"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. The
ferry had remained anchored here in Keoldale ever since, a prisoner
of the weather.
stayed four days. Walked around the coast, waited for the tide
to go out, then crossed the beach, through the water."
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.
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.
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.
locked his bike because he thought somebody would steal it. But
he forgot his key. It's back at the hostel in Durness."
everyone up, as only a stranger's misfortune can.
lock my bike," he explains, in English now.
you can carry it," suggests Mr. 3750.
get a rock and just break the lock," chimes in a businesswoman
his head. "It's not possible with this lock, it is a really
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.
"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.
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
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.
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.
pass. Our numbers dwindle. Then there are two.
to take Mr. 3750's picture in front of the lighthouse, if we ever
really is a ferryman.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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
The road to hell. Sorry,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
about another," I suggest, fingering the zoom lens.
ok," says the man, clearly uneasy with my initiative.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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
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.
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?
for not being able to take his picture when he gets there. He
says that's alright, he'll find someone.
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.
published in the British magazine Cycling Plus, Spring 2000