I’m writing this from my home in Devon. I’m worn out, happy, and glad to be here. I apologise for not blogging earlier, but Shetland was virtually wireless free.
There was an arrival, and a party of friends and familiar faces to welcome me home. A small group of Sustrans volunteers, who I’d spent the previous night at a bbq with, met me at Torrington. I asked to be left to ride into the finish alone, needing a few miles to gather my thoughts, and enjoy the solitude that had marked this ride from the moment I flew to Ireland.
A couple of days previously I’d been sat eating breakfast in Andrea’s garden in Shetland, a cyclist I had met on the road on the farthest island north, Unst. From there, a friend took me to the airport, and by lunchtime I was in Exeter once again.
The final weeks were different from the rest. Scotland showed its magic once more, the sun coming out, and the rain stopping for the most part. It wasnt high summer, the wind still blew, the clouds remained, and the temperatures were low. This far north, that’s as good as it gets, and I was happy to be meeting people amongst scenery that got wilder and more remote with every mile I rode.
I’d ridden up through the Outer Hebrides with just one hours rain as I left the ferry in Harris. My senses had been bombarded with scenes as varied as prairie grassland, mountain bog, and beaches that stretch from horizon to horizon. I began to see cyclists once again, giving me contact and company for the first time in nearly two months. These islands are five hours away from Oban, renowned for wild weather, and very different from any of the inner islands. On arrival I found that they had been experiencing two months of drought. It was still windy, it always is, but for once it was behind me for the most part.
Returning to Ullapool on the ferry, I stood staring at the ocean when I spotted a spout. Staring intently at the area I saw it, I was rewarded with sighting of a minky whale. It surfaced and blew a few metres from the ship, and most of the passengers had found their way to the port side to look at the wonder surfacing close by several more times.
Each ferry journey felt like it took me further and further from my world. The views of the mountains of north-west Scotland are quite something from the sea. They grow in size as you approach the entry to the loch, looking both dramatic and foreboding.
From there I was riding in familiar territory, albeit in the opposite direction from last year. I chose to miss the Assynt peninsular, on the grounds that I was tired, and fancied a change. What a great decision that was. The scenery on the main (haha) road blew my mind, and I took the time to sit and stare at the giant mountains all around.
That decision also meant I got to ride with Katja, a german cyclist on a tour of the north-west. Joining me for coffee at a roadside cafe, we shared the road, and chat, until she left to ride the roads that I was avoiding. Much later that evening, she rolled into the campsite at Scourie, where I’d been lying out of the strong wind, in the sunshine. Shattered from her considerable effort, she pitched her tent, ate and turned in. It was a given that we would spend the next morning riding up to Durness, before she would continue, and I would stop.
I spent a day just slobbing around. The forecast was bad, and everybody was talking about it. The clouds gathered like flying saucers, lenticular wave clouds, harbingers of doom. Overnight, the full force of the storm hit Durness with fifty mile per hour winds gusting around. I was woken by commotion, looking out to see several family tents disintegrating before my eyes.
Throwing on my gear, I went to help people pack away. As the morning progressed, more and more people joined in the mayhem, but all the tents were eventually packed away in various states of damage. All the small tents were fine.
I wasnt going to ride anywhere, retiring to the pub where I watched Bradley Wiggins win the tour, and Cav’ take the stage. All of that whilst supping Guinness and eating chips. I tried to ride the day after, getting blown to a standstill, and off the road, twice. I felt mentally vulnerable, and physically battered after Ireland, and it was time to listen to that. I pulled into Lotte Glob’s beautiful sculpture studio where an Austrian student made me tea. After that, and a look around, I rode back to Durness and put the tent back up.
The following morning I tried again. The wind was fierce still, but the clouds were hardly moving on the mountain tops. I knew it was an inversion, and once I climbed up a little, the wind would drop. The sun shone, I rode over sixty miles across the amazing landscape of the northern coast and pitched-up less than twenty miles from Scrabster and the Orkney ferry.
My original plan of sailing from John O’Groats went out of the window as the wind was strong. If I couldn’t get to Orkney, I would miss the ferry to Shetland as it only goes a couple of times a week.
The rest, as they say, is history. I rode around part of Orkney, visiting ancient archaeology. I stared at the beauty of the Old Man of Hoy as we slowly passed by on the ferry to Stromness. The Atlantic swell was rolling under the boat, meaning it crashed into the sandstone cliffs, creating white horses, as we wobbled away on top. It’s a dramatic and treacherous coastline.
That night on Orkney mainland was the most serene of the whole holiday. The light was soft and gentle, matching the scenery. I was joined by somebody I had met on the boat, and by a man on the campsite, and I whiled away the hours taking photographs and chatting.
The Atlantic decided to get ‘choppy’ as we sailed to the Shetlands. These islands make you feel you are travelling to the end of the earth, as the sea crashed, and rocks stood out like teeth, waiting for the unsuspecting. On arrival it was wet, misty and cold. I took a coffee, ran out of excuses, and started north.
The man in the Tourist Information Centre said, “there’s nothing from here (Lerwick) to Voe. After that, there’s less and less the further north you go.” His less and less felt like more and more to me. The scenery was stunning, feeling like Norway with fjords and mountains, all sculpted by ice. The houses were not of the UK, looking and feeling Norwegian also. Many tiny islands filled the sounds making it all other worldly. I could almost see the viking ships sailing into these natural shelters.
The weather improved by the minute, and stayed that way as I made my way through mainland, Yell, and finally Unst, using the ferries that link all these islands together. Then, suddenly, there was nowhere else to go but home. I stopped in the Northern Lights Bistro, where I enjoyed the best bacon and egg sandwich I have ever eaten. I’d ride back just to have another, it was that good. I talked to a lady and her family. She works in mental health and I shared my story with her before leaving to enjoy the east coast of Yell, and Mary’s shop, an emporium of everything you could ever need, and the only shop.
I took a days rest on my return to Lerwick, visiting a brock, and the town itself before falling asleep from my efforts. At just under 2200 miles, this ride may have been shorter than last year, but it was so much tougher.
It was whilst I was on Unst that I met Andrea, a fellow cyclist and Shetland womens triathlon champion. She kindly offered me a bed south of Lerwick and said she would organise a lift to Sumborough Airport, where I was flying home from. With that in place, I relaxed. My final evening was spent in Andreas wonderful home in the company of her, and a friend who suffers poor mental health. We ate, talked, drank, laughed, and eventually fell asleep.
Breakfast was eaten in Shetland, lunch in the Fisherman’s Cot in the Exe valley. My journey was complete and I was home, well nearly.
Since getting home, I have felt the true cost of this journey. I’m exhausted at a deep level from the battle that was my ride. I’d come close to quittting more than once, and dogged determination kept me going north. Scotland weaved its magic once again. For everything I saw, and everywhere I ventured, Scotland, and the people I met there, still stole my heart, and the show.
The remote islands I rode through blessed me with good weather. The wind blew, but the sunshine kept returning, just enough to entice me forwards. These distant outposts of the UK are special places. I was lucky enough to see them at their best, from the saddle of my cycle, something I will never forget.
I gained a new confidence from this ride, something I will write about later on. All those ferries and flights made for a great adventure, and I’m left wondering where I might go from here.
Next week, I will start my normal life again. I’ll return to blogging properly, begin to write my second book, start trying to sell my skills as a speaker, and start down a path where I will try to earn/attract enough money to be able to ride again next year.
For now, I’m staying away from both my website, and Facebook. I need to recharge my batteries. Once that’s done I’ll be back out on my bike, riding, talking and sharing stories, of which I have plenty.
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