Sunday, 26 October 2014

Edinburgh - I do like to be beside the seaside

With the end of my bicycle adventure around northern Europe, it’s time to settle down again for a little while, get back to work and of course, get into the Scottish outdoors. But before all that, I’ve spent the last few weeks settling into my new home in Edinburgh. Well, it’s sort of a new home. I’ve moved back down to Portobello, Edinburgh’s seaside, where I lived previously for many years and am renting space again from my friend, Graham. 

As a city location, I love Portobello. The house is right at the sea so it’s perfect for long morning ambles along the beach, preferably in wild, wet weather. There are birds to see all year round but in winter the numbers swell with visiting waders that gather in flocks in the quieter corners of the beach. In calmer weather, it’s great to be able to pop the canoe in the water at the bottom of the street for a spot of paddling.

Close by there are super places for longer walks such as the wynding, woodland paths overgrown by ivy that surround the old house at Newhailes, or Figgate Park with its long view to Arthur's Seat and a boardwalk that reaches out into the pond. Sitting there makes me feel like I’m out on the water with the birds. The other great aspect of Portobello is that it’s so easy to escape the city from here. Ten minutes of cycling takes me to the quiet back roads and bicycle trails of East Lothian or I can cycle a little way along the coast to the beautiful bays at Aberlady and Gullane.

But the highlight of being back in Portobello is my new garden shed! Tucked away at the bottom of the garden, it looks like any other shed from the outside but inside is a fabulous, cosy garden studio. I’m so grateful to Graham and Bart who worked really hard to build it for me. The garden itself is small but is enclosed by tall trees and bushes that give my shed an air of secrecy. I love sitting at my door and watching all the birds that visit the feeders and bird bath.

Every day in the garden there are sparrows, blue tits, coal tits, blackbirds, collared doves, a wren and two robins that quarrel constantly. Over the years many other types of bird have visited. In summer, swifts nest every year under the roof. The air space above the garden is their hunting territory during the long summer days and at nights long-eared bats take over. A mouse lives behind the other shed in the garden and eats the bird food that falls to the ground. He prefers peanuts to seeds. The backdrop to the birds’ twittering is the rustle of the tall golden birch above my door or the crash of the surf on the beach. It’s a wonderful peaceful haven right in the city.

As well as some personal relaxation space in the shed, there is a storage area for all my outdoor kit. I’m sure that in the months to come, I’ll be heading down there with big mugs of tea, spreading my maps out on the floor and pouring over them for hours. There’s no doubt that plans for trips to the Scottish hills will be hatched down there as well as plans for my next big cycle adventure, wherever that may be.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Loch Rannoch - The best things

When Bart and I were cycling around Inverpolly in the last blog, we stopped for coffee at Drumbeg in the Secret Tea Garden, a small cafĂ© hidden away in a garden whose green lushness contrasted with the sparse surrounding moors. On the wall was a quirky sign that read “The best things in life aren’t things”. At first I thought that was spot-on but after giving it a second thought I decided that my bicycle is a “thing” and it is one of the best things in my life. So much so that, even after several months of cycling, the first thing I wanted to do with a bit of free time in Scotland was to ride my bike. So my friend Graham and I set out on a two-day cycle around the Loch Rannoch area. Here are some of the best things from the trip.

I loved the lines in the sand formed by the wind-driven waters of the loch. Luckily, those clouds didn't rain on us.

Golden birch leaves were washed in on a gentle breeze and settled amongst the rocks on the shore.

We put the tents up on the south shore of Loch Rannoch in a lovely copse of birch trees on a beautiful still evening and retreated indoors early to escape some lingering midges of summer.

Gunmetal grey clouds threatened rain but late evening sun punched through and set the lochside trees alight.

The next day early morning showers gave way to weak sunshine that filtered through the trees. Graham cycled ahead through the pine forests, hoping to add to the tally of red squirrels that we'd already seen.

Fact File
Start/Finish: Pitlochry. Whilst it's disappointing that the new rail franchise has not gone to a Scottish company, I'm quite excited about the Dutch company taking over who have promised a cycle-rail integrated network. Hopefully that will mean in future you can get your bike on the Inverness trains that stop at Pitlochry which are so often fully booked for bikes. This time, we took Graham's van. 
Map: OS Landranger 51 and 52
Route: Follow the national cycle route signs out of Pitlochry going south, turning left after the suspension bridge but then right at the next junction. Cycle up the hill and pick up a bike path to the right heading north beside the A9. This will take you onto the Foss road. Follow the idyllic Foss road west to its junction with the B846 and turn right to Tummel Bridge. Take the B846 to Kinloch Rannoch (nice cafe and small shop) and then west along the north shore of Loch Rannoch to Bridge of Gaur and return via the south shore of Loch Rannoch. For the return we took the Schiehallion road out of Kinloch Rannoch. It's a lovely route with a bit of climbing but then a long high-level meander below Schiehallion before dropping again to the Foss road and returning to Pitlochry.
Tip: We parked Graham's van in a parking place opposite Pitlochry Town Hall a little way up the A924. There's a wee stream and pond here and we had brilliant views of a kingfisher.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Inverpolly - The flow

Inverpolly is a rugged, remote corner in the northwest Highlands. It has a carpet of bog that’s emerald green in summer and dotted with hundreds of sapphire lochans so that the overall impression is one of water. Above rise bizarre peaks and ridges of rock, weathered into strange shapes by the elements. The suddenness of their slopes gives an illusion of height when in fact they are relatively small mountains. To the west Inverpolly flows to the coast and meets the beautiful bays and beaches around Lochinver. It seemed like a perfect place for Bart and I to take advantage of the Indian summer and explore by bike and boat.

We set out by bike first, leaving Bart’s campervan parked on a quiet single track road beside a small river where we’d practised our canoe skills. The first day the river was empty and sluggish after a dry summer but then the rains came, and the water flowed and we flowed with it, over small rapids and through faster channels in the rocks. But the sun was back next day as we cycled the spectacular coast road via Lochinver and Drumbeg. Morning mist clung initially to Stac Pollaidh, giving us only tantalising glimpses of its jagged ridge, looking like a row of bad teeth.

It was a tough ride with many short, severe climbs, some as steep as 25%, but the reward was to flow effortlessly every time down the other side.  Tough but beautiful. This must be one of the most spectacular bike rides in the country. A single track road wynds its way along the coast passing idyllic bays of aquamarine water and yellow seaweed, and beaches of white sand. There were rambling, untidy crofts around Clachtoll and Stoer where rusting, discarded farm machinery somehow added charm to the scene. And looking over all of this the dark shapes of the mountains above. As we cycled on, the pleasant sunshine of the day gave way to an early evening weather front. We pressed on and eventually put the tent up at Inchnadamph within the tumbling walls of an old shieling. It was infested with ticks but it was too late and too wet to move.

If water is at the heart of Inverpolly then next it was time for us to take to it in Bart’s new packraft. For those not familiar with packrafts, they are super lightweight rafts which pack down small enough to fit inside your rucksack and are paddled like a kayak.  The idea of packrafts is that you can integrate walking or cycling with crossing bodies of water. We started out on foot with the packraft slung in a drybag and the paddles attached to our rucsacks. On a glorious morning we climbed up through an old pinewood, plodded across a boggy pass below Stac Pollaidh and picked our way through sparse birches to the water’s edge. We both squeezed into the two-man boat, pushed off from the sandy beach and paddled out onto the mirror surface of the loch.

I’ve always dreamed about paddling the Inverpolly waters and the reality of it that day was magical. We saw not another soul and the place had a wild, remote feel as the rocky peaks of Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Suilven rose above us into a clear blue sky. The water was like glass and confused our senses with the perfection of its reflections. We took the boat down a short section of river that connected two lochs but the water was low again and I got out mid-stream to give Bart some flotation and he flowed down into the next glass-like loch. At lunchtime we hauled out onto a sandy beach in a bay of birch trees and ate our snacks in the warm sunshine before paddling back.

That evening we completed a beautiful day by parking Bart’s van at Achnahaird Beach, an expanse of white sand and blue waters to the west. As we sipped a glass of wine and cooked supper, a full moon rose and its silvery light flowed over the peaks and lochs of Inverpolly.

More photos on Flickr - click the link.
Fact File 
Photos on Flickr: click here
Map: OS Landranger 15
Routes: For the cycling section, we left Bart's camper at Bhlugasary, off the A835 north of Ullapool. We cycled north on the A835 which is not busy and took the turn off signed for Achiltibuie which meanders below Stac Pollaidh and then the tiny road signed for Lochinver. This road is spectacular with superb mountain views, gorgeous bays and beautiful beaches. There is a Spar shop in Lochinver for supplies. Just north of Lochinver we took the road for Clachtoll, Stoer and Drumbeg. There is a grocery shop and tearoom at Drumbeg. This road joins the A894 and we followed that road then the A837 and the A835 back to our start point. We found a campspot by following the track that leads into the hills beside the river at Inchnadamph. None of the A roads were busy. The route is incredibly hilly so be prepared for lots of ups and downs. 
For the packrafting trip, we parked Bart's camper in a layby about 1km east of the Stac Pollaidh car park and walked further east along the road before taking a small path that climbs the hillside about 500m east of the house at Linneraineach. We followed that path to its split, took the right hand split and put the packraft in at the far southeast corner of Loch an Doire Dhuibh where there is good access at a sandy beach. We paddled into Loch Gainmheich and down the short section of river into Loch Sionascaig. For the return, we paddled back to Loch an Doire Dhuibh and came out of the water at the western tip where we picked up the end of the other split in our outward path.

Monday, 13 October 2014

I'm back ...

After a few months cycling around northern Europe, I'm back and ready for some hot outdoor Scottish action. Well, it's already October, so maybe not so hot! As we slip into autumn, I can't wait to get back out into the Scottish hills. Keep watching to hear about my first ever packrafting trip in the wilds of Inverpolly.