I'd had in mind an early and low-key escape from the B+B, a wee visit to Ardbeg to obtain the much sought-after cycling jersey and a spin round the Oa, to try and spot an elusive eagle, reticent Chough or blink-and-you-miss-it Peregrine... I might have, if I'd gone, seen all of them, but I didn't, so I didn't. Instead, I was entertained and detained by interesting breakfast conversation with two guests, both Irish, who were scholars of the Gaelic languages and were visiting the island to learn more of the Scots version. I say version, but it transpires that there are many Scots Gaelic dialects, and that the Islay dialect is the closest to Irish. The people of Harris and Lewis speak, so I'm told, an abomination...
After a surprisingly emotional farewell with Margaret the landlady (and she donated money to my charity!) I headed to the Ileach to see Brian and write a few days worth of what is now affectionately known as 'the novel'. Some two hours later, blinking as I emerged into Bowmore's lemon barley sunshine, having met the paper's editor and third quarter of Velo Club D'Ardbeg, I was ready to bag some lunch and head off up the high road (it's relative; it's also slightly less straight and less windy than the low/straight/windy road, and much more interesting for it) to Port Ellen and beyond, to distillery row, home of three of the world's most famous marques.
I'd been told to ask for Jackie at Ardbeg, as she's the marketing manager and likely to be able to help me on my quest. Well, I'd been told that some cyclists got their jerseys at trade price if they spoke to Jackie, which sounded great, but I knew I could go one better. She emerged, tall, blonde and smiling, with casual/glam spectacles, a professional handshake and genuine warmth, all offset with Converse hi-tops, and so we chatted about my ride and how much I was enjoying my visit to the island. She proffered tea and cake and, true to form, I didn't refuse. She also proffered a wee dram, but I was on to bigger fish, so I asked if I could have a jersey for free, if I offered it in a charity auction. Jackie said it would be fine if I wore it all the way to John O'Groats... And that highlighted a small shortcoming in my plan: I wanted to wear the jersey, but I wanted to be able to auction a new and unsullied one too, so I did the decent thing and bought one for myself too. As I left, I swear I could hear Jackie telling her staff what I was doing and why. I know it's big-headed, but it's nice to be the talk of the town occasionally... Jackie, if you're reading this, it's still a secret, ok?
After all of that, it was a little late to go bird chasing on the hilly bit of the island, so I looked around to set camp. Jez had suggested a spot by the maltings which was level and right on the beach, but I had misgivings about the stony ground and fancied somewhere with showers and an unattended three-pin socket for phone charging, so I decided to investigate Kintra Farm, nearby. Deep, sand soil, as it's an old and stable dune system; a fabulous beach, free showers (but that's another story) and free leccy, idiosyncratic owners and exceptionally friendly campers. What a find! Yes, it was bloody windy, but as I sat talking to Baldrick and his girlfriend (sorry, I keep doing that mental blank thing with names, and I swear it isn't personal) about bikes, camping outdoor life, farming and 'boy stuff/girl stuff', sharing my melon, their bottle of wine and the heat from Baldrick's portable wood-burning furnace, I knew I'd chosen well. Late, much later than I'd expected, I put off showering til the morning and headed for bed.
Woke early. No, earlier (maybe it doesn't qualify as early; maybe it's officially the unspeakable hour only known to parents, the SAS and writers of horror stories). Half past bloody three, unrested, unamused and unable to settle in the howling wind. I must have slept, as I woke again at five. I decided that if I slept again I'd sleep til 9, so I got up and determined to head for the early, early boat at 7am. Struck camp in record time, skipped the shower (damn, but it's in a good cause) and took sunrise photos on my way out. I'd be in town and ready to board before you could say 'stinky bloke with a rumbly tum'. But no. Too clever by half? The 7am boat leaves from the other end of the island, 20 miles away and upwind. Not a chance. So I rode about, waited for the co-op to open and sat on the beach like the homeless man I was. Strangely, and probably because I was still - despite appearances that withstood reasonably close scrutiny - asleep, it never occurred to me to ride back to the campsite and have a shower to kill time, odour and bacteria. Ah well...
I queued for the 9.45 ferry - eventually - and ran into my old acquaintances the canoe couple, and a man called Chris who'd spotted me yesterday at Ardbeg, where he'd recognised my Dartmoor Classic cycling jersey. As it happened, he was treasurer of Mid Devon CC, the organisers, and we proceeded to rumble on about all things two-wheeled. He and his wife Ruth were touring on an aircraft carri... I mean Honda Gold Wing (Satnav? Tick; CB radio? Tick; CD multi-changer...) and were great company before and during the crossing.
Back on the old familiar A83 to Tarbert, I plugged away at the miles in the old, familiar weather: warm, damp and difficult to place. To wet for just a shirt, not wet enough for Gore-tex; to cool to stand about without a jacket, and way to warm to wear one if you're moving... Not raining, and not not raining. If I thought I was confused, I should spare a thought for those foreign to these shores!
Collected the joy of sandwiches in Co-op. I'm now officially an expert in the Scottish Co-op's entire range of non tuna-containing sandwiches, it seems. Waited for the weather to make up it's bloody mind and ate the fancy chicken sarnies before tackling the unscenic A83 all the way to Lochgilphead. I wasn't looking forward to the arterial slog any more than most people look forward to visiting their bank manager, but the alternative - a 32 mile detour over the hills - would still have either dumped me back on the main road or across a steep and rocky off-road section (and it's been raining, oh fun!) and another 20 miles to Tayvallich. This was my originally intended route but, having cycled half of it twice the other day, I wasn't inclined to go for the hat-trick. Go on, call me names. It matters not. I decided therefore to head to Lochgilphead and pick up the anachronistic and seemingly little used Crinnan canal and trundle almost it's entire length on the towpath, but first a tea stop was needed.
Lochgilphead is about as exciting as a nun's knicker drawer, but it does have good tea (50p a cup to take away. Lovely!), a humorously-titled putting green (the loch head foreshore in town houses a pitch 'n' putt whose headquarters, a small wooden, windowless edifice from B+Q, bears the legend - on three landscape, laminated sides of A4 - "Jabba The Putts". Priceless.
Pleasantly and almost without pause for remark, save the peace and fresh air, the canal delivered me to the road junction from where I pedalled to Tayvallich, a tiny harbour from a fairy tale in an impossibly twee and fun-sized loch of it's own. As if to slap on a completely unnecessary layer of Thomas Kinkade magic, the sun came out and the clouds danced in slow-mo splendour over forests and mountains... Magical indeed. Less enchanting was the lack of post office or mobile phone signal, and the campsite, which charged £1 per shower, and had no laundry. No, I'm not letting my mod-cons attachment spoil my trip, but I think I've stayed in enough campsites now to know value and amenity from making a fast buck. Yes, it's a pretty setting, but unless you've rented an ugly tin box with a view at the front of the park, that's the only view you get for the nightly camping fee. I went for a pint, and I enjoyed it too.
While looking at the harbour for it's photographic potential, a group of girls and two lads were hanging out on the pontoon, showing off. I bet one of them he couldn't pull a stoppie at the end of the pontoon, and he obliged for the camera. Good lad, and clearly skilled in his trials riding, looking cool for the ladies and just being a dude. It made a bloody good photo too!
Paid my dues to Mr Camp and set off back into the 21st century, towards Oban and my crawl northward. The clouds and rain and the sun continued in their torrid love triangle, sending rainbows, skies by turns black as night and bright white, every style of rain and - tantalisingly - the most precocious and insincere glimpses of sunshine. Took a promising detour to Ardfern, as I needed to replace the drawcord on my pannier, and I figured a chandlery would be as good a place as any for a replacement. The village was also home to The Crafty Kitchen, a craft shop-cum-restaurant. Well, it was as poor a craft shop as it was a good place to eat. I don't normally count 'Made in China' novelty rubbers as 'craft' items, but maybe that's my problem. The cuppa I went in for turned into a grilled veg and halloumi baguette with three salads and home-made baklava with ice cream... And tea. Result! Who cares if it costs more than two nights' camping? Sat and chatted to a family who recognised me from the campsite. They'd racked up 20,000 miles between them as cycle tourists before having children. I take my hat off to them.
Back on the road, the weather and the hills provided the usual fun and games, but no real hardships or surprises. I'm sure the scenery would be stunning on a clear day, but I'd have to come back to make sure. Arrived in Oban looking for a post office (I had a parcel of extraneous matter to send back to mission control), my campsite (I knew the name but not the location) and cooking gas for my stove. Fortunately, Oban is big enough to solve all of those problems quickly and easily, and my visit to Tesco yielded a half bottle of half decent wine as well as an open Post Office counter.
The campsite, two miles from town, is run by a bearded man who charges extra for a smile, and whose land makes best use of the natural slope to deter those who can't level their temporary home with chocks. Looks like I'll be hanging onto the edge of my Thermarest again tonight! After my tres chic supper (tinned ravioli, malt loaf, salt and vinegar Pringles and a small bottle of Chilean merlot and, if you must know, I frighten myself...) I toddled off to the slipway for the Kerrera ferry, to get a better phone signal and photograph the island sunset skies. Yes, it's cheesy, but it's an opportunity too good to miss. While I was there I chatted to and exchanged envies with the ferryman, who had always wanted to go bike touring. I had my eye on his island. I wonder if he'll swap?
Slipping away from the friendly but viciously rowing Welsh neighbours, I headed for Oban and the peace and quiet - and freedom from embarrassment - that was the town centre. Unsure of the terrain that lay ahead, or how my legs might cope, I ditched the idea of a visit to the barber for a proper shave and headed north, keen to get some miles under my tyres. As it would transpire, this was the correct decision... Coffee stop at the Café Ben Lora, named after the 'falls' which, although impressive for relatively open water, are little more than rapids, so don't turn up expecting Niagara, ok?
The café was home to very tall cappuccinos and two Wolfhounds, one of which had twigged that having a missing leg was a begging opportunity he could capitalise on with a mopey face in exchange for food. His owners had obviously his welfare in mind as, hanging by a zip-tie from his collar was a handwritten sign saying "Please do not feed me". It didn't stop him trying though, and he patrolled the terrace for anything he could get, settling for strokes and cuddles from a young lad with his Mum.
Refreshed, re-caffeinated and inspired, my wheels turned again and I was pleased with the buzz of fresh tarmac beneath my tyres. Now and again the clouds and canopy broke up, revealing the distant shores beyond Loch Creran. The dark, muscular flanks of Morvern stood motionless across the water, frozen ripples of granite like the fetlocks of a thoroughbred after a morning gallop, enveloped in clouds of its own design, the cruel photo finish of tectonic time denying her the winning post at Mull's northern shore. Stopping again - briefly - for water and to oil the chain, I was confronted by a knot of yellow-clad bikers, members of the Stafford Cycling Club and locals at Swinnertons at Cannock Chase (my other 'local' bike shop). Naturally, we did what cyclists always do on first meeting, and discussed mileage, kit, routes and people we know. The old boys teased me about the weight of my rig and the state of my chain, and I resisted the urge to respond in kind and instead took it in good humour.
Upon our farewells, I remounted the bike and discovered that my left shoe and pedal didn't see eye-to-eye any more. On closer inspection, I could see that one of the two bolts holding the brass cleat in place (the bit that mates with the pedal and keeps the shoe in place) had escaped, and was nowhere to be found.This was moderately serious as, without a firm footing, I'd suffer terribly in the hilly weeks to come. (A cycling shoe designed for this kind of fitting has, without the cleat, almost no purchase on the pedal.) I called mission control for a search for bike shops in the Glencoe area, and one was found - and found suitable - in Fort Bill.
Fort William is roughly a 26-mile detour along what Sustrans describes as Britain's most dangerous road for cycling, so although I knew I'd be virtually unable to carry on without a tiny brass bolt (yours, plus fitting, for a quid), I also REALLY didn't want to ride to Fort William. I wouldn't have gone if I didn't have to, and my route specifically avoided it for that reason.
It didn't take me long to find out how the road had earned its reputation either: in the five mile stretch between the Loch Leven bridge and the Corran ferry, I was nearly killed twice. F***ING TWICE! Here's a wee tip for motorists who leave their brains at home when they go on holiday, or think that, just beause they're 'only' overtaking a bicycle, crossing the double white lines in the middle of the road (y'know, the ones that mean "no overtaking"; it's in the Highway Code) and then having to swerve in front of said bike, leaving just inches between the rear of the vehicle and a coroner's inquest, is acceptable behaviour: FUCKING STAY AT HOME YOU IGNORANT BASTARDS! Thanks for listening, it's been emotional.
Made it to Fort William in one piece, and got the shoe fixed. Piece of cake, and cheaper than a Highland Shortbread. But there was no way on earth I was riding back down that road, doubly so at rush hour. Bike shop man suggested catching the passenger ferry to Camusnagaul and riding down the far shore of Loch Linnhe, and picking up the Corran ferry at the other end but, on investigation, it turned out that I wouldn't have got to camp at Glencoe until 8pm, and I'd still have had to ride five miles of that deadly A82, so I headed to the TIC (for it is they who run Scotland) and booked the cheapest B+B in town I could find. It was cheap for a reason... No TV, no shower, two miles from town, décor from a selection at your local village hall every first saturday if the month... But, as I've come to expect from the Scots, a warm welcome.
Rain from the off at Fort William. I'd been told to expect a sunny day, but decided to err on the side of caution and wore full waterproofs. As it turned out, this was a wise choice, as the rain had gone from light at breakfast (at which I learned that Tobermory is very busy and noisy and full of tourists; I think it's a relative term) through persistent by my departure, to torrential by the time I'd left Ellis Brigham with a pack of Y-shape tent pegs (the soft alloy angle-irons that came with the tent are useless on anything except peat).
I made my way to the ferry-that-wasn't, a cabin cruiser resembling someone's caravan inside, running a subsidised service to Camusnagaul and back. Having not been designed for the job, the task of loading a fully stacked touring bicycle over the gunwales and onto the deck was only achieved easily by virtue of the fact that the boat's skipper, a Nine Inch Nails fan, was rather strong. At our destination he didn't even bother trying to unload the bike, as he'd have had to lift it out of the boat. I unpacked and packed the luggage and we discussed whether carrying far too many kilos of luggage really made a difference to the bike's performance. Perhaps he was joking? On Morvern the rain got worse. Much worse. Several times.
Ok, I know I keep talking about the weather, and I'm sure I promised that I wouldn't anymore, but today set a new benchmark for fully-clothed drenchings. Those dark, muscular flanks of granite and basalt which looked so poetic yesterday were today so prosaically wringing out the Atlantic skies and letting it fall - in bricks - where it may. I'd have looked around and admired the rough and proud beauty of the scenery - I knew it was there, but I couldn't see it for cloud and condensation. At Clovullin I stopped, shopped at the shop/post office/petrol station/only business in the village, and made use of their sheltered porch while I ate. Chatted to a local, who was impressed with my ride and suggested humorously that Scotland would still get the better of me. Nothing, it seems, is "Scotland-proof". If your idea of hell is torrential rain, high winds, empty and featureless moorlands and 'waterproof' clothing utterly defeated, then welcome to my world... pressed on, up lonely valleys, bereft of buildings, of people, the torrential rain holding the ubiquitous midges at bay, barely holding on to the will to pedal. If there'd been shelter, I'd have stopped, but there was only sky and peat and sheep.
Still, it could be worse. You see, many of these roads are single track, passing bays providing the only opportunity for two-way traffic. They are best driven slowly, just in case. Most locals know this and adjust their driving style accordingly. Many tourists do not, and will happily squeeze (barge?) past a cyclist with inches to spare at 50+ mph rather than wait 50 meters for a safe passing space. Oi, Clarkson, book a f***ing track day!
I wonder how sharply he had to pull up to avoid hitting Loch Aline village's joker, the cow on the road? It took me by surprise at 20 mph, and she took a fair amount of persuasion to shift out of the way. Ferry was almost in when I met the cow, so a quick visit to the tea-hut for bacon roll and tea was in order before leaving the mainland for the Island of Mull. The campsite at Craignure was just four miles from the boat and, despite all facilities being housed in shielings (big, semi-permanent tents), was nonetheless very well appointed. I took full advantage of washing and drying facilities and a bath (my first in a month) to restore a percentage of my human dignity, and set off for the pub for a beer and a steaming plate of sausage and mash which more-or-less took care of the rest.
I'm not going to mention the W word. No, not at all; except for once, right at the end of the day. I promise. Really. Tired, damp again and battling the w... Oops, nearly did it there, I packed up camp slowly and headed via the direct route to Tobermory. I really couldn't face the 50+ mile trip across country, as I was tired and nothing worked properly. 22 miles. Next to no distance. Should be done in an hour and a half, tops. Three hours and three stops later, I arrived at the island's capital, it's famous row of colourful harbourside houses calling out, like maritime signal flags, "sit, stop, drink coffee". I obeyed.
My phone was almost out of battery, so I chose my call wisely and made contact with the B&B; uphill again, and a killer, but worth the effort. I was glad to see Tim and Sheila, and they helped me unload and dry my kit before I headed back to town in dry clothes for food, photography and leisured tourist amblings. Later, post fish and chips, I discussed bee-keeping, engineering and freelance photography with Tim as he checked and emptied his daughter's rain gauge: 33mm. In 24 hours. It had been 47mm yesterday. 80mm (for those who, like me, have to tot these things up using imaginary fingers and toes) in 48 hours – three and a bit inches in old money. In two days.
There, I did it. I held off mentioning the W word until the end of the day. But I could have told you that, if you'd asked. I'd wrung about that much from each sock last night. Now, however, it was Beer o'clock, and I had a deadline to keep... Well, I can't imagine I'll be visiting either of Tobermory's pubs again anytime soon. I think the words 'disappointing tourist-robbing opportunity' sum them both up quite well, although the one nearer the ferry served a decent pint.
"Good Morning! My word, you look exhausted" said Tim, as I fell down the broad Victorian staircase of the Viewmount B&B. He clearly had an eye for these things. I was, and despite a solid eight hour kip, it was still not far behind me, and wouldn't be shaken off by any breakfast, regardless of calorie count, protein content or the delicious homemade (by bees, obviously) honey. My breakfast companions were an ectomorphic, elegant mother and daughter, making the most of long, teacher-style summer holidays to tour Scotland. They were polite, refined and took a genuine interest in my misadventure. I wish I'd found out their names. Shortly thereafter, packed and farewells said, I was hurtling effortlessly towards the ferry (all trips to the shops, pub and facilities in Tobermory are done at high speed; it's getting home that's a long, slow slog) where I met up with a dozen or so German cycle tourists, their support bus and cowshed-sized secure bike trailer. I bade my teutonic neighbours bon voyage at Kilchoan, and set off in thickening gloom towards Salen which, being heavily signposted, I assumed might be THE place to be... It wasn't. Well, if it ever had been, it was having Sunday morning off.
I pressed on to Acharacle, just a couple of miles further, and was confronted with a throbbing metropolitan hub: a chippy, a bakery and a shop, all open, and public loos and picnic tables for your convenience. How good is this? I stocked up on hot tea, hot pies and cake for later, and shopped for novelty drinks (Red Bull cola; try it, if you see it) for keeping me going later. There would be plenty of later...
Some later - not all of it, but a fair bit - I arrived at Ardtoe, home of Scotland's monster midge. Not a real one, but a painted rock. It's at the end of the road, at the tip of a finger of rock still desperately clinging to a scrap of the Atlantic. Should have called it "Ardfinger", perhaps? The highly decorated ard-toe-or-finger nail of the settlement is the lacy edge of white sand beaches that fringe the peninsula, making for safe an pleasant bathing and mucking about in boats. I stopped and did my part against the 'freshly-baked Florentine menace', by eating one I'd bought earlier. Back towards the main road -although that might be overplaying it a bit - the tussocky peat bogs bore signs of earning their keep. Like some vast imaginary Rothko painting - "Opening in green over black" - the ground bore the rectilinear scars of peat cutting and, here and there, mounds of peat bricks were doing their best to dry out in what was passing for sunshine, adding dramatic, oily textured accents to the otherwise mundanely mossy canvas.
I was, broadly, heading for Mallaig, that more famous end-of-the-road town and ferry port for Skye. However, after 50 miles - and with 20 still to go - I knew I would arrive by alternative means. Having threaded my way along the coast of Lochs Moidart and Shiel, struggling up hills not considered worthy of a mention on my motorist’s map, I arrived at Lochailort. Not so much a settlement as an idea with a pub, it was, unsurprisingly, shut. It did, however, have a train station, and that's where I met four of my German friends, conveniently bereft of bicycles and armed with the time of the next train: just 15 minutes time. So that's how I came to arrive in Mallaig in relative comfort and early enough to find somewhere to stay... Only there wasn't anywhere. Mallaig and Morar games had been held that day so the impact of that wee festival of brute strength, piping and kilt-wearing, in addition to the normal travellers’ stop-overs, had brought the accommodation situation to crisis point. I settled for fish and chips, sitting on what the locals settled for in lieu of a seafront, and chatted to more of the Germans who, in their civvies and drinking cans of cider, could have passed for locals.
I headed back up the road, away from - rather than to - the Isles, looking for a pleasant camping spot. I knew there were many, I just had to find them but, on a whim, detoured through Morar village, where I spied a very makeshift B+B sign. By now shattered and not knowing if I'd find a camping spot, I gave in and knocked on the door. The very antithesis of the B+B landlady answered, and showed me to a room which she "hoped I'd like". Actually, it was just like home, but a bit better, and I told her so. The shower had a sunset view across Sgeir Mhor point and the Silver Sands, and that was all I'd have really wanted from a campsite, so I took it, took a shower and changed, ready for a walk on the beach. I was still shattered, but I slept in a double bed and felt like I was already home. Perhaps it was a mistake...
Breakfasted with the other guests, a couple from Turin who were both aeronautical engineers. I've met lots of engineers on this trip; maybe Scotland has a fascination for the mathematical-practical brain, or maybe, as with small children and stroppy dogs, I just attract them. Whatever the explanation, they were pleasant company. Having decided already not to catch the early ferry, I knew I'd probably seen the last of my German friends, but I had to bundle up my spare kit and souvenirs and post it back to mission control, so I paid the post office a visit.
Had a chin-wag with a tandemming (it IS a word if I say so) couple from France and boarded for the unromantic half hour crossing to Skye, the strains of the Skye Boat Song looping through my head in an entirely ironic way as I sat amongst the rows of leather-clad Dutch, Danish, Italian and Swedish bikers, the brand new backpacks of the French and German gap-year kids, and the coffee and pink anoraks of families from Preston, the adults moved by history and scenery, the children reluctant and itchy for something to do. Over the sea to Skye. Indeed.
On Skye, roadworks were the order of the day, and gone was the old single-track from Armadale to Broadford, replaced by a featureless and much less dangerous road, here and there freshly surfaced with brand new tarmac. The French tandemists grumbled that it wasn't what they had wanted, but it suited me fine. I had stocked up on provisions in Broadford's Co-op (one of only two opportunities to spend money on non-craft items on the island. Probably*) and headed for the tiny fishing hamlet of Elgol, nestled beyond the Red Cuillins, under the Blacks and beside the blue mountain, Blaven. Trouble was so were all the other people I'd shared the ferry ride with, and, what had on my previous visit been little more than a slipway and views of Mordor was now Clovelly-esque, a hell of vehicles and anoraks, camera beeps and shouted negotiations between Canadian seniors on the timings of boat excursions. Please, never let there be a visitor's centre.
I decided against camping there, which looked like it might involve midges, paper-thin soil and marauding cattle long after the slightly deaf MacKenzies of Toronto had left, and opted for another opportune B&B. It now occurred to me that I was so tired that I'd lost the will to camp, and I felt disappointed with myself. This was SUPPOSED to be an adventure; tackling the physical, social and personal unknowns in the here and now, not time-travelling back to an age of strict 'dos and don’ts', floral twin bedrooms and shared bathrooms.
*Probably not true, but prove it.
Yes, it was an overpriced and disappointing stopover, but I reaped the benefits of deep sleep and woke refreshed and in possession of a new plan: short days in the saddle until I get to Applecross, just to allow me to recover a little, and this, and the unexpectedly bright weather (it had been forecast, but Skye has no truck with meteorologists and their flimsy say-so. It does as it feels) had lifted my mood. Also lifted was the semi-permanent veil clothing the Cuilins and, in particular, Blaven. I had joked that there are hills here that no-one has actually seen, but this morning the stack of shattered black shards that is the Cuilin was visible in minute relief, every twist, angle and fracture throwing short, ink-lined shadows, black against black. Even Blaven lived up to its name, blue because of its rock type, not just because of its foggy wreath and yesterday's afternoon gloom. Naturally, the 14 mile ride back to Broadford took nearly two hours as I attempted from one angle after another to capture the incredible sight on camera. Blaven, like an eager starlet, obliged me every time, sitting and begging for attention. Not a difficult mountain to approach, given the road and the loch below.
Re-stocked at the Co-op and left the island hoping to find a suitable camp for the night. Just behind the Balmacara Hotel is a caravan site where I pitched up next to a couple from Islay, fellow bikers who recognised me from the Ileach and offered me a brew and a Twix. We talked biking and trails and people, as you do. As if to cement the serendipity of this find, along then came a lad on a bike towing a trailer. Andrew was going all the way round the coast, making me feel lazy and weak, and we compared notes on various places we'd both stayed at, kit selection, food and the highs and lows of solo bike touring.