IT ONLY TOOK TWENTY YEARS
Back in 1984 I was an aircraft engineer with what was then known as British Aerospace. One day my boss called me into his office and told me to "Go home, pack a bag for a couple of weeks, you're going to RAF Kinloss with a spark (electrician) to install and test some gear on a Nimrod aircraft."
I was a little taken aback as this was the first time I had
been trusted with such a task, but late next day, after a drive
of some 400 miles, we found ourselves at our appointed hotel in
Forres on the Moray Firth of north-east Scotland.
The job went well, and what little spare time we had was spent touring the neighbouring towns and villages in our hire car.
I looked at the area from a cyclists point of view, and immediately thought that some time in the near future I must come back to this neck of the woods with my bike, and explore these wonderful traffic-free lanes, pine forests, tracks and test the many tempting little pubs in places such as Findhorn, Nairn, Elgin and Buckie.
I did go back - in May 2004! Twenty years later!
In May, a projected week away with my arch-mate fell through
for various reasons, and I was left with weeks holiday with nothing
concrete in mind when one evening I was playing bowls with my
mate Gerry and his wife Alison.
Alison came from Grantown-on-Spey and was waxing lyrically about the place, when it struck me - why don't I go back to Forres with my bike for a few days?
Later that evening I was searching the Internet for likely B and B places, and pouring over maps of the area to plane five days cycling!
I eventually decided on 3 nights in Inverness (so that I could ride round the Black Isle, and also spend a day on the train to Kyle of Lochalsh), then I would work my way east to Nairn, and Elgin, doing a days ride out of each of the little towns.
At 5.00 a.m. on the 5th May I commenced the long (400 miles) drive north to Inverness. It was a drive I was not looking forward to, expecting hold-ups galore on the motorway. But to my surprise it was as clear as a bell the whole way, and including a couple of stops, I pulled into a car park near Inverness railway station at exactly mid-day - an easy stress-free drive.
I spent the rest of the day exploring Inverness on foot. This
fine little town, as it's name suggests, is at the mouth of the
river Ness and has the Moray Firth to the east.
It has some fine buildings that are well worth seeing including Abertarff House built in 1592, which contains an unusual turnpike stair - an odd kind of spiral staircase.
The castle is not that old, dating only from 1834 and acts as courthouse and administration centre for the town. St Andrew's cathedral stands proudly by the river between two elegant suspension bridges. The impressive Kessock bridge connects the town to the Black Isle. The Caledonian canal enters the sea here via a series of large locks. Altogether an interesting little town, bustling with visitors from all over the globe.
I spent the next day (Thursday) circumnavigating the Black
Isle (which isn't an island at all) . I crossed the Kessock bridge
and immediately left the very busy A9 at the village of Kessock.
At once I was on traffic-free roads. I wandered north-east for
a few miles to the little town of Fortrose where a pleasant little
café provided elevenses. I mentioned to the lady of the
house that years ago I had seen dolphins playing in the Firth
and where was the best place to see them now. She said I should
take the lane to Chanonry Point, but it was perhaps a little to
early in the year to see them. This proved to be a correct assumption,
so I rode into pretty little Rosemarkie, where I joined the National
Cycle Network lane that took me several miles uphill before dropping
me sharply down in Cromarty.
Here I watched huge oil platforms being towed out to sea from the window of the Royal Hotel whilst part-taking of a sandwich and very good pint of Black Isle ale.
I returned to Inverness via the coast road through Jemimaville and then into thick woodland. I had run off my map at this point and was certain I was lost as the lane got narrower and more overgrown, but just as I was about to retrace I heard the sound of cars so proceeded to join the A road back to Kessock and civilisation.
On Friday I achieved a long-time ambition by taking the train
from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. This is reputed to be the
second most beautiful train journey in Britain. Opinion being
that Fort William to Mallaig is slightly better, but is much shorter.
I was not disappointed. Every mile of the 80 had at least one good photograph in it.
I was advised to alight at Plockton, just a handful of miles short of Kyle, then complete the trip by bike, which I did. I lunched on Plockton station before riding into the very pretty little village for a pint. The road to Kyle was punctuated with several stiff little 'monts', and I collected my first (and only) puncture on a cattle grid on the descent into Kyle. So I wheeled the bike to the pub at the harbour, slaked my thirst (it was a very warm day), and mended a lovely puncture to the accompaniment of seabirds and the chug-chug of little boats. I returned to Inverness most pleased with my day out on the train (and it was only £14.00 return!!).
After breakfast on Saturday morning, I packed my bike into
the car and left Inverness. I drove due east to Nairn. By 10.00
a.m. I had found a very nice B and B (Thanks to the man at the
little bike shop), a nice coffee shop, and was pottering off along
the NCN (National Cycle Network) in the direction of Forres. It
was warm but drizzling quite heavily when I left Nairn, but the
Culbain forest offered some shelter,
By the time I reached Forres it had stopped and I was able to pack away the cagoule into the saddlebag. Being Saturday, Forres was quite busy with shoppers, but I found a seat in a café where I perused the map over strong, hot coffee and toasted tea-cakes. Before leaving this pleasant little town I called to look at the Ramnee Hotel where I had stayed all those years ago. It looked far too posh for me to contemplate staying there nowadays - but then British Aerospace paid the bill!
I also stopped to look at the Sueno Stone, a 23 ft high carved stone monument housed in a huge glass case at the side of the road. It is thought to commemorate the victory of the King of Denmark's son Sweyn (or Sueno) over Duncan's grandfather Malcolm II in 1008.
From Forres I rode the short distance to Kinloss to look at the Nimrod aircraft at the R.A.F. station. Unfortunately no aircraft were airborne whilst I was there, but there were several parked at the side of the runway and I felt a tinge of sadness that never again would I be able to work on this superb aeroplane. They were the happiest days of my work at BAe. I rode on a further mile or two to the village of Findhorn, mainly to see if my memory of it was correct. I thought I remembered a superb little pub with oak panelling, log fire and a menu of great seafood. Lo and behold it was just the same! I was soon in deep conversation with three old ex-R.A.F gentlemen (Nev the Nav, Tom the bomb, and I can't remember the third guy's nickname). My stay in the pub lasted much longer than projected, hence my line away was not as straight as when I had come!.
I pedalled further east a few miles to Burghead but didn't tarry long there. The only sign of life in this ex-fishing port was four elderly folk playing bowls on a flat green (pansies!). More coffee was the order of the day so I returned post haste to Forres, but alas the café had closed for the day. I was forced to use the A9 for a couple of miles before I could get onto an unclassified road that took me back to Nairn.
Nairn is where the Highlands and Lowlands are said to meet.
Once a fishing port but now little used for that purpose, it has
developed into a holiday town, with a large camping and caravanning
park, boating pool and golf courses.
The town had little to offer in terms of good pubs and restaurants I found only one of each so an early night and my book were in order.
After a hearty breakfast I moved still further east, this time to Elgin. I soon found a very comfortable B and B and within a few minutes was awheel on the NCN on a long, pretty lane heading for Garmouth, where a disused railway bridge would take me over the river Spey to my lunch stop at Buckie. This destination proved to be a poor choice (although there were no other options0. The place was closed! Hardly a soul moved. Not even the dingy looking pub seemed to be open.. Despairing of getting something to eat and a coffee, I chanced on a young lady pushing a pram who pointed me in the direction of the only Hotel in town which would be likely to provide sustenance. It did, and I dined well and very cheaply.
I had little option but to retrace my outward journey until
I hit the B9013 road to Lossiemouth. I wanted to call there for
two reasons, one to look at the Spynie Canal - canals being one
of my great interests, and the other to look at the fast jets
at R.A.F. Lossiemouth. I crossed the Spynie about 6 miles short
of Lossie and was amazed to see that it was only a couple of feet
wide! No boats were ever going to come along here. I could find
out little about this stretch of water from the locals, but on
return home I found that it is not really a canal, but a drain
(not unlike the Fenland drains). It was built for drainage in
1808 to a plan by - who else- Thomas Telford, and is 6 miles long.
If the canal was a little disappointing, RAF Lossiemouth was even
more so - nothing moved, and not one aircraft was to be seen.
So it was into the little dockside to sit for a time outside a
very nice café watching little boats coming and going..
I returned to Elgin in the hot afternoon sun along the coast road, then turned inland at Duffus to start a long gradual climb back to my digs in town.
Elgin is a pleasant town, with pedestrianised main street housing several notable buildings, but good and restaurants were few and far between.
To sum up, I thoroughly enjoyed my return to the area. The weather was kind to me and the traffic almost non-existent. I averaged about 60 miles per day and will return again before another 20 years have elapsed, but will look at other places like Grantown-on-Spey and perhaps places to the north of Inverness.