Saturday, 23 June 2012

Bike Touring in Scotland

In an attempt to get away from the cringeworthy toadiness of the Royal Jubilee we decided to head up to Scotland for a week's bike touring. It seemed like a lot of others had the same idea as we eventually had to head north on the Friday as all the bike slots on the trains were already reserved. It took over an hour to find spare reservation and sort the tickets out! Our itinerary apart from the first full day was on roads or in areas that either we had never been to before or that it was several decades since we'd been.

The one problem with public transport is connections: it's rare that you get to a station with the next train just a platform away and ready to leave in ten minutes. So it was that with an hour waiting at Carlisle and three hours in Glasgow (though with a change from Central to Queen St stations), getting to Oban took over nine hours. The plus points? Riding along two of the best railway journeys in the world: Settle-Carlisle and the West Highland Line.

A bigger delay was at Oban with the ferry only leaving at 1530 on the Saturday so a lot of time to fill. We did a bit of biking up and down the coast getting used to the loaded bikes but in the end still had a couple of hours hanging around at the ferry terminal before we could embark. Again we weren't the only ones - there were nearly 40 bikes on the ferry - we just hoped that they weren't all on the same itinerary as ourselves. Once on Barra it was clear that there was a pretty keen northerly wind, not good for heading north and it was quite hard work getting to our B&B on the other side of the island.

Looking back to Barra from Eriskay

Sunday morning was our only real rush - we needed to get the 0900 ferry to Eriskay as the next one wasn't until 1130 and would mean that heading up the Uists would be unneccessarily pressured. Long summer days and accommodating hosts meant that we got there with half an hour to spare so we could relax somewhat. There were just seven other cyclists on this crossing. Sunday on the Western Isles is, err, interesting. Pretty well everything is shut and the further north you go the more likely this is to be the case. Our big problem though was the wind, not as strong as yesterday but still northerly and with no shelter to speak of. A cafe after fifteen miles provided shelter but the cafe at a museum on Benbecula was shut (as in shut shut - letters from the council stacked up outside) so it wasn't until Kirkibost that we got another break. It was then just another ten miles or so in to the wind to the B&B. We did have a break at a beach we'd camped at the last time we were here but it wasn't sunbathing weather.

Monday was another push to get the ferry crossing (had to get this one as spring tides meant that the midday crossing wasn't running) but with an hour and a half to do ten miles it wasn't really a problem but we did have a ferry to catch at 1600 from Tarbert. Crossing the Sound of Harris is tricky, the ferry makes 22 course corrections in the 9 miles (according to a crew hand) to avoid submerged reefs. Once at Leverburgh, the other cyclists (same group as on the Eriskay ferry) went looking for "The Cafe from Heaven" (?!) whilst we turned right and headed for "The Golden Road". This is a small road that links the communities on the east coast of South Harris and let's just say it's lumpy! No big hills but lots of small ones that are occasionally steep. We had our only rain showers of the trip whilst riding along here, one wasn't heavy enough to stop to put on waterproofs. After tea and cake at a wonderfully eccentric community run cafe in Liceasto we arrived in Tarbert and promptly found another cafe - never under any circumstances pass up the opportunity to eat cake! We were stopping in Portree so had to do the big climb out of Uig followed by a long fast descent or two in to the town. Portree has changed massively since I was last there, generally for the better, perhaps best described as being more cosmopolitan. 

Heading towards the Cuillin on Skye

We were undecided as to which way to go on Skye, we had to get to Armadale for the ferry back to the mainland, but eventually settled on crossing back to the west coast before rejoining the main drag at Sligachan. Definitely an interesting road and far from quiet at nine in the morning. It was also rather steep in places which was a bit of a shock. Whilst on the main road on the west coast we saw something I'd never seen or even heard of before: a finch or similar sized bird mobbing a cuckoo. A bit of research showed that it is known behaviour. After something to eat at the Sligachan we headed on southwards but took a side road that had been recommended to us by the hostel owner to avoid the big hill on the main drag. I don't think I've ever been on a road with as many pot holes! Dinner at Broadford then it was down the new road to Armadale getting there just in time for the ferry to arrive. We were stopping at the Backpacker's Hostel in Mallaig so didn't have far to go at the other end. Well recommended with excellent food in the restaurant downstairs.

The first part of Wednesday's ride I'd visited 34 years ago but there have been significant road improvements since then and I can't remember anything about the old road anyway. We decided just to head out on the new road and get it out of the way before we cut right and headed down to the Ardnamurchan Peninsular, the most westerly point of the British mainland. There were a couple of signs about the road being shut at certain times of the day - sure enough we got there when it was shut - new road being built. After half an hour we were on our way again and once over the hill and having avoided the fire engines heading to a heath fire we stopped for lunch. A short hill dropped us down to Salen and then it was along the coast. On the map this looks fine, on the ground it was lots and lots of short steep ups and downs with little opportunity to keep a pace going due to blind bends and recent laying of chippings. In fact it was easier once we turned away from the coast and tackled the big climb to get round to Kilchoan. We arrived just as the ferry was pulling in - good timing. Our night's stop at the youth hostel was just yards away from the terminal in Tobermory.

One disadvantage of spending the night by the sea on a hilly island is that you have to go uphill and Thursday started with a vengeance straight up from the harbour. Eventually it eased off and we went up and down hills and in and out of coves on the way to Calgary with some very nice road conditions and almost alpine like passes. The tea room at Calgary hadn't opened yet so we pressed on - mistakenly as it turned out as there wasn't anywhere to grab a bite for a long way. At the high point of the road we passed a radio mast in place for the Mull sportive a few days later then it was more undulations, declining the ferry to get to a pub. Cath was getting hungry and wasn't too keen on doing the next loop so we cut across the road at the neck of the island to Salen (another one) for tea and cakes. Then it was a case of heading straight for Craignure on the main road, which was pretty quiet really. We had the benefit of chasing down another group of cyclists before we got to the pub where we were stopping. A pint and an ice cream later it began to rain - the first real rain of our holiday, if we'd gone the long loop we'd have got wet - so we headed indoors. In the restaurant that night the waitress picked up my empty plate and remarked that very few managed to finish the fish stew as there was so much of it. I must have been hungry, besides I know how to eat!

Friday was basically, get to the ferry (oh, 500 metres); ferry to Oban, walk over to train station and get the train south. As we headed down the Settle-Carlisle (or should that be the Carlisle-Settle) it was apparent that there had been a large amount of rainfall with the becks foaming brown. All in all we did around 320 miles of biking. The only bits of kit that I took that I didn't use were my overboots and the midge head mask (really glad about that one!), even the waterproof didn't get a lot of use which shows just how dry the weather was.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great break Bob (and a great way of avoiding the wretched Jubilee!)