Bikepacking Scotland – the Great Glen Way

Three soggy days on the West Highland Way had taken their toll. My kit was damp, I’d started to stink a bit while the lens on my trusty Olympus camera was fogged and its operation sporadic. I needed to dry out and clean up.

The camera problems – experienced last time when I cycle toured Iceland – meant I had to shift to the phone for pictures so apologies for the poor quality of the some of the resulting shots.

I bagged a luxury pitch next to the river at the Lochy Holiday Park  just north of Fort William. Such heavily groomed, holiday housing estates are generally not my overnight stop of choice on bike tours but the facilities are normally excellent, and so they proved to be here.

Lochy Holiday park campsite... it rained and rained and rained
Lochy Holiday park campsite… it rained and rained and rained

I washed everything before an extravagant shower. Emerging after my ablutions, the rain returned with some gusto and it would be with me, uninterrupted, for the next 36 hours.

I walked to Caol for supplies and got about replenishing the energy I’d expended over the last few days. I hadn’t felt particularly hungry on this trip so far, but knew I had to fuel otherwise I’d pay the price later. My evening meal lasted a good couple of hours as I slowly fed calories into my system.

Another night passed accompanied by the soundtrack of very heavy rain. By morning, a puddle had gathered in the porch of my Go Lite, conveniently sitting underneath my Carradice saddlebag. The cotton duck had done a reasonable job keeping its contents dry though.

Waiting for a break in the deluge in vain, I thought about my route. I had hoped to head west, but the forecast looked dreadful for the next five days, with conditions marginally better in the Great Glen.

Decision made, I packed my soggy tent and headed for the canal towpath; I’d push up the Glen and take a view in Inverness as to my itinerary.

I’d convinced myself the Great Glen Way would be a breeze compared to the terrain I’d already covered. ‘I might even do it in a day,’ I’d lazily thought.

The start was very tame and rather agreeable. Despite the rain drumming on my cycle helmet and low cloud clinging to the slopes of neighbouring hills, the broad gravel trail past Neptune’s Staircase offered a cosseting warm up for the day.

Surly ECR at Clunes forest
Surly ECR at Clunes forest

With Gairlochy soon under my wheels, I found some lovely singletrack along the loch shore, great fun on this damp day with the trail walker free. My enthusiasm was soon dented: flying over a heavily-rooted section, I heard a metallic ‘ping’ from the back of the ECR. ‘Please don’t be a spoke,’ I said aloud.

In fact, it took a while to find the culprit. My Carradice ‘expedition’ Bagman rack had snapped just beyond the junction with the seat stay struts. Bugger! Despite a fingertip search of the undergrowth, I couldn’t find the section of alloy cradling tube either.

The remainder of the rack seemed fairly sound although the quick release bracket under my Brooks saddle would now bear more weight, albeit only 6-7kg. Hardly ideal, then. I tried to secure the bag with zip ties and pressed on, pushing it from my mind in the process.

The Clunes and South Laggan Forests followed offering some great fireroad riding. I tumbled down into Laggan and, with the rain unrelenting, I decided to push on along more towpath and, on the opposite bank of Loch Ness, a dismantled railway bed undergoing extensive surfacing works.

Another fast section of towpath followed along the canal and I made Fort Augustus in good time. Here, the sun appeared, so I opted for lunch in a quite spot on the canal in favour of the tourist hubbub in the village. I took some comfort from this decision. It suggested I was now locked into the groove of my trip, happy in my own company and preferring solitude over dreary trinket shops and coach parties.

After the village, the Great Glen Way followed steep single track through the woods to more fire road. However, the trail now had a sting for the cyclist in the form of repeated, short, sharp climbs after this initial, punishing push. Looking at the GPS track of this section now, it resembles a polygraph of Lance Armstrong – although no doubt he would have had the wherewithal to beat the test at the height of his mendacious campaign. The climb along a steep lane out of Invermoriston was particularly testing. I had several ‘words with myself’ while tackling its switchbacks.

More climbing followed on fire roads, the toil enlivened somewhat by the woodland opening out to my right affording wide ranging views of Loch Ness. Blind summit followed blind summit until I found a team of forest workers at the controls of the heavy machinery demanded by these extensive plantations. The driver of a large excavator wanted to chat while his colleagues sighed with hands on hips, ‘double teapot style’ as sports commentators now dub this frustrated pose.

High above Loch Ness on the Great Glen Way
High above Loch Ness on the Great Glen Way

He pointed me in a ‘largely downhill’ direction. I thanked him and found a sublime trail through the woods dotted with small jumps that brought the BMX bandit out in me. I remembered my bodged rear bag support and cooled the tempo.

I soon dropped down into Drumnadrochit. It was now late afternoon and the weather looked to be taking a turn for the worse again. I considered my options. An underwhelming campsite failed to inspire so I opted for the Loch Ness Backpackers lodge.

Later, at the Loch Ness Inn over decent Cullen Skink, I fell into conversation with a couple of retired Bristolians who, it transpired, were my roommates. They were headed for some serious hillwalking above Glen Affric and I enjoyed their company immensely – although I was perhaps more than a little jealous of the freedoms afforded by their retirement.

Loch Ness Backpackers - a welcome change to the tent
Loch Ness Backpackers – a welcome change to the tent

A fitful night of thunderous snoring made way for a dry dawn. I bade farewell to my companions and pushed off early. The climbing soon started again, this time in the form of a lung-busting walkers’ trail that had very little to offer the cyclist via its upward course.

The trail then improved but the gradient worsened and the Knards struggled for traction in the gloopy conditions. Never too posh to push, I dismounted once more and struggled with my ungainly mount, swearing at the trees that plainly didn’t care.

Pushing out of Drumnadrochit - there must be a better way
Pushing out of Drumnadrochit – there must be a better way
Wild weather blocking the trail
Wild weather blocking the trail

Riding again and I reached more level ground – a saddle between the minor summits of Meall na h Eilrig and Carn na Leitre. I was tired after a difficult hour or so and felt weak having burned off an insubstantial breakfast. Passing forestry buildings I then pushed through a gate to an area where the vegetation took on a far more interesting and varied theme. I then saw a quirky hewn sign advertising coffee to the side of the trail, followed by another advertising Bovril, followed by another advertising beans on toast. I was sold on the coffee, but the offer of food sealed the deal. The signs eventually directed me to the Abriachan Eco Cafe and Campsite – a truly delightful retreat in a vegetative oasis reclaimed from the surrounding plantation.

Making friends at the lovely Abriachan Cafe - a place to return to
Making friends at the lovely Abriachan Cafe – a place to return to

I met one of the owners, a tremendously warm woman who directed me to a wooden veranda adjoining a cabin. The menu options were described to me. I would be supplied with a cafetière of Columbian coffee and was asked if I would like cheese and spring onion on my beans on toast. Chickens pecked at crumbs by my feet while, below me, a pig called Bubbles rooted and grunted through the undergrowth. A hiker from Germany joined me and we chatted about our respective adventures.

My coffee appeared with the sunshine, brought to me by the other owner – an impressive, thick-set fellow with a ponytail and a fabulous, energetically resonant laugh that fell somewhere between Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart and Brian Blessed’s Vultan.

My beans on toast were superb.

My time at the Abriachan was all-too short. I wanted to know the story of why my hosts had spent the last few years building this life. I wanted to hear the trials of extended tent living while more permanent quarters were built, harsh winters, re-establishing the wild woods, the challenges and freedoms of living off grid. I admired their determination and vision – to carve something distinctly their own, to chase a dream when so many of us don’t have the courage or creativity to challenge our status quo. I’ll return.

Reinvigorated after my breakfast I tumbled down a steep lane to Inverness missing the turn for the Great Glen Way. The peace of the woods was soon disturbed by the incongruous bustle of the Highlands’ capital. I pushed through crowds of shoppers who gave me a wide berth and I caught snatches of conversations about my muddy bike and its crazy tyres. One elderly chap couldn’t resist giving them a squeeze before asking in jest where the engine was. I pointed to my legs and smiled.

Tired and muddy inInverness
Tired and muddy in Inverness

I’d planned to linger in the city but the people, the shops and the traffic all put me on edge. I found signs for the National Cycle Network Route 7 and soon left, heading east and to quiet lanes in sunshine. Route 7 plotted a gentle course south following the main railway line. I planned to head south for a while to  Aviemore and the lovely Rothiemurchus before heading over the Corrieyairack Pass and West.

Findhorn Bridge on the old A9
Findhorn Bridge on the old A9

My route soon picked up the course of the old A9 before heading to the woods on some superb military road courtesy of General Wade. This provided lovely riding and led to some excellent wild camping spots which I’d have made my home for the night had the hour been more favourable. Buoyed by my surroundings, I stayed on forest tracks for a while, plotting a course through lovely mixed woods, far more interesting than the plantation I’d been battling through the last couple of days.

Entering the wonderful Cairngorms
Entering the wonderful Cairngorms

By mid afternoon the hunger pangs kicked in again. I found an agreeable cafe in.
Carrbridge – the Carrbridge Kitchen – and refueled. I fell into conversation with three young women. They were rather taken with the ECR, more so than me in fact. Perhaps I really did stink that badly.

General Wade's Military Road
General Wade’s Military Road

Sticking to the NCN, I pedalled the last few kms to Aviemore. The rain lashed down again and, at first, blinkered my appreciation of the surroundings. I stopped to gaze at the dark, shapely outline of the Cairngorm massive in the distance, while the wild woods pricked my memory of trips past.

Yes, it was good to be back.

Bikepacking the West Highland Way

I shared the train journey to Glasgow with two coast-to-coast road riders who alighted at Carlisle. Their interest – and that of the train steward – in the ECR and it’s ‘ridiculous’ tyres set a tone that would resonate for the whole trip.

Unable to find anything that palatable on the Trans Pennine Express service save for a questionable cup of coffee, I carb loaded at Glasgow station on croissants while consulting Viewranger for a suitable escape route.

I’d walked out of this fine city before using the satisfactory Kelvin and Allander walkways. These seemed fair game for the bike too although I was soon distracted by blue signs drawing me to alternative bikeways.

ECR on the slight detour from the West Highland Way after Mudgock Wood
ECR on the slight detour from the West Highland Way after Mudgock Wood

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Scotland bikepacking – with rather a lot of England thrown in too

Two weeks pedalling the Surly ECR along track, trail, byway and bike route proved a blissful escape from my common routine.

The simple pleasure of riding for maybe eight hours a day and having the time to linger and follow my nose allowed me to break from tyranny of schedule while the physical challenge served as a deliciously singular focus.

Stories to come but you’ll note from the title of this post that I didn’t spend all my time in Scotland. The weather proved to be very challenging in the west and, with little prospect of improvement, I decided to head east instead and, ultimately, pedalled all the way to my front door.

I battled along a good chunk of the West Highland Way, tackled the surprisingly tough Great Glen Way before hitting Inverness and heading to Aviemore. A mixture of NCN routes and bridle paths conveyed me home through the lovely Borders, superb Northumberland and North Yorkshire, giving access to an unfamiliar yet wonderful section of the Pennine Bridleway north of Settle.

In all, I cycled 1,300 km and climbed 13,500 metres.

In addition to rain, hail and snow in Scotland, I enjoyed at least one warm day, mostly headwinds, endured a number of minor mechanical issues and was chased by one dog. More to come…

Surly ECR on the West Highland Way
Surly ECR on the West Highland Way

Packing for bike touring – lightening the load

OldSkool? - Touring Iceland on a Surly Troll with 30kg of kit across four panniersa dn a drybag
OldSkool? – Touring Iceland on a Surly Troll with 30kg+ of kit across four panniers and a drybag

I’ve been experimenting with packing for my trip to Scotland later this month. Given I’ll be riding off road as much as weather conditions allow the traditional pannier set up has been ditched and I’ve been forced to re-evaluate my packing routine.

Adios panniers

A traditional cycle touring set up where the load is split across four panniers, bar bag and, maybe, a drybag on the rear rack offers the rider the chance to bring the kitchen sink – literally. For me, this results in luxuries such as books, a (relatively) large tent, hipflasks of whisky and bottles of ale, numerous electronic gizmos, extended camera kit, at least one full change of clothes including ‘evening wear’ for nights in the pub… you get the picture. Continue reading

Easter in the Yorkshire Dales

If a pattern is emerging in 2015, then it’s to squeeze in as much as possible in the time I have away from the office.

While my four camping trips may pale in comparison to the bevy of lightweight backpackers and cycle tourists who pepper the blogosphere with their exploits, for me the tally is an impressive one.

The fourth trip to add to these pages was an Easter amble to the rather lovely Yorkshire Dales – Swaledale in fact. We took the Vango Force Ten to Usha Gap campsite near Muker and revelled in the scenery and simply wonderful weather.

We managed two walks – a gentle 15km circuit to Keld and back via Swinner Gill and a more demanding 26 km tramp over Great Shunner Fell to Hawes and back. The latter was a bit of an intentional test as my other half has ambitions to complete the West Highland Way later this year and I felt the need to give her a flavour of a typical day. I’m pleased to say her enthusiasm remains undiminished.

Our third outing in the Vango Force Ten prompted an addition. A Vango Adventure Tarp has now been added to the rig, which provides an excellent, weather resistant open porch. The two work effortlessly together, the only drawback being the shadow cast by the tarp affecting how the canvas fades in the sun. As a result, our Force 10 now sports a ‘tie-dye’ darkened patch on one flank. Not a problem, but something to bear in mind if you too wish to dabble with the Old Skool.

Vango Force Ten with an Adenture Tarp
Vango Force Ten with an Adenture Tarp
Climbing out of Swaledale
Climbing out of Swaledale
Spring has sprung
Spring has sprung
Fuel stop
Fuel stop
Lovely landscapes up here
Lovely landscapes up here
The Pennine Way to Great Shunner Fell
The Pennine Way to Great Shunner Fell
Beacon on Great Shunner Fell looking to Swaledale
Beacon on Great Shunner Fell looking to Swaledale
Still a good ways to go
Still a good ways to go
Time to go home
Time to go home
Usha Gap campsite - a highly recommended place to stay this way
Usha Gap campsite – a highly recommended place to stay this way

ECR miles

The last couple of weekends I’ve been getting the miles in on the ECR ahead of my trip to Scotland in May. Importantly, these have been largely off road miles and with luggage to a lesser or greater degree.

Last weekend saw me out with those fine folk from Keep Pedalling and a couple of other customers, among them Tim from Life in the Cycle Lane. We bimbled around the byways of the South Pennines on our passé geared machines while our hosts chewed up the trail on single speeds. It was the workout I needed and a salutary reminder that my fitness is not quite where it should be. Read Tim’s account here. Continue reading

Photo post: Edale, Jacob’s Ladder and The Woolpacks

I had the opportunity to head out with our Vango Force 10 at the weekend. The accessibility of Edale proved too tempting to resist and we pitched at Fieldhead. This campsite seems stuck in a time warp – the facilities no more appealing than the first time I poorly pitched my old, heavy backpacking tent on its muddy fields – yet its location remains a major plus.

Saturday saw us climbing Jacob’s Ladder and picking a route through the Woolpacks before clambering down the boulders of Grindsbrook Clough. I promised my other half ‘proper’ Dark Peak and the Dark Peak didn’t disappoint – although a slip on our descent and bruised behind did prompt questions about my ‘classic’ circuit.

Heading out on the Pennine Way
Heading out on the Pennine Way

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