Scotland Part 1: The Snowy Highlands (Wick to Kinclochewe 13/11/17-23/11/17)

When you get out the airport in Edinburgh there’s a big Bank of Scotland sign that says ‘There’s no place like home’. Too bloody right. Home sweet home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, Scotland is not home for me but it is still Britain and Edinburgh is a familiar city. I stayed with my friends Raleigh and Izzy, who picked me up from the airport and whisked me home in time for Shepherd’s Pie for tea. What a perfect welcome back to the UK!
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People keep saying to me stuff like: “it’s going to be some weird to be back”, or “doesn’t it feel strange to be cycling in the UK now?” but it does not feel odd at all. I’m sure that stopping in London will be weird but for now it is just business as usual. I have switched my environments millions of times before, this one is just a little more familiar. There was work to be done as there always is: re-assemble the bicycle, fix & repair some dodgy parts, go shopping or the bit n bobs needed and plan for the next election of riding.

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Scotland: home to the world’s worst instrument?

Edinburgh is a lovely city but as I still hold a grudge against the place because the university here rejected me. I will say that it is just as bleak as it is charming. When the grey clouds block out any blue skies it is just as miserable as anywhere in Britain on a November day.
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Having visited the city before I wasn’t desperate to go exploring. I do go for a cycle up to the caste and on the way home I inadvertently cycled past the Picture House where I played a gig a few years ago with my old band Purple Emperors. Sadly the venue has since closed and is now a Wetherpoons pub. I locked up my bike an nipped inside for a quick pint. At this point I should probably lament the loss of a cultural hub and music venue but I must confess to a secret love of Spoons. I’m not sure there is anything I have missed more in the UK than those awful pubs other than, perhaps, my family.

It turns out that all the things I have missed most about British culture are the cheapest and least sophisticated things. Stuff like Wetherspoons, Greggs and supermarket meal deals. That afternoon I treated myself to both a Tesco’s lunch and a Greggs steak bake. Divine.

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Inverness Castle

It was the small things that made me excited. Seeing the shops full of familiar stuff and walking past red telephone boxes was enough for me. Everywhere I looked I saw things that made me happy to be back. Even just looking down. Have you ever noticed the British in-ability to get our paving slabs in the same direction? Or the fact that our streets are covered in at least ten times more chewing gum than any other country?

I have never taken my bicycle on a train before and I was surprised how easy it was on the journey up to Inverness. The only inconvenience was a slightly heated disagreement between myself and the platform attendant over the definition of ‘unattended’ after I told him off for man handling my bicycle and he scolded me for leaving it alone. (I was sitting on a bench across the hall).
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I’d had almost a week off the bike by the time I reached Inverness so went for spin to Loch Ness. I didn’t spot the monster but I did have a lively cycle through autumn-coloured trees on my way to the loch. I missed having trees around in Iceland and the Faroe Islands.  
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From Inverness I continued north on the train, as far as Wick, right up in the very North East of Scotland. It was a beautiful day. Mountains loomed to the left of the train and the sun rose over sea and filtered in through the the carriage windows.
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I wish I could use such flowery language to describe the political landscape in this country but I’m afraid that won’t be possible. When I left the UK we had a boring, dysfunctional coalition but then as soon as I left everyone went mental here. An extraordinary amount has happened since – it has been hard keeping up with British politics. Eastenders would probably have been easier to follow.
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The Scots had their independence referendum before I left. I’ve met people here who voted both ways for a whole bunch of reasons. If I was Scottish I think I would have voted to remain in 2014. In 2017? Not a bloody chance.

I didn’t vote in the 2015 election so I suppose I can’t whinge about having Cameron on his own. I was surprised by the vote, as were the poll counters, but also quite disappointed. I do not have a lot of time for Cameron. Then, in 2016 we had the great disaster which was Brexit, where we hung out our dirty laundry out for the world to see (and mock). All the while I was beginning to realise – from the other side of the world – what a London bubble I came from and that in fact, I knew very little about the zeitgeist in the rest of my country.
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Almost a year and half later no one seems to have any idea about what is happening with Brexit, least of all our politicians. Every week Davis gets back from Europe having achieved zilch. I wouldn’t even trust the man playing monopoly for me. I am quite pleased to have a Danish passport. Those poor Scots! We rewarded their loyalty in 2014 by dragging them out with us a couple of years later and they were (mostly) smart enough to realise how studid the whole affair was.

And then in 2017 Theresa May, the Prime Minister who no-one voted for called a snap-election to make a power grab. Nothing but greed motivated that election and it completely backfired. Could someone please explain to me how May is still in power? She embarrassed herself, her party and country and yet still hangs on while faffing through Brexit with a horrendous coalition accompanied by the awful DUP. May’s only notable achievement has been making our former pig-molesting PM look ‘not that bad’. Remind me who is being tipped to be her replacement? Johnson and Rees-Mogg? God help us all!
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You may have guess that I am not a Tory voter. How could I be? This is the party that continues to segregate and divide us as a nation. This is the party that continues to marginalise and discriminate against the working class while the rich wield more power than even our politicians. I am cycling head first into a neoliberal dystopia and I don’t like the feeling at all. The country I am returning to is represented by people who think it acceptable to hack into our National Health Service yet fund billions for Trident – our nuclear weapons system. Times of austerity…
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It’s bleak. So was the North of Scotland but at least up there there were occasional glimpses of rainbows in between the storms. I pedalled north from Wick to John o Groats, struggling in the head wind and soaked form the passing rain showers.
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It turns out that John o’ Groats isn’t even the northernmost point in mainland Britain. That award goes to Dunnet Head 15 miles west. (Sorry guys – we are back in imperial now. Well, imperial and metric. Now you get to experience the ridiculous mix that only the UK is stupid enough to put up with).

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My first ever ‘wild camp’ in Britain

I camped between John o’ Groats and Dunnet Head. I thought I’d get further but the winds were horrendous. Just as bad as a frustrating day in Iceland, and that’s saying something. I was struggling along a 5 mph and by 4pm it was already starting to get dark. I pushed on, eager to squeeze in as much time on the bike as possible before heading into a moor in search of a pitch. Squelch! I had walked straight into a bog and my right foot was soaked. Bullocks. At least it was just one foot…

I continued a little further in search of drier land and headed into a forest. Squelch! That time it was my left foot, plunged into a deep puddle in another swamp. It was hard to tell because so much light had faded but clearly everywhere here was a bog. I was not happy. It had been a tough first day back on the bike and now I couldn’t find anywhere to camp. In the end I just put my tent up at the side of the road and went to bed in a sulk.

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The cliffs at the very top of mainland Britain

Scotland is one of those wonderful parts of the world where you can pretty much camp wherever you want. The ‘freedom to roam’ policy is wonderful, it’s just a shame everywhere is a swamp up here. I slept well that night beside the road. That was my first ever ‘wildcamp’ in the UK but it wasn’t particularly wild at all.  

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I remember those first few nights when I stared stealth camping in central Europe. I’d been so nervous for such irrational reasons, fearful of the mad axeman that prowl foreign forests looking for travelling cyclists to rob and chop into pieces. It took me a long time to feel comfortable sleeping rough but now I can get a good night’s kip right next to the road.
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In the morning I noticed a new hole in my tent. A mouse had nibbled it’s way in and attacked my food bag. Little shit. It was just like that first night in the tent in New Zealand when an animal chewed it’s way in to get my food. I packed my tent up in the rain. It had not been a great first campite in the UK.
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Dunnet Head was a cooler landmark than John o’ Groats. I even had a bit of sunshine when I got there but that quickly vanished had I headed into the moors further west. Slowly the farmland and sheep disappeared and hills began to form around me.
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The campsite at Durness was closed for the season but I could stay there for free. I cycled to the pub a mile down the road and nursed a pint whilst watching the rain lash the windows. The weather was becoming really foul but I was happy with a beer between my hands. No other country in the world does pubs like we do.
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In the morning I woke up to find another hole in my tent. Another mouse break in! This litte bugger had chewed up my bread and ripped open a couple of my plastic bags. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “How could you not have learnt from your mistake literally two nights ago when the first mouse nibbled its way in? Idiot!” I know, what a plonker. But please consider that when I arrived back at my tent from the village shop it had been pissing it down. I’d just lobbed my stuff inside and dived in to get out of the rain. I didn’t have the energy to get out and stash my food from the shop in the panniers on my bike out in the rain.
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It rained for about 40 hours straight. The road leading south was gorgeous but I didn’t enjoy it at all. There is no where in the world so beautiful that it is worth cycling an entire day in the rain.
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I was grateful to have a night inside when I stayed with a lovely family via Warmshowers. I was a soggy, miserable mess and delighted to have a bed indoors after three wet nights in the tent. I put my shoes (still wet from that first afternoon I stepped in a bog) by the fire but they weren’t dry in the morning. Stewart, with whom I was staying, offered me a pair of wellington boots when I said I was going to look for some to buy in the next town. I was over the moon my new ‘kicks’.
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The next town was Ullapool, set against a stunning backdrop of snow-topped mountains around the coast.
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The landscape began to change a little. There was less empty moors and more forests by the road. It still looked nothing like the south of England but far familiar than Iceland or the Faroes. I was impressed by the amount of birdlife around, my favourites being the buzzards that followed me from telephone pole to pole or the little red-chested ‘rockin’’ robins. When there was no life on the glens a deer would stand proudly and watch me from a hill top.
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That afternoon I passed a sign saying ‘YELLOW WARNING: SNOW ALERT’ but I didn’t pay much attention to it. It’s only November, after all. I figured there might be a little sprinkle at most. I camped in the forest and when I woke up in my tent the walls were sagging in once again.
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That was quite a dumping! I’ve never even seen half that much snow in the UK. Clearly the weather doesn’t work in quite the same way up here…
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I changed my route and stuck to the main A-road rather than returning to the village roads. I wasn’t sure how well they’d be serviced and on this road the winter trucks were busy scrapping the ice away and pouring grit everywhere. It was unpleasant to be cycling such a busy road with so much ice on the ground. As it began to melt the cars would splash the sleet up at me and I was covered in patches of ice from head to toe.
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It stayed cold and most of the world stayed buried under a thick layer of snow. I maintained course on the main road and headed to Kinlochewe to stay in a hostel. Turns out bunkhouses are not cheap in this country – this one set me back £17.50 which is the second most expensive place I’ve ever stayed. It would be the only place I paid to sleep in the UK and was totally worth it – camping is just not fun in this weather. It is good that I am not enjoying camping very much because it means I will be happy to start a new ‘indoors’ life when I get back to London. But I do want to enjoy my final ride back to the Big Smoke and to do so I need to sleep inside a bit more to get out of the long cold nights. 
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I went for a little walk around the frozen village. It was a tiny litle place like everywhere in rural Scotland. There was a small shop with a few shelves full of useless crap. I suspect they sold the same stuff during WWII. Perhaps it is a little easier to get hold of a banana these days…
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The road into Kinlochewe

My clothes & camping gear was dry by the morning and I was ready to hit the icy roads – literally.

I’ll tell you about that next time!

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