Ah, the glamorous life of a cyclist! I took breakfast alongside a cattle grid. It was a day old croissant accompanied by drizzle, bog and trundling lorries. The banner tied to the gate exclaimed, “DANCE”, and underneath in smaller capital letters, “this Friday, Barvas Hall.”
The Stonrnoway to Barvas road was not looking its best on this soaking morning, but I was excited about heading north. I was going to cycle to the very end of the island of Lewis where the tarmac ends and the sea smashes the rocks.
That is a big mouth!
My first stop was to see an arch made from a whale’s jawbone. The arch appeared to be in someone’s back garden, so I glanced at it from the gate. It towers 20 feet high, and stretches 40 feet across.
“Come in and have a look son,” a woman with a blue cardigan waved me in, a border collie sprinting behind her. She told me that she was on holiday and stays in this house each summer. She enjoys talking to people about the arch.
I expected some amazing story as to why the bone was here, but it was quite simple. In 1920 the village postmaster had been looking for a decorative feature for his garden and a beached whale provided the perfect opportunity. She pointed to the harpoon hanging from the bone, “That was found in its back. There is Japanese or Chinese writing on the harpoon.”
I pushed on. The unpredictability of Scottish weather worked in my favour and golden sun saw off the rain. I took back roads, past collections of cottages where nothing stirred to reach the Arnol blackhouse museum. Compared to the 1950s blackhouse I saw yesterday this one is from a much earlier period, a time when people and animals lived under the same roof.
I ducked my head to go through the door and got a fright- I thought the place was on fire. There was smoke everywhere and it smelt like camp fire mixed with cigars. I found a peat fire in the middle of the floor and could see no sign of a chimney for the smoke to escape. I found it hard to imagine how people could live with this constant smoke, but it was actually beneficial to have it swirling around in the house. Peat smoke kills insects and the smoke infused thatch roof, once it reached the end of its usefulness, made a superb fertilliser for the fields.
The fire was the centre of blackhouse life and it was not allowed to go out. Never. The museum staff tends this fire, keeping alive one part of a way of life that has vanished forever.
Gourmet Coffee break
It does not always happen, but when it does it can be one of my favourite things about cycling. This is when tiredness, hunger and a need to stop begin to dominate my thoughts and at that exact moment I chance upon a beacon of coffee sophistication in the wilderness.
The Morven Gallery rescued me from my sagging. This was no ordinary cup of coffee, but a time to sip and savour the owner’s passion for the drink. The man at the counter explained, “When he retired, dad wanted to do something with his interest in coffee. He went to London to source a really good coffee supplier and found a place that custom builds espresso machines.”
“Try this,” I was presented with a free sample, “I am just messing about with the brews.This is Costa Rican.”
It was medium strength, smooth and easy to drink. I ordered a cup and could not resist a slice of coffee and walnut cake that had a dollop of thick and creamy icing oozing from light and fluffy sponge.
I strolled through the bright gallery spaces filled with works depicting the landscapes, nature and colour of the island. Visitors whispered appreciations to each other, “Oh, I really love that. It is like the beach we saw today.”
Not far from here there is a standing stone circle called Steinacleit. These are mere stumps compared to the giants I had seen yesterday. There was a danger of suffering standing stone fatigue, but I liked these unassuming sites that required some trekking up a hill and did not have razzmatazz like cafes and visitor centres.
Nearby there is a solitary standing stone that looked like an escapee from Callanish. It had been absorbed into its modern surroundings, adjacent to a snowplow depot. There is not even an information panel. The only concession to tourism is a single picnic bench.
Swainbost, Harbost and Lionel
These are the places I cycled through to get ever closer to the end of the island. It amazed me that they are named individually because there is a tiny distance of road separating each place and only a few buildings.
I checked-in to Loch Beag Bed and Breakfast. I have yet to come across someone more suited to the role of B&B owner as Edna. As soon as I arrived she talked to me as if I was a good friend, rather than yet another customer. “I just love talking to people and meeting new people. This is the best job in the world.”
Edna urged me to visit the thirteenth century St Moluag's church, which I could see from my room. “I find it much more moving than the Callanish Stones. Everyone says that the stones are the thing to see, but I always prefer St Moluag’s. It is more peaceful, special.”
I opened the chunky door of the church and sat on a pew. Oil lamps hang from the ceiling as the church still has no electricity. I was the only person there and all I could hear was bleating sheep from the field outside.
Windiest place in the UK
I loved cycling these tiny roads with miniscule distances between each settlement. Perhaps the settlements were closer and closer together because there was less and less land remaining until it dropped into the sea.
I travelled from Fivepenny, where the bed and breakfast is located, to Eoropie, where there is a café. I fancied a final cup of tea before reaching the end. There were Harris Tweed placemats, roof beams, and local art for sale.
This is the kind of cycling that makes me feel happy. It was a road flanked by long grass and wild flowers. The sun was strong, the sky blue with a variety of cloud shapes, the kind where your imagination turns them into familiar objects. Then the coastline came into view, soon to be followed by the red brick Butt of Lewis lighthouse. There was a constant smile on my face.
There was no more road. I squeezed the breaks and rested my bike next to the lighthouse. I walked to a spot where I could sit and watch the waves charging full speed into the rocks and breaking up into a whoosh of spray. My journey had ended in spectacular style. It felt all the more special because I had reached it by the power of my own legs. I said out loud “This is what I want to do. I want to cycle and see places like this.”
I celebrated with dinner at Cafe Sonas in Port of Ness. It is a small restaurant with lots of glass so that dinners can watch the harbor or stare out to the vast Atlantic. The hake stuffed with shrimps and creamy parsley sauce was sensational and I could easily have it again and again.
The restaurant was a couple of miles from the B&B, so I cycled back. My bike had taken me everywhere on this trip and now it was my taxi home after a night in a restaurant. Riding on these quiet roads at 9pm on a summer evening felt liberating. There were no cars, no people, no noise. It was only me and a sky of blue, white, yellow, pink and orange all swirled together.
Getting there Lewis can be reached by ferry from Ullapool. More information about the journey to Lewis can be found in my previous guide, Up to Ullapool
Cycling distances and terrain The distance from Stornoway to Port of Ness is 26.5 miles. on the A857. It is a well surfaced, mostly straight and level road. There is minimal traffic.
From Port of Ness to the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse is about 2.7 miles. This is on B roads and narrower with some hills. Depending on time of year it can be busy with tourist traffic, but it is slow moving and courteous traffic.
Things to see and do The whalebone arch is in Bragar, which involves a slight diversion onto the A858 (turn left off the A857 just before it reaches Barvas). The Blackhouse is also in this direction and it has an entry charge.
Morvern Gallery is in Barvas and the place to see what local artists are up to. Don't forget to sample the fabulous coffee.
The Butt of Lewis Lighthousecannot be visited, but you can get great views of it from the spectacular coastal scenery.
Where to stay Loch Beag Bed and Breakfast is highly rated on Trip Advisor and I received a very warm welcome. It is one of my favourite bed and breakfasts. It is located about halfway between Port of Ness and the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. £30 per person for double occupancy. You can arrange an evening meal with them.