Nairn to Strathpeffer: 48 miles
The morning’s riding is characterised by cool, wet winds. It isn’t serious enough to warrant putting on anything waterproof but they are quite challenging conditions. There is some degree of trepidation ahead of this ride. It is the first longer effort I have had to make in a wee while.
Inverness nears. I pass Culloden battlefield as I engage with my enemy: the weather and most other road users.
I hadn’t expected the capital of the Highlands to be quite so busy. It is a proper city! I make my way through the Central Business District, underneath the huge shopping centre. I misread the sign for my desired road. I wanted the same number but with an ‘A’ in front of it. I follow the ‘B’ version for some distance until I realise that I’m not going in the right direction at all.
I hammer back in to Inverness, then cross the river and make for those signs with ‘Dingwall’ on them. Every place name confirms that I am no longer in tidy, cosy Speyside anymore.
I stop at the Bunchrew Hotel on the banks of the Beauly Firth. I have my lunch down by the water’s edge and look over to the misty mountains on my left and the road bridge on my right. There’s something not quite right with the pedal as I pull away. I think the Allen key bolt has worn itself loose again.
I adopt what will become the standard mode for following lochside roads which aren’t entirely flat: head down, swear and try and ignore the lactic acid. I’m lucky that the weather is truly superb by this stage, and everywhere looks divine. Beauly is no exception and this is where I manage to find a garage with a little Allen key. I tighten the hell out of my pedal, and as I totter around the forecourt testing it out I think I’ve sorted it. Back on the road, however, it is patently clear I haven’t.
Muir of Ord arrives at long last and after arrowing through the centre I come to its industrial outskirts. Technically, it is only a pair of buildings that qualify for this, but one is the Glen Ord maltings. And it’s huge. All that romance the tour guides try and sell you when it comes to the malting process? True in the mists of time, but that isn’t how they malt barley now. No pagoda rooves, just multiple storeys of industrial blandness. Inside are enormous drums for turning and drying the barley. Floors and kilns are just too expensive. I later learn on the distillery tour that the Glen Ord maltings provides all the malt for Talisker.
While sitting with my dram of Glen Ord 12YO (see review below) I realise it is my ‘new’ cleat which has come loose, not the pedal spring. I borrow a screwdriver and the whole issue is resolved.
The setting for the remainder of my ride is very much Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The gradations of colour and light are astonishing, and the outlines of the mountains themselves are majestically aggressive.
Road signs have begun to be displayed in English and Gaelic. It turns out I’m only 50 miles from Ullapool. It’s a steep climb up to Strathpeffer and an even steeper one to my B&B. I get off and push up the 50 metre ramp. I just can’t be bothered.
During dinner in the excellent Red Poppy I had noticed some guys head up the hill with tennis rackets. As part of my post-prandial walk, I spectated on the tennis for a little while. For the first time I felt homesick for my friends and our own unusual games.
Strathpeffer to Culrain: 52 miles
This was one of my better days, for all it started moistly. I’m pleased to report that it was just a shower and I had the company of the sun for the remainder of the day.
After a food stop in Dingwall (I hoard bananas, you see) I followed the coast overlooking the Black Isle. What a spectacular part of the world this is. Every so often the trees would cease and I could spy back to the spine of Scotland. It was still raining there, alright.
The Dalmore was so eagerly anticipated, and I almost missed it! I was where I didn’t want to be, on a busy road out of Alness, and the sign pointing to the distillery was just concealed.
I followed the main road into Invergordon, desiring a peek at the grain distillery. It didn’t look quite as huge or ungainly as I had been led to believe grain distilleries were. It wasn’t until I passed on the train a few days later that I saw the scale of the warehousing. It’s colossal.
I took the cycle routes to Tain, although I flirted again with the A9. Those roads really aren’t for cyclists. The location of Glenmorangie and the tour more than made up for it, and I only had maybe a mile to survive before I could turn off this horror of a highway and gently waft to Culrain. Err… not quite.
It was a quieter road, but I was beginning to develop out-of-body tendencies. I ate and ate and ate, but could not summon any real attentiveness. I realised that I had never visited more than one distillery on a day of more than 50 miles duration. Maybe that had something to do with it. What didn’t help was the highways authority’s loathing of telling you how far away you are from anywhere. Distance markers are so incredibly rare and so I was guessing how much further I had to go.
It wasn’t until Ardgay, after some awesome scenery, that I discovered I had only four miles to go. I had estimated seven, so was rather pleased.
Getting to the Youth Hostel involved more breathtaking roads; principally for the landscapes, but latterly for the hills. The track leading to the hostel forecourt was needlessly steep for someone in my condition.
Carbisdale Castle looks like any other Scottish castle from the outside. Inside, it is a youth hostel, but retains statues, rugs, libraries and ancient works of art. It’s unbelievable. Even more baffling is how long it took me to find my room and consequently complete my errands with dorm, reception, laundry room and dining room at opposite ends of the castle. I needed an energy drink just to get from the main entrance to my room. The views over the Kyle of Sutherland to Bonar Bridge were captivating, and largely made up for it.
The hostel also offers evening meals. I paid for three courses and I’m well aware I was no prize picture whilst eating them. feeding had, by that stage, become a primal activity. I practically drank my soup and drummed my fingers on the table in anticipation of my chili, wishing for a big portion. This was quickly despatched. Pudding wasn’t quite the right amount of stodge for me, but at least I began to feel a little more human.
I was rooming with a fellow cyclist and he put it rather well: “You get fitter, but that doesn’t mean you get any less tired.”
Culrain to Helmsdale: 42 miles
The scale of the hostel made amassing my things and preparing for the off difficult. I was expecting to read some time in the afternoon on my bike computer when I eventually made it to the entrance with all my bags but in fact it was still before 10AM.
Whilst stocking up in Bonar Bridge, a stranger is compelled to voice his approval of my mode of transport. He was once a cyclist, too, and commends my style. He doesn’t care for these mountain bikers and their fat knobbly tyres, only interested in going down hill. He recommended an alternative route to the main road, and he did promise that it had a lot of ascending. Maybe he was using me to advocate the noble art of suffering on a road bike, thus contrasting me with the muddier sort of cyclist. I have nothing against mountain bikers. It just annoys me when the estate carts zoom past me with them tied to the back, that’s all.
The man also assured me that it was a wild road. After continuing over a junction, which turned out to be the last one for a very long time, I began to appreciate what he was getting at. It was freezing when I eventually reached the top and the barreness of the hillsides, together with the chilly-looking lochs made me feel very much on the edge of civilisation. Munching on some shortbread by the side of the road as two cars in convoy passed spoilt the image somewhat.
I could avoid it no longer, though: the A9 was back. I emerged from my track to the past beneath the Mound, an incredible edifice. The motorcyclists greeted me with screaming engines. The camper vans were well represented. What followed were 20 very miserable miles.
The problem is that Scotland is a small, sparsely-populated country. When you get north of the Central Belt, what towns there are are hugely significant for the people living within their catchment and there are only a few roads connecting them all up. Factor in tourism, and cyclists have a pretty rough deal. I find it incredible, though, and actually nothing short of derisory, that there is no cycle lane connected to the A9. It’s on the Lands End to John o’Groats route, for goodness sake! I and the other cyclists I saw, together with walkers, all had to huddle into the verge as closely as they could while buses, vans lorries and cars hurtled past with soul-destroying speed and disdain. When I got to Golspie it started to rain, and the picture of dejection was complete.
They were 10 wet and slow miles to Brora. Finding Clynelish shut was almost the final straw. Still rather wet, I decided not to head backwards to the centre of Brora but push on to Helmsdale. It was only 11 miles. And it was along the coast, too. It must be flat. Oh no, it wasn’t.
Helmsdale hardly endeared itself to me. The hotels were pricy and the cafes were not to my taste. The hostel was fully booked and there was only the one shower and toilet between a dorm containing nine beds.
I knew that all I needed was some gooey, calorific loveliness to pull round and I found it in the cafe on the A9 bridge, just out of Helmsdale. I had some gorgeous ginger loaf, a big mug of tea, and felt infinitely better. A phone call to Ross, who had spent three months in Uganda and Rwanda at the end of last year and so knows a thing or two about being alone and miserable, helped immeasurably.
Helmsdale to Wick: 36 miles
I don’t know if you have ever shared a room with a man with irritable bowel syndrome? I did that night and whilst I won’t go into details (I’m desperately trying to repress the memory), I will say that I had a broken night’s sleep. He woke me up just after seven when he cracked open a can of Tennent’s lager. I made my breakfast and escaped. On the road by 9AM. I ought to have been proud of myself.
The hills got worse between Helmsdale and Wick: one really long though gradual one, and one
nastily steep one. Two guys I’d met the night before, and who were one day in to their attempt for Lands End, had warned me about the latter, promising I wouldn’t get up. They had admitted earlier that they had done very little training, and for someone who has been up Cairn o’ Mount and the Devil’s Elbow already this trip, it wasn’t much more than unpleasant. My gears did all the hard work for me.
The weather was changeable, but the landscape was unwaveringly beautiful. The pictures will communicate it best but it is utterly unique. I live by the North Sea, but this was different.
I got to Wick in good time: 12.30! It was no surprise that my B&B proprietors were elsewhere. I took the bike into the middle of Wick, having spied out Pulteney and sat in Morag’s Cafe for an hour or so. Her chocolate cake and mugs of tea revived me perfectly.
Back at the B&B, I tended to my bike, watched some snooker, and fell into a coma.
Wick to John o’Groats: 20 miles
As I have mentioned below, my tour of Pulteney left a lot to be desired.
My quest for groceries was similarly frustrating. Lidl would only sell me gargantuan portions of everything, and the Co-op which was said to be at the other end of town I haven’t found yet. The supermarket I did use was perfect, though. I had my sauce, I had my pasta, I had my meat, and I had my bread. It wouldn’t be gastro, but this would be the first night of cooking and I didn’t want to complicate anything by poisoning myself.
Into the wind, it was a long 20 miles to John o’Groats. I had no clue as to where the village was until I had toiled up the last hill and there were the islands. I was dumbstruck. A little board told me what everything was. Stroma, Hoy, South Ronaldsay, the Pentland Skerries. Orkney was not qyite visible. A gleaming white ferry was heading towards it as I watched, though. That must be from Gill’s Bay.
I could free-wheel into John o’Groats now. It is an odd place, though. It isn’t a village at all, really. I would say it is more a scattering of houses and two mouldering hotels. Unlike anywhere else so far, though, I sensed that here was somewhere a little bit different to what I had come from, with an entirely different relationship to its surroundings. These last were incomparable, it must be said.
In the bright sun and perishing wind, I arrived at the hostel. It was closed until 5PM. I could have gone for a little ride around, but the wind offered strong discouragement and so I pulled up an abandoned chair and read my book until the nice young man who had been trying to fix a bleeping in the building passed on the message that I could go in.
I found two Geordie ladies on the desk. When they asked what I was up to and saw where I was from one asked, “wasn’t there an article about you in the Northumberland Gazette?” Here I am in the most north-easterly point in mainland Britain and I’m famous!