For a couple of Programme/Project Managers we didn’t do very well on this Scottish trip. We were late starting, we overran our time – the weather was just too poor to do some of our planned daily mileages – and I’m sure we blew the budget but the client was happy so that’s all that really matters!
We enjoy having a purpose to our rides and this year we’d decided that we wanted to complete some of the Grim Rider rides. The 2011 Charity Challenge is Castles and we’d made an early start on that in January when we went to an Iron Butt Association (IBA) Ride to Eat at Conisbrough. Looking at the photo it looks like we had rain but I don’t remember it being wet. Since then we’d had some great weekends in Wales, Cornwall and East Anglia visiting castles and other waypoints, including the PEMC Carpe Diem National Trust sites. We now only had the Scottish and Northern England ones left and a few stragglers in the South West. Considering it was the beginning of April we’d been really lucky with the weather and we were looking forward to some good weather for our Scottish excursion.
We’d planned to leave on Wednesday evening but it was pouring with rain and the forecast was dry for the morning so we delayed our departure until the next day. As we were behind schedule we decided to ride as far as we wanted to then find a hotel when we got there (wherever ‘there’ happened to be). The weather was sunny but very windy. I’ve decided that rain’s OK as you can be protected by wearing the right gear but nothing protects you from a side wind so it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable ride. Going up the A1 we went past an overturned Army Landrover and trailer that had been blown over. As we got caught in the inevitable queue we were nearly blown over ourselves as a huge gust of wind whooshed through the space underneath a lorry we were filtering past. A bit further on there was a flatbed truck on its side with a large patio-door sized window smashed in the road. At this queue one of the VOSA Traffic Officer vehicles got in front of us and started to slow us down. That didn’t help us at all as it was only the momentum of going at a reasonable speed that was keeping us upright.
Once we got up into the more rural parts of the A1 we were engulfed in complete brown-outs as the wind whipped up the top level of soil and blew the dust across the road. It was quite a relief when we got up to one of Grim’s circuits for our first scheduled stop – Croft. Out of the wind we had a very pleasant break in the sunshine eating our sandwiches.
Our last stop of the day was the Berwick-upon-Tweed Barracks. We stopped just short of the Scottish border and had a very pleasant meal in the most northerly pub in England, the Meadow House, where Kevin had locally caught haddock which he said was as good as Grimsby fish – high praise indeed. [6 waypoints visited, 462 miles ridden]
Friday was a dampish day as we rode up the east coast ‘ticking off’ quite a few of Grim’s Scottish Counties. We had decided we wouldn’t have enough time to be able to visit all of them – especially as some of them involve getting onto islands such as the Orkneys and Shetland – but we tried to fit in as many as we could. One that particularly sticks in my mind was the Kinloss Old Tollbooth. We had a good reference photo of it and it seemed it should be easy to find. We rode up and down the road then past the SatNav waypoint again. Eventually I spotted it. It had changed from the rather regal white top with green and yellow highlights to a rather boring looking black and white painted computer shop.
While we were in Scotland we noticed that the winter weather has really caused havoc with the roads. Where they have ‘made do’ and thrown top dressing on worn out roads the winter (and general wear maybe?) has worn most of it away resulting in riding on the originally worn-out road.
The other thing I noticed was that they love their roadside information signs. It was obviously a quiet few days as the signs had such useful reminders as ‘winter check deicer’ and ‘use care in bad weather’. If they don’t have any road information and can’t bear to leave the sign blank I prefer the ‘Think Bike Think Biker’ message we often see on the M20.
Towards the end of the day we visited the ruins of Elgin Cathedral which looked particularly imposing and beautiful in the evening sunshine. Our next stop, which took us quite a time to find, was the much smaller Nairn Fishwife. This is a beautifully sculpted full-sized statue of a fishwife standing on the harbour side. Apart from being green she is so lifelike I almost felt like she would ask me to buy her fish.
We stopped in Inverness for the night [18 waypoints, 406 miles] in a lovely hotel but the food was too fancy for us. Luckily we’d stopped earlier at a little café for breakfast and had bought some sandwiches; these were delicious for our evening meal. Despite being in our top box for the best part of 10 hours they were the best sandwiches we’ve had in a long time.
Saturday dawned bright and sunny. Result! One of our morning stops was at Cromarty, of the Shipping Forecast fame. We’d often ridden along the road on the northern side of the Cromarty Firth but this was to be our first time on the other side. It was an interesting road running along the side of the water looking out onto the oil rigs. We had a quick look round the town, took our photo and then went to find the ferry. It wasn’t running as we were a month or two early!
Unfortunately it didn’t stay dry and we’d resorted to waterproofs by the afternoon. We reached our most northerly point at the Thurso Lifeboat Station in Scrabster, rode along the top of the country for a while, had a pleasant interlude in a pub for lunch then cut down through the stunning scenery of the West Highlands on mostly single track roads, many of which we’d travelled along last year.
Eventually we’d had enough and found ourselves a hotel that was open. It was clearly still the winter season and I’m not sure they were ready for guests but they sorted out a room for us. The bar contained a few locals and we had a pleasant evening chatting and sitting in front of their fire. [5 waypoints, 332 miles]
Our first call on Sunday was to Redpoint to visit what was to reputed to be one of the most remote letterboxes in the country, a waypoint for, yes you’ve guessed it, the Grim Rider’s Letterbox ride. The views from this letterbox were stunning.
Two minutes later (literally) we rode into the car park and took this picture of the castle in sunshine. No wonder the weather forecasters struggle so much with getting the weather right!
The dry spell was not to last and we soon found ourselves back in pouring rain that turned into horizontal hail. Luckily we knew we were about to pass the Invergarry Hotel where we’d stayed previously. By mutual agreement we decided we’d had enough and that if the hotel had space we’d call it a day. It did and we were warmly welcomed back. Our room had just been refurbished and we had a smashing lazy afternoon admiring the sunshine. Oh well… [2 waypoints, 135 miles]
Last year we captured the standing stones at Temple Wood just outside Kilmartin but were disappointed to realise when we got home that there are two sets of stones there and we’d photographed the wrong ones. Our return visit was the next stopping point on our very wet journey. My revised GPS position was spot on and we were interested to note that the stone circle had been completely covered by peat until earlier last century.
Although we had decided not to visit the big islands there was a letterbox on Arran which would help us complete that ride so we decided to call in there. What a lovely island it is. We had a long wait at the Claonaig ferry ‘terminal’ as the weather was still very windy causing several crossings to be cancelled. Luckily for us they decided it was OK to restart and we had quite a bumpy ride over to the island on the tiny ferry. Once there we rode along the coast on roads that were blissfully empty except for the sheep.
We found a letterbox which looked interesting and I photographed it (I’m in danger of becoming a Post Box Anorak!) but we decided it wasn’t the right one and rode on. A quick bit of history: Scottish Nationalists had objected to post boxes bearing the legend EIIR as Elizabeth I was never Queen of Scotland and they expressed their dissatisfaction by blowing the post boxes up! By way of appeasement the boxes were replaced with ones bearing a crown and no legend. We’d misremembered the waypoint description and thought we were looking for a box with EIIR on it whereas in fact we were looking for one that had just a crown…the one we passed earlier.
We retraced our steps to take the required photograph (with the rally flag) then got to the Brodick ferry terminal just in time to see a ferry leaving. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we ended up changing our route to save 100 miles by missing out a couple of Scottish counties that we will do later as we mop up the islands. [2 waypoints, 238 miles]
Tuesday dawned wet again and we photographed our last few Scottish Counties of the trip and the final Castle for the 2011 Charity Challenge (Caerlaverock) in pouring rain. I was beginning to forget what it felt like to be riding with only ‘normal’ bike gear on.
We spent most of the morning chasing the sunshine. It was like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, just as we got near it it moved. Luckily the rain was easing off by the time we were riding Honister Pass and as the day progressed it got drier. Honister Pass was beautiful with many waterfalls (several were across the road) and only a few other vehicles to share it with; the scenery had definitely benefited from all the rain. By the time we decided to stop in Keswick we were able to present ourselves to the receptionist without leaving puddles on the carpet. [9 waypoints, 248 miles]
The hotel was rather up market and clearly aimed at the ‘silver pound’ which made us feel quite young at breakfast. The dinner menu reflected the posh nosh that is apparently de rigueur in these establishments so we walked into town to eat at a pub the receptionist recommended.
The rain was still threatening when we woke up on Wednesday but we decided to keep the waterproofs off. We tackled the Hardknott pass following a brave lady who was driving some tourists round in a minibus. She pulled over to let us through which meant we had a clear road in front of us. Once at the end we turned round and did it again. Both of us had specific bits of the road that we weren’t keen on revisiting – mine was a particularly steep and sharp bend, Kevin’s was a gravel-strewn sharp bend on the way back down – but in the event it was fine and you really can’t beat the scenery. We were rewarded for our no-waterproofs decision by the sun eventually waking up and by lunch time we were sitting outside a pub on the Wrynose Pass enjoying the sunshine.
As we were slowly riding through Buttermere Kevin pointed out a Red Squirrel sitting by the side of the road eating a nut. This was the first time I’d ever seen one and I was gutted to miss taking a picture of him so you’ll have to imagine what he looked like.
We had lunch in one of Grim’s Pub Crawl pubs – the Tan Hill Inn (our last waypoint for this ride) – which is perched upon the top of a very blowy, beautiful moor. The pub is within spitting distance of the busy A66 but it could be on a different planet. This is the pub which Everest used to show how effective their double glazing is. It’s easy to see why it was chosen.
We continued on through Buttertubs pass (our last Mountain Pass) down through Lytham (for our last Windmill) and into Liverpool to capture a rather stately Letterbox. Our last stop for the day was the New Brighton Lifeboat station to finish the Lifeboat Station ride. [8 waypoints, 293 miles]
Our last day was a beautiful, very hot, day and we both wished we had summer-weight gloves with us. Not bad for early April.
Another two sets of standing stones were on the agenda to finish the mainland Standing Stones. The Nine Stones circle in Winterbourne Abbas was a very peaceful place despite its close proximity to the busy road (and the half mile walk in the heat in motorcycle gear) and I was surprised at how strong a tree had been as it enveloped one of the larger stones. We also photographed the oldest Letterbox in use on the British mainland at Barnes Cross to complete the Letterboxes ride. This is a very pretty Victorian box which is much smaller than the modern boxes. It was good to see something so old still being used.
Our final two stops of the day completed the English Counties ride and also our PEMC Carpe Diem ride [8 waypoints, 490 miles].
Over the week we’d travelled 2606 miles and visited and photographed 58 waypoints. We’d ridden through torrential rain, horizontal hail, wind so strong we were in danger of being blown over several times and finally sweltering heat but our goal had been achieved. The completion of the Scottish Counties and Standing Stones rides can wait until next time.
More Photos here: Scotland 2011