Monday, 31 August 2020

Day 11...Corran to Lochaline out and back

Today was our last full day's riding before the long journey back home tomorrow. We chose an out and back route to Lochaline, down towards the bottom of the Morvern peninsula, and on the other side of the Sound of Mull from the island of Mull itself.

The weather forecast was benign, if a little cool, and we were granted our fourth successive day with no rain. Unfortunately blue skies were nowhere to be seen, and there was a strong southerly wind to test us on the route out.

After taking the Corran ferry across Loch Linnhe once again, we headed south down the main A861 road. This is slightly misleading, as the only traffic that comes down this road is that which comes off the small ferry. So, every half an hour a small convoy of cars or trucks whizzes by and then nothing until the next ferry unloads its cargo and the next convoy comes along.

We turned off the "main" road onto the very minor B road that leads down to Kingairloch. The first 5 miles or so is through rolling but quite barren hills, and then it follows the side of the loch for about 4 miles. The surface along these 9 miles or so varies from excellent to appalling, with the vast majority being of the rough variety....but the views are fabulous.

After passing through Kingairloch, which appears to consist solely of 5 houses and 1 church, the road turns inland and rises almost unnoticeably through the valley. The road for the next 4 miles is almost a perfect surface, and we saw as many cyclists as cars....and we only saw 4 cyclists!!!

This 13 mile detour away from the main road proved to be some of the most enjoyable cycling of our whole trip....lovely views, good roads in parts, almost no traffic, not too taxing...what's not to like?

As the road reaches the head of the valley it rejoins the main road for a very long gradual descent all the way down to Lochaline, where we stopped for lunch at the snack bar by the ferry...the only cafe of any sort open for many miles around.

Of course a very long gradual descent on an out and back ride also means a very long gradual climb on the way back, and of course the strong wind that we had hoped would be behind us for the return had disappeared. Still, being a very gradual climb, it didn't feel too arduous and we were soon back at the junction where we decided to ride our new 13 mile detour away from the main road back in the opposite direction. It was as enjoyable in reverse as it was on the way out, and Simon took the opportunity to inspect a bothy at an outdoor Leadership Centre on the way.

Alternative accommodation is available

After this, it was a straight run back to the ferry, with just enough time to make it back across for a quick shower and change before taking advantage of the last night of Rishi's Eat Out to Help Out offer.

All in, an extremely enjoyable days ride to finish off our tour around this area of the West Highlands.

63 miles, 4100 feet of climbing (but feeling nothing like that much) and very few cars.

The effects of Covid-19

It was on our minds, and it's been interesting to find out how it has affected the tourism industry, and us in particular.

Lockdown clearly put everything on hold for customers and businesses alike, causing real hardship for many i  the hospitality industry.  Some seem to have used the time productively - hostels being done up or adapted to all en-suite rooms ; pubs getting ahead with their social distancing protections, procedures and plans.

Uncertainty caused us huge worriies in planning our trip. We were unsure of the health risks, the rules, whether we could get on trains and ferries, and what would be open. We were close to cancelling it many times, and even after extensive research we have still frequently been surprised by big gaps in the tourist offering, especially cafes.  This must have affected other potential visitors too, and has also affected businesses, who have no idea of how many customers to expect.

Public restrictions limit numbers of customers in pubs and shops, and forbid types of sharing, such as buffet breakfasts, shared hostel dormitories. 

Business restrictions behind the scenes limit numbers of kitchen staff and require hugely increased cleaning.  Restaurant tables, hostel and B&B rooms require deep cleaning between clients; laundry is quarantined for three days before washing.

In a tourism-dependent area like Fort William, there have been no tourists for half the season, and still many places are fairly empty.  Businesses and workers rely on these few months to cover their costs over the winter.  They are all worried.

Some businesses have already closed for ever. Others simply couldn't find a profitable way to re-open under the current restrictions. Most Scottish youth hostels will not re-open this year.  Others opened anyway, just to survive.  Government and council run services, such as community cafes seem to have fared better, as there is less need to make a profit.

The Inn at Ardgour, just across from Corran, faced a choice of going bust or opening with numbers of tables down from 21 to just seven. They also faced community pressures: there have been no Covid cases on that side of the loch, and encouraging visitors invites infection, passed by staff and their families.

There is still a welcome in the hillsides, but it's different... Perspex screens, masks, lists of instructions make it inevitably more impersonal. The cosy hostel I remembered at Inveraray was altogether more spartan, with no lounge area with books and games, just hard chairs around each room's allocated dining table.

It is striking in a place like the Highlands that some businesses focus on what customers can't do, while others have a strong focus on making customers feel welcome while also dealing with the necessities of Covid.

We have found that in remote areas, half or more of the cafes were closed. We had a few days entirely without cafes, but there was usually a shop somewhere, or we could take something with us.
Pubs and cafes that were open were often very busy or completely booked up.  This all meant that more planning was essential each day, and this generally worked out well 

It was a risk to go when we did, but Dave and I knew that, and I think we both felt we could deal with whatever came up.  Some of the more serious risks, such as one of us catching Covid, haven't arisen (yet...), but many of the other risks we thought about have happened.  Some of our hosts have been particularly supportive and understanding as our plans had to keep changing, and we're very grateful to them. I guess that is the new normal for them.  Despite the difficulties, we have both enjoyed the trip, and we're pleased we managed to make it happen despite everything.

Day 10: Loch Leven and Glencoe

Another shortish day with a bit of sightseeing.  Not without a few hills but thankfully without rain.  It was grey and cold when we set out from the bunkhouse.  Loch Leven is just round the corner, and on the way we stopped to look for Inchree Falls, unsignposted from the main road and up a short, just-rideable track.  The falls were impressive. In England they would be a major attraction with a cafe and probably an entry fee.  Perhaps even better due to the recent rain.

One of the Inchree Falls

Looking back across Loch Linnhe

The road round the loch is a very quiet and beautiful lane, fairly flat on the ten miles to Kinlochleven at its head.  Lovely scenery surrounded by huge mountains, but it all looked a bit grey without any sunshine.

Loch Leven

Loch Leven

We passed a cafe at 10 miles, safe in the knowledge that Kinlochleven had a multitude of cafes and bars.  As you might guess, they were all closed, so we had some rather good Eccles cakes from the Co-op.

River Leven, with power station

On to Glencoe village. With some difficulty we passed an attractive looking cafe and headed up the valley to the Clachaig Inn for lunch.  It was in the desirable and uncommon state of not being shut, not being full, and not requiring bookings. Dave had the freshly-caught local haggis, and we both had apple & blackberry crumble, with custard of course.

Glen Coe

Glencoe is famous for the huge Glen Coe valley, and for the Glencoe massacre, when in 1692 the British(English) forces massacred 38 members of the MacDonald clan, for refusing to swear allegiance to the King.  It was suspected that the rival Cambell clan was involved, and this led to generations of hostility.

Our way back went through North Ballachulish, much smaller than Kinlochleven but with masses more refreshment opportunities.  We'd only done three miles since lunch, so we passed, returning over the bridge & back 'home' to Corran Bunkhouse.

The Bunkhouse isn't what you might imagine.  It's described as a five star bunkhouse.  Modern, with nice rooms , comfortable beds (no bunks), a heavenly shower, spacious and light lounge area, and a well equipped kitchen, bookable by the hour for one household at a time.
The staff couldn't do enough for us.  When we enquired about eating places,(very limited options without a car), they offered to get some shopping in for us, and refused to take payment for it.  When we couldn't get ITV4 to watch the Tour, they were all over the TV to fix it for us.


Socially-distanced private room

Corran itself is tiny. There's a restaurant and a pub, both of which are still shut after lockdown, and an Inn across the loch at Ardgour, reached by the half-hourly Corran Ferry.  Another option requires a 2 mile bike ride on a nasty road with a nasty bike lane - we might try that tomorrow, but tonight we're eating at Ardgour.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Day 9....Waiting for Harry Potter

After the toils of the previous day into a constant head wind, we enjoyed a meal in the cafe downstairs from our hostel for the night, followed by a pint or two in the pub right next door, to discuss today's ride.

The planned route was a 54 mile ride from Mallaig back to the bunkhouse at Corran, which we had passed by on our way up. However, we felt that we had worked hard enough on the previous couple of days to reward ourselves with an easier day. So we decided to let the train take the strain, and after our meeting with camera-lady Catherine yesterday, thought we would sample a small section of one of "The Worlds Most Scenic Rail Journeys" (© ScotRail and Channel 5).

So we set off to Mallaig station (all of 50 metres from the hostel) and bought 2 tickets to Glenfinnan. The train departed on time at 10.10am and we sat back and enjoyed the view.....and whilst some of the views were indeed stunning, they proved rather difficult to photograph from a moving train!!! not too many pictures to stun you with!!

We got off at  Glenfinnan just as the Fort William to Mallaig steam train charter (also known as the Hogwarts Express or the Harry Potter Express....the same one we had seen several days earlier just outside Fort William) was pulling out.

We rode a short way down from the station and along the path that leads up to the viaduct viewpoint, where got our sightseeing heads on and joined the other tourists making the short 10 minute hike up the path to sample the famous view.

The view is famous for shots of  the steam train coming across the viaduct, especially since it was heavily featured in many of the Harry Potter films. The next steam train across was in 4 hours....we decided not to wait for Harry. 

The only other significant event of our ride was the fact that it didn't rain. A few miles back along the main road and then onto the smaller road along Loch Ail and  the western bank of Loch Linnhe down to the Corran ferry. It was just a mile or so along this road that Eagle Eye Lambourn spotted an otter in the shallows of the loch and we stopped and did our best David Attenborough's for 10 minutes but apart from popping its head up a few times it didn't want to come out to play.

Playing tourist had chopped our planned ride exactly in half, but more importantly had missed out several big climbs, giving our legs a bit of a rest. The half that we were left with had few points of interest but sometimes it is still surprising what you stumble across on the way.

27 miles, 700 feet of climbing.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Day 8: the road to Mallaig

The comprehensive breakfast menu at Salen House B&B is dangerous. It requires you to cross off items that you don't require.  We are slow learners, so for the second day running we ate a more than fulsome breakfast, finished off by a large slice of German apple cake.  Ideal for a hilly day's riding.

Our B&B host Ella is also a photographer, and she was excited about a forecast of seeing the Northern Lights tonight.  She told us where to look, and we will see how excited we are when it gets dark.

As a special treat, it wasn't raining today.  We set off up the hill out of Salen in cloudy but cool weather, maybe 12 degrees.  A few lumpy miles to  Acharacle where there was a cafe. We seriously thought about stopping but didn't.  After all, It was only another ten miles to our planned elevenses stop at Glenuig, so we carried on round Loch Shiel, and over a couple of serious hills, surrounded by gorgeous scenery, our legs complaining after yesterday's exertions.


After fifteen miles, our planned elevenses stop, The Inn at Glenuig, was closed, and so was the shop. "Drat", we said, or something like that.  Six more miles round Loch Ailort to another closed inn (only just preparing to re-open after lockdown).  By now we were too tired to say anything.  We joined the Road To The Isles, blasted across and through large hills to Mallaig, and still only achieving a one-star rating from us.  Maybe rising to two stars when it developed a cycle track alongside.

Along the way we stopped to photograph a scenic rail viaduct, and met a TV camerman, (who was a lady - is cameralady a word?).  She was making a film of Britain's Most Scenic Railway, and she said the train was due in fifteen minutes. Eager for 'that picture' ofthe steam train on the viaduct, we decided to wait.  Ten minutes later, she clarified that it wasn't the steam train, just a regular ScotRail service.

Worth waiting 20 minutes for?

We were delighted to leave the main road at tiny Arisaig, which was positively bristling with inns, restaurants and cafes.  The sun had come out, giving us great views across to Rum, Eigg and Skye, but there was a fierce and cold north wind, so we sat inside watching the goings-on of the harbour.

Dave's puncture came back to haunt us. After two days without problems, his tyre suddenly went flat while we were in the cafe.  The end of the valve broke off and disappeared inside the rim, impossible to extract.  A new tube was needed, and we were ready to go.

From Arisaig, there's a brilliant scenic route, the old road following the coast.It was lumpy and straight into the teeth of the icy blast of the wind, but still the best bit of the ride.  Million-dollar views - islands in front, mountains behind.  Turquoise seas and white sandy beaches - beautiful.  By now our legs were in full mutiny every time we encountered the slightest gradient.

Panorama from scenic route

Camusdarach beach, as seen in Local Hero

We rolled into Mallaig exhausted after only 42 miles, to our bunkhouse, of which we are the sole occupants, and the extremely welcoming bustling cafe on the premises.
Steam train leaving Mallaig

 As for the Northern Lights - zzzzzz.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Westward Ho!....

Scottish English
Used to describe wet, miserable, dreary weather.
..ex. “it was a dreich August day”

Our destination for today’s ride was to the Lighthouse at Ardnamurchan Point, the most westward place on the mainland of Great Britain.

The road to get there, the B8007, is also the westernmost classified road on the mainland of Britain.

After a hearty breakfast laid on by our host Ella at our B&B we headed off in the light rain.

The first 9 miles of our ride was on continuously undulating road with barely a metre flat surface to be found anywhere. These were not the nice roll-down-one-side-and-roll-straight-up-the-other-side type of undulations that we had enjoyed riding alongside Loch Long on the morning of day two of our trip. This road consisted entirely of brutal short sharp 100 metre ramps well into double figure gradients or long 400 metre type drags that were not far short of double-figures.

Of course there were downs to go with the ups, but the downs were never long enough to provide any recovery or to compensate for the effort on the ups… Do they ever?

After 9 miles we stopped at the café just past the Ardnamurchan distillery, mainly for a coffee stop after the efforts of the ride but also partly to get some respite from the persistent drizzle (pizzle?, persizzle?)

Straight after the café the road rises continuously for several miles as it crosses over the backbone of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, before dropping down the other side in a nice long descent into the village of Kilchoan. The weather had not been kind and our entire ride to here, nearly 20 miles in total had been in constant rain. We could very easily have decided to turn back at this point, but having come this far we decided to push on the final 6 miles to the Lighthouse.

This was more of the continuous steep up and down type of landscape we had experienced at the start of the ride, but on a much narrower track. Once we arrived we headed straight for the café partly because we were hungry but mainly get out of the rain and to escape the swarms of midges but suddenly appeared. The café had a very limited offering so we were forced to eat more cake for lunch…What a shame!

Midges not visible

For the entire ride out I had been wondering what these views would have been like on a kinder day, and as we finished our tea and cake lunch, the rain seemed stop, a small patch of blue sky appeared and there was even hint of some sun breaking through.

This is the point where I would love to be writing an “Its a game of 2 halves, Motty” type of report, Where the ride back was in glorious sunshine and we enjoyed stunning views of the mountains and lochs. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out like that....the misty drizzle (mizzle?) soon reappeared and we made our way back along the same route in the same miserable weather.

The islands of Skye and Eigg

The final 9 mile slog along the same road back to our bed for the night felt far tougher than the huge climb over the backbone of the peninsula, and when we finally arrived the relief was almost over-whelming.

51.4 miles, 4000 feet of climbing. Millions of midges.