Day 21 Tongue to John o’ Groats

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Well, we made it!

Three weeks after we kicked off around a thousand miles further south, this afternoon we pedalled in to John o’ Groats.

We started this morning in Tongue, with a ride of roughly 66 miles ahead of us, tracking west along Scotland’s north coast.

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The road undulated with the coastline, but with much gentler inclines than the ones we climbed up in Cornwall at the beginning of our trip. Or maybe our legs are just a bit stronger now…

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The weather was all over the place – one minute we were riding along in full wet weather gear, the next we were in shirt sleeves and shades. Four seasons in one day? More like four seasons in one hour. But all the time, thankfully, the wind was at our back.

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The landscape was tamer than yesterday’s epic wilds, but not without its own rugged charm, and some stunning beaches.

A two mile downhill into the village of Reay, on fresh asphalt, was particularly fun.

And then, around five o’clock, with a cool sun and a long break in the rain, we trundled gently into John o’ Groats.

It’s been an incredible trip. Amazing people and amazing places.

It’s mighty tempting, but I’m not even going to try to sum it up right now – better to let things sink in a bit first.

Tomorrow we head a few miles south to Wick, to catch the train to Inverness, and from there the sleeper service back to London.

In the meantime, a couple of beers, and a long, long sleep.

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Day 20 Invershin to Tongue

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Man oh man. What a day.

So, our penultimate ride. 50 or so miles straight up to the north coast of Scotland. I was expecting it to be rather bleak, and a bit dull.

Wrong wrong.

We kicked off a bit late, with a forecast that was nothing but grey clouds and heavy rain. We made it as far as the Falls of Shin, about half an hour out from the hotel, before the downpour began.

Fortunately we were planning a stop there anyway, to plunder their free wi-fi.

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We hung out there for an hour. The rain didn’t stop. But it did weaken, and given the forecast, we figured we might as well get on with it.

We continued north, still following National Cycle Route 1, up into the Highlands proper. It’s a simply breathtaking journey, and we found ourselves stopping constantly to take photos. The light changed moment by moment, and each new turn, each new hill revealed another stunning panorama.

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We managed to keep just ahead of the threatened rain, which was fantastically lucky. We could clearly see how it would be an entirely different journey if you were riding through rain, or didn’t have the wind at your back as we did. There’s hardly any shelter, so you’re wildly exposed.

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We stopped at the solitary Crask Inn for a lovely lunch of toasted sandwiches, and then cracked on northwards, mindful that the weather could turn any moment.

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Incredibly, the journey carried on becoming more and more impressive, with a glorious downhill as we approached the beautiful Loch Loyal. And as we arrived there… a tiny shower which produced another stunning rainbow:

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A brilliant day, one that yet again showed us just what a beautiful island this is.

Day 19 Inverness to Invershin

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This morning saw us start the last three days of our little ride.

And what a start it was.

We rode out of Inverness over Kessock Bridge, which was sitting right under a rainbow and a bright blue sky as we crossed. A good omen for the ride ahead.

We had decided to follow National Cycle Route 1 all the way to Invershin: a spectacularly beautiful ride in the late September sunshine, with the trees just beginning to show their autumn colours.

The route followed the Cromarty Firth, along the way passing the Fyrish Monument. You can maybe see it on the top of the hill in this picture (try clicking on it to open up the large version):

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The monument was built on Fyrish Hill in 1782, commissioned by Sir Hector Munro, and based on the Gate of Negapatam in Madras, India; which Sir Hector had taken for the British the previous year.

Allegedly Sir Hector was a generous chap, and created the monument as a way of providing labour for local men, in an area then suffering from high unemployment. (Presumably the self-aggrandisement was just a by-product of his selfless good will.)

However, the reason for the high unemployment was that the local landowner had cleared the locals off their land to make way for some sheep.

That local landowner? Step forward and take a bow Sir Hector!

Moving on from there, we then rode along the Dornoch Firth, which looked quite beautiful in the afternoon sunlight:

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We’re staying the night at Invershin, just across Bridge of Bonar at the very top of the Firth:

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And I’ve just had a rather fine G&T, made with the locally produced Caorunn Gin – infused with five Celtic botanicals:

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Damn fine.

Day 18 Nethy Bridge to Inverness

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We woke at Nethy Bridge to find a pair of red squirrels squabbling over their breakfast, just outside our window. Down south the grey squirrel has obliterated the red, so it’s a real treat to see them here.

From Nethy we continued our journey through the Cairngorms, across wide open moorland, and then on to Cawdor, home to Cawdor Castle, famous for its connection to Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor (though the play is a largely fictionalised account of events, and Cawdor Castle didn’t exist during Macbeth’s lifetime).

Anyway, in art as in life – something wicked did indeed this way come: a long uphill ride towards Inverness, directly into a headwind. Not arduous quite, but dull certainly.

But, now in Inverness, we’re enjoying some proper home comforts courtesy of our friends Jill & Dara, who have leant us their home for the night. A roaring log fire, a gorgeous shower, yummy pizzas, broadband and a stereo.

Simple pleasures are often the best.

Day 17 Braemar to Nethy Bridge

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Yesterday (Saturday) we had another rest day, and hung out in Braemar, doing as little as possible.

Actually, I did take a short walk through the woods at the base of Creag Choinnich, which were enjoyably sinister (I’m reading Dracula on my iPhone at the moment, and I think the atmosphere of the novel might be rubbing off on me a tad). The walk also afforded a great view back to Braemar:

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This morning (Sunday) we rose early, with another lumpy ride ahead – through the Cairngorm National Park, up to the Lecht Pass (just a hundred feet shy of Friday’s climb).

We were expecting it to be tough, but we weren’t expecting it to be quite so tough.

The beginning part if the journey was very beautiful, threading its way through the Cairngorms, with hardly another traveller in sight. There was even a brief rainbow.

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But.

Then we came through the village of Cock Bridge (exercising what I consider to be remarkable restraint in not even raising an eyebrow at the name), and were met with a hill with a 20% gradient (that’s 1 in 5).

Time to get off and push.

Just as we started to do so, a woman poked her head out from a driveway next to the road, and said “It gets steeper!”. Cheers love. Always good to introduce a note of doom before a long climb.

We pushed up to what we thought was the summit just as the heavens opened; and saw that the road ahead of us carried on up and up, disappearing away into a cloud:

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We pushed on upwards (literally), as the cloud closed in around us, darker and darker. The rain decided that ‘wet’ wasn’t really doing it, so stepped up to ‘wet’, ‘hard’, and ‘painful’.

We hit the summit, and thankfully found the Lecht Ski Centre hiding in the cloud, both open and dry. Perfect timing for lunch.

Brilliantly, when we started again (after a burger each), the rain held off for the whole descent down to Tomintoul, and the beautiful ride on to Nethy Bridge:

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We’re staying at the lovely Lonely Duck Hostel in Nethy Bridge. We were met with a warm welcome by Kirsten, who showed us to the charming and unique eight bed cottage that we had all to ourselves for the night.

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The two owners, Valery and David, also dropped by for a chat as we settled in.

A splendid place to recover after a wet day’s cycling.