Blairgowrie to Tomintoul (67 miles)
There is a special note in the CTC route guide for this stage:
“The next section of this route as far as Grantown-on-Spey is
strenuous – plenty of hills and a few tough climbs.
It’s also quite remote in places – carry food and drink!” [their bold].
The forecast is good so there is no need to pack waterproofs, just apply plenty of sun-block cream. (And bum cream if required). I also pop a sore throat lozenge in my mouth as a precaution, but I am pleased to find that it is not feeling so bad this morning. Our host has already wheeled out the tandem. All we have to do is to check that no gremlins have caused further tyre deflation while we were not looking, and then to step aboard.
The start belies the effort that will be required later as we cruise along the length of Blairgowrie’s main street and freewheel down to the River Ericht, which we cross before turning left on the A93 to follow the river in a wooded valley. For a while a lorry follows us patiently uphill until the road levels and there is space for it to pass. We then drop back down to the river and cross it again to continue on its left side. This was obviously a fairly short warm up climb and drop, because from here there will be no more downhill until we reach the run down to Spittal of Glenshee, so we settle down to stay with the glen climbing steadily until we reach Bridge of Cally.
At Bridge of Cally we cross the River Ericht for the last time and still on the A93 turn north to continue the climb. The day is warming up rapidly now although it is still quite early morning. In a short distance we stop at a temporary road sign plonked in the middle of the road stating "Road Closed 31/4 miles Ahead”. We stop and ponder, and then seeing a local leaving her drive in a car we ask if we will be able to get through on a bike. “Sorry I don’t know, I don’t go that way” is the reply. We do not really have a choice. There is no other road. So we take a photo of the sign for the record and pedal on. After about four miles we encounter the road works. It appears that these are minor pieces of patching hardly warranting closing the road, but even so there is no activity. There is one van parked and a handful of workmen who are still well into the relaxing and coffee drinking part of the morning. The serious start to their working day is clearly some time away yet. We note that the local highway authority here can’t be too short of cash because the repairs they intend to make are to a road that we would rate as being in good repair compared with many of the rutted and potholed surfaces we have encountered since leaving Lands End.
The scenery just gets better and better as we climb beside the Black Water, but we can see some impressively large mountains in the far distance. After the Dalruzian Hotel we cross the watershed. We have completed “Climb 1” of the day. In the Borders or on a run on any other day we would be quite impressed with our effort but we know that really for today this has just been a practice.
It is pleasantly downhill as we follow the old military road along Glen Shee beside Shee Water. About three miles before the Spittal of Glenshee Sheila expresses concern about the rear tyre so we stop. A squeeze confirms that we do indeed have a slow puncture and the pressure is down to about 60psi. The thought of coffee at the Spittal of Glenshee hotel is a lot more attractive than a roadside puncture repair, so we decide to speed on to the hotel. We manage successfully to reel off the next few miles and arrive with a rather soggy (40psi) but rideable rear wheel. This looks like a comfortable repair station. We select a sunny and grassy spot, remove the rear wheel and lay the tandem on the grass. There is even a dog bowl with water available to help us locate the rather elusive small puncture in the tube. I take a photo of Sheila looking intently at the tyre and doing a good impression of a bike mechanic. We then mix it with the coach parties to use the hotel washing facilities before sitting outside to enjoy hot chocolate and bananas in the sunshine.
This is all too relaxing but we have mountains to climb so we set off again following the road into Gleann Beag and climbing steadily. In front of us are big hills complete with patches of snow on their sides and we pause for a photo. We climb beside Allt a Ghlinne Bhig until it dries up and we are above the level of streams. Peter overtakes us in the car and pauses to stay hello. We decide that this is a good spot to get him to take a photo of the two of us actually riding the tandem, so we pick the most interesting looking side of the road and pedal along for him. The fact that at this moment we are actually heading from John O’Groats to Lands End should not invalidate the photo as being a record of us on the trip!!
From here it is at least 10% gradient with plenty of steeper sections all the way to the summit, so we select an appropriate gear and settle into a rhythm that we hope we will be able to sustain for the next hour or so. The scenery is great, the climb goes on and on. We ride through the Devils Elbow (don’t even look at the arrows on the map!) and the summit of Cairnwell mountain towers above us. As the final straight to the col opens up Sheila decides that we know we can pedal on but don’t have to prove it and a short walk to stretch the legs would be a good idea. Peter, who still has our camera, has parked the car at the top and he rather unfairly takes a couple of photos of me riding the tandem solo to the summit with Sheila looking as though she has been abandoned walking along behind. Mind you Sheila is the one who is smiling. At the summit beside the ski lifts we take a photo of the “Welcome to Aberdeenshire” sign complete with Sheila holding up a handful of snow that she has scooped up from the roadside. We have completed “Climb 2” of the day.
Now is the time for the donning of pertex tops and freewheeling. Because we have been climbing from south to north we have been protected by the mountain from the strong north-easterly headwind. Now as we leave the summit and turn left its full force hits us. As we drop the tandem accelerates to about 30mph then eases back to 25mph. Throughout the steep descent I do not need to touch the brakes because our speed stays at about this. We are leaning into a wall of wind that holds us back against the accelerating effort of gravity. While our ground speed stays at 25mph our wind speed must be about 60mph+. I feel as though my helmet and at times head is being torn off by the rush of air. We are still on the old military road and as we continue to descend we pick up the Cairnwell Beck on our right and then the Clunie Water. This is a truly delightful and remote glen, so we pause at the point where we cross the river to take photos of the bridge and of Sheila and the tandem on the bridge. Beyond the river in the distance are the snow-covered mountains that await us this afternoon. We continue from the confluence with Baddock Burn losing height until we cycle past the golf course and drop down into Braemar.
We pootle about in the centre of town and then select a café for lunch. It is a friendly establishment and while we are waiting for our jacket potatoes we chat about our journey. We are warned that between here and Cock Bridge on our intended route there is a bridge missing. Apparently it is in the process of being replaced. This is serious because there is no other road without a 30 to 40 mile detour, which would be too far for us to take on and complete today’s stage to Tomintoul. Sheila goes across the road to the tourist information centre to catch them before they close for lunch and to try to find out more. The staff in the information centre have no more certain knowledge about whether it would be possible to cross with a bike, so they try to phone the highways department of Aberdeenshire. They are “not in”. We enjoy our lunch and consider our options. Fortunately Peter is also in Braemar having a picnic lunch in the centre of town, so we confer and decide that we will cycle to the bridge and he will also take the car. If it is then totally impossible for us to cross we will rack the bike up onto the car and drive all the way back round to unload it on the other side and continue the journey.
We set off eastwards and join the River Dee. We follow this fine river for the next ten miles along fairly level terrain in the glen, which is quite extensively wooded in parts. This is royal estate countryside all the way to Balmoral Castle. We get a message from Peter. He has spoken to the workmen at the bridge and although it is barred there is a basic structure in place. He has negotiated with them for us to cross and so is on his way round on the detour by road. This is good news.
At Balmoral we turn north again onto a small lane that immediately heads uphill at an alarming gradient. Sheila requires a comfort stop before we continue with this serious climbing effort so we stop for her to disappear into the trees. She returns and declares this to be the most scenic loo-stop so far. Lots of sweat sees us emerge from the trees and join with the B976, another old military road. We continue to climb upwards on this road into open and wild country with terrific long views of the mountains. Although it is a sunny day the clarity of the air is really good and the view into the far distance is crisp and clear. From the high ground the road descends again to the junction with the A939 at Gairnshiel Lodge. We have completed “Climb 3” of the day.
From Gairnshiel Lodge we turn over the River Gairn by way of an amazingly steep hump back bridge that is almost a semi-circle, with a well scarred “summit” from vehicles that have grounded on the way over. We ignore the road-closed signs and settle down to enjoy some totally car free even if strenuous cycling. It is time for another climb up into the wilderness beside Carn a Bhacain before once again we cross a watershed and freewheel with the full road width to ourselves on our way down towards the River Don. We have completed “Climb 4” of the day and like the last one it would rate on most days that do not include Glenshee and Lecht as a fairly serious climb in its own right.
We arrive at the bridge (or rather, the absence of bridge) at Colnabaichin and stop at the first of the barriers. This is a serious affair. It would certainly not be possible to accidentally walk into the site of the works. We attract the attention of the workmen and take a photo. After a while various bits of machinery are shut down and someone comes to open the barrier for us. He explains that they are using high-pressure water jets on the sub-structure of the new bridge to cut away chunks of masonry. Those using the jets are in full protective gear and someone else is on lookout duty all the time. He has a broom but for the life of me I cannot see what impact this could possibly make on the debris-strewn structure. This is not a place for cycling! Helpful hands assist me in carrying the tandem across and we stop in the middle and pose for a photo of tandem plus me in shorts and workman in full protective kit. We thank them for allowing us across and for their help. They seem quite happy to have had a break before powering up all the plant again once we are clear of the site.
From here we head westward beside the River Don. The river is quite a fair size, so, if we could not have crossed the bridge, fording with the tandem would not have been a practical option even had it been possible to clamber down the banks. The road parts company with the river for a while at Corgarff, and then as we continue there is a good view of Corgarff Castle across the valley. We re-cross the River Don. When we reach Cock Bridge we turn north, cross the River Don for the last time and stare at a near vertical section of road that leaves the valley and heads straight for the Hill of Allargue. We do not have to panic immediately however because here at Cock Bridge we find a roadside inn complete with St Andrew’s cross flag and I feel an overwhelming need to check out the possibility of afternoon tea.
This turns out to be a good stop. There are very acceptable tea and cakes on offer at a very reasonable price. We talk to a few locals at the bar and when we tell them of the bridge crossing they say that not all cyclists are permitted to come through the works site. Some have been turned back. The smile and the way you ask are obviously quite important. We take tea outside and enjoy the refreshments and the super view out to the south. I take a photo of Sheila enjoying her tea. We try to ignore the fact that the occasional car coming along seems to take a terrific high speed run up at the hill but then in a fairly short time uses up all available gears to end in a first gear engine-splitting crawl. Those coming down look to be in severe danger of performing a ski jump take off rather than a controlled descent.
Feeling well refreshed we push the tandem back onto the road. There really does not seem to be an imperative need to climb onto the saddle and so with some effort I push the tandem uphill around the first few uphill zigzags. We gain altitude incredibly quickly and when the gradient eases we start to pedal. In fact after a mile from the highest point on the Hill of Allargue the road drops for a short while. This is however only a short lull in the climb before the main 20% grind to Lecht begins. Once again it is low gear time and we settle into a steady winding climb. The weather is as sunny as ever and I have lost count of how many times I have drained and re-filled the water bottles. On the way we see a solitary deer on the hillside. This is the first we have seen since the Somerset Levels. Eventually we reach the summit at the Lecht ski station. We have completed “Climb 5” of the day and the second “big one”. The ski lift area has a large car park and looks as desolate as do all such places out of season. We explore the rack bag for goodies and scoff some flapjack, fruity bars and pastilles before taking a photo of the road sign proclaiming “Welcome to Moray, malt whisky country”. It is nice the way most of the Scottish county boundaries express a “welcome”, unlike their English counterparts that tersely announce the place name.
We don extra clothes and pertex tops for the descent, and then push off to freewheel down the Lecht Road, swinging left and picking up Congless Water on the way down. The wind has eased and I have to brake hard from time to time to keep things under control. Halfway down I have to stop because I can no longer see. I had not realised that my face is covered in very salty sweat. The combination of the wind making my eyes water and this has flooded them with a saline mix that stings so fiercely that I can’t keep them open. A few squirts of water and a tissue soon effect a cure and we allow gravity to take control again. After the main descent the road continues to be gently downhill so we bowl along. Along the way we meet an unladen Forestry Commission articulated lorry whose wheels are touching the road margins on both sides stirring up a dust cloud of sizeable proportions. We slow down and pull over but are still engulfed in a maelstrom of dust, grit and debris as it pounds past us. Quite a contrast to what has been a day almost free from large vehicles since a truck overtook us soon after leaving Blairgowrie. Back into fresh air and sunshine it is not far before we spot Findron Farm before we reach Tomintoul. A short ride down the drive and we have arrived. There is a mountain biking party (father and son and daughter-in-law or vice versa) who have already arrived at the farm B&B.
Before anything else we are sat down with them for tea. This is good, our second afternoon tea of the day. It is a classic large Scottish tea with much too much to eat. We manage, but cannot imagine how we will cope with the dinner that we are due to be eating here in less than two hours time. We chat to the others who are from Penicuik and are cycling an off-road coast to coast trip across this part of Scotland.
We enquire about where we might leave the tandem and are directed to the shed “with the pink door”. This is rather confusing until the said shed is pointed out to us. Apparently it once had a pink door, but I cannot see any remaining vestige of pinkness. We check over the tandem, stow it away, trying to avoid putting it under the largest holes in the roof, mend the puncture in the spare tube, and head upstairs for a shower. Feeling refreshed we come back down and manage quite successfully to do justice to a three course dinner and lots of glasses of water.
It has been an absolutely stunning day – cycle touring at its very best: gloriously sunny the whole way, superb scenery, long views and a hard but endlessly rewarding route.
Tomitoul to Alness
To Lands End
Prologue - Lands End to Ludgvan
Day 2 Ludgvan to Trelill
Day 3 Trelill to Great Torrington
Day 4 Great Torrington to Bridgwater
Day 5 Bridgwater to Chepstow
Day 6 Chepstow to Ludlow
Day 7 Ludlow to Church Minshull
Day 8 Church Minshull to Slaidburn
Day 9 Slaidburn to Penrith
Day 10 Penrith to Eskdalemuir
Day 11 Eskdalemuir to South Queensferry
Day 12 South Queensferry to Blairgowrie
Day 13 Blairgowrie to Tomintoul
Day 14 Tomitoul to Alness
Day 15 Alness to Bettyhill
Day 16A Bettyhill to John O'Groats
Day 16B John O'Groats to Kirkwall
Orkney and Home