Our holiday started as all good British holidays should – stuck in traffic on the A1. Nine hours after leaving my mum’s on the south coast, we finally made it to Northumberland for the start of our northern cycling holiday. The first cycle was 25 miles from Prudhoe to Hexham and back – a great little circuit for stretching out the legs, nothing too challenging as we whizzed along country lanes between the sheep and the cows, and then heads down and legs pumping along a long straight flat back from Hexham.
Our next cycle was two days later on the Isle of Mull – the main purpose of the holiday was this 80 mile cycle around the island, the furthest both James and I had cycled. We were staying in the Isle of Mull Hotel and Spa, a 10 minute or so walk from the ferry port in Craignure. We woke up at 8 and devoured the hotel’s breakfast (I had a huge bowl of Scottish porridge with honey followed by eggs florentine – hoping that spinach would give the Popeye effect to my legs!) before setting out on the bikes. I looked pretty comical with a sandwich, banana and chocolate bar stuffed into my jersey, my jacket around my waist containing several gels – always good to be prepared!
We cycled south from Craignure, immediately feeling the effects of an unanticipated headwind. Luckily we were soon to take a right away from it but I knew it would come back to bite us at the end!
The first part of the cycle saw a gradual climb as we traversed the southern side of the island, past the Inverluss mussel farm (fantastic mussels) and up into the hills – heather on either side, waterfalls tumbling down the hillside to three lochs on the left hand side. We seemed to be gaining height fast but the climb never felt too hard as it was made up of relatively short steepish sections followed by slight downhills before it was back up the next section of incline. But we must have climbed to quite a height as we then had a glorious swoop down straight roads, no need to pedal for almost fifteen minutes, literally (almost) flying along the road. I could not keep the smile off my face, it was incredible, beautiful, breath-taking cycling.
We took a right turn signposted “Salen – scenic route” and immediately it was clear we were no longer on the main road taking tourists from Craignure to the ferry for Iona. The road surface deteriorated with grass showing through the Tarmac in the middle. But it was a lovely deserted road, right by the incredible blue sea with sheep grazing to either side of us. This road curved up and down, rarely flat but never steep, before a short, twisting and turning climb up the hillside.
We stopped for a banana after almost two hours at a point where the road and hillside curved to the right before a steep downhill. Now we could feel the full force of the wind blowing down the hills and it almost blew my bike and I forward as I tried to take the banana out of my jersey. Quickly halved and gobbled down, we soared down the hillside, the road twisting and turning with the contours of the hill and the wind all the time giving us an extra boost from behind, while down to the left the land dropped away sharply to the sea.
Next we had to contend with that headwind. Luckily not uphill, but it definitely felt like it as our speed dropped, we kept our heads down and just tried to keep pedalling whilst the wind did its worst to prevent us. It was a beautiful road, right beside the sea and numerous rocky beaches, with the majesty of Ben More to our right, but our enjoyment was definitely limited by the wind.
Not soon enough, the road turned again and we were in the tree line – some houses here and we were much more sheltered as we cycled along a flat before a long shallow climb. Half way up the climb we stopped for lunch – a sandwich each on the side of the road. There are few, if any, places to stop for a quick lunch along the western side of the island, and no shops. Up to the top of the hill and I had to stop for several photos as the ocean lay glittering before us before it was downhill into the trees once more.
We stopped before the bottom to fill up with water at a small b’n’b. As I opened the gate I was confronted by a white-haired lady with a very posh English accent, sat on the grass surrounded by yoghurt pots of different flavours, from which she was feeding a black cat with a spoon. She sternly directed me towards the burn to the side of her house and I smiled and scuttled away, apologising and thanking as much as possible. I dipped the bottles in the clear water as it bubbled over the rocks – it was deliciously clear and cold, exactly what was needed after beginning to ration my water.
Filled up and hydrated, we set off again for the last big climb of the day. This was incredible – beginning within the cosy domesticity of the tree line with some ridiculously steep, sharp switchbacks (max gradient on the climb was 23.7%), before the road flattened out slightly, a few little swoops downhill to rest tired legs, and then on up the next few switchbacks. There was one long straight uphill portion, the monotony of which was broken up by some sheep sunbathing in the middle of the road and a farm with sheep dogs which gave me a fright as they dashed out towards my bike before their owners called them back. I’m not scared of dogs, but I am scared on my bike and for some reason I had a vision of them running through my spokes and sending me tumbling to the ground. Disaster averted, I continued on upwards.
“If this is the top, can we stop for a break?” I panted to James up on ahead – sadly it was not the top. From this point though we were well out of civilisation and in the rugged wilds of nature as the road curved it’s way through steep banks covered in heather, one switchback to the next, the sea still visible, sparkling away. It was impossible to get too lost in the suffering of my legs, all immediately forgotten by a glance at the beauty around me. Plus the fact that as I stood up in my pedals to round the switchbacks I could feel the force of the wind helping me along. The top was pretty barren, no animals or humans, just heather, a small Tor and the view down to the ocean. Time for half a flapjack between us and some windswept photos before soaring down the other side (my cycling vocabulary for going downhill is limited….) until the beautiful white sands of Calgary beach shone before us.
No time for stopping though, we kept on until another hour had passed and then finished off the flapjack in a quiet village (meaning more than one house) beside a calm and protected creek, fishing boats bobbing on the water.
Soon after this we took the right turn towards Salen and away from Tobermory – to properly circumnavigate the island you would have to go through Tobermory but that makes the trip well over 100 miles and we didn’t feel quite ready for that!
Turning right the wind hit us – it would be our constant companion / foe for the rest of the cycle. The road was beautiful and wild, rolling through the hillside. We stopped at one point to allow a flock of sheep to be herded from one field to another, sheepdog snapping at their tails as they baaaa’ed their way across. We cycled past a guy in a bright yellow anorak and long tights, clearly struggling with the wind and admitting he had dressed for much colder weather. We attempted to give him a tow along to help him but he much preferred cycling up beside James for a chat, especially when they discovered they both came from small villages within ten minutes of each other in Northumberland. So we ‘enjoyed’ a nice leisurely cycle with the headwind rather than pushing our pace. At the main road on the other side of the island we turned right, said goodbye to our new friend at Salen and then pushed our way on home – James first pushing into the wind and protecting me from it. It didn’t feel much fun – a combination of the wind, knowing we were almost home, and the fact we were on a main road and so not enjoying the views we’d become accustomed to. We stopped in a layby to share a Twix for a final burst of energy and then set off again, battling into the wind, counting down the minutes until we were home. Whereupon we swung into the car park, gingerly got off our bikes, and enjoyed a cold drink and a freshly cooked scone laden with clotted cream before a relax in the jacuzzi – perfect!
It was the most beautiful cycle I have ever done, so varied in scenery and road. Navigating was simple and the gradient was never overwhelmingly challenging, especially due to the rolling nature of the hills – small downhills breaking up the climbs. I would do this again in a heartbeat (once my knees have recovered) and would really recommend that you do too!