The long distance adventure cyclist has many decisions to make. Today brought that into sharp focus as the weather continued to play a leading part in our trip. We awoke to a dry morning that held the promise of better things to come; but still no let up in the wind, which was blowing strongly from the south-west. Our plan was to cross to the far western side of the Isle of Lewis and then continue north-west right up to the Butt of Lewis at Point of Ness, where the land and road run out, and we had booked our night’s accommodation. It would be around 50 miles of cycling; but two-thirds of that should be wind assisted.
However, when we got our damp bikes out of the garden shed where they had spent the night, Jenni’s e-bike conversion provided no assistance. The poor thing had been in the rain for 2 hours from John O’Groats, then in a van for 24 hours, then a ferry, then more rain, and then the shed. For the first time, it had had enough. This really changed the equation for us. It was still perfectly rideable as an ordinary bike; but the cyclist relying on its extra help was understandably reluctant to take on 2 days of hilly riding with a non-moveable ferry deadline at the end in a very windy place. What to do?
In such circumstances, I always look for available help and other more attractive options. We accidentally found both just around the corner at the wonderful and popular Hub cafe and bike shop, https://www.bespokebicycles.co.uk/ which is a real Stornoway gem. If you ever come this way, don’t miss it. For starters, they do AMAZING lattes.
After borrowing their track pump to give all our tyres a deserved refill, we quickly exhausted our own know-how in their car park, so I asked the resident bike mechanic, who offered to put Jenni’s bike up on a stand and check over the electrics while we had a coffee upstairs. Assessing our options, the lovely owner, Alistair, told us that the bigger buses on certain routes take bikes. A quick call to the bus company confirmed that the mid-morning bus from Port of Ness to Stornoway was one of these, and suddenly we had our plan B! Jenni felt she could manage today’s ride unassisted if necessary. She wanted to do it, too, especially since the afternoon was due to be warm and sunny. But she was already anxious about tomorrow and the prospect of riding back almost 30 miles into the wind across the barren middle of the island. The good bus news took away that underlying fear and relaxed her mind, if not her legs, for the day ahead.
In the end we started cycling 2 hours later than expected; but still confident that we had plenty of time and daylight. The first 15 miles over to the west coast took us along a tiny single track road that had no traffic and passed no dwellings. This part of Lewis is basically a huge peat bog. The only 2 people we saw as we battled the strong cross wind were lone figures out cutting bricks of peat in the middle of nowhere. Despite the best efforts of the Hub’s helpful mechanic, Jenni’s bike was still being stubbornly manual, but we did well and reached our first goal, Callanish Stone Circle, just in time for a late lunch in the visitor centre.
Callanish is somewhere I have always wanted to go. I hope I will be using that phrase a lot during this trip. It’s part of the reason I am doing it. The stone circle, at least 5,000 years old, is older than Stonehenge. It also occupies a more beautiful location high above a sea loch, with the distant mountains of Harris on the southern horizon. The actual circle, the very oldest part, is quite small, although the stones themselves are tall, especially the one placed at the very centre. Slightly later additions of avenues of stones lead in 4 directions at right angles from the centre, forming possibly the world’s first Celtic cross shape. Like all of these mysterious places, no-one really knows why it is here or what it was for. So don’t ask.
It was a place to sit and contemplate. I met Olivia, a young cyclist from Munich, who was sitting alone looking towards the stones and eating chocolate. She had an impressively large backpack for a cyclist, which she told me she bought and filled in Edinburgh so she could cut down on her travel costs by using more basic accommodation. She was cycling around Scotland for most of May and appeared to be alone. She told me about another stone circle to visit near Inverness. It struck me that for all its own wonderful variety, there probably isn’t anywhere quite like the Outer Hebrides in Central Europe. There is a special remoteness throughout the far north of Scotland that 2 Swiss motorcyclists had enthused about on yesterday’s ferry crossing. Something about the elemental combination of mountains and sea, being hard to reach and far from large numbers of people, give this region a particular character that feels very different even from other parts of the UK. Sometimes you forget you are in the same country.
Reluctantly leaving Callanish behind, we cycled on wide, empty roads along the lovely, indented rocky coastline, through Carloway, and immediately felt the benefit of the following wind. The sun was now beating on our backs, too, and it felt about as good as cycling can, which is very good indeed! From here onwards, for the next couple of hours, we rode with the sea to our left and the rocky, boggy higher ground of the interior to our right. It was surprisingly populated. Houses were scattered liberally across the land in all directions without really forming anything you would obviously identify as a village. No sooner had you left one loose community, you seemed to have entered the next.
We made a brief stop about halfway up the island to view an old “black house”: a low, thatch-roofed building with thick walls of uncut stone that would have been typical of a Hebridean crofter’s home, It would have been partly shared with their animals, and offered a place of warmth against the elements, where a peat fire would have burned most of the time. Peat is a plentiful fuel in these parts and even next to fancy, modern homes you still see large, carefully stacked piles of peat bricks. The air is often tinged with the sweet, evocative smell of burning peat. It must have been a very hard life, made worse by the cruel “clearances” of the 19th century, when thousands of crofters were evicted from their homes by rich landowners who were more interested in making money from grazing sheep. This happened in Lewis in 1850 and caused the emigration of many thousands of people to the New World from here and other parts of northern Scotland. On closer inspection, you could see the roofless remains of black houses all about, often right next to a modern home. It is an island that has seen its fair share of hardship and sadness.
We had our eyes set on a pub, the Cross Inn at Cros, 4 miles short of our final destination at the end of the road. Still without battery assistance, the regular short hills along the seemingly endless road were starting to get harder for Jenni. When the distant lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis appeared on the horizon, we knew we must be close. What we didn’t know was that this would be the only food option on our entire ride from Callanish, and even that only because it was Wednesday, and not Monday or Tuesday. Thankful for our good fortune, we made the most of their warm welcome and great food and drink. We met 2 other cyclists there, up from Sheffield, just a few miles from our home. We also chatted to an older couple on holiday from Devon, 750 miles away! It was a friendly place and I could have stayed longer, but we still had a few miles to ride. And as we left, Jenni’s power was restored. Not just to her tired body; but also, magically, to her bike!
We took photos at the harbour where the road ran out and then climbed a final hill, much faster this time, to find our airbnb, which sits on the headland looking out to sea. In the morning the bus should pass right in front of the gate and we will flag it down and return to Stornoway, avoiding headwinds of 40mph. There’s nothing to be gained by battling against that. I will save my energy for map 9, nearby to the east, and yet so hard to reach!