Sunday, 27 August 2017

It's raining midges - crossing the Uists

Having spent a small fortune, we took our time to savour a later than usual start, waking as we did in proper beds with our panniers still largely packed on the bikes; our roomies, meanwhile, had left early. We were the last to leave Howmore at quarter past eleven, and even though the day was well on, boy, the midges were bad. Clouds of them outside the buildings (which we had to move between) and a shedload in the toilet. In discomfort and cheesed off, I attacked them with the air freshener to protect the few parts of me as yet unscathed, while I used the facilities.

Ironically, the weather was dry and improving, which is often what happens when we see a dodgy forecast and get ourselves under cover for the night. We posed for a picture and rushed to get moving, to give the midges a slightly harder time, setting out once more onto the (happily, quiet) spine road in very similar conditions to our previous visit. Passing the statue of Our Lady of the Isles, we remembered how a coach load of pensioners from Ayrshire stopped us and gave Thomas Ivor a big bunch of grapes, anxious that he had enough fuel for the task at hand!

Today was the point where we would start to break new ground, heading up the West coast of North Uist towards Berneray, rather than bailing out to Lochmaddy and Skye as we had to previously. The road off South Uist is really rather dour, and in our frustration at the expensive night out, the midges, the changeable conditions and slightly recalcitrant children, arguments broke out between Katie and me, mainly about pacing and every filming opportunity I tried to take being wrecked by rare but seemingly deliberate appearance of cars running through the shot!

Via a predictably unsuccessful otter-spotting stop at the causeway, we pushed ahead to the Co-op megastore in Benbecula. After the retail desert we'd been through, I was astonished to count seven tills and be able to pay with my watch for the first time in about a week! The weather, muggy and moist as it had been all morning, was warming up, and so the shopping, which had to be more expansive than usual because of the impending Sabbath and our proximity to Protestant islands, began with a round of ice creams. I cracked out the big seat pack to help stash extra shopping, thereby proving that if you can't decide between bikepacking and panniers, you can always use both.

The children were still in a funny mood when we got to Benbecula's war memorial for our planned lunch stop, previously the scene of the 'lady and the cake' incident where a man (possibly me) once dared to suggest to a lady cycle tourist (definitely Mummy) that we could "keep that cake for later". This time she was taking no such risks with her Tunnocks teacakes. Ruth proceeded to make her own contribution to a thus far rather chaotic day by wetting herself, whilst doing Vic Reeves impressions involving Jack Dee's face and a blacksmith's bum-bag. This scene may, or may not, reach the final edit of the film of our trip...

As we packed up to move on, a cyclist whom we recognised from the hostel the night before, stopped to say hello. He had done the loop of North Uist and was on his way back to Howmore. I must confess I was secretly rather jealous of the ground he'd covered - touring with the children has been a serious change of pace from going out on my road bike at home most days over the past few weeks.

Crossing the causeway to North Uist, our hearts sank as we saw a Police car in the distance, blue lights on and apparently waiting patiently for us to reach them. We debated what they might be picking on us for, but when we got to them, they turned out to be guarding a rather mysterious crime scene!

Berneray, our 'stretch target' for the day, was starting to look a long way off and Katie was in search of a toilet - a proper one, she insisted; not a cycle tourist's one. Right on cue, we waved back to a man cutting the grass at the church whose car park we had sat in to feed Rhoda and plan our bailing out move to Lochmaddy in 2014. We decided to ask him for advice about where we could go to church tomorrow, and came away having had a tour of the church (including the toilet, much to Katie's relief) and, to our collective relief, a suggestion for wild camping, not too far from the Sound of Harris ferry - within sight of the gentleman's house, it transpired.

Quite how and why, since the spine road runs continuously across the islands, we knew not, but the local traffic was palpably more friendly on North Uist; it seems to rub off on the visiting drivers. who were treating us rather more gently. Rhoda's interactions with passing cars become more smiles, waves and 'thank yous' and fewer grumpy faces for close-passing vehicles. Taking the West side of the island, it was time to crack on and hit our first new roads since Vatersay. Almost in celebration of this fact, very shortly afterwards Rhoda suddenly decided she would start pedalling forwards continuously for the first time ever. Jelly babies all round! It's amazing how, when you're touring by bicycle, your children hit all sorts of developmental milestones, and I am sure that in many cases the experiences and opportunities that are coming their way when we're on the road are directly contributory to their progress. After many frustrating trips to the bandstand, Rhoda had cracked pedalling when we least expected it - and she was loving it! 

North Uist was a stunning island not quite having the best of days thanks to the iffy weather, and the exceptionally violent midges. Mistaking one for the other, I stopped to film Katie, thinking it was starting to rain, before realising that the 'rain' was biting me all over! There were some very long straight runs, and behind us as I turned to film, views of what we presume were the mountains on the east coast of South Uist in the distance.

Whether it was the results of the effort from the pedalling, or the performing for the other road users, or both, or as it turns out with hindsight possibly a dose of the lurgy, Rhoda was flagging as the miles racked up, and we rounded the North West corner of the island. A 'nodding off session' had us rather concerned but she rallied after some jelly babies and stroopwafels. The weather was still and pleasant though cloudy, but dark clouds were rolling in and we needed to get a squirt on, find the promised camp site and get the day done with, if we were to be suitably rested for a church service and a ferry crossing the next day.

The disparity in our pace continued and in the end we decided (well, I remember a group decision; Katie is less convinced) that I would get the hammer down a bit, spend some tokens and get to the proposed camp site, so as to check all was well and get Rhoda and myself under cover before she revisited her 'can I sleep on the back of the trailerbike' game, to which we felt sure the answer was likely to be, 'NO'. Just sometimes, we miss the trailer! Rather than being constrained by tired children, in the old days we'd have been able to wrap the girls up in their blankets, get them comfortable and push on into the evening, probably making really good time. Not only does your kit solution seem to change every year, the dynamics of personal needs and the ability to make progress change so much from tour to tour, as well.

I found the road end where the man from the church lived and just as promised, there was a flat patch of grass with a lovely view overlooking the bay we'd just ridden round. I took a quick screen grab of our grid reference off the Ordnance Survey app, to help us locate it again. As it happened, Katie and Ruth had got a squirt on, too, and came in close behind. We sadly saw little of the beautiful spot we'd hurriedly pitched overlooking, because the midges got bad soon after we arrived, and apart from scurrying out to boil water and fry scallops (the location having some culinary benefits, as ever!), we stayed inside and got to bed. Rhoda was decidedly off colour; we dosed her with Calpol and got some sugar into her. I swapped inner tents and shared with Ruth so Katie, the more reliable of the two of us at actually waking when the children need us, could keep an eye on Rhoda.

I remember looking at my watch having stirred, at 0330 and apart from some rain having developed, and an aeroplane flying over, which had likely woken me, all was well again. For now, at least...

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The graveyard shift - where is it OK to wild camp?

“I know, but is it socially acceptable to sleep in a graveyard’s car park?"

Having the confidence to set out with the children in tow and no booked overnight accommodation is one of the things I find most challenging about cycle touring as a family.  I find it really hard to switch off my thoroughly modern motherly perceptions that unless cosseted in the warm and dry, something dreadful might happen to my children.  This is despite the fact that a) I know that in all the trips we have made the most dreadful thing to have happened was an extensive collection of midge bites - irritating but not fatal and b) I know that the girls themselves actually spend their time indoors dreaming of being outdoors, and specifically, being in a tent.  The girls have a teepee in their bedroom  and often elect to sleep on the floor in it in preference to their beds, reenacting grand adventures with the “sleeping bags” they insisted I must make for them to play with.

I think Tom finds this element of touring easier than I do.  I am naturally more cautious, naturally more risk averse (although conversely, of the two of us, I am usually the more optimistic in outlook!).

After stuffing our panniers full of groceries for the evening meal and breakfast, we looked back up the spine road knowing it was time to make a decision about the broad area where we would camp.  Our previous trip told us that the spine road wasn’t going offer us the best of what South Uist has to offer.

We got out the OS Map.  The scenery on South Uist, despite being so close, is markedly different to Benbecula and North Uist, and to Eriskay.  Off to the east of the Spine Road there is a moorland outlook on to the sweeping hills.  The map showed a bothy but we kept that one quiet from the girls (who are also big fans of Alastair Humphries’ ‘Mountain Bikes and Bothy Nights’ short film), as the terrain to get to it was definitely not designed for 2 x 200kg cycle touring rigs with road-favouring tyres, and we wouldn’t have made the walk in during daylight anyway.  Mrs Risk-Averse wasn’t up for a late night repeat of the Cadderlie “the OS map co-ordinates and our GPS plot say it should be here but it’s pitch black and I can’t see my hand in front of my face never mind a building” trip (read about it here).

Off to the West though is the Machair Way, which is waymarked by various blue signs along the road.  Machair is a particular type of grassland habitat which hosts a rich range of wildflowers, plants and invertebrates (plus the obligatory midges).  We resolved to head off towards the west coast down one of the many roads leading off to our left.  In addition to finding a sleeping spot, we also wanted to see a bit more of the coast as we rode along.  We discounted the sections of beach marked as military practice zones.  Mrs Risk-Averse definitely was NOT up for dodging bullets à la our friends the Simonsens on their kayak odyssey (find their story here).  We picked a general area that looked promising on the map and set off.

One of the things that always reminds me of the real remoteness of the Hebrides is the difficulty that island life clearly poses for the disposal of large scale unwanted items.  It is not uncommon for the front of houses to host a range of rotting cars that can no longer be driven.  The cost and trouble of getting them to a scrapyard on the mainland once they are no longer roadworthy is clearly not worth the hassle.  Similarly, there are lots of examples of families who have decided that the family home is no longer fit for purpose and have simply built a newer one on the land alongside the old one.  No demolition, they are just left until the harsh weather turns them into bare shells - long-abandoned buildings with no windows and roof stand next to smart, well cared for family homes.  It seems wasteful of housing that could be repurposed, until you think through a) population size isn’t exactly an issue out here in the way it is in our mainland cities and b) the practicalities of dealing with demolishing a house on a tiny island.

We barely see a soul as we pedal along.  I would say it is quiet, but it’s not because it is getting windy.  Echoes of 2014, when the only shelter we could find was in the garden of a lady who took pity on us when we asked for recommendations for a camp spot that would get us out of a proper Western Isles hoolie, grow stronger.

Eventually, we reach the area we had looked at on the map.  The beach is long, sandy and completely deserted.  It is beautiful, and the Atlantic, crashing on the sand is a turquoise-blue against a heavy grey sky.  I wish that I could switch off the worry about finding a camp spot to enjoy it properly, but it is clear that whilst we have indeed found somewhere beautiful and where we would have space to put up our tent, it is entirely exposed.

We had turned off the road when it finished abruptly at a neat and well tended graveyard.  Tom walked around the perimeter wall to see if there was anywhere we could go to the other side of it that might be less directly in the face of the fierce wind, and the foamy sea.  He came back, eyeing up the ground next to the wall.

Mrs Risk-Averse is alarmed, and the inner monologue is running away with me.  We can’t.  It’s a graveyard.  There’s someone’s car parked right there - we might cause offence. You’d be right in the way if someone came to pay their respects.

“We have to make a choice - we pitch here" (he indicates the spot by the wall), "over there,” (he indicates the site we had passed by that wasn’t very flat but was marginally set in a depression in the dunes so had some protection from the wind), “or we give up and move on.  Here looks like the best option to me.”

I look at him doubtfully.  “If we get the tent up, we could eat”.

“I know we're not going inside the wall, but is it socially acceptable to sleep in a graveyard’s car park?" I burst out, unable to contain it any longer.  Tom can see that I am not going to find a stay here restful.  It’s not any fear of ghosts (I ain’t afraid of no ghosts...) or any such nonsense, but it doesn’t feel like wild camping by a clearly well loved graveyard would be right.

We get the map back out.  This is just like 2014.  We have about an hour before it will start to get dark and no more idea this time than last how to find any shelter from the gathering storm when the wind is this strong and the land is this flat.

Tom points out the Gatliff Hostel up the road.  It is about another 5 miles further on.  Last time, we didn’t head there because we understood that they didn’t accept young children.  This time, we knew that they did.  It wouldn’t be free, but we could probably find some shelter putting the tent up outside the hostel.  But to do that, we would have to coax the girls back onto he bikes for another half an hour.

Decision made that we would head to Howmore, we pushed the bikes back to the road and set off.  A little further up the road we spot a sign post to an off road path signed as part of the Machair Wa.  We check the map.  It looks like the path goes straight to Howmore, and if it’s passable on the bikes it would save us more than two miles.

Tom leaves Rhoda with Ruth and me eating the occasional jelly baby at the end of the path and sets off on a recce, bumping and bouncing over the track.  From where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like it will be a lot of fun to ride with the trailer bikes on the back.  He rides on over the crest of a hill and out of sight.  We wait.  I would say patiently, but it wasn’t all that patient and I have dispensed half a day’s jelly baby rations before he comes back into view.

We probably could do it, but it might involve a lot of pushing the bikes.  It would be shorter in distance, but it might be faster to stick to the road.  I hate this part - having to make a snap decision.  It feels like I invariably call it wrong.  We decide to stick to the road since we can’t really afford to damage the bikes, and we are not in truth set up for an off road adventure.  The physical toll of lugging all of our stuff to Cadderlie is still fresh in our minds.

Rhoda climbs back on her trailer bike with Tom and they set off.  Ruth and I faff while she does her toe clips and I put away the jelly babies, thereby almost immediately managing to get separated after a farmer waves Tom and Rhoda through before blocking the road with his 4x4 and starting to conduct an entire herd of cows across the road for milking, including one extremely reluctant heifer and her calf.  Tom hadn’t realised that I was stuck and went sailing off out of view.

The calf gambolled one way.  The heifer obstinately stood stock still in the middle of the road.  Another farmer appeared to cajole and then prod the heifer through the gate, where she stood mooing at the calf, which had clearly got other ideas and led everyone a merry dance for about 15 minutes, whilst I watched, bemused.  Ruth was scared of the scale of the heifer and thought it sounded quite cross.  I told her it was cross with its naughty calf for running in the road.  The things you invent when you’re a parent.  “This cow is cross that its calf isn’t using the Green Cross Code”.  Whatever, Mummy.  You’ve got some ground to catch up.

Three miles on, back at the junction with the Spine Road, Tom has realised that he hasn’t seen us for a while and has pulled up for us to catch up, incredulous that it had taken so long.  Ruth gleefully tells him all about the cows and we make the final push up to the road to Howmore.

We soon find the picturesque little cluster of buildings.  Tom and the girls wait outside while I go to see who is there and what space is available.  I stick my head inside the door.  There are three people sat around the table who give me a cheery hello.  A notice in the porch proclaims the prices to stay in the hostel.  We have spotted some tents up outside, and are contemplating doing the same to save some money until I realise that they want to charge £10 per head for camping.  A sign, and a notice in the visitors' book, capitalised, makes it clear that this includes everyone IRRESPECTIVE OF AGE.  So, babies and pre-school children too.  No exceptions.

That’s a pretty sum - £40 to pitch your own tent for ONE night.  Never mind Howmore, it should be called HowMuch?!

I go back to Tom with the news.  He is equally astonished.  For an extra £6 we can all stay inside in a bunk.  We have a brief conference and check how much cash we are carrying.  Just enough, (but not enough to use the hostel linen - that would be another £8, and paying to stay for the night is going to completely clean us out of cash).  Our stay here, in shared dorms, is going to cost us more than the last night we spent in a Premier Inn.  Given the general lack of options and the increasing strength of the wind (by now the forecast is suggesting overnight gales), we are all out of choices.

I realise as I stop my Strava recording that despite having made good mileage, for some reason, nothing has recorded since about half a mile in to Eriskay, so I have no record of today’s efforts.  This is a ridiculously minor thing, but it irritates me.  I am by no means a proper Strava warrior - I don’t have any “QOMs”, I don’t chase segments, and my only “follower” is Tom.  But I liked seeing our route tracked on the map, and now there would be a great big gap in the trace.

The other residents greet us genially as we arrive inside, having left our bikes under cover in the bike shed.  One of the gentlemen already there kindly goes and moves his stuff out of one of the rooms so that we can get everyone in one dorm room, and have it to ourselves.  There are 6 bunks; I reason that if we’re being charged almost full price for Rhoda (3) and Ruth (4), despite them being tiny, they are having a bunk each!  This is the saving grace - the girls are madly excited about sleeping in bunk beds, even if, in an ironic twist, the hostel is right next to a ruined church and its graveyard!

Poor Rhoda’s face is still covered in midge bites, and they are out in force in the shelter of the buildings.  Moving between the dorm building and the communal area is a dash, getting out and shutting the door as quickly as possible to avoid letting them in.  The bathroom window has been left open all day and the midges are swarming around the ceiling.  I get bitten as I shower and wash away the day’s greasy coating of sunscreen and insect repellant.  Those that bite me end the day drowned, but it is little consolation.

We spend the evening in the communal kitchen area, preparing a pasta feast from our supplies. Had we planned to have spent all this money to come here, we would have bought a more exciting meal at the Co-op, to take advantage of an oven and big pans!  Our presence (never mind that of the girls) significantly lowers the average age.  Ruth and Rhoda sit at the table on their best behaviour.  They watch a couple of episodes of 'Bob the Builder' while we are cooking.  The other guests include two cyclists, a chap on a motorbike, and a man and his (adult) son in a van.  The caretaker calls in and collects our payment - no, we haven't got it wrong.  We hand over all our cash and try to look happy.

Once fed and watered, we head for an early night, reflecting that Youth Hostels these days appear to be the preserve of the previous generation, who are no longer all that young.  With pricing like this, and wild camping for free (rather easier to find a spot as a solo traveller with a tiny tent or bivvy bag), it is perhaps no wonder we rarely see anyone who would class as “youth” in such a hostel these days when we stay.

The girls are tired, and very quickly fall fast asleep.  For the first time on our trip, I lie in my bunk and get out my Kindle, which has been carried but not been used so far.  It is tonight that we remember that my Kindle still contains the guide book we purchased for our last Hebridean trip.  We open it up again and dip into it - one more day’s riding and we will reach the turn off for Lochmaddy - the point we reached during our previous trip.  If we make it past that turning, we are into new territory for us between there and Lewis. The prospect of beating our previous attempt and seeing some new parts of the Hebrides gives our mood a boost, and as I turn off my kindle and snuggle into my sleeping bag for the night, I am looking forward to getting off South Uist and seeing a bit more of North Uist.

During the night, the remaining two bunks are occupied by two women who come in late and leave early.  By the time the girls wake in the morning, the chaps we chatted with yesterday evening have also left, so it is just us as we have our breakfast, pack up our sleeping bags and hang everything back onto our bikes.

We are still a bit sore over the cost of one night’s shared dorm hostel accommodation, and leave some feedback for Gatliff in the book.  Given that their mission is to encourage young people to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, their pricing structure (charging full rate for pre-schoolers to camp and a significant sum to stay in the hostels) is a pretty big barrier.  We also now urgently need to find somewhere to get some more cash, since between us we now have about £1.57 to our name!

Steaming socks on the 'spine road'

Tom takes up the tale of our 2017 Hebridean Way experience...

I woke to a hot tent, sunshine, and rain. It was Katie’s turn to have sneaked out early, not for a swim but to photograph the huge rainbow straddling our camp, and only to discover that I’d left her camera’s memory card in the reader last night, thereby causing her to miss the best moment. Whoops.

It’d been a later night than we’d expected. Having paid for a campsite and not knowing where my next opportunity for ablutions would arise, I for one had taken the opportunity to have a shower after finishing culinary duties in the ‘dining shed’ (very handy indeed - every campsite should have one). Possibly more importantly, I was able to rinse out my utterly minging socks. I’m not sure how I’ve done it but I only have two pairs with me, and one of those is the ‘I’ll take them just in case’ spare pair I grabbed from the car’s door bin as I was about to leave Oban. Flippin’ good job I did, because even with two pairs, it’s going to get ‘interesting’. This is definitely not a place where I am going to find an M&S selling size 15 socks and mail order doesn’t quite cut it when you don’t know where you will live by the time a consignment reaches the islands.

The unfortunate side-effect of a time-constrained tour, especially when you’re dependent on relatively infrequent ferries, time-limited border crossings, or a train to get you home, is that you end up with more intermediate ‘deadlines’ than you might like. They’re all self-imposed of course, the world won’t end if you don’t make it, but the prospect of making it to all the places you’re hoping to, is always set against the pleasures, or necessity in extremis, of staying where you are. It’s especially hard to make that trade-off when you are entering new territory, which for us this time is North Uist, Berneray and Harris, in particular. For the more intrepid traveller, a good knowledge of the CalMac booklet’s contents is invaluable if you are to avoid an awkward call to your employer to break the news to them that the next ferry off the island is the day after you were due back at your desk in the city.

As a result, the equation of ‘waiting for the tent to dry’ vs ‘losing minutes off our margin for making the ferry to Eriskay’ was particularly finely balanced this morning, and having bade a final farewell to Clem, Steff and a notably disappointed Noel, our almost-dry tent was shovelled into the panniers so fast we hardly noticed the midges, and we dashed off for the 1110 Eriskay ferry, my still-damp socks installed under the legs of my bibshorts; a hint of steam emanating from their new thigh-powered drying system.

The road from Eoligarry past the airport became a heavyweight time trial course, and we knew we were missing some beautiful beaches just out of sight to our right as we went haring over the lumpy, sandy road. At the end of a long, draughty straight back to Traigh Mór, I made the mistake of stopping to wait for Katie within sight of the baggage handling facility, and nearly had a mutiny on my hands when Rhoda, and then Ruth, wanted another ride through it.

Back towards the junction with the island’s ‘ring road’ and we found ourselves on familiar tarmac, alas with little time to stop and take in the stunning view of the beach we’d sat and drunk in last time we were here. We attacked a couple of sharp little rises, which we remembered slogging up with the trailer pushed on foot by Thomas Ivor, and it became apparent that if we were going to make it, it would be very tight. Frustrated by seeing a lorry,  which I knew would make the ferry comfortably, turn across our path, whilst possibly leaving us to watch it depart, I decided to go on a solo break (well, Rhoda and me) in the hope of ensuring they hung on for Katie and Ruth’s arrival. Cresting the last rise before the slip, a little bit anaerobic, sock-steamer on full blast, and wondering where I put my Ventolin, I saw the MV Loch Alainn, which looks broadly similar from both ends, some distance from land. Relieved by the realisation that I hadn’t seen the tell-tale line of cars coming the other way, I rolled to the terminal, having, as it turned out, ‘spent my tokens’ for nothing.

As is often the case in the Hebrides, the ferries are the place where you bump into other wheeled travellers, often the same ones in different permutations, to swap tales of what’s happened on the road (and sympathise about the direction of the wind) since last you crossed paths. Some of the cyclists we had seen on the ferry to Castlebay were rather shocked by the solid progress we and the girls had made, as were an elderly couple with a motorhome, whose dog the girls had played with on the crossing from Oban. Presently, Katie and Ruth rolled in, showing similarly the effects of needless exertion. Ruth had been pushing especially hard to make the ferry, Mummy noted. Jelly babies and fist bumps all round.

The Sound of Barra ferry is a pretty dour affair, for what is in fairness one of the shorter and more frequent crossings, where motorists can elect to remain in their vehicles. There’s an open car deck with a waiting room befitting a tired NHS hospital to the side; a small promenade extending along its roof for tourists and sunny days. Unusually, it affords access to your bikes during the crossing, which is particularly handy for us and something we would be glad of more often! The chance to adjust things, oil chains, swap pannier contents around and set up cameras whilst making forward progress is to be seized with both hands.

Readying ourselves to get off the boat, we were in the invidious position of knowing that we were about to tackle our nemesis from our last visit here - the short, sharp climb from the slip, over the hill to the village and the causeway to South Uist. We decided not to put on an ‘ambitious, but rubbish’ display of heroic failure for the other tourists, so as we usually do now, we waited for everyone else to hit the beach and get up the road before setting off.

I’ve been in training for the last few weeks, attempting to ride 10% of Mark Beaumont’s mileage as he cycles round the world, and so am rather fitter than I was in 2014. Mark climbed the steepest part of the climb, segmented on Strava, in 59 seconds, when he launched the Hebridean Way. The new trailerbike, and its occupant, even accounting for luggage, are probably a shade lighter and definitely more stable than Thomas Ivor’s Mountain Train was, last time - but the gradient still kicks to 22%. In my book, that’s sick and wrong on any kind of bike - but especially when you are taking a bike and rider totalling near enough 200kg. I had been having nightmares about having to trudge up this one again ever since we chose this itinerary.

The first part of the climb isn’t so bad - you have to walk off the ferry, and so that’s your excuse to stay on foot up the steep and potentially slippery slipway to the road, which then points you straight at your objective; the ribbon of tarmac leading you deceptively towards the hill on a trajectory that looks really quite reasonable. The view over the beach is a pretty one, and your attention is briefly diverted as you settle into the climb. Like a pilot in an action movie, suddenly it dawns on you that you’re not gaining enough height. The road bends left, a junction off to the right leading sadly to a dead end rather than a way out. You won’t see that lovely view again for a couple of hundred yards, measured by your brain as an absolute eternity, as the legs, which were coping with the first slope, meet the brutality of the ‘kick’. - 

One-in-five. Single track road. No way out. 

I stalled and had to walk last time; what Mark shrugged off in less than a minute took me six and a half of them, in an unedifying spectacle of grunting and straining. I wasn’t going home this time without having at least tried.

Red mist mode engaged, and having already more than warmed the legs through on the approach, I was resigned to dropping Katie and meeting her at the viewpoint near the top of the climb with the camera already on the tripod ready for a picture. We’ve not had chance to swap Katie’s cassette yet and so she was running a slightly longer gear than me. Without the benefit of training miles and with Ruth unlikely to be able to carry her own weight by the time the climb stiffened, it seemed likely that it would be a ‘Mummy walks, Ruth rides’ kind of climb, as we’d done on Vatersay.

As the steepest section really starts to bite, there’s a jolly tempting passing place on the nearside, but I could see the viewpoint I was aiming for, and I wasn’t having any of it. I dug deep and committed, sights set on a non-stop, pedalled ascent. The only animal noises this time would be a celebratory roar…

Yeah, right. 

I laid into it as well as I might have, but ultimately, I’d have needed teeth on the rim of my wheel to have been geared to make it right up, in the seat, with Rhoda as dead weight on the back, and with my heart rate topping 160, only just able to unclip my feet, I had to admit defeat. Tell you what, though, it was close. I walked all of 50 yards, tops. That was as good as a win, in the circumstances -  justification for another jelly baby, at least.  6 minutes 34 seconds in 2014; 2:36 this time. Mr Beaumont can hang on to his place on the leaderboard - for now!

Looking back down the hill, Katie was indeed walking, and some way back, with Ruth twiddling away on the rear, but it turned out that this had happened sooner than she’d hoped, because the extra bottle of water we’d strapped to the lids of Ruth’s panniers had made a bid for freedom and rolled back down the hill. We swapped war stories, strapped the bottle down again, got the obligatory photograph (the sun being in as bad a place for this as last time, which is, I suppose, logical, since the island hasn't turned on its axis in the interim) and carried on, knowing we’d overcome a hurdle with less bother than we’d anticipated and keen to finish the day in similar style.

Last time we crested that hill, we rolled down the other side and shot through the village, straight over the island and stopped off at the beach by the South Uist causeway; this year, we had business to attend to in the Eriskay community shop, in the way of procuring lunch. We’d been hoping to get some cheap scallops from the seafood company on Barra, but our late departure had sadly killed that plan. We sat outside, eating an eclectic mix of short-dated and thus reduced-price items, until the rain suddenly pitched up, causing us to retreat to a nearby bus shelter to finish our yoghurts. The cycle-tourist's dining room always comes to our rescue at least once per trip!

“If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” is a common mantra up here, and sure enough, by the time we were ready to go and togged up in our waterproofs, the rain stopped and I was drowning inside my own trousers. Crossing the causeway onto South Uist, we arrived at the junction where the ‘Spine road’, which runs the length of the Uists and Benbecula, properly begins. Three years ago, this was the most soul-destroying piece of riding we’d done with the children.

Everyone tells you to ride the Hebridean Way South-North, to account for the prevailing winds, but this means that if you meet with nice weather, there’s a good prospect of a headwind, because the prevailing wind brings the persisting rain. Pedalling to stand still is purgatory at the best of times but all the more so when you’re heading across open moorland on a straight road; after the beautiful beach trip on Eriskay, our only happy memory of South Uist was the moment a lady took pity on us and kindly let us pitch our tent in her garden as night was falling. It really had been a bit grim.

We got quite a shock, then, at the speed (nearly three times as fast) with which we climbed the first hill past the brutal form of the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Sorrows, and were quite unfazed by the periodically squally weather as the wind propelled us towards Daliburgh and our next Co-op.

Castlebay - Eriskay - Daliburgh - Benbecula - Solas. The spine route is broken up, for us, into the gaps between Co-ops, and working out the resources we need to get from one to the next. They are our primary source of food, and of cash, a commodity one needs more often than we are accustomed to at home these days, in order to contribute to the economy elsewhere on the islands. Sure, there are a few other places to get food in between, notably the Fish, Chips and Petrol station just before Daliburgh, but a Co-op is an event. A moment to stop, take stock and obtain whatever supplies we’ll need before the next one. It’s like being on the M1 with a toddler and doing a ‘bladder audit’ on your prospects of reaching Toddington with dry seats, before you've left it too late to dive into Newport Pagnell. Frankly, the consequences of getting it wrong are just as catastrophic. Hell hath no fury like a junior touring cyclist who’s ridden all day and just been told you’ve run out of Stroopwafels.

Looming over us as we parked up against the wall at the Co-op was the question of where we were to stay the night, because we still hadn’t sorted it out and so we didn't know what our cooking arrangements would be. History was repeating itself, albeit with time and a favourable wind on our side compared to last time - but the forecast was for a draughty night. For all the uncertainty, at least my socks would definitely be dry...

Coming up next - “I know, but is it socially acceptable to sleep in a graveyard’s car park?"

Friday, 25 August 2017

Vatersay - Barra(bados)

I woke because I heard the zip on the tent open. I sat bolt upright, who’s that? Tom’s space next to me was empty, and I could see his silhouette through the inner tent. I relaxed back into the warmth of my sleeping bag, content that it wasn’t either an escape bid by one of the girls or a stranger come to tell us we had pitched in the wrong place.

I had woken twice in the night, because it was chucking it down. In the morning light, all of our stuff had remained perfectly dry, and for now, it seemed dry outside.

Terra Nova (1) - (0) Hebridean weather

Tom was by now rustling in the panniers in the vestibule. Hearing the sleeping mat squeaking against the groundsheet, and knowing that I was therefore awake, he stuck his head back in through the inner to wish me good morning. The girls were still sound asleep.

“What are you up to?”, I say, hoping that the rustling is a precursor to breakfast. “I’m going to do some filming and take some photographs,” says Tom. Ok, I admit at this point, I’m a bit disappointed about the breakfast, but so far, this is par for the course.

“And I’m going for swim”.

Wait a minute. Rewind. What?

“You’re going for a swim? Are you crazy?” He grins at me (what kind of an answer is that?) and disappears.

As I step out of the tent a few minutes later, I have to admit that the beach is beautiful and the blue water does look inviting. Then I recollect again that we are in the Outer Hebrides, and that inviting-looking blue water is the North Atlantic, and probably freezing cold.

Down on the beach, Tom is stripping off. He gestures to me, and holds out the camera. I grab it and point it at him, still wondering whether he is actually going to do this. “Lars Simonsen, this is all your fault!”, he yells, and canters off into the breaking waves (inspired by our Danish friend’s early morning swimming antics on our recent trip to Denmark). He has to run in quite a way before the water gets deep enough for any swimming. Surely he’s going to turn around? No, no, he’s actually in the North Atlantic. I hope the girls stay asleep. I don’t want to have the argument with Ruth which will naturally ensue if she thinks she has missed out on a swim. At the actual beach.

The swim is (predictably) quite a short affair, but Tom professes himself ‘refreshed’. He looks chilled through, and grabs a few extra layers before continuing his filming expedition, this time armed with Ruth’s waterproof camera.

I go back to the tent, where I can hear the first signs of the girls stirring. Ruth is first awake, and she has remembered exactly where we are and the promise made last night that we would have a trip to the beach in the morning. I get her clothes out, strategically handing her the ones she wore yesterday to get sandy, and layering on top her waterproof trousers to try to keep her warm. I leave her shoes and socks in the tent - no point getting those full of sand. Rhoda is next, and then we are off to the shore, ready to play and explore.

There is no-one else around, at all. We have the most beautiful beach, right outside our tent door, and it is all ours.

This is what it’s about.

We leave our trail of footprints on the pristine sand, being the first people there. Rhoda’s tiny little feet are dwarfed by the yeti prints Daddy leaves in his wake. We write our names in the sand. We paddle in the little breaking waves at the water’s edge. We look at the seaweed and the shells. It is idyllic.

Tom snaps away. And then Tom is fishing Rhoda out of the water. She has disobeyed the instruction to hold hands, jumped over a wave and fallen flat on her face. She’s in no danger, she isn’t hurt, but she is soaking wet. 

Time for that breakfast then, and a change of clothes for Rhoda!

The best of the weather seems to have gone too, and we are mindful that as wild campers, we don’t want to spoil the beauty for others by leaving our tent stuck in the way. The girls are not happy. They don’t want breakfast. They want to play. I bribe them with the promise of stroopwafels and milk, and they reluctantly trail along behind us back to the tent.

By the time we have washed hands and feet, eaten and changed Rhoda into dry clothes, it is clear that the good weather is well and truly behind us. The rain has started again. Blast - the tent will now be wet going back into the panniers.

I deflate sleeping mats and compress the sleeping bags back into their panniers. The kitchen gear (which Tom 'washed' in the sea) is stowed, and we now can barely move in the tent. The vestibule is full of bikes and panniers. We debate what to do next. We know that the tent’s inners can be stripped out from the fly, and we might get the groundsheet out dry. Is it going to be worth the hassle when we have to reassemble it all? Or is it better to have the comfort of knowing that the inners at least, will be dry when we have to pitch the tent again tonight? The theory is that we can just drop the whole of the tent’s interior, but we have never done it. If we accomplish it, leaving just the fly and the poles, we can have everything else packed and hung on the bikes, keeping us out of the wet (and consequently keeping everyone warm) for longer. We decide to go for it.

We launch into a sing-song of our anthem for the trip: “Oh, pack it in your panniers” (to the tune of the 'Hokey-Cokey'). Another of those surreal moments - what else would we be singing on a Hebridean beach in the pouring rain trying to shovel as much as possible away still dry?

We put the tent inners in… (dry!)
We pull the ground sheet out…. 
Contort ourselves to fold it and we shake it all about. 
Everything is dry except the pegs and fly 
That’s what it’s all about….

Oh! Pack it in your panniers… (repeat until blessed)
With only the poles, pegs and fly sheet left, there is nothing for it but to venture outside. We wheel out the bikes, task Ruth and Rhoda with helping to collect the pegs and set about dismantling the last remnant of shelter.

We are wrestling the wet tent when a cry goes up from the girls. They have just spotted Noel, Clem and Steff approaching on their bikes. They have been for a ride to the end of the road, having had lunch and had just arrived for a visit to the beach.

We agree that we will meet them shortly at the Vatersay community cafe next to the beach, where we are about to head for lunch and drinks and leave them to explore. First though, we have an appointment with the end of the road in Vatersay, so that we can say we have ridden the whole way. We are only a few hundred metres short, so it doesn’t take long. The end of the road is not particularly exciting, as ends of the roads go. The road terminates in a T-shape, surrounded by houses and a sentinel telephone box. We turn and head back (checking that Strava has definitely captured the moment - after all, if it’s not on Strava, it didn't happen!) the way we have just come and stop at the cafe.

We are struck by what a lovely facility it is for such a tiny island. There are showers, toilets, water and facilities for campers to use, with signage directing those with camper vans to a suitable place to park up. The cafe is lovely and warm, serving a tasty and reasonably priced menu. We haven’t got a huge amount of cash with us (still accustomed to paying by card wherever we go, this is a constant battle for us to remember that paying by card might not be an option out here!), but we manage to order food and drinks for all of us. Ruth is particularly insistent that she wants soup. She is not disappointed.

Steff, Clem and Noel rejoin us just as we are finishing up. We compare notes on our camp spots - we seem to have fared well, as they found their chosen beach quite windy overnight, where we have enjoyed relative quiet (apart from the heavy downpours). We explain that we are planning to stop in at the Co-op again for food before riding up the west side of the island, and then onwards past the airport to the north of the island to see the bits we missed last time. We agree to ride together, and look in the direction we are about to set off, already knowing that before very long we have to climb back over that rather large hill that we had to push up yesterday, but this time in the pouring rain.

Cycle tourists in the rain always elicit sympathetic looks in cafes when they leave. When you have three children in the group, sympathy is mixed with incredulity - “you can’t seriously be going out in that?” We remind ourselves that the rain won’t last forever (especially out here, where half an hour can transform the weather from hideous to gorgeous or vice versa), and zip the children into their waterproofs. We aren’t going to get anywhere if we don’t get going!

In spite of the precipitation, the climb doesn’t seem quite as bad in this direction. Ruth and I are last up again, having been distracted by passing the crashed plane from WWII on the hillside and views out to sea of fishing boats and little sailing boats bobbing about. The ‘Ruth pedalling while Mummy pushes’ technique is tested again and comes up trumps.

After a quick stop to restock (and obtain more cash) at the Co-op back on Barra, we are soon on our way again. The road is comfortingly familiar from our last visit. A new campsite has opened, but it is only a couple of miles away and we soon pass it, deciding that it is too early in the day to stop.

We pass the old Manse that we had looked at sadly last time, apparently still empty. Empty buildings always leave me sad - particularly those that have once been homes. This time is no different - I think again what a waste it is for such a lovely house in such a lovely place to have no family to call its own.

We had our eye on a particular rest spot in any event - the one we stopped at on our last visit where the now infamous 'extreme breast feeding' shot of me feeding Rhoda under a tarp was taken. Last time, we had settled down on a well appointed bench for a snack and a drink and the weather had suddenly turned squally, and Tom had chucked the tarp over me and Rhoda to keep us warm and dry. This time, the weather was improving, when we stopped for snacks and a recreation of the shot. Rhoda is rather larger than the last time! I’m not sure quite what Clem and Steff made of all this -we showed them the original shot so that we didn’t appear to be total nutters.


Reaching the turning for Traigh Mhor, we hit the most enormous swarm of midges, turning us into cycling ninjas, swatting them off our skin, spitting and snorting them away and wiping them out of our eyes. Evil, evil midges. Riding through a cloud of them with no warning is particularly mean - for the first couple of seconds I thought it was raining again until the skin on my hands started turning black as the corpses of those that had come into contact with the deet that I had applied earlier built up. Riding along the coast, we hadn’t been plagued too badly, but at the turning for the Ferry, the weather improved and the wind and rain subsided, the midges were coming out in force. We pushed on towards the airport. It was the wrong time of day to see a plane land, but the views were every bit as spectacular across the bay was we remembered. Last time, we hadn’t cycled up this part of the island. Tom and Thomas had had a tour by car from the owner of the campsite we stayed with, and I hadn’t been this far at all.

We reached the tiny airport, with its miniature facilities. The baggage reclaim is housed in what can only be described as a bus shelter. Literally, the bags are passed from the plane by hand to a bus shelter. That is the baggage handling facility. We didn’t have any suitcases, but (possibly taking being likened to luggage on the back of the bike a little too seriously) soon Ruth and Rhoda were taking turns along the baggage belt.

We toyed with whether to wild camp, or to go to a campsite. In the end, the soggy start to the day, sandy children and bodies covered in midge corpses meant that the idea of a hot shower and an indoor cooking area won out, so we headed off to Eoligarry and the signed campsite at Croft 1, with the single track road turning into two gravelled ruts as we continued along it.

Putting the tent up was a rather more involved affair with the inners detached. While Tom rehung the inners, I slung the tarp over the bikes, as more rain was forecast, but we needed the vestibule space to get our panniers back in some semblance of order after our unorthodox departure.

Poor Rhoda’s face full of midge bites left her looking like she had a dose of the measles. The lady at the campsite said even the local kids at the nursery she worked at were covered. Tom and I endured a miserable evening of itching caused by the previous night’s bites, and tried to avoid collecting any more. The forecast rain arrived as we were turning in for the night, so we hoped that might at least mean they would be kept at bay for the morning...

To be continued...