Sunday, 4 December 2016

The North

As you travel northwards through England there are always signs to 'THE NORTH'.  Then you cross the border into Scotland and you are back in the south again. The Cairngorms had a fine, northern feel to them, but there was still plenty of North left to cycle through.

It was the 20th September, a day before the equinox, and I woke to see the sun rising at seven o'clock. I set off at 9.00 in sunshine and cloud over a fine moorland road with brown and purple slopes and mountains in the distance.  Another ten miles took me steeply in and out of the Findhorn valley, and then down again to Cawdor.  Macbeth country.

Looking north across the Cromarty Firth

A little further on I stopped at Culloden where there is now a massive modern visitor centre run by the National Trust for Scotland, as well as the site of the 1745 battlefield. I went through the visitor experience as I'm a member of the National Trust and thus didn't have to pay the £12 entry fee. It was very busy. I guess it would be worth it if you knew nothing about the battle and the history surrounding it, but I preferred standing by the roadside looking at the site. Then it was on down to Inverness where I really think that, despite the traffic it might be best to simply follow the road signs for the A9 north. In other words, I got a bit lost trying to follow the Cycle Route.

On my way across the bridge over the firth I met a German cyclist with a yellow coat flapping in the wind. He was pushing his bike in a contented kind of way. We chatted briefly and I carried on. North of the bridge I stopped for lunch near a bunch of cyclists who were waiting while one of their number fixed a puncture. They were from Kent, it turned out, and they were cycling National Cycle Route 1 towards the south. One of them gave me a lecture about getting involved in cycle campaigning. Then he told me he was pleased to see I wan't wearing a helmet (his tone suggested he was praising a brave, rebellious act). After which they all put on their helmets and cycled off, leaving me a little puzzled.

There were harebells on the verges, and rose-bay willow-herb was still flowering here, though it had been over further south.  Leaves were starting to flutter down from the birch trees. That night I camped at Dingwall, on the north side of the River Conon, which feeds into the Cromarty Firth. This was another Camping and Caravanning Club site, and the wardens were just as fussy as the ones at the previous C and C site at Scone. I overheard them discussing other campers who hadn't followed the rules properly. They were friendly enough, just officious. I had been worrying about the shops being closed as it was Sunday, but bizarrely Scottish Sunday trading laws are much more relaxed than in England, and the Tesco store was open until ten o'clock that night. I saw the sun set at seven o'clock.  Exactly 12 hours of daylight.

River Conon

The campsite was right next to the Ross County football ground and when I left in the morning players were setting off on training runs. They all looked very young, and quite a few were being dropped off by their parents. I guess they were the youth team. Mist was rising from the river valley and the sun was shining. The small road to Evanton rose and fell gently as it followed a parallel course to the A9 somewhere below. A similar road continued on towards Tain with wide views across the Cromarty Firth. Somewhere along this stretch I met my German friend with the yellow coat again. His name was Stefan and he told me about his adventures cycling along the Silk Road to China. He had met with a friendly welcome almost everywhere - until he reached China. Stefan made me feel like a bit of a lightweight. He was camping in fields as he went, using a map of the UK that was torn from a magazine and the Cycle Route signposts to navigate, and he scorned the idea of going into a cafe in Tain, so I parted from him there and soaked up a bit of local atmosphere myself.

Morning near Evanton

This part of the journey was exclusively a lowland one. The Scottish highlands don't extend as far as Scotland's east coast, and although there are often mountains to be seen in the distance the road itself was fairly flat. I carried on along the Dornoch Firth to Bonar Bridge, and then onward towards Lairg.

Dornoch Firth

Birch trees and sycamores and alders lined the road, the leaves of the birches and sycamores yellowing noticeably now. After stopping to view the Falls of Shin I camped in Lairg and made my way to the hotel bar where three young men were ordering drinks, two of them in casual sports clothes and one in a full set of tweed plus-fours and waistcoat. They were up from Kent for the fishing. They were impressed that I had come from Norway on my bike and bought me a pint.

  • Big supermarkets in England have limited opening hours on Sundays.  They may close as early as 16.00 and are unlikely to still be open after 18.00.  In Scotland it's much more relaxed. Small shops in both countries are much more flexible.

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