Now my Deer Blog Fans, it may have come to your notice that I have been very busy in my office lately. I've just released a dissertation on Classical Music, of which more has been requested, I have a Poem contract that has to be honoured and on top of all that I have D. B. F's all over the world clamouring for a blog on our latest cycling trip- * . Okay my little Silicon Chips I relent, here it is but before you drop what you're doing and read it from start to finish I must just point out how the blog is structured. It isn't about me, it isn't about TWD ( the wonderful Deb ) it isn't a diary or doesn't run like a child's essay, it isn't even based on our memoirs ( although we do feature in it because we did it) It is primarily based on the land. I've tried not to make it too long. Phew! It's a good job I enjoy my work!
* takes a pause to wipe the perspiration off his brow!
Our dream was to cycle around what we affectionately know as the Motherland, the Highlands of Scotland. We drove up to the strategic point of Achnasheen where we left the car and caught the train to Wick, on the East coast. From Wick we cycled up the East to John O'Groats, along the North to Durness, down to Gairloch on the West coast and finally inland back to Achnasheen.
|Mr and Mrs Boardman|
Achnasheen is one of those Highland places that intrigue or even amuse me, it features prolifically in outdoor literature due to being at an important junction, yet it has a population of about ten! There is a sign pointing you to the 'Village Centre' yet when you get there, all you will find is a pond and some toilets! There is also a Hotel and a Bunkhouse but that I believe is part of Greater Achnasheen.
|Achnasheen 7:00 am|
Wick to Thurso, 37 miles.
Achnasheen to Wick was to be the axis on which our world turned for the next week. It was an epic train journey and like anything associated with the Highlands it was not mundane. It snaked all over the Eastern Highlands stopping at interesting sounding places like Forsinard and Altnabreac. In the searing summer heat these places looked like screen sets for a western!
As we located the A99 to Groats the excitement was palpable yet it coincided with our first great mental challenge. What irony, we had basked in hours of sunshine on the train but within a couple of spins of the pedals huge raindrops began to explode all around us! Now when it rains in the Highlands there is no half heartedness, it rains with such a dedication and commitment that most people south of the border would be astonished. Within seconds we were drenched but not to despair, with fresh legs and fresh minds we managed to rise above it. Heavy rain continued for about six miles then through that overpowering feeling of permanency I spied a cuticle of sun. In a twinkling of an eye the curvaceous arc of a rainbow entranced our view. There it stood in vibrant purity over acres of golden corn fields. The 'pot' at the end was to be our area of exploration, the Northern Highlands.
My opinion of the Eastern Highlands has altered, I don't see the East as being inferior, it just has a different bar code. The west is for sure dramatic, the East is somewhere between dramatic and graceful, still near treeless but wonderful for the evident lack of man made interference. This evening the cottage dotted slopes are lacquered with a coppery overtone as the sun sets on bucolic oblivion.
|Rainbow over 'Tense Towers' Orkney|
Thurso to Talmine, 50 miles
Across the North coast, shifts in scenery seem to go in quantum leaps- towards the East everything is tidy and sophisticated, not long past Thurso everything seems to go as bleak as a Dakota prairie then around Bettyhill you're in mountain country. Passing along the North coast at a slower rate you realise that there is still a social cohesion that binds people together, seeing signs like 'you are now entering Mckay Country' portray a deep ancestral respect that has practically vanished elsewhere.
As the road climbs East above the river Naver it forms a sheltered bowl. Here lies Torrisdale Bay, a beach of real and rare enchantment, it seems to stare back at you with an amber tinted transparency as it spreads itself out in lordly dominance. As we chatted to some Cyclists in the decisively located Bettyhill Hotel, it soon became apparent to us that there is an air of innocence when it comes to commerce in the Highlands, point being, Cafes will be open all week and shut Saturday, some Cafes will even be shut when the ferries dock! Perhaps the Motherland is beyond the clumsy grasp of commercialism. The land that has been set free.
I always like to explore the back roads and discover places that are off the radar for most visitors. The opportunity availed itself to do just that. Not far from Bettyhill a minor road branches off to a cluster of Townships under the banner of Skerray. The Hamlets spring up like mushrooms and are bolted together by saffron robes of heather. Thatched cottages lay huddled together in sweet Highland embrace.
|A North Coast bus stop|
Talmine to Durness, 29 miles
As we pedalled down through Melness the morning seemed only half awake. The sun and wind were working politely together, some Crofters made the most of this by hanging out their washing, a melody of sweet contentment hung in the air. Sadly though this melody gave way to an overriding forlorn dirge, especially as we skirted Loch Eriboll to see evidence of the brutal Highland clearances where peace loving innocent families were turfed out of their humble homes to make way for sheep! The echoes of the past remain as a stark reminder of man's inhumanity to man. Today though crofting still plays a cherished role. When you stop and chat to locals it is soon manifest that they bare a different orientation from their contemporaries.
The North West has several indentations in the coastline ( sea lochs ) Eriboll being the deepest and widest. As we freewheeled down it's Eastern flank our vision was drawn hungrily to the near island of Ard Neakie. This served as a ferry terminus before the road around the loch was built in the 1890's. The ferry house from 1831 still stands but is in sad neglect. On it's headland there are four brick kilns that used to supply lime to the Reay estate in the latter half of the 19th century. History aside, this is a continuous sweep of nature's brush that demands to be painted.
|the real Mr and Mrs Boardman|
It was gradually dawning on us that riding three hundred miles in the Highlands is about as different as you can get from cycling three hundred miles around Lincolnshire. A map of Lincolnshire hardly has any contours, up here around the North West, contours rise and fall like a frozen sea, you are either climbing relentlessly or plunging rapidly, flat ground is at a premium! Our demanding work rate was put in perspective by the North coast's stunning beaches, Sangobeg, Rispond and Sango Sands in particular. Expanses of golden sand with turquoise waves gently lapping the shore and with the low sun drawing out every pigment from the land there was no better time to be alive!
If I'm struggling for adjectives to describe the beaches I must ask myself when I reach the Kyle of Durness, can anything so beautiful be distilled by words? There seemed to be a ravishing counterpoint between the long sand bars, the deepening colours of green and blue and the interplay of the sun. It reminded me of a beautiful woman with long blond hair. I was moved to jot down a few lines.
|The beautiful Kyle of Durness- Golden Hair|
fjord yield your long golden bowers
pretty girls never tire of flowers
pallet of yellow and blue on the sand
midst a dream in a fairy tale land
ripples through the gloom when midnight cowers
fjord go wash your hair in the showers
sing you are beautiful, sing you are free
sing melodies to the sound of the sea
phosphors dust of gold beheld in your stare
go and brush out your tresses Golden Hair
Durness to Inchnadamph, 50 miles
It was reassuring that our legs seemed to adapt to cycling up hills day after day. If they hadn't attuned, the road from Durness to Laxford Bridge would have finished us off! It wasn't enough to get out the saddle for but it was unremitting, it went on for miles and miles, you would turn a corner hoping it would relent only to find that it went on for miles and miles more until it dropped down to Richonich where all the dimensions finally changed.
I can't sing the praises of this North West corner enough. A continuous smooth pan shot of a wind tossed lonely world, you just gasp at the sheer emptiness of it all. On your right you have thirty uninhabited square miles of the Parph peninsular and this is mirrored on your left by Strath Dionard. All beautiful Shostakovian bleakness.
That afternoon I was hungry for hills but got more than I envisaged. An interesting little road attracted my attention with some tasty bunched up contours and cute little black arrows. It branches off from the A834 just before Scourie and leads to three tiny Hamlets. Believe me no amount of scrutinising the map can prepare you for what you are about to enter. No less than seven peaks in a roller coaster of a loop. The hills aren't just steep they are outrageous! Just about wide enough to get a car down, not that I saw one, it was like a Cyclist's private playground.
Our truce with the weather ended at Scourie. As I donned my waterproofs I thought to myself I've got about as much chance of staying dry as Grimsby have of winning the league! As was the norm we climbed hills unceasingly but gained height in alarming fashion. I recall looking back for Deb and thinking I was starring in a production of Jack and the beanstalk as the hills plunged and twisted into the far distance.
I strolled into the Inchnadamph Hostel worn out and listless to the core and I couldn't have been any wetter if I'd jumped into the sea! Deb was dry and she didn't even wear waterproofs! I know the Motherland always tests out your kit but I still can't get my head around that one. Never mind the weather makes Philosophers out of us all in the end!
|Hostel heated wall ( 2016 photographic award entry)|
Inchnadamph to Dundonell, 29 mile
The following morning the sun shone, the wind eased and everything had a washing powder advert freshness. Life was good. On the road Sutherland's 'stand alone' mountains stood out like giant chess men over an extravagant water world: Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp, Cul Mor. All single malts.
|Canisp and Suillven ( left )|
On leaving this mountain sanctuary the road contours nicely round to the picturesque fishing village of Ullapool. You can't fail to be drawn to this place - a long terraced promontory draws the eye to a quaint neatly arranged harbour. Rows of whitewashed houses and shops all nice and clean. The centre is always bustling and exudes a peaceful vibe. A noble place to stop and refresh our stiffened senses.
Back on the road a short detour will bring you to the Carrieshalloch Gorge. It is the closest thing that Scotland has to a Canyon. Here the River Droma cascades one hundred and fifty feet as it makes it's way to Loch Broom, it's final destiny. When in spate, an eerie mist floats dreamily through the gorge. The viewing bridge tends to wobble a bit too, just adding to the giddy ambiance.
The freedom of wild places is typified at Dundonell. It lies at the head of the area known as ' The Great Wilderness ' everything has a 'far flung' feel to it, like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The wind roared, the rain lashed, the sea loch threw waves on to the shore with imperious violence. A low lying rainbow looks on in cool deference. Bring it on!
|A Low Bow!|
Instead of staying holed up at the Dundonell Hotel we went a couple of miles down the road for a bite to eat at Maggie's Tearoom. This was nearly a life or death matter! The side wind was intent on blowing us into the loch! Safely tucked up inside Maggie's the wind ratcheted further up the Beaufort scale as the rain power washed the windows. Our only line of defence was to pretend that the outside world didn't exist! On the up side our route planner now began to glow with promise. We were on the home straight but believe it or not, we didn't want it to end!
Dundonell to Badachro, 28 miles
The wheels of freedom continued to spin as we roved this crazy coastline. Names like Poolewe, Laide, Aultbea came and went but names like these whistle animation and passion into appreciative hearts. As the road began to gently mirror the coastline swathes of purple heather competed with golden red tracts of sand to avert our gaze. Wester Ross's bunched up mountains provided the finest backdrop.
Gruinard always holds a place in my heart, it's spacious sandy bays hug the jagged coastline in serene elegance. I unclip and can't help but reminisce for a few moments on many family holidays. Laughing, playing with our Kids, exploring and getting midge bombed out of existence! Happy memories deeply woven into our hearts fabric.
Today though our nemesis was waiting at the gate. Gruinard Hill was that steep we only just used to manage to tow the caravan up it! Today we have bikes with heavy panniers. It's familiar juxtaposition from the shoreline is a long steep extrusion in a world of curves. For all it's hype we were soon up there at the viewpoint. Short and sharp. In retrospect I think we had done many Gruinards without realising it.
If any part of the Highlands musicalises Bruch's Scottish Serenade it has to be the section of the A832 between Poolewe and Gairloch. The softening of the scenery is reassuring. Trees return and some roadside lochans remind you that you are still actually in the Highlands. The sight of the dispersed community of Gairloch from the viewpoint was heartening. It was like seeing a myriad little buttercups in a meadow flowering their little heads off.
If Gairloch was a perfect enclave of civilisation then Badachro, our final staging post, was slumbering in a distant world from a forgotten time. Just a few miles out the village, a road to the left leads you to a string of Hamlets that are unheard and unsung. Badachro was about as sleepy as the boats that languished in it's harbour. We felt a bit like those boats, settled in drowsy contentment. Something had stolen our rhythm, I think perhaps it was tiredness but what of it, we are on a carefree homeward romp tomorrow!
Badachro to Achnasheen, 25 miles
Who can cycle along Loch Maree and not be in awe of this wild and beautiful land. The dominant mountain, Slioch, stands aloof like an enraged bear with a protective Fatherly hand over her cubs. Wisps of mist come and go like stage curtains. Rain comes and goes as well, that's just part of the game now!
Nestled in at the end of the loch is Kinlochewe, what a gem of a village, another place that intrigues me. It has a resident population of about 50 yet has a Hotel, Pub, Petrol Station, Fire Station, three Cafes, a Bric a Brac shop, two Grocery shops and a Farm Shop, Post Office, School, two Churches and a Garage. All gorgeous Scottish quirkiness. Have a dander in any direction and you will see views that will be hot contenders for any Scottish calender. We breakfasted at the Whistle Stop Cafe and didn't want to leave, it was only our implacable goal that drove us on.
I certainly was driven on as well. Fluxes in fitness came and went. I was singing out loud the main theme from Shostakovich's 7th symphony and only realised we were at the top of Glen Docherty when Deb stopped to take a photo. Deb was singing along as well, though I think these were mainly her own compositions!
We were soon in sight of the outskirts of Achnasheen as surges of fitness burst forth unanounced. We had seen hills roll out of sight, sublime wilderness, vermicular coastlines, deep glens and snaking rivers but now we could see the most beautiful sight in the world, our car! After an emotional reunion we sped along to Loch Carron to get the ingredients for a celebratory bbq.
On reflection I couldn't believe what a trouble free trip we had. On three hundred miles of shocking roads and cattle grids, we never even had to pump up our tyres! There was the obligatory saddle soreness and Deb had trouble with her knees which she managed to eradicate by doing keyhole surgery on her leggings! The worst thing that happened to me was in our room at the Badachro Inn when I picked a kettle up at the wrong end and scolded my thumb ( it could have happened to anybody )
So that was that my DBF's . Funny thing really, we had a lovely week on the road yet for our next adventure we don't want to even see a road! Maybe wild camping/ bothying in the Outer Hebs.
It is strange gaining forward momentum after a week of cycling by effortlessly pressing an accelorator pedal! But don't worry you do get used to it.
le cambrioleur est dans le mouchoir,
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