I ring the bell but it takes her an age to arrive at the food window. “Sorry” she says, “there’s a Sea Eagle sat over there” pointing to the cliff edge. It takes us a while to spot its dark outline, sat on a wall amongst the ruined out buildings, but as soon as it takes flight and soars along the cliff top we realise how huge the majestic creature actually is. “They’re super rare” she tells us “you’re extremely lucky, even to glimpse one in the wild.”
“Now, what can I get you?”
In 1949 a cycling journalist called Rex Coley, fed up with the competitive nature of cycling, created a fellowship dedicated to the experience of riding along Britain’s wildest, most remote road. Qualification for the Cape Wrath Fellowship was simple but not straightforward. To join, a rider would set out from Keoldale, cross the Kyle of Durness on the rowing boat ferry, and then set off out-and-back along the loneliest road in Britain. The road was first built in 1828 to service the Cape Wrath lighthouse – it is 11 miles long, narrow, and rough, even today supplies for the lighthouse are landed by boat rather than road. I always wanted to visit Cape Wrath. If I had a bucket list it was near the top, along with Sandwood Bay – a mythical beach accessed by a long winding seven km gravel path. Our trip was to navigate between both locations with a night at each, before heading to Thurso on four wheels for a prior engagement. Boards and wetsuits were to be biked into Sandwood with the hope of scoring a little wave – there was a little bump on the charts and I hoped we could jump in for a couple of waves before dark.
I picked up my old friend Jelle from Inverness airport and we hit the road north, sipping lukewarm coffee from my flask and munching on Stroopwafels. I’ll go out on a limb here and declare them the king of biscuits. Are they even biscuits? Who cares. Upon hearing there is no firewood at Sandwood we buy some from a local store in Lairg and stock up on snacks, a bottle of whisky and some appropriately named Flat Tire beer. The ride to Sandwood is lumpy, especially with a trailer boards and wetsuits, but the sky is clear and the sun is out. We shed layers, we reach a part of the trail that has drainage channels cut into it bordered by rocks, the trailer sheds a wheel. We resort to stopping every 10-20 meters to lift the trailer over these drainage channels, it slows progress but we’re in no rush – one of the joys of this kinda cycling – our journey is the adventure…
The view as we round the final bend to Sandwood Bay is as dreamy as they come. A descent down to the ocean, the sun out to sea casting a hazy light, a little wave breaking off some rocks in the middle of the bay, and to the North, cliffs and a river mouth with a very fun looking wave peeling along a sand bar. We can’t get down quick enough. The next morning we awake to rain bouncing from the tarp. It’s early yet it feels like it never got fully dark – the whisky had its effects and we slept like babies, our bodies thankful for the rain to allow us a lie in. I awake several times and peer at the surf but it looks really small, not good enough to leave the warmth of the sleeping bag. 10:30 is when we finally stir, the rain now a drizzle and both feeling guilty for sleeping in. We make coffee and porridge, before suiting up.
The swell drops but there is a super fun right breaking from the rocks, a seal joins us and we trade waves for a couple of hours, rain clears before the tide hits a weird bank that stops it running all the way to the beach. We watch as a party of bemused hikers stroll along the beach stopping to watch the strange rubber suited creatures sliding along chest high waves hooting at each other. We pack up camp and push our laden bikes back up the sand dunes, then back along the drainage-channel-riddled trail, across the stream and back to tarmac – the road between Blairmore and Keoldale – via fish and chips at the Old School in Inshegra (highly recommended), where our ferry awaits. The road is smooth with a big old climb, but the scenery again offsets any hardship. Upon arriving at Keoldale we realised we’ve missed the last ferry and while we try to persuade John the Ferrymaster (see Pannier’s film BEULAH for reference) to make the trip he says no as the tides are Spring tides. This means they are at their lowest and the boat might get stuck as it makes the crossing and with night falling, he doesn’t fancy spending the evening in the Beulah with two strangers in the Kyle of Durness. Disappointedly we make camp on the wrong side of the Kyle, share a nightcap and get our heads down.
“The swell drops but there is a super fun right breaking from the rocks, a seal joins us and we trade waves for a couple of hours, rain clears before the tide hits a weird bank that stops it running all the way to the beach … we pack up camp and push our laden bikes back up the sand dunes, then back along the drainage-channel-riddled trail, across the stream and back to tarmac”
The morning brings more sunshine, coffee and porridge. There is a handful awaiting the little ferry when we arrive: two couples on mountain bikes and a couple of tourers who are taking the bus to the lighthouse – wisely don’t want to risk their bikes on the 20km notoriously gravelly, potholed road. Jelle and I have to be back at the ferry that evening to make it to Thurso that same day, so we’ve ditched the trailer and a few supplies but the bikes are relatively loaded still. Captain John, reassuringly tells tales of cyclists breaking collarbones on the road and having to be airlifted out, and when we dock one of the couples becomes a single – her partner sets off alone. Rex does call it the loneliest road in Britain.
The road is, as Rex Coley describes it, indeed lonely – an MOD bombing range stuck out on limb desolate and windswept, but breezy and sunny for us; probably the most pleasant day to ride it and join the Cape Wrath Fellowship. Our tomato and lentil soup at the cafe tastes great, in-between Sea Eagle watching we strike up a conversation with a French guy who stumbles in gasping for beer (a can of Tennents is produced) having walked from Fort William. Walking for 15 days straight, sweaty and dirty, he gulps down the golden liquid – the light at the end of a 200 odd mile tunnel a can of Tennents – glorious and very Scottish. We take our pictures by the lighthouse and blast back along the track, I get puncture number two and Jelle (ex-pro cyclist) changes it bared handed, scoffing at my disbelief and curses me for committing the cardinal sin of getting a second snake-bite puncture. When he’s finished playing with his tyre lever fingers we continue along the track as it twists eastwards and runs alongside, overlooking the Kyle of Durness. The tide is well and truly out and a stretch of sand is dry between us and the mainland, meaning we have to sit out on the dock and wait for the tide to fill in before John the Ferrymaster can come collect us by boat…
“Rex does call it the loneliest road in Britain…”
We watch the seals sunbathing, finish the last of the Stroopwafels (the king of biscuits, yeh?), and swig cans of the appropriately named Flat Tire beer stashed away as a treat for when we joined the Cape Wrath Fellowship. It was bumpy, wild and remote – my kinda road – and all in all a road worth riding.