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Heading back to Scotland

This is the post excerpt.

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Two years ago we rode through Scotland at the end of our Lands End John O Groats adventure. The scenery was awesome – it got better and better  the further north we went – and we promised ourselves we’d go back. And here we are again…. This is the story of our ride around the top end of Scotland.

Here we were at the end of LEJOG in 2015….

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Day 8. Invershin to Beauly. Cake heaven.

When I blogged about our end to end ride, a few people commented that I just wrote about our cake stops. Well, here I go again. Today’s highlight was undoubtedly cake related.

Our day started in a rain shower. No change there. We left Invershin with a tail wind blowing us south, and we quickly rolled through Bonar Bridge and over the tops towards Inverness. It felt very different. The wild Highland wilderness had been replaced by lowland scenery, with walls, and cows in the fields, and fields with bales of straw in them.

We’d left the top of Scotland other-worldliness behind us, and riding into Alness, a one-street town, we felt we were back in a metropolis- it had traffic lights and yellow lines down the side of the road, and a Superdrug and a wedding shop and a Coop. And the most disappointing tea stop of the trip, at the Station, which we belatedly remembered had been a bit of a let down two years ago.

But never mind. Because after another 20 miles, getting used to the idea of traffic again, we arrived at the Muir of Ord, and the Bad Girl Bakery. Stonkingly good cakes – so good we may have to go back for more tomorrow.

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Yes, we couldn’t narrow our selection down to two, so we went for three between the two of us.

And then, feeling stuffed, we rolled the last 3 miles downhill to Beauly and the welcoming Chrialdon House, and suddenly it was all over.

It’s been a fantastic 8 days, with some of the most breathtaking scenery we’ve ever ridden through, and though the weather wasn’t great, it could have been an awful lot worse. Riding with panniers has been really liberating, and we both feel fit and completely mentally relaxed. We’ve met some inspiring and impressive people, and been enthused to do more. The question now is – where’s our next bike adventure going to be?

Day 7. Durness to Invershin. Remembering that end to end feeling.

Durness- Tongue – Altnahara – Crask Inn – Lairg – Invershin

After 6 days of hugging the Scottish coast, today we rode along it for the last time, before striking down the middle of Scotland, and beginning the journey back to Inverness.

We said goodbye to the slightly unpreposessing looking, but very hospitable Smoo Cave Hotel with a strange sensation – the feeling of sun warming our way.WP_20170914_09_25_09_Pro

The sunshine made the white sand beaches of the north of Scotland look their loveliest. This was why we came back.

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But it was less than an hour before we were being doused with the first shower of the day. A more familiar feeling. The ride along the coast to Tongue was one of our best of the trip. More stunning beaches, the lovely Loch Eriboll (sadly, no otters or seals to be seen), and Ben Hope and Ben Loyal rising above us.

We rolled into Tongue for an early lunch, and then turned right and started heading south, enjoying lovely new smooth tarmac on another single track A road. This was the kind of wilderness that made us want to come back after our end to end ride. Before long, we were back in Altnahara, where the hotel looked no more open than last time we were there. We stopped for a flapjack on the bridge, and reminisced about Midgegate – when the lack of food and midge attack caused distress to some of us last time we were there.

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Then on, riding slowly uphill alongside another peaty river, until we reached the Crask Inn – the pub at the watershed, where rivers flow both north and south.

This time, we were delighted to find the Crask Inn open, with a wood burning stove lit, and several happy dogs by the fire. We settled down for tea and scones, and enjoyed chatting with everyone else sheltering from the weather, including an enthusiastic end-to-ender lamenting the fact that his ride is nearly over. I remember that feeling.

The last 20 miles were pretty much all downhill – a lovely roll down the road to Invershin, making us realise why we were so tired two years ago when we got to Altnahara after riding up the road the other way. And the welcome at the Invershin Hotel was as warm as ever. Time to go to the bar!

Day 6. Kylescu to Smoo Cave. Cafe catastrophe.

Kylescu to Scourie to Rhiconich to Keoldale to Durness

I’m conscious that my photos so far have created a rather grey and damp impression of our holiday. That’s because it’s been somewhat grey and damp. But today it was actually dry for long sections of the day. And there were even moments where we were riding along, rather than continually going up and down and up again. Heaven.

We started the day with another reminder that we are actually complete softies. We had breakfast with a Dutch guy who’s WALKING from Lands End to Cape Wrath (NW    tip of Scotland). Today was a moment of luxury for him, staying in a B and B because he has a friend walking a bit of it with him. Most of the time, he’s camping. He started walking nearly 5 months ago.

This was our softest day yet. Just 40 miles and not quite so much climbing, and a cafe – Matt promised- in Scourie, after 10 miles.

But in a significant error of judgement, I agreed that we should press on when we got to Scourie, as it was sunny and lovely, and there was another cafe ten miles on.

We met our German cycling friend at the next cafe stop, and I paused to say hello, but Matt swooped through Rhiconich,  convinced the cafe was up the road. It wasn’t. And the  midges were out, so stopping for energy bars wasn’t an option. Cue sense of humour failure on my part. Cafe catastrophe.WP_20170913_08_20_43_Pro

But despite that setback, it was another astonishingly lovely ride – like travelling through one of those Scottish calendars  – and we ended up having late lunch  at a fab cafe and chocolatier in Durness, where you got hand made chocolates with your Cappuccino. That’s more like it!

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Then to our hotel just up the road. When staying at the Smoo Cave Hotel, you have to make sure to visit Smoo Cave, so we parked our bikes and headed off to explore:

We’re now up on the north coast of Scotland- tomorrow we start heading south. First – off for dinner to get fortified!

Day 5. Ullapool to Kylescu. Up and down and around.

Ullapool – Inverkirkaig – Lochinver – Drumbeg – Kylescu

Well – today was one of those days on a bike that we’ll remember for a long time. We were seen off from the lovely Bungalow 500 B and B with Tunnochs to help us on our way.WP_20170912_09_20_01_Pro

We rode up the hill out of Ullapool – on northwards, then dropped down the headland to the pretty little bay of Ardmair before turning onto a minor, twisty, up and down and stunning little road to Lochinver. – Along the banks of loch Lurgane, riding beneath Stach Pollaidh, past Loch Bad a Ghaill before turning right up the hill with lovely views over Inver Pollaidh.

A fantastic descent down to the valley of River Pollaidh, then a climb over the rocky tops, past a valley that looked like an enchanted forest, down River Allit Gleeniam Strathlian – all overflowing streams and stunted, gnarled trees – more rowan trees with red berries, gorse, bracken, heather, thistles, silver birch – only marred when Matt got puncture number 3 of the trip…

At lunch in Lochinver, we met a German touring cyclist trying to dry out his tent, who made us seem like complete softies. He bought a bike in Bristol and has been on the road for 6 weeks, wild camping and beginning to find the non stop rain a grind. We rode on and off with him along the fantastic coastal road from Lochinver to Kylescu.

Up over rocky, peat bog moorland with endless pools and lakes, then down into damp valleys which reminded you of why the rain was actually a good thing.

Our tea stop at the secret tea garden was well timed – just as it started to chuck down with rain. We sheltered under the not quite big enough garden umbrella and ate our yummy curd lemon cake in the rain:

Then three last tough climbs, including an exhilarating descent into Gleannardbhair and brutal climb out – which defeated me – and the sight of a deer running alongside the road. We finally arrived at Kylescu for a delicious dinner of mussels and fish and chips. One of my best days cycling ever.

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Day 4 – Gairloch to Ullapool – hard work in a headwind

Gairloch – Aultbea – Laide – Dondonnell – Braemore – Ullapool. 56 miles.

Being woken up in the night by the rain drumming on the window was discouraging. Seeing it chucking down at breakfast didn’t help. But by the time we set off, it had blown through, and things we’re looking better. Better until Matt got a puncture at the top of the first hill – puncture no 3 – and decided he had to put a new tyre on.WP_20170911_10_36_59_Pro

Still, the sun was trying to appear – there were small bits of blue sky – and the wind was kind of behind us. We continued down to Loch Ewe, one of the deepest sea lochs in Scotland, where the arctic convoys sheltered in WW2. Then around the headland to Laid – a big rocky, open beach with a strong headwind, then a steep descent into little Gruinard.

By now I was flagging, and wondering when we could stop for lunch, but there was more climbing, through wild and exposed moorland, with the mountains stretching out in every direction and birds of prey hovering overhead  – and the inevitable camper vans zooming past at regular intervals. I managed to hit 38 miles an hour on the descent before – to my huge relief- rolling up to Maggie’s tea room for lunch. Phew.

Rejuvenated by a panini and the enthusiasm of everyone else at Maggies, who were all full of praise for our mad trip, we carried on up alongside the Donnell River cascading down the glen. The only problem with riding up a waterfall is the up!

But the descent was worth it, especially when we stopped half was down for a millionaire’s shortbread:

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The final 14 miles into Ullapool was a long, hard slog into a headwind, but cake and tea at our B and B restored us. We’re now half way through our trip. Phew!

Day 3 – Lochcarron to Gairloch – soggy-bottom Sunday

LochcarronSheildaigGlen TorridonKinlocheweSlattadale ForestGairloch. 51 miles, much less climbing, but lots of calories keeping warm. 

Today’s forecast alternated between black clouds with two raindrops coming out of them and the occasional black cloud with a single raindrop coming out of it. Just what you want on your summer holiday. And we woke up to the sound of rain drumming down. Lovely.

But it was actually kind of dry as we left Lochcarron and headed up the first hill. We rode up Glen Shieldaig past overflowing peaty rivers, and little waterfalls throwing themselves down the steep sides of the glen. It was a proper geography lesson u-shaped valley with meandering river- followed by a textbook V shaped valley higher up the Glen. And then a reminder of the local wildlife:

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No squirrels in sight, though.

The rain was coming and going, but thankfully there was hardly any wind – until we turned west towards Loch Torridon, when we were hit by a blast of rainy wind. Luckily, it didn’t last, though, and there were even glimpses of sunshine, at one point giving us a full rainbow across the loch:

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By the time we got to Kinlochewe, we were pretty soggy – soggy bottoms – and very pleased to find the Kinlochewe hotel open. Not guaranteed in Scotland on a Sunday.

Then onwards alongside Loch Maree and over the hill at Slattadale Forest. After another day of singletrack A roads with passing places, it was a shock to be on a smooth, new EU-funded road with a white line down the middle. But by now, the rain was definitely on rather than off, and we didn’t have to think hard about whether to do Matt’s optional extra scenic detour.

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A Scottish A road. Mind out for the midges.

We were extremely glad to roll down our final hill and see the Old Inn on the right, and have now festooned our room with soggy clothes and turned it into a sauna. Now – where’s the bar?

Day 2 – Bealach na Ba – toughest climb in Britain

Yes, not content with taking us right around the top of a Scotland, Matt built in a little extra surprise- a 6 mile Category 1 climb, billed the toughest climb in Britain. He saved that detail until we were eating breakfast this morning.

Still, at least the sun was shining as we set out- Lochcarron was looking stunning.

The signs at the start of the ascent didn’t do much to reassure me:

But actually, it was amazing, despite all the cars competing for space on the very steep single track road. The picture from the top doesn’t really do it justice:

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The ride down the other side made it all worth it, and with impeccable timing, we arrived at the lovely Potting shed cafe in the Walled Garden in Applecross just as a shower moved in. Yum.

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Then it was miles of up and down, winding round the coast past windswept sheep, chilled out Highland Cattle, and a seal, looking like a giant slug sitting on a rock.

Cafe stop number 2 was even more timely – just as Matt got a puncture. Fed, watered and repaired, we were blown home by a helpful tail wind, and the sun even came out as we arrived back in Lochcarron in time to stock up on essential Tunnocks tea cakes ready for tomorrow. Which is looking ominous. No chance of any sunshine.

So – 58 miles, 1900 meters of climbing, enough calories for a HUGE dinner!

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