Stage 163, 31st August: Wick to Dunbeath
My first rather damning impression of Wick improved a little as I left the town behind. The harbour, though a little tired and lacking in activity did brighten the place up a bit, but to be frank – Wick looked as if it had seen better times.
My first ten miles took me around the cliff edge and across country. Having planned for a dry warm day I had mistakenly put a pair of permeable boots on my feet. Overnight rain and a heavy dew gave me squelchy toes very quickly, but I wasn’t overly bothered and more than happy to sit on the cliff edge for ten minutes to watch the fulmars riding the rising breeze as it lifted up over the cliff face.
My progress slowed as farmland became more prolific and well defined. I must have crossed a dozen barbed wire fences before finally hitting the A99 and another cut back down to the water via Lybster and a quaint little harbour with its own little lighthouse at Invershore. It was then back to the A99 which morphed itself into the fast and feared A9 for my last three miles into Dunbeath. I hadn’t done a twenty four mile day for a while and it felt a long one, but I was in one piece – as far as I could tell.
Stage 164, 1st September: Dunbeath to Lothbeg Point
Today was to be a day of ‘A’ road walking and unfortunately it would be more of the A9 too. I was not looking forward to another twenty four miles of speeding nutters and trucks a few inches from my shoulder, but there were a few chances to escape and I would use every one, even if they did add both time and distance.
The A9 was surprisingly wide and fast for much of it’s length. The width was particularly welcome as I felt I had some room to play with if I needed it. Nevertheless, I still took every opportunity to get away from the noise and avoid my own rising anger at any motorist who came an inch closer than I would have liked. Hence I dropped down to a very pretty bay with a fun and rather bouncy footbridge at Berriedale. I followed this with a couple of contour hugging walks around the occasional hillside and finally made my way down to the sea at Helmsdale.
Via a local informant, Mike had told me that the beach from Helmsdale to Lothbeg was possible to walk, but that it might have some shingle sections to cross. Some? It was worse than Chesil Beach! All the stones (pebbles / boulders) were of different sizes, so getting a rhythm to my stride was impossible. The achilles and ankles took a pounding. After half a mile of this I decided to cross over a poorly fenced single-track railway and return to the A9. After a further quarter of a mile of a now narrow but ridiculously fast A9, with nowhere for me to hide, I dived back to the beach and grumbled my way slowly along the shingle.
My decision was a good one as the shingle slowly dissipated to be replaced by a narrow golden sandy beach with firm dunes backing it. I voted for a firm path through the dunes and soon found myself shepherding an ever growing flock of sheep who had probably devised the path I was walking along but who were now scared to venture away from it for fear of a man with a bent walking pole and a silly hat walking a little way behind them.
I have never really cut myself out as a shepherd. The lack of any vague form of intelligence in sheep would frustrate the hell out of me. This lack of sheep intelligence also made me question why anyone would even vaguely consider reintroducing the wolf to Scotland. Some reckon they would control the deer population and that shepherd farmers need not worry. But I tend to agree with Geoff and Lorna, who supported me a couple of months ago. They reckoned that the wolf would be much happier munching away at the leg joint of the slow, fat, fluffy, white pygmy deer who runs to his friends for nice easy pickings when even remotely scared.
At least the fifty or so grey seals I surprised on the beach made me smile. It took a while for them to realise I was behind them as I emerged quietly from behind a dune. But once they had sussed me all hell broke loose as they churned up the shallow surf to clumsily wallow back to the safety of the water. Once there, they all bobbed their heads to the surface and watched me with what I imagined to be a group of slightly irritated eyes, a little dismayed at having been disturbed during their afternoon doze on the sand. They even followed me down the shore for a few minutes, just to make sure I was leaving.
Stage 165, 2nd September: Lothbeg Point to Embo
With another day trying to avoid the A9 ahead, I was at least glad to have had three successive warm dry days. I duly started my day continuing along the beach I had stolen from the seals yesterday. Crossing Loth Burn delayed my early progress but then the sand opened out and I had an empty sandy beach all the way down to Brora some five miles further South.
Brora was a pretty village and I felt that some significant signs of wealth were beginning to make a reappearance after a week or so of absence. Unfortunately Brora also reintroduced me to the A9 but I managed another escape and took off down a track for more sand and a soft grassy path to Dunrobin Castle, a truly spectacular fairy tale castle and huge tourist magnet.
Golspie was only ten minutes away and I found it to be a town with its back to the sea. The main street was one street inland and the roadway abutting the sea wall could have doubled as a back alley rather than a well worn promenade. But then again, this is the North Sea coast now.
With even more sand and a forest track, I was beginning to congratulate myself for avoiding the A9. But my first proper East coast estuary caught me out and I had no option but to return to the road for a few miles to cross the bridge and causeway of ‘The Mound’ over Loch Fleet. One bright blue Renault Megane driver chose his moment to overtake another car just as he was passing me. I only heard one of them coming from behind, but very clearly felt the Megane as he sped between me and the car he was overtaking. I’m sure his wing mirror brushed the hairs on the back of my hand. Hopefully he got sight of the very full on gesture from my other hand in his rear view mirror.
Fortunately it wasn’t too long before I was walking back down the estuary with its mud-flat birdlife and nice quiet lanes. By the time I reached Embo my third twenty four mile day in a row had hurt a bit and I wasn’t in the best of moods for Mike and Kate’s slightly smug looking greeting with beer and wine in hand respectively. I’m sure they weren’t being smug at all – it just felt like it to a tired and grumpy me.