I am getting a bit bored of the ice and snow. I did not expect Britain to be quite so slippery in November…
Still, all the ice doesn’t doesn’t half make everything look gorgeous. Scotland is beautiful anyway but with the extra sprinkle of white it is simply magical to cycle. The coastal areas were mostly ice-free but even the inland sections weren’t frozen once the afternoon sun had caught them.
I only had 20 miles to cycle on Skye from the bridge down to Armadale, where I could catch the afternoon ferry back to the mainland. In typically Scottish fashion, it rained all day and I didn’t stop at all on the island other than a short break in a bus stop shelter to eat a chocolate bar. I cycled hard and reached the ferry terminal at 2pm. The boat didn’t leave until 4.45pm but it was pissing down with rain and I just wanted to sit inside somewhere. After about an hour hovering around the waiting room’s radiator one of the staff asked me: “are you waiting for the boat?”
“Yes, I am”. No, I just enjoy the ambiance of waiting rooms...
“Skipper just called. The ferry is cancelled.”
“Stormy weather” he replied.
I looked out of the window. The weather was shit – it always is in Scotland – but there was barely a breeze outside. I raised an eyebrow at him and he clarified: “Sometimes it’s not that bad here but across the water it can be really bad. Skipper says it’s too dangerous to sail.” If you are unfamiliar with the geography of this part of Scotland please don’t think that we are talking about some great sea voyage back to the mainland. It is a 5 mile crossing that takes about 20 mins in the boat…
I accepted defeat and prepared for a night on the island. “What time is the morning ferry?”
“There is no morning ferry” he replied. “Next one is at 4.45pm tomorrow.”
Shit! It was a Sunday and there was only one crossing. More than 24 hours to wait. I assessed my options. It would be getting dark soon and I would need to camp nearby either way. In the morning I could either cycle 20 miles north, over the bridge and towards Fort William. I wouldn’t make the trip in a day (it was 100 miles) but I’d be there in two. Alternatively, I could wait for 24 hours and cycle the 40 miles to Fort William the following day. Both options would bring me to town the same afternoon, one of them requiring far less exercise. I went for the latter.
Then a thought occurred to me: what if the ferry is cancelled tomorrow as well? I asked the staff member if that was likely: “What are the chances the next one could be cancelled? After all, there’s only a slight breeze out there now…” He repeated his observation that the weather could be far worse across the water and told me that he couldn’t guarantee anything. Then he went back to the radio and turned it up. Scotland were beating Australia in the rugby. I reckon the sailors at the other end were enjoying the game and simply couldn’t be arsed to go out in the rain.
I sat in the waiting room for a while trying to decide what to do as it was now raining hard. The staff were having a genuine conversation about how much better Scottish whisky is than Welsh. I headed out in the rain in search of a campsite.
There was no rush in the morning so for once I could take my time. Because the days are short I usually wake up almost two hours before dawn, cook breakfast in my tent and am on the road with first light before the sun rises. On this occasion there was no need to get up early as I had to wait the entire day. It was nice to spend time in the forest. I love camping but at the moment I do everything in the dark and don’t really get to enjoy my natural surroundings. Camping is now a practical thing, rather than something for pleasure so this time I treated myself to an extra coffee and read my book while a curious robin bounced around my tent.
There was nothing to in Armadale and it rained most of the day so I returned to ferry terminal and sat in the waiting room. At least there they had WiFi. I’d been so excited to put my old UK SIM card back in my phone but there had been no point topping it up. Between leaving the north coast of Scotland and reaching the greater Glasgow area I had signal in only 3 spots. Only in the Australian Outback have I experienced such useless phone reception.
Rural Scotland is very rural indeed. There’s nothing going on in these places. In Armadale there was actually a hotel restaurant/pub but it was closed for the winter. The village shop had closed at midday on Saturday and was closed on Sunday. I’d almost run out of food – it was pasta and cream cheese for lunch as that was all I had left.
I was relieved to finally reach Maillag on the mainland that afternoon. I’d been able to see the town across the water from my campsite the previous night. I stayed with Mark via Warmshowers, dried all my wet camping gear and went to bed far more rested than I was supposed to have been!
It took me a day to ride to Fort William the first big town (10,000 people) I’d seen since Inverness. It was 10 days since I’d stepped in that bog on my first night camping in Scotland and my shoes had finally dried. It had taken that long! I stocked up on food in Lidl and cycled around the side of Ben Nevis and towards Glen Coe, delighted to be in my normal trainers again.
The road through Glen Coe was stunning. The snow on the mountains faded in the moors and rocky peaks stood out against the white. It was hard to enjoy as the road was far too busy. It was the first long section I’d cycled in Scotland on an A-road and I was pretty keen to get off it ASAP.
It seemed I had finally escaped the awful weather. There were patches of blue sky and the sun was out. I had had rain or snow the first 11 days cycling in Scotland and now for the first time we had a totally dry day.
I escaped the busy road and joined the National Cycle Route 7 to get away from the traffic. It may have stopped raining but the temperature had dropped again and there were sheets of ice on the road. In the late morning it was still a couple of degrees below zero and there were some nasty patches of black ice on the road.
I ended up on an off-road trail that was really for hikers or mountain-bikers and not really suitable for my heavy load. I dropped down one steep section, cut a corner too sharp and lost control as my front wheel slipped on a frozen puddle. Ouch. My right shoulder took the worst of the hit but nothing major. I brushed some of the mud off me and rode slowly until the next opportunity to get back onto the road.
When that opportunity I came I dropped down another steep sections and did the exact same thing. There was about 15 minutes between north accidents. I didn’t spot a muddy area, took the corner sharp again and fell off in exactly the same manner. This time it was my left knee that took the knock. Again, nothing major. A couple of rips and a lot more mud.
Until then I had only had one slip so far this year – that was in Akureyi in Iceland on the first day cycling in ice. Before that I hadn’t had an accident in more than a year so it was pretty unfortunate that it should happen twice in one day. I only had myself to blame.
The bike path meandered off into the Loch Lommond & The Trossachs National Park. It followed a forest dirt road where it seems no one goes this time of year. In places the track was frozen solid and covered in a thick layer of ice. I cycled cautiously but the road was just too slippery. Once again I lost control and crashed. This time I was going super slow and reacted fast, jumping off the bike as it fell below me. Unfortunately my shoe slipped as well and I fell backwards landing pretty badly on my back. My tailbone took quite a bash and it took me a minute to get up. Blimey – 3 falls in one afternoon. That is a personal best.
The park was properly set up for camping. In the summer months it is regulated and you need a permit to wild camp but in winter you can roam freely just as you can anywhere else in the country. It was gorgeous and there was nobody for miles. I stopped early, partly because my body was hurting but more so because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to camp somewhere so beautiful. I put my tent up by a reservoir and drank tea on the shore as light faded.
It was not my last campsite in Scotland but I think that one will probably be the last beautiful pitch – at this time of year the camping is not particularly romantic. Now the wind had dropped and everything was quiet. I felt at peace and for the first time it dawned on me how few opportunities I have left to enjoy these moments on my trip. I’d been so excited about getting home that I’d forgotten how much I will miss the camping. I feel very lucky to have been able to wake up in so many beautiful places around the world.
It was an easy day’s ride to Glasgow. On the way I cycled past Gartmoor House, a place I’d stayed when I was 12 years old. I was actually on a TV program when I was young, in which I and 7 other 12-15 year olds traveled to the Amazon rain forest to do some conservation work. More than 30,000 kids had applied and in the end they whittled the applicants down to just 16, of which I was one. They took us up to Scotland and made us do lots of tough outdoor activities before choosing who they wanted for the expedition and that final process was the first episode of the series.
I’m not going to tell you what it was called because I had a very squeaky voice pre-puberty and a horrendous mullet that would never have been socially acceptable, certainly not in the 2000s. Besides, it was before the Youtube-era so there’s not much of it you can find online. It was 13 years ago that I was in Gartmoor House but I could barely remember it. I could vaguely recall the grounds around the building but not much else. It’s frustrating how memory can fade – I’m glad I have kept this blog so that I can actually remember the places I have been and the things I have experienced.
I enjoyed a couple of days off in Glasgow. I needed a break after my ride around the Highlands and my tailbone needed a chance to recover from my cycling acrobatics on the ice. I’ve never been to the city but I have always wanted to and as I have friends here it was a good excuse to make a weekend of it.
I stayed at my mate Fred’s place in town. He did warn me that they had a problem with mice but I didn’t think anything of it when I went to bed and left my food bag on the bedroom floor. When I woke up I found a fist-size hole ripped open in the bag and a huge pile of crumbs where the mouse had shredded the bread roll I was saving for breakfast. I hate all animals. This is getting ridiculous now. I have had so much stuff nibbled on by them recently: In Iceland I had my handlebar bag side mesh ripped because I’d left a chocolate bar wrapper in it. In Scotland I had two break-ins to the tent the first week in the country. I then stayed with a family who’s dogs stole my loaf of bread and in the night some mice ripped my raincoat pocket that had a muesli bar packet inside. And now this! It’s driving me bonkers.
Glasgow was not a particularly pretty city. It was a little rough around the edges (very rough in some places) but I thought that added to the place’s appeal. I let myself suffer the first hangover in half a year and then recovered with a couple of midday pints in the pub watching Chelsea beat Newcastle. I can think of many worse ways to spent a Saturday.
I went to bed early and got ready to leave fresh in the morning. I got to say bye to some of the guys as I was leaving – I was about to start my day’s ride as they were about to go to bed having been up all night on a gear-fulled session. I left feeling wonderfully sober.
The next couple days I bombed it down to the border. The landscape had totally changed. Aside from a few snowy mountains in the distance the scenery looked very British indeed, with rolling pastures divided by stone fences. It was pretty but underwhelming having come down from the highlands. I put my tent up for one last time in Scotland.
England was awaiting!