The Great Glen Way / Caledonian Canal

Guest blog by Steven Rittey, Leisure Cycling and Walking Holidays Manager at Wheel2Wheel Holidays based in Manchester. Steven writes a monthly blog for OS to tell of his adventures and 'Tales from the Cycle Trails', a weekly newsletter for leisure cyclists. Here he describes a great ride across Scotland.

I have been on numerous night trains across Europe and like the fact that you can leave a city in the evening, travel through the night and end at your destination without spending another night in a hotel or travelling throughout the day. You can even sleep in a bed if you like or choose a cheaper reclining seat. Whilst this form of train travel is part of the everyday rail timetable in mainland Europe, the U.K only has two ‘night train’ routes left – London to Northern Scotland and London to Penzance. Despite my love of train travel, I had been on neither.

I bought a fairly last minute one-way ‘sleeper’ seat ticket to Fort William through Caledonian Sleeper and reserved my bike on-board. As I live in Manchester, I took the last train to Preston to connect with the train at 0100. Having found my seat, I slept pretty soundly until Edinburgh where I had to alight the train whilst the carriages divided. One train goes to Inverness and the other goes up the West Highland Line to Fort William. The route is often described as one of the most scenic railway lines in the world and I had a window side seat.

The aim of the tour was to cycle from one side of Scotland to the other along the 60 mile Caledonian Canal to Inverness starting in Fort William. The route is used by small ships and barges to cross from the Irish Sea to the North Sea thus avoiding the treacherous seas around Northern Scotland. The canal was built by Thomas Telford in the late 19th Century and essentially connects the natural Lochs with man-made waterways. The waterway is still used by ships for both leisure and commercial purposes, but it is also a popular cycle route with a wide towpath running along side much of the route.

Sleeper train
Caledonian Canal

Having set off from Fort William rested, but with warmer clothing on than I had on in Manchester, I followed the Great Glen Way signage along the towpath and up the famous Neptune’s Staircase. A series of locks and the longest in Britain. I only had a short day of around 30 miles to cover before reaching the Youth Hostel in Laggan. Along the way, I saw a Royal Marines Commando unit on a tough training run, several roaming deer and great views of Ben Nevis when I stopped for photos.

The next day was a longer ride and I followed the towpath for much of the route until Fort Augustus. There are several canal side renewal projects going on at the moment including the conversion of an old railway line to a cycle path and a more compacted surface being laid on the towpath. I decided to leave the canal at Loch Ness to tackle some of the higher climbs on the southern side of loch. The advantage of following NCN 78 was that the old military roads are long and straight with great views of the dramatic loch in various places. You also need a suspension mountain bike really to cover some sections of the Great Glen Way too. I did not see the Loch Ness monster either, however unknown to me at the time, my selfie had a strange three humped shape in the background?!

Loch Ness
Neptunes Staircase

I arrived in the ‘Capital of the Highlands’ Inverness in the early afternoon and was immediately impressed with the city. There was a nice atmosphere about the place with a dominant castle, a river that runs through the centre and great views of the mountain ranges to the north. Inverness Caledonian Thistle won the Scottish Cup the week before and I even managed to lift the trophy! I also found out when I was there that it has been voted as one of the UK’s happiest places to live too. So my initial thoughts are indeed official.

The ride ended with a round trip up to Dingwall on the National Cycle Route 1 with a nice group of guys cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. We kept on bumping into each other along the way at various places, so we rode together until the town. They were approaching the end of their ride after three weeks on LEJOG and I hope they made it successfully!

I caught the normal train back to Edinburgh and after a quick, yet blustery ride up Arthur’s Seat in-between trains, I hopped on the TransPennine to Wigan and rode back to Manchester on a lovely sunny Saturday evening. Reflecting upon the tour on the way home, the Caledonian Canal and Great Glen Way ticks many boxes for leisure cycling. The route was largely traffic-free, the cycle path is currently being resurfaced which will make it soon suitable for non-suspension bikes and connects two easy to reach places in Northern Scotland. In the end, the night train journey was just an added bonus!

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