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Glencoe, West Scotland : Big Ride

James Spender
8 Jun 2015

Highland Mighty; Cyclist discovers the worlds of Bond and Potter in the shadow of Ben Nevis.

I’ve always thought that if there was ever a vehicle that best encapsulates Robert Louis Stevenson’s pronouncement, ‘I travel not to go, I travel for travel’s sake,’ it’s the bicycle. That’s not to say that cycling isn’t a practical mode of transport – it’s certainly the easiest way to get around a busy city – but for many of us, the main reason to cycle is simply for the pleasure of cycling. The gentle ticking over of pedals is just a means to meditate on your surroundings; the graceful, polished speed just a faster way of transporting you somewhere new, for the thrill of the ride. So it’s come as quite a shock to find myself enjoying just such a sensation, only in a car. I entirely blame this Highland scenery.

I’m driving along the A82 through the Trossachs National Park, on my way to Glencoe for our planned ride. The roads are instantly recognisable to me as being the same ones that James Bond drove up during the movie Skyfall. Having turned off the A82 onto a beaten track (sadly I find it’s not one accessible for the likes of me), Bond and M emerge from his Aston Martin DB5 to stare wistfully over the Highland moors. ‘Is this where you grew up?’ asks M. ‘How old were you when they died?’ ‘You know the answer to that, you know the whole story,’ says Bond. ‘Orphans always make the best recruits,’ says M.

Reportedly, author of the Bond books Ian Fleming was so impressed with Scot Sean Connery’s portrayal of 007 in Dr No that he penned for Bond a Scottish heritage, in which his father, Andrew Bond, came from Glencoe, and it’s this retrospective detail that took director Sam Mendes to Bond’s real-life ancestral home for the film. But whatever the reason, seeing one of cinema’s most iconic cars whizz like a silver bullet through the Scottish Highlands is a highly arresting piece of cinema.

Glencoe Big Ride White House Climb -Fred MacGregor

I doubt I’m creating quite such a graceful scene in my rented VW Golf, but I’ve never felt closer to my childhood hero than now, and never had the pleasure of such a beautiful drive. With thinning purple heather intermingling with a haze of scrub and gorse that stretches up towards the earthy tones of the surrounding mountains, I’m already expecting big things from this UK ride. And I haven’t even reached the start in Mallaig yet. (For the record, Bond was orphaned aged 11 when his father and Swiss mother, Monique Delacroix, were killed in a climbing accident in Chamonix. Chin up, 007.)

That’s the plan

Once Europe’s most prolific herring fishing port, Mallaig, about halfway up Scotland’s west coast, now enjoys a more sedate way of life, with residents numbering just hundreds and the harbour largely given over to ferries servicing Skye, Knoydart and the curiously-named small isles of Rum, Muck, Canna and Eigg. ‘Eigg is an interesting place,’ explains my riding companion for the day, Spook (real name David, but in his school class of 11 there were three Davids, so when he played the ghost in a school play, the nickname ‘Spook’ stuck). ‘The island is basically owned by the residents, and gets pretty much all of its power from sustainable energy, so it’s self-sufficient. There’s a bit of self-sufficient farming goes on there too, including some hippy crops, I’ve been led to believe,’ Spook says, chuckling.

Unlike many of Cyclist’s rides, today’s is a point-to-point, from Mallaig down the west coast then cutting back inland along Loch Linnhe to where a short ferry ride and the promise of ‘some of the best fish you’ll eat’ awaits us in Fort William. It’s no small outing at 165km, but since most of the mountains around here remain the preserve of ramblers and scramblers, our total elevation shouldn’t see us much past the 1,600m mark. ‘But you’ll not be thinking it’s flat,’ says our support car driver and Spook’s best mate, Frazer Coupland. ‘There are one or two surprises in there.’ With that, Frazer guns the engine of his van and nips off the camber-side and up the road, leaving me and Spook to gently coax our own engines into life.

Glencoe Big Ride Grass Road -Fred MacGregor

This far north of the border even the main roads are relatively deserted, and flower-dappled verges and water views replace the UK’s usual hostile-looking sheet metal and officious bollards. We’re not entirely alone, however. The occasional tourist still meanders past us, passengers with maps readied and drivers peering out from under the sun visors to take in the views, so I’m happy when we leave the main thoroughfare to skirt along the deserted road around Loch Morar.

It turns out this part of the world really is no stranger to the silver screen, and along with Skyfall the Highlands leant its train tracks and most famous locomotive daughter to Warner Brothers for the Harry Potter franchise. As a plume of smoke just becomes visible over the treeline, Spook tells me I might better know the approaching Jacobite steam train as the Hogwarts Express, and sure enough when it whistles into view on an exposed viaduct, he’s right. It’s only visible for a few seconds, but seeing such a hulk of rushing iron ploughing through the countryside is thrilling, if a touch belittling of our simple bikes. Our south westerly path takes us ever nearer the sea, which right now sits at a low, still ebb, revealing slowly-drying silvery white sands and crackling seaweed. Up on a slight hill to our left is a golf course.

‘That’s Traigh golf course,’ says Spook. ‘Apparently if you’re into that sort of thing it’s the most beautiful nine-hole course in the world.’ I’ve never been one for golf – teeing off is fun but after that it’s a tedium of attrition made worse by my lack of skill – but here I reckon I could make an exception. Bar our chatter there’s nothing to break the silence, and on a day like today the view from the course is an infinite wash of shimmering blues.

Glencoe Big Ride Loch -Fred MacGregor

Castles in the sand

Rejoining the almost immaculately surfaced A830, our sightseeing dalliances are brought to a temporary end in favour of a sustained two-up effort around Loch Ailort. It’s nice to be beating out a sustained rhythm, but I’m still glad when Frazer signals for us to slow down and make a turn-off from the road’s natural pathway. This detour is conspicuously marked as a dead end, but Spook assures me it’s worth the trip. Lined with trees, the road narrows to some impossibly thin points – fine for cyclists but I imagine not as much fun for a driver meeting a car coming the other way. Frazer seems unfazed, however, and bowls ahead leaving me and Spook to skip along the gravelly track.

After a short time the river flowing next to us disappears behind some fields and the trees start to encroach the sky, but just when it seems like we’ve irreversibly swapped moors for forests, the road dips down and the trees open up to reveal a stunning bay replete with a crumbling castle where the Highlander himself, Connor MacLeod, would be proud to spend his eternal retirement. (And where he of Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud, would no doubt be happy to film Connor renovating. Could they be related?) This is Castle Tioram – or Dorlin as it’s known (and signposted). Tactically located on the entrance to Loch Shiel, its state of disrepair means it’s closed to the public, although right now we couldn’t pay a visit even if it was open. Positioned on a tidal island, Dorlin is currently inaccessible but, like a moody landscape painting, I’m happy enough to study it from afar.

Glencoe Big Ride Red Ferry -Fred MacGregor

Backtracking, we head for the small town of Acharcle, and on to another deceptively undulating stretch. Next to us Loch Sunart is largely still, save for the bobbing of a few tethered rowing boats, but the road alongside it has failed to find a similarly flat plane. Luckily today the winds have been calm, but another time, with a stiff easterly and no one for company, I could see this section being an exposed, thankless slog. The road forges on towards Loch Linnhe, but Spook and Frazer suggest a deviating loop along the older road on the opposite side of Loch Sunart, and I’m soon left to muse about whether or not their idea is a good one. The white lines disappear from the middle of the tarmac almost as quickly as the glistening expanse of water shrinks below us, and my hitherto tranquil ride is stolen away by an unruly 10% spike. Fortunately, halfway up I’m granted a temporary reprieve when Spook spots a mate of his coming in the opposite direction in his van. Pulling over for a quick chat, the driver notes my bike and kit and cheekily suggests to Spook I might be the one pulling him around today. Sadly I must admit to that being far from the case, and in response it’s revealed to me that Spook’s something of a highly tuned athlete off the bike as well as on – having run up Ben Nevis the week before in two hours 15 minutes. The record I’m told is one hour 35, but I’m still suitably impressed, if not surprised, to find my companion has some sporting pedigree.

All good rest stops must come to an end, so we remount and continue at a less brutish pace. It seems that coming across any vehicle on this road is an anomaly, and our path to the crest continues uninterrupted, so too our view as we launch ourselves down the other side. As descents go it’s not that technical, but it is fast, and within minutes we’re back at the water’s edge – this time Loch Linnhe – with just a drystone wall separating us from the radiating colours of the rocky sands, displaying the tide’s progress in concentric waves like the flattened topography of a map. The road is again remarkably narrow, but that doesn’t stop Frazer executing a pair of rather rapid three-point turns in order to come back to tell us he’s going to leave us here. Although there’s a ferry crossing not far on, it’s not quite up to taking cars, he explains with a grin.

Glencoe Big Ride Pitstop -Fred MacGregor

By now I’m feeling pretty weary, the cumulative effect of 150km telling in my increasingly heavy legs. However, the best of the ride is still ahead of us – at least, that is, the most picturesque part. Across the loch in a distant haze looms Ben Nevis, living up to its reputation as the mountain with its head in the clouds. Unfolding below it the craggy hillsides and scattered trees hold a glorious sense of the prehistoric – it wouldn’t be out of place as the setting for the next Jurassic Park movie. But before I drift too far into envisaging roaming diplodocuses and soaring pterodactyls, a tumble of houses comes into view that congregates to form Fort William on the distant shore, and the daydream is broken. The reality of this place is still just as absorbing, though.

An end in itself

As Frazer remarked earlier, the ferry we’re seeking is several rungs down the evolutionary ladder from those we saw departing Mallaig this morning. Its slipway is next to a lay-by masquerading as a car park. Save for a hand-scrawled sign explaining that passengers need to phone a mobile number to hail it, a stranger wouldn’t know the ferry existed. However the locals clearly do, and by the time it shows up – I’d hazard to say all 20 feet of it – we’ve been joined by a couple school kids making their way ‘back to the mainland’, and with us and our bikes the vessel is virtually at capacity. As ends to rides go I’d say this is up there with the best, the gentle putt-putting of the diesel engine completing the idyllic picture as we slowly cross the loch, Ben Nevis looking on, the roads we’ve covered looking back. There’s certainly more demanding riding to be had in the UK, but with such a spectacular blend of lochs, moors and mountains, this part of the Highlands offers some of the most beautiful. The perfect place to cycle for cycling’s sake.

Helping Hand

Organising a ride in unknown territory is always made easier with a bit of local knowledge, so Cyclist owes thanks to Spook and Frazer for living up to their company name, No Fuss Events. Check out nofussevents.co.uk for listings of all things bike and some besides in the area. Likewise, thanks to Niamh O’Driscoll, who put us up at The Moorings in Fort William, a well appointed hotel next to Neptune’s Staircase, the longest staircase of canal locks in Britain. Prices start from around £137 for a twin room and breakfast. See moorings-fortwilliam.co.uk.

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