Not just a box-ticking exercise

It was time, I thought, to put together what has become my almost annual blog post. Now that semi-retirement is upon me, I am hoping to become a more regular blogger (note to self – eat more dates)  but part of the problem is I get bees in my bunnet and as a result end up getting side-tracked into doing loads of other stuff.   Most people would see this as a way of procrastinating (if they are being kind: mostly they probably just think I am a complete anorak), and I suppose it is to an extent. But it goes further than that and I never cease to amaze myself with the items that I suddenly need to research as failure to do so will render me bereft of vital knowledge and therefore a flawed human being. I have long since been of the opinion that I was greatly disadvantaged during my early existence as clearly I was born to google. Oh to have been young in an age where knowledge was literally at one’s finger tips!  As it was, the Fort Matilda to Greenock Central line and a Class 311 had to take my quest for knowledge to the local library where I was served up vastly out of date snippets from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Incidentally, Class 311s came in in around 1967. Nowadays most stock on the lines around Glasgow is Class 380s but the Greenock line is still using 314s going back to the late 1970s.   But I digress – pause to remove one anorak and don another.

And so, in the past few weeks  I have developed a new fascination:  the good old British red telephone box – the K6.

Now if we want someone to blame, then this is all most definitely the fault of my sister and her village choir (Felton’s The Bridge Singers in case anyone want to know. And if you did want to know, I should point out that for a village choir they punch well above their weight in terms of both ability and sheer range of material)  In mid-June I attended their Magical Glass concert during which the link between glass and the windows of phone boxes allowed them to perform one of their key (pun intentional) songs  – Alison’s K6 Telephone Box.  Composed by Cheryl Camm, the choir’s director, this song, along with the actual K6 itself, was the inspiration for the subsequent infatuation.  A link to the song itself  can be found by clicking HERE

Fast forward to July and our annual summer visit to the magical island of Islay. I had been very aware of the existence of K6s on Islay, having cycled past several over the years and on one occasion having taken shelter in one from some good old Scottish summer rain. You know the sort – it comes at you horizontally usually accompanied by a 360° “headwind”,  thereby ensuring that nary a crook or nanny is left unsoaked.  Anyway, it got me thinking that it was time someone donned their lycra and took to their two wheels and went and scouted out just exactly how many of these iconic elusive things we yearn for there are on Islay.   My theory was that, while the song correctly claims that these days the K6s are such a rarity , on Islay they remain quintessentially ubiquitous.  And indeed on this island of some 240 square miles,  there are eleven of them.*  Unfortunately many of them, instead of being beside bus stop, village green or post office, seem to be located beside bins.  On the plus side however, most of them still work.

It is my intention to turn this whole thing into a bicycle or jogging orienteering route (with prizes) and as part of that, participants have to mark that they’ve been to the box by making a call from it. That way, who knows, we might even be able to stave off  Tritish Bellycom’s ongoing plans to scrap the boxes on the basis that they are never used because use them we will.  In the meantime here is my little homage to Cheryl’s song and to one of the last bastions of Britishness that is the K6 Telephone Box.

And so, in alphabetical rather than geographical order (and with apologies for where I haven’t been able to crop out the bins):

* Footnote: At the time of writing I still am not sure I have captured all of the boxes, and BT is being very secretive about locations of payphones, which does give rise to visions about them being hidden launch sites for our nuclear arsenal or somesuch other flight of fancy.  Or it could just be that perhaps BT doesn’t actually know where they all are.  I intend to ask one of the local BT engineers when I am next over as I am sure they won’t be so uncommunicative about the location of their communication boxes.

Ardbeg

Ardbeg

Bridgend

Bridgend

Bruichladdich

Bruichladdich pier

Bruichladdich Loc

location plate

Caol Ila

Caol Ila distillery. Door-less but functioning.

Glenmachrie

High Road between Bridgend and Bowmore. This one didn’t work.

Glenmachrie Loc

High Road location panel

Keils

less than picturesquely sited between two bins at Keils village

Oa

Officially the arse end of beyond on the long and winding road to the Oa

Oa Loc

location panel for AEOB

Port Ellen

Port Ellen

Port Ellen Loc

location panel

Port Wemyss

the highly picturesque Port Wemyss box with the Orsay lighthouse behind it

Port Wemyss Loc

location panel

Portnahaven

Portnahaven

Portnahaven Loc

now you have to admit this is quite an address for a phone box

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And keeping the prettiest to last – the Sanaigmore box, sandwiched nicely between my all-time two favourite beaches in the world – Machir and Saligo.

Hebridean Adventure: Day Four and Five

Roll out the Barra
Thursday night’s accommodation had been certainly interesting, what with the rather eccentric decoration style which was stuck in an early 70s early B&Q time-warp and the presence of a loquacious Scally called Colin. Our hostess did however produce a marvellous three course dinner that we weren’t expecting and we had the company of a nice Belgian couple. (Quote Scally Colin: “I’ve heard of Belgium. Where actually is it?”) and that set us up for our Day Four trek. The day’s route was through South Uist, over to scenic Eriskay and onwards on the wee ferry to Barra where we would catch the 7pm BIG ferry back to the mainland. The wind had dropped considerably when we set off but there was a slight drizzle. Thankfully this cleared quickly and by the time we got to the southernmost tip of South Uist the sun was back out and it was actually quite pleasantly warm as we paused to look over the causeway to Eriskay and to Barra beyond it.

Looking towards Eriskay from Sth Uist

Looking towards Eriskay from Sth Uist

Looking towards Lungay, Fuday and Barra beyond them

Looking towards Lungay, Fuday and Barra beyond them

Now the map showed the ferry terminal on Eriskay to be just round in the next bay, so what we hadn’t expected was that to get to it we had to endure, no, not a nice shoreside road, but a massive 15% climb to the Barra ferry. Ah well. At least there was a toilet at the terminal. We arrived on Barra just in time to make it round the bay to see the famous aircraft beach landing which is so quirky that we found ourselves two of several dozen spectators, some of whom had come to the island specifically to see the plane come in.

Barra airport runway

Barra airport runway

arrival, in case you didn't believe me about the runway

arrival

passengers alight

passengers alight

Off again

Off again

Although it was still a bit blowy, the sun was now quite warm as we made our way happily round the very picturesque island. Or at least we were happy right up to the point where we encountered the hill from hell. With both of us already tired from the week’s activity, this was something of a nightmare climb. The younger and fitter legs of Laura made it to the top but I decided to err on the side of caution and opted to push up the worst of the 18% incline, which was a major task in itself. The rush down the other side into Castlebay was good though and we made the ferry to Oban with plenty of time to spare – certainly enough to buy an ice cream from the ice cream van that was a converted post office van. It was good to hear the cheery chimes as they belted out “I do like to be beside the seaside” but a large part of me was disappointed that it hadn’t been the more appropriate “Postman Pat”.

The ferry crossing back to Oban took four hours (four hours of hell for poor Laura) but it passed soon enough and we finally found our way to our rooms at the Royal Hotel at 12.30am.

The bay in Castlebay

Castlebay

the castle in Castlebay

the castle in Castlebay

We had planned on a gentle recovery ride on Day Five and had decided to cycle on the flat main road up to Taynuilt and then return to Oban on a back road. Unfortunately, it became clear that the chap who told us about the back road hadn’t actually used it; first it was about 8 miles longer than billed, second it was far from “flattish” as he’d described it, and third, it was hardly a smooth surface. We ended up doing a 27 mile marathon of which a good 12 miles were ridden on a surface more suited to mountain bikes than to road bikes. I fared better on the Surly but poor Laura felt every stone and rut the whole 12 miles. However, we finally got ourselves to Oban where we enjoyed a coffee and cake (not to mention a spot of unexpected “mountaineering” – see pic for details) before getting the train back to Glasgow.

Oban post "trek" coffee stop

Oban post “trek” coffee stop

the world's stupidest cash machine which was too high to reach

the world’s stupidest cash machine which was too high to reach

And so we completed our two hundred miles weary of limb but pleased with our efforts during the week. The ride was made memorable by some stunning scenery. I am not sure that I’d ever want to live in the Outer Hebrides as they contain some pretty bleak places as well as the stunning ones. I also felt that there was just too little to keep one occupied other than walking or cycling, and the lack of any sort of shops made Islay look like a heaving metropolis. Would I do it again? Maybe. I’m not sure about touring with luggage as it did require a lot more effort and at times, in particular on those much larger inclines, I was defeated. I hope it will make a difference to my overall cycling ability though. As the saying goes: it didn’t kill me so it must have made me stronger.

Here’s hoping.

Hebridean Adventure: Day Three

Islands on the edge
Day Three involved riding down through North Uist and Benbecula, and this should have been the easiest part of the trip as it is not a particularly hilly route apart form a lump at the start of North Uist. We thought that we’d make use of the hour and a bit we had before the ferry to take a run down to a picturesque church at Roghdal which had been recommended to us by a club mate. The trip was in fact essential as we’d been told that it contained a rather risqué artwork. At this point there was a strongish breeze but enough sunshine and warmth to let us overlook this. The ride to the church was only 3 miles but it contained an enormous hill (15%). Because I had just breakfasted well, this section was about the slowest 1mile I have ever ridden. But the church was worth the effort although the naughty artwork took a bit of finding. We rode back at speed because a stiffer breeze had got up behind us, which meant that we got to the ferry terminal a lot earlier than we needed. I say “terminal” – it was really just a slipway with little facilities other than a waiting room which, mercifully, had a toilet. You’re picking up the idea that toilet stops were as frequent as coffee stops on this trip are you? And they weren’t always for my aging bladder either it has to be said.

The ferry duly arrived and set off again across to Berneray. This journey involved us sailing towards large rocks only to turn away at the last moment just after we’d assumed we were going to perish in a heap of mangled metal and lycra. It was at this moment, however, that my travel companion told me that she doesn’t like boats. My open-mouthed stare of incredulity brought forth a further confession from her that she’d been seasick on the Colintraive ferry – a crossing of a mere five minutes. Now this is like owning up to being seasick on a pedalo at Largs boating pond and it did rather make one wonder why someone with such a pathological abhorrence of the briny would want to go on a tour of the Hebrides. When I asked the question, I got back the response that “Well, it takes my mind off the sheep.” So on we went, my ovine-abhorring Thalassophobic friend and I, and landed on the island of Berneray.

At this point the weather turned against us and our journey was severely hindered by a brutal headwind. So fierce was it that we must have had our heads down to the extent that we didn’t see a sign and took a wrong turning. This meant that we ended up in Lochmaddy although we didn’t know that’s where we were until we found a community café to stop in for a breather and a bite of lunch. I must pause to point out that this lack of knowledge was brought about mostly by the Islands’ curious policy of only putting name signs at one end of their villages, and with our unfailing ability to arrive, of course, at the end without the sign. After lunch, the brutal wind was complemented by constant rain – both of them coming at us horizontally. There is no photo-record of this section of the trip for obvious reasons. Suffice it to say that we battled on and eventually made it, somewhat drookit, to the overnight accommodation at the Anglers’ Retreat just into South Uist – although admittedly the last ten miles of the scheduled 50 for the day were courtesy of a very kindly Uistean bus driver called Duncan who took pity on us. Well on me really, as I stood by the roadside while Laura had yet again…erm.. gone to “investigate the hedges”.

St Clement Church

St Clement Church

Interior

Interior

you've been framed

you’ve been framed

Dodgy artwork

Dodgy artwork

Litter prevention Harris style

Litter prevention Harris style

heading for the rocks under a lowering sky

heading for the rocks under a lowering sky

Welcome lunch at Lochmaddy

Welcome lunch at Lochmaddy

Cheating and getting the bus the last ten miles

Cheating and getting the bus the last ten miles

Hebridean Adventure: Day Two

Standing start

Day Two was scheduled as a bus trip up to Stornoway (with the bikes in the boot of course) and a cycle right up to the top of the island and a return via the Standing Stones of Calanais. The total mileage for the day would have been in the region of 110. I say “would have been” as the whole plan hinged on that crucial bus link. Unfortunately Hebrides Transport saw otherwise and had put a minivan on the route instead of the coach and the driver sailed somewhat arrogantly past us. We decided to start cycling with a view to catching the next bus at whatever point it passed us. And yes, “passed us” it indeed did, although I managed to get it to stop a few yards on. The driver was less than helpful and omitted to tell us that if we got as far as Tarbert, the coach would take us up to Stornoway – a fact we only discovered over a coffee in the splendid and extremely well cake-endowed First Fruits café at the pier in Tarbert. Faced with a wait of an hour, we revised our plans and decided that Calanais was a must see and we’d just have to cut short the day’s ride. This turned out to be a good choice as we were able to spend slightly longer at the stones than we might have otherwise, and it cut out the Cleisham hill. It also allowed us to spend quarter of an hour oohing and ahhhing at some cute little piglets which were about the only type of wildlife on the islands that didn’t attack Laura. More of that later.

We returned to Tarbert at about 6pm and for a bit of variety we decided to return to Leverburgh via the east coast route on Harris which we had been warned was fairly hilly. Sadly on this occasion the person who had related that fact to us had not been lying and the route did indeed involve a fair amount of roller-coastering, including one whopping 18% gradient. It also included a black house that had been restored tastefully if somewhat historically inaccurately as a campsite toilet and we were able to make use of the facility while pretending to indulge in some investigation into the islands’ past.

We eventually came to a junction with a choice of two seemingly ridiculously gradiented slopes to follow. A passing car informed us that the way they had just come down was “bloody steep” while the other was merely “a bit steep”. That technical information, combined with the mass re-emergence of the vampire midges from the previous evening, saw us head up the merely a bit steep option. This involved riding right into the sun, and at this point I was mightily glad that I have taken to wearing a cap under my cycling helmet as I don’t think I would have been able to see properly otherwise. As owner of the sun bonnet, it fell to me to inform Laura of the whereabouts of the kamikaze sheep that seemed to be taking a perverse delight in sauntering out in front of us at every opportunity. In fact we are sure that these were the same sheep as kept appearing all across our trip. If not, then Hebridean sheep are a breed with a distinct attitude. The road levelled off after a while from merely steep to merely undulating and our ride back became less arduous. This was probably just as well as tiredness was setting in a bit and the road surface was not the best. In fairness, I will point out here that in general the roads of the Hebrides are in far better nick than those of Ayrshire and this section was unusual in being a bit lumpy.

We got back to Leverburgh before sunset having managed a creditable 55 miles. And, rather splendidly, another batch of shortbread was waiting for us which made a good evening snack. All in all a good day despite the early frustration and I’m glad we prioritised Calanais. The trip was not just about cycling – it was about seeing a new area, and one which possibly neither of us will go back to.

And all in sunshine too.

The same bay as yesterday taken at 9.30am instead of pm

The same bay as yesterday taken at 9.30am instead of pm

Ooooh   and  Ahhhhhh

Ooooh and Ahhhhhh

Calanais

Calanais

Calanais again

Calanais again

Go on, guess where

Go on, guess where

arty farty shot of a standing stone at Calanais for variety

arty farty shot of a standing stone at Calanais for variety

Hebridean Adventure: Part One

The Prologue
I have done several cycle tours over the past four years, most notably to Amsterdam and back where I made several friends with whom I have kept up thanks to that modern-day pen-pal system – Facebook.  When my Walkers club-mate Laura suggested a tour riding the length of the Outer Hebrides I was instantly interested – not just because I had been watching a documentary about them but also because I thought “200 miles?  Pfffft. Piece of cake after Amsterdam.”   I will admit to being a little daunted by the fact that my travel companion to be was half my age (literally), twice as fit (literally) and half my body weight (don’t go there).   However, with that customary difficulty I find myself having regularly, the word “No” somehow became Yes” by the time the air had travelled from lung to vocal chords and there I was committed. Or I should have been.  One set of borrowed panniers plus rack and a lot of trying to stuff in clothes and other necessities later, I was ready to go.  Now it was up to my legs to do the rest.
 
Day One: Over the sea to Skye. And Harris.
We set off from Glasgow Queen Street at an unearthly 7am on Tuesday August 6th heading for Kyle of Lochalsh. The weather was fine and sunny up as far as Aviemore when it started to get “atmospheric”, and by the time we reached the start point at the Skye Bridge, a slight drizzle had set in. Undaunted we pedalled off in the direction of Uig to catch the ferry over to Harris.  Now given that this was the first time I’d ever ridden with baggage attached (other than my usual bad temper and the psychological damage of five decades) my progress was remarkable swift over the piece. This was despite encountering the mountain that is the Skye Bridge within half a mile of setting off.  It was at this point that I finally understood the universal truth that weebles do in fact wobble but never fall down. With a deadline looming to get to the ferry on the other side of the island, I had to master the art of pedalling while counterbalancing the weight of the panniers very quickly. This brought about the realisation that the bike had transformed itself from a Surly into the Hercules Jeep of my youth: unstartable without a good hearty shove and/or a downhill slope, and virtually unstoppable once moving.  In an instant I remembered how it went and I was up and moving.  Now I do have to fess up to the first of our cheats here. Because of the very tight timescale to get over to Uig, we had pre-arranged a lift part-way between Broadford and Portree. Our cheat section was conducted by a large people carrier driven by a large person called Alistair (athough, as he was a Gaelic speaker, no doubt that would have been spelt Ealaisdearghagh) who regaled us with unsolicited information about his recent spell in hospital after being bitten by a pesky cleg.  We reached the outskirts of Portree about an hour and a half before our ferry was due to leave and Alistair bade us a fond farewell, but not before insisting on showing us his cleg wound which fortunately was in a non-embarrassing place.  The 16 miles or so to Uig were remarkable only because this was where I discovered Laura has a weaker bladder than even I have. The road was undulating rather than hilly, but the ferry terminal and the subsequent crossing were very welcome to let us recharge our batteries for the trip round Harris.
 
Our arrival at Tarbert, Harris coincided with a fly-past of every midge in the known universe, most of which seemed to be attracted more to Laura than me. I put this down entirely to an experiment I was conducting into the midge-repelling properties of the half tube of Garnier sunscreen I had slaggered on with encouragingly good results.  We also quickly discovered that midges are quite clearly deaf as not a single one of them seemed to hear Laura telling them where to go.  As we were facing a journey of some 22 miles to our lodging in Leverburgh and were armed with the knowledge that the first section was somewhat undulating, we had realized that we needed to crack on to do the journey before it got dark. We decided that we wouldn’t stop to take photos unless it was something absolutely amazing.  Hah!  Every corner we turned yielded up a view more beautiful than the one before, so much so that we just had to stop a couple of times.  We reached the guest house just as the light went, in time for a nice batch of home-made shortbread to come our way alongside a cup of tea.
 

6.20am!!!!  Good grief! that actually exists!

6.20am!!!! Good grief! that actually exists!

At Broadford on Skye awaiting the cleg-bitten Alistair

At Broadford on Skye awaiting the cleg-bitten Alistair

The calm trip over to Harris.

The calm trip over to Harris.

wonderful blue and green sea and white sand - even at 9pm.

wonderful blue and green sea and white sand – even at 9pm.

Electric blue sky at 9.30pm just before Leverburgh.

Electric blue sky at 9.30pm just before Leverburgh.

Shooting the Crow

The Crow Road is one of the legendary cycling climbs in this part of the world. It is not the steepest of hills  – there’s a section of 12% at the bottom which lasts for about a quarter of a mile but after that it is just a long drag of a constant climb of between 5% and 9% that goes on for about three miles, going in that distance from 280feet to 1380. What makes it ouchworthy is that you get to what you think is the top only to turn a corner and be confronted with another half mile of up.

My first encounter with this entity was last year during the Trossachs Ton event and it was yet another of my classic comedy cycling moments. Just as I was priding myself on not having stopped, I noticed that the sheep in the field beside the road were actually overtaking me. And the wee buggers weren’t even running!  I do have to confess that my “not having stopped” came to an end fairly soon after that as I ran out of steam and had to put the foot on the ground for a breather before resuming.

With Jacky, Sandra and me all entered into this year’s event, we decided we’d have a practice run a couple of weeks before the event.  And I have to say that I was very pleased to note that I did it a helluva lot more easily than last year which I am taking as a sign of progress.  I remain not a very good climber but I am certainly much improved on previous years.  I did however, look a tad deformed as I hunched up over the bike. The pic is taken just after that turn I mentioned, so you can almost see the words “Oh ****!  There’s more!” on my lips.  😉

Shooting the Crow 1

Shooting the Crow 1

This was also the first outing for the Ruby and I have to say it handled itself very well. Pity about the rider.

So, armed with the knowledge that I could get up the Crow Road in a oner, I was looking forward to the actual sportive. And then of course the fickle finger of fate intervened with a chest and throat infection that saw me unable to speak for five days and unable to eat anything other than ice cream and lemon popsicles for two.  Sod’s Law indeed.

Although not by any manner or means 100%, I was feeling better by the Friday before the ride so decided “What the heck? Let’s just do it.”  Apart from anything else I was going a little stir crazy and the worst of it was past.   Jacky and I set out from the start point at Stirling High School at just after 8.15am and we made decent progress over the first 20miles despite my untimely episode with an escape attempt by my bottle cage.  There is something a little strange about having the “lunch stop” at 10am, so we decided to forgo the pasta and settle for a roast beef roll instead.  Replenished, we set off on part two of the route which we know well from our rides with the girls.  On this occasion we had glorious sunshine and only the slightest headwind, which was a pleasant change from our last two encounters with that stretch of road.

And then came the Crow.

I had decided that I was just going to take it gently and concentrate on getting up it – a sensible plan given that I wasn’t fully lurgi-free. And I did.  I have no doubt it wasn’t bonnie to behold but I made it. Jacky had gone on ahead and to add insult to illness, Sandra, who was doing the longer route, overtook me just at the summit.  And it has to be said that on my way up I overtook two blokes, one of whom was at least half my age (and was tall and skinny) so that did give me a rather perverse feeling of satisfaction.  By the time I got to the top of the first stretch I was able to flash a grin at the official photographer and I looked significantly less deformed that on the previous occasion.

Shooting the Crow 2

Shooting the Crow 2

The ride down was not as easy as I’d hoped as I had been left feeling a little shaky after the climb.  Jacky was waiting at the bottom and we had a decent rest to let me recover before embarking on the final stage back along the Carron Valley to the finish line.  Now one of the things about this particular ride is that you think you have cracked it once you’re over the Crow and everything else is plain sailing.

Wrong.

There are at least two steepish climbs on this stretch and I must admit they did for me.  I suddenly felt like a wee 54-year old with a residual chest infection.  It didn’t help that I was so busy swearing a potholes in road at one point that I missed a turning and added a good ten or fifteen minutes to my time before I realised that I didn’t recognise the road.  Ah well. Wont do that next year.

But I finally limped back into the high school, only about 20 minutes after Jacky. I didn’t do it in under 5 hours like I’d wanted. But I did do it in slightly less time than last year which was good given that I was well below par and that I’d given myself that extra section.

On the day I felt that I had let myself down and I was quite despondent about it. Now when looking back while writing this, I feel I should be happy that I notched up a better time than previously and that while I am not improving in leaps and bounds, there is some evidence of better performance.

Notch it up to not being my best ride  but by the same token neither was it as bad as I’d felt on the day.

N+ how many?

Well I’ve done it. Bought another bike.

The Dolan has served me well for a first road bike, especially since it had never been my intention to get a carbon framed one that early in my cycling life.

But things move on and I had been very impressed with the Specialized Ruby that I hired in Texas.  It had come down to a choice between that and the Giant Avail Advanced, but with the latter being now unavailable until 2014, I went with the Ruby.

Good choice.

 

Bike 3