Stage 160, 27th August: Reay to Dunnet
Three consecutive days of sunshine, three consecutive days of mainly road walking and I still haven’t fathomed out whether I would prefer rain for road days or cross country ones. Wet roads and traffic spray aren’t nice, so maybe I should just count my blessings. Nonetheless I was a little aggrieved that the scenery was now a tad bland and that a few sunny days over the last few weeks might have given me greater opportunity to appreciate the stunning Northwest landscape that I probably missed as I took cover beneath my blinkering hood.
With each mile eastbound, the road was becoming busier and I took to verge hopping for the first time in ages to avoid the usual selection of speeding plonkers who are too selfish to slow down their metal box and give me a bit of room. I have identified a brand of person and type of vehicle they drive as the ones to really be aware of, but I won’t name them here for fear of generalising, other than to say that all the high top vans driven by couriers aren’t to be messed with.
Thurso was my first proper town since I visited Oban and Fort William back in early July. It felt strange and very impersonal to pass people who now avoided eye contact or gave any acknowledgement of my existence, yet at the same time the general bustle and the loud chattering cries from children playing in the school playground was strangely reassuring.
From Thurso, five miles of bone straight road over blind crested switchbacks gave me a stumbling hack through the soft grass of a narrow verge to keep out of the way of the peculiarly endless stream of traffic frequenting this remote corner of Scotland. Eventually and thankfully I dropped off the A836 at Castletown and passed through the ruins of the old flagstone works and tiny narrow harbour to cross two miles of sandy beach at Dunnet Bay. My reward was a very welcome tub of Orkney chocolate ice cream and a grand clear-skied sunset to finish the day.
Stage 161, 28th August: Dunnet to John o’ Groats
With a dubious forecast looming, I made an early start back on to the sand and a cut across the peat bogs to Dunnet Head and it’s obligatory lighthouse at the Northern most point of the British mainland. The first of three marker points in two days was little more than a brief photo stop and a quick chat to two very friendly American tourists from Las Vegas who were “doing” Scotland in three weeks. I felt guilty deleting the photo they took of me on my camera posing at the lighthouse, but I thought I was getting a little self-obsessed at all these landmarks and that maybe the views are more interesting than my grimacing mug peering out from beneath a woolly hat.
As I turned South away from the lighthouse, the wind strengthened and the rain began to catch up on three days of absence. It was pizzle, horizontal pizzle and straight in my face. All I could do was batten down the hatches, pull my hood tight in and put my head down. I spent the next four hours cocooned in my own little waterproof world without a view other than that of my own feet getting wetter by the minute. I was lost in my own thoughts but found these were mainly about how my clothing was performing and whether I should publish some kit reviews. Some kit was undoubtedly great but others were just not living up to expectation and the waterproof claims of my glove and boot makers were a complete fail! Scottish rain is clearly much more finding than the manufacturers’ test lab.
Now and again the gusts stopped me dead in my tracks and it was an uphill battle to make progress, but after a quick break for calorie loading behind the shelter of a high dry-stone wall the rain finally abated and I could make my way to John O’Groats for a posh coffee with Mike at the cafe. Here we met up with two guys, Tom & Rob, from Derbyshire who had impressively just cycled LEJOG in ten days. They were collecting for the MS Society and were rightly basking in the post match glow of completing something well beyond my capability. With the appearance of a bucket of ice filled water for their end-to-end celebratory duty it dawned on me that I too had been nominated to join in the charity social media led craze sweeping the nation and do ‘The Ice Bucket Challenge’. Without wanting to steal any of their thunder I took my turn and opportunity to fulfil my challenge and to dowse myself under the well photographed signpost. Recent conditions must have toughened me as I’m sure it felt warm….as if!
Stage 162, 29th August: John o’ Groats to Wick
Though it didn’t feel it at the time, it dawned on me that John O’Groats was actually quite a big personal marker and corner. I had completed my own LEJOG and my route had been completed over 2,785 miles of my 3,228 total so far. For many John O’Groats was also the end of a very long journey. For me I felt as if it was the start of a very long journey home. As a result it was quite a depressing thought that I had probably already walked the most spectacular bits and that the journey South wouldn’t hold quite so much in terms of scenery. Hopefully it would prove me wrong.
My next compass point came quickly as I ventured across country saying goodbye to the Pentland Firth and hello to the North Sea. Dunscanby Head marked the most Northeasterly point of the British mainland and I now properly turned South to walk along the edge of the sandstone cliffs. Despite the lack of a marked path, I stayed close to the cliff edge and watched the fulmars as they soared the wind around the Stacks of Dunscanby. The high cliffs were peppered with caves and arches and were clearly popular with nesting birds, even if I was there out of season. I reminded myself to bring my big camera and a long pointy lens back one day.
I could have walked to Wick via the A99 but in keeping to the cliffs around Dunscanby Head I had nicely avoided a chunk of ‘A’ road. Unfortunately I had to rejoin it for a few miles, but quickly made a bee-line for Sinclair’s Bay and a stretch of beach walking. The tide was in and I found myself dodging the waves as they drove their way up the sand and pushed me towards the shingle of the high tide line. I passed a huge engineering project in the form of a sub-sea ‘pipeline bundle’ and marvelled at the size of kit they were preparing to launch into the sea to lay on the sea-bed and return gas back for us to burn. I then had a small river to wade, my fourth of the journey so far….I think.
Off the sand, I returned to the main road for the last few miles into Wick. As a huge out-of-town supermarket loomed over the horizon a man approached wearing bright red gaiters and dragging a one-wheeled sled laden with kit. I had been forewarned of David Barnes. He had set out a couple of weeks ago from Inverness to walk the British coast anti-clockwise. I surprised him a little in greeting him by name and we stood to compare notes and chat enthusiastically at the roadside for a good while. He was carrying / dragging 50kg of kit, mostly fishing kit, as he intends to take two years foraging for food and fishing his way around the coast. If anyone thought my trek was extreme and that I had lost the plot, this one really must be nuts. Despite having some serious doubts whether he could drag that thing over some of the deer fences, through deep bogs or over some of the incredibly steep terrain that he will undoubtedly face, I wished him the best of luck and genuinely hoped that he was quick on his feet to be able to drag his sled out of the way of the courier drivers.
Rest Day, 30th August: Wick
Last night had brought the very welcome arrival of Kate for her fourth visit and another full week in Snickers. With Kate having just missed out on my LEJOG landmark we returned to John O’ Groats for a more leisurely and almost languid lunch before spending a few minutes doing the touristy bits. We returned to Wick and briefly wandered the streets of town which were redolent of a men’s urinal whilst also retaining an air of former affluence. It was more than a little depressing even in the sunshine. In writing this Mike, Kate and I have been debating whether to head into town for an evening meal, but the sound of a man’s screaming coming from the direction of the police station last night added to the possible echo of two gun shots in the streets during the day might have swayed our decision.
Distance to date: 3,248 miles Ascent to date: 430,137 ft