Walking the West Highland Way (again)

I’ve just completed the West Highland Way again. Having scurried along it a few years ago in four and a half days and pedalled much of it this year, I was looking for a more sedate experience this time round.

The impetus for this trip had been the somewhat-surprising announcement by my other half that the ‘Way needed to be added to her growing repertoire of walks (the tortuous trudges up Ben Nevis and Snowdon already ticked off).

I was looking forward to experiencing this most popular trail through someone else’s eyes. The ‘Way didn’t disappoint, nor did the weather as we enjoyed some freakishly sunny days.

Another quality of the trail also endures – the camaraderie en route. We met some fantastic folk and enjoyed some superb nights in the various pubs, crowned by a celebratory dinner at the excellent Ben Nevis Inn.

It matters not who you are or where you are from, the trail remains the great leveller .

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Cycle touring Scotland – Aviemore to the border

My arrival in Aviemore may have been heralded by soggy conditions, but the following morning was stellar. I woke early and rode the lovely trails of the Rothiemurchus for a while, drinking in my favourite forest. I’ve waxed lyrical (tried to) about this place before and you can still find a quiet spot early in the day to ‘listen to it breathe’.

Leaving the Rothiemurchus
Leaving the Rothiemurchus

I pointed the ECR south, now bent on a new plan I’d formulated over a potent and prodigious curry the previous night. Checking the weather carefully, it appeared the grim conditions to the west were now chasing me east and south. This system’s southerly course would last for the next week or so, with conditions filling in behind the front.

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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

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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

This year’s adventure and a change of plan

rannoch moorI had planned to head to France for this year’s bike tour and tackle the Grande Traversée du Massif Central, a 700km mountain bike route from Clermont Ferrard to Montpellier.

I bought the guidebook and had (nearly) sorted my slightly awkward logistics flying outbound and grabbing the Bike Europe Express coach service home. Naturally, I wanted to take the Surly ECR on this trip although this bike’s massive proportions would cause problems on both modes of travel. If you’re interested, Bike Europe Express will take fat bikes – be they half or full fat – classing them as ‘unconventional solos’. However, I think it’s a good idea to call them first if you fancy taking your monster truck. Continue reading

Glenfinnan to Inverie – a re-acquaintance

Motoring along the glorious Road to the Isles as we do every year (at least once), my mind always wanders to thoughts of walking in the rough hills that bear down on that ribbon of Tarmac.

Normally, this drive is on the clock. We need to get to Mallaig and negotiate the infuriating Co-op  to stock up for a week at the rental cottage before making the Western Isles.

This year was a little different though. We had more time at the cottage and had arrived in the Highlands early. Everything was less rushed. This gave me three days to amble though the glens to Inverie from Glenfinnan before heading to Tarbet on the ferry.

glenfinnan viaductMy other half dropped me at the visitors’ centre at Glenfinnan on a mizzly Monday morning. The forecast was poor for at least two days of my walk but I didn’t mind. I was relishing a re-acquaintance with this landscape and travel by two feet after the distractions of two wheels.

Given my lack of walking of late – not to mention my lack of walking with a full pack – I felt it important to take my time, to let my body adapt, to see if the muscles indeed had memory. Continue reading

Bowmore Small Batch Reserve – now for something a bit different

Forgive the brief departure from regaling you with more tales of derring-do in Morocco – it was just about to get really good too, particularly the part when I became really sick…

small batch
Bowmore Small Batch Reserve (Pic: Bowmore)

While I was away, those fine folk at Bowmore sent me a sample of their Small Batch Reserve to try alongside some chocolate goodies (more of the latter later).

I realise I‘ve been a little slack in my whisky tasting of late. This is partly because I‘ve been stuck in a very pleasurable rut drinking Talikser… lost in resonant memories of Skye and the West Coast while shutting out damp evenings in Mancunia.

The shipment from Bowmore was a welcome distraction then.

The Small Batch is in some ways a curious expression of this famous Islay tipple. For those familiar with more ‘regular’ Bowmores such the 12 year old, Darkest or the simply sublime 18 year old, this lighter dram may come as a disappointment.

Small Batch Reserve is matured in first and second fill ex-bourbon casks. This process imbues the younger spirit with a sweetness and creaminess that cuts quite a contrast to its peat smoked brethren.

So how does it fly?

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Maggie’s Monster Bike and Hike

The guys behind Maggie’s Monster Bike and Hike got in touch a couple of weeks back wondering if I would help promote their event.

The Monster Bike + Hike is a 24-hour event where teams of two to six people bike 31 miles and hike 9, 23 or 31 miles to the bronze, silver and gold finishes. Last year from the 850 participants, 680 people made it to the gold finish line and the course record is an impressive 9 hours and 34 minutes.

The fundraiser takes place on 3 – 4 May in Scotland’s Great Glen and raises money for charity Maggie’s, which provides free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their family and friends, following the ideas about cancer care originally laid out by Maggie Keswick Jencks.

Built in the grounds of NHS cancer hospitals, Maggie’s Centres are places with professional staff on hand to offer the support people need.

For more information, check out their website. You just have time to benefit from a discounted registration fee if you sign up by Monday 31st March.