I have just spent ten days in Oban, on the beautiful western coast of beautiful Scotland. It’s been a bitterly cold March everywhere and Oban was no exception – zero degrees and a hefty wind chill to boot. But the sun shone most days and there was only the occasional flurry of snow.
I went there to try to finish my book. I started writing it a year ago, on another holiday in the Lake District, hoping the scenery and peace and quiet would inspire me. I’ve been working on it since, while holding down the day job, and I’ve almost reached the end. 76000 words down, and, I hope, not many to go.
I chose Oban because I went there on my 4000 mile bike ride around the coast, which is what the book is about. When I’d come previously, I’d wished I could have stayed a bit longer (I did not want to go cycling. “All I want to do is drink tea and eat cake!” I wrote on Facebook). I also wanted to go back to Tobermory, a strikingly pretty harbour town in the north of Mull, having dashed through it before on the way to catch a ferry, and also go out to Ardnarmurchan Point, the most westerly point on mainland Britain, having missed that compass point on the circumnavigation.
So off I went – bags packed, hostel booked, bike hauled on to the train. I took the 5.30am from Euston and arrived in Oban nine hours later – a long time to spend on a train but worth it when, on the crawling ScotRail line north of Glasgow, I was able to gaze out on miles upon miles of mountains. After the urban jungle of London, Scotland was huge, wide open, and very three-dimensional.
Despite it being a writing holiday, I was determined not to spend all my time sitting at my laptop in the youth hostel. I took walks along the seafront, visited Dunstaffnage Castle, and frequented the various tea rooms and hotels where a warming cuppa or a cool glass of wine might help the words to flow. On one occasion I went up to McCaig’s Tower and propped myself up in one of the blank windows, looking out across Oban Bay, my laptop on my knee. The wide stone made a chilly seat, and, despite all my woolly layers, I managed only 30 minutes or so before a snowstorm drove me back to the warmth of my hostel.
After a few days in Oban I headed out to Tobermory on the isle of Mull. Simply boarding the ferry was an adventure in itself, with all the excitement of crossing a body of water and seeing the world as if from the outside in. Once on Mull, a 20 mile direct ride would have taken me to Tobermory and my guesthouse, but I took the long way round, cycling 40 miles round the north of the island past the Isle of Ulva, round the gorgeous beach at Calgary, and over the huge passes beyond Dervaig. The road was single track, the terrain deliciously wild. The wind was behind me, pushing me to the top of each rise, my legs forced to remember how to climb hills. Snow dusted the slopes of mountains like icing sugar. Tourists watched for eagles. The cold wind bit on the long freewheeling downs and my lungs heaved on the even longer inclines.
The next day I headed off for Ardnamurchan Point, seeking out Stephenson’s lighthouse that sat on the most westerly rocks of the mainland. The visitor’s centre was shut, the tourist season not yet underway, so I walked around the base of the tall tower, clambering over rocks to gaze out to sea, standing in front of the huge foghorn which was, on this occasion, thankfully silent. The views across to Rum, Eigg and Muck were spectacular, the islands floating in the vast blue ocean, the day clear. But the cold wind soon drove me back to Kilchoan in search of tea and warmth.
From Tobermory to Craignure I rode along the very same road that I had ridden along eighteen months ago on my circumnavigation of Britain. The road was mainly flat, I had written in my manuscript, but my memory could not have been more wrong. The single track twisted and turned between the hills, rising and falling for at least ten miles. I wondered why I had misremembered it – perhaps I’d had a tailwind that day, or I had been concentrating on cycling fast to catch my ferry so hadn’t really noticed the terrain, or perhaps I was simply so fit from the six weeks of cycling that had gone before that the inclines were mere blips in my progress. It made me worry that I had mis-represented every other road I had written about. Would I have to ride the whole thing again just to make sure?!
On my final night in Oban I treated myself to a posh fish dinner – so far I’d been surviving on lentils, my meagre budget not even stretching to fish and chips, but I couldn’t leave the Seafood Capital of Scotland without eating out at least once. I chose the local special, Turbot, hoping that the trawler docked next to the restaurant had been the one responsible for bringing it in. It was utterly delicious.
I love Scotland. I’d enjoyed being in one place for several days, having passed through lots of places quickly on my previous visit. I’d started imitating the accent and had enjoyed the friendliness of the locals. It was with sadness that I got on the train, ready for the nine hour trip back to London.
“Hello,” I said to a man sitting in the carriage, still in Scottish mode. He looked at me strangely. “Next stop London,” I thought wryly.