Ride to Rhenigidale

“Mummy, mummy, the eagles are coming to get us!”

I looked up, but the slice of blue sky visible above the high, ragged rocks was clear and empty. We were just finishing a steep climb up on a road that hadn’t existed on my last visit here, blasted out of the ancient rocks just eight years before, down from the main road though the island, then back up and up, then down again, dynamited through the steep hills and cliffs that make this island coast so beautiful

My young daughter, 10 years old at the time, was making the pace on the climb. It was a warm beautiful day and we always rode like this on our cyclecamping trips, her in front of me, setting the pace. Which could be excruciatingly slow sometimes, but this was a small price to pay. Not many ten year olds would put up with every holiday they ever went on consisting of riding their bike each day, from one wild, windy often wet and cold place to another, for at least two weeks, often more, without ever complaining. Well, hardly ever!

I had thought this would be a point in the days route where, not only would the pace slow right down, but that we’d actually be off and walking. This road dives up and down through hills to the tiny settlement of Rhenigidale quite dramatically, meriting a couple of chevrons on the OS map. Id never ridden it before, as my last visit to the Hebrides had been twenty years before, when the only way to Rhenigidale was along a wild coastal path, but I’d walked that from Tarbert along the coast back then and knew the terrain.

Earlier that day, we had left Leverburgh, after arriving by ferry from Berneray. We’d spent longer than intended on Berneray. My daughter had fallen in love with the hostel there. Both its setting, and its character. So I agreed we could stay there an extra day or two. It had proved to be an excellent idea. The front door of the old thatched stone house opens right on to one one of the many Hebridean silver sand beaches and so two days here provided a welcome bit of variety for her, walks, sea swimming, shell collecting. We baked cakes in the old Rayburn oven in the hostel for all the other people staying there, even cleaning and housekeeping the old hostel seemed to be part of the fun.

Beautiful Berneray

On our second night after sharing a meal with the others there, we were all discussing our plans for the next stages of our holiday. One couple seemed a little worried for my daughter when we set out our plan to ride to Rhenigidale.

The husband was definite it would be too much for my daughter. “ Harris isnt flat like the Uists, my dear.”

I reminded him we had already discussed my previous trips to the area, so yes I was aware. I knew we’d have a long slow climb on the pass through the highest hills on the island, between Clisham, the very highest point on Harris, and the hills that go down to the rocky coast and our destination that day. And I knew this new road we were planning to take would be a tough cycle ride for me let alone a ten year old. But we had all day to do thirty miles and I knew my daughter. This wasn’t her first cycle tour. And she’d ridden through the hills of Cornwall and Devon at an even younger age. She had managed the relentless ups and downs of those counties just fine. She wasn’t fast, but she was determined, and had lots of stamina. The strategy we had employed then was: only twenty to thirty miles a day, plenty of snack stops, make sure we never run out of food and water and get off and walk if you want. Which she had done on most of those Cornish hills .I’d ride up to the top of the climb, leave my bike, run back down and push her bike up for her while she walked alongside me. That had worked fine, when she was seven years old. Three years on, she had several cycling tours behind her, she was stronger and more experienced, so I wasn’t worried at all.

The main pass climb that skirted Clisham, went even better than planned. It was a glorious day, if quite hot. Down into her lowest gear, she turned the pedals evenly, if very slowly, ahead of me. Did the whole climb without stopping once. At the top, we found a place to leave our bikes and clambered up a small hill, where we could sit and have a proper picnic. The weather was warm, sunny, the skies absolutely clear and the views amazing. Frances glanced down and pointed to a line through the heather and rocks, snaking down and then steeply up in the distance.

“We are not going down that, are we?”

“We’re not going down there, are we?”

I wasn’t sure…it looked sort of in the right place, but never having seen the road before, I wasn’t certain as it wasn’t even on the ten year old map I had been using! I couldn’t think what else it could be though, but the note of hesitation in her voice made me think it wouldn’t be a good idea to feed any misconceptions about the last leg of our journey.

“Don’t think so.”

We finished our picnic. Refilled our water bottles from a stream and walked back down to where we had left our bikes. The sun was still pretty high in the sky, it was very warm, and we still had many hours of daylight left, even in late summer up here.

The “track” Frances had spotted from a distance proved to be our road after all, and I got a brief reproachful look when she realised but then she just sighed a little and turned on to it.

Downhill at first, bending, then coasting down towards Loch Seaforth (or Shiphort) the big sea loch that slices into the eastern coast of Harris. But then our road turned again, away from the little loch Maraig that sits to the side of the greater body of water, and began to climb up.

Steeper and narrower

I kept chatting to my daughter, telling her she should get off whenever she wanted.

She told me she was fine. Her short legs kept turning evenly, if very slowly. I was pretty impressed. It was a tough climb, and I’d have welcomed the excuse to get off for a bit, myself.

It was very hot, the air seemed to still completely, the soft, welcome breeze we had on the open section of the climb before was now gone, and even though the sun was still high, it grew a touch darker, the higher we climbed, as steep banks of scrub and rock began to rise up each side of the road. Ever steeper and narrowing, as these roads blasted into the high old cliffs and hills of Scotland often are.

The big wide skies of the Hebrides we had grown so used to on this trip seemed to disappear as we neared the high point of the climb, sliced from our view by the wall of rough jagged silver grey rocks rising up around us, as the road ground its way over and through the ancient hill.

That was when she started telling me about the eagles and I started looking around for them!

It was possible. This was the kind of place you’d find them. But I couldn’t see any. My daughter seemed to be panicking more and more about these eagles which she now seemed to be convinced were diving down to eat us. I suddenly realised it was a possibility the heat, the sun and the exertion might have led to a bit of dehydration or even a bit of sunstroke and she might possibly be imagining these flying beasts about to devour us. I told her to stop riding. She just carried on. So I accelerated up the last few yards of the climb, rode in front of her and blocked her path.

She stopped pedalling. By now we were right at the top, but there was finally a bit of shade afforded by the high cliffs as the sun had also finished its climb and was just beginning the long slow descent to sunset.

We sat in the shade, sipping water slowly and sharing the bag of dried fruit, seeds and nuts we always carried. The sun dropped slowly, and almost imperceptibly, lower behind the rocks until the shade finally covered the whole road. By then we were refreshed and rested, ready to get back on the bike

Finally we were heading down to Rhenigidale, less than a dozen homes, scattered up and down the steepish sides of a tiny inlet. The road dropped down almost to the sea, then turned and began to climb back up a little. The hostel was tucked into the hillside, up a little climb of steps. A traditional croft cottage, not thatched like Berneray, but definitely with its own charm.

We left the bikes below and scrambled up the steps, into the door. First job, prepare snack and drink. This was easy here, as the warden at the time, whom we met later on, was Alistair Mackay a kind and generous man who made sure there was a good store of food and beverages for visitors.

A few minutes later, we were sitting on the bench outside the cottage, drinks in hand, a welcome sea breeze drifting in from the sea just below us, watching the gannets drop headfirst, sharp and straight from the eastern sky over the Shiant Isles, into the brilliant blue.

View from the hostel

“I’m not riding back up there, Mum”, my daughter announced firmly.

“Well, I don’t know how else we are going to get back out” I replied. “Don’t think swimming’s an option”.

“We’ll think of something”.

As I said I knew my daughter. The same determination and strength of character that had got her here, 30 miles of riding that many adults wouldn’t manage without getting off and walking once or twice, meant she’d probably stick to this decision and I would indeed not get her back up that road on a bicycle.

And she did indeed think of something. Which is a whole other story.

NB. The photos of my daughter come from a different part of that years trip, using a cheap camera which broke a few days before we reached Harris. The photos I’ve used to illustrate the trip described in the post were actually taken on another visit to Rhenigidale. Which explains the lack of blue skies which were plentiful that particular day. In the late 1990’s I didn’t own a decent camera nor a smartphone (they didn’t exist).

Back to Kent

12 weeks since I’d  ventured beyond the M25 that signals to a London rider the city is now well behind you, rolling over one of those smaller old roads that’s either been buried under or swept up and over the motorway.


My way out took me under at first. The potholed surface of Chelsfield Lane that rumbles roughly up and down, dipping under the big road through two dark concrete tunnels less than a mile from each other. The lane itself, in spring and summer, becomes a tunnel in places, but a much lighter and brighter one, arched with the leafy branches of trees from each roadside, filtering the sunlight.

The final stretch of Chelsfield Lane dips a little, then a bit more down the other side of Well Hill, to give you the first proper descent of this ride.  I couldn’t resist lifting hands off the handlebars, spreading my arms wide and doing something we used to do when young and foolish.  It’s as close to flying as you can get as a kid, riding down a hill, no hands, (well, apart from riding off the edge of first floor scaffold planks on a building site, but that’s another story. Which didn’t end that well, if I’m honest).  And, for a minute or so, I was ten years old on a bike again, doing something stupid, but enjoying it.  It goes without saying, I don’t recommend anyone do this, by the way. Cover your brakes at all times, is the cycle instructor’s sensible and recommended mantra.

Timberden Bottom

Luckily the bike flew safely over every rut and pothole on that rutted lane and I arrived at the T junction at the bottom, hands safely planted on the brakes pulling slowly to a stop. Here is Timberden Bottom, with Shacklands Rd weaving through the valley. From here the road sweeps gently up and down just a touch to the turn for Shoreham.  It was here I realised I was going to be early for my meet with a friend I hadn’t seen since well before lockdown. So I did an extra little circuit to the Badgers Mount roundabout, exploring a little off road track to complete the circuit back from the Orpington bypass on to Chelsfield Lane again!

This time, I turned right on to Shacklands Rd and was soon on my way to our meet point in Otford, through Shoreham, along Filston Lane.

Now we were two!  We had no clear route planned, just thought we might include Knatts Valley in the ride somewhere, and that my lack of miles and hills recently and my need to ride all the way back home might limit our miles a bit. So we headed up to the Pilgrims Way.

Not having seen each other for a while we were chatting and socialising rather than punching out the miles, so the pace was easy. Also, pausing in our chat, we realised we needed to turn left at some point or else I’d be heading so far out it would be a long ride back for me!  We had missed Cotmans Ash, which I’d vaguely thought we might use, so Terrys Lodge Lane was our way back up on to the ridge, but mid conversation again, we sailed past Knock Mill Lane without realising and once crossing the main road it was a nice surprise to find I was on a stretch of road new to me! Doesn’t happen often round here. The southern section of Ash Lane. So chose Billet Hill and Crowhurst Lane as our route to the valley.

I then realised I rarely use this route now as it leads to  Knatts Hill Lane, a rough, potholed winding track, which is not as car free as it was years ago. But we were there now so down we went. And yes, we had to brake and slow to avoid a few vehicles.

On to the valley road.  A great roll through, no motor vehicles for a change but a few other riders to greet. It’s always tempting to blast through because it’s that kind of road. But that means it’s over quicker, always a shame.

At the end we headed to Farningham and sat down by the river for our cake and coffee. Then made our way to the road that overlooks the valley below, riding along together almost to the end where it turns down to Eynsford, and I said goodbye to head up SparePenny Lane and back north to the city, about 15 miles away.

Couldn’t have had a better welcome back to Kent.

My route, mapped when home from memory, was sort of this…so usual caveats apply! 52here

Lockdown London Loop

Right foot down, follow on and off, pedalling down the empty street, gathering pace, legs spinning more than usual as this old frame of mine now only has the one gear.

5am. A few notes of birdsong hanging on the still cool spring air. Touch of light stealing upwards from a horizon that’s somewhere beyond the roofs and loft conversions. Dawn or city lights left on? Hard to say from my front door. Continue reading

Peckham Rye

Are we ever going to get a safe space to ride up Peckham Rye? Cars are allowed to drive across, it, park in it, but decades since I believe @southwarkcycle first asked, we are still forced into unsafe inches of space, especially southbound. I had an especially bad time today

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I’ve spent a good chunk of my working life in Southwark, doing some of the councils jobs (detached youth worker, child care worker, teacher). I’ve also lived in the borough off and on and am only just over the border into Lewisham now. I’ve always used a cycle to get around London and commuted by cycle for over forty years. Peckham Rye, east side, has been a part of that commute off and on throughout my working life and still is. And even when that commute included the Elephant and Castle 70’s style (two multi lane roundabouts, no light controlled junctions at all), London Bridge, Aldgate in fact dozens of other notorious junctions,   I’d still say that little trip up the east side of the Rye has always been my least favourite section.

Part of the reason for that is that it’s almost at the end of the return home. At the end of the day, after at least 8 hours work, mostly more, a climb, however gradual, is not really what you want on your home commute.

But mostly it’s because of the road conditions and design. For many years the surface was terrible, potholed, gravelly. That has admittedly improved. But it’s still a busy narrow road, and a rider has to cope with a climb, pinch points all the way up, and impatient drivers in cars that have got bigger and more powerful over the years making close passes at high speeds more and more common.

The descent on the way to work isn’t so bad. You’re fresh and full of energy and anyway it’s easy to ride downhill at the speed limit keeping pace with drivers, so they have no reason to overtake you. It’s easy to hold the lane through all the pinch points, so even if a driver decides they are going to break the speed limit, they find they can’t squeeze through and push you to the kerb at the pinchpoints. It’s still not that great for less experienced riders though, who may be less comfortable with riding at 20mph and just over and I’ve often seen others squeezed into the gutter, as drivers overtake them at the pedestrian refuge islands and also, a couple of times, almost t boned by drivers exiting the flats on the way down.

All these years of people being forced to fight for a tiny bit of space on a road that we all know isn’t a safe place to ride a bike. Yet right next to a community asset that could provide just that. Without any appreciable loss of its value as a green and beautiful space.

I have never been able to understand why folk are allowed to drive their cars across the Rye and a sizeable chunk of it has been turned over to drivers so they can park in the middle of it, and I believe still free of charge, yet a small strip of land can’t be allocated to allow people to ride bicycles safely down one side of it. There’s even a desire line there showing that’s where people want to go. Yet, still decades after people first asked for it, its not there.

To be frank, I’m sick of it. I had a specially bad experience this week. After a hard mornings work, which involved a fair bit of bike riding around the City, I headed back home. It’s been windy recently, you may have noticed and that day it was particularly bad. As I pulled away from the lights on the Nunhead Lane junction, that headwind just slapped me right in the face. It seemed to be blowing straight down the road from the top of the Rye, and determined to make my ride up as hard as possible.

As if that wasn’t bad enough at every single pinch point, I had drivers behind me. It’s so hard to hold a lane through a pinchpoint when your maximum headwind checked speed uphill is about 7mph. Or less. And when there are at least 7 pinchpoints in that half a mile from the bottom to the top it’s impossible to stop a driver who is absolutely determined to get through and is not willing to give you the space you need to feel and keep safe. On two occasions I was unable to prevent drivers squeezing into the space alongside me at a dangerous level of speed. Horrible.

Two other drivers pulled in as they overtook me, between the pinchpoints, as they misjudged the speed of oncoming traffic, and again ended up close passing me at speed. So close I could have touched their cars quite easily.  And was dangerously close to hitting the kerb on my side. Not good.

I’ve had enough. I tend to use the desire line now, up the Rye itself, if it’s not too muddy. So why not just formalise that line with a permanent path big enough for two way cycle traffic? The junction at the bottom could be easily configured to allow cycles to cross the junction. I’d actually consider taking children on that cycle trip then. Let’s not forget it’s meant to have been a cycle route for years now. I’m now officially an older person, and have spent my teenage, twenties and middle years in dangerous conflict with drivers on this short stretch. Now looks like I’ll be doing the same in my old age. Not acceptable.

It would be nice to ride safely and pleasantly to and from my home to Peckham and central London when I’m a proper old woman, one of the many cats with whom I will most likely be sharing my old person days, sitting in the basket on the front of an old Dutch bike. Such a simple ambition you’d think.  Seems these simple dreams involving just riding a bike or walking round your home city safely and happily are actually radical extremist ambitions in this country. Still hoping though.

Squirrel near miss

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img_3072The Enterdent: odd name for a tiny narrow lane near Godstone, Surrey, that links Tilburstow Hill to ChurchTown, a few ancient houses grouped round St Nicholas Church. It’s not long, but fairly steep and the the surface isn’t great. It’s a bit of a teeth rattler as you fly down, hoping there isn’t a vehicle coming up the other way. Continue reading

Rivers and Distilleries

A Tale of Three Rivers and Many Distilleries.

Forecast showed today as being the best in a very wet and stormy week up here on Speyside. A9C81E2E-43B8-4052-B0BB-862BB8803F51Having spent a couple of days slipping and sliding around on very wet muddy forest tracks and paths, I was finally learning the limitations of this gravel bike that’s handled pretty much everything else I’ve tried it on this last year or so. So, for a day forecast to be dry, I decided to plan a route sticking mostly to roads, apart from a few tracks I knew would be manageable and some short off road bits I wasn’t sure of, but could walk if unrideable and were necessary to avoid nastier bits of horrid A road.
Continue reading

Caferun19

D48C54E1-7D08-4840-B877-635BE19350A5I was visiting friends in Surrey this particular weekend. Seemed like the perfect opportunity to do the #caferun19 as they said they lived near Giro cafe in Esher, one of the cafes in the run. Two cafes at diagonal opposites to each other, geographically who have got together and proposed  a route to ride just because they’re there. And they both have cake. Continue reading

A touch of Spring in Winter

Plumpton is a great train station! Just 50 minutes from Clapham Junction and you’re minutes away from a glorious off road trail up on to the South Downs. Was a bit of a last minute idea, but the core of it was a wish to watch the sun go down by the seaside and a memory of riding to Cuckmere Haven with my daughter about 15 years ago!

51C27CD9-22C1-4300-B634-47937E0BE9A8 Continue reading

New Years Day 2019

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Dawn arrives late up here in the northern highlands, in the days between Christmas and New Year. But can be so clear, bright and glorious, you just have to make the most of the precious sunlight.  A change of wind overnight had driven off the rain clouds. A north east wind always seems to bring a drop in temperature and clear skies in wintertime.  Continue reading