Orkneys, Shetland and a little detour to the Mainland

I wonder why I have never thought of coming to Orkney before, given how much cycle touring I have done in nearly every other part of Scotland in the past. Perhaps because It’s north and east rather than north and west, the direction I’m usually headed. And also because access to the ferries that bring you over is via the A9, the far northern section of which I am not a fan. It’s narrow and very busy with big trucks. Not the best cycling experience in my opinion.
However, there are options which allow one to avoid it, especially now my daughter is living in Helmsdale, right at the end of a strath that has a handy road (or train) that can take you up to the north coast too.

So, up on a Tuesday night sleeper train to Inverness. I still love this sleeper, even now it has been taken over by a new franchise that seems to have ditched the wonderfully cheap bargain berth option. The staff are still invariably lovely, and if you book very far in advance, its still worth it for a treat. The seats are still available at more affordable prices, if you can hack sitting up all night. They’re bigger than the usual seats and can recline a bit. The staff used to bring you blankets if you asked. I don’t know if they still do, because I did pay a bit extra for a berth. Slept right through. Didn’t even wake up when the trains are separated at Edinburgh and head to their individual destinations of Fort William, Aberdeen and Inverness.
Then, in the morning, from Inverness up to Helmsdale. I decided to train it this time, to give me more time with my daughter, although there is a lovely route I have ridden before, doable in a day, especially if the Cromarty Nigg ferry is running. But don’t make the mistake I did, a few years back, neglect to check the ferry beforehand, arrive to find its cancelled due to the wind, then have to ride across the top of the Black Isle into the very headwind that stopped the ferry from running. Makes the journey much longer and much tougher.

In those days there was a hostel in Helmsdale. On the previously mentioned occasion, I was so tired by the time I eventually got there that I couldn’t face finding a pitch for the tent so decided to check in at the hostel. By now it was getting dark, the whole village seemed empty of inhabitants , so I rang the hostel number from a phone box. (That’s a clue to how long ago this was!) The warden could probably hear I was too tired to listen to the very simple directions she was giving and finally said, “Just pop your head out of the box, dear, and look up the road.” I did so and could see a small figure a few yards up on the corner of the main road waving at me. Within a few minutes I was inside, enjoying the hot cup of tea she’d made. Friendly welcome, warm bed. Sadly the hostel is now closed, sold by the SYHA a while back. A tale that I was to hear again on this trip. The building is still there at the top of the village.

But that was then. Now, I spent a couple of days with my daughter, rode up the strath on a glorious summer day, broom and gorse in vibrant bloom, along with dozens of other little wild flowers I couldn’t name. Sand martins nesting in the sandy deep banks of the Helmsdale River, a couple of salmon leaping. Paused a while at the slightly eerie Baile an Or, where a short lived gold rush never really delivered on its promise to the hopefuls who arrived here, prepared to live in a shack village in the hope of making their fortune. You can still hire gold panning equipment from the Timespan museum and art gallery in Helmsdale and have a go yourself. There is indeed still gold in them there hills which washes out into the river here.

Baile an Or: Site of Scotland’s 19th century gold rush


On one of the Spring golden hillsides overlooking Helmsdale, is a white stone, high up in the hill.  If you look at my photo carefully, you might spot it, near the top on the right. It’s not naturally white.  My daughter told me it was painted white as a protest against the Iraq war. And there it is still, shining white in the yellow at this time of year, later in the year,  white in the purple haze of heather.  Even here, about as far from Iraq as it feels it could be, someone felt in their heart this was a wrong, wrong thing and wanted to express that dissent.


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Oh the broom, the bonny, broom. and the white stone of peace, high up.

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An old packhorse bridge on a remnant of the old road left behind when the newer one was built

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Returning to Helmsdale

Then, having already ridden the road from Helmsdale up to the north coast unencumbered by my camping kit, the next day I cheated again and took the train to Thurso. From here I rode along the coast road to Gills Bay. This stretch of the coast road in the east is much flatter and easier riding than the western section. I passed Dunnet Head and was tempted to ride out to it, but didn’t want to risk missing the ferry, so stopped and took a look from a distance and then carried on to Gills Bay. Here there is a small ferry which takes a shorter route to the Orkneys, landing you at St Margarets Hope on South Ronaldsay.
St Margarets Hope is a small village with a shop and cafe.

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Just arrived in Orkney.  South Ronaldsay: St Margarets Hope

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View from Wheems Farm Campsite

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Sun beginning to set

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Still setting: sunsets take a long time up here near midsummer

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Approaching the causeway to Burray

I stocked up on food for a couple of days tea then rode down to the south of the island, half contemplating a wild camp. It was getting late, although that’s not too much of a problem at this time of year when darkness doesn’t descend till around 11pm and then it’s not really darkness, but a slight dimming of the day. But I was tired and nothing seemed suitable. Wild camping always sounds so romantic, but, having done a fair bit of it, the reality can be messy and uncomfortable if you don’t choose a good spot. It was windy, so I needed shelter, a good fresh water source and flattish ground. All I could find was bumpy, steep ground littered with large lumps of sheep poo and no useable water. The small streams marked on the map were sluggish and dank looking. It was a beautiful evening and I didn’t want to spoil it, so sat down overlooking the sea for a while and decided to ride back to a camping sign I had seen on the way down.

And glad I did. One of those spots that is almost as good as a wild camp, a field next to an organic farm run by a lovely guy, Mike Roberts, who will sell you fresh eggs and organic veg, if available. It overlooks a lovely beach that is just a few minutes walk away. Fairly sheltered from the strong northerly wind too, which, though cold, brings a lot of sun and dry weather with it. I blethered a wee while with Mike, originally a southerner like me, who knew Maidstone! But had been here for years and obviously loved the land and knew how to care for it.
I decided to spend a couple of days here, and use it as a base to explore as much of mainland Orkney as I could. Planned a couple of out and back trips. The first a trip south and around Ronaldsay. A real feast of beach and birds. Eider duck families with little ducklings in tow. Curlews and oystercatchers desperately trying to distract me from their nests, the latter often flying alongside me for ages to lead me away from their offspring. Evening walks down to the beach, windy sunsets. There is an old churchyard right next to the sea here. And a walk which takes right to the southernmost tip,of Ronaldsay. I’d definitely recommend the campsite. Basic, but beautiful.


To Be Continued

Back to the Fridays

For those that don’t know there is a group of people that have been riding out of London to a coastal resort most months of the year, aside from the deepest darkest winter ones, for maybe ten years now.  I forget when they first started, as I wasn’t on the first couple. A very good friend of mine told me about them and their leader, Simon, who is a character and a half I can tell you.  I think it was sometime in 2008, or maybe 2009.  Simon has done a lot more in his life than the Friday Night Rides, but they remain the bit in which I was most involved over the next few years.

So, back to the FNRttC.  Well, yes, my good mate took me along, introduced me to Simon, the leader and a few other people and so it started.  Although Simon ran them every month, from March to November, I was never able to make them all.  Pressures of work, family, all that stuff.  But I did a fair few over the following years.

There is something special about riding at night.  Main roads through dull, urban areas, normally choked with motors are transformed into ribbons of light snaking through empty streets, with just the occasional raucous group tumbling out of pubs and night clubs, calling after you as you stream past. You can own roads on which you would usually struggle to claim your little scrap of space.

And the transition from city to countryside, as the glittering lights gently recede and the moon and stars take over, can be magical. I have turned my lights off (not to be recommended I hasten to add) and ridden along a road in the Mole Valley under a huge full moon so bright the leaves on the trees seemed outlined in silver.  I remember riding down the canal near Gravesend, on our way to Whitstable,accompanied by what sounded like thousands of bull frogs, and, by the same canal, being called back for a few minutes by my friend Peter to catch the sound of nightingales singing.  That same ride, another rider pointed out to me, the International Space Station clear in the sky above us.

Then there is the variety of the countryside itself, rural scenes you know are transformed at night, be it  marsh, orchard, woods or the views from hills and moors.  (One of the rides goes from Manchester to Morecambe).

Anyway, I could go on and on, because I have a whole store of memories like this.  But this was going to be a post about my return to the Fridays. Because I have been away for a bit.  Well, I’m glad I went back, and extremely grateful that, now Simon is taking a rest from the organisation of them, that others have taken on the task of sorting and checking routes, halfway stops and final breakfast cafes.  And they do it well.

This first Friday Night Ride ride of 2016 and my first for many months was  definitely a ride of two halves. It was also not on Friday night!  When the Friday coincides with Good Friday, the ride is held on the Thursday.  It’s still an FNRttC, though.

The first half provided me with lots to moan about, one of my favourite pastimes, so I was happy. So good to chew the fat, banter and blarney with old friends and familiar faces, some of whom I haven’t seen for a while, even if the opportunity for that was provided by a couple of unscheduled stops in the freezing rain! Let’s be honest, these are always the conditions that provide the best banter anyway. Plenty of good chat and giggles at the halfway stop.  For this ride, halfway stops prepared to open up about 3am are hard to find so its down to the services at Junction 31, Thurrock, where I was seriously tempted to lie down under the hand warmers in the toilets.  My friend Andy came up with a few creative ways of keeping them running for that purpose, but each strategy seemed to involve the abuse of small rodents, so I reluctantly gave up on the idea.  This may make no sense to you, but then, you had to be there!  A lot of the Fridays experience is like that.  You just have to be there.

After, sharing cake, jokes and stories, catching up, we were back on the road and very soon, the  rain stopped and we left behind the urban roads and were on quieter country lanes.  And, much earlier than I expected, the edges of the darkness began to fade, a hint that sunrise was definitely on the way, something the birds had already worked out, as their singing began, drifting out of the hedges and trees, louder and louder.

It wasn’t long before the sun began to rise properly and blue sky peeping through gave us a second half of the ride to remember fondly in the future, which made me so pleased I hadn’t turned round and gone home at Fenchurch St.  (This had been the first Brompton induced cold wait point while a rear tyre puncture was fixed.)

After a while, I spotted the snowy locks and familiar riding style of the inimitable Peter Walker,  the same Peter, who a few years ago had stood and listened to nightingales with me on a night ride to Whitstable.  He had ridden out from Southend to meet us and I rode and chatted with him for a bit. The last few miles in what was rapidly becoming warm sun were a joy and the final leg stretch along the seafront to the cafe just perfect. Brilliant blue skies, warming sun, tailwind. The new cafe is a real find, well done leaders.  I picked a table in the sun, right over the beach on a great terrace and waited till Peter rocked up so we could breakfast together.

It was such a lovely day, I wanted to carry on riding, but I’m not too fond of any of the return ride variations from Southend to London..too much anonymous urban riding, which, while it has some attractions when it’s transformed at night, is dull, boring and busy in the daytime. So rode back with Peter along the seafront to Chalkwell, and waved him goodbye as he headed home.  Then I took the train to Limehouse from where I rode to Wapping, down to the river and east to the Greenwich tunnel, under the river and west along it to Tower Bridge, then a little trip to St James Park and finally home the long way via Vauxhall Bridge and several SE London parks. The first really warm sun of the year had brought folks out to enjoy the best bits of London and I joined in the fun, watching it all as I rode by.

My legs by now were feeling a bit leaden. And I realised I must have ridden over 90 miles since 11pm last night. I have to admit, the last mile home was a bit of a struggle as I was by now running on empty and of course, living on the edge of Forest Hill, it involved a teeny bit of up.   I eventually staggered in my front door, happy and tired.

It was still a beautiful day, so I sat in the garden with a glass of wine, some French bread, cheese and salad and fell asleep in the sun. Perfect Easter. Terrific Friday Night Ride. Thank you, Friday peeps.

If what I have written has tempted you at all to try a FNRttC,  then head over to their website here


Beaches, Birds and a Boat to Barra

This was my first visit to Coll. The threatened wind and rain had not fully materialised, passing over to the east and the evening proved to be warm enough for me to eat outside, sitting comfortably in my new Helinox chair (worth the money and the wee bit of extra weight) and then head down to the hotel for a drink in the garden. Then up the hill again and in to my sleeping bag.

I woke to wind and rain battering the tent. Tea and breakfast made on the Trangia (inside the Duolite Tourer tent’s capacious porch). Then down to the community centre for a shower. The new centre in the main settlement, Arinagour, is a simple, attractive building which has a bunkhouse next door and showers and toilets accessible through a side door 24 hours a day, for wild campers. Showers cost a pound and are powerful and hot.

The rain was easing, but not the wind, a strong cold north easterly. I prepared the bike for a sort of Coll circular, up one of the roads out of Arinagour round the northern bit of the island to Sorisdour and back down to join the other road to Arinagour. This involved using a short stretch of track, which looked short enough to walk if it proved too tough to ride. The 5 miles to the north of the island felt like 50… A powerful headwind did its best to force me back down to Arinagour, occasionally throwing in bucketfuls of harsh, stinging rain. Then, once at the top, there was probably a great view across to Ardnamurchan.

20140605-073854.jpg Except the low cloud and drifts of wind driven rain obscured most of it. Then back down the same road, passing the turn to Arinagour and carrying on down the western side of the island where the road stops at about half way down and becomes a track, muddy and messy which meets up with the road that curves back round past the airfield to the southern side of the island and Arinagour again. There are several beautiful sandy beaches off this road and I took a track through the dunes down to the biggest of these, Crossapol Bay.

After struggling back up the track, mostly cycling but some pushing where the sand was particularly loose and deep, I checked out the listed campsite on the island, in a walled garden near the sea. It looked pleasant enough, but not enough to tempt me, in this wild, wet windy weather anyway, to break camp and move.

On the way back to Arinagour, a group of large rabbits with very large ears shot out from behind a rock and began to zig zag away over the wild heathland….then I realised it was a family of brown hares. I stopped and watched them for a while.
Then back to Arinagour, a visit to the shop for provisions… cooking in the tent out of the wind and rain and then to the hotel bar, again to shelter from the wind and rain. It is a friendly little place. Two bars…the public is bigger and the locals are very friendly. The lounge is more comfortable, but small and tends to get full quickly with visitors, some friendly, some not so much. I perched on a bench in the public bar and got chatting with the man who reads the meters on the privately owned wind turbines, of which there are quite a few up here, some owned by individuals and some by whole communities.
I left the bar well past ten, as the sun was setting. The rain had passed and the wind had dropped slightly. I had cycled every road on the island and a few of its tracks and although this still amounted to less than 30 miles, I was tired…the headwinds for half of that route had been exhausting. I planned to brew a hot chocolate and then sit and watch the sun set. However, not only is sunset late up here, it takes ages and by the time I gave up and crawled in to my sleeping bag, it was still not fully dark.

Up the next morning, local eggs fried with tomatoes and a soft roll for breakfast. That and several cups of hot tea gave me the energy to start breaking camp ready for the next stage of this island hopping journey.

The Thursday ferry to Castlebay on Barra, makes extra stops at Coll and Tiree and I had a ticket for it in my pocket already. The Hopscotch deals from Calmac are a real bargain. Me and my bike, a ferry to Coll, another to Barra, a third from Barra to Eriskay, number four from Berneray to Leverburgh on South Uist and a fifth would take me back to the mainland at Ullapool in a fortnight’s time. All for forty quid. Quite a few sea miles in that itinerary.

The second of those trips, Coll to Barra was one of the longest. It ended up being four hours crossing the Minch and was pretty rough once we were out of the Sound of Mull. But there were still some interesting views I had not seen before, including this interesting island, the Dutchman’s Cap or Bac Mor, part of the Treshnish Isles.

On land the winds were blowing up to about 30mph. Gusts stronger. At sea, some poor passengers found this tough. Quite a few spent long periods in the toilet and their sufferings echoed round the ship. I had expected to feel the same when I saw the expected wind speed…I had made a crossing to Barra over 30 years before, on a much older, pretty basic vessel, that pitched and rolled quite dramatically in the rough seas. I was quite ill then. However, this ship seemed much more stable in the roughish sea and provided I didn’t walk around too much (which was pretty tricky anyway) I felt fine.

Disembarking at Castlebay, with its distinctive stone castle cast adrift in the bay, it was still pretty windy.

A north easterly, not the expected south westerly at all .However, I wasn’t too bothered as I was heading over the causeway on the south side of the island, to Vatersay. On my last trip, 15 years ago, there had been no causeway and the winds (south westerlies then but stormy ones) had been exceptionally rough and wild, too stormy for our planned kayaking trip, or even the little ferry that used to cross between Barra and Vatersay. So I had not been able to show my daughter this little island and its lovely wild camp beach spots. That’s where I was now headed.

There were far more fences than I remembered, but eventually I found a way through to the dunes with the bike and pitched the tent in a reasonably sheltered spot, out of the biting north wind.

20140613-160315.jpg The wind may have been tough and cold, but at least it was dry and beautifully clear…the views and sense of space on this wide beach were just as beautiful as I remembered. I wrapped myself up in my sleeping bag and sat in my little chair, mixing up a pasta dinner, finished off with a cup of hot chocolate, fortified with a tot of whisky. Great end to the day.


I was hoping that the wind would have dropped by the morning, or at least shifted to a warmer and more helpful direction. But it hadn’t. It was still gusting down from the north east, completely the wrong direction for a cyclist planning to ride out of Vatersay through Barra and up to Berneray. It was possiby blowing a little less briskly than the previous day but was still strong and very cold.
After a breakfast of porridge, fruit and chocolate, which I figured I would definitely need and deserve after a few hours of fighting this headwind, I broke camp and headed on out. Back over the causeway, up and on to Barra…my plan had been to ride round the island before heading up to the ferry at Ard Mhor in the north…but as I battled up the hill west of Castlebay, I began to realise that this would be no fun, in such a strong headwind, except for the short section where the wind would be behind me. As I passed the Barra Beach hotel at Borve, I saw a sign for a campsite. I made a new plan..stay one more day down this end of the Hebrides, ride round the island unencumbered by luggage, and hope the wind would drop for tomorrow.
The site at Borve is relatively new. Small, quite a few motor homes, but very pleasant. Great Atlantic views. A small, clean building houses the shower and toilet block as well as a small kitchen and laundry room. Friendly owner, too, the local postie.


Although windy, it was still a clear, bright sunny day. But cold, so cold that as I rode through Castlebay an hour or so after pitching my tent, I realised the gloves I had were not keeping my fingers warm at all. So I stopped off at the big, grey house at the top of the street down to the harbour. Which is in fact a hardware store,the old fashioned kind which stocks a huge range of items from paint, nails and screws through to kitchen goods to stationery and underwear. And gloves, warm full fingered ones for less than a fiver.

My hands now cosily protected from the wind chill, I continued my circular tour, up the even bigger hill on the east side of the island, into the wind, then across the top battered by cross winds. Only a few miles, sure, but it felt like five times the distance. Finally, as I began to complete the circle, I suddenly felt the wind almost sweep the bike up and cast it forward. Instead of having to pedal to keep going even on the downhills, I was now coasting along at speed. I got slightly carried away by this and sailed past the campsite back towards Castlebay.

There is now a fairly well stocked Coop just outside Castlebay, so I propped the bike up outside, and popped in. My 15 year old memories of the Hebrides were that food shopping opportunities were scarce and fresh fruit and vegetables scarcer. However, I was able to choose from a decent selection of fresh fruit and veg, although the lack of fresh fish seemed odd in a shop in an island community.

Back up the hill and into the headwind for the 3 or 4 miles to the campsite. I had only ridden maybe 20 miles or so that day. Yet my muscles were responding as though I was nearing the end of a hilly ride of double that distance.

I was looking forward to some hot food to insulate me against the wind, so prepared a pot of cauliflower, spinach and chick pea curry, then boiled up some rice to go with it. I found a sheltered spot, wrapped myself up in hat, warm jacket and sat down to eat, while watching the sun set over the Atlantic. By 11ish, a few stars were visible, the brighter ones, although it was still not fully dark. I had still not managed to stay awake to see a completely dark sky since getting this far north. I crawled into my tent, leaving the door open to lie out, watching the stars slowly increase in number as the dusk light faded slowly. It still didn’t seem to get completely dark and the one downside of these long hours of daylight seemed to be that the full complement of stars was not going to emerge.

Maybe three hours later, I awoke, absolutely freezing with the tent door still open. I hurriedly,  and sleepily,  zipped it up and dived down into the depths of my sleeping bag, to sleep till well past dawn.

Next morning, the wind was still blowing in the same direction. Bad. But it had dropped a little in intensity. So a bit better. It was still tough going. I reached Ard Mhor and was soon on the ferry heading for the little island of Eriskay from where one can ride across the causeway into South Uist.


Lovely tandem and trailer ridden by a Swiss couple alongside my bike on the ferry. Another 10 bikes out of shot on the other side of the ferry.

The road through South Uist is pretty flat, following the low lying ground alongside the slightly higher ground to the east of the island. The effects of any wind seemed magnified as it whipped across, straight into my face, the bike and panniers acting like a windbreak Great if it’s behind you. Not so great if it’s a headwind. Over the next 20 miles I averaged about 7mph. Even though there wasn’t a single hill to climb. I knew from previous visits that there was a very nice Gatliff hostel not that far away and decided not to press on to Berneray that day, but to take the easy way out and turn off this road which had become the wind tunnel of doom and head for the hostel.

Howmore Hostel, is one of the Gatliff trust buildings. They now run three hostels in the Outer Hebrides, the Blackhouse Village Museum at Garenin now having taken over the one they ran there. These hostels are great places, never turn anyone away, are open all hours. The local people who oversee them tend not to be around much, consequently you are pretty free to do what you want, and when they do turn up, are invariably friendly and helpful.

This one was full of cyclists! In fact that was one of the first big changes on this trip compared to our visit fifteen years ago. Then my daughter and I had been pretty unusual in our transport choice. I think I remember bumping into a German couple on South Uist and two Swiss guys in Lewis riding bikes plus two people trying to ride the postman’s track from Rhengidale to Tarbert. And that was it.  Now, fifteen years later, on the Oban Barra ferry there had been at about 15 bikes, none of which had headed to Vatersay, they had all gone north straightaway.  So were presumably already a day ahead of me….those in the hostel had arrived yesterday, and like me, had given up in the headwind. Some camped outside the hostel.. Others, like me, opted for a bed inside….
The second difference : The hostel had showers…15 years ago you had to make do with a sink wash. Definitely a welcome change after struggling into that headwind.
The conversation round the table that night flowed quite nicely with the help of an assortment of alcohol. I discovered that one of the guys there was at the same Rock Against a Racism gig in Victoria Park that I had attended, forty years ago nearly. It struck me then, that everyone at the hostel was well over forty, very different to the ages of visitors I remembered 15 years ago, which were much more diverse. Possibly a side effect of travelling outside the school holidays,  which I have never really done before.
Around 9.30pm I decided to walk down to the beach….I remembered it as being a great place to view the sunset, as it faces due west. The walk down from the hostel takes you through the dunes and on to a wide stretch of pale golden, almost white, soft and very fine sand. The last time I was here, my daughter and I had tested the strength of the strong south westerly that had blown us up from Barra on our bikes, by leaning back as far as we could against the wind. By now the sharp, bitter north east wind that had done it’s best this time to keep me firmly in Barra that day, had dropped to a stiff cold breeze. The one good thing about a north east wind is that it rarely brings rain and it was a beautifully clear crisp evening, with the light of the slowly lowering sun lengthening my shadow bit by bit almost as I watched.



The next morning I was up very early and took my porridge and tea outside the hostel to sit in the sun. Carefully placing my back against the wind, which still had a fair amount of north easterly force in it, I looked out towards the ruined church next to the hostel. I could hear corncrakes calling through the reeds, a sound I have heard before in the Uists. Like one of those old football rattles, rather irritating to be honest. Then I saw two birds, speckled squat things, emerge from the reeds in the field and run across to the next patch of reeds. I may have heard corncrakes before, but this was the first time I had seen them.

As the headwind was still pretty strong, I packed up the bike fairly early and headed off to Berneray. Only 30 flat miles but, I wasn’t looking forward to another day in that headwind……
To be continued…

First Stop, Coll

Well, not really. An evening and morning in Glasgow with my daughter, then a train journey to Oban and then, Coll.
Hot, hot, hot. Well 22 degrees anyway…which is hot for this part of Scotland, especially in May. Standing waiting for the ferry to Coll, I had to dig my sunglasses out of my bar bag, the bright sea glare of the sun was beginning to hurt my eyes.
I have been spending large chunks of my spare time somewhere in Scotland for many years now, and there is still a lot of it I haven’t seen. Among these places, the Isle of Coll. A three hour crossing, sea flat calm, brilliant, sparkling, I spent most of that time out on deck, in a short sleeved t shirt. I think that may have been a first for me. Of all the Scottish ferry journeys I have made, and there have been a fair few, I don’t think I have been able to stand bare armed up on deck for more than half an hour or so, even on the finest of days.

As the ferry neared the little island, however, the wind began to whip up, and the clouds began to pile in. The view of Mull in the distance, so clear for most of our voyage through the Sound of Mull, began to fade.

Rain had indeed been forecast for later that evening, which decided my choice of camping spot for me…I had been looking at maps and thinking about heading to one of the dune beaches on the other side of the island…….but with bad weather on its way, I was tempted by the free camping field in a field behind the hotel. Easy access to hot showers, toilets, a warm place to hide if the weather got really bad seemed a more attractive option. I rode out of the tiny settlement of Arinagour, the main place on the island and rode round to where the field seemed to be on the map…just to check it out first…it looked OK, empty, and there was a fine view of the sea from up there with some sheltered spaces to pitch out of the the wildest blasts of wind and rain. So I rode back popped into the hotel, as you are asked to tell them if you wish to use the field. I spoke to a man who appeared to be serving himself behind the bar, and he proceeded to tell me about the field. He spoke with authority and I assumed from his manner, he was the landlord. I told him I had looked at the field and checked again with him that it was where I thought it was…he began to tell me I was mistaken, it wasn’t on the right, it was on the left and began to give me directions which confused me entirely…then he cast his eyes to heaven and said, “What is it with women and their complete lack of of sense of direction?
The barmaid looked a little uneasy at that point…I think she had noticed my eyes narrowing and the look on my face (I may have been growling and baring my teeth). “My sense of direction is fine”, I said, “at least, it has been good enough to get me across Europe on a bike in the past and back, with a tiny road map, so maybe if we start again?” At that point, the landlady appeared, and it soon became apparent that this guy was just a bloke drinking in the bar, and he had not realised (because he had not listened to me) that I had taken the road up to the camping field, which does lead you to view it from the right, but he was directing me from the track next to the hotel, from where it is on the left.
I pushed the bike up the steep track, past a rather ugly, aggressive looking church, to the field.

By now the wind and rain was really setting in, so I chose a sheltered spot behind a rocky outcrop and pitched as quickly as I could. The Man from the bar appeared again, ostensibly offering assistance (politely declined) but I suspect to see with his own eyes, a woman pitching a tent without male assistance and hopefully prove his prejudices to be correct as I was sure to make mistake after mistake. I am sure he didn’t believe I could possibly do it without something going wrong and I was almost certain that, the usually simple job I can do in a few hitch free minutes would, on this occasion, be hampered by all sorts of problems, just because he was watching. However, this proved not to be the case and the tent was up, the Trangia out and boiling water, and tea made and offered to him in possibly the shortest amount of time I have ever done it. Result!>


On the Road Again

On the train out of Euston for Glasgow again. 3 days ago the bike was still clamped firmly in the bike stand, in the middle of a pre tour service. Panniers still on top of the wardrobe, flat and unfilled. Not a thing laid out on the bed in barely organised pre packing piles. Eeeek!
Actually, I wasn’t that worried. It’s only a month. And I will be cycling in the Highlands and Islands not crossing continents.


Still can’t persuade myself to use the front rack on the Roberts. I should really remove it..I have used it once in eight years. The thought of lugging four bags on and off the bike in order to access whatever form of mass transport I might have to use at some point on my trips, encourages very light packing. Which is fairly easy in summer. Winter trips are a little trickier when just a winter fleece and winter sleeping bag can fill one pannier on their own. But, ironically, now I finally have a bike fitted out to take that volume of kit, I am doing fewer winter journeys and feeling less like camping when I do them. Getting old, I guess.

It’s a long time since I have ridden a loaded tourer through Central London in rush hour. I usually make sure my train departure  enables a cross London journey at quieter times. But the availability of a very cheap ticket meant I was riding up Blackfriars Rd at the tail end of the rush hour, and forced to sit in the stream of heat belching engines rather than heading up the jam on the right as I would usually do on the singlespeed. The Roberts Roughstuff is a great bike, but it’s not made for traffic jamming. With it’s long wheelbase and big load on the back it’s secure, steady, strong and stable but not nippy! And nowhere near as fast and manoeuvrable as the Holdsworth, the bike on which I am usually to be found riding around city streets.  But, I had plenty of time, so just sat patiently, the only downside being the copious amounts of polluting particulates I was being forced to inhale…not a pleasant thought, especially for an asthmatic, like me.
But, I would still rather ride these streets, than drive them (how mad an idea is driving in London?) or cram myself into a tiny space on a bus, tube or overground train, where I am forced to breathe in a variety of bodily odours belonging to a diverse and large number of human beings, along with the manufactured odours they have purchased and, often far too copiously, applied to mask them.
And still faster than any other way of getting here from Southeast London, even on my magnificent beast of burden that was never built for speed.

Off Road Madness

I had lunch with an old friend today.  The last time we had seen each other was over a year ago,  in the Scottish Highlands  when, had he not pacified me with some rather excellent whisky during our evening meet up at Glen Affric hostel, we came very close to falling out.  Why?  Read on.

August 13th 2012 I was in the middle of a tour of the Highlands.  I was trying to include a few off road routes on my journey, but not excessively rough, technical routes as my bike isn’t really built for that.  Nor do I have the strength to haul full camping kit through some of the tougher routes.  I had already ridden around Aviemore through the Ryvoan Pass, which I had enjoyed, although it did take me ages.   Then I had headed north to Inverness, spent a night camping on the Beauly Firth, where the sunset had been magnificent and from there down to Cannich.  My plan imagewas to pitch a tent on the campsite in the village, leave it with the majority of my kit and then head up to Loch Affric with just a sleeping bag, a bit of food and a change of clothes, for a couple of days. I was last in Affric nearly 30 years ago, hillwalking and have walked right through it, camped up in it, but never stayed at the hostel there or ridden through it.  Which you can do.  Allegedly.  However, looking at the map, I could see that a ride straight through was not really on. I would have to take all my kit and would never manage to get a fully loaded bike all the way from Cannich to Morvich. But the ride in from Cannich with the minimum of kit looked doable and then a ride back out. So far so good. And a couple of friends were walking into the hostel from Morvich, the other side, to do a few hills. So all looked set for a pleasant rendezvous following one of Britain’s most spectacular off road routes.

Then, one of these friends, a keen mountain biker, suggested a way of making my ride a circular rather than a straight out and back. I looked at his suggestion on the map and, when he rang me later, said it looked a bit tough. “No, you can manage it”, he said. “Mostly good forest track, 4.5 km of stuff that’s a bit technical, and a steep path downhill for just a kilometre which you will have to walk.” OK . I knew I would also have to walk a lot the last bit of path to the hostel, if it was anything like my memory of it. But, hey, the day dawned beautifully sunny, and I was up early so had all day to do the 30 miles, with maybe time for a little hill walk at the end. What could go wrong?

Well, first, I obviously don’t speak off road. “Good forest track” means very rough, bumpy and rocky. Rideable, OK, yes, but tiring. Then, “4.5 km of technical stuff” means 4.5 km that nobody could ride unless they had a complete death wish and were a total adrenalin junkie. And a “steep downhill you have to walk” means a narrow footpath that is almost vertical leading to a river, where the only possible way to get a bike down it is to throw it ( remembering to let go first) and then follow.


It began fine.  Road from Cannich to the little village of Tomich. Lots of baby frogs trying to cross the road here. Photo 13-08-2012 12 03 55 Then on to Cougie, where the road was more of a track. Tough, but fine. I took a wrong turn at one point, and rode 3 or 4 miles down the wrong track and had to ride back up, but it was firm enough surface and a lovely day and the original route was only about 25 miles or so, no problem. I had a song in my heart and was ready to fall in love with offroading in this lovely countryside.Photo 14-08-2012 12 11 16

Then as I left the forest track at Cougie, the path got steeper and narrower, till the only option was to get off and push. A lot. The surface was like this on the flatter bitsPhoto 15-08-2012 10 06 26 The upside was, the surroundings were magnificent. Views of wide glens and massive mountains all around. Dragonflies, toads, butterflies, everywhere. And the weather still lovely. Then at the top of the climb, after a picnic stop in glorious sunshine, looking down at the glens below and mountains towering above and feeling absolutely whacked already, there was a sign pointing down to Glen Affric. Photo 14-08-2012 16 36 16The path went down, narrowly, steeply and very rough and slippery. At one point, I was descending a bit of very steep path, for once with a bit of confidence, so I would be able to get up the steep ascent in front of me, when I noticed the reason for the sudden sharp dip. A stream. And the crossing was this. Photo 14-08-2012 12 47 10


Cue as much braking power as I could muster and luckily I managed to screech to a sliding, skidding halt without falling off, or in the water. A few times, after this, I just had to let the bike go with a whispered prayer for its safety. The Allt Garbh was a large, deep, fast flowing stream with a bed of large slippery rocks which had to be crossed at some point. My mate had advised crossing further down than the OS map showed, taking a path eastwards a bit, as the river crossing would be easier there with a bike. I followed the very narrow, extraordinarily steep path, again barely holding on to my balance and sometimes losing the bike. Then the path he had advised just stopped. Dead. In a bog. I looked at the GPS. Which didn’t seem to show me being anywhere like where I was. So I got out my map. The river was supposed to be directly to my left and I was supposed to be standing on the path. But it wasn’t and I wasn’t. What I should have done was go back up the path to the point where I had last known exactly where I was. But it was so steep and narrow, and I was so tired, I didn’t see how I could ever get the bike back up. So I decided to use the map and get to the river.

Have you ever tried dragging a bike, with two half loaded panniers through heather and bog. No?  Then, don’t.  Ever.  Yes?  You are possibly as foolish as me, and as complete a nut job as my mate. I could no longer even hear the river. All I could see were scots pines, heather and midges. I got out my map and compass and began to work out that I was only about half a kilometre from the track I had been heading for. I just had to get through the heather bog. That’s all. At one point I lay down, in a huge cloud of midges and prayed they would eat me. It would have been preferable. Then, I decided to leave the bike, see if I could find the track then come back and get it. Without the bike, I could use the map and compass properly and within ten minutes, there it was. Just across the river. Went back, grabbed the bike with a surge of energy that hope of salvation can often bring and finally emerged out of the heather, bracken and bog, covered in twigs, bits of fern, sprigs of heather and about a million dead midges, and threw the bike onto the track, to the complete amazement of two German backpackers, hopped on it, wished them good afternoon and rode off as if I had just done the most perfectly normal thing in the world.

For about a couple of miles, the track was rideable, if tough. Then, when it reaches the quaintly named Strawberry Cottage, it turns right, turns up and becomes a rough footpath, of barely rideable stuff mixed with patches of big bouldery stuff, and occasional large peaty puddles. I could have ridden more of it than I did, had I not been exhausted by the last 28 miles. Then, suddenly, you turn a corner and see the roof of the hostel. Photo 14-08-2012 17 19 24

And within 15 minutes I was staggering in the door, to be greeted by a very friendly warden who made me coffee. And asked how my journey had been.  I had no words at that point.  She made me a coffee, while I showered and changed.  As we sat chatting about my journey, she seemed puzzled that I had had so much trouble.  “The track’s pretty straightforward,” she said.  I mentioned the alternative route suggested by my friend and she asked me to show her on the map, as she did not know of another track that offroaders used.  Revived by caffeine now, I hoiked out my map and traced  the route I had followed with my finger.  “You came that way on a bike, ” she said with some incredulity.  You must need more than a coffee!” An hour or so later, my friends arrived.  The one who had suggested the route grinned at me, saying, “You made it then!”

Here’s a selection of the photos I took that day Photo 14-08-2012 16 36 00 Photo 14-08-2012 12 58 15 Photo 14-08-2012 18 42 35 Photo 14-08-2012 12 32 01 Photo 14-08-2012 12 26 47

The Ups and Downs of a Longterm Relationship

Me and the DunRun have a complicated relationship.  Many years ago, a friend from my courier days rang me up and told me about a great ride he had heard about through another friend.  He knew from our time working together that I loved riding at night to seaside swims at dawn. I had dragged him several times down bits of the A12 and the A127 to Southend in the mid 1980’s after midnight on a Friday, in the hope of a high tide, rather than a mess in the mud, which was what usually greeted us there. And, if the tide was out, rather a lot of mud.

So when he heard about a ride on rather more friendly roads a decade or so later to a beach with rather less mud and a greater chance of a swim at dawn, he also thought of me.  I guess this must have been around 1994 or 5 maybe. By this time, however, I had a small child and riding my bike was now done with her packed into a  big orange plastic seat fixed on the back.  There were two problems with his suggestion that I accompany him later that month. The first, the small child, was not insurmountable.  I quite liked the idea of popping down to Dunwich with her on the back.  The second obstacle, however, was a bit of a deal breaker.  It was pay to enter and was, (a word that I hated in those days in relation to riding my bike, or to any activity, in truth) organised. The residual anarchist punk in me couldn’t possibly countenance paying to ride or being organised in any way, so I said no and didn’t go.

A few years later, the same friend plus another one, came back to me and said, hey, what do you know, that ride is back on and this year it’s free!  No organisation, just turn up and ride.  Now they were talking!  By now the toddler was grown up a bit and, sadly, way too big to go on the back of the bike but still too small to ride 115 or so miles overnight with me, so babysitters had to be found, and that was my first DunRun.  I don’t  even remember the exact year, only that it was a lovely night and we did indeed manage to slide down  the shingle into the sea,  very early that morning.   With maybe only a hundred or so other riders. We took our tents and spent a couple of days riding up the coast to Norfolk afterwards.  That became my favourite way to finish the ride off.

pub park

Then I missed a year. Or possibly two. The next year, 2004,  I think, I  started alone as the demands of a being a single parent and a full time primary school teacher meant that I had lost touch with all my old riding buddies . This  proved to be one of my best ever  DunRuns despite that.  Brilliant full moon.  Bats flitting, huge, beautiful moths brushing past, owls hooting.  I met a whole bunch of  lovely people on the way, stopped to help  with various mechanicals, and then rode alongside  a guy on fixed from just before Finchingfield till the end and he really appreciated my warning that the steep short up in Finchingfield was approaching. He   was able to get a good burst of speed up, and shot past a quite a few younger and cooler guys on the way!  So far so good.  The DunRun and I were still at the beginning of a beautiful love affair.  This ride was now well and truly on my calendar as a ride I loved and enjoyed. I even enjoyed the one I did when it was oh so wet!  There is something quite romantic about swimming in the sea in the pouring rain. Again, I took my tent and stayed up for a few days.

Then, I got sick.  Badly sick.   Cancer.  The treatment meant that a 100 mile plus ride was definitely out that year.  And I ended up missing two years.  Then, when I came back, in 2008, as I rode into London Fields to meet up with a whole group of new cycling friends I had made in Lewisham, Southwark and Greenwich Cyclists, I was amazed at the crowds.  In just a few years the DunRun had become huge!

Sadly, for me, it was all too much.  Looking back on that year, I guess I underestimated the effect that my illness and treatment had on my emotional health as well as my physical strength. There were quite a few fast racing clubs on the road that night, and the experience of hundreds of cyclists buzzing past me on the roads to Epping, without a hello or even brief nod of the head, was almost overwhelming.  Then at one point, a large group of riders in tight formation overtook me at the same time as an oncoming car decided to overtake another.  The group were forced to pull in sharply to the left, not realising in their driven, heads down, team focussed mindset that another, quite small person on a bike was there.  I was forced to fling myself off the road into the forest, breaking a spoke, and bruising and grazing myself. The road train just carried on, oblivious.  To this day, I guess they have no idea that I was ever there.  Suddenly I was thrown back into the bad days of my cancer treatment, when you realise just how insignificant and fragile you are as a human being, how easily you can be reduced to nothing.  My friends had not realised in the dark what had happened.   I just turned round and rode home.

But I really didn’t want that to be my last DunRun.  So the following year I did it again.  With lovely friends, had a great time, cool clear night, all the magic of the ride back.  I rode to Diss like a maniac with one friend the next morning and we just scraped our way, sweating like little piglets, and grinning like fools, on to the train with seconds to spare.


So it seemed all was well with me and the DunRun again.  The following year, work made it impossible, but the year after I was really looking forward to it.  Again, those fast chaingangs and the Epping Rd, but I wasn’t so fragile anymore- 3 years post cancer my confidence was back.  Then, I must have bumped into one of the most unpleasant people on the ride that year, who swore aggressively at me as he passed, then immediately slowed, so I overtook him- he then sat on my wheel for ages, finally choosing a moment when a fast group was overtaking him to try and overtake me again, swerving dangerously close to avoid those riders passing him.   We ended up having a huge slanging match and I arrived at the Wakes Arms garage to regroup with my friends feeling rubbish again.  As one friend tried to raise my spirits and remind me that past Epping the ride spreads out and you can forget the fools, and just enjoy the ride and being with your mates, another group of cyclists began swearing foully at a motorist who had quite politely asked them to move their bikes so he could exit the garage.  Something inside me whispered, do you really want to ride with people like this?  And once again I just turned round and rode home, forgetting that I actually had a great bunch of mates to ride with, and in a few miles time could have forgotten the nasty folk completely.

So, 2013 DunRun arrived. I decided to leave later and avoid the crowds. crowd at start

It was a good decision. So glad I did this DunRun, so glad I decided to stay up there and do the coastal 4 ferry ride back, and so grateful to the wonderful members of Team Slow, the guys who rode with me through the Epping badlands. They were such great company to Moreton,  and this, along with the fact that the fast chaingangs were long gone by the time we rolled along these roads, meant I experienced the DunRun I have known and loved since the days rider numbers were only in the very low hundreds.  Wonderful. Time to greet and acknowledge other riders with a smile when passing or being passed.  Time to stop and ask riders if they were OK when stopped at the roadside. Time to stop and help if needed.  Time to spot the amazing moths that flit through the air, time to hear the owls call, spot the shadows of bats gliding past.

As the ride progressed, the cool, damp cloud that settled upon us made waiting at regrouping points a bit problematic for me. A ten-minute stop I can handle, but more than that and I chill and shiver in those conditions (quite cool and drizzly damp)  even with the extra layers I had brought.    After Finchingfield, Wunja, who had come over from the Netherlands to do the ride, and I, dropped the rest of Team Slow, and carried on together at a similar pace for a while, a pace just right to keep my body temperature up.  But Wunja was pretty tired, having done so much travelling already, and eventually his need for sleep overtook him.  We stopped at a crossroads where he attempted to nap while I chatted to another resting group of riders.  Then we took off again.  But he hadn’t managed to sleep enough at that last stop and as I pulled into Needham Lake in the vain hope the toilets might be open, I realised I had lost him. As I was about to leave, the group I had chatted to before, turned up.  “Your mate is kipping in a bus shelter,” they informed me, a hint of incredulity in their voices.   I reckoned that was just what he needed, so headed off alone, knowing he’d be fine once he woke, but I would get chilled to the core if I rode back and waited.

I passed a few people at the roadside, lent tyre irons and practical help here and there. My trusty Var lever was much appreciated by one guy struggling to refit an extremely skinny tyre.  Then, maybe 15 miles to go I met up with two of the people I had led up to Hackney Fields.  We chatted a bit.  It seems they had belted out of Hackney for the first twenty miles or so and were paying the price now, I think! Then onwards again and just maybe 9 miles to the finish, met 3 more from my Lewisham Cyclists feeder ride.  In my enthusiasm I took them a few yards in the wrong direction, which would have been OK except it was down a bit of a hill and two of them really had no legs left.  I promised them they could beat me with big sticks at Dunwich and that seemed to do the trick.  They followed me and the third guy (remarkably fresh still and on fixed) back up the little hill on to the right route again.

The final glide to the beach was so much fun.  Amazingly, I felt fresher than I had at the start.  And starting later had the added advantage of a much smaller queue for breakfast. sleeping2

Over breakfast and the following hours waiting for the rest of my group, I met person after person I knew from other rides, other DD’s etc. including Auntie Helen and the lovely Poppy. (Terrific flapjacks, AH). I went down to the coaches to fulfill my promise to Bermondsey Bill to help out loading them up.  However, he had done such a good job of organising it all, my help was not needed so I went back to the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag.  The hours just flew by, watching the madness and mayhem subside, as rider after rider left in car, coach or awheel.  Gradually, it became quieter and quieter and when Team Slow  finally arrived there were maybe just a hundred or so scattered around the cafe and the beach.  A couple more people who recognised me from ages back came up for a brief reminisce.  Finally, we rolled out our roll mats and dozed on the beach. As evening approached, just a few stragglers remained.  Dunwich, the quiet, isolated little beach, constantly returning bit by bit to the sea, was back.Dun Run gone

The amazing Team Slow and I camped just behind the beach that night and awoke to find a sunrise that DunRunners dream of.  A day too late for most, sadly.  But we made tea, broke camp in the warm sunshine, and then headed off, some homewards, myself and one Team Slow member, my friend Peter, to ride back over two days via four river estuary ferries scattered along the Suffolk and Essex coastline.  All in all, the perfect DunRun.

camping beach