The forecast looked about as good as it could possibly be for a ride from London by night to the Suffolk coast. Warm, but not too warm, dry and a touch of a tail wind. So, my final decision, always made on the day, was to ride. Continue reading
I woke up on my second morning on this lovely campsite early. It’s fully light here at this time of year from about 3.30 am and although I curled back up in my sleeping bag when this first sky lightening occurred, the warm sun was beginning to heat the tent. Hard to sleep when that starts. I had planned to head north today, having spent a good bit of time exploring what South Ronaldsay had to offer, on foot and awheel. I took the causeways across from south Ronaldsay on to the Orkney Mainland via Burray, Gills Holm and Lambs Holm. It proved to be fascinating ride including glimpses back into Orkney’s past, with views of the rusting hulks of block ships, still visible as you pass over the causeways, old vessels deliberately wrecked to protect the Royal Navy in Scapa Flow.
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. Continue reading
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.
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 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.
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 was 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. 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.
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 bits 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. The 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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.