Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

Feel free to leave comments.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

By Klibreck and Altnaharra

Have you ever listened to the words of a song and had them so completely resonate within you that you think the song was written for you? I guess most of us will have heard some love song that reflected our feelings, but for me, there's another. It's a song about a book and the song tells of the feelings of the songwriter upon reading that book. The song and the book are both called The Summer Walkers. The book, by Timothy Neat, is about the hawkers, tinsmiths and other travelling workers who would gather themselves up each year and journey into Wester Ross and Sutherland. The song, by Runrig,  is so evocative that I bought the book and delved into it. Upon reading it, I found I was resurrecting old, long-buried memories of my own, of times when, as a child, I'd travel with my family through the highlands. I remembered we'd often see the travellers with their horses and carts on the narrow, single-track roads that were all that existed in the 1960's. My mum always called them the Tinkers. She'd look down her nose at them a bit - even though we weren't exactly what you'd call middle class. She'd call them "dirty" and make occasional references to them being somewhat less than trustworthy. 

Ironically, we were camping and travelling too and sometimes we'd spend a night or two at a quiet, unofficial campsite. My dad used to call some of these "common land". From reading The Summer Walkers I now realise that many of them were stances once used by the travelling people. The book highlights a lost culture. Although told mainly in the word of the travellers, the author had only the last remaining elderly folk to talk to and the practice has now disappeared with the customs and language almost completely lost. What we are left with today is the spectacle of "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding", nothing more than a gross distortion of what was a fine tradition.

But this is a biking blog and you're thinking "get on with it!" So, here I was with a couple of days free and a plan to make the most of the remaining longer days. I figured this would be my last opportunity to get right up north so I'd planned a nice circular route which would also be my first "century" (100 mile) ride this year. From Lairg, I'd head up to the north coast, then back down. My choice of direction was largely dictated by the prevailing wind, being an easterly. I recalled riding along the north coast last year into this same easterly and how tiring it had been, For this reason, I'd do the loop anti-clockwise.

The ride started well. Away at 9am there was little traffic. The views out to the West were hidden behind a blanket of grey cloud but a little watery sunshine was splashing my shadow onto the tarmac. It's a fairly steady climb from Lairg until past the Crask Inn where the munro of Ben Klibreck appears and then another fairly steady descent to the Inn at Altnaharra. The crosswind was strong but not overly so, but I knew I was up against it a little when I turned due East alongside Loch Naver. At least the road made some semblance of melding into the landscape so I'd get an occasional calm spell. Turning North made it slightly easier again and when I saw the end of the loch, I knew that I was at least trending downhill now to the coast.

One thing to be very careful of up this way is the lack of facilities - don't be expecting to stop for a coffee every few miles - so just before reaching my turn West I loaded up with a little food. This was just as well. Although I now had the wind behind me, the road did that great coastal thing of just climbing and descending every few miles. It was with some relief that I realised I was just a few miles from Tongue, whereupon the first heavy rain of the day hit me. I guess I should have thought myself lucky. After all, I seemed to have missed all the showers thundering through, but getting drenched just before my planned lunch stop seemed so unfair.

The bar in the Tongue Hotel was warm and cosy, with a proper fire going and I was glad to get in for a hot drink and a warm meal. The chicken pasta was great - although the portion was fairly prodigious. However, I knew that the shorter days and my lack of big rides this year meant I really had to get back on the road. I did have a slightly shorter return option available by heading down past Loch Loyal but I figured I'd stick to the original plan and headed out for Hope. This was another big climb and the wind seemed to have turned more south easterly so it wasn't helping me as mush as I'd have liked. The steep descent into Hope killed off most of the climbing effort with little reward and I then turned south onto the little unclassified road along Loch Hope. 

I'd been along here a couple of times in the past, though never to this very end of the road. The last time was for the lovely annular eclipse of May 2003 when a few mates and I had climbed Ben Hope to get the best possible view of the already-eclipsed sun as it rose. 

Annular Eclipse - 31st May 2003

That day had also seen me do me second ascent of Ben Klibreck and I recall it felt a bit novel to be on my second munro of the day and it still be breakfast time. 

Now, I was heading against an increasingly strong headwind, weaving my way across the best bits of tarmac and avoiding the often grassy strip down the centre of the road. On the way, I passed the broch at Dun Dornaigil and took a couple of photos under the very curious gaze of one of the local cows. 

Dun Dornaigil and the cloud streaming off Ben Hope

A couple of miles - and quite a bit of climbing - further on is the track leading to Gobernuisgach Lodge. This track cuts right across country and is on my "to do" list for 2013. Turning east again, I battled my way back towards Altnaharra, to be confronted by another downpour just as I reached the Inn. Without any second bidding I was indoors and drinking another coffee for a bit of warmth, passing some time with the locals and some visiting anglers. By the sounds of it, my day had at least been more successful than theirs. 

All that remained was the last big climb up past Klibreck again and then the long, steady 13 mile downhill almost all the way to Lairg where I encouraged my legs to spin a bit faster to get my days average speed up a bit. 

A long, hard day then. the wind had turned against me and my legs seemed a bit surprised at the amount of effort. However, the route was fabulous with the Sutherland landscape in the very first throes of Autumn and the roads almost deserted. On the way round my 104 mile loop, I'd passed so many of the place names contained in the song The Summer Walkers, though the "long winding shores of Loch Maree" will have to wait for another day!

Sometimes when you journey
Through the pages of a book
You're taken places beyond words
You let them speak the truth
Today I've opened treasures
That my eyes could scarce believe
They're the words of confirmation
Everything that makes me sing

Summer comes to Sutherland
And you bend the hazel bow
You harness up the ponies
And you head out on the road
By Kilbreck and Altnaharra
You journey to your rest
With the guiding might of Suliven
For the campsites of the West

And it's up by the Shin
And up by the 'Naver
And the long winding shores
Of Loch Maree
By Ben Hope and Ben Loyal
By Stack and by Arkle
The road reaches far
Now the summer is here

Now your words are not of sentiment
Shallow or untrue
But wells of living water
And from their clear deep sides we drew
The songs, the tin, the horses
This country's great and ancient wilds
Your faith in God and man and nature
And the keenness of your guile

So have you stood out on Coldbackie
At the time the sun goes down
Or up on the king of campsites
In the hills about Brae Tongue
That's when music filled your evenings
It's all so different now, this world
For you were the summer walkers
And the fishers of the pearl.

So as we close another chapter
That we label Archive Gold
Still the Conon flows each morning
And the dew falls from the sloe
But today you took me walking
Through a land that we have lost
While our children sit at websites
With no access to the cost

And it's up by the Shin
And up by the 'Naver
And the long winding shores
Of Loch Maree
By Ben Hope and Ben Loyal
By Stack and by Arkle
The road reaches far
Now the summer is here

Friday 21 September 2012

A Change of Pace

With the shoulder injury slowly healing, I've been gradually weaning myself back on to off-road riding. Starting with smoother trails - and on the fatbike - I had worked up to some rougher stuff in the Pentlands and then took the Santa Cruz Blur out for a spin. Everything seemed to be fine, so I'd decided I'd pop down to Glentress today for a change of scenery. 

I got up, got packed and organised and then sort of stalled. No matter what I did, I just couldn't get that final bit of impetus to get me out of the door. Another cup of coffee and a brief glance out the window confirmed that the weather was still pretty much perfect and, eventually, I could think of no reason not to head off. And then things got a bit weird....

As I was driving down the A703, I realised that I was actually quite nervous and anxious. This took me aback somewhat. After all, I was only heading down to ride a bike. Then I thought about it a bit more and tried to work out what was going on. 

I recalled that my last visit to a trail centre had been Laggan, months ago. I'd not really enjoyed it. My riding was all over the place and the bike felt all strange. The latter, I discovered, was due to a snapped pivot bolt. So, maybe I was a bit nervous about having a similar experience? Then it hit me. At a trail centre, the riding is really all about getting down the hill quickly. The man-made obstacles are designed to stretch and challenge you and, even without the pressure of following riders, you can't really just bimble along - yet that's what I'd mostly been doing recently. 

There's nothing much wrong with bimbling. Attention can be focussed internally - on one's own feelings and thoughts - or you have time to take in your surroundings. Either way, the riding is very much a secondary activity. Now, I was about to change all of that and I guess I wasn't sure what to expect.

As it turned out, everything was just fine. I managed another short delay at the Peel Cafe, grabbing a roll and coffee, but once I was under way I just settled into the different vibe that the trail centre provides. The handling issues I'd experienced at Laggan had all gone and I felt I was actually hitting some of the rougher stuff as well as I ever had (I'll never be quick). When I did reach the car park again, I was both energised and relieved. I just need to make sure I don't leave it as long before my next visit.

Monday 17 September 2012

Petrichor Summer

So. Autumn is almost upon us and we've mostly been bemoaning the lack of a summer. It certainly seems like we've had it wet, cool and windy. But there have been days, short spells when it almost seemed like a "proper" summer was going to arrive. Back in March there was that glorious week and then we had a great weekend in Aviemore for the packrafting. It all seemed so promising....

...much like my Summer has been. Having decided not to commit to any events this year, my diary was clear to be flitting around, especially once my daughters exams were out of the way and the school holidays had arrived. 

It all started so well. My tour around the West Coast was soon followed up by a long-awaited chance to ride in Harris and then a week camping with Mim - and that's what did it. Sometime during a day of paddling on Loch an Eilean and Loch Morlich, or in the loading and unloading of the kayak, I strained something in my shoulder and a couple of sleepless, painful nights ensued. Frustratingly, despite painkillers and physio, the pain is still only slowly subsiding and my ability to get comfortable on a bike has been hampered with any severe jarring being completely out of the question. 

Activities since mid-July have therefore been somewhat limited but I thought it was worth a quick summary in any case.

Ruling out cycling just meant more of an excuse to get out walking so Mim and I headed up to the Clachaig in Glencoe for a couple of nights. We've looked at staying here a few times but it's invariably booked. What I did find surprising - and it was most noticeable during breakfast - was the clientèle. Very few folk seemed to be of the hillwalking/outdoor fraternity and we had lots of families and older couples. For sure, it's not exactly budget accommodation these days, but it still seemed a bit out of place.

On the way up, we bagged Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh. Mim was particularly pleased at doing the former as the long views of it and path round the bottom were still fresh in her memory from doing the West Highland Way. From the summit, we were able to pick up long stretches of the WHW both South - towards Ben Lomond - and North to Ben Nevis and it gives a great perspective on the sort of distances travelled each day when you can see it all laid out before you. 

Our second day was a bit overcast and dull looking so we took ourselves out to Ardnamurchan for a drive. I enjoyed retracing some of my recent road bike miles and pointing out some of the highlights to Mim. I actually surprised myself at the steepness and length of some of the hills, thinking that I'd not really noticed them so much when cycling. 

Our return home on day 3 was fitted around a trip to the Lost Valley (Coire Gabhail) in Glencoe. This was another first for Mim. The last time we'd tried this the river was a lot higher and we ended up on some very dodgy scree. No such problems this time once we'd navigated our way across the diversion which avoided the bridge that was being repaired. This turned out to be another lovely day - though it was, once again, raining when we got home.
The Lost Valley - Glencoe

Lake District
As if to rub salt in the wound of my sore shoulder a stag weekend down in Keswick was tom include some Ghyll Scrambling. Now, normally I'd have been all over that but I judged that pulling/being pulled by that arm was likely to result in a great deal of pain. As a result, I opted to take the Amazon down with me and to do some light on-off-roading by making use of NCN71, the C2C route.

The drive down was uneventful enough and the hostel at Denton House was basic, but clean and well sorted. Dumping all our gear and heading to the pub for food was first on our "to do" list and thankfully they were still serving dinner. I say thankfully, in actual fact the food was at te very poor end of "pub standard", even the portions were a bit meagre. At least the chips were fairly good and I availed myself of whatever anyone else deemed they didn't want. The Scotch selection was also a bit meagre, but we sampled some of that anyway and headed back to our dorm to lay into the Jura and the excellent Balvenie. I can't recall quite when we eventually turned the lights off, but I knew even then that I hadn't had the best preparation for a ride the next day. 

As it turned out, I was still fairly chipper in the morning and after a bit of prison-style breakfast I headed off on the bike and into Keswick proper. After a brief stop at a local bike shop for a multi-tool (something I'd forgotten to bring), I found NCN71 and headed off on some quiet roads. If it had stayed like that, all would have been fine, but alongside Bassenthwaite Lake the track turned into a proper "forest road" that had the Marathon tyres scrabbling for grip. I had a couple of dodgy moments with the back wheel stepping out before I opted for a bit of pushing up and through the MTB trails of Whinlatter. Back on the roads again, I made decent time all the way to the old railway line - now cycle path - taking my into Whitehaven. The only real issue I'd had up to now was the large number of C2C cyclists heading towards me and their often dodgy road-sense. The cycle path took a nice line and didn't seem to deviate in the manner that many do, so I was soon in Whitehaven for a spot of lunch, satisfied that I was now half way around my circuit. What's more, it had stayed dry, with only a cold breeze taking the slight edge off things.

Post-lunch, I located the coastal track which headed towards Workington - also confusingly NCN71 and was soon on quiet roads again to Cockermouth. This was where I had my only navigational problem of the day, with the Sustrans route weaving its way through the town. That would have been bad enough, but one section was closed and with no diversion marked I had to improvise a little. No matter - I was soon under way with the hills before me and a bit of a climb to get back to Keswick. Again, the Sustrans way of doing things caught me out a little and the small, single-track road I was on petered out at a gate. The waymarking was clear enough, I'd simply have to ride over a field. 
Yep - that's the route
That turned out to be fine but when the route entered the forest above Bassenthwaite Lake again I'd have been a lot happier on a mountain bike. Whoever thought of sending road bikes along here needs some serious talking to. Playing the safety-first card again and mindful of the stress to which I was subjecting my wounded shoulder I again opted to walk. Now, it's bad enough having to push up-hill, but walking a bike downhill just isn't the done thing!

All in all, a mostly great experience of a Sustrans route and that's a little surprising to me having issues with some more local ones I know. Perhaps that's just it - as a tourist the routes work really well. The roads are quieter and there are few navigation difficulties with the very clearly marked NCN signs removing the need to refer to map and GPS. It certainly showed that my concerns about Lake District roads being overly busy were mostly unfounded and, based on my experiences, I'd even consider the whole English C2C at some point.