When I suggested to my wife that the first week of our summer break should include cycling across Scotland, she had her doubts, serious doubts. With four children, the oldest 14 and the youngest 9, the logistics of getting our 6 bicycles there were bad enough. Indeed, were our bicycles up to scratch? What about food? Where would we stay? Were we up to the physical challenge? Or would we end up with tears and recrimination?
Over the years I have been lucky enough to enjoy a variety of outdoor challenges. Some of these have been solo and others as part of a team. This however was different. This was family...
Deciding a route was relatively straightforward. We were to head on to the Summer Isles after the cycle so a route that ended at Ullapool was needed. The challenge was for a Coast to Coast cycle but minimising distance, height and busy roads were the other requirements. Fortunately the North Sea threads in through the Dornoch Firth with tidal waters all the way up the Kyle of Sutherland reaching Invershin, or at least Bonar Bridge. A quiet route along the south side of the Kyle, rejoining the A837 (single track) to Oykel Bridge would make a suitable first day. Second day would be along the Corriemulzie Estate road, coming off just past Duag Bridge to follow the track to a bothy at Knockdamph. The final day would be along to east Rhidorroch, then following the estate road past Loch Achall and on to Ullapool.
Phoning up to arrange accommodation did not prove very smooth. Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel was being renovated. The Oykel Bridge Hotel was booked - it is famous for its salmon fishing. The kind lady did however refer me to some caravan accommodation near Bonar Bridge provided by Steve and Sue Wright. I also needed to contact the Mountain Bothy Association to let them know six of us would be at Knockdamph.
The accommodation issue meant that the evening before the first day of cycling I went on to Oykel Bridge with the bicycle in the car, left the car and cycled back. This allowed us to use the accommodation at Bonar Bridge after the first day by leaving the bicycles at Oykel Bridge, driving by car and returning to the bicycles the next morning. (A similar solo cycle, drive with bike in car, and cycle scenario was needed early on the third day to ensure the car was in Ullapool!)
The second aspect of preparation was reconnoitering the route. My friend Kenny was able to join me on the reccie. We chose the weekend of the Royal Wedding and we enjoyed a fantastic warm April cycle. We travelled light, took all day over a route that would be split into three days with the family. It was worth it. A couple of route choices on the map proved impossible in reality. In addition, knowing the terrain ahead when with the family meant that we could avoid the surprises later!
Although we could all cycle, confidence was going to be the key. Rather than do big expedition cycles as a family, the plan was to do small and often. The two younger children were able to get much needed practice cycling to school. The daughter at secondary school responded best with a "daddy and oldest daughter" trip. My wife was able to collect the younger ones from school on several days. On other days, their bikes had to be put into the car. All these small journeys added to the familiarity of getting on the bicycles, troubleshooting the niggling issues and learning how to remove a wheel!
As a family we try to be into recycling. As such all our bicycles were second hand. Five of them were purchased at The Bike Station. The sixth bike was given by friends whose son had outgrown it.
It would be great to say that this all went smoothly but alas no. With the family and the bicycles split evenly across train and car and with meticulous booking of trains and bicycle reservations it should have gone smoothly. However the journey up was affected by a landslide on the railway between Inverness and Dingwall. That was bad enough but at Inverness on the journey back the reservations for the bicycles were invalid. The issuer at Waverley station Edinburgh had printed out the bicycle reservations with the wrong date despite selling the traveller tickets with the correct one! For this reason ScotRail is not in the list of acknowledgements at the bottom.
We had spent a few days before starting in the caravan so when we did eventually get going it was almost with a sense of relief. At Bonar Brige we went down to the shoreline and dipped our fingers in the salt water - the next salt water we would touch would be one the other side of Scotland!
Passing through Ardgay we joined the National Cycle Route 1 that goes as far as Carbisdale Castle. The quiet road a had a flurry of five or six vehicles but once past Carbisdale only a garbage collection lorry went past. They seemed surprised to see a family on bikes in high viz vests and helmets! The road then steadily climbs with only a few places were the gradient was so steep to need to get off and push. After a wet start to the week (when the Scottish Open had been washed out near Inverness) we were now enjoying warm sunshine. So much so that our lunch stop was taken in the shade.
After lunch we cycled on. By cycling at the back the children felt unhurried. The downhill sections, especially the hairpin descent before crossing the flood plane of the River Oykel, provided a welcome coolness as the air rushed past. As we joined the A837 the road sign said Oykel Bridge & The West.
Despite joining the A837 the road was very quiet with passing places. There were a few more push-the-bike-up-hills and tiredness was beginning to set in. However the view west revealed the pyramid shape of An Teallach - a munro in the Torridon region of the west coast. Finally, we were on the short sharp descent with the red phone box on the right heralding the sudden arrival at Oykel Bridge Hotel. With lemonade and crisps from the bar we refreshed ourselves before locking up the bikes for the day and heading for a well earned rest.
Day 2 started well with a friendly tourist from a coach taking our family photo. However it was not long before our oldest child noticed a problem with his rear wheel. It was rubbing on the frame so some minor adjustments were needed.
We then crossed the River Einig and followed it on the south side through the forests of Glen Einig. The road is an estate road and was well maintained but not tarmac. Our lunch stop was to be at Duag Bridge, or rather by the Otter nad Salmon wood carvings just beyond it. Duag Bridge has a new looking bothy that was once a schoolhouse. Perhaps the children of Knockdamph came here to school?
Just as we started affter lunch at the river my elder daughter went on strike. The others sensibly went on leaving the two of us to see who was the more stubborn. After ten minutes stand off she reluctantly returned to her bike. When we caught the others up we let her go to the front. She led for the rest of the cycle.
The track now was more rugged - this section would be difficult on a road bike. i We were no following the west side of Rappach Water to its junction with a tributary, Abhainn Poiblidh. Fortunately this was not in spate so was an easy crossing. However shortly afterwards the track crossed a boggy bit and the youngest daughter's bicycle stuck fast for her. She was not best please with all the mud on her bicycle! We still had 4km or so to the bothy at Knockdamph. It was slow going but we eventually made it.
My wife had been dreading the bothy. For six of us the sleeping platform had insufficient room. We carefully followed the bothy code. A thorough search of the local area produced enough dead wood washed down the stream to make a small fire to dry our wet socks. The cosy scene brought to mind for my wife the Little House on the Prairie books. However, after a meal we settled down for an uncomfortable night of litlle sleep.
At 3.30am, having had enough sleep to get by on I rose so my wife could have a second sleeping bag in order that she might get enough comfort to sleep. Meanwhile I found my bicycle, and cycled back to Oykel Bridge. There I loaded the bicycle into the car and drove to Ullapool. From there I cycled back to Knockdamph arriving very hungrily ack at about 7am to find the family trapped inside by a herd of cows and a bull! With the aid of the bothy brush for my (reassurance) the cows and bull were moved on.
Now, after a hearty breakfast of rice pudding, we once more rode west. The path remains rough as it drops down to Loch an Daimh before rising to the 250m high point of the journey. We had crossed the watershed. All rivers from here were draining into the sea on the west coast of Scotland.Before the path improved by East Rhidorroch Lodge it descended steeply enogh for some of us to walk downhill with our bicycles. At the bottom we were greeted by a friendly, elderly collie. It enjoyed being patted by the children before returning to guard the suspension footbridge over Rhidorroch River to the Lodge.
We now enjoyed a very pleasant cycle down river to Loch Achall on a very good estate road. The sheep, and in the distance, the deer provided company. Approaching Rhidorroch House near Loch Achall we met our first person since the previous day when a car passed at Duag Bridge. She seemed flustered as what appeared to be a pet pig charged at her before deciding she was not the owner out with feed!
Past Loch Achall the we crossed the Ullapool River. More people were now visible out walking. We headed on and once past the quarry Ullapool suddenly appear round a corner. As we headed for the sea front it was not just us arriving - the Tall Ships were there on their way to Orkney. As we dipped our hands in the sea near the pier the Achiltibuie Pipe Band greeted both us and the mariners to the West Coast!
|1||35km||510m||Bonar Bridge to Oykel Bridge. Very quiet road, most ascent is relatively gentle.|
|2||15km||484||Oykel Bridge to Knockdamph Bothy. Good estate track at first then harder drove road and river ford to cross. Significant climb.|
|3||20km||234||Hard drove road for first 3km then, after very steep downhill, much improved.|