End to End Day 86 – Sunday 7 May 2017 – Keiss to John O’Groats
It rained a bit during the night, the first rain we have seen on this trek for ages, but it had dried up by the time we were ready to tackle this final day. One reason for it drying so quickly was the strong, cold wind blowing from the north which persuaded me to wear full wet weather gear virtually from the outset, just to keep warm.
The road north from Keiss became less and less populated but there were still enough cottages to make you wonder what the residents all did up here. Farming and the odd bit of tourism related work surely couldn’t account for all the people who seemed to inhabit this bleak and windy landscape. Other residents – Lapwings, Curlews and Skylarks – continued to accompany us all the way north making themselves heard over the noise of the wind.
Our “water breaks” were taken in the salubrious surroundings of a low breeze block wall and a bus shelter with no seats but each afforded some brief shelter from the wind. JOG was drawing ever closer and we crested the final hill above the town at about midday to be greeted with stunning views over the Pentland Firth to the near island of Stroma and the Orkneys beyond. It still took us another hour and a half to reach the actual settlement of JOG where we stopped at the Seaview Hotel for a lunch break, before tackling the final few miles out to Duncansby Head and back along the north coast to the totemic signpost at the official end of the trail.
To my complete surprise, when we ordered our food and drinks, the barman asked if I was Alan Wright and, when I affirmed, went off, returning with mail addressed to me at the hotel. You could have knocked me over with a feather! Tom and Sarah Bell, who are looking after our dog Holly, Jerry and Judith Stevens, who themselves had cycled LEJOG a few years ago, Roger and Gail Hornshaw, long time friends, and the Boys Breakfast team from the Sticklepath Café had all sent congratulatory cards and Jerry and Judith had even put some money behind the bar to ensure I celebrated properly. With such fantastic support, how could I not succeed!
But I hadn’t finished yet! Janet had come ahead of us and had gone with Nick and Kate Norman sightseeing to Castletown and Dunnet Head to the west, but they returned in time for Nick and Kate to join Howie, Joyce and I for the walk out to the lighthouse. Janet went ahead in the car to look for any signs of the Puffins which are said to inhabit some of the many rabbit holes on this exposed headland. No Puffin sightings unfortunately but a close encounter with a Skua compensated a bit and we caught up with her overlooking the impressive Duncansby Stacks, isolated pinnacles just offshore. It was then a pleasant stroll along the coast on springy turf to our final destination.
Our support manager (Janet) was again ahead of us, this time in the role of official camerawoman and filmed our arrival at the JOG signpost at about 1530. Suddenly, the Great Trek was done!
I shall have more to say later about the immediate aftermath and the celebrations which followed but, for now, I just want to thank all those who have supported me in this venture. Whether walking with me, accommodating me, donating to my chosen charities, commenting on this blog or texting and emailing me, I have been borne along on an unstoppable tide of love and support which has been truly humbling. It will take a few days for my thoughts and emotions to settle down enough for me to summarise this properly but I want you all to know that, as far as I am concerned, this is as much your achievement as mine.
PS – WiFi inadequacies again prevent posting any photos this time but they will follow as soon as I can manage it.
End to End Day 85 – Saturday 6 May 2017 – Whaligoe to Keiss
We had all made a solemn pact to leave the B&B by 0830 but we failed to factor in enough “June” time, so it was 0845 before we left to restart the walk at 0905 at Whaligoe Steps. After two solid days of road walking we planned to make our way closer to the coast and follow what I was told was the old road to Wick. I had also been warned that parts of this route would be boggy and it wasn’t long before we encountered this. There were also a few barbed wire fences to negotiate before we came across a serviceable track which we reckoned was the old road.
This led us past a few houses, some of which it was difficult to work out whether people were living there or not. Some were clearly derelict but others showed signs of recent habitation but were surrounded by acres of broken cars and other machinery and just rubbish. They presumably belonged to somebody but there was certainly no effort expended on maintenance!
When the houses ran out, so did the track for the most part and we were back to navigating through boggy ground trying to maintain a compass course. At one point we spotted a post with a white painted top and I remembered from my earlier reading that the embryonic John O’Groats Trail (planned to link Inverness with JO’G, avoiding contact with the A9) used these markers and, for a while, we followed a section of well marked track which skirted the clifftops giving great views of the Kittiwake colonies which inhabit the sheer cliffs of the many Geos (inlets) on this part of the coastline. But the going was quite difficult, the sea mist had decided to come a bit inland and we were making only slow progress towards Wick so we decided to head back to the A99 and take it on into Wick, where we would meet up with Janet for lunch.
Almost immediately the weather started to improve again and by the time we left Wick for Keiss, some 6/7 miles away, the sun was shining from a virtually clear blue sky. We made good progress north passing better kept farmhouses than we had seen in the morning, including one with some cute little goat kids. There was quite a bit of traffic on the road, it being Saturday and now a glorious afternoon, so we had to do a bit of traffic dodging but, as we found before, most drivers were extremely considerate of us walkers.
About 3 miles out of Wick the A99 bends right to head for JOG and it was here that we decided to take a short break. We hunkered down in the grass – and a few nettles as it turned out – with Joyce stretched out on her back soaking up the sun’s rays, Howie lying on one elbow wondering how he was going to get up again and me sitting with my back to the road contemplating the stone wall in front of me. Janet would say I was in my nothing box At this point a voice behind me said, “Is that Alan Wright?”
My first thought was that satellite surveillance technology had taken a huge leap forward but, when I turned around, there was Nick Norman standing at the side of the road with a huge grin on his face! Nick – and Kate, his wife – live in Bristol, have a cottage in South Tawton, where Janet and I used to live for 20 of the last 21 years, walked part of the End to End walk with me up the Wye Valley almost exactly a year ago and had told me that they were planning to come to JOG to see me in on 7 May. Nick had spotted three bodies in the grass and had put two and two together with this dramatic result. I shot up to my feet and we had a great reunion! Having introduced Nick to Howie and Joyce, I went over to where Kate was guarding the hire car and convinced her to join us for a brief few moments. They are staying in the Seaview Hotel in JOG tonight and will walk out with Janet to meet us coming in tomorrow afternoon. We all plan to have dinner together tomorrow night.
After this happy accident, the rest of the walk to Keiss was pretty uneventful apart from the fact that Keiss is visible for miles and never appears to get any closer! When we were about a mile out, Janet appeared with the car and was tasked with going ahead to the Sinclair Arms and ordering refreshing drinks for us all.
The days walking turned out to be just over 17 miles, leaving 12/13 for our final day tomorrow. We plan to enter JOG in mid afternoon, having first visited Duncansby Head and the Duncansby Stacks (photos tomorrow hopefully). And on that point, I will try to post a short blog on completion of the walk tomorrow to let you all know that it has been done. But I intend to let a few days pass before putting some final thoughts together about the trek. I hope you won’t mind waiting.
End to End Day 84 – Friday 5 May 2017 – Dunbeath to Waligoe Steps
I woke early this morning and looked out of our bedroom window which last night had a good view of Wick harbour and the ships and boats in it. This morning I could hardly see cross the road, let alone the harbour! However, as I watched it was already beginning to clear and the Met Office promise of sunshine and blue skies looked good.
Our departure this morning was slightly delayed due to our Geordie landlady, June, regaling us at breakfast with hilarious stories of her time in Wick. A natural comic, she loves an audience and we were in fits of laughter throughout breakfast. We finally tore ourselves away and Janet drove us back to Dunbeath from where we were going to cover the 13 or so miles to Whaligoe Steps.
By the time we started walking, the early mist had retreated back into the North Sea and we enjoyed superb walking conditions, although still on the busy A9. Janet had remained in the Dunbeath area to do a bit of birdwatching and to continue a walk she had partially done yesterday. She overtook us by late morning and agreed to check out the café options for a light snack in Lybster ahead of us. Her texted response was not at all encouraging and she decided to go further north to the well reported café at Whaligoe Steps, while we would most likely rely on our own resources for lunch (yup, you guessed it – nuts and raisins!). When we got to Lybster, it seemed Janet’s assessment was spot on. The Portland Hotel on the main road was firmly shut but we decided to venture off track down to the village itself, mainly due to the promise of public toilets!
The main village seemed equally unpromising at first but we asked a local where we could get a sandwich and a cup of tea and he pointed us in the direction of what appeared to be the local Day Care Centre for the elderly. Game for anything at this stage we followed his directions and found ourselves in the Lybster Centre which welcomes all ages and all comers, including hungry walkers. Mandy and Dinah, two charming ladies of a certain age, served us. I was already put in mind of a Victoria Wood sketch when one of the ladies approached with the tea tray – a trifle unsteadily it has to be said – and Joyce mouthed at me the words, “Two Soups?”*. To say I struggled to retain composure would be the understatement of this whole walk. But these two ladies, plus Janice in the kitchen, not only served us perfectly with tea and sandwiches – just what we needed – but also refused to take any payment once they learned that I was walking for the South West Childrens Hospice. In a further twist of fate, Mandy’s late husband turned out to be a submariner in the 1970s but, although contemporaries, I did not recognise his name. The whole episode was delightful and the team at the Lybster Centre – all volunteers by the way – restored any faith I might have lost in human nature. To cap it all, we heard from Janet that the much vaunted café at Whaligoe Steps was closed, so we were definitely one up on her!
But there were still 6 or 7 miles to go so we set off refreshed in body and spirit along the A99 (we had bid a less than fond farewell to the A9 a few miles earlier). The traffic appeared to be quite a bit less than on the A9 and, once again, the sunshine and the shore line views outweighed any traffic nuisance easily. Add to that a couple of Lapwings and a Curlew call or two and the day was going really well.
The wind was by now quite strong though and much colder than this morning necessitating coats on and a search for a sheltered corner to have a water break. The road at this point is very exposed and the best we could do was to sit on the grass verge of a driveway to a farm with our backs to some netting. Howie remarked that all we needed now was for the farmer to drive in over our outstretched legs. Well, we didn’t see the farmer but we had just got ourselves comfortable when the (presumably) farmers wife returned in her 4×4 requiring us to pull in our legs pretty smartish! She seemed to find the whole thing very funny, fortunately!
Whaligoe Steps must be the least well signed visitor attraction in this part of Scotland. Janet had had trouble finding it earlier in the day and Joyce, who was leading at the time, walked straight past the turn off. There was no sign of Janet and the car, though, and my attempts to contact her were frustrated by a complete lack of mobile reception. However, she turned up shortly afterwards to return us to our B&B in Wick. A grand day was topped off with a lovely dinner at an unexpectedly good French restaurant in the town, Bord de la Mer. So much so that we have booked to go again tomorrow!
Two more days walking in front of us (just under 30 miles) and I confess to being slightly nervous about all this coming to an end. It has been such a big and all embracing project, it is difficult to imagine life without it being there, requiring my attention. John Lord warned me about this a while back and most recently in his comment on yesterday’s blog and it will be interesting to see how it affects me, although I have good people around me which John didn’t have. Anyway, we will soon find out!
* For those unfamiliar with this Victoria Wood sketch, look it up on YouTube – it’s wortht it!
End to End Day 83 – Thursday 4 May 2017 – Helmsdale to Dunbeath
Our rest day yesterday was hardly a rest day at all. We had a proper look around Helmsdale in the morning, taking in the very moving memorial to “The Emigrants”, those who were forced to seek their fortunes abroad due to having been cleared off their land by rapacious landlords. We also enjoyed the well thought out museum and, particularly the outdoor display of the geology of the area, as well as the very good café. While we were enjoying a coffee in the company of the ancient stones, Janet spotted a young otter working his way up the far bank of the river. A great sighting!
Then it was off by car to Inverness and on to Findhorn where Howie’s daughter Sally and her husband Fasil had arranged a tour of the Eco Community site which was fascinating. We ended up having tea with them and Howie’s bright little grand-daughter, Willow, in a delightful, relaxed family setting. Despite all this, we actually remembered to collect our camping gear which Sally and Fasil had been storing for us and then it was off to Inverness to collect Joyce, Howie’s wife, who arrived bang on time for the long drive back to Helmsdale.
Despite our late (by our standards) night, we were all up bright and early for the 15 miles of the A9 we needed to cover to Dunbeath, up the coast. Howie, Joyce and I were on our way by shortly after 0830, Janet overtaking us in the car on her way to do some birdwatching. The A9 was quite busy first thing and it was also pretty steadily uphill for the first couple of hours. It levelled off a bit thereafter and the traffic became less of a problem with only a few drivers causing us to take swiftly to the verges.
On the way we met two fellow LEJOGERS, Neil, from London, cycling his way South and Damien walking in the same direction (he was actually running when we saw him!). I must say it felt very good knowing I had considerably less distance to go than they did!
We met Damien just about at the top of the Berriedale Braes, a steep down and up into the small settlement of Berriedale. He warned us about the hills (not the first to do do) but also recommended the café in the village. We texted Janet to get her to meet us in Berriedale for lunch and we can now also highly recommend the River Bothy café!
The steep climb out of the village proved not to be as challenging as we had thought and we then enjoyed a scenic high level crossing of the farmland adjacent to the coastline. The highlights for me were several Lapwings who were busy displaying and chasing off rivals and seagulls and the frequent sound and less frequent sightings of curlews on both sides of the road. The call of the curlew is probably my favourite bird call of all, so I was a happy boy!
The weather has again been very kind to us with clear blue skies and plenty of sunshine, especially in the afternoon. Perhaps this has helped us find the A9 much less intimidating than its reputation suggests. We have only a few more miles of this notorious road to cover tomorrow before we follow the A99 towards a Wick and, finally JOG. The forecast for the next few days is equally good and there now exists the real prospect of getting to JOG in the dry. A very unexpected outcome!
All road walking again tomorrow but a mixture of coastal footpaths, lanes and roads for the last two days. Frankly, I just can’t wait for it all to be done!
End to End Day 82 – Tuesday 2 May 2017 – Golspie to Helmsdale
The Ben Bhraggie Hotel, our B&B for the night, proved interesting as much for the facilities (basic) as for the conversation with the Landlady and a local in the bar where we argued as to whether certain quotations were from Shakespeare or Burns and Howie was singing “my love is like a red, red rose …” with his new best friend when I left for my bed!
We had 17 miles of tarmac’d A9 to cover to Helmsdale today and were on our way by 8:30. The attraction of the A9 soon faded and we spotted and took a path leading to Carn Liath, a partially preserved broch close to the shoreline. From here we followed a faint but discernible path which kept close to the shore past some cliffs with nesting seabirds, finally returning to the main road a mile or so out of Brora, where we hoped to find a café.
This we did, but not before we came across Rosie, a 12 week old black Labrador puppy who just had to say hallo. I did get some pictures this time! While we were having our coffee, I established that Janet had made it to Inverness and would catch us up in only a couple of hours and Howie spotted a model shop across the road which just had to be investigated. I followed him in a few minutes later and tried to buy a few postcards but the owner would not take any payment once he learned that I was walking LEJOG.
There was a path through the local Brora Golf Course which cut out another few miles of the A9 and, very shortly after we regained the road, Janet turned up in the car, bearing fruit and other goodies for lunch! Janet took some of Howie’s rucksack contents in the car and I swapped my big sack for a day sack before we set off again, with about 8 or 9 miles to go to Helmsdale.
By now the sun was breaking through and raising the temperature that had been kept low by the cold northeasterly wind. The road was not as busy as I had feared and, as yesterday, most drivers were considerate of us walkers. The Gorse flowers on the hillsides on both sides of the road were amazing. The bright yellow almost hurt one’s eyes and the “Bounty Bar” smell was overpowering at times. All this plus our lighter packs made the long haul to Helmsdale much more pleasant than I had anticipated. But it was a long haul and we were very pleased to see the town approaching and even more so to see Janet waiting to lead us to the excellent Tea shop in the town Museum, and thence to our very comfortable B&B and supper where Howie excelled himself!
No blog tomorrow as we drive to Findhorn for Janet to look around the Eco-Community there and to collect our camping gear from Howie’s daughter Sally who works there. Later we are due to pick up Joyce, Howie’s wife, from Inverness railway station and bring her back here ready to embark on the final four days and 56 miles of this great trek.
End to End Day 81 – Monday 1 May 2017 (White Rabbits!) – Dornoch to Golspie
We left the Dornoch Hotel, caught in its 1950s time warp, with fond regrets. It was sad to see a once grand hotel in such reduced circumstances and we could only wonder what the mainly foreign young waiters made of it all! It’s old world charm worked on Howie though, as it is the only place so far on this trip to offer kippers for breakfast. He was also intrigued by the “crawler” toast maker!
But the day was beckoning with the sun well up (it had woken me at 6am shining through our room window) and the North Sea looking uncharacteristically blue and inviting. We skirted the Golf Course on the landward side and headed for the small resort of Embo with its sandy beaches. It was pleasant walking on grassy tracks and a relief from the mainly road walking of the last two days. The knees were – at last – behaving and we made good progress, emerging on a quiet lane which was to lead us to the A9 for the unavoidable crossing of the Loch Fleet bridge.
This lane is clearly on the tourist map and we were passed – in both directions – by a few obvious hire cars, as well as tractors and even a Police car! We also encountered Claire and Carl, walkers who had left John O’Groats a week ago. Claire was planning to do the whole walk to Lands End, camping enroute except for one night a week in a B&B to do the washing, while Carl, who in Claire’s words, had his grumpy head on, was bailing out at Inverness – or before if he could!
One of the reasons this small lane is on the tourist route is that Loch Fleet is a favourite spot for Harbour Seals to congregate and give birth and we could see lots of them, with a few common seals for company, on the sand bars in the shallow loch, opposite the ruins of Skelbo Castle where we stopped for a break, along with a procession of tourist cars who all stopped to take photos. My photo also captured a few Eider Ducks in the foreground and the ubiquitous oyster catchers and skylarks were also much in evidence. It was, in short, a delightful walk along the loch side although by now the wind had got up and it was much cooler as we approached the A9.
There was no pavement or track for pedestrians alongside the road but the grass verge was wide enough for us to escape when the traffic in both directions left us little room. Most drivers coming towards us (we are both wearing bright dayglo stuff) were only too happy to pull over to the other carriageway if there was nothing coming in the other direction, but a minority seem reluctant to do so and, of course, when the other carriageway is full of traffic coming in the opposite direction, they had no option. However, perhaps because it is still a Bank Holiday, the traffic wasn’t that bad for the 4 or so miles we had to follow the A9.
We broke our road walk at the bridge where there was a small car park with a few picnic tables and while Howie investigated a “hot spot” on his foot (turned out not to be a problem, fortunately) I spoke to a lady with a 10 week old chocolate Labrador puppy called Slipper (sorry, no pictures) who confirmed that there was no chance of an earlier exit from the A9 if we were heading for Golspie.
It was with relief that we found our turning off and headed back towards the north shore of Loch Fleet and into a delightful woodland of mainly Scots pines. It had been a much older wood but a storm in 1905 had decimated it and the locals, with great foresight, had replanted with native trees. They have recreated a lovely wood, where we found a ready made picnic site, thoughtfully crafted for us.
From the wood it was a short couple of miles into Golspie in bright sunshine along the edge of yet another golf course but with a strong, biting wind making progress slower than we would have liked. Right on cue, Poppy’s café turned up in front of us and revived us with tea/coffee and lemon drizzle cake! Suitably restored we made good time to our B&B after covering 13.5 miles in 6 hours. Showered and fed, we will be in for an early night before tackling the 17 miles to Helmsdale tomorrow – this time exclusively on the A9.
However, relief is at hand as Janet, now enjoying the hospitality of my cousins in Pitlochry, will be looking out for us tomorrow on her way to Helmsdale and will take our heavy packs from us when we meet, so the burden of the long road walk may not be as bad as it might have been. The rest of my family has now returned to London from the safety of which they can follow the last days of this adventure.
I will write a blog tomorrow but Wednesday will be a rest day while we retrieve some of our gear from Howie’s daughter and collect Howie’s wife Joyce from the station at Inverness in the evening.