29 Jul 2013

Scotland by motorcycle - sun, lochs, haggis and the best roads in the UK

On 19 June four of us set off on a four day, 1,000 mile trip around Scotland on motorcycles.  This is the story of our trip.
Colin in his garage with all the bikes, ready for the off
Colin's Honda VFR 800i is a sports tourer with a fruity sounding V4 engine.  Robin's Kawasaki ZXR 1200 is a classic in-line 4 Japanese bike with a megaphone instead of an exhaust.  Nick's Harley Davidson 883 Iron is a V-twin cruiser, it's also brand new and was running in when we set off.  My Triumph Street Triple is a 2 year old, 3-cylinder British bulldog.

The bikes had all been prepped and seemed up to the job.  But were we?

The night before I had travelled from Berkshire to the starting point at Colin's house in Cheshire.  Robin's bike lives there permanently - he hadn't ridden it for 3 months.  Nick rocked up on his Harley at 8am (he's a truck driver and has a 4am start every day) and Robin turned up at 9am.
It takes 2 people to wheel a 250kg Harley across gravel
After a brew and some final fettling and packing we were ready for the off.

Day 1 - 278 miles - Northwich, Cheshire to Drymen, Loch Lomond

This was to be a long slog, but we were fresh and ready for adventure.  We headed off up the M6 then turned left and into the Lake District.  The sun was beating down and, being ancient and sensible, we were all togged up in full biker gear.

It soon became apparent that we rode at quite different speeds.  Colin rode at the front, although he was the route man with a TomTom and map.  I tended to hang around behind him.  At the rear were Robin, who's no speed freak, and Nick, who's 250kg Harley has 50bhp - and was still being run in.

Motorways are absolutely no fun at all on motorcycles - aside from the satisfaction of darting between the traffic when it all slows down.  Because of this our Lake District incursion was a welcome break from pounding in a straight line for mile after mile.  Your head is buffeted on the motorway and your brain isn't fully utilised - and you should never switch off on a bike.  Bikes were built for corners - and so are their riders.
Colin on his VFR 800
The Lakes provided fantastic weather, fantastic roads and lots of traffic to overtake.  We stopped for lunch in a Morrisons supermarket.  Not the most glamourous of locations but we all needed fuel and to find a cashpoint.  And to munch through one of their all-day fry-ups.

It was apparent when we remounted just how hot it was - 30°C.  Helmets, leathers and gloves are hot enough but putting it all back on after a break, and in the blazing sun, is pretty arduous.  We decided to 'gimp up' only when absolutely ready to go, and get at least some respite from in breeze whilst on the go.

As we headed towards, and eventually around, Carlisle on the ring road we were all running out of fuel, and hadn't seen a single petrol station in the past 120 miles.  Nick's fuel light came on and then mine did.  20 miles later I was bricking it, listening out for any hint that the engine was spluttering.

Eventually we headed into a housing estate and found a petrol station.  It was then we knew the two bikes with the most miserly fuel tanks were good for 150 miles before running dry.  My trip computer told me I had averaged 47mpg - not bad for a 675cc bike which redlines at 14,000rpm.

We headed north and passed into Scotland and Gretna, Dumfried, Kilmarnock, Glasgow (where we stopped at a revolting fuel station, which also seemed to be the local drug dealer's hang out, and took this photo) and onto Drymen.
Me, Robin, Nick in Glasgow
That night's bed and breakfast was the best of the trip.  We got 3 large bedrooms, a lounge and kitchen and two bathrooms for £31 each.  If you're after a B and B in the Loch Lomond area I'd thoroughly recommend Elmbank in Drymen.

We'd arrived at 6.30pm.  Over a few beers in each of Drymen's six pubs, and dinner, we swapped tales from the day and told each other which parts of us hurt the most after a day in the saddle.

Day 2 - Drymen to Dufftown, Banffshire - 230 miles

The next morning I filmed us warming up the bikes.

We'd travelled far and ridden some decent roads but nothing was to prepare us for the A82 from Loch Lomond to Fort William.

The road takes in tight and twisting lochside sections - literally hugging the cliffside with the Loch to your right.  Cars travel in packs, with a Honda Jazz or Vauxhall Corsa at the front followed by a snake of ten or twelve behind.  The challenge on a bike is to overtake them one by one in the short sections between corners.  You adopt a rhythm and learn to time your overtakes, to anticipate and often to prepare an overtake but to be prepared to abandon it as the next corner approaches sooner than expected, or a car rounds it in the other direction.  Thrilling and scary in equal measure.  At one point we came across a set of traffic lights where an entire section of road had collapsed and was being replaced.  Colin and I overtook about 100 cars, whilst Robin and Nick on their bigger, heavier machinery allotted to take it easy and go with the cars.

Then the road opens up and you ride through flowing mountain valleys which open up further as you go from valley bottom to mountainside to reveal one of the most spectacular views in the British Isles.

I took these photos at the lay-by on the A82 near Loch Tulla.  A Scotsman in full get-up, including kilt, was playing in the background, a burger van sold Diet Irn Bru and hordes of Japanese tourists with Nikons alighted from their dreadful charabancs, blinking and rubbing their eyes in the unusual, scorching Scottish sun.
The view from the A82 just south of Loch Tulla

Robin and Colin
We carried onto, and lunched in, Fort William - a strange, concrete, dump of a place amidst such beautiful scenery.

We rode past Loch Ness and carried on to Inverness from where we took the A96 to Nairn - the most northerly point on our trip.

Next up was the A939 from Nairn to Grantown on Spey, which is basically an empty, 23 mile long Nurburgring, but set in Scotland.  Colin and I scampered off having the times of our lives whilst Robin kept Nick company further back.  This section was notable for being the only time any of us scraped a footpeg on the road, and amazingly it was Nick on his Harley.
Nick catching up
It had been a long day, punctuated by several stops to take in the scenery and wait for Nick.  As we approached Dufftown we came across a deserted compound where whisky barrels are stored - literally thousands of them.  It was getting late and by the time we arrived in Dufftown it was 7pm.

The bed and breakfast was a decent one by most standards but we'd been spoiled by the top notch digs of the first night.  Dufftown itself was a semi-deserted town with one restaurant, but that which served a  cracking haggis, neeps and tatties and an ale called Black Cock.
Parked up outside the whisky barrel storage
Day 3 - Dufftown to Lauder - 216 miles

We were all stiff and aching from long day's riding but were having so much fun there were no complaints as we bestrode our steeds and set off in the direction of Glenlivet and then Tomintoul on the  B9009 and B9008.  Once again the roads were spectacular and quiet, allowing us to indulge our passion for biking.

By this point I knew by tiny, blurred image alone what each of my co-traveller's bikes looked like.  Sometimes we rode in a pack and sometimes stretched out, but we always kept an eye on each other.  I knew Colin's, Robin's and Nick's bikes by a brief glance in my vibrating mirrors and they knew mine.  We came across other bikers quite frequently, indeed were often overtaken by Power Rangers on Gixxers, but always made sure we knew where our own were.  Motorcycling is a lonesome and dangerous occupation and if someone were to come off we wouldn't forgive ourselves if they were left alone for too long by a desolate roadside.

The roads continued to be spectacular and scenery continued to be awesome.  It was here, near a place called Milltown, that I took these photos.  It was, excuse my French, fucking epic.
Colin missed the lay-by and was waiting half a mile down the road
The best road in the UK?  I took this video too
The day continued its spectacular theme as we headed down to Dundee and crossed the Tay Bridge (photo below).  This was the first time in 3 days I'd had a 3G signal so and my phone registered nearly 100 emails.  I was so glad to be on the trip, rather than sweating it out at work.

We rode to St Andrews and completely missed the golf course.  Colin had been looking forward to scaring the golfists with his massively loud air horn.  Ah well, can't have everything.

After that we headed south towards Edinburgh, got a bit lost, got a real map out and got unlost.  We crossed the Forth Bridge at 30mph - cars don't get swept sideways by the wind quite so much as bikes.
The Pet Shop Boys and the Tay Bridge
And so it was we finished our day in Lauder, which was a dump of a place with no decent eateries and a handful of empty pubs.  Later in the evening a middle aged party who looked like wife swappers arrived, pissed (pished?) out of their heads and threw valuable ale all over the floor.  Nick and I had had enough gassy beer and went to bed early whilst Colin and Robin enjoyed watching the show for another hour.

Our accommodation was a pub and the rooms were quite good really, although it was dead quiet.  Our bikes were stored in what would have been a concrete beer garden. We had to bump the bikes up a sharp step to get there, which was slightly fraught.  Here's Nick on his low-slung Harley with more grace than the rest of us.

Day 4 - Lauder to Northwich, Cheshire - 248 miles (and for me an extra 190 miles from Northwich to Berkshire)

By the morning of day 4 we were all a little weary from the endless miles in the saddle and from the endless pints the night's preceding.  It was also quite cold and a drizzly.  I had no extra kit other than a spare t-shirt.
This is what your jacket looks like after 800 miles of midge infested Scottish roads
We breakfasted on the usual fry-up, paid our host and headed off southwards towards England on the A68 which is a long, winding road taking in yet more amazing scenery but this time with the backdrop of slate grey, rather than sky blue as the clouds closed in.

We passed through the border without comment other than a wave at the sign and pulled up in Jedburgh for lunch in a greasy spoon.  By this point we'd all had enough of grease so ate sandwiches and drank tea.
Robin, somewhere on the A68 in the borders
Nick doing his best to pose
The rest of the journey south was a mix of motorways and Bradford, which has godawful roads.  We'd tried to avoid the A1 but at some point, if you want to continue further south, you cannot avoid the sprawling Leeds/Bradford metroposhitlis.  The highlight of Bradford was seeing a pair of travellers on a rickety carriage towed by a mangy horse, spitting great gobs of phlegm amidst the teeming traffic.

Somewhere on the M62 we bade farewell to Nick, who lives in Stockport.  Colin and I are brothers and Nick is married to our cousin.  I've known him for years but never spent so much time in his company.  He's a great bloke.

We rode back to Northwich at great speed and arrived at chez Colin at 5.30pm.  Robin turned up 20 minutes later, not wanting to filter at 80mph on the motorway - unlike the Hubbard bandits.

And there the trip ended for Colin, Robin and Nick.  I was due to travel the 190 miles back home the next morning but the weather forecast was dire.  I stayed until 7.30pm and set off back home.

I was tired and my back, legs and arms ached.  The first 100 miles were OK but once the dark set in it started to rain.  And my right wrist, which had been giving me gyp for some time, was really starting to hurt.

The final 90 miles were hell.  My visor and glasses were continuously rendered opaque by the rain and crap from the road and my wrist could only stand 30 minutes riding at any one time. I stopped 3 times in pitch black conditions on the A34, with 44 ton HGVs screaming past in the gloom, to clean my visor and smoke a manky fag.

I arrived home at midnight, fatigued beyond belief but elated.  It had been a brilliant, epic trip and one I'd do again.  My bike is still covered in millions of dead flies and midges and oil, dirt and the general patina of 4 days solid riding.

In 4 days and one evening I covered 1319.5 miles, of which I did 460 miles in one day alone.

Cherwell Valley Services, M42 - just before nightfall proper

Home, midnight. Stream courtesy of Thames Water who have yet to fix a burst pipe

Back to reality. One week later I still haven't cleaned the bike as I've worked late every day