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The Caledonia Way - Campbeltown to Inverness by bike

SUSTRANS Scotland has been working flat out to complete the route this summer.

Exactly twenty years ago Sustrans was awarded £43.5 million by the Millennium Commission to create the National Cycle Network. Today there are 14,000 miles of National Cycle Network routes across the UK - a sustainable transport network that carried 748 million trips in 2013.

The number of trips in Scotland increased by 7% from 97 million in 2012 to 104 million in 2013, reducing carbon emissions and helping to keep people active and healthy.

Using a combination of traffic-free paths, quiet roads, forest trails and canal towpaths, and connecting to every major city and town, the National Cycle Network has been a catalyst that has brought about a step change in walking and cycling in the UK.

In Scotland, with the benefit of funding from the Scottish Government and the support of a range of partners, Sustrans has been busy extending the Network. This summer, Route 78, the Caledonia Way (Slighe na h-Alba), 228 miles from Campbeltown to Inverness will be officially opened. (Although I made it closer to 240 miles.)

The route is made up of three sections – Campbeltown to Oban, Oban to Fort William and Fort William to Inverness.

It was a chance look at the CalMac ferry timetable that finally convinced me to ride the Caledonia Way this summer. I couldn’t work out how I was going to get me and my bike to Campbeltown to start the route until I noticed CalMac are running a pilot route from Ardrossan to Campbeltown.

And so my wife dropped me off at Ardrossan ferry port last Thursday along with my bike and a collection of Apidura bike bags that contained my camping gear, food and a change of clothing.

Leaving Campbeltown

Two and half hours later I was booking into a rather drab hotel in Campbeltown after a comfortable crossing that cost me the grand total of £7.50! What would we do without CalMac it’s a national institution.

To be honest I didn’t hang around in Campbeltown. I’m sure it’s a lovely wee town but I was keen to get moving and I knew I had a big, hilly day ahead of me, possibly the hardest day of the route.

The route NCN 78 heads north up the east coast of the Mull of Kintyre. There were no pipe bands to see me off, no haunting McCartney refrains, only a brief thanks to the weather gods for blessing me with a following breeze.

Enjoying quiet roads near Kilberry

The weather stayed reasonably good for the whole of my ride – 4.5 days to Inverness and I found the route fairly challenging, especially on the first couple of days. There are some big hills between Campbeltown and Lochgilphead and the narrow, badly rutted, hilly B-road that runs up the north shore of Loch Awe between Ford and Glen Nant is a real pig, albeit a beautiful and scenic pig.

First view of Loch Awe from Ford

However, once you climb out of Taynuilt and into lovely Glen Lonan, once known as the old Royal Road because it was the route of royal corteges carrying dead kings of Scotland to their final resting place on Iona, everything changes.

Glen Lonan is lovely and beyond Oban lies the best part of the whole route, the wonderful coastal ride across the Connel Bridge up to Benderloch, Loch Creran and on past Appin and Duror to Ballachulish.

Castle Stalker in Appin

I stayed in a wonderful little campsite at Duror run by Neil and Carol, a lovely couple who made me really welcome and only charge £5 for a tent if you are walking or cycling.

Much of this route section follows a Sustrans created bike path with only a couple of sections on the main road. It really is a fantastic bike route, one I'd heartily commend to anyone who enjoys cycling in grand scenery.

From Ballachulish you have to take your life in your hands as you negotiate the formidable A82 as far as the Corran Ferry. Here you are advised to cross by ferry to Ardgour and cycle up the western shore of Loch Linnhe to Camusnagaul where a passenger ferry takes you back over the loch to Fort William.

The Camusnagaul Ferry only runs three or four times a day, and not at all on Sundays, so you have to time it just right to avoid hanging around. However, if there are two or more in the party you can telephone the ferry operator and he’ll come and pick you up. Can’t ask fairer than that.

Ben Nevis from Corpach on the Caledonian Canal

I high-tailed it out of Fort William as quick as I could. Not the place to be in the middle of the tourist season. The route now follows the Great Glen Way and it’s a lovely easy ride alongside the Caledonian Canal as far as Gairlochy. A good stretch of road now runs to Clunes at the south end of Loch Lochy. From here to Laggan it’s forest tracks, rough in places and not a stretch I’d want to take a lightweight road bike along.

From Laggan the route stays with the Great Glen Way and a new section has been created through the woods on the east shore of Loch Oich. I thought it was horrible…

I have many happy memories of wandering through these old woods, looking across the loch at the hills of Glen Garry, but the new path is at least three metres wide and there are metal railings over the culverts, presumably some Health and Safety initiative to stop people falling off the path.

I know this path is new and therefore still rather raw looking, and I’m well aware that in the past a railway line ran along here but I can’t help feel this section could have been created with a bit more sensitivity. Thankfully the original footpath still parallels the new track for much of its length.

I was glad to reach the canal at Aberchalder and follow the tow path into Fort Augustus. I wanted an early night because I knew the next day, my final day, had a really tough start.

Loch Ness from Fort Augustus

As soon as you leave Fort Augustus you hit a great bloody hill that feels as though it goes on forever. Stick with it though because once you top out there is a fantastic bike ride all the way down to Foyers and Inverfarigaig and along the shores of Loch Ness to Dores.

From Dores brand new bike tracks and quiet B roads take you into the heart of the highland capital and the end of the Caledonia Way.

Essentially this is a terrific route that displays some of the finest qualities of the western highlands. I camped wild on one night and camped in sites on three nights. There are plenty of coffee opportunities on much of the route but not too many on the first two days between Campbeltown and Oban.

And those first two days are definitely challenging but despite that I have a feeling this will become a very popular route. And rightly so. So well done Sustrans Scotland, and thanks.

www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map

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