Moonlit lochs and ancient yews: a cycle round Loch Tay and Rannoch Moor

I woke up in a bright tent at 3 a.m. Someone out there shining a light in here, I thought. I was too hot, sweaty, clammy in the sleeping bag. I unzipped the tent, folded back the flap and blinked at the still vision of the loch in the moonlight.

The water lay heavy and dark and still — so still as to look set, like a jelly. The moonlight almost as bright as daylight, and dreamlike. I could see everything, but nothing was the same. It was a supermoon, and I couldn’t sleep. I was so hot and closed in in the tent, and I felt drawn to the water — a tidal pull as in a dream. I wriggled free of the bag and the tent and trod softly over the pebbles to the water’s edge.

There air was cold — but not the shiverchill of dawn. I slid a foot into the black shimmer. The cold water crept over toes to ankle, slid up calf to knee, giving the gentlest murmur as it reached up to my thighs.

In the distance a deer barked, the sound carrying fast across the stillness. I was the only thing to move the water — bright ripples picking up shards of silvery light.

I moved with the unexplainable compulsion of dream logic, mesmerised by the draw of the deep cold blackness in the loch. My fingertips trailed in the water and it sparkled in ripples around me. The blood pounded in my ears, my heart thudded into my armpits. I was moments from diving in, letting the cold black water draw me deep into cold shock, to swim eye-level with the reflected moon, to stare back at the dark trees dipping their shadows into the water.

I stopped, awoken by the cold bristle of leg hair, the menace and the lure of the water, the bristle and shrink of my balls in the cold night air. I have no towel, I thought. I’m standing naked in a loch at three in the morning. This is the point at which I go swimming and get hypothermia and die and then what’s mum going to say to that? Sleepy brain had nothing to say to that, so I turned back to shore, and as I strode from the water I felt the warmth return to my legs. I dried off with my wooly hat, then put it on and got back into the sleeping bag. I lay there for a while, the tent open, looking out at the bright, dark water of the loch.

I wake at six. Mist on the water. Pink clouds in the sky. The first dawn light caught on the loch, a smooth unbroken reflection of mist, sky, trees. I go immediately for a swim — and after a few frantic moments of yelping gasping breaststroke I remember the night before. The strange enrapture of the moonlit loch. I still have no towel — and no trunks either. Skinny dipping is one of the finer pleasures of packing light.

I make breakfast of hot porridge and strong coffee, and eat at the shore’s edge in silence. I think of how perfect my camping spot was, how lucky to have met the warden and how nice of her to show me to this secret spot, tucked away behind three abandoned caravans, covered in green mould, slumped into the long grass.

She’d seen me the evening before, hesitating in the car park next to the no camping sign. ‘Excuse me. You weren’t thinking of camping here were you?’ She said. ‘Not anymore,’ I said, ‘but is there anywhere nearby?’ It was dusk. It’d be dark in 20 minutes. ‘There’s a place up the road about a mile, a track on the right. I’ve not been there in a long time, but I think you can camp there.’

About a mile? A track? I’d just cycled 50 miles from Dunblane. Another mile really would kill me.

She saw my face. ‘Yes, it’s the forestry commission.’ She paused. ‘Actually, no. Yes — there might be a place you can stay. As it’s just you. If there’d been four of you I’d have said no. But as it’s just you — and as long as no one sees.’ She smiled. ‘If you go down the side of the toilet block just here and round the back. Come. I’ll show you.’ And so I followed, tucked in behind the buildings, through the long grass and the trees to the shore.

I scrape the last of the porridge from the pan and pack up for the second day of cycling.

I fill my water bottles at the tat shop in Kenmore. As I was loading the bike I glanced at the information board. The Fortingall Yew, it said, marked about four miles away along the north shore road. The oldest living tree in Britain — possibly the oldest living thing in Europe, it said. Worth a small diversion, I think, and reset my course.

Yew trees grow slowly for the first few hundred years of their life. Then they stop, presumed dead. But then they’ll begin to grow again — unlike other trees, they can survive a split trunk without infection. And they hollow out with the years, dissolving the rings of time. That’s why they appear in folklore across Europe as the tree of rebirth, a symbol of eternity, a magic force that can outgrow whole civilisations.

The Fortingall Yew was once 16 metres in diameter. The root system is at least 2,000 years old, perhaps more. It was a sacred site before the church was built — and for many years after they had accepted the grace of God, people would cut chunks from the yew to make drinking cups, thought to better your chances of eternal life.

In 1804 the boys of the village lit a fire in its belly and nearly killed the yew for good. But it survived, and it now has its own walled enclosure. It sits there, split by the weight of time, casting shade over the graves and over me and over the four grey-haired ladies coming through the gate, taking purposeful steps to the church door. ‘Wonderful. Madeira was wonderful,’ says one as they teeter in on swollen ankles, beige shoes tapping on the flagstones. It is Sunday, and the rituals go on.

Stopping by the road for a pee. The sun, having banished the mist, is now sparkling in the dew caught in a spiders web strung from in the gate. Each drop holds its own miniature landscape of hills and trees and fields and sun.

The climb north from Kenmore to Rannoch Moor is long, steep, and relentless. I stop for flapjack — twice. The road climbs along the banks of the burn, roaring as it cascades over long drops towards the loch. Then the trees thin, the sky opens, the road flattens and the bare mountains drift into view.

I turn left at the fork and curve beneath Schiehallion. The road is high and bright and the air clear — it is smooth, flowing, delicious release after the thigh-burning road from Kenmore. I carve and sweep and swoosh down past glassy lochs, each turn of the road bringing into view a longer glen, a steeper mountainside, and in the distance, the long stretch of Loch Rannoch.

I’m going easy — I have all day to cycle about 30 miles — I started early and the train isn’t until half six. I might even cycle further, camp on Loch Lomond and cycle straight to the office on Monday. A grand plan begins to take form. But before the final descent to Kinloch Rannoch I stop, lay the bike down and walk across the heather to a broad flat stone, warm in the sunshine. It is exceptionally quiet. The few cars that are out on the road pass quickly, and are swallowed in the depths of the glen. There are bees in the heather, a buzzard overhead. A light breeze. I close my eyes and sunbathe. I open them and try three minutes of meditation — the easiest thing to do, sitting high on the moor, watching the mountains haze into the distance.

Then I have lunch, and feel completely at peace. The whole trip — the cycle, the swim, the moonlight — has made me immensely happy. I could do this forever, I think.

And then I make my way over to the bike, pick it up, wheel it back to the road. There is a slight tinkle from the back wheel — I check for bits of grass, something caught in the spokes perhaps. I can see nothing, so I sling a leg over and push off. Then clunk, and my chain falls off. Except it hasn’t fallen off — part of the derailleur is in the chain, in the wrong place, everything looks ever so slightly wrong. I take the bags off and flip the bike. It is far worse than I thought. It’s a tangle of bent metal, the bike eating into itself.

This is the point at which I should have hailed the Land Rover that just rumbled by, hitched a lift to town and caught the bus with a broken bike to Rannoch Station. But I didn’t. I think hey — I can split the chain, bend the dropout back into place and make it a single speed to take me the last leg of my journey. I am in the wilderness. I am resourceful. I will not cry, I think.

Never again.

So I do exactly that — and two hours later it works, for a bit. Then the chain breaks, and I fix it in a higher gear. Then the back wheel comes loose. And so I continue, for another hour or so, limping to Kinloch Rannoch, closer and closer to despair. I never want to do this ever again, I think.

When I finally decide to hitch, no one has space for me. So I begin to walk — I can surely make it, if I can walk quick enough, I think. There might be a bus, perhaps. But I’m on the quieter side of the loch — not on the bus route. And I continue to hail every car that goes by — almost all of them packed with families on holiday, little bright faces looking out at me from the back seats. Then an enormous people carrier goes by, with only two people in it and bags of room in the boot. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t stopped. They’d seen me. The bastards. Who does that? What sort of an arsehole do you have to be?

And then I really do cry. A lot. I walk and cry sobbing like I did after the first and only time I played rugby at school. And my hands are black with grease and I’m covered in snot and grease and I come round the corner to a viewpoint carpark and see the two people I’d just sworn at. They look horrified, full of concern. ‘We tried to signal to you that we were coming here,’ they say, almost in unison, in lovely Yorkshire accents. ‘What’s wrong, where do you need to go?’ So I explain, while David fusses around in Margaret’s handbag. ‘There’s a wet wipe in there somewhere,’ says Margaret. I split bike apart — the fastest I’ve ever done it — and shove it in the boot.

On the drive to the station we talk. They are on holiday, revisiting a spot where they’d first heard of a dear friend’s death. She has a bad hip, waiting for an operation, and she likes to paint — if only from the car. He watches the rugby. They spent 30 years of their marriage walking in the Lakes, but can’t do anything now that her hip is so bad. So they take the car, and they park and they look at the view together. I couldn’t have hoped for two better, lovelier people. And I felt bad for calling them such cunts when they first past me by.

Rannoch train station is like a ranch in the wild west. The road stops dead at the tracks. It isn’t on the way to anywhere. It isn’t in a town. It’s just there, sitting in square mile after square mile of bog and heather. It is a postcard station house — and the platform is empty when I limp my bike along it. But there is a tea room — and the windows are misted up, the lights are on, and there is one scone left, which I slather in butter and thick cream and jam. I drink one pot of tea, and then another. The owner watches me, hunched over the plate, scooping the last of the jam into the last of the cream and then eating it all off the end of the knife. ‘Problems with your chain?’ He asks.

‘Yeah.’ I say. ‘A few.’