On the north-western tip of Scotland, cut off from the mainland by a tidal inlet that can be dangerous to cross, there is a single-track road that winds for 11 miles through desolate moors to a stumpy Victorian lighthouse on the edge by Cape Wrath. The road has barely been touched since it was built in 1826 to bring materials to build the lighthouse. Otherwise it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed had it not been for an adventurous bike enthusiast who founded one of the oldest British cycling challenges going on here in 1949.

The Cape Wrath Fellowship was founded by Rex Coley, a cyclist journalist who wrote under the pseudonym “Ragged Staff”, in honor of the crest of his native Warwickshire. Rex wrote for a magazine called Cycling (the predecessor of Cycling Weekly) and edited The Bicycle at a time when, as now, cycling was enjoying a period of widespread popularity. According to the historical cyclist Sheila Hanlon: “When safety bicycles became cheaper after the turning of the [20th] century, visiting the countryside served as a means of escape from the polluted air of the city and the stress of modern life for men and women of the working class “. Club racing has seen hundreds of cyclists take to the streets to enjoy “the socially transformative power of an outdoor experience in the countryside”.

Cycling is so much fun, Rex Coley National Cycle Archive

However, Coley thought that cycling clubs were mitigating the false life of life behind the handlebars. He wanted to rekindle that sense of freedom and adventure, and often spoke of a tour he had made in 1946 in remote Cape Wrath as an example. “It tells the story of how it gets to the ferry [at East Keoldale] almost by chance, “says Hanlon.” Mark the ferryman with a handkerchief. He jumps off the rowboat with his bicycle and is left at the pier on the west side of the Kyle of Durness … then he makes this fantastic ride alone to reach the lighthouse and of course go back. ”

Coley decided to set the race as the Cape Wrath challenge in 1949, with a simple set of rules: pedaling towards the lighthouse, obtaining the signature of the lighthouse keeper, sending it, and entering into an illustrious communion of true adventurers.

Roads around Durness 2

Harriet's bike

By 1965, over 600 people had written Coley stories of hard-won successes, failures of crossings and premature stings. Each successful participant will receive a certificate and admission to the scholarship.

As Hanlon states: “The Cape Wrath Fellowship was about individuality, personal challenge, escape and character building against a ruthless background of harsh natural beauty. It was about self-understanding and self-confidence. The journey to the Cape Wrath lighthouse may have been difficult, but it was also joyful. ”


In 2018, a year before the 70th anniversary of the Fellowship, my girlfriend Harriet and I found ourselves standing on the same pier in East Keoldale, watching the small ferry that was crossing the water. The Visit the Cape Wrath website sets the scene in a practical way: “Its remote location and difficult and demanding terrain, combined with weather conditions that can be extremely fierce, create an excellent environment to test someone’s ability to survive.”

With growing enthusiasm, we climbed onto a ferry just modestly powered by Coley’s day rowing boat: the Beulah, a small boat with an outboard engine. Malcolm, only the fourth ferryman in the history of the ferry, took us over the Kyle of Durness, which remains a stubbornly fearsome obstacle to admission to the company. A few months earlier, the persistently strong winds had forced us to abandon this point and cycle 55 miles south to the Lairg train station. It is possible to reach the path north from Sandwood Bay, but we have not imagined this demanding “bike excursion” through difficult terrain.

first hill from the ferry

The road to the lighthouse is deeply furrowed and winds on white sand bays, on raised stone roads and through wild moors, parts of which are designated as a site of special scientific interest. In addition, much of the moorland known as Parph is used as a test ground for military exercises. Yellow and black checkered pill boxes punctuate the roadside with loud warnings: “Don’t touch military debris, it could explode and kill you.”

The Parph

Victorian stone bridge for lighthouse service

Bridge to Daill

We passed through an uninhabited settlement in Achiemore, including a school that had up to 10 pupils in the 1930s. Now the only full-time residents on this side of the Cape are the family who runs the Ozone bar and the castle outside the lighthouse. Completed in 1829, the lighthouse, like many across the UK, was built by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s an amazing piece of engineering; built to withstand strong winds on this exposed promontory, its whitewashed walls 20 meters high protrude into the sky from the highest cliffs on the UK sea at Clò Mòr.

Glynn Davies, writing in the Cycle Touring Gazette in May 1965, said of Cape: “I reflected on the title assigned to this place, which at the time was pleasant, peaceful and calm. For the Norwegian who had called it “anger”, the name simply meant “turning point”, but I was fully prepared to believe that it could, in other conditions, equally deserve the English meaning of the word. “Coley described it in various conditions : “It can be said that a cyclist looks at a turbulent ocean (fog permitting!), With rain and dark suspended, knowing that the nearest road is a dozen miles and the nearest train station 70 miles, it can really seem very remote! ”

Evening at the bay of Kearvaig

We turned around, confident that we had reached the point where the earth ran out, and spent the night Kearvaig Bothy, managed by the Mountain Bothies Association. That evening we scanned the cliffs for puffins, arctic skua, white tailed eagles and sea eagles that nest and breed in the area.

The ferry returns to collect us

After Coley died in 1985, the company moved to the care of Peter Knottley – a member of the Cyclists Touring Club, the forerunner of the cycling UK charity who has been in charge of the Cape Wrath Fellowship since 1992. Sam Jones, the current caretaker , he says: “The ferryman said that every day when the ferry is running, he would take the cyclists – a couple a day … we estimate we have about 2,000 on the roll of honor – but many names have been lost in the time, office transfers and changing of caretakers. If you traveled to Cape Wrath by bike, we would love to hear from you. ”

In a compelling post-war landscape, Coley produced “a fantastic gift for the British cycling public and the world,” according to Jones. “It’s one of those oddities in the history of British cycling, which makes it so interesting.” He adds: “Looking at the situation we are in at the moment, it is not necessary to travel to the Himalayas or to distant parts of the world to live a cracking adventure. You can do it in the UK; we have it here and now it’s time to explore our courtyard. ”

Cape Wrath Certificate National Cycle Archive, Warwick

If you’ve cycled to Cape Wrath Lighthouse, click here to join the company. A free certificate will be issued to all successful candidates and a patch will be available in the coming weeks. A selfie at the lighthouse will be considered sufficient proof of your audacity and cunning. When the journey returns, check the Visit the Cape Wrath website for information on military firing times and ferry crossings. Please note that due to unpredictable winds and tides, it is not possible to book in advance – and the crossing times are decided by the ferryman (very accommodating) on ​​the day.

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