Part two of the tale of my trip around the renowned North Coast 500 on a Burgman with a mate who, although he has been riding for 50 years, has never taken his test – so we continue from last month’s riveting episode of our adventure…

Day four found us at the dealership and I had made a discovery. I was fiddling with my waterproof covers to my panniers when my lost gloves fell out. They had obviously got tangled up and lived there for two days. So at least I could save myself the £80 I was due to spend on new ones. Happy days.

Sadly, not so good on the screw front. I saw a guy in the showroom and explained my issue. He was a salesman and pointed to service reception, this being populated by a tall and young brunette girl apparently called Bella who oversaw that department. “Ask her for a screw,” was his suggestion. Frankly, I thought my chances would be incredibly low indeed, but I have never been one to shirk good advice – but I opted to perhaps re-phrase the question.

I pointed to the offending Frankenstein-Monster-looking bolt attached to the side of my crash helmet – explained my dilemma and asked if she had anything to cure my ills. Sadly not. Oh well, at least I had found my gloves.

la mirage helmdale
La Mirage Restaurant, Helmdale

Whilst getting ready to leave in the car park we got talking to a couple of foreign guys who had just been with the lovely Bella getting a radio fitted to one of their helmets. “What part of Germany are you from?” I asked – detecting the accent – I am particularly good at accents, it’s years of practice. “Holland!” he said. I suspected he did not understand the question and therefore decided to leave it.

We were free to go and find our next stop which was Wick. This was to be a reasonable ride of about 110 miles up the East Coast. We were without breakfast and so we decided to have lunch on the way, stopped at a place called Helmsdale and found a little takeaway Fish & Chip shop called La Mirage. Another one to add to your list of places to visit – especially if you are at all hungry. We simply asked for 2 x Fish and Chip meals and proceeded to wait. We waited a little longer – and then we waited. After waiting some more, we finally got our meals. The meal consisted of about a week’s worth of chips and these were hidden underneath the remains of two porpoises.

Did I say “each”. The meals were huge – and tasted wonderful. There was no way we could finish them, but boy – what a feast. We were now at a point where it was difficult to move, but despite this we bravely managed to climb aboard and find the rest of our way to Wick.

NC500 scooters

I was due to stay at the house of someone called Elenna at the Rose Cottage in the Harbour. Despite eating the outpourings of a small country at lunchtime we were early. I sent Elenna a message asking if I could check in and she was very accommodating. We found the house so that we both knew where I was in case of emergency and told Elenna we were off to find Ian’s overnight stay.

Symptom was staying with Calum in the High Street. I emailed Calum and asked if Ian could check in early. “By all means,” replied Calum, “just come to check in at the Camps Bar in the High Street.”

Camps Bar?

The Camps bar was a little tired, and when we met Calum, (who seemed like a nice chap), we guessed where the name of the bar came from. There was nowhere for Ian to park his bike (again – insert joke here) so he padlocked it firmly to the metal fence on the harbour wall. I helped Ian carry his bags round the back of the pub up some very questionable steps and left him to settle in. At this juncture I legged it and set off to find Elenna again.

camps bar
The Camps Bar

As previously described, Elenna was lovely. She was truly short in stature (a long way under 5 foot) – but boldly built, I think that is a polite way of putting it, and you should remember that I am also short and boldly built – albeit 5’6”. Elenna was shorter – struggling to make the lofty heights of 5 feet even on short steps.

“Would you like help with your bags?” she offered, at which point I pulled myself up to my full height and sucked in one of my stomachs. “I’m fine,” I said. “The stairs are rather steep,” she said, but I ignored this sage advice and suggested that I would do my luggage in two short journeys.

I shouldered arms and followed Elenna to the foot of the stairs. “I’ll lead the way,” she uttered as we approached the aforementioned obstacle. Let me say immediately they were *not* steep. I have seen steep, and these were not it. Steep was not a word that was invented to describe these stairs. They were just like the ones I had at home.

We attained the first floor without issues and started up the second flight. I was on top form, and wishing she would hurry up, but Elenna was not to be rushed. We turned the corner and made it to the landing.

“This is a 200-year-old cottage,” she told me, “therefore some of it will catch you out if you are not careful.: With this, she opened a door. I peered inside expecting to find a period, (and very tastefully decorated) room, perhaps with a nice little fireplace and sit-down windowsill.

Nope. “One more flight,” she offered.

Dear reader, what I saw is best described as a ladder. The stairway was certainly not much wider than a ladder – but it was about as steep. Elenna set off, and I followed, struggling to fit inside the space and carry two panniers. As I ascended, the age of the house appeared to try to prove itself, because someone kept turning the lights out.

It ended well I am pleased to say, after finding the room, opening the window, and taking a few lungs-full of sea-air-scented oxygen, I recovered.

“I’ll get my son to bring the rest of your luggage up,” said Elenna, and I did not have the chance – nor the breath in my body, to argue. The day was not improved by me stubbing my very black big toe on the bed three times that evening!!

To be fair – apart from the altitude the room was lovely and was bettered by a wonderful breakfast the following day. Elenna was also lovely.

Ian was not so happy; his rather tired digs were not as impressive and he was incredibly happy to move on from a sleepless night in Camps Bar.

Lairg was next on the itinerary – via John O’Groats, Dunnet Head and the most northerly part of the North coast. We rode into John O’Groats in the rain, took the obligatory picture and headed out of town without delay. Dunnet Head – 11 miles away was the actual most northern point and a lot more picturesque.

dunnet head
August Schwerdfeger, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dounreay was very military and reminded us of nasty things, we hurried past. The A836, apart from this – was lovely. We covered 137 miles – much of it on the coastline and loved every yard of it.

Nothing funny happened – sorry. Although there were some interesting place names. Brawl, Swordly, Farr, BettyHill (she went to our school), Coldbackie, Tongue, Tongue Burn. You could put any one of those into your own sentence, I’ll wait until you are done.

OK – ready – here we go again.

We arrived in Lairg and decided that it was a noticeably quiet town. Both of us were due to dwell overnight in farms, me at the top of a valley – and overlooking Ian’s domicile at the bottom of the hill. We opted to go to the chip shop for tea – arriving at 7.05pm only to find they closed at 7.00! Well why would you want a chip shop open in the evening anyway?

falls of shin
The Falls of Shin – Paul Hermans, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Falls of Shin followed in the morning, along with a wonderful trip to Ullapool – which proved to be a reasonable stay – this even though Ian was staying in a house that backed onto Tesco, whereas I was staying in a house that looked like it came out of a showroom – it was a dream.

Dingwall, next stop – was not so dreamy. It is a dead town with one huge supermarket – the ever-popular Tesco. All the shops which sold items that were also sold in Tesco were shut and boarded up. What a crying shame.

Dingwall was to be the town which signalled the end of the Highlands for us for several reasons. Firstly – we were still a bit damp. Secondly – we were old and had covered more than 1,600 miles in 9 days. Thirdly – and this was important – each day when we woke up, we wanted clean clothes to wear. I was fine – I still had enough of everything for another 4 days. Symptom Ian on the other hand had taken a small stock-check the previous day. Clean clothes amounted to the following: 11 spare pairs of socks, enough underwear for 2 days, 4 clean pyjama tops and no clean shirts – this man cannot count!

So where were we to stay in Dingwall?  Ian was with Margaret. Margaret lived on the side of a mountain. I however was due to spend the evening with stars.

One or two of you may be old enough to remember – in black and white days – a Sunday lunchtime radio program called Round the Horne. Nowadays you wonder how they got away with it on a Sunday lunchtime radio programme?

Each week Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick played two ex-performing “luvvies” who get little or no work and spend their lives trying to make ends meet. Their famous catchphrase was “Ooh Ello Mr Orne – My Name’s Julian and this is my friend Sandy.” Go onto You Tube and search for “Julian & Sandy – Keep Britain Bona” – you will catch my drift.

On our final leg eve – I was due to stay with two guys who shared their lives together – fair enough I have absolutely no issue with that and why should I – but how do I expect to keep a straight face when I find out what their names are – when I am of a certain age and remember Round the Horne. One was called Julian – and the other was called Sandy – their bungalow was called “Sand Jools”.

gruinard bay
Gruinard Bay – Synchronium, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I had a pleasant night in their rather uniquely decorated pied a terre, (the bed was the absolute best I had slept in all week!!) and slipped out in the morning before they stirred – I needed to meet Ian for breakfast.

Ian’s evening was interesting. As well as parking on a 1-in-3 slope in the driveway (if you stood on the pavement, you looked down over the roof of the house) – it was a tiny drive which proved a challenge when he came to turn his bike around. More interesting than that was what Ian described as the tiniest bathroom he has ever seen. He had to close the door of his en-suite before he could sit on the loo and there were so many doors and cupboards he wasn’t sure what was what.

Ian was sharing the B&B with another couple who were also due to stay overnight. He heard them arrive and chat to the owner – apparently the walls were paper-thin.

Ian heard every word as he sat quietly in his luxury en-suite on the “throne” trying to be as quiet as possible as he “took his ease” – (refer to comment about paper thin walls and how sound carried). Actually – it was not the paper-thin walls and sound carrying that turned out to be the problem, the issue was the door which suddenly opened from the other couple’s bedroom directly into the bathroom where Ian was concentrating on the job in hand.

Double takes were duly taken – they looked at each other in surprise – Ian covered up and drew his legs close together – the woman went bright red, and as they say in the best circles, made her excuses and left. Ian did say it put him off the job he was half-way through!

Homeward Bound

And so, it ended. We rode back in two days – stopping in Erskine Bridge at a hotel that had a lift that was slower than coastal erosion and invaded by a Japanese coach party – perhaps I will detail this another time.

We rode home from there in one day – a mistake as it happens – but we did it anyway and reached home at 3.15am after almost 19 hours in the saddle and a blown headlamp bulb as we rode through the night. Like I said – perhaps another time.

Equally – I could expand on two bald guys in an Austin 7 who popped up several times on our tour, Billy Donelly (yes – that is really what he called himself) – an author we discovered at a roadside stop on the way down Loch Lomond, Billy then started to follow us.

Outside of that though – two old gits – one with L-plates – did the Highland 500 and made it home afterwards. 2,332 miles.

Not too shabby.

Phil Boulter

First published in Slipstream September 2021