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Cycling felt more like skiing on fresh, early morning snowfall

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Biking, walking and dreaming of sea kayaking as lockdown keeps us close to home

Murkle Bay.
Murkle Bay.

We’re very fortunate that open countryside and fresh air is close and available to everyone in the Highlands.

The current regulations permit exercise as a reason for going out, and with no limit on time spent out of doors, it’s good to see so many people walking, running and riding bikes in all weathers.

It’s against the rules to travel without reason, but it’s probably OK if you don’t go far from the main towns for your exercise.

But it’s best to walk or cycle from your own door, or indeed paddle if you are fortunate enough to live on the coast or river. I find it hard to summon up enthusiasm for going out on the water when it’s below freezing, but otherwise am not one to be put off by snow and ice.

On a recent morning there had been a couple of centimetres of snow overnight and the morning was clear and frosty with the thermometer reading -5.

I set off on the mountain bike for a familiar short loop of about 10 miles. Nothing had been along the road and the bike glided through the snow, past the wood and down the hill towards the bright pre-dawn sky. It felt more like skiing than cycling.

A few miles on and I joined a slightly bigger road which had been gritted, slush soon coating the bike. Loch Stemster was skimmed with ice and a low sun now lit the landscape pink.

Various on east coast between Sarclet & Whaligeo including the Stack of Ulbster.
Various on east coast between Sarclet & Whaligeo including the Stack of Ulbster.

I soon turned off the mucky road onto clean snow again, a steep climb up through the trees then along the high road and track leading to the reservoir. Far to the west rose the very white and now forbidden hills of Sutherland, first the long skyline of the Knockfin Heights on the county border, then rounded Ben Armine, the twin Griams, the triangle of Klibreck, the steep crags of Hope and the serrated crest of Ben Loyal.

Once over the top of the track I coasted downhill through pristine snow, dodging the odd icy puddle, before emerging again onto a gritter-spoilt road. My tracks were still there, days later, frozen into ice.

Another early morning ride after fresh snow took me down to Murkle Bay, the track over the hill had not yet frozen hard and I’d get halfway across a long deep puddle before the ice gave way and the back wheel plunged into the muddy water beneath. The ride gave some nice coasting downhill along white roads and tracks as yet unmarked by other wheels, even if it was harder than usual getting back home, uphill through slush with the wind in my face.

The east coast catches the morning sun and can be the best place to go in early spring (which it surely is now!). Clear sky and dazzling sunshine lit the cliffs for a walk from Sarclet down to Whaligoe, where there are lots of geos, stacks and caves, and this route makes a great sea-kayak paddle – except there was too much swell and it was more relaxing just to enjoy the scenery from above.

A faint path – the John O'Groats Trail – helps but the route is hard to find at Ulbster. The path squeezes disconcertingly near the cliff-edge in places, especially at Ellens Geo. Those with good balance and a head for heights will probably survive to tell the tale. Waterfalls, sea stacks and headland views made for an exhilarating walk on a fine, crisp morning.

The icy steps down to Whaligoe did not appeal and I headed back north along the main road then cut across to the Hill of Ulbster with its Second World War relics. Big shower-clouds were building over the north and west of the county but here the sun still shone brightly.

Approaching showers, Hill of Ulbster.
Approaching showers, Hill of Ulbster.

This is rough, wet country and I never seem to find a good way across to the old Mains of Ulbster Farm. It should then be possible to follow a direct route back to Sarclet but fences, bogs and burns make for difficult going and the easiest option is simply to walk back along the road.

Any attempt at a shortcut round the north end of Loch Sarclet will result in long delays in very wet ground, horse-pastures and avoiding the gardens of private houses.

Back at Sarclet, the sleet was starting to move in, I’d made the most of a fine morning. I resolved that next time the weather (and regulations) permitted, I’d come with the sea kayak and properly explore that coast down to Whaligoe!

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