05/10/2023 - Dover to Cape Wrath

Dover to Cape Wrath

Paul Norris recently took ownership of a Cascade build and wasted no tim in putting some serious miles into it. Here's his recap of a ride from the very south east of the country (Dover), all the way to the furthest north west (Cape Wrath)...

"Land’s End - John O’Groats (LEJOG), whether on or off-road, divides the country SW to NE but what about the other divide SE to NW? Dover to Cape Wrath (D2CW)  Living in the SE it seemed to me to make more sense to plan a route starting locally and following a natural off-road line. Without going into too much detail, the main trails followed would be: South Downs Way, Kennet and Avon Canal, Welsh Borders including Offa's Dyke, Macclesfield Canal and then the Great North Trail ( An Turas Mor) to Cape Wrath. I was looking for a very capable, dependable but fast off-road bike - a bit sturdier than the usual gravel bike, knowing I preferred the variety of hand positions offered by a drop bar. I trialled Cotic's Cascade and it seemed to fit the bill. I have this weird habit of naming my bikes after famous horses this was to be Sgt Reckless (named after the unfaltering Korean War pack horse) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergeant_Reckless#

Setting out on the 25th August was a short train journey to Dover within a day I was on local turf (the South Downs Way) and a lapse of concentration saw me come off on some slippery chalk and flint on a descent. ( The worst fall of the trip) No damage to me or the bike but a reminder that I couldn't be too reckless! The Kennet & Avon canal was a chance to get a few km under my belt and the tow path was not too busy with walkers, but even so, a relaxed pedalling cadence began to settle in as the canal boats' pace of life seemed to dictate my speed. Passing round Bristol was fairly straightforward; the cycle lanes are pretty good around there but a major obstacle barred my way both on and off a crucial roadway bridge. Barriers had been erected to presumably stop motorised scooters but they also blocked any bike with handlebars wider than 40cm. There was no way I was backtracking, over the railings I went, bike carried aloft - just! Once over the bridge, two huge concrete sentinels blocked my way "you shall not pass" they seemed to say and offered a much more difficult problem. Fortunately, lifting the bike over the side railings and dangling it (and myself) over until the tyres reached the ground proved the solution. Soon I was racing towards the Severn Bridge Crossing, and arriving into Wales, once over, the creative graffiti marked my passing from the urban landscape - Los Pollos Hermanos - I ain't no chicken; brother.

The start to the Wye Valley was marked by a blocked and bramble covered gate, which resulted in a detour ride through a campsite to a footpath and eventual arrival at St Briavel's Medieval Castle YHA. It proved so good, and cheap  there that I decided to have a rest day and even experienced seeing one of the many phantoms, from my dorm bed, that are a known inhabitant one of Britain's most haunted places! All that for £22.50 including an all you can eat breakfast I call that a bargain.

The Welsh Borders were wet, slippery and full of sheep, dead sheep and their shite. However the biggest problem was resupply of food. I’d seriously underestimated the lack of shops, but was saved by the landlord of The Roast Ox Inn, Painscastle who made me a cooked breakfast and an excellent packed lunch which stood me through until Clun. Three bikepackers seen early in the morning on the Offa's Dyke / Jack Mytton Way gave me people to talk to rather than sheep. One of them was riding a Solaris Max so we both started talking about how much we loved our bikes…

Heading under Manchester on the way to a friend's house in Glossop meant I travelled along the Macclesfield Canal, a place I'd never been before, I really enjoyed seeing the early industrial age bridges and access lanes with their spiralling snail-like forms. Leaving Glossop I encountered the Pennine Bridleway, this for me marked the hardest riding as the September heatwave was in full swing and I found myself scanning isolated houses and farms for outdoor water taps.  Here, a guy I'd never met, but had started following me on Strava, (Jono) met me en route around Barnoldswick. Riding with company for a while and him restocking me with water was a real boost and new friends made.

Delightful trails through the Dales with their limestone walls and solitary trees saw the difficulty ease a little, and I was soon close to my friend's house in West Cumbria. He must have been expecting a ravaged body as he had arranged for a sports massage from a friend of his. While I waited for him, I changed Sgt's brake pads.

My next destination was the Wainhope Bothy north of Kielder Water. The forest trails here were fast and flowy but a huge error was changing route after seeing 'road closed' signs. The detour I hurriedly planned, had me lifting locked deer fence gates off their hinges, tramping through bogs and a 'pick up sticks' jumble of fallen trees. Eventually, all things pass (even my swearing) and soon I was back on track and heading for the bothy. The last visitors had left some wood for the stove and some candles. I left one huge candle burning all night by the window. I told myself it was to light the way for others looking for refuge. Probably, the phantom of St Briavel's had me spooked. The mice scampering in the ceiling weren't helping…

A wild camp outside Innertheithen on Minch Moor saw a morning temperature inversion and a chance to get some new bar tape and breakfast in town. A fantastic descent but I was too early for the bike shop and couldn't see an open cafe. Scanning around whilst freewheeling on the road I saw a man and a dog on my left waiting by the road I looked behind me for a cafe, in the small period of time the dog and owner had moved into the road, I missed them by a whisker as they crossed and I realised my cardinal sin; guide dog leading his owner. I hung my head in shame and counted my blessings that  I hadn't hit them. Cushioned and very orange bar tape fixed on at Evolve Bikes in Peebles helped the hard riding of the Pentland Hills which soon gave away to Edinburgh and the Grand Union Canal to Glasgow. A hurried, desperate, dark tent set up in a canalside woodland, in torrential rain and wind, had me worried in case I'd set up under a 'widowmaker' bough. I woke in the morning to find it worse than that - dog crap on the tent!

From Milgavie the route shares the West Highland Way for about 10km weaving around walkers. I occasionally saw a few bike-packers coming toward me doing the Badger Divide (Inverness to Glasgow). I would be sharing their route from here to Fort Augustus. Always happy to stop and chat (and maybe modestly drop into the conversation where I'd come from!) A growing number of comments were being received about my bike set up, especially from the thinner tyred gravel riders who were probably having to pick their way down the descents a little more tentatively than me. ( A couple of young riders on their first ever Bike Pack ( GB Divide) mentioned they stayed in Melgarve Bothy, after the Corrieyairack Pass, it was fun finding their visitors’ entry in the bothy as I was to stop there for a cup of tea in a few days time).

The next day saw me seek refuge at the Scottish YHA at Loch Ossian. Accessible only by Rail (Corrour Station being a mile away) or by foot or bike. It was a wet afternoon and I was glad I'd got there early to talk to fellow travellers and enjoy the Rainy Lochside. (Other Bikepackers I met the following day were making their way there and it seems like a perfect resting point on a trip through Scotland.)

I set off for the steepest pass on the trip the Corrieyairack Pass, I had full intentions of trying to ride up it. I failed miserably, far too steep and loose for me even with fresh legs. The descent down to Fort Augustus was a complete joy, fast and flowy. Hands on the drops, I kept saying to myself, I love this bike…this is such a great bike…

Paul Norris

The highlight for the next day was Gleann Mor, a fantastic Glen, filled with Scottish Atmosphere. The next section, Strath Cuileannach,  was great riding, slightly spoilt by flooded tracks. A deviation onto the side had me stopped in my tracks by the front wheel buried in a bog while i went over the handlebars in the slowest of slow motion. It was a soft landing but I decided to keep to the track from now on.

The high levels of rain had me thinking about the Cashel Dhu, an ancient fording place of the Strathmore River. I’d heard and read, it's usually a below the knee wade to an island then a dog leg to the far bank. It can be dangerous in spate. The next day was clear in the morning, perhaps I'd be lucky and the crossing would be possible. A great morning of fast riding through Glenn Cassley had me hopeful. It was coming…  I pulled off a metalled track watching the river on my left hand side. The heavens opened just as I reached the bank. The decision was easy - it was totally impassable, the island was submerged and the wade looked more like a full on swim across a steady current. It wasn’t going to happen. I scuttled back to the road, knowing I had an escape route but a long boring one on the road (NC 500) and many motorhomes to contend with. However,  tomorrow would be the culmination of my efforts  - Cape Wrath.

I’d planned the trip to get to The Kyle of Durness well before the Ferry closes for the season (end of September) It wasn't a great day weather wise and I knew the ferry crossing  was weather dependent. However, I wasn't prepared for total cancellation until May 2024! I hadn't come all this way to be stopped at the last stage. I rang the ferryman - no luck, the boat was out of the water. I contemplated hiking over to the Lighthouse, leaving Sgt  behind. However, after half a days waiting around and asking around I found a friendly fisherman who agreed to take me over the Kyle in his small boat and within minutes I was riding up from the far quayside.

Two hours riding later, I was at the most isolated cafe in the UK - The Ozone (run by John and Angie) - a ring of the bell (it's open 24 hrs a day) the shutters opened and Angie was offering to cook up some beans on toast for me. I quickly went outside to take the necessary photos and was back inside tucking in and drinking coffee. I told her about my journey and said I’d planned to go down to Kearvaig Bothy for the night. She asked if I wanted some alcohol to celebrate and even offered some Malt Whisky from John’s collection. So kind, I wasn't turning that down!

Descending to the beautifully located bothy Kearvaig as the sun peeked through the clouds, a quarter bottle of whisky stashed in my front fork pannier on my reliable packhorse - Sgt Reckless- I was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment. It had been a journey I wouldn't forget.

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