Day 3: Barra and Vasteray
Having travelled from Paris, to Glasgow, to Oban and now Barra, we were sufficiently out of harm’s way to discover whether we could actually ride the bikes or not.
Mum had been putting in months of hill training back in Melbourne, with a vigorous regime of three rides a week of up to 80kms. I know this, because she set her app to send me an automatic message boasting of her daily accomplishment. Before the bike trip, the guilt trip.
Because my training regime had been somewhat less than vigorous. Rather than put faith in endless training on an actual bike, I instead backed my boundless ego.
Given I was half mum’s age, twice her size, and poor at math, I figured that 8 minutes of spin cycling at the gym should be a suitable training regime for a 380-km trip through the wilds of Scotland.
The merits of our respective regimes were about to be tested.
The bikes were hybrids: 24-speed, and ‘speed’ here was relative. I maxed out my speedometer at 24 miles/hour (this is the empire, remember, where the metric system is on eternal holiday) on a straight, with wind assistance along a causeway.
Mum meanwhile was maxing out the other end of her speedometer, with her ‘slow and steady’ approach to walking up the odd hill, seeing her bottom out at 0 mph. Still, it was good to know the limits of our equipment, both upper and lower.
The suspension forks came in handy for the numerous potholes in the roads around Barra and Vatersay, and allowed us to negotiate gravel paths and lesser roads much more ably than a pure road bike.
Their weight, while a disadvantage going up hills, made it easy to build momentum, and perversely, meant you didn’t get blown off the road by a strong gust of wind or blow-back from any helicopters nearby (stay tuned for the upcoming entry on Skye for more on this…).
Aside from the bikes, the first day of riding was also about testing out THE GEAR! I’d been on an online shopping spree as part of my preparation, and now had all the gear, and no idea.
These included my first ever pair of bib-knicks, in short and long-legged variety. I also had a short-sleeved jersey with highly motivational phrases printed on them: “Pleasure” across the breast, and “Suffering for Glory” on the sleeve.
We started with a light downhill from the house to Barra’s main village of Castelbay, then continued around the bay and up a sweeping hill, the top of which was marked with a memorial to the men of the area to have died in the “Great War” of 1914-18 and ’39-45.
“Great” is a favoured adjective around these parts, almost always used in a positive sense. Seeing the nearly hundred names on this memorial though, it could only have been a devastating loss for the communities on Barra, which could not have numbered many more men in those days. The “Suffering for Glory” motivational messaging on my lycra top was feeling a little silly.
Down the other side of the sweeping hill we crossed the causeway in Vatersay, which now divides the Atlantic Ocean on one side from the Sea of the Hebrides.
For a look at the economic and social impact of the causeway, consider this:
“The immediate reaction to the causeway saw the population rise from 65 in 1988 to 83 in 1993, and planning applications soar from a mere two in 1985-9 to 24, including four new houses, in 1990-3.”
While the causeway might make it seem that Vatersay is easy to get to, numerous monuments on the island suggest otherwise.
Somewhere on the island there was also a monument to the Annie Jane, a ship that went down with 350 people off the shore in 1853.
We struggled to find this one, but did find a pillar that marked the start of the Hebridean Way, the route we were cycling. I showed mum how to use the timer feature of the iPhone to perfect the perfect silly selfie in front of it.
The most evocative monument on Vatersay is that of the rusting remnants of a seaplane fuselage and wing from the RAF Catalina, which crashed killing three of its nine crew. The memorial stone is set down an unmarked trail off the road, next to where the plane went into the hill – you could barely see it, and I guess that was the original problem.
If Barra and Vatersay are still known for aviation landings, these days it’s only thanks to the quaint airport at the northern tip of the island, which is unique for being the only airport where scheduled planes actually land on the beach. According to our guide book, this also made it one of the “most dramatic airports in the world ™“.
I quibbled with this description, as the number one “most dramatic” was Lukla in Nepal, where the risk of mistiming the takeoff/landing means careening over a precipice to certain death.
By contrast, if you fucked up the landing at Barra, you might run over a seagull nest or get your tires wet. Still, it speaks volumes about what constitutes the definition of drama on the Outer Hebrides.
Over the road behind the airport are some dunes, behind which stretches one of the most glorious beaches in Britain. So long, white and sandy that you could think you were in Australia – until the 11-degree water gives you a refreshing plunge of reality.
That night on Elisabeth’s balcony, we erected her sun umbrella (its first outing for the year) and enjoyed the home-baking of the day: scones.
We also read up on local history and landmarks. It turns out we had actually unwittingly found the memorial to those tragically killed on the Annie Jane. And I still had all the silly selfies to prove it.