Knowing that we had an exceptionally long day of peddling ahead of us, which included traversing the notorious Drumochter Pass on a day which the weather would not be kind, we were up and packed and on the road by 07.30hrs (we would have been earlier but the kitchen did not open until 07.00hrs and we had to have tea and porridge to fuel our way. We left Pitlochary whilst it was still a slumber and headed out through the Pass of Killiecrankie, which warmed up our legs and were peddling through Blair Atholl whilst it was still rubbing the sleep out of it’s eyes, leaving the gleaming white towers of Blair Castle in our wake.
We were then out in the wilder countryside where the wind buffeted us seemingly from all directions. We entered the dedicated cycleway that would lead us over the top of the Drumochter Pass, and took heed of the warnings to cyclists of the inhospitable conditions and need for care. This is a long stretch of uphill which was made all the harder by the strong headwind being funnelled down the pass. We dug deep though as we knew that the weather would be closing in come the early afternoon and we needed to get over the summit whilst the rain held off.
Even in good weather, this place can feel wild and isolated; with the dark foreboding skies and looming mountains either side of us there was a drive to get to the other side as it was not hard to imagine how vulnerable you could feel if the weather really closed in. We had been peddling for a number of miles, working hard against the incline and wind, when we needed to stop for a brief break, a little intimidated by the knowledge that there were still another 7 miles to go to reach the summit. We did not stop for long, just enough time for a quick drink and recharge before heading on. As we gained height though the wind really started to bite, my toes in summer shoes were numb, and Mr V who is a hardened shorts wearer had to concede to the cold and don some warm leggings under the shorts and we both dug out our overboots to give some shield to the wind.
Although the incline was not steep per se, it was mile upon mile of consistent work to carry us forward, pushing the peddles not only against the gradient, but the shove of the wind in our faces, all made more difficult by the poor condition of the cycleway. Despite this though we could not help but marvel at the rugged majesty of our surroundings.
Eventually though we made it to the summit 1515ft, the highest point on the Scottish cycle network, we did pause to catch our breath and give ourselves a pat on the back before heading on to what turned out to be an almost 5 mile freewheel to Dalwhinnie. Though the road surface in places made it a bit perilous, it was a glorious pay-off for all the hard work the other side to just glide along and give our legs a well earned rest.
Despite having worked hard, the drop in temperature had meant that we never really warmed ourselves up as you would normally do, so we were in dire need of something to warm us up. When one is in such situations, you cannot help but start to fantasise about what you need for comfort; for me it was an overriding need for hot soup. In Newtonmore we found the Antlers cafe, their special today was lentil and veg soup – perfect. Mr V’s need though was sated by a breakfast roll filled with haggis. Both were accompanied by a shared side of chips and the obligatory tea. The cafe was cosy and not of the touristy ilk that we had found in our last few stops. We were not the only cycle tourist seeking refuge and sustenance there, we exchanged pleasantries with a spry Dutchman who was on his way back to Newcastle after touring the inner Hebrides, marvelling on his use of actual map books to navigate.
We were now coming into familiar country, having lived in the highlands near Grantown-on-Spey for a number of years when the children were young, we were well acquainted with the Highland Folk Museum at Newtonmore, reminiscing as we passed. About 5 miles down the road we went through the town of Kingussie and began feeling that we really were on the home stretch, just another 15 miles to go. The weather was what is described in this part of the world as ‘dreich’, the exposed rugged mountains and windswept moorland began to give way to forests on either side of the road. Birch trees looking ethereal, clothed in lichens hanging like tattered rags from their reaching branches, and spruce forests, not planted in regimental rows but growing where the seeds had fallen, the strongest surviving to reach the light. The forests floors were carpeted, some in moss or ferns and some in blaeberry bushes, yet too early to yield their sweet fruits that our children used to love gathering from the wood behind our Highland home (that is until I found a tick on my youngest’s head!).
The many miles we had clocked up so far were beginning to take a toll on weary legs and uncomfortable seats. Mr V declared that we would need to have a break before Aviemore, even though it was within 10 miles. However, we were at Rothiemurchus, just outside Aviemore, before we came to a halt. We still had our flask of coffee, so had settled in a seat under a shelter when we were approached by Hamish, a fellow tandem rider, though today he was on his mountain bike. There ensued some lively discussion about gear ratios, the pros and cons of tandem cycling, advice about the onward journey to Inverness and as it turned out some mutual acquaintances. After being assured that we had a bed for the night (he generously offering to provide one if there was need) we bid farewell and safe travels, and hopefully spurred him to get back in the tandem game.
Despite the long distance we had gone today, our early start had meant that we were in Aviemore by 14.30hrs and having been assured by our host for the evening that her son would be there to let us in and help stow Twolula, we headed, weary to our lodgings. After showering, we strolled into Aviemore town to get some supper and provisions; it is many years since we have been here and not much had really changed, it was like stepping back in time wandering around the same supermarket that I used to do my weekly shop at. Our host was a lovely lady called Magdalena, herself a keen cyclist who plied us with tea and Polish delicacies. Retiring early, fatigued from our hard day it was not long before we were both sound asleep.
Though we woke early, as is usual, we dozed a little, knowing that there was no rush today as it was a mere 40 miles to travel to Inverness! Though it would have been very easy to rest a while longer, we had ground to cover so set about getting ready for the day, ably assisted by the magnificent breakfast provided by Magdalena, it was the sort that you know will sustain you until supper time!
Heading off towards Boat of Garten (or just Boat if you are local) we found ourselves cycling along a winding white gravel road through a glade of Christmas trees, it really was quite lovely. Further on we came across rabbits, who on spotting us high tailed off, and were delighted to find ourselves being watched by a young red deer; alas he skedaddled when we slowed to see if we could take a snap.
We turned out of Boat towards Carrbridge, though we would have liked to have taken a tour around our old hometown, it would have added another 10 miles to our day and we knew that there would be challenges to our overworked legs aplenty today. It was a gradual incline all the way to Carrbridge, necessitating working the peddles the whole way. We passed the Landmark adventure park, again a familiar visiting place with the children when they were younger, remembering our eldest son when he was about 4 or 5 falling into a wood ant nest and literally having ants in his pants. Still a family joke 20 years later!
We stopped briefly at Carrbridge to take a proper look at the old packhorse bridge, having driven past it countless times, this was actually the first time we had stopped to look. Heading out we had more climbing to do, passing a group of motorcycle tourers who waved us on as they waited at traffic lights. Turning onto the old Inverness road, this was thankfully quiet of traffic, the busy A9 taking all bar those who have business along the old road. Today’s challenge lay ahead, between us and Inverness lay Slochd Summit, not quite the beast that Drumochter is, but we knew our legs would be objecting. And so they were. But we did it, and indeed compared to the previous day, it was a breeze. A steady uphill plod of a breeze, but we were still smiling at the summit.
We were rewarded with some good freewheeling the other side, but in my head I had envisaged; over Slochd and straight down into Inverness. And so it essentially is, if you are in a car. Our route was a little more windy than that. It did though take us past the cairns at Clava, where we stopped and marvelled at these 4000 year old structures. Mr V remarked that he had thought we would be able to look down on Inverness by now – he had not banked on the hill to be climbed over to Culloden first – it was a bit of a final sting before the decent to our destination.
We had made good time and were considerably early to check into our accommodation for the next couple of nights – we are staying in the university campus accommodation and check in is not before 15.00hrs so we had some time to kill. We lingered on a bench in a lovely little woodland area in Culloden which had sculptures to be discovered, before moving on to seek out the Bramble cafe, which google maps promised was only 10 minutes away – and sure enough it was. There we enjoyed a huge cup of tea and biscuits, by which time we were on track to check in.
The university accommodation is obviously relatively new, we have a room in a flat with a shared kitchen/sitting room area. One of the other occupants is a lady visiting from Raasay to see the Proclamers in concert, Barbara had settled there from the Cambridge area and fell in love with the place, now forming part of the community of 150 people where she has a studio making lovely jewellery and exquisite sculptures. The other occupant we have yet to meet.
Tomorrow is a much needed rest day, to meander around Inverness, I have already had a bookshop in a church recommended to me by my beloved cousin, with whom we shall also be sharing a meal and perhaps a couple of wee drams in the evening.