I’ve spent the last few days cycling around northern Scotland.
I dipped my toes in the North Sea on one side, and into the Atlantic on the other.
At times, the road across to Lochinver felt as if it were on the moon. Remote, desolate and windswept. A water-coloured and washed-out landscape dripping with drizzle and mists. The wind blew on and on – even when I fell asleep at night it still echoed in my ears, then in my dreams.
And the skies were of every conceivable colour – all at once. From one single viewpoint I could see greys, blues, whites and blacks – and every combination in between. Parts of the landscape were bathed in sunlight, whilst, way off in the distance, I could see what looked like heavy rain.
It felt good for the soul.
To a cyclist long-used to the pottering, enclosed country lanes around the Cotswolds, the scale of the Scottish landscapes were pretty breath-taking in grandeur. Mountains, lochs, coastal inlets and isles disappeared to the horizon.
These roads have existed for longer than I have, but an interesting phenomenon has taken place over the last couple: these roads have been packaged up and sold as a product ready for tourist consumption – “The North Coast 500”. Designed to boost the remote area’s economy, these beautiful roads have been given a name, T-shirts and memorabilia have been put on sale and sign-posts have appeared reminding foreign visitors not to drive on the right. In this way, this landscape, that isn’t ‘owned’, has somehow been boxed up (and gift-wrapped) for the hoards – and the impact has been remarkable.
All the locals I spoke to relayed an enormous growth in visitor numbers; and I was overtaken by a procession of foreign number plates: French cars; and German, Dutch & Danish campervans.
When I stopped at picnic sites, I overheard families chit-chatting in Italian, and tour-guides calling out in one, two, then three, languages. The hosts seem a bit begrudging of this ‘boost’ though as the roads have crowded up and litter bins have filled to overflowing. Even the hostel-owner I spoke to lamented that they were now fully booked all the time (oh no!).
Whilst acknowledging that this was peak season, some bottlenecks did feel at capacity. And some drivers’ patience with cyclists was wearing a bit thin.
“Why don’t you get a feckin’ car?!”
And, the slightly more constructive,
“Turn your feckin’ lights on!”
(I preferred the, “Go! Go! You crazy cyclist!”)
Cars drove from one designated viewpoint to the next. Coaches followed.
The hassle of disembarking proved too much for some – I saw one couple stop in the middle of the road as the driver filmed from his seat, and his passenger leant fully out of the window to take a photo.
Coinciding my arrival at one spot with a coach-load of snappers, I tentatively asked a rather rotund, friendly looking man if he’d mind please taking a photo of me,
“No, no, I’m not at work now.”
His “North Coast 500” T-shirt, replete with bus logo, barely covered his sitting-in-a-coach-for-500-miles belly.
Luckily the area I covered was large enough so that much of the time I felt removed from the busy world. At one point, I came to a stop because a cluster of four stags were blocking the road barely ten metres in front of me. We eyed each other nervously for a minute or so before they slowly walked off and into the trees.
On my second night, I ended up cycling almost 30 miles to find anywhere that would sell me anything that I could eat for dinner (a can of bean-hash, and a bag of Scottish teacakes that had gone out of date yesterday).
And, the next morning, pretty hungry, I rode for over three hours before I eventually found an open cafe. At 10am, I was the only (rather bedraggled) customer.
“Hi. I could really do with a hot drink please.”
“Hmmmm.” The hostess looked hesitant.
“We are booked up for lunch.”
The neatly laid tables all had notes reserving themselves for the next coach party at midday.
I managed to twist her arm into a quick 10 minute window for a coffee and soup.
If the first two-thirds of the trip were the joyous pleasure of a new landscape explored, the last leg was more of a battle as I was buffeted by wind and rain.
My right knee was hurting (and neck and back and metatarsel) and I was having to adjust my pedal strokes accordingly. I was feeling far from my best.
Increasingly thirsty, hungry and getting a few shivers – I wondered whether my snood, which was now wet, was still shielding me from cold, or exacerbating it.
Ruminations and concerns of earlier in the ride – mortgages, jobs & healthcare – had dissipated away and I was left with the basics of needing food and drink, and riding back towards my love for my family.
The meditation of cycling does mean that, when all else is stripped away, what really matters can step to the fore with an overwhelming clarity.
I considered how I must keep this perspective when I get home.
Maybe this isn’t “The Why” – but it feels like something important, worth writing about.
Love, life. Wind on your back, rain in your face, and fresh, clean air.
The glorious North Coast 500. Or 350 miles of it anyway.