Bettyhill – Thurso – Dunnet Head – John O Groats – Mey

John O'GroatsGlorious sunny day, tailwind carrying us along, great views, boxes ticked.

Leaving the slightly posh Bettyhill hotel, there were some long hills to climb and then descend, among sheep farms in a still-rugged landscape. But from Reay (site of the Dounreay nuclear power plant) suddenly it was gently undulating, arable farms, more populated. After lunch in the giant metropolis of Thurso, C had had enough and pedaled the last 10 wind-assisted miles to our final mainland B&B in Mey.

Meanwhile I went off bagging landmarks on an increasingly brilliant sunny afternoon.

The sublime: Dunnet Head, mainland Britain’s most northerly point, a beautiful and inspiring uphill ride to 360 degree viewpoint across Hoy and Orkney to the north, and the rest of Britain to the south. The ridiculous: John O’Groats, self-appointed end of the road, with no particular geographical claim; just a giant coach park surrounded by souvenir shops.

A Welsh cyclist took my photo under the JOG sign. At first I thought he said he was cycling the Holocaust; pretty weird I thought, but there are Commonwealth war graves nearby, I guess associated with Scapa Flow. But then I realised he was cycling “the whole coast”, clockwise from Pembrokeshire.

Tomorrow, 35 miles across Orkney to Stromness and the Folk Festival. Forecast more normal: heavy rain.

Bonar Bridge – Bettyhill

Crask Inn

Thawing out at The Crask Inn

Be careful what you wish for. After my slight disappointment that north of Inverness is quite civilised, we found our wilderness. As the road headed north from Lairg, all human life vanished. The biting westerly wind blew in all the way from America, slowing us to a crawl. Then the rain rolled in. We doubled up on raincoats and pressed on into the rain. Even the trees had given up the ghost; broken stumps, heather and tussocks all the way to the horizon. We had planned morning coffee at the legendary Crask Inn. For so long it was nowhere to be seen, then finally a small white building appeared on the horizon. The Inn *is* Crask. It’s the only habitation for 10 miles at least. (You can buy it if you want!). Morning coffee had become lunch, so Cheese and Pickle toasties and hot drinks revived us.

Despite the dreadful weather, the landscape was extraordinary. Awful and awesome, unearthly swathes of yellows, browns and oranges. We reached Altnaharra with some relief: I knew the name as the weather station here regularly records the most extreme conditions in the UK… including the record low temperature of -27.2 C in 1995.

But after Altnaharra it was still another 16 slow and difficult miles until we returned to civilisation at Tongue. We were excited to see on Strava that we had recorded the 4th fastest ride this year from Lairg to Tongue, until noticing that was 4th of 4, and more than 2 hours slower than the 3rd!

We sit here, warm and comfortable at the Bettyhill Hotel, on Britain’s northern shore, with just a simple Easterly (hence wind-assisted) ride to Mey ahead of us, then boat to Orkney on Thursday.

Inverness – Bonar Bridge

North KessockThe weather today was lovely, except for the hail storm. And the downpour in the final half hour. Really; the wind has dropped and for every glowering black cloud on the mountain, there is a sparkling, sunny valley.

North of Inverness I expected a deserted wilderness, but we passed through several decent sized towns and the countryside was dotted with pastoral farms. Dingwall, Cromarty, lunch in Alness, and rolling through the rather posh-looking Tain, which we guessed was built on money from golf, before noticing the Glenmorangie distillery at the back end of town. At last we reached the fringe of Dornoch Firth, a long stretch of water between striking multi-shaded hills, and at the end of it, Bonar Bridge, under its personal dark black cloudy downpour.

If you wonder how we pass 6 hours a day in the saddle, here’s a taste. Caroline’s painstakingly-prepared routes, and finely-chosen accommodation have come up trumps again. So I decided she should be granted a lifetime achievement award, for services to holiday planning. Initially I imagined a photo-montage running as she climbs the steps at the ceremony; scenes roll-by: California 2001, the Spanish road trip of 2008…. But then… why not a full biopic? But who to cast? C opened with Anna Maxwell-Martin (which I thought a good choice) and I Jonny Lee Miller, but then the budget was raised and C would settle for no less than double Oscar winner Emma Thompson (notwithstanding differences in stature). Which left me no alternative than to choose Greg Wise, for the veracity of the love scenes. As for supporting cast, for memorable holidays in Costa Brava, Greece, etc, Susan Sarandon will play Yvonne, and Brian Cox (the grizzled Scottish actor, not the professor) takes the part of Tony. The most challenging casting decisions have been Tom and Clara. Whether to restrict to child stars (Emma Watson?) or imagine junior versions of adults (Audrey Hepburn!). Tom has so far completely escaped; any ideas?

Newtonmore – Inverness

Innkeepers are empathising with the epic slowness of our cycling in the face of strong winds, but meanwhile engaging in a Four Yorkshiremen contest.

Innkeeper #1: “I was cycling into a 90 mile wind in Ireland in October, and going so slowly a bloke walked past me”

Innkeeper #2 (who actually was a Yorkshireman): “That’s nothing, I was going so slowly one day, that I was passed by a bloke reading a newspaper and smoking a pipe”

The forecast, and downpours around breakfast time in Newtonmore convinced us we’d have heavy showers all day, so we set off in full rain gear for the climb up Slochd. It only occurred to us around 4pm that it had been a lovely sunny day. Stripped off rain gear. Rained at 5.

A nice day’s riding, passing sights from our last trip to the Cairngorm area, and later, the battlefield at Culloden Moor. Trad folk band at the Hootenanny pub in Inverness.

A spot of wind: Birnam – Drumochter Pass – Newtonmore

Scottish wind is different from the English variety. There were no gusts, just an endless flat blowing like the egress of a hair dryer. We battled into the teeth of it and up the pass, light in gradient but heavy on gravelly, bumpy surface, and alternate sunshine and downpour. It must have been the slowest 15 miles we ever cycled.

By the way, it was beautiful at the top.

Last night we stayed in Birnam (of the Scottish play) at a guest house run by a charming naturalist. We bombed back to Perth by bus (reversing the last 2 hours of our ride) to see Lau play at the splendid Perth concert hall. Mesmerising as ever, and, to Caroline’s shock, they stood up! (Folk music is not used to such radical changes of direction).

Faxe Ladplads to Copenhagen: the final leg

So. Arrived in Copenhagen. 12 days riding, 12,998 feet climbed, 654 miles ridden, 63 hrs 10 mins ride time, 4 capitals.

Two weeks at work fly by in the blink of an eye, yet here we are looking back on less than two weeks on the road and it feels like months. In a good way. Our heads are full of experiences: a lot delightful and satisfying, some awkward and painful. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman tells us that our Remembering Self craves these experiences to stock up our mental scrap book. The Experiencing Self, who lives for the moment, has to put up with a lot to keep Remembering Self happy. It’s quite a fascinating subject!

Where next?

Marielyst to Faxe Ladplads: meandering in Møn

We expected Marielyst to Faxe Ladplats to be a challenging day (another Maynard “we’ll never make it” day). 120km whereas our normal rule is no more than 100km. A ferry which only runs hourly, hence an unpredictable time delay. And accommodation in a Conference Centre in Faxe which we expected might close early. Quite some stress then.

In the event, things went fine.

We set off by 8.15 with 30-odd km to the ferry at Stubbekobing. Early on abandoned the winding, gravelly coast path for the main road straight down the middle of Lolland island. Spotted the possibility of catching the 10am ferry, which would put us an hour ahead of schedule. Pushed on fast, running at about 15mph, not bad into a head wind, with the lead out man weighed down by about 3 litres of water (gifts from the Marielyst hotel) and two of the heaviest locks known to man. Racing turns through Stubbekobing and we rolled onto the boat with 2 minutes to spare.

I checked Strava and we were 15th of 15 for that segment, but I confidently predict we were 1st of 1 who stopped for a wee break en route.

Arrived on the island of Møn which was completely delightful. The day now leisurely, we meandered between coast and country. Even found a glorious deserted beach for the briefest possible skinny dip.

Stegge is the main town of Møn and is quite cool and stylish. In hot sun, we stopped for lunch on a bench in the square and watched bank workers relaxing on a balcony and glamorous young women at cafe tables.

Over an ugly Nazi-built bridge (1943) to Zealand. Bob came a cropper because workmen had left a hose lying across the cycle lane on a sandy surface, but no harm done.

No great excitement in Zeeland, we just plodded on to our destination in Faxe, keeping ahead of a dramatic weather front; we remained in sunshine while a few miles west, dark clouds rained down.