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Prints and Impressions left by a Bicycle - John Baston

Category: Touring

Castle; Refuge; High Place; High–way

A 250km ride in the Yorkshire Dales, inspired by the ‘Transcontinental’ Cycle Race.

The Transcontinental Race, an unsupported solo bike race of around 4,000 km crossing Europe from west to east, grabbed my attention when I first heard of this a couple of years ago.  Since then the race has fired my imagination and the idea of competing in this unique and epic adventure-cum-race has slowly crept under my skin. The solo cycling journeys I documented in my previous posts, ‘Celtic Cadence’ and ‘Two Lighthouses; Two Roses; Two Days’, were in part a quiet test of my fitness and resolve to make an application to participate in the fifth edition of the Transcontinental (hashtag – #TCRNo5), which is to take place in the summer of 2017. These long distance and lightly laden forays on the bike that I made in Scotland and Northern England didn’t dampen my fascination and curiosity about the Transcontinental and only reaffirmed some of the things I love about solo long-distance adventure on a bicycle.  So, when the route for the Transcontinental No. 5 was announced in November 2016, my curiosity as a fascinated spectator was coupled with a sense of excitement about the thought (a dream, perhaps…) of actually taking part in this epic cycle race.  Transcontinental Race Director (and noted ultra-distance cyclist), Mike Hall unveiled the route, during a presentation in Italy on 4 November, as follows:

Start – Geraardsbergen, Belgium (28.07.17)

Checkpoints :

CP1 – Schloss Lichtenstein, Germany

CP2 – Monte Grappa, Italy

CP3 – High Tatras Mountains, Slovakia

CP4 – Transfagarasan Highway, Romania

Finish – Meteora, Greece

When I saw that Transcontinental was also running a competition, requiring a 250km ride and a short accompanying video, to win a place in the 2017 race, I thought …well nothing to lose.  I will have the challenge and pleasure of a long bike ride and the (probably even greater) challenge of trying to make my first video.  So, three things that I like doing (riding my bike; a challenge; & doing something creative) and it probably can’t do my prospects of securing a place in the race any harm.

Tweet by The Transcontinental, promoting their competition to win a place in the 2017 race.

Tweet by The Transcontinental, promoting their competition to win a place in the 2017 race.

Link to above Tweet & video explaining the ‘#171 Competition’ – https://twitter.com/transconrace/status/804368099495514112

From this starting point, of a 250km cycle journey against a backdrop for a potential video, my bike ride was conceived.

I’m very fortunate in living close to the beautiful landscape of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and its always a pleasure to ride the roads and lanes of the Dales at any time of year.  The Yorkshire Dales has a plethora of iconic sights and locations, associated with its physical landscape and the human interaction with that landscape – perhaps I could link some of these places in a way that might echo (albeit on a much smaller scale) the route of the forthcoming Transcontinental Race.

 

Sunday 4 December 2016: ‘Castle; Refuge; High Place; High(rail)way

Summary of the ride from the 'Strava' app.

Summary of the ride from the ‘Strava’ app.

An early start, pedalling north and east from my home in Otley in darkness.  I follow familiar local roads by the light of my bright ‘Exposure’ front lamp and with a creeping greyness of dawn to my right.  The route undulates across the grain of the country, crossing river and stream valleys that drain off the eastern fringes of the Dales uplands.  It’s light by the time I descend into the valley of the River Ure, near Jervaulx Abbey, so I can admire long distance views across the flatter land to the east and to the plateau of the North Yorkshire Moors beyond.

After a short detour to the west, to cross the Ure where it tumbles over the triple flight of Aysgarth Falls, I arrive at my first ‘checkpoint’ at the 14th-century Bolton Castle, set magnificently on the green northerly slope of Wensleydale.  This provides a proxy for the, probably even more striking and spectacular, ‘Fairy tale castle of Wurttemberg’ (Schloss Lichtenstein – Checkpoint No. 1 of #TCNo5), which perches on a rock in the Swabian Jura of southern Germany.

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My Yorkshire ‘schloss’ is a popular tourist attraction, offering Bird of Prey Displays, Archery Demonstrations and Wild Boar Feeding (!!!) as well as visits to the castle building and its grounds. On a Sunday morning in December, I almost have the whole place to myself as I make a brief stop to take photographs and admire the building and countryside.

Castle Bolton

Castle Bolton

The view looking south towards West Witton Moor from near Bolton Castle

The view looking south towards West Witton Moor from near Bolton Castle

The second checkpoint of the 2017 Transcontinental Race is to be located at Rifugio Bassano, a mountain refuge hut now serving as a restuarant on Monte Grappa, a 1,775 m mountain in the Venetian Prealps of northern Italy. My equivalent today will be the isolated Tan Hill Inn, the highest inn in the British Isles at 528 m and at the northern extreme of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. From Bolton Castle to Tan Hill is approaching 20 miles of riding; across the moors to the north into Swaledale and, after passing through the village of Reeth, north-west along Arkengarthdale, a pretty valley even if its slopes are pock-marked by signs of a lead mining past. I pass the ‘CB’ (or ‘Charles Bathurst) Inn, which serves as a reminder of the local mining legacy. The lead-mining in Arkengarthdale was dominated by the CB (Charles Bathhurst) Company which was founded in 1656 when a Dr. Bathhurst purchased from the Crown the right to mine in the area. His Company continued until 1911 when the lead-mining industry in Yorkshire collapsed due to the slump in the price of lead.

From the CB Inn, the country becomes more wild in character and a beautiful unfenced road climbs slowly up the valley and over exposed open moorland for about eight miles to Tan Hill.

Beck Crooks Bridge, on the desolate but beautiful road that climbs gently westward from Arkengarthdale to Tan Hill.

Beck Crooks Bridge, on the desolate but beautiful road that climbs gently westward from Arkengarthdale to Tan Hill.

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Tan Hill Inn, my ‘mountain refuge’, dates from the 17th century, and during the 18th century was used as a hostelry by workers digging coal pits. The building apparently used to be surrounded by miners’ cottages, but now stands in splendid isolation on an exposed crest of moorland. The pub now offers ‘hearty’ pub food and real ales (including a ‘Tan Hill Ewe Juice’, 5% and cask conditioned on the premises), but I forego such temptations as daylight and time are short for winter bike riding. I stop to take photographs and exchange a greeting with a group of walkers, who kindly take a picture for me. Although it’s a bright day I quickly feel the wind-chill at such an elevated and exposed location so, grabbing a pork pie from my top-bar bag to eat on the go, I set off on the delightful sweeping road that descends south from the inn into West Stones Dale and towards the village of Keld.

A short stop beside Tan Hill Inn.

A short stop beside Tan Hill Inn.

Tan Hill Inn lies on the northern boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Tan Hill Inn lies on the northern boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

The descent into West Stones Dale from Tan Hill.

The descent into West Stones Dale from Tan Hill.

The lower reaches of West Stones Dale.

The lower reaches of West Stones Dale.

From Thwaite at the head of Swaledale, I engage a low gear as I begin the two-mile climb to Buttertubs Pass at 526 m. This will be my chosen ‘High Place’, in reference to checkpoint 3 of #TCRNo5 in the High Tatras Mountains of Northern Slovakia.

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Buttertubs Pass was permanently etched into the annals of road cycling when, in July 2014, it was a Category 3 Climb in Stage One of the ‘Grand Depart’ of the Tour de France. Huge crowds of spectators lined the route, in scenes reminiscent of classic mountain stages of Le Tour in the Alps and Pyrenees, as the peloton tackled the climb from its south side in pursuit of a solo breakaway by the veteran German rider, Jens Voigt.

Buttertubs provided the iconic image of the 2014 Yorkshire Grand Départ of the Tour de France.

Buttertubs provided the iconic image of the 2014 Yorkshire Grand Départ of the Tour de France.

For me today, it’s a more lonely affair as I make a short stop near the top of the pass, before making the quick descent to the town of Hawes in upper Wensleydale.

Looking north-east from Buttertubs Pass.

Looking north-east from Buttertubs Pass.

The view south from Buttertubs Pass.

The view south from Buttertubs Pass.

From Hawes, my route takes me south-west on the steady climb to Widdale Head Moss, which marks the watershed between the River Ure and the River Ribble. The Yorkshire Ure flows east towards the North Sea, while the Ribble drains into Lancashire and west to the Irish Sea. From here the B6255 offers a long gentle descent on good tarmac towards the limestone massif of Ingleborough, the tallest of Yorkshire’s ‘Three Peaks’.

Ingleborough, the highest of Yorkshire's 'Three Peaks at 724 m, silhouetted against a weak winter sun.

Ingleborough, the highest of Yorkshire’s ‘Three Peaks at 724 m, silhouetted against a weak winter sun.

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Between Ingleborough and the peak of Whernside to the north, is the low-lying expanse of Batty Moss (‘Moss’ being a Northern English/Yorkshire dialect term of old norse origin, meaning bog or marsh) where the Settle-Carlisle railway line crosses the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct. In its barren and almost tree-less setting, this giant, 400 metre long and 24-arched stone structure seems monolithic in proportions.

Approaching Ribblehead Viaduct.

Approaching Ribblehead Viaduct.

Ribblehead Viaduct is 400 m in length, and 32 m above the valley floor at its highest point.  It is made up of twenty-four arches of 14 m span, with foundations 7.6 m deep.

Ribblehead Viaduct is 400 m in length, and 32 m above the valley floor at its highest point. It is made up of twenty-four arches of 14 m span, with foundations 7.6 m deep.

In common with the Transfăgărășan Highway in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania (Checkpoint 4 of #TCRNo5), Ribblehead Viaduct and the Settle-Carlisle Railway is a civil engineering project, built to traverse wild and inhospitable terrain, which was completed at considerable human cost and loss of life. During construction of the viaduct, between 1870 and 1874, around one thousand navvies worked on the structure, establishing shanty towns on the moors for themselves and their families. There were smallpox epidemics and deaths from industrial accidents. Around one hundred navvies were killed during the building of the viaduct and 200 burials of men, women, and children were made in the graveyard at nearby Chapel-le-Dale.

Ribble Head (Batty Moss) Viaduct.

Ribble Head (Batty Moss) Viaduct.

After a short stop for photography and to admire the structure of the viaduct from close quarters, I set off on the homeward leg of my journey. I strike up a conversation with a fellow cyclist, heading back to his home in Lancashire after a day’s riding in the Dales. We ride a little way together as we pedal south west into the glare of the sinking sun.

The view back towards Ribblehead Viaduct.

The view back towards Ribblehead Viaduct.

I still have more than 50 miles (around 80km) to go, to reach home and complete my 250km ride, and with sunset and darkness approaching I press on. I traverse around the limestone uplands of Ingleborough to the west and then head north east, passing Pen-y-Ghent, the third of the ‘Three Peaks’ on its south flank in the gathering dusk. It’s dark enough to need lights by the time I reach Halton Gill at the head of Littondale, and I’m starting to feel the chill of the December night. From here onwards my planned route follows familiar roads along Wharfedale back towards my home in Otley, but in order to maintain a good tempo and to restore body temperature I elect to alter my course to take more major roads that will be quicker and easier to negotiate in the dark.

It’s been a beautiful and satisfying day’s riding that has also fulfilled the requirement of a 250km ride for the Transcontinental Race competition. The idea of a ride that in some way mirrors and represents in miniature the #TCRNo5 and its checkpoints has been interesting in its execution; serving to focus the mind on an ambition and motivation to ride that unique race as well as to gather ideas and material to make a video around the experience. With daylight expired and the makings of my video (and this blog account) ‘in the can’, the last part of the ride is just about putting my head down, to maintain an efficient cadence on the pedals and sufficient speed to get safely home in the darkness and falling temperature.

Now to try to make a video………..

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STOP PRESS 28 December 2016 – well I made my video and acquired a little bit of experience in the making and simple editing of films, in the process. I’m pleased that my video is included in a shortlist, which can be voted for at http://www.transcontinental.cc/171
The other good bit of news is that ‘The Transcontinental’ and ‘PEdAL ED (who are the main sponsors of the race) have, in a rather nice gesture, decided that all the #171 competition entrants will be offered a place in the finalised list of race contestants. So, provided my preparation and planning for #TCRNo5 proceed without mishap, I hope to be lining up at the start of the race at Muur Van Geraardsbergen on 28 July 2017.
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UPDATE 05 January 2017 – Although my video did not win the cap#171 competition, I was very pleased to receive an honourable mention from The Transcontinental / PEdAL ED, when the competition result was announced! See Facebook post at https://t.co/KNsBqzM6wb

Tweet re #171

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I look forward to documenting my road to the start of #TCRN05 through my blog writing and art, over the coming months.

Celtic Cadence

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’

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My bike, 'Acciaio Rosa' (Pink Steel), at Shipley Railway Station, awaiting the 06.28 train that will take me to Armathwaite in Cumbria.

My bike, ‘Acciaio Rosa’ (Pink Steel), at Shipley Railway Station, awaiting the 06.32 train that will take me to Armathwaite in Cumbria.

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.

England - Scotland border at Gretna.

England – Scotland border 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.

On Sustrans Route 74.

On Sustrans Route 74.

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.

Southportland Street Suspension Bridge, Glasgow.

Southportland Street Suspension Bridge, Glasgow.

Triskelion - a Celtic symbol that represented the the concept of completion and progress. The symbol looked like a three legged wheel. According to the first derivation of the meaning, the triskelion, represents actions, cycles, progress, revolution and competition. In all, the triskelion was a representation of a sense of advancement (here incorporated into a design in pen & watercolour wash - 5 October 2016).

Triskelion – a Celtic symbol that represented the the concept of completion and progress. The symbol looked like a three legged wheel. According to the first derivation of the meaning, the triskelion, represents actions, cycles, progress, revolution and competition. In all, the triskelion was a representation of a sense of advancement (here incorporated into a design in pen & watercolour wash – 5 October 2016).

Sunday 25 September – ‘Caledonia’

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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.

Sign for 'Queen's View and The Whangie' - somewhere to explore on foot when I'm next in Glasgow.

Sign for ‘Queen’s View and The Whangie’ – somewhere to explore on foot when I’m next in Glasgow.

Beside the River Teith at Callander.

Beside the River Teith at Callander.

'MHOR Bread' - great bakery, shop & tearoom in Callander.

‘MHOR Bread’ – great bakery, shop & tearoom in Callander.

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.

On Sustrans Route 7, at Callander (thanks to Dave Robson for loan of 'Lochs & Glens North' map that covers the route).

On Sustrans Route 7, at Callander (thanks to Dave Robson for loan of ‘Lochs & Glens North’ map that covers the route).

Route 7, beside the Falls of Leny, near Callander - cycle paths don't come any better than this!

Route 7, beside the Falls of Leny, near Callander – cycle paths don’t come any better than this!

Sustrans Route 7 - beside Loch Lubnaig.

Sustrans Route 7 – beside Loch Lubnaig.

Above Lochearnhead, view east down Loch Earn.

Above Lochearnhead, view east down Loch Earn.

Glen Ogle Viaduct

Glen Ogle Viaduct

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.

Rainbow over Loch Tay.

Rainbow over Loch Tay.

'Selfie' with Katie & Iain (Iain makes a mean Chocolate Brownie!)

‘Selfie’ with Katie & Iain (Iain makes a mean Chocolate Brownie!)

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’

Still on Route 7

Still on Route 7

Suspension bridge across the River Tummel at Pitlochry.

Suspension bridge across the River Tummel at Pitlochry.

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.

'Exposure' front lamp, lighting the way over the Drumochter Pass.

‘Exposure’ front lamp, lighting the way over the Drumochter Pass.

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!

When you're in Dalwhinnie it would be considered rude not to ...finish the bottle ;-)

When you’re in Dalwhinnie it would be considered rude not to …finish the bottle ;-)

ULTEGRA - CELTICA Design in pen and watercolour wash - 6 October 2016

ULTEGRA – CELTICA Design in pen and watercolour wash – 6 October 2016

Monday 26 September – ‘I’m Gonna Be’ (500 miles)

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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.

Dalwhinnie Distillery ...refill that bottle?

Dalwhinnie Distillery …refill that bottle?

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.

Carrbridge, Badenoch and Strathspey.

Carrbridge, Badenoch and Strathspey.

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.

Sustrans Route 7, beside the A9(T) road as it nears Slochd Summit.

Sustrans Route 7, beside the A9(T) road as it nears Slochd Summit.

Slochd Summit

Slochd Summit

Near Daviot, Inverness.

Near Daviot, Inverness.

'Culloden Avenue' - walking & cycling path, approaching Inverness.

‘Culloden Avenue’ – walking & cycling path, approaching Inverness.

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.

Velocity cafe and bicycle workshop, Inverness.

Velocity cafe and bicycle workshop, Inverness.

Inverness, from the Kessock Bridge.

Inverness, from the Kessock Bridge.

On the shore at Cromarty, awaiting the ferry.

On the shore at Cromarty, awaiting the ferry.

Cromarty-Nigg ferry.

Cromarty-Nigg ferry.

'Private Charter' ferry ;-) Not bad for £5.50

‘Private Charter’ ferry 😉 Not bad for £5.50!

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.

Another famous distillery on the route.

Another famous distillery on the route.

Echoes of another musician. As an admirer of the late frontman of the punk band The Clash, Joe Strummer, I know his mother came from Bonar Bridge. I'm thinking about this ...then I do a double-take at this sign ...'Clashmore!'

Echoes of another musician. As an admirer of the late frontman of the punk band The Clash, Joe Strummer, I know his mother came from Bonar Bridge. I’m thinking about this …then I do a double-take at this sign …’Clashmore!’

'Old Faithful Triskelion' (Old Faithful was the name given to his home-made world record-breaking bike, by the brilliant and maverick cyclist Graeme Obree (Design in pen & watercolour wash - 10 October 2016)

‘Old Faithful Triskelion’ (Old Faithful was the name given to his home-made world record-breaking bike, by the brilliant and maverick cyclist Graeme Obree (Design in pen & watercolour wash – 10 October 2016)

Tuesday 27 September – to ‘The Mighty Atlantic’

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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.

A gatehouse of Dunrobin Castle.

A gatehouse of Dunrobin Castle.

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.

Sun burst over the sea near Helmsdale.

Sun burst over the sea near Helmsdale.

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.

Extreme Nationalism? Flag featuring: Saltire, Tartan, 'Scotland the Brave' & Rampant Lions; flutters in the breeze, near Wick.

Extreme Nationalism? Flag featuring: Saltire, Tartan, ‘Scotland the Brave’ & Rampant Lions; flutters in the breeze, near Wick.

'Hay Rouleur' - Auckengill, Caithness.

‘Hay Rouleur’ – Auckengill, Caithness.

Even if the photo is something of a cliché, my journey through Scotland, from south to north, over four unforgettable days, is worthy of celebrating.

Even if the photo is something of a cliché, my journey through Scotland, from south to north, over four unforgettable days, is worthy of celebrating.

...and so, a celebratory 'Red Kite Ale' at The Storehouse Cafe, John'O'Groats.

…and so, a celebratory ‘Red Kite Ale’ at The Storehouse Cafe, John’O’Groats.

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.

Kitchen and sitting area at 'Sandras Backpackers' hostel, Thurso.

Kitchen and sitting area at ‘Sandras Backpackers’ hostel, Thurso.

Mara - Mighty Atlantic - Triskelion (pen & watercolour wash - 16 October 2016)

Mara – Mighty Atlantic – Triskelion (pen & watercolour wash – 16 October 2016)

Wednesday 28 September – ‘Passing Places’

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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’.

It was about this time that I received this tweeted weather warning from friend, sometime riding partner and Bike Nut, James Ward.

It was about this time that I received this tweeted weather warning from friend, sometime riding partner and Bike Nut, James Ward.

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.

The Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment can just be seen - centre, distance. Most of the facilities are undergoing a lengthy decommissioning process.

The Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment can just be seen – centre, distance. Most of the facilities are undergoing a lengthy decommissioning process.

Mint, growing wild beside the road.

Mint, growing wild beside the road.

Fred, another cycle tourist I met in the rain. Nice touring bike, loaded with panniers in the traditional way. We briefly chatted about our journeys and the merits of different styles of bike touring.

Fred, another cycle tourist I met in the rain. Nice touring bike, loaded with panniers in the traditional way. We briefly chatted about our journeys and the merits of different styles of bike touring.

Another 'Passing Place'.

Another ‘Passing Place’.

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?”

Lawrence and friend at Loch Eriboll - "Would you like a Tunnock's?" Lawrence is a cyclist and works for a cycling retail company (the name of which I can't, for the life of me, remember! :-(

Lawrence and friend at Loch Eriboll – “Would you like a Tunnock’s?” Lawrence is a cyclist and works for a cycling retail company (the name of which I can’t, for the life of me, remember! :-(

My Tweet, sent 10 October while writing this blog, to try to track down Lawrence to thank him again for his little gesture of kindness :-)

My Tweet, sent 10 October while writing this blog, to try to track down Lawrence to thank him again for his little gesture of kindness :-)

/////Update – 28.10.16/////

The power of social media. Kathryn & Lawrence tracked down by Twitter :-)

The power of social media. Kathryn & Lawrence tracked down by Twitter :-)

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.’

On the road between Durness and Rhiconich.

On the road between Durness and Rhiconich.

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.

Triskelion Depression - pen & watercolour wash - 10 October 2016

Triskelion Depression – pen & watercolour wash – 10 October 2016

Thursday 29 September – ‘The Honesty Bar’

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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.

Bike built in England, from Italian steel tubing : Road built in Scotland, with assistance from the European Union - #brexitsucks

Bike built in England, from Italian steel tubing : Road built in Scotland, with assistance from the European Union – #brexitsucks

Quinag, from the minor road to Drumbeg.

Quinag, from the minor road to Drumbeg.

Group of stags near the Drumbeg road.

Group of stags near the Drumbeg road.

'Acciaio Rosa' (Pink Steel) with Pink Corrugated Iron - Nedd.

‘Acciaio Rosa’ (Pink Steel) with Pink Corrugated Iron – Nedd.

Clashnessie Bay

Clashnessie Bay

'Clash'nessie - could this small village have any connections in the 'Joe Strummer, Highland Heritage Trail'? (alongside Umachan, Raasay & the Joe Strummer Memorial Forest on the Isle of Skye)

‘Clash’nessie – could this small village have any connections in the ‘Joe Strummer, Highland Heritage Trail’? (alongside Umachan, Raasay & the Joe Strummer Memorial Forest on the Isle of Skye)

Approaching Lochinver - Suilven on the horizon.

Approaching Lochinver – Suilven on the horizon.

Pie Shop!!! Lochinver - best pies you're gonna find - Butternut squash, sweet potato, goats cheese with chilli ***** :-)

Pie Shop!!! Lochinver – best pies you’re gonna find – Butternut squash, sweet potato, goats cheese with chilli ***** :-)

View south-east from coast road : (left to right) Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh.

View south-east from coast road : (left to right) Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh.

View east from the coast road : (left to right) Suilven, Cul Mor and Stac Pollaidh.

View east from the coast road : (left to right) Suilven, Cul Mor and Stac Pollaidh.

Beneath Stac Pollaidh.

Beneath Stac Pollaidh.

'Selfie' taken from the saddle : Coigach mountains behind (Coigach: Scottish Gaelic: A' Chòigeach ...today refers to the peninsula "beyond the big rock")

‘Selfie’ taken from the saddle : Coigach mountains behind (Coigach: Scottish Gaelic: A’ Chòigeach …today refers to the peninsula “beyond the big rock”)

Beside Loch Broom, on the run in to Ullapool.

Beside Loch Broom, on the run in to Ullapool.

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.’

Talented young band 'Tannara', playing in the bar at The Ceilidh Place

Talented young band ‘Tannara’, playing in the bar at The Ceilidh Place

'Triskelion Dance Diagram' (pen & watercolour wash - 11 October 2016)

‘Triskelion Dance Diagram’ (pen & watercolour wash – 11 October 2016)

30 September – ‘Big Archie’

30 September

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.

Approaching Dundonnell - the huge ramparts of An Teallach lurk in the cloud.

Approaching Dundonnell – the huge ramparts of An Teallach lurk in the cloud.

The view looking north west across Little Loch Broom.

The view looking north west across Little Loch Broom.

Stocking up at Dundonnell Stores.

Stocking up at Dundonnell Stores.

Refuelling 'on the road'

Refuelling ‘on the road’

Slioch, seen across Loch Maree.

Slioch, seen across Loch Maree.

Slioch

Slioch

Liathach

Liathach

Torridon Hills.

Torridon Hills.

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.

Applecross coast road: Raasay & Skye in the distance. Nearing the end of a long day's riding, and an unforgettable journey around Scotland. This shot seems to capture something of the essence of my Celtic Cadence.

Applecross coast road: Raasay & Skye in the distance. Nearing the end of a long day’s riding, and an unforgettable journey around Scotland. This shot seems to capture something of the essence of my ‘Celtic Cadence’.

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.

Looking back towards Applecross from the Bealach Na Ba road. The bright 'Exposure' light proving its worth again.

Looking back towards Applecross from the Bealach Na Ba road. The bright ‘Exposure’ light proving its worth again.

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).

A great stag, exposed in the beam of my 'Exposure' front light ...was it real or some otherworldly energy spiralling out of the darkness... (pen & watercolour wash - 12 October 2016)

A great stag, exposed in the beam of my ‘Exposure’ front light …was it real or some otherworldly energy spiralling out of the darkness… (pen & watercolour wash – 12 October 2016)

On the descent from Bealach Na Ba.

On the descent from Bealach Na Ba.

1 October - 'Acciaio Rosa (Pink Steel) has a well-deserved rest and a ride on the homeward-bound train.

1 October – ‘Acciaio Rosa (Pink Steel) has a well-deserved rest and a ride on the homeward-bound train.

 

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