The line across the top of Scotland continues from where I reached last night in Balnakeil, in a roughly west-east direction. It follows the only road of note, the mostly single track A 838, all the way to my night’s accommodation back at the Strathy Inn. It was a ride of some 53 miles of seriously undulating landscape and the journey would have been much shorter for any flying crow. The trouble is you have to make your way past some large bodies of water, first and most notably the beautiful Loch Eriboll.
I got going about 11am after a last breakfast with Jenni. I waved goodbye to her and the van as they began their long drive south to the drop-off point at Inverness Airport. Then it was just me, with just my own luggage in a single pannier, for the first time on this trip. It is how I expect it to be for much of the next 6 months, so no point in being wistful; but it was really very nice of her to come with me for these first 9 maps. I know it took a lot of hard work mentally and physically for her to be here; but we did it, and it was a lot of fun.
I passed a couple of gorgeous white sandy bays on the way out of Durness, one of which has a zip wire suspended across it between the cliffs. And then the road rounded a corner and straight away set off in a counter-intuitive south-westerly direction for about 7 miles! At the start of this section, I was joined by a couple of other cyclists who had come over from Melbourne, Australia, to ride the North Coast 500 route that has become so popular. One of them, Mark, is a Scot who emigrated in 1996 and is in the police. His Aussie friend supplies fancy bikes like the one he was riding, a carbon frame Apollo, all over the world. Cool job. We rode most of the day together, so my experience of solo riding will have to wait until tomorrow. They were great company and the time passed quickly.
We made our way around the bottom of Loch Eriboll, a long, thin sea loch, and rode back up the other side to a point 19 miles from Durness by road; but just 5 miles in a straight line from our start point! Here, is an unusual geographical feature. Ard Neackie is a large, grassy mound in the loch, almost an island; but prevented from being so completely by a tombolo of sand and shingle linking it to the shore. In days gone by this was the terminus of a ferry service, before the road was completed n 1890. It is also the site of four very visible 19th century lime kilns, where lime would be manufactured and loaded into ships. And my final Loch Eriboll fact: it was the site of the surrender of the German U- boat fleet in May 1945, when over 30 such boats entered the loch from the sea. The things you learn!
A couple of climbs took us to another big inlet of water, the Kyle of Tongue. Since 1971 this has been crossed by a modern causeway, saving the cyclist a lot of extra miles of effort. At the far end of the causeway, 30 miles from Durness, was the first refreshment opportunity at a hostel with a cafe. It made for a welcome lunch stop to celebrate the fact we had now crossed over the boundary onto OS map 10. Brie and bacon toasties all round!
Our route took us a little away from the coast after Tongue, up and down several more hills, until we reached the top of the lovely valley of Strathnaver, where it reaches the sea at an estuary framed by sand dunes, below the tiny village of Bettyhill. Strathnaver is a quiet place today; but it was home to many before the terrible 19th century Clearances. I remember well cycling up here in 2008 during our end-to-end ride and feeling a great sense of melancholy as we passed information boards pointing out the remains of deserted villages. And all that suffering to satisfy the greed of a privileged few. How little progress the world seems to have made since then.
In 2008, Alexis, Rich and I had stayed the night at the Farr Bay Inn. I mentioned the beach here when I blogged about our drive to Ullapool 3 days ago. So it seemed only right to stop for a coffee. Their claim to serve the best coffee on the north coast is one I am now very happy to substantiate. In this land of so few places to recharge and refuel, how nice it was to sit in a cosy, modern bar and enjoy an exceptional chai latte.
And then it was time for the final 9 mile push over some serious hills to Strathy, with the first spots of rain falling, as forecast, after a pretty decent day of gentle weather, and endless views of mountains and sea. 2 pints of Island Hopping, another fine Orkney Ale, a warm shower, and a sumptuous venison casserole later and I’m stuffed and ready for bed. I will have to put in another significant shift tomorrow to work it all off. The weather is set fair and the east coast is within reach.