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Around The Very Top: Slow Progress to Our First Remote Stop

Published on: 27 May, 2015
Updated on: 21 Apr, 2022
Around The Very Top of Scotland

Around The Very Top of Scotland

Train journeys in Scotland are not particularly dangerous but seeing my son Tom arrive safely at Inverness was a relief.

If he had not arrived when he did there was no second chance. There were only two scheduled trains from Inverness that called at Lairg. Ours, due to leave in 30 mins at 1400, was the last of the day.  If we missed it the whole trip would lay in ruins.

The first leg of Around The Very Top took us 18 miles north west from Lairg to the hamlet of Overscaig, along the banks of Loch Shin.

The first leg of Around The Very Top took us 18 miles north west from Lairg to the hamlet of Overscaig, along the banks of Loch Shin.

When you are on bikes in this neck of the woods, northern Scotland, there are few transportation alternatives and none that I could think of to get us to Lairg in time to cycle to our first stop, Overscaig.

But he had arrived with his bike and we quickly collected my left luggage, sorted out the bikes and waited. I reported to Tom what I had purchased for our on train lunch – two salads – and it met with approval.

ATVT Day 1 x Section

Eventually, the departure board showed our platform and we went to board the train. it was similar to the stock that plies the Reading to Redhill/Gatwick route, small diesel powered multiple units. Quite cramped inside but okay.

“Where should we put our bikes?” we asked the lady guard, last been seen smoking by the bike shed but who was smartly turned out, complete with scarlet nail varnish.

“Do you have reservations?” My mind flashed back to advice from a well-travelled friend, Eddie. “You need bike reservations on those trains up there”, he said. “A fight nearly broke out when some cyclists insisted their bikes were carried when I was up there.”

Eddie is a bit of an expert on train fracas. He personally took on the role of quiet-carriage enforcer, a bit like Charles Bronson in Death Wish I suppose, although, without the use of firearms, he had found it too frustrating, so now avoided quiet carriages – he would rather put up with the noise than the noisy misbehaviour.

“Yes, we have reservations,’ I proffered the large collection of tickets that we had for the journey (why can’t all the info be on one?)

Annoyingly, she ignored the tickets and said, “Just follow me.” She took us to one of the three carriages where there was a well-designed set of bars for two bikes. Once they were secured we looked for our seats. Someone was already in them.

We compared tickets. We both seem have been reserved the same seats but they had possession. We sat in two unoccupied but reserved seats nearby. Shortly another woman appeared also booked into ‘our’ original seats.

It seemed strange, a three carriage train which, judging by the reservation tickets on the seats, was fully reserved with some of the seats booked three times over but, apparently, there was plenty of room for everyone.

Another question that struck me was why don’t Scotrail run more trains? If those wishing to travel by rail have to put up with so infrequent a service and a seat reservation lottery, wouldn’t more be attracted to rail travel if there was a train, say, every two hours?

The journey passed quickly enough. We travelled through areas of farmland. I had expected a wilder landscape this far north but instead, although the hills were there in the distance, it was a mixture of crops including rape in full flower, with beef cattle and sheep, although the lambs looking decidedly younger than those further south.

Train journeys north of Inverness are slow. All the trains stop at most stations and request stops on demand. It took two hours to reach Lairg, a journey of just 50 miles by road. Another reason, presumably, why the trains are less popular.

We disembarked efficiently at the remote station, attached the panniers, and then had to carry the bikes over the iron footbridge. With the exception of one foot passenger, the station was now deserted.

Did the passenger know if it was left or right to the town? No, he did not. “I am a stranger here too pal.” A stranger but already our “pal”. That was friendly.

We opted for left and were soon reassured by a sign: “Lairg 2”. We paused at a dam. I had read that there had been some kind of vandalism at the Lairg dam a few days ago but there was no sign of any. We took a photo and moved on.

ATVT Day 1-1

No damage here – but this turned out to be the wrong dam. Why anyone, presumably local, would do such a thing defeats the imagination.

We cycled into the “town centre”, where there was a small Spar shop. Tom went in to ask to fill his water bottle. The woman who served him said she had only just heard about the dam story.

If the trains had been more frequent The Guildford Dragon NEWS could have been the first to have informed her of what was going on in her own wee town. But she did tell Tom that the affected dam was not the one we had seen but a little further north.

Tom emerged with a full water bottle and a large bar of chocolate. He offered me some but I said we should wait until we needed it. So, safe in the knowledge that we had emergency rations in place, we commenced the first leg proper.

Our route required only one navigational decision, a left turn at a T junction. As a watched kettle never boils an anticipated junction never arrives, and so it was with this one but eventually, there it was. There was nothing around and I proffered a ridiculously unnecessary hand signal.  Traffic was so very light vehicles were almost interesting.

We cycled on and could see Loch Shin on the left. Our route followed the north-east bank all the way to our hotel.

Suddenly a largish bird took off on our right and lazily flapped its wings as it flew across directly in front of us a few feet away. Even if it had been at a greater distance its very long downward curving beak would have been a giveaway. A curlew. And then to dispel any lingering doubt came its call.

The downward curling long beak makes a curlew easy to identify as does its "coor-li" call from which it gets its name.

The downward curling long beak makes a curlew easy to identify as does its “coor-li” call from which it gets its name.

I suspect it was a male looking for a mate. They nest anywhere that is damp but move to the coast, where the food supply is better, once the chicks have fledged. The South East is about the only part of Britain where these birds don’t reside and I am not sure that I have ever seen one before.

One of the last cultivated fields we passed. Loch Shin is in the background.

One of the last cultivated fields we passed. Loch Shin is in the background.

The weather was cloudy and it was markedly cooler than Guildford – of course – so it was comfortable to cycle with jackets on, even though any rain was holding off. We were riding on a road, something I would normally avoid but this “A road” was a single track with passing places! The surface was well maintained though, much better than many Surrey roads.

On we cycled past the occasional house. I wondered what life was like for the occupants where any errand, even to Lairg, required an hour’s round journey.

What is life like for the inhabitants of the small remote homesteads?

What is life like for the inhabitants of the small remote homesteads?

A little further on and all signs of cultivation other than forestry had gone. A dead badger was lying by the side of he road. Its presence surprised me. The area looked too barren to support this largish mammal, which I associate with deciduous woodland, but obviously not.

We could see the road stretching out for miles ahead but no sign of our hotel. Sometimes the long view can be a little dispiriting when you are tired and I had hardly slept on the sleeper. The wind was also increasing and was directly in our faces.

at the top of the climb, still no sign of our hotel but a wide rugged vista.

At the top of the climb, still no sign of our hotel but a wide rugged vista.

I recalled a conversation with my friend Ricky in the cosy bar of Ye Olde Ship Inn in St Catherine’s. “I don’t mind hills,” he had said, “but constant head wins, I can’t stand”. I know what he means. We were going gradually uphill but it was the wind that was reducing our speed to well below 10 mph.

As a result, the 17 miles from Lairg to the hotel passed slowly. Then a sign, “1.2 miles to the Overscaig Hotel.”

It's always a relief to arrive at your destination. Here Overscaig Hotel in fine weather. Photo Overscaig Hotel.

It’s always a relief to arrive at your destination. Here Overscaig Hotel in fine weather. Photo Overscaig Hotel.

It is always a sense of relief, on a cycle tour to arrive at an overnight destination. No more pedalling until refreshed with a night’s sleep and a couple of meals.

The view from our bedroom looked across the loch to the far banks with I suspect had been cleared of pine trees for timber or wood pulp.

We had a good dinner, Tom played a guitar that was propped against the bar wall and then talked things musical to the proprietor.

My tiredness was becoming more and more evident. Tonight I could sleep on a proverbial clothesline. Tomorrow we had 25 miles to cycle to Rhiconich but the forecast was not good. Getting wet was a certainty.

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