and doorstep cheese sandwich that we had when we eventually reached the carriage cafe at Glenfinnan station filled me and warmed me to a level. I was completely soaked and felt self-conscious sitting down whilst we were dripping. So much so that I took 4 paper towels and sat on them so as not to get the bench wet through.

 This was the view from the carriage window

We left the carriage and having nearly left Andy's water bottle that he had kindly lent me, I'd had enough. I knew there was a very steep road out of Glenfinnan and I wanted to get on the train to Mallaig. I asked the station master what time the train was due and thankfully we'd have had a 4 hour wait. I say thankfully because within half an hour of resuming and having summited out of Glenfinnan, the weather cleared. It never rained again.

Before too long we had reached Lochailort where there was a friendly welcome at the Lochailort Inn. We had a pint of shandy and a bag of cheese and onion crisps. Our desperate reasoning was that salt & vinegar would have dehydrated us (my wee was very dark yellow from the first day). We met a family from Manchester who again, knew Knoydart and we spent a nice 15 minutes talking about the trip.

We passed Arisaig and continued along the A830 until we saw a sign for the Mallaig cycle path. We took that after our great experience the day before going from Connel. It turned out to be mainly side roads which were quite 'lumpy'. By now we'd been cycling for about 9 hours and we were definitely feeling it.

We approached Morar where the famous white sands were looking splendid.Somewhere in the distance we could hear bagpipe music. We were ignorantly thinking that someone must have a stereo playing somewhere in the distance as we heard the noise for quite a while. We approached a house  for what must have been half a mile since we'd heard the noise. The house had a garage/shed beside it and behind the shed was a man, practising the pipes. We slowed and couldn't believe it. it was such a thrill to see a live piper and in my mind he was piping us home to Mallaig. We were nearly in Mallaig when the skirling of the pipes eventually disappeared.

All that was left was the three miles of road into Mallaig, two of which were downhill. Unfortunately there is a brute of a hill coming out of Morar which if it had been at the start of a day, would probably have been easy. But coming at the end of both our longest days in the saddle, it was tough. One of the highlights of the trip was about to occur though.

We took a rest near the summit and sat on the kerb, resting. Andy laid down and took the opportunity to straighten his back. A car pulled over, fairly dramatically and a Doctor asked us if we were ok. Having explained that we were resting we all laughed and he was on his way. I wondered where he had been when we really needed him in Glenfinnan?

We reached the peak and literally didn't need to pedal again as we coasted a couple of miles into Mallaig. We had done it. This was the toughest day for me. There were loads of significant hills, the rain made me fed up, we should have taken a sandwich for the quiet road, but we had done it.

We checked into a Seaman's Mission bunkhouse and we were given our own room so we were spared any more coat dancing or smoking jackets. Tea bags and milk were provided and the showers were yet again, top drawer. We showered and had a cuppa and had a very slow walk around town.

There was a very friendly young lady from the Czech Republic who carried all our panniers to the room while we carried the bikes. She was extremely helpful and hard working and I would recommend this as a place for the night. To be honest I would recommend all the hostels that we stayed at. There is something about hostels which forces people to communicate.

We went for our tea at the Steam Inn where I was treated to a beautiful and much enjoyed falafel burger. I had a couple of pints of Tenants Lager and felt fantastic. I was looking forward to seeing David tomorrow and thought that we could just have a gentle amble over to Airor once we'd got the third ferry of the trip. We slept the sleep of the dead and awoke refreshed and still marvelling at our feat of endurance.

Vital statistics

Inverie to Airor

I intended to take a sourdough loaf and a bottle of fair trade wine over to David as a small thank you for letting us sleep at Camusblathen tonight. Unfortunately the bakery is closed on Mondays (I had to check my phone what day it was as we had both completely lost track of days), and the local shop wasn't allowed to sell us alcohol before 10am in the morning. The best laid plans and all that. 

We breakfasted in the Bunkhouse and ended up talking to Fred (his real name) who is 76 and had come back from wild camping in his tent on the Isle of Eigg. He told us some of his life story which included going to a Monastery for a week in his younger days where he spent 11 years. He was grabbing life by it's throat and squeezing out every last drop.

Andy waiting for the Western Isles Cruises which provides the ferry from Mallaig to Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula. The staff were very helpful and we embarked on the 45 minute journey to Inverie, the home of the Forge, the most isolated pub on the UK mainland. The most isolated and the most shut pub in our case.

This sailing ship passed us on our way to Inverie

Having holidayed half a dozen times in the last three years in Knoydart, I was familiar with the road that would take us the 7 miles to Camusblathen. In a wide vehicle it can be a bit hairy but aside from the rolling hills that I remembered I didn't think we'd have a problem. Talk about not knowing a road until you cycle it.

We started on the first incline of two main hills. My legs wouldn't work. There was simply nothing in them, no strength. It was as if there was something missing between my legs and my brain. My brain was saying just do what you've done for three days and pedal. But the legs were definitely not listening. For the first time this trip I pushed the bike up a hill. It was the only way I could get over it, having no access to legs that worked.

After a torturous two hours we eventually passed the sign at Doune where Hiedi and I will be house-sitting in July and little remained but a very steep downhill taking us into Airor. The weather was lovely, the breeze behind us all the way, but I was ready for a bit of a rest. And a lovely rest was had.

David and I showed Andy around Airor and the property and I was trying to explain just how much has been transformed at the property in the three years since Hiedi, David and myself first came to look at it on a very cold, February afternoon in 2014.

The second great Camusblathen polytunnel following the storm that brought the first one down

the produce doing well in the first year of growing

resplendent braces, David in his favourite seat

Andy looking like he's just ridden and won

Sweetheart stout and licensing laws forgotten, we were treated to numerous real ales
 Andy was, as most people are, bowled over by the property and the beauty of the location. But also by the friendliness of the local people. We have met some ordinary people, some extraordinary people, some who you might have worried about before you came, some who smiled, some who didn't. But all have contributed to the feeling of accomplishment and enjoyment of the last week or so.

Travel is great, challenging yourself is great, cycling is great. People shouldn't be put off. I sometimes call myself the fittest fat bloke in the world (I'm definitely not) but none of it matters. Just plan and go. Almost as much enjoyment of the trip itself was planning the trip in the cold winter months. poring over google maps, bing maps, road maps. Researching hostels, looking to see where the local shops are. Having something to look forward to. Worrying about whether I could do it or not. It's all part of the journey.

Just do it, in Fred's words, 'you can rest when you're dead'.

Some measure of Knoydart is how David's neighbours Jim & Kristie, and Veronika from the excellent Roads End Cafe rallied round and loaned Andy and I a mattress for the night. It was to be the best nights sleep I had all week and what a view before turning in...

Vital Statistics
I forgot to turn on Strava to record the whole trip so thankfully it missed the bit where I walked. 

Airor to Doncaster

We put the alarm on for 6.30am and quickly got up and made a cup of tea. We loaded the bikes into the land rover...

We proceeded to Inverie and I saw the roads in a different way. That's what cycling does, every incline imprints itself on your brain and your legs, your arms, back and wrists. I enjoyed the ride in a cramped land rover. The perspex door only added to the enjoyment.

We arrived at the quayside and embarked on what can best be described as the best ferry crossing in the world. From Roger the ex-nuclear submarine Commander, Veronika the cafe owner, to the poor schoolgirl who was going into school for one exam. Andy and I were shattered and so just enjoyed the revelry between the participants. We were in tears of laughter as the obvious affection for each other was shared. It was the perfect example of the small community of Knoydart. It was actually the perfect example of people.

We arrived back at Mallaig and enjoyed a huge breakfast at the Mission Bunkhouse cafe, this bunkhouse has much to recommend it. We eventually boarded the train with the bikes and panniers (including a peerless sourdough loaf from Mallaig bakery. The smell drove me mad all the way home.

We were joined by a number of like-minded travellers including a couple of excellently behaved dogs...

In what seemed like no time at all we were in Glenfinnan and I couldn't help but reflect on the pain we'd felt just the day before coming the other way. We were treated to a view of the Jacobite steam train in the station.

We travelled the 500 miles back to Doncaster via Glasgow and Edinburgh and at some stage the inevitable happened...

I had definitely lost some of my front shelf!

We were met in Doncaster by Hiedi who loaded the bikes onto the back of the car and in no time at all my gear was washed and everything was put away. The trip was over. We were lucky, everything worked out as planned. All the connections were made, all the ferries were on, the trains were on time, the bikes worked. These are my reflections;
  • People are great
  • Sweetheart stout is no kind of drink
  • Pasta is just the ticket after a long ride
  • We are all capable of more
  • Bikes are brilliant, hardly bettered in design over 150 years
  • Showers are better enjoyed after 9 hours in the saddle
  • Just go
  • Brooks saddles are the best
  • A snood under your helmet can make a huge difference to comfort and wellbeing
  • Scotland is stunning
  • I have great friends
  • My wife was the best sight of all
I am sure that I will have more reflections over time. This is the beauty of doing something worth remembering.

1 comment:

  1. You really did it! Couldn't be prouder of you. I feel like you won the TDF! Chapeau my love xx


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