Doc­tor Hutch

Born ad­ven­turer Hutch chan­nels the spirit of Rex Co­ley and heads to Scot­land’s feared Cape Wrath

Cycling Weekly - - Contents - Doc­torhutch_­cy­cling@timeinc.com

Back in 1949, in the bleak post-war days of ra­tion books and aus­ter­ity, one of my il­lus­tri­ous pre­de­ces­sors in this mag­a­zine be­came disil­lu­sioned with the way cy­cling had changed from the 1930s.

Rex Co­ley wrote his col­umn un­der the name ‘Ragged Staff’. His beef was that cy­clists had stopped go­ing on proper ad­ven­tures. In­stead they were in­creas­ingly con­cerned with go­ing on runs to lo­cal cafes, try­ing to beat their friends up lo­cal hills, and most re­gret­table of all, rac­ing.

So he started the Cape Wrath Fel­low­ship. If you rode to Cape Wrath — the re­mote head­land at the very top left-hand cor­ner of Scot­land where the At­lantic meets the North Sea — Co­ley would send you a cer­tifi­cate, a badge and a per­sonal let­ter of congratulations.

I have al­ways wanted to do this; ride through the wild and lonely land­scape, and at last stand on the Cape with noth­ing be­tween me and the Arc­tic apart from a few shiv­er­ing puffins. And, of course, to take the photo of my­self at the light­house that would en­ti­tle me to claim (from Cy­cling UK these days) my Fel­low­ship cer­tifi­cate.

Need­less to say I have been much too feck­less to ever get around to it. I’ve been too busy try­ing to beat the lo­cals up hills and go­ing rac­ing. I had to be co­erced into it by a Bike Chan­nel TV show called 100 Things.

Road to nowhere

De­spite it be­ing on the main­land, you have to start your trip to the Cape by tak­ing a very small ferry across an es­tu­ary. The ferry is the easy bit. On the far side there is an 11-mile ‘road’. This was built in 1826 so they could build the light­house, and no one has touched it in the last two cen­turies other than the army, who oc­ca­sion­ally bomb it since it runs through an ar­tillery range. This doesn’t re­ally mat­ter, since the point where bomb­ing it would make it no­tice­ably worse has long since passed. It is, and I say this with all due con­sid­er­a­tion, even worse than a road in Sur­rey.

I had plenty of time to look at it: the show’s pre­sen­ter, O.J. Borg, re­fused point-blank to ac­cept the the­sis that the reg­u­lar­ity with which a 90kg rider bangs an un­der-in­flated cy­clo-cross tyre into a large pot­hole might cor­re­late with the num­ber of punc­tures he gets, so there was quite a lot of stand­ing around, lean­ing against the wind.

The lonely road to Cape Wrath made ev­ery other ‘wilder­ness’ I’ve ever seen look like Berk­shire. No trees were brave enough to try to cling to the thin soil. The hills were low and dark, and even the heather looked wind-torn.

“The road to Cape Wrath made other wilder­nesses look like Berk­shire”

We made it to the light­house, where I have to re­port that the Shack­le­ton fac­tor was rather un­der­mined by the pres­ence of a cafe, which claims to be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, de­spite the Cape be­ing in­ac­ces­si­ble for about six months over each win­ter. That’s the sort of cafe Rex Co­ley would have run.

Ad­ven­ture’s end

The ex­pe­ri­ence made me feel small for more rea­sons than the ob­vi­ous. We were there, in this hos­tile place, to es­sen­tially take up a dare put out by a long-dead mag­a­zine columnist. While there was nowhere I’d rather have been, there and back was still the long­est 22 miles I’ve ever rid­den. Rain, hail, warm sun­shine and blasts of freez­ing wind came in ev­ery com­bi­na­tion. I’ve never felt so far-flung or vul­ner­a­ble.

And ev­ery yard of the way I was painfully aware that de­spite be­ing one of the in­her­i­tors of Rex Co­ley’s job, I could of­fer read­ers a cer­tifi­cate, a badge and even a large G&T to any­one in­trepid enough to take a photo of them­selves in front of their lo­cal Aldi, and I’d still get no tak­ers.

Cape Wrath is an ad­ven­ture too far for to­day’s soft­ies

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