Experiencing Scotland’s youth hostels at their best

Alltbeithe youth hostel is set in the heart of Glen Affric

There are around 60 SYHA and affiliated youth hostels across the length and breadth of Scotland, from city centres to remote glens. I went to two of the most beautiful to see what a hostel break can offer – and to explore the mountains and coast of the Highlands.

My first visit was to Allbeithe hostel in the heart of Glen Affric, often considered the most beautiful glen in Scotland – and for good reason.

After a rare couple of weeks without rain the ground there was drier than I’ve ever known it, so the cycle in from the road end on the mountain bike was more dust than dirt riding.

I was joined by my friend Malcolm, who was keen to add the remote Munros deep in Glen Affric to his bagging total, with only a few dozen left to “compleat” all 283. We climbed An Socach after dropping our overnight kit in the open porch at the welcoming hostel.

From the top of the hills it appears as barely a dot in the glen below, giving a real scale of the remote location. This hostel isn’t like any other – it’s eight miles from the nearest road and takes its water from the burn and its power from a small wind turbine and solar panels.

Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan from the ridge to Mullach na Dheiragain

After a night in the bunks, we headed back into the hills the following day, climbing Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and Mullach na Dheiragain, two of the most remote Munros. There were surprisingly quite a number of people taking advantage of the good weather out here, where self-reliance is key – there’s no phone signal, even on the tops, and unlike many hostels today, there’s no wi-fi back at base.

Reluctantly I had to leave Affric on another glorious morning before heading to Achmelvich Beach hostel in the north-west Highlands. This time I took the family, so we had a room to ourselves, as well as full use of the shared kitchen and common room facilities.

This hostel, a former school house, is just a short stroll from one of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland, and the children loved playing on the golden sand and searching for sealife among the rockpools.

Achmelvich Beach youth hostel is a former school house

It’s a beautiful place to come and relax, or to enjoy a number of walks. Many visitors were staying while climbing the nearby Assynt peaks of Quinag, Suilven, Stac Pollaidh or Cul Mor.

We took a few shorter walks to a 17th century mill a couple of miles along the coast and nearer to the beach a peculiar concrete castle tucked among the rocks.

There’s also great cycling in the area, with the road that loops around Quinag a stunning if strenuous circuit. Achmelvich beach is also on the North Coast 500, so it’s popular with people travelling this route, too.

* John Davidson was a guest of SYHA as part of a feature for Active Outdoors, which will appear in our local newspapers next week, Friday, May 26.

A real drive to create safe, separate space for cycling

Cycling was top of the agenda last weekend as Inverness hosted two events that put two-wheeled transport in the spotlight.

A record field took part in Sunday’s Etape Loch Ness, cycling 66 miles around the world-famous water on roads that were closed to traffic.

On Saturday, families and others came out for a mass cycle ride in the city calling for change to make cycling a realistic day-to-day choice for everyone.

They were backed by local campaigners and politicians at the event, which was a first for Inverness as it joined the grassroots Pedal on Parliament movement that also saw rides take place in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow over the weekend.

It was great to be part of both of these Inverness events, as they show the popularity of cycling here in the Highlands as well as highlighting the many benefits of a city that treats cycling as a primary means of transport.

The promotional poster for Pedal on Parliament used this fantastic quote from Enrique Penalosa, the Colombian politician: “The great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.”

It’s difficult to argue with such a philosophy, one that puts children at the heart of a city’s transport network, to the benefit of all. Cycling is a relatively low-cost solution to so many issues, from congestion and climate change to health and wellbeing.

John Finnie, the Highlands and Islands Green MSP, spoke at the PoP Inverness event. He compared the huge sums of money being spent on the trunk road network in the north of Scotland at the moment with the “relatively modest sums that are required to have a proper and safe cycle infrastructure”.

The point behind this is that these are all political decisions, and designing cycling into Scotland’s roads is something that should be happening anyway.

Those who, like me, enjoyed the freedom of cycling the roads around Loch Ness with no traffic on Sunday will have appreciated the joy of taking fast-moving cars, buses and lorries away from slower and more vulnerable road users.

It’s not something that needs to be restricted to one morning a year – with the right funding in place (PoP is calling for 10 per cent of the transport budget, an increase from the 1.6 per cent that currently goes to active travel) we can create safe, connected cycle routes, separated from motorised traffic and from pedestrians.

Inverness is bidding for funding to help build its first truly segregated cycle route from Millburn Road onto Academy Street. I hope it beats off the competition from the central belt – but with a rebalancing of the Scottish Government’s cash for transport, we could have a real network of cycle routes across the city, as well as in Edinburgh, Glasgow and elsewhere in the country.

Here, we need to start building them into the road network now, as the city expands, rather than leaving it until it becomes a much more difficult job later on.

I still have a copy of the plans drawn up in 2007 for a cycle route parallel to the A82 from Inverness to Fort Augustus. It’s time this was revisited, as well as the routes within the city. Our roads need to be safer for all users, especially the most vulnerable.

Part of the attraction of the Etape, particularly for those of us local to the event, is the fact that you can cycle on a route that normally is seen as out of bounds to all but the most confident road cyclists.

Instead, let’s create a route that locals and visitors can cycle on whenever they choose, connecting the communities and tourist attractions along the north side of Loch Ness.

What a legacy that would be for both the Etape and Pedal on Parliament.

Dream ride in Etape

When it began in 2014 it was the fact that the A82 would be closed to traffic that first made me – and many others – enter this new cycle sportive. Until then I hadn’t really entered bike races, being more of a “leisure cyclist” at heart.

The event really captured my imagination and I’ve been back every year since, challenging myself to complete the 66-mile route a little quicker each time.

There was a slightly different start this year, with the new West Link road being under construction. So we headed round Bught Park onto Glenurquhart Road and over Tomnahurich Bridge to follow the A82.

I’m always amazed at how quickly you can reach Fort Augustus by bike with the adrenaline of an official event to push you on. Even with a brief stop at the first feed station at Invermoriston, I was still at the halfway point in just a few minutes over two hours.

After reaching the far end of Loch Ness, there’s the looming King of the Mountains stage – the long climb up Glendoe. It’s about five miles from bottom to top with 380m of climbing at gradients of up to 12 per cent.

I’m pleased to say I’ve been up this hill a fair few times and it hasn’t defeated me yet! It’s never easy but experience certainly helps, and I got up there in my fastest time yet. I’m putting it down to cycling the North Coast 500 last year – when you really do get used to sustained climbing!

After another stop at Whitebridge I was ready to tackle the final 25 miles and felt strong as I pushed myself to maintain a good speed through the ups and downs of the loch-side road through Foyers, Inverfarigaig and Dores.

The last couple of climbs after Dores and Scaniport behind me, I was spurred on by my family cheering me on at the Holm roundabout and blasted the final few miles into the city, even managing a sprint finish over the line.

I finished in a personal best of four hours, seven minutes and 32 seconds – no record-breaking feat but I was delighted with the ride, and with the Harry Gow dream ring afterwards!

* Article first published in Active Outdoors | April 28, 2017

Cyclists take to the streets in Inverness’s first Pedal on Parliament event

Press release: Inverness mass cycle ride calls for action on infrastructure

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Pictures by Phil Hindell, Donald McColl and John Davidson

Inverness hosted its first Pedal on Parliament ride at the weekend, calling for cycling to be made a realistic choice for people of all ages in the city.

Streets were mobbed with riders and walkers, from young children riding their first pedal bikes to more experienced cyclists, all wanting to see better provision for active travel.

An estimated 120 people set off from Bellfield Park, adding colour and character to the city on a range of vehicles, including recumbents, tricycles, tandems and tag-alongs.

They included a feeder ride from North Kessock, organised by Transition Black Isle.

After crossing the Ness Bridge and riding down Ness Walk past the cathedral, the Pedal on Parliament (PoP) campaigners made for the riverside near Eden Court, where speakers demanded more action on safe cycling in Inverness.

Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie backed PoP’s eight manifesto pledges, arguing that money is available to spend on transport projects, as the £3 billion dualling of the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen proves.

He said: “Money is no problem, absolutely no problem. If we can spend £6 billion on two roads – the A9 and the A96 – then the very modest sums that are required to have a proper and safe cycle infrastructure shouldn’t be a challenge. It’s all about priorities.

“The Scottish Government has commendable targets when they talk about the number of everyday journeys taken by bike but as configured at the moment that budget will not facilitate them reaching any of their targets.

“It’s not just about ticking a box. We know that cycling is so important in terms of climate change, low emissions, low noise, little space required, and it has a ringing endorsement from all the directors of public health.

“Government policy is very largely shaped by the motoring industry without due regard to active travel, including public transport. Significant sums of money go towards road building and all we’re going to do is make people drive more. You build more roads, people drive on them; it’s as simple as that.

“What we need is separation, separate space for cycling.”

Anne Thomas, of Transition Black Isle, a group which was behind a “million miles” project to reduce car use on the peninsula north of Inverness, warned that climate change was happening now.

She said: “We’ve really got to step up and do something about it, so thank you for showing our politicians that there are a lot of people concerned about this.

“We want to make sure that we spend a lot more on cycling and walking infrastructure. We’ve been cycling around the Netherlands and some of the cities there have 60 per cent of journeys by bike. We’ve got nearly six per cent in Inverness – we could do a lot better but we need the infrastructure.

“Currently the Scottish Government spends around 1.6 per cent of the transport budget on walking and cycling – we want at least 10 per cent so we can really make it an easy choice for people to walk or cycle.”

The Highland Cycle Campaign also backed the PoP event, which was organised by Inverness cyclist Mark Falconer.

Brian Mackenzie, convener of the cycle campaign, said: “We in the Highland Cycle Campaign are doing our bit locally in the Highlands and particularly in Inverness. I’m happy today because you’ve all turned up.

“You’ve made history, now it’s time to make the future.”

Mr Falconer urged people to contact their politicians, as well as candidates in the upcoming council elections, to show how much demand there is for better cycling provision.

He said: “I’m delighted with the way the day went and can’t thank everyone enough for the support shown as we push to make Inverness Scotland’s true cycling city.”

The city’s first PoP ride coincided with rides around Scotland, with Edinburgh and Aberdeen events also taking place on Saturday and a Glasgow ride on Sunday.

Organisers plan to bring Pedal on Parliament back to Inverness in 2018.

John Davidson, author and journalist, shares his love of the great outdoors from Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland

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