Monday, 9 June 2014

Leg 5, Day 9: Invergordon - Inverness

It was midnight, pitch black and pouring with rain. I had been fast asleep for over 2 hours. Suddenly I was aware of a ringing noise, I slowly uncovered my eye mask (the stations rarely have curtains... and yes I looked ridiculous) and sat up. No sooner had I done this than a man ran into the station, stopped, looked at us both, half naked in sleeping bags and then ran past us into the changing room where all the weatherproof gear was stored. He was then followed by 6 others who stormed into the room with a distinct almost military purpose to get geared up and be out on the boat as fast as bl**dy possible!  

It was a 'shout' or in other words the coastguard had paged all crew members which gives them the instruction to get to the station as someone is in trouble. 

It's a 'first come, first serve' system- the first 6 or 7 people there get to go out on the boat. This was clearly upsetting to the no.8 guy who missing the boat launching by about 45 seconds. After we informed him of this fact, he expressed himself quite eloquently that this was not to his pleasing... he then enquired what we were doing sleeping I the station and we explained our story.  He simply replied 'f'ing nutters! Fair play to you!' and promptly left braving the rain on his journey home. 

3 hours later and the crew returned. As exciting as this was, it reminded us of exactly why we are raising money for the RNLI. A bunch of volunteers, drop whatever they are doing to go to the assistance of others who are in trouble at sea. I can't tell you how unwelcoming the weather was and it was reassuring to know that these guys have been given the best training and have the best kit available to them. As much as I love seeing Nick in Lycra every morning, this is why we cycle. 

We awoke later that morning and got into our now familiar routine of packing up our gear, slurping down a coffee eating an oversized bowl of cereal and getting on the road. Today is our last day of this years trip- 90km to the RNLI station at Loch Ness and then doubling back on ourselves to Inverness, where we would begin our train journey back to London. 

It was fine weather again which given our accumulated tiredness following almost 1000 miles of cycling was very much welcome. We left Invergordon and its oil rigs behind us heading south, south-west for 50km to the station at Kessock, just above Inverness. It was rather gritty cycling, following the A9 all the way. 

We spent about an hour trying to find the station, put off by the fact we saw a lifeboat in the marina and headed in that direction, over the Keasock Bridge. This turned out to be there for servicing and the station itself was back over the bridge where we had just come from! 

After resolving this situation, we headed south-west, still on the A9 to Drumnadrochit where Loch Ness station was located. This was a 40km out and back journey tht saves us from having to head inland at the start of next years trip. 

Returning with a tailwind back into Inverness, I had a mix of emotions- proud to have completed the trip with all it's logistical and physical challenges bit sad that the cycling is over, particularly when the sun has only just come out! 


Having found a pack of the most wonderfully awful 'Scottish' postcards, we wrote to all the stations that had kindly put us up this year. I'd like to thank them here again, it is great meeting you all and you are all first class ambassadors for the RNLI. 

So, it is from Inverness, which tired legs, a sore bottom (from the saddle... honest!) and a great sense of pride that I say goodbye to all 4 people that read this blog. Thanks very much and we'll be back next year! 


Saturday, 7 June 2014

Leg 5, Day 8: Kirkwall - Invergordon


So- the big day had arrived. Following a relatively easy day yesterday of c. 60km between the three RNLI stations on the Orkneys, today we had a 35km ride to the Southern most tip of the Orkneys, a short ferry to John O Groats, followed by a 160km ride south down the East Coast of Scotland to Invergordon via Wick. In our book this was a mammoth day!

This also marked the turning point for us as we begin our journey back Southwards towards London and home... All downhill from here!

The day started overcast with a strong South- Easterly (cross) breeze blowing, but at least it was dry and forecast to remain so for the day- a huge relief after the weather we have had this week.

Following a quick first breakfast at Kirkwall RNLI station, we got on the road and churned out the 35km of roads across the rolling Orkney countryside. The sun came out for us briefly making the initial journey to the Berwick ferry terminal very enjoyable. 


Sitting in the ferry waiting room we had our second breakfast before boarding the passenger boat for the short crossing to the mainland. A big thank you to John O' Groats ferries who gave us free passage.

We landed at John O Groats at 10.45am, and this is when the ride really began. Despite the relatively easy day yesterday, our legs were still feeling tired from the gruelling north coast, but we set off in good spirits and the sun came out for us- amazing.

It would appear that with cycling there are a number of factors which greatly affect speed and therefore enjoyment. The first is weight, and we have certainly done all we can to keep our kit to an absolute minimum, including Rad's now standard cut in half toothbrush! The second is terrain- hilly or flat, gentle or steep gradients make a huge difference. The third road surface which varies enormously in this country and can render a ride very enjoyable or extremely uncomfortable and slow. The fourth is weather- wet and cold or sunny and hot- makes an vast difference: both psychologically and also physically, with the body expending a lot of energy just trying to stay warm when wet. The fifth and final one is wind speed and direction- even a slight headwind is similar to putting the brakes on constantly while a tail wind feels like someone pushing you along. 

Today we were blessed with sun, reasonable road surfaces and generally gently undulating countryside- all of which were enormously appreciated by us both, and for once on this trip, it was a very enjoyable experience cycling across Scotland. What we were less lucky with was the wind. While we were heading in a southerly direction along the East Coast, a strong Southerly / South-Easterly was blowing giving us an almost direct headwind for the first half of the day. Thankfully this then changed to an Easterly which made it a cross / cross-tail wind and life became a whole load easier for us both! 

Along the way we stopped at a bakery and Rad kindly offered to help an old man change his flat tyre.... However Rad, it seemed, had no intention of actually helping, so pretended that he couldn't work the Jack. Guess who ended up doing it then...

A short while later we pulled in to the Wick RNLI Station for a quick photo and water bottle refill before heading on.

We ploughed on Southwards in glorious sunshine, stoping every 15-20km to stretch and ease the pain of our very numb bums (from the sheer number of hours in the saddle...)

After 9 hours and 45minutes of pedalling we arrived at Invergordon RNLI station. Kevin and a few of the crew kindly came down to welcome us, and very generously insisted on paying for our supper at the Marine Hotel in town. A huge thank you to you all from us both. 

Rad couldn't help himself with the old Smirnoff Ice at supper...

Friday, 6 June 2014

Leg 5, Day 7,: Stromness to Kirkwall

We awoke to the sound of a man coughing so violently that I actually wondered if he was going to die. Fortunately he hadn't, because by the time we managed to drag ourselves out of our sleeping bags and over to the bakery for some breakfast he was still there, sitting on a bench outside the RNLI station minding his own business. This was a great relief, but did slightly eat into the lie-in that we had been forced to have by way of the fact that the ferry that takes us over to Hoy (another island in the Orkneys) did not depart until 10:00am. 


A few croissants later and we thanked the mechanic of Stromness RNLI Lifeboat station who together with other members of the crew, had been an excellent host the previous evening and set aboard a an Orkney Ferries boat, another ferry company who very kindly have given us free passage. 

Once we arrived at Hoy ferry terminal, which consisted of a caravan, three parked cars and a horse, we cycled 40km along the islands westerly coast to Longhope RNLI station. The terrain was undulating but more importantly it wasn't raining, in fact it was the warmest day of the year so far, which made for a vastly more enjoyable experience. We cruised along, chatting away and before we new it we had arrived. 

It is difficult to say, because our feelings of a place are so much governed by the weather but we both felt this was a really special place with a strong sense of community and a more productive economy. The houses were better kept, the ports were busy and it was more populated than we had imagined.

We had to backtrack on ourselves to get back to Lyness, the ferry terminal which would take us back to the mainland (still in the Orkneys). We happened to miss the 12:30 ferry by a matter of seconds, which had departed 2 mins early but the initial frustration quickly went away when we unpacked our lunch and sat on the pier with 1hr30mins to kill in the sunshine- not exactly awful!

Once back on the mainland we had an equally relaxed undulating cycle over to Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkneys where a third RNLI station is based and is where we are staying the night. 

All in all it was a 67km day and given the last week of punishing cycles this was a welcome 'rest day'.

Leg 5, Day 6: Durness to Stromness

It was heaven to wake up in a comfortable bed this morning, thanks to the most amazing hospitality from Duncan and Marlene Shaw, who very kindly put us up at their wonderful B and B next to the Gualin Estate. 

The alarm went off at 6.30pm, and opening the curtains confirmed our worst fears- that the forecasters had indeed been correct...

I won't dwell on the driving rain and strong winds outside but suffice to say that there is definitely a pattern emerging with the weather up here on the West and North coasts of Scotland! Not only this, but the wind had turned to the east, which would mean a 20km/h head wind all day (a similar experience to cycling with your breaks on)! 

Marlene produced the most incredible breakfast for us, with coffee, cereal, eggs on toast, fruit (which we haven't had all week,) juice- the full works.  If anything would prepare us for the day ahead it was this.

Tempted not to leave at all, we forced ourselves out into the driving rain at 7.30am and hit the road. It was
 immediately apparent how knackered our legs were following the previous day's ride- into the headwind and with no power progress was painfully slow.

The target for the day was to cycle the entire way across the north coast of Scotland (some 140km) and we needed to reach our destination of Scrabster for the 5.00pm ferry to the Orkneys. This was listed as 'CRITICAL' by Rad in his military style organisation on his Google callendar making it all the more ominous! 

Even with our bin bags on (which we are now getting pretty good at 'fitting') we were totally 
soaked within half an hour. 

The terrain across the North coast of Scotland was very hilly- barely a flat stretch- it was either up or down. Whilst driving rain and sea mist/low cloud limited visibility to around 100m for most of the day we did get the odd clearing across some of the beautiful sandy estuaries and coves along this stretch of the coast.

Despite the terrible weather, hilly terrain and our exhausted legs we plugged away and made
 good progress. By 70km in however we were soaked and starting to get chilled- in need of food to recharge we pulled in to Tongue and stopped at the Ben Loyal Hotel. The staff there very kindly put our soaking kit through the drier for an hour while we sat by their log burning stove drying out and eating a hearty lunch. Being able to put on dry clothes for the afternoons ride (even though we knew they would be soaked again in half an hour) was bliss.

After lunch we ploughed on in the rain over more hills with the headwind strengthening. It was relentless and exhausting. 
The last 25km was exceptionally hard work - our legs simply had nothing left! 

Eventually wearrived at Scrabster, to our enormous relief in good time for the 5.00pm ferry. It turned out however that there was actually no ferry at 5.00pm, and that Rad in his Military Style organisation he built in a 'safety margin' of 1.30hrs which he had forgotten about and fooled even himself!  The ferry was not actually until 6.30pm!

So glad that we had half killed ourselves to make it in time... we grabbed a shower at the Scrabster RNLI station followed by a pint on the quayside before boarding the ferry to the Orkneys.

By Sod's law the skies cleared again and we sailed across to Stromness in the sunshine with beautiful views of the Orkney cliffs and Old Man of Hoy Stack. A quick supper onboard before being welcomed by the crew of the Stromness RNLI Station.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Leg 5, Day 5: Stornoway - Durness


A comparatively relaxed start to today with a 07:00 ferry from Stornoway back to Ullapool, where we finished our ride yesterday afternoon. Knowing we didn't have to put our bruised bottoms on saddles until 09:30 was a great relief. 

Talking of bottoms, thanks to all who pointed out that we had "pooed into a bakery" a rather amusing typo from Day 1's post which has now been corrected.  

The weather is (hopefully) taking a turn for the better which will make our lives significantly easier. I'm starting this post on the ferry and as I look out the window I can see a calm sea and the sun glistening off the water. What a wonderful part of the world to be in when the weather is like this! Our cycling gear is still a little damp form yesterday so we're making a chinese laundry out of one of the dining tables.... 

To be continued...

We have now finished for the day and we are in the possibly the most remote place in the British Isles! A beautiful B&B run by Duncan and Marleen Shaw, who are kindly putting us up for the night, without charge, so this is an enormous thank you to both of them. 

It's struck us both as slightly odd that in one of the most fierce areas of the UK coast (especially in winter) there are no RNLI stations within 70km! I'm sure there is a good reason for this and we'll ask at Thurso RNLI station tomorrow. 

Anyway, the day started with some undulating terrain but this was more than made up for by the fine weather and simply breathtaking views. We headed north out of Ullapool towards our first and only station of the day in Lochinver. It was 50 km or so to get there and we were on a windy single track road that hugged the coastline, providing ample distraction from our sore parts, the number of which were growing steadily throughout the day. 

Despite being in mainland Scotland this area had a distinct 'Island feel' with better kept properties, friendlier drivers and surprisingly lush flora, a particular favourite seemed to be the rhododendron which was abundant in all shades of 1980s pinks and purples. 

Having taken our photo outside Lochinver RNLI station, we grabbed a bite to eat at the nearby cafe. Being able to sit down and eat a hot meal was an real luxury, yesterday, with the thought of missing the ferry, we had limited our breaks to short roadside stops where we stretched and wolfed down as much food as we could before getting too cold. Today was very different, we even had a 5 minute bask in the sun which was made eve better with the bakewell slices nick pulled out of his pannier bag. 

After Lochinver, the road turned sharply inland and we entered the terrain more comply associated with the Highlands- vast glens, dramatic mountainous terrain, which would not be out of place in The Lord of the Rings, although nearer Mordor than The Shire. Not that it isn't beautiful, but there is a reason that Bear Grylls filmed his 'survival in the wilderness' here! We we're fortunate enough to be enjoying the views in the sun but I can't imagine how bleak this area becomes in mid-winter. 

We skirted around various lochs and as our legs lost any power the gradient increased and we spent a great deal of our time in our easiest gear with the 30mph northerly wind which had picked up in the afternoon greeting us head-on. The final 40km which might normally take us an hour and a quarter or so took 3 gruelling hours and by the time we got to the B&B we were (once again) in pieces. 

A delicious venison chile con carne and a dram of Scotland's finest made us both feel considerably better and as the rain began to fall and the easterly wind grew in strength, we tried our best to put off any thought of tomorrow's exploits.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Leg 5, Day 4; Mallaig to Stornaway

It is with great relief (and exhaustion)  that I write this post from the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, with a well deserved pint in hand...

Having covered close to 170km today, the majority of which was in strong wind, heavy rain and across hilly terrain, we are both feeling totally exhausted and can barely walk!

We were unable to hit the road early today, as the first ferry from Mallaig was not until 8.15am, yet we needed to cover close to 170km of hilly terrain to reach Ullapool by 4.30pm, to catch the only ferry of the week to Stornoway... This put us under considerable pressure- If we missed this we would be totally stuffed! 

This morning we opened the blinds at Mallaig RNLI Station to find the view of the harbour obscured by Scottish sea mist and heavy rain... a great start!

 The ferry across from Malaig to Armadale gave us the chance to have some breakfast and plan for the day ahead. Setting out with knackered legs following our previous days ride certainly was not the best- especially with such a huge task ahead of us....

The initial ride up Skye, wearing our (now standard) bin bags, went well and we made good progress albeit were soaked within the first hour. I would certainly now vouch for the fact that wearing bin bags has very limited effect on keeping the rain out! We crossed the short but magnificent Skye Bridge, and dropped into the RNLI station at the Kyle of Lochalsh for a speedy photo before heading on. 

The road ahead from here was hilly and the rain bucketed down. By 11am we were drenched and genuinely couldn't have got any wetter if we were to jump in a Loch! We were making reasonable progress but on tired legs the hills were proving extremely hard work and very painful. 

Eventually the road bought us to the shores of Lochcarron , and along with this came more gently undulating roads. This enabled us to progress in earnest, and there was now a glimmer of hope that we may make the ferry in time. We even had a brief stint of dry weather and sunshine which was bliss, but it wasn't long before the next wave of rain hit.

With ham strings tightening and very stiff legs, bums, backs and necks we allowed ourselves 1 minute breaks every 10km to stretch out before heading on! We couldn't afford to stop for any longer than this, as we knew we were very tight on time for the ferry, and would also risk becoming hypothermic in our soaked kit, so pressed on...

Battling on into the headwind, we took it in turn to go in front and take the brunt of the wind and lashing rain while the other would slipstream behind.... Needless to say the road seemed endless!

The eventual sight of Ullapool in the distance was very welcome indeed, and we limped on to the end. 

Exhausted but relieved to have made it in time, we had a quick shower at the ferry terminal and got some dry clothes on, before settling in for pint on the ferry. As Sod's law had it the skies cleared and the sun came out, giving some stunning views of the coastline during the crossing...

I also managed to capture one of Rad's extraordinary stretch routines on the ferry crossing as follows-

We arrived in Stornoway at 9pm , and for the first time in 3 days, with bright sunshine and clear skies. John met us at the RNLI station and gave us a very warm welcome before leaving us to hang up our soaked kit to dry and bed down for the night in the crew room. Fingers crossed for less rain tomorrow!