Monday, July 2, 2012


The ferry to Hoy went from Stromness at the other end of the main island and the bus driver was happy to take my bike on board, me being weary of unnecessary cycling but expecting to need my bike to get across Hoy. I didn’t expect to meet anyone else going there just to get to the Old Man of Hoy.
The Tourist Information staff in both Kirkwall and Stromness had no information on local climbing guides, but as I boarded the ferry one of them rushed onto the ferry with the business card of the local climbing guide. Alas he did not answer my repeated calls, text messages or emails that day or the following and I had no information on other local guides.
I was surprised to find a dozen or so tourists on board the ferry including four other cyclists with their bikes all of whom were also heading for the other side of the island too. Also to my surprise there was a local minibus on which I’d had no previous . Nevertheless it was only a half hour cycle to Rackwick Bay, the start of the path to the Old Man of Hoy.
Once at the Old Man I was again surprised to find so many people already there.
I set off in search of a path down to the base of the sea stack and eventually found a steep difficult path clearly only used by climbers.
I’d asked a couple to use my camera to take a photo of me climbing the lower part of the sea stack, and they kindly agreed but saying they didn’t know how long it would take me to find a path down nor how long they’d be there so all being well they’d take photos of me climbing (and/or falling) and email them to me.
The climb looked easy enough (there being an E1 route) and given the proper climbing gear, and a climbing partner, neither of which I had. Nevertheless I decided to climb the first five meters to at least know I’d climbed ‘on’ the sea stack, if not all the way to the top. 

The sea stack looked like it would still be there for a future better planned climb with guide and climbing gear.

On the way back I got chatting to a couple in their 50s who had semi-retired to Orkney from England, and who were restoring an old house. They’d got married a couple of years previously on the headland overlooking the sea stack and returned from time to time to celebrate. Both were well educated semi retired and ‘culture vultures’ but neither of them concerned with the isolation of living so far up north. They said they both had lots of reading to catch up on.
Later back at the YHA I got chatting to a couple holidaying with their teenage daughters, all four riding two tandems around the islands, a regular form of holiday transport for them. It soon emerged the father had studied at Sheffield a decade after me, and had learned to climb there and later climbed in several countries so we had lots to discuss regarding the sea stack climb.

Orkney Mainland

After pondering how to get back south (such had my planning skills come to), almost on the spur of the moment I decided to take the twice daily ferry that was about to leave John O’Groats north to Orkney. To finish at the Old Man of Hoy had after all been my original journey’s end before weariness set in.
In my panic to get aboard the soon departing ferry I left behind in the kiosk all the John O’Groats postcards I’d just purchased to send to family friends and well wishers.
As I approached the ferry one of the last passengers to get off was a man of weary appearance of my own age pushing a heavily laden touring bike. My first thought was ‘God, that that’s how I must look.’ He greeted me in a cheery Australian accent and assured me the trip was worth the effort. After pondering what reason he may have to lie to a stranger I felt reassured and boarded.
A group of dangerous aged ladies on the ferry (they were the only other passengers so I was at their mercy) urged me to join them on the ‘package deal’ which included a ‘Highlights Tour of the Orkney ‘mainland.’ I was easily persuaded by the thought of a whole day in a warm dry bus and the ferry staff were happy to upgrade my ticket even on the high seas. I knew my bike would be happy for a day off too and in good care.
The tour included a visit to:
  • Skara Brae Neolithic village cocooned by sand for 4000 years until a fierce storm in 1850;
  • Stenness stone circle
  • Scapa Flow – graveyard of the scuttled entire German WW1 fleet.
  • The Churchill Barriers connecting the islands and thus closing the approaches to Scapa Flow in WW2 after the loss of HMS Royal Oak to a German submarine.
  • Italian POW chapel
It also included everything else the driver could think of telling us about the island including its awful winters, mid-summer nights that only lasted a couple of hours, and Orkney’s association more with Norway than Scotland.
With so much to see of interest at the end of the earth I decided to stay overnight given the good prospects of getting to Hoy the next day. The bus driver kindly dropped me back at the ferry terminal to pick up my bike and transport it and me back to the nearest town, leaving me to cycle the rest of the way into the main town of Kirkwall and onto the local but basic Youth Hostel.
In spite of its initial bleak appearance Kirkwall, Orkneys capital is home to a lovely cathedral, the northernmost renaissance palace, and the world famous young folkies the ‘Wriggley Sisters’ and their school of music and venue ‘The Reel.’ Indeed a poetry and fiddle evening was in full swing but I was not, just weary and hungry.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

John O’Groats

I got up at 6am planning to set the southward bound team a good example but they all looked so comfortable asleep I returned to my bed. When I woke again at 7am they’d gone, so too even Moag and Shannon. I was shocked into action.
I’d been told it was all hills out of Helmsdale until Wick. Though once armed with this information the hills don’t seem so bad, specially at the start of the day with still fond memories of a nice breakfast.
Alas it was raining quite hard and appropriately I then came across the signs to the ‘Clearance Village’ just off the road. The ruins were as forlorn as the weather.
Later I stopped at the Clan Gunn museum, where I briefly trailed puddles through exhibits. Clan Gunn is of Viking origin it seems. A mixed bunch the Scots.

Shortly after I spotted two familiar bikes at a tea shop to find Moag & Shannon tucking into a (very early to my mind) morning tea. Moag is already planning repeat End to End cycle trip next year. Oddly she says she does her ‘admin’ in the morning and often arrives at her booked accommodation in the dark after a tour of the nearby pubs. I was impressed. Then I ran into them again in Wick - about to have lunch, which for me was 2 slices if haggis eaten as I cycled.

The start of the day was marked by some long climbs and equally long downhill runs, one of which was so steep and windy I was glad I’d not disconnected the troublesome front brake and persevered and fixed it.
As the day wore on the rain increased and so did the headwinds and the landscape presented more and more dreary landscapes and ruined crofts. I decided to wind up the MP3 player and play my favourite restorative Irish jigs and reels and Battlefield Band tracks. I saved one of my other favourite tracks for the downhill into John O’Groats. The theme tune to the movie ‘Dances with Wolves.’ It brought tears to my eyes for some reason.
North of Wick the traffic eased but the road had one more trick up its sleeve which was a long haul up to the hill overlooking John O’Groats and the Orkney Isles. But then the sun came out and the skies cleared, just for me.

Shortly after I arrived at the famous sign for photos a swarm of (supported) cyclists arrived from Land End. Then numerous other individuals and pairs. Then Jez and Sarah, then Moag and Shannon. So we all took photos of one another among the throng of those other ‘End to Enders’ either leaving or arriving.

I was interested to see there were no End to End walkers the whole time I lingered there chatting.
Just as I was leaving the RAF team arrived and all waved me a greeting. We’d met up before and they’d commented on my 'stealth' bike. I wondered how I’d beaten them from just north of Glasgow until they explained. As well as cycling LEJOG, en route they’d also climbed the ‘Three Peaks’ (Snowdon, Skafell Pike, and Ben Nevis) and swum across the Lochs. OK I skipped Snowdon and the Lochs. And they said the woman in their team had slowed them down a bit!


Just as I was navigating my way out of Inverness I spotted Jez and Sarah (from Sheffield it later emerged) on their bikes at an intersection pondering the same problem. A local man on a bike stopped and amusedly gave us good directions, including via a bike shop for me to buy another spare gear cable (just in case). He tailed us knowing we’d get it wrong and ended up escorting us on his bike out of the city.

Jez shared with me his climbing background around Sheffield and everywhere else overseas that mattered. He even knew Jim Curren, author of the book ‘;Middle Aged Mountaineer’ and assured me Jim was an amusing fellow.

Jez and Sarah were planning on taking three days to get to John O’Groats via an inland route, and I was planning on taking two days straight up the East Coast, so after morning tea together I sped off ahead.

The journey along the A9 was unmemorable apart from the heavy traffic and head wind. The only breaks in the bleak countryside were the close up views of the oil rigs ‘roosting’ and a notice for the Tain pipe band planning on performing on the street on Saturday night. I was sorry to have to miss that, the first real sign of Scottish culture I’d come across.
I reached the Helmsdale Youth Hotel to find it mostly empty but so clean and cosy with a wood fire going burning. After foraging though town for food supplies I returned to the hostel followed by mother and daughter End to End cycle team Maog and Shannon. Mother had been dragging daughter Shannon around the local pubs to sample their whiskies before settling in to the Hostel for the night.  Maog confessed to having had such a bad day of rain and delays in recent days they’d decided to take the train for a bit to make up time. I promised them I wouldn’t tell anyone.
As I sat outside doing some ‘preventative maintenance’ to my bike (cleaning and oiling brake and gear cables) the midges attacked. So I decamped with bike to the hostel common room. Just as I did four more cyclists arrived for the night and they were heading south. I spent the evening alternating between bike repairs and listening to their adventures.
One of the party agreed there was little Scottish Heritage left to see, Scotland having been always so poor most buildings had been poorly built and not survived. What a pity though he did'nt mention Dunrobin Castle just north of Helmsdale and on my route. I passed it by thinking I was pressed for time. Being clan Sutherland for all I know I could have a claim on the place, which is one of the most impressive Scottish castles I’d seen (in the brochures at least).
When I put my bike to bed in the bike shed I noticed it was 11:30pm and still light.


The following morning at breakfast in the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel I got chatting to a German my age who’d been climbing all the Munros since the 70s. H'ed dome most of the 280 odd and I wondered he didn’t have enough peaks to amuse himself with in Barvaria.
I also got chatting to a French woman walking the West Highland Way alone, camping here and there in spite of the midges.
As I left (in the rain) I finally saw the North Face of Ben Nevis fleetingly…
My cycle along the A92 was not a pleasant one, with a strong headwind, rain, heavy traffic, a rough road surface and no hard shoulders. All the motorists were polite nevertheless and gave me space.
By the time I recfhed Fort Augustus I’d had enough and decided to follow the Caledonian Canal. Alas it turned out to be pot holed and gritty and as I later discovered caused me brake and gear cable problems.

The locks at Fort Augustus we interesting though, connecting the two Lochs. A large Sydney registered yacht was passing through with a large audience on the canalside. I presume ocean going yachts are able to enter the western firths, pass through the Lochs and exit into the North Sea. 

After Fort Augustus I took to the B roads on the eastern side of Loch Ness. I didn’t realise the first 10km was an unrelenting incline. The gearshift started to groan and I was about to turn round back to Fort Augustus (where I had better options if my gear problem proved serious).  I was even starting to look back to the A82’s ‘matter-of-factness’ with fondness. Just then I summited to find three End to Enders on bikes heading south who cheerily assured me I was over the top and that they’d had enough of the A82 too.
After that it was hills all the way alongside Loch Ness and all the way into Inverness amidst the rain and gloom.
As I entered Inverness town centre I stopped at a Backpacker Hostel to ask directions to the YHA. The Hostel Manage was really friendly, printed out detailed directions. It seemed the YHA was uphill some way out of town. In spite of my ‘no more backpacker hostels’ rule, my weariness got the better of me and there I stayed, too mentally and physically exhausted to go any further.

Ben & Glen Nevis

Today I climbed my first Munro – the highest one – Ben Nevis.
I hadn’t intended to – in fact I hadn’t even intended to stay in Fort William another day except the day dawned gloomy and rainy and I was saddle sore and just didn’t feel like the long haul to Inverness this day.
Interestingly two lads in my hostel dorm were from the Basque country and were cycling back to there from Thurso on the north coast of Scotland. Other than that I was relieved to leave the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ Backpackers hostel.
I decided to decamp to the YHA in Glen Nevis to reconnoitre the paths to Ben Nevis – the tourist route and the North Face climbing route. At 12:30pm I considered it far too late in the day to set off (plus I wanted to save it for another time in nice weather with me bagpipes to play on the top) except a young German lad just coming down to the start said he’d just done it in 4 hours not including 10 minutes at the summit so I was off. The Information Centre had told me 7 hours.

It was an easy climb – mostly rock stairway and I ran the flatter parts thinking I must be the last person ascending this day. There were no views the entire trip except mist and the odd patch of snow. But the view from the top of the rugged North Face was certainly thought provoking. As I reached the summit I caught up with what I thought were the last stragglers of the day and the summit was quite busy.

After the usual photo takes I lingered to figure out how to get the top off my new thermos flask and the hot coffee within but it defeated me, highly trained Engineer that I am. A rock fixed it. When I looked round I was there alone so I decided to hurry back and catch up with the days last stragglers, safety conscious as I am.
As I sprinted past the last stragglers, pushing them aside (joke) to get up and down within the 4 hour challenge I was amazed to find people still coming up, some in light gear and no backpacks starting as late as 4:30pm.
Back in town in hunt of some chips I encountered a lovely friendly young couple cycling John O’Groats to Lands End. They were camping wild, on a borrowed tandem, and at 6pm and in the rain, were still hoping to make Glencoe, up-hill and at least 2 hours distant. They were clearly in love. I expect it would have passed by the time they got to Lands End.
Back at the YHA I got chatting to Ralf and Ina from Dresden in the old East Germany where still nobody seems to speak English. I was glad to use my German again but after a while realised poor old Ralf had had no one but his wife to speak to for the last couple of weeks and here I was trying still at 11pm to write up my blog.
And still the midges have left me alone. Saving me perhaps till later…

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Balloch to Fort William

The bike’s old chain broke early in the morning but I fixed it properly this time. I now know that I have to buy a new rear gear set before I fit the new chain (otherwise it jumps the old cogs) alas there were none of the rear gear set range I wanted to be had in Carlisle. Amazing that I wore out a rear gear set since cycling up from Barcelona.

When I stopped for a coffee there were Jason and Paul on their light road bikes and small backpacks cycling LEJOG in 11 days for charity. We rode together much of the day leap frogging each other when one or other of us stopped for different reasons. They caught up with me just as I was coming into Fort William in the pouring rain but (they) still in high spirits.

I was astonished to find Scotland so empty. Between Balloch and Fort William there are few towns - all of them tiny. No fields, no people no cottages no livestock. Those Lairds who cleared the glens certainly didn’t fuck around!


The mountains (sorry Munros) around Glencoe were just spectacular and obviously popular walks. Scottish mountains have a charm of their own – quite unlike Lake District fells and Swiss peaks. They are just there right in front of you and so close up.

The road traffic wasn’t so bad and variable and all motorists very well behaved towards cyclists.
Much of the day I had the West Highland Way in sight one way or another and indeed part of it is a cycle path. I’m now glad I cycled this section, in one day, which would have taken me five days walking, with sparse accommodation and midges. I saw a few walkers and my heart went out to them later in the day when the rain hit.

At one stage I was lured off the main road to an Information centre, and took a footpath back to the road by mistake. In doing so I stumbled across the site of the Glencoe Massacre.

I chose not to use the Glen Nevis YHA because it was too far out of town / off my route and I was soaked through and tired and chose the town Backpacker Hostel instead. A group of five Germans arrived at the hostel late in the day clad in serious wet weather gear (they all looked like giant walking condoms with transparent waterproofs that covered them and their backpacks from head to toe) and glad it was all over for them, especially the camping among the midges.
Yet in spite of all the warnings about ferocious Scottish midges none have come near me.