This one time..doing the North Coast 500 (“NC500”)

“Why would you want to cycle 500 miles…and in weather like this?” the motorcyclist asked as I sheltered, shivering a little, under a small marquis at the side of the Lochcarron Hotel.  “I’m not entirely sure” I replied.  I wasn’t (well at least not at that point).

It was day 2 on the NC500.

I’d spent a sleepness night under canvas and had already turned back after horizontal rain blasted me backwards.  It felt like cycling into a hard wet wall. I was starting to question myself.  Then….another cyclist in cycle shorts and appearing unafraid of the weather rode past.  It seemed as good a time as any to set off.

I bid the motorcyclist goodbye and headed off.  The rain seemed temporarily to have stopped.  The hills began almost as soon as I left Lochcarron.

I knew it was going to be a long day. The legendary Bealach Nan Ba awaited and then a campsite at Torridon.  I met the other cyclist at the top of the hill out of Lochcarron where we both had the same idea of losing some layers having swiftly overheated climbing hills.

I recognised her straightaway as having been in the Inverness Hostel and then in the Lochcarron Hotel the night before. I’d thought her a walker by her lean, wiry build.

Introductions over I immediately started to admire her bike – a Shand of all things!  We headed off at a similar pace chatting en route.  The Shand was a birthday present and she was doing the ride to celebrate a special birthday.  I felt almost distracted cycling beside a Shand and had a gentle laugh to myself as Fiona asked if the hill out of Lochcarron was the Bealach.  “Don’t think so” I replied.

And then we were at the foot of the legendary Bealach.  I’d watched a road race on tv on it and thought how incredibly impossible it looked. Yet here I was…on a bike (Orbit not Shand) I’d bought for £50 and strapped up with 2 huge paniers containing well..just heavy stuff!  Two road cyclists got on their bikes from their car just at the bottom.  I admired their light, beautiful frames….  Still it was just a day trip for them…a life trip for me!

There are lots of theories of cycling…lots of techniques…but really it’s just a matter of sitting back, turning the pedals and talking yourself through the following mantra “I can only go forward, just one more turn, the bike doesn’t go back”…over…and over…and over again.  Soon the movement becomes almost hypnotic.  This climb was much helped by the hysterical car drivers.  Hysterical at cyclists going up such a thing.  An old white haired lady with thin hands put them together in a prayer gesture.  Some rolled down their windows and shouted well done.  Others just laughed in that knowing way.

Probably about 1/6 from the top the gale force wind picked up and the wall returned.  We had to get off though pushing was harder than cycling.  The roadies passed us at the top – we’d overtaken them earlier – can you believe it!  It must’ve been the triple ring.  From the top things opened out though it was too windy to stop.  In fact a bit scarily so as we were blown across the road.  So down the other side..and the inevitable issue of my back brake not operating as it should…or really at all..oh well. Too late to fix it now.

Down, down, down…and then sunshine at the delectable Applecross. Lunch was soup at the Walled Garden. Then back on the bikes for what we thought was the easy bit!  It wasn’t.  The hills continued, and continued.  Fiona said a few times “we just can’t get out of 30s”. It was true.  We rolled into Torridon tired but happy! I was savagely eaten by midges while putting the tent up.  They’ve suddenly taken a liking for my forehead having managed to limit themselves to my hands and legs before.

Food was a bar meal.  Shelter a windy night at the free campsite next to Torridon Hostel.

Highs – the Bealach, the lovely conversation with a guy from the bbc who shared the love of bike touring – the true joy of being on a bike is surely being able to chat to strangers while cycling!

Lows – the endless hills to Shieldaig and beyond – worse than the Bealach. The dodgy back brakes- overrated to have front and back brakes anyways!

And then it was day 3 on the NC500.

Morning began with a fantastic ride along to Kinlochewe.  The mountains of Torridon on either side.  I felt like I’d arrived! Cycled into Gairloch and met Fiona outside the Spar as I consumed a takeaway coffee and ate something (anything!).  Chatted to a couple who said Scotland had changed so much in a few years. I agreed and didn’t – like most things with me I guess! For me Scotland had kept that feeling of utter remoteness, of simplicity. We were to reflect on this many times during the trip.

At some stage, I don’t know when Fiona and I started to cycle together.  And it was truly fab!  It’s always hard to put your finger on how, and why, and when, such decisions are made. Or maybe they’re not made. Instead they just are.

This day we were passed by porsches.  Flying past us – all the colours of traffic lights.  Overtaking each other like kids.  NC500 attracts more than cyclists it seems.

We passed Gruinard Bay.  That place which was once a testing place for Anthrax.  Somehow unlikely in such a remote setting.

Up and down. Up and down. Names of places like First Coast (I’ve just googled it as wondered if I’d imagined it and it comes up as “very remote rural”).  Second Coast.  At one point some goats.  A long ride into the small hostel in Dundonnell nestled at the bottom of that behemoth known as An Teallach.  I’d climbed it in one of my other lives.  The couple who ran the hostel told us they’d started it as a diving hostel and then he fell in love with the mountains.  They’d enjoyed the creation of the NC500.  It’d brought them many cyclists though more solo female cyclists than any other!  We reflected also on that a lot during the trip.  What was it made so many female cyclists love the joy of the road alone or in gentle isolation?

We ate a meal cobbled together of pasta, some pesto, a little tuna and some cake of some sort.

Highs – food after a long day on the bike

Lows – that climb out of Gairloch – did no one ever think of building a Scottish town at the top of a hill rather than the bottom.

Day 4 on the NC500

A nice climb out of Dundonnell after saying goodbye to our delightful Italian roommate.  A friendly girl with a map of Scotland slowly marking each road she’d travelled with a permanent marker! We reached Corrieshalloch Gorge. Time for a snack. Fiona joked with the warden in the National Trust to put on a “brew”.   It met a stony silence.

We rode on to Ullapool.  After a few negotiations to send my tent back to Inverness (love you D & E Coaches + the delightful woman in the cafe who let me use her phone + the lovely woman in the charity shop who took my tent to the bus!) we had some lunch – hummous and bread I think under a tree in the rain.  Again our conversations with locals had touched on the positivity of the NC500 – the cafe folks had never had a busier year though there were worries too. Drivers racing to do as long a stretch as possible on the single track roads being one of them!

Then we headed on.  Beautiful bays followed.  Abandoned houses.  Coves where I felt like donning my cossie for a swim.  (Doubtless to be eaten all over by midges…like that one time outside the tent in Peru…..)

Few people.

Remoteness again our friend.

At Lochinver we ate almost an entire packet of shortbread between us.  It’d been a long day. The sign said 3 miles to Achmelvich.  Couldn’t be so hard!  Another town set at the bottom of a hill. So strange.  Couldn’t we just move some of them to the top.  Probably some of the hardest 3 miles ever.  Up…and down….(no!) and up…and down. Eventually we arrived.  All hills were forgiven by the warm welcome at the hostel by the fab Dutch warden. Truly delightful she made me glad we still have hostels and quaintness and quirkiness.  The whole world hasn’t been swallowed up by a magnolia coloured idyll. Herbs provided, lovely conversation with 2 sisters – one of whom shared our crazy love of bikes.

Highs – laughing at the “brew” comment. We reflected on it later. Maybe she heard it 100 times a day or maybe too much cycling has caused us to be delerious!

Lows – those 3 miles to Achmelvich!  Felt like 2003.

Day 5 on the NC500

Short cycle to Scourie.  Stopped at the lovely Kylesku Hotel for coffee . Felt a bit under dressed for such a nice place. Often the life of a cyclist!  Lovely curved bridge on way out of Kylesku.  A few climbs but nothing like the days before.  Arrived at Stonechatts B and B in Badcaul.  Met by Rocket Ron.  A character if ever there was one.  He’d once been a top mountain biker he told us cycling through the night in the US. And that story about the tiger in the car.  Stay if you want to know it!

The view from his B and B is truly wonderful.  The French would say “ca fait carte postale” – that makes a postcard! Hills stretching out right across the horizon, boats easing in and out from the shore, a bench positioned to take it all in.

He took us to the Kylesku Hotel for dinner. It was truly delicious.  We met the owner who was lovely (just saw her on Landward a few nights ago using the RBS mobile bank!).  On the way back we had to play a game about countries.  Something about ones which started or ended with something.  We were doing not too badly.  The only problem was that the game ended once the car ride ended.  So, in what I suspect might be true Ron style he drove faster and faster to avoid losing out!

I could probably write a book about Ron but I’ll leave you to stay at Stonechatts and experience it for yourself!

Day 6 on the NC500

Early start after a cooked brekkie by Ron. Met a lovely Dutch couple in B and B who’d been coming to Scotland each year for 20 years. They loved it.  She said it was even beautiful in the rain.  Maybe she was right. We reflected on that comment a lot in the next days and in their love for Scotland.  It was in their hearts expressed through their shining eyes.

We said our farewells to Ron after he insisted on showing us his mountain bike and oiling my chain.  A curious mixture of power and fragility in one person but with a heart of gold. Stay at Stonechatts and you’ll know what I mean!

This day brought a cycle up and over Ben Hope and Ben Loyal.  Suddenly geography seemed to click in my head.  We’d have to get over these hills some way!  No longer did I see hills as something you’d approach (perhaps in a car) and climb up. No were climbing up and over all these mounds left in our wake!

The scenery here had a starkness and remoteness.  Vast.  Somehow it felt like we were always on a high plane above the rest of the world.  I’d travelled this way many years back in another life.  At one point on the high plane before Tongue I pointed out to Fiona an abandoned cottage I’d photographed on that trip.  I said to Fiona how the light had been shining on it the last time I’d been there…

At that point, and I joke not, the sun came out and suddenly the cottage was basked in the same light that I’d loved in that other life of mine.  I’ve got the photo to show you if you don’t believe me!

It was a hungry day on the bikes.  I’d broken the seal of hunger early and nothing could seem to keep me going!

And then that descent into Tongue.  Somehow the wind still against us.  In Scotland you can cycle 10 miles one way with the wind against you, turn and it’s still against you! The spit of land leading into Tongue felt magical luring us into a new place and our home for the evening.

We got to the Spar.  Dash. Closed at 5.15!  I reflected back to that conversation in Gairloch – Scotland hadn’t changed that much. And I loved it for that!

We bumped into an end to ender on a bright blue bike (I’d recognise this bike in John O’Groats the next day)! Think I’ve got a problem! He’d done 100 miles that day and was just looking for somewhere to stay.  He had that slightly spaced look that comes after a long cycle.

Rations depleted Fiona and I thought of a plan B!  Some fresh eggs by the side of the road provided a bit then we got some potatoes and butter from a lovely couple who were selling the eggs! It all works out in the end!

We stayed at the creatively restored Poor House Hostel in Tongue which had been the original Poor House.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually been happier to see cake in my life as I was when I saw our 2 huge slices of walnut and coffee cake sitting on the table in the Hostel.

Highs – cake, big cake

Lows – the closed Spar and the belief that it was downhill for 3 miles before Durness – Ron you were having me on!

Day 7 on the NC500

Breakfast over we started our cycle to John O Groats.  The scenery was flattish, less stunning.  We stopped in Dounreay to buy some supplies.  It seemed somehow strange to have a little village so near the nuclear facility.  We passed through Castletown with its lovely sweeping beach. Yet more abandoned buildings.  In another age these had been really different places with people, life, community.  We arrived at the Seaview in John O’Groats in a heavy mist.  I recognised the blue bike in the shed.  Dinner was fish and chips in the warm bar of the Seaview.  Adrian of the blue bike came to join us.  He’d just finished the end to end.  He seemed slightly deflated as people often are at the end of the challenge (I’d sympathise with this a few days later!).  We chatted about his route and the pure joy of cycle touring.  A lover of bikes he had a number of frames which he just moved the components about on for different rides. He worked in the IT industry and had a sadness when he spoke about going back to his desk in a day or 2 after a LONG journey back to Cheltenham.  At one point a drunk man played 2 of my favourite songs on the jukebox..in succession…”Everywhere” Fleetwood Mac and “Fisherman’s Blues” The Waterboys.  A drunk Canadian woman came to tell us some tales of her family heritage in Orkney. She was taking the boat over the next day.

Highs – the fish – it was delish

Lows – the sadness of abandoned buildings

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Day 8 on the NC500

Morning saw us at that John O’Groats sign with all the different distances to different places.  It’d also changed since my last trip in my other life.  It’s now hugely expanded with lots of lodges by a company called “Natural Retreats”.

We cycled on to Wick where I used the public toilets which, in the nicest way, would be great for a crime scene in a movie.  If you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If not, just go! We bought some pies in a local bakery.  We asked a woman pushing a pram for the road out.  She told us she’d “no idea”.  It seemed funny in a place with one road in and one road out and someone who was clearly a local….

We cycled on. The scenery was more brown, more flat, less spectacular. We stopped at the Whaligoe Steps  – a set of stone steps leading down to the shore where, in another time, herring girls had hauled up the catch.  We had a coffee in a house bought by a woman who’d moved up from London.  I couldn’t help but be amazed by the attraction of such remoteness and the labour of love some people take on.  We talked about spices and recipes.

From Latheron Junction on I started to fear traffic again as big trucks joined the A9 from Thurso.  I was relieved when we made it to Helmsdale.  And that person was telling the truth when they told us that when we saw the sign for Sutherland it was all downhill! We stayed at the friendly and warm Bannockburn Inn.  That evening we chatted with the barmaid who told us about how some of their local gold had made its way into the Olympic Medals! At least that’s what she’d believed when they went off panning from school!

Highs – the pie

Lows – none really

Day 9 on the NC500

It felt like day 9.  You know that feeling when something you love is coming to an end.  Traffic was a bit busy and it seemed like a long cycle into the Nigg Ferry. In fact, it felt as if the ferry shouldn’t actually be there at all.  I’d learn later that the semi submersible ship berthed in the Cromarty Firth was on its way to load the damaged rig in Lewis.  The “Hawk” seemed otherwordly compared to our scenery of these last days.  It was a delight though to arrive in Cromarty with its historic little streets and warm looking shops.  It also looked different from when I’d been here in my other life.  It seemed more developed but in a nice way with lively local businesses painted brightly and shining clean!  We stayed in the Cromarty Brewery property owned by the local trust and drank some Cromarty beer.  When in Cromarty….

Highs – discovering the Nigg Ferry where it didnt feel it should be

Lows – not having more time to enjoy Cromarty

Day 10 on the NC500

Last day.  A shortish cycle through Cromarty stopping in Fortrose for a quick coffee and then cycling along the side of the A9 into Inverness.  A small altercation with a motorist in Inverness brought me back to reality with a bang.  We stayed again at the Inverness Hostel.  It seemed friendlier this time around and a bit less chaotic.  I felt like Adrian now.  At the end of something great.

Highs – achieving it – little old me cycling all these miles on my old Orbit I’d bought for £50!

Lows- was it really over!

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A few reflections:-

It’s probably the most beautiful route I’ve ever done. The sense of remoteness, of time standing still, seeing houses abandoned, imagining what went before and what will come…

To use the words of a song by King Creosote:- “and my eyes cramming too much in”.

 

 

 

 

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48 hour adventure from Edinburgh – collected inspiration and memories

Leave work.

Pack. Forgetting stuff is likely as only have 10 mins turnaround.

Cycle to Waverley. Usual aggressive person shouts at me on bike. Oh well!

Take train from Edinburgh Waverley (1630) to Berwick upon Tweed (1711) – Virgin. Staff delightful. Send them a tweet to tell them I love them…@Virgintrains

Remember it’s one occasion bike is treated nicely – even gets own ticket. Enjoying this moment.

Arrive hostel. Find big bike shed.  Trip going well.

Check in. Find hostel to be a re-used granary complete with art gallery, community cafe and great rooms.  Reflect on the power of hostels. Charitable place to stay. Free meals for kids under 10. Supporting good stuff for a really long time. Forget towel. It was inevitable. Remember toothpaste. It’s a bonus.

Walk City Walls.  Feel a part of history. Reflect on shortness of life compared to history that’s gone before and will follow after.  Visit local Spar crossing one of the brilliant bridges.  Talk to lovely woman in Spar. Reflect on warmth of people in North of England.

Walk some. Spend a moment watching a small canoe fight across the Tweed.  Feel power of ocean. Think how world can be at once overwhelming and at once inspiring.

Return hostel. Cook dinner. Read a book from library about a woman who walked England in a bee suit to bring to life disappearance of bees. Note to self to buy book. Forget to make note of name. Find letter in book thanking YHA Berwick for being so lovely when author stayed.

Go to room (no 405). Chat to roommate. She’s off to Mull to volunteer for a week with National Trust.  Looks 45 – actual age 58. Tell her this. She says waits till morning. Next morning she still looks 45 – actual age 58. Tell her this.

make and eat huge bowl of porridge with 3 dates. Man from Hexham offers to make me a cup of tea. Leave hostel after borrowing bike tool to fix my rapidly dropping seat!

Cross bridge out of Berwick.

Get to a beach bit. Have lost blue and red cycle signs. Ask nice guy collecting bins. He points me in right direction where he often does his running he says.

Cycle. Terrain rough, weather rubbish. Feeling good though. Reflecting on choice.  Choice to get out of bed and head off on my bike in crap weather.

Cycle past a farmer. Reflect on mashed up path. Hard for bike. Necessary for his work though. Reflect on balances of our world. Pass a strange house with a message about a cat.

863 Keep cycling. Have to open lots of gates. This is hard as keep losing balance. Pass some cows. Reflect on story read about people being crushed by cows. Decide to cycle past not looking at them.  If I cant see them they cant see me.

Pass some sheep. A pheasant is hiding under some greenery. Reflect on Roald Dahl somehow…and those birds hidden under the cape of the pram. Reflect also on how much see when on bike. How much hear…the smell of green wet landscapes !

Reach causeway for Holy Island. Tide times in hostel seem to bear no relation to the ones here – probably me! Speak to some people. Decide to go across an hour before official time as locals assure me it’s fine. Cycle cycle cycle. It’s flat. Expanses of sand increase my calmness. Blanket of small pink flowers draws my eyes.

Reflect on magic of a place you can only access at low tide.

Drink best coffee of life. Eat best cheese scone. Later tweet to let Pilgrims Coffees know of their new world records.

Walk out to the beach seeing the lime kilns first. Many people build cairns. Why?

Cycle back along causeway. See pilgrims walking over sand in bare feet.  Reflect on pilgrimmages.

Use small hand written map to find route to Wooler. Cycling is nice. Quiet. Hedgerows. Arrive Wooler. Hostel in converted army barracks. Used for womens land army during WW2. Bought out by local community at 2007 after YHA wanted to sell it. Walls decorated with wonderful murals. Rooms named after women who worked in land army. Great to be surrounded by inspiring women 🙂

Little by little people arrive. Great conversations.  With Fiona from Dundee walking st cuthberts way with friends. We reflect on model of hostels – she’s going to tell people to stay in hostels not hiltons. we talk about juicing while she prepares a million juices from lots of really green leaves and avocados. kitchen smells of lime and mint.

Chat to Lucy and her husband. she’s director of a mountain festival . i’ve missed it this yr but shall go next yr. we exchange details. we’ll meet again. spend some time looking at my maps…next trips!

earlyish start. weather rubbish. Start cycling. Stop after 300 metres to check map. Find route. Head up a big big hill. Look back. All around green. Recall a conversation in Burma about green being easiest colour on eyes. Starts to rain. Continues to rain. Keep going. Dont want to stop. Waterproofs are overrated.

3 miles later.

Stop. Legs freezing. Put on waterproofs. They feel a bit tight. The unkindness of the Scottish Winter!

Keep cycling. It’s quite hard. Reflect when it feels tough on the little birds who come in and out of the hedgerows. If they can be bothered to fly about I can cycle! They never have a warm bed to go to. and still they sing.

Finally reach Bamburgh. Castle????? Oops = it’s gone.

ask man with a dog. He points to a vague outline. It’s just shrouded in mist!

enter a cafe. worry immediately as it’s really busy and there are no small tables

staff make me really welcome. Get me a seat next to the heater. Eat a Seahouses crab salad and a large cappuccino. Sit for as long as seems appropriate to dry off.  Go back out. Weather no better.

Continue cycling. Sing in my head Gnarls Barclay Crazy. Makes me laugh! Cycling taking me much longer than usual. Unfit or conditions?

Reflect on choice. Bike v Sofa. Bike wins…..easily.

hedgerows…little birds with a sparkle of yellow. trees. not many cars…not bad!

Arrive Alnmouth. it’s been 40 miles of damp damp damp. Sit in a semi heated waiting room. Read my book. Eat a kit kat. Reflect – happiness.

1705 train arrives. Bike on. Step up feels like a one metre climb. Reflect – fatigue. walk through first class to my standard class seat. a man reads a book called mindfulness for depression. another works on a spreadsheet. it looks dull.

Get coffee. Listen to man in next seat thanking his friend graciously for buying him  a kindle. says he’s using it all the time. when i next look over he’s on his phone.

get off train. collect bike. step still feels high. meet a lecturer getting her bike. offer to help her with it. we walk out platform together. she asks about my trip. she says i’ve got “grit”. I say it beats the sofa! She’s been at a wedding in London. She’s wearing shorts, a t shirt and a nice jacket. I’m wearing cycle leggings, waterproofs, and 4 layers on top! She assures me she’s not cold.

Go to lift at way out to Calton Road. Meet a woman wearing shorts again. She tells me she’s been to church today. She’s a midwife. She says she’s just off a nightshift. She loves her job of bringing people into the world. She couldnt sleep as her neighbour decided to hoover at midnight. She’s feeling tired.

Cycle home.

Reflect – it’s been a good 48 hours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My love for Leith….beauty captured!

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Out and about around Islay without my big bags…

And so off I went around Islay to catch (well I mean see) some geese…the cycling felt easy without my paniers so up to Machir Beach felt like a dream…as did the beach itself…

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Atlantic waves coming in across the white sand..swimming at own risk given the strong currents.  If only I’d had a message in a bottle to send out across the Atlantic!

Then it was on the equally beautiful Saligo Bay..

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cycling around Loch Gorm’s quiet roads a cute little cottage caught my eye…

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And then it was time to catch those geese.  The RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart has a cute little visitor centre manned by a lovely girl from Wales who’d just started a few days before. She was full of enthusiasm telling me about the choughs she’d seen a few days before at the other reserve in the South of Islay the “Oa”.  She said it’d make a lovely cycle to go out to Ardnave Point.  By this time it was positively tropical conditions so a beach sounded like a nice idea!

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I didnt quite make it to the point as it said it was a 3 hour walk so I just wandered around a bit and enjoyed the swirling patterns in the sand.

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One of the RSPB farmers gave me some water on the way back since it really was dead hot!

I was talking to a birdwatcher with really big binoculars..I really just fancied seeing what he was seeing…an eagle very far in the distance…when the lovely brother and sister from the ferry passed me! So we cycled together back to the road end and shared stories of our adventures so far. It’s funny but on these trips each day can seem to hold many adventures!

At the junction they headed to Port Ellen to camp there for the night before a ferry back over the next day…I headed back to the hostel to see what the evening held…

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A funny ole night at the Port Charlotte Hotel

There’s not much in Port Charlotte but it’s gorg and has an amazing hostel run by a lovely couple who could not be more helpful. It also has a hotel. I’d been once before to the hotel bar on a sunny afternoon when I’d chatted to an american guy who’d travelled specially to drink whiskey..such is the call of this intoxicating stuff! After drying out and chilling out in the hostel I decided to head to the hotel bar for the live music. I sat myself down at the bar chatting to the barman and owner for some cycling tips for the next day. I think they thought I was Victoria Pembleton..they kept saying I could just do loops around the island!

A man with a beard and perhaps a dutch accent sat next to me with a little black book into which he made copious notes…what was he writing my curious mind asked! The musician arrived amidst much ado  – sound testing, set up…he said himself the pub looked so busy he was worried guests thought “sting” was playing!

He started to play and then Julie and Colin arrived so we had a good ole night chatting in the increasingly hot pub. Three french guys arrived at the bar every so often, spent an age studying the whiskey menu, then ordered 3 whiskies each time! Their faces looked gravely concentrated like it was some kind of exam.  I stuck to the local ale!

As the night passed laughter came from behind us….a man wearing cool specs had picked up a piece of tartan carpet being used as a doormat, wound it around himself and was Scottish country dancing! I’m laughing even as I type this…it was so funny! His “group” who were well on were killing themselves laughing!  It turned out they were Swedes from Southern Sweden and were over on a long weekend.  This somehow seemed incredible. They’d flown from Stockholm to Edinburgh then hired a car and driven over to get the ferry. They then hired bikes and were cycling around!

I saw the son of the man with the “kilt” back at the hostel later. He was wandering the small corridor unable to find his room! He eventually woke the lovely warden who told me the next day he kept insisting the hostel had two floors and he was on the wrong floor.   Next morning at breakfast, as only Scandinavians can, they were up bright and early, crisp and fresh in their neatly fitting cycle gear..they half recognised me from the night before.

After a brisk and efficient breakfast they sailed off on their bikes, their long legs spinning the wheels fast and neatly!  I felt a bit clunky on Orbit and certainly nothing like Pembleton….

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Whisky whiffs on Islay

And so leaving Lochranza behind with her deer and pretty castle I was off on the Calmac to Kintyre.  Some other cycle tourists caught the ferry with me..a brother and sister who loved cycle touring though their bags were awffy heavy and they were tired after a hilly 45 mile route round Arran the day before.  I was also feeling the weight a bit after the climb up to Lochranza. It’s been a while since I’ve hardly been able to sit down on the bike!

A wee short ferry trip and then a dash over the hills to Kennacraig for the Islay ferry to Port Askaig – my fav point of arrival up the little bit of water between Islay and Jura.  We shared cycle stories on the boat over and drank lots of tea and ate toast.  I’m usually proud of my lightweight packing though on this occasion it did have the downside of me no having maps!!!! It couldnae be that hard I reckoned…there aren’t too many roads on Islay and Jura after all! It was brill to chat through our routes right enough and compare cycle stories. The only bother with these conversations is I end up adding even more “routes” to my list of “musts”! One life, many adventures I guess!

It was a bit grey when we arrived in Port Askaig…even the paps of Jura were hidden in the greyness.

And I really felt the climb out of Port Askaig…up, up and up some more…from a sitting start! Thank goodness Orbit had it in her to get me to the top….and then it was off…well kind of..it started to rain..and it was that cunning rain…the kind that you hardly feel until you’re soaked through and know that later your legs will resemble corned beef! So a stop for my rain trousers which flap in the wind! I never seem to have quite the right stuff but try not to let it stop me.  It was a bit of a damp and characterless cycle until I got to Bridgend where, mapless of course, I took the turn to Bowmore instead of Port Charlotte. It was only a few miles and I got to cycle round the lovely bay…my first real “glimpse” of “Islay”.

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Bowmore gave me my first whiff of whisky and it was so nice! A perfectly intoxicating wind. I wandered around Bowmore a bit. It’s the biggest place on Islay and has a nice little round church at the top of the hill..round so the devil has no place to hide!

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I got some provisions from the local coop and spoke for ages to the nice lady in the tourist info asking her where I might find the geese! She said “just look up”.  She had that warm Scottish accent that takes the corners off harsh words and just makes you feel welcome and good.  I met Colin and Julie in the tourist info. They were car camping and seemed like a laugh.  They were looking for some live music and the warm accent advised that the Port Charlotte Hotel had live music from half eight.

After walking up and down the little streets, admiring a garden with a stream coming right through it and passing loads of folks on the way to the local baths (heated from the distillery) I got back on Orbit and headed to Port Charlotte.IMG_4260 IMG_4262 IMG_4263 IMG_4264 IMG_4269 IMG_4274 IMG_4275

I saw some geese on the way over. How clever are these guys? Each autumn they leave Greenland via Iceland and come to Islay for the hotter climes.  Awesome…and we think we’re clever…I pondered whether they liked the whiffs of whisky too?

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Pushing through the wind to Lochranza….

In Scotland it’s better to ignore the forecast and just get on wi it.  So Easter weekend and a few days off work time to get Orbit packed up, complete with tent and stove, for a few days touring the West Coast Islands.

Think I was half asleep when I boarded the train at Glasgow Central for “Brodick” as I managed to get on the back train on the platform and ended up in Gourock! Thought the scenery looked a bit different from my previous trips!  The conductor was also half asleep as he checked my ticket and didn’t tell me to get off. The route back to Paisley Gilmour Street was punctuated by my bike falling (why are there never bike racks when you need them) and the banter of a few mums:-

Kid – “Can I go to the toilet?”

Mum – “You’re pure at it. You always wanna go on the train”.

Mum to other mum – “Is that yer ringtone, nae danger”.

At last I was leaving land behind and on the ferry to Brodick on Arran.

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The ferry was packed with holiday makers eating chips (they smelled great) and drinking beers and rose wines.  Coming into Brodick the racing biker snakes soon flexed their muscles and their carbon forks and left me and Orbit stuck behind a camper van. As usual I had to coax my mudguard to get itself away from the wheel…those guys just always want to be together…and then it was on the quiet road to Lochranza.  IMG_4228 IMG_4230 IMG_4235

The wind was a bit strong right enough.  I always find the first day back on the bike a bit tough. It’s almost like my mind says “right what are doing here fighting through this gale force wind, are there no other options?”.

The hill up out of Sannox was a toughie…wish I’d paid more attention to those tiny little arrows marked on the route in my bike book…I had a comedy fall at one point when I stopped to adjust my headgear only to forget I had 2 huge bags on the back…thankfully no one saw this! 199 metres up with a headwind all the way….if you’ve ever cycled in Scotland you’ll know it’s always a head wind even bizarelly when you go back the same way you’ve just come. How does that happen??????

Here’s me at the top of the hill….see it really is windy!!!!! I’m not exaggerating!!!!!

The descent down to Lochranza is magnificent.  As I reached the flat just as the castle came into view a few deer silhouetted themselves right in front of the castle.  I’ve arrived indeed I thought! A quick meal then a local ale down the small pub..had to do something to escape the lack of “youths” in the “Youth Hostel”.  IMG_4238 IMG_4239 IMG_4240 IMG_4248 IMG_4249

The elderly “youths” managed to be up out of their beds most of the night so it was a weary Angie who caught the 0815 ferry over to Claonaig…to continue the adventure…IMG_4250

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