Day 6 Over the hill to Perthshire

Inverness was full last night.  I’m not entirely sure why; a combination of Saturday night and an inner city bike race and sportive on Sunday, but when I went out in search of food at about 730pm there was nothing available.  The earliest that I could get a seat in a restaurant was 9pm so I gave up and went back to Greig Street where I has spotted a Chinese takeaway.  An excellent sweetcorn and chicken soup and a slightly too spiced seafood rice dish quelled the hunger back at the Quaich where I have stayed twice before.  Sadly Covid has also taken its toll on breakfast at the Quaich and I needed to find something to give me an early morning  boost. As my route took me past the vast shopping complex at the Inches, I dropped in at Macdonalds, being the only place open before 10am, for a Breakfast roll and cuppa tea.  I can’t say that it took the place of a good breakfast but it filled a hole until lunchtime.

There was a significant climb out of Inverness on the Culloden road but I managed to stay off the main A9 for the first seven miles until there was no alternative but to brave the fast moving traffic.  A couple of miles later I was thankful to turn off onto a B road and make my way up a steep climb towards Moy.  The road levelled out and I had a most enjoyable ride through beautiful scenery in sunny conditions with virtually no wind. 

My route essentially followed the A9 but I was scarcely aware of it for much of the journey. I couldn’t resist the picture.

20 miles or so in I crossed the Findhorn Bridge and had the steepest climb of the day.  The motor helped me up the bank and then I was able to switch off as I made my way up onto the moors and pine woods

where I finally re-joined the A9 but on a separate cycle path that crosses and re-crosses the main road on its way to Carrbridge.  Progress was pretty slow but I finally reached the road that took me into Aviemore.  The town was buzzing at lunchtime with every eating place full.  It’s a large town, on the railway, with plenty of accommodation for both the summer and winter seasons.  Skiing takes place about 10 miles from the town on the Cairngorms and there is plenty to do in the summer with mountain biking and water sports on the nearby lochs and rivers.  I vaguely looked for a bike shop to sort out my rear wheel but couldn’t see anything obvious, so moved on along a B road to Kingussie.

In Kingussie I stopped at the Co-op, mainly to buy 2litres of water as I was running low but bought a pack of doughnuts to boost my energy.  As I walked out of the shop I was accosted by a man who asked where I was going?   He introduced himself as Maurice and said he was walking from JOG to Lands End to highlight the problem of Prostate Cancer.  He wasn’t specifically raising money but wants to raise awareness of a disease with which he has been diagnosed, in the hope that all men will be tested before it is too late.  At the age of 68 he has been given 3-5 years but is currently healthy enough to walk the walk.  Have a look at his Facebook page  The Wee Walk for Prostate Cancer Awareness and see if there is anything you can do to help.

I remounted as it started spitting and within a couple of miles it was raining properly to the extent that I pulled over and put on my rain jacket as I sheltered, as best I could, under a sycamore tree.  The rain eased a bit and I set off again through Newtonmore where, as the rain once again increased, I found a closed shop and sheltered in the doorway. Finally the heavy shower disappeared and the sun started to peep through.

Sustrans and the Scottish Government have done an amazing job of making a cycle path that cuts across the Cairngorms without touching the main A9.  Partly on B roads, but mainly dedicated cycle track, well surfaced and properly maintained it spoils cyclists and walkers by comparison with most of the rest of the UK.  From Dalwhinnie with its distillery over the Pass of Drumochter and down almost to Blair Atholl there is a beautifully tarmacced path that is a joy to cycle.

  I was amazed at how few people were using it.  In that 30 or so miles I only saw two other cyclists and no walkers. The motor stayed on for the whole climb up Drumochter which is the highest railway line in the UK and one of the highest points on the Sustrans network.

and by the time I reached my destination at Blair Atholl the battery was virtually empty.  I was glad to reach the Atholl Arms Hotel at about 6pm: 83.5 miles over hilly terrain is becoming a bit too much for me.  I should sleep well tonight.

Day 5. Coasting to Inverness

I last stayed at the Belgrave Arms in Helmsdale in 2019 and it hasn’t changed a bit.  Craig and Wendy are still in charge and the bar seems to do good trade with the locals.  The Hotel is very outdated, most rooms sharing bath and loo facilities but you get what you pay for and at £49.50 for a single room it’s about value for money.  The bar menu is basic but the tomato soup and fish and chips were tasty and good.  As usual in Scotland all the beer is keg but the Belhaven was good enough to warrant drinking two pints in the noisy bar before I went off to write the blog.  The Wifi is pitiful in the room and I had to come down into the reception area to get a strong enough signal to stitch in photos and publish the finished article.  Having done that another pint seemed in order and I got chatting to a young couple who had recently moved to the area from London.  They seemed an unlikely fit for the area, he a metropolitan plumber and she disabled with a couple of young children.  I wished them luck with their new life and so to bed.

Full breakfast was well cooked and included haggis and black pudding so I set off at 0922 with a full stomach and best wishes from Craig.  There is a short climb out of Helmsdale past the emigrant’s statue.

The inscription on the monument, in English and Gaelic, reads: “The Emigrants commemorates the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland who, in the face of great adversity, sought freedom, hope and justice beyond these shores. They and their descendants went forth and explored continents, built great countries and cities and gave their enterprise and culture to the world. This is their legacy. Their voices will echo forever thro the empty straths and glens of their homeland.” The statue was commissioned by  Dennis MacLeod who was born and brought up in Helmsdale but made his fortune gold mining in South Africa.

A mere three miles into the journey I felt the rear tyre give way yet again.  This time it was a proper blowout but I couldn’t find any sign of tyre damage and the split seemed to be on the inside of the tube.  On closer inspection it was apparent that the rim tape which is meant to protect the tube was wrinkled exposing the tube to the spoke ends.  There wasn’t much I could do about it so replaced the tube and hoped for the best.  With luck it will last as far as Aviemore where I know there are several bike shops who may be able to provide a replacement.  Whilst I was changing the tube, a girl on foot, late teens, early 20s with a large pack on her back stopped to ask if she could help.  She set off from Land’s End 56 days ago and was hoping to be in JOG in four days.  I wished her well and she set off leaving me to finish my repair.

The A9 road follows the railway along the coast,

undulating quite severely in places and with heavy and fast moving traffic, but I didn’t resort to the motor and after an hour of cycling had covered to 12.2 miles to Brora. On to Golspie the largest town in the area with the High School and down to Loch Fleet that penetrates inland about three miles with Beware of the otters signs along the road. 

Here I was able to leave the A9 and enjoy back roads that wound along the edge of the Loch before taking me to Dornoch, busy with coach parties and other visitors on a sunny Saturday forenoon.  I didn’t hang around but continued south to rejoin the A9 as it crossed Dornoch Firth, fortunately with a decent cycle lane.

Now almost half way I stopped at Lidl in Tain to buy lunch and, particularly, 2 litres of water to fill my bottles.  I stopped there two years ago when I was covering exactly the same journey and enjoyed eating my picnic in the car park overlooking the Dornoch Firth.

My route now took me away from the coast along quiet forested roads with variable surfaces.  About two miles after Tain I heard voices behind me and two cyclists, Paul and Lee pulled alongside asking me what I was doing.  It transpired that they had set out from JOG that morning, heading for Land’s End and were hoping to be in Aviemore that night, about 160 miles by my rough calculations.  They were travelling light as they had a support vehicle but, even so, good going.  We wished each other luck and they sped off into the distance.

I continued to avoid the A9 going through Alness and Dingwall as the road wound south west around the Cromarty Firth before turning back south east towards Tore where I had to join the A9, fortunately with a good cycle path alongside it.  The climb up from Dingwall was steep and I switched on the motor for about five miles.  The cycle path once again left the A9 as we headed towards North Kessock and the bridge across the Beauly Firth. 

A steep climb up from the coast to the bridge put the motor in overdrive and then I coasted down over the bridge, which really is at that mad angle, with the traffic thundering across, beside but separated from me.

I was now only a couple of miles through an industrial estate and round the ring road to my destination at The Quaich, the B&B I stayed in on my two previous trips.  Unfortunately, owing to Covid, I don’t get breakfast in the morning so will have to find something in town.  A shame as I remember it as rather a good breakfast in the past.

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.

Day 3. Train to Jog

Train to JOG

You left me in my couchette at the front of the very long train to Edinburgh whilst my bike was at the very back.  I slept restlessly as we made our way north, worried about the fate of my bike and generally peed off with Caledonian Sleeper service who had told me that electric bikes would not be carried, hence my purchase of yet another bike from which I can remove the battery and motor with one easy movement, leaving it as a conventional bicycle.  In the event nobody queried my electric bike and I’m sure that there would have been no problem with my Specialized either.  And now my bike was loaded into a carriage that was heading for Aberdeen.  However Sandie, my charming host assured me that she would wake me when we were close to Edinburgh so that I could put my bike in the seated carriage that would be attached to the back of the train to go to Inverness.  And good to her word she did so at about 3.30am when I and three other cyclists and several seated passengers had to get off and do the necessary before getting back to bed about 0400.  Since one of the reasons for travelling by sleeper was to get some sleep, it rather ruined the intention and I shall be taking it up with management.  Anyway I was able to go back to grab a few more hours rest before we arrived in Inverness at about 0815, safe in the knowledge that my bike would be in the same city as me.

I now had to wait at Inverness station until 1041, when the train to Thurso was due to leave, so I sat down and composed Day 2 blog which had been neglected.  It was quite pleasant sitting outside Costa Coffee enjoying a sausage sarnie and a cup of cappuccino whilst I tried to compose my thoughts. 

Another problem:  I save photos to One Drive so that I can easily download them into the blog, but that requires an internet connection and, however hard I tried to connect to the free Scotrail Wifi, I couldn’t do so.  My personal data wasn’t up to it either so I had to leave it until I got to Thurso.

The train left on time: it was a journey that I took 2 years ago when I cycled the extremes of Britain and it is a beautiful trip. The line follows the coast for a while before climbing over a hill with the purple heather bright in the morning sunshine.  There was virtually no wind and the water was millpond calm giving marvellous reflections which I was unable to capture through a dirty train window.  Down the other side and back to the coast where it runs close to the A9 road which I will follow to Inverness on Saturday.  We stopped at every station with shoppers getting on and off until Helmsdale, where I stay tomorrow night. 

After that the train takes to the hills cutting across the Flow country, peat bogs and tree plantations.  The road disappeared and we were totally isolated apart from the odd Halt which nobody made use of.  My carriage was entirely empty apart from me and when we finally made it to Thurso, slightly ahead of the projected arrival time of 1424, only six other people got out of the front carriage.  Scotrail can’t be making much out of that.

I had already booked to stay at the brand new Premier Inn which is right next door to the station

but was not supposed to book in until after 4pm.  However the rather useless girl on reception, after seemingly pressing all the buttons on the computer, eventually managed to find my booking and agreed that Room 225 was cleaned and ready for me; so I dumped panniers and bar bag in the room and took off for John O’Groats, about 20 miles away.  This had always been my intention but being able to do it without all the extra weight, including the motor and battery made the bike very spritely and I made very good time into a slight breeze.  The roads in the far north of Scotland are straight and undulating which becomes a bit disheartening but I stuck to the task and was standing by the famous signpost at 1618 where I persuaded a kind lady from the Peak District, who is touring the coast with her husband and teenage daughter, to take the snap.

I didn’t hang about but made my way back to Thurso by a slightly different route, which made it a bit more interesting, and was back at the hotel by 1803.  About 8 miles from my destination the front mudguard fell off when one of the bolts worked loose but I was able to jam it in the rack and will replace it before I leave tomorrow.

My deal with Premier Inns is Dinner bed and breakfast for under £100 and, although the choice of dinner looks uninspiring, I shall have a large breakfast as my route takes me through the wilderness with not a pub or shop on the way.  It’s only 53 miles, predominantly downhill, to Helmsdale so I shan’t leave very early and I will give the bike a bit of attention before I go. At least the bike and I are in the same place.

Day 2. Canalling

Day 2.  Along the Canals

Christine cooked us a delicious supper of salmon with loads of fresh veg and finished with an excellent apple pie.  The beer and wine flowed and Clive and I put the world to rights. It’s always good to see him, one of the most amusing people you could meet, and a true friend.  I flowed off to bed and composed the blog so didn’t get to sleep very early but the bed was comfortable and I rested well.

Scrambled eggs and bacon sent me on the road after I’d packed everything away.  Alarmingly I seemed to have less in my panniers than the day before, but hopefully I just packed them better as nothing seems to be missing.

My original intention had been to cycle up to the Ridgeway which runs close by West Ilsley and make my way to Pangbourne across the Downs but I am aware that I have a very heavy load. With me and the panniers on top of the bike I reckon I’m pushing 150kgs, and rough tracks are best avoided to avoid wheel damage.  So I continued on the tarmac to East Ilsley, passing under the A34 and breasting a couple of short but steep climbs, which I managed without the motor, to get the blood pumping.  Just past Compton the road reared up to double figures and I was glad to be able to flip the motor on briefly.  The general trend was now downhill with a few pitches and I was soon passing Pangbourne College, founded in 1917 to train boys to become Merchant Navy officers.  Apparently it still reflects this ethos although it is no longer specifically a Naval College.

Pangbourne is a pretty town close to the River Thames but I continued on the main road to Purley on Thames before hitting the river at Caversham where I was directed around a work party putting finishing touches to the 3m high wall around the Reading Festival which starts next week. 

The wall seemed to go on forever but I eventually reached the end of the somewhat rough path alongside it and emerged onto a much better tarmac path that continued close to the river north of Reading town centre.  The path varied considerably as it wound through the nature reserve on its way to Sonning

where I hit tarmac before, once again, crossing the Old Bath Road.  I now had several miles of easy flat roads, crossing the M4 before losing my way in Bray.  The entrance to the cycle path round Bray Lake was easily missed and I had to back track.  I then had a problem with getting though one of the worst designed cycle gates I have ever come across: not once, but twice, at either end of the permissive path, I had to unload the bike in order to get through it.

 I crossed the Thames at Monkey Island, over an attractive bridge which I had to wheel across to negotiate the zig zag access, around Dorney Lake which is owned by Eton College and was developed by them at the cost of £17m, mainly for their own use.  However in 2012 it became the centre for rowing and canoeing events for the London Olympics and is regularly used by third parties for regattas, including this year’s University Boat race.

I then found a message from Caledonian sleeper that the train would be late boarding but that they expected arrival times would not be affected. 

More annoyingly the only carriages that will take bikes are seated carriages and they did not have one going to Inverness from London.  This meant that I had to unload my bike of luggage at the very front of the train before wheeling my bike to the very rear of the half mile long train to put it in the only seated carriage which was due to go to Aberdeen.  The Caledonian sleeper leaving London consists of three trains that end up in Inverness, Fort William and Aberdeen after they have divided at Edinburgh in the early hours of the morning, I then had to walk the 800 metres back to my couchette at the front.  Thus I had to trust that the crew would wake me in time to move my bike from the Aberdeen section to the seated carriage that was to be attached to the Inverness train at Edinburgh Waverley. More of that tomorrow…………

Day 1. White Horses

I set off at 0900 and then realised that I had forgotten to put my helmet on so had to turn round and remedy the situation.  My route took me across Horsington Marsh and up the hill into Wincanton where I joined the old A303 past the Hunter’s Lodge and through Bourton and Zeals before turning left across the old airfield towards Stourhead.  I went along the main road rather than past the front of the Palladian Mansion, owned by the National Trust and skirted Maiden Bradley House, one of the homes of the Duke of Somerset, before turning down the mile long drive to Longleat House. There was a steady stream of cars visiting the various attractions at Longleat and the traffic to get into the Safari Park was 6 abreast, so that should please the Marquess of Bath.

On to Corsley where, for the first time I engaged the motor to get up the steep hill to the main road and then turned it off again as I made my way across to Westbury and the first of the White Horses.  Located on the edge of Bratton Downs and lying just below an Iron Age hill fort, it is the

oldest of several white horses carved in Wiltshire. It was restored in 1778, an action which may have obliterated another horse that had occupied the same slope. A contemporary engraving from around 1772 appears to show a horse facing in the opposite direction that was rather smaller than the present figure. There is, however, no documentation or other evidence for the existence of a chalk horse at Westbury before 1772. 

The road was now relatively flat all the way to Market Lavington, past Dauntsey’s School, devoid of pupils for the summer holidays and on through Urchfont where I glimpsed the small Pewsey White

Horse: to Pewsey itself, where I stopped at the Royal Oak for a  very good pannini and a pint of Henry’s IPA which slipped down a treat.

The back garden of the pub where I sat in the watery sunshine is now jostling for space with a scaffolding stage which will host Oakstock, featuring local bands, on 21st August.

Onwards past watery roadworks and Burbage to East Grafton where I hung a sharp left climbing over the downs, but not steeply enough to warrant the engine, to cross the Kennet and Avon canal at Crofton

No sign of narrow boats but a mile or so further on I came across the gateway to the Crofton Beam Engine, unfortunately closed except at weekends, which purports to be the

the oldest working beam engine still in place doing its original job.  Who am I to argue?

When I was at school, more years ago than I care to remember, I spent several weekends clearing the Kennet and Avon canal which was then overgrown and unused.  It is now open to traffic from Bristol to Reading including the magnificent Caen Hill lock system at Devizes, which I missed today but passed by on my trip between the County Towns in 2016.

I now followed the canal and railway  which travel side by side demonstrating the Geography teacher’s dream of three parallel transport systems which largely superseded one another.  I left the canal just past Little Bedwyn where I had to climb over a hill to reach Hungerford which was bustling in the warm and sunny afternoon.

Crossing the Bath Road, once the main road from London to Bath and Bristol, but somewhat less busy now that the M4 takes most of the traffic, I had to take the main road towards the M4 and Wantage. Not a pleasant experience with impatient drivers, especially the large artic that cut me up and forced me to brake sharply to avoid being mangled.  The road headed over the Berkshire Downs, now busy with combines harvesting barley and OSR but very little traffic once I had passed under the M4. The route was now largely uphill and, as I had plenty of battery to spare I switched on the motor at its lowest setting to take the pain out of the climbs.

The last few miles of the 77 travelled were a glorious swoop down towards West Illsley where I am to stay the night with one of my oldest friends with whom I played rugby for Bedford back in the 1970’s.  We haven’t seen one another for a couple of years but, as old friends do, we shall catch up from when we last met and tell stories that grow taller as the years pass.

Tomorrow I make my way to London to catch the overnight sleeper to Inverness so no need for an early start as the train doesn’t load until 2030 and I only have a relatively easy 64 miles to travel, much along canal towpaths.

Before I go

This year my cycling challenge returns to an end to end of Britain, this time from John O’Groats to Lands End, the opposite to what I achieved in 2014 and somewhat similar to the extremes of Britain that I cycled in 2019. I would much rather have explored further afield, but Covid restrictions make travelling beyond these shores something of a lottery so my journey through Germany from Berlin will have to wait awhile longer. I shall be covering some familiar ground but the majority will be new and, for the first time, I shall have a small electric motor to help me over the steep climbs. The Boardman ADV 8.9e is a pedelec cycle which, legally, is the same as a pedal bike. You have to keep pedalling at all times, but you get various levels of motor assistance up to 15.5 mph when the motor cuts out automatically and you then keep pedalling as fast as you are able. The whole thing is pretty seamless and I shall only be using the motor on the steep slopes, preserving the battery for the times that I most need it. It should make the journey more enjoyable and allow me to appreciate the scenery. I’ll be blogging daily from 17th August when I set off to catch the sleeper from Euston to Inverness, starting the JOGLE on 18th and, all being well, finishing at Lands End on 1st September.