Lastness

This will be a week of last things. Today is my last in Wales. Tomorrow I’ll ride through English countryside for the last (foreseeable) time, and spend a last night in Scotland. Saturday will be my last day riding the Tiger. And then it’s down to Dublin, and more last things before I return home to my everyday life.

I’m looking forward to that return, but I also want to savour what’s here, what’s now.

Here and now is presently a pub comprising the main floor of a small hotel in the town of Llandudno, in the county of Conwy, on the north coast of Wales. I have a pint of Welsh ale. There is tolerable music playing at a tolerable volume. My room is upstairs on the third floor. It’s a nice room, spacious.

Getting here was more interesting than the past two days’ rides had been. Wales is beautiful. Lush and green like Ireland. Untamed and uncrowded like Scotland. It reminds me a lot of home. My road here wound between high hedgerows and low stone walls, between cows and sheep, small villages and tidy towns, along the seashore and between mountains.

My first stop of the day was in a seaside village. I parked near the beach and climbed atop the mounds of rocks they’re using as “sea defence”. The wind was whipping around me. If Wales is anything, it’s windy. I took some pictures of (to borrow an image from Joyce) the snotgreen sea with its whitecrested waves.

I didn’t stop often. It was cool – between 10 and 15 C – and blustery, and the constantly changing speed limits (which almost no one drives up to) kept me engaged. The Tiger purred and whirred, and only growled when it was time to overtake someone driving 20 or 30 mph under the limit.

There were churches in most villages, often the tallest buildings visible from the road. Occasionally an old castle was visible from the road. Stone bridges that only allow one direction of travel at a time.

In the mountains of Snowdonia I passed a town whose business was clearly centred around a shale quarry. The buildings, still mostly made of stone, took on a more alpine expression.

Now that I’m here in Llandudno, I don’t have anything much I want to go see. I’m happy to sit here with my pint and savour the lastness of it all.

Laugharne

It is a beautiful evening in southern Wales. I’m sitting outside a local pub in Laugharne (rhymes, sort of, with yarn, but with a bump in the middle) drinking Welsh ale. Unfortunately all the pubs stopped serving food at 3, so I had to settle for fish & chips next door (the first place on this trip to serve it with mushy peas!). Life’s hard, but I’ll adapt.

The sun is shining, the birds are making bird noises, and every so often a car comes past.

Laugharne is a sleepy town, very small, even by Welsh standards. Dylan Thomas called it “the strangest town in Wales.” He should know, he lived here. He’s buried less than a mile from where I’m sitting. I’ve been to his grave (this is turning into the graveyard tour of Britain and Ireland), and to the old boathouse he lived in when he wrote some of his greatest work, from “Fern Hill” to Under Milk Wood; I’ve even walked the path that is said to have inspired his “Poem In October”.

No tour buses here. A simple, wooden marker, with his wife Caitlin’s name and dates on the other side.

The B&B I’m staying in is less than a mile from each, and just around the corner from the pub I’m at now. It wasn’t much to look at when I rode up, and I was afraid I’d mad a terrible mistake, but once inside my fears vanished. It’s an old, stone and plaster building, with wooden beams in the ceilings. The room is enormous compared to most B&Bs. The bathroom is almost the size of the room I had in Lisburn at the start of this trip, and is strangely modern. You can see the ruin of Laugharne Castle from my window.

Not the view from my room. I know, I said I don’t like what castles represent. I don’t. But this is a nice old ruin, and I thought it was a good picture.

Dylan Thomas is the reason I’m here. He was one of the first “serious” poets whose work I fell in love with, back when I was getting ready to begin my first university degree. The summer before I began my studies I went to Canterbury Books in Calgary, now sadly defunct, and bought a copy of his Collected Poems and Collected Short Stories, both of which I still have on my shelves more than 30 years later. I still love his pulsing, alliterative rhythms.

The day didn’t begin here. It began in a little village near Bath. The landlady of the place I stayed left me a small loaf of homemade bread and some homemade gooseberry jam, which I ate when I got up. A little later, I rode to the Hartley Farm Market & Cafe, where she said I could get a good cooked breakfast. The eggs Benedict there was excellent.

After breakfast, I rode around Bath looking for Solsbury Hill, the place that inspired one of my favourite songs. I eventually found it (I think), riding up a narrow lane (Solsbury Lane, so it sounded promising), in places walled with stone on either side, in other places bordered by hedgerows, and still others by simple fences. The hill comprised sloping enclosures for sheep and cows, mostly. I’m guessing that either I was in the wrong place, or Peter Gabriel hopped someone’s fence, or was staying with someone there, or the place has changed since the 1970s. I think, based on the rest of Bath, that last option seems the least plausible. At any rate, there was no place to stop, and although in places I could see the city, it wasn’t nighttime, so there were no lights. No eagles, either, but I didn’t really expect that.

Bath is like a museum piece. Nearly everything is as it has been for at least a century, and often much longer. There are a lot of churches. It’s pretty, but in a museumy sort of way.

The ride here from there was mostly unremarkable, except for a detour necessitated by the police having closed the A46 to Stroud, likely due to a crash, and the GPS occasionally not keeping up to itself, so that I zipped past exits I should have taken requiring me to backtrack. It also meant I missed the turn off to avoid the M4 toll bridge to Wales. I got to pay £5.60 to nearly get blown off the bike by the strongest wind I’ve experienced on this trip next to Hector. This might have been worse, though, since they’ve used cable barriers down the centre of the bridge that would have sliced me like cheese if I’d hit them.

Otherwise, it was dull, efficient mile munching, until just outside Cardiff I saw another vehicle on the shoulder with its front end completely engulfed in flames. I’ll have to look into that in case Adele and I do a road trip here someday.

Everything is closing up in Laugharne. The pubs, which aren’t serving food, will still serve beer a while longer, but they’re not busy. The convenience store won’t close for another couple of hours. But it’s sleepy here.

Tomorrow I’m going to follow the coast north and then east, and stop for the night in a town whose name I can’t pronounce. For now, I’ll wander back to room and read for a while.

Excerpt from Under Milk Wood

Bath time

Today’s ride was really just about endurance. A seven hour motorway slog from Scarborough to Bath. Or close to Bath. I’m actually staying in a little cottage in the little – I’m not sure it even qualifies as a village – outside Bath, called Limpley Stoke. I’m currently waiting for the local pub to open. Happily, it’s no more than a 10 minute walk to said pub, The Seven Stars, which is in the adjacent (and actual) village of Winsley. The pub closes each day between 3 and 6. I’m told it’s a good pub with excellent food.

So… So far nothing much has happened today, except for the Tiger hungrily eating up miles, just under 300 of them. It felt like more. Still does.

So… As nothing much has happened yet today, I’ll begin with last night.

Scarborough is the kind of place that’s pretty without being beautiful. Filled with Victorian architecture, and crouched along a picturesque coastline, which it tries it’s best to spoil with arcades and small casinos, a beachfront fairground modelled on Coney Island, it feels…. faded. As if it hasn’t quite found a way to live up to its potential.

It does have an old, partially ruined castle, and large church, in whose churchyard Anne Bronte is buried.

(Admission: I don’t know how she ranks in relation to her sisters, as I haven’t read anything by any of the Brontes. Or Jane Austin, for that matter. The earliest woman novelist I’ve read was Virginia Woolf. Come to think of it, I don’t read enough novels by women of any period. I read some Atwood in university, and I’ve read some of Louise Erdrich’s books, and Nancy Huston. Alice Monroe, for short fiction. I should probably try to rectify that gap in my reading.)

Anyway, I wasn’t really looking for much from Scarborough. A place to sleep, a pub, dinner, maybe a a laundrette. I did well enough on every count except dinner. That was a bust.

I made it an early night. After Edinburgh, my liver needed a break! My hotel room was small, and a steep climb up three flights of stairs, but it was comfortable enough, and quiet, too. I ended up falling asleep to the sound of the waves.

Now I’m in this quiet little village in southern England. Tomorrow I’m heading a short distance to Bath proper, and to Solsbury Hill nearby, where Peter Gabriel had the epiphany that led him to quit Genesis. Afterward, I’ll be on my way to Wales. Laugharne, in particular, to visit the grave of Dylan Thomas.

I think the pub’s about to open, so that’s all for now.

South

It’s probably a good thing I walked over 28 km yesterday. I slept like a log, and didn’t wake till seven.

After my solo wandering yesterday morning I met up with Gillian at her flat in the Stockbridge neighbourhood. Fantastic but spendy area. Lots of cool little shops, pubs and cafes; a Sunday market in a public garden; old, winding, narrow cobblestone streets. The sidewalks were buzzing with people.

We set out first to Dean Park, and walked past Saint Brendan’s Well, and along the towpath by the Leith until we reached the section the Council (pronounce it coontsul) closed down for repairs five years ago, and hasn’t worked on since.

We wound our way past churches and monuments, through an old graveyard, and stopped in at the National Gallery of Scotland. I really enjoyed the sculpture garden outside, the modern masterpieces inside. After a while we were feeling hungry. As luck would have it, the gallery has an excellent cafe. A sandwich with two salads, americano and a slice of cake layered with marscarpone and pistachios for me. Two salads, black velvet cake and coffee for Gillian. We left stuffed.

We headed back to one of Gillian’s locals and had a pint before exploring further. Then we made our way to one of the better viewpoints in the city.

We walked to the top of Calton Hill, where the 18th century philosopher David Hume is buried. He left instructions for it in his will, including a stipulation that it not cost more than £100. “Typical Scot,” Gillian said.

We descended the hill, and walked round toward the Royal Mile, which was thick with tourists, and then down past the one-time house of John Knox, the father of Scottish Protestantism. Looking at the plaque outside, I noted a striking similarity to a friend of mine, and sent him a picture of the dour old bastard. “He didn’t like women much,” Gillian said. “I’m sure it was mutual,” I added.

It started raining, and we stopped in at a pub to get out of the rain. We timed our wait with a pint. As you do.

We walked down to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. It’s a spectacularly modern building, designed by a Spaniard who has since died, and decorated in places with quotes from Scottish poets, from Burns to Hugh MacDiarmid. Across the street is the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh. I looked, but couldn’t spot the MI5 watchers. Maybe it’s all done remotely now

It was getting on, so we started back toward the west end of the city, ultimately finding ourselves at the Cambridge Pub (just a few doors down from the Oxford, where we’d been the night before). Gillian said they have the best burgers in Edinburgh, and based the venison burger I had that seems like a credible assertion. This was accompanied by another pint. And one more for good measure.

Afterward, we said goodbye for who knows how long. I’m hoping Adele and I get over again sometime soon, but who can say? I told Gillian she’s welcome to crash at our place if she comes back to visit Vancouver.

This morning I discovered some enormous and possibly prehistoric bird shat all over the Tiger’s gas tank, and I spent about twenty minutes cleaning it off, and another five minutes oiling the bike’s chain. I’ve put more than 1,500 miles on the bike since picking it up what seems like a lifetime ago, but is really just over two weeks.

I rode south , once bike was cleaned, along the dull and efficient A1 for most of the way. I’m in Scarborough now, and the weather is… fair. Okay, fine, that was a bad pun. Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be off again, this time down to Bath, before exploring Wales.

The end of my journey is approaching quickly now. I’ll be flying home again in just over a week. But I have many miles to go before then.

Edinbrrr

I arrived in Edinburgh cold and wet after a nevertheless brilliant ride. After a shower to stave off hypothermia, I met up with my friend Gillian near Haymarket Station, and we walked through the last gasps of the rain showers to a fine pub nearby called Au Bar for a pint.

I haven’t seen Gillian in about five years (give or take), since she moved back to Scotland from Vancouver. We caught up over pints and then set out to the Oxford pub, famously the haunt of Iain Rankin and his equally famous character DI John Rebus. The author wasn’t in attendance, which is just as well since I haven’t got round to reading any of his books yet. I’m told, by several people, that they’re excellent, so it’s something I’ll get around to correcting soon.

Gillian’s friend Gavin joined us at the Oxford. He’s an excellent fellow, quiet for an engineer, with a sharp wit. The three of us talked for the time it took to finish a couple more pints, and then we set off toward Edinburgh Castle and Old Town.

We had dinner at an excellent Nepalese place called Gurkha. Karai Lamb, rice pilau, naan and a good, light Nepalese beer. The food was fantastic and plentiful, and the service was excellent.

Justin, Gavin and me at The Bow.

We walked deeper into Old Town after we’d stuffed ourselves, and wound up at The Bow, where we stumbled on Gillian’s pub quiz partner Justin. He has family back in Surrey. Small world. The four of us talked and sipped our beer until they rang for last orders. None of us had realized it was as late as that. Gavin, Gillian and I ordered a whisky each. Caol Ila is a nice, medium-peaty Islay malt, very smooth, with just enough smokiness.

The whisky helped for the walk home. To say it’s been cool in Edinburgh would be an understatement. It was almost autumnal in the walk back to the hotel. The faint glow to the south reminded me just how much further north I am than Vancouver is. Even at half twelve, as they say here, it’s not completely dark.

I woke this morning at half past six, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up and breakfasted in the hotel, then set out to acquaint myself more with the city and take some photographs. The architecture is beautiful in every neighbourhood I’ve walked through.

I’ve wandered around a fair bit, and wound up in a cafe on George Street, where I’m writing this. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Edinburgh today, and wish I had another week or more just to spend here. Adele and I will have to come back here someday.

Apres le deluge

No pictures today. It was just too wet, and cold, to stop for that.

I left Elgin around nine and rode south along the same route I took yesterday, through Rothes and Dufftown. When I reached the junction at Glenlivet, though, I turned left instead of right.

A series of B roads ensued, winding through Cairngorms National Park, passing a ski hill, closed for the season. The sky was grey and the air was cool, and it was pretty much a certainty there would be rain on my ride down to Edinburgh. Eventually the B roads have way to the A93, which could itself fit Iain Banks’s definition of a “great wee road.” I followed it down to a small, pretty town in Aberdeenshire called Ballater, where I stopped to get gas. The station didn’t have a WC, which was becoming necessary, so I looked for a place to have coffee and maybe a bite to eat.

I found a great coffee shop attached to a hotel in a disused church and ordered an Americano and a cranberry, apricot & ginger scone. It was a damned fine coffee and the best scone I’ve had in a long time, served with butter and raspberry jam. I chatted with an older couple who had stopped in for tea.

It had rained while I was in the cafe, although the worst seemed to have passed. I got back on the A93, and all I can say is: what a spectacular motorcycling road, and what a gorgeous environment to place it in. Aberdeenshire is stunning. Stone houses crouched on rolling hillsides,. Green fields with boulders protruding at irregular intervals, and rocky streams burbling through them. Even in a pissing rain, it was beautiful.

And, yes, it had become a pissing rain. Rivulets of rainwater runneled down my visor, inside and out. The seal on this lid is all but useless in keeping the water out, while perfectly up to the task of keeping fog in. Note to self: always bring your own helmet.By the time I reached Braemar all pretence of waterproofing had been abandoned by the gear. I was cold and wet, and there seemed to be no end in sight to the weather, so I pressed on for Edinburgh.When I finally arrived, I was too early to check in to my hotel. I sat in the guest lounge alone, drinking a pint of what has become my regular beer in Scotland, Caledonia Best. When the room was ready, I brought in my things from the bike and had a shower to fend off hypothermia.Soon I’ll be heading out with Gillian and her friend Gavin to have dinner, likely some drinks, and to see a little of the city. I’ll see more of it tomorrow.

A quiet day in Speyside

This will be a relatively short post. I was feeling unambitious today. It’s two weeks since I left Vancouver, and tomorrow will be two weeks since I arrived here. Maybe that has something to do with it. I’m having a great time in Scotland, as I did in Ireland, but I’m missing my wife, my friends and family, even my cat. About the only thing I’m not missing to some degree is the daily commute to and from the North Shore. I also miss the variety of foods on offer in Vancouver. Here, most places offer variations on a theme. Maybe that will change in Edinburgh.

That sounded complainy. It shouldn’t. As I said above, I’M HAVING A GREAT TIME here. There are just things I miss about home. And the main one is Adele.

One thing they have in abundance here, but which we don’t have at all back home, is malt whisky distilleries. I could spend a week just visiting distilleries in the Speyside region, and still not get to all of them. Given that I can’t do everything – I never did get to John o’ Groats, for example – I’ve had to be selective. To date, I’ve toured two distilleries: Glenmorangie, which I wrote about a couple of days ago, and earlier today, Glenfiddich, which was my father’s favourite.

The Glenmorangie tour was very good. The Glenfiddich tour was excellent.

They’ve been making Glenfiddich for about 120 years in Dufftown, and it’s still owned by the same family, and largely made the same way they began in 1887. Like most other distilleries, they no longer malt their own barley, but buy it from maltings. Unlike most other distilleries, they have their own cooperage on site, and do their own bottling. They now sell to 184 of the 196 countries on earth, which makes them the biggest of the single malt whiskies on the planet.

Biggest isn’t always best, and to be honest, although I like Glenfiddich, especially the 18 year old expression, I’m more of an Islay malt guy. I like a bit of peat. Ok, a lot of peat. And even among the Speyside (and other Highland) malts, it’s not my first choice. Not far down the list, but not the top, either. (Sadly, The Glenrothes doesn’t have tours, or even a visitor centre, at their distillery.) But as they say, there are two kinds of single malt whiskies: good ones, and better ones. Glenfiddich belongs in the better group, just not necessarily at the top.

I do think it’s cool, though, how many of their employees are lifers. They have one cooper, for example, who’s been with them for 50 years.

And their tour would be hard to beat, even by a whisky I prefer. (Laphroaig and Lagavulin, Bowmore and Bruichladdich, Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain, among the Islays I’ve sampled.) It was surprising how different their approach is to whisky than, say, Glenmorangie. Using wooden washbacks, for example. (Made from Douglas Fir from British Columbia – just saying.) Or the fact they age their whiskies in both sherry and bourbon barrels for the full 12 (or more) years, and then blend those together to make their end products, rather than using bourbon barrels exclusively for the first ten years, and then “finishing” their whisky in sherry (or port, or Sauternes) barrels.

As I went their on the bike, I couldn’t partake of the tasting at the end. Scotland’s drink-driving rules are even stricter than those in British Columbia. The legal limit is 0.02, which is as close to zero as you can get and still have a test. Careful what mouthwash you use here! They gave me a wee bottle of the 12 to take with me.

The tour lasts 90 minutes, and afterwards I didn’t really see the point of visiting another distillery today, so I rode off into Cairngorms National Park. I didn’t set a destination on the GPS, just followed the road that led into the park on the assumption that all roads lead to somewhere. This one certainly did. Not only did I pass the Glenlivet distillery on the way to the road, it led me (after close to an hour) past the Tomintoul distillery, too.

The beautiful little B road also led me through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever ridden through. I stopped and took pictures along the way, although I haven’t transferred them over from the camera yet, so you’ll just have to take my word for it for now. It ran beside the Avon and Spey rivers (at different points, of course), through farmland filled with cattle and sheep, along steep hills and through green valleys.

And of course, like all roads, it did lead to somewhere, in this case to a junction with another, larger road, which ultimately brought me back to Elgin.

Tomorrow I’ll be off to Edinburgh, where I’ll meet up with my friend Gillian for a while. After that, I’ll be down to England and Wales. I can’t believe my time in Scotland is almost at an end! It’s been fantastic. The only thing that could make it better is having Adele here with me. Next time!

O Western Wind

O western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ! That my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

Anon.

Well, the damned wind blew today. Did it ever! Damned near blew me right off the highway. The rain wasn’t small at that point, though, and if it had succeeded the last two lines would have been very unlikely ever to occur again.

I woke up with the sound of the wind outside my window, howling down Crown Street in Inverness, shaking the small trees, and making them bend, but not break. It had rained in the night, but wasn’t raining when I got up. I showered and dressed and made some breakfast. I washed the breakfast dishes, and brought the cases in from the bike to pack my things into them (everything fits like a charm now), and then waited and read the news online for a while, since checkout wasn’t for another couple of hours.

When it was time to go, I dropped the key with Malcolm and Maggie, and thanked them for being such great hosts. I had set the GPS to hit a couple of distilleries on the way to Elgin, which Google Maps said was only about 90 minutes away from Inverness. There were four hours between check out and check in times, and that left me with 2 1/2 hours to kill. I might as well use the time productively, I thought.

As I got the Tiger started and waved goodbye to Inverness, the rain began. Just a mizzle at first, then more and more insistent. The wind picked up, too, and by the time I was on the A9 heading south, it took effort and concentration to keep the bike upright and going in a more or less straight line. The rental helmet doesn’t have an anti-fog shield (note to self: always bring your own helmet!), and I had to keep it cracked open to let in enough air to keep it clear. Unfortunately that meant water running down the inside of the visor. There was just no winning.

After a half hour or so of this, I decided to pull at a roadside parking area and reset the GPS to come straight to Elgin. I’d find someplace to hang out until I could check in if the weather wasn’t any better there. I pulled a u-turn, as instructed, at the first safe opportunity, and then the GPS sent me down some B roads heading east. The GPS said the speed limit was 60 mph, but you’d have to be mad to do that on a nice day on these roads, and this wasn’t a particularly nice day. I kept to about half that. Gradually the wind died down to merely blustering, and the rain all but stopped altogether. Overhead the clouds raced furiously across the sky. No type of weather was going to last long, except windy.

I saw a sign for the Culloden Battlefield historical site, so I took the road in that direction. When I got there, I discovered the National Trust wanted £2 for parking and £11 to access the site. I’ll all for preserving heritage and history, but I’ll be damed if I’m paying £13 to hike through a muddy moor in the rain. In wet motorcycle gear. With that wind.

A taste of what I missed not stopping at Culloden.

I found a gas station and filled the bike up, and then found my way back to the gloriously deserted B roads, which it turns out are part of the Tourist Route of the Highlands. Who knew? I didn’t stop at any of the castles along the way. I like the architecture fine, but I could give a fuck about the asshats who used to occupy them, literally lording it over the local population. (I find the idea of aristocracy and royalty offensively undemocratic. You may disagree, and I’m not going to try to persuade anyone otherwise who wants to be subservient to those whose ancestors killed someone else’s ancestors and took their land. It’s just not my idea of how the world ought to be.)

Anyway, the GPS by hook or by crook will take you back to a highway eventually unless you’ve expressly told it not to, and even then it might not recognize A roads as highways, and just keep you off the motorways instead. So, after a while, I was on the A96, whether I liked it or not. I should have tried harder to defeat it. For a long stretch we crawled along at under 30 mph anyway. Our progress was slowed by trucks hauling enormous propeller blades for wind generators, which we eventually passed when they took up the entirety of the left lane during the brief mile or so that we had a passing lane. (Note to North Americans: the right lane is the passing lane here.)

The wind began to pick back up again when I was about 10 miles from Elgin, although still not at the speeds it had been earlier. Storm Hector, as I’ve since heard it’s called, followed me eastward.

When I got to town, I found my hotel quite easily, and they were kind enough to let me check in early. The storm is supposed to blow over this evening. I’ve been out walking around, and the wind is still quite blowy, but it hasn’t rained in a couple of hours.

Elgin is a nice enough town. Almost like a miniature of Inverness, with a lot of old stone buildings and narrow streets. The lanes here are for walking only, or maybe you can cycle down them; they are far too narrow, and their widths too varied, to risk a car in them. There are a lot of shops in the centre of town, and a few pubs. I plan to eat at one of them tonight.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll head out to the Glenfiddich and Macallan distilleries, and explore The Cairngorms a bit, too. Maybe I’ll even take some pictures, something I’ve done much less of than I’d planned. If the weather is like today, though, I’ll find places to hang out and read. David has inspired me to take another crack at Ulysses. I can think of far worse ways to spend a day.

Tomorrow’s whisky

“Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky. ” – not a Chinese proverb

The forecast has been calling for rain, and today it finally came, although so far still not in massive quantities. Just showers here, really, but a solid break from the weather Ive had for most of this trip. More is coming overnight, I’m told. With luck, the worst will be past by morning.

I had already decided to take a break from riding today. I’d booked a tour of the Glenmorangie distillery, and looked up the best way to get there without driving. The bus looked pretty straightforward, even if it was a long trip, so I walked down to the bus station for 9. The intertubes had suggested a cost of between £4 and £6, but it turns out it costs £10.50, which isn’t really all that outrageous for an inter urban trip.

The trip required two transfers, and I made the first one fine. Unfortunately I missed the second one, although I discovered it only covered a distance of about a kilometre. No biggy, I could add that to the 1.3 km I was going to have to walk anyway. I still had just enough time to get there for the start of my tour.

I discovered that just over half the distance was along the side of the A9, part of which I’d ridden on the day before. Yesterday’s bit was mostly dual carriageway, with no place for pedestrians. I assumed it would be similar here, so I called a taxi. She came in under two minutes, and I was at the distillery in about five minutes afterwards. I noted on the way that there was a gravel footpath along the side of the road, which was an ordinary two-lane road with sparse traffic. I could have saved the fiver and walked easily enough, but who knew?

The tour itself was an excellent walk through of the process of whisky making, and its many attendant aromas, not all of them pleasant. The height of the stills was astonishing. Nearly 17 feet!

Glenmorangie (and their sister distillery on Islay, Ardbegh) is owned by Louis Vuitton. Yup, that one. The ugly handbag company owns two of the world’s best whiskies. They’ve got an orange Cadillac with a snakeskin roof as a result.

I met a retired couple from Cowichan Bay, and we talked a little about whiskies, and about home, and our respective holidays. They’ve been all over Scotland, as far north as the Orkneys, and will be heading south in a few days time to visit family in Yorkshire. They were a lovely couple, and were kind enough to offer me a ride back to Tain, where I was planning to catch a train back to Inverness (as there were no buses until after 4). Since it had begun raining, I accepted their offer.

I’d read that it’s better to by Scotrail tickets online, so I did, and provided my email address as prompted, they said, so they could send me ticket. Then I went for lunch at a cafe at the station, since I had over an hour to kill before my train. While I was eating I received an email from Scotrail confirming my ticket purchase, but not my ticket. I could use the redemption code, the email said, at the self-serve kiosk. Except none such are to be found at the Tain station. “But your ticket on the train” a relatively small sign on the platform unhelpfully suggested. Whatever. I explained the situation to the conductor when the train finally arrived, and he just shrugged. “Show them that email in the station so they’ll let you out.” Good advice.

While I was a still waiting for the train, a lone Japanese tourist joined me on the platform. He saw the bag with the Quinta Ruban I’d purchased and asked in broken English (but far less broken, I assured him, than my extremely limited Japanese) if I’d done the tour. I said I had, and said he had, too, but he hadn’t bought anything. We exchanged as many more pleasantries as we could without me saying, “hello goodbye thanks delicious,” which aside from menu items is about all I can say in Japanese.

I was regretting not coming on the bike. It was raining a little harder now, but still just lightly, really. Tomorrow. I have time to kill between checking out of my B&B here and into my hotel in Elgin. There just happen to be a number of distilleries on the way. Sort of. I could stop in and see who’s got a tour.

Right now, I’m sitting in what I’ve decided, in my extremely limited survey, is the best pub in Inverness, the Number 27. I had an excellent pork chop for dinner, with potatoes and gravy, wilted spinach, carrots and turnips that didn’t suck. Who knew such a thing existed?

Soon I’ll head back and start arranging my packing. Again. I should have it all figured out by the time I bring the bike back. But that can wait a little longer, I think.

Applecross, like a boss

Some things have to be experienced. The best descriptions, videos, or other forms of depiction can’t really do them justice. The bealach na ba is like that. I apologize in advance that this post will be inadequate to the task of conveying to you what it’s like to ride the ‘road to Applecross’. I’ll try to do my best, and hope you’ll be forgiving readers.

I set off this morning under a mostly leaden sky, with just flakes of blue here and there overhead in Inverness. It felt warmer than I was expecting, although that didn’t last. But although it was cloudy, the forecast indicated there would little if any rain today, and so it seemed like a good time to attack the famed road. (You can see how famous by looking it up on YouTube. There must be hundreds of videos posted of people riding and driving on it. As I’ve mentioned previously, I decided not to GoPro my rides, so… You’re welcome.)

I took a detour down to Dingwall to fill up the Tiger, since I wasn’t positive I’d find another petrol station before I needed it. Anyone who’s ever run out of gas on a motorbike in the middle of nowhere can tell you just how much fun it is. I’ve done it once, and waited well over an hour at the side of a desert road for my friend to return with a jerry can. I have no intention of letting that happen again, especially when, like now, I’m traveling alone.

The detour resulted in a fascinating zig-zag through Highland villages, along narrow roads canopied by tree branches. Eventually the small, all-but-empty country roads led me to a point on the A835 I would likely have reached much earlier had I not diverted. But what would have been the fun in that?

The breeze grew brisker as I headed west, becoming blustery in places, and I pulled over into the a lay by to switch into my warmer gloves and to zip closed the vents on my jacket. The clouds thickened and lowered, and soon there were small drops of mizzling rain on my visor. I could almost hear voices whispering, Go back! It’s too cold, and starting to rain. It will only get worse. Fortunately I know the sound of my own nonsense when I hear it.

Dual track gave way to single track roads for stretches, and it seemed like the traffic engineers had been trying to prepare people for the real challenge ahead. Vehicle traffic had thinned, but there were still more cars and vans than I’d expected, or at least, hoped.

I stopped briefly in Lochcarron to stretch my legs and back (I’m old, and can’t ride for as long at a time as I used to), then hopped back on the Tiger, and soon reached Tornapress, and the real beginning of the ride. If I had needed a sign from the motorcycle gods, I found it. The only thing it lacked was a statement that road was reserved only for two-wheeled vehicles.

I snapped the picture above, and then put my gloves back on and the bike in gear. I didn’t come all this way not to ascend “The Pass of the Cattle”.

To put things in their proper context, Bealach na Ba, according to Wikipedia

is a winding, single track road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula…. The historic mountain pass was built in 1822 and is engineered similarly to roads through the great mountain passes in the Alps, with very tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients that approach 20%. It boasts the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 metres (2,054 ft)….”

Challenge accepted, I said.

And it is a challenge, not primarily because of the road itself, although some of the “hairpin turns” are as tight as U-turns on a side road. The main challenge, as with so much else in life, is other people. More specifically, other people driving anything bigger than a motorbike. For while motor coaches and heavy commercial trucks have the good sense to take the lower road (more on that later), apparently drivers of motorhomes do not. Nor do they understand that motorbikes don’t have a reverse gear, and really can’t move much closer to the edge of the road without beginning a rapid and involuntary, not to mention inelegant, descent. The car drivers are not much better.

It’s not a long drive over the mountain from Tornapress to Applecross, but it is a slow one. Even if you removed the other vehicles – and, oh! how I wished I could! – it is still a very technical road. By the time I reached Applecross, my adrenal glands had been working at maximum effort for more than half an hour. And, as Heraclitus would have wished, the way down was not much different from the way up. It is the kind of road motorcyclists dream about. The kind of road that is a destination in itself.

And that is a good thing, because Applecross would be utterly forgettable if not for the road. Not that the location isn’t beautiful. It is. Just like almost anyplace you can name on the Scottish coast. But it’s the road that makes it worth going to. That’s the only reason why there were so many motorbikes in the parking lot across from the Inn. You can get a beer almost anywhere, after all.

The only other thing that stood out about Applecross was that I saw two stags grazing by the roadside, tame as the ubiquitous sheep. They were still young, their antlers only partly formed, and still covered in fuzz. I’d seen signs warning of them from Strathpeffer to Lochcarron, but only saw sheep. When I saw signs warning of sheep, there were cows (thankfully, not on the road), but now when no signs to warn of any wildlife, here they were.

I had a quick and not particularly satisfying lunch while I waited for my adrenaline levels to subside. I decided there wasn’t a lot of point in going back over the way I’d just come, so I took the longer way round, through Fearnmore, Shieldaig and Torridon. I’m glad I did. That unnamed, unsung, un-YouTubed route may be less challenging than Bealach na Ba, but in some ways it is a far superior ride. So much more scenic, so many fewer cars. At times it hugs the shoreline of the lochs, at times it cuts inland, past old crofts where rams and highland cattle stand by the roadside, or in their fenced-in fields, and slowly chew their grass. This road, too, is single track. This road, too, has twists and curves (though none as tight as the hairpins on The Cattle Pass). Although it’s a longer road, you can make pretty good time on it.

I stopped at a place called Nanny’s Cafe in Shieldaig. They make a mean Americano, pretty good scones, and some ridiculous homemade jam. I didn’t stop again, except to stretch and to take the occasional picture, until I got back to Inverness.

Tomorrow it’s supposed to rain, so I’ve booked a tour of the Glenmorangie distillery. I’ll take the bus there, so I don’t have to worry about the drive back. Then Thursday I’ll be off again, although not so far this time. I’m going to camp out in Elgin for a couple of days, and try to get to a couple more distilleries in Speyside, before heading down to Edinburgh. And then… and then…. But let’s not look too far ahead. Today is in the book. Tomorrow’s chapter – and each chapter of every future tomorrow – will write itself when it’s ready.