Day 4. MAMBA

Dinner in the Thyme Bar of the Premier Inn at Thurso was uninspiring but I’d paid for it as part of my deal. Most of the starters were off the menu so I opted for spicy chicken wings followed by chicken curry which was the thinnest liquid curry I have ever had, but reasonably tasty.  Vegetables didn’t seem to feature in anything ‘though salad was an option. It was filling enough and washed down with Magners cider.  There were large contingents of young families, mostly well behaved, but the noise level was high. Masks were generally required when circulating but apparently the virus can’t get you when you’re sitting down!

The day dawned grey and chilly and I went down for breakfast at about 0815.  This was a buffet affair, as much as you could eat, cooked or continental and I made good use of it knowing that I wouldn’t get a proper lunch.  Having had the problem with the front mudguard yesterday I went in search of a bike shop to buy some hex head bolts and some threadlock to try to prevent it happening again.  When I went round the bike I found that I have also lost one of the rack bolts.  The Bike Shop, a couple of miles from the hotel seems to be the only one in Thurso,

surprising when so many people do the end to end, and the owner, who was on the phone trying to sort out a suspected credit card fraud, was simultaneously able to supply the bolts but not the Loctite.  He was, however, able to point me in the direction of an auto supplies shop that might help. As with just about every LBS I’ve ever been to, the offer to pay was waved away and I left him to his phone call.

As I was in the main part of the town I dropped into Tesco to buy a meal deal for later and then back to the hotel to repair the bike, checking and tightening all the bolts I could see, and then packing up.  I left at 1048 and, as the auto store was on my route, dropped in and bought a tube of Loctite and some washers.  I mounted the new bolts and applied Loctite to several others and set off east, parallel to the north coast but inland.  The road was well surfaced but I was getting a worrying rubbing noise that I couldn’t locate.  I kept going but it didn’t go away and when I reached the Reay golf course,

just past the now mostly decommissioned Dounreay nuclear plant, I took everything off the bike and had a closer look.  With all the work I had done I had managed to dislodge the rear mudguard and the pannier was pushing it against the tyre.  Having sorted that out, I continued peacefully, using the motor to get up some steep pitches.  About 15 miles in, the coast road continues north and east whilst I joined the A897 which made it’s way south south west.  As with many Scots A roads it was little more than a tarmac track with passing places.  As I turned onto it my navigator, Rita the Google lady said “in 37 and a half miles, turn left” so I knew there was no chance of making a wrong turn.

The wind got up and was blowing strongly in my face the whole way which was debilitating.  Traffic was scarce but considerate, pulling in to allow me past and, had the weather been better it would have been an enjoyable ride.  It remained cold and grey for most of the day.  The sun briefly showed its face at about 1pm but, despite my wind jacket, I felt chilly all day. I was surprised at the amount of climbing there was en route.  It wasn’t steep but went on for several miles and I felt the effects to the extent that I turned the motor on at its lowest setting for the last 25 miles, draining it down to about one third remaining so I suspect it isn’t as thrifty as my Specialized bike.  I stopped to eat my meal deal at about 1.30pm and, amazingly, wasn’t troubled by flies or midges whilst I enjoyed looking at the Halladale river.

The flow country of Caithness and Sutherland is a large rolling expanse of peatland and wetland. It is the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe and covers about 1500 square miles and is recognised as an important habitat for wildlife to the extent that the RSPB has purchased about 10 square miles to create the Forsinard Flows national nature reserve.  During the 1980s much of the Flow country was altered significantly by tree planting, much of it for tax avoidance.  In hindsight this was a mistake and several areas of conifers have been felled and allowed to rot, in the hope that they will revert to peat bog in the far distant future.  In the meantime these “cemetrees” are a distinct scar on the landscape.

My route was right through the middle of the Flow country, passing Forsinard, where I crossed the railway line that I had used the day before.  Network Rail were undertaking some testing of the level crossing which was closed as I arrived with an automated voice telling us that there may be more than one train on the way. A car came in the opposite direction and the barriers were lifted so that we could both pass. 

About a mile beyond the level crossing I reached the watershed.  The Halladale river, that I had been following and which empties into the sea to the north, disappeared and I saw a large Loch that fed the upper waters of the Helmsdale river which reaches the sea at its eponymous town to the south.  The railway re-appeared and, although I didn’t see it the whole time, as it runs along the opposite side of the Helmsdale valley,  I was following its track for the remainder of the journey.

With the wind I was getting pretty weary and certainly didn’t need the flat rear tyre that beset me 3 miles from my destination.  However it was soon changed and I didn’t need the help of a kindly passing motorist who stopped his Land Rover to see if I was OK.  I pitched up at the Belgrave Arms Hotel in Helmsdale, where I had stayed two years previously when cycling the extremes of Britain, at about 4.50pm to find the bar already busy. Washing myself and clothes took priority but I was soon downstairs sinking a couple of pints of Belhaven before supper.

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