ALMOST WRATH
"You can see it but you just can't get there,"
says the Swiss woman, now experienced in such matters. We share her gaze over the choppy waters of the finger of Atlantic keeping us from Cape Wrath. She's already been, having made the short trip six days ago with her German companion. Problem was they couldn't get back. grumpy self portraitThe ferry had remained anchored here in Keoldale ever since, a prisoner of the weather.

"We stayed four days. Walked around the coast, waited for the tide to go out, then crossed the beach, through the water."

"It didn't part for you?" I ask.

No such luck. Undaunted, they'd waded hip deep in the icy Kyle of Durness, having temporarily abandoned their bikes in a shed on the Wrath side. I can believe it; she's all sinew and smile, with bravely naked calves on this freezing morning, and he has the look of someone who would quietly climb the Matterhorn if it was in his way.

Seven or eight of us hold court in the bus shelter, awaiting the first ferry. It's an hour late. Cape Wrath isn't an island, but the only road that leads there starts on the other side of this estuary. Two of us are accompanied by our bikes. The rest look forward to the 11 mile shuttlebus jaunt to Britain's most north-westerly lighthouse, which sits in isolated splendour amidst scenery invariably described as windswept but ruggedly picturesque.

The German suddenly entertains a pained expression and vacates the shelter. Switzerland follows. We hear him talking to her in his native tongue with a resignation that jumps the borders of language. She laughs, positively merry. They rejoin us.

"He's locked his bike because he thought somebody would steal it. But he forgot his key. It's back at the hostel in Durness."

This cheers everyone up, as only a stranger's misfortune can.

"I always lock my bike," he explains, in English now.

"Maybe you can carry it," suggests Mr. 3750.

"Or get a rock and just break the lock," chimes in a businesswoman from Liverpool.

He shakes his head. "It's not possible with this lock, it is a really good one."

More laughter.

The pair huddle, confer, agree to hike the three miles roundtrip to Durness to rescue his key, though they fear the youth hostel itself is now (you guessed it) locked.

They disappear. "She's a hardy lass," remarks an old man from the minority Scottish contingent. We shiver and chatter. The ferry gets later. Our group expands, contracts, but the core remains: me and Mr. 3750, so christened because of his mileage.

The ferryman is rumoured to be drunk, hungover, or newly unemployed. We're getting regular if conflicting reports from... somewhere. The Liverpudlian asks me where I've cycled from. I tell her London. "Well, that's still an achievement," she allows. Mr. 3750 is having his picture taken again. Newcomers are attracted by his heavily laden bike with the cardboard bumper advertising a charity.

"I'm collecting as I go along," he tells us. "Last week a postmistress on Skye told me a lady had just raised 1800 in an afternoon. I've been on the road three months and I still haven't made a thousand. But she had terminal cancer." We agree this would tend to make people more generous. The newcomers give him a pound. He produces his map the way a man might pull out his wallet to show you pictures of his kids. I saw the same map three hours ago. It shows Britain well and truly conquered by his yellow highlighter. He's been there, done that; wants to make it to the Cape to have his picture taken at the lighthouse, then east to John O'Groats, then home. Except he hasn't one at the moment. Gave it up to make this trip. Also his job and girlfriend. He's got a serious relationship with the road now, doesn't really want it to end.

The continentals return from the hostel, reacquaint themselves with our maddening vortex of inertia, decide they won't be seeing the inside of this ferry, and pragmatically opt to surrender their body heat once again to the Kyle. We bid the intrepid couple farewell.

More hours pass. Our numbers dwindle. Then there are two.

I've promised to take Mr. 3750's picture in front of the lighthouse, if we ever get there.

If there really is a ferryman.

* * *

London to Cape Wrath and back again. The notion came to me one day unencumbered with a good reason to do it. Don't need one, do you? Just a bike and some time, in my case a two week window of opportunity. Maybe it was my version of a Paris-Brest-Paris, that annual mass cycling boomerang. Or perhaps I was simply attracted to a place as ominous sounding as 'Wrath'. In any case, as an end-to-end veteran [Land's End in Cornwall to John O'Groats In Scotland] I was twitchy, anxious for the ache of knee and buoyancy of heart that accompanies me on such expeditions.

Planning consisted of thinking about it a lot, but not doing much. As zero hour approached I gave in to lovingly turning the pages of a Great Britain A-Z, choosing fast roads for my slow legs, and playing connect the dots with points of interest: mostly cathedrals (I'm a secular pilgrim) but also a trio of famous bridges. As I have a remarkable tolerance for traffic, constructing a route of A and B roads wasn't difficult. "You don't tour," my wife observed. "You commute."

To travel, perchance to pack. Standard advice is to pile everything you think you'll need onto the bed and then jettison half. This I did. Then I picked most of it up off the floor and took it anyway. In addition to a minidisc player to provide the soundtrack for my journey, I carried a disc recorder which enabled me to mail home audio postcards.

* * *

The day arrives. The journey begins. Five miles in I fancy quitting. My bike seems far too heavy. I am tired, insufficiently conditioned, shockingly flabby; the laziness of the long distance daydreamer.

The only other cyclists in the pre-dawn hour are shift workers. The whine of our dynamos intermingles as they head home and I head north. London has remarkable qualities. It either sucks you in or spits you out. My leg muscles have bedded in by the time I breach the M25, and without ceremony I'm suddenly free of the gravity well.

By noon I've traded Hertfordshire for Cambridgeshire and am seeking lunch in Peterborough. The high street is thronged but the 12th century cathedral is empty, so I install myself in the recesses of the marvellous west front with a veggie burger and my recorder. A priest stares as I murmur into it, perhaps mistaking me for a disturbing new gargoyle. I pay a visit to Catherine of Aragon, who's reposing under a slab of black Irish marble in the north aisle, then set out again across the gently undulating fields of Lincolnshire.

According to the Blue Guide, in a quote I've taken magnificently out of context, eastern England is not on the way to anywhere. However, it happens to be virgin territory for me on two wheels, and home to more than its fair share of inspiring architecture, especially considering the lack of suitable local stone. Where would the tourist industry be without the medieval penchant for hauling rocks around? The next cathedral in my line of sight is in Lincoln, also home to a castle which guards one of only four surviving copies of the Magna Carta. It takes me the rest of the day to get there, but after a miraculous 140 miles I'm in no condition to appreciate anything except bed.

The critic John Ruskin was fond of Lincoln Cathedral. He considered it "out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles." It may be the crown of Castle Hill, but when I visit it the next morning it's wearing scaffolding; quite the fashion these days. I float around inside for awhile, relaxing in the quiet soft limestone light, then remount the A15, which flies straight and true out of Lincoln following the ancient Roman Ermine Street.

Pssst. Buy me. I'm a card.
The road to hell. Sorry, Hull.

At mid-day I reach the Humber Bridge, which has the reputation of being a beautiful span to nowhere. I'm sensing a theme here. The cycle/pedestrian paths which bookend the roadbed sit about 5 feet down a sloping embankment, as if shaken off by the parade of lorries. Even someone with my masochistic leanings finds this perspective distasteful. It's a lovely day, but the vista is nothing more than a nondescript murky haze offering little in the way of visual poetry, and the aggressive wind almost sends me abseiling over the muddy river. On the bright side, as onetime Hull resident Philip Larkin has written, "I wish I could think of just one nice thing to tell you about Hull, oh yes... it's very nice and flat for cycling." And so it is, to Beverly.

Any self-respecting sightseer finds his way to this traditional market town, which is chockablock with listed buildings. The imposing twin-towered Minster, laughably out of scale with its surroundings, is visible for miles on the approach. St. Mary's is also worth a visit. It boasts the Pilgrim's Rabbit, said to have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit. I search for a Pizza Express (if you're a fellow devotee, it's right across the street), then continue ever northwards.

Much of my time has been spent singing enthusiastically if in perpetual search of a key. Upon my return to London I listened to the discs I was sending home daily as penance for my absence. Having intended them as a diary, I'd discovered that it requires an awful lot of talking to fill 74 minutes of airtime. So I've been reduced to a kind of nightmare karaoke, whereby I get to listen to the music, but my audience only hears the words; an effect only bearable to someone prepared to endure innumerable gaps when I thought I was singing but was only humming, punctuated by heavy breathing, coughing, and atonal sputtering. It sounded great at the time.

Helmsley, a popular little village which sits smugly at the foot of the North York Moors, is fresh out of B&B rooms by early evening when I roll into town. So I impulsively pull an all-nighter, surrender myself to the (nearly) silent moors for a few hours, then sample the strange urban nightscape of Middlesborough and Darlington before emerging thoroughly knackered in Durham at daybreak.

Beautifully spare Durham Cathedral cradles the mortal remains of The Venerable Bede, the 8th century monk and scribbler whose final words would be a pleasure to hear from any editor: "It is well; you have said the truth; it is indeed." He'd have a good view if he was still around to enjoy this prime bit of real estate, high above a loop in the Wear River. I dawdle, itching to try the lion-head sanctuary knocker at the entrance, a replica of the one used by long-ago fugitives fleeing justice -- knock three times / on the door / if you're wanted. This will be my last cathedral of the trip, unless you count the ruined abbey in Jedburgh.

The Cheviot Hills are a marvellous preamble to Scotland. I attain the Carter's Bar summit, whose border patrol consists of the usual men in skirts blowing hot air into bags, then enjoy a free ride into the country that bears responsibility for the Bay City Rollers (whom I'm reasonably fond of, shang-a-lang).

That afternoon, while unwinding in Jedburgh Abbey, I'm approached by an American couple who want me to take their picture. They hand me a fancy camera, so I oblige.

"How about another," I suggest, fingering the zoom lens.

"Sure, ok," says the man, clearly uneasy with my initiative.

"Just in case the first one didn't turn out," I explain helpfully, even as it strikes me that he's not interested in a talking tripod.

My wife joins me in Edinburgh. Moral support. Also an ideal companion for the thoughtfully landscaped Royal Botanic Gardens, where we spend a bittersweet afternoon strolling. I recharge over the weekend, which throws my schedule, already a study in optimism, into disarray. I now have eight days to travel 1000 miles with increasingly dodgy knees -- first the right one, then the left; they take turns tormenting me. It ain't gonna happen. Stupid to try. But Wrath beckons.

Dark and early the next morning I relaunch myself, christening the Forth Road Bridge with earnest sweat. Its Victorian sister, the provacatively cantilevered Rail Bridge, looks as if it was specifically designed to attract wolf-whistles. After a pleasant meander through Fife I add the utilitarian Tay Bridge to my collection, and am so shocked to see a lift at the Dundee side that a fellow cyclist has to explain to me that you have to push the button to go down.

Braemar occupies a bend in the A93 deep in the Grampian Mountains. After a wet afternoon mountain climbing, I arrive fashionably a day late for the Queen's visit to the annual Highland Games. Missed the Prime Minister, too. The people you can run into when you're minding your own business....

The B&B proprietor is used to cyclists. Last year an entire platoon of tandems commandeered the town. That night I dream of Liz and Tony sharing a bicycle built for two. Don't sleep well. Begin the morning with a visit to the local castle, rubbing shoulders with keen Germans, then share the road out of town with coachloads of pensioners hot on the trail of nearby Balmoral. I only manage to get as far as no-nonsense Grantown-on-Spey by the evening, for shame.

The following day the heavens open in earnest so I hurry through unavoidable Inverness and finally lay claim to the vowel-laden port of Ullapool, gateway to Stornoway if you're so inclined. Lots of people must be; the joint is hopping, which might explain the tartan inflation in the gift shops on the waterfront.

Wrath. Wrath. Wrath. The mantra fills my head, propels me through the stunning coastal gusts which greet me after a night listening to them practice their scales. What few cyclists I meet are German. The highlands at times seem to be an outpost of the mother country. 'Achtung! Lammer auf der straBe', read signs in sheep territory, to help avoid international incidents.

The home stretch is garlanded with seaweed torn from the rocky beach. I check into the Cape Wrath Hotel and find my room to be a monk's cell. The Venerable Bede would be comfortable here, but I am seriously unimpressed. There's little to do now but await the morning's ferry.

On awakening I find that a spider has commandeered my bike, which I've sneaked into my room. "Finder's keepers" he seems to be admonishing me, waving his legs.

I go to the ferry landing and introduce myself to Mr. 3750.

* * *

He's patient. Anybody who's spent three months on the road is bound to be. I start worrying if the ferryman really is drunk. The question is, how badly do I want to see a lighthouse which sits in isolated splendour amidst windswept but ruggedly picturesque scenery? Is that really what's pulled me along for 700 miles, or was it the elemental joy of cycling somewhere, anywhere?

Hmmm.

Maybe another time.

I apologise for not being able to take his picture when he gets there. He says that's alright, he'll find someone.

Eight Hundred years ago King Haakan of Norway and his Viking raiders carried longboats from the seawater Long Loch to raid the villages of the freshwater Loch Lomad. The gaelic word 'Tairbeirt' means 'place of portage'. 'Tarbet' is the modern spelling. It's a wide spot in the road about 30 miles north of Glasgow. There's a train station. Three days after leaving Cape Wrath (or thereabouts) that's where I am. Exhausted. Looking for a place of portage. And finding it.

originally published in the British magazine Cycling Plus, Spring 2000

 

NOTES
John O'Groats pulls the crowds but the Cape has the cachet.

I may not have made it, but the Vikings did. They used it as a navigational aid for their cultural exchanges with villages on the Scottish coast. The name conjures tidings of violence; it was actually just a Norse contribution to the highway code, being somehow derived from 'hvarf', meaning 'point of turning'. These days the military co-opts the surrounding area for target practice, but don't worry. Unlike the Vikings they warn you first. It's only sporting. The road, which crosses a desolate moor called The Parph, is closed for good measure. Buck up. Once upon the time venturing this way would've found you in the company of wolves.

Robert Louis Stevenson's father was another visitor. He's the one who built the lighthouse. The Clo Mor cliffs give teeth to the headland and, at 920 feet, claim the title as the highest sea cliffs in Britain. They're also a favourite trysting spot for amorous seabirds.

The ferry (01971 511376) operates from May to the beginning of September. Apparently it can be booked in the off-season, though the shuttlebus doesn't run. And there are other variables, as I discovered.

Nearby Balnakiel is a scrap of a village which boasts a golf course offering the opportunity to drive a shot over the Atlantic, if you've brought your clubs. Another attraction is the Smoo Cave, accessible by boat: may the local tourist board and spelunkers everywhere forgive me, but you see one subterranean rock formation, you've pretty much seen 'em all.

It's a long haul (or just seems like it) around nearby Loch Eriboll to get to the next village east, but Ben Hope adds majesty to the proceedings, and you can reward yourself with a stay at the delightfully named Tongue Hotel, an ideal place to stock up on matchbooks.

 


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