Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen
We dare not go a-cycling
For fear of little men (in big cars)
While nearly everyone else was heading to their nearby hotel or packing their car to go back home, I was riding up Glencoe to my YH stop at Crianlarich, where I could spare a brief few hours on my way back to Darlo.
Why bother? I hear you ask. Well, to start with, it looks damn cool on a map. Here you go:
Who wouldn’t want to do that? I rode home from the Highlands. In case you were wondering, the Highlands counts as Proper Scotland. Ask Chris, he’ll tell you – on the drive up, we established that he’d only visited Scotland a few times, once to ride the Snow Roads. This is a 300 km ride which goes from Kirriemuir to Dufftown around the Cairngorms, and is definitely Proper Scotland. However, the other times were a flying visit to Glasgow, and a few trips around the borders, which don’t count as Proper Scotland. Chris makes the rules, not me.
Glencoe is Proper Scotland. Gloomy, towering crags steeple over the A82 trunk road, which has an unpleasant reputation as a place to ride your bike. It has a fairly grim past anyway. Generally, the road is either rammed with holidaymakers, or the locals are flogging along it at 100 mph. Or both. It’s the main road up the west side of Scotland, and I’ve never felt at home on it while on a bike.
However, at twilight, the road was quiet, and it was fabulous. There were miles when the only other sound was the rush of water down the glen. I passed Jimmy Saville’s old house near the waterfall – yet another bit of grimness to add to Glencoe’s unsavoury history – and paused up on Rannoch Moor to put my jacket on for the descent of Black Mount. With a helpful tailwind, I made it to the YH before they closed the doors, giving me chance to eat some supper – shortbread, washed down with a wee dram of whisky shared by one of the other YHA-ers. It was too hot and I slept really poorly. I had to be on the road by 4 am, and I reckon I’d have been better off kipping in the station’s waiting room – assuming another enterprising audaxer hadn’t already nabbed the spot.
But I need to rewind – the reason for going to Scotland in the first place was to ride Graeme Wyllie’s excellent Port Navigation Light 200. It’s a tour of the west coast, including three ferries, the last two of which take you on and off Mull. It’s as fine a place to ride a bike as there is in this world, at least when the weather’s right, and nothing is guaranteed. The Mull Tourist Board slogan is “Mull – Sometimes the Rain Stops”.
We were very lucky. There was enough rain around that we spent the day taking jackets on and off, staring at clouds and tasting the wind to try to guess what would come next. Given that we’d driven up the day before in wall-to-wall rain, and it had been hammering down when I went to get my bike out of the YHA shed at 5.45 am, I’ll not complain.
Neil was kind enough to humour me and ride around at my pace – I’ve not seen him for a couple of years, and we had a good laugh riding around. Our timings meant that we missed all of the early ferries, and had to wait ages inbetween ferries, eating food and drinking beer. Most of the field were on the same strategy – we were an hour-and-a-half early for the ferry at Craignure, and while we waited at the pub, we saw nearly everyone else ride in.
And now, a note about the admin. Audaxing is more-or-less a long-distance bike ride, with extra paperwork. Who doesn’t want that in their life. This was an Extended Calendar Event, which is more-or-less where you add your own ride from home, or from a handy train station, to a proper event, and the whole distance counts as one ride – in this case, the 200 km of the event plus the 500 km ride home made it a 700 km ride.
And one of the things about audaxes is that there are maximum and minimum speeds. Not many people are pushing the maximum speeds (at least, not after the first control or two – a decent cafe stop is enough to put all but the fastest below the typical 30 kph speed limit), and it’s the minimum speed that concerns us here. To illustrate, I drew a graph showing how much time I had against the minimum speed limit. And some other stuff.
[click for bigness]
I’ve included Chris’s guide to Scotland. Hope you find it useful. To be fair, I’m not sure even Scots can decide where Scotland begins and ends, as I remember seeing a sign for Stirlingshire – “the Heart of Scotland”. I’d just left Perthshire, which advertised itself as “Scotland’s Heart”, and I look forward to a similar dispute over Scotland’s Armpit. No guessing, please.
You should be able to see where I lost time – just when I stopped. Even on the hills I was making up time against the minimum speed of 13.3 kph.
I needed another proper sleep on Sunday night, really, but more-or-less ended up riding through the night back to Darlo. I know, I should have taken up the offer to kip at Lindsay’s parents’ place, but I thought it was too late when I passed nearby (around 1 am), and I’d planned to call into the 24-hour McDonald’s at Alnwick. However, it turns out that it may be open 24 hours a day, but it’s not open at night.
It was too cold to sleep in the open, and I rolled back through town to the castle, as I’d noticed the inviting castle gatehouse, which was sheltered and lined with broad wooden boards. Perfect, I thought. I was just dozing off when the night janitor came out to chase me off. He said I couldn’t sleep there, as they got deliveries all through the night. I didn’t comment on the unlikelihood of an emergency delivery of Alnwick Castle-branded tat arriving at 2 am on a Monday morning. I sloped off and failed to sleep in a bus shelter round the corner, solaced myself with a coffee and the last of Sunday’s food from the 24-hour garage, and rode on.
I was still alert enough to emergency-brake and avoid a stag which staggered into my path in a Northumberland village in the witching hour. The herd were foraging through the bins and the bushes in the village – there must have been half a dozen of them. Some of the things you see at night are wonderful.
At Ulgham, after a stretch where I walked my bike as I was in danger of falling asleep on the thing, I remembered the church, and thought I’d try to kip in the porch. Well, what a mistake. I woke the crows in the churchyard, which disturbed the bats, and with all the cawing, squeaking, flapping, the creak of branches in the wind and the brush of wings against my face, I decided that this eerie graveyard wouldn’t be the best place to sleep. I’m not superstitious and not especially picky about where I sleep, but there are limits.
At the other end of Ulgham village, though, there’s a lovely enclosed bus shelter with a decent wooden bench. It rated at least 3 Spoons on the Spooner Scale, and possibly 4 (for location). A half hour’s doze was enough to see me through.
An early morning run through the Toon was entertaining, while I was still wearing all my layers. I caught up with a commuter in shorts and commented “Shorts – a bold choice”. He admitted that he was a bit caad.
The ride back to Darlo along the main roads of County Durham was a bit shite, but getting a train would have missed the point, which was to ride home from the Highlands. And the ride had been so full of wonderful moments that it was worth tolerating that bit. Riding alongside Loch Tay before dawn, the gorgeous run down Glen Almond to Perth, all of the ferries and coasts and island views and, of course, the evening ride up Glencoe. I still feel a bit homebound and I’m starting to get itchy feet for far-off lands and different shores, but this felt like a proper adventure.