John o’Groats to Kirkwall, 27 miles
It is an early-ish start to be sure of catching the first ferry of the day, the 9 o’clock. The weather is as forecast: grey and rather damp. When I actually get out in it, though, it hardly detracts from the beauty of the place, merely renders it in a different palette.
There is some confusion with the ticket-buying. I thought you could simply saunter on and pay your fare but No, the man in the quite hideously tacky waiting shack tells me, You have to buy them from the ferry office. £28 for a green piece of paper which will bring me back again. I don’t have a great deal of choice as t0 when precisely that will be, however. I can catch the 9.45AM crossing back to the mianland, or the 5PM. Those are off-season ferry services in the north of Scotland for you.
The crossing is fairly popular, but I only spot two other people even vaguely close to my own age. The remaining passengers are all Australian, their tans quite incongruous in this murk and tepid conditions. There are buses waiting to take them to Kirkwall from the ferry terminal in Burwick. I have to get myself there.
Once everyone else has done the decent thing and buggered off, the only sounds are the winds and the skylarks. It’s captivating. Very quickly it’s wet, too. It doesn’t pour down, but it is a breed of mist that gets you just as soaking. I will encounter it the next day, and a couple more times on the West Coast.
It isn’t until I see a sign for St Margaret’s Hope that I realise that I must have got off the ferry somewhere else. And I’ve already gone 6 miles. It seems the Gill’s Bay vehicle ferry gets in at St Margaret’s Hope; the John o’Groats pedestrian ferry pulls in to Burwick. This upsets me, because all of my mileage forecasts for my Orkney stages have just been flushed down the toilet. This means that it is 20 miles from my hostel to the ferry. If I want to catch this first ferry tomorrow I shan’t be able to dawdle.
I’m desperately disappointed that I can’t see more of the islands I’m passing through. The mist restricts my viewing to the point where I cannot see any coast at all and wouldn’t know I was on an island unless I really thought about the likely provenance of the mist in the first place. There is a gradual reprieve, however, as I island-hop using the neat little causeways which warn of wave action and high winds and that drivers cross at their own risk. Again, the cyclist and his concerns is not mentioned. The clouds lift in parts, and I see golden sands, aquamarine bays and purply-brown hills rising out of the sea on the horizon. It is spine-tingling.
What idiot said Orkney is flat? I’m sure a couple of people made such a hopelessly false claim during the earlier part of my trip. It isn’t flat, and I have proof: latterly, all of the road signs, which I could just read despite the sweat in my eyes, warned of “blind summits”. To have a summit implies synclines and anticlines: up and down. Being an island, when you got up one hill you had the opportunity to career down the next, but unfortunately the flat section preceeding your next slog of a hill was just long enough to sap all momentum gained from your descent. The arduous, exhausting nature of the terrain was worsened by a really strong sun blasting away some of the clouds between it and me, and turning to vapour the deposits of water on the road and vegetation. It was like sauna on the approach to Kirkwall and when I finally arrived at Highland Park, it rained again. With all my wet weather gear on, body temperature soars. Therefore, I’m soaked by my own fluids instead of those coming from the heavans. When you stop, those dripping garments you couldn’t find a radiator for cool very quickly and walking around cold, wet stone buildings with these on is a further challenge to the initial effort and overheating of actually battling the elements on the bike.
After a late, and enormous, lunch, I peaked into a few windows on the Kirkwall highstreet, reflected that the whole place felt rather similar to most important Scottish towns I’d been in and that it hadn’t really what I had anticipated to find as befits an “island feel”. It is telling that those living in the Orkneys refer to the bit with Kirkwall on it as “the mainland”. With its Lidl, Tesco and Co-op, all on the one street, you can see what they mean.
I find the hostel with its supreme view of Highland Park on top of the facing hill. It has the air (the hostel, that is) of a WWII bunker. It was clean and warm inside, though, and populated by few others. I shared with Michael, a giant, spindly Lancastrian who had just done a tour of Shetland and told me horror stories of the austerity to be found in some of the more basic accommodation options available on those even more remote islands. he was such a nice and interesting chap, though, and we talked about tourinf cyclist things: clothing, other road users, equipment trails; and also other things: the perception of exercise, ambition and some other very profound topics.
Kirwall to Wick, 39 miles
I had the time of 9.30 in my head as when I really needed to be in Burwick. I wanted to give myself two hours to cover the 20 miles, nice and easy. That meant leaving at 7.30. ‘Oh, if I set my alarm for 6.30 that should be plenty of time.’ I don’t know how, or where the time went when I was preparing to depart in the mornings, but one hour was not long enough for all the little tasks that had to be completed and checked. It was 7.50 when I eventually bounced out of the hostel. An hour and forty minutes to do 20 miles. Now I’m stressed. The thick mist was back and so I would not be spurred on by Orkney in her finery, either.
The hills, obviously in reverse for this leg, were even more infuriating on this run. I had my knee warmers and skull cap on: the over trousers and hood would have made me too hot and sacrificed speed. I didn’t notice the billions of little water droplets sticking to my bare calves and shins on the way up hills, but I couldn’t, after 10 miles or so, ignore the sensation of cold after a long descent. I kept having to towel them off, shocked by the degree to which numbness had set in without my noticing. Whenever I looked down to check my speed or grap a bidon, water cascaded off my helmet into my groin. Incredibly, I kept forgetting that head movement bore this result.
I sped through Burray after a few more causeways (which, at least, were flat) and stopped at a public loo. In here I held my skull cap under the hand-dryer and this blow-dry worked a treat.
Another causeway negotiated, I rasped past St Margaret’s Hope. Looking back on my time trial, it seemed to go very quickly indeed. However, as I began to recognise roads and houses from the beginnings of my ride on Orkney the day before, the miles seemed to pass more slowly than ever. A bus roared past me, bound for the port. I had time, obviously, and after a few more turns I could even see the ferry terminal. I could not believe I was home and dry, though (a figure of speech only), and was still pushing it at 20 mph into the car park. One of the bus drivers said that the ferry wasn’t in yet, that I had about fifteen minutes to wait. I’d done it. I’d covered what turned into 21 miles in under an hour and a half. I was paying for it, though. I felt sick and wheezy, and suddenly very cold. I hadn’t had time to eat on the way so was essentially empty. All of my clothing was either wet with mist or wet with me. The waiting room was colder than outside, but there was a radiator which I switched on and, disobeying its instructions, put my gloves on top of it. I then stripped semi-naked to get off my jersey, socks and base layer, which amused a fellow passenger. I donned all my dry clothes and waited for the next shipment of tourists to shuffle on to this magical island which had tested me in ways I had not expected it to.
On the ferry I commandeered all of the three radiators on board. This act arguably saved me, for while my jersey wasn’t entirely dry by John o’Groats, I would have been in serious trouble had I now other option than to stuff it in a pannier.
I had a cup of tea in John o’Groats and watched with a degree of loathing as people photographed themselves by the marker post. I can’t help but feel that it is for all those who set out from Lands End, either on foot, by bike, by unicycle, whatever: what does it mean to those who got in their car and got here. What have they achieved. I was an angry young man at this point, because I took offence at the busloads of OAPs, buses which I had been traumatised by for the last week and whose occupants would simply get off the coach, wander around for fifteen mintes, have a cup of tea, use the loo, get back on the coach and head off somewhere else. This way of spending your time made me irrationally furious.
I delighted in taking things as easily as possible for the first half of my ride back to Wick. Even the return of the mist/rain wasn’t too severe an issue. However, just as I was due to rejoin the main road south into Wick, the rain decided it wasn’t going to mess around anymore. It was that fine, heavy rain that drenches you within seconds, yet seems to take longer to moisten the tarmac. Well, soon enough that too was awash. Arriving back at Netherby B&B (stay there, if you are ever up in the area. Alison is one of the nicest ladies you could ever have the good fortune to meet, particularly if you are approaching a laundry crisis), I have got out of swimming pools in a drier state. I wrenched everything off and simply walked into the shower.
Wick to Ard Dorch, 17 miles
I may not have cycled a great deal on this particular day, but somehow I ended up in a different world again. I had to be up by 4.40AM to give myself time to get everything together and eat breakfast. Alison, saint that she is, made me a cooked breakfast at 5.30 in the morning!
The 6.20AM from Wick to Dingwall is a quiet service. Rain fell thinly as I cycled to the station and persisted until we headed in-land. Dingwall was the seventeenth stop on the route before Inverness.
It was only slightly dispiriting taking only four hours to return to a town that I had left via pedal power almost a week ago but there you are. Having passed in front of my youth hostel at Carbisdale and been confronted again by the white, steaming facade of Clynelish (it was open on that day) we also passed at high speed Balblair, Glenmorangie and Invergordon. I had just over an hour to buy some lunch (I’d had no food or water on the train from Wick) and await the train taking me to the west.
At 11.20 it duly pulled up and the amount of bikes and rucksacks squeezed on signalled quite clearly that I was going somewhere where a lot of people got red-faced and sweaty. I thought I’d fit in rather well. I had intended to update the notes on my progress which I tried to keep up with as little details simply vanished from my memory. Failing that, a sleep or some reading would be nice. The landscape was much too stunning to be ignored, however. Almost instantly after leaving Dingwall, the panorama altered. It looked vaguely Midi-Pyrenean in places, as it happened. Mountains swelled, then reared again, lochs formed, clouds spiralled and bulged. Everything became very dramatic indeed. But something wasn’t right. I felt guilty, and indeed very disrespectful, for travelling thus. During my first stage on the rails, I had wondered to what extent my taking a train was cheating. I talked myself round from that with the valid argument that I’m still touring, just by a different means, and that to have gone from Wick to the West by bike would have taken five days and cost maybe as much as £300 extra. My qualm on this train was how wrong it felt to so passively streak past these magnificent natural structures. I felt disconnected from the landscape for the first time. Hitherto, a mountain or a glen had taken as long as hours to materialise in front of me, and my suffering through and over them had been a valuable way of experiencing them, for the difficulty of each pedal stroke and the myriad atmospheric factors acting on me at any one time had given me unique insights into the landscape around me. I felt I knew it. Sealed in this clattering human tube, I felt as though I was instead showing contempt for my surroundings: these views were nothing more than a speed date, a visual goosing of beauty as opposed to considerately and progressively developing a relationship with it all. I got off the train in Kyle disorientated as a result, and not just because it was gloriously sunny and very warm.
After initially heading in the wrong direction for the road bridge, I changed on a footpath, shielded from the main road by a lot of gorse bushes. Then I went in search of Skye. I found it more or less instantly after breaking free of the blasted earth resulting from when they built the carriageway. I had to stop. I was speechless. I was moved. The view before me was of the sea between Skye and the mainland to the north of the bridge, with great chunks of rock rupturing out of a fast, choppy tide. The pictures I shall upload will not, cannot, put across the extraordinary beauty – a savage, allof beauty - and scale of Skye in the spring sunshine.
I continued onto the bridge and it is quite preposterously steep, especially with the winds as strong as they were. A bump, a sign in Gaelic and I’m on an island, apparently. There is only a tiny spit of sea between it and the mainland where the bridge is built, and so the construction of the latter was perhaps inevitable. However, it does rather take away the impact of arriving on an island. With Orkney, the act of catching a ferry conditioned the mind. The large roads of Skye with all the traffic robbed me of that. I also believe that it has a lot to answer for, on the subject of traffic. Islands, because of their relative inaccessibility and ferry requirements, demand a commitment of a motorist. On Skye, you can pop across like you would the Forth or the Clyde. Throughout my trip, no island was as treacherous for us two-wheeled pedallers as Skye. Cars, trucks, buses, a never-ending stream of snarling motorbikes all made the actual cycling a complete pain in the arse because there was no deterent: “Feel like a drive to Skye, darling?” “Oh, alright.” And it’s a shame, because the roads are mostly well-surfaced and there are no serious hills. If you want to go to Skye, then (and you really ought to), just take a car like everyone else.
The wind and the traffic were not having the desired effect on my equanimity. Neither, when I saw a road sign saying 8 miles to Broadford, was the location of my night’s accommodation. In Rothes, I had asked my mother to find alternative lodgings on Skye for me. I didn’t like the idea, at that time, of getting off my train at 1.30PM, still with 40 miles to go to reach my hostel in Glenbrittle which is what the SYHA call “rustic”. In short, miles from anywhere and demanding me to make my own dinner. I didn’t really want to do that. I had scrapped the idea of staying in Broadford when I first began organising this trip because the distance to Talisker and back to the mainland from Broadford was impossible, or so I’d thought. I now couldn’t remember if the B&B mum had found was in Broadford or further on. Looking at the address I’d scribbled down, I was relieved to see it was north, closer to Talisker. However, it was still to be a short day, so how much longer had I made tomorrow?
I skidded down the drive to the Picture House B&B and I didn’t care. It was right on the sea shore, over looking the tiny island of Scalpay, which was still enormous and filled my bedroom window with its quiet, bleak bulk. Tomorrow would be what tomorrow would be. I was here in this unbelievable place and on the West Coast. The second part of my odyssey was in full swing.
I dined with a group of retired folk, 80% of whom were photographers. If you are a photographer, a stay at the Picture House is a must. Gill and Steve run the B&B together with their own gallery, being professional photographers themselves, and their work decorates the bedrooms. They can recommend the best places to shoot, the times to go, and who else to talk to.
I returned to my room to catch up on the unfolding election. Jeremy Vine’s paving stones were a bit much for me, though, and I drifted off just as the ballot boxes from Sunderland were being tossed in to the counting stations.