Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Fred Slattern goes down a storm in Scotland.

So how did Fred Slattern's bid to become Britain's most north-west poet unfold? With visions of warm dry May days, the travel schedule for trains to the north, and cycle camping itineraries were planned. For Fred, a string of potential venues was identified, to coincide with the cycle camping trip. Train tickets were bought, and inns and cafes were approached, with a "too-good-to-miss" offer of a short set of Essex oddity.

For Fred realises he's not in the running for Britain's finest poet, but one attainable title he fancied was to become Britain's most north-west poet, by appearing at the Ozone Cafe in the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. It's the top left corner of Great Britain, a place that is a foot-ferry ride and a further eleven miles from a public road.

The journey started at 05:40 on the Peterborough train. Next change Edinburgh, then the third train, to Inverness in the Scottish highlands. The second day was spent travelling towards the west coast, where I get off the train at Achnasheen, and immediately needed my wet weather top and cycle boots, the latter working as sponges after five minutes. (I persisted for three more days, before abandoning the boots, but I suspect they may be walking home from their own efforts, as a new life-form could have developed in their warm damp shell.) The anticipated gentle 35 mile ride downhill to Plockton was a battle against the elements, with an intense head wind blasting up the valley from the coast, as well as heavy rain; I even had to pedal downhill.

At Plockton I met some old friends, and was looking forward to Fred's first gig of the tour. The Plockton Inn provided fine food and local real ale, adding weight to my theory that the best pubs have the worst views, but make up for it in other ways. It was very popular with the locals, who were well-oiled and raucous. Fred was to negotiate for a poetry slot with the traditional music band who arrived at 9pm, but the three-piece of unamplified traditional instruments struggled to be heard against the hubbub of the pub. Fred elected not to attempt his spoken word set, lacking a powerful enough voice of his own, or a microphone. Camping overnight, the rain lashed down on the dry-inside tent.

The next day was Friday the 13th, and I hoped that the wind would work more with me, and the rain would have blown over, following the buffeting overnight. Catching the midday train back to Achnasheen, I headed north, into another head wind and rainy day, getting to Gairloch, where Fred was booked for a slot that evening at The Old Inn. Unbeknown to me, the landlady had arranged for Fred to be interviewed by the local radio station, about his quest, and his "message from Essex", but they had gone ten minutes before I arrived. The Old Inn hosts treated him well, offering him hospitality, where he had the best meal of the trip, before slipping into the main bar where singer songwriter guitarist Dave Fleming was playing that evening. I much enjoyed Dave's material and playing style, but Fred took the opportunity to perform a set, which went very well.

The audience didn't know what to expect from this Slattern "poet" but seemed well entertained and enjoying it, as Fred snarled his various ditties about topics such as the highland clearances and his pal Steve Ball. A hearty round of applause was given, as Dave said, "well we've had some different talents call in here over the years, but we've never heard anything like that before" (in a good way, I think). A very memorable night for Fred, and his audience of around seventy Scots, English and assorted Dutch people from the Netherlands Volvo Owners' Club.

The late show meant that I didn't get enough miles in that day, eventually doing about forty by the time I put up the tent in the dark, wind and rain, in the hills north of Gairloch. No point blaming the weather; those damp heavy clouds had come a long way across the sea, and were desperate to dump their load on the first bit of high land on their journey east.

The next day had the longest mileage in the schedule, and I was several miles short already, so I got up and away by 06:15. Another morning of tough cycling over rough topography in bad weather, before I managed to hitch-bike to Ullapool, and catch up on my schedule. Many thanks are owed to the Australian couple who picked me up in their camper van and took me twenty miles. I had previously offered Fred for a slot at the Ceilidh Place at lunchtime, and spoke with the duty person, but it didn't happen, as people were quietly enjoying a very peaceful cafe. There's a time and place for poetry, and for tea and cake, and sometimes they don't coincide.

Leaving Ullapool in more wind and rain, I headed north to Lochinver by a side road. Still very blustery, but at last the sun came out some of the time, and the camera (picture above). This was an EXTREMELY hilly route, with warning signs to motorists. When back home I read about this route in Harry Henniker's book "101 bike routes in Scotland", saying "Loch Bad a Ghaill to Lochinver - there is barely a yeard of flat, you should allow at least two hours for the twelve miles". With my portly personage, loaded bike, and lack of fitness, it took me longer. Plus I had already cycled 50 miles that day. 

I arrived in Lochinver having ridden 62 miles  since leaving Gairloch twelve hours earlier that morning, and was too tired to go out and eat that evening. Watching TV in the B&B, the weather forecast for the next five days was continuous wind and rain. I was feeling a bit tired and emotional, and phoned home, where things had been difficult without me there to help manage Frank and his diabetes. So I decided to jack it in, as the schedule for the next few days was tough enough, without the extra effort against strong rain and headwind. I was here to enjoy myself, and the constant rain was cutting into the fun element of the trip, making me wet, and robbing me of the fine views that I had seen only on the internet before the visit.

I decided to hop on a train and go home, after all Fred had no more firm bookings, just some possibilities. Heading east, for the first time I had a backwind, and I as I left the far north-west the weather improved. Chatting to people I met on the road I found that Cape Wrath was inaccessible, as the foot ferry was not running, with the sea too choppy. It was mildly pleasing to know that I wouldn't have made it, even if I had kept going into the wind and the rain. I rode 42 miles on the last cycling day, from the west coast to the east coast, Lochinver to Ardgay near Bonar Bridge. Finding a B&B for the night, I caught the 06:15 Ardgay to Inverness, and then five more trains, changing at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Peterborough, getting back to Colchester at 21.45. It started to rain as I cycled home from the station........ Never mind - I had over 180 miles of cycling under my waterlogged belt, and many thousands of feet climbing up hills, in a spectacular and very empty corner of Britain.

I record these cycling and camping efforts, but am certainly not seeking any sympathy; I am, after all, a voluntary patient. Compared with my normal life looking after a young child with diabetes, the cycling trip was easy. I slept well, exercised in the fresh air, and away from the 24/7 caring job we usually have. Plus I was warm and dry in my tent. The Cape Wrath "I hate diabetes" escape ride was a super break. And I'll be back, but next time with the family, in our van.

And Fred's a legend in Gairloch, only possibly Britain's most north-west live poet that evening.


  1. Andrew I think you're to be congratulated heartily on your grand trip, however disappointing it might've seemed to you. It was a gruelling schedule that you'd planned for yourself and the fact that you handled it sensibly and sensitively is to be admired. Oh yes, get back there with the family and the van, and as much time in the world as you want so that you can wait for the weather. It will be worth it. :) x

  2. How typically English Swifty - coming back with reinforcements!

    Sorry to hear it didn't go as planned. Still remember what one famous philosopher said.... that which does not kill me makes me stronger - and gives me more material!

    My brother in law is also struggling around the coast of Scotland by bike at the moment - tonight in John O Groats - raising money for motor neuron research. The wind has been crippling and he's not looking forward to Cape Wrath and the west coast on the way back down to us here in Co'path.

    I admire both your guts.

    There is a dread smell here this afternoon so those boots may be on their way home after all!



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