Through the Highlands to John o’Groats

Almost there now, we have 5 days of cycling through some stunning countryside to John o’Groats. That is after…

DAY 25: Day off – into Fort William we go

Time to relax… We pootled into Fort William to go for a swim, if you remember R noticed it when we arrived. The first pool I’ve ever come across where the lifeguards require young swimmers to take a competency test; 2 lengths in 2 minutes and 1 minute of treading water. R is fine at swimming but the drains make him anxious and distract him. Whilst he completed the lengths, and the treading water which was new to him, he wasn’t allowed to go out of the shallow end as he hesitated looking at the drains whilst swimming to the deep end. Oh well, we still managed an hour of splashing. Underneath the surface though my legs were aching!

Then on into Fort William we go. I hadn’t had a chance to glue my seat post so have to get a new one. R spots a few 🔺s on the way. The pattern of this one is his favourite.

Back in Off Beat Bikes, where we stopped Sunday afternoon, I go about swapping the seat post over saving me digging round in my tool bag later. Obviously the bamboo catches the attention of the owner and staff and we chat about the build and adventure whilst I fettle. Thanks guys, it got me to the end and further.

It’s gone lunch time by now so after a quick shop for supplies we indulge and stop at a cafe in the railway station. Bonus for R as there are lots more 🔺s in the car park! Then head back to the campsite. R gets some swings in. There are other kids there so I hang about. It begins to rain and just in time as R struggles with all the new faces. So we head back to the tent then do some laundry ready for the final leg. R does some colouring in his book. An older gent sheltering in the warmth of the laundry spots it and mentions his grand daughter would like one. Anyway we get talking, he spends 6 months a year up in the hills walking all over The Highlands, he is modest but I get the impression he may be a bit of a legend from some of his stories, I don’t ask his name and he doesn’t give it, happy just to recant tales of the great outdoors.

Time ticks on, we do the campsite restaurant again as it is bucketing down. Then early to bed.

🔺s = 23 | Total = 682
9km around | 70m of bumps

DAY 26: Glen Nevis – Carn an t-Suidhe, nr Fort Augustus

All refreshed we bid farewell to the mighty mountain, again shrouded in a veil of cloud. Today we’d be following the Great Glen north to Loch Ness mainly using traffic free paths: the Caledonian Canal, Clunes & South Laggan Forest track and the old Spean Bridge to Fort Augustus railway. Firstly on the tow path we cruised along the canals edge between Loch Eil and Lochy, occasionally with the views of the latter river meandering to the sea. The Great Glen is a geological fault line but also carved out by glaciers at the end of the last ice age; another tick for the I Spy. The going is easy, for the moment, with there only being a 35m difference in water heights between sea level and the highest point; the later canal section from Loch Lochy to Oich. The path is bathed in dappled sunlight as we pass trees lining the canal bank.

Always to our right the clouds swirl around Ben Nevis. A large butterfly flies ahead of me and settles on a bush not far ahead. I screech to a halt and call R. He comes racing back but just before he’s there it flutters-by up into the trees. It was a Red Admiral, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one not pinned to a display board. OK we’d better keep our eyes open from now on. I see several at height but we only get a brief glimpse of one at close range for R to see its markings. It is also in the I Spy book.

Whilst the canal path is flat, there obviously is no canal when there is a loch. Passing the length of Loch Lochy you have two options as a cyclist; the A82, a busy trunk road, or a quiet forest track. Of course we went for the forest track even with its bumps and lumps. Stopping at a bird hide for lunch hanging our feet over the edge of the steep bank to the loch below. A couple of walkers who we’d passed earlier were walking the shoreline below us when R shouts ‘BOO!’ I’ve never seen humans with fully laden backpacks jump so high! Fuelled we jump back on our bikes.

After the boo came ‘I need a poo!’ In the middle of nowhere there is only one thing to do. Typical! It is at that moment with R leaning against a tree that someone decides to ride past. Sod’s Law.

Soon we are off the forest track, make use of some holiday pods’ swings and cross to the other side of the Glen. More canal path at Laggan Locks and a stop at The Eagle Inn on the Water; a converted barge with bar and cafe. We enjoy some refreshments and chat to the current custodians, an American couple who get free board in return for some of their time during the week. R plays with some Lego, I sample the proprietor’s hot sauce (I’m a chilli head, if it makes me hiccup I know it’s good, it did!) and purchase a small tub for later.

The tow path ends, no dazzling diamond drains spotted, now to use the old railway path starting at Invergarry station. We fly along passing Lock Oich with a ruined castle and shipwreck on the opposite bank and several groups of DofE (I presume) teenagers marching the other way and setting up camp between the trackbed and loch’s shore. We get to Aberchalder swing bridge just as it begins to swing. Plonking down on a picnic bench we do more food. It is getting on a bit now, about 17:00 with 20km to go and the biggest climb (on our bikes!) of the entire ride. We watch a steam boat chug smut as it heads south, then clean said smut from our eyes.

More canal path. Rainbows on the hills above the Glen and we arrive at Fort Augustus, the head of Loch Ness. Quick stop for provisions and we bimble on to the climb. I’ve done a lot of climbs in the UK, this is steep but not the steepest by any means, but it is the biggest gain all in one go; 450m in 9km. R happily sails up it. This is part of General Wade’s Military Road and at the top the view is spectacular even in the diminishing light.

Almost at the top

Admittedly the final bit was pushed as we threw our bike over the fence and followed a path to the summit of Carn an t-Suidhe where we’d be wild camping for the night at 450m!

The next morning

🔺s = 15 | Total = 697
64km forwards | 1021m of up

DAY 27: Carn an t-Suidhe to Cromarty

What a view! The sun was out, the wind blowing over the edge of the ridge that we were nestled behind.

There had been ‘a curious incident of the bog in the night’ and we’d have to make a brief stop at a laundrette later, first a wild wash for R with chilly water! I decided then to take a slightly different route for the day and drop down to Loch Ness at Foyers and find a cafe for breakfast. We came across a lovely one on the outskirts, Camerons Tea Room and Farm Shop, CTC Highland’s 2015 best cafe, the walls were adorned with cycling jerseys.

We set about devouring our food. Full Scottish for me, pancakes, bacon and maple syrup for R. Then we get wind that they are rearing a deer in an enclosure outside and Blossom likes nothing more than being fed grapes!

Off we go again and what better way to help your food go down than a quick blast on some swings?! Followed by a walk down to the Falls of Foyers.

With Loch Ness now to our left we carefully make our way north. Even though part of the National Cycle Network it is quite a busy and narrow B road impatient holiday drivers that I have to constantly manage to avoid close passes. But we did spot another red squirrel and this time I managed a photo as it perched motionless in the tree trying to avoid our gaze.

Inverness, we ride around trying to find a laundrette. The first is more of a service, “you’ll get it back in 3 days”, we move on and find a traditional one with attendant. It is heaving so there is a wait but not too long. The attendant pours what seems like a bucket load of powder in. After the wash I pull out the sleeping bag and even after a spin it is dripping. The attendant explains that is usually the case because of the material, gives me a basket and tells me to go and stand on the pavement and wring the excess out. Bubbles everywhere! It is still full of soap (a cunning ploy?) so I chuck it through again without any powder. The machines won’t do rinse only so it’s another 40min wait for a full cycle (another cunning ploy?). R has done drawing, eating lunch on the pavement, more drawing, some Lego game and is now bouncing around making snorting noises. The attendant asks R to sit down, he just snorts at her, she flips as the wash ends and orders him out. We go outside and wring the sleeping bag again. Much better! I explain that for the moment R will have to wait outside whilst I go inside and load the tumble dryer. The attendant mutters something about “if that was my kid they’d have seen the back of my hand”. “Well he isn’t!” and I tell her a few truths, her face set changes and I get on with the drying before joining R on the pavement. I assure him and tell him not to worry, even though he’d got fast not every one understands and it would be nice if he comes in and apologises. After calming himself down with the aid of a big cuddle he does. The attendant apologises to R too and after we have collected our stuff wishes R all the best with the rest of his trip. I hope that in that instance I may have changed one person’s views on the challenges others have in life. And I think that her reaction may have helped R too in understanding sometimes his actions may be interpreted wrongly.

Leaving the city behind we stop quickly at Halfords. I’ve had battery issues so pick up a new one, going for the largest capacity as it had a good amount of charge to last us a few days. R is out in the car park 🔺 spotting; the Inverness Halfords’ Triangle of 🔺s! Then crossing the Beauly Firth on the path adjacent to the A9 we look back the way we came seeing the peak we spent last night on. I thought we would as last night I could see 2 red lights on the horizon that I guessed were atop the bridge!

We pass a lay-by and a man comes across asking us if we were Family ByCycle as he was following their adventure on Twitter; I say no, tell him we are also on an adventure and think no more of it.

After the protracted stop in Inverness we begin to cross the ‘Black Isle’ to Cromarty in the early evening. R is sucking my wheel and day dreaming, he clips it and takes a tumble. Anger at himself ensues. Big cuddles, a large plaster to cover a small scuff to the knee and a little time and everything is OK. Then we start planning. R has ideas of a campsite in the future and he is laying it out in his head: cafe, drains, door handles, job roles, car park, signs, lights, no caravans or motorhomes but yes to campervans, pods, activities etc etc. He wants to lead bike rides for kids! Time is pushing on and the sun setting.

I consult Google Maps for a restaurant in Cromarty rather than faffing with cooking. We find one and pick up the pace, luckily downhill from here! We get there and it is packed. Luckily the owner allows us to usurp her teenager from the ‘window bar’ and we get our order in just in time, PIZZA!

The atmosphere and staff at Sutor Creek are amazing. As we wait R nips outside for a few more 🔺 pics and to call Mummy. I follow, we chat to the owner and let on what we are doing. She is amazed. There is a birthday group on the other side of the restaurant, they get wind of the feat and soon R is holding court! I leave him to it and enjoy a beer.

Gone 22:00 it’s time to leave so I go to pay, it’s been covered, I don’t know what to say apart from a massive ‘thank you’. What a great bunch of people, one of the highlights of the trip!

In the dark we make our way to the mouth of Cromarty Firth to wild camp, as are several campervans and motorhomes, with the sound of the sea lapping the beach not too far away.

🔺s = 91 | Total = 798
87km forwards | 790m of up

DAY 28: Cromarty to The Crask Inn

We wake with Cromarty Lighthouse just behind us and R enjoys breakfast on the beach with the legs of oil rigs towering the other side of the firth’s outlet. Cromarty Firth is a hotbed of oil rig refits, which the group R held court with last night were involved in. Once packed we have a short trip across to Nigg on the other side via the ferry; as it was a very low tide we embark from the beach.

An easy beginning to the day unfolds as we make our way to Invershin having stopped at a bakery in Tain and skirted Dornoch Firth with obligatory breather on some swings in Ardgay. Here we turn from the main road and head to Culrain along the signed NCN 1; a sign warns of steps ahead. Leaving the quiet roads we join a path adjacent to the railway with views of Carbisdale Castle before crossing Kyle of Sutherland with the steps. These are an addition to the railway bridge and I do wonder why a ramp wasn’t considered. I unload my bike and hump it, R’s and the panniers down the first flight, load up then unload for the second flight on the other side.

A bit later we approach Shin Falls and see a train trundle along way above us on the side of the gorge. We’d be up there coming the other way in a few days.

Before going to peek at the falls we have lunch in the playground by the visitor centre. As we finish pssssst! I’ve got a puncture. R goes on playing as I do my thing. I find it isn’t from an intrusion, I run the bomb proof Marathon Plus tyres, but the old tubes. Reused from the bike I striped down before our depart. A small tear on a seam, I should’ve replaced them when I got home but they are still going, for now. Down to the falls we go. Noticeboards inform us of jumping salmon. I snap away. Obviously we only see a jumping salmon when I’m not. Back home I notice that I did actually catch one with the first snap.

A jumping salmon – squint, it’s just above R’s right arm

Very slowly climbing we head to Lairg. Another cyclist pulls along side, he’s doing LEJOG as part of a larger group with full support, he says a few will be staying at The Crask Inn but he’ll be stopping in Lairg. With words of encouragement to R he heads on.

Lairg to The Crask. Oh my this was lovely. Big skies and that northern sun contrast sublimely with the beauty of the wilderness around us and the mountains in the distance (see header photo). Every so often a logging lorry would trundle by. A couple of large birds of prey circled in the distance; later we discovered they were probably Hen Harriers. Not in the I Spy book but an exceptional spot!

After the ‘steepest’ climb of the gentle 30km incline we spot our destination. The Crask Inn, an infamous stop for those taking the scenic LEJOG route. After a few games of dominoes, a peppermint tea for R and a pint for me ‘we’ set about pitching the tent in the garden for a small donation. I say ‘we’ as very quickly I send R back inside with his colouring book. The air is saturated with another infamous Scottish feature; midges! I cover myself in Smidge (the new Avon Skin So Soft), get the tent up as quick as possible and cook. We eat inside. The sub group of the cyclist we met earlier begins to arrive, again word has spread and R regales them with tales of our adventure whilst slurping noodles and drinking more peppermint tea through a straw!

Psalm 90:2? The last owner of The Crask Inn was unable to find a buyer so he bequeathed it to The Scottish Episcopal Church to remain as an inn.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

They go off to dinner as R finishes his. We sign the visitor’s book then I rush outside to get the wash kit, luckily the swarm has subsided. We were going to shower but being in the middle of nowhere The Crask doesn’t have mains water and relies on a small loch. They’ve actually had a drought up here and it is incredibly low so no shower tonight. More reading of Swallows & Amazons, 2 chapters and R drifts off. I go back inside to imbibe ale and fine whisky.

🔺s = 24 | Total = 822
83km forwards | 790m of up

DAY 29: The Crask Inn to Halladale Inn, Melvich then an audacious dash to Thurso!

If I thought the midges last night were bad I knew nothing. This morning they were fittingly a biblical plague! My skin was black and I was scraping them off my eyes. Whilst the Smidge worked the shear density meant it also stuck the blighters to my skin. I sent R inside again whilst I cooked and packed up, I trapped loads of them in the tent ready for our last night of camping. Eating inside again we enjoyed tea and coffee for me this time.

Bidding our farewells and thanks for the hospitality we head off. The clouds were back hanging on summits in the distance. After a short climb it would be gradually downhill all the way to the coast; about 50km away. Passing a plantation of firs off to the left I notice it gives an interesting echo so we begin shouting at the trees; “RED”, “fart brain”, “bum bum poo head”, “stop it!”, “you started it”. Then to each other; “we’re almost there”, “where”, “the end, John o’Groats”, “Daddy can we cycle back?”, “where to Red”, “Land’s End” – I have to admit I welled slightly at that. Red the Rocket in his red jacket is amazing!

We begin the descent stopping in Altnaharra first to use the facilities at the hotel then for a swing on some red swings with Ben Klibreck hiding in clouds having been the back drop since the top.

Then into Strathnaver we turn with it loch, forest and valley extending to the sea. This is steeped in history as a notice board points out referenced as far back as the 2nd Century.

R is lagging, I get a feeling it may be intentional, I don’t think he wants it to be over! We grab a couple of cakes from a small campsite’s shop and munch, sat on a stone overlooking the loch before onwards and downwards.

At the mouth of the Naver it is a quick climb to Bettyhill where we stop for a late lunch at a picnic table. We are joined by a cheeky cockerel scavenging for crumbs much to R’s amusement!

From here we’ll be on the main road along the coast. Plenty of ups and downs ensue. As do the occasional stream of identical cars interspersed with lone campers and motorhomes. For now we are on the North Coast 500, made popular by Jeremy and crew on Top Gear.

With views of rocky headlands, sandy beaches and the Orkneys in the distance we continue on our way. R is asking about tomorrow, the distance, where we’d be staying and tonight’s dinner. The plan was to use the campsite and cook at the Halladale Inn. R I think is fed up with pasta and comes up with a plan. If we eat at the Halladale Inn can we continue to Thurso? I get in touch with Jon, a Warmshowers host, and check if we can arrive a night early, that’s fine. So we stop for food and fill up. We won’t have to deal with the midges trapped in the tent after all!

It is gone 19:00 and we have an unplanned 25km to do to Thurso. This will take the pressure off tomorrow of cycling past where we were going to stay for the final stint. R is on form and shoots off like the proverbial rocket. A couple more climbs confront us but at a much gentler grade. Like a night train we move with R sucking my wheel. We arrive in Thurso and find Jon’s. His place is a work in progress, not that we mind, and we set up our sleeping area in the other room. After a short chin wag I get R into bed before having a proper chat.

Jon likes touring, with his tuba, we enjoy a few beers, talk about life, bikes, doing up properties etc. I think R’s age took him a little by surprise. R liked him and Jon accommodated his eye for details like light bulbs, switches and how many screws were in each door handle. Tomorrow he even showed R round his other house that he now rents as an AirB&B. Jon kindly offers to pick us up from John o’Groats if we cook dinner for him and some guests in the evening. Sounds like a plan!

🔺s = 24 | Total = 846
102km forwards | 1050m of up

DAY 30: Thurso to Dunnet Head to John o’Groats

With Jon kindly offering to pick us up and because we were now starting 25km along from where I intended to we now had a much more relaxing day, so we decided to head to the northern most point of the UK mainland; Dunnet Head with a lighthouse built by Robert Stevenson (the elder, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson). In hindsight we should have gone to The Lizard in Cornwall as well for the most southerly point.

It was a schlep up over the headland but it didn’t matter as the sun was out. The wind was too and there was a stiff breeze in the air. On our way back heading east we stopped at Windhaven Cafe, which we’d passed earlier, to have some lunch. Lovely little place and the owners had only just taken it on a couple of weeks before. The North Coast 500 not only has bought more people to the area but also more business opportunities. Jon told me even a Premier Inn was in the planning for Thurso!

The owner said we could walk round back, the cafe was perched on the cliffs and there was a path down to the beach where we may see some seals. We didn’t. But we did spot another Red Admiral and this time I got a picture.

Scrambling back up our sandwiches were ready. I’d forgot to ask for no marg/butter on R’s so a few minutes later out popped take 2. We chat a bit to a couple of other patrons who are doing the NC500 then head on along the coast. The wind picks up even more, we are so close, the final push against the headwind is along the main road and there it is in the distance.

John o’Groats in the distance

We were going to go to Duncansby Head to see the lighthouse there and sea stacks for the I Spy book, but we’d already seen a few along the coast so with the excitement we decided to go straight to the end.

I’m sure you don’t want this to end at the very end so I’m going to insert this here. That evening after cooking for Jon & co we got ready for our morning depart. It was an early train and would take all day. We had no seats booked with just a generic bike reservation and managed to wing it all the way back to Bristol in one day. We watched Scotland and England roll by. It was emotional at times; R wants to do JOGLE and would’ve liked to do it straight away. We talk about future plans. Eventually we arrive back at Temple Meads late evening, cycled home and knocked on the front door. Big hugs from Mummy.

OK, back to the end. Just before we make our final turn we spot a couple shoot past from the south with two young girls on tag-alongs behind them.

This was Family ByCycle. Tom, Katie, Ruth (now the fastest on a tag-along) and Rhoda (now the youngest to cycle). They arrived seconds before us. They had just done LEJOG too by a more direct route. We had a good chat. A week or two later they invited us to a lovely festival at the end of September where they’d be giving a talk; Yestival (unfortunately R was struck down with a bug whilst we were there so we missed the talk). Hopefully we’ll get to ride with them all in the future.

And then it was our turn to stand underneath that finger post; the last of them that epitomises the LEJOG journey. It still makes me emotional. I can’t describe the feelings I had but they were over whelming. I’m so amazed by and proud of my boy, he was proud of his achievement as well. R stuck an Audax Club Bristol sticker to the post.

Then we had the most amazing Rock & Limpet hug ever. Here’s to more wonderful adventures!

🔺s = 11 | Total = 857
50km forwards | 445m of up
Stage: 396km | 3900m
Adventure: 1,821km | 17,980m

Adventure Chapters

  1. Land’s End to Birthday Weekend
  2. Mummy & on to The Lakes
  3. Grandpa Pom & on to Glen Nevis
  4. From Glen to Ben and back again!
  5. Through the Highlands to John o’Groats

The nitty gritty to follow soon: planning, bike building etc