Of roads and passing places

Bearded man lying in an empty road holding a cameraI remember once, years ago when we lived in Lincolnshire, someone said to me that if you wanted to commit suicide around there, you would have to lie in the road for a fortnight! Well, I doubt there is anywhere in the UK where that could be true nowadays! And I would say that it isn’t true even here, in our remote location – especially at this time of year.

Most days of the week, I go out for what I call “my trot” – i.e. I run up the hill at the end of our drive between two passing places spaced about 100 yards apart, and walk back down. I do this 10 times, all in the cause of fitness and maintaining general good health. In winter, the traffic I see is mostly local. I do my trot just before lunch, which is often one of the busier times of day, as there are folk out and about picking up the youngest children from the school and also people going home for lunch. I dare say that they are all used to seeing me out, panting away, and of course I know most of the people who come by. But at that time of year, I can usually do several “laps” together without having to make way for a passing car.

In the summer, it’s different. Most of the cars have strangers behind the wheel and there are many more of them! There are also camper vans and caravans to look out for. As the road is narrow, I feel the need to get off it on to the grass verge when cars go by, or even sometimes to wait before setting off back up or down the hill, and it is rare for me to complete a whole lap without having to get off the road at some point. Many folk would still say that we have very little traffic – but it seems a lot to me!

It is noticeable that when I am wearing shorts and a strappy top, people realise that I am exercising, but when I am wearing ordinary clothes they don’t, and it is quite gratifying the number of visitors who stop to ask if I need assistance or a lift somewhere. It makes one think how kind and thoughtful people can be… In summer, I also meet people out walking or those fit, fit people labouring up the hill on bikes with all their goods and chattels in panniers. I feel that that is holidaying the hard way – especially on our hills – but I guess they go home feeling really fit and well after their adventures in the North Highlands! We normally pass the time of day when we meet on the road, even though one or both of us are likely to be completely out of breath.

It is true to say that I very much notice the difference between new and older cars. The older ones really stink of petrol and I wonder sometimes how we ever lived with the awful, choking emissions that these older vehicles give out! But that’s another matter…

Empty road, lined by empty, grassy landThe road at the bottom of our drive is single-track, as are a good many of the roads round here. Of course, other parts of the UK have single-track roads, but ours are blessed with more passing places than those I have come across in the Thames Valley or the South West. There is a very good reason for this: our roads are somewhat abnormally steep and winding! It takes a while to get used to them – I remember how terrified I felt when I first went up the coast road north from here, even though I wasn’t even driving! I didn’t think I would ever get used to these roads as they wind their way past rocky outcrops on one side and lochs on the other, but now I bomb up and down them without a second thought. I feel for the visitors though – not only having to cope with the roads themselves, but also with the animals roaming in and around them. You see drivers who would probably think nothing of the traffic on the M25, gripping their wheels for dear life and going at 25 miles an hour.

As locals, we have no problem with people going slowly – so long as they let us by! Most people don’t realise that it is actually breaking our bye-laws to hog the road when someone is behind obviously wanting to get past. There are signs up urging drivers to allow overtaking, and I think it’s possible that most people read them as saying “polite notice”, whereas in fact they read “police notice”! You can actually be fined for not pulling over to let someone by on our roads – and at the end of the summer season, the papers regularly report on the fines passed out in the Sheriff Court. Sometimes, I have felt the need to flash someone in the hopes that they will let me by – but normally, I try not to. I really don’t want to spoil someone’s holiday just because I am on the late side… I also appreciate that sometimes the driver in front is trying so hard to concentrate on staying on the road that he/she just hasn’t noticed anyone behind!

The other thing about our roads is that they can be very confusing to people from the Continent. I hear regular stories of locals who have come up against folk from across the water who think that “single-track” means “one-way”, and they are appalled when suddenly faced with a car coming straight towards them! They honestly seem to think that there is another road – somehow mysteriously not shown on the map – that takes the traffic round the north of Scotland in the other direction. It can be hard sometimes to explain our road system to them.

Black and white car park sign stuck into a barrel on grassAt least it is very hard to get lost up here. There really aren’t very many roads and they are all very well sign-posted – even if the places often have strange Gaelic names!

However, whatever anyone might say about our roads, at the end of the day they must be among the most scenic anywhere in the world. The views can be absolutely breathtaking, especially when you get a sudden view of the sea – and on a fine day, maybe even a view of the Outer Hebrides, 35 miles away across The Minch – or turn off at a view point and get a truly stunning view of our mountains.

There are those who reckon that the far north of Scotland provides the last remaining place in Britain which offers a true motoring experience, and there is no doubt that motorcyclists love coming up here to enjoy the freedom of riding our roads as well as giving their riding skills a good work out. They literally flock here during the summer months. Most people round here don’t mind the motorcycles. So long as one bears in mind that an apparently lone motorcyclist is rarely in fact unaccompanied, and that there will almost certainly be more of them round the bend in front, everyone is safe and happy.

But motorcyclists can come to grief in ways that they are not necessarily used to. Four or five years ago, a motor cyclist was blown off his bike at the top of Sciag Pass. He was OK, although injured, but the bike hit a rock and was decidedly bent, according to report. This happened in August…

[Photos by Clarinda]

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