I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud…

IMG_1136Like yesterday, I spend some time checking out my route for today. Rather time spent now, than being relegated to motorways because it’s easier than navigating with a flat phone later in the afternoon.

The general plan is to head back to Perth, but rather than heading down either the M6 or A1, to skirt the southern end of Edinburgh, and meander down A roads as far as Nottingham.

This afternoon is almost positively balmy, and I decide to shed my fleece layer as I head out of town. Beyond Perth on the M90, however, I ride into archetypal Scottish weather. Visibility reduces to about 100m, the wind is howling from the West, and the rain is driving.

IMG_1139I do the motorbike thing and stop under a nearby bridge to don my NaxSax wet weather pants (wet weather jacket liner is on). I’m also worried that my fleece, that’s strapped to the outside of the dry bag, will be sopping by now. On the contrary, both the jeans I’m wearing and the fleece on the back of the bike are bone dry. Go Honda, the windshield does its job admirably. Looking behind me, you can clearly see where the front rolls in.

The weather, however, intensifies and I find myself leaning into a 70 mph wind & rain, with just about no viz, crossing the bridge over the Firth, amongst traffic without headlights, all driving a cool 80 mph. It takes all of my confidence and concentration,not to mention some small measure of male genitals, to get across safely.

The drive around the A720 sees the weather clearing, and by the time I stop at the Fordel Petrol Station (on the Dalkeith Road) the rain has dropped to intermittent showers.

Now I drop onto the A68 towards Jedburgh and Coldstream (of the guards fame). This road is exactly what I’m looking for. Hills, dales, sheep strewn fields, forests, glens, little rural towns, twisties and sweepers – just perfect. As I get closer to the border, the frequency of Scottish flags increase, until I reach Jedburgh (with Mary Queen of Scots House), where you couldn’t imagine a more nationalistic display of country.

The irony here is that Scots in the highlands don’t consider anywhere south of Perth to be “really Scottish.”

IMG_1148After Jedburgh, I cross into the Northumberland State Forest  in England, and continue this idyllic ride. Not so many English flags on this side of the border. I may’ve seen just one. Guess the English aren’t expecting an invasion soon.

On Google maps, the A68 looks like it cuts straight down the countryside towards Newcastle, but it really meanders all over the place. Perfect for a motorbike.

IMG_1152Just after crossing into England, as I head into the Northumberland I ride for about 10 minutes with a light drizzle, almost water being blown off the cloud by the strong wind, rather than precipitation. This causes a rainbow about 100m in front of me. Eventually I can’t stand it anymore as I pass a reservoir, and stop behind a Land Rover to take a photo. Next thing I know, I’m recruited into helping a local shepherd get his flock across the road.

Finally the weather clears, and I stop for dinner in a town called Darlington. It takes a little while to find a pub, but there is one with “Bikers welcome” painted on the window. Perfect….

IMG_1155…or not. Bikers are certainly welcome, if viewed by the locals somewhat as a visiting Martian, but the pub doesn’t serve food. Choices are the Indian restaurant two doors down, or the kebab shop next door. I really want to take a break, so opt for the Indian, only to find it totally empty. For the better part of an hour I’m the only customer. Then fortified by a 4/5 Butter Chicken, it’s time to hit the road.

IMG_1160Fuel, windscreen, visor, and back onto the road. But it’s late, so onto the A1(M) for the last 120 miles to Nottingham. After about 67, my butt is hurting too much to sit, and I follow the most convoluted intersection to get to a Services, on the M62.

Once off the bike, I switch on the phone to check the quickest way to Nottingham. This turns out to be the M1, but I miss that turn-off due to ambiguous (and late) signage. Then I do the same with the Nottingham turn-off of the A1(M) and have to resort to turning Google Maps on to navigate me to the hotel.

I finally arrive 374 miles from Dundee, at 23:30 to the Hilton in the centre of Nottingham. Time for a long chat to Lucy, my final alcohol for a month, and a welcome king sized bed.

Broughty Ferry

IMG_1086After two gruelling, if enjoyable days of riding totally more than 1000 miles (1600 kms) or the equivalent of Sydney-Melbourne return, I decide to take a morning off. I still have a big ride today, but need to respect the limits of my body and change it up a bit.

I also may need to recover from a Laphroaig vs Jura comparison. Hot smile

IMAG0833So I sleep in, all of 7 hours, until about 8 and break my fast with a bagel and a couple of slices of home cut toast. Not to mention the biggest mug of tea one can get (in a Desperate Dan mug). Kevin and Wendy’s house is wonderful, right on the beachfront of “the Ferry”, and the weather again just perfect. Cold, cloudy, windy? Yes. But perfect nonetheless.

There’s a major event in Dundee this morning. A couple of 70’s residential apartment blocks are to be demolished at midday. We decide to walk closer to town to view this explosive event. An opportunity to stretch the legs, and enjoy the bracing Scottish weather.

Because I’m planning to leave late, I decide to stay in the Hilton tonight, rather than another AirBnB host. This takes off the pressure of having to get into town at a given time, or wait for responses from hosts. Many hosts check their email daily, but a bunch only check a couple of times a week.

So, Kevin, Wendy, their son, Ewan, and I head out just before 11 at an energetic pace, into the fresh wind, to find the ultimate viewing location. At 11:30 we’re at a location which has no view of the apartment blocks, and aren’t likely to get to line of sight by moving closer. So we  head back to the Esplanade. All in all, a great walk and even better conversation.

Then we face the brunt of the wind for another hour, waiting for the buildings to come down. Our last update was for the demolition at midday, but here we are at 12:30 with nothing happening. A quick enquiry with a police car that’s pulled up, and we’re given a 10 minute countdown. They jump out the car with “a minute” to go, and we turn around, to find the buildings disappearing in a cloud of dust. After all that I missed it. Fortunately Ewan was on the ball, and video’d the whole event. Check it out.

Demolition Dundee

I really enjoyed catching up with the Laahs’. A proudly Scottish stay, with single malts, Haggis, Scottish sausage, and kind hospitality. Brilliant. But now it’s time to pack up, fuel up, and head south. 10 to 3! Yikes! I’d better get riding.

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To the Top–Part Four: John O’ Groats

After Dunnet Head I find John O’Groats to be a bit of a let down. Probably mismatched expectations. I expect a little fishing village, but of course it’s not. It’s a little tourism village, with a minute harbour, more a breakwater, that moors a ferry and a life-saving boat.

IMG_3997When I say village, I’m not sure how many people actually live there. There’s a couple of kiosks, a craft market, a coffee-shop, an ice-cream stall, and a restaurant with knitwear products (??!?!)

I take some time on this break. A bit of knick knack shopping, soup and sandwich for lunch, whilst I read the newspaper write up of the Lion’s Match (that I missed by about an hour). Then a quick look at Google maps, and then down the east coast to Wick and beyond.

As I head south I feel somewhat empty. A lot of energy, planning, emotional, financial, social, and physical investment go into getting a motorcycle to the top of Scotland. Then you realise that for all intents and purposes, it’s done. Interestingly I didn’t feel that at the end of the Top Down Tour. Probably because I dropped the bike off, jumped on a plane and flew to meet Lu, Amanzi, and Charis for our US holiday. Whereas now I still have to ride all the way back to London.

But then my aspect changes. It’s hard not to on these roads, with these views. The weather continues to clear, and the vistas to inspire. I now give up entirely on photographs. It’s past 2pm and still 300 miles to Broughty Ferry, my home for the night.

One of the opportunities I considered with Ian this morning was to stop at Dunrobin Castle, just outside Golspie, to view a demonstration of the ancient art of Falconry. The last demo is at 2:30, however, and the castle closes at 4:30. I resign myself to the reminder that this trip is about getting to the top, rather than exploring the countryside, and I’ll just have to return.

By 4:30 I’m back at the Tesco Petrol Station in Dingwall, some 8hr15 and 151 miles after leaving this morning. The attendant is flabbergasted. Normal people clearly just don’t do this. Never mind heading to Dundee this late in the day. I’ve never been one for normal mind.

I’ve now got a couple of options to get to Broughty Ferry, I can cut across country, or head down the A9 via Perth. Again, given the time, I make the speed over tour compromise, and shoot back down the A9. A southerly deja vue of yesterday’s ride.

Today I find the ride more assertive on the overtaking. Rather than always waiting for dual-carriageways, behind the long queues, I take one or two cars at a time, to eventually overtake the lorry or bus at the head of the queue.

Despite the commentary about the ST1300, I find the bike becomes considerably uncomfortable on long days. The first 3 to 4 hours is ok, but in the afternoon my tolerance drops to 2 hours, then 90 minutes, then an hour. So I don’t make it to Perth, but make a stop at Pitlochry. This turns out to be the home place of Bells. (I reckon this would be on Lucy’s list of “we must stop here” places Winking smile)

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Now it’s down the A90 to Dundee, and through this great little Scottish seaside town to my friends holiday house in Broughty Ferry. A very quick ride. Another big, and fantastic ride in Scotland comes to a close with a welcome beer, and the promise of an evening with good friends, great food, and a wee dram (or 2).

To the Top–Part Three: Level Achieved

The countryside starts changing now as we follow the coast. The moors, lochs, and mountains are as spectacular as ever, but every so often you round a corner to see the North Sea. Although the weather is clearing, the sea is steel grey, mutinous and sullen.

And geez I’m glad I didn’t take off my fleece. As I ride to the exposed north coastline the temperature literally drops 10 degrees.

Thurso is a thriving little settlement, funded mainly by fishing and farming, with more than a couple of B&B’s and hotels pointing to a healthy tourism economy. At this time on a Saturday morning, the town is busy, if not heaving, and I relish the opportunity to take a leisurely ride through the city centre.

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The architecture is much what you’d expect from a centuries old Scots bastion, all slate and granite. Pubs are quaint, if not clichéd, and churches staunchly Calvinist. But this town seems happy and busy, a stark contrast to towns in the south-east of England where empty stores and 2nd hand shops seem business du jour.

It’s past 12 now, and time to get to the top so I can head back down to my lodging for the night.

At_the_top_of_the_world.__bottomuptour__LevelAchievedNow Ian had reminded me that “John O’Groats isn’t the northernmost point of the UK, you know that don’t you!” I didn’t, although rather suspected that geography would make it difficult for the town to be the actual northernmost point. It’s like Cape Town and Cape Agulhas in South Africa, Tierra Del Fuego and Cape Horn in Argentina.

Fortunately, Dunnet Head, which is the northernmost point, sits between Thurso and J O’G and not on the other side of the country. So of course I took the detour. Not to would be like leaving before the end of the match.

IMG_3986There’s not much there. Like all natural features overlaid with a man-made construct (in this case latitude) it’s pretty unremarkable. At least compared to the next cliff, or next beach. Having said that it is gorgeous in it’s own way. There’s a light house (automated), pretty rugged cliffs and an expanse of ocean that offsets the heather strewn plain behind. There’s also a viewing platform occupied by a couple of bird and whale watchers. From here you can clearly see the Shetlands a couple of miles north. The GPS says I’m 58o 40’ 16’’ north. That’s further north than Stockholm.

IMG_3993Whilst riding up to the car park I pass a couple of adventure bikers. One riding a BMW R1150GS with a side-car. The other a mauve Suzuki V-Strom that belies the macho crash bars and styling. I park and head over to say hi, to meet the quirkiest couple in my travels yet. Torstein and Silverwolf are a vegan couple from Finland riding around the world with their 3 dogs, hence the sidecar. He is a lanky, bearded 6’4” biker that visually meets the bikie archetype. His partner, Skippy, is a crewcut, lithe woman that seems way to small to handle the bulk of the v-strom, which she masters with aplomb. IMG_3992Their tour is planned over 5 years, and is likely to end in Australia. (The map on their pannier has no return trip to Finland penned in). You can read about it here. www.sauerkraut-tofuwurst.com It’s interesting to note that their challenges have little to do with riding and maintaining motorcycles in different geographies, but more about permits and quarantine for their “children” pets, and finding good quality affordable vegan food in various countries.

Of course I extended an invitation to come and stay with us when they reach Australia. Given my proclivity for meat, and Dexter, that’s going to be an interesting week. Hot smile

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Did I say I love biking. The places you see, that you can only afford to see on two wheels. The people you meet, that you only meet on two wheels. The in-the-moment, visceral experience of life that you can only experience on two wheels.

But here we are at the northernmost point of mainland UK, which was the original goal of this trip. Level Achieved.

On to John O’Groats, the northernmost settlement in the mainland UK.