John Peet, former General Secretary of L'Arche UK, is hoping to raise £30,000 by cycling 1500 miles around the UK and visiting every L'Arche Community and Project on the way. The money will go to L'Arche in Zimbabwe, where funds are so desperately needed just to keep the Community going, and to the Projects in Glasgow and Manchester that, with your help, will soon become L'Arche Communities.

Thursday 12th & Friday 13th June 2008

Route: Fort William to Gruline, Mull
Distance: 52.33 miles 559 miles so far; 941 miles to go)
Weather: Sunny with broken cloud, light wind, dry

Donald kindly offered me a short Eucharistic service so I was well nourished with spiritual as well as physical bread for the journey. Breakfast included a robust cup of excellent coffee from his Gaggia espresso machine and more interesting history of the parish.

My departure was delayed whilst I got hold of the distributor of Altura panniers who turned out to be Zyro Ltd in Thirsk. After explaining the problem to Claire, of their customer service department, she organised a couple of spare hooks to be sent for my collection at the Oban Post Office Monday. Thanks for your help, Claire. Meantime a length of nylon cord would have to suffice. I think Altura need to go back to the drawing board with the design of this rather crucial component.

Armed with a couple of much appreciated sandwiches from Donald, I headed off to the Corran Ferry, calling first at Off Beat Bikes for a tyre pressure check, courtesy of Liam. The A82 is a busy road but the 7 miles or so were quickly covered. As I turned into the ferry terminal, who should be sitting there in her car but Kathy MacDonald, who had passed me up the road on her way back from the Regional Council in Drumnadrochit. So we had a coffee and a chat before parting company.

Passengers and bikes travel free on the ferry which only takes few minutes to cross Loch Linnhe. The A861 follows the loch side for a few miles before turning west inland up Glen Tarbet. The climb was reasonably manageable and the glint of Loch Sunnart marked the start of an equally gentle descent to the junction of the A884 at the eastern end of the loch. Again the road followed the loch until turning south up a pretty steep incline when the lowest of granny gears just managed to keep me on the saddle. Some wonderful descents into Gleann Geal eventually leading down the side of Loch Aline. Here I had a pit stop at the ferry cafe advertising a haggis burger which I had to sample. As I waited for the ferry, Gordon Henderson appeared, offering me some mackerel he and his son Mikey had just caught, so I took up the offer with the view to taking some for tonight's hosts. Many thanks Gordon.

The ferry across to Mull is a 15 minute hop, so my journey soon continued west along the A849 to Salen, a small village with hotel, shop and restaurant. By this time the weather was starting to look more settled, with blue sky and a warmer breeze predominating when I headed inland towards Gruline across what was effectively the neck of Mull.

My SatNav had told me to take the first turn left at Gruline past the church, but I ignored the insistent voice and took the second turn. Gruline House is tucked away from the road along a half mile drive past General McQuarie's mausoleum. Before reaching what I hoped would be the final gate into the grounds, a deer ran straight in front of me into the woods. Then the sight of Nicola Harmer at the front door waving, told me I had taken the correct turning.

Standing in its own grounds, Gruline House is an imposing turreted mansion overlooking Loch Ba. It was built in 1861 beside General McQuarie's original house. James and Nicola Harmer couldn't have given a warmer welcome to a complete stranger. This had all come about through a succession of contacts originating with an approach to Bishop Martin Shaw and leading to Mrs Sue Blockey, the local Episcopal Church Secretary, through Audrey, Bishop Martin's secretary. I'm really grateful to them all.

After a hot bath, I was treated to a delicious dinner which their daughter Fiona had a hand in cooking. Time to share a little about L'Arche and learn about the family and its connection with Gruline. The prospect of continuing the good conversation in front of a crackling log fire seemed very tempting, but I knew I should retire before sleep hit me after a long day and most enjoyable evening.

Thursday 12th June 2008

Route: Inverness to Fort William
Distance: 65.32 miles Total so far 506 miles; 994 miles to go
Weather: Overcast, cool, light showers then dry

I had been up quite late the night before wrestling with computers to try to get photos uploaded - my great wee ASUS Eee refuses to read from my camera's SD card. Don't ask me why! Then I lost Monday's draft blog so had to start all over again. At least I got that done and Tuesday's too.
I'm sleeping for England at the moment, so only woke around 7.45, with quite bit to do before setting off. I've now got into a strict routine for packing, everything having its rightful place in the respective pannier. I must have left shampoo bottles in numerous houses over the years – this trip I'm determined not to lose the miniature containers which have helped to reduce the weight to a minimum.

Breakfast was a quick affair with Pawel, Kevin and Mark. Then a quick email to Judith with the completed blogs for uploading, and it was time to say my thanks and farewells to the house and take a photo which everyone agreed could go up on the blog.

Chris Sadler had offered to accompany me out of Inverness, so I headed off to Lodge Road with the help of my SatNav. Thanks for all the snacks which have sustained me throughout the day. With a cool wind in the air, the occasional shower forced me to wear my heavier bright yellow rain jacket enhancing the wasp look. I was then on my own heading along the B862 which takes the eastern side of Loch Ness.

The route took me past the site where Rock Ness had been staged the previous week-end which had attracted over 35,000 people I was told. This was now Thursday and it looked like there was still quite a bit of dismantling to do. The ride was relatively flat as far as Foyers where I stopped with the intention of having a mid-morning coffee. I pulled off the road and pushed the bike up the accessible ramp which led to a large decked area in front of The Red Squirrel cafe and the adjoining Post Office. Before I was half way up a man came out of the cafe and said “Please take the bike off the ramp” So I said I would be as quick as I could but that didn't go down too well, as he had intended me to go down whilst I thought I'd solve the problem by going up. He then became quite insistent “You can't bring the bike up here, you'll have to leave it down there”. “But I've got all my valuables which I don't want to be out of my sight” I explained I was doing a 1,500 mile sponsored ride for people with learning disabilities. “Besides, there's plenty of room up there – surely one bike isn't going to be in the way?” Then I noticed a woman emerging from the Post Office echoing the mantra “Please take your bike off the ramp”. “But all want is a cup of coffee.” The man then said “What if a crowd of cyclists turn up and they all want to come up here – this is the Highlands you know” My blood was beginning to boil. “I was going to buy a cup of coffee, but I've just decided not to” I replied constraining myself from articulating what I really thought of them both for being so petty.

Fortunately there is a hill just after Foyers where I was able to vent my anger by taking it out on the steep incline. I was surprised how much the incident had pressed a button and annoyed me so much, but sad that this rather aggressive and unreasonable reception had marred my otherwise buoyant mood. A bit further on I passed a sign for a Catholic Church and a voice inside me said 'go and say a prayer and clam down'. So I turned round and went to investigate. Hidden by trees from the road, the little white-washed chapel adjoins what I was soon to discover had been the Presbytery but was now a private house. The door appeared locked, so I went round the back and came back to find an elderly lady with peaked cap in the entrance door beckoning me inside. She explained that the land had been given by a member of the Lovat family and the chapel built over a hundred years ago. I explained I was doing a sponsored bike ride. “Would you like a cup of tea or coffee”, she said. “A coffee would be great - thank you, but I just want a little time for prayer” “That's fine, I'll just go and get it ready” she said disappearing through the connecting door to her house. Eventually I left the church, and went round to the front of the house where I was welcomed into the sitting room. We introduced ourselves – she as Marianna - and I sat down while she went to sort out the coffee. It wasn't long before her daughter Therese appeared with a toasted ham and cheese sandwich with salad garnish and a piping hot cup of coffee, subsequently complemented by a plate of chocolate biscuits.

Therese then told me of her plans to develop the site as an oasis of peace for people who had lost hope and could not see the way forward, and for those who wanted a quiet place for a retreat and for youth gatherings. Her vision seemed deeply rooted in a strong Catholic faith. I was very touched by her warmth and openness. With the help of others she was setting up a charity called 'Cerys'. I sensed it was at times a daunting challenge to deal on her own with all the legislation which surrounded multiple occupancy legal requirements with which I'm not unfamiliar. Therese knew L'Arche Inverness as Brian McDonald brought a core member out here occasionally. Whilst I had a tour of the skeleton of a new kitchen, her mother was organising a colour print of the Chapel for me. After meeting Therese's son Tom, and taken a photo for the blog, I headed off with a lighter heart and a real hope that Therese's vision could be realised.

The next part of the route involved quite a steep climb to the Suidhe viewpoint on the edge of the Monadhliath Mountains which dominate the eastern side of Loch Ness. Here I met Danny from Litchfield, a young graduate who was doing the Land's End to John O'Groats ride and was already this far up on his 9th day. Good going, Danny – travel well. Then an exhilarating descent past the new Hydro Electric scheme being installed, before entering Fort Augustus. On the way down I met Will Thomson and American Friend Dick Jones on the way up. Will had been diagnosed with cancer and was determined not to let it beat him so was an a tour of Scotland for the local Aberdeen cancer charity CLAN. Good luck to you both – I admire you're positive attitude, Will.

At Fort Augustus the Caledonian Canal starts from a lock complex surrounded by a busy cluster of tourist shops, pubs and restaurants. As I arrived a lone piper was reminding tourists that this was Scotland, so I rang the L'Arche office in Silsden for my daily update and gave John and Judith the benefit of the tuneful strains.

From here, the cyclepath follows the western side of the canal and I set off for Fort William c. 30 miles away. At one point I stopped to chat with a couple of cyclists and give them a card when another cyclist passed me. Ahead was another lock and a massive cruise boat so I went to investigate and no sooner had I leaned my bike up against fence when the man who had just passed me, and was now on the boat, said “ Hello, are you doing a sponsored ride?” “Yes” “Would you like to come on board and tell the passengers about it?” “Um, well, yes please, that would be great” So before I could say “Lord of the Glens” (the name if the boat) I was sinking into the luxury pile carpet of this exclusive cruiser, and being plied with another cup of coffee! More importantly, Brian, the person in charge, made a PA announcement about the L'Arche Big Bike Ride and invited people to the lounge to hear more. So as we glided gracefully up the 5 miles or so to the next lock, I chatted to a number of Americans who were on the week's cruise to Oban and Tobermoray. The Zimbabwe connection seemed to evoke particular interest. Brian at one point generously offered me accommodation for the night. I reluctantly declined. Leaving an ample stock of cards and sponsor forms, and collecting a donation or two from passengers, I disembarked at the Aberchalder lock gate near Bridge of Clich. What can I say but that the hand of God seemed very present in these last two episodes.

After the A87 turnoff to the Kyle of Lochalsh, the road switches to the east side of Loch Lochy before climbing to the Commando Monument in the shadow of Ben Nevis. I met up with a group from the charity Deaf Scotland. Another interesting encounter with a couple on holiday from England on their way to Ullapool, Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles. Have a great trip!
The remaining cyclepath to Fort William follows the next stage of the Caldonian Canal. By this time the cloud was breaking and the sun emerging, so it was a pleasant end to an eventful ride. With SatNav assistance I was soon arriving at St Mary's presbytery where I was staying thanks to the hospitality of Mgr. Donald McKinnon whom I had met on a cycling tour of the Hebrides with my friend Jock in 1997. On the way into Fort William, I thought I heard the sound of a plastic cap falling to the ground, and on removing my panniers realised it was one of the plastic hooks securing the offside pannier to the rack. This could be serious. An early call would be needed to track down a spare part from an Altura stockist.

Donald kindly showed me to the self contained suite at the back of the house and had anticipated my need of a hot bath after what had been a long ride of 65 miles. I was then treated to a great pasta meal, half way through which a parishioner Alistair MacLeod appeared with more food and sat and chatted with us.

I retired to write my blog around 9.30 pm and woke at 11.30 pm to find I had written nothing! I've now covered a third of the mileage in 10 days on the road. My original estimate of 50 mile average a day is on target. So far no major aches or pains, thank God.

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