To Portsmouth

I’ve ridden to Portsmouth once before; quite early on in my return to cycling as a warm up and test before I set off on my first tour along the Avenue Verte. That ride remains one of my longest day rides. I’ve not done many 100+ miles routes since and so, in preparation for another summer tour, I thought I’d give the ride another go.

I had a midweek day booked off work. Fortunately the weather forecast was showing a favourable wind direction (I was prepared to get the train to Portsmouth and start from there if not!) however it was slap bang in the middle of the hottest, driest spell on the South Coast in years.

I got the bike and my kit ready to go the night before – as this was to be a full day ride with return train journey I was carrying a few bits of kit: some light clothes to swap into on the train, some bits of food and fuel, and an extra tube.

Although on a day off I was up at my usual time for work and was on the road at just after half seven; having liberally applied some factor 50 all over before setting off – the day was already warm and the sun up quite high.

Leaving Hastings

The first 10-15 miles were uneventful, following my usual commuting route towards Eastbourne along the Hastings sea front through Bexhill and across the Pevensey Levels.

The familiarity continued beyond then; although mostly in reverse. I have ridden in the direction of Lewes on a couple of previous occasions but it is a route I have ridden many times in the other direction. I passed through Abbotts Wood, around Arlington reservoir, and along the back roads before picking up the cycle path into Lewes from Firle.

Abbots Wood

I stopped for a first break on one of the benches overlooking the River Ouse and the Harvey’s Brewery in the middle of the town. I made the mistake of taking a look at my work email; only to see that the small to medium sized problem we had been dealing with had just become a major crisis. I had a short phone call with one of my colleagues and promised that I’d keep an eye on proceedings in case I was needed. What joy.

Harveys Brewery, Lewes

Out of Lewes the cycle path follows alongside the busy A27. The cycle route is properly and safely segregated but its still a fairly noisy ride and the least appealing part of the whole day’s route. The way towards Brighton is also a surprisingly sized hill and invariably a wind tunnel seems to form; even though the wind was supposed to be behind me. The slog is fairly short lived however and before long you find yourself at the top of the hill in Falmer – an odd mix of a few remaining original village buildings surround on one side by the 1960s (and later) University of Sussex campus, and on the other by the football stadium (“The AMEX”) of Brighton and Hove Albion.

One bonus feature of today’s ride was that for the first time in 3 or 4 attempts I managed to find the correct route from Falmer towards central Brighton. Previously I’d followed some misleading cycle way signs and ended up going in all manner of odd directions. One such adventure led to following an off road trail at the end of which I had to lift the bike (and me) over a barbed wire fence.

For most of the way into the centre Brighton isn’t too bad a city to ride into – cycle and shared cycle/bus lanes get you into the edge of the centre but from there until the seafront it seems that you need to largely just put your head down and follow the traffic along the main road until you get to the Pier and can roll off on to the promenade cycle path. It’s not too much fun but is fairly painless and is over pretty quickly (traffic lights permitting).

Once on to Brighton Prom things take a more steady and sedate pace. The cycle path is great; however due to the large volume of pedestrians on the sea front one definitely does have to “share with care” and be ready to apply bells and brakes. Things get quieter as you head towards Hove and once you are beyond the King Alfred Swimming Pool you will often find that you largely have the ride to yourself (at least that has tended to be my experience).

Brighton West Pier

At the end of Hove seafront the signs seem to take you in an unexpected and improbable route towards the industrial units by Shoreham Harbour. It seems wrong but trust the signs. After initially snaking through some units at the start of the estate the road opens up a bit and follows the shore; albeit a large sea wall prevents you getting a view of the sea. It’s still not the nicest but of riding with the sea wall on one side of you and the building yards on the other but having also tried staying on the main road during a previous ride I can assure you that this is the preferable option.

At the end of the harbour, just as you wonder how you might cross the water that form the harbour entrance, signs divert you in towards the coast where you come to cross the first of the two big lock gates.   After crossing the locks (get off and push as you do!) you re-join the busy A259. However if you get the turning right its not for long. Turn left onto the road and the take the first right opposite the Dudman building yard. There are signs but they are not obvious.

Shoreham Harbour

If you get the turning right, NCN2 takes you through some quiet residential roads before crossing the railway line by Shoreham station, taking a diversion through the surprisingly pretty town centre before coming back to the A259 directly next to the bridge over the River Adur and the leisure half of Shoreham Harbour.

Shoreham Lighthouse

That route is quite nice and I’ve done it before. Today I missed the turning and carried on along the A259. Coming this way you do get to go past Shoreham Lighthouse which is pretty cool; but that’s a small bonus for being stuck on the busy road with the Dudman lorries thundering past you (I dare you to read Nick Cave’s novel “The Death of Bunny Munro” and then not get slightly freaked when they pass close to you).

Shoreham Leisure Harbour

I put my head down though, maintained a good steady line and speed, kept awareness of what was around me and was soon at the bridge where I pulled off the busy road. Immediately I relaxed. Crossing the River Adur here is a markedly more pleasant crossing of Shoreham Harbour with all the pleasure boats laid out on the river below. The bridge itself is a nice structure also and all the more impressive when you get to the opposite bank and find the mechanism that allows for the whole bridge to be rolled back to allow larger vessels to pass underneath.

Shoreham Harbour Bridge

The next few miles has you rolling back along the seafront on the promenade and some quiet residential streets between Shoreham and Worthing. There is a bit of care to be taken along here as the seafront is normally quite busy, but it is pleasant riding and you soon find yourself at Worthing Pier. I stopped here to take another breather, grab a bite to eat and to check in on the work issues. The break and the food was good; the work issue was turning into a full fledged crisis with a high level conference call meeting arranged at 1.30pm. I offered to join in from wherever I might be at the time. I’d rather not have done so but it would be better for me to be able to provide input than to have just carried on.

Worthing Pier

Somewhere in West Worthing the NCN2 signs run out. Instead you seem to be on the ‘South Coast Cycleway’. Once you know this it’s pretty easy to follow, even though there are a few key missing signs between here and Chichester where the NCN2 number boards finally reappear.

Shoreham blends into Goring and then a short break through some open fields brings you to Ferring. It was here, next to a bus stop and opposite the local Co-op, that I found a bench in sufficient treeish shade upon which I parked myself and made ready to join the work Skype conference call. The meeting actually went fairly well with no nasty recriminations and a clear action plan. It had added an element of stress to the day and taken over an hour out of my riding but I was happy now that it was in hand and that I could continue the remainder of my ride without further (work related) incident. I popped over to the Co-op to fill up my water bottles and water bag, had some lunch, and then headed back on the way.

Work Bench

From Ferring the route heads inland where it follows (on a segregated cycle path) the A259 for a short distance before slowly dropping in back towards the sea through Angmering and Rustington. I say slowly as the cycle route does not take you immediately south to the coast but winds a few roads west, one road south, a few more west, and so on and so forth with even one little ‘false North’ before finally joining the promenade at the eastern end of Littlehampton.

Full Speed Ahead

A few more easy going prom ride miles brings you to the main seaside town beach area next to the Arun estuary. On my previous ride this way I recall having become properly hot and frazzled by this point and had to get some water from the very helpful RNLI lifeguards. Despite the ridiculous heat and sun today I was doing OK. The extra water I was carrying was helping. So rather than go all the way to the end of the sea front as I did on that occasion I diverted off by the coach park and joined the main road for a few hundred yards into and through the town; past the station, and to the foot bridge that takes you over the Arun and back onto Ferry Road. The ferry has long vanished from existence and as such this is now a quiet and little used lane.

Littlehampton Harbour

In writing this post I’ve gone back to look at my Strava route from my ride to Portsmouth four years previously as I was sure when riding that I was taking a very different route on this second occasion. I was correct. Previously having passed through Climping I had apparently crossed the main road and headed up to Burndell and Yapton villages before turning back in the direction of Bognor Regis.

As I arrived at the main road however a shiny new (in fact not yet entirely completed) cycle path had appeared following the main road. I played a hunch and decided to follow it.

So often new cycle paths can be a mixed blessing. As was the case with this one they can often be an easy way to follow the most direct route with the payoff being a less enjoyable ride than diverting down winding side lanes. That was the case here but there was a major bonus. Another feature of most modern cycle lanes seems to be the desire to get tarmac laid quickly and to hell with the concept of rolling it flat. So often cycle paths can be so bumpy that it is easy to see why so many road riders will ignore them and stay on the main carriageway.

With that in mind I pass on my huge thanks and Kudos to the engineers of this new cycle path. It is one of the smoothest and most pleasant such track I have ever encountered. It was so relaxing that when I spotted a funeral cortege coming towards me on the main road that I was very comfortable in being able to slow down and remove my helmet as they passed me. I cannot imagine being so confident on the Firle cycleway out of Lewes for one.

Before very long at all I was on the outskirts of Bognor Regis and by the entrance to Butlins. I was not entirely sure how the ride had varied to my previous attempt, but previously I had made the seafront before Butlins; not that it mattered one jot. One thing that I do recall from the previous ride though was getting the wrong road out of Bognor as there was a lack of route signs on the western end of the town. I recalled on that occasion doubling back from the west end of Bognor to find NCN2 and then head off in the direction of Chichester.

Red Hat

This time I missed it again but instead of doubling back, I looked at my maps and selected another route out of town winding along some lanes and headed through Rose Green and Runcton; stopping somewhere around there for another breather. By now the heat was getting to me and I needed a few minutes shelter under a tree and a good solid glug of water.

Bognor Regis Pier

In North Mundham I picked up some NCN2 signs again and was soon following them and turning off onto the towpath of the Chichester Canal; which I will happily admit to having had no prior knowledge of its existence. It made for a pleasant few mils in towards the city centre, although slow at times as there were a lot of families out enjoying the surroundings.

Coming into the basin at the north, city, end of the canal I headed off and decided to trust my instincts to find my way across the southern side of the city to the western road leading out towards Fishbourne. I didn’t choose the nicest road; riding through an industrial estate., but I did head in pretty much the right direction and was soon finding myself coming up to one of the busy A27 roundabouts. I think previously I had followed the proper route and as a result had found a safe and easy way across. Today I just chose to get to the roundabout and go for it. Which turned out to be absolutely fine and soon I was on road west through Fishbourne and pointed in the direction of Emsworth and Havant.

Chichester Canal Basin

From Fishbourne the cycle route gets to be pretty straightforward regulation cycling. I was following the A259 but its not a particularly busy road as all through traffic uses the dual carriageway A27 a hundred yards or so further North. Furthermore most of the route is on shared footbath/cycle paths by the side of the road. Just before Emsworth I turned off up some residential streets as I had an old friend to see and a cup of tea with my name on it. My friend Ali and her husband Ivor were unexpectedly at home after Ivor had managed to break both wrists after falling whilst halfway around a marathon (he got up and finished the race before getting himself sorted out). They were supposed to be on holiday but that had naturally had to be postponed. I therefore had a lovely chance to catch up with them both and have a good break. I was about 75 miles to the good now and the break and the excellent company was very welcome.

With Ali

Refreshed I was ready to get back on for the final push towards Portsmouth. I was shortly passing under the A27 and approaching into Havant. From there I was planning on taking another deviation from my previous ride into Portsmouth. On that occasion I had followed route 22 that runs along the main roads and drops directly into the eastern side of Portsmouth alongside the A2030.

Langstone Harbour

This time however I hung a left just before the centre of Havant and navigated my way onto an old railway line heading directly South out of town. The old railway bridge onto Hayling Island no longer exists but the path moves alongside the road bridge over the estuary and then diverts back off again onto the ‘Shipwrights Way‘again all the way to the south end of the island. As always, these types of cycle way are glorious and lovely flat riding with stunning views across the water to the West. However today I was tired and I just wanted to get to the end of the island. At the southern end a sharp right hand turn takes you to the western end long a road which seemed just a fraction longer than I’m sure it needed to be.

The Ship Wrights Way

At the far end I had enough time before the next sailing of the Hayling Ferry to dive into the Ferryboat Inn to grab a lager and lime and a bag of salted peanuts. Taking another break was good and the drink went down quickly. I was pretty close to done for now but at least I knew I only had a handful of, flat, miles ahead of me around Southsea and into central Portsmouth.

Waiting for the Ferry

There was some good synchronicity between the bottom of my beer glass and the arrival of the ferry so having drunk up and dropped my glass back on the bar, I rolled the bike down the jetty and onto the ferry; a small foot and bike passenger only vessel that plies across Langstone Harbour on a roughly hourly basis. Out to see a few speed boats were messing around but inland in the harbour was a good mix of life at (moderately) low tide and the various remains of second world war defences, such as the large remains of the Mulberry Caisson a few yards inshore from the ferry route.

The ferry landed on the Southsea side of the harbour and I was happy to let the rest of my fellow passengers alight first. I was now in no hurry and just wanted to get finished safely at whatever time I did. The cycle route passes around the side of the Historic England offices at Fort Cumberland; a lovely example of an 18th century fort, but one which you sadly cannot easily visit.

Portsmouth!

The remains of a couple more old sea front fortifications passed by to the right as I rode west along the front towards central Southsea. This stretch of road I mostly know from the 4 times I ran the 10 mile Great South Run around Portsmouth about 5-10 years previously. It was nice to see the landmarks slipping past a bit quicker than they did when having already covered about 8 miles and running quite slowly!

Southsea Towers

I carried on past Southsea Castle and Common, hung a right at the pier and then headed left into historic old Portsmouth; rolling around the city streets past the Cathedral until I came to the end of The Point which I marked to be the nominal end spot for the ride.

View from The Point

And that was me done. I finished the final mile or so to ride back into Portsmouth and Southsea station. I bought a ticket home and, with about half an hour to kill, popped across the road to get a burger from the kebab shop opposite the station before returning to the train.

The journey home felt long and slow. The train was one of the old rackety Southern services that ply their way along the coast without any toilets; I was hoping to at least be able to change into something more comfortable for the journey back. Changing trains at Brighton the final leg did have toilets; they were just all out of order. So it was that I got home feeling a little less refreshed than I hoped.

I’m not sure now whether it was the general strain of 100+ miles on one of the hottest days of the year; or whether it was the burger; or possibly both, but something in the day did for me and I ended up largely holed up in bed for the next two days dehydrated and generally knocked for six. It was a good day’s ride but I certainly felt the strain afterwards. Just how do the grand tour riders do this (and more) for three weeks solid? Still. It was a 101 mile ride done and ticked off!

Stats:

Riding with the Mini Beast

A two week break  from the bike through illness at the end of February had already made me consider curtailing what had been my original plans for a long mid March ride around the Kent coast. I decided on a starting point in Ramsgate rather than in Margate as I had originally targeted, cutting about ten miles off the route. Closer to the day the forecast of a second cold snap of weather with snow and a brisk easterly wind had made me now start considering alternative options for stopping points at the western end.  I made a note of various train station locations and also elected that the corner to Dungeness would most likely be cut.  I was not, however, completely put off and was ready for a St. Patrick’s day ride around the Kent coast.

Wanting to get a good start I was up and out of the house on Saturday morning earlier than I usually am on a work day as I rode down to Hastings station to meet the 06:18 to Ashford.  Despite the weather warnings there were no sign of snow at home, although the wind was picking up.  I passed on breakfast at home in order to save time.  I was aware that I had a half hour connection at Ashford before the Ramsgate train and gambled (successfully) on the station coffee shop being open.  A microwaved sausage sandwich and a half decent cappuccino was a serviceable breakfast.  A second coffee (black Americano) was decanted into my special winter riding SIS Flask that I was carrying with me for its first proper outing, in my second bottle cage.  The weather was still fairly mild as the Ramsgate bound train pulled in to the platform at Ashford.

St Patrick’s Day Train Humour

By the time we had reached Canterbury however the snow had started to fall and, judging by the angle it was coming in at, the wind was picking up as advertised.  The ploughed fields to the west of Canterbury were soon turning white but the roads (and rails) were staying clear.  I’m sure this would be fine.  I have very, very limited experience of riding in the snow; I’ve probably not done so since my teen years.  By the time the train pulled into Ramsgate at the end of the line, the snow was well settled in but I was here; so let’s do this.

Leaving Ramsgate in a flurry of snow

The start of the ride was one of the hardest parts as, in order to head towards the main harbour area, I had to ride across town directly into the wind and I also found an unexpected uphill stretch mid way along. Within seconds of starting out from the station I had to stop.  The snow was hitting into my face so hard that large flakes were dashing directly into my eyes.  I dug out my sunglasses, not due to any glare but just to try and stop the snow stabbing my retinas.  I hit the seafront above the wartime tunnels where a road ramps down from the cliff onto the promenade close to the harbour.  The harbour consists of two parts, with the older half used now for small leisure vessels, whilst next door can be seen the remains of the old cross channel ferry terminal (now seemingly used for unloading of car carrying cargo ships).

Ramsgate Harbour

The historic harbour is quite pretty but it was too cold to stop for long.  Just long enough to notice the sign on the old clock house proudly announcing that it told the time according to Greenwich Mean Time and not Ramsgate time, which is, so it declared, 5 minutes and 41 seconds ahead of GMT.

Ramsgate Mean Time

Past the harbour the cycle route rises back up onto the cliff top and along towards Pegwell from where the it cuts across some open fields a few hundred yards from Pegwell Bay.

Lift to Ramsgate Beach

At Cliffs End the key attraction is the ‘replica’ of Hengest and Horsa’s longship.  The ship was sailed from Denmark in 1949 to celebrate to 1500th anniversary of the first landing of the Anglo Saxons (Note: despite what everyone calls the boat, they weren’t Vikings).

Hengest and Horsa woz ere

After having to fight my way through a park run which was trying to take over the entire width of the path/cycleway the route joins the main road.  The next few miles across to Sandwich are not the most exciting but they pass quite quickly.  Riding next to a set of light industrial units and scrap yards leads to a sewage works and then past the massive ghost of the now largely derelict Pfizer works.

After such sights, the approach into the medieval town of Sandwich is quite lovely.  The route enters the town over a bridge next to one of the city gates.  If you’ve not explored the town it is worth taking some time to have a look around.  I stayed here on a weekend break a couple of years ago and loved it.  However that did give me the excuse to hang a left over the river and head straight out of town having now joined national cycle route NCN1, which I would now be following into Dover.

Out of the town the route crosses the sand dunes which form the Links golf courses of the Royal St Georges and Royal Cinque Ports golf clubs.  A short stretch of toll road (bikes are not charged) through an ‘exclusive’ housing estate ensures that the road across the dunes is largely devoid of traffic.  I had known that this section wouldn’t be the easiest as I was on open and exposed land with a strong cross wind; however it was more tiring than expected and the wind seemed to frequently swirl around into my face.  It certainly wasn’t just heading across me.  Fortunately though these were still the early, fresh, miles and despite the extra effort I still felt good when I came into the centre of Deal.

Deal Pier

In the town I headed back into the wind briefly to make my way onto the promenade, joining it just to the North of the pier.  I hadn’t done enough miles yet to need to stop for sustenance so I didn’t look out for the lovely Route One Cycle Café; however I am led to believe that it has now closed down which is sad news indeed.  I had only visited once (the last time I came this way last year) but had it marked down as a good place to stop.  I did make a brief stop on the front make a phone call; sheltering in the porch of a beach hut as the snow swirled around outside.  The hut was blocking the wind but I didn’t stop for long and soon headed south along the east coast beach cycle path as it heads towards the very south east corner of the country at Kingsdown.

Looning on Deal Seafront

After 17 miles of largely flat riding the cycle route turns inland and starts a slow and steady climb up onto the white cliffs between Kingdsown and St Margaret’s at Cliffe.  The route uphill starts on a quiet private lane past a handful of houses before a gate marks the change onto a quiet, but well surfaced path up the hill.  The snow was increasing now and it was settling on the fields either side; although the track itself was staying largely clear.  The wind was now behind me though and the combination of its support and the cooler air made the climb nice and easy.

Climbing onto the Cliffs

At St Margaret’s the route joins the back road into Dover.  It’s one I’ve ridden a few times now (though always previously in the opposite direction) and its always been nice and quiet.  Today was no exception.  There weren’t many people at all stupid enough to be out in this weather on top of the cliffs.  The road continues to climb towards the coastguard station overlooking the busy ferry harbour but still the wind was behind me and I sailed up, enjoying the ride across the open downs; although the low cloud and continuing snow was severely hampering any views.

At the top of the hill the road was starting to get a bit slushy but it was still fine to ride.  From the top by the turning to the coastguard station, even with the poor visibility I had a good view down to the Castle.  I stopped to take a look before gently beginning the descent down.  The road drops below the castle in the valley between the two hills before climbing back up to the top the fortifications.  I resisted the temptation to race and took the drop slow and calm.  As the road turned to follow the rise up to Edinburgh Hill the wind and the snow was swirling in all directions at once.  Visibility was terrible and without the direct wind assistance that had been with me for the previous climbs it felt quite brutal.  However the climb is short and it was soon over as I came out to join the main road at the top of the castle.

View to Dover Castle

I was even more wary of the steep drop down into the town centre.  I knew that, even having replaced my rear blocks that week, that in the cold and wet conditions my brakes would not be functioning at their best.  This proved to be true but I glided down with enough control to bring myself safely onto the flat at the bottom of the hill.  In the town centre I sheltered under the cover of a shop front canopy and had a good drink of coffee from my flask.  The coffee was still hot despite the flask having been out in the cold weather for a few hours.  A few jelly babies and a sachet of isotonic gel topped up the energy levels.  I didn’t stop for long and was soon headed for the harbour side where the north – south NCN1 route stops and NCN2 starts; heading westwards towards Cornwall and, eventually, Lands End.

Dover is not known as being a pretty town and the main road in that the cycle route follows out of town is horrible.  The cycle route takes you along the pavement by the side of the A20 as it climbs out of the docks.  All the lorries thundering into and out of the docks were splashing through the slush at the side of the roads and sending it cold and muddy straight over me.  This is not a long section but it feels like it.  At a roundabout the cycle route turns off and into an estate on the edge of town following the much quieter old Folkestone road.  At the top of the estate the road runs out where the old and new roads would (but do not) merge and the cycle path takes you across a bridge over the main road and onto the narrow and scant remains of the road; which is now mostly reduced to hardcore and rubble with just occasional patches of tarmac.

Despite the slippery combination of loose ground and slushy conditions the climb back up onto the cliffs between Dover and Folkestone was also fairly smooth  Some disgruntled horses looked at me accusingly from a field in which the wind and snow was being funnelled directly up at them.  They were sheltering behind one of the bits of remains of World War 2 defences but they clearly wanted to be shut up somewhere warm and dry.  Sadly I was not in a position to assist them. I could tell that they thought I should do something for them none the less.  I pedalled away from their stern glares and up onto the top.

The whole section of cliff top between Dover and Folkestone is littered with the remains of old wartime defences.  I’ve ridden this way a few times and normally stop somewhere to explore a new part of them.  Today was not a day for such a deviation.  At the top of the hill the track had become mud.  It wasn’t too deep to ride through; however it was not easy going.  Venturing off the main route across the fields to explore the encampments would be impossible.  And cold(er). And wet(ter).

Up ahead of me I could spot someone even more daft than I.  They were out running.  I caught up with them at a gate which they kindly held open for me.  We spent a few hundred yards running/riding together talking.  Her name was Jodie and she was out training for a 50 mile charity run across the South Downs in a few weeks time.  She was putting in some (very) tough miles across the cliffs.  Despite the conditions she looked to be doing well.  We had a nice conversation. I’m not sure how she was able to talk.  At least she was now headed with the wind behind her.  Jodie said that she had already been out in the other direction into the snow and the wind and had been grateful to turn around. I promised to find her Just Giving page and wishing her well headed on as the rough track joined up with the lanes and roads around Capel-le-Ferne.

From the hill top here it is easy to shoot down into Folkestone following the B2011.  Instead I carried on along NCN2 following the quiet lane along the hill.  Normally there are some magnificent views from here across the Romney Marsh all the way to the cliffs at Fairlight just a few miles from home.  Today I could barely see Folkestone at the base of the hill.  Another hairy ride down from the summit with only marginal brakes was made safer than the drop into Dover on account of being on a quiet track; and more dangerous due to its rougher nature.

The view across Folkstone to Fairlight!

Halfway down the hill you reach the outskirts of Folkestone and from there the cycle route into the town follows some residential streets around the very eastern edge of the town with what should be some more good views back across to Dover.  By now I was in need of some food and so made the executive decision to stop at the first café I came across for lunch.  I guessed that I might find somewhere by the harbour and sure enough right at the bottom of the hill I came across the “Captain’s Table“.  It was busy but I managed to grab a space and settled in; scattering damp clothing (gloves, helmet, balaclava) around me.  I wasn’t able to secure one of the seats next to a radiator but I was able to order some hot food.

Folkestone Harbour

Before long a lovely carb heavy portion of chilli con carne with chips and rice, along with a coffee and a coke were placed down in front of me and I was soon feeling refreshed.  I made the most of the break and took my time over my food.  I found Jodie’s Just Giving page.  As I sat there in the warm and dry I hope that she had managed to finish her run for the day by now and was also getting the chance to get warm and dry and to freshen up.

All the Carbs

Eventually I had to get back on my way.  The balaclava was still damp and soggy and uncomfortable put back on.  I left my gloves off until I had got the bike unlocked. Venturing back outside into the bitter wind my hands were almost instantly freezing.  I unlocked the bike as quickly as I could, loaded my kit back onto the bike and gratefully put my gloves back on.  It would still take a few more miles though before my fingers had actually warmed back up and I could feel the end of my thumbs.

Between Folkestone and Sandgate the cycle route heads through what is, in the summer months, the gorgeous but busy Lower Leas Country Park.  It wasn’t looking anything like so nice today; however at least I wasn’t having to navigate my way around crowds of people.  I did see one man and his dog but that was it.

From Sandgate I followed the seafront along a combination of roads and promenade into Hythe.  From here my original plan (when I was feeling good and before the weather reports had started to make me change my plans) was to continue along the coast to Dungeness and then head back to Hastings via Lydd and Rye.  Now I had another route in mind.

Over lunch I had made the decision that Rye would be the end of the road for me today.  I’d get the train the last few miles into Hastings.  Halfway between those two towns the cycle route rises sharply up on Battery Hill; this would have been by far the toughest climb of the day and I knew already that my legs were done for and I would not get up there without several stops.  I had also now decided that I just wanted to get to Rye by a more direct route and would head across the marsh rather than around the coast.

I deviated away from the cycle route however.  West of Hythe NCN2 follows the military canal path for a few miles.  I had ridden that way before Christmas.  It was muddy and almost impassable in places even then.  I knew that, with an extra couple of months of wet weather, that it was not going to be possible to head that way today without mountain bike tyres.  Instead I plotted a route along the marsh lanes. I headed as straight as I could in the direction of Lydd.  The roads here however do not allow for straight and instead take you on a criss cross route across the flat marsh lands.

Either due to the later time of day, or maybe simply due to being further west, the wind and snow had now eased off.  The riding was no easier for it.  The layout of the lanes meant that I was largely ‘tacking’ across the marsh and I wasn’t getting the wind assistance that I had been hoping for.  My legs were leaden and I was fading fast. My route took my through Botolphs Bridge, Burmarsh, Eastbridge,  Blackmanstone, St Mary in the Marsh, and Old Romney.

All of these places went by in a bit of a (slow) blur.  I normally like to break my journeys to look at churches and the like as I pass; however I rode straight through Burmarsh, ignored the remains of the Eastbridge church (I’ve never passed there without stopping before), didn’t even attempt to look for any signs of the site of Blackmanstone church, and rode straight past the grave of E. Nesbit at St Mary in the Marsh. If you find yourself coming this way for the first time though I do suggest you pay them a visit though as they are beautiful. You can read about the lost churches of Romney Marsh (and the still open ones) here. They are worthy of a small tour all of their own.

I stopped briefly just before Old Romney to have some more water and another energy gel.  I realised now one of the reasons why I was struggling.  Normally on a ride like this I’d have stopped a couple of times by now to refill my water bottles.  Today I’d barely drunk a third of the water I set out with.  No wonder my legs were getting so leaden – dehydration was properly settling in.

Across the Marsh

From Old Romney I just wanted to get on towards Rye so I was straight through and on the road towards Lydd. Another of the lost churches at Midley was visible off to one side but again I ignored it (it involves a walk across some ploughed fields) and pushed on towards the beacon that is the spire of the (still intact) church at Lydd.

Marsh lambs sheltering from the wind

From Lydd I carried straight on along the final push. Along the cycle path to start with past the gravel quarries on the marsh.  Straight past the caravan park that sits directly underneath the electricity pylons. Rejoin the road when the cycle path changes from rough tarmac to rougher gravel. There’s Jury’s Gut and there’s the trig point by the sea defences. Into Camber. Past the oh so amusing village shop “B J s on the Beach” and Pontins. Stay on the road. The cycle path here is too muddy and slow and diverts around the back of the golf club. Push on. Push on. Tired. Almost there. Push on. Turn off onto the track across the field. Its slow but it cuts off a mile of road. There’s Rye across the field. Almost there. Avoid the sheep shit. Through the gates. Rejoin the road. Across the river. And there you have it. Rye! Phew.

Approaching Rye

Relieved I pushed the bike up the steps and dived into the marvel that is Knoops brandishing my now empty flask asking for it to be filled with some sweet white hot chocolate goodness.  I didn’t have time to stop and drink it in the shop.  A check of the timetable showed that I had just enough time to get to the station; else I’d be sitting around in the cold for another hour.  Despite having now felt as though I was done I had to jump back into the saddle for one final push; and that involved some speed riding, if only for a short distance, to just get me to the station in time to get a ticket and jump straight onto the train. Finally I could relax and drink that lovely sweet chocolate.

Pulling into Hastings I was too shattered to contemplate the ride back up the hill to my house.  Instead I locked the bike up and jumped into a taxi!  Only when I had recovered with a long hot bath and was wearing warm dry clothes did I venture back out in the car to recover my bike and then settle in at home for the evening exhausted with cramped legs but satisfied with having finished a great mini adventure.

Stats:

To Wales

Back in October I head a two day work conference to attend in Cardiff.  For a short while I did consider if I might be able to ride all the way from home in Sussex, but I soon realised that would be a two day trip and involve lugging a lot of extra luggage on the bike.  Instead I calculated that I could combine a visit to my parent’s in Wiltshire with making a day trip of (a part of) the journey.  I’d still be carrying a lot of clothes and work equipment, but it shouldn’t weigh any more than I might carry on a regular tour.  Having planned the route I did realise that I might not make it all the way to Cardiff in time without having to be completely heads down and without having time to stop and look around at any point.  There was a pre-conference meal to attend which meant I’d need to be there just too early to realistically make the whole distance on the bike; but I was happy with my amended plans which would still see me riding across the border into Wales.

Stourhead House Gatehouse

I headed to my parent’s house the afternoon before the ride and made myself ready for a reasonable start in the morning. I was on my way just after 8am.  I left Mere and started out for a mile or two along the fairly busy B3092, in the general direction of Frome.  However before too long I turned off onto the first of many back lanes from which I could join NCN Route 25 headed for, in the first instance, Longleat House.  That was still a few miles away though and before I could start to think about that I had to pass another stately home, Stourton, or Stourhead, House.  Stourhead is mostly known for its fantastic landscaped gardens, but the house is quite nice too and the official cycle route takes you through the gatehouse and right past the front door.

Stourhead House

The route continues on along some country lanes.  Through Kilmington the fields and many of the roads were packed full of pheasants.  I’m assuming that shooting season was a short while away.  For now they were enjoying some massive pheasant raves in the Wiltshire fields. From Maiden Bradley I turned onto some very familiar lanes heading towards Horningsham.  These lanes I have been down hundreds of times on two wheels (pedal powered and two stroke engine), four (I learned to drive down these roads) and more (on the bus to college in Trowbridge).  It was lovely to be coming back down these roads on a (push) bike again.  I was probably about 6 the first time I came down this way.  I made the most of the nostalgia trip; although now the roads seemed much shorter than they did then and I was soon descending the hill into Horningsham.

Crossing the road by the Bath Arms I ignored the “strictly no entry” signs and rode through the gatehouse at the end of the lovely long drive leading out from Longleat House.  This was always a no entry road; however it was also an unwritten rule that locals were fine to ignore it and carry on regardless.  That did at some stage become harder for cars (although it rarely stopped us) but now the big barrier was even trying to prevent cycles.  I might have been acting the cussed bugger that I can be, but I carried on around the end of the gate.  For one thing this is still the route of NCN25 and as such I was sticking with it.  For another, the tightened restrictions are the result of Viscount Weymouth who now runs the estate.  I went to school with Ceawlin.  He was in the year below me at the local comprehensive school in Warminster.  I couldn’t bring myself to be stopped going the way I’ve always gone by an old school friend (though I can’t claim to have known him that well).

Approaching Longleat down the main drive

One of the things that Ceawlin has brought to Longleat under his stewardship is a rather random festival of lights around Christmas time.  I’ve not actually witnessed it but am aware that the grounds get filled up with all manner of paper based creations shipped over from China.  Work was just starting on preparing the display for the upcoming season.  Christmas was still two months away but this is a big operation.  A pirate ship was being assembled on the other side of one of the lakes.  Outside the main house a bunch of massive ducklings were engaged in a stand off with the  resident lion.  A herd of deer were getting lost in a maze just around the corner Around the back of Oscar’s Nightclub (in these parts of the world we had to go to the safari park for the night life) yet more animals were still packaged up.

Leaving Longleat I swapped onto cycle route NCN24 and headed along the roads out of the estate towards Frome. The riding was good.  The weather was behaving very nicely for October and I was making good progress.  I came into the edge of Frome.  An odd town is Frome.  Growing up in Wiltshire but living close to the border, the neighbouring Somerset town was always something of ‘the enemy’.  It was also always pretty run down.  The only thing it had going for it then was the Westway cinema, where I watched everything from Watership Down to Jurassic Park.  The cinema is still going.  It’s one of the small independent cinemas that survived through the multiplex years.  This makes me very happy.  In recent years Frome has become an up market trendy town.  I’m still not sure how that happened and I can’t quite believe it.  Foo Fighters played there recently. I can’t get my head around that.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s always been quite a pretty town with its tight cobbled streets and medieval and Georgian shops and houses.  But there was never anything to really do there.  Now it’s (I find it hard to bring myself to say this) quite nice.

Mendips Traffic Jam

The cycle route however only skirts around the town and not into the centre so you’ll either have to take my word for the above, or take a diversion if you want to see for yourself.  Leaving Frome I started to head into the Mendip hills.  The Mendips are less well known than other areas such as the Cotswolds but are equally as pretty and despite the increase in hills I was enjoying the riding.  After getting stuck in a cow based traffic jam I dropped down into Great Elm past a lovely river valley and up a steep climb the other side.

Great Elm

Just past Great Elm NCN24 takes a long(ish) but, presumably largely flat, diversion along some abandoned railway lines towards Radstock before turning through 90 degrees towards Bath.  I chose however to ignore the easy way and instead took the direct, but hilly route cross country and up the steep climb into Buckland Dinham instead.  On the approach into the village I saw someone coming the other direction who was too busy looking at their phone.  They had not noticed me at all and were veering across the road straight towards me.  Fortunately they were driving one of the fancy self driving vehicles that they use in these parts.  By which I mean that the horse saw me and moved back to the side of the road allowing us to pass each other safely.

The day was still early but I wanted to head through Falkland and visit, even if only from the outside, Tuckers Grave Inn.  One of only a handful of proper cider houses left in the U.K. Tuckers Grave is a true piece of history.  At the time I was visiting its future was uncertain with landlady Glenda looking to finally call last orders and sell up.  It is over 20 years since I was last here but the very fond memories remain strong.  Being in a very remote location one always needed a designated driver.  Or of course you could get there; throw your coat in one of the tatty tents out the back; get drunk and then crash out in the field with a belly full of rough cider.  I was indeed there too early this morning to catch a sneaky half of cider, but I am pleased to report that since I passed by the pub has been saved.  If you find yourself vaguely in the area then do pay a visit.  There are even plans to reopen the camping field.

Tuckers Grave

After passing Tuckers Grave I continued along more Mendip back roads before dropping down into Wellow.  A sharp downhill to the ford over the Wellow Brook was immediately followed by an equally sharp climb into the village.  That was the Mendips done with though, as just outside the village I finally joined the track bed of the disused Bath to Radstock railway line.

Wellow Brook

Time for some nice easy miles.  I particularly enjoyed riding over the viaduct at Midford; In all my childhood years heading into Bath I’d always been interested in the two disused railway lines that cross over the road here. Until today I’d never had the chance to travel along them and had never seen the old village station.

Next up after Midford is the even more impressive Tucking Mill Viaduct – a fantastic piece of railway architecture.  I took a few minutes to walk down the path at the South end of the viaduct into the valley to admire it properly from below before continuing on my way.

Tucking Mill Viaduct

Shortly after the viaduct the track goes from being above the land to venturing deeply into it as the track here is part of the ‘Two Tunnels‘ route.  The first tunnel, underneath Coombe Down, is over a mile long and is now the U.K.s longest cycle and footpath tunnel.  It’s a fantastic experience to ride through.  The tunnel seems to go on for ever but is beautifully lit and there are various sound and light installations hidden along it length.

Inside Coombe Down Tunnel

A second tunnel follows quickly afterwards before eventually emerging to the west of Bath city centre, close to the site of a fatal rail crash. Neither tunnel has ventilation shafts and in 1929 a heavily laden goods train was travelling too slowly from Midford; the driver and footman passed out due to the ensuing fumes causing the train to race downhill out of control out of the tunnel where it crashed into the goods yard killing the driver and two railway workers.

Entrance to Coombe Down Tunnel

Around the Twerton area of Bath a short distance of riding along a handful of side roads is required to link from the Two Tunnels route to join the Bristol to Bath Railway Path on the other side of the River Avon. This is another long stretch of traffic free cycling down the Avon Valley.  The riding is lovely and easy and the next few miles flew by.  The path crosses the river at Saltford.  The bridge is a notable part of UK cycling history as it was the restoration of this bridge, and its transformation for cycle and pedestrian use, that was the first project run by the organisation which was to become ‘Sustrans’; the charity behind the National Cycle Network.

Saltford Bridge

A little further on a small railway halt in the middle of a field marks the start of a stretch where the path is shared with the restored Avon Valley Steam Railway; further on again at Bitton the railway proper starts at the line’s headquarters station.  By now it was just gone half past twelve and the railway station café looked to be a great place to stop. I parked the bike up and made my way into the station buildings.

Bitton Station

The café is clearly a favourite place for many of the locals as the staff knew most of the customers. There was a lovely friendly atmosphere throughout.  To me there’s nothing more homely than good west country accents talking random nonsense and there was plenty of that here.  I picked up a bag of ‘posh’ crisps and a small bottle of ‘posh’ pop and headed to the counter:

     “Oh. That looks nice and posh. Very sophisticated”

     “Absolutely. And can I have a sausage sandwich as well”

     “Well you’ve gone and blown that sophistication now my love”

     “Marvellous. I’m glad to hear it”

Shunter

The food hit the spot and I was soon refreshed and ready to go.  There were no trains running along the railway on that day but I was allowed to have a good wander along the platform and had a good nose around.  Back under way the cycle path skirts around the railway sheds, and then alongside and over the track next to a long train of railway repair vehicles; all good stuff for the amateur train geek.

Railway Works

The train line only runs for a few miles of restored tracks before the cycle way and footpath have full use of the track bed again.  The cycle path continues along a nice easy journey past some sculptures and more old stations before being forced to divert onto a number of other cycle paths where modern main roads have cut across the railway line.

After navigating across the roads, the cycle path re-joins the track bed close to the former Mangotsfield station.  The station was a junction of two lines and as such the remains of two sets of sweeping platforms with a large central island remain.  As well as the remains of the platforms the shells of some of the buildings also survive and trees have planted at the former locations of the platform canopy pillars.  The effect is quite mesmerising.

From Mangotsfield cycle route NCN4 continues on into the centre of Bristol but this was the end of that particular line for me. Instead I doubled back onto the other old line to follow the ‘Dramway’ route out towards the old Bristol coalfields and towards Gloucestershire. The route is further disturbed by modern ring roads but before long it is back on good, clear, straight and flat former railway lines.  The track passes right by the remains of former Brandy Bottom coal mine and a short way further on again a broken pit wheel forms a new sculpture either side of the cycle path.

However, shortly afterwards I came to the end of the old railway line; at least so far as the cycle path is concerned, and was back onto country lanes.  Some largely uneventful miles followed as I cycled through the triangle of villages between the M4 and M5 motorways, crossing the M5 close to its junction with the M4 at Alconbury.  A few more miles on quiet roads had me following largely parallel with the M4 and M48 headed towards Aust at the English side of the (original) Severn Bridge.

Across the M5

I might not have been planning on making it all the way to Cardiff on this trip but the plan was very much to cycle across the Severn. This is nice and easy to do, weather permitting.  Unlike the M25 Dartford Crossing on my previous big day ride outing, the Severn Bridge has a separate foot and cycle path (also used for bridge maintenance vehicles) on the outside of the road deck.  The wind on the bridge was strong.  Although the rest of the riding had been quite clam the wind had picked up and it was easy to see why this bridge is so often closed.  The riding was quite tough as a result but exhilarating and the bridge certainly gives a proper sense of crossing over from England into Wales, giving quite a feeling of achievement.

Having made it to Wales it might have made some sense to just head for Chepstow station which is quite close by on this side of the Severn; I had the Severn Tunnel Junction station in mind instead as my final destination.  Leaving the Severn behind I started with a slow drag up the hill on a cycle path alongside a busy dual carriage way into the wind.  This was certainly the worst section of the whole trip but at the top I hung a left and turned back off onto quiet lanes again.  The riding here was the hilliest section since leaving the Mendips behind and I was getting tired now, but I merrily carried on regardless.

Croeso i Gymru

The merriment was slightly diminished by the level of traffic on these narrow lanes.  A few fields across I could see solid lines of non-moving traffic on the main road.  A number of vehicles, including trucks far too big for these lanes, had decided to try and cut across country.  My travel was therefore stop start for the next few miles. I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t be coming face to face with a large truck (over)filling the entire road around any upcoming corner.

The Back Lanes of Wales

It didn’t last too long though and soon I came, unexpectedly, up to the remains of the Roman fort at Caerwent. I wasn’t aware of the site and certainly wasn’t anticipating riding past such great remains,.  I stopped to take a look.

From Caerwent the final miles were easy riding on the flat through Caldicot, along the railway line, and then into Rogiet, aka the Home of Severn Tunnel Junction station and the end of my ride.  I had three quarters of an hour before the next train to Cardiff so I went off on a short but hopeless search for somewhere to get some water. My bottles had now run dry and whilst I had finished my day’s riding I needed to rehydrate.  There were no shops anywhere in the village however, so I ended up asking a builder working outside a house in the village to fill my water bottle for me which he kindly did.  Back at the station I finished off my last few snacks washed down with my fresh water before just about managing to squeeze my way onto the very crowded train to Cardiff; contorting myself into a very uncomfortable position unbecoming for a man of my age and size.  Unravelling myself at Cardiff I made my way to hotel (just a few yards from the station) and had just enough time to properly freshen up and get myself ready for the pre-conference meal.  This might not be the traditional way to make your way to a conference but I can highly recommend it.

The Picturesque Finish Point at Severn Tunnel Station

Stats:

To Essex

About a month after getting back from my ‘All Points North‘ ride around the Highlands and to Orkney I was ready to get back out for a solid day trip on the bike. I’d done a few commuting rides since but was itching for something a bit longer. It had turned out that riding across the North of Scotland with full kit clearly did some good as I’d got home and promptly smashed my best time up the hill that I live on the top of. I didn’t want to let that all go to waste so I took a Wednesday off work at the tail end of September and prepared for a day out.

Living on the south coast has many advantages; choice of direction in which to set out for a ride is not one of them though. Most of my rides have ventured either west (across the Weald or along the South Coast past Brighton) or east towards, and into, Kent. Oddly, I had rarely ventured straight North. I was also aware of some adventurous river crossings I wanted to take; so it was that after a light breakfast I was on my way by eight thirty a.m. First up was probably the sharpest climb of the day, Elphinstone Road in Hastings. One of those nasty hills that starts off sharp and gets continuously steeper as it goes up. It’s not long but I wasn’t ready, was not warmed up, and I had to stop a few times on the way.  Not a great start but I knew that, though not flat, I didn’t have anything as tough again until just before Maidstone.

From on top of ‘The Ridge’ that marks the northern edge of Hastings I headed out of town on the small lane towards Westfield. This lane can be a bit of a rat run with cars heading down it at unnecessary speeds, but today it was fine. The other side of the village and across the main A28 I discovered that the next road to Sedlescombe had been recently resurfaced; This was another pretty country lane to another pretty country village. and I made the most of the fresh tarmac. The Sedlescombe Geese were already out and about doing their regular duties looking pretty on the village green as I rode past.

Sedlescombe Geese

Leaving Sedlescombe the road rises steadily for a couple of miles past Cripps Corner up to a high point in Staplecross village. The road to this point is relatively busy but nice and wide and open and I was still riding happily. At Staplecross the busier road bears east towards Rye but I carried on Northwards heading downhill into the picture perfect Rother Valley at Bodiam.

There are few more bucolic English villages than Bodiam on a glorious summers day. Sitting in the beer garden of the Castle Inn eating good food and drinking good beer watching the birds flutter around the houses is relaxing enough. Add in a game of cricket in the field behind the beer garden. Now look behind you to the right and admire the lines of vines heading up the south facing slopes of the valley. Now over your left shoulder admire again the Castle that the pub is named for; one of the most famous Castles in the country. Then your attention is drawn back in front of you again; over the river to the other side of the valley. The source of the whistle that attracted your attention is clearly visible at the base of the cloud of steam left behind by the train coming into the Bodiam station terminus of the Kent and East Sussex Railway.

Bodiam Station

Today however was a Wednesday at the tail end of September; autumn was well on its way and I was too early for a beer. Indeed I was too early for a visit to the Castle which was not due to open for half an hour but, despite some quizzical looks from the staff, nobody stopped me as I rode in anyway. I had a quick glance at the castle from besides the moat; making the most of a rare chance to admire it without other visitors, and then headed back on my way; I was still early on my day’s riding and needed to tick some more miles off.

Bodiam Castle

From Bodiam I put my head down and rode north again. The riding was lovely across this part of the Weald but other than keeping an eye on my maps to keep me on my planned route I carried straight on without stopping. The ride South of Bodiam was all on roads that I know well (sadly mostly from driving) but I was now into less well chartered territory. I knew a lot of the villages in the next part of the countryside but was heading down lanes that I knew only vaguely, if at all. At Cranbrook, which was a convenient 20 miles into the ride, I took a very brief detour to park my bike and have a quick break at the Union Mill. I’ve not yet been ever able to visit inside the mill. I wasn’t expecting to do so today either but it was still a lovely place for a short break.

Union Mill

From Cranbrook the Weald continues for only a few more miles. South of Staplehurst (which I skirted around the western side of) the Weald comes to an end with a view over the (mostly) flat and low lying lands which make up the next five miles before the sharp rise of the Greensand Ridge immediately South of Maidstone. Dropping off from the Weald I was amused and delighted to now spot one of the most lovely examples of a Wealden Hall at Rabbits Cross Farm – I was in full flow as I passed but I had to hit the brakes and turn back to admire it.

Rabbits Cross Farm

I made the most of the flatter miles in preparation for the climb up onto the Greensand Ridge. The hill was much as I expected. It was pretty damn tough and with a few false summits before eventually coming to the top of the hill at Chart Sutton. At the top of the ridge a left turn along the top for a short way gave me a chance to get my breath back before preparing to cross onto some back roads into the edge of Maidstone. I got a little lost trying to take some short cuts through the estates of the town and eventually had to double back and make my way onto the main road and drop the most direct way into the town centre.

Maidstone gives some hints that there could be a lovely town hiding in there somewhere. There are some lovely medieval buildings to spot but they are sadly hidden amongst post war developments and the god awful road system makes getting to them nigh on impossible. As a result the town is extremely horrible to visit on a bike.  I stopped briefly for a quick bite to eat and to put on my coat as the Gods of Maidstone had decided to compound the misery of the town with a nasty sharp shower. I then began to navigate my way out. I’ve tried this a few times before and have still to be successful in this endeavour. As is often the way in towns, the cycle path signs are intermittent and often appear only when the route is obvious; leaving just a big enough space between them when they might be at their most useful. As every interruption in the cycle route involved navigating my way around the dual carriageway ring road system I cannot say that I was having much fun. I did eventually locate the track I was after; a narrow shared cycle and foot path alongside the main road out of town to the North. Some more confusion had me checking and double checking my progress as I came past the junction with the M20, but I was soon back on another path next to the dual carriageway climbing out of the town towards the Pilgrim’s Way.

This climb is almost twice the height of the earlier Geeensand Ridge, but much less steep and more drawn out. It might have actually been quite fun were it not for the roaring traffic on the main road right next to me. I kept my head down. Even on a short section where the cycle way follows a side road for a few hundred yards there was no relief; indeed this might have been worse as I was now directly sharing the road with some of the big lorries that were thundering around using this piece of road as somewhere to park up for a break. Looking back at the maps now to check my route I’m disappointed to see that I must have passed the Neolithic sites of Kits Coty and Little Kits Coty right by the road. I must have missed any signs as I was too occupied just keeping on up the hill and watching out for traffic. I shall have to come back to visit. I might use the car.

Climbing up on Blue Bell Hill

At the top of Blue Bell Hill I could finally turn off away from the traffic. A building site at the road junction had curious signs insisting on no filming and photography should be undertaken. I would not have made any consideration of taking any pictures of a fenced off building plot had I not been told that it was prohibited; so I stopped to take a few pictures as obviously as possible before heading on my way along the ridge of the hill.

Photography Prohibited

The cycle path from here turns at ninety degrees from the main road and follows the ridge of the hill for a short while. A few yards along the ridge I turned into the small car park that allows visitors to enjoy a walk along the hill. The rain had stopped again now so I took my coat back off and stopped for a sandwich and to rest my legs whilst admiring the view back down over the Medway Valley. Even on a fairly cloudy day like this its quite a lovely view, so long as you squint and avoid looking at Maidstone. Leaving the car park I stopped to pay respects at the memorial to the crew of the Kent Air Ambulance that lost their lives when they crashed into the hillside here in 1998.

View from Blue Bell Hill

Back on my way the cycle path follows the ridge only a short distance before turning into some woodland to follow forest tracks back down the hill in the vague direction of Rochester. In a few more weeks this track might have become a bit too wet and tricky to ride; indeed it might have already been too awkward to ride up on my bike; but downhill was OK. I enjoyed it, although I had to be a bit wary of some big protruding tree roots and some muddier sections. Before long I was at the bottom on a small track/access road alongside the channel tunnel rail link.

A couple of easy miles followed heading towards the river at Borstal (home of the original young offenders institute) and then following the east bank of the Medway into Rochester. I was amused to learn of the existence of Rochester ‘Pier’ and so rode along to the end of it from which at least one can get a nice view back to the Castle and Cathedral. Then it was across the Medway to the west bank, past the Soviet submarine (yes you read that correctly), and up the short sharp hill past Frindsbury Church and the out of the town for a couple of quiet miles on country lanes before coming into the edge of Gravesend.

You come into Gravesend alongside the Thames and Medway canal. On the opposite bank of the canal I could see the unmistakable signs of the Gravesend Water Sewage Treatment Works; the location of probably the most grim archaeological site I ever worked on. Many things from my days in archaeology will always stay with me. Sadly they include The Skip of Unpleasant Things™, the particular texture of the ground as the digger opened the trench, the discussions as to whether we should be placing toilet roll and condoms into a finds bag, and finishing off the last trench late into the evening by the light of the methane flame in order to avoid having to come back the next day.

From the sewage farm, the route passes into Gravesend through a series of industrial estates that have the air of being the perfect location for a 21st century set Dickens film adaptation. Tightly packed warehouses with cobbled narrow alleys between them eventually give way to a canal basin marina that opens directly onto the Thames Estuary.

From the marina I came onto the sea/river front. A group of artists were all out painting the now disused Tilbury Power Station on the opposite bank of the Thames. Later that week the chimneys were blown up removing another one of the area’s tall landmarks. Last time I rode along the North Kent Coast I did so just a few days before the even larger chimney at the Isle of Grain power station was destroyed; I seem to be a jinx for power stations along this stretch of coast.

Painting the Power Station

Although I had made it to the north Kent coast I was not done for the day. I had a river to cross but I still had about half an hour to spare so I took a (very) quick look at the 18/19 century New Tavern artillery fort and then dashed over to St Georges Church. Somewhere in the church yard is the last resting place of Pocahontas. Her short life came to an inglorious end when she died after being taken ill shortly after leaving London; hoping to return to her family in North America. She was buried in the church here, however that was destroyed by fire in 1727. The church was rebuilt but the exact site of her burial became lost and now she is marked by a statue placed in the middle of the (mostly ‘cleared’) graveyard.

Pocahontas

I returned to the waterfront and the Town Pier ready for the next stage of the day’s adventure. From here a foot ferry takes passengers and bicycles for a short ride across the Thames over to Tilbury. So it was that I dragged the bike onto the boat and left Kent behind me, bound for Essex.

Church and Light Ship, Gravesend

The Tilbury end of the ferry shows how things have changed here in recent years. The docks are still busy as freight container ships load and unload here; but in previous times the foot ferry was part of a complex of travel that also included the old Tilbury Riverside railway station. Next door to that is the Art Deco Cruise Terminal Building. As well as being the start and end points of many cruise holidays (which it still is to this day) new lives were often forged here; many Brits left to emigrate to Australia from here and it was also the landing port for boats such as the Empire Windrush, bringing with it the first group of West Indian immigrants.

For me however the main attraction at Tilbury was in the opposite direction to the Cruise Terminal and container port. To the east lies the largely still extant remains of Tilbury Fort. Originally built by Henry VIII and used in the defences against the Spanish Armada, the fort continued to see use and was rebuilt during the civil war, the Napoleonic wars and still continued to play a (small) roll in both World Wars. If you want to know more take look at the Wiki link above or why not go and visit; it’s an English Heritage owned site now. Instead I’ll just leave you with some pictures…

After a good look around, and still with some miles to tick off, I got back into the saddle and promptly got lost around the estates of Tilbury. If you’re reading this from that town, or have some affection for it, then I’m sorry; but it’s an absolute hole and I found myself pedalling as quickly as I could to try and find my way out of the estates without incident. Put it this way, there was no way that I felt safe to get a map out of my pocket; I made sure I rode quickly, trying to give off the air of someone local who was totally au fait with my direction of travel. Eventually I found myself on the edge of Tilbury and, breathing a sigh of relief, afforded myself a quick stop and a surreptitious glance at my map to check where I had come out of town and where to head next.

From Tilbury I carried on through Grays and into Thurrock. There really isn’t much to say of this part of my ride. It was all pretty ghastly. These two towns are a slight improvement on Tilbury, but that’s all relative. I managed to take a couple of wrong turns but eventually found myself close to the northern side of the M25 Dartford Crossing*. Now I just had to find the special bike hut.

*Hey pedantic fact fans; its not the M25. Did you know that the M25 is not a complete circuit? The Dartford crossing is actually the A282!

It took me a few goes checking various locations. I was hunting for ‘Essex Point’, aka 859 London Road. I had thought that this might be an office for the bridge and tunnel operations but eventually realised that I would most likely have to follow the little cycle path I had spotted heading up onto the motorway sliproad. I was a bit wary but everything turned out fine.

When the QEII Bridge was opened in 1991, unlike many other bridges such as the Humber or the original Severn Bridge, there was no provision made for pedestrians or cyclists (for more on the Severn Bridge, stay tuned for a future blog post). Instead the operators run a free shuttle service to ferry cyclists across the river. You just have to turn up at either end, and use the provided telephone to request passage. Having now found the correct point next to the motorway on the Essex side I rang through my request and waited.

After 5-10 minutes a van pulled up and the driver hopped out and loaded my bike into the back. We were just about to set off when another cyclist pulled up. The driver and he cheerily said hello. This gentleman uses the service daily to commute between his work in Essex and his home in Kent. The driver told me that there are quite a large number of people who do the same. He had actually assumed that my call for service was actually being made by the other gentleman.

Within minutes we were over the bridge and across to the other side at ‘Kent Point’ We unloaded, I gathered my stuff and checked my map, and then headed on for the final few miles. I was onto NCN Route 1 now and managed to fill in a few more miles of that route I had not previously ridden. I’ve now done most of the route through Kent, with the exception of a couple of miles between Rochester and Rainham and between Ebbsfleet and Gravesend.

From here I crossed back over the motorway, taking a look back over the bridge and the entrance to the (north bound) tunnels and then made my way to meet the old Roman road, Watling Street. From here a straight few miles riding was pointing me back in the direction of Gravesend, although I wasn’t heading quite that far. Unfortunately I only had the one pannier with me and it was fairly full. I’d therefore have to pass up the offer of a cheap kitten from a farm by the side of the road.

Kittens for Sale

Finally the turning I was looking for was ahead of me and I bore North around the large, empty car parks and up to the white elephant station at Ebbsfleet International from where I had planned to get a train back home. I rolled into the station forecourt and cheerily dismounted for the final time. Despite having had what felt like a long day in the saddle, I was still here too early to board a train straight away; bikes are prohibited on the outbound trains during the evening rush hour. So it was that I had just under an hour to explore the many delights of the station. By which I mean I made a coffee and a slice of Millionaires Shortbread from Marks and Spencer last for 45 minutes. An odd way to finish a day’s ride, but there you go!

Waiting for the Train

Stats:

Heading Home

All Points North Day Five – 18 August 2017

Kirkwall Dash

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.

Welcome to Orkney

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.

This way to Kirkwall

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.

View across Barrier Three

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.

Block Ships

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.

The Italian Chapel in 2013

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.

Barrier Number Two

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.

Sheep Pig

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.

Highland Coos (not in the Highlands)

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.

View over Kirkwall

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.

The End of the Ride – Kirkwall Ferry Terminal

Day Five Stats:

Overall Stats:

  • Distance: 304.39 Miles
  • Ride Time: 24 Hours, 38 minutes and 15 seconds
  • Ascent: 12,381 feet

Postscript

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.

Ride Complete! Irn Bru at the Old Library

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.

Stromness Harbour

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.

All Points North Day Four – 17 August 2017

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.

Bettyhill Stores

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.

Bettyhill Fish Factory
Bettyhill Harbour

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.

Looking Back at the Hills of Sutherland

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.

A First View of Orkney

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’.

The Old Iron Church at Melvich
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?

A View to Dounreay
The Reading Dead

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.

Castlehill Flagstone Factory
Castlehill Harbour

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.

1 Mile from the Lighthouse

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.

Hands Up if You’re the Most Northerly Person on the UK Mainland

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.

GPS Craziness at Dunnets Head

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!

At John O’Groats

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.

The Stacks of Duncansby
The Climb to Duncansby Head

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”.

John O’Groats Sunset

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.

Sunset at John O’Groats
John O’Groats Harbour

Day Four Stats:

All Points North Day Three – 16 August 2017

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.

Kyle of Durness at Low Tide

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.

No Ferry 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.

Loch Eriboll

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.

Loch Eriboll East Bank

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.

Ard Neackie Lime Quarry
Ard Neackie

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.

Loch Hope and Ben Hope

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.

Road Heather

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.

The Wind Tunnel

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..

Dun Dornaigil Broch

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.

Climbing Up

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.

Allnabad

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.

There’s Nobody Here

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.

10,000 Miles Together

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.

Grummore Broch

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.

Grumbeg Clearance Settlement
Resident of Loch Naver

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.

Gloomy Memories

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.

Syre 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.

Chambered Cairns

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.

Lasagne with a View at the Bettyhill Hotel

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.

Don’t mind if I do

Day Three Stats:

Next Post: There’s no Crime Here

All Points North Day Two – 15 August 2017

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.

Leaving Lairg

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.

A Road, or a road

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.

Loch Shin

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.

Rocky River

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.

Glad I’m not cycling up there

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 the watershed looking East

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).

At the watershed looking West

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).

Ben Stack and Loch Stack

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.

Lochstack Lodge

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.

Laxford Bridge

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.

Heading for John O’Groats

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.

The West Coast

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.

West Coast Hills

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.

Rhiconich Police Station and Hotel

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.

At Rhiconich Bay

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.

At the top of Strath Dionard

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.

Gliding down to the Kyle of Durness

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.

Kyle of Durness

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.

Caving
Smoo Caves
Inside Smoo Caves
Smoo Caves Entrance

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.

Durness Youth Hostel

Day Two Stats:

Next Post: Into The Wilderness

All Points North Day One – 14 August 2017

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.

Leaving Home

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.

Speeding Through the Cairngorms

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.

Inverness at Night

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.

Kessock Bridge

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…

Nessieland

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.

Chanonry Point Lighthouse

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 Black Isle

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.

Cromarty Harbour

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.

Oil Rigs in the Cromarty Firth

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.

Sheltering in the Nigg Ferry Shed

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.

Egg Shack

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.

Edderton Cross Slab

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.

AA Box at Fearn Lodge

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.

Falls of Shin

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.

Lairg Highlands Hotel

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.

Sunset at Lairg

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.

Lairg Sunset

Day One Stats:

Next Post: Go (North) West Young (Old) Man

Hants, Wilts and Dorset

With another big multi day ride looming in a few weeks I had booked a Wednesday off work with the aim of spending it in the saddle getting in some practice. After my previous successful trip around the Isle of Wight I was up for the idea of spending another day where I get up early and drive out somewhere in order to be able to take in some sights other than my regular Kent and Sussex sites.

I had a couple of possible routes in mind; one around the New Forest and another starting in that area but taking in a wider circuit around Wilts and Dorset as well as Hampshire. With the intention of getting in a fair bit more than 100Km I plumped for the latter option, having determined a route of about 135km starting and ending in Ridgewood and taking in Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Blandford Forum and Wimborne Minster.

As I had done on the Isle of Wight trip I prepared everything in advance. My pannier was packed and loaded along with the bike into the car the night before so that I could get up and be on the road nice and early. However one thing was not fitting to plan so well. The previous Saturday I had been into Brighton to see the return after almost 20 years of one of my favourite “Brit Pop” bands, Sleeper. The gig, in the small and crowded Haunt venue was excellent; however it became apparent that someone close to me was spreading germs in the environment as by Tuesday evening I was beginning to feel quite rough with a summer cold.

I chose to ignore it on Wednesday morning though, and by half five I was in my car and heading West. I grabbed some breakfast on the way. The Isle of Wight trip was on a Saturday when the early morning roads were much less busy. Also, although I would be starting at a similar time, the drive to Ringwood was quite a bit further than that to Portsmouth which I had done previously.

Still, the drive was largely uneventful and I rolled into Ringwood and parked up on a quiet residential road at just gone half past eight. As the weather forecast had promised, as I had headed west the weather had got wetter and the rain was quite solid by the time I crossed into Hampshire. I therefore took my time in getting the bike out of the car and ready to roll but I was on my way before 9am.

Getting Ready – a Romantic Start

The rain was still solid, though not torrential, a I headed out of Ringwood towards the minor road running northwards along the western side of the New Forest National Park. I didn’t have far to travel before making my first route alteration of the day. At a lovely triangular junction just inside the park, I stopped to smile and take a picture at the road sign pointing towards the excellently named village of Mockbeggar. It later transpired that I should in fact have followed the sign and ridden through said village; instead I veered off towards the right heading for Linwood. After a few lovely miles across the forest I began to realise that I hadn’t apparently come into either North or South Gorley so I stopped to look at the GPS and realised I was heading eastwards across a part of the New Forest where I was not supposed to be.

The turning to Mockbeggar

Sticking my maps apps into satellite view mode I had to choose between doubling back to the Mockbeggar sign or trying some cross country footpaths to bring me back onto my planned route close to Frogham. From the satellite the tracks looked good so I decided to head across the heath. On the whole it made for quite a pleasant, if slow, diversion. However it turns out that the New Forest includes some large patches of very sandy soil which necessitated walking the bike in places – my 32mm tyres can cope with some loose ground, but not that loose.

Cutting corners across the New Forest

Despite having to push the bike across the worst of the sandy sections and the persistent rain it was nice to be out in the open countryside which I had entirely to myself. Just before re-joining some proper road surfaces I came across a family of New Forest ponies which also helped to make my ‘short cut’ worth the while. It wasn’t much further until I re-joined my original planned route close to the amusingly named ‘Sandy Balls’ campsite in Godshill.

New Forest Ponies

From there I was back onto following a series of minor roads. There was a short sharp climb onto Castle Hill and then a long straight drive and a drop down into Woodgreen. From here I followed the Avon Valley into Downton. In Downton, a very pretty little town centred around some old mill buildings on the Avon, I had the choice of a couple of possible routes. Having lost some time and having established that the roads in the area seemed to be quite quiet I elected to follow the A338 towards Salisbury. Although there was a fair amount of traffic here the road was flat and open and it was good to be making some proper progress and catching up on some lost time.

Before long I was at Nunton on the edge of Salisbury. From here the original plan was to head into the city centre and along to Wilton before dropping back South West towards Shaftesbury. Instead however, after a good check of my maps, I decided to make a change of plan. I know Salisbury very well; it’s a city I grew up visiting and also worked in for a number of years. It would have been nice to ride around the meadows by the Cathedral; however it was not really a must do part of the ride. I was also feeling the effects of my cold a bit and didn’t fancy the stop-start riding that cities inevitably invoke.

Instead I headed west from Nunton and followed the minor road through Odstock, Homington and Coombe Bissett. I was glad that I did. The villages in the Ebble valley are all very pretty. Also, although not flat I was avoiding a climb out of Wilton up past Salisbury race course. Before Bishopstone I re-joined the original planned route and continued on through some more pretty villages rolling up and down the valley side.

Homington Church

I was starting to get low on water so stopped at the lovely village stores in Broad Chalke. The well stocked community shop has been fitted into an old chapel and is an excellent asset to the community. I resisted the temptation to get a coffee as well although it was sorely tempting.

Having been re-evaluating my plans for the day in light of the weather (both of the rain and the ‘feeling under the…’ varieties) I made a phone call. Well I would have done but there was no signal so I pushed on.

Somewhere beyond Fifield Bavant (a tiny hamlet with a fantastic little church hiding just beyond the few houses) my phone started beeping at me indicating that I had a signal. I pulled over to the verge on what had been right until that moment an almost unused road. Immediately upon using the phone there was suddenly an apparently non stop stream of traffic. It didn’t make for the best place to have a conversation but I managed a couple of calls anyway. One call was to my parents who live in the area to see if they fancied meeting me for a coffee in Shaftesbury. The other call was to tell me that I’d been successful in getting a promotion at work; but that’s incidental to this story.

Fyfield Bavant Church

A few more wet, pretty, but uneventful miles brought me past Berwick St John and up to the A30. As I had done earlier, I elected to follow the main road for a few miles rather than add a detour around some minor lanes. Other than a short climb out of Ludwell it was another good and easy choice and I was soon pulling up at the town hall in the centre of Shaftesbury.

Having made it a good twenty minutes before my parents said that they would be there I wandered around to look at the famous Gold Hill. I didn’t ride up it, nor did I put on a random Yorkshire accent (the hill was famously used in a Hovis bread advert that gave the impression that the hill had been relocated 200 miles north).

Gold Hill

I locked the bike up, met my parents and we headed into the local Costa Coffee for a sandwich and drinks. It was nice to catch up with them and though I had now decided that I was going to be cutting up to 20 miles from the ride I wasn’t feeling great and so it felt like the sensible decision. After a little over an hour’s break we said goodbye and I got back under way.

The original plan had involved heading due south towards Blandford Forum and then heading back from there towards Ringwood via Wimborne Minster. Instead I now elected to take the direct route back across Cranborne Chase. I’d be following a busier road (the B3081) but as before I had suspected (largely correctly) that it wouldn’t be too busy.

Doubling back out of Shaftesbury the way I had entered I was heading for a road infamous in my childhood growing up in the area; but one that I had never cycled.

Over the roundabout at the edge of the town I hung a right initially towards Melbury Abbas but then took a left before entering that village. I had an easy couple of miles to prepare me for what I knew was coming. I let the legs warm back up after lunch and then before long there it was.

I was at the bottom of “Zig Zag Hill”. The name is a giveaway. It marks the climb up onto the chalk downloads of the Chase that straddle the Wiltshire and Dorset border. The hill (or its neighbouring climb onto Spread Eagle Hill) were staples of childhood summer days out to the south coast. We always cheered Dad on to push the car faster up the winding climb.

Coming to the hill for the first time under my own steam therefore felt like a big thing. At the bottom of the hill I dropped into a lower gear and eased myself into climbing mode.

Apparently it turns out that zig zag hill isn’t as awful as memory had it and the last few years living near, and riding over, the South Downs has prepared me for worse. The road surface wasn’t great but the nature of the zig zags themselves meant the ride was actually quite easy. I’m not going to claim to have flown up the hill, it just wasn’t a patch on my mental image of it. The climb from Hastings sea front to my house is worse and i do that happily several times a week.

Heading back into Wiltshire at the top of Zig Zag Hill

The hill continues up beyond the initial zig zags but it is still a simple climb and once out of the tree lined zig zags there is a great view across Wiltshire from the top of the downs.

View over Wiltshire

Once on the Chase proper the riding was largely lovely rolling countryside with fantastic open views. A few miles over the hills I stopped to try and help another cyclist. He had problems work his gears and also had a flat. I would have offered him a spare tube but his tyres were much thinner than my 32s and I had to leave him there. He told me he wasn’t far from home so hopefully he managed to get enough air in to get him back.

From that point the road started to drop back down a bit into the lovely village of Tollard Royal. The road into and through the village is narrow and winding so I was in the great position of being able to pass through much quicker than the motorists behind me. They soon overtook as the climb back out of the village started though.

It wasn’t much of a climb but was certainly slower than the ride into the village. Despite that I was soon back onto the open hills. Some more rolling roads and I was passing through Sixpenny Handley, across the main Blandford – Salisbury road, and onto the south east section of the Chase.

Sixpenny Handley

By now the weather had improved and the rain had finally stopped. However I was feeling the effects of riding when not 100%. The final miles across the Chase were easy enough as they slowly dropped downhill.

‘Matissa’ photo over Cranborne Chase

I left the main road at the edge of the Chase and dropped down into Edmondsham, a small and pretty village with a nasty little climb at its far end (well it probably wasn’t nasty bit i was getting fatigued now).

Edmondsham Pump

Before long I was on the edge of Verwood and within about five miles of the car. It was also now rush hour and the ride from Verwood towards Ringwood was pretty unpleasant as a lot of cars passed by too close to be enjoyable. However once underneath the A31 the final miles into Ringwood were some of the nicest; following a disused rail line and so very shortly I was back in Ringwood, back at the car, and ready to drive home.

Old Ringwood Railway

The weather and my cold had reduced the pleasure of the day a little but it was still a lovely ride across some beautiful countryside and was a great way to spend a day off work.

Stats: