Day Four…

…was an early start made easier by the luxurious showers and comfortable lounge of the guest house. The breakfast continued in the same vein. We were up early because we had plans to visit Dornoch before setting off (see separate post.)

Despite the brief cycling tour of Dornoch our cycle officially started from the guest house at lunchtime, although we decided to take lunch with us and get at least an hour under our belts before eating. After the longest day yesterday this was to be our shortest day, and flattest day with less than half the climbing we did on other days.

It started along the Dornoch Firth Bridge. Before this was built in 1991, the only way to cross the firth was up at Bonar Bridge, a round trip of 26 miles. It was a windy crossing, but stunning views. 32589C19-12CC-4E1E-BCBA-66FEC3E6B80D

We soon stopped for lunch on a logging track before continuing along the undulating road through pine forests, gorse bushes and tiny hamlets. We were in the high road with the audible A9 between us and the Cromarty Firth which we occasionally glimpsed.

We made good progress along mostly country roads some off road cycle paths through Alness, and with only a few stops and made it to Black Rock Caravan and Camping site. There was no one in reception and I think the on, off rain meant they were quite surprised to find us wanting to camp! There was also a fair bit of water on the ground so they were careful which pitch they offered us and even then expected us to say it was a bit too wet. But by now we are hardy campers so we went for it!

Jonny, however, was not feeling any better with his cold so he opted for a dorm bed.

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We paid for the pitch and then waited for the others to arrive. They had gone North to see a castle and then intended on visiting one of the many distilleries we saw sign-posted along the coast. The ‘no children’ rule meant they couldn’t do the latter, but instead they found a coffee shop to enjoy. We found a pub in Evanton to sit in and dry off and warm up a bit till they arrived.

Once the tents were pitched we headed back to the pub for food and since it was too cold for sitting around we turned in for an early night.

Day 4

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Dornoch

What a fantastic place. Although I am sure anywhere is fantastic when you are with others who think it is fantastic and who want to share it with you. Joan and Jerry are those people.

Jerry is the chairman of HistoryLinks, the Museum in Dornoch. A fantastic place with a thorough history of the area documented and displayed. We had a good look around before heading to Cocoa Mountain for hot chocolate and truffles!

Famous for the golf course and Madonna’s wedding, Dornoch is picturesque and quaint and a lovely Scottish place to be.

We also had a task to do. Jerry has been involved in trying to set a rickshaw business to show tourists around the town. It never quite made it, but one of the bikes was being stored in town and he needed it moving. We fixed the punctures and oiled the chain and set about riding it back to the guest house. It was not built for speed and had few, and only high, gears so it was a slog. Jonny and I took turns to pedal or ride in the back and for a while, Becca and Levi came for a ride but that was too hard work!!

We hope to visit Dornoch again and wander around much more!!

 

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Day 3…

…was our longest day and also our highest day. We started off pretty high, having woken up overlooking Loch Naver and eating a hearty Hunter’s Breakfast, and immediately started climbing even higher.

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The scenery continued to be spectacular, despite the on/off drizzle, and we following a soaring buzzard up the road for ages. Our first goal was The Crask Inn, which we mistakenly thought was at the summit. Anyone who has even looked into doing an End-to-End journey will know of The Crask Inn. It is the only hostelry for a long way, especially if you are going North so most travellers will stop there. We had arranged to meet the others there for mid-morning refreshments, so when we got to the top we were expectant. It is not at the top, however, so we didn’t find it until heading downhill for some way.

We were met in the yard by a friendly dog who showed us into the warm, firelit pub which was today being hosted by a friend of the owners, who were on holiday. They don’t seem to have a menu, they will just make whatever they can so a quick chat about what we would like led to drinks and cakes arriving. As I think is common, we met some other cyclists heading north. One was on her own as her husband had realised he has lost his gloves and had gone back for them, potentially 15 miles back from where she left him an hour or so ago! They had been on their End-to-End journey for a few months, taking a very indirect route. They always met up in the same place in the evening but apparently rarely cycled together along the way- different paces and different interests!

It was then downhill all the way, pretty much. A few times we wondered whether we would be able to roll most of the way to the coast. It may well have been possible, but we were keen to get there quicker! We stopped for some lunch in the shelter of a small woodland and then continued to descend, passing the guy who had lost his gloves about 10miles down.

The long downhill meant good time and we arrived in Lairg fairly quickly. We now had to choose between the main straight road or the more scenic windy, rolling road. There was really no contest for us especially since there were waterfalls promised on the scenic route! The drizzle continued but failed to dampen our spirits and we soon arrived at the Falls of Shin. We found a brand new visitors centre, built in the shape of a fish, to highlight the annual spectacle of the salmon run, where the salmon return from their migration out at sea to the riverbed where they were spawned- despite having to climb massive, fast-flowing waterfalls!! Shin Falls was one such place and at certain times of the year, sadly not whilst we were there, you can witness the great leaps of the salmon up the falls. Even without the salmon, the falls were spectacular and well worth a stop.

The others, however, missed the turnoff for the scenic road. Instead, they got to visit Europe’s largest sheep market!!

We continued downhill, now following the river, and loving the beautiful surroundings. Over old bridges and through quaint villages. We stopped briefly at Bonar Bridge to snigger like schoolboys, which made us miss Keith, a past cycling companion who would have loved the name!

The last stretch, along the Dornoch Firth, was the only slog of the day. As we left Bonar Bridge the sign said 12 miles and by that stage that seemed too far! We put our heads down and pedalled, into the wind, as it seemed like dusk set in. Keeping my eyes peeled for dolphins on the firth was to no avail, though.

The plan was to camp and we had identified a campsite on the coast. However, my Mum had some friends in Dornoch, who also ran a guest house, so she was planning on staying with them. They had gone ahead and found the campsite, even paid for a pitch, so we headed to meet them there.
By the time we got there, finding no one to check in with, we used the facilities and got cold waiting for our stuff to arrive. After a while, it did, along with the news that the guests expected at the guest house were not going to arrive tonight so they had a whole guest house free!! Jonny has started feeling ill and the wind had picked up, so we jumped at the chance.

We left the windy coastal campsite jubilantly, heading for the luxurious Wester Winhill Guest House. Joan and Jerry obviously love being hosts and they are great at it, we were made to feel so welcome. After showers and rest, they took us on a tour of Dornoch then cooked a massive meal. So many stories to tell and knowledge to share about the local area and beyond. By bedtime, we were as mentally exhausted from being entertained as we were physically exhausted from the cycling!

The short walk across the driveway treated us to the night sounds of the birds on the coastal flats and shadowy views of the hills.

 

Day 3

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Day 2…

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…started early, as is usual with a 9-month-old! The bluster of yesterday remained although it was at least dry to start with. Mum survived, and even enjoyed her night in the tent. She was sure that animals had been right next to the tent in the night, which wasn’t a bad thing for her!

We packed up and set off in the wind and the rain followed shortly. We had to stop to put more layers on as it was getting very cold, and a couple of times when we came across a bus shelter we stopped for a drink and snack in the relative warm out of the wind.

The road climbed and dropped, but mostly climbed as we moved away from the coast a little. Then we saw them!

We had missed much of the scenery and views due to the fog and driving rain, but we had hoped to find real-life highland coos as an iconic animal for this leg of the journey. It was a morale booster, lifting our spirits as we stopped to take photos, whilst they mostly ignored us!

We continued the slog, and it really was! At one point we enjoyed the relative shelter of a rocky outcrop by the side of the road but as we emerged from it the wind actually blew me sideways a little- no mean feat!

The next morale boost came at the next bus shelter whe

re we had stopped for a break. The support car turned up!! Shelter from the wind, some dry socks, some flapjack, and a friendly face was just what we needed. The bus-stop, though, was at the bottom of a long steady hill climb. For the next hour or so we climbed, turning sharp corners round rocky mounds revealed the next section of the climb!! At one particularly difficult bit, the mobile library stopped to ask if I wanted a lift- Jonny was a way ahead so it looked like I was all alone and struggling!! “Are you lost?” they asked. “Are you crazy?” the continued when I declined!

It was only 5 more miles to Bettyhill, and we hoped it was mostly downhill from there. It turns out it was, but at one point I was pedaling hard down quite a steep hill and still only managed to get the speedometer to 18mph!! The scenery we could see remained stunning, so many small lochs whipped up by the wind. The rain stopped as we descended towards Bettyhill and found a little cafe just before the town, offering warmth and refreshment! No phone signal meant that we couldn’t contact the others to try and meet up with them so we tucked into a well-deserved soup and roll!

Then it all changed! At Bettyhill we turned south along the river. The wind dropped, the rain stopped, the sun came out and we rode! Going upstream along the river meant we were still climbing a bit but it was a glorious ride. Red Deer up on the hills that were sheltering our valley, tits and finches fluttering through the trees. At one point we stopped to explore a rope bridge that was swinging over the river.

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Then it all changed! AT Loch Naver we turned the corner and emerged from the shelter of the hills! The wind and rain returned right in our faces and we had to slog it hard and slow for the final few miles to Altnharra at the far end of the loch.  Weary from the day of riding this last few miles took about an hour, made even more painful by being able to see the B&B with about 1/2hr still to go!

It was worth it, though. A wonderfully comfortable and welcoming B&B awaited us. The others had arrived and settled in a while ago and had watched us crawl along the other bank of the loch. The hosts were adventurers and very sympathetic to our experience. They took our bikes to lock them away safely, they took our clothes to wash and dry them, they produced a delicious self-caught, homemade venison lasagne!

Day 2

 

 

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Day 1…

…was rather severe! We had been largely dismissing the weather warnings on the radio and on the road matrix signs on the way up, but it turns out they were quite accurate.

As we were getting ready to set off for the start point from our B&B a guy on a skateboard came past the window, with a support van following, lights a-flashing. A bit of research told us that he was Jon Holder doing #thebigskatedown. We assumed that we would catch up with him at some point.

It was blowing a bit of hooly as we gathered at The Signpost in John O’Groats, the one that points towards lands end, the one that thousands of others had stood beneath to have their photos taken at the start of a journey; and even more at the end, I think.

Also at the sign was a couple who had finished their End to End the night before but it was too dark for photos. They had done it much quicker than we were going to!

The plan was to start off with Levi in the trailer, ride for an hour or so, giving Becca and Mum chance to go and pack the car. Then they would meet us on route and take him off to warm up! The wind wasn’t too bad, so we set off. The slight incline was nothing to our fresh legs, even with the trailer. It was certainly windy, but nothing terrible. Be caught up with a couple of girls and chatted briefly. They had also completed their End to End the day before and were now headed back to the train station as quickly as possible to avoid the ‘big storm’!

Having slept for most of the 90mins in the trailer, Levi was collected from a spot on the high road with spectacular views over the sea. It turns out that timing was good as shortly after that the rain started, the wind picked up. It was still the start of our trip, though, so our spirits remained high and as we descended into Castletown we stopped for a walk up the dunes to see the sea!!
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Sadly no castle to see, but a brief escape from the wind as the cycle route took us through the town. Then climb out of the town back to the high road. The rain started with a vengeance and as we descended into Thurso we were cold and wet, and my waterproof socks gave up! We had packed a lunch but what we needed was a welcoming warm cafe- but it was Sunday! Nothing was open, so we huddled outside a music shop and ate our pack-up.

It was another climb out of town and then a steady up and down along the high road. It was pretty bleak. Cold, wet, windy and we just put our heads down and pedaled. The scenery remained impressive, but we were too bedraggled to care! Occasional stops for a drink and a snack were brief.

Then, all of a sudden we saw a sign saying ‘Camping’ only 1 mile ahead, despite Melvich being a few miles ahead and uphill! Much to my joy it turns out the Halladale Inn was just before Melvich. We parked the bikes and headed in to dry off and warm up. We had beaten the support car, though, so I had nothing dry to change into. I had to settle for shedding some of the wet clothes, a warm drink and some chips.

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We hadn’t passed the skateboarder!

After an hour or so the car arrived. We set about putting the tent up, but what turned out to be 60mph winds (apparently) ripped a couple of guy ropes off! We decided it wasn’t going to work and since the site had some empty pods we opted for a second night inside. All of us, that is, apart from Mum. She was planning on using my tiny one-man which was made for strong winds, so she was up for trying it out!

 

 

By the time we had settled in, the sun had come out, although the wind hadn’t died down. We headed out for a walk to the local beach before dinner and bed.

Day 1

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Day 0

I couldn’t remember what I have done previously about the day before the cycling journey starts; where we are traveling to the starting position. On this occasion, we actually had two days traveling to get there. We set off last night, later than we had planned to, as our two days planning and packing had been hijacked by an ill niece, so instead, we had a couple of hours- which explains why we forgot lots of things!

We arrived in Gretna Green, having squeezed far too much stuff in the biggest car we could find, and also finding a roof-bag to fit the rest in, and squeezing Jonny into the small seat at the very back! We borrowed my Mum’s big car, and so my Mum also joined us! We arrived after midnight and found that we were the first people to stay in the AirB&B.

Although we had arrived late and made as early a start as possible, we thought it rude not to visit the famous Blacksmith’s shop, so made a quick detour there on our way back to the Motorway.

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The day was a pleasant drive up through Scotland, we were going as far North as we could, so wanted to make some good progress. We stopped briefly for some late morning breakfast in a service station, then ploughed on.

Up into the Cairngorms we were keeping our eyes peeled for Golden Eagles from the A9 and excited to see our first Black Grouse. It was a bit too late when we decided we wanted lunch and places were not forthcoming. We stopped at an indoor play area but it was so busy we moved on. The Highland Cafe had space, though, and served us some gorgeous soup!!

Not knowing what to expect further north we did a big shop in Inverness and then kept going. Darkness set in and the confines of the car were getting unpleasant, especially for Jonny in the back! The windy (winding around the corners), windy (strong winds) roads up the coast made it interesting, but we could see nothing, so we were glad to arrive at our B&B. We had hoped to camp, although the ‘Severe Weather’ warnings on matrix signs on the way up made us glad we weren’t. However, the campsite at John O’Groats closed that day, being the last day of September!

We were thankful a warm B&B with a fully equipped kitchen, hot showers and a lovely welcome basket!! The owner showed up what she thought were the Northern Lights, very faintly. I have never seen them before so I know no better, but they were not what I expected, so who knows!?

The weather warning was on our minds a little as we considered the start of the cycling the next day- but we were tired so sleep came quickly.

 

 

 

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JOGLE (1)- 2017

I am writing all of this trip 6 months later (Feb ’18). There was just no time for blog writing in the evening for a number of reasons. In fact, this trip was quite different for many of the same reasons!

From a cycling point of view, Jonny and I didn’t have much holiday to take from work, and Jonny’s work limited the timing options. We had talked about doing a Lands End to John O’Groats expedition at some point, but I have never felt compelled by the endurance race; 100 miles a day, head down, cycling in pain. That is just not my kind of cycling, and I am not nearly fit enough. I’d like to travel from one end of the country to the other, taking in the view along the way, maybe even some culture. Stopping at a point of interest or to watch the wildlife. So, we decided that we could do it in stages, and fancied a trip to Scotland this year so John O’Groats to Lands End was decided.

Another factor in our decision-making was the arrival of our son in January. At nearly 9 months old I didn’t want to abandon him and my wife for a week on her own with him so they were coming with us. But she certainly did not want to cycle, he wasn’t really old enough to spend all day in the bike trailer and she wasn’t all that keen on camping, either. So we had a backup vehicle and we agreed on a mix of camping and B&Bs.

We planned to drive up to JOG and then set off for around 40 miles a day, expecting a fair bit of Highland climbing. We followed the National Cycle routes most of the way with only a few detours for accommodation or places of interest. We aimed to be in Inverness in five days.

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