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Sunday, 8 May 2011

Fell weather

I couldn't imagine cycling this stretch of the journey in anything but the rain, and the weather chose to indulge my romantic mental image of the Northern Highlands.

A few days ago we found Loch Ness bathed in mist and circled by rows of mountains like faded copies of each other stamped into the distance. The rocky shore was littered with driftwood, rubbish and, for some reason, nuts, and the peace was only disturbed by a German family with noisy children and a drowsy mallard annoyed that we had woken it up.

Standing there watching the mysterious waves lapping the shore of the loch, unclear whether they come from in or on or outside the unreadable waters, I got a sense of how this place breeds such successful legends.

There we met Steve, who lives in a converted mobile library on the loch shore and has spent the last 20 years watching out for and recording sightings of the monster. He was a great interviewee, talking eloquently about experiencing the Scottish springtime close-up and sounding relieved that we were asking vaguely original questions. So no, I didn't ask him if he'd seen Nessie yet - it wasn't the right question to ask this man.

The subsequent journey to a bunkhouse in Evanton was uneventful but the next morning, following my nose after reading an intriguing flyer, we found ourselves armed with bow-saws and secateurs felling a Western Hemlock. This is very much how this trip has turned out in recent weeks, in which we've stumbled across the most unlikely situations and people - and that's exactly what I had hoped it would be like.

It turned out that a section of nearby wood is being sold and has been offered to the local community if they can raise enough money to buy it ( for more information). So Matt and I helped a group of volunteers clear the ground by attacking the invasive species, which gave me an ideal opportunity to show off my budding woodland management skills. The group was very welcoming and tolerant of two strangers sticking a video camera in their faces, and hopefully we helped them a little.

We spent the night at a B&B riddled with swallows and house martins which dove and swam gloriously out of the garage and through the trees all evening. 

Awaking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning, we thought (nearly) nothing of going an extra 15 miles out of the way to see a waterfall and to follow the rumour of guy who gives husky rides. Turns out we went to the wrong waterfall - Achness instead of Shin Falls - but while there were no dogs I did see a fat Atlantic salmon trying to leap up the rocks.

The rain came and went but the road carried on relentlessly along the edge of the mountains and then flattened out to a broad plain brightened by an enormous sky. There were also plenty of wind turbines crowning the hills long the way, a sight that I genuinely enjoy; I consider objections on aesthetic grounds deeply frustrating as well as singularly narrow-minded. Those who make them don't generally consider the people who have to live near the coal-fired stations their energy comes from.

The ride was enjoyable, except for my ongoing fear that something on my arthritic bike will snap mid-journey, which means I don't relax until we get within walking distance of our nightly destination.

For tonight, however, we've made it and are now at the infamous Crask Inn, an 18th century travellers' tavern in the middle of the long road from Lairg to Tongue, surrounded for miles around by nothing but fields and forests. Although we didn't arrive in the driving rain (which would have felt more appropriate) I wasn't disappointed by the atmosphere. It's a very friendly place populated with cyclists and walkers swapping stories of the road, and is also surrounded by joyous swallows.

Which leaves me to say that the last weekend of Chasing Spring is nearly over, except for dinner from the famously good cooking at the Crask to brace ourselves for the last hundred miles or so. My bike's being safely looked after by a ewe in the lambing shed so I can eat my lasagne in peace.

Coda: Walking back from the inn to the bunkhouse at midnight I was faced with the clearest night sky I have ever seen and the ice-blue glow of the setting sun still in the west. I laughed my way along the silent road and all smiled all the way to bed.

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