From lush green countryside and empty roads, to built up cityscapes and jammed motorways / lochside A roads. Our 560 mile journey home was full of variety. Stopping off at Inveraray Castle, a pile dating back to the 1740s , you have to admire the sheer wealth and ambition (arrogance of nobility?) on show to construct such gems and gardens. Avoiding the soup on offer, we pushed on to Bill Neil Charlie and Sam’s welcome hospitality in Cartmel.
An evening walk up the limestone pavement of Hampsfell gave glorious views over Morecambe Bay. The wee building at the top is well worth looking out for. ” The Hospice was built in 1834 (or 1846) by the Reverend Thomas Remington, Vicar of Cartmel from 1835-1854 . He built it as a shelter for wanderers over the fell, and as a thank offering for all the beauty he had seen there on his daily climb up to the summit from his home at Aynsome in the Cartmel Valley.”
Before leaving to join the traffic jammed M6, Holker Hall showed off the wealth of the Cavendish family. Built about the same period as Inveraray Castle, there were similarities in both ambition and interior designs. Still owned and lived in by descendants of the original family, ( good finances there to minimise death duties) both places feel less stuffy and restricted than many National Trust properties. The trees at Holker are worth a hug, and the see-saw is a must.
“Ah, you’ll be the two Mr McConnell phoned about last night. You’ll be fine”. Said the man outside the shop in Glen Elg as we set off. And there he was 2 miles later helping to set up the ferry. Billed as the last turntable ferry in the world. The vessel was originally built in 1969 for the Ballachulish crossing, we were informed by another rather posh speaking person who has arrived. He was wearing unused working gloves. Ignoring the greeting from the two workers of “well isn’t it nice to se
e you, we don’t see you often”, he introduced himself as one of the Directors of the community trust behind the venture. I was more focused on a) the dog who was barking at the seals who were teasing him; b) the thought that I must have been on the ferry in its original setting before the bridge was built. It is rather special and here’s hoping it continues to succeed.
The next distraction was going up the other side on Skye. 300m up in 3 miles helped the breakfast digest quickly. Luckily it was only gently raining, the strong breeze waiting for the main road to Armadale.
More relaxed in the knowledge we’d time for a tea stop, we pulled into a rather swish country house on the off chance they’d indulge two cyclists. Half expecting to be shown the door, we were welcomed in, and replenished calories with scones, cream and jam. Meantime they phoned to check the ferry was running ok for us. Pleasantly surprised with the bill, we left picking up a leaflet for future reference. Reference only: it’s £450 pppn.
Waiting to get off the ferry we exchanged pleasantries with a German couple. They were admiring their engineering of our Rohloff hubs: I was admiring our engineering of their E-type Jag. We’re going to miss the common market!
Soon the second leg of the train journey to Oban: just got to pay attention and not get on the half that goes to Fort William. The first leg, on the last mainland line built in the UK is just a stunning ride as it cuts its way across the hills. The Glenfinnan viaduct is the most well known bit of this line: the rest is none too bad neither.
Retracing our steps along Glen Shieldaig, Loch Carron’s deep waters are soon alongside us. It’s easy to be fooled by maps. The road runs alongside the loch and a cursory glance will give the impression “that must be flat”. The railway line takes the flat route – immediately adjacent the water. The road is some 20m inland and goes up, down a wee bit, then up. Repeat.
Eilan Donan was wearing its tourist honey trap colours well today, the sunny day of the week. Then along Loch Shiel to Shiel Bridge. I first travelled these roads in the early 1970s….some of the viaducts and bridges didn’t exist then. Either long detours or ferries. Not that I remember of course, being very young then. The Belgium Antique Car tour, including the impeccable lh drive open top Morris Minor, were probably brand spanking new then.
We take the euphemistically known “old Military Road” to Glen Elg. Steep and vertiginous on one side – and a lovely sweep down to the sea on the other. On the way up, the Five Sisters of Kintail were enjoying the sunshine, as were the feral goats meandering over the road. Its original destination stands as romantic ruins. Berneray Barracks was used for some 80 years – and ruined for over 200.
I wonder if many of the soldiers ventured up Gleann Beag to look at the 2000 year old fortification. The brochs, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan, really give the impression of the original scale and design of these buildings.
Today our blood pressure was set racing by two things. The first was the ascent(s). The second was the sign saying “Ferry Closed”. We’re relying on this tomorrow to get to Skye – to get to Mallaig – to get to Oban. A very kind local in the Glenelg Inn called his pal Donovan who reassures he’s got the spare part and he’ll be waiting for us tomorrow…..
The pass of the cattle – a short cut to Applecross is now a destination in its own right. We made a circuit of it from Shieldaig, going anticlockwise around the peninsular. The plan was to keep our options open as the weather forecast varied from bad to worse. Why cycle up a steep hill to peak in mist and rain. Only for the foolhardy….
The coast road is an absolute delight and is probably overlooked in the shadow of its mountainous cousin. Good cycling (severe ups and downs with the rapid crunching of gears), passing hamlets and isolated bays. Then the weather turned wet. This encouraged us to stop for a warming soup in Applecross Walled Garden potting shed. Just before that, we’d met what must be a cousin of the landlady at Kinlochewe – avoid the Applecross Heritage Centre. “did you just cycle down that path? and if you are around tomorrow there’s a funeral going on so mind and be respectful”. Biting my tongue to save the response “no we just landed by hovercraft and you must be looking forward to your funeral”, the reflection is that you only tend to comment on the pillocks you meet: the vast majority of people are great.
The same goes for the drivers who accompanied and passed us on the single track ascent and descent. What great patience most of them showed in waiting in passing places and giving space. Near the summit visibility was about 10m and a howling gale. Freezing on the way down, a very welcome cake stop in the friendly Bealach cafe provided welcome resuscitation.
I suspect this is a place which is unique in each season and weather condition. The quality of the light is great.
The grey day was so much better than forecast. Glen Torridon hangs above and around us as we do a dance with the numerous campervans navigating the single track road. Both the visitor centres we go into – Ben Eighe and Torridon – are very informative yet strangely are shut on busy days.
A day short on distance and long in memories. People are not really significant at this scale – the geology students bashing lumps out the Torridonian sandstone will visit for generations to come.
Today’s learning? The Scots Pine in this area – remnants of the Caledonian Forest – are 400+years old and are unique to the area. They are closely related to Southern Europe pine trees: the rest of Scottish pines are more related to Northern Europe pines. So replanting has to be with local seeds. Useless fact – the mussel ropes in the loch farm mussels by allowing them to grow off the bottom of the loch – where they’d be eaten by star fish.
Tonight we watch the forecast come and go – is the Applecross circuit on or off?
A tour of Lews Castle in Stornoway helps give an understanding to the money Victorian traders made. A few weeks ago we were in Tyntesfield – built by the richest commoner in England on money made in trading guano. Today it was the Chinese opium trade of James Matheson which funded the building of this fine pile. That was after he’d bought the Isle of Lewis for what would now be £44million and a further £25million on improvements to the island’s infrastructure. Reopened last year after being closed for 25 years, it is a fine pile. The museum has some of the Lewis chessmen on show – though it was a bit disappointing to learn they are actually Norwegian and probably stolen. The audio visual show of the island landscapes keeps you transfixed for 10 mindful minutes.
Dodging the end stragglers of the local half-marathon (a hot day for the 200 participants who had probably spent weeks training in blizzard and monsoon conditions), we navigated back to the mainland on a rather swish new ferry.
Leaving Ullapool the next day, we took the main roads to Kinlochewe. Not one, not one, cafe open for 46 miles. No wonder the midges fed hungrily on us when the rain stopped. Faster roads to cycle on, the scenery also kept the mind busy. Fine passes, sweeping moorland, more sparsely populated than the Hebrides. Taking in the Achnasheen Terraces (“These flat topped features look artificial, but are in fact glacial outwash deltas that have been here for 10,000 years or more”), we swooped down into Kinlochewe. The arrival of the Torridon Sandstone and the magnificent Ben Eighe, gave us the fortitude to tackle the landlady’s unique interpretation of hospitality. We quietly took our shoes off so we didn’t wear out her carpet. TV in room? You’ll be wanting hot water too no doubt!
Ah, the bustling metropolis of Stornoway. Its 8000 population is about 30% of the island’s total. Traffic congestion on the high street, traffic lights, roundabouts. It has it all.
Cycling south in a strong headwind and (for us) intense sun meant we toasted slowly and evenly. No trees and open moorland helped this no-end. So diversions kept us cool. The first took in a community museum which held the Racal Decca [radar] positioning kit which once occupied (until 2000) the BnB we stayed in last night before GPS made it redundant. The 2nd was to stand in the shade of Scotland’s tallest standing stone – just over 6 metres. Then for a posh cup of coffee at an art gallery. Well I say posh – they weighed the coffee beans and then timed the brewing time. Good, not too expensive, but 6 minutes is too long to wait. Just add water and stir!
I liked the political posters for the Scottish Christian Party. They miss an opportunity by not adding the slogan “Vote for us: put your cross in the box”.
Stornaway we’ll explore tomorrow. Eaglais Na H-Aoidhe is an evocative church ruin dating back to 13C. The burial ground of many of the local clan chiefs is now within land now owned by the Leverhulmes. How dynasties change. Well maybe not that much – the simple and effective cairn to the late 19C land protests (“Aignish is hugely important in the context of the history of Scottish land reform following the Aignish Riot of January 1888. This took place in the aftermath of land agitation following the groundbreaking legal victory of the Bernera Riot of 1874 and the Park deer raid of 1887. It was part of the Crofters War and involved a standoff between the local landless peasantry and the heavily armed marines that were drafted in.”) is a reminder of the importance of the common people and the rights they had and have to fight for.
Dodging the markers going up for tomorrow’s half-marathon ( the expected 200 runners will be hoping for cooler weather no doubt), we compete with the ladies of Stornaway who are partying where we are staying. It’s all happening…..