Cycling the North Coast 500 (km) and The Cape Wrath Fellowship, Scotland

Well, we are heading off again but this time we are staying in the UK. We decided that we don’t do nearly enough cycling here. As we like remote off road cycling, in the mountains best of all, we decided several years ago to do the “Far From Help” medical course that would enable us to help ourselves if we had an accident. We need to renew this every two years, so we have booked ourselves into their course in Aviemore, Scotland at the middle of May and while we are up there we thought we would cycle part of the North Coast 500. The full route is 500 miles, but we are a bit short of time before the course so we are going to do 500 km instead, around the West Coast then head back down the middle of the highlands on Route 1 to Aviemore.

To see a map of our route click on the link below.

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1ad5sYfQwQNKw3pbuyxWYTWwArLwfSAuu&usp=sharing

Somehow this all seemed a bit tame compared to our usual off road adventures until I found an article about The Cape Wrath Fellowship. Then I was hooked, we were definitely going to go to Cape Wrath the most North Western point in the UK. Problem, it is also a live firing range for the military, but as it turns out their activity in May ends the day before we are due to get there, so fingers crossed we are allowed across.

We had cycled up to Brisol airport, put the bikes in their plastic bags and sailed through checkin just using our driving licences (we had left our passports at home). No problems and a great relief.

Packing up the bikes at Bristol airport

Even greater relief when it all arrived in Inverness airport. So by 12.45 we were back on the bikes and heading off towards Inverness. The sun was shining, there was no wind and not too much traffic to start with. We had a bit of busy main road then when we turned off towards Culloden we picked up Route 1 which we attempted to follow into Inverness. It took us through woods which was nice but the signs frustratingly disappeared everytime we reached a complicated junction leaving us sneaking back up a slip road when we suddenly found ourselves on a dual carriageway.

Our route into Inverness took us through some lovely Beech woodland

After stocking up with supplies and a late lunch in Inverness we set off along the shores of the Beauly Firth. They had forecast a 5% chance of rain, so of course .. To start with it was sort of 5% rain but it slowly got more wetting. This was made worse by everyone telling us what great weather they have had here until today.

The rain was just starting

We managed to get lost again as we got our Mary’s muddled and were following signs to Maryburgh instead of Marybank. We finally arrived at the right Mary and found our Victorian B&B run by the delightful and bubbly Heather with an accent you could cut with a knife. She happily informed us that the nearest food was 8 miles back the way we had just come, in the rain. Sandwiches it is then!

Riding through Beauly, the last town with any food in it. If only we had known

A few kilometres outside Marybank we stopped to walk down through the woods to Rogie Falls.

The start of the track to Rogie Falls
Walking through the woods down to Rogie Falls
Rogie Falls
The view as we climbed, down towards the Loch

Then we carried on cycling imperceptibly upwards for 40 km first through dull conifer forest then through open moorland alongside a lovely river.

We cycled 40 km up to the top alongside this river
The surface of the loch was like a mirror

The mist was rising up distant valleys and heavy low cloud was sitting on the tops of the hills looking very artistic. That was until just after we had had our picnic lunch next to a Loch at the highest point when suddening we were in those arty clouds and it was freezing and raining. By the time we had struggled into our waterproofs my hands were numb and I was chilled to the bone. And of course the downhill we had been looking forward to now meant we got even colder.

One minute it looked like this, the next it was think mist
We were sitting here having lunch when the rain arrived

As it levelled off after a steep descent I saw those wonderful words “Coffee” and “Open”. They had a wood burning stove and cake, what bliss. I didn’t want to leave.

By now it had stopped raining and we were lower and warmer. So when, a few kilometres further on, I saw a sign saying Garden Open we headed in.

The Lechmelm Gardens

Lechmelm Gardens is an arboretum beside Loch Broom which is full of massive rhododendrons and azaleas and giant redwoods planted in the 1870s. I was in seventh heaven.

I just love these Rhododendrons

The gardens go right down to Loch Broom

From there it was an easy 10 km to Ullapool where we are staying in a really dated hotel (Victorian but probably last decorated in the 1970s, I don’t think they were trying for retro-chic!). Ullapool itself, on the shores of Loch Broom is a pretty little place and from where the ferry leaves to go to Harris and the Outer Hebrides.

Ullapool harbour front
Views from Ullapool

From Ullapool we headed north along the coast, which was undulating to say the least! There was a strong north wind blowing which meant we never had to change gear. We cycled up hill in a low gear then at the top we got the full force of the head wind so we also had the cycle down in low gear, no free wheeling today.

Setting off from Ullapool
A lot of low cloud to start the day

Stopping off for coffee in a remote cafe

After 20 km we were freezing and pleased to see a coffee shop sign. Despite the wind it is a beautiful route. Either stunning and dramatic sea scapes or high inland in the National Park dramatic stone landscapes. When we were in a sheltered spot we could hear the sky larks as they circled up from the heather and the cookoos call echoing across the valley.

The wind was so strong when we dropped down this road I didn’t dare even take one finger off the handle bars to brake.

About 10 km from Scourie a cold front system came across and for a short while we had a tail wind. But it soon swung around again.

A old castle ruins

We are staying in a little B&B in Scourie. We were going to camp but it is very cold and snow is forecast.

We set off from Scourie in sunshine that lasted a good ten minutes. This got us to the top of a steep hill so that we could see the band of hail moving towards us which gave us time to get fully kitted in waterproofs and put buffs and hoods on under our helmets to help protect our faces from the hail that came in painfully on the gale force north headwind.

We started of in sunshine

A wee bit of hail
And snow

These regular onslaughts never lasted long but made the road white and even hurt my arms through my coat. We found it best to stop and hunch over with our backs to the wind.

Then it started to snow, coming down in large blobs, one of which landed in the middle of my glasses completely obscuring my vision for a few seconds. In between all this it was lovely, and difficult to imagine what you had been going through a few moments before.

Then it was all sunny again

The road towards Durness was now single track with regular passing places and a fairly constant flow of camper vans going one way or the other. Just after a particularly heavy hail storm one of these vans rolled down the window and asked if we would like a cup of tea. They pulled into the next wide pace and we were invited into this lovely warm paradise where we were given mugs of hot, steaming tea by Vicky from New Zealand and offered biscuits and chocolate by Jock from Thurso, Scotland. We chatted happily for a bit then Jock pointed at a cupboard and said “Of course Mum and Dad are in there”. For a few seconds thoughts of Psycho flashed through my mind until he said that they were on there way to scatter his parents ashes where they used to live.

The painful hail settling on the road
Jock and Vicky who kindly invited us into their warm campervan for tea and biscuits

From there we had a cold roll down to the ferry at Keoldaly which is just a jetty and some buildings that used to be a hotel. We had rung the ferry man a few days ago and he had said to just ring him when we turned up and he would take us across. There were some elderly walkers sitting in what looked like a bus shelter and an old white van parked near by. When we asked a walker when the next ferry was they replied grumperly that it was tomorrow. So Bernie rang the ferry man and had a rather disjointed conversation until the man in the van stuck his head out the window and beckoned us over. It was the ferry man. He had cancelled the morning ferry because of the rough weather, but the man who ran the cafe needed to get back over in about an hour so he would take us then. He just didn’t want the others to know as he wasn’t meant to be running today.

Looking down to the ferry port
Hail coming across the bay
The ferry on the slipway

So after a picnic lunch sheltered from the wind by a stone wall and warming up in the temporary sunshine, we loaded the bikes into the aluminium boat just as the next hailstorm hit and set off across the estuary dodging the sand banks, as it was full low tide, for Cape Wrath.

Heading across to Cape Wrath on the ferry

The peninsula bus had just made it down the rough track and a few walkers and the driver got into the ferry for the return trip. It was only us and John the cafe man landing. While he spent the next 20 minutes trying to start his 4-wheel drive that was parked among the graveyard of former vehicles, we headed up the stoney, rutted track that had an occasional square of very old tarmac.

The only road on Cape Wrath

It was hard to stay on the road in the strong wind.

We had stunning views of the wild, stormy sea with waves breaking up the cliffs as we fought our way against the strong head wind while trying not to get blown off the track. Then we headed inland for a bit, thankfully out of the full force of the wind and past the occasional unmanned military sentry post. They had only stopped the aerial bombing and reopened the area yesterday. John came past having finally got the vehicle going and offered to take our bags. It was only after he had driven off with them that we realised we now had no tools or puncture repair kit and still had a 2 hour ride over very rough tracks.

Then the snow started again
Tiny orchids growing low down in the moss, sheltering from the strong winds and snow

After a while, when we again had sea views, it started to snow so hard that it was piling up on my back and my riding glasses steamed up making it impossible to see. I tried cycling with them off but the horizontal snow blown by the strong wind hurt my eyes.

It was a really exciting ride, a proper adventure, just as it should be on Cape Wrath. Although it was only mid afternoon it seemed to be getting dark as the snow was getting thicker.

Bernie with his back to the snow

Somehow we missed the turning to the bothy so we decided to head straight for the lighthouse where there is a bunk house and the Ozone cafe run by John’s daughter.

Finally we came round the corner and could see the lighthouse. We stopped to take a picture and I suddenly noticed that there were small, white orchids growing on the wind swept grass.

Cape Wrath lighthouse

We took our photos in front of the lighthouse so we can claim our Fellowship of Cape Wrath then headed for the expected warmth of the Ozone cafe. Unfortunately it was just a high ceilinged, large room with a door open to the elements and, it seemed, no lighting or heating.

Outside the Ozone cafe
Inside the freezing, unheated Ozone cafe
The cafe and bunk house

There were two others also staying who had walked in along the coast, and we all sat there getting colder and colder in our wet clothes while John made us a cup of tea. Eventually we were shown through an old diesel generator and pump room, still reeking of diesel and piled high with general junk and planks of wood, to the bunk room. This at least had a small heater but as the only exit was through the fire hazard next door it was concerning to say the least. We had to go outside and two doors down into John’s house to find the toilet and cold water tap. That house also was piled high with apparent junk with holes in the ceilings and was in general disrepair.

Bernie warming up in front of the only little heater in the place, in the bunk house

We were much colder here than we had been outside riding and our clothes were in no danger of drying. I was wishing we had gone back to the bothie. At least the beds were comfortable and I slept well.

The meaning of Wrath is not as you expect, in old Norse it meant Turning Point. As Cape Wrath is the most North Westerly point on the British Isles mainland it was the point that the Norse ships sailing North up the coast turned East towards home.

We woke up early about 6 a.m. and managed to creep out without waking the others. Only to find, after braving the early morning cold wind, that they had locked the outer door that led to the only toilet. Well, there was no one else about!

The Ozone cafe hatch stayed closed until 9, in fact we didn’t see a soul until 9, so couldn’t leave as we hadn’t paid and they still had our gloves and over shoes that were drying somewhere or so we hoped (they weren’t in fact, they were still soaking when we got them back).

So we got out our stove and made some porridge. We couldn’t make tea as we were out of water. Eventually everyone emerged so we got ready to leave while warming up with the tea. Then we were off.

Me crawling about in the ditch photographing flowers
One of the tiny flowers I was crawling about to photograph
A pink version of the tiny orchids
Some cotton grass

It was so different with the wind behind us, we were even able to free wheel up a couple of the hills. And today we could look around and actually see everything. We started passing walkers, then a couple of mountain bikers, then four roadies who were definitely struggling over the loose rocky track. We had been so lucky yesterday to have this all to ourselves.

The views were incredible today

Distant snowy peaks over the peat bog
An old empty cottage

Then in no time we were back at the slip way and ringing the ferryman. We had about 45 minutes to wait as he was coming over to meet the bus so we had time to get cold and wet as it had just started raining.

Watching for the ferry

Then we were on the ferry and back. It was a short ride into Durness where we made a bee line to the nearest cafe which was toasty warm and had lovely food. We did struggle to find a B&B as we have just remembered it is Saturday and they are all full, but we did eventually find a nice warm room and a much needed hot shower. It seems like my feet have been cold for days.

On our way back to normality

We left Durness with the wind at our backs for a change. Although some times we were shooting down a hill and the wind would suddenly change into a strong headwind for a minute before going back to a tail wind. It was quite disconcerting.

Leaving Durness and heading east

We cycled up both sides of the sea loch Eriboll and could see the regular squalls of rain coming across just before we got wet. Half way down we stopped off at a little cafe in Laid run by a man who must have been in his late 80’s and was somewhat deaf. But he was very helpful on routes. We had been planning to turn right down route 1 he suggested we turned right early and cycle down Loch Hope. This was not only 15 km shorter but avoided two 5 mile very steep hills. Hope Road was generally flat, narrow and no one used it except the postman. Its claim to fame was that it was in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest postal delivery route.

Cycling around Loch Eriboll

We took his advice and had the most wonderful cycle down a long valley with great views and no campervans, motorbikes or any other traffic.

On the Loch Hope road
Some tiny flowers I found while sitting on a bank eating our lunch in the rain

Dun Dornaigh is a broch prehistoric building that dates from around 2300 to 1900 years. These are found mostly in north and west Scotland

We carried on heading south down Route 1 from Altnaharra where we had spent the night. The road was small and quiet at the start of the day. It had been snowing again earlier but had stopped by the time we left. It began, as yesterday, with miles and miles of flowing peat bog, all in browns, yellows, oranges and flecks of green with snowy tops of higher hills peaking up behind and glinting in the occasional sunlight. It really is very pretty.

Early morning mist
Peat bog and distant snowy peaks

After stopping for coffee and cake (delicious fruit slice) in Lairg we cycled down beside the Shin river through lovely deciduous woodland and bright green banks, very different from the moorland.

The Shin river
Deciduous woodland

Just after Invershin Route 1 split and we took the option to cross the river and cycle down a much smaller lane. What we hadn’t realised was this meant crossing the river under the railway bridge which involved getting our bikes up 3 flights of steep metal steps. Not easy with touring bikes. Normally its Bernie that gets vertigo but this time I looked down through the metal slats at the fast flowing river far below and suddenly felt very sick.

Struggling to get our bikes up all the steps on the bridge. There were more on the other side
Me temporarily stopped in my tracks by vertigo. Bernie’s turn to laugh, it’s normally the other way round

It was worth it in the end as we then cycled through some beautiful woodland and past green fields with views down to the Loch and were on a very small quiet lane.

Rainbow mist

All good things come to an end. Just before Tain we had to go on the A9, which is part of the North Coast 500. We only had to be on it for about 4 km and that was 4 km too far. The cars came speeding past with inches to spare. I was just thankful we hadn’t come down the east coast on it.

Tain is a pretty little village near the coast and we are stopping here for the night. We just went down the road for supper and I asked if any of food came with vegetables, as they weren’t mentioned. The waitress looked at me strangely as said ” What do you mean?”. “Well, something green and cooked”. “What, like broccoli” she said, her voice rising in horror. “We have never been asked for vegetables before”. But she emerged from the kitchen 10 minutes later carrying a bowl of broccoli in triumph.

Stitchwort

From there the roads got busier as we got back to Inverness. Still managed to find some flowers though.

Cowparsley
Not sure what these are. They were flowering all down the lanes
Fumitory
These Roses where flowering in the hedgerows
Inverness castle

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