Travel StoriesNorth Coast 500 2017
Priceless Scenery And Pies
By Ren Withnell
The rain eased overnight and this morning seems to be just right for motorcycling - warm but not too warm, dry and cloudy. As people are stirring from their slumber I take a shower and wash some clothes in the sink. If the rain keeps at bay hopefully they'll dry spread out over my luggage, trapped under the bungee cords.
The official NC500 route follows the A835 out of Ullapool to join the A837 north through Ledbeg then west past Ardvreck Castle. As it gets close to Lochinver it takes a right onto the B869 towards Clachtoll. After some discussion it is agreed we'll take a slight detour, which I quite agree with. We'll follow the A835 but turn left onto the unnumbered road towards the Achiltibuie peninsula then a right halfway along to Lochinver. There's a world famous pie shop at Lochinver - apparently. Mmmm...pie.
Sharon and I are at the back of the group, deliberately. There's no pressure here and because I know where we're going I don't need to worry myself about getting lost. We take the turning for the Achiltibuie peninsular as I did 2 years ago (A Perfect Day Exploring) and I spot that mountain.
That mountain. When I first saw that mountain (I learn it's called Stac Pollaidh after further research) I was and once again I am taken back to being a slightly scared yet intrigued child watching "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind". Stac Pollaidh doesn't actually look much like America's "The Devil's Tower" as featured in the film and yet my mind connects the two. The human mind works in mysterious ways and I'm expecting to see strange lights in the skies or a madman making models. You'll have to see the film to understand this.
Stac Pollaidh. I don't know why but I can hear that distinct Close Encounters' tune.
The single track once again squirms through the delightful scenery. Here it feels even more wild, remote, unknown and adventurous. There is little sign of human habitation save for this narrow ribbon of tarmac and perhaps the occasional lonely white house in the distance. I ponder the lives of the folks that may live there and how substantially different from my urban existence it must be.
Who lives in these remote and lonesome houses?
Once again if you wish to imagine what our eyes are seeing simply repeat all the superlatives mentioned before - awesome, majestic, magnificent...and so on. This narrow lanes takes us over moors and down by the sea, past little inlets and beaches, through the odd tiny little clump of houses and slowly in, through, down, up and around to Lochinver.
I've never been to Lochinver so I'm quite looking forward to making its acquaintance. However as we roll into the edge of town it all suddenly looks distinctly familiar. There's a big building next to the harbour, I know that. There's an angular bay that reminds me of somewhere else. There's a shop that I've seen before. What a fool am I! Yes, both Sharon and I have been here before, it's all coming back to me, Ian, the Fazer 600, the tea room, the Ullapool trip. It takes Sharon a while to recall our previous encounter with Lochinver too (Ullapool 2012 - The Lochinver and Drumbeg Loop).
I...eh...erm...I know this view. It's a good job I blog otherwise I wouldn't know why I know this place.
Within the - ahem - world famous pie shop everyone sits down and orders. Being a little late Sharon and I make our way to the counter. Within the counter are various
delicacies including a broad range of pies marked up at £5.35 - £5.55. Blimey, that's a bit steep for a pie. Well, we're here now and we won't get another opportunity to sample them anytime soon I suppose.
"2 pies and 2 cups of tea please." says Sharon. Click click clickety click goes the till.
"..." Sharon looks at me, then back to the teller "...Sorry, what?"
It seems the pies within the counter are marked with the takeaway price. To eat a pie served on a plate with a dollop of garnish is £8.75. Add to this a cup of tea at £2.50 makes each meal £11.25.
"Cancel that - we'll just have 2 cups of tea" Sharon bravely declares.
Despite their reputation and the remote location we're not in the business of spending £22.50 on a couple of pies and a brew. I of course was just mumbling and muttering and it took Sharon to be bold and tell them to park their pricey pies back where the sun don't shine. I'm proud of Sharon and shocked. As we return to the motorcycles later on it seems several other people were equally shocked when they'd received their bill.
Back on the road with the sun high and bright in the sky it is a fine and clear day, we could not hope for more. What may surprise those unfamiliar to the Highlands is the coast is dotted with a variety of small, immaculate and enchanting golden (or occasionally bright white) beaches. They pop into view quite unexpected around the odd corner, many of them with seemingly no access at all. Between these the terrain varies between harsh angular rocks with waves crashing upon them to mountainous or occasional lush green valley floors.
A typical hustling bustling town on the shores of The Highlands
One beach at Clashnessie is accessible and close to the road. The group is ahead and time is on our side so Sharon and I stop to take a breath and soak our hearts and souls in the wonder of nature. It is beautiful but we're not alone, there's a couple of campervans and cars sharing our parking spot.
A bright and lively lady walking her not so lively aged dog stops a while to allow her pet to rest, striking up a conversation with us. These are my favourite encounters on any trip, the locals with local knowledge and opinions.
Wow! Now that's a beach.
While she never berates Sharon and I for our trip we learn the "NC500" is becoming the bane of the local inhabitant's lives. What was once a 3/4 hour trip to Ullapool is now a 1 and 1/2 hour journey due to campervans and ignorant car drivers. The peaceful hamlet is becoming a little crowded on warm summer days. There are concerns that some houses will be snapped up by the wealthy as second homes or holiday lets. It seems not everyone likes the promotion of this new "must do" route.
I plan to cover more on this in a separate article.
In Scourie I pull into The Anchorage Bar & Cafe. This time we manage to source 2 full meals with tea for under £12. Of course I still think this expensive but we've saved a tenner while having a complete meal. Did I mention I'm tight?
Scourie is much more affordable and just as pretty. The weather's great too.
The rest of the day rolls by happily. Where and when the road opens out to two lanes we press on a little, trying to find the balance between the pleasure of riding these thrilling roads and absorbing the sumptuous spectacle of our surroundings. It is a tough task let me tell you, but one I would endure daily if I had the choice.
I'm not convinced this clement weather is going to last all day.
As we start to unload the bike at Sango Sands Campsite in Durness we hear a "Hello!" and 2 people in vivid blue waterproof macs walk towards us. They...they look familiar then the penny drops - it's the German couple we talked to at the top of the Applecross pass. Oh my goodness, what are the chances? Well, they're on the same route as us so quite high if you think about it. Their bright blue jackets and the dark blue waterproof pants are new purchases after our previous conversation regarding staying dry on two wheels. They thank us deeply for our advice as they've been toasty and dry in spite of the heavy showers they've endured. I feel all smug.
As we pitch up the first drops of rain are felt on my face and by the time we're throwing the kit into the tent it's getting wet. Fortuitous timing, I can't believe we've been so lucky. Sharon decides to retire to the tent and her sleeping bag for a rest so I don my own waterproofs and take a walk down to the beach. If this beach were in Cornwall or Spain it would be packed to the rafters, here on the northernmost coastline of the UK there is but myself and a dog walker. The rain leaves dimples in the smooth sand, this is great.
Wet and wild the beach is still enchanting.
Peculiarly the local shop opens but for a few hours in the day and for 1.5 hours in the evening, at 2000. This is once again lucky as we're out of milk and the notion of going without a brew all night fills me with the same dread I imagine a junkie faces when forced to go "cold turkey". As Sharon and I drip on his little shop floor we seek the friendly shopkeeper's thoughts on the NC500. He's much more in favour of it because it supports his business and the local community but he makes it very clear he shares the concerns of the lady from Clashnessie and would definitely not like to see things get out of hand. Interesting and most informative.
We finish the night with a glass of pop in the local bar amongst the other riders. There is much laughter and banter, I make a point of not sitting with Sharon in an effort to engage with some of the other riders. One chap is a Londoner with his own business, another lives not far from myself and "Dom" hails from Stornoway and speaks Gaelic as his native tongue. I meet some fascinating people.
With limited and intermittent internet access it seems there's a storm-a-comin'. My own mother warns Sharon via facebook of wind, rain and impending doom. There's posts on social media suggesting we'll be blown into the sea, drowned by floods and swept away by a storm surge. Nick talks to a local who's a ferryman. He gives Nick the salty sea dog's insider information "Och it'll be but a few showers here and there, it's Wednesday ya wanna watch oot fer." Today is Sunday. We'll see.
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North Coast 500 2017 Prologue
Ren looks at the wheres, whys and hows of this year's trip to the North of Scotland. This time they're with a group, kind of, sort of, maybe.
Panicking, Boredom and Pleasure
After the pre-departure concerns and a dull stretch of motorway things improve as Sharon and Ren head north on the first leg of their adventure.
Letting Sleeping Sad Sacks Lie
It's Sharon's turn to tell her version of the first day's events for this trip. After recently having surgery to remove a tumour is she even fit enough for the forthcoming journey?
The Best Of The Worst
Heading into the Highlands brings forth both rain and midges for our travellers. Fear not though as they are both prepared and fortuitous (ready and lucky).
Twisty roads and Twisted Friends
Sharon discovers the joy of riding Highland roads is more than enough to blow away the blues even in the rain. Nothing can stop her now.
Muggles at Bealach Na Ba
With improving weather and impressive surroundings Sharon has to make a major life changing decision. Will she...won't she...can she...should she...?
A Day Full Of Mystery And Magic
Sharon's journey into The Highlands is a mixture of magic, fear, delight, beauty and sheer survival. Can she remain shiny side up over The Applecross Pass?
While the weather takes a turn for the worst it's not nearly enough to put the dampeners on a group ride. Follow our trekkers along the Highland coastline and into Ren's favourite town, Ullapool.
There's a lot of emotions flowing through Sharon today but they all lead to one conclusion. Life is for living because tomorrow is not a certainty. The Highlands is an excellent space to make the most of life today.
Priceless Scenery And Pies
The next part of the NC500 adventure is arguably the most beautiful part. Will the weather hold out and just how expensive can 2 pies be? All this and more besides.
Friends Come In All Shades Of Blue
Fabulous scenery along fabulous road put a big smile on Sharon's face. There's friends old and new and some of the new friends are wearing blue. But why?
Riding across the very top of the country is always a pleasure even if it's raining. However Ren's day is ruined due to Sharon's fame.
Envy Attracts Envy And Fame
Sharon is revelling in the wonders of The Highlands, the delights of meeting fellow travellers and in upsetting Ren by being famous.
Sleeperzzz In The Rain
It's a soaking wet day riding from John O'Groats back south. There's the promise of a hearty meal and a proper bed at the end of the day to keep the riders going.
Fairly Dry And Rather Bracing
In spite of the awful weather Sharon's making the most of the last day riding the North Coast 500. At least she gets spoiled at the end of the day.
Failure and Reality
There is nothing left any more, nothing to look forward to now the adventure is complete. Ren just wants to get home but is that just a little too much to expect?
Thrills And Spills
There's a whole heap of miles to be covered for Sharon on her way home. How many can she cover, can she enjoy or endure them and will she survive?
North Coast 500 2017 Epilogue
Ren sums up the experience of riding the NC500. It's all about the people, the route just speaks for itself.
The End Of The Story Leaves Me Speechless
Sharon rounds off the NC500 adventure with the wrong breakfast, the wrong weather and the wrong traffic. Luckily these are just tiny hiccups on what was a most excellent adventure.
Brian said :-
I live near the NC500 and cannot understand why they included minor single track roads on the route. They were bad enough in summer before the NC500, must be hell for the locals now, especially with motorhomes.
Fortunately for us bikers there are plenty of roads to avoid the route ,at least till quieter after the season.
Most of us don't do rain but get out everytime the sun shines ??
23/6/2017 5:51:09 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
Cheers Brian. As a tourist the route is spectacular, as a local the constant stream of tourists must be a pain in the ass. As I stated in the article I plan to cover this and other concerns in a separate article. I'd welcome your input on that too.
23/6/2017 11:06:35 PM UTC
Brian said :-
Let me know any particular points I can help with , except our best kept secrets !
24/6/2017 7:44:45 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
Brian - could you drop me a line, firstname.lastname@example.org . I'd be interested to hear your point of view, where you live and so on. Cheers.
24/6/2017 7:56:56 AM UTC
Brian said :-
Ok will do. Off to Skye tomorrow so will be Monday when I respond.
24/6/2017 6:37:56 PM UTC
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Travel StoriesNorth Coast 500 2017