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Rusack’s Grand Tour of Scotland, 15 – 21 May

Three Windmillers, Squadron Leader Maurice, Deputy Dawg Andrew, Moley Martin, joined by an old school chum of the Dawg,  Don Kent, gathered in the pretty Clydeside village of Gourock on the evening of Sunday 15 May prior to starting Rusack’s Grand Tour of Scotland which he and Maurice had been planning for several weeks. All Don and Moley had to do was turn up and take part – sheer luxury! Don had already pedalled nearly 300 miles from Newcastle, Maurice and Andrew drove up with the bikes and Moley whizzed up on EasyJet.

Here is the happy band:

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After an excellent meal at Café Continental in Gourock, owned by a friend of the Dawg, and a comfortable night in a seafront hotel the 4 set off the following morning by ferry to Dunoon, on a bright sunny day:

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The whole route can be seen here: http://gb.mapometer.com/cycling/route_4326635 . The first destination was Inverary which was reached after a delightful circuit of Loch Fyne, with a particularly good coffee stop with fruit cake and a wee dram of Loch Fyne whisky Batch No. 3, to be precise, which all agreed was as good as having an electric bike. Then it was lunch at the original Loch Fyne restaurant (well, a snack and not the full monty) before pedalling on to Inverary where we arrived mid-afternoon, to be greeted by the lovely Norena of The Bank House B&B who looked after us well.

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After more sampling of Batch No. 3 in a local whisky shop it was time for an excellent meal in The George in Inverary which is to be highly recommended. The Dawg’s behaviour was such that he nearly ended up in the nearby Inverary Jail but he played his get out of jail free card and was allowed back into Norena’s fine establishment.

The following day, Tuesday, was an initial gentle climb up Glen Aray to the sound of cuckoos and past a monument to Neil Munro, the famous Scottish writer. Munro was born in Inveraray, the illegitimate son of Ann Munro, a kitchen maid.

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Coffee was had at a grand but faded hotel on Loch Awe, with awesome views (ugh), now used primarily by coach parties. It even has its own railway station and we could imagine how wealthy holidaymakers might have arrived with their entourage for some hunting, shooting and fishing.

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Then it was on past the Cruachan hydro-electric power station where trips can be made 1km inside the mountain by bus to view the turbine hall, but with rain due it was decided to press on to our second stop of Connel, near Oban. Luckily this was a short day as the heavens opened just as we arrived and we enjoyed a good lunch in The Oyster Tavern before settling into our nearby B&B. The afternoon was then spent taking a taxi into Oban, eating excellent moules marinieres from a quayside stall, meeting a travel friend of Andrew’s and finally warming up with another wee dram in a local hotel.

In the evening we had another meal in The Oyster Tavern, where the oysters were as good as they come, and met up with another old school chum of Andrew and Don’s, a hardened sheep and cattle farmer whose life is clearly tough compared to our local arable barons.

So far we had been on quite busy A-roads with endless streams of logging trucks, buses, tourists and locals giving us a narrow miss at times and so it was quite a relief to join up with the Sustrans Route no. 78 and enjoy some splendid quiet tracks and lanes, including quite long sections of a disused railway track. These also included some real hills for the first time which slowed progress a bit but was preferable to the A roads.

The Dawg's rug
The Dawg’s rug

This was to be a long day of approx 58 miles, reaching Fort William at 1.30pm with a few light showers en route, but a surprise was in store when we finally got there, having heaved our bikes up a flight of steep steps at one point!. Andrew had been tracking the progress down Loch Ness of a cruise ship he and his wife Lindsey had experienced a few years back and, lo and behold, it was at the top of a series of 8 locks known as Neptune’s Staircase having come down the Caledonian Canal earlier that day.  Built by Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822, it is the longest staircase lock in Britain. Needless to say, Andrew knew the ship’s manager and before too long, but after some much needed lunch, the passengers disembarked for a coach trip, on went the bikes and we cruised down river for a an hour or so on this luxury vessel. Furthermore, we also saw a steam train chuffing its way from Fort William hauling several coaches of tourists behind it.

 

Unfortunately, this site does not take videos without an upgrade but a video of the steam train is available from Moley for those interested.

It was still a long way to our destination of Spean Bridge via the fabulous path alongside the Caledonian Canal:

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with the yellows of Southerly oil seed rape being replaced by the brilliant yellow of gorse everywhere we went. Saying goodbye to Sustrans 78 at Gairlochy we then diverted Eastwards to Spean Bridge up a steep hill passing by the famous Royal Commando Memorial on the way, which we very nearly missed despite its size. It was humbling to witness, particularly the continuing recent deaths of young marines in Afghanistan and other war zones.

Then it was a fast downhill ride into Spean Bridge, knowing that the same hill would have to be climbed early the next day, to find our B&B for the night – a 5 star renovated fishing lodge situated 2 miles outside the village in a glorious position looking towards mountains in all directions. But that was when the fun started, and probably the subject of another blog to be penned by the Dawg himself as an appendix! Here’s a taster of the lovely establishment. Note the quality of the furnishings:

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The final day to Inverness was also a long one of 60 miles and an early start, involving firstly the climb out of Spean Bridge and then a busy A road alongside Loch Lochy until we rejoined Sustrans 78 near Invergarry where a new cycle route on a disused railway line is nearly complete. This was very peaceful and together with a nice wooded section alongside the Caledonian Canal we were in Fort Augustus for coffee and a view of another series of locks climbing up from Loch Ness to the Caledonian Canal.

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However, Sustrans 78 then took to the hills big time to avoid having to cycle along the busy A82 on the west side of Loch Ness, and the heavens opened too…………… The first part of the climb was around 250 metres of vertical up a 12% incline, which took the stuffing out of all of us, but we got there:

Pushing Maurice and his bike
Pushing Maurice and his bike

Then the wind got up too and by the time we finally we made it to the 400m viewpoint at the top by a combination of pedalling, pushing and pulling the wind was howling and the rain was horizontal. A brief spell of shelter behind a rock was followed by an order from the Dawg to get off the mountain pronto, which was good advice, and we were soon speeding downhill on the B852 with a tail wind and a different climate soon emerged, along with the outline of a remote pub at Whitebridge into which we dived to warm up, change clothes and wolf down some excellent ham, egg and chips, assisted by a couple of pints of Happy Chappy which was most appropriately named as we soon cheered up!

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After lunch we continued down the B852 to the tune of YMCA sung expertly by Don, with the occasional uphill stretch, until we finally reached the peaceful shores of Loch Ness and then enjoyed a long and pleasant downwind ride all the way to Inverness, which we reached at 5.45pm.

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The Loch Ness Monster?

 

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We made it!

At the celebration dinner in our hotel in Inverness, awards were presented for outstanding feats of endurance and other significant achievements over the 4 days, after a democratic system of nominations and votes had been taken. These were as follows:

Scotish awards

  1. King of the Mountains Award and General Tosser – Deputy Dawg (on the toss of a coin)
  2. Norena Award – Deputy Dawg
  3. Schmoozer Award – Deputy Dawg
  4. Technical Award – Maurice
  5. Major faux pas Award – Don
  6. Best Navigator Award – Moley
  7. Nearest to the logger Award – Maurice
  8. B482 gay Award – Don
  9. Mary Berry Scone Award – Two Scones Maurice
  10. Gay train spotter Award – Deputy Dawg

Overall winner: Deputy Dawg with 4 awards. Well done!

On Friday it was back to Gourock by train, preceded by a quick look inside the Highland Hotel where the impressive staircase was used as a model for the Titanic:

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The hotel also had displays of some impressive paintings by Scottish painters, some of which can be seen in the above photo.

We said a sad farewell to Don at Perth who continued on to Newcastle whilst the Windmillers headed back to Glasgow and then Gourock. The scenery from Inverness onwards was spectacular.

A warm welcome was given by Andrew’s friend Roland and his wife Anne in Gourock after which Maurice whizzed back home via EasyJet leaving the Dawg and Moley to enjoy a memorable evening in Café Continental followed by a glass or three of a fine Islay whisky back in the comfort of their lovely home.

The view across the Clyde from Café Continental
The view across the Clyde from Café Continental

 

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A late start back on Saturday via the nearby quay to see The Queen Mary (mini version) and the world’s largest sailing ship, Eos, which had just arrived prior to a cruise around the Western Isles, was an easy 7 hour drive. The only difficulty was staying awake.

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It was a brilliant few days and thanks are due to Andrew and Maurice for planning the trip. Hopefully other similar trips for Windmillers and others will be organised too in future.

 

And now, from the lumber jack himself, our very own Don Kent, the story of our love affairs with logging trucks and other intimate details………….

The Windmill Club tour of Scotland 2016

Day 1

The Clyde was grey and overcast when the Windmill Cycling  Club from the deepest home counties (East), set off on their epic cycle ride to Inverness. There were 3 of them, known only as Dawg (the posse leader) Reverend and Wing Commander. Their true identities have been hidden to protect the guilty.

On the ferry to Dunoon the spray was splashing on the car deck and the wind whipped up the sea. It was all a lot different to the day before when I cycled north from County Durham and Arran to meet the shadowy crew I would be embedded with for the following week. Then it was a brilliant May Day with Glaswegians ‘doon the watter’ as they had done for generations originally to escape for a day from the dark satanic steel mills, coal mines, and shipyards of Lanarkshire and Glasgow. They have all but gone now, swept away by the forced industrial clearances of the 80’s and 90’s every bit as savage as the original highland clearances which preceded them. But 3 shipyards survive and one was the destination of an historic ship which took thousands of them to the glories of the Firth. This was the original Queen Mary which after a lifetime of service was sold on and eventually became nothing more than a fancy restaurant on the Thames serving overpriced food and drink to people with handbags and glad rags who had indeed forgotten what their grandads had to sweat to buy them. She had been towed all the way from the Thames back to the Clyde and arrived the very same hour as the Windmill club. A small flotilla welcomed her home before being towed into the Greenock dockyard for a full restoration to her former glories. A happy ending at last.

The stunning sunset over the Firth framed the Wind miller’s as they dined at the Café Continental an exceptional hostelry run in the tradition of the Scottish Italian’s who provide many of these excellent places along the Clyde. This one was owned by a fellow inmate of the institution that Dawg and I had attended as he genially at the head of the table the sun descended behind him to draw a curtain over the day.

Day 2

The first objective of the Wind millers was Inverary, to get there they needed to get to Dunoon the genteel end of the Firth with its well-kept houses and gardens probably a nightmare to grow up in but good for the tartan and shortbread demographic. We moved away into the hills and became intimate almost immediately with a breed who seemed determined to make love to us, (in a BDSM way) Logging trucks. This subspecies of gigantius truckus just wants to be intrusively intimate but at some speed, think of them as excited teenage boys, too close for comfort but they are gone in a flash. They would be invading the personal space of the windmiller’s all the way to Inverness, but we never fell in love with them despite all their hormonal attention. The road along the Loch eventually led us to Loch Fyne itself and a welcome stop at a pub restaurant for some coffee, fruit cake and whisky. Here the windmiller’s discovered another feature of the highlands. Unlike the loggers the staff treat you like you have just interrupted a funeral by asking for a coffee, but over time they warm up and mellow into lovely people. This pattern would repeat itself over and over again. We sampled a whisky from the Loch Fyne ‘living barrel’ where the cask it kept topped up with different whisky’s so no batch is the same. Fortified we roared round the head of the Loch stopping only to look at the mysterious Tinkers heart in a field surrounded by camera shy highland cattle. Down we went to the loch side and found the original Loch Fyne oyster and fish restaurant in all its glory. Now it’s a chain owned by some massive distant chain probably owned by a hedge fund somewhere but this one is still owned by the original company and not just a brand. While there we found a local newspaper which reported a marriage at the Tinkers Heart, which is an ancient pagan wedding site. The couple who were married there were the first in recorded history, which is something to tell the children when you are walking them to pagan school. A stop there fortified the wind millers to continue through attentive loggers to Inverrary a beautiful planned town on the Loch Side. In the strangely fenced off harbour was a Clyde Puffer the legendary cargo carriers of the West flat bottomed so it could beach itself and unload cargos with its own crane. This one was called the Vital Spark which was used in the TV series. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvn6kAFMTwU&list=PL_u8ejPdh0eluHUG9lZCKZfSuOvj2UHMQ

Our rooms for tonight were right next to the Jail, now a museum. The hostess Norena, broke the Highland welcome mould by being very friendly from the off and she did a mean breakfast. That night the Windmillers were in a cosy pub with lashings of food and ale, we were well underway.

Day 3

Day 3 dawned, and today it was an easy ride to Connell about 7 miles north of Oban. The hills were steeper but soon the amazing Loch Awe soon presented itself, splayed out in all its glory before the Windmiller’s. High on the mountain above was the Hydro station we would see later.  We stopped at the Loch Awe Hotel a massive regal pile above the Loch steeped in history. It was a bit like a faded dowager, presentable and beautiful, but forced to adapt to the realities of tourism where it’s cheaper to go to Ibiza  for 2 weeks than spend a weekend here. The old lady had become a haven for mass booked coach parties, but her décor, size and own railway station underneath the cliff she stood on, gave clues to her glamorous youth.  Just along the road was the massive Cruachan Hydro Power station deep inside the mountain, 1km in, were the huge turbines. Tempted to go in the Windmiller’s resisted, as the weather was closing in.

Returning to some serious heavy petting with loggers on the road, they swept down to the sea and raced along the shoreline to the huge Connell Bridge and underneath it the world’s only sea waterfall, created twice a day as the tide filled and emptied the sea Loch behind. Calling in to the village shop we discovered we were talking to the landlord of our next bed. Once we dumped our gear we set off in now considerable rain for the local pub, The Oyster, where we were given a particularly harsh greeting “You will have to wait until I sort this lot out” Oh Ok, sorry we wanted a drink, and this looked like a pub from the outside – we thought silently, not daring to question her priorities. After a failed attempt to catch a train it was a taxi for the windmiller’s into the saturated Oban. We met an old colleague of Dwag from the travel trade who was still there along with his MILF type co-worker, who Ian said was unforgettable, I am sure she is! Eventually the windmillers found a seafood stall on the dock where they consumed all manner of marine life, most still alive it seems. As the token Vege (even the windmiller’s have equal opportunities policy’s)  I retreated to the dockside Wetherspoons where North Eastern people like myself tend to congregate particularly on Giro day. After Coffee in another Dowager hotel, this time tarted up with a mini skirt and a lot of make-up, we taxied back to Connell in the mini monsoon and retreated to the Oyster again. Here Dawg and I met another inmate who farms over the water to the North. Where we would be going in the morning.

Day 4

This was a long one. After Dwag had spotted a sea otter twice, (which the owner had not seen for 15 years (or maybe never), we set off over the bridge which was built for the railway we would be following for a while. This was largely a very good cycle path which gave us a well needed break from the hormonal loggers. It continued all the way to the end of the railway in Ballahulish where a coffee stop in a Golf Club gave Dwag an excuse to go all Braveheart with a tartan rug.  Across the new bridge and on to Fort William. Fort William is the sink estate of the highlands, made worse by an unfathomable decision to build a dual carriageway between the town and the Loch. Dawg was up to something here, insisting we pushed on to the Caledonian Canal about 3 miles further on. Not needing an excuse to get out of Fort William, we went. What followed was a masterstroke from the ever more impressive Dwag. First we watched the Jacobite Steam service, steam slowly over the swing bridge and then Dawgs ship tracker app (a must for ship anorak’s everywhere) correctly identified a Super Luxury cruise ship (£7k a pop!)  descending the locks known as Neptune’s staircase. Obviously Dwag knew somebody on board and at the bottom lock the passengers (average age about 85, and I am being generous here) go off for a coach tour and we got on, bikes and everything, to do the twin swing bridges and remaining locks to the sea lock where we got off the polished mahogany and silver service, and cycled back along the canal towards Loch Ness. Out on the canal it was beautiful and we all sailed on until we slung a right and climbed to Spean Bridge.    The Commando memorial overlooking the village is one of the most Iconic in these islands, Three commandos stand together looking left right and forward over the huge glen to Ben Nevis. No doubt the Soviets would have built them 20 meters higher in a more triumphalist stance, possibly clutching a sickle but here despite the unbelievable vista and truly impressive sculpture they look calm prepared but relaxed gazing out into the far distance, Their weapons are on their shoulders. I loved it. Next to it is a memorial garden where people put tributes to deceased commandos, even ones who died in old age. Would you believe it Dawg even knew one!                                                                     In these parts he even knows the dead. Our accommodation for the night was a 5+ guest house out in the countryside. It was immaculate, possibly too immaculate. Food was an immediate problem as there was nowhere to eat in Spean Bridge and we had missed the strict 19:00 deadline for the guest house. However they did sell alcohol so red wine (huge mistake) and beer along with cheese on toast we delivered to the immaculate living room. It was left slightly less immaculate by me, after I had failed to get the windmillers to trash the entire place by doing rock and roll things like throwing TV’s out of the windows and dead deer back in (a huge supply lying along the roads) we cleaned up the best we could and got the hell out of there.

Day 5

Now this was extreme, after a climb out of Spean Bridge and a fantastic descent to the Canal again the towpath became our friend again. It needs all sorts of people to keep it running including a guy to raise and lower the last original bridge on the waterway. He was from Bavaria here for love, spending his day in a small hut working the bridge which only went to a small farm and had to be opened in two stages using a boat to get across the other side to work that one. Fort Augustus on Loch Ness’s southern tip was where the windmiller’s stocked up on Scones (Take a bow Wing Commander Scone) and tea before attempting the ’challenging’ south side road. The choice was a flattish ride along the main road with the teenage boys and an increasing number of amorous coaches as well, or climb on the south side. Up we went, and Up and err up the windmiller’s were all off their bikes when we got to the top and had a celebration selfie. This was equitant to taking a celebratory photo on mile 6 of a marathon. After the premature photo, it just went up for a very long time until the 400mtr real summit on an exposed wind and rain lashed hill. I hid with Dawg behind the only shelter, a boulder, on our hands and knees. We got off that super quick before hypothermia set in. We thrashed downhill (36mph on my clock) and found a remote pub! Diving in there We got changed drank beer and Whisky and ate food. Amazing. Then it was a great ride along the Loch Shore on the B852 which goes really well to the lyrics of YMCA!  Eventually the Policeman, Builder, Red Indian and Lumber jack, swept into the Highland capital in glorious sunshine. That night we stayed in a hotel with thankfully red carpets. We awarded the tour awards which Dwag won pretty convincingly, with King of The Mountains, Norena, Schmoozer and gay train spotter awards and slept the sleep of the just in our “compact” rooms.

Day 6.

I was now 449.5 miles from Co Durham and I clocked the last 0.5 miles down to the station. But first Dawg took us into the Station Hotel where a magnificent staircase was the model for the one on the Titanic, and indeed was used in the first film. (the water damage must have been horrific) Then in some stunning sunshine it was south along the Highland Main Line where the Windmiller’s left me at Perth. Back in Newcastle it was an easy 15 miles home to make 465 miles

And so my guest status with the windmiller’s drew to a close, a crazy and often hilarious trip with some exceptional people, would I do it again? Where do I sign up?

 

 

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