The Scottish Highlands – Shafts of Sunlight and Blizzards

corran ferry

When you regularly ride your bike you get really good at gauging the temperature outside, making assessments as to your likely intensity, the wind conditions and evaluating your choice of clothing on yesterday’s ride. Over the years I have amassed a pretty comprehensive collection of clothing to cover all weather conditions and still, crucially, look Euro Pro. (I’ve since discovered a different, crazy-dutch-cyclo-tourist way of dressing but that is covered in another post). There is a way to layer up. There are ways not to layer up.

It’s always the same, after having had a few days off the bike the weather has changed, and despite standing in the garden in your underpants for a few seconds as part of your preparatory assessment, as soon as you reacquaint yourself with cycling, you inevitably either overheat or chill and shiver.

When going to the Highlands at the end of October, standard Autumn attire is just not going to cut it! I have since learned through many other trips to Scotland that for cycling purposes it’s always winter and in winter it is extra winter.

This trip was undertaken in in October half term 2012, when I was enthusiastic and naive and when my companion Rick was even more naive and even less enthusiastic. 

We set off on a train, booked a few weeks in advance from Nottingham to Glasgow. I’d actually managed to book a first class seat for a couple of quid extra but gave it up in order to sit with Rick who had lacked my ticket booking foresight. I would be spending plenty of time near to him over the next few days, I should have taken up my luxurious seat at the front of the train.  My memory is hazy but we’re looking at less than thirty quid up to Glasgow and then a phone call to book the bike on for free. Advance fares.

Rick was not, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying, is still not a cyclist. He rides his bike pretty frequently and is certainly no stranger to a bit of punishment but he has neither the education in the Anquetil-Poulidor rivalry of the golden age nor the shaved brown legs of a cyclist. Nevertheless he is an athlete who cannot say no.

At this point I had only seen the Highlands from a few early, youth fueled trips and had a real hunger to find out more about those white spaces on the road map. We would ride, emerging from the train in the afternoon, straight out of Glasgow, enjoying the transition from a landscape of industrial scars to one of picturesque beauty as we rode along Loch Lomond. Staying wherever we ended up, we would ride the A82, skirting Ben Nevis, and onto Roy Bridge. From there we would ride around the impenetrable (by road bike) Cairngorms, stay another night and then finally ride into Granite City for a late night train back home. Three and a half days to pack a lot in. The plan was loose and I would navigate by means of an old AA road atlas folded in half and slid down the side of my left hand (road side) pannier.

We arrived in Glasgow and followed the national cycle network route 7 out towards Loch Lomond. I’m not saying that I do not endorse what Sustrans have done. Someone should do something and Sustrans have tried their hardest. Thousands of miles of well signposted, largely traffic free or low traffic networks have been created but I cannot help feeling like after alighting the train in Glasgow and getting on route 7, I was actually being expelled from the city through it’s filthy industrial wounds in the way that a woken too soon lager lout expels last night’s curry in a public toilet. I’m sure that Glasgow does have nice areas. But Sustrans Route Seven is not the way to see them. We dodged broken glass; abandoned, sun-bleached children’s play equipment; decaying, greening mattresses; and matted-furred mongrels looking for their next fix. The pot holes were so frequent and deep that they were probably better described as just absences of road. It all added to the character of the ride. How can we have definition without contrast? As we finally caught the sound of the waters of Loch Lomond lapping on the shore, the tranquility was all the more valued.

loch lomand cyclingidillic cottage cycling adjustments to panniers

Some of you may know that I am a big advocate of doing things as cheaply as possible. I know that quality items cost but I hate the idea that people are disuaded from getting out there because they don’t have the quality kit they think they need. There are lots of things you can do with cheap, basic kit. Rick scrimped (and for me to write that I mean really scrimped) on the panniers, I initially supported this scrimping, but after a few hours the zips failed, the velcro proved inadequate and we were making adjustments regularly. It was a real pain. I’d bought a set of Ortleib panniers with my first ever pay cheque. Six years of really heavy use later and with a quick wipe they’d look as good as new. They’ve been down the road way too many times and are still tougher than anything else I own. By Fort William, Rick had bought a set.

We arrived in Arrochar and were met by the orange glow of national standard street lamps illuminating a mirky, dark body of aptly named water. Disappearing into the autumn dusk was Loch Long. We had no trouble finding a host for the night chopping wood in his front garden.  Out of season meant greater availability and lower prices. There was even a sofa in our room. There were no pubs in the village and being as inexperienced as we were, we were carrying a lot of useless items and not a lot of food. Luckily our host at Fascadail House got on the phone and sorted us out.

rick shower relaxing

We were taxied from our accommodation to a large hall on another loch which had been bought a few years ago by a rather wealthy American who wished to, by spending a lot of money, realign himself with his distant Scottish roots. I think that his clan once owned the land by the loch or something but the restaurant we were to dine in was something of a shrine to his ancestors. There was tartan on the walls, sepia photographs in dull frames and a few information boards around a well furnished but completely deserted eating hall. We were hungry and ordered accordingly. As the only guests the service was pretty prompt and our portions were very appropriate. I would have paid handsomely for such service but apparrently our distant American benefactor was happy to cover all but a fraction of the costs. I think we paid less than a tenner each for all the food, beer, whiskey and the lift that was given to us. I was well fed, well educated and basking in the hospitality of the venture being funded from across the pond. If you have enough money and such a passionate interest in your clan and family history, supporting a clan and heritage museum/restaurant is a small price to pay to raise the profile of whatever clan it was.

Morning struck. Rick did his usual trick of asking for extra toast at breakfast, sneakily wrapping it in a paper napkin, stuffing it in his pocket and waiting for an opportunity to offer it, eager to demonstrate his generosity, five hours later. I did my usual trick of eating a few mouthfuls of sausage before retreating to the toilet and flushing the whiskey from my system whilst checking Facebook.

The A82 is a fantastic road. On the atlas, it’s green classification deems it as an unridable road. At home it would be full of HGVs and arguing families on their way to the Homebase sale. Up here, in October, it is a bleak paradise. Fingers of clouds floated across the horizon, shrouding then revealing the mountains behind. A two carriage train broke the still, autumn, orange silence of the mid morning. Gravel crunched under tires as we occasionally wavered, distracted by the view of the grey, bulging mountainsides. We knew we were having a great time. finger

A82 glen coe A82  lochs ranoch resting A82

The A82 is a thoroughly enjoyable road. Especially in October. The colours are vivid and the traffic is light. Eventually, as you near Fort William the traffic builds and the road narrows. On the other side of the loch the minor road is accessed by a small passenger ferry. Like many of the ferries in the highlands it is free for foot passengers or cyclists. Our bikes were slung with the appropriate amount of care, onto the roof of the ferry and we were hauled across the icy blue waters. We enjoyed the traffic free, green, rough and charming other side of the loch. Squinting to see the HGVs squeezing along the narrow corridor on the far side of the water we felt rather smug. That was until we arrived at the next crossing point and realised that our ferry was not to arrive for another couple of hours.

Which brings me back to the dressing appropriately themed introduction. We had been cold all day. I had packed my best winter cycling gear, intending to use it only for colder mornings and evenings in foul weather. It was cloud free, midday and windless yet I shivered in my carefully selected attire. With a long wait and no respiration to keep me warm I resorted to wearing everything I had, jeans and all, over the top of my Lycra whilst slumped against the vandalised plastic of the bus shelter boat waiting place. In the days before down jackets replaced Adidas hoodies, it was better just to think warm thoughts.

ben nevis by the sea  hihgland ferryhihgland bridge on the ferrywaiting

After a brief stop in Fort William where Rick took the plunge to buy a set of Ortleib panniers we stuffed his old ones in a high street bin. The sun was setting and the chill was strengthening as we climbed up and out of the town heading for Roy Bridge. It was thoroughly dark when we arrived in our B&B. The room was small, very small, not especially clean and more expensive yesterday’s luxurious foray.

The pub over the road was rough in the Scottish way but served lager and a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties so I was more than catered for. Outside the glow of our B&B and a few spread out bungalows were the only interruption of the enveloping blackness of the highland night. Speaking to the rather elderly landlord, who I rather rapidly learned had been born in Roy Bridge and  lived there his whole life, I was given a very compelling social history of the Highlands. He told me about living in a place two days walk away from a market, where cash was unnecessary and healthcare unheard of. He spoke fondly of the hard but simple life, the walk to church and helping out in the fields.  The big event, and also the end of the settlement, was the coming of the railways. As our host recalled, all of a sudden his family suddenly felt like they were poor. Men were sent away to earn cash and the crofting cottages in the vicinity were slowly abandoned. Now tourism has created a bit of a renaissance, if a seasonal one. The story was good and the whisky accelerated the sleep.

The next day was colder. The sky was grey and wind very chilling. Everyone we spoke to cheerily told us that the weather was turning and that there would be snow. Occasionally the women in shops looked at us with a rather worried, pitiful glance as our lycra covered kneecaps jumped up and down, dancing the shivering dance of too many hours out in the cold. When it rained things were much more grim and we decided against the planned visit to Aviemore in order to just keep on moving. The Caringorms looked thoroughly uninviting, intimidating almost. I was happy to give them a wide berth and concentrated on the only areas of my body with some warmth to them – my thighs.  It was a long day’s ride. There were some serious descents where the icy wind blasted through all your layers and some steep climbs that made your now numb fingers throb as the blood rushes back to them. Finally arriving in Tomintoul I saw an austere town with stocky grey buildings huddled together along a single wide street which channeled the now winter wind which was the cause of the single sign of movement – a faded St Andrew’s Cross billowing underneath a faded window frame. We went into a cold, dark cafe, kept all of our layers thoroughly on and ordered some soup. The cold stone floor was not helping my feet at all and although the soup was warming, it never reached my feet. Overshoes and thick socks just don’t cut it. I took the napkins that came with the soup and taped them to the outside of my shoes. A recommended modification.

cafe tomintoul coffee cold rickbikes

It was dark when we arrived at our B&B in Chapeltown we were given a very warm welcome. I just can’t recommend this place enough. Our generous host served us a steaming cottage pie fit for four and was out for the evening so we stretched out, bare feet prickling in front of her open fire. It was a race to get to sleep but neither of us remember who won. I could feel my face glowing in the cosy warm room from the exertion and exposure of the day.

In the morning I awoke, peered through a gap in the curtains and saw that the snow had indeed come. Just an inch of the first snow of the winter was covering the now gleaming and mighty glen we had ridden into the night before.

morning

 

Once we had set off it didn’t take long for the next little blizzard to start. I was already wearing my day’s clean kit as my bottom layer and my dirty kit as addition barriers against the cold. The snow swirled against us. The white specs had a dazzling, dizzying effect as I wondered how cold one’s nose had to be before frostbites settles in. A lot colder than this I’m sure. But it was the first time I’d legitimately pondered it. By the time I reached the foot of the Lecht I was already wearing everything I had except my jeans. My gloves were covered with my socks which made the always far too frequent map checking sessions all the more inconvenient. As we passed the barrier that was to close the road just a day after we were to ride it, the temperature plummeted and my phone stopped working. Photographs for this particular journey ended.

layering lecht

Luckily I have a few very vivid mental photographs. Shafts of light penetrating thick, white clouds bulging with snow; large conifer plantations swaying in the wind; an abandoned landscape and my abused steel frame, snow stuck to its front facing tubes flexing and contracting, soaking up the vibrations from the road. I’ve done many trips and had many moments but the descent of this hill, on this day, in these conditions remains as a special one. And a cold one.

Eventually we arrived in Aberdeen. Although the snow had made the ride seem like the epic kind of challenge that makes for a big hitting vimeo project, it was the rain that followed as we reached the lowlands that proved to be the toughest of all. HGVs screamed past us, showering us with their icy spray and by the time we had arrived in the Granite City, we were very damp and pretty pissed off. Rick had lost all enthusiasm and I was just looking forward to getting to the station and getting changed into a damp hoodie and stinking socks in the world’s smallest toilet cubical.

The late train was a party. It was mostly full of fresh off the rig revellers heading direct to Edinburgh to blow as much cash as possible before returning to their off shore savings account of a job. The mini bar actually restocked its beer at every other station as it went along. As I finally said fair well to Rick at Leeds station in the early hours of the morning I did not dread the several drunken, tired hours on a cold, smooth floor. I had plenty to think about.

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