A fun account about a bicycle trip through Scotland.
Copyright © 1995 DP
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The following is a story written by a friend about a bicycling trip she took in Scotland in the spring of 1995. She (DP), her English friend (PB) and their trusty bicycles Rover and Stealth took on the rugged Teapot Trail (TPT).
I have taken her story and edited it into this web page. There is also a simple text version of this story available.
As Rover trundles down the British Airways baggage passage, I blow my nose. It's not that I'm sad to see him go, on the contrary, it means he (and I) are on our way. But why are we taking this wearisome cold along? Nonetheless, I don't plan to allow this bug to interfere with the pleasure of seeing PB again and setting off for the Highlands.
Of course, I'd harbored some foolish expectation that both the past few months of cycling to work and the honing of my packing skills after the trip last fall to Austria would be keenly felt this time around. Not that I'd expect to measure up to my companion's level; he, that is, with perpetually streamlined and seemingly effortless motion, luggage neatly stowed, instantly available in refined and efficient fashion.
No, not to that level. But perhaps not with the usual pieces relentlessly popping out, lurching sideways, and even catapaulting straight downwards from the bike, as once happened to her crash helmet, momentarily forgotten after the hypnotic olfactory spell induced by an Austrian bakery, and plummeted straight from the bike into traffic, causing a smallish pileup in her wake.
But enough silly daydreams, back to the present, the plane has landed, mercifully PB has not come to his senses in time, and he and Stealth are at the Terminal 4 door.
England is its cheery green, breezy, and showery self and by midday we are climbing - pant, pant - the impressive hill PB has carefully arranged to perch his house on in an attempt to keep ditzy broads at bay. And the broad knows exactly what she'd like now. There it is!- Last Bath On Turnpike.
After a restorative soak and snooze, she's eager to look around the Dataville HQ (which is coincidentally where PB lives) and show him her latest acquisitions, including a power converter so she can niftily plug her curling brush into British outlets. PB smiles tolerantly, he's become used to these oddities of American women, blissfully unaware of the disasterous consequences this appliance will later have on his existence.
After a pot of fortifying Kenya tea and some of the Dataville's bakery bread, the bikes and riders set off for the train station to London. Now Rover's chain comes undone, but PB's patience hasn't,...yet.
The route between Marylbone and Euston stations is too frantic to allow more than brief peeks at the stores and parks along it's way - catch the driver's eye, signal, and MOVE. We're not quite sure what fare will be offered on the train and are hungry now anyway, so pass the last hour before boarding with some fish and chips at the station.
Everywhere there are long passenger trains, snorting and humming with activity and energy. The bikes are parked in the mail car and a chatty steward escortsra passengers to their tiny cubes, restfully cosy, with thick red plaid wool blankets on a narrow, but well-tucked berth, a sink and fluffy towels, and What time would you like your morning tea brought down? One staggering lurch, and the train grinds on its way.
All night long the gentle motion of the train rocks the sleeping passengers from the zip-zip life in London, England and Bradford, Mass. to the vast quietness of northern Scotland.
Eight hours past and Now what's out the window? Mountains, really mountains, covered with short red-brown gorse, here and there green forest swaths and endlessly long, almond-shaped silver lakes, some snow-capped peaks, and everywhere dots of white sheep. And it's COLD, wintery cold, it seems, though later that's proved to be mostly cool, combined now with the rushing air of the train's making.
Even though we're only a minute away from Fort William, our destination, there's still no sign of city life on the hillsides. Oh, but here's the station now, and the bikes are chomping at the bit to get on the road.
First however, the riders want breakfast and a look around before they leave the village. Poking around in different directions, PB discovers a detailed topo map of the region he's happy with, while DP eyes the souveniers for any weighing less than an ounce, costing less than a pound, but loaded with appeal and charm for the folks at home. Disappointed, she's about to turn away, when, What is This?, a smallish book depicting a map of Scotland - The Teapot Trail is its title - that contains fascinating descriptions of about 31 Scottish teashops, with information about the buns and biscuits one can find at the shop, along with tidbits about the area and the teashop's owners. "What a find," she raves to a slightly less bowled over PB. Each equally pleased with his/her purchases, the bikes now get their wish.
Within minutes we're out of Fort William, curving around the edge of our loch (which is actually the hidden bottom of the two mountainsides around us). We're pedaling generally northwards towards Inverness. Even though the traffic's delightfully sparse on this main road, we're in for even better shortly, as we turn off on a marked bike path along a the Caladonian Canal towpath. Fresh cool air, the embracing quietness of the hillsides, and the silvery lights on the canal (built to link the lochs of the Great Glen) make wonderful company. By late morning we've come to an old stable, converted to a tea shop, which DP is overjoyed to realize is on the Teapot Trail! While PB attempts to drink his in peace, DP delights in reading the entire treatise on this sweet little spot out loud, which he is sure she'll soon get tired of doing soon, or so he hopes, if this rigermorole is to continue throughout the tour.
Back on the road again, now with renewed spirits for PB from his tea, and DP from the realization that the next TPT spot is in reach for lunch, they pedal along the off-track road, until the spitting showers turn more determined, and the hard-packed gravel road is beginning to puddle up.
In a while it's time for lunch and with some effort (going back and forth in the village of Invergarry only three or four times) we locate Lorna's Teashop, where the staff is nervously awaiting a bus tour arrival, but hurriedly feed us. While DP visits the ladies room and reads aloud the facts associated with this shop from the TPT, PB enters data into his new Psion computer, not much bigger than a checkbook. No more time to dawdle, as the 50 tourers are now pouring into the shop. But it's also pouring outside, so while they dive for their tea, we wait out this serious shower.
Now it is time for the bikes to rejoin the main road, skirting enchanting Loch Ness, like a giant silver mirror, stretching over 20 miles in length and almost 1,000 feet in depth. DP decides to don her new raingear acquisition, a fire engine red plastic parka, which she had purchased not only for its wet barrier, but for its high-visibility for drivers. "But there's hardly anyone around to notice" she thinks to herself and then concentrates on the road, as the wind and the rain are turning on the pressure. PB is forced to shiver at the hilltops as DP has slowed to dying slug pace, and so all are pleased when almost imperceptibly the wind and rain wander off to another Highland, just in fime for us to view the Urquhart Castle ruins along the water's edge, all bathed in early evening sunset gold.
Soon it's time to climb the last hill for the day to the camp site, pitch the tent (well actually, it's PB who does the pitching while DP mostly gets in the way), and find a restaurant in the village. The table by the electric heater is our pick, during the course of the meal we manage to dry socks, gloves, and hats, completely unobstrusively ... or so we suppose, as the three other couples in the dining room appear to be engrossed in their own meals.
But this turns out to be an illusion, as Couple A finally can't stand it any longer and the first half (he) is compelled to admonish DP across the room that he passed her on the road and felt the red cape was dangerous, as it could have become entangled with his car. At this point, the other half of Couple A (she) swifly pounced on PB ("There he was, at the top of the hill, while she's at the bottom, giving her no moral support whatsoever"). Well, that remark merely serves to open the floodgates, and before we knew it, the truth that everyone of the diners (Couples A, B, and C) had passed us, and their various reactions are emotionally and fully reported.
As we wander back to the campground, we decide that the general votes had followed strict gender lines, while PB is amazed he'd made it out of the restaurant without being slugged with a pocketbook or two.
The first night on the ground's bound to be a less restful one than the nights to follow in this mode, and my cold makes itself known too, with the net result that I'm feeling less pep than I'd prefer. For the first part of our journey today we're still following the bike trail, but the section we'll first meet is labeled happily (to PB the Mountain Goat) and ominously (to DP the Snail) Demanding. The quiet road starts circling upwards soon enough, and takes PB out of sight after a few disgusting curves. The views, however, over the green rolling hills and yellow meadows are just beginning to compensate, when the first of a mountain biking party catches up with DP. "Well, someone to chat with," she thinks, as the sounds of laughter and muffled chatter round the bend. The first fellow comes forth with a hearty - greeting?, which DP is CERTAIN is some breed of English, but he certainly has a different way with it and she looks forward to his companions, who are slowly catching up with their pal. After the 8th or so passes, and she still has not understood a single word, she abandons this pursuit and concentrates on the lovely stretches of countryside that can be enjoyed in every direction. Oh, and there's PB, bored with taking photos, but encouraged by the reports of the cycling club members' reports that they all conversed with his friend and "she's not too far behind."
The downside of this ride is fabulous, the bikes fly for miles, much further, it seems, downwards than they travelled up just a short time ago. No TPT spot in the vicinity, so an old country hotel gives us lunch, thick vegetable soup filling in the hollows. The morning's stayed mild and dry, so we're now due for some rain. And, sure enough, soon after we've left the last town before a long stretch through the countryside, it starts giving out some weak sprinkles.
The absence of cars, houses, and people is more than made up for by the presence - everywhere - of lambs and their parents. There are the tiny, tiny fellows, about the size of cuddly toys, not quite firm on their feet. Then there are the little guys curled up asleep in soft fuzzy lumps, the ones having lunch, and the strong toddler lambs, often in pairs, romping around the hillsides. They all provide constant roadside diversion and pleasure.
As I was preparing to leave for Scotland several weeks earlier, I recall that a friend bemoaned our choice of travel season - Oh, you'll miss the heather! Well, indeed not, the heather is right here, not the wonderful purple/blue that it will be in the fall, but a rich reddish earthy tone, perfectly suited to hide the wild deer we occasionally glimpse on their way here and there. But the fall travellers won't have the lambs for company.
The light wind of the early afternoon has grown intense by late day and due to a programming bug, is blowing exactly opposite from the correct direction. The going's hard, then harder, then the showers' pick up a bit. The red cape comes out of hiding while we pause at a turnoff, this time battened down with DP's dressing gown belt, in deference to the men's vehement complaints of last evening. What a drag the wind's becoming, then just in time to provide some diversion, we watch the steady work of a sheep dog on the hillside opposite as he/she charges up and down the steep slope, unceasingly toiling to move the herd towards the gate. PB explains that the dogs respond to whistled signals from their owners, though in this case the owner is sitting in a jeep at the bottom of the road, while the dog appears to be working from inner depths of strength and intelligence acquired over centuries.
The wind hasn't given up yet, so the large sign welcoming us to Achneshene with it's Hotel and B&Bs is a cheering sight to DP (PB would happily have camped in the wilds we've been guests of this afternoon) but her hopes for a shower and a less hard bed are steadily deflated as first it is discovered that the hotel has burnt down and the first B&B is fully booked. With one more chance left, the bikes tootle up to a rambling and friendly looking carriage house, just as the wind appears to have had enough to say, and within minutes we're having our tea next to the roaring fireplace and gazing out the wide windows over the intense blue loch at the end of the garden.
And we're not the only cyclists here for the night, David, from Wales, has passed us "you were putting on the red cape" just a short time earlier. David's got loads of stories in his paniers, and begins by inquiring if I know what "They say" about the Welch men. Well, er (some political point of view?) actually, um, no. They have reputation for "doing it" with the ewes, he cheerfully points out, almost causing a scallop in DP's mouth to become projectile. From this introduction, he goes on to explain a joke played on him by work colleagues and does a good job of Entertainment Chair, til DP decides to call it quits and retreats to the mammouth bath tub down the hall. Won't be hard to sleep tonight, even with that little lamb outside the window baahing for its Mom. Wonder why she isn't taking care of Junior? Wait a minute, where's David???
Now here's the way to start the day - fresh fruit salad, porridge, rashers of bacon, sausage, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, toast and marmelade, and pots of steaming tea. The only trick is to yank the toast immediately from the darling silver toast racks - the Brits everywhere seem so fond of - before it cools and hardens (which the rack excells in accomplishing within nanoseconds).
Weak with unhunger, we stagger from the B&B and are almost blinded by the - what is this? - bright sunlight all around. Given that it's had almost five hours' on us - the sun rises just after 4 in the far north country - everything in view is already staggering with intense color.
For the first two days, DP's legs and shoulders have had a fair workout (in HER opinion, PB is smirking, however), but today it's the turn of the jaw, as each gorgeous view causes it to re-drop again and again. Always the highlands around on each side, usually a bright blue loch reflecting the sunlight above it, and ever the lambs and sometimes the deer are our companions.
All this, plus today's ride is mostly on a wonderful invention - the Single Track Road. This means that there's only room for one 4-wheel vehicle to travel in either direction, and passing must be negotiated at the signed Passing Places, generally within sight of one another, perhaps one every quarter to half mile. The effect is to keep the sparse traffic at very low speeds (in addition to oncoming cars, drivers are also obliged to avoid the sheep often sharing the road). The effect for cycling is fantastic, allowing us to fully inhale this treasure of a day with virtually neither the sounds or smells of autos.
As we approach the coast, there are more delicate spring-green trees and scented hedges. At lunchtime, we settle ourselves by the roadside near Portree to have a picnic overlooking the bay bright with sailboats and deep green-blue water.
PB is forced to endure the TPT's description of the next spot DP is gunning for - the Seagreen Restaurant and Bookshop on Plockton Road in Kyle of Lochalsh.
And the narrative says it well - here Fiona Begg has converted an old village school to an airy spot (we try the spinach soup and stout bread with a sampling of local cheeses and fresh pear juice). Then it's down to the Skye ferry - a ride so fleeting DP never even saw any of it, as she spent the whole trip (10 minutes) searching in vain for the sunscreen. OH, well.
Though it's late afternoon by the time the bikes are pedaling in and out of the coves on the Misty Isle, the sun still seems as midday. The coastline is incredibly convoluted - now we're looking across a narrow bay, now to one of the many small islands, some with a few sturdy houses, now out to the sea. With virtually no wind nor altitude to speak of and the endless sunshine, there is a strange illusion we still have half the day yet to enjoy.
And actually, it isn't far from an illusion, as nightfall won't arrive til well after 10. DP's legs, howevever, as you aren't surprised to learn, give out well before then, but we're still bathed in sunshine as we walk across the road to the hotel opposite the bustling campsite for some supper, and indeed, there are still a few final squeaks of daylight left to guide our way back afterwards.
It's Hearty, High Ho and Off to the Cold Showers We Go, at least for these campground inhabitants, who all appear to be members of the Let's Do Killamanjaro Before Tea Club, with the notable exception of DP, who staggers from the tent, narrowly missing a newly-planted sheep pile.
Meanwhile, PB breaks out the small stove he's been waiting for a chance to try out, and sure enough, the tea product it produces is a fair first round.
Can't say the second night on the ground was an improvement over the first, though the cold brought from Bradford is still partially to blame. So what's on the menu for today? Back to wind, of the buffeting, hurricane flavor.
What with the winding coastline road we're following, the wind sometimes catches us from the front, then the sides, then, all too briefly, Ah, heavenly, from the back, propelling the bikes like seagulls.
At least we are certain that with the changeable weather patterns, we're bound to have something different soon, and sure enough, after landing for lunch the wind picks up! But, at least now its direction appears to be reliably steady, 180 degrees from our backs (hmmm...).
At last, we begin to descend from the exposed hilltops towards the coast's edge and the half-hour ferry ride to Mallaig. One Whole Half Hour to rest after that fight. Wow! The choppy blue sea is spanned in an instance, THAT COULDN'T HAVE BEEN A HALF HOUR! and Rover leads a Very Grumpy DP out of the ferry's belly. She takes out her ire on the Information Mistress at the local tourist bureau, who explains that the next town is "8, no better make that 10 miles" down the road.
"Tennnnn Miles!" DP shrieks, to everyone's amusement. (Somehow the difference of two miles seems colossal at the moment.) PB tries to interest her in the camping areas ahead, but, with a loud sniff, she churlishly dismisses THAT idea.
Then, as the ride unwinds along the silky white sand beaches and curvy, soft green hillsides in blessed windless calm, her temper and tiredness begin to lift. Happily, it starts to mist, then seriously mist, so PB is willing to hunt down indoor quarters for the night (correctly surmising she's not acting much like a Happy Camper anyway...)
Once in the sizable village of Aristaig, it's not hard to find a B&B, rather, it's hard to avoid tripping over them at each step. The riders are efficiently bustled into our best pick (the closest), the bikes are whisked to their quarters, and soon enough we're tucked by the hotel bar, filling in all the cracks with yet another dinner of the freshest fish and the homey goodness of the simple foods, potatoes, tomatoes, salad, everything tastes just splendid.
All this, PLUS a hot bath, and wonders of wonders, the hostess has laid an electric warming pad under the bed - specifically targeted for DP's sore butt.
Ahhh.. Now, can you believe this is the same complaining bird of earlier today???
After the wonderful sleep last night, DP bounds from the bedside, feeling she could tackle the entire Highland range today with energy to spare, and naturally enough, the trip from here back to the start point is a paltry 20 miles - plus - we have all day as the train doesn't depart til evening. Because it's the last, this day's for all the savoring we can give it and what better place to start than at the breakfast table.
There already are two Swiss guests, a Mom and son from one of the tiny villages PB has toured on a past foray to the Alps. As the hostess ferries in the tea, eggs, sausages, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc., and DP concentrates on rapidly divesting the toast rack of its load, and PB tends to eating, the son delivers an endless and intricate discussion on Swiss Dialects (of which it has as many as Scotland has sheep) with the consequence that we've used up a quarter of the day by the time we rendevous with the bikes, who are impatiently tapping their pedals out back.
But this is all part of the pleasure and the moments left all pass too quickly. Spring's been steadilly pushing it's way into the meadows and forests, making the greens and yellows richer, it seems, than they were just five days earlier. The sun is stronger than the occasional clouds, perfect for a picnic with a nice hot cup by the shoreline of Loch Shiel - our personal TPT spot.
The West Highland line shares the views with us, and a spectacular rail journey it must be - at Glenfinnan, the train is elevated on an elegant viaduct with 21 curving arches looking out toward Ben Nevis' mountain face, still snow-capped. We do some Tourist Stuff - climb the monument and visit the train museumn in leisured fashion, plus a late lunch at a country hotel.
OH, but now we're approaching the bustling metropolis of Fort William. Say, what is this? Could it be that the quiet village we left five short days ago has grown so startlingly fast? Here's a movie theatre, an auto dealer, a Hamburger Haven. Have quite forgotten these exist and certainly never missed them.
Shutting our ears to the roaring sounds of the traffic (more than one car at a time), we concentrate on navigating our way through the streets (perhaps five of them) to the Final TPT spot - for this trip - McTavish's Kitchens. We forgo the "Highland Show" and haggis (what a great gimmick - get the tourists to eat the leftovers) in favor of salmon and catching the train back for England.
Reluctantly the bikes allow themselves to be taken to the mail car, just as sad as we are to leave this enchanting and peaceful land. As the train klickety-clacks back down the highlands, only turning the thoughts to future sycling trips keep some melancholy wisps from the skies. Sigh.
Well, yes, Yes indeed! Why, Peter, we didn't get a chance to visit Falls of Foyers Tea-room, where "Mrs. Campbell bakes apple tarts and Dundee cake," nor The Schoolroom Herb Nursery "with an edible flower garden and terracotta plant labels," nor the Chest, Heart & Stroke Coffee Shop......
England is sweltering, sweat breaks out before we've negotiated the platforms at the train station. Back in Wycombe, the camping stove is dug out of the panniers once more to provide the returnees with their breakfast tea in the park. We stop at the video store and do some other errands, but finally the HQ Hill can't be ignored any longer and, well actually, it doesn't seem too bad now after a few days' conditioning.
The challenge from this point onwards is to concentrate on the enjoyment of the few remaining hours of vacation time, as good a skill to acquire as all the others related to traveling via bikes. Stealth's shedmate, Moose, seems pleased to have company again and the bikes are deeply engrossed in conversation each time we glance into their quarters as PB checks the garden and DP makes an attempt at repacking for the plane tomorrow.
Surprise, surprise, never once needed the light, and after one futile attempt at hair management, this project was completely abandoned. So the great charging unit acquisition wasn't all that marvelous, it seems, and other than making us the most conspicuous and controversial objects in Scotland last week, can't say the rain poncho was absolutely essential either.
The relative dispensability of these items was more than made up for by the Psion, which served to keep PB occupied with data entry during the long, silent watches on hilltops and outside Ladies' rooms. Not only this, but when it was discovered that two space cadets managed to leave Lorna's Tea Room without offering up a cent - "I thought YOU were paying!" "Well, I thought YOU were paying!" - a brief peek in the files reveals what we should have paid and allows us to attempt to redeem ourselves via post, along with an apology to one of the TPT's finest.
That's it then, the panniers are packed, the traveling clothes laid out, suppose the hair could be curled a bit now in preparation for reentry into the Real World. How about a cup of tea? Good idea, I'll just plug in the pot while I'm waiting for the brush to heat up.
Find the filtered water, start the electric kettle, get out the tea pot, get out the tea box, get out the tea strainer, get out the lemon and the milk. OK, now back upstairs to do the hair. OHMAGOD! What is that ghastly smell ?!? The Dove Gray curling brush has turned Molten Red and is offering out sparks like it's the Fourth of July (pardon me, Coronation Day or something). The Yank yanks the cord from the wall and the brush section ejects from the holder like a cannonball, arcs through the atmosphere in a mercifully brief fireworks display and then comes to rest on the Dataville guest room carpet, scouring a deep black crater under its burnt out hulk.
Now these are the times that try PB's soul. And, yes, yes, YES, he hasn't run out of patience yet! What a guy!!!
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