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