Day 0. Home Farm to Thurso
Jim arrived on the dot of 7am to collect me for our 7.30 rendezvous to drive me to Bristol airport. We left at the appointed hour after a cup of tea, with my cycle bag that has now seen four flights and a couple of courier journeys and my 2 pannier bags, one destined for the hold and the other as hand luggage, with me hoping that I hadn’t forgotten anything. We were no more than ten minutes into the journey when I remembered that I had promised to drop my car into the local garage for service and MOT. A quick text to Rob remedied that and although there were several delays en route we arrived at the airport in good time for me to drop the bags and make my way through to the departure lounge. The plane left on time, the trip was uneventful and we landed at Inverness airport five minutes early at 1155. Kevin was awaiting for me at arrivals for the taxi ride to the station, during which we discussed his antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn despite being a life-long Labour voter and that he would once again vote to stay in the UK if asked to do so.
I had to buy a train ticket and then conducted an internal debate as to whether or not to try to rebuild the bike in Inverness or wait till I got on the train. I decided to give it a go but, due to ham-fistedness I ran out of time and had to wheel it onto the train half finished. The trains on this route are only 2 carriages but have space for two bikes in each carriage. The first bike space was taken up by a buggy and the second was taken by another touring bike with camping gear which took up a lot of space. I had to perform my rebuild in the middle of the passage, moving the bike bag back and forth depending on which side the train door opened at each station so it took me a further hour and a half before I had put on the mudguards and pannier rack and had everything as good as I could get it.
I sat down next to the owner of the other bike and we chatted about our respective journeys. Ian is from Liverpool and is a much travelled and interesting companion. He didn’t give his age but I would guess early sixties and, as he said, the mortgage is paid and he has no need to work. He left Liverpool in the 80s when there was no work and set out to walk around England, completing about a sixth of the journey before returning to Liverpool to join the navy which took him around the world. He was now setting out to cycle around the north of Scotland with no fixed plan or schedule, carrying a tent and cooking stove . He reckoned if he only cycled a couple of miles some days he’d be happy: what a difference from my regimented approach.
The journey passed quickly as we made our way up the coast to Helmsdale where I shall spend tomorrow night before we headed due north inland spotting red deer and a curlew as we made our way across the Flow Country,
the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe. This was badly damaged in the early eighties by large scale tree planting making use of tax breaks available to the rich and famous but this was stopped in 1988 and there is still a lot of unspoilt moorland.
We arrived in Thurso about 20 minutes behind schedule and I took a further 7 minutes to wheel the bike, with the bike bag looped over my shoulder, to the Royal Muthu Hotel in the centre of town. I last stayed here in 2014 after completing my trip from Lands End to John O’Groats and it hasn’t changed much, still very old fashioned and in need of an overhaul. My room is about as far from the reception as it could be but is surprisingly large and well appointed. The bike is locked away in the basement which is full of dirty linen and I have boxed up the bike bag, ready to take to the Post Office when it opens at 0900, for return to Home Farm.
I decided when booking that I would have dinner here as well as breakfast. A more eccentric meal would be hard to imagine. The crostini were lightly toasted bread rolls with a large amount of leaves, cucumbers and sweet peppers and not much in the way of tomatoes. I thought I couldn’t go far wrong with haddock and chips but was surprised when the fish was smoked haddock in batter, a first for me, but surprisingly tasty. Again masses of leaves and none of the advertised mushy peas. I asked what was to follow and was given a long list from which I chose fudge cake. About 5 minutes passed and the waiter reappeared to say that the fudge cake was still frozen and the only things available from the long list were a lemon meringue tart and ice cream. At least this was edible and didn’t come with leaves! So a very strange meal in an almost deserted large dining-room but it filled a gap as I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
The weather forecast is for a dry start but strengthening winds to about force 7 in the afternoon with accompanying rain so the last bit of the journey will be testing. Hopefully I shall reach Helmsdale before the worst hits.