The first part of our adventure, four miles of cycling across London from Paddington station to Euston, passes off without incident. While the traffic is heavy, it's good to cycle where there is a critical mass of other people on bikes, unlike my usually solitary cycle commute in West Wales. By coincidence, we stumble across one of the best real ale pubs in London, the Bree Louise where I buy Alex her first legal pint of cider.
The staff on the Caledonian Sleeper seem friendlier and more relaxed than other UK train staff. The guard lets us load our bikes onto the train an hour before the train departs. The extra time is useful as we have to strip off all of the panniers and hang the bikes up horizontally.
over a chip
The train leaves through the warm London dusk and I drift off to sleep, waking to watch the gloaming over the Cheviot Hills near Penrith. The sun is already high as we pass through the small stations of the Grampian Mountains before pulling into the cool of the highland terminus at Inverness. We change trains and share a carriage with a party of pensioners for the route to the Kyle of Lochalsh. The railway runs through country so scenic, I want to get off at every station and climb the mountains that surround each of the remote halts.
one poppy waits
at the platform
At Kyle station, we load up the bikes and cycle over the bridge onto Skye. Traffic is heavy on the A87 , the main road across the island to Portree and ferry at Uig. Between trucks, coaches and showers, the mountains of the mainland stretch away as far as the eye can see. After twenty five miles, we reach the Sligachan campsite in the early evening. We pitch our tent with views of the Black Cuillin hills above the hotel.
On the other side of the tent, Glamaig towers above us. The campsite warden tells us the previous day had been a washout. With sunshine and only a few midges, we can't believe our luck.
To celebrate, we visit the Sligachan Hotel, where the bar is home to 260 whiskies and 10 real ales. It is the Good Pub Guide's 2011 Whisky Bar of the Year and a difficult place to leave, though Alex doesn't take to the Talisker. It rains in the night, as if to remind us of our good fortune
In the morning we depart on the A863 towards Dunvegan, before turning off along the shores of Loch Harport and coasting down to the Talisker distillery at Carbost. The car park is full of touring motorcycles and born again bikers of many nationalities, who are enjoying the free samples in the visitor centre.
drifts out to sea
After the long climb back out of the village we turn onto the minor road down to Glenbrittle. The car park at the Fairy Pools is full of the cars of the walkers tackling the Black Cuillins, the majestic ridge that towers over the valley. The play of light across the mountains is an every changing show in itself.
Glenbrittle is little more than a cluster of hostels and bothies. At the end of the road, we come to the beach and the campsite, as lovely a site as any camper could wish for on a day like this. Each plot has been lovingly cut out of the dune grassland (machair) and the combination of mountains and sea give great views in all directions. The campsite shop is well stocked, not least with midge repellant and walking guidebooks.
We cook pasta for tea, washed down with the local ale that clinked all the way down the tracks in my panniers. From the beach, we watch a rainbow feint across the isles of Rum and Canna. As it nears midnight, the light finally fades and there are so many stars.
It's a long hard climb back out of Glenbrittle and we push our bikes up the steepest part of the hill. Retracing our route of the previous day, we pass back through Sligachan and take the scenic (and recommended) route around the shore of Loch Ainort to avoid the traffic of the main road. We stop for lunch in the cafe at Broadford. An elderly couple wait for their grown up son who is smoking outside. He tells them to "order me anything, I don't mind." After some miles heading south down the Sleat peninsular, it begins to rain and Alex gets tired and fed up. We stop at Kilbeg for a drink next to a roadside monument for a young man who died ten years ago. It is clear that he is missed.
After forty miles cycling, we reach the ferry port at Armadale. Above the landing stage, we find the Rubha Phoil eco-campsite. It takes some time to find someone at the permaculture garden to show us where the campsite is, but we have the choice of plots and exclusive use of the long drop composting toilet. The site has a number of nature trails and stunning views out across the sound of Sleat.
While we are the first customers into the Ardvasar Hotel, the bar soon fills up and the food proves to be excellent. There is no one around at the campsite when we depart, leaving our fees in the honesty box. The ferry to Mallaig is full of with a coach party of French tourists, one of whom asks for a refund on her coffee from the CalMac vending machine.
The MV Western Isles ferry to Inverie on the Knoydart peninsular leaves twice daily in summer, with a friendly crew, well versed in lines for visitors. The statue of the Madonna approaching Inverie, is to mark that we should "abandon all hope of a mobile signal when passing this point."
a woman sleeps under
Eats, Shoots and Leaves
Despite being on the Scottish mainland, Inverie is landlocked and appears to be the place where Land-rovers without MOTs go to die. We pay £2 to camp on the community campsite (or beach) at the rangers office. From the front of our tent we look out across the beach and sea, from the rear there are a clutch of Munros, the highest being Ladhar Beinn. There's a makeshift hide with an old car seat where a small river reaches the sea and I watch the swallows and sandpipers patrol the estuary. There's a raptor gliding a mile away, but at that distance my bird knowlege is not good enough to know the difference between a juvenile Golden Eagle and a Buzzard. The tide comes in quickly to surround a wooden statue that has been sunk into the beach.
my path to the shore
In the evening, we walk back to Inverie village and eat at the Old Forge Inn, mainland Britain's remotest pub as good a hostelry as you will find anywhere. We talk to a couple who are spending six months sailing around the coast of the UK, though "we haven't actually sailed that much, and the boat only does 6 nautical miles the gallon."
Our return trip on the MV Western Isles, isn't timetabled but a special run to take back an orchestra who have been practicing at Inverie before performing in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Back at Mallaig, all of the passengers form a human chain to unload all of the luggage from the boat. Someone remarks that it's "so much more civilised than an airport."
The road south from Mallaig is undulating without ever including a killer climb. At Arisaig, I realise that we have missed the scenic route including beaches featured in the film Local Hero. The hotel at Lochailort is locked, so on the advice of a local cyclist that the next pub is "three miles down the road" we continue another eight miles to the Glenuig Inn, past a host of great wild camping spots alongside the loch. The pub is newly renovated and serves excellent food and real ale. My camping resolve weakens and I enquire if they have accommodation for the night, but there is no room at the inn and we return to the hills of Moidart and Sunart. The campsite at Resipole is large and well cared for, though the large number of caravans is a far cry from our camping experiences so far.
only one midge
in my tea
Our next morning's cycling takes us along the sunny shores of Loch Sunart and out onto the Ardnamurchan penisular. There is a long climb over one the pass next to Ben Hiant, one of Scotland's most attractive small mountains. We stop for water at the top of the pass, next to a peaty burn.
a dragonfly dips
the shopkeeper eats
the out of date pies
Even after the great campsites we have stayed at so far, the Ardnamurchan campsite at Kilchoan is something special. Cut by hand from a field adjoining the Sound of Mull by owner Trevor Potts, it is surrounded by the sea and mountains. There are sea otters, seals, basking shark, fossils and orchids for those prepared to wait and look. We stay two nights, cycling out to the UK's most westerly point at Ardnamurchan with fine views across the the small isles.
at the end of a day
when I could not ask for more
The next morning, the weather breaks and we catch the ferry across to Tobermory on Mull. With rain forecast all day, we book into a double room in the youth hostel and explore the town, including a sighting of the famous Tobermory cat, who has his own Facebook page. We eat in the excellent Fish Cafe above the CalMac Ferry office. Despite an extensive menu and numerous specials, the Americans next to us persist in asking for "broiled flat fish" which doesn't feature as a choice. Our room looks out across the harbour and evening noise floats up from the pubs on the quay.
a wake up call from
the street sweeper's brush
Despite the promise of seeing dolphins and whales on a boat trip from Tobermory, we miss out on any sightings more exciting than seals. The boat owner seemed genuinely sad that we hadn't seen anything interesting, though stops short of offering us a refund.
After an evening meal of chips and Irn Bru on the quay, we walk up the steep hill to Tobermory Parish Church for a free evening recital that is part of the Mendelssohn on Mull Festival. Back at the youth hostel, we stay in the dormitories and I decide that I am too old for communal living.
a quartet of snores
calls in the dorm
The road from Tobermory to Salen is scenic but poor, full of potholes and passing places. Beyond Salen, the road skirts the shore, with oyster-catchers and terns in close view. We arrive at Craignure as the ferry to Oban pulls out, so we shelter in a cafe as a summer storm passes over the Morvern peninsular.
Our room on the Corran House hotel is on the top floor and we carry our panniers of dirty clothes up four flights of stairs before enjoying our first bath for ten days. After more whisky in Markie Dan's bar, we return to our room where I realise far too late that our train tickets back to Carmarthen are for today, not tomorrow. I am awake for much of the night, trying to think of the cheapest way to get back home.
The next morning, we are at Oban station when it opens and the woman in the office confirms that are tickets are no longer valid. We buy new tickets for Glasgow and load the bikes onto the train. The scenery of the route passes me by as I arrange car hire and try to ignore the other passengers.
West Highland railway
four drunk teens
obscure the view
We cycle four miles across Glasgow to the car hire office, where they sort us out a people carrier. We load our bikes in the back and begin the long drive back to Wales.
A week later, Alex departs with her friends for the sun and clubs of Zante.