north

Atlantic Edge

Well, the last few days have been a bit of a rush. And it’s not quite over yet.

I’ve had tailwinds all the way from Thurso. On the most exposed section of the ride, where the ‘normal’ should be rain-laden headwinds. I think I’ve made the most of the unexpected assistance. At the same time, both Covid and non-Covid related disruption to transport and tourist accommodation have made their presence felt much more up here than elsewhere in the country.

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I guess it helps you to appreciate that this area is properly remote, by European standards, at least. From the small town of Thurso, near John o’Groats, to the small town of Stornoway (above) in the Outer Hebrides, where I wrote the last post, it’s over 140miles (about 230 km) of riding, plus a 3-hour ferry ride. In between, there’s a handful of villages and some stunning countryside – see the pictures on the previous post. But not much else. Apart from sheep. There are lots of sheep.

As the last post hopefully showed, I made a lot of ground quite quickly out of Thurso, along a route which got steadily more beautiful as I got further west. A little rain, but not enough to ruin things. A few midges (some of the bites are still itching several days later), but not the massive bloodthirsty midge-storms you sometimes hear about up here.

It was all going fine until Ullapool, where I really needed a shower, and instead found everything closed (to tents at least). So, a quick switch of direction led me onto the ferry to the Hebrides. At least it meant I didn’t have to agonise too much over whether to head for the islands or stick with mainland Scotland…

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And the Outer Hebrides have been good. Dramatic scenery, of mountains which have been partially smashed over millions of years by Atlantic storms. Improved further by a following wind, which has pushed me along very easily. There’s even a marked Hebridean Way cycle route from top to bottom (like all the other signs up here, in Gaelic first, English second).

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The only downsides are that it’s a cold northerly wind, and the thermals and winter gloves are out already. In August! And that ‘everything’s closed’ is a phrase which has cropped up far too much in the last couple of days.

Thursday began in Stornoway, and was intended to be a relatively gentle meander through Lewis and Harris (confusingly, these act as if they’re are two separate islands, but they’re definitely joined together). The Lewis part went nicely, zipping south at a rapid rate (above and below), although there was definitely a lot more heavy cloud than the forecast – light cloud and sunny spells – had suggested.

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Unfortunately, the weather forecast got even less accurate as the afternoon went on. Harris, I’d been assured by other cyclists, was stunning, with some beautiful wild camping near lovely beaches. I couldn’t see it myself. Literally – all I saw was raindrops on my glasses, and sheets of rain sweeping across the landscape.

I was soaked and being chilled by the northerly wind. Not a great combination. I headed for the ferry stop at Leverburgh, on the basis that I could probably find somewhere to warm up and dry off before camping. No such luck. Everything apart from the ferry itself was shut, and the last one of those was about to head to the next island, Berneray. I got on it.

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Some frantic phone tapping on the boat revealed that there were no open accommodation options within range on the other side. The Covid effect again. So it would be wild camping. Which would be fine, except that I was already shivering, and the chances of drying off properly in a little tent were low. I ended up staking my claim to the ferry waiting room on the other side; no heating, but four walls and a toilet, so it actually worked out OK, and I was warm, dry and ready to go early the next morning (onto North Uist – above).

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And yesterday’s run down to the southern part of South Uist (via Benbecula – that’s a lot of islands already!) was lovely. The weather was what it should have been the day before, and I was jetting south along flat(ish) roads.

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The biggest challenge along the Hebrides chain has been the single-track main roads (above). These are ‘A’ Roads, so you’d expect them to be high-volume, fast routes, possibly dual-carriageways. Things are different up here. There are some sections that have white lines down the middle, but also long stretches where you have to dart between passing places. I guess it’s another function of how remote and unpopulated this region is. But it makes for a really strange riding rhythm; sprinting and stopping all day, instead of a steady effort.

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Anyway, I rolled down to close to Lochboisdale yesterday, in preparation for this morning’s early ferry to Mallaig, back on the mainland, and one end of what’s now known as the ‘Harry Potter Railway’.

But, in case it wasn’t already clear enough that I’m not on the mainland yet, there’s a cattle market on somewhere (I’m still not clear exactly where this is). This means that the Mallaig ferries are all cancelled. It would, perhaps, have been useful to know this before I charged the length of the Outer Hebrides, and possibly before I even got on the boat to Stornoway.

Thankfully, there is one ferry off South Uist before Monday, and that’s going late this evening (Saturday). I’ll be on it. But it’s not going to Mallaig, but to Oban (quite a lot further south, and chopping a couple of days off the ride). So I’ll miss Harry Potter. Hopefully, this won’t ruin my life too much, and things will become a bit more predictable and controlled when I’m back on the mainland, but we’ll have to wait and see…

A Highland (and Island) Charge

Well, the plan worked out.

I don’t have time for a full length post today, so am just going to bung up some pictures, really. Too many miles have been ridden, and too many still need doing. I’ll hopefully put up a fuller update in a couple more days.

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But the plan worked. The wind has been at my back since Thurso. And actually turned around halfway through to remain there. All suspiciously easy. Got a bit wet on the first day, into Durness, but apart from that, have just about managed to stay dry, too, which is always a bonus!

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From close to the north-east corner of Scotland, I’ve pedalled around 140 miles (230 km) in two riding days. First to the west, then to the south. Long-ish days (for me, loaded up) in themselves, but each with over 1400 vertical metres of climbing too.

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The scenery has improved from decent to stunning as I’ve rolled along and onto the West Coast, which has enabled me to occasionally ignore the aching quads and cramping hamstrings.

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And yesterday, an evening ferry at the end, whisking me off Great Britain for the first time for ages, and onto the Outer Hebrides for the first time ever.

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There’s still a breeze out of the north, which makes it chilly, but also means that I’ll keep pushing on for now with the wind more-or-less at my back.

And hopefully, a fuller update will appear in a couple of days.  Once a breather can be had.

Edges, ‘Edges, a Parmo and an Angel – Long Miles To the North East

The wind had flipped around as I left Boston on Saturday. It was a bit unfortunate to have a headwind to deal with for the first time since the south west. But also amazing that I’d not had a headwind to deal with since the south west.

Lincolnshire is still largely flat lands, following on seamlessly from East Anglia. And, as I followed the canalised River Witham northwards, progress got easier or harder every time it slightly changed direction, as my angle to the wind altered.

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You could argue that I cheated ever so slightly by trimming the edge off Lincolnshire. Being Saturday, I thought it was probably better to avoid the hordes of potentially Covid-infested day-trippers at the big seaside resorts on the coast, so cut inland along the river instead. Or maybe this is just an excuse for avoiding the worst of the headwinds along the coast.

In any case, I was doing a quick roadside map check, when an elderly chap on a light touring bike screeched to a halt next to me (he really needs to replace his brake pads). The encounter didn’t last long, as I was treated to a high-speed monologue ranging from my trailer to his £1000 Rohloff hub, to his planned ride for the day, and where he was going to have lunch.

This was where I realised that I’d definitely entered the North of England. I’d been vaguely thinking about the edges of the country. He was worried about edges too, or at least that I wasn’t going to be getting much shelter from the wind up on the riverbank. There weren’t any ‘edges there, though there were on the ‘ills, where he was heading.

It took me a while after he’d gone to realise that he was talking about hedges. I’ve not heard very many aitches since.

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Crossing the Humber Estuary on the huge suspension bridge removes (I think) any doubt as to whether you’ve left the midlands behind.

Since the Humber, it’s mainly been old railway lines (first from Hull to the coast, then the Cinder Track from Scarborough to Whitby) and hills. Mostly not the nicely surfaced, commuter-friendly sort of rail paths that I’m used to in the South, but the sort of dusty, rough, rocky paths that keep your speed frustratingly low, and would probably break a road bike in half. On the plus side, like most railway paths, they were surrounded by ‘edges, so the headwind stopped being a major problem.

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The Cinder Track, in particular, put me back right on the edge of land and sea. It’s a beautiful route, including some lovely views, like Robin Hood’s Bay (below).

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Though I’d give yourself a day for it rather than the half day I pushed through it in. The drop into the bay was a rutted, bumpy test of both me and the trailer; we both passed, just, though with the front wheel sliding around in a somewhat alarming manner. And the track was hard enough going that it didn’t set me up well for the rest of the afternoon.

Which was unfortunate, as I needed to cross the North York Moors National Park. This is a beautiful place, and somewhere I’m very familiar with, as it’s where my Dad’s family came from. So I knew what was coming; stunning countryside, but with ups and downs as steep and frequent as Cornwall.

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It didn’t especially help that I’d gone a bit too deep on the Cinder Track. But it also didn’t help that the National Cycle Route planners had seen fit to drop a couple of miles of very rough, very steep gravel into the mix, just when I thought I’d got through the tough parts.

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It looks a little like the ‘White Roads’ of Italy, where the pro road racers take in sections of gravel road. But once again, it’s steep, and pitted, and the gravel is a bit too big to actually ride on. It was a beautiful end to the day, but I really need to learn to take things easier sometimes. I should be old enough to know when I’m biting off more than I can chew by now.

Dropping off the Moors into the flatter lands around Middlesbrough puts you right in line for one of the UK’s biggest calorie injections; the Teesside Parmo. I was immediately biting off more than I could chew again. A Parmo is effectively a deep-fried double chicken-breast schnitzel, knee-deep in bechamel sauce and melted cheese. They’ve been clocked at over 2000 calories each, including the chips. That’s a day’s worth of energy on one plate; not normally advisable, but just the thing to fill the tank of a touring cyclist who’d slightly overdone things.

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And so, rather than being completely destroyed on Tuesday morning, I was ready to press on northwards. After negotiating Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees, is was another old railway line that took me into County Durham. Although not sealed, the surface was smooth, and the progress quick. I wonder why some railway path builders can make them smooth, and others can’t?

After the railway line, I was already approaching Gateshead, and then Newcastle. After wiggling through a bunch of small mining and industrial towns, a short climb led me to the symbol of the region; the Angel of the North, standing guard over the main road into Tyne valley.

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And then, an unexpected delight. You never hear about this region in discussions about cycling infrastructure in the UK.

But, for the very first time on this trip, I rolled through Gateshead, and across the river into Newcastle on well-signposted, smooth cycle tracks. I just followed large, clear signs through cycle-specific traffic lights, along clearly demarcated, wide shared paths, and segregated bike tracks. No frustrating map checks, no close passes, no conflict with pedestrians. Someone has actually designed this properly.

With the posssible exception of London, I’ve never seen a UK city which is easier to navigate by bike than Newcastle / Gateshead. It should be embarrassing for so many other cities and towns that I’ve been through, which still seem not to get it, but it’s great to know that at least one city region is doing bike infrastructure properly. I wonder why some councils can do it properly and most can’t?