Beachcombing at Shell Bay, Benbecula

Beach at Shell Bay Benbecula

Benbecula, which is snuggled between South and North Uist boasts an airport, a fuel filling station, a bakery and the lovely Puffin Studio Crafts gallery, which is a little box of delights well worth a visit and owned by a couple who relocated in recent years from Lincolnshire. It also turns out to be a great spot for beach combing.  More of that later..

Please note, there is also more than one supermarket on Benbecula.  I mention this specifically as I’ve read online posts of people planning to tour the Outer Hebrides, asking ‘should we stock up with food before we leave the mainland?’  Well just to allay your fears, there are not one, but two supermarkets in this small part of the Outer Hebrides alone, not to mention plenty of other supermarkets and shops right across the Outer Hebrides.

Fear not intrepid travellers, no-one on the Western Isles, either resident or tourist has died of hunger in recent years.  Turns out the (lovely and well fed) people who live on these far flung isles, from the tip of Lewis right down to the bottom of Barra also have to eat.  You’ll find plenty of supermarkets, community run and cooperative stores and independent food outlets, right along the length of the Outer Hebrides.  In fact you should definitely make a point of shopping on the islands, it’ll help the local economy, keep people in jobs, encourage you to try some of the excellent local produce which is abundant in the stores and it’ll make you feel like you’re giving something back along the way.

For those of you planning to visit the islands in a motorhome or caravan, or walking or cycling with a tent, then *Shell Bay Campsite is a handy stop off.   There’s a useful list of campsites in the area here.   *Shell Bay campsite is sort of on the way, whether you’re  heading north or south, it’s just off the road and within walking distance of both the Coop and Puffin Studio Crafts, as well as a nearby hotel where you can get a meal and a drink in the bar.

We arrived at the campsite which from the road looks very open, but is tidy enough and we were warmly greeted by the owners Mr and Mrs Buchanan.  Mrs B gave us the run down of where everything was and relieved us of £38 for 2 nights including electric hook up and then Mr B took over and walked us to our pitch, which looked like it was the remains of a concrete base for a building.  The site looks like it has been some sort of military base in the past, but the pitches on *Shell Bay Campsite are generous and the facilities are fine, showers, toilets, washing up and washing machines, water, waste and chemical disposal too.  (More details of the warm hospitality of the hosts can be found at the end of this blog.)

There were quite a lot of cyclists and backpackers staying in the tent area which is more sheltered and round the back of the facilities block.  A group of young backpacking women were staying in tents and as we were filling up with water next to the block we were entertained by an unbridled display of all their youthful exuberance, we watched with amusement as they went through some sort of flash song and dance exercise routine, right there next to the water tap on the grass in front of us and this was all before their forthcoming full day of hiking to their next overnight spot and after their evening in the pub the night before.  I admired and admittedly slightly envied their energy levels.  Pete asked if he could join in, which sent them into a fit of giggles and we suddenly felt rather old.

When we eventually pulled away in our very comfortable bus, having only walked as far as the toilet block and back that morning, we did feel just a teeny bit guilty, but secretly pleased that we could carry all our stuff in our home on wheels rather than on our backs.

Hay bale on the beach at Shell Bay Benbecula
Not sure if the tractor and trailer carrying the bale is under here somewhere.

By now we were starting to repeatedly cross paths with other travellers who were all making a similar journey heading in the same direction as us, south to north.  The beach is just a couple of minutes walk from the back of the campsite over the dunes, where you might see seals basking on the rocks just out in the bay and where we spent a lazy day on one of our favourite pastimes – beach combing.

Sun going down at low tide on a beach
Think it’s time to stop beach combing now the light is fading.

It’s amazing how many hours you can pass, dawdling along, just staring head down at the sand and pausing every so often to examine more closely one of the millions of tiny pieces of treasure washed in by the changing tides, all stretched out in a line along the beach .  It’s certainly theraputic and quite a meditative activity, with the sound of the sea lapping at the shore and the cry of sea birds wheeling overhead.

Occasionally we break our silent and solitary contemplation to compare the hauls we have carefully cupped in our hands and then after a bit of discussion we’ll discard the bits that aren’t that good after all and decide maybe we’ll keep just one tiny shell each, or a little piece of drift wood that’s shaped like something familiar and then we’ll pop it in our pockets to take home.  There’s an unwritten rule that this one piece shouldn’t be any bigger than a finger nail, as we certainly don’t want to add to the payload on our motorhome with ‘treasure’ from our travels.

Beachcombing treasures
A treasure trove of shapes, colours and textures.

It was on this beach that we discovered something altogether bigger and more exciting than mere shells.  We found the wreck of an old barrel sprawled out on the beach, split apart by the ravages of the sea and cast up on the shore where we found it.   It was partially submerged in the sand and all around the barrel were bits of bottles in shades of blue, green and clear glass glinting in the sun.   The more you looked, the more you discovered, many of the pieces were no more than a chunk of a heavy base or the broken neck of a bottle.  They looked like they were mostly medicinal or alcoholic and it made me wonder where they’d come from, which ship they were on and who were the people on the ship that this haul had come from?  We found one perfectly preserved Boots the Chemist bottle, which I imagine originally would have had a cork bung sealing in the long gone remedy inside.  This is a great find.

Old Boots the Chemist Bottle
Boots the Chemist bottle, shipped to us by the ocean.

Some would say a day of doing nothing in particular is a day wasted, but that evening walking away from the shore, back across the dunes to the motorhome with sand in our shoes, salt in our hair and a shell or two in our pocket, we reckoned that it’s not a bad life is it?

*If you’ve enjoyed reading this and would like to hear more about the hospitality of the Shell Bay Campsite owners and in particular Mrs Buchanan’s generous offer of a French Fancy, then head over to the highly entertaining blog of An Oldie Outdoors, who is far more hardy than us and did the Outer Hebridean trip on foot.  Click here for the link.

Advertisements

Is there a MacDonalds on Benbecula?

Close up pastel sketch of red and black tartan

If you look at a map of the Outer Hebrides, Benbecula looks like a stepping stone between South and North Uist.   Apparently the MOD is the island’s main employer and parts of the island have been used for missile testing and target practice by the MOD since WW2.  Call me a peace loving hippy but I felt a bit sorry for the island, it all seemed a bit cruel and incongruous, all this wild beauty being used as a missile testing range.

In the light of this information we decided that wild camping on Benbecula probably wasn’t for us.   It wasn’t the weather that put us off, it was the possibility that a Typhoon, not of the tropical cyclone type, but of the Eurofighter type might spoil our evening by launching a stray missile in our direction.

So we pushed on to Shell Bay Camp site for the night, which was going to be the subject of this blog, however I’ve suffered a bad attack of digression and will instead give you my take on Flora MacDonald, who pops up all over the place on the Outer Hebrides.

Flora of the Outer Hebrides

Famous residents of Benbecula include Flora MacDonald and a mermaid.   The famous mermaid was reputedly buried at sea, so no chance of disproving that one then.

Flora was born on South Uist, the daughter of a Tacksman named MacDonald, the right hand man of the laird, who was also named MacDonald.  Sadly, Flora’s Dad died when she was a baby and her mother was apparently abducted and married to another MacDonald, which was probably handy (the name not the abduction) as Flora and her mum didn’t need to go through all that rigmarole of having to change their names on their passports, bank accounts or Facebook page.   Things didn’t turn out too badly for Flora after this rocky start, as she ended up being well educated and a member of the Scottish gentry.

When Charlie Met Betty

Bonnie Prince Charlie
Prince Charlie looking bonnie

Flora found fame when Bonnie Prince Charlie was in the area, not on an official royal visit, more in a spot of bother really after the Battle of Culloden.   Flora and her mates hatched a cunning plan and helped young Charlie out by dressing him up as a woman and taking him in a boat over the sea to Skye.  Charlie obviously got right into this and dressed up not just any old woman, but as an Irish maid called Betty Burke.  I can only imagine this was a plan hatched after a late night on the pop and which probably seemed like a jolly jape at the time.

It must have been a right good session as the cold light of day didn’t cool their enthusiasm for the plan.  So next morning off they went in a little boat, possibly a bit hungover but all still well up for it.  Flora and her ‘manservant’ with Bonnie Prince Betty and a crew of six boatmen, who when they weren’t in fear of their lives for prince smuggling, must have been having a right old laugh at their passenger Ms Burke.  Calls of ‘Ooh Betty’ could be heard rising above the mist as the motley crew made their way towards Skye.

Charcoal abstract drawing
Cries of ‘Ooh Betty!’ could be heard across the mist as the intrepid party sailed towards Skye

The Young Pretender

When they got to Skye, the party were given refuge in the house of another MacDonald. (I’m starting to think that it must have been a right nightmare for the postman, what with everyone having the same name)  However, that Mr MacDonald was away at the time and knew nothing of his cross dressing royal guest.  The lady of the house, Mrs MacDonald, apparently told the prince he looked a right Charlie dressed up as a woman and was making himself more conspicuous, so Charlie dropped the dressing up.  I’m thinking that Charlie / Betty was probably getting right into it by this time and can’t help wondering if he wasn’t just a teeny bit disappointed when he had to drop the Betty Burke persona and go back to being plain old Prince Charles again.  Who knows?  And is that why he was called the young pretender?

The pesky boatmen ended up dobbing Flora in after a bit of interrogation, which resulted in her being whisked off to the Tower of London.  Luckily her posh mates quickly had a whip round and miraculously secured her release.  The writer Samuel Johnson described our Flora as ‘a woman of soft features, gentle manners, kind soul and an elegant presence.’   I can’t help wondering if it was these same soft features and elegant presence combined with the cold cash bung that ensured Flora didn’t stay banged up in the Tower for long.

Press Statement

As she left the tower Flora reputedly made a statement to the press, saying it ‘had been emotional’ and that she’d ‘like to thank her rich friends for getting her out.’  She added that she’d ‘only helped Charlie because she felt sorry for him’ and she ‘wasn’t a sympathiser and would have helped either side.’  Flora then got down off the fence she was sitting on and was heard to utter those immortal words “I fancy a MacDonald’  She then married an Allan MacDonald, who was an army captain and went off to live in America.

America turned out not all it was cracked up to be, the natives were revolting and Allan joined in the fray raising an army, which included Flora’s sons and which ended up being beaten by the Americans.  Flora and Al came home after losing some of their assets in the melee and then stayed with yet more minted MacDonalds until Flora died at the age of 68 and was buried in Kilmuir cemetery on Skye.

The Tail of the Mermaid

I’m afraid the fishy tale of the mermaid isn’t as well documented, evidenced or believable, however along with Flora MacDonald the myth of the mermaid continues to contribute to tourist attraction on this little island of Benbecula.

Life Drawing of a female form
Is it seaweed or a mermaid?

Kilbride Campsite on South Uist

Motorhome next to a beach on South Uist, Outer Hebrides

Having had such a rude awakening to catch our early ferry and still suffering from the injustice of waking by alarm clock, we took advantage of yet another unbelievably beautiful place to pull off the road and have breakfast.  There’s nothing quite like having a bowl of muesli looking out across a postcard vista of a clear turquoise sea lapping gently at a white shell sand beach.

OS Map of the Outer Hebrides showing Eriskay and South Uist
Crossing the causeway, we looked across to the left and across the bay could see our next destination at Kilbride campsite at Cille Bhrighde on South Uist.

At this stage we hadn’t broken the old habit of thinking we needed to be on a campsite every night, so we had already phoned ahead in advance and booked a pitch for a couple of nights at Kilbride campsite after reading the good reviews online.  It wasn’t far from the South Uist end of the Eriskay causeway and we could make out the low white buildings even as we were crossing Caclas Eirisgeigh.   The broken yellow lines of the roads on the map look like they might be a bit dodgy, but were actually much better than many of the roads at home, decent tarmacced surfaces and absolutely no problem at all for our motorhome.

What To Do On a Rainy Day In a Motorhome

The friendly owner DJ was like a whirling dervish, intent on making sure that everyone was happy and pointing out where our pitch was on arrival, which turned out to be a prime spot, with a decent view and close to the utility block and within reach of the wifi signal (if you stood and held your device aloft at arms length.)

DJ told us that he hadn’t got a campsite reception and that he hadn’t really got a proper system sorted yet for letting people know where to pitch, so he was using wooden blocks with bits of paper attached with campers’ names on.  This meant that new arrivals usually had to wander round the site looking for their allotted space.  This game of hunt the pitch was fine when the sun was shining, but during our short stay the rain came down in sheets and it became a bit of a spectator sport watching poor DJ running round with his wooden blocks and new arrivals searching the soggy name tags on the pitches to find their spot.

Pitch Perfect

We were chatting to DJ later and he was keen to improve his site and know how other sites organise things.  We suggested that he permanently numbered the pitches and had a white board in the porch of the utility block with names against pitch numbers.  I wonder if he might change his system for next year?  If anyone has any better ideas, I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear from you.

Photograph of Kilbride cafe on South Uist
Kilbride cafe is just by the entrance to the campsite and across the road another lovely beach. Note the couple of classic cars which must have been a joy on these fabulous roads. Just look at those bends. Vrooom!

There are several good things I can easily say about this campsite, apart from the level well spaced hard standing pitches.  There is a really good modern utility block, with spacious free hot showers and a really well equipped kitchen, with fridge, freezer, toaster, kettle, microwave and a washer and dryer with an honesty box.  It’s a thoughtfully equipped site which is particularly good for the many walkers and cyclists we saw who were camping there.

Directly across the road from Kilbride Campsite is a beach where huge rocks that look like they’ve tumbled down from the sky are the backdrop to the sandy beach.  Right next door to the campsite and looking out across the beach is the Kilbride Cafe, which has free wifi and probably the best egg and black pudding in a bun I’ve ever tasted on the Outer Hebrides.  Actually it was the only egg and black pudding in a bun I had on the Western Isles, but it was still exceedingly good.  Sadly I don’t have a photograph of this, or the facility for scratch and sniff, so you’ll just have to imagine it.

Photo of Kilbride Campsite and Kilbride Cafe
Our little motorhome is parked handily close to the utility block, which was useful when the rain started to come down in buckets. We were also one of the few vans able to pick up wifi from our van too.

On site, the owner DJ is also building a backpackers hostel, which judging by the facilities he has built so far, will probably be a well equipped place to stay if you’re not accompanied by your mobile home, or you’re looking for shelter from the weather and can’t stand another night sleeping on the ground in a soggy flapping tent.

Getting Crafty in a Motorhome

There’s a temptation when you’re touring in the motorhome to feel you have to visit somewhere or somehow achieve something every day.  The rain falling down outside gave us the perfect excuse to do absolutely nothing and chill out for a day.  We got the guitar and ukulele out and had a little strum and then got crafty.

A hand loom
A tiny handloom I made from cellotaping two bits of cereal packet together, cutting zigzag slots and then winding wool round for the weft… or is that the warp? Then I used a daring needle to weave the wool.

Inspired by all the textiles and art and craft that are abundant on the Western Isles that I was starting to see, including the excellent Hebridean Woolshed next door to Kilbride, I decided to try my hand at weaving, so I made a little loom from some bits of cereal packet cellotaped together.  Luckily I had some wool in the van (as you do) which was reminiscent of the sea and skycapes that were all around us.   The finished result isn’t going to win any prizes and it hasn’t got any function, but it was a perfectly relaxing way to spend an afternoon.

Red Carpet Entrance

Apparently in the 6th century an intrepid female adventurer, St Bride, landed here in her boat from far off lands.   She must have been a right sight, as according to folk lore she made a proper entrance, stepping from her boat with an Oyster Catcher (Gille Bhrighde which means servant of the bride) on each wrist.

I imagine she must have been a bit wobbly as she got out of the boat no hands, what with having to keep the Oyster Catchers balanced on her arms and probably feeling a bit sea sick from her journey, while trying to look graceful and all pleased to be there at the same time.  I reckon it must have been the medieval equivalent of a red carpet moment, with bling covered arms right there on that little beach opposite Kilbride campsite.

When I say she came from far off lands, I think it was reputedly Ireland, which isn’t actually that far when you look on your AA road map, but to be fair the boat probably wasn’t exactly a CalMac ferry and the poor woman was taking a risk setting sail at all in 7 hundred and something.

Anyway, the good news is that she was well rewarded for her efforts as the nearby chapel was named after her.  In Gaelic, Cille Bhrighde (St Bride) and in Scots, its current name ‘Kilbride’.  I wondered too if after the excitement of her grand entrance, St Bride whiled away a rainy afternoon or two here too, weaving on her handloom, while planning her next adventure.

Eriskay Causeway to South Uist

Watercolour Painting of Eriskay Causeway

Our motorhome adventure up through the beguiling islands of the Outer Hebrides was made all the more interesting not only by the wonderful ferry crossings, but also the causeways that link some of the islands to one another.

Intrepid Explorers

The journey from Eriskay to South Uist is via one of these causeways and the excitement I felt as we drove onto one end of the causeway was real and for me heightened the sense of adventure that these islands were instilling.  If you look at these crossing points on a map they look like taught wires holding the tension between two independent land masses and as we drove across I could feel the anticipation of a new land to be discovered.  I imagine this was probably just what Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing felt like, except they weren’t in a motorhome and we didn’t climb any mountains.

Painting of the Eriskay causeway
The view inspired me to do this painting of the Eriskay causeway. Watch out for Otters crossing. Just wish I’d used watercolour paper instead of normal paper which has wrinkled up a bit!

As we began the drive along the road crossing the Sound of Eriskay, clear water lay on either side and up ahead a new island rising up from the shore, it really did feel like we were leaving one part of our journey behind and travelling on to another yet undiscovered (by us) place.  Look out to the left and it’s next stop Greenland.  Look out ahead for ‘Otters Crossing’ as the sign warns you as you approach the causeway.

Money Well Spent

The causeways that link some of the Outer Hebridean islands haven’t always been there and in the past 15 years there has been around £14million spent on improving the roads on the ‘Spinal Route.’  It has been money well spent and not only because the road surface is good and a whole lot better than many of the road surfaces at home.  A quick look at the map will show you that there are actually not that many roads on the islands and the investment in this main road which runs the length of the Western Isles and the causeways which link some of them, are essential veins for the lifeblood of  economic development which ensures sustainability of these outlying islands.

These 135 miles of improved roads, bridges and causeways from the top of Lewis all the way down to Vatersay aren’t just there for the driving pleasure of tourists like us.  They are an essential route for islanders, for trading of local products and access to services.  These roads are a lifeline for isolated communities, enabling people to live, work and socialise in different locations across the western isles, and help to curb the threat of rural isolation.

Looking Back

I wondered about life before the causeways, when one community would be isolated from their neighbours just across the water, linked only by a boat trip with their movement governed and so often restricted by the weather and the sea conditions.  Life here during the long dark winter months before these causeways were in existence, must have been very different to our own experience of an easy journey from Eriskay to South Uist on a well surfaced tarmac road bathed in early summer sunshine.

Abandoned croft in the Outer Hebrides
Not much left of this sad and lonely old house. I wondered about the lives of the people who once lived here.

I was surprised to find out that the Eriskay causeway was built only relatively recently in the year 2000 and at the time was the biggest civil engineering project happening in the UK.  Around the islands you’ll see many abandoned crofts and derelict houses as evidence of life in the past,  these sad, hollow ghosts of homes tell the story of the past.  They are the tired monuments to the consequence of people living in rural communities who were unable to travel easily outside of their own few square miles and as the traditional ways of self sustaining crofting declined, people increasingly needed to be more mobile.

Holding Back the Sea

While we were on Barra, we noticed abandoned half buried whole vehicles appearing out of the dunes behind the beach, they looked like skeletons of ancient dinosaurs. We asked a local why they were there and he told us that they had been put there years ago by the islanders to help prevent erosion and stabilise the dunes.  However, he said that when the new causeways had been built across stretches of once uninterrupted water, the tidal flow had changed and so the erosion on the beaches had returned and was now unearthing these abandoned jeeps and tractors.  The west coast of these islands are prone to flooding and what might at first sight seem an eyesore on the beach, turns out to be a homemade attempt to fight back against the mighty power of the ocean.  Difficult to imagine in the beautiful weather we experienced, but flooding threatens a staggering 94% of the homes on the west coast of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula.   I don’t know if his reasoning was factually correct, but who could blame these islanders for trying to protect their homes.

The Eriskay causeway we travelled along in our motorhome is not only a lifeline for residents of the Western Isles, but also a rite of passage for all the other visitors who come to travel the length of the Outer Hebrides.  They are also part of the reason that the islands have become so accessible and increasingly appealing as a tourist destination.

How and Why I Chose My Electric Bike

A Haibike Bosch Intuvia Handlebar mounted controller

I’m taking a break today from reporting on our motorhome tour of the Outer Hebrides to respond to several requests from people asking me about my electric bike which I’ve mentioned in several earlier posts.  I’ve been asked advice on which electric bike to buy and how to choose between all the electric bicycles that are on the market.

I’m not being sponsored to write or recommend anything here, this is simply how and why I chose my own pedelec and some advice and observations which I hope might be useful for you.

In the world of cycling the times they are certainly a changing, in fact only a couple of years ago if you mentioned electric bikes, some would turn up their noses and riders of ‘proper’ bicycles would often refer to the riding of an electric bike as cheating.  I could never quite understand the reluctance of the cycling community to embrace this step forward.  I can only wonder if the competitiveness that creeps in among many road cyclists would lead them to consider some smiling old giffer sailing past them up a hill an affront to their lycra.

I first came across electric bikes in serious numbers in Spain last winter where we spent 7 weeks in our motorhome, escaping those endless damp grey winter days at home.  We decided to forgo snuggling up by the fire for months and opted instead for days spent outdoors, walking and cycling in the sunshine under piercing blue skies.

Two mountain bikes by the sea in Spain
Life before the dawn of my electric bike

On the campsites we stayed on, the majority of bicycles owned by fellow campers were electric and I was certainly the odd one out on my ‘normal’ bike.  Pensioners a good 15 years older than me were whizzing about the place willy nilly on their electric bikes and describing how they ‘went for little ride yesterday, just 25 miles’ or  ‘up that mountain over there to that monastery this morning’, while waving a bronzed arm indicating a point in the very far distance, and let me tell you, they were doing all of this without so much as a by your leave and seemingly without even breaking into a sweat.

If riding an electric bike is ‘cheating’ then it would be reasonable to assume that riders of these swindling speed machines wouldn’t be very fit.  On the contrary, these enlightened pedal powered pensioners were indeed exceptionally sprightly and were highly motivated to be jumping on their bikes at every given opportunity, thus actually increasing their fitness, maintaining their mobility and no doubt releasing plenty of age related depression beating endorphins along the way.

I might even contact my MP and suggest that electric bicycles are prescribed on the NHS as a cost saving measure to keep our ageing population fit and healthy.  These bicycles aren’t mopeds, they are pedelecs, that means that the motor simply enhances the amount you pedal, but if you don’t pedal the motor won’t work.  See! it’s not cheating at all!

If I needed any excuse to make the swap, then my dicky spine resulting in a trip to A&E in a Spanish hospital as part of our winter motorhome adventure was reason enough. After having a little go on one of these bikes on a Spanish campsite, my mind was made up.  As I pushed on the pedals to set off, there was none of the anticipated usual strain through my back or legs, simply a smooth increase in speed, and inducing a massive grin too.  Could this be the holy grail of all the gain and none of the pain?

View from a hospital bed in Spain
What I did on my holidays in Spain. I wouldn’t recommend A&E as a place to stay, the view is rubbish for a start but thankfully I was spared the instruments of torture on the wall.

When we got home from Spain, with a slightly heavy heart I sold my lovely (little ridden as it was if I’m totally honest quite hard work) Liv carbon road bike and set about researching which electric bike was best for me.

These were my criteria for buying an electric bike:

Battery

I wanted at least a 500w battery so that I could go for miles without worrying how I was going to get home again.  Round where we live in the Yorkshire Dales it’s very hilly, so a battery that they tell you will take you 50 miles, might mean you’re ok for 50 miles on the flat.   However bear in mind your terrain, as that battery might only take you 20 miles on a very hilly ride.  I didn’t want to go for a ride and be constantly worrying whether I had sufficient power to get me back home again.   Usually the bikes will have several different modes of assistance , which means you can up the anti, depending on how much extra help you want from the motor.  So for example, I might choose to use more assistance, using more battery power, going up a hill, but no assistance and therefore no battery power coming down the hill.

Haibike 500w battery showing how it locks to the bike
Being able to lock the battery to the bike is a good security device, it also means you can easily unlock the battery and remove it.

The motor will assist you up to about 16mph as long as you are pedalling, above that speed you are on your own.  Obviously you can ride above that speed and you might find that some motors give a little resistance to pedalling when they are not running.  I wanted a motor that wouldn’t impede my progress if I was cycling along above 16mph under my own steam.  You’ll discover if this is an issue on the bike you are considering by having a test ride.

The 500w battery on the bike I bought can take a full charge in several hours or you can simply plug the battery in, on or off the bike and top it up a bit without any detrimental effect on the battery.  Check if you can charge the battery on the bike or if it needs to be taken off.  The battery, which weighs a couple of kilos just clicks off fairly easily, but I’d advise having a battery that locks on to the bike.  On my bike the built in lights also run off the battery.

Motor

I wanted a decent motor made by a reputable company and I wanted it to be mounted in the centre of the bike, so that the centre of gravity is well balanced.  I ideally wanted a Bosch motor as they are renowned as being reliable and as we enjoy going to Europe in the motorhome, it is important to me that if I have a problem while we’re abroad, I can get the motor fixed in one of the many electric bike shops that we saw in Spain.

Bosch driven pedelecs are popular in Europe, so a Bosch motor was high on my wanted list.  There are may different makes and types  of motor.  Some are better for hilly areas like where we live and have more torque to pull you up the hill.  They all weigh about 2 or 3 kg.

Photo of a Bosch Performance Line CX motor
My electric bike has a Bosch Performance Line CX motor. Apparently it’s good for climbing hills, although I’ve nothing to compare it with, I certainly have no complaints.

Mudguards and a Rack

I wanted a bike for all weathers and I wanted a bike that I could fit panniers to, so that I would be encouraged to use the bike for shopping at home and while we are away in the motorhome.  Panniers are great for carrying picnics, spare jumpers, puncture repair outfits, sunhats etc etc.  I didn’t want to buy a bike and start having to look at having an after market rack or mudguards fitted, I wanted a bike that was built with them already on.  A rear rack and mudguards do add weight to your bike, but as these bikes are never going to win any prizes at weight watchers, I didn’t think a pound or two extra would make any difference and anyway I’ve got a motor, although lifting it on and off our motorhome is a consideration, as I mentioned in an earlier post on ‘how to carry bikes on a motorhome.

Bosch Intuvia Display for Electric Bike
The Bosch Intuvia Display will give you loads of useful information including how many miles you have left in your battery. It’s also big enough to read without your reading glasses!

Display

The display is a great piece of kit.  There are various different types which are used across brands.  They give you information on which mode you are in, how many miles per hour you are whizzing along at, how far you’ve travelled etc etc  Two of the most important factors for me were, does the display clip off, so that I can easily remove it from my bike when I go into a cafe or shop and probably more importantly, can I read the display without my glasses on.

The controller for the motor is mounted on my handlebars and again is very simple, easy to read and just next to the handlebar.

A Haibike Bosch Intuvia Handlebar mounted controller
The handlebar mounted controller is simple to use. Press + to increase the power of the motor and – to decrease the power. The i button scrolls through the different modes of information.

Suspension

I wanted at least front suspension to take out some of the bumps in the road, again for my dicky back, and if I could get front suspension that locks out, all the better for when I am cycling on smooth tarmac roads, although I’m not too worried about losing pedal power through the suspension as of course I’ve got a cheats motor helping me along.

Quality

I looked at a few bikes which frankly were pretty shoddily made.  One bike looked like it had been built on a Friday, all the welds were wonky and things just weren’t symetrical.  Have a good look at the bike you are buying and make sure it’s well put together.

Saddle

I wanted a comfy saddle, although this is a very personal thing and what is comfy for one person might not be for another, so you need to try them out.  If you find your ideal bike, but the saddle isn’t right, you could always swap the saddle later, or do a deal with the shop when you buy the bike.  It’s important to mention that a great big padded sofa of a saddle won’t always be the most comfortable.  It depends on your riding position and your anatomy.

Frame

I wanted a women’s frame, but not a full step through.  I didn’t want a man’s frame in a small size, because often the geometry just isn’t right for a woman.  I wanted a dropped crossbar bike, sometimes called a low step, ideally designed for a woman or at least with a woman in mind.  The frame of a full step through arguably is slightly less robust than a frame with a cross bar.

Brakes

I’m a big fan of disc brakes and have had them on my previous 2 bikes.  I want to be able to stop quickly when I need to, regardless of the weather conditions and without needing  the grip strength of Big Daddy* to pull the brake levers.

Gears

I wanted gears, so that I could ride it like a ‘normal’ bike and if I ever do run out of battery, I’ll have a fighting chance of getting home again.  I didn’t mind hub gears or derailleur.  Mine has 9 speed derailleur, but modern hub gears are good too as they are enclosed and shielded from road muck and so less maintenance.

The Look

OK it’s not THE most important thing, but if you’re buying a new bike, you have to like how it looks.

Price

Of course your choice will depend largely on your budget.  The more you pay, the better the bike.  There are electric bikes available from around £1k and at the upper end the sky is the limit.  Set your budget and it will help you to pare down the many choices in your price range.

Where to Buy it From

As I mentioned at the start, there has been a massive change in awareness and attitudes to electric bikes.  In Europe the sale of electric cycles has now outstripped the sale of conventional bikes and judging by my experience while shopping for my bike, the same may be happening in the UK too.

I shortlisted several bikes, visited many shops across North and West Yorkshire, Teesside and County Durham, phoned shops up and down the country and test rode about 8 bikes.  The story was the same everywhere I enquired, the bike shops couldn’t get hold of bikes quickly enough to keep up with the current demand and some shops even used this as a pressure selling tactic, which for me never works.  I held my nerve despite threats of ‘If you don’t buy this last one, I don’t know when I can get any more of those in.’

I eventually bought my bike from the Electric Transport Shop in York, the staff were knowledgeable, I felt unpressured and they offered me and my husband a lengthy test ride and ordered in several extra bikes in my size and price range for me to try out.

What Did I Buy?

I bought a Haibike SDuro Trecking 5 Low Step,  I chose it because it ticked every single one of my boxes and it’s the most comfortable bike I’ve every ridden.

Photo of cycling round Barra on an electric bike
Still smiling while cycling round the Isle of Barra in a headwind on my electric bike.

Am I Pleased With My Purchase?

I can honestly say I’ve never looked back and I absolutely love my new bike, I ride it at every excuse, I can go for long hilly rides without any pain and enjoy the view without the need for oxygen at the tops of the hills, I now look for reasons to go out on my bike.  Headwinds and hills are no longer a reason not to ride.

I hope this information is helpful and I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments section below if you’ve found this useful and if you’re considering or have already bought an electric bike.

*Big Daddy for those of you who are too young to remember this, provided hours of entertainment on a Saturday afternoon with pantomime like wrestling on television along with Giant Haystacks and Kendo Nagasaki.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eriskay Love Lilt

Approaching Eriskay from the Sound of Barra

Eric’s Island

The little CalMac ferry boat manoeuvred up to the deserted slipway on the end of a huge rocky landmass at the southern gateway to Eriskay, named from the Norse for Eric’s island.  It was about 7:30 in the morning and we hadn’t yet unmade the bed or had our breakfast,

Pete drove the motorhome down the ramp and up onto dry land once more, thankful that we’d yet again avoided the dreaded tail end scraping that we had been warned about.  If you keep your speed very low as you come on and off the ferries, it’s not usually a problem.  We parked up just near the slipway in a tarmacced area, put the kettle on and to have a look at the map. This little area of tarmac would probably make a reasonable wild camp spot if you had an early ferry going the other way, it’s certainly well away from any houses.

Approaching the slipway on Eriskay
Approaching the slipway on Eriskay, with the ‘terminal building’ in sight.

There weren’t that many fellow passengers, obviously everyone else sensibly had a warm bed to be in at that time of the morning.  There were a couple of vans who looked in a hurry to get to work and a lone foot passenger, an elderly man, looking rather dapper in a straw boater and jacket with a cane.  I wondered if he was either a member of a local Barbershop quartet, or maybe he owned the island.  His lift turned up, he briskly hopped in and off he went.

We paused for a photo looking back down at the little ferry terminal which is at one end of the main road on Eriskay.

CalMac ferry at Eriskay
A ship of dreams.

Whisky Galore

Maybe the handsomely (albeit a little bizzarely) dressed foot passenger gentleman had come over for a gig at the world famous pub on Eriskay.  The AM Politician pub is named after the doomed Steam Ship Politician, which in 1941 ran into trouble in a storm and grounded on the sandbanks off the coast of Eriskay.  The life boat was launched, but in the wrong direction and so the locals, who were watching the disaster unfold, set sail and thankfully all the crew were eventually rescued. 

However this is not where the story ends.  It just so happens that the cargo of this ship was 260,000 bottles of whisky, bound for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans. 

That’s a fair few snifters and a heck of a lot of hangover juice. 

This was 1941, wartime and rationing was in place, so a boatful of whisky bobbing about offshore within staggering distance was like manner from heaven for the islanders. 

It must have been like winning the lottery!  The locals set about offloading, secreting and drinking 24,000 bottles of whisky, much to the annoyance of the customs men, who considered it an illegal activity.  In the ensuing struggle villages and crofts were raided in an attempt to recover the scotch and deter the by now probably very happy islanders.  In the end the customs men blew up the wreck of the ship to prevent further salvage.  Spoilsports!

The story was immortalised in Compton Mackenzies book Whisky Galore and you can see relics from the ship in the Politician pub.

Having missed out on breakfast due to our middle of the night alarm call, we pulled in at the first possible parking area which just happened to be next to a white sand beach with  turquiose waters gently lapping at the shore.  Not a bad view to eat your Alpen to.

Motorhome parked next to a white sand beach on Eriskay with turquoise water
Could you wish for a better view at breakfast?

We drove along the island where the main settlement on Eriskay opened up in the landscape before us..

Perfect tarmac road paving the way to Eriskay shop in the pretty white washed village ahead.
Perfect tarmac road paving the way to Eriskay shop in the pretty white washed village ahead.

Community Spirit

We popped into the excellent Eriskay community shop at Rubha Ban, where they sell just about everything you could need including many coop branded food items.  You’ll probably find the shop populated with lots of friendly Gaelic speaking locals, as it serves importantly as the hub of their community, tackling rural isolation which must be a problem particularly for the elderly and during the long dark winter months.

Shopping bill from Eriskay shop
Helping the local economy enormously by spending over £46 on community spirit! Looks like it’s curry for tea tonight and corned beef hash tomorrow.

The prices weren’t far off what you’d pay on the mainland and they had a rather good selection of whisky.  It’s good for the local economy if you stock up here as all the profits are invested back into the community.  Bearing this in mind we helped community funds by succumbing to a bottle of 15 year old Dalwhinne, not chosen from experience, more because the box looked nice.  It proved to be a smooth choice.  Bang goes £40 of our budget, but at least we didn’t need to plunder an offshore wreck to get it and we wouldn’t need to worry about customs men turning our van over in the night either.

As well as whisky galore, the island is also famous for Eriskay jerseys which apparently are knitted without seams.  I imagine if the crafty knitters suddenly discovered they’d inadvertently put in a seam by accident, they could call on their neighbours at Buth Barragh, as mentioned in my previous post, to solve their knitting problems.

Ode to Eriskay

I’ve discovered there’s also a song called the Eriskay Love Lilt, which is credited with being written by Marjory Kennedy Fraser, although Marj apparently adapted it from a traditional song that she had collected during a project to preserve Gaelic music of the islands and then she changed the tune a bit, so I’m not sure how much of it she actually wrote.

This is yet another lovely Hebridean island, full of character and choc full of lovely landscapes.   In tribute to this special patch of land, here’s a rather nice rendition of the Eriskay Love Lilt by Paul Robeson for your listening pleasure, although it was also covered by Nana Mouskourie and Judith Durham of the Seekers.

 

Travelling from Barra To Eriskay

A Caledonian MacBrayne passenger Boarding Card

Up with the Corncrake

We’re not generally ones to be up with the lark, or in the case of the Outer Hebrides the Corncrake, indeed, our bird names would more likely be night owls, so we optimistically hoped that our next ferry crossing would be at a reasonable hour, to allow for our normal gentle easement into a new day.

However, we discovered quite quickly on our island hopping adventure that the increasing popularity of the Outer Hebrides now means that if you’re travelling with a vehicle and particularly a motorhome, you need to book ahead.

The reality of this first hit when we went into the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry office in Castlebay to book our Barra to Eriskay ticket.   After using their (novelty for us) flushing toilet and downloading all our emails using their free CalMac wifi, I innocently asked the  man on the desk if it was a good idea to book for the next days’ ferry rather than just turning up and hopping on.   He scanned his computer, looked up at the tide times on the wall beside him and with a sharp intake of breath across his teeth, told us that “the only boat with any space is in 3 days time at 7am, with a 6.45 AM check in.”

I’m not sure if the CalMac man behind the counter saw the undisguised look of horror on our faces at the suggestion that we might have to mobilise in (what we consider to be) the middle of the night.  I thanked him for his suggestion and said we would be happy to travel a day later.  “OK, lets just check that for you” he paused while he rattled the keyboard and scanned the screen for a moment, then looking pleased he looked up and said “7am, it’s the only one with any space.  Would you like me to book that in?”

Phone alarm set at 05:46
05:46! It’s nearly the middle of the night! Notice I’ve given myself an extra minute after 5:45.

Although being stuck on Barra would be no bad thing, we realised that the only way off of Barradise, was going to have to start with a rude awakening by alarm clock, which in my opinion in surely the worst way to start any day.   Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely loved it on Barra and could have easily settled in chez Angus and just finished our exploration of the Outer Hebrides right there.  However, the lure was strong of yet undiscovered places further up the line, so we bought our tickets and contemplated our unlikely future as early risers.

Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry tickets and a map showing the Outer Hebrides
£16.65! A bargain ferry ticket for 2 adults and a 6m motorhome, from the Isle of Barra to the tiny island of Eriskay.

Low Cost CalMac Ferries

The good news is that these ferries are heavily subsidised by the Scottish Government with RTE – Road Tarif Equivalent fares.  This means that it should not cost more to take a ferry than to drive by car between ports, not that you could actually drive over the water obviously, but that’s the logic behind it and it works fine for me.  For our 6m motorhome and 2 adults, this fare was only £16.65.  If anyone else knows where else you can take your motorhome for a cruise and still get change from a twenty pound note, please let me know.

It’s all in the Timing

Back at Scurrival campsite that evening we asked Angus, the lovely campsite owner, how long it would take to get to the little unmanned ferry slipway at Ardmhor.  “Well now” he said in that lovely Hebridean (sounds to me like Irish) accent, “It should only take you half an hour to get there,” he scratched his head up under his well worn Harris tweed cloth cap, tilted his head, thought for moment more and added, “So, let me see now, if you leave here in the morning at 6:30, you should be there by 6:45!”   We were non the wiser really, but had learnt that clearly Barra is in its very own time warp.

This is a place far removed from the lives of many of us on the mainland.   The consumerism and busy rush that has become the norm in our media reliant lives is absent here.  We were beginning to discover that the charm of this place is that the daily lives of the inhabitants of these islands are determined not by the clock, but by the tide times, the weather, the seasons and the hours of daylight.

Photo of Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry coming in to Ardmhor on Barra
Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry Barra to Eriskay

We caught the early morning ferry and sailed across the calm waters of the Sound of Barra.  It’s only a 40 minute journey, during which you can either stay in your vehicle or climb up the steel steps onto the upper deck in a bracing wind, we chose the latter. Once up on top we abandoned our hats in fear of losing them in the Sound of Barra, pulled up our hoods to shield our ears from the rush of the wind and looked back over to the steadily disappearing lovely Isle of Barra and then back ahead as we approached Eriskay, wondering what this next tiny island had in store for us.