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!


  1. So the cost at Howmore has gone up by a £5 a night per person since we last stayed there. Mind you , it looks like the beds have improved a lot. They were just wooden typebeds. You could do with some mozie bags. I made some years ago from no-seeum netting. They come down to our waists and sinch up with a drawstring. You can bring your meal inside and eat in peace.

  2. I was there about 1980 - sounds like they have fitted a ceiling. You used to be woken by hundreds of woodlice dropping out of the thatch! A very authentic experience ...

  3. Oh, and I never had problems outside graveyard walls - even the local youth car/CB radio club were friendly...