A night with the Ormiston Yew Tree.

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The 1,000 year old Yew Tree.

The 1,000 year old Yew Tree.

Just a few minutes ago I stood at my door and watched a solar eclipse. Not a rubbish one either, but a 95%, things go dark and animals behave in a strange way sort of eclipse. This being Scotland I had not prepared. I assumed there would be cloud cover, heavy rain and a gale despite a promising forecast. I managed to tape four of my darkest cycling sunglasses lenses together in a bit of a last-minute panic bodge. Held over one eye, the wonders of the cosmos were something to behold. Then it clouded over. You must see one if you can.

Solar eclipse Musselburgh Scotland

Solar eclipse Musselburgh Scotland

As far as I understand, that was the best eclipse for over 200 years here. Which is a long time to wait around. But time is a stranger thing than you may think. I got very excited a few days ago because we were going to bivvy for a night under a 1,000 year old Yew tree. Equally amazing, was that we were using a bivvy bag that I bought in 1983. I remember it costing a King’s ransom back then and feeling sick as I handed over my cash. But the thing is I still have it, and it still works.

You may have noticed that I have a bit of an ‘ equipment thing ‘. It has to be right, and they are going to get it back and a refund demanded if it fails in any way. I have sent more kit back than anyone I know, up to and including a whole bike and a frame. It has to work. Which is why I get into arguments with people who only buy cheap.

Testing the bivvy bag.

Testing the bivvy bag.

Nothing annoys me more than people who spend most of a holiday telling everyone how cheaply they got their tickets and hotel. In cycling terms, this is the cyclist that goes to ‘ deal weeks ‘ at LIDL and Aldi ( our local discount supermarket ). I happen to know that I have done 13,000 miles whilst wearing my Rapha shorts, and yes I know they cost an undeniably stupid amount of money. So, I pointed out how much that works out per mile to the LIDL wearing cyclist who was standing next to me. It is less than 0.13 pence per mile and they still look good – you may want to nip over to see the Hitler bike gear parody on the subject here ( caution lots of swearing ).

Looking up into the tree.

Looking up into the tree.

The thing is, it is very easy to stay at home. With anything outdoors, a less than perfect forecast can make you draw up a whole list of second thoughts. The best way I have found is to tell too many people you are going to do it. We had put our bivvy on a Facebook site. So at 7.30 on Friday the 13th we are sitting in  a pub in Ormiston finishing a pint of beer before stepping out into a dark world.

It is many years since I put a rucksack on my back for an adventure. It has its advantages. For one, I was not going to arrive in a sweaty mess. This was going to be civilised. Any walk in the dark feels longer, robbed of sight, sounds are louder. We had only done part of the walk before, and that was in the opposite direction. In narrow pools of light from the headtorches it all looked unfamiliar.

The entrance to the Tree Vault

The entrance to the Tree Vault

The Ormiston Yew is very hard to find. We had spent half a day crisscrossing the paths here and not finding it. Just before we gave up we almost stumbled over the entrance. You have to squat down, bend at the waist at the entrance tunnel of branches. You will not be prepared for what is inside. The branches form a vaulting canopy like a gothic Cathedral. We turn off our lights and stand to take in the moment.

Looking out in daylight.

Looking out in daylight.

The air is cold, but somehow the damp is holding the smells of mulch, of leaf litter of age in the air. Too early for leaves yet, we can see out through the filigree of branches to nearby house lights. We peg out the ground-sheet and unroll sleeping bags and bivvies. It all sounds clumsy. It is going to take some explaining if we get someone coming to investigate the lights and noise.

The Owls are out early. It is time to hold a territory and stake a claim. A great advantage of walking into the camp is that we are wearing what we are going to sleep in. A big bonus over cycle touring and we do not need a rub down with a baby wipe either. We brew a cup of tea and settle into our bags with cake and a drink. There are two Owls nearby, often right above us and one or two more further off.

Early morning

Early morning

Not until midnight does it get truly cold. From then on, the dark night has a bite to it. Thank goodness it is mostly still, the cold is searching for a way into our bags. I pull down my hat and shimmy down into the bivvy, pulling up over my head. Tents are warmer than bivvy bags, and it is just above freezing now.

It is hard to say how much sleep we had. You always think you have had just a couple of hours. First nights are hard, uncomfortable even. Not till night three do you get into the way of things on a trip. Now pheasants are starting to call and Squirrels running along the Yew’s branches. It is before 6 and the first grey light is filtering into our camp. I spend an hour studying the tree, thinking about what it has witnessed.

Making breakfast

Making breakfast

By 7 I am up and making food. You would have thought we could not face porridge, but there is nothing better on a cold morning outside. There are now Finches calling in the branches. I expected more of a dawn chorus, but perhaps the darkness of the cover is not a good place for nesting.

Morning under the tree in first light

Morning under the tree in first light

It is gone 8 before we have packed up and stooped our way out of the tree. The path goes through old woodland flanked by tall Oaks and Beech. The first recorded use of the word Rookery is as late as 1712. I am sure it would have a usage before then, it is such a part of the countryside. This morning there is a frenzy of nest building with birds flying in with impossibly large twigs and branches. We spend time watching and listening to the Rooks and Jackdaws work. They have the intelligence of monkeys and work with the industry of a Chinese city builder.

It is Saturday morning, the whole weekend still ahead and a ‘ Micro Adventure ‘ done already. Friday the 13th under a 1,000 year old Yew tree should be just the start of the bivvying plans for this year. Make a plan, tell too many people about it and you can not turn back. There can not be too many people who have slept under a 1,000 year old tree, and now we are on that list. You can listen to a BBC program about the Ormiston Yew here.

A cup of tea

A cup of tea

Abbey St. Bathans, for a sort of ‘ Micro Adventure ‘.

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Sketch of Gifford church

Sketch of Gifford church

Last week I was expecting two parcels. A camera battery charger from our friends at Amazon. But more exciting still, a tent, a sleeping mat and two sleeping bags from my WWW. friends at Above & Beyond. They arrived on the same day, but the point that I am getting around to is that they arrived in almost identically sized parcels. I can only imagine that some way down the line, and certainly before Amazon starts to deliver by drone they are going to have to get over their bad habit of grabbing the next box and stuffing fourteen of those inflatable pillow things in to send something the size of a pack of cards.

Crossing our local river Esk, East Lothian, Scotland.

Crossing our local river Esk, East Lothian, Scotland.

Warren making notes.

Warren making notes.

The contents of the outdoor things box was full of the stuff of dreams. You would think that awarding a prize based on weight would be simple. Put the thing on a scale and there you have it, you have your answer. So, I can not work out how two tents can claim to be the lightest in the world. All large things are compared with The Blue Whale ( a thing with which few of us are overly familiar ). All small or ultra-light things on the other hand are compared with apples. If they are a bit bigger then this is substituted for oranges. The new sleeping bags from OMM are two apples and the tent, a little bigger at four oranges or possibly three oranges and an apple if you squash it a bit. A few years ago this stuff was science fiction and now it is here on my kitchen floor. It looks sexy, for heavens sake, it even smells sexy. We had plans for the weekend. Now, what we used to call ‘ going away for the weekend ‘, is called ‘ a micro adventure ‘. Thanks to Alister Humphreys who looks as if he may have coined the term, we have a name for it. It does look to be popular, so why not join in, we were going anyway.

Passing a Trig- point.

Passing a Trig- point.

All outdoor things in Scotland require the cooperation of the weather. From painting the house, cutting the grass to getting married, the BBC 5-day forecast will wring every possible emotion from you as your day draws near. To go camping in early March is asking for trouble. Gale force winds, storm force at times were the deal. It should be mostly from the side or even behind and there on Sunday morning a lull, and just 6mph. You can talk yourself out of doing anything outside of June up here, we had to do it. Lots of nice and very light technical bits and pieces went into just two panniers per bike. The route we knew already and its many steep hills we had done before. This was almost cheating, which is just fine by me. Listening to the wind trying to peel the tiles off as the storm came in on the night before, it is hard to stay optimistic for our Micro Adventure. The bags are ready, we eat breakfast and get going before we have time to think too much.

Farm sign.

Farm sign.

New tarmaced road.

New tarmaced road.

It is warm. The first truly warm morning of the year and a bit of a panic about what to wear. I pick a jersey that I last wore at the very tail end of Autumn and hope it will be warm enough. I can always grab my rain coat and it is better than overheating. Off we go, and an early climb of over 500ft gives us a view of the hills we will be biking through. Two days ago these were rimmed with snow. Carberry Hill, where in 1567 Mary Queen of Scots surrendered herself after the stalemate of the Battle of Carberry Hill. As you climb, you enter fertile rolling country that fringes the Lammermuir Hills, running down to the coast between here and the border with England. It is a beautiful part of the world, a place we know well and where we do the majority of our cycling.

Hedge.

Hedge.

Already we have a tailwind. To our right fields of autumn sown corn is pushing through the soil with mole hills of rich dark soil spread out at field wall boundaries. The winds, floods and snow of winter have scraped the countryside clean, ready for a new year. The moles think it is time to begin and so do Skylarks. Every 50 metres along the road there is one hanging on beating wings and singing for all they are worth. It is time to claim a territory, to stake a claim. We pass a ‘ Trig Point ‘, those white oboliscs of trigonometry that dot the British countryside. This one is on low ground where more usually they mark a summit. The rule is that you must be able to see by line of sight, two other Trig points. I know that one is on top of Berwick Law but I have no idea where the second one is. Eaglescairnie, and we are already in the heart of the big estate area of fertile farming and shooting. Within a ten mile bike ride you could link two dozen castles, mansions and sporting estates and be passed by a dozen or more Range Rovers. Ahead, for a moment Traprain Law catches the sun, perhaps that is the second Trig?

Road towards Tanderlane Farm, near Garvald, east Lothian, Scotland.

Road towards Tanderlane Farm, near Garvald, east Lothian, Scotland.

Directions.

Directions.

Gifford, and then a brief but nasty climb. We take a left, followed a couple of miles later by a right towards Garvald. This brings us to face the wind. It is grim climbing again and with a gale pushing us back at every pedal stroke. We have gone out of our way a bit to take in this stunning valley. It clefts the land between the high hill and the more fertile land of the coastal margin. Today the rounded folds of the low hills are caressed by fast moving clouds. It is a relief to turn left even though ahead we have the hardest climb of the day.

East Lothian landscape.

East Lothian landscape.

Directions.

Directions.

If you do a WWW. search for ‘ steepest climb near Edinburgh ‘ or ‘ worst climb on a bike ‘, the answer will be Redstone Rig. It goes on a little too long for comfort, it kicks up at a second summit and there is also a false flat. We walked a bit of it for fear of puking and spoiling a good day out.

Slow.

Slow.

The 21% gradient part of Redstone Rigg and a gale in your face.

The 21% gradient part of Redstone Rig and a gale in your face.

The views back along the coast are amazing. Less wonderful is that we now have the full unabridged and unmitigated force of the storm hitting us. We descend with the bike trying to take flight sideways, lifted by the wind despite the heavy bikes and luggage. It is exhilarating stuff, and achingly beautiful in equal measure. On the hill to our left are two stone circles.

Boggy.

Boggy.

Wind in the back and a fast descent towards Whiteadder Reservoir.

Wind in the back and a fast descent towards Whiteadder Reservoir.

Another short but steep climb and then we drop down and the road crosses Whitadder Reservoir. The hills are funneling the wind, forcing waves into whitecaped frenzy towards the head of the dam wall. This is remote already despite being a short dash from Edinburgh. As we ride on into the valley and towards the Borders region it is another separate world as cut off as a Highland Glen and just as remote on a dark winters day.

Wind in the back and a fast descent towards Whiteadder Reservoir.

Wind in the back and a fast descent towards Whiteadder Reservoir.

Approaching Whiteadder Reservoir.

Approaching Whiteadder Reservoir.

Two layers of hedge protection.

Two layers of hedge protection.

The hamlet of Cranshaws is just a few cottages spread out along the road. It has a beautiful small church that is left open at the moment and worth a visit. Bleak would be a harsh word, possibly not. Lives have been lived without often leaving the valley and graves show a life of work on this land. Edinburgh may as well be on another continent.

Cranshaw Church, Cranshaw, Scottish Borders.

Cranshaw Church, Cranshaw, Scottish Borders.

Doorway of Cranshaw Church, Scottish Borders.

Doorway of Cranshaw Church, Scottish Borders.

A gentle climb.

A gentle climb.

We continue in the direction of Duns before we take a sharp left towards Abbey St. Bathans. A series of hard climbs that I had completely forgot about. Up through trees before we are again on high moorland before the final drop down to the valley and the village. It has rained here just ahead of us and the dark clouds are only now being pulled away to the south-east.

Whiteadder Water at Ellemford Bridge.

Whiteadder Water at Ellemford Bridge.

17% + gradient to come soon.

17% + gradient to come soon.

The Scottish Borders.

The Scottish Borders.

We know where we want to camp and take a quick look as we pass. There is a walk to an ancient Broch and we want to pitch as close in to the lee of the hill here. It takes just a moment to see that our plan will work, there are a few pitching spots, so we ride down the hill to the village. The cafe is open, which is a big surprise.

Toot.

Toot.

Cooking tea.

Cooking tea.

It is late when we return to the area near the Broch and we will only have light for half an hour or so. The best option looks like being in the field in front of the hill. There looks like a nice flat and quite sheltered spot down by the river. We push the bikes over to have a look. On a quiet night we would have a flat pitch, but that puts us too close to some old trees, widow makers that could fall in the night. The tent is up and we make tea and eat sandwiches. The spot is perfect.

The morning after.

The morning after.

Whiteadder Water.

Whiteadder Water.

Inside the tent later, we can hear the wind. It comes in gusts charging up the valley. The trees up on the exposed ridges are taking a hammering and we can hear them groaning. The tent is shaking like a dog trying to dry itself. Late in the night the storm drops enough for Owls to hunt. The screech of a Tawney and hoot of a Barn Owl. Not long after and a Pheasant joins in. All night a Robin has been calling a territorial claim in the shelter behind a nearby wall. Breakfast of porridge and tea and we are ready to face the world.

Camp gone.

Camp gone.

The Edin Hall Broch, near Abbey St. Bathens, Scottish Borders.

The Edin Hall Broch, near Abbey St. Bathens, Scottish Borders.

It is calm, a rest for all between storm fronts. We stash the bikes and climb up the hill to see Edin’s Hall Broch. There are well over 500 such structures in Scotland and this is the most southerly, lying far distant and alone from all of the others. It is a huge structure and over 2,000 years old. Around it are the fortifications of a large settlement and commanding views to the south.

View towards Whiteadder valley; Scottish Borders.

View towards Whiteadder valley; Scottish Borders.

Back to the bikes and change for the ride home. We cut through towards Longformacus, a brute of a climb, but views of the countryside that we rode through yesterday. There are Lapwings flying, another sign of the turn of seasons. They are poor flyers at the best of times and today they are as controlled as paper bags caught on the wind.

Longformarcus; Scottish Borders.

Longformarcus; Scottish Borders.

Ploughing the field for Spring.

Ploughing the field for Spring.

Desolate, cold and extremely windy, with the occasional showers and stronger gusts.

Desolate, cold and extremely windy, with the occasional showers and stronger gusts.

I had forgotten just how demanding this return road is and again the wind is growing into a full storm that is now in our face. This is going to be hard and there will be pushing involved. To our left the view opens down to the hills of the Border Country, The Eildons with their Roman Camp and on to the English Border. One final climb and we catch a hard shower of rain that is doing its very best to turn to ice. We drop into Gifford once more in a second drenching and sit in the cafe steaming and smelling like gun dogs.

Marker of the visible hills of the Borders, the top of the Lammermuirs.

Marker of the visible hills of the Borders, the top of the Lammermuirs.

The ride home was never once made easy, always the wind found us and tried to push us back along the road. It had been just over 24 hours since we left and only one night in the tent, but we were exhausted. It is a hard route with brutal hills to climb. We had a tea in our hand, red tired eyes and a shop bought pizza. How the hell did we do this for four years?

Redstone Rigg view and the welcoming down-hill stretch.

Redstone Rig view and the welcoming down-hill stretch.

” Did you pack these bags yourself ? ” Lessons in ultralight touring.

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An impressive tree at Thirlestane Castle.

An impressive tree at Thirlestane Castle.

I never thought I would ever say this, ‘ The Simpsons is not as funny as it used to be ‘. After being away for almost four years our world has changed now we are home. I have not watched a single program from beginning to end on the BBC, which is a sad state of affairs. To be honest, we no longer watch anything’ live ‘ if we can avoid it and I listen to BBC World Service on what I will continue to call ‘ the wireless ‘.

The marsh at Aberlady bay.

The marsh at Aberlady bay.

Landscape with Anti Tank boulder. Aberlady Bay, East Lothian.

Landscape with Anti Tank boulder. Aberlady Bay, East Lothian.

Sign for the footpath.

Sign for the footpath.

I go swimming early three mornings each week, and buy milk for porridge around the corner from here. I have to pass rows of newspapers on my way to pay at the till. I have no idea what the front pages are on about. It may as well be in code. Celebrity and the stuff of front pages is a closed book to me and the popular magazine section bewilders. They all seem to make being angry normalized and shouting the way to communicate it.

Walking at Aberlady Bay at low tide. East Lothian.

Walking at Aberlady Bay at low tide. East Lothian.

Old posts, I, Aberlady Bay, East Lothian.

Old posts, I, Aberlady Bay, East Lothian.

Old posts, II, Aberlady Bay, East Lothian.

Old posts, II, Aberlady Bay, East Lothian.

Sand Dunes, Aberlady Bay, East Lothian.

Sand Dunes, Aberlady Bay, East Lothian.

On the up side, I have now seen my first newborn lamb of the Spring. The grass of the uplands is still laid flat from the last snow drift, but lower down there are signs of warmth and lighter evenings. There have been days this last week when the sun had enough strength to encourage a walk without a hat.

The pass , Northwest Highlands, Scotland.

The pass , Northwest Highlands, Scotland.

View from the pass to Loch Maree, Northwest Highlands, Scotland.

View from the pass to Loch Maree, Northwest Highlands, Scotland.

Old tree by Loch Maree, Northwest Highlands, Scotland.

Old tree by Loch Maree, Northwest Highlands, Scotland.

View over Loch Gairloch.

View over Loch Gairloch.

Over the weekend of the last snowfall we went ‘ up north ‘. We live in the north and yet there is more than enough north left above us to make it a long drive. Scotland is big. Many people do not know this and it comes as a surprise. When you cross the border on your ‘ end to end ‘ bike ride you are only just over half way. Americans come here on their ‘ bucket list ‘ holiday of a lifetime and give themselves impossibly crippling itinerary and experience Scotland from the windows of a speeding car. As a rule of thumb, if the Romans can’t conquer it then it’s big.

Inland lochs, near Gairloch, Scotland

Inland lochs, near Gairloch, Scotland

Big Sand Beach, I, Gairloch, Scotland.

Big Sand Beach, I, Gairloch, Scotland.

Gairloch is a long way up and it is still not at the top after 5 or 6 hours of driving from here. Not a mile of the drive is without some beauty and it just keeps getting better. In the final 20 miles or so, the road comes down to single track, with passing places and if you drove at a completely safe speed we would still be there. I like the community aspect of passing places, it makes for interaction. As long as you do not come across a German that dives to the right all is good. You must never wave with too much enthusiasm, just a maximum of two fingers raised from the steering wheel in acknowledgement.

Winter sun and shadow.

Winter sun and shadow.

Stones.

Stones.

More of the equipment for the bikepacking setup has arrived. Wildcat are made in the UK and were nice enough to offer us a discount on their beautiful equipment. The bag holder for the front of the bike is expecting to be fitted to a mountain bike rather than a swanky road machine. When I played around with things yesterday it was obvious that straps will need to be shortened.

Gentle rolling hills, near Garvald, East Lothian, Scotland.

Gentle rolling hills, near Garvald, East Lothian, Scotland.

What was also evident is the care that will need to be taken with equipment choice. With touring there is always a compulsion to fill the bags. If you leave an unattended skip or dumpster out for a week, when you return it will be brim full. Nature abodes a vacuum and stuff gets filled up, that is the way of things.

First attempt of bike packing.

First attempt at packing.

Close-up of the saddle bag.

Close-up of the saddle bag.

With bikepacking there is very little space to be filled. We have a Terra Nova bivvy bag from years ago and one has just arrived from our pal Bob at Backpackinglight – a Rab Storm Bivvy bag. It looks possible to sleep with your mat inside the Storm Bivvy but only outside with the Nova bag. We have also got a microlight ground sheet from Ultralight. Very small and I hope big enough to keep us thorn proof and dry.

Moss

Moss and Lichen.

There is also an ultralight tarp from Backpackinglight which I hope will keep our top half dry if it rains. I have bought 2 very light collapsible poles and will use one of them to pitch the tarp. It is all very light and all untested by us. I have only used a bivvy once in my life, which was in snow many years ago.

Add to the mix some cooking systems that are new to us and it is rather unfamiliar equipment. We have been out along the coast looking for places to test the stuff. A coastal first bivvy will almost certainly be the way to go, before we head into the hills. To try to understand the bivvy equipment first we will probably use our touring bikes on project 1. This will give us load space to take more gear as it will be cold.

Sheep. Gairloch, Scotland.

Sheep. Gairloch, Scotland.

Cottage on the shores, Gairloch, Scotland.

Cottage on the shores, Gairloch, Scotland.

I want to do a ride or two with the bike-bags before we use them to get a feel for how they move. As soon as you are out of the saddle to climb a hill, the bike gets thrown around. I want to be sure we have the luggage held down enough to do this without upsetting the balance of the light bikes.

I have got a detailed map of East Lothian and the sage advice of our friend Jimmy Noon ( Patriarch of all things cycling ) – ” We used to camp there in the late 40’s “. It is very exciting, and very little of this equipment was around when we left just 4 years ago.

Esther

Esther

Snowdrops are now everywhere and as we ride by, every woodland copse is full of the song of birds. We are going to have what I think is called a ‘ Staycation “, though without the sleeping in your own beds bit. It is going to be fun and a bit of an adventure and we have not much of a clue about quite a lot of it. When I was at art college we came up with a phrase ” If you know what you are doing, you are just a technician “. Like many, I talked a lot of rubbish at art college, but I think you know what I mean.

Snowdrops field.

Snowdrops carpet.

Bits and bobs as Spring draws nearer.

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I think I may have coined a phrase recently. The thing is, I forgot to say it out loud, and it may now be lost to history. I was trying to think up a starting sentence or two for the talk we have just given. I was going to call it ” The Moose Conundrum “. It goes something like – If you put a whole roast Moose in front of a starving man, he would instantly lose his appetite. I was of course trying to explain our dilemma in editing down a half a million word blog into three talks. I was pleased with this, but then it went out of my head just when I needed it.

Gosford Bay, East Lothian, Scotland.

Gosford Bay, East Lothian, Scotland.

Family mausoleum, Gosford Estate, East Lothian.

Family mausoleum, Gosford Estate, East Lothian.

First snowdrops.

First snowdrops.

It may have been a dictum, you can mix those two up. I read one of those yesterday – Chamfort’s dictum states ‘ that a man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead ‘. Which has much of the same feeling as my favourite of all time – ‘ A pessimist is never disappointed ‘.

South Mains Samuelston, East Lothian.

South Mains Samuelston, East Lothian.

The old Penicuik railway.

The old Penicuik railway.

Riding in freezing conditions.

Riding in freezing conditions.

There is now the slight whiff, the merest hint, the tinge of green that may hint at the rising of the sap and the approach of Spring. You have to be careful here to keep your hopes in check. It is now statistically more probable that we will have a white Easter than a white Christmas.

Big tup.

Big tup.

Trees in frozen water.

Trees in frozen water.

The glove tree.

The glove tree.

On the good days we have headed down the coast on our bikes with hardly a breeze moving the long dry grass by the roadside. We ride down the coast road to North Berwick if there is ice higher up the hill. Turning, we head into a full gale and crawl back home. In both directions we pass Gosford House a good place to look for the first snowdrops. I like to think of them as a flower of Spring but they may just be a winter flower, and perhaps all the rarer for that.

First snowdrops in flower.

First snowdrops in flower.

The Witches' Stone, Spot, East Lothian, Scotland/

The Witches’ Stone, Spot, East Lothian, Scotland.

Dunbar Harbour. East Lothian.

Dunbar Harbour. East Lothian.

There have been days of wild storms that have taken neighbours roofs and bought them crashing down on our property. Snow has also kept us off the bikes, more this year than since the year we left for our adventure. Now I have come down with a thud and bruises in the past and give snow and ice a great deal of respect. Others can ride, perhaps eating a Baguette as they go and never fall. I have either no bike handling skills or a shed load of bad luck.

Yellowcraig Bay, with the island of Fidra in the distance.

Yellowcraig Bay, with the island of Fidra in the distance.

Snowdrop field

Snowdrop field

Single Tree Dalkeith Country Park.

Single Tree Dalkeith Country Park.

We have been out on roads that are snow fringed or ones where the sun catches the diamond glint of ice. I am never at ease. The bar gauge reads below freezing and I become tense. The village of Gifford is a continuous climb from home and always sits in a blanket of cold air several degrees colder than home. It is a beautiful ride and always a great welcome. It is our equivalent of the bar in ‘ Cheers ‘, everyone knows our name and often the bikes that lean against the window would buy you a good house if you cashed them in on eBay.

View from North Berwick Law.

View from North Berwick Law.

Whale bones above North Berwick.

Whale bones above North Berwick.

View from Traprain Law, East Lothian, Scotland.

View from Berwick Law, East Lothian, Scotland.

East Lothian has a number of landmarks that you can orientate on. The hills of Traprain, and closer to home Berwick Law are both lava plugs from volcanic activity thousands of years ago. Berwick Law is topped with Whale bones and Traprain with an ancient fort that yielded the Traprain horde, a stash of silver that is now in the National Museum of Scotland. We had never walked up Berwick Law, and put that right on possibly the worst day in the 20 years we have lived nearby.

Beech tree alleyway  near Gifford.

Beech tree alleyway near Gifford.

Fenton Castle, East Lothian.

Fenton Tower, East Lothian.

The next talk has now been planned and the photos sit on this computer in a file labelled TALK TWO CTC. I am saying this myself, but they look beautiful. A company has offered to sponsor our bikepacking project a little and a few bits and pieces – ultralight tarp and ground sheet have already arrived. It is going to be exciting to turn our road bikes into a touring option. The spring is on its way – am I being too optimistic?

Back road and Traprain Law. East Lothian.

Back road and Traprain Law. East Lothian.

Talk with the CTC in Edinburgh

If you are thinking of doing a big bike trip, or just planning your summer holidays, you could do far worse than to turn up to one of our talks. We like to think of them more as ‘ An evening with Esther & Warren ‘. This is the first in a series of three that we are doing for the Cycling Touring Club here in Edinburgh. If you are in the UK you should be a member for no other reason than their legal cover, which is brilliant. So join up and get yourself along. It’s a night out, and there is soup! ( click on the lovely poster for details ).

Talk 1 poster

Talk 1 poster

What happened after we arrived home.

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Warren's beloved Titanium bike.

Warren’s beloved Titanium bike.

There is a time and a place for electronic wizardry. You know of my love for our Garmin gps, and the deep joy I feel at knowing just where I am. Esther, right to the very last did not trust the thing one little bit. ” Esther my dear, my most beloved. The might of the American military do not want us to get lost. It says we are here, and that is where we are and nowhere else “. If we had arguments, they were few. But the one topic for dispute was always going to be navigation.

"our" Glenkinchie Distillery

“our” Glenkinchie Distillery

At Humbie church.

At Humbie church.

Perfect Autumn day.

Perfect Autumn day.

Esther was guardian of the maps by virtue of me not wanting to bother to put on my glasses. I was guardian of the Garmin, but second in command as far as navigation was concerned. She knew where we needed to go, and I knew where we were. Most of the time I had the Garmin turned off as it constantly reminded me of our slow progress. There must only be one navigator in a party or you will make mistakes that is the rule of exploration.  But you are going to wish that they trusted Sat Nav a bit more.

Ruined cottages.

Ruined cottages.

Marked sheep.

Marked sheep.

Cold fog rolls over the hills.

Cold fog rolls over the hills.

E-Readers such as the Kindle are a joy for the weight conscious traveler. We carried guides, English to current foreign country’s language dictionaries, and fun books to read and quote at each other during dull patches in the road. It has not once been used by me since we returned, and I have binge ordered paper books from my WWW. retailer of choice. The cost of second-hand books has fallen through the floor whilst we have been away. 1p for a hardback book for goodness sakes. I have a teetering pile of wonderful, musty smelling books with proper paper turning pages and pictures and dark winter evenings to fill. Only real books can do this.

Warren's birthday cake.

Warren’s birthday cake.

Athlestanford, home of the Saltire.

Athlestanford, home of the Saltire.

Beautiful old house, East Lothian.

Beautiful old house, East Lothian.

Crichton Church - since 1499, East Lothian.

Crichton Church – since 1499, East Lothian.

What I do not have any more, is anything that can be called an attention span. I may have been over-stimulated. For the first month I could not manage a whole tv program without turning off or over. For three months I have found it hard to sleep. First the weight of a quilt feels like a crushing slab compared to my ultra-light down bag. No amount of flinging the windows wide could replace the wind over the face tenting experience. I have adjusted a bit now, but there were many unhappy weeks of looking terrible for lack of sleep.

Late November Ride.

Late November Ride.

Low sun, long shadows.

Low sun, long shadows.

Preston Mill, East Linton, East Lothian.

Preston Mill, East Linton, East Lothian.

Winter riding with a smile.

Winter riding with a smile.

“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”
Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel. Which is from a book that I just can not find and have had to re-order for one of those 1p internet deals. But on returning I have thought about another of Alan de Botton’s concepts. He is a clever fellow and has achieved far too much to be so many years younger than me. In the book he writes about being in an aircraft, and arriving at a foreign destination. I can’t find the exact quote, but the gist of it is – on arrival, half the people on board are excited and full of anticipation. The other half are not, they are returning home. How can it be that they are both going to the same destination and have such opposite emotions.

Grassy fields and ploughed fields, East Lothian.

Grassy fields and ploughed fields, East Lothian.

Aberlady Bay History.

Aberlady Bay History.

Lovely winding roads in East Lothian.

Lovely winding roads in East Lothian.

I am going to try to stay excited about returning home. To bike the roads that are familiar with the same intensity that I would bring to a road in a distant country on a far continent. We have started already on this project. Scotland is amazing and our little corner of it is as wonderful as just about anywhere we have travelled. We have done as many rides as the weather has allowed. We have even had that most strange of experiences – getting lost in your own back yard ( without the gps to blame ) .

At Aberlady Bay, near Edinburgh.

At Aberlady Bay, near Edinburgh.

Sunny Autumn ride at the foot of the Lammermuir Hills, II.

Sunny Autumn ride at the foot of the Lammermuir Hills, II.

Playing with the Kelly Kettle.

Playing with the Kelly Kettle.

Autumn foliage.

Autumn foliage.

It has been amazing to discover a 1,000 year old Yew tree for the first time, just a few miles from our door. To take vague turns down half remembered tracks and pot holed roads. To watch Autumn come in, the fields harvested and turned again. Now, with winter cold and bare trees it is not uncommon to pass a dozen birds of prey on a ride. All too cold to be bothered to take flight.

Bike in front of a church window.

Bike in front of a church window.

The Ormiston Yew -  1000 years old.

The Ormiston Yew – 1000 years old.

Ice on a puddle.

Ice on a puddle.

Tea brewing preparation.

Tea brewing preparation.

The geese have come on their migration from the true north. They filled the sky with V shaped skeins. Some are still here. They are late to go south as the weather has been mild so far. 2014 was the warmest year since records began in the UK and the fourth wettest. I had forgotten how much I look at the weather forecast on the WWW.

Brewing tea on a mini stove.

Brewing tea on a mini stove.

The plan for this new year of 2015 is to look in detail at the area that we live in. There are so may little woodlands, beautiful stretches of coast and open moors. We plan to camp on as many as possible and share the experience with you through the blog here. East Lothian stretches down the East of Scotland at the point where Edinburgh ends. It has more history than a whole state in the USA and it is waiting to be explored.

Frost on leafes.

Frost on leafes.

East Lothian in winter sun.

East Lothian in winter sun.

Alain de Botton is probably right in his observation. But there is no reason why you can not be excited about returning home. Getting out and photographing the place you know with the intensity of a new country. We are putting together a ultra-light bivvy kit, with tarps and bivvy bags. The plan is to camp in as many wild places as possible and make breakfast in each.

A field of Brussel Sprouts.

A field of Brussel Sprouts.

” Exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as not to deserve the name ” – Samuel Butler, quoted in the book – The Book of The Bivvy – by Ronald Turnbull. The 5 day BBC forecast features 2 days with ‘ severe weather symbols ‘. Cycling in Scotland in the winter is hard on the nerves.

Scottish delicacy - Haggis

Scottish delicacy – Haggis

 

 

Home in Musselburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

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It's written in stone....

Written in stones….

There is nothing, but nothing that comes close to making you feel small and insignificant, in the way that the astral wonder of a sky full of the brightest stars on a moon free night does. We have had a perfect show of stars on two occasions on our journey and on Iona, on our final night there we got lucky once more.

Porridge for breakfast. Potcozy in background.

Porridge for breakfast. Potcozy in background.

Gull.

Gull on roof – Iona, Scotland.

Shadows, rock and machair, Iona.

Shadows, rock and machair, Iona.

And I do mean lucky. You would guess that you would have more star filled nights, but something always spoils it. When things are right, you know you are witnessing something very special, and it makes your head spin with the enormity of it all. A morning of horizon spanning azure blue followed as we packed up the tent.

Ben More, island of Mull, Scotland.

Ben More, island of Mull, Scotland.

The short ferry trip across the bay to Mull, and we retrace our route for the first few miles on the road across from Ben More. We take a left turn, the B8035 towards Salen, a route we have done a few times before. We know we are in for a treat. To call it one of the great cycling roads of Europe would not be over selling it, and today we had the perfect weather.

Along the North road of Loch Scridain, Mull, Scotland.

Along the North road of Loch Scridain, Mull, Scotland.

On the other side of the pass of Glen Seilisdair, Mull, Scotland.

On the other side of the pass of Glen Seilisdair, Mull, Scotland.

Down to Loch Na Keal, Mull, Scotland.

Down to Loch Na Keal, Mull Scotland.

Overhanging the road as you turn to ride down the far side of Mull are a series of high cliffs that dominate that side of the island. You expect to be a bit in awe of geology when you stand in the Grand Canyon and yet we have it here at home as well. You have to stop, take it in, listen to it even and soak up the drama. If you are there on a day without rain, wind, mist or a bitingly cold that will go straight through the most technical of high-end bike clothing, then you are lucky. We got lucky.

Towering rocks, Mull, Scotland.

Towering rocks, Mull, Scotland.

B8035, along Loch Na Keal,II, Mull, Scotland.

B8035, along Loch Na Keal,II, Mull, Scotland.

Into the village of Salen. A nice cosy and unpretentious place with a friendly pro-cycling cafe. A pot of tea and a scone, the typical cafe stop and very welcome. We take the short ride to Fishnish to catch the ferry to the mainland. The is a cafe of sorts at the terminal, and another cup of tea would do no harm. ” Could we get some water in these bottles? “. We had already paid for our teas, so the answer when it came was a bit of a shock, ” NO “. Then I remembered that we had been here before. A group of us cyclists had descended on the place and spent enough money in half an hour of calorie consuming frenzy to put his first born through college. He was unhappy and unfriendly then, and he is just the same now. A good case could be argued for declaring him ‘ the most miserable man in Scotland ‘. Perhaps he is good with animals?

Ferry from Fishnish (Mull) to Lochaline (Mainland), Scotland.

Ferry from Fishnish (Mull) to Lochaline (Mainland), Scotland.

Wild camping on a small, white sanded beach.

Wild camping on a small, white sanded beach.

Across the Sound of Mull, and we camp on the beach just up the road from Lochaline We have passed into the Highlands with just a short ferry ride. We set out the following morning after a cold night. We can not complain, we are biking in a run of good weather we have never witnessed in our home country. It is polling day, the day that may end the Union and turn our little country into a small independent nation. We cycled through cities in China that would dwarf the total population count here. Which is a good reason to live in this beautiful country.

Single-tacke road, A884, Scotland.

Single-tacke road, A884, Scotland.

Distance marker.

Distance marker.

Esther walking.

Esther walking.

A glen shaped by ice.

A glen shaped by ice.

A884, South- East shore of  Loch Sunart, Scotland

A884, South- East shore of Loch Sunart, Scotland

A884, towards the Eastern end of  Loch Sunart, Scotland.

A884, towards the Eastern end of Loch Sunart, Scotland.

The closer we get to home, the more tired we feel. We have both remembered the final ferry at Corran as being ‘ just up the coast ‘. The first signpost comes as quite a shock – 29 miles. To add to the horror, there are an uncomfortable quantity of short sharp hills between us and it. It is a right turn onto the A861 to Ardgour and we pick up Nation Cycle Route 78 as we push onto the Corran ferry. To our left is the start of The Great Glen, a gash in Scotland’s landscape that runs diagonally across it. To the left has geology in common with continental America, to the right is European.

A82, crossing Loch Leven, Scotland.

A82, crossing Loch Leven, Scotland.

The A82 would not be on anyones list of safest cycle roads. It is however, just as stunning as it is hard on the nerves. Ballachulish, once the heart of the slate industry is slowly turning into a tourist town. Beyond, is Glencoe Village, where we take our most expensive campground of the tour of the UK. It is just short of Swiss prices, but we are too tired to argue and the views are amazing. I love Mince Pies, that British cake of the season of Christmas. Imagine my surprise to find a box of 6 on special offer. It is mid September, more than 3 months to go and here they are. The madness continues when you look at the ‘ best before date – 27-10-14 ‘, they will expire long before the big day!. Of course I buy them.

Loch Leven from our camp site spot in Glencoe village.

Loch Leven from our camp site spot in Glencoe village.

We watch the sun pass over Onich Bridge and dip into the water at the end of the loch. The morning is cool again, with not a breath of wind. We play host to a million midges and try to eat breakfast without lifting the rim of our head-nets. It is onto the Dave Yates’ bikes for the ride through the tourist heart of Scotland. We climb up through Glencoe, passing each of the Two Sisters mountains as we ride. Today they are all wearing a cap of white cloud, which is fitting. Pure blue skies through here would feel wrong.

One of the Two Sisters, Glencoe, Scotland.

One of the Two Sisters, Glencoe, Scotland.

Buachaille, Etive More, Glencoe/Glen Etive, Scotland.

Buachaille, Etive Mor, Glencoe/Glen Etive, Scotland.

The Buachaille Etive Mor with Stob Dearg at it’s head comes up on our right. If you have watched the Bond film Skyfall, you will know this view. Bond turns down Glen Etive here, towards Skyfall, his ancestral home. It is one of the most beautiful Glens in Scotland, but a dead-end. Our road continues to climb, but the mountains drop away as we ride over Rannoch Moor to the summit at over 1,100 ft. We may have just biked through the bleakest and most beautiful 10 miles anywhere in Scotland. It is as good as anywhere we have been in the world today.

Rannoch Moore, Scotland.

Rannoch Moore, Scotland.

After a series of short climbs, we drop down to meet the Oban road at the village of Tyndrum. A fish pie for lunch at the institution that is The Green Welly Stop. We sit talking to people just long enough for my legs to almost totally lock up. They simply do not want to turn the pedals ever again. The thought of even more traffic hanging at my elbow is not an uplifting thought either. We make it to Glen Dochart has a campground marked on our map. We are overjoyed to see the site open sign come into view at the end of a short, but hard day.

The old railway,I, along Glen Ogle, Scotland.

The old railway,I, along Glen Ogle, Scotland.

The old railway,II, along Glen Ogle, Scotland.

The old railway,II, along Glen Ogle, Scotland.

It is a Saturday morning like few in Scotland. You could plan an open air concert, a wedding or nude sunbathing without anxiety today. It is going to be peachy perfect. Off we ride, and at the start of Glen Ogle a bike path that we had both forgotten about. It takes us away from the madness of the road and high up onto the opposite hillside. Thank goodness for the Victorians and their love of money and exemplary work ethic. Welcome to National Bike Route 7, and I feel better already.

The old railway,III, along Glen Ogle, Scotland.

The old railway,III, along Glen Ogle, Scotland.

South road of Glen Earn, I,Scotland.

South road of Glen Earn, I,Scotland.

South road of Glen Earn, II,Scotland.

South road of Glen Earn, II,Scotland.

Ferns.

Ferns.

We drop down at Lochearnhead and head to the narrow road that runs behind the loch. This is a new road for us and quite a treat to discover such a gem. Crief, a town I know that I must have been in before, but I can not quite place it. I am looking at Scotland as a tourist and it is rather fun.

Good looking sheep, sprayed with dye and ready for the sales.

Good looking sheep, sprayed with dye and ready for the sales.

Crossing River Earn at Kinkell Bridge, Scotland.

Crossing River Earn at Kinkell Bridge, Scotland.

A rear spoke goes. I can feel the ‘ping ‘ through the saddle. This is the first on the tricky side of the wheel in all our time on the road. I decide to ignore the problem this close to home. The sun is already low, and shadows long as we pull onto The Glen Eagles Caravan Park. It is all rather posh, as you might expect for such an address. ” Set up and come and see me later “. We do, and after a nice chat we get the camping for free, which is nice. They are a bit busy with preparations for a game of golf in a weeks time.

Last campsite at Glen Eagles Campgound, Scotland.

Last campsite of our journey – at Glen Eagles Caravan Park & Campground, Scotland.

Preparation for the Ryder Cup, Glen Eagle, Scotland.

Preparation for the Ryder Cup, Glen Eagle, Scotland.

The morning starts poorly. I always shake my Crocs before sliding them on. Today it is not enough to dislodge the slug that has enjoyed my shoe and called it home for the night. It is a morning of cool and heavy dew, as we leave the campground. Geese fly overhead as we put the work into the first few miles of undulating road. Every Copse, every damp woodland carries the smell of mushrooms into the still air.  Rumbling Bridge and then we enter the Kingdom of Fife. My legs are killing me – why do they always start the day worse than they were when you stopped the day before?

Entering Kingdom of Fife, Scotland.

Entering Kingdom of Fife, Scotland.

Rolling hills, near Saline, Scotland.

Rolling hills, near Saline, Scotland.

Heading for the Forth Road Bridge.

Heading for the Forth Road Bridge.

Us, with old Forth Rail Bridge in background.

Us, with old Forth Rail Bridge in background.

Our first signpost to Edinburgh. We are getting close to home, close to the moment we need turn these pedals no more. A right towards the village of Saline, and we are clear of the main roads for a while. We link together bits of the Fife Coastal Path to get onto the Forth Road Bridge. In the haze to our left as we cross, the Rail Bridge an icon of engineering known the world over. We cross from North to South Queensferry, and are in among the bustle of a sunny afternoon on the coast.

Forth Rail Bridge, South Queensferry, Scotland.

Forth Rail Bridge, South Queensferry, Scotland.

Dalmeny House has undergone a bit of an enlightenment with regards to public access while we have been away. We join the throng and pick up The John Muir Way – a Trans-Scotland walking and bike route in honour of the man from down the coast here. We manage to miss the turn where the walking and cycling paths diverge for a while. It gets a bit too technical for our touring bikes and becomes more of a walk.

Dalmeny House, Scotland.

Dalmeny House, Scotland.

We spill out into the outer reaches of Edinburgh. It is like suffering from amnesia. I recognise bits and pieces, but not for the life of me can I join them together to make a route that goes where we need to be. I am using the gps, keeping the blue of the Forth to our left. Our mental internal map is a few updates old and we are quite pleased to find the big red bridge that is close to our hosts for the night – our pals Drew and Jan.

The Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh A Unesco World Heritage Site, Scotland.

Reaching the sea front, near Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Reaching the sea front, near Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Sleeping indoors is harder to adjust to than going outside to sleep. You can drop backwards through evolutionary time more easily I guess. Whatever the reason, I have my first of a string of bad nights of sleep. We head up to town the next morning to find big changes to our home town – there are Trams and stuff. It is down the coast now, through what once were individual villages with fishing at their hearts.  For the first time, as we ride, we admit to each other that we have pre-visualized the moment when we get home many times. We get to Musselburgh and spend time on the beach, not wanting things to end just yet.

Musselburgh habour, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Musselburgh harbour, Edinburgh, Scotland.

As we ride up the road to our flat, the meter trips to 32,499 miles in total. It would be nice to get it to 500 miles, but that would look like we cheated. We have been away almost 4 years. Thinking back to the night sky on Iona, we have been on our bikes whilst our small, blue planet has gone around an insignificant star almost 4 times. Now that is a big number of miles. People have the glib saying ” small world isn’t it? ” Well you know what, it is not small. Looking up at the heavens makes it feel small, looking down beyond your feet and at the far horizons, it’s big and not much of it is flat.

Arriving in our flat... the clock is wrong, it was midday.

Arriving in our flat… the clock is wrong, it was midday.

Forth Rail Bridge, South Queensferry, Scotland.

Forth Rail Bridge, South Queensferry, Scotland.

 

 

The isles of Jura, Mull and Iona, Scotland.

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Road North of Jura, Scotland.

Road North of Jura, Scotland.

There is a scene in the film Crockodile Dundee that sums up the difference between town and country etiquette. Dundee is in New York, and is out walking the streets for the first time. He is saying ” Hello ” to everyone. There is a mass of people, but he is trying to maintain his country greeting code. ” Must be the friendliest place in the world “, he concludes.

Paps of Jura, Scotland.

Paps of Jura, Scotland.

There is a point when you bike out of a town when you must begin to wave at everyone and shout a cheerie ” Good morning ” to all you pass. Knowing where this begins, this line in the sand is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Once you are in the zone it feels normal to greet everyone, but you can stop doing it if you return to a town or built up area.

Road between Feolin and Craighouse, Jura, Scotland.

Road between Feolin and Craighouse, Jura, Scotland.

We have been biking on single track roads quite a bit recently, and I must say I love the feeling of community and sharing. You have to cooperate, and there is a mutual agreement to wave at the conclusion of the contact. I would build more of these, and possibly dig up existing roads and turn them into single track roads with passing places, just to get a bit more social interaction in society. I think it is worth giving it a try, and there is money to be saved.

Old telephone box, Jura, Scotland.

Old telephone box, Jura, Scotland.

Whisky barrels, Jura, Scotland.

Whisky barrels, Jura, Scotland.

A cold night made worse by being so damp you could wring out a pint of water from a pair of socks left out for an hour. We wake to the sound of the most foul mouthed farmer trying, and failing to load sheep into the back of a trailer. If there is a place where people swear more than anywhere in the world, you could make a strong case for it being Scotland. People use a swear word in place of a comma, or just part of the syntax of conversation. You have to get used to it, you are never going to change things.

Low tide Craighouse, Jura, Scotland.

Low tide Craighouse, Jura, Scotland.

We ride down to the ferry terminal and take the short hop across the sound from Islay to Jura. These are fast flowing and dangerous waters, and the boat sets of at a right angle into the flow. In a few short minutes we are on the island of Jura, landing just under the iconic mountains, the Paps of Jura ( I would guess that Pap means conical or breast in Gaelic even without looking it up ).

Yellow boat, Jura, Scotland.

Yellow boat, Jura, Scotland.

The main and only road along the length of the island is designated as an ‘ A-Road ‘ even though it has grass growing up the middle for a good deal of its length and is often not wide enough for a car and bike to pass without one of them stopping or backing up. It takes you over 3 lumpy bits, that on a bad day would make you turn back to the ferry, before you  enter the shelter of woodland. It feels like a summers day and a glance down at my meter confirms it –  67’f. I can not hold back a whoop of joy. The weather in Scotland lets you down so often, this is a gift. The grief and anguish involved in planning a barbecue here can not be overstated.

The Paps, Isle of Jura, Scotland.

The Paps, Isle of Jura, Scotland.

Craighouse, home of the Jura distillery. Today there is not a breath of wind to move on the fumes of the whiskey. It hangs in the village clinging and filling your nostrils. If the very thought of Whiskey makes you wretch, today, this is not a good place. I love it. The sea is mirrored and horizon lost between sea and sky just a short distance off shore. Esther orders Haggis for lunch at the cafe.

View towards Lagg, Jura, Scotland

View towards Lagg, Jura, Scotland

Cottages, Jura, Scotland.

Cottages, Jura, Scotland.

Perfect day, Jura, Scotland

Perfect day, Jura, Scotland

The road is over 25 miles in length and shows every variation in road quality imaginable. It goes from recently re-surfaced, to shockingly bad and almost wheel crunchingly unridable in parts. How bad must the recently repaired bits have been, and why did they not do the other dreadful bits whilst they were here. How did they make the choice? Toss a coin or some form of divination? Where is the logic? We ride until we have had enough and call it a day when we find a flat bit of grass next to a stream.

Wild camping, Jura, Scotland.

Wild camping, Jura, Scotland.

Time to make some tea. A camping spot is not ready until the first tea is drunk. The pot is lowered into the fast moving waters and comes out full with water a two teabag per cup shade of brown from the peaty stream. It makes good tea, unusual and perhaps even harmful longterm, but good for now.

Peaty River, Jura, Scotland.

Lossa River, Jura, Scotland.

Once I move away from the tent and put some distance between my ears and the stream, the silence is total. No wind, no movement, no sound. So totally silent that it is disorienting. I feel giddy. The night is cold. A damp cold that no amount of technical goose feathers can keep out. The tent, the whole area is so wet in the morning it may as well have rained all night. We leave the tent, throw our heavy bags inside and head for George Orwell’s Cottage.

Natural woodland, Jura, Scotland

Natural woodland, Jura, Scotland

GPS view.

GPS view.

We cross Lossa River, dark as oil, reflecting the sky and trees an Obsidian black. The track goes from black-top to loose gravel and then to dirt and house brick infill mixed with fist sized stones. It is often beyond our bike handling skills. With 2 miles to go, we decide that it is not a good place to break a collar bone. The bikes are stashed at the side of the track and we start to walk. 20 years ago the art duo of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty came this way. They were driving a car into which they had recently piled £1 million in used notes. They took the car close to Orwell’s cottage and burned it partly as a statement but mostly for the sake of art.

Distances.

Distances.

"Orwell's Cottage" , Jura, Scotland

“Orwell’s Cottage” , Barnhill Jura, Scotland

The walk is wonderful in the water-colour wash of the landscape in mist.  ” The walk to Barnhill is one of the most profound, beautiful and moving journeys anyone can take on this earth ” – Will Self, just about pitches it right. Orwell stayed here as he wrote 1984, enduring the remote self reliance that such a spot throws at you. He came close to drowning in his boat, sucked into the Corryvreckan Whirlpool just up the coast.

The house where G. Orwell wrote "1984", Jura, Scotland

The house where G. Orwell wrote “1984”, Jura, Scotland

The walk back to the bikes is as uneventful as it is beautiful, right up until the point where my foot comes down 4″ from the UK’s only poisonous snake. It is a big one and could have chosen to bite, but turned to slither across the track. Adders occur on Jura in more number than anywhere else in the UK. I caught it’s movement in my peripheral vision. Next was a sort of arm flapping that javelin throwers use to stop them stepping over the line and fouling a throw. It would have been a very bad place to have a medical emergency and we both know we have been lucky. Within the next mile we see another Adder, but now we are scanning the track as we walk.

The ferry between Jura and Tayvallich, Scotland.

The ferry between Jura and Tayvallich, Scotland.

Bikes secured to the back of the boat.

Bikes secured to the back of the boat.

Back to the bikes and down with the tent. A final tea and we are ready to pedal back to Craighouse for a camping pitch in front of the hotel. This is a great spot to contemplate the world and perhaps your own very small place in it. A few years after burning the money Drummond had a moment to reflect on the event. The ashes of the fire were fired into the clay of a house brick and on reflection he thought the whole thing had not been the best idea he had ever had. Boats hang in a void at anchor on a perfectly cast reflection. We catch the fast ferry service from the bay to the mainland after a rest day, and the adventure continues. I catch a last full lung of Malty Aroma.

Gannet.

Gannet.

Lighthouse between Jura and Loch Sween, Scotland

Lighthouse between Jura and Loch Sween, Scotland

Tayvallich Bay, Scotland.

Tayvallich Bay, Scotland.

Tayvallich Bay is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on gods clean earth. We pitch the tent at the campground and provide a meal for the local Midges. Before we left Jura I had a sneak look at the 10 day weather forecast – amazing, not a single rain spot icon.

Memorial to fallen Soldiers, on B8025, Scotland.

Memorial to fallen Soldiers, on B8025, Scotland.

On we go, making our way North along the coast, towards the local hub point that is the town of Oban. Dew hangs in pearls from grass hung spiders webs although it is after 11 o’clock and the sun has been up for hours. The Crinnan Canal, built to save ships the bother of rounding the coast, is to our left. We pass over it on the B8025, and head towards Kilmartin Glen.

Crossing the Crinnan Canal, Scotland.

Crossing the Crinnan Canal, Scotland.

Standing Stones, Kilmartin Glen, Scotland

Standing Stones, Kilmartin Glen, Scotland

Kilmartin would be chapter 1, paragraph 1 if I was writing a book on undiscovered Scotland. It has rock carvings and standing stones and enough history to fill the whole book. We take a walk around two of the most prominent stone circles – Nether Largie and Temple Wood. All around here there are outcrops of rock in the hills into which 4,000 years ago our ancestors carved intricate patterns. Spirals and hollows that may have been filled with offerings and cut marks that would have let sparks fly as their stone chisels hit. Many have panoramic views and sight lines to the sea. It is a place to visit and spend time exploring.

Grave stones, Kilmartin, Scotland.

Grave stones, Kilmartin, Scotland.

Ancient Burial mount, Kilmarting Glen, Scotland.

Temple Wood buriel mount, Kilmartin Glen, Scotland.

We head on up the coast along the banks of Loch Melfort. The road is quiet enough for us not to need to take the cycling alternative along Loch Awe.  There are people gathering Clams among the seaweed and great expansive views ahead to the mountains of Mull. We pass the turning to the island of Easdale, a destination for another journey – it holds the World Stone skimming contest every year.

Prepared Tup  (male sheep)

Prepared Tup (male sheep)

Route A816 towards Oban, Scotland.

Route A816 towards Oban, Scotland.

We enter Oban late in the afternoon. It feels more Mediterranean than West Coast today. Pale Scots walk along the prom displaying the most dreadful of sunburn and bad tattoos. The streets are busy and election fever is at a high. Cars pass in convoy, blue YES flags flying. There is music of pipes and high spirits.  We get to our hotel and spend the evening in what animal behaviorist call ‘ mutual grooming ‘. I have collected more than 20 ticks on arms, back and unreachable areas. I am a mass of wounds by the end of the operation.

Up through the mountain bits, I, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Up through the mountain bits, I, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Up through the mountain bits, II, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Up through the mountain bits, II, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

The 9.50 am ferry to Mull. It has a small huddle of fellow cyclists keen to head for the outer islands. It is a short crossing, giving just enough time for Porridge and a plate of toast and beans. We turn left out of the ferry terminal and head along the coast clockwise. A bird of prey. A flash of white confirms it is a Sea Eagle before it is lost behind trees. Oyster Catchers run the fringe of the Sea Lochs as we pass. Some take to the air with their rattling cry of alarm.

Lochs, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Lochs, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Route A849, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Route A849, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Ben More mountain, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Ben More mountain, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

This is the largest island we have been on, room enough for mountains where we have biked through hills. These are big, easily touching the low cloud. The feeling is more dark, somber even. Winter is not far away now.

Distance marker, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Distance marker, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Ship wreck, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Ship wreck, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

To our right as we approach the ferry port for Iona, we can see the small island of Staffa. It’s basalt columns give it a unique landscape. A small harbour goes into the columns and is called Fingles Cave. The sound inside the cove it amazing. Felix Mendelssohn was inspired by his visit here and included this in his Hebridean Overture. The sun is burning off the clouds now and we may have a clear view for the short crossing to Iona. It is also good to have the sun out as it brings out the colour in the water. White sand is just bellow the surface of this shallow sound, turning the sea turquoise when the light hits it right. We pass the last village – Bunessan. The vicar at the small church is passing around outside the church. He goes inside and the thinnest of voices sing out ” Halellluliah ” . Cars are only allowed on Iona by permit. We cross to the smallest and quietest island of our tour.

View across Lock Scridain, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

View across Lock Scridain, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Petrol station, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Petrol station, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

Slow.

Slow.

Sheep in trailer.

Sheep in trailer.

The ferry pushes up onto the concrete ramp in Martyres Bay, we are less than 10 passengers on this late afternoon crossing. Iona is a special place, a place to retreat to a place to recharge, a spiritual home. We have chosen to make this the furthest we will go in Scotland. We came here together on our first trip together many years ago. We will turn across the country and head for home now. This is the end point and we have time to explore.

Campsite on Iona, Scotland.

Campsite on Iona at dusk, Scotland.

Rocks, Isle of Iona, Scotland.

Rocks, Isle of Iona, Scotland.

You can walk around the island in well under a day and take in a dozen beaches of golden sand. There are pebbles of pink granite to be picked up and green Marble to be found. There is just one campground and it is perfect, we pitch there for 3 days, our longest pitch of our whole journey. Barnacle Geese fly over our heads as we climb a small hill to look over the campground and out to sea. This is perfect, this is home and we have come full circle.

Football field. Isle of Iona, Scotland.

Football field. Isle of Iona, Scotland.

The history of Iona is complicated for such a small island. It has a pivotal place in the spread of  Christianity throughout the world. You can read a little about it and the voyage of St. Columba here. Vikings liked what they saw here and began to raid the island and eventually settled and mingled with the local population. The Abbey of Iona was built and then lay in ruin until it was taken on by the trust that now looks after it. Much of it needed to be rebuilt, a task that has taken from the late 1960’s. My friend Chris Hall, a sculptor has spent 30 years of his life working on the stone carvings here. The most obvious display of his work are the columns of the cloister. On a summer’s day you can walk in the Machair and hear the sound of Corncrake. Almost extinct a few years ago it is making a return. It needs a late cut of the grass for hay and low inputs. It is a fussy sod when it comes to what it likes.

St. Martin's Cross, Iona Abbey, Isle of Iona, Scotland.

St. Martin’s Cross, Iona Abbey, Isle of Iona, Scotland.

The bells of the Abbey ring out as a service is being held. You can almost see a dozen islands from any lump of rock more than a mans height. The sea is the way to travel here, for religion, for trade to go to war. – ” As we moved away, we had a curious meeting with a boat from Iona, crewed by Hebridians, leading with a rope in the water three small black Scottish horses which were swimming around the boat, not with the anxious agitation that accompanies fear – but with the calm of very skillful swimmers:  C.L.F. Panckcouke 1831.

Capital designs by Chris Hall, Iona Abbey, Isle of Iona, Scotland.

Capital designs by Chris Hall, Iona Abbey, Isle of Iona, Scotland.

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland.

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland.

 

 

 

 

The islands of Arran and Islay, Scotland.

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Shore at Kildonan, II, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Shore at Kildonan, II, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

As we rode around Arran we there was a feeling, much like Salmon returning up river to spawn, we were going in the wrong direction. We were battling a very strong headwind and the 100 bikes coming the other way were not. They were, on the whole on top-end road bikes from the exotic carbon end of the bike hierarchy. Many were ‘ middle aged men in lycra ‘, most looked happy enough.

Bridge at Irvine, Scotland.

Bridge at Irvine, Scotland.

When they had bought their bikes many had apparently taken a vow of silence. Our cheery ” Hello ” to our fellow cyclists were not being answered. This is strange, and yes, there were half of them responding as they shot past us. None were needing to turn the pedals with much labour. But there were those that did not. Did they look at us as inferior, or just plain stupid for going clockwise around Arran today.

Blue Bench.

Blue Bench.

Ferry to Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Ferry to Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Saturday morning and we head out of Irvine. Within minutes we are lost, and this time we have fallen foul of some scallywag turning the sign. Luckily I have looked up the route just a few minutes ago and this does not feel right. We regain Cycle Route 73 in what is now the right direction. Luckily the ferry is delayed as the connecting train is late and I do not have to continue thinking the murderous thoughts about the youth of Irvine.

Isle of Arran with view of Goatfell, Scotland.

Isle of Arran with view of Goatfell, Scotland.

The peaks of Isle of Arran, Scotland.

The peaks of Isle of Arran, Scotland.

It is a 1 hour crossing and the weather is perfect. Brodick is even from afar is looking beautiful. Clouds hang over Goatfell and we walk down the ramp into a stiff breeze. It is a layer of clothing cooler than the mainland as the wind is coming directly from the North. A bite to eat, and then we are on our way around the island in the wrong, clockwise direction.

View of Holy Island, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

View of Holy Island, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Road above Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Road around Whiting Bay, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Above Kildonan.

Above Kildonan.

Arran is lush. Most years you can point at it and say ” Temperate Maritime ” and you would be spot on. There is a climb forcing a stripping of clothing and the warmth is full of the earthy aroma of bracken. It grows tight into the road, a warm smell, and for me a smell of summer dens and school holidays. Holy Island is to our left just the other side of Whiting Bay. There is a Buddist retreat on the island, and you can see why.

Shore at Kildonan, I, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Shore at Kildonan, I, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Our first night on the island is at the campground at Kildonan overlooking the beach. We sit watching clouds gather and throw strong shafts of light across the water. We are on the third cup of tea before we even bother to change out of cycling clothing. The island of Pladda is just off-shore and beyond the Ailsa Craig looking impossibly angular. All of the Curling Stones in the world come from here, which is a nice fact.

A sunny day, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

A sunny day, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Roadside Brambles.

Roadside Brambles.

A cold night, our coldest since we got into the UK. In the morning the air is still and as sharp as a knife. The lighthouse on Pladda that was a light grey smudge yesterday is now Gannet White, and feels close enough to touch. The coast of Ayr stands out in sharp contrast. The tide is in and there on the rocks is an Otter and its youngster. The Kit is being tought how to fish and they look impossibly happy. We climb out of the bay and as we round the southern tip of Arran the full force of a cold wind hits us full on.

Southern Road, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Southern Road, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Blue Sky to the Kityre peninsula.

Blue Sky to the Kityre peninsula.

Warren and cottage, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Warren and cottage, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

The road rises and falls. On the exposed parts of the road it is cold enough to have on your winter clothing. When you climb, often protected by high walls and hedges it is warm enough to comfortably ride naked. It is an impossible compromise to strike. We get to Blackwaterfoot just in time for coffee and cake.

South Westhern Road, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

South Westhern Road, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Ancient Burial ground, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Ancient Burial ground, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Rowan Tree, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Rowan Tree, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

These are familiar roads for us, we have biked here many times. The last time was 4 years ago and riding our light road bikes. Things feel unfamiliar. It feels so much further today with the heft of touring bikes to propel up short sharp climbs. Travelling a little slower today has advantages. To our right, a single standing stone that we have not noticed before.

Standing Stone, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Standing Stone, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

North Western Road, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

North Western Road, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Our camp, near Catacol Bay, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Our camp, near Catacol Bay, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Dry stone wall and shadows, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Dry stone wall and shadows, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Catacol Bay, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

Catacol Bay, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

A wild camp at the side of a fast moving stream. Here in Scotland you have the right to walk just about most places and pitch a tent if the fancy takes you. Catacol Bay is just in front of us and we take a sunset walk along the beech. This brings to the end a near perfect day of cycle touring. The only downside is the song “Maria” from Westside Story which has been in my head all day. It is harmless as ear-worms go, but annoying none the same.

Warren.

Warren.

The night is even colder than the previouse one. There are cows, no this is deeper and with more passion. The Red Deer are begining to call the start of the rutting season and the poor sods will be doing this night and day for weeks. Some will not make it into winter, worn out by the effort. Morning, and the still air is alive with Midges. Horrid flying Pyrana that drive you close to madness. We make breakfast and throw our stuff into the bags. The ferry is coming in and we have a race to meet it at Lochranza.

View of Arran from Kintyre Peninsular.

View of Arran from Kintyre Peninsular.

Sea front road, Kintyre Peninsular, Scotland.

Sea front road, Kintyre Peninsular, Scotland.

Skipness castle, Scotland

Skipness castle, Scotland

Isle of Arran from Skipness, Scotland.

Isle of Arran from Skipness, Scotland.

The ferry across to Cloanaig on the Kintyre peninsula is full of cyclists and the sea flat calm. Last time we were on here we thought we were going to die it was so rough. We have time before the next ferry to go exploring. Skipness Castle is at the end of the road to the right. There are wonderful views back along the straight. Arran is wearing a hat of clouds. This is perfect touring, and the great thing is that this is where we live. We could get in our car and be here in two hours or so.

Mile marker, Scotland

Mile marker, Scotland

Warren and Isle of Aran in the background, Scotland.

Warren and Isle of Aran in the background, Scotland.

The road climbs steeply out of the bay. One disadvantage in being almost local is that we know the nasty things that are ahead. It is a stiff pull out away from the bay. The views are worth the effort. A right turn, and it is just a mile or so to the ferry terminal and our ride to the island of Islay.

Ferry.

Ferry.

Isle of Islay, view from the ferry, Scotland

Isle of Islay, view from the ferry, Scotland

As ever, there is quite a thrill in pushing a laden touring bike onto a ferry. It feels such a perfect fit, a combination of transport that opens up the remote islands of Scotland’s West Coast. To look at a CalMac timetable with a map on your knees is to enter a dream world of possible travel plans. It costs just £12 for the two of us and our bikes for the 2 hour crossing. You could hardly find a better trip in a boat any where in the world that would match that.

Habour with Jura in the background. Isle of Islay, Scotland

Habour with Jura in the background. Isle of Islay, Scotland

Uphill from Port Askaig, Isle of Islay, Scotland

Uphill from Port Askaig, Isle of Islay, Scotland

The landing at Port Askaig comes at the end of half an hour of riding up the narrow sound between Islay and Jura. The poor touring cyclist now has a horrid climb out of the port. We have a camp for the night at our friends in the first village – last but 3 houses on the right in Keils.

Traditional house, Isle of Islay, Scotland.

Traditional house Keils, Isle of Islay, Scotland.

Washing and burial ground, Keills, Isle of Islay, Scotland

Washing and burial ground, Keills, Isle of Islay, Scotland

Bowmore Bay Islay.

Bowmore Bay Islay.

The next day is without panniers. A ride around our favorite bits of Islay with the joy of half the weight under us. To have a run of good weather that last more than two or three days is to consider yourself blessed in these parts. It is too close to Atlantic storms that can roll in at a moments notice and spoil your day or even your week or month. We are being lucky, too lucky, but we do deserve it.

Bowmore Highsreet, Islay.

Bowmore Highsreet, Islay.

The gates of Bruichladdich distilary.

The gates of Bruichladdich distilary.

We go to Bowmore and then it is around the island to the distillary of Bruichladdich. The island is looking wonderful and riding around there is a feeling of being at home. It feels good, very good. There is time to look around, to smell the sea air, to feel the earth. We turn left down the road to Finlaggan, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles or Fionn Laggan as they say in Gaelic. In the morning we cross to Jura and ride to Orwell’s house. You must come and do something similar.

1838.

1838.

Finlaggan, Islay.

Finlaggan, Islay.

Back in Scotland, and heading to the islands – 32,000 miles done.

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The rolling hills of Northern Dumfrieshire, Scotland.

The rolling hills of Northern Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

We have crossed the border and are back in Scotland, heading west under a grey sky to the island of Arran. Has Britain changed whilst we have had our backs turned? Well 1 in 5 people here now have a tatoo, or so we are told. Marijuana may as well be legalised, as the sweet perfume can be noticed in even the most sleepy of villages and is almost endemic in the towns we have pedaled slowly through.

Richmond Castle and River Tees, England.

Richmond Castle and River Tees, England.

Market place, Richmond, England.

Market place, Richmond, England.

Scotland is going to the poles. Independence would mean losing the blue bits in the Union Flag, which would be a shame. There are certainly lots of YES posters in windows, but it is going to be a whole lot easier to put one of those up than a NO. We plan to be in a remote corner of an unimaginably remote west coast island on polling day. We will give it a day or two for the dust to settle. It all gets rolled into one thing – Nationalism and politics.

25%.

25%.

It is a perfect Sunday to go cycling in Yorkshire. Which is excellent, as that is just what we had planned. When the Tour came through here earlier this year it was a day for the climbers. Those little men from exotic parts of the globe who hate to see their names on the team sheet for the Spring classics in places with a fondness for mayonnaise and cow bells.

Out, up and over. Richmond, England.

Out, up and over. Richmond, England.

Single Tree.

Single Tree.

We are walking a lot of Yorkshire. It really could do with another ice-age or at the very least ironing. We catch the first views of the high moorland that is ahead, but that is a task for later in the day. Here is bad enough, with the road to Richmond cutting across the grain of the land. Up and over one fold after another it makes a hard start to the day. It is one short, hard out of the saddle grunt after another.

View from the Byway.

View from the Byway.

Richmond is quaint, that is undeniable. Trying to get a photo of it without including a bin, large sign advertising a bank or a security camera is impossible. Including a pub sign feels like the most genuine of things to include. We climb a 18% grade to get into the town, only to find that a 25% would have been an option if we had bothered to plan a bit. We exit the town to find more hills and are cheered on by an elderly lady descending on a road bike – ” Well done ” she shouts. There is a common bond in suffering on a bicycle and we are holding the trump card with our four panniers.

Little lane, into County Durham, England.

Little lane, into County Durham, England.

National dish, fish and chips.

National dish, fish and chips.

Castle in Barnard Castle, England.

Castle in Barnard Castle, England.

We enter County Durham, the land of the Prince Bishops according to the sign. It could do with a Wiki entry as I am clueless as to what that means. Time for lunch now and the easiest option is Fish & Chips. We enter Bernard’s Castle in search of the Nations favorite through narrow lanes of limestone built dry stone walls and solid looking buildings.

Approaching Mickleton, England.

Approaching Mickleton, England.

Local in a Morgan.

Local in a Morgan.

Cotherstone, we are climbing up to the high moorland now, with a welcome tailwind. We get as far as Eggelston after just 35 miles, but there is over 3,000 ft on the altimeter and our legs have had enough. Beyond this point our map turns a nasty brown shade and our road ahead features a horrid series of chevrons. There is no doubt trouble ahead. We negotiate a pitch behind the Woodcock Inn. A flick through the altimeter readings for today show that we maxed at 22%, it felt like more.

All Welcome.

All Welcome.

Single Tree.

Single Tree.

Wild camping.

Wild camping.

The first half of the night is all pin pricks of bright stars and passing satellites. The sheep in the next field stay alert the whole night, often quite vocal about things. It clouds over with something half way between a low cloud and rain. By morning there are enough patches of blue to be hopeful ( my mother would always confirm this by – ” if there is enough patches of blue to make a sailors jacket it will be fine “). I am not used to packing our new tent and this is the first time we are doing this with it wet. I make a terrible job of it. If you are next in line for a parachute that I have packed, make some excuses and return later.

...one of the climbes...

…first of the climbs…

Climbing the Pennines, England.

Climbing the Pennines, England.

The climb begins through sheep fields and silage crops. Soon enough we have gained hight and are up amongst the purple kingdom of the Grouse Stalker. It is all un-natural, stage managed and costed to a budget but it is undeniably gorgeous. Up fly the Grouse as we pass shouting GET BACK GET BACK. The climb up onto the tops of the moors of Teesdale begins with a drop which is followed by a twisting return to the height that you were just at. This is all character building and could only be improved by a sleety horizontal rain. Today, we have just the climbs, which are going to get worse further ahead.

Purple with blooming heather, North Pennines, England.

Purple with blooming heather, North Pennines, England.

Weardale, England.

Weardale, England.

The long down to Stanhope, England.

The long down to Stanhope, England.

Sheep.

Swaledale.

North Pennines, England.

North Pennines, England.

To the sides of the road and occasionally on it, the local sheep, the grey snouted Swaledale have all the character of a hard winter. 1636 ft and we enter Weardale and still ahead is the big climb of the day. The drop into Stanhope has a sign indicating 10%, which I would say is about 100% wrong. It is a testing time for nerves on the narrow road as we slalom down into the village. In the first 14 miles we have climbed over 2,000 ft and we are trying to remember if we had ever equalled this in the last 3 1/2 years on the road.

Hexam Abbey, Hexam, England.

Hexham Abbey, Hexham, England.

Hexam Abbey, Hexam, England.

Hexham Abbey, Hexham, England.

The B6278 towards Edmundbyers. I am still thrilled with the place names of England, so good you just want to say them out loud just for the thrill of them on your tongue, much like a strong mint. Storm clouds hang low in the sky and Esther catches a glimpse of a Red Kite. We descend towards Derwent Water, now just 3 days from home if we continued North. The A68 is quiet enough today to get a few easy miles done. We are averaging 1,000 ft of climb every 10 miles since we got back on the bikes. A pub lunch and we are surrounded by photos and signed stuff from Alan Shearer, the last gentleman footballer.

St Oswald's church, England.

St Oswald’s church, England.

Corebridge, one of the main garrison towns during the time of the Roman Wall. We move on to Hexham Abbey, amazed at the depth of history in this border area. A campground for the night, which of course is a steep climb above the town. It is a beautiful climb and the campground is one of the best, so it pays to put some effort in. We keep the door open and watch the stars, our tent pitched just a few yards from the line of the Roman Wall. The biggest structure in all the Empire, the most emphatic line in the sand. Civilisations frontier.

Left over from Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England.

Remains of Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England.

We ride up next to the wall. This is Hadrian’s Wall and we are remembering two years ago biking through Spain and visiting his birthplace, the origins of another emperor. He was being beaten back here and the Wall of which this is the third, the strongest, most southerly and more permanent was a way of making a huge statement. He turned a defeated into a statement in stone. It is over 70 miles long and was over 11 ft tall in places, and some suggest that it may have been painted white all the way along.

B6318, near Haltwhistle, England.

B6318, near Haltwhistle, England.

B6318, Along Hadrian's Wall, England.

B6318, Along Hadrian’s Wall, England.

Much of it has been robbed in the 1,000 years since it was abandoned. Much of the walls of churches, farms, bridges and castles have Roman stone taken over the Millenia from its length. Troops from the furthest reaches of the Empire came to man its mile castles and garrisons. You have to say they thought on a grand scale.

Near Longtown, England.

Near Longtown, England.

Reivers Route sign.

Reivers Route sign.

We meet the Wall at the junction of the B6318 and follow it under a summer sky for most of the day. We are getting closer to Scotland, the border country of cattle rustling and conflict. We can see the border at the Carter Bar off in the distance and the rolling hills of the Cheviots. We start to head West, to cut across the country south of the border. This is hard cycling, we are on a Roman road that runs straight. If there is a hill ahead, we are going up it. A left turn and we pick up the Reivers Cycle Way. I stop for a moment to take the picture and can hear a Curlew. We are back home.

Church in Longtown, England.

Church in Longtown, England.

We end the day as the only campers on a site near Longtown and get charged a fortune for the privilege. Early the next morning, even before we have got any sort of rhythm, we are at the border with Scotland. This is our 39th and final country of our time on the road. It is Autumnal, last night there were skeins of migrating geese overhead. We pass into Scotland and head towards one of the strangest tourist places in the country, Gretna Green.

Welcome to Scotland.

Welcome to Scotland.

The Blacksmith's place, Gretna Green, Scotland.

The Blacksmith’s place, Gretna Green, Scotland.

People have been running away from families to get married under Scotland’s liberal laws for a very long time. This is the first stop on the main road across the border and today the road is lined with wedding photographers shops and bridal gown shops. It has a bit of a history – Scottish law allowed for “irregular marriages”, meaning that if a declaration was made before two witnesses, almost anybody had the authority to conduct the marriage ceremony. The blacksmiths in Gretna became known as “anvil priests”, culminating with Richard Rennison, who performed 5,147 ceremonies.

Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfrieshire, Scotland.

Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfrieshire, Scotland.

The Solway Firth.

The Solway Firth.

We leave behind the coach parties of Asian tourists and follow the geese to the coast. Thousands of Arctic migrant refuel in the fields around the Solway Firth and Caerlaverlock. As they return to roost on the mud flats at dusk they fill the sky, turning it dark as thousands turn in the sky. It is an amazing sight, one of the highlights of the approach of winter.

Stone circle near Dumfries, Scotland.

Stone circle near Dumfries, Scotland.

We catch a glimpse of standing stones through a gap in the hedge. We are on an unfamiliar road and this is our first glimpse of the 12 Apostles. We follow the road to Dunscore, even in what is now twilight, it is beautiful. There is just enough light to show up the folds in the land. Corvids are coming home, doing final low circles of their night-time roosts. These roosts remain unchanged for hundreds of years, and generations of Rook, Crows and Jackdaws.

B729, near Dumfries, Scotland.

B729, near Dumfries, Scotland.

Single tree.

Single tree.

...or Sorecock?

…or Sorecock?

It may be the soft light, the lack of a headwind or the fact that the big climbs are behind us. There is something magical. The B729 becomes a top 10 road in our journey, it is absolutely stunning. We wild camp in a stubble field. Soon we are visited by flocks of geese drawn to the grass and lost corn. Wonderful things and an amazing journey, but good grief they are noisy. They just can not control themselves and are easy to panic. Up they go again with loud cries and accusations. You would not want a flock of geese in the flat above you.

Local church of Penpont, Scotland.

Local church of Penpont, Scotland.

Kirkpatrick MacMillan's shed. Keir Mill, Scotland.

Kirkpatrick MacMillan’s smithy. Keir Mill, Scotland.

A strangely warm morning. It is 70’f early and yet the sun hides behind a veil of uniformly grey clouds. We are linking together narrow lanes just wide enough for a single car and a bike to pass. We pay homage to the birthplace of the modern bicycle and then it is on to Drumlanrig Castle for a view of less modest history just up the road.

Approaching Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfrieshire, Scotland.

Approaching Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfrieshire, Scotland.

Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland.

Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland.

These are steep roads once more. There is cursing and sweating in equal measure. This is just one of the Duke of Buccleuch’s houses and estates. Together his landholding exceeds that of the Queen. It all looks very impressive, and there is a steady trickle of cars rolling up and people pointing cameras at the castle. We move on, and once again it is up a series of steep hills. Sanquhar, and we sit and eat lunch as a lorry tries to go the wrong way down a tight street. This is a medieval road layout and at any moment he can wreck one of half a dozen listed buildings he is reversing near. No one can speak Czech to help him.

32.000 miles done.

32.000 miles done.

The River Nith tumbles over untidy rocks down to our right. It could not look more Scottish if it tried. Another hard day comes to an end, but there is excitement in the last few miles – we go through 32,000 miles on our journey! We wild camp at the side of a wet field, such is the glamour of bike touring.

The last robe.

The last robe.

We rise, throw our legs over the top tube of our bikes and start another day. Today is grey. No, it is beyond grey to the point of having no sharp edges, no contrast and no feeling of distance. It is also unseasonably warm again. Ayrshire passes by in a uniform pallet of subdued colours. Then it starts to rain. I am lost in thought. Then I pass a discarded dressing gown. It is new or newish and then a second and third. This is the sort of thing to get your attention in Ayrshire. We turn right towards Irvine and the dressing gowns continue. I photograph the final one – a red model and again in good condition. I am not sure we will see more unusual things as we head towards the islands. We enter Irvine. I need a haircut and nowhere beyond here will be cheaper. Sitting in the warm salon I feel worn out. We smell and are weary enough to call it a day. It starts to rain again, which seals the deal. We take a hotel.

Getting thin again.

Getting thin again.

 

 

 

 

 

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