Thursday, 15 June 2017

Gretna Green to John o'Groats

Gretna Green to John o'Groats

OK. So it's traditional to start at Land's End when you cycle to John o'Groats. But Cornwall is so far away. By comparison, doing the Scottish section of the route seemed quite manageable. But a long trip. 
Ten stages of about 50 miles.

So... a new bike, five weeks training on the streets of Edinburgh and I set off for the border.

Day 1 Gretna to Crawford in the Southern Uplands 

50 miles on Route 74

Gretna Green is a truly weird place. 

At 9am on a Thursday morning coachloads of Chinese tourists were celebrating 'romance' by taking photos of each other.

Tourists at Gretna Green

I set off at 10.15 and Gordon cycled with me the first 10 miles.

Gordon turns back after 10 miles

Then I was on my own. I felt very excited. And anxious. Could I really do this? Did I have enough socks? Would I be able to manage if I had a puncture? Was it a mistake to leave my book behind? 

It was the end of May and the hedgerows were full of blossom.

The first day the route went quite close to the M74 motorway for much of the way. I got sick of the noise of fast traffic. My first two refreshment stops were motorway service stations (Ananndale and Cairn Lodge). Strange to wheel the bike up to the services, but I soon got indifferent to people staring and felt proud of being on the bike.

Towards the end of the day the sun came out and I'd made it to the Southern Uplands. 

The B&B was superb! Lovely fruitcake on arrival. I felt very 'looked after'. Just what I needed. The other guest staying there was walking from John o'Groats to Lands End, a 9 week journey. I was glad to be on my bike.

B&B first night

Day 2 Southern Uplands to Glasgow 

59 miles on Route 74

The day began with climbing to the top of the Southern Uplands 'the southernmost and least populous of mainland Scotland's three major geographic areas.'

Today it was bright and sunny, but I got the feeling that most days it would be pretty bleak up here.

Sunshine! I cycled in shorts all day.  It was hot and bright. No wind. 

The best bit was cycling the quiet country lanes. 

Glasgow lay in front of me and I swooped down on the city. 

Actually I took a disastrous wrong turn on the outskirts of Glasgow and finished up doing an extra 10 miles I could have done without. 

Eventually I joined a great cycle path along the river Clyde to the city centre.

Day 3 Glasgow to Callander 

57 miles on Route 7

The next stage began at Glasgow's 'Squinty Bridge'. The sunshine had been replaced by grey skies.

Route 7 follows the river Clyde and then the Leven up to Loch Lomond. 

A passerby took this photo for me and then went off with a cheery 'see you again'. That west coast friendliness, I knew I wasn't in Edinburgh.

It rained briefly but quite hard at Loch Lomond and I sheltered in the bus shelter outside the co-op. 

After the rain everything looked very fresh and green and steam rose from wet roads. I cycled along minor roads to Aberfoyle. 

The last section of the day was a forest track dropping down past two lovely lochs, and I saw deer in the woods.

En route today I ate heaps: sandwiches, pies, soup, bacon sarnies, chocolate bars and pastries. That definitely helped me keep going. 
This wasn't going to be a trip where I lost weight.

Day 4 Callander to Aberfeldy 

46 miles on Route 7

Callander 'the Gateway to the Highlands'. At the B&B to my surprise the owner played the bagpipes at breakfast. 

I assume these people outside the church were making a film...

I cycled through woods on a former railway line to Killin. Then along the length of Loch Tay. I saw a red squirrel. It was very peaceful. 

Day 5 Aberfeldy to Kingussie 

68 miles on Route 7

The longest day's ride, leaving the lovely Trossachs and climbing over the Cairngorm Mountains.

I had by now developed 4 strategies to deal with the long days:

      1. Think of it as a series of 10 or 15 mile stages

      2. Eat at the end of each stage. Every half hour stop for a drink and to get off the saddle so your bum doesn't get too sore

      3. Pedal fairly fast

      4. If you get tired, listen to music as you cycle

And it worked. I really enjoyed the ride. 

There was a long climb through woods up to Dromochter Summit, which was windswept moorland.

Then a wonderful swooping downhill ride to Dalwhinnie where the valley opened out and the weather brightened. A nice guy at the Newtonmore bike shop adjusted my gears. 

That night I stayed in a hotel that was a bit ramshackle. My bike was being housed in the ballroom - currently a store room. I was in an attic. But the shared bathroom had a big bath and there was plenty of hot water, so I glowed with cleanliness. 

Day 6 Kingussie to Inverness 

61 miles on Route 7

No breakfast at the ramshackle hotel, so I cycled 12 miles through forest before breakfast at the Rothiemurchus Visitor Centre.

Ruthven Barracks

Beautiful forest

Pack horse bridge at Carrbridge

Slochd summit was the last serious climb before Inverness. At the pass there are three kinds of transport: trains, cars and bikes, sharing routes within a few feet of each other.

 Then it was another great downhill swooping ride via Moy to Inverness

Viaduct at Culloden

Clava cairns. Prehistoric cemetery near Inverness

Actually, I got lost in Inverness, a city that I lived in till 10 years ago. A network of bike paths has been introduced and I managed to get lost in them, trying to find a friend's house. Eventually I arrived at Janet's house, with extra miles on the clock from wandering the Inverness suburbs.

Day 7 Inverness to Cromarty 

30 miles on Route 1 (scenic summer varient)

After a day's rest with my friend Janet in Inverness I was back on the road. North over the Kessock Bridge to the Black Isle and the seaside town of Rosemarkie. Then along the spine of the Black Isle peninsula to Cromarty.

Leaving Inverness in sunshine

Inverness High Street, full of election posters.
Everyone was bracing themselves for a Tory landslide.

Green corn in the fertile fields of the Black Isle

Rosemarkie Pub, pity about the food

Rosemarkie beach

Arriving with the rain at the Cromarty B&B

Oil rigs are built and repaired at Nigg near here

Day 8 Cromarty to the Crask Inn 

55 miles on Route 1

Gordon kayaking the Beauly Firth
Gordon had come up to join me for his own highland adventures. 
You can read about his kayaking trip here

We both got the ferry north from Cromarty. And were lucky enough to see a large group of dolphins swimming around the firth.

Watching dolphins

Then I was off on my own, exploring a few Pictish sites on the way. 

Bonar Bridge, a small highland town. I arrived cold, tired, wet and hungry. The cafe and both pubs were closed on a Monday. The woman at the Spar shop kindly heated me up a pork pie in the microwave and gave me a cup of tea. 

The sun came out and everything sparkled and glistened.

The bridge at Bonar Bridge

War Memorial

Bonar Bridge Carnegie library, still operating

The route followed rivers and I saw two salmon leaping at Shin Falls.

Now I was heading north into remote highlands

A836. It must be the quietest A road in Britain

One of the beautiful stone bridges on the road north

Wet Wet Wet

Day 9 Crask Inn to Melvich 

50 Miles on Route 1

The Crask Inn is a legendary stop on the route. Very remote. The electricity comes from a generator and there's no phone signal. Almost all of its customers are travelling to John o'Groats or Land's End. They say no-one is ever turned away. It has recently been taken over by the Scottish Episcopal Church and is now run by a cheery minister and his wife. When I arrived I was told there would be prayers at 5 (optional) and food at 7.30. We spent a pleasant evening sharing a meal with the new landlord and landlady and another cyclist. 

I was excited because tomorrow I would reach the north coast of mainland Britain.

In the morning I set off in rain and was quickly soaked, despite my waterproof gear. Worse, I was heading into a strong NW wind. I was cycling through grand, dramatic, bleak countryside and I couldn't see it because of the cloud and rain. It was very frustrating. Took ages to get 23 miles to Tongue, and the first cafe. Then along the north coast, up and down big hills against the wind. A long hard day. 

The north coast

Day 10 Melvich to John o'Groats 

38 miles on Route 1

The last day and Gordon rode this section with me, and it was great to share it with him.  It wasn't too hilly, mostly flat, bleak and dreich. Which has a certain grandeur of its own.

Riding across the county boundary, from Sutherland to Caithness

Caithness stone, used as fencing in a county with few trees and lots of stones

Today was a ride of 2 halves. The first 20 miles were a bit of a slog in wind and rain. At Thurso we had a coffee stop at a nice bakery cafe. 

Then the rain cleared and there was a long downhill stretch and suddenly we were at John o'Groats.

I felt quite emotional. I'd done it. 

Now it was time for photos and to head home. 

The iconic signpost at the end of the route

John o'Groats Hotel and sculptures

Photos, coffee, lunch and it was all over. What next?

TOTAL 515 miles !!!

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