Featherbeds and Bus Shelters

East is East
East is East

This is a wee write up of the Lowestoft – Ardnamurchan 1000 Audax, which I rode last week. It’s a long distance bike ride along the diagonal between the Easternmost Point in Great Britain (Lowestoft Ness in Suffolk) and it’s Westernmost counterpart (Ardnamurchan Point in the Highlands). I’d been wanting to do it for quite a while, since reading a write up years ago in the Audax UK mag, Arrivee. It’s a free route, so you can choose your own way of getting between the two points, providing at least 1000km are covered within the time limit of 84 hours. I had planned a route rich in scenery as a reward for my efforts, taking in such biscuit tin favourites as Gleneagles, the Grampians and Glencoe.

As the crow flies...
As the crow flies...

Getting to Lowestoft was what had put me off attempting the ride before now. I didn’t fancy the drive, and thought that the train journey would be a nightmare of missed connections and trains with poor provision for bikes. The organiser, John Thomson, allayed my worries on this score and even sent me some helpful directions for shortcutting my way between Paddington and Liverpool Street. All of this came to naught on the day I travelled up to Lowestoft, as I hadn’t realised that Europe’s biggest Gay Pride march was taking place in London the same day! After a great deal of faffing around I managed to find a way through the crush and road closures, just in time to miss my connection to Norwich by five minutes! Happily, there was another train to Norwich 30 minutes later and the guard didn’t spot, or chose to ignore the “this ticket only valid on this train / at this time” on my ticket. I reached the B&B on the seafront at 18:30, and sussed out the start about a mile away before getting my nose in the trough and settling down for a decent night’s shut-eye.

Looking fresh at the grand depart
Looking fresh at the grand depart

The next morning, I set off for the Ness at about 08:30, and soon found an obliging member of the public to sign my brevet card and take a pic or two. The first 50 miles to Thetford were a mixed bag – flat roads, but hot with a headwind. An Atlantic storm the previous day had tracked up the west coast missing East Anglia, but the westerly winds were blowing across the fens, with little or no protection on offer. It was only after Market Deeping that I enjoyed some respite, as the road turned sharply northwards in the direction of Lincoln. I hadn’t planned to use the A15, but the Sunday evening traffic was quiet, so I stayed on this road all the way to Lincoln, reaching there around 23:00.

The Great Ouse, Norfolk Fens
The Great Ouse, Norfolk Fens

Lincoln looks like a nice place for a visit, but at this time of night it was full of pissed up kiddies, so I got a control and headed on up the Roman Road of Ermine Street into the growing darkness. I reached Goole around daybreak, and there was little sign of life outside of the Docks so I took advantage of the peace and quiet to rest my eyes for about 30 mins in a shop doorway, wrapped up in my space blanket.

Boothferry Bridge, near Goole, Humberside
Boothferry Bridge, near Goole, Humberside

Mindful that “time is miles”, I was soon on my way again towards Stamford Bridge, East of York. I took my life in my hands, crossing the horrendously busy A1079 en route to the lumpy lanes near Castle Howard. As I winched my way up one of the many nasty little grinds that constitute the Howardian Hills, I realised too late that a route through York itself would have been a better idea. Soon afterwards I encountered my only puncture of the trip, wrecking my rear tyre on a badly potholed descent. Fortunately the rim was undamaged, so my spare folding tyre was pressed into use as far as Thirsk where I managed to buy and fit a replacement.

Near Castle Howard, N Yorks
Near Castle Howard, N Yorks

After lunch at Thirsk, I pressed on through Northallerton and Richmond to Barnard Castle. I stopped here for another feed before heading up through Teesdale to Langdon Beck Youth Hostel for a control stamp and a shower, as by this time I was smelling like a dead badger! To this end, i’d called into Superdrug at Thirsk, and bought some travel sized shower gel and shampoo. On reaching Langdon Beck however, I found that the Hostel was full of schoolkids, and that child protection regs prohibit dead badgers from taking showers in the presence of children even if they’re nowhere near the shower block at the time (FFS!). Luckily, the Hostel Warden was a helpful guy,and rang the farmhouse next door to ask if I could use their shower instead. Of course I could…come right on over – result!

Langdon Beck YH, Cumbria
Langdon Beck YH, Cumbria
Near Langdon Beck, Cumbria
Near Langdon Beck, Cumbria

Twenty minutes later I emerged in fresh kit, still smelling like a badger, albeit a live one with acceptable personal hygiene. As I strolled down the farm track an angry Lapwing rose from it’s nest to the left of me, flapping, peeping (and pooping) furiously until i’d left the vicinity. With the light starting to fade on my second night on the road, my thoughts turned to sleeping arrangements while I winched my way out of Teesdale. The long and pant wetting descent over Alston Moor chilled my bones, so I grabbed a sandwich and a drink in the Alston Co-op just before they shut up shop and donned my night gear. I resolved to bivvy down at around midnight in the first suitable place I could find, and this turned out to be a five star brick built bus shelter at a little place called Hallbankgate, near Brampton. It had a tiled roof, thickly glazed windows, timber beams, a stout wooden bench and best of all the open entrance was facing away from the wind. I unrolled the bivi bag, fitted my lightweight sleeping bag inside with my foil survival banket sandwiched between the two and settled into the cocoon and set the alarm on my mobile for 4:00am. Those four hours passed in a twinkling, and the dawn chorus beat my mobile to the punch by a few minutes. The bivi bag had done it’s job – i’d slept like a log and awoke to a cool sunny dawn.

5 star Bus Shelter near Brampton, Cumbria
5 star Bus Shelter near Brampton, Cumbria

I packed up and headed for Brampton, and on to the Border via Longtown and the A7. This can be a busy road with lorries++, but at 5 in the morning the traffic was light verging on nonexistent. I reached my next control stop at Langholm just before 07:00. At this hour there was little prospect of a feed, so I ate some jelly babies and grabbed a can of Irn-Bru from a newsagent before continuing up the B709 to Innerleithen, dreaming of a decent fry-up all the way. I spotted some red squirrels in Castle O’er Forest, one of them lying dead in the road, sadly. Passing on the opportunity of a roadkill breakfast, I continued on my way down the thrilling descent to Mountbenger, where I noticed that the Gordon Arms Hotel has become another victim of the recession and cheap supermarket alcohol. A pity. At Innerleithen, I find a control and a cafe that does an all day breakfast. “Small or Large?”, the waitress enquires. “Gargantuan”, I reply and proceed to eat the biggest breakfast they can supply with extra toast. This gave me the energy to press on over the scenic and beautifully graded Moorfoot Hills south of Edinburgh. The road between Innerleithen and the outskirts of Edinburgh is very quiet (I see only five cars and a couple of motorbikes in 20 miles) and a feast for the eyes. The views from the top of Broad Law down across to “Auld Reekie” are magnificent with Arthurs Seat and Bass Rock clearly visible in the distance. Getting through Edinburgh is a chore though, and I take more than an hour to battle my way through the heavy city traffic and numerous road closures before finding my way down to the Forth Road Bridge.

Civilisation beckons...
Civilisation beckons...
Distant views of Edinburgh from the Muirfoot Hills
Distant views of Edinburgh from the Moorfoot Hills

Once over the bridge, I stop in Dunfermline just long enough to grab a quick feed in a cafe and buy some back pocket supplies for the road ahead. The next section to Crieff passes through the big country of Tayside, and the scenery is epic. Fittingly, I spot a pair of eagles circling high overhead in the late evening sun, as I descend into the Glen named for these majestic birds. I only stop in Crieff long enough to grab a control and don my waterproofs as I encounter the first rain worthy of the name so far. By the time I reach Lochearnhead, it’s 9:30pm and the Clachan Cottage Inn is a welcome sight. I had planned to stop here for a control and a quick pint of coke before pressing on up to Crianlarich 16 miles up the road, but common sense takes charge and I decide to stop here for the night instead. I’ve built up a substantial time buffer, and it gives me the opportunity to dry some kit and dispel the aroma of dead badger for another few hours. An enquiry at the bar confirms that they have room available, so i’m soon settled in and relaxing in the bath with my soggy kit steaming on the radiators.

Gleneagles, Tayside
Gleneagles, Tayside
Clachan Cottage Inn, Lochearnhead
Clachan Cottage Inn, Lochearnhead

I set the alarm for 05:30, and breakfast on complimentary biscuits and coffee before heading out the door at 06:00. My legs soon wake up after a few long drags up Glen Ogle and Glen Dochart, but there are descents to compensate and by 08:00, i’ve reached Tyndrum where I stop and power up with some Red Bull and Yogurt coated raisins. The next stretch takes in my favourite roads – the descent to the Bridge of Orchy, followed by the grind up the hairpin over the Black Mount to Rannoch Moor. Ba Bridge is being rebuilt and traffic lights control the passage across a temporary single track replacement, so I take the opportunity to grab a few pics of the bleak and windswept Rannoch Moor. My little Canon Compact doesn’t do it justice, so go and see it for yourself if you haven’t already done so.

Bridge of Orchy and Loch Tulla, Grampians
Bridge of Orchy, Grampians
Buachaille Etive Mor, Grampians
Buachaille Etive Mor, Grampians

A strong headwind is being funnelled up Glencoe, and as I pedal into it, I glance sideways into the sightless eyes of a deer submerged in a pool of peaty water the colour of Glenmorangie. Buachaille Etive Mor, the Great Shepherd of Glen Etive, guards the entrance to Glen Coe and I zig zag downhill past his neighbours the Three Sisters on my way to the penultimate control at Ballachulish. Shortly afterwards, I reach the Corran Ferry, which crosses a narrow strait separating Loch Linnhe from Loch Eil, and after a crossing lasting only a few minutes, I finally set foot on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. Only 61km to go, but these are the toughest roads of the whole trip. They start innocuously enough – rolling along nicely, some little drags and a few nice descents to follow. This soon gives way to the sort of climbs you encounter on Dartmoor – steep and energy sapping. Add in the near gale force headwinds as you approach Ardnamurchan Point itself and it’s no surprise that the last 40 miles took me nearly five hours.

Corran Ferry, nr Ballachulish
Corran Ferry, nr Ballachulish
Only 40 miles to go
Only 40 miles to go

When I got to the most Westerly traffic lights in mainland UK (it’s a twisty single track road to the lighthouse, with no passing places), I was almost done in. The monstrous rollers coming in off the Atlantic reminded me of the final scenes of “Point Break”, when Patrick Swayze opts for certain death instead of a prison cell in the giant waves off Bells Beach in Australia. The Lighthouse Visitor centre provides my final control and some sustenance before I head a few miles back down the road to the Sonachan Hotel (most Westerly Hotel in mainland UK), where i’m booked in for the night. Some Garlic Bread, a steak with all the trimmings, and Apple Pie and Custard vanish along with a pint or three of McEwans Ember. By 9pm, the sleep debt and the miles in my legs are calling me to account, so I leave the football fans in the lounge to Germany vs Spain and totter off to bed.

All smiles at the finish
All smiles at the finish
Most westerly traffic lights in the UK mainland
Most westerly traffic lights in the UK mainland

The next morning, I punish the breakfast buffet and follow that up with the full Scottish Breakfast, black pudding and all. I opt for the scenic route home, and take the ferry from Kilchoan a few miles away to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. From here, it’s just a 20 mile pedal down to Craignure at the other end of the Island, and another ferry ride across to Oban. I have to kick my heels in Oban until the next train to Glasgow at 18:10, but I can think of a lot worse places to be, and I spend most of my time sitting in the sunshine and topping up my cyclists tan.

View from the Sonachan Hotel
View from the Sonachan Hotel
Homeward bound (via Mull)
Homeward bound (via Mull)
Balamory... er, Tobermory, Isle of Mull
Balamory... er, Tobermory, Isle of Mull
The Esplanade, Oban
The Esplanade, Oban

Don “Aiken Drum” H