A SCOTTISH JAUNT - PART ONE
NORTH COAST 500
Visit Scotland has been promoting a route around the northern coast of Scotland, the North Coast 500, for a number of years now. It's a circular ride, drive or cycle, covering some of the most spectacular and soul-stirring scenery this part of the world has to offer. And very successful it's been, judging by the number of people on the route over the third week of June when I journeyed there.
Not that it was crowded, by any stretch of the imagination. Most of the vehicles and cycles were seen at those stopping points where fuel and refreshment are available or gathering at a particular place of interest. It's been described as the UK version of Route 66. But the NC500, to use a shorthand title, is an entirely different landscape and culture to that which exists along the '66, or what remains of it, in the US. A good tagline though, and goes along with all the merchandising that NC500ers can lay their hands on, either online or along the way.
As ever with tourist organisation promoted areas, not much is left to chance for those who want to travel the route. Just about all the information ever needed is on the website www.northcoast500.com. Once you get out there in a landscape that often defies superlatives, as you crest a brow or round a bend and another wild and magical vista opens out ahead, you can almost feel you are completely alone in the universe, as silence and birdsong take over from the thrum of the bike engine...I almost got fed up stopping the bike and digging out the camera; helmet and gloves off again.
First, you have to get there, and it's 390 miles from my home in W Yorkshire to Inverness, the start of the ride. Not an impossible one-day distance if motorway and dual carriageways are your thing. But I decided that it had to be A and B roads only, aside from a very brief stretch of the M6 so that I could link from the A6 to the A7 near Carlisle, which lands you at Edinburgh, and as the periodic signs remind, is the Historic Borders Route. Nice road, with little traffic. Well surfaced and running through the pastoral Borders country, where abundant sheep abound, doing their best to chew away the shallow sculpted hills.
I had to 'break' my no motorway rule again on the short stretch from Edinburgh to Kinross in Perthshire, where I'd booked a room for my first night - the worst guesthouse I've ever stayed in. I was on the road first thing and headed into Perth and found a real cafe for breakfast before the long A9 stretch north to Inverness. A precaution if you travel this road, there are no fuel stations. You have to divert into one of the small towns along the way, which is no bad thing. Oh yes. There is also a 60mph average speed limit for long stretches. Monitored by those cameras on long yellow poles that the trainers on my last 'speed awareness' course informed me are spaced at quarter mile intervals.
I was heading for Wick, about twenty miles south of John O'Groats, and decided to make a diversion onto a peninsula called The Black Isle. The name is said to derive from winter time when the surrounding highland landscape is snow-covered, with the peninsula, often free of the white stuff, taking on a black vista in contrast. The road wound through a number of attractive villages to the small town of Cromarty, that lends its name to one of the areas in that long-standing symbol of British stability and rectitude, the Shipping Forecast.
A small ferry runs from Cromarty across the bay to Nigg. A place in the seventies that was alive with industry constructing giant drilling platforms for the extraction of North Sea oil and gas. No more, but the main site has now been taken over by a company that is specialising in renewable energy and rig refurbishment. Several of which towered over the small two-car ferry as we made our way across the bay; on this trip, I was the only passenger.
The town of Wick, like many coastal fishing ports, has seen better days. As I mooched around the harbour, where they have made a series of interesting historical information stands, I read one that referred to the close association of the town with the Danish port of Hirtshals. This is from where I'd sailed to Iceland in June 2015, and recounted the tale in these pages. Apparently, the Danish fishers had discovered a more effective way of trawling and had shared this information with their colleagues in Wick, where they landed their catch, leaving a positive and cooperative legacy between the two port towns.
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12/07/17 - Another does eh? bit for me to go being crippled or I'd have put that in my web site too. Nice one John.
12/07/17 - Home sweet home
13/07/17 - It's a lovely route.....but it's too busy.Get off the beaten track to enjoy one of the best motorbike experiences you ever will.
13/07/17 - Did it in May and was a lot quieter.
13/07/17 - Sign on A7. Right on border. My land
14/07/17 - You'd have been better going up the west and back home down the east.
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