03 September 2010

Height of folly: Biking up Bealach na Ba

The road west over the hills to Applecross, on the north-west coast of Scotland, is Britain's longest steep hill. Simon Warren's recent book on Britain's top 100 cycling hills rated every one out of ten; this one rated eleven.

The hill is Bealach na Ba, usually translated 'Pass of the Cattle', but I prefer 'Cow Pass'. Bealach is the Gaelic for 'pass', pronounced rather like someone unexpectedly throwing up, which is appropriate.

The sign at the bottom - a candidate for Britain's most verbose - sternly warns learner drivers and caravans off its jackknife hairpins and vertiginous gradients.

The road was built in 1822, and they were clearly made of stern stuff then: it rises from sea level to 616m over a distance of 9km - or 2,053 feet in five and a bit miles in old money - giving it an average gradient of 7%, or 1 in 14 in imperial.

(It was listed in the Guinness Book of Records, as it was then called, as the longest steep hill in Britain for many years, before Guinness went all populist and turfed out stuff like that in favour of yummiest flavours of ice-cream, or the most unicyclists in Santa Claus outfits etc.)

It's Britain's most Alpine ascent, getting steadily steeper and steeper as it staircases up the wall of the pass, with the dramatic switchbacks at the top reaching 1 in 5.

But - yesterday, anyway - it was sheer delight to cycle up, from this tourist's point of view, stopping frequently to take pictures and swig water, and wave at motorcyclists hurtling to the summit. From the viewpoint at the top you have the magnificent skyline of the Cuillin ridge, keenly observed by people sitting inside motorhomes.

The other side - down to Applecross - is a whizzy adrenaline rush, with good sightlines, mostly easy corners, gentler gradients than the eastern ascent, and long straightish bits: five, maybe six miles of freewheel. And there's a pleasant pub in Applecross with a beer garden on the edge of the loch, and a fine view of Red Cuillin - that's the Skye Brewery beer, not the peak.

This, you see, was my birthday present to me.


  1. You are surely not trying to suggest that this is a more attractive cycling environment than Cambridge?

  2. Some brilliant camping to be had a Applecross apparently, if you're able to drag your bike & camping gear all the way up the Guinness World Record hill to enjoy it! Happy Birthday :0)

  3. Happy birthday indeed. And thanks for this blog.

  4. Freewheeler, do you think this looks like an enjoyable ride? Stop kidding yourself - roads like this will never be fit for cyclists until they have proper, Dutch-style, segregated cycle paths. Not enough space on this narrow path for that? Your car-dependency sickens me...

  5. How weird is that!? We were up there last Monday 30/08/10! If only we'd have waited we could have said "Hi" :-D

    The climb was tough, but the worst thing was how cold it was at the top, my fingers were white coming down the other side :-(

    Did you do the coastal road on the way back? Some pretty serious, albeit shorter, hills there.

    Keep up the good website.

    Dave and Pauline

  6. @Dave - yes, from Applecross I headed north up the lonely coastal road (only built in the 1970s, apparently) to Torridon, which was extraordinarily beautiful.

    I was also delighted to find some decent Scottish beer for a change: Skye brewery's Red Cuillin ale, which I decided to make the official beverage of the trip.

  7. Ridden over there a couple of times, the last in the pouring rain on the "Bealach Beag" sportive a couple of years ago. The descent at speed with misted up specs was interesting!

    There are a couple of other "decent" (as you put it) Scottish beers - try the Black Isle Brewery's Red Kite, or the Orkney Brewery's Northern Light (personal favourite atm) and Raven ales.

  8. @Anonymous - I've tried Black Isle's Red Kite, and indeed dropped in on the brewery last year when I was cycling a Scottish coast-to-coast. Well, I say brewery; it's more like a shed. Most enjoyable. Don't know Raven Ales though - will check out next time I'm in Orkney. Thanks for tip.

  9. Most of them turn up at the Cambridge Beer Festival....

  10. Hello! I've lived in Edinburgh for several years, and have tried all these beers mentioned. I seem to remember enjoying all of them immensely! There's a brewery in Pitlochry that's also worth checking out (I've not seen their beer outside the town). Also Shetland's Unst brewery has a great selection - but is quite tricky to get to. (Shetland also seems good to cycle - if it wasn't for the wind... actually that can be said for most of Scotland...)

    Also, a belated happy birthday.

    (and it's a fantastic blog, by the way)

    1. Colonsay brewery employs 10% of the island's working population! (Mike and Bob)!