Sunday, June 2, 2013

Day 21: Melvich to John o'Groats

From Melvich I passed Dounreay, site of the famous fast breeder (picture). Obviously, I wore a radiation suit for cycling. After all, can't do any harm, and cycling is DANGEROUS, and the fact that the suit split after I passed the reactor PROVES IT SAVED MY LIFE. I think radiation suits for cyclists should be compulsory. And wearing the suit stopped people seeing I don't wear a helmet.

As I was staying in Thurso tonight, I left most of my luggage as I passed through for the 40-mile round trip to John o'Groats. With a generous tailwind, the north-coast hop was delightful, with some scenic views of the craggy coast such as Dunnet, and yes, I have (picture).

So, I arrived at John o'Groats at noon (picture) - about the same time as two other End to Enders, the right types, who'd cycle-camped it. We shared a bottle of bubbly and cheese sandwiches and swopped yarns for three hours while we waited for the wind to drop, which it didn't. Hello Steve hello Keith if you're reading this.

I went to Duncansby Head to ensure I'd done the northeasterliest point, and slogged back in a two-hour headwind to Thurso. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was that. The arrival in JoG marked the...

Completion of the Scottish End-to-End
and the
Completion of Land's End to John o'Groats
and hence the
Completion of the End to End to End to End.

It's been a fabulous trip. Well done bike: no punctures, no mechanicals, no problems at all. Well done Rob: no injuries, no accidents, no existential crises. Well done tent, mostly, though having spotted the millimetre-sized hole in the groundsheet, I now know why I woke to the occasional puddle by the entrance.

And it was a wonderful cross-section of England, Scotland and Scotland, good bad and average, in three parts - the English E2E, Dunbar to Stranraer, and the Scottish E2E - with some awesome scenery and delightful personal encounters. One of the highlights of my cycling life, for sure.

Miles today: 62
Miles from Mull of Galloway to John o'Groats: 460
Miles from Land's End to John o'Groats: 1368
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1402

Punctures: 0
Midge bites: 0
Pairs of gloves lost: 0.5
Insects swallowed: 6
Nights camped: 12

Best beer: Loch Ness Dark, Loch Ness Inn, Drumnadrochit
Worst beer: Belhaven, rest of Scotland

Best scenery: Tough, but probably Glencoe, then Great Glen
Worst scenery: Dismal outskirts of Winsford, Cheshire

Total money found in road: 26p (20p used to buy campsite shower at Stranraer; 5p reinvested in wishing well outside Dunbar; 1p reinvested in wishing well in Invermoriston)

Best Sustrans cycle path: West Loch Lomond cycleway
Worst Sustrans cycle path: Paisley - full of glass

• Small ferries on Cornwall south coast • Cheddar Gorge • Severn gorge • Night at Si and Sue's • Across causeway to Holy Is • Downhill to Innerleithen • Downhill to Moffat • Wildcamp at Clatteringshaws Loch • Mull of Galloway • Wetherspoons Ayr • Wildcamp at Loch Lomond • Loch Lomond cycle path • Glencoe scenery • Great Glen scenery • Crask Inn, A836 • Arriving JoG

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Day 20: Lairg to Melvich

A wonderful day of cycling experiences, stories, and pleasant encounters - plus a panic with a happy ending.

The A836 north from Lairg (picture) is a great cycling experience: narrow tarmac, gentle gradients if any, little traffic, and going 20 miles across scenic uninhabited landscape. It's more like a Sustrans railtrail than an A road. Except for the bit about scenery.

I spent the first ten miles chatting to a friendly local cyclist out for a spin. I understood quite a lot of what he said. I think he talked about cycling.

Well, I say the landscape is 'uninhabited': there's the 'village' of Crask halfway. Which consists, precisely, of a bothy and a pub (picture: bothy left, pub right). The pub, the Crask Inn, is a must-visit gem, a glimpse into the 1930s - in the nicest way. I must cycle back here soon, I thought. Little did I know how true that was going to turn out...

While at the Crask I talked to a chap (picture, right) who was about to bag his 282nd and final Munro with his pals. To celebrate, he had made some clootie dumpling. I had assumed this was another nonsense invention of Burns, but in fact it is a fruitcake. He gave me some to have with my coffee. Mind you, when he smiled at me and said, 'fruitcake?', perhaps he was implying something else...

Anyway: the panic story. Five miles further up the A836, just after seeing this sign - evidently the sheep are flummoxed by the Germans driving on the wrong side of the single-lane road - I suddenly realised, in a cold sweat, that I had lost my wallet. Had I left it in the pub? Had I put it on top of my panniers and rode off, in which case it could have fallen off anywhere...?

Panting, I hurtled back towards the Crask Inn. It's the fastest I've ever cycled with a fully-laden touring bike. After three miles I saw a Land Rover coming towards me, driven by the landlord, smiling and waving my wallet. The man is a saint. The Crask Inn was already in my top three of Favourite Remote Pubs for Cycling To, along with Yorkshire's Tan Hill Inn and Dartmoor's Warren House Inn; now the Crask is definitely No. 1.

With a lunatic grin and occasional steam-train-like exhalations of relief, I went along the awesomely beautiful, and virtually untrafficked, B873 alongside Loch Naver and alongside the River Naver (picture) - another special cycling experience.

Untrafficked, but that doesn't mean jam-free... in Rosal I was entertainingly held up by these local farmers manoeuvring some sheep (picture). Rosal was one of the most notorious locations of the Clearances, when locals were evicted in favour of sheep. Don't these sheep have any remorse? Don't they know they have blood on their hands? (Feet? Hooves? Sub please check)

Arriving at Bettyhill (picture) meant I'd reached the northern coast, and the scenery took a different turn - as did the wind, annoyingly, which had been a tailbreeze hitherto. It drizzled all the way on up-and-down terrain to Melvich, where there was a campsite in a scenic bay in the garden of a pub with wifi. It wasn't a difficult decision as to where to spend the night.

Sadly, I couldn't find a sign that said 'To Bettyhill and John o'Groats'. If so, I would have added, '...the gift of a son'.

Miles today: 68
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 422
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1340

Friday, May 31, 2013

Day 19: Drumnadrochit to Lairg

After the scenic overload of the previous two days, today was consolidation: drizzly and grey progress, over brooding moorlands and along plains. There were two spectacular sights to thrill the heart though. The first was the semi-panorama over Dornoch Firth before the final descent to Bonar Bridge (picture); the second, the line-up of marked-down sandwiches at Beauly Co-op.

There was another Mysteriously Abandoned Small Item of Clothing on the B9176: a quality leather boot (picture). This joins other MASICs spotted so far, namely, a pair of Y-fronts on Dartmoor, a baseball cap outside Preston, and a pashmina in Galloway Forest Park. Is it another, exotically dressed, End-to-Ender, gradually shedding clothes as they go?

And I was taken by this old AA Box outside Ardgay. Sadly, it was locked. Otherwise I could have sheltered from the drizzle.

Miles today: 64
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 354
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1272

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Day 18: Glencoe to Drumnadrochit

A day of perfect weather and endlessly wonderful scenery along the Great Glen, starting with Loch Linnhe (picture). It was like cycling through a Highland Views Calendar stuck on early summer. All very well, but stopping every five minutes to take another photo plays havoc with your schedule.

After a stop in Fort William Wetherspoons to recharge my spent camera battery, I cycled up Neptune's Staircase locks to follow the Caledonian Canal (picture). The last canal I cycled for any distance was the Leeds-Liverpool, which doesn't quite match this in scenic terms.

There's a long, delightfully scenic (and totally untrafficked) forest road you can cycle alongside Loch Lochy (picture), my favourite silly Scottish toponym. It certainly is lochy.

Well, that's enough pictures of mountains, lochs and bikes, so here's a cow that I saw outside Fort Augustus (picture).

And here's an example of the sort of thing you see all over Highland roads: (picture): direction arrows, occasionally supplemented by a multilingual sign, stressing which side of the road to drive. Clearly all those German and Dutch tourists I keep seeing are liable to get a bit dazed by the awesome scenery when they stop to take a photo, and absent-mindedly default back to driving on the right when they get back on the road.

I sympathise: I'm still reeling a bit from all that scenery myself. Nothing a pint of Loch Ness Dark won't fix, though.

Miles today: 68
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 290
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1208

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Day 17: Loch Lomond to Glencoe

A day of sun and jaw-dropping scenery, which will be further concern to my NHS dentist back in York. It started with a beautiful cloudless dawn over my wildcamp on the shores of Loch Lomond (picture). The only sound was the mallards gang-mating, which made me think the jet-skiers weren't so bad after all.

There's a traffic-free cycleway all along the west side of Loch Lomond up to Tarbet, sometimes on the old road sometimes on the footway, which gave some heartbreakingly lovely scenes (picture). Typical Sustrans route: you only average 3mph, though in this case it's because I kept stopping to take pictures.

After Loch Lomond ran out, there was some hackwork, tussling with a headwind, to climb through Crianlarich and Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy on the A82, which was full of tourist cars in a hurry to get somewhere to relax.

En route there was more outstanding scenery. I was intrigued by the sign welcoming me to the Highlands (picture), because the scenery evidently knew this was the exact point to change from being Lowland to Highland.

There was a lot of slow going against the headwind across Rannoch Moor, which tops out at 1142 feet (picture). A benefit of cycling is being in the fresh air. Well, I had a lot on Rannoch Moor, most of it trying to send me back to Loch Lomond.

I also joint-hailed about a dozen fellow End to End cyclists today, all of them going south.

Finally there was a glorious descent into Glencoe (picture). I drove this road in 1987 and didn't think the scenery was all that remarkable. Eh? It's astonishing, and Glencoe itself is awesome. See? Proof that holidaying by car messes with your mind.

Miles today: 71
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 222
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1140

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Day 16: Ayr to Loch Lomond

The pleasant Sustrans route north out of Ayr on this sunny morning took me right through a golf course in Troon. A notice (picture) warns you that you may get hit by golf balls. I didn't know that cyclist-hating golfers had such a good aim.

Following Sustrans's suggestions to get to Glasgow from Ayr was the usual mixed bag of delightful smooth tarmac railtrails, such as this bit (picture) by Lochwinnoch, and convoluted, four-sides-of-a-square detours round housing estates and light industrial areas.

There was this impressive sculpture just beyond Lochwinnoch. It's the stuff of car-crushing fantasies when you see someone parked in your cycle lane.

I neatly avoided Glasgow by cycling from Paisley (generally depressing and boarded up, but with a nice bike shop that does coffee) over the Erskine Bridge. A lovely canal-, and then river-, -side traffic-free path took me to Loch Lomond, where a mountain biker I got talking to showed me one of the few places you can wildcamp on the shore (picture).

He then spent two hours trying in vain to light me a camp fire in light drizzle. Thank goodness; I'm not in the mood for a singsong. At last, around eight, I had the entire lake to myself, just the gentle wash of the water, and territorial calls of jet-skiers.

Miles today: 64
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 151
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1069

Monday, May 27, 2013

Day 15: Stranraer to Ayr

With heavy rain forecast and time in hand - but also strong tailwinds - I wasn't sure whether to get some wet miles in, or sit out the deluge for a day. Eventually - after about five seconds actually - the prospect of 24 more hours in Stranraer, and inevitable mania in consequence, was enough to persuade me to cycle on.

I went for cheap distance by cycling up the A77. It was miserable stuff: lashing rain, HGVs hurtling past throwing sheets of puddlewater at me, and some long grinding climbs through landscapes shrouded in wet mist. At least the tailwind propelled me quickly up the coast, though you couldn't actually tell which side the sea was on, it was such vile weather.

I rode through Turnberry, where some wet golfers splodged their way through some links course (picture). I couldn't understand what they were doing, out there in the rain. No doubt they looked at me similarly.

South of Ayr, I got more free propulsion from the celebrated Electric Brae, an optical illusion that makes you think you're freewheeling uphill. Here it is (picture) as you approach from the south; it's middle bit of the line you can see running from top left to bottom right.

And here it is looking back 'down' - actually, it's downhill towards the camera. (I've blogged in more detail about this before.) It's a remarkably convincing trick for the cyclist (picture), beaten only perhaps by Sustrans mesmerising us into thinking that stretches of rocky bridleway are a 'National Cycle Route'.

I got to Ayr about half past one and decided I'd had enough of being soaked for one day. Especially when I found a single room in a budget hotel for £19 in the town centre.

With the sun out in the afternoon I could explore the town, which has at least two famous sons. Poet Robert Burns used to frequent this pub (picture) and praised Ayr for its 'honest men and bonie lasses'. Looking at the frankly incomprehensible nonsense he churned out, you can't help think most of it was written here, shortly before closing time.

And round the corner is the birthplace (picture) of John Loudon McAdam, inventor of the road. Comparing my experiences on unmade bridleways and farm tracks to tarmac roads on this trip so far, I'm afraid Burns vs McAdam is no contest.

Miles today: 54
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 87
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1005