05 July, 2015

Dover to Cape Wrath, Part 2

The Spring Issue included the beginning of Bill Atkinson’s cycling trip of “the other diagonal,” and here follows the end of the journey…

by Bill Atkinson

Day 11: Chesterfield to Leeds, 68 miles

The night before I left home for this section I realised that I’d miscalculated the mileage on this day. If I faithfully followed the Trans Pennine trail route I would have to do about 80 miles’ cycling: too much for me. I left home at 5:45 so that I could start cycling at about 9 o’clock. The first 10-12 miles were fantastic: off road and on a good surface, so no messing about.

However, as I reached the outskirts of Sheffield the instructions took me into more housing estates. No way! Sheffield is big, hilly and busy. I gave up on the instructions and it was 2 hours later, after many stops to ask for help, that I celebrated with coffee and a very large bacon bap in a café to the north of Sheffield. I knew where I was, and my planned route worked perfectly as I quickly bypassed Barnsley and rejoined the Trans Pennine Trail route towards Wakefield. I was very pleased with my progress.

But what happened in the little village of Heath? Where did the direction signs go? The only route I could see on my map would mean doing an extra 4 miles or so. After a minute or two a passing cyclist recommended that I took a nearby bridle path through some trees. This would get me to the Stanley Ferry Marina, he said. He was right, it did, and a young lad on a mountain bike probably would have enjoyed the next two miles; an old guy on a heavily-laden road bike certainly didn’t! It was a narrow, muddy path over tree roots and up and down slopes. I was so relieved to reach the Marina.

I could have done with stopping for a drink, but I felt I had to get on. After a few more miles, the Trans Pennine Trail went on a long off-road meander, so I joined the A462 heading for the Aire and Calder Canal to get me into Leeds. The Canal path was great apart from one bridge. Usually canals paths go under bridges, but this one didn’t. I had to strip everything off my bike to carry it over. It was too hard, too late in the day.

Initially I missed my Ibis hotel when I arrived in Leeds but soon found it and was very surprised when I was allowed to take my bike up to the room. It was about 6:30pm. It had been a very hard day but also very interesting.

Day 12: Leeds to Kirby Lonsdale, 62 miles

This was forecast to be a very wet day and in fact it was battering down with rain when I left Leeds. I was heading for Kirby Lonsdale about 60 miles away and I was hoping that I could make reasonable progress along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to Cargreave about 30 miles away. The rain eased off at about 10:30am but by this time I was soaked through.

At Bingley Locks (the steepest set of locks in the country) I had a well-earned coffee, and chatted to a lady manning (or should that be womanning?) a Canal Society stand. She told me that though the path had been very good so far, this would not continue. She also told me, as though this would please me, that about £5 million was to be spent upgrading much of the surface, but this would not be done until the next year. It has probably been done by now. As I struggled through mud and over stones and boulders, this good news was rather lost on me. I even had to get off and walk at times as I was so afraid of falling into the canal.

Fortuitously, when I was near Silsden the main A road approached the canal and there was a very nice footpath alongside it. Sorry you purists, I didn’t hesitate, and from then on I made very rapid progress, bypassing Skipton to join the A65, on which I cycled for the rest of the day. The coffee and cake in Cargreave were very welcome; the A65 was not too busy, and I felt reasonably safe. I got very tired as I approached Kirby Lonsdale which I reached at about 5 o’clock. After a little searching I found a reasonably-priced B&B above a restaurant and settled down for the night.

Reasonably-priced B&Bs are getting fewer and fewer; this one was just as it would have been in the 1970s. And there were biscuits in the room.

Day 13: Kirby Lonsdale to Carlisle, 58 miles

The forecast was awful: there was to be very, very heavy rain all afternoon. After breakfast I took a quiet B road to Kendall, with lots of hills but beautiful scenery. I bought another waterproof there and then set off to climb the dreaded Shap. It meant a lot of walking, pushing the bike but I got there and enjoyed the doughnut I had bought to treat myself at the top.

When I looked back I could see the rain clouds massing behind me so I hurried on to get to the café in Shap before the rain started. Though cloudy, it actually felt unpleasantly warm and I wished I had lighter clothes with me. I sailed downhill into Penrith. From the top of Shap into Penrith was my type of cycling: downhill, with the wind behind me.

I tired as I reached Carlisle but I made it before the rain. I got the same room in the same B&B I’d stayed in twice before, and enjoyed the evening’s rest. I decided I would reach Abington the next day and as a treat, booked myself into the hotel there. Three years earlier when walking from John o’ Groats to Land’s End I stopped there for afternoon tea. It had been a very, very hot day and I must have looked on my last legs. Two ladies fussed over me giving me cake and arranging a fan to blow cold air over me to cool me down.

Day 14: Carlisle to Abington, 59 miles

It had absolutely poured down all night and was still raining in the morning. I enjoyed my breakfast talking to two other guys, one a walker and the other a cyclist, so we ‘bored’ each other with stories of our ‘adventures’. I had to put all my wet gear on, and by the time I reached Gretna Green I was passing out with the warmth and the humidity. Gretna Green has been ‘upgraded’ since I was last there. It was packed with tourists from all over the world but what an awful place. Are all tourist hot-spots like this? After coffee I was glad to be on my way. Even though it was still raining slightly, I had to take my waterproofs off.

Progress was very slow (3 hours to do 20 miles). I passed through Ecclefechan and then on to Lockerbie. It has always rained when I have been in Lockerbie in the past but this time it was dry. I always think of the disaster here when I pass through. After another break for rain in a transport café I began to climb up the Clyde Valley. Everything here is packed into a fairly narrow valley; the river (the not-so-mighty Clyde), a motorway, a main railway line, huge pylons, a very quiet B road and still lots of trees.

By the time I reached Beatock, a really attractive little village, I was all in. I had had enough. There are no cafés so I ate a bit of chocolate and tried to summon the will power and strength to do the next 20 miles. The first 12 miles or so are uphill and for the only time on this section of my journey the wind was against me. The next 10 miles took me 80 minutes; I do not think Bradley Wiggens would have been proud of me! It was fascinating seeing all the wind turbines. I hadn’t realised there would be so many of them.

I’d hoped it would be easier once I reached the summit, but the wind was blowing strongly and I pedalled hard to get downhill. Dragging myself past Crawford, it started to rain, and I reached the hotel just before 6pm. I could hardly get my bags up the stairs. At £65, there should have been biscuits.

Day 15: Abington to Dumbarton, 59 miles

Early in the morning I felt very tired but once I was on the bike I felt great, full off energy and enthusiasm. How did that happen? What’s more, the sun was shining, the sky blue, and the wind behind me. I had only 40 miles to the centre of Glasgow. It was a Saturday, and before I started I worried about finding accommodation, so I already booked into a cheap place in Glasgow.

I was on a cycle path to the side of the B road and for much of the time this is well away from the motorway. The area around here is rather stark, a little desolate but beautiful in its own way, and the miles passed very easily. I had a brief stop for coffee in Lesmahagow and from then on it was mostly downhill to Glasgow. A couple of times I passed, and was passed by, a motorhome bearing the sign, “Supporting Charity Runner”. When I asked what was happening I heard it was supporting a runner from Land’s End to John o’ Groats in 20 days. That is two marathons or 52 miles a day. I wasn’t surprised to hear that his knee was paining. Good luck to him, though!

The roads soon got very busy as I passed through Larkhall, Hamilton and Blantyre. After stopping for lunch – a huge apple turnover – in Combuslang, I found a small detour enabling me to join the River Clyde cycle path, straight into the centre of Glasgow. Almost immediately I saw the blue NCN (National Cycle Network) signs to Dumbarton and Loch Lomond.

It was only about 2:30pm and I felt really energetic so I made the decision to carry on to Dumbarton and try and find accommodation when I got there. The path was fairly straightforward and took me along the Clyde, along a canal under the Erskine Bridge and into Bowling, where the canal joins the Clyde. I reached Dumbarton at around 5 o’clock to find it was full. No room in any inn. I had to resign myself to getting the train 18 miles back to Glasgow, find my room and then go back the next morning. This would seem to be a real nuisance but quite perversely I enjoyed it. The train journey was interesting and I enjoyed being in Glasgow.

Day 16: Dumbarton to Inverary, 50 miles

It rained heavily all night, but the morning was reasonably sunny. I got the train from Partick station back to Dumbarton and was on my way by 10:00.

I knew I had 23 miles on a cycle path right through to Tarbet, halfway up Loch Lomond. The cycle trail to Balloch, on the banks of Loch Lomond was fine. I had never heard of Balloch but it seemed to be something of a tourist hot spot. It even had a Shopping Park. Wow.

After Luss the cycle path is along an old road right on the edge of Loch Lomond, with beautiful views of the trees in their autumn colours. At Tarbet I turned westwards on the A83 towards Oban. I cannot remember why I went into a Tourist Information Centre here, but it was ironic that the lady there asked me all about cycling; she certainly got more information than I did. It started to rain as I cycled around the top of Loch Long, only a shower, and then drizzle as I climbed uphill to Rest and Be Thankful, with only one short walk. Luckily for me the road had only just been reopened after a landslide. Despite the damp I was far too hot to put on waterproofs. As I reached the top, the clouds cleared and I was treated to lovely views back down into the valley. I was very glad to ‘rest’ and I was ‘thankful’ that there was a tea van.

Rest and Be Thankful

I whizzed down the hill towards Loch Fyne and was soon heading around it to Inverary. The castle was beautiful but the area seemed rather run down. I could have stayed at the Youth Hostel, but felt like a bit of luxury and I booked myself into the hotel. £55 was reasonable and there were biscuits.


Day 17: Inverary to Oban, 40 miles

I was finishing the day in Oban and this was to be the end of this section of my journey. I know this is now getting a bit (very) boring but yet again the forecast was for heavy rain all day, and as I left on the A819, up a steep hill, it did start to rain. However, it only lasted a few minutes and I was so glad to strip off my waterproofs. The warmth and humidity were very difficult to cope with (Today was 7th October).

Though it was gloomy, the scenery was lovely. The road passed through a tree-lined valley surrounded by hills and mountains. When I reached the south-east bank of Loch Awe I joined the A85 where according to a roadside notice I had just passed the largest tree in Great Britain at Cruachan. After a coffee from the Post Office in Awe, sitting in the rain on a wet bench, I carried on alongside Loch Awe. Probably it is very attractive, but not today.

I went over the Pass of Brander which, as passes go, was very easy. I had decided to leave the A road at Taynault and take a single track road across country to Oban; the recommended road for cyclists. I stopped at Taynault for tea and a “wee shortbread” and relaxed, with just 12 miles to go.

I rang my wife who was away walking with friends, and one of her friends who had lived in Oban said it was all downhill into Oban. This relaxation was absolutely no good for me as I then found every slight hill a real effort. Despite my tiredness I thought this 12 miles was wonderful: very little traffic, very few houses, just me and the countryside. After one final climb I descended into Oban. I found a B&B and booked my train home the next day. I found it strange standing on the pier watching the ferries and thinking that it would be quite a few months before I returned to continue. It was actually to be 8 months later.

The Western Isles

A sight I saw occasionally: June pushing her bike up a hill

For the 6 days cycling on the Western Isles, I was joined by my wife, June. She uses a bike to get around but has done very few longer days of cycling and we did not want to do long, tiring distances each day; we wanted to ‘stop and stare’ and enjoy the experience. I planned quite short days, all less than 30 miles, but in the event we often did more by exploring around.

We took two days to get from home to Castlebay in Barra. There were at least 30 other cyclists getting the ferry across to the Isles. After our evening meal in Castlebay, we went for a short walk along the sea front. It was about 10:30pm but seemed more like late afternoon. In the middle of June it never really gets dark this far north.

Day 18: Castlebay (Barra) to Lochboisdale (South Uist), 38 miles

After leaving our pleasant and friendly B&B we initially cycled even further south to briefly visit Vatersay, and we then headed around what is apparently the more beautiful west coast of Barra. We visited the tiny airstrip on the beach in the north of the island, and a plane came in from Glasgow while we were there – all very sweet.

Unfortunately, it then started to rain so the rest of our day was not quite what we had hoped for. We got to the ferry terminal and went across to Eriskay. There were no views, just greyness and wetness. As we went up through Eriskay and across the causeway onto South Uist, it got wetter and wetter, and the little detour we had to make to get to our hotel in Lochboisdale seemed a bad mistake. On the way to the hotel I popped into the local Co-op to buy a paper. “Aye they will be in any time,” I was told. It was nearly 6 o’clock in the evening.

After drying, showering and enjoying our meal, things didn’t seem quite so bad, but it was still pouring down with rain in the morning. What made this a little ironic for us was that the rest of the country, including most of Scotland, was enjoying a heatwave.

Day 19: Lochboisdale (South Uist) to Lionaclait (Benbecula), 27 miles

We hung around in the morning hoping the rain would ease, but no luck, so we set off to reach a little museum-cum-shop some 10 miles away and, after visiting Flora MacDonald’s house, we managed to kill about 2 hours here. At this point I thought South Uist was the worst dump I had ever visited: wet, drab and flat. We had to get going eventually, and a miracle occurred: the rain stopped, the sun came out and leaving the main road took us into a place of sheer magic. The machir was covered in flowers, the lakes/lochs were covered in lilies and there were so many birds. And then we reached the whitest beaches and the bluest sea I have ever seen. We stopped and dawdled and then dawdled some more. I was so glad we had plenty of time, and I completely revised my opinion of South Uist.

We crossed another causeway to get onto Benbecula, and again, it was very flat, but the vegetation here seemed more ordinary. When we found our accommodation in Lionaclait the lady remarked that it was a pity about the mist. They’d had no rain here, just 15 miles from 24 hours of continuous rain.

Day 20: Lionaclait (Benbecula) to Lochmaddy (North Uist), 27 miles

We cycled round the west coast of Benbecula, while it was cloudy but not raining. The machir and the beaches were stunning. Coffee was in the village of Balivanich which has a bigger airport than Barra, and then we continued across the North of Benbecula, which is incredibly flat, and a maze of inland lochs. At Carnish we visited the ruin of a ‘temple’ which had been a very important centre of learning even before the Middle Ages, and then finally left Benbecula on another causeway to reach North Uist.

This time we took the east coast road to our accommodation in Lochmaddy; apart from the causeways, this was the first two-lane road we had encountered. We stopped en route to visit a stone burial chamber, the Barpa Lungass cairn. We were on a new road but I noticed the old road was still intact and as it runs alongside the new road; it made a perfect cycle path. After briefly chatting to a couple peat cutting, (we found that it costs £10.00 a year to hire a ‘bank’), we reached Lochmaddy. Our B&B overlooked the bay and it was a beautiful, still, warm evening.

Day 21: Lochmaddy (North Uist) to Tarbert (Harris), 33 miles

Today we had to cycle up North Uist, cross a causeway to the next island, Bernaray, and then get the ferry to Leverburgh on Harris. The morning was rather gloomy and misty and this rather spoilt the views on the ferry crossing, but what caused even more consternation amongst the passengers was that there was no milk in the coffee machine.

I had wondered if Leverburgh would be similar to Lord Leverhulme’s village of Port Sunlight on the Wirral; it wasn’t. It was Sunday and we’d been told that Harris closes down on a Sunday. In fact, even the quayside Butty Bar was closed. At this point we had to decide whether to take the flatter and lovely west coast route or the hillier and more dramatic route on the east coast, the Golden Road. No contest: we took the flatter route.

By the time we reached the village of Northton (or An Taobh Tuath, if you prefer) the sun had reappeared and a sign reading “Café, Open on Sundays, 1 mile” made things even better. It was a delightful community café on the banks of the loch. We then cycled around the West coast of Harris. This remains one of the most memorable and enjoyable cycles of my life. Even a slow puncture which made progress a little wobbly, didn’t spoil it.

View after view! On a gloriously calm, sunny day like this, I could not understand how the castaways on the nearby island of Taransay could ever have found life difficult. All too soon, we had to turn away from the coast and climb over to the east coast before reaching our hotel in Tarbert. When I got there I tried to blow up the tyre and my pump immediately broke; it was good I hadn’t tried to use it earlier.

There were other cyclists at the hotel and I asked if could I borrow a pump. Harry and Jim didn’t just lend me a pump, they came and changed my inner tube and fixed the puncture – so good of them. Later, I thought that maybe they did this because I seemed useless! Whatever the reason, they were great guys and I was very grateful.

Day 22: Tarbert (Harris) to Loch Erisort (Lewis), 23 miles

It was 2 days before I was able to buy a new pump in Stornaway and I felt very vulnerable during this time. This was to be a short day and we didn’t leave until after half ten; I knew there were a couple of biggish hills between Tarbert and Stornaway but we were in no hurry. We set off up the A859, and after coffee in a new gallery overlooking the mist, we started to climb the first of the hills.

It was rather long, but as we descended we came out of the mist into scenery that was very similar to North Wales. Shortly after a long sweep downwards we left Harris and crossed the ‘border’ into Lewis. It was rather bleak, there were very few houses and definitely no cafés.

We visited a cairn/statue erected in honour of the men who fought against the evictions. It must have been a terrible time; no wonder they hated the mainly-English landowners. From the A859 it was a long 1½ mile detour to the Loch Erisort Inn. It was only just after 3 o’clock when we arrived and were able to have a very relaxed evening. We only had 16 miles to get to Stornaway the next day, and June was feeling fine, so we decided that we really ought to visit the ancient Stones at Callinish. This would mean we’d be doing 40 miles.

Day 23: Loch Erisort (Lewis) to Stornaway (Lewis), 40 miles

We chatted to three other cyclists over breakfast; all were loving the cycling on the Western Isles. After a fairly uneventful 20 odd miles to Callinish, we arrived in glorious sunshine, and after the obligatory scone and coffee, we very much enjoyed our visit. While not as tall as the stones at Stonehenge, or indeed those on the Orkneys, they are so evocative. What was it like then?

The Stones at Callinish

We met a couple here whom we’d encountered 3 or 4 times in various places. Like us, they were loving the Islands but I am sure doing it on a bike is an infinitely better experience than by car. We also visited Callinish 2 and 3, and it was after 3:00pm when we set off again. After about 8 miles we turned off onto a quiet, single-track road across the moors. The next 10 miles or so were cycling heaven, particularly the last 3 miles: slightly downhill, the wind behind us, the sun shining, no cars and lovely views. Arriving into rush hour in Stornaway was a real shock to our systems.

Day 24: Stornaway to Ullapool by ferry, 12 miles

We were not to get the ferry back to Ullapool on the mainland until the afternoon and we explored Stornaway and the Castle area across the bay in the morning. There was a cruise ship moored in the bay but I don’t think the small groups of tourists wandering about looking rather lost were getting a real feel for the Outer Hebrides. Once we arrived in Ullapool after the ferry journey, we easily found our hotel, only to be told that we were not booked in! Apparently the online company that we booked with had booked us into an Argylle Hotel on the Island of Bute a few hundred miles away. A bit too far for us to get to! Apparently it wasn’t the first time they had managed to do this. We were lucky: there was another room, and we were fine, but for a few moments it was a little worrying.

Day 25: Ullapool to Kylesku, 35 miles

I would now be cycling on my own for the next two days. It is 70, very demanding miles from Ullapool to Durness, and I decided that 70 miles of continuous hills was too much for one day so I split it into 2 days. I luckily found accommodation exactly half way in Kylesku. June had only really wanted to do the Western Isles, so we arranged for her to catch the Inverness/Durness bus on both of the days; this worked perfectly.

The weather on both days had everything: wind in all directions, sunshine, cloud and rain, and sometimes all conditions within half an hour. But what wonderful country it was! There were lots of hills, and I was very glad when I reached the café at Elphin. I had noticed the strange building at Knockin Crag but it was high up the hill and it was pouring with rain when I went past. It was only later that I found I really should have paid it a visit as it describes the geology I was passing through. The whole area is a designated Geopark. Nevertheless, I found it interesting reading the notices dotted about explaining the features to be seen in the rock formations.

At one point I was passed by a minibus with ‘Land’s End – John o’ Groats Expedition’ written on the side. I was intrigued as to what it was doing in this area, and fortunately the driver stopped to ask me what I was doing so we were able to trade explanations. The cyclists he was supporting had come up from Land’s End and crossed over to Mull and then island-hopped. After Durness, they would cycle along the North Coast to John o’ Groats. He seemed amazed that I should choose to be unsupported but I have never felt the need. It did explain why I had earlier been passed by several cyclists with no panniers.

Though I thought I was making very slow progress up the hills and into the wind, I reached Kylesku at about 3 o’clock and I felt fine; I could have done more. After a meal in the nearby hotel we watched an abject England get beaten by Uruguay.

Day 26: Kylesku to Durness, 35 miles

When I finished the day before I had thought I should have carried on to Scourie, just 9 miles away. An exhausting 1 hour, 50 minutes into the next day’s journey when I crawled into Scourie, I felt delighted I had stopped at Kylesku. There had been 6 long, steep hills in wind and rain. After that it was great: the wind dropped and it was much sunnier. I passed Foinaven (the mountain, not the Grand National winner), but couldn’t see it in the mist. I passed and saw Ben More Assynt.

The final hill was very long but not steep and the wind blew me up, and the 5 miles down on the other side were incredible – another bit of cycling heaven. What scenery! I had almost finished the downhill stretch when the skies darkened, the temperature dropped quite dramatically and it began to rain slightly. However, the bad weather stayed over the hills, and a mile further on it was sunny, warm and calm. If I had gone over that pass just half an hour later it would have been a nightmare rather than the delight it was. It was now about 3.30pm.

June had cycled to meet me on the banks of the loch, and we cycled together to investigate the ferry across to the headland for Cape Wrath. We met the boatman who runs the boat, and it seemed a bit vague: he started at 9:30am and he would take me and my bike across, but it depended on how many passengers he had. June would cross with me, get the minibus to Cape Wrath and wait for me. We were staying in the Hostel in Durness for 3 nights so we did a bit of shopping and had a relaxed evening.

Day 27: Durness to Cape Wrath, 11 miles

We managed to get on the first boat, and I was on my way at 9:35am. Immediately I had to go up a steep hill on a very poor road. There is only the one road, single track, and in very bad repair. There are just a few traces of tarmac and a lot of gravel. With mist, the wind against me, rain and the threat of much more rain, it being very cold, and all uphill, what else would I have to cope with? A touch of diarrhoea – that was nice! There were mile posts but it seemed an awfully long way between each one.

The ferry to Cape Wrath

After a sudden 10 minute squall when I was lucky to be able to shelter behind a low wall, it got easier, and there were even some fairly flat stretches. Believe it or not, it took me 2 hours and 45 minutes to do those 11 miles. Is that the slowest cycling ever? Mind you, it takes the minibus nearly an hour. I had a well-earned coffee and rest at the Ozone café before having a walk around. What a wonderful place! It felt great to have made it, and I was so glad to take the minibus back. We thoroughly enjoyed our two days in and around Durness. Smoo Cave was well worth the visit, and we had a couple of great walks. We loved the area.

Cape Wrath Lighthouse

To get home we took the Durness/Inverness bike bus to Inverness, and after overnighting in Inverness we took four trains back to Hoylake. The total mileage of the trip was 1,106 miles, but I did quite a few extra miles, and just getting from Dover to Cape Wrath was 1,007 miles, virtually the same as my two trips from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. All in all, it was a fantastic experience. I would have preferred to do the whole journey in one go, but for one reason and another it wasn’t really possible. Maybe next time?!

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