Go (North) West
Young Old Man – Avoid the Sheep
I woke up at 6am. Once again I was awake before my alarm went off but I managed to rest until half past when I got up, had a shower and packed up my bags (including a few items still damp from yesterday). I was downstairs in the restaurant area of the Lairg Highland Hotel by 7.30 for a reasonable breakfast of sausage (still no sign of a Lorne sausage on my tour), bacon, black pudding, potato cake and fried egg – everything I needed to get me going. Satisfied, I returned to my room to gather the rest of my kit, then checked out, and loaded the bags onto the bike.
Briefly stopping at the bottom of the Main Street to take a ‘leaving Lairg’ photo by the reservoir I turned right, heading North again. I was starting off along the main A836 towards Tongue and sill following national cycle route NCN1. The road here is of a proper width and there was a surprising amount of traffic.
After just a couple of miles however the roads got smaller and quieter. At the top of Loch Shin the main road splits in two; the A836 (and with it NCN1) continue northwards; however I took the left hand fork, turning in a North Westerly direction along the A838 bound for Durness. At the junction both roads drop down to single track carriageways. These might be ‘A’ roads but that is mostly because they are ‘a road’ – pretty much the only ones in the area.
If yesterday’s ride was to be easy due to my merely following the NCN1 signs, today’s ride would be simpler still. Start on the A836 for a couple of miles. Then the A838. Stick with that all the way to Durness! For the next 35 miles I just had to follow the road to the West Coast at Laxford Bridge. I knew that there would be no worrying about checking maps and missing turnings.
Normally cycling along A roads is something that I avoid where possible. The A838 however is a road made for pedalling along. My chain was still slipping; however it was very irregular and wasn’t causing concern, so I let the smile fill my face and I took in the gorgeous scenery alongside Loch Shin. Although the road does slowly climb alongside the loch as it follows it inland towards the watershed somewhere near Kinloch, at no point are there any climbs of note. Instead the road winds along the loch side; itself an incredibly open feeling body of water. The hills here rise slowly away from the water’s edge before climbing into some beautiful low mountains. A number of small islands are sprinkled across the Loch and the banks are dotted with small trees and shrubs.
A number of rivers and streams cut across the road under bridges and culverts; many of them crashing down over rocks on their way to meet the Loch. Doubtless in wetter months they bring those same rocks crashing down with them but for now the stones just make obstacles for the rivers to dance over before settling calmly in the deep loch below. Further ahead of me I could see that the hills were starting to rear up higher and steeper, making the landscape to come look even more magnificent than that in front of me here.
I didn’t have the road as much to myself I had suspected that I might. I had been slightly concerned that out here would be wild and remote; however there was a steady stream of cars and vans along the road. I was often having to pull in at the passing places to let them go on their way. A large number were clearly heading into work elsewhere as the volume of traffic did drop off after 9am leaving mostly vans and even the occasional lorry heading past me. The motorists might not have been out in the open as directly as I was, however they were all clearly equally enjoying the road with not a vehicle passing without a wave and a smile. One thing that did puzzle me was the percentage of cars I saw that had odd fixings on their bonnets and roofs. I couldn’t fathom their use but a lot of cars had them; antennae for some much needed radio system perhaps?
I was also surprised by the number (not a big number admittedly, but a number none the less) of new houses along the loch side; including a couple of new ‘estates’ of 3-4 houses that seemed to be totally empty. I also saw the unexpected sign of an air conditioning service van parked up by one newer farm house; it didn’t strike me that air-con would be a major concern in the North of Scotland and I couldn’t help feeling that there are some scams going on here; please feel free to put me right!
I was making good progress but did not ease up. Although Durness was not too many miles away I wanted to make sure that I continued to tick the miles off. One of the ‘points’ I was hoping to tick off on my ‘All Points North’ ride was Cape Wrath. The most north westerly corner of the U.K. mainland, Cape Wrath was one of the main reasons I had chosen to come this way rather than just follow NCN1 towards Tongue. I was hoping to be able to join ‘The Cape Wrath Fellowship’ – a club open to those who cycle their way to the lighthouse at the end of the road. Access to Cape Wrath however is not simple. The only road crosses the Kyle of Durness with access only possible using the very small and weather dependant Cape Wrath Ferry. There are many variables that determine whether the ferry will be running; most notably the weather and the Ministry of Defence who use the land as a massive, out of the way bombing range. As such, detailed information on operating times for the ferry are scarce. I wasn’t even sure if it would run at all in the afternoons but had calculated that to stand any chance of making Cape Wrath today that I would need to be at the ferry by 2pm to give myself 3 hours for a round trip. I would be staying overnight in the neighbouring town of Durness. As such I had a back-up plan for another attempt tomorrow morning; and a couple of route options for the next two days depending on when, or if, I would get to the Cape.
I had mentally broken the route down into a 35 mile section from Lairg to Laxford Bridge and then the subsequent (and more hilly) 20 miles to the Kyle of Durness. As such I had a good idea of what times I needed to be where and, whilst I was making good progress, I didn’t want to risk letting those timings slip.
As the miles ticked by the bigger hills got closer but the road was still largely on the level with only the occasional small rise. Despite the number of times I stopped to take a photograph and generally smile and enjoy being out here, I was increasingly on my own. I was still ticking off the miles at a good pace. Eventually Loch Shin gave way to the much smaller Loch Merkland and at the top of that the road climbed up relatively sharply. At the top I stopped for a small bite to eat.
At this point I was at a watershed that you don’t often get to experience. Behind me, the water headed back the way I had come. It flowed through Lairg. It would go on to rush full speed over the Falls of Shin providing a stern test for those salmon heading upstream to calmer waters I had witnessed yesterday evening. It would continue underneath the Invershin viaduct into the Dornoch Firth and out along the Scottish East Coast into the North Sea. However at the point I was now standing it would be possible for two drops of rain to fall from the sky together, land side by side, but then teeter off and take quite different paths. A slight landing to the west and instead the water was bound to follow its way through Loch More and Loch Stack, along the River Laxford and into Loch Laxford. Finally it would find itself on the West Coast where it would become a very small and seemingly insignificant drop in the Atlantic Ocean. It was my turn to also follow that path (although hopefully without ending up in the ocean).
As if to mark the change from East to West the wind suddenly got up and I could see a squall of wind and rain heading up the valley from the west to greet me. I quickly finished my food but made a judgement that the weather might not last and so left my wet weather gear in the panniers. The initial drop from here to Loch More was in a deep and windy valley. Although the wind was suddenly strong in my face I had the hill on my side. I engaged high gears, lowered my head, threw my hands onto the drops of my handlebars, and powered my legs to take me as quickly as possible through the wet and windy ravine. My judgement proved sound and within a minute or two the landscape opened back up as I reached the shore of Loch More. The rain immediately eased off to welcome me to my new surroundings.
There is a marked difference between the lochs on this side of the country and those I had just passed alongside to the East. The hills are much higher and steeper and dominate the landscape more than those I had ridden past before. The hills were already climbing up here but were still growing taller the further west I went. Directly ahead of me I could see Ben Stack, and to the North the twin ‘race horses’ of Foinaven and Arkle. Having made it down to the Lochside I paused to admire the scenery. High above me on the hills immediately adjacent I could hear the cries of a bird of prey. I looked up and could see a magnificent large shape soaring above me. I could not say with 100% certainty though I am convinced from the size, shape and screeches that I was witnessing the flight of a Golden Eagle. I watched it disappear from view and, rather struck with awe, took my stupefied grin back to where I had propped up the bike and headed back down along the loch.
At the west end of Loch More is the small settlement at Achfary. There are only a few houses but I was struck with how picture perfect and immaculate the village is. Perfectly manicured lawns and brightly painted white stone houses and barns. It felt slightly surreal and I rode through in something of a daze. Just past Achfary the water cascades down in a river from Loch More to Loch Stack and here I passed a few cars parked up whilst their inhabitants stood in the waters, fishing. It was both a beautiful sight to behold and also a small eureka moment as I realised that the attachments on the car bonnets were for holding fishing rods (yes, I did have to see a rod still in situ on a car to come to that realisation).
Loch Stack was different again from the others lochs before it. This time the south side (that I was cycling along) is very steep rising immediately up almost 700m to the summit of Ben Stack. To the north there is a wider, greener, shore before a gradual start to the rise up the slopes of Arkle (which do then also become very steep and rocky). The beauty of the landscape was slightly marred by the stronger wind that was now blowing sharply along the mountain side into my face and slowing my progress. At the bottom end of the loch a beautiful but derelict lodge house sits almost as if it is just trying to be the most picture perfect little house possible; albeit left to slowly decay.
The final few miles of this first stretch of the day are through another type of landscape again. The mountains give way to lower rocky outcrops and the road winds it way up, down and around them with the river just off to the side. Although the river crashes its way easily downstream the road is not able to directly follow it and rises and falls around the rocks before eventually joining the river again just in sight of Laxford Bridge which marks the end of the first ‘half’ of today’s ride; and also the completion of the ride across country to the West Coast.
At the bridge the A838 appears to come to an end at a T-Junction; although in boring road number spotting terms I would be continuing on the same road as this marks the end of the joining A894. I was, however, turning off from the quiet local road and joining the route used by the ‘North Coast 500‘ – a circular touring route that takes in 500 miles around the north of Scotland. The first marker that I was now on this trail was a sign immediately past the junction which gave my first indication that I was on the right road for John O’Groats. I took a walk over the bridge and had a quick conversation with a couple of salmon fishermen and then began again in earnest to head towards Durness.
A short way further on, and just before starting to climb for the first time properly today, the road opens out by Laxford Bay. Here was my first sign of the West Coast proper. In the global scheme of things it was no great achievement but it felt magical to have traversed the width of the country in what amounted to less than a day’s riding, and so far from home (at least in terms of the British Isles!). I didn’t stop long though. I could see the road rising in front of me and knew from my route planning that I had a number of miles of climbing to get behind me.
For the first few miles of the climb the road gave me some false suggestions of what lay ahead of me. A big sign indicated that European funding had paid for the widening of the road here. For the first time since leaving Lairg, the road now had two distinct carriageways and traffic could pass without hindrance to me or them. The road rose steadily making progress much slower than the morning ride; although it was by no means difficult going. The occasional short downhill stretch allowed me to look around a bit better and admire the views of the mountains from a different angle.
Another short downhill led me into the small village of Rhiconich. This turned out to consist of little more than a hotel and a police station which seemed to suggest that the hotel may not attract the finest clientele! It does also, however, have a nice little stopping point and magnificent views over Loch Inchard; more of a fjord than a loch! I stopped here to have another quick bite to eat and make the most of looking over the west coast.
Leaving Rhiconich my optimism about the new wider roads was immediately knocked away. I was back onto single track road with passing places, only now I was on the busy tourist route with a lot more traffic to contend with and pull over for. Most people on the road were either on motorbikes or driving massive motor homes. I’d heard some cyclists moaning about the bikers using the North Coast 500 as a race track but all the riders who passed me were enjoying the touring and most of them waved in acknowledgement to me. The motor home drivers though seemed to be in their own bubble and very few were thanking me when I got out of their way. This did rather spoil some of the joy that the earlier road had bestowed on me. The road continued a long and steady climb for the next few miles. Minor frustrations caused by motorists lack of manners aside, the views were opening up as I got higher and I couldn’t stay annoyed with the drivers for long. I was soon in a state of mind where I wasn’t expecting acknowledgement and was therefore filled with unconfined joy when it did come my way.
Eventually I could see the hill levelling out and without any proper pause at the top it immediately started to drop back down again. Ahead of me I could see the beautiful azure waters of the Kyle of Durness. With only 7 or 8 miles left until I would reach the ferry slipway and with about 550 feet of hill to drop down over that distance I relished the chance for some fast miles.
With clear views of open road and no traffic in front of me I opened up and accelerated down the hill. My trusty cycle computer was soon registering speeds above 40mph. I was whooping and singing and thoroughly loving the liberation that long open downhill roads afford the cyclist.
There may not have been vehicles on the road. However there were sheep. Up on the hill to my left I could see an ovine family of three (mother and two almost full grown lambs) making their way to cross the road. It didn’t take any great skills in trigonometry to work out that we were going to meet in the middle of the carriageway. One downside of bikes is that, unlike cars, your average cantilever brake system does take a while to slow you down (well, that is assuming you don’t apply them so hard that you just fly over the handlebars). Even slowing the bike as much as I could I could still see trouble. I continued slowing; I rang my bell, I shouted at the sheep; but they kept coming. I slowed enough that the ewe and first child passed safely in front of me but I was still on a collision course with child two. Fortunately at the last minute the lamb acknowledged my presence and altered course. It wasn’t going to be enough to avoid a collision entirely but did mean that we had merely a light glancing blow off each other. I managed to stay upright and come to a halt. Looking back the lamb was completely unfussed and had re-joined the family unit who were all eating the, much greener, grass on the other side of the road.
Satisfied that all was well with all parties I continued on my way; although I chose to not push to full speed from here on and instead cruised down to the bottom of the hill at the head of the Kyle of Durness. A few minutes later I was pulling up at the slip way by the ferry. I had made it. My plan to be here by 2pm had been fulfilled. Indeed I had a good 5 minutes to spare! Any jubilation was short lived however. The ferryman was in his car at the top of the slip way. he told me that there would be no more sailings today. The wind was picking up and it was going to become unsafe very soon. Indeed he said that he was waiting to pick up a returning group before calling it a day; however if they were not back soon he might have to leave them on the other side. There was to be no Cape Wrath for me today. I would have to resort to plan B and try again in the morning. The ferryman then told me that he was also not optimistic about the chances for the following day either, having listened to the weather forecast.
So here I was just a few miles from the end of my day’s ride at a much earlier time than I am used to on such trips. I headed on towards Durness; but rather than heading directly to the Youth Hostel I was staying at, I took a small detour to the beach at Balnakeil. The day was at its best by now and I spent a lovely hour sitting in the bright white sand dunes overlooking the glorious azure waters. I spent the time checking through my photos and writing some of the notes from which I base this blog and also looked around the ruins of the old church before deciding that I might as well head on to the hostel anyway.
I parked the bike up in the unlocked bike shed, and dumped my panniers inside the main door by reception. There was nobody here at this time of day so instead I took a short walk the few yards to the entrance to Smoo Caves. I had read about the caves and was intent on visiting. I was soon made to be glad for my early arrival in Durness. The local caving society were running tours into the caves today. There were only two tours remaining and both were marked as being full. However a white board listed the names of the people booked on and a quick calculation showed that there was one fewer person booked onto the penultimate tour than was registered for the final trip. I therefore managed to persuade the lady controlling the tours to allow me to join that one and within minutes I was riding on a little dinghy with seven other adventurers across the waters flowing through the cave. A river crashes down through a big crack in the rocks, forming a wide open cave before running out to the sea. A network of other caves then wind their way deeper inland behind the main fissure and a short tour of these passages were where we were taken by Colin, the leader of the caving team, for an excellent tour that I cannot recommend strongly enough.
After making the most of the caves I returned to the hostel which was now coming to life. I showered, bought a beer and a youth hostel ‘heat it and eat it’ curry before getting a second beer and venturing back to the caves to ease down, and write the rest of my diary, before heading back to my dorm to bed down for the night. It has been many, many years since I last slept in a big shared dormitory. I wonder how I would get on.
Day Two Stats:
- Distance: 62.54 Miles
- Ride Time: 4 Hours 48 minutes and 53 seconds
- Maximum Speed: 43.7 mph
- Average Speed: 12.9 mph
- Average RPM: 61
- Ascent: 2,802 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1134917268