Day 1: MANIFESTING (Oban to Ardgour)
“The mind is its own place and in itself, it can make hell out of heaven and heaven out of hell”
John Milton – Paradise Lost
Having previously challenged ourselves to living – and holidaying – car-free, and avoiding flying where possible, we already had our work cut out for us when we decided to plan an unforgettable two-week summer holiday adventure this year. (Luckily we live in Scotland, land of the unforgettable from your doorstep). We came up against an extra hurdle, however, when the RMT (the UK rail, maritime and transport workers’ union) found in favour of strike action across the rail network, making our preferred method of travelling with bikes across Scotland more prone to delays, cancellations and uncertainty.
Not to worry. I’ve been doing a positive psychology course the last few weeks and, encouraged by my guru’s assurance that every obstacle can be turned into a gift and opportunity if only you adopt the frame of mind to look for it, we decided to experiment with taking our bikes to Oban by bus.
There are quite a few long-distance coach services linking remote cities and towns in Scotland and they all have lots of space for luggage underneath. Nonetheless, attempting to travel with bikes on a previously untested bus route is like meeting a partner’s parents for the first time. There’s a lot riding on getting on the right side of the driver, since bicycles are carried on the bus at their discretion (that’s official policy) and some drivers are primed, just as the apocryphal father who thinks no suitor is good enough for his daughter, to dislike people who want to load bikes into their vehicle. So far we’ve had a 100%, hassle-free success rate on the X74 between Dumfries and Glasgow, a 50% failure rate on the 500 between Dumfries and Stranraer, and although we have always managed to embark on the 926 between Glasgow and Campbeltown it’s usually been subject to a lot of huffing and eye-rolling; a less than subtle subtext that you’re-not-really-welcome-on-this-bus-with-your-bike (That’s with the exception of the driver with the facial piercings who hails from the northwest of England; he has always been lovely).
Anyways, we only had two timetable options for getting to Oban from Glasgow in time to complete today’s cycle, and we hadn’t booked either of them (what’s the point if they turn around and say we can’t load our bikes on?). Having managed to dodge every rain shower so far on our journey to Glasgow I was feeling lucky, so putting my positive psychology training to good use I manifested a favourable outcome in the most calmly assertive manner I could muster – hell, I positively PROJECTED my positivity into the driver’s mind – you MUST want us to board with our bicycles, don’t you? How could you possibly turn us away?
Turns out, the bus was fully booked, although it did have space on board for bikes. DAMMIT! We would have to wait to see if there were no-shows. This would require some next-level psychic powers. With the effort and determination of Stranger Things’ superhero Eleven, but minus the nosebleed and constipated facial appearance, I managed to will the no-shows into no-showing, and we boarded that bus. (The driver couldn’t have been more helpful. We sent him a postcard to say thanks.)
And so it was that we got to Oban. The bus takes a tad longer than the train but the views are better; you get to marvel at how the driver manoeuvres such a long vehicle along the helter-skelter single carriageway that contours Loch Lomond, encumbered as it invariably is with oncoming wagons and rented motorhomes; it’s also easy to earwig on the conversation of the blue-rinses in front who are one-upping each other about how well-travelled they are.
We encountered Oban in a mirthless cold mist. One could almost imagine the spectre of a Highland piper droning out his melancholy tune from a distant dreich hillside. A quick caffeine-boost and snack raid at the Little Potting Shed Cafe (which was open in spite of our arriving after closing time – we lucked out again) was required before we took off, quickly gaining altitude on the harbour town, heading north on the NCN78 or Caledonian Way cycle route, towards Ardgour, our destination for the evening.
The cycle route leaves Oban on quiet suburban and semi-rural back roads before becoming a dedicated walking and cycling trail that follows the course of the busy A85 trunk road for the west Highlands. This is no bad thing when the road takes such a beautiful and meandering course, first brushing close to the water’s edge at Ardmucknish bay with glimpses of pink sandy beaches, lone wading herons and whiffs of pungent seaweed and woodsmoke from the caravan parks before sending us down narrow tracks through a warren of scoliotic granny pines grappling for space with invasions of purple-flowering rhododendron. Then, we’d cross and find ourselves soaring above the deep ravine of rock that the road is cut into, looking down onto passing traffic through a thin wisp of trees and then across the ultramarine of Loch Linnhe to the island of Lismore and the peninsula beyond. At Appin we took a short detour past muscular calves nursed by wet-nosed mothers to the Jubilee Bridge, a title unbefitting of the unpretentious wooden structure connecting the low-lying headlands of Appin and Portnacroish that opens up a view of Castle Stalker, a crumbling stone keep that cuts a lonely figure against a range of mountains that disappear into clingy low cloud.
The elevation profile had been gentle and forgiving until we hit the Highland Titles Nature Reserve at Duror at mile 24. The site of an ambitious plan to rewild a commercial Sitka spruce plantation with native vegetation and provide support for the near-extinct Scottish wildcat population and other native species of mammal, bird and insect, the route takes in some slinky switchbacks before you approach a short, sharp hill – just as ferocious as the legendary Scottish predator – through a wide glade with a momentum-sapping pine needle carpet up to a plateau and a marsh. It was worth the effort – this short stretch of the NCN route was one of the most beautiful of the day.
We’d had a day of unexpectedly smooth travel logistics but the detours and delays, including much pontificating about whether the raincoat should be on or off, came often, and we soon found ourselves up against it to arrive at Corran to catch the ferry in time for dinner. (You don’t need to book this ferry in advance, and if you’re travelling as a foot or cycle passenger it’s free of charge). The final five miles were passed with heads down and pedals turning effortfully against a moderate headwind and a persistent rain the likes of which we hadn’t seen all day. On arrival at the terminus, we met a Russian tourist with ambitious plans to master the Scottish Highlands and islands with little more than what camping equipment he could pack onto his bicycle, and a GoPro for documenting the adventure for his YouTube channel. We felt more than a little sorry for the figure that cycled off down the road in search of an unlikely dry spot to pitch his already wet tent for a night of food from a camp stove and a night under stars hidden by sodden grey clouds, as we checked into our B&B for the night. Welcome to Scotland!
|Starting point||Station Square, Oban PA34 4LN|
|Finish point||Ardgour, Corran PH33 7AA|
|Notable hill climbs||None|
|Food highlights||The Little Potting Shed, Oban offer a frankly bedazzling menu of vegetarian and vegan meals. Deli delights such as marshmellows, Vego chocolate bars and at least seven different types of Sheese cement their status as a hotspot for plant-based explorers set to work up an appetite. |
The Inn at Ardgour were unable to cater for vegans with 24h notice but they kindly heated up a couple of really good sausage-style rolls from Rose & Grants (Glasgow) and served them with a salad and chips.
|Booze||Ardgour Ales’ Gobhar Odbar (pale ale)|
|Coffee||The Little Potting Shed, Oban: 3/5|
Day 2: DELAYS (Ardgour to Wester Drumashie)
“The best laid schemes o mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”
Robert Burns – To A Mouse
After a hearty breakfast in a warm dining room filled with chatter in several European languages we set out, heading northwest to the Camasnagaul ferry crossing for Fort William. Keen cycle tourers following the NCN78 may feel perplexed by the need to cross the water at Corran to then cross back again ten miles later but I guarantee that the meander is worth it – the other side of the water has not only a fraction of the traffic of the main road and a roadside brewery that serves stone baked pizzas to order on Friday nights, but it’s also a paradise of temperate rainforest, a backdrop against which even the familiar foxglove could be a carnivorous many-eyed menace and great carpets of ferns might conceal all manner of poisonous beasties. (Rest assured there’s no natural threat you’re likely to encounter in the west of Scotland worse than the pesky but harmless midge). Thick clouds, the deep colour of a blueing bruise, threatened a deluge but delivered only fleeting, heavy showers. Today’s weather was the worst of both worlds – strong winds AND midges. Rain AND humidity. We spared a thought for the Russian tourist and his wet tent.
At Fort William there’s a short suburban sprawl to work your way through before you take a footbridge with four tight turns to circumnavigate – I challenge you not to fall off – a mile or so before Banavie, the gateway to the Great Glen. The Great Glen is a fault line formed by the same glacial erosion that caused the formation of the fjords, or sea lochs, that the West of Scotland is synonymous with, and the Glen is an important conduit between Fort William to the south and Inverness to the north. It’s a route beloved of cyclists as it follows the Caledonian canal path and is therefore mercifully flat. With a strong wind at our back, we had ambitious plans to chomp through the early miles quickly, buying us time to prepare for the one major ascent of the day, at roughly mile 60 – the climb out of Fort Augustus on the B862 towards Glendoebeg, beloved of alpha-adventurer Lee Craigie.
We should have realised this dream would not materialise. Hubs and I could be accused of being many things, but we’re never ahead of time on a bike ride. Around five miles up the canal Hubs managed to burst his rear tyre and we thought it best to backtrack to a bike shop in Fort William to pick up a new one from a sales clerk who didn’t seem entirely sure what the different numbers on the tyre boxes alluded to. More on this later…
Take two. We re-rode our regurgitated miles along the pleasant gravel towpath, and within minutes arrived at the Gairlochy Swing Bridge, which was in operation to allow a tall yacht to pass. Several minutes of dithering over whether to cross to the other side or remain on the busy A82 as far as Laggan where the canal towpath picks up again lost us no time. I’ve never watched paint dry, but I have watched the achingly slow Gairlochy Swing Bridge creak back into place…
Across the canal, following the Caledonian Way, we entered an entirely different realm. Soon the tarmac degraded into a track of gravel, sand and rubble which was at best borderline rideable on a road bike. The course undulates through a thick managed woodland broken only by tiny rivulets draining into Loch Lochy (I did not make that name up, nor was it applied by popular opinion following an online poll). All around us was the heavy scent of cut trees, dense and sweet like sun-warmed banana skins. Foresters at work caused delay number three, and in their wake the scale of destruction was breath-taking; acres of land stripped of life, growth and shade, with nothing but uniform grey stumps at even intervals against a bare horizon, and a track that had been degraded by plant vehicles into a mulch of mud and discarded branches.
Through some miracle of physics, Hubs’ new bike tyre seemed to endure this onslaught of nature and forestry before declaring itself utterly unsuitable for the trip with two punctures in quick succession made by miniscule holes, probably wayward pine needles. By some further miracle we didn’t fall out during this testing time, even when Hubs unpacked his bike to change the inner tube, accidentally sending our tent flying down a steep ravine towards the canal. Instead of continuing along the wooded off-road trail hugging the canal we chanced it on the smooth tarmac of the A82 and, finally able to capitalise on the tailwind, we soared into Fort Augustus in no time having changed back to our original tyre with a bit of gaffer tape over the rip on the inside.
Sitting down to eat in Fort Augustus, lagging at least two hours behind our ETA, we steeled ourselves for the crux of today’s itinerary. It’s difficult to say how delicious our meal of lentil shepherd’s pie and salted caramel sponge cake was because when you’ve been cycling for eight hours (even with stops and starts), something strange happens physiologically, and everything tastes extra appealing. On the other hand, the knot of dread in the belly and the deep frown of apprehension which adds tension into the jaw muscles with each chew detracts from a meal-on-the-road’s enjoyment. In the end we felt it unfair to submit a TripAdvisor review based on there being a high risk of bias either way. We raided a well-stocked Londis for our post-ride picnic before biting the bullet and setting off on our weighted steeds up the steep start past the foot of Loch Lomond.
I can’t say I recall much of the scenery for the first three miles of this climb, fixed as I was on my personal pain cave’s narrow field of vision between the stem-mounted Garmin’s stats page advancing at a crawl, and the tarmac a few metres ahead of me. I think it might have been lush and green and there might have been an old fort or manor house on the opposite bank of the loch. To be honest I found the landscape to be cruel, as if it was goading me to fail; even the abundant coconut gorse lining the road, usually a harbinger of optical and olfactory brightness, became brash and offensive. Like cheap whores of the moors with foul mouths of garish yellow lipstick, their sickly-sweet perfume cloyed in my overworked airways. My thighs burned until I could no longer feel them and then the landscape transformed into a wide, flat prairie with hills all around, the likes of which I had only seen in American movies where protagonists take road trips to Utah or Nevada before being pursued by killers in juggernauts or hunted by hillbillies at gas stations. My fatigue-addled brain couldn’t comprehend how we’d climbed so high into what seemed to be a lowland! The light receded behind the hills and cast the valley in a purple glow, and we watched deer playing chase by a nearby river, and a shrew or vole crossed within a whisker of our path and then dived into the grass. It was a beautiful evening, and a hidden highlight of the route. The final few miles to our B&B were spent in a silence that was half-dumbstruck, half-exhaustion, a languid euphoria, a state of unconcern about how long our legs could keep going before they simply ceased to function.
We received the warmest of welcomes when we finally wheeled down the gravel drive of our destination for the night. Entering a room that was almost as big as our house we were treated to hot mint tea and stories of faeries as told by the old drovers who used to work the land here. I fell asleep in an enormous bed and dreamed of mythical beings breezing in through the open windows and playing tricks on our tired bodies and when I awoke in the morning, my legs felt both heavy and light, like the mermaid who wakes up a woman and is feeling them for the first time.
|Starting point||Ardgour, Corran PH33 7AA|
|Finish point||Ach Na Sidhe, Wester Drumashie IV2 6TU|
|If you liked this route, you could try||The Crinan Canal in Argyll has a cycle-friendly towpath and it happens to be in one of the loveliest pockets in all of Scotland.|
|Notable hill climbs||Carn an t-Suidhe, the formidable wee beastie climbing out of Fort Augustus on the top road along the east bank of Loch Ness, gets a 7/10 difficulty rating from Simon Warren.|
|Food highlights||The Kilted Camel, Fort William offers few vegan options for a young, hip café but it does serve up a bang-tidy peanut butter and banana on toast topped with just the right amount of cinnamon. |
Who’s to say whether the Bothy Bar & Restaurant (Fort Augustus)’s food was any good? We inhaled it too quick. But there’s little to complain about when the turnaround is quick, the staff have a great knowledge of the local area, there’s a great selection of whiskies and vegan cake on the menu. 👍
|Booze||Bruichladdich Classic Laddie (whisky)|
|Coffee||The Kilted Camel, Fort William: 3/5|
Day 3: DO(UGH)NUTS (Wester Drumashie to Cannich)
“I like I like I like I like I like everything about you”
Charli XCX – Claws
We got back on our bikes expecting mutiny from our hamstrings but, courtesy of some prophylactic post-ride yoga, a bumper breakfast (we ate our poor host out of house and home, bless her), and/or a brisk tailwind and helter-skelter descent towards Loch Ness, the going felt surprisingly easy. Even that vulgar coconut gorse re-established its sunny yellow disposition through my rest-tinted lens.
We’d been given some beta on a cycle route at Aldourie Primary School which took us gently through farmland and small thickets of forest into Inverness city centre where we dodged the gaze and harassment of a bellowing stranger doing wheelchair wheelies on the high street (apparently his presence is well established there), making a beeline for a coffee and donut bar. (Incidentally, how do you feel about the spelling of ‘donut’? For some, it’s a creeping Americanism too far – I’m quite laissez-faire about these things but I’m often scalded by Hubs for using words like ‘sneakers’, ‘bathing suit’ and pronouncing buoy as ‘boo-ey’ – but I feel there’s a distinction to be made between a traditional round DOUGHnut, dusted on top with pantry staple caster sugar and sometimes filled with jam or custard, and its Yankee cousin, a phantasm of decadent toppings, exotic fillings and [probably] high-fructose corn syrup. This place served the latter). We spent a pleasant half hour drinking OMFWs and getting sticky fingers making pictures of the Loch Ness Monster with our snacks.
We left the city via a stop at an actually helpful bike shop for a new tyre that was up to what we throw at it, following the river Ness to its mouth to mud flats favoured by wading birds, and joined the canal from the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, a cheerful gully of boardwalks and dog walkers and fragrant dog roses in shades of pink and white, and views ahead onto the Beauly Firth, and behind us the industrial Kessock road bridge. From here we headed south and west, against the wind and almost imperceptibly uphill, crawling upstream the river Beauly in the manner of weary salmon. After leaving the Beauly Firth behind the road became quieter and the route was broken up by verdant hamlets with an abundance of pretty stone-built doer-upper cottages. There were many cyclists in and around Cannich, the village nestled in evergreen plantation forest and the Glen Affric and Strathfarrar Munro range that was our home for the night. A hotspot for hash and carpentry, it has a Spar which is well stocked with crisps, wine and Australian delicacies such Tim Tams but not much else, and a country pub and restaurant that is never too busy but booking is nonetheless essential. It’s also the gateway to the majestic Glen Affric (more on that tomorrow).
|Starting point||Ach Na Sidhe, Wester Drumashie IV2 6TU|
|Finish point||Cannich Bridge, Beauly IV4 7LT|
|Notable hill climbs||None|
|Food highlights||Perk Doughnuts, Inverness, source of aforementioned sticky fingers. Two of the six flavours they had on the menu were vegan-friendly.|
|Booze||Glen Affric Brewery’s Misty Munro (wheat beer)|
|Coffee||Perk Doughnuts, Inverness: 4/5|
Day 4: A GLEN AND AGAIN (Glen Affric)
“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings”
We had earmarked today as a rest day from cycling to explore the Glen Affric walking routes that I’d been given many a misty-eyed recommendation for. The best walks, we were told, are from the third and final car park which is an 11-mile traipse up the glen, so it wasn’t quite the derriere’s day off we’d had in mind. The road is stunning though, and best appreciated by bicycle; you can hire a mountain bike from nearby Cannich Woodland campsite which opens up some of the gnarlier woodland trails roundabout.
The road is innocuous enough (look out for the oddly elegant Fasnakyle hydroelectric power station as you leave Cannich) until you reach the Forestry & Land Scotland’s road sign for Glen Affric, after which you get the steepest climb of the trip out of the way. Thereafter you’ll creep steadily uphill to Dog Falls car park, then the route undulates to the final car park at the end of the road. The car park has ample space and good facilities in an idyllic setting, but no bike rack (!) so bring a long bike lock that you can attach to an information board or nearby tree.
We passed the hot day walking the Loch Affric circuit, a none-too-taxing 11-mile hike through Caledonian pinewood forest, a conservation area managed jointly by Forestry & Land Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, and beneficiary of Trees for Life’s Highlands rewilding initiative. The glen has a rich history of private ownership for use as a hunting estate by folk with names like Wallop, Marmaduke and Marjoribanks, was the birthplace of the golden retriever breed of dog and is alleged to be where British Prime Minister Winston Churchill learned to drive. These days the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest that golden eagles, capercaillie, crested tits and ospreys call home but there was one species, the crossbill, that we were really hoping to see. We were audience to giant, iridescent dragonflies flitting lazily through long grass as we picnicked, to brazen stonechats hopping from rock to rock to keep pace with us, and – a personal favourite – a skylark in flight which sings a song like a siren that increases in pitch the higher it soars until it sounds like the cockpit alarm in a failing plane and then gently, as if the air had gotten too thin up there, nosedives back into the atmosphere. But no matter how hard we looked, where pinecones adorned our path, where we detected movement or heard unfamiliar songs in coniferous trees, everywhere we looked there were dwarf pines with branches that grew upwards giving the impression they were giving us the middle finger from every angle in our vain search for this reclusive red bird.
|Starting point||Cannich Bridge, Beauly IV4 7LT|
|Finish point||Cannich Bridge, Beauly IV4 7LT|
|Notable hill climbs||None|
|If you liked this route, try||Take any of the dead-end roads that head upriver from the west coast of Basse-Terre on the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe for a similarly immersive encounter with nature in a wet and wild glen. I have fond memories of the Rue Acomat just south of Pointe-Noire where there’s a beautiful waterfall you can jump from into a crystal plunge pool, but to be honest, along this coast you are spoilt for choice.|
|Food highlights||A slice of strawberry, pink peppercorn and basil cake (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it) from Velocity café in Inverness, which has a frankly overwhelming counter cabinet of all-vegan, generously proportioned sweet treats.|
|Booze||Glen Affric Brewery’s Rutting Stag (American red ale)|
Day 5: VILLAINS (Cannich to Inverness via Glen Strathfarrar)
“I’ve been expecting you”
Carl Stronberg – The Spy Who Loved Me
We were sorry to be leaving this hidden pocket of tranquillity to head back to the city of Inverness but as a sweetener we took a detour up Glen Strathfarrar, just past the town of Struy, on the way back. Local rumour has it Strathfarrar is owned by a Malaysian arms dealer who occupies it no more than two weeks of every year for the grouse shooting. My informer disclosed cheerfully that the baron had once ordered a boat to be delivered to a reservoir that fell on his estate but, having overestimated the quality of the access road was dismayed to find it had been dropped at the roadside 15 miles from the water’s edge; further, that he once unsuccessfully sued Scottish and Southern Electric in a drought year in which his boat became unusable because the water level was too low. Mind you, if I had a pound for every story I heard about a wealthy foreign laird getting his or her comeuppance by the ruthless hand of Bonnie Scotland I could afford to buy a Highland estate myself.
Glen Strathfarrar is a model pilgrimage for cyclists insofar as the road is restricted for motorised traffic. You’ll find road cyclists aplenty and many parked bicycles at pull-ins up the glen abandoned by energetic souls who have left the beaten tracks in hope of conquering a Munro or two. Other than this it’s mostly just the SSE vehicles you’ll encounter on your gentle ascent. The vistas are many and varied; you’ll find round one corner a lush ravine roaring with fast-flowing peat-stained water and framed by a motley arrangement of broad-leaved and coniferous trees; round the next a levelling out into vast gorse moor quieting the stream to almost a whisper; at the far reaches of the glen the starkest landscape of all, the dystopian concrete walls of the hydroelectric facility at Loch Monar, built somehow sympathetically into the grass and granite slopes of the Caledonian mountains and looking a likely location for a James Bond endgame.
|Starting point||Cannich Bridge, Beauly IV4 7LT|
|Finish point||Inverness City Centre, IV1 1QY|
|Notable hill climbs||None|
|If you liked this route, try||The Elan Valley in Wales is a lush tour de force of nature shaped by hydroengineering.|
|Food highlights||We were not expecting the Bog Cotton Café in Cannich to have such a wide-ranging plant-based menu including fishless finger sandwiches, pancakes and crispy jackfruit wings. It was the breakfast roll with ‘bacon’, avocado and potato scone (a combination of my own invention – I call it ‘The Gentrified Tattie Scone Roll’) that set me up for today’s cycling. |
The Black Isle Bar & Rooms in Inverness serves almost-legendary stone-baked pizzas and beer from their brewery up the road in Munlochy. It’s a popular spot and they don’t take bookings so arrive early and not too hungry.
|Booze||Black Isle Brewery’s Mimosa (Belgian-style sour ale)|
|Coffee||Bog Cotton Café, Cannich: 1/5|
Day 6: TRADE WINDS (The Black Isle)
“Who knows? Who knows, who knows, who knows? I just go where the trade wind blows”
Protoje – Who Knows
The weather took on a different character from usual the day we embarked on our Black Isle circular. The sun was hot, the wind was westerly, it was warm… and it was FIERCE. It gave this rolling peninsula just north of Inverness a distinctly Caribbean vibe – or maybe that vibe was there all along. Even the name (from the Gaelic, an-t Eilean Dubh) evokes images of nocturnal rum smugglings in sandy coves by enterprising seafarers with loose morals and even looser teeth, and place names like Jemimaville echo of a shady colonial past. (This may or may not have been part of the land’s history but in the present day the closest it gets to contraband is the Black Isle Brewery which prides itself on being organic, carbon neutral and backed by an ethical bank).
Our route took us north out of Inverness – it’s difficult to find a pleasant route in and out of the city by bike, but the NCN1 tries its best – over the Kessock Bridge. At the time of our visit, the northbound pedestrian/cycle footway was closed, and we wished we’d known that the southbound one was open as an alternative to riding the dual carriageway. A few miles later we were away from the bustle and sprawl and found ourselves winding through quiet country lanes and past vast swathes of agricultural land dropping off into the Moray Firth. At Fortrose we were blown along the headland towards the lighthouse where, we were told by a local, we might see bottlenose dolphins as the tide washes in towards the Chanonry pinch point, creating a turbulent wake that they like to fish in. The tip-off didn’t disappoint; within minutes of setting foot on the beach we witnessed the breaching of dorsal fin after fin, a pod of slick-backed sailors that brought a crowd of onlookers to a gawping halt.
The encounter made us feel lighter than helium, but the effect was short lived when we cycled back along the exposed promontory and our heft was pushed back by the gales. It was a long slog past the putting greens (who plays golf in this weather?) and I challenged myself to increase my moving speed on the Garmin at each passing place to deflect from the feeling of getting nowhere.
Steep descents, gusty crosswinds and brake pads that were almost completely worn out made our descent into Cromarty canny sketchy and I was ready for some rest and replenishment in this surprisingly lively harbour town and arts hub. The chunky thighs of oil rigs loom large in the Cromarty Firth – from a distance we’d thought they were tall ships. Next to a picture house facing the sea crossing, from the shelter of a coffee cabin we watched tugboats sway precariously in the unwieldy chop. We braced ourselves for a coastal battering on the return leg, head and shoulders tensed against the wall of wind the whole way while Arctic terns with geometric wings that looked flimsy like origami made child’s play of warm air currents that carried with them the complex perfumes of the nearby rose farm and a sticky sweetness like overripe plums. Looking out to sea, bands of melodious blues, purples, black and turquoise reflected back at us, exotic and iridescent like electroplated agate or petrol floating on water.
After what felt like hours of slow crawl up a cruel hillside taking turns hiding in each other’s slipstream we were out of the line of fire and wended our way back inland. Our skin radiated from windburn as we sought refuge, plundered crisps and fizzy drinks and celebrated our exploits in the protected beer garden at the brewery before a fast but breezy return over the Kessock Bridge and back into town.
|Starting point||Inverness City Centre, IV1 1QY|
|Finish point||Inverness City Centre, IV1 1QY|
|Notable hill climbs||None|
|If you liked this route, try||The Pointe des Chateaux is a breezy headland at the easternmost tip of the mainland of the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Expect bracing winds, panoramic views and scorching, blue-sky days (the clouds are often collected by the hills to the west leading, much like the Highland peaks to the west of the Black Isle, to a dry and sunny climate).|
|Food highlights||Sutor Creek, a café and deli in Cromarty, knocked us up a cracking pizza and their shelves also provided the culinary highlight of our camp stove dinners – Luchito chilli oil, which is delicious stirred through pasta (add a second dollop at your own risk!). |
The Alleycat, Inverness is a vegan’s vegan restaurant, if you know what I mean – a bit rough around the edges, vegan before vegan was trendy. The food was pure comfort and nourishment – we tucked in to an ample ‘bacon’ and leek macaro’nae cheese which was like a hug in a bowl.
|Coffee||Slaughterhouse Coffee, Cromarty: 5/5|
Day 7: BREEZY-PEASY (Inverness to Findhorn)
First Witch: “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
Second Witch: “When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.”
Third Witch: “That will be ere the set of sun”
William Shakespeare – Macbeth
After the invisible battering of yesterday’s weather front, we were in for yet more strong winds but this time, we’d planned to work almost entirely with them, heading east along the bright and breezy Moray Firth as far as the mystical new-age enclave of Findhorn. The wind hadn’t quite finished with us yet though; there were crosswinds aplenty as we followed the NCN1 – and a mystery cycle route waymarked by a Buddha on a yin/yang bicycle – inland and upland. Glimpses of sea were surprisingly hard to come by on a route that rose high over the Firth and dived into forests of tottering pines with many stunted spindly arms that looked unlikely to provide balance or support. When we did finally descend towards the coast – past Cawdor Castle, setting for Shakespeare’s Scottish play and into Nairn, which is famous for its oatcakes – the landscape was pancake (or oatcake?) flat, and we almost flew to our campsite in a matter of minutes. Which was just as well because I had chosen to ride this ‘small miles day’ without my padded shorts on. How can your sitting bones feel sore and numb at the same time?
There’s a stunning beach at Findhorn – the sand is pink and littered with a debris of pretty seashells and the horizon is massive. Sunsets are spectacular here. The wind was too strong to enjoy the coast for long, so we retreated to our campsite to quasi-successfully cook on a stove that wasn’t up to much against the gales. Luchito kept us warm.
|Starting point||Inverness City Centre, IV1 1QY|
|Finish point||Findhorn, Forres IV36 3TY|
|Notable hill climbs||None|
|Food highlights||Our final visit to cycle culture café Velocity, which is up a steep cobbled hill in Inverness but it’s worth the effort for the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever eaten. |
Café Lavender in Nairn is a German-style coffee house with a delightful garden and friendly hosts who are snobby about coffee and not afraid to say so. Their pea and mint soup was the perfect pick-me-up and it’s a sin not to get an oaty cookie to accompany your coffee.
|Booze||A Reisling wine from the German coffee-house|
|Coffee||Velocity Café, Inverness: 4/5|
Café Lavender, Nairn: 2/5
Day 8: MOOR AND MORE (Findhorn to Braemar)
“In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the world is round … Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the Earth must see itself.”
Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain
We’d had today penned as a rest day but a quick glance at the forecast persuaded us that it was now or never to take on the formidable Cairngorms. The wind had changed again and was now a strong southerly, which is quite unusual but seemed too good an opportunity to pass up on. Besides, it had brought with it a penetrating damp cold that was no fun for chilling on a beach all day. Bracing ourselves with a two-course breakfast featuring at least one cake apiece, we left the Findhorn compound and, with garlic mushroom bagels and Bakewell frangipane repeating on us (or was that just the bellyful of fear?) we climbed out of Forres and into the Cairngorms National Park for ostensibly a day of three climbs.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little bit scared of the Cairngorms, and not just because they’re tough to climb on a bike. It’s the scale of the desolation there, the endless bleakness, whole Ordinance Survey maps with nothing on them, an area so remote that no-one might hear you no matter how hard you yelled. I’d read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and what stuck in my mind was not on her wistful lyricisms on mirror-clear water and the delicate details of moorland nature, but the many walkers who had perished, alone and exposed up there, their only misfortune to have the weather turn capriciously on them. I felt well prepared for the faceless emptiness of the Cairngorms. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sense of peacefulness that overcame me as I first rode out into those flat-topped hills, tawny brown and striped like the coat of a particoloured greyhound. A peace that spirited away the high howling of the wind and made you feel like there was no before and no afterwards. A peace so complete that it was only fleetingly broken by the regular juddering of motorbike engines – the Old Military Road through the Cairngorms is route popular with Scottish and European tourists and, lacking the spidery B-road infrastructure that supplements main roads throughout the swathes of Scotland given over to agriculture, it can get busy. The long stretches of highway and nothingness seem to beckon to drivers to go full throttle but the legacy of this is a trail of roadkill, every fifty metres or so a pheasant or crow or a song thrush, a woodpecker or hare or rabbit, rabbit after rabbit after rabbit in various states of maceration. It added a grey hue that had nothing to do with the weather, to our first Cairngorms experience. Why do people drive so fast through such beautiful places?
The first 30 miles, into Grantown-on-Spey, which is surely the Cairngorm capital, was steady and straightforward, and we made good time getting there. We stopped for food and the best coffee of the trip, which is surely by design as there must be a high index of desperation for morale-boosting substances round these parts before you take on the vertiginous highways of Whisky Country. It’s always such a disappointment to labour up a sticky climb, reach the top and then pointlessly lose all that kinetic energy for the sake of a low-lying bridge with an equally steep ascent on the other aside to slog it out all over again with, but so it was with the road between Grantown and Tomintoul. The locals were clearly also peeved about the most turd-ish of these nadirs which is why they named the site Bridge of Brown. After Tomintoul the only way is up a mountainside on a wide sweeping road towards today’s first and most feared hill climb of all: to the ski station at the top of the Lecht. The summit of the Lecht sits at 2,090 feet above sea level and from the northern face you put on at least 600 of these in the last mile. The bike’s pannier bags hung albatross-heavy but as soon as I stood to climb the wind picked me up like a sail and pushed me gently over the finish line. (I was also grateful to the patient driver who gave us an encouraging beep as we got to the top). The hard miles are not over at the summit though, and the descent took every ounce of concentration I could muster to stay on track while crosswinds whipped at my side, threatening to derail me at every gust. The southern side of the Lecht reaches a 20% gradient in some places and a rider can easily hit 30mph on even a windless day. Once descended, I felt as though I’d climbed it all over again.
There’s nothing but a tearoom that’s like Christmas for Scottish tat before the next climb out of Colnabaichin. The summit is a good deal lower than the Lecht but through cumulative fatigue I was physically and mentally ill-prepared for it and found myself in a lonely place on that second hillside, creeping up with no real awareness of when I would reach the top. Being outside and exposed to the elements all day is exhausting in all sorts of ways, from the second-by-second micro-adjustments to posture and muscle tension needed to stay upright against fierce winds, to the flitting between overheating on an intensive hill climb to the sudden need to shiver to keep warm going down. This is intensified by the ever-changing microclimates which cling to the tops of hills meaning you can be in blazing sunshine in a river valley but in cold damp mist or hail at the hilltop. The Cairngorms are famed for being flat on top, so there are many disillusioning false summits. On top of that having to constantly adjust your road position for other drivers (as a cyclist you do a surprising amount of work to anticipate and modify the behaviour of drivers around you to ensure they don’t overtake when it’s unsafe, and I think some drivers who don’t cycle underestimate this) meant my mental goose was cooked. At the roadside (more roadkill) I near-inhaled about 200g of trail mix (NB inhaling trail mix is a risky business – you could get a banana chip wedged in your trachea) and this just about got me through the remainder of climbs two and three.
After our third descent we had roughly ten miles of flat riding – into a headwind – along the Dee Valley into Braemar. I was so spent that I can’t recall much about this stretch. We detoured to the blingy gates of Balmoral castle and saw lots of bunting, roadside forget-me-nots, many more sad rabbit carcasses and the beautiful River Dee framed by coniferous forest and with elegant fairytale footbridges across. After what felt like an era we hit the village of Braemar, a regal-looking crest and more bunting, this time with Queenie’s face staring out of it from photos I’m not entirely sure she’d be happy with. A professional welcome from a B&B owner who betrayed just the faintest look of concern that our filthy presences might ruin her beautiful upholstery, and later a small glass of wine that still knocked my socks off while we waited for dinner, dragging myself into the shower and then sleep, deep sleep…
|Starting point||Findhorn, Forres IV36 3TY|
|Finish point||Braemar, Ballater, Aberdeenshire AB35 5ZP|
|Notable hill climbs||The Lecht is feared and revered in equal measure by cyclists. Simon Warren gives it a 10/10 difficulty rating when approached from the south.|
Our descent towards Easter Balmoral, due east of Braemar, constitutes a 6/10 climb when taken from the south, when it’s known as Crathie Hill.
|If you liked this route, you could try||For barren, lonely moorland you could look to the grouse moors of Weardale or the lonely roads around Blackshaw Moor in the Peak District, but nowhere I’ve cycled matches the enormity of the Cairngorms.|
|Food highlights||Farquharson’s in Braemar styles itself on a hunting lodge and serves venison on the menu, so we weren’t expecting much in the way of plant-based eating. Nonetheless they delivered a delicious haggis, neeps and tatties and a vanilla cheesecake dessert that was so creamy I could barely believe it wasn’t mascarpone.|
|Booze||Braemar Brewing Co’s Pale Ale|
|Coffee||High St. Merchants, Grantown-on-Spey: 5/5|
Day 9: REST (Braemar)
The sun beat down intensely on our first proper rest day and I felt we’d earned ourselves some lazing under tree boughs drinking coffee and eating cake and not doing much else. But there’s always chores to be done on a bikepacking trip, even on a day off, with a tent to be aired, bike chains to be cleaned, clothes to be laundered and calories to be caught up on. Plus you can’t just sit around on your arse after such a big day of exercise, or your muscles will seize up and you’ll pay for it tomorrow. We loosened up on a walk just off the chocolate-box high street and past the duck pond, low into the Morrone hillside following a narrow track with heather brushing at your ankles and making it difficult to avoid treading on bright emerald beetles, purple dragonflies and giant striped hoverflies that flitted into our path. Across the valley the Cairngorm hills stared blankly back at us. They’re definitely better appreciated from the outside looking in and yes, I am still scared of them. I felt that yesterday was less a conquest, more a lucky escape. Later we followed the lazy Clunie Water and watched young families of geese and ducks from the bank then headed up into the forest of the Balmoral Estate and were swallowed whole by the giant pines, treading lightly on soft forest floor and hearing the soft collapsing of pinecones beneath our trainers. The air carried a quiet cacophony of squeaks and chirps from woodland birds such as chaffinch, black cap and crested tit (still no pesky crossbill though), the high-pitched whirring of a pigeon coming in to land. Then a different sound commanded our attention, shook us out of our nature-daze: the scrabble of claws on wrinkly-rough tree bark. A red squirrel climbing obliviously up and down, forwards and backwards, and then another, chasing it, on a merry spiral dance around the circumference of the tree, and then a third, a cuckold perhaps, trying to join in but not quite getting the cadence right and before you knew it we were surrounded by them, five or six or seven supposedly wary beasts performing for us at feeders low down or way up in the canopy or bouncing along the forest floor.
|Starting point||Braemar, Ballater, Aberdeenshire AB35 5ZP|
|Finish point||Braemar, Ballater, Aberdeenshire AB35 5ZP|
|Food highlights||The Coffee Bothy, Braemar, a name surprisingly tricky to get your teeth around but their macaroon is not: it’s not really a macaroon but more of a Kendal-style mint cake. I couldn’t keep one of these in my possession for more than five minutes before tucking in.|
|Booze||Cairngorm Brewery’s Trade Winds (wheat beer)|
|Coffee||The Coffee Bothy, Braemar: 3/5|
Day 10: FAIRY TALES (Braemar to Dunkeld)
“Little town, it’s a quiet village | Every day like the one before| Little town, full of little people | Waking up to say… Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour!”
Belle – Beauty and the Beast
The hard miles behind us, a freshly laundered pair of bib shorts on and the lovely town of Dunkeld as our destination. Just one significant hill climb, then 35 miles of mostly downhill cruising between us and the picturesque high street, the old-world cobbled church square adorned with blossoms, the meaty green olives and delectable red wines of the deli on the corner from a dreamy memory of a visit that was too many moons ago. I was in no rush to reach our destination today; in some ways the anticipation of arriving – could it possibly be as lovely as I remembered? – was more thrilling than the arrival itself, and I knew I had today’s itinerary and more in my legs.
Before saying goodbye to Braemar – which also had its charms – we were recommended a trip up to the Linn of Dee, a photogenic gorge with an old stone bridge and a waterfall that pours into a narrow ravine. A great spot for a secluded cold-water plunge to cool off as it was not yet 11am and the air was MUGGY.
A quick pitstop for more minty macaroon from the Coffee Bothy kickstarted a kind climb through a green valley where curlews make breeding grounds and their calls to tabby cat-coloured fledglings are amplified by the acoustics of mountains on all sides. No hulking or heaving were required to get up the consistent gradient of Cairnwell Pass to a summit that revealed itself through – you guessed it – low mist in stages, first with weak outlines of ski lifts on hillsides and then with the appearance of mountain peaks, chalets and car parks. The thought of climbing up to a ski station may sound romantic but I’d learned from cycling past La Mongie on a trip through the Pyrenees that there’s something really depressing about a ski resort without the snow.
Another tricky descent on wet roads dropped us into a jolly green glen and we’d left the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park. Our next stop was Blairgowrie & Rattray, conjoined twin towns differentiated by the River Ericht that promised much but delivered little; a vegetable tart apiece from the delicatessen saved us from the uninteresting high street cafes and we ate it along with a punnet of strawberries we’d picked up from a local kerbside seller.
The Scottish interior loves to name its tourist regions and from here we entered Big Tree County and they weren’t kidding – Dunkeld is an historic town nestled deep into a great quantity of sizeable flora seeming to grow up all around it in a protective stepped wall like the enchanted briars around the house of the Sleeping Beauty. Dunkeld does have a sort of magical feel about it – it might be something to do with how the light diffuses onto the buildings or reflects off the river in the early evening; it might be its quaint, epochal architecture that seems perfectly preserved as if it had been built just recently for a film set; hell, it could just be that the wine is bloody good at that deli and I’ve usually had a good marinade in it before drinking in the immaculate streets. It was just as lovely as I remembered (the town, and the wine).
Just out of town, down an underpass avoiding the A9 trunk road, we set up our tent at the Inver Mill Campsite, on a pitch on the bank of the river Braan. As dinner cooked and the sun dropped behind the treeline, we watched ducklings learn to swim against its little currents under their mother’s watchful eye. A grey wagtail picked tiny winged insects from the damp air.
A short walk from the campsite is a nature reserve called The Hermitage where the biggest of the big trees live. Perhaps you could guess their age by the twists in their spines, by the pits and scars of old storms and lost branches where new foliage has bloomed afresh, or by the different types of plant and lichen that cling to their craggy hides. Some of the trees are so tall you can’t see to the top of them. Some splay their storeys of foliage like millefeuille petticoats trimmed with the bright green shoots of this season’s new growth. We walked as far as Ossian’s Hall, an old folly built for the amusement of an 18th century Duke with a penchant for fairy tales, and upgraded since with great modern glass doors onto a balcony overlooking the breathtaking Black Linn falls. A thin powder of enchantment clung to every rock, bough and leaf of this clandestine woodland. Who knows how many girls in red riding hoods, charming princes and swooning ladies this ancient glade has seen.
|Starting point||Braemar, Ballater, Aberdeenshire AB35 5ZP|
|Finish point||Inver Farm, Dunkeld PH8 0JR|
|Notable hill climbs||Cairnwell Pass up to Glenshee ski station gets a 6/10 difficulty rating when approached from the south. I would give it similar if approaching from the north.|
|If you liked this route, try||The glen with mountains on all sides that creeps out of Braemar feels a lot like you’re ambling through the Glencoe range but without the same volume of traffic.|
|Food highlights||If the season is right, don’t miss the giant roadside fibreglass strawberry selling fresh produce from nearby Westfield Farm on the A93 into Blairgowrie from the north – the juicy red strawberries blow their supermarket cousins clear out of the water. |
If you can see past the giant Iberian hams that hang above the deli counter, the tapas menu at the Scottish Deli offers some delicious small plates such as a flavourful Andalucian spinach and chickpea stew, Gigantes Greek butterbeans and a vegan antipasti board, all clearly marked.
|Booze||A Rioja at the Scottish Deli (vegan wines are marked on the menu)|
|Coffee||The Dome Café, Blairgowrie: 0/5|
Day 11: CITY LIMITS (Dunkeld to Glasgow)
“Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?”
The final day of our trip, the return leg. Hubs was getting a bad case of post-holiday blues already, so we had to make today a special one. Sitting on a bank of grass by the river Tay, looking out to the stoical Dunkeld Bridge and vast Craigvinean forest beyond while eating pasties and donuts from a boutique bakery on the high street, we were already off to a strong start.
To avoid the A9 we took a track out of Birnam which headed south and west along Inchewan Burn. Not much of a track though! A beautiful detour but a little technical for our laden road bikes and early-morning tour-weary legs with tree roots, deep ruts of thick mud and stones to outmanoeuvre, difficult as they were to see cast in the dense dappled shadows of overhanging boughs. The track came out onto the Old Military Road. Legacy of the English opposition to Jacobitism in the 1700s, these roads were commissioned by General George Wade as a means of bringing order to the unruly Central Lowlands (which is a misnomer – see later!).
This latter part of our tour had been planned on the hoof in response to weather conditions – is it just me, or has the forecast been way off the mark this year? – and as such, we’d not plotted today’s 80-mile route with our bike computer. We were reassured, however, by Google Maps’ assertion that it would be mostly flat.
Mostly flat my a***.
After a sedate rolling start through farmed countryside as far as Milton, we hit a hill at Corrymuchloch and then they came thick and fast after that. Nothing as remarkable as the Glenshee climb or the formidable Lecht, but enough to shatter our expectations of a comfortable glide over our imagined finish line, and we found ourselves riding rather through batter than over a pancake. After Corrymuchloch we were rewarded with a dramatic descent into Sma’ Glen following the river Almond, which was every bit as delectable as it sounds. More mention of General Wade and his military roads on the tourist information board at the ingress to this magical valley – he could have been a tour guide for Visit Scotland in another life – before more clambering up and out over sprawling pasture and arable countryside. The views were unfathomable – it seemed as though you were on top of the world and the only way forward must be down, but before long another hill climb came out of nowhere. I find that the human experience of gaining altitude on a bicycle is heavily skewed by whether or not you know what to expect, and so having to face all these nominal inclines with nothing to work towards but the notion of a ‘mostly flat’ horizon that never came, gave the day a rather Sisyphean feel.
After Crieff we hit the A822, which is a bit too busy to ride enjoyably so at Muthill, a cutesy village with a cracking scarecrow festival, Hubs rerouted us onto some quieter back roads which immediately… sent us right up another hill. Hubs was towing a bit that day (my diagnosis: insufficient cake intake) so thank heavens it wasn’t my idea, otherwise I would have been for the high jump. At the top we rested in the cool of a line of oaks that skirted the road and ate more donuts and whatever skerrick of trail mix we had left. We headed through Braco and Hubs didn’t even want to pause for a coffee at a café that looked nice. That’s how I knew he must be fucked.
We took a pit stop in Bridge of Allan for some great grub and exquisite people-watching courtesy of a ragtag group who were eating in our café, then we snaked our way, no thanks to some dogshit cycle infrastructure built specifically for the extermination of pedallers, into Stirling, where some major incident seemed to be unfurling judging by the number of sirens that wailed past. Unfortunately, this is where our journey became disastrous. Having originally planned to head west towards the Campsie Fells, foothills of Loch Lomond National Park, we had decided to shorten our day and cut onto the Firth & Clyde canal (which is genuinely mostly flat). There didn’t appear to be a nice way to do this, and we found ourselves in the unfortunate position of battling the drivetime carnage of the A91, which is a rat run to the M9 motorway and an abominable example for town planning insofar as it bisected the walk home for a group of school students and made an island of a nearby housing estate. Leaving the A91 to head through Easterton was no better – we aborted the cut and thrust of the traffic flow to take to the broken-glass-and-grit encrusted, wafer thin, uneven and overgrown footpath (which I know is technically illegal, but it was in the interests of self-preservation, Your Honour). I’d heard the criticisms levelled at nearby Cumbernauld for its ‘Car Is King’ approach to travel infrastructure, but I felt it seep depressingly into my bones on the Easterton road. It was a just-get-through-it-together sort of hour of riding but I’m fair sure our marriage came out stronger for it.
Finally, miraculously, we made it onto the canal towpath. I think I’ve blogged about the Firth & Clyde canal path before; it was a welcome reprieve from the noise, from the petrol fumes, the stop-start of traffic lights and the grime and dust that gets kicked up from the road. The miles weren’t quite finished with us yet though; the generous hour we’d calculated to get us from Bonnybridge to Glasgow strung itself out unattainably as we battled headwinds and delayed-onset muscle fatigue, and as we negotiated a path teeming with cycle commuters, dog-walking families, anglers and a bunch of youths that I’ve definitely seen in the same spot several times, all of the above enjoying the last of the day’s sunshine apart from the latter who were enjoying a pungent hit of dope, as they always are when we pass them there. We were inspired by the transformation of the run-down industrial wasteland just outside Glasgow into Hamiltonhill Claypits Local Nature Reserve, where families of swans who might once have found themselves swimming amongst post-consumer plastic flotsam, now found their feet bristling with nothing but reeds and pondweed.
I nonetheless found myself at a low ebb as we left the canal and dropped into Hamiltonhill. I nearly lost my temper with Hubs because I didn’t know where we were, even though he did. (He’s a patient soul, is our Hubs). I enjoyed our meal at the Hug & Pint, I always do, though both the food and our company, an old friend from Paisley, were wasted on me really. I could have eaten Super Noodle sandwiches with a cut-out of a Boohoo model for all it was worth.
|Starting point||Inver Farm, Dunkeld PH8 0JR|
|Finish point||Great Western Road, Glasgow G4 9AW|
|Ascent||A mostly flat… 1,000m (3,290ft)!|
|Notable hill climbs||None|
|If you liked this route, try||Cruising through the well-to-do villages just south of Crieff towards Bridge of Allan were reminiscent of the region between Hayfield and Macclesfield in the High Peak, minus the raj Cheshire driving.|
|Food highlights||Friend of Mine in Bridge of Allan does these barbecue jackfruit taco things that might just be the best thing I’ve ever eaten.|
|Booze||A drink would have made me fall asleep in my ramen tonight.|
|Coffee||Hug & Pint, Glasgow: 2/5|
Day 12: REFLECTION
“Just one day out of life | It would be, it would be so nice”
Madonna – Holiday
One time during the trip Hubs turned on the news and we were reminded of the cost-of-living crisis, of war, famine, political infighting… then we turned it back off again. A week of bikepacking is indulgent, it’s ignorant, it’s blissful, it’s oblivious. Life is beautifully simple: you wake up, you don’t dither too much about whether to have cake with your breakfast or not because you know that you’ll need it, and your only real anxiety is how you’re getting from A to B and it’s not an anxious preoccupation really, the endorphins take care of that. Then it’s what shape dinner will take, and a tot of drink that reacts to your exhausted and fresh-aired body as if it were your giddy virgin inebriation, then a sleep like a switch that’s been flipped to ‘off’, and then up the next morning for more of the same.
Back in Glasgow the trains are still running their reduced timetable (still no resolution but by now RMT union boss Mick Lynch has taken down his political and media opponents and become a working-man’s hero). It will be at least a week before I can’t get away with cake with every meal again. I’ll drink coffee at all the usual places, but this time I’ll know in advance how good or bad it will be. I’ll go into work and my colleagues will ask about my suntan, and I’ll describe my holiday by listing all the places I visited, but it won’t do justice to what the trip really was. Life on the road is never really having time to get comfortable. Never looking too far forward, or too far back.
I bloody love bikepacking.
July 11, 2022