From Kirkby Lonsdale to Inverness
After more than 10 days in the saddle, Peter Dunn and Stephen Barber are closing in on their goal. In recent days their grueling journey has taken them across the Forth Road Bridge, through Peebles and on to Perth. They have just reached Inverness – which means John O'Groats is a mere 163 miles away! The only problem is that they are now in the highlands which promises some of the toughest terrain of the entire adventure. Luckily for us, Stephen is keeping notes along the way. Here's the latest so far…
Day 8: Kirkby Lonsdale to Talkin/Hallbankgate – 59 miles, 1,215m of ascent
Very much a day of two halves: having studied the weather forecast carefully we woke and breakfasted expecting a fine day.
We bid farewell to Mike, heading for Lancaster by taxi, and sent best wishes to Julie who was due to have her broken elbow operated on today. They will return home on Tuesday or Wednesday for her to convalesce (and doubtless plan their next attempt at LEJOG!).
Despite forecasts and expectations, the Cumbrian weather decided not to play ball after all and the morning was spent cycling in persistent fine drizzle. This made the morning's climbs around the upper Lune Gorge a little less than inspiring – lots of hard work and no worthwhile views………
The "tea stop" at Orton (a nice village just beyond the head of Lune Gorge and familiar from my Coast to Coast and other walks) was accompanied by church bells and offered some respite prior to a further climb over the watershed between the Lune and Eden valleys. At the top the rain finally cleared giving us a lovely undulating (and generally downhill) run through Crosby Ravensworth, Maulds Meaburn, King's Meaburn, and Culgaith to lunch at Langwathby. All these villages are off the "tourist track" and the first two are particularly worth a visit. Culgaith and Langwathby brought us alongside the Settle and Carlisle railway line but with no trains visible.
A generous and tasty picnic lunch on the Green at Langwathby was followed by a climb to the small village of Renwick and a ride at "broadly constant" contour round to Talkin where refreshment (aka beer) was taken at the Blacksmith's Arms.
Peter continued directly for the last couple of miles to our inn at Hallbankgate but I decided on a detour to Brampton. Having been halted for a train at a level crossing over the Carlisle – Newcastle line, in Brampton I found marvellous "arts and crafts" stained glass in the 19th Century church ,and a bustling little town centre (on a Sunday afternoon!).
Climbing out of Brampton (after chocolate cake) towards Hallbankgate on roads I know (but off our prescribed electronic route) I was a little disconcerted as the "to go" distance on my electronic route tracker increased continuously up to 4.5miles. At that point I rejoined the prescribed route and "to go" instantly changed to 0.3 miles (glad I held my nerve).
We're now installed at The Belted Will Inn (a reference to the 17th Century Lord William Howard who actively developed industry and agriculture in this area), our last night's stay in England.
On to Scotland tomorrow and through the Borders to the town of Peebles. The weather forecast looks fair and hopefully it'll be more reliable than today's.
Day 9: Hallbankgate to Peebles – 81 miles, 1890m of ascent: a lovely day and a great cycle.
Passing through Brampton, coasting past the beautiful Lanercost Priory, crossing the line of Hadrian's Wall, and then a switchback of short sharp descents and climbs brought us to the Scottish border at Liddel Water near Rowanburn.
In broken sunshine and through more of the same countryside we found Langholm and a well earned tea cake at Pelosi's Cafe.
For the rest of the day our party sampled "Scottish climbing" (longer, slightly gentler, and more even gradients) and Peter and I found it made the uphill going both faster and more enjoyable (and the downhills better for sustained speed).
We had a picnic lunch in warm sunshine just outside a Buddhist Temple(!) at Eskdalemuir (allegedly the wettest village in Britain). The colourful temple buildings and deities in the grounds contrasting with the rather sparse but grand countryside surrounding. Eskdalemuir also boasts a "community shop" and I couldn't pass without popping in and comparing notes with
The scenery was truly spectacular and more good climbs and exhilarating descents followed, firstly to Mountbenger and then on to Innnerleithen, 6 miles from our destination. Our final stretch was pedalled on the cycleway which follows the course of the old North British railway line into Peebles, and through an unilluminated tunnel close to the town!
My evening was further brightened by a visit from my sister Kathryn who lives in Moffat (roughly 35 miles SW of Peebles) – always good to catch up with her.
Day 10: Peebles to Perth – 70 miles, 1095m of ascent
Another good day's cycling in fine Scottish weather. We left Peebles on the A703 following Eddleston Water before turning northeast to cross the watershed into the South Esk valley. Onwards then through Bonnyrigg and Loanhead and into the centre of Edinburgh.
We crossed Royal Mile, The Mound (location of the Scottish National Gallery), and Princes Street to arrive in the "New" Town, north of the historic city centre. There was little sign of the impending Edinburgh Festival but the city was bustling and we avoided trapping our tyres in the new tram tracks!
We cycled west to Haymarket and then followed good cycleways virtually all the way the South Queensferry where we lunched in the shade of the Forth railway bridge, watching the trains go by.
After lunch we cycled over the original Forth road bridge (still the only one open!). There followed a sustained climb through Inverkeithing, on to Kinross, and (finally) to a summit a couple of miles north of Glenfarg. Payback was a super(fast) descent over the next 4 or 5 miles to Bridge of Earn and an easy run from there for the last few miles to Perth.
In the evening I introduced Peter to a couple of my Perth-based ex-colleagues, now good friends. We chatted for an hour or so over a couple of beers and managed not to mention cycling! The tour group rounded of the day with a great Italian meal at Grand Italia in the middle of Perth: the staff's strong Italian accents contrasting with their tartan waistcoats! The restaurant is thoroughly recommended if you're ever in this part of the world.
Tomorrow should see an intially relaxed run North followed by the somewhat more taxing ascent of Glen Shee.
Day 11: Perth to Ballater – 68 miles, 1285m of ascent
The weather was lovely, sunshine and broken cloud. We set off from Perth for a pleasant pedal through leafy low-lying Perthshire to Blairgowrie, a pretty Highland Town. To provide some "contrast" that was followed by a long grinding climb up Glenshee, to the Glenshee Ski Centre at the Devil's Elbow (the second highest Highland A-road pass). With the steepest part of the climb at the end it was just exhausting!
After picnic lunch at "the top" I made the most of the long sweeping descent to Braemar (max 42 or 43mph I think), albeit in places a strong headwind meant I had pedal reasonably hard to maintain momentum downhill. Even fine weather in Scotland can be "interesting".
After Braemar our route followed the tranquil Dee valley, passing the Balmoral estate. We arrived in Ballater in mid afternoon, and apart from a quick look round the specialist book shops there I (and others) spent the rest of our day recuperating, ready for day 12's challenges.
Day 12: Ballater to Inverness – 73 miles, 1764m of ascent – 3 climbs (ouch)
After an excellent breakfast at the Auld Kirk (our rather stylish lodgings for the night), we left Ballater under a cloudless sky – weather that was set for the day. We made a stiff climb up through Glen Gairn and Glen Fenzie before dropping down to Cockbridge. Any pleasure from making that descent was dimmed by the sight of our next challenge on the opposite mountainside: the climb up and over the Lecht Pass.
The ascent to the Lecht ski centre was probably the hardest climb of the trip, and I confess that for the steepest section (20%, 1 in 5) I got off and pushed (interestingly almost keeping up with the cyclist in front of me!).
At the summit we stopped for a well earned "tea-and-cake-stop", before the steep descent to Tomintoul. The Cockbridge to Tomintoul road is a barometer of Scottish winters and often features in "roads impassable" reports: the Snow Gates we cycled past give a bit of a clue.
Enjoyable as the descent to Tomintoul was (45mph), it was followed by yet another steep climb at Bridge of Brown. By this stage climbing was becoming something of a chore, so another refreshment stop was made at Grantown-on-Spey: we were the group of tired cyclists spread out on the town green in front of the nice bakery/cafe!
A further, thankfully gentler, climb took us out of Grantown up to Dava and Aitnoch through some very bleak but majestic countryside with views westwards into the Western Highlands and northwards over the Moray Firth. Great to be there on a beautiful fine day, but in poor weather it would be distinctly unpleasant.
We ate a rather late picnic lunch at Dulsie Bridge, a beautiful shaded spot where our country lane crossed the River Findhorn (running in a rocky gorge, about 20m below).
The final 23 miles into Inverness were through a mixture of forestry and livestock farmland – it would have been easy cycling if I hadn't lost something of "my edge" in the pre-lunch climbs. We passed Cawdor Castle, had brilliant views of Culloden viaduct (Highland Main Line), and went "off piste" through the site of the Battle of Culloden (1746).
The latter has been thoughtfully provided with cyclable paths and information points by The National Trust for Scotland. The Trust's work has made it possible to see how the battle was fought on-site. Poignantly, the site of each of the mass graves for the clans' dead (each clan was buried together), and for the English soldiery who died in the battle are marked by memorial stones. There are also memorials to dead of the French and Irish regiments who fought for Prince Charlie.
Inverness, a very attractive city, welcomed us with more warm sunshine, lots of (international) tourists, and what looked to be vibrant nightlife. However the last two days' cycling and the highland passes in particular meant that there wasn't much energy for partying in our group – all just too tired!!