In July I went for a three day cycle, joining the national cycle route near my house in Edinburgh and heading up north. The first day had its moments, the second was pretty good, and the third day was a great day’s cycle, which I shall remember for some time to come.
I was in a B&B in Dunkeld, eating scrambled eggs which had been cooked very slowly to get to the correct creaminess while listening to some Muzak version of Scottish tunes. I asked the landlady if she knew where I could pick up the cycle route and she said no – in fact you wouldn’t, probably, unless you were a cyclist. It was drizzling when I headed out, the clouds low over the hills and such days remind me of damp days in the New Zealand bush with its jade trees and rainy air. I had to wear my waterproof jacket and trousers. These keep you dry but my trousers are for walking and fit snugly, so are uncomfortable on a cycle.
The route left the road and started spectacularly on a path going by Dunkeld Cathedral then through a forest right by the side of the Tay, which shone white under the grey sky. It was a hushed ride through the wet woods, the only light seeming to be that reflecting from the river. Then it was on a road that still hugged the Tay through prosperous wooded farmland and by handsome stone houses. After twelve miles of cycling I stopped off at the Dunfallandy Stone, a Pictish stone that sits by a tiny graveyard on a small hillock. It is under glass, one side shaded by trees so it is hard to view, the other clearer, but difficult to photograph through the reflections, or so a woman standing there told me. She was with her son and they were trying to identify the beasts on the stone. The boy was arguing that the beasts couldn’t be elephants, they wouldn’t have seen elephants, they must have been mammoths.
“But they wouldn’t have seen mammoths,” said his mother.
“They might have remembered them,” said the boy.
The stone strikes a mysterious note. Sitting figures face each other on chairs suspended in mid-air with a cross between their feet. A horseman on a round-bellied horse with dainty legs and hooves is hunting a beast. They are cantering above a hammer, anvil, pincers or tongs, and they are framed by serpents. It has Pictish runes on it. If thers had been something in a recognisable language it would not have seemed so strange but there was the sense of a distant people and a lost tongue.
I went back to my cycle and got onto route 7 which went through Pitlochry, a busy tourist centre, and then I was on pavements by the A9 until a steep climb took me to Killiecrankie, and I hummed Killiecrankie-O. Whatever the Jacobites stood for, they did produce excellent songs.
By then the sun had come out and it was quite warm. I pulled up at the tourist centre at Killiecrankie and used their toilets to change my tight waterproof trousers for loose pedal pushers. The next part of the ride continued on a B road until past Blair Atholl. It was sweaty work under the sun and I was getting hungry, so I stopped for lunch and turned on my mobile phone to get the time. It was 1:30. I calculated I had travelled about 23 miles in over 4 hours allowing for the stop at Dunfallandy and this was poor going. I had another 36 miles to get to Aviemore and at this rate, allowing for halts and advancing fatigue, it would take me another 6 or 7 hours.
It was now hot and I needed some more water to take me up the Drumochter Pass, which was going to be the hardest part of the journey. At Calvine I looked for a shop or garage but the garage was closed. There was a man in his garden bringing back his shopping though and he filled up my bottle, saying that I had a good day for it, the wind was in the south west, and I was going to be on the old A9. So it was – the new A9 thundered next to me through a band of trees, and I was on the old road on which nature was encroaching. There were still white lines down the middle but the roots of the trees were starting to break through the tarmac. This once busy road was slowly dying. It was eerie, like Kipling’s poem, The Way Through the Woods:-
They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate.
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few)
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods . . . .
But there is no road through the woods.
It was post-apocalyptic, like The Day of the Triffids, like Ridley Walker, like D H Lawrence’s “Don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?” like the death of industrial civilisation which comes into many dreams. It made me think of the ruins we will leave – broken glass, twisted, rusty steel – how poor they will be compared to the cathedral in Dunkeld and the half castles and abbeys by the Tay. But the roads will leave beautiful shapes on the landscape.
One Christmas Day we were travelling down the M6. It was a day of thick frost and silence and the beautiful, substantial motorway curved luxuriously through the Lake District, with barely a car on it, and how fine it seemed. I look at motorways, their quick routes, their easy gradients, and think, how good these will be when the only travellers on them will be bicycles, the occasional coach, local delivery and emergency vehicles in their special separate lanes. How silent it will be, when the trains carry the freight while the humans are self propelled.
This old A9 climbed, but very slightly and through forest – forestry commission, planted pine I think – and it became a tiring slog, especially as I was getting saddle sore by then, and I can’t cycle standing up. So I would get off for a few seconds then mount again and push on, the forest making the road seem airless. Finally the road stopped and the route followed a track going upwards, I climbed this and found myself out of the forest in bare Highland hills with the passing shadows of clouds, the heather in purple flower giving out a faint, dry scent, and small birch and Scots pine saplings. I could breathe in the air, and now I could see a cycle path of orange gravel and small bridges, evidently part of the millennium route, ahead. I travelled on this, as it went between the railway line on one side and the dirty, noisy, yelling A9 on the other – symbolic, I thought, of our place in the world, squeezed between the old age of rail and the newer age of internal combusting. It was a delightful ride though, up and down small rises with the wind behind me, and passing by a flock of Scottish blackface sheep with their horn curleds over their eyes. The track veered close to the road and away from it and at one point it came close again, near where a few vehicles were parked and I stopped there, needing a snack, had a look at a sign and I was at the Drumochter Pass. This can be daunting in winter –there are tall snow poles to mark the edge of the road and you are warned that there can be snow there from October to May– but on a summer’s day it had been an easy climb, a south-westerly breeze blowing me along. The Drumochter Pass, 1484 feet above sea level, which people had been representing to me as if it was the Hindu Khush, a place of endurance and danger, had been achieved with me scarecely noticing it.
After that it was a skim downhill, the wind having picked up and warmly encouraging me and when I reached Dalwhinnie, 10 miles further on, it was 4pm. I had done 20 miles since lunch in two and a half hours - 8 miles per hour, which brought up my average considerably.
I was now on the old A9 that is still used as a local route so there was sparse traffic, and it was a pleasure to cycle on a well-kept road that went downhill in wide easy curves and then broke off into another section for cycles only. Again, there were white lines painted down the middle between birches that were closing in, narrowing the road to a dark avenue. The banks were dropping stones and those birches were young, just past being saplings, but soon they will be big trees. Again, there was the sense of picking your way through ruins.
I reached Newtonmore, ten miles from Dalwhinnie, and it had taken me an hour. There were 16 miles to go to Aviemore. A train would leave Aviemore at 7:22pm. On the map the road looked harder going than the one I had come along and I was tired. I would be unlikely to make that train. The next would not be until past 10pm. I didn't want to catch such a late train and get home past midnight. Also, my behind felt as if someone had been kicking it in a targeted fashion with steel toed boots. So I thought I would catch the 7:22 when it got to Newtonmore, filling up time in a transport café, so I dropped down to the station, checked the timetable and saw that the next train was at 5:20, so I caught that. The fare was an exorbitant £38 and then the train took me the way I had come through the landscape of hill, glen, river and forest. It looked grand from the train windows as the clouds move over it, highlighting and shading. A party of Germans were exclaiming at its beauty and I felt proud.
I changed at Perth and I and two other cyclists caught the train for Edinburgh. Cyclists are allotted an area by a door with a horizontal rest on which you are meant to hang your cycle, but there was room for only two cycles and the three of us grumbled at our begrudged allowance of room. A vigorous young man had a tiny bicycle with odd footrests on it, which he tucked under the other two cycles. I asked him how he rode such a small bike. He did tricks on his cycle in Fort William, he said.
What had taken me three days by cycle took three and a bit hours by train. It had been a splendid time, and how straightforward that kind of off-road cycling trip is now it is sign-posted and pathed. Once this kind of cycling meant poring over Ordnance Survey maps, which are lovely objects but they are expensive and you have to buy quite a few to fill in the pieces of the jigsaw of a route, and they are for walkers rather than cyclists, so often point you onto dotted line paths that are muddy rights of way, churned up by cows. So respect to Sustrans and all other organisations that have put together the routes and produced the maps.
My normal life is sedentary, a physical holiday is what I need, and I like fine scenery, drinkable beer and castles, abbeys, battlefields and so on. I came back totally refreshed, more so than after a week travelling in Belgium and Holland. It’s an easy holiday but also it’s a complete change. If anything goes wrong there’s a train within reach to take you home, and you don’t have the stress of coping with foreign languages, transport etc. You know that the locals will be friendly and helpful. What would make it perfect rather than very good would be more space on the trains for bicycles, cheaper train fares and cheaper accommodation for the single traveller.