I thought I’d spend a bit of time copying and pasting, to recount my week touring in the Inner and Outer Hebrides at the start of June 2017, and the nights are still dark, so, if you’re bored, or a just interested in reading a bit of a story (I say a bit, this is a long, picture rich blog!!), then get a brew, sit comfortably, and I’ll begin..
I spend a bit of time in Scotland, mainly on the Isle of Mull, and find that it is one of the best places to cycle that I have ever encountered. Beautiful landscapes, uncrowded single track but well maintained roads. Perfect and inspiring.
After thinking about an island hopping trip for a while and had been speaking with Derek about this for the past couple of years whilst out on club runs. Kind of equivalent to those plans you might make with yer mates in the pub. They sound great after a few pints, but then fade into the background as life’s other concerns take a higher point in the order of things. The main issue with anything like this is in finding the time to do it(!), but if you never commit, then you’ll never make the time, so I decided early in 2017 that I’d take a week off and do that very thing.
I’d already cycled on Mull many times, including a superb round island DIY Audax that I did in 2016 (warning – I may write about this too!). I’d cycled on Skye also, but I had never visited the Inner Hebridean islands of Coll and Tiree, nor the Outer Hebrides.
Not all Hebridean islands have roads, so after spending time looking over various OS maps (love doing this and planning routes), I decided upon a week to visit Coll, Tiree, and then cycle the length of the Outer Hebrides, starting on Barra and ending up in Stornoway on Lewis, using CalMac ferries to hop from island to island, and finally jumping back to Ullapool on the mainland for the very last leg of the journey, to cycle some of the way towards Inverness.
The idea was that of a solo, unsupported trip, being entirely self-sufficient, not having to rely (too much) on shops along the way, and to wild camp as much as possible along the journey (note: the idea of wild camping is argued widely, but my definition of it differs from the idea of pulling up next to the road in a large motorhome, equipped with satellite, showers and stuff like that, but camping considerately, out of view, not using motorised transport, ‘leaving nothing but footprints, and taking nothing but photographs’.)
In fact, in planning, I only planned to stay on a camp site for one night, the first, before starting the journey proper.
So, I had an idea, and starting planning in more detail. Weather was the first consideration, and I opted to embark at the start of June, and travelling south the north to take advantage of the prevailing tail winds. (You’ll see that the prevailing winds are often south to north and many touring cyclists recommend doing it this way round. You’ll read more of this below!)
I checked ferry and train times, and settled on a week’s worth of cycling that would taper up to a couple of big days towards the end of the week. Plans could always change, but I wanted an outline itinerary to work to, given my ‘window’ of opportunity.
|Date||Train||Ferry||Time||Staying on||Bike miles min (total 254.13)|
|Sat 03/06/2017||Runcorn-Crewe (London Midland)||07:01 - 07:19||2|
|Crewe - Glasgow Central (Virgin Trains)||07:55 - 10:59||0.4|
|Glasgow Queen Street - Oban (Scotrail)||12:21 - 15:28|
|Sun 04/06/2017||Oban - Coll||07:15 - 09:55||Coll||27|
|Mon 05/06/2017||Coll - Tiree||10:10 - 11:05||Tiree||27|
|Wed 07/06/2017||Tiree - Barra||11:30 - 14:15||Barra||29|
|Thu 08/06/2017||Barra - Eriskay||09:25 - 10:05||North Uist||57.6|
|Fri 09/06/2017||Berneray - Leverburgh||10:25 - 11:25||Lewis||53.3|
|Sat 10/06/2017||Stornoway - Ullapool||07:00 - 09:30||35.83|
|Lochluichart - Inverness (Scotrail)||13:36 - 14:42|
|Inverness - Glasgow Queen Street (Scotrail)||14:47 - 18:10|
|Glasgow Central - Crewe (Virgin Trains)||18:40 - 21:41|
|Crewe - Runcorn (Virgin Trains)||22:06 - 22:24||2|
It all seemed feasible, so all I needed to do was to book trains. Both Virgin trains and Scotrail extol the virtues of cycle touring by train. Virgin trains have a page dedicated to enthusing the two wheeled traveller – https://www.virgintrains.co.uk/experience/bikes and Scotrail – https://www.scotrail.co.uk/plan-your-journey/travel-connections/cycling with lots of options on offer.
The reality is a slightly more confusing picture(!), but isn’t insurmountable, you just have to be organised. This is where our own train booking guru – Derek Heine – came in with sound advice both about booking and pricing.
To get the best prices, you have to be on the ball, and be hovering online or at your local train station 8 weeks before your journey. This is in order to get discount tickets, and get a bike space booked. I was a bit too eager with Virgin trains and booked online with an offer about 12 weeks prior to my journey, which meant I had to then go through a bit of an online rigmarole to make sure that I got my bike booked on. Even then, cyclist be warned – some trains don’t have much space to fit your bike in – especially if you have a fully loaded touring machine. Also, there are limited bike spaces that you can book, so my advice would be – make sure that you have your tickets for your bike booked and in the right format (Virgin trains staff don’t always seem to have their training regarding bike booking, and I had to explain that my ‘printout’ with my valid booking reference, was real, each time that I got onto a Virgin train – which was only a few times). The other issue with Virgin, is that the storage is minimal, and potentially, if the space is full – even counting fewer bikes than can be booked onto a train, you may not be able to continue your journey. Get to the train station early!) The good news, is that it can be really cheap to get a ticket, with a total ticket cost as low as £14 to get you and your bike (which travels free) from Runcorn, all the way up to Oban. Result.
Calmac ferry booking is far, far easier, as you don’t need to. Just turn up at the ticket office on the day (nice and early – especially on smaller boats, just in case there is a group of cyclists before you – as some ferries may limit the amount of bikes on board – I had no such problems. You can also book earlier if you wish). In fact, CalMac are brilliant, and again, really low cost, as you are only charged as a foot passenger, so my most expensive ticket for a crossing was £10.30! Bargain.
You can check all CalMac prices and timetables here: Caledonian MacBrayne.
The journey, as mentioned earlier, was a self supported, carry all my gear, and enough food to keep me going. Only things like fresh milk and fresh water were to be purchased on the way (and powdered milk and a TravelTap bottle if shops were not near, and fresh water not available). This would give the flexibility to adapt the schedule (for reasons of weather, ferry cancellation etc), without being concerned for your next meal. As an insulin dependent diabetic, and a bit of a control freak, these things tend to come naturally to me!
I’m also no stranger to lightweight camping, and for those interested, outside of any gear that I will mention, by all means email me, and I’ll be glad to pour out the good and bad of gear that I have used, and the current kit that I do use and has served me well these past years.
I also carried camera gear with me, just in case there would be a photo opportunity or two along the way, and batteries, an iPad, and a solar charger, (the solar charger was superb, and I didn’t have to drop back to other back-up batteries at all), and some good old paper OS maps, a compass, and my Garmin GPS. The GPS more to record the miles rather than navigate, as you aren’t going to get lost on this trip! I had my phone with me, and planned to check in when I could at home, dependent on signal of course.
Of course, the most important piece of kit was the bike. I was using my touring bike that I’d recently completely rebuilt (a Dawes Ultra Galaxy), with a sturdy set of wheels that I’d also built over winter, to get me from A – B and any point in between. Not a light bike, and definitely not a light load!
A bright and sunny start to the day woke me up early. Partly excited about the week ahead, and part trepidation after seeing a brutal weather forecast for Monday, I was out of the door at 6:30 with my beast of burden (and it was well burdened at somewhere under 50kg) and soon at the train station ready for the 7:01 train to Crewe.
Okay, a bit random, but the song stuck in my head as I was writing this.
Lugging the bike up the step into the storage compartment was fun (not), and after a bit of faffing about, I wandered along to my seat for 5 minutes before the train arrived at Crewe(!)
At Crewe I had to change platforms, and was glad of the use of the cargo lifts at the station rather than lugging the heavily loaded beast up and down stairs.
A 35 minute wait and I loaded the bike into zero spare space in the storage area, which was already crammed with 3 other loaded bikes.
Glad to be booked onto a seat in carriage B, (although seat B52 planted an ear worm for the journey), as carriage A clearly had a problem with the on board toilets, as a distinctly unpleasant cabbage-like smell was present in that carriage.
I’ve not been on a Pendolino train on a long journey before, so a nice experience to start with. Smooth as silk, and a reasonably pleasant way to travel (punctuated by an unhappy teething baby in the same carriage, who vocally protested at intervals by bouts of crying) to get miles out of the way. Having decide to bring my iPad, I tried out the Virgin Beam wi-fi service, which is quite a good idea, allowing you to stream films, magazines, games etc to your device via the Beam app.
The time whizzes by, and the train hit Glasgow Central bang on time.
A quick pedal across 1/2 mile of Glasgow then brought me to Glasgow Queen Street station, ready for my next connection.
The Scotrail attendant was just that, attendant and very helpful as soon as he saw me with my fully loaded steed, directing me to the right platform at the right time. I thus had a leisurely bite to eat, chatted to another couple from London, who were travelling to Mallaig and then Skye, with their bikes and pet Jack Russell dog Kyra, in a bike basket.
For the Glasgow to Oban leg, after completely unloading my bike of the luggage, I put my bike on the train under the direction of attendant John. “Back wheel first” he abruptly said. I took this to mean putting my bike on the train in this way, then in completely ignoring the general instruction, went to hang my bike from it’s front wheel. “Did ye no listen? Back wheel first” barked the efficient attendant with a wry look. A minute later after two trips off and on to retrieve my luggage, I was seated and ready.
The train moved away at 12:21 and proceeded to Dalmuir, then Dumbarton, through grey housing estates and into the country proper. I always like exiting Glasgow when driving north, as there is a distinct ‘opening up’ of the environment into far more pleasant surroundings as soon as you’ve driven though Dumbarton. This is no different on a train, and countryside swept by, albeit from a slightly different view than normal for the first couple of miles as we almost immediately hugged the coast and shot towards Helensburgh. When I drive, the road hugs Loch Lomond until Tarbet, but the train takes a different scenic route until this point, as the Trossachs unfold before you.
A cup of tea was ordered from John, as the young bespectacled girl opposite ordered a can of Tennents lager.
“Milk and sugar?”
“Just milk please”
“There you go” (exact change given)
The girl sipped her Tennents.
Garelochhead. View from a train window. Better than many views from train windows. Big sky. Big hills starting. Showers had started, stopped, started, stopped, and would no doubt start again as forecasted, roughly at the time of forecasting probably. But it is Scotland, and multiple visits before have taught me one main thing. Weather changes. Frequently. Far more frequently than Thomas Schafernaker has opportunity to predict via the BBC.
Scots pine and smatterings of rhodedendron appeared to the left and right. The views of the hills opened up as we approached the Tarbet turning.
The track follows the road pretty much all the way to Crianlarich, where the train splits into two and one pops up north to Mallaig, our bit west to Oban, again following the road for most of the way, but with nice views through drizzle spattered windows of the castle at the head of Lock Awe.
At this point the train seems to go into trundle mode and slows down considerably until you get to Oban. At Cruachan Ferry, the rain hammered down in a typical short burst. “Welcome to Oban” I said out loud. The bespectacled girl from Oban (who I’d briefly conversed with) gave me a funny look. About 10 minutes later, the rain stopped and the sun appeared. “Welcome to Oban” said the young bespectacled girl from Oban with a wry smirk that wouldn’t have looked out of place on attendant John’s visage.
Arrival. Oban. After a long day doing nowt. Straight to CalMac. Ticket to Coll. Then burst my lungs for two miles actually cycling to the one and only campsite for this trip. A great site with really nice views of Kerrara and the sound of cuckoos in the air.
Also met an Australian bloke who was also doing an outer Hebridean south to north route as I was, but he was off straight to Barra tomorrow, and didn’t have a timetable to run to so was taking his time. He suggested that I might actually catch him up (doubt it), on his Santos Rohloff belt drive 29er and flip-flops.
After a good pasta bolognese meal in a bag, apart from a short walk along the road, I was ready to crash, as I needed to get up early enough to get breakfast, a brew, pack up and get to the ferry terminal before 06:30. Unusually therefore, I got into my sack at about 21:00.
I got some sleep reasonably quickly, but it was light sleep. Then the rain. Wow, it rained well! This ensured a dream filled and fitful sleep.
At about 04:15, even though I’d happily have slept in, I got up (it was light already).
Breakfasted and packed, I trundled to the familiar ferry terminal at Oban at about 06:11. I needn’t have rushed. No-one was there and I didn’t board till about 06:50.
The ferry left as scheduled and I spotted an otter at some distance, floating happily in Oban bay. Cleverly, I’d left my long lens on my bike, so have no evidence to back this up, nor the small pod of porpoises of the south of Lismore. As with the train journey yesterday, it was interesting to take a different view of the landscape than I would normally get, as we inched north west along the Sound of Mull. We rounded the north of Mull, then broke away from the Mull coast shortly after Croig, and headed straight for Coll.
I’d checked the updated weather forecast, and the wind did not look favourable at all for the coming week! Despite the usual prevailing winds from the south, they were now coming from the north, with a warning of strong winds and the potential for disrupted ferry crossings. Mmmm. I tried to ignore this, after all, I was now committed, but also had options and was flexible enough to return to the mainland at any point should I need to. At this point, part of me did relish the challenge despite the slightly bleak forecast!
The almost 3 hour journey passed quite nicely, and we docked at Coll.
It did feel colder on the island. This I’m sure was just the wind bringing down the perceived temperature, as the sun (when it appeared occasionally) felt quite strong. I rode past the whalebone arch at the dock, and the rusting harpoon gun which served as a reminder of an industry long gone from these parts.
The (head) wind didn’t relent, and would be with me for the 6 mile ride to a place that I thought might be a nice discrete place to wild camp in the north of the island. I stopped in Arinagour to get water from a tap at the public toilets. As it was Sunday, the few shops in the main village were closed, so (as planned) would wait till Monday to top up supplies if needed on Tiree.
After a mile heading north west out of Arinagour, the rain was with me. Horizontal, angry, forceful, both soaking and chilling me in equal amounts. This had curiously started ten seconds after I’d stopped to take off my rain cape due to the fact that I was getting warm pushing into the wind.
The place I had envisioned on the OS map did not disappoint, and I quickly setup the tent and unloaded, not knowing when the next rain shower may occur. A lovely view to rocks and skerries in a beautiful bay.
It was only around 11:30 when I’d pitched the tent, and I was soon sat down and the water was on the stove for dinner and a brew. As well as this, I spent some time not crying over spilt milk, which it had done, in one of my panniers. A re-think of the packing plan would be necessary for tomorrow!
A friendly old bloke parked up by the tent, with his 6 year old Lakeland Terrier, Robbie. Turned out that he was an islander, living within (far) sight of where I was camping, and chatted about the white holiday cottages (not built in keeping with traditional construction he mentioned disapprovingly), and large amounts or rabbits dropping dramatically in numbers due to an outbreak of mixamatosis (I had seen quite a few carcasses at the side of the road on the ride to my camping spot). Robbie liked rabbits and was keen to be off after them, but wasn’t allowed off his lead whilst the outbreak of the disease was on the island. Wanting to make sure that I wasn’t encroaching on the environment, I made sure that I wasn’t spoiling his view. “No, it’s the motor homes that are the problem” (not surprisingly) telling a story of four large motor homes that had chosen to camp where I now was, who had kindly all emptied their chemical toilet waste into the burn before leaving, causing a clean up operation by volunteering locals, who had to dig a large whole to get rid of said waste, in order that it did not continue to pollute the burn. Nice. He left to walk Robbie for a while, but not before offering the use of the water at his house if I needed it. A really generous and friendly gesture. Proper nice. Little things like this make you feel good about your journey.
After stuffing my face with noodles, the rain came, with biblical anger again, so I retreated into the tent and zipped up. The sun then came out but it still rained(!?) Rain, sun, rain, sun. I had planned on a ride round Coll this afternoon.
I had brought with me, an excellent little guide, called, unsurprisingly, ‘Cycling in the Hebrides’. It is an excellent guide from Cicerone, and if you aren’t familiar with Cicerone titles, I highly recommend them. I have a few Cicerone books, mainly walking books, and they offer insight and useful information for anyone travelling by foot or bike, and point out things that you may otherwise miss. I spent an hour reading said book, looking at options today and the following days.
A link to the book is here: Cycling in the Hebrides.
One o’clock came and I was thinking that I might not be able to do a Coll circuit after all if this kept up. Just before 2, the rain went off again and I committed to getting out and getting just a few miles in (there aren’t that many miles to get in on Coll on the few roads!) I was glad I did. Showers weren’t heavy and pretty much desisted apart from the odd spot within half an hour of my leaving, so despite the headwind out – wind had changed direction for now – and also wasn’t as strong, it was a pleasant afternoon ride. This was especially the case, as I had shed all but my bar bag and rack pack to lighten the load. One of the highlights was a couple of miles heading down to the RSPB reserve, where there were Corncrakes calling constantly all over the place. Didn’t see a single one, but met a couple who had, literally a few minutes before I arrived. Surely, the centre of the Corncrake world.
Retracing my route back to Arinagour was equally pleasant, as a tail wind also now assisted. As a bonus, the cafe/pub was actually open, so as it was nearing nosebag time, I grabbed some food there. Expensive, but it was basically the only tiny restaurant/pub on the island, and I’m sure that costs of anything imported are also expensive. Pigged out on fantastic fresh fish and chips and a pot of tea. It did the job.
Back at camp, the walk to the beach (well more of a few footsteps really) was brilliant. A lovely little white sandy bay strewn with rocky outcrops leading out to the Atlantic.
By 9pm, the rain had returned, and as yesterday, I was ready for a kip. I’d intended not to rush too much on day 3, but set my alarm to at least wake me, so I could breakfast leisurely, before the short trip to the ferry terminal. And so I retired once again after having had an hour solar charging my phone and gps with the last of the day’s sun.
Awake by the time that i’d intended, fortunately, as my alarm clock on my phone hadn’t bothered until I switched it on, so I woke it up…
It was still raining, and I wasn’t feeling too good. Stomach was a bit ‘funny’ in wholly the wrong way. Not sure why. Either way, after a wild visit to the self made and responsibly chosen convenience, I got all the wet stuff packed (tent was soaking), put on all of my wet weather gear, my damp shoes and overshoes, and set off for Arinagour. I was there in good time, as I had a tailwind now. That did not bode well. One thing I really wanted for this trip was the help of the prevailing southerly winds that normally batter the islands. This had turned, and it was a bit colder too (or I was just a bit colder). I’d again had a comfortable (Thermarest Neo-Air mats are fantastic to sleep on), yet fitful, night’s sleep. More than likely again, the howling wind and rain had proved disruptive to my slumber I think. Nevertheless, I felt reasonably rested, and the smiling gent at the small CalMac ticket office started to brighten the day. The rain had also stopped within 5 minutes of me leaving my camp, so when I reached the ticket office, I was wet inside my clothing. I got some more clothes out, and layered up in the gents to make sure I kept warm.
Whilst waiting for the ferry, I watched over the sea with binoculars, and suddenly saw a large bird plummet into the water. Must be a Gannet. It was. This was fantastic. Something I’d not seen before. They were quite a way away, but could easily be seen, flying along, gaining a bit of height, then dropping at high speed to catch their quarry.
The ferry arrived and left on time, so I went on deck. This time, I brought a longer lens, and was glad i did. Although I didn’t see any more gannets diving until I saw a huge commotion. There must have been 30 Gannets and about 10 porpoises, all in the same area. Must have been a sizeable school of fish. The porpoises were immensely fast, as were the Gannets, swirling this way and that before dropping into the water where the porpoise were. I grabbed a few (poor) shots but mainly gawked at the spectacle. A couple of the porpoises were quite close to the ferry, jumping across the various wakes as we proceeded to Tiree. What a start to the day. As well as this, the sun was out, but the wind had not changed and was still blowing roughly from the north.
We docked at Tiree, and it immediately felt different. Cycling into the main town of Scarinish, they even have a Co-op! Coll only had one tiny shop in Arinagour. I stopped there for a supply run, as I didn’t quite know quite what to expect from Barra onwards. Some milk, a few fresh buns, cake, and some All-purpose cloths (as I hadn’t packed any, and they are pretty useful for all sorts of stuff, hence their name).
Tiree was also less hilly than Coll. I was actually glad of this! I wanted to have a couple of ‘relatively’ easy days before the main Outer Hebridean event. I cycled again to a place that I though might be a good spot, and eventually (after a quick recce) pushed my bike along a track and up a hill to a sheltered spot where sheep grazed. The view over the sea was ace, and the day was clear enough to see Skye, and some of the Outer Hebridean archipelago.
Tent pitched, it was time for food and then leave the tent and other stuff to dry whilst I went for a ride. The first half of the ride, down to east Tiree, was nice. Lots of sandy beaches, and rocky shoreline. Then, breaking slightly inland, there were Lapwings everywhere. Surely centre of the Lapwing world. I stopped to look, but Lapwings being nervous ground nesting types, generally flew off before I could turn a lens their way. As they were more than likely still rearing young on the nest, I didn’t approach any closer, and with good reason, as there were also Arctic Terns nesting in the area, and they were swooping really close with aggressive calling. I moved on, to leave them in some sort of peace.
I headed onward down the bottom of the island, past the radar station at the top of Carnan Mor to Hynish, which was a village built in order to build the Skerryvore lighthouse.
After a brief visit to Hynish, I turned. Into the wind. This must have played on me subconsciously, as I started to get fed-up with the incessant battle into it. It was getting stronger, and I was getting tired of it. It started to get to me.
The ride was okay apart from this, and I headed back through Moss and onto Balevullin, noting on the way that as well as being the centre of the Lapwing world, that Tiree also seemed to be where all of the buttercups in the world also went for summer.
As I passed Balephetrish Bay, the wind seemed even stronger, buffeting me sideways as well as cross-headwind, and slowing progress (not that I was in a rush). I stopped for a bit of a breather, and heard my phone go off with a text message. I’d not had a phone signal on Coll, but did have one on most of Tiree. It was a short message from Derek, who had clearly been looking at the weather forecast. It said:
Now that shouldn’t have botherd me at all, and I almost replied with a terse comment like ‘No sh*t Sherlock!’, but I restrained and carried on!
When I returned to my tent, I was more than a little down. Daft really. In this idyllic setting, you shouldn’t be unhappy. This undertone of thinking about headwinds (all cyclists hate them obviously) and then finding that a pin had worked loose on my pedal, made me even more fed-up! I fixed the pin at Scarinish, but would have to keep an eye on it as I continued to cycle on variable road surface, some quite bumpy. I didn’t want to be in a position where the pin popped out, and I wouldn’t be able to clip in on one side for the rest of the journey!
A good hot meal lifted me from my gloom, and by eight thirty, I was writing this, and ready to chill for the evening and night. The plan for tomorrow – a bit of Tiree exploring before a second night. The ferry to Barra only leaves on a Wednesday from Tiree, so I couldn’t accelerate plans at all.
And what of Tuesday? Well, I awoke to a strengthening wind. Simple. Also from the north. Bad. Again, this never left me all day, as I explored the east and north of the island. Every southbound road was nice. Each return leg was a hideous slog, into wind that was getting stronger and blustery and didn’t show any signs of dropping nor changing direction. If I have this on Barra and the Uists, the next 2 days are going to be hellish. No doubt about it. On a half laden bike today, I was barely making 9mph into the wind. I thus started thinking of alternatives to break up the grind that I might be about to face. I didn’t want the next 120 miles of my life to be into a headwind!
Didn’t see much in the way of wildlife either, but in the morning watched some young EIder-ducklings, then, as I was already done of my tour of the island at dinner time, and the rain had started, I had to the confines of the tent and cooked something to eat and had a brew. I hadn’t intended to go out on the bike again, so caught a quick kip with a full belly, and when the rain subsided, went for a very windy walk along the coast, where I found a ‘broch’. Pretty cool.
Back at the tent at about four, I tidied up and rearranged panniers and food. All organised to feed me for the next three days of effort. Then went out for a short ride to see if I could gain a mobile signal (you can gain a signal as previously mentioned on Tiree, but you are best heading towards the capital to find it, which is about a six mile round trip). No joy in getting anyone at home, I left a message just to check in, dumped some rubbish in a bin next to the bus stop, and went back to the tent for tea.
Tea cooked and eaten, the rain came back. Just light, wind blown drops off the Atlantic, but that wind!
Anyway, I hoped for a rest and some sleep before the start of the main challenge tomorrow. I’m here now, I thought, no going back. I’ve got a train to catch in Lochluichart on Saturday at 13:36, and I intend to make it, the long way round, with, or against the wind!
I therefore thought of getting the later ferry from Barra on the same day as landing there – 17:30, to get me to Eriskay. With the ferry landing on Barra at 14:15, this ‘might’ even give me chance to go to Vatersay as well, but dependent upon wind, this little plan was very much to wait till I get there.
I’m not sure at what point I fell asleep, but if felt like minutes later that I awoke. 4:15. I hadn’t planned getting up till 7, packing up and leaving at around 9. The rain still lashed, and I wasn’t looking forward to dropping the inner tent out and packing a wet fly sheet separately again as I had done on Coll. Just another job then for the next camp. Dry out fly and footprint, re-attach inner. Actually not a big job with a Hilleberg Akto, so don’t know really why I was moaning quietly to myself about it!
Wednesday. Of course it is. That was a very disturbed Tuesday night. The wind just got stronger in the early hours, meaning that there was virtually no way of sleeping for the violent gusts that were battering the tent. The thing that I was quite happy about was my trusty tent. It has been a bombproof companion, and still is. So, I just hunkered down into my bag and waited, and waited, and then the rain came, short, sharp, heavy bursts of rain, lashing at the tent and made even louder by the wind.
I didn’t get much more than a few snatches of sleep till I decided to get up at around 6:30. I made a brew, and the usual Frosties – in a bag. Easiest way, less washing up(!) I’d done this all week.
The wind had not changed at all in direction and was still a fierce cold northerly. The cloud was lifting though, and the sun was breaking through, which made a difference to my mood. I recorded on video the start of the day, but with the wind noise, and no baffle on the mike, it is hard to even hear my voice!
I packed up to the sound of a Corncrake somewhere up the hill, and had left camp sometime around 8:40. I headed back towards Scarinish and put my litter in the bin near the Co-op.
Then off to the ferry port. Another little CalMac ticket office with the usual friendly CalMac people. They really do make getting around easy. I handed in my ticket for Barra, which I’d bought on Monday, and as the ferry sailing was due to be on time, got a ticket for Ard Mhor (Barra) to Eriskay, and a further ticket for Thursday for Berneray to Leverburgh on Harris. I’d only have one ticket left to get from Stornaway to Ullapool, but I’d leave this till later, as plans may change again.
The sun was out, so I plugged in the iPad and phone to charge into the solar charger, and starting scribbling this. Resigned now to a headwind, I was just going to ‘see how it goes’, and might still be able to get to Vatersay and just have time to then get back up to Ard Mhor for the ferry. This week was changing gradually into focus on the challenge, rather than the somewhat easier time that I may have had with different wind direction!
At the terminal I met another guy who was between jobs so was taking a few weeks to travel around and was now taking a similar route on his bike. He, as other cyclists that I would speak to, was basically taking his time to do his route, so wasn’t beholden to any timetable!
On to the ferry bang on time and I grabbed some food that I had made yesterday with a brew from the cafe on the MV Clansman (again).
Then I decided that I didn’t smell too clever so took advantage of the showers on board. Then a kip, and soon enough we were at Castlebay.
I’d already decided as we landed on Eriskay that I was going to go to Vatersay, and after the 12.5% gradient of the first hill, almost regretted it. Standing at the top with my lungs bursting, I decided that I wasn’t going to lug my panniers to the burial grounds at the end of the road on Vatersay, and then back up the gradient, so, I ditched them, appropriately, in a ditch, so that I could pick them up when I came back up the gradient!
The burial grounds on Vatersay mark the start of the Hebridean Way – National Cycle Route (NCR) 780.
I thus time-trialled to the end of the road on Vatersay (as much as you can on a Dawes Ultra Galaxy with a bar bag, took a quick photo for proof, as did my new found friend from Tiree, and similarly dug in on the way back. There is actually a great little cafe overlooking a beach on Vatersay, but my head was now in clock watch mode, so I chose not to stop, gasped up the incline, and stopped to retrieve and refit luggage.
From then, Barra was okay. Lumpy, but okay. All hills are monster hard with a bike loaded. There were many ups and downs in terms of the roads (I hadn’t expected anything less). The sun was out, and the wind did not relent. It was noticeable that I was now taking fewer photographs, and concentrating on the task in hand. Soon enough, very soon, just under an hour and a half, I was at the ferry terminal at Ard Mhor, and met again with the gent I had met earlier.
The ferry terminal was tiny, with no ticket office, but there were toilets and a drinks machine, so I took the opportunity to buy a brew rather than get the stove out, and just chill out for half an hour.
Eriskay was very picturesque coming out of the port, and also very short.
I was very soon on South Uist over the ace causeway.
I met the guy that I had chatted to at irregular intervals from then on, leapfrogging each other along the road. I met him for the last time at a Co-op, where he had grabbed some ‘whoops’ food, and I chose to grab a couple of bottles of water. Didn’t see him after that. Completely forgot to introduce myself or ask his name. How rude.
I had intended to stop and cook some food as soon as I landed on Eriskay, but as the wind was at least a bit lighter (it’s all relative) and the sun was out, it seemed daft not to just pedal. I snacked and drank, but by 8pm, I was done. I committed to top at least 40 miles, and shortly after stopped at a place that looked feasible to set up a camp. A bit near a road, but discrete enough not to bother anyone near Loch Drudibeg. I cooked first as the wind dropped, and my little veracious friends the midges duly swarmed, as they do. I only got a few in my brew, and with a liberal dosing of Skin So Soft and head net, all was well. This was the first time that they had appeared, as the little beasts disappear with the slightest bit of a breeze, and I’d had plenty of that, so, small mercies I guess!
The tent was put up, and the midges duly peppered it. The inside though, was midge free.
So, tomorrow, another big one, and the hope that it will be almost as good a day as today, which, despite the winds, hadn’t turned out to be unpleasant. I felt pretty positive. Another ferry awaits on Berneray (not the Outer Hebridean island to the south(!)), but before that, it was to be Benbecula and North Uist.
Thursday. Hardest cycling day of my life. Up at a reasonable hour, I was on the road at around 7:40, Benbecula by 8:10.
As the morning wore on though, the wind got stronger and stronger from the north-east. Most of the time I was doing 8.5 mph or less. It was horrendous.
I hit North Uist and dug in to a slow, rhythmic pedal. The bike working perfectly, the legs not as well!
Ploughing on, I had the choice to either take the west side road along the A865, or hang a right and take the A867 to Lochmaddy. The slightly shorter rout along the A865 would take me over the peat bog moors, and it was just a case of deciding and then going for it. I though I may get more shelter (hah!), if I turned right and over the moor. I don’t think it would have made any difference. Hard long hills, and the brutal wind was sapping me.
The Berneray ferry terminal, 35 miles in, seemed to offer no comfort, as the wind coming across the Sound of Harris felt even stronger. I sheltered here waiting for the ferry, and met up with some other cyclists also heading north. One guy was taking 2 weeks to do the trip (now that is slow progress). I also met with the Australian bloke that I’d met in Oban. Well he was right, I had caught up to him. I got the stove out, made a brew, had a snack and waited for the ferry. Discouragingly, the ferry emptied some cyclists when it arrived, who were travelling south to take advantage of the winds!!
On Harris, yep, hard again. The roads twisted this way and that through the beautiful scenery, but the effort required to make some mileage was ridiculous. I couldn’t help admire this scenery though. Again, at least there was no rain, and the beuty before me was a distraction from the tiredness that I was now feeling.
I was now determined to make it to Tarbert, but between me and Tarbert was a monster climb. Mainly pedalling on the granny gear, this took everything I had, and wanting to go on, but not having the physical energy to do so effectively was depressing.
If you can imagine (if you are a Weaver Valley Cycling Club member) doing our annual Llanberis ride, day 1, into a headwind, with a fully luggaged up bike. Well, I’d say this was much, much harder!
The hill was a gradual steep gradient, brutal. Down to speeds of around 4mph, I ploughed on up the hill, then down the next, then up and down a few more before I reached Tarbert, totally knackered. It was getting late-ish ( by that I mean about 6:30 pm!), and at this point I thought a cafe would be a good idea. Too late though at this hour. The cafe just outside of Tarbert was long shut.
I got through Tarbert, and stopped about a mile out of town to pitch camp near the main road. Ahead of me tomorrow, the Harris hills before I could even think of getting to Stornaway to catch my 14:00 ferry that I decided I was going to catch, rather than waiting for the last day, Saturday, to sprint across the mainland (I really needed to aim to get there for 12, so I’d have to get up at the crack of dawn to complete this, otherwise, no leeway for rest or mechanicals).
To boot, the weather forecast was rain overnight and Friday morning. An immense sense of foreboding sat over me as I lay there shattered but awake, not wanting to eat, just wanting to rest, but knowing that I probably wouldn’t get the rest that I needed , due to what was to come. The wind did not abate nor change direction.
Nevertheless, I cooked, got a brew, sorted myself out for bed, and sparked out after about half and hour or so lying there.
Friday. Last day of island cycling. I looked out of the tent at about 4:30. The clouds hung low over the hills. The wind whipped towards the tent from the north east. My legs were heavy from Thursday, but I knew I had a job to do, so I ate breakfast and drank a brew, then routinely packed up. I was quite literally camped at the foot of one of the steepest parts of the hills to come, and therefore had no warm-up. I took no photographs, and decided to go at it. I had wanted a challenge at the start of this trip, and my word had I got one. This was hard. I pedalled straight at it in my lowest gear, but immediately felt out of breath and exhausted. My speed dropped to around 3mph against the incline and that bloody wind! 1/10th of a mile up the ramp, and I was maxed out. My speed dropped to less than 3mph, and the bike was difficult to control at this speed. I stopped at 0.18 miles, got off the bike and started to push. The wind did not relent. It’s difficult for me to get off a bike and push. I have to be at my absolute physical limit to do it. I didn’t care about this today. I ended up pushing the bike faster than pedalling it(!) One way or the other, I had to get to Stornaway to get my ferry. For the next 10 miles, a series of slightly less steep inclines quickly sapped me of energy. I’d ride one, stop for a breather for a few minutes, before dropping down ready for the next one. Apart from one descent that briefly turned and went with the wind, there wasn’t a lot to be gained from them! My bulky tourer acting as the perfect stopper to the wind. Streamlined, I wasn’t.
Another lung busting incline a couple or so miles later and I’d had to stop again. I was now concerned that it would take me so long to get to Stornaway, that I would miss the 14:00 ferry, and have to get the 7:30 ferry on Saturday, which in turn may not give me enough time to get to my first train, 35 miles away at Lochluichart, especially if the weather turned and I had a headwind on the mainland.
I was truly knackered, and wondered about just packing in for the day, camping and getting up early, or plodding on really slowly, not bothering at this point whether I would miss today’s ferry or not.
I stopped, ate a Mars bar (other high sugar snacks are available) and dropped the bike so that I could bend over and rest my hands on my knees. Breathing deeply to prep for the next part of the actually short ride to Stornoway.
A black Vauxhall Merida shot past and immediately stopped a few yards past where i was resting.
A young bloke got out and asked “Are you alright? Did you crash?”
“No mate, just knackered and trying to get a few minutes rest before the next bloody big hill!” I duly replied.
“Where you heading?” (He wouldn’t have known as I’d dropped my bike facing the other way) “Stornoway”
“Hop in, I’ll give you a lift”
At this point, it took me nanoseconds to decide that this was what I wanted to do, just to get there. I was done. Physically tired of the constant grind and the lack of real progress.
“There won’t be enough room in your car” I weakly protested.
“Course there will, we’ll make it fit. Just have to move this old telly that I’m taking to the dump.”
Relief doesn’t come close. The blokes name was Sam, and he lived on Scalpay with his young family, and had lived there for 9 months. He explained that he was really pleased that he could help someone out since he’d had an accident where he’d rolled his car, and received loads of support from locals immediately after the incident.
Even nicer, was that he dropped me off at a fuel station with a Spar, and nipped in and bought me a brew while I unloaded my bike from his car and put the panniers back on. Humbled doesn’t come close. I offered to buy the brews but he wasn’t having any of it. Nor would he take money for the lift. He then shot off to work while I sorted my stuff out (he worked as a heating engineer). A flood of emotion was welling up in me from this, and I was grateful to be in Stornoway. I’d stopped about 20 miles from my destination when picked up. I didn’t care. This had been an epic enough trip so far. I’d done enough!!
In Stornoway, the ferry terminal wasn’t yet open for me to buy my ticket, so I wandered into town and stopped at a cafe. I treated myself to a full cooked breakfast, a pot of tea and ate slowly and relaxed in ‘The Tearoom’. A great little cafe in town. I felt miles better after this, and pedalled slowly back to the now open ferry terminal and bought my ticket back to the mainland. Then the rest of the morning in the ferry terminal, leaching off the free wi-fi to catch up on the full inbox of email.
So, my last island cycling day was done, albeit prematurely from my original plans. It had been unbelievably tough. Other cyclists I spoke to had all the same stories of expecting the prevailing winds and having to batter through headwinds. Fortunately for them, they had sensibly opted to take a longer time to do it. Some were only covering 20 miles a day maximum.
The ferry arrived with the usual CalMac perfect timing, and a full complement was loaded on. Soon we were away, and arrived in Ullapool 2.5 hours later on the state of the art ferry. Very smart.. Off loaded by 16:45, I set off in the afternoon sun. What a difference. The wind was behind me, and apart from a 12% incline that I unashamedly pushed the bike up part of, it was massively easier than the preceding days.
As it was approaching time to take on more calories, I stopped by Loch Broom for my tea. More noodles, tea, and cakes went down well, and I was soon ready to make a move
The only downside to this part of the ride was that of the roughness of some of the roads. Passing through quite a bit of overhanging greenery and even on some of the roads up through the hills, the surface was rough and knee-shatteringly juddery. I had intended to drop a wild camp 20 miles into the 35 odd miles, but romped past 20, then 25, then 30 miles. Soon I was at my turning for the station, and knew that I was going to push on to finish this, and as there weren’t very many places to camp, it wasn’t worth stopping.
The station at Lochluichart is a tiny station with no ticket office, but had a 4 seater shelter that I could squeeze my bike in should it rain, and squeeze myself into in my sleeping bag and bivvy. Well, if it’s good enough for Audaxers in bus-stops, this was the equivalent. It may be an uncomfortable night with not a lot of sleep I thought, but I had a full day of train journeying tomorrow to get enough kip! I used the ‘Help point’ to speak to a ScotRail operative to see if I could hop onto an earlier train. There were only two on a Saturday. Mine was at 13:36, the other at 07:42. The operative affirmed that I could get on the train. Better than a 6 hour wait at Lochluichart would be a 5-6 hour wait in Inverness, or, if I could wangle it, a change of ticket to get an earlier one to Glasgow and only have the afternoon to wait for my 18:40 to Crewe.
Saturday. It was a bit uncomfortable! But with a midge net on, and tucked into bag in bivvy with mat, I did manage to grab a couple of hours. I was up at the crack of dawn (well a bit later – about 4:30ish). Breakfasted and with a brew inside me I just played the waiting game. Not much to do at a station like Lochluichart, so was keen to get the earlier train. It arrived as the rain started as spots, then got heavier. The pleasant ticket lady then informed me after I boarded and it got underway that I couldn’t use this ticket on the earlier train, but she didn’t seem bothered and said “Ach, I’ll turn a blind eye, but ye may no get an earlier train at Inverness”. Didn’t care, just glad to be moving!
Another nice cross country ride took me to Inverness. The day, dull and flat, still gave way to plenty of nice scenery to look at. The rain continued (as I’d seen forecast on the TV on the ferry from Stornaway).
The train was warm though, unlike Lochluichart train station!
Inverness. Only passed through it once before on the way to John O’Groats, so, as I had a load of hours to kill before the train (I couldn’t get an earlier one, and was told that bike reservations were basically like gold dust and I’d be mugged if anyone knew I had one!), I drank coffee at the train station (‘cos no coffee company can make a decent brew – tea), read a load more emails, replied to a few, then when the rain stopped, took my bike for a walk/ride down through town and along the river, which was at full bore by the looks of the water line.
Then, back into the town centre and grabbed a Subway thing, which I ate outside, watched by a crow, which flew down and sat in front of me, observing my dinner like a dog would for 15 minutes. There were signs up around town advising not to feed the gulls, with the usual good reason as I observed on the way back to the station as a large herring gull shot down as a girl opened her sandwich pack, and picked out one of the triangle delights – much to the amazement of the girl in question. The gull landed avec sandwich, swallowed it whole and waited for her to pick the other one out. She didn’t. ‘Well, if you ain’t gonna feed us anymore, we’ll gonna take yer butties’ – it looked menacingly on as the girl walked slowly away!
Then a wait in the train station for a few long hours, for another long journey on trains to get me home in three stages….
The train arrived, but wasn’t the train that it should have been. i.e. a different kind of carriage. I was first in the queue with my bike, so got on and duly strapped my bike to the place where you were supposed to, noting that it said ‘Maximum 2 cycles’. The carriage should have the hang-up style storage for 6.
Three other cyclists, also with validly booked bike spaces then tried to get on. The lady attendant was not happy about this. She argued for a while with the gents, who pretty much insisted that they were getting on. I assisted with getting four bikes into the space of two, which actually worked well with all luggage unbolted.
Now it was just a matter of sitting down and relaxing for a while until Glasgow. I had a brew.
We made a few stops on the way to Glasgow, and unluckily, 2 cyclists who also had valid bookings at one station, were summarily refused when they protested about getting on. ‘Ye’ll have te wait till the next train’ insisted the attendant, and the train was off. I hope they didn’t have onward trains booked.
This, stage 1 of my three train journey, was due to get into Glasgow Queen Street at 18:10, giving me a leisurely half an hour to ride to Glasgow Central station. 18:10 came and went, and we only arrived at 18:16. The problem then was that the train was absolutely packed, and not only did it take ages to get everyone off, I still had to unstrap my bike from underneath the other tightly packed bikes to get out. I really didn’t want to miss my train home. Then a whole host of people jostled to get off on front of me with a bike fully panniered up, and with the manoeuvrability of a large oil tanker, I had no choice but to wait. I had till 18:40 to get the 1/4 of a mile to Central Station, but it was now nearly 18:30! Not a big task, but I could either negotiate the one way system riding on the roads, with associated traffic lights, or leg it against the flow, through early Saturday evening crowds. I legged it. Launching off pavements, and ploughing past early Saturday night drinkers in the crowded city.
Sweating and breathless I made it with a minute or two of the train leaving. Gaspingly explained to the Virgin Trains operative that my printed ticket was valid, hauled the Leviathan aboard, and jammed it in with the other bikes in the tiny space allocated near to the driver’s cabin, then sat down sweating!
The train was busy, but comfortable for the return journey, and I dozed, read, wrote emails, had a brew, and gazed out of the window at the speeding landscape.
The train trundled into an almost deserted Crewe station. Having to change platforms, I hoped the lifts were working. They were. Thus didn’t have to haul the bike up and down stairs!
My last train was a bit late, but only by a few minutes, and only due to a number of train passengers “kicking off in coach D” according to the train attendants and British Transport Police!
I boarded the train, although due to the packed bike area, only just squeezed the beast in, under the disapproving eye of the driver. Not now mate, I’m nearly home!’ I thought He begrudgingly muttered that he didn’t have to let me store my bike there, and that 1 inch into the aisle wouldn’t be allowed. He then trotted back to his cabin, ready to continue his shift. Clearly he’d nt had the most fun thus far on this particular journey due to the fun in “coach D”.
After a 15 minute trip, I was at Runcorn, off the train, and pedalled the few minutes home to end my ‘epic’ Inner and Outer Hebridean tour at about 11pm. Bike intact (pedal intact), not a single puncture on the whole trip. Approximately(!) 251.93 miles cycled. That’ll do.
It was truly epic, mainly in good ways, but also in challenging ways.
It was actually well worth it looking back, I’ll not forget that in a hurry, and maybe I’ll return to the Outer Hebrides one day, perhaps taking a more ‘leisurely’ route over a week. I enjoyed the scenery, the diverse wildlife of the Inner Hebrides, the people that I met (especially Sam, the heating engineer from Scalpay, to whom I am eternally grateful), and the freedom of wild camping for a week, not to mention my excellent bombproof bike, with only a slightly (and now repaired) pedal!
Would I recommend that any cyclist undertake this trip? Absolutely. The inner and outer Hebrides are truly wonderful places to cycle. The scenery is jaw-droppingly beautiful, the people friendly, the sense of isolation palpable, and the sense of freedom unmatched.
It takes planning, and a mental preparation to change and modify those plans to suit weather conditions, possibly disrupted ferry sailings (which I’m thankful I didn’t have), train operations changing, and other things totally beyond your control. That is though, in essence part of the adventure. One that challenged me, got me to dig deep, and ultimately to swallow my pride for the last few miles of an epic journey to accept the kindness of others. A different kind of adventure than I had originally planned perhaps, but an adventure nonetheless.
One that I’ll actually never forget.
Thus ends this mega-blog, probably the longest one on the web site!