Tag Archives: Skye

Postcards from the mountains and the islands

The wind, the road, the wind. This has been all there is for the best part of an hour, slowly winding up the Bealach na Ba from Applecross in the blustery, occasionally rainy morning. As my bicycle and I ascend the wind gets keener, blowing warning shots across my front wheel. The rubber momentarily leaves the road, landing an inch further towards the gutter. Then again. Occasional curves in the road offer some respite, but as I mostly ride south-west, I find myself leaning down over the handlebars, gripping to keep facing forwards, legs faithfully winding on towards the top.

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The day before I had ridden in to Applecross via the coast road, a lower-level option offering a circuit that appealed to the completist in me. This meant I only had to climb the Bealach one way, and the ‘easy’ way at that. The coast road turned out to be a sensational ride, endless steep ups and downs, little bays, hamlets and forests, and both a joy and a tough ride until I got to the long straight south towards the village. The wind really kicked in then, and did not let up, and then it terrified me that I’d have to fight this for the next four days in the way you only get terrified when doing something on your own, and by the time I got to the hostel I was staying in that night I was scared of what was to come. The fear passed, thanks to a call home, by the time morning came round and I was on the way up. Climbing is calming.

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Back on the Bealach. I can see the road above twisting towards what seems to be the summit. But the wind has its way, and forces me off the road as a car passes. Too close for comfort. Overcompensating the wind, I almost hit the car’s flank leaning into it, and put a foot down. I continue to be blown to the side and having no option, get off and push for a few minutes. The work is harder than pedaling and when I can remount its a relief, not least because another few minutes in the saddle brings the tell-tale car park complete with wind-blown man taking photos. Our shouts are inaudible. He possibly confirms that it is downhill from here.

IMG_5985.JPGThe descent down the astonishing corrie of the east side of the Bealach brings relief but more reminders of the conditions. Ascending riders going the other way seem to be gliding up the steep side of the pass, including one heavily-loaded tandem. As I near the bottom emotions bubble up. Perhaps this climb has built up too much over the months I’d been planning it, perhaps the fear of the day before, resurfacing as adrenalin. I stop in Lochcarron village and eat a frankly amazing chicken roll. The bike gets blown over outside the Post Office. It starts to rain. It was that kind of day.

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Off towards Kyle of Lochalsh, and Skye, via first respite and then more smashing from the wind. A wonderful, unforgettable ride.

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Sprinting over Sleat. There’s a ferry with my name on it, but I have ridden fast and am now chasing the service preceding it. I woke at 4.30am with the rain smashing into the roof of the Glenbrittle youth hostel, as glum an alarm call as there can be. But I rise anyway, resolving to take the shower and achieve the rest of the day as planned. Over porridge made with water – a dutiful breakfast – I watch as the downpour magically abates, leaving wet roads but a dry cyclist, climbing alone out of Glenbrittle in the early morning. What had seemed like a tough charge out of the glen transpired to be doable, and I was on my way to Sligachan and Broadford before having properly woken up. Coffee and a bacon roll in Broadford helped, but it was the onwards dash to Armadale that made the morning. The last 15 miles were a little more forgiving than much of the riding on Skye, and I got into a faster pace than is usual for me (still slow). Two riders emerge from the side of the road and I whizz past them. As expected, they soon catch and pass me, but then something very unusual happens. Over the next half an hour I reel them in, so that just before Armadale I somewhat sheepishly go by again, and stay away until the ferry terminal. The end of my ride, Armadale harbour shining in the warm sunlight, and a rare feeling of triumph.

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Skye swimming

Swimming at the Fairy Pools, it seems, ain’t what it used to be. At least if the crowds of people aiming exactly for that spot are anything to go by, if you decide to take a dip there you’ll have a lot of company. But the Cuillin Hills feed many streams and rivers, and as I cycled past the parking spot for the pools I opted not to stop and instead see what else was around.

I didn’t have to look far. A little further on down the valley two chaps come marching down the hillside not in fleeces and waterproofs but wetsuits with hoods. They look a little surprised when I ambush them and ask for their swimming spot, but give up the goods. Towel tucked under arm I stroll up under the Cuillin, dropping down into the first pool I find. I am not alone. Two Italian boys appear to be passing the day here, throwing stones, taking photos and washing their hair. They express a satisfying amount of disbelief that I am planning a dip. This then requires a spot of insouciance as I am now representing my nation in a toughness contest, and I am the only participant.

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Cold water, as it always is, is an instant thrill, and this pool offers another. At its head is a waterfall, gushing blue-white into the deep water, its upper pool fed by another cascade. The fall is powerful, and I try to swim into it but keep getting pushed away. After a few minutes I’m ready to get out, and it seems I have inspired one of the Italians to get in himself. First, he removes his clothes. He has a deeply admirable physique, and proceeds to perform handstands on a nearby rock. And then the splits while doing a handstand. He has continental small briefs on. Next to him I surely appear a pale wastrel. At least I am a pale wastrel who swims in cold water. He swims too and I leave them to it.

But I’m not yet done with this swim, and after warming in the sun for a while I head back for a late evening swim. The Italians are still there, still throwing stones, but don’t manage to follow me in the second time. No fairies to be seen, but a swim like something from another life. How wonderful and how fortunate I have been to have found myself in Glenbrittle, under the mountains, in the rushing water, a mix of air and noise and cold.