From Inverness to Kirkwall
In August 2017 I undertook a five day ride across the North of Scotland from Inverness to Kirkwall. The intention was to go via as many of the furthest Northern edges and corners of the UK mainland as I could. But would I be successful?
You can read about the whole trip in one go on this page, or if you’d prefer you can read the individual posts from each of the days of the trip using these links:
- All Points North Day One – 14 August 2017
- All Points North Day Two – 15 August 2017
- All Points North Day Three – 16 August 2017
- All Points North Day Four – 17 August 2017
- All Points North Day Five – 18 August 2017
The Whole Adventure:
Black Isle and Leaping Salmon
Each summer for the last three years my other half has taken two weeks on a busman’s holiday working on the Ness of Brodgar excavations in Orkney. I’ve taken that as my queue to take off myself for a week and do a short tour on the bike. So far I’ve ridden Avenue Verte, Coast to Coast (and back) and, last year, Lon Las Cymru. This year I fancied doing something a bit different and not following an established route. I spent some odd moments considering some possibilities; maybe a nice easy ride along one of the German or French rivers? A tour around Belgium and N.E. France perhaps? But then a pleasant idea struck me – why not go and meet her in Kirkwall?
And so it was that after a bit of advance planning and a few changes of route, that I finalised the idea of ‘All Points North’. A planned detour to take in more of the North Coast was coupled with a realisation that I didn’t have the time and funds to add an extra two days riding from Aberdeen (which would have been almost exclusively done with the idea of getting to the phone box at Pennan – if that doesn’t mean anything to you look it up. If that still doesn’t mean anything to you watch the film). I therefore prepared to start riding from Inverness.
After loading my panniers on the Saturday night, I was up early (way too early – I didn’t want to miss the train from Kings Cross) heading from home on the English South Coast. I squeezed my bike onto the, not very well designed for luggage let alone bicycle, HS1 train to St Pancras. That left me having about two hours to kill before getting onto my first class seat headed for Inverness (I’d booked early enough to get the first class ticket at a good low price). I did feel a bit guilty having hung the Ridgeback up in the luggage compartment; but not for long as the coffee and food started arriving at my seat.
The train journey was comfortable and largely uneventful save a half hour delay due to some trespassers on the line at Darlington. Sadly we were not able to make up the time. I had discovered that a couple of old friends of mine I’d not seen for far too long were making the return journey South on the Sleeper train. Had things been running on time we might have had 20 minutes to say hello in Inverness station. Instead we had to wave at each other’s trains as we passed about five miles outside the city.
Eventually arriving in Inverness over 12 hours after leaving home I got on the bike and rode the very short way across the river to the B&B I had booked into. With the bike secured in the back yard of the Eskdale Guest House and bags dumped in my room, I headed back out to get a pre ride feed up of pizza and a couple of beers at the Inverness branch of Bella Italia before heading back and getting my head down on the pillow.
I woke up early to a grey and damp start to the day with no obvious sign of improvement. I got up, showered, and walked into the city centre, getting some supplies for the day ahead and taking a walk up to the Castle and around the old church yard. I was back in time for an 8am breakfast appointment and, well fed and ready to go, I started my ride North.
In terms of navigation, today should be easy. Find Route One and follow it. The Sustrans route runs right through the centre of Inverness so I started off by heading back to the river and took a ‘start of ride’ photo with the Castle behind me. Then I easily found and followed the signs out of the city, through some industrial estates near the football club, and onto the Kessock Bridge to cross the Beauly Firth. There are doubtless some lovely views from the bridge both back across Inverness and also out to the open sea. Today everything was just grey.
The first few miles north of Inverness do not make for inspiring riding as Route One takes a perfectly safe but disappointing ride alongside the busy A9. A briefly exciting interlude under an amusingly graffiti lined underpass leads to a major change of scene; the route follows the carriageway on the other side of the road instead…
However despite those moans only a few short miles had passed before the route veered away onto some minor roads running parallel to the A9 prior to hitting the Route One split point six and a half miles after setting off. Route One has two options here. The main route heads around the north side of the Cromarty Firth and through Dingwall. The alternative route which I was aiming for cuts across the middle of the Black Isle and takes in a crossing on the seasonal Cromarty Ferry before the routes meet up at Tain. I was keen to see the Black Isle and as the ferry was due to be running I turned right into the farming lands with its famed dark rich soil.
Sadly the weather wasn’t showing the landscape in its best light but I was getting a feel for land that felt more Welsh or Yorkshire than Scottish Highlands. The Black Isle is far from flat (my highest single climb of the whole tour was just a few miles in front of me) but nothing like the amazing mountain landscapes I had passed through on the train South of Inverness. That was largely the attraction though. I would have a few days ahead of me in that type of terrain so I was keen to see something different this morning.
The first few miles followed a river down towards the village of Munlochy and along this stretch the farming was mostly of wet and miserable sheep. I passed several fields of rather fine looking black, horned sheep, however it appeared that all of them were too pissed off to agree to be photographed; they all turned away as soon as I tried to stop the bike and take out my camera phone.
From Munlochy the roads rose up onto rolling open downland and I had a few glorious miles enjoying the view between the raindrops. At the hamlet of Killen I turned off from Route One to take a diversion to Fortrose and Chanonry Point. A poster on the Cycling UK web forums had recommended this as a chance to see Seals and Dolphins. Sadly however I only got to see one distant Seal head bobbing out of the water and some acrobatic flying by a few small birds darting around the car park. I had a quick bite to eat but the wind and rain was taking effect. I could feel the cold starting to creep in from my the ends of my cycling mits and so, having given up on the dolphin community, I got back on the bike and headed inland.
As soon as I turned back I could see that I had some climbing to warm me up. The hills so far had been some fairly short (but mildly sharp) 150-200 foot climbs; nothing strenuous at all (although as always, the first few hills on a fully laden bike feel much different to how they might on an easy day ride without any baggage). After joining the main road at Rossmarkie the first bigger climb started. Just through the village began the slow rise which would continue gradually for 600 feet over the next 5 miles. I must admit that I’ve rather grown to love climbs like this. There was no great pain, indeed no real pain at all. A good constant effort such as this makes one feel like you are properly working. Also, the views gradually open up as you climb and I thoroughly enjoyed these slow going miles. Eventually the hill topped out (after one false summit and a very short drop immediately prior to the final 50 feet of hill) next to some massive TV antennae.
The road at the very top of the hill is tree lined on both sides so I dropped about 100 feet before I could gain any sight of the Cromarty Firth below. Despite the continuing rain and grey skies I glided happily down into Cromarty singing to myself as I went. In Cromarty village I diverted down to the pretty old harbour to admire the tiny fishing boats in front of the massive oil rigs all lined up in the Firth.
A sign by the harbour pointed me in the direction of the town bakery where I sourced a coffee and a sausage roll before rolling back down to the sea to find the Cromarty to Nigg ferry.
A man walking a dog gleefully told me that the ferry wasn’t running. As I could see it loading up a couple of cars at the Nigg side in the distance I chose to ignore his knowledge. I drank my coffee and ate my sausage roll at the quayside; feeling rather guilty as it turns out that there is a nice looking coffee shack right next to the ferry. Had I known (tip to the owners; put a sign up next to the one for the bakery) I would have visited there instead. A German family pulled up in a camper van. The dog walker gleefully told them the ‘bad news’ also. I quietly pointed the ferry out to the Mother of the party and we waited for it to make its way over.
The ferry arrived laden to its maximum capacity; three bikes and two cars. The cars had to reverse up the slipway and turn around before we could load up. The ferry was full with only the camper van on it so it was as well that nobody else has turned up. The crossing was a little rough in places (I should have listened for the shipping forecast; I believe that they cover this area) but before long we were docked at Nigg. This side of the Firth there is a bus shelter for people to wait in. The rain was falling harder now so I decided to use the opportunity to have a bit more food in the (mostly) dry (some rain was getting driven in) shelter. I topped up my water bottle from the new portable two litre bag I had got in readiness for the trip. I can get through quite a lot of liquid on a full day’s ride and I wasn’t confident that there would be too many opportunities to readily fill up over the next few days so had got this bag as a way to more than double my available fluid.
Once fully refreshed and fuelled, I set off on the next section of the ride crossing between the Cromarty and Durnoch Firths. A couple of miles beyond the ferry I met a small group of cyclists heading in the opposite direction. They were glad to hear that they were on the right road for the ferry. They were looking tired and still heading for Inverness which would be the end of a week’s touring and camping for the three of them. After a short chat we wished each other well and set off in our different directions. This next section was fairly uneventful. I decided to get my head down and tick these miles off a bit more quickly and catch up some time. I did stop a couple of times to look at a) the most over the top road side egg salespoint in the country and b) a quick stop to look at a cross slab just outside the brilliantly named village of ‘Hilton of Cadboll’ (I didn’t actually venture across the field to look at the slab after reading that the one on display was a modern replica).
Before long I was riding into, and through, Tain stopping only to refill my water supplies at a garage on the edge of the town. Upon leaving Tain the route joins the A9 for a couple of miles. Although down to single carriageway and less busy here than it was back by Inverness, this time the cycle route is on the main carriageway and as such would prove to be the least pleasant few miles of the entire tour. I sped past the Glenmorangie distillery (time was ticking on and the panniers were already loaded) towards the roundabout at the southern side of the Dornoch Firth Bridge. From here I still had about twenty five miles to go.
NCN Route One leaves the A9 to cross the Firth here whilst it ventures instead onto the much less intimidating A836 following the Southern side of the Firth. Until the opening of the new bridge in 1991 this was the main road North as it sweeps inland before crossing the Firth at the older Bonnar Bridge. A ‘Pictish Trail‘ road sign on the approach to the village of Edderton encouraged a quick stop at the church. Unlike at Hilton of Cadboll the Cross Slab here is still the original one and well worth stopping to admire.
Back on the bike the road continues to follow the line of the Firth, although any views across it are limited by the trees lining most of the route. An old AA box at the junction with the high road to Dingwall is a reminder of older days of motoring when such boxes existed to house telephones to help stranded motorists call for assistance. In Ardgay village the main road turns to cross to Bonar Bridge and the North side of the Firth. A note for other cyclists heading this way. It is possible to continue following the road over the bridge and then turn left along the A836 rejoining the main cycle route at Invershin. Its probably not as pretty a road to follow as the one I describe below. but it might just be more practical in avoiding the viaduct – particularly if your bike is heavy and well laden.
Instead I followed Route One as it carries on along a peaceful country lane for a few miles until just past Culrain station. The rain was still coming down, although it was less strong by now. At this point the cycle route leaves the road and follows a path alongside the railway line. The track surface is fine however the pathway was overgrown with brambles and nettles sticking out into the narrow pathway. The track then comes to the Invershin Viaduct carrying the train line that winds its way to the far North of the Country. There is no spare space on the main bridge; instead a footbridge has been bolted onto the side of the structure about two thirds of the way up its height. A couple of flights of steep metal steps had to be negotiated – not easy with a heavy bike – and then across the stable, but none the less terrifying bridge. I stopped to take a couple of pictures which I instantly regretted doing; convinced that I was going to drop my phone, or something equally important, through the hollow metal floor into the river far below. I didn’t. However I did have to negotiate more steps at the other side of the bridge.
With a bit of nervous relief I stopped to devour some Jelly Babies and to get my breath back sitting on a concrete bollard by the side of the road. I seem to be good at picking unromantic places to stop and this was one of the less savoury. I had taken a look at a potentially lovely river side spot nearby only to find it full of midges and a bit smelly, so the bollard was actually just fine.
Back on firm ground and refreshed I made myself ready for the final leg. The cycle route to Lairg ignores the sign that said the town lays straight ahead and instead takes a turn left in the unlikely direction of Lochinver. However a short way onwards the route turns right again along a small road following the west bank of the very pretty Shin valley for the final few miles. The river runs with some power in the valley a way below the main road and the ride here is glorious. Even though the day was starting to feel old and I was running out of puff I could do nothing but admire the natural views. Half way along the road is a big car park for the Falls of Shin waterfalls.
On a spur of the moment decision I parked the bike at the side of the road and followed the path to the water falls crashing their way over some steep rocks. I stood transfixed watching the power of the water forcing its way down hill and then spotted movement. A salmon was trying to make its way against this great force of nature up the falls. I stood and watched for a while longer and eventually managed to get a short slow motion video of another fish making an attempt up the falls.
Thrilled to have spotted this magnificent sight I made my way back up the path to my bike and back on for the final few miles. However whilst getting back up to speed and working my way up the gears the chain came off the front ring. I stopped and got it back on easily enough but soon found that the chain to be slipping. I took a quick look but couldn’t spot any immediately obvious issues. The slipping was worst in the higher gears so having established that I was only 3.2 miles from the end of the day I made my way slowly and steadily in a low ratio for the last few miles up the valley; finally making my way into Lairg just as the rain eventually stopped.
The Highland Hotel, my base for the night, is easy to find. I parked my bike around the back of the hotel. A quick look at the chain still didn’t show any obvious signs of damage so I worked the links to try and ensure that they were all smooth and moving freely. I was too tired and wet to spend too long examining the bike and instead locked it up and checked in to the hotel. The staff very kindly took my stinking wet shoes and put them into a drying room whilst I went upstairs to get myself even wetter with a long hot shower.
Having been warned that the hotel restaurant might be busy due to lots of farmers coming into town for the Lairg Sheep Sales the next day I headed downstairs for a big bowl of Pasta Bol and Sticky Toffee Pudding. I took the legs back outdoors for a stretch by walking heading down to the reservoir to watch the beautiful sunset over the water. One last pint of 80′ in the hotel bar later and I was ready for bed.
Day One Stats:
- Distance: 73.80 Miles
- Ride Time: 5 Hours 57 minutes and 2 seconds
- Maximum Speed: 33.8 mph
- Average Speed: 12.3 mph
- Average RPM: 59
- Ascent: 3,880 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1133504695
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
Into the Wilderness
It was well over twenty years (whilst at University) since I had last slept in a hostel and I had been a bit apprehensive about it. Would people snore? Would I snore? Would I have one of the short but violent coughing fits that had woken me in the middle of the night the last couple of nights? Would someone go nuts and kill us all in our sleep? Or would I actually have a surprisingly good night’s rest and, so far as I was aware, not have annoyed anyone? It appeared to be the latter and I slept soundly in the dorm at Durness Youth Hostel all the way through until 7am when I had been wanting to get up anyway.
I got dressed and went out to give the bike a quick once over and to take a more in depth look at the chain, which was still slipping a little throughout the day yesterday. On closer inspection I noticed that a couple of links had got slightly twisted. I did my best to manhandle the chain back into shape and put a good lot of extra oil on the offending links to try and help them work back into line. Over the next few hours riding it appeared that this has worked as the chain behaved itself all day. Done, I cleaned myself back up ready for breakfast.
The SYHA ‘wee breakfast’ consisted of a bowl of coco pops and a croissant with coffee and juice. Not the most filling but it would get me going. Before leaving I sorted through my bags and arranged them such that I could leave as much stuff as possible at the hostel this morning; loading up only what would be necessary for the first part of the day’s riding.
Having been thwarted in my attempt to make it to Cape Wrath due to the high winds yesterday afternoon I was going to try again this morning. The Cape Wrath ferry was located a couple of miles back the way I had come. I could thus make my attempt on the most North-Westerly corner of the country before heading back past the hostel at which point I could collect the rest of my kit before heading east towards my destination for the night: The Bettyhill Hotel.
The first ferry was due to leave at 9.30am so I set off in plenty of time to get to the jetty. Just after leaving Durness a car heading the opposite direction stopped me to ask if I was heading for the ferry and to then tell me that it wasn’t running again today. I believe that this kind gentleman was the driver of the minibus that ferries foot passengers to and from the lighthouse. This was not promising but not entirely unexpected. I decided to push on to the ferry anyway; it wasn’t much farther and I might as well see for myself. Sure enough I pulled up to the slipway; there was no sign of the ferryman’s car and a note had been stuck over the timetable confirming that, due once again to the high winds, that there would be no crossings today.
And so that was that. I had only two opportunities to get to Cape Wrath and they had both now been and gone. I would not be joining the ‘Cape Wrath Fellowship’ by making it to the most North Easterly corner of the British mainland. I would not be able to make the North West point of my ‘All Points North’ ride; I attempted to console myself by saying that I had made it the furthest such point as was accessible by bicycle during my time here. I was beaten by the weather, not by myself; I could live with that. Time to move on.
I rode back into Durness stopping at the Spar shop for supplies on the way. I met a couple on a tandem outside the shop. We had a quick chat. They tried to convince me that Cape Wrath wasn’t that great. I think at that point my sense of disappointment was still evident. They told me that they had been there a couple of years earlier and despite being up this way again they had no interest in going back. They went on their way and after getting some lunch bits and pieces from the shop I headed back to the hostel to gather the rest of my belongings.
Fully laden I was on my way and heading East. Leaving Durness the road closely follows the North coast for the first few miles; winding around the rugged rocky coastline. The wind that was preventing me getting across the Kyle of Durness was picking up and, whilst not directly against me, the going was not easy. Although not actually raining there was a lot of moisture in the air as well. The landscape was beautiful but it was tough going.
Loch Eriboll was soon upon me and the road starts to bear to the South to follow its Western shore line. This meant that I was now turning head first directly into the wind. The road also started climbing as the direction changed. At this point I was starting to think that the day’s riding might not be great. Heading up the hill I came up on the couple on the tandem that I had met in Durness. If I was finding it tough then they were really struggling and going slowly. I rode with them for a couple of minutes and talked a bit with them but I needed to get on my way and I think that they wanted to just get on with pushing up the hill so I bade them well and headed on past them towards the brow of the hill.
A few slightly easier miles followed. The wind was still blowing increasingly hard in my face but the road was now running downhill. The slope wasn’t enough to allow freewheeling in the wind, but it was still a respite after the previous efforts. I could begin to admire the cloudy views across the loch and to the mountains to the South. Just through the small village of Laird I passed another couple of cyclists. They were stopped to admire the view so we waved to each other as I passed by. As the slope flattened out at the bottom, the going got tougher again without the downhill assistance. The volume of traffic was also picking up making the going stop-start.
Soon however I was at the head of the Loch and after a short stretch Eastwards I turned onto the other side of the loch and headed North. The wind was now behind me. What relief. My speed immediately picked up and the riding felt much easier and smoother. However I was not sure that I was going fast enough even now to out run the rain clouds that I could see were rushing down the valley towards me from the hills to the South. Sure enough the rains came and at the foot of a small climb I combined the natural slow down with a chance to stop and get my wet weather gear on.
For a short while the rain was quite hard and in places along this side of the loch were a couple of sharp climbs. However, I was still enjoying it now that I had the support of the wind; I was lucky with my timing and felt sorry for my cycling companions who were probably still on the opposite side of the valley and now contending with both the wind and the rain. I looked across to see if I might see them anywhere but there was no clear sign of them; the other bank was farther away than I realised. Instead I enjoyed riding past some isolated farmsteads and an even more isolated chapel immediately next to the road. Doubtless a beautiful place to have a service, albeit for a very small congregation.
Not long before the road bears away from Loch Eriboll for the final time another climb gave a chance to look down over the old Lime Quarry on the not-quite-an-island of Ard Neackie. I stopped in a suitably located layby to admire the view with the wind and rain lashing me. A few cars and motor homes also stopped; the occupants of only one of the vehicles got out to properly admire the sights though which seemed a shame; even with low clouds and high precipitation the outlook over Ard Neackie across the Loch and from there northwards to the sea was breath-taking.
Carrying on, the climb took me up and over the hill separating Loch Eriboll from my next port of call, Loch Hope. Once at the top a short and satisfyingly winding descent had my heart singing again. Upon reaching the bridge over the weir at the North end of Loch Hope the singing quickly stopped. I was aware that there was a big climb up from here on the road Eastwards to Tongue. However I had another direction in mind. With my plans for Cape Wrath out of the window I had some time on my hands. I had allocated 2-3 now unused hours for the trip across to the lighthouse. The direct route from Durness to my next stop at Bettyhill was only 40 miles; far enough but I was hoping to make more miles today. I had therefore put in place a plan in case I was a) able to get to Cape Wrath on the previous day or b) was not able to do so at all. Time to put that plan into action. Instead of continuing East along the A838 I was going to avoid Tongue completely and head South alongside Loch Hope. I was therefore going to miss the steep climb. Hurrah.
Correction. I was going to miss some of the steep climb. I was probably in fact still going to miss most of it, but turning a corner I came face to pedal with a short but very sharp climb up the East bank of the loch. Ok I admit. It completely threw me and I got off and pushed. However I can say that this was the only occasion on the whole tour when I did so; which was a great improvement on my previous tours on the C2C and Lon Las Cymru routes. Even now, the pushing didn’t last long and, once past the worst, I persuaded myself back into the saddle for rest of the rise until I came to the sign pointing me back South in the direction of “Altnaharra (21 miles)”.
I was pleased to be leaving the main road but was very aware that I was now heading into some very remote areas. I was also heading back into the wind again for 20 miles or so.
The first few miles along the loch side were tough going. The wind was noticeable but not so awful. The main reason for being tough was that these miles felt like riding along a long, straight Waltzer track. Up and down and up and down and… repeat repeat repeat. There was no particular height to any of the ups but neither was there any rest on the downs; it was just impossible to get a decent rhythm going and the riding was a slog.
The few miles after that were tough going. The road dropped back down to the lochside but as the road opened up by the flat open side of the water the wind increased. I’d done about thirty miles by now and was in need of a bit of food. I managed to find a big rock by the side of the road to shelter behind. Suddenly I was out of the wind and it felt great. I got my food from the pannier and settled down to eat. I then realised that I was not the only one making the most of having found the one place out of the wind. The whole of the Loch Hope midge population were in the same place. And they also had settled down to eat. I stuffed down a Babybel and a square of Orkney tablet (the world’s best fudge) to get some energy in and then rushed back onto the bike before my legs and face got completely chewed to pieces.
The next few miles were even tougher going. After the open loch side I had now reached the top of the main body of water and the flat loch side was giving way to a steep valley with the slopes of Ben Hope rising directly above me. The valley here had formed a natural wind tunnel. I was getting used to the wind by now though, and the river valley is absolutely glorious. The Strathmore River flowing from the hills ahead to the Loch below is picture perfect. I could see the attraction of spending a day fishing in its waters. The road passed over a couple of small rivers which rush down in beautiful water falls from the hills.
Clearly in recent times there had been some very wet and wild days. The bridges over the streams had been washed away and replaced with some roughly piled together stone “bridges” to carry the road over the rivers. Further up the valley I passed the car park for the path up to Ben Hope. There were quite a few cars parked here. I had seen a couple of vehicles on the road so far and now I realised where they were going. I thought I would have the road largely to myself. From here on in this would be largely the case.
Continuing a few more miles up the wind tunnel/river valley the road passes immediately next to the ruins of Dun Dornaigil Broch. These must be some of the better broch remains to visit. The broch has apparently never been investigated or excavated; the ruins are so far away from the nearest pub I don’t think that any self-respecting archaeologist has ever chosen to spend time here*. A couple of (motor)bikers were here at the same time but they soon went on their way and I had time to explore on my own. You cannot access the inside of the ruins but instead I enjoyed climbing a short way up the boggy hillside to get a good look at the Broch in its landscape. I can certainly see why people might have chosen to live here in the past.
*I used to be one; I’m allowed to say that..
Back underway and the road starts to climb up away from the river and onto the hills. The climb is long and steady. It shows up on my Strava graphs as a big steep climb, however it was lovely. Nice and steady and you could “feel the benefit” of the effort in getting up the hill. Although I was now getting into more open territory the wind felt like it was lessening due to the loss of the wind tunnel effect. It was still strong but much less intense. As the road opens up onto the hills the views become even more remarkable. I was now not too far away from the road I had travelled yesterday and I could look across to Foinavon and Arkle and Ben More. I could also see almost no sign of life. It was blissful. This was exactly what I signed up for.
Towards the top of the hill I was expecting to find the first such signs. I was using an Ordnance Survey 1:250,000 scale road map which covered the whole of the North of Scotland. Marked on the map was the settlement of Allnabad. It transpires that things are so remote in these parts that a single derelict shell of an abandoned building was enough to be marked on such a large scale map.
The road was still continuing to climb, but at a very easily manageable gradient now. Finally a car came past me. The family inside all leaned out of the windows to cheer and wave me on and I was happy to wave and cheer back. I was soon back on my own though and to my left appeared the waters of the hill top Loch Meadie. I was now at the summit of the climb and at the watershed between the Strathmore and Strathnaver valleys. Up here is probably just about as remote a location as it is possible to get to by road in the British Isles. I stopped for a bite to eat and to take it all in. I set my camera phone up on its mini tripod in order to take a selfie in the middle of nowhere. The best way to do this on my phone is to shoot a hi-res video and then take a still shot from that. The video I captured (I’m not sharing it here!) has me screaming like a loon into the wind making the most of the opportunity to scream and sing into the wild emptiness of this part of Sutherland. I was in my element and by now I was glad that I had not been able to get to Cape Wrath; had I been able to get across the Kyle of Durness I would not have had the time to add this diversion. I would have been just riding along the main road alongside all the North Coast 500 tourers. I was actually thankful for the wind that had in one, unexpected sense, actually driven me up this road.
It was still tough going though. Even though I had now turned eastwards such that the wind was at my side rather than into my face it was still impeding progress and I would soon get annoyed by it again. Although I was heading downhill again now, the wind was still strong enough to make it feel like I was riding on the flat and there was no chance to just free wheel. Despite that progress was still OK and I was soon at the crossroads with the A836 just north of Altnaharra. At this point I could have turned left on the main road and I would have been back on NCN 1 heading for Tongue. Instead I cut straight across onto the B873 along the north bank of Loch Naver.
Just a few yards over the crossroads I pulled over for a rest and a celebratory snack or two. The location was not the most spectacular but I had been watching my cycle computer and my odometer had just ticked over to reveal that I had just completed the 10,000th mile on my trusty Ridgeback tourer.
Refreshed and cheered and having thanked my bike (despite now being on a B road there was no one around to witness this spectacle fortunately) I headed on. The wind was still blowing strong and though it was now a side wind the effects were still noticeable. I was still being slowed down and this would remain the case for another 7 miles.
As well as my maps, I had also now had to hand the excellent Strathnaver Trail map produced by Strathnaver Museum. The trail consists of 16 historical and archaeological sites dotted along and close to the road from here all the way down the valley to Bettyhill. I did not stop to visit all 16 but I think that I did get into double figures.
The first two sites were fairly close to the road whilst still along the loch side. I did not stop to look at the cleared settlement at Grummore but did admire the remains of the nearby broch sitting immediately on the bank of the loch next to a caravan park. Next up was another settlement at Grumbeg. Being closer to the road I did stop to look around here; happily leaving the bike and all my kit unlocked on the roadside. The former buildings have long since been reduced to mere outlines but the presence of a Neolithic chambered cairn indicates that there had likely been continuous settlement on the site from that time right until the 19th century clearances; when the people were moved out to make room for more sheep. Although remote I could certainly see the upside of living in such a beautiful area; though the sheep seem to enjoy it here also.
After Grumbeg the road continues along the loch for a few more miles. I was feeling tired now but was looking forward to what should be some easier riding at its foot. Sure enough, at the end of the loch the River Naver diverts out of the side of the loch and the valley, and the road turn sharply to face the North and head for the coast. Instantly I could feel the effect as I was racing down the valley at such different speed from anything that had come before me today.
I left the sites on the other side of the river (which are all a longer distance from the road) unvisited and only stopped briefly at the monument to the author of “Gloomy Memories”; an account of the clearances. I continued racing onwards and was soon coming into the first settlement (of half a dozen houses) at Syre with its lovely (though rather damp smelling) corrugated iron church.
At Syre the road joins with another B class road coming in from Kinbrace, but there was no increase in traffic and I was largely still on my own. At Skail I stopped to visit both the chambered cairn and the “Red Priest’s Stone”; both of which were worth the short diversions. There was a glorious afternoon light at the cairn and the stone, whilst small, was nice to come across. The river valley here as well is glorious. I spent a few minutes watching a Heron fish in its waters and considered that there would be worse places for a priest to pray and in which to be laid to rest.
The road continued along the beautiful river valley. My legs were beginning to feel the effects of a third long day but the riding was so glorious I didn’t mind in the slightest. Before too long I came to the junction at which I would re-join the A836. Having now completed my diversion I can fully endorse this route. In particular I remain at a loss to understand why the official NCN route from Altnaharra follows the main road rather than cutting along the Naver Trail. I can only imagine that it is to direct cyclists into Tongue. There is no reason on earth not to follow this quieter and quite spectacular road; and indeed to make the most of the truly superb trail. To anyone riding this way I make the strong suggestion to use this road.
Back though on the main road, I continued down the valley and across the bridge on to the East bank of the Naver. At this point I decided that, although tired, I would double back to investigate a couple more of the Naver Trail sites that were back up the valley. I immediately questioned my decision as I turned back into the wind but I was soon at the site of two brochs which I enjoyed investigating.
I did, however, decide that this was quite enough for the day and, particularly as my large scale maps did not give me a good idea of how much farther on it was, I elected not to press on to visit the final site on this side, another clearance village. Instead I headed back for the final mile into Bettyhill.
Bettyhill. Not Bettyvale or Lower Betty. Bettyhill. Not a huge hill I admit, but not quite what I wanted at the end of the day. I pushed up though, overtaking for the second time today the pair of cyclists I had seen back at Laird much earlier in the morning. I was also pleased to discover that the Bettyhill hotel was almost the first building in the village and I gladly pulled into the hotel and went immediately to the bar to obtain a well-earned beer which I quickly drained sitting on a bench outside the bar admiring the view before checking in and having a shower and quick rest.
To finish the day I headed downstairs and ordered a less than healthy, but very tasty, lasagne and chips which I ate (much to the amusement of the staff) outside on the same bench. My legs needed a warm down so I went for a walk to explore the village and walked to the old harbour and fish factory. It was a lovely walk but the last of the light was quickly vanishing so I headed back to the bar for another pint and to listen to the landlord telling stories of his time in the RAF. Relaxed and ready for bed I went to my room where a peaceful night’s sleep rounded off a truly amazing day.
Day Three Stats:
- Distance: 74.95 Miles
- Ride Time: 6 Hours 25 minutes and 58 seconds
- Maximum Speed: 37.2 mph
- Average Speed: 11.6 mph
- Average RPM: 57
- Ascent: 3,638 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1136984046
There’s No Crime Here
After a restful night’s sleep, breakfast in the Bettyhill Hotel set me up nicely for the day. Although the coffee was frankly disgusting, the breakfast itself was very good.
There were a few small clouds in the sky but it was bright and sunny and promising to be a glorious day. I was starting to feel the effects of three full days in the saddle coupled with a Babybel, bread, and fudge diet. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to putting my bum back into the saddle but once I was on my way I soon got back into the swing.
After popping into the village shop to stock up on Babybel, bread and fudge, I started off by heading back down to the harbour that I walked down to at the end of the day yesterday. I wanted to see in proper daylight the fishing canning factory and ice house. It was also another point or two on the Strathnaver Trail to mark as having visited. I had a quick chat with some fishermen and a couple who were camping next to their sports car by the old harbour jetty. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the lovely morning.
Leaving the village you drop down from the hill of Betty into the valley past the Clachan Burn where an old church has been converted into the Strathnaver Museum; the people behind the Strathnaver Trail. The museum itself is another one of the items on the trail but sadly I was too early to visit and with a long day ahead I couldn’t hang around until opening time. I did have a wander around the graveyard to find the Farr Stone; an 8th century Pictish stone now housed in the middle of the graveyard.
After leaving Bettyhill the road starts to climb back up onto the hills of Sutherland. I took the climb slow and steady as my legs warmed up for the day. I knew I had a few hills ahead so there was no point in pushing things too hard too early. Indeed the rest of Sutherland would prove to be hilly with some lovely ups and downs out of the various valleys running from the highlands into the sea.
At the top of the first hill there is a viewing point where I could stop, get a breather, and look back West at the hills behind me. It has a handy board pointing out their names. From the viewing point there was a lovely fast ride downhill into the next valley at Armadale Bay.
On the next hill back out of the valley I was overtaken by a couple of guys that I had seen in the Bettyhill Hotel bar the previous evening. They were heading up the hill much more easily than I and so I was happy to let them go past. I soon met them again at the summit where I stopped at the same car park come view point as them to get my breath back and, more importantly, take in my first view of Orkney which was visible for the first time on the horizon. I hung around long enough for the other two to set off before me. I was relaxed with the idea that they were quicker than I, but I didn’t feel the need to be reminded. A minute or two after them I set off back on my way; only to find that they had stopped again a few hundred yards up the road. I rode past them and sure enough a minute or two later they shot past me again.
More up and downs followed; through the valley at Srathy then up again before dropping past another corrugated iron church at Melvich and down over the Halladale River past the excellently named ‘Big House’.
At some point around here I had crossed from Sutherland into Caithness (there was a sign; but I can’t recall exactly at which point it was). After Big House and one smaller climb the next view ahead of me included the dominating appearance of the (disused) Dounreay nuclear power plant. I wasn’t going to be going past Dounreay itself but I did stop for a break on a bench next to a cemetery in Reay village for a quick Babybel, bread and fudge break. The residents of the cemetery are clearly well read as the mobile library was also parked up here as well. I wonder what they were reading? A bit of Wilkie Collins perhaps?
From Reay I turned off from the main road, though still following cycle route NCN1, onto a back road into Thurso. The road should have been quite nice but, as it takes a shorter distance into Thurso when compared to the A836, it was quite heavily used. The road is also very straight for a few long periods so a high percentage of the passing cars were travelling at some considerable speed. Despite this I was soon on the outskirts of Thurso and dropped down into the town. A couple of Cycling Tourist Club (of which I am a member in its current guise of ‘Cycling UK‘) ‘Winged Wheel’ badges on the older hotels in the town suggested that I was in a very popular cycling touring area! I did consider finding a café for a fuller lunch but instead found myself by a nice bench on the sea front so opted for more of the usual food stuffs instead. Babybel was starting to get a bit tiring by now; but the fudge is still excellent.
I stopped at a Co-op on the edge of the Thurso to stock up my water supplies for the rest of the day; I still had about half of the day’s riding ahead of me so needed to ensure I was staying hydrated
Heading East from Thurso the cycle route diverts again from the main road for a few miles. I wish that maybe it didn’t. The main road follows the coast and looking on the Ordnance Survey maps appears to travel quite flat and takes the more direct route to Castlehill. The cycle route on the other hand diverts off the direct path in order to find another long drag for a couple of miles. The day was quite warm now and I was glad of the water. There was at least a nice enough view back over Thurso and after a couple of miles the route took a turn to the left and then dropped back down nicely into Castlehill.
I was considering abandoning the official route now and sticking to the main road. I was going to be diverting away from NCN1 for a few miles anyway; but at the crossroads in Castlehill something made me choose to continue to follow the route 1 signs straight over rather than turn right onto the A836. I’m glad I did. Had I not carried on I would have missed the ruins of the Castlehill flagstone factory. In the 19th century the area here was one of the major producers of flagstones in the country (Regent Street in London was paved with Castlehill flags). Production has long halted but there is a lovely wild trail in and amongst the mills and factory buildings, down to the harbour built to send the finished product off around the country by ship. I should have been continuing my progress but was entranced by the site. The accompanying Museum and Heritage Centre was closed today, but none the less I can highly recommend taking some time to explore here.
I was soon back on the A836 and from here I turned away from cycle route 1 and onto the main road. A short way along the road next to Dunnet Bay I first discovered one of the mildly embarrassing side effects of cycling in this area (particularly with a loaded bike). Another cyclist was heading in the other direction, also on a well laden bike. “Go on. You’re almost there. Well done”. Almost there? Almost where? Never mind; I’ll just carry on my way.
At the end of the bay (which wasn’t visible behind the sand dunes) at Dunnet village I left the main road again in order to head for, well, the head. A couple of miles rising up the hill later and I was pulling into the car park at the top of the cliffs.
There were about half a dozen other cars parked up but within a few minutes I found myself next to the lighthouse all by myself. With no one around to witness the scene, I set my phone onto a mini tripod and took a picture of me celebrating being the most northerly person on the British mainland. After the disappointment of Cape Wrath I had made it properly to one of the ‘Points’ on my ‘All Points North’ ride.
I had a good explore around the headland. The lighthouse itself is off limits but higher up behind it next to some old World War Two defences there is an excellent lookout spot to get a full view of the road both behind and ahead.
Back in the saddle I glided back down the hill, cutting a corner across through the small settlement of Ham with its old pier and mill buildings, aiming to re-join the A836 a mile or two east of Dunnet village. Just before the main road junction I checked my phone and noticed some erratic behaviour on my GPS. Up at the head it had gone totally haywire and was showing readings all over the shop. I don’t know what there is hiding up at Dunnets Head but I reckon that there must be some sort of strange government test facility that was interfering with the GPS! I had to restart my phone to get it working again.
On the main road a couple of cars coming the other direction beeped their horn,s flashed their lights and waved at me. Confused I stopped and gave my bike a once over. I couldn’t see anything wrong. I still had the best part of another ten miles until John O Groats and really didn’t want to start having any mechanical issues now.
The remaining miles went smoothly by. The landscape has a few hills still but it was all quite calm riding and before I knew it I could see the end in sight. The A836 comes to an abrupt halt where it meets the main north-south A99 road about half a mile South of the famous village centre. Turning onto the road and heading North for the final stretch, some more people cheered and waved at me. That’s when I realised that everyone had just assumed that I had started my ride, not from Inverness, but from Land’s End. I was embarrassed, but glad to have realised why people had been saluting me over the last ten to fifteen miles.
I glided down into the centre of John O’Groats and up to the famous signpost. A couple of people were already stood by the sign taking photos but again they applauded me as I got off the saddle. Sheepishly, once the current people had taken their photos, I set up my mini tripod and took some selfies of me against the sign. As I moved away a father with his son (somewhere about 7 years old) told the boy to congratulate me which he did very nicely. By now I had decided that the best course of action was just to go with it so I thanked him very much, feeling only a bit of a fraud!
I wasn’t quite done for the day yet but I needed some food and a rest so I popped into the Storehouse Café for a sandwich and a coffee. Refreshed I started on the final push. John O’Groats might just be the end of the road; however it is not the farthest point. A few miles along a small side road, and winding up and down some hills that I frankly could have done without, I came to Duncansby Head. Pulling up to the lighthouse at the end of the road I had now made my way to the most North Westerly point on the mainland, and ticked off the second ‘Point’ of my ‘All Points North’ for the day.
I spent a bit of time watching the bird life living on the cliffs and admiring the Duncansby Stacks from the hills above. The end of the day was in sight however, and I still had to wind back down and up the hills in order to find my B and B for the night.
As I rolled into the Hamnavoe guest house the landlord, Gordon, met me. He was about to head off for a rare night out but quickly showed me to my room, telling me that I would be best off storing my bike in there. As he was about to leave the guest house I looked around and, finding something missing, asked Gordon if he had given me the keys. “Oh there are no keys. You don’t need them. There is no crime here. Not like Inverness”.
I took a long and much needed shower before walking back down to the harbour. I spent some time watching the sun set over the very north of Britain. The sunset was glorious and this was a beautiful way to end a long but rewarding day. As the sun finally dropped I made my way back, stopping en route at the Seaview Hotel. I was officially too late to order food but they kindly did me a burger and chips which I washed down with a pint of Best from the John o Groats brewery located less than 100 yards up the road. The food wasn’t great but was much needed. Having finished, I made the final short walk back to the guest house and fell almost instantly asleep.
Day Four Stats:
- Distance: 68.27 Miles
- Ride Time: 5 Hours 49 minutes and 16 seconds
- Average Speed: 11.7 mph
- Ascent: 5,722 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1143331038
I was awake by 6.00 am. I laid in bed trying to get a bit more rest before giving up and getting my bags ready for the off. I went through to Breakfast at 7.30. It was just me and Gordon, the B&B owner. Gordon is a lovely man and a marvellous host but he has a funny idea of a continental breakfast. I guess that here in John O’Groats is about as far from the continent as one can get in the mainland U.K, so that might be to be expected. So it was that I was soon polishing off my breakfast of Cheerios, yoghurt (with some fruit to be fair) and white toast.
If my bum didn’t want to get on to the saddle the previous morning, then today was even worse. It wasn’t helped by knowing that I would be having a stop start morning on and off the saddle. At least the first part of the day was easy. I gingerly swung my leg over the bar and climbed aboard. All I had to do was point the bike northwards, get it moving a bit, and then allow the gradual slope down to the coast to glide me to the harbour.
I got my ferry ticket and joined the queue waiting to board. There wasn’t long to wait but there were a lot of people on board the 8.45 am sailing. They were mostly coach groups who were clearly being passed over by their regular coach tour drivers into the hands of some Orkney drivers for the day instead.
Once aboard, the ferry trip across the Pentland Firth was quite straightforward. It was a calm morning and though there was some swell in the very middle of the crossing, it passed uneventfully. Sadly there was no sign of any sealife but it was lovely to be on the open water and watch the Orkney islands coming into view. I also enjoyed chatting to some ladies looking forward to their visit to the Islands.
We came into the harbour at Burwick and quickly disembarked. Although I was one of the first off I parked myself up at the waiting room and made use of the facilities. I waited until all of the other passengers had been ushered onto the waiting coaches and had headed off away from the harbour. There was, after all, no point in getting myself in front and then having a line of coaches waiting to get past me. Better to let them go and then have the road to myself.
The original plan for today was that I would have the whole day to spend ambling around the islands before meeting my other half in Kirkwall at the end of the day. She was working at the Ness of Brodgar excavations however due to a change in schedule earlier in the week they now had the day off. Instead the plan was that I would just meet her in Kirkwall; although there was some confusion (entirely on my part) as to when.
There was no confusion as to the first part of the ride though. First up was the cycle across South Ronaldsay towards the Orkney mainland. After passing the welcome to Orkney sign the road starts to climb gently along some rolling hills leading upwards towards a viewpoint over the islands. Just as I was coming to the top of the hill my phone rang. Stopping to answer it was my other half asking how much longer I was going to be as she was waiting for me in Kirkwall. Therefore the ride was now a case of getting a wiggle on and making this as quick a dash as possible into town.
I set off at a better pace and made the next mile or two into St Margarets Hope on the north side of South Ronaldsay. I took a detour from the main road and dropped down into the village. We have friends living here and this is where my partner had been staying during her two weeks here. We’d be coming back here later on today before heading for the ferry back to Aberdeen. I therefore had the opportunity to drop off anything that I wouldn’t be needing for the rest of day. I was soon heading back on my way with only one, much lighter, pannier and without the spare tyre and extra water bag I had been carrying until now.
After the briefest of turn arounds I was back on the bike. The first thing I noticed was when picking it up to turn it back to face the road; I could suddenly lift it with almost no effort. Getting back into the saddle things felt even better. I flew up the short slope out of St Margaret’s Hope and re-joined the main road at flying speed.
I was very quickly upon the first of the four Churchill Barriers. The barriers were built during World War II in order to protect Scapa Flow from enemy ships. The barriers were not actually finished before the end of the war and now serve as causeways linking the southern islands to the mainland. They are named, rather imaginatively, Barriers 1 – 4; numbered from North to South.
Barrier 4 leads from South Ronaldsay to Burray. Whereas the other barriers still cross open waters, the eastern side of Barrier 4 has become a beach meaning the this barrier has a different feel to the others. Burray village is a small hamlet of a handful of houses nestled against a bay on the South side of the island. The slightest of rises leads you to a view over a small bay that feels like, but is not, another of the barriers. Instead after that false start another rise onto the Northern slopes of Burray leads to a view down over Barrier 3 and onto the tiny island of Glimps Holm.
Barrier 3 is the first of the proper causeways; the road surface sits on top of a pile of concrete blocks. To the side of the causeway the remains of some Block Ships were visible above the water line. These were part of an earlier; mostly WWI attempt to protect the naval base of Scapa Flow using scuttled ships to prevent access. By the time of WWII they were already falling apart and an invading German U Boat managed to sneak its way into the flow and sank the HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 834 men. It was this that led to the building of the barriers.
Glimps Holm and the next island, Lambs Holm are tiny; they are linked by Barrier 2 and I flew over them in no time. For anyone with time to spare, Lambs Holm is home to the famous Italian PoW Chapel. Italian Prisoners of War were (probably illegally) used to build the barriers and whilst doing so they were allowed to build their own chapel here. I’ve visited on a previous trip to Orkney. The photo below is from that trip. Today I was flying past, but the chapel is certainly one of Orkney’s must see sights.
From Lambs Holm, Barrier Number 1 brought me onto the Orkney mainland. In order to get to Kirkwall as quickly as possible I ignored the NCN1 signs turning off to the right and stayed instead on the A961 to follow the most direct route. The road was not busy and, unlike many of the A roads of the previous four days, this is a decent and wide road so any passing vehicles did have plenty of space to pass me.
The dual villages of Holm and St Marys (the names seem to be interchangeable) are another set of pretty houses set against a small fishing harbour. At the end of the village by the said harbour the road swings North and a long, continual climb begins. The hill is not sharp and, with so much weight removed from the bike, I was still flying and loving the ride. However there is undoubtedly a sadist working for the Highways department here. At the top of the slope a ‘Blind Summit’ warning sign indicates that you have hit the top of the hill. However within 50 yards of reaching the ‘summit’ the hill starts to climb again before another Blind Summit sign lulls you again into thinking that the climb is done.
In all I counted four of the blind fake summits before hitting the eventual top of the island; about 100m above sea level. At the top I also came across a couple of ‘Sheep Pigs’ in a field by the road. A curious sight these turned out to be Mangalitsa pigs; certainly pigs albeit with a wooly coat like a sheep.
Across the road from the sheep pigs I also spotted another amazing wildlife sight. I had by now ridden roughly 300 miles across the Scottish Highlands and had not seen a single Highland Cow anywhere. I was beginning to doubt their existence. Finally now, on the Orkney Islands and just 5 miles from my destination I found some in a field opposite the pigs. Although I was in a hurry I had to stop to say hello to both sets of animals.
Looking ahead I could very shortly get my glimpse of Kirkwall and the end of my ride. I got my head down and pedalled hard down the hill into the town. I shot in and around the edge heading for the ferry terminal. The ferry leaves from a new pier on the outskirts of the town. I was aware of this but was still a little surprised at just how far out of the centre it is. Having finally got there I locked my bike up by the terminal building; picked up my remaining kit, and started the brisk walk back into the town where I eventually found my other half tapping her feet and looking at her watch. And so it was that my ride was done.
What a fantastic adventure. It might not be a properly documented route unlike my previous trips; but this was still a great journey and one I can heartily recommend.
Day Five Stats:
- Distance: 23.97 Miles
- Ride Time: 1 Hour, 37 minutes and 6 seconds
- Maximum Speed: 37.0 mph
- Average Speed: 14.7 mph
- Ascent: 1,079 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1139570213
- Distance: 304.39 Miles
- Ride Time: 24 Hours, 38 minutes and 15 seconds
- Ascent: 12,381 feet
Upon meeting up in Kirkwall we headed to the excellent Old Library where we had some lunch – a truly fantastic posh Fish Finger Sandwich (by far the best food of the trip) and a celebratory glass of Irn Bru.
After that, still in my cycling gear, we got a bus to Stromness; Orkney’s second biggest town at the western side of the mainland and which I’d not visited on my previous trip here. As we headed over, the heavens started to open with rain of almost biblical proportions. It eased slightly, to being merely torrential by the time we arrived at the end of the bus ride. In Stromness we had a quick walk through town visiting the lovely Pier Arts Centre gallery to see an exhibition related to the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar. With the rain still coming down we headed to get the bus back. The bus terminal is next to the Stromness Ferry Port. We sat in the ferry terminal building for a few minutes; however the Ferry back to Scrabster (by Thurso) was leaving and as it did so we got kicked out of the warm and dry to wait for the bus outdoors. Fortunately we didn’t have too long to wait and were soon back on the move.
The rain was back to biblical again. I was glad now that today’s ride had been cut short. I would not have much fancied cycling in this. Especially as my original plans would have brought me to this end of the island and some of the roads were starting to become impassably flooded. On the bus to Stromness we had met some of the other half’s work colleagues. They were heading the island of Hoy to hike across to an isolated bothy on that remote island. We didn’t fancy much of the prospect of the trek across the island in that weather.
We stayed on the bus at Kirkwall as it carried on back to St Margaret’s Hope and so we were now shooting back along the way that I had come this morning. Hello again Coos; hello again Sheep Pigs. Over the barriers, in numerical order this time; 1, 2, 3 and 4 and back onto South Ronaldsay. We got off the bus at the top of St Margret’s Hope and walked down the hill to our friends house. They were still out at the time but that gave us both a chance to shower and sort our bags for the journey home. Our friends arrived and I got to say hello to them for a couple of hours before they kindly ventured back out in the rain to take us back to the ferry terminal in their car.
The sailing back to Aberdeen was due to leave just before midnight. After a bit of a delay whilst the lovely ferry staff dealt with an aggressive customer, I was soon wheeling the bike onto the ferry to begin the homeward journey. We slept in one of the ferry’s ‘Sleeping Pods’ each; a surprisingly comfortable arrangement and before long we were disembarking in Aberdeen. The train journey home was not as simple as it should have been as useless Virgin trains decided to cancel our train (one of the only direct Aberdeen to London trains) at York. A stressful time at one of my favourite stations followed but I managed to get the bike onto the replacement train. We had to stand the rest of the way home but at least we were headed back and after a few more uneventful hours and two further trains we were back on the South Coast and home.