Sunday, 18 Nov 2018

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath

There couldn’t be a more inspiring ride to open this book. It visits the lonely north-western tip of Britain, and follows an age-old cycling tradition before passing majestic mountains, jewelled lochs and finally reaching the open sea. You will have it almost all to yourself, as few people live here, and even fewer visit. This is the closest place to wilderness in the whole of the British Isles.

Fall in love with Northern Scotland! Not many rides start by taking a ferry, but this one does. The road to Cape Wrath, Northern Scotland starts on the west bank of the Kyle of Durness, and you start on the east. It’s the only road to the Cape, and the ferry is the only way to reach it. The ferry service is tide and weather dependent, and details can be found on www.capewrathferry.co.uk.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 1

 

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

Long before the mountain bike was invented, adventurous cyclists would ride the 22 miles of rough track to Cape Wrath, Northern Scotland and back to become part of the Cape Wrath Fellowship. The road is much improved, but the wistful, wild experience remains. Even the name is romantic. There are only two capes in the UK, this one and Cape Cornwall, 99 rides away.

Fall in love with Northern Scotland! Back in Keoldale you head south-west on the only road there is to begin the Meall na Moine climb. It’s not steep but it’s four miles long and climbs between some very old mountains. You are in the oldest part of Britain, which has a geology dating from 3500 million years ago and is as old as anywhere on the planet. The mountains’ rounded, worn-down shape really shows their age. Two of the highest are Foinaven and Arkle, which you see to your left on the descent to Rhiconich.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 2

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

At Laxford Bridge the direction switches to the south-east, still on the A383 and following the River Laxford inland past Ben Stack to Loch More. This is the start of the next climb, the formidable Bealach nam Meirleach, or the ‘Robber’s Pass’ in English.

This is the wildest and loneliest place in this wild and lonely ride. The road is made from hard-packed stone, and it can be muddy in places. It’s an old drove road through what used to be forest. There are still some patches of trees today, but it’s mostly open moorland.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 3

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

Just beyond the summit, which is at 266 metres, you pass a series of mountain lochs, then descend by following a stream, the Allt a’ Chraois, on its noisy journey down through the Gabernuisgach estate.

Fall in love with Northern Scotland! You eventually reach a metalled road in Strath More and head due north along a flat-bottomed valley, where Strathmore River meanders lazily towards the sea. First, though, the river runs into Loch Hope, while you ride along its right bank to Hope village. There’s a loop south and north around Loch Eriboll to the final leg, west along the undulating coast road back to Durness.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 4

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

Go south-west on the A383 to Keoldale, where you turn right for the ferry. Once over the Kyle of Durness follow the single-track road to Cape Wrath lighthouse. It’s a hard slog, usually into the wind, and there are plenty of hills. The only way back to the ferry is the way you came.

Once back in Keoldale, Northern Scotland continue south-west on the A383 to Laxford Bridge, then south-east to Loch More. Soon after passing the loch, look out for a left turn; this is the track to the top of the Robber’s Pass. Turn left on the metalled road at the end of the track and ride north to Hope.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 5

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

Fall in love with Northern Scotland! Turn left and ride west towards Loch Eriboll, watch for the sharp left-hander on the banks of the loch that has a steep climb straight after it. Ride around the loch to Rispond and the coast – as with most of this ride there’s only one road. Loch Eriboll is a sea loch that opens into the sea at Rispond. Keep the sea on your right shoulder and return to Durness.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 6

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

Start + Finish: Durness

Getting There: Durness is in Sutherland, on the north coast of Scotland (Northern Scotland), and you can only get there by road. Take the A9 north from Inverness, then the A386 at Tain to Lairg; there, head north on the A386, then west on the A383. Inverness to Durness is 123 miles, and it’s remote.

Bike Shop: Bikes of Inverness, 39/41 Grant Street, Inverness

Cafe: Coco Mountain in Balnakeil, which is part of Durness and right next to the sea, serves sophisticated coffee, tea and hot chocolate, and is also a drop-dead gorgeous chocolatier.

Local Delicacy: Chanterelle mushrooms

Northern Scotland. Ben Armine Forest

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 7

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

Fall in love with Northern Scotland! This is another committing ride. Once you set off on long rides this far north there are few shortcuts; get halfway around and it’s as difficult to go back as it is to continue. That’s why all the rides in Northern Scotland are rated hard or above. They are for fit, experienced cyclists. If you don’t match that description yet, get a few 100-mile rides in other areas under your wheels, and then come up here and have a go.

You must come prepared. This is a ride of lochs, streams and rivers; the map is suffused with wriggly blue veins of water. It rains a lot here. It can be blue skies by the coast, and lashing down on the back of this circuit.

If you have the experience, don’t let my grim warnings put you off; nothing can detract from the beauty of this ride. The opening leg is stunning, with the sea on one side, all grey and majestic, and craggy cliffs and heather-clad mountains on the other.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 8

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

You are riding part of the ‘End to End’, Land’s End to John O’Groats, or vice versa, so you might have company, but you’ll leave them at Helmsdale to enter Strath Ullie. Now the riding gets serious as the route goes up and down, but always gaining more height than it loses. It’s hard going, and just to make it harder the mountains, now on both sides, funnel wind down the valley in an attempt to blow you backwards

Fall in love with Northern Scotland! The scenery changes with height, opening out as the route shifts into the valley of the River Helmsdale, then past Loch Badanloch. At last there’s a summit to this arduous leg, with incredible views of forests dotting the hillsides as far as the eye can see.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 9

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

The forests are coniferous today, where they used to be broadleaf trees. The Highland Clearances ended the natural scenery when small self-sufficient farmers called crofters were moved out, with force in some cases, by landowners who wanted to farm sheep for more profit. It changed the Highlands socially, and it changed how they look.

Syre is the northerly turn of this ride, from where you head south through the Naver Forest, then past Loch Naver to Altnaharra. The Met Office has a weather station here that holds the record for the lowest temperature ever recorded in the UK, minus 27 degrees, in February 1995. It’s also the start of this route’s hardest climb, the Crask. Dig in; there’s a pub on top.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 10

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

The descent is straight and fast, but it can be wet and slippery because it runs beneath a lot of trees. The long downhill ends at Loch Shin, the largest loch in Sutherland, with Lairg at the south-east outlet, where the River Shin emerges.

Fall in love with Northern Scotland! Lairg is the crossroads of the north. Not only do major road routes intersect here, but the railway, the Far North Line, has a station in Lairg. The last ride section is tough. It starts on a main road but there is a hilly loop of tiny lanes before reaching Loch Brora and then the coast, where you started 100 miles ago.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 11

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

Find the A9 and follow it north out of town to Helmsdale, Northern Scotland and there turn left onto the A897 to head inland. Follow the River Helmsdale, turning left in Kinbrace onto the B871, ride over the Badanloch Forest climb and descend to Syre.

Turn left onto the B873 and ride past Loch Naver to Altnaharra, Northern Scotland. This is the heart of Reay Country, once controlled by the Clan Mackay. Turn left at the end of the loch and follow the A836 south then south-east over the Crask climb.

Descend to Lairg and look for the A839 and follow it east towards Golspie. After eight miles there’s a left turn to East Langwell, Northern Scotland; take it and follow signs to Dalreavoch. Shortly after this village you enter Strath Brora; follow the River Brora back to where you started.

Northern Scotland. Cape Wrath and Ben Armine Forest - photo 12

Northern Scotland. Cycling for pleasure

Start + Finish: Brora

Getting There: Brora is on the A9, 47 miles north of Inverness, Northern Scotland

Bike Shop: Bikes of Inverness

Cafe: Fountain Cafe on Rosslyn Street

Local Delicacy: Clynelish whisky

 

“Best 100-Mile Bike Routes”

Chris Sidwells

 

 

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