Beautiful view out across a loch that's surrounded by hills. Photo is shot with grass seed heads out of focus in the foreground

Motorbiking to Scotland and Back

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A few years ago, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe festival by coach. When I saw the beautiful, winding, coastal roads out the window, I made a mental note to come back on my motorbike one day. I’m getting to do a lot of travelling around the various Ministry of Justice offices, at the moment, as part of a project I’m on. So when the time came to go visit CICA (Criminal Injuries and Compensation Authority), in Glasgow, I decided to combine the two things. Exciting!

The practicalities

This adventure took a lot of planning. It’s 350 miles from where I live to Glasgow. I have a Honda CG 125cc, and my maximum range in one day is around 200 miles - if I have the full day for travelling, which I wouldn’t have, most days. I figured if I was going to have a road trip, I’d have to make stop offs at various parts of the UK, to break it up. This actually worked out really well, as there are lots of parts of the UK that I wanted to visit. So I sat down with the map on Booking.com, and broke it down into a few stages, and mapped out a rough route:

Very rough sketch of route I took across motorways and overall route up to Loch Lomond and back

After booking the series of hotel rooms, I started to think about the actual riding. It was two weeks before the trip. I didn’t have enough thermals, or a bike suit that was protective enough. I also didn’t have a way of storing luggage on my bike, or keeping it dry (and two laptops would be in the bags). There was also an issue with the chain on my bike that needed fixing. Not exactly a trivial to do list! So the next two weeks turned into a bit of an eBay and Amazon frenzy, with a trip down to see my dad in Kent to get the bike chain fixed, and rummage around for my old waterproofs in my grandparent’s attic. It was pretty close: the final item arrived the day before the trip. I got ridiculously lucky on eBay with my new, more visible, better padded, comfy bike suit though, which I love to bits. In hindsight, more time for all of this would have been helpful!

On the road

On the 23rd of August, I loaded my bike up for the first time. I’d found some saddle bags on eBay for £40, bought a new bike suit on eBay at a bargain price of £100, bought a little tank bag for £30, a waterproof bag for my laptop at £20 and I’d got an absolutely huge waterproof jacket to go on top of everything else. All loaded up and dressed up, it started to look a bit crazy. I had rigorously checked out the reviews for everything I’d bought, but you never know how something will work for you personally until you try it. The rucksack strapped to the bag was so high that it required quite a bit of leg flexibility to get on and off of the bike, and I hadn’t done a test drive with the bike loaded up like that. London is a challenging place to drive, and I live right in the centre, so the first leg was a little trial by fire. Lots of people had told me not to do this trip, and seeing my tiny little bike under all this stuff, nerves were creeping in. But, I set off, and after about 2 hours of paranoia about the saddle bags, I settled in to the ride, and made it to my first stop in Coventry.

Because I was staying with a friend for the shorter Coventry leg, the Saturday felt more like a normal trip than a road trip. Setting off for Middleton-upon-Teesdale was where it felt like it really began. It took me around 5 hours to make it the ~180 miles, and I arrived at Middleton-upon-Teesdale pretty late. I was pretty tired when I arrived! I then realised I’ve become more of a Londoner than I’d realised, when the pizza shop wouldn’t take card and I had no cash. This ended up in a fiasco of being unable to pay for a pizza they’d kindly already cooked for me whilst I was unsuccessfully finding a working ATM. By the next morning before leaving, I’d paid up via envelope through their letterbox though, and started my journey all the way up to Arrochar, near Loch Lomond.

Yorkshire dales in the evening, en route to Middleton-upon-Teesdale

The Pennines were en route, and gorgeous to ride through. The weather the day I was going through them was amazing as well, and so lots of other bikers were out. Normally down south, bikers tip or nod their heads at you when you pass, but as I got further north, it became more common for them to wave their hands at you instead. At first, I was so paranoid about my luggage falling off the bike that I thought they were waving at me to stop…! This was particularly heightened by that I had to go over a few cattle grids, which rattled the bike around a lot. After I realised it wasn’t a warning though, and adjusting to it, I decided I preferred it to nodding, and adopted it myself. There’s a lot of time to think when you’re on the road for 7 hours a day, and so I spent a lot of time wondering if that was an accent or dialect of sorts.

After the hilly, sheep, stunning Pennines, I found myself back on the motorways. The M6 is not the prettiest of roads, and about halfway into the 180 mile ride that day, I did start to question what I was doing. I was too hot, and in my 5 years of being a biker, I’d only ever been too hot once before. My wrist was also a little painful, something I hadn’t factored in, and the motorway was not very inspiring. On top of that, city riding is the part I dislike the most, and my satnav took me directly through Glasgow to get up to to Loch Lomond, at a point where I was already tired from the previous 150 miles. Out the other side of Glasgow though, it wasn’t long before I was out riding alongside Loch Lomond! And it was definitely worth it.

My motorbike parked up next to Loch Lomond

Scotland is beautiful

Riding a motorbike is different to being in a car. Because you don’t have the vehicle structure all around you, you’re a lot more connected and exposed to the world around you. You can smell farms as well as see them, feel atmosphere changes before it rains, and hear everything better. Sometimes these sensory things stick with you, and one of those memories I have from this trip is the cold coming off of Loch Lomond. As soon as the loch came into view, there was an immediate, sharp cold, refreshing wave of air. It was an unusually hot bank holiday weekend, which made it even more dramatic. I’ve never experienced that before, and it was beautiful.

Everything I saw of Scotland was beautiful. I spent a day in the Argyll forest, riding around all the lakes and coast I could find. Bikers are wonderful, and one couple saw me sat on a bench and chatted to me for hours. They invited me to lunch, which I unfortunately had to turn down, but they also recommended I take my bike on the ferry from Dunoon. I know it doesn’t sound like a big thing, but - oh my goodness - I was so excited. So, I put Dunoon in my satnav, and set off. On the way, I bumped into another friendly biker, who showed me a very rural, almost offroad route over a big hill, that was amazing fun (and a good test of my clutch control skills) It came out along the coast, and so I got to spend miles and miles riding around looking out at the gorgeous sea. Then I got to ride Mimo onto a ferry!

My motorbike on the back of a ferry, with coastal hills in the distance and lots of water turbulence behind the ferry

Once my bike and I got from Dunoon to the proper mainland, I decided I wasn’t done with ferries, and Mimo and I went down to Largs, to get a ferry to the Isle of Arran. I thought where I grew up was remote, but some of the places I saw in Scotland was something else. Lots of school kids in uniforms got on the ferry to the Isle of Arran, and I got me thinking about how life on an island like that works, particularly in emergencies. It was fascinating, and so quiet that it was surreal - I went 10 minutes without seeing a car at one point. Two kids cycled past playing 80s music on a speaker at one point, whilst I saw pulled up and looking at the water, and I felt like I was in an old film.

Coastal road winding alongside water

I kept my eyes peeled for seals whilst going around the cost, but unfortunately didn’t see any. I love wildlife, and have also had a long-term goal to see a capercaillie, which is still unfulfilled. One day though, I did see a baby shrew running around on the road, and another day, some waterbirds airing their wings in the wind:

Lots of birds on an old abandoned, broken pier, and one of them has its wings held out, to dry them in the wind

Rainier days

I then made my way to Glasgow, to spend a couple of days with CICA, before going back to travelling. On the Thursday after work, I had to go through Galloway forest, to stay on the coast the other side. I was tired after the days at work, and hadn’t quite factored this in when planning the 90 mile ride. Because I was tired, it took me a while to get my head into the riding, and it didn’t help that about 3 miles into the roads, police vans pulled out of nowhere to block the roads off for an incoming protest, right in front of me. This spooked me, and from that point on road markings then got a little faded and hard to read, and the satnav took me on a very strange route through lots of estates, presumably to shave a couple of miles off of the 90 mile trip (or just to spite me, which it does sometimes). That ended up being the better part of that trip, though, unfortunately.

1 hour in, when I got to the forest, it started to rain, and the windchill set in. Because I’d been tired, and not with it when I set off, I’d not put on enough thermals. Galloway forest is also one of the UK’s dark spots, and with rainclouds overhead, it started to get very dark at 7pm. I was cold, it was windy, and the roads were also incredibly quiet to the point of unnerving. The satnav also dumped me out on a really long, rural, single lane road, that was covered in sheep. When I was a teenager, I ended up having to sit through a lot of horror films, and that stuff never leaves your head (has anyone else seen Black Sheep?) So I was cold, having wrist pain flair ups, and getting a bit scared.

I had been really stubborn about not telling anyone where I was going or what I was doing (I’m super stubborn and independent in general). Lots of people had said it wasn’t safe, and I have been told before that it’s not safe to motorbike alone as a woman. I’d decided to completely ignore all of this, out of a suspicion that there was sexism (either subtle or not so subtle) in this advice - but as I was freezing cold, in a very isolated part of forest, and still 30 miles away from a random hotel I’d found on the internet, that started to feel like a not-so-sensible decision. I got to the hotel okay (no encounters with zombie sheep or tool-wielding psychopaths) and warmed up with a hot water bottle before long, but it was a bit sobering. That night, rain pounded the windows and weather warnings for the following day were being flagged up on BBC Weather. I locked the bedroom door, curled up in my bed and sheepishly sent my planned locations to someone else, for peace of mind.

View from hotel room window of rain and a lot of flat empty land stretching out into the distance

A brief bit of sun came out the next morning, and I practically ran out to the bike to set off - I had 220 miles to go that day, and weather warnings were still in force. The sun lasted about 15 minutes, and was then followed by about 3 hours of rain. Weirdly though, I found this day a lot less stressful. It took 7 hours, but my waterproofs did their job, it was full daylight with lots of other vehicles around, and all of my luggage waterproofing survived the rain. This stop-off was Buxton, and I was in for a pleasant surprise, because Buxton is beautiful. There was a park with geese in, an opera house(!), and a beautiful tea room that I had a huge piece of cake in the next day:

Huge piece of summer fruits meringue and teapot in cafe Gaggle of geese in Buxton park near the park lake

Leaving Buxton was sad, as it was the last leg of the holiday. After a brief detour to some friends near Walsall, I made the final leg back home, to London.

Reflections

I clocked around 1,200 miles across the trip, which was waaaay longer than anything I’d ever done before. Lots of people said it would be too dangerous, but if anything, it did me a lot of good. I’m not always super confident in myself, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something like this. It was on me to get my bags off the bike and into the hotel, and to load the bike up safely, and to make sure I had proper breaks whilst riding, but still make sure that I made it to my paid-for hotel destinations. My failures were my own, but my successes were too, and I learnt a lot about myself in the process.

So here’s to more trips! I’m now thinking of planning a trip to either Wales or Cornwall, next Spring or early Summer, and making it a regular thing! I might even branch out to camping… (probably not I like proper duvets and mattresses too much)

Legs of author wearing bike trouser leathers and boots, with helmet next to boots, surrounded by heather and looking out over Loch Lomond

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