Monday, July 28, 2008

Some thoughts on Scotland

It's been about 3 months since I got back from Scotland.

It hasn't stuck with me the way other trips have, and didn't really leave me wanting more. Only now am I starting to get the travel itch again and when I do it's mostly with memories of earlier trips. Perhaps it's because riding from home to a distant point feels like more of a journey, there's a feeling of achievement and adventure which isn't the same when your start point is also your finish line. Maybe it's that riding in the UK doesn't hold the same excitement as setting off across foreign lands and trying to get by in funny languages. (Gaelic doesn't really count) It's helped me figure out a little more about what I like in a tour, which is good.

There were some nice aspects to the tour. The campsites in Scotland are pretty good and it was great to get hot showers and not smell so bad. It's easier to get hold of books in my own language. The scenery was lovely and it was fun staying at hostels and meeting other cyclists. I was even fortunate enough not encounter any haggis, kilts or bagpipes. The weather sucked at times but I was blessed with a few lovely days too. The drivers acted like British drivers, there weren't too many of them but the single track roads make it more of a big deal when you do meet one.

The food situation left a lot to be desired. I really missed the little boulangeries and charcuteries of France, fresh bread, pastries, cheese, fruit & veg in every town, my morning pain au chocolats... In the remote Scottish islands, such shops are rare. Most are Co-ops and general grocery stores with very little in the way of good fresh produce. The only thing Scotland really had going for it foodwise was the excellent local smoked fish.

The Outer Hebrides are quite a popular cycle touring destination. They are very special with some beautiful spots and I'd recommend going just for the experience of going, but they're definitely not among my greatest cycling experiences, and I doubt that would be much different if the wind had been on my back. I'm quite glad I didn't end up cycling on Lewis as apparently there are many miles of boggy flatness.

Gearing down

Those of you who like to store useless information in your brains may remember that I changed my gearing before going on this trip. In my daily cycling at home I found that this really helped with getting up hills. Once fully loaded I found it helped a little but not enough. Unfortunately I would need to change quite a few more bits and pieces to get my gears any lower so it's not likely to happen soon.

Early return

There were a few reasons why I came back earlier than planned and one of them is also the reason that it's taken me so long to write up this trip... our new business.

Dgym and I started our web hosting business back in January and have been working hard at it ever since. There's been quite a lot to work on, while I was away dgym and I often found ourselves talking quite excitedly over the phone about new ideas, making me a little keener than usual to come back home.

So it's been busy and exciting and it's taken me longer than usual to get the travel itch back into my system, but now summer is here it's happening again and I'm hoping to get enough sorted with the business that I can get going again.

One difficult thing about running this kind of business is that once people have signed up they are paying for a constant service and you need to make sure that service is always there for them. The nice thing is that when the service is running, most people are generally happy and don't tend to bother you. With the right setup to alert you if anything goes wrong or anybody does need help, and the tools to put it right wherever you are, things can be pretty sweet. It somewhat messes with my ideal of riding off into the distance and getting away from technology for a few weeks, but if that's a sacrifice that will enable to me tour at all, it's one worth making.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wednesday May 7th - Back again

I woke up early again, disturbed by the breeze, which wasn't as strong as the winds of a few days ago but it doesn't take much to get the tent flapping around. I was away at 7:30 for the final day of riding.

I followed the alternative coastal route, a pleasant little single track lane which I think used to be the main Road to the Isles. It turned onto a cycle lane alongside the main road for the last stretch, and then I was in Mallaig. The ferry to Armadale was short and sweet, and then I was back on Skye, on the Sleat Peninsula which was luscious, green and smelled of wild garlic.

The road mostly followed the coast for a while, then turned inland towards Broadford. The sun was scorching by this point, it was July weather at the beginning of May (and I'm not talking about the previous year's July which was depressingly rainy). The roads were big, wide, straight, empty and fairly flat. I normally hate roads that big but occasionally it's nice to hunch down on a big stretch of tarmac, shift up to the big chainring and go for it.

The miles rolled by and soon I was back on the A87 road where I'd started out my journey, and turning towards Kyle of Lochalsh. It really isn't a great road. The surface is quite poor and it's full of fast lorries.

Grey Mouse and I stopped on Skye Bridge for a final holiday snap, and then arrived in Kyle with about four hours to spare before the train left. I went into the nearby pub for soup and chips. Some pubs like to proudly announce that their food is home cooked, that's great and all but some of them really shouldn't bother. My chips were actually potato wedges and impressively managed to be soggy on the outside and hard on the inside.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting around at the station, browsing the station museum and shop there and trainspotter spotting. I'm still not sure why Kyle of Lochalsh station is so important in trainspotter-land...

The train eventually left for Inverness. Unlike the outward journey ten days earlier, today was a clear and sunny day so it was a little easier to appreciate the scenery as we passed by mountains, lochs and moorland. I even saw a few deer.

I wasn't lucky enough to get a cabin on the sleeper train this time but the reclining seats were surprisingly comfortable. I was a little concerned at first that the seats all around me appeared to be reserved, and worried I might end up next to a drooling stranger all night, but as the evening drew on and the train left it became apparent that those seats were reserved for me, to allow a bit more space since there weren't many passengers. I spread out across two seats and slept very well.

Getting home was fun, I won't go into the boring details, suffice to say that if you book advance train tickets for a journey in the south of England while you're in the north of Scotland, make sure you leave a spare couple of hours to allow various different operating companies and call centres to get their act together so you can actually pick up a ticket.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Tuesday May 6th - Small Isles

EiggAfter all the cycling on Monday there remained only thirty miles and a short ferry trip to get back to Kyle, one day's worth of riding for two days. I was camped near Arisaig, from which day cruises leave for the Small Isles, and on that particular day the boat was visiting Eigg and Rum.

The boat called at Eigg and there was a choice of either getting off to spend the day there, or continuing for another hour to visit Rum. I decided to stay on and spent a baking hot couple of hours wandering around the small village of Kinloch which consists of a small port, a castle, general store, craft shop, tea room and post office. Supposedly Rum has some of the worst midges in Scotland but they weren't evident today.

I visited the craft shop, a small wooden hut containing a great variety of jewellery, crochet items, picture frames and other handmade crafts. The bloke behind the counter told me his wife made everything in there. He was a creative type too, a carpenter, working on anything from furniture to houses. They had lived on the island for thirteen years and only went over to the mainland about five times a year.

SeabirdWe got back on the boat and, after stopping off to pick up the Eigg daytrippers, we headed back for the mainland. It was a fun day out I suppose. On the boat, we saw a few seals and seabirds - although not having binoculars, I'm not sure I got the most out of it. One lady very kindly let me borrow hers to see distant golden eagles over the cliffs of Eigg, although you could still only make out a small dot.

Dinner was a classically horrible camping meal, an uninspired mess composed of all the leftover stuff in my panniers and a couple of tins from the local co-op. Yum.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Monday May 5th - Ardnamurchan

Monday was a long and wonderful day, the kind that makes it all worthwhile. The weather was sunny, there was very little wind, beautiful scenery and I had cool new sunglasses.

Little FerryI'd lost my sunglasses at some point over the past few days, hard to say when as I hadn't been needing them much until I got to Mull. Fortunately Tobermory is one of those towns that actually has shops (rare in the Scottish Isles) so the next morning I was able to buy some new ones, just in time for some sunshine to let me test them out properly.

One other good thing Tobermory had was a bakery/delicatessen, and although I think the lady in the bakery got a bit annoyed with all my umming and erring (being spoilt for choice after many days of nasty stale co-op bread and packaged cheddar), I ended up with four rather nice looking white rolls and a bit of Camembert.

The ferry to Kilchoan was tiny, with room for about three cars which had to reverse on board. It was lucky the weather was good as there was no indoor passenger deck.

ArdnamurchanArdnamurchan was wonderful, and gave me the kind of cycling I can really get into. In the first couple of miles the road had started to ascend and I passed a walker who announced "It's a long hill". It really was.

The road wrapped around the back of Ben Hiant and back down to the coast, where it stayed for the next fifteen miles, winding in and out of glittering bays, passing through forest, mountain and moorland.

I stopped at Salen for a drink and a topup of water then headed northwards, off the Ardnamurchan peninsula and past lochs and forests towards the Road to the Isles.

InvercaimbeThe Road to the Isles is not as great as you'd expect, well maybe as rail routes and big A-roads and rail routes go I suppose it's pretty scenic but after the little winding coastal and mountain routes I'd experienced in the past couple of days, it hardly compared. It wasn't busy but it was big, and they're making it bigger. The roadworks, huge dusty piles of rubble and the stench of fresh tarmac really didn't help matters.

I eventually reached Arisaig after about fifty miles and around 7pm. I found a beach campsite nearby and spent the evening paddling and eating sausage sandwiches.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sunday May 4th - Ferries

Sunday was a day of ferries, upon which I planned to reach the Isle of Mull via the mainland port of Oban. My legs were looking forward to a rest after the previous two days.

I left the hostel in time for the 9:20 ferry, saying my goodbyes and feeling slightly sorry for those who were cycling or walking into the still foul weather (Not too sorry though as most would be heading north with the wind on their backs).

I took Grey Mouse into my hand-luggage this time, having been a bit worried on the Eriskay crossing yesterday. If the sea got too rough and we had to abandon ship, how could I leave my mouse to drown? (He has no arms and it's hard to tread water with two stubby little legs and one ear). You have to consider these things. A lady at the ferry port waiting room caught sight of him in my handlebar bag and smiled. He'd have smiled back if he had a mouth.

Scottish BreakfastThe crossing was rough to start with. I'd ordered a full Scottish breakfast at the ferry cafe and had trouble finishing it. Scottish breakfast is much like an English one but you get a square sausage (apparently very convenient in sandwiches made from square loaves) and a potato cake.

The boat reached Oban, the wind thankfully having died down a lot, and the sea become a lot calmer. I had business to attend on the mainland, with access to both a mobile phone signal and a railway station I was able to re-book the journey home. I'd hoped for a Friday night train, giving me five days to get back to Kyle of Lochalsh, but ended up with just three (apparently getting bicycle space at such short notice is rather hit and miss).

My second ferry of the day took me to Craignure. It was half past four when we arrived, and I'd usually be thinking about finishing up around the time, but once I hit the road it was hard to stop. It was so wonderful to be freewheeling, coasting, moving at speed again and, although it was raining a bit, the road was rather pretty, with fantastic views across to Ardnamurchan. The rain soon stopped, the sun came out and after about ten miles I started to look for wild camping spots. I'm not very good at that and have a bit of a hard time getting into the mentality of "Hey, I'll just stick my tent there!". Nothing good came up, everything looked too bumpy, slopey, squishy or fenced off and I eventually got to Tobermory.

Boats & sheepOn the way into town I caught up with three other cyclists, two men up front and a woman a couple of hundred yards behind. I pulled in behind the lady and started chatting about our respective travels. They were heading for a pre-booked B&B in Tobermory. I think she got a bit annoyed with me and invited me to overtake.

I found a hostel in Tobermory but it was full. According to the lady at the desk there were a lot of people looking for budget accommodation that night, and that's when I remembered it was a bank holiday weekend, which is always fun when you're touring. It probably didn't help that Tobermory is also known as Balamory, of kids' TV programme fame, which probably makes it a great spot for people to take their kids on bank holidays.

I headed back up the (rather big) hill and continued down the road until I found the local campsite, which was busy but not full. It was about half past eight by then so I covered up with midge-repellant and started simultaneously pitching the tent and boiling water for dinner.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Saturday May 3rd - South Uist and Barra

I hoped the wind might die down overnight but if anything it got stronger and again kept me up by constantly rippling through canvas. At least Friday had mostly been quite sunny but I got up at about six o'clock to find an overcast and rainy Saturday morning awaiting. After breakfast I packed up, hopped on the bike and rode on into the windy drizzle.

I took it a small bite at a time, allowing myself a stop after every mile and constantly counting down to the next junction or landmark. The day was grey and the landscape quite flat (which is why I don't have any pictures to post for that portion of the journey) The wind picked up an easterly component for a while as I neared Eriskay, which presented a new problem with sidewinds potentially blowing me into the path of other traffic on the single-track road. I would occasionally swerve intentionally as they approached, to alert them of the risk.

Eriskay came into sight, the connecting causeway a grey ribbon of stone and tarmac across the sea. For a moment the road looped northwards and I had a brief sweet reminder of what it was like to have the wind at your back. The causeway wasn't as bad as it could have been, the stone walls at the edge taking away some of the wind's impact. The road leading off it was a bland grey strip of uphill and headwind, and I got off to use my magic 24-inch gear. I caught sight of a fluorescent yellow dot ahead on the left side of the road and wondered whether it was another insane cyclist heading south, but when I caught up it turned out to be a man on foot.

Eriskay was both hilly and exposed to strong gusts of wind but I finally made it to the ferry port and spent a blissful wind-free hour in the waiting room chatting up two middle aged ladies on a walking trip, who were coming the other way and waiting for a bus.

The ferry ride was pretty extreme. We headed southwards to begin with, hitting huge west-bound waves at an angle, tossing the ship into the air and smashing it back down onto the sea's surface, triggering car alarms and sending spray high into the air. We passengers exchanged nervous looks while the crew strolled around without a care in the world, assuring us this was nothing unusual. They were probably right, the boat turned to the west and, with the sea on our side, we carried on more calmly to Barra.

The road around Barra is circular, and I had to get from the north to the south end, giving me a choice between the east or west coast. Apparently the west is a bit more scenic but on a day like Saturday I didn't think that would matter much - number one priority was to be more sheltered. I was advised that the east coast is more rocky and therefore a bit less exposed, and also a bit shorter, so decided on that. This partially worked, some bits were sheltered and others very exposed.

CastlebayTowards the end there was one more huge climb for which I got off and pushed, before an equally enormous descent took me down to Castlebay.

I stayed at the hostel, everything clean and quite modern. The hostel was quite busy and I shared a dorm with Maireadh, an Irish lady also cycling alone (again, northbound). She told me she was married with two kids, worked for the tax office in Dublin and liked to get away on her own on the bike a couple of weeks each year.

The weather was still horrible when I went to sleep that night, but I was relieved to be indoors, having completed my southbound journey. I was leaving the Outer Hebrides the next morning, which meant a change of direction and hopefully a change of weather.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Friday May 2nd - The silly direction

The original journey plan involved travelling from south to north on the Outer Hebrides. This was a carefully researched decision based on prevailing winds, which can be pretty strong on these exposed islands. A wise decision, you might think...

Perhaps not such a wise decision to completely revise my journey plan a couple of days into the trip, and decide that I'd be going North to South instead, my only concession to the prevailing winds being "Oh well... how bad can a headwind be?"

The answer made itself clear over the next couple of days. There had been no wind on Harris, but during the night at Berneray my tent started flapping like crazy and I woke up every couple of hours thinking "I hope that's going in the right direction" and "I hope the tent pegs hold out". My position by the shore was fairly exposed.

Short-legged ponies Unfortunately, the wind was in pretty much exactly the wrong direction and Friday saw me struggle for fifty miles across mostly flat and exposed landscapes, directly into it. However, I did meet some nice little ponies.

My morale dropped to approximately zero at around 35-40 miles, especially when oncoming cars sped towards me along the single track road with very little consideration. It didn't help that the landscape was a bit flat, mostly on not particularly beautiful roads, and at those kind of speeds I get bored quite easily. That's why I'm a cyclist and not a walker.

The advantage of choosing a silly direction to cycle in is that you tend to meet slightly more sensible cyclists coming the other way (Or perhaps I'd rather meet the silly ones, I'm not sure). I met a group of ten or fifteen riders coming the other way on North Uist, out of whom two ladies stopped to chat, they turned out to be from the CTC sections of Aberdeen and Bristol.

Huge dark clouds threatened for a couple of hours on South Uist, but it never actually rained. I found a Co-op on Benbecula and stocked up on doughnuts and Snickers bars for sugary energy comforty snacky purposes.

Ruin at Howmore I finally made it to Howmore, another of the Gatliff hostels, absolutely knackered. The hostel consisted of a number of blackhouses, some containing the dorms and shared area, one in use as an impromptu bike shed, and several tents parked among the ruins of others. I found an empty spot (again, quite exposed), pitched up and dived into dinner, which was local flaky smoked salmon with broccoli and rice and was absolutely fantastic. The other campers all turned out to be cyclists and we sat around in the hostel chatting into the evening before I retired to my tent and checked the pegs were stuck firmly in the ground in readiness for another windy night.