Cadence (in music) ‘rhythmic flow of a sequence of sounds or words.’
Cadence (in cycling) ‘the rate at which a cyclist is pedalling/turning the pedals.’
The idea for this bicycle journey was loosely conceived from the convergence of a number of ideas and interests: a love of Scotland and its landscapes; a passion for music, particularly music of Celtic influence; the interest aroused amongst cyclists about the newly-promoted North Coast 500 route; an urge to travel, explore and to challenge myself on the bike.
Friday 23 September – A Prologue
The evening before I begin my trip, by happy coincidence, a concert of Scottish Celtic Music at Victoria Hall, Saltaire, near my home. Fara, a joyous trio of fiddles with piano, from Orkney and Karen Matheson, singing in Scottish Gaelic and English with such grace …and those dancing hands and fingers!
Saturday 24 September – ‘The Rolling Hills of the Borders’
A sense of freedom and adventure as I pedal away from the railway station at Armathwaite: delightful Cumbrian lanes into Carlisle; across the flatlands to the east of the Solway Firth; and to the border into Scotland, beside the ‘Old Toll Bar’ at Gretna.
Sustrans Route 74 is perhaps not the most inspiring route scenically, but it does offer a fast cycleway north, making use of very quiet minor roads and the occasional cycle track running parallel to the A74 Motorway. The main transport arteries of the A74 (M) and the main west coast railway line are frequently hemmed into the same valley beside the cycle route. As I ride and my thoughts drift, I imagine myself chasing and riding the slipstreams of the northbound Virgin express trains that thunder past – a fanciful modern day Quixote. There are actually plenty of windmills (or rather, wind turbines) in this landscape, where they are now making inroads into the dark forestry plantations as the main cash crop. The rolling character of the terrain confirms my intention to name today’s ride ‘The Rolling Hills of the Borders’ after a song by Matt McGinn, sung here by Ewan McLennan.
Feeling hungry, I take the small detour into the village of Beattock, following a sign that promises ‘Local Services’. The only local service I find is a waste disposal site, so I press on 20 further miles to Abington, where I fare much better at its Post Office/Café. It begins to rain while I am in the café so I don waterproof gear. By the time I reach the outskirts of Glasgow the rain is persistent. I become a little lost in a network of urban roads near Hamilton and ask two local men for directions. Their accents are so broad that I can barely understand a word they are saying, but after some deliberation they set me back in the right direction for Glasgow city centre, for which I am grateful. I try to find a bed for the night in the centre of Glasgow, not realising what a difficult task this might be on a Saturday night – all the hostels and B&Bs are fully booked with the exception of one place that is asking £180 for a double room! I decline and cycle out to the west of the city where I eventually find somewhere much more reasonably priced.
Sunday 25 September – ‘Caledonia’
Away early, I head north to skirt the Campsie Fells and follow pleasant lanes and quiet roads through farmland to Callander. I greet other cyclists along the way, including a couple of club groups, who look pristine in their matching kit and tight formations. At Callander I stop for a photograph beside the swollen River Teith, and coffee and cake at the excellent ‘MHOR Bread’ bakery and tearoom.
At Callander I join the Sustrans Route 7 (200+ miles of cycleways and quiet minor roads, linking Glasgow and Inverness) and follow beautiful gravel and tarmac paths laid on the line of the old railway running north through Strathyre and Glen Ogle.
From the village of Killin, Route 7 takes the undulating minor road that follows the south shore of Loch Tay for its 15-mile or so length, to Kenmore. I surprise my wife Jenny’s aunt and uncle, Katie & Iain, with a chance visit – and after initial puzzlement about the identity of this helmet and sunglass-disguised rider, we spend a delightful short time together over coffee and cake.
I cycle on through verdant Perthshire countryside and Route 7 swings in a north-westerly direction through Pitlochry. I sing some words from Perthshire singer-songwriter, Dougie MacLean’s unofficial Scottish anthem ‘Caledonia’ as I ride. The line that sticks in my head, and amuses me, as I tap along on the pedals is:
‘Lost friends that needed losing
Found others on the way’
I ride on into the twilight wanting to put in a good distance today, so as to be able to join the North Coast 500 circuit at Inverness tomorrow. I set the noted-distillery village of Dalwhinnie as my objective for the day, riding on the gravelly cycle trail that runs beside the A9(T) road over the Drumochter Pass and into the darkness. This is my first opportunity to try out my new super-bright ‘Exposure’ bike light and it proves effective, not only at illuminating my path but also, dazzling rabbits that momentarily freeze in the beam and also frightening voles that wriggle and squirm out of my way.
With no accommodation booked I’m glad to secure a bed for the night and be made very welcome by the friendly staff at a recently re-opened hotel at Dalwhinnie. A three-course meal at the bar, washed down with a couple of pints …and of course a Dalwhinnie Malt Whisky to round things off nicely!
Monday 26 September – ‘I’m Gonna Be’ (500 miles)
After a comfortable night and a ‘full Scottish’ breakfast, I resume my journey north, making fast progress on quiet minor roads running beside the A9(T) road into Strathspey. The weather is fine, with a favourable breeze, and the musical connections are strong in this valley that lends its name to a genre of dance tunes. I enjoy listening to my Celtic playlist as I zip along on smooth tarmac.
I stick to the straighter and faster B9152 between Kingussie and Aviemore, rather than the more winding road to the south adopted by Sustrans Route 7, and reach Carrbridge after a couple of hours riding. I think of the lovely singing of Rachel Sermanni from this village – her ‘Song to a Fox’ seems to conjure up something of this place, where the north-south railway line curves through scented pine woods.
From carrbridge the cycle route climbs beside the A9(T) road until Slochd Summit, at 1328 ft, is reached. From here, road, railway and cycleway begin the long gradual descent to the Moray Firth and the city of Inverness. Cycle route 7 takes a historical detour on its way into Inverness to pass through Culloden, which gives its name to the nearby battle site where the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising of 1745 took place.
At Inverness I stop for coffee and cake at the wonderful ‘Velocity Cafe and Bicycle Workshop’. I enquire about the ferry service that crosses the narrow neck of the Cromarty Firth between Cromarty and Nigg Ferry, as an alternative route to the busier A9, which the North Coast 500 route officially follows. The very helpful cafe staff find me details and after a quick call to the ferry operator I set off over the Kessock Bridge, which carries the A9, and on to the quieter roads of the Black Isle. A fast downhill section brings me to the shore of the narrow strait of approximately half a mile between the sheltered waters of the Cromarty Firth and the open sea to the east. I wait while the small landing craft-like ferry crosses from Nigg Ferry on the far bank, beaches and then deposits its cargo of a single car on the slipway. I’m beckoned aboard where I chat to the ferryman, who explains that he’s been running the ferry for the first season of the route being reopened and it has attracted steady trade. This is the last week of the ferry running for 2016 and I ask the man what he will do in the winter months. “Look for another job” is his response, although he is optimistic about the ferry running again for the following season. We make the short crossing with me and my bike the only cargo. Sadly I don’t spot the dolphins which are know to sometimes swim with the ferry; the only things floating in the Firth are giant oil platforms, which are impressive in their monolithic scale.
A few miles beyond Nigg, I regain the A9 and thereby join the North Coast 500 route proper. I have already decided to name the day’s ride after ‘I’m Gonna Be’ (500 miles), The Proclaimers’ popular song of love and devotion, as recognition of joining the North Coast 500. Again I cycle on into the dusk before stopping at the small seaside town of Golspie, where I am directed to the very comfortable ‘Culmarron’ B&B. After showering, I devour a large Fish Supper on the seafront, to the sound of the waves lapping in the darkness.
Tuesday 27 September – to ‘The Mighty Atlantic’
After another in what is becoming a habit of large cooked breakfasts, I resume my northbound course. With the objective of cycling the remainder of the east coast and ‘turning the corner’ at John’O’Groats to meet the Atlantic Ocean, my musical theme for the day’s riding is Runrig’s ‘The Mighty Atlantic/Mara Theme’. This piece of music has strong personal associations, taking me back to happy summer evenings spent fishing for mackerel and Pollack with my wife and daughters at Neist Point, during a holiday on the Isle of Skye some years ago.
There seems to be a bleakness about the east coast of Sutherland. The uniformity of the coastline and seascape, and its sparse population play their part, but perhaps vague associations with ‘dark’ Iain Banks novels preoccupy my thoughts.
After passing through the village of Helmsdale, the main A9 road climbs and twists to negotiate steep cliffs and bluffs on the coastline. The elevated road gives wide views across the sea to the east and, where it crosses valleys that cut into the coast, there are some plunging descents and steep climbs.
As I continue to follow the coastline north and east into Caithness, the wind freshens and the sky lightens. Soon I’m being pushed along by a stiff wind from the south west, although care is needed when the road occasionally twists perpendicular to the wind direction. On these sections I become wary of any gateway or opening on the left hand side of the road that might allow a sudden and violent cross-wind, and I brace myself in preparedness. With the wind-assistance the ‘Garmin’ indicates speeds of 25-30mph on flat and downhill sections of road, with minimal effort on my part. As a result I’m soon at the village of John’O’Groats, popularly considered to mark the extreme north east tip of mainland Britain.
After lingering at John’O’Groats, to take photographs, chat to other travellers and enjoy a beer, I head west and into the wind. I am content to ride just a further 20 miles along the north coast to the town of Thurso and a comfortable bunk bed at ‘Sandras Backpackers’ hostel.
Wednesday 28 September – ‘Passing Places’
Cycling west out of Thurso, I am pleasantly surprised to find dry and fairly calm weather. I have been keeping an eye on weather forecasts, which are predicting rain and gale force winds in the far north west of Scotland and I have been expecting to be riding into fairly unpleasant conditions. For 24 hours or so I have also been thinking about and singing lines to myself from another song by Dougie MacLean, ‘Ready for the Storm’.
A chance meeting on the road out of Thurso makes for an interesting social commentary. Unsure that I’m on the right road out of town, I stop to ask directions from a man in a ‘burger van’, serving breakfasts and coffee. As soon as the man speaks I recognise his Yorkshire accent, and we chat for a few minutes. It transpires that he is from Keighley, a town fairly close to where I live. The man has chosen to settle and make his life here because, he says, ‘it’s like how things used to be’ back in Yorkshire.
As I pedal west, I sense a shift in the air and fine drizzle gives way to persistent rain, making the desolate coastal landscape seem more bleak. By the time I reach the village of Tongue, after about 30 miles and where I stop for a warming bowl of soup, the rain is heavy and the wind has picked up considerably.
As in many of the remoter areas of the Highlands, the road is often a single track with wider marked ‘passing places’ for vehicles to pass or overtake. I have been musing on the nice social rituals that surround the use of Passing Places: the mostly patient waiting by drivers; the waves and flashing of lights that signify giving way or an expression of thanks; the general display of courtesy that characterises driving on these roads. I have even decided to give the name ‘Passing Places’ to my day’s riding, after the tune of the same name by Uist pipe and whistle player, Fred Morrison. So, now picture this scene: I’m riding into driving rain and gusting winds on a gloomy section of road that skirts Loch Eriboll, near Durness; a car coming in the opposite direction pulls into a passing place ahead of me on the road, seemingly to allow me to pass and ride on, uninterrupted; as I pass the vehicle the driver slides open his window, and in a cheerful voice asks “would you like a Tunnock’s?”
/////Update – 28.10.16/////
Rejuvenated by both the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer biscuit itself and by the amusing and uplifting little human interaction, I ride on into what seems like the eye of the storm. From Durness the road turns to the south west and I feel the full gale force of the wind – it’s quite hard to make forward progress and I find that I am weaving from one side to the other of the glistening strip of tarmac. The rain is unrelenting and driving straight into my face and streams and waterfalls seem to have sprung up everywhere. In places, the tumbling water is caught in the gusts of wind to create grey-white plumes of spray. As I pedal hard to try to retain body warmth, I am thinking that the conditions must fit this defininition: ‘blow a hoolie v. phr. (of weather) to storm; to forcefully gust, blow, and rain.’
At the small village of Rhiconich I decide to find somewhere to stay for the night. I take a room at the Rhiconich Hotel, peel off soaking wet layers and stand under the hot shower for ages, thawing out.
Thursday 29 September – ‘The Honesty Bar’
After a dry and comfortable night at the Rhiconich Hotel, where the hospitality of the proprietor, Marcus, even extends to volunteering a squirt of ‘WD40’ for my rain-washed bike, I set off into improving weather. The day unfolds into a succession of varied and interesting cycling roads, spectacular views and the occasional human contact and conversation. Again I choose to deviate from the official ‘North Coast 500’ route to take the delightful minor road that follows the coast south of Lochinver before swinging more easterly, to skirt the foot of the modest but distinctive peak of Stac Pollaidh.
I am starting to think about the time constraints around my trip, knowing that I have just one more cycling day before I catch a train south and home to Yorkshire. My developing plan is to reach the Inverness – Kyle of Lochalsh railway line somewhere in the vicinity of Strathcarron, which would create a fitting conclusion to my riding with the completion of the main coastal part of the North Coast 500 route and also the crossing of the mighty Bealach Na Ba (a noted hill climbing challenge for cyclists).
My rough calculations tell me that there is a long distance (and also likely to be a considerable cumulative ascent) remaining, to cross the bealach and reach the railway line, so I consider cycling on into the evening beyond Ullapool, to the hostel at Dundonnell. A number of factors help me to decide to halt at Ullapool; the main one being a desire to linger at ‘The Ceilidh Place’, a Café / Bar, Bookshop and Music Venue, that I last visited some years ago. I had heard that The Ceilidh Place also offered accommodation of some kind and on enquiry I find that it also functions as a hotel with additional bunkhouse accommodation. I book a room in the latter and feel very much at home as the kind lady on the reception books me a table for dinner in the bar and informs me that there is also free live music in the bar. As these things fall into place, this confirms my thoughts on naming the day’s ride after a tune by Mike McGoldrick that makes reference to The Ceilidh Place. The great Mancunian/Irish flute, whistle and pipes player experienced a (probably drunken) late night with a self-service bar after a music session at the venue, and so named one of his tunes, a lively jig, ‘The Honesty Bar.’
30 September – ‘Big Archie’
Well it’s going to be a ‘big day’ with a ‘big finish’ so I’m up and away before breakfast, as the dawn is breaking on Ullapool. I head south along the shore of Loch Broom and then climb steadily, until I branch right beside the Corrieshalloch Gorge and start to head in a north-westerly direction. This will be the nature of the next 120 miles or so of the North Coast 500 route; looping and curving around the massive natural features of Wester Ross.
After a long steady descent in the shadow of An Teallach’s great massif, I make a stop at the impressive Dundonnell Stores at around 30 miles into my ride. It is a day for trying to cover as much distance as I can, eating and drinking mainly from the saddle as I ride. The landscape is breathtaking and I am excited to be riding in a section of Scotland’s west coast that I have not visited before: I nearly always find that there is an extra enjoyment in roads never previously travelled and new scenery.
I’ve decided to borrow the name of a great fiddle tune by Duncan Chisholm for my ride today. The majestic bouncing reel ‘Big Archie’, named after one of the musician’s sons, is a perfect musical metaphor for my big mileage/big climbing day of cycling.
The route around the north end of the Applecross peninsular follows a tough, winding and dipping minor road; the initial north-westerly-heading leg, in particular, seems to go on for ever. When I finally reach the village of Applecross, it is dusk and it would be very tempting to find somewhere to stay here, if I did not need to catch a very early train tomorrow morning. So I leave the village to the west on the minor road that climbs from sea level to Bealach Na Ba, at 2,000 feet elevation …and into the darkness.
Over the last days I have been marvelling that my bike ‘Acciaio Rosa’ (Pink Steel), built by Aurelius Cycles in Yorkshire, has ridden like a dream over hundreds of miles of tarmac (often of poor quality), gravel and grit, and suffered no mechanical problems. Furthermore, I’ve not experienced so much as a puncture …tempting fate indeed! Now, facing the most noted road cycling climb in the British Isles and an enveloping darkness, I feel the sluggishness of a soft rear tyre. Stopping, I quickly diagnose a slow puncture, the tyre not completely flat, but steadily flattening. I’m some way up the single track road that winds upwards into the blackness; I can discern the shape of the route ahead only by the gleam of my light reflecting on the white rectangles of ‘Passing Place’ markers on the hillside; the air is getting colder as I gain altitude and the night sets in. A judgement is required: do I stop to replace the tube (at risk of getting very cold and making the problem worse while fumbling in the darkness) or do I give the tyre a quick pump of air every so often, and keep moving? It’s a difficult call, but I opt to keep pumping the leaking tyre and see how I go. On the slow climb, I find myself stopping every half a mile or less but I continue to maintain pedal cadence, body temperature and forward progress.
There is the occasional car on the bealach road, the headlights helping to give an idea of the course of the road ahead, in the scale-less blackness. One driver of a pick-up coming the opposite way to me pulls over to allow me to pass; through the open window he greets me “steady away Mate …and I thought I was mental!”
Eventually the gradient of the road eases. I cover the beam of my light to allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness and I can just make out a horizon between a black star spangled sky and a blacker hillside. I hear the lowing of cattle in the wind, which is appropriate for Bealach Na Ba, which translates into English as ‘Pass of the Cattle.’ As the road flattens on the bealach I look up to see a stag frozen in the beam of my front light. It appears white in the brightness of the LEDs and of unmeasurable large proportions in the inky blackness. In a moment the animal is gone and I pedal on to the brink of the twisting descent to the west. It’s a moment I hang on to …and a (magical?) climax to a remarkable journey that has encompassed so many aspects and elements of ‘Alba’ (the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland).