Getting back to civilisation

Cycle ride from John O’Groats to Wick
Total mileage: 18
Terrain: Very fast cycle ride over quite flat terrain

Our last day saw us cover a small distance from John O’Groats to Wick, where I had booked a B&B for us. Pete had tried in vain to book a return rail trip from Wick to London, so we were forced to either catch a bus or cycle it! Fortunately for us, our landlady had been kind enough to accept three bike bags we had ordered via the Blackberry on the way up, once we knew we were not going to get a space on the train.

We arrived quite early in Wick as the terrain had been flat and easy to negotiate, which meant that we cycled the 18 miles at a very healthy space. We hung around in a café for a couple of hours until the tenants leaving our B&B checked out. Mrs McDonald, our landlady, still had to tidy the place up but we were able to leave our bikes and change clothes.

Wick is a pretty nasty town when all is said and done, with very little to do. We wondered around the very small town centre for a few hours until we were able to head back to the B&B. We all chilled for the rest of the day and watched crap TV programmes.

The following day, we had to check out early and wait until 4pm when our bus turned up. Carrying the packed down bicycles to the bus stop, about 1km away was absolutely exhausting. Far easier to cycle the damn things!

Our mammoth return journey included the following legs:

  • Wick to Inverness
    This was very pleasant, as there were few people on the bus and the weather was pretty awful making us happy that we were on a bus rather than cycling. The landscape was stunning as we tore passed it at a pace were had become unaccustomed to.
  • Inverness to Sterling
    The journey was very pleasant with more beautiful scenery and not too many people on the bus.
  • Sterling to Glasgow
    The bus stop in Sterling was like a large public lavatory. Fortunately, we did not have to wait too long for our hour-long connecting bus to Glasgow. By now it was getting dark and the rain continued to fall.
  • Glasgow to London
    Although we had stated to the bus company prior to purchasing the tickets that we all had bikes, National Express had overbooked the bus and had to call in another company to help with the final leg of our return journey. These cowboys tried to charge us an extra £15 per bike. Considering the entire ticket had cost us £35 each, this did seem more than a little exorbitant. We fobbed the driver and conductor off saying that we needed to withdraw money from cash point and them promptly fain sleep to prevent them from extorting the cash from us. By the time we reached London the following morning, there were so many people buzzing around the bus, we were able to scarper without being forced to pay. We went to the National Express helpdesk at Victoria Bus station to ask them if this was normal practice for them, to which they said no. As a consequence, we complained and told them that she needed to be more prudent choosing extra bus suppliers in the future.

I was extremely happy to see Bryony at the bus stop. She took us all out for breakfast before poor Pete and Mary had to press on with their journey and catch a bus from London down to Weymouth and re-assemble their bikes there, before boarding the ferry back to Guernsey. From subsequent conversations, I can assure you that we were all very happy to be back home with all of its conveniences and comforts.

I cannot recommend this journey enough to anyone interested in cycling or seeing the country. Physically, it does have its challenges but that is not to say that it is not equally blessed with rich and rewarding experiences all along the way. Although I am and have been for quite some time, an ardent cyclist, I have been indoctrinated into the world of long distance cycling. I am determined to find a new challenge in for 2009. Perhaps Pete and Mary will join me, who knows?

In additional to all the images here and on Flickr, I have also uploaded many to my gallery on Alamy.com
Stock photography by Julien Buckley at Alamy

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Day 19: Bettyhill to John O’Groats

Total mileage: 50
Terrain: Long shallow climbs and downhills with a very pleasant warm, sunny afternoon

We bloody well did it!

After a pretty awful night at the Bettyhill camping ground, with all the local drunks and their kids making one hell of a noise, none of us were that sprightly the following morning.  We only had a short distance to cycle today but the terrain was quite arduous and not too exciting.

The morning was cold and so we wrapped up as heavy clouds circled above us.  None of us we particularly talkative even though we were were at the zenith of our ride.  First stop of the day was in some tiny town for a comfort stop.  The cold wind was chilling our moral and we all donned another layer.  I had hoped that our final day on the bikes would be more pleasant.

The land began to flatted out as we passed Bighouse.  There was an inlet that took us a mile or so inland but overall, nothing particularly taxing.  The spledour of the previous days Highland ride was all but gone.  The land had fewer features but was very so slightly more urdan, although this is perhaps not the correct way to describe such wilderness.

As we pushed on throgh Raey, the golf course was a welcome expanse of green with the backdrop of the Scottish north coast.  The only other point of interest was the bizzare power station we passed.  The focal point was a hugh white sphere that looked as though it had been plucked straight from a Star Trek episode.

We stopped briefly in Thurso for some provisions and a couple of bottles of Cava.  Rather than push on to Wick, we decided to camp at John O’Groats as this seemed the most fitting end point to our cross country endeavour.

Upon leaving Thurso, the road was occasionally adorned with a sign post denoting the distance to John O’Gorats, as in the photo above.  The last twenty miles flew by.  All three of us were utterly transfixed on completing the task.  We were fortunate enough to have a marked change in the weather, which had us stripped down as the heat rose.  Before long, we were hammering along at a healthy 18mph, only moments away from he end.

We eventually rocked up at John O’Groats as it clung to the last remnants of sunshine.  All behind us was shrouded in cloud.  However, the sun shone on us for the rest of the day whilst we had our photograph taken under the sign post and set up camp in the field next door.  We all got pretty hammered on the Cava immediately after calling all our friends and families to inform them that we had made it to the end point successfully.  Loads of people congratulated us including a rather large contingent of motorcyclists.

We had a hearty meal in the evening and watched the beautiful sunset over the North Sea.  So, what’s our next challenge then guys?

Day 18: Durness to Bettyhill

Total mileage: 43
Terrain: Coldest day with lots of hill climbing with sustained periods of rain

A short day and a bit of an anti-climax after the previous day’s cycle.  Breakfast was a simple affair in the hostel.  The room stank of 4 large, pissed French blokes.  Neither Pete nor I made any attempt to be quiet as they had been crashing around the previous night, completed steaming, when they returned to the dorm.  Not sure where they went but there were a few bottles of Jack Daniels littered on teh floor of the room.

The temperature had dropped a few degrees and the wind was progressively more severe as the day pressed on.  Today marked a change in direction for us.  We stopped heading north and started heading east.  The road ahead hugged the coastline closely as we navigated around Loch Eriboll, a 16km long sea loch.  Apparently, it had been used for centuries as a deep water anchorage as it is safe from the often stormy seas of Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth.  On our round route, we passed some bronze age remains including a wheelhouse in great condition.

On our way back up towards the north coast and Hellam, the hills started to raise more sharply around the water’s edge.  As we reached the apex, the relentless winds of the previous day returned to pummel our easterly journey.

This was very much the make up for the rest of the day; stunning scenery, step hills and unceasingly resistant winds.  The temperatures continued to dropped as we all wrapped up.  By the time we reached Tongue, our spirits were at a low ebb.  Perfect timing as it turned out for some lunch.  We stopped in the town’s only hotel, which happened to sport a decent restaurant.  Three courses of hot food and accompanying beverages later and once again, the cockels of our hearts were warned.

We estimated that to reach John O’Groats would have been a long stretch and that to cut the last day’s cycle down to a mere 10 miles from Thurso to JOG would have been a real anti-climax.  Therefore, the best alternative was for us to stop in a town called Bettyhill.  The town itself was non-descript.  In our ferver to find a decent spot for the evening, we managed to choose the lesser of the two camping sights.  As you can tell from the image above, this was not the most solubrious of campsites.  Indeed, I think on reflection, it was perhaps the most grim campsite we stayed at, a most fitting last night!

Not everything about Bettyhill was a disaster.  Once we were able to navigate our way successfully to the local beach, a trial in itself, we were treated to a glorious sunset.  The skies were peppered with a few clouds but we all remained optimistic that our final day would be one blessed with sunshine.  I think Pete and Mary were really lucky to have one another on this trip.  Sharing an adventre like this, no matter how trying or run of the mill, is something that shared will be a momeory for life.  I was definitely happy that Pete and Mary were on teh trip.  It really reminded me of the great times we had experienced together when we met on the Inca Trail, en route to Machu Picchu or diving in the Caribbean off the north coast of Colombia.

Day 17: Inchnadamph to Durness

Total mileage: 45
Terrain: Very tough day with sustained hill climbing and strong headwinds

Today was awesome in so many ways. Firstly, the weather was magnificent, with wall to wall sunshine. Considering it was the north of Scotland, the temperature was comfortably in the twenties, probably the warmest day we had whilst cycling in Scotland. Then there was the landscape, which was superb. Best of all, there was very little traffic on the road, so it meant conditions were perfect for cyclists.

Very close to Inchnadamph on the shores of Loch Assynt is Ardvreck Castle and some other ruins. We stopped here whilst I ran off to grab from shots. I was so caught up in the moment that I forgot the time. Before long, the Mary had decided to head off and take the day at her own pace as I was taking so long. This opened up the day to a different type of cycling. Instead of working in a pack as we had done for most of the journey, we were working as separate units. Pete hung back to tell me that Mary had gone off ahead, so we cycled in tandem initially.

The hills started getting gradually more serious, especially as we turned right up the A894. The climb was intense in the heat. In the absence of Mary, we did the typical boy approach to any challenge and started to try and cycle up the hills at full speed. This was a mistake as I ended up consuming a lot of my water on the 2 mile climb, which was not great as I and only done about 8 miles so far.

After a period of climbing, we made it to the top of the first climb. In front of us was one of the finest roads I have ever seen. It snaked down and around the hill side, way off into the distance. Mountains abutted the road, with an occasional loch. The weather was spot on making this perhaps the most perfect piece of cycling on the whole trip.

As there was so much beautiful scenery for me to photograph, I kept stopping to take shots. Pete eventually headed off ahead as I was taking my time. This gave me the opportunity to thrown on some tunes as there was little traffic to fear.

The cycling was amazing, truly epic. Occasionally, I had to negotiate the road with coaches or motor homes heading in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, the narrow roads meant that passing was perilous, especially when the drivers in the most part tended to continue driving along the centre of the road. On one occasion, I had to swerve off the road to avoid being hit by a bus, hurtling along without any regard.

The only other fly in the ointment was the wind. The climbs were steep and definitely the toughest of the trip but at least the hill off shelter from the wind. Most cyclists will admit one of the benefits of a hill is the decent on the other side. I felt slightly robbed of this perk by the fact that the relentless southerly wind. The wind was fierce and depleted any momentum I managed to gather whilst climbing the hills. So, in effect, one had to cycle just as hard to decent as one did ascending.

We all hooked up just before lunch in Scourie. Shovelling down large mouthfuls of energy foods, we all felt better as the tired muscles were replenished with rest. Again, we separated on the way north but by the Kyle of Durness, we reformed and cycled the remaining 5 miles. Although today was one of the shortest days of the ride, it was perhaps one of the most challenging. Durness is a small outpost of a town, at the North West end of Scotland. The guesthouse was empty when we arrived but the co-habitants were all congenial. The small local shop had some fresh vegetables Pete used to cook with, always a pleasure after a hard day in the saddle. The day would have been perfect had it not been for four smelly, half-pissed, snoring Frenchmen…

Day 16: Garve to Inchnadamph

Total mileage: 57
Terrain: Tough cycling in the Scottish highlands

After a hearty breakfast, we started on what would turn out to be a day of mixed weather and glorious scenery.  The initial part of the trip took us along the A835 to through Garbat and then along the west coast of Loch Glascarnoch.  At this stage, the weather closed in and the rain began to fall… again!  The temperature started to drop, making riding conditions uncomfortable to say the least.

The saving grace of the morning was the incredible scenery however.  From lochs to forests, the road had very little traffic and was festooned with glorious landscape.  As fortune would have it, the sun began to shine as we made it to the coastal loch of Broom.  Although we had to climb for a few miles, we were blessed with gorgeous views of Ullapool and the coastline.

Lunch was a hearty helping of burger and chips for me, food of champions.  Mary and Pete had some fish, wich would more than likely have been the healthier option.  Just to make up for it, we all had ice cream for desert.

After scoffing this all down, we went shopping to stock up for the days ahead as there were unlkikely to be any major supermarkets until we arrived in Thurso, and that was a long way off still.

The sun continued to shine as we started the long and arduious climb north west out of Ullapool.  However, the landscape just became more and more impressive.  Turquoise sea lapped again white sandy beeches as we cycled through Ardmair and headed back inland.  From this point on, the highlands rose majestically to progressively loftier peaks.  The clouds grew denser the further we cycled away from the coast.  The evening light would have been ideallic had it not been for the persistent attacks from the countless midges that were everywhere.

Heading north again on teh A837, we passed Loch Awe and onwards towards Loch Assynt.  Just shy of the loch lay Inchnadamph and our hostel for the evening.  The place was pretty amazing, with internet connection, large kitchen and dinning hall and a great laundry.  We were all soaked from a downpour during the final miles of the day’s ride.  However, with full panniers of supplies, we did not want for a good meal as Pete whipped us up a great meal.

I would definitely recommend anyone heading up to the north west coast of Scotland to stay at the Inchnadamph YHA if they are after a place to stay.  The only requirement seemed to be that for men, they all sport half decent facial fuzz.

Day 15: Fort Augustus to Garve

Total mileage: 49
Terrain: Pleasant riding with some heavy rain

Not an especially interesting day from a cycling point of view.  After the antics of the previous even and all the bloody midges, all three of us were somewhat burdened with bits and itches.  We left the campsite and headed north east, along the edge of Loch Ness.  The traffic was still not too intense and this allowed us to take in the beautiful views as we continued north.

We reached Drumnadrochit and turned off the A82, on to a lesser B road towards Milton.  This is where the real fun started.  We took a very minor road due north after Milton, which started with the most severe uphill leg of the entire trip.  The insane uphill was 19% at the worst point and no less than 16% for quite a large portion of the long climb.  The two cars that passed us were struggling to make it up the steep incline, which gave us little confidence.  However, the feeling at the top of the hill was quite euphoric.  None of us had been broken by the hill’s gradient, something we managed to maintain all the way to John O’Groats.  That said, I think I covered about 1km in 1st gear, spinning the pedals incessantly to make it to the peak.

Back on more level ground, we pushed on to Wester Balblair and then Beauly, where we stopped for lunch.  We had intended to enjoy the rare sunny day we had been afforded by the weather.  However, before we were even able to read the menu, the skies opened and the rain fell hard.  We hauled up inside the cafe for a couple of hours, agonising whether to have a crem tea or not after the large lunch.  After waiting in vain for the rain to stop, we conceded that we were going to get wet again and ventured out into the storm.

The roads were flooded before we had even left the town limits and all of us were completely soaked within minutes of saddling up again.  To add insult to injury, the heavy rain abated about a quarter of an hour later, just long enough to give us a really good soaking.

We passed through Muir Or Ord and then north west on the A832 towards Wester Mor.  Here, we re-joined the main road after a very pleasant country ride as we push on towards Ullapool.  The road was bordered by the railway line and Loch Garve soon after.  We passed a shop that exclaimed the next food shop was 60 miles away in Ullapool, so we stopped a bought a few provisions.

Once in Garve, we decided to call it a day as there were no other inhabited areas of note for many miles.  This turned out to be a great decision as we stayed with a lovely couple in their B&B.  The view from my enormous window was of a river, field and mountain.  Better than that, no midgets as I could close the window!

We ate supper in the local hotel and then pigged out on some bags of sweets, over a few card games.  I think had we started off sooner and not had the deluge, we might have been able to get to Ullapool.  That said, we had time on our hands and were in no rush, which allowed us to take our time and really enjoy the last part of our ride.

Day 14: Oban to Fort Augustus

Total mileage: 78
Terrain: Undulating landscape with heavy rain and heavy holiday traffic

After a very relaxing evening in the warmth of the hotel and a decent restaurant, the following day was again wet and windy.  We loaded up our bikes that we had stashed in the security of the landlady’s back garden and went on our merry way.

The exit to Oban was an uphill campaign for the first few miles, much like the morning we left Launceston.  However, the weather was far less friendly as the rain once again began to fall.  Although we had put the unfortunate escapades of the previous day behind us, the roads were thick with holiday traffic, most of which was impatient and pushy.  Our route took us up along the coast and then inland to Fort William.  Considering we had had the luxury of quite roads since heading away from Dumfries with the exception of around Ayr, this was an unwelcome return of congestion.

Fort William was abuzz with holiday makers and outdoor types.  We settled down for a spot of brunch after our early start.  The food was great and began to warm us up once again.  We even had the chance to send a couple of texts as there was some reception for a change.

Before we headed out of town, Pete decided it was high time that he invested in a new waterproof jacket.  This proved to be a very shrewd idea as moments after he emerged from the outdoor shop, the skies opened and we were soaked in the ensuing deluge.

The ever useful handbook that Mary carried around with her suggested that we should head down to the canal and follow it 15 miles upstream.  The midges were out in force so we did not hang around, which was a shame as the views along the canal were very pleasant.  Fortunately for us, the weather was more behaved for the remainder of our ride that afternoon.

We rejoined the tarmac in time to see a few bikers being nicked by the local police – probably having too much fun for their liking…  We carried on along the small B roads, through some spectacular countryside and back onto the main road to Inverness, which fortunately, was not too busy.

The quiet roads were smooth and bordered by a very beautiful loch.  We were able to open the taps a little and get some decent miles under the wheels.   I had thought a B&B would be a good idea for the evening as we had to wash and dry all of our clothes but were unable to find any vacant rooms.  We did find a lovely campsite.  The only drawback was the swarm of midges that bit the hell out of us as we tried to eat supper.  So, our only escape was to get into our respective tents, zip them closed, spend about 20 minutes catching all the midges in the tend and then finally be able to relax and read a little.

Some beautiful views only marred by the miserable weather and heavy traffic.

Day 13: Lochranza (Isle of Arran) to Oban

Total mileage: 67
Terrain: Undulating landscape with extreme weather and floading

After enjoying a relaxed evening in Lochanza YHA, we turned in for bed, only to find that our dorm (male dorm that Pete and I were in) had a very smelly guy in it, along with a couple of loud snorers.  Suffice it to say, neither of us were in the mood for a night of that, so we crept into the girl’s dorm, where Mary was, and ended up grabbing a decent night’s sleep there instead.

As it turned out, this was a useful move as Day 13 was a tough day.  We caught the ferry at 9am from the tiny ferry port over to Claonaig on the mainland.  As we pulled out of the harbour, we could see the dark clouds looming over Arran.  By the time we were close to Claonaig, the rain began to fall and the temperature to drop.

The smelly guy from our dorm the previous night was onboard, and still stank.  Clearly, although it rained all the time, Scots hate showers…  We all huddled into the confined space of a bus shelter to clad ourselves in Gortex.  Due to the smell, we left in haste.

The B8801 road northwards felt incredibly remote and isolated.  We passed very few cars or houses.  It felt much more like we were pioneers that at any previous point.  The chill form the rain began to have a negative effect on our moods.

We joined a slightly more major road, the A83 at Kennacraig and turned north east.  We stopped at West Talbot for some warm food, which made a huge difference.  The town is centred on a lovely little port.  Had the weather not been so bad, it might have been as pleasant as any of the villages we had passed in Cornwall and Devon weeks before.

Heading out of the village due north, we cycled parallel to a large sea loch.  Although the weather was still foul, the addition of this beautiful scenery did wonders for our mood and we began to pick up the pace.  Our luck was soon to chance though as the weather proved to be more of an obstacle than we had anticipated.

Just outside of Ballenoch, on the B841, the roads were under a foot of water.  Cars gingerly drove through the floods in single file to avoid causing a potentially damaging wake that might flood another person’s car as the water was above most car’s door lines.  We had no option but to cycle through.  I was especially happy that I had opted for waterproof luggage on my bike.  However, our footwear did not fare as well.  We had to crunch the 400m flood in a low gear and spin fast to avoid coming off whilst cycling against the body of water.  To be honest, we were all in stitches as it seemed so absolutely absurd.  We were already soaked, so this was not such a nightmare.  Many of the car drives smiled and beeped as we cycled past.

Further along the road, the locals had erected a barrier as the road ahead had been completely flooded under a few meters of water and was now impassable.  We were forced to either double back or take a very minor B road.  Although this added a few more miles to the journey, the alternative of turning back was not something any of us wanted to do.  We were rewarded with one of the best bits of cycling on the entire trip.  The roads were small but perfect for cycling.  The rain eased up a little and the sky became dramatic without being overbearing.  The terrain was very hilly but the sense of achievement counter balanced any negatives.

Back on the main road and the riding got easier although the hills continued to rise and fall consistently.  The only issue we encountered for the rest of the day was an idiot driving dangerously.  I was at the back of the group when he over took me on a blind corner.  The car coming the other way forced him to pull in and he narrowly missed hitting May and Pete.  He continued to demonstrate what a complete and utter prick he was by stamping on his brakes in the middle of the road when Mary waved her fist at him for being such a wreckless river.  What ensued was a farce as he blocked the traffic and got out of his car to shout obscenities at us.

In the entire cycle ride, this was on the only incident we had, which I should take solace in.  However, he was such an arse hole, it took the wind out of our sales.  We decided to call it a day in Oban and reward ourselves with a nice B&B, mainly because none of us had any dry clothes left.

Although the incident still makes me a little angry, the day was quite an adventure with some stunning scenery.  All in all, had the weather been better and without the idiot drover, it would have been one of my favourite days of the trip.

Day 9: Ecclestone to Hazelslack

Total mileage: 61
Terrain: Hills – Fast paced A road riding

The start of the day meant getting away from Ecclestone and all the grim areas around that part of the UK.  However, once we were on the go, our mood rapidly increased as we hit pretty countryside and fast A roads.  The traffic was generally quite accommodating and gave us a wide birth.  We cranked up the speed and managed to bash out the miles really quickly along the smooth tarmac.  The sunny weather was back and the going remained good all day.

Although there was a good canal path, The Lancaster Canal, which we had originally planned to join at Garstang, the roads were so good, we continued on to Lancaster.  From here, we eventually joined the canal and cycled north as far as we could, ending up in a bizarre estate, where the path just fizzled out.

From here, we rejoined the A roads and made haste as we all wanted to make it to the Lake District by evening.  I had been hard selling how beautiful the Lakes were and they did not disappoint.  Our only issue was that we had to visit several campsites until we could find a pitch.  We ended up having a free pitch due to a very generous campsite owner and our charity ride status.

All in all, after the blandness of the previous day, today’s cycle ride was green, pleasant, fast and memorable.  Definitely a good cycle ride.  The promise of the Lakes was only slightly marred in the knowledge that I knew the terrain would get touch with all those mountains and hills to cross!

I ended the day rewarding myself with a few games of Sudoku.