Saturday, 20 August 2016

On my current location in Heathrow

I was about to write an entry about my adventures between Inverness and my current location (Heathrow, Terminal 5) but my iPhone says I should mosey to the gate. So the short version will suffice. No issues getting back to Didcot. Collin, Elly, Bella and Bridie were glad to see me but Caddy was too cool to show much emotion. I bought too many books in Oxford. And I don't enjoy going to airports.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

On heading South

The day started with an encounter with an older Australian couple in the process of assembling their touring bikes in the parking lot of the hotel. It wasn't clear how they had got to John O'Groats with bikes still in their shipping boxes but they had and I was offered one. They were about to do a reverse LEJOG, which I guess should be expected from antipodeans with reversed brakes on their bikes (that is the rear brake was controlled by the left hand brake lever). ;-)

At breakfast, I sat with Michael, a Canadian who just complete a LEJOG in about two and a half weeks. He commented that the record for a LEJOG was something like 48 hours, but he couldn't ride that fast. I asked him if he would want to go that fast. He paused, then chuckled a "No!" He had a generally negative take on British drivers vis-à-vis cyclists. Ones in the South of England seem to have been quite unpleasant.

I set off at a time which got me to the Castle of Mey too early to enter which was just as well as I was able to use the time to make a side trip to Dunnet Head the most Northerly part of the Island of Great Britain. This headland features a sea cliff home to a wide assortment of seabirds: kittiwakes, guillemots, gannets, fulmars, puffins, razorbills and of course seagulls. I have no clear picture of which I saw flying around. I don't think I saw members of the auk family (puffins, guillemots and razorbills).

I got back to Thurso in time for a quick lunch. I then got to the station, changed into civvies, and waited only a few minutes for my two coach train to arrive.

So now I am on the train to Inverness looking at the scenery. Wide blanket bog has given way to hills/mountains. In not too long, the train passes by Lairg!

Almost strange to see trees again!

On first, off last

The winds gods giveth, and the wind gods taketh away. The westerlies of my first day in the Orkneys were replaced by winds out of the South East or the South-South East. This was more or less exactly the least useful direction for me. My plan for Monday was to go to the Broch of Gurness followed by the Brough of Birsay, then loop back via the Stones of Stenness. This meant a return against the wind which is the least desirable situation.

I did it anyway. The Broch of Gurness while not as high as the one on Lewis, was interesting because of the collection of surrounding buildings and its location guarding a strait which would have been a dandy place to keep an eye on incoming ships and extract a tax or two. The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island which housed first a Pictish settlement followed by a Viking one and then a monastery which may or may not have been connected to St Magnus. Nearby was the ruins of a late 16th Century palace built by Lord Patrick Stewart, a right royal bastard. More on him later.

As I began to head for Kirkwall, I stopped at a brewery and then a water powered grain mill. Both of these added to my load. The mill had two or three old millstones in the yard outside, so I asked the person showing me around how quickly the stones wore out. The answer was very slowly. One of the millstones in use dated back to the 19th century!

While the wind was contrary, the weather wasn't. The Sun came out from behind the clouds and stayed visible. I actually had to apply sunscreen. I even wore a biking jersey that wasn't Merino!

Going back to Kirkwall was the expected chore, however it was broken by a few incidents. Nearing the Ness of Brodgar, I noticed a car behind me and as I was near a good place to pull over, I did so and turned to wave the driver on. (Incidentally, the drivers are very polite and have never honked at me, except once and that was a double toot as the car was passing saying "Thank you, mate!" I have tried to return the courtesy.) In this instance, the woman driver didn't advance as she was waiting for a blockage further on to resolve itself. More on that later.

I stopped to give the Ness of Brogar another look. This time, the archaeologists were hard at work with trowels, notebooks and survey equipment that used lasers. I was tempted to ask if they could use a volunteer the next morning.

I then stopped at the Stones of Stenness and tried to put myself in the mindset of the builders. This was tricky as a pair of teenage brothers were wrestling nearby.

I was so tired as I got back to Kirkwell, I went straight to a pub for supper. As it was, I had been holding up traffic as I rode. I was, however, doing a better job of letting cars by than one or two of the other cyclists I saw going the way. I was not the only cyclist or cycle-tourist around.

Coming into the hostel, I stopped by reception to ask about leaving bags after I checked out the next morning for a few hours. The young woman behind the desk assured me that there would be no problem. She then said she had seen me on the road! It turned out she had been the driver I had tried to wave her past near the Ness of Brodgar!

At breakfast the next morning, I noticed a woman of about my own age sitting at a table industriously poking holes in a pile of Ziplock baggies marked with a felt tipped pen. I asked if they were samples which wasn't quite the right word  but that is the consequence of having a geologist for a dad. They were in fact artifact bags for an archaeological dig. Which dig? Ness of Brodgar. I expressed my envy of her!

I spent the morning in Kirkwall visiting the St Magnus Cathedral, the ruins of the Earl's and Bishop's palace.

The Earl in question was the previously mentioned Patrick Stewart, son of Robert Stewart bastard son of James V. Patrick Stewart ruled the Orkneys and the Shetlands harshly and badly generating numerous complaints from his use of kidnapping, extortion, torture and the like. It was not until he rebelled that his cousin, James VI had him and his son arrested, tried and put to death. As I said  a right royal bastard. He did have enough taste to put up a nice house, now ruined.

After doing the Kirkwall museum, I returned to the Hostel, retrieved my bags and set off for Burwick and my ferry for John O'Groats. I stopped for an audio-visual tour of the Highland Park distillery (which came with a wee dram). From then on it was a long, slightly grim plod against the wind and more hills than seemed strictly necessary. Neither the hills nor the wind was bad on their own, but together, they were a nasty combination.

I went over four causeways between islands that Churchill had ordered built to help keep submarines out of Scapa Flow. These Churchill Barriers were completed too late to be of much use in their designed function.

Part of the workforce consisted of Italian prisoners of war, whom it seems were given considerably leeway, doubtlessly because one of worst things the British could do to them was to leave them in the Orkneys! ;-)  Anyway, the British allowed them to convert two Nissen huts into a chapel, now called the Italian Chapel and like the Churchill Barriers, completed too late!

I arrived at the ferry terminal at about 4:30 for my 5:15 ferry. There was nobody around. After maybe ten minutes, a man showed up and sat on the pier waiting. The ferry arrived and two passengers got off with their bikes. I presented my e-ticket and oversaw Leonardo being hauled on board and lashed securely. I made my way to the boat deck and asked a crew member rather facetiously: "Is ferry always this popular?" It turned out that far from me being the only passenger, they were expecting about two hundred passengers in four coach loads! The reason there were only two passengers on the previous run was that it had been an informal run intended to re-position the ferry. The coaches arrived on schedule and disgorged their contents. The ferry was quite full and when we got to John O'Groats, I had to wait until they got off before manhandling Leonardo up the gangplank. First on, last off.

Monday, 15 August 2016

On the long version of how yesterday went

I apologize for the curtailed entry yesterday but both the iPhone and myself ran out of juice.

Mainland, the largest island of the Orkneys, features low, gentle hills and good roads. The wind was out of the West and as Stromness is at the Western end of Mainland, by dint of clever navigation, I was able to avoid riding into it for all but a few short bits. In addition, no rain fell. Thus a pretty good situation for biking.

En route to Skara Brae, I saw an open topped double decker bus go by and was struck by the thought "What idiot would have a double decker bus in the Orkney? And who want to ride in it?" I made Skara Brae in time for lunch of locally made and sourced food in its tearoom. I shared a table with an older couple from Portsmouth who were up on a cruise ship and who had ridden from Kirkwall to Skara Brae in the open topped bus! It turned out that the bus they had been supposed to take had broken down.

Skara Brae is a collection of stone houses built out of the local sandstone which is fairly easily quarried into rectangular blocks owing to its particular geology. They are amazingly well built even after 5000 years. No mortar, they were drystone constructions and set into the earth and linked by a central, covered passageway. The stone was also used to make furniture such as beds and dressers. Two of the houses were built before the others and more remains of the earlier phase are thought to be beneath the later phase buildings.

What blew my mind was the almost casual note that these buildings had been dug into a large midden (a waste dump) of an earlier occupational group! This put the prehistory of the place in a very strange place to my mind.

I almost couldn't cope with the hopelessly modern (17th to 20th century) Skail House a few hundred meters away. I therefore went back to Skara Brae for another look. Still mind boggling.

I then set off to the Ring of Brodgar, set on spit of land between Loch Harray and Loch Stenness. These stones were impressive as one of the larger stone circles in the British Isles, though they showed the effects of the weather including lightning damage. The circle was roughly contemporary with Skara Brae. A very little further was the Ness of Brodgar. This is an ongoing archeological dig of a village of the same approximate vintage as Skara Brae only seemingly several times larger. They are still at work and the guide said there is enough material to keep working for a lifetime. Part of me wants to come back in twenty years to see what more they have found. The site is only excavated for about eight weeks of the year. For the rest of the time, it is covered with tarpaulins weighted down with "Neolithic tires" sourced from the garages of the Orkneys who are only too pleased to get rid of them so easily.

I had to get to Maes Howe by four, so I skipped the related Standing Stones of Stenness. I am hoping stop by later.

Maes Howe is a chambered tomb which is currently reached by the entrance the builders intended which is a long low passageway lined with long slabs of rock weighing at roughly ten tons. There is a one ton "door" rock which rests on a pivot. The guide said that a retired guide told him that she used to go in as a child and push the rock closed!

The main chamber is about fifteen feet square. It has three small chambers off of it. The walls and the original ceiling are the usual Orkney sandstone laid very carefully and at height are positioned inwards akin to an igloo. The corners were formed by four re-purposed standing stones. The entrance tunnel was align so the dawn light of the first day of winter shines down it from over the top of the largest hill in the Orkneys and a standing stone located hundreds of yards away! After many years of use, the access tunnel was blocked off with large stones. The next recorded entry was that of the Norse who dug a hole in the top in a quest for treasure. They were disappointed and left runic graffiti to this effect. The roof was replaced in Victorian times.

The combined effect of all these sites, approximately from the era of 3000 BC, makes me think wistfully about changing careers, becoming an archeologist and moving to Orkney. What we don't know about these people would fill a library. What we do know is that they must have had serious building skills including the logistical element so often overlooked. They have caught my imagination.

With the Westerly wind, getting to Kirkwall was easy. After getting to my hostel and attending to various needs, I went down to the harbour front for supper. There were three steam trucks or traction engines smoking away. They had obviously been a part of the Vintage Rally. I later saw then going off into the distance in the direction of Stromness. I couldn't help but wonder about the logistics of getting them on and off ferries given modern safety regulations.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

On the short version of how my day went

The day started rather like how I slept: badly. I had carefully arranged my clobber to permit a quick and discreet getaway but then my bright yellow rain jacket was nowhere to be seen. Thankfully a scene was avoided when I checked the kitchen area where I made my previous post.

Off to Scabster to catch the ferry. It arrived to disgorge (among other things) an assortment of traveling fair rides. It seems I missed the Orkney county fair by one day. What I didn't entirely miss was the Orkney classic vehicle rally. I was the first vehicle to board. The next was a Norton motorcycle, which dated from at least before 1960. A car from about 1930 was also on board.

I made a bee line for the breakfast buffet where I loaded my plate with more than my "proper" share of sautéed mushrooms. I had to wait for the buffet to open and while waiting I chatted with a Swiss woman up on a rail pass.

The crossing was marred by the heavy motion of the ship. Rather than annotate the map I'd torn from a tourist brochure, I gazed out at the horizon in an effort to avoid seasickness. Hoy heaved into view. Our passage took in the Old Man of Hoy, a particularly spectacular sea stack.

Stromness is a surprising town. None were more surprised than the fleet of BMW motorcycle riders (twenty plus) when the Norton went by. One of the surprises is that they let vehicles near the ferry terminal. I obviously made a wrong turn leaving the terminal, but the street I was on was paved with actual paving stones! In fact, I was surprised cars were allowed on it let alone going in both directions. As I was leaving Stromness, I had the idea of stopping at a gas station to get a proper map of the Orkneys. This was promptly cut down to a more convenient size. (Maps of islands lend themselves to this.)

It was after this that things kept getting better. A whole lot better. However, I am too tired right now to go into details. Short version: my god, those Neolithics knew how to build.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

On an indulgent end to a surprisingly tough day.

My stretch goal for today had been to drop most of my clobber at my hostel in Thurso and make a dash for Dunnet Head in order to say I'd been to the most Northerly point of the Island of Britain and therefore save time later.  This seemed feasible given a nominal distance of 44 miles to Thurso and a forecast tailwind. I packed accordingly.

Unfortunately, the road was hillier than expected. Furthermore, as my breakfast had been on the light side, when I got to Bettyhill, I was in the mood for an elevenses at the Bettyhill Café. It wasn't open until 5 PM on Saturday. This threw me for loop. I ended up going to the nearby museum which was open then going back about a mile to find a scanty lunch.

The road took in a lot of up and down surrounded by blooming heather. Also by a surprising number of sports cars. Lotuses, Miatas, Ferraris, Porsches and others. I one point I wondered if I had wandered into a Top Gear shoot or something similar. The weather was drier and I made a number of sartorial alterations to find the optimum moisture management.

I had shared a dorm room with a young Italian. He seems to be hitchhiking as I passed once walking along the road then again several miles later!

At some point a bit before Reay, the land settled down and spread out allowing for more sustained pedaling and some serious "Wee!-ing". In Reay, stopped for a snackrel at a shop. The young lady till asked a few basic questions about where I was going. (She must have seen hundreds or thousands of LEJOGgers and their ilk.) My responses were slow to the point that I realized I had a degree of brain freeze. I decided I would put a Buff on my noggin to keep the little grey cells warm.

After Reay, the NCN left the main road partly to avoid the mothballed Doune Reay nuclear power plant. (Elly's brother Ben doubtless has an opinion about it.)  The land became "tidy British agricultural" (as opposed to "rough sheep pasture"). Thurso came up and I found my hostel, but I wasn't about to go to Dunnet Head. I felt pooped. Through a certain effort of will, after dumping clobber at the hostel and changing my socks, I visited the excellent museum. Afterwards, I made a trip to the ferry terminal in Scrabster (circa two miles away) to get some particulars about taking the ferry on the morrow. Only then did I go back to the hostel and shower.

The hostel is opposite a fish and chips shop that advertises "fresh caught Thurso haggis". It wasn't where I had supper but would have better suited the whiny bloke at Le Bistro where I did have supper. However, I did patronize it, as I had a post-prandial battered and deep-fried Snickers Bar there. It hit a number of needs.

Bed time.

Friday, 12 August 2016

On side winds

The advertised distance between Lairg and Tongue was 62 km so I set off with less than any sort of hurry. In fact, I rode back about a mile to the Ferrycroft Interpretive Centre to delay my departure from Lairg. It was only moderately interesting.

The weather was quite frustrating today with a crosswind that alternatively helped and hindered. In truth, I think the wind was more assist than hindrance. With the wind came weather in great variety: rain, sun and cloud all competed but the most common was a very fine and thin rain that only barely required rain gear.

In addition, the landscape was relatively devoid of landmarks from which I could locate my position with any certainty. I rolled through pasture, moor, forestry commission forests and the stumps there of until I came to the hamlet of Crask.

Crask consists of the Crask Inn and one other house, currently for sale. It is surrounded by moorland and is off the electrical grid and so relies on its own generator and batteries. They applied to get permission to install a wind generator but were turned down by the planning committee.

I had seen another cyclist ahead of me. When I went into the Inn, the proprietor asked me if I had gone past and come back. No, that was a different solo cyclist.

I had lunch there in the company of the owner and an assortment of border collies, one of whom placed a tennis ball on my table and tried to eye me into throwing it for him. I tried to tell him that the health board wouldn't stand for it but he wouldn't listen.

About halfway through lunch, an Englishman from Portsmouth in his twenties came in and announced to the owner that he had rented a house nearby for his gap year and would therefore start to be regular. This led to a discussion about how communion services were held in the inn about once a month. It seemed quite baroque. I chatted a bit with the Englishman and asked him to try not to go insane during the winter! ;-)

The next section went by in a blur as the wind and gravity were with me. The road went down along a valley in an orgy of whee marred only by the necessities of single track road.

The final section went along shore of Loch Loyal. The low clouds would sometimes part to reveal some of the mountains it was concealing. The teasers.

Decent day all told.

On a pick of small incidents

In writing these entries, I keep on forgetting some incidents only to remember them later. So this entry is a collection of bits.

While I was waiting for the ferry in Lochmaddy amidst wind and heavy rain, a man came in dressed in Bermuda shorts, a short sleeved shirt and flip-flops. It was so odd, that I didn't resist making the comment: "You must think it is summer."

I had pondered whether to turn on my rear blinking light yesterday owing to low clouds that I was nearing. I didn't do so, but kept it at the back of my mind as an option. When I took off my helmet in the tearoom, I was startled to see the was on. Investigation suggested that water infiltration was causing a short circuit. I removed it from the helmet and wrapped in a paper napkin to absorb the water. I stored in my handlebar bag. In Lairg, I put it in a small ziplock bag with a packet of silica gel to absorb any residual moisture. (I keep a few packets of silica gel in my Ortlieb bags as waterproof bags have the problem that if water does get in, it doesn't get out easily.)

The Oykel Bridge Hotel caters to anglers in a big way. At least, that is what the pictures in the public bar strongly suggest. While Grandpa might be disappointed, fishing is something I am quite happy to let other people do. (I refrained from making any mention of my connection to Kemp Davidson who had won a landmark case against the interests of the recreational salmon fishing industry.) Later, an actual gillie came in for lunch wearing hip waders and commented the fishing was no good that day on account of the very high water levels. Later that day, I came across a side road that obviously flooded on a regular basis as there was a sign warning that it was prone to flooding, a permanent sign that could be flipped open to say "Road closed on account of flooding" and a depth marker which showed the current flood height was about two and a half feet.

In the stairwell of the Lairg Highland Hotel is a framed cartoon from Punch magazine in the 1960's. I know its origin as it was included in one of the two Pick of Punch in my Parents' library. It is a depiction of a day in the lives of an executive and his gardener. It being a pastoral take, and a sunny summer's day, the gardener is the happy one.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

On a coincidence of cyclists

While I was loading Leonardo this morning, a man was delivering beer to the hostel. He facetiously said I would now be staying instead of leaving as there now was more beer. The real origin was the rain coming down. The day before, a CalMac had made a comment to the effect that it was a pity it was raining but that's the West of Scotland for you.

Heavily garbed in rain gear including Gore-Tex socks, I set off up the road. My original plan had been to follow the coast up and around to Thurso, but a shortage of accommodation obliged me to divert inland and indeed across Scotland. My destination was the town of Lairg whose principal distinction seems to be that it hosts Europe's largest one day agricultural sale each August during its annual sheep sale.

The road wound up and unfortunately down various glens and ridges. Thankfully, the wind was essentially helpful. I stopped at Knockan Crag where there was an interpretative centre that Pappy would have either enjoyed or dismissed as it was about how the cliff above had resulted in progress in the science of geology as the rocks above had been found to be older than the rocks below, contrary to conventional thinking. It also had a note about how these mountains were the same as the Appalachians and illustrated it with a picture of Mount Washington!

As I was leaving the site, I saw a sign advertising the Elphin Tearoom a few miles ahead. This was admirably positioned for an elevenses. After a nice downhill run through the wild countryside, I rolled up to the establishment. As I was finding a suitable wall to lean Leonardo on, I was surprised to see six other cycle tourers also turning into the establishment! Inside, it came out that they were not one party but two! It was an odd coincidence as each party rolled at different speeds. I spoke mostly with one group, a pair of Englishmen. The other four were older and from their accents, I would guess they were from Glasgow. The Englishmen were traveling very lightly and had bare legs. I was surprised they weren't cold. I latter wondered if they more used to the cool weather as my body had acclimatized to Montreal's hot summer. They were going to follow the coast up to Lochniver, then ride to Lairg tomorrow to catch the train.

We set off at about the same time. They outpaced me a shade to Ledmore Junction (think Minton) where they turned left whereas I hung a right. Unlike the proceeding road which I would describe as a mountain road, the one I was on followed a gently rising glen which widened as it went. With the wind at my back, I climbed easily to a height of land between the West and East Coasts of Scotland. I rode down along the Oykel which was in spate to say the least. Almost exactly on cue, the Oykel Bridge Hotel appeared in time for lunch.

There was an older couple taking a break for lunch from their motorcycle trip and a family of five with a spaniel, possibly a Brittany. The woman motorcyclist promptly informed that the coffee and sandwiches being served were wonderful and that she wasn't being paid a commission! This set the tone for a rather lively lunch. There was some talk of roads being flooded, which led to the family mentioning their wish to see the Falls of Shin. At that point the name meant nothing to me. I had a great toasted sandwich (cheddar, pepperoni, onions and peppers) and coffee for lunch.

When I got back on Leonardo, I checked my map and saw that the Falls of Shin was just below Lairg and if I took the A837 at Rosehall rather than the A839, it would add only about nine miles to a short day. Also, my read of the map was that it would be a flatter route. Also, the rain had mostly stopped.

After lunch, the land spread out and became very civilized with mature stands of trees (rather than forestry commission monoculture) and old farms. As expected, the route was fairly level. At Inveran, I turned onto B864 which was in the process of having the brush trimmed back which gave the road the lovely smell of freshly cut vegetation.

The Falls of Shin were impressive with the tea coloured river running in spat causing foam to accumulate in one eddy. Among the throng of sightseers was the family from lunch! I thanked them for having inadvertently let me know about the place!

It was then only about 4 miles to Lairg which seemed out of place in the nominal Highlands. However, it was there as was the Lairg Highland Hotel. At a guess, I would say it was built between the wars as it has a suggestion of Art Deco to it's exterior, the interior being the result of recent and ongoing renovations. My room is just about the right size. Furthermore, their menu hit the spot with a starter of pan fried mushrooms in creamy garlic sauce, followed by roast lamb (something I had been having a hankering for seeing those wooly creatures bounce around) and then sticky toffee pudding. There were other things on the menu, but those were things that I particularly like.

Lairg is evidently not a smokeless zone as the smell of burning peat is in the air and is enticing me to go down to the bar for post-prandial single malt.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

On wet weather and cruise ships

Today started wet and grey. The weather stayed that way all day. As the plan for today was to do a load of laundry, see a few sights in Stornoway and then catch a ferry at 2, the weather did not pose a real problem.

The first thing I visited was Lewes Castle, a former baronial heap not a public building to which they have added a surprisingly small exhibition space which houses among other artifacts one of the six types of pieces from the Lewis Chessmen. The latter are some 93 chess figures carved by the Norse out of walrus ivory circa the 12th century found in Uig on Lewis in about 1831. The museum was crowded with a large number of middle aged and older tourists whom I assumed were like me taking shelter from the rain. However, when I was buying a liquid souvenir at the gift shop, the cashier asked me if I was off the cruise ship? Cruise ship? It turned out there was not one but two of them in the harbour. One docked next the ferry terminal and the other (larger) one anchored in the bay and lightering in passengers. I overheard someone in the ferry terminal say that one was en route to Iceland!

On the ferry, there was a lorry load of sheep on board which was parked on an open portion of the vehicle deck at the rear of the ship. Overlooking it was one of the outside passenger areas which had a notice saying "No smoking on account of hazardous material." I commented to a fellow passenger: "I didn't think that sheep were that flammable!" ;-) Either thank or they didn't want the sheep to breath second hand smoke!

The passage to Ullapool went by without incident. However, there were two more cruise ships anchored in the loch! It feels very weird to see four in one day. I don't think I saw that many in one day in Puerto Rico.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

On standing stones and brochs

Today began overcast, damp and midge infested. I wanted to apply bug dope but was disappointed to find I had left it in Montreal. The wind had dropped which was just as well as it was generally a headwind today. I set off up the granite slopes of North Harris. The scenery was spectacular but alas steep. It was slow going for quite a while.

Harris gave way to Lewis at a seemingly arbitrary point, but following it, the landscape began to soften. After stopping at the Land Raiders Monument, I rode into a village to mail postcards and eat a banana. While performing the latter action, the two young Englishmen rode by on their way to Stornoway. Their plan was to catch the two o'clock ferry to Ullapool.

As the land leveled out somewhat to peat bog and moorland, I hung a left to take the long way around to Stornoway. This took me to a number of historical sites, most notably the standing stones at Calanish. Unfortunately, the visitor's centre was short on a lot of answers and left me with a lot of questions, such as "Where did they get the stone from?", "Have the archeologists look along the lines suggested by the stones for anything of interest?" and the like.

As I was heading back to Leonardo, an outdoorsy looking woman of about sixty asked me if I would mind Millie, her golden retriever, while she used the loo. I accepted as the golden was very appealing. When she came back, she asked me if I knew where "The Broch" was. (Brochs are a distinctive form Iron Age fortified houses ruins of which can be found in a number of locations in Scotland. I had visited the bare foundations of one in Kintyre in 1996.) Being a librarian, I said I know but I thought I had seen on the map which was on the bike. We headed over there and sure enough, it was only a few miles along the road.

The Broch in question is the best preserved one in existence. I got there after the woman who was from Cornwall and described herself as over-educated. I met as she was leaving and we ended up having a long discussion about history, archeology and tangential  matters. (In hindsight, I should given her my card.)

The Broch was a marvel of preservation and seeing this one gave me insight into the nature of the fragmentary remains I had seen in Kintyre. Also, the sun came out in earnest which was good.

I made a discreet investigation as the whereabouts of the oil rig. The result of this was that I found out which road to take and that said road was cordoned off by the authorities to give easy access for   heavy equipment. I could have hiked over a hill, but the ground in these parts is currently saturated and I didn't have hiking boots.

I was also getting tired. One symptom was growing hunger which I dealt with via chocolate bars. It was also getting lateish so I pressed on in the golden sun over the moors to Stornoway arriving tired but pleased.

For one thing, it was the first day I had ridden in anything but my merino jersey.

Monday, 8 August 2016

On getting to the Harris Tarbert

I got up in the company of two guys from Spain and two Chinese speaking women. I set off to go the long way around to Uig via the Trotternish Penninsula. This was wildly scenic but much hillier than the Uists. I passed the Old Man of Storr and the Kilt Rock. The latter appeared to me like basalt columns viewed from the side. This was in contrast to the horizontal sediments below. Looking at the explanatory sign I found I was spot on about the basalt. I wonder if it is related geologically to the Giants' Causeway and possibly Fingal's Cave in the Inner Hebrides.

I was aiming to catch a particular ferry out of Uig which the ferry guy had suggested I be there by 1:30. There was a stiff wind out of the North which made for slow progress as the sun flitted in and out clouds. There was a shower that started near Staffin and required full rain gear. After the shower, the sun came out in earnest.

One of my guidebooks describes the scenery as Tolkeinesque. However, that must modified as Peter Jackon's version of Tolkeinesque. I made it to the ferry in suitable time, just before the arrival of a pair of young English cycle-tourers with whom I ended up talking quite a bit. Indeed, I am sharing a bunk room in the Tarbert (Harris) hostel. From what I have heard of their plans, I will be seeming them until Ullapool. Therein lies a problem. They are a damn sight fitter than I having covered about sixty miles to my 34 or so. Also, the one I really talked to is woefully ignorant about Scotland and was startled by all the tourists on Skye. Apparently, he hadn't heard of Skye until a few weeks ago!

We were joined in our bunk room by an older cycle tourist from the East Coast of Scotland. He was heading South from Stornoway on his way to Barra. While he was using the hostel computer, a Facebook friend of his sent him a link about an oil rig which ran aground not far from where I intend to go tomorrow. I asked him to show where it happened on my map. Something else to see tomorrow. The weather forecast calls for better weather tomorrow. As well, I have no ferry to catch so no time constraints! Here's to hoping.

Plus, I managed to change my rear brake pads without incident.

This the third Tarbe(r)t I have slept in. Sometimes I think "Tarbert" is the Gaelic word for "Portage".

Sunday, 7 August 2016

On plaster madonnas, music and lifeboats

South and North Uist are notoriously Catholic and Protestant, respectively. I was surprised to see the former represented by two roadside shrines featuring plaster Madonnas. Benbecula is apparently split on the issue as there was the ruins of a medieval church whose grounds were used as an ecumenical burying ground a few hundred yards from the Nunton House Hostel.

While waiting for lunch in the Westford Inn, something in the lyrics of the "fiddle-dy-dee" music seemed familiar. Then it struck me: I was listening to a Celtic/folk version of "The safety dance", a pop song by the Eighties group "Men without hats"! I laughed and told the barmaid who was skeptical until she checked the computer.

While walking along the shore near Portree, I heard the sound of a boat's engine. My immediate thought was: "What duffer would be out in a boat on day like today?" I turned to see Portree's RNLI lifeboat racing off on some errand of mercy.

On a "gale-lic" holiday

Gale warnings for today had been in evidence yesterday. Given the winds were forecast as being more than 50 mph, I decided yesterday to nix my plan of going to Dunvegan (it is not pronounced like a former vegetarian who has discovered the virtues of meat).

Instead, I did my laundry, had a morning snoozed followed by lunch followed by a visit to the Aros Centre to see an exhibition about Saint Kilda. (Apparently, they mostly ate seabirds rather than fish.) Gordon suggested a 3 km nearby coastal walk which rather enjoyed but it would have gone better with hiking boots.

Portree is deep tourist country. This point can be deduced from the 28 B&Bs, 4 self-catering cottages, 1 guesthouse, 1 hotel and 1 hostel I counted between the Aros Centre and my hostel! It has been a fairly prosperous for centuries judging by the buildings. So far, I have heard people speaking French, Chinese, German, Gaelic and probably Italian.

While it has been windy to the point that I have been wearing my rain pants over my trousers for warmth, it hasn't been raining very much. Furthermore, the forecast is for much better weather tomorrow. In some respects, I have been very lucky in having the gale happen on a rest day. A "gale-lic" holiday if you will.

On the best laid plans of mice and men

Yesterday dawned fairly brightly. As I had plenty of time, I poked my nose into the crofter's market opposite the hostel. At that point all I could buy were cupcakes or scented candles.

I rolled along under darkening skies, stopping to change to a yellow lens on my glasses and to photograph the crossing to North Uist. The Uists and Benecula one island during the last ice age. They are still one island at low tide, but in the interest of avoiding Egyptian crossings, causeways have been built between the islands. Also the sand doesn't lend itself to motor vehicles.

The man from South Uist on the ferry had told me that the islands were undeveloped from a tourist perspective. For that matter, I had the feeling the islands' economy has a long way to go in general. The largest town I saw had little in the way of shops and no pub that I could see!  I didn't think it was legal to have a town with no pub in the UK! ;-)  Most of the houses appeared to date from after WW II. From various bits and pieces of information, my take is that the place was bloody poor until the postwar socialist era when crofters were given decent homes by the government. The houses are very spread out.

It began to sprinkle as I crossed to North Uist. I made a detour to have lunch at the Westford Inn, the island's only pub. It was in a Georgian building (one of the few old buildings still in use). Along the way, I stopped at the ruins of the Trinity Temple (Celtic church circa 12th century.)

My rough plan had been to have a good lunch as supper would be late. I therefore indulged in "Cockles cooked in cider with bacon and leeks.) I am not sure what I expected. What I got amounted to a tasty variation on the theme of moules-frites. A person next to me was thinking about ordering monkfish. I couldn't help making a joke to the effect that a large monkfish is called an abbottfish!

Going past a smokehouse, noticed a pile of peat ready for use. For some reason, the road to Lochmaddy was double tracked the whole way, unlike the haphazard mix of single and double track I had seen up until then. Furthermore, this road had few houses off of it. It was mostly moor and peat bog. I stopped to see a Stone Age tomb. Afterwards, it began to rain in earnest. Really nasty stuff especially with the wind from the South-West. The wind got me to Lochmaddy with hours to spare before the 1630 sailing of the ferry to Uig. My first action was to head to the CalMac office to make sure the ferry was running! As I explained to man behind the desk, it is one thing to be delayed by a cancelled ferry. It would be far worse if you only find at the last minute.

I split my time between in Lochmaddy between their museum/cultural centre which was a step from the usual as it dealt with prehistoric times rather than the contents of grannies' cupboards, having a half of cider in the Lochmaddy hotel and fretting in the ferry office as the weather was getting worse. I chatted with a man who have offered me a lift to Portree from Uig had his car not already been filled with five people and their bikes! I have seen a lot of bikes carried on cars and vans. Most interesting are the rear bike racks that include brake lights. I find it very good idea.

A couple arrived on two tandem bikes with young boys on the rear seats. I took pity on them as unlike me they had to deal with blame assignment and whining. I later spoke with them. It turned out their car was waiting for them in Uig.

My plan had been to ride the 26 km between Uig and Portree after arriving on the ferry at 1815. However, the weather delayed our arrival by about 30 minutes. I turned on my rear blinky light and set off up the hill out of Uig. I didn't get very far. After the climb, the road emerged into the open and the full force of the wind and the rain hit me in the face. Thankfully the sheep didn't (that was a local's joke). I hemmed and hawed then turned around and made for the Uig Hotel to ask the desk clerk if he could arrange a taxi for me and my bike to Portree. He did so but informed me the taxi would have to come from Portree, so it would be twenty minutes or more. My response was: "Well, that gives me time to have a pint!" And walked over to the bar.

In contrast to the Uists, Skye is well developed for tourists. The Portree Independent Hostel (next door to the Scottish Youth Hostel) was full but thankfully I had a reservation and Gordon the manager signed me in, told me where to park Leonardo and suggested a restaurant.

I was wiped and very glad I had opted for the taxi. In fact, my only regret was not having opted for it sooner! One telling statistic about  yesterday is that I changed my socks five times.

Friday, 5 August 2016

On the repercussions of moving Leonardo at 3:45 AM

Shifting Leonardo around at 3:45 in the morning was a right royal pain in the arse. Not only did it interrupt my sleep, but it also made it harder for me to get to sleep as there was the anxiety of anticipation. Together with the motion of the train and my relatively poor ability to get to sleep, I got very little sleep either before or after Edinburgh. Once the train reached the Highlands, the ride quality diminished as the rails became shorter and were no longer welded together. At least, that is my theory. Suffice it to say, I spent the following day in a sleep deprived daze.

When I finally gave up trying to sleep, we were well to the North of Loch Lomond. I ate breakfast crossing Ranoch Moor. Well before arriving in Fort William, I gathered up my stuff from my room to move it to the baggage car where Leonardo waited.

The Jacobite steam train was waiting in Fort William, being the only other train in the station. (There are only two platforms.) Although the Caledonian Sleeper belongs to another company, I suspect the two companies have a friendly agreement to coordinate arrival and departure times.

The Lancashire Fusilier steam locomotive was surrounded by fans and photographers both on the platform and from across the tracks over a fence. Some lucky people got to stand in the cab between the times when one of the firemen had to shovel coal into grate. After about fifteen minutes, whistles were blown and the Jacobite set off in a flurry of steam.

While waiting for the conventional diesel service (which was less than a quarter of the cost and would allow bike reservations), I shopped for lunch and munchies at the supermarket located next to the station and chatted with three successive pairs of cycle tourists from one each from Poland, the Netherlands and France! One of the latter two pairs mentioned their troubles finding accommodation which had led them to having to take a train to Ranoch. This made me feel I had been wise to reserve everything in June!

The train to Mallaig arrived about twenty minutes late and was rather crowded. Getting both Leonardo and my bags on was made trickier by people standing around vaguely in the doorways. I nabbed a seat facing forwards in a four seat section with three people on a day trip to Mallaig from Glasgow. They were wondering just where the train was so I was able to help them by whipping out my road maps!

The West Highland Line rightfully earns its place as one of the Great Train Journeys of the World. I am not going to elaborate further.

I will say that I had to get my pre-paid tickets for myself and Leonardo printed in Didcot. Of the six stubs, exactly none was asked for by ScotRail. Possibly, I missed something.

Mallaig was familiar to me and had relatively few distractions to to offer while I waited for the ferry to Lochboisdale. There was a small museum which while interesting couldn't keep my attention for long. At the Calmac ferry office, I thought about writing a blog entry only to find the battery was very low on the iPhone. I used their plug just below an RNLI donation box. I dumped much of my small change into it. (This was done partly to rid myself of the bulk of pennies and tuppences.)

The ferry was the Lord of the Isles. It towered over the lesser ferries serving the Isle of Skye. It also had a very nice set of lounges. As it was a bit early for supper, I thought about finding a nice stretch of couch where I might lie down for a toes-up. I wondered if this was really allowed for a little while until I saw other people doing so. It did me good to close my eyes.

Supper was a cold peppered smoked fillet of mackerel. How that isn't a kipper eludes me.

Late in the crossing, I was sampling Calmac's "malt of the month" (14 year old Oban) to which the bartender had added too of a back. I sat next to a chap from South Uist. He lived as a contractor slash civil engineer Inverness but was going home for a family function. We fell to chatting and out of puckish malice I decided I would tell him about the Construction Workers' Holiday in Quebec. He was horrified at the notion!

The Lochboisdale Hotel is so close to the ferry terminal that I didn't bother getting on Leonardo! It was warm welcoming place.  The only downside was the discovery that I had managed to mislay my yellow sweat cap between the top deck of the Lord of the Isles and my room at the hotel. I went back to the ferry to look but had no luck. After a lovely shower, I collapsed into a well-deserved sleep.

The place mats in the breakfast room featured cartoonish depictions of sheep with pun based caption, mostly involving the word "ewe". My favourite was one of a sheep driving a donkey cart with an "L" plate displayed with the caption "Form-ewe-la 1"!

After a careful repacking of my clobber and an intense sweep of the room which produced a packet of Dutch prescription medication, I began my trek. It was a shade anti-climatic. For one thing, it was always going to be a short day. Also, it was a day which alternated between cloud, rain and sun. Not to mention all three at once. ;-) In hindsight, I should made a detour South to Eriksay and the wreck of the S.S. Politician made famous by Compton Mackenzie in "Whiskey Galore".  The route weaved around rocks and lochans (small lochs) on the rolling machair (wet, grassy seaside plain with low silica content in the soil) which made for easy cycling despite the frequent single track road but assisted by a tailwind.

Anyway, despite a museum, a scenic detour and waiting too long lunch, I got to the Nunton House Hostel on Benbecula by three. I don't how far I rode today as I had neglected to zero my bike computer.

After a shower, laundry and brief toes up, I wandered over to a nearby beach. There was a wet-suited trio standing about waist deep in the surf. Despite having talked to one of them, I am unclear as to the purpose of the exercise. It may have been boogie-boarding. I saw a grey seal observing the trio.  Good first day on the whole.

As a random note, I assume I will have transfer Leonardo again on the Caledonian Sleeper from Inverness to London. Thankfully, if memory serves, it leaves Edinburgh about midnight which is a better time to be awake than 3:45 AM.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

On having to move Leonardo from one end of the Caledonian Sleeper to the other at 3:45 AM

Isn't that what railway porters are for? ;-)

On a warm welcome to England

In hindsight, I should have taken a taxi to the airport as the effort of dragging the bike and the duffle to the 747 bus via the Metro left me drenched in sweat. When I got into the airport, the first thing I did was change into a clean T-shirt.

Checking my luggage into British Airways went very smoothly.  Likewise, the flight went well, partly because I flew premium economy which meant lots of lovely legroom.

There was quite a wait to get through Customs. While waiting, I saw a sign which said there was some sort of accelerated access program for select Commonwealth countries (e.g. Canada, New Zealand). However, I would have had to apply before leaving.

Getting to Didcot from Heathrow involved two changes of train. The second of which involved going up and down stairs at Harlington and Hayes, elevators being a work in progress. I was very grateful to a fellow passenger who spontaneously offered to carry my duffle across.

I phoned Elly to let her know I was on the train to Didcot. I then turned on "The slow train" by Flanders and Swann and relaxed.

Elly is taking a couple of weeks off and is therefore able to be a wonderful host not only to me but Dan, her daughter Caddy's German boyfriend, who due to an unfortunate turn of events needed shelter on very short notice. Colin, Elly's husband, has been very welcoming in his somewhat silly South Wales bloke-ish way. Needless to say, Bella and Bridie are happy to have another body to Mooch from.

Yesterday, Elly drove me to see Izzy and John in Bromyard. They now live in a fairly nice home. John is very reduced in his faculties though his spirit still shines through. Izzy is reduced in mobility though seemed very peppy. Elly, Izzy and I had lunch in a pub dating from roughly the 17th century. Afterwards, Elly drove me back to Didcot via many smaller towns and villages where she lived as a child. While doing so, she gave her version of her parents histories. The most significant point being that Izzy has difficulty maintaining the cheery facade she had shown us for long.

When we got back, I assembled Leonardo and took a test run down to the station to pick up pre-ordered tickets. Afterwards, I sorted the twenty-odd stubs into baggies for each trip!  

Today, I did laundry and chatted with Elly and others. I have just sorted and packed so I am about to leap into action any second now and catch the train to London.

Monday, 1 August 2016

On where I am

Waiting for a train in Heathrow. Luggage and Leonardo are with me.