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The Beautiful South

Over a long weekend in September 2017 my friends Jeff, Matt, Tim and I tackled our first proper mountain bike adventure: the iconic South Downs Way, a 100-mile off-road track from Winchester to Eastbourne.

I like to think of this trip as character-building. Following a period of rain the chalk surface had become slippery and treacherous in many places. Further heavy showers during the weekend added to our difficulties. We found ourselves bogged down in fields of cow shit. Cycling uphill, through a forest, the path ahead of us turned into a cascading torrent of water. We suffered a record number of punctures, embarrassingly most of them mine. Nobody else appeared to be cycling the South Downs Way that weekend, though there were plenty of walkers. We were regularly overtaken by people trudging past us in cagoules carrying heavy rucksacks, looking like they might be having a slightly less miserable time than we were. We got so lost on the first day that the owner of the B&B where we were meant to be staying was driving round Sussex in a van trying to find us. Even a night spent kicking a snoring room-mate in the head, or the sight of Tim half way up a hill, kicking and hurling abuse at his bicycle – as diverting as these small pleasures were – could not make up for the disappointments of this trip. We finally bailed out at Monday lunchtime, having completed less than half of the route.

So it was that in June 2018 we decided to head much further south in search of sunnier climes. We settled on the Pirinexus, a 220-mile circular route around Catalonia and southern France…

The night before the trip we pick up our hire bikes – four brand new mountain bikes gleaming a cheerful bright yellow. We have only brought one spare inner tube between us but the man in the shop refuses point blank to sell us any more. The bikes, he tells us, are fitted with ‘self-mending’ tubes. At the merest suspicion of a puncture they will automatically squirt an adhesive green goo around the rim of the tyre, immediately sealing up the hole.

‘Puncture!’ he says, laughing dismissively, as if it is a thing of the past, a quaint relic of cycling history that went out with penny farthings and bicycle clips and old ladies riding to church.

‘Hey, Carlos’, he calls to his young assistant. ‘These guys worry about puncture!’

Carlos chuckles and the man gives him a clip around the ear for no apparent reason. I have an uneasy feeling about all this but I don’t like to say anything.

Early next morning we begin the ride with a group selfie by the statue of the 1990 Barcelona Olympic torch on Escala beach front, before following the road down the coast in search of a suitable place to stop for breakfast. Ahead of us a lemon and green striped hot air balloon hovers listlessly in the morning air, tethered to a tree and awaiting its first passengers of the day.

In the pretty town of Toroella de Montgri we stop for omelette bocadillos and coffee in the main square, surrounded by tall elegant buildings, one of them bearing a faded blue sun dial dated 1725. The town hall is draped in yellow ribbons, the symbol of the campaign to free the pro-Catalonian independence politicians who have recently been imprisoned by the Spanish state for acts of rebellion and sedition. Everywhere we go over the next few days we will see these ribbons, wrapped around lampposts and trees, painted on the sides of buildings and on the surface of roads, festooned throughout villages, town centres, and even in remote forests high up in the mountains.

We set off again, passing fields of tall yellow sunflowers serenading us in the breeze. Later in the morning we turn off the tarmacked cycle lane onto a sandy, boulder-strewn path running through woods. The path careers bumpily downhill towards the blue sea twinkling through a gap in the trees. Dumping the bikes on the beach we hurtle into the sea in our cycle shorts. The first swim of the summer. We haven’t bothered to bring towels but it takes just minutes to dry off in the noonday sun, perched like lizards on a rock jutting out from the cliff at the edge of the beach.

We re-join the road and cycle on to a seafront restaurant in the town of San Antoni de Calonge on the Costa Brava. The first lunch of our trip is a gloopy stew of rice, blackened with squid ink and mixed with mussels, prawns and dark savoury mushrooms, with crusty bread to mop up the rich juices. Swilled down with a carafe of crisp, light rosado – the first of a great many over the coming days – it sets the culinary bar high for the rest of the tour.

Heading inland after lunch we follow the tracks of the old narrow-gauge railway path running from Sant Feliu de Guíxols all the way to Girona. The path skirts the edge of Llagostera, its medieval town centre perched high on a hilltop crowned by a picture book castle. The late afternoon sky clouds over and yellows ominously, darkening in patches like a bruised peach. There are distant rumbles and the air thickens with a sense of impending downpour. The track zig-zags its way across fields which are kept vividly green by water sprinklers towering overhead. We ride through, trying and failing to dodge the rotating water-jets. We end up getting thoroughly soaked and it hasn’t even started to rain yet. Then it begins to fall steadily for the last hour of the journey (how often does this seem to happen at the very end of a cycling day?) But this is warm, gentle rain which seems to evaporate in the heat almost as soon as it touches the skin.

Reaching Girona we find our accommodation for the night, a tenth floor apartment in a tower block in the city centre. There is nowhere to leave the bikes securely at the ground level. We spend an amusing half hour struggling one at a time up ten floors with our, by now, rather filthy machines, in an ancient wheezing lift which seems to stop at every floor, constantly apologising and making way for other residents to squeeze in. When we finally get inside the very plush apartment, leaving the muddy bikes in the hall, the views from the kitchen window are spectacular and vertigo-inducing. Far below a tangle of mainline railway lines pours away from Girona station, converging on some unknown vanishing point in the far distance.

The first coin toss of the trip takes place to decide on rooms. I win the top prize – the Penthouse extension with king-size bed and en suite bathroom all to myself. I immediately appoint Jeff as my personal butler. He makes a decent start by offering to wash my fetid shorts, shirt and socks in the automatic washing machine provided.

This is a World Cup trip – the first since 2014 when we spent several days cycling around rural France desperately trying to find a bar with a TV that stayed open after 7 o’clock in the evening. There’s no shortage of places to watch the football here. But it’s an inauspicious start, watching England reserves lose 1-0 to Belgium reserves in a tepid game in a bar in the main square (both sides having already qualified for the knock-out stage). Later we cross into Girona old town for pizzas and afterwards sit smoking on the steps of the cathedral, the coldness of the ancient stones a welcome relief in the warm, sticky night air.

Next morning we pick up the Pirinexus route rolling out through parkland to the west of Girona, weaving through a chain of market gardens full of sun-dappled greenery and bursting with ripe apples, peaches and melons. The route re-joins the old railway track, climbing steadily all the way up to the town of Olot some 40 miles north. Purple mountains loom ahead in the distance, the scree on their high slopes gleaming white in the mid-morning sun.

This morning’s ride flows through a number of river valleys, the Ter, Fluvia and Carrilet. There are tantalising glimpses of these rivers through the trees, looking green and enticing in the rising heat of the day. Even when they are hidden from sight there is the constant sound of water, rushing over weirs and water falls, gurgling and plopping amiably in the tranquil sections in between. Just beyond the village of Les Planes d’Hostoles begins a series of picturesque gorges. A natural bathing pool has formed at the first of these. Abandoning our bikes at the top, we run down the rocky steps and plunge heroically (me)/tread gingerly (them)into the clear, cold water. The pool is soft and spongy underfoot at the edges and unfathomably deep in the middle. The midday sun pulses through the tall trees that circle the water. This is the kind of enchanted place a weary traveller might stumble upon in legend, seeing a vision of beautiful wood nymphs sunning on the rocks. But if there are any weary travellers around today, they will have to make do with a vision of 50-something blokes in unfeasibly tight-fitting leisurewear, hauling themselves out of the water and trying to get their pants dry before lunch.

There’s nothing like a spot of wild swimming to work up an appetite.  Back in the village we find a restaurant on the main road. It’s a bit shabby-looking with long plastic tables and chairs, but full of locals taking advantage of the ridiculously good value eleven euro menu del dia. For our eleven euros we enjoy salad/soup, anchovies/meatballs, the ubiquitous Crème Catalan and the inevitable litre of rosado. An hour later we exit quickly leaving a small tip and an embarrassing damp patch on the seats.

We continue towards Olot at a sleepy mid-afternoon pace along the old railway track, stopping at one of the disused old stations for a brief power-siesta in a shady pine-scented nook. Olot is a nondescript place notable for its abattoir and old men slumped boozily on park benches. We refuel on fizzy drinks and chocolate in preparation for the hellish hill which starts almost as soon as we leave the town. It’s an unforgiving 10 kilometre climb, leg and soul-sapping. The late afternoon cloud cover offers some protection from the scorching rays but the air is thick and sticky. The road winds up the mountain-side punctuated by a series of hair-pin turns. All the while up I am concentrating on the two feet of tarmac just in front, trying not to look any further ahead. It’s morale-crushing when you see the road stretching upwards as far as the eye can see then twisting around the next bend. I occasionally glance to my left to take in the dramatic valley below and the steep mountains on the far side, covered with dense green forests. The silence of the afternoon is broken only by my ragged breathing and the faint tinkling of cow-bells down in the valley.

As usual Jeff, followed by Matt, is the first to reach the summit. When I finally look up and see them waiting at the side of the road my joy is unbound. The hill is followed by a plunge of several kilometres back down into the valley to the village of Sant Joan de les Abadesses. The descent is deeply pleasurable, combining the liberation of freewheeling at adrenaline-pumping high speed with the concentration and skill needed for braking and banking around the tight hairpins. As the wind rises I remove my trilby hat and stuff it into my pannier. The evening sun bleeds through the clouds and the countryside rushes past in a green and gold blur, the cool breeze blowing into our faces and whipping up our hair.

From the bottom it’s still another ten miles to our night stop, though luckily there are no football kick-offs to make as today is a rest day in the World Cup. Tim, exhausted from the long climb up from Olot, appears close to mutiny and can only be cajoled into pressing on with the promise of the world’s largest Negroni up ahead. As the last light of the day begins to drain away we arrive at the village of Camprodon nestling in the foothills of the mountains, its narrow cobbled streets and arched 13th century bridge straddling the rushing waters of the Ter.

We check into the Hostel La Placeta just in time to shower and eat before the restaurant closes. The owner of the hotel hovers in the background. His manner is courteous but distracted. His furrowed brow, far-away manner and furtive phone calls hint, we surmise, at a possibly troubled personal life or shady drugs deal. We dine handsomely on cream of courgette soup, a plate of toasted tomato bread and local Pyrenean cheeses, chocolate mousse, a flagon of vina rosado and a cheeky Spanish grappa and coffee, before the obligatory smoke in the village square before bed.

Feeling a tad guilty about last night’s penthouse suite I’ve offered to take one for the team tonight, volunteering to share with X.  We are billeted in room 101. This is entirely appropriate since it is about to contain what is beyond doubt the worst thing in the world. X’s snoring. Luckily my preparations for a good night’s sleep have been assiduous: 100 kilometres of cycling (including a height gain the equivalent of Ben Nevis), a bout of wild swimming, two three-course meals, a river of rosado, and Boot’s premium brand of ear plugs. While I cannot claim total success for this strategy it does at least file some of the rougher edges off the noise. As I bob in and out of bleary consciousness during the night I even fancy I hear the purring of a contented, if somewhat bronchial, pussycat in the adjoining bed. I’m not going to lie. It’s not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. But it’s definitely the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had in a room containing X.

We descend next morning to a splendid buffet piled high with cheeses, cold meats, freshly baked breads, pastries and fruit. El patron bids us a grumpy ‘bon dia’, then skulks in the background giving off more negative vibes. His brow appears to have become even more tightly knitted during the night. After serving us coffee he fields another series of hushed phone calls. He does not have the air of a man at peace with his world.

Today’s ride of forty miles is mercifully much shorter than the last two days, but involves crossing the Pyrenees into France. We also need to reach our night stop Ceret in time to watch the tasty looking France v Argentina knock-out game in front of a partisan crowd at 4pm. And it goes without saying that we have to fit in a long, boozy lunch somewhere along the way as well. I sometimes wonder if loved ones back home understand the kind of pressure we are under on these trips.

The climb over the mountains, around 7 kilometres in length, is a little shorter than yesterday’s. But it has a sharper incline and has to be tackled in the full glare of the mid-morning sun, save for the occasional patch of tree-shaded respite. All the way up we are strafed by a swarm of black-clad motor cyclists screaming past us up and down the hill.

I’m not normally that quick going uphill but I seem to be inexplicably on fire this morning. I settle early into a comfortable gear and a regular rhythm on the pedals that I know I can sustain for the 45 minutes or so it will take to get to the top. Half way up I look up to see Jeff only 20 metres ahead. Astonishingly I appear to be reeling him in for the first time ever! He glances back quickly, probably expecting to see Matt, then does a sharp double-take, his eyes popping out on stalks like a cartoon cat. Then he’s immediately up and bobbing around in the saddle, striving to reassert his authority. I grin, knowing I’ll never catch him, but treasuring the moment.

We rest at the summit, drinking in the stupendous views of the emerald green valleys and tiny Monopoly board houses far below, on one side back down into Spain, on the other over into France. The air feels so much sharper this high up. We take a group selfie by the border sign. An information board describes the flight of Republicans pursued by Franco’s henchmen over this pass some eighty years ago. The descent into France is another extraordinary freewheel whoosh for several miles, hurtling down the straights, breaking hard as we slalom around the bends.

It’s approaching lunchtime but we’re pressed for time if we are to make the afternoon kick-off in Ceret. The last thing we want is a last minute rush in the heat of the day. We consider breaking with tradition for once and stopping for only a quick cheese baguette on the hoof. Half an hour later we are in a shady courtyard being served warm goat’s cheese salad, salmon in Provencal sauce with pommes dauphinoise , roasted peppers and courgettes, melon, un grand carafe de rose and coffee. Followed by a mad ten mile dash into Ceret.

We arrive in the main square just after kick-off. A large crowd is gathered around tables outside a brasserie watching the game on a big screen. On the edge of the square a fat man smoking a pipe, his foot in plaster, beckons us to sit down. By his side he has a large, lumpy sack and a shotgun. Something brown and felt-like is sticking out of the top of the sack. A young waiter, bobbing in and out of the brasserie at a frenetic pace, brings us a tray of ice cold beers. At the table in front of us two young couples sit drinking and smoking. During the course of the match a succession of other friends arrive, in ones and twos, giving rise to ever more complex and time-consuming permutations of cheek-kissing.

The game is electrifying, perhaps the game of the World Cup. France take an early lead then Argentina hit back with goals either side of half time. France score three times in a glorious 11-minute burst orchestrated by boy-wizard Mbappe, before Argentina pull one back to lose 4-3. The wind, as if in tandem with the drama on the pitch, whips up violently, typical of southern France/northern Spain with its Mistrals and Tramonteras and their unruly local cousins. High above our heads, the branches of the tall trees in the square sway alarmingly, shaking out leaves and twigs into our beer, the wind carrying the fresh scent of pine resin.

The mood of the crowd ebbs and flows as the narrative of the game unfolds. We arrive as neutrals but the tide is irresistible and by the second half we’re cheering every French move. The young waiter scurries back and forth, weaving through the packed tables, carrying a tray wobbling with drinks balanced on one hand like a trapeze artist. His appearance turns increasingly triumphalist, emerging from the bar draped in the Tricolore, later sporting a flamboyant D’Artagnan hat with a crimson feather. At the final whistle I half expect him to appear on a white charger, swinging a sword and singing the Marseillaise.

But for all the joie de vie and relaxed bonhomie on display, celebrations at the final whistle are strangely muted as everyone packs up immediately and goes home. It’s not that they weren’t up for the game or aren’t pleased by the result. But somehow it doesn’t seem to matter quite as much as it would to the English. It’s probably a far healthier response. Some even leave ten minutes before the end when France are 4-2 up, including our neighbour with the gammy foot and the sack of dead bunnies. He hobbles across the road, takes out a large bunch of keys and opens the door to a shop called La Chasse et la Peche (Hunting and Fishing).

Tonight’s digs are the Hotel Vidal, pretty basic with twin rooms so cramped you could barely swing ‘un chat’ in them. On the plus side the rooms are wonderfully positioned around an old courtyard covered in vines heavy with fruit. We wash out our cycling gear before I manage to come up with a new entry for my forthcoming best-seller 1,001 things to do with a bungee before you die. Number 794 (spoiler alert) is ‘constructing a makeshift washing line’ between the curtain rail and a drainpipe outside the window. We later return to the brasserie in the square for goat’s cheese salads, more beers and another entertaining last sixteen game between Uruguay and Portugal.

The next morning the owner of the Hotel Vidal offers a cheery contrast with our host at the Hostel La Placeta in Camprodon, indulging in some light-hearted banter about our cycling exploits and England’s chances in the football. We accept his offer of petit dejeuner at ten euros a head. Unfortunately there seems to be a rule in the Pyrenean hospitality industry that the quality of the breakfast is in inverse proportion to the mental health of the proprietor. We are served a thin spread of stale pastries and little catering pots of jam, with not a crumb of fresh bread in sight. It’s a paltry affair redeemed only by being served in the loveliest of locations in the leafy courtyard. Later, cycling out of Ceret, we pass the hotel owner strolling along the main street carrying a bag stuffed with newly-baked baguettes and flaky croissants. He is whistling a jaunty tune and has the air of a man who has just made an easy forty euros and is looking forward to reading the Sunday papers and stuffing his face.

The heat is more intense today and before long we have worked up a sweat. We stop for refreshments in the French border village of Le Boulou, ordering drinks at a pavement café. The owner refuses to sell Matt a coke. She then delivers a long diatribe against the evils of sugary drinks, causing Matt to decamp in a huff to another café further down the street where they are more than happy to meet his glucose requirements. Meanwhile, she offers us some useful tips on avoiding dehydration (she suggests a regular intake of water), along with how to avoid sunstroke (she recommends the use of suntan lotion as a protective barrier). While sharing this sage advice she draws deeply on an untipped Gitanes.

Soon after Le Boulou we begin climbing to the summit of the Coll de Panissars, the scene of a famous 13th century battle between the French King Phillip III and Peter III of Aragon. The descent back down into Spain is off-road. The earth is parched and rocky, with the occasional green flash of a darting lizard. The air is filled with yellow butterflies and the scent of sun-baked rosemary. This is proper mountain biking, an exhilarating and hair-raising scramble where we just have to cling on and hope for the best much of the time. Reaching the bottom of the hill we pass a man out walking, wearing no clothes apart from a very tiny, very tight pair of Speedos. He is carrying an enormous loofah, although oddly there do not seem to be any suitable places for bathing anywhere for miles around.

After the final lunch of the trip in the Spanish border town of Jonquera we think about finding somewhere to watch the afternoon knock-out game between Spain and Russia.  Watching France win their last 16 match in Ceret has been a highlight of the trip. Watching Spain do the same now we are back on Spanish turf promises to be just as memorable. But finding a place to watch the game proves challenging as we find ourselves stuck in an  expanse of arid countryside with few signs of civilisation. Taking a long detour from the main route we wind up in the small village of Cabanes. Its hot, dusty streets and atmosphere of permanent siesta make it feel like the sleepy town in a spaghetti western just before the gunfight starts. You expect a cigar-chewing man in a poncho to turn up on a mule and growl ‘Get three coffins ready.’ The Cabanes Social Club in the village square appears to be the hub of what passes for action around here. A TV in the corner is showing the game, but there are just a couple of blokes at the bar – one of whom is wearing a red and white chequered Croatia shirt – and a mangy dog. It would appear that the national side has not really fired the imagination of Catalonians, perhaps understandable in the current political context.

Spain are already one up after an early own goal when we arrive and look to be cruising towards an easy passage into the quarter finals. But a penalty on the cusp of half-time lifts the hopes of the Russians, who then hang on with grim determination for the entire second half and extra time to win the penalty shoot-out. The frustrated Spanish team have total, but meaningless, possession, endlessly passing the ball around in complex geometric patterns that never threaten to breach the resolute Russian defence. The Spanish commentator prattles incessantly and maintains a state of high excitement, even though there is not the remotest chance of anything ever happening. He recites the names after each pointless pass in a crescendo of rising anticipation, an endless mantra of ‘Ramosss…Picquaay…Iniestaaa…JORDI ALBAAAA!’, followed by yet another pass back to the goalkeeper. Spain pass the ball 1,107 times during one of the most tedious matches ever played, a game so stultifying it makes you question why you bother to watch football at all. Let alone on a glorious June afternoon in northern Spain when you might have got to the beach by now, plunging into the beautiful blue waters of the Costa Brava.

The boredom of the game combines with the intense afternoon heat to produce a strange hypnotic effect in which the normal laws of time seem to have been suspended. By the time the final whistle blows all of us have grown full beards, one of us has completed a 700-page picaresque novel, and someone else has learned to play the oud. If the game had gone on any longer we would probably all be dead. Make that four coffins. In this dazed condition we stumble out into the glare and, slumped across our bikes, begin the final leg of the journey back to where we started three days ago in Escala.

Later, we begin to revive in the coolness of the evening air as we cycle through the green wetlands of the Aiguamolls Natural Park. Ten miles from the end there’s a sudden hiss as Jeff’s back tyre deflates. He glances down at his self-mending tube but, sadly, no ejaculation has taken place (insert own joke). The promised green goo has failed to materialise. Luckily we still have one spare inner tube which gets us back to Escala, where the statue of the Olympic torch marks the completion of a wonderful tour.

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Once Upon a Time in the West

Last June, for the annual tour with my friends Jeff and Tim (our usual fourth member Matt being sadly ruled hors de combat with a back injury), we tackled the West Country Way, an epic 240 mile ride along Route 3 of the National Cycle Network, travelling through the highly varied landscapes of North Cornwall, North Devon and Somerset. It took place a couple of weeks before the EU Referendum, and will be forever known as our ‘Brexit bike trip’.

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Things get off to a gentle enough start with a 17 mile ride out of Bodmin station (four hours from Paddington) along the converted railway track of the Camel Trail (flat and, ironically, hump-free) to reach the start of the West Country Way at Padstow on the north Cornish coast. We toast the beginning of a new adventure sitting outside a pub overlooking the picture postcard harbour, soaking up the late afternoon rays and trying not to think about the weather forecast for the weekend ahead (apocalyptic as per usual for a summer bike trip), before cycling six miles back up the Camel Trail to our first night stop, the Molesworth Arms at Wadebridge.

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Wadebridge, one would imagine, is normally a sleepy market town, but this evening the streets are jammed with people spilling out of the pubs, most of whom appear to have been drinking since 9 o’clock this morning. The atmosphere is good-natured and carnivalesque, but things suddenly kick off in the street outside the Molesworth when a feisty young woman thumps a man in the face, ramming the back of his head against a shop windowpane, and chucking a pint over him for good measure. Wisely, he retreats and stands glaring at her from a safe distance.

Ten minutes later the scene morphs from saloon bar western to the golden age of silent movies as the local cops turn up and chase the man up the steep hill through the town. They all vanish from sight at the top for several minutes before the man suddenly re-appears and runs back down the hill chased by the red-faced and wheezing cops, cheered on by an appreciative crowd, before they finally catch him, pin him to the ground and cart him off in a waiting panda. Maybe he’s broken a restraining order or committed some previous assault on the woman, or maybe it’s all a piece of performance art staged for the benefit of any cycle tourers passing through.

Back inside the Molesworth Arms I find myself in a long conversation with a couple of very jovial men who explain that we have arrived in Wadebridge in the middle of the three day Royal Cornish Show, a major event in the county featuring many different kinds of agricultural machinery and prize livestock for sale, and involving industrial quantities of cider. Full of beginning-of-holiday bonhomie I show a tad more interest in the subject than I truly feel, and have soon learned more than I ever thought possible about current developments in the technology of hay-baling.

The rest of the evening passes without incident as we enjoy some decent pub grub, a few more ales and a gig featuring local celebrity crooner Josh Kernow, semi-finalist on Britain’s Got Talent 2016. Josh delivers a full-throated and well-received performance but slightly lets himself down during the interval (according to an eye witness account from Jeff) by failing to wash his hands following a visit to the urinal. As always on a bike trip, all life is here.

Seven pints/23 miles cycling is not the most sensible ale/physical exertion ratio on the first leg of such a big trip, and the next morning I awake with a throbbing head and a nagging feeling that I may have agreed to buy a combined harvester and a couple of heifers by mistake. Meanwhile, the second day of the Royal Cornish Show is already getting underway and in the breakfast room of the Molesworth Arms a man is ordering a full English and a pint of scrumpy.

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Our first full day is a testing 47 miles to Bude as the Camel Trail gives way to much hillier terrain. Panting up one particularly tough climb we round the bend at the top and are confronted by a dispiritingly huge red and white ‘Vote Leave’ poster, the first of a great many over the next few days and a harbinger, as it turns out, of what is to come later in the month. There is clearly an almighty shit storm brewing out here in the shires and we begin to feel a long way from London in more than one sense. Jeff points out that, being Cornwall, the poster could actually be expressing a desire to leave the UK.

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The route skirts the western edge of Bodmin Moor crossing a blank expanse of sparse vegetation and abandoned airfields, strange and desolate-looking under heavily overcast skies, then veers west to join the coast road near Millook. The ride into Bude is spectacular with very steep ascents (unrideable at times), nerve-jangling downhills and breath-taking clifftop views of the waves crashing onto the rocks far below. We arrive just as the long-threatened rain begins to fall and check into the Atlantic House guesthouse on the seafront, a decent establishment which also boasts the only Creole restaurant in the South West of England.

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After a long day in the saddle and a good dinner it’s always such a pleasure to fall into bed. There’s nothing like a really physically tiring bike ride or a walk for getting a great night’s sleep. In As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the young Laurie Lee recounts his journey on foot from the Cotswolds to London in the early 1930s, describing the wonderful solace of rest after a long day on the road: “Even exhaustion, when it came, had a voluptuous quality, and sleep was caressive and deep, like oil.”

It was alright for Laurie Lee though. He probably never had to share a room with snoring middle aged blokes. The key lesson, knowledge hard-won from previous bike trips, is to make sure you’re the one who nods off first – better to be the snorer than the snoree. On this occasion I fail to do so, but at least have taken the precaution of bringing ear-plugs. Flight ear-plugs, in fact, designed to block out the din of a Boeing 747 taking off. Unfortunately they fail to muffle the roar of the Jumbo taxiing on the runway over the other side of the room. I stare at the ceiling deep into the wee small hours, contemplating the prospect of a gruelling 60 mile ride tomorrow and wondering if anyone has ever been found dead in a B&B, strangled with their own bicycle chain.

On the morning of day three we cross the county border out of Cornwall and the landscape subtly shifts to something classically Devonian with rolling hills and the congenial charm of Midsomer Murder-type villages like Holsworthy and Petrockstowe, where we join the Tarka Trail for nearly 30 miles of welcome flatness as far as Barnstaple. Another fine old post-Beeching railway track conversion, the Tarka Trail traces the journey of the eponymous critter in Henry Williamson’s 1927 story Tarka The Otter, made into a successful film in 1979 with a screenplay by Gerald Durrell.

Henry Williamson, as well as being a celebrated local author and naturalist, was also a keen Nazi, an admirer of Hitler and member of Mosely’s Blackshirts, though this tends not to be mentioned by the North Devon tourism industry. Were he alive today he would probably, one suspects, have been a Brexiteer, although in the 1950s he did write for a journal called The European, edited by Mosely’s wife Diana Mitford, established by the Moselys as a platform for the BUF leader’s belief in a united (fascist) Europe as a bulwark against the US and Soviet Union.

The Tarka Trail is a lovely, family-friendly ride which can also be cycled as part of the 100 mile Devon Coast to Coast Cycle Route (from Ilfracombe down to Plymouth). In addition to its other delights it’s probably worth doing if only to have an opportunity to tell the old curry house joke: “Waiter, what is the tarka?’… ‘It’s like the tikka sir, but it’s a little ‘otter”. We follow the trail along the River Torridge, stopping for lunch, Spartan fare (for once) of cuppa soup and coffee at the Torrington Cycle Hire café opposite the Puffing Billy pub, before continuing up the Torridge Estuary, getting caught in one of those heavy but mercifully short summer downpours, then quickly drying off in the afternoon sun.

Past Bideford on a short detour to the North Devon coast lies Westward Ho!, notable for its fine beach and fish and chip shops, but also for its unusual name. It is, as far as I know, the only village in Britain to be called after a novel (written in 1855 by local author Charles Kingsley, who also wrote The Water Babies). It is also the only place name in the country to boast an exclamation mark. In this respect, however, it is outdone by the Canadian town of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! which has two exclamation marks. Westward Ho! could surely settle this once and for all by changing its name to Westward Ho! Ho! Ho! But that would be daft.

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We leave the Tarka Trail at Barnstaple and begin the relentless pull up to Long Holcombe, 483 metres above sea level at the top of Exmoor. Thick swirls of cloud obscure what must be stunning panoramic views in clear weather, but today they add to the atmosphere of this beautiful, lonely place. Meanwhile, Tim’s bike seat has become mysteriously detached from its post and the machine is barely rideable. Dusk is creeping over the moors and there are few landmarks up here which can help us to find our night stop the Sportsman’s Inn, located somewhere between the villages of North Molton and Withypool. With our only GPS system fast running out of charge we manage to find the place (completely hidden from view on a turning 100 metres off Route 3) just in the nick of time – another 15 minutes and we would have cycled straight past the turning and been stranded up here in the inky black with barely a passing motorist.

The Sportsman’s Inn is a delightful old pub and we are royally looked after by Graham, the sprightly old chap who runs the place with his son Martin (who is away with his mates enjoying a similar weekend jolly to ourselves, but something involving fast cars). Utterly shagged out after the climb up Exmoor we collapse in the bar in front of the TV (watching England’s underwhelming opening draw with a mediocre Russian side in Euro 2016), barely able to speak as we shovel down onion soups, lamb shanks/battered cods, sticky toffee puddings and pints of Exmoor Ale. For half time entertainment we play hunt the mobile phone signal in a pitch dark field full of bleating sheep behind the pub.

When we have regained the power of speech we ask Graham how they manage to run an obviously thriving pub up here in such a remote place. There are many regulars who drive here from the villages scattered around the top of Exmoor, but the Sportsman’s Inn, as its name suggests, is also very popular with the hunting community who gather here for lunch after a morning’s shooting. ‘What do they shoot?’ we ask. ‘Pheasants, partridge, rabbits, hares, foxes, deer – pretty much anything that moves really.’ Graham is also bracingly unromantic about life up here in the winter months (‘bloody awful, covered in fog for days on end, can’t stand it’).

Next morning, after serving us a superb breakfast cooked by his wife, Graham cements his status as a total legend by ushering into his workshop at the back of the pub, an Aladdin’s cave of tools, where he performs some form of demented alchemy on Tim’s bike seat with a lump of wood, a bunch of screws, a couple of spare bungees and a pomegranate; an ingeniously make-do solution straight out of the Heath Robinson cycle repair book.

The next day is another 65 miles, but far easier than yesterday as we descend from the top of Exmoor to Dulverton, crossing the border into Somerset and continuing on undulating minor roads to Tiverton and Sampford Peverell. The deep silence is punctuated only by the occasional Sunday driver and, at one point, repeated bursts of gunfire coming from a field around the next bend. One of the things you begin to notice on cycle trips is how much shooting there is in the British countryside. Unsure whether the intended targets on this occasion are some form of game, as described by Graham, or possibly a cull of Remain voters, we cycle past nervously just as a fresh batch of clay pigeons bites the dust.

The Globe Inn in the village of Appley (about a mile off Route 3), reputed to be 500 years old, provides a fine lunch of monkfish curry, hot with chilli and aromatic with coconut and tamarind. Afterwards, flying down country lanes in the afternoon sunshine I lose concentration and only a last second swerve narrowly averts a crash into the hedgerow at 24 miles an hour. When you haven’t come a cropper on a bike for a long while you can start to feel a bit complacent, almost invulnerable. It’s sobering to remember now and again how close at hand disaster can lie if you get careless. The author and farmer John Lewis-Sempel said ‘There are only two good ways to fall of a horse – be either young or very drunk”, and the same probably applies to a bike (though only the latter option remains open to me now).

Route 3 continues through the centre of Taunton, past the county cricket ground and the Joel Garner stand, prompting fond memories of ‘Big Bird’, the six foot eight lethally quick West Indies and Somerset bowler of the late 70s/early 80s. There’s a nice easy finish to the day along the Bridgewater and Taunton Canal to our night stop at the Friendly Spirit pub in Cannington, just off the route four miles outside Bridgewater.

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The final day is the longest (over 70 miles to Bath) and the cycling conditions, a bit like the local cider, are mostly cloudy and flat as we cross the Somerset Levels, these days often an area of severe flooding but thankfully not at the moment. Approaching Glastonbury the distinctive mound of the Tor beckons us on, popping up first on one side of us and then the other as the road twists and turns, its 14th century ruined tower pointing skywards like an ancient one finger salute.

This stretch of Route 3 almost certainly follows a ley line because strange phenomena now begin to occur: firstly a horse-drawn carriage carrying a man and woman, dressed in what appear to be Elizabethan costumes, comes clattering towards us down a country lane. Minutes later, this is followed by a second world war Lancaster bomber flying very low overhead and disappearing across the ancient peat moors outside the town, raising the strong possibility that we have entered some kind of wormhole in the space-time continuum.

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We enter Glastonbury itself, passing the Excalibur pub, the Merlin petrol garage & mini-mart and the Joseph of Arimathea pizza parlour. Judging by the rest of the town centre the local economy seems to be mainly dependent on the sale of crystals. With horror I realise we have failed to include a single proper cake stop in the entire trip, an omission partly due to time constraints given the longer than usual distances covered. We finally manage to squeeze in a late morning hunk of coffee & walnut at the Uther Pendragon café, before riding up the High Street (or, as it used to be called in Arthurian times, New Age Tatte Shoppe Street), then on past Glastonbury Abbey. The ‘discovery’ of Arthur and Guinevere’s tomb was announced here in 1191, though this is now seen as a publicity stunt to attract more pilgrims to the town and generate revenues for the re-building of the Abbey which had been destroyed by fire seven years earlier. Tourism marketing strategies clearly haven’t changed much in the past 800 years.

Where would King Arthur have stood on Brexit? It’s entirely possible, given that he was always up for a bit of Saxon-bashing, that he would have been in favour of triggering Article 50 at the earliest possible opportunity. But I’d prefer to see the egalitarian nature of his famous Round Table as evidence of a commitment to the European Social Charter and the Convention on Human Rights.

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After the tackiness of Glastonbury town centre the more sedate and elegant charms of Wells come as something of a relief and, stopping for lunch at a pub overlooking the magnificent cathedral, I drink a token pint of Somerset cider just because I feel I ought to at least once on the trip, the acid sharpness refreshing for the first couple of swigs and then offering diminishing returns, reminding me why I’m an ale man. On the other side of Wells the West Country Way offers one last test with a strenuous afternoon climb up and over the Mendips rewarded by great views back across the Levels, before we join the Bristol & Bath Railway Path, the very first section of the UK National Cycle Network to be built back in 1984.

It’s been a challenging but very memorable trip (though I’d suggest taking at least an extra day on top of the four and a bit we squeezed it into), and the weather, though hardly the stuff of balmy evenings and long shadows on cricket pitches one always hopes for, has been nowhere near as dire as predicted. We finally reach the end of the West Country Way at Bath Spa station, leaving us just enough time for a final celebratory toast before catching the train back home to our metropolitan bubble.

Homage To Caledonia

Two years ago my son Sam and I cycled Lochs & Glens North from Glasgow up to Inverness. This summer we decided to retrace that journey but this time taking an entirely different route, incorporating the Caledonian Way (Route 78 of the National Cycle Network, newly launched by Sustrans in 2016) which starts in Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula.

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Sitting on my bike in Campbeltown harbour I swear I can hear the faint sound of Macca’s ghostly bagpipers floating on the breeze as I gaze wistfully towards the Mull of Kintyre. Mist is rolling in from the sea. My desire, as you can probably guess, is always to be here. I can’t though – we’ve got 240 miles to cycle and we have to be in Inverness six days from now. Besides, mist isn’t really rolling in from the sea anyway. It’s pissing down with rain and we’re getting a bit goose-pimply. I’m not entirely convinced Macca has ever been here to be honest.

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Our epic trip got off to a good start yesterday with a nice, mostly flat 40 miles in warm sunshine following NCN Route 7 south out of Glasgow, along the Clyde and down the Ayrshire coast to the port of Ardrossan where we caught the evening ferry over to Kintyre. The three hour crossing felt like an adventure in itself, with stunning views of the mountains of Arran silhouetted dark blue against the silvery light as we settled back in the lounge of the CalMac ferry, swigging bottles of beer from the Isle of Arran Brewery (motto ‘Guid ale keeps my heart aboon’).

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Kintyre is a peninsular though it feels as cut off as an island: long, thin and straggly, ten miles wide, dangling down into the North Channel of the Irish Sea between Arran to the east and Islay to the west. Its southern tip (the famous Mull of K) is a mere caber’s toss from the coast of County Antrim in Ulster.

Campbeltown, 15 miles north of the Mull, is the region’s main town and it’s a long, convoluted trip by car from Glasgow, which means the peninsula has found itself cast adrift from the Scottish ‘mainland’ over the years. The ferry service, fully launched only in 2016, has now offered a new lifeline to this wild west fringe of Scotland, as well as opening up the region to cycle tourers like ourselves.

Campbeltown retains traces of past glory in the faded elegance of its grand hotels around the harbour and it once claimed with some justification to be the ‘the whisky capital of the world’ with 34 distilleries (which helped to fuel the illegal smuggling routes into Prohibition America in the 1920s). Today though there are only three active ones left and it was named in 2012 as one of the two most economically vulnerable towns in rural Scotland. The B&B where we’re staying in the town centre displays a defiant nationalism with SNP posters and leftover Yes stickers still blue-tacked to the windows nearly two years after the referendum on independence. Maybe they’ve just been left there for the next one.

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Route 78 starts in the harbour and goes up the eastern side of Kintyre with several very steep hills made even more challenging by the driving rain and thick cloud, so low at times on the summits that we are can hardly see the road ahead. Occasionally the clouds break up enough to unveil tantalising views of Arran over to our right. A sound like the distant baying of a hound percolates through the porridgy gloom, adding to the romantic and very Scottish feeling of the lonely landscape. There are few places to stop on this section of the route but a restaurant on the way into Carradale village provides brief respite from the rain along with welcome cheese toasties and coffee.

Now there are some people who claim that when you get caught in heavy rain, after a while you just can’t get any wetter. Those people are fools who should be rapped on the head with a small bicycle tool. It is in fact possible to get very wet and then to get much wetter still, and then to carry on getting wetter until the rain has soaked not only through your clothes and the contents of your panniers but has seeped into your pores and inundated your very soul. This is the level of wetness we are to experience over the next few days on the Kintyre Peninsula.

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Luckily I have been reading Robert McFarlane’s book Landmarks, a powerful manifesto for the reclamation of the disappearing language of landscape. McFarlane believes that an ability to describe the richness of our natural world can help us to value and protect it more. As a result I have acquired a glossary of regional terms to describe the many types of rain across the British Isles, a good number of which are, unsurprisingly, Scottish or Gaelic dialect words. I suspect this list of rain words is going to come in pretty handy this week.

Arriving at our night stop, the coastal town of Tarbert, we find our B&B has been double-booked by mistake and we have been gazumped by a party of Dutch people doing a whiskey tour of the islands. We sit in the kitchen thawing out from the day’s plypes (sudden heavy showers, Scots) and sipping hot tea as the owner frantically rings round trying to find us an alternative bed for the night. Eventually he finds us a willing host, Andrew who runs The Moorings, a guesthouse with fine views of the harbour front who is already full but offers to put us up in his spare room in the attic.

The Moorings is a comfortable and quirky place, the front garden like a fairy tale grotto stuffed with a menagerie of ornamental creatures: monkeys, bears, big cats, snakes, turtles and exotic birds peeking out from behind plant pots or camouflaged by thick green foliage. Andrew ushers us inside, a stocky bearded Scot, very kind if slightly bossy. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have ter ask yers not to smoke anywhere in the hoose’ he says, rather unnecessarily as I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many no smoking signs gathered together in one place, pinned to every available wall space and door. The house is also festooned in multi-coloured lights that wink on and off as you approach them, including some floor-level bulbs around the toilet in our room that unexpectedly bathe my legs in a disconcerting purple glow as I’m taking a dump later that evening.

Andrew offers to run the sodden contents of our panniers through his washing machine and tumble drier. It’s amazing how many B&Bs do this but I suppose they must be used to bedraggled, miserable looking cyclists down to their last pair of dry pants. On our way out for the evening he beckons me over, looking very grave. He’s spotted Sam sneaking a crafty fag across the road. ‘I can’t believe the young man smokes!’ he says. ‘And him a cyclist!’ ‘I gave up 15 years ago. And I never touch a drop ‘o booze’, though you’d never believe it’ he says, gesturing around at shelves piled high with bottles of spirits from around the world. ‘Me only addiction is me telly’, he says. ‘I’m off to watch Emmerdale…’

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Tarbert is a pleasing fishing village with a pretty harbour full of colourful boats. King Magnus Barefoot of Norway sailed here in 1098 and claimed Kintyre as part of the Viking Kingdom of the Sudereys (Southern Hebrides). High on a hill overlooking the town is the picturesque ruined castle mostly built by Robert The Bruce, the Scottish king who after a famous encounter with a spider in a cave decided to abandon his previous devo-max position and form the SNP back in the early 14th century, a crown more recently held by his descendants, the fishermen Alex The Salmon and Nicola the Sturgeon (Did you check all these facts? Ed).

As well as facing seawards Tarbert is also located on the shore of Loch Fyne where the restaurant chain of that name originated. The whole area is famed for its seafood. The Starfish in town has a high foodie reputation but you need to book in advance to have any chance of getting a table. We settle instead for The Anchorage, a cosy harbour-side bistro where we dine as handsomely as no doubt King Magnus Barefoot once did on local produce including fish chowder, smoked salmon and venison sausages. We go on for a couple of beers in the bright green painted Corner House pub next door where old men in kilts are playing pool and the TV is showing a feisty Friday night Scottish League Cup tie between Arbroath and Dundee. It all feels nicely authentic in a low key sort of way so we decide to round things off properly with a ten year old Isle of Arran malt. I judge it to be pleasantly peaty, although I have no idea what that means. It just sounds like the sort of thing you might say when tasting a ten year old malt.

Next morning we are joined at breakfast by two other cyclists, a nice German couple from Konstanz who are thankfully too polite to bring up the embarrassment of Brexit. They are doing the iconic Lands End to John O’Groats route or Das LEJOG as it is probably known in Deutschland. It’s not entirely clear how they managed to end up this far west. They set off from Cornwall about two weeks ago. ‘The weather was good at first’, says the man, ‘but as soon as we entered Scotland it became not so good. And this –  this is not a holiday!’, he says gazing mournfully out of the rain-spattered window and looking a little tearful. His wife squeezes his hand and we all agree that cycling is still brilliant even when it’s raining, if only because it makes you appreciate the good days even more. We swap stories of our past campaigns completely forgetting about the bowls of strawberries in front of us until Andrew comes in, looking rather peeved. ‘Are yous all not eating yer froot then?’ he wants to know. Bike chatter is instantly replaced by the clatter of spoons.

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From Tarbert the route turns across the peninsula towards the west coast, through the lush if totally unpronounceable Forest of Achaglachgach, memorably described in Richard Guise’s cycling book From the Mull to the Cape:

“The lochside stretch I was rolling through formed the trickily named Achaglachgach Forest, where I panted up and down Glen Achaglachgach, past Achaglachgach House and through Achaglachgach village, which was totally deserted. Maybe they’d all choked to death trying to say ‘Achaglachgach’.”

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At this point Kintyre becomes the Knapdale peninsula and the minor road up the west coast offers lovely views of the island of Jura (where George Orwell stayed when he wrote 1984), but today its hazy outline is filtered through the steady ciuran (drizzle, Gaelic). Whatever the weather though, there’s a deep sense of stillness and spaciousness about this landscape which calms the spirit and declutters the mind – ‘fabulous nothing’ as the poet Kathleen Jamie described Jura.

The Kilberry Inn is one of the few places to stop for refreshment round here and has excellent gastronomic credentials, but we are still stuffed from Andrew’s full Scottish this morning and just settle for a bottle of IPA from Colonsay, apparently the smallest island in the world with its own brewery.

Turning inland the route continues along the Crinan Canal towpath and across the raised peat bogs and mossy hummocks of the Mhoine Mhor nature reserve before we encounter the first of many stone circles, standing stones and burial cairns of Kilmartin Glen. This area contains one of the most important Neolithic sites in Scotland dating from around 4,000 BC with around 150 prehistoric monuments crammed into a radius of six miles. Nearby is Dunadd, an Iron Age fort said to be the home of the first Kings of Scotland.

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Climbing up into Kilmartin village we reach our night stop the Kilmartin Inn, its slate roof and stark white walls nestling beneath the green slopes that tower above a small cluster of houses, a museum and a village church which contains an impressive collection of medieval gravestones dating back to the 13th century. Carnasserie Castle on the far edge of the village is also worth exploring, an evocative ruined 16th century tower house on a hill overlooking the Glen.

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Surrounded by so many reminders of the ancient past and enclosed by the brooding grey sky, rain blattering (heavily and noisily, Galloway) on the pub windows, Kilmartin is an atmospheric location to stay the night, a perfect blend of time and place. Pies and pints are followed by the already established ritual of the nightcap local malt (Isle of Jura). It proves to be pleasantly peaty, though perhaps not quite as peaty as last night’s. But it’s hard to be sure so we have another one just to check.

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Before turning in for the night we switch on the TV and find the weatherman beaming with glad tidings. After a few days of widespread rain tomorrow’s forecast shows a ridge of high pressure drifting in from across the Atlantic, bathing Britain in a pool of warm sunshine. There are bright yellow symbols punctuated with fluffy white pillows dotted everywhere across the map. Well almost everywhere. On that long, thin, straggly bit that dangles off the west coast of Scotland there are menacing black clouds leaking diagonal lines of doom. The only bit of the UK, it would appear, where there is any chance of precipitation tomorrow. Even Northern Ireland has little golden orbs of happiness which seems meteorologically unfeasible. Oh and apparently there’s going to be a heatwave in John O’Fucking Groats…

So next morning the rain (somewhere between a dreich and a mi-chailear with a fair amount of bleeterie and a number of heavy flists since you ask) is already set in for the day as we follow Route 78 past the village of Ford and alongside Loch Awe on a 20 mile rollercoaster of a road through thick forest.

After a shivery lunch in a roadside cabin where we dribble pools of water across the floor we cycle across the lovely Glen Nant, Glen Lonan and Glen Hoddle (are you sure about the last one? Ed). Again the challenging, hilly terrain is matched by the stunning beauty of the scenery but it’s too wet to stop and drink it all in as much as we’d really like. One day it would be wonderful to re-visit this whole stretch up from Campbeltown in more serene conditions. However just outside our next night stop in Oban we do at least manage to take advantage of a brief pause in the rain to explore the 13th century Dunstaffnage Castle in the village of Dunbeg, perched formidably on a huge rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn, and like most Scottish castles boasting a long history soaked in blood and passion.

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I’ve been to Oban before about 25 years ago when my wife and I stayed here for a few days, taking trips from the harbour to the islands of Mull, Iona and, best of all, the wonderfully bleak Staffa, an outcrop of wave-lashed rock famous for Fingal’s Cave, inhabited only by screeching birds and reachable by a thrillingly wave-tossed ride in a small boat. It rained during our entire stay back then and needless to say it’s started raining again as we arrive now. It would not surprise me in the least to hear that it has not stopped raining in Oban for the past quarter of a century. Despite this it’s a delightful town to stay in. We tuck into top notch fish and chips in one of the many restaurants that line the seafront and then retire to the cosy Lorne Bar for a few pints of Kilt Lifter brewed locally by the Oban Bay company, topped off with the inevitable Oban 12 year old malt. When in Oban etc…

The next day is the fourth consecutive day of rain. A full-on Glibbeid (mix of rain, sleet and hail, Gaelic) is even forecast at one point. For the first time since leaving Campbeltown there is the possibility of catching a train to our next night stop in Fort William. I’ve never skipped a whole day of any bike tour so far and am reluctant to set a dangerous precedent. If I was on my own I’d probably just put on an extra hair shirt under my waterproof jacket and shove another roll of barbed wire down my Lycra shorts and get on with it, but I sense an air of weather fatigue about my companion and fear he may have reached peak precipitation.

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Maybe it’s time for common sense to prevail  – sod it, we’re on holiday! So a decent morning lie-in and the train it is. Highlights of the Oban-Fort William stretch of Route 78 would have included the impossibly photogenic medieval Castle Stalker, floating on a small islet on Loch Laich (which played the part of The Castle of Aaargh! in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), as well as two more ferry crossings at either end of Loch Linnhe. Oh well, maybe another time…

Our final day is by far the longest with a 66 mile stretch from Fort William to Inverness, but the Scottish weather gods are on our side at last as we wake up to warmer temperatures and even some hazy sunshine beginning to seep through thin white streaks of cloud. We follow quiet roads out of town to join the towpath of the Caledonian Canal, soon reaching the series of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase and the unmistakeable hulk of Ben Nevis, the top shrouded in cloud as it generally is for around 300 days every year.

Following the Great Glen Way walking trail, Route 78 continues to Gairlochy where it leaves the canal and runs through the forest along the edge of Loch Lochy (they must have run out of names for lochs by the time they got to this one). This section feels wild and remote and the off-road trail is rocky and slow-going in places, but the sun is now pouring through the forest canopy and there is pure pleasure in our ride at last.

At Laggan Locks, where the route re-joins the canal, we clamber on board the Eagle, a Dutch barge once used as a troop carrier in the Second World War and now converted into a restaurant of real character. Basking on the top deck in the lunchtime heat we stuff our faces with bowls of chilli washed down with Red McGregor ale brewed in Orkney. Sam plumps for the extra hot sauce option with his chilli and I make a mental note not to be cycling in his tailwind this afternoon.

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Fortified we continue off-road with more sections of towpath and a well-surfaced cycle track running alongside Loch Oich, then on to Fort Augustus which is exactly half way to Inverness, and a kind of lower key version of Fort William with a few tourist coaches and a smattering of tea shops. A cake stop comes in handy here because as soon as we leave the town we hit the gruelling five mile climb up to Carn an t-Suidhe, the highest point of the Caledonian Way at almost 400 metres, our reward being wonderful sweeping views at the top and a long joyous freewheel down to the village of Whitebridge. Here the route forks left and runs along the long southern shore of Loch Ness for the last, easy 20 miles to Inverness.

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As we pootle alongside Scotland’s most famous Loch, the late afternoon sun sinks low, throwing mysterious shadows on the glassy surface. On the edge of my vision something flickers, the hint of a dark shape moving beneath the water. Having had so many slightly disappointing wildlife-watching experiences on holidays over the years (no-show dolphins, mythical puffins, strangely introverted lions), what an irony it would be if I suddenly caught a glimpse of ‘the big one’!

Apparently there have been 1,081 recorded sightings of Britain’s most celebrated monster including half a dozen this year alone and the creature is worth an estimated £60 million to the Scottish economy. If any American or Japanese tourists are reading this they may also be interested to hear of The Leytonstone Lizard, a marvellous giant beast reputed to live at the bottom of my garden in East London (or Jack the Ripper’s East London to give it it’s official name), just behind the pop-up tea room and luxury gift shop.

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Actually they did find a 30 foot serpent in Loch Ness a few months ago but it turned out to be a prop from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a 1970 Billy Wilder film starring Christopher Lee. Still you never know. After all it was possible at the beginning of the 2015/16 football season to get shorter odds on the Loch Ness Monster being discovered than on Leicester City winning the Premier League, so miracles do occasionally happen. Nevertheless I feel confident in saying that ‘Nessie’ will never be found and hereby go on public record and pledge that if proved wrong, I will cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats wearing nothing but a pair of underpants decorated with the Scottish flag.

Meanwhile we finally reach the end of the Caledonian Way beneath the castle walls in Inverness. There’s goat curry, there’s Yellowhammer ale from the Black Isle Brewery and there’s a final toast with a 14 year old Auchentoshan malt – a toast to cycling, to good company, and to the glorious Scottish landscape, to its people and even to its godawful weather. Today has been pretty much the perfect day’s bike ride and we feel we’ve earned it.

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