Stein am Rhein – Bad Sackingen

RheinfallHot, hilly and headwind, the miles came hard today, especially as the scenic passes of the Rhine banks took us on a lot of rough off-road trails.

Outstanding breakfast at Nelly and Roman’s B&B in Stein. The area seems to be some kind of new age enclave, N&B weren’t the only ones whose house is decorated with Buddha, crystals and wind chimes.

20 CHFAt Schaffhausen, I exchanged a 20 SFR note I had saved since 1995, a type out of circulation since 2000, but still exchangeable at a small number of agencies of the Swiss National Bank. Just as well we got the ‘free’ 20 SFR because we felt exploited when we had to pay 5 SFR each for a view of the Rheinfall, the biggest waterfall in Europe by volume of water.

All this faffing made us quite late so we just had to trundle in with a short break to eat the sandwiches we made with Nelly’s bread and blessings. Reached Bad Sackingen at 1830.

Bregenz – Stein am Rhein

Crossing BodenseeThree countries, two coffee stops and one ferry. Firstly let’s celebrate a warm evening in Bregenz enjoying the rather surreal ending of the Bregenz jazz festival. After the headliners (including Flook) had departed, there was a junior talent show, with pre-teens Front Page picking up the honours for their note-perfect My Sharona. Monday dawned bright and sunny and we quickly left Austria for Germany. Coffee in Friedrichshafen, opposite the Zeppelin museum as it was starting to get hot. More elegant resort towns along the banks of Bodensee, then a real live Zeppelin hovering over the mediaeval centre of Unterstadt. With good timing, we rode straight on to the ferry at Meersburg and enjoyed a pleasant 15 minutes crossing the breadth of the lake. Second coffee stop at a bakery in Konstanz, where C used her best Duolingo German to charm the bakery lady. She is also basking in the glow of her profound tweet “yesterday’s snow melt is tomorrow’s river” going viral. 7 likes and 5 retweets and climbing! Speaking of climbing, back in Switzerland, a tiny boy on a tiny bike staged an attack on a short, steep climb in Mammern, but C simply snorted “See you in Rotterdam, sonny”.

Chur – Bregenz

IMG_20160605_100958361_HDRRiding at the foot of mountains and alongside the Rhine in spate for a drizzly morning. Rob took a detour to test the depth of a ford. Answer: about 3 feet. Gritty trails and lubeless chain made for a noisy day. Long straight lanes through Swiss dairy farms. Sundays in Switzerland are quiet, and half-expected to find no lunch, but after enquiring at the British Biker Pub in Ruthi (that’s Norton and Triumph, not Raleigh and Claud Butler) we were directed to a lively village restaurant in Oberriet with veg/vegan options. After lunch the sun came out and we were soon in Austria, which seemed breezier than Switzerland. But I kindly broke wind for Caroline. Last time here I said Lake Konstanz was like Windermere, this time it’s like Windermere with the Radio 1 roadshow in town. Threaded our way through the pedestrians on the bike path in Bregenz to reach our charming Pension and applied much-needed chain oil.

Rheinradweg: Oberalppass to Chur

20160603120005-COLLAGEHairpin descent from Oberalppass down to Disentis (this is Caroline’s track – the even more cautious descender – because I forgot to start Strava). Curiously-painted and wooden buildings in villages along the way. Highway 19 became quite busy as we approached Ilanz so we took the off road route and then stopped for coffee. Then a biggish climb where I punctured and fixed at second attempt. Promised rain started up, though not the heavy thunderstorms we feared. Fell in with David and Judith, fellow Rheinradwegers from Norfolk, heavily-laden with camping gear. Great views over ‘our’ Vorderrhein, now cutting a great gorge, and then merging with the Hinterrhein at Reichenau, in a swirling vortex. Rolled down to the big city of Chur and our trickling snow melt is already a hefty river, less than 100km from its source. Chur was having a festival of street theatre, regrettably no Circus Fudge.

Leaving thoughts on Orkney Folk Festival

On the MV Hamnavoe, sailing back from Orkney to Scrabster, surrounded by performers and sessioneers, some unreasonably lively considering their sleepless night (yes you Jeana Leslie), others slumped and dozing (The Hot Seats). A most excellent send-off, with a pair of pipers on the dock, a blue sky over sunny Stromness, cheers and waves all around.

Orkney Folk Festival is an EVENT… something magical about the combination of deep-rooted Orkney musicians, a select few visiting performers who commit to the event for the whole long-weekend, and a welcoming local community. The sessions seem great; many – like our Glaswegian hostel-mates – don’t bother with ticketed events at all, just drink and play and wish (granted) for a chance to play a few tunes with Sharon Shannon on the pier outside the Ferry Inn. If I have one personal regret about this marvellous weekend, it’s that being a non musician puts one in a passive role. Far better to be in the gang of musicians.

Brown’s hostel is just steps from the Town Hall and the pub sessions, and having a nice comfy room and kitchen made for a lovely stay.

The Gathering at OFF 2014

(c) Sean Purser 2014

Personal highlight was The Gathering, an afternoon concert by a massed Orkney all-star band led by the admirable Douglas Montgomery of saltfishforty. Apart from the thrill of hearing twenty fiddles burning into some gorgeous Orcadian tunes, there’s the implicit bond between the generations, from the elders like ‘Moothie player’ Billy Jolly through the mature stalwarts of The Chair and saltfishforty, to the young generation who have upped and gone away to take advantage of the folk degree course in Glasgow, but return home for the festival and are welcomed back into the community.  In folk there’s a lot of talk about The Tradition but here the tunes and techniques are genuinely passed between generations. You might think that would lead to stagnation, but there is no apparent resistance to innovation in harmony and rhythm.

But maybe I’m romanticising. So thought the charming young barman at the Stromness Hotel, who gave me a that’s-what-you-think look when I expressed admiration for the Orkney community.

I could have done without big name visitor Seth Lakeman, but it was great to hear Sharon Shannon. Findlay Napier from Glasgow writes and sings great songs, very much in his own voice. And he took our snoozing at the first night song session in good humour. Fara, the Kirkwall Grammar girls gone to Glasgow, are bursting with energy and enthusiasm and skill in playing and arranging. The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc have some stunning settings of Shetland, Norwegian and Swedish tunes and original compositions.

As you can tell, we love spending time in Orkney and hope to return soon.

Stromness: Journey’s End

Spectacular breakfast by Theresa at the Hawthorns B&B in Mey, then a quick roll down the hill to catch the ferry at Gill’s Bay. It’s an hour’s crossing to St Margaret Hope on South Ronaldsay, a southerly island among the Orkney archipelago. As forecast, it was a wet and windy ride to Kirkwall, where we had lunch at The Reel, Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley”s cafe / music school / recording studio.
Then another wind-beaten crawl westward to Stromness, Journey’s end. Stromness still as lovely as ever. The same “how do they keep a business like that going here?” shops. An African clothes shop in a remote Scottish island community, anyone? But big news: the Co-op has a gigantic shiny new store!

Mrs Brown of Brown’s Hostel showed us to room in cheerfully zany and hyperactive way. It’s a great one; en suite and spacious (hostels are a lottery).

Opening concert last night was terrific: Tim Edey, the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (good humour from Sweden/Norway/Shetland) and finally Sharon Shannon.

This morning enjoying the pleasant change of a lie-in! Oh and rail strike cancelled on Monday… despite the obvious logistical nightmare of rescheduling sleepers and bike bookings, there was a small part of me that was longing to call in to work and say “sorry, can’t make it, stuck in the far north of Scotland.”

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.