Day 18: Beauly to Helmsdale

Distance: 68.91 miles
Time: 5 hours 40 minutes
Average speed: 12.1 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 948.86 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 82.6 miles
Number of Firths crossed today: 3 (Beauly, Cromarty, Dornoch)
Number of punctures: 2

As predicted yesterday we ate in the Priory Restaurant, and enjoyed our meal, washed down with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Red sandstone houses seemed to be prevalent in Beauly, a small, attractive place with a ruined priory we didn’t quite have time to seek out! Our evenings seem to end earlier each day – all the fresh air and exercise we’re getting means we flake out about 9.30 now.

We planned for an early start this morning for two reasons: firstly we knew we had nearly 70 miles to cycle today, and secondly we wanted to visit the bike shop in Dingwall to check our replacement spoke was tightened correctly. An early breakfast allowed us to be on the road by 8.30am.

It was obviously still rush-hour in the area, and the roads were busy on our way to Dingwall. A small boy, crossing a bridge near Beauly on his bike, called out “Wow” as he spotted us on our tandem – obviously we’re a rare sight in these parts…

We were heading down a long straight road when we heard a distinctive “crump” behind us. A car directly behind our tandem had slowed down sensibly before attempting to pass us. The car behind that was obviously being driven by someone who wasn’t paying attention, and had run into the back of the car behind us. It had all happened some way behind us, and as we hadn’t actually seen the accident we decided to cycle on and leave them to sort it out for themselves.

We soon arrived in Dingwall and found Dryburgh Cycles. They were very helpful indeed and offered to “true” the rear wheel while we had a coffee in town. Sure enough, when we arrived back at the shop twenty minutes later the wheel was back on the bike and we were able to move on.

So move on we did, onto the A9, expecting a nice quiet road as there really isn’t much of Scotland left north of here. We were wrong, the A9 was extremely busy, with many coaches and lorries. Worse still, we were cycling (once again) into a fierce headwind, and the going was tough. After Alness and the Dalmore distillery we turned off the main road with a sense of some relief towards Invergordon. A jack-up oil rig was anchored just offshore, a source of some nostalgia for the Captain, who used to work as a geologist on such rigs in the distant past. We were enjoying the quieter road, but knew that after ten miles or so we would have to return to the main road south of Tain.

The next ten or fifteen miles towards Dornoch were hard labour, cycling into the wind. Fortunately after Tain the level of traffic seemed to diminish, and a cycle lane of sorts was provided beside the road. Gary the Garmin tried his best to persuade us to take the road into the Glenmorangie distillery and, on a shorter journey we’d have been tempted to follow his advice for once, but time was moving on and therefore so did we. The approach to the bridge over Dornoch Firth was slow and painful, mainly because of the conditions. As we turned onto the bridge we spotted our first sign for John o’Groats, and duly stopped to take a picture. Fantastic, we thought! Two hundred yards later the Stoker reported a puncture in the rear tyre. It seemed to be a slow puncture, and we attempted to pump up the tyre to see if we could at least get across the bridge before fixing it. Sadly, this temporary remedy was unsuccessful – the puncture was not as slow as we had thought.

We stopped in a layby at the side of the bridge in the cold wind to sort out the repair. We’ve had plenty of practice at this, and we checked the tyre for sharp objects, but the problem seemed to be with the inner tube valve. No problem, we had two spares in the bag, so we replaced the inner tube, put the tyre back on and pumped it up. All was going well until the tube was almost inflated, when there was a sudden escape of all the air. Strange, we thought, (amongst other less printable thoughts) and removed the “new” tube to discover a small diagonal slit in it. We checked and re-checked the tyre for sharp objects but still found nothing, so had no choice but to fit our only remaining spare inner tube. Happily it inflated successfully. We have plenty of patches in our repair kit, so we will patch the slit in the tube before tomorrow, just in case.

We were cold by this time, had used up a good half-hour on the repair, and the time was approaching 1.30pm. The town of Dornoch was nearby, but would involve a diversion of some miles off-route, so we decided to take pot-luck and stop at the first road-side eatery we passed. Soon enough we found a restaurant attached to a petrol station, and were able to warm up and restore energy reserves. We still had nearly thirty miles to negotiate after lunch – we could have stopped short in either Golspie or Brora, but we felt strong enough, and were keen to ensure that we would have a shorter day tomorrow to Thurso. It was still, however, a long slog into the wind until we turned north east on the approach to Golspie and received some respite from the weather. The sun was also making periodic appearances from behind the clouds in the afternoon, and the day became more about enjoyment than endurance as we followed the coast through Golspie and Brora, before starting the final twelve miles to Helmsdale. There were great views of the coast and sea, including what looked like a couple of North Sea production platforms out to sea on the horizon. We kept ourselves going by measuring the remaining miles against rides at home: an Ilkley, just over a Grassington, a Burnsall…

After a long day then, we arrived in lovely Helmsdale and located a very pleasant room at the Bridge Hotel. All we know of Helmsdale is that it is the home town of Edwyn Collins, singer and former front-man of the band “Orange Juice”. He suffered a serious stroke last year, and we recently saw a genuinely moving TV programme about his slow but successful road to recovery. We will report on anything else we discover about this very scenic town tomorrow, though observations may be limited to the quality of the restaurants!

Tomorrow our target is Thurso – we’re heading directly north across the “Flow Country” on a very quiet road, before turning east and cycling past the former nuclear establishment at Dounreay. If all goes well that will leave about thirty-five miles remaining for our final day.