Wednesday, 15 July 2015


So day one done and time to reflect before sampling whatever culinary delights Golspie town has to offer.  It occurred to me quite early on today that doing a ride like this places one in a club of sorts - defines one, at least for the duration of the ride. It's not a club I feel any particular affinity to, to be honest, but I have to recognise that membership has a certain cachet, particularly to some non members.

In an otherwise deserted gift shop and cafe in a rainy Lybster harbour we were served tea and mushroom soup by a teenage girl who had obviously not had many customers that day, and did not expect many more. She wanted to know all about our ride and at one point said, with real wistfulness in her voice, "I'd like to do something like that one day. It's just, you know..." and turned back to stacking paper napkins.

It is in many ways a futile and nowadays pretty ordinary sort of challenge to undertake, so what is the attraction? Maybe by the end of it I will know better. What today at least has provided me with in abundance is three things notably lacking from the typical London life: time, space and sheep.

Time has a different weight and texture up here. The village shops and Claymore Arms Hotels (other bleakly functional boozers are available) look exactly as they did back in the seventies, the lichen-mottled drystone walls could have been there since the last ice age, and horsedrawn harrows rust outside farm outbuildings that appear both entirely derelict and still in use.

This sort of journey forces different attitudes to time too. Nothing happens very quickly - we are not racing or even pushing particularly hard so ten hilly  miles can  take an hour. On the other hand we are only doing seventy miles a day and have nearly twenty hours of daylight to do it in, so what's the rush?

And the thing is that the combined effect of these two counters to the London view of time is pretty healthy. It's not so much about taking things slower as accepting that time really has very little relevance at all.

Space too, on the scale one experiences it here, is good for the soul. The vistas are enormous, with little in the way of visual detail to distract the eye. And so one notices more: the herd of red deer on a far hillside or the unexpected drifts of red and white foxgloves against the heather. And travelling like this one traverses space slowly enough to appreciate its scale and the slow rate at which the landscape changes, from peat bog to lowland meadows, to marran grass covered dunes. And that too is food for the soul.

And the last thing - in many ways the best of all- is the sheep. Pretty much everywhere, sheep. Sheep have a simplistic view of life really. To misquote someone or other (without data connectivity I can't even find out who), sometimes they stands and chews, and sometimes they just stands. Occasionally they will all set to to baaing about something (or quite conceivably, nothing) until an entire hillside is a cacophony, but mostly they just lumber phlegmatically around chewing at dry - looking stuff that clearly even the wild deer have turned their noses up at.

For some incomprehensible shepherdy reason on some of the lowland farms great herds of what looked like last year's lambs had been herded into large enclosures and, in at least one case, left there untended. The herding itself is a great excitement of course, with madeyed sheep leaping and sprinting everywhere, but once contained, shoulder to shoulder in a sea of grubby wool they just stand there, apparently content. Or at least accepting of whatever incomprehensible fate life had lined up for them.

I'm not saying I envy them. The life of a sheep is dull, brutish and short (to misquote Stella Gibbons this time) and nowadays they don't even get shorn for the summer, but have to mooch around with last year's fleece falling off in unattractive straggles. But what I do envy, sort of, is the attitude (something between resignation and disdain) with which they regard pretty much every aspect of their existence.

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