Sunday, 30 May 2010

Oban to Barra

May 19  Oban to Barra
Oh well, it had to happen sometime, but why when we were going on our first cruise to the islands.  Sea mist and fog and drizzle!
Having loaded up with petrol, food and wine at the nearby Tescos, we queued for the 1400 ferry, landing at Barra at 1830. What a shame about the weather!
There is generally only one road through or around these islands, and that is a single-track road with frequent passing places.  With no parking spaces and no camp-sites, we made our way towards the airfield, where there used to parking on the beach, at Cockle Strand.  There are regular daily flights from here which land and take-off from the beach, obviously at low tide.  Last summer they were besieged by campervans, no doubt boasting that they’d been able to stay night after night for free, and there was a tightening up of wild camping on the island.  A few crofters open up their land for camping, otherwise it’s very difficult.  I certainly wouldn’t want to come here during the busy months.  We found only two possible places to camp, near the northern tip, one unofficial at Eolaigearraidh, near a fishing jetty ( loo, water, waste disposal, room for 6), and a crofter’s field (room for about 20) and that was your lot.
The mist was down, so couldn’t see much, but we had a short walk along a deserted white-sand beach and tried to imagine what it must be like with a bit of sunshine!

The following day, we set off on a cycle ride round the island of Barra and across the causeway to the neighbouring island of Vatersay.  The islands were linked in the 1980s following pressure from locals, after the drowning of the prize bull, Bernie!  The crofters used to swim their cattle across the short stretch of water to take them to market, but on this occasion the bull drowned, so the Sound of Vatersay was bridged.
We cycled along the east coast of Barra, up and down to Castle Bay, where the ferry pulls in from Oban.  We called in for a coffee and cake at the Dualchas heritage centre, which was warm and welcoming.  Bearing in mind that it’s in the 20s at home, it was quite a chilly 14deg here, with a cold wind.  There’s a complete lack of tourist development here, and cafes are fairly rare, so you grab a coffee where you can!  There’s the odd, nnsigned co-op and nothing else. At Castle Bay, Chiosmuil Castle stands on a tiny rock out in the bay, seemingly floating on water.  Built around 1427, it was the home of the Macneil clan. On past the little church deicated to St Barr and a statue of him set in the lochan. St Finbarr came here is the 7th century, and the island has been RC since the 1600s. The southern islands are roman catholic, whereas North Uist, Lewis and Harris are Protestant.  Not like the wishy-washy nature of our obedience, the northern Hebridean islands still respect the strict tenets of John Calvin, and no shops, restaurants and bars areopen on Sunday, whereas in the south, there are no shops, restaurants and bars!!  Benbecula, in the middle, is said to be a mixture of both religions.
  We continued on climbing steeply up and then a fast downhill all the way to the causeway, passing an odd-looking fella with some co-op bags, resting by the side of the road.  On to Vatersay, with its wonderfully surfaced roads, only 5 miles long, edged with masses of yellow primroses.  There looked to be a nice cliff walk, but that was all, so we turned around back to the causeway, again past the odd-looking fella with the shopping bags, hopefully coming to the end of his 10 mile walk to get the groceries!!
We continued on up the west coast of barra, with views out over the Atlantic Ocean, white-sand, deserted beaches, turquoise sea in sheltered bays. Quite hilly, with some steep, short climbs. 
After 32mls we were back at the north of the island.  Whilst I stopped to visit the 7th century church of St Barr at Cille Bharra, which its replica of gravestones found here with Norse runes carved on one side and celtic cross on the other, thought to be evidence of Nordic conversion to Christianity.  Too much for Ian, he was off on his bike to check out the waste disposal facilities at the site further on!! Just to add, for next time, the Barra Hotel on the Beach on west coast has Wi-fi!

A quick, “dunky” shower in the van and then we were off to Ardmore and the ferry to Eriskay, a brief sail of 45 mins. Couldn’t see anything because of the mist and drizzle.  Shame!

Pitlochry to Oban

May 17 Pitlochry to Oban
On arrival at Oban, my first time here, we sat and ate fish and chips on the pier. Delicious! We booked an open ticket, a hopscotch ticket taking you to all the main islands in the Outer Hebrides. At £ 250 it seemed a bit expensive but the open ticket flexibility is great. We booked the first ferry to Barra, and then would be able to ring and book future ferry crossings whenever we wished, especially at this time of year, when it’s relatively quiet.
Following Ron and Tricia’s recommendation we booked for two nights at the Oban site, within a five minute walk to the passenger ferry across to the nearby island of Kerrera. It was a lovely site on different levels, raised up with stunning views over the sea and across to Kerrera. After a BBQ, we sat in the evening sunshine, out of the cool wind, and chased away the ducks and the hens, watching the odd ferry and sailing boat travelling across the channel. Very relaxing.

May 18 Kerrera Island
We woke up to yet another beautiful morning. We walked down the hill and caught the little ferry across to the island. We got talking to another couple of exiles from England, who have been living in Aberfeldy for about 20years. Rita came from S.England and Mike from Yorkshire. We stayed together throughout the 6mile walk around the island on tracks and grassy paths. It turned out that Rita was 73, astonishingly. She’d begun walking the Munros at the age of 57 and completed them 9 years later. Amazing. What a fit couple! It made me think that our ambitions to undertake various physical challenges were quite reasonable and desirable. They both clearly loved their walking and were great company on the walk.
Only 4miles long and 2miles wide, you can walk around this roadless island in a day. In 1249, King Alexander II died here, trying to rid Scotland’s western seaboard of Vikings. One of the most memorable sights on the island is the castle at Gylen built in 1587, partly from granite. In 1647 it was torched by Cromwell’s troops during the Covenanting Wars, when the rebels were starved and deprived of water. When they eventually surrendered, they were brutally murdered.
As we move onto the islands we will come across lots of villages, whose names reveal their Nordic roots eg on Vatersay, Bernaray, Eriskay. Can’t Wait!

Caledonian Etape Scotland May 2010

May 14 2010
Tommy’s clean, fully laden and raring to begin this year’s adventures. (As it turned out later, it was too laden up in the fridge and freezer, with previously prepared meals, at it took three days to get down to temperature, and so, shock/horror there were no ice cubes for the G/T!!!).
We called in and stayed on Col’s brand new drive, and he’d even installed an outside socket ready for the Websters so that we could plug in!  Thanks Col.  A visit to Mums and Dad- Granny Web’s going on a Med cruise this week, so packing was at the top of the agenda.  Dad’s recovering well and getting cross with himself that ambitious DIY jobs are getting beyond him now- but he doesn’t realise that they’re beyond most people significantly younger than him!!

May 15
Couldn’t sleep in- too excited! Away for 7.30am and in Pitlochry, on the Milton of Fonab site for 1pm!  The site was filling up all afternoon.  Because it is the event of the year for Pitlochry, we booked our 3 night stay in the second week of January. 
Sunday’s Caledonian Etape ( a 81 mile cycle ride for Macmillans Cancer Charity) takes over the town.  The roads are closed, visitors and residents are housebound or walking between 7am and 2pm. And the place is full of visitors, which prompted one bitter, narrow-minded “person” to throw tacks onto the road approaching Schiehallion, causing major disruption to the event.  Clearly the 5000+ entrants weren’t put off by this, and in fact the reverse may have been the case.
We had a brief walk to Loch Fiskally and sighted a red squirrel close by. We revisited the Dam and Fishing Ladder with its 30 odd steps that the salmon have to negotiate, in order to return to their spawning grounds in the River Tummel.  We went there on our honeymoon, nearly 33yrs ago!  441 salmon had climbed the ladder so far this year.  You could only marvel at their journey.
A lovely meal at Port-na-Craig, part of a historic hamlet over the river from Pitlochry, right on the banks of the Tay.  We’d called in last year and promised ourselves we’d go there. The year’s wait wasn’t disappointed- haggis and neaps, followed by beautifully-cooked salmon.

May 16
A day of rest for me, because cycling today would make no difference to the outcome of tomorrow!  Ian went off for a short 30ml cycle ride to unstiffen his legs!!

May 17 The Big Day!
OK so Ian’s aiming for a personal best of under 5 hours.  For me it’s a taller order than that!  Let’s get the excuses out of the way!  A knee op a few month’s ago, a winter of negligible cycling, fell off bike in Mallorca and damaged other knee, which is still very sore… the list goes on!!!  Bearing in mind I usually average 10-11 mls per hour, this would give me a finish time of approx 7 hours, which is about an hour after they reopen the roads, and presumably take your number off you!  The number of entrants might be reminiscent of the London Marathon, but there’s nobody coming in 10 hours wearing a nappy and sucking a dummy.  In order not to get “swept up” by the sweeper wagon, I would have to be averaging 13mls per hour, which I’d only ever done on a 40ml ride in the flatish terrain at the back of Alcudia!  So it wasn’t looking good.  Never mind, enjoy it!!
Friendly advice from neighbours on the site- you’ll get in a bunch and get swept along in the jet-stream.  Ian nods, taking it all in, and I’m thinking “shut up and leave me alone!”
The best piece of race organisation saw us fed down to the start line, all 5000 of us.  “I think I want a wee!”  Ben Fogle, James Cracknell and Graeme Obree are competing and starting us off. Ian’s start time means he’s way down the field with me, so he’s got to pass hundreds of cyclists just to get where he ought to be!
The weather’s cool, but bright and sunny, with just a breeze. Perfect.  The course wriggles up and down for the first 10mls to Tummel Bridge, with a trio of Pipers piping you up to Queens View on the banks of Loch Tummel.  At the next village, an elderly lone piper, popped out of his cottage to pipe you through,  At which point I really wanted to stop and thank him- pipes do that to me, but up against time and must press on.  The most beautiful views of Loch Rannoch.  15mls up one side and 15mls down the other to the next feeding station at 40 mls.  By now, I’m feeling good,getting great speeds up, for me, and lifted by the most beautiful scenery- I feel on top of the world and so fortunate to be in this spectacular event!
Now I stopped at each feed station- 20,40 and 60 mls for the all important go-faster gel and water, necessary if it’s going to take you as lo0ng as me.  It turns out Ian didn’t, no surprise there, apart from a timed 2 min wee stop!
I was dreading the climb up Schiehallion, but after the spring around Loch Rannoch, the climb was a welcome change of incline and tempo.  It wasn’t too bad a climb and the views made you soar!  A lovely cycle across the saddle, and a drink of water at a feed-station at 50 miles, before the superb dash down the other side to the Fortingall loop.
This loop could be a frustrating 10ml detour, if it weren’t for the fact that again the scenery is superb and you can get a head of steam up. Counting down now, into the teens of miles to go, and worried that it was too soon to be counting the miles to the finish.  Could I do it in under 6hrs!  In fact it’s a fast cycle all the way to Logerait.  At 70 miles we were warned that after a further 5mins the sweeper van would be along, and you would have to be picked up if you weren’t in the final stages by then.  The only cloud on an otherwise fantastic day.  As it was it proved to be an official, flexing his official muscles, but it had the desired effect.  Me and my pals at the back, who had been overtaking each other, with friendly banter for the last 5 hrs, mumbled that there was no way we were going over the finish line on four wheels.  We pushed on as fast as we could, towards the notorious tight left-hand turn at Logerait, which sends the front runners over the handle bars!
Sharp left and I’d been warned about the steep 100yd climb which has some walking, and pushed on by some guys yelling at me, I was really proud at not having to dismount.  I got to the top, huffing and puffing, only to see in the near distance, that there was more where that came from.  Cyclists just ahead were straining tired legs to climb again!  They hadn’t forewarned me about that.  At 75mls I was really angry with myself for having to get off and walk briefly. I told myself to get on with it and push on. Then the road was up and down all the way for the last scant 7mls, and this saw my hopes of finishing inside 6 hrs ebbing away.  Up the hill from the campsite to Pitlochry centre and the finish.  Not saddle sore, thanks partly to Chambuttter!  Exhilarated at having completed my first 81mls in, for me, record time of 6hrs 10mins.  Fantastically organised, supported by volunteers.  Great company all round- one lovely guy from Liverpool even stopped to pick up my glasses for me.  Fantastic support from locals and visitors, not at all resentful at having been trapped in their houses all morning, all out cheering at then end of their gardens and on the roadside.  Great weather.  Cycling fast along roads with no traffic, in magnificent scenery. I think I’ve died and gone to heaven!  Doing it again next year.
Ian achieved a superb time of 4hrs 38mins, and was amazed at how fast the course was.  We’ve both got our targets for next year and will definitely enter again.  Who wouldn’t?
Before we crashed into bed early, we swapped email addresses with a lovely couple we’d met in the van next door.  We found we shared many interests and aspirations.  Ron was in the race, and achieved a superb time.  He and Tricia were from Largs, though originally from the South of England, they’d lived in Scotland for about twenty years.