Our final day. The end of a 470 mile odyssey across the Scottish Highlands. And the sun was shining.
We continued to retrace in reverse part of my Land’s End to John O’Groats route in 2002 and 2019. It was an easy downhill to the Falls of Shin, along an eerily quiet road. Yet when I paused at the falls I was amazed to see a crowd of people. Then I spotted the tourist coach… I didn’t linger long, not expecting to repeat my 2019 success in videoing salmon leaping up the falls. I was sad to see the lovely cafe and visitor centre was boarded up, a victim of the pandemic.
I followed Rose to Bonar Bridge, seen above. She set a cracking pace, and my average speed to lunch was far higher than on any other day on the trip. Not far beyond Ardgay, where we had lunch on LEJOG19, I said goodbye to the LEJOG route, glancing up towards the Struie hill viewpoint where I’d taken photos in 2002 and 2019.
Today, we said farewell to the sea and the route of the North Coast 500.
The first few miles followed the far north coast, with a few inevitable short, sharp hills. I was entranced by the sight above: wild campers above a beach not far from Durness. Scotland allows wild camping and I can imagine the delight of drifting to sleep to the sound of the waves at this beautiful spot.
This was the hardest day of the tour. Harder than the Bealach na Bà day. And all because of that cyclist’s curse: a headwind.
Yet it started well. The 1,000 feet of climbing over the first nine miles from Ullapool that sapped my morale yesterday proved easier when repeated today. And I was looking forward to seeing Assynt and cycling over the stunning Kylesku bridge.
We had a lovely stop by the shore of Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle in the distance. The sun was shining, it was warm and we had a stunningly scenic day ahead.
I was cursing my decision not to take a rest day in Ullapool. After nine miles and 1,000 feet of climbing I envied the wisdom of those taking a lazy, late breakfast, enjoying a good book or taking a boat trip. Then I glanced and saw the mountains, blue sky and brilliant clouds reflected in the still waters of Loch Cùl Dromannan. I gasped in wonder, and slowed the bike to a stop to drink in the vista and take the photo above.
It got better. I was soon following Peak Tours guide Simon down a heavenly lane, a tarmac thread along the lochs leading to the coast. After the slog up from Ullapool, we were now coasting along this gently undulating route. Before long we came to the morning’s brew stop overlooking the islands on Loch Lurgainn. I smiled as two recumbent trikes came past as I turned in for my morning coffee. It would be fun to lean back on the comfortable seat of a trike and drink in the view.
I had a lie-in today, thanks to cycling an extra 17 miles to Gairloch last night. But while those staying in Kinlochewe had an easy warm up along Loch Maree (the route I took last night), I was straight into the hills today with a stiff climb out of Gairloch setting the tone for the morning.
It was worth it: at the top of the hill was this wonderful view of a beach with the mountains including Beinn Eighe behind. I didn’t feel guilty about stopping so soon to to savour a view like this. Why tour the highlands if you’re not inclined to pause and reflect on the extraordinary landscapes and seascapes?
Later, I stopped to admire this view of Loch Maree, the lake that I cycled along for miles last night. Here I was passing the head of the loch.
This was the big one. If any day’s cycling merited nervous anticipation, it was this. Talk at breakfast was a little stilted as we all knew what was to come: Bealach na Bà (the pass of the cattle), the greatest climb in Britain. And many more hilly miles on top.
We set off from Lochcarron and were climbing almost immediately away from the loch. This was merely a warm up. I enjoyed the swoop down to Loch Kishorn, followed by an easy stretch along the river Kishorn. A quick left turn and there it was: the famous sticker-strew sign marking the start of Bealach na Bà. Another sign warned learner drivers not to attempt this iconic route, which opened 200 years ago in 1822.
The road over Bealach na Bà climbs 2,053 feet (626 metres) in around six miles (9 kilometres), but the initial section is not difficult: barely 2% for the first mile. But don’t be fooled – it gets far harder. Simon Warren, author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, rated the Bealach at 11 out of 10 for difficulty. It is the closest Britain has to an alpine, hairpinned ascent.
This post recounts the first day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022.
Why do I always feel a few butterflies at the start of a cycling adventure? It seemed unmerited ahead of today’s fairly easy first day of Peak Tours’ Highland 500 tour. Best of all, the first 13 miles from Inverness followed the same route as my 2019 Land’s End to John O’Groats ride, which I remembered as a really easy section.
As soon as we got going, the butterflies fluttered away. It was a grey morning, with showers, and the normal western cycle route over the Kessock Bridge over the firth was closed, requiring a diversion past Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s ground. We briefly joined the main carriageway to the bridge but quickly backtracked to the eastern cycle path. Once over the bridge, we had to wait for a gap in the traffic to cross the A9. Fortunately it wasn’t busy on this Sunday morning.
I was soon enjoying the familiar path along the Beauly Firth towards the intriguingly named Muir of Ord. An easy day was made rather harder by a brisk headwind, which became more noticeable as the day unfolded. As I always say, hills come to an end but headwinds don’t! We formed a modest peloton to take it in turns to ‘draft’ the other riders. I took my turn just before the morning ‘brew stop’ at Rogie Falls, where Peak Tours provided very welcome drinks and snacks to keep morale and energy high. I decided to up the pace a little, which was a mistake as the break was a mile later than expected and that extra mile was uphill! I was glad of the breather.
I’m in Inverness, on the eve of my latest cycling adventure. I’ll be pedalling 500 miles in seven days around the spectacular Highlands.
How poignant that my trip begins just days after the death of Dervla Murphy, who inspired me to explore the world on two wheels. Back in 1996 I picked up a copy of Full Tilt, her account of her ride from Dunkirk to Delhi, which began in the arctic winter of 1963 – the year I was born. I was enthralled by Dervla’s description of her journey, especially her travels through Afghanistan, a country she clearly loved. How heartbreaking to reflect on its ordeal in the past 40 years.
I met Dervla at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in, I think, 1996. She signed my copy of one of her books, and I told her what an inspiration she was to me. While I loved Full Tilt, her autobiography Wheels Within Wheels was arguably even better. She explained that she was only able to make her long dreamed about ride to India after her mother died. I was captivated by her family story, including her parents’ background in the Irish republican movement.
Not long after reading Full Tilt, I set off from my childhood home in Cardiff for Ireland, Dervla’s homeland. I was to cycle solo from Dublin over the Wicklow mountains, bound for Rosslare and the ferry back to Wales. The weather, in August 1996, was glorious and I declared Ireland a perfect cycle touring country. I have never made it to Lismore, Dervla’s hometown, but one day I might just pay a visit to the place that one of the greatest cycling travellers called home.
Another of her books, A Place Apart, gives a stark account of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Dervla found it hard to credit the attitudes and actions of her fellow inhabitants of the island of Ireland. Especially the hardened loyalist community and the followers of Ian Paisley. (It was impossible to imagine in 1976 that Paisley would one day join IRA man Martin McGuinness in government in Northern Ireland.) Dervla’s bafflement was shared with many people on both sides of the Irish Sea.
It’s hard to realise today how unusual Dervla was in the 1960s as a female solo traveller writing about her experiences. She practised firing a pistol in County Waterford in preparation for future ordeals, and used it to shoot wolves in Bulgaria, Later it helped fend off a threatening Kurd. She later said the whole trip cost just £64, 7s and 10d in old money. 1963 truly was a different world.
Not another hill! I was struggling. It had been a very hilly day, and I was climbing yet again. Even in my lowest gear, the wheels barely seemed to be moving. The Yorkshire Dales are stunning, but far from flat.
I was cycling along The Way of the Rose, a coast to coast route from Morecambe on the Irish Sea to Bridlington on the North Sea. The name refers to the famous symbols of the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, although most of the route is in Yorkshire. More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, I was ready for a cycling adventure, and the Way of the Roses in three days was ideal. Best of all, it was run by Peak Tours, the company that so impressed me with its Land’s End to John O’Groats tour in 2019. I originally booked for May 2021 but Peak Tours happily transferred me to the June tour when lockdown prevented the original taking place.
I drove up to Morecambe the day before the tour began, and enjoyed walking along the seafront to see the statue of Eric Morecambe, the comedian who with Ernie Wise was one of the best-loved names in British television when I was a child in the Seventies. (He certainly brought us sunshine during the tour, in contrast to torrential rain and flooding in the south.) At dusk, I walking back from dinner with the tour guides and fellow cyclists, I was thrilled to see horses galloping across the sands. It reminded me of legendary 1970s Grand National winner Red Rum, who was famously trained on Southport sands.
It was hard to hold back the tears. Back in 1995, Alison Hargreaves, a mother of two young children, was killed on the descent from K2. Almost 25 years later, her widow took a call from their daughter breaking the dreadful news that son Tom had been killed climbing another mountain not far from K2. It was as if tragedy had become an inheritance.
My emotional moment came as I watched The Last Mountain, a brilliant documentary telling the remarkable story of Alison Hargreaves and her family. The focus is on the lost Alison and Tom. We see them preparing for their expeditions that end in disaster. Tom especially is portrayed as a special talent, a young man who inherited his mother’s love of the world’s high places. We see his dedication, and feel the bitter irony of seeing his ultra-fit frame, knowing that this was the body that succumbed to the brutal elements on Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, in 2019.