Friday, 24 April 2015

Hudeshope Circular

Hudeshope beck is a stream running alongside Pikestone Brow down to Middleton-in-Teesdale, in a valley which has a little loop road running in a circular route to/from Middleton-in-Teesdale. When I said to Dean that I wanted to do some hills in the Pennines, he took me seriously!


I had finished all my academic essays and had about 6 hours free to take an impromptu VC167 club run: I set off from Durham at 8am down to Sedgefield and on to Darlington to meet up with Dean at a coffee shop in town. The slight northeast wind assisted my journey and I was in Darlington having averaged about 28kph over the 40km from home.

I had invited Dean out for a ride, but on his home turf - so I hadn't bothered planning the route. We rode south west from Darlington out to Stapleton where we turned right to Cleasby. This took us on routes used frequently by the Darlington Cycle Club and the CTC Teesside Section, through the fields south of the Tees and north of the A66. We breezed on to a crossing of the river on an iconic wooden bridge familiar to anyone who has ridden the London Edinburgh London route. Then up the zigzig climb to Whorlton and on to Barnard Castle.


In Barnard Castle we dropped down to the footbridge across the Tees. This avoided the single carriageway bridge at the foot of the castle walls. Now on to the B6277 Lartington Lane, we made our way through Cotherstone to Middleton-in-Teesdale. With apologies to AA Milne for adapting his teacosy song:

Cotherstone Cotherstone Cotherstone Pie,
A fly can't bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cotherstone Cotherstone Cotherstone Pie.

Cotherstone Cotherstone Cotherstone Pie,
A fish can't whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cotherstone Cotherstone Cotherstone Pie.

Cotherstone Cotherstone Cotherstone Pie,
Why does a chicken? I don't know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cotherstone Cotherstone Cotherstone Pie.

In Middleton-in-Teesdale we stopped for bacon sandwiches and coffee, to discuss the next roads we'd ride. Hudeshope had not been on my radar. I was thinking we'd go over Bollihope and Crawleyside, then back to Durham via Lanchester, Dean suggested the Westernhope Moor crossing past Chapelfell - but with only 6 hours trying to cover 100 miles in the Pennines was going to be a bit much. This was when we agreed Hudeshope.


We took this loop road in a clockwise direction so that we could turn left at High Dyke and cross Bollihope, and it starts with a 1-in-5 climb up Dent Bank. Once over this the road undulated along the western wall of the valley, with a great view of the road we'd be returning on later.


This is an infrequently ridden road. If strava is an indication of the number of cyclists who come this way, then our circuit added our names to a short "all-time" league table of 31 riders; compared with the 944 recorded riders who've tackled the easy side of Bollihope!


Just as we dropped down to Middleton-in-Teesdale again we turned left and started the crossing of Bollihope, another fairly comfortable crossing for us both, and Dean was looking forward to the descent because this was the first time in ages he was not riding fixed.


Hudeshope had taken longer than expected, and it looked like Crawleyside was going to have to wait for another day. To get back to Durham in time we decided to take the Frosterly turning and think about either Tow Law, or the A689 back.


On the climb from Bollihope Burn to Hill End I was really enjoying feeling strong, and as I dripped sweat and tried to keep spinning on the climb I didn't notice Dean had punctured. I didn't notice until I'd dropped down the other side to Frosterley and checked my messages. So, back up and over Hill End again.

With time against us we decided to speed back along the A689; through Crook, Willington, Brancepeth and Langley Moor. I had a mental picture of this being a flat or downhill ride... I was wrong. Dean ripped my legs off on the climbs and we finally got back to Durham at 3pm. It was nice to discover that a bottle of Spitfire Ale fits neatly into a bottle cage, so we could relax in the back garden and enjoy a beer. Ride well ridden.


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey: On my knees to Iona

previously... day 1: Le Grand Départ
... day 2 and 3: Holy Island to Holy Island
... day 5-7: Ardrossan to Oban

Ross of Mull and Iona
(The Lord will provide)


March 25th: Day 8. Up early for the first ferry from Oban to Craignure on the Ross of Mull; there is no wind, the sea is once again like a mill pond and there are long clear views of the Scottish coastline and mountains. Duart Castle, the restored 13th century castle, stands on a rocky outcrop posing for photographs. Behind it Dùn da Ghaoithe rises, Mull's second highest mountain iced with white on its peak.


I'm on the 8th day of my pilgrimage from Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey and I'm getting close, I land on Mull with the plan to detour to Ardnamurchan Point. It is the furthest west on the British mainland and I'd like to tick it off my list of places to visit. The plan is to cover the 34km from Craignure to Tobermory in 90 minutes and catch the ferry.


With a slight tailwind I'm averaging 28kph along the beautiful coastal road northwest from Craignure, and I realise that I'd rather spend the day on Mull than detour to Ardnamurchan point. I change my plans and decide to circuit the top half of the island around Calgary and back past the Island of Ulva.

I pass through Salen and the road starts to climb a little on the craggy coastline. I see seals basking in the sunshine and herons flying along just above the water, with their distinctive necks bent in an s-shape.


A little further down the road I pass elderly boats left to crumble on the seashore, the tide is in and laps against them as they are propped up against abandoned jetties.


I find my accommodation for the night, Arle Lodge. It is mid-morning, but because it is the quiet off-season, they let me check in and drop off most of my heaviest luggage in my room. I can now circuit the island with only essentials packed into my Carradice. Arle Lodge is a self catering holiday lodge and the owners have been gracious enough to let me stay for a single night. I think in the holiday season this would be a good base for exploring the island, especially as there is a small supermarket just back down the road in Salen.

The road climbs from here, but in the gentle breeze and the warm sunshine I'm down to shirt sleeves and enjoying every minute of riding. Eventually the recognisable seafront of Tobermory is revealed and the long descent to the town starts. Cycle touring at its best.


Behind me is the Tobermory distillery, but I gave the whisky tour a miss and gently coasted around the bay to the colourful shops on the far side. I'd made it with plenty of time for the ferry to Kilchoan if I wanted, but no - I was going to enjoy Mull.


At the far end of the harbour from the distillery there was a small side street signposted Dervaig and I set off on the rough surfaced climb in my lowest gear. The harbour rapidly dropped away until I had a magnificent view of the bay and the mountains of the west coast mainland across the Sound of Mull.

Turning west I headed for Dervaig and the journey was going to be difficult for the rest of the day, with short sharp climbs, twisty descents, rough and loose road surfaces - but the reward was the absolute isolation and miles upon miles of empty hills.


Reaching Dervaig there was a pub; the Bellachroy Hotel which is apparently the oldest Inn on Mull. I stopped for a drink but it was still too early in the day and I headed off. I was aware that I'd now cycled from Craignure to Dervaig with only one bottle of water on a warm Spring morning and had no food or extra water on me. I needed to stop shortly.

I climbed from Dervaig and there were small farms and homes beside the road, many of the homes were being refreshed for the beginning of the April holiday season. I was now aiming for Calgary Bay and I was looking forward to seeing the wide open sandy beaches. I swept down one last hillside with the bay spread before me, passing the Calgary Farmhouse Tearoom and thinking there would be a little pub or cafe on the seafront. This was a mistake, there was nothing.

The beach itself is clearly popular. Even in the off-season there were two families with pink coated/wellied children getting in every photograph I wanted to take. The grass area near the sea had benches and BBQ pits and it felt a bit of a let down - especially the tiny bits of rubbish and the inevitable broken glass. Why do we screw things up so much in beautiful places. Mull is not an easy place to visit with a car because there is nowhere to park. Calgary has parking. So this is where people will inevitably stop. Most of the rest of the island is single track roads with passing places and during peak season the passing places are needed for passing. So no stopping. One of the most wonderful pleasures of cycling is the ability to stop and admire the view whenever you like. I would heartily recommend Mull as a cycle touring destination and dream that motor-vehicles could be kept for just the residents.

I didn't stop long, Mull was too nice to spend time here. I set off again, this time on a long climb from Ensay to Burg. I was conscious that I was very tired and out of water, it niggled at me that the sensible thing to do was turn around and go back to the tearoom because I had no idea what was ahead and it could easily be another 40km of hilly terrain without a shop or cafe. There was no traffic at all and the farmhouses looked empty. I climbed.


The view of Ben More I was rewarded with was astounding. I propped my bike up and sat looking out over the islands of Ulva and Gometra to the snow capped peak scratching the clouds in the distance.

In this series of journal entries I've written about the link between prayer and exercise. My pilgrimage has been a journey of spirit as well as body. While I stood on this hill looking at Ben More I reflected on Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills -
from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.

He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.

The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.

Where will my help come from? It will come from the Lord, who made all this. The creator of heaven and earth is the source of all that I am and I can rely on him. This was going through my head as I prayed. Behind me was a cairn and I added a rock to the top; not for a superstitious reason, and not really 'for God', but simply because it was a cairn and visitors pile up rocks don't they? Isn't it a bit like signing a visitors book?

I started my descent down to the Kilninian coastline and at the first corner I came across a sheltered area next to the road, and in this sheltered area was a lamb.


I stood there stunned. Many things went through my mind. There were no sheep around, so where had this lamb come from. It was lost, what do I do? There were no farmers around to tell. I got off the bike and it ran up to me and played around my ankles bleating for all it was worth. I didn't pick it up because I didn't want to coat it with my smell, but at the same time I really didn't know what to do. There was a second thread running simultaneously through my brain: "The Lord will provide". To be clear - no, I did not slaughter the lamb and send it up as a burnt offering to God. (Rolls eyes.)

I decided to carry on and let the first people I met know. I also felt amazingly reassured that my lack of food and water would not be a problem - the Lord will provide I thought.


I was not surprised then, when round the next corner I met these two. A woman walking a dog - whose name I didn't catch - and Martin (Izzy) Izzard. Martin had water for me, and a packet of biscuits. The lady offered me an SIS energy gel sachet. Martin is ex-Unilever and we had mutual acquaintances in PerkinElmer, the company I used to work for. I stopped for a chat about the pilgrimage, the birds, the sea-life, friends, retirement, and the wonderful world in which we live. As I left them I was feeling wonderfully blessed. Thank you both.


All the way down the coastline I had a great view of Ben More, following the B8073. At a small house I saw a family eating lunch and then spotted the "Customer Parking" sign; it was the Ballygown Restaurant and I enjoyed a lovely conversation about where I'd come from, and was going, over a decent cup of coffee.


I continued down the coast and detoured to see the ferry to Ulva, which is actually just a small boat and only runs during the peak season after April. Turning around I was soon passing through Killiechronan and taking the left turn on the B8035 to make the 4km, flat, transition from the west coast to the east coast and back into Salen. I picked up some food from the supermarket and headed back to Arle Lodge; where my bicycle was offered a 5-star potting shed with chandelier. At the end of my first day on Mull I was left with a sense of the presence of God. of being sustained by his strength rather than my own. I was looking forward to the next day's trip to Iona despite the weather forecast.


March 26th: Day 9. The final stage of my pilgrimage to Iona.


The weather forecast was horrendous, the day dawned with 20-25mph winds direct from the west. Rain, with snow over high ground. Arle Lodge offers a self-service continental breakfast, so I grabbed a bowl of cornflakes and coffee before heading out into the rain. At first I'm sheltered from the wind on the east of the island, but as I pass Gruline and the Benmore estate I'm exposed to the headwind.


The road hugs the edge of the sea and the bottom of the cliffs. They reach up to the sky and intimidate me with their sheer dark grey and soaking wet immensity. The wind and rain lash against the cliffs and the waves splash up against the rocks below. The road surface is strewn with rocks which have obviously fallen this morning. I couldn't get this section over fast enough, I literally couldn't: the headwind was slowing me to a crawl. When I finally found somewhere safe, I turned and looked back. None of my photographs do justice to the ferocity of the weather and the vulnerability I experienced on that section of road.


The road started to turn south and climb, the wind which had held me back started to push me forward and I climbed swiftly. The air felt still as I floated uphill. Above me the water falling from the cliff tops failed to hit the bottom before being whipped away straight back up over the hills.


Climbing up and over the top of the pass under Ben More and down to Loch Scridain, there was a stillness to the world as I drifted along in a bubble in the wind. There was a stark contrast between the fierce wind which had been blowing into my teeth, and the peace I now found travelling with the wind to my back. I cruised around Loch Scridain to the solar powered bus shelter at the top of Loch Beg where the B8035 meets the A849.


With only 29km left to Fionnphort and the ferry to Iona, I turned back into the gale. This was tough. Before I had only to cycle into the headwind but now it had strengthened and I felt like I was grovelling along the road.

I stopped at the Pennyghael post office for a cup of coffee. Outside the wind and rain lashed against the window. The lady who runs the store, post office and cafe told me she'd rearranged this cafe seven years ago and as a result hadn't seen her nearest neighbour since. People are strange.


I set off on the final leg, wearing every piece of waterproof and outdoor clothing I had. I became increasingly drained as I rode head first into the weather and slowing to a crawl. Someone had told me I ought to do the last part of my pilgrimage on my knees... and this was exactly what it felt like. Across the water I saw the dramatic cliff face and the waterfall again being blown back up over the hilltops.


I finally arrived in Fionnphort two hours after passing the solar powered bus shelter to see the 11:15am ferry sail away from the dock. I could barely stand up straight in the winds on the dock.


However the winds had blown the rain away and the skies were clearing, the afternoon was forecast to be sunny and I was about to finish my pilgrimage. I stood looking across the sea to Iona and the abbey on the far shore. The ferry runs every hour and I sailed on the 12:15, which rolled back and forth with the large waves.


Landing on Iona and less than a minute of cycling has me standing outside Iona Abbey and paying the £7.10 entry fee which includes a "free" audio guide. The end of my pilgrimage; Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey.



Inside the Abbey (above) and St Columba's Shrine (below). I stood in the shrine and read Psalm 121 again.


Whether it was the exhaustion from the final leg, whether it was simply that the journey I'd been doing for the last 9 days had come to an end, whether it was the phenomenon people refer to as 'thin place'... I sat in the Abbey and prayed with tears streaming down my face. I prayed for everyone I know who is ill or suffering. I prayed thanks for my family and friends. I prayed for everyone I know around the world, from China, through India and Europe to Canada. I prayed for the vocation I'm answering in service of the Church. I sat in silence and wept. Thank you God: Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, thank you.


After walking round the Abbey, reading the plaques and listening to the audio guide I then walked further afield on Iona for the rest of the afternoon, once again in the calm and sunshine. I enjoyed the remoteness, the sandy beaches, the azure blue sea.


I sailed back on the last ferry to Mull, to my accommodation in Fionnphort. The evening was veering back to rain and wind. I slept well in a very luxurious bed at the Seaview Bed and Breakfast.


March 27th, Day 10: Cycling home from Fionnphort to Criagnure and then catching a the ferry to Oban and a train home.


I was subdued as I ate delicious scrambled eggs and smoked kippers overlooking the bay and Iona, it was another sunny morning and all I had to do was cycle back to Criagnure; about 60km with only one small hill.


Mull was looking beautiful in the calm morning.


It was short-sleeved weather yet again in the sunshine. Cycling back on deserted roads I had the freedom of the island.


The only challenge remaining was the climbing through the centre of the island.


Although not so much of a challenge after the experience of the day before. Up in the middle of the hills the clouds were shedding their load of rain and I shrugged it off.


Arriving back in Craignure I was finished cycling and I'd also finished a circuit of the Ross of Mull with Iona.


The train back to Durham runs back through the fantastic Scottish scenery I'd ridden up through over the last few days, and eventually along the east coast past Holy Island and Alnmouth from two weeks before.


On this pilgrimage I learned that the Celtic saints will have been intrinsically aware of the vulnerability of life in the wilds of the coast and the isolation of the hills. They would have experienced a living faith and relied on the hospitality of those they met; unashamedly sharing the gospel and encouraging others.

I spent a lot of time in prayer. I originally thought pilgrimage was the wrong word to describe this "cycling tour of Celtic Christian sites" between Durham and Iona; but now that it is over I feel pilgrimage is exactly the right word. In a way, both the journey and the destination were linked together by something which went beyond the sense of physical achievement. I can't credit the outpouring of emotion at arriving in Iona on the physical challenge because I've been tested much more deeply than this before. I can't credit it to the beauty of Iona because I felt more deeply in awe of the beauty in Mull and Arran, than I did of Iona. There was something deeper, something spiritual, about both the experience of the journey and arriving at the destination.


Friday, 20 March 2015

Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey: Port to Port

previously... day 1: Le Grand Départ
... day 2 and 3: Holy Island to Holy Island
... day 4: A rest day on Arran.

Ardrossan to Oban
(via a Golden Wedding Anniversary)


Friday 20th March, St Cuthbert's Day: An early start in Brodick and the rain is falling while the sun is shining, I wonder how the day will pan out as I catch the first ferry back to Ardrossan.


Landing in Ardrossan just in time for the near total eclipse of the sun. The temperature drops rapidly and I'm stood looking at the screen of my camera while pointing it vaguely in the direction I think the sun is - hoping to catch a glimpse of the eclipse.


As it gets colder I'm thinking about the cold heartlessness of the universe. We're on a rock floating in the vast emptiness of space with only a small sun to warm our planet. Like baby bear's porridge in the Goldilocks story; not too hot, and not too cold. This planet is just right. If, though, we were to take away that little nuclear furnace exploding continuously just above our heads, we would freeze. Not only would it be dark, it would be the icy cold of deep space and we'd desiccate rapidly. We'd be a planet of mummified remains: Oh the joy of awareness. I've never been persuaded that science and religion don't mix; quite the opposite in fact. My joy of understanding the world through the lens of 'cause and effect' is only paralleled by my joy of looking at the world through the lens of a God who loves us.

The sun comes back out and I'm restored from this daydreaming. Time to get back to cycling: I'd avoided the cycle paths of Ardrossan and Saltcoats on the way in and thought perhaps I should at least take a look on the way back out. Oh dismay. My worst fears of cycle paths had come true. It was like cycling through a drain. The disused railway line was in a cutting through the town and each bridge was covered in graffiti, the tarmac was covered almost universally with broken glass, and the overall effect was like taking cyclists and pushing them away where they can't be seen and can't bother motorists. I escaped back onto the busy roads as soon as possible.

I used the A738 to get away from the coast and over the A78 towards Kilwinning where I succumbed to the inevitable lure back to a cycle path: National Cycle Route 7. This is advertised as going directly to Glasgow and interestingly, once I'd left Kilwinning, the cycle path was actually in great condition. I haven't seen routes as well looked after since I was last in Finland.


Firstly, where the route follows a road, it is identified as a "Core" route and all motorised traffic is limited to 30mph. Then when it follows the old railway line, the surface is perfect and with a gentle gradient. There were loads of other cyclists using this cycling superhighway.


The only downside was that, again, because it was following an old railway line I was cycling for miles in a cutting. Occasionally I'd catch a glimpse of something interesting, such as when we ran alongside Castle Semple Loch with the jolly little boats sailing around in the breeze.



I was whisked along and into the heart of Paisley and Glasgow in no time. 50km and it wasn't even lunchtime. Although I didn't see much, I learnt something useful: that cycle path to Ardrossan is rapid so I'd wager a quick cyclist could get from Glasgow, down to Arran, around and back to Glasgow in a single day. And a touring cyclist could probably make an easy weekend of a visit to Arran; so it is certainly worth considering using it as a retreat location for a church cycling community.

In terms of learning more about Celtic Christianity along the way, I read up on the history of Paisley and Glasgow. I understand that Mirrin, the Irish monk settled in Paisley in about 560 and may well have gone to Iona later to follow St Columba. Glasgow airport is now intertwined with the ancient sites for the church in Paisley.


I was just passing through Glasgow though, and actually had quite an important appointment: I wanted to see my family again and spend the weekend with them. On top of this it was my parent's Golden Wedding Anniversary. So after five days cycling and 560km covered, from Durham Cathedral to Glasgow Central Station, I took an East Coast train directly back to Durham.


Monday 23rd March: 7:30am from Durham station and I'm back in the heart of Glasgow ready for the next stage of this pilgrimage.


In 'A Dictionary of Celtic Saints', Elizabeth Rees mentions that St Llôlan's bell may be the Celtic hand bell in the Glasgow Museums collection, but most famously it is Kentigern (affectionately known as Mungo) who is associated with Glasgow, as he was the bishop there in the 6th century and his tomb is in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral.


Perhaps the weekend has dulled my memory but for some reason I choose to follow the cycle paths out along the Clyde. For this mistake I am treated to a reward; no broken glass. No detritus strewn across the path; just a lovely simple route on a raised cycle path through the dockland area and out to the Forth and Clyde canal. So first a railway line, then a canal towpath; then back to a railway line.


The sun is shining on me and small rain clouds only drop a brief shower as I leave Glasgow for Dumbarton. In Dumbarton I leave the railway line again and join the path along the very fast flowing River Leven. This river runs from Loch Lomond into the River Clyde and carries a huge amount of water, it looks quite dangerous.

Dumbarton is another significant Celtic Christian site, believed to be the birthplace of Patrick, who wrote Confession and later lived and worked in Ireland. Not voluntarily at first though, he writes that he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and forced to work as a slave. It is peculiar of Christians, that they are drawn to places of suffering. Patrick escaped, trained as a priest and eventually returned to Ireland as a missionary. He was a political character, facing up to conflict with kings. He writes in Confession that he travelled the world in order to bring Christianity to an alien people. So in this Celtic saint we have another example of a passionate travelling evangelist.

I was stunned by the beauty of Loch Lomond when I arrived there. It was difficult to believe how close this is to the crowded Glasgow region; suddenly I was a very small person surrounded by very big mountains. In the middle of Loch Lomond I could see Inchmurrin, and island also known as "Mirrin's Isle", where the Irish monk, Mirrin (of Paisley fame), may have inhabited a hermitage while travelling up to Iona.


Along the edge of Loch Lomond the cycle path continues; saving the cautious from experiencing the A82. As I'm not cautious I tried the A82 for a bit, but with the logging trucks thundering past, and with the cycle path begging me back I gave up being stupid.


The good news about the "West Loch Lomond Cycle Path" is that is uses the old roads wherever possible, and this includes passing through the little towns the A82 misses. At Luss I was able to stop for a slap up lunch. This was fortunate because the weather changed significantly after that.

Luss is another medieval Christian site, where a shrine to St Kessóg was the basis for the siting of the church building. Kessóg is believed to have built a monastery on the small island in Loch Lomond called Inchtavannach.

The rain started to be more persistent. And the wind picked up. Reaching Tarbet on the cycle path, I now had to transfer to the A83 for the relatively easy passage to Arrochar at the top of Loch Long. I was getting slightly more cautious though because I could see sheets of spray being thrown in the air from cars and trucks splashing through large puddles on the far side of the Loch. The A83 heads up into the Argyll Forest Park and over the pass known as the 'Rest and Be Thankful'.


Just short of the top of the climb there were traffic light controlled roadworks. The drainage ditch had sunk and was being repaired before it caused problems for the road. As I was stood in the rain, waiting at the lights one of the road repair workers struck up a conversation with me. We talked about the road, the weather and why a cyclist would dream of being here. He was interested to learn about my pilgrimage and was intrigued by the idea of a vicar in training. He seemed to think that vicars just existed. I'm grateful for the training I receive. Isn't it funny the places you find yourself having conversations about faith.

As the lights changed the rain changed to hailstones. Very hard, sharp, painful hailstones. I was grateful now for the cycle hat Carol had bought me years ago; once again it was saving me from suffering. I reached the crest of the hill and stopped to photograph the climb. The wind was strong and coming in gusts, making it difficult to balance on two wheels. Ahead was a lovely long smooth descent, but I knew that the trucks and logging lorries passing would combine with the gusting wind to throw me from the road. Caution was needed.

Once again I had something to be thankful for; the traffic lights. They took about 5 minutes to change in each direction, so I knew that I would have 5 minute windows of empty road to cycle down. To get to the bottom of the pass took three attempts, cycling from layby to layby and stopping to wait for the stream of heavy lorries to thunder past. Reaching the bottom of this road was a huge relief.

I was saddened to hear about the accident three days later when a Lochs and Glens touring coach, filled with retired people out on holiday, came off the road in high winds and rolled down the side of the valley.

Reaching the bottom of the pass I was now alongside Loch Fyne and just ahead was the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, I've been here with my family on typically wet Scottish holidays and really enjoyed the food. Today I wanted to make it to my Youth Hostel for the evening and cycled past.


It was calm and beautiful evening when I arrived in Inveraray and settled down for the evening. After the cold and wet of the ride I treated myself to fish and chips and a pint of real ale at the The George Hotel, resting in front of the open fire. Luxury! (I resisted the whisky.)


Tuesday 24th March: The last of three days riding from the port of Ardrossan to the port of Oban. The day dawned bright and my spirits were high as I took my bicycle out of the shed. Puncture. Oh dear: time to reflect on the joys of bicycle maintenance.


Once the puncture fairy had been appeased, I set off into the rain which had chosen to start. The forecast said snow on higher ground and it was accurate, as I climbed steadily along the A819 I saw the snow lying on the verge and the rain had turned to flakes of white. It wasn't cold though and the views around were making up for the weather, and the wind was light too.


On the other side of the climb was Loch Awe and I joined the A85 which was fairly quiet. Riding along the side of the loch with plenty of time to look up to the hills.


Cycling was now fairly easy and I soaked up the views and followed the narrowing loch towards the Bridge of Awe, passing the hydroelectric facility at Cruachan "Hollow Mountain". Alongside me was a railway line and I wondered if I would be coming back that way later in the week.

It was late morning and there were only 12 miles left to Oban, the choice was to continue along the A85 or to use the single track road up into the hills by turning left at Connel. I was delighted to have chosen the quieter more isolated route into the hills. Although there was one climb at the beginning, I then had 12 miles of undulating tarmac with only highland cattle to keep me company.



Arriving in Oban into the heart of a bustling port town was difficult after so much isolation. The town is a tourist magnet and that combination of dawdling tourists and impatient locals made for some interesting motorised confrontations. I just observed and didn't get involved. The Youth Hostel may as well have been 5 star luxury. I was privileged to have a room to myself with a bay view of the Isle of Mull in the distance.



Once washed and changed I had an appointment with Dugald, the Church of Scotland parish priest for Oban and the surrounding area. We met over the best dark chocolate mocha I have ever experienced at the Chocolate Shop.



Dugald spent a couple of hours with me as we discussed Celtic Christianity in its historical and contemporary contexts.


From my notes, I remember we talked about how the Celts spread to these areas and there was a lot of political interaction with the Picts of the north. There was also an interaction between people and the land they lived in harmony with. In these boundary places between the mountains and the sea, yet in fertile farmland and with the bounty of the sea available; people would have been aware of the fragility of life. Following the eclipse earlier in the week, we thought about how the seasons of darkness and light, of winter and summer, would work alongside consolation and desolation and a connection with the natural world, but not a worship of it. Celtic Christians were quite orthodox in their views. Life on the edge tends to lead people to hard drink or hard religion, there is little room for romantic individualism. People live together in community and everyone had a role; including the saints who would devote themselves to prayer.

The land clearances were devastating to these communities, not longer could people freely roam, no longer could they live with the land. When crofts were first formed they were designed to be too small to sustain a family; if you worked a croft you also had to work for the landowner to make a living.

Today there are land law reforms being fought for in Scottish parliament, ensuring right to roam and even rights to buy back the land. There is a link with nature and place that endures in the people and emerges in conversation. The return of the Gaelic language has brought out cultural quirks; the question how are you, "Ciamar a tha thu?" calls to mind a question, not 'how or who are you', but 'where are you'; what is your relationship to this place?

In a contemporary sense it is difficult to suggest that Celtic Christianity will act as an evangelistic tool, but it does tend to draw in people who are already spiritual, and seeking God. Sometimes people come looking for individual space and end up finding community. Those who move here with a romantic notion of being alone are often the first to leave. It is those who come here and embrace the depth of knowledge and wisdom inherent in the people and the land that survive the longest. One of the problems of making generalisations like that though, is that there are often exceptions to prove you wrong.  Like the post-mistress on Mull who rearranged the cafe 7 years ago and hasn't seen her neighbour since.

I admitted that my two week Celtic Christian pilgrimage was a bit self indulgent, and Dugald countered that we must remember that we all need our Holy days; our holidays. I was ready for the next step on my pilgrimage: On to the Isle of Mull and thence to Iona.



To continue the story... day 8: On my knees to Iona