Thursday May 7, 2015. Day 24


Bettyhill to John O’Groats: 80km

We awoke to hear rain against our window, a howling west wind and the sight of huge North Atlantic breakers.  The favourable weather forecast (which we had checked at least 16 times to confirm) seemed to have failed us, but then the rain ended and a small patch of blue sky appeared! Miraculously, with the exception of one short hail shower, the sun was out for most of the rest of the day, and the chilly wind was at our backs. Whenever the road turned north, the gusts were so strong that it was difficult to stay upright. At one point, Paul was pushed almost to the centre of the road.

Out of Bettyhill, there were four stiff hills,  but then the terrain was undulating, as we sped along the spectacular north coast, so amazing to see clearly on this last day. At one point, the NCN #1 veered off to the south, but we decided to stay on the A836. We soon realized that the #1 was avoiding the Dounreay nuclear facility, which dominated the coast for a time.

Before we knew it, we were in Thurso, where we dropped our panniers at the B&B, had a quick lunch, and then headed off on the final 30 kms. With the wind still at our backs, and without the weight of our panniers, we literally flew, adding to the exhilaration of nearing our goal.

As we cheered our arrival in front of the well-photographed mileage sign at John O’Groats, Sarah appeared to congratulate us and take our photos. She had arrived earlier and was having tea in a nearby cafe with another cyclist, Steve, who had also just completed the LEJOG. Sarah was riding to raise money for leukaemia and lymphoma research. We joined them and shared stories until Steve’s parents arrived from Newcastle and our mini-van taxi arrived to take us back to Thurso.

It took almost a couple of hours to pack up our bikes (with the aid of a YouTube video) and we got to the Red Pepper Bistro just before closing.

Land’s End to John O’Groats by car: 1348km
Our route, by bicycle: 1442km


Wednesday May 6, 2015. Day 23

Lairg to Bettyhill: 72km

How many times do a doctor and a lawyer have to get their feet wet before they implement creative solutions? The answer? Too many. (Partly due to an irrational adherence, in the face of repeated failure, to the belief that the expensive gear we have purchased should actually work.)

The proprietor of the Park House B&B in Lairg told us that the Land’s End to John O’Groats (LEJOG) run is referred to locally as the “rat run” (or, in our case”drowned rat”). This morning, we decided to encase our feet in plastic bags. (Lois’ idea). This was not a perfect solution but did delay the eventual soggy socks.

It rained again almost all day and the wind was either in front or to the side. Lois decided she was receiving free microdermabrasion from the sting of the rain, today from the other side!

The NCN#1 is on the A386, which, just north of Lairg, becomes a single lane with passing places, but, fortunately, with little traffic.

The highlight of our day was our coffee stop at the Crask Inn, miles from any other habitation. The bar was warm, but empty, so we rang the bell and the delightful landlady appeared and offered us coffee. She ushered us into a lounge, with a fire, where Janet, a woman from Warwick, who is walking the opposite route (“JOGLE”), (and mostly staying in bothies) was sitting reading, enjoying a day off after her first 6 days. We were chatting when suddenly two men walked in and went immediately to the grand piano in the corner of the toom. One of the men, who was wearing bike shorts, launched into a wonderful rendition of “Summertime”, while being videoed by the other. Another man then arrived in bike shorts and only one leg, who followed with a little ragtime. In the bar, we met the rest of the team of three legs, 2 bikes and 1 piano who are on the JOGLE raising money for “Wings for Warriors”. Sarah, a young British woman living in Berlin cycling from Lands End had also stopped to warm up.

AN alternative to the #1 was a slightly shorter and gentler route north along the Strathnevan Trail. Many of the sights/ sites were off the road but we stopped to look at one about the clearances, which were especially brutal here, and also the possible burial ground of the Red Priest. This pile of stones could easily be missed, but has historical significance.

Our destination was the Bettyhill Hotel, which gives a commanding view of the North Atlantic. Luckily. we could eat dinner in the hotel where delicious Cullen Skink was on special.

Tuesday May 5, 2015. Day 22

Inverness to Lairg: 102km

We knew today was not going to be fun – the forecast was for heavy rain, cold, and gusty head winds from the east. But, no snow! And Paul’s day was made when he identified a pair of Red Kites!

We rejoined Route#1 which we had last followed out of Edinburgh. The cycle path across the Hessock Bridge gave us a good view of Inverness and the Beauly Firth. The rain started just before Dingwall where we found shelter and espresso in the Courtyard Coffee Shop.

Paul remarked on a field of black sheep all facing the same way with their backs against the wind, only to observe Lois, similarly averting her face from the needles of rain.

Cycling high above Cromarty Firth, in the misty distance we could make out the oil rigs in for repair in Invergorden.

We sought refuge again in a cafe in Tain. We had asked for directions to any tea shop from an older woman. She pointed one out, but said that if we did not find anything open, she lived at #9 such-and-such a street, and that she would make us a cup of tea “and I’m serious”!

After tea, we headed north-west which gave us some relief from the wind, but not the rain. In passing, we noticed that the primroses were coming out, as they were in Cornwall when we started the trip.

The Park House B&B at Lairg was a welcome site. Apparently, they are used to shooting parties (deer-stalking and grouse) and wet clothing, so immediately whisked away all of our sopping gear which was returned dry and ready the next morning.

Too tired to venture out again, our evening meal was sandwiches from our panniers and two shots of Tomatin Scotch. The forecast is for more of the same tomorrow.

Monday May 4, 2015. Day 21

Aviemore to Inverness:59km

As we cycled out of Aviemore, Lois tried to remember where the spa was where she and Helen B. had saunas on our visit here in 1978. Lois was 6 months pregnant with Chris, and Paul’s parents had stayed on in Leamington after Christmas to look after Maritia (Lois recalls that first separation keenly!) Paul remembers drying cross-country ski socks on the radiator in our B&B (that has not changed), while Helen has reminded us that for breakfast, Paul was given two eggs, while Lois and Helen were given one each. (Helen, we are each being served 2 eggs in Scotland now!)

It was a bit warmer today, with no rain, and the sun came out in the early afternoon. We took the busy A95 out of Aviemore and were glad to join the NCN Route#7, alongside the A9 to Moy. The trail went through Carrbridge, with it’s 18th century packhorse bridge.The climb to the Slochd Summit (406m) was steady and along old sections of road and good paths. The road then passed through the small village of Tomatin. There, we visited the Distillery where we sampled a 12 yr old single malt while watching a short video about the making of whisky! Unfortunately, they did not serve Gaelic coffee.

The #7 then took us away from the A9 and along side roads. Just before Culloden, we came across the pre-historic cemetery of Balnuaran of Clava. This consisted of stone “passage graves”, a central ring and surrounding standing stones. It was a quiet and fascinating place.

We then passed the Culloden Battlefields Centre and on into Inverness. Unfortunately, we lost the cycle route and ended up on the with a lot of traffic on the A96. Dinner was good at The Kitchen, overlooking the Ness River and Inverness Castle.

Sunday May 3, 2015. Day 20

Blair Atholl to Aviemore:81km

Today was the most challenging day we have had cycling, only because of the cold! At the end of the day we were glad to find that our B&B was warm, had a fire in the lounge and also a drying room. We left out shoes there overnight! Even our foot coverings and water-resistant gloves are not sufficient for driving rain!

The ride was relatively easy with a climb along the River Tilt and then a 24km ascent of the Drumochter Pass, where we entered the Highlands. The sign on the bike path warned of bad weather, even in summer, and a lack of snow clearance! The NCN Route#7 was well signposted and mostly had a good surface on the old main road and newly surfaced trails. The volunteers of Sustrans should be congratulated.

It had started raining heavily in Blair Atholl, turned to snow up the pass and continued until we got to Dalwhinnie. We must have looked quite a sight entering the Toll House Cafe after about 4 hours on the road, water dripping everywhere, with numb fingers and toes and feeling slightly shell-shocked! Miraculously, there was a roaring fire in a stove and the servers had no problem with us drying our gloves (and socks!) draped over it! We left each with a change of socks, and slightly drier shoes and gloves. On passing the Dalwhinnie Distillery just past the cafe, we seriously considered abandoning the rest of the ride and spending the afternoon doing Scotch tasting (and catching a train to Aviemore 3 hours later). For some reason we decided against this?  We soldiered on in the rain to Kingussie, where we again found respite for frozen toes and fingers (and conveniently situated radiators for non-conspicous placing of socks and gloves) at the Duke of Gordon Hotel.  Finally, the rain let up and although we were still cold, the rest of the ride through Newtonmore and Kingussie was straightforward. The spikes on the temperature chart were our stops for lunch and tea!

On leaving the Winking Owl, after dinner, we got a stunning, clear view of the Cairngorms under a waxing full moon. We are looking for an improvement in the weather tomorrow.

Saturday May 2, 2015. Day 19

Perth to Blair Atholl:61km

It was a sunny morning as we left Perth (and our wonderful B&B, The Townhouse), but the temperature felt close to zero. The NCN 77 took us on a good trail for about 10 km beside the River Tay. A bike path then ran alongside the A9 until we got to Dunkeld. We realized that we had just past Birnam, famous for its wood (Macbeth). A stop at Palmerstons cafe provided good espresso and award-winning jams, which Lois enjoyed with her rock cake. Dunkeld is where Beatrix Potter wrote “The Tales of Peter Rabbit”.

Taking the advice of a local, we avoided a detour on Route 77 through the extensive grounds of a Hilton Hotel,  and followed a shorter B road instead, which turned out to be an alternative NCN Route #88. The road took us high above the Tay and the main road, then dropped down, crossed the river, and included several Cornwall-like steep ascents and descents before Pitlochry. This is a tourist town and being May long weekend, the caravan park was full despite definitely unseasonable weather.

After lunch, we met the River Garry south of Pitlochry and then joined the River Tilt into Blair Atholl. Although we arrived mid-afternoon, we were too late to view the castle and  we walked in a blustery and cold wind to the Atholl Arms for a beer (Moulin) and dinner. On our return to the B&B, the radiator in our room had not heated up very much and we were provided with an electric heater. Uncharacteristically, the owner decided the keep the central heating on all night. We are finding the practice of switching on the heat for a couple of hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening a challenge in this particular weather!

Friday May 1, 2015. Day Off

We walked past St Leonards-in-the-Fields Church, with it’s impressive spire, to meet Martin and Grace at Blend Coffee. After a good cup of espresso, we walked across the River Tay (the largest volume river in the UK) and on by car to Branklyn Garden. Once a private garden, now owned by The National Trust for Scotland, it was an impressive display of rare plants, including many varieties of Rhododendron and Himalayan poppies.

Scone Palace was our next stop, primarily for lunch. In the grounds, 38 Kings of Scots were crowned, the last in 1651.The stone of scone, on which the early kings were crowned, is now in Edinburgh Castle. The grounds contained a “pinetum” which contained many Douglas Firs. David Douglas was a gardener at Scone before travelling to the Americas as a botanist, bringing back seeds and introducing the species (and many others) to Britain. A plaque referred to his canoe capsizing at Fort George (now Prince George, B.C.) He later died in Hawaii, under mysterious circumstances.