Day 102 – Journey’s end: Wick to John O’Groats

The final day. I woke up feeling very excited and looking forward to the finish line. I was on my way by 9am, and was hopeful I would be able to get off the A99 for a good portion of the walk. The day was warm and the traffic north of Wick was much lighter; after my now-customary first two miles hobbling while stiff muscles warmed up, I strode purposefully along smiling at everyone I encountered.
After walking through the outskirts of Wick (fields one side, light industry and Tesco’s on the other), I turned off the road and headed hopefully towards the sea. After wandering down a muddy lane, I found the access road to Ackergill Tower. This wasn’t the ruined pile I expected, but an imposing and dramatic fortified house on the edge of the sea. I was able to walk down past the house and onto the beach through a gate in the garden wall. I breathed a happy sigh of relief at the prospect of walking the beach for the next few miles up to Keiss. For a while, everything was lovely; peaceful waves lapping the shore, the odd seabird wheeling overhead, and a few dog-walkers. Unfortunately, none of the blogs I’d read mentioned that the river mouth halfway up the beach was (2 hours from high tide) too deep to ford. Disaster! I ended up having to trek across the golf course and through a couple of fields to get onto the A99; by the time I’d crossed the river it seemed easier and simpler to just stay on the road.
Fortunately by this time the sun was out and I had beautiful blue skies. I tried hard to ignore my achy feet and concentrate on just walking to the next signpost or waypoint. The miles ticked slowly by, but I was impatient to reach John O’Groats and found it hard to stay patient.
After what seemed like a very long way, I eventually made it up to the crest of Warth Hill, and there it was: the end of the land, with the sea and the Orkney islands beyond. I could see the houses of John O’Groats and the lighthouse at Duncansby Head beyond, but it was the sight of the sea that really brought it home. I’d walked from one end of the country to the other. Even though the walk wasn’t finished, it was an overwhelming moment, and although I didn’t break down completely in tears of exhaustion and joy it was a close call.
Although the finish, and the famous signpost, are down at the pier at John O’Groats, the most north-easterly point is actually Duncansby Head, about 2 miles further on. I’d already decided to walk there first, and then to head back to my hotel and the signpost afterwards, and that is what I did. I reached Duncansby at about 5:30pm, and sat on the grass near the lighthouse for a bit looking at the sea. I had expected to feel a surge of triumph, achievement, exhilaration, but in fact what I felt was a sense of immense calm. I’d spent all these days and weeks and months walking, and now here I was, at the end of the End to End. Mission accomplished. Now what?

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Day 101 – Dunbeath to Wick

The penultimate day, but unfortunately today ranked on a par with the long trek through Staffordshire via Uttoxeter – regular readers will understand that is not a good thing.
Today was a long day. Long, tedious, dangerous and tiring. It started well; I had a leisurely breakfast and was so enjoying chatting to my B&B hosts that I didn’t leave until gone 10:30. The sky was blue, traffic was relatively light, and I was fuelled by coffee and an excellent bacon sandwich – what could possibly go wrong?
I couldn’t find any sign of a clifftop path, so resigned myself to the A99 for a bit. By lunchtime, however, I was getting sick of the road and the traffic. I was happy to find I was in Lybster, a couple of miles further on than I thought I was, and had lunch sitting on the war memorial.
There wasn’t much to see from the road, but the walk was enlivened by a giant teddy bear sculpture made of straw bales (albeit my photo looks slightly like something else) and a signpost to the magnificently-named ‘Hill o’ Many Stanes’. I was intrigued, but not enough to go and check it out.
I soldiered on to Whaligoe, where my hopes of a cup of tea were dashed – the cafe at the top of the steps was closed due to a power cut. After that, the afternoon deteriorated rapidly. I had hoped to be able to get off the road and onto a clifftop path marked clearly on the map, but when I got to the end of the side road, I was faced with an impenetrable wall of gorse. I climbed a rickety gate nearby, only to wrench my ankle and find more gorse and a bog. There was absolutely no sign of a path anywhere.
Fighting back tears at the thought of another eight or so miles on the blasted A-road, I retraced my steps and trudged onwards. By the time I got to Thrumster, it was about 4;30 and the skies were dark and overcast. Although I was desperate to get off the A99, I couldn’t face walking an extra mile and a half to Sarclet (southeast, i.e. backwards) on the offchance that this time the clifftop path marked on the map would actually be there.
The only other option was to continue to Wick on the A99, which is what I ended up doing.
There were only two good things about the afternoon: it wasn’t raining, and I kept thinking ‘tomorrow is my last day’. Apart from that, it was a long, hard, horrible trek along the road, amid grey skies, diesel fumes, roadkill (including, distressingly, three cats), and the gusts of air displaced by huge lorries passing at high speeds about a foot away.
I limped into my B&B with a well-developed sense of grievance, which lifted somewhat with a shower and an excellent curry at the nearest tandoori. My landlady lent me a book about Scottish country houses to read over dinner, which was surprisingly interesting – having walked past Traquair and Dunrobin, it was good to learn a bit about their history. Better yet, I returned to the B&B to be presented with a nice glass of Pulteney liqueur whisky. Mmmm. 1 day and about 20 miles to go. The end is in sight!

Day 100 – Portgower to Dunbeath

After a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs (I’ve been trying to avoid cooked breakfasts but once in a while it’s very nice), I was on the road by 9. Literally on the road – more lorry-dodging and leaping onto the verge of the A9. Still, at least it wasn’t as cold as yesterday.
I tried hard to get off the road, and attempted to follow the route from Helmsdale set out in the Scottish coast website. All I can say is that they must be a lot more sanguine about barbed wire fences and gorse than I am; after a few backtracks I abandoned the attempt and stuck to the road until Badbea, which I reached at lunchtime.
Badbea is the site of an abandoned village, perched on the clifftops a few miles south of Berriedale. The village was built and settled as a result of the Clearances (presumably because the land wasn’t considered to be good enough for sheep), but life in the new site was so hard that the inhabitants chose emigration (to New Zealand and Canada) instead, and it was deserted a few decades after it was built. It is said that the winds in Badbea were so strong that livestock and children had to be tethered to keep them from being blown off the cliff. I doubt this is true, but even in the sunshine, it was hard to imagine life there being anything but very bleak. There were some curiously anodyne noticeboards, which almost entirely failed to refer to the suffering and injustice of the Clearances, perhaps because they were part funded by the local landowning trust. Instead, they made bland statements like “the introduction of sheep farming was so successful that the laird was able to move people to Badbea” and “the laird offered people jobs in the herring fishing fleet” which I thought was somewhat odd to describe mass forced eviction and the wholesale destruction of a whole community. I’ve noticed similar understatement in other references to the Clearances before, and wondered why; it is hard to see how ‘Homecoming 2014’ can work without addressing one of the main reasons why Scots ended up all over the world in the first place. But anyway, Badbea was a sad place; ironically the only signs of life there now are sheep, grazing in between the ruined longhouses. There’s a monument commissioned by a descendant of one of the inhabitants, and I sat on its base and ate my lunch gazing out over the sunlit sea.
From Badbea I was able to walk across the clifftops all the way to Berriedale, first across heather and then on a grassy track that curved down over the cliffs. This was a beautiful walk, high above the sea, with only the gulls and the odd sheep for company. I was almost sorry when I reached the two towers near the haven at Berriedale, but consoled myself with a break on the ‘Millenium bench’ overlooking the sea.
From Berriedale I tried and failed again to find any route along the clifftops, as it didn’t seem to be possible to walk without climbing multiple barbed wire fences (I’ll do the odd one, but one every 150m or so is too many). I sighed and returned to the A9 for a long stretch into Dunbeath – busy, hard underfoot, dangerous and tedious. Things improved when I got to my B&B – a very warm welcome and the best shower I have had in months! 2 days and about 40 miles to go.

Day 99 – Golspie to Portgower

I took a shockingly long time to get going this morning – it feels like the nearer I get to the end, the harder it is to get out of bed in the morning – and it wasn’t until well past 10:30 that I was on my way. The sky was heavy and grey, with a cold wind, but at least it wasn’t raining.
I followed a coastal path and then the beach up to Brora. This was a beautiful stretch, with the sea on one side and the hills on the other. I passed Dunrobin Castle, which looks like something Sleeping Beauty would have been proud of, and got to walk several miles on the hard sand of the beach. It reminded me of the beach walk I did at Hayle, all those many weeks ago, but this was different – a much wilder coastline, with rocks and seaweed everywhere and large flocks of seabirds.
As I continued north, a group of what I had initially taken to be rocks turned out to be about forty-five grey seals, basking at the water’s edge about thirty feet away from me. I was careful not to disturb them, but they didn’t seem that bothered. I was close enough to be able to hear the occasional grunt, and what sounded very much like one seal snoring!
I stopped for lunch in Brora (another meal with chips, but it was delicious) and then headed on. It was colder and windier than it had been in the morning, and I was firmly resolved to stay off the A9 as much as possible. Unfortunately, this meant several slow miles negotiating large rocks on the beach, as well as fording several ankle-deep burns. Despite the beautiful views, after turning my ankle yet again, I looked at my watch and the miles of rocky beach yet to come and decided I had had enough. I scrambled over a fence into a field, and found a handy level crossing over the railway. I followed a sheep path through a field towards a ruined broch, but then had to head to the road to avoid a large patch of gorse.
After a couple of miles on the road, I spotted a farm access road leading to some large fields. At first sight it seemed as though I would be able to walk through the fields, and I managed another few kilometres feeling very happy not to be on the road. But my hopes were dashed when the field gates ended abruptly in a large (unfordable) river, and I ended up having to trek back up the hill to the road again. By now I was cold and tired, and I decided not to waste more time and energy hunting for another off-road path. This meant spending the next 5.5 miles on the A9, which was as unpleasant as I had expected.
I spent the night at Jutta’s B&B in Portgower, where I had a lovely room overlooking the sea and my host very kindly made me a huge bowl of chicken noodle soup for dinner. In my cold, tired and emotionally fragile state, this was just what I needed.
I spent some time booking the next few days’ accommodation. It is still hard to believe that if I don’t get run over, I will be in John O’Groats in just 3 days, but booking the hotel made it feel more real.
I also spent some time looking for an off-road route for tomorrow’s walk up to Dunbeath. The Scottish coastal walking website (link to follow) suggests it is possible with a lot of effort, so I am going to try to follow their example. Fingers crossed. 3 days and about 60 miles to go.

Day 98 – Tain to Golspie

Today dawned grey and rainy, but by dithering successfully over my enormous breakfast I managed not to leave until the sky had cleared a bit. Tain is pretty, but with 25 miles to go I couldn’t spend time looking around, or (unfortunately) visit the Glenmorangie distillery just outside town.
After a long and unpleasant stretch on the A9 (huge lorries thundering past, cars doing well over 70, while I toiled along on the litter-strewn pebbly verge trying not to be run over), it was over the bridge (which curiously, does have a pavement on both sides). I was pleased to see a sign just before the bridge with John O Groats on it – the first time!
Dornoch Firth was beautiful – the tide was out by the time I got there and I was able to walk all the way from the bridge to Dornoch along the beach. The water looked silver in the sun, the hills to the north and west were brown and purple, and there were seabirds feeding along the water’s edge.
I stopped in Dornoch (another very pretty place, and surprisingly full of tourists) for lunch at the pub. After an excellent BLT and a pint of McEwans (lunch of champions) served by a barman whose manner bordered on the hostile, I headed back out into a rain shower.
From Dornoch the path goes alongside an immaculate golf course and then through fields, round the edge of Loch Fleet. The scenery was very beautiful, but unfortunately crossing the end of the loch involved another few kilometres on the A9, this time in heavy rain and without more than a few inches of verge. No fewer than 5 police cars passed me, lights flashing and going flat out; the rest of the time I was climbing onto the verge to try and avoid oncoming cars. Despite actually being off the road, there were still a couple of cars which were too close for comfort. It was terrifying, and by the time I reached the turnoff for Balblair Wood I was feeling exhausted, cross and tearful. I don’t know if there’s a campaign for a Scottish East Coast Path, but if there is I want to join it.
After the A9, Balblair Wood was lovely – all quiet and misty, with a good path and sunlight filtering through the trees. A short walk along Golspie golf course (another beautiful course overlooking the sea) and I was in town.
Golspie on a Saturday night is not a good place for eating out, if you’re on foot at least. The only restaurant close to the B&B was full, and after deciding I couldn’t face a Pot Noodle I eventually settled for fish and chips (again), which I ate on a bench overlooking the bay. Definitely pining for some proper food. 4 days and about 76 miles to go.

Postscript…

I forgot to say that I’m back to ‘real time’ (well, same day) blogs now. As of today, there are just over 100 miles to go to John O’Groats, and if everything goes well only 5 more days’ walking. The end is really in sight!

Day 97 – Dingwall to Tain

My feet hurt. I mean REALLY hurt. Today’s walk was long (by my estimate around 24 miles) and all on roads. My efforts to try and get off the road for short periods came to naught – every track or footpath marked on the map was nonexistent on the ground. So, it was a long day on tarmac, with the result that my feet, ankles and knees are now all buzzing slightly. I’m hoping chocolate will cure all ills.
For most of the day I followed a marked cycle route (route number 1), which stayed away from the A9 and headed northeast on fairly quiet roads. There was still a bit of traffic, though, and I had a bit of a near miss with an over-enthusiastic school bus (I didn’t leap into the mud-filled ditch fast enough, it didn’t slow down).
I haven’t done any walking north of Inverness before, and the countryside was much less wild and more fertile-looking than I had expected: lots of golden wheat and cows. There were some nice views down across the Cromarty Firth towards the so-called Black Isle (not black, and not an island), and as I got further north the oil rigs near Cromarty came into view.
I stopped for lunch in Alness and had a truly excellent coffee and a panini (panino?) at the Cafe Picante on the High Street. Not cheap, but worth it – the coffee made me feel like I’d been brought back from the dead and I forgot all about my feet!
After lunch, and a quick stop at the Co-op to pick up some dinner for tonight, it was back on the cycle route, along some quieter roads towards Scotsburn. A friend phoned and I was so enjoying the conversation that I ‘overshot’ and missed my turnoff, and had to retrace a few yards feeling a little foolish.
The place I was staying was in Aldie, just outside Tain on the A9, which meant I had a slightly longer walk to get there. But when I eventually hobbled in, tired, thirsty and desperate to take my boots off, it was worth it – a lovely big room with views out over the countryside, a palatial bathroom and a kitchenette. It was extremely nice to eat a home-cooked meal, even if it was only soup and a microwave curry!
My feet and legs are very sore and stiff – it really feels as if, now that the end of the walk is in sight, bits of my body have just decided to give up. I have another long day tomorrow up to Golspie, but I’m hoping I can do more off it off-road. Fingers crossed.

Day 96 – Inverness to Dingwall

Today’s walk was entirely on roads, and was harder going than I had anticipated, even though it was short (12 miles or so) and I wasn’t carrying much water.
I started by following a very quiet minor road along the Beauly Firth, which was so still it was difficult to tell where the water stopped and sand began. At one point I startled a deer, which bounded away through a field of wheat. Seabirds were wading in the shallows but otherwise there were no signs of life and very little traffic.
So far, so good, but I then walked up through Kilcoy and turned onto a bike track next to the very busy A road down to Conon Bridge, which made for noisy and unpleasant walking, although there were some surprisingly good views. Fortunately the last part of the walk into Dingwall followed a minor road again, but I was a bit worried by how sore my feet were at the end of the walk – I estimate I have to walk roughly twice the distance tomorrow!

Day 95 (Rest day) – lots to do!

I felt a real sense of achievement at reaching Inverness. It was my last rest day before John O’Groats, and I had a lot to get done.
I started with a sports massage at the Riverdale Centre – a really excellent idea, and I left an hour later feeling inches taller and with a spring in my step.
I then dropped off a load of laundry before going on to get a haircut – after 3 months of increasingly wild and woolly locks, it was lovely to feel a bit more groomed again!
I spent the afternoon trying to book accommodation for the next week. Unfortunately, I had managed to time my walk north to coincide with the World Sheepdog Trials taking place in Tain. Clearly, this is an event of major importance, and there didn’t seem to be a single bed available within a forty mile radius. Eventually, however, after four hours of phone calls and very slow web browsing on my phone, I managed to book accommodation for the next four days. Unfortunately, this means two very long days of road walking, from Dingwall to Tain and Tain to Golspie, but it can’t be helped.
At about five I shouldered my backpack and walked the short distance through Inverness docks and over the Kessock bridge (another huge scary one but much more solid than the Severn) to my new hotel in North Kessock. I ate dinner watching seals in the still silver water of the Beauly Firth and drinking too much white wine. I’m feeling slightly apprehensive at the thought of the days ahead, and all of a sudden the end of my walk is feeling very close. What will I do when I don’t have to walk any more?

Day 94 – Drumnadrochit to Inverness

I managed an early start, and was feeling much less stiff after the short day yesterday and all those hours with my feet up. It was a lovely day – more sunshine – and I was looking forward to the walk. This section of the Great Glen is probably my favourite – it’s more varied and interesting, and there are some amazing views.
There’s a steep climb up from Deumnadrochit through the woods, and as I strode purposefully up the track I realised again how much fitter I had got. I wasn’t really thinking about the walk though; today was Rowan’s first day of school and I was thinking about her and feeling very sad that I wasn’t there to see her off. Just then, my phone rang – when I answered, it was Arran and a very tearful Rowan, feeling a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of her first day. I tried as hard as I could to comfort her, but all I could think was ”I should be there”. After the call, I trudged on up the hill feeling very emotional myself, and intensely missing both my children. (Rowan, on the other hand, was apparently fine once she got to school!)
However, things improved as I got to the top of the hill; the route goes past the Abriachan forest centre and I stopped for a break. Then it was a short walk and another break, this time for an excellent pot of tea (proper leaf tea, with a strainer), at the eco campsite just before Tomchoin.
Then it was a lengthy bit of road walking, but with amazing views over pasture and moorland to the big hills in the west (the hills I would be walking through if I hadn’t chickened out of the wild camping route). I felt a bit wistful that I hadn’t been more adventurous, but resolved to complete that route another time (Cape Wrath, anyone?).
There was a grouse shoot going on as I came over the last of the moor – rather worryingly, a sign by the side of the road stated that nearby was “one of the last remaining leks of the rare black grouse” and I hoped that the location of the shoot wasn’t it!
A little further on, I stopped at another information board, and was overtaken by Ian, a guy from Manchester who I’d last seen just past Laggan. We walked the rest of the way into Inverness, chatting, and made good time. I was pleased to find that my hotel room (the Premier Inn, no less!) faced out onto the river, and opted for an early night before a much-needed rest day tomorrow.