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Around The Very Top: Setting Out

Published on: 25 May, 2015
Updated on: 22 Jun, 2015
Around The Very Top of Scotland

Around The Very Top of Scotland

By Martin Giles

I felt worried. I had about 50 minutes to cycle from Waterloo to Euston. Plenty of time, but I did not know the way. I had intended as ever to give myself a good margin but last minute activity always seems to make me take things to the brink. If I missed the train it would be a disaster.

Now I am older I seem to have the fear older people have of not being on time but still not the organisational ability to ensure that I turn up hours before I need to, as many older folk seem to do. You would think that as your time left on Earth gets shorter you would want to waste it less. In fact it is the opposite.

I had put the bike journey into Google maps on my iPhone and it looked straightforward. Getting onto Waterloo bridge from Waterloo station was the first challenge but after that it was relatively straightforward.

I had put the phone into a cross bar bag so that the map was visible with a dot showing my location. Navigation could not really get much easier.

Leaving Euston - Hope no one was still expecting it to be leaving 20 minutes later.

Leaving Euston – Hope no one was still expecting it to be leaving 20 minutes later.

I can remember James Bond have a similar device in his Aston Martin in the film Goldfinger. Back then we thought it was science fiction. Now the functionality within a smart phone seems limitless.

Relieved, I arrived at Euston after about twenty minutes. I did have plenty of time. I looked on the departures board. The sleeper service to Inverness it said would leave at 2028. What? My ticket said 2050. I hurried down to platform 19. “Yes the time has been brought forward,” said the man at the barrier. I am glad I did not know before – my uneasiness would have turned to panic. I wonder if anyone turned up just after it left?

Embarkation went smoothly. Inverness passengers were directed to the rear of the train so had the least distance to walk. Although careful to book a bike reservation mine was the only bike in what we used to call the guards van. I had my pick of about a dozen hooks.

I detached my panniers, spoke to another steward who directed me to my berth. The rolling stock on British sleeper services is pretty aged. Recently a new company has taken over the routes to Scotland. There has been some freshening up of the decor etc but the lack of ensuite facilities, wifi, even power sockets made me feel that I was more in the age of an Agatha Christie mystery than the 21st century.

Caledonian Sleeper Cabin, comfortable enough but not 21st century.

Caledonian Sleeper Cabin, comfortable enough but not 21st century.

I went to the dining car. A quick glance into the kitchen area at the two microwaves gave a clue that haute cuisine was not likely. The blurb in the cabin pamphlets had boasted a new menu based on famous Scottish ingredients.

I requested Scottish chicken with Scottish tomatoes and Scottish basil accompanied by rice from famous Scottish paddy fields.

“That’s off sir”, I looked back to the menu.

“So is the Scottish lamb ,“ added the steward to save time.

We were running out of options. “What about the… I resisted the urge to say “Scottish”… “vegetable curry.”

“I think you will have the last one sir.” I felt privileged. It seemed other diners would have to settle for Macaroni cheese (well, perhaps Macaroni is a Scottish clan) or haggis. The wait for the food seemed interminable. Perhaps one of the microwaves was not working?

The driver thoughtfully pulled the train up in a siding so that we had a view over Wembley Stadium. After the departure being brought forward it was “Hurry up and wait time” as they say in the army.

There is a large Indian community in Wembley. I couldn’t help thinking that I could nip out and get a takeaway curry much quicker. As it turned out it would have been much tastier too.

Faced with the adversity of delayed food there was an unspoken consensus that the situation was dire enough to engage in conversation with fellow passengers. A couple had joined me at my table, she heavily pregnant had began reading a book, “Preparing for birth.”

I wondered what would come first, dinner or the baby. She was sitting opposite me. Perhaps my old goal-keeping skills would be called on.

It turned out that she was a history teacher and he was a barrister. A real one I think, intrigued by the recent goings on in Guildford.

They were off to Skye so talk about that and other parts of Scotland soon wiled the time away.

Dinner over, I made my excuses and returned to my cabin. It was time to write for you, dear reader, so you can join me on another cycling adventure: “Around The Very Top.”

Let me take you back to the beginning.

“Where to next?”, I thought.

It was January and I had already decided that my cycle ride last year from Guildford to Edinburgh, “Uphill All The Way”, should not be my last. I pulled our well used Ordnance Survey road atlas from the bookshelf and perused the part that showed which pages covered which areas.

Thanks to ten years in the army, twenty in the home office, various family holidays and a Scottish wife I discovered, with some surprise, that, excluding the Orkneys, Shetlands and the Isle of Man, I had been somewhere on every single page bar two – the two at the very top of Scotland.

“Right, that’s where it will be then.” I like to be decisive, or do I?

Those who followed my Uphill All The Way tour will recall that the embryo of the idea came from a book by Harry Enfield’s father Edward. I came across a letter he sent me in reply to the only fan letter I have sent in my life.

He had travelled down the length of France and written an account of his ride called Downhill All The Way. Obviously, travelling north from Guildford to Edinburgh would be Uphill All The Way.

Ironically “Around The Very Top” might be more hilly than either.

I did not want this tour to be as long as the last one and, especially because of the gradients, I did not want the legs to be longer than 25 miles, if possible. As a family we had travelled by sleeper once to Fort William for an activity holiday in Skye. Waking up to breakfast while passing through Rannoch Moor had delivered the romance one hopes for from such trips.

I thought this time I would take the sleeper to Inverness, but that would not be far enough. Initially I thought I would head on up to Wick and cycle anti-clockwise to Lairg, but then remembered the direction of the prevailing wind in Britain. Clockwise would be better. I would start in Lairg in the middle of that very top bit of Scotland.

Planning the route was fairly straightforward. There were not many roads to choose from. The route is all on A roads but in the north of Scotland an A road can still be single track with passing places.

Settlements are sparse so there was not a lot of choice, nor much of a choice of accommodation in some stopovers. The route would be from Lairg along the banks of Loch Shin to Overscaig, then northwest to Rhiconich, then on up to Durness. One rest day at Durness to go to Cape Wrath, if possible, then head east to Tongue, on to Strathy and then Thurso, were I would have another rest day for a look around Britain’s most northerly mainland town (of any size). After that it was west to John o’Groats, down to Wick and after one night there back on the train to Inverness and the sleeper back to London.

Before I booked the accommodation there was something else I needed to check. Would my son Tom, currently a student in St Andrews, want to join me? I was timing the trip to fit in after his exams, but before his planned trip to the USA, to be after the planned end of the Juneja court-case and at a time when there was a better chance of good weather.

The period starting 24th May, almost exactly one year on from Uphill… was the only slot possible but did he want to join his old man who likes to proceed at a dawdling pace? Yes he did. I proceeded to book the accommodation and the rail tickets. It was all on.

Now the plan is being realised. I have arrived in Inverness and ensconced myself in a hotel lounge overlooking the River Ness opposite the castle. Tom was en route and we would meet up in a couple of hours to catch the next train to Lairg.

ATVT 1-3

First impression – Inverness looked a bit down at heel

My first impressions of Inverness this time (I have visited before) weren’t great. Some of the streets near the station looked down at heel but the High Street was better, despite having two Poundlands, one each end for those who can’t afford to walk the length of the street, and a Poundstretcher.

I paused at a shop to buy a postcard. My wife still appreciates a real postcard regardless of more immediate digital communication. “That’s a pound with the stamp mate,” said the man with a very non-Inverness accent. Turned out he was an escapee from Kent now selling genuine Highland tourist tat. At least he wasn’t wearing a kilt.

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“Good Luck Inverness Caledonian Thistle” due to play Falkirk for the Scottish Cup on May 30th

A pub a few yards away was one of several wishing good luck to Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup Final. It doesn’t seem that long ago they were in the Highland League.

One other impression received is that Scottish women, especially middle aged women, dress more smartly. They definitely make an effort and while I don’t suppose they were doing it especially for me, I appreciated it.

After a walk around Inverness redeemed itself and showed me her better side. There are some attractive views…

From Inverness castle looking south west

From Inverness castle looking south west

And then to the north east

And then to the north east

The castle itself is a Victorian facsimile but a castle has stood on the strategic spot for centuries

The castle itself is a Victorian facsimile but a castle has stood on the strategic spot for centuries – but who put that horrible characterless block in the way?

Incredibly there was still snow on some of the hills in these parts - don't they know it's late May?

Incredibly there was still snow on some of the hills in these parts – don’t they know it’s late May?

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Even Flora MacDonald is a ICT fan it seems.

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Responses to Around The Very Top: Setting Out

  1. Gordon Bridger Reply

    May 26, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    A very good read

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