I’d booked a few days off work for a trip to Germany that Mian was planning, but then he crashed and couldn’t afford to go. I’ve made a few attempts at getting to Scotland in the past, each scuppered by other plans being made, and I’ve been hankering to have a go at a trip on my own, so it seemed sensible to take the five days to get to John O’Groats and back.
A quick fiddle with Furkot suggested that I had something like 1700 miles to cover in five days, which I rounded to 300 miles per day almost immediately before deciding that 300 miles was a reasonable day’s riding. My rear tyre was awfully squared off so the obvious solution seemed to be blat it up the M1 and M6 past all the lovely places I’ve already seen, then get a new tyre fitted at or near the border. And I might as well do that after work on the Thursday (I’d booked the Friday, Monday and Tuesday off).
So I booked the bike in for a new tyre at a Triumph shop in Carlisle on Friday morning and set about finding somewhere cheap and not-too-bad to stay. I ended up booking at the Travelodge at Kendal which wasn’t really success.
Thursday – London to Kendal
Well, this was the easy bit. I’ve long had a strong aversion to motorways on the grounds that I’m riding a motorbike and not driving a lorry, but a couple of trips (most notably leaving work one evening for Harwich and being in Cologne by about 11 the next day) have convinced me to give them a go.
So I worked from home, left at half four, jumped on the M1 and then the M6 and, aside from a brief error onto the M42 and A5, just made progress and dispatched with 250 miles in quite pleasant weather ahead of most of the traffic without once getting distracted by all the fantastic places I was zipping past.
Friday – Kendal to Fort William
Breakfast was at Tebay services (the farm shop one) where I also bought the bits required to fashion a battery charger for my camera since I’d neither charged the camera nor brought a working charger for it. I paused again at Carlisle to get a new tyre and fawn over the new Tigers, before cracking on up through Gretna Green to Glasgow
I’d noticed by now that I’d forgotten to pack a number of things – I had no fuel bottle for my stove, no chain lube at all and while I’d brought a pot to cook in I had no cup to drink out of and no fork or spoon to eat with, so I paused in Glasgow a little longer than I’d intended to.
Heading out of Glasgow past Dumbarton, up alongside Loch Lomond and over Glen Coe was a fantastic suggestion of what was to come from Scotland:
That last photo’s from when I stopped because the temperature gague had been flashing at me in that way that suggested that something’s gone awfully wrong. It’s a weird place for an engine to overheat – a fast, empty road in a country not really known for its high temperatures. I briefly realised I’d never actually fixed the fan after it broke in Germany last year, and then actually had a look:
That’s not really supposed to do that. A handy local stopped as I was wondering what on earth to bodge that together with – I think he was on an air-cooled BMW but I’ll forgive him.
He said that the petrol station on the way into Glen Coe was about 5 miles away and stocked “basically everything”. I somewhat pointlessly filled the coolant system up out of my camelbak (another good reason to only ever have water in there) and cracked on past some more lovely scenery to fix it.
During the application of Magic Network Rail Tape (I think that’s its technical name) and some jubilee clips I heard the familiar sound of an approaching BMW flat twin. Fortunately, this was a water-cooled one so the rider couldn’t gloat, but he did advise me that the ferry I was hoping to catch first thing in the morning from Mallaig (about an hour and a half away still) to Skye was likely full and that I might end up waiting for hours if I turned up without a crossing booked.
He left on his way once I’d persuaded him that I thought the thing was fixed – I decided I’d see how far I could get towards Mallaig and book the ferry when I was reasonably convinced I’d be able to get onto it. After several scares that were just reminders of how carefully this engine needs its coolant bleeding, as I reached Fort William I decided I’d definitely be able to make the ferry in the morning and I ought to book a ticket.
The earliest available crossing was at 16:20, so I found a campsite nearby instead.
Saturday – Fort William to Thurso
I woke up in the morning and reasoned that the current bodge had been ‘fine’ for the couple of hours it took to get to the campsite and it didn’t really look like it had leaked overnight so it was probably fixed, and headed across to Applecross.
Regardless of how much better it might have been to go across Skye (and, really, the only draw for me had been the ferry) I didn’t feel I’d missed much by just cracking on down the main road.
The Applecross road is one that I’ve heard much mention of but never really looked into – I didn’t really know what to expect. The road to the beginning (in Tornapress) is delightful. There’s a singletrack railway alongside it with a lovely lake the other side, and the odd tunnel.
But delightful as that is, the Applecross pass is just a wonderful mountain pass. Almost entirely singletrack with the odd passing place and not a lot of crash barrier, generally poorly surfaced and set in some wonderfully distracting scenery:
Applecross itself is a nice seaside village, providing both a good car park in which to deal with the failure of last night’s bodge and a nice community-owned petrol pump:
Since I’d just rebodged the hose again (and the hole was bigger this time) I thought it would be best to head straight for a town to get some better supplies for this. It also seemed sensible to head fairly directly for the campsite (at Thurso) with a view to getting there early enough to effect a proper repair and then leave it overnight for any glue to set.
This was annoying – in Applecross I was about halfway up the West coast of Scotland, and Thurso is essentially the East end of the North coast. The bit of Scotland that I really wanted to see was the North-East corner, and here I was planning to skirt right round it.
I sighed and thought I’d just take the most major road I could find to the next town that was remotely on the way
Ah well, I’ll go back over the Applecross pass if I must :)
I pulled into a Tesco in Dingwall in order to top up on Cup-a-Soup sachets, but as I parked up I heard the familiar sound of spraying water and looked down to see my front tyre getting another soaking out of the now slightly-displaced Applecross bodge. I headed into town and found a hardware shop.
The original bodge had been Network Rail Magic Tape and jubilee clips, to which I later added duct tape. The second had been thicker self-amalgamating tape and duct tape (and jubilee clips) but this time I sought advice from ‘Papa Greenbury’ who suggested a glue to really fill the gaps. I Uhu-glued some duct tape in place, then added some circlips and thought I’d better leave that to set so went off in search of a Wispa.
By now, this had gone from being a fairly entertaining problem that’s just adding some jeopardy and interest to an otherwise run-of-the-mill trip to something a bit annoying. I was stopping frequently to top up the water and couldn’t really claim to believe my own lie that all I was doing was replacing air that had bled out. Also, all that glorious countryside was just over to my left as I ‘progressed’ up a main road.
There’s basically no photos from the next five hours – I just smashed it up the A9 trying to get to Thurso before it all blew up.
As I pulled into Brora (about 50 miles short of Thurso) the overheating light came on again and I coasted into a petrol station. Here I noticed that the radiator was cold, so the system was empty again; I set about filling it up and told myself that if I properly bled it as well, then I’d probably get most of the way to Thurso on that.
While I was doing that, a man on a Fireblade pulled up into the petrol station and asked if I needed a hand. This had happened a lot by now, and it’s really nice to have all these offers of help. But it’s also a bit annoying how few people (myself included) happen to carry around with them all the tools to repair a steel coolant pipe.
I tried to dismiss this offer, too – “yeah, there’s a hole in a steel coolant pipe, I’m just topping it up and I’ll be fine” but he wasn’t so easily dissuaded – “you wont get anywhere on that. My house is 11 miles up the road, and I’m sure my son will be able to sort that out”.
It seemed a daft offer to refuse, so I headed up there. A few hours later I’d been introduced to three or four generations of the family, all of whom had multiple bikes in various places and, perhaps more importantly, had had a nice plate welded up over the hole in the seriously-quite-degraded pipe. It was absolutely amazing – I cut short an MX session when they were called back from the track, then six people basically spent their evening fixing this complete stranger’s bike.
I left at about eight, just after dusk and thought I’d crack on up to Thurso – I still had 60-odd miles to cover. At the first bit of unlit road I flipped to full-beam and everything went dark… So I’ve got an electrical issue whereby when I use the full-beam circuit something shorts to ground and blows the fuse, taking out the dipped beam, too. Also, presumably in an effort to protect me from myself, the bike won’t start with non-working headlights (this seems more sensible now I’ve written it down).
I got to Thurso very late and tired and also *incredibly* low on fuel – I’d forgotten to actually fill up when the nice man took me off for some welding. Luckily the petrol station on the way into Thurso was still open (just!) since according to the range countdown on the bike I only had fuel for about an extra mile beyond the campsite.
Sunday – Thurso to Dundee, via Aberdeen
I slept incredibly well that night. Perhaps partly because of how tiring Saturday had been, and largely because I forgot to set an alarm and woke with a bit of a start a little after 9. I headed into town for a quick look around, and then on to Dunnet Head (the british mainland’s most northerly point) for breakfast.
That box ticked I headed for John O’Groats. I’ve been to Land’s End a few times and it’s brilliantly tragic and anticlimactic. I expected the same from John O’Groats.
What I got was the finish line to the “Ride Across Britain” and a bunch of closed shops.
which, in a way, was even better than I was expecting.
I’d arranged to meet Alan in Aberdeen on the way down. I can’t remember quite how long ago he moved there but I’ve been saying I’ll come and visit ever since, and he’s moving to Australia at the end of the month so it was about time I actually did that. On the way to Aberdeen I called in and delivered a crate of energy drink and a pile of cake to the family of welders – they’d said that was most appropriate!
And then on down towards Inverness. This is a lovely part of the world for a Triumph owner; all the oil refining means that the smell of hot engine oil that so often means another problem is actually just part of the scenery.
On the way I passed a sign for “Nigg”, which I followed rather optimistically hoping for a sign to something that’s both appropriate and funny. Obviously that didn’t happen, but I did find a cheeky ferry:
At this point I was still regarding the welded-up pipe as just the latest incarnation of the bodge, and I was a bit confident that if it all goes wrong Alan’s probably got something I can use to fix it. Since there’s a large bit of seawater in the way of my doing anything else I headed down and across to Inverness and then out along the fast-but-dull main road to Aberdeen.
I was still running a couple of hours behind because of the relaxing sleep in, and my plan required I get at least as far south as Dundee for the night. I got to Alan’s still with a not-leaking bike, and found that Aberdeen is almost exactly as unremarkably not-bad on first impression as everyone says. I left rather late after dark and headed straight down to a campsite just past Dundee.
Monday – Dundee to Whitby
With the whole of Sunday having gone without a coolant leak this was the first day that could just go as planned, but I’d also not actually planned this far ahead. Whitby seemed a good aim for the night (being about half way home) and Edinburgh, Kielder and the North York Moors are all on the way there.
So, I headed down through Edinburgh past the Forth Bridge and to the difficult-to-photograph-from-a-bike castle.
I Edinburgh I met a courier at a petrol station who recommended the A68 South-East as something “fun, with corners and no cameras” which was broadly accurate. I followed that down to Jedburgh where I turned West so I’d cross the border straight into Kielder National Park.
On the way I passed what turned out to be a Waterloo Momument.
Apparently you can’t drive there, and instead have to park up and walk which I didn’t bother with. I did, however, find a train station up an unpaved road:
Now that the bike wasn’t leaking it all got a bit consistent – I just carried on riding over the border, through Kielder, past a funny-named town and over the Tyne at Newcastle.
I hadn’t realised how suburban the Angel of the North was – I expected it to be on the way to Newcastle from the south, but it’s a bit of a way into it. And while there’s a handy layby for taking photos of it from the northern carriageway, anyone heading south must take photos as they go.
It had to happen eventually on a Scotland trip, and as I rolled in to Whitby it started raining.
Annoyingly this is the first time I managed to get to a campsite early enough that I could spend the evening sitting around and relaxing rather than just sticking up a tent and going to bed, so I sat in my tent and hid from the rain for a bit.
Tuesday – Whitby to London
The morning wasn’t a lot better. As I left Whitby the rain paused and it just felt like it was going to rain soon. But I spent long enough deviating round York and going over the Humber bridge for the rain to catch up.
On the way out of Hull, I saw a three-digit motorway which I thought I may as well go on for the novelty, where the much-predicted finally happened and I dropped the camera…
It was fine and working, but missing a bit of the case so no-longer waterproof. Given the weather, I didn’t really take any more photos on the otherwise quite plain-sailing rest of the ride home.
So, all up that’s about 1500 miles in five days which is quite doable but perhaps not something I’d inflict on anybody else; lunches were in petrol stations and with the mechanical problems there was no time to do anything besides riding the thing.
I definitely missed out a bunch of things that would’ve been really good – distilleries, the whole north-west corner, any form of interaction with the locals besides buying their petrol, the islands – and it was at least a little more stressful than I’d have liked. I’ve definitely got to get back, but with ten days or so…
Even more pictures are here and the Viewranger tracks are a bit split-up: