I went away without my bicycle!
As I sat on the tube, also another rare activity for me, I tried to remember the last time I had done this. I struggled a bit and then memories of a trip to Northumberland over twenty years ago began to surface. Me, realising my four year old daughter was now too big for the seat she had occupied up to now, behind me on my Holdsworth, since she was 6 months old. It had been orange and coordinated pretty well with the bike’s original paint finish, kingfisher blue and orange. At the same time, it was obvious my four year old was not yet an accomplished cyclist, able to take on a bike tour unaided and I did not possess the means or opportunity to buy, hire or even borrow another setup that would enable our trip to be undertaken by bicycle in any way.
So, we took a train to Alnmouth and with a combination of buses and walking had a terrific time, visiting Seahouses, Bamburgh, and the Farne Islands. A year later, she was old enough to ride her own bike and we took the train to the New Forest, camping and completing short easy rides around the Forest. After that followed longer touring trips along the Camel Trail, and beyond to Padstow and Treyarnon Bay, then a first full on cycle camping trip at age 10, from Barra all the way up to Stornoway, and then across Scotland to Inverness.
But on that last trip without a bicycle, she was four, and this year as I set out minus the bike once more, to meet her in Glasgow, her home now, she is 25.
However, this was not to be a trip with no cycling at all. I still seem unable to organise such a thing. The weekend was to be spent with Frances and her boyfriend, then, as they went back to work, I was to borrow her tourer and head north for a few days.
This fine old Orbit was my tourer for a few years, a frame donated by a friend after a crash had rendered the viability of the Holdsworth’s twenty five year old frame in question. A judgement by a local bike shop that later proved mistaken. But that’s a whole other story!
The Orbit was built up then, with bits borrowed, begged and scrounged from various sources and proved to be a good, tough little tourer, if a touch too big for me, for many years. Then, finally, I was in a job that paid me enough to save up and buy my first brand new bike.
Which I did in style, nine years ago, a Roberts Roughstuff, which I am still riding.
So, when my daughter left for art school in Glasgow, and took a summer job in a Highland hotel, her old Raleigh white racing frame, built into a somewhat blinged up fixed, although suited well to London’s streets, was clearly not up to the job of getting her around rural Scottish roads. The Orbit had a new owner and home.
And now, four years later, I was about to renew my relationship with this bike.
After a weekend combining walks in the deep snow up the Arrochar Alps.
I took the train up to Bridge of Orchy with the keys to Glasgow University’s mountain hut in my pocket. My daughter was its custodian last year and still keeps in contact the uni’s mountaineering club, of which she was a member while a student. My plan was to spend one night there, maybe do a bit of hill walking and/or off roading along the tracks in the area, then head up to Corrour on the train and do the same around there.
I had brought absolutely no kit of my own, apart from a down sleeping bag and a head torch. This proved to be a mistake. Frances could find none of her bike tools, spare tubes anything bike related apart from the bike. So, I bought a new inner tube, a cheap old fashioned pump and some plastic tyre levers and headed off to Queen St.
It’s a two hour trip from Glasgow on a train journey which, though slow, makes up for its lack of speed with an abundance of spectacle. This time of year the trains are fairly empty, so no problem boarding with a bike, even without booking. The situation from Easter onwards is very different and booking, although it deprives the train guard her or his commission from on board ticket sales, is essential. Friendly train staff helped me on and chatted to me about my trip.
It was a glorious day. I arrived in Tyndrum about 10 and took off down the road. I had decided to ride up Glen Orchy, which would provide a little sort of circular trip in a glen I last rode many years ago, before heading up to the mountain hut. I decided to do the main road bit first.
A winding climb out of Tyndrum up the A85, the road to Oban, a quieter road than the A82, alongside the Allt Kinglass, a little tributary of the Orchy, then into Glen Orchy along a narrow B road which twists and turns along this pretty, little glen.
In the distance, the snowy tops of of big Munros emerged occasionally from the huge white clouds which swept continuously across the clear blue sky, one moment bringing a crisp blast of cold, spiky rain, the next revealing the sun with just a hint of spring’s warmth in its rays. Never enough rain to merit the rain jacket, but just enough for the occasional rainbow. I lunched on the banks of the Orchy, resting on a rock.
The B road rises up at its eastern end to join the A82 and I turned left on to this for just a few yards before taking another left turn down a quiet dead end lane which also doubles as a short stretch of the West Highland Way. This road ends at Victoria Bridge, from where you can carry straight on up the West Highland Way if you are walking or turn left on to a rough track which leads to a tiny settlement called Clashgour. About a mile or so down this track, which runs alongside the river, you arrive at what looks like an old, green tin shack. This is the Glasgow University Mountaineering Club’s hut. And I had the keys to it in my pocket.
On a day like this, with the snowy tops behind it, framed in blue sky and patterned with gentle white clouds, the hut looked idyllic. Well, to me anyway. I am prepared to admit my definition of idyllic doesn’t equate with that of most people!
I opened it up, connected the gas, and put the kettle on, and built up the fire in the stove. It was nearly five o’clock and still bright, sunny with just a hint of warmth left on the edge of the clear winter air. A line from a Yeats poem flowed from my memory. “And peace comes dropping slow”
Almost immediately, as I prepared to spend an evening in quiet solitude, reciting poems of peace and spiritual calm to myself, like some mad old woman of the hills, there was a knock at the door. A walker, intrigued by the sight of smoke from the chimney and the open door on what he had thought on his way up was probably just an estate toolshed, peeked round. I put another teabag in the pot and invited him in. We had a pleasant chat and supped tea in the sun outside. Then he went on his way, and I began to enjoy the peace and solitude again, drifting back into mad old woman of the hills mode.
I went inside to fill my cup and heard another voice, calling, “I havnae seen the stack reeking ay long now” or something similar any way. Another visitor, also intrigued by the smoke from the chimney. He was local and knew what the building was, but had never come across anyone using it. Another cup tea shared, another chat. Then, as it was beginning to get dark now, he too left.
Phew! Pleasant as the unexpected encounters had been, I really did want some time to myself and began to light the candles and prepare some supper.
A cold, clear night came on quite quickly, bright stars and a thin sliver of moon. About ten I climbed up to the sleeping platform, made warm and cosy by the chimney stack which runs right through it.
Within 5 minutes of beginning to read my book, I was asleep.
I woke in the night to the erratic, wild thundering of strong winds buffeting the little shack and rain hammering on the tin roof, the comforting regular rush of the river, which, loud but strangely soothing, had swept me off to sleep now completely smothered by these new, quite violent, noises. It took me about an hour to adjust to the new sounds…but I did fall asleep again eventually.
And woke to the same wild storm, still moaning outside. It was dark, wet, a freezing sleety kind of wet, the worst kind.
My plan had been to waken early, breakfast, clean up the hut, ride back to bridge of Orchy and get the first train out to Corrour, there to leave the bike at the station, go up Beinn Na Lap, visit Loch Treig and hit the hostel at Ossian in the late afternoon. But, now cosily wrapped in my sleeping bag and gazing out at a very different scene (what there was visible of it at any rate) I felt no inclination to get out into that in a hurry. So I stayed in the sleeping bag a while longer, got up slowly, had a long leisurely breakfast, cleaned the hut and by 10 the weather was much improved. So I did a bit of hill tromping locally, came back, and rode off to the station for the afternoon train to Corrour.
By the time I arrived at Corrour, the weather had deteriorated considerably again. As the train climbed up to Loch Rannoch, a huge cloud could be seen ahead like a dark quilt billowing out over the whole moor. To the north and west, blue skies and gentler clouds were still visible. But Rannoch Moor itself was in its own world of sleet, dark cloud and icy wind.
As I stepped down from the train, a massive gust of wind nearly took the bike out of my hands. The train guard waved me goodbye and soon the train was disappearing off into the mist and cloud northwards. For a second, I felt a little lost in a slightly frightening wilderness, nothing but moorland and bog, its desolation disappearing into swirling mist and cloud and I began to wish I had stayed on the train! But then, as I turned to face eastwards, the station house came into view, with a woman hastily grabbing her washing from the wildly swaying line. It was a reassuring, homely image and brought me back to reality. It may be one of the most isolated landscapes on our island, but I didn’t have far to go to find a warm fire, and the means to get warm and dry.
A mile, to be exact, down a rough track, slightly icy, swept with a dusting of snow. The hostel at Ossian is a converted boathouse and sits right on the bank of the loch. Even in this weather, it was beautiful.
It’s pretty basic…but does now have hot water in the washrooms. And a warm stove in the communal kitchen and lounge room combined. That night, I had it all to myself.
The next day, I was due to get the lunchtime train back to Glasgow, so took the bike for a trip round the loch after breakfast. At the eastern end of the loch was another track leading alongside the river. I rode along it for a little way, in the mist and rain but had to turn back after a while to ensure reaching the station in time for the train, deciding to return another time and ride the whole track as part of another trip.
I just scraped my way back up the track to the station in time, not realising quite how wet and muddy both myself and the bike were until I was actually on the train and I could see that the other passengers were neat, tidy and recently washed in comparison. Luckily, I was able to take a whole table area of four seats to myself, so could avoid inadvertently transferring bits of the moor to others.
Two hours later, I was back in the city. At first the noise and speed of everything around was unsettling and slightly unpleasant. By the time I had walked the length of Sauchiehall St, this long time city dweller had readjusted to the noise and crowds once again. Not quite the mad old woman of the hills yet!