Ride in North West Scotland, August 2005

17th - 24th August 2005

Richard Fletcher led Jane Boardman, George Coulouris and Jean Dollimore on a ride on a route which is indicated by a blue line on the map below. Richard and Jane were riding their custom built cycles from Simpsons and George and Jean were riding their Moulton tandem.

We started at Culrain at the south east corner than travelled on a clockwise route via Polbain (near Achiltiebuie), Drumbeg, Rhiconich, Durness and Altnaharra. The route that we followed has been described by Henry Henniker. His excellent description includes detailed maps, instructions about the route, distances and contours as well as convenient places to eat, shop and stay the night.

Here is an illustrated diary of our trip. If you want to see a bigger version of any of the photos, then just click on it.

Wed 17th August - on to the sleeper to Inverness

We took the sleeper from Euston to Inverness. There is accommodation for about six bikes but the geometry of the corridor leading to the guards van looked impossible and tandems are officially banned on this service. However we managed to get all the bikes in. Our berths had a communicating door and R and J provided red wine to help us to sleep on the train. Richard produced a printout of the BBC's optimistic 5 day forecast for IV27 4PN showing a bright sun every day and gentle 2 mph winds. But when we looked out at Aviemore in the morning it was raining.

Thursday 18th August - to Polbain from Culrain

The train conductor on the sleeper woke us up with our first breakfast. Then we had a second one on Inverness station while we waited for our little Scotrail train on to Culrain, meanwhile chatting with some Dutch cyclists who were doing the north sea route in stages.

ScotRail permits just 2 bikes on each train running from Inverness to Wick, a rule which is enforced rigorously. A van takes bikes from Inverness to Wick but if one is getting off part-way, as we intended, the 2 bike rule is onerous. This was particularly so as although Richard had booked the two bike places on the train, our tickets did not show we had made bike reservations. We planned to take the tandem apart and pretend it was luggage. Unfortunately we were unable to prove to the ScotRail staff we had bike reservations, and the ScotRail computer could not access the booking information. When we then tried to get on the train, ScotRail platform staff prevented us, quoting rule books. In the end we had to ignore them and rushed past them. The train was actually almost empty with ample bike space, and the train conductor was helpful and let us on. We stacked the tandem pieces on top of the other two bikes which were in the official cycle compartment. We noted that all stations on this route are marked as interchange stations for the National Cycle Network. This fact compounds our bewilderment of ScotRail's attitude to cyclists. We were told that bikes are so much trouble "we will cut them out next year", a highly negative strategy to building Scottish tourism. The Inverness to Wick railway is a vital link for bike users; one would expect ScotRail to support cyclists and more importantly, upgrade its booking system so bike reservations are acknowledged on tickets, so that cyclists can plan journeys with confidence.

At last at 12.30, with the tandem reassembled we set of on what must be one of the quietest roads in the UK - narrow and virtually no cars from Culrain to the junction with the 'main road' near Oykel Bridge. The main road itself was 'single track with passing places' until Ledmore junction. We sped over hills and through valleys, past woods with birches and rowan trees. Heather, harebells and bracken were growing by the roadside. It was quite warm, almost sunny and by early afternoon, after a steady climb, we reached the top of the hill above Ledmore junction, where we started to see views of distant mountains ahead of us. Then we descended to the junction and turned left towards Elphin. The sky began to darken and the distant mountains became more mysterious in the mist. As we toiled up the long hill, the rain started and one by one, we stopped reluctantly and donned our yellow waterproofs. It was a long wet ride to the top and all the while we watched black clouds round the ominous lurking peaks of Cul Mor and Sulven. Then came the hail and George's thumbs were so cold he could hardly operate the gear levers. As we descended the hill again for the turning towards the coast, the rain eased off.

The road to the coast was another small and attractive one and for much of the way follows the edge of Loch Lurgainn. It's even downhill most of the way as you'd expect on approaching the coast. At long last, we saw a fine view of the Summer Isles in the bay before descending to Altandhu where we had a very welcome meal in the Am Fuaran bar, then rode a few miles by the light of the setting sun down the coast road to Dornie House B and B just before Polbain where we stayed the night. It is in a lovely setting with views of the bay and the isles.

Distance 85 km. Stay Dornie House. Mrs. Macleod. Tel/Fax 01854 622 271. Cycles had to be left outside.

Friday 19th August - to Drumbeg

We started by 9.30 under low cloud following the coast via Polbain and back over the headland and past the Loch, retracing yesterday's steps as far as the turning north up the coast to Inverkirkaig. This was spectacular scenery – lakes with lily pads and reeds, hills and winding rivers. It rained a bit early on, but then soon cleared. We stopped for shopping and a picnic lunch in Lochinver. The bread van had broken down, so we were breadless - these small communities are affected in ways we just don't experience in London. We sat by a war memorial by the coast before setting off up two more enormous hills. As the afternoon went on we caught fine views of the montains Canisp, Sulven and Cul Mor - viewed on a different side yesterday. Then we stopped at Clachtoll where there is s memorial to the Rev. Norman Macleod (1780 - 1866) who after education at university was a fisherman in Clachtoll, then emigrated to Nova Scotia, going on to become a preacher in New York and eventually following his son to New Zealand. Next we set off across a little headland and then eastwards towards Drumbeg. As the day went on the weather improved and we had a sunny afternoon and evening.

The Drumbeg Hotel is on the coast road facing a fresh water loch with Highland cattle in the nearby field. But we soon confirmed our suspicions that it's a strange place (unlike any other place we stayed they had made us pay in full as soon as we reserved). It was pretentious with its advertising of special types of food and very expensive wines chosen by frenchman X who had learned his wine culture from frenchman Y. And almost all the wines cost far more than we would dream of paying. Then the meal - you can get sausage and beans for £10; the food is well cooked but poor value. At breakfast you can have pear juice, but not orange juice; poached or fried eggs but not scrambled or tomatoes or mushrooms. And no decaffeinated coffee. Basically you have what they regard as suitable, rather than what you would like to eat.

Distance 56 km today. Stay Drumbeg Hotel. Cycles in garage.

Saturday 20th August - to Rhiconich

We set off on the road to Kylesku - many ups and downs - very steep and we had to do lots of pushing. The scenery continued to be spectacular and it was fine all day, clouds at first and then bright and sunny. We had a picnic at a table by the modern Kylesku bridge - concrete 1960s style. Later on the friendly driver of a post bus told us that the roads north of the bridge were mainly built in the 70s and lots of rock blasting was required. We rode on to Scourie on a two-track road with longer and larger hills and many hard climbs. Scourie had a very pleasant fishing hotel (where we had a coffee) and a good friendly shop where we stocked up for the next day (Sunday). The two-track road ran all the way to Laxford Bridge and then became single track. Ahead of us were two magnificent peaks - Foinaven and Arkle.

By the roadside, a panel explained the colourful rocks made visible by the blasting; black dolorite and pink granite which melted and ran into cracks in the gray gneiss.

As we went on, the landscape became more bare and we reached Hotel Rhiconich which is at the foot of the sea loch, Loch Inchard. There are magnificent views from the rooms, the dining room and the conservatory. The hosts are very friendly and produced an excellent meal - we had a choice from the entire menu at a price of £17 as part of our room B and B option. Unfortunately the midge density reached critical mass here. We were badly bitten while unloading and parking the bikes and we had to skip an evening walk. Jane was generous with her tube of 'Witch Doctor' which we used to soothe the itching.

Distance 52 K. Stay Night Rhiconich Hotel. Tel 01971 521224. Website . Can leave cycles under cover. This hotel was first rate for our needs. Bar open all day, good food and good value.

Sunday 21st August - to Drumness

We planned a short ride to allow time for a visit to Cape Wrath. After an excellent breakfast at Riconich Hotel, we packed up very fast and took off with midges in hot pursuit. In fact this motivation took us all up the hill very fast. As mentioned yesterday, this landscape is more bare than that seen in previous days. The hills are still vey big, but there is lots of exposed gray rock and the rest is mainly grass with occasional cotton grass. And there are lots of sheep.

The boat for Cape Wrath leaves from a small landing stage on the Kyle of Durness. By the time the boatman had summoned a dinghy from the other side to take him to his dinghy so that he could fetch his ferry boat it was well past 11 o'clock and a vast crowd of visitors had assembled. The ferry takes 12 and the minibus on the other side takes 15, so getting two bus loads is quite a task. The trail to the Cape is about 11 miles long and we had considered cycling but decided not to as rain was promised. As it turned out it was a narrow road with two strips of concrete slabs and grass in the centre - it would have been a bumpy ride. The area is used a a military firing range and they test big bombs by Garvie Island. The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1827 and is at the top of some big cliffs. It has been fully automatic for nearly 10 years – nearby are big diesel tanks which supply fuel to the generators.

The people who run Glengolly House, our B and B in Durness, are friendly - they are sheep farmers. Their rooms are comfortable and they gave us a good breakfast. The beach in Durness is beautiful - we were told we had missed an even better beach to the west of the village. It's a small village with a couple of shops, a bar (where we had an evening meal) , a more upmarket eatery and a tourist centre. Up the road is Smoo Cave an enormous sea cave with a river running out from the depths. It too has a lovely little bay. But that afternoon and evening were very wet - luckily we were not planning to go anywhere.

Distance 25 km. Stay Glengolly House, Mrs. Mackay. 22 Durine, Durness, by Lairg. IV27 4PN. Tel 01971 511255. Shed for cycles.

Monday 22nd August - to Altnaharra

A fine morning and good weather all day, but a strong westerly wind. We rode along the coast and then all round Loch Eriboll – a long wide sea loch where the navy had a base in WW2. The people we had chatted to at Drumbeg flagged us down on this road and told us they were now staying at a good guest house on the shore at Port-Na-Con. We thought it looked a good place to stay.

On the way down to the foot of the loch we were struggling against the wind, but on the way back up, it was behind us. The coast road goes up a small hill and then we turned off at Hope to follow a little road alongside Loch Hope for many miles. We stopped by a little beach for a picnic.

As we went along the road, Ben Hope (a Munro) was looming on our left.

This very narrow road is one of the best - it passes through little birch woods although the hills are still bleak. At one point it looked as though we had a big climb out of the end of the valley, but it suddenly opened out and we saw a way through. We passed the car park with cars parked at the foot of the 'way up Ben Hope'.

Early afternoon we came across a ruined broch (Dun Doinaigil Broch) - a 2000 year old defensive stone structure. It is a tall round building which was used to shelter villagers against invaders.

The B and B at Altanahar is opposite the hotel. On arrival, our host Lindsay gave us tea and biscuits in the conservatory in spite of a badly broken arm. He is a regular host to 'End-to-Enders' and has a copious bike shed. He's clearly interested in bikes and biking (I mean push bikes) and told us stories of the cyclists who have come through.

We went over to the hotel for a drink. We tried the entrance on the 'Rolls Royce' side and walked through many posh rooms, but no bar. Round the other side, there is s little 'Ghillies Bar' where we did indeed meet a ghillie as well as a man who drives a food supply van and stays in Altnaharra every Monday at the B and B. The hotel is a hunting and fishing sort of place where you pay £125 a night including dinner. The ghillie confirmed that the best thing to ward of midges is Avon 'skin so soft'. Far better than Deet.

Then we returned to the B and B where Mandy gave us an excellent dinner of onion soup, wild venison stew and a german spice cake. She told us that wild deer meat is much better than the farmed variety whose flesh is gray.

Distance today 70 km. Stay Night at Altnaharra B&B. 01549 411258. Mandy and Lindsay Smith. 1 McCleod Crescent. Website. We recommend this very strongly - it is everything that you could wish at the end of a day's ride.

Tuesday 23rd August - to Lairg and the trains home

After a friendly breakfast, we bade farewell to our hosts – they are always full and make dinners every night. Most of their guests are cyclists and in particular those on the way from Lands End to John O'Groats.

We cycled all togged up for the rain, the nine miles up the hill to the isolated Crask Inn. As Jean and George had been dried off there on a previous visit by the very friendly landlady, we decided to stop for a chat and a hot chocolate. The landlady keeps sheep and highland cattle as well as welcoming all and sundry: cyclists, walkers and people who need shelter and food.

Then downhill to Lairg with pine plantations on either side all the way. The nearby verges were covered in Rosebay Willow Herb, Yellow Ragwort and flowers of cow parsley family. Lunch at the Nip Inn and then on to the station where we got nervous about the acceprability of the bikes to Scotrail after our earlier experiences. Afetr a few grumbles from the conductor we got them in, neatly piled up. After hanging around in Inverness, we reversed the sleeper journey back to London, the bikes sharing their compartment with a large consignment of fresh fish.

Distance today 37 km.

Total distance: 325 kms.

Here are some more photos, unsorted as yet.

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