The young guy in front of me shifted awkwardly within the confines of the small hospital chair in which he sat, moving from one uncomfortable spot to another in a vain attempt to get some sleep.
I looked at my phone. No signal. The clock read close to 1am.
Beyond the walls of my fogged brain, I could hear chattering, the beeps and boops of machines, and general groans from other patients. This was the twilight zone of the A&E department; a place where time becomes irrelevant.
A few hours before, I was in the back of an ambulance, laughing drunkenly with the paramedic as the morphine caused my face to lose all sensation. That day, I’d been groaning on the couch with a terrible fever, migraine and stomach ache which, suddenly, at 10pm, had morphed into the closest I can conceive being stabbed in the abdomen feels like.
I had puked, cried, yelled. Bo had phoned 111 and they had sent an ambulance. I felt terrible for her; we’d moved house only 48 hours ago – which is stressful enough – only for me to be suddenly struck down by an intolerable pain.
Back in the hospital, the other guy had been taken away. I was starting to feel like myself again and shuffled out of bed in search of water. “No water”, said the doctor. “We might need to do a scan.”
I returned to my padded tray – the “bed” on which I had been carried from ambulance to examination room to the corridor in which I’d now been for four hours.
This bike ride was definitely not happening.
You will have read in a previous blog about my Pedal for Wildness – a 1000km bike ride to raise money for the John Muir Trust. As I lay on that bed, I realised how foolhardy it had been to schedule the ride within seven days of hosting an event, moving house and all manner of things that go with that.
Staring at the fluorescent lamps above, I kicked myself for it. Whatever this thing was that had torn my insides out, one of the likeliest causes was stress. Who chooses to do their longest trip ever while shopping in IKEA, building furniture, emptying their old house and trying to work all in advance?!
“Ross Brannigan?” the doctor called. I gingerly swung my legs off the bed, and made my way into the curtained examination room.
It was now 4am, I hadn’t drank in nearly five hours, and now the doctor was asking questions in such a random order I knew I was going to slip up.
After 10 minutes of questions he said I could go home. He said he’d give me anti-acid tablets and left the room. I was bewildered. Anti-acid tablets!? Shit, I thought. Why did I try to compare it to acid reflux?
I complained a bit, but that was all they were going to do. I sat in the waiting area and awaited collection.
The week went by. Furniture was built, the house took shape, but the trip nagged at me. Now, though, the expectations were low. Given I had just been hospitalised, even setting off would be a victory.
I rescheduled the ride, asked OpenTracking to shift my order date, moved my annual leave and prepared myself for departure the following weekend. It was worth a shot.
My plan was to set off from my front door and ride to Sandwood Bay, visiting each of the sites managed by the John Muir Trust along the way – Glenridding, Glenlude, Schiehallion, Ben Nevis, Knoydart, Skye, Quinag and, finally, Sandwood Bay.
I wanted to make this a ride for people to join in on, so had hired an OpenTracking device so people could follow my route and, hopefully, donate some money, too.
Day 1 – Kendal to Glenlude (187km/ 1770m)
The garden was in full splendour, with spring in the air. On 15 May, I lifted my laden bike up the garden steps and made the first pedal strokes up the road.
My partner (now fiancée) Bo and friend, Andy, would meet me on the Kirkstone Pass for a few photographs before I really set off north. I constantly reminded myself of the tortoise and the hare as I made my way up Kirkstone Pass – a pass which sits at 430m above sea level and my highest point for the day: This is just about moving forwards, not speed.
After an early pitstop atop the snaking road for a slide of pizza and a goodbye, I zoomed down the other side into Patterdale to my first checkpoint: Glenridding.
Arbitrarily, I’d decided that the checkpoints would be the easiest boundary point I could ‘touch’ that the Trust managed. I met Isaac, the Glenridding Conservation Officer, for a brief chat, before making the nasty steep climb from the town to the Greenside cottages.
Here the longest ride of the trip began. With the excitement of Kirkstone and Glenridding done, it was time for the hard miles to Glenlude in the Borders. I made my way up the roads above Ullswater, eventually joining the long farm roads into Carlisle. I was pleased my route planning paid off here: Suunto had plotted a route further west, which looked to me to do a number of turns; the route I took was on sublime, straight, fast roads all the way to the outskirts of Carlisle. Given the amount of crap roads I was likely to follow, I would take straight and easy while I could.
Ask any cyclist what it’s like getting through Carlisle and they will likely use any synonym of “madness”. I laughed when I watched Jenny Graham do the same in GCN+’s Lone Rider. She said: “I feel like I have been coming out of Carlisle for, like…a month!”
After the sketchy roads of inner and outer Carlisle, I finally made it to the cycle path alongside the M74. In the run up to this ride, driving up and down the M74, I’d point out to Bo where the cycle route was and say, “It’ll be wild to say ‘I rode up this road’ after the ride”.
I will say, it ain’t the bonniest of rides; it’s just efficient. The miles churned by as I ticked off little milestones along the way, the biggest being getting into Gretna. I pulled into the cafe that sits astride the border and scoffed a fruit scone (which was on the Scottish side while the plain ones were in England) and a sandwich, and chatted to some other cyclists.
After a natter and a farewell, it was off to Moffat, which seemed to take forever to appear such is the mundane nature of the M74. Headphones certainly helped at that point.
Though not obvious, there is a slight climb up to Moffat where, after eight hours, I stepped off the bike again for an ice-cream. Remember: Tortoise, not hare. I knew I needed all the energy I could get for the last push. The interminable climb to St Mary’s Loch is never easy, especially with a fully laden bike and the best part of a day’s riding in your legs already.
The early stages of the climb passed without issue. Carrifran Wildwood sat on my left at the halfway point, a stunning example of a community paving the way for incredible ecological restoration.
However, it was just after the Grey Mare’s Tail that the legs really fell off. I crawled my way along the Loch of the Lowes, eating anything I thought might bring some energy back to my system. Not only that, but my signal had dropped just as Bruce Springsteen shouted “Can’t start a fire!”, leaving me singing the rest of the lines by myself.
It wasn’t until I reached the Gordon Arms Hotel did life return to me. With 183km ridden in 10 hours, I knew Glenlude was right around the corner. The climb dropped away without too much misery and the edges of the former conifer plantation came into view. I have never been so excited to see a row of larches and sitkas in my life.
Glenlude was gifted to the Trust in 2003 after the passing of Sheila Bell, a remarkable woman who made the restoration of this place for nature one of her lasting legacies. I had contacted Karen, the site manager, asking if I could stay in the small hut there.
I could have camped, of course, as people are welcome to do in the dedicated camping circle, but after what would be one of the longest days in the saddle I fancied some home comforts. I opened the cabin and wheeled the bike in, noting a large charging lamp on the table.
I flopped into a chair and pulled my helmet off at last, and read the note on the whiteboard: “Welcome Ross. Andy JMT Volunteer. Camping -> Blue vehicle beyond.
“Please use mini USB charge lead or Samsung. Sorry no iPhone lead. Some networks available round hut.” Here he drew a diagram.
“If you would like a carry out – my treat. Cheers Andy. 6pm+.”
In that moment I swelled inside. It was what I had dreamed would happen but dared not hope for: These kind interactions with complete strangers who would become the characters of this trip.
I had an hour to kill before 6pm, so decided to wander from the hut to the south edge of the site. Since 2003, the Trust has been slowly thinning the old plantation to make way for native broadleaves like hazel, oak and rowan.
One of the major successes of the site – in huge thanks to site rangers Karen and Sarah – is how it has become a jewel in the hearts of many, and even changed lives.
Phoenix Futures is an organisation working to rehabilitate those with drug and alcohol problems. With the Trust, the group has created a Phoenix Forest – an enclosed area where people come to plant trees and maintain brash hedges to recover from their addiction.
I stood over the juvenile forest, watching the early phases of a new generation of woodland begin. A symbol of what can be, along with all the biodiversity that will come with it. The whole forest will soon have all its larch removed, as the pervasive larch disease (Phytophthora ramorum) has spread through the wood.
I marched my way back to the hut, my borrowed wellies fawump–fawump-ing against my legs and the new vegetation scraping by. I felt strangely not-tired, which was a surprise. Perhaps all that training had yielded some benefits!
Andy showed up at 6. He had wild scraggly hair and beard, a broad nose and a bubbling smile, and told me about his time volunteering with the Trust as we made our way down to Innerleithen in his Berlingo.
It was clear Andy had been through the pointy end of life at times, but nowadays found companionship and purpose through his volunteering and his walks with the Ramblers up near Edinburgh. We parked the car and made our way to the Innerleithen chippy, ordered some food and headed off to find a bench on which to eat it.
The sun was now low in the sky, the sky turning that beautiful pastel blue. A glorious sunset outside with a chippy is such a rare thing in Scotland, as much of the time you are being chased off by swarms of midges. It was such a simple pleasure.
It was interesting that, although relative strangers to one another, Andy spoke very openly about his mental health and the solace he found in getting out into nature. It was clear to me that there are simply so many individual reasons people go out to enjoy or work to protect the outdoors, whether it be for a sense of responsibility to the environment or a responsibility to one’s own mental state. We both understood that, and so perhaps it wasn’t so strange to be talking about such things.
Given there was no signal in the lower areas of Glenlude, I made a few phone calls before we headed back up the B709 to Glenlude. As we rounded the corner and Glenlude came into view, Andy said: “Wow! Would you look at that!”
The sun was hanging just above Deuchar Law on our right, casting striking shadows across the plantation and its slowly regenerating native woodlands.
“I’ve never seen the brash hedges as clear as that”, he said. He dropped me at the side of the road right there and parked the car a hundred meters away so he could enjoy it, too. Sure enough, the Phoenix Forest and its neighbouring Jamie’s Wood stood out clearly as the brash hedges around them were brought into sharp relief by the waning light.
Within a few minutes the magic had gone, the edges softening again and reclining back into the landscape as dusk took hold. “A couple minutes later and we’d have missed that”, said Andy, clearly awestruck by nature’s show. The blackbirds and starlings began their evening song as we returned to the car and to our home for the night.
Andy left for the campsite while I laid out my sleeping bag and mat. The hut has an enormous cast iron stove, under which they had to lay a concrete foundation because when they originally tried to set it down – it fell through the floor.
It took a time to get it hot but, once the fire was going, the room was incredibly warm and I had to restrain myself from adding more logs else I’d sweat through the night. I fell asleep quickly, with thoughts now turning towards home.
Day 2 – Glenlude to Tillicoultry (110km/860m)
I awoke with a great sense of optimism. Dew clung to the pines outside and a crisp air lay in the forest. Today I would be heading back to ‘home turf’ – Tillicoultry, where I grew up.
My left shoulder and neck were a bit stiff from the day before, but I packed up and strapped everything back on the bike, ready for 8am. Andy had told me the night before about his homebuilt e-bike, which he clearly loved. Sure enough, he was at the end of the drive waiting for me on it, ready to join me down to Innerleithen before heading his own way over the local hills.
Before setting off on the ride, I had received an email from a chap called Tim, another volunteer at Glenlude. He was really keen to join me and was coming to meet us at No.1 Cafe for some breakfast.
Andy and I zoomed easily down the road to Innerleithen – barely turning a pedal for 8km. No.1 Cafe is often the number one reason I stop in Innerleithen – Craig and his wife have an incredible business and a tight-knit community built around this cafe in the heart of mountain biking country. Pre-Covid, you’d find a couple of tables around which half a dozen people would squish together and tell their tales from the trails that day.
We made our way to a table by the window after locking our bikes up outside, ordered a couple coffees, a sensational breakfast, and awaited Tim’s arrival. When Andy’s order of banana- and maple-covered french toast arrived, he held it aloft and said: “A toast to you!” and broke into an infectious laugh.
Tim arrived later than expected, but I hadn’t expected him to have already cycled from Gorebridge that morning! Waving goodbye to Andy, I followed Tim up the stunningly beautiful and quiet B709 north of Inners, which weaves its way around the ‘Hopes’ and ‘Laws’ of the Borders hills.
I decided to start by asking Tim what had brought him to be a volunteer with the Trust. He told me how he was in the middle of a total career move from a life in catering to one of conservation. Two different people; two different motives.
“I was just walking in the hills and I realised, ‘What am I doing to actually protect these places?'” he recounted. We watched as a group of stonechats flitted from one telephone wire to another with their telltale stone-scraping call.
It was turning into another marvellous day as we neared the summit of the long climb we had been riding up for so long. At the top of the road, we came to a sudden and definitive geological intersection. The Moorfoot Hills came to an abrupt end and the ground dropped straight down to the low farmlands below. We also stood on a political boundary, now stepping into Midlothian and leaving the Scottish Borders behind. In the distance, the city of Edinburgh glinted in the sunlight, with the Castle clearly visible on its rocky perch.
We descended on the fast-flowing B7007 (“Call me 7 – 007”) to Middleton and, soon, Gorebridge, where I’d be on my own again. Tim had been excellent company, and I’d enjoyed learning more about his motivations for wanting to become a ranger, and all the hoops modern life throws at us for the sin of changing our minds.
My trusty Suunto sat at the top of my aero bars, and had admirably guided me to this point. However, its lack of a clear map and confusion about just when I should turn left meant that once I hit the busier roads I had to keep my wits about me at all times.
My memory of the kilometres between Bonyrigg and Clackmannanshire is patchy and can be best described as: A series of wrong turns, small cycleways, hopping across dual-carriageways, traffic lights, traffic, a stoned guy, bunny-hopping dog shite and broken glass.
There were a few highlights.
As anyone who has done long-distance adventures probably knows, arriving in a place you associate with other memories having just propelled yourself a long way to get there is a unique experience. I’ve always associated Haymarket Station and the centre of Edinburgh with days out shopping or the rugby. Now, I had bloody well cycled there…from Kendal! It wouldn’t be the last time I’d experience one of those landmark “Shit, I cycled here!” moments on this trip.
Naturally, the Forth Road Bridge was a real highlight, with its neighbouring bridges resplendent in the sunshine.
I will say, the less said about Dunfermline, the better. It all went a bit wrong just after the Forth Road Bridge, where I lost track of the cycleway and ended up on what used to be a horribly busy sliproad of the M90. Thankfully, with the new Queensferry Crossing, the road was empty, but riding along essentially a motorway was thoroughly unenjoyable. After that, Dunfermline’s infuriatingly poor cycle infrastructure had me hopping over dual carriageways, riding the wrong way on roundabouts and undertaking all manner of dangerous manoeuvres.
Mercifully, after a steep climb around Pittencrieff Park, I made it onto the most astonishingly good bit of cycle path I have come across.
The West Fife Way is a veritable motorway for active travel. I joined it in Dunfermline and didn’t leave it for just under 20km where I reached Clackmannan. Almost pan flat, it had a whole 5km section of arrow straight path. What a treat after the purgatory that preceded it!
Part of this ride was me spreading the word about people – like Andy and Tim – helping to protect our wild places. The other parts were showing how amazing those places are and helping to protect them myself. Now, the West Fife Way isn’t exactly the wildest of places, but it is for some. As I approached two guys with their dog walking the same way I was cycling, I saw one of them clearly toss a plastic bag into the bushes.
Rage immediately sparked within me, but I played the dim inquisitor. “Sorry, mate!” I called. They turned. “I think you dropped something.” It was clear the guy was embarrassed at being caught. As he went to pick it up, I said: “Plastic bag, man. Fits in your pocket easy and you can put it in the bin when you get home. Cheers now.”
I pedalled off before he had a chance to reply, but his mate, who hadn’t heard me, asked: “What’d ‘e drop? ‘is wullet?”
I didn’t give a response, hoping that 1) they weren’t about to punch my head in; 2) they’d not just ditch it five seconds later. You can only do so much.
I rolled into Tillicoultry six hours after leaving Glenlude. Just because I could, I had booked a massage with family friend and masseuse Caryl at 5pm, so I had some time to kill beforehand.
Modern travel has totally skewed our perceptions of distance. In a two-hour flight, I can go from Manchester to Mallorca – an entirely different country, climate and culture. Driving from my house in Kendal to my parents would usually take around three hours. Instead, I had taken nigh-on 16 hours of cycling to get here, ignoring the time spent asleep! It’s impossible to conceptualise how vast the world must have felt to the cattle drovers of the Highlands as they brought their cows from across the country to markets in Crieff, Stirling or Falkirk. Imagine going back in time to a drover walking through Glen Coe and saying, “Where I come from, we could get to Stirling in a couple of hours.”
After some time spent in the garden with my parents, I headed off to see Caryl. Caryl is an old schoolfriend of my mum’s, and her son, Lee, and I were good friends in school. Before I moved away, Caryl had been both a masseuse and psychologist as I mused about career paths and relationships while she drilled her knuckles into my back. More than anything, it was a nice chance to catch-up.
I stuck my head through the hole in the massage bench and said that my neck and shoulder had felt “quite tight”. As she worked her way into it, Caryl said: “This is going to hurt. I have never seen your neck so bad!”
She was right: It did hurt, like hell. I knew I had adopted a slightly ‘racy’ position on the bike, but was far more upright than I usually would be. Still, it maybe wasn’t enough because my shoulder and neck were in pieces, like a dull migraine.
After 30 minutes, I bade Caryl farewell and headed back home, prepared for a hearty refuelling before taking myself to Highland Perthshire tomorrow.
Day 3 – Tillicoultry to Pitlochry (108km/1220m)
The weather had to break at some point. I had been mindful of the forecast but had told myself to not set too much store by it day-to-day. After all, I had to get up and out the door whether I liked it or not.
It was to be a very sociable day, though. My uncle, Grant, was going to join me to Stirling, where I would then finally have a quick catch-up with old uni friend Luis. Having moved to the Lake District a year ago, this trip was also a chance to see old friends I’d missed for a while.
After a speedy spin along the Hillfoots to Stirling and a bite to eat with Luis, I turned to Bridge of Allan to collect my companion for the rest of the day, Lewis. For those of you who have followed this blog for a little while, you may remember Lewis from his Bob Graham Round in 2019.
Our route would take us along the stunning roads of Stirlingshire and into Highland Perthshire. Given I grew up in Tillicoultry and went to university in Stirling, it really felt like a return to an old stomping ground. The slow climb out of Dunblane eventually broke into a series of undulating roads to Crieff. Despite the grey and ominous skies, we were quickly throwing spare layers into our bags, which were sadly joined by odd bits of litter we found on some of the quieter lanes.
We managed to arrive in Crieff dry, which went against the weather forecast. Once we arrived in the old market town, we had to wait a short while for my colleague Izzy to show up, who was cycling for Perth and would join us to Dunkeld. Once she arrived, we cycled up and down the main street in Crieff on the hunt for an open cafe, eventually settling on Cafe Rhubarb and ordering some food.
As the three of us chatted and ate, the weather finally came in. As anyone who rides bikes will know, getting your temperature back up after a cafe stop is hard enough without a drumming of rain. There was only so long we could hold off, though, so we swung our legs back over our bikes and pedalled along the road to enter the Sma’ Glen.
This 6.5km-long glen has seen armies leave their mark here for centuries, with the Romans building a watchtower and General Wade laying a military road in the 18th century to quell the Highland clans.
As we headed north along the River Almond, the rain continued to beat down, but the miles flew by just as fast. Despite his bike probably weighing the same as mine without bags, Lewis kept dropping little wattage bombs as we sped our way to Dunkeld.
Izzy is the John Muir Trust’s conservation officer at Schiehallion, one of Scotland’s most famous Munros. Its role in the weighing of the world experiment had given way to a collective effort with neighbouring landowners to bring back a tree canopy and nature corridor for wildlife to return to that corner of Perthshire.
Izzy had lately been re-branded as the Trust’s Mountain Woodlands Officer, given her expertise in Scotland’s wee trees – something I will come to in the next chapter of this blog. Not only is she a wee trees wizard, she’s also a pretty tough nut on the bike, regularly taking on absolutely epic rides with her boyfriend Innes, who himself has ridden the TCR on several occasions.
Very wet but in good spirits, we rolled into Birnam to make a pitstop at another colleague Nicky’s house. After I devoured a bowl of soup and most of a box of oatcakes, Nicky asked me how the rest of the trip was shaping up.
“Did you manage to get a hold of the guy on Knoydart?” she asked. Knoydart is one of the least accessible places in the country, really only penetrable by foot or boat. I had toyed with heading to Mallaig and getting a ferry to Inverie, but the trouble was my arbitrary rule of ‘touching’ the Trust boundary line would have meant climbing Ladhar Bheinn – the closest point on the south side.
Instead, I had opted for cycling to Kinloch Hourn and chartering a boat to Lì, or as close to it as possible. Besides, this also had a feeling of adventure to it, and would hopefully allow me to see the regeneration in Coire Odhair.
“Yeah, good”, I replied. “There’s a chap called Peter who is giving me a lift from Kinloch Hourn to Knoydart.”
“How much is the ferry?” she asked. I told her, and she turned to a drawer behind the dining table. She handed me a little wad of notes. “That’s my contribution”, Nicky said. It was so kind of her, and such a perfect contribution. I thanked her and pocketed the notes.
After another brew, it was time of Lewis and I to hit the road again. It was just a short pedal to Pitlochry and my stop for the night at my mate Andy’s place. The rain had moved off by now, so at least we had a drier departure from Dunkeld than we had arrival.
The road from Dunkeld is a wonderfully scenic one. With rows of woodlands on our left and fields on our right, the road snaked its way through Dalguise, where the looming figure of Ben Vrackie appeared ahead of us, towering above Pitlochry.
This was another return to ‘home’ for me. Before moving to Kendal, I had lived in a small cottage just along from Dalguise. It had been a freezer in the winter, but I still had fond memories of cycling these roads and running up and down Ben Vrackie before Covid-19 had sent us all home.
There is a nasty series of climbs between Logierait and Pitlochry. Today felt like it had been very much a moving picnic, so we hauled ourselves and our bikes up and over each of the punchy climbs with a bit of grumbling. Meanwhile, the landscape began to open ahead of us, revealing the hints of the Cairngorm National Park to the north.
Once we arrived in Pitlochry, it was time for Lewis to catch his train. We made a quick stop outside Tower House – the John Muir Trust HQ and my old office before Covid-19 – for a quick photo. Lewis had been such a phenomenal companion on this ride – dead keen, fit as a fiddle, and lamenting that he couldn’t follow me all the way north. It had been a blast.
After a goodbye on the platform, I turned the bike round to head for Andy’s. He and I had become friends while I was living in Pitlochry and we’d already been bikepacking together before. He was actually working when I arrived, so I was greeted by his wife, Gilly, and their troupe of dogs – Maisie, Lui and Skye (who has sadly passed away. Andy is running 100-miles soon as part of a fundraising campaign they ran to help with the vet bills).
Lui (yes, I met a Lewis, Luis and Lui all in one day) was certainly the loudest of the bunch. He was the youngest and only boy in the group, so made a song and dance at this intruder in the garden. I realised I hadn’t taken my helmet off, which probably had spooked him.
“Louis!” Gilly chastised. “Sorry about that.”
“That’s fine”, I said. Gilly runs her own dog boarding and grooming business, so Lui is quite used to random people and dogs (one was actually there, too). However, it seemed my demeanour had given him cause to be wary. Meanwhile, Skye was dropping a ball at my feet and Maisie bringing small pebbles as though they were lucky offerings.
Once Andy arrived, we set about making a plan for the next day. Spending time with Andy is hilarious. I can only imagine what he’s like if he hasn’t spoken to anyone ‘into’ running for a while. We jabbered on and on and on about the various races, performances, personalities, challenges, and wacky adventures we’d both come up with while Gilly left us to it for a run.
While he stirred the bolognese, I thought the mince would launch itself out the pan as he bounced up and down chatting about the shoes he was testing or the new training tactics he was trying out. If you can imagine a Scottish version of Anton Kupricka, you are getting close to Andy. With long hair and a beard, he floats along the trails, making it look effortless despite being out for 50km.
He was also pretty mean on a bike. He confessed to not having been out for a while, but that didn’t faze him. Tomorrow was going to be one of the hardest days on the bike, so I was appreciating his optimism. It was also going to be one of the remotest days and have the greatest amount of off-road riding. We would leave Pitlochry and head off to Schiehallion before continuing west to Kinloch Rannoch.
After that was the test of getting to Loch Ossian – a beautiful but rough part of the world. I’d heard the gravel around there was excellent, so was keen to see it for myself. We’d leave Ossian behind and make our way north to Fersit and a final trundle to Fort William, where we’d camp in Glen Nevis somewhere.
All in all: 156km and 1500m of ascent. At least 30% off-road. This would be fun.
At least we had a Corrour Station venison burger to look forward to!