The Finish Line: John o’Groat’s!

November 2nd

We were quite late to get away from Bamff, spending the morning chatting with Malcolm and family, before delaying further by popping into the Barony bike shop in town for a puncture repair kit, having used up both spare tubes in Rothbury. To avoid the ice on the old military road we headed east on little roads before stopping to charge in Fettercairn. We filmed a bit around the Royal Arch before plugging in with a cuppa at the Ramsey Arms Hotel.

It was almost dark before we set off across the road over the edge of the Cairngorms through the Bridge of Dye, following the van to aid navigation as we headed into our hostel stop at Ballater. We were very well received at the Ballater Hostel and passed the rest of the cold evening in a nearby pub.

On leaving the pub, not too late either, we were met with snow. Not a good sign. It was still sitting on the ground in the morning so we decided to scout ahead in the van, letting the road thaw and finding out if we could get over the pass before setting out on the bike. The start of the road up to Tomintoul was not only passable but beautiful; winding roads leading up to the moors, with the most enormous postcard humpback bridge. The climb and the road across the tops were snowy but not too bad however the decent on the other side was snow sitting on ice and very slippery. We got the van down safely and turned around to to attempt the climb back, in spite of other cars and vans trying and failing to get up. Some skillful driving from Finn, a bit of pushing, a little digging and a lot of trials-style bouncing got us back up. We headed back into Ballater for the bike and rode out to film our much needed “riding through the highlands” sequence on the safe side of the snowy pass and over the pretty bridge.

From there we were forced to backtrack once again and retraced our steps along the valley, riding with one eye now permanently scanning for ice,  as far as Dinnet before striking out North, figuring the bike’s charge would get us as far as Glenkindie. It did, but only just. A lot of long climbs, possibly combined with the cold batteries seemed to take it’s toll and I rolled gently into Glenkindie to look for a friendly socket. Having never before been turned down, I tried the Post Office, village shop, the local garage and even the petrol station and they said yes. They were the same place – Glenkindie’s not big! Happy to help, the staff at Central Garage gave us a plug in an unused MOT bay for the bike and were happy to let us stay out of the cold, letting us hover in the shop and even plying us with tea! Recharged in every sense, and setting out once again as it started to get dark (shorter days this far North) we headed out over the Cabrach Road. Much lower than the passes of the Cairngorms, snow still covered the heather around the road and it was slow going, being cautious of ice in the dark in spite of the thorough gritting.

From the last of our upland excitement I descended into whisky country, and arrived in Dufftown shortly after Finn, Becca and the van. We stopped in a little motel-style B&B, sharing a large family room – which was ideal for cooking a surreptitious supper on our gas ring and bringing the bike into the warm for a charge…. Refueled, but still tired we headed out for a beer. We stumbled across the Seven Stills and soon found ourselves sat beside a warm fire with a tasting selection of whiskies before us. The landlady regaled us with tales of whisky lore and chatted about the pub, our project and life in general. Philosophy often follows a few whiskies.

A little more boozy than intended but sufficiently soporific, we were up in good time for a cooked brekkie at the B&B and were on the road at 9 as intended, early, but with a bit of time to lift the frost. We headed over yet smaller foothills, aiming for Forres and the coast. Good light and nice scenery slowed our progress (as usual…) but the worst section was few miles of ungritted, shady lane, portions of which were sheet black ice. I had a big warning wobble as we pulled onto it and periodically heard the van spinning wheels ahead, looking for traction. I took it slowly, feet out ready, and without incident but left thinking that, aside from the weight, the Bullet was the best bike for that job. The good throttle response right down to zero rpm made it more controllable on ice than any petrol bike could possibly be!

By the coast the world had thawed out a bit, and having taken much of the day quite slowly, I had enough charge to reach Fort George, guarding the Moray Firth. Our maps showed a fort and museum so we were expecting a tearoom overlooking the bay but were met with armoured cars and live rounds in the distance. I pulled alongside a striding sergeant-major and explained what we were up to and he said he could help, ordering (!) the lad in the guard hut to let me plug in. I was allowed down there but van and team had to stay in the car park so I relayed the charging kit down and left my suspicious boxes (hidden in a motorcycle frame) plugged in and whirring, with numbers counting down next to some of Her Majesty’s finest fortifications…

Our next charge was a hydro station at Conon Bridge so we crossed the bridge North of Inverness and headed for a single track road running along the North bank of the Beauly Firth. In the setting sun, with clear skies and calm water it was amazing. I was still following the van, scouting ahead for filming opportunities, and I could practically hear Finn’s brain turning over. In the remaining half hour of good daylight we shot enough for a whole sunset riding sequence. Drone footage (a new one had raced us to Edinburgh) as well as static shots from high in the trees to down in the gutter. It’s going to be good.

We raced the dregs of the daylight out to our hydro charge on Brahan Estate, another charge set up by Dave Mann from Howsham. We were shown where to plug in and left to enjoy the evening, huddled around the warm generators against the frost. So once again my last run was in the night, up to a friend’s house in Dornoch.

Apart from the cold, I’d begun to really enjoy these night navigation runs and was aware this would be my last. Generally, with filming impossible, Finn with the van would go on ahead to pick up supplies or set up camp leaving me to enjoy the little roads. As a fan of covering long distances on little bikes, it was great fun exploring the tiny tracks; aided by quite a good headlamp. I was using  a map for navigation and it was a good challenge to find my way by signpost and compass, knowing that I had to cover, say, 42 miles with my nominal 50 mile range. It certainly improved my navigation skills!

Dornoch gave us a house to ourselves so we cooked, lit the fire and settled in to be very lazy in front of the telly. Morning of our final day was straightforward; to get up to John o’Groat’s as quickly as possible to maximise sunlight for filming the end sequence of the documentary. A little riding and a lot of pieces to camera – time consuming. We breakfasted and I left as soon as I could, naviagtion now easy as there is only one coast road this far North. The van overtook me somewhere around Brora and waited in Lybster where we’d agreed to charge. Struggling to cruise at my normal 40mph in the excitement, I’d let the speed creep up a bit and arrived with very little left ‘in the tank’. A bit of scouting and we found all the advertised hotels and cafes were shut out of season, but a very friendly glass blowing workshop, The North Lands Creative, took us in and gave Becca a cuppa while Finn and I took off in the van. Taking advantage of a full 2 hour charge to head up into the hills for a bit of catch up filming; talking near wind turbines and gazing at views, mainly.

Back in Lybster the bike and project had attracted a little attention and another round of cuppas and photos were required before we set off, it’s amazing how everyone seems interested in our little project! For the final run to JoG, Finn and Becca went on ahead to scout for our final shots and left me to cruise in on my own. The sky was clear and the air had warmed up. The roads were mostly dry and no hint of frost when they weren’t. It was the best riding conditions I’d seen since Dundee at least. As I approached the road’s end I had plenty of charge and opened the taps to make the most of the last few miles and cruised into JoG only to meet the van coming back out. We met up by ‘The Welcome at the End of the Road’ sign to shoot my riding in then made an entrance proper. Down below was a signpost, the twin of the one I’d left three weeks earlier but no tacky tourism here. Two chip shops overlooked a tiny harbour and the edge of the Orkney Islands. We walked out to the end of the harbour wall and had a slice of our expedition cake (thanks Di!) and a snifter of whisky we’de brought along the whole way. None of us were quite sure what to do, now we’d run out of road.

For a minute at least, then reality set in; we still had the end to shoot. We did the obligatory bits by the signpost before racing the setting sun out to Dunnet head for the last few, vital, concluding pieces to camera. Struggling with the wind, sun and my own memory of a paragraph of detailed information we finally got it in the bag. Nerves were frayed and bodies exhausted and we sat for about half an hour, staring out over the waves at the setting sun as the beam of the lighthouse swept by. Over the past week we’d become a coherent team and knew how to get the best out of each other, without which we’d never have managed to get the riding sequence the evening before, or all of the bits needed at the end. It was a shame really, to come to the end just as we were hitting our stride.

We loaded the bike into the van at Dunnet Head.  We’re not sure of the exact mileage but the Charging Bullet had covered around 1,400 miles, needing the van for only one of them; it had been less trouble than any other member of the team! But now we headed south, with me getting used to ideas I’d forgotten about like changing gear and, most annoyingly, remembering to put the clutch in before you stop. Back in Dornoch we stuck pizzas in the oven and sat by the fire warming up and removing layers until we realised we were all just lounging around in thermals. An early night, long day and a tank of diesel was all that was required to bring us back to Yorkshire and another set of warm, family welcomes and warm beds. We’re not denying engines have their uses! This morning the van, bike and I go down  to Hereford while Finn and Becca head down for a graduation in Oxford. There’s some catch up-filming to do next week, and some voiceover recording later in the year but apart from that I’m just waiting for the paparazzi on the red carpet. Finn’s work, however, is only just beginning, and he’s got a few months of editing  ahead.

This isn’t the last you’ll hear from us, and updates about where and when you can catch the film will follow but in the meantime we’d like to thank everyone who’s given their time, money or electricity to make this project happen. There’s a lot of you, and you’ll all appear in the credits (rightly so!) but time is short and, once again, I’ve got a long drive ahead. As the Bedouin say; if you don’t travel, you are not alive.